Sean McDermott is a private detective in New York City, it says so right on his business card. It's on ok job, but it isn't as exciting as most people think, and that's fine by him. He makes it a rule not to get involved in active police cases or in any case where people are likely to get hurt--especially him. So why does the mob suddenly want him dead? Sure it's all a mistake, but dead from a mistake is still dead.
Taking advice from his friend, The Juke, he starts on a cross country drive to LA (what can I tell you, he has a few phobias, and flying is just one of them), and makes it as far as Mystic Falls, New Mexico before the borrowed Mercedes conks out. Mystic Falls? Think Green Acres--without the sophistication.
All he had to do was lie low and wait for the car to be fixed. A good plan too. It might have worked if only the local "character" hadn't turned up missing, with him as the prime suspect. Now if he ever wants to get out of this sleepy desert asylum, he's going to have to find her. Fat chance.
I gave Fat Chance five out of five stars. It is the best book by an indie writer I've read so far.
Fat Chance is a hilarious adventure from start to finish. Sean McDermott is a snarky New York detective who finds himself stuck in a small New Mexican town and forced to solve a missing person's case, in which he becomes the prime suspect. He meets a host of interesting personalities from the waitress at the diner who tells him of course he shouldn't have ordered eggs if he's allergic to peppers to the older Asian woman whose Cadillac has been altered to drive only under 40 mph to the mechanic whose name is Not Jim. The novel kept me up at night wondering what the oddball characters would do next. McDermott's dry wit is riotously funny, and the mystery keeps you guessing and has a satisfying conclusion. I highly recommend Fat Chance to anyone who enjoys humor or a good mystery.
The red-haired woman was gone by the time I paid my bill and I made my way unmolested across the street to the gas station. A red Jeep sat parked in the lot next to a rusted out green truck straddling a large oil stain. I went into the garage and found the Juke’s car up on the rack. A mechanic stood under it with his head deep in the machine's bowels. There was a tag on the left side of his coveralls that identified him simply as Jim.
“How’s it look, Jim?” I asked.
There was a thump from the direction of his head, followed shortly by the head itself. A tall, wiry young man, with a pate of thinning blonde hair dislodged himself from the car’s underbelly, rubbing his forehead. “You talking to me?” he asked.
“Yes I am. That’s why I call people by their name, so they know I’m talking to them. Jim.”
He grinned and walked out from under the car. “That makes sense, but my name’s not Jim.”
“Not-Jim, really? What a funny name.”
“Huh? No, I don’t mean my name’s Not-Jim, I mean it’s not…”
I tapped his nametag with my finger.
“Oh, that. These overalls aren't mine. They belong to my cousin. This is his shop. I’m just watching it for him while he’s gone. His sister—-she lives in Albuquerque—-she just had a baby and he went to stay with her awhile to help out, what with her husband in jail again and all. Anyhow, since he had these coveralls here and I was only going to be needing them a little while, it didn’t make sense to buy a new pair with my name on them, so I just wear his. Never thought it would confuse people since everyone around here pretty much knows each other. Of course you don’t, so I can see where you made your mistake.”
I scratched at an itchy growth that had just erupted on my arm. That may have been the longest I’ve ever listened to a complete stranger. I’m a native New Yorker. In New York, any stranger who says more than three words to you, you don’t answer back. You just throw them your wallet and run.
“Are you all right?” Not-Jim asked. “Looks like you got some kind of rash.”
“Yeah, it came with breakfast. Look, my name is Sean McDermott and that’s my car. Any chance you know what’s wrong with it? And any chance the answer doesn't involve a family member?”
“Sure I do,” he said, beaming. “Don’t see many Mercedes around here. That’s what I thought when I saw your car with the note on the windshield. I thought 'wow’, don’t see many Mercedes around here’. But I figured your note gave me permission to take a look so that’s what I did. Didn’t take any time at all to figure it out. Actually, it was the first thing I checked after reading your note about the engine sputtering.” He gave me a grin that mirrored the desert he lived in—vast and empty.
