Manny Dietrich’s Adventure in the Blighted
by Roger Johns
Christmas decorations during warm weather made Manny Dietrich feel blue,
so he tried hard to avoid the Gulf Coast between Thanksgiving and New Year. But the bills
didn’t pay themselves, so if the best loads took him south in the latter part of
the year, that’s where he went.
bright side, if he played his cards right, the high-value haul like the one he had just
picked up from the electronics distributor near Corpus Christi could be the start of a
nice book of profitable business––a very big deal for a chronically struggling,
independent trucker. As he barreled down the ramp onto the Interstate, he was feeling pumped
at the prospect of a steady stream of decent income. At last, he and Tina would be able
to pay down some of their crushing debt, most of which could be chalked up to his penchant
for sinking money into one can’t-miss scheme after another.
an hour later, Manny checked his left-side mirror. Everything looked clear. He fingered
his turn signal, counted off three blinks, then eased toward the passing lane to get away
from the rocks blowing off the un-tarped gravel truck ahead of him. But, just as his front
left wheel was crossing the line, a blue Challenger roared out of his blind spot, crowding
him, forcing him to oversteer back into the slow lane. The abrupt change of direction made
his trailer sway, causing the back of his cab to scuff sideways and lose traction for a
second. Panic arced across his nerves as he struggled to stabilize the rig. After he got
things under control, he drew in a deep breath then puffed it out, trying to tamp down
the homicidal urges that inconsiderate drivers stirred inside him. As his calm returned,
a stone from the gravel truck dinged high off the pavement and chipped a dime-sized star
into his windshield, redlining his anger once again.
was keenly aware of when a tailgater was lurking in the long, wedge-shaped blind spot directly
in back of his trailer, but he hadn’t seen the Challenger move in behind him because,
for the last several minutes, his mind had been elsewhere. Specifically, it was throbbing
in his pants, insisting he find a pay-to-play cutie to help him celebrate his newfound
good fortune. He had promised himself, and Tina, that there’d be no more monkey business
of that kind, but the pert looking female gate guard at the electronics company had
vectored his thoughts off on one hell of a wicked tangent, and his filthy imagination had
been hogging his attention ever since.
“Satan, get thee behind me,” he muttered, over the wheedling voice of
his domineering penis that never knew when to shut up.
minutes later, with the sun down and his better instincts still battling the forces in
his nether regions, Manny found himself guiding his Freightliner onto an exit that would
take him to a truck stop he had been to before. At the top of the ramp, he turned right,
even as he told himself he shouldn’t. He finally had a good thing going, so why risk
the prospect of lasting happiness for a few frenzied minutes of feeling good. Still pondering
that question, he turned into the lot.
was potholed and rutted, and some of the holes were full of rainwater, so Manny maneuvered
carefully. Drifts of litter swirled and scudded through the beams of his headlights. As
he continued forward, he noticed the limp strands of half-burned-out Christmas lights sagging
from the canopy over the fuel pumps. The once tidy establishment had become a dismal, uninviting
place since his last visit.
He wondered whether this decline was a danger
signal from the universe, urging him to take back control from the smooth-talking demons
that were goading him ever closer to the near occasion of sin. Excellent idea, he thought,
then steered away from the shadowy perimeter and headed for the brightly lit parking lane
closest to the restaurant. He’d just pop in for a quick bite, then get rolling again.
fifty yards out, the owner, who Manny recognized from other times he’d been here,
came hustling over with an orange traffic cone, waving him toward the far side of the tarmac.
the…” He took his hands off the wheel and shrugged.
man positioned the cone in the center of the lane, then ambled toward the cab, twirling
a finger for Manny to roll down his window.
Manny eased to a stop and lowered the glass.
two rigs through that lane picked up some metal in their tires,” the guy hollered,
over the valve clatter of the big diesel. “Until I can run the sweeper-magnet over
it, I don’t want anybody else going through there. The only pull-through left is
on the outside of that dry bulk tanker.” The man pointed toward the edge of the lot.
enough.” Manny nodded and snapped off a thank-you salute, then raised the window
and leaned into the wheel to make the turn. “Do not go there,” he said out
loud, as if hearing himself speak might prop up his fragile resolve. “Don’t
even stop for dinner. Just loop your spineless, pathetic ass around the building and get
back on the damn highway.”
The murky fringes out beyond the tanker truck were a breeding ground for Manny’s
darker desires––a blighted kingdom ruled by the lot lizards, those clever reptiles
that slithered around in the oppressive gloom, preying on the weak and the lost. Tina would
kill him and then divorce his dead body if she found out he was fooling around with truck
stop hookers again. Tina was three inches taller than Manny, big-boned, and about as graceful
on her feet as a clog dancer in scuba fins, but in bed she was lighter than air and, hands
down, the most accomplished sexual athlete he had ever encountered. By comparison, sex
with his first two wives had been about as much fun as jerking off with channel-lock pliers.
figured that after one night with Tina, any sane human would be forever blind to the charms
of others, but when it came to his genitalia, Manny was nowhere close to being sane. He
had tried more times than he could count to rid himself of his troublesome appetites, but
nothing worked. Not prayer, not sex addiction therapy, not confession-and-remorse, not
anything. He had sought salvation in all of them, and they had all let him down. His craving
for the incandescent ecstasy of something really nasty and anonymous was hard-wired so
deep into his nervous system that even the weeks of shame and self-loathing that always
dogged him after he fell weren’t enough to keep him on the straight and narrow.
