Plot details are almost kind of revealed in this part.
| Around what I gathered to be midday, the pan was swapped for another couple of sandwiches and some more water.|
And they also came with the meal.
Sheriff Potter waltzed on in with his pad of paper, a computer printout (I was beyond thrilled to discover that they had heard of electricity in this town. What was next, running water? Not in the jail, anyways), and that awkwardly weaponized pen in his fist. Next to him stood a pal of his, a little bit taller, with a fat gray mustache and what looked like a complete lack of a mouth beneath said facial hair. He, too, had pinned a little copper star to his breast pocket. Probably just to confuse me.
“Afternoon,” Sheriff Potter grimaced to me. “This here is Sheriff Knox. Have you been read your rights, yet?”
“Read my rights?” I actually was able to keep any sort of quaver out of my voice. I just let my internal pissed off guide my responses. “No, but I was hogtied and driven to a completely different state, after having committed no crime, and have been imprisoned for longer than I am allowed to be without a phone call and without a statement explaining under what charges I am being held and—”
“Settle down, boy,” Sheriff Knox said with his mustache. Gruff. That was a very good word to describe the both of them. The all of them, really. All the men I had run across since I let Curtis (God rest his soul, poor fellow) into my car could be easily summed up in the word gruff. Gruff and grim. And scowly. Although, I could just as easily have been as scowly as they were. Gruff might have been a bit beyond me, though. I am far too urban to ever look gruff they way the did.
“We need to ask you some questions about the man in your car yesterday morning,” tag teamed Potter.
“What did he say to call you?” From Knox.
“He? Curtis? He said Curtis. Curtis. Yeah, I think Curtis. You shot Curtis?” My mind was not working so well at the moment. I was just a wee bit confused. The last part certainly was meant to be a lot more accusatory than interrogative, but I guess you work with what you have.
“Curtis,” Knox mustached. “No big surprise there. He always had a sick sense of humor, that one. What did he say his last name was? Madison? Jacobsen? D’Agostino?”
“D’Agostino? Right. Yep, a real sicko, he was. Anyways. What did he say to you? Did he give you anything?”
“You knew this man? What kind of people are you?”
“ANSWER THE QUESTION, BOY,” Potter growled, adding intense emphasis somehow without ever raising the volume on his voice or making it in any way sound different. Quite a skill, that. I was impressed. And scared pretty intensely, too. So I answered, again. Apparently, I have no stomach when it comes to aggression.
“Um. He asked me if I didn’t mind driving him across town. He said something about his wife, something about being really late, I don’t know. He seemed in a hurry, and I don’t know if I really blame him.”
“But did he give you anything?”
“Well, Sheriff, he gave me some cash to drive him around, but no, he didn’t really give me anything. What on earth is going down, here? I think I deserve—”
“Nothing more. Just some cash, kind of like a cab fare. You know, that’s why people drive other people around. You do know what taxis are, right?”
“You are not a taxi driver.”
“Well, no, but Curtis didn’t know that, and I needed the money.”
“I’m a golfer. I don’t really have money. Especially not now. You kind of kidnapped me at a bad time.”
Knox steamrolled over my smart comments and continued his questioning: “But you took the money? Where is it?”
“It was in my wallet. In my pants. Which I want to have back. Can I have my pants back?”
“The ones you got on will do, boy. Now, this conversation ain’t really about you, so stop trying to make it so.”
Perplexed, I wanted to ask what the bloody heck he meant, but I bit my tongue and let him continue, which, naturally, he did, after pausing for a moment to regain his thought process. “Your pants were pretty much a complete mess anyways. We took them out and burned them, but you had no wallet on you.” He leaned in really close, and chewing tobacco almost bit me in the face. “You didn’t drop it on the way here, did you, boy? None of that Hansel and Gretel business, right?”
I flat out panicked. “No!” I emphasized beyond any usual demand for emphasis. I kind of just wanted to eat my lunch and be let go. I did not enjoy this questioning at all. Especially since it made no sense. Yet without pause, these two billy goats continued their vicious line of interrogation. If it were not for the painfully obvious lack of anything near German here, I would have felt quite under the hold of the Gestapo. I almost would have preferred the Gestapo here, because they made sense.