I waited, but it was obvious he wasn’t going to say any more without some prodding. “Please go on. I’m spellbound.”
“It was your fuel injector.” he said, suddenly braying and clapping his hands. “Isn’t it always something simple like that?”
Not being mechanical, I had no idea, but I didn’t see the harm in humoring him. “Always,” I agreed.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” he said, nodding his head. “Just a fuel injector. Only take a few minutes to put a new one in.”
“Great, I’ll just go have a seat…”
“If I had a fuel injector for a Mercedes, I mean.”
I stopped itching for a moment. “Uh-huh.”
“But I don’t.”
“Of course you don’t.”
“I could order one for you. There’s a store in San Pedro that can UPS any part here in two or three days. Want me to do that?”
I pretended to mull the idea over. “Gee I don’t know. Can I drive the car without a fuel injector?”
He laughed. “Not hardly.”
“I didn’t think so. Well then, I guess the decision has been made for us, hasn’t it?”
“Huh? Oh, right. I’ll go ahead and order the part. Want me to let you know when she’s ready?”
“Either that, or I could just call you every few minutes.”
He squinted and pursed his lips, considering my suggestion. Finally, he shook his head. “No sir, I really think my way would be better.”
“Well, if you really think so. After all, you are the mechanic’s cousin.”
“Yes sir, I’ll call you just as soon I’m done. Where you going to be staying?”
That was a very good question. I hadn't seen much of the town before the car went to crap, but I doubted I'd be getting a room at the Hilton. “I'm not sure. I don’t suppose you have a motel in town?”
“Nope. The closest one is in Dulce, about ten miles north.”
“But there's an Inn. The Lazy Cat, just up the road less than a mile.”
“You’re a wonder Not-Jim. Think you could give me a ride.”
“I guess I could, if it’s not too far. Where you going?”
I waited for the bray that never came and realized he was serious. “I was thinking maybe the Inn.”
“Oh sure I can do that.” He looked up at my car. “I guess it’ll be all right for a few minutes.”
“It’s not like it’s going anywhere, is it?”
He slapped my back. “Not without a fuel injector.”
“Right. Listen, you got a can around here?”
“A can. A toilet.”
“Oh sure, right around back. It’s open.”
“Great. Do me a favor, lower the car and get my bag out of the trunk will you? I’ll only be a minute.”
The walk around the side of the building to the toilet was through waist-high weeds. Apparently, it wasn’t a well-traveled route, which made me wonder if indoor plumbing wasn’t a novelty in this town. I made it to the door with only a few bramble scratches and was reaching for the handle when the door flew open. A pair of huge breasts, barely contained in a pair of well-worn overalls, blocked my way. High above the breasts sat a head, and it was smiling.
I jumped back. “Shit.”
The big head looked alarmed. “Sorry, did I scare you?”
I recognized the woman as the one the waitress had identified as Fat Chance. She was a good half-head taller than me with a glassy-eyed grin showing a mouth full of mule teeth in various shades of off-white.
“Scared me? No, I always say 'shit' when I enter a men’s room. It motivates me.”
She nodded slowly, as though seriously considering whether that might not actually help.
“I'm kidding, you just startled me, that's all.”
“Are you sure? Sometimes I scare people even when I don’t mean too, just ‘cause I’m so big.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Were people frightened of Mr. Ed? No, you didn’t scare me. Look, are you coming out or…?”
Her grin widened. “Hey wait, I know you. I saw you through the diner window.”
"Yeah, I saw you too. That’s kind of how windows work. Nice dance, by the way.”
She laughed. “I was waiting to have my Jeep looked at again and it was such a beautiful day, I just felt like dancing. You ever feel that way?”
“Not since my days as a showgirl. I don’t mean to press the point, but are you through in there?”
“Oh sure,” she said, but made no sign of moving. “You’re new in town aren’t you?”
