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'The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man' Chapters 21 & 22


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Illustration by Steve Vance

 

21

Face-to-Face with a Snake

 

“Ruddy! Take it easy, you’re okay, you’re okay,” Alan urged.

I realized I had been shouting incoherently. I clawed my way out of the snowbank, which had thawed and frozen so many times it had the consistency of pebbles against my palms. I staggered, wiping my face. I was by the side of a dark, wet road somewhere. I was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and a pair of running shoes. “What the hell is happening?” I yelled wildly.

“Hold on, you’re okay. We’ve been running, that’s all.

We fell. You’re fine, you’re fine.”

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“What do you mean, running?” I responded incredulously. I now saw where I was—about a hundred yards from the car lot where Claude worked, more than a mile from my home. A light fog danced around me in the frigid night air and I realized it was steam rising from my sweaty skin. “How did I get here? What is going on?”

Alan didn’t say anything. I hugged myself, though I really wasn’t cold. A thick sweatshirt was wrapped around my waist and I slipped it on, drawing the hood over my wet hair.

“Alan?”

“There was a pothole, and we slipped,” he explained.

“What does that mean? I don’t understand!” I crossed the street and began trotting back toward my house. “It’s the middle of the night, Alan.”

“Look, there’s something I have to tell you that you may not like very much.”

That didn’t sound good. “Try me.”

“A couple of weeks ago, you were asleep, and I was awake—”

“You said you slept,” I interrupted.

“Yes, but sometimes I’m awake when you aren’t. And I was thirsty ... .”

“What?” I demanded.

“Would you just let me tell it, please? I would never be so rude as to interrupt you like this,” Alan answered in a snippy tone.

“Okay, fine, but how could you be thirsty?”

“Do we have an agreement that you will let me tell this my own way?”

“Okay, yes, sure, Alan. I just woke up by the side of the road in the dark like I’d been dumped there by the Mafia, but you take your time explaining, that’s fine with me.”

“All right, then, I suppose you were thirsty, but you were asleep, so I was the only one feeling it. And I discovered that if I wanted to, I could just get up out of bed and get a drink of water, so I did.”

“You have got to be kidding me.”

“From then on, whenever you fell asleep, I found I could do things. Move around. Clean the house. Go out for a run.”

“You’ve been using my body when I was asleep?” I yelled, outraged. “Are you out of your mind?”

“What’s wrong with that? You’re getting exercise in your sleep. We’re up to five sets of fifty push-ups, three hundred sit-ups, and a run every night. You know how many people in this country would love to be able to do that without waking up?”

“You cannot be serious. Alan, this is like the invasion of the body snatchers.” I thought of my initial fear of the voice in my head, that it would start telling me to do things—instead, the voice was doing things on its own.

“Where the heck did you think we were going?”

“Just up the road to Leetsville and back.”

“Leetsville! That’s ten miles away!”

“No it isn’t, it’s only five. I measured it on the odometer,” Alan soothed.

“The odometer?” I shouted. “You’ve been driving in my sleep? Do you have any idea how dangerous that is?”

“Would you stop shouting? Anyone hearing you will think you’ve gone crazy.”

“I have gone crazy! I’ve got a voice of a dead man in my head who is trying to take over my body! It’s like I’ve become some sort of zombie!”

“It’s not like that at all—just the opposite, in fact,” Alan argued indignantly. “Do you know how quickly our times have fallen on a five-mile run? You’re already a better runner than I ever was, and I was doing forty miles a week when I was shot. I can’t believe how strong and fast you are.”

“You make it sound like I’m some sort of Ferrari you’ve been cruising around in,” I stormed. “I’m giving you a compliment.” “You’re stealing!” I bellowed.

By the time we were back on my street I had calmed down enough to make my statements to Alan clean and clear. “You may not do this again. Understand, Alan? I don’t care if I’m fat or thirsty or if my truck needs an oil change, you don’t do anything but lie there until I wake up. You read me on this?” I realized I was mimicking Sheriff Strickland—not a bad role model for issuing orders. Maybe I should be calling Alan “Lottner.” I paused outside my door. Alan didn’t reply. “Alan? I asked if you understand what I am telling you.”

