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'The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man' Chapters 11 & 12


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11

Where the Bodies Are Buried

 

“My name is Nathan Burby,” he told me, holding out what turned out to be a professionally soft, dry, funeral-director hand. I stared at him, astounded.

He was several inches shorter than I, with a rounded chin and dark, warm eyes. His suit was charcoal gray wool, his facial features bland. His smile was cautious—welcoming, but careful not to come off as too jovial in case I was here to discuss putting Aunt Mildred in the ground. Absurdly, it struck me that he looked like a really nice guy.

“Oh my God,” Alan breathed, barely recovering from his own shock. “Do you know who this is?”

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“I’m Ruddy McCann,” I finally answered Burby, releasing his hand.

He gestured as if he had a staff of workers gathered around him. “How can I help you tonight, Mr. McCann?” “I was looking for the cemetery,” I replied faintly.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place, then.” He smiled pleasantly.

“It’s him! The one with the toupee! That day in the woods! He’s one of the killers,” Alan was babbling shrilly. I closed my eyes once, hard, trying to get him to shut up. Burby was watching me curiously.

“I meant the other one, wasn’t the cemetery, I mean, didn’t it used to be somewhere else?”

“That’s right. We moved here about seven years ago.”

“He must own the place,” Alan speculated, calming down a little.

“Was that so they could build that new factory I noticed? PlasMerc?”

Something like discomfort flitted across Burby’s face, but, smoothly practiced in suppressing his own feelings in order to allow his clients to indulge in theirs, he kept whatever it was under tight control. “Yes, that’s correct.”

“How could you do that, though? I mean, weren’t the bodies buried and everything?”

“We moved everyone,” he explained simply. “Everyone with a family member interred at the old cemetery was compensated, or at least those we could contact. For those with untraceable roots, we’ve established a trust fund, and we have hopes that eventually they’ll come forward.”

“What about you, though? Did you get compensated?”

Burby’s eyes lost some of their softness. “What’s this about, Mr. McCann?”

“I had a family member buried in the old cemetery,”  I lied.

“Oh? Who?”

“How much were the families compensated?” I parried.

He regarded me for several long seconds. “In the thousand-dollar range,” he finally stated quietly. “May I inquire who it was you were related to?”

“Alan Lottner.”

No amount of practice could have prevented the wild look from passing through his eyes then. “That’s ... impossible,” he whispered.

I took a step forward and was rewarded when Burby took a fearful step back, tilting his head up to stare at me. “Why do you say that, Nathan? Why’s that impossible?”

“I know the family,” he stuttered. “No one has ever mentioned ...” He gestured toward me.

“I had a whole group of cousins in Wisconsin,” Alan advised me.

“I’m from Wisconsin,” I explained. “Alan had a whole group of us cousins up there. All good runners.” “Runners?” Burby repeated helplessly.

“So is Alan Lottner buried here? Did you move his body from the old cemetery?”

That one took a while for him to process, but when Burby spoke next he had rediscovered his gift for imperturbability. “Actually, no. I don’t know what you’ve been told, but your cousin left town without a word. After several years, he was declared dead, and his ex-wife and daughter had a service for him here. We placed a memorial headstone on the grounds in a very nice area, if you would like to see it.”

“What does he mean, ex-wife?” Alan demanded indignantly. “We weren’t divorced!”

“I’m confused about something. You said ‘ex-wife.’ I don’t remember Alan being divorced.”

“Ah, well, after he disappeared, his wife ...” Burby spread his hands, hating to deliver unpleasant news. “It was a simple case of abandonment.”

“What about Kathy? Does she still live here?” Alan asked.

“Does the family still live here?” I pressed.

“Yes,” Burby answered reluctantly. “They are both living in East Jordan.”

“Where? Ask him where!” Alan implored.

I was more interested in a different subject. “So you sold the cemetery to the factory. That must have made you a lot of money.”

“Actually, no, that’s not right. Burby’s operated under a nonexclusive lease to the city of East Jordan. The city sold the land. Burby’s surrendered lease rights in exchange for the deed to the property here.”

There was something about that last statement that rang false for me, but I wasn’t sure what it was. I pushed in a slightly different direction. “Well that must have saved you a bundle, not having to make those lease payments to the city.”

Burby chuckled, but there was no humor in his eyes. “Hardly. Our lease formerly cost us a dollar a year. This new arrangement subjects us to property taxes.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Alan asked churlishly.

“May I ask why you are so interested in these matters?” Burby inquired, essentially asking the same thing. Maybe I should just shut up and let the two of them talk to each other.

“I’m just trying to understand. So the factory is on land formerly owned by the city?”

“Yes. Well no, not entirely,” Burby admitted reluctantly. “Most of the parcel was a ranch belonging to a local family. The city land was less than a quarter of the total.”

Far more interesting than his answer was his uneasy expression. In better lighting, I might have seen sweat on his shiny, toupeeless head. “What was the name of that family?”

