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Sunday 9 AM, April 16th
"No thoroughbred will crush in its rider's head," Mrs. Taliaferro was telling me over the telephone. Maybe it was stress but she bleated her words through her adenoids. "My daughter was murdered."
"Murder is for local authorities," I replied. "As a rule, no PI gets involved in it. Me, for instance."
"My sheriff calls it an accident. So, you can imagine how hard he is looking for the killer. Let's set your retainer at, oh, say $50,000." She paused to let that sink in. "Does that sway you?"
"Look, I've never even set foot in Kaiser."
"Perfect. An outsider is what I need. You fit the bill to a tee."
"What if I say no?"
"$200,000 is my final offer."
Picking myself up off the floor, I said, "Let's talk. 2 PM, your house this afternoon. Agreed?"
"That pleases me to no end." Beating me to the punch, Mrs. Taliaferro hung up.
An hour later, I was en route for Kaiser. Car windows down, I soaked up Virginia's bucolic splendor. After a few miles, the scenery changed. I passed a smoldering tire dump. Later, a road gang--the bulk of them under thirty and black--picked up litter in the divider strip. The sentry dangled long arms off an automatic rifle across his shoulders like the Oz scarecrow. Some things would never change. In a little while, I spotted a trio of stick crosses tasseling on the Kaiser water tower. Yesterday had been Palm Sunday. The crosses commemorated not one, not two, but three deaths, a fact usually downplayed.
Kaiser's main drag: a cycle shack, a post office, a hospital, a garage, and an ex-railroad depot which was now a deli. There was a public library in anex-filling station in which to conduct genealogical research. "Meats Merci" on a rust-pitted sign advertised what I took to be a slaughterhouse. I winced to see sinewy kids on rollerblades pulling crazy stunts on homemade ramps. In low-riding cutoffs and tube tops, legs long and tanned, girls in the bed of a pickup truck waved back at knots of old men in the shade. If this was a foretaste, maybe Kaiser wasn't half bad.
Then I braked to pull into a graveled lot. Moored between two "Farm Use" pickups, I hitched up the emergency brake. Only then did I zero in on them--three toughs in bleached jeans. One wore a torn NASCAR T-shirt and black cowboy boots. Another's belt buckles said "STOMP ASS!" I scooped something off the seat to carry, ranged out, and approached the store casual-like.
The beefy tough, backside against the plate glass, didn't budge. I sensed his three pals shifting to block my line of retreat before I could protect it. A rookie mistake.
"Excuse me," I said.
"Would you listen at this crap, Adam." In a falsetto mocking voice, the tough behind me said, "Excuse me."
"I heard him." Glaring at me, Adam advanced. I noticed his knuckles, two of them armored with rings. "No excuse for you." A run of snickers. Adam balled, unballed a fist. A scar zigzagged over his jawbone. Maybe a razor-thighed whore had sat on his face.
I visualized my hand pulling from my belt.
"You're a real ugly fucking bastard."
The nearest tough slugged my shoulder. "Answer the man."
Was I pissed? Enough to go up a rope, but I didn't bat an eyelid.
"Has a chainsaw got the Pollock's tongue?"
I turned. "Sorry to disturb your post hanging, guys. I'll just fade, okay?"
"Get an earful!" Adam was feeling his oats. "Don't he sound chicken?"
"Why don't we check that out?" A Kabar skinning knife materialized. "Around back in the alleyway."
The piece of metal I plucked from my waistline fended off a punch leveled at my guts. Adam yelped. I was hurting, too, though not as much. I sucked for oxygen and straightened. Shoving past Adam, I charged up the three steps. The .357 targeted at their foreheads froze them. Adam squaring his shoulders tensed as if to make his move.
I lined the .357 on his grubby mouth. "Bring it on." Billy Jack couldn't have uttered it any better.
Adam massaged his fist.
My thumb cocked back the hammer. "Better take a hike while you still can."
Adam's pager beeped. He checked it, then jerked his head. They scattered out of the parking lot before vanishing behind a boarded up house. My central nervous system switched off high alert. I did a quick scan. No cops. Good.
