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'The Midnight Plan of the Repo Man' Chapters 25 & 26


spinner image illustration of a man standing at his open front door in his bathrobe, holding a rifle out in front of him
Illustration by Steve Vance

 

25

Those Psychic People Are Crazy

 

Financially choking on the bounces from the bank, Becky had finally figured out how to call the person who had been sending us the credit card numbers—not the contact number we’d been given, but the line the customers called. For a buck ninety-nine a minute, a breathy, sultry voice on the other end promised to discuss anything the caller wanted in the way of “hot, hot, hot sexy talk.”

“The operative word being hot,” Alan suggested, but I was not amused.

“What happens after that?” I asked.

“They want a credit card number.”

“Well, what about the contact number?”

“They called Kermit back once and told him they would send us more credit card numbers to process, but they haven’t responded to our messages since then.”

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“Would that work, send us more numbers?”

“Well, maybe, but Ruddy, most of the numbers are bouncing! We didn’t know the cardholders were disputing the charges because it takes a full billing cycle for us to get the notice. We’d have to run a huge amount of business through our account to get out of this hole, and Kermit says the bank would shut us down before then. Ruddy, I ... I was just going to put in new Caesarstone counters.” She turned and surveyed the Black Bear, no doubt seeing all of her planned improvements going away.

I called the number Becky gave me, impatiently tapping my foot as the recording moaned and whispered its way through the sales pitch. Finally a human voice picked up.

“Credit card number?” the woman asked, sounding less sexy than bored.

“You the person I’m going to be talking to?” I demanded.

“No, I just take the credit card. One of our models will be handling your call,” she responded.

“Sounds like she’s said that a few million times before,” Alan noted.

“Then you are the person I need to talk to. We’re getting all these bank inquiries. The business you’re sending us is crap, it all bounces.”

There was a long silence. “Who is this?” she finally asked.

“We’re the people who have been running your numbers.”

“Running numbers?” she repeated.

“Processing your credit card numbers. Swipe, nonswipe.” I put my hand over the phone. “Where’s Kermit?” I hissed at Becky. She gestured toward the kitchen and I jerked my head at her to go get him. “Hello? You there?” I asked into the phone.

“I’m here,” the woman responded reluctantly.

“Well, we have to do something about this. No one told us you were a sex line; we thought you were a psychic. Your transactions are bouncing all over the place.”

“I don’t talk to you.”

“What?”

“I don’t talk to you. You got problems, you take it up with Mr. Drake.”

“Mr. Drake? Who’s Mr. Drake?”

“He’s the business manager.”

“Well, put him on.”

“Oh, Drake’s not here,” she told me scornfully. “I’ll have to take a message.”

“I don’t think you understand me.”

“We finished, here?”

“Finished? You tell Mr. Drake that we’re not running any more numbers for you. You got a lot of transactions today? Well, you might as well tear them up, because I’m not putting a single one through the bank. What I am going to do is call my lawyer and the state district attorney and we’re going to get to the bottom of this!”

“Can’t do that.”

“What?”

“You can’t do that,” she repeated more distinctly. “We have a contract.”

“You have this number?” I looked over at Becky, who nodded. “You have this number. You tell Drake what I said. I’m going to wait ten minutes, then I’m calling the D.A.”

I hung up the phone. “Tell Kermit to get out here.”

“He’s making chili,” my sister replied. She stuck her chin out.

“Becky, this whole thing is his doing!”

“He didn’t know! He thought it was a psychic line.”

“Well, he should have known—it’s his business, for heaven’s sake. Kermit!” I bellowed. “Get the hell out here!”

Kermit peeked around the corner, wiping his hands on an apron. The phone rang and I snatched it up.

“Black Bear, Ruddy McCann speaking,” I said, just as my parents had taught me. I found myself wishing I’d come up with a tougher greeting, like, “Yeah?” or something.

“You wanted to talk to me?” Drake had done a much better job preparing himself to sound threatening.

