The Milk Wagon
psychological thriller · coming-of-age · redemption story · suspense · fiction
“The Milk Wagon is destined to be a classic...Highly Recommend.” —Delta Magazine
The Milk Wagon is a coming-of-age thriller about friendship, redemption, and how the ties made during high school can last a lifetime.
Matt Frazier, Jason “Hop” Hopkins, and Mark Ragone have been close friends since elementary school. On the first day of their junior year of high school, a new kid named Nate Mayes arrives, and with him, a secret.
Nate appears to be polished, flush with cash, and a potential lady-killer. However, they soon discover that something terrible is going on at home with Nate’s father, Dr. Ford Mayes.
FBI Special Agent Kathryn Cooper believes Dr. Mayes has personally had a hand in several deaths relating to a money laundering scandal involving compounding pharmacies, dirty physicians, and the United States Government. Her attempts to arrest him, however, are foiled by an insider working both sides. With her career—and social life—in jeopardy, Agent Cooper turns to her new chief-of-police boyfriend for help, but is he truly the cure-all she needs?
When Nate stumbles upon a piece of evidence that ties his father not only to the money laundering investigation, but also to the death of his mother some fourteen years prior, he is devastated and filled with revenge. Enlisting Matt and his friends to help, Nate concocts a plan that will force them all to make unexpected and life-altering decisions. In the end, they will discover the shocking truth and finally understand the loyal bonds of family and friendship.
The trusty Milk Wagon was there through it all.
— scroll down to read book sample —
“Filled with FBI Investigations, scandal, and mysterious deaths, The Milk Wagon is a page-turning read.” —Mississippi Magazine
“It is hard to believe this book is fiction. I enjoyed it so much and will be recommending it to anyone and everyone I can.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
“When I started reading "The Milk Wagon" I was totally unprepared to be engaged in this FBI/coming of age thriller. I could not put it down, reading almost nonstop until the end. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would highly recommend it as a great entertaining read.” —NetGalley Reviewer
“If you love crime thrillers, if you loved the 80s, or if you just love a well written book, check this one out.” —NetGalley Reviewer
“The writing is exquisite; the storyline is awesome. Very relatable.” —★★★★★ Reader Review
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A retired JAG officer, Michael Hewes lives in Gulfport, Mississippi with his wife, three boys, two dogs and a cat.
The Milk Wagon is his second novel.
SAMPLE FROM THE MILK WAGON
If you could go back, knowing what you know now, which would you choose – high school or college?
The question appeared on my Facebook feed as a sponsored ad for a dating website attempting to match me up with someone who shared a like-minded yearning for those carefree days gone by. Even though I am now happily married and clearly not the person the poll was targeting, I suspected the pop-up wasn’t totally random. I had spent the past few nights looking through high school class reunion websites searching for ideas for our thirtieth. Usually I don’t give online questionnaires, chain mail posts, or other similar data traps a second look, but I lingered on this one.
Hop and I were the only two alumni from our class who still lived in Gulfport, and truth be told, ever since we’d been tasked with planning our reunion (by default), I’d been thinking a lot about our high school days. Still, I had never thought to compare them to my four years in college. At first glance, it was a no-brainer, and somewhat unfair to line up the beauty of a sprawling, oak-tree laden university against the institutionalized cinder block and linoleum domain that we called St. John’s. Apples and oranges for sure, but not quite for the reasons I initially expected.
I was fortunate enough to spend the majority of my high school years with my best friends Hop and Mark. The three of us were thick as thieves back then, and when we were together, we were sure enough bulletproof. Or so we thought.
We stumbled, mostly unblemished, through junior high, and by the time tenth grade rolled around, we had started to come into our own. We tried drinking and did our best to talk to girls, but we weren’t very good at either. We had classes we hated; we had classes we loved. There were days when the fog of boredom slowed time to a point where I could literally feel myself aging as I sat in my desk. Others passed like a flash of light, and there were some mornings where I truly felt most at home in homeroom. Still, I suspect our early high school experiences were much like those of other kids, and if my last two years had continued along the way of my first two, I think I may have picked college as my Back to the Future option. But one Friday the summer after our sophomore year, I came home to find a beat up 1980 Suburban parked in our driveway under the rusted out basketball goal with no net, and things were never quite the same again.