Potter: “Had you ever met this man who called himself Curtis before? Ever?”
“Had you ever seen him before? Around anywhere? In your city anywhere?”
“Man,” I began, knowing instantly that it was a bad idea, but completely out of other methods of talking to these people. Maybe a bit of city slicker condescension might do the trick. “I live in Chicago. There are around three million people who live in Chicago. It’s not freaking Elvis, Missouri, population your immediate family. What’s more, I am a golfer. I don’t run in rich sorts of circles. The fact that I ever met the man was pretty much a total fluke. Do you know at all how the world works?”
I blinked. Something was failing to make sense. Oh, that was right. There was some serious pain in my jaw. Why was that? Oh, that was right. Something had just hit me. What? Oh, that was right. Sheriff Potter. Sheriff Potter and his hand the size of my torso. Well, that was not particularly appreciated. Blood filled my teeth. Oh, gee, thanks, you gruff jerk. Not like I was not already feeling like I belonged in a home of porcelain and immediate flushing, no.
“Watch your mouth, boy.” I decided that, just maybe, it would be a good idea. Only, despite my careful watching, my mouth continued.
“You can’t just hit me like that! There are laws for this sort of thing!”
“Boy, the laws down here are different than in your cities of decadence and evil.” I must admit, I was impressed that Knox actually knew the word decadence. That seemed like an awful lot of syllables to work through that mustache. “Don’t expect your usual slithering lawyers to weasel you out of your just dues. This is where the law works like it was meant to. Where the law truly brings justice.”
I sneezed, and a bit of blood spurted out my nose and onto the back of my hand.
Sheriff Potter took up where his friend left off. “Justice, boy. This is about justice. Not the cheap brand of justice enforced in the city. This is fairness, and this is right. This is the way things have always been meant to work.”
“You mean,” I said, actually feeling like things were making a bit more sense, “you drove up to Chicago to kill a man you deemed guilty? All that work, to dispense justice? Are you out of your minds? That isn’t your place!”
It is,” mustached Knox.
Crunch, punched Potter.
I stumbled backwards onto the cot, bleeding, with a nose that felt just about sideways on my face and a jaw that for some reason seemed to hate my temples with a very unnatural passion. The two walked right back out, slammed shut the door, grunting mildly. Seeming almost pleased.
Somehow, I really, really doubted that my constant encounters with pain were just going to up and end soon. My head felt kind of fluffy again. Almost like I had been spending all morning vomiting everything I had into the toilet, only to on the last time lean to far forward and bash my face on the lid. Blood was running down over my bare chest, which I just now noticed was, in fact, unclothed. Taking a sudden and almost embarrassed inventory, I realized that all I was wearing were pants. No socks or shoes, no shirt, nothing. It was pretty pathetic. At least it was pretty warm around here in Missouri.
Just a skinny little city boy, an amateur with no goals in life, shirtless, wearing borrowed pants, and bandaged pretty thoroughly, facing off against four huge arms, two stoic faces, and one archaic and unquestionable adherence to justice. Just perfect—what everybody dreams to be doing on a Sunday afternoon. And here, I thought trading a few classless comments for eight knuckles to the face would be a wise move.
This certainly was not where I belonged. I wanted to go back to that nice, big library. I have never been punched in a library.
I had never been punched, actually, in my life; that was, before three minutes ago. This whole scenario seemed just peachy. Spectacular.
Eventually, I stopped bleeding all over myself, but by that time, the damage had all been done. My entire front was irreparably sticky, and my borrowed pants were drying stiff and starched like. Standing up to try to work out some of the stiffness, both of my pants and of my legs, I began to pace in little circles, taking care not to step in my bed pan.
There was so very little else to do.
I was also almost positive that my nose was broken. The thing did not really sit straight on my face, leastways not in the manner that I thought I was used to. I could not really tell if it was any more sore than it should be after being jacked with a fist, not only because I was completely unaware of what a man’s face should feel like after he had attempted to eat a few knuckles, but also because the whole of my face was throbbing a very unfriendly agony. At least my arm was much less itchy, now.
