Excerpt from The Pain Killer
Copyright 2014 by Stephen T. Dunker
Copyright 2017 by Stephen T. Dunker
“Hey, I’ve heard you could get some shine down some of these country roads.” Ronnie was out for a drive on a pristine cloudless day; he had his sunglasses on in the store because he was stoned and forgot he had them on. I must look good to this local. Short-haired white-boy with brand new white tennis shoes and still wearing my sunglasses.
The owner of the country store was holding a broom and staring at Ronnie. “I’d say you could, probably, if you knew where to go.”
“I don’t suppose there’s some kind of…map or anything.”
“We do sell maps.” Lawrence motioned to the wire rack next to the pepper spray. “The best four-fifty you’ll ever spend,” looking over his glasses down on his nose.
“What is it, about ten dollars a quart?” Ronnie visibly winced asking this.
Lawrence worked the broom over to the front window and gazed out to the parking spaces. He saw his own truck, Charlie Baringer’s truck, a Butternut bread truck, and a city-slickers foreign job. “Double that, but it’ll clean your carburetor. They got flavors, too. It’s pretty near sophisticated. You know who else sells maps, that old gas station, flea market out Lovelaceville. That’s four seventy-seven for the map.
“Thanks, mister. Keep the change.”
Ronnie wasn’t sure why this whole affair bothered him so much, he certainly had no deep affection for Roy, a character he barely remembered from high school and he was sure his buddy Jim wasn’t guilty of killing his neighbor, not because Jim was above killing someone but the fact was deep down Jim was a good person Ronnie had grown up with and there was no way he would do something so evil just to get a boat dock and besides, it was just too obvious. He suspected the killing had something to do with Roy’s still, after all, the guy who had shot at him was at the spring collecting water. Maybe Roy had gotten involved with some unsavory characters in his dealings selling his whiskey and that’s all there was to it. Someone had panicked out there in the woods and killed the man who stumbled up on him at the still. It was thin, but it was the only thing that made any sense to him with the limited information he had. So here he was, investigating the illicit moonshine market in the wilds of backwoods Marshall County.
Lovelaceville was a good fifteen miles from the store in which he had just picked up his first lead and Ronnie was covering it double-time, just for the thrill of driving fast. He loved the turns and switchbacks along the way, his car was built for handling and he never ceased to be amazed at how well his car could hold the road. About five miles away from the gas station Lawrence had told him about was a perfectly flat straightaway that was marked off so high school students could drag-race the quarter mile. He himself used to run cars out here in his early days when most everyone in his class drove a late sixties/early seventies muscle-car, most of them bought for less than a thousand dollars. He remembered fondly the first car his dad had brought home for him when he was only fourteen. It was a jet-black 1966 Chevelle Malibu two-door hardtop with a 283 V-8 and a two-speed Powerglide transmission. Back then it was the holy grail of body styles, proof positive that God was a major stockholder in General Motors. He could still smell the musty red vinyl and chrome cavernous interior with a bench seat in front long enough to stretch out and take a nap on.
Ronnie must have owned a dozen of those two-door hardtops in his early years but the first one he ever raced out here at the flats was a 1973 Chevrolet Nova SS with a 350 cubic inch V-8, a Rochester Quadrajet four-barrel carburetor, a Turbo-Hydramatic three speed automatic transmission, and a special low-ratio rear differential that was shared with the Corvette that year. 1973 rang the death knell for the American muscle-car as the government put regulations in place reining in the automakers who had for the last decade or so been involved in a horsepower war with each other to win the pocketbook of American fathers whose sons demanded a car that would smoke the tires and have a fighting chance outrunning any police Gestapo that hassled them. The US government, thanks largely to Ralph Nader and his ilk, now required much larger, heavier bumpers to help stem the rise of traffic fatalities and much more stringent pollution controls to combat the ever-growing problem of smog, especially in California. The result of these restrictions along with mandated gas mileage increases meant that the day of the factory produced hot-rod was rapidly coming to an end. Indeed, in 1973, the only two General Motors cars to escape the emasculating controls were the Chevrolet Corvette – and the Nova SS.
Back in 1978, Ronnie was gripping the fake brown leather wrap he had put on the steering wheel of his beloved green Nova, his heart racing as he glanced over to the left lane of the quarter-mile stretch and saw that Tim McDaniels was ready and smiling back at him, gunning the engine of his dark green Datsun 260 Z. Tim had been running his mouth in Mr. Harahan’s US history class, touting the superiority of his Japanese steed, bemoaning the capitulation of the US auto industry, and in Ronnie’s mind, bordering on treason. Ronnie had told him to put his money where his mouth was, and meet him out at the strip at dark that Friday night so he could show him what engine displacement was all about. Tim had decided that all American cars in produced in 1973 were only shells of their former selves, and thought the SS placards on Ronnie’s car were just for show, and was going to prove it to Ronnie.
When Ronnie and his good friend Bud pulled up to the starting line that night it looked like the whole high school was there, waiting to see the battle of the automotive hemispheres. Back then, there was still a good amount of prejudice against the Japanese, most kids’ fathers would no more consider buying a Japanese car than they would attend a local meeting of the Communist Party. Ronnie’s own grandfather would wince visibly whenever a Toyota commercial would come on the television during the Sunday afternoon football games. He said he would never forget the brutality the Japanese soldiers inflicted on American GIs and would be damned if he would ever ride in one of their cars, let alone buy one – and he never did.