Even now, I don’t know why my dad bought it. It was a rare event for him to give a gift of any type, as benevolence was not his strong point. My guess is he either had a good night gambling or had bartered it in some type of sketchy deal. I didn’t care and I didn’t ask. He threw me the keys from the front porch, said “now you can drive yourself to school,” then went inside and slept the rest of the afternoon. We didn’t discuss it again.
I took a long, slow walk around, and the more I inspected it, the more it took on the feel of a vehicular stray dog. It was big, it was ugly, and it was most definitely a rescue. It couldn’t have been any more different from the pedigreed, decked out Suburbans currently wheeling through my neighborhood by latte moms on the way to spin class. But it did have something theirs lacked. It had character.
The remnants of a Gulfport – Where Your Ship Comes In logo shadowing the driver’s side door was just one of the scars from its prior job as a workhorse for the city. The body had turned a dusty, powdery white – any luster from the paint had long since faded after spending a lifetime parked out in the elements. There were holes in the floorboard, the back smelled like wet clothes, and I found out later that the windshield wipers only worked if you leaned your arm out the window and gave them a pull start. When I slid onto the front bench and turned the key, all eight cylinders roared to life. At that moment, any angst I had felt from my dubious first impression disappeared behind the cloud of smoke coming out of the exhaust. I was so happy to have something to call my own, I drove it to Hop’s second annual back to school party that very night. Within an hour after arriving, someone dared me to try and fit fifteen people inside it. We loaded up nineteen, plus one or two hanging off the bumpers before it started getting ugly –and we were just warming up. Later in the evening I pulled it in the backyard where it served quite handily as a makeshift bar, a stargazing perch, and, much to our surprise and good fortune, a righteous make out machine.
It didn’t take long for the Milk Wagon to become the go-to vehicle for pep rallies, football games and afternoon food runs. It was a gathering point in the morning before school, and a rallying point at late night parties and parking lots. We double- and triple-dated in it, and even took it camping one weekend where we draped my cousin’s Army-issue mosquito net over the open doors and slept in the back.
It was also a keeper of secrets. Unspoken ones steaming up the windows in the parking bays by the beach. Deep ones discussed cruising around town, free from parental intrusion and judgment. Lighter ones, too, like when a particular dickhead cop pulled us over on the way to a party and totally missed a twelve pack of Schaefer Light and a pint of Seagrams smuggled away and out of sight.
And then, of course, there’s the big one.
I opened the bottom drawer of my desk, moved a two-decades-high stack of expired At-a-Glance yearly calendars to the side, and pulled out an old manila envelope that had been handled, bent, and wrinkled so many times that the paper had taken on the soft buttery texture of a fine fabric. I turned it over in my hands, surprised at how light it had become, and gave it a closer look. The bank’s logo in the upper left corner – once a navy blue – had finally faded to the point where I could barely make out the edge of its signature magnolia blossom. The rest of the return address had been reduced to blurred smudges and an occasional semi-legible street number. Or was that the zip code? I couldn’t tell anymore.
The four names handwritten on the front, however, had maintained their crispness, so much so that when I put it up to my face and inhaled, I swore I picked up a distant essence of black magic-marker. Just the smell put me back behind the wheel, white knuckling down that country road with a lead foot – too naive at seventeen to fully consider the implications of what was about to take place, and too emboldened to care. I remember it being especially cool that morning, and I had the driver’s side window down, singing along to “Dancing with Myself” as loud as I could. It may very well have been the last pure moment of my childhood.
The laptop going blank caused me to lose my train of thought, and when I tapped the touchpad to wake it back up, the question that set me adrift in the first place was still waiting for an answer. Which one would I pick? I leaned back in my chair and crossed my hands behind my head. It was a no-brainer all right.
I would definitely go back to high school. And if I was truly going to get a do-over, as the ad suggested, I would start right where Hop’s party left off: the first day of our junior year. After all, it was the year that changed everything, and the year that everything changed. It was the year I fell in love. It was the year Mark started a band. It was the year Hop actually almost, kind of, but not really got a girlfriend.
And it was the year Nate Mayes disappeared.
