It’s been a while since I posted anything from The Big Empty, so here’s another excerpt from the novel. You can get your copy online, at your favorite bookstore, or save 25% by ordering directly from Stoney Creek Publishing.
Trace Malloy’s fist landed firmly in the middle of the other man’s nose. He could feel the bridge give under the force of his knuckles, and he knew he’d broken it. It wasn’t much of a punch, just a quick jab that he pulled back instantly, as if to say he was sorry.
But he wasn’t sorry. As the anger and adrenaline coursed through him, Malloy felt no regret for hitting Blaine Witherspoon. God knows, the arrogant son of a bitch had it coming. He was sorry, though, about the implications, about the long lectures he’d receive about building bridges or mending fences or whatever other type of psychological construction was supposed to be going on.
Witherspoon lay in a crumpled, whimpering mass on the floor. Several of the other newly transplanted homeowners who’d attended the meeting hovered around him, one or two shooting hateful glances at Malloy. Witherspoon’s glasses were shattered, and blood gushed from his nostrils. He tried to cup it with his hand, but it flowed around and through his fingers. His head hung limply on his chest, which heaved as he gasped for air.
One of the homeowners wheeled around, locking his sights on Malloy. He took a step in Malloy’s direction. Malloy stood still, looking down at Witherspoon and not saying anything.
“I think you’d better leave,” the man said, trying to stare Malloy down. Malloy looked back at him calmly. He could tell the man was scared, and he knew he could send him into the corner with Witherspoon if he had to. Then again, Malloy hadn’t come to the meeting looking for a fight, at least not a fistfight.
Others from the group were staring at him now, too, and Malloy rested his eyes on each one. The man in front of him was pasty and fat, about five foot four and wearing the open collared Oxford shirt that the homeowners seemed to favor. Malloy tried to recall his name. Swan? Swail? Swain? Howard, he thought, Howard Swain. He’d met him a half dozen or so times in the months since he’d first collided with Witherspoon and the others had begun arriving in town. He remembered Witherspoon’s name, of course, because of the collision. He’d learned it during the insurance settlements. But it was hard to keep the other newcomers straight. The homies — as Malloy had started calling them, largely as an inside joke with himself — pretty much kept to themselves. They didn’t come to the feed store or the propane shop or take their cars to Terry Garrison’s garage, so most of the townspeople in Conquistador hadn’t gotten to know them. They didn’t go to church, didn’t wave when they drove past you in town, didn’t say hello on the street on the rare occasions when they actually came downtown.
Beads of sweat had broken on Swain’s forehead, and Malloy stood motionless, returning the stare. He looked to the others lining up behind Swain. Several were wearing coats and ties, representatives of the developers from Lubbock who were building the housing subdivision at AzTech’s request. Technically, they still controlled the homeowners association, and Malloy had hoped they would understand his concerns.
They understood only money, and right now, the money was coming from Witherspoon and his burgeoning band of geeks. The developers were willing to do whatever Witherspoon wanted, as long as he paid for it. So they now stood with the homies, aligned with the flow of money regardless of whether they understood the issues. The moment hung silent and pregnant between them, Swain pointing toward the door, frozen except for his moistening pores. Malloy had no intention of continuing the confrontation. It had already slipped from his grasp.
“I said, you need to leave,” Swain pressed again, finding courage amid the fear that floated up from his corpulent frame, carried on the acrid odor of his perspiration.
“I reckon,” Malloy said finally. As he opened the door of the community center, he heard Witherspoon’s shaky voice coming after him.
“I’m going to sue you, Malloy. You can’t get away with this. You’re nothing but a thug, a…a…bully. That’s what you are.”
If the homeowners had been able to see Malloy’s face, they might have spotted the row of white teeth breaking through the bushy overhang of his mustache. He didn’t laugh out loud, but he couldn’t contain the smile.
A bully? Malloy thought, as he ground the key in the ignition of the pickup. So now he was the bad guy. The homies had gotten everything they wanted, and it still wasn’t enough.
He wound the pickup around the carefully paved road leading to the main entrance. To his right, the fountain spurted shamelessly, illuminated by the spotlights planted just under the surface. The flow of its fingers seemed to dance in the light before hitting the sprawling expanse of the surface. After tonight, they might want to call it Lake Nosebleed, Malloy thought, chuckling to himself. He was still too angry to feel bad about what had happened.
The headlights of the pickup settled briefly on the massive limestone sign with “Rolling Ranch Estates” carved into it. He waited for the electric gate to roll back. Yet another annoyance. Most people in Conquistador didn’t lock their doors at night. These people were locking their neighborhood. The town didn’t even have a full-time policeman. It had never needed one. Yet these people, beholden to their city-spawned fears, felt they had something so precious that even out here it had to be protected, even if it inconvenienced everybody else.
Malloy understood the desire to protect property, but these people weren’t interested in what he considered property. They had no land, and they didn’t want any. They built huge houses so close together that two people could barely walk between them. Their yards were little bigger than the pools they all had to have. The gate was supposed to keep out undesirables or protect all the fancy stuff inside their slapped-together houses. What thief would come all the way out here for that? And if he did, where would he sell the stuff he stole? The town of Conquistador was protected by the greatest of crime prevention tools—apathy. No one in Conquistador cared what the homies hoarded in their houses, and no one outside of Conquistador thought much about the town or the people in it.
The new chip plant could change that. Hell, if it succeeded, it might even make Conquistador the focus of national attention, of business interest—business investment. But it came at a price he was just beginning to understand. Progress meant economic opportunity, but it also meant imported habits, demands, and fears that he hadn’t really anticipated.
[From The Big Empty, copyright 2021 by Loren C. Steffy. Stoney Creek Publishing Group LLC.]