Mr. Allen had me in a spot. On the one hand, if I turned him down again for what I considered to be valid reasons, all of which amounted to me wasting his time and money and my time, he’d consider me no different than the local cops. And that wouldn’t help business. People come to me precisely because I don’t act, think or behave like the local cops. On the other hand, if I did take his money — again — then his expectations would far outweigh my confidence in my ability to live up to those expectations, even with the edge I thought I had.
I took his money — again.
A retired businessman, Bob Allen still wore decent clothes: charcoal slacks, starched blue shirt that held up even in the humidity, no tie. His face would have looked distinguished had it not been washed out from months of grief and frustration. Instead, he looked like a tired old gray-haired man. He stood over my desk, wrote out a check, the fourth one he’d written with my name on it. We shook hands.
He walked out, past Jobelle, who watched his back disappear into the hall. I could tell by the way she watched him leave that she was thinking the same as me.
That was the thing about Jobelle. She had an eerie sense about people, which was part of the reason she had been my secretary for the last five years. The other part of the reason had nothing to do with her looks — the reason why most people figured she worked for me.
That was easy to understand. Her raven mane fell halfway down her back and her eyes seemed like laser beams, especially when her dander was up. Her complexion and her full, athletic build and tapered legs hinted at a Native American ancestry, but I’d never bothered to ask her about that. There were enough people in this town claiming Chickasaw or Cherokee blood.
The other part of the reason Jobelle worked for me had to do with the snubnose Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum she kept in a holster under her desk.
Like I said, she had a sense about people.
She rose from her desk, tapped on my door and strode in. As usual, she wore a tailored skirt and blouse, simple but damned effective. Her heels clicked to a stop about a foot from my desk. She crossed her arms and cocked an eyebrow at me.
“I don’t know why you keep chasing this one,” she said.
I shrugged again. “We’re getting paid.”
The eyebrow again. “That all? Or you grinding an axe?”
I leaned back in my chair looked out my window. I could feel the laser beams on me. “Nah. I mean, okay, sure, I’ve known Dale for years. He’s never been worth a damn.”
“And you knew Brenda.”
“Yeah, I did. But, like I said, we’re getting paid.”
Jobelle knew when to leave things alone. “OK, boss,” she said. She was out the door before I could look up.
I pulled open the right-hand desk drawer and yanked out the new pistol, the cleaning gear and my “old” Colt .45. Before Mr. Allen showed up, I’d just spent a sweaty hour and a half at the local police range, putting the new HK through its paces. I’ve always been partial to the Colt — I’m old-fashioned about a lot of things, like firearms — but carrying that cannon had gotten a little cumbersome. Not to mention obvious. Especially when there were equally powerful compact models around. So, I tried not to look at the price tag when I bought the HK. It didn’t set me back as bad as I thought, courtesy of a fat paycheck from a divorce case last fall, and I had to admit to my local cop buddy who let me shoot on the PD range that I could get used to this pistol pretty quick.
As I cleaned it I pondered the chances of having to use this particular handgun. As a rule, shooting a man is never easy. There are, however, exceptions to that rule. One is when the son of bitch has it coming anyway as the result of a transgression so vile that he has no reasonable expectation of a happy conclusion of his days.
Dale Burnett qualified for this exception. But of course, shooting a man was still considered a crime in these parts.
I reassembled the weapon and was wiping the Hoppe’s off my hands when I heard Jobelle’s heels clicking toward me again. She strode in carrying and reading the contents of the file folder in her hands. She stopped, as usual, a foot from my desk, even as she continued to read the file. Then, a small sniff. She looked up and cocked an eyebrow, her frosty blue eyes surveying the armory on my desk. I shrugged.
She closed the folder and waited as I moved the weaponry back into the drawer, then wiped the desktop. She laid the folder in front of me. She had written “Dale Burnett” in neat letters with a black marker on the tab.
