Read the First 3 Chapters

“Yeah, I’m Ron Milton. I’m the guy who called.”

Lt. Andrew Josephson and Officer Jenna Redd exited their black police cruiser to talk face to face with the man.

“Morning, Mr. Milton,” Josephson said. “Why’d you call the police?”

“Well, there’s this suspicious-lookin’ car. It’s dark brown – looks a couple years old or whatever,” Milton said. “It’s parked at the far end of the long-term lot and there’s no other cars around it. Somethin’ about it don’t look right.”

Milton told the officers he first spotted the vehicle a day earlier while on his airport shuttle bus rounds.

“I worked security for twelve years, so I know when somethin’ ain’t quite kosher,” he said. “The car – it don’t have no license plate on the back and one of the fenders is bashed in. And there’s a yellow puddle on the ground near the trunk. The whole thing looks weird.”

“Okay, Mr. Milton. Lead us to the car,” Josephson said.

The burly bus driver boarded his yellow shuttle, and the officers followed in their police cruiser until arriving at the suspect vehicle parked in a remote section of the airport’s long-term lot. The car’s exterior was filthy and even more unsightly given a crumpled left rear fender that had separated a bit from the trunk. That separation produced a hole through which liquid was slowly dripping to the ground.

“You smell that?” Josephson asked Redd as both officers did a walk-around, noticing a faint odor once they reached the trunk area. “There’s that yellow liquid on the ground, and look – someone yanked off the rear license plate pretty hard.”

The officers then peered inside the windshield, and Josephson gazed down upon the instrument panel. He saw that the VIN plate had been pried out and was missing.

“Do we have a crime scene here?” he asked his patrol partner. “C’mon, let’s open the trunk. Can you get the crowbar?”

Redd retrieved the tool from the police cruiser and quickly returned to the back of the vehicle. She handed the crowbar to Josephson, who methodically popped open the deck lid.

“Holy shit,” Josephson uttered as a piercing stench catapulted from the trunk.

The two seasoned officers covered their noses and mouths with their shirtsleeves, inching forward to peek inside.

“What the hell?” Redd whispered.

The trunk contained a small-sized human corpse in a severe state of decay, lying in a fetal position inside a blue plastic tarp. Almost one-third of the tarp had unraveled and bunched, revealing most of the withered legs and shriveled feet of the contaminated cadaver.

“Is that body fluid…and is hair floating in it?” Redd asked, pointing to a shallow pool of murky yellow liquid covering the trunk’s floor.

The gangrene-and-charcoal skin on the dead infected human was covered with white pus, and the slimy skin had separated from itself in several spots.

“Lemme pull the tarp back some more,” Josephson said, eventually exposing the entire gruesome gray skull, and both officers stared in stunned silence at hundreds of creamy white maggots streaming in-and-out of the victim’s sunken eye sockets and swollen nostrils.

“This is some gross shit,” Josephson prickled in disbelief.

As they both gaped at the frenzied maggots pouring into the corpse’s catacomb mouth, a half-dozen angry flies buzzed toward the heads of the two astounded officers.

“This body is so nasty – I can’t even tell what sex it is except maybe for how it’s dressed,” Josephson said. “I’m guessing it’s a woman judging by this dirty pink robe and the white bedroom slippers. Damn, I don’t wanna see any more.”

He strained to pull down the brown trunk lid and unclipped a two-way radio from his shirt pocket.

“I’m calling headquarters to get homicide out here,” he said. “Redd, secure this whole area right now.”

Chapter 2

Violet Penn is an addict, a gambling addict, fully consumed and compulsive. She knew how important gambling had become in her life. It’s too bad the vice eventually became more important than life itself.

“I like to gamble. So what?” the raucous Violet once bristled in defiance to her elderly mother-in-law, Patricia, as they shopped for groceries at the neighborhood supermarket. “Gambling gets my juices flowing and I’m not hurting anyone. Am I?”

Violet delved into gambling a year ago in early October to spice up her boring life – a life that became humdrum ever since her passionless husband of sixteen years, Sylvester, began ignoring her more and more. She gambled cautiously at first but because of her compulsive nature, the obsession quickly overwhelmed Violet, clamping onto her like a deer tick.

Her gambling addiction evolved similar to a nervous smoking habit she also acquired a year back. Violet initially puffed a pack a day and then two packs, and she informed Sylvester that smoking calmed her jittery nerves and helped her endure the cruel hardships of each lonely day.

“Fine, no problem,” the neglectful Sylvester said in his increasingly ‘didn’t really get it’ or ‘didn’t really care’ manner.

