Murder in the North Dakota Oil Boom
I’m pleased to announce the release of my crime novel, The Invisible Hand, in digital and print editions from New Pulp Press. Some of you may remember the long road this novel took to publication and its appearance in the Kindle Scout program. The wait makes this moment all the sweeter, though, and I’m happy all the same.
Here’s the synopsis:
While drinking in a rural North Dakota bar on the edge of the modern day oil boom Wil Reynolds is tapped by a farmer to perform a mercy kill on his sick wife. Wil gets cold feet and kills the farmer instead. Unsure of what to do next, he also kills the farmer’s wife. The local sheriff and his deputy hire a private contractor named Jane to find the fugitive. But Will and a female hitchhiker named Sam set out for Man Camp, a makeshift community of oil workers squatting on the prairie. Can Wil’s pursuers be far behind? And is Jane who she claims to be? Is Sam? Will anybody survive this chase as Will and Sam make a stand at his family farm? Can he escape the invisible hand of fate?
And here’s a video I made explaining my approach to the novel. (I made this for a site called Jukepop originally, but that never panned out. So ignore the Jukepop references. Oh, and Neil Smith’s novel, Worm, is out now, too.)
Where to Get It
Read an Excerpt
PART ONE: DOWSE
“Got somewhere to be, Wil? Don’t seem interested in being here,” he says. Checks his watch.
He’s no rebel. A Yankee through and through. Just a businessman. The other bar on the far side of town, it’s called the Union. That’s what passes for clever around here.
“Yeah, I’ll have another one. Just thinking about…stuff,” I say. Such as getting off the dot of a barstool seat in a pin of a central North Dakota prairie town, Betrug. And killing my neighbor’s sick wife.
“I didn’t offer another one,” the bartender says.
“You are now,” I say.
A wet mug materializes next to my parched hands.
“Plenty to think about these days,” the bartender says. Nods to the radio.
The news report says something about a murder in the Bakken. No surprises there.
Bakken. That’s the name for the oil patch. It’s where hydraulic fracturing – “fracking” – sparked the NoDak oil boom a few years back. Suicide with a paycheck.
“Good to know the trouble is staying out there,” I say. I hate competition.
Betrug, nestled inside Sheridan County, is still an hour or so from the boom. Close enough to inherit its problems. Too far away to reap any benefits.
“Hard to keep it that way,” the bartender says. Calls out to the man in jeans behind me. He’s been watching me drink from the far side of the bar. “Ain’t that right, sheriff?”
The sheriff sighs. Nods. Goes back to his sandwich and newspaper. Working on hour three of lunch.
“You’re young enough,” the bartender says. “Still got a strong back. Go and make your oil money. It’s a wonder why you sit in here all day.”
“Who says I’m not making money?” I say. Pay for the drinks.
The bartender looks over the $100 bill.
“I guess you are. You want change?” he says.
“You been back at your family’s farm? Started working again?” the bartender says.
“Nope. Not since the accident,” I say.
The sheriff clears his throat behind me. I keep staring straight ahead.
“Think you’ll get back into farming?” the bartender says.
The bartender hesitates before putting the $100 bill in the register. Thumbs a corner like he’s testing for a fake.
“OK. I won’t ask again,” he says. Not the first time he’s seen a $100.
Don’t give me this bleeding heart bullshit about the “poor farmers” out here. There aren’t any. Every one of them is a millionaire times 10. Even more so now that the oil boom hit.
They don’t clear a couple million in a year, the feds give it to them for nothing. But they still dress like prairie dogs. Flannel shirts. Shitty trucks. Dirty hair.
It ain’t like it used to be. Now you’ve got GPS tractors. Remote-controlled everythings. Crops that do the thinking for you. Insurance, subsidies, trade protection and shit-knows-what-else ag programs. All greased with PR straight out of the Dustbowl.
Means there’s plenty of time to sit and think out here. Sort of like what I’m doing now in this bar. That’s all there is to do. Think too long, you come up with solutions to problems that don’t exist.
Good thing. Keeps me employed.
Farmers, they want to keep a certain image. Like the smiling cows on the milk cartons. Or the elves on cereal boxes full of what they grow here.
Bullshit. They move more money in a day than a drug lord. Got the temper to match. I’m just the part of the equation that’s honest about it.
Things get dirty. Fifty-foot manure pile dirty. So they turn to me. Shovel their shit. Bust some noses. Break some laws. Get it together.
Which is about what my dad said the day before he died in that grain bin. The “accident.”
“Get yourself together,” he had said. “For the sake of your mother. You’re 22. Been kicking around the prairie since you graduated high school. Find something you’re good at. Then do it every day.”
