Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 1
Title: Redemption or Bust - There’s a Red House Over Yonder...
Sheriff Jones tossed me one of those instant ice packs when we got back to his cruiser.
My battered and broken knuckles sang a song of joy.
“Thanks,” I said. I looked my now misshapen hand over. “I don't know why anyone ever does that.”
“What about me?”
Sheriff Jones and I both turned around to stare at Wayne in the back seat.
He sat on the edge of the seat, leaning forward to make room for his meaty arms which were cuffed behind him.
“You're a tough guy,” said the sheriff. “You'll be all okey.”
Wayne sighed in disgust and sat back as much as he could manage.
My hand was in worse shape than his face, a fact that had me resolving to book some time with the heavy bag when I got back to the city.
Sheriff Jones started the car and drove out of the industrial park.
“So, Wayne,” he said, “you sure you can't shed any light on this ledger here?”
I raised the account book we found in locker number 1386 so he could see it. On its face there was nothing special about it. The thing was standard issue, available at any number of faceless office supply stores around the country.
It was the hand-written, coded entries inside the ledger that piqued our curiosity.
“I told you back in the warehouse,” replied Wayne. “I got nothin'. Never seen that before in my life.”
He did say that when Sheriff Jones and I showed it to him after removing it from the locker.
I believed him. He was not one of Jed Reubens' men. He was Marko's.
“I'm willing to bet Marko's never seen it either,” I said.
Sheriff Jones grunted and hit the gas.
The radio piped up.
“Sheriff,” said Mitch, “I've got Detective Holliday on the horn for you.”
“Nate,” grumbled Sheriff Jones.
He thought about it for a second.
“Tell him you can't find me. Tell him I went out on a call and I haven't radioed in yet. Tell him... you know what, Mitch? I don't care what you tell him so long as you don't send him to me. Are we clear on this?”
“As crystal, sir.”
“Good. Now sit tight. Things are about to get interesting. Jones out.”
He turned to look back at Wayne.
“Time frame's just sped up. That Detective Holliday you just heard mentioned? He's with the state police. They guy you shot, the one in the SUV? He was a cop. One of theirs.”
We took the next curve at high speed, without Sheriff Jones turning the steering wheel.
“It's like this, Wayne,” I said. “You can start telling us everything-- starting with where Marisa Reubens is-- and if what you tell us proves useful he'll consider not throwing you to the wolves.”
Wayne leaned forward in the seat.
“That so, Sheriff?”
“If I'm lyin' I'm dyin', Wayne,” I said.
“I wanna hear it from him.”
“I make no promises until I hear a little of what you've got to say,' said Sheriff Jones, “but cooperation now will be remembered later.”
Wayne settled back and kept his trap shut.
“You've got 'til we get to where we're going, Wayne,” said the sheriff.
“Where is that, exactly, Sheriff?” asked Wayne.
Sheriff Jones didn't answer.
“We should get off the road,” I said.
“I agree, Jake, and I'm open to suggestions.”
“Good, because I know the perfect place.”
Sheriff Jones pulled into the far end of the Sunshade Motel's parking lot and killed the motor.
The sun was starting to come down. Everything in sight was either bathed in golden yellow light or cast in long, deep shadow.
Aside from two pickup trucks and a Thunderbird parked in front of Beau's we had the place to ourselves.
The sheriff rolled down the windows and all three of us breathed in the intoxicating smell of grilled meat.
Wayne waited until the last possible second to make up his mind to talk. He was just getting going as we hit the Sunshade.
“Listen,” he began, “I'm no choirboy but I'm not a cop killer. You can't drop that on me.”
I asked him where Marisa was but the man had a one-track mind.
He bleated more about how he wasn't a cop killer.
Sheriff Jones shot me a stare that said, “Play along.”
“You were in the Mustang,” I said. “You came after us.”
“So? You see me shoot?”
Sheriff Jones kept his eyes the lot.
