Exactly Fifteen Miles an Hour
On the way to Traverse City Kermit checked his mobile phone every ten minutes, announcing over and over “no signal here,” and “weak signal here” as he frowned at it. “That’s why I leave mine in my kitchen. Signal’s good there,” I responded, but mostly I wasn’t paying attention. I was brooding over what it could possibly mean that the voice inside my head now claimed to be a murder victim. It sounds, well, crazy, but I realized that somehow I had started to buy into it all—I was actually beginning to think of the voice as a separate person, as Alan Lottner, and could see myself eventually growing comfortable with my conversations with him. There was just something so normal about it—another man’s voice, seeming to be coming from my ears and not from within my brain. That’s really what all human interactions are like, right? Kermit at that moment was yammering away about some way he could make money; it was a separate voice, a separate person, and I wasn’t looking at him. And when you talk on the phone, you can’t see that particular person, either. So none of this felt any different than how life usually goes, even if I knew it wasn’t.But murder? What was next, would he want me to avenge his killer? And who would that turn out to be, the president of the United States or somebody? How long before I complacently went along with this idea, too?
Traverse City is right on Lake Michigan and has fifteen thousand people in the winter and what seems like two million in the summer, as opposed to land-locked Kalkaska, where I think I know just about everybody by their first name. Kalkaska only really has a crowd control problem during deer hunting season, when the boys from the city arm themselves and wander around wearing camouflage pants, drinking beer.
Kermit was happy for me to drop him off at a drugstore to mess around while I checked into Jimmy Growe’s mystery checks. The silence he left behind when he jumped out made me realize just how much talking he’d been doing—I had a voice both in my head and in my truck.
All of the checks to Jimmy Growe had come from one bank. I walked into the lobby, looking around for the Department of Checks from Nowhere That Bounce.
The person who agreed to help me was a large woman, her bone structure as solid as mine, and I could picture her being a Campfire Girl leader for the three daughters whose framed photographs owned most of the real estate of her desk. She was about my age and wore her auburn hair so that it curled a little off her shoulders. Her dark eyes softened in concern as I spread Jimmy’s six checks—five NSF, one uncashed—across her desk. She told me to call her Maureen.
“Oh my,” Maureen murmured.
I explained my connection to Jimmy and Milton, showing her my business card and Milton’s corporate endorsement of the checks on the back. “What I need to know is who wrote these checks. You can see that the signature is not really legible. It could be Whitmore, or Southmore, or Sophomore. Or Whilnose, or Whilmore.” Those had been my best guesses. None of the names I’d suggested were in the Traverse City phone book, and I doubted anyone on the planet was named Whilnose.
Maureen agreed that the names were hard to read, and even pointed out something I’d missed—the signatures didn’t really appear to be the same from one check to the next. “This one is definitely Wilmore,” she pronounced.
“Wilmore,” I agreed, making a note. She watched me write down the name, frowning.
“Please understand, I am not confirming that as the name on the account,” she warned me, somehow sounding less like Maureen the human and more like Maureen the bank.
“Oh, I understand, it just helps. Most people, when they want to assume a name, pick a variation of their own name.” She looked at me dubiously. “Well, that’s what I read in a mystery novel,” I explained defensively. “So you think these are all pseudonyms?” she asked.
“I don’t know, really. I thought you could give me the name of the owner of the account. Maybe it will turn out to be this Wilmore.”
She bit her lip. “We’ve never had a case of a returned check where the payee didn’t know the remitter.”
“It certainly is interesting,” I agreed brightly, watching the doubt etch shadows into her expression. She wasn’t going to tell me.
“You see, Mr. McCann, it would be against bank policy to give out a name on an account.”
“But these are bounced checks!”
“I’m sorry, even under these circumstances.”
“But you said it has never happened before. Come on, Maureen, you mean you have a policy for something that never happened before?”
“Great idea, get her pissed off,” Alan admired.
A slight flush crept onto her cheeks, but she maintained her composure. “I’m sorry. But the owner of this account …” She paused, frowning. Her head came forward sharply. “These are all different accounts!” she exclaimed.
“Look!” She pointed to the hieroglyphics across the bottom of each check. “You have six checks drawn on six separate accounts.”
I wanted to encourage her curiosity. “How in the world could that possibly happen, I wonder?”
