Smoked by Michael Bracken


County of Offenses

Quarryville (Fictional)

Character Charges

Murder. Assault. Chainsawing. Smoking up
some killer brisket and ribs.

Priors

Repeat Offender

Known Gang Affiliations

Level Best Books

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Date of Offense

July, 2017
October, 2018

Arresting Officer

William Dylan Powell 

In the Lone Star State, we take crime very seriously. Just like our barbeque. So when a story brings together both the prospect of crime AND barbeque, you’ve really got our attention. And that’s just what short fiction honcho Michael Bracken did in his recent short story, Smoked. First appearing in Noir at the Salad Bar, Smoked also earned a place in the esteemed Best American Mysteries 2018 collection edited by Louise Penny. And it’s 100 percent, Grade A Prime.

Smoked fires up with Beau James, the humble but dedicated proprietor of the Quarryville Smokehouse—a converted Conoco Station in the fictional town of Quarryville in West Texas. James takes his work seriously, getting up almost every day in the wee hours to smoke beef ribs and brisket the right way. And Beau keeps it simple, too; no gimmicks. Just his fall-off-the-bone meat, coleslaw, a few pickle slices, some onion, two pieces of Mrs. Baird’s bread and a Dr Pepper.

His is a quiet life, with twelve whole years of service at the Quarryville Smokehouse under his belt. But things heat up when regular customer Tommy Baldwin, the restaurant’s most reliable customer, shows Beau a review of the Quarryville Smokehouse in a magazine—complete with a picture of Beau himself in action behind the counter. Rather than being excited about the publicity, the restaurateur is horrified. Because Tommy had no idea that Beau James was a participant in the United States Marshal’s Service Witness Security Program. And with that publication of his picture, his cover was now blown.

In another life, Beau (known as “stick” back then) was an enforcer for the Lords of Ohio motorcycle gang. After being arrested, James rolled over on his brothers and, as a result, eighteen of them went to prison. Now these hardcore bikers were gunning for Beau. Hard. Only they had no idea where to find him.

Until now.

But things are more complicated for Beau James than when he’d been given a new identity by the government all those years ago. Not only does he have a business he’s worked hard for, but he also has a girlfriend, Bethany. Bethany’s daughter, Amanda, even helps out at the restaurant. Not to mention regular customer Tommy Baldwin, who might have poked the bear by sending the picture of Beau and his restaurant to the magazine, but whose life is now at risk just by hanging around the place—which he resolutely won’t stop doing.

It all boils down to an Alamo-like showdown in which Beau has to decide what’s worth fighting for in his life and where, exactly, he’ll make his stand. One thing’s for sure, though, the Lords of Ohio are coming for him—including the notorious “Chainsaw Roberts.” And Beau’s heart skips a beat when, as Bracken so accurately describes, he hears the distinctive “potato, potato, potato” rumble of a Harley’s exhaust.

I like many things about this story, which is really about the value of relationships and their transformative power.

First off, I think it’s relatable. Sure, we discover that Beau is a former gang enforcer. But in the end he did the right thing, and made the most of his fresh start in life. Who hasn’t thought about the tantalizing prospect of a fresh start at some point in their lives?

Also you can tell this story was written by a true Texan. It’s made clear that anyone who asks for barbeque sauce at the Quarryville Smokehouse might very well be refused service. And Beau’s girlfriend, Bethany, is no shrinking violet—as one might expect of a Texas woman. It’s fast-paced, and Bracken really does a great job of getting the reading invested right away.

In the end, the story all comes together like brisket and Dr Pepper, leaving the reader hungry for more from this author.

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Verdict: Guilty of creating a tense, tasty piece of short fiction that proves just how difficult it is to escape your past.

 
 
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