Angie McFee was wary of the Comforts, certainly, but dying violently never crossed her mind. She’d dated Lyle, after all. Well, "dated" wasn’t the word, really. She’d slept with him a few times. Sex with Lyle was energetic and fun, like your average aerobics workout. Unfortunately, conversation with Lyle was equally aerobic.

Before she drove out to the Comforts’ on this cool October evening, she got her little silver Mazda gassed up and washed. The car wasn’t quite dry, and beads of water glistened on the hood in the moonlight as she pulled off the main drag onto an asphalt road, perhaps twenty miles outside Jefferson City, Missouri. She was a petite pretty brunette of twenty-seven years, watching the moon on the hood of her car, a car the Comforts had helped buy.

It had been a shock when Lyle first suggested she meet his "pa." Christ, it had been a shock to hear anybody in this day and age refer to their father as "Pa," particularly without a trace of irony. It had similarly been a shock to see Lyle’s brow furrowing in something akin to thought, that thought manifesting itself in this suggestion that she meet his "pa."

And Pa had been a shock, too. A tall, leathery farmer in coveralls and a plaid shirt with a shock (another shock!) of white hair and pale blue eyes with laugh crinkles. He had a pretty smile, Pa did, the only resemblance between him and Lyle, other than their basic lanky frame. Brown-eyed Lyle, whom she’d met in a trendy little singles bar, looked like a fashion page out of Playboy, he wore a creamy Miami Vice silk sport coat over a grayish-blue T-shirt, gray jeans, Italian shoes with no socks, a tanning spa tan, and a twenty-five-dollar haircut, when Jefferson City remained a six-dollar-haircut town. It was all so right for the fashion moment that it was a little wrong, but he had a great smile and curly brown hair and a fantastic bod and no sores on his lip. And so to bed.

Only Lyle also had a farmer drawl and a remedial reading vocabulary and a certain vacancy behind his eyes, all of which took a while to catch on to, because he was the strong silent type, the sort of brooder you assume is hiding deep thoughts behind all those pregnant pauses, when in fact those pregnant pauses prove never to give birth to anything at all, and within that pretty cranium there was, Angie had no doubt, a low and constant hum.

She had tried, on their third night together—each previous night being a month or so apart, no steady thing developing between them, just her own occasional need for some really terrific sex in the midst of her thus far fruitless search to find a better husband than the first one—to make some human connection with Lyle. She’d told him about her father’s store.

"It’s really pitiful," she said, smoking nervously, sitting up in bed, pillow at her back, sheet pulled up but barely covering her small, pert breasts. At least she liked to think of them as pert. "Dad had this great little place, little hole-in-the-wall, where he sold nothing but meat."

"Meat," Lyle said, nodding. Lyle didn’t smoke.

"He’s a terrific butcher, Dad is, but a lousy businessman. When he had that hole-in-the-wall, strictly a butcher shop, with choice cuts and all, he was doing fine. Mom was keeping the books. It was great. Then he got ambitious."

"Meat," Lyle said.

"He thought he could do better in a bigger store—you know, a small supermarket. He thought people would come in for the great meat and buy their other food as well, save a trip, even if our prices were a little more expensive than the big discount supermarkets. Going in he knew that—knew he couldn’t compete with the prices that the big boys were able to give, because of, you know, volume."

"Volume?" Lyle said. He narrowed his eyes, apparently wondering what noise levels had to do with the grocery business.

"Anyway, Dad’s dying with that white elephant..."

Lyle touched her arm. "I’m sorry," he said. It was clear he had taken the word "dying" literally, and that "white elephant" was some rare disease.

"No, I just mean he’s losing his shirt," she said, hoping he wouldn’t take that literally, too. "Our savings are gone, Mom’s too sick to work, he’s mortgaged up the wazoo. And there I am, with my business degree, stuck in the middle of a family business that can barely afford to pay me half of what I could get elsewhere." She sighed. "But, what the hell. You got to be loyal to your family, right?"

"Right," Lyle said, nodding again.

"So I’m keeping the books. Working in the store—sometimes behind one of the registers, which is demeaning, let me tell you. I’m glad my little boy can’t see me."

"You have a boy?"

"Yeah, he lives with my ex. Steve’s remarried and I’m a lousy mother. I don’t think I ever want another. I mean, I love my son, but kids do get in the way."

"Kids," Lyle said, smiling, nodding.

"How old are you, Lyle?"

"Twenty-three."

"Where do you work?"

"Like you. Family business."

"Yeah, I know—you’ve said that a couple of times. But what do you do exactly?"

And that was when Lyle’s brow had furrowed suddenly, shockingly, in apparent thought.

"You keep the books?" he said.

"Yes..."

"At a grocery store?"

"Yeah, that’s right. So what?"

"You should talk to Pa."

Pa, as it turned out, was Coleman Comfort, but, as he’d said, pale blue eyes twinkling like a slightly demented Walter Brennan, "My kith and kin all call me Cole."