“Is this a survey? Yes, I’m just passing through. I’ll only be here a few days. Now if I could just…”
“Well, welcome to Mystic Falls,” she said and extended a wet, dripping hand.
I wouldn’t have been more traumatized if she had offered me her own beating heart. Hopefully, she’d just washed up. That would be the logical answer. But looking at her I got the distinct impression that washing wasn't much of a priority. Was she more particular about her hands? I couldn’t see past her, so I had no idea if the restroom even had a sink. If not, what fluid had she gotten on herself?
I decided not to take the chance. The tides could change, land masses could rise and fall, she could grow another finger or lose three, but I was not going to shake that hand. A dozen heart-beats later, the hand was still extended, she was still smiling, and a bead of sweat had formed on my upper lip. I made a move to wipe it off.
Misreading my intentions, she suddenly reached out and grasped my hand in hers, squeezing it tight and forcing the unknown liquid between my fingers, completing the transfer of bodily fluids. “My name’s Patty,” she said, “But people around here just call me Fat Chance.”
“How rude,” I managed to squeak out. I pulled out of her grip and stared at my defiled hand in horror. I didn’t know what manner of disease you could get from simple skin contact, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. If there was no sink in the restroom, I would assume the worse and do what had to be done, consoling myself with the knowledge that great strides were being made in prosthetics every day. I began rubbing my palm against my jeans.
“Oh I don’t mind. It's a funny name. Besides, I’m not so much fat as big anyway."
I gazed up from the vigorous abrading of my hand. "Let’s call it a toss-up. Look, Patty—can I call you Patty? Patty, it’s been a pleasure meeting you, but my teeth are floating. More importantly, if I don’t get to some soap and water soon, I’m going to have set my hand on fire, so do you think you could step out and let me in there?”
Her expression abruptly shifted from one of cheerful bewilderment to embarrassed surprise.
“Oh. Oh sure, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were trying to get in.” She stepped out and let me pass. “Maybe I’ll see you around later.”
I squeezed past her. “Anywhere but another men’s room.” I slammed the door shut.
Thankfully, there was not only a sink, but a full container of pink soap, which was only half full by the time I finished scouring my hand. I had rubbed the skin raw, but at least I wouldn’t have to learn to eat left-handed.
I finished my business and came around the building to find the red Jeep gone and Not-Jim sitting in the idling truck. There was no radio, but he was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel and bobbing his head to the rhythm of some internal music. “Oh hey, there you are. I thought you fell in.”
I jumped in the cab, settling into a vinyl seat stained with something dark and unidentifiable. “Nothing quite so sanitary.”
He put the truck in gear and pulled out of the lot. “So, where you from anyway?”
“New York,” I said, clinging to the door in an effort to avoid contact with the stain.
“Wow. Always wanted to visit a big city like that. What do you do there?”
I considered telling him I was the mayor, just for kicks, but I think impersonating the mayor of New York is a capital offense. That’s not an officially policy of course, I understand it just happens. I played it safe and went with the truth. “I’m a private detective.”
“No kidding? So you ever solve a murder or anything like that?”
“No kid. Mostly I do surveillance work. Divorces, dead-beat dads, that sort of thing.”
“Oh," he said, and seemed disappointed. I didn't blame him. It was my life and I was disappointed. I’d never intended to do this for a living. I’d gone to college for Christ’s sake. True, I changed my major with the seasons and never graduated, but I like to think the potential was there.
"Bet you see some sad stuff huh?” he asked.
“Uh-huh, sometimes it’s all I can do not to break out in tears. Which reminds me, I need to make a call." I pulled my cell phone from my jacket pocket.
"Cool, a cell phone. Always wanted one of those."
"Yeah, they're all the rage back home." Instead of the usual menu, a 'no service' warning flashed on the screen.
"Sorry, I should have told you," Not-Jim said, "you can't get cell phone service out here.”
