She showed up in an old Taurus and sat patiently in the CVS parking lot. She was no older than thirty, casually dressed. Bruce watched her play with her phone for about ten minutes before he walked over and tapped the window. She motioned for him to get in, so he slid into the passenger seat.
“Are we going somewhere?” he asked.
“Yeah. It’s not in the car. Let me see the money.”
Bruce smiled, pulled the cash out of the pocket of his sweatshirt, and fanned it for her—four thousand dollars. She nodded and pulled out of the lot.
“I met a guy in Chicago, told me never to get involved with a woman who drives a Ford. Or carries a knife. Or wears wool,” Bruce said.
“Maybe he didn’t like women.”
“Yeah, I wish I’d figured that out a little earlier in the evening. How’d you get into this business?”
“That’s cool. You don’t have to tell me.”
“Something just comes up out of the ground, and people pay real money for it. How’d you get into your side of it?” she asked.
“My girlfriend’s a chef. She only ever worked for idiots, wanted her own place. So I got hit by a limousine. Settled out of court, and we opened the restaurant.”
“Were you badly hurt?”
“Getting hit by a car?”
“No, it wasn’t bad.”
The woman pulled off the main road, down a rustic lane that ran along a thickly wooded stretch.
“We’re going into the forest? What, you give it to me fresh from the earth?”
She parked the car near an entrance to a foot path, and they walked through a stand of trees until they came to a weak little stream that curved deeper into the woods.
“You guys are pretty careful with your sales,” Bruce said.
“We’ve had some problems.”
“What kind of problems?”
“People get strange.”
“You’re going to drive me back when this is all done?”
In a clearing stood two men and an orange, plastic cooler. One of the men was big. Bruce gave him a little extra attention. He wore only a tee shirt and baggy shorts. Maybe this proved to everyone that he was tougher than a 52 degree day in October, but it also made it easy to see that he was unarmed.
“This is it? This is everyone who’s coming?” Bruce asked.
“Well, I’m Bruce.”
He extended a hand to the bigger guy who shook it but also gave a hard stare and didn’t reveal his own name. Bruce moved on to the smaller guy who was friendlier, ready to do business.
“Welcome to our office,” he said.
Bruce gave the joke a little chuckle.
“He brought the money,” the woman said.
“Great, great. You have something to store it in?” the little guy asked, reaching into the cooler and pulling out a sandwich baggie filled with seven small, dark lumps.
“No, it’ll be fine,” Bruce said.
“Just going to stuff it in your jacket?”
The little guy was genuinely concerned for the product. Did that mean he was the grower?
“It’s his dinner. He can do what he wants,” the woman said.
“Fair enough,” the little guy turned back to Bruce. “If you want to check it out first—”
Bruce spun and hit the big guy in the stomach hard. When he doubled over, Bruce knocked his legs out then kicked him in the face. Before either of the others had a chance to react, Bruce pulled a gun and pointed it from the woman to the little man, then back to the woman. He kept an eye on the big man.
“Take it. Just take the bag and go,” the woman said.
“No, that’s not what’s happening. I want the business. Where do you get your truffles from?”
“. . . They grow.”
“You want to take over? Just you?”
“No, I got people. We know you grow here in The States. Where and how?”
The woman stared back at him—a sneer, a dare. The big guy was sitting up now, bleeding from the mouth. Bruce took a step in his direction and put the gun on him.
“Where does it come from?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know anything about it.”
“No. They just have me come in for the meets.”
“Some muscle you turned out to be.”
“He’s telling the truth,” the smaller man said.
“So you don’t know anything about where it comes from?”
“That’s right,” the big man said. “The truth is—I thought a truffle was a kind of candy. Like a chocolate or something.”
Bruce shot him in the head and turned to the little guy.
“What about you? What do you know?”
“I know a lot. I know—everything.”
“More than she does?”
“Same. We’re partners on this.”
“So I don’t need both of you, right? One of you needs to start talking.”
