Flatland: where a fortune in mob money, a stone-cold serial killer, and a crooked FBI agent collide with two gay guys looking for love. Danny and Skip’s jerky new neighbor is much more than he seems. Their boring trailer park in Flatland, fielded by wheat and occasionally threatened by unpredictable Kansas storms, harbors something deadly—a hit man on the run, waiting for his chance to escape to all the money he’s swindled from the mob. But the mob doesn’t let thieves get away. Danny and Skip end up with the hit man’s dog and clues that could lead them to all his stolen loot. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones after the money. A crooked FBI agent and two professional killers stand in their way.
Skip's legs burned with the fever of a marathon. The hot, night air seared his throat and baked his limbs. His feet pounded, his breath huffed, and his hair bounced against his brow, slaked with sweat. Perspiration drizzled down his lean, shirtless torso and soaked his nylon running shorts. He tried to blank his mind of all thought except the run.
His sneakers made faint chuff-chuff sounds against the asphalt. In the distance, a dog sang a dirge to the full moon. Otherwise, the night was still as a coffin.
He rounded a corner and squinted at the sudden flash of headlights. Ahead, the roar of pickup engines revving and the rattle of tires spraying gravel disrupted the town's sleepy repose. A bright red neon sign that flashed BEER illuminated a wagon wheel hanging over the entrance to a tavern. Skip glanced at his watch. Two AM. Closing time. He thought about adjusting his path to avoid the crowd, but he'd plotted his run at exactly five miles earlier in the week. This was Kansas, after all, not Fallujah. What could go wrong here?
As he approached, a black pickup roared out of the parking lot next to the bar and fish-tailed into the street. It squealed to a stop behind two beat-up imports that sat side-by-side, blocking the narrow blacktop. The pickup's lights flashed, and then its horn blared. The driver leaned out of his window and yelled, "Hey, dickheads. Move your fuckin' asses outta the way."
One of the cars pulled away, but a red-faced young man wearing a cowboy hat leaned out of the car in front of the pickup and yelled back, "Who you callin' a dickhead, faggot? We got as much right to the road as you do." A local: Skip had seen him stocking shelves in the grocery store. At six feet, he was an inch shorter than Skip, and his body had the solid muscles and scarred knuckles of an experienced brawler. The pickup, on the other hand, wasn't local, based on its out-of-state plates. Skip figured that spelled trouble and faded into the shadows, waiting and watching. The pickup's door flung open. A beefy guy wearing leather pants and a polyester disco shirt open to his navel jumped out. He raced to the cowboy, grabbed him by the collar and dragged him halfway through the window. "You need to learn some manners, you dumb fuck," he raged. His fist smacked into the man's face and blood splattered.
Skip stopped with his hands on his knees, catching his breath. Disco-guy landed another blow on the cowboy, and his head flopped like a sock puppet with no spine. The driver of the other car ran up and tried to pull them apart, but got a quick backward karate chop to his nose for his efforts. He collapsed to the street in a spray of blood while the other cars around the bar emptied. In seconds, a mob rushed to join the fight in defense of the two local boys. Skip figured disco-guy didn't have a chance.
But then, from nowhere, a gunshot roared over the shouted voices of the crowd. Everyone froze. A chunky, red-headed woman stood in the bed of disco-guy's pickup, feet planted wide, a Glock .45 held in both hands and pointed at the crowd. "Nobody move." Her voice held the snap of command.
Disco-guy shook himself free from the grip of two husky farmhands. "I don't need no help with these faggots, Inez." "I saw how good you was doin', asshole." She waved her pistol at the still-open driver's side door on his pickup. "Get in, Oren. We're leavin'. Now." Her gun stayed leveled on the crowd of locals while her companion swaggered to his truck and slammed the door. She eyed a young woman who knelt next to the two young men Oren had beat up. "Are they okay?"
Inez glared back, but her voice shook when she answered. "I'm a nurse. I think he broke both their noses. But, yeah, they'll be okay."
The red-head rapped a fist on the roof of the pickup. "Oren, pay them for their trouble."
"What? I ain't payin' them nothin', bitch."
"You'll do what I say, asshole. I got the gun, in case you didn't notice. Five hundred should do it. I know you got it."
"Shee-it. You're gonna pay me back." Five bills fluttered to the dusty street and two guys from the crowd scrambled forward to snatch them up.
The red-head surveyed the scene. "We're all even here. Nobody follow us. Oren, let's go." She steadied herself in the cab as the pickup left the scene. At the last minute, one of the crowd threw a beer bottle and the right rear tail light shattered in a tinkle of broken glass. The truck didn't stop. It disappeared around a corner into the black, Kansas night.
Skip decided a full five mile run wasn't worth injecting himself into the angry group that now buzzed around the Wagon Wheel. He turned and jogged the two miles back to his trailer park. As he rounded the curve to his cul-de-sac, the dog in the corner lot sprang to the fence, barking and clawing at the chain links. He stopped, jogging in place, and crooned to the distraught animal. "What's wrong, fella? Are you lonely?" The dog whined at him and tossed its head. Skip reached into the pouch at his waist and pulled out a dog biscuit. The animal's nose twitched, and it barked again. Skip tossed the treat inside the fence.
