| Riding along a rather uncomfortably bumpy road through Missouri is never much fun. Sitting there, sandwiched between Callahan and Cletus, acquiring their shared scent of complete unwashed and unshowered armpits, a life of happiness and leisure seemed quite far away.
I suppose the imminent probability of torture or death was not helpful at all, either.
But thankfully, that was done. Or, not thankfully at all. I could not decide if I would rather be waiting for serious pain in six of hours or serious pain in sixty minutes. Somehow a couple of dripping armpits seemed a bit more tempted of a prospect for a bed, rather than being hung from the ceiling by a meat hook. Good Lord, I needed to stop over thinking everything. I just needed to settle down and be prepared to accept whatever insanity my quest for money had thrown me on.
And if I was struggling with apprehension before, having two grown men strapping me with twelve pounds of random explosives certainly did not induce a nice and casual nap. It actually is very hard to get yourself to want to move at all while wearing a large pack of bombs from waist to nipples. How I was supposed to act casual and normal with all this gear on me, even though hidden under a fat coat, was far beyond my understanding. All I knew was that I pretty much was dead set on finding a way to never have to do this again.
And I had not even started yet.
That is always a good sign in a new job. Before your first day, if you want to quit, you might have made a mistake in signing up for it.
Dinner was not being particularly friendly to my poor stomach, either. Apparently, unlike the common sense I was currently failing to have, it wanted to rebel from what I was about to do. Well, sucks to its assmar. I was going to make these millions, whether or not I vomited all over my nice size 11 Chucks. I forced myself to set my jaw, forced my jaw to stop unsetting itself, and forced myself once more to continue to keep myself forcing myself and my jaw to keep continuing to do whatever it was that I had just forgotten that I myself had just been forcing them to be forced to do.
At least my food kept its uneasy berth rather than seek out more hospitable climes, such as ones that would not be digesting it.
Anyways, as I saw it, if the future held out like it was more or less planned at this point, no doubt that very McDonald’s grabbed on the way would find itself on my chest. Hooray for prospects of torture. To be honest, I was almost at the point of deciding that it would be better to turn myself in to the authorities to save myself a bit of pain rather than actually earn my money like any normal person. Any normal person, that is, who gets paid to get beat up by mafia figures.
The hotel sat around the bend of the road, occluded by another large building with no label on this side. The intersection ahead of us was small and monitored only by a couple of stop signs and a good bit of black skid marks curving at all angles along the ground. With a few final sighs, the sun sank slowly behind the jagged horizon of the metropolis. Kansas City never made a particularly impressive sky line as such, but there still were at least enough buildings to distinguish it from the sprawling wheat fields of everywhere else in the bread basket state.
Yes, Kansas City actually looked foreboding. Heavens, my mind definitely was running at full gear in the wrong directions. What was that that Frank Herbert said in Dune? “Fear is the mind killer”? Well, as to that, he was wrong. Fear lights up the mind like no other emotion or response. My mind was as far from dead as it had ever been in my life. Unless, of course, he meant something else by that statement. Very likely.
But if that was the case, fear or not, I had killed my mind a day ago.
The truck was stopped.
“Here’s where you get out of the car and do your job, boy,” said Cletus, full of love again. “Take this.”
This was no Magnum. Well, at least, it was not the three fifty seven I had trained with earlier today. It was longer in the barrel, heavier, meatier. The grip had fancy little finger grooves. Instead of old and rusty steel, it seemed carved from solid sadism. It even had a more wicked looking hammer on the back as well.
All around more fun, I thought.
Callahan looked me in the eye like he did before, smiling that manic grin of death. “That, Joe, is an Anaconda revolver. It’s got a bit more kick than the Magnum you fired off this morning. It’s also got one more bullet than the Magnum. That last bullet can be a life saver. Do you like it?”
“I think I just might,” I said slyly, trying to sound cool. Also, trying to keep from opening my mouth too wide, lest a certain partially digested cheeseburger land in his lap.
“Good. Take two.” A second one was handed to me, also stocked and loaded and looking like a lovely bit of doom- roaring goodness. I stuck them in the heavy straps crisscrossing my chest, making sure that neither would they slip nor would they accidentally fire and blow my torso out the window of the light blue pickup.
“Get going, boy, we’ve got a schedule. We’ve got three ground teams counting on you.”
I took a deep breath, reached for the door handle, and opened the door. What, were you expecting me to hesitate like everyone else does at this point? I was kind of trying to avoid clichés, thank you very much. I stepped out into the humid sprawl bubbling around me. I tasted the famous KC air, so thick you can feel it in your throat. Not that Kansas City was really that particularly humid, but I had a cousin who constantly complained about it when he lived around these parts.