The bleeding seemed to have completely stopped on that front, too. Always a plus. Carefully feeling my tricep with my left hand, I explored the incisions. My previous count was about right, and none of them seemed terrifically deep. Certainly no muscle damage. The only really bad one was higher up, at about my shoulder, and it was fused together with several crude stitches. This one I left alone. I never have been much of a fan of stitches, really. Or needles. But then, there are precious few in the world who truly are.
Pacing in tight little circles. Splendid. Still quite a bit confused by everything the sheriffs had told me—well, or not told me—I tried my very best to reason out a possible answer to whatever was going on. Unfortunately, my brain never was particularly good at problem solving. That was why I became a golfer. Maybe not exactly why I did, but it certainly kept me out of other professions that I would have picked over my current one had I the choice.
And the door opened once more, to its customary choirs of iron angels shrieking in the old, heavy hinges. Potter and Knox stepped in, and they were pretty much the last people I could have possibly been wanting to see at the moment.
Those feelings, I was very soon to discover, were more well deserved than I had feared. Neither of the gruff fellows bothered with questions at all this time. They just let fly with fists. I, being of a nature not so inclined towards any physical activity more strenuous than swinging a golf club, did very little to stop them.
One, and then two, to the gut. It is never fun to be beat up, but it is especially not fun to be beat up when you find yourself unable to breathe.
A third swung from sideways, and hooked me right across the jaw. I was half doubled over, and now turned around, which apparently was an open invitation to the brutes to lay a fourth, a fifth, and a sixth hammer stroke to my kidneys.
I pivoted to put my back against the wall, stepping in the rather not fresh toilet on the ground, trying to keep any further numbers from making me pee blood for a few weeks. A very minor gain, really.
Leaning against the cell wall, I then proceeded to mutely (to my credit, I must say) receive numbers seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, and twelve to my midsection and torso. A few ribs cracked, I was sure of it.
And then, after that, half of the wonderful duo migrated to the doorway, leaving Sheriff Knox and me alone in the room together. Fists the weight of the average house cat danced left and right across my face, pounding blood onto the floor and the walls. Then he grabbed my shoulders and smote me to the pallet. As far as I could tell, these ogres were brawlers, not the kind to kick me around on the ground. And, thank the Lord, I actually was right this time.
“Think it over, boy,” growled the stubbled one, jaw working slowly under his flat and stony face. “We’ll be back, and then we’ll see what you have to say.”
More good news. Apparently now, there was something they felt I was holding back from them, and they planned to beat me until I told them. Oh, I just love the feeling of being presumed guilty and having to testify to incriminate myself. Reminded me of authority figures demanding, “Tell me why you did this,” and you having no answer for them, because the rat who squealed on you was lying in the first place.
To be honest, though, I really was not focusing all that much on that. It was a fraction of a second’s thought, as all the rest of my brain function was busy being told by my body how much pain it was feeling, and my brain not having a clue what it should do at the moment. I picked the most available option and rolled around on my pallet, moaning hoarsely and bleeding all over myself again. The stitches in my shoulder remained intact, as far as I could tell, but the entire rest of my body could not care less at the moment.
I could tell my face was pretty cut up. When knuckles strike bone like that, the flesh in between has this bad habit of folding and splitting. Blood also kept filling up my mouth, as certainly my lips and the insides of my cheeks were not spared such torment. I was unable to decide if it would be better to swallow all that juice or to spit it into my bed pan, but by roiling, pounded gut made the decision for me. I felt that I was not going to be hungry for a good long time.
By the time that the little brass toilet feature on the floor was half full of stringy red saliva, the door lurched to an open position once more. At least it was not the two avengers as last time. Instead, it was a younger man, just as countrified and grubby looking as the others, but a bit less gruff. He almost swaggered into the cell, a black cowboy sort of hat cocked on top of his mangy blond hair. Light brown stubble flecked his chin and the underside of his neck.
“Evening, sir,” he twanged just as pronouncedly as all of the other Elvis folk. “You can call me Cletus. I see you’ve met a few of my friends.”
“Yeah, Potter and Knox, just about the sweetest gentlemen I’ve ever met,” I mumbled through a mouthful of cotton and swelling.
He chuckled a bit. That was actually mildly reassuring. He did not seem quite as sadistic as most I had met around here. Maybe there were actually people around these parts that respected other individuals. This potentiality was further strengthened by the fact that he threw me a towel and said, “Here, wipe your face off. You look like hell. Don’t really want you bleeding all over the town.”
