A Harrow Tine In The Heart Literary Crime Short Fiction By Susan Kuchinskas

A Harrow Tine In The Heart: Literary Short Fiction By Susan Kuchinskas

Susan Kuchinskas, author of A Harrow Tine In The Heart, mashes genres with impunity in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s the author of two science fiction/detective novels, Chimera Catalyst and Singularity Syndrome. Her crime, science fiction and erotica has appeared in a variety of journals and zines, including Shotgun Honey, Rock and a Hard Place and Terror House.

*****

Mina Garcia sprawled across the floor of her tiny house like a thrift-store throw rug. One hand clutched the spike that was rammed into her chest. It looked like she’d died trying to pull it out.

I had Joshua Williams, the town fixer, on one side of me and Neeley Davis, the town addict, on the other. Not the best company, but they’d been nearby, they said, working on Joshua’s broke-down truck, and my scream had brought them running. Mina’s cattle dog, Punky, stood, legs braced, barking at us all.

Mina’s face looked like an uncooked pupusa, yellow-grey and damp. Her expression was agonized, eyes wide and staring.

I had Joshua Williams, the town fixer, on one side of me and Neeley Davis, the town addict, on the other.

“Call Bob,” Neeley said.

Of course. That’s the go-to for everything around here. Bob Paisley gets things done. Willie Wooten turned the tractor over on himself? Call Bob. Hannah’s goats are eating the grass at the Methodist church? Call Bob. But Mina Garcia lying in the middle of her tiny living room with a stake through her heart?

“That’s a harrow tine,” Neeley said.

“You know, you’re right,” said Joshua.

“What’s a—We should call the police. Like, right now,” I said.

Joshua and Neeley exchanged a look, that Spur telepathy I could never read. Then Joshua shook his head, a long, slow, weary shake. “Do what you want, Marlene. You always do.”

I assumed Joshua was referring to the Luke Bishop incident, something I was never going to live down. But I didn’t ask. I just called 911, told Chief Prebscott what was up and then got after my bees.

*****

It was a terrible windup to what was already a hard day. That morning, right after I’d finished up a conference call with my least favorite client, I’d gotten a call from Mike Elliot.

“Your bees have gotten loose again.”

This was one of those cute Texas-isms. Obviously, my bees go out every day to gather nectar and pollen. What he was talking about was a swarm.

“Fu … ooey,” I said, catching myself just in time. After almost a year in Spur, I was learning not to swear. It really ruffles some people.

I got in my pickup and drove over to the Elliot place, bringing a jar of my Heart of Texas honey. I still couldn’t decide if they saw my brand name as righteous pride or pathetic pandering. When I got there, Elliott was standing in the patch of scrubby dirt that passed for the front yard of his ranch house, looking at the sky. I knew he might have been standing there, contemplating the blue yonder, for an hour or more.

“They up and left,” he said.

“Did you see which way they went?”

“Thataway.” He gestured toward town.

I turned the truck around and headed into town—that is, the one-and-a-half square-miles of ragtag buildings centered around a couple blocks of mostly boarded-up redbrick storefronts from the 1910s.

Honeybee swarms are amazing. When a colony is big and healthy enough, it raises a new queen or two and sends the old queen out with a third of the colony to find a new home.

But that swarm was 30,000 of my bees. I wanted them back.

Besides, most people don’t think swarms are amazing. They’re scared to death of them, and they love to tell the story of that Waco farmer that got stung to death by killer bees. Mine are gentle; they’re mutts but mostly Italian. Nevertheless, I was trying really hard to be a good Spur citizen, and that meant not freaking people out. Plus, people still looked at me funny over the Luke Bishop thing.

As I drove slowly down Highway 70 into town, eyes peeled, Ashley Turner looked up from watering her hydrangeas to yell, “They’re on the Spur.”

I pulled into Allsups’ parking lot and eyeballed the parklet across the street, home of the 40-foot-high steel commemorative spur. To me, that’s Texas right there: Take something literally and then blow it up way out of proportion.

No bees.

The Spur was a lousy place for a big clump of bees to stick. They’d moved on.

Elroy Luckens came out of Allsups’ and gave me the evil eye. I waved merrily, my fallback in dealing with my not-fans.