“I really don’t recall,” he replied uncomfortably. “Mr. McCann, does any of this matter? Shall I show you where Alan Lottner’s memorial is placed?”

“So you got paid to move every body? That must have amounted to a lot of money,” I speculated.

Burby had had it with me. “I don’t see how that’s any of your business.”

“Oh, just wondering if it wouldn’t be a good idea to open a cemetery in Minneapolis,” I joked.

“Wisconsin!” Alan corrected.

“Wisconsin. The funeral business pay pretty well?”

“I’d like you to leave, Mr. McCann.” He made as if to nudge me forward, but someone Burby’s size can’t budge a bar bouncer without help, and I didn’t move. We were now standing almost intimately close, like dancers, and I leaned down to murmur in his ear, the way Alan’s voice sounded to me. “Man doing well like you, must own a second place, maybe on the lake?”

“Please. I’ve answered all your questions.” “What about on the Jordan River?” Burby looked truly puzzled.

“Ruddy ... ,” Alan warned faintly.

“Be nice to own a piece of property on the Jordan River someday, wouldn’t it? Beautiful in the autumn. You ever go up there, take a look at a piece of land on the Jordan, some autumn afternoon?”

Burby’s expression was slack and empty, trying to cope with the implications of what I was asking him. I slapped him on the shoulder and he flinched. I liked that. “Hey, just making conversation. Listen, I’ll come back some other time to check out where Alan’s buried.” I turned to leave.

“Well, no, actually, he’s not buried here. As I explained, it is a memorial.”

“Oh?” I turned back. “Where is he buried, then, Nathan?”

We looked at each other for an open and honest moment before Burby decided he must be reading too much into this whole thing and relaxed. “From what I understand, no trace of him was ever found.”

“Is that so.” I nodded pleasantly and walked out the door.

“I can’t believe you did that!” Alan fretted as I drove away. “Why did you ask him about the Jordan River property, and where I was buried?”

I waited to answer until I had driven out of eyeshot of Burby. “Why not? What did you want me to do?”

“But now he knows we’re suspicious!”

“No, now he knows I’m suspicious. And so what?”

“I don’t know, I just ... you’re just so different than me, I would never confront someone directly like that.”

“You think that was direct? That wasn’t direct. If I had confronted him directly he’d be in the hospital right about now.”

Alan ruminated for a few moments. “There was something strange there, at the end, when you asked him about the land.”

“He was lying. Something about the ranch, I don’t know what it is, but it made him nervous. I’ve seen the same expression on people’s faces when they tell me they don’t know where their car is.”

I realized I was grinning. Whatever doubts had remained were gone now: Alan Lottner had been a real person, he was a real person, and I’d just shaken hands with his killer. I wasn’t crazy.

My smile faded when I thought about Katie. I might not be crazy but I wasn’t exactly without problems. The first woman in a decade to make my pulse race, and I had her father trapped inside my head.

I tried to picture telling Alan that I knew his daughter, and how I knew her, and found myself almost shivering with dread. I could not think of a single reason to talk to him about it. Ever.

The East Jordan Library was still open. I started flipping through back issues of the Charlevoix Courier on the microfiche, irritated that Alan couldn’t remember the date of his appointment to show the property on the Jordan River. “It was the date you died, how could you forget something like that?” I challenged peevishly. A woman at a table within earshot gave me an alarmed look, and I smiled weakly.

“I don’t know, it’s not like me to forget. But it’s erased, I really can’t ... the past few months, I mean, the months before I went out there, are all blurred, like I was drugged. I can’t remember anything.”

“Well, you can bet that when I die, I’ll pay attention,” I grumbled.

Screaming headlines from the winter after Alan vanished caught my eye. 32 die in explosion. “Oh yeah, I remember this,” I muttered.

“I hate this. You read at a different speed than I do. I can’t ... it makes me a little sick,” Alan grunted.

I bristled. “Are you saying I read more slowly than you?”

He didn’t reply.

“Come on,” I pressed, “that’s what you’re implying, right? I’m a big dumb jock who moves his lips while he reads.” The woman at the other table glanced at me again—I was moving my lips while I read.

“I don’t think it matters which one of us reads more slowly,” Alan proclaimed haughtily.

“Ha! So I am faster!”

“You’re so competitive.”

“And you’re such a snob! It really burns you to admit a football player reads faster than you do, doesn’t it?”

When he didn’t answer I turned triumphantly back to the microfiche. “It was a firebomb that killed all those people,” I recalled after a moment, glancing through the story. “An explosion in the basement of a nursing home, and all the residents there died. It was deliberate, and I don’t think they ever found a motive for whoever did it. Just somebody out to kill off a bunch of local old people, plus I think a couple of nurses.”

“Do you think it had something to do with me?” Alan asked.

“Is that some sort of gentle reminder that we’re not here to catch up on old news?”

“I am just trying to understand where the investigation is taking us.”

“Is that what this is, an investigation? Hey, here we are.” I pointed to the story: local man missing.

