Monday afternoon in the Ozarks
Jake had a pretty good idea what sort of man would show up when Poppy called his friend, ex-FBI out of Harrison, Arkansas, to help them figure out how to send Austin back to his people and maybe even keep Jake out of prison. They had just finished lunch, and the former agent was on his way over.
Yep, he knew what to expect: a fit and trim fellow in a perfectly tailored suit, starched shirt and boring tie—probably red, white, and blue—muscled, but not so muscled that the press in his sleeves lost their knife-edge sharpness. He’d have a military haircut, granite-strong jaw, shining shoes, and stand at attention at all times. A straight from Dragnet, just the facts, ma’am, Joe Friday type.
Which is why, when Denny Turco stood in the open doorway, Jake didn’t have any idea what he beheld.
Denny, at six feet six inches tall, at least 350 pounds, may have been muscled, but if so he had cleverly disguised it under a bright red Razorback sweatshirt that skimmed the top of loose jeans held up, but barely, by a very wide belt. Stomping his scuffed work boots on the braided entry rug, he looked around the room and furrowed his brow. “Somebody wanna see me?”
As he stood there blocking most of the light, Austin came out of the bedroom, ran up to him and stopped, tilted his head sideways and asked, “Are you the guy on Wild World of Wrestling? You know, Mountain Dog Dooley?” and socked him in the stomach to gauge his toughness.
Watching, Jake wondered again about the child’s parents. Clearly they hadn’t taught the kid a thing about being careful who he talked to.
Good thing, being without fear, come to think of it. A six-year-old shouldn’t be out of his Dad’s sight long enough to know anything about danger or pain or fear, even from strangers. Parents need to protect their children. Dads, especially. He tried to swallow as it came up in his throat again, the sour green bile of angry helplessness.
In a single movement Denny grabbed Austin’s wrist and held him at arm’s length. He stared at him for a long minute before growling, “No, kid, I am not Mountain Dog Dooley, and I do sincerely hope you’re not who I think you are!”
His eyes met Jake’s and he released the boy who walked with him toward the table where Jake sat enjoying his fourth cup of coffee.
His voice flat and husky, Denny asked, “You think I’m the wrestler type, Slick?”
Jake couldn’t take this lumbering hulk seriously. He smiled. “Maybe. Either that or the former governor of Minnesota.”
“So the truck driver’s a wise guy.” He leaned over, his face inches from Jake’s, his close-set eyes black slits between puffy eyelids. “Listen, pretty boy,” he warned, “you harm one gray hair on either of these old heads and you’re gonna be my own special project.”
He stared at him another minute before moving away, then wearily dropped his great bulk into a chair. “O man, I hate this!” He sat, alternately rubbing his day old beard and scratching half-inch bristles on top of his head. “Poppy, what did you get yourself into this time?”
A twinkle of merriment in their eyes, Poppy and Kate watched Denny introduce himself to Jake and Austin. Despite the gravity of the circumstances, the older couple couldn’t hide their amusement.
Denny leaned back in his chair, remaining silent and chewing on the inside of his thumb during the half-hour it took the rest of them to explain how they had all come to this point. Silent, that is, except for an occasional chuffing sound, a bit like horses make on a cold winter morning. Jake finally figured out it had to be Denny’s version of a chuckle, and decided the fellow had a bleak sense of humor.
When Denny had a question, he didn’t say anything, he just raised his forefinger and Poppy filled in the details. Every time Austin interrupted with a detail, Denny glowered at him and soon the boy’s outbursts ceased.
They all fell quiet when they had finished the account up to when Jake and Austin showed up at the cabin Friday morning.
Into this silence Denny asked, “You got summa them brownies, Kate? Maybe a glass a milk, if it’s good’n cold?”
Kate set glasses and a frosty white jug of milk on the table, then brought a plate of rich, gooey chocolate goodies and passed a stack of napkins before sitting down again.
They all waited while most of the brownies disappeared, washed down with milk. Denny wiped his mouth delicately and returned his napkin to the table.
He leaned back again, not looking at anybody. “You’re going to jail, Slick.”
Jake listened quietly, but the others objected loudly.
Denny held up his hand for silence and continued. “No way you aren’t headed for the slammer until this is all straightened out.
Giving him his full attention, now, he went on, “Jake, you’ve got the kid and they know it. You concealed his location for, what? Three days now? They’ve got probable cause, man. I can’t make it go away.”
“I’m not real sure what your story is—not a lick of sense, I can see that—but you look pretty harmless to me. So. Here’s how it’ll go:
I’m gonna take you to Harrison and you’ll turn yourself in. Then what I’d like to do is make sure the kid shows up at wherever his folks are at about the same time you walk into the FBI office. If we can tell the Feds that’s what’s happening, they might not sit on you so hard.”
“We’ve been thinking about how to do it, ” Poppy said. “Christina lives in Dallas, you know, and if Kate and I drove the boy as far as, say, Fort Smith, or even some place in Oklahoma if we went farther west than Fort Smith. We could meet her there and she could take him on in to his grandparents.”