I have always liked the first day of school, ever since I can remember. I even dug it in first grade, although based upon the pictures from that early September morn, it was obvious my parents were enamored with brown plaid. Everyone had shiny new metal lunchboxes filled with sandwiches, chips, and some sort of treat (the lucky kids had Twinkies), and we always had new shoes that would remain looking that way for only about three days. Our hair was slicked down in that back-to-school ’do favored by our folks, our shirts were tucked in, and we were ready to face the brave new world, unaware that our parents were more nervous than we were as we stepped off the curb and onto the big yellow bus.
In high school, the ritual may have been different, but the anticipation remained. My friends and I would get together the week before to compare schedules and notes, and to speculate as to whether there would be any new talent gracing the halls upon our arrival. It wasn’t like we were tired of the ladies we had been seeing for the past ten years – they still looked good (and some were starting to look better) –rather, it boiled down to the spirit of competition. If you’re the only retailer in town, you can relax a little and not worry so much about your advertising and selection, because people are going to buy what they can where they can. As soon as the ground is broken on that new Kmart, however, you’d better tighten your ass up or you’ll be usurped by a clean, bright, modern store hocking goods that were impulse buys in the first place. Kind of how it was with the girls – they didn’t like the competition a bit, but they reacted the same – new clothes, new bows and, for the most part, a well-tanned body. This attention to detail always impressed us, even though we were never the intended beneficiaries of their efforts.
The boys, on the other hand, never really gave much thought to the new guy or two who came in, and we certainly didn’t undertake any extra efforts to polish the chrome. Usually, he fit right in anyway with one crowd or another.
Our first day back as juniors started out not much different. We were all supposed to meet in the parking lot at seven-thirty, and since we were now officially upperclassmen, we got to park in the back next to the seniors, no longer relegated to the few crappy parking spaces by the drop-off line in the front. I left early and stopped by the Bayou View Grocery on the way in to get a Coke and drove up at a quarter after, wheeling in right behind Hop and Mark. We were the only ones there. I got out, grabbed a doughnut from Hop’s Quality Bakery bag, and leaned against the Milk Wagon. I could smell the fresh cut grass down by the practice fields.
“Welcome to paradise, boys.” I said, taking in another deep breath and wondering how long the dew would stick to the ground with all the humidity. Mark hadn’t gotten out of the car yet. He considered himself a bit of a musician and was waiting for “Blister in the Sun” to end before he officially started his day. He was spitting powdered doughnut crumbs on the dash with every chorus between drumming. Hop was digging in his pockets for his schedule, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had checked it twice already that morning, once before his shower and once while taking his morning growler.
“Who you got for first period?” he asked, uncrumpling the blue mimeograph that smelled like a chemical weapon. “I thought I had English, but it says here chemistry,” he said through a grimace. “I don’t know if I can handle a nun first thing in the morning.” I couldn’t blame him. No one wanted a perimenopausal celibate as their eight-fifteen a.m. warden.
“El Español,” I replied. “I’ve got Ms. Mander.”
“Lucky bastard.” He took another glance at his sheet and began cleaning his glasses.
Jason “Hop” Hopkins and I met in the seventh grade playing on the basketball team. We were two goofy-looking, skinny white kids who played at about the same level – fair to middling. We didn’t know each other well, and during a full-court-press exercise, I tripped him and he busted his ass. I helped him back up, we continued to play, and the rest, as they say, is history. Whether or not I did it on purpose is still the subject of much dispute, and he brings it up way more than he should. Truth be known, I barely even remember it, and I doubt I did it with intent to harm. Unless, of course, he was getting the edge on me. Then I might have.
The Femmes tape ended, and Mark got out, chewing on a straw and picking his nose. “Am I clear?” he asked, cocking his head up for us to verify. After we ignored him, he checked it in the side mirror and came around to join us. “You’re taking Spanish? What the hell you going to use Spanish for?”
Mark was a relatively recent transfer, having just started at St. John in the ninth grade. He moved over to Gulfport from Biloxi and didn’t make a peep his first couple of weeks. He and Hop knew each other from back in elementary school when they used to play each other in peewee baseball, and once Mark realized he was not alone, he followed us around like a puppy. Before we knew it, Mark was one of the guys, despite his clothing choices, which were questionable at best. Black Chucks and torn Levis were cool; red Chucks not as much, but still acceptable. Wearing a gold necklace with a St. Christopher medal so it showed – even on the outside of a button-down – was a bit much. Mark’s roots were primarily Italian, but he had just enough redneck in him to make things interesting.
