My head was a grapefruit in a paper sack dropped by a careless child. The drop hurt, but so did the can of lima beans that fell from its perch atop the box of scalloped potatoes.
Grocery sackers...you put the heavy stuff on the bottom of the bag first, then the easily bruised fruit.
So I lay there for a moment, wondering if there were any wits left about me, which ruled the two thugs out. They were the reason for my being reclined.
O.K., the Buck knife Bubba stabbed me with had punched through my winter coat, ripped through my dress shirt and skidded along my Kevlar long sleeved T-shirt. No damage there, other than to my wardrobe. Buster had kicked me in the groin, but the cup I wear dulled the force. Now the sap to the back of the skull...do I need to start wearing a hockey helmet?
And heck, what was with Bubba and Buster anyway? I'd merely pulled in to ask directions to the Conklin house. All these West Virginia roads look alike, especially at night. So I saw the light on in the office/showroom of Sweet Deal Farm & Garden Supplies, pulled over, watched my breath put a layer of ice on the locked front door, then heard some talking out back. I trudged through the slush and came around the side of the building where I saw the corrugated steel warehouse--a light was on--and here I am. Didn't even get a chance to say, "Howdy."
There was a glop of auto grease in my right nostril, no doubt finding my nostril quite attractive when it slammed suddenly into the floor. Guess somebody had been working on his or her monster truck in here. I wanted to blow the grease out, grease in the nostril isn't a particularly pleasant feeling, but that might just cause Bubba and Buster to decide that I wanted to go another round. I did, but not just yet.
Fortunately my gun was safe, back in the desk drawer at my apartment in Pittsburgh. You don't carry unless you need to, especially in a state where you don't have a license to carry. And this was just a routine courier delivery, a favor to a friend. I needed the favor, so I called my "friends." One of whom said, "Well, I don't really need to run security checks, and everybody I know is getting along pretty well with their wives or significant others (he jokes like that) however, if you want it, I've got a courier job. Just dropping off some legal docs to Travis Conklin who owns a big house outside Conklin, West Virginia. One hundred and expenses."
"One hundred?!" I replied. "I said I needed a favor. Dutch is in bad shape. And Dutch likes you."
"O.K., two hundred, but no expenses," he said.
The two hundred, plus the expenses he finally agreed to, might make a tiny dent in the money I owed the vet. Dutch, the lazy, couch potato German Shepherd I saved from the gas chamber, had more stuff wrong with him than the economy, but he was great company, sitting next to me watching TV. Never a word of complaint when I channel surfed, even past Animal Planet. He just pants, occasionally glances my way, hoping I'll put another splash of beer into his bowl. He has a drinking problem. Gets it all over the coffee table then knocks things off when he tries to lap up the spills.
If it was just a courier drop, what was I doing wearing a Kevlar T-shirt and cup? I knew it would be cold, and the Kevlar was the only thing I had clean. The cup, well, when you get caught not wearing one you tend to make it part of your standard business attire.
"How much you think he knew, Charlie?" the one I called Bubba asked.
They thought I was dead. Not very professional. I really should have been dead. That was a nasty whack. Lord knows if I'd ever be able to remain standing considering how fast the Earth was revolving. When'll we ever address the problem of Global Spinning?
"I'm not sure what he knew, Bubba," Charlie replied.
Well, how about that? My powers of deduction were sharper than I thought.
"Carl's gonna be ticked." Those were not his exact words. I feel if you haven't been in the military youhaven't earnedthe right to swear. He didn't look like a vet.
Carl. There's a name I hadn't heard.
"Maybe we just throw him in back with ta'others and not tell Carl," Bubba suggested.
That sounded like a reasonable plan. ... Others?
"Who is he anyway?" Bubba continued.
"Well, ... Name's Romero, Tucker Romero," and Charlie started laughing. "He's just a Pennsylvania P.I. Jeeze Louise!"
Now they had gone too far. Hit me over the head, dump me with ta'others, but lift my wallet and laugh about my respected and extremely lucrative career. Now it was personal. I wouldn't have minded had he mocked one of the other cards for my many hats--certified financial planner, computer consultant, pool and spa cleaning, guitar lessons. To pick on P.I.? Times are tough and I put in six years in C.I.D., a tour in Afghanistan and one in Germany to qualify for that one.
"Let's dump him in before Carl gets here."
Ready or not, here they came.