Still nothing. “I know you’re not sleeping. Answer me.”

“I don’t see what the problem is,” he griped.

“I don’t care. My body is my body and you’re not to take it on any more joyrides.”

I went inside and showered off the sweat and the mud. Jake didn’t seem at all surprised that I’d been out running; he just seemed glad I hadn’t dragged him along. “You knew and you didn’t say anything? Why didn’t you bark, wake me up?” Jake just gave me a weary look in return.

Alan slipped away, possibly exhausted from running halfway to Leetsville, but I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling and pondered one disturbing thought: If Alan decided to use my body when I was asleep, how was I going to stop him?

By the time I drifted off, the sky was growing lighter with the dawn. I went to Milt’s and picked up an SFU assignment—Spot For Unit. Fifty bucks to drive by the house of the customer’s relative and see if a canary yellow Corvette was in the driveway—a car painted that color, up here this time of year, would probably be visible as a glow on the horizon.

Jimmy was waiting tables at the Bear. I ordered an omelet without making any sarcastic remarks about the fact that I could have asparagus in it if I wanted. Alan was still asleep.

Claude and Wilma came in together, sat together, and ate together without slander. Claude had a sheepish look on his face when he glanced in my direction. Wilma’s expression was warmer—apparently I was included in the general amnesty. I smiled at them and Wilma patted Claude’s hand. Jimmy was right about the two of them.

I sipped coffee and took in the general transformation of the Bear. It wasn’t just the new curtains and tablecloths; there was a whole new feel to the place. It smelled like flowers instead of stale beer, and I could hear the new grill sizzling in the kitchen. The pool table was gone, which was a little disappointing because I had just been on the verge of mastering the game, and the floor had been polished. Bob the Bear looked less grumpy.

Things change. I thought about Katie Lottner, picturing her here with me, more comfortable in a place that had a stack of new child booster seats in the corner than one with a couple of guys having a fistfight over which company made the best motor oil.

Alan woke up as I was conducting my SFU assignment, driving past the house on the rural outskirts of Traverse City. The driveway to the place was buried under a foot of rutted, muddy snow—apparently the people living there had decided that snowplows were for wussies. The only way to get a Corvette in there would be to drop it in with a crane. I would tell Milt to close file.

Alan wanted to go to East Jordan and stake out Burby to see if Wexler showed up. “But I don’t think that the two of them spend a lot of time hanging out together, reminiscing about the day they shot a Realtor in the woods,” I objected. “I think we need to go at it a different way.”

Alan and I decided that a company with a board of directors probably was a public company, which meant that it would have a prospectus we could obtain from a stockbroker. Actually, Alan did most of the deciding on this, but it sounded reasonable. We stopped at our town’s sole remaining phone booth to look for stockbrokers in the yellow pages, and on a whim I flipped to the residential listings and found an “F. Wexler” on Peninsula Drive.

“Think that’s him?” Alan asked.

“Let’s go see.”

The Old Mission Peninsula is an eighteen-mile stretch of beautiful coastline that sticks out into Grand Traverse Bay as if the Ice Age had decided to carve out a neighborhood just for rich people. Wexler’s house had pillars and a large front porch, a view of the water, and what looked like two acres of prime real estate growing disciplined grass and hedges. I knocked on the door, wondering if a butler would answer.

No, not a butler—a killer. He stood there and looked me up and down with his cold green eyes. Shorter than I remembered from the dream, which made sense—Alan wasn’t as tall as I. “Yeah?”

“Mr. Wexler?” I asked, for something to say. Alan seemed too shocked to speak.

“Yeah?”

I suppose Wexler was handsome, with short, sandy hair, a square jaw, and a solid body, but I felt like I was face-to-face with a snake.

“I was over in East Jordan, at PlasMerc Manufacturing? Saw your picture on the wall, there.”

Annoyance tugged at the corners of his mouth. “And?” he pressed impatiently.

