The patriot a short stor.., p.8
The Patriot: A Short Story, p.8
By Sean Benjamin Dexter
Copyright 2014 Sean Dexter
Also by Sean Dexter
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"You want to run that by me again." The man sitting across from me was well-dressed in a small town Oklahoma way—jeans and a heavy-duty blue work shirt fresh out of the package and buttoned up tight at the collar, factory creases sharp enough to slice bread. His heavy Okie twang almost required an interpreter, and on top of that, he wasn't making a lot of sense. His name was Wayne Magee and he worked at the stockyards east of town. He couldn't have been more than twenty. Morris was a small town but not so small that I knew everyone well. I'd seen him around town, but I didn't know much about his personal life."Some of what you said went by a little fast for me to get hold of."
"I want to hire you," he said.
"I got that part," I said. "It was the rest that sort of slipped past."
He sighed heavily as if burdened by my stupidity. I get that a lot. "I operate a short wave radio from my garage."
"Yeah," I said, "that I got." I sat up a little straighter and scooted the old, oak swivel chair a little closer to my desk. The wheels hadn't seen any oil since FDR took office—the first time.
"I picked up some people talking. One of them sounded like a Ruskie…the other one sounded normal."
"Yeah, you know, like one of us." The young man squirmed like a ten-year-old sitting in the principal's office. He kept running his hand gently across the top of his head like he was checking to make sure the pomade was still holding his flat-top high and tight. It was. Should have been a dipstick stuck back behind one of his ears.
"Can you tell where these folks are located?" I said.
"Hard to tell. It's weird what you can pick up. I've even picked up telephone calls a time or two. I think maybe these two fellas was on the telephone, but I'm not for sure. A couple Eye-talian brothers with a rig a lot like mine swears to the almighty they heard some Russian lady astronaut screamin' for help up there in space somewhere like she was burnin' up."
I nodded. I'd heard the same rumor and knew it to be true. "And this worries you because…?"
More squirming, but his face was serious. "Well, you know, them Commie sons-of-bitches, pardon my French, just about dropped an atom bomb on us over that Cuba thing."
Wayne was referring, of course, to the Cuban Missile Crisis a few years back that had most of us peering up at the sky for a few days waiting for the BIG ONE to come barreling down on our fair little community. I wasn't quite sure what Wayne expected of me, but he did have my attention. "Did they say something that worried you?"
He nodded. "Them boys was sorta talking in circles, almost like a code."
"What did they say?"
"It was a weak signal, kept cutting in and out. But twice I heard them say something about a man in place. I also heard something about the Dow chemical plant."
Now he really had my attention. There were a few things about me the locals didn't know, and it was best for everyone that they stay in the dark. If someone was interested in the chemical plant, that could be trouble.
Dow Chemical manufactured a multitude of chemicals for plastics and agricultural products, but rumor had it that they also had a government contract to produce napalm and defoliant for the war effort in Vietnam. Theory was, you kill the jungles, the Commies wouldn't have anywhere to hide. I figured it probably wouldn't work…Communists are good at hiding in plain sight.
"Did they say anything else?"
"Yes, sir, they did. I think they said the guy was right here in Morris. I think they might be Commie spies."
I sat up straight. This was definitely bad news. "Why come to me and not the sheriff?"
I saw sweat break out on Wayne's forehead. He was not the kind of man who sweated easily unless he was tossing bales of hay around.
"Well," he said, his voice breaking an octave higher than usual, "that American boy…"
"That American sure sounded a lot like my wife's big brother, Sheriff Boyd."
Morris is a bug-smear of a town burrowed into northeastern Oklahoma like a badger in its hole, mean and suspicious. The population hovers around 5,000, maybe a little bit less after tornado season. Red brick buildings, circa 1900, line Main Street. The drug store has a soda fountain in the back that serves up the best ice-cream sodas in the state—or so their sign says. Almost everyone in town is a Christian. Oddly enough, Christian behavior is sometimes a scarce commodity in these parts. Overall, though, it's not a bad place. I'd been in far worse.
