The rough edged faded tattoo‘s visible on both sides of his neck matched the artwork on his knuckles. His wet asphalt black hair combed straight back. Leathery skin from too much sun. Worn black leather jacket, cracked in the creases. Levi’s gracefully dancing on ostrich hide cowboy boots. A small dark canvas duffel bag hung from his left hand.
His right hand jerked once, twice on the handle of the bank’s door. Locked. He pressed closer to the glass, peering inside, the clock on the wall behind the teller’s windows; 5:02. “Shit!”
The business hours were clearly plastered on the glass door; 9 to 4:45 Monday to Friday.
“Shit!!!” He let go a yell at the brass encased doors. His frustration didn’t go unnoticed. The stranger continued to look through the door, changing positions looking around inside the bank. He stepped back, and took a long look at the door.
Don Sizemore, the small town barber was locking his shop doors across the street, he noticed.
Darla Schumaker, closed her flower shop everyday at the same time Don the barber did. She noticed the foul-mouthed stranger too. Darla traded glances with Don, and they both stared across the street at the stranger.
The locked doors of the bank left the stranger deflated. “Son of a bitch.” He spat as he moved away from the doors and down the stairs to the sidewalk. He took his pack of smokes out, flipped one up to his lips, then took a quick inventory, only four cigarettes left in the pack. He only had five bucks left to his name, the bank was his best and only hope to get flush for a long time to come. The pack of smokes cost him $5.49. He hesitated and put the cigarette back. It was going to be a long night.
Don and Darla’s stare was broken by a skidding bicycle, it was Wade Lodger. A nosy twenty something Momma’s boy. A seasoned gossip monger. “What’s going on?” He asked Don and Darla.
“That stranger over there. He tried to get into the bank.” Darla replied.
“But the bank closed fifteen minutes ago.” Wade said. He cocked his head and watched the stranger.
“Ever see him before?” Don asked Wade.
Squinting, “No. Look how he’s dressed.”
“He’s not from around here.” Darla capped the discussion.
But he was.
The stranger shook his head and walked down the sidewalk away from the bank. He stopped at a bus bench and flopped, dropped his bag, and stretched out his sore legs. He clacked the soles of his boots together, sending shock-waves through his tired feet. The bus ride was one thing, walking eighteen blocks in his boots was something different.
“Should someone call Sal?” Wade asked.
“You call him, Wade.” Darla shook her head.
“I’m not calling Sal.” Wade protested.
“I’m heading home. The guy ain’t gonna rob the bank tonight.” Don said. He walked away shaking his head.
Darla checked her watch. “I have to come back down here in an hour, if he’s still hanging around I’ll call Sal.”
The solitary man mentally re-traced his steps from the bus depot to the bank. Typical bullshit small town. He remembered crossing the street near the Sheriff’s sub-station. Only one car in a five car parking lot. Traffic was typical afternoon “go home” commuters. To busy pissing and moaning about work, and the drive home. Only a couple of other pedestrians on the way to the bank. He stood out, but chances were, the jacket would be the only thing that caught anyone’s eye. Just a scruffy guy walking away from the bus depot. His stomach growled. “Yeah no shit. I’m hungry, I get it.” Unzipping the duffel bag, he found a stale piece of sugar free root beer flavored gum someone left in the duffel bag before he “acquired” it. His jaw line didn’t need more exercise, but begrudgingly started chewing.
“Can’t do a damn thing til the bank opens. Shit.” He was deep into his thoughts. “Next time I need a better plan.” He stopped chewing and smiled.
He couldn’t sit on the bus bench all night, to exposed, some roving cop would catch on. Five bucks wouldn’t pay his way through the night at an all night diner, if there was one in the shit hole town. The stranger looked one way up the dusky gray street. Small shops, stop signs every block, a flashing yellow light four blocks away. He turned his gaze in the opposite direction. More of the same gray nothing, more chicken shit little shops, some vacant, a smattering of cars parked along the chipped failing curbs. He needed to stash himself, tuck away from small town eyes. A back alley doorway? Cardboard mattress behind a dumpster? Abandoned car? Overnight temps might drop into the mid-forties, he would prefer a cabin over the water near the Gulf or even a tent on the beach near Corpus. One last visit to a bank, and he could buy a piece of beach. He grabbed the duffle bag and trudged up the street toward the flashing yellow light.
