Awful People A One Month At A Time NaNoWriMo Challenge

31

Matt and Margie rolled into the Shopaminit at four minutes after four –an hour and four minutes late.

Two customers were in the store. One was at the register, but Margie started in the second she stepped through the door.

“This place is a mess,” she said, loudly. “The floor needs to be swept and mopped. Rose get a bucket. Matt you take the register.”

Matt looked over at Rose, but Rose didn’t budge.

“Is there something wrong with your hearing?” Margie demanded.

“You’re late,” Rose said, simply. “One hour and four minutes. You said you’d be back at three. You’re an hour late –and by the way, Greg’s wife called. The doctor wants to keep him out for at least another week.”

“We got held up,” Matt said, quickly.

Margie bulldozed past him and said to Rose, “You’re skating on thin ice.”

The other customer, hovering toward the end of the chips and crackers aisle, decided he could get something elsewhere with less drama.

“You owe me $500,” Rose said, flatly.

“We do not,” she said, predictably.

Rose didn’t hold back. “You were supposed to be back at three, but that was renegotiated from when Matt said you’d be back by noon. I am nearly eight months pregnant and I covered your entire weekend, so you could get away for the weekend. It wasn’t even a real vacation. It was a sales pitch for a time share condo.”

Margie stood there stonily.

“Matt lied to me and you lied to me,” she said. “Now, pay me what you owe me and let me go home and put my feet up.”

Matt put his hand, gently on Margie’s shoulder and said, “Let’s talk this over,” but Margie shrugged his hand off. Apparently, she’d been fuming for hours.

“There is nothing stopping you from leaving,” she said. “You are free to walk out that door, but if you do before this floor is cleaned and this store is straightened up, you’re out of a job. We put you in charge because we believed you could handle the responsibility, but all I see that we’re getting from you is disrespect.”

Rose nodded and then stepped around the counter.

She stood in front of Margie and said, “Your pepperoni rolls really aren’t that good. They taste cheap.”

Then she left the store.

 

Matt began calling her an hour after she left, asking where things were and apologizing for Margie’s temper tantrum. The trip, it turned out, hadn’t been as restful as either of them had hoped. Even the in-room cable television was loaded with sales pitches for the time share units.

“And she got a burned waffle this morning at breakfast,” he said. “It really set her on the wrong path.”

Matt promised that if Rose would just let things blow over for a couple of days, he’d see about getting Rose her job back. He’d even try to get the money they owed her, but then suggested they could maybe do that in trade.

“You could help yourself to the coolers for drinks and snacks until we were square.”

She told him she’d think about it then hung up.

At nine o’clock Margie called to apologize, which turned into another round of accusations and insults after Rose told them she didn’t intend to come in to open the store in the morning. She also told them she didn’t know where the key to the pumps was.

Matt had, apparently, lost his.

When they called again at 11, Rose just didn’t pick up. They could figure it out or not. She really didn’t care that much.

Instead, she took out the phone number she got from Skip. He was resting at a bed at the Cleveland Clinic. They were going to run some tests and keep him for a couple of days, but he said he’d be OK.

“Just got to cut out the smoking,” he said.

Then he asked her what it was she wanted of him.

“Skip, I need a job,” she said.

On the other end of the line, Skip McAllister paused for just a second and then asked her, “Rose, what are your politics like?”

Honestly, she hadn’t thought much about it, she said. She voted more with her gut than with her heart.

She said, “I don’t vote for anybody who promises to make everything bad go away because all they end up doing is raising my taxes. I don’t vote for people who tell me how I ought to think or what I ought to do with my life.”

“What do you think of the president?” He asked.

“I think he’s a raging jerk of a man,” she said. “I think he’s cruel and bad to the people around him. I think he lies almost as much as he breathes. He scares people, he’s a bully, but I’d vote for him again.”

Skip laughed and said, “You’re hired. I know some people. We’ll get you working.”

 

30

Rose, by virtue of working at the Shopaminit was first to arrive. She also put the “closed” sign up in the window right before one o’clock and shooed off customers who wanted to come in to buy snacks.

“Just gas,” she told anyone who tried the door. “We’re doing an inspection. We’ll open in about an hour.”

Dre and his grandmother arrived next and were ushered in with the briefcase.

Skip was last, and he came with a friend. An intense-looking man with too-dark hair and almost too-much aftershave helped him out of the Cadillac Escalade and into a wheel chair.

Skip didn’t much look like the man he’d been the previous night. His clothes were clean, and he wasn’t covered in blood, he looked weaker and less formidable in the sweatshirt and track pants.

He looked old.

After he was ushered into the store and the door was locked behind him, Skip got right down to business. He thanked them for their help. They’d probably saved his life by calling the ambulance and very likely kept him out of deeper trouble by keeping his things out of sight.

He didn’t pretend that they hadn’t looked inside the briefcase.

“It’s not my money,” he said. “Honestly, under different circumstances, I’d have been pleased for you to keep it. The money, to me, represents a lapse in judgement and a near loss of what I hold dear. I appreciate you keeping it for me. I want to return it to its owner.”

Megan handed the briefcase to Skip, who opened the case and took out a single slip of paper from a pocket in the lining of the case. He closed the lid and handed the case to his associate.

“You have my phone, as well,” he asked.

Dre gave him the cell phone, which he put in his pocket. Then Rose handed over the gun.

“I was tempted to use that,” she said. “Almost did.”

That raised an eyebrow. Skip asked, “Is there a problem?”

Rose shook her head. “No problem at all.”

“I made some promises,” Skip said. “I’ll need your names and phone numbers. I will have someone give you a call about the college.”

“What if I don’t want to go to college?” Dre said.

“Then you don’t have to, but you don’t get the money instead.” Skip looked at Megan. “This will be no other strings attached. I’ll make sure he gets books, tuition, room and board –all of that, but anything beyond that is on someone else. Does that seem fair?”

She nodded.

Skip turned toward Rose.

“What can I get for you? Maybe something for your baby? Do you want to go to school?”

Rose thought about it and then said, “Can I get a little more time on that favor?”

Skip looked at his watch.

“I’m leaving the state in just a couple of hours,” he said. “If you want something from me, you kind of need to tell me before I go. Because once I’m home, there’s not going to be anything I can do.”

So, he gave her the number for his phone, the phone he planned to get rid of the second he returned home.

“You maybe have a day,” he said.

Rose took the number and said, “OK.”

“Why are you giving all that money back?” Dre asked, abruptly. “Who turns down a million and a half dollars?”

Skip smiled and said, “It’s a matter of principle. I was asked to do something that was against my core beliefs. I’m a believer in free enterprise, self-determination and liberty. I was asked to do something that went against that very much, that would have undermined my beliefs and changed the future.”

“You crazy?” Dre asked. “You saying you from the future?”

The man laughed and said, “No, but I was given a look at it. The people on this list are all good people. Some of them are going to run for election in the next few years. They represent the best your state has to offer –good, solid god-fearing people, decent people who don’t think government can solve every problem, who want their neighbors to keep what they earn and just want to raise their children the way they say they want to and not what some liberal do-gooder says is the right way.”

Skip said, “All of that is probably out of your pay grade. The important thing is I decided not to do what was best for some deranged special interest and instead listened to my heart.”

“Well,” Megan said. “Good luck with that.”

 

Benjamin Gardner had a temporary access ramp and a nurse standing by when Skip arrived for their meeting at his home. As soon as he was in the door, he asked Skip if he needed anything, if he wanted something to drink. He asked about how he was feeling.

For a liberal scumsucker, he was very hospitable, pleasant. Skip thought he’d have made a good Republican if he had half a brain.

Skip had Al hand over the briefcase as soon as they were alone in Benjamin’s pot-drenched office.

“I’m afraid I can’t accept this,” he said and before Benjamin could resist, Skip said, “Obviously, it’s going to take a while for me to recover my health, but to be fair, I can’t say that I entirely support your plan. Something about it rubs me the wrong way and I do hope that you will reconsider.”

Benjamin sagged behind his desk and pouted.

“Is it not enough money,” he asked.

Skip told him, “Throwing money at things isn’t always the solution to a difficult problem. I appreciate your passion, commend you on it, but your method is misguided. I think you have to let the free market of ideas run its course.” He shrugged. “So, I appreciate the offer to do business and for the trouble you went in locating me –also, thank-you for the flowers. They were very thoughtful, but I am returning your fee and my travel costs.

“This is not for me.”

For a second, Benjamin tried to argue, but Skip put up his hand and Al glowered at him, slightly. Skip was a sick man, but he wasn’t prepared to suffer any foolishness.

“Well, alright,” the millionaire hippie doo-dah said. “Have a safe trip home and get well soon.”

“Thank-you,” Skip said and Al led him out.

As Al and Skip drove down the hill to meet the ambulance to take Skip to the hospital in Cleveland, Al said, “It’s a shame you had such a bad trip. Giving up a mill and a half couldn’t have been easy.”

Skip laughed and said, “Sometimes you have to spend money to make money. I gave the money back but kept the list. While you were getting our coffees at the hotel this morning, I called a foundation friend of mine and explained the list and what it was.”

“Yeah?”

