Previously published by Bewildering Stories Magazine June 2017

“What the hell you mean, bitch? You only made 27 dollars! That won’t buy a quart of Jack.” He usually shrieked his way through his diatribes but, this time, he was a tad more subdued, afraid neighbors might call the law.
“Buck, I ain’t got the body of a stripper. Two or three of them girls draw most of the tips.”
“I thought you was holdin’ out on me, I’d kick your ass good.” His drunken eyes glared out from between a full, black beard and greasy, shoulder-length hair.
“That whalin’ you gave me last week took two days off work before make-up could cover enough bruises…”
“You pick me up any beer? Or are you too damned dense to remember?”
“Twelve-pack. It’s in the fridge.”
“That damn thing don’t work, no way, Callie.”
She stood against the wall next to the door, terrified. If she ran, where could she go? Her daddy had ordered her never to come back, although Mama had called her at the club and said she was welcome. Mama could handle Daddy.
“Well, damnation, give me a beer,” he said, slouched on the torn sofa. “And gimme that 27 dollars.”
She scurried to the fridge, ignoring its foul odor as she retrieved a tallboy.
“Well, baby” — he tossed the bills on the cushion beside him and popped open the beer — “no problem. You jes’ gotta apply to a better-class joint.”
Stripping was humiliating beyond words. Eighteen and slender, she looked like a boy among the girls with plastic boobs. The manager had compounded the horror by handing her over to two of his friends in the office earlier in the evening. That’s where the $27 tip came from.
“How’d you get home?”
“Caught a ride with a customer.”
“You get it on with him? That oughta be worth fifty.”
“No, Buck.” My God, prostitution. She wasn’t capable. Thought of the semi-rape in the manager’s office just hours ago nearly caused her to vomit. She didn’t tell the drunken bully slumped on the sofa it wasn’t because the man who gave her a lift home didn’t try. She’d finally jumped out of the car and run the last three blocks, lugging the twelve-pack.
She’d met Buck on the bus up from Waco. Rodeo bull rider he’d bragged. She’d soon learned that the only bull was what ever came out of his mouth. She’d already tried to run once. With no car, she tried to hide in the bus station. That got her last week’s beating.
“Only gotta couple of joints left, Callie. You need to find more cash somewhere,” He slurred groggily as he lit the roach. “And shuck them clothes and get over here. I’m a-needin’ some attention.”
She mechanically unbuttoned her blouse. If she went to the cops, they’d just tell her to go home or move. It took money to go home, and if he caught her again, he’d kill her. Great God, what could she do?
* * *
“Man, that’s a lot of fire for careless smoking.” Water dripped from the fire chief’s helmet. “Beer cans tossed all over the place. He musta really been loaded and stoned.” The chief’s wrinkled face showed a day’s growth of beard.
The cop was younger, with unusually hard eyes. “That ratty sofa was made of cheap crap that would burn like toilet paper.” He studied the body, a charred shell amidst burnt debris and metal sofa springs.
“Yeah, a couple whiffs of carbon monoxide and he woulda been too disoriented to find the door.”
The cop held up a scorched billfold. “Musta left his wallet lyin’ on that coffee table. “Wilbur Francis Boswell, 30. Records show he’s done ten in State for rape and has arrests for burglary and aggravated assault. Not much loss here.”
“That cutie outside his wife… or ol’ lady?”
The cop held his notebook under the flashlight. “Stripper, name of Callie Nelson. Works at that puke joint Nudies couple miles back up Route 41. Says she been staying with the vic. Not married or nothin’ permanent.”
“How she get out?”
“Asleep in the bedroom in the back. Heard the vic scream, saw flames, beat it out the back.”
“She’s fully dressed.”
“First arrivers said she was runnin’ around the yard buck nekked. They tapped out the fire before it got the back part of the house. They helped her dig around and find some duds. Nekked babe gets plenty of help and sympathy.”
“Damn, I missed that part. Any chance she—?”
“Naw. Kid’s green as new grass. No record. She’s no killer.” He shook his head sagely.
The fire chief sighed wearily and snapped off his light. “The Medical Examiner is waitin’. I’ll make sure he agrees first, but I see this as an accident ridding the world of one more hard-assed stoner wino. That girl got a place to go?”
“Said if I’d give her a lift to the bus station, she was gonna go home to Mama somewhere around Waco.”
“Not hanging around for the funeralizin’, huh?”
“No, she seemed anxious to see her folks. Funny. Only been gone from home a month. This guy wasn’t no true love deal.”
“Damn, we gonna have to pony up again to send a waif back to where she came from?”
“No, she showed me cash. She’s only got 27 dollars, but it will buy her a ticket.”

Copyright © 2017 by Gary Clifton

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