No Time Left on the Clock
I came awake in darkness and in the middle of a gasping, choking spasm. Water flowed from my mouth and nose, and for a panicked moment I couldn’t breathe. Coughing, I flailed my hands, coming into contact with a rough blanket that I shoved off my face, gratefully sucking in air past the sodden feeling in my chest. A cramp seized me and I brought up river water from my stomach.
I was in the back of a truck, the steel bed vibrating as the tires hummed down the pavement. Once I stopped throwing up, the shivers started: I was colder than I’d ever been; it felt as if my very bones were frozen. My head ached and I was so weak that for several minutes, I lay there expecting to die.
Alan was gone. There was a different quality to his silence, deeper than the odd absence I’d felt when he was asleep. He had died back there in the river, somehow stepping in and taking my death for me. Drowning, just as he’d always feared. I was truly alone, now. Quaking, I clutched my legs and bit back the pain of loss.
After a time I gained control—Alan’s voice came to me, almost as if he were still inside. “You’ve got to get out of here.” I cautiously looked over the edge of the tarp through the back window into the cab. In the dwindling light I could plainly see Burby and Wexler, two rifles hanging on the rack behind them.
I didn’t know where we were or where we were going, but I’d had enough and just wanted to escape. We were moving too fast for me to do anything, though, but ride helplessly down the highway.
They must have a plan for me. At some point, they would come back to check under the tarp and I would be easy prey, unable to defend myself.
Opportunity presented itself a few minutes later. With a screech of brakes that slammed me forward in the truck bed, Wexler stopped, hitting the horn. “Idiot!” he shouted at the vehicle that had sagged onto the highway in front of him, nearly causing a collision as it pulled out of a driveway.
We were rolling again in a second. I had no time. Gulping, I seized the side of the truck and vaulted over, landing heavily in the muddy ditch next to the highway. I held my breath, watching Wexler’s brake lights, but nothing happened.
I took my bearings and realized Wexler’s truck was headed toward Kalkaska. I was standing only a couple of miles outside of city limits. I ran in that direction, my legs rubbery and useless. Every inhalation seemed to bubble in my chest, and the first mile I coughed more than I breathed, bringing up lungfuls of phlegmy water. Gradually, though, I straightened myself out. My feet were completely numb, hard to keep on track, but after a while a thousand needles stabbed them, and my shivering stopped. My breath sent out billowing clouds of fog.
Thanks to Alan’s midnight exercise program, I was a runner now.
There was no traffic, not particularly unusual for a Sunday night—and I wasn’t sure what I would do if I saw a vehicle anyway. I was drenched from head to foot, my shirt torn, my shoes missing. Who would pick me up looking like this?
My thought was to get to the Bear, get some warm clothes, and call Strickland. I encountered some traffic once I hit the Kalkaska town limits, but by that time I decided I would get there faster on foot than if I had to try to explain to someone what had happened.
The Bear’s front door was locked. Impatiently I dug into my wet pockets and pulled out my keys, my hands trembling as I opened the door. “Becky?” I called.
No one here. I flipped on the lights, noting irrelevantly that the place had been completely cleaned up. A clean towel sat on one of the tables and I picked it up, wiping my face. The cloth came away wet and streaked with mud.
A sound alerted me and I glanced up, startled. Becky stood behind the bar, very still and quiet. “Becky!” I gasped. I took two steps toward her and then stopped. “What’s wrong?”
She didn’t say anything.
Franklin Wexler stepped out of the back room, his rifle held steadily on my sister’s head. “You sure are tough to kill, boy,” he told me.
“Pull that gun down from my sister’s head or I’ll take it from you and bust you up with it,” I said pleasantly.
“First you come on back here and sit down,” Wexler directed. For emphasis, he leaned forward, nearly touching his gun to Becky’s head.
“Ruddy, I’m so sorry,” Becky murmured.
“You did nothing wrong, Becky.”
“I let them in. They said they were your friends.” Wexler grunted. “Enough with the chitchat. Come on.” He kept the rifle on Becky as we walked to the back. As I saw that, the rage left me, left me because the fear doused it like a scream drowning out a whisper. Becky.
“She doesn’t know anything, Frank. I didn’t tell her anything. You can let her go, okay?”
Wexler’s face was devoid of emotion and humanity. He was going to murder my sister because he’d already decided to. He wasn’t going to put any more thought into it than that.
Nathan Burby was waiting for me in the back. He had me sit in a chair while he wrapped duct tape around me, securing me tightly. Next was Becky, whom he sat down across from me. Terror showed on her face and I didn’t know what I could say to fix it.