“It’s in Vermont. In a state park up there,” the woman said.
“You planted them in a state park?”
“You don’t plant truffles. It’s a fungus. God makes it happen.”
“So tell me where it is.”
“And you need my dog.”
“My dog. He finds them by the pound. We bring down what we think we can sell to Boston, New York. Then we go back up. It stays fresher that way.”
“And you can take me to this park?”
“You’re going to need us. Both me and the dog. You’ve got to cut me into the business.”
“She’s lying to you,” the little guy said. “There’s no spot in a state park. We’ve got a way into a supplier from Europe. Truffles come in on a plane, but they don’t secure things like they should on the way to storage. We’ve been ripping them off a little at a time. But this—your four grand—this is the biggest sale we’ve ever done. We’re a small operation.”
“You told a man you could get him a hundred and ten thousand dollars-worth. You told him No problem, have it in two days.”
“How do . . . you know that?”
“That guy was my partner.”
“Well, we—were lying to him. We can’t get our hands on anything like that quantity. That’s, like, two full coolers. Come on—that’s a joke.”
“Why would you lie to him?”
“We were going to rip him off. This—right here—this was a dry run for that. We drive him here, Rob takes the money.”
“Word would get around quick. That would be your last sale.”
“Yeah, we know that. The importer we were stealing from has plugged his hole, so we were done anyway. You got the last of the supply. We were planning to rip off your friend for the hundred and ten thousand and then just dissolve, you know?”
The little man was starting to get a more comfortable, his story flowing naturally—from one crook to another.
“So you’re saying that right now you are worthless to me?” Bruce asked.
“Well, no, wait. The guy plugged his hole, but with some inside information, someone like you, willing to be a little more—aggressive? You could probably take from him.”
The woman had been listening carefully, but she hadn’t interrupted the story.
“What do you say to that?” Bruce asked her.
“It’s all nonsense. There is a patch in Vermont. And it’s amazing. The truffles don’t come from Europe. You know that, right? Because of how fresh they are.”
“That’s bullshit,” the little guy said, his voice rising in squeaky panic. “The Italians get them from the ground to JFK in under twelve hours. We get them on the way from the airport. That’s why they’re so fresh.”
“Takes at least a day to clear customs with a foreign fungus,” the woman answered calmly. “No, we get it from Vermont. And you need me because he can’t handle the dog.”
“And you can get a hundred and ten thousand dollars’ worth on two days’ notice?” Bruce asked.
“Absolutely. I was going to drive back to Vermont tonight, get the dog in the park tomorrow morning, come back here Thursday.”
The little guy moved surprisingly well. When Bruce turned he was charging with his head low. He’d probably wrestled at some point, probably very fearsome with the 106 and under crowd. Bruce shot him twice.
“Little fucker’s active, huh?”
The woman glanced at the body once then looked away. Bruce opened the cooler; it was empty. A few of the mushrooms from the baggie had spilled onto the dirt. He gathered them and tucked them in his jacket.
“Now you really need me,” the woman said.
“I can’t kill you, but I can hurt you pretty bad. You understand? Give me your keys and your wallet and your phone. Don’t press a button, or I shoot out your legs.”
She took her phone with thumb and forefingers like it was rotten meat and dropped it on the ground. Next she took out her keys and wallet.
“Write down the address where the dog is and the name of the park. We’re going there now.”
He gave her a pad and pen; she wrote.
“Why can’t we do it tomorrow?”
“I need to know if you’re telling the truth.”
“I’ve never been there at night. I don’t even know if I can find the place in the dark.”
“I’ve got a flashlight. And I believe that you’ve got this location locked into your brain. The dog is at your house?”
“Yes. And the state park is about twenty minutes from there.”
“Anyone else live with you?”
“No, just me.”
“How long is the drive? Because we’re not stopping.”
“About three hours. Can I pee first?”
“You can, but I need to see your face and your hands. Not like in a pervert way, but you don’t get to walk away and disappear behind a tree or anything.”