Our eyes met. “Someone must have opened six separate accounts with our bank, receiving a packet of starter checks each time.”
“And not using them at all,” I agreed, finally doing some noticing myself. “See? These are all check number one hundred. That would be the first in the series, right?”
She nodded. “Right.”
I held my breath, watching her mull it over. Then the part of her brain that stood guard over bank policy slammed the door on this line of thinking. “Well,” she murmured, searching for the words to tell me I still wouldn’t be getting any information out of her.
Glancing around the office in my frustration, I noticed her degrees and certificates. “Hey, you went to Michigan State!” I exclaimed.
She blinked at the abrupt change in subject.
We beamed at each other, and then her expression changed. “You’re Ruddy McCann. The Ruddy McCann?” she gasped.
“Oh my!” She half rose in her chair as if to shake my hand again, then sat back down. “I didn’t know you lived here.”
“Right down the road in Kalkaska. Went to high school there and everything.”
“What a small world,” Maureen breathed. “I had no idea.”
We spent a moment looking inward at our college memories. “What happened to you, didn’t you play professional football? I remember everyone saying you were going to win the Heisman Trophy, and then …” Her face turned gray as she remembered what did happen to me. “Oh my.”
I waited. People have various reactions to my past, and I didn’t know what direction Maureen would take.
“I’m so sorry,” she murmured. I could see that she was; her deep brown eyes were sagging under the weight of tragedy.
“It was a mistake I will regret for a lifetime,” I told her sincerely.
“What was?” Alan demanded.
The silence was awkward but I let it build for a moment, then I leaned forward. “Maureen, Jimmy Growe is a very simple guy. I kind of take care of him, like the big brother he never had. He pushes a broom for a living. When these checks arrived, he felt like he had won the Lotto. Now, you and I would probably wonder what the heck was going on, but Jimmy just ran out and cashed these with my employer. And, Jimmy being Jimmy, the only tangible item left from all that money is a motorcycle. Which, knowing Jimmy, he bought from someone who probably took him to the cleaners, so when he sells it he will be thousands of dollars in debt. If I don’t get to the bottom of this, it is going to take Jimmy years to get out of trouble. He still doesn’t really understand what is going on—he offered to pay me by giving me this last, unendorsed check here.”
Maureen made a noise in sympathy. I could see her mothering her image of Jimmy, so I decided to leave out the part about him being the hottest stud in Kalkaska.
“Couldn’t you please look into this? If it is a joke, it has gone way, way too far. These checks are doing Jimmy a lot of harm.”
Her maternal instincts pushed her over to the dark side of banking. “Yes, all right. I’ll be right back.” She swept the checks off her desk and left the room.
“You were a Heisman Trophy winner?” Alan demanded.
“No,” I told him.
“What was she talking about, then?”
“Alan, is it lonely in there? No one to talk to?”
“You don’t know the half of it. When you’re moving it is all I can do to hang on, like when you were driving and that Kermit was talking about how he was going to make all that money by processing credit card charges. But when you’re sitting still and I feel more in control, I want to scream, because—”
“Alan, shut up.”
He bit off his rant in what I swear sounded like hurt silence.
“You are not in control. I am in control. And when I am conducting a conversation with someone, I want you to be quiet. If you are, then when we’re alone, I’ll talk to you. If you’re not, then I’ll never answer you again, and you’ll never have anything approaching a dialogue with anyone unless you leave me and go into somebody else’s head. Okay?”
He didn’t answer.
“Oh, am I allowed to speak now?”
Maureen was back in the room, carrying a ledger book. “This is very disturbing.” She sat down heavily and stared at me, wrestling with what she had just learned.
“Maureen?” I prompted.
“Well, we still maintain this log in addition to the computer. Whenever we issue starter checks we write down the name and date, here.” She pointed to the list and I looked at it from an upside-down angle. Customer information fl owed across the register in neat rows. I sensed there was a lot more, and waited for her to tell me.
“The thing is, Mr. McCann, none of these packets were ever issued to a customer. See? The account numbers are printed right here. Someone has drawn a line through them.”
“Why would anyone do something like that?”
“Well, sometimes an error is made, and we just void out the account. Under those circumstances, we would mark through the number here and destroy the starter packet.”
