Don’t you hate it when you rent a car and the damned thing breaks down on the side of the road?
There I sat with the engine ticking as it cooled, although the Southwest sun beat down so hot that ‘cool’ was a relative term. The engine wouldn’t turn over, but I keyed the battery and found enough juice to lower the windows. There was a hint of breeze that didn’t keep my shirt from sticking to my back or sweat from beading on my forehead. I drummed my fingers on the steering wheel and wished I had the Hertz clerk in front of me so I could punch him in the nose. Fifty miles from nowhere, three hundred miles from my destination, on the shoulder of a deserted, sand-swept two-lane that disappeared in both directions between occasional cacti and rolling tumbleweeds.
I’d burned a new set of identity papers getting the rental—driver’s license, social security card, birth certificate, credit cards; bogus, of course, but excellent forgeries that would withstand all but the most meticulous examination. Now I’d have to use my last set to get me home. I hadn’t foreseen needing the last set, but I hadn’t foreseen breaking down alongside the road in a brand-new rental car, either.
I know what you’re thinking, why not call Hertz or AAA or a tow truck? All good ideas if I’m you. But I’m not you, I’m me, and I’ve got three hundred thousand dollars beside me on the seat and a body in the trunk.
I checked my watch. I needed to call Carlson about the change in plans, but that could wait. Normally I would stay with the rental until help came along, but the body in the trunk nixed that idea. I wiped down the Caddy’s interior then got out and slung the knapsack of money over my shoulder. At least I was dressed for the part; jeans, pullover shirt, hiking boots, and a straw cowboy hat. I crossed the blacktop and set off on foot in the direction from whence I’d come. I’d passed through a crossroads town about thirty miles back and started hiking it.
After a couple of hundred yards I stepped down into a shallow arroyo and dug a hole in the sand so I could bury my old identity then load the new one into my wallet and resumed walking. Two more miles of hot, sweaty hoofing and I managed a ride with a Mexican family in a battered pickup truck older than I was. Senor had a gold tooth in front and his overweight senora had a toddler on her lap. I rode in back with three nut-brown ninos, two goats, and a potbellied pig. I dug a pack of gum out of the knapsack and offered sticks to the kids. They grinned their thanks and the four of us chewed away until the truck squealed to a stop in the town square and I got off.
It wasn’t much of a town—Taylorville—just a collection of a couple of dozen houses and an assortment of small businesses; a two-pump gas station, hardware store, feed and grain, a run-down strip mall, and a place called Ma’s Diner. I thought about my uncle’s admonishment to never eat breakfast at a place called Ma’s, never play pool with a guy named Pops, and never go to bed with a woman whose troubles are greater than your own. Over time I’d done the last two, so I went for the trifecta.
Worn linoleum, cracked leatherette stools, mismatched tables, and a window air-conditioner that lowered the temperature from broil to merely bake. I sat at the counter and studied the menu while the middle-aged waitress brought me coffee and silverware. She had carrot-orange hair, matching lipstick, and a pencil behind one ear. She was thin in a stringy, desiccated way, so skinny that when she stood sideways she looked like a zipper. She had a nametag with Mabel lettered on it. I ordered the lunch special which I suspected was last night’s supper smothered in today’s gravy. While I waited on the food, I mulled over what to do next.
I’d seen a used car lot at the edge of town, but that was out. A stranger paying cash for a decent vehicle would raise eyebrows. Besides, I didn’t want to use my new identity until I had to. The corpse in the Caddy wasn’t a problem—there was no ID on it and if/when they ran the prints they’d find out he was a loan shark and fence. They’d also find he’d died of a coronary. I knew because I’d sat and watched him clutch his chest until his heart stopped. As for the money, it wouldn’t come up missing since I’d found it in a cardboard box in his garage. I’ve always been lucky; a stash of cash and a dead man I didn’t have to kill after all.
My meal arrived just as an SUV pulled up out front. It had a light bar on top and a star on the door with the words Basque County Sheriff wrapped around it. Out stepped a tall, lanky, past-middle-age character complete with snakeskin boots, kahki uniform, smokey hat, and a badge the size of a pie plate. His utility belt held an assortment of equipment, not the least of which was a .44 magnum revolver with staghorn grips. He took a stool two down from me, ordered coffee to go, then turned and put his elbow on the counter.
“I’m Sheriff Kershaw,” he said conversationally. “You new in town, or just passing through?”
I am an excellent liar. I spun him a tale about having been on a construction job east of Taylorville until the work ran out, how I was now waiting to take a southbound bus home. He asked where home was and I told him.
“That’s right on the border,” he noted. Y’all have trouble with illegals down your way?”
“They’re thicker than flies on roadkill.”
“Same here, and more all the time. Got a shanty town out past the gypsum works. Ten, twelve to a shack. Living on cabrito, beans, and tortillas. Cheap labor for the mine owners and farmers. Money makes the world go ‘round and the less you pay, the more you keep. By the way, the bus station is just across the street. The next one going south will come thru in an hour or so.”
Mabel brought him a styrofoam cup with a plastic lid. He stood and said, “Put this fella’s meal on my tab.” When I protested, he said, “Don’t be proud, son. We’ve all been down on our luck at one time or another. The county’s pleased to do it.”