Cole Comfort’s farm, where all of their meetings had been held over the past year and a half, was off a back gravel road, on a cinder path. The two-story farmhouse seemed ramshackle somehow, despite being freshly aluminum-sided. Maybe it was the weedily overgrown yard, in which the remnants of various vehicles rusted in the process of becoming one with the universe, or the dense looming woods behind the house, where owls’ eyes and nameless critter howls seemed to invite you in but not out. Or maybe the sagging barn and decaying silo, which created suspicion as to what the house itself was like under its aluminum face-lift. Whatever the case, the Comfort place was hardly comforting and no place Angie wanted to visit.

And yet she had, once a month, for many months.

That first time, even though she had long since full well realized how thick Lyle was, the sight of the farm (and there was farmland adjacent, it just wasn’t worked by the Comforts) had made her suck in a quick breath of disbelief. "There’s money in it," Lyle had said, "big money." But how could there be big money here, in this Dogpatch dump? This looked like food stamp territory.

"Food stamps," Cole Comfort had said, pouring her some Old Grand-Dad, straight up, in a fast-food restaurant giveaway glass with the Road Runner on it. They sat in the living room, where reigned a giant-screen TV on which, at the moment, Billy Joel’s face was the size of a card table. The pores in his nose were like poker chips.

Lyle was watching MTV. Cole, it seemed, hated MTV, so Lyle was listening through headphones. Giant images of singers silently shouting, dancers moving to invisible beats, were an oppressive flickering presence. Other images fought MTV for attention: six, count them, six black velvet paintings of John Wayne, paintings of various sizes but all in rough rustic frames with Wayne in western regalia, beat out the mere three jumpsuited Elvis Presleys, all of them riding walls paneled in a dark brown photographic wood grain. Against one wall, with snakes of cable crawling out of it toward the big-screen TV, was an open cabinet on wheels, in which stacks of stereo and video equipment perched, red lights dancing and sound meter needles wiggling. The furniture, all of it expensive, varied in style—from Early American to modern—but the chairs and several couches were consistent in one thing: they were covered with clear vinyl. The carpet was a green shag, like grass from outer space.

She drank the glass of Old Grand-Dad like it was soda pop and Cole grinned his pretty white grin and poured her some more.

"F-food stamps?" she managed to ask.

"Food stamps. You work in a grocery store. A little mom-and-pop affair, like in the good old days. None of this corporate horseshit."

"Actually McFee’s is a fairly big store," she said. "But, yes, it’s not affiliated with any major chain. That’s the problem. They can undersell us."

"Volume," Cole nodded. "I stopped in the place—your daddy has a right fine meat counter."

She couldn’t quite tell if the phrase "right fine" was an affectation or if this guy really was the hick of all hicks. Despite the tacky decor around him, Cole Comfort did not seem stupid, or even naive. Maybe bad taste and stupidity didn’t necessarily go hand in hand.

"The meat is what brings in what customers we do have," she told him. "Daddy should never have expanded."

Cole nodded, sagely this time; lines of experience pulled at the corners of his mouth. "It’s the bane of American business. Expansion. Nobody’s satisfied with a small success. They gotta expand till they go bust."

Bane of American business? Where was this guy coming from?

"We’re in a position to help you, little lady," Cole said.

Little lady yet.

"How?"

"We deal in food stamps, my family does. Lyle and Cindy Lou and me."

She had not yet met Cindy Lou, but already an image was forming somewhere between Daisy Mae and Lolita.

"What do you mean, exactly? Your family deals in food stamps?"

"The black market, girl. Wise up. Black-market food stamps. We stay strict away from counterfeit." He waved his hands like an umpire saying, OUT! "The real thing or nothin’ at all."

"Well...uh, where do you get them?"

"How we get them ain’t your concern."

"I don’t exactly understand what is my concern in all this..." Perhaps she shouldn’t have gulped that Old Grand-Dad.

"You’re the perfect conduit, the very conduit we been lookin’ for."

Against her better judgment, she drank again from the Road Runner glass. Just a sip this time. To arm her against a man who said both "ain’t" and "conduit."

"You can buy them from us at a thirty percent discount," he said. "Seventy cents on the dollar."

Now she got it. "And when I send them in..."

"The government gives you a dollar. That’s thirty cents you clear, each. And you don’t pay us till you get yours."

She knew that wasn’t as small potatoes as it at first sounded; even with their limited business, their higher prices, McFee’s had several hundred dollars a month come in, in food stamps. Other stores their size—stores with chain-style discount prices—would do a land-office business in food stamps; at least ten times what her father’s store did.

Cole was patting her arm. "You could help your pa. He wouldn’t even have to know. You could feather your own nest, too. The government’ll never suspect a thing. We’ll help you figger what you can get away with, a store your size."

"I wouldn’t be your only...conduit, then?"

"No," Comfort said, his smile cracking his leathery face, "we got one or two others. But a good conduit is hard to find."

Sew that on a sampler.

"Where do you get the stamps, anyway?"

"Nobody suffers," Cole said. "They can get ’em replaced, if you’re worried about poor people."

"I just want to know how it works. I know you said it wasn’t my concern, but really it is. If I’m going to be involved in something...criminal...I want to know the extent of it."