“Must've been your partner then. That doesn't help you much, Wayne. It makes you an accessory at best, puts you in for felony murder at worst.”
“Wasn't him either! We weren't carrying the kind of piece to make that shot.”
“The rifle I found on the back seat says otherwise.”
“That crazy ass, wrinkled up son of a bitch.” He spat the words out like a bad oyster.
Sheriff Jones sat up a little straighter and threw a sidelong glance my way.
“I'll take that to mean it's not your rifle.”
“Damn straight it's not my fucking rifle.”
I ran a hand through my hair and looked to Sheriff Jones. He was still watching the parking lot. His color was a little off and his teeth ground out a steady rhythm. I didn't blame him.
“Just tell us what happened, Wayne.”
“It was like you said. We were coming after Vern, were gonna cut him outside of Danforth.”
“Why? Was it you guys he called from there?”
He looked at me with abject ignorance on his face.
“All right,” I said. “What next?”
“What next? Vern turned into a cornfield for no apparent reason. Didn't have the foggiest fucking idea why. You, of all people, know the rest.”
“Who shot Vern?” demanded Sheriff Jones.
Wayne smiled. It was not a pretty thing to behold.
“I think you know, Sheriff.”
“Speak the name.”
Wayne hesitated for a second and then gave Sheriff Jones the name.
“Riggs, Sheriff. How 'bout that? Your cop killer's a cop.”
Sheriff Jones let out a deep breath and cracked his knuckles. An expression of extreme mayhem flashed across his face but he managed to force it back down.
He got out of the cruiser and motioned for me to follow him.
“Not your fault, Sheriff,” I said. It was only half true and we both knew it but it still needed to be said. “You think Riggs could've done the shooting?”
“The man's a crack shot so yeah, he's got the ability. God damn it. I kept that man on so he could retire. I heard the talk that he might've been a little hinky on the Reubens thing but there never was any proof. Nothing solid.”
He needed a couple of minutes to pull himself together. I let him have them.
When he came out of it the chagrin was gone but the anger was still there.
“What the hell was Vern into here?” he growled.
“Could be just like Wayne told me back in the cornfield. Dough. A whole lot of dough. Reubens' dough.”
He shrugged and looked right past me, deep in thought. I let him chew on it.
I went back to the car and leaned in the window to talk to Wayne.
“You guys gonna square me with the cop killing charge?” he asked.
“No, no, no, pal. You gotta give to get.”
“The only thing you're gonna get is a broken jaw if you don't tell me where I can find her.”
He said nothing. Fatigue and machismo duked it out behind his eyes. Fear stood by, waiting to take on the winner of the match.
“You're gonna have to trust me, Wayne.”
“Her sister's place. Marko's got her up at her sister's.”
Evangeline and Santo arrived while Sheriff Jones and I were arguing over what to do next.
She shot us a curious look as she hopped out of the El Camino and unlocked the office door. Santo followed her inside.
I was all for getting back in the car and making Wayne direct us to Rosario's house.
Sheriff Jones disagreed and when he couldn't slow me down with logic and common sense he hit me with the badge.
“You're working on this with me at my discretion. Don't forget that.”
He gave me the cop stare. I wasn't looking at his face but I could feel it.
“Here's how it's going to work, Jake,” he said. He could have been talking to a third grader. “I'm going to take Wayne into one of Evangeline's fine motel rooms and we're going to have a conversation. He's going to tell me everything he knows about where Marko Reubens has Marisa, what kind of security, layout of the property and house. You know, the kind of information we need so we don't get our heads blown off the minute we get there? When I'm satisfied that I have enough intel to go on I'm going to call in some backup and deal with the situation.”
“I understand all that, Sheriff. What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to relax, Jake. I know that's asking a lot right now but that's what I need. I know you got stomped like a narc at a biker rally and you're running on nothing at this point but if you're going in with me I need you sharp. So have a drink, take a cold shower, do whatever you have to do to get your head straight or so help me God I'm going to cuff you and you can pass the evening with Wayne.”