Alan Lottner, 41, of East Jordan, failed to return home from work on Oct. 11th, according to his wife, Marget. A Realtor, Lottner often works long hours, so she was not alarmed when she went to bed on the 11th and Alan still wasn’t home. “But when I woke up the next morning and he was still gone, he’s never done that before,” she stated. Authorities are asking local residents to be on the lookout for Lottner’s automobile, a green late model Olds 98 Station Wagon, license BA 113 08.

Two photographs accompanied the story, and for the first time I got a look at Alan Lottner. The top photo was obviously from his real estate brochure—coat and tie, a fatuous grin, professionally lit background. Alan’s hair was short and curly, his eyes dark, his teeth even and, I assumed, well flossed.

In the second picture he was standing on some steps, one hand reaching out of frame, probably holding onto his daughter, who had been cropped out of the shot. His pants were creased, his polo shirt pressed, probably underneath it all his boxers were ironed as well. I could see why a couple of ice fishermen might think he dressed funny.

“October eleventh,” I noted for the record.

A week later another story surfaced.

STILL NO SIGN OF LOCAL MAN, MISSING SINCE 11-OCT.

This one was pretty brief, with little to say other than the fact that the local authorities were investigating the possibility of foul play but had no leads.

That was it. Flipping forward through the days on the microfiche eventually brought me to the stories about the nursing home bombing, the worst crime in the history of the area. “I lived here for eighteen years, and when I was killed I got less coverage than a story about some kids spray-painting a trash Dumpster behind Glen’s Market,” Alan groused.

We left the library and headed back to Kalkaska. “But they didn’t know you were killed, Alan,” I pointed out. “They just thought you took off. Lots of guys do stuff like that.”

“I wonder ... I wonder what Marget told them.”

“Told who?”

“The police.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well look, we weren’t getting along very well. Marget was sleeping in the spare bedroom. She’d gotten so cold toward me. We really didn’t have much to say to each other. We’d talked about divorce, you know, like maybe that would be the best thing. If she told the police that, maybe they wouldn’t look very hard for me.”

“That makes sense,” I admitted.

“But I would never leave Kathy. It’s crazy to think I would just get in the Oldsmobile and drive off and leave everything: my business, my clothes, and especially my daughter, just because Marget and I were not getting along. It’s stupid,” he complained bitterly.

I watched the road. It was a dark, moonless night, my headlights carving out a bright tunnel between the ridges of snow that lined both sides of the highway. Down there at the bottom was the snow that first fell in November—it would be the last to melt away.

You believe me now, don’t you, Ruddy? I’m not a figment of your imagination. Maybe it made sense that you had a bad dream and then got a voice in your head, but not after what we heard tonight. You know something’s not right, here. Burby, you recognized him, and you know he’s lying. And the newspaper. You didn’t imagine that.” Alan sounded plaintive and insecure.

“No. You’re right. I didn’t create you out of my imagination. You lived, you sold real estate, you ironed your pants.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’ve just never seen so many creases on a living person. You looked like you could give someone a paper cut.”

Alan lapsed into a moody silence, and a few minutes later went to sleep.

The inside of the Black Bear was even quieter than the East Jordan Library had been. I slid up to the bar, massaging my thighs. You know you’re getting old when you’re sore from just driving your truck. “Hey, Becky,” I called.

I took over for my sister at the bar, and heard her chatting on the telephone in the back room. Alan woke up and, after I swept my eyes around the nearly empty room so he’d get his bearings, asked to know where everybody was. I told him we were in Kalkaska—this was everybody.

Becky came back and slid up on the stool in front of me in a way I could tell meant she wanted to talk. “So Kermit told me he told you about this business deal he has,” she began.

“He did?”

“Yeah, you know, the one about the credit card thing.”

“Oh, yeah. Swipe or nonswipe.”

“Right.” She looked at me seriously. “We could make a lot of money, Ruddy.”

I reached behind her for a beer, changed my mind and made it a glass of diet soda. “Becky, he wants us to run credit card numbers through our machine, here. Doesn’t that strike you as being illegal somehow?”

She shook her head forcefully, her eyes sparking. I was a little taken aback: Becky never argued with me, never argued with anything, just accepted her fate with weary resignation. Something was happening to her. Could it be that Kermit Kramer, the worst repo man on the planet, with a criminally misaligned vocabulary, was responsible? “Kermit explained it all,” she said, confirming my suspicions. “His customer is an audiotext business.”

“A what?”

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“Audiotext. You know, information and entertainment over the telephone. They take credit card numbers and give readings.”

“Readings. They read to people?”

“No.” She stroked a hand through her listless brown hair, and the eyes behind her glasses looked unhappy to have to explain it to me. “Readings. From cards.”

I processed this without comprehension. “Tarot cards,” Alan suggested helpfully.

“Tarot cards? You mean, like psychic readings? Those people that advertise during the Tarzan movies in the middle of the night?”

She frowned. “There are Tarzan movies in the middle of the night?”

“Becky, what are we talking about here?”