“I was wondering if you’re hiring. You know. Night shift, maybe? I’m a friend of Einstein Croft.”

Wexler shook his head. “I don’t have anything to do with that. They’ve got a personnel office. You should try there.”

“Tell him as a board member, you’re hoping he’d have influence,” Alan coached.

“Well right, I figured that, but you’re on the board; they’d listen to a recommendation from you.”

“Look ... what’s your name?”

“Ruddy McCann.”

I was testing for some sort of reaction, but he obviously hadn’t heard about me from Nathan Burby. “Uh-huh. Well, I don’t have anything to do with that place, okay? I sold them the land it’s on, and part of it is I get paid as a board member, but I don’t got the kind of time to go to the meetings or anything.”

“The land? I thought the land was from the old cemetery.”

He thought for a second, his eyes unreadable. He probably wanted to tell me to get the hell off his front porch so he could go back to practicing his golf swing or what ever it was people like him did all day, but I knew something about him: He was a killer, with a secret to hide. Though he wasn’t sure where I was headed, I was blundering around in the area close to an awful truth, and he’d practiced his lies and would feel compelled to roll them out for me now.

“Yeah, right, the city had to cut a separate deal for that, it was a small piece of the parcel.”

“So how does something like that work? Did you and the cemetery guy get together and approach the factory, or did they contact you?”

“They contacted me, but I never met the owner of the cemetery.”

“Wait, never met? Why would he lie about that?” Alan demanded.

“Never?”

“So you get it? I sold them the land, but I don’t have anything to do with running the factory. It’s some outfit out of Memphis.”

“What’s the name of the guy who owns that cemetery?”

He blinked his cold green eyes at me. “I told you,” he said evenly. “I never met the man. So good luck with the job.”

He made to shut the door, but I put out a friendly hand and stopped it. His expression flashed at me, then turned unreadable. I bet his hands were itching to get themselves wrapped around a shovel.

“We got a problem, here?” he growled softly.

“I was just wondering, you live here now, but back then you were in East Jordan?”

“You want to let go of my door?”

“It’s a pretty place, don’t you think? There’s that little river in the valley, there. You ever go for a drive down one of those back roads in the fall, see all the pretty colors? You and Nathan Burby, standing around having a conversation when this big wide Oldsmobile station wagon drives past?” He stared at me.

“My God, Ruddy,” Alan breathed. “What are you doing?”

“They never found the car, you know. What do you suppose happened to it? The cops didn’t bother to check the junkyards, because they thought Lottner ran away. Did you hear they found him? Alan Lottner, I mean. Dug up his body.”

I could read the look he was giving me now because I’d seen it in his eyes before, right before he hit Alan with the shovel. “You have no idea what you’re stepping in,” he said softly.

“Oh I do, I do, Frank,” I responded. I took a deep sniff. “I know because I can smell it.”

I turned and walked down his flagstone path. As I backed my truck out of his brick-lined driveway, I glanced up and saw him still standing there in the doorway.

“What in God’s name were you thinking?” Alan wanted to know.

“Did you like that? ‘I know because I can smell it.’ Get it?”

“Of course I get it,” Alan snapped impatiently. “You as much as told him you know he killed me. Why would you do that?”

“Because I don’t know what’s going on and it is starting to really irritate me. Burby was sleeping with your wife and probably wanted you dead. Wexler claims not to know the guy. You’d think that maybe Burby paid Wexler to kill you, except that Wexler looks like he could buy and sell Burby all day long. Burby made half a million dollars moving bodies for the factory, but that’s not what bought Wexler that house. What’s the deal between these two guys? You and I know they’re linked!”

“But now you’ve got both Burby and Wexler thinking you saw something that day, or somehow know about the killing. What good does that do us?”

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I thought about it. “I don’t know,” I admitted.

“Should you have told them?”

“Well it’s a little late to bring that up now, don’t you think?”

“I have tried to bring it up. Why are you so confrontational? Have you ever heard of subtlety?”

“Alan, I go up to people and take their cars away from them. There usually isn’t a lot of room for subtlety.”

“So now what?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know.”

