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'The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man' Chapters 13 & 14


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Illustration by Steve Vance

 13

Out of Control

My words hung in the air for what seemed a full minute.

Strickland hid his surprise behind those steely eyes. He nodded: I’d traded him enough information for him to make the phone call.

Behind me, I could sense Timms and his buddies glancing at each other, and, of course, Alan was going nuts.

“Murder! You’ve committed murder? You’re a murderer? You murdered somebody?”

I let him go on conjugating the verb murder without betraying anything in my expression. Strickland motioned for the sergeant to continue processing my admission, and a few minutes later I was led down a row of completely empty cells and shoved into the one farthest from the door. I looked around and shivered. Not again.

“My God, Ruddy, would you please tell me what’s going on?” Alan pleaded.

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“What’s going on,” I muttered pleasantly, “is that I have just been arrested for the killing of Alan Lottner of East Jordan.”

“What was that about your parole officer? What did you mean that you were in jail for murder?”

“Prison,” I corrected. “This is jail. I was in prison.

Believe me, big difference.”

“But why? What happened?”

I took in a big, unsteady breath. “Alan, I’m sorry, but that is one thing I will never, never talk to you about. All right? I don’t ever talk about it. To anyone.”

“But—”

“No, Alan. Let it go,” I interrupted.

There was a long silence. “With a record, though,” he said finally, “this could be big trouble. I could tell by the way the sheriff was looking at you.”

“Could be big trouble? Do you not see the steel bars in front of me?”

Yet I wasn’t worried about Strickland—he’d do his duty. Timms, though, was another matter—it was his spiritual ancestors who used to hang people from trees without a trial. I’d met his kind in the joint, men with weak minds and strong bodies who didn’t so much control the prisoners as participate in the mayhem. I didn’t ever want to be in a position where Timms had me to himself to play with.

Which is precisely what happened within the hour.

When the door opened at the end of the corridor I stood and peered down to see who it was, already so bored with incarceration I was willing to endure any sort of interruption just to have something to do. I caught sight of Timms and instantly realized he was up to something— he had a sneaky look on his jug-shaped face, like a little boy breaking a rule. Someone came in behind him, smaller, standing in Timms’s shadow.

“Oh no,” Alan moaned softly.

It was a woman. The proprietary way that Timms steered her down to my cell suggested that this was his woman— the deputy was showing off his big murder arrest to his honey.

“What are you up to, Timms?” I asked in a low voice.

When she stepped closer, I literally gasped in shock.

Katie Lottner.

She was even prettier than I remembered. I was drawn to her eyes, which were large and blue as they stared at me. She had the sort of long brown bangs that had to be continually pushed away from those eyes, and she did this now, an automatic motion I found charming.

“Careful, babe,” Timms warned. “Don’t get too close.”

Alan was quietly moaning, almost keening—I guess a father would always recognize his own daughter, even after eight years. I ruefully reflected on my resolve not to tell him I had already met her—I felt like that one was going to backfire on me pretty soon.

“You? You’re the one?” Katie asked in a quiet, flat voice. Ignoring Timms’s restraining hand on her shoulder, she curled her fingers around the steel bars and leaned her face in close. “You killed my father?”

I was trying to figure out how best to answer this when she spat at me, mostly missing her target. I jumped back, startled.

“Oh no, Kathy,” Alan groaned.

“You ... you son of a bitch,” she choked.

“Now Katie, move back there. Come on,” Timms soothed, pulling at her.

The door at the end of the hall banged open and we all turned. Sheriff Strickland stood on the threshold, backlit so we couldn’t see his face. “What’s going on here?” he demanded in a voice that sounded like he was speaking through a megaphone. He and two other men marched down the hallway. His eyes darted to me first—secure the prisoner, always—and then rested for a moment on Timms, then on Katie. “Miss Lottner, what are you doing here?” he asked finally, his voice carrying a touch of sadness.

“I made him bring me,” Katie explained at once, moving a half step in front of Timms as if to physically protect him.

