Charlie Garner has a bad feeling. His ex-wife, Meg, has been missing for over a week and one quick peek into her home shows all her possessions packed up in boxes. Neighbors claim she’s running from bill collectors, but Charlie suspects something more sinister is afoot. Meg was last seen working at the local donut shop, a business run by a shadow group most refer to as ‘The Saucer People’; a space-age, evangelist cult who believe their compound to be the site of an extraterrestrial Second Coming.
Along with his brother, Felix, and beautiful, randy journalist Amelia “Scrappy” Moon, Charlie uncovers strange and frightening details about the compound (read: a massive, doomsday storehouse of weapons, a leashed chimpanzee!) When the body of their key informer is found dead with his arms ripped out of their sockets, Charlie knows he’s in danger but remains dogged in his quest to rescue Meg.
Brimming with colorful characters and Lansdale’s characteristic bounce, this rollicking crime novel examines the insidious rise of fringe groups and those under their sway with black comedy and glints of pathos.
Release date: March 21, 2023
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Print pages: 305
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The Donut Legion: A Novel
Joe R. Lansdale
It was late at night and I was on my long wraparound porch sitting at my deck table with a cup of hot tea, a blanket thrown over my shoulders, nursing a light headache. The weather had begun to go cool and the greenery of the woods that surrounded my house had died. But the death of summer and the rise of fall had given me another kind of beauty. Brown and gold, red and orange leaves.
Of course, now, in the dark, I couldn’t see them. I could hear the soft wind and limbs shaking in the deep of night and could imagine the leaves coming loose of them and coasting to the ground on the north wind. In the morning the leaves would be a multicolored tapestry on the grass, a carpet in the woods.
I sipped the last of my tea using both hands, feeling the warmth of the cup on my palms. I set the cup on the table and walked off the porch with the blanket around me.
I strolled into the backyard, where I had set up a high stool and a telescope on a tripod. I sat on the stool, positioned the blanket tighter around me, and looked through the telescope. There was a glowing circle around the moon, so either I had cataracts forming or, more likely, it was the old farmer’s sign of changing weather.
I was starting to reposition the telescope when I heard a motor humming up my long drive. I slid off the stool and stepped around to the side of the house. Soon I could see car lights coasting down the drive. The lights stopped at the gate and were turned off. A door opened and for a moment, in the car’s interior light, I saw a woman framed in the glow. She was mostly a shape from that distance, but I knew her shape immediately. I knew how she moved and how she smelled and how she touched me when she had.
It was my ex-wife, Meg, who I used to call, with affection, Megalodon. She closed the door. The car went dark, and she was a moving shadow. She climbed over the gate like a monkey on a mission and walked up the drive toward the house. Using the side steps, I walked back onto the porch and reseated myself in my chair. The hot tea was gone, but for some reason I held the cup in my hands as if it might still have warmth. It did not. In fact, it seemed the night had brought not only my ex-wife to me but with her a greater chill. It had come along sudden-like and in a mean-spirited mood.
Meg had been to my current home a few times to talk about this or that, mostly about us divesting ourselves of shared property, but this place I owned free and clear of past entanglements. Her clothes had never hung in my closets, nor had her makeup and hair spray sprawled over one of the sinks in the bathroom, nor had her shampoos and conditioners been decked on the rack in my shower. She had never had more than coffee at my indoor table and once out here on the porch.
Fact was, I had been lucky. Even young as I was, I wouldn’t have to get a job to pay the bills for a couple years to come. Still, in the mornings, I rose and worked on my next book. Sometime soon I would finish it and send it off through the magic of e-mail to my beleaguered agent. I wasn’t rich and this book wouldn’t make me rich either, but it kept me from doing a nine-to-five.
It was a better life than before, when Meg and I were married. She scattered a person’s thoughts. Now I had purpose, and I only thought of Meg about a do
zen times daily, not moment to moment.
Meg was coming ever nearer to me, and the closer she came, the more I thought of her husband, Ethan. Him touching her where I had touched her, and her touching him where she had touched me, and the whole thing made me feel sick and foolish at the same time, like a schoolboy whose date had ridden away in another boy’s car because it was shiny.
