David A. Schwinghammer
· Soldier's Gap
· Seminary Boy, a memoir
· Fisher of Men, Chapter Nine
· Soldier's Gap, Chapter Three
· Honest Thief, Tender Murderer, Chapter Nine
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 8
· Mengele's Double, Chapter Eight
· Bereavement Blues
· Fisher of Men, Chapter 7
· Speed Dating With 'Janeane Garofalo'
· The Cynic
· The Three Stooges, book review
· The God Particle
· Empire of Sin, book review
· Science at the Edge, book review
· Obama, a Modern Caesar?
· Americans Need to Pull Together
· Voices of the French Revolution, book review
· Great American Scandals
· Odd Man Out, book review
· Portrait of a Killer, book review
· Widow's Peak
· Alumni Game
· Girls Who Wear Glasses
· The Do Drop Inn
· Ode to Neve Campbell
· Jacks or Better 101
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Deputy Will Kneebone finds where Ned hid the Caterpillar. Ned and Peggy June head to North Dakota to try to sell it to an old friend of Ned's.
Belling the Cat
"Then gently scan your brother man,
Still gentler sister woman;
Tho' they may gang a kennin wrang,
To step aside is human."
Headlights like vigil lamps burned through the fog as Will nosed his Bronco out into the early morning traffic. It had been raining all night, letting up just before dawn when the thick soup had descended on Plunder, murky haze that caused a lot of rear-end collisions.
He switched on the radio. "The weather report calls for the fog to dissipate before noon," Uncle Art murmured. "Overcast today, giving way to partly sunny skies with northwest winds at five to ten mph. Frost tonight. Cover those tomatoes." He cleared his throat, his idea of a segue to a commercial about the newest cell phone offer.
Will parked the Bronco in the back lot, splashed across the lawn, let himself in the back door, then went to the outer office to make coffee. But Grandma Woods, the dispatcher, had beaten him to it. She was reading a book for her night class at Bemidji State. "Jamie have a restful night?" he said.
"Bitching about needing pain killers."
"I'll give Doc a call later." She was highlighting some passages in the book with a yellow marker. "What you got there, Grandma?" he said.
"Greek mythology for my introduction to poetry class. The professor says you got to know it in order to understand people like T.S. Eliot."
"Anything interesting?" he said, pouring himself a cup of joe.
"There's this story about Icarus who was imprisoned in the labyrinth with his daddy Daedulus. But Daedulus was a great inventer and he made a pair of wings for him and his son and they flew right on out of there, Daedulus warning the boy not to get too close to the son or the glue would melt. But the boy got carried away and flew higher and higher, and sure enough, the glue melted. Seems like there's a lesson in that."
"Listen to your elders?"
"Maybe you'll show some respect to us seniors from now on."
"Don't I always, Grandma?"
"That's Mrs. Woods, you young pup," she said, unable to keep the amused glint out of her eyes.
He took a cup of coffee back to his office, where he studied his desk calendar. October 2nd. Two days till his and Lila's anniversary. He'd had another fight with her last night, her nagging him about taking some time off until his wounds healed. He was contemplating when he might find time to shop for her present when his phone rang. The caller wanted to know if there was a reward for information concerning the missing Caterpillar.
"Why, d'yah see one?"
The caller sounded nervous, stumbling over words, stuttering. "I might've," he said.
"Fifty bucks," Will said. He jotted the Caller I.D. number on the green blotter covering his desk, circled it twice, so he could tell it from the others scrawled there.
"Is that all?" the caller said.
"Take it or leave it." Will crossed his fingers. There was a pause.
"Okay, okay," the caller said finally.
"Did it have tracks?"
"We're looking for a crawler. Some Cats have wheels."
"Look, I didn't have all day to examine the thing. All I know is that it was covered by a blue tarp and the cab had been sawed off."
"Where was this?"
"What about my fifty bucks?"
"You'll get your fifty."
"How do I know that? Who is this anyway?"
"Deputy Kneebone. I promise you'll get your money. You just come in and fill out a form with our dispatcher."
"I'll do that, then you'll get the information."