She took a deep breath, preparing to be patient. “To get a nonswipe account, which is what you need so you can take credit cards over the phone, you have to be in business for a few years. But you can’t be in business for a few years doing readings over the phone if you can’t take credit cards! So Kermit knows this guy who has this business, and he is willing to pay thirteen percent off the top to anyone who will cash the card numbers his customers give him.”

“If this guy is psychic, why does he need Kermit? He should be here himself right now, because he knows we’re talking about him.”

“Ruddy, please. Listen to me.” Becky leaned forward.

“We owe everybody in town. The money you make isn’t enough to keep the doors open. We can’t go on this way. We’ve been cut off from two suppliers, and the bank says no more.”

“But ... I just gave you a thousand,” I protested, reminding myself that $750 of it was an advance from Milt. Losing Einstein’s truck meant I was back in the hole on that one, since we couldn’t very well collect our fee from the bank twice.

“That just kept us open for this month! What are we going to do when we need another thousand in three weeks?”

I shook my head stubbornly. “This always happens this time of year. Another month or so and repos will pick up, business in the Bear will pick up, we’ll be fine.”

“No, Ruddy, we will not be fine. We lose money every year.”

I stared at her. “Milton would loan—”

“That’s not a solution! You hear me? Are you even listening? You can’t borrow your way out of a losing business. Something has to change.” Her lips pressed together, trembling. “We’re going to lose the Black Bear, Ruddy.”

Even though any idiot could have seen them coming, her words still hit me so hard they knocked me back two decades, when our folks were alive and the Black Bear was a second home to us. Becky and I would play in the boxes in the storeroom and help Mom scrub the floors every morning. Dad had his buddies from the cannery swarming at one end of the bar, and at Christmas we put a Santa suit on Bob the Bear and piled presents at his feet. We couldn’t lose the bar. I’d lost everything else in my life, but I would never let the Black Bear pass out of the McCann family.

“I’ll sell the house,” I decided abruptly.

“Oh, Ruddy.”

“It’s worth fifty, maybe more. Depends on what is going on with the zoning. Free and clear. I’ll put the money into the Bear.”

“That’s not what I want. Don’t you see? Things have to change. We need to attract somebody besides bikers and unemployed factory workers.”

“What about the petty criminals and con artists?”

“Why do you always joke? Ruddy, the other night when everyone was dancing, we grossed more than four hundred dollars. If we could attract that sort of crowd every time ... I want to sell something besides popcorn—you know how often people come in and ask for a menu? Because we don’t serve anything but thawed-out chicken wings and nachos with that disgusting cheese sauce, after they come here for a drink they go somewhere else to eat. I want to put in a grill that actually works, paint the walls, get some new tables.”

“People don’t like our cheese sauce?” I responded, truly offended.

“It’s made out of plastic,” Alan sniffed contemptuously.

“Please,” Becky said impatiently.

“Okay, okay. I’ll give you the money. I can sleep in the back for a while, until your business plan kicks in and we become as big as Burger King.”

She shook her head. “No, Ruddy. Dad and Mom left the Bear to me. I don’t want your money; I want to do this myself.”

“By running credit card numbers through our machine.”

“Right.”

“Have you consulted a psychic about this?”

“I would think you of all people wouldn’t make fun!” she snapped.

I looked at her. “What do you mean, me of all people?”

She shook her head. “Never mind.”

“No, what is that supposed to mean? That I got a voice in my head, so I should start hanging out with psychics and people who have been kidnapped by UFOs?”

“I’m doing it,” Becky said fiercely. Her eyes were blurred. “It isn’t something I need your permission for.”

“Dad would never allow it.”

“Oh right, Ruddy. I’m the one who disappointed Dad.”

That one hurt. I felt the heat rise in my face. “Becky, you do this and you risk everything we own.”

“Everything I own.” She turned on her heel.

I watched her walk away from me. This was not Becky behavior at all. “I am going to rip Kermit’s arms out of their sockets,” I remarked pleasantly.

“You aren’t listening to her,” Alan told me. “It’s not Kermit.”

“You too? Great, even my own psychosis is against me.”

Alan made a sound I interpreted to mean he was cutting me off from the pleasure of his company for a while.

Claude joined me and began babbling about the kind of return you could get from off-shore investments. I gathered that he felt the slander clause was so close to being a done deal he was already starting to resent the tax implications. I tuned him out until Janelle came in and walked over to us, and then my head filled with alarm bells. She scooted a chair up to the table and patted Claude’s hand affectionately. He beamed at me like a boy with a new toy and I just shook my head.

“Honey, let’s go see a movie in Traverse City to night,” she purred possessively. Claude nodded expansively.

I looked at Janelle and she stared right back, her gaze almost a challenge of some sort. She had been homecoming queen, I suddenly remembered. When I was a boy I stood on the sidewalk in front of the Black Bear and watched her ride by in a convertible. The man she wound up marrying had been wearing a football uniform and was driving the car behind her. He wasn’t much of a halfback, I recalled, but he got the girl, and then he dumped her. I shook my head again. A couple of decades hadn’t really erased her appeal, but it sure had taken away a lot of her options.

