Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: Redemption or Bust - I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down
They didn't keep me waiting.
I spotted the first guy about ten yards out ahead of me. He was in the corn like I thought he'd be but was close to the edge and making a racket as he stomped along.
I wondered what Rosario would think of his technique.
He was a light-skinned black man, tall and big through the shoulders. The bright blue aloha shirt and black leather porkpie hat made for terrible cornfield camouflage.
He was carrying a semi-automatic and it looked a little silly in his big hand.
I walked straight at him, both guns at the ready, and let him see me.
He opened his mouth to holler but I encouraged him to keep his trap shut with Vern's Glock.
I stopped just outside his very long reach.
We sized each other up in silence.
He was big and dangerous and wary of me without being scared. He cracked a smile, revealing an immaculate set of choppers. I looked like crap and I knew it. My face was broken, my hands were shaking, and I was walking and on force of will alone. My ass was already kicked.
I did have two guns pointed at his chest while his was pointed at the ground. It gave him something to think about.
“Drop it,” I growled.
He stood still and stared at me. His brow creased and the corners of his mouth turned down.
I couldn't see his eyes behind his shades but his confusion was obvious. He wasn't used to being on the shit end.
“Drop it,” I repeated.
“Not gonna happen,” he replied. He had a smoker's voice, low and reedy, with a hint of an accent I couldn't place. He kept grinning at me. I must've looked even worse than I felt. He was banking on me falling down before I could pull the trigger.
“Who are you guys?” I demanded.
He grinned some more, like he'd thought of a way out, and shifted his weight.
“Who the hell are you?” he countered.
“That's not how this works.” I nodded at my guns. “Open ends, pointed at you. Fingers on triggers. So I ask, you answer.”
He shook his head. “Not gonna happen.”
Calmness settled over me. This had only one way to end.
“I don't want to shoot you,” I said, sotto voce.
“You're gonna have to,” he said.
I had him, had every advantage in the situation, and he still almost beat me.
He got his gun all the way up before I took a step back and let him have it. Two rounds from the Glock. Center mass. No joy. No anger. This was survival.
The front of his aloha shirt went red and he fell over backwards.
Nausea set in as the echoes of the gunshots bounced around the cornfield. Shooting another living creature is not a natural act and no matter what you see in the movies it's not something one does with ease. I'd been in the game for over a decade and was in the army before that but I could still count on my fingers the number of times I'd fired a gun with the intention to do harm.
I checked the body for anything useful but came up empty. No surprise there.
I forced myself to take a good, long look at the dead man's face.
“Who are you, you big, dumb bastard?”
I heard the other guy before I saw him and I knew he was a big boy because the ground rumbled and the corn shook as he bulled his way to the sound of the gunfire.
The man was short and round-- a fire hydrant with legs and a beer gut. He had a lot of thick brown hair, both on his head and under his nose. His aloha shirt came off the same rack as his partner's. If he also had a porkpie hat he'd left it in the Mustang.
He came charging hard out of the corn but stopped short when I greeted him with Browning in my left hand.
My left hand. That was the joke of the year. I couldn't shoot worth a damn lefty. I'd do more damage if I threw the thing at him.
The guy cursed with real enthusiasm when he saw his partner's corpse at my feet. He didn't want to get shot so he held his hands out in front of him with his gun pointed up at the sky.
I closed the gap and switched up so he had the Glock in his face. I tucked my Browning away behind my back where it snuggled up with the file folder Vern showed me.
“Let's have it,” I said.
Roundboy handed over a Desert Eagle 5.1, a nice piece but more gun than I go in for. I emptied it and launched it as far as I could into the corn.
“All right,” I said. “Spill it.”
He let out a big breath and made a grab for the Glock.
I jumped back and brought the butt of the gun down on his head.
He grunted and went to one knee.
“Spill it,” I repeated.
He said nothing. I cuffed him with my open hand.
“Names. Places. Now.”
More silence. More violence.
“Talk to me, man. Anything. Names. Places. Your grandmother's toll house cookie recipe. Whatever it takes to get you started.”
He squinted at me and for a second I half expected him to talk semi-sweet morsels but he grunted and sighed and then shrugged.
“You have no idea what you're into,” he said. His voice was low and powerful. He could've had a career narrating movie trailers. “You don't want any part of this, man. I'm tryin' to be a pal here. You don't have to be in this. You don't wanna be in this. Take the car, man. Take the car and go. Keys in the ignition. Go back to wherever you came from and forget you ever fucking saw us.”
“Love to,” I said. “I can't. Not anymore. So out with it. Start at the beginning.”
Roundboy shook his head and struggled to stand up.
“Last chance,” he croaked. He had his legs under him, sort of. They were on the spindly side for a guy with that much up top. “It's dough, pal, just dough. Not worth your life.”