Shrugging my fat jacket around my shoulders, I tried my hardest to look as normal as possible. Not that there are many who would randomly be wearing a St. Louis Cardinals jacket in 80 degree weather, but people would probably just ignore me. I know I certainly would. Actually, it made me look like I had muscles in my chest. That made me a bit happy. Maybe Callahan was right. Maybe all it took was a bit of proper motivation, and I actually might make something of myself. This could work.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and took off down the sidewalk.
I wished I could whistle.
Not that I felt remotely like whistling out of happiness or contentedness or whatever convinced people to whistle. I just felt kind of awkward wearing a jacket, strolling down the sidewalk in the middle of a town I did not know, and not whistling. Something about me not whistling just seemed awkward. It threw me off, but what can you do? Footsteps, each one rapidly eating up the distance between me and a whole lot of ludicrous (and lucrative) events ahead, slapped oddly on the pavement. Stupid flat soled shoes. I hoped that I would not have to do any or at least much running tonight, otherwise my ankles and knees would be rather unhappy in the morning.
I hit the intersection and took a right turn like a school bully smacking the little twiggy kid to steal his lunch money.
New streetlights presented the large eight- fold doors of the massive hotel. It looked nice. Too bad some folks and I were going to get in a row tonight and tear a few good finger sized holes in some fancy walls. Maybe spill a bit of blood on the floors. Good publicity, maybe. Well, good publicity ten years in the future, I supposed. Either way, at that niceness was going to get shredded on the fifth floor. This was the part of the night that struck me as fun. I might as well enjoy it before the beatings came along.
A few more hurried steps, and I was just busting through those doors like a man busting through some hotel doors. The clerk at the desk looked up at me, smiled cheerily and very plastically, and said, “Good evening, good sir. What can I do for you?”
What is it with hotel clerks and trying to sound British? I mean, formal is one thing, but he sounded like a tired old butler working in a Westchester mansion.
Still, I responded with a distracted smile. “I’m meeting an, um, a friend tonight. I don’t need anything. Enjoy yourself.”
He looked at me over his thin bifocals, smiled a bit too lecherously, and said, “Oh, enjoy your evening then, you naughty boy.”
Good Lord. What kind of hotel was this, anyways? He made it sound like a brothel or something. Creepy old men and their interest in young love. Not appreciated. I walked on, doing my best to forget that comment. I suppose it would have been appropriate to try to blush or something, but I did not feel like getting stuck anywhere. I walked over to the elevator, pounded that button like it was an old man who just grinned at me like he was Satan himself, and boarded.
PUSHING BUTTON FOR FLOOR FIVE.
It was time to do this.
Cheerful music played in my ears. They called it muzak, right? Well, I had to give it to them. It was soothing. It was calming. I was not getting a case of claustrophobia at all. I was not getting a case of the pre- violence shakes. Maybe muzak was the cure to the current epidemic of highly overstressed people these days. Or maybe murder was the cure for overstress.
The elevator was not rising. Sweet. It was action time. I strode out into the velvety carpeted hallway, scanning left and right for bystanders. There were absolutely zero.
PERFECT WEATHER FOR A SHOOT OUT, EH, JOE?
I was psyched. All geared up mentally. Talking to myself inside my head with a very, very loud voice, too. 5012? No, 5423. Wrong side of the building. Oh well. I had time to stroll and saunter forth to my target. The butterflies I had felt earlier (butterflies, heck, they were more along the lines of Iron Butterflies, drunken chanting In A Godda Da Vida into the lining of my stomach) had left me to my own devices. Bring it on, I thought and felt. Bring it on, suckers.
And that was some spectacular carpet. Blood stains would probably ruin it.
And for just a moment, one small thought alone in that entire evening’s hubbub struck me somewhere between the eyes. This was all going a little fast. Two days ago I was a golfer. Today I was strapped with a dozen deadly pounds of dynamite and wielding two heavy, large caliber revolvers. But, like most thoughts that I have had in my past that might have led me out of terribly stupid situations, this one too disappeared depressingly quickly, and I was left thinking myself a lucky genius about to strike it wickedly rich after a quick little job or two.
And then, at last, there it was.
The Room Where It All Was Going to Go Down.
I stepped up to it.
And, inexplicably, and terrifyingly forebodingly, it opened.
It and four other doors in the hallway. In unison.
That, I must say, is exactly when the tazer hit me in the back. I think. Because I suddenly found myself on the ground, rolling in a bit of pain, and hoping to God that they would just go ahead and shoot me or something. Or that the twelve pounds of explosive on my chest might get detonated by the current.