"So it seems. Wait a minute. If you can't get service, why do you want a phone?"
"Oh you know, just to have."
He was beginning to remind me of my nephew. Nice kid. He was going to MIT until he suffered a head wound skate-boarding. Now we have these same kinds of chats.
I really wasn’t in the mood for conversation, but I figured since the kid was giving me a lift, the least I could do was act interested. “So tell me something, why is the town called Mystic Falls? You actually have a waterfall around here?”
He shook his head. “Nope, the closest one is the Nambe Falls, in Santa Fe.”
“But isn’t that like, a hundred and fifty miles from here?”
“Yeah, at least.”
I couldn’t figure out which was bothering me more, the itching, or the new headache that had just perched itself between my eyes. “So if you don’t have a falls, why the name?”
“Well sir, not many tourists come this far north and the town really needed some extra money, so after seeing all the tourist money the Nambe Pueblo was getting from having its falls, the city founders decided to try and cash in on it.”
I tried one more feeble attempt. “But you don’t have a falls.”
“Well sure, but by the time the tourists figure that out, there’re already here. That’s how we got our town motto.”
“And that is?”
I closed my eyes and rubbed my forehead, but it didn’t help. When I opened them, he was still there.
“Besides, there’s all kinds of other things to do around here. Take me for instance, I’m an arrowhead hunter. Well, not just arrowheads but pretty much any kind of artifact I can find. I spend most of my free time out in the hills looking for stuff. It’s a blast.”
“Really? And that’s what you do for entertainment?”
“Wouldn’t it be less painful just to take your own life?”
He slowed the truck. “Huh?”
"Nothing. Don’t mind me, my possible death from anaphylaxis has made me a little grouchy this morning. Why are you stopping?”
“We’re here. I told you it was only about a mile.”
Not-Jim pulled the truck off the road in front of a single level, dilapidated building. The siding was gray clapboard, sun-bleached and pealing. A torn and tattered awning partially covered a sagging porch that ran across the front.
“What is this?” I asked.
“This is the Inn.”
I looked back at the building. A carved wooden sign hung precariously above the screen door. A painted cat, probably once bright yellow, but now faded like everything else, slept peacefully below red lettering which declared that this was in fact, the Lazy Cat Inn.
“That is not an Inn,” I informed Not-Jim. “That is an outhouse.”
He got out of the truck laughing and grabbed my bag from the back. “Naw, it’s the Inn. The outhouse is in the back.”
With little other choice I followed him up three rickety steps and through the front door. The foyer was nothing more than a small room with a desk and table. A large black woman sat with her back to us in an easy chair watching TV, her head resting on a white doily.
"Morning Casual," Not-Jim said.
The woman nodded slightly. "Mornin'", she answered, not bothering to turn around.
"Got a man here needs a room for a few days."
"No pets," she said, her attention still focused on the television.
I considered the sign above the door. "What about cats?"
"Right, no pets."
The TV show segued into a commercial and the woman rose, turning her large frame toward us. "Well, how long you be staying?”
Not-Jim answered. "Just a couple of days, maybe three. Just till I can get his car fixed.”
"What's wrong with your car?"
"Apparently it needs a new fuel injector," I replied.
She shook her head. "Ain't no auto parts store in this town. He'll have to order one. Take two, maybe three days."
"Yes, I think we’ve established that."
"Where you from?"
"He's a detective," Not-Jim added. “But he's never solved a murder case.”
"Is that a fact? Well, you won’t be solvin' one here either. We all god-fearin’, law-abiden’ folks. Ain’t nothing needs detectin’ around here."
"Like I said, I’m just passing through. Sounds like you're not exactly from around here either.”
“That count for detective work where you from? No sir, I'm from Georgia, born and raised. Still be there too if that fool husband of mine hadn't dragged me out here, rest his soul. Been here goin' on thirty years and my accent ain't thinned a bit. Georgia will do that to a body. Well, we got a room available. Seventy dollars a day. There's coffee and muffins for breakfast and if you at the table by six you welcome to dinner. Nothin' fancy, but you won't starve."