“They were very excited about it,” he said. “They offered twice that much, sight unseen. We’re going to talk about it when I get to Cleveland.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

29

Rose opened the store at 7:30, which was an hour and a half late, not that it mattered. This early and this time of the year, she doubted anyone would notice. The church crowd was just starting to rouse. Maybe the Catholics or the Methodists got up early. She didn’t know. She was nominally a Baptist, as were the five churches within a mile of the store.

Most of those people weren’t even on their way to Sunday school yet.

Rose sipped her first energy drink of the day, which helped soothe her nerves.

Greg’s wife called in to tell her that Greg was doing much better, but that the doctor didn’t want him to come back to work for at least a week.

“That’ll be fine,” Rose said.

She wasn’t sure if she’d even be here.

Rose figured that either she’d up and quit before the end of the day or Margie would just fire her. She wanted to hold out for the involuntary termination if she could because of benefits and the opportunity for legal action.

The events over the last couple of days had really sharpened her desire to inflict some damage on someone else for a change. The casual resentment she felt for her job and her lot in life had been aggravated just since Friday night.

She was seven months pregnant. Why was she still working in the first place? Who said it was OK for someone like her to get stuck working at a crummy backwater gas station? Didn’t she deserve more out of life? Didn’t she deserve a rewarding career –any kind of career, really?

Wasn’t she smart enough and talented enough to be anything other than a babysitter for washed up teenagers who’d aged out of their bright futures and were now only fit to be security guards for a bank of high-priced, low-value snacks?

Why had she nominally fallen in love with Jake, let him move into her house (rent free) and then allow him to impregnate her?

Anger roiled within her.

Nothing about anything was fair.

Because there was nothing much else to do, Rose wiped down counters, then restocked drinks and candy. She swept up the larger pieces of trash but figured that Matt and Margie could mop a floor for a change.

She went outside to smoke.

Only a handful of people actually came into the store. Most of just stopped for gas.

“What an awful, crappy and lonesome job this is,” she said.

Around 11, after the first Sunday morning church rush, she got the call from Skip McAllister.

“That was quick,” she said. “I hadn’t expected to hear from you for at least a couple of days -at least.”

“I imagine I looked pretty rough last night,” he told her.

“Like a dead man,” she said.

“I got better,” he said and chuckled.

Rose didn’t get the joke.

“What can I do for you?” She asked.

“I’m planning on stopping by today to pick up my things and say thanks,” he said. “I was thinking around 1 o’clock.”

“Yeah, that will be fine,” he said, then she added, “You mentioned a reward?”

“Of course,” he said. “We can discuss that when I arrive. See you at one.”

“Right, bye,” she said and hung up.

Rose wasn’t a particularly religious woman, but she did believe that sometimes some force in the universe did answer what amounted to special requests. Sometimes, after dumping on one person for a long, long time, the universe cut them a break.

Rose believed that Skip McAllister, whether he was a drug cartel gunman or a mafia hitman, was the answer to that request.

She just wasn’t sure how.

 

Ryan looked at his phone. Kelly had tried to call him six times since early this morning, but Ryan refused to answer.

“He probably just wants a ride home.”

As far as he was concerned, Kelly had brought this on himself. He’d come up with the rough outlines of the plan and Ryan had gone along with it. Ryan would never have known about the money or Rose’s involvement if Kelly hadn’t had an axe to grind.

He wasn’t even sure that there was ever money in the first place. For all he knew, Kelly had duped him into giving him a ride out to Rose’s house in some misguided attempt to get even for firing him. He’d dragged Ryan into this mess.

So, no, Kelly could walk home.

As usual, Ryan went into work.

Sunday was always a big day at the Pizza Hut. They had a full staff to handle the church people, who came in after services. Nobody wanted to work Sundays, of course, particularly the servers. The local churchgoers tended to spread out, make a mess and weren’t particularly good tippers.

Everybody would rather work before a football game or after a softball tournament when the beer would flow, and everyone was generally in a nicer mood.

Because of the traffic, Ryan was almost required to work Sundays, not that he minded, usually. There wasn’t much to do on your average Sunday afternoon in Charleston, anyway. Most of the time he just sat at home watching television or tweaking one of his dating profiles. He was on Tindr, OK Cupid and Christian Mingle. He hung out on Snapchat, too, but he hadn’t had much interest.

Today, however, he was hugging the coffee pot in back and trying to stay awake. Kelly had kept him out all night. It was just shy of noon and he felt like the underside of a tire.

“Hey, I’m going over to the Shopaminit and grab a Red Bull,” he yelled to the kitchen staff. “Hold the fort down. Be back in a minute.”

Nobody said anything, but why would they? This was his store.

It took slightly more than a minute to get across the bridge and pull into the parking lot of the Shopaminit.

He walked in the front door and Rose looked up.

“Hey,” he said. “I thought you had today off.”

Ryan felt her eyes on him. He didn’t like it. She watched him cross the store toward the energy drink cooler.

“I’m waiting on Matt and Marge to get back,” she said. “I’ll be out of here soon enough.”

Ryan grabbed a silver can and then a bag of salted peanuts, one of his regular purchases, then he took the snack and drink to the counter.

The way she was looking at him. He wondered if maybe Kelly had said something or if she could have seen his car from her house.

“You, OK?” he asked. “You look a little out of it.”

She smiled. “Long night.” Rose rang up the drink and the peanuts. “What was with you and that kid, last night? You can’t come into this store and start shouting at customers.”

Oh, that. He smiled. That was awful, but maybe less awful than being a party to a burglary.

“The black kid vandalized my store,” he said. “He came in, somehow got my jukebox on repeat, playing an old Hootie and the Blowfish song and then he broke the lock on the breaker box.

“I had to call Mr. Molique, who had to call an electrician to come out last night to fix it, so we could close. I was at the restaurant until after midnight,” Ryan complained. “So, yeah. I was mad at the kid. The kid cost us a couple of hundred dollars in repairs.”

“Hootie, what?” Rose said.

“It was a band,” he said. “Maybe they’re still a band. I don’t know if they still are. I honestly haven’t kept up with them that much.”

“But why come over here? Why the kid?”

Ryan sighed and cracked open his energy drink.

“I dated his mother a couple of years back,” he said. “She and I both worked at the Pizza Hut, back when I was just the assistant manager. She worked service. You shouldn’t get involved with the people you work with, but we did. We got really close and then it just didn’t work out.

“I guess he’s still nursing a grudge.” He laughed. “Obviously, he’s nursing a grudge.”

Rose listened to him, but then said, “Be that as that may, I can’t have you coming in here screaming at my customers. You can’t do that again.”

Sheepishly, Ryan raised his left hand and placed his right hand over his peanuts.

“I promise to never ever come in here yelling at your customers,” he said and grabbed his purchases. “But what about that guy with the gun?”

“You mean the guy who almost blew your foot off?” Rose said, “Heart attack. An ambulance came and picked him up, but not before he left us with a cool million dollars to watch over.”

Ryan dropped his peanuts.

“What?”

“Yeah. He’s some kind of hitman or something,” she said. “You probably saw the accident up the road. He flipped his car and rolled down the hill. It’s a wonder he walked away, but then he came in here. I’m not sure whether he had the heart attack before, after or during. Probably before.”

Ryan couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“So, that was the guy on the floor you stood over,” she said. “He’s fine, by the way –or mostly. So, before the police arrived, he had us hide his money for him, but I’m guessing that Kelly –you know Kelly, the guy who used to work here? He must have been outside at some point and seen the cash. We were looking at it after the ambulance took the guy away. He must have come down to have a word with me about his recent dismissal.”

“Rose, what? Did you call the police?”

Rose laughed and slapped her hand on the counter –funny joke.

“Not at all,” she said. “I didn’t even call the police when Kelly came to my house and broke in. I guess he thought I had the cash. I don’t.” She sighed. “I chased him off. He ran off screaming.”

“That’s terrible,” he said, feeling cornered. “I’m glad you’re ok.”

“I think he had help,” she said. “I mean, he was alone in the house. I think I might have really been in trouble if there’d been more than just him, but it was just Kelly.” Rose looked hard at him. “I did see a car go by on the road. Do you know who I thought it was?”

“Rose.” He said soothingly and shook his head.

She ignored him. “What were you doing out there? Was that your idea? Because I’m about a hundred percent sure that Kelly has no idea at all where I live. None. But you know, I think I’ve seen you drive past my house once or twice. I thought it was coincidence. Kanawha County isn’t so big.”

Ryan didn’t have a good answer, so he blurted out a bunch of words that seem to make sense, even if they weren’t particularly true.

“I’ve been seeing a girl over that way,” he said. “Her name is Tina. She’s got a trailer over that way. She’s kind of a skank, to be honest. It’s purely physical. We get together when I can’t find anybody else. I’m sorry. You and me have been getting close, I know, but I got needs.”

Rose looked at him as if he’d vomited a living octopus.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “It wasn’t me. I was out last night at Tina’s place. I left before her boyfriend got home. He works overnights at Walmart.”

As far as lies go, Ryan thought it was one of his best. It sounded unflattering and desperate, which were the true hallmarks of a good lie. Truth was embarrassing.

Rose nodded. Then she reached under the counter and pulled out a cell phone. She held it up and pressed a button.

A Bon Jovi song rang in Ryan’s pocket.

