Twilights in Texas were his favorite time of day. The late summer sky was painted in purple and orange above the tall grasses that waved in the wind as Jim drove into Whiskey River. The Jag purred like a kitten on the windy rural roads, and his fingers tapped against the gearshift in time to the music coming from the radio. Fireflies started to appear, a few at first, but as the sun set, more flashed over the fields, short bursts of gold in the gathering dimness.
His mood headed south suddenly when he came across the billboard about a mile outside of town. They had changed it since the last time he’d driven past, and not for the better. A smiling silver-haired man stood against a field of blue, his thumb held high.
“Richard fucking Archer.”
The advertisement was for a subdivision of identically boring tract homes. Jim let out a string of curses that lasted until he hit the one traffic light in Whiskey River. The two older women on the corner looked at him in reproach, one gripping the pearls around her neck tightly as she scowled at him. Jim shook his head and murmured an apology before rolling through the intersection and pulling up to his destination.
The Whiskey River Saloon was unassuming, the patrons familiar. His brother Johnnie had owned the bar for close to a decade now, and Jim was a regular visitor. Not that he was overly enamored of drinking, even though his younger brother had a surprisingly sophisticated wine cellar hidden beneath the main floor of the bar. Sadly, the saloon was what passed for nightlife in this small southern town, and although he’d chosen his hometown over a larger city, he still craved a Friday night out from time to time.
The bar was on its way to packed tonight, despite his younger brother piloting a “Fajita Fridays” promotion. Johnnie had an enthusiasm that far outweighed his culinary skills, and his fajitas were more than halfway to inedible if the still half-full plates on many of the tables were any indication. But the bar was well stocked, and as Jim straddled a stool, he pointed in the direction of the bottle of gin standing on the top shelf. “A double. Quick.”
His brother gave him a look of mild surprise. He pulled out a glass and poured the liquor Jim had requested, then handed it to him. “What’s on your mind, bro?”
“That damn billboard. Archer Development.”
Johnnie didn’t say anything, instead starting to wash the glasses in his soap-filled sink. Jim had noted his brother’s silence on the matter of development in Whiskey River before. Their small hamlet sat smack dab in the middle of the governor’s proposed Green Corridor, stretching between Lubbock and Amarillo. That put Whiskey River square in the crosshairs of eager developers hungry for tax breaks and municipal grants.
“I know you’re a local business owner, and that more people in the area could mean bigger profits for your bar,” Jim said, “but we’ve got to make certain the right kind of people are attracted, not bottom feeders like Richard Archer.”
“How do you know this Archer guy?” Johnnie asked, brushing his shaggy hair out of his eyes. “He seemed friendly on the billboard.”
“And sharks seem friendly until they bite you,” Jim muttered in reply. “Archer was a client of the firm I worked for in San Francisco before I came back to the ranch. His developments always have a veneer of luxury and respectability, but his business practices involve cutting corners to eke out the biggest profits that he can find. He sells his properties, then heads off to a new town to run the same scheme all over again, without a care in the world for the impact of his developments on the communities he leaves behind.”
When Jim drained his glass, Johnnie put a full glass of water in front of him, but Jim ignored it, motioning for another pour from the gin bottle. His brother frowned as he obliged. “Sounds like you don’t think much of this Archer fella. Sure there isn’t more to the story than his business practices?”
Jim eyed him. He’d left Whiskey River after graduating with his architectural degree from UT Austin, eager to experience life away from the family ranch. He’d landed a position in a well-known firm in San Francisco and packed his bags almost immediately, ready to dive into this new opportunity with all the drive and enthusiasm that had gotten him recruited. At first, he’d enjoyed the bustle of the bay area. But Richard Archer had ruined it all.
Not just Richard, his inner voice reminded him.
Archer had a daughter, Peyton, who was blessed with the face of Helen of Troy and the body of a fifties pin-up girl. She’d also had the advantage of her father’s millions. He’d fallen hard for Peyton, but it had all gone down in flames. He’d left San Francisco on a foggy autumn night and hadn’t looked back, returning to the ranch to lick his wounds. His siblings might have accused him of hiding from the world, but Jim preferred to think of it as a chosen exile. He’d gotten a whiff of what was out there, and it had burned him.
“Trust me,” he said after swallowing what was in his glass. “If Archer is involved, we’re in for a world of hurt.”
“I’m not sure what you think we can do about it,” Johnnie pointed out. “He’s already bought the land. We couldn’t stop him even if we wanted to.”
“We definitely want to. And I refuse to give up without even trying.” Jim scowled into his empty glass. He wasn’t getting anywhere bitching and moaning in the bar. He needed to plan, to strategize, and with someone who understood.
Johnnie looked at him expectantly, his hand on the gin bottle. Jim shook his head. “I’ll grab some coffee from across the street. I’m headed back to the ranch.”
“Good luck,” his younger brother said, turning his attention to another patron.
