Part I: Burning Bridges
I can’t feed my babies, Zeek and Caleb, from jail, Jarhead Earl thought. But this was his chance to give them a better life.
He thumbed two more .12 gauge slugs into the shotgun’s chamber.
The click of the first slug had echoed in Dote Conrad’s ears after he’d handed the .12 gauge automatic with a full choke to Jarhead.
The barrel raised, Jarhead said, “Put your hands high. Turn to me, slow.”
Dote could’ve grabbed any number of rifle or shotgun that lined the wall in front of him behind the counter of his gun shop. But none were loaded.
He raised his hairy appendages. Spread them like a football field’s goal post. Hands level with his ears poking out of his brown trucker’s cap, faded rebel flag across the front. He wore a gray T-shirt. Red suspenders going down over his keg belly. Brass clips pinched the waistband of his camo pants. Said, “We got layaway if you can’t buy it today. Deer season’s still a ways off.”
Jarhead said, “I ain’t buying shit. You walk to the end of the counter. I’ll follow you to the safe in back. ’Less you got enough in the register.”
Everyone in Hazard knew Dote only deposited his sales once a month. Kept a safe and register packed with big bills. Had never kept a loaded pistol behind the counter for personal protection. There was never a need to worry about being robbed in a small-town gun shop out in the hills of southeastern Kentucky where, after first grade, everyone knew who they’d marry and have kids with.
Dote tried, “Know times is tough. People out of work with the economy bein’ in a slump. Hear the state be hiring for the road crews real soon. What ever it is you don’t have ain’t gonna be got by doin’ what ever it is you plan on doin’ with that shotgun.”
Zeek and Caleb’s grit- smeared faces branded Jarhead’s mind with their whining—I’s hungry da da. He didn’t have time for Dote’s recommendations. “Let’s see what you got in the register first.”
“Jarhead, I can’t—”
Jarhead veered the barrel two feet away from Dote. Blew a hole in the wall. The shell hit the counter. Another fell into place. Dote’s ears rang as he reached for the gun barrel. Jarhead pushed into the counter. Butted the hot barrel through Dote’s hands. Stabbed it into Dote’s coral nose like a spear. Cartilage popped. Dote hollered, “Shit!” Tears fell from his blinking eyes.
Jarhead said, “I ain’t asking.”
Dote bent away from the barrel. His camo pants went dark in the crotch. Loose skin hanging from his arms wavered. Sweat creased the age spots of his forehead. He felt weak and idiotic, knowing that if he had a gun, he’d shoot this thieving bastard. He waddled to the register, cursing to himself, who’d have thought he’d bring his own goddamned ammo. Punching a few buttons, he opened it with one hand while the other pinched his nose. Pulled a wad of twenties from the tray. Then a wad of tens and fives. Laid them on the glass counter.
Jarhead ordered, “Count it so I can hear you.”
When Dote counted out one thousand dollars, Jarhead shouted, “Stop!”
Half a stack of twenties remained. Dote spoke through his clogged nose. “You don’t want it all?”
“Don’t need it all.” Held the shotgun one-handed. Reached into his back pocket. Laid a plastic Walmart sack on the counter. “Put the one thousand in the sack.”
Dote stuffed the money into the sack. Blood from his busted nose dotted the bills he pushed to Jarhead, who grabbed the sack, said, “Lace your fingers behind your head. Back up. Turn around. Go into the back room.”
The thought of never seeing his wife, who ate fried chicken livers breaded with her mother’s secret recipe and watched the Home Shopping Network on satellite while he ran the gun shop, sent a shock of worry through Dote’s body. And he pleaded, “Come on now, wait!”
Jarhead motioned the gun barrel. “Turn around!” Dote did. Walked sideways to the counter’s end, where Jarhead met the rear of his head. Pressed the barrel into it. Walked Dote through the curtain into the back room, where boxes of ammunition were stacked among crates of unopened rifles. Here was the fucking ammo he needed and Jarhead told him, “Get on your knees.”
Dote’s face warmed with tears. Clear mucus mixed with blood.
“Please!” he begged. “Please!”
His knees cracked down onto the cold, hard concrete floor. Jarhead followed him with the still-warm barrel of the gun. Touched the rear of Dote’s skull. Then Dote fell forward from the loud shudder that rippled through his body.
The man’s flesh was charcoaled jelly. Flat dragged him from the house screaming, dropped him into the yard where he now lay with his arms spread like a deity next to a rusted tricycle. Swing set with no slide, no swings. Memories long abandoned. Smoke erupted from the flames behind them. Yellow and orange opened the night and devoured the old house.
Flat spoke. “Got to take him to an ER.”
Angus cut his words. “ER will call the authorities. Two of you should’ve know’d better.”
