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'The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man' Chapters 17 & 18


spinner image illustration of board of directors plaques on a wall, with only one legible with name "franklin wexler" but face is not visible
Illustration by Steve Vance

 

17

You and Me, Kermit

 

The Black Bear was like an easy chair in my mind: worn, comfortable, familiar. When I opened the door the shock made me blink. Becky had been busy.

She watched me approach her across the floor with apprehension seeping into her eyes, but when I glanced pointedly at the curtains, the new paint, and the hardwood flooring that had replaced the linoleum, she straightened a little, her jaw firming in resolve.

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“Hi, Ruddy,” she greeted.

“What’s all this?” I demanded.

“All what?”

“What are you doing? What’s with all the artwork, and the curtains?”

“I told you I wanted to spruce the place up, use a warmer color palette.”

“But this looks ridiculous!” I railed. “Can you imagine what Dad would say about windows covered with—with lace?”

“Oh, Ruddy.”

“Come on. This is the Black Bear. Next thing I know, you’ll want to get rid of Bob.”

She glanced over at the stuffed bear, then back at me, her eyes unreadable.

“Becky, no.”

She shook her head. “I’m not going to get rid of the bear.”

“But can’t you see what you’re doing? You’re changing the, the . . .”

“Ambience,” Alan suggested.

“The ambience of the place!”

“Exactly.” Her eyes glared at me through her smudged lenses.

“But don’t you understand that the beauty of this place is that it never changes? You drive through Kalkaska and there’s a McDonald’s now, and a Burger King, and just when you think the whole place has lost its charm, there’s the good old Black Bear Bar and Grille, thank God. Why, we’ve got people who’ve been coming here since we were little kids! What are they going to think when they see you’re playing dollhouse?”

“Wow, what an asshole you can be,” Alan noted.

Becky fixed me with the sort of unhappy, mournful expression she had mastered through a lifetime of practice.

“What do you think, that nothing in life will ever change?” “Just not the Black Bear,” I told her forcefully.

She shook her head slightly, and I found her unwillingness to fight back infuriating. “It’s that goddamn Kermit,” I stormed, attacking from another direction.

That got her. “What about him?” she murmured.

I gestured at her sweater, which was stylish and feminine. “He’s got you all ... ” I groped for words. “Hot,” Alan suggested. “Sexed up.”

“Jesus!” I snapped at him.

“Ruddy, don’t you dare even think of going near him. If you do . . .” Becky warned.

I leaned forward almost eagerly, bearing down on her. When we were growing up my physical bulk so overwhelmed her frail frame I regularly bullied her just by staring her down, and I was doing it now. “Or you’ll what?” I taunted.

She backed away from me. “I’ll get an injunction and banish you from the Bear. I’ll get the judge to say you can never come in here again.” She folded her arms.

I sat down on a bar stool as if sucker-punched. “Oh.”

“This has got nothing to do with him, Ruddy, except maybe that he’s given us a way to make the money to buy some things.”

“Running numbers,” I muttered glumly.

“Using our nonswipe account to help another vendor,” she agreed.

“Would you really do that? Get a judge to have me banned from a place I’ve been coming to since I could crawl?”

“Would you really hit my boyfriend?” “Your boyfriend?” I shouted.

“Hush,” Becky warned, glancing at our only customers—a couple of guys sitting in the corner. The flush on her cheeks looked less like embarrassment than sheer pleasure. Becky McCann has a boyfriend.

“So what else are you going to do around here? Put in a conveyor belt with sushi on it?” I inquired sullenly, not quite giving up.

Her gaze turned unreadable again. “You’ll see,” she promised.

Jimmy came out of the men’s room at that moment and stopped dead, looking as if I’d caught him in bed with another guest at the hotel. He was wearing an apron, the pockets stuffed with a notebook and some napkins.

“You’re a waitress?” I demanded.

Jimmy swallowed. “Becky said I shouldn’t tell you until we saw how it went, but she gave me a job as a waiter. You know, serving food and drinks.”

“I know what a waiter does, Jimmy.” I tromped off and sat under Bob like a soldier determined to give his life to defend his bear. I moodily drank a Vernors ginger ale, occasionally holding my hand up to cover my mouth so I could talk to Alan.

“I’d say she pretty much handed you your balls in a paper bag,” he observed.

“You just don’t know. These changes would drive my father crazy.”

“A lot of friends of your father still come in here, do they?”

