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Home Town News by Gerry Boyle

12/12/2014

Note: We recently re-released "Deadline" and "Bloodline" from the popular Jack McMorrow series by Gerry Boyle. To celebrate, Gerry is sharing an original short story that takes place in 1994, ulimately linking the two stories together. 

 

Home Town News

June 21, 1994

We needed to escape.

After the murders, the near-murders, the back-stabbing betrayals, there was no place for us in Androscoggin. So Roxanne and I packed our cars and drove east from the mountains of western Maine to the coast. We had lunch in Belfast, walked down and looked at the harbor, and then turned around and drove back the way we came.

Fifteen miles in we crested a ridge looking across a wooded valley, the winter trees striated into long streaks of spruce and pine, oak and maple. I slowed and, behind me, Roxanne did, too. We got out and met halfway between the cars. I took her gloved hand and she said, “Where are we?”

“The map says it’s a town called Prosperity,” I said.

“I never heard of it.”

“You and most people.”

“The land that time forgot?” Roxanne said.

“Our own Sleepy Hollow,” I said.

We drove west and then south and wound our way through the back roads. There were farmhouses, stooped and weathered like old men. Stone walls bisected fifty-year old forest—all that work for naught. Driveways slipped away into the woods, the houses hidden and fortified somewhere behind the trees.

We were half lost when we saw a sign that said Dump Road, and we turned. We never found a dump but we did find a house with a sign that read “For Sale by Owner: House and a Big Chunk of Land.” There were pine trees painted above and below the lettering.

I pulled in. Roxanne parked behind me. It was a funky sort of place—handbuilt— with a shed attached and a dented red minivan parked by the side door. We walked together to the door and knocked. A dog yipped and there were footsteps and then the door opened. A woman stood there. She was sixty maybe, long white hair pleated and wrapped around her neck like a snake. Her clothes matched the vibe of the house: a long denim skirt, heavy sweater, clogs. The skirt was splotched with paint in different colors. She was holding the dog, some tiny terrier. He yipped at us halfheartedly and then sniffed the air.

“We’re interested in this house,” I said.

“Why?” the woman said.

I hesitated but Roxanne said, “Because it looks like a place we could live. And be content.”

The woman stared at Roxanne. “You think so?”

She turned back into the house. We looked at each other, and then followed.

She said her name was Sojourn. That was how she signed her paintings, many of which leaned against the walls. They were vaguely violent landscapes, slashing streaks of paint that made me think of thunderclouds and gusty winds. Some she’d done in New Mexico, she said, and she wanted to move back there “now that she knew what was what.” I asked how much she wanted for the place. She said she wanted $80,000 for the house and sixty acres, give or take.

“Seventy-five,” Roxanne said. “Cash.”

Sojourn looked around the room: the paintings, the Native American pottery, the dirty coffee mugs sitting here and there, an incense burner. She looked back at us as the dog sniffed Roxanne legs and wagged his back end.

“I’m feeling good karma,” Sojourn said.

And the deal was done.

Sojourn was out in a month, the three of us loading her stuff in a rented U-Haul. One load went to the dump, a transfer station, not on that road, but five miles across town. The second load she took with her, mostly paintings and some furniture. We were in the house the week after that, my carload of belongings, Roxanne’s stuff from her South Portland condo. The first day we met the neighbors, an older couple named Varney. She was tranquil and motherly, brought a plate of muffins. He was big and silver-haired, with a philosophical air, like he’d seen a lot in his time, both good and bad.

They said they’d have us over for a drink.

After the unpacking, we spent the days on the deck out back. We watched the birds at the feeder, the deer pawing at the lawn where Sojourn had fed them corn all winter. It was like the Garden of Eden, so of course we made love.

A lot.

Some post-traumatic stress thing after Androscoggin, maybe, a release of pent-up energy and affection, a need to become one again. We were lazing in bed, me gazing upon Roxanne’s loveliness, when we heard a creak: the door from the shed.

Footsteps.

