You never hear much about river mussels. That’s even in comparison to other bivalve mollusks. While a river mussel sits in that stream bed cleaning gallons of fresh water daily, water you and I and countless animals straight out of a Disney film depend on, who gets the attention? Clams. Clams have restaurants and packaging named after them. Clams have frigging Venus springing ashore from their shells. And then there’s oysters. To be an oyster is to offer the world. Did you know that river mussels also form pearls? Now you do. Kind of makes you reconsider the river mussel, among the littlest of gals and guys in our ecosystem.
Some may find glory, but there’s no glory or drinking water unless the bottom feeders do their job. Enter Vernon Stagg, attorney for the injured and aggrieved. Vernon’s role in our ecosystem is to land his clients a buck or two upon quick settlement, whether or not their pains and mental anguish are legit. Only a fast buck or two, but it’s a volume business.
Unless the filtering system gets clogged. In Vernon’s case, a long-term accumulation of ethics sediment in his revenue stream. Oh, there was a heyday when Vernon could go on punching that lawyering ticket. But heydays pass as they do, and here’s Vernon in a reputation-damaged fees crunch. Counsel for the little gal/guy is in trouble–and in that sense, so is the little gal/guy.
This is my second go at Vernon, after 2016’s “The Cumberland Package.” That first try was about force of will, its forgings and its failings. Spoiler-free version: Vernon went through a wringer of his own vacillating will and lack thereof. Choices and his reasons behind them: It’s as good a guess as any for why Vernon works on the page. He’s a bloviating moral compromise–but only so far. Vernon has a code. For a second try at him, I was after his particular sense of right and wrong.
River mussels don’t simply clean the water. They’re a food source and a means of income. Mussel farms have been around forever, and where there are farms, there are poachers. Such as Vernon’s client, Bodie Inniss and his rap sheet as long as the Duck River. Bodie got himself hurt while poaching (the facts say) or out for a nature stroll (Bodie’s coached deposition says) endangered mussels from a wildlife organization shelter. Those foundation do-gooders have been pestering Bodie not just for his serial trespassing. He’s running an illegal pearl ring from his boat shop upstream. Bodie thinks a ruinous legal claim will shut the do-gooders down–and he’s not wrong. He just doesn’t have a claim that would stand up at trial. Without Vernon, anyhow.
Court is much too long a play for Vernon. His push for a cut-price settlement irks Bodie, and Bodie takes out his frustrations in his customary fashion: murder threats and thumpings off a canvas sack loaded with mussel shells. Vernon also finds himself at a negotiating impasse with counsel for the defense, junior attorney Ms. Maddison Sims. Maddi has protecting the vulnerable deep in her marrow, and she promises to see Vernon in hell before she would settle with a mussel poacher and his slick lawyer.
Maddi is the attorney Vernon might’ve wanted to become, had he not gravitated to bottom feeder law. She’s idealistic, purposed, so much so that Vernon can’t relate. He doesn’t understand her fight or how it fuels a growing sympathys for these river critters getting stolen and shucked. Vernon, though, is the attorney Maddi can’t be. Opportunistic, adaptable. Maddi can’t yet compartmentalize her ever-rising indignation. As Bodie escalates hostilities against, well, everyone to include Vernon’s Buick, Vernon begins to glimpse a desperate solution path, a settlement of a kind — but Maddi devolves into stress tics and shotgun-toting. Vernon and Maddi, they’ll have to figure that out, what it’ll take and what it’ll cost.
And that’s “Bottom Dwellers” in its mussel shell. It’s about a fair shake and a little respect for little gals/guys everywhere and all of us one unrepresented turn from disaster.
“Lord, Spare the Bottom Feeders” was published in the March/April 2020 Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.
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Fun Facts for “Bottom Feeders”
- Bodie wasn’t the client in the early drafts. It was an incompetent member of Bodie’s gang and who had a pas connection to Vernon. Bodie himself only horned in when he saw the chance at shutting down the do-gooder shelter. Too many arcs. The story wasn’t gelling. It was Vernon’s dealing with the past connection. A connection the story didn’t absolutely need. Solution: make Bodie the injured client. All of the sudden Bodie was involved more fully, and a unified whole emerged.
- The past connection lives on in “Bottom Feeders,” if repurposed. It’s old Haywood Chalmers, Mr. Slip-And-Fall, may he rest in peace. Haywood was too promising a character to walk away from lightly, and his fake injury magic still worked as the embodiment of when Vernon defined success as whatever got a contingency fee deposited.
- Maddi Sims comes from the same ill-fated attempt at a novel as brought Vernon. They never interact in the manuscript, Vernon being a secondary player, but Early Maddi was gold enough not to forget her. All corporate ambition, zero compromise. I’m glad a better her made it to print.
- Vernon’s assistant Ruth is gold to write. She’s his ethics code personified, and she’s always miles ahead of him. In “The Cumberland Package,” that served a crucial purpose. But “Bottom Feeders” needed a more exposed Vernon. If Ruth was too much the guardian, she could protect him, and if protected, Vernon could avoid a tough choice about himself and his ecosystem. Her more background, voice-of-sanity role clicks (I hope) as who states plain what Vernon doesn’t like hearing.
- This is neither the first or last time the fictional town of Rasping Creek has appeared in my stuff. Rasping Creek is the home of old-timey cola Professor Fizzbang, at the center of 2013‘s “Dark Days for the Professor.” I needed a river town, and as it happened, I had one.
- Mussel poaching is a thing, and I don’t mean in wine. Fortunately, there are marvelous and generous people helping to keep these critters safe and healthy.