“How will we know she’s there and that they’re both all right?”
“We won’t. We’ll plan our time carefully and make sure she has enough time to deliver Austin, even if she runs into traffic, She has a car phone and if she runs into trouble she can try calling your cell phone, Denny. The problem is, how do we know you’ll be near a tower? Cell phones are so unreliable in these hills. That’s why we need to plan carefully and pray hard.”
“Just a minute!” Jake jumped to his feet. “I’m going to jail, right? It’s my own fault. Now we’re talking about involving Tina? It’s not going to happen. I won’t have her put in harm’s way. I should have driven to the next highway patrol and put an end to this mess Friday. Forget about your complicated plans!”
Denny sat up straight, exhaling through flared nostrils like a bull discovering the indignity of a rodeo chute. “Whoa, there! Hold your horses! Let me see if I got this straight: This truck driver here didn’t show up on this ridge outa nowhere, did he? He knows your granddaughter? How well does he know her? How long has this been going on? Anything else you folks wanna tell me?”
Kate, apparently the only one unfazed by his blowup, got up to refill the brownie plate, patting Denny’s shoulder in passing.
“Jake’s brother Albert knows Christina from the salon, and Albert introduced them. They’ve been spending time together, and were here with us for a weekend a while back. From what I just saw, I think he cares more for her safety than for his own.”
“Man! This puts everything in a whole new light. Until a minute ago I’m thinking this sorry little sap accidentally finds his way up to the cabin and tells Poppy and Kate a sad story. They know I’m a sucker for a guy who runs a little sideways of the authorities, so here I come to help these old friends with a problem. Dumb ol’ Denny to the rescue.”
He rubbed his head with both hands. “All this time I’m thinking I gotta make sure some nervous Nellie local cop doesn’t spot him and think he’s doing his civic duty by shooting first and asking questions later.” Denny stood up and paced the room, rattling dishes in the hutch with every heavy step.
“Now I’m thinking, I’d be harboring a fugitive and setting myself up to be an accessory after the fact and a whole bunch of other messy legal junk for a guy who’s evidently half a bubble offa plumb.
“I should call the FBI right now and haul his butt in there this afternoon.”
He sat down again and grabbed another brownie, chewing this one slowly and thoughtfully. “I gotta think about this.”
Subdued, Austin followed the conversation intently, studying the face of each speaker until he could remain silent no longer. “Mr. Denny,” he began, without his customary bravado, “please try to help Jake. It’s not his fault, honest. I wanted to see inside his truck and fell sound to sleep. Jake was nice to me. He didn’t use swears at me nor nothing.”
Denny studied first Austin and then Jake for a full minute. “I gotta get some air.”
Through the window they watched him walk around his red pickup truck, alternately talking to the sky and gesturing, punching, and then studying his feet, hands in his pockets.
“What’s he doing?” Austin wanted to know.
“It looks to me like he’s praying and listening for an answer.” Kate said. “Did you notice how testy he got when we talked about Christina? What was that all about?”
“I’ll bet he’s in love with her.” Jake said quietly.
“Yep, I wondered about that,” Poppy agreed. “I sure didn’t see that one coming. I wonder if Christina knows.”
They watched without talking as Denny got into his truck. After about ten minutes he stepped out, marched into the kitchen and sat down, his manner indicating the rest of them should join him, and pay attention.
“Jake,” he began, “You’re divorced, right? I mean, you aren’t married and cheating on your wife?”
“Yes. No. That is, I’m not cheating on my wife. I never cheated on her. I’m divorced, yes.”
“Are you in love with Christina?”
Jake gulped and looked from one to the other. “Yes.”
“Does she love you?”
“I don’t know. I think so, but she hasn’t told me she does. She likes me, but…see, there was a problem, so I don’t think she‘d tell me even if she did.”
“You mean a problem like, she’s one of them born-agains and you’re not?”
“Wasn’t.” Poppy corrected.
“You are now?”
“You sure? You’re not just saying so to get on Christina’s good side?”
“You must not know Tina, uh, Christina very well if you think I could deceive her. Poppy and Kate have been teaching me and helping me the last couple of days. I know God is real—guess I always knew that, but yesterday I gave up my life to Him. Not that I was doing God a big favor. Or had a choice. But I meant it. I believe they’ll vouch for me.”
Denny studied Jake another minute and then said, “Okay, we’re gonna do it. I was out there listening to my scanner, and things are heating up. They found your trailer, you know,” he waited for Jake to nod. “So they’re zeroing in on this part of the state. We can’t take a chance on the local sheriff getting his hands on you.”
“If I surrendered to the local sheriff’s office wouldn’t he just lock me up and call the FBI?”
Denny chuff-chuffed, his chins shaking with the effort. “You’re not from around here, fella. What they’re saying is, a truck driver kidnapped a little boy. Now how do you think it looks? They got two guys tailing your brother, which should tell you something.”