“All the time,” I affirmed.

“Any here now?”

I looked around. “No.”

“Last time you were here, big bunch of them come in?”

“Well, no.”

“Previous week? Two weeks? Even one of them show up?”

“You have a point here, Alan?”

“Just that maybe your sister should be allowed to make the changes she thinks will bring in more business. This sure isn’t the kind of place I’d want to hang out in.”

“You are welcome to leave any time,” I told him frostily. I decided the soda wasn’t working for me and switched to beer.

Night settled, and Jimmy left to go on a date. No one came in. By nine o’clock Becky and I had the place to ourselves. She busied herself installing a rack over the bar, from which she dangled shiny new wineglasses that hung upside down like bats. I guessed we would no longer be serving wine in old jelly jars. When she was finished, we stared at each other from across the room, each feeling the lack of business eloquently supported our respective positions.

Kermit showed up around closing time. “Kermit, over here!” I shouted at him. Becky, who’d been disapprovingly tracking my repeated trips to the keg machine like a school hall monitor, gave me a hard look.

“Ruddy . . . ” Alan said warningly. What was it with everybody?

Kermit came over and stood a little uneasily in front of me. “Sit,” I invited, kicking a chair out from the table. The action was meant to be smooth but instead the chair fell over. Becky stared at me and I shrugged.

Kermit righted the chair and eased down into it. “You and me, Kermit.” He swallowed.

“Tomorrow, we are going to go cook the literal goose of a certain Mr. Albert Einstein.” Kermit stared at me.

“Einstein Croft,” Alan hissed.

“I meant Einstein Croft. What did I say, Albert Einstein? That’s pretty funny.” I noticed I was the only one laughing, and cleared my throat. “Anyway, come pick me up in the tow truck at seven a.m. in the morning. We’re going to take the thing from his job. That work for you?”

He nodded. “Sure.”

“Okay. Okay, then.” I stood, formally shook his hand, nodded with dignity at my sister, and marched out into the frigid night air.

“Well I hope you’re satisfied with yourself,” Alan lectured as soon as he had me to himself.

“Satisfied, that’s the word I’ve been looking for. I’m feeling perfectly satisfied, yes.”

“You’re drunk. I hate it. I can’t think straight.”

“Oh my God, are you telling me you’re drunk, too?” I hooted. This struck me as so funny I had to sit down on my front steps, laughing until tears flowed out of my eyes. “Well, there goes my idea of making you designated driver.”

“You disgust me.”

“Oh, great! I have a voice in my head and he’s disgusted!” I shouted out into the Kalkaska night.

“I was killed, Ruddy. We know who did it. We know where he works. Yet you’ve done nothing about it.”

“Yeah? And what, exactly, am I supposed to do?”

“We need to figure out why he did it. We need to find out who the man with the shovel is. We need to do something, Ruddy, instead of just sitting around all day reading mystery novels.”

“Maybe I don’t care, did that ever occur to you, Alan? You got killed by two guys in the woods. Well I’m sorry, but that’s not my fault. I never asked for this, for you to come into my head and start talking to me. You’re a total stranger—why should I give a rip about you?”

“You’re an abuser. You abuse your sister and you abuse your own body. You’re a murderer.”

“Yeah? Well you’re drunk,” I sneered. I stumbled into my house. The stack of bills on the table enraged me and I swiped them off onto the floor, kicking at them and mostly just hitting air. “Maybe I like it messy!” I yelled. 

I picked up a pillow off the couch and threw it across the room, where it landed on a kitchen chair and instantly looked like it belonged there, offering me no satisfaction whatsoever. That was the whole problem.

“I changed my mind!” I bellowed. “I am not satisfied!”

Jake eased off his blanket and padded over to me, concerned. He shoved his wet nose at my hand and gazed up at me loyally, ready to take a walk or do anything else that might make me happy. “You are the best dog in the world,” I assured him. I held his face in my hands and smiled into those sorrowful brown eyes. “The best dog. My best friend.”

I shambled into my bedroom and Jake followed me, a question in his eyes. “No, Jakey. In case I ever manage to get a woman in here I can’t have you in the habit of lying in my bed. Want me to sleep on the floor with you? I will. Would you like that?”

His look indicated my offer wasn’t good enough.

I didn’t remember setting my alarm clock, but it woke me up at six a.m. I felt like I’d been beaten. I eased out of bed and went into the bathroom, looking sadly into the old, red eyes of Ruddy McCann. Life was not supposed to turn out like this.