When Darla returned to her flower shop an hour later, the stranger was no where in sight. Sal was cruel, and she was thankful she didn’t need to call the deputy.
The snoop on the bike, Wade, took to the streets after his Mom fixed him dinner; he still lived at home. Wade cruised down a few quiet streets, edging closer to the bank. A chill afoot with nightfall. He pedaled over to Darla’s flower shop, and dropped his bike at her front door.
“He’s gone?” Wade asked.
“He wasn’t out there when I got here.” Wiping her hands and looking out the front window toward the bus stop. “Don’t know where he went.”
“Did you call Sal?”
“Nope.” She moved back to her workbench, Wade in tow.
“Big funeral?” Wade looked at the splay of flowers.
“Tomorrow morning at Brown‘s. Last minute order.”
“I hate funerals. They’re creepy.” He shuddered.
“We’ll all have one.”
“Not any time soon I hope.” Wade said.
“You might if you run into that stranger. He looked up to no good.”
“Looked like he spent time in prison.”
“Never know.” Darla said.
“Wonder where he went?” Wade went back to the front window, looking up and down the street. “That’s him!”
The stranger came back down the street from the intersection where the flashing yellow light stood sentinel.
“Where?” Darla sprinted to the window.
“He’s right there.”
They both watched the man. Head down, duffle bag swinging from his hand. The dark of the evening seemed to come all at once. The two spies made out his shape as he disappeared onto a small stretch of exposed concrete between two buildings. The micro sidewalk lead to the back of the two buildings. “Did you see that?” Wade urgently asked.
“Yep. He’s behind the old Dickson place.” Darla said.
“Better call Sal for sure now!” Wade uttered breathlessly.
“No choice now.”
The stranger shuffled on the walkway, straining to see in the dark between the buildings. One back porch light illuminated enough for him to take a glimpse of the area he was encroaching. To his right, behind a broken down chain link fence a large patch of gravel and debris, and on his left the building continued to the alley. Too damn dark to find a hidey hole for the night. Could be anything in the building, even a silent alarm. The gravel patch was exposed, foreboding, no attraction there.
Darla called the Sheriff’s sub-station and left a message for Sal to come by her flower shop.
“Wade will you stick around until Sal gets here, that stranger has me…”
“Sure Darla. If he comes in here I’ll beat him with roses!” Wade tried to lighten the mood.
“I don’t like drifters moving through town.” Darla said.
“Neither does Sal.” Wade looked away.
Sal took his time, an hour and half before he showed up at the flower shop. Wade and Darla were impatient with him, but didn’t let it show.
“What’s the big deal? People come in and out of town all time.” Sal groused. He gave the pair a hard look. A massive man, six five, two hundred and ninety pounds of mid-west corn fed attitude. Sal came from a long line of farmers and ranchers. He refused to wear the county issued cap, always wore short sleeve shirts with a one inch cuff. His pride and joy on his hip, a 1911 .45 auto that came from a grandfather who served in WWII. He didn’t take shit, but he handed it out freely. Reviled in the community. But his county had the lowest crime rate in the state, it also had the highest rate of moving violations handed out. A state record for the total number of seat belt violations in one weekend, 380. He ate speeders for breakfast, skateboarders for lunch, and drunk drivers for dinner. Drifters were open season.
“He tried to force the doors of the bank open Sal!” Wade said.
“Was it closed?” Sal replied.
“It was a little after five, everyone knows it closes at 4:45!” Darla added.
Sal turned and looked out the window toward the bank.
“And he had a bag of burglar tools with him. I’ll bet he even had a gun in the bag!” Wade surmised.
Sal inhaled deep, looked up and down the street. “Where did you see him go?”
“He ducked between the Dickson place in that narrow space between the buildings.” Darla said.
“You two should get on home.” Sal didn’t turn to give his demand.
“We’re leaving right now, come on Wade I’ll give you a ride home.” Darla spat out a demand of her own.
“Okay.” Wade wanted to wait in the shadows and watch.