One of them spun me over so I could marvel at how well the interior timbers supported the steel roof. Then Bubba got my feet, and lifted, while Charlie grabbed me under the armpits. As he brought my arms up and with my head tilting back towards him I was getting a great line of fire. It wasn't too much effort or motion at all for me to discreetly slap my index finger against my left nostril, clamp it shut, then blow as hard as I could. That wad of grease shot out and hit Bubba right in the left eye.
Bubba dropped my feet and frantically clawed at his eye screaming about how I'd blown a booger at him. With my feet on the ground, and Charlie startled by Bubba's scrambling, I had the leverage to whirl and ram my elbow into Charlie's gut. He went down good. Bubba came round just long enough to receive an uppercut palm heel strike to his chin.
I'm out of shape. So is my palm heel. I also pulled something in my shoulder. Then again, I was still a little silly from the blow to the skull.
I decided to sit down on the floor with them. I looked over at Charlie. He was still gasping and wheezing, but he'd be all right.
It's a weakness. I have this reluctance to want to permanently injure somebody trying to kill me. Also, this was not my turf. Had no idea how my defensive measures might be viewed by the locals. I am a stranger and one of them could be family. That's a lesson to all who care to enter the thrilling world of private investigation. Never think, hey, now it's just like a TV show. It isn't.
Bubba was out, but breathing. So I stood and staggered around to find something to truss them up with. I found a gun that the kind folksat Sweet Deal use to zip tie things--sacks of seed, whatever.I zip tied their hands, their feet, then zip tied them together and, enjoying myself, wondered if I could zip tie them to anything else.
Then I walked over to the panel truck they had been planning to dump me inandnearly threw up. I felt like I was seeing the Taliban handiwork back in Kabul.
On the floor of the backwere seven bodies, five male, two female. Theylooked like they were from Central America. I'm not an M.E., but from the heat blasting from the back, I guessed they'd succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning from the unventilated heater somebody stuck back there to keep them from freezing to death.
I never thought I could feel that sick again, but I did. I had stumbled upon an immigrant smuggling ring, ferrying people up to the Eastern cities. People just trying to find a better life.
I pulled out my cell phone, wanting to call the police, USCIS, the FBI, anybody, but the screen on my cell was shattered and I couldn't get the phone to work, which explained why my hip hurt. Probably did it when I fell.
I found a cell in Bubba's pocket, along with some things I'd rather not remember, but I couldn't find a decent signal, though I did note that the last person he'd called was Carl. It read so right on the screen.
I grabbed a ring of keys from Charlie's pants; hoping one of them would open the showroom where they surely had a landline. I stumbled back outside.
The frigid night air was great, and my head started to clear, but it only made the image of what I had just seen sharper.
I went to the front door of the office/showroom and began trying the keys. Just then, I heard the sound of tires crunching through cinders onthe once snow covered road.
I turned and sawa car approaching, and if this were Carl, I had to remember that I stopped to ask for directions. I was not ready for another physical encounter. I shoved the keys in my pants pocket as the car rolled into the parking lot. It was then I noticed the outline of bubble lights on top of the roof of the car.
TheSheriff's carcrunched to a stop on some snow that had yet to be crunched.
He was a big guy. He was putting on his Smokey hat and brushing the '70s moustache he already wore. He eyed me in the manner of all in law enforcement.
"I think they're closed," he said, with just a trace of just give me a reason in his voice.
So this was Carl. Less experienced investigators might have missed the "Dept. Sheriff Carl Shiffler"embroidered on the left breast of his uniform parka.
"Oh," I said with as much feigned disappointment as I could muster. "Well maybe you can help?" I added cheerfully, though I suddenly noticed my voice sounded a bit inebriated. That can happen when you've been hit over the head.
"Come on, Tucker," I thought, "flashback to those teen years. You've gone through this before."
"Mmm?" he replied, but I seriously doubted he was here to administer a breath test.
"I'm lost. Where's the road to Elkins?"
"Elkins?" he asked. "You're way off."
"Oh, please, that's what the old lady's always telling me. Ask for directions; ask for directions. Always too late." I was sounding better.
"You see that intersection down there?"
I turned in the direction he was pointing and said, "Yep."
"That's where 50 crosses 89. Hang a right, follow 50 about 20 miles and you'll see old route 85. Turn left and sooner or later you'll end up in Elkins. Got that?"
"Right on 50, ... 20 miles, left on 85. Yep, got it. Thanks," and it took the last ounce of balance I hadto walk calmlyto my 1991 Honda Accord wagon -- hey, it's great for hauling pool supplies, and it's only got 254,073 miles on it. I got in, turned the key in the ignitionand pulled out of the drive
I looked in my rear view and watched him watching me, all the way to the intersection. I turned on my blinkers, slowly turned right, and rolled down 50. Finally, he started walking toward the warehouse.
