Awful People A One Month At A Time NaNoWriMo Challenge

21

Kelly had to hitch two rides, but he finally got to the Outer Limits Bar and Grill in Big Chimney just before two o’clock. Only a scraggly bunch of leftovers and stragglers remained and were blearily watching a road bowling game on an off-brand, streaming sports channel.

The motley crowd kept their voices low to listen to the commentators on the television, not that any of them could make out more than a word edgewise. Nobody in the bar spoke Mandarin or knew that’s what they were listening to, but they appreciated the Chinese announcers’ enthusiasm. The sportscasters shouted and hooted after every toss of the cannonball.

Everybody was so into the show, nobody really paid any attention when Kelly came through the door, looking like he’d been washed off with a firehose.

Glancing toward the television, just to see what the room was gawking at, he fiddled through his front pockets for a couple of bucks as he made his way to the bar.

He came up with a couple of crumpled and waterlogged bills, the last of what he got from selling grass to Matt at the Shopaminit, enough for a couple of beers and some conversation with the bartender, Jake.

“Give me a Bud Lite,” he said.

Jake, transfixed by an Irish game being played in the hills of China, didn’t even look at him.

“We’re out,” he said. “We got Coors and Olympia.”

Kelly frowned. He didn’t like either of those.

“You got Coors Lite?”

Jake said, “No. I told you, we got Coors and Olympia.”

“I don’t want all the calories,” he said. “How do you run out of Bud Lite?”

Jake shrugged and continued to watch the television, along with the other eight or nine people in the bar.

“Fine,” Kelly said. “Let me have whichever is cheaper.”

“They cost the same,” Jake said. “Three-fifty.”

Kelly huffed and asked, “Well, do you at least have some peanuts or something for me to snack on?”

Jake turned toward Kelly, a scowl on his face.

“You want a bib, too? Where do you think you are? If you want food, you got to buy it. This here is a bar and grill.”

“Well, can I order a hamburger?”

Jake picked up a glass and poured a beer.

“No, you can’t. The kitchen closed an hour ago.” He set the glass in front of Kelly with a hard thud.

Kelly handed over the money and then put his hands around the glass and said, “Come on, Jake. Cut me some slack. I walked a long way to get here.”

“That’s your problem,” Jake said. “You didn’t have to come here.”

A couple of the people watching the game on the television glanced at Kelly to see if what was going on between him and Jake was more interesting than teams of people chucking steel balls down a desolate, country road.

It wasn’t, and they went back to the game.

Kelly sighed and said, “I’m sorry, alright? And I owe you.”

A few years ago, Jake and Kelly had been friends –well, not exactly friends. Jake showed up to some of the same backwoods’ parties, where they both chased girls, drank too much and got high.

At some point, they’re casual association turned into a professional relationship. Kelly began buying a little weed from Jake every now and again, not enough for Kelly to think Jake was a regular, but enough that neither of them worried that the other was going to turn them into the cops.

Jake dabbled. He smoked some and sold a little, but he’d has aspirations for doing a bit more.

Two and a half years ago, Kelly got in trouble with his supplier. He’d bought a little too much on credit and smoked a little too much to turn a profit. To catch up, he’d cut his dope with an Italian seasoning mix he’d picked up at Sam’s Club.

He didn’t use a lot, just enough to stretch out the couple of ounces he had.

Nobody noticed the first time because he told everybody the marijuana was something special from Europe, which was almost true. Italy was part of Europe.

The second time Kelly got in the same fix, he used too much oregano and rosemary. Jake, who was also cutting the dope and selling it again, got called out by one of his customers. Word got around that he was selling pizza seasoning, not pot, and nobody would buy so much as a nickel’s worth of anything from him.

He was shut out.

At the time, Kelly denied everything. He couldn’t afford to admit to anything. He needed the money. He’d just bough that terrarium for his iguana.

“I want to make it right,” Kelly said. “That’s partly why I’m here.”

Jake rolled his eyes and said, “Well, here we go. What is it? I’m giving you anything. You’re not getting a dime out of me. I don’t care what you have for sale.”

Kelly took a sip of his beer, which tasted like sour dishwater and told him, “I’m not selling anything. I have an opportunity for the two of us to make a lot of money, a lot of money, maybe 50 or 60 grand, if you’re interested.”

Jake shook his head. “You don’t have anything going that would be worth even half of that.”

Kelly nodded. “Usually, you’d be right. I’ve been in the middle of something of a bad patch. That’s true.”

The bartender laughed. “I heard you moved back in with your Mama again. How many times have you done that now?”

Kelly nodded. Sure. Things did not look good.

“Just the same,” he told Jake. “I’ve got something, which would make up for our little falling out and then some.”

On the television, the Chinese announcers were going wild. Someone had done something, not that anyone could figure out what.

“I don’t think I’m interested,” Jake said and started back toward the group watching the game. “Just finish your beer and get going.”

“How are thing with you and Rose?”

The subject was tender. Jake turned around and said, “You can keep your mouth shut about me and Rose. We’re working on things.”

“No, you’re not,” Kelly said, drinking his beer. “Rose hasn’t talked to you in months. She kicked you out.”

“We’re working things out,” the bartender said. “She thought we needed some time apart and with her being pregnant and all, I thought it was best to respect her wishes, give her some space –not that it’s any of your business.”

He took two steps to the register and hit a couple of buttons. The drawer sprang open and Jake took out four bucks.

“Here,” he said putting the cash in front of Kelly’s glass. “Just take your money and go.”

Kelly held up his hands. “Hey, wait a second. You’ve got me all wrong. I’m here about a business proposition. I’m not here to insult you –and look, you have nothing but my sympathy about the Rose situation. I’m a victim, too. I was working at the Shopaminit about a week ago and she fired me. No cause. She just got crazy and told me to get out.” He took another sip of his beer and then collected the money on the bar. “But pregnant women, what are you going to do? It’s all those hormones, you know?”

The bartender nodded.

“It ain’t been easy,” he said.

Kelly let him stew in his self-pity for a moment and then he said, “Jake, I’m going to ask you something that’s going to make you mad, but I’m asking it like a friend because there are things, I think you need to know.”

Jake waited.

“What?” He said.

“Do you know for sure that the baby Rose is carrying is yours?”

Jake’s broad face flushed a little and his eyes narrowed.

“Say that again,” he warned.

Kelly shook his head and replied, “No, I don’t think I will. I think once is good enough, but remember I told you what I was going to ask you was going to make you mad, and I told you that I was going to ask you like a friend.”

“Talk, then.”

“You trust that you’re the father of the baby, because Rose told you so. Am I right?”

“She ain’t been with anybody else,” Jake said. “I’d know. We had something good.” He corrected himself. “We have something good.”

“She wouldn’t keep anything from you, right?”

Jake had to think about that. Nothing seemed to come to mind.

“Does Rose have a lot of money?” Kelly asked.

Jake laughed. “Of course, not. She’s got a crap job with crap pay. The only thing she owns is her mom’s old car and that house her grandad left her.”

Jake’s face darkened. He missed being with her.

“Where are you living now?” Kelly asked.

“I got a one-bedroom above a garage, half a mile from here,” he said. “It’s too close to the road and noisy, but the rent is cheap.”

“That’s tough,” Kelly said. “But what if I was to say that Rose had been keeping something from you, that she had a lot more than you thought she did, a lot more than she ever told you she did –for sure.”

“She couldn’t afford cable television,” he said. “She ain’t got nothing.”

“Yeah, well, that’s where you’re dead wrong, my friend. She’s a got a whole lot. She’s a bunch of money –and I know, because I’ve seen it.”

Jake shook his head. “No, that’s a lie.”

Kelly finished the thin swill in his cup and said, “I saw it this very night. I saw a briefcase full of hundred-dollar bills. It was more money than I’d ever seen in my entire life. It was like something out of a movie.”

Jake was listening. He was thinking.

Kelly looked up at him and said, “What I’m thinking is that she’s been playing you. I don’t know why, but I figure if she was being straight with you, she’d have told you about the cash. Also, she sure as heck wouldn’t be working at no gas station, not when she’s about ready to pop.” He tapped the side of his head with a finger. “You just have to think. There’s a lot about this that ain’t right. If she’d hide something like a box full of cash from you, what else would she hide?”

Jake sighed and shook his head, no.

“I think you’re asking way too much out of me. I ain’t seen you in over a year. We ain’t friends. You are a liar and a cheat. And I think you’re just here to stir up crap between Rose and me because she fired your worthless, shiftless, lying butt. I don’t need this, and I think you should just get out that door before I pick you up and toss you out.”

Kelly’s shoulders slumped, disappointed. He’d hoped he could talk some sense into Jake. He expected Jake had a key to Rose’s house –and he had a car.