Yeah, I found something. She’s sitting right next to me. With long hair of amber bubbles. She’s always in the mood. Goes down real nice. Especially with one of those fresh-off-the-farm burgers they serve here. Shit, even in this prairie dog bar, you can’t get off the fucking farm.
But that’s just how it goes. I was too fucked up to work hay and heads. Never went east to Minneapolis like anyone with a brain. Never went west to the oil boom a county over like anyone with muscle.
Nope. Just slid right into this seat and took my dad’s advice. “Find something you’re good at. Then do it every day.”
Sure thing, pa. Cheers. Drink up. Oh, and fuck your self-righteous work ethic. As if everyone will fit into one of three options out here. Farm, frack or get the fuck out. But I’m stuck like everyone else in this jar of flies.
Oh, and rest in peace, pa. Which is damn near impossible considering the way you died in that bin. Crushed to death under a frozen chunk of grain.
Anyway, it ain’t a thing no more. It’s done. I’m here. Got some money. Got some drink. And, in about 30 seconds, a job.
I know what’s coming. What I’ll be asked to do. A bubble of panic crawls into my chest.
I pull an eyelash out. Stoke the pain with the sharp edge of a fingernail against my eyelid. A quick jolt runs from my eyelid into my chest. Pops the panic bubble. The feeling of it dissipating is worth it, even if my eyelids are going bald.
I’d normally check to see if the lash has a gooey root at the end. Maybe even eat it. But my appointment just walked through the door.
“You Wil?” the big guy says.
“If you say so,” I say.
The parts of his face not coated in two fat inches of whisker bramble show the scars of the wind. It finds a crease when you’re young. Pulls hard on it the rest of your life. Slices away until your face looks like the Badlands.
“How about I call you Buy Me a Drink?” the big guy says.
“How about not. Beer’s cheap here. Buy it yourself,” I say between a sip.
“Don’t look like you got anything better to do,” the big guy says. Uses a tone I don’t appreciate.
“I’m doing exactly what I need to do,” I say.
“Come on. Just one,” the big guy says.
“Fine. You owe me two,” I say.
I motion the bartender over. He pours a mug of glorified piss water. I get a buck poorer.
We drink in silence. He takes the beer down like it’s medicine.
Then he says, “Sorry to be a bother just then. You know how we Gideons are. Can’t be seen buying alcohol.”
Oh, yeah. I know the Gideons. Those motel night stand missionaries. Bible-thumping, prairie-humping hypocrites. Take Exhibit A, for example.
“So why’d you want to meet with me, Joe?” I say. Order another round. Forget to ask if he wants one.
“Ah, so you remember me,” Joe says. “When we talked on the phone yesterday, I couldn’t tell if you did.”
“You taught my math class in grade school. Up until they shut the district down. Not enough kids. Not even after the consolidation. Wound up being home-schooled. Maybe that’s why I’m getting shit-faced in a bar right now. What’s your excuse?” I say.
“It’s a shame things went the way they did. You learned how to count to 10. Then they sent you home,” he says.
I down my beer. Order another one.
“Counting to 10 is all I needed. This beer is number nine. Two more to go before I’m back at one. Then I’m good to drive again. I’m pretty busy. What do you want from me?” I say.
I already know the answer. This is just part of the dance. An attempt at looking like two regular people having a conversation.
Joe scoots closer to me. I smell the earth in his skin. The wind paints it into you. Never washes out.
“I need a set of hands,” he says.
“I don’t do fences,” I say.
“You know what I mean,” Joe says in a whisper. His eyes dart to the sheriff behind me.
I get up from the stool.
“Outside. Give me five minutes,” I say. Head to the bathroom. Too much beer too fast on too empty of a stomach.
In my mind, I hear, “Find something you’re good at. Then do it every day.” Fuck me if I can’t even drink right.
I try not to look at the reflection in the toilet water as I hurl.
“I need you to grant someone the mercy of ending her life,” he says, plain as the miles-wide prairie view.
“Who is it?” I say.
Joe shakes his head. “People always said you were a screw up. But I didn’t think it was this bad. You didn’t even blink at what I said. Not even for a second.”
It’s not like I didn’t know he wants his wife dead. Joe is a terrible secret-keeper. Always has been. Word got around on the prairie.
“Joe, the correct term is ‘fuck up.’ You can drop the Gideon church-mouth. If you think this is the first time I’ve been asked to kill someone, you’re wrong,” I say.
That’s a lie. He doesn’t need to know that.
I mainly do collections. Farmer-to-farmer stuff. Someone’s cattle got into someone else’s grain. Someone’s chemicals went missing and showed up somewhere else. Someone trespassed and broke a farming implement.
Plenty of work in that line. People stay sore for years. They don’t want to settle up in court. Too much open space around here to piss around with formalities.