My name is Alex Taylor. For the last five years, I've made a paltry living as a private eye here in Morris. Before that I'd been a government employee. The main part of my business now was taking pictures of cheating husbands and, occasionally, cheating wives. I did a modest trade with the local bank tracking down loan skips and digging up hidden assets. My trade was not highly respected, but the good citizens of Morris treated me fairly well mostly because they were afraid of what I might know about them. And I knew quite a bit.
I had accepted a week's advance of $150 from the frightened wrangler to look into the possibility that Sheriff Lucas Boyd was a Russian spy. It had been tough to keep the smile off my face. But I was a professional.
After Wayne left, I sat with my feet up on my desk and contemplated what he had told me. Wayne's intentions were good and he was a true patriot. But like a lot of patriots, he didn't want to get personally involved. I was also a patriot, but after what the boy had told, I had no choice but to get involved. I opened my file cabinet drawer and poured a few fingers of vodka into a mug. I tossed it back and could still taste the dregs of that morning's coffee at the back of my throat. I was a class act.
My feet clopped to the heel-scarred linoleum floor. I reached into the middle drawer of my desk and pulled out my piece, a snub nosed .38 Colt. It wasn't much a of distance gun, but if I was close enough to smell a man's breath, I could do some serious damage. I was not a violent man and hoped that violence would not be necessary. I also knew that the enemy played pretty dirty sometimes and I needed to be prepared just in case. I planned to carry it regularly until this thing was resolved.
Someone told me long ago, back when I was training for my government job, that the best way to find out if someone's dirty was to follow the money. That's what I intended to do. If Sheriff Boyd was not who appeared to be, someone was probably paying him something beyond his county salary. Most amateurs were not savvy enough to hide extra income.
It was hard to imagine the sheriff working in espionage in any capacity. But I also knew that very few spies—if any—fell into the James Bond category. Most were petty little men doing petty little jobs passing on seemingly harmless pieces of information just so they could make their boat payment or buy braces for their kids. But if the enemy put enough of these meaningless tidbits together, they just might come up with something useful. Both sides did it, and both sides knew that both sides did it. It was just the way of the world.
My first stop was the Morris Mercantile Bank and Trust. It was a short trip since my office was on the second floor of the bank building. The rent was cheap because I'd agreed to act as a deterrent to bank robberies…but only if I happened to be there when it went down. I tried to be gone as much as possible.
Generally speaking, bankers are a suspicious lot. Often the officious little clerks who work behind the glass seem to begrudge you information even about your own account. But I had a secret…or rather Mrs. Betty Jean Stapleton had a secret. I waited behind the town jeweler as he made a deposit.
While I waited, I saw my own image reflected back at me from one of the corner mounted security mirrors. Distortion from the convex surface aside, I saw a face that the near-sighted might consider handsome. Unruly brown hair that seemed to have a mind of its own stuck up at odd angles from under my jaunty snap-brim porkpie hat. My face was a little too hawkish but was mellowed some by my sad brown eyes. I was tall and slim and the Sears suit fitted me nicely. I winked at myself in the mirror. Mrs. Whittier—the town librarian—harrumphed at me as she sidled by. I gave her a wink too and she hustled away angry and blushing at all at the same time.
When the jeweler—a man who was a called a dandy by the polite and far worse by the local teenagers—finally finished his business, I approached the cage. "Good afternoon, Betty Jean," I said in my most unctuous drawl. "How are you this fine day?"
She looked up from the jeweler's paperwork, and her face fell. "Mr. Taylor. What can I do for you?" She made ice seem warm and toasty.