Also one year ago, Violet developed the same passion for rich foods as she did for cigarettes and gambling. The large-framed, stay-at-home housewife began treating herself to loads of delicacies she rarely tasted before, including lobster, expensive chocolates, filet mignon, and French pastries. Soon her daily caloric intake would make a whale envious, and the naturally broad woman witnessed her weight increase from 200 to 250 pounds relatively overnight.

“When I stepped on the scale the other day and saw 250, I was blown away like a cheap toupee,” she joked one afternoon to her mother-in-law. “But really, why should I care about losing weight? What’s the point?”

As for the seductive lure of gambling, it specifically hooked Violet last October when she bumped into a former family friend, Joe Wright, at a Mean Caffeine coffee shop. Joe once resided in the same upscale suburban neighborhood as Violet, so the casual friends ordered flavored coffees and caught up on things.

“Violet Penn. How have you been?” Joe asked as the two sat at a remote table.

“Oh, you know. Wish I was doing better, but I’m okay,” Violet answered. “How long’s it been, Joe? Two, three years? Whatcha been up to?”

“Well, first of all, I divorced Erin a few months back,” he shared.

“You’re kidding. I’m sorry to hear that,” Violet said.

“No, no, don’t be sorry,” Joe retorted. “We started arguing a lot and growing further and further apart, and we ended up hating each other. But anyway, I don’t have to deal with her crap anymore. So, how ‘bout you? How goes everything in your life?”

Violet sipped her coffee and sighed.

“I really can’t complain because nobody would listen,” she said with a half-hearted smile. “My life is, well, just blah right now. Maybe a better word is listless. I could use a jolt to get me outta the doldrums, but I don’t even know what kinda jolt I need.”

The two small-talked awhile before Violet asked Joe what he did for fun, now that he was divorced.

“Not a whole lot except have a couple beers after work, and I’ve dated once or twice,” he answered. “Oh, I have a poker game at my house every Saturday night.”

“Poker?” Violet asked, her eyebrows raised.

“I used to play in college and a few years after that, but I stopped once I got married,” Joe said. “But I got a weekly game going again after I divorced the albatross.”

“What kinda poker you play?” Violet asked with a gleam in her emerald green eyes. “How many people play? When do you play? What are the stakes?”

“Wow, that’s a lotta questions,” Joe said. “Sounds like you might wanna join us sometime. Actually, we could use a sixth player.”

“I do like watching poker on TV…those Texas hold-‘em games,” Violet said. “Yeah, maybe I’ll show up some Saturday night.”

“We never play Texas hold-‘em – just standard games like five-card stud, seven stud, and five-card draw,” Joe said. “They’re easy to learn if you don’t already know how, and we don’t play any wild card crap.”

A curious smirk covered Violet’s raspberry red face as the tempting thought of gambling excited her, but she didn’t know why. The two engaged in a stimulating ten-minute discussion about poker, with Joe informing Violet that his weekend games run at night from 8 to around 11:30 or midnight.

“The stakes aren’t super high, but they’re big enough to keep everyone’s interest,” he said. “You better bring $300 or $400 if you wanna stick around the whole night.”

Violet plunged into deep thought, wondering if she should partake or not. It took less than five seconds for her to decide.

“Okay, count me in. I’ll be at your house this Saturday,” she said. “Write down directions to your place and your phone number, willya?”

Joe scribbled on a napkin, and the two gabbed a few more minutes before finishing their coffees.

“It’s been great seeing you, Violet, and I’ll see you again Saturday night,” Joe said, rising from the table. “Remember, bring around $400. Hey, won’t Sylvester care that you’re playing poker and maybe losing that much money?”

“Nah, no problem,” she answered. “The money’s no big deal, and Syl doesn’t really care what I do anymore. He might not even notice I’m gone for the night.”

Violet paused, then spoke again with a hint of arrogance.

“And who says anything about losing?”

Chapter 3

“I’ll see that 20 and raise you 40 bucks,” Violet bellowed, glancing one last time at the three queens in her hand.

“Damn, I fold,” said Amy Cousins, a pretty divorced friend of Joe’s who lived in his same Nashville neighborhood.

“Okay, Joseph. It’s all up to you,” Violet said with a sly grin. “Whatcha gonna do?”

Joe stared at Violet, then looked at his five cards that included a pair of aces and a pair of jacks. He stared at Violet again.

“Y’know, I think you’re bluffing so I’m gonna see your raise and bump you another $40,” he said with confidence.

“Joe, Joe, Joe…you poor, foolish man,” Violet playfully admonished. “Alright, I’m in a good mood tonight so I’ll take it easy on you and just call. Then I’m gonna show you these three lovely ladies.”

She plopped her three queens onto the green felt poker table for everyone to see, and a sick look overtook Joe’s scarlet face.