Ronnie pulled up to the bridge over Massac Creek which marked the beginning of the quarter-mile drag strip. The start line painted oh so many years ago was barely visible now but the heat mirage wavering over the pavement heated by the late October noonday sun was still there as he looked down the slate flat strip beckoning him to run it just one more time. It was a shame there was no one around to give him some competition but that didn’t matter too much too Ronnie, he would just race against the speedometer of the old days. In his fastest car he was lucky to hit ninety-five miles per hour as he crossed the finish line, and that was pretty fast in those days. Many a car had failed to negotiate the sharp turn just past the end of the strip and ran off in the ditch, if they were lucky. Some rolled their car and ended up in the hospital. One little skinny blonde kid from Reidland was racing in the left lane and was even with the opposing car at the finish line when a dump truck came around the bend and hit him head-on. He never made it to the hospital and racing out on the flats was frowned on by the county sheriff’s office after that.
Ronnie was sure his M5 could beat his old time handily and since he had pulled up not one car had gone by so he thought what the hell, let’s see what it’ll do. He methodically turned off the air conditioner, hit the M button on the steering wheel to put the car in race mode, adjusting the shift points and throttle response for maximum acceleration, and put his left foot on the brake and hit the gas to engage the launch control to minimize rear-wheel spin. When he took off the engine was roaring like a night at the dirt-track and his body was pinned back in the driver seat, giving him the sensation of taking off in a jet airliner. The transmission shifts came hard and fast and he saw the speedometer hit 110 as he crossed the finish line, the curve coming up faster than he remembered and it was all he could do to slow the beast down enough to keep from dropping off into the ditch on the right. He rolled down the windows to let the air cool his face off and continued on his way to the Lovelaceville gas station to find out what he could about the black market he suspected was behind his friend’s troubles.
The gas station looked like a holdover from the thirties, like a place Bonnie and Clyde would have stopped at on one of their infamous Midwestern crime sprees. There was no doubt the pumps hadn’t worked in decades, the sheet steel that covered their inside workings was missing and weeds were overtaking the island they were perched upon. It was a wonder the store itself was still in business; they made their living selling country ham sandwiches, Coca-cola and numerous forms of tobacco products – and moonshine evidently. Ronnie was aware that he didn’t look like the average farmer who frequented the place so he parked around to the side so the proprietor wouldn’t see his car and pulled his shirttail out to make himself look less like an FBI agent. To complete the subterfuge, he would buy some chewing tobacco and strike up a conversation if the situation looked promising. If not, he would just high-tail it out of there and go back to square one. As he walked around the painted brick corner of the store he noticed an old blue Dodge pickup truck parked in the driveway of the house next to the store. He wasn’t sure but he thought it was the same model he and Steve had been watching at the bootleg house down on the south-side of town last weekend. He stopped in his tracks, somewhat taken aback by this, telling himself it was probably just a coincidence but wanting to prepare himself in the event the bearded man he had been searching for was standing on the other side of the store entrance. He doubted the man would recognize him up close so he would just buy something and leave as if everything were normal.
Ronnie pushed on the Wonder Bread shove bar across the antique wooden door and immediately heard the obligatory bells jangling above his head to announce his arrival to the man propped up on the stool behind the cash register not five feet from the front door. The bells rang again, clearly mocking him as he closed the door and greeted the clerk who was looking at him like he had just completed his siesta and was ready to do some business. Ronnie, momentarily frozen, taking in the relic-laden scene, sprang back to life. “Hello, do you make sandwiches?”
The man behind the counter was on his feet now, walking with an ancient limp back to the cold-case and asked Ronnie, “What can I get for you?”
Ronnie sized him up quickly, from his short cropped hair, close-shaven face, and spotless, if worn-out denim bib-overalls, he looked like he probably passed the collection plate down every other pew on Sunday mornings, hell, he was probably a deacon of the church. If Ronnie was going to get this guy to talk he would have to avoid the pitfalls other carpetbaggers would inevitably succumb to out here in the country. Everything from his choice of words, his politeness, even the kind of bread on his sandwich would tell this man who he was, as they were both unconsciously sizing each other up. “I’ll take country ham on white bread.”
A quick look of familiarity crossed the man’s face as if Ronnie had just uttered the secret password at a lodge meeting. It was good, but not enough to start quizzing the man on where the shine was coming from, and oh, by the way, heard anybody bragging about shooting three people? “You got hot pepper cheese?”
“Sure do, you want mayonnaise?”
“Please.” Ronnie marveled at the size of the sandwich this man was making him, no doubt he was used to strapping young farm hands coming in here looking for fuel to man the post-hole digger or sledgehammer. He cut it in half by rocking a meat cleaver over it, wrapped it in wax paper and handed it over the meat counter to Ronnie, “What else can I get you?”
Ronnie felt decidedly silly asking for it, but judging from this man’s advanced age, and his southern accent he knew he would be promoted from potential carpet-bagger to distant cousin in this man’s eyes with his response. “I’ll take an RC Cola and a MoonPie.”
The man gave him a quick look to see if maybe his old eyesight had overlooked one of the locals and had not recognized him. Looking at ease with the world as an old dog lying on a porch, he got Ronnie’s things and sank a few keys on the old-timey cash register pronouncing the total, “That’ll be five and a quarter.”