“Try to say it like you mean it,” Jim grumbled on his way out of the bar. He jogged down the street to the feed store. Old Gus, the owner, kept a thermos of strong, bitter coffee in the corner by the seed catalogs. Jim pushed his way through the heavy wooden doors and into the interior which hadn’t changed in the thirty-odd years he’d been on this earth. Gus hadn’t changed either. He’d always been an older man with a bald head and a wardrobe consisting of plaid shirts and worn overalls. His glasses were the only thing that did change about him. The lenses seemed to get thicker every year.
“Hey, Gus,” he said with a wave as he made his way toward the coffee. The potent brew quickly cleared his head, and he ambled over to the counter to start a conversation. Gus was a man of few words, but the ones he spoke were powerful.
“Change is coming, whether we want it or not. Best to pick our battles.”
Jim frowned. “Archer is a battle I can’t walk away from. I know what he is, what he represents. He’s only the first of many. Do we want all the land around here filled with cheap tract houses and strip malls? If change has got to come, why can’t we be the ones who decide on Whiskey River’s future? We’re its past. Its present. If development is being done, at least we can make sure it’s done right.”
Gus sucked in his cheeks but remained silent. Jim drained his paper cup and tossed it in the trashcan. “Yellow doesn’t suit me,” he grumbled as he exited the feed store. The coffee and his anger having sobered him, Jim climbed into his roadster and headed back toward the ranch. The roads were dark, the crickets almost deafening, but Jim barely heard them over the roar of his own blood.
He seethed all the way home, then hustled in the door, finding his older brother Jameson in the family office. He looked up from the ledger on the desk in front of him when Jim stalked in.
“What’s got you as jumpy as spit on a hot skillet?” Jameson asked, crossing his arms over his broad chest. Jameson was exactly the sort of guy you’d want at your back in a fight or by your side during a cattle drive. He was a cowboy, through and through, and a gentleman. The eldest of the MacAllen siblings, he served as the ranch’s foreman, stepping fully into the role when the MacAllen patriarch, their father Bill, had to devote all of his energy to fighting off cancer.
Their father had won his battle, but it was taking a while for him to get back on his feet. Jameson kept the ranch running smoothly, and Jim lent a hand when needed, although his freelance architectural design work kept him busy most of the time. Jim threw himself into the wooden chair in front of the desk. “Richard Archer is developing the old Freedman place. He’s likely to turn it into row after row of identical vinyl-sided turds.”
“That’s the fella you were harping about after the fair,” Jameson said. “We already knew the Freedmans sold. What’s got you so fired up about it now?”
“Because I saw the damn billboard with his face plastered all over it on the way into town. That means he’s close. He’ll be in Whiskey River any day now, being driven around in a town car and schmoozing anyone with a white collar. He’ll fill their ears with lies while scamming contractors by promising to bring them more business if they cut him a deal now. Or sometimes he just refuses to pay them. He’s got several rackets and he employs them all to keep his own coffers fat.”
“I share your frustration,” Jameson said, “but I don’t know what we can do about that.”
“Why is everyone so damn eager to roll over for Richard Archer?” Jim said, shooting out of his chair and bristling with anger. “This is our town, and we can’t let some scam artist from the city cover us in crap.”
Jameson held up his hands. “I hear you, bro. And I can see your aggravation. But spitting at me like a cat in a dog pound ain’t gonna get us anywhere. Now sit down, cool your head, and let’s talk about what we might be able to do about this thing. I don’t want to roll over either, but I’m not sure what avenues we have open to us.”
Jim retook his seat, breathing deeply. He wasn’t used to reacting with such fire, but when it came to Archer, he had no chill. “We can get the word out about his shady practices,” he said after a few moments. “Let folks know not to buy his sub-par products.”
“We can, to a certain extent. But if Archer gets a big enough whiff of that, he’ll send his lawyers after us for slander. I assume he’s got much deeper pockets than we do, and he’s able to afford a mess of lawyers to jam us up long enough to finish his development.”
Jameson had a point. “What about going to the city? If they know what kind of deceptive business practices he uses, maybe they can pull his permits.”
His older brother leaned back in his chair and scratched at the thin layer of stubble on his chin. “It could be worth a shot. But do you have any proof of these practices?”
Jim’s face fell. “No. Just what I heard from the folks who worked for him. I couldn’t prove it in court.”
“Still, it’s not a bad idea just to let City Hall know he’s a snake. And to make them realize we’re not going to let them call all the shots.” Jameson’s eyes took on a faraway cast. “Mrs. Miranda Everheart is gonna realize she can’t bully the MacAllens.”
Miranda Everheart was the municipal worker who’d locked horns with Jameson before over the coming development. Jameson had a sharp hatred of the woman, although Jim had yet to make the acquaintance of the “Foulest Beast in the County Planning Office,” as his brother sometimes called her.
“Right, at least it’s a start,” Jim said, clapping his hands together. “The sooner those crooked Archers are out of Whiskey River, the better.”