“Oh, Miss Lottner. Katie.” Strickland pursed his lips. “You shouldn’t be here, now, you know better.”

She crossed her arms defiantly. Strickland shifted his gaze to the deputy.

“Timms.”

The man visibly swallowed, and I almost felt sorry for him. He was taller than his boss and probably eighty pounds heavier, but the image that came to mind was of a small dog being whipped by its master.

“You know good and well that you are in violation of procedure. Bringing a civilian down here is not only expressly prohibited, but runs contrary to every single bit of common sense I ever thought you had. Do you have anything to say for yourself, mister?” Timms numbly shook his head.

“You are on unpaid leave for the next seventy-two hours. Please escort Miss Lottner upstairs. Advise the duty sergeant that you are departing this shift immediately. Understood?”

Timms gave a trembling nod. Katie, biting her lip, made as if to say something, but Strickland held up his hand. “Excuse me, Miss Lottner. Deputy Timms, I have just one more thing to say to you. I’ve told you more than once that that badge of yours doesn’t mean you get to break the rules, it means that you, more than anyone else, have to follow them. I’ve never in all my years in law enforcement seen anyone do anything as lame-brained as this. I’ve half a mind to ask the board to remove you from your position. I can’t have a man in my department who won’t toe the same line as everybody else. We understand each other?”

When Timms coughed up a reply, it sounded like it had been dragged across cement. “Yes, sir.”

“All right. Step to it, son. Katie, please leave with Deputy Timms; this is a restricted area.” Strickland pointed down the hallway. I found myself intrigued by his selective use of her first name, depending on the circumstance.

The two deputies dared a glance at each other as Timms and Katie fled the lockup. You had to admire the sheriff—his public chewing out had been a deliberate act of atonement, giving me something back for the humiliation I’d suffered. Our eyes met and I nodded.

Strickland motioned one of the deputies forward. He slid the key card through the slot, punched some numbers, and the cell door clicked open. “So.” Strickland eyed me up and down. “Why didn’t you tell us you were in Jackson State Prison when the murder was committed?”

I had planned my answer to that question for the past hour. “You didn’t tell me when the murder was committed.”

If the light had been better I might have seen a glint of amusement come and go in his eye. “Ah. Well, come upstairs, Ruddy, and we will process you out of custody. And maybe while that’s going on you’ll tell me just how it is that you knew Alan Lottner’s body was buried out there in the woods, since, as it turns out, you couldn’t have put it there.”

“Sheriff,” I sighed, “you’ll never believe me.”

I had read too much permission into the friendly banter, because his expression hardened. “You will tell me just how it is you knew the body was buried out there in the woods,” he repeated.

Oh, great.

As we turned the corner, Katie Lottner jumped up out of her chair, where she’d been fidgeting, apparently planning an appeal of Deputy Timms’s suspension. Her eyes widened when she caught sight of me strolling unshackled next to the sheriff.

“What .... he ....”

“Please, Katie, you go on, this is official business,” he urged her gently, blocking her view of me with his body in case she wanted to spit some more. She didn’t move. Strickland sized up the situation and reached a decision. “Now, I don’t know what Dwight told you, but this man here couldn’t have done anything to your father. He’s not the one, Katie. We’re not even sure what happened.”

“Couldn’t have done anything?”

“He was in prison when your father disappeared,

Katie. He just finished off his parole not long ago.” “Prison for murder,” she protested.

“Yes, well, vehicular homicide.” Strickland glared at me but I didn’t yield: As far as I was concerned, I killed somebody and that was murder. “But he’s served his time, Katie, and we have no right to keep him here.”

Her eyes were doubtful as she turned back to me. “Then how, how did he—”

I was tired of being discussed as if I weren’t there. “I was walking in the woods,” I explained. “And I just ...” I shrugged.

“You just happened to notice a body submerged in muddy water and identified it as someone who has been missing for eight years,” Alan suggested helpfully.

Katie was looking at me with wide eyes, and I knew she was thinking of what had happened back in my jail cell. “Oh,” she whispered. “Oh, I’m so, so ...”