Once we were both stuck to our seats, Burby went to work on something he’d put on the table. His back was to me and I made note of a pistol shoved into his waistband, though I didn’t know how I could get my hands on it easily. Wexler dipped his rifle, but kept it handy—having failed to drown me, he was probably less confident that he could keep me taped to a chair than he would have been otherwise.
I stared, realizing what Burby was doing. It was just as Strickland had described: a simple device, just dynamite, a plastic gallon jug of gasoline, and a digital timer.
I had to stall for time. “You set the bomb in the nursing home, didn’t you, Nathan? No one would look at you, what motive would you have? Frank here couldn’t do it, because his mom was inside. While you were killing old people, Frank was off having his picture taken with Wayne Newton.” Becky stared at me.
“Alan thought you weren’t the kind of person who could kill, but you’re the worst kind of monster, Nathan.
You’re a mass murderer.” Neither of them said anything.
“What’s wrong, don’t either of you assholes read?” I taunted. “Now’s the time for you to brag about how smart you are, how you managed to pull everything off. You know you want to. It’s at the end of every book.”
“Shut up,” Burby ordered. Wexler, predictably, said nothing at all.
“That’s why you had to kill Alan, Nathan. You weren’t supposed to know each other. What happened, Frank, your mom didn’t want to sell the ranch? So you told Nathan here all about it, and he agreed to help out. After all, he was making ten grand a body to move his cemetery. The firebomb just added some last- minute sales. But Alan shows up while you were still in the planning stage and that meant someone could connect the two of you. So you hit him with a shovel and shot him in the back.” I wanted to spit.
“You ’bout done there, Nathan?” Wexler asked.
“Almost,” Burby responded.
“Must have seemed like a real coincidence later when your partner married the victim’s wife, huh, Frank? He played you for a fool, inviting Alan down there to look at the property. He act all surprised? No idea how Alan happened to be there? Because he made the call. He set you up, Frank.”
Burby straightened. “All done.”
“Are you listening? Your buddy Nathan can burn up a bunch of old ladies but he doesn’t have the guts to kill somebody face-to-face. He wanted Alan Lottner dead, so he arranged for you to do it for him. He sold you out and he’ll do it again, Frank.”
Burby bit his lip. “I said to shut up.”
“I told Strickland that you two killed Alan Lottner. I told him that Frank hit him with the shovel and then you chased him down in the truck and shot him in the leg and then the back of the head. He knows, boys.”
Burby’s eyes were glassy and he shot a glance at Wexler, who regarded me without blinking and then picked up the duct tape.
“What was supposed to happen today? I disappear, and there’s a bombing, so they blame me, like they blamed Alan last time? You two are about the most stupid killers I ever heard of.”
Wexler patiently wrapped tape around Becky’s mouth. Her eyes grew frantic with fear as she inhaled through her nose. When he came for me his expression was the same as when he swung the shovel: implacable.
“This isn’t going to work. It makes no sense!” I shouted in frustration. Then the tape was over my mouth. A minute later, and they were gone.
The red digits on the timer were counting down from five minutes, and I spent the first one of those fruitlessly trying to burst the tape by spreading my arms apart with all my strength. My feet were lashed together to the chair legs, so I couldn’t even get to an upright position. I kicked downward, trying to toss the chair backward against the wall.
Becky was watching my furious efforts with wide eyes.
I wanted to sob: she was trusting me to fix it, somehow, but I couldn’t.
At two and a half minutes I’d managed to bounce over to an old wine rack and was attempting to catch the tape on the rack’s edge. Suddenly there was a bang as the back door of the Bear opened. Becky and I exchanged wild glances. “Hello?” Kermit.
I rocked my chair, throwing everything I could into making noise. The digits ticked backward on the timer, and then finally Kermit stood on the threshold, peering into the dim room. “What are you doing?” he asked, puzzled.
We both yelled through our masks and he came inside, jerking in surprise when he saw our bonds. He strode across the room and reached down, pulling at the tape on my mouth, easing it off.
“Sorry.” He winced. “You okay? Sorry.”
Finally there was enough off of my lips for me to talk.
“Rip this off! Hurry!”
He hesitated for just a second, then yanked the tape.
“That’s a bomb! There on the table!”
He turned and looked numbly at the kitchen timer, which read 1:30. Ninety seconds.
“Get Becky loose! Get her out of here!” I shouted.
Kermit darted to Becky and began scrabbling at the tape, pulling at it with his fingernails. He ripped the tape off her mouth.