All they would have to do, he thought, was just go watch the house until she left. Rose probably wouldn’t bring the money with her. She’d hide it in the house while she went to work. Then, they could just search the house after she left and split the cash.

“Just think about it,” he told Jake.

The bartender just said, “Git.”

“Wait,” Kelly said. “It’s an awful long walk. Can I maybe just catch ride?”

Jake laughed and told him to get out of the bar before he called the police.

“They cart your sorry tail to jail, if you want.”

“Fine, I’m going,” Kelly said stiffly and then gathered himself up. “I came bearing a fig leaf and an opportunity. You didn’t want neither. Fine.”

Then he left.

The rain had let up, but Kelly’s clothes were still damp. The air was cool, and the chill clung to him as he left the gravel lot and started down the road.

A beat-up Ford Focus pulled up alongside him. The driver reached across the passenger side seat and rolled the window down.

Kelly recognized him. He was a regular at the Shopaminit; worked at the Pizza Hut over the bridge. He didn’t know his name.

“You need a lift?” the man asked.

20

Rose thought it was probably the prettiest gun she’d ever actually seen this close up. She’d seen plenty of guns at pawn shops and had looked at the selection at Cabella’s once or twice, but none of them had caught her eye like this one.

While she knew there was a big difference between different brands, she’d never seen a Sig Sauer P 220. It was a .45 and not a girly gun.

Rose leaned more toward the .38 or a garden variety 9mm.

“This thing is a cannon,” she said and took another drag from her cigarette.

The gun scared her a little and she liked that.

She couldn’t help but be a little impressed with the man. She was still over the moon about how he’d fired a bullet at Ryan’s foot and had been careful enough to neither damage the glass coolers or the floor in a meaningful way.

The baby moved in her belly. She put the cigarette out in the ashtray by the arm of her moth-eaten couch.

“Honest, I’m trying to quit,” she lied to the child and put her hand over the hump.

After the police had gone and she’d talked with Megan and her grandson for almost an hour before they’d come to an agreement about what to do with the money. Megan had been OK with just holding onto the money, for now.

The man on the floor of her store had been very specific about hiding the money and holding onto it for him. He’d also told her to hide his pistol and holster, which was a fancy, custom job that might have cost as much as the gun.

Rose wasn’t sure. She wasn’t expert on the subject. She’d just googled it on her phone, but Rose figured that was good enough.

They also had his phone, an iPhone, naturally, but none of them knew how to unlock it. Megan and Dre were keeping it, along with the suitcase.

Rose’s phone rang. It was, predictably, Matt.

“Hey there,” he said. “How did today go?”

His voice sounded like he was talking through a cardboard box. He had the phone on speaker phone. Margie had made him call and was listening.

“About as well as you can imagine, Matt,” she told him. “The weather got bad and we had a car accident up the hill. The driver walked from the wreck to the store. We got an ambulance for him.”

“Was he hurt bad?”

Rose looked at the gun and wondered what Matt would do if the barrel of it was pointed at his knee.

“Pretty bad,” she told him and then asked, “Why are you calling me at home, Matt?”

The owner of the Shopaminit let out a long, anguished sigh.

“Rose, I don’t think we’re going to make it back by noon,” he said. “Some things have come up here and I don’t expect Margie and me will be back until late afternoon, maybe night.”

“Matt, I told you what I’d do,” she said. “I told you I’d close up at noon.”

“But you can’t do that, Rose. That’s one of our busiest times,” he said. “Look, we have to come to some kind of an arrangement. You work for us, not the other way around. I understand that you working on your day off is an imposition, but you’re a manager and you have responsibilities.”

Rose rolled her eyes and put the gun down on the cluttered coffee table in front of her.

“And you own the store, which is entirely your responsibility. Matt, we had an agreement. If you didn’t make it back by noon tomorrow, I was going to close the store,” she reminded him, adding, “In case you forgot, I’m eight months pregnant. This stress isn’t good for me and it isn’t good for the baby.”

“Your baby is not my fault,” he said.

For a second, just because Margie was listening, she thought about telling him that it was his fault. He’d kept at her for months until she gave in and now look where she was? When was he going to leave his wife, like he promised?

She said nothing of the sort.

Instead, she said, “We had a deal. You agreed to this.”

Then she reminded him, “We’re short-staffed because you hired a drunk and a pothead to work here and he got one of the handful of good workers you have, fired. There was no not firing Kelly. He was seen helping himself to a couple of cold ones by the wife of the local deputy.

“The rest is bad luck. Greg halfway cut off his foot with a lawnmower and everyone else who is on the roster, who could come in to work, was smart enough to not answer their phone when you called them yesterday.”

“Then we’re going to fire you when we get back,” Margie said. “You can’t talk to Matt like that.”

“What? You mean tell him the truth? You mean remind him that he made a promise to a pregnant woman who has worked more than 60 hours and who lost her weekend, so her boss and his wife could go to Dollywood for the weekend?”

Rose yawned.

“We had an important business meeting here,” Margie fired back. “And it was in Pigeon Forge, not Dollywood.”

“You were looking at luxury condos and taking advantage of a free weekend stay,” Rose said. “You took a three-day vacation and put an overworked and very pregnant woman in charge.”

“Pregnant, pregnant, pregnant, that’s all that comes out of your mouth,” Margie shouted. “That’s just not going to cut it anymore.”

Rose hung up on her.

They called back immediately.

“Did you just hang up on us?”

“Yes,” she said and hung up again.

Matt and Margie called again. Before they could get a word in, she repeated what Matt had agreed to and she told them, again, what would happen if they did not live up to that.

“I don’t care that you feel cheated that your weekend is getting cut short,” Rose said. “You don’t do anything around here except bring around a batch of pepperoni rolls that I think you pay your sister to make.”

They were pretty good pepperoni rolls. Despite Matt wanting them to eat them toward the end of the week, Rose usually got hers five minutes after Margie dropped them off.

“I have no idea what you do with the rest of your time,” Rose said. “I don’t have much of an idea what Matt does with his time, either. He comes to the store for right around six hours a week, most of which he spends in the office playing games on his phone.

“I do know what I do with my time. I manage this store and I’m tired, Margie. I’m real tired and Matt needs to make good. So, I’m sorry if you’re going to miss getting a waffle in the morning or you’re not going to get a chance to look at crap you’re never going to buy at some gift shop, but you need to step up.”

She let out a long sigh and said, “If you want to fire me. Let’s do that now and I won’t even bother to set my alarm tonight. Matter-of-fact, I’ll get up tomorrow and go put my application over at the Pizza Hut across the way. Ryan has taken a real shine to me.”

Working for Ryan would be awful, Rose realized, but nothing scared an employer more than realizing they could be replaced, easily, that they had no power over the people who worked for them.

“You’d do that?” Matt sounded wounded. “You’d leave us in the lurch to go sling pizzas a hundred yards away? After all we’ve done for you.”

At that, Rose snickered. No, she laughed, loudly.

“You think that’s funny?” he complained.

“Shut up, Matt,” Margie said, her voice low and defeated. Then she asked, “Can we come to some kind of arrangement?”

“Margie,” Rose said. “We had an arrangement. Matt and I made an agreement.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” she said. “But now you’re dealing with me. There is no way we’re going to get back before noon. Matt hasn’t taken me anywhere in years and yes, it’s just a crappy free weekend at a condo that we only got because we sat through a six-hour sales pitch, but I’ve lived with this man for 15 years. I deserved this getaway.”

Rose considered. She was probably right. Matt was a piece of work.

“What if Matt comes to relieve you at 3 o’clock?” She asked. “That’s just three hours. What would we have to do to get you to agree to stay until three?”

Rose was silent as she thought about it.

“Well?” Margie asked.

“I’m going to need a minute Margie. I need to decide whether I can trust either of you. If I agree to this and we come to an arrangement, what’s to stop you from firing me the second you get what you want?”

Soothingly, Margie said, “We’re not going to fire you. Why would you even think that?”

Because it sounds like you’ve already discussed it, Margie thought, but that was OK. She had collateral. She had her key and Matt’s key to the gas pumps. She also had the ledger for their suppliers, when they’d been paid last and how much they owed them.

The keys and the ledger would be going in her car after she turned on the pumps in the morning. She’d leave with both, which would keep them from firing her outright. They’d have to get them back from her, which bought her a day.

What could she do past that? She’d have to think about it.

“OK,” Rose said. “I’m going to want a hundred dollars an hour for every hour you are past noon. We will round up. If you show up at 3:01 tomorrow, that’s going to be $400. If you wait until 4:01 to get here, that’s $500. Do you get me?”

“That’s highway robbery,” Matt said.