He waited for the implications to sink in. “The local guys grab you, man, and you’re gonna disappear forever. One of the reasons they aren’t using dogs to track you down right now is ‘cause dogs would find more bodies than they want to have to explain.”
Jake raised his eyebrows at Poppy, asking him to verify, but Poppy just winked at him and made a “let it go” motion with his hand.
Denny explained: “They both think I’m paranoid, I know that. They know I had a heart attack and a nervous breakdown. They think I exaggerate, but I do know what I’m talking about.”
At Jake’s startled expression he went on. “Let’s just say, in my pre-redeemed days I may not have been the refined gentleman you see before you today.” That set off several chuff-chuckles. “Oh yeah. Told you I retired, did they? Well there’s a whole lot more to my story, but we don’t have time to go into it right now.”
Jake decided he had about all the information he could handle, anyway. “I appreciate you helping me, Denny, and I’ll take your word for it when you say you know the best way to go. What do you want me to do?”
“I ain’t doing this for you, Slick, so don’t thank me. I’m doing it for Christina. She’s had enough in her life without her boyfriend waking up dead.”
“Now here’s what I want you to do: First thing, don’t be taking a shower. Don’t wash your hair or shave. You can raise a beard, can’t you?” He chuff-chuckled and went on. “You need to rub some dirt into your pants and scuff your boots some. And whatever you do, don’t be pouring on any of that sissy perfume you wear.”
“It’s after-shave, not cologne. And yes, I can grow a beard. In fact my beard is heavy and dark, and by tomorrow afternoon I’ll look downright rustic. But why do I have to look and smell like a bum?”
“You might have to suddenly turn invisible if we happen to get stopped, and if my whole truck stinks like your perfume—okay, after-shave—nobody is going to believe it’s me. Or I might have to pass you off as my sister’s boyfriend or something. I dunno. I want to be ready for anything, and I don’t want you looking and smelling like a candle shop.”
“Now, Kate, let’s call your granddaughter and see if we can get her lined up to take the kid back. Where is the little pill, by the way?”
When calling Austin’s name through every room in the house produced no results, one of them suggested that he must have gone outside. At that possibility, Denny looked stricken and covered the distance from where he stood in front of the great fieldstone fireplace to the front door in surprisingly few heavy strides, punctuating every other step with groans of “O man. Tank!”
Reaching his truck, Denny flung open the door, took one look inside, and snorted, “Oh man. TANK!” He slapped the hood and then rubbed his head in complete exasperation. “Tank! What kind of a good-for-nothing guard dog are you?”
Wiggling with obvious delight, tail thumping merrily on the steering wheel, the object of his frustration was fully occupied with licking the ear of the giggling boy who laid across him, twiddling the dials of Denny’s police radio.
“What’s the matter with you, kid?” Denny asked Austin. “That dog is a Rottweiler! He could bite your head off at the shoulders without half trying.”
“Aw, he’s not mean. He’s my friend, aren’t you, Buffy?” Austin scratched the giant head of the beast. “Look! He even smiles.” Austin pulled the dog’s black lips up to show teeth that had on other occasions chilled the blood of full-grown men.
“Tank! His name is Tank! What’s with Buffy? Don’t be giving my dog a cutsy name. Buffy! You trying to make him a sissy?” Denny gazed dispiritedly into the truck, his shoulders slumped in defeat. “And what do you think you’re doing with my radio?”
“Nothing. I wanted to see if I could hear the police talk about me and Jake, but I can’t get it to work.”
“Let’s get something straight, and I’m not kidding. Now sit up and listen.” Austin obeyed instantly and Denny went on. “It just so happens that Tank here is a big phony, but you can’t ever count on dogs. Don’t EVER even get NEAR a vehicle with a dog in it, do you understand me?”
“And aren’t enough people in trouble because you crawled into somebody’s car, OR truck?” he amended when Austin moved to correct him. “Do not ever again get into a stranger’s vehicle of any kind without the express permission of one or both of your parents. Are we clear on that?”
Austin nodded again. “But you aren’t a stranger,” he said to Denny. “I didn’t get into a stranger’s truck this time, did I?”
“We are not in the courtroom, little Mister, and I’m not going to debate the fine points of the law with you.”
Denny held Austin’s chin and compelled the boy to look him in the eye. “Do we understand each other?” Austin nodded, but Denny repeated his question. “Do we understand each other?”
“Yes,” said Austin meekly.
“Yes, what?” Denny asked.
“Now, those shoes gonna work for you until you get to your folks?” Denny pointed to the tennis shoes he’d brought with him at Kate’s request. He had borrowed them from his sister for Austin who had left his in the family van.
“Yeah, they’re great. Can I keep them?” Austin displayed his feet for their admiration, his toes clearly visible through ragged holes.
“All right. You be ready early tomorrow morning, and don’t be giving Poppy and Kate any trouble tonight.”
Denny helped Austin down to the ground, climbed in his truck beside his fierce guard dog and drove away.
Tank stuck his head out of the open window and looked back, whooffing at Austin who waved and called out “bye-bye Buffy” until boy and dog lost sight of one another.