No such luck.
Just a mother load of pain and then an impressive amount of disturbed unconsciousness.
No one really appreciates waking up from unconsciousness in the same position they were in when they went under. When you find yourself struggling to reach the waking world once more, the prominent hope in the rising brain is that you will be lying in a soft bed, maybe with a soft sun beam shining over you and an attractive member of the opposite sex bringing in a warm breakfast. You never really hope to find yourself laying on your back in a hotel room, surrounded by seven rather unhappy looking men. You never wake up hoping that reality had anything at all to do with the nastiness that just happened to you.
Funny how it worked, then, that the last way I wanted to come to happened to be the exact one I chose. Yes, I was lying on my back, all but my pants removed (odd how often that happens), hands cuffed underneath me. Scowls creased the space above me.
But these were not the mafia types I was expecting to see.
No. Not at all.
Rather than bowlers and trench coats and faces with no noses, these fellows were sporting police uniforms. On had on a nice suit. Spectacular. I doubted any one of my predecessors had failed as badly as I just had.
“I doubt any one of your predecessors has failed as badly as you just have, kid.” Tall man, suit. Of course, he might have only looked tall because even short people tower over others who are laying prone on the floor. He seemed self important, but the officers around him regarded him as actually being important, so chances were good that his self importance was truly deserved, and he in fact was an important person.
“I’m Joe,” I offered. This whole turn of events really ticked me off. No shootout, no manly scars, no millions of dollars. Stupid cops. They can just ruin all kinds of fun, can’t they?
More scowls. The very atmosphere of the room seemed to crease, almost as if these pissy policemen dominated even the air around them. Maybe manly scars would be in order, after all. Somehow I doubted the millions would be. Rather depressing, that thought.
“Tell, me, Joe, what do you think you were doing?” Suit man again. I never thought men in suits looked at all like penguins, especially not when they were tall and thin, but that mattered very little to me right then.
“You tell me, Mister Penguin.”
“Don’t get smart with me, kid. You bust into a federal baited trap with two large hand guns and a chest full of plastic explosives.” (and here I had been thinking it was dynamite—silly me) “What the hell do you think you are doing? A service to your country?”
“A service to my country? I don’t know. Last time I checked, I was hired by an Agent of the National Security Agency. I think money had a lot more to do with it than any antiquated notion of service. Did your bait make it out just dandily?”
“Reugers is fine. He’s lost years on his prison term to help bring you vigilantes to justice, I hope you know. We sent him out in an armored van a few minutes back.”
“Not a smart move, Mister Penguin. What do you think I was doing in here?”
“You came after the criminal to kill him, no? That’s how you lawless vigilantes always do it. Take justice into your own hands.”
“Well, that would make sense,” I responded, feeling actually rather ornery and in charge of this conversation. Interrogation was going much easier than I had ever imagined. I guess the real psychological damage is done when you have to file all the paperwork and legal documents. But here on the floor, with the exception of my rapidly numbing arms, things were actually pretty comfortable. Better than being hogtied in a pickup and then beaten in a little cell.
“Only,” I continued, “if I actually were here to kill the dude. That’s not my job at all.”
“What?” Several voices on this one. Apparently, just about everybody here had misread the situation. And that made me start to laugh.
Which did, finally, bring about the physical pain as a police issue baton met my dinner through my thin layer of abdominal muscles. Hooray for blunt trauma to the gut. That almost was enough to stop me from replying, but, naturally, it took quite a lot to shut up my inner sarcastic bastard.
“My job was” (BREATH, ALWAYS A PLUS) “only to get the little man to flee his hiding place and get out onto” (THE WEAKEST PLACE FOR A BREATH IMAGINABLE) “the streets. Maybe take down a bodyguard or two if I happened to get lucky. But here, I am highly doubting your bait,” (LAST BREATH IN THIS MONOLOGUE) “made it safely out of his own trap.”
“Shut up,” spat one of the police officers standing around me as he retreated to a corner to use his radio. Well, surprise, surprise, the armored car responded in a very unhappy manner.
Something like and you didn’t see fit to inform us of this two minutes ago, BEFORE we were ambushed by a bunch of inbred rednecks with shotguns and rifles?!? Now the bait is dead, and our van has a lot of ungainly holes in it! You incompetent office—and cut off quite fortunately for those on the hearing end, who were all getting very upset. At me, somewhat, too. That was exciting.
Impressive and tough looking scars, here we come.
But of course not.
“Bravo,” said the man in the suit. “You must just be a fantastic asset to organized crime.” Sardonic and cynical and sarcastic and pretty much every form of counterintuitive and spiteful methods of communication. He had some seriously powerful interpersonal skills. I was impressed.
