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'The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man' Chapters 15 & 16


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15

No, I Did Not Mean to Do That

Katie spotted me and came right across the floor without hesitation. She held out her hand like we were going to have a business meeting, and I took it with a little disappointment, though I don’t know what else I’d been expecting. I reflexively checked to see if Alan was awake, which he was, and so what? I’d done nothing wrong, I reminded myself.

“The sheriff told me where you worked. I wanted to ... I was going to get you a card. You know, for ...” She gestured toward my face.

“Oh, you don’t have to do that. It was all a misunderstanding.”

She poked her finger into her hair and twirled it like a fork full of spaghetti. A reddish highlight flashed in her brown hair as she did so, and I found myself staring at it, enthralled. “She used to do that same thing with her hair when she was little,” Alan murmured, jerking me out of my reverie. “It means she’s worried about something.”

“Well ... I’m sorry,” she said.

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We looked at each other. I couldn’t stop grinning at her, even though I felt foolish. “So,” I said finally. “What sort of card do you get for something like that?”

Her mouth curved into a soft smile. “I figured they’d have something suitable.”

“Sorry I spit, I’ll try to quit?”

“Oh please,” Alan protested, but Katie laughed.

I steered her over to a table and sat down. Becky appeared, her eyebrows raised in unwelcome curiosity. My sister could read me so well. I introduced the two women. So what if I was interested in Katie? No big deal—but I could feel my face flushing, for some reason.

Jimmy came over and I found myself tensing, feeling like I suffered mightily in comparison to my supermodel buddy, but Katie was friendly and nothing more. After Becky brought us both our drinks, Jimmy went back to the bar and I had Katie all to myself, like a date.

With her father there.

“So, you’re the bouncer here?”

“More like the business manager,” I promoted myself. “My sister owns it, and I run it.” I glanced over at the bar to make sure Becky couldn’t hear me.

“I’m not going to sit here and listen to you mislead my daughter,” Alan warned, as if he could sit anywhere else.

I told her how the Black Bear came to get its name, then cleared my throat. “Actually, I don’t spend much time here. My profession is collateral recovery.” Katie thought about that.

“Come on, Ruddy,” Alan prodded.

“I’m a repo man,” I elaborated. There, happy now?

“You’re kidding me! Have you ever been shot?”

“Not anywhere vital.” Her eyes widened. “No, just joking. I’ve had a gun pointed at me a few times, but not with intent to use it.” I thought about Einstein Croft.

“Well, maybe once.”

“I could never do that.” She shook her head, undoubtedly picturing something far more glamorous than the gritty reality of climbing under a car to attach a tow hook to some deadbeat’s bumper.

I told her about how I got into the business—Milt hired me because he figured a large ex-football player could intimidate people into giving up their vehicles. I left out the part about being beaten up by a twenty-pound goose.

“So the theme of this conversation is, all about me, by Ruddy McCann,” Alan noted sardonically.

“But what about you?” I asked smoothly.

“Well, what about me?” she replied lightly.

I took a deep breath and broached the subject I’d been dreading. “Well, Deputy Timms, are the two of you ...”

Against my fervent wishes, she nodded her head. Her finger started twirling her hair. “We’re supposed to get married.”

“What?” Alan shouted.

“Ah. Well, congratulations, then, that’s just great.”

Her eyes regarded me with an unreadable expression. “Thanks. It isn’t official, though. I mean, he hasn’t proposed formally; we’ve just talked about it.”

“Oh.”

“Ask her about Marget,” Alan directed.

I decided that next time I had Alan alone we were going to have a serious talk about when it was appropriate for him to speak. I asked Katie about her family, and she told me her mother had remarried and still lived in the East Jordan area. “I’m living with her, actually,” Katie informed me with an embarrassed blush. “But in a trailer, out back. Like, a travel trailer with a kitchen and all? Just until, you know, Dwight and I figure things out.”

“I hope that doesn’t happen for a while,” I said sincerely. I thought maybe I was pushing too hard, but she just gave me a frank and appraising look.

“Did we ever meet before?” she finally asked softly.

“Well, yeah. I saved you from certain doom in downtown East Jordan by using my superpowers to start your car, don’t you remember?”

“No, I mean ...” She shook her head and her hair shimmered and that’s all it took to change everything—the sight of her hair, her curls lightly bouncing on her shoulders. It was like my heart had climbed a wall and then fallen over onto the other side. I barely knew her, but I was in love with Katie Lottner.