Will hung up the phone, rummaged through his desk, found his reverse telephone book. Martin VanPelt. Never heard of him, but he'd crumble like a peanut butter cookie if Will ever got him under the hot lights.
When Will looked up, Sheriff Tibbetts was standing in the doorway, jangling the change in his pocket. The man had a face like a whisk broom, one of the worst mustaches Will had ever seen. "Do something for you, Sheriff?" he said.
"Got anything on the Caterpillar yet? Voigt is giving me shit."
"Didn't think he cared."
"He didn't until they jacked his insurance rates."
"Just got a call. I was about to drive out to check on it."
"You do that. Voigt gets on my back, I get on yours."
Will fixed on the sheriff's rheumy, jaundiced eyes. "You're the one who takes it in the ass."
Tibbett's sauntered into the room, leaning over to rest his splayed hands on the front part of Will's desk, leaving sweat marks. His face was so close Will could smell Old Spice. "What the fuck's that supposed to mean? I thought you were out of your goddamn head at the hospital. You telling me you were fucking serious?"
Will couldn't help looking at the fingerprints Tibbetts had left on the desk. They locked eyes. "If I were you, I'd make a reservation for the next plane to wherever the hell it is you sent Cornelius."
"You must be getting a cut from casino profits."
Will pushed back his chair, resting his foot on the bottom drawer. "I've got so much on you, they'll put you away until the fucking moon falls out of the sky."
"You're forgetting who's sheriff around here, ain't yah, asshole? You can just clean out your desk."
"What do you fucking mean, no?"
"I just mailed some evidence to the BCA that brands you as the one who paid the Bradshaw kid to kill me. In another day or so, I'll be sheriff and you'll be peeling spuds in the penitentiary kitchen."
"Call me on it then. And by the way, if you've got any notions about trying again, just remember I've got witnesses who heard you threaten me."
Tibbetts huffed and puffed, cleared his throat, then did a graceless pivot and stomped out of the room.
Will carefully edged one of the twenties from the envelope he'd claimed from Mrs. Zwald, slid the bill next to the greasy blotches Tibbetts had left. He moved to the front of his desk, where he dusted the sweat stains and the bill with lanconide, then examined the loops, whorls and arches with a magnifying glass. Looked pretty damn close to him.
Next he picked up the phone, dialing Gene Waite, an old football buddy who worked at the BCA. After the preliminaries, he said. "Got some prints I want you to check for me, Gene."
"How soon can you get ‘em to me?"
"Can you match a police officer?"
"Got a rogue cop?"
"Maybe. I'll get them to you by tomorrow morning."
"I'll be lookin' for ‘em. We're pretty stacked up here, but I'll do my best."
Will put down the phone. He hung around the office for a half hour or so, waiting for the guy with the info on the Cat, but when he didn't show, he got his hat and headed out the door.
Doc Benson's office was only three blocks away. Will decided to walk. He needed some fresh air and the exercise wouldn't hurt either. Before leaving, he told Grandma to keep an eye on his Bronco. He wouldn't put it past Tibbetts to try something stupid, like plant some weed in his trunk.
"The doctor is busy with a patient," the receptionist said.
She looked like she just graduated junior high. Still had freckles on her nose and was wearing one of those flowered, pajama-like uniforms. Will wasn't in the mood to wait. "This is official police business," he said.
"Oh . . . right . . . I'll tell him."
She scurried down to a room at the end of the hall, knocked on the door.
A few minutes later, Will was perched on the patient's exam couch, dangling his feet over the side.
Seated on a swivel chair, Doc let out a long sigh. "You interrupted my examination to find out if I've treated a dog bite?"
"Sorry, but it has to do with the Caterpillar theft. A man was hurt."
Doc Benson took a Newsweek magazine out of the rack next to him, flipped through it, rolled it up and tapped his knee like a reflex hammer. "Isn't that stock market something? I've lost half my net worth."
"Doc, the dog bite?"
Doc gave him a long, steady look. "I feel like I'm snitching on my own son."
"I'm sorry, Doc," Will said. "But it's really important."
Doc sadly shook his head. "Christ, he said it was his neighbor's pit bull."
"Ned Tuttle, right?"
The doctor looked at Will as though he'd just solved the Rubik's Cube in two twists. "How the hell did you know that?"