Why did Janelle feel complete only when she had a man in her life? The misery she’d been oozing since her husband walked out on her was gone, and the settled contentment on her face just because she’d hooked an easy fish like Claude made me squirm in my chair.

When Wilma walked in half an hour later I was still sitting there at the table with Claude and his new girlfriend as if we were all having a big adultery party. I dropped my eyes away from Wilma’s accusatory stare, cursing Claude for making it appear I had chosen sides against her.

“She knows,” Alan whispered in despair.

Becky and I exchanged worried glances.

This was not going to be good.

12

What Everyone Does in a Situation like This

Watching Wilma walk across the floor, dark as an approaching thundercloud, I had the epiphany that Claude had never done anything like this before. Janelle was a new sort of disaster in their lives.

We probably all looked like idiots, sitting there open- mouthed as Wilma stood in front of our table, her crazy bejeweled earrings flashing like lightning. I realized I was afraid.

She took three deep breaths. “Well, Claude,” she said unevenly, her lips twitching. “Congratulations.”

The three of us were silent. Janelle had averted her eyes, while Claude was staring at Wilma in dread.

“You’ve given me syphilis, Claude,” she announced, more loudly.

“What!” he gasped, turning pale. Janelle jerked her head around and stared.

“And gonorrhea, too,” she added in a shout. “The doctor said you must be oozing pus. That’s how you gave it to me.”

Claude could think of nothing to say, though he swallowed a couple of times. Janelle pushed herself away from the table and muttered “Excuse me” under her breath. Wilma watched her leave with hot, black eyes. The room was now so silent I could hear people breathing.

“For God’s sake, Wilma!” Claude protested.

She whirled on him. “The slander clause, remember,

Claude?”

“Yeah, but ...”

“But what?” Wilma regarded Claude’s humiliated expression with complete apathy, as if he were just another person complaining about county government services at her office. “Have a nice evening, honey.” Her smile was cold as she pushed her way past him. Her sharp eyes flicked at me and I knew it would take a lot to repair the damage done by my presence at the table with Claude and Janelle.

Alan winked out at the same time Becky shut off the lights. My sister and I exchanged weary glances, as if we’d just survived a family crisis. She gave me a look that meant, “I know we fought, and I know you’re still mad, but we’re still brother and sister and I love you.”

My look said back, “I am always right about everything.”

Alan was still asleep when I got home, so after dragging Jake out to do his business, I decided to flip through the stack of mail on the table and then grab an Andrew Gross novel and head to bed. “Unless you maybe want to go hunt some ducks or something, Jake?” Jake didn’t seem to think I was funny.

About a year ago Jimmy Growe purchased something sexy for one of his girlfriends from a mail-order lingerie place and had it delivered to my house. He didn’t want anyone at the hotel where he lived to see it arrive. As a rather pleasing result, I sometimes received unsolicited lingerie catalogues, like the one I came across as I sorted through my bills.

I opened it and gazed in something akin to bewilderment. “Do women really let you do that, buy them outfits like this to wear?” I asked. Alan, still slumbering, didn’t reply, and I realized with considerable consternation that I’d developed a habit of talking out loud to myself. Jake’s grunt indicated he wasn’t any more fond of the new behavior than I was.

Once I was in bed with the Gross novel I realized I was far more interested in reading the lingerie catalogue, despite the lack of a plot. One of the models bore a passing resemblance to Katie Lottner.

Hi Katie, here’s a present I bought for you.

Thanks, Ruddy! I’ll put it on right now!

Be careful with the garter belt!

The same model was on another page wearing little more than an inviting expression and a pair of lace shorts, her arms crossed in front of her bare chest. I pictured Katie spreading her arms to me, her smile, those lips, her eyes, the lace coming off in a whisper of sound ...

“What are we doing?” Alan asked curiously.

“Nothing!” I shouted. I threw the catalogue across the room.

He was silent for a minute. I surreptitiously yanked at the waistband of my boxers.

“I guess we should talk about this,” he said.

“I guess we should never talk about this,” I responded hotly.

“No, look. I mean, it’s perfectly normal,” he soothed.

“Do you have any idea how crazy it makes me to have a voice inside my head talking to me as if it is my psychiatrist?” I raged back.

“It’s healthy. There’s no reason to feel ashamed. Everybody does it,” he argued.

“Not with another guy in the room!”

“I think you’re really overreacting.”

“How am I overreacting? By its very definition, it’s a solo act. There’s not supposed to be another person there. If there’s another person there, it’s something else!”

“Ruddy, if it makes you feel better, next time I won’t say anyting.”

“There’s not ever going to be a next time!” I stormed. “Sure,” Alan agreed skeptically. “Never again. Ever.”

“Ever!” I affirmed. I reached for my book. “I’m going to read now.”

“I’ll try to go back to sleep,” Alan promised, “let you get back to ... what you were doing.” I closed my eyes and groaned.

Alan was still asleep when I awoke the next morning, but I felt him stir as I was reading the paper.