The bus station was a long, narrow affair attached to the side of the hardware store. I bought a ticket going south and saw I had forty minutes to spare. There was a wooden pay phone booth in one back corner. I dug out a handful of change, closed the door, and called Carlson. When I explained about the broken Caddy, he was pissed. “I wanted to see the fucker in person,” he said. “Wanted to look into his cold, dead eyes and spit in his face.” I told him he’d have to settle for a couple of cell phone pictures instead. In true form, his last words before I hung up were, “The least you could do is bring me the bastard’s head in a gunny sack.” I let his anger drain off of me then called Annie, making it short because she was at work and old man Boatwright didn’t take kindly to personal business while you were on the clock. I told her when I’d be back and added, “We’re in high cotton, baby. Pack your suitcase, I’m taking you home.” She squealed her pleasure, “Do you mean it, honey? Home as in back to Carolina?” I said yes and let her coo in my ear until I heard Boatwright bitching in the background.
The bus pulled out on schedule and I had a seat to myself. The other passengers were few and kept to themselves. Thirty miles down the two-lane I held my breath when the busted Cadillac came into sight. There were two squad cars and the Sheriff’s SUV parked behind it. The car’s trunk was open and county cops milled around it. I saw Sheriff Kershaw hunkered over looking at something on the ground. I slipped down on the seat and watched as we went past. I looked back nervously until the scene was out of sight.
Actually, there was nothing to worry about. They couldn’t tie the body to me or me to the Caddy. Come to that, the guy in the trunk hadn’t even been killed—not as in murdered. He managed to croak before we got to that part. What’s the worst they could charge me with, transporting a body across state lines? Still . . . After a time, I leaned my head back and drifted off to sleep. The hum of tires on the blacktop made for a comforting lullaby.
The fat driver shook my shoulder to wake me. He pulled his pants up over his gut and said, “Thirty-minute rest break.” I looked out to see we were in the gravel parking lot of a roadside restaurant. Everyone else had debarked to stretch their legs or go in for a meal. I wasn’t hungry so I crossed my arms and closed my eyes again.
I heard the seat beside me squeak and opened my eyes to see Sheriff Kershaw sitting there with a smile on his face.
“Howdy, son,” he said pleasantly.
My belly tightened and a foreboding finger of fear ran up my spine. “Uh . . . hello. What’re you doing here, Sheriff?”
Kershaw took off his Stetson long enough to mop his forehead with a patterned bandana the size of a dish towel.
“It’s a good thing I’m the law, I broke six kinds of speed limits to beat you here.”
A foreboding finger of fear poked me in the spine and I straightened up in the seat.
“Why the hurry, Sheriff?”
“Well, sir. There’s a chunk missing out of the back of your left bootheel. It makes a little vee-shaped notch in it. I noticed it back at Ma’s place, but it didn’t mean anything then.”
I lifted my foot enough to looked down and there it was big as life. “Well fuck me to tears,” I said under my breath.
“Later, out at the Cadillac, I saw it again—boot marks in the dirt—around the car and across the road where you started walking back to town. Seeing those prints got me to wondering what you have in that knapsack you’re carrying.”
“My knapsack? Just personal stuff,” I lied, feeling a bead of sweat trickle down my temple.
“Is that right? Well, son, let me tell you something. I’ve been Basque County Sheriff fourteen years and a deputy ten years before that. I plan to retire at the end of this term and don’t look forward to living on social security and a piss-poor pension.”
I sighed, shrugged my shoulders, made a sour face. “So, what happens now?”
“Well, if all you’ve got in there are dirty clothes, I reckon I’ll arrest you and take you back to the calabozo. On the other hand, if it’s money I’ll just sort of relieve you of the burden and let you go on home.”
I blinked and swallowed hard. I knew he could read my face like a book. “It’s a lot of money,” I said honestly.
“Even better,” Kershaw said.
I cleared my throat. “We could split it?” I offered hopefully.
“I like a man with a sense of humor. You’re young yet. Plenty of time to make another score. Me? I’m getting older every day. I always wanted to see the Mexican Riviera, lay on the beach watching the senoritas and drinking cerveza. I speak the lingo pretty good. I can see a brighter future already.”
He held out his hand and I reluctantly passed him the knapsack. He smiled at the heft then slung it over his shoulder.
“You sure you can’t leave me some of that?” I asked morosely.
“Can, but won’t,” Kershaw said. “Don’t beg, it’s unseemly in a fella your age.” With that he tipped his hat, flashed me another smile, and said, “Adios, pardner. Oh, and if I was you I’d steer clear of Basque County from now on.”
Long after Kershaw was gone, long after the rest break ended, long after we got back on the road, I sat there going over everything in my mind. I couldn’t see where I’d fouled up—except for my bootheel, of course. Who would have ever thought?”
I checked my watch and saw I had another five hours before I reached the border. Carlson would be fine, I had cell phone pictures for him. Not as good as the dead guy’s head in a sack, but enough to satisfy the contract.
No, Carlson wasn’t the problem. Finding more work wasn’t the problem, either. I had a reputation, word got around. I was known for leaving no loose ends. Satisfaction guaranteed. But Christ, three hundred thousand dollars. Found money, untraceable, enough to get out of the business entirely. Enough to settle down and become a civilian, a regular joe. Pfffft.
No, Carlson wasn’t the problem. The problem was figuring out how to tell Annie I wasn’t taking her home to Carolina.
Don’t you hate it when you rent a car and the damned thing breaks down on the side of the road?