“That’s the price of your weekend getaway,” she said, though she knew that Margie and Matt might just stiff her on the money.

Actually, that seemed pretty likely.

What, then?

Margie said, “Fine. We’ll pay it. You keep the store open until we get there, and we’ll pay what you say.”

Rose didn’t believe it now, not at all.

“Don’t let me down,” she said.

“I hate that you think so poorly of us,” Margie said.

Me, too, she thought.

19

Skip McAllister woke up in a small, windowless hospital room that reminded him of a Salvadoran prison he’d spent ten days in during one of his first jobs after the military.

“I’m underground,” he muttered to himself.

Skip couldn’t be sure of that, but he felt fairly confident that his hospital room was in the basement of the building.

“Who does that?” He asked. “Is this convenient to the morgue?”

Nobody was there to answer. He had an oxygen tube under his nose. An I.V. was plugged into his arm and an assortment of wires connected him to a laptop situated on a small table near the bed.

Skip’s only companions were the machines, which beeped, beeped, beeped and so on.

The call remote dangled from the right-side metal rail of his bed but was actually a couple of inches short for him to reach without trying to sit up.

Skip didn’t much feel like sitting up. He didn’t feel much like doing anything, though he felt much better than he had when he collapsed on the floor of that gas station.

He felt a little foggy about what all had transpired. There’d been a car accident of some kind. He remembered crawling out of his nearly destroyed Cadillac and walking toward the light. If he’d been a seriously religious man, he might have taken that as being part of some divine experience, but he left the new age mumbo jumbo for the Nancy Reagans and Al Gores of the world.

Skip didn’t think he’d brought the money with him into the store and he was halfway certain that he’d discharged his sidearms, but the why that might have happened alluded him.

He needed to talk to a doctor. He needed to call his wife. He needed… He needed his phone, for starters.

The machines beeped a little faster, tracking his clear aggravation under the circumstances. He took a deep breath. He didn’t know if it was a sure thing, but Skip was about halfway certain he’d had some sort of heart attack.

Becky would love that, he grumbled, but not really. She was always on to him to eat better, to get out and walk and to cut back on the cigars or even just give them up. After this was all over, she’d be onto him about losing weight and the smoking again.

He sighed.

This had turned into a total disaster and Skip realized he really wasn’t in the right place mentally or physically to make it right, but problems seldom became problems when you were actually prepared for them.

He needed to get out of this hospital bed, first.

The door opened and a young woman in surgical scrubs decorated with a Donald Duck motif entered the room briskly.

Her hair was a cheap shade of green.

“Mr. McAllister,” she said. “My name is Karen. I’m the head nurse on duty tonight in the cardio ward. Do you know where you are?”

Skip thought she seemed a little young to be in charge of anything that didn’t involve sides of fries or onion rings.

“I’m going to guess the cardio ward of a hospital,” he said. “I presume I’m still in Charleston, though I don’t know the name of the hospitals here. I’m not of the area.”

She nodded encouragingly. He was doing well, apparently.

“You’re at Charleston Area Medical Center and you’ve had a mild heart attack,” she said. “You’ve also sustained some injuries from a car accident –just bumps and bruises. You have a concussion.”

The nurse let that sink in for a second.

“You’re lucky to be alive,” she said, adding, “You flipped the car and went down a hill. Then you walked about 80 or 90 yards to a gas station, where some people called an ambulance.”

Skip listened and then asked, “When did this all happen?”

“About five, six hours ago,” she said.

“Where’s the doctor?” Skip asked.

“She’s with another patient. Saturday nights can be kind of busy,” the nurse told him and Skip resisted the urge to say, “Save me from the perils of woman doctor. Find me a man, preferably one who speaks English,” but he kept his mouth shut.

He wasn’t in Sacramento. He was in a vault inside a West Virginia hospital.

“Dr. Suresh is very good,” Karen said. “She’s first rate and I’m not just saying that because the hospital pays me to say that.” She smiled. It was a joke. Skip did not smile back.

The nurse let his lack of enthusiasm slide. He’d had a heart attack, after all.

“She’ll be in to see you in a little bit,” she said and then asked, “How do you feel?”

“Lousy,” he said.

“You’re going to be sore and tired,” she said. “If you want to sleep, you can. We’ve got you on some blood thinners and medicine to help you relax. You’re lucky. We got this early. It was less than an hour between you having the heart attack and then getting to the hospital.”

Skip didn’t feel particularly lucky.

“If you’re hungry, you can have some ice chips. If you’re thirsty, you can have some ice chips,” Karen told him. “We can’t let you eat until the doctor decides what she’s going to do.”

“Surgery?” Skip asked. That was the last thing he wanted.

“Treatment is something Dr. Suresh can talk to you about,” Karen said. “I’m just here to do her bidding and make sure her orders are carried out.”

“You’d make a good soldier,” Skip said, off-handedly.

“I was one,” she said. “I served in Afghanistan.” The nurse began to go. “I’m going to keep this door open, just so we can keep an eye on you.” She rescued the call box, unwrapped it from the rail and then looped the cord closer to Skip’s hand. “If you need anything, hit the button.”

“Nurse,” Skip said slowly and waved her to say. “My things. My wallet, my phone, my clothes, where are they?”

“Your wallet is the drawer by the bed,” she said. “Everything else is bagged up to be cleaned. You didn’t have a phone when you came in. Is there someone you’d like us to call?”

Skip thought about it for a moment. There was no reason to worry Becky and he didn’t want to contact Mr. Gardner just yet.

“Not at the moment,” he said. “I think I’m just going to rest my eyes for a bit, but please send Dr. Suresh in as soon as you can. I’d like to hear what she has to say.”

“Of course,” the nurse said and slipped out the open door and away.

Skip watched her go. He tried not to worry. Worrying couldn’t be good for him, but he needed to hear what the doctor had to say. Then, he needed to get out of here.

18

Ryan sat in the parking lot of the Pizza Hut, staring at the blue-green light of his iPhone. All he had to do call the police was press the little button on the screen; just press it and they’d be on their way.

They were already on their way, though; weren’t they?

He felt certain that Rose would have noticed the man lying on the floor of her store, even though Ryan acknowledged, he had not.

That wasn’t true, he thought. He’d seen him clear enough when he’d come stomping through the front door, yelling and screaming.

At a 10-year-old boy.

That didn’t look good.

He’d driven like a bat out of hell to get across the bridge, to the only place he could possibly be within walking distance with this weather. He’d been enraged, furious.

Had he said anything in the Pizza Hut that might have been overheard by either one of the employees or by a customer?

Ryan didn’t think so. He hadn’t threatened the kid, hadn’t said that he wanted to wring his neck or pop him. No, he’d just run out of the restaurant like a crazy man to catch an elementary school-aged vandal.

“Can you prove he did it,” Ryan asked himself, and the truth was “no, he could not.” There was plenty of circumstantial “evidence.” He’d been in the employee bathroom. He’d been near the jukebox, but nobody had actually seen him do anything.

The local police weren’t going to do anything, if he called them, except ask him what he knew and whether there was any video tape. There wasn’t. So, if he brought them in, they were just going to shrug and tell him, “Gee, wiz, we’d love to do something, but we have much bigger things to do than chase idiot kids playing idiot pranks.”

They wouldn’t even dust for fingerprints.

If Ryan filed a complaint, the police might go and talk to Drew, but he’d deny any kind of responsibility.

Even if by some impossible chance, Drew did acknowledge the crime, did Ryan really want anyone to hear why the boy might have a grudge to pick with him? Did he want that to go in public record if he ended up before a judge?

No, he did not.

It was unlikely, though. More than likely, the kid would clam up, say he had nothing to do with it. He just came in, got a pizza and remembered to leave a nice tip.

The most that would come of that is the police might warn Drew not to go back in that particular Pizza Hut and then Ryan would be obligated to file a report with the owner of the restaurant and franchise headquarters. Neither of them would think too highly of a store manager leaving the store to chase after a kid in the rain.

Store policy was to not even follow trouble customers into the parking lot. Call the police if there was trouble. Otherwise, just deal with it or get over it.

“But that guy shot at me,” he muttered. “You can’t do that.”

Ryan had been railing at a boy in front of his grandmother and a pregnant woman, neither of whom were capable of offering much protection. He’d been shouting and moving in a threatening manner, while an injured man laid at Ryan’s feet.

He’d done nothing to help the man. The man, it could be argued, had acted to protect the boy. He might be considered lucky that the man didn’t put a bullet in his leg or anywhere else.

Angry, but clear-headed, Ryan pressed the “home” button to his phone. He wasn’t calling anyone.