I jumped out of bed, pulling on my jeans, when we heard steps in the front hallway. Then the stairs. Roxanne slipped out of the bed and into the closet. I pulled on my T-shirt, yanked my bureau drawer open, fished out a cop’s flashlight. As I turned to the door, it pushed open. A guy was standing there. Big. Hair cropped. Muscled tattooed arms hanging down.

"What the hell?” I said.

He looked at me and said, “Where’s my mom?”

“She moved.”

“To where?”

“New Mexico,” I said.

“Why?”

I paused, continued the crazy conversation by saying, “She said something about painting out there again.”

He stared at me, then past me into the bedroom.

“How long are you renting it for?”

“We’re not renting,” I said. “We bought it.”

He looked at me, his face screwing up, mouth hanging open.

“Where’s my stuff then?” he said.

“I don’t know,” I lied, remembering the dump run. “The place was empty when we moved in.”

He looked around the room. Our furniture. Our magazines. Roxanne’s jeans and underwear on the floor. The closet door rattled and opened and she stepped out, dressed in fresh jeans and a sweater. She was holding a wooden coat hanger in her fist like a knife. I still had the heavy flashlight.

“Huh,” the guy said, looking at Roxanne.

“Who are you?” she said.

“It’s Sojourn’s son,” I said.

I looked at him more closely. He was shorter than me but bulked up, swollen biceps and lats. The tattoos were homemade. Behind them his skin was pale.

“Let’s go downstairs,” I said.

“This is my mom’s house,” he said.

Was,” Roxanne said.

“I can’t believe she did this,” he said.

“What’s your name?” I said.

“Tommy,” he said. “But people call me T-Bone.”

“So you haven’t seen her in a while?” Roxanne said.

“I’ve been away,” he said.

“Were you in the service or something?” Roxanne said.

“No,” T-Bone said.

“How long were you inside?” I said.

He looked at me, like the question had jarred him out of some sort of revery. “Nine years,” he said. “It was supposed to be twelve but I got good behavior.”

“Good for you,” Roxanne said. “Now get out of my bedroom.” 

His bag, an Army-green duffel, was in the hallway. We stood in the kitchen, T-Bone leaning against the counter watching as Roxanne made coffee. She dumped in the coffee and the machine began to trickle and hiss. His eyes were fixed on her until I said, “T-Bone.”

He looked at me.

“Yeah?”

“Where were you?”

“Allentown, in Pennsylvania. Federal prison.”

“Why the Feds?”

“The guy was a U.S. Marshal.”

“What guy?”

“The guy they said I assaulted.”

“Did you?”

“I suppose, but not in the way you’d think.”

“Why’d you do that?” I said.

“I was trying to get away. Nothing personal.”

“Must have whacked him pretty good to get twelve years.”

He shrugged.

“It’s the Feds. Everything’s heavy.”

Roxanne put the coffee on the table and stepped back, like she was dropping meat into a cage. T-Bone picked up the sugar bowl, spooned in four scoops. He poured in a glug of half-and-half, stirred the coffee with a spoon. Then he picked the mug up and sipped. Smiled.

“You know I went eleven months without caffeine,” he said.

“Hard labor,” I said.

“I guess to hell. This is good. Thank you, ma’am.”

Roxanne passed me a mug and held one tight to her chest, like armor. I raised the mug and said, “Here’s to.” T-Bone held his mug out to mine and they clunked together. He took another swallow and sighed.

 “How’d you get here?” I said.

“I got a ride.”

“From where?”

“Waterville. The bus drops you at the college.”

“Who drove you?”

“Some girl in a Jeep. Leather seats, New York plates. I told her I just got out of federal prison and I needed to go home and see my mom.”

“She fell for that?” Roxanne said.

“It was true,” T-Bone said. “Hey. She said she wanted to do a video documentary about my life. I got her number.”

“What would it say?” I said.

“Good kid gets in with the wrong crowd. Gets hooked on drugs.”

“Mom’s a hippie artist,” I said. “Son follows a different path.”

T-Bone nodded, like I got it.

“And then the Feds get a snitch, he sets everybody up. Big deal goes down. DEA busts us at a motel in Bangor.”