“Black leather jacket, blue jeans, and all tatted up.” Sal double checked.
“Yep and the burglar bag!” Wade shot out.
“You two go home and stay there.” Sal left the flower shop.
Darla and Wade exchanged excited glances, and left the shop.
The stranger wandered in the heavy darkness. His stride deliberate, not rushed. Several blocks from the bank he found a place to sit down in the dark. He figured it was close to 7:30, he splurged on one of his few remaining smokes. It worked, soothing his nerves, satisfying the nicotine monkey. He took a long drag, held it, and took his time exhaling.
Headlights a block away grabbed his attention, a spotlight beam skittered across houses, and hedges, garages, and cars parked on the street.
Night patrol in a small town. He went back his smoke. Fourteen more hours.
Sal deftly worked his spotlight as he idled his patrol car up and down the streets closet to the bank, moving a street further away with each pass. With every dusty alley his tension ratcheted. A drifter in his town trying to get into “his” bank? He wasn’t having none of it. Nothing about Sal was standard issue. His patrol car, a Lincoln Navigator that he donated to the county sheriff’s department. He equipped it himself, rather provided the equipment and had someone do the installation - at no cost. His sidearm. He had to have his uniform altered to fit him. His attitude, and cruelty were all his. The scars on his knuckles, the aged scar on his cheek, all bought and paid for by him. He continued his prowl of the neighborhood, looking for the wannabe bank robber.
The stranger finished his smoke, butted it out on a tree trunk, and moved on. Many blocks ahead of him the lights of the bus depot twinkled.
Sal yawned hard with a shudder. The sun was coming up and no sign of the stranger. Butt weary and hungry, he temporarily abandoned his search, and headed for breakfast. He loved the free breakfast the hash slinger provided at the Sunny Side Up diner. No charge. Sal loved the sound of that phrase. Sal deserved it. His pay was fine. But free was, well free. The fear and respect oozed from the citizens of the fine small town, but free food, free flowers, free coffee, free cell phone, free alterations, free dry cleaning, that was his real paycheck.
Sal took his seat at his favorite permanently reserved table.
“Mornin’ Sal.” Buzz hollered from the kitchen.
Sal nodded his response.
“Your usual Sal?” Penny the waitress asked.
Sal nodded again.
“His usual Buzz.” Penny squawked as she moved back behind the counter.
“Penny!” Sal’s voice boomed in the diner.
The waitress spun on her heel, and walked to his side. “Yes?”
“Any strangers been in?” Sal asked.
“Nope. Just the regulars.”
“What about someone in a black leather jacket?” He pressed.
“No one Sal.” Her smile feigned.
Sal’s thoughts turned to places to look, maybe he missed a place where a drifter could lay low. The grain elevator south of town? The abandoned box cars on the never used rail spur? Out by the newly erected cell tower? He pictured the drifter in his mind’s eye. The guy left the bank, went up the street to the yellow caution light, came back, ducked in by the Dickson place, from there? Out the back end, into the alley or across the alley? No signs of a break-in on the old buildings. No visible boot tracks in the alley.
Carter Abbott’s stomach came to life with a long grumbling sound followed by a gas bubble trying to escape, the stranger blinked awake. “Just a couple more hours, I’ll have the cash and we’ll eat.” He patted his pissed off gut. “I see a full rack of baby back ribs, a side order of steak fries and a pitcher of beer.”
The stranger didn’t suffer the overnight temps. He found a bench inside the bus depot. A lonely janitor at work. The old gray haired man took pity on Carter, and invited him inside. They kept each other company for hours. The old man bought Carter a candy bar and cup of vending machine coffee. Carter made special note of the kindness. He had hid in plain sight.
Sal looked down at his plate. His “usual” consisted of a fried pork steak, two fried eggs, fried potatoes, two pickle spears, plus an English muffin. And a never ending cup of black coffee. He despised talking while eating. Penny, the waitress learned to keep watchful eye on the brute; low on coffee, she was there with a refill, if he looked up or stopped chewing, her Sal radar alerted. Napkin? Salt shaker empty? Not enough butter on his English muffin? Grape jelly on the table?