“It’s just that I have this sense from you, like we were friends before, somehow. It’s a feeling.”

“Well, did you ever hang out with the Kalkaska High School football team?” I asked.

“No!” she replied, laughing in surprise.

“Top ranks of government? Upper strata of society? Internationally recognized cultural events?”

Alan tsk-tsked in my ear.

“No. Well wait, would the East Jordan fireworks be considered a cultural event?” she asked.

“Was there a truck pull afterward?”

“Sorry.”

“Then no.”

“She thinks she knows you because she senses me, here inside you,” Alan chided.

I decided that wasn’t right, because I didn’t want it to be. “Maybe in a former life,” I suggested, “we were together as repo men.”

She laughed again. “Do you believe in that, though? In reincarnation, of former lives becoming mixed up in current ones?” she asked me.

“Oh, I do now,” I admitted.

“Me too. I believe it, too,” she said. We stared into each other’s eyes as if sharing a secret.

After an hour or so she told me she had to go and I offered to drive her home. “Well, thanks, but that would mean leaving my car here,” she pointed out.

“Not necessarily. Come on, I’ll show you.”

I drove Katie Lottner home in the tow truck, dragging her Ford behind us. She kept laughing at the arrangement. “This is the first time I’ve ever done this.

To show off, I demonstrated how hitting the repo switch dropped all the lights both in and out of the truck, so that we were humming up M66 in eerie darkness for a moment. I flipped the switch back on before Alan had a chance to start panicking.

“This is it,” Katie said as I slowed for a long curve, my headlights playing across a nice little place on the steep banks of Lake Patricia. The travel trailer was clearly visible in the backyard, the lights on inside.

When I unhooked her car in her driveway we stood there in the chill air a little awkwardly. I thought about taking her into my arms and kissing her senseless, but instead just stood there grinning when she said, “Well ... ,” and briefly touched her lips to my cheek.

I watched her enter the main house and noticed a woman standing at the window. Corn silk hair, not at all like Katie’s, but the same pretty features. She watched me impassively as I slid behind the wheel and threw the truck into reverse.

Marget.

Alan served up one of his frosty silences most of the way back, and I stayed quiet myself, enjoying it.

“Well, aren’t you going to say anything?” he finally demanded.

“Nope.”

“Do you know how hard it was for me to sit there quietly during all that?”

“No, and neither do you. You talked the whole time.”

“She’s my daughter!”

“She’s a grown woman,” I reminded him. “Besides, didn’t you hear her? She’s engaged to marry about three hundred pounds of deputy sheriff.”

He groaned. “No, that’s not what she said. She said they were talking about it. Nothing’s been decided yet.”

I decided not to tell Alan how much pleasure it gave me to agree with him.

Something like a warm breeze hit my face while I was out walking Jake, as if spring was taking a test run. He lifted his nose to it and seemed to drink it in, and for once didn’t drag me back to the house the moment he’d finished lifting his leg. “That’s right, Jakey,” I told him. “Summer will come again, I promise.”

Jake wagged as if he understood me. I pictured him running through the summer grasses, something he still did, if for much shorter bursts. “Such a good boy,” I told him. He wagged again. I stooped down and looked him in the eyes. “Hey,” I said softly. “I want you to live a long, long time, okay? I need you. You’re my dog.”

“I don’t get it. Why can’t you treat people the way you treat your dog?” Alan asked.

I sighed. “Alan, can you just give it a rest sometimes? I get it, I’m not perfect.”

Alan didn’t answer.

I plugged in my cell phone to charge it and went through the process of adding some minutes to my account. Who knew, maybe Katie and I would be talking to each other.

The next morning I awoke in an irrepressibly good mood, and then things got even better. Milt had a hot tip for me: A skip was back in the area.

“A skip is a guy the bank can’t find,” I told Kermit, who was along for the ride at his uncle’s request. I felt like whistling—my fee doubled on skips. I’d make five hundred dollars if I located this guy’s vehicle, which would erase two-thirds of my debt to Milt.

The customer’s driveway was a long, muddy rut pointing up a hill to a shoddy-looking cabin at the top. Parked right next to the cabin, front end facing us, was the truck we were looking for, a green Toyota. Across the road from the mouth of the driveway a steep bank dropped down to a stream, the water dark and deep from runoff. I didn’t like that: It meant I’d have to slow way down to make the turn out of that driveway to stay in control, and when I’m stealing a vehicle I like to put my foot into it until I’m out of rifle range.