"He told me he was in a fight."
"So you think Ned stole that Caterpillar?"
"I don't want to believe it, but it's the same dozer he piloted before he got canned. Calls the damn thing Baby, for Chrissake."
"It does sound suspicious. You talk to him about it yet?"
"Nah, been hoping he really did break his hand in that fight."
"Know how you feel."
"How's that, Doc?"
"Caught my best friend in bed with my wife once. Couldn't really blame her. I'd volunteered for Korea, you know. Gone for over a year."
"Don't worry about it; we've still married, going on fifty-five years. Don't see my buddy anymore, though. Don't even know if he's still alive."
By the time Will got back to the office, Martin Van Pelt, a small balding man, was waiting for him.
"Thought you weren't ever going to show up," Van Pelt said, fiddling with a gray fedora.
"What you got for me?" Will said.
"Where's my fifty? Mrs. Woods didn't know anything about any reward."
Will fished his billfold out of his back pocket, slid the man a couple of twenties and a ten.
"The Cat's in a shed on the Gohl farm," Van Pelt said. "I rent the place during the summer, and I was checking on that old shed to see if I could park some of my machinery in there instead of driving it home every night. There was a lock on the door. That kind of threw me for a minute. Got a wrench out of my truck and smashed the lock."
"How long ago was this?"
"Yesterday morning. Still there when I left. I'll take you out there if you want."
"I'd appreciate that. Save me some time. I'll follow you in my Bronco."
The Gohl farm would have made a good illustration in a Depression-era coffee table book. A couple of swift kicks would flatten those buildings once and for all.
It was obvious that someone had been there before them. There were tire tracks leading in all directions and the shed door had been left partially open.
"Thanks a lot, Martin," Will said, offering his left hand for a shake. "I'll take it from here."
"I was thinking I might hang around and watch."
"Can't let you do that. This is an official police investigation."
Martin groped for his billfold, and came out with the bills Will had given him. "Here, you can have this back if you let me stay."
Will looked in the man's eyes, hazel he guessed you'd call them. Loneliness. A greater disease than cancer. Before this he hadn't even thought of the man as a person, just another one of the many greedy informants he had to deal with. He slapped Martin on the back. "If I hear a word about what I find from anybody, and I do mean anybody, I'll know where it came from. Understand?"
The farmer raised a palm, as if the other one was resting on a Bible. "I'll never tell another soul. I swear."
"Not even your wife?"
"She's dead. Cancer."
"Oh . . . sorry. What about kids?"
"We was never blessed. You married, deputy?"
"Going on two years now." What would he do if Lila got sick and died? Probably wouldn't want to live. He wouldn't put it off any longer; tonight they'd have a sit down; he'd find out what had been bothering her. "All right, then," he said. "Let's take a look."
When they opened the sliding door, the Cat was gone, but there were tread marks going to and from the windbreak and semi tracks leading from the shed out into the yard. Will went back to the Bronco for his crime kit.
"If you'll show me how, I'll help with that," Martin said, as Will began to mix the plaster for the tire casts.
"Don't see why not," Will said. "Pour this gunk in the tracks and let it set. Don't touch anything; I'll collect the casts myself later." He watched Martin work for a few minutes, then took a tour of the rest of the shed and the surrounding area. Under the eaves he found metal filings that he scooped up and put in an evidence bag. Must have been from the blow torch the perp used to remove the cab. As he'd been taught in his criminal justice classes, Will walked the grid up and down, back and forth, until his head began to swim. But on his sixth or seventh round, he found a Handware Hank receipt. Just a little slip of paper he'd never even have noticed if it hadn't been for the grid. Didn't say what had been purchased there, but maybe the owner or one of the clerks would know.
When Will was pretty sure he'd done as thorough a search as possible, he collected the casts Martin had done, stowed them in the Bronco, then shook hands with the farmer again. "I'll talk to Art Voigt about your help," he said. "Should be worth more than fifty dollars if we find that Cat."
"I was feeling kind of guilty for taking the money," Martin said. "I meant to ask what happened to your face and arm."
"That was you out on Highway 21, huh?"
"And here I was thinking you had the best job in the county."
