Beyond the Western
I snaked my arm out from under the covers and slapped the top of the buzzing clock. I’d just used up the last of my self-imposed quota of hitting the snooze alarm. I poked my head out from under the blanket and looked into the hard stare of Max, my Rottweiler, sitting next to the bed.
“Five more minutes, Max,” I said and threw the blanket back over my head.
No sooner had my head disappeared, the blanket flew off the bed clamped in the jaws of the big Rott as he disappeared through the bedroom door.
I smiled when I got a loud baritone reply from somewhere in the house. The strong aroma of fresh coffee persuaded me to swing out from under the sheet. I sat for a moment on the edge of the bed before getting up and slipping into the robe that lay on the chair next to the dresser.
Max sat on the blanket near the back door staring at me when I shuffled into the kitchen.
“Some friend you are,” I said.
I poured the steaming black liquid into the white coffee mug next to the coffeemaker and carried it to the back door where Max sat squirming and looking up at me in anticipation.
I’d barely unlocked and opened the door before he bolted outside to go through his morning ritual of flushing the rabbit from under the Lilac bush, chasing it across the yard, then crashing head on into the chain link fence as the rabbit scampered through it. You’d think, sooner or later, Max would figure out he’s too big to go through that fence.
I stood at the back door and sipped my coffee until Max finally concluded the ritual by lifting his leg on the fence. He came charging back to the house, nearly knocking me over as he squeezed between the doorjamb and me.
I closed and locked the door and then turned into the kitchen, put my coffee mug in the sink and shuffled back down the hall to the bedroom. I took a quick shower, made the decision to forego a suit and then put on a pair of khakis, a v neck sweater and dug my loafers out of the back of the closet. After determining I was presentable, I grabbed my black leather jacket and returned to the kitchen.
I filled Max’s food and water bowls, unlocked his oversized dog door and took a minute to decide, then grabbed a set of car keys from the wall peg.
I hit the door opener, went down the garage steps, stepped around the old jalopy and removed the cover from my new 1978 Midnight Blue Ford Thunderbird. I was determined to make this a good day.
* * * *
I turned the T-Bird into the entrance of the parking garage and flashed my pass at the gate attendant.
“Mornin’, Mister Tanner,” said Nate Stokes with a big smile, waving me through the gate.
I drove up the ramp to the second level and settled the T-Bird into my assigned space near the stairwell. I lifted the cover from the trunk, slid it gently over my pride and joy, then made my way down the stairs and across the street level of the parking garage.
“Brought the good car this mornin’,eh, Mister Tanner?” shouted Nate from the window of his booth.
“Needed to give her some air,” I shouted back and waved as I left the garage.
I saw a break in the traffic, jaywalked across the street and stepped up on the curb in front of the First National Bank.
I reached into my pants pocket and peeled off a couple of George Washingtons from my thin wad of folded money and dropped ‘em in the hat of the old guy, dressed in an army fatigue jacket, that sat on a rug in front of the bank building.
Now, there’s been talk that this guy didn’t need the money, but whether he needs it or not, if he’s gonna sit all day on that hot pavement, I’m gonna give him a coupla bucks just for the effort.
He tipped his ball cap at me and I opened the bank’s glass doors and stepped into the outer lobby.
“Howdy, Mister Tanner,” said Sadie Hixson from her customary seat on the padded stool in the elevator.
Sadie’d been operating that elevator as long as I could remember and some of the old timers swore Sadie was the only operator that elevator ever had. I don’t know if I believed that, but I sure couldn’t dispute it either.
“How are you this morning, Sadie?” I said and stepped into the elevator after waving at the bank security guard.
“Fine, Mister Tanner, just fine.”
She slid the elevator door and the inner security gate closed and started the elevator on its upward climb. I leaned back against the wall and watched the big, black numbers of each floor slowly slide by until she stopped the car on the eighth floor.
“Have a good day, Mister Tanner,” said Sadie with a smile, as she opened the doors. A light buzzed when I stepped from the elevator.
“I’m comin’, I’m comin’,” she said and slid the doors closed.
My footsteps echoed down the hall and I nodded to the cute blond just before I opened the frosted glass doors with the arced black letters declaring TANNER INVESTIGATIONS.
“Well, look who decided to join us, Harvey,” said my secretary, Amanda “Mandy” Parker, to the big, gray, longhaired cat, lying on his side, next to the phone on her desk. Harvey lifted his head to give me an annoyed look, then resumed his attempt to take a nap.
I’d found Harvey wandering the hall one day and, being the Good Samaritan I am, brought him into the office where it didn’t take long for him to claim it as his own. He’s been ruling the roost ever since.