“This Drake?”

“Yeah, and the first thing is, you don’t ever talk to my girls like that, got it? Some kinda problem, you deal with me. Otherwise, we have a little conversation.”

“That made no sense whatsoever,” Alan complained. “We are having a conversation.”

“Here’s what I understand, Drake. We were supposed to be running numbers for a psychic line, and instead you’ve got us doing sex talk.”

“So what? Lot more money than psychics. Those people are crazy.”

“So they don’t pay their bills, that’s so what. We have ...” I looked at Becky and she mouthed “ten thousand,” which caused my eyes to bulge. “We have ten thousand dollars’ worth of bounces we have to refund.”

“Yeah,” Drake grunted. “Happens. Somebody steals a credit card number, first thing they wanna do is call a sex line. Customer sees the charge and denies it but by then it’s too late for us. Bane of my freakin’ existence.”

“Your existence? We’re the one getting the bounces!”

“Well come on, McCann. Did you really think you were going to get to keep all that money, just for entering numbers in a little machine? This is a tough racket.”

I decided I didn’t care about his business problems. “The point is, we’re shutting this down, and you need to send us ten thousand dollars.”

Drake laughed heavily. “That’s not going to happen. I’ve been through this before, friend, and let me tell you, the only way out is to grow through it. I’ll get you some more volume to process. I can get some Internet stuff, too.”

“Are you stupid? We can’t grow our way out of this, it’s a disaster!”

Drake was silent for a long time. “I’m going to ignore that little remark, friend, because we’ve got a business relationship.”

“Not anymore. We don’t want you to send us anything but the money to get out of this.”

“Don’t even think that. I’ve got an operation to run here and you’re my source for credit card processing. That’s the deal. Period.”

“No, the deal is, send us ten thousand dollars or we call the D.A. Period.”

“Oh, don’t even start with that. A deal is a deal. We’ve got a contract. You want me to come up there and enforce this contract?”

“Sure.”

“I have to tell you, friend, you do not want to see me in that little pissant town of yours.”

“Why, are you as ugly as you sound?”

He breathed into the phone. “Well maybe I will be paying you a visit.”

“Good idea. Bring your checkbook.”

“What I’m gonna bring is a world of pain.”

“Looking forward to it.” I hung up. “Kermit!”

“What did they say, Ruddy?” Becky asked anxiously.

“He said he’s going to come up here in the pain-mobile. Kermit!”

Kermit came out, looking fearful. Becky put a hand on my arm as if to keep me from hitting him. “Do you know how much this place means to me and my sister?” I seethed. “This is going to ruin us. Ten thousand dollars!”

“Are they going to send us the money?” Becky asked.

I stared at them, their eyes hopeful and frightened, like children. The anger left me and I shook my head wearily. “People like this don’t pay what they owe other people, Becky.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because I make my living off people like this.” I ran my hands through my hair. “Becky, I need to talk to you a minute.” I pulled her over so that we were standing under the protective arms of Bob the Bear.

“What are we going to do, Ruddy?” I had never seen Becky so frightened. I put an arm on her shoulder.

“It’s going to be okay, Becky. I’ll talk to Milton. He’ll give me the money and take a note on the house.”

She nodded. “I’ll pay it back, Ruddy, I swear—”

“I know, of course you will,” I interrupted. “I’m not worried about that. There’s just one condition.”

She searched my eyes. “Ruddy, no.”

I nodded. “I want Kermit out of here. He’s been nothing but trouble for us, can’t you see? This whole thing has been a disaster. He’s just using us for the credit card account. He wants his third.”

“No, he loves me,” Becky whispered in a tiny voice.

“Becky, you don’t have to settle for someone like Kermit!”

She made her calculation, standing there, and then straightened, pulling back from my arms. “No, Ruddy. If that’s the condition, then no deal.”

She turned from me and strode away, heading back into the kitchen to be with Kermit. I watched her go with my mouth open.