Hovering inside the door, the old storekeeper bowed by arthritis squeezed my forearm. Paint speckled his apron and pencil stubs poked from behind authentic jug ears. I cached the .357 under my shirttail in my waistband.
"Virginia hospitality," I said. "Gotta love it."
"Adam and the Kilby cousins get off on breaking bones. What are you buying?" he asked.
"A Bud tall boy to go."
"Interested in a Lotto ticket? It's a twenty-three million dollar jackpot. Drawing is at midnight and I way overdue to sell the winning ticket."
"Lousy day for luck all around, huh?"
"Playing Lotto is for chumps."
"Pity." He double-bagged a cold one, rang me up, and deposited the change into my still shaky palm. "Anything else?"
"Yeah. I'm looking for a Mrs. Mary Taliaferro."
"Yeah, you would be. Now watch me read your mind. You're a tabloid writer here about her daughter's death. See? Told you I was good."
"Sorry to spoil your record, Carnac. I'm a private licensed detective here at Mrs. Taliaferro's say-so. My name is Johnson."
"You have my sympathy, Mr. Johnson," he said.
"Why? Will she bite off my cock or something?"
He fidgeted, then said, "I'd pass a kidney stone on Christmas day rather than deal with Mrs. Taliaferro. She's a flake off the upper crust."
"About her daughter's death," I said. "You care to break it down for me?"
He nudged the sacked beer across the tile countertop at me. "Thrown off her stallion, she was trampled. It was awful. God never made a finer girl than Emily. Pretty as the day is long. It's her mother who I've got no use for."
"Some say a horse stomping its rider is unusual."
"That's why the stallion is called Hellbent."
"But Emily, as I understand it, was a crackerjack rider."
"That didn't mean squat," he said. "Hellbent was a catastrophe waiting to happen."
"Has murder ever been mentioned?"
The old storekeeper, studying me over horn-rimmed glasses, knitted his white Andy Rooney brows. "I've got nothing else to add, son."
"Then point me to Dakota Farms and I'm gone."
The old storekeeper's pencil scratched a map on a box top. Pickled eggs suspended in a big jar watched us. On the Community News corkboard was a poster for a Suicide Survivors Support Group. Over the cash register, a plaque identified the store credit manager as Helen Wait. Still waiting, I unscrewed the bottle cap; the icy brew tasted vile. Finally, I thanked him for the directions and waded back into April's sweat lodge. No spring to speak of was typical in Virginia.
The three toughs hadn't double backed to slash my tires or sugar my gas tank. I withdrew the .357--hell, the damn gun hadn't even been loaded. Once seated, I decided to play it smart and swung my legs out of the car. I stalked around to key open the trunk lid. Rummaging beneath a spare tire, I took up the tire iron and stashed the .357. I buckled up and stroked the engine, and hid the tire iron by the center console.
To my right down three blocks, Sunday services at the Charismatic Catholic church had disbanded. Parishioners stirring arms and rejoicing inside primer-patched Nissans and Toyotas came on strong. Palm fronds slapped their rapt faces. Rosaries dangled from rearview mirrors. At last, I pulled out and consulting the boxtop map took a side avenue. Sure enough, there it stood.
Every town and city in Virginia had at least one--the ABC Store. Sin tax on alcohol netted the Commonwealth a tidy sum. In observation of the Sabbath, however, the ABC Store was closed. Signs required proof of age and disapproved of loitering. That didn't hinder the tribe of derelicts glaring back at me.
Booze, no matter what day of the week, spelled dire news. At least it did for me. Leaning out the car window, I sent my bought tall boy ricocheting off a parking meter, the glass smashing on a manhole cover. The sheriff's cruiser galloping up behind me must've seen the whole thing.
No red-blue roof light flashed at me. I watched in the rearview mirror, as the cruiser crept alongside a squat, dirty blonde. She strode faster, the angry strides of a woman in a short skirt. After a word with her, the cruiser screamed around me. She shot him the bird.
Yes sir, Kaiser was shaping up to be my kind of town.
Posted May 30, 2011
Posted October 15, 2011
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