I knew most of it by heart. Two years ago, Dale killed his wife of ten years, Brenda. He didn’t do it himself, of course. He hired Tommy Kane, a known poacher, thief and general low-life in two states. Tommy lived along the Mississippi-Alabama state line, somewhere off the deep woods among the network on dirt trails that straddled and crisscrossed the state line like a lunatic spider web.
Dale hired Tommy to come to the Burnett house on a designated night — a night Dale conveniently chose to spend partying down at the river with his girlfriend — and stage a “burglary,” during the course of which Brenda would be killed. For this, Tommy would receive five thousand dollars. Where Dale came up with that much cash was still a matter of wild speculation.
Problem was, Tommy, in spite of being a wily enough poacher to never get caught, was otherwise about as bright as a ten-watt bulb. He “broke in” to the house on the designated night and killed Brenda with a single twelve-gauge shotgun blast to the head. But Tommy had never killed a person, and he panicked when he saw the effects of a twelve-gauge at damn near point-blank range. So, he hauled ass out of the house without bothering to take anything that might suggest a burglary had occurred. He appeared at the river party at some time past midnight, according to the several eyewitnesses that testified at trial, and met with a surprised Burnett, who shooed him away as fast as he could.
Two days later, Tommy was seen in several of his usual haunts flashing a wad of cash. Like I said, not very bright. Two days after that, he was arrested and charged with capital murder.
The trial, despite the mountain of evidence against Tommy, was a farce. The district attorney, a former Ole Miss baseball player and all-around squeaky clean crime fighter named Ricky Pennington, hammered Tommy and his lawyer, a local public defender, Peggy Winston. Poor old Tommy never stood a chance.
But everyone in the building knew Tommy was taking a fall. He may have pulled the trigger, but we all knew that Dale Burnett was behind the entire scheme, especially when Pennington revealed the existence of a half-million dollar life insurance policy naming Dale as the sole beneficiary.
The grieving husband sat in the second row during the entire trial, smirking and glancing at his cell phone as often as he dared with the judge glaring at him.
The coup de grace for Tommy was Burnett’s testimony. Burnett wasted not one second throwing his “good hunting buddy” Tommy under the bus, sealing his fate. He then expressed surprise, ignorance (which wasn’t very hard for him) and shock at the revelation of the life insurance policy.
I’ll give Tommy credit for one thing: he didn’t back away from the charges one inch. He could have gotten Peggy to plead him down to avoid the needle, but he didn’t. This bravado, however, had no effect on the judge, who, after a guilty verdict, sentenced him to die by lethal injection and sent him to Parchman.
When he passed the sentence, the judge made it known that even though “Mr. Kane has been tried by a jury and found guilty of a crime that he surely did commit,” there were other nefarious elements at play, namely, “Mr. Burnett, who, I am convinced, was in fact the driving force and co-conspirator in this heinous crime.”
Problem was, the D.A. had scant little evidence tying Burnett to the crime, so he walked out of the courtroom free and uncharged. But we all knew.
The life insurance company knew, too. And used the judge’s statement against Dale. He never got one cent of the money that was the ultimate goal in the first place.
In the end, Brenda was still dead, and Dale got away with murder. And Jobelle was right, though I didn’t want to admit it to her. There was something else about this particular case.
I knew both Dale and Brenda in high school, a thousand years ago. Brenda was a quiet, plain girl who grew up to be a quiet, plain woman who went to work, taught Sunday School, stay married to a philanderer and a sluggard and tried to put a good face on it. I liked Brenda. I never liked Dale. So, watching him walk the streets a free man really stuck in my craw.
That’s why when Brenda’s father visited my office downtown four months ago I listened to his offer.
His case was simple, really. Dale was up to no good, Mr. Allen, told me. It was only a matter of time before he did something else outside the law, and when he did, Mr. Allen intended for it to stick this time, even if the local cops wouldn’t. I pointed out to him it wasn’t a matter of wouldn’t, it was a matter of couldn’t. You can’t arrest a man for nothing, and since the murder, that’s all Dale had managed to do. Nothing.