Sadly, slowly, Ryan silenced the phone, took his food and drink and said, “I’ll go now.”

Rose called after him. She said, “I get pizza whenever I want. I call over to the Pizza Hut and if I want a pizza, you’ll make it and have someone else bring it over.”

“Rose…”

“This is non-negotiable,” she said. “I get free pizza for as long as I want and I don’t tell anybody about any of this. I get free pizza as long as you work at that Pizza Hut. I get free whatever if you go to another restaurant that’s within the state of West Virginia.”

“Rose, I can’t do that,” he said, though of course, he knew that he could, and he would.

“And you never come in here again,” she said. “Not ever. You can buy your peanuts someplace else.”

28

The phone at the house rang just after breakfast. Megan was wiping down the stove counter, while Andy worked on the last few bites of pancakes. He’d already polished off the sausage and half a bottle of Donald Duck Orange Juice and would probably keep eating if she just put more food out there.

The phone rang and they both stopped.

Megan walked over to the kitchen phone. She still had a landline, which seemed more and more useless all the time, but the rate was so cheap.

“Hello,” she said as Andy watched her.

The voice on the other end of the phone said, “Good morning, Mrs. Collins. My name is Skip McAllister. We met yesterday?”

She laughed nervously. That was one way of putting it.

“Yes, I do remember. Good morning. How are you feeling?”

“Better,” he told her. “In fact, I’m getting out of the hospital this afternoon and will be going home shortly.”

“Really?” Megan said. She had a hard time believing that.

Andy looked at her, as if to ask, “Is that him?” She nodded quickly.

The voice on the other end said, “I wanted to thank you and your grandson for your help yesterday. I got myself into quite a pickle.” He laughed.

Surely, Megan thought, even that sounded peculiar to him. The man had rolled a car down the side of a mountain and had a heart attack. He was lucky to be breathing.

“We were happy to help,” she said.

“Well, yes,” he said. “As I said, I wanted to thank the both of you. Do you think the two of you could return to where we met yesterday?”

“You mean…”

“That’s the place,” he answered abruptly.

She thought it was weird that he didn’t want her to say it.

“Can we say 1 o’clock?” He asked.

“We’ll be there,” she said.

“Thanks,” he said. “Just make sure everybody can make it, alright?”

He meant the money and the phone, she knew.

“Of course.”

“Alright, then. See you shortly,” he said. “Have a good rest of your morning.”

Then he hung up.

Megan put the phone down and sighed. That was the strangest, tensest phone call she’d ever taken. It felt like she was talking to Hannibal Lector or a vacuum cleaner salesman.

“What did he want?” Andy blurted.

“The money, obviously,” Megan said and sat down at the small, kitchen table. “And you know what? I’m relieved. The sooner we are clear of that suitcase, the better. Last night was awful. I didn’t sleep but maybe an hour or two and I don’t think you did either.”

Andy looked toward his plate. He was disappointed.

“It’s for the best,” she said. “We don’t want to be mixed up in whatever it is he’s mixed up in.”

Andy nodded.

“We’re supposed to get it back to him after lunch,” she said. “We’ll take it back to the gas station, along with his phone and that will be the end of it.”

“OK,” he said, glumly. “Grandma,” Andy added. “Can we just look inside the case? I know we’ve got to give it back, but can we just look at the money, one more time? I don’t know when I’m ever going to see that much money again in my life.”

Megan nodded. It was a small request.

After Andy had gone to bed, Megan had moved the briefcase three more times. She’d moved it from the linen closet to the oven to finally, just under the couch in the living room. It seemed so obvious as to be an unlikely choice.

That had been her thinking last night, at around two in the morning. Now, it seemed kind of childish and stupid –not that it mattered. They were getting rid of the money and could get on with their lives.

“Come on, it’s in the living room,” she said. “We can’t keep it, but we can play for a while. How’s that?”

Andy smiled.

 

When Kelly didn’t pick up the phone, Ryan figured something had gone wrong.

“Oh, no,” he said and put the car in reverse.

Ryan drove around the side of the building and up the road to just where he could see Rose’s house. Parked directly in front of the porch was Rose’s Subaru.

“Oh, this is bad,” Ryan said. “This is bad.”

He pulled up next to the mailbox and looked at his phone.

If it turned out the money belonged to drug lords or the mob or the FBI, he would say that he’d called Kelly about coming to work.

“On a Sunday?” He thought. Nobody was going to buy that.

He shouldn’t have called.

Ryan rolled down the window and looked toward the house, listening for the rapid pop, pop, pop of automatic gunfire.

Instead, the front door swung open and Kelly came spilling out, limping hard, but almost running. Rose followed behind. She had a stick or a mop handle in her hands and she was swinging it wildly at Kelly.

Ryan could hear Kelly shouting. He was calling his name.

Ryan put the car in gear, eased back out onto the road and stomped the gas pedal.

 

Rose followed Kelly for about two good swings with her broom before she got so winded that she needed to go sit down. It didn’t matter. Kelly kept running.

She thought she saw a beat-up Ford Focus at the entrance to her drive –Ryan Seacrest’s car –and Kelly had called out Ryan’s name as he ran. He was still shouting it and help as he made his way off her property.

Rose watched him go.

Briefly, she thought about calling the police, but she doubted that would end well for any of them. Those two idiots would raise questions, which Rose thought she could answer, but didn’t want to have to try.

It was better to that those two skulked away.

Besides, she could work with this.

Kelly had dropped two things on his run. He’d dropped his gun, which was unloaded, and he’d dropped his cell phone. The gun wasn’t as nice as the one she was holding for the guy from last night, but she didn’t have to give it back.

The cellphone, Kelly knew, had Ryan’s number in it.

The way she looked at it, Ryan and Kelly had just gifted her with pizza every day for life. That seemed like a pretty good consolation prize in all of this –along with never having to set eyes on either of those two ever again.

Rose sat for a minute, let her heart calm down a bit, let the baby in her belly settle down, then she lit a cigarette and took a break. Then she collected what she’d come for, closed her front door and drove on to work.

She was going to be late, but that didn’t bother her. Nothing really bothered her right now.

 

Megan almost jumped out of her skin when the kitchen phone went off again. What now, she wondered.

“Just stay here,” she told Andy and got up from the coffee table.

The two of them had been counting out the money and then fanning it like they were high rollers playing Monopoly.

“Hello,” she said.

“Hey, Mom. It’s me.”

Megan relaxed. She’d almost forgot that she had a daughter.

“Good morning, sweetheart. How was your date?”

“It went OK,” Katherine said. “He took me out to a late dinner and we caught a movie. It was all very PG-13.”

Megan laughed in spite of herself.

“How’s Dre?”

“You mean Andy?” She asked.

“He wants to be called Dre now,” Katherine said. “I told you that. I’m sure he told you that, too.”

“He might have mentioned it,” Megan said. “I’m calling Grandmother’s privilege. I’ve always called him Andy. If he gets to be some big gangsta rap singer, no matter what he calls himself, he’s still going to be Andy to me.”

“You will have to take that up with his record label, I’m sure.”

“I look forward to it.”

“How is he?”

“He’s fine. We just finished breakfast a little while ago,” she said. “We’re playing a game in the living room now.”

“Nice,” Katherine said. “Look, I slept in a little later than I planned and I need to get some groceries for the house. Would it be OK if I picked Andy, I mean Dre, up later on today –like maybe after lunch?”

“Sweetheart, don’t worry about it. I think I’m going to take Andy out for a while. Maybe we’ll catch a movie or something. How about I drop him off at your place this afternoon?”

“Mom, that would be great. You don’t mind?”

“No, it works out that way, I think.”

It really did.

“You’re the best,” Katherine told her. “I love you. See you soon.”

“I love you, too, sweetheart.”

 

There was a modest hiccup at the hospital, which would have been avoidable if Skip had recalled that the attending physician was Dr. Suresh. He’d been on call the previous night but wasn’t actually the correct person to work around.

This had slowed Derek down slightly, but everything had all been taken care of. Begrudgingly, Charleston Area Medical Center had been convinced to release Skip to be taken to the Cleveland Clinic, where he was supposed to undergo more tests, treatment, whatever.

The specifics were dry and dull, as far as Skip was concerned. Once he concluded this idiotic business in West Virginia, he intended to have his Harvard trained personal physician send him on to the appropriate specialist.

Skip still hadn’t decided what he would tell his wife, but he realized that call was coming soon.

He and Betsy made a pact long ago never to keep things from each other, even unpleasant things. They fudged the rule a little for the sake of domestic tranquility. Skip had no doubt that she’d been somewhat aware of the troubles surrounding their boys for at least a little while before mentioning it to him, and he had never gone into great detail about the killings, even though she seemed to like it.

He saved that kind of thing for anniversaries and getaway weekends –pillow talk.

By late morning, he’d been moved from his hospital room to an ambulance with Ohio plates. He was loaded into the vehicle and they drove about 15 miles to a hotel and casino. The ambulance drivers took him in through a side door and then up to the top floor of the hotel by elevator.

The door to his room was open and a hard-eyed, hatchet-faced man was waiting to welcome him. The man dismissed the ambulance attendants with a quick handshake and a couple of hundred dollars peeled off a thick roll.

They left, and he closed the door behind them.

“Obviously, Derek sent me,” the man said. “You can call me Al.”