I looked at my hands and they were not trembling. My heart wasn’t beating any faster than normal, and my stomach felt fine. Repo Madness, my ass.

“Slide over,” I instructed Kermit. “Drive my truck. Follow me.”

I grabbed the keys out of the folder and started climbing the muddy driveway, my eyes on the cabin. I was still forty feet from the truck when I saw the customer sitting at his table drinking coffee. His eyes widened.

“He sees us!” Alan yelled.

“No, he sees me. I think you’re still safe,” I corrected. I nodded at the guy, raising my hand in greeting. “Okay, fine, just coming to see you,” I muttered, smiling hugely, with an “I’m-not-here-to-steal-your-truck” expression on my face. He jumped to his feet.

Great.

I sprinted for the Toyota, which was locked despite the fact that there was no one around for three square miles. “Hurry! Hurry!” Alan was shouting unhelpfully. The key went in as the customer’s cabin door banged open. I jumped inside, locked the doors, and fired up the engine. He started shouting at me but I had it in drive and tromped on the accelerator.

“What’d he say?” I asked, grinning in triumph.

“I think he said ‘no brakes’!” Alan replied.

Frowning, I put my foot on the brake pedal and it went to the floor without resistance. I started pumping it, watching in alarm as the road rushed toward me.

“Look out!” Alan yelled.

The driveway dipped where it met the road and the impact was like crashing into a wall. The truck bounced hard, my teeth clicking together, and then I was across the road in a flash. The windshield cracked as a thin tree tried to stop me. The front end of the truck dove toward the river and then I had a face full of air bag.

“I hate those things,” I muttered. My nose felt like it had been hit by a basketball.

“Ruddy, we’re sinking, we’re sinking!” Alan shouted, his voice shrill. We were, indeed, sinking. The front bumper was pointing down at a severe angle and water was rushing in around my feet. I looked out the window and saw that the stream was up to the side mirrors. I searched my mind for a sense of déjà vu, but felt nothing. This wasn’t anything like the last time I’d been in a vehicle in the water.

Alan had become unintelligible with his panic, but he was still shouting at me. “Alan, shut up,” I snapped.

“Ruddy, I can’t ... I’m afraid of drowning. We have to get out!”

“Well, no one wants to drown, Alan,” I agreed irritably. There was a bump as the front end of the truck gouged the river bottom. We started to slide sideways a little, listing over on the right. I tried to shove open my door, but the rush of water pushed it back shut. “My God, that water’s cold!” I gasped.

“Ruddy, please.”

I pushed the electric window stud and, against all expectations, the window slid down. As it dropped into the door, more water gushed in, and there was a sure sense of the truck growing heavier. I grasped the top of the window frame and struggled to climb out, my clothes sodden with frigid water.

Three heaves and I was free of the truck. I instantly sank, my winter clothes dragging me down. A lot of thrashing and I got my mouth above the river for a quick, choking breath. I groped for and snagged a tree root, pulling myself over to the bank. The cold water sapped my strength, rendering me almost immobile, and my breath came in shallow gasps as I clambered up the soggy slope.

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Kermit stood at the top, his mouth open in wonder. “Hey!” he shouted down at me. “Did you mean to do that?”

16

What the Psychic Said

Within an hour of plunging grill-first into the river we had three state patrol cars hanging around, lights flashing as if there were a bank robbery in progress. No laws had been broken, but the local cops were acting as if they’d never seen anything as exciting as a submerged Japanese pickup truck.

I had changed into the overalls I kept in the truck for when I needed to crawl under cars, slipping on heavy rubber boots to complete the outfit. Still, I was a long way from warm, and shivered as I watched local people driving up to view the action.

The Charlevoix Courier showed up to take pictures and I told Kermit to stop trying to get a signal on his cell phone and go represent his uncle’s firm, so he ran down to the riverbank and stood there, frowning at the sunken truck in a condemnatory fashion.

“So what was that all about when we hit the river?” I asked Alan. “We weren’t going to drown, it was no more than five feet deep.”

“I’ve just always had a fear of drowning. In fact ... well, you’ll think this is stupid.”

“Everything that has happened to me today has already been stupid, so you might as well go ahead.”

“A psychic told me one time that I would die drowning.”

“A psychic?” I mulled this over. “Did you pay with a credit card? Because Becky could use some more numbers.”