Ronnie gave him a five and a one and told him to keep the change. He could tell from the old guy’s demeanor that he was accepted so he asked about the truck. “I used to drive a truck like that old blue Dodge, it’s not for sale is it?”
“Not that I know of, but that old boy would probably sell his mother though if the price was right.”
“That’s not Paul Richardson’s old truck is it?” Ronnie threw him the name of old farmer he knew from the area.” It was like invoking the secret handshake at the Masonic temple.
“You friends with Paul?”
“No, not really. I used to go fishin’ with his son, Henry. He drove an old truck like that and it was practically indestructible. I know we were hard on it, and it never failed us. I’ve been looking for one myself, for hauling hay and stuff.”
“No, that truck belongs to a fellow named Mitchell Bagby. He brings in stuff to sell every week or so. He musta run off with his buddies if his truck’s still out there. He was in here earlier makin’ a delivery.”
At this point Ronnie pulled out his ace in the hole, the map he had bought from Lawrence, stamped with the store name, Van Zant’s Gulf. “The guy over at Van Zant’s said I might be able to get a quart out here.”
“You talked to Larry?”
“Just a few minutes ago, right before I ran the quarter down at the flats.”
“Oh, you got a fast car.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty fast. Ran it at a hundred and ten.”
“Woooo ooh weee! That’s cookin’. What kind of car you got?”
Ronnie looked down at his tennis shoes. He hated telling these country bumpkins he drove a BMW. Some of them thought if he was rich, he must be working for “the man”. It didn’t seem to bother this old-timer.
“There’s a picnic table over there if you want to wait and see if Mitchell comes back.” He pointed over to the corner over by the video poker machine.
“Sounds good, oh, have you got a bag of Lay’s? The old guy brought him a small bag of potato chips as he was enjoying the first bite of his tasty sandwich. “This is a good sandwich. What is it, Clifty Farms?”
“Yep, that’s the only ham I sell. Pretty good, huh?”
“Sure is, I could eat country ham every day, if it weren’t so salty. Doc says I eat too much salt.”
The old guy waved his hand in the air and scoffed, showing his obvious disdain for doctors, and more than likely lawyers, too. Ronnie made a mental note to make sure he didn’t mention his law practice.
Ronnie had just finished his sandwich when he heard a loud vehicle approach, then wind down as it pulled in the driveway next door, right behind the old blue Dodge. This must be him, time to start working. Ronnie gathered up the remains of his lunch and casually made his way to the trashcan by the front door. The old man behind the counter didn’t even look up from his newspaper, chuckling to himself at the disastrous situation Dagwood had gotten himself into, another effort to better his life with Blondie.
Ronnie gazed silently out the plate glass window to see who had pulled up and sure enough, the bearded man with the tattoo was climbing out of an old rust-riddled seventies Chevy pickup along with another Ozark looking stringbean who probably didn’t break a buck fifty sopping wet. Ronnie pulled the ancient wooden door open ringing the bell on a spring overhead and the old man looked up from his newspaper and told him, “That’d be them. Tell ‘em Gus sent you. That’d be me.”
“I will. Thanks, Gus. It was nice to meet you – and thanks for the lunch.”
“Anytime, come back and I’ll fix you a hamburger you can write home about.”
“You got it. I’ll see you.” With that Ronnie carefully closed the door behind him and approached the two mountain men who were busy loading old aluminum siding scrap into the bed of Mitchell’s old Dodge.
Ronnie didn’t want to open with “Care to sell me some moonshine?” so he offered, “Give you guys a hand?”
The skinny driver looked like he had owned and worn only one pair of jeans his entire life. His shoes were so dirty the only reason Ronnie knew they were shoes was because they were on the filthy hillbilly’s feet. His socks were the same color as his shoes and the grunge continued up the man’s lower legs to his knees. He looked like he had been wading in used motor oil and his shirt fared little better. Even his arms were black with dirt and his face looked like he had camouflaged it for night operations. He looked at Ronnie as if he were sizing him up to see if he could drive a getaway car. The pair of them gave off a criminal vibe, even the aluminum in the bed of the Chevy looked like it was stolen as it was draped with copper wire that looked like it had been ripped out of someone’s air conditioning unit.
The one with the tattoo on his neck who Ronnie was certain was Mitchell Bagby spoke up and grunted, “We got it, thanks anyway.”
Ronnie was momentarily stumped, not sure how to get in with these two, with whom he apparently had absolutely nothing in common. Suddenly, he remembered what the old man had said to him. “Gus said you might need some help or something.”
They both stopped the scrap-metal bucket brigade and stared at him. Then they looked at each other. Then the skinny one spoke up. “Gus sent you out here?”
Ronnie saw his opening and was careful not to say too much. “He just said if I came out here to help you guys I might be able to get a box from you.”
Mitchell looked at his cohort and spoke curtly, “C’mon Bradley, he looks like a cop to me.”
“Hey – I aint no fuckin’ cop. I just wanted to buy some good whiskey. If you all don’t have any, that’s cool. I’ll still help you unload this…what is this shit anyway?”
“Salvage,” Mitchell spoke up. “It’s scrap from an old house we’re demoin’. Not that it’s any of your business.”