“Is that your real name?” Skip asked.

The harsh-looking man shrugged and said, “Why wouldn’t it be?”

As the man assessed Skip’s situation, Skip assessed who he was dealing with. Al wore khakis and a polo shirt, but his shoes were high end leather, so was his belt. His aftershave was expensive, and his accent was pure Atlantic City.

Skip took him to be mob, which didn’t bother him. They were good Republicans and while they’re business sometimes veered into some areas Skip normally found distasteful, they were reliable partners for small, short-term projects, like this one.

“You don’t look so good, buddy,” Al told him. “Derek gave me some idea that you had some errands to run before heading back to the land of sunshine and wildfires, but are you sure you’re up for it?”

“It was only a minor heart attack,” Skip said and slipped the I.V. needle out of his arm. The ambulance drivers had already unplugged him from the heart monitor. “The car accident was much worse, I think. It bunged up my shoulder, and I really liked the Cadillac.”

The man smiled. “Can’t go wrong with American made.”

Slowly, Skip sat up. He was sore. His entire body felt like it was bruised.

“Help me with this rail, please,” he asked Al. “I need to get dressed. You brought clothes?”

Al nodded and found the locking mechanism on the bed.

“The best we could do was Walmart, under the circumstances,” Al said. “But we picked up a couple of options for you, some different colors and some additional sizes. You never know what you’re going to get from that place.”

Skip nodded and then swung his feet around. He felt a little weak but could sit up.

Al steadied him and said, “Take it easy, buddy.”

“I’m grateful Derek was able to get you down here so quickly. I wasn’t sure if my requests were even possible, under the circumstances.”

Derek collected the bilious gray shopping bag from the hotel bed and put it next to Skip.

“On that, you caught a break,” the mobster said. “I was in the area, in Pittsburgh and caught a helicopter down this way. Only took about an hour. I actually had to wait around a little for the ambulance guys.”

Ignoring modesty, Skip slipped out of the hospital gown, dropped it to the floor and began looking through the bag for something to wear. He chose a plain, black t-shirt and a pair of blue track pants with white stripes down the leg.

“Help me stand,” he told Al.

Without batting an eye at the other man’s nudity, the thug helped Skip get unsteadily to his feet. He helped Skip dress, which neither of them liked, but was a necessity.

After he had his clothes, Al moved the hospital bed out of the way and Skip sat down on the hotel bed.

He felt tired, just from that. It was going to be a long day.

From the bag, he also retrieved the hooded sweatshirt.

“I’m going to need your help with the socks,” Skip said, apologetically.

Al nodded. It wasn’t a problem.

Skip rested for a couple of minutes and then stood up to look at himself in the hotel room mirror. The look wasn’t particularly flattering. The cheap clothes fit, but only the crudest sense. The cloth covered his body but made him look like a bloated lump.

Good enough, he thought. He would rectify the costuming at a later point, maybe after he returned home.

He did not like the other thing he saw in the mirror –his face. He looked pale and damp. Dark circles ringed his bloodshot eyes.

“I look like a corpse,” he muttered.

“I seen better looking corpses, if I’m honest,” Al said. “Look, Derek said to take care of you and Derek is good people. If you want, just give me the list of errands. You stay here, watch ESPN or something, and I’ll take care of everything. No problem.”

It was a generous offer, but Skip declined.

“I’m afraid this needs a more personal touch,” he said. “Now, I need something else. Can you find a restaurant or coffee shop in this place and get me a skinny, decaf latte?”

“Decaf?” Al made a face.

Skip nodded. “Doctor’s orders, same with the skinny. Lose weight and cut back on the stress. The caffeine isn’t good for me, apparently.”

“Shoot me now,” Al said and started toward the door. “You want I should stay gone about 15 to 20 minutes, right?”

“That should be about right,” Skip said. “Also, bring me a pastry, something with fruit.”

“What about the skinny and the doctor’s orders?”

“We have to live, don’t we?”

Al smiled. “That we do.” He closed the door behind him and left Skip to make his calls.

First, he called his wife, apologized for not checking in last night and explained that there’d been some complications.

“I was in an accident,” he said. “Some minor injuries on my part.”

This was true. The doctor had referred to the heart attack as mild, which suited the term “minor.” He was sore. His shoulder had been wrenched, and he was a little battered, but he was able to stand on his own two feet.

“Unfortunately, the car is a loss.”

This wasn’t a big deal. They carried full coverage.

“I’m so sorry,” Betsy said. “Is there anything I can do?”

“Not really, sweetheart. I’m planning on ending my trip early, obviously. I mean to fly back in another day or so.”

“You’ll have Doctor Bennet check you out when you get home, won’t you?”

“Absolutely,” he promised.

Skip asked about the boys, but she evaded the question, except to say they were fine. That meant they weren’t, but that they could talk about it later.

“I don’t think that my plans are going to work out here,” he told her. “When I get off the phone with you, I’m going to make some more calls. I just doesn’t feel like the kind of job I want to do, but there’s a silver lining. I think I can still get some work out of this that suits my conscience better.”

Betsy was silent for a moment as she considered.

“If you’re sure,” she said, “I leave that up to you. I will support you whatever you choose to do.”

“It’s for the best,” he told her. “We can talk more about it later.”

“Well, OK. Come home to me as soon as you can.”

“I love you, sweetheart.”

“I love you, too, honey.”

Then Skip called Benjamin Gardner at home. He wasn’t sure if he’d get him, but the hippie millionaire picked up on the second ring.

“Mr. Gardner, sorry to disturb you.”

“No, no, that’s alright. How are you? I’d heard you’d had an accident.”

“A serious one, yes,” he said. “The car is a total loss and the doctor is appalled that I’m up and about. Obviously, our circumstances have changed. I feel like we should talk about that, this afternoon, if you have the time.”

“Certainly,” Gardner said. “Should I come to the hospital?”

“No, nothing like that,” Skip laughed. What a silly idea. He’d rather shoot himself in the knee than entertain that man as a guest, even in a hospital room. “I can come to you, if that’s acceptable,” Skip said.

“Sure, sure,” the man said. “If you’re sure. I’m glad you’re OK. I was worried, you know.”

Of course, you were, Skip thought.

“I do appreciate your concern,” he said. “We can talk more this afternoon. Shall we say 2:30 at your home again?”

“That will be fine.”

“Thank-you,” Skip said. “See you then.”

He hung up the phone and then placed one more call, the one that would make this entire trip worthwhile.

 

 

 

 

 

27

Rose couldn’t stop swearing. It was daylight by the time she rolled out of her bed, grabbed the day’s first cigarette and ran to the bathroom.

She was always running to the bathroom. The baby seemed to be continuously stomping on her bladder.

Rose swore some more, as she turned on the showerhead just long enough to sprinkle a little water on top of her head and face, but not much else.

“That much water wouldn’t even get a Catholic baptized,” she mused, as she began tossing shirts and pants around, looking for whatever seemed the cleanest and freshest –or even just the least foul.

Regardless of what she wore, Rose resigned herself to smelling at least a little off for the bulk of the day, but this was, again, Matt’s fault. She hadn’t been supposed to work yesterday, let alone open and close. She shouldn’t be working today, her second day off, the Lord’s Day.

She stopped and exhaled a long plume of smoke.

Rose half hoped he would fire her. Margie, at least, was seriously considering it, she knew.

“Whatever,” she said.

Worst case scenario she’d go on welfare and start talking to lawyers, see if any of them hated Matt enough to drag his sorry butt into court. There was bound to be at least one, she thought. He’d pissed everyone else off.

Rose settled on sweat pants and an oversized t-shirt that said George Washington High School. She had no idea where it came from. She’d gone to Riverside High School. Jake, her shiftless ex-boyfriend and baby daddy, had graduated from St. Albans.

G.W was approximately halfway between the two.

It was a genuine mystery, but not enough of one for Rose to devote too much time thinking about it at the moment. She slipped on a pair of sandals, grabbed her purse and keys and walked as quickly as her seven-month pregnant body would allow to her car.

As soon as she got there, she stopped and turned around. She wasn’t leaving that gun in the house. She went right back, picked it up off the coffee table, shoved it in her purse and tried to leave a second time.

She fired the engine up of her old Toyota and drove too fast up the gravel road that led from her grandfather’s small farm to the main road. She didn’t stop to check the road but had already glanced down the way and seen absolutely nothing coming past the burned-out Dollar General store.

There was seldom any traffic out this way. The people who lived out this far valued their privacy. They grew dope, made meth and/or homeschooled their children as far away from the corrupting influence of American society as they could manage without actually immigrating someplace else.

Rose liked living out this way. Everybody did. It was a good neighborhood. Nobody talked to anybody and they left everyone alone. Nobody left the holler except to go to work or to buy groceries at the Walmart.

At the end of her driveway, Rose merged on to the main road in a screeching arc that veered right. She punched the on-button on her radio and half-listened to Kenny Chesney sing about drinking on a beach somewhere.

She’d never been to a Kenny Chesney show, though she vaguely remembered that he played in town once. That might have been before she was born, though.

“I hate you, Matt,” Rose said. “I really hate you for this.”

She had half a mind to call him and wake him up, but then realized in the rush to get out of the house, she’d left her phone plugged into the charger and sitting on her nightstand.

