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ALAT
Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

collateraldamage.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright 2018

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

Jim Farren

 

Collateral Damage – Injury inflicted on something or someone other than an intended target.

----- Monday -----

Waiting is the hard part.  That’s what Bolander always said.  Comparatively speaking, action is easier because it’s driven by your experience and reflexes, dictated by what is happening around you.  But not waiting.  Waiting is suspended animation.  It gives you time to go over the plan, look for holes, probe for weaknesses, wonder if you should have polished this or tweaked that.  Waiting is where self-doubt creeps in and makes you second-guess things you shouldn’t worry about.

Bolander said this particular job was a piece of cake.  He had a reputation for meticulous planning and no mistakes, which is the reason Archie was his partner.  But something went wrong this time. 

According to Bolander, the overseas merchant had come out of the Diamond Exchange with a million and a half dollars worth of diamonds and emeralds in an alligator briefcase chained to his wrist.  He entered the back of the armored truck only to find Bolander waiting for him with a shotgun in hand and a Lone Ranger mask hiding his features.  The diamond merchant was startled, more so when he saw the two guards bound and gagged on the floor.  Bolander duct-taped the man’s wrists and ankles before using a pair of bolt cutters to sever the chain securing the briefcase.

Archie was at the wheel of the getaway car parked fifteen yards behind the armored truck.  He watched Bolander exit the rear, toss the mask and shotgun inside then stroll to the car, briefcase in hand.  He slipped into the passenger seat as Archie checked the mirrors before pulling smoothly into traffic.  That’s when a Mexican illegal in a battered pickup ran a red light and T-boned the driver’s side.  Archie was pinballed from steering wheel to side window to dashboard.  By the time he stopped bouncing he was a bloody, battered mess.  Bolander slipped away in the gathering crowd.  Around the corner he flagged a cab and, thirty minutes later, was seated aboard Amtrak’s Sunset Limited on its way from New Orleans to Los Angeles.

That was his story when he called me.  He told me Archie was dead, but gave no details.  I found them out later.  He said that even with Archie gone, the plan hadn’t changed.  He still expected to see me the next morning.  I told him I’d be there.

----- Tuesday -----

Bolander exited the train in San Antonio where I picked him up and we spent five minutes talking about Archie before driving five hours to Dallas.  I took the first leg, switching drivers after we ate chicken fried steaks in Waco.  The top jewel fence in the county lives in a gated and guarded compound just outside of Fort Worth.  His name is Elliot Kruger and he only deals in loose gems—no jewelry, no exceptions.  He also pays 25% on the dollar which is 5% more than anyone else who deals in hot gems.  He pays the extra because he is very selective about his customers.  Over the years I’ve sent a lot of guys his way and he likes doing business thru me.

We had switched the loose stones from the alligator briefcase to a nylon gym bag lined with cotton batting.  Kruger looked like your neighbor’s kids’ grandpa, complete with a horseshoe of cropped white hair, twinkling blue eyes, and bifocals perched on the end of his slender nose.  Think of Geppetto the woodcarver in Pinocchio.  Bolander handed him the gym bag which he handed to an associate who could have passed for Santa Claus if he’d been wearing a red suit.  “Professor,” Kruger said, “we await your appraisal,” then asked us if we’d like some refreshment.  Bolander said a beer would be good and we were each brought one after the Professor left the room.  We made small-talk while we waited, my contribution being an occasional nod and grunt to show I was paying attention.  We were halfway thru our second beer when the Professor reappeared with a smile and a Samsonite overnight case.  Kruger took the case and arched an inquisitive eyebrow.  The Professor said, “Very nice.  As good as advertised.  Three hundred and thirty thousand for the lot.”  Kruger shifted his eyebrow to Bolander who said, “I’ll take it,” and we did.

Leaving the compound with me behind the wheel, Bolander opened the case and whistled softly under his breath.  I glanced over at the banded stacks of cash and grinned.  We found a FedEx store in a Fort Worth mall and I watched the attendant box up the case and slap on a label addressed to Bolander at his home in the Ozarks.  “Safer than an armored car,” Bolander said as we crossed the parking lot.

Six hours later we were in a Best Western motel in Joplin, Missouri.  We ate a light supper and turned in early.

----- Wednesday -----

Up at dawn, we had breakfast at a Cracker Barrel and spent a little over an hour driving to Springfield, Missouri where we left the Interstate and followed twenty miles of twisty, two-lane backroad to Bolander’s place.

Opal was waiting.  She hugged us both, kissing me on the cheek and Bolander on the lips.  It was obvious what they wanted so I said I thought I’d take a walk.  I spent half an hour kicking thru leaves and chunking rocks at squirrels.  Back at the cabin, Bolander grinned at me while Opal rustled up something on the stove.  They had a we-just-fucked look about them and I felt a sharp pang of jealousy.  Not that I wanted Opal in particular, although I wouldn’t have kicked her out of bed, just that I could use a good fuck, too.  Later I’d drive into town and see if Sandy was still tending bar in one of its two taverns.