Just so you understand, I had once worked for her husband, Cecil Stapleton. He'd had the uneasy feeling that his beloved wife was being tempted by a suitor. I swear, those are the words he used. I had stumbled upon Betty Jean and a member of the Morris Volunteer Fire Department at the Western Sky Inn. She was being far more than tempted when I'd used a borrowed master key to enter room 11 and snap a series of compromising photographs. The fireman and the unfaithful wife had offered a settlement of sorts. They would pay me double what the husband had paid me if I'd keep my mouth shut. The fireman promised it was the last time he'd volunteer to put out Betty Jean's fire. I'd accepted their terms and kept my silence, but I'd also kept the photographs.
"I just need one tiny piece of information." You could have planted corn in the furrows on her forehead. I handed over Wayne's $150 for deposit to my account and a folded note with my request. "And might I add," I said in my best Eddie Haskell impersonation, "you look quite lovely today." Betty Jean mouthed a phrase not often heard from small town bank tellers in Oklahoma and said she'd call me later.
I made my way up the stairs to my office, and damned if I wasn't grinning.
Two hours later, Betty Jean called with the information. "There have been three cash deposits over the last five months," she said. "Each one was for $500 even."
"Is that unusual?"
"Cash deposits happen all the time," she said. I could tell she was being deliberately vague. It was her way of not feeling completely humiliated and manipulated.
I took a deep breath and thought of the photographs I had taken of Betty Jean. I felt a little sorry for her but not so much that I'd tell her I had destroyed those photos a long time ago. Someday maybe, but not right now. "Is it unusual for Sheriff Boyd?"
"It had never happened before," she said. "Doesn't mean it won't happen again."
"Thank you, Betty Jean. I really appreciate the information."
I could hear her crying softly at the other end of the phone. I closed my eyes briefly. "Betty Jean," I said, "I think I should tell you that I destr—"
"Tell me what, you asshole?"
"Nothing," I said and hung up the phone." The world is filled with missed opportunities.
I went home, if you can call a room at the back of old man Pritchard's pawn shop a home. I lived there rent free to sort of keep an eye on the merchandise at night. I had a kitchen, a bedroom, a study, and a bathroom with shower. They just happened to all be in the same 12 x 15 foot room. My home was furnished with stuff so crappy that Mr. Pritchard hadn't been able to sell it at the shop. No wonder I hadn't had more than one date in a row in the last five years.
I sat for a few minutes staring at nothing. I didn't have a TV or a radio. I had a few paperbacks scattered around the place but was too distracted to read. Basically, I tried to spend as little time at home as possible. A lot of nights I hung out at the Moose Lodge with old men who didn't realize they were alcoholics. Lots of gossip floated around that place, and you never knew when someone might say something interesting. But tonight was chili and beans night at the lodge, and I just didn't think I could take it. Instead I called up Jimmy Lauper. He worked as a chemical mixer at Dow Chemical. He was the closest thing I had to a friend in Morris. He answered on the second ring.
"You had a chance to wash the poison off you yet?" I said.
"I found my cat dead when I got home," he said. It was one of the purest non-sequiturs I'd ever heard.
"I'm sorry," I said, but I think I fell a little short of genuine sympathy. I'd never had the pleasure of meeting his cat.
"It's this shit they got me doing," he said. The anger in voice was obvious.
"Come on over," I said. "I've got a few six-packs. Let's talk about it."
A half hour later, I heard Jimmy's rattle-trap Chevy station wagon squeal to a stop in the alley behind the pawn shop. The wagon was long and white and had fins on it like something out of the Jetsons. I knew that some nights he slept in it. It probably beat the hell out of the shit-hole trailer he lived in. The last time I was at his place he had the whole bathroom wall hung with a big, blue tarp to cover over where the frame had dry-rotted out. Jimmy was a little pathetic around the edges…but he had sure loved that damn cat.
"Damn, Alex," he said. "I should of known something was fucked up when my schefflera wilted and dried up."
I had only a vague idea what a schefflera was but opted not to ask for fear he'd tell me. "You think it has something to do with your job?"