“I don’t know,” I said. “It had an opening.”
“I’m taking French,” he said, tucking his shirt in. “I think I’ll get more out of French.”
“French? Really? Pussy.”
Mark smiled real big and took a draw on his chocolate milk. “Say what you want; I know what I’m doing. You ever see the makeup of one of them French classes?”
“You ever see any real French girls?”
“Yeah, on the Olympics. And I liked them.” Now I can guarantee Mark hadn’t seen a real French girl on TV, and I’m certain he’d never watched the Olympics, but to him it sounded cool. “Plus, Blondie sang some French on one of her B-sides – I think it was ‘Sunday Girl.’ And the backup singer in ‘Eyes Without a Face’ did too.”
Billy Idol played in my head as he spoke. Mark wasn’t wrong.
“So what classes do we have together?” Hop asked. We checked, and it looked like Hop and I would suffer through algebra; I would have biology with Mark, and the three of us would share the religion and English comp classrooms. Homeroom was a toss-up; we might have had the same times, but we would likely get split up into different groups. Mark believed it was part of a conspiracy, but he thought everything had some sort of furtive backstory.
More cars started creeping in, and before I knew it, our little corner of the parking lot was filling up with classmates. I didn’t see any new vehicles, and from the looks of it, several folks carpooled.
The metal girls gathered around Shayna Haddock’s pickup truck, smoking cigarettes and listening to Warrant. They wore a lot of paint, and the sheer size of their hair was always a source of amusement to me. I could not imagine how much ozone they burned to tease those helmets out that high. I wanted to comment, but I didn’t because I thought some of the girls, especially the thicker ones, could whip me if it came down to it, and that was never a good thing. Also, I knew if they couldn’t take me, their redneck, roach-killing boyfriends – several of whom finished high school early and now worked for the city – could do the job for them with ease. And by finishing “early,” I don’t mean they were part of the gifted program.
Trey Kratz pulled up in the Whale, an antique, beat-up baby blue Mercedes with a rusted-out hole in the back seat so big you could drop a tennis ball through it. Chad Harkins followed in the Firechicken, Travis Wilson in the Dustbuster, and Ben Sands, Antonio Adkins, Rush Atherton, and Sammy Mallette arrived in Ben’s mom’s Cadillac – affectionately named Freddy after the notorious pimp who ran the whores up in North Gulfport. Ben was embarrassed to be driving such a behemoth, but Sammy thought it was funny and was laughing about it when they got out of the car. Sammy laughed at everything. Rush was the redheaded kid of the class. He always wore a crew cut and dreamed about being a Navy SEAL. He was laid back, easy to talk to, and had a good-looking older sister with fantastic cans.
We eventually decided we had hung out in the parking lot long enough, and it was time to comb the halls to see what piqued our interest. I was hoping one particular white BMW would roll in, but seeing none, there was no need for me to stay outside any longer. I borrowed a pen from Hop, who grabbed his notebook and a sack lunch. Mark didn’t bring anything. No paper, no books, nothing. He figured the first day was a pass. Actually, he considered the first week a pass.
As we started to make our way to the side door near our lockers, a shiny, red four-wheel-drive F150 pickup crunched through the oyster shells and pulled in next to where Mark had parked.
“Who is that?” I asked. Neither Mark nor Hop answered, and judging by the looks on the faces of the rest of the gang, no one had a clue. The door opened and out stepped a cat who looked like a cross between pre-Army Elvis and post-Outsiders Tom Cruise.
He was crisp, polished, and clean – much like his truck. His hair was Lego perfect, and when he closed the door and started walking towards the school, it was like a slow-motion scene from a movie, with the Kenwoods from Andy Tanner’s Camaro over in the senior lot pumping out the soundtrack. He looked toward us and scanned the crowd, then nodded, glanced at me for a second, and headed for the door.
“Must be a new kid,” Mark said.
“You think?” Sammy chimed in from behind us, still laughing. I put the pen in my mouth and checked out the truck again while everyone headed towards the door. It looked like it had just rolled off the lot.
New kid indeed.