The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man
After I had trudged halfway up the hill I thought of something and reversed course, dashing back to the tow truck, the steep declivity turning my gait into ridiculous, Superman-sized leaps. The problem with walking into the trailer and grabbing the rifle was that Wexler might not like it. He’d already tried to kill me twice and I doubted there was much I could say to dissuade him from taking another shot at it. I needed an edge, something to turn the tables my way.
I slipped on gloves and released the brake on the winch, so that I could stand behind the truck and pull the tow hook off the spool with no resistance. Working frantically, I yanked steel cable off in big loops, trying to estimate how much I’d need. A lot, I’d need a lot. It pooled at my feet, gleaming like dozens of coiled snakes. Finally I figured it had to be good enough, and as quietly as I could I flipped the lever. The electric motor obliged by humming and slowly winding the tow cable back onto the spool.
I grabbed the tow hook and scrambled back up the hill, working my legs against the gravity, dragging the heavy cable behind me.
The travel trailer’s thick, heavy tow tongue rested on a stack of cinder blocks in a reasonably stable arrangement. Without the blocks, the whole trailer would tilt forward like the deck of a sinking ship. If it happened suddenly, it might give me time to lunge across the inside of that trailer and get my hands on the rifle. The winch would pull the trailer off the blocks and it would drop hard.
As I affixed the tow hook to the trailer hitch tongue I despaired to see far too much slack in the cable. I had way overestimated how much I would need. My diversion would be awfully late in coming.
I’d have to think of something to say to keep Wexler from shooting me until the cable snapped taut and the trailer was yanked off the blocks.
I could hear them quite clearly through the open window. “We just need to know what you said,” Burby was saying in his unctuous voice, funeral- director nice.
“Honey, like to Dwight, did you tell him anything about what’s going on?” came a female voice. That would be Marget, Nathan’s wife.
Wait, why was she asking that question?
“Think, Katie,” Marget urged.
“Anything McCann might have said,” Wexler interjected impatiently.
When I opened the door, everyone turned and gaped at me. I suppose I must have made for quite a sight—oil-smudged face, dried blood trailing down my neck, plus, of course, the fact that two of the people in the trailer assumed I had been blown into pieces by Nathan’s bomb.
Nathan himself looked more shocked than anyone, ready to crumple into a dead faint. His pistol was still tucked in his rear waistband, though, so he was far from being a neutral threat. He was closest to me, on my right, standing in an odd little space created by folding the dining table up against the wall. Marget was sitting on the bench seat just inches from him, while Wexler leaned against the sink to the left and Katie stood at the far end. It was all pretty close quarters. The rifle was leaning butt-down against the sink counter next to Wexler, as if people came over with weapons all the time and said, “Oh, let me just set my deer rifle here in the kitchen while we have a friendly chat.”
“You were in on it, weren’t you, Mrs. Burby,” I said to Marget.
Katie looked as if she had been getting ready to rush to me but my flat, hard tone halted her in her tracks. Confusion flickered in her gaze—but not in Marget’s. I didn’t know the woman at all but the cold glare in her blue eyes let me know I was right on target.
“Was it your idea?” I asked her. “I mean, Nathan calls Alan, asks to meet him out by the Jordan River, the same place where Nathan suggested he and Frank have their little meeting? You thought that one up, didn’t you? A divorce is expensive and takes a long time. Murder is more messy, but with all the bodies you three were planning to stack up, what’s one more?”
Ah, that one got to Wexler, who had shifted his gaze from me to the married couple, calculating.
How much longer before the cable yanked us off the blocks?
“Mom?” Katie asked.
Burby licked his lips nervously, looking in obvious panic at his wife, who was staring intently back. I knew what Marget was thinking, so I said it.
“You probably don’t have more than a few seconds to use that pistol in your belt, Nathan,” I advised quietly.
Everyone froze. Katie’s eyes were huge.
“You want to die? Shoot Frank, Nathan,” I shouted. “Shoot!”
Burby took a breath and his arm twitched and Wexler reached down and swung his rifle up and pointed it at Burby in one motion. We all heard the click as the safety went off.
There were ten feet between me and Wexler. I wouldn’t have a chance. My diversion was too late.
“Hey, Frank,” Burby whined.
Wexler fired, the percussion lashing my ears, and Burby’s head flew back and he went down with a crash. Katie and Marget both screamed. Wexler’s face hadn’t changed expression. He turned the smoking eye of the rifle toward me, and that’s when a shudder went through the trailer, unsteadying all of us.