We washed down soup and sandwiches with cold beer, all of us antsy now that the money was in transit.  Like I said, waiting is the hard part; waiting for the job, waiting to fence the goods, waiting for the money to arrive.  The best thing about Bolander was his approach to thievery which was purely professional.  He had a solid reputation, but little was known about him.  No one knew who he really was, or where he lived, or anything about his background.  His only mode of communication was burner cell phones and he always called you, never the other way around.  Anonymity was his safety net, his protection, his way of staying off everybody’s radar.

Archie and I were exceptions to the rule.  We went way back with Bolander; back to being kids together, to the orphanage, to dropping out of school and running away to join the carnival.  Back to shoplifting and grifting and scamming marks and gradually working up from knocking over gas stations and convenience marts to banks, then jewelry stores.  That’s where we found our niches.  Bolander’s was loose gemstones (no jewelry or baubles, no matter how tempting).  Archie’s was being a dependable second banana, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but a guy you could count on and one hell of a wheelman.  As for me, I’ve always been a people person so I developed relationships.  I knew guys who knew guys who could fence anything if the money was right.  I knew a couple of high-priced defense lawyers who couldn’t care less if you were guilty, and a few judges (including two on the Federal bench) who could be bought, and several cops in several states who could make evidence disappear or fake you an ironclad alibi or provide reliable people to vouch for your sterling, law-abiding character.

As I said at the start, waiting is the hard part.  After ten years of being in business—an average of two Bolander jobs a year, plus several others for different clients—I was wrapping it up.  Nobody stays lucky forever.  Sooner or later the odds catch up with you.  All along I’d had a number in my head, a number that would let me live comfortably the rest of my life.  My cut from this last job of Bolander’s would put me over the top.  Bingo!  Time to retire to the land I’d purchased outside of Boise, Idaho, where I planned to raise a few cattle, grow some potatoes, and find a good woman who wanted to settle down with a guy who drank sparingly and knew how to treat her right.  Now the wait was almost over.  FedEx would deliver by 10am tomorrow.  I intended to be on the road by noon.  Bolander wasn’t sure what he was going to do.  Maybe find another partner, maybe go into semi-retirement, maybe open a legit business.

That afternoon Bolander took a nap while Opal and I played dominoes.  She told me how she’d met Archie when he came into a bar where she was waitressing.  He sat at a table by himself and nearby were two ersatz cowboys who were hassling her—asking for her number, remarking on her physical attributes which were plentiful, trying a little touch and grab.  She went across the room to wait on some college boys and saw that Archie had joined the two assholes.  By the time she returned, Archie was back at his table and the pair of hasslers were gone.  She told me he was such a mild-mannered guy she had no idea what he could have said to them.  I told her not to be fooled by Archie’s easy affability, that when riled he could be tougher than marked-down meat.

That was the same night she first met Bolander who stopped in to have a beer with Archie.  He was a charmer, Bolander was.  Handsome, too, far better looking than me or Archie.  He was the kind of man who had a way with women, and he had his way with Opal.  They’d been together going on four years, though I never got the feeling it was permanent.  A comfortable relationship to be sure, but more one of convenience, as if each of them was waiting for something better to come along.

I drove into town for supper, giving them some space and time.  After supper, I hit the local tavern for a few beers and some laughs with Sandy the bartender.  She and I had known each other a couple of years and were occasional fuck-buddies.  Those occasions being whenever I was at Bolander’s place.  Like me, Sandy enjoyed a good romp in the hay, no strings attached.  She called it intimacy-of-the-moment, which was the only kind either of us wanted.  After she closed the bar, we went to her apartment where we played some satisfying mattress polo then ate warmed-over pizza while naked in bed.  A shared shower led to us crawling back between the sheets for another athletic round of exercise before falling asleep, exhausted.

----- Thursday -----

I awakened early, but Sandy wanted to sleep in.  When I slapped her on the butt she rolled away and mumbled for me to leave her alone.  I found eggs in her refrigerator and scrambled four with sour cream and green onions, made some buttered toast, and watched Fox News while I ate.  It must have been a slow day for news because they had a segment on the Diamond Exchange robbery.  That’s how I found out about Archie.

FedEx had come and gone by the time I got to Bolander’s.  He was sitting at the table with stacks of cash in an open gym bag.  He nodded at the brown paper sack across from him.

“Forty-nine thousand five hundred,” he said.  “Your 15%.”

I didn’t count it, in fact didn’t even look at it.  Instead, I turned a kitchen chair around and sat, folding my arm across the back.  My eyes never left his face.

“Opal’s in the back packing,” he said.  “We’re leaving as soon as you do.  She wants to visit her people in Florida and I could use some sun, sand, and cold beer under an umbrella.”

My voice was a little raspy, partly from stress and partly from grief, when I asked, “Why’d you shoot Archie?”

His expression didn’t change except for a slight narrowing of his eyes.  He took a deep breath and let it out slowly.  “Believe me, Hank, he was already dead.  It was a gift.”

“A what?  Did you say a gift?  You’re going to have to make that make sense.”

“You had to be there,” he explained reasonably.  “He was gone.  All cut up and his head bashed in.  There was blood everywhere and he wasn’t breathing.”

“So you shot him?”

“I did it to confuse the cops.  I needed time to get away.”