Meg stepped up on the porch. It squeaked as she came along. She sat down across from me at the table. The moon had dipped more to the west and some of its light was sliding under the overhanging roof and onto the porch. The light struck her in a way that for a moment made her seem transparent. Then she shifted slightly, and she looked fine, her long raven-black hair shifting around her shoulders like a cascade of spilled India ink. Her soft skin appeared even softer in the moonlight, at least the one side of her face I could see clearly. She wore a T-shirt, blue-jean shorts, and tennis shoes. She sat and pulled her long legs into the chair and rested her chin on her knees, her arms wrapped around them.
I could see her anklet, a silver chain with a silver heart fastened to it. I recognized that sitting position. She even slept that way on occasion, her hair draped around her face like a hood. I had moved her hair with my fingers on many a night, gently, so that I might see her face and hear her breathe, had touched her as lightly as one might the wings of a butterfly.
“I thought you’d be up,” she said. “You always liked staying up late.”
“If I don’t have to get up early,” I said.
“How have you been?”
“Well enough. But I don’t think you came out here at what must be about three in the morning to ask about my health and general welfare.”
“Came to ask a favor.”
“It couldn’t wait until tomorrow, maybe a request by phone? E-mail works.”
“We’re not together anymore, but I wanted to see you.”
“All right. You see me.”
“Don’t be nasty, Charlie.”
“Still feel kind of screwed over by you running off with Ethan. I thought
you went to the store.”
“Then you’ll love this. I need your help. It has to do with Ethan and what I think might be murder.”
“Murder? Whose murder?”
“I think so. I think there’s a lot going on and not much of it makes much sense, but what I can figure is what is going on isn’t over. I feel dislocated.”
“That’s damn confusing, Meg.”
“Don’t mean it to be. I know just enough to know I don’t know quite enough.”
“Why would you come to me?”
“You were a cop.”
“For two years. I hated it.”
“And a private investigator.”
“About a year or so. I hated it.”
“But you were good at it.”
“The police. Talk to them.”
“That won’t work, Charlie.”
“I’m still confused. Ethan was murdered? I haven’t heard a thing about this.”
“I have a feeling you pretty well isolate out here.”
“Fair enough. But I read the news on the computer, watch TV now and then. Nothing about a dead Ethan Phillips.”
“You still look at the stars and the moon, dream about Mars?”
This seemed like a strange response. “I was doing that when I heard your car.”
“Always investigating, in a way. Looking into what people do, trying to figure the face of the moon, the mysteries of Mars. I made a mistake when I left you.”
“Maybe I’m okay with you going.”
“A person can be a fool.”
“Which of us are you talking about?”
“Me, I guess.”
“Hell, Meg. We were both silly. Young.”
“I think I’m more in love with the idea of being in love than in staying in love. I’m looking for that hit of emotion that comes with the next new thing. In my case, the next new romance. New ideas. New beliefs. All of it is like candy to me. Until I chew it.”
“Yeah. I was the monkey in the middle. Cassidy, me, and now Ethan. You go through us like shit through a goose. You use marriage like a placeholder
“I guess I deserve that. My mother was like that. I guess you learn the best from the best and the worst from the worst, and she was kind of both at the same time. Your mother—now, there was a mother. She was my ideal.”
“Mine too,” I said. “But as for us, it’s done and over. We don’t matter as a ‘we’ anymore.”
“Not completely true.”
“Because you need my help?”
“That’s part of it. I need you to look into something for me as private investigator.”
“I don’t have a license. Haven’t in years. You know that. I’m a full-time writer now.”
“But license or not, you know how. Right?”
Meg shivered slightly. I got up and draped my blanket over her shoulders. As I did, her hand reached up and touched mine. It felt icy and damp, and it was almost as if an electric spark popped in my eyes, and then the spark was gone.
She said, “Watch out for omelets. And beware the great mound within the circle.”
“What?” I said, and the blanket collapsed in the chair.
There was no one there.
It was my turn to shiver.
I looked a long time at the empty chair. I walked down to the gate. There was no car there. I took my phone out of my coat pocket and turned on the flashlight. The earth was still damp from a rain the day before. A heavy rain that washed in the ruts and turned sand to mud. It was perfect ground for impressions, but there wasn’t a mark on that moist ground from either tires or footsteps.
I called Meg, but her cell number was no longer working. I wanted to drive over to her apartment but decided I wouldn’t. I didn’t believe in ghosts, but I certainly believed something was wrong.
