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Jim Farren
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murderboots.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright © 2017

MURDER BOOTS

A Clayce Talcott and Luther Twoshoes Story

 

Jim Farren

 

Black Tom Cahoon—not to be confused with his twin brother Red Tom Cahoon—leaned against a front porch post staring down at Clayce Talcott and Luther Twoshoes who stood in the snow-covered yard at the bottom of the steps.  Cahoon cradled a 12-gauge pump shotgun in the crook of his arm and it was common knowledge that he kept a holstered pistol in the small of his back and a hunting knife in his boot.  His gabardine work clothes were worn, but clean, and the brim of his slouch hat shadowed his eyes.

“What can I do for you, Talcott?” he asked in a neutral tone, neither hostile or friendly.

Clayce scratched the side of his nose and said, “Joe-Boy Puckett is dead.”

Cahoon didn’t seem surprised.  “Couldn’t happen to a nicer fella.  Can’t say I’ll lose any sleep over that news.”

“We need to talk to Vanda.  Thought she might be here.”

Cahoon spat tobacco juice into the yard and nodded his head.  “Showed up last night after supper with a black eye and a busted lip.”

“Compliments of Puckett?”

“She didn’t say and I didn’t ask.  You lay down with dogs, you get up with fleas.”

“And Puckett was a dog?”

“Worse.  He was a no-account, nickel-plated sonovabitch.  But they say love will not be denied nor sometimes even explained, and Vanda’s a grown woman.”

“She’s still your daughter.”

“There is that.  The missus patched her up and put her to bed.  She’s still asleep.”

“We need to talk to her.  For the record, Tom, where were you last night—after supper?”

“Right here,” Cahoon said.  “Never left the place.  You and your Injun c’mon in for coffee.  I’ll go wake Vanda.”

“By the way, Tom, aren’t you curious how Puckett died?”

“Nope.  Him just being dead suits me to a tee.”

“Well, in case you get curious later, it looks like he answered the front door and somebody blew him in half with a shotgun.”

----- / ----- / -----

“So,” Luther asked, “what do we know, hoss?”

He and Clayce sat across from each other in the last booth in the Coffee Cup Café.  They were sharing a Miner’s Special breakfast—eating sausage, eggs, biscuits and gravy, cheese grits, hash browns, and fried apples from communal plates.

Clayce pushed his hat back and a cowlick of sandy blonde hair fell across his forehead.  “Well, we know Joe-Boy Puckett is dead and, thanks to yesterday’s snowfall, we know whoever killed him was wearing brand-new hunting boots.”

“A lot of new boots around this time of year.  They make good Christmas presents.  Black Tom was wearing a pair.”

“You noticed that, did you?”

“I did.”  Luther’s grin was starkly-white against his dark cherry complexion.  His eyes were the color of ripe blackberries.  “You believe Vanda when she said Puckett was alive when she left the house?”

“No reason not to.  She said it had just started snowing when she took off.  That explains why there’s only one set of tracks from the street to the house and back again.  The weather folks say the snow stopped about 9:00pm, so the killing took place sometime after that.”

“You reckon we can match the tracks in the snow to the size and tread of Black Tom’s boots?”

“How many pair of size-10 Wood n’ Streams do you figure are being worn around town even as we speak?”

“Longenacre’s Sporting Goods sells ‘em like hotcakes, though not all size 10.”

“Maybe Hank or one of his clerks will remember who bought what.  After we finish here, we’ll go ask.”

“Speaking of finishing here, are you gonna eat that last biscuit or do I have to force myself?”

---- / ----- / -----

Dixie Cahoon was eating a bowl of chili when Clayce paused to kick the snow off his boots before entering the Café.  He took an adjacent counter stool and ordered coffee, then turned to the girl and said, “Cold out this morning.”

Dixie nodded agreement, but didn’t speak with her mouth full.  She was dressed in corduroy pants and a flannel shirt over faded red long johns.  Barely thirteen, she still had a smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and a gap-toothed smile.  Her carrot-colored hair was pulled back into a makeshift ponytail.  Her trapper’s hat had the ear-flaps down and there was a winter coat across her lap.  A single shot 16-gauge shotgun was propped against the counter beside her.