Not what I wanted to hear, but it was what I needed to hear.
I felt a little like a third grader. An armed, strung out, pissed off third grader.
I nodded my head and preceded him into the office.
He took a room key from Evangeline and went back out.
I dropped into one of the wicker chairs.
“Orion's a pretty smart guy,” she said. “For a police officer.”
She'd changed into a black tee shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans.
Her knees cracked as she sat in the other chair.
My blood was still up but the blind rage I was riding had been cooled by Sheriff Jones' demeanor and my desire to not spend the night handcuffed to Wayne.
“Should've known you wouldn't stay cooped up forever.”
“I got a business to run. Besides, shame on me if I let a couple of second-rate dirtbags roust me out of my own motel.”
“Tough broad,” I murmured.
She grinned. “You're not supposed to call us that anymore, Jake.”
“What can I tell you? I'm old-fashioned. Haven't you noticed by now?”
She gave me some more rope.
“Okey, what am I supposed to call you instead?”
She thought about it. Hard. It didn't do her any good.
“Tough broad it is.” She laughed. “It does have a certain ring to it.”
“Been curious about something,” I said, “speaking of tough broads.”
“What's that, hon?”
I sat forward, elbows on knees, and looked right at her.
“What did Jed Reubens to do spook you so bad that you wouldn't even give me his name?”
She met my question with stony silence.
I countered with a hard stare.
“It goes back to my fighting days,” she said. “It shouldn't surprise you that Jed Reubens had a hand in the underground fight game. Lots of money to be made if you're the guy in charge.”
I nodded for her to continue.
“The fights were held in various clubs around the state. Jed had a stake in most of 'em.” She took a breather. “There was this one fighter, big German girl, who was supposed to get knocked out in the fourth round.”
“That's one way to make a lot of money if you're the guy in charge. Did you have to play that game too?”
“I'm sitting here talking to you, aren't I?”
“Anyway, this woman's big and strong and they told her to make it look good ,like they always do. She makes it through the first just fine. In the second she made it look a little too good.”
“Oh shit is right. Knocked her opponent out cold. It was just one of those things, just enough power in the exact wrong spot. They were waiting for her in the locker room after the fight and when all the bouts of the night were over Jed and a bunch of his boys took all of us on the card that night into the kitchen-- at gunpoint.”
She closed her eyes and grimaced.
“They made one of us tie her hands in front of her. Then they dragged her over to the deep fat fryer and plunged her hands into it.”
“Jesus,” I said.
“Jesus had nothing to do with it.” She opened her eyes. “We never saw her again after that night. They took her with them. During the whole thing Jed never said a word. He just stared at us while she screamed and flopped around. When it was over he just walked out of there by himself.”
“This sort of thing happen often?”
“Variations on a theme.”
I reached over and took her hand. She didn't squeeze but she didn't push me away either.
“Thank you,” I said. “For trusting me with that.”
“You told me yours.”
“Good for the soul, eh?”
We looked at each other and laughed.
The door chime went off as Sheriff Jones stuck his big head into the office.
“On your feet, Jake,” he said. “We're on the move.”
Evangeline let go of my hand and I stood up.
If Sheriff Jones thought anything of us holding hands he didn't say anything about it.
The sheriff's plan,revealed to me as he drove, sounded solid.
Wayne was very, very cooperative.
Sheriff Jones walked out of that motel room with everything he went in for. He called someone in to keep an eye on the Sunshade and off we went.
He also called in the state police.
“No choice,” he said. “I need the firepower.”
“You and this state police detective always butt heads like this?”
“Nate? Actually, he's a pretty good guy. We haven't had cause to work together much but when we have it's been fine.”
“So it's just this case he's got a thing for then? I wonder why that is. Was he in on the Reubens thing? The Jed Reubens case?”
