According to local legend, I was born under a bad sign. A green and white highway sign for those entering or leaving Gett, Florida, to be precise. My parents had been escaping the small town deep in the Everglades of South Florida and their soon-to-be-shotgun-
wedded fate when the engine blew on my father’s 1977 Trans Am—black like the one Burt Reynolds drove in some movie made thirteen years before I was even born.
The arrival of an eight pound, three-ounce baby girl had lessened my parents’ desire for freedom from small-town life, mostly due to the expense of diapers and formula.
Or so the gossip said.
I tried to ignore the whispers of rumors always circulating through the Gett population of 845. Particularly when it had to do with my family—which it did all too often since I’d returned home from Hollywood to sweltering heat and bugs the size of compact cars. I’d lived in California since graduating college six years ago, working as an actress, and only recently came back to take care of my ailing grandfather and the true love of his life—The Lucky Whiskey Distillery.
“Blue is such a soothing color.” Sallie Abbott, the owner of Sallie’s Crafts and Such, beamed as she rang up the two cans of light azure paint I’d set on the counter.
Inhaling deeply, a flood of long forgotten memories and paint fumes flickered through my senses, much like an old black-and-white movie. I’d spent countless hours roaming the paint selections as a kindergartener, picking out just the right color for my new walls. Like Goldilocks, it had to be just right.
I couldn’t afford to make a mistake.
Not when it mattered most.
The memory had me thinking about Jack, as it always did. Which was the reason I found myself at Sallie’s today. My granddad’s room needed a fresh coat of paint. I glanced at the cobalt label on the paint can, hoping against hope Sallie was right, and the color would soothe my granddad, for Jack desperately needed to be soothed … before someone shot him.
An action I considered at least once a day.
Thank God for his nurse, Sweet Jayme Babbitt, a saint in every sense—from the top of her head, often piled high with dark hair, to her elfish feet. Much to her chagrin, Sweet Jayme only stood just over five foot in her sneakers.
Not only did Jayme keep Jack away from the distillery as he recuperated, which was probably why I hadn’t acted on my threat to shoot my beloved cranky grandparent, but also I suspected she spiked his morning decaf coffee with Xanax.
Saying Jack was a good patient was like ordering a bourbon and Diet Coke. It just wasn’t done. Not in polite circles.
“The house needs work,” I said to Sallie, picturing the Lucky family home. “Especially the living room. I don’t think Jack’s touched up the paint since the day I was born.”
The monstrosity Jack called home was built in the late 1800s by my great-great-grandfather. It had eight bedrooms and five baths, plus a library, living room, and kitchen. Most of which were unchanged in the last seventy-four years, much like Granddad Jack.
“More likely a few decades before that.” Sallie’s eyes, milky with age but still as intense as ever, stayed on mine. “Be sure that paint ends up on the walls, and not anywhere else in town, girl.”
I winced at her harshly spoken warning. Over ten years ago, on a dare after much too much cheap wine, I apparently—not that I had a memory of the event—climbed the Gett water tower with a can of paint. The next morning, far too hungover to think straight, I awoke with emerald paint on my hands and no idea why … until I looked out my bedroom window.
The water tower, which once boasted the town’s proud name, now read:
It was a stupid, childish prank. One the town had never let me forget.
Damn Brodie Gett for his truth-or-dare games that, I was almost positive, had driven me up the ladder. I’d heard Grodie Brodie, as I used to call him, was back in town after a stint in the military. Not that it mattered, for I made a point to avoid all Getts.
Life was easier that way.
Not that one could spit without hitting a Gett in Gett, Florida.
Not only was the town named after the Gett family, but they also made it a point to fill said town with as many of their genetic byproduct as possible. And seeing as each Gett was better-looking than the next, possibilities abound.
“When will you all quit talking about the water tower?” I asked with a sigh.
She chuckled, a sound warmed from years of drinking Lucky Whiskey. “Charlotte, girl, you’ve been the talk of the town since your dear mommy, God rest her, took a ride in John Lucky’s Trans Am.”
I’d heard that story so many times growing up. Where it once brought pain, it now gave me comfort. I smiled as I pictured two madly in love teenagers cutting class to go for a joyride in a car that would, nine months later, act as baby’s first bassinet.
Sadly, the same car would, only five short years later, take both their lives.
With a sigh of regret for what should’ve been, I picked up the cans, one in each hand, and headed for the door. “Thanks, Sallie.”
“You tell your adorable granddaddy hi for me.” She patted her salt-and-pepper colored hair pulled tightly against her head.
“I surely will.”
Who knew Jack was such a catch?
Half grossed out by the possibility, I pushed through the door of her shop and into the humid hell known as Florida. My hair, normally tawny-colored with a fashionable pixie cut, instantly curled, leaving me looking more like the Little Orphan Annie during a walk of shame. I blew out a loud, heated breath. It could’ve been worse.
