My new crime novel Tessa Goes Down will be debuting August 2, but I wanted to provide a sneak preview of the first chapter while production is in process. When you have a few minutes, give it a read and let me know what you think! Very soon, the preorder link will be available (watch this site!), and I’ll encourage you to place that order! Anyway, go ahead and give it a taste! You know you want to. But beware! Tessa is a nasty, at-times-raunchy book, so put on your big-girl pants! Go for it! And thanks.
TESSA GOES DOWN
Floyd Tillman Weathers
Floyd Weathers killed a man with a baseball bat when he was twenty-seven years old and foolin’ around with this hot mess of a girl in way-west Texas, town by the name of Malvado, one of those dusty wasteland settlements a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande that hadn’t known even a dull gleam in decades. Potholed streets lined with crumbling pale brick and peeled paint and boarded-up shattered windows. Grim faces watching you pass. It was a place no one paid any attention to. No one. You felt so removed from civilization that the earth was rug-flat and you were underneath it, in the deep dark with the grime and the smokybrown roaches.
Just the way Floyd liked it.
The girl shimmied into his sights from out of nowhere, and later he’d understand that she was just what he needed to regain that spark, yeah, to find life worth living again. She’d do this tight little dance that could distract him from everything, even the devil, and then he could give a shit that he was holed up in ol’ Henry’s failing motel off the grey asphalt edge of Route 67, with all that money taped up in the false backing he’d added to the motel bedroom’s nightstand. All that money that wasn’t even his, all that cash that he couldn’t even touch.
But, see, now his head was stuck on the gal again. That scrumptious thing, that sweet split-cherry bottom, that twisty smile. The way she could turn an innocent gesture into a naughty come-on, like she wasn’t even trying.
Tessa was her name.
Tessa Rae Jayne.
That’s the way she spelled it for him one morning in the deep dark, her voice hesitating through the last name like she was full of crap. Tessa Jayne, one of those deals where you don’t appreciate a thing till it’s done its whole number on you. Till much later when you’re snugged up against her milk-chocolate self in her little twin bed, in the room where she grew up, and you’re whispering in her ear about the roads you’re gonna travel together.
But he was getting ahead of himself.
Floyd first spotted her in a cramped convenience hut attached to a two-pump gas station, place always smelled like sweet armpit. She’d stopped for a few gallons of 87 octane and a Coke and some sugar candy. Pleated jet-black hair wild and frizzy from the hot wind, her yellow convertible Beetle at the one working pump, the pumping done with. A station wagon trembled impatiently behind her VW, driver starting to fume, she didn’t care. She was jawing with Irene, the dead-eyed broad inside at the clanky register. Irene with the withered tattoos of inscrutable significance and the expression that communicated years of deadened misery. Irene was a fixture in Floyd’s life, for sure. At least, for the past three months.
“How far’s the border?”
The gal he’d soon know as Tessa Rae was paying for her stuff with quarters fished out of her jeans pocket, and Irene was gritting her grody teeth. Her look said she’d rather be back in her double-wide watching WWF with her man on a flowery couch.
“Bout an hour.”
“Shit, sign back there said twenty-some miles.”
“Guess you know how far it is, then.”
Wounded shrug. “Just passin’ the time, sheesh.”
“You wanna clear that pump now?” Handing her some pennies in change.
“Uh huh, sure.” She sucked on her Coke, swallowed the sweetness down. “That border easy to cross?”
“Depends what color you are,” Floyd put in, walking up with his stuff. Tessa turned her fetching head his way, eyed him. “And which way you’re going. You got your papers, right?”
She kept eyeing him.
“Personally, I’d say you got the color going on, but you’re probably gonna raise some hackles coming back across the line.”
And then there was the smile Floyd would come to know, the dangerous smile.
“That right?” she said.
It was his first good look at her, and he felt a tug somewhere. A pair of round, red-lensed sunglasses hid her deep brown eyes, but her sharp brows were sarcastic and jumpy. A big-ass necklace pendant lay gleaming and ostentatious above generous cleavage, and a full expressive mouth got her personality across right quick. She was the kind of gal a fella wanted to dabble with, whether any small talk led to anything or not. He was a sucker for a mouth like hers, and despite all his instincts to shut up and fade into the background like he’d been told, he stepped closer to her. It wasn’t often that a woman like Tessa Rae Jayne passed through town.
