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The Paths We Take #35: Dead Men   

Oct 29, 2018







The white tent on the bank of the river was surrounded by streams of yellow tape. I caught the image in the corner of my eye as I gave the cashier a five-dollar bill to pay for a coffee and a pack of peanut butter crackers. The clerk, a long-haired kid with a ring on his lower lip counted out the change by putting each coin in his hand as he whispered the calculation to himself.

“Forty-seven. Forty-eight. Forty-nine. . . One dollar and forty-nine cents is your change. Would you like a bag?”

For the crackers and coffee?

“I’m good . . . thanks though,” I said as I looked back up at the analog television. Nancy Hale was the headline above her photograph. It was an older picture. Nancy was dressed in a sunflower print t-shirt as she knelt between her two curly-haired grandkids. That was the Nancy I knew. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her even though she tried to kill me. The police finding Nancy’s body in the river was worst case scenario for me.

I took a bite of one cracker but spit it out before choking back the remnants of the leftover pizza I ate for breakfast. I wondered how long it would take Marks to find me.

. . .

I pulled down the dirt path that led to Arrowhead Camp to meet Townsend. In the summertime, the camp held several sessions of week-long camps that would cater to middle-school aged boys and girls whose parents needed a break. It was closed for the winter and a chain blocked the main entrance, but Townsend knew there was another dirt road that came in from the back that was unmarked. I was supposed to meet him there at 2:00 PM.

Townsend was already there when I pulled up to the main pavilion. A large wooden arrow pointed down from the front of the pavilion where Townsend and another man stood. I hope it’s not this easy for anyone else to find us, I laughed.

When I parked, I could see that the other man was young, built like a wide receiver, and looked like he should’ve been in an ad for Abercrombie & Fitch. I hoped that Townsend had a good reason for bringing some preppy kid along.

“You doing ride-alongs now?” I asked as I stepped out and pulled on my coat.

“This kid is going to save your ass,” Detective Townsend laughed as I shook the kid’s hand. “I think we found Claire.”

The words didn’t quite register when they first touched my ears. My life, what I called a life, had felt like I’d been caught in a slow mudslide, consuming everyone and everything on my way down. I was waiting to hit bottom, but maybe I already had. Maybe, it was time to climb out.

“I’m Michael,” the kid said as he kept his eyes marked on mine and grinned. I could tell he had rehearsed and duplicated his greeting on numerous occasions.

“Michael says that a woman matching Claire’s description is being forced against her will to act as an escort for this well-known businessman, Raymond Donnelly. He has a cabin just outside of Red Pines. She goes by Nikki,” Townsend explained.

“Nikki? How do we know it’s the same girl?” I broke in.

“You wouldn’t forget this girl if you saw her,” Michael smiled. “She’s got these gorgeous eyes that you can’t stop staring at. If that was the only thing you could see, you would still know it’s her.”

He was right. Claire’s mesmerizing hazel eyes were cemented in my memory. He went on to describe her platinum hair, the tiny diamond stud on her left nostril, and her faint southern accent that made her words taste like sweet tea.

“That’s her. . . It has to be,” I said as nodded to Detective Townsend.

“We’ve got to do something tonight. They’ve got the body they needed and all they need now is the blood results, which they will have soon, Luke,” Detective Townsend said.

Michael started to say something, but I saw a figure creep along the side of the shed beside the pavilion directly behind Townsend. Everything went silent when I saw the man round the shed with the shotgun pointed in our direction.  I pushed Michael out of the way, pulled the pistol from the holster, and fired.

The shotgun dropped to the ground as the man spun around and fell. Detective Townsend fell to his knees as he clutched his right arm. I grabbed him by his coat and dragged him behind my vehicle. Michael stood wide-eyed with his hands clutching the sides of his head as he stared down at Detective Townsend.

Blood seeped out from Detective Townsend’s coat as he clenched his teeth together. “It’s just my arm,” he groaned. “Go check to see if you killed that asshole.” I took my coat off and wrapped it around Townsend’s arm.

I kept my pistol drawn as I worked my way over to the man as he tried to scratch his way through the dirt, back into the wood line. I put the barrel to the back of his head and he stopped moving. I forced his hands behind his back and put my knee on them while I searched him. I took a knife from a sheath underneath his leather coat and a cell phone from the inner coat pocket.

I flipped him over and saw a face that I hadn’t seen in years. He looked at me with a bloody smile.

“Tommy?” I spit out as Detective Townsend and Michael walked up. “What the hell you doing?”

“Working,” Tommy said. A stream of blood flooded out of the front of his leather coat. Detective Townsend bent down and glared at Tommy as I sat him up.

“Who sent you?” Townsend asked.

“The boss, pig.”

Detective Townsend stood up and turned around to walk away, but he lifted his foot as he turned around and kicked Tommy right at the wound in his chest. Blood rushed from his mouth and he fell to the ground, his head hitting the cold dirt like rock. I sat Tommy back up and propped him up against the trunk of a tree that was just a few feet away.

“It doesn’t matter who sent me,” Tommy gargled. “What matters is what happens next. When I don’t answer the next call, you’re dead. If I answer . . . you’re dead. You’re both done. Just like me.”

The blood was gushing from his mouth as he spoke and pooling around him from the exit wound in his back. Townsend was walking back towards the pavilion. Michael took a step back to keep the river of crimson from touching the edge of his shoes.

“Luke, your wife came to see me after she left you. I hooked up her up real good. And man, that ass was even better than in high school,” Tommy gurgled.

I watched him choke out a last exhale before he was gone. It was just like Tommy to waste his last breath to hurt someone. I wasn’t surprised that he ended up as part of The Breed.

Townsend was leaning against his vehicle wrapping his arm in a Red Pines Police Department t-shirt. “I’ll be okay. I’m lucky that he missed most of me,” he said.

“Who was that?” Michael stuttered as he peered around as if someone else was coming. “Did Donnelly send him?”

“We have to do this now if we’re going to do it. The longer we wait, the more likely we will find Claire in the river by tomorrow morning,” Townsend explained.

I looked down at my hands. Blood and dirt were crusting on my fingers in splotches of crimson and coffee. It was the first time I’d killed someone since returning home from Iraq. I hoped it would be the last.


© Josiah A. Miller 2018. All Rights Reserved.