“God, this is awful,” Alan moaned.

“Good morning to you, too.”

“The way you are reading is giving me a headache.”

I snorted. “That’s ridiculous. How can you get a headache? You don’t even have a head.”

“Ruddy, about last night ...”

“No talking, Alan,” I warned. He sighed in frustration. I continued to read the paper, deliberately moving my eyes more slowly. It took a lot of concentration.

“Are we going back to East Jordan today?” he asked finally.

“Yes, soon as I finish my breakfast and take Jake out to water the lawn,” I promised.

“A cold Big Mac and a cup of coffee. Breakfast,” Alan pronounced.

“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”

 “I am trying it,” he retorted.

“Okay, but look at it this way: You can eat all of the saturated fats you want, and it can’t hurt you, because you’re already dead.”

“If I have to share this body with you I think I should have some say as to what goes into it,” he responded haughtily.

“Let me disabuse you of the notion that you have to share my body,” I answered.

After breakfast I stood in my living room and looked at something I hadn’t seen in a long time: my carpet, vacuumed and free of any dirty laundry. “Why is she doing this?” I wondered out loud.

“Who?”

“Becky. Why is she cleaning up after me?”

Everywhere I looked, surfaces gleamed with something besides spilled liquid. Crushed bags from the drive- thru had disappeared. I sort of missed them—they’d become a little like pets.

In East Jordan I drove out to Einstein Croft’s house to see if he’d decided to wash and wax his truck and leave it sitting for me with the keys in the ignition. At the very end of his driveway I encountered a thick Cyclone fence: He didn’t have the money for a truck payment, but somehow he’d found the financial resources to sink some metal posts deep into cement and hang a gate that was far too thick for any wire cutters. I kicked at the fence in frustration and Doris the watch goose wandered over and gave me a warning look.

“First thing we do is locate my wife, Marget, talk to her. Next we need to look into Burby’s background, see what we can turn up,” Alan said, sounding like he was reading from a checklist. He grew pensive as I headed north up Highway 66, away from East Jordan. “Ruddy, where are you going? What about the investigation?”

“There is no investigation, Alan,” I responded pleasantly. “Who do you think I am, Jack Reacher? You were killed. This is now a police matter. I’m going to the police.”

“Jack who?”

“He’s a sort of private eye in Lee Child’s books.”

“You know, I don’t get it,” Alan responded peevishly. “You read nothing but mysteries and thrillers. I’d think you’d be interested in solving my case.”

“Alan, I’m a repo man. My forensic lab is less advanced than the sheriff’s.”

“I just don’t think we know enough to go to the cops yet,” he argued.

I set my jaw. “Well, I’m driving and I made my decision—that’s where we’re going. You don’t like it, I’ll pull over and let you out.”

“Why are you acting like this?”

I wondered briefly if Alan could feel the heat in my face. “Because this is my life, my body, and my prerogative. Not yours.”

“Oh. This is about last night, then.”

“Alan, just shut up. Now. Period.” I was gripping the steering wheel so tightly it was making a creaking sound.

Alan seemed to decide it was best that he not speak.

The sheriff’s facility in Charlevoix was larger than many in the area, built to handle the summer crowds that seasonally flooded the town. This time of year, though, it was virtually deserted—the crime rate, like everything else, was waiting to thaw out. The sense of inertia was palpable, the deputy looking up listlessly as I stepped in and wiped my feet. I could feel him sizing me up a little as I approached, gauging my potential for making trouble. Must be an automatic reflex similar to what I experience when a couple of guys wearing motorcycle leathers wander into the Black Bear for drinks.

“Help ya?” he wanted to know. His neck was as thick as his head and his big frame supported a lot of beef. His nameplate read TIMMS. He looked like the kind of guy who would drive his elbow into my side after tackling me, but only when he was sure the ref wasn’t watching. His hair was so short it stood up like brush bristles.

“I think I know this guy. His name is Dwight Timms. His dad runs a bait shop. I can’t believe he’s a cop, he used to be in trouble all the time,” Alan murmured.

“Hey there, Dwight. Sheriff in?” I asked casually.

He’d been leaning on the counter for support. Now he straightened, a doubtful look in his eye. I gave him a cheerful grin, like we were buddies, and he was plainly disconcerted. “Um, got an appointment?”

“No, but he wants to see me.”

Reluctantly, Deputy Dwight Timms slouched away from his post, taking my driver’s license and disappearing for a moment. When he returned he nodded for me to follow him down the hallway to a door marked BARRY STRICKLAND, SHERIFF, CHARLEVOIX COUNTY.

The sheriff was standing, waiting for me, and gave me a look of complete authority as he shook my hand. I told him my name and accepted a seat at his invitation. He settled down behind his desk and fixed me with a pair of clear blue eyes. He was my size, though at least two decades older, with white hair and a face roughened from repeated exposure to sun and Michigan winters. He was chiseled, fit, and handsome. In his snug uniform he looked like a Hollywood version of what he was—a small-town sheriff.