Liz and Angus had left Beatle and Flat to watch a batch of meth cook while they met the second shift going, the third shift coming on, at the local auto parts factory. It’d be shutting its doors in six months because of a dying economy—men and women who skipped groceries, car payments, and rent. Passed eight-hour shifts jonesing for an escape, their next dopamine rush.
The pinch-faced blisters with cooking- grease scalps, eyes punched into skulls like recessed lights, approached Angus’s goose-shit green Pinto. Passed their wrinkled wages through the rolled-down window of his car. Angus sat like a shadow while Liz took the cash, obliged the workers with a gram of marrow-clenched godliness, wiring up each buyer with the feeling of macho-supremacy.
It was how Angus had lived since the accident, and the surgery that had jumbled one side of his face into flesh puzzle pieces that no longer fit.
Angus and Liz returned to the farm house. Found Flat out in the yard yammering that he and Beatle had crashed hard after too many days of tweaking. Left the lithium strips pulled from batteries boiling with Coleman fuel. Before Flat could rattle Beatle awake, the fuel overheated. Off-gassed. Ignited Beatle. Next thing he knew he was pulling the poor bastard to the yard.
Now, Beatle lay digging at his oily burn and knifing their ear drums with, “Help me! Please! Help!”
Liz questioned, “So what we gonna do with him then?”
Angus ran a hand into his bibs. Removed a tool for killing.
“The shit you doing?” Flat demanded.
“Putting your mutt brother out of his misery.”
Beatle’s begging moistened and bounced from the soil. Angus turned the pistol to Beatle’s singed hair and words found silence.
Flat stutter-stepped. Said, “Motherfuck—”
Angus raised the .45 to Flat’s ash-smudged face. Pulled the trigger. Red parted white. Flat lost his shape, fell to the earth.
Liz turned away. Shook her head of chocolate-vanilla-swirled dreads. Fought tears and rattled, “Now . . . what?”
Angus slid the warm piece of protection back into his pocket. Said, “We gotta get before the county boys show up. Finger us into a long jail sentence. Go find another abandoned house to squat. Go get with your pill man. We gotta start over ’fore there’s no jobs left down here, ’fore people’s money runs out.”
The shotgun blast had rattled the old man from his sleep that morning. The face on the receiving end had been unclear. The person who’d held the gun was the same one he’d been dreaming about for some time now. A sturdy male that laid miles to back road stone, jogging in the evening sun. Then he’d chiseled a beating into a stuffed military bag strung from a tree or peppered another human’s build with his fists, knees, and elbows to a host of splinter-faced men sloshing booze and laying down the wagers for a winner. He was a fighter associated with the nickname Jarhead Earl.
There’d been days when he’d dreamt of sunken faces with growling bellies. Two infant boys and a female. The woman had been pained by her family. She’d thumbed a lid from a bottle. Shook pills into her palm, chewed them like Chiclets. The kids had sat in a yard of soil patched by dead grass. They played on a makeshift swing-set with a bad case of rust that had come on like acne. But when the fighter came to them, they kindled warm, as if nothing else mattered.
It was now well after dark, Purcell twisted the cap from the bottle of Kessler, poured it into his coffee mug devoid of coffee. Placing the images that he knew were pieces of a puzzle together in his mind, just as he’d been doing for months. He lit a Marlboro, knowing there was a shit-storm forming and he’d be right in the middle of it, but he didn’t know how, he was still waiting on that to take shape.
Flies nested and gnats hummed around the dark odor that floated from the bodies lying in the late-night humidity. Flames had taken the house’s walls and roof, replaced them with a carbon structure.
Deputy Sheriff Ross Whalen stood patting a frayed blue hanky to his forehead with one hand, honing his Maglite with the other. Thinking how the town had thrived on the factory that produced profits from car and truck parts for Ford and GM but bred addiction in the laborers who found blurs in time from smoking, shooting, or snorting manmade dopamine. What would they do when the factory shut its doors? Their unemployment ran out? More jobs dried up and addictions turned violent?
Officer Meadows worked a toothpick between his cream-white teeth, shined his flashlight and watched Deputy Sheriff Whalen kneel down, and he asked his boss, “What you think, Ross?”
Glancing at the charred and the uncharred, then up at the old shack where volunteer firefighters stood guiding their own lights, taking in the black, Whalen told Meadows, “This ain’t the Wild West. Houses in a small southern Indiana town ain’t s’posed to burn down like this. Nor do people end up with a bullet in the back of they brains.”
Meadows spit the toothpick from his lips, down onto the John Doe’s Kingsford shape, asked, “Think someone was cooking that shit again?”
Whalen exhaled. “Seeing as it’s eat up most the county, I’d say so. We’ll know more after the toasted Does are ID’d. The caliber of the bullet is determined. State boys and fire marshal do their investigating into how the fire started. And you get your damn toothpick up off the victim. Regardless, this ain’t good.”