Were there signals I had picked up on about Meg and Ethan that would make me imagine such a thing?
I couldn’t quite convince myself of that. Meg had seemed so real. And the car? What about the car?
I went to bed, but I didn’t sleep right away. I got up twice and went outside on the porch wearing only my underwear. A wonderful reason to live where I did. No neighbors looking out their windows, calling the cops on me for indecent exposure. I wanted, I could take a pee off the steps of my porch, and had.
On the chair where Meg had sat there was only the blanket. I picked it up. I could smell a sweet smell that made me think of her favorite perfume. Lilacs. That bothered me even more. Had she really been there, come and gone, and I had no memory of her departure?
Thinking about it turned my mild headache into a slightly more intense one. I had been having quite a few headaches of late.
Finally, I climbed back in bed, having brought the blanket inside with me. I curled up around it like a child with his security blanket. I went to sleep with the aroma of lilacs in my nose.
I didn’t have my usual omelet next morning, due to Meg’s strange warning. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but it worried me. I had toast and a cup of coffee, showered, and dressed. I was convinced I needed to talk to my brother. I wrapped up a package for him.
I had something else to do before we spoke. Maybe then things would change, and we wouldn’t need to talk at all. At least not about a ghost and murder.
I climbed in my car and tooled down to the gate, used the device in the car to open it. I got out and looked more closely at the ground, thinking in the morning light I would find evidence.
Still no tire or footprints. Seeing that unmarked mud gave me another shiver. Like Father Death had traced a cold finger up my spine.
I drove through the open gate on into May Town, where Meg lived with her husband, Ethan. Or had lived. I didn’t know what to think after last night. Was Ethan alive or dead? And if it had been a ghost on my porch last night, did that mean Meg was dead?
The entrance to the apartment complex where she lived bore a worn sign with magnetic letters missing so that it read OOM O ET instead of ROOMS TO LET. Otherwise, the place was nice, well cared for. I had only been to Meg’s apartment once before. It was on the ground floor near a pool and tennis courts.
A long stretch of flower bed had recently been prepared in front of and to the side of the fence around the pool and Meg’s apartment. The bed did not yet contain plants. The dirt was brown and rich and smelled musty. There were bits of gravel in the bed, and one of those bits was shiny as glass. A few weeds had started up in patches. If flowers were planted there, bulbs, they had yet to announce themselves. Spring, I figured, they would pop.
A guy on a little garden mower was zooming about on the grassy median that separated rows of apartments. He was a chap with a cap pulled down tight, wearing
work clothes and a face that could have passed for a clenched asshole. As he bounced by on the median, flinging damp grass, he looked at me and nodded slowly.
I nodded back, and he bounced on. I slapped the damp grass off my pants.
I knocked on Meg’s door after trying the doorbell and discovering it didn’t work. At least, I couldn’t hear that it worked.
The knock didn’t work either. I tried the door for the hell of it, but it was locked up tight as a bank vault. I walked to the window and attempted to look in through parted curtains.
Dark in there.
“They’re gone,” a voice said.
I turned. It was a woman, perhaps five years older than me, but there was something about her face that made you think that she had lived her life in a dirty room full of cigarette smoke. She was a willowy lady with shoulder-length auburn hair. She was wearing a loose T-shirt and shorts, grimy white tennis shoes. Had a cigarette hanging off her lip like some sort of appendage. She had an unconcerned attractiveness about her in spite of that dingy life impression.
“Gone?” I asked.
“Yep. Left not too long ago. I’m Evelyn, by the way. Evelyn Woods.”
“Charlie Garner. Did they pack up and leave? Do you know?”
“Everything they owned is still in there. Well, they may have taken something with them, but given all the stuff inside, it must have been in a shoebox. I’ve looked. I have a key, of course, I’m the manager here. Who are you?”
“I’m Meg’s ex-husband.”
“She mentioned you.”
“Are you and her friends?”
“Friendly. I don’t know about friends. We talked at the pool now and then. She liked to tan. I liked to sit under an umbrella at a table with a tall glass of ice tea.”
“Always told her she was going to get skin cancer,” I said.
“She might. But she has dark skin, and that helps. She told me once it wasn’t about the tan, because she didn’t really tan; it was the heat. She liked the heat.”