I started to ask what he meant, but he silenced me somehow through a slight change in his posture. Apparently, he did not really feel like discussing it. Still, I wiped down my face, setting in some fantastic burgundy stains. I felt more or less like the bleeding had subsided on the outside of my head, but who knew about the draining in my mouth? I could not quite tell, but apparently Cletus was none too concerned.
“Sir, if I could ask you to stand up and face the rear wall of your cell?”
I complied quickly, more out of fear of a beating than because he asked nicely. Of course, if he started up on my kidneys at all like those other two…
Cold steel conformed to my wrists. Handcuffs. How spectacular. “Let’s go,” commanded the fellow, and I followed him out of the cell.
It actually felt good enough just to walk. Even if they were going to hang me, I was finding it hard to feel so bad about being able to leave that stupid hole in the floor. Fresh air began to hit me in the face as we got about halfway up the stairs. Fresh night air. Good Lord, had I been in that cell an entire twenty four hours already? Or was it, had I been in that cell for only twenty four hours so far?
Unfortunately, the gashes on my face started to sting something fierce in the cool evening breeze wafting through the open doors of the jail sort of building I was in. Blood had not yet stopped filling my mouth, so I swallowed a nauseating measure of the salty junk. Half of my teeth felt pretty loose, and, naturally, it had to hurt to breathe. I blame that on Potter. I swear, he was the one who busted up my ribs. I think I merely disliked him the most, which might have been part of the problem.
And so I was marched forth, out into the dark night, like a prisoner of war. Only, I was not in a war. They might see themselves as being such, but I did not see any reason for a justice crusade to involve me at all. Oh well. What can you do with a bunch of fanatical rednecks? You have to be careful, because they are liable to try to secede from the Union, I reckoned.
Young Cletus swaggered on, mostly dragging my mostly naked body in the mostly pitch black night into a most likely unappreciable sort of endeavor. This was really not going to be a lot of fun, was it. At least I felt like I could breathe at this time. My torso felt less on fire than it had before. Maybe some fresh air could do that for me. How handy.
Cletus spoke up. “Do you like hunting?”
“Do I… what?” The question made very little sense to me. Not quite what I was expecting to have to understand.
“Do you like hunting?” he reiterated, so helpfully.
“I never really have before. It’s just not something, well, that we do in Chicago. Why?” And with that question, the only answer I could come up with rang along the lines of werewolves. You know, the part where the lead werewolf says to the prey, “If you can make it past the river, then we will let you live. No one really ever has before, though. We usually eat you before you get there. Sorry. But it is a lot of fun for us, and it’s kind of a custom, so if you would please humor us and run away, that would be grand. See you very soon.”
Apparently, Cletus detected the horror in my voice on that last word. “I was just trying to make conversation,” he grumbled grumpily. “Because I like to hunt. And I have no idea what city slicking golfers do for fun.”
“We get kidnapped by rednecks,” I grumble back just as grumpily. “We get our cars destroyed, get dragged five hundred miles from home on the weekend, and then we are jailed and beaten. It’s so much fun. You should try it some time.”
A very skewed look. Very put off. “Look, Joe, I ain’t from the city, but I certainly ain’t an idiot. Just because you don’t know what’s going on doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t shut up and start trying to listen to what really is happening around you.”
That made no sense. I just did not understand why such an awkward sentence could be considered high rhetoric in these parts. Cicero would be heart broken. I certainly knew I was.
“Where are we going, then? I’m willing to listen.”
“I ain’t talking to you any further. You just need to watch and wait. Yeah, patience, isn’t that right? But I guess in the land of the internet and Starbucks and road rage, patience is a pretty rare commodity, right?” He guffawed at that one. Guffaws always get on my nerves, because they always seem laced with condescension and spite. This one certainly had both in it.
“Sure, bowahh,” I mocked, “I know patience. I’m a golfer, remember?”
“Shut up, kid.” A good shove, and the conversation ended quite that suddenly.
The moon was coming out above, glinting like a fat boomerang in the starry veil. Jeez, there were a lot of stars. Certainly far more than I could normally see in Chicago. I guessed that might be one of the benefits of living out here. At least the city is not doing its best to kill you out here. It seemed like it is more the other way around, at least in this case.