Blood had dried down the back of Dote’s neck. Phone line bound his hairy wrists behind his back. Cold concrete pressed against his cheek and forehead. He tried to breathe through the busted nose that had expanded into a potato turned black. Coughed. Jerked to sit Humpty-Dumpty-shaped upright, with a hammer-thumping migraine, among the stacked boxes of ammunition.
Sitting up, he found his environment was a tilt- a-whirl. Everything in the room appeared a quivered frost. The front door of the gun shop chirped behind him. Dote hollered, “Back here! Hey, help me!”
Shane rushed to the back. His right eye wandered in its socket like a fl y being chased and swatted at, his left took in the worry that was Dote’s outline seated on the floor. He said, “They’s a mess out front. Blood and money all about the counter.”
Dote told him, “Just untie me. Get the marshal over here.”
Shane was the eldest of three brothers and four sisters. Traveled the back roads of Hazard by foot. He’d never owned a vehicle. Purchased a new pair of walking shoes every three months, keeping good arch support on his defined gate. He’d hair gray as the ash from the wood burnt in a Kentucky stove. Skin darker than most full-born Indians from walking in the summer sun.
“What the shit happened?”
“Been robbed and beat.”
“Wondered why you’s open so late. Seen the light on.”
“Time is it?”
“Well past sunset.”
Shane wasn’t one for using numerals to tell time but understood light from dark.
“Apparently you the only one thought it odd I’d be in here after dark.”
Shane flipped a Buck knife open from his front pocket. Dote heard the blade click.
“Careful with how you wield that. Don’t need my wrist slit.”
Shane parted the cord from Dote’s wrists. Sniffed. Wrinkled his face. “What smell like piss?”
Dote pulled his hands in front of him. Rubbed his wrists. “Don’t worry about it. Help me to my feet.”
The front door beeped again. Dote and Shane hollered, “Back here!” at the same time.
Town Marshal Pike Johnson stepped through the curtain. “Shit Dote, come to check on you. Your wife is kindly worried. Said she been calling for hours. The shit happened?”
“That fucking Jarhead Earl’s what happened. Come in looking to buy a shotgun. Must’ve brought ammo with him from home. You know I don’t keep these loaded. Robbed me of one thousand dollars.”
Pike wore Rustler jeans. White T-shirt over liver-spotted skin. A straw cowboy hat atop his aging mane. A .38 snub nose pushed down the back of his waist into a clip-on holster. He’d been the marshal for twenty-some years. Had his share of break-ins. Drunks. Domestic disputes. He looked around the room, raised a lip. “Smells like some sour son of a bitch drained his vein back here.” Shane said, “Smell like piss, don’t it?”
Dote got blister-faced. Said, “Probably them bottles of Fritz’s Deer Lure. Spilt a few this morning.”
Shane said, “Naw, this smells a bit human.”
Dote huffed and spit. “Jarhead Earl robbed me, dammit! Didn’t piss on me.”
Shane pointed to Dote’s damp crotch. “Looks like you pissed yourself, Dote.”
Pike cleared his throat, asked, “You sure it was Jarhead?”
“The hell, did I stutter?”
“No need to get bitter-tongued. Just doing my job. Guess it could be expected. You all know that man his mama shacked up with wasn’t his real daddy.”
Shane said, “No shit?”
“No shit. His real daddy was a Vietnam vet. A marine. Was a combat engineer who did some recon, some say. Said to be a real mean sumbitch. Johnny’s mama left him high and dry in Indiana, says he spoke to the dead. He never come lookin’ for her either. But his mama nicknamed him Jarhead, seein’ his daddy was a marine.”
“Look, your job is keeping the peace. Not givin’ us tall tales on that scar-knuckled meathead and deciphering the scents of human piss. How about gettin’ my shotgun back along with the grand he stole?”
Pike nodded. “Kind of shotgun he steal?”
“Remington 1100. Why?”
“Looks like he left that for you. Just wanted the cash. Gun’s leaned over yonder agin’ the wall.”
Through the curtain to the front of the store, Pike took in the situation. Money left on the counter. Specks of Dote’s blood. Hole in the wall from the .12 gauge. “Don’t make much sense.”
Dote smarted, said, “Makes perfect sense. Boy got more pecker than he do brains. Not enough money to feed those invalid mouths he seeded with that pill-head Tammy Charles. Thought he’d steal from me.”
Pike held a small spiraled note pad pulled from his rear pocket. Scribbled notes. Asked, “You say he made you count out an exact amount? Left the rest? He wanted to rob you blind, he could’ve made off like a goat in miles of clover. He didn’t.”
Dote pursed his lips. Said, “All I know is I want back what he stole. See his ass behind solid steel.”
Pike closed the note pad. Slid it back into his ass pocket. Said, “I’ll get an APB out. If he’s home or in these hills, he’ll get found.”