“No, I was a kid. It was at a fair, and this woman supposedly could see our futures. She was a real scary-looking lady, and she told me I should stay away from the water, because someday I would drown. It really frightened me. I’ve had nightmares ever since, and they are all the same—I’m in a river, and someone is holding me under, and I can’t breathe and I know I’m going to drown.”

“Okay, except no one was holding me under water. We were in a Toyota pickup truck.”

“I’m not saying it’s rational, Ruddy. It’s just a fear I have.”

“And anyway, aren’t you forgetting something? The woman was wrong. You didn’t die from drowning, you died from getting shot by a funeral director.”

“Well, right, except that I’m alive now, through you.”

“What? What do you mean? You aren’t alive, you’re some sort of stowaway. And when this is over, you’ll go back to ... to where you were before you showed up inside my head.”

Alan was quiet for a minute. “Ruddy, what do you mean, when this is over? When what’s over?”

“When the curse is lifted, or whatever. You can’t be saying that you think we’re going to be hooked together forever. Is that what you’re saying?”

“I’m not saying anything,” Alan soothed.

“Don’t talk to me like that!” I shouted. “I’m not crazy!”

I stopped, suddenly conscious of the fact that everyone’s attention was riveted on me. When a man is dressed like a duck hunter and standing by himself yelling “I’m not crazy,” most people are likely to draw precisely the opposite conclusion. The newspaper shot a picture of Kermit looking gravely concerned at my outburst.

“Alan, that can’t be. That just can’t be,” I fumed more quietly. Alan didn’t respond.

Well, what a great way to start the day. I told Kermit to ride with the AAA truck and call his uncle from the Toyota dealership. He could ask the mechanics to work up an estimate on what it would cost to convert the submarine back into a pickup. Meanwhile, it was time for me to have some more conversation with the sheriff of Charlevoix County.

The drive to the jail was one of those sloppy, sliding journeys with ruts of wet snow grabbing at my tires and slush from passing semis hitting my windshield as if thrown from a bucket.

“Do you think maybe you should slow down?” Alan asked anxiously. My answer was to put my foot into it until my back end slid a little, and then I eased off, feeling like I’d made my point even if I wasn’t sure what it was.

Sheriff Strickland came out to the lobby to greet me, offering a cup of coffee, which I gratefully accepted. “So now, Ruddy. I’ve made some calls about you,” he advised as we settled into our chairs.

I registered the fact that I was “Ruddy” all of a sudden. “You did,” I answered cautiously.

“Uh-huh. I know now the whole story of what happened to you. Real shame.” His voice was kind, his expression indicating his sympathy for my plight.

I gave him a look to let him know I wasn’t buying. In Barry Strickland’s view the only victim was a seventeen-year-old girl buried in the cemetery in Suttons Bay, and the fact that I’d had an assured NFL career cut short by a visit to Jackson State Prison wasn’t worth wasting any tears over.

He read me perfectly and decided we’d had enough warm and fuzzy time together. He stuck a toothpick in his mouth and fixed me with those steely eyes. “So tell me how it was you came to know about the body of Alan Lottner being buried out by the Jordan River.”

I coughed. “Sheriff, you’re going to think this is really strange.”

His expression didn’t change.

“I dreamt it.”

“I think it’s ‘dreamed,’ ” Alan advised.

“Is it dreamed, or dreamt? Anyway, it was a dream.”

He watched me take a long, stalling sip of coffee, his face hard. “A dream.”

“Yes, sir. I dreamed about the place, and I dreamt that Alan Lottner was buried right there, under that tree. So I just figured ...” I spread my hands, wishing Alan would say something useful.

“You dreamt he was buried there.”

“Yes, sir. Dreamed.”

“Alan Lottner.”

“Yes, sir.”

“When did you have this dream?”

“When? Oh, a couple of weeks ago. The night of the big windstorm? It was a very real dream, more like a vision almost. I just couldn’t get it out of my head.”

“Can’t get me out of your head. Cute.” Alan snickered. I wondered how I might inflict pain on my good friend Alan.

Strickland leaned forward and stirred his coffee, carefully watching the black liquid swirl around. When he glanced up I could almost hear the steel jaws of the trap closing over me. “How did you know it was Alan Lottner?”

I took far too long to respond. “What?” I finally answered cleverly.

“In your dream you saw a body buried under a tree, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How did you know who it was?”

