Culture Shock Sample

This is a sample from Book 1 of The Gunn Files. Back the Kickstarter campaign to get the whole trilogy!

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Culture Shock

The Gunn Files Book 1

Chapter 1

I heard the rumble of the engine long before I saw it. You couldn’t mistake the sound of Alek’s 1971 Chevelle SS. Tipping my chair legs to the floor, I crossed the cramped office and peered through the window.

The blinds were half drawn, as usual. You can never be too cautious in my line of work. I’d have ballistic glass installed if I could afford it, but the last time I was that flush with cash I spent it getting my truck paneling replaced after chasing a wanted felon into a tornado in Oklahoma. Glancing over my shoulder at the bills stacked on my desk, I shoved down the nearly suffocating wave of melancholy that washed over me.

 Sliding my finger between the yellowing slats, my nail scraped the filthy glass. When was the last time my office had been cleaned? A year? Maybe two? I told myself the ingrained layer of grime gave the place a homely, “don’t bother breaking in” sort of feel, which was good for security. Truth was that lately, cleaning the windows had been the furthest thing from my mind.

The growl of the engine grew louder until the cranberry red hot rod finally rolled into view. The car really was a beaut. Shining chrome trim, glossy black wheels, and one of those 409 big blocks under the hood. It was the kind of car I’d always admired and never been able to buy. Hipsters and hood rats making their way to their favorite watering holes for the evening craned their necks to admire the machine as Alek coasted to a stop behind my beat-up black Ford pickup.

No matter how often I dreamed of one day owning a vehicle like that, my current preferences inclined toward function over form. You can’t haul much of anything in the trunk of a Chevelle, and I couldn’t risk drawing an entire block’s worth of eyes when conducting surveillance or tailing someone who might be in contact with my target.

Alek stepped onto the curb and pretended not to notice the people rubbernecking at his ride. With a casual glance, he looked both ways before crossing the street.

Alek Ludwig was a bondsman, one of the biggest in the city. He had a fancy downtown office within spitting distance of the Travis County Courthouse, and his business ran radio ads and late-night TV commercials. “Big wig Ludwig’s got your back,” they sang. Just like you’d imagine, with a catchy jingle and everything. I liked to give him a hard time about the ads. He was always a good sport about it, as long as I’d eventually admit that the jingle made one hell of an ear-worm, to which he’d reply that he didn’t mind being needled about the song as long as it bought him toys like that Chevelle.

The man was portly, which I think is a term that’s still considered politically correct. Skinny legs made him look like a beachball mounted on two twigs. Even in this heat, he wore cowboy boots, jeans, and a pale yellow button-up shirt with sweat stains blossoming beneath his arms. His head bore a graying fringe of hair, and his hairless pate reflected the hot Texas sun until he disappeared through my building's front door.

Turning, I reached across my small office to unlock the door, then resumed my seat at the desk. The door didn’t exactly hit the desk when it opened, but the fact that I managed to fit a desk and two chairs in the space was a minor miracle. The carpet, a brown floral print, was as thin and worn as it was drab. The only other furniture in the room was a dented mini-fridge in the corner, and a metal filing cabinet whose main purpose was to prop up the coffee maker.

While I waited for Alek to climb the stairs, I turned my attention back to the stack of bills, and then to the dated laptop I was supposed to be using to pay them. Moving my fingers across the sticky trackpad, I clicked a link on the banking website.

What happened next made my skin crawl. The click seemed to set the office lights to flickering. That was ridiculous, of course. I was far from an electro-tech genius, but I knew enough to know that clicking a link on a website couldn’t cause a power outage. But the single overhead bulb winked out and my laptop powered down of its own accord.

Muffled curses bled through the thin walls and told me that I wasn’t the only who had been affected. Small comfort.

A second later, the power returned, and with it my laptop. On the screen now was not an internet browser, but a bright blue screen.

Gooseflesh prickled along my arms. What on Earth? The battery should have kept the laptop alive even without the power. I muttered a few choice curse words. Three firm strikes of my palm against the keyboard did nothing to bring the machine back to life. Imagine that.

Sighing, I closed the laptop and dropped it into a drawer so that I wouldn’t be tempted to chuck it out the window like I wanted to. After all these years, I thought I might finally understand my father’s Luddite attitude toward computers.