“She sort of called your bluff there, didn’t she?” Alan’s dry voice asked.

I walked out into the street so that Alan and I could talk. “I wasn’t bluffing.”

“Oh, really. So you’re just going to let the Black Bear go out of business, then?”

I didn’t answer because I didn’t know what I was going to do.

Monday morning I was awake before dawn, agitatedly pulling on clothes and scooping up the court papers for Einstein Croft. Jake, afraid I’d drag him out for a walk at that unholy hour, wouldn’t even look at me as I headed out the door. Time to earn my fifty bucks.

Alan came awake on the highway. “We’re headed to East Jordan,” he noted.

“Yeah.”

“Shouldn’t we go up to Traverse City and find Wexler?”

“I think Wexler is doing a pretty good job of finding us. Besides, what do you want to do, just sit and watch him all day?”

“See what he’s up to,” Alan agreed.

“Well, that sounds like a complete waste of time to me. Besides—and this may be difficult for you to comprehend—but occasionally I involve myself with things that have nothing to do with you.”

“Ah, the good mood you were in all weekend continues to make its presence felt,” Alan observed.

He had no idea. I wanted to punch somebody. I wanted to punch him. I felt as if my skin itched, as if I was sitting on the bench while my team lost the game.

The gray overcast sky became gradually lighter, which is how dawn presents itself in a northern Michigan spring. I turned off my headlights and automatically twitched my fingers toward the repo switch, but I didn’t flip it—there was no point. I stopped twenty yards away from Einstein Croft’s new gate, chewing on my lip.

“So now what, we wait for him to come out and go to work?” Alan inquired.

“That’s the idea.”

“And what, follow him? How do you get him to pull over so you can serve him the papers?”

“I don’t know.”

“They probably aren’t going to let you back on the PlasMerc lot.”

“Probably not.”

“So how is this going to work?”

A light popped on in Einstein’s house. He was awake.

“You can’t very well serve him from a moving truck,” Alan argued. “He’s moving from behind the fence at his house to the fence at the factory.”

I put my truck into gear. “Good point.” I punched the accelerator.

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“What are we doing?” Alan shouted.

“Improving my mood!”

I hit the fence full force with the front bumper of my truck and it popped right off the hinges. I charged up the steep driveway, rocking to a stop behind Einstein’s truck.

I got out, tasting blood in my mouth. I must have kissed the steering wheel.

“Are you out of your mind?” Alan asked.

I walked up the steps toward Einstein’s front door, which flew open. He charged out in his bathrobe, holding his rifle out in front of him. His face was full of fury and he pointed the gun at me and I lunged forward and grabbed the thing, twisting it up and to the side, pulling it from his grasp. I spun and threw the rifle over by where Doris lived. Einstein, his expression black, swung his fist at my face. I ducked the punch, then stepped in and slugged him in the chest. He sat down.

“Good morning, Mr. Croft.” I took the court summons and stuffed it in the pocket of his bathrobe. “You’ve been served.”

He was still sitting there as I backed my pickup down the steep driveway, over the broken gate, and out into the street.

“Can you do that?” Alan demanded.

“Did it.”

“Destroy property? Hit him?”

“Did you happen to notice the rifle he was pointing at my head, Alan?”

“I think maybe you’re upset about what is happening at the Black Bear and decided to take out your anger on Einstein Croft.”

“And I think I’m sick to death of your psychotherapy.”

Milt wasn’t particularly pleased to hear that the fence had become defective during my service of Einstein Croft. “I’ll call the sheriff, see if the customer filed a complaint,” he told me. “Also, I see in the paper this morning that the cosigner died a couple days ago.”

“Einstein’s father?”

“Yeah. I don’t know what this means for the account, I’ll call the bank today and ask. Maybe if there’s an estate, they’ll just sue that and won’t bother with writ of replevin.”

“So you punch the guy out a couple of days after his father died,” Alan translated for me after we left Milt’s office.