Jimmy had already consumed five beers and I could hear the slur in his voice. "Fuckin-a, man." He wiped at his eyes. I really hoped he wasn't going to cry. "They got me mixing up this shit they dump on them gooks over in Vietnam." He said Nam so that it rhymed with Pam. "Of course it's gonna kill a cat."
"What's in the shit?" I said. I was still working on my first beer as Jimmy cracked number six. I wanted to be sober enough to remember anything he told me.
He laughed. "I only know what I put in it. I slop a shit load of 2,4-D. It's just a pretty common herbicide. Shit…I'm not supposed to be talkin' about this shit." He chugged most of the beer.
"Who am I gonna tell, Jimmy? I don't even know what the hell you're talking about."
"Well, here's the kicker, partner." He swilled more beer and popped a new one. "There's people talkin' down to the plant says they're putting something else in there too. Something not supposed to be in the shit in the first place. Way too dangerous. Won't just kill trees, if you know what I mean."
"Too dangerous for war?" I said.
"Shit gets on my clothes," he said nodding his head like a dashboard dog. "Cat sleeps in the laundry basket every night."
Then he did start to cry.
Jimmy left at about 11 pm. He was drunk—actually past drunk—but that time of night on a week day in Morris there wasn't all that much to hit. I had a cup of hot milk and went to bed a few minutes after Jimmy staggered away. My guilt over sending Jimmy off in his condition kept me awake five, six minutes. I used that time to come up with a plan for following the sheriff around town without being spotted. I kept the .38 under my pillow.
I was up early the next morning—a curse imprinted on me by years of government service—slammed down some brutally bad coffee that I'd made in a cheap percolator on a dangerously wired hot plate. In my moments of guilt induced thrashing the night before—however brief—I had concluded that Sheriff Boyd was up to no good. If there's one thing that pisses me off, it's a man intent on doing my country harm. I believed that Boyd was just such a man.
I figured there were two possibilities: One, Boyd was working for the enemy, or two, he was making his extra money the old fashion way…run-of-the-mill, everyday, low-level bureaucratic corruption. But the conversation that Wayne overheard pretty much ruled out the second possibility.
I grabbed a couple of slices of Wonder Bread—barely stale. I slathered on some grape jelly of questionable provenance and forced them down while standing over the sink. I washed the feast down with a gulp of rusty tap water. Such are the benefits of being a bachelor. Feeling more than a little sorry for myself, I headed for my two-tone green and white Ford pickup parked in the alley. It started on the fifth try…it was going to be a good day.
A few minutes later, I was sitting in the terminal of the Morris Municipal Airport. Terminal was a pretty fancy way of describing the small cinder block building that squatted like a toad near the grass strip runway. I sat across a catsup scabbed Formica topped table with Ken Turner. He'd been a WWII night fighter in the Pacific arena. He was probably pretty close to my age, but the years had not been kind to him. His hair was gray, and his eyebrows looked like albino caterpillars crawling across his forehead. There was so much hair sprouting from his nostrils, it was a wonder he could breathe.
I'd always liked him despite his inadequate grooming.
"I got the dogs boiling, you want one," he said. Ken served boiled hotdogs so that he could qualify for a restaurant liquor license. I had never met anyone who had ever actually eaten one, although I knew plenty of folk who had indulged in the cold beer and cheap whiskey he kept in a cooler under the table. Nothing like a few pre-flight belts to stiffen the wings.
"Thanks, no," I said. "Big breakfast."
He didn't seem upset. I imagine I was not the first person to turn down a meal there."So, let me get this straight," he said. "If you hire me to fly today, I sort of become your junior apprentice detective. And I'm sworn to secrecy about the details of what we do."
"Well, yeah," I said. It says discreet right on my office door." It didn't really—in fact I didn't even have a door—but he wouldn't know that. "You telling someone else would be like taking someone up in your airplane and then telling them you've never landed one before. There's certain expectations in any line of work."
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