“You still running rabbit traps, Dixie?”

“Every morning, Chief.  Only it’s boxes, not traps.  They’re worth more alive than dead.”

“Get any today?”

“Four,” she said between bites.  “Two bucks, two does.”

“You are one industrious girl.  Tell me what happened out at your place day before yesterday.”

Dixie sighed before adding another package of saltines to her chili bowl.  “Joe-Boy came home half-drunk while Mom was fixing supper.  He accused her of smoking his last joint and they started yelling at each other.  I’ve got enough drama in my life without them fighting, so I left and spent the night at my cousin’s.”

“Why didn’t you go to your grandparents?”

“Because I knew that’s where Mom would end up going and, like I said, I’ve got enough drama what with algebra and puberty.”

Clayce sipped his coffee then remarked, “Life’s hard when your folks are dopers.”

“I’m used to hard.  I’ve been taking care of myself since I was nine.”

“How did you and Joe-Boy get along?”

“We didn’t.  I hardly ever saw him.  I stayed in my room or went out when he was around.”

“Did they fight much?”

“Just about always.  Mom’s buzzed most of the time and he was, too.  Plus, he drank like a fish.”

“He ever lay a hand on you?”

Dixie gave Clayce a you-must-be-kidding look.  “Joe-Boy was stupid, Chief, not crazy.”

Clayce laughed at that then glanced down.  “You’ve got pretty big feet for such a skinny girl.  New boots?”

“Uh huh.  I buy ‘em big so I can wear two pair of socks to keep warm in the woods.”

“And Joe-Boy was alive when you left the house?”

“Yes, sir, he was.  The two of them were about to start throwing dishes, so I went to Uncle Red’s.  My cousin Callie and me did our homework and watched TV.”

“And you didn’t go back to the house?”

“No, sir.  I called Grandma to make sure Mom was okay, but I stayed in on account of the snow.”

“You haven’t seen your Mom since you left?”

Dixie shook her head and took a deep breath.  “I went back to the house yesterday after school and cleaned up the mess.  There was a hole in the front screen door the size of a dinner plate and a lot of blood and stuff.  Mom will come home when she gets tired of Grandpa’s preaching and Grandma’s sympathy.

“Do you have any idea who might’ve killed Joe-Boy?”

“Somebody with a shotgun, though that don’t narrow it down much.”  Nodding to weapon beside her she added, “Even I’ve got one.”

Clayce took another sip of coffee and said, “Yes, you do, Dixie.  Yes, you do.”

----- / ----- / -----

Clayce was having supper at Luther’s house; fried squirrel, mashed potatoes, tomato gravy, home-canned string beans, and cat-head biscuits.  Seven of the Twoshoes’ brood crowded around the table while a toddler sat in a high chair and Patsy cradled the baby in the crook of her arm.

“Vanda pretty much ran off the rails after her husband died in that mine accident,” Clayce said.  “Got involved with the wrong crowd, started doing drugs, lost her job.”

“Poor woman,” Patsy said after handing the toddler a buttered biscuit to gum.  “Losing her man and left with an eight-year-old girl to raise.  I always liked Vanda.  She was a few years behind me in school, you know.”

“And then she hooked up with Joe-Boy.”

“Who was worthless as tits on a boar,” Luther said.  “All he ever did was deal drugs, and they say he used as much as he sold.  The word is he only married Vanda to get at the insurance money.”

“Daddy said ‘tits’, Mama,” one of the twins offered with a giggle.

“Don’t tattle,” Patsy said then asked Clayce, “Do you really think Tom Cahoon shot him?”

“Well, somebody surely did, and Cahoon’s a prime suspect.  Maybe he got tired of Joe-Boy knocking Vanda around.”

“Or maybe Dixie got tired of it,” Luther added.

“Luther!” Patsy frowned.  “You don’t really think that child killed her step-father, do you?”

