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Harold Markham told his cronies at his club that having a certificate from an online college was better than a Stanford business degree. 

“It’s like having a rocket strapped to my ass,” he claimed, laughing. “People keep promoting me. They think I’m poor but honest.”

The recent pandemic proved to be a geyser of funds for a state that prided itself on mismanagement of nearly everything it tried to solve by pouring huge amounts of money at it. Every time he drove up the I 5 past those fabulous houses overlooking the Pacific, he vowed he’d get one up there someday. 

Driving in the pre-dawn dark in that glittering chrome snake of morning traffic, he fantasized sipping French-pressed coffee from the deck, served by his live-in maid, gazing down at the luckless fools going past in the miles-long stream. Now and then, a Lambo or Ferrari passed him in his humble Camry, among the rest of the herd of economy cars and SUVs. Harold smiled, thinking of his recent purchase of a Voodoo Blue Porsche kept in a storage facility in Modesto.

He bemoaned his danger to José Castro, his personal Tonto for fixing pesky problems that arose when you decided to walk on the wild side. They met at the same time on the same day for their regular weekly luncheon at the burrito wagon downtown. 

“This might be your last payment, José,” Harold said and handed him his “retainer” fee.

“My old man, he once told me not to join a gang that was recruiting me when I was eleven.”

“Who gives a shit about that?”

“He told me, you run with wolves, you better not trip. I was slow, man, too slow. That’s why I went to law school.”

“You told me you dropped out.”

“It doesn’t alter the truth of mi padre’s words, homes.”

By the time Harold made it back to his office, he saw the blinking red light of his phone recorder. Intuition, something in his water, told him these weren’t the usual phone calls that piled up during lunch break. He hit PLAY. Seven were the usual lot of a bureaucrat’s life, greedy or not. The other three, interspersed among the daily drivel, were not: Mary Jane Delgado from the mayor’s office called to enquire about “large discrepancies in the billing manifests you sent over.”

“Mary Jane,” he burbled as she picked up, “ I was checking on one of my staff at the syringe exchange on Belmont. A needle-stick injury, and—”

“Look, Markham,” she interrupted. “What you sent over to the mayor has more holes than a colander. It’s fiction. We need to talk.”

“I’m not sure I know what you mean, Mary Jane.”

“Ms. Delgado to you, and I’ll boil it down for you. You expect us, this city, to pay twice as much for half the houses under contract.”

“Uh, let me check my day planner. Hmm, I’m afraid I’m stuck in meetings all day. How about tomorrow, say, three?”

“How about two hours from now.”

“Well, if you insist.”

“I do.”

“There’s a diner near us both. Belle’s on Pico.”

She ended the connection.

Harold thrust himself backward in his executive chair, staring through the grime-streaked windows down to the meandering traffic. His mind racing, heart thumping like a snare drum.

He needed fresh air, even the foul air of heat-trapped carbon monoxide in the parking lot. Bolting from his office, he caught his personal assistant leaning on the corner of Ferguson’s desk, the two absorbed in a sotto voce conversation.

“Nothing to do, gentlemen?” Harold growled in passing.

“I got lazy,” he mumbled to himself. He smacked his fist into his palm. “Stupid, stupid,” he said. If it weren’t for that infamous crypto screw up last year, he’d have been into retirement and a life of luxury.

He’d smoked half a joint in the parking garage by the time José showed up and hopped in the passenger side of his car.

“About friggin’ time, Joe.”

“I was busy doing the Lord’s work, H.T.,” Castro said, smirking.

“You can go back to muffdiving your hooker as soon as you get your man—the one you claim can fix any problem for the right price—moving on this. Is your guy trustworthy?”

“I told you on the phone already, Hog Trough. He’s a banger,” Castro said, shrugging. “He’s been putting in work with the Rolling' Thirties Crips since he was a baby.”

“Twenty thousand,” Harold said.

“You’re not talking about fixing a speeding ticket. It's a rush job and it goes two ways. Him and me. Twenty each.”

“I was born, Joe, just not yesterday. A finder’s fee is ten percent.”

“Your little house of cards must be tumbling down around your ankles. You want a contract so bad, right? Thirty-eight. Last offer.”

“Thirty-five,” Harold snapped, “and I don’t care how you piece off your guy.”

Castro stabbed a finger under Harold’s nose. Dried quim juice, the sex-crazed fiend . . . 

He gave Castro the details of his meeting with the mayor’s assistant on Pico and handed him a photo off the internet. 

“He shows up high,” Harold said. “You don’t get a cent.”

“Don’t sweat it. Give me half the cash. And I want the car.”

“I don’t have time to get you that much cash! The meeting’s in an hour!”

“Stay here and jerk off then, pendejo,” Castro snapped, one hand on the door latch.

“Wait! We have to drive over to my place for it. You think I walk around this town with that kind of money in my pocket?”

Reeling from the buda and paranoia, Harold made it to his house, fetched the cash from his floor safe upstairs, and shoved wads of bills at Castro waiting in the kitchen, smoking another joint.  “Remember, tell your guy, as soon as I’m gone.”

“Yeah, yeah, got it, Hog Trough.” He left whistling and snatched Harold’s car keys off the counter.

He called an Uber and then Delgado’s cell. “Hey, Mary Jane,” he said, his tongue fighting the syllables. “I just left a meeting.”

