Sunday, January 26, 2014

Trust Issues - A Short Story

A police siren screaming from the highway gradually pulled him up from the darkness. As he drifted to the surface, his phone rang and he quickly achieved basic, yet foggy, consciousness. The large, lumpy mass that was Wayne Manning shifted under the bedspread and a pale arm emerged. He knocked over an empty beer can searching the top of the bedside table for his phone. “Yeah?” he asked, rubbing his swollen eyes with the back of a tattooed hand. It was 1:32 a.m.
            “Is this Fall City Towing?” asked a hesitant woman’s voice.
            “Yeah. It is. You need a tow?”
            “I do. Can you come out tonight?”
            “Yes, Ma’am. Were a 24-hour service.”
           “That’s awesome. My car’s stuck in the mud and I—“
            “Sure. Give me your address and I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”
            Pulling on yesterday’s oily clothes, Wayne stumbled around the bedroom as rain pelted the trailer’s thin metal roof. It had been pouring steadily for two days and he was getting more and more calls from motorists losing the traction battle to mud-covered roads and driveways. The trailer reeked of pot smoke and dishes left too long in the sink, but owning one of only two tow truck businesses in the Fall City, Washington area meant being available at all hours and sleeping and smoking in between gigs. He was still high and pissed at having to go out in a downpour, but he couldn’t afford not to. As he passed by the photo of his three children mugging like monkeys on top of the dresser, he shook his head. He loved them but they were draining him dry. He slid a joint down his shirt pocket, picked up his coat from another pile of clothes and grabbed his truck keys.
            Windshield wipers slapped at the deluge with little effect. The call came from a rural area northeast of Fall City just up in the Cascades foothills off of 356th Drive. He’d scored some peyote buttons a few years ago from someone up in those hills. Woke up a day later shirtless in a porta potty. A white mist hung in the clammy night air just above the ground and he strained to find the Blakely mailbox through the gloomy torrent. Soon he turned right onto a snake back drive leading to a non-descript ranch bookmarked by sagging outbuildings. It was clear this wasn’t a working farm. The target vehicle was clearly the Chevy Tahoe buried up to its axles in brown muck. As he pulled into position, a woman came trotting from the house pulling a thin jacket around her for warmth. She was petite and pretty with dark brown hair jumbled up on the top of her head. He stepped out of the cab to greet her.
            “Evening. This the car?”
            “Really? What do you think?” she snapped, holding a hand across her brow to keep the rain out of her eyes. “Sorry. Just a little pissed about all of this. Janice. I need it pulled up onto the gravel road.”
            “Wayne. No problem. It’ll just take a minute. You should wait in the house.”
            “Okay,” she replied, although her tone and body language expressed uncertainty. “I’ll be right inside when you’re done.”
            “Sure. Is it unlocked?”
            It took less than five minutes for Wayne to pull the SUV up on solid ground. He glanced toward the house as he unhitched the vehicle and could see Janice standing at the kitchen window watching his progress. She met him at the front door and ushered him in. He was a thick, broad man with a dense brown beard and his appearance alone could be intimidating to some, but he didn’t get any of those vibes from Janice.
            “Here,” she said, ushering him into the kitchen and then a chair at the table. “Sorry I barked at you. Can I get you anything? Coffee? A beer?”
            “Thank you, but I should be getting back. More than a few people around here in your same predicament.”
            “Right. Sure. So how much?”
            “Normally, it would be $90, but it wasn’t anything so let’s say $75. I can take a credit card if you want.”
            “Okay. Yeah. No. I’ll pay in cash, but I left my purse out in the car. Can you just wait here for a minute?”
            “Sure. Not a problem.”
            Janice pulled on her coat again and walked out the front door. Glancing around, Wayne’s attention was drawn to a counter to his left, where a purse was laying on it as plain as day. Before this contradictory data could be processed, a dripping Janice came back through the front door and made her way to the kitchen. She held out a soggy $100 bill. “Thanks so much for your help. The rest is a tip.”
            Wayne shrugged and stood up. “That’s very generous. Thank you.” She smiled the way a hostess smiles waiting for the last party guest to leave. Wayne walked to the door and stopped at the threshold. “Thanks again.”
           “Okay. Good night.”
           As he sloshed back to the truck, he was focused on the woman’s Tahoe. She’d lied about her purse, and when she came back from the car, she had a $100 bill. He pulled his tired, wet body up into the truck cab and sat holding the wheel, staring into the rain. “She has money in her car,” he whispered to himself. “Maybe serious money.”