I got back into the pickup and began to cruise the empty, wide-open streets of town. A swarm will settle anywhere, but shrubs and trees are the best spots because they provide multiple places for the bees to latch on. It would look like a pineapple, oblong, prickly and brown. That made it easier, since trees in Spur are sparse.

I found it in ten minutes—the amount of time it takes to cover the entire town. Hanging from a nice horizontal branch of an oak, it was ripe and round. Even better, it was in a vacant lot, so I wouldn’t have to make nice with a neighbor.

Across the street, Punky was barking outside Mina’s tiny house. “Good boy, Punky,” I yelled. But he just kept up. Bark, bark, bark. Whatever. I got my orchard ladder and my loppers out of the back of the truck and set the ladder right under the swarm. I put on my bee veil. Swarms are mellow; all they want to do is hang together. But having a swarm drop onto your head is not pleasant.

I got my cardboard Swarm Commander box and climbed the ladder. This was an easy one. With my left hand, I held the box up around the swarm. I used my other hand to give the branch a hard shake. The mass of bees fell into the box with a thump. A couple more shakes and I had all but a few stragglers inside. I flicked the rest into the box with my finger.

I put the lid on the box and climbed down, setting the box on the ground. I’d leave it there until twilight. As the scout bees returned, they’d smell their sisters inside the box and join them.

All the time, Punky was barking. “Geez, Punks, give it a rest.” He wasn’t barking at me, though. He was standing right outside Mina’s door, nosing the crack and scrabbling at the wood. I walked over. Mina wouldn’t mind if I let him in.

The dog whined, shaking with anxiety. He pushed in as soon as I cracked the door open, sending it wide enough for me to see Mina lying on the floor, the spike protruding from her chest.

Yeah, I’d screamed. Anyone would have.

*****

I went back to get my swarm as the sky was purpling up. My bee box was quiet, all bees safely tucked away inside for the night. I closed the entrance with a rag, tightened up the straps around it and gently placed it in the bed of my truck.

I eyed Mina’s little house, now wrapped in yellow police tape. There was no sign of Punky, but I wasn’t worried. Someone would have taken him in.

When I got home, Jim Prebscott and Joshua Williams were waiting for me. I’d been expecting Chief Prebscott, but seeing Joshua annoyed me. He’s always up in everyone’s business—but in my view, he had no place in an official police investigation. Even with my brief time in Spur, I knew better than to say anything.

I nodded to the chief, ignoring his sidekick. I really wanted to get the bees off my truck and into position in my yard.

“Just a couple questions, Marlene,” he said, that old-boy manner disguising his penetrating mind.

“Sure thing, chief.”

He put a foot up on the bumper of my pickup and darted a glance at Joshua. “Why were you at Mina’s anyway?”

“I wasn’t.”

“Uh—”

“I was across the road, chasing some of my bees. I heard Punky barking so I thought I’d let him in.”

“You were inside when we got there,” Joshua put in.

“What? You think I ran in, stabbed her and then screamed?”

“Calm down, now,” Prebscott sighed. “No need to get to horn-tossin.”

“Where would I even get a, a harrow tine?”

His eyes narrowed. “How’d you know it was a harrow tine?”

“Neeley said so. Or maybe Joshua.” I looked to him for corroboration, got nothing.

“Harrow tines are like litter around here,” Prebscott muttered.

“And why? Why would I want to stab Mina?”

Prebscott shrugged, like, who knows why you crazy women do anything. Subtext.

“There’s nothing else I can tell you.”

The chief straightened up and did that pants-adjusting thing men around here use as punctuation in conversations. “Awwright, then. You’re not planning any trips, are you?”

“You can’t be serious,” I said.

“Just sayin.”

As he followed the chief back to the prowl car, Joshua shot me a look. Another look I couldn’t figure out. I scowled in return and hoisted the bees out of the truck bed.

I was steaming. I took a few deep breaths of sweet air to calm myself. I feel like the bees can smell my emotions; maybe it’s just a jitter in the way I handle them when I’m upset.