“Don’t let the fact that she’s only thirteen cloud your judgement, honey.  She’s had a hard upbringing.  I’m not saying she did it, but I wouldn’t be all that surprised if she did.”

“Neither would I,” Clayce added while spooning more mashed potatoes onto his plate.  “Somebody pass me the gravy, please.”

----- / ----- / -----

 

----- / ----- / -----

The weather had warmed a bit, enough so that Clayce and Luther were standing in puddles of slush just off the porch.

“We’re looking for Tom, Miz Cahoon.”

With a nod of her head, Sarah Cahoon indicated the woods behind the house.  “He’s up on the mountain.”

“Making moonshine, is he?” Luther asked conversationally.

“I wouldn’t know.  I tend to my own knitting when it comes to what Tom does to provide for his family.”

“It’s the ATF’s problem if he is,” Clayce said.  “I’ve no issue with a man taking a drink now and then or oftener—or with a fella who supplies the booze.  When Tom gets home please tell him to come see me at the office.  Tell him I’m holding Dixie in connection with Joe-Boy Puckett’s murder.”

Sarah’s eyes widened in disbelief.  “Dixie?  Our granddaughter Dixie?  Our barely teenaged granddaughter?  You’ve arrested her?”

“Let’s just say she’s in protective custody until Tom and I talk.”  Tipping his hat deferentially, he added, “Tell him the sooner he comes in, the better.”

----- / ----- / -----

“Luther, if you shot a man with a pump shotgun, what’s the first thing you’d do?”

“What do you mean, hoss?”

“You’re a hunter, think about it.  You pull the trigger and then what?”

“Hmmmm.  I rack another round just in case.  There’s nothing more useless than an empty gun.”

“Bingo.  Did we find an empty shell out at Vanda’s place?”

“We did not, and there was no disturbance in the snow other than the boot tracks.

“Now, if you shot him with a single barrel, non-pump, what would you do?”

“The same thing, I suppose—open the breech and put in a new round.”

“And the empty shell casing, you’d drop it on the ground?”

“Nope, I’d put it in my pocket.”

“Exactly.”

“Are you saying that Dixie shot Joe-Boy, hoss?”

“I’m not saying anything, Luther.  I’m just thinking out loud.”

----- / ----- / -----

“What the hell is the matter with you, Talcott?”

Clayce looked up from behind his desk.  “Lower your voice and sit down, Tom.  Luther, pour Tom a cup of coffee.”

“I don’t want coffee,” Black Tom said, the blood-suffused darkness of his features more than living up to his name.  “What I want is Dixie and I want her now.  Where is she?”

“Back in one of the cells drinking hot chocolate and playing checkers with Bob Oliver.  Don’t worry, Tom, the cell’s not locked.”

“Have you gone daft, man?  Are you out of your mind?  She’s only a girl!”

“Who wears size 10 boots,” Clayce said mildly.  “Now sit down and let’s talk.”

Tom sat.  Luther poured him a cup of coffee and added a jolt of whiskey to ward off the chill.  He topped off his and Clayce’s cups before resuming his chair beside the stove.  Cahoon locked eyes with Clayce and huffed out a lungful of pent-up breath. 

“What’s this guff about Dixie’s boots?”

“They’re size 10,” Clayce repeated.  “Same size as the tracks found at the crime scene.”

Luther looked down at Cahoon’s feet.  “What size boots do you wear?” he asked softly.

“Size 10, same as Dixie,” Black Tom snapped.

“They look brand new.”

“They are.  I got ‘em for Christmas.  Same as Dixie.”

“How convenient,” Clayce mused, then placed his hands on the desk top.  “Tom, just between the three of us, did you kill Joe-Boy?”

“I did not.  And even if I did, you can’t prove it.”

“I’m not talking about what can be proved.  I’m talking about what happened.  If you didn’t kill him, Dixie did.”

“You’re out of your mind, Talcott.  She’s just a girl.  You’ve got nothing to show either of us did it.”

“Maybe not, but I know what I know.”