“Well I didn’t know that at the time,” I replied peevishly. “Otherwise I would have let him shoot me.”

My afternoon consisted of tailing a guy from his house to the hardware store and driving off in his pickup when he went inside. I wrote up the recovery and called Milt with a certain listlessness—it seemed like somehow the joy had gone out of stealing cars.

I perked up when it occurred to me I was near enough to East Jordan to see Katie. I called her at work and asked her out to dinner, and when she came to the door in a pair of jeans and a dark red sweater I realized that Alan was asleep and grabbed her for a kiss I’d been storing up for forty- eight hours.

“Whoa!” she said with a laugh. “I take it you’re glad to see me!”

During dinner in Charlevoix, at the Grey Gables where the whitefish was much better than the Black Bear’s, I decided nothing I had ever accomplished in my life was as important as making Katie Lottner smile. I felt better than if I’d crashed into a thousand fences. We lingered over coffee and dessert until the hostess turned up the lights so the cleaning crew could close up.

“Where to?” I asked as I slid behind the wheel of my truck.

Katie was giving me a mischievous grin. “Nathan and my mom are still out of town,” she informed me.

And Alan was still asleep.

“Good,” I said, starting the truck. She slid over next to me like a high school date and I prayed my thumping heart wouldn’t wake up her father.

As I hit the East Jordan city limits a patrol car swung out from behind me and then its flashing lights went on.

I groaned aloud.

“Were you speeding?” Katie asked.

“Well ... yeah,” I admitted. She laughed because she knew exactly why I had been in such a hurry.

I was ready for a confrontation with Deputy Timms, if necessary, but the officer was someone I’d never seen before. He didn’t pull out his ticket book. “Mr. McCann?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Sheriff Strickland would like to speak to you. Would you step over to my patrol unit, please?”

The deputy used a cell phone to call the sheriff, which disappointed me—I’d sort of expected that he would use the radio. He handed the phone to me and I awkwardly held it to my ear.

“I’ve been looking for you all evening, where have you been?” Strickland asked without preamble.

“Charlevoix, sir. We went out to dinner.”

“We. Who’s we?”

“Katie Lottner, sir,” I told him, though I really didn’t want to.

There was a long pause. “Put her on a minute,” he instructed.

Just great. “He wants to talk to you,” I told her, holding out the phone.

“To me?” Katie took the phone. “Sheriff?” She listened, nodding. “Yes, sir. All evening.

26

Free and Clear

 

The deputy gave Katie a ride back home and I drove through the black night toward Kalkaska, my chest feeling as if I held my breath the whole way. “Alan! Alan!” I kept shouting, trying to wake him up. I had never felt so alone in my life. I reached for my own cell phone, wanting to call my sister, anybody, but I couldn’t get a signal and in a fit of irrational rage I chucked the thing out my window. I can’t be the only person in the world who has ever done that.

My house was a circus of police tape and patrol cars.

Strickland met me at the end of my sidewalk.

“Is it Jimmy?” I blurted.

He shook his head. “I don’t know who it is.”

I started to move forward, but he stopped me with a firm hand. “I’m going to take you into your house. You are to touch nothing, understand me, Ruddy? We walk in on the plastic. You look at the victim. We come back out. Got it?” I nodded.

“You up to this, son?” he asked more softly.

I swallowed. “Yeah.” But I wasn’t, not if someone had killed Jimmy.

I followed Strickland into my house. I numbly registered broken glass on the carpet before I saw the sprawled body, his face turned away from me, the back of his head a bloody mess.

“Come over here.” Strickland gripped my arm and moved me carefully to where I could see the face. “Know who this is?”

He was a large man, muscular, a tattoo of some kind reaching blue tendrils from inside his shirt to the base of his neck. I shook my head.

“No. I’ve never seen him before.” My relief was so overwhelming I felt tears collecting in my eyes. I hastily raised a trembling hand and wiped them away. If I lost Jimmy I didn’t know what I would do.

