Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

Akashic Books

||| |||

News & Features » March 2018 » “Bricks and Mortar” by Ken Brosky

“Bricks and Mortar” by Ken Brosky

Mondays Are Murder features brand-new noir fiction modeled after our award-winning Noir Series. Each story is an original one, and each takes place in a distinct location. Our web model for the series has one more restraint: a 750-word limit. Sound like murder? It is. But so are Mondays.

This week, a house flipper finds a grisly surprise in the basement.

Bricks and Mortar
by Ken Brosky
Riverwest Neighborhood, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

I brew a pot of coffee and try not to think of the corpse in the basement.

My fingers tingle. My head feels light. I take a deep breath and stand at the kitchen window, looking down at the Milwaukee River in all its gentrified glory: four-story condos run along a steep bank lined with fresh trees furbished by a city council thankful for the development. A million-dollar view—I’m counting on it. I have everything riding on it.

A knock at the door. No turning back now. Steel yourself, Felix.

I answer it and step aside so the elderly black man can follow me inside. He does, and his hand finds his short, white hair as he takes in the splendor of the entryway.

“Look a little different, Montgomery?” I ask.

“Some,” he says quietly. He looks seventy or so, with sunken eyes and knobby elbows and arthritic fingers. He takes in the open-concept staircase, the dark oak banister, the freshly primed drywall.

“I did most of the remodeling myself. Coffee?”

“If it’s free.”

I walk back to the kitchen and pour coffee into two mugs. Again Montgomery takes it all in: new, cream-colored cabinets and beautiful pitch-black marble countertops. Too beautiful. Too expensive. “Did most of it myself,” I said. “I buy homes—”

“Cut the bullshit,” he says sharply. When he sets down his mug, I can see he simply swallowed all the coffee in one gulp, same way he took in the house. “You found it, then.”

I nod. “You built this house, right?”

“I did the brickwork for all ten houses on Riverwest Hill.”

Fifty years ago. Ten colonial-style houses on a hill, nothing special, going to rot over decades of renters until they were indistinguishable from any other house in the slums. Ready now to finally be absorbed into the trendy Riverwest neighborhood. 

Sold to cover my losses.

“Who was he?”

A shrug. “Boss with a mouth. I had my limits.”

“What did he say?”

“He was white. I’m black. Use your imagination, boy.”

“He suffered, though. To kill him—”

“You know what Milwaukee was like back then?” he asks sharply, his voice the sound of a trowel scraping over wet mortar. “Factory work disappearing. Cops beating the shit out of black folk.” Montgomery pours himself more coffee, drinks it just as fast. I swallow, imagining the burn in his raspy throat. “So you wanna turn me in then?”

“No,” I say. “I want you to take away the corpse.”

He looks at me and I swear he can see the truth in my soul. The overdrawn business account. The maxed-out credit cards. The itchy red sore inside my head that tells me this is the house, this is where I finally end up in the black again. I just need to get it to market.

As soon as possible. Before the other Riverwest Hill houses are remodeled.

Finally, Montgomery nods to the basement door.

I take him down the wooden steps, through an empty room and into the oldest part of the basement, around a mound of mouse shit next to a brand-new water purification tank. To the south end, where the brick foundation has been partially demolished, revealing the hidden room within. 

And the corpse, nothing more than a skeleton with dusty clothes, shackled to a chain, jawbone hanging open in surprise.

“How’d you find it?” Montgomery asks.

“An imperfection—”

“Bullshit. I didn’t have imperfections. I was the best bricklayer in the city.”

I don’t give him a better answer. The truth is I was down here demolishing rotted wooden shelves that needed to come down. I couldn’t hold back the anxiety and stress and rage and pity as I swung for the shelves, missed, and connected with the brick. It felt so good to feel the reverberation of the steel that I had to swing again.

Now: my head—pain, so sharp, that my vision tunnels.

When I come to I can see the brick wall. I can see Montgomery behind it and at first I think he’s getting the corpse, but no, the corpse is beside me, and the metal shackle is locked around my ankle. I scream and reach out, my fingertips just barely reaching wet mortar. Fresh mortar.

“Please!” I beg.

Montgomery says nothing. He lays each brick delicately, perfectly, his arthritic knuckles steady and purposeful.

“Please, for the love of God!”

“For the love of God,” he murmurs, setting the last brick in place.


KEN BROSKY received his MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska-Omaha and currently teaches at UW-Rock County. His debut mystery novel is Sanctuary. He is currently represented by Fairbank Literary. 


Would you like to submit a story to the Mondays Are Murder series? Here are the guidelines:

—We are not offering payment, and are asking for first digital rights. The rights to the story revert to the author immediately upon publication.
—Your story should be set in a distinct location of any neighborhood in any city, anywhere in the world, but it should be a story that could only be set in the neighborhood you chose.
—Include the neighborhood, city, state, and country next to your byline.
—Your story should be Noir. What is Noir? We’ll know it when we see it.
—Your story should not exceed 750 words.
—Accepted submissions are typically published 6–8 months after their notification date and will be edited for cohesion and to conform to our house style.
—E-mail your submission to info@akashicbooks.com. Please paste the story into the body of the email, and also attach it as a PDF file.

Posted: Mar 27, 2018

Category: Original Fiction, Mondays Are Murder, Original Fiction | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,