Floyd had wandered over from the motel for some Winstons and PBR, some canned dinner for the hot plate. It’s not like he’d tried to lay down a pattern or anything, but yeah, he went to that store pretty regular. As if there was much choice. He’d probably worn a path in the old asphalt with his boots.
“Seriously,” he said, “the problem isn’t going to Mexico, the problem is coming back.”
She nodded, shrugged. “Not a problem then.”
He stored that for later.
“Where you coming from?” he asked her, enjoying the view.
“Same as you, probably—no place in particular.”
“Nice place,” he said, amiably. “Used to be, anyway.”
He felt Irene rolling her eyes.
Tessa gave him a long appraising look. “Yeah, well . . . not anymore.”
She left it at that and skedaddled, didn’t even look back, and Floyd set his shit on the counter and watched her go. A clanky bell announced her departure, and then the woodslap of the door. Through the grimy window festooned with dusty neon beer signs, he saw the hop in her step and was convinced he’d never see her again. A glimpse of something that coulda been but wasn’t meant to be, something maybe he’d reflect on down the line, a missed opportunity but also perhaps a bullet dodged.
“Five ninety-two, hun,” Irene said after grabbing the Winstons from the shelf behind her without him asking.
He paid her with six singles, let her keep the change, and she even managed a cracked smile.
“Big tipper,” she mumbled. “How you holdin’ up today?”
They were alone now in the empty little shop.
Floyd moseyed over to the grimy window and watched the rear of the VW as it moved to the edge of the lot. Girl already had her eye on the road. When she pulled onto Route 67 headed south, her frizzed hair whipped about in the dry wind of her departure.
He got to thinking about paths not taken. He’d read a poem about that once, back when poetry meant something to him. Back when he was a Longhorn. The hefty weight of everything he’d done, everything that had brought him to right here, right now—he felt the burden of it once again, sharply, as the car vanished from his sight, beyond the crumbling corner of an abandoned storefront.
He turned back to Irene.
“What day is it?” he said.
She murmured a smoky laugh. “Thursday.”
“Well, I’m still breathing,” he said, and that was enough of an answer for her.
Outside in the searing heat, hands full of junk food and coffin nails, Floyd paused beneath the tattered awning and took a long look around. He was careful every time, no hurry. A scrawny straw-colored canine runt was ambling north across the highway, hunting for something, anything. Up that way were the sheds and motorhomes where most of the town lived, everything fenced off as if it were a theme—barbed wire, rusty tin, cinder blocks, brown-dry Mexican needle grass threading through all of it. There was a little cemetery that way, also overgrown with weeds, also hemmed in with broken fencing. One of these days that dog was gonna catch one of the chickens that scurried around the cemetery. Floyd was rooting for the little bastard. Every morning at the crack of hell, some rooster crowed.
To the south sprawled the ramshackle structures that made up the business district of Malvado. An old water tower stood like a gangly sentry at the south end, solid and still functional. A certain yellow Beetle was probably passing it at this moment. Then there was the closed-up bank, with the inscrutable H. G. Blevins signage aging in place above interlaced brick and two of four surviving dormer windows. (Some old-timer around here surely knew the history of the building, it was the most impressive in town, but that person was a long way from here.) Locally owned mercantile storefronts followed in a loose line, only one of them still in business—a thrift shop that specialized in “antiques” better characterized as “dusty junk.” There was a second decrepit motel down the way, maybe had once been competition for ol’ Henry. It was on a broad windy corner, but it was closed up and merging back with the unforgiving earth, its big awning crooked and leaning and dangerous, and it even had a drained pool out front with something long dead in its murky brown drain sewage.
Across the street, diagonally from where Floyd stood, was a bar called, imaginatively, Bar. There was a decaying pool table in there that Floyd had played many solo games on. A dart board and a boxy TV. And a long dimly lit bar that was always mostly barren. Floyd tended to settle into one of the booths in there couple times a week. The proprietor was an all right fella named George, minded his own business, never asked him a goddamn thing, only talked when Floyd wanted to talk, no need for more.
Maybe Floyd would spend a few bucks over there tonight.
Just as he started walking back toward his room, he caught a glimpse of yellow and his stomach did a little ping.
“Well, fuck me.”
The Beetle was drifting back up Route 67. It finally came to a juddery stop in front of the bar. Floyd heard the engine stall with a hiccup, as if the gal had let the clutch slip. There was no movement for a while, and then she got out and bounced her way up the couple concrete steps to George’s front door.
