When Moths Burn Chapter One

SANDY YARROW sat in her office at the Pine River Food Coop staring down at the stack of police reports on her desk. They were on top of a mound of invoices she needed to file, grocery order forms she had to complete, and employee pay-slips she was supposed to have finished processing the day before. She was behind on all these essential chores of running the store because she couldn’t stop thinking about these police reports.

She was a slender, serious woman in her fifties who wore her oat-blonde hair short and parted on the side. Because of her long, narrow nose and penetrating water-blue eyes, some said she looked like an eagle. A suitable animal for her to bear a resemblance to. When it came to things she cared about deeply, she bore similarities to a ruthless bird of prey.

A tap at the open door. An African-American man of about twenty in a rainbow flag t-shirt was standing there. “Sandy? Guy out here’s responding to the Help Wanted sign.”

She rubbed her temples. “Thanks, Jeffrey. Send him in.”

A moment later one of the largest men she’d ever seen appeared at the doorway. He was closer to seven feet tall than to six. He needed to stoop to pass through the door.

“Nice to meet you,” he said, reaching out his hand. “My name’s James Strait.”

“Oh, yeah. Pastor Jessie said you’d stop by. I’m Sandy Yarrow.” She stood and reached across the desk and returned his handshake. Her hand was like a baby’s in his.

“Is now a good time?”

“Good as any. Go ahead and have a seat.” She gestured to the chair in front of her desk. The wood creaked under his weight as he sat. For a few seconds she watched him as he quietly looked around the room. He had thick brown hair parted in the middle, slightly wavy, almost long enough to reach his shoulders. He bore a passing resemblance to James Taylor in his younger days. If, that is, James Taylor had been a giant with a chest like a cement block and arms as thick as tree trunks.

But the most striking thing about him were his eyes, she thought. There was an unusual clarity to them. Intensely engaged. Hyperalert. But at the same time…serene? Like he was taking in and processing much more than the average person and doing so without any effort. Sandy had once seen a similar look in the eyes of a monk she’d met on a trip to Tibet. She’s also seen it in a psychopath who’d stalked her back in the 80s.

His eyes were now scanning everything in the office. The big whiteboard where one of the staff had doodled a snake with a Trump haircut. The coffee table she’d bought at the thrift store for five bucks. The 1960s style coffee pot resting on a hotplate and the old bronze crank grinder next to it with which she spent her first ten minutes of each day grinding her coffee beans by hand. The antique hat-stand with her weathered straw hat hooked on one of the arms. The posters on the wall behind her from protests she’d participated in over the years. The demonstration against the Titan Missiles. The march to Davis Monthan Air Force Base where she’d chained herself to the front gate. A Charlie King concert flier. A Catholic Worker vigil demanding a shut-down of the School of the Americas.

The man’s gaze moved back to her desk and examined the cluttered stacks of papers, stopping a few seconds to focus on the police reports. Then he looked up at her face.

“I’d like to apply for a job,” he said.

“Jessie told me a few things about you.”

“Nothing bad, I hope.”

“She recommends you. Says that although you were an FBI agent, you’re not evil.”

“I’d like to think that’s true.”

“You’re also something of a celebrity, I hear.”

“Really?”

“I don’t have a TV, but they say you were all over the news for saving a bunch of kids’ lives?”

“That was nothing.”

“Jessie’s at the NHA Conference now, right?”

Strait nodded. “We drove down to Phoenix yesterday and I dropped her off at the airport. She’ll be back in a couple of weeks.”

“Church services cancelled till she gets back?”

“Yeah. But the Children’s Hour will still be held.” Strait glanced at his watch. “In fact, it’s already started.”

“You’re not running it?”

Strait laughed. “Me? I don’t know anything about kids. A new teacher from the Montessori school is doing that.”

“That woman from Montana? Marisol?”

“You know her?”

“She came in here a few days ago and introduced herself. Seemed nice.”

“I only met her this morning. She knocked on my door so she could get in the church to set up.”

As he spoke, he was taking in the details of her face with that same calm, piercing gaze.

She cleared her throat. “Let’s have you fill out an application.” She rummaged through a desk drawer and brought out a piece of paper. She started to hand it to him but stopped and pulled the paper back. She gave him a hard look.

“I need to be direct with you, Mr. Strait. Jessie speaks highly of you, but I need time to think about it. I don’t like the FBI.”