“Thanks, big shot. Now will you go ahead and start whooping up on me so I don’t get bored down here? That gut shot was nice, but just not satisfying enough.” Apparently, I could match him in wicked deviousness. This might be fun.
“Look, Joe, do you think this is a game? People are dying. A man just died because of your stupid actions. And for what? A few bucks?”
“A few million, yeah.”
“So what, a few million bucks?” he reiterated, only with much less conviction. Funny, the power of money like that. “Do you think you can live with that?”
He took another look at me. Thought twice. “Okay, so obviously you really don’t care. You probably had a really crappy job before, if you had one at all.”
“I was an amateur golfer.”
“Yeah, like that. That pretty much would be worse than being a librarian for the rest of your life.”
“I’ve got a proposition for you, Joe.”
“Go ahead, shoot, Mister Penguin.”
“The name is Matthews. Agent Matthews.”
“Hmm,” was all I could manage to say. Oh the irony. Except it was not irony. It was merely coincidence. There really is a difference.
“I will give you the terms only after you tell me what you know. But trust me, unlike the crap you got suckered into, this will actually pay off in real money, and soon.”
“I’m always open to that prospect.”
“Then get started.”
A fifty dollar bill suddenly flirted its way out of his thick wallet and onto my bare chest. It was all the clothing I needed at the moment.
“Right. My full name is Joe—not Joseph—Buchanan Burkoff. I’m an amateur golfer who lives or whatever in Chicago, Illinois. You probably don’t need much more of my personal info, do you?”
“No. You’re coming up on the system as a suspect already. Something to do with a car crash and a man in the front seat of your vehicle?”
“Yeah, that would be me. See, that’s where it started. There was a man who wanted a ride. Said his name was Curtis. He offered me money, and that was good enough for me. Pretty soon, however, we were running away from some loonies in light blue pickup trucks, shoving shotguns out windows at us and all that. I sought cover in a storm drain, but that’s when Curtis got shot, I freaked, and the car plowed into a concrete column.”
“Next time, Joe, it might be wise to avoid letting a man named Curtis die in your car.”
“Thanks. I’ve thought the same thing.”
“But that raises a very stressing question: this started with the car accident?”
“That’s what I said.”
“That was a little over 48 hours ago. You’ve only been involved in this for two days?”
“Yeah, let me get to that. I climb out of the car, feeling more or less like a guy who crashed a car into a very solid object at a very high speed. Understandable, because that’s what happened. So these rednecks throw me in the back of one of their trucks, hogtie me, and drive me way far away from Chicago.”
“Where to, Joe?”
“That might take a bit more money, my friend. Groceries aren’t cheap these days, and I happen to be out of a car, too. Well, and I doubt legal fees are cheap, either, and you boys are too by the book just to let me run off once I’ve tattled.” No one disagreed.
“I said I had a proposition for you, Joe. That doesn’t mean you talk and I let you go with a few bucks. There’s more in the piping. Trust me on this one. And you aren’t tattling, either. This is your civic duty, and one that can keep you from having to do a lot more civic duty. Because I don’t intend to prosecute you. Also, I’m out of cash. I might actually be wanting that fifty back. As you said, groceries aren’t cheap these days.”
“Hey, man, don’t take back a gift. That’s just immature and rude. I’ve got more to say. They took me to a place called Elvis, Missouri. I think.”
“Look it up,” snapped the current and nearby Matthews to his peon with the laptop. Said peon did. Said peon found nothing.
“About as I expected,” the suited man said, which was about what I had expected. “No Elvis, Missouri. A fake place.”
“Well, it was very, very small. It may actually exist, but not on the usual maps of Missouri.”
“About twenty sheriffs and their families, is all.”
“This is quite a weird tale you’re telling me, Mr. Burkoff.”
“Ha. As if I could make this up. It would take an absolute genius to create a story like that off the top of his head. But to continue my narrative, if you will: they dragged me into a cell and then left me alone to sleep and feel generically uncomfortable. Later on the next day, they beat me for a little while and then dragged me to the pub to have a chat with the main man.”
“And who is this? I very much need to know this. Tell me everything you know about him.”
“He said his name was Matthews. An Agent Matthews. And he looks a lot like you.” Well, he did. I really had not given it much thought earlier, but if there was a familial connection between the two, that would be an absolute hoot.
“Holy hell, sir, does he mean your brother?” asked the man with the laptop. Things spiraled out of normal operation and straight into comical hilarity.
“DID HE GIVE YOU HIS FIRST NAME, KID?” asked a very upset federal agent.
