Purgatory Chasm (Conway Sax Series #1)

Purgatory Chasm (Conway Sax Series #1)

by Steve Ulfelder


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*Nominated for the Edgar Award for Best First Novel

*Winner of the Reviewer's Choice Award from RT BookReviews for Best First Mystery of 2011

"Tander Phigg was a real jerk, but he was also a Barnburner. Barnburners saved my life. I help them when I can. No exceptions."

"A refreshing new character solving hardcore crimes…. crisp plotting, hard-boiled style and realistic dialogue." —Associated Press

"Combines elements of the thriller with tales of tangled families. Violence runs through the novel, but Ulfelder tempers it with compassion — and evocative prose. Purgatory Chasm may be hardboiled, but it's heart-wrenching, too." –Richmond Times-Dispatch

"Working throughout is the edgy, self-effacing voice of a flawed main character, a good guy with plenty of baggage who's just trying stay alive and to get it right this time." –The Boston Globe

The job seems simple. Conway Sax, a no-nonsense auto mechanic with a knack for solving difficult problems, has never liked Tander Phigg. But Tander's a Barnburner, a member of the unique AA group that rescued Conway, and when a Barnburner has a problem, Conway takes care of it. Besides, all Tander wants is to get back his vintage Mercedes from a shady auto shop. But Conway soon discovers there's much more to the problem–especially when Tander turns up dead. Conway was the last person seen with the victim, and on top of that, he has a record. He must catch the killer to clear himself, but he's also a man who honors his promises, even when the guy he made them to is dead. In the tradition of Robert B. Parker and Dennis Lehane, Steve Ulfelder's crackling debut mystery features a gritty, razor-sharp new voice in crime fiction that will stay with you long after the last page.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250007025
Publisher: St. Martin's Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/24/2012
Series: Conway Sax Series , #1
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.56(w) x 8.04(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Steve Ulfelder is an amateur race driver and co-owner of Flatout Motorsports, a company that builds race cars in Bellingham, MA. He was a business and technology journalist for 20 years. Purgatory Chasm is his first novel.

Read an Excerpt



There are drunken assholes, and there are assholes who are drunks.

Take a drunken asshole and stick him in AA five or ten years, maybe you come out with a decent guy.

Now take an asshole who’s a drunk. Put him in AA as long as you like. Send him to a thousand meetings a year, have him join the Peace Corps for good measure. What you come out with is a sober asshole.

Tander Phigg was a sober asshole.

I was thinking this while he bought me lunch at a diner in Rourke, New Hampshire, just across the Massachusetts border. From the outside, it looked like one of those small-town diners people wish were still around—plate-glass windows, fifties-style brushed-aluminum letters that spelled DOT’S PLACE, turquoise tiles surrounding the door.

But once you got inside you stopped pining. It smelled and felt like fifty years’ worth of grease had coated the floor, the walls, the vinyl stools, even the black-and-white pictures of locals and the deer they’d killed. The food was bad, too.

Sitting across from me in a booth, Tander Phigg gave me an eyeful of some of it while he chewed—an egg-salad sandwich. He was pushing seventy-five and getting heavy. His belly pressed Formica through a yellow polo shirt with the collar flipped up. He had a red nose that twenty-plus years of sobriety couldn’t get rid of, snow-white hair that was too long for a man his age. He’d always worn it that way. You got the feeling somebody once told him he had a great head of hair, and he believed them.

There were other things: The hair was a little too greasy, and Phigg’s eyes had gone greedy when he looked at the menu, and there was a smell to him he hadn’t quite masked with Old Spice.

Tander Phigg was desperate.

I’d never liked him, hadn’t wanted to drive an hour to meet him. But I shut up and ate my burger and listened anyway.

Tander Phigg was an asshole, but he was also a Barnburner. Barnburners saved my life. I help them when I can. No exceptions.

“So what do you think?” Phigg said. “You going to let these crooks hold your baby hostage?”

My baby?”

“Hey, you were always talking about how she was ahead of her time, all the technology packed inside her.”

“Here’s what I liked about that car,” I said. “The technology you’re bragging on was always screwed up. It kept me busy, made me money.” I hit the it extra hard. I hate when people talk about cars like they’re women or babies. A street car’s a tool. A race car’s a weapon. When they break, I fix them. There’s not much more to it.

Phigg’s baby, his her, was a 1980 Mercedes-Benz 450SEL 6.9. Nice car, ahead of its time. It had the first antilock braking system I ever saw, a suspension you could adjust from the driver’s seat, and a bunch of other fancy features.

But the fancy stuff broke—all the time. Those 450SELs made techs like me a lot of dough, even when they were brand new. And by ’99, when Phigg bought one with 140,000 miles on the clock, it was an ass-dragging smoker. I went through each system at least once. I’d been happy to do it as long as his checks cleared.