He smiled. “Me neither.”

“But you were an agent.”

“Past tense. I was screwed over and forced out. By a couple of bad supervisors. Actually, it’s not that I don’t like the FBI as an agency. It really is on the side of stopping some seriously dangerous people from hurting Americans while protecting our constitutional rights.”

“Well, Mr. Strait,” she said bitterly. “They sure didn’t protect my rights.”

“Can I ask what happened?”

“It’s private.”

“Okay.”

“I find it hard to trust anyone who’s had anything to do with the FBI, even past tense.”

“I might feel the same way if I was in your position. But you really don’t know me at all.”

“True. But somehow ‘FBI agent,’ even past tense, and “politically progressive feminist food coop” don’t mix well in my mind. I mean, we’re not just a grocery store, you know. We’re involved in a lot of liberal causes. Gun control, Black Lives Matter, housing for the homeless. You look like the star of a Rambo movie. Why would a guy like you want to work here?”

“You think I’m trying to spy on you?”

“I’m just puzzled, that’s all.”

Strait stared at her silently, his face impossible to read.

“On the other hand,” she continued, “I respect Jessie a lot and I trust her. She mentioned that you have a medical problem?”

Strait nodded and pointed at his head. “I’ve got this thing with my inner ear. Makes me have vertigo attacks. But I control it by diet, exercise, and medicine. I used to have a bad problem with it, but now I’m fine.” He gestured to the police reports. “Looks like you’ve been having some problems too.”

Sandy’s face tightened. “Harassment.”

“I saw the graffiti outside.”

“Third time this week.”

“They can’t spell. Faggot has two gs.”

“The graffiti is the least of it. We’ve had our windows broken. Sarah, my weekend clerk, has been getting threatening calls at home. She and her wife are terrified.”

“Why your store?”

“Like I said, we support progressive causes.”

“A lot of people support those.”

“In a small town like Pine River, a lot more people don’t.”

He gestured at the police reports. “So you called the police.”

“Yes. And they don’t do a thing to stop it. I mean, they come out and go through the motions of writing up these reports, but I know they aren’t going to do anything.”

“How do you know?”

“Their attitude.”

“What kind of attitude?”

“The same cop has come out here for every call. Five times now. And he smirks at me while he fills out the reports. Like it’s a big joke.”

“This guy short and stalky, with red hair? Has a face like a shovel?”

Her eyes widened. “You know him?”

Strait nodded. “Our paths have crossed. Duane Dumphey. Not one of the town’s finest.”

“Well, he’s bad, but he’s nothing compared that chief of police. August Kladspell? He’s a member of that super-right-wing church. You know, The Window? I heard he actually holds prayer meetings at the police station.”

“I’ve also had some dealings with Chief Kladspell. I think the clinical designation for him is ‘racist shithead.’”

She smiled.

“You tried putting up security cameras?”

“Yes. They break them. And when I tried to…”

She stopped. Someone was shouting outside the office. “Hold on,” she said. She stood and walked past him through the door. He followed her.

***

Strait walked behind Sandy into the main room of the store. Jessie had told him that Sandy Yarrow had survived a lot of crap in her life and still stood tall and strong with her principles, which made him want to meet her. So far, she seemed every bit as principled and straight-talking as Jessie had claimed. He liked her.

The Food Coop’s shopping area consisted primarily of one large room divided into shelving for food and home products on one side and a small area for books and magazines on the other side. A line of cylindrical bins containing a range of dry products, rice, cereal, sugar, was anchored to one wall. By the front door was a cash register with an employee standing behind it, the young African American man who’d first led him to Sandy’s office. The clerk was now glaring at a short, fat guy and saying in a voice shaking with rage, “I did not.”

“You did!” shouted the fat man.

“What’s going on, Jeffrey?” asked Sandy.

“This guy is making false accusations,” said the clerk.

“You the manager?” the fat guy demanded.

The man’s fat was of the beer-belly kind, his bloated stomach stretching out a dirty grey sweatshirt with a leering cartoon frog on it. His uncombed brown hair reached past his fat-thickened shoulders.

To his right was a second guy, a companion, much taller, completely bald. The skin on this guy’s head gleamed under the store lighting and the contours of his skull were visible. Propped up on his shoulder was a large video camera, a commercial one like the TV stations used. He had it aimed at the clerk.

“I’m the owner,” said Sandy. “What’s the problem?”