I twisted out of the way and drove my foot into his knee. He buckled and pitched forward. I got down low and slugged him with all one hundred eighty eight pounds worth of Jake. Knuckles crumpled on impact.
If the man had had a neck his head would've snapped back but as it was he dropped, bounced once, and was still.
I didn't think I'd find a wallet or any kind of identification on his person so I wasn't disappointed when I didn't find any. The only thing he had on him was a cell phone. I pocketed it and walked back to the SUV.
Vern was just as dead as he was when I left him.
I made a mental note to say Kaddish for him, if for no other reason than, “You're a reasonable guy”, made for lousy last words.
I dug a pen and some paper out of the glove box and wrote down the first ten numbers in the call log on Roundboy's phone. Then I used a rag to wipe down anything I'd touched in and on the SUV. I cleaned the Glock and left it on the passenger seat.
I dialed up the cops on my way to the Mustang.
When they picked up I gave them the what and as much of the where as I could. I kept the who to myself since I was the only person there whose identity I was one hundred percent sure of.
I wiped the phone clean and stuck it back in Roundboy's pocket and continued on to the Mustang.
The keys were in the ignition, like Roundboy said they'd be. The rifle was sitting on the back seat. I used the rag to grab the gun by the barrel and placed it in the trunk.
There was no registration card in the glove and no surprises anywhere in the car but there was a little road atlas. After a few minutes' consultation I was ready to blunder my way back to Caravan Bay and the one person in these parts I had any reason to trust.
I ditched the Mustang in a supermarket parking lot about a mile away from the Sunshade Motel and hoofed it the rest of the way in.
I looked but my Olds was not in the parking lot.
I staggered into the office, shoved the foliage out of my way and fell into one of those rattan chairs.
Evangeline took one look at me and ran around from behind the desk. She was wearing a red Gold's Gym t-shirt and a long, hip-hugging denim skirt.
“You could've told me she was Reuben's ex-wife,” I said.
“You didn't ask,” she replied.
She dropped into the chair next to mine and started checking out the new cuts and scrapes on my arms and face.
“I better get Santo over here,” she muttered as she poked around. “You wanna tell me what happened?”
She badgered me until I gave her enough to get the idea but not so much that she could be charged as an accessory after the fact if things blew up on me. She wasn't happy when I told her Rosario looked hinky.
“I know she and her sister aren't close,” she said, “but I didn't think...” She shrugged, her face dark with anger.
“Not your fault, Evangeline.”
She fretted and kept on probing my bruises.
“I better get Santo over here.”
“Let him be. He's barely had time to recover from putting my face back together last night.”
She nodded. “Stay put,” she said as she jogged out of the office. She returned a minute later with some towels and a bag of ice. She made two ice bags for me, placed one on my battered right hand, and held the other against the side of my face.
“Reubens is in prison,” I said, “so how come you didn't want to even give me his name?”
“The big man you tussled with, that's Reubens' boy. He showed up here after being gone a long time. I didn't know what to think, but it couldn't be good, yeah?”
I let her work on me for a few more minutes. I wanted to get back out there but I was useless in the shape I was in.
“You think I could grab a shower?” I asked her.
“I think that can be arranged,” she said. “You paid me for a week.”
She got up and put the icebag down on the chair.
“But you can't go back to your room. You can use my shower.”
Evangeline led me around the desk and through a door into the room behind the office.
It wasn't much bigger than standard hotel room. She'd replaced the bed with a futon and the other furniture-- an easy chair, a pair of sturdy nightstands, a chest of drawers, and a table and chair set that put the one in my room to shame-- gave off an air of permanence. There was a kitchenette built on to one side.
It was a neat room. No clothes scattered around, no dishes on the table or in the sink.
The walls were painted lavender and there was a mural on the wall beside the futon. It was of a tree in silhouette, with bare limbs. A birdcage hung from one of those limbs. The cage was open and birds were flying out of it, a whole flock of them.
“You live here?” I asked.
“I live here, I eat here, I'm here every day. This motel is my life.”
My duffel bag was sitting on the floor next to the futon.
“You go ahead and get cleaned up,” she said. “I'll come and check on you in a few. Then you're gonna get some sleep.”
She left me alone in her room before I could argue.
I stashed my Browning and the file folder in the duffel bag and then stripped down and headed into the bathroom.
The bathroom wasn't as neat as the rest of Evangeline's place. It was clean but the sink was cluttered with a collection of skin care products and soaps. A green plastic hamper occupied the wall opposite the shower. There was a thick stack of paperback books, mostly poetry, on the toilet tank.
I started when I got a load of my reflection in the mirror. My body looked like I'd been used to force the Northwest Passage.
