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Grey Bolton's life as a pawnbroker in a Mississippi town is good. He has a beautiful family and the future looks bright. Then an armed robber walks in and changes everything. Bolton kills the man, then discovers that he was anything but a common criminal. Trouble cascades upon Bolton from the police, from home, and from vicious unknown parties. They all appear to be after the same thing and they will all do anything to get it. Unfortunately, Bolton has no idea what that thing is. His battle to find out will test him in ways he couldn't have imagined, and the stakes are simple: Everything.
When Bill Berner walked through the door as the first customer of the day, I should have read it as a dark omen, a signal from fate itself, a stern warning to lock the door and head back to the house in abject surrender. Don't get me wrong: Bill's not a bad guy, and I doubt he has an evil bone in his body. But he is one of the most irritating people on the planet. The kind of customer you'd rather encounter mid-day. Not in the dream melt of morning, and certainly not before you've armor-coated your psyche with caffeine. Not the end of the day when you're brain-fried, either. Mid-day.
Like many of our regular pawners, Bill is unemployed. He lives on a confusing amalgam of government checks, government programs, and the occasional nuisance settlement from his portfolio of lawsuits. It's disconcerting to look at Bill because one eye points vaguely at you while the other targets the Taco Bell across the street. They're a bit beady and they ride atop a fat nose and shrunken mouth that is for the most part devoid of teeth. He has a perpetual three- to ten-day growth of stubble, and he shaves and bathes with the same frequency.
"Come in, Bill," I said, the resonant tones of the door chime still hanging in the air.
"Need to borrow a little money." He had a greasy hydraulic jack in his left hand and a plastic bag stuffed with videotapes in the right, a typical Bill Berner pawn. Low dollar items trending toward junky, the sort of things a metro pawn shop wouldn't fool with. In the small towns, though, we have to be a little less selective. Bill ambled to a stop and put his goods on the pawn counter.
"How much?" I said.
One eye swung my way, overshot the mark, then pulled back and drifted a bit before settling down and targeting my forehead. "I need fifty."
"You need coffee."
I said nothing.
"Twenty bucks, Bill. Just like last time. And the time before that."
"It's a nice jack."
"It's a butt-ugly piece of crap with no handle and not another pawn shop in Mississippi would take it."
"Does too have a handle."
"Rusty screwdrivers don't count. You want the twenty?"
"You said twenty!"
"You didn't want the twenty."
"Give me the twenty."
This is the way the pawn game is played, day after week after millennium. They want to borrow more. I want to loan less. They have sad stories, most of which contain about as much truth as an Oliver Stone movie. We haggle and moan, and a transaction takes place more often than not.
Twenty years ago, friends and family called me crazy for choosing the pawn business. I had a bachelor's degree in business administration from Ole Miss, and had gotten several good job offers coming out of school, but none of them appealed to me.
"Those things are nothing but fronts, places where people take stolen goods so they can buy their dope," the esteemed Judge Grayson Bolton, aka my father, had proclaimed. He never approved any idea that wasn't his own, and his scorn only cemented my resolve. It was also the beginning of the end of our relationship.
"They take advantage of the poor. Unconscionable, just unconscionable," was the summary from my Uncle Walt, professor and dean of some obscure philosophical curriculum at some arcane little New England college.
A litany of similar warnings flowed in from up and down the family tree and all around the circle of friends, but I've never been one to let others do my thinking. I did my research and decided it was a business as legitimate as any other, and one with the potential to provide a semi-lucrative living right here in Montello, where I wanted to be. To top it off, it looked like a hell of a lot of fun.
And it was.
Then the routine set in. The Bill Berners. The countless others like him, the same handful of perpetual hard-luck tales wrapped in slightly different circumstances and regurgitated ad nauseum. Milk for the baby. Medicine for dear old Mama. I used to smile and shake my head as they walked the milk money into the liquor store across the street. It wasn't funny anymore, just very boring.
I keyed Bill's loan into the computer, and handed him the ticket to sign. I made a point to do everything really fast, trying to project the message that I was oh so busy this day. He took his copy of the ticket, worked his toothless mouth around a bit, and re-acquired me with that eye. Bill loves to tell jokes, none of which are funny. No, it's worse than that. They're so un-funny you can't even make yourself laugh. He was determined to tell one that morning, and I was just as determined not to hear it. Showdown. He opened his mouth, drew a breath--
DING DONG, said the door chime as another customer walked in. "Come in," I said.
"Come in, sir," LungFao said. LungFao's real name is Larry. LungFao is blond, caucasian, and tall, and my reason for calling him LungFao wouldn't make the slightest sense, so I'll not get into that. He's the assistant manager of Gray's Green Cash, Montello's finest pawn shop.
Bill's face sagged in defeat and he shuffled toward the door, no doubt shooting the newcomer a look with one of his eyes as they passed.
"Can I help you?" I said to the newcomer, a guy I'd never seen before.
It was early, I hadn't had so much as a swallow of coffee, and I had already done business with Bill Berner. All those elements combined to weaken my senses, and I had just made the worst mistake of my life.
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Jerry Hatchett (1959-present) was born and grew up in the creatively fertile Mississippi Delta, and lives and works now in Houston, Texas. A lifelong admitted geek, he loves to create fast stories around characters you can cheer for and against. His work features a crisp tight voice that pulls you in and doesn't let go.