“Oh, hell,” she said and began looking for a place to pull over. There was no way she was going to spend the day cut off from humanity and stuck relying on just the radio for company.

It would only take her a couple of minutes to go back and get the phone. She was late already. What did a couple of more minutes matter?

 

As soon as they saw Rose leave the house in a wild hurry, Ryan told Kelly to get going.

“Let’s make this quick,” he said. “Go!”

The two of them had been hiding in the woods overlooking Rose’s house. Ryan’s car was parked about a hundred yards back, well-hidden behind the ruined building.

“I think we should both go,” Kelly said.

“No,” Ryan said. “It was your idea to come here. You go to the house and take a look around. I’m going to head back to the car and get it in position. If you find anything, let me know and I’ll come pick you up. If there’s any trouble, I’ll warn you. You need me over here. I’m your look-out.”

Sighing, Kelly said, “Fine.” Then he began trotting from the tree-line, across a broken field toward the house.

He got about twenty yards and slowed to a walk. He was tired. He hadn’t slept, had walked a couple of miles the night before and his damp jeans chafed the insides of his thighs.

Ryan looked back toward Ryan who motioned for him to get a move on it.

Kelly nodded and picked up the pace, but he didn’t understand why Ryan couldn’t just drive him over.

 

Ryan watched Kelly jog and then walk and then jog and then stop and then start walking again before he began hiking back to his car.

They’d watched Rose come out of the house. She’d come out once and then gone back in, but she hadn’t brought out a suitcase or anything else that looked like it could hold a million dollars before speeding off like a crazed bat.

Ryan could only guess what she left behind –probably her lunch or some pregnant woman stuff. Maybe she needed to throw up. He really didn’t know. It didn’t matter all that much to him, so long as she was out of the house and on her way somewhere else –anywhere else.

She had to open the store, this morning. That much he knew for sure and given the way she was driving, Ryan thought she was probably late.

He didn’t know when the Shopaminit was supposed to open. Their hours were posted on the front of the building somewhere, he remembered, but Ryan had never paid attention to them. They were always open when he stopped in before work and they were generally still open by the time he locked the door at the Pizza Hut and started home.

Whatever. What was important was that Kelly would have as much time as he needed to search the house. They’d spent a couple of hours discussing where he should look –the obvious places first, of course. Rose might have hidden the suitcase under a couch or chair in the living room or maybe somewhere in the kitchen.

Actually, Ryan thought she probably would have chosen and easier place because he doubted Rose would be much for crawling around on the floor or climbing ladders.

“Just be thorough,” he told Kelly. “And then call me when you find it.”

Kelly had surprisingly gone along with everything Ryan said. He put up no fight at all, offered no other alternatives and seemed perfectly willing to subjugate his will to Ryan’s without much pressure.

He liked that in a henchman but doubted Kelly would make much of an employee. It’s probably a good thing that he’d tossed his application in the “Grins and Giggles” file. Ryan was required by company policy to hold on to every application for no less than six months and every now and again, Ryan went through the reject file to have a good laugh.

As he ambled along to the car, Ryan felt the call of nature and paused behind a tree to take care of the need. Afterwards, he zipped up, looked around and wondered why anyone so close to Charleston would want to live out in the boonies like this. He didn’t.

Ryan got to his car and cranked the engine to warm up the car. He and Kelly had been standing out in the woods for a couple of hours, waiting and watching the house.

He turned on the radio and caught an old Def Leppard tune and sang along with until it ended and became the morning weather report –partly sunny skies, but no rain expected.

As the engine continued to warm up and the rock station moved on to its next song, “November Rain” by Guns N Roses, Ryan got out of the car and walked toward the face of the store to take a look down the road. He’d seen more life at a cemetery. He shrugged, went back to his car and turned up the music.

Axl Rose sang how nothing lasts forever, “not even cold November rain.”

 

Rose’s car pulled up to the front of the house with a loud, sliding crunch and Kelly nearly wet himself. Ryan hadn’t called. There’d been no warning and he was standing on top of the kitchen counter with his hands fumbling through the greasy cobwebs above the cabinets.

“No, no, no, no,” he moaned, in horror.

Kelly tried to climb down as quickly as he could, but his foot got caught on the pile of dishes in the sink and he tumbled onto the dirty floor with a loud crash.

His ankle turned with the landing and he fell hard on his knees.

Kelly was barely up when Rose came through the door and screamed.

 

Guns N Roses was followed by a Journey song. Ryan had never been a fan, really. He barely considered Journey a rock band. They were more of a guitar-heavy pop band, whose only use was to get high school girls in the mood to make out, about 30 years ago.

He listened to a couple of bars and then decided it was a good time to go check the road again.

Ryan left the car, stretched and yawned by the door and then walked over to the edge of the building again.

Nothing.

He stood there for a couple of minutes, enough time to let the song finish, but not so much as a crow came down that road.

He went back to the car and sat down.

 

Rose screamed at the man crouched on the floor of her kitchen. It only took her a second for it to register that it was Kelly and he looked as terrified as she felt.

The baby kicked.

Rose wasn’t thinking. She didn’t ask questions. She just started yelling, “Get out. Get out now!”

Kelly began yelling back. None of it made sense.

Rose tried to back away, to get away, but then Kelly got to his feet and pulled out a gun.

 

Ryan hadn’t wanted him to bring the gun. He’d warned him against it, but then Kelly had said, “What if somebody else shows up to get the money? What if they’re armed?”

He needed to protect himself. He needed to have a way to get away.

He didn’t mean to point the gun at Rose. He pulled the gun out and pointed it at her. Then he started apologizing. The words just spilled out of his mouth.

“I’m sorry, Rose. I’m sorry. We didn’t think you’d be home. We don’t want to hurt you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Just tell me where the money is, and I’ll go.”

 

Rose only caught about half of what Kelly was saying. He was babbling about money, the money. He kept repeating it over and over. Somehow, he knew about what had happened last night.

“I don’t have the money,” she said. “I don’t have it.”

But he wasn’t listening. Kelly’s eyes were open wide. He was freaking out. The gun was shaking in his hands and he kept repeating, “I’m sorry, Rose. I’m really sorry. We didn’t think you’d be home. We just want the money. That’s all. Give it to me and I’ll go. I’m so sorry, Rose.”

 

Ryan got through Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” before he decided now would be a good time to check in with Ryan. By now, he ought to have a good lay of the land, he thought.

He pulled out his phone and called.

 

“Money?” Rose said, breathing hard and clutching her belly. “OK. I have money. It’s in my purse. Can I give you that?”

Kelly seemed confused.

She repeated, “I have money in my purse. Let me give you that.” She opened her purse and began digging around inside.

“No,” Kelly said, shaking his head. “That’s not.”

Kelly’s front pocket began to ring. He looked down. One of his hands fell toward his pocket, while the other, still holding the gun sagged a little.

Rose’s hand touched the butt of the gun she’d been given. Kelly wasn’t paying attention to her. She wasn’t thinking straight. She dropped her purse. It fell to the floor with a clatter.

Kelly had his phone out, which was still ringing, but was startled by the noise.

Rose charged him.

26

The nurse grunted as she pushed through the door, her arms full.

The soft noise woke Skip, who blinked his eyes open and looked over at the woman as she checked his vitals, took note of the readings on the machine and studied his breathing.

“Didn’t mean to wake you,” she said and continued. “Do you need anything?”

“I’m fine,” Skip said, which he was not.

“Six-thirty,” she said. “You should probably try to rest.”

He said nothing. Skip was an early riser, had always been an early riser, even before his years in the military. Most mornings at home, he got up around 5, let the dogs out into the yard and then made coffee while waiting on the paperboy to deliver the day’s news.

While he also had digital subscriptions to several newspapers, he preferred to read on his phone, only while he traveled.

His phone, he remembered. He needed his phone. Becky would probably be worried sick. Skip hadn’t checked in before bed, as was his routine when he was on the road.

He thought about calling now, but it was 3:30 on the west coast. Becky would probably be asleep. He wondered what he was going to tell her.

He also needed to talk to Benjamin about the job. If he’d been a praying man, his accident and heart attack seemed like the answer he was looking for, which seemed both loud and clear and conveniently in line with his feelings about the whole matter.

It might be better to have the money in hand before they spoke and/or met.

“My personal effects,” he asked. “My wallet, driver’s license, etcetera…”

“In the drawer by the bed. I’ll get it for you,” she said.

She handed it to him, along with his watch. He was glad to see that it had made the journey, too. The watch was worth more than a hybrid vehicle.

With tubes and wires connected to his arms, fishing through the eel skin billfold proved to be challenging, but he found the card for an associate.

“Would you hand me the phone, please,” he asked the nurse.

“Mr. McAllister, it’s awful early. Are you sure you don’t want to wait?”

“It will be fine,” he said. “I need to make some calls to take care of a few things back home, you understand.”

Incredulous, the nurse helped place the tan, industrial phone on his stomach, where he could punch the buttons.

“Thank-you,” he said. “And if I could have a little privacy?”

“I’m done,” she said. “I’ll check back in a few minutes. You should really rest.”

“I promise,” Skip told her and smiled.

He didn’t really need it, however. All things considered, Skip had slept remarkably well, but moderate sedation will do that to you.