Jimmy had picked up the scattered bills and placed them back on the table. It looked like he’d polished all the glasses in the cabinets, too. I didn’t deserve a friend like him. I found some thousand-year-old beef taquitos in the freezer and heated them in the micro, eating them quickly, before Alan woke up and gave me a nutrition lecture.

I was experiencing the hangover of a lifetime. My head was oddly clear, but the rest of my body hurt as if I’d spent the day working out in a gym and then being beaten by a karate instructor. My stomach was tender with the same soreness I’d feel after the first day of crunches at football practice.

I sighed despondently. I was only a couple of years older than Deputy Timms, but he looked a lot younger, his chubby cheeks lending his face a childlike exuberance, like maybe a child with really ugly parents. When Katie compared the two of us, she probably thought of me as over-the-hill.

The light was blinking on my message machine. As if she sensed I was thinking of her, it was Katie Lottner, asking me to come to a memorial service in East Jordan on Thursday at Burby’s funeral home. The county had finished its tests on Alan’s body and released it to the family. I listened to the message several times, straining through it to find nuggets of passion or affection, but it sounded like I was just one of several on a list she was working. I was glad Alan wasn’t awake to hear about his funeral; I wanted to think about a way to tell him about it.

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Kermit picked me up at exactly seven o ’clock, handing me a tall cup of coffee as I climbed in. Okay, so maybe he wasn’t such a bad guy. When he passed over a new folder from his uncle, I decided his behavior was downright acceptable.

The assignment was an easy one—some nut living in the woods “off the land” and selling the bank’s collateral—a Ford Explorer—a part at a time to the junkyard so that he’d have a few bucks to his name. I hauled in what was left of the thing, and because the guy was officially a skip, got five hundred bucks for my efforts. “I guess the bank thinks if you don’t have a mailbox or a phone you’re a skip,” I observed to Kermit.

By the time we were headed up to see Einstein Croft, it was almost noon. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the temperature was flirting with the fifties. We were about to repo Albert Einstein, and I now owed Milt nothing and had a check coming besides. “I’m back to being satisfied,” I told Kermit. He eyed me cautiously.

We swung into the guest parking of Einstein’s job, avoiding the guard who protected the employee lot. “Okay, here’s the thing. I’m going to get the receptionist to let me use their internal phone system. As soon as she does, I want you to distract her, okay? You’re good at that kind of thing—just keep talking to her, don’t let her overhear what I’m doing, all right?”

Kermit seemed nervous. “Wait! What should I say?”

“I don’t know. Explain the difference between swipe and nonswipe.”

We pushed open the glass doors and approached the receptionist in the lobby. She looked like she was barely out of high school—thin and pale, her short hair dyed unnaturally black. Up close I could see the small holes where she inserted her lip and nose rings after work.

I hooked my finger over my shoulder at the tow truck. “I’m supposed to phone the guard when I get here, somebody needs a tow. Can you connect me, somehow?”

She seemed unsure about my request, which was good, because it distracted her and kept her from asking me why I didn’t just pull up to the employee entrance and talk to the guard in person. She picked up the phone and stared at the switchboard. After moving her lips and nodding as if she had a dead Realtor of her own to talk to, she brightened.

“Jed? It’s Charlene. Hang on, please.” She smiled at me triumphantly. The second she handed me the telephone, Kermit pounced on her with a focused ferocity.

“Have you thought about handling call overflows from your station?” I heard him ask.

“Hello?” I said, trying to sound like a factory employee, what ever that meant.

“Security.”

“Hi, I need a tow truck, I busted my brake cylinder,” I told him. “Can you call one for me?”

“Call it yourself, this ain’t road service,” he advised gruffly.

“Oh, well, I don’t know how to make an outside call on this phone.”

“Just dial nine, like every other phone system in the universe.”

“Okay, so, when the tow truck pulls up, let it in, okay?”

“It’ll make my friggin’ day,” he responded, hanging up.

So far, so good: a call from inside the factory advising the guard to let in the tow truck. Now we just needed to stall for a few minutes. Kermit showed no sign of winding down, so I pretended to be interested in a bunch of pictures hanging on one wall. They were all businessmen and women, each identified with little golden name tags.

When my eyes drifted across one of the photographs, my jaw dropped.

“Hey, Alan.” I stood and stared.