“Hey, that’s alright with me. I don’t care where it comes from, as long as they pay me cash at the scrap yard.” Ronnie knew he had them now. In this part of the country, illicit cottage industries had sprung up everywhere, moonshining was just one example. There was also weed-growing, dope-dealing, food-stamp fraud, and last, but not least, stealing and selling scrap metal. One of the benefits of criminal law, knowing how the criminal element operates. “I always take mine over to Roy at Gillespie’s Metal Salvage. He always gives me top dollar and doesn’t ask me a lot of questions.”
The beards looked at each other again, grinning. Bradley looked Ronnie up and down again. “You know Roy? What’s his last name?”
“Hell, I’ve known Roy all my life. We went to school together. Elroy Crane. Married to that Mabry girl, Vicki. I get a lot of scrap in my line of work and I always take it to Roy.”
Bradley suddenly turned into the caricature of the Ozark Mountain Hillbilly, the one laid back with a straw hat and a corn cob pipe on the old Mountain Dew bottles. Slaphappy and effervescent, he turned to Mitchell and said, “What do ya think now, Mitch? Says he’s friends with Roy.”
Mitchell conceded, “Say you was lookin’ for a box of jars?”
Ronnie looked Mitchell in the eye. “I’m looking for a case of Key Lime Pie.”
Mitchell conferred silently with Bradley for a moment, then told Ronnie, “Let’s get this loaded and we’ll run out to Gillespie’s. We was goin’ out there anyway. Might be able to pick up a few cases out there.”
Ronnie grabbed one end of the siding scrap and helped Bradley hoist it out of his truck bed and laid it gently into Mitchell’s Dodge. He felt he had successfully made his entre into the seamy backwoods world of whiskey dealing and was now trying to figure out what his next move would be. He really didn’t want to show up out at Gillespie’s with these two hooligans and let Roy know he was snooping around and he couldn’t very well ask Mitchell if he had shot Jerry Dixon. He decided he had better back off and go see Steve to find out what he had come up with. If he went off with these two he might not ever come back. The problem was, he had already ordered a case of the premium shine and if he backed out of the deal now they might suspect he was up to something.
The three finished loading Mitchell’s truck and bought a few soda’s out of the drink machine on the side of Gus’s store, standing around like old pals wiping the sweat off their foreheads when Mitchell spoke up, “What did you say your name was?”
Ronnie stuck his hand out, “Ronnie, Ronnie Tomkins. Nice to meet you.” He shook Mitchell’s hand firmly. He turned to Bradley and offered his hand to him.
“I’m Bradley Goins. This here tramp is Mitchell…”
“Let’s get goin’!” Mitchell interrupted. He evidently didn’t want Ronnie to know his last name. He didn’t know Gus had saliently told Ronnie his name over lunch a half hour earlier. He looked at Ronnie and asked him, “You wanna ride with me, and watch this load?”
Ronnie thought fast. The last thing he wanted to do was get in the truck with this low-life who had already taken a shot at him and take a load of stolen scrap metal out to the scrap yard. That was a good way to end up buried out in the woods or being the juicy center in an old crushed Ford Taurus. There was no way he was getting in Mitchell’s truck. “I don’t want to leave my car out here. I’ll just follow you out to Gillespie’s.” He started for the front of the store so he could get in his car as quick as possible. He didn’t want Mitchell’s truck getting out of his sight.
Both of the old rusty pickups came roaring up the road as Ronnie was firing up his car. He quickly backed out and swung in behind them. I should call Steve and let him know where I’m going, case these yay-hoos get any bright ideas. Keeping his eyes on the curvy road, he fumbled with his right hand in the console finally corralling his phone. He could have just pressed the button on the steering wheel and said, “Call Steve, mobile,” and the Bluetooth would have dialed the number for him but Ronnie had tried that with his friend Mary and the car had dialed his mother by mistake. Seems the voice-recognition was a hit or miss proposition, and this was no time to fool around.
Within a minute he had Steve on the line, filling him in on his spur of the moment search for moonshine and Steve was eating it up. He was quick to remind Ronnie of the house they had been staking out. “So you think it’s the same truck we saw out at the bootleg house? You’re following it now?”
“Yes, I’m right behind both of them. We’re going out to Gillespie’s Metal Salvage…”
“To see Roy Crane!”
“I knew he was in on it!” Steve was congratulating himself.
“I wouldn’t jump to conclusions, Steve. Let me handle this. I just called to tell you where I was going to be in case anything untoward happens. If I don’t call you in an hour, start looking for me. Oh, write this down. The guy who shot at me, has the beard and tattoo on his neck, his name is Mitchell Bagby. Drives an early seventies Royal Blue Dodge pickup. I’m pretty sure it’s the same truck we saw Roy driving.”
“Did you get the license plate?”
“Yeah, it’s Victor Tango Echo four six niner, Kentucky. The skinny guy he’s with drives a rusty yellow and white two-tone seventy-six or so Chevy pickup. He said his name was Bradley Goins, and his plate is Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot two four eight, Kentucky.”
“Did you say Goins?”
“Yeah, Goins. I think it’s gee oh eye in ess.”
“I know some Goins. Used to work with a guy named George Goins. He was a good old country boy, first-rate. Wonder if they’re related?”
“I don’t know Steve, why don’t you call him up and ask him? We’re gettin’ pretty close to Gillespie’s. What’s your twenty, by the way?”
“I’m walking out my front door, about to get in my truck. Headed your way.”
“Don’t come out here yet. Let me feel these guys out. I’m gonna go ahead and buy a case of their whiskey and offer to drink some of it with them. If I can get them talking, they might slip up and tell me something.”