Strickland frowned at me in concern. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I just ... I thought it might be Jimmy Growe. He’s staying with me in the upstairs unit.” I let out a breath.

“I should talk to him, too, then. Know how I can get in touch with him?”

“No, not at the moment.” I was seized with another alarming thought. “What about my dog? Did you see my dog? He was in the house.”

“Hold.” Strickland snapped a radio off his belt and held it to his face. “Strickland here. Anyone have eyes on a dog?”

The silence gave me my answer even before someone came back and told the sheriff no sir, didn’t see any dog.

“Jake?” I shouted. Strickland grunted in feeble protest as I stepped off the plastic and went to my bedroom. The door was open and there, lying completely still, was my dog, sprawled motionless on the bed where he was never allowed.

I almost didn’t want to look at him. In the dim light from the hall, his eyes were open and he didn’t seem to be breathing. Why would Drake kill my dog? What kind of bastard kills a man’s dog?

“Oh, Jake,” I said softly. Strickland’s shadow filled the doorway behind me. “Jake, Jakey” I whispered. I put my hand on him. He was still warm.

His eyes looked at me.

“Jake? Jake!”

He feebly wagged his tail. I put my face to his neck, laughing into his fur. Probably he figured that with Drake breaking in and gunshots going off and the cops overrunning the place, all rules were out the window and he could sleep on the bed as long as he was quiet. “You crazy mutt. What kind of watchdog are you? There must be twenty people here.”

Jake’s look indicated I wasn’t paying him enough to be a watchdog.

“Come on, Jake,” I ordered. With a world-weary sigh, Jake eased off the bed and followed me into the living room.

Strickland escorted me back outside. “Your back window is broken and the back door was open. From the position of the body, it looks like he was standing there, looking out your front window at something, maybe a car in the street. We pulled a slug out of your paneling; that’s where it wound up after exiting.” Strickland was eyeing me carefully, seeing how I processed what he was telling me. I nodded, but my thoughts were on Jimmy. He was probably out doing something with some female.

“Pretty big fellow,” Strickland observed.

“Yeah.”

“The light on behind him, someone standing out here with a deer rifle would probably think it was you.” We looked at each other. “Anybody got reason to want to put a bullet in you, Ruddy?”

I evaded the question, jamming my hands in my pockets and turning back to my house. “I think you’ll find out that guy’s name is Drake. I don’t know his first name. He’s from Detroit. You look around, you’ll probably come across his car parked nearby.”

Strickland nodded. “I’ve got someone doing that right now. Who is this Drake person to you?”

I told him only that a business deal had gone south and that a man who claimed I owed him money had said he was going to come up to Kalkaska and talk about it.

“So he broke into your house?”

“He kind of implied it was going to be that sort of talk.”

Strickland didn’t like any of it—I had a feeling I would soon be back to “Mr. McCann.” I felt Alan come awake, making a startled noise when he saw to whom I was talking.

“You got anything else to say?” the sheriff asked.

“No, sir. This guy Drake threatened me and obviously came up here to have it out. He broke into my house and someone shot him from the street. But it wasn’t me, I was out with Katie Lottner.” There, now Alan knew everything.

“And that’s it.”

“Well ...” I took a breath. “When you do ballistics on that rifle slug, you might compare it to what you took out of Alan Lottner’s body, see if they came from the same gun.”

“Ruddy!” Alan exclaimed, shocked.

Strickland stared at me. “What in God’s name are you implying?”

“It’s just a hunch, sir.”

“A hunch.”

“Yessir.”

Strickland leaned over and spat his toothpick out onto the grass. “Like your dream. Same thing.”

“Yessir.”

He mournfully shook his head. “Move along, McCann. My office will let you know when you can get back into your house. Probably tomorrow.”

Jimmy and I spent the next two nights on cots in the back room of the Black Bear, Jake happily sleeping on the floor between us.

