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The Midnight Dog of the Repo Man
By W. Bruce Cameron
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2014 W. Bruce Cameron
All rights reserved.
"What kind of dog doesn't want to go for a walk?" I demand of my basset-houndish canine, who has responded with a sigh of disgust to my invitation for a stroll around the block. Jake's stocky legs, which are barely long enough to keep his stomach from dragging when he's upright, don't even twitch as I slap my thighs and give a low whistle. You go, his mournful, deep brown eyes seem to be saying. I'll sleep.
"Dogs love walks. It's what they live for," I insist.
Jake's expression indicates he thinks those other mutts are idiots. When I kneel down to look at him more closely, stroking his huge, velvet ears, he presses his eyes closed and tries to get his brown, white, and black body to blend in with the beige carpet.
"Haven't you read the dog manual?"
You can't see me; my eyes are closed.
He's a new dog and we're still getting used to each other. Well, not "new" in the sense that he recently slid down the birth canal; he made that trip maybe eight years ago. But new to me, as is the experience of owning my own pet. The last time I lived with a dog it was a family Labrador named Spooky who was so determined to catch squirrels he would plunge through screen doors and leap out of car windows. I was six years old and it was my job to clean up after Spooky in the backyard, which was how I knew he was supplementing his dog food diet with unauthorized enhancements such as my sister's doll clothes. Jake, however, believes squirrels should be allowed to scamper unmolested and can barely be bothered to stick his head in his bowl more than once or twice a day, so completely different from the food-frenzied Lab of my childhood that I'm still having trouble getting used to it.
"I know it's late, buddy. But that's what you signed up for when you came to live with a bouncer in a bar — I usually don't even get home before midnight."
I am not a midnight dog.
"Come on, Jake. Want a treat?"
Jake has integrity and cannot be bribed into any conduct he holds in contempt.
"I had three guns stuck in my face, the day I adopted you," I remind Jake in a blatant attempt to guilt him into coming with me. He groans aloud: Not this again. "It's true," I insist. "Maybe not the same calendar day, but the same twenty-four-hour period. You owe me."
Jake decides I'm never going to shut up and lurches to his feet with a put-upon expression, grumpily following me outside into the darkness. Bugs are singing and a light breeze tickles the leaves in the trees overhead, though the splendors of such a perfect summer night are lost on my dog, who feels the whole forced-march ordeal should be kept as short as possible. It's August and Jake has been my companion since early June — I'm no longer worried that his ex-owner is going to come try to steal him back.
When I tell people the story of how my dog came to live with me, I always start with the two guns that were pointed in my direction at just past ten in the evening, the day before I met Jake. It's a tenuous connection, to be sure, but to me it all links together logically — I'm certain I would never have adopted Jake if it hadn't been for the men with the shotguns.
There's not really not much for me to do as the bouncer in the Black Bear Bar in Kalkaska, Michigan — picture a small town, a failing saloon, and me in the corner (a big, grumpy guy nursing beers and grudges in equal measure) and you pretty much have the scene. I was sitting by myself at a table, watching my sister, Becky, watch the only two patrons in the place — a couple of pretty ladies named Stasia Gaffney and Cora Sins. Becky is the person who involuntarily contributed the doll wardrobe to Spooky's diet, back when we were kids — a bit of information I have never shared with her, preferring to hold it back so I can spring it on her at an opportune moment, like maybe when I'm losing an argument.
Becky is master of the forlorn look — for as long as I can remember, she's been a little sad, her mouth pulled small and her brown eyes shadowed. The random lottery in the womb won me my dad's DNA, so I grew past six feet in high school, two hundred pounds of muscle that could hit the line hard and fast, a football tucked under my right arm. Since then I've let the biceps go a little soft and packed on another twenty pounds or so, but I still can intimidate drunks when I need to. Becky is as petite as my mother and was shy and unpopular growing up, everyone always asking her if she really was Ruddy McCann's sister because she seemed "so different." She owns the Black Bear, and I could read her calculations as she regarded Stasia's and Cora's painfully slow consumption of pinot grigio. Another night when the income fell short of the outgo, moneywise. Becky's forlorn look was not without cause.
I figured that by the end of the week I could kick in a few extra bucks to help her enterprise. I'm not just a bar bouncer; I have a far more glitzy occupation during the day — I'm the local repo man.
Stasia lifted her glass and took a tiny sip — she was drinking so slowly she was losing more wine to evaporation than consumption. Becky and I exchanged glances, a whydid-they-order-it-if-they're-not-going-to-drink-it expression on our faces.
And that's when two guys burst in the front door, crashing into each other like hockey players after a puck.
They were dressed in normal June-in-Michigan outfits: jeans, sweatshirts, dirty running shoes. Well, the ski masks pulled down over their faces were a little unusual. Plus they were carrying shotguns, which they pointed at the bar, clearly expecting someone to be standing there — Becky had moved to stand by the phone in the corner.
"This is a robbery!" one of them yelled. "Nobody move!"