“Oh, Kermit!” she wailed.
He made as if to pick her up, chair and all, then realized he wouldn’t be able to get very far that way.
“Get a knife! Kermit, get a knife!” I told him.
He nodded and turned to a drawer, yanking it out with such force the contents spilled to the floor. We had forty seconds. He picked up a small kitchen knife and started sawing away at the tape, his hands shaking. The tape started to part, but slowly, too slowly. Thirty seconds.
Kermit stopped, his shoulders going still.
“Kermit! Hurry!” I bellowed.
He and Becky were staring at each other. He reached a hand up and touched her on the cheek.
“Kermit, no!” she sobbed.
Kermit dropped the knife and ran to the table. He gathered Burby’s device in his hands, cradling it like a football, and turned to leave, leaving the jug of gasoline behind.
“Kermit!” Becky screamed in anguish.
I thought of Becky’s new Dumpster corral. If he threw the bomb in there the cinder-block walls might protect him from the blast. “The Dumpster!” I shouted.
He stopped on the threshold for just a moment, giving me an unreadable look, and then he was gone.
Becky was wailing and straining at the tape, working her one arm completely free, as the back door to the Bear slammed shut.
“Becky,” I said.
She raised her eyes to mine, and then the world disintegrated.
The shock of the explosion was like nothing I’d ever felt. The concussion seemed to last for an impossible length of time, punching the air from my lungs, ripping the light from the room. My limbs went limp and useless, my brain fuzzy.
Kermit hadn’t managed to throw the bomb into the Dumpster.
Gradually I came to realize that I was cocooned in a false silence, that pieces of ceiling and wall were dropping all around me, though I could hear nothing but a high, clear whine.
The chair I had been sitting on and the tape that had held me to it were both in tatters. My first thought was for the gasoline, but the plastic hadn’t ruptured and the jug lay on its side, not leaking. Coughing and choking, I crawled across the floor, feeling my way toward my sister. I saw now that the back wall of the Black Bear was gone, and that the light streaming in was from the bulb in the alleyway, which had somehow emerged unscathed. “Becky!” I shouted, my own voice silent to my ears.
I found her lying on her back, her glasses gone. When I bent over her, she focused on me, so I knew she could see me. The floor beneath her was slick and dark with what I realized must be her blood.
“Becky, I was wrong about Kermit!” I yelled, still unable to hear myself. “Do you understand me? I was wrong about Kermit!”
Becky raised her hand and grabbed my arm. She was nodding. She said something, but I couldn’t hear what it was.
“I was wrong about Kermit!” I said again.
Becky smiled at me, squeezing my arm, and then slowly closed her eyes.
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Have You ID’d the Body in the Alley?
I’d been concussed a few times in my football career and my body knew the symptoms—an odd dislocation, like watching a movie with frames missing, as the brain sputters and misfires and loses track of time. A sense that the ground is moving when your blurry vision can see very well that it’s not. I stared at my hands on the wooden floor, my ears ringing, and willed the world to stop spinning.
I knew I’d been unconscious for a bit but had no sense of how much time might have passed. When a hand grabbed my shoulder I glanced at it lethargically, not really caring if it was threat or assistance.
I was pulled onto my back and found myself staring with confusion into the eyes of my seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. Barnett. Oh yeah, he was one of the Kalkaska volunteer firefighters.
“You hear me okay?” he asked. “Ruddy?”
“Yes.” I turned my head and was shocked to see three men loading my sister onto a stretcher—when had they arrived? I blinked, trying to clear my vision, fear piercing my apathy. I looked back to Mr. Barnett. “How is Becky?”
He reached up and stroked his mustache, which I recalled from class meant he didn’t like the question. “A piece of wood impaled her in the back, we’re going to leave it in place until we get her to Munson Medical. Got the bleeding under control, though.”
I put my hand out and grabbed Mr. Barnett’s with it. “Is she going to live?”
“Live?” The question alarmed him. “Well yeah, of course she’ll live. I mean, she’s as banged up as you are, but nothing fatal.”
“She has blood coming out of her ears.”
“You’ve got blood coming out of your ears. The left one, anyway.”
I snapped my finger by my left ear and heard almost nothing.
Barnett took a breath and surveyed the room. More men were trouping into the Black Bear, some of them in full firefighting regalia. They seemed disappointed there was nothing burning. “Gas line explosion, maybe?” Barnett guessed.
I closed my eyes as if it would help block out the image of Kermit hunched over Burby’s homemade bomb. When I opened them, I knew they betrayed the sick feeling in my stomach. “Tell your men they need to look in back. There was a man in the alley.”