I leaped forward just as the trailer tongue dropped off the blocks. The shock of it was everything I could have hoped for, completely disorienting everyone. The rifle dipped and fired again and then I was there, falling on Wexler, using my weight to bring him to the ground. He thrashed beneath me while a hot pain spread through my left shoulder. I’d been hit.
“Katie, run! Get out of here!” I shouted. My right hand was on the lethal end of the rifle, pushing it away from me, but my left arm was flopping uselessly, blood leaking from my shoulder. I tucked my chin to my chest and put my head to Wexler’s chin and tried to keep him pinned, sucking in my breath when he got his right hand free and punched me right where the bullet had gone in.
I was aware of Katie screaming and Marget dragging her up the pitched floor to the door, and then the abrupt change in sound when they plunged outside. “Ruddy!” she cried.
Now it was just Wexler and me, and I knew I wasn’t going to win. I could keep the rifle pointed away from me but that’s all I could manage, and Wexler hit me again in the shoulder and I pulled in air to stay conscious. The floor seemed to be dropping away beneath me.
The pain was so dizzying it took me a moment to realize the floor was dropping, that the trailer was in motion. The cable had done its job and then continued to do its job, dragging us relentlessly toward the spool. Once it had pulled the trailer off the flats the steep hill took over and we were bouncing and careening and picking up speed, outrunning the cable as we headed toward the lake.
The cupboard doors flew open and plates and glasses tumbled out and the body of Nathan Burby somersaulted over to where Wexler and I were still clutching the rifle and then in one awful, seasick motion the trailer hit the stairs down to the lake and flipped.
The sum total of the strength in a travel trailer comes from the heavy steel frame underneath it all. The walls and ceiling are relatively flimsy, designed to withstand nothing more than highway-speed wind. Once we rolled over, the walls collapsed, the ceiling came down, and I lost track of Wexler and rifle and of everything else. I saw the night sky and was hit by flying debris as I ducked my head.
With a final, momentum-ending impact we were upside down in the lake. Water rushed to fill the space where the trailer had once been, cold, cold water that extinguished all sound. I barely had time to take a breath and then I was under, a searing pain in my leg.
Bubbles streamed all around me. I blinked, trying to get my bearings. Debris was everywhere. Oddly, the ceiling lights, which were directly beneath me, hadn’t shorted out, and I could see what was causing all the pain in my leg: the heavy trailer frame, which had been overhead when we hit the water, had crashed down and was jammed against my shin, holding me helplessly in place.
Wexler was worse off—the frame was across his chest, and he was wriggling like a pinned bug. He’d already realized what I was just now figuring out: We were being held underwater by the sheer weight of the steel frame. If we didn’t get out, we’d drown.
There was a tremor in the frame as he heaved, trying to push it off of him. The flash of pain as the steel bar bit down harder on my leg was nothing compared to my alarm when I saw the entire assembly slide a few inches. If he managed it, he’d escape and be free to go after Katie.
If I worked with him, we might both get out from underneath the crushing weight that was threatening to end our lives. Instead, I leaned as far forward on the bar as I could, pressing down, squeezing that trailer frame closer to the remnant of the ceiling, tightening it like a vise. When he realized what I was doing he jerked his head around and stared at me, his expression full of disbelief. I gazed back, giving him nothing in return.
Wexler’s moves were getting more frantic, his eyes bulging. He must not have had a chance to draw in a last breath.
I knew what he was going through, how his lungs were hurting, how desperate he must be feeling. I’d felt the same way, just a few hours before, when he’d held my head underwater. And now I was doing it to him.
There was a blast of air from his mouth and I stopped pressing, because it didn’t matter anymore. I turned away from his eyes, feeling the swelling ache in my own chest. The pain in my shoulder had receded, either from the cold water or because my brain was shifting its focus to the urgent need for air.
What I heard then was bubbles, a relentless stream of them, as if there were an aquarium bubbler going somewhere. I looked around frantically. Right next to me was the upside-down oven, and it was from the back of this that a trail of bubbles danced merrily in the flickering yellow ceiling lights.
What if ... ?
I reached for the inverted oven, opening it up from the bottom like my garage door. The whole unit was tilted forward, and up in the back was a solid wedge of air.
I pulled myself into the oven, using the door for leverage, straining with all my might. I ignored the pain in my shin as I rotated my ankle enough to let me thrust my head inside. A little closer, a little closer, and then my face broke the surface and I brought in air, pure delicious air, one gasp and then another.