“Does that happen a lot?”
“Well, not a lot, but it does happen. Someone should have noticed this, though. Oh.”
Her eyes were now unreadable as they met mine. “Oh my.”
“What is it, Maureen?”
Wordlessly, she spun the book around for me to see. I glanced down the list of names, noting that the starter packets with the lines through them were grouped together, all issued in December, all within a day or two of each other.
“The handwriting,” Alan murmured.
“The handwriting,” I repeated stupidly.
“Yes. The word void looks like it could be the same as on the checks,” Maureen agreed helplessly.
I looked at her in amazement. “So the bank has been sending Jimmy these checks?”
“No! Oh no, Mr. McCann. Not the bank. An . . . employee.”
“Why would they do that?”
Maureen shook her head, her look as blank as Jimmy’s had been.
“I need to talk to the employees,” I declared grimly.
Maureen appeared shocked. “Oh no, we couldn’t allow that.”
“No, I’m sorry, that won’t be possible.”
I don’t like it when people tell me something I want to do isn’t possible. When I spoke again, it was slowly and deliberately. “Maureen, you need to understand, Milt isn’t trying to go after the bank. We just need to get to the bottom of this. Can you look into it, figure out what happened, who did this? You know. Just compare the log here to people’s handwriting. We’ll keep this quiet. There is no need for Milt to report this to the authorities.”
Maureen’s eyes searched mine. Alan was silent but I swear I could feel his distaste for my subtle threat. Finally she pressed her lips together, nodding unhappily.
“Good, I’ll call you in a day or two to see if you found anything out for me, okay?”
Maureen nodded again, and I shook hands with her and left the office. I was the first to speak in the parking lot. “What, what is it?” I challenged.
“She was helping you and you made it sound like if she didn’t cooperate you’d haul her down to gestapo headquarters,” Alan sniffed.
“Alan, I’m a repo man. I collect money, and if people don’t have any I take away their cars. How do you think I do that, send a Hallmark card with a puppy on it?”
“It was mean.”
I stopped walking and faced a small snowman some children had built so that anyone watching would assume I was arguing with it and not with a voice in my head like some crazy person. “Yeah, well, what do you do for a living?”
“I sell real estate,” he answered loftily.
“You what? Would you listen to yourself? You do nothing. You live off of the welfare state of Ruddy McCann. You don’t even have a body.”
“Well, I’m sure if circumstances were reversed I would be a little more understanding.”
“I’m sure you would, Alan, because you know what? I’m not understanding any of this!”
“I told you I was dead, murdered, and your lack of concern could not have been more apparent,” he accused. “You’re selfish, mean to people, and you don’t floss.”
“I ... what?”
“Your dietary habits are inexcusable. Your house is a wreck, and you never exercise.”
“What are you talking about?” I sputtered. “I don’t have to exercise, I’m an athlete, I get it from sports! And I do too floss, sometimes, and how is it your business anyway, and shut up! I mean it, stop talking now, Alan. Not another word.”
I kicked ice chunks out of my way as I strode down the sidewalk to the pharmacy. I had a split personality and we didn’t like each other. I peered up at the overcast sky, thinking I was the butt of some cosmic joke. It was not the first time in my life I’d entertained that particular notion.
I entered the drugstore and started hunting for Kermit. He was reading a Playboy magazine, hunched down by the display so the pharmacist wouldn’t notice him. “You’re not supposed to read them if you’re not going to buy them,” I called out loudly. He fumbled the magazine back into the rack and followed me outside. Soon we were in the truck, headed out to try to find the Ford Credit account.
“This guy we’re looking for bought himself a brand-new Ford Mustang and stopped paying for it a couple of months ago,” I told Kermit, mostly to prevent him from talking. “A lot of the vehicles I drag in are sports cars. Hardly the most practical vehicles for around here—we’re buried in ice half the year. Young guys fall in love with an image of themselves roaring around in their hot cars and sign papers for payments that are hopelessly out of their reach.”
“I used to own a Trans-Am,” Kermit piped in irrelevantly.