“Hey, forget about it,” I advised uncomfortably. “Happens all the time.”

She cocked her head, contemplating the sort of life I must lead if people spat on me all the time. Congressmen? Despite the circumstances, we smiled at each other.

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Disapproval flickered across Strickland’s face. “Miss Lottner, you need to be going,” he told her. His voice was still gentle but it held a definite “move along” tone that probably could have quelled a riot. Katie responded with a nod of surrender.

As soon as she was out the door my pleasure at seeing her evaporated and I realized I’d had all of the jail I could stomach for the day. Strickland was giving me an expectant look that I doubted few people ignored, but he’d said himself there was no reason to keep me here.

“Sheriff, I have to leave. I have business in Kalkaska.”

He shook his head. “It will have to wait, Mr. McCann.”

“He can’t hold you unless he places you under arrest,” Alan stated. Legal advice from a dead Realtor.

“I have to go, Sheriff,” I repeated, giving him a look both honest and unyielding.

After a moment he grunted, acquiescing. “Told you!” Alan hooted triumphantly. The sheriff and I made an appointment for the next day. Strickland raised a farewell hand as I backed my truck out of the parking lot, and I had the strange feeling the guy sort of liked me.

Alan and I were both silent for the first few minutes as we drove, processing the day’s events. Charlevoix had long faded in my rearview mirror when I cleared my throat. “So, Alan. I’m sorry about that. About your daughter, I mean. Must have been sort of a shock.”

“Sort of a shock,” he repeated. “The last time I saw my little girl she was sixteen years old. Now she’s a grown woman. And you say it was ‘sort of a shock.’ ”

“What’s with the attitude all of a sudden?”

“The attitude? When were you going to tell me you knew my daughter?” he demanded.

“Oh, that.”

“Yes. That.”

“Yeah, well ...” I sighed. “I met her a week or so ago.”

Alan was completely silent in a way that felt heavy with judgment. I rushed to fill the void. “But I just found out yesterday that her last name was Lottner. You were asleep, and I called her and got her answering machine. It’s sort of hard to figure out what to do in a situation like this, you know?” He was still quiet.

“I mean, either I’m so completely demented that I’m sitting in a padded cell somewhere hallucinating this entire thing, or I just led the police to dig up the body of a murder victim based on his voice in my head. I think I’m to be forgiven if I’m making a few mistakes in etiquette, here.”

Finally Alan spoke, his voice subdued. “She was still a child when I saw her last. God, she was so beautiful.” “She’s beautiful now,” I interrupted.

“She is, isn’t she? Ruddy, seeing her today was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

A deer caught my attention and I braked. She stood by the side of the road, appearing alert and wary, but I knew from experience that her species was prone to sudden leaps across the pavement without wisdom. After I crept past she dashed back into the woods.

“I wonder if that was the right thing to do,” Alan reflected.

Somehow I doubted he was talking about slowing down for the deer.

“Before today everything was ... contained. Now my body has been found, the sheriff’s suspicious, we know Burby is one of the killers, Katie’s involved ... it feels like it’s getting out of control.”

“Out of control? You were shot, remember? When was it ever in control?” I flicked on the windshield wipers to clear away the light spray of sleet that had begun to fall. “I think we needed a little disorder, shake things up a little. See what we can make happen.”

Alan thought about that, and when he spoke again, his voice sounded troubled. “I just have a bad feeling that things are going to start happening very quickly now, and we have no idea what they are.”

It gave us both something to worry about on the way back to Kalkaska.

14

And There She Was

Alan was asleep as I parked my truck. I walked into the Black Bear and stopped dead, frowning—in what I would classify as an unauthorized activity, Kermit was setting down a couple of beers for a few people at a table near Bob the Bear. Becky was standing with her back to the room, hunched over something by the cash register.

Kermit’s eyes widened when he saw me. “Hi, Ruddy,” he called in Becky’s direction, like a prairie dog sounding a warning. “I was just improvident, here,” he explained to me.

“I’ll say,” I agreed.