“I'm sure he was. Everyone who could possibly get in on that bust got in on it.”
I felt his eyes on my while I was working it over.
“Don't even think it, man,” he said.
“Why not? You have.”
He grumbled something inaudible.
The route took us through yet another area I didn't recognize. The road had two lanes and was more or less straight.
The sun was almost all the way down. All of the color was gone from the sky. Everything we passed-- convenience stores, old houses, the odd gas station-- looked bleached out in the dying light.
At least there was something to look at other than corn and wheat.
“He have any idea what Vern was doing?” I asked.
“Not that he mentioned.”
“What'd he say when you let him in on things?”
“He told me to wait for them to arrive before we moved.”
We passed one last house and drove by a long stretch of nothing before heading up a wooded hill.
“We're not actually gonna do that, are we?”
Rosario lived in a two-story country house high up on a cleared knoll.
The bright red of the house's exterior glowed in the last of the day's light. The visible windows on the first floor were all dark but the lights were on upstairs.
If Wayne was on the level we'd find Marisa in one of those upstairs rooms.
A long, straight driveway led right up to the house.
Deputy Riggs' cruiser sat parked just off the front porch, next to a brand new black SUV.
From our vantage point in the woods we could see two outbuildings behind the house-- a small shed painted the same red as the house, and a low gray brick structure.
We parked at the bottom of the knoll and hoofed it up through the woods.
Wayne indicated there was some kind of roving perimeter guard but we'd been there fifteen minutes and hadn't seen a soul. According to Wayne there could be up to seven guys on the property, including Riggs and Marko.
The woods provided us with good concealment but all approaches to the house would have to be made over open ground.
I was just fine with that.
I drew the Browning and took a step forward.
“Where the hell are you going?” barked the sheriff.
I ducked back into the woods.
“You see another way to get up to the house?”
He had no reply.
“Didn't think so.”
I started off again.
“Damn it, Jake,” groused Sheriff Jones. He stepped out of the woods and caught up to me. “This is the stupidest thing I've ever done.”
“Sometimes you gotta do the stupid thing.”
“All right, all right,” he said. “But can we at least do the stupid thing a little faster?”
We picked up the pace and made it up to the porch without getting shot at.
The near total absence of noise was unsettling.
It made the crack of a faraway rifle and the zip of the speeding round that much more terrifying.
The sheriff and I both hit the deck behind the two vehicles as a second shot thudded into the cruiser.
Sheriff Jones drew his service revolver and cursed.
Now we heard movement inside the house. Footsteps, moving fast.
“We gotta get in that house,” I said.
He nodded. “Before whoever that is comes out.”
“Yes, but I go through first.”
“You're not gonna get an argument from me.”
We counted off the numbers and made a break for the porch. Another rifle shot whizzed by us as we climbed up.
Sheriff Jones' big right foot made short work of the door. It disintegrated inward right as one of Reubens' men reached it.
The sheriff blazed the trail. He ran right over the first guy in line and sent the second guy sprawling and headed up the stairs before either man could pick himself up off the floor.
Both of them were in black suits, off the rack, and each was armed with a .357 Magnum.
A boot to the head put the first guy out of my misery but the second man was going to be a problem. He bounced up quicker than I was expecting to and put two shots into the wall behind me.
I returned fire and ducked into a doorway just off the living room the sheriff and I burst into.
Furniture-- two small sofas, a coffee table, at least one ottoman, and a collection of end tables-- was a hazard to navigation in that room so I used the doorway for cover and stayed put.
Footsteps boomed overhead but I heard no gunfire coming from up there.
Another bullet hit the wall just outside the door frame. I waited a second and then risked a peek out into the room.
I couldn't see the shooter but I heard him moving around.
My eyes found the framed floral prints hanging on the wall opposite my doorway. The room was pretty dark but there was just enough light for me to make out the reflection of the shooter sidling along the wall, moving in my direction.