Then it got exactly that as I turned a corner and ran smack dab into Grodie Brodie Gett. Literally. My face smashed into his hard chest. The paint cans tipped backward, as did I. Somehow he managed to stop my descent to the ground, gripping me around the waist with his wide hands.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for the cans of paint. They hit the concrete, hard. One of the lids popped loose, oozing paint onto the pitted sidewalk.
“No, no, no,” I whispered, one of my greatest nightmares coming true. I’d never hear the end of this, let alone the incident with the water tower. How could this happen!
At that moment, I glared up into the very bane of my un-Lucky existence.
Grodie Brodie stared at the mess on the concrete and then his gaze traveled to me. As if not quite believing his eyes, he slowly looked me up and down. Not in a creepy way, but more of a general appraisal. However, I could’ve done without the familiar smirk, the one that likely led to the incident on the tower all those years ago in the first place. “Well, well, if it isn’t Charms.” His hand lingered on my back for a brief moment before he released me, taking a step back. “You look exactly the same.”
Charms, as in Lucky Charms.
I remembered the day in first grade when he announced the nickname to the entire class, which, admittedly, was about thirty kids in all. He stood up in the middle of quiet time, smirking that Gett smirk. His eyes roamed over my red hair and eyes too big for my face. And then he forever sealed my fate with one word: Charms. The other kids laughed. Even Mrs. Crest, our teacher, smiled a bit before shushing Brodie.
Years later, Grodie Brodie added how he’d tasted my charms, and they were indeed magically delicious. A lie, but one that stuck. The first time I’d heard the rumor flickering through our high school of teenagers from both Gett and the larger town of Harker, I’d been studying lines for an audition for the lead role in The Taming of the Shrew.
The shrew had nothing on me when I ran down the hall to confront Brodie.
I’d screamed in his face until my voice went hoarse. He just stood there, his face devoid of emotion. In that moment, I hated him. Suffice it to say, when I finally auditioned a few hours later, the shrew sounded much more like a squeaky mouse.
I didn’t get the part.
I blamed Brodie to this day.
At the memory, my blood pressure rose until my body felt as hot as the scorching sun overhead.
“You don’t look at all like you used to,” I said as a means of irritating him. Not that it would. The captain of the football team had grown from a boy into a man—a stunning one at that. During his time in the Army, his body had filled out, turning youthful muscles rock hard. His black hair, once shaggy and long, was now buzzed and in order. Everything about him screamed soldier.
Nothing like the boy who’d recklessly tried to “borrow” my granddad’s pickup, but ended up stalling the stick shift. Rather than blister the twelve-year-old Brodie following his joyride, Jack had shoved him back into the pickup and taught him the basics of stick. The sound of grinding gears filled my head. The ever-confident Gett hadn’t been so much so that day. Then again, the first time Jack let me drive his pickup, I’d confused reverse for first, sending the truck into the shallow river bed running along our property.
The memory of Jack’s laughter filled my mind.
A sound I hadn’t heard since I’d returned home six weeks ago.
“It’s been ten years,” Brodie said, his thumbs hooked into his belt loops. “I hope I’m not the same stupid kid, doing stupid things to get girls’ attention.”
I gave him a half smile. “Like you had to try.”
“Maybe not all the time. Speaking of trying, how’s Jack?” Brodie and my grandfather had an odd relationship. The Gett family with their Gett Whiskey brand had long been the Lucky’s rivals for best whiskey in the country, let alone state.
It all started almost two hundred years ago, when my great-great-grandfather, Wilson Lucky, entrusted the recipe for the smoothest whiskey to his best friend and investment partner, Marvin Gett. Less than a year later, Marvin had set up his own distillery only a few miles away, and Wilson had to witness the betrayal every day.
A year after that, Wilson Lucky was dead.
Some say he had died of a broken heart.
However, some believed the legend that declared his death a direct result of a gunshot wound sustained by an irate husband returning home early. A legend Jack denied with a wink whenever asked.
The feud grew under the helm of Rue Gett, Brodie’s grandmother and the bane of Jack’s existence. She did everything in her power to come out on top, even if that meant sabotaging Lucky. But be that as it may, Jack had always held a special spot in his heart for Brodie, the youngest Gett. I’d often wondered why, but never asked. For as much loss as Jack had suffered, from Grandma Jennie to my own father, he was owed a secret or two.
“He’ll be back in the saddle in no time.” Not quite true, but why tell Brodie? His feelings for Jack aside, he’d only use it to one-up us. Whiskey and family meant far more than feelings around here. “And your Grandma Rue? My Gosh, she must be in her eighties by now.” And as wily as ever, by all accounts. “How’s she doing these days?”