“Well, no, I don’t think he did. Then again, you didn’t either. Runs in the agency, or runs in the family?” And I snorted out a smirk of a laugh. Too hard to keep it in. Ooh, the non- irony. The coincidence.
The closer of the two Matthews began to murmur to himself. Irate. Confused. Generally not a state a federal agent is often seen in. “If it is Kevin, I swear… That man has been a blight on the family name and on the national pride for years now, and I wouldn’t put it beyond him to stoop to this…” Recognizing that everyone was a witness to his enjoyable loss of composure, he took a step back, scowled even more heavily, and focused on me again.
“Tell me about these sheriffs, kid.”
“Well, I only got the names of a few of them. There was a younger one named Cletus whose last name I didn’t get, and the rest of them didn’t offer first names. There was a Norris, a Baker, a Callahan, a Potter, a Knox, and a Beecham. The rest of their names were not offered to me, and I didn’t really have the time or the motivation to ask.”
“Beecham? How’s that one spelled?” asked the man with the laptop as he was taking notes.
“Darned if I know, dude. Darned if he knows.”
“Fine. Just continue.” All the cheerful was gone from Matthews. If I was not careful from here on out, there was a good chance that he would take back the money laying on my chest. He was eyeing it quite grouchily at the moment. Made me a good bit nervous.
“That’s about all I know, man. There are a bunch of sheriffs supposedly funded by the National Security Agency who run around and kill dirt bags who break too many laws and yet go unpunished. I got suckered into being the one to scare the bait out of his hiding place, for the measly sum of millions of dollars. And now here I am, not being tortured, not being broken free, and certainly not earning millions of dollars.”
Yeah, tonight basically sucked.
“Tonight’s not over yet, Joe,” said Matthews, brightening up a bit. “That proposition I mentioned a few minutes ago? That is as yet unchanged.”
“So give it, man. I need to pee, and my back hurts. Maybe from where the tazer stabbed me and half killed me.”
“Actually you got pretty lucky with that one. Had we known you had been wired with plastic explosives, we wouldn’t have been so careless as to prod you with a very high voltage electrical current. Seems like a lot of things we could have done terrifically better tonight.”
“Don’t get too sidetracked.”
“Right. We want you to go back with them. Infiltrate. Be a mole in their criminal organization.”
“Not sounding too pleasant? Consider this: most agency moles stay undercover for at least two years. Most get paid only a regular police salary with a small bonus. But for you, it would be different. We only need you to go back with them with a transmitter in you. Larry,” (TO THE LAPTOP MAN) “get on the horn and get a transmitter down here. How are the field teams doing cleaning up the mess outside?”
“Just fine, boss. No one is really very happy about the whole thing.”
“That should change with Joe’s help. Definitely. Look, Joe,” (BACK TO TALKING TO ME) “you will be only among them for another twelve hours at most. And I will personally see to it that you get at least three years of a paid undercover agent’s salary. It’s that important to us.”
The few cops who had remained in the room, including the little man with the computer, looked aggressively jealous. Ha. Looked like I was the important one now. They would just have to go ahead and keep working for their salaries.
“Three years? I could swing that. I don’t know exactly how much it is, but I imagine three years of free pay wouldn’t kill me at all.”
“Not at all, Joe. It’s not millions like you were promised by those others, but at least it’s real money, and completely legal. So what do you say? The transmitter will be here in about five or ten minutes. We’ll just stab it under your skin, you’ll walk out of here, serve justice, and be able to retire for the next couple of years.”
“Well, that sounds good, but there is no way that I can just walk away from here and be able to explain it to the sheriffs.”
“What are you thinking, exactly?”
“These men speak in two languages, Matthews. Alcohol is one. That won’t help here. The other is violence.”
“So you want us to—”
“Yes. Beat the living crap out of me. And if you really mangle my face, they won’t be able to tell if I’m lying.”
“Are you sure you want to do it that way? We can create a better cover story for you than that.”
“Look, man, they’re expecting me to have been carted away for torture by now. Every minute lost makes it look less and less like I should be brought back with them. Hurry up and make me bleed. Maybe break a few fingers or something, too. Just get moving.”
At a somewhat reserved nod from the agent, several policemen crowded around me and went to work with their boots and a good bit more enthusiasm than I had hoped to see in Kansas City’s finest. In a few moments, blood was flowing from places I did not even know blood flowed to. It did not hurt so bad, not really. I mean, it was almost kind of interesting. After the first few blows to a certain area, the rest were not nearly so painful. And it was not until one of them stomped on my rib cage did they realize they needed to restrain themselves a bit. A trio of cracking ribs kind of takes all the innocence out of a good beating.