Penny hadn’t seen Sal so deep in thought since… she hesitated to even recall the memory. The townsfolk referred to it as the “incident”. Sal responded to a disturbance call. A trucker upset at poor service at the local mom and pop truck stop. The non-aggressor involved in the disturbance was bruised, bloodied, and battered. The aggressor was arrested, and charged. While in holding, the aggressor “fell” in the shower. According to the on-call doctor who examined the aggressor, he fell approximately 19 times. Slippery floor the night Sal was on duty. Charges were later dropped, but the trucker’s big rig was found 30 miles from town. The interior of the rig was covered in hair, blood, and bone. The man was never seen again.
The bus depot in an instant became bustling. Two incoming buses, passengers showing up for trips. The freight office rolled their shutters up with a clang. Time for Carter Abbott to move on. He broke his five dollar bill, change for the vending machines. Another cup of shitty vending machine coffee, and a stale granola bar was his breakfast.
Sal swabbed the grease, and runny egg yolk from his plate with the English muffin. Burped. Left the diner without making eye contact or a thank you. No reports of strangers, prowlers or anything during his overnight stint. Loud dog. Road kill deer. He pulled away from the diner with another pork and egg flavored burp.
Carter, feeling comfortable in his dusty boots, set out for the bank. His stomach was quiet, but the hunger persisted. He admired the tall oaks as he made his way down the street. Huge trunks of the trees caught his eye, six feet wide, eighty foot tall. Carter allowed a smile. Less than an hour and the work at the bank would be over and done with. He could escape to a tent on the beach, or cabin by a lake, hell he would be able to buy a lake or an island, screw the tent. His smile broadened. He pictured driving in a new car, no, a deluxe pick-up truck. Oversized tires. Custom paint. Stereo. The whole package. He might need a truck for projects at his new home. Home? His own home? His own truck? He stopped to fire up a cigarette. He took a drag, the thought made him sneer, his own damn home, truck, maybe a dog. Hell, how about ten dogs with a kennel. Hire someone to train them? Nah. To much too soon. Carter started moving again. Puffing as he went. Maybe I could quit smoking? I’ll have the money to get the help. Suddenly the cigarette didn’t satisfy him. He tossed the butt into the aged gutter. He stepped off the curb without looking. A car skidded, and honked. The driver gave Carter a dirty look. Carter thought better of going off on the anonymous driver, and waved him on.
Carter, amped on adrenaline, was ten foot off the ground when he came to the corner where the bank was. He looked to his left, he realized he completed a huge circle. The bank obscured by the brilliant fall sun. The yellow flashing light was due east.
Below the glare of the morning sun, Sal watched Carter’s every breath and move. Engine idling quietly, waiting for it’s command.
Sal matched Carter’s steps. Each step equaled a foot of tire movement. Carter turned to go up the steps to the banks door, Sal eased out the driver’s door.
Carter pressed his face against the door, 8:52. He tried the door for luck. The second tug of the door he heard something behind him. Sal hit him with a closed fist square in the back between the shoulder blades. Carter slammed against the door, and crumpled. Blood gushed from a gash over his eye from the impact of the flat immovable glass door. Carter tried to respond, but as he tried to stand, Sal let go a volley of lefts and rights to his head.
Carter got out two words “what” and “why” before his brain hit the disconnect button.
Darla, Wade, and Don watched the brutality from the sidewalk in front of their shops.
The bank employees stood in stark horror as Sal put three or four heavy boots to Carter’s mid-section.
Sal needed a break from his post breakfast workout. He snatched Carter’s duffle bag and walked to his patrol car to relax and log the would be bank robber’s tools into evidence.
Carter lay on the threshold of the bank, bleeding. Too unconscious to moan.
Sal, breathing hard flopped his big ass onto the tailgate of the mighty SUV. Smiled and waved to the small crowd across the street. He usually didn’t have an audience for his work, but this would be an exclamation mark for the taxpayers.
Sal proudly unzipped the confiscated duffel bag. The contents didn’t surprise him. Rabbit fur lined leather gloves. Odd, but no counting for personal taste in a criminal mind. A pair of socks. Could be used for gloves or gags he supposed. A toothbrush. A travel size tube of toothpaste. A road map, with notes written in red ink. A big circle around Leavenworth, Kansas. “Par for the course”. A long red line followed the bus route to Sal’s little town, and it was his town dammit. Three books of matches. Other than five envelopes, the duffel was empty. No gun. No tools. No nothing.