Defeated, and also realizing that whatever momentum he’d built with Rose was now lost, Ryan put his phone away and walked back through the rain into the pizza parlor to finish his shift. Hootie and the Blowfish was still playing throughout the dining hall. He wished he could figure a way to turn it off.

 

Rose watched the police and the rescue squad pick the man who called himself Skip up off her filthy floor and cart him away in an ambulance.

Nobody had mentioned the gun, or the shot fired. The single bullet had gone into the wall under the cooler, but hadn’t hit anything vital, apparently. Nothing was leaking. Nothing was burning. There was only a neat, little hole punched in the wall about two inches from the floor.

“Pretty darned amazing, if you ask me,” she said to no one in particular.

The old woman, Megan, and her grandson, Andy or Dre (she called him Andy. He said his name was Dre) were still standing around, even after the police showed up.

They’d kept the story pretty straight, said they’d heard a noise, and then this man in the nice suit had come staggering through the front door. They didn’t know him. He didn’t look like he was from around here and when he hit the floor, they called 9-1-1 and attempted to provide some aid.

They said that Dre, brave boy he was, went out to where the man had come from, which explained why he was soaked to the bone when the cruiser pulled up, followed by the ambulance.

Dre said, “I thought maybe there’d been other people with him, you know?”

The officer who took his statement smiled and nodded but told him that could have been a dangerous thing he did.

The boy shrugged, which passed for modesty.

“There wasn’t nobody out there,” he said.

Rose then added that when he came to, he said he’d been alone and that he thought it was either his heart or his arm.

The cop nodded and said, “I’m going to say heart, but I wouldn’t say that he didn’t get something else from that tumble he took down that hill. It’s a wonder he got here in one piece.”

The officer didn’t ask many questions after that but took down their contact information and said he might be in contact, if something came up.

Megan said, “If you don’t mind officer, let us know how he turns out. I wouldn’t want my grandson to worry.”

The cop promised he’d give them a call as soon as he heard anything, then he wished them all a good night and went on his merry way.

As soon as he was gone and out of sight, Rose locked the door and killed the lights to the sign and the island. She’d told Matt she planned to close early –and had actually kept the place open ten minutes later than she promised.

Then they all hovered around the counter and looked inside the briefcase.

“Holy Moly,” Dre/Andy said. “How much?”

“I don’t think we should touch that,” Megan said. “Normal people don’t carry around cash in briefcases.”

Rose looked at the money –all in neat stacks and bound with rubber bands, just like they did in the movies.

“It has to be a million dollars,” she said. “It has to be.”

“A million dollars. Wow,” Andy/Dre said. “What do we do with it?”

Rose looked at the boy sharply.

“We’re not doing anything with it,” she said and nodded toward the box on the shelf behind her, the box that had the man’s shoulder holster and gun. “He’s going to come looking for his money eventually.”

Andy/Dre looked at the money.

“He was in a pretty bad way,” he said. “What happens if he doesn’t get better?”

Rose looked up at the ceiling, which was just about as filthy as the Shopaminit’s floor. She’d been thinking the same thing. If the man with the gun died in the hospital, that created a whole different set of problems.

She could use the money, obviously. She was seven and a half months pregnant. The baby’s father was useless and would probably continue to be useless for the larger part of its life.

With that kind of cash, she could quit this garbage job, maybe not work for a good long while. When she was ready to rejoin the working world, she could get some schooling -or they could just move somewhere where they had a decent hope of making a living.

Maybe Myrtle Beach. Rose loved the beach. If she lived down there, she might never have to wear pants again.

She shook off the thoughts.

“We don’t know anything about this money or that guy,” she said. “We don’t know if he robbed a bank or if he’s running drugs. Can we agree that a smartly dressed fella with a briefcase full of cash and an expensive-looking pistol would probably be very mad if we ran off with his money?

“Yeah, but what if he, you know, died?” Andy/Dre said.

“Well, then we’d have to think about it,” Rose said. “If we think this is his money, free and clear, I guess finders-keepers, but if it belongs to some whacko cult or the mob or a drug cartel, then maybe we shouldn’t be in a hurry to start looking at new cars and stuff.”

The boy’s grandmother nodded in agreement. That was good enough.

“So, we just sit tight.”

 

Kelly couldn’t exactly make out what his former supervisor and her two friends were saying, but thanks to the mirror on the wall behind them, which was supposed to help the clerks keep an eye on the store when they turned around, he got a good look at what they talking about.

“Holy,” he said and covered his mouth.

Kelly felt the gun in his belt. He could… but no, he could see the door was locked.

“Play it smart,” he whispered. “See what they do with it.”

17

Dre’s grandma finally poked her head out of the poker machine parlor, blinked under the bright, fluorescent lights of the convenience store and seemed embarrassed.

Dre was looking toward the front door.

“Andy, I am so sorry,” she said. “I lost track of the time. We should probably get on home. Are you hungry?”

“What was that?” Dre said.

The clerk sitting behind the counter said, “It sounded like a crash. Maybe a tree fell or one of the power poles.”

“Andy, I think we should probably get on out of here,” Grandma Collins said.

Dre turned around.

“Oh, hey Grandma. How’d you do?”

“I lost about five dollars,” she said. “So, not a bad. We should go. I’m sorry I took so long. Have you eaten anything? Are you hungry?”

“Hey, kid, back away from the door,” the clerk told him. “There’s somebody coming.”

Dre took a step back and looked out into the dark beyond the fuel island. A lumbering shape, a big man, was coming toward the door.

When he stepped under the shelter above the pumps, they could see his chest was covered in blood and his face looked mashed. He walked in painful jerks, holding his left shoulder with his right hand.

“My goodness,” Dre’s grandma exclaimed. “Call the police. That man’s been hurt.”

“Yeah,” the clerk said and reached for the phone behind her.

The injured man pushed through the door gasping. His eyes were swimming.

“Hello,” he said. “I.”

Then he fell forward and went sprawling on the floor.

He hit hard, and the clerk hissed.

“Ow,” she said and began dialing 9-1-1 on the vintage phone bolted to the back wall.

Dre’s grandma moved forward carefully and looked at the man. He seemed to be breathing, but it was shallow. She tried to find a pulse but couldn’t locate one.

“Is he going to be OK?” Dre asked.

Blood continued to trickle from the man’s nose.

Grandma Collins looked back, smiled and gave a thumbs up.

She had no idea.

Half a minute after the clerk hung up, bright headlights sped toward the store.

“That was…” the clerk said and then saw that it wasn’t a cop in a police cruiser, but a Pizza Hut manager in a beat-up Ford Focus.

He pulled up alongside the front door and didn’t even kill the lights before he jumped out of the car and came stomping in, mad as anything.

“You little pissant,” Ryan shouted at Dre, oblivious of the corpulent man in the brown suit lying face first on the dirty, tiled floor. “Don’t think you’re getting away with what you did. I’m calling the cops and you’re going to pay for a new jukebox and for an electrician to fix whatever you did to our breaker box.”

Dre took a step back toward his grandma.

“Ryan,” the clerk shouted and pointed toward the man on the floor. “Not now. Do something.”

“Oh, you bet I’m doing something,” Ryan railed. “Drew you don’t get to mess with me. I am sorry things didn’t work out between your mother and me. We tried. God knows, I tried, and she was lucky to have a guy like me come around in the first place.”

Grandma Collins stepped up beside Dre and said, “Are you out of your idiot mind? There’s a man on the floor. Can you help?”

“Who are you?” He asked.

“Grandma, get back, he’s gone crazy,” Dre said.

Ryan’s eyes grew wide and he nodded. “Oh, that figures. You’re his mother’s mom. Yeah, we never met, but I heard plenty about you. This figures: the little thug is hanging out with his Me-Maw. Where were you? Huh? Where were you while he was vandalizing my restaurant?”

“Ryan, shut your mouth,” the clerk yelled. “This is neither the time or the place.”

“It seems fine to me,” Ryan shouted and then glared at Dre. “Nice touch,” he said, “The Hootie and the Blowfish song. Yeah. That was our song, wasn’t it? That was your mother and my song. You wanted to rub it in.”

Dre shook his head.

“No, you fool, it wasn’t your song. It was a song. It was a song I didn’t like and one you used to play whenever we got in the car with you because you thought it was a good white and black people together song.” Dre looked up at him. “You and Mama didn’t have no song together. You were bad to her. You made her sick. You’re garbage.”

Ryan clenched his fists and stomped toward Dre, then a gun went off.

The bullet zipped past the Pizza Hut manager’s foot and disappeared into the baseboard across the room.

“Step away from the boy,” a ragged voice called from the floor. “Leave this establishment. Get in your car and go back to wherever you came from. I don’t feel so great right now, but I assure you my second shot will give you a limp you will have for the rest of your life.”