“This was left in the drop box,” said Mandy, holding up an opened envelope as I stepped to the coffee pot behind her.
I filled a mug with coffee, set it on the edge of her desk and took the envelope. I removed a letter, read it and held up two box seat tickets to the Lake City Stallions game.
“There’s a VIP parking pass, too. Wanna go to a baseball game?” I said.
“Who sent those?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Letter says we should come to the game and they would get in touch with us.”
“Do I get to ride in the ‘Bird?” said Mandy, raising her eyebrows.
Because of the assortment of bullet holes I’ve had to patch, Mandy didn’t ride in the heap unless she had to. Dodging bullets was not her idea of a good time. So, if I wanted her to go anywhere with me, I had to take the “nice” car.
“We leave at six,” I said, picking up my coffee mug.
The VIP parking lot was located across from the front gate of the ballpark. We hurried across the street and through Gate A.
“Enjoy the game, folks,” said the attendant, handing me my half of the ticket stubs.
I’ve always had a fondness for Stallions Stadium. I guess it goes back to the days when I used to patrol center field. I was a leading Rookie Of The Year candidate when I stepped on a loose drain cover chasing down a fly ball in the gap. That freak accident trashed my knee, effectively ending my season. I could never chase fly balls down the same after that and a coupla seasons later, I hung up my spikes.
After I was done feeling sorry for myself, I became a cop, which is what I wanted to do before I found out I could have just as much fun and make a heck of a lot more money chasing fly balls. But a couple of years of “You can’t do it this way” or “You can’t do it that way” and I said heck with it and got my PI ticket. I wasn’t getting rich, but I was making a living and doing it my way.
I bought a scorecard at the gate, then Mandy and I walked down the concourse past the concession stands and the souvenir booths, circling the long lines at the beer vendors. Taking a look at the ticket stubs, I led her up a short flight of stairs.
The Stallions were still taking batting practice and a sharp crack of the bat greeted us at the top of the stairs along with a few waves from long time Stallions fans. I even impressed Mandy with one young autograph seeker who happened to have one of my baseball cards in his pocket.
“Down here,” I said and led Mandy by the hand to the second row of box seats behind the Stallions dugout.
“You used to play here?” she said, her wide eyes not leaving the activity on the field as she felt behind her for the seat.
“Center field,” I said, pointing to my old position in Death Valley, which they affectionately dubbed the spacious outfield.
The team finished batting practice and while the ground crew removed the batting cage, I couldn’t help but wonder who’d sent me the tickets. As the first pitch was thrown, a beer vendor came down the aisle and I bought Mandy and I a Budweiser and settled into my seat. After all, the letter said to enjoy the game and wait, so that’s exactly what we were going to do.
During the middle of the fifth inning, a hulking goon, wearing a dark suit and dark glasses, came down the aisle steps and stopped next to our box.
“You Blake Tanner?” he said.
“Maybe, who wants to know?” I said.
“Look, pal, we ain’t playin’ twenty questions here. Now, you Tanner or not?”
“Yeah, I’m Tanner,” I said, knowing I’d have to play along if I wanted to find out who sent the tickets.
“Good, follow me,” said dark glasses and he started back up the steps without looking back to see if we were behind him.
I grabbed Mandy’s hand and we followed the goon to the second level of the stadium stopping at one of the Sky Box doors. Our escort waited for us to catch up before he knocked twice and held the door open for us.
The only occupant of the Sky Box was a gray haired old man dressed in an Armani suit sitting at a one of the tall, glass top tables watching the ball game. He placed his drink gently on the table, rose from his chair and stepped toward us.
“Blake Tanner, I presume?” he said, extending his hand.
“You presume right,” I said, engaging our host in a surprisingly firm handshake.
“And who might this lovely creature be?” he said, immediately turning his attention toward Mandy.
“Amanda Parker,” she said, as Armani took her hand in his.
“A pleasure, my dear,” he said and kissed Mandy’s hand.
This old bird was smooth and had a way with the women. He had Mandy in the palm of his hand.
“I’m Malcolm MacDonald,” he said, turning his attention back to me. “I’m glad you decided to come. Sit down, please.”
He motioned to a nearby table, but I took a seat at the small bar instead.
A crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd drew Mandy to a Sky Box window as a Stallions’ batter launched a long fly ball to left field. The low groan of the crowd told me it was a long, loud out, but it was enough to persuade Mandy to take a seat at the window.
“It’s her first game,” I said to MacDonald.
“Baseball does bring out the child in all of us, doesn’t it?” said MacDonald with a smile. “Would you like a drink, Mister Tanner?”
“Jack Black on the rocks would be fine.” I figured I might as well drink good since it was on his dime.