“Go ahead, take the damn pot,” he blurted, slamming his five worthless cards onto the felt.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Violet cackled as her large hands dragged in the pot of nearly $225.

Besides Violet, Joe, and Amy Cousins, the other three Saturday night poker regulars were Jenny Booker, a nice-looking single woman who also lived in Joe’s neighborhood and was infatuated with Joe; and Karen Patrick, a heavyset single woman with a pretty face and bubbly personality who was Jenny’s best friend. Completing the Saturday night poker sextet was an overweight, pock-faced recent divorcee named William Screen, who owned two liquor stores and moonlighted as a bookie. In fact, William often booked sports bets for Joe.

“Okay, everyone. Let’s all ante 10 bucks and play five-card draw again since it was just so kind to me,” Violet announced with vigor, shuffling the cards. “My birthday’s coming up and I wanna win some big money tonight, to buy myself something nice.”

“Oh yeah? When’s your birthday?” Joe asked.

“October 20th,” Violet said. “Mark your calendars, people. In case anyone needs gift ideas, I’m partial to diamonds.”

“Ha. So, you turning 21?” Joe inquired in a jovial tone.

“Yes, 21,” Violet smirked, calculating in her mind that it would actually be the 16th anniversary of her 21st birthday.

“Well, happy birthday in advance,” Joe said. “Whatcha think Sylvester’ll get you?”

Suddenly, Violet stopped shuffling and her eyes watered slightly as she sheepishly peered down toward the table. She placed the cards on the felt and bent to the floor to fumble through her purse, snatching a pack of cigarettes and her lighter.

“Honestly, I don’t expect Syl to get me anything special – he hasn’t in two or three years,” Violet said, lighting a cigarette and taking a prolonged drag. “Matter of fact, I’ll need to remind him that my birthday is coming so he at least gets me a card.”

Her left hand shook while flicking ashes into a black ashtray atop the table, then she dangled the cigarette between her colorless lips before picking up the cards to deal.

“Gee, that’s kinda sad,” Amy chimed in. “I’m sure he’ll get you something, won’t he?”

“Oh, he will if I suggest something to him and tell him where to get it and basically go with him to pick it out,” Violet answered, with disgust radiating from her crimson face. “Just once I wish he’d get me some damn flowers or take me to dinner or buy me a bracelet – or whatever. But I never expect anything like that. No, not from my dear Sylvester.”

An uncomfortable silence shrouded the gambling festivities until Violet finally dealt each player five cards, and Jenny opened the betting. She tossed $20 into the pot but immediately refocused her attention on Violet.

“What about your son?” she asked. “Joe told me Joel is 15, right? He’s old enough to get you a gift, isn’t he?”

With that said, larger tears formed in Violet’s eyes, and she swallowed hard to calm herself.

“No, Joel is a lot like his father,” she lamented. “I love my son bunches, but I’ll need to remind him, too. In fact, I’ll have to hound Joel two or three times so he remembers to go to a damn store and buy me a card. I’ll probably have to remind him to sign his name, too.”

Amy folded her poker hand, followed by Karen folding, and William did the same. But Joe called Jenny’s initial $20 bet and raised the pot another $30, then looked at Violet to pose a new pointed question that struck an entirely different nerve.

“What about your mother-in-law?” he asked. “She’ll come through with a birthday gift, won’t she?”

Violet tightened her jaw and took a massive drag from her cigarette, savoring it for a couple seconds before tilting her head toward the ceiling to exhale every bit of the carcinogen smoke.

“You must be kidding, Joe,” she said in a biting tone. “That old woman hasn’t bought me anything in the past five birthdays. I accidentally forgot her precious birthday five years ago, so one of her vendettas in life is apparently to ignore mine every year from now on.”

Violet angrily scrutinized her cards, called the $50 she owed the pot, and Jenny added another $30 that she owed to make the pot correct. Violet, Jenny, and Joe were left to battle for the mounting stack of money in the middle of the table.

“But don’t you drive your mother-in-law to the supermarket every Saturday morning?” Joe asked, keeping the subject alive. “She’s gotta be getting up in years – I’m sure she couldn’t drive herself, could she? And she still won’t get you a gift? Does she at least thank you for taking her shopping?”

“No. She’s never thanked me,” Violet answered with scorn as an unattractive image of the elderly Patricia rifled through her brain. “Nope, hasn’t thanked me once.”

“And except for that one time you forgot, do you still get her a birthday gift every year – even though she doesn’t get you one?” Joe continued.

Violet perused the question for a moment, nodded, and answered, “Yeah, I do get her something every year. But now that you mention it, why the hell do I?”

Jenny discarded two cards and asked for two more, then Joe drew three cards, and Violet took two. Jenny opened the next round of betting by tossing a $20 bill into the pot.

