Low Hanging Fruit

— Bryce Carlson

Shot of George Dickel rye.

Glass of the Malbec.

Tap water, no ice.

It was the best way Roman could muster spending his first night in Temecula, a place he didn’t particularly care for. Too hot, weird vibe, more ugly folks than lookers. A sweaty SoCal armpit nestled between Riverside and Escondido. He wasn’t there by choice.

“What brings you into town?” asked the scrawny, ponytailed lifer behind the wood-veneered bar, which was meant to look vintage but had obviously just been refinished.

Roman stared down the shot of Dickel and made Ponytail wait a second before giving him an honest answer. “Business.”

Arson had brought Roman to Temecula. Murder was keeping him there.

Out off Highway 79, an old abandoned house had mysteriously burned up the week before. Local law had a hunch it was a serial arson—there seemed to be quite a few forgotten pieces of property going up in flames as of late—so they called in Roman to help out with the investigation. He had other business in Phoenix so it took him a week to tie up some loose ends and make the drive, but he didn’t realize what he was walking into.

They had found a charbroiled corpse in the basement.

Ironically, the scorched real estate wasn’t what burned the teenage John Doe to a crisp. It was actually the Doe that started the fire. In a manner of speaking. He wasn’t the arsonist—just the starter log. Someone, who was still out there somewhere, had tied the boy up, doused his body in gasoline, and lit a match.

Sheriff suspected it was a ritual killing, one of a few that had recently popped up under the radar in Riverside County. He connected some dots and was convinced there was some kind of satanic human sacrifice conspiracy.

Roman didn’t know much about setting young boys on fire or serial killing or devil worship. But one thing he did know a bit about was solving problems. That was the business he was in. Some weeks it brought him to the Pacific Northwest, working security detail. Other weeks he provided intimidation to make sure friends of friends across the southern border were doing what they were supposed to. Private investigator, wheelman, enforcer, strategist, you name it. Roman was a journeyman fixer who always got the job done. And that’s why he was holed up in Temecula, a place he didn’t particularly care for.

The Dickel went back smooth and finished off with just the right amount of bite. Roman always made sure to cleanse his palate before diving into a glass of wine. He wasn’t a savage. The Malbec was good but it wasn’t wine that brought Roman to the little vineyard whose pretentious name he couldn’t remember.

It was the women.

Cool air drifted in from outside as the sun finished setting and things started to pick up. Roman ran a hand over his mustache and tossed back some more of the Malbec as he surveyed the room. Empty conversations tangled with booze-induced laughter, providing a much more interesting soundtrack than the obligatory Beethoven or Mozart that dripped out of the house speakers. Roman was more of a jazz man and didn’t particularly care for rustic décor, but this had been the first place he spotted off the highway. It wasn’t ideal but it took his mind off charred flesh.

The crowd was mixed but showed potential. He skipped over stupidly happy community college girls, who were most likely never going to graduate, and anyone who looked young enough to be his kid. Roman was hunting cougars, women old enough to be his contemporaries, who knew what they wanted and what to do with it when they got it. Young girls were for the birds. There wasn’t a pair of perky tits or handful of tight trim that could hold a torch to decades of real experience.

Cougars were easy prey, especially later in the night after a clash of young bucks had rejected them. Roman knew exactly what they wanted and how to give it to them after they’d been taken down a peg.

He lipped the last of the Malbec off his whiskers and slammed the water.

Shot of George Dickel rye.

Glass of the Pinot Noir.

Tap water, no ice.

There was a petite brunette in the corner waiting for someone to notice her. Thin hair, mousy, black jeans, and either a fake rack or the good Lord showing off again. Roman could have benchpressed her with one arm, but he wasn’t interested. She didn’t smile. Didn’t reveal so much as a hint of personality. Roman had no time for dead fish. He needed a real woman.

The Dickel burned good and pointed Roman at the tall, bleached blonde B cup sitting at a window table. She had a full chassis, with legs that looked like they could break him in half. She could have been a contender but it would have taken too much effort to navigate around the chubby girlfriend nursing a warm beer next to her.

The Pinot paled next to the Malbec. Not enough body—much like the shorthaired spray tan monstrosity sitting next to him. Years of hard living added an extra twenty years. She looked like she had been cooked in a fire. That made Roman think about work. He hit the Pinot again.

“How’s the Pinot?” said a soft, low voice.

Roman brought his glass down, turned, and gave his mustache a brush. She wasn’t bad. About a head shorter than him, long auburn hair, good skin. Her early forties cyclist ass stuck out as she leaned over the bar waiting for an answer. Roman would have bounced a quarter off it if he were the kind of guy who carried change.

He sipped the Pinot and beat Ponytail to the punch, “Not as good as the Malbec.”

She met his eyes with a suppressed laugh. “Oh yeah?”

“Sure, I mean if you’re looking for something with a full body.”

That laugh made it all the way out; the cyclist forgot about the bartender who had already moved on to someone else.

Roman spun the Pinot. “Too fruity, really young. Needs a couple more years before it knows what it’s doing.”

“What would you suggest?”

That was when he noticed the wedding ring. Son of a bitch.

Her smile waned as Roman avoided eye contact and dug his hand into the left front pocket of his crisp, cuffed blue jeans. He gulped the rest of the Pinot, pulled out his naked black cell phone, and didn’t have to say a word. With a subtle gesture of the phone and a sincere head cock, Roman was off the hook, leaving the cyclist alone to make bad decisions by herself.

By the time he hit the other side of the bar, Roman was thirsty again.