“It’s him,” Alan breathed.

I reached out and touched the golden nameplate.

“Franklin Wexler,” I read out loud.

Unmistakably, the man with the shovel.

 

18

The Man with the Shovel

 

I strode over to where Kermit was still holding the receptionist hostage with a constant barrage of words. Her nameplate said CHARLENE.

“Hey, Charlene,” I interrupted. “Can I ask you a question about that guy over there?”

Charlene’s mind surfaced slowly, shaking off Kermit’s conversation like a dog getting out of the water. “Who?” “Franklin Wexler.”

“Who?” she repeated.

“Come on, Charlene, snap out of it,” Alan urged.

“There’s a picture of a guy over there, and this little gold plaque says ‘FRANKLIN WEXLER.’ I take it he works here?”

Charlene frowned as if she had never noticed the pictures on the wall ten feet in front of her. “Those are board members,” she decided.

“Okay, right. I’m interested in Franklin Wexler.” “They’re board members,” Charlene repeated.

“They’re members of the board,” Kermit interpreted helpfully.

“Right, I get that, but Franklin Wexler. Is he in?”

“Oh, no. They don’t work here.”

“They’re board members,” Kermit said again.

“Okay but what does that mean?” I snapped, losing patience. I knew Alan was going to say “It means they’re members of the board” before he said it.

“They don’t come in or nothin’. That’s just the people on the board,” Charlene elaborated.

“They’re on the board but they don’t come in?” I asked. “Right,” Kermit answered. I shot him a look.

“That’s fairly common,” Alan lectured me in a Business 101 tone. “They’re on the board and supposedly have oversight of the corporation, but the CEO actually runs the place. Technically, the CEO works for the board, and sometimes the chairman has a lot of power, but usually the board members don’t do much but collect an honorarium.”

“I never seen ’em,” Charlene avowed.

“Well, I need to talk to Franklin Wexler,” I told her.

I saw the doubt in her eyes—a tow truck driver needs to talk to a board member? “Actually, he does,” I amended, hooking a thumb at Kermit. “He’s my boss. It has to do with his nonswipe account. Kermit, tell her the difference between a swipe and a nonswipe account.”

Kermit drew in a breath. “Wait!” Charlene pleaded. “I don’t know anything about them. They aren’t in the company directory. I don’t have any way to get in touch with ’em.”

I mulled this over. “Okay, thanks.”

“Franklin Wexler,” Alan repeated in my ear. “We should be able to track him down; that’s an uncommon name.”

Yes, Alan, I thought, but I don’t have time for that right now, I need to repo an Einstein. I slapped Kermit on the arm. “You did good,” I told him as we walked back out into the sunshine. “Now here’s the plan. I’m going to hunch down in the passenger seat and pull a tarp over myself. You drive around to the side, where the entrance to the employee lot is, and tell the guard you’re the tow truck for the guy who called. He’s expecting you, so he’ll just let you in. You drive far enough into the employee parking lot so he can’t see you, then I’ll hop out and switch places and we’ll go hunting for Einstein’s truck.”

The plan worked like a dream. The guard waved us in without taking his eyes off his television and within a few minutes I was back behind the wheel of the tow truck, slowly cruising the rows of vehicles.

“What if the guard gets suspicious?” Kermit asked nervously.

“Relax, will you?” I muttered. Then I spotted the pickup I was after. “Uh-oh.”

“What? What is it?” Kermit pressed.

“Looks like they’re having a picnic. Guess we’ll have to call it off,” Alan remarked.

Drawn outdoors by the nice weather, a group of burly factory workers sat at a picnic table at the far end of the parking lot, eating lunch together and basking in the sun’s rays. Parked directly in front of them, the back bumper not more than twenty-five feet from the picnic table, was Einstein Croft’s vehicle. Einstein himself sat as if to keep his eye on the prize, facing his truck.

“That’s the truck? Right there, in front of the table?

There are all those guys! They’ll see us driving up!” Kermit exclaimed in alarm.

“Right, right. Okay.” I thought about it, then turned my wheel sharply and drove down another row of vehicles, headed away from the picnic table.

“We leaving?” Kermit asked, relieved.

I turned the wheel again, then stopped. We were now all the way at the other end of the lot, the rear end of the tow truck facing the front end of Einstein’s pickup. “Croft’s driver’s side window is open. That means the truck is probably unlocked. Manual transmission—I can yank it into neutral.” I grinned at Kermit, who paled.