By the time the transmitter arrived, I was only about half conscious. I struggled to stand, to tell them that I needed the police issue handcuffs off me before they let me go. Thankfully, they got the hint and unlocked the things. Pretty soon, a large needle made a large prick in my thigh, and a large chunk of traceable metal found its way into its new home in my leg. I was good to go. The most fun I had had since coloring in kindergarten, no doubt about it.
They stood me up, wobbling on very gelatinous legs. I mumbled something, smiled quite awkwardly through the bunchy flesh of my face, and felt them begin to drag me out. I was only able to watch my legs slide over the nice carpet, leaving small drops of blood in a funny, non- ornate pattern where I had been. Wiggling my toes was about the extent of my movement at the moment.
Things just felt more or less completely fuzzy.
Being dragged down the stairs is not particularly fun, either. Clenched in heavy fists, my armpits were beginning to do their best about complaining, too. Consciousness was flitting in and out from me, not particularly nice- like, leaving me in a drugged sort of state.
There it was.
The pain I had expected.
I am almost tempted once more to run through that usual series of thoughts one has when awakening. I will not, just for your sake. You know exactly how it is that you want to wake up, and there is no further purpose in me telling you that.
So, for your sake: I awoke gradually, piece by piece, having dragged myself onto the pavement and left to bleed into the gutter. It was not pleasant. I had been feverishly dreaming of eating a few glorious muffins my mother had made, when, as is the nature with all wonderful dreams, it suddenly ended. Imagine my shock and distaste (pardon the pun) when fresh banana muffins turned into rather stale and stagnant blood saltying up the inside of my mouth.
A few people were stooping around me. I recognized none of them, really. Not surprising. It was still, what, before ten o’clock? People were still out walking about. Somehow I doubted that they had wanted to find a waylaid fellow leaking in the middle of the sidewalk. One of them started to reach for a cell phone. Nine, one, one.
But no send. They all suddenly looked very worried and looked very away from me. A click. Sounded to me like a firearm. Ah, my good old redneck buddies and their persuasive ways. Craning my neck as much as possible without moving any muscles in body, I tried to figure out who it was. All I got was a trail of red from my forehead pouring its liquid self into my eyeball. Hooray for salt in the eyeballs. Hooray for several broken ribs and a terrifically thorough beating.
Hooray for Kansas City.
The pedestrians, good Samaritans though they may have been trying to be, backed off awkwardly, a few stumbling off the curb. A voice, from above and behind, blared out with the authority of ten thousand atonal and mistuned banjos.
“Back away from my nephew, you idiots! What did you do to him?”
The half dozen or so people began panickingly to protest their complete innocence and utter good will towards me, but it was not as if Sheriff Knox was really caring about them. An excuse. Clever man. Never would have thought him the type to come up with a story to save a bit of time. And it worked, quite well at that. Apparently, he had the skill to appear concerned for me, too.
The effort the man was going through for me almost made me feel bad that I was double crossing him—them. Almost. The promised money did not.
Speaking of… It was gone. Damn. Matthews had taken back his fifty dollar bill. Not that I blamed him, really, and not that it was not a very smart and necessary move, but I still wanted that. That was twice in the last few days where I had been given a beautiful bit of cash and lost in mere minutes. Somebody up there must have really had it in for me.
Not that said revelation was any sort of surprise. I was pretty much in either the most nonsensical or the least fun situation imaginable. But it was pretty downright hilarious, I would give you that.
Even as I was bleeding and trying not to cry, I was laughing inside.
A few pairs of hands grabbed me, and I was not remotely grateful for them at all. As hard and unfamiliar with the traditional human embrace as the cracked and weathered concrete may have been, it still was becoming like a giant teddy bear wrapping its arms into my wounds. Almost nice. A few parts of me stuck to the ground, stuck as if by spilled orange juice or something equally fluid and sticky.
It really is not easy to breathe normally with a very bloody nose. It is also very difficult to do so with a large amount of blood constantly filling your mouth. Both of those together made it quite a task for me to even draw breath into my chest. And that was where the real problem was. Broken ribs make it much harder to breathe than the other two problems combined.
Mixing all three was just stupid, and I would have to remember that for the future.
Somehow and eventually, I found myself fully conscious and sinking into the back seat of a pickup truck. They actually laid me down. I wondered how many were going to have to ride for four hours in the back, trying not to fall out or lose their hats to the wind. Probably at least two. The cushions under me were covered in large amounts of paper and towels. Evidently, this was the hospital car. Such loving, tender care they took of their passengers.