“That’s nice, Kermit. Anyway, by the time they find out what the insurance is going to cost on their new toys, they start to get a little buyer’s remorse. But they can’t sell the things—the most expensive option on a new car is the depreciation, meaning they’d have to come up with thousands of dollars to undo their mistakes. Most guys wind up turning them back in. The ones who refuse to drop them off at the dealership find themselves dealing with me. Unless they’re like this guy—he went to ground. His car hasn’t been seen around all winter, and he doesn’t seem to have a home, he just sort of drifts from friend to friend’s place. No permanent address.”
“First thing we should do is run a background check,” Kermit speculated.
“Yeah?” I glanced over at him. He looked completely serious. “What does that mean?”
“You know, on the computer.”
“You know how to do something like that?”
“Um, no, not especially.”
“Okay. So I thought the first thing we’d do is check out his place of business.”
For employment, the customer had listed “logger” on his application. There’s no such thing anymore in northern Michigan; what he did for a living was run a chain saw, cutting down second-growth forest for small-time firewood operations. One of the regulars at the Black Bear did the same kind of thing and told me where our Mustang customer had been working this past winter.
Kermit had the file open in his lap as we bounced down the rutted two-track deep into the woods, my tires biting at the mud in four-wheel drive. “What are these?” he asked, holding up a set of what were clearly car keys.
“When you buy a new car, the dealer retains the key numbers, so you can cut a new set if you lose them. Or if the repo guy needs some,” I explained.
We came to a halt in a clearing with jumbled stacks of hardwood. It was Saturday, so the place was abandoned. Two hydraulic splitters, a couple of mauls, and an old flatbed truck with dual rear wheels all appeared to be rusting at about the same rate. “No signal,” Kermit pronounced, holding his phone up for me to see. I ignored him.
“Hello?” I called out as a formality. There clearly wasn’t anyone around.
“Hello! Yo! Anyone here? Hello!” Kermit shouted.
“That’s enough, Kermit.”
“Hello there, hello! Anybody?”
“Kermit!” He looked at me, startled. “It’s okay, I don’t think anyone’s here.”
“Why don’t you look around, see if you can spot the car anywhere. A lot of these guys think I’ll never look for it out here in the forest.”
He agreed, the black mud sucking at his boots as he wandered off down one of the trails. His thighs were so big he had a natural waddle to his gait, which the tricky footing only accentuated. I couldn’t recall ever meeting someone who carried all his weight in his legs and butt like that. Unconsciously I pinched a fold of flab over my hips, then patted my stomach. When I realized what I was doing I sighed and shook my head. So what? I always gained a little weight in the winter. It was perfectly normal. Sometimes I even lost some of it in the summer.
I looked around. Everything in the clearing was a boggy mess. The earth was deeply rutted where their truck had backed up to the six-foot-high piles of split firewood. To the left, trunks of fallen trees lay ready for the saw to cut them up, and sawdust was nearly a foot thick in some places.
“Well, hell. I half expected to find the car here,” I muttered. Alan didn’t reply, apparently deciding to punish me with silence. I wondered how I could induce him to keep it up.
I strolled around, looking hopefully behind the woodpiles. In the shadows the ground was still buried in deep snow, and I tried to imagine what it was like to stand here all day and cut up logs while the Michigan winter poured wet blizzards on my head. What a life the poor guy led.
“Well, that’s that,” I announced in disgust. Kermit had come wandering back twice like a lost dog, and was running out of trails to explore. I could hear him blundering around about thirty yards away.
“Wait,” Alan blurted.
“Oh, are we speaking now?”
“Look at the ground. Not there. No ...” He grunted in frustration. “Please, look at the woodpile. To the left. Farther. Now down. Look at the ground. There! Look at the tracks.”
Along the forest floor where Alan was directing my eyes, muddy ruts went right into the woodpile, as if someone had driven under the logs. I glanced at the other places and noted they all looked the same: When the loggers unloaded their truck, some of the logs obliterated some of the tire tracks. I didn’t see anything special about the area in which Alan was interested.
“Walk over there,” Alan urged. I obliged, curious. “Do you see?” he demanded.
“The grooves from the tires. Look at them.”
“Not only is there a double set like everywhere else, there’s also a more narrow, single set. Like someone pulled a Ford Mustang up to the woodpile.”
“Right.” I thought about it. “Or maybe the woodpile wasn’t here when the Mustang made these tracks.”
“Yes, exactly!” Alan agreed excitedly.