Aghast, Ryan looked down and maybe for the first time, noticed there was someone lying on the floor.

“What are you…”

“You have until the count of three,” the man told him. “One.”

“You need help,” Ryan said, but the barrel of the gun was pointed at him.

“Two.”

The Pizza Hut manager decided the man didn’t want his help and he didn’t need the hassle. He put his hands up and all but sprinted out the front door and back to his car.

As soon as the car pulled away, the man sagged and laid his head back on the floor.

“Have you called for help, Miss?”

The clerk told him she had.

“I called 9-1-1,” she said. “They should be here in just a few minutes.”

“Good,” he said and coughed. “Good. I think I’m in trouble here. I’m not sure if I broke something I shouldn’t or if I’m having a mild heart attack. It could go either way,” he said weakly. “Doesn’t matter. I need some help.”

“Help is on the way,” the clerk said.

“Mister, it’s going to be OK,” Dre told him.

The man looked up. He was very pale.

“That’s good,” he told them. “I need some other help. It’s a lot of help, but if you help me, I’ll help you.”

Before any of them could answer, the man said, “My name is Skip. Over that way is my car. There’s a suitcase in the car. I need you,” he looked at Dre. “I need you to run over there as quickly as you can and get my briefcase and my phone. Then I need you to hide them or take them home with you. I don’t care but get them out of sight.”

“Why?”

“And I need you not to ask any questions,” the man said. “Will you do that?”

“He will not,” Grandma Collins said.

“If he does this, I’ll pay his way through any state college he wants, if that’s what he wants,” Skip told them. “He just has to hurry.”

“For real?” Dre said.

“For real.”

“Dre, no,” his grandma said, but the boy was already running out the door in the direction of where the man had come in from.

“Help me flip over,” Skip said to Grandma Collins. “I need you to get this holster off me. It’s just a snap. I can’t do it on my own.”

“Why?”

“I have a conceal carry permit,” he said slowly. “I am legally allowed to carry a fire arms but being allowed to carry a gun and having a gun on your person during a ‘situation’ are two different things. There would be questions. I don’t want any questions. Will you help me?”

Grandma Collins pushed him over and took the holster. He handed her the gun.

“Give it to the little lady behind the counter,” he said. “Hide it for me,” he told her.

“You going to pay my way through college?” She asked.

“If that’s what you want,” he told her. “Just help me now. We can settle up later.”

She took the gun. Sirens were sounding in the distance. The two women looked at the bloody man on the floor, who had suddenly gone very silent.

 

 

 

 

 

16

The entire state was under yet another flash flood alert. Residents were advised to be cautious on the roads or better yet, stay home and watch a season of “The Office” on Netflix. Streams and creeks were swollen. Near Charleston, the Kanawha and Elk rivers were coming up from the banks and submerging nearby trees.

In the city, most of the Schoenbaum Amphitheater at Haddad Riverfront Park was sunk in brown water and the basement of the Union Building overlooking the stage was, once again, filled with water.

The elevator was out, too, but it was hard to say if the two were related. The elevator was always going out.

Downtown, people wondered vaguely if this was going to be the time when the rivers made into the city. It hadn’t happened yet, of course, or if so, it hadn’t happened in generations, but the last decade of progressively stranger weather in the area made flooding of the capital city seem inevitable.

While the rain was coming down, Dre’s grandma was playing poker in the back parlor of the Shopaminit and doing better than usual. She was up about $15. It made her heart beat a little faster, made her feel a little light-headed, like she’d just had a really good cup of coffee.

Dre was out front. He’d eaten his candy bar, made small talk with the clerk behind the counter and now he was flipping through the pages of the automotive magazines on the rack. He didn’t care that much about cars or motorcycles. At least, he didn’t care any more or less about cars and motorcycles than another boy his age.

He liked the idea of them and what those kinds of vehicles represented. He was duly impressed when they were painted and decaled up to look like something out of a comic book, but the specifics of engines, discussions about torque and turning, he could care less.

The automotive magazines just seemed less conspicuous than the body-builder or gun publications and he didn’t want to touch Cosmopolitan, Teen Cosmo or Elle. He just didn’t need to know what was involved with “31 Ways to Please Your Man.”

He’d gone through all the muscle car magazines and was now looking through a motorcycle magazine that his mama wouldn’t approve of because of the women standing next to the bikes. None of them were wearing a whole lot.

Dre wasn’t entirely sure what they had to do with motorcycles, though he supposed that if you were cool enough to own a motorcycle, women like these were supposed to come in the package –at least, as far as he could figure.

At least a couple of times, Dre had gone back to the gambling parlor door and yelled for his grandma to hurry up.

She’d muttered back, “OK, OK. I’ll be there in just a minute.”

Grandma hadn’t come out of the little room. Dre, of course, wasn’t allowed in –and now, he felt like the clerk sort of felt sorry for him.

“Is there anybody you want to call?” She asked him.

There wasn’t. His mother was at work. If he called her, she’d get mad at Grandma for sure, but she wouldn’t come and pick up Dre. She’d wait until she got off work and then come over and start a fight.

Dre loved his grandma. He didn’t want to see his Mama and his grandma at each other’s throats again. If he turned her in, Mama might not bring Dre around again for a while, for months –and Christmas was coming up.

“No, that’s OK,” Dre told the pregnant lady. “She must be having some good luck. I can wait a few more minutes. I’m sure she’s just about finished.”

The woman shrugged but left him alone. She seemed content to let it slide but kept looking out through the glass at the rain.

“It’s really coming down tonight,” she said.

Then there was a loud clatter and series of thumps.

“Hey, did you hear that?” Dre asked.

 

 

Skip had been driving around for nearly two hours. He’d driven a lap around the city and then gone to the highway and taken his car as far as the Walmart in Cross Lanes before he’d turned around and decided to get off the main road.

There wasn’t much to see either way through the rain.

As he drove, he listened to big band music on his satellite radio. He’d adjusted the windshield wipers to keep time with Guy Lombardo doing “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.”

He hummed along to the melody, which soothed him more than these backroads that twisted and turned like a balled-up belt.

After a while of diving into residential areas and coming out along roads that seemed to have been built only for decoration, Skip decided maybe he should just pack it in and head back to the hotel.

He looked toward the GPS, but the screen had gone dark.

“Loose cord,” Skip muttered.

The GPS was left over from his last Cadillac. He could have opted for the in-vehicle GPS or used OnStar, except that he didn’t trust OnStar. He’d read that they monitored their clients and that might not be such a good thing, given Skip’s line of work.

Also, a built-in GPS would be difficult to disable or destroy. A standalone device was infinitely more flexible and very easy to get rid of, but the plug that went into the cigarette lighter port was beginning to wear out. It sometimes came loose.

“Not a problem,” he sighed and fumbled for the cord.

It was hanging off to the side of the console. He couldn’t see it but kept fumbling for it with his right hand.

He just couldn’t see.

With his left hand firmly on the wheel, Skip reached up above his head with his right and pressed the dome light.

A spider, about the size of his thumbnail glared at him from the top of the steering wheel. Its glassy black eyes shined in the yellow light.

And then it jumped toward him and Skip screamed. He screamed and jerked the wheel to the left. The car went off the road, up the side of the hill and then flipped and tumbled across the road. Skip, held in place by his seat belt, jumped and bounced like a puppet on a string.

The windows popped and burst, though the coating on the safety glass kept the windshield in one piece. Crystal nuggets, like a scattering of snowflakes in a gust of wind, blew everywhere.

The driver’s side, the passenger’s side and the side airbags all deployed with a loud pop.

Skip felt a familiar pain in the center of his face. His nose had been broken again.

Then the car cleared the pavement and the short, soft shoulder.

The Cadillac tipped over the edge and began sliding down the remainder of the muddy hill, but it felt like he was falling.

Skip, who had been shot at on four continents and nearly strangled by Somali pirates, screamed all the way down, like a little girl.

The car came to a rest, right-side up, in the gravel beside the road. Through the windshield, Skip could see lights on at a gas station.

Breathing heavily, his head humming, his entire body sore, the assassin said, “Thank God.” He unlocked his seat belt and miracle of miracles, the door to the Cadillac opened without much trouble.

He got out of his car and reached into his jacket pocket looking for his phone, but the phone was missing.

“Must’ve fallen out,” he said.

None of the lights were on inside the car. It was raining. He could barely see anything beyond large shapes and the lights on at the gas station.

In the other direction, he thought he could make out another building, but it was farther away –and he was hurt, bleeding from the nose. His head was pounding. He wanted to throw up and he thought he must have wrenched his left arm in his seatbelt.

“Get it later,” he muttered and stumbled forward toward the light of the Shopaminit.

15

Jenny ducked her head into Ryan’s office and told him, “Chief, we have a problem.”