MacDonald motioned with his head and dark glasses moved behind the bar and fixed my drink. He set it on a coaster in front of me and returned to his post at the door.
“Now, shall we cut to the chase, Mister Tanner? I would like to hire you to find the people responsible for the murder of my son, Jason.”
Jason MacDonald was a prominent lawyer and his father’s partner in the law firm of MacDonald & MacDonald. He vanished without a trace a couple of years ago while on a business trip. He’d been making noise about running for mayor and cleaning up the city, so I had my own opinion about his disappearance.
“What makes you think it was murder?”
MacDonald retrieved his drink from the glass top table and sat down next to me at the bar. He sipped his drink, set it on a coaster on the bar, then looked up at me and smiled.
“My son had political ambitions, Mister Tanner, that had a few people feeling uncomfortable. He left late for a business trip and told me he would be spending the night in Hadley and would go on to his meeting the next morning. He never arrived for his meeting and it seems nobody in Hadley recall ever seeing him. The only motel in town has no record of him ever being there. What would you call it, Mister Tanner?”
MacDonald reached into his suit coat, pulled out a banded stack of fifty-dollar bills and set them on the bar in front of me.
“Five thousand dollars, Mister Tanner, a retainer for your services. There’s ten thousand more when you bring me the name or names of my son’s killer.”
I looked at the stack of fifties in front of me. This old bird was serious and was willing to pay for what he wanted. I reached for the money and he slapped his hand down on top of mine.
“The names come to me and only me. I’ll deal with them myself. Is that understood?”
The look in MacDonald’s eyes told me he was not a man to be crossed. In his younger days, he must have been someone to stand aside for.
“Whatever you say, Mister MacDonald.”
He removed his hand from the top of mine and I put the band of money into my inside jacket pocket.
“Since we have a working agreement, I think we can dispense with the formalities, Blake,” said MacDonald, losing the intense look in his eyes. He beckoned dark glasses to replenish our drinks.
“It’s going to get rough when I start pulling skeletons from their closets,” I said.
Malcolm MacDonald stirred the fresh martini in front of him and took a sip. “Is that a problem?”
I shook my head. “That’s when I do my best work.”
As usual, Mandy was already in the office when I arrived the next morning. Her souvenir Stallions hat sat proudly in a prominent spot on her desk normally occupied by Harvey.
“Could you get Pete Neely on the phone for me?” I said, scooting by her into my office.
“Well, good morning to you too, MISTER Tanner,” said Mandy, the sarcasm thick in her voice as she picked up the phone.
I backstepped out of my office, leaned over Mandy’s shoulder and planted a soft kiss on her cheek.
“Good Morning, Miss Parker,” I whispered in her ear, then stepped back into my office. A couple of minutes later, my line lit up and buzzed.
“Pete, good morning.”
“Blake, my man, what’s happenin’?”
Pete Neely and I go back to my Stallions days. Back in the day, he was a sports writer for the LAKE CITY TIMES and we’d been known to down a few cold ones on occasion. One of their top newshawks now, he’d been a good source of information for me.
“What do you remember about Jason MacDonald?” I said.
“Old Malcolm’s finally making good on his threat, huh? Word has it when the police turned Jason MacDonald into a cold case, the old man swore he wouldn’t rest until he found out what happened to his son.”
“Can you scrape up what you have on MacDonald and meet me at Jimmy’s?”
“It’ll cost you lunch.”
“Don’t it always?”
“See you at noon,” said Pete.
I hung up the phone and stepped back into the outer office. Harvey had replaced the Stallions cap on Mandy’s desk and the cap now rested on the file cabinet.
“Wanna go to your favorite place for lunch?” I said.
Mandy looked at her friend on the desk. “What do you think, Harvey? Should I go?”
The big gray cat opened his eyes, looked up at me, then over at Mandy. He yawned, closed his eyes and settled back down to resume his nap.
“Thanks, buddy, I’ll remember that when your food bowl gets empty,” I said.
* * * *
I parked my heap in the city lot and we hurried across the street to the flashing, green neon shamrock marking IRISH JIMMY’S SHAMROCK LOUNGE. Jimmy O’Donnell was a Lake City boxing legend. He nearly pulled off the biggest upset in boxing history when he knocked the champ down twice, but lost in a split decision.
Life-size cutouts of Jimmy in his boxing gear greeted us when we pushed through the double doors. Everywhere you looked the lounge was decorated with memorabilia from Jimmy’s career. Above the cash register behind the bar was a framed picture of Jimmy, gloved hands raised above his head, standing over the felled champion. The green gloves he wore that night draped the picture.
“Hey, can we get some service here?” I shouted, slapping my hand down on the bar as we slid onto the barstools.