The Texas plains is a challenging place for honey bees. There’s plenty of nothing around here. Spring is fat city, with the bluebonnets and Indian paint brush. But the colonies need to build up their stores in just a couple of months before the summer dearth starts. I hoped this swarm would stay put and focus on bringing in the nectar. In the fall, I’d combine it with its mother hive.

My hands were steady but my heart was pumping as I gently placed the hive on a stand in my back field. Sure, it made sense the chief would want to talk to me again. But there was that subtext—the same subtext I’d been getting ever since I came to this unpromising town.

I’d yearned for a quiet, friendly place to nurse my wounds. The double whammy of getting passed over for the VP of marketing job and my boyfriend of nine years leaving me because we “weren’t going anywhere” made me ready to go anywhere. Spur was trying to reinvent itself as a tech-friendly, tiny-house community. I’d figured I could help reinvent the town and myself at the same time.

Instead, all I’d gotten was a lot of bless-your-hearts and okaaaays and God’s a possums. The Bishop incident hadn’t helped.

I was very new to town at the time, just a few weeks since I’d pulled into Spur, stopped to ogle the giant spur and drove up to the little 1930s frame house on the edge of town I’d rented sight-unseen. I’d already pulled the peeling linoleum off the floors and painted them all sky blue. I’d planted a small garden patch, and the bees, having survived the trip from Phoenix, were buzzing. I’d gotten the internet, and my cell phone worked. I was feeling myself.

So when I heard about the community dance, I figured it was time to get to know my neighbors.

I’d dressed carefully, aiming for nice-looking but not sexy, a sleeveless dress and sandals with medium heels. Makeup is not my thing, but I was clean and brushed. Ready for my first Texas party.

It was going great. The DJ played a mix of standards and danceable country music. A few guys had asked me to dance. The women eyed me with amiable speculation. I deftly turned down invitations to step outside for something stronger than beer.

Then I saw Luke Bishop. He didn’t look like that much at first, sitting on the sidelines in a wheelchair. But those blue eyes held a spark. I asked him to dance, and it was fun, me circling him, giving him an occasional hip bump, him wheeling toward me and away, moving his shoulders to the beat. I was half in love by the end of the first dance.

The foolish story I told myself was that he’d languished unappreciated in this tiny town until I’d arrived to appreciate him. I found out a couple of things. One, he was a dog. He played out that fantasy for any woman who stumbled into this wasted town. And two, he currently belonged to a woman named Rene Beatty.

I found this out when a manicured claw grabbed me off Luke’s lap and hurled me to the floor. The woman I later learned was Rene loomed over me, blinking away tears clotted with mascara while brandishing a long-neck beer bottle. Beer sprayed all over me, Luke and a few of the folks edging in around us like they were fixing to watch a cock fight.

I scrabbled to my feet and threw an arm up to defend myself from that beer bottle, but the woman flung herself onto Luke, slapping his face and then kissing it. I felt a masculine arm come around me protectively, but I flung it off and blindly made for the door. I bolted out into the parking lot. A few steps past the porch, there was a squeal of tires then a huge crash.

A Toyota Tundra had T-boned a cherry-red Dodge Ram. That Ram was a beauty, lifted, with a custom metal-flake paint job, an illuminated grille and outsized tires. A collective gasp went up at the injury to this work of art. The driver of the Tundra got out, shook his head and then pointed at me.

“She ran right in front of me.”

You’d think they’d have blamed Rene Beatty for starting it, and maybe some did. But I became that smart-ass, full-of-herself, no-consideration Woman from the City.

Luke and Rene didn’t last long. But when Luke began trying to hold my gaze when we passed each other at the IGA or somewhere, I’d give him a brisk “hey” and move right along.

*****

Two nights after Mina’s death, I was kicked back on my porch, on my second bourbon, watching the last of the forager bees drop out of the sunset sky like shooting stars. The whole town was distraught over the killing, but right then, I felt at peace with the world.

Tires on the gravel brought me around to the front, where I saw Neeley pulled up in his decrepit Volvo wagon, Punky riding shotgun. The dog barreled over his lap as he opened the car door and dashed toward me, butt wagging.

I leaned down, and the dog wriggled against me like he was trying to get every part of his body in contact with mine. I petted him, not sure why I was getting the big greeting. I was always good for a head scratch when I saw him, but we weren’t close friends.