“Fine. Yes, you’re an f-up,” Joe says. I grin at his self-censorship. “And I need you to ki…end someone’s life. With compassion.”
“You’re being pretty blunt about this, too. If I was a cop, I could bring you in right now,” I say.
Joe shrugs. In his best teacher voice, he says, “But you’re not a cop.”
I say, “Nope. I’m no one. Which is why you came to me in the first place. I take it our murder victim is your sick wife?”
Joe fires up the truck. He says, “Yes. And don’t call it murder. It’s an act of mercy.”
“We’ll compromise. Let’s call it homicide. How’s that, Gideon?”
Joe’s eyes never leave the road the rest of drive.
So it only makes sense his wife, Elma, is also on the solid side. Not fat. Solid. Like the bison that used to live here.
But even I’m surprised by her condition once we get to the house. She’s spilling out from a love seat in the living room. They’ve become one.
The room smells of warm skin. Salty and fried by wind burn. Like the ocean I’ll never see.
Joe folds his hands. Looks me in the eye.
He says, “She’s napping. It’s all she does any more. Her body can’t keep up. We found out about the diabetes last month. Turns out she’s had it for a year.”
I get where he’s going.
A squirt of panic flutters in my chest again. I pinch out an eyelash when Joe’s not looking.
I’ve put down sick livestock before. Simple as a bullet and a tractor ride. Maybe a mercy killing for a person isn’t all that different.
But here’s the thing. Elma doesn’t look that sick. I thought she was near death.
It’s one thing if someone needs that extra push to stop the misery. This is a little different. Not what I was expecting.
“You can’t be serious,” I say. “She’s in rough shape, sure. But this isn’t a mercy kill. This is just a kill.”
Joe nods. He taps a Gideon Bible on the table next to us.
“Compassion for others, that’s what the Bible says. She’s done living. It’s time to bring her home. Seriously,” he says.
For a second, I swear Elma slips an open eye to me. Like she was saying, “Seriously? What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Could be it was part of her sleeping. But I’ve seen that look before. Walking up to a lame cow. That nervous glance as I approached.
I saw it in my father’s eyes, too. Or eye, rather. Right as the truck-sized chunk of frozen grain at the top of the bin came down on him. Maybe he saw the same in my eyes as I tried to tug him out.
One thing I know for sure, though. His last expression. It was a mix of shock and something you can’t understand unless you actually watch a person die. Up close. Near enough to feel the heat of the body dissipating into the air.
The wind picked up the moment he died. I prayed it would take me with it. Off to join the herd of rushing bison shapes that curl over the tall grass as the wind blows. Shadows of the prairie that used to be.
Yet there I stood. No one disappears on the prairie.
I scrape a fingernail over the bald spot in my eyelashes. Breathe out a shiver of pain.
“Anything in that Bible tell you to get her to a doctor?” I say to Joe. One last attempt at salvaging humanity.
“We’d have to go several times a week. That’s a lot of time away from the farm. We’d go broke. Work won’t get itself done,” Joe says.
“Seriously? This is a financial decision? You can’t hire help?” I say. “Take her to the fucking doctor already.”
“No. It’s time to give her the mercy she deserves,” Joe says.
The second he says it, the look on his face takes it back. He gets a little wet in the eyes. Lip starts shaking.
“You’re not making any sense,” I say.
“I know what this looks like,” Joe says. “I don’t know how else to say it. She’s in so much pain every day. This is the right thing to do. You have to believe me.”
Elma lets out a wheeze. Tries to shuffle onto her side. Doesn’t work. Her eyes stay shut.
I swear I hear something in that wheeze. Can’t make it out.
“Did you ask if that’s what she wants?” I say.
“I can tell that’s what she wants. I promise,” Joe says.
“Doesn’t look like Elma does a lot of talking,” I say. Back away from Joe. “Are you sure there isn’t another option?”
“It only looks like there are options. I’ve agonized, agonized, over this,” Joe says. Takes a step toward me. “If you can’t do this, I’ll find someone who will.”
“And risk me ratting you out? Even you’re not that dumb,” I say.
“You’re the low-life here. You trying to tell me you’re above this?” Joe says.
I want to say I am. But I ignore that bit of sense. Maybe in another life I was above it. Not anymore. There’s no sense in anything out here. People die for stupid reasons all the time. Crushed under frozen grain. Sucked into an implement. Torn in half by a tractor. The least you can do is make a little scratch along the way.
“Let’s talk about the money. I get half of the life insurance payout,” I say to Joe. “Deal?”
I’m sure Elma has life insurance. Farmers have insurance for everything.
Joe nods. “Deal. Do it.”
“How are you going to deal with the body?” I say.
“Bury her in the backyard. Like pioneer times. No need to get anyone else involved,” Joe says.