Mr. Barnett stared at me, then looked wordlessly at the hole where the wall used to be. We were both thinking the same thing: The alley was blast central. He raised a radio to his lips, then lowered it. The firefighters were right there. “Hey, guys. Check out back, there was someone back there when this happened.”
They exchanged glances and three men bolted out the back, crunching through the debris.
With Becky out of danger, a new thought jolted my mind. Katie. I rolled onto my hands and knees, a wave of nausea rolling with me. How much time did I have to get to her before Wexler did?
“Whoa, hang on,” Mr. Barnett warned. “We called a backup from Traverse City; it should be here soon.”
“No, you’re not.”
I stood up, taking a deep breath. “I said I’m okay.” I looked toward the back wall, seeing nothing but a giant hole and that one miraculous lightbulb. Kermit, I knew, was not going to be okay.
I headed toward the front door, Mr. Barnett discovering along the way what a lot of defensive linemen knew, which is that if I wanted to go somewhere it was pretty difficult to stop me. His hand was still clutching my arm as I stepped out onto the sidewalk.
Sheriff Strickland was hustling in our direction, his cruiser out in the street, its lights pulsing. Somehow enough time had passed for the cops to bottle up the main drag for several blocks in either direction. Strickland’s was the only car in the road. The sheriff drew up in surprise when he saw me come staggering out of the Black Bear.
“Ruddy. You’re up,” he noted, as if he’d heard I’d been taking a nap. He stuck out a hand and I shook it, both of us taking a moment to exchange odd grins.
“We’re waiting for the ambulance from Traverse City. Maybe another twenty minutes,” Barnett told him.
Strickland eyed me. “Time enough to talk, then,” he decided.
I considered it, and it was tempting: tell Strickland, head out to Katie’s house with sirens screaming, bust Wexler and Burby if they were there or go find them if they weren’t.
Then I thought about Becky screaming Kermit’s name, and how complicated my story was, and about a jury sitting through it all, basing the whole case on the testimony of a discredited repo man with a murder on his record and a voice in his head. And it added up to a different conclusion.
I needed to take care of Wexler and Burby myself. Tonight.
“Ruddy!” We all turned to see who had shouted, and Jimmy came running up to us, his face pale. He piled into me, grabbing me and holding me tight. Then he released me, looking apologetic. “Oh, hey, sorry.”
“It’s okay, Jimmy. It’s good to see you, too, actually.”
“There are police cars all over the place. You can’t even get here.” Jimmy glanced at Strickland accusingly.
“I know, son,” Strickland said. “It’s a crime scene.”
His statement brought us all out of reunion mode and back to the matter at hand. I knew how it would go. If I convinced Strickland I was well enough not to need an ambulance, I’d be stuck here answering questions. A ride into Traverse City in an ambulance would be just as bad, carrying me in the opposite direction from where I needed to be. I had to shake loose of the cops and the fire department and make my way to Katie.
Strickland was watching me and I knew too much speculation was showing on my face. “We need to discuss a few things,” he told me.
A firefighter walked up to our little group then, looking official and powerful in his rubber boots and thick fireproof clothing even though it was just Larry from the appliance store.
“Hey, I’m supposed to tell you that the ambulance from Traverse City got diverted. There was a rollover accident on 131, so it’s going there instead. Triage.” Larry was speaking to no one in particular, not sure to whom he was supposed to address this information.
“Jimmy can take me,” I blurted, inspired.
Jimmy nodded, eager to help.
“You should go in an ambulance,” Barnett objected. “We can get one from Charlevoix, be here in less than an hour.”
“Why? When I lie down it just makes me want to throw up,” I argued.
“I have bucket seats, they don’t even recline much,” Jimmy supplied helpfully.
“I shouldn’t wait an hour to get to the hospital, right?” I appealed to Strickland, turning my head so he could see the blood in my ear. “And I get to pick who drives me.”
“Okay,” Strickland pronounced decisively. “You can ride with Jimmy.”
I nodded, trying not to look either devious or triumphant.
“Hey, Sheriff,” the radio at his side squawked. He raised it to his lips.
“Go for Strickland.”
“We’ve got a guy in the back alley.”
Strickland was watching me as he pressed the button on his radio. “Copy that. Secure the area, I’m coming back.”
“It’s Kermit Kramer,” I said, my throat growing inexplicably tight. I took a deep breath, blinking. “He was back there.”
“He do this? The bomb?”
“No. Of course not. He died to save us.”
