Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 2
Title: Redemption or Bust - We Ain’t Partners, We Ain’t Brothers, and We Ain’t Friends
Our arrival back at the pier was one of those classic, 'I got good news and I got bad news', scenarios.
The good news? We found Vern's big red SUV. The bad news? It was parked in the spot I'd left my Olds in.
I should have seen it coming. An American car with some age on it is a whole lot less conspicuous than Big Red. And their taking it seemed a little like a breadcrumb left for me to find.
Vern went ahead and checked out his ride while I stood there and fumed. My fists opened and closed on their own and the veins in my temples pounded out a hard bop beat.
“She got my phone,” said Vern. I hadn't noticed him coming over to stand next to me.
“She got my car,” I replied.
“Can I use yours?”
“Phone, Jake. Can I use your phone?”
“Don't have one.”
“You don't have one?”
“Those were three simple words I just used. Which one's messing you up?”
He looked at me the way dogs look at helicopters.
“I... don't... have... a... cell phone. Never have. I don't ever want to be that accessible.”
“All right. All right.”
He made to put a paw on my shoulder but thought better of it and started rummaging around in his back seat. He pulled a thin metal strongbox from under the driver's seat and unlocked it.
When he emerged he had a Glock in one hand and a thick file folder in the other. He slipped the gun into his waistband and shut the door. He opened the driver's side front door.
“Hop in, Jake.”
I didn't move.
He turned with one foot in the car. “You coming?” he asked.
I stayed where I was and gave him the stink eye.
“Tell me what's going on,” I growled. I raised my fists. “Tell me or we're going again. Right here. This minute.”
It was bluster. One hundred percent bluster. I had nothing left. If he chose to fight I'd let him hit me and thank him for the nap.
Vern walked to where I was and thought it over. He was rubbing the swollen bruise my elbow left on his jaw.
“I'll cut you a deal,” he said. “Get in the fucking car and I'll fill you in.”
I held my ground for about thirty seconds, just long enough for machismo to be satisfied, and then went to the passenger side and climbed into Vern's SUV. A little ass-in-seat time and a long drive sounded pretty good.
He got it started up and we sped away from the pier.
Vern drove in silence for a few minutes and then glanced over at me.
“What's your angle here, Jake?”
“Nix,” I said. “You're supposed to be doing the filling in. We had a deal.” I hit him with the smile I reserved for meter maids and bill collectors.
“Oh I'll fill you in,” he replied, “but I need to know what side of the case you're working.”
“I'm not working the case.”
“What do you mean you're not working the case?”
“You always have this much trouble with small words? Look, man, it's simple. I'm on vacation. I met Marisa on the beach and we hit it off. Then you happened. She left me a note telling me where she thought you were taking her. It's just kinda gone downhill from there.”
“You're telling me you came to and hauled ass after a guy like me, out into a completely unknown situation over a woman you just met?”
“She passed the dead arm test.” I pantomimed a woman's head resting against my shoulder. “For me that's almost as good as hitched.”
He stared at me for a second and then burst out laughing.
I didn't have the energy to laugh but I smiled and leaned my head against the window.
Vern took the file folder out of the well on the door and dropped it in my lap. The name ,'Reubens', was written in marker on the tab.
“Read it. Then we'll talk.”
“Give me the highlights.”
“Read the fucking file, Jake.”
“You want a bunch of vomit all over your dashboard? Give me the highlights. I'll read it when we stop.”
He stared at me again and shrugged. “The cabin out on the Island belongs to one Jedediah Reubens. Jed's a very bad man. Drugs. Extortion. Loan sharking. Armed robbery. He was into it all.”
“Yeah. Until we took him down. We got him on a bank heist. The Feds got him on racketeering charges. He's currently serving twenty-five to life in Leavenworth.”
“So he's locked up right now?”
“That he is, Jake.”
I chewed on that for a while and I found I didn't like the taste.
Vern was driving fast. The corn and wheat was nothing but a yellow and brown blur. The tractors were nowhere to be seen.
“Rosario told me you work for Reubens.”
“A lot of people around here think that 'cause I'm good at my job.”
“Undercover,” I muttered.
“Two years, Jake. Two years spent working my way up in the Reubens organization. I was his best boy when we took him down.”
“How long ago did this happen?”
“What, the arrest? It'll be three years just after Christmas.”
I opened up the folder and looked for pictures.
Reubens' mugshots were near the top. They must have dragged him out of bed. He had dark hair and a lot of it and it was sticking out in every direction atop his very large head.
He had one long eyebrow and good cheekbones. The whiskers on his chin were dark but not thick enough to suggest a more permanent beard. The eyes were small and stared at the camera with detachment and unconcern.