And that’s how the Dale Burnett folder came to be. I’d been watching him for the last four months. Long enough to know that besides hiring Tommy to kill his wife, Dale had taken over Tommy’s other business venture, dealing meth back and forth across the state line. Dale’s was a low-level racket, buying from and selling for a ring that based itself up in Tennessee, just across the state line from Corinth. Dale was strictly a middle-man operative, which was about as much ambition as I’d ever seen from him. And he wasn’t smart enough to cook it without blowing himself up.
I made a few notes in the file, then pushed it aside. The afternoon sun had found my second-story office window, and a hot yellow beam knifed across the room, the dust motes doing a lazy ballet towards the corners. Outside the door, Jobelle clacked away on her keyboard.
Dale ran that state line like a tightrope walker, never too far to either side, but always on the opposite side of whatever law enforcement happened to be after him that week. Of course, not being law enforcement, I didn’t have to abide by such jurisdictional restraint, and I’d been able to piece together his network of users, runners, assorted thugs and dealers.
I also learned that when it came to Dale’s dealings, the local cops just wished he’d go away. My buddies in the local police department sang the familiar refrain of budget cuts, manpower shortages, and department priorities. The official line was, of course, that Mr. Burnett was a free man. Unofficially, the badges held that if Dale showed up face-down in a back alley, there wouldn’t be much of a ruckus.
So, I was able to operate with a certain amount of freedom myself. Which was how I knew about tonight’s deal. One of Dale’s lower-level dealers, Jim Burton, was also an occasional informant for me.
Dale was meeting a dealer from McNairy County, Tennessee, known to me only as “Cotton” this evening to buy a load of crank. The rendezvous was a rickety bridge on a gravel road about three miles from the Alabama line, in a low-lying wood known as Bishop’s Bottom. Spooky place at night. When we were teenagers, we’d drive our dates down that road at night to give them a good scare and prove our manhood by displaying an utter lack of fear at whatever haints and boogey men that might have been hidden off in the swampy trees.
Burton’s info gave me an edge, the only one I’d had in four months and the main reason for taking Bob Allen’s money again. Until now, I’d only heard about these deals after the fact. But, tonight, when it went down, I would be there to see the whole thing, and I was going to make it stick. My edge was only a small one, I knew. The location didn’t lend itself it to surveillance, but I knew a few overgrown hunting trails off the gravel road where I could stash the car. Getting into position on foot wasn’t going to be a problem.
I opened the desk drawer and grabbed the HK and two mags. Loaded and holstered it. The new weight was a solid comfort on my right hip. The other mag went into my left front pocket. I heard the heels clicking again and looked up to see Jobelle standing in the door, keys in one hand, the other perched on a cocked hip.
“See you tomorrow.” she said.
I nodded. “I’ll get the door. See you tomorrow.”
I allowed myself the small luxury of watching her walk away, then took my time turning off the laptop behind my desk. Jobelle never asked about my after-work plans, and I never told her, but I didn’t want to chance seeing her in the parking lot tonight.
I grabbed my crumpled blazer off the coat tree in the corner. This may be a small, conservative town where everybody knows I’m a private investigator, but a gun on your hip in broad daylight still makes people uncomfortable. I shrugged into the jacket and walked the Burnett folder to Jobelle’s desk as I left the office, yanking the door closed behind me. On instinct, I checked left and right in the dim narrow hall, even though this downtown building was about as safe as a nunnery. I shared the floor with a lawyer and a grass-roots charity that built houses for homeless people.
Outside, the sun still scorched, even an hour before sunset and even in the shade of the tiny parking lot wedged between three downtown buildings. I shucked the blazer and tossed it into the backseat of the Mercedes. I cranked up and put the windows down, wiped the sweat off my face, then wheeled out onto Main Street. By the time I hit the city limits and rolled out on Highway 82 East, I had the air conditioner blasting, radio off.