The dog's head lurched to one side and it ran to gobble the morsel.
Skip grinned and edged closer. "You like that, don't you, Butch?" The dog looked up at its name before it returned to crunching on its biscuit. Skip tossed another one inside the fence and came closer. "That's a good dog." In the week since he'd started bringing treats, the dog had grown calmer at his approach. "You just need some company, don't you, boy?"
Butch sat on his haunches and barked before licking his chops.
Skip came closer, his hand extended, but Butch tensed, and a guttural growl escaped his throat. "Maybe tomorrow you'll let me pet you, eh, boy?"
Skip decided to run one more circuit around the trailer park before calling it a night. He followed the broken asphalt lane as it wound through the darkness. Amber illumination from street lights puddled in sparse pools at alternate corners, but everywhere else moonlight dusted the ramshackle mobile homes with ashen shades of gray. Even the vegetation, brown and lifeless during the daytime, turned to charcoal cinders in the night.
Skip's legs pumped out a steady cadence and his body, covered with a fine sheen of sweat, floated through the silvery darkness like smoke. The street curved to where a stretch of vacant lots opened onto a fence, crabbed with weeds and trash. Beyond that, wheat fields stretched to infinity, where they merged with the blackness of the sky. The cosmos was flat, supine, and deflated, the horizon an invisible edge where the world met eternity. The road seemed to turn under Skip's feet like a giant, dusty treadmill while he ran to nowhere. He felt like an ant trapped on a boundless tabletop as he raced on, his body in tune with nothingness.
He halted when he returned to his cul-de-sac. This time, Butch lay sleeping, but now two vehicles sat in front of the dark trailer next door. One was a blue Jeep Comanche with government GSA plates, and the other was a black pickup with a broken, right rear tail light. He peered at it more closely. He was certain it was the same as the one he'd seen earlier tonight at the fight.
He wiped sweat from his face with his forearm and started as another vehicle rattled down the street. He recognized the ancient Toyota that his other neighbor, the cute one, drove. It stopped in the driveway of the trailer between Skip's and the one with the Jeep and the pickup. Oren. That was what the red-head had called the tough guy. Skip stroked his watch and the LCD's ethereal glow showed the time: three AM. He trotted on toward his trailer and stopped at the foot of his drive, his hands on his hips.
The Toyota's engine coughed to a stop and a slim young man clambered out of the car. Despite the heat, he wore black denim jeans and a long-sleeve sweatshirt, with the hood pulled up and drooping over his forehead. His bright red, high-top, canvas shoes provided the only spark of color. Skip glimpsed his face and wondered why he wore sunglasses in the middle of the night. He thought about approaching him to say hello.
The young man heaved an audible sigh as he opened his trunk. He reached into his car and pulled out four plastic sacks stuffed with groceries. He juggled the bags in one hand while he fumbled with the other for his keys. One of the bags slipped from his fingers, and he barked out a cussword as his groceries tumbled to the ground.
A can of dog food clattered down the gentle slope of the drive and rolled to a stop at Skip's feet. He picked it up and walked to where the guy knelt, stuffing groceries into a sack. Skip squatted and held out the can. "Need some help?"
The young man started and glanced at him. For an instant, moonlight flared off his opaque sunglasses. "Yeah, thanks." He handed Skip one of his sacks. "If you'll hold the damned thing open for me, I think I can stick my groceries back in it."
"Sure thing." Skip held the sack and watched while the other guy gathered his purchases. He was an inch or two shorter than Skip, and his clothes drooped on his thin, almost wraith-like, body. His black attire and his pallid complexion conspired with the mercurial moonlight to make him seem like an angel. Or maybe like a corpse; it was hard for Skip to know the difference.
A shock of auburn curls, fine as silk and twice as delicate, fell across the young man's face. His head tossed to one side, and he muttered, "I'll be just another moment. I appreciate your help." He rubbed his arm again. "I've got a charley horse or something. I'm not usually this clumsy."
"No problem." The guy's fingers, lean and bony in the moonlight, scuttled like spiders across ashes as they gathered up his purchases. Skip wished he could see the eyes hiding behind those sunglasses. "My name's Skip Crow, by the way. I moved in next door a couple of weeks ago." He nodded to his trailer.
The young man's attention fluttered to Skip's face and then skittered away. "I'm Danny Rajunas." He looked around and stood. "Thanks. I've got it all. I appreciate your help." He hefted two bags and eyed a third, which he'd left on the roof of his car.
Skip still held the fourth bag. "Hey, you want some help carrying things inside? These damned plastic bags are a bitch." He bounced upright and reached for the sack on the car. "Two bags each is about right." Danny stared at him for a beat. He moved his head up and down, scanning him like radar while the bags twitched in his arms.
Skip flexed his abs and a trickle of pleasure oozed through him at the other's inspection. He gestured with the bags toward the trailer next to Danny's car. "Lead on. No reason to make two trips or risk spilling things again. It's no problem, and I won't bite." Unless you give me a chance.