The only thing more jacked up than the enormous emerald pendant in Joe Newby’s right hand was the fact that he was completely naked from the waist down. Wherever Newby had come from, he had acquired a priceless gemstone and lost his pants and underwear in the transaction.

“Take a picture,” he snarled. “It lasts longer.”

Baldwin averted his eyes, tried to look at the sky, at the ground, anywhere but at Newby’s hairy whiteness. He finally settled on a dent in the truck, just over Newby’s shoulder.

“Why you so quiet?” Newby kept fiddling with the emerald and then himself.

“You need to get some pants on,” Baldwin said, keeping his eyes on the dent.

“Husband came home. Didn’t exactly have time.”

Baldwin nodded at the emerald. “Where’d you get that thing?”

“The devil hisself.” Newby smiled and lost himself in the sparkle of the pendant as he worried the stone with his thick fingers.

Suddenly Baldwin realized something else wasn’t right. The more he obsessed over the emerald, the more it became apparent to Baldwin that Joe Newby was cranked out of his mind.

Baldwin was all too familiar with the grinding teeth and wild empty eyes. He had been a tweaker himself back when he worked at the refinery in Port Arthur. He and his factory buddies had taken pool chemicals and Sudafed and made the stuff in their bathtubs to sell, and one by one they had each gotten hooked. They would take too much and stay awake for a solid week, fix cars all afternoon, mow yards at midnight, play horseshoes at dawn. Baldwin served time for the homemade lab, and during that year in prison got clean. But the pull of that evil stuff was still with him. It was always there, a lover breathing hot on his neck. Even now he caught himself wondering if Newby had more and what it’d take to get him to share.

“I need your help.” Newby’s hands shook violently as he tried to put the emerald in his shirt pocket.

“It’s time for me to go, man.”

Newby quietly walked behind his truck, opened the passenger door, shut it, and walked back around to Baldwin, waving a .357 Magnum.

“Your son’s inside,” Baldwin said, as if that strange boy with his SpongeBob doll might keep Newby from doing something stupid.

“Just shut up and get in the truck.”

“Come on, Joe. Don’t do this.”

“I said get in the goddamned truck!”

Baldwin did as he was told, and the two drove off, down the red dirt road, fishtailing to and fro, leaving bitter clouds of orange dust in their wake.

Newby’s sister’s name was Belly.

“That’s her real name,” he told Baldwin as they drove.


“Means ‘beautiful’ in Italian.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Baldwin actually found himself laughing a little.

“Oh, so now you’re an expert on Italy?”

“No, I’m just saying that ‘belly’ doesn’t mean ‘beautiful.’”

“Don’t make fun of my sister, asshole.” Newby pointed the gun at Baldwin’s head.

“I’m not. Jesus. Put the gun down. I’m not.”

“My sister knows things, things I can’t even begin to explain.”

Belly Newby wore too much eye makeup and lived right off the highway in a very nice trailer with a red neon palm in front and a sign that said “Psychic. Knows All. Tells All.” She read palms for $20 and tarot cards for $50, and starting at the bargain price of $100, she could light candles to return lost lovers or remove hateful curses. Or at least that’s what it said on the sign in the fancy gold frame hanging over her television.

She greeted Newby and Baldwin as if they had come to her place for a party. Despite the fact that her brother’s penis was hanging out, she hugged both their necks and even smacked Baldwin on the lips. Baldwin could taste the French onion dip and potato chips she had been eating. She didn’t seem to care that her brother wasn’t wearing any pants or that he had a hostage at gunpoint. Nope, Belly Newby was all smiles and winks and pats on the back and kisses on the lips.

“Joe-Joe, I already got the hot water running for you in the bathtub. There’s OxyContin and Ambien in the medicine cabinet.” She took a long, thirsty swig from her bottle of Diet Coke and then a couple of quick puffs off her cigarette, one of those long brown ones.

“Keep an eye on our friend here,” he said, offering her the piece.

“I don’t need that.”

“Take it!” His eyes flared.

Belly took the Magnum and waved it a little at Baldwin.

Baldwin quickly stepped to, which in turn made Belly giggle and wave the gun at him even more.

“It’s not a toy!” Newby barked.

“I know that!” She snapped back. “Why don’t you go get a bath and let me do my thing?”

Newby clumsily took off his shirt as he made his way to the bathroom at the end of the dark and narrow hall.

Belly sighed and smiled at Baldwin. She put the gun in the waistband of her warm-up pants. Baldwin wondered if she knew that the gun didn’t have a safety and that stuffing it down her drawers like that, she was likely to shoot herself in the leg.

“You like chocolate gravy?” she asked.

“Chocolate gravy?” Baldwin couldn’t help but make an ugly face.

“It’s Bisquick and Hershey’s syrup. I was making it for the boy. Thought for sure y’all’d be bringing him.”

“Joe left him at the house.”

“I told him that baby’s too young to be left alone like that.” She shook her head and chewed on her cuticles. “And now I got all this chocolate gravy on the stove and no one to eat it.”

“Shouldn’t you have seen that coming?” Baldwin said without smiling. “You know, being a psychic and all.”

“Oh, you’re one of those?” She rolled her eyes and sucked her teeth. “You’re gonna prove to me that I’m nothing special? That I’m just some kind of fake? That what you plan to do, Clay Baldwin? ’Cause I got my brother’s gun, and I will blow your balls off if you disrespect me like that.”

She held his gaze with crazy eyes that proved to Baldwin beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would indeed blow his balls off if he pressed her. Maybe she was a meth-head like her brother. Or worse, she came by it naturally.

“Are we clear?” Now she was the one not smiling.

“It was just a joke, all right?”

“You don’t come in my house disrespecting my gifts.”

“Hey, I’m sorry. Honest.” He gave her a weak smile.

“Well, you’re lucky that the cards chose you, because I really am not liking your attitude so far.”

“I just want to find my car and get out of here.” Baldwin shook his head. “If you let me go, I won’t tell anyone. I swear.”

“Now, now. You’re in this whether you like it or not. I saw you in the cards, and they told me you’d be the one. You’d be the emerald mule.”

“You’re crazy if you think I’m sticking that thing up my ass.”

“You’re the mule that will save us all,” she sighed.

“Jesus Christ, lady, just let me go before Joe gets out of the bath. Come on.”

Belly closed her eyes. Baldwin counted five colors painted on her eyelids: pink, blue, green, brown, and yellow.

“Her name was Trisha, and she wore purple contact lenses,” she said.


“The girl. The girl you knew at the refinery. Her name was Trisha Sanchez, and she wore colored contacts ’cause she hated her own eyes. She had your baby while you were locked up. A girl. But you didn’t know that, now did you?”

“What are you?” Baldwin felt like he had just been punched in the face.

“Why don’t you sit down and I’ll fix you a bowl of chocolate gravy?” Belly guided Baldwin over to a white velvet easy chair. She pushed him down into his seat and went into the kitchen. There was a pink label sewed across the butt of Belly Newby’s sweatpants and it said “Juicy.”

Next month:

Chapter Six, by Harry Hunsicker, in which Baldwin gets reacquainted with a certain deputy sheriff.