This part of the old two-lane was practically deserted, a result of progress and the four-lane bypass cut through the pines to the north a few years back. It was a perfect approach for a rendezvous such as Dale’s. It was also perfect for my needs.
After a few miles, I checked the rear-view and one-handed a right turn onto the gravel road that led into Bishop’s Bottom. I smiled, feeling the familiar sense of apprehension of the place. In the failing light, the shadows lanced from the towering oaks and pines, and the sun mottled the floor of the swampy ground. In an hour, the entire area would be sheathed in blackness. I couldn’t remember ever seeing moonlight filtering through the trees here. Just blackness and the sounds of the night: rustling, chirping, dripping, scraping. I’ve been in plenty of scary places and been terrified more times than I care to admit, but Bishop’s Bottom still made me uneasy.
The thrumming of the gravel against the undercarriage of the car soothed my unease as I neared the bridge. It crouched over a stagnant brown creek decorated with scattered green oak leaves and water bugs skittering across the glass-like surface. I guessed the one-lane span to be about sixty years old, maybe more. No guard rail. Slight sag in the middle, which made the wooden planks jump and rattle as the Mercedes rolled over it.
I found the trail I was looking for about a quarter mile past the bridge. I put the car in reverse and eased between two massive oaks, through the wall of honeysuckle and briars until the car was completely hidden from the road. I checked my watch, saw I still had about half an hour before show time. I popped the glove compartment open and grabbed a pair of leather gloves I used when I needed to visit someone who wasn’t home. Tonight, they would help against briars. From the back seat, I grabbed the black sweatshirt I also used on those visits and pulled it over my head, then slid the gloves over my hands. The heat would be stifling, even after dark, but that was a discomfort I had to endure.
I climbed out and made my way back toward the creek. About halfway, I heard a car coming down the road, from the direction of the highway. Then a second car. Right on time.
I eased behind a pine tree about fifteen yards from the bridge. Checked for snakes, then squatted down, yanked the camera out of my back pocket. A maroon Buick cruised up and over the bridge. For a split second, I nearly panicked, thinking the driver would attempt a turnaround exactly where the Mercedes was stashed. But in another second, the taillights flashed and the car crunched to a stop just off the edge of the road. I exhaled.
Seconds later, the vehicle I knew belonged to Dale — a dark green Jeep Cherokee — rolled up and stopped just short of the bridge. He cut the engine off and turned on the interior light.
My head snapped up at that. In the growing darkness of the swamp, the dome light flared like a spotlight on a runway, and I could clearly see Dale Burnett behind the wheel. Alone.
An adrenaline jolt caused me to smile in spite of myself. Dale usually brought a gun hand along on these deals. At least that’s Burton told me — Dale never does business without an extra gun around.
But not tonight. I definitely had an edge now. My mind raced. I kept my eyes focused on Dale as he climbed out of the Jeep. Over the bridge, a tall, skinny man with a shock of white-blonde hair slammed the door to the Buick, the report echoing through the woods like a ragged line of firecrackers.
They met on the bridge, shook hands. Looked like a friendly meeting of a couple of good friends. They didn’t seem to be in a hurry at all as they strolled over to Cotton’s car.
I stood, keeping my profile behind the tree, which put me behind Cotton. The taller Cotton blocked Dale’s figure from my line of sight. I pulled the HK. I held my breath as I eased the slide back and chambered a round. Then I stepped toward the bridge, keeping to the right side of the road, walking the spongy, moss-covered dirt to keep the noise down.
I reached the gravel road about five yards from the bridge. Dale and Cotton leaned against the trunk of the car, their voices murmuring.
I raised my pistol, and Dale must have caught the movement out of the corner of his eye. He jerked his head around, glared at me and the pistol, then grinned.
“Well, I’ll be goddamn. Jack Cable,” he said, peering around Cotton’s shoulder. “What brings you way out here?”