Yeah, he was lucky to be alive all right, and Ned would be lucky to stay out of jail if Will could match that receipt with a purchase he'd made and maybe find the semi he'd used to haul the Cat.#
There was a cassette player in the semi but the only tunes Bud had were trucking songs, "Six Days on the Road" and songs of that ilk, along with "Convoy" of course.
They were crossing the North Dakota border. No trees. Fireworks stalls along the side of the road.
"Who would want to live here?" Peggy June said.
"Immigrants. It was a whole lot better than what they had in the old country. They could grow wheat before the government got down on the farmers. Not that many people, though. Seems like I read it's one of the least populous states."
"That flood alone would have driven me off."
"Did you know the river runs north? It's kind of a trough and when all of that snow melts the tributaries flow into the Red River. That's why it floods so often."
"That's more than I wanted to know, Egbert."
"Yeah, well, maybe I don't care to hear about Dinkytown every five minutes either . . . Beulah."
"Maybe if you'd let me drive we wouldn't be having this spat."
"The last time I let you drive you damn near blew the engine."
"Let's stop then. I'm starving."
Truck-stop chili had to be the best in the world with potatoes in it and meatball-sized hamburger, and the Mexican waitress was just as hot. She'd nudged her hip against Ned's arm when she took their order.
"You want that girl to see her fourteenth birthday?" Peggy June hissed when she left.
"Think she's that young?"
"You're a regular Romeo, aren't you? I heard about that woman over at Snow's?"
He crushed some crackers into his soup. "That was before I knew you."
She took a sip of coffee. Black, no sugar. "You hear any more from Loretta?"
"I don't know what business it is of yours."
Will stirred his coffee, looked over at her staring at him as if he was a pregnant novice and she was mother superior. "She's got problems with Blake," he said. "Okay?"
Peggy June rolled her eyes. "You're whipped, you know it! I'll bet if you checked this out, you'd find that Blake is a regular boy scout and that she never even had a car accident." The waitress was back, pouring more coffee. She gave Peggy June a threatening look as she sashayed back to the counter.
"That bitch is asking for it," Peggy June snarled.
"Keep a cool tool. We'll be out of here in twenty minutes and you won't have to worry about her. Besides, I'm not dumb enough to chase no fourteen-year-old."
"Somehow I doubt it. What's the ETA?"
"Another three hours or so to Minot, if I push it."
"Where is this Norb dude?"
"He was in jail the last time I talked to him."
"Boy, you sure can pick ‘em. What makes you think he's out?"
"Told me his lawyer was about to spring him."
"You're sure a bigger cut will work?"
He finished his coffee, dug in his pants for some change.
"Norb is okay. Just drop it."
She went to the coat rack, got her jacket, then returned to the table and swept all the change but two bits off the table. "The bitch didn't pour me a refill," she said.
They unloaded the Cat in a warehouse where Norb had some other machinery stashed. A couple of Bob Cats. A road grader. A lowboy trailer. Ned wondered if they were all hot.
Norb had put on a good fifty pounds of gut since Ned had seen him last and he'd grown one of those horseshoe beards all the teenagers were wearing. "Who's the Babe?" he said, when Peggy left to use the toilet.
"Looks a little nuts, if you ask me."
"Aren't they all?"
"You can say that again. Thought the old lady was gonna kill me when she showed up at the jail. Lucky thing they got a plexi-glass shield between you and the visitors."
Ned lit a cigarette offered one to Norb. "Look, Norb, I been thinking that you don't have enough incentive."
He took the Pall Mall, lit it off Ned's. "I was just about to bring that up."
"How's thirty percent of what you get?"
"How's half?" Ned had been prepared to go as high as half, but he hadn't expected it to happen so soon.
"Half or you can look for another sucker to do your scut work."
"Jeez, Norb. You and I used to be drinking buddies."
"I figure I can get a hundred thousand at auction. Fifty is nothing to sneeze at."
"Okay, okay. Fifty it is. How do I get my cut?"
"You change the serial numbers?"
"Did that when I put her back together."
"What do you mean, put her back together?"
"I had to saw the cab off to get her in the shed where I had her hid."
"You got the papers?"