Floyd attempted to calculate the odds that he’d not only bumped into this woman in the convenience store but that he’d just now caught this second glimpse—that fate had dealt him one more card. It was the kind of bet you had to put down on.
He hustled back to his flytrap, dumped the shit and put on a clean shirt, and made his way back to the sidewalk. There was a big dusty gap in traffic, so he crossed to the bar, where the Beetle was still parked all alone on the edge of the highway. He opened the bar door and paused, let his eyes adjust.
The place was empty.
Floyd walked over to the bar, sat at one of the stools. Waited.
It was so quiet, he could hear the toilet flush. Water rushing at the grimy sink in there. Footsteps, then swing of the hollow laminate door.
She came out of the restroom with her glasses still on, and she saw him straight away. She paused with a distinct uncertainty, removed the glasses, put ’em up in her hair, and twisted her generous mouth into a smirk. She came closer, and now he got a look at those deep brown expressive eyes, and he was hooked.
“You remind me of my uncle,” was what she said. “Same eyebrows.”
“Your uncle a swell guy?”
“One I’m thinkin’ about? Far from it.”
She took a quick detour to pick up her drink from one of the booths, and she brought it to the bar, sat two stools away from him but swiveled his way. The drink looked like a whiskey and soda.
“You live here?” she said. “Like, in this town?” As if to say, You’re kiddin’ me, right?
He shrugged. “For the time being.”
George came out of the back, did a little double-take, as if his joint was suddenly rip-roaring busy. He had a bald head, like completely bald, and a big ol’ compensating walrus mustache. His steely eyes let you know he took zero shit, and his beefy chest backed up that notion. Gray amateur tattoos up and down his arms, probably from prison at some point. Not something the two of them had ever talked about.
“Gimme one of those,” Floyd said, gesturing toward the girl’s glass.
“That’s Southern Comfort and 7-Up.”
“What?” Floyd laughed. “Never mind. How ’bout some of that cheap bourbon over ice?”
George went about his business, giving Floyd an encouraging glance now and then.
“Top shelf,” the girl commented.
When George set the drink down in front of him, Floyd took its measure and then a sip. He set it back and gave the girl a good look. She was staring right back at him.
“All right, first things first.” He was genuinely curious. “Why’d you turn back? Why on earth come back into this town after you’ve gotten past it? I gotta know.”
She took her own sip, her eyes never leaving his face. “When you gotta go, you gotta go.”
“You coulda let loose at the gas station. Makes more sense. They keep a surprisingly clean commode over there.”
“You always so charming?”
“You’re the one talkin’ piss.”
“Here’s to piss.” She raised her glass, and he met with his—clink.
“So you’re headed for the border,” he said.
“You running from something?”
“You get right to it, huh?”
“It’s a common question around these parts.”
“That so?” She took another sip, her legs bouncing as if to music, but George didn’t have any music playing. “You sayin’ I’m a cliché?”
“Are you running from something?” she countered. “Or should I say, hiding from something?”
“I guess we’re figuring each other out.”
She raised a shoulder. “What’s your name?”
“What of it?”
“How old are you?”
“You don’t get to choose your folks, unfortunately. Mine happened to love the country music.”
“I’m gonna order another drink while you explain that non-sequitur.”
She flagged down George, who was reading a paperback mystery down at the end of the bar. Floyd noticed that Tessa’s fingers were festooned with cheap rings.
“Believe it or not, that was a sequitur.” He frowned while she asked George for another sugar drink, waited for her to turn back to him. “Floyd Tillman? Honky tonk? Nothin’? He was big dog down here in the lone star state. Houston, San Antone ….”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know jack shit about Texas.”
“I know about good music.”
“Do you now?”
She didn’t say any more on the subject.
“I’ll tell you one thing about Texas,” he said. “It’s a big place.”
“You don’t have to tell me that. I think I’ve been driving across it for a week.”
“So how about your name?”
“Tessa Rae.” She laughed. “Origin unknown.”
George placed Tessa’s second drink in front of her almost daintily, went back to his perch. Floyd nursed his own and glanced outside as a huge ugly big rig rushed past, musta been doing fifty or sixty down the business route. He assumed long ago those long-haulers must have an agreement with the local law. The window vibrated, and glasses tinkled. Then nothing again, just the quiet seethe of the desert. He felt a warmth in his belly that wasn’t entirely due to the bourbon.