The hot water felt wonderful and awful at the same time and after what felt like three days some of the tension left my neck and shoulders and I stepped out of the shower feeling like a new man.
Evangeline was waiting for me when I stepped out of the bathroom.
Good thing I opted to wrap a towel around myself first.
She turned her back long enough for me to get into a t-shirt and a pair of shorts and then guided me down onto the futon, and by guided I mean shoved me onto the futon and held me there 'til I lay still.
Before I knew it I was tucked in under the covers.
“Sleep now,” said Evangeline. “Five hours minimum.”
“What makes you think I'm not gonna get up and sneak out of here the minute you leave the room?”
She chuckled and stepped out of her slides.
“Shove over,” she said.
I was too surprised to do anything but stare at her as she moved me over next to the wall and stretched out next to me. .
“What makes you think I'm not gonna climb right over you and take off?”
“Two things. One, I can break you. I feel you on top of me that's exactly what's gonna happen. I'm a very light sleeper.” She fixed me with a stare that was three parts force and one part mischief. “There may yet be a time for that but that time is not now.”
“What's the other thing?”
“I'm right and you know it.”
Evangeline was not as light a sleeper as she professed.
After a couple of hours of shuteye I woke up and got right over her and out of bed but didn't go any further than the office desk. I used the phone to work my list of phone numbers. Nine of the ten were easy. Burner phones. The tenth gave me things to think about. It was the most recent number, was an incoming call, and the area code put it in Danforth.
I also read through Vern's file folder, which turned out to be of not much use. A few more pictures of Reubens, a bunch of police documents detailing the investigation, and some court documents. I didn't learn anything I hadn't already guessed. Like Vern told me, that file was the past.
Evangeline woke up while I was sitting at the desk thinking it over. She stood behind me and yawned and told me if she ever caught me behind her desk again she'd rip my arms off. But she said it with a smile.
A guy could get used to that smile.
We went over to Beau's Bar & Grill an hour later.
It was a slow night at the bar. Seven drinkers sat scattered around the bar and only one other table was occupied.
I had the Jesse James seat which afforded me a good view of everyone walking in or out of the place.
Evangeline was sitting across from me, alternately ordering me to eat my burger and telling me what she knew about Marisa and Reubens.
“She never seemed real happy,” she said. “I don't know what brought those two together but it sure wasn't love.”
I chewed and nodded. Beau's burgers aren't bad but they taste a lot better when eaten out on the beach late at night.
“She from around here?”
“Nope. She came on vacation and by the end of that summer she was Mrs. Jed Reubens.”
“Do you think she knew what he was into?”
“Don't see how she could not know. He was the worst kept secret. Ever. Everybody knew about Reubens. Everybody was also scared to do anything about him.”
“That include the police?”
“Especially the police. Sheriff Williams'd turn his car around and go the other way when he saw Jed coming.”
“I take it he wasn't real helpful when it came time to take Reubens down.”
“Not at all. The state police and the Feds never even let him know they were coming. They probably thought he was on the take.”
“You don't think he was?”
“Shit no. What Joe Williams lacked in backbone he made up for with honesty. He wasn't taking Reubens' money.” She finished her beer and shot me a look. “That's enough yakkin' for now. That burger's not gonna eat itself.”
I waved my white paper napkin in surrender and ate and while I did she filled me in on Marisa.
There wasn't much there.
Marisa showed up around town on Reubens' arm, sat on the beach by herself by day, and partied with her husband's friends at night.
“You don't think much of her, do you?” I asked.
“I don't think anything of her. Never been anything but nice to me, always seemed friendly enough. But you could tell something was wrong. This is just me lookin' in from outside. We never had us a heart-to-heart or nothing like that.”
I nodded my understanding. Evangeline saw a lot. She'd have made an excellent detective.
“She's got you by the short-hairs though,” she said.
I shrugged. “What can I tell you? We hit it off yesterday. Shit, was that only yesterday? Moved a lot faster than I thought it was going to and it felt pretty damned good. Guess I wasn't using my head.”
She grinned. “Oh, you were usin' your head all right, Jake Tunner.”
I conceded the point.
“She in danger?” asked Evangeline.
“She seemed to think so. She asked me if I knew how to hurt people.”
She raised an eyebrow at me.
“And now she's out there, mixed up in something she may or may not know anything about with her twin sister, who may or may not be a dangerous criminal. In my fucking car.”
“So you're gonna play hero and get her out of trouble.”
“Something like that.”
She let her breath out and looked at me sideways while she shook her head.
“She asked me for help, or at least she was going to in the morning. Stuff happened before she could get around to it. It could be I'm all she's got. So yeah. I'm gonna play hero and go find her, make sure she's safe, and then say goodbye.” I finished my beer. “Besides, I want my car back.”