Engaged in an animated conversation at the far end of the bar, Jimmy looked over his shoulder at us and a broad grin broke across his face. He flipped the bar towel he was holding across his shoulder and strode down the bar toward us.
“Hiya, gorgeous,” he said to Mandy, putting two green shamrock coasters on the bar. “You still hangin’ around with this palooka?”
Jimmy always gave the impression he’d hung around the ring one punch too many.
“I have to, Jimmy. If I didn’t he wouldn’t have any friends,” replied Mandy, smiling back at the old prizefighter.
“You got a winner here, Blake, my boy,” said Jimmy, pointing a finger at Mandy. “You better hang on to her.”
He drew two mugs of beer from the tap and set them on the coasters in front us.
We looked up when the double doors opened again and Pete Neely popped through carrying a manila envelope. He slid the envelope in front of me and stepped up on the barstool beside me. “I’ll have a draft, Champ, and put it on Blake’s tab.”
I picked up the envelope and slid out the contents.
“Remember, I get first cracks at anything new you find out,” said Pete.
“After Malcolm MacDonald,” I said.
I gave the top sheet a quick scan. The article said Jason MacDonald never arrived at his destination. Artie Brown, the lead investigator on the case, followed a lead to the town of Hadley, but the town’s Sheriff denied uncovering any evidence that young MacDonald was ever in his town. The rest of the article listed Jason’s accomplishments and ambitions. I slid the contents back into the envelope and picked up my mug of beer.
Pete looked at his watch. “Uh, Blake? Do I get lunch now?”
I dropped Mandy back at the office and decided to pay Artie Brown a visit. Last I heard, he’d retired from Metro PD and was living on Riverton Avenue.
Thirty minutes later, I parked the heap in front of a brownstone. I walked up the steps and through the door into a small lobby where I found Artie’s name on apartment two eighteen’s mailbox. I trudged up the creaky stairs to the second floor and down the dimly lit hallway. I stopped in front of two eighteen, listened for a moment, and then knocked on the door. Not getting a response, I knocked a little harder. This time I heard movement.
“Who is it?” came a raspy voice from behind the door.
“Artie, it’s Blake Tanner. I need to talk to you.”
The door unlocked and opened the length of the chain. Artie’s bleary-eyed face appeared in the cracked door.
“Whaddya want, Tanner?”
“I wanna talk to you about an old case of yours.”
After a little hesitation, he closed the door, slid off the chain and reopened it. I followed Artie, dressed in shorts and a grimy t-shirt, through his cluttered kitchen to the living room. I took a seat on the old sofa and Artie plopped down in a big armchair, a bottle of Jim Beam on a snack tray next to it.
“So, what’s this all about, Tanner?” Artie poured the contents of the bottle into a paper cup on the tray.
“You remember Jason MacDonald?” All of a sudden I was wondering if this trip was going to be worth it.
Artie emptied the paper cup and gave me a sluggish nod of his head.
“Yup, the only case of mine that ever got put in the cold file.” He refilled the paper cup and pointed the neck of the bottle at me. “But, I didn’t put it there.”
“Who did?” Artie’d piqued my interest.
“Shortly after I came back from Hadley, they took me off the case without a reason why. I found out later, they’d put it in the cold file. That was the only one in my career I never closed.”
Artie drained the paper cup again. “What’s your big interest in all this?”
“Malcolm MacDonald hired me to find out what happened to his son.”
Artie refilled the cup and turned his bleary eyes to me. “Leave it alone, Tanner. It’s bigger than you think.”
“That why you retired?”
“When I questioned why they cold filed my case, they told me it would be in my best interests to retire. Take the advice of an old cop and let it be.”
I shook my head. “Can’t do it, Artie. I already took the job.”
Artie drained his cup again. “I’ll make sure that gets put on your tombstone.”
Hadley, a small town out in the middle of nowhere, was a four hour ride from Lake City. I pulled the heap into the empty parking lot of Hadley’s only motel late in the afternoon of the next day.
I signed the blank page of the register before I rang the bell on the desk. Scanning back the previous couple of days, only a few names appeared in the register. I flipped the pages back when the only other door in the office opened.
“Good afternoon,” said the weasel faced desk clerk wearing wire-rimmed glasses as he spun the register around. “Gonna be here long, Mister Tanner?”
“Maybe. I’m here looking for a friend.”
Weasel face turned to the pegboard behind him, removed a key and slid it across the desk to me.
“Well, I know just about everybody in town. Who are you looking for?”
I guessed this was as good a time as any to stir the pot a little, so I reached inside my jacket and pulled out the photo Malcolm MacDonald had given me.
“His name is Jason MacDonald.” I handed the picture to weasel face.