Cole shrugged. Then his face darkened. "I hate that nigger shit!"

He was glaring past her. She glanced in that direction, at the big-screen TV, where Tina Turner was prancing, singing, in pantomime. Cole reached for a TV Guide next to him on the couch and hurled it at Lyle; the corner of it hit Lyle in the head. The son winced but did not even glance back, and certainly didn’t change the channel. He was apparently used to this form of criticism on his father’s part.

"Anyway," Cole said, his distaste lingering in his sour expression, "we know when the stamps go out—third of the month—and that on the fifth they’re in mailboxes. Lyle and Cindy Lou just go out and about like good little mailmen, rain nor hail nor sleet, only in reverse. Taking letters out of mailboxes, not putting in."

"It’s that easy?" she said. Repressing, and that petty?

"Yup," he said. "It ain’t so small-time, either," he added, as if reading her thoughts. "There can be as much as two hundred bucks’ worth in one envelope. Also, some people sell ’em to us direct. We pay a quarter on the dollar."

"People sell their own food stamps?"

"People got things they want to buy and not eat. Sure. And we got some bars that we do business with."

"Bars? You can’t buy liquor and cigarettes with food stamps..."

"Of course not—not ’bove board."

"Oh," she said. It was easy enough for Angie to figure how that could work: a bartender letting a customer use a dollar food stamp for thirty cents or so worth of booze or smokes.

"It’s a safe way to make a little extra bread, honey," Cole said, in his fatherly way. "You won’t get caught. You almost can’t get caught. What are you doing, except moving some paper around? It ain’t even embezzling, really."

"It is criminal," she said.

"Much in life is," Cole granted.

She said she wanted to think about it, and, after a particularly slow week in her father’s store, she called Cole Comfort and said yes. She never dated Lyle again. Once a month she drove to the farmhouse and got a supply of food stamps, bringing them cash in return. The Comforts always wanted cash.

And her dad, her sweet dad, tough ex-marine that he was, was so blessedly naive. He really thought business was up.

It crushed her to have to pull the rug out.

But it was time. She’d had a call from the Department of Social Services; an investigation into food stamp abuse was underway. An appointment to "interview" her had been set up. She didn’t know what this meant exactly, but she did know it was time to get out.

She’d socked a few thousand away, and bought a few toys outright (the Mazda, for one) and got her father on his feet, even if it was only temporarily. She didn’t know where she was going, but she did know she’d been in Jefferson City long enough. With her nest egg and her college degree and her looks, she could go anywhere, if she could just weather the Department of Social Services storm.

For right now, however, she was at the Comforts’, for one last time.

She was greeted at the door by Cindy Lou, a cute curvy strawberry-blond freckle-faced sixteen-year-old in a calico halter top and short jeans and bare feet with red-painted toenails. Somewhere between Daisy Mae and Lolita.

"Daddy’s upstairs figuring the books," Cindy Lou said, ushering her into where John Wayne and Elvis, as always, ruled. "He’ll be down in a jif."

And he was, in his usual Hee Haw apparel and his almost seductive smile. He said to Cindy Lou, "Take the pickup and get ’er gassed."

She clasped her hands together in front of breasts that Angie would have died for. "Can I, Daddy?"

He reached in his pocket and withdrew a twenty and, grinning shit-eatingly, said, "What’s it look like?"

She snatched it out of his hands, and he patted her round little butt in a less than paternal way as she departed. Angie wondered for a moment whether Cindy Lou was old enough to have a license, before dismissing it as a foolish question.

He bade her sit on the couch again, which she did, where he poured her Old Grand-Dad and she carefully, tactfully, explained her position. Lyle was watching MTV, in headphones. Rick James was on the screen, silently screaming, but this time Cole didn’t hurl a TV Guide. Maybe he was getting more tolerant.

Or maybe he was just preoccupied.

She withdrew from her purse an envelope of cash, which he riffled through, smiling absently; he usually gave her a thick packet of food stamps at this point. He was preoccupied tonight.

"This investigation," Cole said, tucking the money away in a deep coverall pocket, "what have you heard, exactly?"

"Nothing," she said, shrugging expansively.

"They ain’t even talked to you yet."

"Just on the phone. It’s only an appointment."

"Are you worried?"

"Sure I am. But I don’t see how they can prove anything."

"Damn," Cole said. His smile was as rueful as it was pretty. "This has been one sweet little scam—but I’m afraid its days are numbered."

"This investigation is that serious, you think?"

"Hard to say. I can tell you this—they started registering the mail with the food stamps in it. Anything over ninety bucks gets registered. Recipient has to sign."

"So your kids can’t go raiding mailboxes anymore."

"Not like they could. It’s just too damn bad."

She shrugged. Smiled. "It was fun while it lasted."

"Sure was," he said, and hit her on the side of the head with the Old Grand-Dad bottle. She heard the glass break against her jaw, felt her skin tear, a flash of pain, then darkness.

She came out of it, once, for a moment, hearing: "A girl, Pa? I don’t want to kill no girl. I was with her before."

That was when, for the first time, dying violently occurred to her.


Copyright © 1987, 1999 by Max Allan Collins