A loud creak from rusted hinges warned of my impending doom as Sallie charged out of her shop to blister me for the paint spill, and then stopped. She beamed up at Brodie as if he’d recently saved the world. Single-handedly.
Sometimes I hated this town.
“Good to have you home, boy. We sure did miss you,” she said.
“Good to be here.”
Lovefest over, she turned to scold me, her thin arms motioning with a vigor reserved for a much younger woman. “Look at what you’ve done. I warned you to be careful, Charlotte.”
“I…” I glanced down at the mess, and then back at Brodie. “He did it,” I said and walked off, a genuine smile on my face. The first since I’d left the soft, golden promise of the California sun.
“Char, did you test the cask strength?” Granddad Jack asked a few hours later. “It’s gotta be under 125 proof. Any more and we’re going to have a batch of furniture polish.” He sat in his favorite worn recliner, a glass of water rather than whiskey, much to his dismay, on the armrest.
“I know,” I said, placing a tray filled with food in front of him. He looked far too thin, not nearly the big bold presence I remembered. He wasn’t eating, and I was getting worried.
Jack had raised me since my parents died in an unfortunate rollover car accident along Gator Row when I was five. Granddad had taken me in without a second thought. I couldn’t imagine life without him. Since my return, every time I looked at him, I saw a seventy-four-year-old man, his hair thinning, skin growing pale. Tired. His gaze not as steady.
He was fading before my eyes, and I had no way of stopping it.
Time, even more than the Getts, was our enemy now.
“I’ll check the strength in a moment.” I motioned to the food on the plate. Food that looked far too gray in color to taste like anything. “Now will you eat? It’s your favorite. Chicken pot pie.”
He thumped the tray, sending the plate dancing toward the edge. Thankfully it stayed on the tray, along with seventy-five percent of the pot pie. “What’s the point of pot pie if there’s no butter in it? I might as well eat chicken soup.”
I tried to smile, but it fell flat. He did have a point, but seeing as I’d worked for over an hour trying to make “healthy” chicken pot pie, I wasn’t in the mood to argue. Rather than listen to the same complaint I’d heard every night since he’d come home from the hospital, I used a tried-and-true motto. “Doctor’s orders.”
“Doctor, my ass,” he yelled. “Those quacks know nothing—”
Before he went full-court press on the medical profession, Sweet Jayme entered the room, her hair tied back with a bandana and a wide smile on her face. Granddad instantly dropped his rant.
“I’ll take it from here,” she said, handing him a fork, worn with age and use. “Go check your cask strength, Charlotte. We’ll be here when you’re done.”
I smiled my appreciation and then focused on Granddad. “I’ll be back in ten minutes. I expect a cleaned plate and a smile on your grumpy face upon my return.” Leaning down, I kissed his forehead to soften my words. As I did, I inhaled his scent. A combination of oak and whiskey.
Taking one last whiff, I left the house, circling the distillery, where grains went from malting to milling to mash, and then on to fermentation in large steel tanks called washbacks, and finally distilling. Separating the alcohol from the water during the distilling process was done in copper stills heated to just under 212 degrees. From there, it would be distilled again before it was ready to sleep for the next four years in a cask created to instill the finest color and flavor.
On my right sat the cooperage cottage, where my cousin Evan crafted the finest whiskey casks in the business, like my father once had. But my mission wasn’t in the cottage or the distillery, but the building directly behind the distillery, tucked between it and the swamp.
The structure known as the rackhouse—where two thousand gallons of whiskey sat waiting for the exact right time to be bottled—was like a beacon in the sky. I was, as always, impressed by sheer height of it. Three stories all packed with aging whiskey and intricate pulley systems to raise and lower casks, to ensure no whiskey was served before its time.
Luckys knew two things. First, good wort wrought grand flavor; and second, whiskey took time to mature. Open a cask too soon and the best of wort couldn’t save it.
Each barrel inside our rackhouse spent over four long years inside, sometimes longer. Waiting for that one magical moment where the blurred lines between booze and whiskey sharpened into something wonderful.
What wasn’t wonderful was the humidity stalking my every step on the journey to whiskey nirvana. How could it be this sweltering at seven at night? One of the things I missed most about L.A. When the sun set over the ocean waters, the air chilled like whiskey poured over ice.
Not so in sweaty armpit Florida.
Though I had to admit, it felt nice to be outside to hear the buzz of mosquitoes and the cry of wildlife hidden in the shadows beyond the property line.
These days I spent most of my time indoors trying to figure out Jack’s filing system so I could pay the stack of bills piling up on his old oak desk. Running Lucky Whiskey wasn’t as easy as I’d first thought when I rolled back into town six weeks ago. And I rarely did more than the routine administrative work. The actual distilling and chemistry I left to our head distiller, Roger Kerrick.