"Freeze!" the other one shouted. He aimed his shotgun at Stasia, who obeyed and froze, her wineglass halfway to her lips. Her pale skin went, well, paler. Cora stared, her blue eyes frightened and wide, looking afraid to even blink.
There was a long, tense moment. "Hey," I finally objected sternly. I didn't like the men threatening our customers.
They both swung their weapons in my direction. "Better," I grunted.
Because they were looking at me they could see, looming in the corner, the reason why Becky's place was called the Black Bear: a thoroughly taxidermied bear stood upright behind me, his claws raised and lips drawn back in a snarl. "Yahh!" the taller of the two men shouted, jumping back in surprise.
"Jesus!" the shorter one exclaimed disgustedly. "I told you there was a bear. You almost gave me a heart attack."
I looked over my shoulder at the beast. "That's Bob," I introduced mildly. "He's a bear, or used to be, anyway."
"Well, it doesn't exactly make for a friendly atmosphere," the taller one complained.
"Right. You're pointing guns, but we're the unfriendly ones."
He stiffened, going back to being a tough-guy robber. "Just do as we say and nobody gets hurt," he scowled. His lips looked oddly wet and thick in his mask — pretty repulsive, if you want to know the truth.
"Empty the cash register," the shorter guy commanded. I cocked my head — the voice sounded familiar, somehow.
Becky gave me a wild look and I shook my head at her. "Don't worry, Becky; everything is going to be fine," I reassured her. I could feel my temperature rising — I did not want my sister to be afraid, not of these two clowns. I stood up.
"Hey!" the taller guy protested, tensing. "I said not to move!"
"Yeah, but he said to empty the cash register," I pointed out, nodding at the shorter robber.
"I did say that," short guy admitted.
We regarded each other. I had a couple inches and a lot of pounds on the taller guy, and even with guns they were both squinting nervously at me through the holes in their wool caps, looking more than a little intimidated. I liked that about them.
"Becky, how much are our lucky killers going to make off with as a result of this crime spree?" I asked casually.
She swallowed. "Maybe ninety-five dollars. Plus some change," she told me.
"So you masterminds are willing to risk going to prison for murder to collect less than fifty bucks apiece," I observed. "Pretty smart."
"Murder? We said no one was going to get hurt," the shorter guy objected in a wounded tone.
"Unless you don't do exactly as we say," the taller guy insisted stubbornly.
"You don't have more money in the safe or something?" shorter guy asked hopefully.
I smacked my forehead. "The safe! Becky," I said to her, "we forgot about all the gold bullion in the safe!"
"Ruddy," she replied worriedly. My campaign to keep her calm was not as effective as I would have liked. I wondered if it would help things if I punched a couple of ski masks in their disgustingly pink mouths. That would make me feel better, I knew.
"Could I put my wineglass down?" Stasia inquired tremulously from her table.
Both ruthless criminals turned in her direction and she visibly paled some more, turning nearly transparent.
"Yeah, whatever," taller guy agreed.
"Can I drink from mine?" Cora asked.
"Fine. We didn't mean you couldn't, like, move a little. You can still breathe," tall guy said.
Cora and Stasia gulped their glasses dry.
"You ladies like another round?" I suggested hopefully.
"God yes, please," Cora blurted.
"It's our first robbery," Stasia explained apologetically. "We're a little stressed."
I raised my eyebrows at the men in the stocking caps. "Okay by you guys?"
"Sure. Just keep pouring drinks during a stickup. Maybe play the jukebox and serve birthday cake," tall guy jeered.
I walked over to the bar.
"Hey! What the hell are you doing?" short guy demanded.
"He said I could serve drinks. You fellows care for a beer?" I reached out and snagged the bottle of pinot grigio.
They stared at me, their eyes dark and wet in their masks. The short one licked his lips, his tongue making a brief appearance. It was ten times as revolting as the lips alone. "What you got on tap?" he asked finally.
And with that familiar phrase, I placed the voice. I'd heard him ask the question in the bar before. "Kenny?" I said.
The short guy went wooden.
"Kenny McDonald," I elaborated. "I dated your sister in high school until she dumped me for that idiot with the nice car."
"Justin VanRoekel," Kenny responded automatically.
The taller guy glared at him and Kenny stiffened. "I don't know what you're talking about," Kenny snarled in correction, jabbing the shotgun in my direction.
"Be more comfortable with your mask off, don't you think?" I suggested affably. "Otherwise the foam will soak the wool. I'll give you a sixteen-ouncer of Coors, that still your brand?" I poured Stasia and Cora their refills. The way the ladies attacked their wine suggested I should keep the bottle handy — maybe we should have robberies every night: they were apparently good for business.
Kenny didn't say anything, so I got him and his buddy each a mug of beer. Becky sat down then, sort of collapsing in her seat in a way that suggested she was starting to relax around the situation.
"You really think you would have shot me?" I asked Kenny. "I bought you ice cream at the DQ that one time."
He pulled his mask off then. His face was as I remembered — full-on classic pale Irish, with blue eyes and hair that matched the red freckles scattered across his face. "Tell you the truth, they aren't even loaded," he admitted.