“How can I help you, Mr. McCann?”

How indeed. This was, I reflected, not the most thought-out action I’d ever taken. I took a breath, then laughed lightly at my embarrassment. Strickland’s expression didn’t change. I was wondering how I might extricate myself from this whole situation when Alan made a barely audible sound and my irritation punched through my caution. “It’s about a missing person case you’ve got from back about eight years ago. An East Jordan man named Alan Lottner. I was wondering if ... if you ever found his body.”

Strickland’s eyes registered something at the word “body” and I tried not to wince. “And what is your interest in this matter, Mr. McCann?”

“I’m a friend of Alan’s. At least, I was. Until he disappeared.”

Strickland regarded me carefully for an uncomfortable minute, then stood. “Wait here,” he ordered. I’ll bet not too many people disobeyed Sheriff Strickland when he used that tone.

“I don’t think you should have used the word ‘body’ just then,” Alan advised helpfully.

“Alan, I really don’t want to be caught talking to myself in a sheriff’s station,” I warned.

When Strickland returned he carried a manila folder in his hands. Grunting, he lowered himself back in his chair, wet his thumb, and leafed through the papers, taking his time. Finally, he raised his eyes and looked at me. “I’m afraid your name appears nowhere in this file, Mr. McCann.”

“I didn’t make any statement or anything at the time,” I responded lamely.

Strickland closed the file and set it on his desk, then eased back in his chair and put his hands behind his head, staring at me. I tried to remain still under his tight examination. “Case is still open,” he told me.

I found myself very unhappy that I had aroused the sheriff’s curiosity.

“Do you know something about this man’s disappearance you would like to report?” he probed, his instinct taking him right to the heart of the matter.

“Not that I’d like to report, no,” I answered evasively. I decided the bravest thing to do was flee. I moved to stand. “I’m sorry to have taken your time,” I apologized.

“Just a minute.” Strickland tried to give me a friendly smile, then, but the effect under those hard blue eyes was even more intimidating than his glare. “Can I get you something, a cup of coffee, maybe?”

“No, no thanks.”

“Mr. McCann. Ruddick McCann, right? That’s what your license says.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Have you ever been in any trouble with the law, Ruddick?” Strickland asked with forced casualness.

I gulped. Why was he asking that? “It’s Ruddy,” I stalled. “My friends call me Ruddy, I mean.”

“Ruddy.” Nothing in his expression indicated that he wanted to be considered one of my friends. “Answer my question, please.”

“No. Actually, no,” I responded.

We sat there as he processed my lie, the disbelief clear in his expression. The clock ticked on the wall with a loud, intrusive pulse.

Strickland opened his desk drawer, pulled out a toothpick, and inserted it into his mouth. A flash of insight told me that the slim stick of wood had come to replace cigarettes for Sheriff Strickland not too long ago. “Why don’t you tell me what you came here to tell me, Ruddy,” Strickland suggested.

I sighed. In for a penny ... “Well, I think I know where to find Alan.”

Strickland waited.

“I was in the woods today. And ... I think I know where he is. His body.”

“Uh-huh.” We sat in the room for a solid minute—I know because I heard sixty ticks from his clock. Then Strickland started asking more questions—what was I doing in the woods, how had I come to know Alan

Lottner. Every query dug up another lie, until I felt helplessly lost in my own deceit. I stood up.

“Look, Sheriff, I came to do you a favor, here. Are you interested or not? I need to get back home.”

“Sit back down, son,” he commanded. As I did he sighed, reaching for his hat. “All right, you give me a minute to round up a couple of people, and we’ll head out to take a look.”

The “couple of people” turned out to be three carloads full. I rode with Timms and Strickland, but in the rear seat, separated from the two lawmen by a steel mesh screen. Timms kept turning to stare at me with a burning intensity, but it was Strickland that I was worried about. I imagined most people who came to his attention were ultimately sorry they had done so.

“What if I’m not there? My body, I mean,” Alan fretted as we bounced down the familiar one-lane road toward the burned-down cabin. I had no way to alleviate his concerns, and at that particular moment didn’t care about them anyway.

When I directed the sheriff to pull over near the fallen oak tree, everyone jumped out and began messing with equipment. Timms carried a shovel, the coroner a black bag, and another fellow a huge tackle box and two cameras slung over his shoulders. He took pictures of the trail and the woods before Strickland would allow us to proceed to the spot I showed them.

“Here we go,” Alan said, his voice trembling with tension.

“Sheriff, mind if I wander over there a minute? Take a leak?” I asked.

Strickland surveyed the woods with his cold eyes and then nodded.

I stepped away from the little group, making fresh tracks in the snow. “Look, we’ve got a problem,” I said urgently. “If they find your body down there, how do I explain how I knew where to find it?”

“You ever see the movie Ghost Story? When they find the body, the ghost ceased to exist. That’s the rule.” “That’s not what happened in the book,” I replied.

“Okay, but the book was fiction,” Alan answered.