My whole body was being held by my right arm and I couldn’t sustain it. I drank in one more lungful and then relaxed, falling back. Okay.
With my body no longer screaming at me for air I could take stock of my position. I was, I realized, in no more than six feet of water. If I could stand up, I’d be fine. If I could roll my ankle the other way so that the beam pinned me at the crease between ankle and foot, maybe I could raise my head to the surface of the water, call out for help. Breathe. Live.
I went back to the oven for more air and made a horrifying discovery: The air had mostly bubbled away in the half minute or so that I’d been gone. It was all I could do to get my lips to the surface, and I sucked and blew and sucked and blew, pulling in as much air as I could, trying to build oxygen in my blood.
When I withdrew my head I went for Plan B. The trailer frame, though, had other ideas, and it took precious seconds of yanking and kicking and twisting, biting my numb lips against the pain, before I finally got that beam down closer to my foot, my toes pointed toward the sky. I could now rise, and I did, aiming for the surface, my face up and eager.
I didn’t make it. I was maybe five inches short but it might as well have been five miles. My foot was pinned and I couldn’t get it out, and the water wasn’t shallow enough for me to stick my head above the surface.
This was it.
There was no Alan to take over for me this time, no way to do anything but find out what happened when the air left my lungs and the cold waters came for me.
Even though I’d been through pretty much the same experience just a few hours ago, I still ultimately couldn’t accept it, couldn’t really believe this was happening. I had so much to live for now, it just didn’t seem to be possible that I was losing everything. Not now.
I heard a splash, a big one. I turned and saw Katie swimming toward me. She ducked her head under and took my face in her hands.
I misunderstood, thinking she was trying to give me one last, farewell kiss, and my heart swelled when her lips met mine. But then I felt the blast of air as she blew forcefully into my mouth.
Right, she taught lifesaving at the Y.
It didn’t work, because I wasn’t ready for it, but I nodded vigorously at her and she nodded back. Okay. I get it.
Katie raised her head, visibly expanding her lungs, and this time when she came for me I deliberately blew out, and we carefully sealed our lips against each other before I felt bubbles against my face and inhaled.
I didn’t get much, just a fraction of what I required. Sensing my growing need, she went back up and came down quickly and did it again. This time I adjusted and got nearly an entire lungful.
She went up, grabbed air, came back down. Every third or fourth breath I would exhale as she returned, and the oxygen debt in my blood was slowly repaid. I didn’t feel so urgent, now, and when she came back again and again I tenderly touched her face. I would always love Katie Lottner.
The cold, though, was sapping my strength, making it harder and harder to focus, and I realized it must be doing the same thing to Katie. We couldn’t keep this up forever; we might not even be able to do it for five more minutes. Tremors were wracking my body. I tried to tell her this with my eyes. I even pointed, jabbing my finger.
Go for help, I mouthed.
She shook her head at me.
Come on, Katie!
Then she jerked her head at me, staring. I nodded, and she nodded. She went back up, came down for one last lifesaving breath, and then, in a swirl of bubbles, she swam for shore.
The ceiling lights winked out as she left, the trailer’s circuitry finally getting the message that it was underwater and should have shorted out by now. I floated in the black water and willed myself calm, forced my pulse to slow. I needed to conserve energy, save oxygen.
If she ran up the hill it would take her what, twenty, thirty seconds? She could dash into the house, dial 9-1-1. Another thirty seconds, say, to connect, scream at the operator to send the fire department, drop the phone, and race back. They’d have her address on caller ID. I’d need to hold my breath a minute and a half—could I do that?
My pulse was pounding dully in my skull, and the pressure was already building in my lungs. How much time had passed? No more than twenty seconds.
I wasn’t going to make it. In my artificially relaxed state, I understood this without panic. I thought about Katie—would she forgive herself for leaving me here? I’d asked her to, but that would be little comfort when they managed to wrestle my cold body out from under the trailer frame.
There was a sudden red flash. What was that? Then the flash went away, but a white light flooded the waters. I could even hear a truck. Milt’s truck. Katie had flipped off the repo switch and started the tow truck.
I figured out what she was doing at the same moment I saw the red flash again—brake lights. She had turned the truck around and was now pointing up the hill.
If she drove up the hill she would take up all the slack in the cable and tow the frame right off me. It would work, as long as she didn’t drive too fast and snap the cable when it drew taut. Don’t panic, Katie honey, nice and slow, I urged her in my mind.