"For God's sake, Kenny!" the taller one shouted, furious.
Kenny shrugged at his partner. "He knows who I am, Mark." Kenny took a long pull at his beer, sighing in satisfaction.
"It's just unprofessional," Mark complained. "Once you let them know the guns aren't loaded, they don't feel as threatened."
He had a good point. "You guys do this very often?" I inquired.
"Casinos, banks, like that," Mark affirmed as he sat down. "Maybe armored cars. Art museums."
"You mind not putting your gun on the bar?" I asked him.
"Oh. Sorry." He slid the shotgun onto the floor.
"So, banks?" I prodded.
"Well, not yet. That's the plan, though," Mark confided. "Tired of being broke all the time."
"Get a little cash and move someplace warmer," Kenny expounded. "Like maybe Grand Rapids."
Cora waved her glass and I obligingly went to fill it. The phone rang and Becky automatically reached for it. Mark jerked his head around to glare at her.
"I know it's a robbery and everything, but she's kind of been expecting the call," I apologized. "Okay if she take it?"
"Let it go, Mark," Kenny suggested.
"Yeah, what the hell," Mark decided. He pulled off his own mask. At some point someone had misadvised him that he'd look good if he coaxed his brown sideburns to come to a point less than an inch from his lips, and a smudge of beard clung to the dimple under the center of his lower lip like moss on a rock. Otherwise he looked like anybody: short brown hair, brown eyes.
"This is actually our first real robbery. We drove by the liquor store, but it was closed for a funeral," Kenny confided.
"That probably doesn't count," I agreed.
"Then we saw you were still open and thought, Perfect."
"And believe me, we're flattered you choose the Black Bear Bar. Still, even with unloaded guns, you could go to prison for this. You absolutely do not want to do that."
Kenny's eyes widened. "That's right; I heard you went to prison!"
Mark regarded me curiously. "You did? What for?"
I gave him the kind of stare I'd mastered while a guest of the state of Michigan down in Jackson, and his eyes flitted away. "Whatever, sorry," he muttered, gulping his beer.
"Anyway," I continued, "don't take this the wrong way, but I'm thinking maybe this life of crime doesn't really suit you two."
"I almost crapped my pants before we came in here," Kenny acknowledged.
"Easy for you to say," Mark sneered at me, getting a little of his attitude on because he'd felt his toughness being challenged. "You've got a good job."
"Good job," I repeated evenly. I looked around the all-but-empty place. "Hey, Becky," I called.
"Hang on a moment, please," I heard Becky say into the phone. "Yes, Ruddy?"
"How much did you pay me last week?"
"Last week? I couldn't pay you. We didn't make enough."
"What about my tips?"
"Um ... tips for a bouncer?"
"Okay, so how much did you pay me last month?"
"How much for all of May, Becky?"
"We usually do pretty well in July and I'll pay you then," she said in a quiet voice.
"Okay, thanks." I was still looking at Mark. His eyes said he got it, and they warmed a little in silent sympathy.
"Ruddy, could I have another wine?" Stasia asked.
They both lived within walking distance of the Black Bear, so I gave them each another generous pour, finishing out the bottle. Their faces were flushed. "This is pretty exciting," Stasia confided to me.
"The redhead is adorable," Cora agreed in a whisper.
"I think you're having Stockholm syndrome," I replied. Off their blank stares I returned to the bar. "Mark what?" I queried.
"Mark Stevens," the tall one replied, holding out his hand. We shook. His hands were roughed by outdoor work.
"You going to be able to pay for the beers?" I asked.
They glanced at each other, embarrassed. "Could we maybe put it on our tab?" Kenny asked.
"I'll cover it, Ruddy," Cora sang out.
The robbers grinned their gratitude at their two benefactors, who both smiled back. Who needed computer dating when there was the good old Black Bear?
"Stevens," I mused. "You any relation to a guy named Gary Stevens?"
"Cousin," Mark grunted.
"You know where I can find him?" I asked eagerly.
Mark curiously assessed my reaction. "Why?"
"Because last November some fool at the bank approved a loan on a brand-new Ford F450 four-by-four with snowplow package and your cousin never made a single payment, that's why. I've been looking for him all winter. Seems like he shows up at people's houses the morning after a huge snowfall, gets twenty bucks to do a quick scrape on their driveways, plows them out, and then vanishes. No idea where he's living, no idea where he's got the truck."
"Oh, he's out in California," Mark informed me.
My shoulders slumped. The bank wanted their truck really badly — the OSB (Outstanding Balance) on it was more than seventy grand.
"Is that what you do? Repo man?" Kenny asked curiously.
"Yeah." I nodded. "This bar thing is just so I can meet glamourous people."
"Whoa. That's awesome."
"I have to pinch myself every day."
"Ever had a gun pointed at you?" he pressed.
I gave him a look and he blanched, glancing at his own shotgun. "Oh yeah. Sorry."
"I know where the truck is, I'll bet," Mark offered.
Excerpted from The Midnight Dog of the Repo Man by W. Bruce Cameron. Copyright © 2014 W. Bruce Cameron. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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