“I don’t know, Ronnie. That sounds kind of risky. How do you know they aren’t just getting you out there so they can dump your body in the river?”
“Yeah, I’ve been thinking about that, too. Don’t worry, I’ve got my Walther. If things get dicey I’ll just get the hell out of there.”
“Well, I’m coming out there, won’t take me twenty minutes. Keep ‘em talking and I’ll follow them when they leave. They won’t be looking for me. They’ll have to come out that access road so I’ll park on the side of US 60 westbound far enough from the entrance so I can still recognize the two vehicles.”
“Okay, we’re turning on that access road now, gotta go.”
“Try to keep Jim out of this. He’s probably out there right now. By the way, did you know that was Roy in that truck the other night?”
“We’re here, gotta go.” Ronnie hung up the phone wondering why it took so long for Steve to ask him about Roy.
There was a huge cloud of dust rolling in on them from the white-rock drive off the highway a couple of miles back. Ronnie thought it lent the scene a cinematic quality as the two hillbillies strode back to his car to meet him. Bradley let out a whoop and was excited about going over Ronnie’s car; it seemed he appreciated what the little German car was capable of. “How fast have you got it up to, Ronnie, is it?”
“Yeah, a hundred and fifty-five. Then the governor kicks in. Aint no tellin’ what it would do without that. Hundred and eighty, probably.”
“Wooo wee, that’s cookin’! You mind if I take it for a spin?” Bradley was pushing.
Ronnie sure as hell didn’t want this guy he had just met and suspected of stealing aluminum and copper from air conditioners driving his brand-new M5 but Mitchell was standing there gauging Ronnie’s reaction. Here he was trying to ingratiate himself and they were already at an impasse. Ronnie felt they were doing it on purpose so he called their bluff. “Sure. You don’t want to open it up out here with all this gravel and potholes and shit. Hell, I almost bottomed out when we first turned in. What a hole, what a hole.”
Bradley laughed, turned to Mitchell and told him, “He should see that hole after a good rain. Little kids be fishin’ for bluegill in it. They both laughed and Ronnie joined in, seeing his chance.
“I sure could use a drink, you got any of that ‘shine with you?”
“Sure,” Mitchell spoke up, “We got a jar we’ve been workin’ on, if you don’t mind drinking out of the jar. We don’t have no cocktail glasses.” Another round of laughter as Mitchell reached into his truck to retrieve the whiskey. Lying on the seat beside a pair of grease coated saddle gloves was a vintage model 1911 Colt .45 and Mitchell made sure Ronnie saw him seeing him looking at it. These guys weren’t playing around was the message and Ronnie understood, loud and clear.
Mitchell took a healthy swig off the clear quart Mason jar and passed it to Ronnie. Ronnie held it up in a silent toast and took a couple of full swallows, at least three drinks he told himself. Drinking this high-proof ethanol it was a good idea to keep track of how much you were drinking, or else you could be blind-sided and down for the count. Ronnie passed the jar to Bradley, who said, “Here’s to you,” and drank almost half of what remained, probably four shots Ronnie thought to himself. He didn’t think these two had been drinking at all until now, regardless of what Mitchell had tried to pawn off on him, and that had him slightly worried – for a minute. Then the whiskey started warming his brainstem up and he felt his concerns slipping away and he had to remind himself not to let down his guard, recalling how he had drunk a few shots of courage while visiting the Grand Canyon to get over his acrophobia so he could approach the rim and look down into the canyon. The alcohol had totally alleviated his fears and inhibitions, so much so that when a herd of elk wandered through the parking lot, he chased the biggest stag of the bunch, running and snapping pictures with his old Nikon, oblivious to the shouts and warnings of the other tourists keeping their distance to avoid being gored by an angry bull elk in the late October rut.
“Let’s go see if Roy’s out back,” Bradley motioned for Ronnie to come on and follow Mitchell, who was already at the side gate. There didn’t seem to be anyone around but Ronnie could hear the background drone of heavy machinery working in the back lot, just out of view over the eave of the office.
As they rounded the building the monstrous car crusher came into view and the prickly drone began to rise to a soft roar as the crane swung its huge magnet like a yo-yo playing “rock the cradle”. Ronnie thought it was the stuff of nightmares, one more thing to add to his ever-growing list of phobias. He could well imagine being stuffed in the trunk of an old car, claustrophobic terror creeping over him until the Beetle-sized electromagnet dropped on the roof and slowly raised him up and over the coffin-shaped crusher receptacle. Then an elevator-from-hell free fall into the box, hydraulics immediately whirring into action, the heavy steel lid being forced down on the car, squeezing the shit out of everything in its path, himself included. The worst part was the final moments when the trunk of the car implodes and starts its mortal bear-hug on his body, then his head until his blood and brains squirt out like a sledgehammer flattening a watermelon. And that would be the end of Ronald Jarvis Tompkins, Esquire.
Ronnie shoved these advancing fears back as the rattle of the chain link fence gate swinging his way broke him back into the moment and Bradley turned back and told him to make sure he latched the gate, “We don’t want the Dobermans to get out.”
Mitchell laughed and confessed, “There aint no dogs in here; Bradley’s just yanking your chain.