There was a quick rap on the door.

“C’mon in!”

The door cracked and Alek poked his head through, taking in the office with a single sweep of his gray eyes. He held a folded piece of paper in one hand, and a cold stogie jutted from his mouth.

“Those things are going to kill you.”

Alek grinned around the cigar. His voice came out gravelly, like his lungs were coated with enough tar to fill a swimming pool. “We all die, Gunn. Might as well go out doing something I love.” He held out the folded paper. “Think this is for you.”

My blood went cold when I recognized the handwriting visible through the paper. I took the note from him and swallowed a groan as I unfolded the custom stationery.

Your rent is past due. Again.
You’ve always been a good tenant, and I really appreciate you helping me find Lottie when she ran away last week, but rescuing cats from rooftop bars doesn’t pay the mortgage or my property taxes on this building.
This is your final reminder.
Cathy Burns,

Property Manager, Sunshine Real Estate

“You all right?” Alek asked.

“Must be a misunderstanding.” The words felt hollow as they left my mouth. “I put a check in her mailbox on the first of each month.”

At least, I thought I had. It must have slipped my mind this month. I shuffled through the pile of bills for a beat, then let them drop back down.

“You still write a check to pay your rent?” Alek asked. “Can’t they just debit the money from your account automatically?”

I scowled at him. “Same dollars. What’s the difference?”

Alek plucked the cigar from his lips and frowned at me. “I’m sorry I haven’t had many gigs for you lately. I thought you were keeping busy with other work. If I’d known, I—”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll get it taken care of. You didn’t come here to talk about my finances.” I shoved the note into my back pocket and sat on it.

The wrinkle between his eyebrows stayed, but Alek slowly began to nod. “Well, I’ve got a job for you. Pop out for a drink?”

“Thought you’d never ask.”

A happy hour with Alek was one expense I never worried about covering. Still, I got to my feet slowly, trying not to reveal the eagerness I felt, and let Alek lead the way out. We'd become friends over the years, but pride is a funny thing; I didn’t want him to think I was desperate. Work had been scarce of late, and while a single job wouldn’t expunge my debts completely, the money would certainly help steer things in the right direction.

I closed and locked the door to my office. On this side, you could read Gunn Bounties in bold letters on the frosted glass. Beneath my business name, in a smaller print: Anderson Gunn, Fugitive Recovery Agent. The lock gave a satisfying click, and then the letters were only visible in afterimage as the hall went dark.

“That’s starting to get on my nerves,” Alek said.

“What gives?”

“Been brownouts all over the city today. Must be the heat. Or there are gremlins in the power lines.”

“It's Austin,” I said. “Weirder things have happened.”

“Like the lizard man? Or the Cathedral of Junk?”

“Or that one time the mayor sent queso to the moon?”

Alek snorted and slapped his leg. “Oh man, I almost forgot about that!” He sighed. “I love this city.”

We made it down the stairs in the darkness, using our hands to feel our way, and stepped out the front door. A wave of humid air washed over me and my skin broke out in a sheen of sweat. Even after seven thirty at night, it was triple-digit temperatures outside. The weather in Austin was pleasant for most of the year, but in the summer, it could become unbearable. I tried to ignore the way my jeans stuck to my skin as we walked.

My office wasn’t in the high rise, big money buildings near the Capitol where Alek worked, but in a grungy part of Sixth Street on the east side of the interstate. I liked it here. The place had a certain open-minded atmosphere of good vibes that some people said could be traced back to Austin’s roots as the musical heart of rock ’n roll. Divey bars, loud music, and good food were in abundance, especially on the fringes. The smell of charcoal and al pastor wafted past my nose. The trill of an electric guitar floated to my ears from a distance as someone warmed up their ax for the evening’s first set.

At the corner, a windowless door led to our establishment of choice. An octagonal wooden sign jutting out over the doorway depicted a pig with one arm resting on the rim of a large cauldron. His other hoof, though lacking fingers, somehow clutched a large mug of beer. The pig’s face held a tipsy yet mysterious expression, as if it knew the secret to one of life’s many mysteries and was on the verge of being drunk enough to spill the beans. The Poached Pig was etched in an arch above the drawing.