We were both silent. Finally I exhaled. “Well, let’s go call on Alice Blanchard, as long as we’re this close to town. We keep showing up, maybe she’ll write us a check just to get rid of us.”

Mrs. Blanchard’s eyes were even colder than Wexler’s had been, once she saw who was standing on her doorstep. “Yes?”

“Mrs. Blanchard? I don’t know if you remember—”

“Yes,” she interrupted, “of course I remember. I told you I couldn’t help you.”

“Yes, but that wasn’t true, was it? You were lying to me.”

“I don’t have to talk to you.”

“You sent checks drawn on an account that was closed. That’s a misdemeanor,” I informed her.

A contemptuous smile briefly touched her lips. “Really? Doesn’t it have to be in exchange for goods or services?”

“I think she’s right,” Alan noted.

“Look, there doesn’t have to be any trouble, here. I don’t have to tell your husband, or anything.”

For just a moment I thought this might worry her, but then she appeared to decide she could weather that particular storm. “My husband is at the bank, if you want to talk to him.”

“Mrs. Blanchard ...”

“Please don’t come back here again.” She shut the door firmly, a vague scent of flowery perfume floating in the air.

“Well, that went pretty well,” Alan said.

“I don’t get it.” I leaned back and looked at the house. While not as grand as Wexler’s, it spoke of a solidly upper-middle-class lifestyle. Was Mrs. Blanchard some sort of crazy person? What else made sense?

I raised my hand to knock on the door again, but then dropped it. I had no idea what I would say to her anyway.

“Let’s go,” Alan said softly.

“Okay.”

I turned around on the front porch and found myself face-to-face with the reason Mrs. Blanchard had been sending those checks to Jimmy Growe.

22

The Numbers Stop Adding Up

 

She was probably eight years old. She was wearing a sweatshirt cut impatiently short at the sleeves and her cheeks were flushed with exertion plus just a hint of sunburn. She had something of her mother’s bearing, with an upright neck, but the vivid green eyes, the black hair falling casually onto her forehead, even the shape of her face, were all Jimmy Growe, translated into little girl. She eyed me curiously as she bounded up the stairs, banging the front door open like an assault team. “Mom, some man is here!”

Her mother had been standing just inside the house—I got the feeling she’d been watching me through the peephole. Our eyes met.

“Looks just like Jimmy,” Alan informed me unnecessarily.

Alice Blanchard reacted as if she’d heard him, her face losing its defiance, deflating into resignation. She eased the door shut behind her, protecting her child from our conversation, and motioned for me to sit on a wooden chair. She settled into the porch swing.

I tried to piece it together. “You took those checks from the bank so—”

“No!” She cut me off with a fierce stare. “I made some mistakes issuing the accounts and I was embarrassed to tell anyone, so I brought them home. Later I found out there was a log for me to sign, so people found out anyway.”

“But then ...”

“Then his name came into the bank on the last day I was there. Jimmy Growe. He applied for a credit card. When I saw it I just stared, I couldn’t believe it. I brought his application home and put it in the same drawer. I don’t know what I thought I was going to do, and then I decided I wasn’t going to do anything. I went upstairs to throw away the application, and I saw the starter packets. That’s when I decided to send him a check for a thousand dollars.”

“I don’t get it,” Alan confessed.

“So you sent him the checks to ...” I spread my hands. I didn’t get it, either.

“Look, Mr. uh ...”

“McCann,” I informed her after an awkward pause. I found myself ridiculously disappointed that such a pretty woman didn’t remember who I was.

“Jimmy never paid a dime to help with Vicki. When my family found out I was pregnant, I was completely cut off. Do you understand how hard it is to raise a baby by yourself? The church found me a place to live and gave me a job in the nursery, or I would have had to go on welfare.”

“Did Jimmy know about your daughter?”

“No! He dumped me before I knew I was pregnant.”

I could feel Alan straining as hard as I was to comprehend how it all fit together.

“So those checks you sent ...” I tried again.

Her stare was cold. “They’re as worthless as he is. And every time he got one, it was a reminder of what he did to me, and the obligations he was avoiding.”