Which they didn’t always anymore, according to the Barnburner grapevine.

“I had to fix her,” Phigg said. “With a car like that, a classic, I didn’t see myself as the owner. I was more of a caretaker.”

I rolled my eyes, wiped my mouth, dropped my napkin on the plate.

Phigg’s eyes darted to the plate. He made a lightning grab for three fries, chewed. “How about it?”

Hell. He was a Barnburner. “How long they had it?” I said.

“Going on eighteen months, for chrissake.”

That did seem like a long time, unless there was something else Phigg wasn’t telling me. “How far have they gotten with the work?”

“I went by last week. They’ve done nothing, Conway. They parked her by a back wall and threw a tarp over her.”

“Why’d they say it’s taking so long?”

“Blah blah this, blah blah that, parts from Germany, other customers ahead of me.”

“That’s bullshit,” I said. “They ought to’ve taken it apart by now, put it on a rotisserie. Or given you a good reason why not.”

“So you’ll take a look?”

“Where’s the shop?”

“Two blocks back.”

“On Mechanic Street,” I said.

“How’d you know?”

“Every town has one.”

The waitress came by, coffeepot poised. I flat-handed a no-thanks. Phigg ignored her until she left, then leaned in. “I want my car and my money back,” he said. “I can drive it around a few more years before I fix the rust. Hell, maybe I’ll sell it as is.”

“What money back?”

His face went the same color as his nose. “They wanted some dough to get started.”

“That was stupid and you know it,” I said. “How much?”

“The way the guy explained it, it’s like when a contractor gets money up front.”

“How much?”

“Thirty-five hundred.” Phigg fingered his yellow collar, ran the back of a hand across his mouth.

I took a breath, let it out. “Stupid.”

“You’ll help me?”

“I’ll talk to them. Not today, though. Busy.”

He smiled, rapped the table twice, reached to touch my forearm.

I pulled it back.

He wrote the name of the shop and his phone number and address on a corner of his paper place mat, tore it off, handed it to me, said thanks, split. He was in a hurry to get out the door before the waitress made it over with the check.


*   *   *

I wanted a peek at the shop before I headed home. I hadn’t lied to Phigg: Every town does have a Mechanic Street, and they’re all the same. They run perpendicular to the main drag in whatever part of town was lousy when the town was born. More often than not they dead-end at railroad tracks, as this street did. Before I U-turned at the tracks, I passed an off-brand transmission shop, a generic diesel station with a propane-refill cage, and a place called Santo’s Custom Interior where a Mexican and a pit bull chained to the Mexican’s chair stared at me.

I cruised past the place that was ripping off Phigg. It had been high-end once. The building was a former barn, thirty feet across and deep. It had two roll-up doors and a simple sign: DAS MOTORENWERK.

One of the roll-up doors was open. I saw a two-post lift with an Audi A4 up high, its engine oil draining into a long funnel stuck in a drum.

I’m a grease monkey myself—I’ve worked at dealerships, run a shop of my own, even been part of the NASCAR traveling circus—so I could see Das Motorenwerk wasn’t breaking any records. For starters, there was no little group of customer cars outside. One lousy oil change was the day’s workload.

The Dumpster at the side of the barn was overflowing, which meant the shop had saved a few bucks by switching from an every-two-weeks Dumpster service to monthly. Next to the Dumpster stood a triple stack of used tires with weeds growing through. It costs money to get rid of tires, and God help you if you’re caught sneaking them into the Dumpster.

I put my F-150 in reverse, backed to the upholstery shop. As I neared, the pit bull went crazy. Without looking at the dog, the Mexican hit its nose with a closed fist. The dog shut up.

I leaned, rolled down the passenger window. “I’m a tech looking for work,” I said. “Heard Motorenwerk was a good outfit, but the shop looks pretty tired. Know anything about it?”

He looked at me fifteen seconds and said, “Where the fuck you hear that?”

I’d wanted him to ask. Pretended to hesitate. “The guy who told me, he’s been away awhile.”

The Mexican smiled, rose, hitched his khakis, came to my window. The pit bull whined. Up close the Mexican looked older. Had a tear tattooed at the outside corner and just below one eye. He said, “State time?”

Another fake pause. “Walpole.”

“You on paper?”

“Eleven months to go,” I said. “How about the shop? They any good?”

“Used to be. Now…” He fluttered a hand, stopped in mid-flutter, narrowed his eyes. “State time down in Mass. Mass. license plate. So why you looking for work up here?”

“I live in Townsend, ten minutes away, so my PO said I can work in New Hampshire.” I took off before he could ask more questions. Or unchain the pit bull.

*   *   *

I’d lied. I didn’t live in Townsend. Lived in Framingham, Massachusetts. Or Shrewsbury, a couple towns west. Or both. I wasn’t sure, and that was a problem.