When we were kids, Becky and I thought sleeping in the bar was a special treat, and would stay up half the night telling spooky stories to each other. I was never scared, though, because I felt sure that Bob the Bear would protect us. Now, though, I was being hunted by Franklin Wexler—it was up to me to provide protection for everybody else.

Two nights twisting and thrashing on a rickety steel-springed cot with a thin, almost prison-issue mattress should have played havoc with my back, but I felt remarkably pain-free each morning.

“Yoga,” Alan said simply when I remarked on it.

“Yoga,” I repeated. “Alan, we talked about this.”

“What do you expect me to do when you’re asleep?”

“I expect you to lie there.”

“So stretching and exercising so you don’t wind up paralyzed from a night on that hideous contraption you call a cot is against the rules?

“Doing anything is against the rules. What if Jimmy saw me doing yoga?”

“What if he did?”

“People like me don’t do yoga,” I snapped.

I was back to being the most exciting attraction in town. Everyone wanted to ask me who Drake was, why he broke into my house, and why he got shot. “I can’t talk about it while there’s a police investigation going on,” I said glumly. This was like trying to calm a crowd by setting fire to it: My lack of comment galvanized every gossip in town.

“They’re saying Kermit shot him, to protect me,” Becky told me on Friday.

“Maybe he did,” I speculated. Kermit was standing there, trying to figure out if he should look proud over this. Alan was asleep.

“What was the damage today?” I asked. With every mail delivery, more bounces arrived, and we had no new business to replace it.

“Just eight hundred,” Becky responded faintly.

“I’m going to go over and talk to Milt in a little while.

I’ll borrow what, fifteen thousand?” Becky’s eyes were sorrowful as she nodded.

Kermit cleared his throat. “I looked into new business, but we’re not likely to find someone to let us decimate the funds like that.”

My patience broke with an audible snap—I’d had it with Kermit’s wonderful vocabulary. “Decimate. To destroy,” I said to him, my voice shaking with anger.

Kermit looked a little surprised at the heat in my response. “No, I mean, to keep a tenth of the business.”

“You said decimate. It means to destroy, like blow up,” I shouted.

Kermit glanced at Becky. “Ruddy ...” she began.

“No! No, Becky.” I pointed at her. “I’ve had it with Mr. Vocabulary. Let’s get a dictionary. We’re going to settle this whole thing once and for all. Right here. Right now.”

“What whole thing?” she asked timidly.

“No!” I yelled. I marched into the back room and grabbed a dictionary, flipping agitatedly through the D’s. “Decimate!” I cried. I stopped, moving my lips a little.

One of the meanings of the word “decimate” is “remove one-tenth of.”

I slapped the dictionary shut. “Okay! Fine! You win, Kermit! Happy now?” I stomped out the door.

Alan came awake as I was trudging down the muddy sidewalk. “What are you so angry about?” he asked.

“What makes you think I’m angry?” I challenged.

“I can tell by the way you’re walking. And your fists are clenched.”

“Let me ask you this, Alan. What does the word ‘decimate’ mean to you?”

“Decimate?”

“Just answer the question.”

He thought about it. “I guess it means to destroy something.”

“Aha!”

“Also to remove every tenth man from a group, or withhold ten percent of something,” he reasoned.

“Well, why do you keep dropping off to sleep all the time? What kind of person are you? You’re never around when I need you!” I stormed.

“Sorry?”

“Alan, this is one of those times when you should just stop talking,” I fumed.

Milt was in his office when I got there. “That fence you hit, Einstein’s place?” he greeted.

“That I allegedly hit,” I responded. Alan snorted.

Milt waved his hand. “Doesn’t matter. Turns out Croft put the thing in without a permit, and get this—it wasn’t even on his property, it was too close to the road. You want to, you can sue him.”

Milt handed over a couple of assignments—the death grip of winter was finally relaxing its hold on business a little bit, and we were heading for a far happier time—repo season.