“Why the marshals?”

“You ask a lot of questions,” T-Bone said.

“I’m a reporter,” I said “It’s what we do.”

He looked at me. “This is off the record, right?”

“Sure,” I said. “I’m not working. I’m just curious.”

“That’s what killed the cat,” T-Bone said.

He looked at me long and hard.

“So why the marshals?” I said.

“Brooklyn guys were fugitives.”

“And you slugged the marshal?”

“More of a shove on my way by,” T-Bone said. “But he went over the railing. Second floor.”

“Twelve years.”

“That was uncalled for. He wasn’t paralyzed or anything. Body armor helped him, like a cushion.”

“When are you leaving?” Roxanne said.

“I need to find my stuff,” T-Bone said.

“I thought you came to see your mother,” I said.

“That too,” he said.

T-Bone finished his coffee, put the mug in the sink. Then he looked around the kitchen like he was soaking up childhood memories. Roxanne waited, mug still held against her chest. He walked across the room and went to his bag in the hallway, bent down and unzipped it and yanked out a black sweatshirt. He put it on, stretching the sleeves over his muscled arms. Then he pulled the hood up.

“Going to rob a pharmacy?” I said.

“Gonna get some things I left here for safekeeping,” T-Bone said.

“Stuff’s outside?” I said. “Because the shed was empty, too.”

He looked at me, said nothing. Looked at Roxanne again and said, “Thanks again for the coffee. Appreciate it.”

He was softening. The caffeine. She nodded. He headed out the door and I followed. We crossed the driveway, stopped at the shed door. T-Bone said, “You got a shovel?”

“Buried treasure?” I said.

He didn’t answer, just stood and waited while I got the shovel and handed it to him. We turned toward the backyard, crossed the grass to the edge of the woods. He stopped there and walked side to side, looking for an opening.

“Woods grown up in nine years?” I said.

He paced a couple of more times and then plunged in. Sure enough, there was a path through the trees once you were beyond the brush. It was overgrown with ferns but you could follow it, especially once you got under the big hemlocks a few hundred yards in. T-Bone strode along, the shovel crossed in front of him like an infantryman’s rifle. Every few minutes he stopped and looked at the woods, searching the tree trunks for a landmark. And then the path twisted down to a stream, which we jumped. He stared again, then walked into a tangle of bushes and vines, pushing the branches aside. I waited and then followed, and found him in a small clearing, maybe eight feet across.

He plunged the shovel into the ground, stomped it with his boot. The earth split and he flipped it up and out, then did it again and again. After a few minutes he crouched and peered into the hole, brushed at the soil with his hand. Moved three feet to his left and began again.

“Been a while,” I said.

“No shit,” T-Bone said.

He dug another hole, and then another. And then, on the fourth try, he dropped the shovel and knelt. Prying at the bottom of the whole, he wrenched out an aluminum attaché case.

He held it for a moment and then gave it a shake, testing the weight.

“What’s in there?” I said.

“Money,” he said.

“How much?”

“A lot.”

He handed me my shovel back and said, “Thanks much.”

“You’re welcome,” I said.

And then we started walking back the way we came, winding our way through the woods. I brought up the rear, keeping him in my sight.

“So you grabbed the money and ran?”

“You got your one shot and you gotta take it,” T-Bone said.

“Your boys must’ve been pissed,” I said.

“Oh, yeah.”

“Surprised you survived for nine years.”

“I made a lot of friends early. Guy transfers in, he makes his move and if he doesn’t kill me right off, he’s done.”

“How often did that happen?”

“Three times,” T-Bone said.

“Same result?”

“I’m standing here, aren’t I?”

We walked some more, the dirty metal case swinging from his right hand. The sun was moving higher above the trees. It was late morning and the birds had stilled. His boots clumped against the sod. My running shoes were silent.

“So you lived in the house the whole time growing up?” I said.

“Nah,” T-Bone said. “Eleven years. After my mom left New Mexico and my dad, we lived in Idaho, California, Utah.”

“Why Maine?”

“My mother’s crazy, in case you didn’t notice.”