“That makes no sense whatsoever,” Alan stated, sounding almost awed.

“Mrs. Blanchard, if you’ll excuse me for saying it, but don’t you think that’s a little subtle for Jimmy? I’m not sure he’s capable of grasping the whole picture, there.”

She stared at nothing. “It’s not for Jimmy that I sent them.”

“She loved him,” Alan blurted suddenly. “It’s not about the girl, it’s about him leaving her.”

I stirred. “I guess I understand,” I said, though actually I guessed I really didn’t. Alan’s epiphany wasn’t helping, either. I cleared my throat. “But when he cashed them, he got into a real bind.”

Her eyebrows arched. “Mister, I really couldn’t care less about that.”

I chewed on my lip a little, thinking it over. I decided she probably did care, that knowing Jimmy had gotten himself in trouble was a bonus for her in this weird payback scheme.

“Mrs. Blanchard ...”

She watched me in what I could swear was anticipation.

“Don’t you think that Jimmy has a right to know his daughter? He’s matured over the past few years.”

“No, I do not,” she replied smoothly. “We have a family here, now. I married William three years ago. He’s talking about adopting Vicki someday. Our lives are on track.” She gestured to the house, clearly a big step up from her circumstances of a few years ago. “William wants us to have a child of his own.” She absently gazed over my shoulder, pulling on an earlobe.

“Still, for Jimmy, it has all turned out to be very expensive.”

I let the statement lie there until she understood where I was heading. When she did her eyes widened slightly, then became milky with contempt. “How much?”

“I’d say thirty-five hundred. We’ll get some money out of the motorcycle he bought.”

“And for you?”

“Pardon?”

“How much is your personal fee?”

“Oh. No, that’s not what this is about. I just need to recover my employer’s money, that’s all.” I didn’t see the need to mention that Milt had already paid me $500 for this recovery.

She reached for her purse and wrote a check in quick, angry strokes. “This means I’ll never see you again, and you won’t tell Jimmy about Vicki.”

“Not unless you send Jimmy more checks.”

“You have a despicable profession, Mr. McCann.” She flung the check at me and left me there on the porch.

“I’m going to guess that was not your typical repo assignment,” Alan observed as we drove away from the Blanchard house.

I was quiet. “What is it?” Alan demanded.

“Well, you’re a father, Alan, did you hear what she said? William is ‘thinking’ of adopting Vicki. He wants a baby of ‘his own.’ ”

“Yeah,” Alan grunted. “You’re right.”

“Sounds like the bank president is a jerk.”

“That still doesn’t connect the dots for me with her sending the checks,” Alan complained. “What was the point of that?”

“I thought you said you understood her!”

“No, I said that I get that she bears a grudge against

Jimmy because he broke her heart.” I sighed.

“What is it? Why are you acting so moody?”

“Alan, Jimmy is my best friend in the world.”

“Ruddy, you cannot tell him about Vicki. That’s none of his business.”

“None of his business? He’s got a daughter! You of all people should understand that!”

“What I understand is that we cannot start messing in other people’s lives,” he lectured.

“Oh, that’s just great, Alan. You come into my head, you start calling me ‘we,’ when I sleep at night you’re driving around in my truck, and you think it’s a bad idea to mess with other people’s lives? Can you not experience irony in there, Alan?”

He adopted a hurt silence.

“Why do I have to be the one to handle all this crap?” I asked the world.

By the time I reached Kalkaska, he was back to psychoanalysis. Apparently being inside my head made him feel he could get inside others’. “Wexler is the evil one. He hit me with the shovel, and he’s the one who shot me.”

That didn’t sound right to me. “But where’s his motive? Burby had motive.”

“I just can’t see Burby doing something like that.”

“You sound as if you like the guy.”

“Ruddy. Come on. He’s an accessory to murder. To my murder. Of course I don’t like the guy.”

“Plus, he’s sleeping with your wife,” I reminded him. “Thank you for that. Truly. Thanks ever so much.”