With business picking up it felt like a good time to tell him I needed to borrow some money, at least fifteen thousand dollars, maybe more, and that I had a free-and-clear house he could attach as collateral.

“For the Bear?” he asked when I explained what the money was for. “I guess I don’t understand, I was in there last night. A lot more business than I’ve ever seen on a weeknight. My nephew says they’re going to have to hire someone to help cook.”

“It’s not that. I just got us into a bad business deal, Milt, and this is the only way out of it.”

Milt said he’d get going on the paperwork, and Alan was silent when I got into the tow truck. “Okay, Alan, what is it?” I demanded testily.

“Why didn’t you explain about Kermit’s numbers-running business?” Alan asked. “Seems like it would have been a perfect opportunity to let him know what’s going on with his nephew.”

“I don’t like that sly tone in your voice, Alan.”

“You can’t help it, you like the guy.”

“Who, Kermit? I loathe the guy. But I love my sister. So ...” I shrugged.

“So you decided not to tell Milt because it would have gotten Kermit in trouble with his uncle,” Alan finished for me. “Ruddy McCann, repo man with a heart of gold.”

“Yeah, well, don’t let it get out,” I grunted.

I spent the afternoon hauling a Chevy Malibu out of the middle of a cow pasture. According to the file, the customer decided he was too inebriated to drive on the roads one night and attempted to make it home from the bar by traveling directly overland. He made it through some barbed-wire fences without a problem, but became bogged down in the mud and concluded he shouldn’t have to pay for such a defective automobile. He called the bank and told them where to find it. The bank’s collection department was headquartered in Los Angeles and apparently the folks there thought that cow pasture was roughly the same as shark tank, so instead of calling a tow truck they elected to contract out to a repo man the task of recovering their collateral from amid the dangerous animals.

In truth, the biggest danger from cows is their curiosity. As I shoveled and cursed and squirmed around in the mud trying to hook the car frame solidly enough to winch it out, they stood around and watched, their flat expressions communicating a complete lack of comprehension. When I finally managed to get underneath the car I looked over and threeof them had their heads lowered so they could watch what I was doing. They didn’t seem particularly awed at this feat by a superior species.

What if one of them is a bull?” Alan asked nervously.

“You see any horns, Alan? Only thing we have to worry about is one of them stepping on us while trying to get a better view.”

We had a busy Friday night, busy enough that I could let Becky serve Janelle bourbon without making it appear I was avoiding her. Janelle, though, kept turning her eyes toward me, so finally I steeled myself and went over to her table. “Hey, Janelle.”

“You’ve made some amazing changes in here. I love the new floor,” she greeted. “Engineered wood. Nice.” “Becky did all the work,” I replied.

She looked good—hell, she looked very good, everything pulled together, a black sweater and black skirt clinging tightly but tastefully to her curves. She sat back in her chair and gazed at me for a long moment, while I stood there getting more and more uncomfortable. Alan, of course, was asleep.

“I’m going to visit my sister in Kansas City for a month,” she said softly. “Might look for a job while I’m there. Get out of this place.”

“Wow, really? That’s great.”

“I leave tomorrow. I have a bunch of food in the fridge. Rather than me throw it out, why don’t you come over after the Bear closes and pick it up? It won’t last for as long as I’ll be gone.”

Her eyes were watching me steadily.

“Oh, well, that’s really nice, Janelle. The thing is ...” I cleared my throat. “I’m sort of seeing somebody.”

I couldn’t tell if she thought I was lying—it certainly felt like I was lying.

“I’m just offering you the food from my fridge, Ruddy,” she replied, her voice faintly mocking.

“I can’t.”

She looked away from me. “Suit yourself.”

I watched her walk out that night, in heels no other woman ever tried to wear in the Black Bear, and not for the first time felt slightly regretful over my decisions surrounding Janelle. But you can’t have everything, and with Katie I was trying to direct all my efforts into having something.