“Sounds like her. What
“He was kind of a shadow. A worm with a makeover. Had nice hair. Didn’t seem to fit with her, not even a little bit. Really jealous kind of guy. Maybe he had reason. Know I resented the way my husband looked at her. You can tell when a man is thinking he’d like to gobble some woman up like a pork chop. She knew it too. Her and those short-ass shorts. That’s him on the mower. Cletus the Penis, they used to call him, maybe still do. He’d poke anything that had a crack in it.”
We both looked for Cletus. The mower was way down the length of median grass, and Cletus the Penis was bouncing along on the narrow seat.
“Way he looked at her, that made me pissed at her sometimes.”
“You were pissed at her instead of Cletus?”
“I was pissed at both of them, but Cletus I got to live with unless I want to go it alone. I don’t. We pay the bills better together. Both of us have good jobs here, a place to stay.”
“Do you remember when you saw Meg and Ethan last?”
“Not sure when I quit seeing Ethan about, and I saw her only now and then. Last time was at night, late, out by the pool. I remember because me and the old man had a fight. He wanted a little loving, and I didn’t have any to give. We argued. I couldn’t sleep on account of it. We live in the upper apartment across the way there.”
She turned and pointed, then turned back.
“Place looks down on the pool. I like to watch out the window late at night. Not just for young men in tight bathing suits, but to see the night, when the pool’s closed and everything is quiet. Rarely is anyone even near the pool after ten thirty. Cletus locks the fence and cuts all but one light inside of it. I looked out, and there she was at the fence, staring at the water.”
“When was this?”
“Maybe a week ago.”
“Has anyone called the cops? I mean, one day Meg and Ethan are here, and next day they aren’t. And all their stuff is still here.”
“I did. They came out, looked around, asked if their rent was paid up, wondering if they took a burner so as not to pay. But it is paid up. They got a few more days before it’s due again, then I don’t know. They don’t come back, guess I can auction off their stuff. I’m thinking they may have jumped because of other bills they owed. Meg said they were strug
gling a bit. The marriage and the finances. Ethan quit his job at the university, then Meg quit hers at the yoga studio. Conflict with the boss, she said. Went to work at one of the donut shops in town. Said she wasn’t making that much at the studio anyway, and without Ethan’s salary, it was tough sledding. She was all into flying-saucer shit. You know, the peckerwood cult somewhere out there in the woods. Don’t know why they can’t just be Christians and go on with things.”
“Cops had nothing?”
“Not that they told me. They move like glaciers. Meg and Ethan leaving their furniture and goods behind is odd, but in the end, if they’re running from bill collectors, it might not mean anything sinister.”
I thanked her and drove over to my brother’s office. He didn’t live in May Town. He lived in Nacogdoches, which was within a few miles of my wooded property. Nacogdoches was larger than May Town. Not that there were skyscrapers poking at the clouds. Downtown it was brick streets, long-standing brick buildings. Elsewhere, some cool old houses from the town’s past, as well as aluminum rectangles with all the beauty of a blackened lung.
Once the city had been lined with trees, but people who I supposed really wanted to live in bleak West Texas had cut down a lot of them, burned the trees that couldn’t be sold for pulp or lumber, and poured in concrete for parking lots. It was labeled “progress.” I called it “sad.” When I passed McDonald’s on North Street, I always remembered the big tree that had been there where now concrete shimmered in the sunlight. I heard they cut it down because of insurance problems. That the tree might fall on a car or someone, drop a limb like the Sword of Damocles.
The university in Nacogdoches was where Ethan taught folklore and history before he quit, or at least according to Evelyn he’d quit. I guess it wasn’t truly my business, since Meg and I were divorced, but I was curious. And worried. Hadn’t her ghost asked me for help? Actually, I was uncertain it had. I was pretty uncertain about everything this late, cool morning.
My older brother, Felix Garner, is a former psychiatrist who quit his practice—that’s one way to put it—to take over the detective agency I once owned. I had been good at that business, but when I sold my first book, I was ready to give it up. I wrote it on a whim. I had always wanted to do
it, and suddenly I wrote it and it did all right. Not a bestseller, but enough to make me think I could make a living of a sort at it. Film sale helped, though the film never got made.
Before I quit the detective business, Felix had come back to Nacogdoches from Houston, worked for me for a while before he took it over. He was the first person I talked to in times of stress. He didn’t always have good advice, but he had advice. ...
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