“I’ll hold it, then.”
“Your choice. You’re riding in the trunk.”
They made it to the parked car, and Bruce popped the trunk—a blanket, a wrench, and two very old copies of Scientific American. When he took out the wrench and motioned for her to get in, she didn’t make a big deal out of it. She seemed to get it, but maybe she was just waiting for a chance to call for help.
Before he started the engine he looked at her license—Imogene Byers. The address listed was the same as the one she’d written down. He looked it up online. It was about twenty minutes from a state park. He checked into her a little more and found that she’d attended the University of Vermont where she’d majored in Ecological Agriculture. She’d been out of school five years, but he couldn’t find any work experience for her at all.
About an hour into the ride, he turned off the highway onto a quiet stretch and then pulled to the side of the road. He got out of the car and walked back near the trunk, standing still for a minute before speaking.
“No, we’re all right,” he said loudly. “Just trying to figure out how to get back to 87 . . . Yeah? Okay, that’s what I thought. Thanks a lot.”
Imogene didn’t make a sound from inside the trunk. He waited another minute then opened it.
“You want to ride up front?”
“Yes, thank you.”
“I’m going to trust you on this. Because I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. But don’t try anything.”
She smoothed out her sweater and put her seatbelt on carefully as he started the engine and made it back to the highway. She could have tried to hail another car or mess up his driving, but she just kept her eyes ahead of her. When she flipped on the radio, he shot her a sharp glance.
“Just music, man,” she laughed and closed her eyes.
It was some of that messy stoner rock that a lot of growers liked. Imogene didn’t really dress the part, but she was from Vermont—this was her element. He had to admit, though, a few minutes into an extended guitar solo, he was feeling a little more relaxed.
“In Europe they’ve got whole teams, packs of dogs wandering around the forest all day—maybe they find one or two,” Imogene said. “Cyrus finds them one after another.”
“So it’s the dog, he’s magic?”
“I don’t know if I’d say magic, but he’s pretty special. Above and beyond that, something wild must have happened in the soil. It was a rainy summer up there. Maybe there was a silt runoff. We had a druid festival in August. Honestly, I don’t know what caused this, but you need the dog to get at it. And you need me to handle him.”
He knew that dogs had their loyalties, but why couldn’t he get Cyrus to work for him? A few meat snacks and some kind words? Imogene was smart and cool, but she couldn’t be cut into the operation. Not after what she’d seen. He wasn’t looking forward to killing her.
“You don’t really have a girlfriend with a restaurant, right?” she asked.
“You’re asking if I’m single?”
“No. I want to know if you’re connected to people who will buy.”
“I’m hooked up all over the place. How much can you get out of the ground?”
“A lot. We could have met your friend’s order. I think we could sell about that much every two days if there was demand. Can you sell that much?”
“How long is it going to keep growing?”
“I hope all through the fall. But what do I know? Nothing like this has ever happened before. That’s the point.”
“And it’s all profit, right?”
“And it’s not even criminal. You know? It’s violating food rules. You don’t go to jail for that. You get, like, FDA agents after you. They aren’t even allowed to carry guns. If we get caught the worst thing that could happen is they’d get real stern and ask us to—I don’t know—stop doing it. And we’d lie low for half an hour and then start up again. I have to be honest: I think it’s crazy that you killed two people.”
Bruce nodded seriously. It was a good point.
“Friends of yours?”
“Not really. You don’t always get to pick who you work with. You know?”
They made it to Vermont—beautiful, green, and strung out. If something crazy was going to grow in America, it’d be in Vermont. And truffles were certainly crazy—rough little mushrooms that came from dirt and got certain kinds of rich people hot and bothered. Bruce had seen some pretty pretentious articles in gourmet magazines—Tuber Magnatum for the truly discerning palette. He’d also seen a music video where a rapper ordered truffles on filet mignon at a fancy restaurant. He kept telling the young waitress to put another shred on the motherfucker and then rained hundreds on her like she was dancing around in a thong.