As she closed the door, Skip looked at the card. The front read Davis Plumbing and HVAC, which was a legitimate business and in no way connected to the kind of thing Skip did for a living.

On the back was he number $189.73, which looked innocuous enough, but was the phone number for Derek Palmer, a man who could be trusted to do a few favors for him.

The area code and the prefix on the front of the card were the same as Derek’s number. The last four digits on the back represented the rest of the man’s telephone number.

The one was meant to refer to the top numbers on the front of the card, not the cell phone number or the fax number below.

Phones had become more complicated in his line of work. It was easier for law enforcement and other parties to get access to telephones.

As a precaution, Skip didn’t keep many contacts in his cellphone, generally, routine phone numbers no one would think anything about –like his wife’s number, a number for a couple of restaurants, a bank and a doctor.

With the exception of his wife’s number, the other contacts were fakes. The businesses existed, but the numbers led to dummy sites.

If someone began poking around the contents of his phone, looking for some proof of anything, Skip would be alerted.

While using the road phone, he didn’t call his wife, except to talk to her on the burner phone. They could talk about whatever and the burner phones were discarded after every trip.

Otherwise, he called home from hotel landlines, which were easy to tap.

He traveled with a different phone than what he kept with him at home and was registered to another William McAllister with another carrier. He periodically changed phones, changed numbers, changed carriers, which he believed would protect his privacy.

Most of the numbers he needed, he remembered. He had a good memory for numbers, but it helped him to have a couple of numbers around that he could refer to, if he needed –the number for a discrete weapon supplier, a number for his attorney and the number for Derek, a “friend.”

He dialed Derek.

“Y’ello,” the man said, groggily.

Skip began talking immediately. “Derek, this is Skip. Sorry to wake you. I’ve run into a bit of a jam in Charleston, West Virginia and I need some help. Can you get a pen and paper? Some of this is probably going to be complicated.”

There was only the briefest of pauses while Derek registered who he was talking to and what was being requested of him.

“Sure thing, Skip. Just a second.” Presumably, Derek grabbed something to write with and then said, “Shoot.”

“As I mentioned, I’m in Charleston, West Virginia. I’m in the heart facility of Charleston Area Medical Center. I’ll need a call to my attending physician and documentation to get me released by this afternoon. The doctor’s name is Suresh,” Skip added. “I think if you tell him that you’re taking me to Cleveland, he’ll be fine with that.”

“OK,” Derek said.

Skip continued, “Then, I’m going to need someone to pick me up. I’m guessing that the doctor is going to let me leave here without some kind of medical escort. So, I’ll need an ambulance to get me away from the hospital and then a car to drive me around after.

“Get something with tinted windows. I’ll need a driver, who can also be an extra set of hands. I may need a wheelchair to get around for a while. I’ll also want my medical files and whatever prescriptions to go.”

“OK, can do. What else?” Derek asked.

“Clothes,” he said. “Nothing super fancy. I’d prefer comfortable. So, dark athletic wear, clean socks and shorts and I’ll need some good slippers. I would like an oversized hooded sweatshirt –large with pockets.”

“So far, no problem,” Derek said.

“And book me a medical flight home,” he said. “Let’s say for tomorrow morning, out of Cleveland. Have the ambulance on standby. After I’ve concluded business today, they can put me on a flight to San Diego. I should be able to handle it from there.”

“OK,” Derek said. “I can get to work on this now. Do you want a ballpark on what all of this is going to cost or would you rather get it in a couple of days?”

“I trust you’ll be fair,” Skip said. “You have been, so far.”

“That’s nice of you to say,” Derek said. “Like I said, I’ll get to work on this. Have you got a number where I can reach you?”

“Just call the heart ward of Charleston Area Medical Center. Tell them you’re my brother, if you like,” he said. “I’m sorry I can’t be more helpful, but I don’t have the number on me.”

“That’s fine. Just sit tight. I’ll call when everything is lined up.”

“Thank-you,” Skip said and hung up the phone.

Calling on Derek wouldn’t be cheap. This whole trip was becoming a terrible fiasco and expensive –or would have been if he hadn’t had an idea about how to turn a profit.

“Opportunities,” he said and smiled.

25

Dre couldn’t sleep either. All he could think about was what he would do with the money if that old white dude died.

He wasn’t sure how much money they had in total, but he was pretty sure it was more than a million dollars. A million dollars didn’t take up as much space in a briefcase. He’d watched enough television to know that.

High on his list was a car. You couldn’t get anywhere in life without some means of travel. Even the hollow-eyed men who passed through his neighborhood on stolen bicycles knew that. Better to ride on a child-sized dirt bike, looking as ridiculous as a circus clown, than to be a grown man forced to walk.

Dre would have a car.

He knew that he would have to wait until he could drive his car. The law was the law, unfair as it was, but that was really just a few years away.

When he got his car, it would be the biggest, flashiest thing in the neighborhood.

The problem, of course, was telling his Mama. She would wonder where such a vehicle had come from. She would wonder about the money and just saying “finders keepers” wouldn’t cut it. They’d have to tell her something. Dre and his grandma needed to get their stories straight and be prepared for anything short of waterboarding.

Dre briefly considered just telling his mother what happened, but he knew how that would play out. Two years ago, they’d been in the Sav-a-lot and Dre had spotted a twenty-dollar bill on the floor of the store, peeking out from under the bottom shelf.

Twenty bucks seemed like a lot of money to him at the time. In the kid economy 20 bucks it was still a nice chunk of change, not enough to buy a new Playstation game, but enough for a trip to McDonalds, some Redbox with snacks from the gas station.

It was mad money, but not baller money.

Two years ago, when he was younger, it seemed like a small fortune and he’d been excited to find it, but Dre’s mama made him take it to the customer service desk.

“Somebody lost that,” she told him. “They might need that money to eat, this week.”

“We need that money,” Dre reminded her.

She shook her head. “Really, we don’t. I make enough to take care of the both of us. You don’t go hungry and you got a roof over your head. Whoever dropped that might not be so lucky.”

“But they might not need it at all,” he complained.

His mother just looked around the store, which wasn’t quite as nice or fancy as the rich people’s Kroger’s. Rich people’s Kroger’s didn’t sell chitterlings. It didn’t sell jarred bologna that looked like somebody’s guts. You could get sushi at Rich People’s Kroger’s, fifty kinds of cheese and boxed cereal that didn’t have Spanish writing all over it.

“You might be right,” she said. “But it’s still not our money.”

To soften the blow, his mother bought ice cream. It was tin roof sundae, which wasn’t Dre’s favorite, but Sav-a-lot didn’t have Moose Tracks. If they got the money, Dre definitely wouldn’t be shopping at Sav-a-lot anymore, but he figured if his mother made him turn in 20 bucks because they didn’t know who it belonged to, she’d made them call the cops about a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills.

So, they needed a good story.

Laying in Grandma’s guest room, his mother’s old bedroom, he looked at the ancient Britany Spears poster on the wall and tried to dream up one.

They couldn’t say they found it in the house or that it was something Grandma already had. Grandpa and his girlfriend would want a cut because of the divorce.

Dre had spent large chunks of his summer at his grandma’s house watching television crime shows and shows about lawyers. He didn’t know a lot about divorce, how it worked or why it happened.

While Grandpa had run off with Grandma Charlie, Dre knew his parents hadn’t split because of his dad’s girlfriend Teri.

He did know, however, that when marriages ended, all the stuff they’d collected together got divided up in some way. Most of the time, one side of the marriage got the shaft, apparently, but a lot of that seemed to depend on the lawyers. A good lawyer could really stick it to the other person, if they wanted.

In his grandparents’ divorce, Grandma got the house, which Grandpa didn’t want anyway. She kept all the furniture and the television; everything inside the house, except for Grandpa’s clothes and his collection of dirty magazines that Dre wasn’t supposed to look at.

Grandpa had been a Playboy subscriber since the early 1970s and had boxes and boxes of the magazine, and a few others that seemed like cheaper copies of the same thing. The pictures didn’t look as good or maybe it was the women, who all looked like they had the flu or something.

But Dre didn’t know about how that worked with the money.

Dre loved his grandfather and sort of loved Grandma Charlie or Champagne or whatever her real name was. She was always nice to him, gave him presents, but that didn’t mean that he wanted to share the money.

They hadn’t gone out in the rain and dug through the crushed car, which could have exploded, caught fire or something. They hadn’t been in the gas station when the old dude starting firing bullets. They hadn’t lied to the police.

He supposed they could just say Grandma won the money, but his mother didn’t really appreciate or support Grandma’s gambling hobby. She never said anything directly to Dre about it, but she got all funny and tense whenever the subject came up. She would not have approved of her leaving Dre to fend for himself at a gas station (or more specifically, the crappy restaurant of an ex-boyfriend), while she dropped quarters and dollar bills into a machine to play poker.

When they thought he wasn’t listening, he’d heard them talk about Grandma’s hobby.

“Can’t you just play at home on the computer?”

“It’s not the same,” Grandma complained. “It’s kind of weird just sitting at the house playing by yourself. Going out and playing a little is social.”

“Who is with you when you play the poker machines at the Hot Spots?”

The truth was there were seldom more than a handful of players in these places where Grandma played and none of them were people anyone would want to get to know.