I pushed open the door to the Black Bear and halted, looking around. The atmosphere inside the place reminded me of Nathan Burby’s funeral home, subdued, even mournful. Kermit and Becky stood next to each other behind the bar, watching me with fearful eyes as I walked up to them. “What is it?” I asked.

Becky held out a handful of bank inquiries. “We got more of these today than we got new business to replace them.”

I looked back and forth between Kermit and Becky. “They had to refund more than they got in new business today. The operation ran at a loss,” Alan explained to me.

“We lost money running numbers,” I translated. They both nodded. I took a step toward Kermit. “How could this happen?”

He retreated, inching behind Becky. “We only got in two thousand, and we had to give back forty-eight hundred,” he stammered.

“I don’t mean the math, Kermit,” I snapped. “What’s going on here? Did the psychic have a flock of deadbeats or something?”

Kermit shrugged. “We don’t really have any way of knowing what happened.”

“Did you ask the people who send the numbers?” “We don’t get to talk to them, Ruddy,” Becky explained. “They just fax us the computer printouts.”

I glared at Kermit. “You call them. Now. We need to figure out what’s happening here.”

“Stop it!” Becky said shrilly. “Stop pushing everyone around.”

“What are you talking about? This is his deal, he should get control of it.”

“You’re not the boss of this, Ruddy. You’re not the boss of me!” Her eyes flared angrily.

“I’m not ... Becky, I’m your older brother.”

“So what?”

“She’s really angry,” Alan murmured, as if I couldn’t tell.

I took a breath. “I just think Mom and Dad would have wanted me to look after you,” I said reasonably.

“Look after me?” Becky’s face flushed. “Why do you think they left the business to me? Because they knew you couldn’t run it. You were in prison.” I shook my head sadly.

“The truth is, Ruddy, the shame of what you did, that’s what killed them.”

There. The ugliest thought I’d ever had, the worst notion ever to occur to me, coming from her lips. I stared at her and saw no pity, nothing but anger, cold and cruel. I whirled on Kermit, my finger like a gun barrel. “This is all because of you!”

“Get out, Ruddy. Just get out!” Becky shrieked at me.

I spun and angrily kicked a chair out of the way. In the truck, I vented on Alan. “Didn’t I tell her Kermit’s scheme was crazy? Didn’t I tell her there was something wrong with running numbers?” I raged.

“Maybe it is just a bad day. All businesses have bad days.”

“Come on, Alan. It has turned my own sister against me!”

He was quiet for a minute. “So your parents died when you were in prison?”

“Yeah.” I felt the heat leaking out of me. I realized I was driving toward East Jordan, but didn’t turn around.

Maybe I’d move there. “First Dad, then my mom.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“Well—there you have it.”

“Sounds like you and Becky have some things to work out about it.”

I didn’t reply.

“I’m just suggesting that the two of you need to talk,” Alan elaborated after a pause. “Okay? Why aren’t you saying anything?”

“I really can’t talk right now, Alan,” I whispered hoarsely. I gripped the steering wheel and stared straight ahead.

For want of anything better to do, I drove to the East Jordan Library and camped out in front of the microfiche machine. We found another story about Alan in the “Still Missing” category, though vague reference was made to police seeking to question him in relation to the fatal firebombing at the nursing home. Alan was incensed. I combed backward, seeking stories about the PlasMerc factory, but most of the ink from that time was devoted to the aftermath of the nursing home fire, the worst disaster in the county’s history. I glanced through the profiles of the victims, most of them el der ly people, and stopped dead at one name: Liddy Wexler.

“My oh my,” I breathed.

Liddy Wexler had been survived by her only son, Franklin. Her family was best remembered for a huge ranch they owned in the 1940s, much of which had been parceled off, but of which 240 acres still remained in the family.

Another piece of the puzzle.

“I don’t see what this has to do with me,” Alan complained from his position in the center of the universe.

“It’s interesting, don’t you think? If Liddy Wexler hadn’t been in the fire, her son wouldn’t have owned the ranch, and wouldn’t have made the money from the sale to the factory.”

“And that ties him to Nathan Burby how?”

“I don’t know.”