We were heading towards what I had assumed was the town pub. In the night, it was hard to tell, seeing as how, unlike in Vegas or Branson, not every building was lit up with gigantic flashing billboards in the most nauseating fashion. Nevertheless, as we pulled up through the threshold, I was proved right.
There definitely was a bar, and there definitely was beer.
The small building was packed with bristly, burly men. The same I had seen around. There were Potter and Knox off in the corner, and Mr. Smiles, my guardian on the pickup ride from hell, was standing next to the doorway. He grunted. Actually, four of them grunted. The rest ignored me. There had to be at least twenty or twenty five of them in there, and all packed with muscle and apparently some seriously surly dispositions. I did not at all feel like being in a room with any given one of them, let alone all of them.
There was one man in the room who was different, however, and it was not the bartender. He was just like the rest of them. But there was one man at a table in the corner, by himself, playing with an empty glass. He looked up at me from beneath well trimmed hair, sporting no sort of facial hair at all. In fact, it seemed like he was wearing some sort of suit, but that made no sense. He smiled softly, a practiced smile, not an awkward one like Cletus had tried so draw out of his scruffy and rugged countenance. He might actually have something to offer me.
I started to make a mental note of this one, but, incidentally enough, Cletus led me straight to him. We reached the table, with only maybe one or two of the local roughs watching on, and my current handler grabbed my arms. The handcuffs snapped off, and I, out of reflex, brought my wrists before my face and rubbed them. I really did not feel a particular need to, but it just seemed like what a person ought to do in my current situation.
The fellow before me said, “Thank you, Cletus. You’re done for the evening. Have fun.” The young brute (I said young, but I was probably still a year or two younger than he was) moved towards the bar rather quickly and had a seat on one of the rickety old stools there.
Dark hair, graying at the temples, framed the definitely urban appearance of the suited man sitting in front of me. “Have a seat, Joe. You look uncomfortable.” He leaned back and looked towards the bartender, “Hey, Clyde, can you get this man a cold one? I think he really might need it.”
Chuckles all around, but I was not really in the mood to care. I had never been much of one for drinking, as I had missed out on the whole college thing to pursue my dreams of professional golfing (read, big mistake), but this was not remotely the time to turn down anything, much less a good beer. Maybe a bit of a buzz would take the edge off this ridiculous hammering already going on throughout my body. Drinking was supposed to help dull pain, right? I hoped so.
With my rear firmly planted on the thin cushioned chair and my beer firmly clasped in an only slightly trembling hand, the fellow before me began to speak.
“My name is Matthews. Agent Matthews, actually.”
Leaning in closer, I tried to whisper as unobtrusively to him as I could, though I was pretty sure it was painfully obvious exactly what I was doing. “Can you get me out of here? Please? Now?”
“Why?” His eyes glimmered with mirth. Spectacular. Just what I needed.
“I think you know why, Matthews. You have a duty to do for your country, to uphold the laws and all that.” I surprised myself with just how calm I felt. It might have had something to do with the entire can I had just thrown back in the last two minutes.
“You don’t understand, do you, Joe? This is my duty. This is my agency. I am being paid for by taxes from people like you. Having trouble understanding?”
I glared at him. I was about ready to damn the torpedoes and try to maul somebody in here, and twiggy little agent man Matthews seemed the most likely target. But I figured I had had enough of pain to last me for a while, so I should probably avoid it whenever possible.
So I sat still and glared. Matthews smiled, the insolent jerk. As if this should all just be enjoyed.
“I’m going to be honest with you, Joe—”
“I bloody well hope so, pig, because no one has been remotely honest to me for as long as I’ve been here. Nothing has made sense, there has been no reason behind anything, and this all is about as unconstitutional as it comes. I have rights, too, even if I am in a place where the law is treated like so much dog manure.” What can I say? I never outgrew the golfer sort of ideal, so I never learned really to swear or sound convincingly dangerous. I tried, though.
To no avail.
Matthews smirked once more, as if the entire thing was an inside joke. Well, sorry, buddy, but your stupid joke ain’t funny.