            The rain continued its incessant drum roll on the metal exterior of Wayne’s trailer as he sat in his recliner after a shower. A Bud in one hand, joint in the other, he alternated chemicals for the next fifteen minutes as he contemplated the attractive young woman who had cash hidden in her car and what, if anything, he should do about it. The broken blinds, stained carpet and general stench of near poverty called out to him with the answer. The three kids in the photograph on his dresser called out to him with the answer. Even the rain called out to him with the answer. It’s dirty money. It has to be. No one keeps $100 bills in a car that isn’t dirty money. And because it’s dirty money, it’s up for grabs, he thought, flicking an ash off of his distended stomach. That’s a law of nature. He drained his beer, tossed the last pot ember into the kitchen sink and picked up his coat and cap.
            After passing the Blakely mailbox, he found a set of old farm tracks heading to nowhere and turned off the road, pulling the tow truck as far as he could into the chest high bramble. Confident it couldn’t be easily seen from the road, he got out clutching his small tool set and began trudging across the muddy fallow field toward the yellow lights of the ranch house.
            Having fallen several times during the journey, Wayne was a mud-caked mess when he finally reached the SUV, and could easily be mistaken for a small Sasquatch. He slowly crept around the vehicle until he was kneeling in shadows at the rear door, keeping one eye on the house, and the other on his packet of lock picking tools lying at his feet. Just as he slid a thin metal hook into the lock, white headlights swept across the front yard of the house and a vehicle clattered along the gravel in his direction. Wayne crouched down trying to become the smallest ball of human he could as the lights grew brighter. The beams bounced up and down and finally a glistening BMW came to a crunchy stop in front of the house. Through the curtain of rain, he could see a man in a dark suit get out of the driver’s side and walk briskly up to the front door, where Janice let him in.
            This was an unwelcome twist. He shivered inside his clinging, cold clothes and finally decided he should keep working the lock and let the little domestic drama go on undisturbed. Despite the cold and dampness, his fingers deftly worked the thin metal rods until finally he felt a satisfying release…then there was a gunshot.
            Muscles tensed instantly. “Holy shit,” he sputtered, dropping a pick into the mud. He knew he had to get out of there in a hurry, so he turned the handle and opened the door just enough to slide his torso in and start feeling around. He slapped his hands over every surface, then lifted up the false bottom and searched the dark cavity around the spare tire, but he found nothing. She’d moved the damn money. He angrily slammed the door shut, which set off the car alarm. Christ. He rested his head on his forearm in defeat. There was no use hiding now, and trying to run across the muddy field to his truck could get him a bullet in the back, so he pushed himself up and walked slowly toward the house. Shortly, the door opened and Janice’s silhouette stood in the threshold.
            “Who’s there?” she shouted.
            Wayne stopped, not even sure how to answer the question. “Uh, It’s Wayne, the tow truck guy from earlier.”
            She held up a hand and the wailing car siren stopped, followed by a few seconds of rain-splattery silence. “I have a gun.”
            “Yeah. I know.”
“What the hell are you doing here?”
            He took a deep confessional breath. “I came back to rob you, but then I heard the shot.”
            The edge in her voice ticked up a notch. “What the fuck are you talking about?”
            “I suspected you had money that you didn’t want anyone to know about by the way you paid me for the tow, and it appears from subsequent events I was right. Is he dead?”
            “Tell me why I shouldn’t just shoot you dead, you fucking thief.”
            “I ain’t stole nothing yet because you were smart enough to move the money, but I’d say the reason you shouldn’t shoot me is that I can help you with this mess.”
            Her voice was now only a decibel or two under a scream. “You came here to rob me. Why would I trust anything you say?”
            “Okay. You’re right, but I didn’t rob you. And you got a gun. But for a small portion of the money that you stole or embezzled or sold drugs for, I can help you by getting rid of the body and the car. I know this country like the back of my hand, and I can make things disappear if I want to. If you shoot me and just leave, you won’t get very far. Now, you can tell me to go fuck myself and deal with all of this yourself or you can let me help.”
            “I should trust a tow truck driver who just tried to rip me off.”
            Wayne wiped rain from his face. “Now there’s no need to denigrate what I do for a living. I’m just saying that if you shoot me it’s only going to make things worse for you. If you let me help you, it might make things better.”
            After several beats, her dark visage shifted slowly away from the door. “Come in here, but don’t think I won’t shoot you.”
            Muddy, dripping and shivering, Wayne stood in the living room looking like something that had just crawled out of a hole. He caught the towel thrown to him by Janice and gratefully wiped his face and head. To his left, he could see the legs of the man she’d shot in the hallway. There were papers with columns of numbers lying on the floor around the body as well, telling him that was probably some kind of embezzlement scheme gone wrong. What was interesting to him was that Janice was not shaking or showing any physical signs of fear. Her hands were steady. Eyes were clear. She was pretty and poised, even with a gun pointed at him.