Roger and I went back a way. Back to high school and the backseat of his mother’s Jeep, to be specific. The memory of the heavy scent of Drakkar Noir and leather seats, of teenage hormones and wet kisses, of Roger’s fumbling hands and fogged windows, rose inside me.
Thankfully, I moved on to better after I caught Roger humping the prom queen. At the time, my tears had Jack threatening to stuff the cheating Roger in a cask and toss him in the Glades.
For the distillery’s sake, I’m glad he’d refrained.
We needed Roger.
Especially since I was now in charge. I made a mental note to swing by and see Roger in the morning, to find out where we were at with the latest batch. I hadn’t seen him in a day or two, and was starting to get concerned. Even an hour too long in the wort room and the grain could shoot, thereby ruining the flavor of the batch.
Or so Jack said.
Sadly, everyone in the county knew I was in over my head, even if I would never admit to such a sin. Whiskey was supposed to be in my blood. Without Roger at my side, I felt like I was swimming in a glass of Old Crow instead of Old Weller Antique.
Using all the strength in my arms, I pulled open the door to the rackhouse, inhaling the scent of wood and whiskey, as I did every time I entered. There was something almost reverent about the rackhouse, with the rows upon rows of casks stacked as high as the eye could see.
With a loud sigh that filled the empty building, I pulled a small copper tube-like instrument from my pocket called a thief. The weight and feel of it brought back a flood of memories. Both good and bad. Memories of Jack. Of his stern features breaking into a wide grin at the first taste of a new batch. My first kiss had been just beyond the first row of casks. The heady scent of warming whiskey as welcoming as Joey Duggan’s moist lips.
The Lucky Distillery was family.
In my years away I’d forgotten the intoxicating smell of fermenting grains. Or how my tongue tingled, much more than other places had during Joey’s overly wet smooch, as I anticipated the finest whiskey in the country.
But while Jack had always dreamed of that perfect sip, I’d spent my childhood days daydreaming of life outside Gett, Florida … of walking the red carpet.
I spied the cask the rackhouse manager had left out for me to test. The Lucky emblem embossed on the top. Wiping a bead of sweat from my forehead, I held the thief aloft, the cask—my intended victim.
I stabbed the instrument into the oak like I had done with an icepick in my brief appearance on NCIS. I used my thumb, holding it over the top to gain enough pressure to suck up a taste of the rich whiskey inside.
I lifted the thief, frowning.
Something wasn’t right.
I jabbed it in again. Harder. Still nothing. Was something wrong with the cask? Had the angels taken more than their fair share? More likely the devil was at play. But he wouldn’t win. Not this time.
I grabbed a bung puller, which looked a lot like a large, complicated corkscrew, and went to work on prying the barrel open. Whiskey splashed over the edge, falling on my boots with a wet splat. I paused, frowning as the air filled with a pungent odor, like fermenting overly ripe bananas and whiskey.
Was the cask bad? Had air somehow gotten inside, destroying the carefully crafted ingredients? I hoped not. We had orders to fill, and each cask was worth nearly ten thousand dollars.
Using all the strength in what some might call my scrawny arms, I cranked at the bung puller along the edge of the barrel. Ultimately the lid gave way and I fell back a step.
An even fouler odor spewed from the cask, like meat left far too long in the Florida sun. Tears rose in my eyes. Cupping a hand over my mouth, I held my breath. The stench threatened to overwhelm my efforts to keep it at bay. Trying not to gag, I took a step closer to the cask.
Don’t look. Don’t look, my mind warned, but I had no choice.
Once my brain recognized the horror before me, I let out a sharp cry. “Oh my God.” The urge to lose my own chicken pot pie dinner rose up. I had a feeling it wouldn’t taste any better coming back up than it had going down. I swallowed gulping breaths until the feeling subsided.
Stumbling back, I accidently bumped the cask with the bung puller. It rocked back and then tipped forward, spilling the very pickled corpse of Roger Kerrick onto the rackhouse floor with a wet plop.
About the Author:
J.A. Kazimer is a writer living in Denver, CO. When Kazimer isn’t looking for the perfect place to hide the bodies she spends her time surrounded by cats with attitude and a little puppy named Killer. Other hobbies include murdering houseplants, kayaking, snowboarding, reading and theater. After years of slacking, she received a master’s degree in forensic psychology, which she promptly ignored and started writing novels for little to no money. In addition to studying the criminal mind, Kazimer spent a few years spilling drinks on people as a bartender and then wasted another few years stalking people while working as a private investigator in the Denver area. Her books include The Junkie Tales, The Body Dwellers, CURSES! A F***ed-Up Fairy Tale, Holy Socks & Dirtier Demons, Dope Sick: A Love Story, SHANK, Froggy Style, The Assassin’s Heart, and The Fairyland Murders: A Deadly After Ever Mystery.
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