“Ruddy,” Alan warned.

“Here’s what we’re going to do, Kermit. You ever notice the sling that hangs at the bottom of the tow cable?”

I nodded out the rear window, and he followed my gesture. Dangling from the high boom was the thick cable, and at the bottom were two heavy rubber skirts joined along the lower edge with a steel rod—the sling. “Okay. In a normal repo situation, you got three parts: the tow hook, the sling, and the safety chains. You put the sling under the front bumper and raise it—the car you’re towing rests on the sling, but isn’t attached to it—that’s why you need the hook, which you affix to the car frame. And then the safety chains are your fail-safe option. That’s a repo term meaning that even if the hook fails, the car won’t fall off the sling because of the safety chains.”

“This isn’t a normal repo situation. The men are right there, twenty feet away!” Alan protested.

“But this is not a normal repo situation,” I told Kermit agreeably. I slid out of the cab and yanked on the side lever, lowering the sling. Kermit watched me through the back window, his mouth gaping. When the sling was all but touching the ground, I came back and got behind the wheel. “I’m going to back her right up to the front of Einstein’s truck, fast, jamming the sling under it,” I told him. “I’ll jump out and raise the sling just enough to get the hook on the frame. You slide over to the driver’s seat and get ready to go. I’ll open the door and pop the truck into neutral. When I’ve got her hooked just enough to get out of here ...” I put the gear shift in reverse, grinning at him. “I jump back in and you floor it. We’ll do a better job of attaching things when we’re half a mile up the road. Simple. Ready?”

“What? No, wait . . .” Kermit protested faintly. I was already backing up, looking over my shoulder, the transmission whining as I gave it some gas.

“This strikes me as very risky!” Alan announced in alarm.

I was watching the guys at the picnic table. So far, none of them had done anything but observe our approach. I pressed down on the accelerator, ignoring Alan’s gasp.

“Wait!” Kermit shouted.

We slammed into Einstein’s truck with neck-snapping force, his vehicle bouncing on the sling. I jumped out and ran back, grabbing the lever and jamming it forward. With maddening slowness, the sling began to lift. I realized I was holding my breath, so I forced a casual expression onto my face and exhaled, glancing over at the men at the picnic table as I walked to the driver’s side door. Unlocked. I opened it and leaned in and grabbed the gearshift, rattling it loosely. Neutral. Parking brake off.

Events were unfolding with such speed that no one had even moved. Einstein himself had a sandwich halfway to his mouth and was frozen in shock. I nodded at him. Just another five seconds or so and the front of his truck would be up high enough to attach the hook and haul it off. This was going to work!

Suddenly the tow truck lurched, pulling away from me. I stared in disbelief. “No, Kermit!” I yelled. “Not yet!”

With a blast of black exhaust, Kermit took off, Einstein’s truck trailing behind the tow truck. I gazed after him for a moment, then turned and looked back at Einstein. He and his buddies had come to life and were boiling off of that picnic table. They didn’t look like they were in a good mood anymore.

For a moment it was my turn to stand frozen, and then I spun and sprinted after Kermit, who was speeding away. “Kermit! Wait!”

Einstein’s truck was bouncing on the sling, threatening to let go, but Kermit kept accelerating. Cursing, I waved my arms at him as I ran after him through the parking lot.

In what I could only classify as more bad news, another lunch shift full of workers was emptying out of the big doors to my right and, spotting their buddies in pursuit of me, decided to take up the chase like a second pack of hounds joining a foxhunt.

Kermit reached the end of the row of cars and turned left, heading for the exit. With nothing to keep it on the sling, Einstein’s truck decided it would rather keep going straight and dropped off the tow truck, gliding forward until it bounced up against a curb and stopped.

“Look out!” Alan shouted.

In front of me a couple of guys lunged out from between parked cars and blocked my path. I sized them up as if I had a football tucked in my outside arm and jinked left, cutting between them. Three more workers reached for me, their eyes widening in surprise as they realized I was already flashing past them. They fell in behind me and I heard the sound of their footfalls fading rapidly away as if it were game day at regionals.

Only one obstacle lay in my path: the security guard, who had stepped out of his booth and stood in the center of the narrow driveway, a bit hunched over, his arms out to his sides as if getting ready to give me a giant hug.