Sal took the envelopes out. All the same size. All postmarked from the small town he swore to protect. Emblazoned across each envelope a large rubber stamped phrase, “Opened & Inspected by Federal Prison Officer 1145. Approved for Inmate Delivery”. A lonely hearts scam or a partner’s notes Sal thought. One old school savings book he didn’t bother with. He took out the first letter.
“Dear Mr. Abbott,
On February 12th, your grandmother, Mrs. Grace, fell in her residence and has since been moved to Farley’s Senior Care Home. Any future correspondence should be sent directly to her there.”
Sal looked over his shoulder at the man he left bloodied on the bank’s doorstep. Slipped the letter back in it’s envelope, and pulled the next one out.
“Dear Mr. Abbott,
This is an update to my previous letter. I’m saddened to inform you that your grandmother, Mrs. Grace, has taken a turn for the worse. When she fell, she broke her hip. The doctor is battling an infection brought about by the fracture.”
Sal ignored the salutations at the bottom of the letter. He looked over his other shoulder, the witnesses were still standing outside their shops, with weasel Wade standing by. He started on the third letter.
“Dear Mr. Abbott,
Your grandmother, Mrs. Grace, has given me Power of Attorney until the time of your release. Currently she is struggling with the details of a Living Will and the notion of a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) to be placed on file. The bone infection is unfortunately progressing. Mr. Abbott, considering your circumstances I hate to be the only one to keep you abreast of her condition, but, the doctor is not hopeful.”
Sal continued to read about Mrs. Grace’s condition. The name finally started to break into to his fat addled mind.
“Dear Mr. Abbott,
It is with a heavy heart to inform you so impersonally, but your grandmother passed away yesterday morning. I am extremely sorry for such a tragic loss given your confines. The estate will be managed by my office. Her long term endowment care was well planned many years ago. She will be buried in your family plot next to your grandfather, parents, and your other relatives. As you know the family plot is located at Rosewood Cemetery.”
Sal’s hand began to shake. He handled the funeral escort detail for the woman. Mrs. Grace’s picture was on the front page of the small town newspaper. There was mention of her sole surviving family member, Carter Abbott, a grandson currently in federal prison for a white collar crime. With good time served is scheduled to be released in the fall of this year. Sal remembered the blabbering fool on the radio that today was the first day of fall. He trembled. He was sweating. His stomach turned sour, he felt sick, his jaw hurt like hell.
“Dear Mr. Abbott,
Per your instructions I have established an account in your name at the Citizen’s First State Bank. Your grandmother Grace’s estate has finished probate. Your inheritance includes the houses and properties your family amassed, including the rental units in Dallas. The cash amount on hand from various accounts and accounts receivables total $12,392,771.00.
Mr. Abbott, I am very sorry for your loss and await further instructions if necessary. Good luck Carter.”
Sal slid off the tailgate clutching the last letter. His breath came sharp and hard earned. Sal’s steps were labored as he rounded the front of the SUV. He stared at the front of the bank. The bank employees were unsure of their safety, thus leaving Carter Abbott to fend for himself.
Carter, now able to moan, stirred and sat up with his back to the glass door. Blood dripping from the gash over his eye, and bloody nose, he blinked down at the behemoth stepping up on the sidewalk.
Sal felt an elephant dancing on his chest as he moved across the sidewalk to the first step leading to the bank. Only seven more steps- up.
Carter wiped blood away and cringed as the back of his hand made contact with his swelling face.
Sal made two more steps- up. His beefy hand crushed the letter he was holding. As he was dying, a torrent of memories hit him. He turned twelve that summer. His father wanted him to spend some time with the neighbors grand kid. A lanky city kid. Show him how country folk lived. Horse back riding. Take the old single shot .22 out, shoot some squirrels. Show him the rope swing at the swimming hole. Catch some fire flies. Catfishing. Teach the poor city kid how to drive a tractor... and old Mrs. Grace would be forever grateful.
Sal cried out, “Carter!!!”