Becky was working the little machine that we used to authorize credit card numbers. “So this is Kermit’s get-rich-quick scheme?” I asked in a disapproving tone.

Her lips pursed, a sign of stubbornness from childhood, but she didn’t look up at me. Curious despite myself, I stepped around the bar to watch. She was entering credit card numbers and dollar amounts from a computer printout. None of the amounts was more than three hundred dollars. “Shucks,” Becky muttered, writing unauthorized next to one of the entries. I could see that for the entire page, close to a quarter were winding up unauthorized. “Why would a psychic send us credit card numbers for somebody over his limit? Wouldn’t the psychic know?” I asked innocently.

“Are you going to tell the same joke over and over again?”

“Becky, I have a real, real bad feeling about this.”

“You do?” Her eyes were bright with resentment. “That’s funny, Ruddy. I’ve already run ten thousand dollars today. That means we’ve made more than a thousand dollars for a couple of hours’ work. Can you see anything wrong with that?”

“Well, yeah. If you’re making more than five hundred an hour entering numbers on a little machine, why doesn’t everybody do it?”

“Kermit explained all that.”

“What does Kermit get out of this, anyway? Besides demonstrating to all of us that he is a financial wizard.” Becky didn’t look at me.

“Becky, you’re not paying him, are you?” “He gets a commission, yes,” she shot back.

“How much?” I pressed.

“Third.”

“A third?” I repeated incredulously. “That’s a hell of a commission. I don’t think even drug dealers get that kind of percentage!”

“You get your third, too, Ruddy, so I don’t know what you’re complaining about,” Becky responded bitterly.

I thought about this. Instead of my being paid a salary as a bouncer, the arrangement that had always worked for us was that when the Black Bear made money, Becky divided the profits between the two of us. But this felt wrong, and after a moment I shook my head. “Keep it,” I told her. When her eyes grew blank with an emotion I was afraid might be hate, I gestured at the bar. “Put it into your improvements,” I mumbled. “Or, as Kermit would probably say, your improvisations.”

A genuine smile lit up her face then, full and open, without her hand reflexively covering it, and I gulped back a sweeping affection that literally choked me. If this made her happy, how bad could it be?

Her smile turned even more radiant as Kermit rounded the bar, and in a motion that caught me in complete surprise, the two of them embraced, their lips coming together for a kiss. I realized I was staring, and spun away so they wouldn’t see the shock on my face.

Jimmy wandered in an hour later and we played a little pool. We’re not any good at it and I don’t think either of us even likes it, but we’ve probably shot ten thousand games over the years. I felt Alan wake up, but he remained moodily silent.

“Hey, what were you doing last night?” Jimmy asked as he gracefully stroked the cue ball, causing it to kiss off the four to no good effect whatsoever. He mournfully shook his head.

“What do you mean?” I lined up and shot, spreading the balls around but not sinking any.

“I saw you out jogging or something,” Jimmy explained. “About four miles down the road. I honked, but you just kept plugging. You trying to lose some weight?”

“What are you saying?” I asked indignantly. “You think I need to lose weight?”

“No, uh ... I just wondered what you were doing, is all.”

“Well, it wasn’t me.”

Jimmy executed an artful banking shot that managed to miss hitting any balls at all, which isn’t easy to do.

“Have you guys never played pool before?” Alan asked wonderingly.

“I do push-ups and lift weights at the club,” I stated forcefully, recalling that sometime in January I’d had a pretty good workout.

“Bet you can bench a lot, huh,” Jimmy patronized with such wide- eyed sincerity I felt ashamed.

“No, I ... ah, hell. Forget it.”

“You should tell him that we tracked the bounced checks to the bank president’s wife, see if he recognizes her name,” Alan suggested.

I felt myself bristling at what I felt was unneeded advice. “I’ve found out a few things about those checks of yours, but I’m not ready to talk about it,” I said forcefully to Jimmy.

“Okay.”