"Seventy dollars sounds a bit steep."
She narrowed her eyes. "Sleeping outdoors is free."
"I see your point. By the way, is there a phone in the room?"
"Course there's a phone. You think you in the boonies?"
"The thought never crossed my mind, although there was some mention of an outhouse."
Not-Jim smiled sheepishly. "I was just pulling your leg."
"Norma!" the woman shouted. A pretty Hispanic girl in jean shorts and a pink halter top entered through the kitchen and leaned against the wall, loudly chewing her gum. "Norma, is room three ready?"
"Cleaned this morning," she answered between gum clicks.
The woman turned back to me. "We got four rooms. You in number three, that's down the hall, last room on the right. Only other guest right now is Mrs. Akihiro. She a China woman in room two."
"Akihiro sounds Japanese."
"Japanese, Chinese, it’s all the same to me. All I know is she come here from Texas for a few days every year to visit her husband."
"Once a year? That’s what I call a long-distance relationship."
"Longer than you think. Her husband don’t live here, he died here about four year ago. Used to haul chickens from Dumas to Sacramento every month. Fell asleep at the wheel one night up by the reservation and rolled his truck over a cliff."
She shook her head.
"Terrible accident; body parts was everywhere—-fingers, toes, wings, beaks. Ambulance people tried to scoop him all up, but apparently it ain’t so easy as you might think—telling a chicken from a Chinaman, I mean. Anyways, they got his weight off his driver’s license, picked up a hundred and thirty pounds of pieces and buried ‘em. Now his wife come every year 'bout this time to pay her respects. We don't serve chicken while she's here. Hope you ain't got a taste for it.”
“I hadn’t really thought about…”
“Well good, I’m sure you’ll like it here just fine. Norma will show you to your room."
I picked up my bag. "Thank you Miss..."
"Laye, but you can call me Casual."
"My friends call me Casual; you might as well too since if you ain't a friend I don't want you in my place."
"Casual Laye," I repeated.
The big woman crossed her arms. "That's right."
A half dozen witty responses flashed through my mind, but all of them would have had me sleeping outdoors.
"Think so? My fool of a daddy sure did. Thought it was the funniest damn name he ever heard. Signed that name on my birth certificate then up and left me and my momma laughing, with the door hitting him on the ass on the way out. You want to know what it’s like going through life with a name like that? I learned to fight before I could even write that stupid name—and fight good too. I tell you, there are boys back in Georgia who still got to eat out of the left side of their mouths to this day. Damn right.”
“Sorry I brought it up.”
“Ain’t nothin’ to be sorry for. Besides, I caught up with my daddy in time. Took me twenty-two years to find that man, but oh I found him, yes I did. He didn’t think the name was so damn funny when I left him though. No sir, he didn’t think it was funny at all.”
“Uh-huh. Look, if I’m not being too personal, why not change it?”
“Fool, do I look like I’m trying to steer clear of men at my age? If that name makes them take a second look, then so be it. I can use all the help I can get. Anyway, Norma will show you the room. Bathroom is across the hall; ain't got no outhouse."
The Hispanic girl pushed herself from the wall without taking her hands from her pockets. “C’mon. The room’s this way.”
I picked up my bag and followed her. Not-Jim called out after me.
“Don’t you worry about a thing Mr. McDermott, I’ll have your car ready in no time at all, yes sir no time at all.”
I waved back vaguely, still scratching and studying the girl in front of me. She was obviously young—I put the over/under at fifteen—but you couldn’t tell that from the back. In the race to adulthood, her ass had lapped her and was now waiting for the rest of the body to catch up.
She was small and compact, but with legs that were long and slender, or maybe it was just that her shorts rode so high on her that they looked long. I was going to explore that theory in more detail when she stopped and leaned back against the wall, cutting short my inspection. She smiled and threw back her shoulders, purposely accentuating the obvious. She nodded to the door across the hall.