“What did that do for you?”

“Always on the outside when I was a kid. But hey, you find the rest of the people don’t fit in. The way most people start, who end up in prison.”

“What are you going to do now?”

“Disappear,” T-Bone said. “Like I never existed.”

“Erase yourself?” I said.

“Pop up someplace and start all over again.”

“Reinvent yourself?”

“From scratch.”

We walked, following our trail in. When I looked back it was like we hadn’t been there at all. When T-Bone was gone would it seem like a weird dream?

“You going to call your mother?” I said.

“Sometime.”

“She didn’t seem like a happy person.”

“Never was. Stuck inside her own head and she didn’t like the company.”

“Brothers and sisters?”

“Just me. My dad wasn’t stupid.”

“Where’s he?”

“No idea.”

“Huh,” I said.

We were approaching the edge of the woods, the pale green of the shrubs glowing in the sunlight. I wondered where Roxanne was, hoped she wasn’t worried. Then I wondered how T-Bone was going to get out of here, whether he’d ask me to give him a lift.

He suddenly stopped and turned to me.

“You know, just as well my stuff’s all gone. If I’m gonna reinvent myself, what would I do with it anyways?”

“Right,” I said

He turned back and started walking.

“How many people get to start all over again after thirty years? Be somebody totally new?”

“Not many,” I said. “Who do you want to be?”

“May go to Europe,” T-Bone said. “Learned some Spanish inside. I can say, “Come near me and I’ll kill you.’”

“That’ll be handy.”

“Warm in the south in Spain, right? I could sit in my villa and look out at the ocean.”

“Must be some serious cash in that box.”

“That's why I may just go someplace where money goes a long way. Like Africa.”

“You could live like a king,” I said.

We broke through the wall of branches and burst out into the yard. Roxanne was sitting on the deck, her legs and arms crossed. I waved but she didn’t wave back. With me carrying the shovel and T-Bone carrying the case, we crossed the grass to the shed. When we came around the corner into the driveway I leaned the shovel against the door.

“So when did you actually get out?” I said.

“Five days ago,” T-Bone said.

I looked down and across the road, saw an SUV parked in the shadow of the trees.

“Anybody know you’re here?”

“Just you and the college girl.”

“She dropped you right here?”

“Out front,” T-Bone said.

I looked at the SUV again. A Jeep Grand Cherokee. Orange plates.

“That didn’t strike you as awfully accommodating?”

“Chicks like guys who’ve been in prison. Turns ’em on.”

“Is that right,” I said. “The Jeep. Was it new?”

“Brand new. Nice ride.”

“New like a rental?”

“She said her daddy gave it to her for her birthday. She was hot, too. Gave me a cigarette. If I was sticking around, I’d call her. Do the movie and do her, too.”

The SUV started, began to move.

T-Bone said, “Hey, you think you could give me a ride to Bangor, catch the bus? I’ll pay you. Gas money, throw in a couple of hundred for your trouble.”

“Sure,” I said. “But maybe you should—”

He started walking to my truck, circled around the back end as the Jeep approached, moving fast and then swerving into the driveway. The driver in a mask, two guys in hoodies swinging out of the back doors, handguns out. T-Bone turned, the case held in front of him, took three steps and dove behind my truck. I was running for the corner of the shed, headed for the woods—

When the shot boomed, a Howitzer sound, a slap and spatter, then the echo ringing through the trees. Then another, and at the corner I looked back to see the windows of the Jeep shattered, the two guys scrambling backwards. One raised the gun and sprayed three quick shots, not at me but in the direction of the Varneys’. They were answered by another boom, the windshield spidering.

And then they were in, tires spinning in the gravel, the Jeep fishtailing backwards, the driver craning his head out the window to see. The Jeep wove down the road, left, then right, running off the road into the grass and back.

I came out slowly, looked down the road. Clair Varney was walking across the grass, a rifle in the crook of his arm. T-Bone came out from behind my truck, still clutching the metal case, and said, “Holy shit.” Roxanne came to the window. I nodded to her, said, “It’s okay.”