“Well, I ... um. Well, I told you I was a friend of Alan’s long ago.”

“The body was so badly decomposed we had to use dental records to identify it,” Strickland advised me in clipped tones. “You could have been Lottner’s twin brother and you wouldn’t have known who it was.”

I opened my mouth to provide a reasonable explanation, but nothing came out and I shut it again.

“Let me ask you something, Ruddy.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You seem to have your life back together. You and your sister own the family business in Kalkaska. I know Milton Kramer, you pick up repos for him, nice little income on the side. Off parole, clean start.”

“Sure.”

“Why do you want to protect him?”

“I ... Sorry?”

The sheriff leaned forward and I felt my chair pushing into my back as I unconsciously tried to retreat.

“Whoever you talked to in Jackson who told you where the body was buried. Whoever killed Alan Lottner. You’re out now, you’re a citizen. Why the hell do you want to put all that on the line for somebody you met in prison?”

Wonderful. I’d had more fun when I was in a sinking Toyota.

Strickland reached into his drawer and pulled something out, tossing it on his desk with a sound like a bouncing coin. It was a golden ring, skittering at me across the desktop so that I automatically caught it.

“Know what that is?”

I looked at it. “Kalkaska class ring.”

“From your graduating year. Ever see it before?”

“I had one like it,” I admitted faintly.

“Uh-huh. You said ‘had.’ ”

“Lost it.”

“Look inside. You see any initials?” I swallowed. “RJM.”

“As in Ruddick Jourden McCann?” I stared at him, speechless.

“Want to tell me how you ‘lost’ it?”

“I was canoeing down the Jordan River after graduation with some buddies. There was a lot of horseplay. Fell in the water a bunch of times. When we got to East Jordan I noticed it was missing. Must have fallen off. You know. Cold water.”

“We found it in the same hole as Lottner’s skeleton.”

“Right, I forgot. The ring!” Alan exclaimed. And as soon as he said it, a piece of the dream came back—me reaching for something gold in the water, deciding I needed to get it back to the person who owned it.

“You have been lying to me since you opened your mouth, son,” Strickland said.

“No! Well, okay. I have to say, I did lose my ring, I don’t know how I knew it was Alan Lottner. But you have to listen to me, Sheriff. I did have this dream, really, I did!” I closed my eyes briefly, remembering just how extraordinarily clear everything had seemed.

He’s dead.

No, I’m not.

When I opened my eyes I saw Strickland regarding me, considering. He could sense some truth leaking into my narrative but wasn’t sure what it was.

“I think I’ve got enough to charge you with accessory after the fact right now as it is, McCann. This is a murder investigation and you’d do well to remember that.”

I swallowed.

“I do not know how to say it more plain than this: You do not want me and you to wind up on opposite sides of this thing.”

“No, sir, I do not.”

I watched him watch me, feeling like I should be holding my breath. Probably it was only the fact that he’d already arrested me once that week that kept him from sending me back to his cells for what my mother always called “a little time out.”

He eased back in his chair, shaking his head at me. He gestured at the file on his desk. “I wasn’t here then, but about the time Alan Lottner disappeared, there was a fire bombing at a nursing home there in East Jordan. Apparently the ATF was called in, and they took a real interest in Lottner for a while.”

“Why?” I asked, shocked.

Strickland shrugged. “Seemed odd, him disappearing and then a month later we’ve got thirty-two people dead.”

“For God’s sake, I was murdered. And I wouldn’t have the first idea how to set a bomb,” Alan protested.

“Oh, but Alan wouldn’t do something like that. I mean, come on. What does he know about bombs?”

Strickland gestured toward the file. “Says here it was a pretty simple thing, really. Dynamite, blasting cap, a digital kitchen timer, and lots of gasoline to accelerate the flames. Place went up like a matchstick. Whoever did it padlocked the front and rear doors of the place—he wanted those people to fry. Never caught the guy, never came up with a motive, never uncovered a single witness.”

“Well, it wasn’t Alan.”

“Oh, I don’t think it was. Your reaction is interesting, though. So you knew the victim really well.”

“Ah, no, not all that well,” I said uncomfortably.

Strickland just looked sad. He regarded his watch. “Well, that’s about all the horse manure this old man can stand to see a person shovel in a single day without choking on it. I’m going to tell you right now that you’ve used up your marker with me over that little fiasco in the jail the other day. You do know what I’m saying here, don’t you.”