The chime of a small bell sounded behind me. I turned and looked down the street in time to see an old man wearing nothing but a bright green thong cycle past us on a ten-speed bicycle, waving like a supermodel and grinning like a cartoon character. It took me a a moment to realize the grin didn’t belong to him, but to the bright orange Garfield mask strapped to his face.

“Look,” I said, nudging my friend with an elbow.

“Keep Austin Weird!” Alek shouted in solidarity.

I caught his arm before he turned as I spotted another flock of bikers headed our way. “Oh, I see. Must be World Naked Bike Ride day.”

Odd little fact: Austin has no laws against public nudity. Which meant that the parade of beautiful women wearing their birthday suits and casually pedaling down the street in the same direction the old man with the Garfield mask had gone was perfectly okay in every sense of the word. Sure, they were a huge distraction to passing motorists, but this kind of thing wasn’t considered all that unusual. It was a point of pride for the city: Keep Austin Weird. The saying was plastered on brick walls, printed on t-shirts, and impressed upon the minds of a local population dedicated to their eccentricity.

This particular parade drew more observers from the bars, but not fast enough. In less than a minute, the group of naked cyclists was gone, nothing but a blur of tan flesh cutting toward the horizon.

“It is warm out,” Alek commented. “I hope they stay hydrated.”

I chuckled, yanked open the door to The Poached Pig, and went inside.


Chapter 2

The place smelled like beer and barbecue with a hint of fry grease. Although the air conditioner hummed, it wasn’t exactly cool inside, yet none of the regulars complained as long as the ceiling fans were spinning. A line of brass taps behind the bar poured just about every local brew you could imagine. Mirrors behind the shelves lined with liquor bottles made the bar look bigger than it was. There were no TVs—one of my favorite aspects of the place. Instead, an ancient jukebox leaned against the back wall.

As Alek and I slid onto the green vinyl bar stools, two fresh pints slid across the bar in our direction. The bartender and proprietor, Barry Morris, nodded a silent greeting, threw a towel over his shoulder, and took our order. Then he ducked through a half-door leading to the kitchen. The faint drone of a radio drifted out, mingling with Stevie Ray Vaughan’s voice belting Pride and Joy through the tinny jukebox speakers.

I took a sip of the ale—crisp, slightly bitter, and refreshingly cold. Glorious. Alek let out a satisfied sigh as he folded his hands around his sweating pint glass. The silence stretched between us as we enjoyed the music, grateful for the moment of peace. It was the first time I’d felt anything close to calm all day.

Alek finally pulled out a manila envelope and slapped it down on the bar. “Fresh skip here for ya, stud.”

My heart slammed against my ribcage. I took another sip of my beer while I pretended to study a row of bourbon bottles on the top shelf.

With the most casual gesture I could manage, I lifted the envelope and pinched the metal prongs, then slid a finger and thumb into the opening and pulled a stack of papers free.

I scanned the bio and background information Alek had compiled, then let out a low whistle. “Cameron Kovak. What did he do to get his bail set at a hundred grand? It was only his second DWI.”

“He somehow managed to plow his truck into a guy tending his neighbor’s garden. One minute he was pulling weeds, the next, bam. Poor bastard nearly died of internal bleeding in the hospital, but he pulled through, thank God.” Alek frowned. “The judge was pissed. She couldn’t charge Kovak with Intoxication Manslaughter, so she set the bond high enough to sting. Kovak’s wife called me to bail him out. I got the sense some kind of romantic spat precipitated the incident but, still, I thought I could count on her to get him to court on time. Guess I was wrong.”

“Not necessarily her fault. Maybe something spooked him.”

“Maybe. Either way, the wife can’t find him, so I’m hoping you can.”

Barry returned through swinging doors and slid a plate down in front of each of us. On mine, a Reuben on rye with chips. Alek got a club sandwich on sourdough with fries. Both toasted to perfection.

Alek dug in while I scanned through the rest of Kovak’s paperwork—current address, emergency contact, cell phone number, employer. Didn’t seem like he’d be too hard to find. With luck, the job would go quickly and I could pocket my usual ten percent fee in a few days. Ten large—my take on the hundred—would put me back ahead of the game and make sure I could pay Ms. Burns and keep the office. Dingy and dirty as that little place was, it was mine, dammit.