Last time he’d spoken a word to a pretty girl was probably a year earlier when he was in Little Rock, some joint famous for its cheese dip. She was a sweet little flirty college girl behind the counter. Christ, he couldn’t even remember her name anymore, and he knew it had been emblazoned on a tag over her left tit. For weeks, Floyd had been certain something was on the edge of happening, but nah, she was only engaging with him for the tips. Those wait girls, they knew how to string you along. Last time he’d been involved with a gal had been waaay too long ago. That had been Shirley from Oklahoma, the one who’d gone slowly batshit. He’d had to take the cowardly way out. Left without a word in the middle of the night, gone.
“Can’t believe anyone would wanna, like, exist in a place like this,” Tessa said, crunching an ice cube.
“Sometimes it ain’t by choice.”
“Oh, you’re here against your will?”
“Let’s just say circumstances can force a person’s hand.” He took a deep swallow of bourbon, and his own ice clinked against his front teeth.
“If it was me, I’d do everything in my goddamn power to get out. That’s all I’m saying.”
“Power’s what you make it.”
“Maybe that’s easy for someone like you to say.”
“Someone like me?”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You don’t know the first thing about me.”
“What I mean is—you’ve got some charms. You’re on the deep end of the gene pool. Power comes with that.”
She frowned at him and if not understanding him. “I see what you’re trying to do, but that kinda shit doesn’t work on me.”
“I’m looking at your clothes and your funky hair and your car, and I’m not exactly seeing a difficult life.” He kept his tone light, teasing her. “And, like I said, you know, you’re gorgeous.”
“Oh, whew, for a second there, I thought you might be a fucking prick.”
“No, you’re right, I am that.”
“Just as I was warming to you, too.”
Floyd finished up his drink, decided on another. He watched George fix him up.
“Anyway, I’m only here for a while,” he said. “Till I decide I need to move on.”
Tessa spun a half turn on her stool, put her back to the bar, draped her elbows on the hard wood. She seemed to be gazing with dull interest toward the framed historical photos on the opposite wall. Floyd had wandered over there a few weeks ago to check them out. They showed Malvado in its heyday, or what passed for a heyday in west Texas. The town had boomed in the early nineteen-oughts for about three seconds, thanks to a trio of enterprising mercury miners, before the amateur mine flooded and fell into ruin, along with mineral prices. The photos documented meager settlements with promising young well-dressed chaps all proud against a background of yellow dust, those misguided young Americans with their parched dreams, lost now to eternity, and the town now standing as a puttered-out testament to wrong-headedness.
“You dodged my question,” Floyd said, feeling the booze at his forehead. “You are making a run for the border.”
She turned her head to study him. “Guess so.”
“All righty then.” Then, emboldened, he said, “What are you doing that for?”
Yeah, the bourbon was starting to loosen him up. He watched her expression twitch. It was subtle, but he generally caught these things. She had something going on, something buried just under the surface.
“I’m sorry, do I know you?” she said. “Are we, like, sharing secrets now?”
Floyd put up his hands in surrender. “Just hate to see you go, is all.”
She half-turned, took a swallow of her sweet drink. “Well, that’s all I want, man—to get the fuck outta here. Outta this godforsaken country.”
“Seems to me the states could use more gals like you.”
“Like I said, Floyd, you don’t know me.”
“Maybe I’d like to.” He tried turning on the charm. He knew his best attributes were his whiskery smile and his eyes. That was just honesty, not bragging or nothing. He felt by sheer effort he could make his baby greens sparkle. “Maybe that’s why I’m sitting here.”
Sometimes the eyes and the smile worked, and sometimes they didn’t. His instinct told him at that moment his best features were failing him. All Tessa did was turn back to the bar and begin the process of finishing off her drink. In between swallows, she messed with her little turquoise purse, fresh and bright as if she’d just picked it up a couple days earlier in Santa Fe. Another instinct was shouting at him, something along the lines of this is wrong, you shouldn’t be encouraging this gal, you shouldn’t be getting involved with anyone, like Philip told you, just lay fuckin’ low and wait it out.
Tessa slapped down a couple bills and nodded at George, who didn’t notice until she announced, “I’m taking care of both of us.”
Then Tessa gave Floyd a look that was different from the looks she’d given him before.
“Where’s your place?”