I looked hard but there wasn't a lot I could read into those mugshots.
The second photo in the file didn't make me work so hard. It was a picture of Marisa, a studio portrait job complete with makeup, great lighting, and a provocative pose. Her long hair was up and off her face and though her eyes were focused somewhere to her left her breasts were pointing straight out at the camera. There was a hint of a black and pink bra visible and a heart-shaped pendant sat nestled in her cleavage.
“Yeah,” said Vern. “That's a nice shot. You'll like the back even more.”
I turned it over and read the words written along the bottom edge in blue pen. I read them again.
“Marisa Reubens,” I said. They didn't sound any better out loud.
“Don't get your balls in a bunch, Jake. We're talking ex here. Ex-wife. They were on the outs even before he got sent up.”
I shut the file folder and closed my eyes.
“She doesn't know about you?”
“I was gonna clue her in when we got to the cabin.”
“I didn't want to freak her out any more than I already had. I didn't want her thinking her ex was making a move on her.”
I felt stirrings of the headache I'd forgotten about and rubbed my temple.
“Maybe I didn't phrase that clearly enough,” I said. “Why? Big 'W'.”
His grip tightened on the steering wheel and he looked at me sideways.
“You're as much of a pain in the ass as McGinty said,” he muttered.
“Who did you say?”
McGinty could only be Russel McGinty, a cop who worked my home beat. I helped him out on the case that got him to the detectives table and ever since he's been as much of a pal on the force as any private investigator can get. He greased wheels for me, got me access to properties and paperwork I'd have had a hard time getting on my own. McGinty got me what I needed when he could and got me out of trouble when he had to.
McGinty and I hadn't spoken in a while, since the last big case I worked, a case that ended badly for both of us.
“I ran your plates, Jake.”
“All right,” I said. “You ran my plates. What of it?”
“He's not too pleased with you, Jake.”
“McGinty? As a rule he's not too pleased with anyone.”
“Funny thing. He wanted to badmouth you, rip you a new one. I could hear it in his voice. But he dialed it back. Very terse.”
I nodded and looked out at the wheatfields.
“Sounded bad,” he said.
“It was.” I might have said that aloud.
“He doesn't blame you though. That came through pretty clear. He as much said he'd have done the same thing.”
“That's not what he said at the station that night.”
I shut my eyes but opened them right back up as the memories started to roll.
“If it helps any,” he said, “it's what I'd have done too.”
“People died. Because of me.”
“From what I heard people had a fighting chance to make it because of you. If you didn't go in they were dead for sure.”
I didn't answer him. He wasn't saying anything I hadn't thought myself but I couldn't get away from it. People died and it was my fault.
“I asked you a question,” I said.
“And I'm trying to decide if I can answer it. Okey, Jake. You're not working the case. This is about Marisa for you?”
“That's what I said. Is it me or is this conversation moving backwards?”
“Okey. Okey. I get it. You want to find Marisa. I want to find her too. Why don't we just leave it at that and find her? Together.”
“I know why I want to find her,” I said. “What's your story?”
He didn't say anything. His eyes were focused out in front of us.
I raised the file folder. “Is it in here?”
“No, Jake. What you've got in your hands there? That's the past. I'm only interested in the future.”
He said that last bit with a little smile on his face, like he'd put a stamp of finality on the subject.
I sat back in my seat and let him have his moment in the sun. The pain in my head had become an insistent hammering inside my skull and the longer I sat on my ass the more the fatigue set in. Every last bump and bruise screamed for attention.
I let my head fall back and closed my eyes. I hoped I didn't snore.
We weren't moving when I shook myself awake.
I could smell salt in the air and hear the surf as it rolled in. The bright, shining sun suggested that it was late in the morning and the heat was starting to set in.
The SUV was parked by the curb in a big, empty lot. Vern was standing next to it talking on a pay phone.
“It's nothing I can't handle,” he said. “A complication, but I'm on it. Don't worry.”
He listened for a few seconds and then jumped back in.
“No. I told you, I can handle it. She won't be a problem. Trust me on that.”
I flipped through the pages in the file folder while he talked. It all looked legit. If these were faked someone did a damned good job of it. I looked some info on or a photo of Rosario. Nothing doing on both scores.
Vern turned his back when he noticed I was awake and listening.
“Gotta run,” he said. “I'll be in touch.”
He climbed back into the SUV after hanging up.
“I'm no expert,” I began, “but that didn't sound like you were calling it in.”
Vern stared straight ahead and started the engine.
“I wonder why that is,” I continued.
He put the SUV in gear and peeled away from the curb.
“You ask a lot of questions for someone who's not working the case, Jake.”