Strickland raised the radio. “The ten-seven in the alley, he have any ID on him?”
“Come again, Sheriff?”
His irritation showed in the tiniest flicker in his eyelid. “I asked, have you ID’d the body in the alley. Check for a wallet.”
“Oh, he ain’t dead. He’s in the Dumpster and he’s afraid to come out.”
What? Despite all I’d been through I felt like leaping in the air. Kermit hadn’t thrown the bomb in the Dumpster; he’d climbed the thick block walls and thrown himself in there.
“Just what the hell happened here, Ruddy?” Strickland asked softly, eyeing me with suspicion.
I shook my head, forcing myself to look damaged and beaten. “I need to go to the hospital,” I mumbled.
Strickland wasn’t happy with my response, but with a last look at me he left to talk to Kermit.
“Let’s go, Jimmy.”
“Copy that,” Jimmy replied. I had to hide a grin. We headed toward his car. “You cold? Jesus, Ruddy. What happened? What exploded? Is Becky okay?”
I stopped. “This is where I say good-bye. You keep going and drive on out of here—I don’t want Strickland coming out and seeing your car still parked up there; I want his men saying you left.”
“Wait, what do you mean?”
“There’s no time, Jimmy. Do it, okay?”
His gaze was confused and even wounded, but a lifetime of seeing me as his big brother led him to do exactly what I asked.
My pickup was, as far as I knew, still out in the woods. Despite the fact that I felt that I’d done enough running for the night, I dashed into the darkness. I stuck to the shadows and within a few minutes I was slipping inside the fence at Milt’s repo lot. I scooped the keys off the tow truck’s left rear tire and cranked up the engine, which leaped to life as if it understood that I was in a hurry.
The back streets of Kalkaska were clogged with traffic picking its way through unfamiliar territory, so I flipped on my warning lights and the drivers dutifully pulled over and let me charge past.
I kept my brights on and hoped I wouldn’t see the red eyes of deer charging across the road, because I wasn’t going to be able to stop for them. My speedometer quivered at eighty and I threw myself recklessly into turns that threatened to flip me.
I wasn’t at all sure that Wexler and Burby would actually do something to harm Katie. She didn’t know anything that could get them into trouble with the law, and as far as they knew, Ruddy McCann was at that moment being scooped into body bags by the Kalkaska volunteer fire department. I just wanted to know that she was safe. Then I would figure out what to do with the two killers. No, not do with. Do to. I was going to do something to them that would make it impossible for them to ever hurt anyone I cared about, ever again.
My optimism stuck with me up until the point where I steered my truck into the long curve in the road where Katie lived with her mom and saw, so, so clearly, Frank Wexler peering out of the window of Katie’s travel trailer in the backyard, a rifle cradled in his arms.
I had the sense there were others in the travel trailer, whose lights were ablaze, but I kept my foot on the accelerator and blasted past, thankful that the inside of my cab was repo-dark. I kept going until I was out of sound and sight, then cranked my truck around and stopped facing the way I’d come, my heart pounding.
What are you doing there, Wexler?
But I knew what he was doing there. “He’s going to tie up all the loose ends tonight,” I said out loud to Alan, who, of course, was no longer there to hear me. Katie, her mother Marget, and probably Nathan Burby. Bang, bang, bang.
I flipped my repo switch and my electronics went dark. I stealthily headed back down the hill toward the house with only the moon to guide me. I killed the motor when I was about twenty yards away and wrestled the power steering around so that I rolled into the driveway. I was coasting silently at about fifteen miles an hour over the back lawn as I approached the travel trailer, and caught a full view of Katie standing up against the sink, talking, looking relaxed, not at all as frightened as she should be. Wexler was out of sight, but Nathan Burby stood next to his wife, his shiny head in stark contrast to his wife’s wispy white-blond hair. No one noticed a tow truck ghosting by in the night.
I nearly ran out of momentum before the front wheels hit the lip of the steep hill down to the lake and pulled me forward. I kept my foot lightly on the brake, working harder because the power brakes were out, thinking, not for the first time in my life, that I was glad Milt put the brake lights on the repo switch.
I stopped just a few yards shy of where the pitch in the yard got serious and plunged steeply toward the black water of Patricia Lake. I eased out of the driver’s seat and looked up the hill to the travel trailer. My plan, such as it was, was to go into the trailer, get the rifle from Wexler, and kill him with it.
Out of habit I glanced at my watch as I started climbing. It was just past midnight.
Prime time for the repo man.
Free for AARP members and available in their entirety online.