She smiled and let it blossom into a laugh. “You really love that hunk of junk, don't you?”
I smiled back at her. “Yes, yes I do.”
“Says a lot 'bout a man, how he cares for his ride, how long he holds on to it.”
“Does it now?”
She nodded. “Of course, you went and let yours get stolen.”
The door to the bar opened and a very large black man in a tan police uniform walked in. The bar's patrons turned to look and then resumed their business.
“That Sheriff Williams?”
Evangeline looked over her shoulder.
“Naw. Sheriff Williams retired two years ago. That's the new guy. Sheriff Orion. P. Jones.”
“Hmmm. From the number of Confederate flag bumper stickers I've seen around here I don't imagine that goes over real well.”
“You'd be surprised. Orion treats people fair and they respect him for it. Doesn't mean they like it but it's a peaceable enough situation. Most times.”
Sheriff Jones removed a pair of sunglasses and put them in his shirt pocket while scanning the sparse crowd inside of Beau's.
When he spotted me and Evangeline he came right over and stood at the head of our table.
“Hello, Evangeline,” he said.
“Orion,” she replied. “Take a load off, Sheriff.”
She scooted over on the bench.
“Thank you kindly,” he said as he sat down and removed his hat.
He was darker-skinned than Evangeline, dark chocolate to Evangeline's cafe au lait, and had a head of very short salt and pepper hair set well back on his forehead. There was a rough patch of skin where his hat brim rubbed. He was clean-shaved and in good fighting trim. This was no flabby country sheriff.
“I don't think we've met,” he said. “Sheriff Orion Jones.” He extended his hand across the table.
I put mine out to meet him and winced in anticipation of his vise grip. “Jake Tunner.”
We were about to shake when he turned my hand so my palm faced the table.
“That looks painful, Jake. Real painful.”
“You got that right.”
He let go of my hand and looked me in the face.
“Rough night?” he asked.
“You could say that.”
“Wouldn't mind seeing some identification, Mr. Tunner.”
I dug out my wallet and handed it over. “Here you go, Sheriff. And you can call me Jake.”
“I appreciate that, Jake. Glad to hear there's no hard feelings.”
Evangeline watched the two of us, taking in every look, every gesture.
“Hard feelings, Sheriff?” she asked. “You boys just met.”
The sheriff smiled and handed me back my wallet.
“Well, 'vangeline,” he said, “there's often a certain... animosity, between police and those in... private practice.”
“It's true,” I agreed. “But there's no cause for it here, is there, Sheriff?”
He nodded. “Just so, Jake. Still, I think you're going to have to accompany me back to the station.”
Evangeline and I asked the question in unison.
Sheriff Jones looked from her to me and back at her and then put his hat on and stood up.
“We had some goings on a little ways down the road this morning,” he said. His stare leveled off. “Think you might be able to help me get it sorted out, Jake?”
“I don't know, Sheriff. Why me?”
The sheriff looked to Evangeline again. Her hand had found its way onto my forearm.
“Jake, you sittin' here with Evangeline here gets you points in my book but does not change the fact that I have a witness in my office who saw someone who looks a lot like you tearing out of his cornfield in a black Mustang convertible this morning. We found some... interesting things in that cornfield.”
Evangeline gave my forearm a squeeze and nodded when I looked to her for advice.
I caught and held Sheriff Orion P. Jones' gaze for a few long seconds and made up my mind about him.
“I didn't tear out of that cornfield, Sheriff. I obeyed all posted speed limits on my way out of there. For a while, anyway.”
I stood up and turned around so he could handcuff me.
“What are you doing, Jake?” he asked.
“I'm a suspect, aren't I?” I turned back to face him.
He put his hand on my shoulder. “If I'd found you alone or with anyone other than Evangeline here I'd be hauling your ass in in cuffs. But Evangeline is an excellent judge of character, so I'm gonna call you a person of interest for now. Doesn't mean I won't throw you in the clink if I find you're involved but there's a long way between here and there.”
“Fair enough, Sheriff.”
“Don't worry, Evangeline,” he said. “He comes clean with me and hasn't committed any offenses in my jurisdiction I'll have him back to you before Letterman's done for the night.”
Sheriff Jones held the door open for me and followed me out.
“Seeing how you're a private investigator and all I'm sure you noticed I didn't specify which night,” he said as he unlocked his cruiser.
He let me sit in the front seat with him.
“'Cause if I find out you're a cop killer it's gonna be a long, long time before you pass another night with someone as fine as Evangeline. If you pass another night at all.”
“You threatening me, Sheriff?”
“Why, do you feel threatened, Jake?” He gave me a smile I wouldn't call unfriendly.
“Little bit.” I smiled back at him.
He threw the cruiser in gear.
“Let's call it a little threat then.”
Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.