“You got a way with dogs,” Neeley said. His eyes looked jittery.

“What’s up, Neeley?”

“Just checkin on you.”

“I’m good, thanks.”

Neeley’s supposed to be harmless, but he made me nervous. I didn’t ask him to sit down, so we just stood there for a bit. Punky gave up licking my hands and went off to nose around. I broke down first.

“So you’re taking care of Punky?

“So far. Mina’s relations will be down day after tomorrow. They’ll probably take him.” His red eyes got cagey. He moved closer to me. I stepped back. “Hey, you wouldn’t be able to hold him till then, would you?”

“No way. Sorry. I’m not a dog person.” Not true, but a good-enough excuse. I’d come out here to get away from stuff, not accumulate it.

“No harm in asking, right?” The setting sun gave him an ominous squint. “Anyway … just wondering. What-all did you see at Mina’s?”

The question chilled me. “What do you mean? I saw what you saw. You were right next to me.”

“I mean before. You were there across the street.”

“Neeley. I was getting my swarm. I heard Punky barking, so I went over. And you and Joshua were right there with me.” I glared. He avoided my eyes. “I didn’t see anything you didn’t see. Okay?”

He took a step back. “No worries, Marlene. I was just wondering.”

I called for Punky and he came scampering, thrilled to be noticed. “I’ve got some stuff to do, Neeley. Thanks for stopping by.”

“My pleasure,” he said, with a bit more innuendo than I liked.

“And don’t forget the dog.”

*****

It was a gorgeous April morning. The bees were buzzing with excitement over the bluebonnet bloom. Next month, the scarlet bee blossoms would open their petals. I was halfway done with my first contract project, researching the economics of maker spaces for a community college. Life was good.

I decided to take myself out for lunch at the Turnaround Café. It’s a tiny place in a former gas station and has the kind of charm I’d actually expected more of in Spur. Two of the four tables were empty. I chose the one in the corner. Clarissa came right over and I ordered a cheeseburger with fried potato wedges. Oh, yeah.

“Did you hear?” she asked.

“No, what.”

“Chief Prebscott solved the murder.”

“Already? How?”

Clarissa leaned closer, avid with excitement. “It was a drifter. A real criminal type. They picked him up in Georgia.”

How convenient, I thought. I said, “Well, that’s a relief. I guess.”

“Sure is.”

I was head-down over my food, reading the Arizona Republic on my phone, when Joshua Williams walked in with Bibi Verma, Ted Walton and Mack Sanchez. Bibi is our banker, Walton’s a realtor and Sanchez is a contractor over in Dickens.

I didn’t want to listen to their conversation—Joshua is a bloviator—but I couldn’t help it.

“They don’t know anything,” Joshua said. “All they could talk about was how small the house was.”

They must have been talking about Mina’s relatives, in town to take care of her property. Her house was indeed small. It was officially a “tiny house,” part of a trend that Spur had hoped to use to attract new people to the town and fill some of our vacant lots. The idea is to live more simply and use less resources. A five-hundred-square-foot home is also a lot cheaper than your standard ranch house.

“So, what are you thinking?” Bibi asked him.

Joshua smirked. “Thirty thousand bucks.”

“No way.”

“Listen. They’re just her distant cousins, out of Houston. All they wanna do is get out of here as fast as they can.”

“But it’s worth—”

“It’s worth exactly what someone wants to take for it.”

He and Sanchez snickered into their Cokes.

So this was clearly some kind of power meeting among Spur’s elite. Joshua is one of Spur’s true old-timers, bred and buttered, as he likes to tell you. He sees himself as riding herd on the town and the townsfolk.

For example, just when the tiny home thing was taking off here, Joshua decided it was attracting too many alternative types, so he got the city aldermen riled up about an invasion of hippies and nudists. They passed a bunch of rules to keep out undesirables who might want to build yurts or straw-bale houses.

Now, he was scheming to buy Mina’s tiny house for a rock-bottom price. It was a sweet little cottage, as tight and well-organized as a yacht. But there’s still not a lot going on around here. I wasn’t sure he’d be able to flip it at much of a profit.