“I demand this clerk lose his job!”

Strait sized up the fat man. Out of shape. Fast food diet. No girlfriend, maybe ever. The sleeves of his frog sweatshirt were cut off at the middle, revealing his forearms, which were forested with black hair and studded with large red pimples. Although the man was acting angry, Strait detected a small smirk on his face.

“Why?” said Sandy.

The fat man shook his finger at Jeffrey. “Your clerk said he’d give me my groceries for free if I give him a blowjob!”

“Bullshit!” shouted Jeffrey.

It took a moment for Sandy to collect herself. “That’s ridiculous.” She turned to the bald man and said, “Sir, can you turn that camera off, please?”

The second man was in much better shape than his pimply-armed partner. Nearly as tall as Strait. Looked like he could handle himself in a fight physically, but dullness in his eyes suggested stupidity, always a big deficit. Strait couldn’t make out the man’s arms or chest under the black leather jacket he had on, but his neck was bulging with veins and tendons in the manner of guys who spent hours at the gym powerlifting. On the right side of his neck too, Strait saw a small green tattoo: a shamrock.

“Sir, I asked you to please turn that camera off,” said Sandy.

The bald man ignored her.

“I demand this man be fired!” the fat man shouted again. He had changed his voice so that it was higher and had a lisp. “And I demand an apology! I have nothing against homosexuals, but that doesn’t mean they have the right to sexually harass me!” He wagged his arms effeminately, making the bald man laugh.

Sandy folded her arms. “You two need to leave the store right now.”

The fat man smiled. “How’re you going to make us, you old dyke?”

“Get out,” said Strait.

The two men turned with startled faces to look at this new speaker.

Strait moved past Sandy to the counter and close to the two men. He addressed the bald one. “Turn off the camera.”

Instead of turning it off, the bald man pointed it at Strait, who shot out his left hand and snatched the camera by the lens and twisted it off the man’s shoulder. He brought it down hard on the counter. There was an ugly crunching sound.

The fat man’s eyes bugged out of his head. “That camera’s worth five thousand bucks!”

“Not anymore,” said Strait.

“You fuck!” The fat man pulled back his fist to throw a punch and Strait stepped up and kicked him in the face. The fat man went reeling backwards with his arms flailing and flopped against the wall and slumped to the floor.

Strait turned to the bald man, who was reaching into his camera bag and pulling out a tripod. He brandished it. Strait picked up the camera and jabbed it lens-first into the man’s throat. He dropped the tripod and gripped his throat and Strait crouched in and threw a vicious side-kick to his thigh.

The bald man’s leg buckled and he fell into a display rack of herbal teas, bringing everything down with a noisy crash.

“Get out,” Strait said again.

The fat man managed to pull himself to his feet. He touched his nose gingerly and looked at the blood on his fingers and gawked at Strait.

“Shit, man,” he said. “You didn’t need to get all, like, serious and shit. We was just pranking.”

“Pranking?”

“For our YouTube channel.”

“You call stalking and vandalism pranking?”

“Fuck you talking about?”

“You spray-painted graffiti on this building. And you’ve been stalking the employees.”

The man looked at his feet. “We didn’t do nothing like that.”

“Bullshit.”

The bald man pulled himself up. Clenching his teeth against the pain, he cautiously placed his weight on his left leg.

“You fucked up my leg,” he said to Strait.

“Bother anyone at this store again, I’m going to fuck it up a lot more than that.”

The bald man seemed to weigh matters and decide it wasn’t worth the trouble. He picked up his camera bag and, with an icy look at Strait, limped toward the door.

“Don’t forget your piece of shit camera,” said Strait. He held out the apparatus, which rattled with broken parts.. As the man reached out to take it, Strait pulled the camera back.

“Wait,” he said. He flicked open a rectangular plastic lid on the side and pulled out the SD memory card and stuck it in his pants pocket.

He handed the bald man the camera. The two men left, the fat man glancing back at Strait fearfully.

Strait turned to Sandy and Jeffrey, who stood gaping at him.

“So,” said Strait, “about the job…”

“When can you start?” asked Sandy.

***

This is a disturbing, unflinching tale of our times. The forces of hate are literally at odds with brave individuals trying to do the right thing, who for all their good intentions, must still struggle with their own personal demons. I want to read more from John Eidswick! -Amazon Reader Review

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