"We'll have them in time for the auction. It's next week, right?"
"Nah, that one got canceled. The best I can do is next month."
Ned sighed, put his hands in his back pockets. "Work with me here, Norb. How'm I supposed to get my cut when the auction ain't for another month?"
"Show up at the auction. Make up the bill of sale so's it looks like both you and me are the owners and we'll have the new owner cut two checks."
"Ah . . . better make that cash; Don't wanna leave any pecker tracks."
"Right. I'll bet she's a really nice piece, that crazy broad."
"Nice tits. You think she might...?"
"Why don't you ask her for me? I'm willing to go as high as two hundred."
"Shit, where would you get two hundred?"
Ned parked Bud's Peterbilt at a truck stop and they walked hand in hand back to a motel a couple of blocks away. Her little hand in his felt as though it belonged there and when they stopped to kiss, she tasted like peppermint.
They passed a billboard advertising the Ford Taurus.
"Don't you hate billboards?" she said. "They make me want to break into an armory and steal a crate full of grenades. I'd be like Johnny Appleseed, wandering around blowing up billboards instead of planting trees."
"A noble ambition," he said.
As they walked, she put her hand in his back pocket, his skin breaking out in goosebumps. "That blight on the landscape really depresses me," she said. "You're going to have to work extra hard to lift my spirits."
"I'm game," he said.
He'd promised her dinner and a night of line-dancing at a place called the "Hitchin' Post" they'd passed on the way in. Loretta had been a clumsy dancer. He, on the other hand, had always been light on his feet, or so said his fifth grade teacher when she'd made him help her demonstrate the schottische to his fellow gym students.
Peggy got into the shower and he shaved the two-day growth of stubble he'd accumulated, along with his ears, just another pain-in-the-ass torment that came with turning forty. The shower steam fogged the mirror and he wiped it clean with his sleeve, the mirror squeaking. "Norb is trying to fuck me," he said.
"Can't hear yah," she said, through the water pelting against the porcelain. She shut it off and got out, grabbing one of the postage-stamp-sized towels. "Thought you said you'd turned queer."
He slapped her with a towel, a red welt immediately flowering on her ass. "He says the auction has been canceled till next month."
"Want to towel me off?" she said.
She had areolas the size of half dollars and nipples like nickles and there was nothing he'd rather do than towel her off. Little Ned had popped out of his boxers and was inching toward a new record, but he said, "Norb likes you. He offered me two hundred if he could–-"
She slapped him in the face with the towel. "Goddamn that hurts. Gimme that."
"You want to pimp me off just so's you can get your cut from the Cat? I oughtta kill you!"
They ping-ponged around the bathroom, him trying to catch hold of her wrists, her trying to gouge out his eyes. The floor was slippery since neither one had thought to put down a towel. He went down first, barking his elbow against the tub and she landed on in his lap, not a half bad development. He hadn't known the smell of ivory soap could be so seductive.
When they finished, she said, "I love make-up sex. I swear you're getting bigger."
"I feel bigger."
"Just think what I coulda done to you if I'd had the usual housewifey equipment. China, pots and pans, a rolling pin. Really helps a gal vent."
"Lucky thing I don't have any dishes."
"No rolling pin for sure. This was our first fight, wasn't it?"
"Seems like we've been fighting ever since we met."
"You ain't seen nothing yet. You want me to dust Norb off? Keep everything for ourselves?"
He was still as hard as a newel post. "How would you go about that?"
"Shit. I could do it without using force. I could turn Norb's head more ways than the kid in the Exorcist. But I brought my snub-nosed .38, just in case he's queer."
He held her chubby cheeks, looked deep into the Manson-girl eyes. "No violence. I want you to give me that gun."
"Sure, it's okay for me to have sex with him, but you go bansh when I mention my little cap pistol."
"I don't expect you to do any of that. I want you to lead him on until you get the money, then do a slow fade."
"Can I use a Mickey on him?"
"A Mickey Finn. Don't you know anything?"
"Where would you get something like that?"
"Got some in my purse."
"You really were a prostitute, weren't you?"
"Doesn't make me a bad person."
Site: Mystery Writer
David A. Schwinghammer