With effort, I climbed up the precarious stack of wood until I was on top. I kicked aside a few logs. “If there’s a sports car under here, it is dented all to hell,” I commented. I started tossing logs off the top of the pile. Just a few layers down I hit heavy chipboard, three-quarters of an inch thick. “I’ll be damned. Hey, Kermit!”
An hour later we had exposed a large wooden box, fortified within by two-by-fours and which, once I’d broken out the crowbar, proved to be home to a cherry-red Ford Mustang. I used the winch on the back of the truck, unspooling the thick black cable, attaching the hook to the Mustang, and pulling the car slowly out into the open. Milt’s truck was old but the winch was state-of-the-art, well oiled and repo-silent.
“Whoa, nice car, can I drive it?” Kermit wanted to know.
Something about the lustful look in Kermit’s eyes made me think that would be a bad idea. “Better let me,” I advised. “I’ll let you do the next one.”
My keys worked but the battery was lifeless. I peered up at the darkening sky. “Tell you what, Kermit, I’d like to get the hell out of here. Instead of jumping it, why don’t you just push me down the road. Once we get going I’ll pop the clutch and we’ll start it that way.”
Kermit shrugged. “Whatever.”
“The road’s pretty slippery, so I imagine you’ll need to get me moving about ten, fifteen miles an hour or so for the tires to get enough bite to start it. Okay?”
He sullenly shrugged again, apparently hurt that I didn’t trust him with the car. I slid in behind the wheel, put in the clutch, and moved the shifter into first gear.
The car rocked. I glanced in the rearview mirror and saw Kermit hunched over the trunk, gritting his teeth.
“What an idiot,” Alan muttered.
“Kermit.” I stood up out of the car. “I meant push it with the truck. The truck, Kermit.”
“Oh.” He stood up, scratching his head.
“Did you really think you’d get going fifteen miles an hour pushing it yourself?” He shrugged.
“Okay, try the truck. And Kermit, no faster than fifteen miles an hour, all right?” I slid behind the wheel again. “Guy would probably try to hit eighty if I didn’t say anything,” I remarked.
“So how did a Heisman Trophy finalist wind up a repo man in northern Michigan?” Alan wanted to know. “What was she talking about back at the bank?”
“Later, Alan,” I responded, knowing I would never tell him. It wasn’t something I talked about. I frowned as I watched Kermit in the cab of the truck. He had turned it around so that the big rubber front bumper was facing the rear of the Mustang I was sitting in, but now, for some reason, he was backing up. Where did he think he was going?
Kermit turned on the headlights. He was a good fifty feet away. Suddenly the truck lurched forward.
“What is he doing?” I sputtered, watching the tow truck bear down on me.
“I imagine he is approaching the rear of this vehicle at a speed of exactly fifteen miles an hour,” Alan observed calmly.
There wasn’t time to say anything else before the crash.
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The Slander Clause
It was dark and starting to snow with real hostility when I hit the door of the Black Bear, pushing it open like I was hoping it would smack into someone on the other side. I pulled a beer off of the tap and stood behind the bar and drank it while the regulars sat in their chairs and gaped at me with expressions verging on fear.
“Bad day?” Becky asked innocently, moving close to wipe down the keg machine with a rag.
“Don’t ask. I’ve got your thousand dollars, though.”
Her eyes flared with life briefly, then went dark again. “Okay.”
“I’ve got seven-fifty now, and I’ll give the rest of it to you tomorrow, after Milt pays me for today’s repo.”
“Come on, Becky! Isn’t that what you wanted?” I bit off the impulse to shout at her.
“Sure.” She passed a hand over her brow, leaving a smudge on her glasses. “Sorry. Thanks, Ruddy.”
She tried out a pursed smile, but it was so rickety and weak I had to look away. When I turned back, she’d given up on it. “Listen, a couple more months and the summer crowds will be here. Things always go better in the summer. We just have to hang on,” I encouraged.
“I’m not sure we can make it until summer, Ruddy,” she said in a voice so quiet I wasn’t sure I heard correctly.
Janelle Lewis sat down at the bar, and I turned to serve her, glad for an interruption. “Hey, Janelle.”
“Hello, Ruddy.” She was, as always, carefully made up, though the flip in her professionally dyed blond hair looked like it had spent a little too long out in the wet weather.