Shot of George Dickel rye.

Glass of the Cab Franc.

Tap water, no ice.

The Dickel was gone just as fast as it came; hunting season was in full swing. He wasn’t going to waste his time with the purple-streaked blonde sitting next to him, not when there was a sultry ginger peach standing alone in front of the brick wall façade. Poorly painted grapevines sprawled out from behind her, making Ginger look like some kind of unfermented goddess.

Could have been the Dickel, or could have been that he finally found a winner, but Cab Franc had never tasted so good. Roman figured he wouldn’t have time for another drink but if he did, he knew which way he was leaning.

Ginger’s hair had just the right amount of wave to it. Reminded Roman of a bearskin rug that had just been thrown in front of a fireplace. Her ivory flesh popped against her skintight green dress. Long legs, big lips, manicured fingertips. Ginger wanted to be noticed and Roman was happy to oblige. But he wasn’t the only one.

Some dumb bastard in a white cowboy hat was trying to be a hero but it was obvious Ginger wasn’t going to bite. She gave a courtesy smile as her eyes wandered the room, begging for help. Roman decided to let her sweat it out a little bit. She finally had to look that sad Roy Rogers runt in the face while he desperately tried to make small talk. It seemed like a fool’s errand but then the edges of Ginger’s big, beautiful raspberry mouth started to perk up. Whatever the good old boy said seemed to change the tide, and that’s when Roman heard it.

She had tits like magic but a laugh that could peel paint off a Volkswagen. The Cab Franc was Roman’s only consolation. He closed his eyes and twisted around to slump over the bar. When he opened them, all he saw was the color purple.

“So what do you do?” were the first words out of those little violet lips.

Roman laughed louder than he thought. He stretched his head to the left and that was the last time he took his eyes off her. “Really?”

Her little turnip nose wrinkled in unison with her light brown eyebrows. “No, never mind. I wanna guess.”

“Have at it.”

“Plumber.”

Roman broke a smile and sipped the Cab Franc.

“Bible salesman.”

“You caught me.”

“No, wait. I got it…” she said, biting her lip.

“Do your worst, Violet.”

The hum of the ceiling fans seemed to slow as she crossed her legs. Purple streaks danced around her mouth as she stared into Roman’s eyes, sipping white wine.

“You’re not from around here,” she said.

“That obvious?”

“You’re not visiting either. You’re here because you have to be.”

Roman smirked.

She wasn’t done. “Jack of all trades, master of none. You like wine, but not as much as you like whiskey, and in your off-hours you post up at the closest watering hole to do what you do best. How’m I doing?”

“Son of a bitch…”

She smiled. “And you know how to talk to a lady.”

“Talk is cheap. But it sure is fun.” He couldn’t help it; her smile was contagious. “Guess it’s my turn. I’d put you as some kind of psychologist, probably somewhere in the world of criminal law. You did at least some kind of behavioral studies while you were in school, which I’ll wildly assume was not in Temecula. It’s obvious you like a good mystery and I bet it’s not often you find a nut you can’t crack. Now, what I can’t nail down exactly is what you’re doing in a place like this… But I sure am glad you’re here.”

Her lips puckered as her smile turned serious. “I’m here doing the exact same thing as you, Slick. Just trying to take my mind off work long enough so I can take down some easy prey.”

“You’re all right, Violet.” Roman realized he still had some Cab Franc left and took care of it.

“I try. So what do you actually do? For work,” she said, motioning Ponytail for another round.

“I solve problems.”

“That’s a good skill to have. What kind of problems bring you to Temecula?”

Roman watched his wine glass fill up. He stared into the deep reds and dark purples churning around each other, a wicked free flow of fire and blood. “I’m looking for someone…”

“You know I’m not actually interested in what you do, right? I only asked because it’s what two forty-somethings are supposed to talk about before they leave a place like this together.”

“I like your style.” Roman laughed. “But I gotta ask, what’s with the purple hair?”

“You don’t like it?”

“No, it’s great. And different.”

“There you go. It’s different.”

“Fair enough.”

Cheers were made. Wine was drunk. Laughs were had. A good hour passed before Violet finally made her move.

“Can you give me a ride home?”

“That depends. You think that’s a good idea?”

“No. But it’s not the worst one I’ve had tonight.”

“Well then, I think I can help you out.” Roman worked on the tap water, no ice. “What about your car?”

“I don’t drive. I have a friend who usually drops me off and picks me up, but tonight her nine-months-pregnant sister decided it was the best time to go into labor.”

“What a bitch.” Roman snickered.

That made her laugh. “Tell me about it. You sure it’s no trouble?”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s all kinds of trouble but I’ve never let that stop me. Plus, it wouldn’t be my first time making up for some pregnant woman’s shortcomings.”

Roman wasn’t going to wait for the check so he threw a hundred dollar bill on the bar and stood up. It was probably too much but he didn’t care.

Violet wrapped herself up in a light coat and grabbed her purse. Her big brown eyes stared up at Roman, “Thank you.”

“No problem. Where’m I taking you?”

“Murrieta. Just up the 79 a little ways.”

He had been there less than twenty-four hours and already Roman had a perfect excuse to get the hell out of Temecula, a place he didn’t particularly care for. Though, he had to admit, it was starting to grow on him.

 

 

Bryce Carlson (@brycercarlson) is the Managing Editor of BOOM! Studios, as well as the writer/creator of Hit, a gritty noir comic book series set in 1950s Los Angeles, and has written various comic books for Disney Pixar’s WALL·E and Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time.