I suddenly remembered that when he played defensive end for East Jordan High School he was like an open valve; all it took was a little head feint, like this, and he was groping at the empty air. I sailed past him untouched.

I turned on the road and saw that Kermit was still driving away as if pursued by the hounds of hell. I ran after him, my legs moving up and down in easy cadence. Maybe it was the sunshine getting to me, but I felt better at that moment than I had felt in a long time. I was almost disappointed when Kermit pulled over; my legs wanted to keep going, run to the gym, lift weights, learn Pilates.

I was barely winded and full of endorphins. Kermit regarded my approach like the accused waiting for the judge to pass sentence. “So Kermit, at what point did you decide to leave me alone at the factory?” I asked, flexing my knees.

“Uh . . . ,” he responded as eloquently as he could manage.

“Let me drive. You wait until I get up to fifty-five miles per hour, and then jump out,” I told him pleasantly. He nodded, swallowing.

“That was just crazy. Those men would have caught you before you could have gotten that truck hooked up,” Alan fretted.

“Kermit, the voice in my head wants me to take you out in the woods and eat your liver,” I said. Kermit’s eyes bulged.

“For God’s sake, Ruddy, he’s going to think I’m a lunatic,” Alan complained.

I called Milt and told him we had to go writ of replevin on Einstein Croft. “I’ll serve the summons, though, Milt,” I said. I’d at least get fifty bucks for throwing some papers at Einstein’s face.

“And where do we stand with Jimmy?” Milt asked.

“You know, Milt, your focus on collecting money isn’t nearly as much fun as lending money,” I chided. When he didn’t give me so much as a dry chuckle I cleared my throat. “Why don’t you hold on to fifty bucks out of what I have coming from picking up the Explorer this morning,” I suggested.

“You sure that’s a good idea?”

“It’s Jimmy, Milt,” I said simply.

Between the sunshine and the way the oxygen was coursing through my leg muscles my mood remained nearly euphoric, and I opened the door to the Black Bear for Kermit as if he and I were old friends. Becky gave us a bleak look, waving some papers at us. “Kermit, what are these?”

Becky held three notices in her hand, the type that bank computers issue when you’ve overoptimized your checking account. Kermit read them, his brow furrowed, while Becky looked over his shoulder at me and shrugged.

“These are customer inquiries. What it is, is the customers are disputatious on the nonswipe charge.”

Becky and I looked at him blankly. “English, please,” I requested.

“See, the psychics are telling the customers that the charge will be the Black Bear Bar and Grille, but the cardholders forget sometimes, so when they see the charge, they don’t know what it is, and they’re like, ‘Black Bear in Kalkaska? But I’m in Omaha or some dumb place,’ so they dispute it with the credit card company. So the bank sends us this notice.”

“Wouldn’t the psychics know in advance which customers will forget?” I asked cleverly. Both Becky and Alan groaned.

“They should,” Kermit agreed.

“What do we do?” Becky asked him.

“The thing is, you have to protect the integration of the nonswipe account. So we don’t even challenge it. We credit the customer back the full amount. Our thirteen percent plus the psychic’s eighty-seven percent. Take the eighty-seven percent out of today’s receipts from the psychic line. How much did we get today?”

I found myself irritated over the “we,” but didn’t say anything.

“We received two thousand two hundred,” Becky stated. I turned a fond gaze upon her and her ability to manage numbers like that.

“Okay, and these are for a total of six-twenty, so we’re fine,” Kermit pronounced with such confidence I instantly felt apprehensive. “We get any more of these, handle them the same way.”

It was on my mind to advise Kermit that he was to ask, not tell, Becky what to do, but I knew Alan would chide me later for always busting the guy’s chops, so I bit my lip.

Becky invited me to step out the back door into the alley, and I followed her, curious. I blinked at a fresh wall of cinder blocks. “What’s this?”

Becky looked flushed with excitement. “I’ve never laid bricks or blocks or anything before. See how level it is?”

Okay, well, if it made my sister happto build a wall in the alley, what did I care? There was still plenty of room for cars to get around. “It’s nice,” I offered.

“It is level,” Alan agreed.

She laughed. “Well, it’s not for decoration. Come here, look.” She took my arm and pulled me around the wall. It was actually a three-sided corral, with the trash Dumpster sitting in the middle of it.

I immediately spotted what she had done wrong, and wondered how to tell her about it. “You made a little house for the Dumpster,” I said, stalling.

“No, it’s . . . the county requires it. I told you we had to build one.”