“You hold a lot back for someone who's mission is to protect and serve the public, Vern. Is your name even Vern?”
He gave me the silent treatment while he drove so I quit riding him.
“Where are we anyway?” I piped up after he'd gone a few blocks.
“Danforth. About fifteen miles north of Caravan Bay.”
Danforth. “Reubens had a warehouse in Danforth,” I said.
He glared at me and I showed him the file folder. “You told me to read it, remember?”
“They weren't there, were they?” I asked.
He made a great show of sighing and grumbling before he said, “No.”
“How hard could you have looked? I wasn't out for that long.”
“Long enough,” he growled. “They weren't there. Your car wasn't there. No signs anyone's been near the place in weeks.”
“Speaking of the girls, I couldn't help but notice the absence of any information on Rosario in this file here.”
Vern gunned it as we hit the edge of town and made a hard left onto what looked a lot like the road to Bog Island. It was long and straight and there were cornfields on one side, wheatfields on the other.
“What do you want to know?”
“What's her story?”
“She's ex-Bureau. Worked the organized crime unit.”
“Let me guess. Her sister's marriage to a known crime boss got her canned?”
“It's all about appearances, man. She's strictly private security these days. I have no idea what the hell she was doing out there this morning.”
“Evangeline called her,” I said.
He mulled that over and let it pass without comment.
A black Mustang convertible containing two men in sunglasses and aloha shirts tore past us in the opposite direction.
“I do believe those men were speeding, officer.”
He let that one go too.
“So what's your next move?”
Vern shrugged and looked straight ahead. “I'm taking you back to the Nightshade. I can't have you with me on this. Look, I'll get a BOLO out on your car and I will find Marisa. I know it's not what you want to hear but I need you to sit tight and stay the fuck out of this. Read me?”
He slammed on the brakes and whirled around in the driver's seat with his teeth bared and a mean, hard look on his mug.
“You're going to have to repeat that,” he spat.
Harsh language and manly epithets climbed over themselves to be first out of my mouth but I held my fire.
I was seconds from finding myself standing on the side of the road. Going back to the Nightshade wasn't what I wanted but it wasn't the worst thing either. I knew I could get Evangeline to find a car for me to use and I'd be right back on the job, without having to follow Vern's lead. The Nightshade was sounding better and better, but only if I didn't have to walk there.
“All right,” I said. “Fine. I'm not really in any shape for this shit anyway.”
Vern jammed it back into gear and grinned at me.
“That's what I like about you, Jake,” he said. “You're a reasonable guy.”
He hit the gas pedal and away we went.
Then his head exploded.
I didn't hear the shot. Vern had just gotten his head turned when there was a tinkle of breaking glass and then his head came apart. Blood, bone, and brains hit the windshield.
I felt the warm spray on my face and shucked the seat belt as the SUV continued to speed straight ahead.
Vern slumped against his door but his big foot still had the gas floored.
I reached over and grabbed the wheel and risked a look through the gore-covered rear view mirror. A black Mustang was coming up fast behind us.
We were on a slight downgrade in the road and picking up even more speed.
Moving Vern's legs out of the way just wasn't happening so I took a look out each side of the SUV. Corn on one side, wheat on the other.
I chose corn.
I turned the wheel all the way to the left and the SUV veered off the road and into the cornfield. The SUV sliced a wide, straight path through the late summer stalks and I held on as we rumbled and rattled along.
The SUV began to smoke and it sounded like things were falling out of the bottom of it with every yard plowed. All four tires burst one after the other.
When the cornstalks slowed the SUV down enough I took one hand off of the wheel and snatched Vern's Glock from his waistband.
Then I reached for the emergency break and gave it a pull.
The SUV heaved and almost rolled over but it stayed upright long enough for me to leap back to the passenger seat and launch myself out into the corn.
I hit the ground hard and watched the SUV roll to a stop ten yards further on.
There wasn't much time to watch. Where I'd gone wasn't exactly a secret and the fact that I wasn't hearing a big American engine roaring towards me meant I was going to have to do this the hard way.
I managed to get to my knees but had to take a minute to breathe and dry heave before I was able to stand. If there'd been anything in my gut I'd have puked it up right there.
There wasn't a part of me that didn't ache or sting. I could feel the adrenaline eating a hole in my stomach and my hands shook like I was holding a couple of those joke buzzers instead of handguns.
A stand-up fight was out of the question.
If the guys who killed Vern had any brains they'd be beating the cornstalks looking for me, coming at the SUV in wide, sweeping arcs, so I went with the stupid option, the one thing they wouldn't expect me to do.
I clicked the guns' safeties off and marched straight down the middle of the fresh path of destruction back toward the road.
I was too damned tired for anything else.
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.