Dre thought real hard about it. There had to be a way for them to keep the money without getting tripped up some way.

Of course, they could just not tell anyone. If they were quiet about it, they could just spend what they wanted. They just couldn’t attract a lot of attention, but Dre figured that the longer the money was strictly in the hands of his grandma, the more likely it was that she’d either blow the money or do something that got them in trouble.

Sometimes, she’d get in a mood where all she wanted to do was play the games. It didn’t really matter to her whether she won or lost. She just wanted to play. With the poker machines, she really couldn’t lose too much money in a single hour, but with thousands and thousand of dollars to spend, Dre doubted that the poker machines would be enough for her.

He sighed. Probably, the old white guy in the suit with the busted-up car would know exactly what to do. People like that always knew how to make the most of their money.

The old guy had offered to put Dre through college, if they helped him out. That was something, he supposed. College would be something. He could learn how to become a video game designer or how to be a music producer. There was a lot of money in video games and rap music and Dre had some ideas.

So, that was something to fall back on, if the dude didn’t die.

“Not up to me,” he said and rolled over.

24

Ryan listened to Kelly’s description of what he’d seen. He didn’t think a lot of the man. He’d told Rose he was considering hiring him for the Pizza, but that was just to have something to talk about, to give her something to rant and rail against.

The work history on Kelly’s application read like the description of a hopscotch game. It skipped forward awkwardly a step or two every once in a while, but eventually jumped back to the beginning.

He’d heard about him drinking on the job and knew he sold dope.

Ryan had about as much intention of hiring Kelly to work at his Pizza Hut as he did of replacing the delivery drivers with St. Bernards.

No, he’d only brought up Kelly’s name around Rose to get a reaction. Sharing a common enemy was the best way to build a bond between two people, he thought.

While he’d sooner hire an organ grinder and a monkey to work his restaurant, Ryan had to admit he felt closer to Kelly at this moment. They had a bond. He believed in the money Kelly talked about, which Ryan knew had to have come from the bloody man on the floor who’d take a shot at him. What Rose had to do with all of this, he had no idea, but it didn’t matter.

The money didn’t belong to her anymore than it belonged to Andrew or his pale-faced grandmother.

Taking it from the guy who’d tried to blow off his foot seemed right.

Kelly was talking about straight up daytime burglary, which Ryan knew might not be so straight up. He didn’t know what kind of shady stuff Rose had gotten into. The kind of money Kelly was talking about always came with strings. If he had to make a bet, he’d have said it was probably drug related. There were plenty of drugs floating around. He’d watched shows like “Breaking Bad” and that new one, “Ozark,” on Netflix. The criminals in those shows always seemed to have big bundles or bails of cash.

That had to be it.

“So, all we need to do is wait until she leaves and then we go looking through her house,” Kelly said. “I don’t see her taking it back to the gas station, do you?”

Ryan had no idea, but he was willing to go along with it. A suitcase full of money would go a long way toward changing his life. He’d been at the Pizza Hut now for just under 10 years. He’d made it all the way to store manager, which wasn’t all that impressive an accomplishment; just a test of his endurance. He’d only outlasted everyone else who’d come before him. All that took, really, was a modest degree of competence and a willingness to put up with a lot of grief.

Anybody could do it.

He didn’t know how much money was in the suitcase –thousands, for sure; millions, maybe? Whatever. It would be enough for him to quit having to kowtow to his checked out boss, while standing watch over a quietly failing pizza place. He could leave Charleston, leave West Virginia, leave the country, if he wanted.

The kind of money he hoped it was would be enough for him to go to South America or Asia, where he could explore some of the experiences American women weren’t interested in and that he’d only seen on select websites.

“OK,” Ryan said. “We’ll keep an eye on her place and then you can go in and look around after she leaves.”

“Just me?” Kelly asked.

“Just you,” he said. “I’ll be in the car, keeping an eye out for you. If somebody shows up, I’ll signal for you to get out. You come a-running to the end of the road and we’ll drive off with nobody being the wiser.”

Ryan watched Kelly work though what he’d just said to him, then he nodded his head.

“Sure. That’s a good idea.”

Moron, Ryan thought.

It would also be a good way for Ryan to get clear and deny that he’d been anywhere near the house if things went south.

“If you find the briefcase, just give me a call,” he said.

Ryan regretted saying that for a second. It would like him to Kelly if he got caught, but then he remembered Kelly had applied for a job. He could just say that he thought Kelly was just checking on his application.

That might work.

“If you have the briefcase, call me and I’ll drive over to pick you up,” Ryan said. “You don’t want to be out in the open for long.”

Kelly nodded. That sounded good to him. He looked nervous, which seemed about Ryan thought, since he was assuming most of the risk, but only getting, at most, half the loot.

Ryan had already worked out a plot to convince Kelly to let him launder the money for both of their sakes.

This guy isn’t very sharp, Ryan thought.

With a thumbnail sketch of a plan put together, they drove just down the road from Rose’s house. They parked the car in the gravel lot of a long-dead, burned out store.

Kelly didn’t even ask him how he knew the way.

“We can wait here for a while and then you can walk up and hide behind the tree line,” Ryan said.

“How long do you think we’ll have to wait?” Kelly was cold, sleepy and getting hungry.

“Not too long,” Ryan said. “Rose will have to open the store. The owners are out of town. One of her clerks cut his foot yesterday and she fired you and that other guy.”

Kelly snarled. “Oh, I haven’t forgotten.”

Then he brought out the gun.

“Oh, hang on,” Ryan said. “What’s that for?”

“I went in to talk to her about my job,” he said, bitterly. “The gun.” He didn’t seem to remember why he’d brought it.

“Were you planning on robbing her?”

Kelly shook his head. “No,” he said. “Maybe. I don’t know. I know there was a reason why I brought it. I don’t think I was going to try and rob her. That’s crazy, right? I’ve never robbed anyone in my life.”

Of course, that was what he was fixing to do.

“Maybe it was just protection,” Kelly said. “It was a long walk in the dark before I caught up with you.”

Ryan looked at him and the gun in his passenger’s hand. Suddenly, things didn’t seem so easy and this waste of space of a human looked like he might be dangerous.

“Maybe you want to put that away,” he said. “And I don’t think you should take it in the house with you.”

“Why not?” Kelly’s eyes were wide open and wild. His finger was on the trigger.

“Because if we get caught with the gun in the house, that becomes a whole bunch of other crimes.” Ryan didn’t necessarily know this to be true, but he’d watched a lot of crime shows on Netflix and Hulu. It certainly sounded like it was probably true. He said, “I think it becomes armed robbery or a different class of burglary or something. More jail-time.”

“Oh,” the former convenience store employee said and sagged in the seat. “In all the excitement, I kind of forgot that what we’re doing isn’t technically right, is it? We’re robbing somebody. We’re criminals.”

Ryan sighed and looked over toward the burned-out wall next to his car. Kelly was starting to fade on him, get doubts.

“Only in the sense that we’re taking money from other criminals,” he said. “It’s more like we’re vigilantes. We’re taking money from people who are probably using it to fuel the drug epidemic in our state. Practically, we’re doing a good thing.”

Well, maybe, Ryan thought.

“You really think that?”

“Sure,” Ryan said.

Close enough.

23

In heavily accented English, Dr. Suresh confirmed what the nurse told Skip. He’d suffered a minor heart attack, which he added, was no minor thing.

“You were incredibly lucky,” he said and then amended the statement because of the obvious lucklessness of the situation.

Skip had flipped a car down a hill, had wrenched his shoulder and neck and was essentially one, giant bruise. Everything hurt.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” the doctor said.

Skip wasn’t so sure. The diagnosis was one thing, but the treatment was everything Skip feared and more.

“We can treat this with medication and lifestyle changes,” he said. “You will want to confirm and go over all of this with your doctor when you get home, but my recommendation is that you drop about 60 pounds, quit red meat and fatty foods, stop smoking and get some exercise.”

The brown-skinned dark eyed doctor somehow found a chair in this tiny cubicle of a hospital room. He sat next to Skip’s bed.

“None of these are things you’re going to like,” he said, sympathetically. “There’s another lifestyle change you need to make –stress. Patients will often do all the physical things they need to do to get better, but they will neglect the mental, the spiritual, if you will.” Dr. Suresh put his hand on the rail of the bed. “Are you a religious man, Mr. McAllister?”

It was a complicated answer. On the one hand, he and Betty went to church almost every Sunday he was home. He gave generously to the do-gooder, Methodist church they attended, volunteered for the occasional pancake breakfast or coat drive to raise money for one cause or another.

They’d had the pastor over to their house half a dozen times over the last couple of years.

Skip liked the holy holidays. Betty planted lilies for Easter and they had the neighborhood kids over for an egg hunt every Spring. At Christmas, the house was awash an red, green and gold. They always got a live Christmas tree because it felt authentic.

Yet, Skip sometimes killed people for a living. More often he bullied and blackmailed them. He ruined reputations, rigged votes and did the bidding of moneyed interests.

None of that sounded very Christian. It didn’t sound particularly Buddhist or Muslim, either. He wasn’t sure about the Zoroastrians, but he doubted they’d approve.