I headed for Framingham, thought about Tander Phigg while I drove.

He’d been sober forever, was already a Barnburner old-timer when I showed up ten-plus years ago. I’d looked up to him for a while, the way new fish always look up to old-timers. Hell, he’d even been my sponsor for six months.

But the more I hung around, the less I liked him. The stories he told at AA meetings changed as years passed. What had been arguments became bar fights. What had been funny DUI stories that ended with Phigg in the drunk tank became COPS-style megachases, half the cruisers in Worcester County hound-dogging Phigg.

Like that.

As I exited Route 495 I set aside my dislike and focused on the interesting development: Tander Phigg smelled broke. Back when I’d worked on his Mercedes, he was a cost-no-object guy—and happy to tell you about it. He’d moved to New Hampshire to escape Taxachusetts and build his timber-frame dream house on a river. For a while, he’d bored us all half to death with artist’s renderings and blueprints.

Now he was a man who seemed itchy to get thirty-five hundred bucks out of a car-repair place. And as I thought about it, I realized it’d been a long time since he’d bragged about his big house at the Barnburner meeting-after-the-meeting.

*   *   *

I sobered up a long time ago. I’ll never know why: People talk about hitting bottom, but what’s the bottom? I’d crashed through a dozen.

Whatever the reason, I woke up one day in the dry-out wing of a Brockton, Massachusetts, VA hospital—a clerk’s mistake; I’m not a veteran—and grabbed the tired mattress with both hands and white-knuckled my way through the worst of the DTs. When they figured out I shouldn’t be in the VA hospital and bounced me, I wound up in Framingham. Salvation Army cot, day-labor gigs, food-pantry handouts.

What you have to learn for yourself is that each AA meeting has its own character. Some groups—in Framingham, a town full of halfway houses and methadone clinics, a lot of groups—go through the motions so attendees can get their parole cards signed. Others wheeze along for the benefit of a half dozen old-timers. Some groups give you the hairy eyeball if you bring up drugs. Some are cliquey as hell. All you can do is stick with it, try meetings until you find the right fit.

It took me three months. My knees were bruised from praying. My knuckles were death-grip white. I was tipping, getting set to backslide, feeling ashamed of the next inevitable relapse, when I hitched a ride to a Barnburner meeting.

As soon as I stepped into the basement at Saint Anne’s, everything changed. I knew I was in the right place. Didn’t know how I knew—still don’t—but I knew.

Three people shook my hand. A biker with a cobweb tattooed on his neck took one look at me, knew I didn’t have a buck for a raffle ticket, and gave me one on the house. When I made my way to the coffee table and started throwing back Dunkin’ Munchkins like they were dinner (they were; it was February, a slow month for day labor), people pretended not to notice, and an old-timer who turned out to be Mary Giarusso disappeared into a back room and came out with another box.

As soon as I sat on a folding chair, I figured out the Barnburners’ core. The key players sat at the left front, kitty-corner, where they could see the speaker while keeping an eye on the rest of the room. Charlene wasn’t there yet—she came along later—but most of them were. Mary Giarusso took a seat. Butch Feeley, who was seventy then and beefy, sat near the center like the group’s Godfather (he was), arms folded, legs stretched, ankles crossed, a lieutenant whispering in each ear. One of the lieutenants was Chester Bagley, who didn’t yet wear a toupee but did have a horrendous comb-over. The other was a mean-looking South American dude—Colombian, I found out later—who wouldn’t even speak to you until you were sober a year.

Tander Phigg was in that front corner, of course. Hair already white, vinyl jacket with a Porsche logo, Rolex Daytona slopping around on his wrist. He was telling a Commander McBragg story to a shaved-head black guy who looked like he wished he’d picked a different seat.

There they sat, nine or ten altogether, giving off a parole-board vibe I hadn’t yet seen in a meeting. The vibe said this was serious AA for serious people. No tools, posers, or dilettantes need apply.

I wanted in. Hung around after the meeting, putting chairs away and checking out the parole board, who were in no hurry to leave. Aware of me, they hemmed and hawed and made small talk. Finally the cobweb-tattoo guy took my arm. “See you next week, pal?”

“Well,” I said, glancing at the front of the room.

“That’s the meeting-after-the-meeting, pal,” he said, gently aiming me at the door. “You’re not ready for that. No way, no how.”

*   *   *

I hit my house just before twelve and saw Randall Swale in the driveway staring at a pile of decking. The wood delivery was the reason I’d made the Phigg meeting a very early lunch deal: In this neighborhood, anything we didn’t screw down today would be stolen tonight.