            “Let’s talk about your offer for a minute,” she said, leaning back against a bookshelf. “What’s going to keep you from going directly to the police or coming back here with a weapon?”
            “I could go to the police, but I have no idea where you put the money, so I get nothing out of that deal. Even if I wanted to take the time to search the place, it’ll be a crime scene and the police would probably find it before I did. As for getting a gun, I’m just not a violent person. I smoke a lot of pot and play the guitar badly and yes, I am a thief, but violent, no. Besides, you killed one guy already, I’m sure you wouldn’t have any qualms about killing another if you had to.”
            “You’re pretty good at thinking on your feet, I’ll give you that. And if I were to throw the money in my car and take off while you’re gone…?
            “You could do that, but the police would get an anonymous tip about a car and body at the bottom of a lake and instead of just being wanted for embezzling you’d eventually be wanted for murder. You’d have to run pretty hard and fast to get out of that one. Oh, and once our deal is consummated, then I become an accessory, so you don’t have to worry about me calling anyone after the fact.”
            Janice smiled and shook her head. “Damn, we would have made a good team. Okay, Wayne the proud tow truck driver. You’ve got a deal.”
            Back out in the rain, Wayne retrieved his truck, hitched up the man’s car and came back into the house with a dark tarp. He wrapped up the body in the tarp and dragged it out the door. Breathing heavily, he reentered a few minutes later and met Janice coming out of the kitchen with a glass of wine.
            “Would you like some chardonnay?” she asked.
            “Tempting, but I’d better get busy. It’ll take me a at least an hour to do this.”
            She raised the glass in a toast. “See you soon, then.”
            Wayne smiled weakly through his matted beard and turned toward the door.
            After cleaning up the man’s blood, bleaching the area and then burying the handgun in the middle of a nearby thicket, Janice showered and put on clean clothes. Wayne had been gone 30 minutes, and she knew she couldn’t waste any more time. With grunts and bumps, she lugged a large military style canvas bag up from the basement and managed to get it into the back of her Tahoe, stowing it in the cavity beneath the flooring. Despite Wayne’s warning, there wouldn’t be any hard evidence that she murdered anybody. Besides, she left $500 on the kitchen table for him. She’d always been a gambler and she bet herself that he’d take the money and keep his mouth shut. Starting the ignition, she gave the now dark house one last look before rolling out to the driveway and up the hill to the highway.
            Familiar chimes reached out for him once again. Wayne groaned and located the phone, which told him it was 5:30 a.m.
            “Yeah?” he said, trying to accelerate cognition by blinking his eyes wildly.
            “Hey Wayne, it’s Bill Lance from the sheriff’s department. Listen, can you come out and take a car to our impound lot?”
            “Sure. Just give me directions.”
            The sun was starting to leak through dark clouds over the horizon as he drove east on Highway 26, highlighting the fact that his windshield wipers should have been replaced months ago. After a small rise, he saw the knot of police, highway patrol cars and an ambulance off on the shoulder and shortly he eased his truck just in front of the Chevy Tahoe that was the center of attention. He slid out of the driver’s seat and shook hands with a serious Sgt. Lance.
            “Staying out of trouble, Wayne?”
            “Oh, you know. Working at it. What the hell’s going on, Bill? Drug bust?”
            “Not this time. Got a murder on our hands.”
            “You’re shitting me.”
            “Found the body of a dead man lying on the floor behind the front seats covered with a tarp. Anonymous tip. Woman did it. She’s in the back of my car.”
            Wayne leaned around Lance and made eye contact with Janice sitting behind the foggy glass of the cruiser. Her wide eyes were filled with cold rage. She appeared to be struggling with something, noticed Wayne, but he quickly turned his attention back to Lance. “Fuck me. I pulled that Tahoe out of the mud last night.”
            “Are you serious?”
            “Totally. A little after one A.M. Pulled it from a mud hole up onto the gravel at the Blakely place.”
            “Blakely. Her name is Janice Blakely. Must be her parent’s farm.”
“Jesus,” he said, stroking his beard with grimy fingers. “That could have been me.”
            “There’s more truth to that than you know. Just got word that she’s wanted in Nevada for assault and California for the attempted murder of two people…with a butcher knife. They’re both in bad shape.”
            Wayne swallowed. “Crazy bitch.”
            “Crazy is right. So just tow the vehicle to the usual spot. We’ve still got to process it.”
            “Sure. Okay. I’ve got to stop off at my place for a minute, but I’ll get it there within a half hour.”
            “No problem.”
            As Sgt. Lance walked away, Wayne couldn’t help but look over at the captive Janice again. She was wearing a disturbing smile now, although her eyes remained wide and locked on him. Then he noticed words written in the condensation on the window. Wayne took a step forward to see more clearly. Crooked letters spelled out, “C U soon.”

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