“I call that $20 and raise $40,” Joe immediately countered.

Violet, with her face redder than the surface of Mars, took a hefty cigarette drag to steady her fraying nerves and asked Joe how much she owed the pot.

“Jenny bet $20 and I raised it $40. You owe 60 bucks,” he answered.

An agitated Violet tossed in $60 and raised the pot another $50.

“Ooh. Too rich for my blood,” Jenny said as she folded, and the action was down to Joe and Violet.

Joe held three kings along with a seven and a four, so he called Violet’s $50 and raised the pot another $50.

“So, that’s the way you wanna play, Joe?” Violet asked in a loud snarl. “Tell you what, buddy boy. I’ll see your $50 and raise it another $50 – and I’ll keep bumping you 50 bucks as long as you wanna keep going, pal!”

“Whoa, whoa, Violet. We’re just having a friendly game here,” Joe said, trying to calm the feisty woman. “Okay, okay, I don’t want anyone to get ticked off. I’ll just toss in my 50 bucks and call. I got three kings.”

“Not good enough, Joey boy,” Violet responded with a devilish sneer. “I got a flush – all hearts. Like they say in Vegas: Read ‘em and weep, sucker!”

Violet gleefully laid out her five cards for everyone to see and indeed had a hand filled with hearts, but only four of them. She had the queen, jack, nine, and three of hearts, and the ten of diamonds.

“Uh oh,” William gasped in wide-eyed amazement. “Your cards are all red, Violet, but they’re not all hearts. Folks, you might wanna remove all sharp objects from the table.”

Violet squinted in bewilderment at the five cards directly in front of her, and a few seconds of disbelief was followed by a loud yelp that alarmed the other five players.

“DAMMIT!” she shrieked, causing Joe, Jenny, Amy, Karen, and William to all jump and then slump in their respective chairs.

Violet’s resounding reaction was followed by fifteen seconds of agonizing hush and suspense, with none of the others daring to speak during the seemingly endless soundlessness. They all remained breathlessly still, glimpsing at a simmering Violet until she finally spoke again.

“I-I can’t believe it, but the cards don’t lie,” she declared, beginning to sedate herself. “Go ahead, Joe, the pot’s yours. Geez, I don’t know what I was thinking – I really thought I had a flush. Guess I musta got distracted by all that birthday talk. Dammit!”

Joe rose from his chair, bent over the table, and hauled in the massive $650 cash pot. The gamblers played for another hour, with Joe ending up the big winner that autumn night by pocketing $620. Jenny was the only other winner at $310 to the good, while the losers were Amy at $110, Karen $140, William $280, and Violet $400.

“Son of a bitch, I lost every penny I brought tonight,” a wrathful Violet grumbled as all the players ascended from the card table at 11:51 p.m. to head home.

Amy was first to leave, followed by Jenny and Karen who departed together. William said goodnight and drove off in a brand new luxury car he purchased earlier that same day. With Violet and Joe the only ones remaining, Joe attempted to apologize for introducing the birthday gift conversation.

“Tell you what, Violet. I’ve got season tickets to the Titans this year – lemme give you and Sylvester my tickets to the Pittsburgh Steelers game in a couple weeks,” he said. “I think they play October 22nd or 23rd. You and Sylvester can celebrate your birthday weekend by watching some great football.”

After giving it only brief contemplation, Violet declined Joe’s offer.

“Forget it, Joe,” she said with a hint of sadness in her voice. “Syl doesn’t like sports. His one and only passion in life is computers. Even if going to this game meant the world to me, he still wouldn’t go.”

“Are you serious?” Joe asked with a quizzical stare. “Well, do you wanna go with me? We’ll have a couple cocktails to toast your birthday and watch a real good game.”

“No, but thanks anyway,” Violet responded with genuine gratitude. “I really don’t like attending sporting events, although I’d sure go if Syl asked me. But he hasn’t asked me to go anywhere with him in a couple years.”

With that said, Violet and Joe said their goodbyes, and she trudged outdoors to her car. She slumped onto the cloth bench seat, lit a fresh cigarette, and sat suppressed for several minutes.

“Selfish woman,” she thought. “No birthday gift? I should teach you a lesson in life some day, old lady.”

Violet also meditated about Sylvester. She felt disheartened that he would potentially forget her birthday, plus he wasn’t showing her much affection anymore. But within seconds, negative reflections about her lame-duck husband reverted once again to her insensitive mother-in-law.

“Nothing is colder than a mother-in-law’s love,” Violet sniped, turning the ignition key and squealing away from Joe’s house. “Old woman, when the good Lord passed out sweetness, you musta been out for a beer.”