Black Tom shrugged to show he didn’t much care what Clayce thought he knew.  Placing his cup on the edge of the desk, he folded his hands together.  His voice was quiet and level. 

“You’re not welcome out to my place anymore, Chief.  Next time you come, bring a warrant.”

They stared at each other for a moment then Clayce sipped at his coffee and said, “Luther?  Please go fetch Miss Dixie so Tom can take her home.”

----- / ----- / -----

Luther poured two fresh cups of coffee and doctored them with whiskey before placing one in front of Clayce then taking his chair beside the stove and sipping from the other.

“How long are we gonna chase this fox around the tree, hoss?”

Clayce flashed a smile that never quite reached his eyes.  “Until one or the other of us gets tired, I reckon.  You tired yet, Luther?”

“More confused than tired.  What’re we going to do?”

“There’s not much we can do.  Without a shell casing at the scene there’s no way to tie a particular shotgun to the killing.  Only two suspects, both with brand new, size 10 boots.   No witnesses.  No confession and not likely to be one.  The DA says we don’t have enough evidence to arrest someone, much less take them to trial.  Besides which—to coin a phrase—Joe-Boy Puckett was a no account, nickel-plated sonuvabitch who dealt drugs and beat his common-law wife.  I doubt he’ll be missed.”

“Good riddance to bad rubbish?”

“Yes, to coin another phrase.”

“So, what do we do next?”

“There’s not much we can do.  Unless something changes, this is going down as unsolved.”

“Killed by party or parties unknown?”

“Yup.”

“But we know one of them killed Puckett.”

“Indeed we do,” Clayce agreed mildly.

“The question, hoss, is which one?”

“The answer to which is we don’t have the faintest idea.  Just out of curiosity, take your pick.”

Luther sucked at a back tooth to show both his displeasure and lack of certainty.

“That’d be a heap easier if they wore different sized boots.”






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





callitintheair.jpg
Art by Steve Cartwright © 2018

CALL IT IN THE AIR

 

A Clayce Talcott and Luther Twoshoes Story

 

Jim Farren

 

Halloween Bandits Strike Again

Beckley Herald, Staff Writer

 

The Halloween Bandits struck the New River Bank & Trust early Friday morning, making off with an undisclosed amount of cash.  Nicknamed because of the cartoon character masks they wear, the pair entered the bank shortly after it opened.  No customers were hurt, although the bank’s manager was beaten when he had trouble opening the safe.  This is the third bank holdup in the last five weeks.  As in the other robberies, the bandits took a teller hostage when they fled.  The hostage was later released unharmed.  Witnesses were unable to give more than a general description of bandits as two white males of medium height and build.  Anyone with information about the robbery should call the Beckley Police Hotline.

 

----- / ----- / -----

Twelve-year-old Arjay Cahoon—of the Horse Thief Hollow branch of the Red Tom Cahoons—looked at the other diners in the Coffee Cup Café before curling the fingers of his right hand into a loose fist, tucking his thumbnail under the edge of his forefinger then flicking upwards as if flipping a coin.

“Call it in the air!” he cried.  As everyone’s eyes lifted skyward seeking what turned out to be a non-existent coin, Arjay’s left hand surreptitiously swiped a Snickers bar from the counter display and slipped it into his pants pocket.  He grinned at the other customers’ laughter when he caught the imaginary coin, slapped it down on the back of his other hand, peeked underneath, and declared, “Heads!”

After the laughter died away, Harve Nebhut paid his check, Bethella Shawver went to wait on a booth full of teenagers, and Dink Rogers returned to the kitchen.  With no one else around, Clayce Talcott rose from his stool and leaned close to Arjay so only the two of them could hear.

“Put seventy-five cents by the cash register or put the candy bar back.”

“You saw that did you, Mr. Talcott?” Arjay asked with an infectious grin.

“I did,” Clayce said, “but I almost missed it. It’s near impossible not to look up when you do that.”

“I don’t really want the candy,” Arjay said.   “Just stayin’ in practice.”