And not a word about poor, dead Mina. I knew she and Joshua weren’t buddies. She was a relentless booster of the simple living thing, always sniping at people for using the air conditioner or watering the lawn. But, still. I wondered if I should tell Chief Prebscott what I heard.

Not my business, I reminded myself. I paid the bill and left, giving their table a general “hey.”

*****

When I got home, Punky was sitting on my front porch. I love dogs, but I was not in the market for one of my own. He gave me a wildly enthusiastic greeting, and jumped into my lap when I sat down to pet him.

I checked him over and he looked fine. But he was thirsty as hell. I called Neeley to come get him. No answer. I texted Joshua, who replied, “No idea.”

So, I called Bob.

Bob can be elusive. He’s always out taking care of something for somebody, and his range extends way past Dickens. But he picked up.

“Bob, it’s Marlene. I can’t find Neeley and his dog is here.”

“Neeley doesn’t have a dog.”

“Mina’s dog. He’s supposed to be taking care of it.”

“Well, just hold onto it. Neeley will turn up.”

“The dog just showed up here. Something isn’t right.”

“Has anyone ever told you to mind your own bees-ness?”

I rolled my eyes. “Like, a million times.”

“Just give it a biscuit or something and stop tweaking.”

“Can you check on Neeley?”

Bob sighed. Bob is legendary around here. He’s supposedly a former SEAL, former FBI man, or maybe the CIA. Chief Prebscott may be the law, but Bob is The Man. “I’m on my way to the Zedler place. They’ve got a breach birth going on.”

I sighed back. “Okay, Bob. Thanks anyway.” I knew he meant a cow or horse was giving birth, not a woman. One of the few things Bob doesn’t do is midwifing.

I grabbed my car keys. “Come on, Punky, let’s go.”

He jumped into the car with me, but when we pulled up in front of Neeley’s trailer, he started whining and turning circles on the seat. “Oh, come on.” I grabbed his collar and pulled him out.

Neeley’s trailer was a true eyesore, the opposite of Mina’s neat little home. The main part of it was a 1970s mobile, its white-and-turquoise color scheme fading into rust. A rough lean-to made of unpainted plywood popped out from the front. Piles of lumber in the yard were overgrown with weeds, and the plastic lawn chairs in front were dangerously cracked.

I gave my horn—the country doorbell—a quick beep. Nothing stirred. Punky hung back by the car, so I let him. The front door was so loose that it produced a rattle instead of a knock. Still nothing. I thought about tying Punky up and leaving him. But he looked so unhappy to be there, and who knew when Neeley would get home?

I was about to turn away, resigned to having a short-term pet, when I heard a faint thump from inside. “Neeley? You in there?” No answer.

I really did not want to enter Neeley’s drug den, but I was more worried about getting attached to Punky. The door wasn’t locked. I pushed it open.

The odor was unholy. Years of cigarettes, spilled booze, unwashed man with an undertone of shit. I took a deep breath through my mouth and held it.

The place was dark. One small window was covered up by an air conditioner; the other had a disintegrating grey curtain. Stuff was all over the floor. I tripped on a pair of work boots, put out a hand to catch myself and found I was clutching a pile of filthy clothes piled on the arm of a sofa.

I heard a rustling and then, clearly, a moan. “Neeley?” I called. “You in here? You okay?”

I turned on the flashlight on my phone, revealing a slovenly scene. To my left was a short hallway with an open door at the end. I walked down and entered a bedroom. Neeley was lying naked on a mattress on the floor, the single twisted sheet thankfully hiding his man parts.

He looked like a corpse, but he was breathing.

“Are you okay?” Stupid question.

“Water,” he gasped.

I went back to the kitchenette, grabbed a cloudy jam jar and filled it with rusty water from the sink. His hand fumbled weakly at the glass, so I had to kneel down in the mess of dirty laundry and hold it for him. He took a sip and then passed out again.

“Jesus Christ.”

I turned off the flashlight, having seen plenty, and called 911.

It was a long twenty minutes before the paramedics arrived from Dixon. I spent the time patting his cheek, trying to keep him awake.

“Heroin overdose,” said the medic with the long ponytail as he pulled off the sheet and injected Neeley in the shoulder. As he roughly rubbed Neeley’s sternum, Neeley convulsed and took a shuddering breath.