After what seemed like a well-considered amount of time had passed, I said, “I’ll take it.”

“Good.” Alek bobbed his head. “Knew I could count on you.”

I rubbed my hands on my jeans and stared at the untouched plate in front of me. Now that I had work to do, my appetite had all but disappeared. I licked my lips as I thought about my next words. Best to get straight to the point. “Got any other jobs lined up after this one?”

Alek took a bite of his sandwich and shook his head while he chewed. His appetite, it seemed, had not waned. “Not yet,” he mumbled through a mouthful. “But if something comes up, as long as it doesn’t interfere with you finding Kovak, you can have first dibs.”

I had to inhale to make room for the fullness I felt in my chest at his reassurance. “Thanks.”

“Gunn… are you sure you’re okay?”

I waved him off. “I’ll be fine.”

I hid my face in my sandwich as I forced myself to take a bite. Although I wasn’t hungry, old habits inspired me to put the food down. Couldn’t afford to let it go to waste. Especially not one of Barry’s sandwiches.

The lanky bartender stopped polishing the counter at the far end of the bar and came over to lean down next to us. “Did one of you fellas say something about a Kovak?”

One of Alek’s eyebrow shot up. I took another bite of my sandwich and crunched down on a chip.

“Why?” Alek asked. “You know him?”

Barry thumbed back toward the kitchen. “Nah, just heard about him on the radio. Guy worked for the power company. They found his partner dead in a ditch this morning.”

My galloping heart skipped a beat. I turned to Alek. “If that’s true, we need to talk about hazard pay.”

Alek wiped his hands on a napkin and pulled his phone out. “This is the last thing I need right now.”

“Five percent,” I said. Normally I wouldn’t be jumping for joy at the thought of taking on extra risk to find a dangerous fugitive, but more danger meant more money. Fifteen grand would give me a three month runway. I’d finally be able to get ahead again.

“Hold on, hold on. I’ll get to the bottom of this. If it is true, you know I have no problem including hazard pay. But first, you gotta be straight with me, Gunn. What’s going on with you?”

Barry and Alek both turned to watch me intently. I could see the genuine concern on both of their faces. They were just trying to be helpful, but my situation dug at me enough that I wasn’t enthused about sharing the details.

But you only get what you give, and Alek was the man with the money.

“It’s just been hard to keep up. My old man was never any good with money either. Maybe I inherited his bad luck.”

“Why do you say that?”

I thought back to the blue screen on my laptop. That wasn't the first computer I'd seen that on. Had a fella once tell me it was called the blue screen of death. I knew what it meant. “When did your family get their first computer?”

Alek chuckled, a wet hacking sound. “I’m a bit older than you are. I bought a Commodore 64 for the business the second year they had ’em. I was about your age then. Just getting my start.”

“My parents bought their first one when I was a kid. I was ten, it was the heyday of the PC revolution, and after arguing about the cost for several weeks, my parents finally caved and bought one. I think it was the realization they could do their finances with it, using spreadsheets, which my mom liked. You see, my dad was super scatterbrained—still is—and she invested a lot of time and money over the years in an attempt to upgrade the systems around him, thinking that would make her own life less chaotic. In reality, she just ended up doing the work herself.”

Barry nodded. “Typical in that generation.”

“Spreadsheets never made any sense to my father. He’d sit for an hour or two pretending to enter his receipts while he waited for her to come to his aid. When she finally did—often after cooking a meal for all three of us—he’d shrug and say, ‘No reason to jinx a stroke of good luck!’ as he picked up a paperback and stretched out on the couch.” I sipped at the beer when I realized my mouth had gone dry. “He used to say quirky, carefree things like that more often, but he hasn’t been interested in much except the bottom of a bottle since mom passed. I guess maybe she held together more than finances for him.”

Alek and Barry had both leaned in while I was talking. I guess I was keeping my voice down unconsciously. They both straightened again when I finished.

“Hard thing,” Barry said.

Alek pursed his lips. “Forgive my bluntness, stud, but what's that got to do with the price of eggs in China?”

I laughed without mirth. “Just had another computer go to the big clearance sale in the sky.”

“Normally I’d cap it at two and a half, but today I’m feeling generous. I’ll give you three percent. Deal?”

An extra three grand? Count me in. Alek stuck out his hand, and I shook it. “Deal.”