I know Jimmy pretty well, and gradually I became aware that there was something on his mind. When Jimmy has something he wants to say, he is usually completely silent. “So what’s going on?” I prodded, accidentally sinking the eight ball and prematurely ending the game. We put away our cue sticks with relief.

“I guess that check bounced. You know, the one I cashed down at the hotel.”

“Yes, but we were expecting that, weren’t we, Jimmy?”

“The thing is, I got fired.”

“They fired you?” I felt a flash of protective anger.

“For bouncing a check? Didn’t you tell them they could take it out of your pay?”

Jimmy was carefully aligning the cue sticks with each other.

“Jimmy?”

“Uh, I sort of had sex with one of the guests again. I mean, she wanted me to, but I guess they thought that I shouldn’t have done it since they made an official policy about me. So they told me that the bounced check money was me getting severed.”

“Severance,” Alan and I both said at the same time.

“Yeah, that.” He met my eyes. “I’m really sorry, Ruddy. I just kinda couldn’t help it.”

“How can you not help having sex with someone?” Alan demanded. I didn’t get it either, but then again, I didn’t look like Jimmy Growe.

“Well wait, Jimmy, you live at the hotel,” I said suddenly. “Are you kicked out?”

He nodded. “Tomorrow.”

“Well hell.” I blew out some air. “Okay, you can live upstairs at my place until you find something else. There’s nothing in the little kitchen up there but you can use mine.”

The look he gave me was full of wonder and gratitude, and just like with Becky I felt my throat tighten. Repo Madness was turning me into a softie. I punched him in the arm to keep things manly. “Tell you what, Jimmy,” I said. “I’ll even cover your tab to night, if you answer me a question.”

His brow furrowed. “Aw, Ruddy, you know I’m no good at this kind of stuff.”

“No.” I shook my head. “Just ... what do you think of Kermit Kramer? And if you say he’s got a great vocabulary, I am going to pick you up and heave you out into the street.”

Clearly, this was exactly what he’d been about to say, and my abrupt censorship rendered him mute for a moment. His mouth opened and shut a couple of times. “Well ...” He cleared his throat, took a thirsty gulp of beer, and then scrunched his face in concentration.

“Becky likes him,” he offered finally. “A lot.” “How can you tell?” I pounced.

Jimmy gave me back a blank stare.

“You have to ask?” Alan inquired.

Alan was right—Jimmy could probably sense a woman’s interest the way Jake knows when I’ve opened a can of dog food.

“She laughs a lot when he’s around,” Jimmy mused, trying to put it into words that an amateur like me could understand. “I think ... he seems to like her a lot, too.”

“Bull,” I growled, my face suddenly hot. “He’s just glad to have someone run his credit card numbers for him.”

“What?”

“Never mind. I’m going to go grab us each another beer.”

“What’s your problem?” Alan demanded. “Did you expect your sister to become a nun or something?”

“Go to sleep, Alan.”

“Why do you treat people like that?”

“You know, I’ve just about had it with your lectures. You can either be a separate person or my conscience, you can’t be both.”

When I came back, Claude was just settling in at the table with a war-weary expression. I gave him the beer I’d intended for me and sat.

“God, what a mess,” he moaned.

“What’s the problem?”

“It’s Wilma. When I call her and she recognizes my voice, she hangs up without saying anything.”

“Well, what did you expect, Claude? You gave her a disease.”

“I did not!” he shouted shrilly.

Grinning, I got up to replace my beer. Becky was still running numbers.

Not a bad night. Some fellows limped in around eight, their attitude and muddy attire leading me to believe they had been out playing a little baseball, getting some practice in for the season, which would be starting in a couple of weeks. I knew most of them and wandered over to say hello, but I could see I made them uncomfortable so I didn’t linger. I sometimes forgot how the local athletes felt about me.

Janelle didn’t arrive at all, which was no surprise to me, but I could see Claude had been expecting her. Every time the door opened he glanced over with a hopeful expression, but he was always disappointed. Eventually he threw some money on the table and walked out.

The door shut behind him and then opened right back up, and there she was: Katie Lottner.

NEXT: Chapters 15-16

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