Janelle’s husband divorced her hard when she turned forty, applying every insult to the injury by marrying a woman who was herself forty. Janelle had brown eyes and freckles and had lost so much weight after her husband left she could probably still wear her Kalkaska High School “Blue Blazers” cheerleader outfit, but she’d abandoned her innocent look in favor of tight jeans and loads of fake jewelry that made her look sharp-edged somehow.
Janelle’s bar tab tracked bourbon to the exclusion of everything else. She was lonely, and the way her eyes often lingered on me told me that she saw me as a possible cure for the emptiness in her life. The thirteen-year age difference between us didn’t seem as relevant as the wide gap between herself and her happiness, and I’d never been tempted. I poured some bourbon in a glass and waved the soda nozzle at her—sometimes she wanted it, most of the time, like to night, she shook her head and took her first gulp like it was medicine, her eyes tightly closed.
“I heard about the fight here the other night. I’m sorry I missed it,” Janelle observed.
Kermit slunk in then, not sure I was going to allow him inside. He sort of slithered across the floor, finally winding up at the end of the bar. “Stick around,” I told Janelle, “you may get to see another one.”
I wandered off to check on the other customers, conscious of Kermit watching me like an elk eyeing a wolf. I got the sense that if I suddenly whirled and glared at him he’d flinch and fall to the floor.
Eventually Becky came up to my side. “I replaced the evaporator fan in the back fridge,” she greeted.
I glanced up to where the television was playing the Home Repair Network or Fix Your House Network or whatever it was my sister kept it tuned to twenty-four hours a day. Even with the sound off, it annoyed me—a bar should have the game on. We’d talked about it, though, and it was her bar, so unless a customer requested something different we got a steady stream of unreasonably handsome guys ripping down walls and laying carpet. I used to play football—believe me, nobody is that attractive and that muscular; it’s an impossible combination. “I would have helped you with that evaporator fan,” I told her.
“I know that.” She gave me a neutral look while we both didn’t mention that after I helped her put in new shelves she had to basically tear out my work and do it again. “Wish we had the money for me to replace the lighting in the kitchen.”
I grunted noncommittally. If we didn’t try to cook food, we wouldn’t even need a kitchen.
Becky was lingering at my elbow as if wanting to talk about something. I gave her a questioning look. “Who’s your friend?” she asked, nodding at Kermit.
I was glad we were off the topic of problems at the Black Bear. “He’s not a friend. More like an unsightly growth that I need to have removed.”
“Introduce me?” she queried after a pause. I peered at her but got nothing back but pure Becky-style blandness.
I shrugged and she followed me down to where Kermit was clinging to the end of the bar. He looked exquisitely alarmed at my approach. “Kermit, this is my sister Becky, she owns the place. Becky, this is Kermit, the reason why your brother needs a chiropractor today.”
They shyly shook hands. “You’re bleeding!” Becky exclaimed to him, giving me an accusatory look. Kermit had a bruised lip, but it wasn’t a gift from me. Next time he used his uncle’s truck to ram a Ford Mustang he should keep his mouth off the steering wheel. I turned away, not caring what she thought. I refilled my glass and sat heavily in a chair.
Claude and Wilma soon joined me. Claude’s stained sweater bore the name of the place he’d worked about three car dealerships ago, and Wilma was tented in a blue dress that flashed like aluminum foil. “If it isn’t the Wolfingers,” I greeted. “Oh wait, you probably have new identities now. Let me guess: you’re Mandrake the magician, and your wife here is the ambassador to Spain.”
They were still at the stage of their drinking where they found everything hilarious instead of an excuse to scream at each other. They laughed for what seemed like three full minutes—a stand-up comic would kill to have an audience like them. Finally, wiping their eyes, they calmed down. “The government. They don’t care about anything. Worst people on earth,” Claude lamented.
“Wilma works for the government,” I pointed out.
“Not the county. I’m talking about the feds. They acted like I was an idiot when I told them I wanted to join the Witness Protection Club,” Claude spat indignantly. Then he leaned forward. “Doesn’t matter, though. We’ve got something else going, you won’t believe it.”
“Please no,” I replied honestly.