“Stop wasting time, Markham. If you’re not sitting opposite me in thirty minutes, I’m leaving. You can be sure the mayor will know all about your sticky fingers before she sits down to supper tonight.”

Harold forced a chuckle more like a sob climbing up his esophagus. “On my way now!”

All the way to Belle’s in the back seat, he clenched his fists, muttering. 

“What’s that, sir?”

“Talking to myself. An old habit.”

The driver started telling him a story about a Japanese couple he drove to Grauman’s Chinese on Hollywood Boulevard.

Oh do shut the hell up . . . I might commit hara kiri in your backseat if that witch is gone. How’s that for Japanese?

Harold entered Belle’s Café five minutes late, panting. His mind whirled with the prevarications and falsehoods, although Mary Jane Delgado was nobody’s fool. 

Throwing money at the driver, he bolted from the car and ran inside the diner. No dour-faced Mary Jane glaring from a booth. 

Bad news . . .Castro screwed me.

He paced out front in case he’d just missed her. Reality smacked him in the forehead. She’d cut him off at the knees, and he could expect a deep audit worse than being dragged over broken glass. His years of fiddling the books, those small thefts growing larger over time until he had both hands scraping the sides of the cookie jar. He’d gotten used to stealing from the state, doing kickbacks with contractors, and hiding money in his three secret accounts.

That night, he penned a hasty resignation letter and tucked it inside his suit coat pocket. If there weren’t US Marshals outside his office door in the morning, he might have a reasonable chance of escaping. He packed a go-bag and sat on the corner of his bed drinking shot after shot of Chivas Regal. By midnight, he was drunk. 

On the verge of passing out, he penned another letter protesting his innocence of any malfeasance in office. He blamed everyone he could think of from his back-stabbing staff to “names in high office in Sacramento” who hated him for his “good work and devotion to solving the homeless crisis.” Reading it back through a blurred vision and a mind still blitzed on very potent weed and alcohol, he saw how ridiculous it was and tore it up.

He took his Glock 19 out of the night stand drawer, checked the magazine, and put the gun to his temple. 

Any last thoughts, Harold? Some fuzzy part of his neocortex asked.

“Nope,” he replied—and pulled the trigger. 

Click. Dry fire. Again. Snick-snick. He checked the clip again, his fingers thick as sausages. Nothing in the chamber. 

Harold took that as a sign from above—or below. He wasn’t sure. It didn’t matter. He dropped the gun on the floor and fell back on the bed still dressed and fell into a deep black hole like a man stepping into a trap door with an anvil in his arms.

In the morning—head throbbing, throat as parched as the Mohave—he staggered into the kitchen, guzzled a couple fast espressos, and headed out the door, mumbling to himself. The sour gas of his burp made him wince, then laugh. He had nothing left to lose now. 

The lobby of his building looked normal for nine-twenty-two in the morning. He was two hours late, but his baseline normal told him nothing was amiss—yet. No cops jumping out from behind potted plants to throw him down and cuff him up.

He greeted a couple secretaries in the elevator who ignored him. Could they be undercover cops? 

As he stepped out of the elevator, he heard one of them say, “. . . carjacking.”

His entire staff was away from their desks, gathered around the television in the conference room. A reporter from Channel 4 was standing in the street in front of a couple Mission Revival houses in the background. Crime-scene yellow tape was stretched across one open garage.

The words “ . . . found dead in her garage last night . . .” were discernible then lost in the buzz and clamor of the staff, talking at once.

“Quiet, people!” Harold’s voice boomed behind them: the boss in charge again.

 Five minutes later, J. Harold Markham returned to his spacious office with a light step and shut the door behind him. He drew the curtains and left messages to his personal assistant and secretary that he was not to be disturbed by anyone for any reason.

“If one call gets through, Margaret,” he enunciated to his secretary, “I’ll make you beg for your job on your knees.”

“Olly olly oxen free,” Harold whispered in his sanctum sanctorum. He spun around in his chairs, gleeful as a child, and kept repeating: “I’m saved.” 

The afternoon editions of the dailies confirmed everything. Mary Jane Delgado was jumped in her garage and her skull crushed in by several blows from a tire iron. The police were requesting doorbell cameras in a two-mile radius around the crime scene. So far, the police had a white, 2004 Chevy pickup and a dark-clad figure in a hoodie and mask exiting the truck as Delgado pulled into her driveway at six-fifty-six and raced up the driveway as the automatic garage doors lifted. The vehicle was stolen and found abandoned in Sun Valley. Police theorized the murder of the mayor’s personal assistant was another tragic example of yet another tragic “follow-home” robbery attempt gone bad. The mayor issued a statement.

Harold wadded up the front page, savoring the feeling in his fingertips of destroying a dangerous enemy. 

He took a sheet of paper and wrote José Castro and drew a black Magic Marker line through it. He put the paper in a drawer and slammed it. That was for another day. Life was good for Harold Markham again.



Robb White lives in Northeastern Ohio. He publishes crime, horror, and mainstream fiction. Betray Me Not is a recent collection of revenge tales selected for distinction by the Independent Fiction Alliance in 2022. His latest work is a collection of noir tales, Fade to Black: Noir Stories of Grifters, Drifters, and Losers. Find him at:


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