For nearly an hour, the jukebox had been playing the same song over and over.

“It’s the one with the black guy who sings country,” she said. Then she hummed a couple of bars of the tune before halfway singing, “Cuz I got a hand for you. Cuz I wanna run with you…”

Ryan shook his head. He hadn’t been back for very long from his errand across the bridge, had no idea what she was talking about. He hadn’t been listening.

In his office, the inner sanctum of the Muddy Creek Pizza Hut, he’d been listening to a podcast about getting women to do what you want through subliminal messaging and hadn’t been paying attention to what was going on outside in the dining room.

Bad weather was keeping customers home tonight, so the restaurant was essentially running itself. That was fine. Mr. Moligue, the franchise owner, didn’t seem to care one way or another whether his Pizza Hut made money, which was probably suspicious, but Ryan figured it was all OK for him if anyone came poking around.

He wasn’t expected to know much.

Jenny kept looking at him, like he should do something, so he shrugged, got up out of his chair and walked out into the dining room.

They had three tables: small families eating pizza and salad. At one of the tables, a large, balding man was looking directly at him, irritated.

So, that’s the guy who complained, Ryan thought.

The Pizza Hut manager cocked his head and listened.

“Cause I’ve got a hand for you. I’ve got a hand for you…”

Jenny looked at him and Ryan nodded. He recognized the song and the voice.

“That’s Hootie and the Blowfish,” he said. “I used to listen to them a lot.”

“Yeah, well, it’s all that’s playing right now,” the server said. “And people are complaining.”

Ryan lifted his hand and waved toward the angry guy across the room as if to signify that he would take care of this.

He walked past the video games to the jukebox and looked at the song counter, which usually told you how many songs were in cue. The red digital numbers flickered between 99 and 33.

That was new. He’d have to call Mr. Moligue and tell him about it. Maybe he’d want the juke box fixed. Maybe he wouldn’t. It was hard to say.

The jukebox had been in this Pizza Hut for as long as Ryan had worked here and long before. According to legend, the place was burglarized in the mid-1990s. Thieves broke in and literally cleaned the place out. They took food, silverware, pots and pans –and the jukebox.

Everything had been insured, but when Mr. Molique replaced the jukebox, he had it bolted to the floor, which also made it impossible to hit the reset button on the back of the machine.

You couldn’t even pull the plug. The power cord was fed directly into the circuit breaker, so the only way to turn it on or off was to flip the breaker.

“Right,” Ryan sighed and walked toward the kitchen. “I can fix this,” he said and went to the employee bathroom.

Ryan had no idea why the breaker box was in the bathroom. Mr. Molique had never told him, but he turned on the light, dug his fingers under the latch to the breaker cabinet, but it wouldn’t budge.

It was jammed tight.

He tugged at it, but nothing.

“What the?”

Ryan’s fingers brushed something rough and jagged. He looked closely at the latch. There was some kind of resin coating.

He pulled at the door, but it wouldn’t move. He’d need a crowbar to get this open and Ryan was certain that shoving a piece of metal into a breaker box was suicidal.

Ryan stepped outside the bathroom and looked across the room at Tim, his cook, but he immediately discounted any suspicion. Tim wouldn’t do something like this. He was just here to get along and get paid, nothing more.

“What is it?” Jenny asked him.

“Somebody has doctored the lock on the breaker box,” he said. “Has anybody been back there?”

Jenny, wide-eyed, nodded and said, “Well, yeah. Remember, I had to bring a kid back here. He was this little black kid, very polite. He was alone and didn’t want to use the bathroom while there was somebody else in the men’s room.”

Ryan let what she said sink in.

“A black kid. How tall?”

Jenny held up her hand to about chest level to her, around four feet tall.

“He came in alone and was waiting on his grandma,” she said.

Ryan’s jaw fell just slightly. “Oh, you have to be kidding me.”

“What?”

14

Kelly stewed in his beer. He was deep into the 12-pack, had been drinking all day, had even been hitting his personal stash, but wasn’t drunk. He wasn’t high.

“Liberated” was the word that came to mind. He felt liberated and free to make some bad decisions.

Kelly knew that thing that kept coming up from the back of his mind was a terrible idea, though terrible ideas were nothing new. If he wanted to, he could count off the top ten terrible, dumb, stupid things he’d done just in the last month, the last year or even over the course of his life.

He did that sometimes, though rarely. He had to be pretty far in the bag and drowning in the kind of self-pity that only bubbled up when he felt cornered and trapped.

He should feel that way now, but he didn’t.

Kelly felt remarkably clear-headed, all things considered. He’d been self-medicating since just after breakfast. Another man, a lesser man, he thought, would have been completely baked and left staring at the bottles of detergent and fabric softener on the wall.

No, he felt something else, a growing sense of righteous indignation. He’d been wronged and the need to do something about that.

Rose shouldn’t have fired him. She had no right. Matt had said almost as much when he stopped by the day after it happened to talk, to see if Kelly could hook him up.

Kelly had almost turned him away, but he kind of needed the money and Matt had been sort of nice about the whole thing. He didn’t like that Rose had cut him loose, either, but what was he supposed to do about it?

“You own the place,” Kelly told him. “You can tell Rose to hire me back.”

In Kelly’s mind, Rose Waggoner wasn’t much more than a bookkeeper, a secretary and a charity case. All she did was make out the schedules, assign duties and check over their time cards. Anybody could do that. Her authority over any of them at the Shopaminit was marginal, at best, and Matt said they only reason he kept her on was because she was eight months pregnant.

“I won’t lie. She’s a pain in my butt,” he complained, after the two of them went for a drive and lit up a joint. “She’s always getting onto me for something. I don’t come around the store enough. I don’t get the orders done in a timely fashion. I won’t fix anything. People are calling about getting paid. It’s just yap, yap, yap.”

Kelly completely agreed.

“You should just get rid of her, then.”

But Matt shook his head, No, he couldn’t do that. It would look bad if he got rid of her.

“I don’t want a crazy pregnant woman on my hands,” he said. “Besides, she’s going to drop any day now and when she does, that’ll be it for her. So long. She’ll go apply for some benefits somewhere, get on the welfare and be out of my hair.”

“I’ll hire you back,” Matt added, magnanimously.

That sounded good to Kelly. It was a start, anyway. The job at the Shopaminit suited him. It wasn’t all that hard, and he could take whatever he wanted; except for the beer, obviously.

“But what about until then? What am I supposed to do?”

“Just sit tight,” Matt said, sagely and looked off into the weeds past the railroad track. “It’s not like you don’t have other income sources, right?”

Yes and no. Kelly sold a pretty fair amount of dirt weed. He had some good customers, but he also smoked a fair amount of his own product. Mostly, he was only just a little ahead of breaking even, except when he was working.

The less free time he had the less pot he smoked and the more he sold.

“Give it some time,” Matt told him. “Just a couple of weeks.”

That was easy for him to say. Matt and Margie lived in a nice house in South Hills, not in the funky-smelling basement laundry room in his mother’s house. Matt had been sleeping here for the last four months. The room upstairs, the room where he’d spent the vast majority of his nights over the last 30 years, she’d converted into a sewing and craft room about ten seconds after Kelly moved out the last time.

He’d moved out four times since high school, but this last time, he hadn’t really been gone that long –just six weeks. And she refused to give him his room back.

“I’ve already boxed up your things,” she said. “They’re in storage, if you want to look through them.”

She’d also bought a new sewing machine and had set up a craft table. It was something she said she’d always wanted to do. She was trying to make a second career for herself as a quilter and “primitives” artist.

“That kind of stuff goes for crazy money at Tamarack,” she’d said. “Tourists will buy just about anything as long as it doesn’t say ‘Made in China.’”

It might be a line of employment Kelly might look into, his mother told him.

“You know, once you get your own place again.”

Moving back in with her, she said, was only temporary. He was a grown man. He needed to stand on his own two feet. Kelly was allowed to stay in her home, eat her food and use her washer and dryer to do his laundry, but he wasn’t to bring his deadbeat friends around. There would be no overnight guests, no girlfriends and no pets.

If he wanted to live under her roof, Kelly had to get rid of his 40-pound iguana, Nate.

He’d had the lizard since his mid-twenties. He raised Nate up from when he was only about two feet long, including tail, just a scrawny thing then. He’d cared for the iguana, kept him in a huge, climate-controlled terrarium and made sure he got to see the vet every couple of months.

Kelly had raised Nate to carry his own weight around the house. He’d trained him to defend the home and to bite intruders.

Nate and his mother had never been close. She resented having to clean up after the reptile and the cats were terrified of him.

In fun, he would sometimes chase them around the house, but they could jump pretty high and were faster than Nate.