We started moving, and the man in the passenger seat in front of me turned around. I did not recognize him, but I immediately knew him to be one of the sheriffs. He thrust a water bottle into my mouth, giving me a wonderfully cleansing and wet drink. I think swallowing was pretty much the only muscle activity I could perform without it hurting like a couple of little monkeys were playing table hockey with my internal organs. Breathing was easier, too, once I had most of the blood washed out from there. It left a horrible taste, though.
He said, “Good work back there, boy. I’m Sheriff Tucker. Good work. Well done. We’re all a little confused, though. What exactly went down? We thought you were a goner, and we was about to leave without you when you stumbled out onto the pavement.”
“Ffltepl,” I said, brimming with wisdom and articulate insight.
“Swallow again, boy, and try again.”
I did. Looking him right in the eye, I opened my mouth once more and tried my very best to make sense. Opening my mouth kind of hurt, though. Both cheeks were split on the inside, and both lips torn up a good bit as well. Heck. My mouth hurt. I think I should leave it at that.
“Well… It wasn’t like you said. Like you said it would be in there. It wasn’t.”
“Yeah, it seemed something was up. What was it?”
“Cops. Agents. A bust. A trap, I think.”
“Well, shoot. That ain’t what I was hoping to hear.” Apparently, bad news makes some people’s English sour quite suddenly. I swallowed again, took an uncomfortable breath and a drink of water once more, and
“It wasn’t really what I was hoping to run into, either. They took me down. Knocked me out. Disarmed me. All before I could open the door. Probably better that it happened that way, don’t you think?”
“What do you mean?”
“There were only cops in there. I don’t want to be shooting cops. Do you?”
“No. Good thinking, boy. Perhaps it was better that they was faster than you.”
“Right. So they cuffed me and questioned me.”
“And beat you, too, by the looks of it.”
“Does it really show that much?” I said, trying to smile. I’m pretty sure it looked more like I produced a busted tomato from the middle of my face. Tucker chuckled a bit, though. Good to know my comedic timing happened to tickle a random redneck here and there. I went on, “Yeah, at first, they looked like they were going to play it by the book. They sent the bait on his way, because he was no longer needed around there. I think that’s when you guys did your part.”
“Oh yes,” he grinned. “Two teams flanked the truck. We took out its tires and busted ourselves into the truck through of the doors. Can you believe that the little dirt bag was riding in a federal armored car with his window down? What an idiot. You think that someone who survived us the first time would be smarter for the next time.”
“Sure. Anyways, when they realized what had happened out there, the cops went about crazy on me. Kicking and punching and stomping and all that. Trying to get me to confess, I suppose. It seemed more like they were just really pissed off, and I was the nearest thing to beat on.”
“I know the feeling, bud.”
“I… bet you do. Still, it wasn’t much fun. But that’s when the agent came back in. He was there at first, taunting me a bit. He mentioned that he ‘knew what was going on,’ but somehow I don’t believe him. Seemed more like he read it somewhere. A paper pusher, we call them. You know what that is, right?”
“Ha, boy, I may have been a small town sheriff, but that does not mean that I don’t know a pansy lawman when I see him. I think I know exactly the type. No muscles, nice hair, nice suit, not remotely intimidating?”
“That was about him to a tee, my friend,” I lied. Matthews had more muscles than I did, a lame haircut, and was distinctively quite intimidating. His suit had not been all that particularly well cut, either. So, no, it was not him remotely to a tee, but for the sake of all things everywhere, I just went ahead and agreed. “He came back in, livid. Really freaking mad. And not so much at me, either. His entire night had pretty much taken a trip to the outhouse.
“He seemed more like he was pissed at his men for beating me, which is technically illegal, than at me for trying to shoot federal officers. Anyways, I started talking. I told them I was only hired and paid to bluff a man out of here. I avoided all sorts of names, threw out a few random small town kind of first names, you know. Pretend like I’m being helpful, but I was too in the dark to give them anything usable. And that’s when the idea hit me.”
“You just took this beating, right? And here you are trying to make up a bunch of crap to feed them, too, right? When are you having time to figure something new out?”
“It just hit me all of the sudden. I wasn’t planning. I was fully expecting to have some serious time to do. But that’s what hit me. The agent was really upset about his men beating me. And, remember, that’s illegal. Well, I just threatened to blow the whistle on his illegal torture methods, and though it probably wouldn’t have done me any good, I said it would make me feel a good bit better to see a rule bending little creep like him have to face justice as well.