I moved the Browning to my left hand and waited.
My pal with the .357 lunged into the doorway, ready to fire, and didn't see me as I stepped to the side and tagged him with a right cross to the jaw.
His head snapped around in a way that made my neck ache and toppled down to the floor.
I collected both men's guns and tried to concentrate on any sounds coming from outside while the fight was still raging upstairs.
I crawled over to the nearest window and took a look outside but it was too dark to see much of anything. I was fine with that. It meant that Riggs, or whoever was out there with the rifle, had just as much trouble spotting me in the house.
The noise from upstairs stopped.
I walked over to the foot of the stairs.
“You all right, Sheriff?” I called up.
The bad feeling I had got worse as it became clear I wasn't going to get an answer.
I took one last look towards the front of the house and started up the stairs. I was halfway up when Sheriff Jones answered me.
“In here, Jake,” he said.
I didn't like the sound of him. He sounded hesitant and slightly muffled.
I climbed the remaining stairs two at a time and when I got to the top moved, Browning first, in the direction his voice came from.
The room was big and well-lit, with white walls and a big window. A telescope sat on a sturdy metal rolling cart in front of the window.
A bed with rumpled sheets was placed by the far wall, beneath an open window.
Marisa was not on the bed.
Sheriff Jones lay slumped on the floor, leaning against a chest of drawers.
The hilt of a hunting knife stuck out of his right thigh and he was bleeding all over the white rug.
I ran out and cleared all of the rooms upstairs then returned to the sheriff.
Sirens wailed outside as I knelt to check out the wound.
It was bad but Sheriff Jones was lucky. The knife hadn't missed the femoral artery by much.
“Marko?” I asked him.
He nodded. “He was waiting for me at the top of the steps. Got stuck before I knew what hit me. He grabbed Marisa and went out that window.”
I went to the bed and knelt down to look out the window.
It was no more than a three foot drop to the roof of what I figured was an enclosed porch on the back of the house. From there it was an easy climb down to the ground.
“I guess we should've waited for Nate,” I said.
The sirens got louder.
Sheriff Jones let out an ugly laugh.
“Yeah. Here he is. Right on time.”
I holstered the Browning and left the two .357's on the bed.
“Sit tight,” I said. “I'm gonna go down and let 'em know we're in here.”
“You do that.”
When I got downstairs the living room was flooded with flashing red and blue lights.
Neither one of Reubens' henchmen had regained consciousness.
I looked out the window.
The black SUV was gone but the police cruiser was still there.
Doors slammed and someone I couldn't see barked orders to people I couldn't see.
I stood still and watched a little longer, long enough to see a man with a familiar wrinkly face grimace as a state police officer put him in the back seat of a car.
I took a deep breath and walked out of Rosario's red house with my hands in the air.
They swarmed me before I could get a word out.
I was face down on the porch inside of ten seconds, disarmed, and handcuffed.
“Hey, hey, hey,” I said. “I'm with you. Sheriff Jones is upstairs with a bad leg wound. He needs medical attention. Now. You got two down in that front sitting room. Knocked out, not dead.”
Two very large officers hauled me up and planted my ass on the porch bench. Two others entered the house.
A pair of paramedics rushed in a minute later.
I sat back as far as I could and let the fatigue have its way with me. I had the feeling I was about to have a whole lot of spare time on my hands.
My reverie was disrupted by the appearance of a heavy-set man in a State Police windbreaker and a pair of good slacks.
He stepped up onto the porch and looked at me over the rims of a pair of tortoise-shell glasses.
He had my wallet in his hand.
“Jacob Tunner,” he said. “The shamus.”
He moved to offer his hand for a shake but checked himself when he remembered I was in cuffs. He took a seat next to me on the bench.
“Nate Thompson,” he said, “Detective, State Police. I hope you're comfortable 'cause we've got a lot to talk about.”
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.