Now I decided to draw upon my vast experience. I'd once taken Debbie Yount for a holiday drive in the country. I was in the Christmas spirit, so to impress her, I demonstrated how I could drive at night without headlights. How the landscape, under a full moon was all white and the road black. Just stay on the black. Simple. Like driving on a photographic negative. Wasn't it cool? Magical? I have no idea why she failed to find it so. Shame, she had great legs.
With that in mind, I snapped off my headlights, put the Accord in Reverse, backed to the intersection andback into the intersection, then glanced over my shoulderat the Sweet Deal. He had not come running out from the warehouse yet.
I put the Accord in Drive and turned left, heading down 50 in the opposite direction he'd told me. As I cresteda little hill, I glanced back in the rearview mirror and saw him running to his cruiser, thena flash of blue as I disappeared over the other side of the hill.
Hopefully he hadn't seen me. Maybe I could put enough distance between us before he figured it out. If only I knew where a phone was.
I had beenmuch sharper with Debbie. Blame it on the blow to the head. I kept repeating, "Stay on the black, stay on the black," but the black was not cooperating. The white wasn't helping much either because all these trees started to block most of it out. Oh, for some gently rolling farmland. Finally, I knew I had to switch the lights back on else I'd raminto something.I snapped them back on, only for a moment.
Wouldn't you know, just after I came over a crest of another hill, there was at least a mile of rolling farmland ahead and all the way to the right and the valley below. From the corner of my eye I saw a flash of blue, down in the valley, blasting across the farmland. He had already abandoned my original course and doubled back to check the second turn. I quickly switched off my lights, but it was too late. I saw his blue lights slam to a stop then whip around as he hurried to triple back and catch up with me.
No point in hiding any longer. Lights on Ipunched it, hoping I wouldn't encounter any blackice and realizing the Accord's little 6 was no match for his cruiser.
I drove as fast as I dared, but those West Virginia curves can be nasty. Though I could not yet see him, I knew he was gaining.
And then it happened; a February Christmas miracle. When what to my wondering eyes did appear, but a miniature mail box with Conklin writ clear.
I nearly overshot the left into his drive. Conklin was expecting me. He'd have a phone, maybe a gun. Of course he'd have a gun; this was West Virginia, out in the country. People have to have them just in case because it takes forever for help to arrive.
Now why did I have to think that happy thought?
I switched off my headlights again as Conklin's drive had those little Malibu lights partially peeking out from the snow that had been cleared from the cobblestones. It was really pretty, and, it was a big house.
I pulled up in front, and tried to believe I could jump out and run to the front door. I eventually made it and knocked as hard as I could, in no shape to move over to press the lighted doorbell button.
The front door opened, and a Latina in a housekeeper's outfit greeted me.
"I'm here to see Travis Conklin. Brought some papers for him, but I need to use your phone first. ?Donde esta tu telefono?"
I turned and looked up. Had to be Travis Conklin. He was in his late '40s, pot belly, wearing a red checked snap button shirt that would not be snapped much longer, big cheeked and reddish hair cut to a close crop DA.
"Mr. Conklin. Yes, I'm Tucker Romero. Your papers are out in the car, but I need to use your phone. There's been an emergency."
"Emergency? What kind of--"
"Please, we haven't much time. You'll find out when I get the police on the line."
"Yes, sir, the police. Could you please point me to a phone?"
"Sure," as he attempted to hurry down the stairs. My goodness, he wasn't even suffering from a head wound.
He waddled across the foyer and went into a side room that I assumed was his study. I, compared to him, raced by and grabbed the phone on his desk which was next to a framed photo of him with Senator Jay Rockefeller.
Just then I saw some blue lights whipping around through the cracks in the curtains on his study window.
I punched in the number and waited, and while I did I thought, "Yes, he does have a gun," if you judged by the number of stuffed animal heads he had hung strategically on the knotty pine paneling of his study.
It was a nice study. The kind I'd like to have were I in a different line of work and could afford it. Dutch might even like lying in front of that nice crackling fireplace. He had awards and commendations from all the fashionable causes and political action committees, as well as photos with Clinton and Obama. I could pass on these for my study.
What was taking so long? I heard the front door open.