I watched as they bundled him onto a stretcher. The pony-tailed medic tripped on the way out the door and almost dropped Neeley. They roared off, siren wailing.

Punky was still sitting by the car. He looked at me hopefully.

“Okay, you can stay with me. Just for a while.”

The medic had tripped over a cardboard box, spilling its contents. I reflexively bent to clean it up. It looked like a bunch of rocks. With all the rocks outside, why would you bring a box of them into the house? I hefted one, noticing its odd shape. It was almost like a vertebra, but as big as a baseball. Kneeling, I switched my phone flash back on. They were fossils. A strange thing for Neeley to have.

I called Bob.

“Didja find Neeley okay?”

“I found him but he was almost dead. They said it was a heroin overdose.”

“Who said?”

“The paramedic. I called 911.”

“Neeley doesn’t do heroin. That’s bullshit.”

“I don’t think so. They gave him a shot and he kind of revived.”

Bob swore as only a true Texan can.

“There’s something else kind of weird,” I said. “I found a box of fossils in his trailer.”

“Damnation. Marlene, go home. Please. As soon as I clean up, I’m gonna get Jim Prebscott and take a look.”

******

I stopped at the IGA to buy dog food, bowing to the inevitable.

“Do they ever find fossils around here?” I asked Patty as I checked out.

“Sure enough. They’ve found dinosaur bones in these parts.”

“No kidding.”

“A kid over in Nolan County found one, and it was worth a million dollars.”

“No sh—ucks.”

“For real. Why?”

“Oh, just wondering.”

I headed home. I really needed to add another box to the beehive so the new queen would have more room to lay and they wouldn’t swarm again. But I was shaky from seeing Neeley almost die. The bees would sense it, and I wasn’t in the mood to get stung.

Instead, I got a beer and pulled a lawn chair up near the hive. Watching the foragers come in, their legs fat with yellow globs of pollen, chilled me right out. I had another beer, and another, watching another fabulous sunset turn everything gold.

I fed Punky, ate a sausage and half a package of frozen broccoli, and settled into the couch for some binge-watching. “Oh, all right,” I told Punky, and he climbed up and laid his nose in my lap. “But I’m not keeping you.”

The dog woke me deep in the night, barking hysterically. I started up and heard breaking glass in my bedroom. I scrabbled for my phone, but before I found it, a hard hand grabbed my throat and pulled me back, off-balance. Another hand covered my mouth and nose, cutting off my air. Punky growled and then yelped. I heard him hit the wall. I kicked back hard and connected, heard a grunt.

The hand loosened enough for me to get my footing. I rammed my elbow back into my attacker’s solar plexus, and he let go. I whirled around. It was Joshua.

“Joshua! Are you crazy?”

“Shut up.” He was on me again, both hands around my neck, one foot kicking Punky away.

“Don’t hurt him,” I tried to say, but I had no breath. I was blacking out. I was going down.

*****

I woke up with a blinding headache. I was lying on my bed, on top of the covers. The weight on my left foot was Punky. The form in the chair across the room was Bob.

I groaned, and he got up and came over to the bed. His eyes were so kind I wanted to cry.

“You don’t have to worry,” he said. “Chief Prebscott has Joshua in custody.”

“Why—?”

“I talked to Neeley, got him to tell me everything. He’s a good man, deep down. Joshua and Neeley found the fossils when they were doing some foundation work for Mina. There was one big jaw bone that should be worth a lot of money. By rights, they belonged to Mina.”

“He killed Mina over some fossils?”

“Yeah, maybe a million dollars’ worth. And he tried to get rid of Neeley, too.”

“Why me?”

“I think he’d been keeping an eye on Neeley’s to make sure whatever he dosed him with did its job. He saw you coming out of there and decided not to take chances.”

“How’d you end up here?”

“The chief was on the lookout for Joshua, and I figured I should keep an eye on you.”

I lay back, overwhelmed. Punky moved to cuddle next to me, and I dug my fingers into his warm fur.

“I can’t thank you enough,” I told Bob.

“Aw, no worries. In Spur, we take care of our own.”

*****

If you’ve enjoyed A Harrow Tine in the Heart, you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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