Cotton spun around, and my finger instinctively went to the trigger. He froze when he saw the HK. “What the fuck? Who is this, Dale? And what the hell is he doing here?”
Dale’s eyes narrowed, rat-like. His hands were in the pockets of his jeans. His smile was beginning to get on my nerves. “Ah, this is Jack Cable. We went to high school together. He’s a private eye, now. As to what he’s doing here, I don’t have no idea. Why don’t you fill us in, Jack?”
Dale was stalling, I knew. I was in no mood to stall. “Pretty obvious, ain’t it?” I said. “Weapons. On the trunk. Two fingers.”
Dale’s eyes widened, the grin still hanging in the gloom like a half moon. “OK, man, it’s cool.”
I shifted my aim to Cotton. “You, too.”
Cotton glared at me, furious. But he pulled a Glock out of a holster on his hip, hidden under his T-shirt. His eyes locked on mine, he eased the pistol onto the trunk of the car.
Dale smirked and pulled what looked like a Smith and Wesson auto from the small of his back. Held it up with two fingers as if to say, “See?” then laid it on the car with a thunk.
“Two steps back, both of you,” I said. In unison, Dale and Cotton stepped away from the car as I walked between them to the trunk. They stood there, looking pretty stupid with their hands halfway up in the air, like schoolboys caught in the act. I holstered my own piece and picked up the Glock, glancing at Cotton.
“Never cared much for these,” I said in Cotton’s direction.
“Yeah, well, it ain’t your gun.”
I nodded. “Is now.” I pointed the Glock at Dale, who was no longer smiling. His eyes met mine, flat and mean and something else that might have been fear. I lifted his gun off the trunk with my left hand. Smith, like I thought. Auto .380, safety on. I thumbed it off and pointed it at Cotton.
“You can keep the meth,” I said to Cotton. “I just want the money.”
“So that’s what this is about?” Dale said. “It’s always about the money, ain’t it?”
I cut my eyes toward him. “Yeah, it seems that way. Was for you. Didn’t quite work out like you planned, though, did it? Sure, you got away with killing your wife, but you ended up here. In a goddamn swamp buying crank off of this asshole.”
Cotton straightened up. “Hey, fuck you,” he said. “I’ll fucking kill you.”
I swiveled my head toward him and shot him, twice, in the chest. Dale’s .380 was more powerful than I thought. The shots blew Cotton backward about two feet, and he fell awkwardly on his side. I heard the breath whoosh out of him as he crashed to the gravel, blood already spreading in a wide stain.
I turned back to Dale. He wasn’t smiling now. “The money,” I said.
“It’s in the truck.” His voice gave him away. He was scared, badly.
I twitched the Glock. “Get it.”
He didn’t move. His eyes flashed at me. Even in the dark I could see it. “Get it yourself.”
Everybody has a main weakness. For some people, it’s booze, or women or drugs. Dale’s was bravado. It blinded him, made him think he was invincible.
“Fair enough,” I said and squeezed the trigger. The bullet hit just below his left eye and blew out the back of head. I watched him fall straight backwards, his face registering a confused disbelief, as if he only just realized that he was, in fact, not bulletproof after all.
He hit the ground, dead.
I stood between the two of them for a second, just to collect myself, then put the guns back in their dead owners’ hands. I could smell the cordite in the air over the musk of the swamp. The night noises had gone silent with the report of the pistols. The only thing I could hear was the ringing in my ears and my own breathing.
I walked across the bridge to Dale’s truck, looked in. A gym bag sat on the front seat. I peeled off my gloves, reached in through the open window and unzipped the bag, saw the pile of cash. The green bills looked gray in the dark. I grabbed the bag and slung it over my shoulder.
I crossed the bridge again, walked past the two bodies toward the Mercedes.
There’s another exception to the rule: it’s a lot easier to shoot a man when you know you can get away with it.
This story originally appeared in The Shamus Sampler II: More Detective Stories From Around the World in June 2014.