He looked at the photo, shook his head and handed it back to me. “No, Sir, can’t say that I’ve seen him around here.”
“Thanks anyway.” I picked up the room key as I slid the picture back into my jacket. “Is there a restaurant in town?”
“Sure is, Josie’s Diner, right across the street from the Sheriff’s Office. You can’t miss it. Maybe, Josie or Sheriff Decker can help you find your friend.”
I turned and gave weasel face a slight wave as I stepped through the door. I had a pretty good feeling that in a few minutes Sheriff Decker would find out I was asking about Jason MacDonald.
A red neon sign flickered in the window of the hash house marking JOSIE’S DINER. It was too late for supper and too early for the drunk crowd, so it was pretty empty when I slid onto a stool at the counter. The waitress, waiting for me to find a seat, grabbed a coffee pot and walked toward me.
“Howdy, Sugar, coffee?” she said and I turned over the chipped white mug in front of me. She slopped coffee into the mug and left a trail of the brown liquid when she set the pot on the counter.
“What can I getcha?” The attractive redhead set her pad on the counter and leaned over it, giving me a good view of her best asset and a big smile.
“Burger and fries,” I said without looking at the menu tucked behind the napkin holder and returned her smile.
“Works on the burger?”
I nodded and she finished scribbling my order. She tore the sheet from the pad and showed me she had other assets when she took it to the cook reading a section of the newspaper at the opposite end of the counter. He read it for a second and then disappeared through the swinging doors of the kitchen. Ten minutes later, she slid the burger plate in front of me and slopped more coffee into my mug.
“Neva seen ya here before,” she said, popping her gum as sat down on the wooden stool on the other side of the counter.
“Never been here before. Came looking for a friend,” I said between bites of my burger.
“Oh, yeah? Who ya lookin’ for?”
I reached inside my jacket for the picture and handed it to her.
“Josie, stop botherin’ the customer,” said the cook when he returned from the kitchen.
“Shut up, Harold. I ain’t botherin’ the customah.” She threw her gum in the trashcan under the counter and turned back to me. “Am I botherin’ ya, mistah?”
I smiled and shook my head. “Nah, baby, you ain’t botherin’ me. I’m enjoyin’ the company.”
“He said I ain’t botherin’ him, Harold, so shut up and read your papah!”
She looked down at the picture in her hand and I detected a quick flicker of recognition in her eyes.
“Nah, mistah, I ain’t seen him around here,” she said, composing herself. “But, I’ll show it to Harold. Maybe he remembers seein’ your friend.”
She walked to the far end of the counter, entertaining me with the gentle sway of her hips, and showed the picture to the cook. He peeked around her to look at me, said something and then handed the picture back to her.
“Harold ain’t seen him, neither,” she said, returning to my end of the counter.
I returned the photo to my pocket satisfied that, maybe, I’d lit a fire under the pot.
I wiped my mouth with a napkin, rose from the stool, peeled off a fin from my fold of money and dropped it on the counter beside my plate.
“Thanks for the company, baby, the pleasure’s been all mine,” I said and winked, getting a smile back from Josie.
“Sure, mistah, come back soon.”
I gave her a wave as I pushed through the door into the street. I stood on the sidewalk outside the diner and shook out a butt, pulled it from the deck with my lips and lit it with my Zippo.
I looked down the street toward the sound of somebody singing about a cheating heart that blared from the open door of the watering hole on the next corner.
I turned toward the music and glanced through the diner window, catching the redhead staring back at me. She quickly turned to clean up my dishes and I got a very unfriendly look from Harold before he resumed reading his paper. They both knew something about Jason MacDonald.
I strode down to the corner, crossed the street and shouldered my way into the crowded barroom of LEO’S PLACE. I squeezed into a spot at the bar, ordered a draft and watched four women do an animated line dance on the small dance floor in front of the jukebox. A mug of beer appeared in front of me as the music stopped and a rousing cheer erupted around the room.
“It always like this in here?” I said to the bartender when a slow ballad changed the mood on the dance floor.
“Every Friday and Saturday,” he said, putting four bottles of beer on a waitress’s tray.
“You live around here?” said the bartender.
I shook my head. “I’m in town to see a friend, but nobody seems to know him.”
I dragged the picture from my jacket again and handed it to the bartender. He stepped back into the dim light above the cash register and squinted at it. After a minute, he came back to the bar shaking his head.
“Sorry, I can’t help you.”
“That’s all right, neither could anyone else.”
I figured I’d done all I could for the moment, so I put the picture back in my pocket, finished my beer and stuffed a George Washington into a glass on the bar. I gave the bartender a quick wave as I turned and got a big smile when I winked at the brunette waitress setting her empty tray on the bar.
I strode back down the street and stepped off the curb in front of the hash house.