It wasn’t a question. “Yes, sir.”

“You ever had a polygraph exam?”

I shook my head. There’d never been any reason; I’d admitted my previous crime.

“You willing to take one now?”

“Maybe you should ask your attorney about that,” Alan suggested worriedly.

I licked dry lips. “Sure.”

Strickland grunted. “My polygraph examiner is on vacation in South Carolina. He decides to come back to our winter paradise, I’m going to send a car to collect you for another little chat. That be okay by you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“You lie to me again, I’m going to place you under arrest for obstruction and anything else I can think of. Clear?”

I nodded.

Once in my truck, I pounded my steering wheel in frustration. “Dammit, Alan! See what you’ve gotten me into!”

“Me? I think you’re forgetting who the victim is, here.”

I started the truck. “And I think you’re forgetting that if I’m arrested, you’re arrested. If I go to prison, you go to prison,” I said agitatedly.

“Well, whose idea was it to say it came to you in a dream? I never told you to say that.”

“Well, what was I supposed to do?”

“So are you going to tell him about me?”

“About you what, hanging out in my head like some sort of talking brain virus? No, I do that and he’ll be locking me up for my own good.”

“So what are you going to say?”

“You know what, Alan? Figuring that out should be your job.”

The idea of evading Strickland’s questions while wired up to a lie detector gave me cold sweats. I spent the next several days spastically turning my neck anytime I spotted someone out of the corner of my eye, expecting to see one of Strickland’s deputies bearing down on me with a pair of handcuffs. At home I’d jump to the window and peer out whenever a car passed, gulping audibly when it was a patrol car. My new tenant, Jimmy, picked up my nervous ness and would peer out at traffic even if I forgot to.

Jake, however, was impervious to my mood. He enjoyed having Jimmy around, and would lie next to Jimmy’s chair when the TV was on, giving me a pointed look as if to say, “I like this guy; he doesn’t drag me on forced marches in the cold.”

When Jimmy opened the back door to head up the outside stairs to his room for the night, Jake always followed as far as the threshold, but that staircase looked like it wasn’t worth the effort. Jake would sigh, glancing at me in disappointment, before collapsing back on his blanket.

“You have to like me best,” I informed him testily. “It’s in the Dog Manual.”

Another side effect of digging up Alan’s corpse: I was back to being Kalkaska’s most notorious citizen. I decided to avoid the Black Bear after it became evident that all everyone wanted to talk about was me walking in the woods and seeing a skeleton lying there with a bullet in its head. The inference that Alan had been exposed to the elements made him angry, as if it implied he was somehow lazy. I was just glad the story about the dream hadn’t gotten out.

Milt called me at home and asked if maybe we should go writ of replevin on Einstein Croft—sue him, in other words, to get the pickup back. I begged him to give me a few more days. A writ of replevin would mean the sheriff would pick up Einstein’s ride, and I’d get paid nothing unless I served the summons for fifty dollars. “Any movement on Jimmy’s paper?” Milt asked softly.

Jimmy looked up from the pizza we’d put on the coffee table, sensing we were talking about him.

“You know he lost his job at the hotel, Milt. He hasn’t got any money.”

“I need to see something pretty quick, Ruddy. That motorcycle has bad piston rings; it’s not worth even a grand. Why did he buy the thing—what was he, drunk?”

“No, he was just being Jimmy. I’ll get right on it, Milt.

Got anything for me?”

“Nope, been pretty quie. Just Croft.”

“Okay, okay.” I hung up and Jimmy gave me an anxious look. “You go down to the dealership, ask Claude if the shop is hiring like I told you?”

He nodded. “And the gas station. Nothing.”

I knew it was the truth. It was the second week of May. The snowmobilers had quit coming, the summer trade was more than a month off—everyone was just hanging on, waiting for the change of season. The saying up here is that we go from mud to mosquitoes with only a week in between.

“I’m going to head over to the Black Bear in a little bit, help out Becky,” he told me.

“She can’t afford to pay you anything,” I snapped.

Jimmy looked hurt. “Yeah, I know that. Just to help out, I meant.”

“Sorry, Jimmy,” I muttered.

“We need to go talk to that bank president’s wife, find out why she’s sending the checks,” Alan advised, which irritated me because I’d just been thinking the same thing.