Usually.

Problem was, Nate scared a lot of Kelly’s so-called friends. None of them were willing to take him in, especially since the terrarium was now gone.

Without having much of an idea what to do, he’d turned Nate loose in the woods behind his mother’s house. Kelly figured he’d be fine on his own. He’d eat about anything and was always catching birds whenever he’d left him on the back porch, near the bird feeder.

Kelly wasn’t sure how Nate would do after fall really set in. Iguanas didn’t like the cold.

Maybe he would slip in a crawlspace under a house or something. He’d heard of boa constrictors and ball pythons doing that. Every now and again, one of them got loose, slithered and was presumed dead for years before turning up during a routine pest inspection.

Reptiles were a lot more resourceful than people imagined, Kelly thought and hoped that one day he and Nate would somehow be reunited.

He doubted it would happen too soon.

Building up resources to get another place of his own had been very high on his agenda, but slow-going. After a couple of weeks of working at the Shopaminit, he’d only saved about 30 bucks toward that end.

He just needed more time.

At first, Kelly thought he’d just go over and talk to Rose, get her to reconsider, apologize again, but he hadn’t been able to catch a ride all morning. All his so-called friends told him they were busy. They had jobs of their own, chores to take care of or else they were spending the Saturday with their kids.

His mother just told him, “No.”

She was busy watching a bass fishing show on television. The television was always set to the educational channels, which Kelly was already tired of.

If his mother wasn’t watching shows about competitive fishing, she was in the middle of a program about how the ancient Egyptians were really aliens or endless documentaries about animals.

“It’s a re-run,” Kelly complained. “You’ve seen this one.”

Kelly, for sure, remembered the show being on. Without gainful employment, there was nothing much else to but sit around and watch television with his mom and the channels she watched tended to run the same few shows on a tight loop.

“I’ve seen part of it,” she told him, firmly. “I want to see how it ends.”

“You hate me,” he’d muttered and stormed back down into the basement.

“I do not,” she’d yelled back to him. “I love you, but I’m through being your taxi. Get a bicycle.”

Kelly wasn’t sure if his current situation allowed him to even ride a bicycle. The judge had seemed pretty mad and warned him that if he was caught behind the wheel of anything, he’d be spending the next eight months in the regional jail.

He hadn’t specified bicycles, but he had said motorcycles, which seemed to be related.

Either way, he didn’t want to risk it.

He had to do something about the job. If he could just talk his way back into getting on the schedule, things would just naturally right themselves. He could keep saving money and in a couple of months, he’d have enough for a security deposit on an old trailer somewhere. He could get out from under the iron thumb of his mother and back on his feet.

Heck, he might even actually go through with the vocational training he’d told everybody about, which could lead to bigger and better things.

Problem was, the more he thought about it, the less likely it seemed that Rose would agree to anything. She’d been thoroughly unimpressed with his apologies and excuses before. There was no reason to believe she’d be more willing now.

He sipped his beer and wondered what he might do to speed along her departure from the Shopaminit family? He didn’t want to kill her. He wasn’t that kind of a guy. Kelly thought of himself as a good person –not very lucky sometimes—but still a good person, generally. A free spirit.

But what if he gave Rose a big scare? He’d seen something about that on episode of “Real Farm Emergencies” or “Big Country Veterinarian.” Wolves or coyotes or maybe a bear had been lurking on the edge of some old goober’s farm. It had scared the sheep into giving birth, which made a lot of work for the farmer and the veterinarian.

He remembered the episode because his mother had made spaghetti that night. It hadn’t gone well for him.

Rose, Kelly knew, was toward the end of her pregnancy, maybe not in sight of the checkered flag, but definitely down to the last couple of laps. If he gave her a good scare, the baby might come a little early, but that would be just fine. Nine months was kind of like a best practices sort of thing, but not really necessary.

He’d heard somewhere that a baby could survive being born after five months maybe and Rose was close to eight.

Heck, Kelly thought he might actually be doing Rose a favor by encouraging an earlier delivery. The baby was due in December. Roads might be bad with snow or something. She might have trouble getting to the hospital and then where would she be?

The roads were fine now.

The idea had merit, he thought. It was still a terrible idea, an awful idea, but a workable idea –and he had the tools to get it done.

Kelly didn’t have much left from his apartment. The slumlord he rented from tossed most of his furniture and affects in the dumpster, including the terrarium for Nate. Kelly had been lucky to salvage clothes, a toaster oven and a .38 pistol, which he’d received as collateral on a debt.

He’d sold his friend, Russel, some dope on credit, not a good practice, but the friend had offered the gun for him to hold until he could come up with the money.

They’d gone out to the shooting range near Kanawha State Forest and Russel had let him fire the gun a couple of times just to show that it was in good condition.

A day later, the friend had been picked up for daytime burglary and breaking and entering. Russel wouldn’t be out of Mount Olive until sometime after the next presidential election, if he was lucky.

There were still three bullets in the gun, not that Kelly needed even one of them. All he had to do was go into the convenience store with a mask on and wave the gun around, make a lot of noise and Kelly bet that Rose would go into labor.

He had the perfect mask, too.

It was kind of a hike to get to the Shopaminit, a couple of miles, but if he started now, he could be there before dark. So, Kelly tucked the gun into the waistband of his jeans and pulled his shirt over the grip. Then he put on a light jacket, shoved the mask tight against his body and zipped up the jacket.

On his way out the back door, he grabbed an umbrella. It looked like rain.

13

A suitcase of money rested in the floor of Skip’s Cadillac. He neither liked having the contents of the suitcase in his possession or what the money represented.

It was a million and a half dollars, all in cash.

“Who does that?” He asked himself. “Who does that in 2018?”

Just drug dealers and gun runners, Skip thought. He hadn’t taken cash in that amount in over 20 years. Electronic banking made that so much easier. It was simpler simple to route funds from one encrypted off-shore bank account to another and then another and another to make the money just cease to be.

The $25,000 meeting fee was only to gauge how serious a potential client was. A dabbler or a dilettante would never throw money on someone like him. A miser or a skinflint, who could not be trusted to pay what was owed, would never agree to a fee for only conversation.

Ben Gardner was something else. He seemed giddy that Skip only wanted 1.5 million dollars for the job, which made Skip want to come up with a higher figure, but no, a million and a half was high for what Mr. Gardner wanted, though Skip knew with additional expenses it could theoretically become higher.

Honestly, if Skip wanted to, he could milk the millionaire for another million and a half without even trying that hard, but he was fiscally responsible. Also, what he did seldom cost as much as people imagined. Witnesses, “experts” and public officials could usually be bribed for pennies on the dollar. Intimidation, arson and blackmail seldom cost more than a little time, a little patience and whatever gasoline was going for on a particular day.

Spreading rumors cost almost nothing and bullets were very cheap.

Still, Skip never meant to deal strictly in cash. That was bad business.

Carrying it around in the open was a liability. It risked unwanted attention. While it was unlikely that he would be pulled over by a police officer, since he was white, middle-aged and drove a car usually reserved for people with good legal representation, it would be difficult to explain the money away if his vehicle was searched.

Sometimes, the police liked to poke around nice vehicles driven by boring Caucasian men if only to make it appear that they were being fair.

Skip didn’t worry about the police finding his gun. He had a concealed carry permit and a laminated NRA member card he kept in his wallet, along with a folded-up copy of the bill of rights. This usually explained why he had the gun and tended to warn whoever was looking at his identification what was coming if they didn’t just hurry this up and let the nice man get on with his day.

With his out-of-state plates, Skip had been pulled over a few times, but he’d only had to give an impromptu lecture on constitutional law once. The officer listened for five minutes before rolling his eyes and telling him to “drive safe and have a good day.”

He really didn’t like having the money with him.

While it wasn’t likely, he could be robbed. That sort of thing happened. A couple of low-level punks could show up with guns and try to take the briefcase from him.

Skip felt confident of his chances if it was just one or a couple of attackers and they were only armed with knives, sticks or broken bottles, he supposed. He trained to handle that sort of thing, had handled that sort of thing in South America and in Africa, but a man with a gun, that was tricky. It all came down to how committed the other man was.

Skip had two scars on his abdomen where men had been very committed to getting their way. They just hadn’t been committed to being good shots.

Luckily, he wouldn’t have to keep it long. He had a banker in Cleveland who could help him get the money where it needed to be. Skip planned to be in the man’s office, first thing Monday morning, the soonest anything could be done.

This did delay his trip home another day, an aggravation, which was also time to think: did he really want to do this job?

Skip had no illusions about the things he’d done over the years. He’d helped topple democratically elected officials in places where it wasn’t convenient to the interests of his employers. He’d rigged elections, chased people off their legally owned property and straight-out killed half a dozen men.