It’s not entirely unheard of these days. Tradition still matters. The nearest funeral parlor is 100 miles away. No one disappears on the prairie, not even in death. They just become it.
We stand there for a few awkward seconds.
“Uh, Joe, how do you intend on me killing her?” I say. “I’m not really about strangulation.”
Joe shakes out of a deep stare at the floor.
“Oh, yeah, of course. Let me go get the gun,” he says.
I watch him walk downstairs to the basement. Take the opportunity to stroll into the kitchen from the living room.
There’s a row of coffee mugs hooked to the wall. Each one sports “Seriously!?” printed in big black letters on it. Word is they won them from a TV game show of the same name. Some sort of mail-in sweepstakes.
Joe comes back with a clunky 12-gauge Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun. Produces a box of 6 shot. I stare at him like he’s holding two shrunken skulls.
“Are we hunting pheasants?” I say. Sixes are for birds. Not people. How compassionate.
“I threw away all my bigger loads. I didn’t want to let myself do…it…to her,” Joe says.
“Way to think this through,” I say.
It doesn’t matter anyway. At such close range, the blast will be lethal. I’m trying to stall him out. Still having a hard time with this one.
I could take the shotgun and leave right there. But then what? Joe reports me to the sheriff? Says I stole a shotgun? I don’t need the sheriff asking me why I was at Joe’s place.
Joe shakes his head. “Just do it before I change my mind.”
I take the shotgun. Feed the magazine full. Cycle the pump to chamber a shell.
Joe leaves the living room. Walks to the kitchen. Takes the “Seriously!?” mug off the wall. Fills it with coffee from a hot machine. I tell myself Elma didn’t brew it before we got here.
I swallow and say, “Aren’t you going to stand next to me for the big event?”
“I’ll be OK from here,” he says.
His back turns to me as he looks out the window. I hear a sniffle. Doesn’t make him any more a saint than I am.
Elma stirs on the couch. That one eye rolls over me. Then the shotgun. Slips back under the crinkled blanket of her meaty eyelid. Long lashes on those lids. Not like the short bristles on mine.
I bring the shotgun to my shoulder. Aim for her face. Makes it look like she has a silver bead for a nose. Like a clown. Gives me a little grin.
People make all sorts of funny faces before they die. My father’s left eye popped out as the frozen grain chunk hit him. He palmed it back in crooked. Fell right back out.
Dumb bastard. Should’ve spent that time trying to get free. He didn’t know how dead he was until a few seconds later. Then he really started making faces.
I made some weird ones that day, too. Ones I’m glad he couldn’t tell people about. Like when I realized I should have said something about the cracking sounds as he entered the bin. How something seemed off.
I lower the shotgun. Dig for an eyelash. Grab a clump of five or six with my nails. Give it a tug. Pop the gooey, hairy cluster into my mouth. Split the hairs with my front teeth. Swallow.
“Can you hurry this up, Wil?” Joe says from the other room.
I think of the moment my father died. When the wind picked up. Prairie wind, make me go away. Take me with you. Away from here.
I raise the shotgun. Pulling the eyelashes didn’t work this time. The knotted up panic in my gut comes back again. Overwhelming.
“Please, Wil. Do it. I can’t take it anymore,” Joe says. Starts toward me.
Neither can I.
Joe is five steps away when I spin on my heel to face him. I line the bead of the shotgun up with his left eye. The same one that popped out of my father’s head just before he made that face. Like the one Joe is making now.
There’s no more room in my guts for another gallon of guilt. Especially when it’s Joe laundering his own through me. Thought the beers would convince me otherwise. Failed. I need justice. An equilibrium. Not guilt.
So I do the only thing I can think of in the moment. I pull the trigger. Send the BBs spiraling down the long tunnel of my vision.
Joe’s face sauces the wall behind him. I stay in position until his body stops moving. It grinds against the wall before folding onto the floor.
Elma convulses in the love seat. She’s mumbling something with both eyes open. Her legs shuffle in place. I can hear her now.
“Waaaa…aaannnn…want,” she says.
No sense in leaving her to wait to die. Now it’s a mercy kill.
I pump the shotgun. Plant the bead over her mouth. Squeeze the trigger slow. It’s a surprise when the shotgun fires.
The whole thing takes as long as a chunk of frozen grain falling to the ground.
I pocket the spent shotgun shells. Find Joe’s keys. Head to the truck.
The setting sun casts shadows over the prairie. They look like people. Stretching their hands toward me. Shadow people. Pushing me away. Or pulling me in.
I fire up Joe’s truck. Let the grooves of the scarred prairie point me in a direction. Any direction. Just get me the hell out of here.
I tug out an eyelash and I’m gone.