“I’m going to be honest with you, Joe. None of this exactly operates within the usual bounds of what has come to be the law. But this law, this trend of bending the rules for personal and corporate gains, needs fixing. America has hit a downward slide—this you know if you have paid the least attention to anything at all political or economic in the last ten years. You have, haven’t you?”
I nodded. Let the man run his fanatic spiel, and then say whatever it took to get out of this ridiculous place. Lord knows I could stand being just about anywhere else.
He continued, “And how do you fix a problem when the true power of enforcement is in the clutches of those who deserve the punishment itself? The country has hit a loop, a logical circle of failure. And it can’t be fixed as long as only those with power and money write and enforce the law. Justice will not be served. Morality will vanish. And this country is far too important in the world, and far too important to all of us, to let decay like it is.”
“So you all are, what, vigilantes or something? Hunting down businessmen in Chicago who fudged a bit on their tax records? Pulling shotguns in public places and threatening innocents? Or are you the types that believe nobody is innocent and all should suffer for their wrongdoings?”
“No, that is not us. We don’t kill for things as unimportant as those. At the moment, we deal with those more connected to organized crime. Such as the man whom we killed in your car. One James Trout. The name he gave you? Curtis D’Agostino? Well, Curtis was the name of his parole officer whom he garroted two weeks ago. Why, we still don’t know, and now never will. And the last name he likely just drew from a list of people who he’s killed or had killed over the last five years or so. He seemed nice to you? The worst kind of killers can do that.”
I really was having difficulty processing this. I found it very hard to believe a fellow who was siding with those ruffians who had pounded my flesh only a few hours earlier, and for no good reason. “So,” I said, carefully, “assuming that what you say is true, then why did you think it important to drag me back here among all these hillbilly assassins?”
“Don’t look down on these men, Joe. These men are the bulwark against this nation’s death. Sheriffs, most of them. Police officers the rest. Lawmen. Men who left behind the small towns or cities they served before. Men who left all they knew to seek justice, to save the millions that were living in a nation so close to moral and legal death that they saw no other choice but to step outside of the normal bounds of the law. I found them, I fund them, I direct them. This is my job, boy, approved by the United States government, though maybe not on a level the G Men fully understand. We are saving America.”
If this had not been one of my life goals before now, I would have been severely disappointed with myself.
But for some reason, I can not deny that there was always something appealing about being preached to by a random political fanatic. It always seemed so fantastical, so romanticized, so desirable. You are supposed to be able to stare down the loony and tackle his ridiculous extremisms with your superior, rational logics and your patriotic defense of the country’s current way of running things.
You, basically, are supposed to outsmart the crazy man.
Because that was not going to happen. Rather, I felt like what most victims of crazed cults must feel: in a word, suckered. Something in what he said made sense. Appealed to me. And that struck me as beyond dangerous. Vigilantism and all that sort of superheroes parading ideals was more or less illegal, right? A slippery slope, indeed. And while these were no superheroes, not by any stretch of the word, they still likely valued themselves as heroes.
And there was something of a fetching nobility in that.
So instead of one Joe Buchanan Burkoff defending the laws and the legal system in a bar full of drunken dissidents, this particular fellow decided to shut up and listen a bit more. In place of that fantastic “You can’t hold up the law by murder—that leads to totalitarianism and tyranny,” out came:
“What kind of difference are you expecting to make?” So patriotic.
Matthews smiled, not like a man who had baited a scrawny, half naked fish for his dining pleasure, but rather like a man who had just convinced a scrawny, half naked fish to waltz through the paring knives and oven and straight onto the platter. I could not remotely decide which would have been worse. At least he was not laughing.
And then he laughed. “Joe,” he pulled out from the end of his unnerving chuckle, “the boys told me you had some serious fire in you.”
“Actually, that’s why you aren’t lying in your little silver Civic, burning alongside poor old Curtis, if you will, dead and unknown. You kept your head under pressure. You sensed the danger of the shotgun much faster than, well, than most golfers would. And when we took down the sicko in your front seat, you had the presence of mind to find cover elsewhere. Admittedly, you are a terrible driver, but still, you do have some abilities and skills that few might have seen coming.