“But Becky . . .” I sighed. “The open part should be facing the back door, not away from it. See? Not only is it more of a trip to walk around with a bag of trash, but when the truck comes, it’s one way.” I pointed up the alley, gesturing how when the truck approached it would be facing the closed part of the corral.

“It’s one way but the truck has to back up to get to the Dumpster.”

“Oh.” I nodded thoughtfully, hoping to appear to be, well, full of thought. When I glanced at her, she was wearing a neutral expression that somehow looked familiar.

We went back inside. “Your sister is pretty nice not to point out how stupid you sounded,” Alan advised.

I went to sit by Bob the Bear and Jimmy came over to take my order, just like it was a real restaurant. “You want to hear the special?” he asked.

“The what?” I blurted, laughing. I sensed Becky’s eyes on me like gun turrets and choked it back. “Yeah, sure, what is the special?”

The special was plank whitefish. “Do you eat the plank, or the fish?” I joked. Jimmy shrugged uncomfortably—what the heck was wrong with everyone, how come I was the only person with a sense of humor?

“What is it with everybody?” I muttered to Alan.

“They know you’re a little irrational on the subject of the Black Bear. Maybe they’re afraid of your reaction,” Alan suggested.

“I do not need to be psychoanalyzed by a voice living in my head.”

“Who better?” Alan retorted.

The whitefish came and Becky and Kermit watched me eat like parents sending their first child off to kindergarten. I gave them a thumbs-up and they heaved visible sighs of relief.

“You don’t need that much salt,” Alan observed, so I put a little more on. “Aren’t you going to eat your vegetable?”

“It’s broccoli. Nobody eats broccoli,” I informed him.

“You have got to eat vegetables!”

“I did, I ate the fries,” I responded indignantly. I realized a woman I didn’t know was sitting alone at a table and watching me talk to myself over the top of her Cosmo magazine. I gave her a cheery nod and she dove back behind the cover.

Claude came in and sat down with me and ordered a chicken burrito as if we had been serving them for a hundred years. “Hey, Claude, there’s this weird thing in the sky, you seen it?”

He gave me a blank look.

“Real bright? Heat coming off of it? Been up there all day, very strange.”

“You mean the sun?” he asked.

“Oh, is that what it is? Been so long since it’s been out, I didn’t recognize it,” I chortled.

Claude looked absolutely bewildered. Jimmy slid a plate down in front of Claude and asked him if he wanted pico de gallo. No one seemed to think it was an unusual conversation. “Jimmy, Janelle been in?” Claude asked.

Jimmy’s look darkened. “Janelle?” His tone was so sharp I blinked in surprise.

Claude didn’t seem to catch it. “Yeah, it’s like she’s avoiding me or something.” He gave us a one-of-the-boys look. “I don’t understand her. You know we’ve never even done it? Closest I got is second base. Women,” he snorted. “Can’t live with ’em, can’t return ’em for a full refund.”

Jimmy’s face turned red. “What the heck is wrong with you, Claude? You and Wilma have been together my whole life. She loves you, man. You got history together. Are you crazy? Janelle? You know what I would give to have the kind of thing you and Wilma got?” His mouth worked inarticulately for a moment, while Claude just stared at him in astonishment. I don’t think any of us had ever seen Jimmy this angry before.

Finally he extended an accusing finger. “You are making the biggest mistake I’ve ever seen, Claude. You think Janelle isn’t going to dump you the second someone closer to her age comes along?”

Claude clearly didn’t appreciate the “closer to her age” part. He opened his mouth.

“Aw, heck with it. I’ll get you some guacamole with jalapeño garnish,” Jimmy stormed, turning on his heel.

Claude and I stared at each other as if unsure of what had just happened.

“Uh-oh, Ruddy, look who just came in,” Alan said.

It was disconcerting to think that Alan could keep track of things within my vision that I wasn’t focused on.

I glanced up to see what he was talking about.

A Charlevoix County sheriff’s deputy had stepped inside the Black Bear during Jimmy’s lecture. I recognized him as one of the officers who had been out with us the day we dug up Alan’s body. He was staring at me, a smirk on his face. When he was sure he had my attention, he crooked his finger. Gulping, I got up from the table, following the deputy outside. A gray band of clouds drifted in front of the sun as I climbed inside his patrol car.

Time for my polygraph.

 

NEXT: Chapters 19-20

 

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