“That’s your room,” she said, gum still clicking.
I shifted my bag to my other hand. “Thanks for all the help, but are you sure you’re cut out to be a porter?”
She rolled her eyes. “I’m not a porter. I just clean the place for Casual after school and on Saturday. I’m only working so I can save enough money to get out of this town when I graduate.”
“And when will that be?”
“Two more years.”
I did a quick calculation and figured I’d been dead on for her age. “Going anywhere in particular?”
She nodded her head vigorously, almost swallowing her gum in the process. “Uh-huh. California. I’m going to Los Angles and be a actress.”
“Be an actress,” I corrected. You have to watch for that. Films are talkies now you know.”
“It's the medication. No, really I'm just messing with you. I like your plan. It’s a wonder more young girls don’t consider that.”
“Yeah, well my mom says I’m advanced for my age. So where are you from?"
"New York, but I'm on my way to California, coincidentally, to Los Angeles."
"No way. That is like so cool."
"Funny, I hadn’t really thought about it in quite those terms."
Her face broke out in a wide grin. "Maybe I could go with you when you leave."
I smiled back as an image of the two of us together in the car flashed before me. I won't go into detail about the mental picture, but I will say that my conscience immediately bitch-slapped me. And I deserved it.
"What happened to waiting for graduation?"
She swung her head and kicked the floor with her sneaker. "Well yeah, but by then I'll be old."
"True. I hadn't considered that."
She leaned forward in what I took to be a suggestive pose. "It would be a lot of fun," she said breathlessly.
"I'm sure it would be, right up until my inevitable arrest and ritual prison sodomizing. No, I think you should stick to your original plan. Get an education first, then take L.A. by storm, one casting couch at a time."
She straightened herself and walked close to me, close enough that I could smell her bubble gum. At least I thought it was bubble gum. It took me a moment to realize it was her perfume. Who had the bright idea to dip girls this age in sugar? "You think I'm so young, but I'm old enough. You’ll see.” She smiled. “I need to get you some clean towels.”
“Clean towels? Well now you’re just spoiling me.”
She turned and hip-swiveled down the hall, never taking her hands from her pockets. Lucky hands.
The room was small but clean, the bed covered in a green quilt, probably handmade. I picked up the phone and was almost surprised when I heard a dialing tone. I phoned the Juke.
“Sean. Good to hear from you. In L.A. already? You see Sharon? How is she? Did she like the present?”
“Relax. I'm not in L.A. yet. I’m in New Mexico.”
“Mexico? Wow kid, you have one shitty sense of direction. Hang on, I got a map.” I heard a drawer open and the rustling of paper.
I laid my head in my hand. “Juke…”
“Hold on, hold on. Ok, here’s what you do: make a u-turn then head north. If you keep the ocean on your left, you can’t miss California; there should be signs. Call me when you get to L.A.”
“I’m in NEW Mexico, Juke. It’s a state.”
There was a pause. “I knew that.”
“No you didn’t. Listen, your car broke down. I’m stuck in a little town called Mystic Falls.”
“Never heard of it.”
“You never heard of New Mexico. I’m going to be delayed a couple of days.”
“What’s wrong with my car?”
“Nothing, it’s just a bad fuel injector. I’ve got a mechanic working on it.”
“There? Are you out of your mind? They’ll be chopping it up for parts. That is a fine precision machine. It needs an engineer—preferably German. I know, I know, a barbaric race but they still make the best mechanics.”
Talking to the Juke was often like taking a ride on a rollercoaster, and I was already dizzy. “Ok, I can see this call was a mistake. Listen, I’ll get back to you when I get to L.A.”
“All right, all right. Just make sure you don’t come back in a low rider. Oh, and don’t drink the water. The last thing you need is Montezuma’s revenge.”
“I told you, I’m not in…”
The phone went dead.