Alek Ludwig returned his attention to his phone and searched the news aggregators while I took a half-hearted bite of my pickle and ate my sandwich. A loose plan began to formulate. I could start tonight by talking to Kovak’s wife, the one Alek seemed to trust. If what Barry said about a dead body was true, I didn’t want to waste any time.

Alek read a few more headlines and then cursed under his breath. “I’m going to have words with Kovak's damn lawyer. He should have called me the moment he found out about this. Look.”

Alek shoved the phone into my hands. It was an article from The Statesman, dated today. The picture of Kovak from Alek’s bond paperwork matched the mug shot I saw on the screen. This time I studied him more closely. Dirty blond hair. Big goofy ears. Smug smile. He had a splotchy birthmark at his left temple that would be hard to hide, even with a hat.

I skimmed through the text until I found the pertinent section. “‘Police are investigating the murder of Dale Edwards, a lineman employed by CenTex Power & Light. His body was discovered south of Austin early on Friday morning. The cause of his death is as yet undetermined, but police are actively searching for his missing colleague, Cameron Kovak, who was reportedly dispatched with Edwards last night.’”

“Unbelievable.” Alek chewed on his cigar, then spat a fragment of tobacco onto his empty plate. “Usually I’m a better judge of people.”

I scrolled down the page with my thumb. “Wait a minute. Barry, I thought you said they found him in a ditch. Is that the ditch in the background?”

Alek squinted at the screen. “I can’t tell. Don’t have my glasses with me.”

In the photo, yellow caution tape was just visible in the distance. It seemed to make a perimeter at the edge of the so-called ditch, the full circumference of which was hidden behind a copse of oak trees. I felt the sudden urge to go there and see for myself. Unless it was just the angle, the hole looked enormous.

“Some ditch,” I said.

Barry’s stoic face was unreadable. “Radio said ditch.” He turned away, suddenly disinterested, and began removing liquor bottles and dusting the shelves beneath them.

Alek stepped outside to make a phone call, no doubt trying to get some more information from his contacts at the police department. I knew people there, too, but I didn’t have the same kind of leverage.

He returned a moment later. “Sergeant on duty said the cop assigned to the case is Detective Sheila Gonzalez. She’s still on scene.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said, as impressed by the name as with how quickly Alek acquired the information. The image of a tall, attractive Latina woman popped unbidden into my mind. Athletic build, proud green eyes, a thick mane of dark curly hair. She’d filled out in the years since we’d first met, but she was just as beautiful now as she had been then, and if possible, even more intimidating.

A soft laugh tipped me off that Alek must have seen something in my expression that amused him.

“You know her?” he asked. “The sergeant got weird on the phone when he found her name, made me think she might be new.”

“Her father used to be the chief of police. Sheila transferred to Dallas so she didn’t have to work for her old man, but now that he’s retired, she’s back in town.”

“That’s right, I remember now. But how do you know her?”

“We went to college together at Texas State.”

“I see,” he said. “You two seeing each other?”

“Nothing like that. We tried dating in college, but it never worked out. We were better as friends. Suppose we still are.”

“Is it weird having her back in town?”

“I’ve known her forever. She’s like one of the guys to me, you know? Maybe it’s not a bad thing to have a friend on the force, though. It seems to have worked well for you. As much as I try to place nice with the cops, most of them keep me at arm’s length.”

“They’re just doing their jobs.”

“If you say so.”

“You still got a thing for her, don’t you?”

“What? No. C’mon.”

Alek pushed his empty plate to the back of the bar and stood. “You do.”

“I do not.” I swallowed the rest of my beer and slammed the glass down, maybe a bit too hard.

“Have it your way,” he said with another chuckle. “So what’s your first move?”

“Isn’t it obvious? I visit the scene of the crime and talk to my lovely detective friend.”

“Oh, she’s lovely now, is she?”

“Shut up.”

He twirled his cigar expertly between his fingers, then bit it between his teeth again. “You know, now that Kovak’s a suspect in this case, she’s going to be looking for him, too.”

“Even better. I like a challenge.”

“I’m only paying you if you find him first.”

My stomach roiled, but I laughed good-naturedly and gave him my most confident smile. “Come on, Alek. Have I ever let you down?”

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