“Like the movie wasn’t?” I snapped. “Would you listen? I told the sheriff I was walking in the woods and I saw your body, and now they’re having to dig for it. The ground was covered with snow! How do I explain that?”

“If that happens, if I disappear forever, promise me you’ll stay on the case,” Alan begged. “See that Burby and his accomplice go to prison for murder.”

“So this is all about you,” I noted.

“Well yeah, it is,” Alan shouted. I winced as his voice echoed around inside my skull. “They are digging for my body. Any moment and I might cease to exist.”

“Okay. Okay, I get it. Though wouldn’t that be best? Suppose this is what it is all about—we find your body and then your spirit can stop wandering the earth, searching for repos in northern Michigan. Would that really be so bad?”

“Yes! I want to find out what happened. I want to see Kathy again. Dammit, Ruddy, I don’t want to die!”

“Got something!” Timms shouted. More pictures

were taken. The coroner knelt in the dirt, spoke to Strickland, and then Timms dug some more, moving carefully. The photographer opened his box and removed some tools, including what looked like small paintbrushes.

I crept closer, conscious of Strickland’s eyes on me. What Timms had found didn’t look human to me, just a bunch of dirt. The coroner kept reaching in and gingerly poking at it. “Sheriff,” he called softly.

Strickland gave me a glare to freeze me in place, then squatted next to the coroner, who was pointing at the ground.

I saw what the cops saw—some finger bones protruding from the muddy pool that had filled the black cavity in the earth from when the toppled tree pulled up its root ball. Alan was under water.

“Use the shovel and bail this out,” Strickland directed Timms. “Carefully.”

I turned away, feeling a little sick, when Timms’s efforts revealed a muddy skull. I walked a few yards away.

“I’m still here. I’m still here,” Alan babbled. “If that’s it, if they found my body, I’m not going to vanish after all.”

After a time, Timms finished his work and the men huddled around the hole. Strickland straightened, looking right at me with an unreadable expression. He brushed off his pants, coming over to put a hand on my shoulder. “Well now, we got a ways to go before we can identify the body as Alan Lottner, but it is definitely big enough to be a male.” Strickland was eyeing me carefully, thinking something over.

“Yeah, shot in the head!” Timms exclaimed as he came up to us. A sharp look from his boss shut him up.

The three of us stood there for a moment, and then Strickland made his decision. “Mr. McCann, there’s a lot here I don’t understand, but the one thing I’m sure of is that you haven’t been truthful with me. You’re involved in whatever this is a lot more than you’ve admitted to. Until I get it all sorted out, I need to keep my eye on you. I’m afraid I am going to have to arrest you on suspicion of murder.”

With undisguised joy, Deputy Timms clamped the cuffs down on my wrists, sending a quick bite of pain up my forearms. I ignored Alan’s outraged jabbering and concentrated on exercising my right to remain silent as I was led to the sheriff’s car and put in the backseat.

How could I have been so stupid?

Timms kept staring at me in his rearview mirror as he steered the car down the highway. “Happened so long ago, probably be no charges if you just tell the truth,” he ventured after a few miles, using his expert interrogation skills on me. He twisted around and gave me a friendly, innocent look so phony it looked like it was hurting his face.

“Eyes front, Deputy,” Strickland murmured.

The color climbed up Timms’s neck at the mild rebuke, and the glare he shot my way in the mirror indicated he felt it was somehow all my fault. I pointedly ignored him.

Strickland was mostly quiet, going over things in his mind. He’d sniffed me out as an ex-con and my story was collapsing under its own weight, but other than the fact that I knew where a body was buried there really wasn’t any reason to suspect me of killing anyone. He shifted in his seat to glance at me and he could read my resolve in the tight press of my lips—now he might never find out what happened.

A few more deputies were waiting for us as we pulled up to the jail, looking like an overstaffed valet parking service. Though their behavior in front of their boss was strictly professional, something in their high energy let me know they were pretty excited about all of this. Timms was less restrained, grinning openly at his pals.

The booking sergeant instructed me to hand over my personal belongings, and that’s when I broke into a sweat. I did not want to go through this again. “Sheriff Strickland?” He raised an eyebrow.

“In my wallet, there, you’ll find a business card for a Ted Petersen. Would you mind calling him for me? I think that will get everything straightened out here.”

Strickland broke my request into segments. “Are you giving me permission to search your wallet?”

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“Who is Petersen?”

“He’s a lawyer now, but he used to be my parole officer.”

“Parole officer.” Strickland gazed at me. People don’t have parole officers unless they were convicted of a crime—I was pretty sure Strickland knew that. “So you want me to call your lawyer for you,” he stated finally—not saying he wouldn’t, but letting me know this was not something he would normally be inclined to do.

“I just think you should talk to him. It will help clear some things up.” I waited for the question I knew was coming.

“Parole officer. What were you in for, McCann?”

I sighed, feeling defeated. When I spoke, it was with a considerable ration of self-loathing. “Murder. I was in prison for murder.”

 

NEXT: Chapters 13-14

 

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