The next day was Saturday and Katie and I had planned a picnic on Lake Michigan. Since I was going to be in East Jordan I decided to take care of a little errand and drove over to Einstein Croft’s place. I pulled a thin envelope out of my folder and walked up the steep driveway, which had been completely cleared of any fence. Doris was picking at the ground and pointedly ignored me as I mounted the stone steps and knocked on Einstein’s door.

Einstein looked and smelled like the inside of his house, stale booze coming off his breath. He smiled a little when he saw me, and for an uneasy moment I wondered if he had a pistol stuffed in his belt.

“I don’t like this,” Alan muttered. “He looks too happy to see us.”

“Mr. Croft?”

He stepped outside. “C’mere a second.”

“Sorry?”

He pushed past me and clumped down the steps. “Got something I want to show you.”

“I wouldn’t go with him,” Alan stated nervously.

“I’m just here to give you something,” I said.

“And I’ve got something for you,” Einstein replied. He kept walking.

Curious, I followed.

“Ruddy ... ,” Alan pressed anxiously.

Einstein strode toward the back of his property line, not looking back. Glancing over, I noticed the rifle was still lying in the mud where I’d thrown it. My father would have killed me for treating a weapon like that.

“Here ya go, Repo Man. She’s all yours.” Einstein grinned at me and gestured expansively to what was left of his truck. He’d burned it in the center of a patch of concrete that looked like it had once been the floor of a garage. The tires had melted off the rims, the interior had turned to ash, and everything made of aluminum or plastic had run off onto the ground.

“That’s insurance fraud,” stated Alan the amateur lawyer.

“You can’t file an insurance claim on a fire you set yourself, Mr. Croft. That would be fraud,” I advised him.

He threw back his head and laughed. “Insurance! I don’t got any insurance. I’m telling ya you can have it. Sorry it got a little burnt.” He laughed at my expression, loving the moment.

Sighing, I handed him the envelope. He took it from me suspiciously. “What’s this?”

“It’s a free-and-clear title, Mr. Croft.”

He blinked at me in noncomprehension.

“The cosigner had a life insurance policy on the loan. Your dad. When he died, it paid off in full. The truck’s all yours, free and clear.” Einstein stared at me.

“Have a nice day, Mr. Croft.”

I resisted the temptation to glance back, but I sensed that Einstein Croft was still standing there, frozen in place, as I came out of the trees and walked down his driveway. “Nice meeting you, Doris,” I called to the goose, who raised her head and watched me go with a disapproving expression.

I was just driving past the PlasMerc factory when a patrol car lit up its emergency lights behind me. “Every time I go to East Jordan,” I muttered, pulling over.

It turned out to be the same deputy with the same message as the night Drake was killed: The sheriff wanted to talk to me.

“Can you follow me to his office, please, sir?” the deputy requested.

“To the ... to the jail?” I repeated.

“Just to the sheriff’s office, sir.”

“Couldn’t we do this on the cell phone?”

Apparently not. “What do you suppose Strickland wants?” Alan wanted to know as we followed the deputy.

“Well, let’s see, Alan. He’s had two murder victims turn up this year, both having something to do with me. I’m surprised he hasn’t decided to make me a permanent guest of the county by now.”

Strickland was standing at his window when the deputy led me in, and lowered himself into his chair with a weary sigh. He pulled out a file. “All right, then. Tell me why you thought the ballistics from the rifle that killed Drake would match the one from Lottner.”

“Did they?” I blurted.

Strickland gave me a stony glare. “Tell me why you thought the ballistics from the rifle that killed Drake would match the one from Lottner.”

“Because Franklin Wexler and Nathan Burby killed Alan Lottner, and I think they blew up the nursing home, and I think they shot Drake in my living room, believing it was me.”

There was a long silence, during which Strickland just stared at me.

“Oh, Ruddy,” Alan said sadly.

 

NEXT: Chapters 27-28

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