could go for months without incident, but once his carnal appetites got inflamed nothing
seemed too dumb or too desperate. And the trigger could be as innocent as a picture in
a catalog––some high-class model in expensive clothes, with that pompous look
that said ‘I know you want to take me down a peg or two, and you’re welcome
to try, so why don’t you pull over at the next truck stop and find yourself a fuck-buddy
and pretend it’s me when you’re rockin’ the cab, tryin’ to make
me beg.’ Today, it had been that smokin’ hot rent-a-cop at the company gate,
acting all tough and moving like a cat in that tailored uniform of hers. The only mercy
in the whole business was that usually, when the fever was on him, his conscious mind wouldn’t
even let him remember what Tina’s face looked like.
though, things would be different. With a renewed sense of determination, he aimed the
truck toward the exit, but then he backed off the gas and coasted for a few seconds, thinking,
reasoning that he shouldn’t just get back on the road. That would only be putting
off the inevitable. He needed to drive a stake through the hunger that was dragging him
toward the pit, so he turned toward the gloomy periphery and babied the accelerator until
he was inching his way along the outside of the tanker. He would call Tina, and she would
save him. On more than one occasion, the mere sound of her voice had hauled him back from
Manny brought the rig to a gentle stop. With the engine idling, he grabbed his phone
and hovered his thumb over Tina’s number…then wondered. Was that a weary sadness
he’d heard in her voice the last few times he made these calls? Surely, by now, she
had wised up to the fact that ‘I just wanted to hear your voice,’ really meant
‘Talk to me or I might fork over a wad of cash to some tarted-up working girl so
she’ll pretend to catch me acting sinful and then punish me in some mind-blowing
taboo way.’ No, maybe these calls weren’t such a great idea after all.
Thinking about how often he had used her as crutch, and how she never
complained, made Manny feel like shit. But when it dawned on him that, for the first time
in a long time, he was judging his actions in terms of how they would affect his wife,
he felt good again—like a decent guy, a real husband.
and sat up straighter, deciding this wave of positive emotional energy was all he needed
to win this one on his own. He dropped his phone into the cup holder, and was reaching
for the gear shifter when he heard a knock and saw a woman’s smiling face in the
narrow peek-a-boo window at the bottom of the passenger door. She cocked one eyebrow and
tilted her head, causing the white pompom on her green velvet elf hat to dance a provocative
little jig alongside her chin.
Damn, this ain’t playin’ fair. He eyed his phone and thought about
Tina, but when he reached for the phone, his hand just kept on going, all the way across
the cab, until he popped the lock on the passenger door. Oh well, who ever said life was fair?
disappeared and footsteps tapped along on the running board. Before Manny could rethink
the situation, she was all the way in, leaning back against the door, her short skirt riding
up as she pulled her knees to her chest. In the dim greenish light of the cab, Manny could
see she wasn’t wearing panties. She lowered her oversized shoulder bag to the floor
and watched him staring between her legs.
like my outfit?”
She snapped her head from side to side,
whipping the pompom back and forth. Her eyes gleamed with a wild taunting look, then she
stared down into her bag.
“Like the good little Santa’s
elf that I am, I brought a bag full of toys.”
She pushed her mouth into an
“You think I’ve got something
you’d like to play with?”
Manny glanced at the dash clock. He’d be cutting it close but, if he was back
on the highway in under half an hour, he could still make his drop-off on time, and no
one would ever know about this tiny indiscretion. What could possibly go wrong?
at the woman. “What kinda deal we talking?”
what you want to do.” She nibbled her lower lip, then looked away, a shy smile tugging
at her mouth. “And where you want to do it.” She giggled and flashed a devilish
grin. “For instance, my all-time favorite, involves this bad boy right here.”
Her gaze roamed across the ceiling of the cab. The plastic-on-plastic
clatter, as she stirred her hand around inside her bag, sent visions of sex toys dancing
in Manny’s head.
“You think you can operate a power tool like this?” She laughed and
leaned back so Manny could have a look.
As he bent
over for a peek, her hand came out holding a pistol-grip stun gun. She pressed it into
his left armpit and squeezed the trigger. As his limbs jittered and jerked, Manny caught
sight of men’s faces just outside the little window at the bottom of the door. He
heard the locks pop, then both doors came open. Cargo pirates.
Manny sensed someone step up
behind him. A strip of duct tape was slapped across his mouth, a heavy cloth sack was dropped
over his head, and strong arms bundled him into the sleeper cab. He heard the doors slam
shut and the engine rumble, then felt his truck, with its big-dollar cargo, lurch into
motion. Another jolt of current pushed Manny to the edge of awareness, where he finally
realized how incredibly lucky he’d been to have Tina in his life. As a ligature was
cinched tight around his neck, he wondered how she would remember him, and he wished he
had been a better person.
Roger Johns is the
author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising and River
of Secrets, from St. Martin’s Press. He is a 2018 Georgia Author of the
Year, a two-time Finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, and
runner-up for the 2019 Frank Yerby Award. His short fiction appears (or is
forthcoming) in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Mystery Weekly
Magazine, and Dark City Crime & Mystery
Magazine. Roger’s articles and interviews about writing and career
management appear in Southern Literary Review, Writer Unboxed, and
Southern Writers Magazine. Along with several other crime fiction authors, he blogs