 

The next morning I was on the Blanchards’ doorstep at nine A.M., lifting the brass knocker and letting it clank several times. Jake, who’d joined me for the ride, solemnly watched me from the side window of my pickup. I waved at him and his floppy ears twitched. I loved when they did that. A woman answered, regarding me curiously.

“Mrs. Blanchard?”

She nodded. Mrs. Blanchard looked to be in her late twenties, a pretty woman with light-brown hair. Her cheekbones were high and her legs were thin. I felt like a big dumb repo man standing on her front porch. I glanced over and Jake, bored, had already stopped watching in favor of a nap.

I told her my name and the fact that I worked for Milton Kramer, letting the details of how I made my living flow out one at a time to see what she reacted to, which turned out to be absolutely nothing. She remained cool, leaning on the door a little as if ready to slam it on me.

“She’s pretty impressed with you,” Alan remarked dryly.

“Bad checks, things like that,” I was saying. Still nothing.

“Tell her you’ve got a voice in your head,” Alan snickered. When I was finished here I was going to find a river and drown myself just to punish him.

“Mr. Kramer cashed some checks for a guy named Jimmy Growe.”

There! Just for a moment, something passed through her eyes, the faintest hint of darkness. Then a forced blandness took over, her eyebrows arching up questioningly.

“It seems the checks were taken from the bank when you were working there. I just came by to talk to you about that.”

“Why? What makes you think that I know anything about it?”

“She looks like she’s enjoying herself,” Alan observed.

Her grip had relaxed slightly on the door, and though we were both still standing she seemed in no hurry to be rid of me.

“Well, you were issuing starter checks at the bank, weren’t you, Mrs. Blanchard? You had access to the packets.” I was honor bound not to tell her that Maureen at the bank had recognized her handwriting.

“So?”

“Ma’am, may I ask you what your maiden name was?”

A faint flush spread across her cheeks. “Adams,” she answered faintly. “Why?”

“Most people choose variations of their own names when they assume a pseudonym,” Alan informed me sardonically. “Hence Adams becomes Wilenose.”

“I ... Ma’am, I might as well tell you, I know that you were the one who sent Jimmy Growe the checks. What I don’t understand is why you did it.”

“And this Mr. Growe attempted to cash these checks?” She responded with a forced casualness.

“Yes.”

“Is there a ... can he go to jail for something like that?”

I stared at her, making her wait for a reply, and her eagerness showed itself just a little before she regained control. “Maybe,” I told her, but she had her satisfaction wrapped down tight and didn’t share any of it with me.

“Well, I’m sorry I can’t help you with any of this, Mr. McCann.”

I tilted my head. “You didn’t know he’d cash them. You sent them for some other reason.”

“There is no point in this conversation. I’m sorry I can’t help you.” She shut the door firmly, the brass knocker lending solid punctuation to the action.

Jake lifted his head when I got back in the cab of the truck, his soft ears swaying. His look seemed to say “what a dumb way to make a living.” I kissed him on the nose.

“I’m sorry that I can’t earn enough lying on a blanket with you all day,” I told him. To a large degree, I meant it.

Much to Jake’s disappointment, Jimmy wasn’t home when I trooped in a few hours later, feeling defeated. I opened the refrigerator and scanned the nearly empty insides, reflecting on how much electricity I was using just to keep some mayonnaise cold.

Jimmy had continued Becky’s initiative, picking up after the both of us. He’d even vacuumed the carpet. I had to admit I liked having him around. Me, Jake, Jimmy, and Alan—our own little dysfunctional family.

“Mrs. Blanchard clearly sent those checks to Jimmy. Did you see her expression? She was toying with you,” Alan observed.

“She was not ‘toying’ with me,” I retorted. “I agree, though—she’s the one. I just can’t for the life of me figure out why.”

I moodily picked through the stack of bills on the kitchen table. It was still all quiet on the repo front, and I had something like four bucks in my wallet. The sense of being in the middle of a famine was even affecting my body; my pants were fitting more loosely, as if I were dropping weight.

“Maybe we should go up to East Jordan and stake out Nathan Burby, see if he makes contact with the shovel guy,” Alan suggested.

“Well, that would take gasoline, Alan. I need to preserve gasoline so that when I get a repo assignment I don’t have to walk to it. I had Milt apply the money for the sunken Toyota to my outstanding debts to him.”

“Well, what are you going to do?”

“I don’t know, Alan!” I exploded in frustration. I heaved myself off the couch and put on a jacket. Becky would feed me.

 

NEXT: Chapters 17-18

 

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