Still, he believed in God. It’s just that his God didn’t think much of universal healthcare or free school lunch. He was more in favor of smiting enemies and loosening plagues on the recalcitrant.

“No,” Skip said. “I’d say I’m not.”

Dr. Suresh nodded. He’d expected as much.

“Often, I will tell patients that a scare like this is a good time to reevaluate where you are in your life. If you were a religious man, I’d tell you to get to church, talk to your pastor and work out what it is you can do to get your life in order.” The doctor said, “It should be very clear that something is out of balance.”

“And if the patient is not a religious man?”

Dr. Suresh nodded and smiled. “Usually, this means they are a man of business. You are a man of business, I think?”

Skip nodded. That sounded about right.

“I am very fond of my job,” he said. “I find it fulfilling.”

Well, that wasn’t entirely true, Skip thought. At least, it hadn’t been very fulfilling of late. He regretted taking that job for Benjamin Gardner. He’d been worried about that for days, for weeks since he’d agreed to meet with the well-heeled hippie.

“Finding pleasure in your work is good,” Dr. Suresh said. “But it’s like the red meat, the wine and the cigars. Too much of a good thing will invariably become bad.

“When was the last time you took a vacation?”

Skip didn’t remember. He’d traveled quite a bit. Betty and the boys went skiing every winter, but he’d missed the trip the past few years –work. He couldn’t remember the last time he and his wife had taken a good week or two and gone someplace sandy and sunny.

“I’m probably overdue,” Skip acknowledged.

The doctor sighed. “Let’s review. So, again, what you need to do is to lose the weight, cut out the red meat. If you want to treat yourself to a cheeseburger on your birthday or the fourth of July, that’s fine, but stick with the chicken and fish, OK?”

Skip shrugged.

“No more smoking. Throw away your cigars,” Dr. Suresh said. “And do something about your work. Do less. Do it better. Hire some help –and take a vacation.”

Beyond that, Skip was ordered to take a couple of pills every day.

“How long until I’m released?” He asked.

Dr. Suresh clapped the rail, like Skip had just said exactly what he’d expected him to say when he expected him to say it.

“We will need to keep you for a few days, at least, just to monitor your heart,” the doctor said. “You will need to call someone about getting you home. California is a long way. I would prefer if you did not fly. Air travel is very stressful. Perhaps, a nice train trip?”

“What if I flew a private plane?” Skip asked.

“That would be fine, as long as you’re comfortable with that,” the doctor said.

Skip was. Trains had a smell to them.

“Is there anything else I can answer for you?” Dr. Suresh asked him.

“There is one thing,” he said. “I’d like to get the name of the officer who was on scene and call him. The people at that gas station saved my life. I’d like to see about thanking them.”

That pleased the foreign-born doctor.

“This sounds to me like a good start,” he said. “I will check with admissions for you.”

The door to the hall opened. A chubby nurse in lavender scrubs brought in a gaudy, oversized flower arrangement.

“Already you have well-wishers,” Dr. Suresh said.

The nurse looked around the room and then decided to put the flowers on the table on the other side of Skip.

“There’s a card,” she said.

“Let me see it,” Skip replied.

The nurse handed the tiny, yellow envelope to Skip as the doctor excused himself.

“I will be back,” he said.

“Thank-you,” Skip answered distantly and opened the note.

“Get well soon,” the card read. “And don’t break my heart.”

It was signed Benjamin Gardner.

22

Megan couldn’t make up her mind about where to put the money. At the convenience store, they’d all agreed to stick to the letter of Mr. McAllister’s request. He’d told Megan to look after the money.

“I’m not the right person to handle this,” she’d told Rose, the assistant manager at the Shopaminit. “I mean, I have a grandson to look after.”

Rose looked her hard in the eye and then pointed at her own swollen belly.

“I got problems of my own. I think we ought to do what the man says and try not to piss him off.”

“We should have told the police,” she’d said.

“Should-a, could-a, would-a and no.”

The clerk again explained that none of the knew exactly who they were dealing with and while turning the money into the authorities might be the right, legal thing to do, it could be that the owners of the money were not all that impressed with right, legal things.

They might take it personal that the three of them hadn’t followed Skip McAllister’s very simple instructions.

“Besides,” Rose said. “The lock on the back door to my place has been broken for a couple of weeks, ever since I kicked my useless boyfriend out. I need to get that fixed. The briefcase will be safer with you. Just hide it someplace safe and don’t think about it.”

“It will be fine, Grandma,” Andy said. “There are lots of good places to hide stuff at your house.”

And there had been. She and Andy had spent the better part of three hours, moving the briefcase around her small house, hiding it under furniture, in the refrigerator, the attic before finally just deciding to stash it in the linen closet, underneath the bedsheets and blankets.

Neither of them could imagine any reason why anyone would want to look at their linen closet.

“How long do you think we’ll have to keep it?” She’d asked her grandson.

Andy shrugged. “If he gets better, probably just a couple of days. If something happens to him, I don’t know.”

“If he dies, do you think someone will come looking for him?”

“How would I know?” He’d asked.

Andy really would have no idea. He was 10, though Megan knew that he listened to a lot of that gangsta rap. Megan couldn’t stand it, didn’t like the vulgarity and sexual contact or the references to violence. She wished Katherine didn’t let Andy listen to that kind of thing, but she supposed they had to if they were going to fit in with those people.

Megan hated the way that sounded in her head. She watched “This Is Us” on television and voted for Barack Obama twice.

She smiled at her grandson and said, “Oh, don’t listen to me. I’m just tired. We should just lock up the house and call it a night, don’t you think? It’s late.”

Andy seemed to go along with that, but said he needed to get himself a snack before bed.

Megan thought he was starting to get a little chunky around the middle. If he kept eating the way he did, he was going to turn into a full-blown butterball.

Katherine needed to use a firmer hand with the boy.

“Just clean up your mess,” she’d told him.

It was after midnight by the time either of them got in bed. Megan couldn’t sleep. She watched the clock and the windows. The headlights of every car that passed promised doom and destruction. She was certain the mob or the FBI or drug lords or somebody was going to come crashing through the front door with guns blazing.

But there was nothing.

With a dull carving knife tightly in her hands, Megan laid flat on her back and stared at the ceiling above her bed. She halfway wished Richard was still here. He’d been a decent husband up until he decided he wanted throw away 35 years of marriage on a 24-year-old yoga instructor.

Megan hated him, but she also missed him. She missed the security of having a man around to deal with the day-to-day unpleasantness, like hauling off the garbage, crushing spiders in the kitchen and maybe taking the occasional bullet.

When they’d been married, Megan had never doubted that he’d jump in front of bus for her if she needed him to. He’d been willing to do almost anything she asked.

To herself, she acknowledged that she might have been a little more willing to reciprocate.

Megan regretted that Richard had taken his hunting rifles with him. He’d never actually been much of an outdoorsman, but he’d kept a couple of rifles around in case anyone asked him to tag along.

Back when they’d both gone to the Baptist Church up the road, he’d gone out every couple of years, not often enough to need to buy a new box of shells every year, but often enough that he had to keep his shotgun and rifle clean.

She wished she still had the guns. Maybe she could’ve even figured out how to use one of them, if it came down to it. She hoped it wouldn’t, but Andy was counting on her.

Then there was the money to worry about. What were they going to do with it if Mr. McAllister died?

In the best of possible worlds, they would split it three ways, just not three equal ways.

Rose had guessed there was about a million dollars in the briefcase, which was a good guess, but it was off by about another half. If they did end up splitting the money, it seemed perfectly fair to Megan that she and Andy should get the lion’s share. They’d been tasked with keeping the money. They were taking all the risk.

So, they would divide the million Rose knew about and keep the rest.

Megan would have to keep that extra half-a-million, of course. She would keep the money for both of them. Andy was only 10 and naïve. He’d think everybody getting an equal share was the right thing to do.

It just wasn’t.

If they got to keep the money, Megan imagined taking a couple of cruises. She and Richard had only done that once. They’d gotten a deal on a cruise to Alaska, which turned out to be a cruise for Gospel music.

She and Richard had been good Baptists. They’d gone to church together every Sunday for more than 35 years, but he complained that they locked up the liquor and she regretted that the casino had been shut down during the entire trip.

Of course, back then she didn’t gamble, not really. Back when she and Richard were married, the only gambling she did was to play purse bingo at the church or give a couple of dollars to a raffle.

She would like to try gambling on a boat. It sounded like fun.

They would put money aside for Andy’s college, of course. Maybe she could funnel a little money to her daughter, maybe pay for her to get a nursing degree or take a cosmetology course, something that could lead to a better life for her.

Megan would like to fly out to Vegas, too. She’d talked about going, back when she was part of that little club of women who took the bus to the casinos in the tri-state. They’d all talked about going, but Megan had never actually made the trip.

She would be reasonable and only take 10 or 15,000 dollars. She wouldn’t blow it all. She’d take the money around –play the tables at one place, play the slots at another, maybe go see a show.

That sounded like fun. Maybe she could try Atlantic City and if things went well, fly to Hong Kong.

She was actually breathing a little hard, just thinking about it.

“Just calm yourself,” she mumbled to herself and put the knife next to her alarm clock on the nightstand. “You’ll drive yourself crazy, if you keep it up.”

Finally, she sighed, closed her eyes and went to sleep.