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Low And Slow
About the Author: Richard Helms is the author of twenty published novels, including BRITTLE KARMA, coming this October from Black Arch Books. He has been nominated eight times for SMFS Derringer Award, with two wins; six times for the PWA Shamus Award; twice for the ITW Thriller Award, with a win in 2011; and once for the Macavity Award. His novel PAID IN SPADES was nominated this year for the Shamus and Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Awards, winning the Silver Falchion.

Alvy Funchess rose before sunrise, splashed water in his face, dressed, and went outside to prepare the smoker. The weather report had promised a fine, hot summer day without a shred of a chance of rain in Prosperity, North Carolina. Alvy had learned there were four seasons in the mid-south just like everywhere else, except here they were called Almost Summer, Summer, Still Summer, and Christmas.

He loaded the side-mounted firebox of the thirty-gallon drum with hickory lump charcoal and water-soaked chunks of apple and pecan and pear wood and stuffed some wadded paper underneath it all to get the fire going.

As the smoker built heat, he went into the kitchen and retrieved the pork shoulder he’d prepared the night before, slathered in mustard and dry rub until it looked like red pitted rocks on a hellish alien riparian shore. He’d left it out to get to room temperature. Putting cold meat into a smoker added hours to the cooking time and wasted charcoal. Alvy didn’t worry about the possibility of spoilage or decay or contagion. Any living thing that could burrow through the roux of mustard and rub and get to the meat was probably ornery enough to survive the Apocalypse, and therefore was untroubled by the hygienic practices of mere humans. Alvy loved pulled pork, and he loved the smoky aroma that enveloped his patio whenever he tossed a ten-pounder onto the grate.

Within minutes, the smoker reached the right temperature, just north of boiling point. Alvy transferred the shoulder to a diamond grate suspended between the halves of the drum, set the pointed probes of a meat thermometer in it, and closed the lid. When he opened the sliding lid on the short cylindrical flue welded into the drum, white smoke ascended toward the heavens like a Biblical burnt offering.

The meat would sit, unobserved, inside the drums, absorbing smoke and curing and caramelizing for almost fourteen hours. Pork shoulder, being an ordinarily tenacious and challenging cut, was crisscrossed with cartilaginous fibers that defied even sharp knives or heavy cleavers. Heat would be its undoing. When the inside temperature reached two hundred five degrees, the connective tissues would disintegrate into sugars, and the shoulder blade would fall out with nothing more than a two-finger tug. The meat would become as tender as fresh-fried flounder, easily shredded and pulled with nothing more than a fork and a wish. The secret to a fine smoked pork shoulder was time. Impatience would not be rewarded. Low and slow was the order of the day.

Around eleven, Alvy returned to the kitchen and made a sandwich with a thick slice of ham and fresh mayonnaise and Vidalia onion and a Better Boy tomato he’d grown in his garden, and he ate it over the kitchen sink that caught the drips like orange blood drops. Then he settled into a lounge chair on the patio a few feet away from the smoker and waited. Curls of vapor corkscrewed into the sky. Alvy opened the book he had left next to his chair and began to read. The book had come with the rental. The owners kept a small library on a shelf on the landing halfway up the stairs. The book featured a bounty hunter, a profession Alvy had always found romantic and attractive.

The killers arrived shortly after noon. They drove up in a rented Toyota. Nothing about their dress or demeanor suggested their violent nature, but Alvy knew their deadly capabilities, and why they had come for him.

He had been warned. Over the months, Alvy had developed an acquaintance with a local sheriff’s deputy named Tom Tisdale, mostly because they had the habit of visiting the same diner for lunch most weekdays. Alvy loved the diner’s hot dogs, seared on the flat top along with square buns painted with butter and browned to a delicious salty crispness, served Carolina style with mustard, onions, slaw, and chili. Alvy always ordered two all the way with a side of onion rings and huge Arnold Palmer.

Tisdale had been a deputy in tiny Bliss County for almost a decade, patrolling the country roads around rural Prosperity, and had an eye for new faces. He also shared Alvy’s affection for the diner’s tube steak sandwiches. Curious, he’d struck up a conversation. Over the months, they’d talked about baseball, football, weather, politics (but only sparingly, as they had discovered quickly that they inhabited different ends of the political spectrum) and just about anything except how Alvy—an obvious Yankee—had come to reside in Prosperity.

The night before, Tisdale had stopped by Alvy’s house. A couple of men were in town passing around a picture of Alvy, wondering how they might find him. When Tisdale described the men, Alvy recognized them immediately.

This story appears in our NOV 2020 Issue
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