“Dammit,” I whispered when I saw the heap’s flat front tire.
I removed my jacket and walked around to the trunk to retrieve the car jack. I looked around and glanced into the diner window. Harold watched me from the kitchen as he slid a plate of food on the counter and rang the bell. When Josie picked up the food, he turned away. The pot was boiling.
I changed the tire and drove back to the motel. I pulled into the parking lot and waved a finger at the desk clerk sitting outside the office.
When I turned into the space in front of my room, weasel face rose, folded his metal chair and moved inside.
Three men in ski masks waited for me when I stepped through the door to my room. Punches rained down on me, finally driving me to the floor. Pain exploded in my side as steel-toed boots continued the assault.
Just as abruptly as it started, the beating stopped and I was rolled over onto my back. A ski mask’s hand reached inside my jacket and relieved me of my heater. He handed it to one of the ski masks behind him and squatted over me.
“Get out of Hadley while you’re still able. Next time we bury you with MacDonald.”
I don’t know how long I was out, but it was daylight when I opened my eyes. Working around the stabbing pain in my side, I struggled to my feet. I blinked my eyes a couple of times and got everything in focus.
I slid out of my jacket, let it drop to the floor and made my way into the bathroom. I splashed cold water on my face and looked into the mirror, finding out I looked about as bad as I felt.
“Blake, old boy, I think you got somebody’s attention,” I said to the battered face looking back at me.
I cleaned myself up the best I could and walked outside to the pay phone. I was sure weasel face was in on the whole thing, so I wasn’t going to use the phone in the room. I dropped a couple of coins in the slot and called my office.
“Tanner Investigations,” said Mandy. It was good to hear a friendly voice again.
“Mandy, this is Blake. Don’t say anything. Just listen. Call TJ and tell him where I am. I’ve run into a problem and I need his help. I’m in room six of the only motel in town. But, first, send him to my place to get me a change of clothes and tell him to bring me a heater. You got all that?”
“Blake, what happened?”
“I’ll tell you all the grisly details when I get back. Call TJ.” I hung up the phone, returned to the room and laid my aching body on the bed.
It was late afternoon when I awoke to the rumble of a Harley Davidson. The rumble stopped and there came a knock and I looked through the peephole and smiled.
“Hey, Mijo,” said Thomas Jefferson Mathis when I opened the door. “I hear you need a little backup.”
An ex-Navy Seal and a former cop, TJ spent his retirement riding his big Harley and bailing me out of trouble whenever I needed it. He handed me a rolled up bundle of clothes and then reached under his black leather jacket.
“Mandy said you was in need of this,” he said and handed me my spare heater. “You’ll find the ammo for it rolled up in your care package. And I found this stuck under your door.”
He held up a small white envelope that I asked him to read while I changed clothes.
“Says you can find your answers in a shed on an abandoned farm about four miles north of town.”
“Who signed it?”
TJ turned over the note. “None on it.”
I had a sneaky suspicion who’d sent it. I filled TJ in on my meeting with Malcolm MacDonald and the happenings of the last twenty-four hours.
“I guess it’s time we get some answers and a little pay back,” said TJ.
I put a clip in the .45, chambered a round and stuck the heater in the waistband of my pants. I put an extra clip in each pocket. I wasn’t taking any chances. Being a punching bag was not my idea of a good time.
“You ready?” I said.
“Let’s rock and roll,” said TJ.
We still had four or five hours of daylight left, so we jumped in the heap and took a ride to see if we could find the old farm.
After about fifteen minutes, TJ pointed at a silo. We turned off the main drag onto a dirt road and a mile later I pulled the heap into a barnyard. The buildings were broken down and nature was well on its way to reclaiming the land. This must be the place.
I parked between the barn and a shed and we got out to look around. The double doors of the shed, one of them hanging by one hinge, were padlocked together. I walked over to the barn and looked inside while TJ approached the shed and looked in the window. Finding the barn empty, I joined TJ.
“Side door’s locked too,” he said.
I retrieved a tire iron from the trunk of the heap and with a light tug on the hasp of the shed’s door, broke it away from the old wood of the jamb. I swung the door inward and we stepped inside. A dusty, tarp covered car occupied the interior of the old shed.
“Well, well, what have we here?” said TJ.
We each grabbed a corner of the tarp, walked it the length of the car and dropped it on the ground at the front bumper of a blue Chevy sedan.
“Let’s see who this belongs to,” said TJ.
He opened the passenger door while I stepped around to the rear of the Chevy to find the license plate gone from the rear bumper.
“Lookee here what I found,” said TJ.
He pulled a briefcase from under the front passenger seat, placed it on the hood of the car and pointed to the name J. MACDONALD engraved in gold across the front.