Claude told me his plan, laying it out like it was a bank heist. I was keeping my eye on things, mainly on Kermit talking to Becky, and didn’t really listen. I gathered, though, that it had to do with Claude and Wilma’s homeowner’s insurance policy. “That’s a quarter of a million dollars, Ruddy,” Claude announced dramatically. Wilma nodded happily in agreement.
“Now what, again?”
Claude shook his head in exasperation. “Weren’t you listening?”
“It’s the slander clause,” Alan advised. Apparently he could pay attention even when I didn’t, which I had to admit might occasionally come in handy.
“The slander clause,” I repeated.
“Exactly,” Claude beamed. “It says we’re covered for slander for up to two hundred fifty thousand dollars.”
Wilma leaned forward. “That’s a lot of money, Ruddy.”
“I can’t argue with that.”
Claude glanced at Wilma triumphantly, as if my endorsement settled the matter. “Right. So what we do is, Wilma and I get a divorce. And she gets the house, I let her have it.”
I blinked. “You and Wilma are getting a divorce?”
Claude shook his head in exasperation. “Dammit, Ruddy, pay attention to me now, this is complicated and we can’t afford any screw-ups. We get a divorce, and Wilma gets the house. That means she gets the homeowners’ policy, which covers her, see? And then she slanders me, so I sue her for the full extent of the policy. The insurance company says, ‘Holy cow! It’s slander all right, let’s pay this before it becomes another ...’ What was the name of it, that company lost all that money?”
He snapped his fingers at his wife in a way I could see instantly irritated her, but she suppressed her reaction because they were going to be rich. “Golden Sachs,” Wilma prompted.
“No, that’s not it.”
Wilma’s eyes flared, but Claude ignored her. “Whatever it was. They can’t afford that, bad for business. So they write me a check, and then we remarry, have the wedding right here at the Bear.”
Wilma frowned, not sure about that part.
“But they can’t make me give the money back, so we’re rich!” Claude exulted. “The little guy wins!”
I gazed back at the two beaming con artists. “What could Wilma possibly say about you that would be considered slander?” I asked at last.
They laughed gaily, propelled by their foolproof plans and probably a quart of vodka between them. “Oh, I’ll come up with something, I promise you.” She winked.
“And Ruddy”—Claude’s hand was back on my wrist like a manacle “I want you to know, you’ll get your share. I promise.”
“Thanks, Claude,” I said sincerely. “And why do I deserve a cut in this completely foolproof, completely felonious plan to rip off your insurance company?”
“Because I’ll be living with you!” Claude announced happily.
There was a long silence. “With me,” I repeated.
“Sure, on the top floor. Nobody’s using it, right?”
When my mother died half a year or so after Dad, Becky got the bar and I got the house. I turned an outside staircase into a separate entrance and tried to rent the place as a duplex, but Kalkaska didn’t have much of a market for that sort of thing and I’d gradually lost my momentum. Claude knew the place had been empty for nearly a year, after I kicked the last fellow out for failing to understand the relationship between occupancy and rent.
I sighed. “I’ll have to charge you something,” I warned, feeling helpless. I was reminded of the time we all watched Claude and Wilma attempt to sell ten-foot teepees to tourists from their front yard, probably sinking their whole savings into the idea. Were they really going to try this mad scheme?
“Yeah, and more important, you need to keep quiet about when Wilma comes to visit for, you know.” They both giggled like kids, and I had to suppress a smile.
Claude became serious. “We’ll have to stage a fight or something, so that people will think we have a reason to be splitting up,” he speculated.
“Claude, anyone who was here when Wilma tried to break that chair over your head will believe you’ve got a reason to be splitting up.”
The two of them stared at me blankly. Incredibly, I could see that neither one of them remembered the incident.
I served Janelle another bourbon and gave two ice fishermen the pitcher they wanted, offering menus which they refused without looking. I wondered if Becky was as trapped by Kermit’s nonstop yapping as I had been earlier, and decided not to go rescue her. Good life lesson. Tough love.
Jimmy came in. I nodded and he headed right over.
“Hey there, Ruddy, did you get a chance to look into my whole ... the thing with the checks?”
“Yeah, but I don’t have anything for you yet.”
“Because I got another one.” I sat forward. “You did? Let me see it.”
“Well ...” He stared down at the floor.