Most of those killings had been political in nature. They’d been office-holders or militants who lived in places where being killed for your political leanings wasn’t unheard of, was actually very possible. They knew what they were in for and probably weren’t angels.

A few of the other deaths he’d had some hand in weren’t so easy to distance himself from. They were just people, not bad people, maybe not good people, but just collateral damage. They’d been in the way of something.

Always, always Skip had aligned himself with people and organizations that shared most, if not all, of his core values. He believed in liberty, the free market, American exceptionalism and manifest destiny.

Strength was a responsibility. It meant doing what needed to be done because it needed to be done. It meant taking charge and living with the outcome.

What Mr. Gardner wanted him to do burrowed under his skin. It was upsetting the natural flow of things in a way that he found distasteful.

Gardner did not know that the people on the list were going to become a threat to his snowflake political leanings. He just wanted to make sure they never did.

It also didn’t help that Skip was pretty sure that whatever thought or motivation passed through Mr. Gardner’s mind on practically any subject was diametrically opposed to the thoughts and motivations he had.

“Stupid hippie,” he muttered at the briefcase.

Skip did not want this job. He hadn’t wanted this job when he got in his car nearly a week ago and made the drive from California to West Virginia. He wanted nothing to do with Benjamin Gardner and whatever fringe of the Democratic party he represented.

But he did need the money.

What was in that briefcase would go a long way to digging his family out of the current messes they’d found themselves in. Back home in California, he needed to bribe a drug dealer, fix some charges and enroll his son in a residential rehab program. He needed to make the would-be puppeteer/girlfriend of his middle child quietly go away.

And who knows what was going to happen with those stupid cherry trees out back.

Plus, he had a mortgage to pay, bills that needed tending to and a future to plan for. What would his family do without him?

Skip needed to think, so he got in his car and decided to just drive around for a while. It wasn’t like he was in any kind of hurry. He couldn’t do anything with the money until Monday morning. It was Saturday night. There had to be something he could do in this town, but with a million and a half dollars to babysit, he couldn’t think of a thing that made sense, except drive.

 

12

For a second, Dre few felt like a rabbit caught in a trap, but then Ryan opened his idiotic mouth.

“Hey, Drew. It’s good to see you!”

Ryan Seacrest looked at him, smiling, like all was forgotten and all had been forgiven.

Dre remembered it differently.

“Hey, Ryan,” he said and looked toward the floor.

“Funny seeing you here,” Ryan blathered on. “Let me take a look at you. Wow. You got tall. How’ve you been? You must be in, what fifth grade, now.”

“Yep,” Dre told him and started walking toward the candy aisle.

The fat woman behind the counter was watching him. She felt her eyes on him.

“How’s your mom?” Ryan asked.

“Fine.” Dre began filing through the energy bars and cookies toward the middle of the aisle.

Ryan moved toward him. Dre stepped deeper into the snack aisle to the chips and jerky, which he didn’t care much for and never bought.

“Is she working anywhere?” He asked. “We’d love her come back to Pizza Hut.”

“We’re fine,” he said.  “My mother is doing fine. She’s got a good job in town. Thank-you.”

“Well, you tell her I asked about her and if she ever gets tired of doing whatever she’s doing, we’d love to have her come back and work the front of house,” Ryan said. “She was a heck of a server. You should be proud of her.”

Dre shrugged.

“Is she out in the car?” Ryan asked. “Did she send you in to get something? Jeez, I’d love to catch up. How’s she been?”

“You already asked that,” Dre said. “No, she’s not outside. She had to work today. I’m meeting my grandma here. I will tell her I ran into you.”

The Pizza Hut manager’s face was lit up. Dre wanted to punch him.

Dre’s mother worked at Pizza Hut three years ago. The pizza place was on the city bus line, which was a backup. Their car was always breaking down.

Ryan had been the assistant manager then. He’d come up in the world, though just barely. At first, he’d been nice. Dre’s mother had just gotten out of a long-term relationship and she’d been sad for a while when Ryan started coming around.

He said all the right things. He took them out to places and then started staying over. In the beginning, he just spent the night when Dre was at his father’s, but then he was coming over two or three nights a week.

It was nice. They’d have dinner together. Ryan helped him with his homework and they’d all watch television together before tucking Dre into bed.

Ryan had seemed like a good boyfriend, maybe even potential stepfather material, but then it all went south.

One afternoon, Dre came home from school and his mother was packing Ryan’s things up in a box and putting them out by the steps.

“He won’t be coming around anymore,” she explained to him. “You’re not to let him in the house if he knocks.”

Ryan’s expulsion from their little upstairs apartment followed the one sick day Dre ever remembered his mother taking. She’d been feeling crummy for a couple of days and had called in at the Pizza Hut to go visit the doc-in-a-box.

They gave her a prescription for a round of antibiotics and the confirmation that her boyfriend and immediate supervisor was a scumbag.

Now, the specifics were well above what Dre understood at the time, but he remembered some of the words she’d said over the phone to Ryan and to his Aunt Susan, who wasn’t really his aunt. He remembered the words and when they were repeated again in his presence, he asked what they meant.

The older kids laughed at him for not knowing, which was the nature of things, but he’d spoken to his father about it, too, who filled him in.

“Why do you want to know?” His dad had asked him.

“I just want to know what they saying,” he told him.

Dre remembered hearing his mother crying as she talked to Aunt Susan while he was supposed to be in bed asleep. His mother had really liked Ryan. She’d trusted him and what he’d done to her was bigger than a broken heart.

His mother had to quit her job. She had to quit that day.

It might not have seemed like much, but waitressing at a Pizza Hut had been good for them. They’d worked with her schedule, paid her OK and she’d made a few bucks in tips, which helped out.

After she quit, it took Dre’s mother a while to find something else. She couldn’t get unemployment. To make ends meet, they’d cut back on all the extras and started having dinner with Grandma a couple of times a week.

It took a while, but things got better again and now Pizza Hut was a long time in the past, though his mother never ever ordered food from any Pizza Hut and wouldn’t eat a bite if someone offered her a slice.

No, Dre had not forgiven or forgotten. He’d hate that man for as long as he drew breath.

“Well, it was nice running into you,” Ryan said. “You take it easy, Drew.”

Dre nodded as he left.

“Enjoy Hootie and the Blowfish, you piece of crap,” he muttered.

The woman behind the counter called over, “You planning on buying anything?”

Dre planted his feet and turned toward the clerk. He cocked his head and put his hands on his hips, but then he saw the woman wasn’t fat, she was pregnant.

His mama said women can be a little touchy when pregnant, so he dialed back his outrage.

“My grandma is in back playing the poker machines,” he said. “I figure I’m going to get a candy bar, if that’s alright.”

She nodded.

Finally, Dre settled on a Chunky, which rarely showed up in convenience stores. Usually, to get one of those, you had to go to a drugstore or a specialized candy store.

He didn’t particularly like the Chunky more than, say, a Snickers bar. He just got them less.

Candy selection in hand, Dre ambled past the beverage coolers and the crazy quilt of colored cans, looking for anything unusual. He didn’t expect much from this small, independent convenience mart, but every now and again, you found a real gem; something that had been delivered by mistake and now the store was stuck with.

Typically, Sheetz had the better selection, as far as convenience stores. At Sheetz, he found craft sodas from Minnesota, which was fun. They were a little sweeter than regular sodas and came in flavors that tasted like what they said on the label –like blueberry.

Still, you really couldn’t top the candy selection at Cracker Barrel, a restaurant Dre felt conflicted about. His grandma liked the place. Practically, every adult he knew over the age of 40 liked Cracker Barrel, but the restaurant felt overpoweringly white to Dre.

Dre couldn’t put his finger on it, exactly. All the stuff on the walls, the vintage shop signs and old pictures, looked like they came out of places where people like him couldn’t go 50 or 60 years ago without at least getting a heavy dose of the stink eye.

But Cracker Barrel did have a pretty good meatloaf sandwich. He liked the corn muffins, too, and he respected the candy and soda selection in the General Store.

Also, his grandpa and grandma on his father’s side liked it, so Dre didn’t know what to think.

Nothing in the cooler jumped out at him as being utterly necessary. He took his candy to the counter, where the pregnant woman rang it up.

She looked tired.

“That’s a dollar-two,” she said and then added, “You know Ryan?”

Dre shrugged and said, “Yeah. I knew him. We ain’t friends. I hope he trips and falls down a well.”

The clerk nodded, appreciatively.

“What’d he do to you?”

“To me,” Dre replied. “Nothing. But he did a lot to people I know, more than enough. You can do what you want to do, I guess, but I wouldn’t have nothing to do with him, if I was you.”