“Uh huh, keeping your hand in as it were.  Never know when you’ll need it, right?”

“Yes, sir.  Just keeping my hand in.”

“And now you get to choose whether you want to pay for the candy or put it back.”

Arjay reached into his pocket and returned the candy bar to the counter display.

“I didn’t mean nothing by it, Mr. Talcott,” he said solemnly.  “I ain’t no thief.”

          ----- / ----- / -----

“The Cahoons are passably strange,” Luther Twoshoes said while apple-buttering a biscuit fresh from the oven. The biscuit’s heat filled the air with the smell of cinnamon.  Luther nudged the jar toward Clayce.  “The Ladies Aid Society made this last fall.  Better have some, it’s uncommonly good.”

Reaching for the jar, Clayce mused, “I reckon we’re all passably strange in our own way.”

“How’s that, hoss?”

“Well, take you and Pasty for instance.  You’ve got what, nine kids?”

“Yup,” Luther beamed, “and another one on the way.”

“I’d call that big a brood passably strange, especially in this day and age.”

Luther swallowed a bite of biscuit, washing it down with coffee as black as his eyes.  “I’m reminded of the time we got a new preacher several years back.  After Sunday services he was standing on the church steps greeting the parishioners, one of whom was Flip Houchins with his wife and a gaggle of young’uns hovering around.  The preacher looked over the brood and asked, ‘How many children do you have, Mr. Houchins?’  ‘Eleven,” Flip said with pride.  Surprised, the preacher asked, “How on earth did you end up with eleven children?’ Flip gave him a serious look and answered, “Well, sir.  We live on the edge of town and every morning at 4:45 the coal train to Beckley runs behind the house and wakes us up.’  Confused, the preacher asked, ‘What on earth does that have do with your having eleven children?’  At which Flip gave him a sly grin and a gentle nudge.  ‘Well, preacher,’ he explained, ‘at that time of morning it’s too early to go to work and too late to go back to sleep.’”

They both laughed, then Luther added, “By the way, hoss, you’re passably strange, too.”

“How so?”

“Well, you’re the Chief of Police who wears work pants and a bomber jacket instead of a uniform.  You live in a boardinghouse with a dog the size of a kiddie car, and you sleep with your socks on.  How’s that for starters?”

“Seldom Fed is more than a dog, Luther.  He’s my friend.”

“Be that as it may, you still sleep with your socks on.”

“So did my Grandma Talcott.  She said it keeps away the spiders and the bee.”

“And you don’t call that passably strange?”

----- / ----- / -----

A lazy Thursday afternoon in the Idle Hour Billiard Parlor.  The owners—Roy Wallace and Cussin’ Sam Reddeford—were dispensing beer and serving up burgers and fries from behind the bar.  Two barely-legal couples were playing shuffleboard while a scattering of other customers crowded around the half-dozen pool tables or watched the baseball game on the big screen TV.  Two retired miners were playing dollar-a-game 8-ball to a gallery of onlookers that included—among others—Clayce, Luther, and twelve-year-old Arjay Cahoon who was sipping an RC Cola and eating a box of Milk Duds.

Finishing the candy, Arjay tossed the empty box into the trash can and casually approached the pool table.  Curling his right hand into a loose fist, he tucked his thumbnail under the edge of his forefinger and flicked upwards as if flipping a coin.  “Call it in the air!” he shouted and—as everyone’s eyes lifted skyward—he palmed the cue ball off the table and into his pocket.  Grinning, he caught the imaginary coin, slapped it down on the back of his free hand, peeked underneath, and cried, “Tails!”

After the laughter died down, the miners went to resume their game.  One of them noticed the missing cue ball and looked around suspiciously.  “What the fuck?” he said heatedly.

Arjay glanced at the miners, then at Clayce who stared back with a bemused look and an arched eyebrow.  The boy ducked his head in mock contrition and plunked the ball back onto the table.  To no one in particular he muttered under his breath, “Just keeping my hand in.”

 

----- / ----- / -----

“How’s your love life, hoss?”