“So you put the gun in his hand?”

Bolander sighed again, shook his head sadly.  “Believe me, if he’d been alive I’d’ve stayed.  As it was I wanted the cops thinking about him, not about a second guy.”

“So you made it look like a suicide?  That was pretty fast thinking, don’t you think?  What if he wasn’t dead, just in a really bad way?”

“I know dead, Hank,” he snapped, “and believe me, Archie was.”

“If it was like you say, why didn’t you tell me before?  Why’d I have to hear it on the fucking news?”

“Because I knew you’d take it the way you’re taking it now.  Man, you had to be there.  Do you honestly think I’d shoot him if he wasn’t already dead?”

“I dunno,” I said honestly.  “Maybe if you knew he was dying anyway.  If he wasn’t dying quick enough.  If you were worried he might give you up.”

“Archie wouldn’t do that.”

“You’re right, he wouldn’t.  Not ever.  But how could you be sure?  All those jewels and him being the only guy who could finger you.”

He tried being reasonable again.  “Even I’m not that cold.  Do you think I could be that cold?”

“I dunno,” I said slowly.  “I’m not sure.”

 “Shit,” he said gruffly.  I knew you’d take it all it wrong.”

“He was my brother,” I said sadly.

“Yes, and like a brother to me.  That’s what I’m talking about.  I wasn’t sure you wouldn’t come looking for me.  I’m still not sure of that.”

I thought about the revolver tucked in the waistband of my jeans. 

“If I wanted to kill you you’d already be dead.”

“Uh huh, but that’s right now.  What about later?”

“There is no later,” I said flatly.  “I’m out of business . . . retired . . . as of today.”

“That’s what you say, but I also know how you are.  You get fixated on something and can’t turn it loose.  You worry it like a dog worries a bone.  What if you’re sitting out there in the boondocks and decide there’s more to it than I’m telling you?  I don’t intend to spend the rest of my life looking back to see if you’re behind me.”

“I’m telling you it’s over,” I said flatly, almost convincing myself.

“I’d like to believe you, Hank.  Truly I would.”  His hand came up from under the table and he cocked the gun he held.  It made an inordinately loud sound in the quiet room.  “I just can’t take the chance.”

I could see his finger tightening on the trigger.  Two shots, almost as one—Bam!Bam!—but not from Bolander who stumbled forward half a step, surprise changing his face, his hand dropping as he fell against the edge of the table and onto the floor.  Standing behind him was Opal, smoke curling up from the muzzle of the gun she held.  Her expression was mixed, determination in the set of her jaw, regret in her green eyes.

I sat there, mouth agape.

“Dead or not, he shouldn’t have shot Archie,” she said quietly.  “He really shouldn’t have.”

Without Bolander standing between us, her gun was pointed at me.  It didn’t waiver.  My mouth was dry as cotton, but I managed to make my voice work.

“What happens now, Opal?”

She shook her head as if to clear it, then refocused her gaze on me.

“He was going to shoot you, too,” she said.  “Take your money and go, Hank.”  Glancing at Bolander’s body she added, “I guess his share is mine now.”

I looked down, too, then asked, “What about him?”

“I’ll take care of it,” she said in a wistful tone.

She dropped into what had been Bolander’s chair and put her head in her hands.  I rose to walk around the table and massage her shoulders while she cried softly.  Her trying to stifle the tears brought on the hiccups.  I patted her back and she finally lifted her head, saying, “You’d better go if you’re going to make any miles before dark.”

All I could think of to say was, “I may drive all night.”

She walked me to my car, the brown paper sack in one of her hands like a mom sending her son to school with his lunch.  I got behind the wheel and put the sack on the passenger’s seat beside me.  She leaned in the driver’s open window and kissed my temple.

“Drive carefully, Hank.  You’ve got my cell number, don’t be a stranger.  Call if you need anything.  I’ve never been west of the Rockies so maybe I’ll come visit sometime.”

“You’ll always be welcomed,” I said, suddenly realizing that I meant it.

Pulling down the driveway I looked up and saw her in the rearview mirror.  She had one hand on her hip and the other half-raised in a goodbye wave.  The sun highlighted her red hair like a nimbus.  Archie was dead.  Bolander was dead.  My old life was dead, and Idaho would be a new beginning.  How many people get that?

I wondered if she was coming on to me, that crack about maybe coming to visit.  Not that I’d mind so much, just that I didn’t know how to take it.  She’d saved my life, but unlike Bolander I wasn’t all that good with women.  She was a good one, though, that much I knew . . . and a good-looking one.

As I turned onto the twisty, two-lane blacktop I caught a last glimpse of Opal’s red hair.  Like a halo, I thought.  Maybe there was something there after all.  Once I got settled and some time had passed maybe I’d call her from Boise and find out.

 

END




Born and raised in the mountains of West Virginia, Jim has lived in ten states and three foreign countries. Currently retired somewhere in the Ozarks, he has a passion for his wife, blended (not sour mash) bourbon, Hawaiian shirts, anything fried in bacon grease in a cast-iron skillet, stray dogs, and whatever vegetables are in season with the exception of Brussels sprouts and eggplant.



In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2018