“Consider this: you rammed a little car into one of the meanest concrete columns I have ever seen. You got into a sixty mile an hour collision with an object that yielded nothing. Physics isn’t my thing, but that’s a lot of force. And what do you do? You climb out of the car. Less than a minute after you sustain an accident that could very easily have killed you, or at least crippled you, you are standing. Bleeding. Battered pretty nastily. But you stand. Even though you didn’t stay up long, even though you didn’t get away any further, you stood.
“And that’s what these boys respect. They practically worship the ability to shrug off pain, to stand in the face of impending death or agony. And that, in truth, Joe, is why they spared your life. You might find it a horrific thing to be captured and dragged here against your will, but you are alive, and that’s a lot more than that fat scumbag in your passenger seat can hold claim to. You are almost killed by a car accident, you are tied up and thrown in the back of a pickup and driven five hundred miles, you are beaten, you are kept in the dark, you are questioned…”
“You know, Matthews, I am pretty sure that I am completely aware of this, and my body is reminding me more than enough. I don’t really need your help remembering exactly what just happened to me.”
“Touché. And you further make my point. Anyone that can not only weather such adverse conditions but can look them in the face and laugh is truly the kind of man that these sheriffs look for.”
“You’ve said that a few times now.”
“Said what, exactly?”
“You’ve told me that I’m the sort of fellow that these gruff old brutes are looking for.”
“And that,” as I feel a great burst of pride in myself for taking control of this particularly ridiculous conversation, “begs the question. You know the question. You know what I’m trying to figure out here.”
“You mean, why?”
“Can’t fool the agent, now can we? Yes, why. So—why? They are looking for guys like me for some reason, and I have to know what that reason is.”
“It’s quite simple, really—”
“You need my help.” An interruption, and if I was not completely aware that this was exactly how he wanted the conversation to go, I would have thought that I was prying information out of him that he did not want to give away. But the question of why all these heavy fisted oafs might possibly have something to gain from having me, of all people, on their side, was far too intriguing and abnormal for me just to let it lie and see what happened.
“Your help, yes. In a way. Naturally, you are probably wondering what exactly you would have to offer us?”
I nodded. I figured I might as well let him hurry up his spiel. I also signaled the bartender for another beer. I could really dig a bit more. You know you are in a sad state when you just do not feel drunk enough to face a government agent concerning your potential future employment.
“Here’s how it works. These boys don’t blend. You’ve noticed, yes?” Again a nod, only halted halfway as I stuck my face in the extra wide open mouth of my Bud. “You can get placed they can’t. At least for the moment. Heh,” he chuckled only somewhat convincingly, “after a while, you’ll probably talk and act just like them if you stick around. They certainly rub off on me. The other day, I even caught myself mumbling ‘I ain’t hungry’ to my wife. It’s almost depressing, in a way. I came out of Washington, all normal and polished, but now I wouldn’t be out of place in Kansas.”
That one got me. I always loved Kansas jokes. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that us Midwesterners are spitefully jealous of the state, for whatever reason, and so we have to try to make ourselves feel better however we can.
It also likely had a good bit of something to do with alcohol in my system.
“Anyways,” he said, trying to find exactly where he had lost his track, and only somewhat succeeding, “they always look out of place. Random trains of pickups driving down the streets with shotguns and all that. You know, yes? Well, sometimes situations call for more subtlety.”
“I can’t exactly understand the sometimes in that thought.”
He sighed. “We do what we can, boy. See? There that is, too. That awful, twangy, catchy ‘bowahh.’ Can’t escape it. But as for subtlety. We sometimes need people to get inside buildings, to route the targets out. Word has gotten around in the underground to immediately suspect anyone that sounds mildly like a redneck.” He said that last word really quietly, probably because drunk and bad tempered rednecks were not really big fans of being talked down on.
“With a fresh face like you,” said Matthews, “there is a chance we can get some of the bigger, more paranoid fish. As I’m sure you can imagine, a lot of the really higher up evildoers lock themselves in tight places with lots of guards and the local police on their side. Now, hired bodyguards we have no problem taking down, but these boys have the ultimate respect for the police force, misguided though they may be.”
Beer tastes terrible.
“So, Joe, what we need from you is not remotely simple. We need you to convince these guys to make a fatal blunder in security. We’ll have ideas for you—you won’t just have to wing it. The whole group would be counting on you, my man. It would not be easy at all to do this, but we think you have what it takes.”