Clayce and Luther were in the office drinking coffee spiked with homebrew at the end of the day.  Luther’s question made Clayce uncomfortable and he squirmed a bit in his chair.

“That’s a pretty personal question out of the blue.”

“Yeah, but Patsy made me promise to ask it.  So, you sleeping with anybody other than your dog?”

“Seldom Fed doesn’t hog the covers, nor does he wrinkle his nose when I fart.  It’s a mutually agreeable arrangement.”

“Seriously, hoss…”

Clayce fidgeted with his hands and took another sip of coffee.  “I like things the way they are, Luther.  Right now, Miss Letitia is enough woman for me.”

“Miss Letitia?  Your landlady?  Letitia Harper is seventy-some years old and thinks she’s your mother.”

“Yes, but she’s a damned good cook and you can’t beat the rent.”

“But no fun to sleep with.  You know what Patsy says, don’t you?”

“I can hardly wait to hear this.”

“She says you’re too fine a man to be without a wife.  You’ve got a good job, you’re easy going, great sense of humor, and a lot more tender than you let on.  Any woman with half a brain would consider you a catch.  That’s what Patsy says, and it so happens that I agree with her.”

Clayce fidgeted some more, sipping coffee to lengthen the silence.  He finally let out a sigh and pushed his hat back until an unruly lock of sandy-blonde hair fell across his forehead.  His voice dropped an octave, his halting explanation punctuated by awkward pauses as he searched for words.

“Vickie was my heart, Luther, you know that...  I fell in love with her in second grade...  We were inseparable all thru high school…  Marrying her was the most natural—the most right—thing in the world… We had six wonderful years together and, of course we had Davy…  When he drowned it left a hole in both of us that couldn’t be filled.  It wasn’t that we blamed each other, we just couldn’t get past it…  We spent the next six years trying to keep together, but they only got worse.  That’s when she divorced me…  Now she’s married to Burl McCammon, the closest thing we have to crime lord in this part of the state.  It’s been nearly fifteen years since we’ve spoken, though I do see her around town once in a while, and every time I do it’s like getting kicked in the belly by a horse…  As stupid as it sounds—as stupid as it is—I can’t help but think one day will bring a knock on the door and when I open it she’ll be standing there with that damned crooked grin and a suitcase in her hand…  No, I don’t need another wife, Luther.  Not while I’ve still got one.”

Luther nodded his understanding and poured more ‘shine into their coffee cups.

“You know what this is leading up to, don’t you, hoss?”

Clayce rearranged his somber face into a half-hearted grin.

“Of course I do.  I’m invited to supper Friday night, right?”

“Uh huh, and wear a tie.”

“Because Pasty will has invited someone to join us, right?”

“Uh huh, and make sure you polish your boots.”

“Patsy’s going to play matchmaker, extoling both mine and my ‘date’s’ many virtues, right?”

“It seems you’ve been to this dance before, hoss.”

“Too many times to count.  Tell Patsy I’ll be there with reluctant bells on.”

“She just wants you happy, hoss.  To her that means married with kids.”

“I don’t want more kids.  That’s why I had a vasectomy.”

“Well, you can always borrow one of ours.”

“Yeah.  The way Patsy pops them out you probably wouldn’t miss one.  Luther, y’all do know what causes all those kids, don’t you?”

“Hey, hoss, we both got straight A’s in Biology.  We’re not so interested in the babies as we are fascinated with what you have to do it make ‘em.”

----- / ----- / ----- 

The Greenbrier Valley Bank opened Saturday morning promptly at 8:30 and, ten minutes later, there were a dozen customers in the lobby, including Clayce at the ATM and Arjay Cahoon in line to deposit his paper route money.  At 8:43, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse entered the bank brandishing automatics pistols.  The incongruity of armed cartoon characters was both disconcerting and surreal.

“Nobody moves!” Mickey Mouse shouted then jumped the teller counter while Donald Duck stood in the middle of the lobby.  “Empty the cages into a bag,” Mickey said to the head teller, Mavis Singlemount.  Then turning to Randolph Lilly, the bank president, he growled, “Let’s me and you visit the vault, Grandpa.”