"By any chance do you have a loaded gun handy?" I asked as I turned and saw that yes, he did have a loaded gun handy and it was pointed right at me. I set the phone down, hoping I judged it right and had not hung up, but left it slightly off the hook in case somebody had finally answered.
It was a nice gun. One of those competition model 1911's, chrome with a spiffy laser sight, the teeny red dot of which was stationary on my belly. Conklin wasn't nervous at all.
Deputy Sheriff Carl Shiffler then entered the room making it two guns to none. Carl was quite calm as well. He shook his head.
"Neat little trick you pulled back there."
"Why thank you, Deputy Shiffler."
"How did you find out about our little operation?"
"I told you. I just stopped to ask for directions."
"My attorney sent him down with some papers for me to sign," Conklin said. "About the slots license for the race track."
"And you were lost?"
"I should have gone to Triple A for a Trip Tick."
"Guess he's going into the lake with ta'others."
"So what is it with you, Conklin?" I asked trying to stall just in case a stray U.S. Marshal helicopter happened to be flying by and also to give plenty of evidence that hopefully was being recorded on the other end of the phone line. "You've obviously got a lot of money. Know all the right people. Why are you running immigrants? Isn't that a tad hypocritical?"
Conklin smiled. "Cheap labor."
They began moving toward me, one on either side.
"Don't worry. We'll make this relatively painless," Shiffler said. He was right. When he kneed me in the groin I didn't feel a thing, but I gave a heck of a performance. I dropped to my knees which reminded me how out of shape my knees were.
As he reached down to grab my head now that he had leverage to snap my neck, I offered him a palm heel strike to the groin. He wasn't wearing a cup. Then I flipped over and swept Conklin's legs out from under him with an appropriately named leg sweep.
It sounded as if the hardwood floors of the study cracked when Conklin landed, but that could have been my imagination. I twisted Conklin's gun out of his hand, grabbed Shiffler's that he had kindly dropped when he doubled over, and once again, it was two guns to none.
I stuffed Shiffler's in my waistband. I've always preferred a .45 to a .9mm and this one had a spiffy laser sight. I was not in much shape to look down any fixed sights.
When I picked up the phone to see if it had all been recorded I discovered I'd dialed the wrong number. This time I dialed the right one, to my old C.O. explaining that I really needed him to sort out which agency should come as back up because I was about out of gas.
I had just enough to use Shiffler's cuffs to hook him and Conklin together, made sure I had the handcuff key, and since there wasn't a convenient zip tie gun handy, yanked out a couple of electrical cords from lamps and trussed them up "real good."
Then I sat down in a lovely, cloud like leather easy chair, making sure I could keep an eye on Shiffler and Conklin, as well as the door just in case Shiffler had released Bubba and Charlie and told them to meet him there. I doubted that. He really didn't know where I was till he got here. Still...
I looked down at the crackling fire and wondered what Dutch was doing.
My friend didn't want to pay at first. I hadn't brought the signed papers back. But I showed him the clipping from the Morgantown "Dominion Post" which explained why Conklin, his client, hadn't had the time to sign, and might not for a bit. He'd be busy finding a criminal defense lawyer. So I was paid.
I went to the V.A. ER where I surprisingly got in quick, only had to wait six hours. Guess I must have looked pretty bad because I had expected to take a number and come back in three or four days.
When I finally entered my apartment, Dutch lifted his head. When he saw I had my hands behind my back he became interested.
"I brought beer," I said.
His tail began to thump.
"Was you a good boy? Was you a good boy? Yep, no messes."
I popped one and put a little splash in his bowl, then put the cap back on the bottle and stuck the six-pack in the fridge. I don't believe he's a German Shepherd. Likes his beer warm, like the English. Disgusting.
I sat down next to him and watched him lap up the last of the drops he spilled, and said, "Yea, rub it in. It's going to be at least two weeks before I can join you with the meds I'm on."
Finished, he resumed his position. I switched on the TV, and clicked on Animal Planet.
Dutch was happy. I kept seeing those seven bodies in the back of the panel truck. I really wanted a beer.
I began to think of Debbie Yount. Wondering what she was up to? Been more than a decade.
They say the natural hills of Pittsburgh naturally develop good legs. Debbie must have done a lot of walking.
She's probably married. Or divorced!
Well, I am a trained investigator, between cases. If I moved the story around a bit, I might even be able to convince her that she helped save my life. Then in a way, she really did.
"Joey woke up on the futon of his dorm, dying of thirst and an aching skull after a night spent trying to get Marie drunk off jello shots..."