A friend had left me the house. He’d died badly. I made sure the guys responsible did the same. I was spending a lot of time there, rehabbing the place so I could sell it. Needed the cash: My last job at a Pontiac-GMC dealership hadn’t worked out, and I’d sworn off working for anybody but myself. The idea was to flip the house and use the dough to start another shop of my own.

It’s an old four-square colonial on a quarter acre, south side of Framingham. For years the neighborhood had been mostly Brazilian, but the Brazilians were moving out because the feds were busting illegals. That was a bad deal for the neighborhood. Brazilians liked to get drunk and fight each other with knives on Saturday night, but otherwise they mostly worked their asses off and minded their own business. And as the houses emptied of Brazilians, they either went to Section 8 tenants or became squats for bums and junkies.

The guy who left me the house, and his mother before him, had lived here sixty years. Everything needed work, especially the in-law apartment on the top floor: I couldn’t sell the place until I brought the place up to code. I was nibbling away at the work. Sometimes I slept here. Sometimes I slept at my girlfriend Charlene’s place in Shrewsbury.

I stuffed my truck at the foot of the driveway and climbed out. Randall wore work boots, khakis, no shirt. He worked shirtless a lot in this freak mid-June heat wave. His skin had started UPS-brown and had gone purple-black in the sun. He’s half a foot shorter than me and has half a pound of fat on him. Earned his muscles in the army, not the gym. His father, Luther, my parole officer, introduced us. Randall had standing offers, some with full-boat academic scholarships, from a half dozen good schools. I didn’t know why he was still hanging around with me; the nearest I’d ever been to college was a transmission swap I did for the dean of Framingham State.

Heat wave or no, Randall always wore long pants. He’d lost his right foot to mid-calf in Iraq and wore a prosthetic with a cool ceramic-and-titanium ankle joint. You’d never guess he had a leg and a half—especially if you challenged him to a footrace.

He swept a hand. “What in God’s name is this?”

“Lumber for the deck,” I said. “Ordered twelve hundred linear feet. Looks about right.”

“You call this lumber?” He picked up an eight-footer, sighted down it at me. “I’ll never claim to be an expert, but this isn’t Home Depot decking. This is serious, tight-grained hardwood, and the truck that delivered it had a fancy specialty-shop logo.”

My face went red as he spoke. I knew where we were headed. I said, “Ipe.”

“Ee-pay?” he said. “Are you speaking Pig Latin now?”

I spelled it, pronounced it again. “It’s a Brazilian hardwood. Good stuff, lasts forever.”


I shrugged.

Randall shook his head, bent, picked up more ipe, headed for the back of the house. I scooped ipe and followed. “The plan was bring this place up to code, pretty it up a little, and sell it fast,” he said. “Remember?”

We stepped through the skeleton of the new deck we’d built off the kitchen. I said, “In case I wind up renting the place instead of selling, the ipe’ll save me money in the long run. No maintenance, no splits.”

“You can barely say that with a straight face,” he said. “What about blowing out that kitchen wall? What about the fancy tile in the bathroom? What about pulling the perfectly decent vinyl siding?” He finger-ticked as he spoke.

I said nothing.

We went around front for more wood.

“You keep finding excuses not to finish up and sell,” Randall said. “And the neighborhood’s going downhill fast, so every nickel you spend is a nickel lost.”

We stacked a half dozen twelve-footers and each took an end. I walked backward and said, “Nothing wrong with doing a job right.”

“Nonsense.” Randall’s voice was soft now.

I said nothing.

Randall said, “Ask yourself what’s really going on, Conway. And be honest, okay?”

“I’ll get the chop saw.”

*   *   *

Five hours later we stood sweating on ipe. I held a water. Randall held a beer.

“Nice,” I said. “Small, but a good selling point. You think?”


“’Preciate the help. You take off. I’ll clean up, put a coat of oil on it tomorrow.”

He toasted me, finished his beer, set the empty next to the kitchen door, grabbed his T-shirt. On his way past he set a hand on my shoulder. “Ask,” Randall said, “and be honest.”

My jaw felt tight. I nodded.

I swept, policed up screws we’d dropped, stacked leftover ipe in the one-car detached garage we planned to tear down soon. Although lately I’d been rethinking that: It’d make a nice workshop. For someone.

I brought the chop saw and cordless drills into the kitchen. I didn’t dare leave them in the garage, with its rotted door. The way this neighborhood was going, they’d be stolen and traded for meth before the eleven-o’clock news.

I drank another water. Talked to my cats, Dale and Davey. Thought about dinner.

Thought about Charlene. I should call.

I texted instead: Wrking on deck, will stay here 2nite, xoxo.

She texted back: K.

I stared at the letter.

I’d been pushing Charlene away for a while.

It was working.


I looked at Dale. “We like it here,” I said. “Right?”

Both cats stared.


Copyright © 2011 by Steve Ulfelder

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