Donald Duck herded the customers into a huddle near the loan department desks.  “Look down at the floor!” he screamed.  “Nobody moves, nobody gets hurt.”  Using his gun to point menacingly at Mavis who was emptying the tellers’ cash drawers into a canvas bank bag, he shouted, “No tricks, lady!  No dye packs, no trackers, and hurry the fuck up.”

Mavis was crying, as was an elderly lady with a rolled umbrella and an Hispanic woman with a toddler. None of the customers offered any resistance, including Clayce who kept a neutral, non-threatening look on his face.  He could feel the weight of his revolver high on his right hip, hidden by his brown-leather bomber jacket.

Arjay was standing next to Clayce who put his hand on the boy’s shoulder and said, “It’s okay, son,” in a protective tone.  A woman behind Clayce whispered, “It’s the Halloween Bandits.  I read about them in the paper.”

“Shut up!” Donald Duck screamed, waving his automatic in their direction.  Then he yelled toward the vault, “Hurry up, Frank!”

Frank—aka Mickey Mouse—reappeared with two bank bags in his free hand.  Using his automatic to prod Randolph Lilly ahead of him he said, “We’ll need some insurance.  One of the women.”  Pointing at Mavis he said, “You’ll do, sweetie.  Let’s take a little ride.”

“Please no,” Mavis stuttered, too scared to move.  “My husband.  My children.  They need me.  Please…”

“You’ll be okay, lady.  Nobody gets hurt as long as nobody follows us.  Now come over here.”

Arjay looked up at Clayce and slowly raised his right hand, forming it into a loose fist.  Puzzled at first, Clayce’s eyes suddenly registered understanding and he fought to keep his face neutral.  “Do it,” he hissed softly to the boy.  “Do it now.”   

Shuffling half a step forward, Arjay flipped his imaginary coin and cried, “Call it in the air!”

Every head turned and all eyes—including those of the Halloween Bandits—lifted skyward.  All eyes except those of the Chief of Police.

 In one fluid motion Clayce took two steps sideways to clear the gaggle of customers, drew his revolver, crouched into the classic two-handed shooting stance, and fired one shot into the air—*Bam!*  He yelled, “FREEZE ASSHOLES!” and watched Donald Duck throw his hands, and his gun, in the air.  Before the bandit’s automatic could hit the floor, his cohort in crime turned and brought his gun to bear.  Without hesitating, Clayce shifted slightly, refocused his aim, and shot Mickey Mouse out of his shoes—*Bam!Bam!Bam!*

Randolph Lilly fainted, and Mavis Singlemount wet her pants.

----- / ----- / -----

Monday at noon, Luther stuck his head in Clayce’s office and asked, “How you holding up, hoss?”

“Good.  It’s easier when they don’t give you a choice.  Instinct takes over before you can think about it.  Still…”

“He didn’t give you a chance to choose.”

“No, he didn’t.  And, nobody else was hurt.  That’s the main thing.”

“You want to go to lunch?”

“Sure.  Where?”

“We could go to the house.  Patsy makes a great sandwich.”

“No offense, but I had enough of Patsy at dinner on Friday.  Where does she find these women?”

“You didn’t like SueAnn?”

“No, I liked her just fine.”

“But not enough to ask her out?”

“She doesn’t like dogs, Luther.  What kind of woman—especially a Southern woman—doesn’t like dogs?”

“She has three cats.”

“Uh huh.  So many cats, so few recipes.”

“Want to go to the Café, or the Idle Hour?

“Either one works for me.”

“Well, don’t make me choose.  You know I hate to choose.  Just blindfold me and lead the way.”

“I’ve got a better idea,” Clayce said, reaching into his pants pocket for a quarter.  Curling his hand into a loose fist, he tucked his thumbnail under the edge of his forefinger.

“A better idea, hoss?”

“Uh huh,” Clayce said as he flipped the quarter skyward.

“Call it in the air!”  


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.

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