“And motivates him to murder me why?”

“Look,” I said agitatedly, “it’s a clue. You’re killed. A month later, a nursing home is firebombed, and one of the people who dies there just happens to be the mother of your murderer. There’s a chunk of land involved in her estate, and it winds up six months later being sold to a company that sticks a big factory on the site.”

“Are you saying Wexler blew up the nursing home?”

I rubbed my head with my hands. “I don’t know.”

“I wish you’d warn me before you’d bring your hands up in front of your face like that. It startled me,” he noted.

I slapped my hand against my forehead.

“Hey!” he protested.

“I’ll touch my face any damn way I want,” I informed him. I realized that several people in the library, startled by the sound of the slap, were staring at me as I ranted to myself. I smiled and pointed at the microfiche machine as if its presence explained why I’d just hit myself in the face. When they looked away, I stood up.

“What now?” Alan wanted to know. He sounded disappointed we weren’t going to waste any more time trying to find stories about him in the newspaper. I delayed responding until I had closed the library doors on all the quiet eyes that had been tracking me as I left.

“The only person who has given us any information we can use is Katie,” I reasoned. “So probably the best thing to do is to just go ask her if she can think of any connection between Wexler and Burby.” I felt pleased with myself— a perfectly acceptable excuse to call on MissLottner.

Alan was silent while I started my truck and backed it out of the library parking lot. “Ruddy, I don’t know how to say this ...”

“But based on past experience I’m going to guess you’ll say it anyway,” I observed.

“It’s just that Katie didn’t exactly seem, well, receptive to you last time you saw her.”

“Alan, if I went through life only talking to people who were glad to see me, I wouldn’t be much of a repo man, now would I?”

I pulled out my cell phone from the glove compartment and dialed Katie’s number. A woman answered on the second ring. “Hello, may I speak to Katie, please?” I requested formally.

“May I tell her who’s calling?” came the cautious reply.

“Yes, it’s Ruddy McCann. From ...” I trailed off. Nothing I could use to complete the sentence seemed very promising. The repo agency? A bar in Kalkaska?

Prison?

“Oh hi, Ruddy. It’s me. I thought that was you.”

“Katie! Hi!” I chuckled, feeling my brain cells dribble out my ears until I was completely drained of anything else to say. I sat there, snorting witlessly.

“Use your words, Ruddy,” Alan encouraged.

“I thought you were your mother. I mean, answering the phone.” There, two complete sentences.

“No, she and Nathan went out of town. They said it has all been a little much.”

“I’ll bet it has,” Alan muttered.

“Ah. Well, look. I’m sorry, about, you know, the last time I saw you.”

“Why are you sorry?” I thought I could hear the hostility returning to her voice, and cursed myself for reminding her.

“Well, you just seemed ... I just thought it sort of ended badly.”

“And you are apologizing to me?” she said in disbelief. “Dwight threw you up against the car and practically broke your arm, and you say you’re the one who is sorry?”

I frowned. “Well, he didn’t throw me, I leaned there myself. I wasn’t fighting back, or anything.”

There was a long pause, and then, to my surprise, she burst out laughing. “That is such a guy thing to say.”

“I guess it is.”

“I’m the one who should be sorry. And I wasn’t mad at you. Dwight and I ...” She sighed. “I told him ... well, let me just say that the two of us don’t belong together. Never did, really.”

“Yes!” Alan cheered. “See? What did I tell you?”

“I’m so sorry about your engagement breaking up; that must be hard,” I said properly, giving myself points for sensitivity.

“Oh, I bet you are,” she replied sarcastically.

My heart decided it was time to turn up the volume on its pounding a little bit, and for another long silence, that’s all the noise we made between the three of us. What did that mean? That she knew of my interest? And approved?

“So are you calling from the bar? It seems awfully quiet,” she finally asked.

“No, actually, I was just in East Jordan, and I thought I should call you.”

“You’re here?”

I looked around. “Yeah. Down the street from the library, actually.”

“Oh.” She thought about it for a bit. “Come on over, then.”

 

NEXT: Chapters 23-24

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