She came outside as Varney approached. His expression was calm, like he was taking a morning stroll. He walked up to us and stopped.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Sorry about the noise,” he said.

“Hey, Mr. Varney,” T-Bone said.

Varney nodded.

“Tommy. Long time no see.”

“I think I owe you one.”

“Figured they weren’t welcome,” Varney said.

“You coulda shot out their tires,” T-Bone said.

“If I’d done that they’d still be here and I’d have to shoot them,” Varney said. “Not enough dog in the fight to do that.”

I looked at him and he smiled, looked at Roxanne and said, “How you folks doing? Settling in?”

He said it like he hoped the shooting hadn’t changed our view of the neighborhood.

“I don’t know,” Roxanne said. “We were okay until he arrived.”

She glanced at T-Bone. T-Bone looked hurt and said, “I was just looking for my mom.”

“And your buried treasure,” I said.

Clair looked at the case, then up the road, and said, “Haven’t called the police yet.”

“Then that gives me time,” T-Bone said. “Five-hundred to give me a ride to the bus. Or I could just borrow one of your vehicles. Leave it in the parking lot.”

“No, these folks just got here, Tommy,” Varney said. “Don’t need to get involved in your shenanigans.”

“Then what if—”

“I’ll drive you,” Varney said.

“Thanks.”

“But you can leave the case.”

T-Bone looked at him, eyes bugging out. He hugged the case tighter.

“You nuts? I waited nine years for this. It was the only thing got me through.”

“I told Mary if I wasn’t back in ten minutes to call the state police,” Varney said. He looked at his watch. “It’s been eight.”

“Then I’ll walk out,” T-Bone said.

“They’ll pick you up.”

“I’ll go into the woods.”

“They’ll bring in a dog.”

“I can shake a dog.”

“Then maybe I’ll just have to shoot you,” Varney said, eyeing him. “Nine minutes.”

Roxanne and I watched the exchange, saw T-Bone start to shake his head.

“It’s my money,” he said. “I earned it.”

“They connect it to drug proceeds, you could be back in for a long time,” I said.

T-Bone scowled at me, then looked to Varney.

“But it’s mine. It’s up to me to decide what to do with it,” he said.

“Nothing’s up to you right now,” Varney said. “You’re outgunned. And anyway, I figure you most likely are gonna take that money and turn it into some sort of bad business so the evil will just keep multiplying. I’ll take it and give it to someplace that will do a lot of good.”

“This is friggin’ crazy,” T-Bone said.

“Ten,” Varney said. “Nine. Eight—”

“You always were a son of a bitch,” T-Bone said. He scowled at Varney, at the case, at me. “So no cops at all? I never been here?”

“Only if we get over there pronto, call Mrs. Varney off,” Varney said. “And you know you can’t ever come back.”

He waited, a tautness in his gaze like he really would shoot T-Bone if he ran. T-Bone took a long, deep breath, put the case down on the ground in front of him, and stared at it like it was an offering. Then he turned and started across the grass. Varney smiled at us, and said softly, “He isn’t a bad kid. Just needs a little direction.”

He nodded at the case and added, “Must be a soup kitchen or something that could use a windfall like that.”

And then they were off, with Varney bringing up the rear. The rifle made him look like he was a shepherd and T-Bone a wayward sheep. I bent down and picked up the case and put it on the hood of Roxanne’s car. She stood beside me as I snapped open the clips and pried the lid back. It was filled with bundles of cash in shrink-wrapped plastic. I pulled one bundle out and could see a hundred on one end, a twenty on the other.

“Yikes,” Roxanne said.

“This could run a soup kitchen for a year,” I said. “Somebody’s lucky day.”  We both looked up toward the Varney farm, saw a big pickup truck roll down the drive. Varney beeped once and the truck turned and rumbled off down the road. T-Bone was beside him. I snapped the case shut.

“What kind of a place is this?” Roxanne said. “Half the people are nuts and the other half carries guns.”

“It’s a perfect fit.”

“I don't know, Jack.”

“You’ll see,” I said. “Bring the money inside. I’ll sweep up the glass.”