The three of them stood sentinel for a bit, scanning the ocean of wrecks and heaps, trying to get a bead on Roy Crane. It appeared no one was in the yard but it was hard to see the north end as the lot was slightly crowned in the middle where the crusher plied its ghastly trade. They made their way toward it and the back of the lot slowly came into view. On their left was a stack of cars, stockpiled like cordwood and Ronnie caught a glimpse of someone darting in between the rows, stopping occasionally to shield his eyes and look in the interiors of the old cars and trucks. As they got closer they could recognize Roy, his unmistakable shuck and jive in full plumage as he seemed to locate what he was looking for and whipped a wrench from the rear pocket of his jeans, then disappeared into the driver-door of an old Plymouth Fury. He was still submerged and they could hear sporadic curses as they reached the car he was working on when all of a sudden he popped up like a Jack-in-the-box holding an electrical switch of some kind with wires protruding out of it like the tentacles of a squid.
“Ah ha!” Roy exclaimed and turned around, startled to see Mitchell, Bradley, and Ronnie standing right by him, lightly laughing with each other at Roy’s comic routine. “Well, fellas, to what do I owe this honor?” Roy was a bit pensive.
Mitchell spoke up first and quickly. “We wanted to make sure you knew this guy, he claims you all are old pals.”
Ronnie took this opportunity to get in a quick, “Hello, Roy. How’s it goin’?”
“Oh, hey, hi Ronnie. What you doin’ hanging out with these two ne’er-do-wells?”
Mitchell and Bradley exchanged brief glances, evidently relieved that Ronnie wasn’t a cop and they weren’t going to have to dispose of him after all. People of this ilk will go to extremes to protect their livelihood and avoid prison.
Mitchell answered Roy’s question for him, “He came up on us out at Gus’s, wantin’ to get a dozen of Key Lime Pie. All we got left is the regular so we thought we’d come by and see if you had it to get rid of. Plus, we wanted to make sure he was who he said he was. You can’t be too careful these days.”
Roy appeared somewhat relieved. “Sure, I got you covered. You want it now or can you wait till I get off. You’ll have to go out to the cave either way. Hell, what time is it? Can’t be too awful long.”
Bradley, as dirty as he was, was the only one of them wearing a watch. The other three looked around at each other’s arms, their eyes eventually settling on Bradley’s. Bradley looked at them with a dumbfounded look on his face. “What?”
A chorus of “What time is it?” followed and Bradley sheepishly looked at his faithful Timex. “It’s quarter of three.”
That settled it. “I get off at three-thirty. You all might as well wait. Just stay out of sight, I don’t want to be answering a lot of fool questions from the boss, he’s a real prick. You can go over to the river over the hill and no one can see you. Look for copper and stainless.” Roy never missed an opportunity to cash in.
Meanwhile, up in the cab of the crusher, Jim was eying this gathering watchfully. I wonder what in the hell this is all about? Jim, whose eyesight was about as good as a human could possess, noticed the tattoo on Mitchell’s neck and immediately assumed it was the man who had shot at Ronnie. That Ronnie’s got more balls than I give him credit for. He was impressed that Ronnie had been able to track the guy down so quickly and evidently had embedded himself in whatever nefarious dealings the other three had going on. Must be one of the three W’s: weed, whiskey, or women. I doubt it’s women. Jim reached for his trusty binoculars, the ones his father had brought back from Germany, indispensible for a man of his position, way up high in the crow’s nest.
Down below, the summit was breaking up with Roy heading off toward the office with his electrical switch he had dug out of the Fury and the other three sauntering off toward the pine woods that lined the Ohio River. Mitchell looked at Ronnie while they were walking and asked him, “You know, I’m curious about something. If you know Roy from way back, how come you didn’t just ask him for the whiskey?”
There it was, the one thing Ronnie knew could trip him up. Every plan always has a weak point and this was his. He should have had an answer prepared, foreseeing this eventuality but it had escaped him. He did what lawyers do best, he bullshitted. “Uh, Roy, you know, he knows a lot of people I do business with, and I, uh, I don’t want everyone to know my business. You know how it is.”
Bradley spoke up, “Well he knows now.”
“It’s not that big a deal. So he knows. He won’t go flappin’ his gums will he?” A cheap psychological trick. Ronnie knew if he asked advice of an opponent, making them feel they had the intellectual advantage, he could lull them in to a false sense of security. Done it a thousand times in the courtroom. But this is no courtroom; you make a mistake out here and you’re liable to take a ride on old sparkey. Should have been ready for that one, what else have you forgotten?
Mitchell expounded on that sentiment. “People go flappin’ their gums wind up in the river, feedin’ the fish.” He gave Ronnie an icy stare that sent a chill down his spine.
Ronnie neatly sidestepped this admonition. “I don’t think you have to worry about old Roy, he’s never done me wrong before.” Then why didn’t you just go to him for the whiskey? Keep digging, they’ll throw you in the hole.
Evidently this was good enough for Mitchell, and he dropped the subject for a more pleasant topic. “Looks like a man could bring a cane pole out here and clean up on bluegill.” He was standing on the edge of the creek that dumped into the river right by the junkyard.
“Pretty good backwater, I wonder if they allow fishin’?” Bradley was admiring the huge hole of water at the mouth of the creek that didn’t appear to have any current, perfect for fishing.
Ronnie seized the chance to offer them something they would appreciate. “I’ve caught a mess of fish out of this very hole. The bluegill hit as soon as you throw the line in. Can’t bait your hook fast enough.”
The two looked at him in awe. Mitchell was hooked. “Did you have to ask permission? Who do you see?”