“Wait a minute. Jimmy. Jimmy, look at me.” His eyes were as evasive as a dog caught sleeping on the couch.
“Don’t tell me you cashed it.”
“Where? Milt wouldn’t take it.”
“At the hotel? They cashed it for you?”
“Jimmy, why would you cash it? I told you not to do that!”
He shrugged, looking miserable. I sighed. “Jimmy.” He glanced up.
“It is going to bounce. And when it does, they will take it out of your paycheck.” I watched him process this, a clever look stealing into his eyes. I held up a hand. “Do not try to tell me that it’s somehow okay because a thousand bucks is more than your paycheck. You weren’t really going to say that, were you?”
He drew himself up. “No, course not.”
I explained to him that until the hotel got their money, he wouldn’t be receiving any paychecks at all, so he’d better not spend the cash that was probably burning a hole in his pocket at that very second. He sorrowfully agreed. “And if you get any more checks, you give them to me, okay? You cash another one, I’m going to wring your neck.”
“Sure, yeah. Sorry, Ruddy. Hey, Ruddy ...” Jimmy looked left and right, then lowered his voice. “Is it true what they say?”
“What do they say, Jimmy?”
“That you got Repo Madness and everything?”
At midnight we were treated to the Claude and Wilma Show, a loud production featuring such incredibly faked anger I found myself laughing a little. How could two people who battled each other every single night be unable to repeat the performance when it was theater? “That’s it, I’m throwing you out of the house!” Wilma shouted at the climax of the play. Claude pressed a hand to his heart as if he’d just taken a bullet and staggered around the room.
“She’s throwing me out of the house!” he yelled in the faces of several people he probably pictured would make good witnesses at the slander trial. As he came up to me he was grinning hugely. “Ruddy, what am I going to do? Where will I live?”
“Don’t worry about it, Claude. She’ll get over it. She always does,” I encouraged.
His face fell. “Uh, no, no, Ruddy! That’s not the ... She really means it this time!”
To punctuate his declaration, Wilma slammed the door of the Black Bear behind her as she stormed out into the night.
“I’m a broken man,” Claude declared, sitting down in a chair. He shook his head. “A broken, broken man.” He looked up brightly. “Well. Can I buy you a beer?”
“Didn’t she throw you out of the house like last week?” Jimmy wanted to know.
“That was different,” Claude corrected fiercely.
“I have to make a phone call,” I announced, shocking myself. I went to the back room and shut the door and regarded the telephone as if it were a poisonous snake. Katie’s phone number was starting to get a little smudged from riding around in my pocket. I took a deep, steadying breath, my fear stronger than anything Repo Madness had ever served up. It used to be easy for me to call up girls—hell, there was a time when they called me. Now, though, I was a completely different person, not sure I even deserved to have a conversation with a pretty woman.
“Is this Katie?” I blurted when she answered on the third ring.
“May I ask who this is, please?” she responded, not unfriendly but not gushing with warmth, either.
“This is Ruddy McCann. Like the complexion? I gave you a jump.” I winced. “I mean, in the rain the other day, you were in East Jordan— ”
“I remember, Ruddy,” she interrupted, laughing a little. “That sort of thing doesn’t actually happen all that often.”
“Okay, good! Well ...” My brain was having what mechanics term vapor lock. I simply could not get anything out of my head except for the various ways “I gave you a jump” could be interpreted as something sexual.
“Ruddy? This isn’t a good time for me to talk,” Katie said, smoothly but a bit hurriedly.
Relief flooded through me as if I’d just been pardoned by the governor. “Okay then,” I told her. “Bye.”
As she disconnected I heard a male voice in the background. The boyfriend, I presumed, probably wondering who the hell was on the phone.
About half an hour later the Black Bear emptied as if it had been punctured. Becky was still pinned down by Kermit: I grinned at her as I walked out into the night. “She’s going to be pretty pissed off at me next time I see her,” I chuckled. There was no answer. I cocked my head.
And then it struck me: I couldn’t feel him there anymore. I hadn’t realized it, but from the moment he’d given me boxing lessons, Alan had had a presence inside me, an almost physical sensation of another human being. But now there was nothing. “Alan?” I asked again. I listened carefully, probing my consciousness, but there was no response.
Alan was gone.
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