Something seemed missing here. “What it takes and?”
“Well, there is that. What we saw in you, that resilience to pain—don’t feel like we would abandon you or anything, but sometimes—”
“You mean there would be a good chance for me not to get out of there? That I’d likely get captured and tortured? Wonderful, pal. If a mob boss got hit, do you think that they would just let me off with a light torturing?”
“We’ve worked with this in the past. Hear me out.”
“What, did the last sucker who walked into torture for your ideals die, or just become terribly incapacitated?”
“I said hear me out. This part you do need to listen closely to. This is the crux of your job. Plenty of smart kids around here could do the first part. They could pry the criminals out of their little hiding places. But there is that in you. That fire. That part of your spirit that refuses to be cowed by pain. You wouldn’t give in. Not if you believed in it. Not if you thought it worthy.”
“First of all, you speak of this as if capture is certain—”
“It” (CHOKE ON LIQUID) “what?”
“Unless you are ridiculously lucky, than there is a very, very good chance that you will not get out of their building. And they would not plan to let you live, either.”
“THEN HOW DO YOU THINK YOU CAN CONVINCE ME TO DO THIS CRAP?”
“Because we wouldn’t let them kill you. Think about it. What would be holding us back from attacking these bogeys in their zones? The police. And how many police are going to be standing around when a man is tortured and killed for complicity in a murder? None. All bets would be off. The sheriffs would charge in there and dispense more justice than Joe Don Baker can dish out in a dozen movies. We’d pull you out of there, possibly even before they get to anything worse than the basic introductory beatings. And that, we’ve seen, you can take just fine.”
“So all that was a test or something?”
“Actually, a precaution. The true test, if you will, was when you stepped out of that car. My boys instantly knew that you were worth hiring.”
“That brings up a very interesting question I am having.”
“No. Yes. Hey! Wait. The latter. Oh man. Yes, money.” My head missed a beat for a moment, and I almost found myself turning down money. That would have been far beyond tragic. “Hey… You aren’t trying to get me drunk to get me to agree? That would be low and pretty lame of you.”
“I’ll admit, you are much more personable when a bit on the rocks, you know, but that’s not the intent. Drinking is just what’s done around here. Law and booze. That’s what these men know. And that’s what you need to learn. But that left us with the question of:”
“Quite certainly. This one doesn’t take a lot of math. This project is financed by the government. Similar sorts of projects, which, of course, have completely different methods, aims, and goals—we are wholly unique—receive the same spending. But they spend millions on expensive spy cameras and all sorts of surveillance equipment. We don’t. And our personnel here, the sheriffs, they don’t really want all that much money. They don’t need all that much money. That’s not what drives them, what motivates them. So where does all that money go? Well, there’s gas, and food, and, well, you.”
“Millions?” Mmphrg. Even inside my head, things were grinding to a delicious thought there. That kind of cash sounded fantastic, and it all was legal. Well, legal in the sort of loop holed sense. Maybe a bit iffy. I was not really going to argue, though. Millions.
“Not all for you, Joe. You aren’t our only employee of this sort. We’ve got a rotation of about a dozen young men. Men are preferable to women, lest—I’m sure you know. But these millions of dollars, split fourteen ways, still comes out to millions of dollars each. These guys here are perfect patriots, but we can’t expect everyone to be, can we?” He smiled quite like a shark, save for the fact that the only shark I had ever seen smile was in a Pixar animated film.
“So, we’ve discussed money, which I like, and the job description, which I don’t. That leaves a few loose ends. First off, when would I be expected to do this crazy thing? That is, if I were to take you up on your offer?”
We both knew I would take the money. He had read me like a Far Side: one quick glance and a laugh. I always wanted to get beat up for money, anyways. I figured since I got picked on anyways, I might as well get paid to do it, right? The fact that it made sense made no sense.
“That’s the real clincher here. Our other men are either in recovery, on vacation—yes, you do get vacations—or too far away. Because we need this done tomorrow night. And we have no time to go for anything else. You might feel a bit rushed here, but as far as new guys go, most have less than a week to jump into the whole shebang. Not too uncommon. I know you can handle it. And we will be counting on you.”
Beer gone. More wanted. More not needed at all. Beer confuse. Beer go away please.