Just then Ronnie remembered the last thing Steve had warned him about. He was about to tell them all about the fishing he and Jim had done out here and let them know he knew someone else who worked at the salvage yard. Someone involved, at the center of the case. A definite faux pas. He was going to have to lie, counting on the hope that they wouldn’t find out anytime soon. “I just asked the guy up at the counter.”
Mitchell, who seemed suspicious of everything Ronnie said, wasn’t buying this. “And they just let walk in here with your gear, during business hours? Did they make you wear a hardhat?”
Bradley jumped on the bandwagon, “and steel toe shoes! I always had to wear a hardhat, steel-toe boots, and safety glasses. Some places even make you wear long sleeves, if there’s chemicals involved.” Bradley’s face wore a grin of satisfaction, pleased with himself for his unmatched contribution.
Ronnie couldn’t believe this shit, the more he talked, the more suspicious Mitchell got. He jammed his hands in his field jacket, needing to feel the warmth of his Walther, starting to look for a way to end this encounter and just get the hell out of there, let Steve and the cops deal with this. Why in God’s name are you even doing this, you don’t have a dog in this fight? He looked around the yard and noticed the crane swinging around, lining up an old AMC Matador to drop in the crusher. He looked at the glass windshield of the cab and could barely make out his lifelong friend, an intent look of concentration on his face as he manned the joystick, working his ass off, saving money so he could live in this world and have a few things every man wants: a good woman, a home to live in, a car to get him to his daily grind, and in Jim’s case, a farm up at the lake so he could go hunting and fishing with his buddies; like Ronnie.
Seeing Jim reminded Ronnie why, indeed, he was doing this. He knew Jim didn’t kill old man Dixon, or anybody else, so they had to find the asshole that did. The asshole that was trespassing on Jim’s farm, the asshole that had taken a shot at him, the asshole that was standing right in front of him. Ronnie tightened the grip on his .380 and gave Mitchell an unfriendly stare-down. Draw, motherfucker.
Bradley broke the stalemate, “We’ll have to come over here and catch a mess of fish, how ‘bout that, Mitchell?”
Mitchell was momentarily distracted from his suspicions, something’s not right about this guy, him coming up on us out of the blue like that; have to keep an eye on him. “What’s that – yeah, sure, we’ll come out here. We’ll just bring Ronnie here with us. They’ll roll out the red carpet for us then.” A fair amount of sarcasm seeped through his pronouncement.
Ronnie was anxious to put yet another topic to bed. He could feel Jim watching them and was ready to leave. “We’ll have to come on a Sunday, they won’t let you fish while they’re operating their heavy machinery.” That should settle it. Just don’t ask me to go this Sunday, please God, let’s just get this over with.
“I don’t know about you fellas but I could use another drink.” Bradley to the rescue.
Ronnie thought there was no telling what serious offenses Mitchell would be committing if he didn’t have Bradley there to rein him in. He thought another drink sounded pretty damn good and suggested they all head back to the parking lot to wait for Roy and have another snort.
They all agreed and turned back toward the crusher to make their way over the hill and there was Jim, working his way down the ladder. Oh, shit. I hope Jim doesn’t come over here wondering what we’re doing. “Hey, Bradley, what time is it now?”
He had to stop and pull his sleeve up, doing a fair impression of Ed Norton, shooting his cuffs like he was going to sign a promissory note for Ralph or break the rack at their local pool hall or just about anything else Ed did on The Honeymooners. “It’s three twenty-five, well, what do you know, it’s almost time for Roy to get off. Time flies.”
Mitchell was ready too. “Yeah, let’s go grab that skinny son-of-bitch and get the hell out of here.”
Ronnie was beginning to have second thoughts about going anywhere with these two low-lifes but had already gone too far and was afraid of what might happen if he backed out now. Better just go through with it and try to get some evidence against them, then I can get out and just turn it all over to Steve and try to convince him to let the cops handle it. He thought he might be able to catch up with Jim if he went to the office so he told Mitchell and Bradley to meet him at the truck and headed off to the right before they had a chance to respond.
As he neared the big garage doors he saw Jim coming out from behind a row of cars with his lunchbox and enter the office through the door signed EMPLOYEES ONLY. Ronnie jogged to catch the door as it was swinging shut, hissing on its pneumatic closer. He was able to wedge his right hand in the narrowing crack, easing the door open he could see Jim, standing by himself at a crude fold-out card-table filling out his timesheet for the week.
“Hey, Jim,” Ronnie called quietly.
“Oh, hey there Ronnie. I saw you with those guys talking to Roy. What’s going on?”
“That’s the guy that was out at your place last weekend, the guy that took a shot at me. You ever see him before?”
“I’ve seen ‘em out in the parking lot talking to Roy before but I don’t know who they are. You sure it was him?”
“Yes, I’m sure. It was probably him who killed Dixon and those other two guys.”
“You don’t think – we still haven’t heard from John. You don’t think they killed John and dumped him in the river, do you?”
This was the first Ronnie had heard of John’s disappearance. “John’s missing? When’s the last you heard of him?”
“Yesterday he took off after work – he called Cecilia and told her he was going hunting till dark at my place. I’m headed out there now to look for him. We’re gonna have to call the cops and get the search team out but I’ve got a bad feeling like something happened to him.”