“He was a pencil pusher. No real backbone. Too by the book. Even though torture like that probably goes down every so often, and eyes in authority are turned the other way, it didn’t sit well with him. He must have had a reputation, see? The other agents probably looked to him as a straight shooter. So I swore that if he threw me out of the hotel now, I wouldn’t go ahead and spoil his record. He agreed, not happily. They chucked me out, and a few minutes later you dudes came across me on the sidewalk.”
“Very nicely handled, boy! That’s impressive. Most guys like you that we hire ain’t quite as smart.”
We were almost out of the city by this point. Suddenly, I had another conniving sort of thought. I had to continue to look like I was completely on their side, no? It was time for deception.
“Oh no,” I said, trying to look stunned or whatever, but probably just looking quite pulpy.
“What’s the matter, boy?”
“If they threw me out onto the street, they probably kept an eye on me. You know, surveillance? And when you guys picked me up, they probably saw… And I bet they are following us right now.”
“Oh. Damn.” Tucker turned around, muttered to the driver, and picked up a very fat, antique sort of cell phone. Immediate action was necessary. And it looked still like I was doing my very best to get the money they owed me.
Hey… Maybe, if I played this right, I could get a hold of both sums of promised money. That would be beyond awesome. Except, somehow, I doubted the feds really were up on letting a person keep illegal money that they were aware of. Still, the chance was there. My hopes were kind of getting up. Not a good sign. Of late, hope had merely confused fate.
Tucker turned back around. “Good call, boy. Some of our men on the road have been seeing a few cars a few too many times. We’re gonna give the city another run around or two before we take off. You’ve got a very, very sharp mind, boy. It’s good to see you aren’t wasting it on something useless, like math or something. I hope my two boys grow up to be as sharp as you. Cute little fellas they are, too. Me and the wife couldn’t be prouder. Gonna be a pair of America’s meanest sheriffs ever. The Tucker brothers, enforcing the law with iron fists. I can’t wait to see that. I just can’t.”
If these hicks would stop making themselves seem so enviable and human, it would have made my current job quite a bit simpler. But of course they would not. Have to treat the traitor like a human.
That is, until they would lynch me at dawn. Matthews had better get me away from Matthews’s crew as soon as possible. This was one fall out I did not want to see.
“I bet your boys will be the pride of the Midwest, Sheriff. If they’re anything like you, I would bet the future of justice is in very good hands.” A bit of sympathetic flattery had no way of being helped there. It just was necessary.
Tucker smiled. “Thanks, boy. You probably had better lay back and take it easy for a while. You’ve got a lot of resting and relaxing ahead of you, but these first forty eight or so hours probably will be the worst. A little bit of Elvis hospitality should get you back on your feet in no time, though.”
“Looking forward to a bath and a bed and dinner. Actually, could I have another swig or two of your water? That is, unless you’ve got something more alcoholic you want to offer?”
A slightly wistful sort of look this time. Apologetic, and mildly self- pitying as well. “Sorry, boy. No alcohol allowed on missions. That’s why we drink up a whole lot in between. Two days of drinking for one of justice. That’s a pretty good way to do it, don’t you think?” He thrust the water bottle back at my face, and I gladly took in the liquid.
“Sounds like a plan to me, only I’d rather have two weeks of sleeping before I have even one day of anything else.”
“Sure, boy. You’ll get that long, for sure. We’ve got a rotation going. You might not even have another mission for a whole month.”
“I could definitely live with that. A month off, and some good pay. Tell me, are there any single ladies in Elvis?”
“That’s dangerous ground, boy. There are, but you’ve got to remember: everybody in that town is some sheriff’s family. So if you want to have a father like Potter for the rest of your life, you can risk it. We’re all pretty overprotective of our own around here. So you might want to watch it. Plus, a lot of the men look down on you errand boys. They might just decide to keep from coming within thirty feet of their daughters. Enforced by bullets, of course.”
“Oh, of course. Just curious. Just seeing how much of a part of Elvis I could ever become.”
“Unfortunately, not much of one. You ain’t like us. We know it, you know it. We can work together, but our life ain’t your life. Just be content with your pay and some food and a few nights drinking out with the sheriffs.”
“Makes sense, Tucker. Makes sense.”
“Right. Go to sleep, boy. You need it. You will not be happy later on if you haven’t started resting.”
I did. Almost on voice command. Having the snot beat out of you—straight out of you and onto your chin, actually—really can take it out of your energy level. Manly scars and a rugged face, here I come. Chicks would dig me. Only, I hoped they were not chicks whose dads went around shooting people on the streets with large shotguns. For some reason, that just was not an appealing trait in a father in law. It mattered little, though. I was not awake by the time I had that thought, and so it consequently only occurred in a later narrative.