Then there was a pain in my shin so hot and searing it felt as if my foot had been torn off. But the frame, and much of the debris still bolted to it, was on the move. I ducked under and ignored the agony as I gripped that steel beam with both hands, the water like a rushing river as I was drawn with the frame toward shore. I thought my leg would break and then I was free, whooping in air in just a few inches of water, while the frame trundled upside down toward the hill. I heard the door slam and looked up as Katie ran down to me in the faint red glare of the running lights.
“Ruddy?” she was screaming. “Ruddy?”
I felt weak, nearly unable to move, but I flopped on my back and breathed. She fell on me, sobbing, frantically kissing my face. I kissed back with lips so numb they felt like they belonged to someone else.
“Ruddy, my God, my God,” she said. “Don’t die, don’t die, please don’t die.”
“No, I’m not,” I said. “I’m not dead.”
“What? What?” She wildly shook her head, pulling her wet hair away from her face.
“I’m not dead, Katie. You saved me. I love you.”
“I love you, too. Ruddy, I was so scared.”
“You did everything right, Katie. Everything.”
This was her. The woman I could trust, the woman I could hold, the woman I could love forever. I looked into those amazing eyes and I wasn’t falling further in love, I was rising up to it, being lifted.
She helped me stand up. My foot felt utterly destroyed, my leg below the knee bleeding and in terrific pain. My shoulder wound felt safe to come out and play, too, and gave me a jolt as we staggered toward the truck.
“I think I’ll let you drive,” I told her.
This actually made her laugh. I took a deep breath. I had a lot to tell her, and wasn’t sure how much of it she needed to know, or already knew. But her mom had participated in killing her father, and Marget and Burby and Wexler were mass murderers. That was what I was going to tell Strickland, anyway, so that much she needed to hear from me.
“Okay,” I said. “Let’s take a ride.”
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I was afraid.
Well, okay, not afraid, but nervous, somehow.
Alan’s body was interred underneath the heavy stone with the memorial plaque, and I’d come down a few times before to chat, sitting on the stone bench. His voice might be gone from my head but I still felt his presence, and the urge to talk out loud to him was so strong I’d succumbed to it without thinking a few times before I’d caught people regarding me warily. Now I limited my discussions to this place, to this bench. People did that, right? Came to talk to their dead friends? Normal people?
“So Alan, hey,” I greeted.
I sniffed in the clean air, not expecting an answer or anything, but just giving a normal pause to the conversation. It was early June and Michigan was acting as if it had taken an oath to be Hawaii. The sky was impossibly blue, the leaves had burst out of hiding and were lifting their faces to the sun. Birds were singing, bugs were buzzing, and people were delinquent on their car loans. A perfect day.
“So the reason I’m here is to ask you something. It’s been more than a year since that day at the river, the day you saved me. A lot’s happened. My sister ... ” I trailed off. I hadn’t realized I was going to talk about Becky. “She’s a different person now. You’d hardly know her. The married life, it really agrees with her.
“We’ve rebuilt the Bear, and Jimmy’s sort of managing the place. Not the books, Becky still does that, but you know how people love him. He greets everyone; it’s fun.”
I sighed. I was avoiding it.
“Then there’s Katie. Mostly, she’s doing really well. She and her mom aren’t talking, but that’s no surprise. The D.A. declined to prosecute, says there wasn’t any evidence, but Katie knows what happened, what Marget did to you, and she’s not letting it go. I don’t know how you would feel about that.
“Anyway, about Katie. She’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me, Alan. Every moment I’m with her, I’m happy. And I’m good for her, too, Alan. I really am, which is why, okay, I want to ask her to marry me. So that’s why I’m here. I’m just letting you know. Man to man. Your daughter, if she says yes, will be married to a repo man. Like that.”
I let it sink in. I had a foolish grin on my face—this was the first time I’d said it aloud. “I’ll be a good husband to your daughter, Alan,” I finally added. “The married life, it’ll agree with me, too.”
I stood, feeling oddly relieved. “Okay then,” I said. I looked over to where Jake was sniffing at a headstone. “Jake, respect the dead,” I warned him. He glanced back at me and did exactly that, lifting his leg and giving a deferential sprinkle. “Great,” I muttered.
I turned back to the large rock. “You were right. Life’s too short, you have to say what’s on your mind. I really miss you, Alan. You were the best friend I ever had. I hope I get to see you again, someday. Good-bye, Alan.”
I walked away, clapping my hands so Jake would join me for the ride back home.
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