“That’s where we’re going, I think. I set up this deal to buy a case of whiskey from these two guys but they had to come get it from Roy. He lives up there right down the road from you. I’m assuming that’s where we’re going to pick it up.”
Jim had a concerned look on his face. “Roy’s got a still near the spring. He might be storing it there.”
Ronnie winced at this revelation. “You knew he had a still on your property and didn’t tell us about it. After he shot at me? What the hell, Jim?”
“I told Steve. Haven’t you talked to him?”
Ronnie knew then he probably shouldn’t have blown Steve off but he didn’t have time to ponder the repercussions right now. “Look Jim, if you go up there now, park in your garage and be on the lookout for us, while you’re looking for John. They may be going to the still. Steve’s supposed to be out on the highway watching for us. Right out here by the road. Can you leave now? Right now?”
“Yeah, I was going out the door when I saw you.”
“OK, you leave first. I’ll stall these guys. There’s a Coke machine out there, I’ll get us a drink while you haul ass up to the highway and find Steve. Then you can follow us. I’ve got the feeling this is it and I’m gonna need your all’s help. You got your rifle in the truck?”
“Don’t leave home without it.”
“Good, I’m sure Steve’s got his forty-five. I’ve got my Walther. That should be enough. What about Roy? You think he’s in on this?”
“You didn’t talk to Steve?”
“No. I’ve been busy.”
“I told Steve about Roy – well, it’s possible.”
Ronnie felt the balance shift back. “Has he got any guns?”
“Yeah, a few rifles for sure. I’d say he’s probably got a handgun, too, but listen, I really don’t think Roy, you know, killed anybody. He’s really a pretty good guy. He’s just an old country boy tryin’ to make ends meet. Now these other two guys, they look like trouble, especially that one with the tattoo.”
“Yeah, that’s him. The one I ran in to.”
“If they’re out there now waiting for you why don’t we just go take ‘em now?”
“We don’t have any evidence, Jim. Look, I’ve got to go. You know what to do? Right?”
“Yeah, hey Ronnie, if you hear shootin’ drop to the ground.” Jim warned him.
“Oh, great. Don’t let them see you followin’ them.”
Ronnie walked through the office and out the front door and there by the Coke machine were all three of them, drinking icy cans of Coca-Cola.
Roy was in a good mood. “Damn Ronnie, ‘d you get lost in there?”
“When you gotta go, you gotta go.” Ronnie smiled a big shit-eating grin. “Did you all finish that jar off?”
Mitchell seemed more at ease after cutting up with Roy and Bradley, and another drink. “I think we saved you the last one,” and handed the jar to Ronnie.
“Thanks.” Ronnie took the jar and downed the last of it, what little was left. “We’re gonna have to get some more of this. It kind of grows on you.” Ronnie was grateful for that drink. He needed it to steady his nerves. He had the feeling Jim wasn’t going to wait for him to turn up some evidence that the courts could use, not with John being missing. They’d be lucky if they made to the highway.
Jim made it to the highway in record time, leaving a rooster tail of dust a mile long. He spotted Steve’s truck to his left less than a quarter-mile from the entrance and twenty seconds later was pulling a u-turn to slide in behind Steve’s dark blue Chevy. He hopped out running up to the driver-side window as it was whirring down. Breathlessly, he relayed all that he and Ronnie had discussed and asked if they should take both trucks.
“You better just ride with me. It’ll be easier to follow them. Have you got a gun?” Ronnie asked.
“Hang on.” Jim trotted back to his pickup and gathered up his favorite hunting rifle, a Browning A-Bolt .300 Winchester Magnum and a box of shells. He still had his dad’s old pump-action 30/06 so he slung it over his shoulder, too. Before he slammed the door he reached up on the dash and lassoed his binoculars, thinking they might come in handy. He turned and trotted back to Steve’s truck, pausing to open the back door and lay everything except the Browning on the back seat. The truck dipped dramatically as he dropped the heavy weight of his frame onto the front seat and said, “Let’s go!”
“We can’t. Not yet. We’ve got to wait for them to come out. What are they driving? Did you notice?”
“Yeah, they’re in Ronnie’s BMW.”
That didn’t sound right to Steve. “Ronnie said he followed them over here. Was there a blue Dodge truck there?”
“That’s Roy’s truck.”
“I’d say that’s what they’ll be in. Surely Ronnie will drive his car. He doesn’t like leaving it anywhere and I doubt if he wants to ride with those guys.”
“You haven’t heard anything about John, have you. I’ve been worried all fuckin’ day. I shoulda took the day off.”
“He probably just went out and got drunk. Have you talked to his wife today?”
“I did. At lunch. She’s frantic. She wants to call the cops and I told her I’d go out there after work and if I didn’t find out anything we’d call them then. I hope he just spent the night in the trailer so he could hunt this morning but it’s not like him not to tell her. She keeps him on a pretty tight leash.”
“Don’t worry, we’ll find him.” Steve tried to appear confident but deep down he was worried that there might be another victim in this mess. “There’s the truck.” He pointed.
Ronnie’s car was in front so he wouldn’t have to eat all the dust thrown up by the Dodge. When they reached the highway Ronnie pulled over to allow Roy to pass him and lead the way. Traffic was heavy causing Ronnie to almost lose him from the start as Roy pulled out in front of a slow-moving semi. Steve had trouble merging too but they all knew where they were going and by the time they hit the entrance ramp to the interstate Steve had both vehicles in his sight. The game was afoot.