They were getting closer to Imogene’s place. As well behaved as she’d been, he knew that once she was back in her own civilization that could all change.
“We’re going to go right into your house, okay? Don’t try to bolt, yell to your neighbors. That won’t end well.”
“Yeah, I get it. But you didn’t answer my question before: how much of this can you move?”
“We might want to hold back some. Especially when people start to understand how fresh our product is. We can have it out of the ground and into a Manhattan kitchen in less than four hours, right? As long as we don’t flood the market, we’ll be selling for ten thousand a key. We bump it up for Christmas and New Year’s. Then we ease back for a while. Count our money.”
Imogene lived in a small house along a quiet street, lined with maple trees starting to turn for autumn. They parked in front and walked up to her porch—Imogene out in front, Bruce trailing .
“Genie,” called a female voice from out of the dark.
Bruce and Imogene froze. He put one hand on her shoulder and the other on the gun underneath his shirt. A middle aged woman, trim and friendly, approached from the next yard over.
“Cyrus was barking and barking. And you never called to tell me whether I should take him out for a walk. Then I did. Sorry, but he was just barking so loud.”
“Yeah. Thanks, so much.”
“Hi, I’m Lenore,” the woman said. Bruce nodded.
“This is my friend, Irving. He’s in my felting class,” Imogene said.
“Oh, that’s so wonderful. Working with felt. It really is great.”
“Nice meeting you,” Bruce said, giving Imogene a gentle tap on the back.
They made it inside, and a large dog immediately greeted Imogene happily. Bruce wasn’t an expert, but this looked like some kind of German shepherd mix—bigger than he thought a dog should be.
“Who’s my puppy?” Imogene asked. “Are you my puppy?”
“You sure you don’t want to wait for morning?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Look, I understand we’re in business together. I’m onboard. You don’t really need to coerce me anymore. The only thing I’m wondering about is the bodies—Rob and Ted. Someone’s going to find them pretty soon. Identify them. Police may ask me questions.”
“You weren’t dating that little guy were you?”
“No, but we hung out. People probably saw us having a beer together in town.”
“Yeah, that’s nothing. If it comes to it, you tell them how sad you are that the little fidget is gone, but that’s got nothing to do with you. Let’s go out to the park.”
The moon was about half full and Bruce’s flashlight gave a little more light, but it was still a little scary for a concrete city boy like Bruce. Cyrus was confident, though, pleased to be out on a pleasant autumn evening, chasing after little things that the humans couldn’t see. About two miles in Imogene stopped walking and started counting trees, like she was serious.
“Is this it?” Bruce asked.
“Yeah, right here.”
She led the dog off the path and through a thicket of white pines. Bruce shined the flashlight on her.
“Get the truffles, boy. Come on.”
Cyrus hopped around. He didn’t start digging, and he didn’t seem to have any real purpose or direction. And then Bruce lost Imogene completely.
“Hey, where are you?”
She didn’t answer. He looked around but couldn’t spot her. The dog still bounced up and down just to his left.
“Sic him. Get him,” Imogene yelled. “Get him. Kill him.”
The dog was on top of Bruce, and he still couldn’t see where Imogene was. He tried to shake the dog off, but it had him by the face, part of his nose and cheek.
“Get him off me,” he said. “Don’t make me shoot him.”
He dropped the flashlight and reached for his gun, but—no—he couldn’t shoot the dog. The dog was gold. He managed to flip it over, so that he was above it, smacking the head as hard as he could to loosen its grip. Just as he seemed about to come free, he felt a blow from behind, like something huge had just fallen on him—an entire tree, the side of a mountain. The pain of the dog biting him continued, but somehow it was less intense, less specific. He knew this feeling. When you had to fight to keep your lights on. Maybe you woke up, maybe you didn’t. The last thing he heard before he went under:
“Just so you know: you can’t grow real truffles in America.”