“I guess old Malcolm was right,” I said.
I looked over TJ’s shoulder as he rummaged through the contents of his new treasure. “Now we gotta find out who done it.”
“That’s why you make the big money,” said TJ.
He closed the briefcase, set it on the ground and we replaced the tarp. TJ tucked the briefcase under his arm and we stepped from the shed, closing the door behind us.
“Sorry you boys had to find that.”
Two men in overalls leaned against the front of my heap. The older, gray haired one held a double barrel shotgun on us.
“Throw your shooters over here,” he said.
When we didn’t move, the old man hammered back the shotgun. “Don’t matter to me none.”
TJ and I looked at each other and, figuring we better do the sensible thing, tossed our heaters at the old man’s feet.
“Now the briefcase,” he said. TJ tossed it to join the heaters on the ground.
The old man turned to his companion. “Lonnie, you go get Eli and tell ‘im he was right.”
Lonnie jogged to the far end of the barn and around the corner. A couple of minutes later, a battered Ford pickup kicked up a dust plume as it headed down the dirt road.
“The Sheriff figured you was gonna be trouble when you startin’ showin’ the picture of that MacDonald guy around town. He sent me and Lonnie out here to watch the place and sure enough here you come. We was watchin’ you from the house.”
His eyes never left TJ and I when he bent over to pick up our heaters. He motioned toward the barn with the shotgun.
“We’ll make ourselves comfortable while we wait for Sheriff Decker,” he said.
“What happened to MacDonald?” I said, walking into the barn.
“Somebody waylaid him in an alley and bashed his head in.”
The old man took a short length of rope from a shelf next to the barn door and tossed it to TJ.
“Tie your buddy up there and make sure it’s nice and tight.”
“Who killed him?” I said again, as TJ tied my hands behind me.
“Don’t rightly know, truth be told. Stranger in town, flashin’ money and all. Coulda been most anybody.”
“What did Decker do about it?” said TJ.
Overalls shrugged his shoulders. “Said as far as he was concerned, MacDonald never been in Hadley.”
“Ethan, you talk too much.”
The old man spun around to see Sheriff Eli Decker, his wide brim hat shading his mirrored sunglasses, standing in the doorway of the barn behind him.
“One of these days that loose tongue of yours is going to be the death of you,” said Decker.
I recognized that raspy voice as the one who stood over me in the motel room. He sauntered into the barn and took the shotgun from Ethan.
“Tie up the other one,” he said and watched until TJ was securely bound.
“What’re we gonna do with ‘em, Eli?” said Ethan.
“Not sure. Their nosin’ around here has made some people very nervous.”
He handed the shotgun back to Ethan. “Take ‘em up to the house and stay there until you hear from me.”
Ethan herded us to the boarded up farmhouse while Decker and Lonnie put the heap into the shed next to MacDonald’s Chevy.
“We may be here awhile, so you boys best make yourselves ta home,” said Ethan, motioning with the shotgun to a broken down, dusty sofa in the living room.
“It’s pretty hard to get comfortable all tied up like this,” I said.
“If’n you think I’m gonna untie you, you got another think comin’,” said Ethan.
He put our heaters on the mantel of the fireplace and sat down in the big armchair facing the sofa. We sat staring at each other until darkness settled in to the house.
“Decker kill MacDonald?” I said when Ethan rose from his chair. He struck a match on a brick of the fireplace and lit the oil lamp on the mantel.
“I told you it coulda been anybody,” he said and sat back down in the armchair.
“Why you covering up for Decker?” asked TJ.
Before Ethan could answer, a door creaked in the back of the house.
“Lonnie, is that you?” said Ethan.
The old man rose from his chair and crept from the living room through the doorway to the dining room.
A loud metallic clang, the clatter of the shotgun and then a thud told us someone other than Lonnie had come through the back door. Much to our surprise, Josie appeared in the doorway carrying Ethan’s shotgun.
“I didn’t mean for this to happen when I sent you out here,” said Josie. “You got to get out of here before Sheriff Decker comes back.”
She hurried to the sofa and untied my hands. “An awful thing happened here and I aim to see it don’t happen to you.”
I untied TJ and took the shotgun from Josie.
“Get out of here while you can,” she said.
I handed the shotgun to TJ and scooted through the dining room to find Ethan face down on the kitchen floor. Josie had brained him a good one with a shovel and he wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
I dragged the old man across the kitchen floor, stuffed him in the pantry and stuck an old kitchen chair under the doorknob.
“That oughta hold him,” I said.
TJ and Josie were peeking through the living room curtains when I came back through the doorway.
“Coast is still clear,” said TJ.
I retrieved our heaters from the mantel and handed TJ his.
“You have to go now,” said Josie, a sense of urgency in her voice.
“What about you?” I said.
Josie shook her head. “Don’t worry about me, just go.”
TJ and I started for the front door, but I turned back to Josie and planted a big kiss on those luscious red lips.
“Take care of yourself,” I said, then turned and followed TJ.
We ran to the shed where we found the keys in the ignition of the heap. TJ picked up the briefcase from the floor of the shed and slid into the passenger seat. I could see Josie peeking through the parted curtains as we sped away from the farm.
I parked the heap in the alley behind the Sheriff’s Office.
“You watch the back door in case he gets a little rabbit in him,” I said to TJ.
I hugged the shadows of the building as I eased my way around to the front. I peeked in the office window and saw Decker at his desk engaged in a phone call. He threw the phone to the desk and bolted for the back door when I stepped into the office.
“Evening, Eli, going somewhere?” said TJ with a big grin.
I grabbed Decker by the collar, threw him down face first and pinned him to the floor with a knee in the middle of his back.
“First things first, Eli,” I said, pulling Decker’s gun from its holster and holding it to his head. “I believe you have something that belongs to me. Where’s my piece?”
Sweat flowed freely down the Sheriff’s face. “Bottom drawer of the desk,” he said, trying to suck in air.
TJ stepped over to the desk, pulled my nickel-plated .45 from the drawer and held it up for me to see.
“Now we get to the good stuff,” I said. “Who killed Jason MacDonald?”
“I don’t know,” said Decker, trying hard to get the words out.
I hammered back his gun. “Don’t play with me.”
“Okay, okay,” said Decker as loud as he could under the circumstances. “A couple of hours after MacDonald got here, I got a phone call wanting to know if I was interested in making an easy fifty large. All he wanted was for me to make sure MacDonald didn’t leave town.”
“He give you a name?”
“No, he just said when he was sure the deed was done, he’d tell me where to find the money.”
Artie Brown and old man MacDonald were right. This was bigger than we thought.
“What happened to the body?”
“We buried him in the cellar of the old farmhouse.”
“Me, Harold and Leo. They was in on it.”
I looked up at TJ and then put Decker to sleep with the gun barrel. I handcuffed him and locked him in one of the cells. I met TJ at the back door and we slipped out into the alley.
* * * *
We returned to Lake City and Malcolm MacDonald agreed to meet me in his office. The goon with the dark glasses let me in and then posted himself at the door when I took a seat in the chair facing Malcolm’s desk.
“Everything you need to know is in the briefcase,” I said, sliding it onto his desk. “You’ll find your son’s car in the old shed and his body buried in the cellar of the house.”
MacDonald rose from his cushy chair and turned to the hidden wall safe behind his desk. He retrieved two banded stacks of fifty dollar bills and laid them on the desk in front of me.
“I consider our contract successfully concluded. However,” said Malcolm, holding up his index finger. “There is one more thing I would like to know.” He sat back down in his chair. “Who made the phone call? Or better yet, who ordered the phone call made?”
We looked at each other as he took a cigar from the humidor on his desk, cut off the end, stuck it in his mouth and picked up the fancy table lighter from beside the humidor.
“Find that out for me,” he lit the cigar, “and I’ll double your fee.”
He took a long draw on the cigar and blew a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling. This old bird wasn’t going to make waves, he was trying to create a tsunami.
“Just take your time, think about it and let me know.” He put the cigar in the corner of his mouth.
“Now, you can do something for me,” I said.
I scribbled a note on a pad from his desk and tucked it under the band on one stack of fifties.
“When you get to Hadley, give this to Josie at the diner,” I said and pushed the stack back to him.
I put the remaining stack in my jacket pocket and shook hands with MacDonald.
“I’ll be waiting for a phone call,” he said.
* * * *
I had the portable tv on in my office watching Malcolm MacDonald’s press conference announcing the discovery of his son’s remains and his plans for a Memorial Service and burial. The old bird wasn’t shy, either, about rattling Metro PD’s cage about their competency to solve crimes or their ability to cover them up.
Mandy stepped into my office carrying a folded newspaper and tossed it on my desk.
“This came in the mail today. Thought you might want to read it,” she said.
I unfolded a recent copy of the HADLEY HERALD. On the front page was a story about the old farmhouse burning down and finding Harold and Leo beaten and hanging in the barn of the abandoned farm. Circled at the bottom of the page was an article about the installation of an interim Sheriff following the unexpected resignation of Eli Decker. I wondered if MacDonald was going to be satisfied with only two of them.
“This also came with it,” said Mandy.
She handed me an opened envelope with an invitation to the grand opening of Josie’s newly remodeled restaurant.