Tuesday in the Ozarks
Casual passersby, of whom there were none on that remote road, might have been quite curious had they observed Jake and Denny when the last puff of dust from the deputy’s car settled in the distance. Denny, bent over double, abandoned his chuffing chuckle for a full-scale belly laugh, a soundless expulsion of air that seemed to threaten all future efforts to breathe. He held this position, wheezing back to life, finally, and looked over at Jake who, bent from the waist, hands on his knees, retched violently into a patch of Queen Anne’s lace and black-eyed Susans.
“Man o man, poor old Merle must have been struck blind or something. Can you believe it?”
Jake couldn’t answer. He was sure he had utterly emptied his belly, but he couldn’t stop. Green and yellow circles and red stars danced before his eyes, and he heard a high-pitched whine in his ears. He fervently wished Denny had shot him earlier in the day.
“When you finish spitting up like a baby, we’ll move to another location. Time for a nice leisurely lunch, doncha think?”
Jake ran his hand over his face and climbed back into the Humvee. He could take his own pulse by listening to the throbbing inside his skull, and his teeth felt as if they were wearing dirty socks. He couldn’t bear to look over at Denny steering the old vehicle down the road.
Denny didn’t speak again until he had pulled onto a grassy verge. “You’re not talking. What’s the matter? You mad at me or something?” He spread a tired old orange checked oilcloth, crackled and flaking, over the flat hood, and began dividing the contents of Kate’s picnic basket on two paper plates.
“I don’t know what to think. One minute you’re playing tough-cop interrogation with me as the target, and the next thing I know, you’re the sensitive protector of wildlife and a cop with a loaded gun hanging off his belt is giving me the once over. Now it’s picnic time. What’s the deal? Do you believe my story or not? Or is this a game to you—playing me like a cat with a mouse and saving me to finish off yourself later?”
“Awww, Bubba’s feelings are hurt.” He finished dividing the lunch and stuffed a brownie into his mouth, popped open a can of Orange Crush, drained it dry, and slammed the can on the hood to flatten it before throwing into the open back window of the Humvee.
“Listen to me, Jake: If I didn’t have a gut feeling you were on the level, neither one of us would be here. I want to be real clear, is all. I need to know your story. I don’t want to be blindsided when I’m in court trying to explain why I did indeed aid and abet a known felon.”
He handed Jake a can of Mountain Dew.
“And count on it. I will end up in the halls of justice, and it will have as little to do with justice as it ever has.”
“Sounds to me like I should hear your story, too.”
“You first. Let’s start with the kidnapping charge. How can you be charged with felony kidnapping—a federal rap—and get probation? That does not compute.”
Jake felt sick again, remembering. Not that he ever really forgot.
“Yes, I was arrested on kidnapping. Still can’t believe it. As you know, the child I supposedly kidnapped was—is—my own son, Joey. My wife and I were having problems.” He bit into an apple and watched Denny slide his sunglasses down his nose so his black eyes bored into Jake with a ‘wake up, man’ look.
“Well, okay,” Jake said, “the truth is, she was running around on me when I went out on a trip. I’m usually home one week, gone two. A couple of times, before I tumbled to what she was up to, I came home to find bruises all over Joey’s arms and legs…” His voice broke. “He was barely four years old. Just a little guy.”
He ran his hand over his head again and went on. “He told the judge, ‘Daddy did it.’ I didn’t figure out until later that Mike—that’s Barb’s boy friend—made Joey call him ‘Daddy.’ That might even have been why he was beating him. I’ve run it over in my mind a thousand times, and I’m convinced I had a sympathetic judge.”
“You call that a sympathetic judge?” Denny demanded. “How come he didn’t throw the case out of court? And what kind of a weenie lawyer did you have? Those miserable parasites…”
“Oh, don’t go off on that. My attorney did great. He convinced the jury that Barb didn’t just commit adultery, she was an unfit mother. She would leave Joey and Annie—Annie was only eight at the time—and go to a bar until 2:00 a.m. I wasn’t real comfortable with that part being in the paper and all, but then I guess I was a little slow catching on to how casual she was about our wedding vows.”
Jake took a bite out of a granola bar and looked over at Denny leaning against the truck, chewing and nodding. “I guess the whole story didn’t surprise anybody else in town.”
Denny scrunched up his forehead and emitted a low growl Jake didn’t know how to interpret, so he went on:
“Why I say the judge was sympathetic is, he took great pains to instruct the jury that Joey was my own boy, and the little guy obviously loved and trusted me. Then, too, I think they took seriously my testimony that I took him with me because I wanted to protect him. Anyway, they reduced the charge to felony domestic abuse, and I was sentenced to time served plus three years probation. Everybody was surprised at that. Barb is still mad.”
“But you can’t see your kids.”
“No.” This was always the hardest part for him to understand. “As soon as my attorney started talking about Barb being an unfit mother, she hired an attorney herself to dispute that charge. Can’t say as I blame her.”
Denny groaned and motioned for Jake to continue.
“Her fitness as a mother wasn’t what the trial was all about, but her attorney demanded that as a condition of probation she would have full custody of the kids and I had to stay away. At the end of the three years—one year from now—I’ll go back to court and they’ll decide whether to lift that restriction. I could still be stuck with it, even when my probation is up. Or would have been up, except for this mess.”
“How come you aren’t mad at Austin? That little brat ruined your life.”
“What do you expect—he’s only six years old. And he didn’t ruin my life—I managed that all by myself.”
“Almost seven,” Denny corrected. “Old enough to know better. I will say I don’t think he’s exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer.”
“That’s not fair. He hasn’t been too well disciplined, I’ll grant you, but kids act on impulse and make dumb decisions. What am I saying? Kids. As if freaking out and hiding in the hills when I found him was a rational move.”
“What about Christina?”
“Nothing about Tina. I’m out of her life. I left a message for her and told her to forget me.”
“After they talked to her last night, Poppy and Kate were awfully quiet, and I wondered if that’s what happened” Denny said, watching Jake as he spoke. “You’re a real prince, you know? First you wine and dine the woman, then you just leave a message for her and tell her she’s history? How could you hurt her like you did is what I wanna know. You were about half growing on me, as a decent sort of fella, I mean, but dropping Christina like a rock was cold, man.” He shook his head in disbelief.
“I tried to call her Friday night—that’s when I was supposed to be there—but she had left by the time I called so I left a message. I wanted to call her back—started to, but then Poppy said it was too risky, that the FBI might be tapping her phone.”
“Aaagh, I don’t know why Poppy is so nervous about stuff like that,” Denny said.
Jake peered over his sunglasses for a few seconds before continuing. “Did you know she emailed me?”
“You have a computer on your truck?”
“I carry a laptop; a lotta guys do, and I accessed my account up at Poppy’s. They have a computer, you know.”
“For a couple of old recluses, they’re sure up to date, aren’t they? So what did Christina say in her email?”
“Mostly that I’m a jerk. Nothing new. Except for some reason she evidently thinks I ran off to be with another woman. She kept asking who was with me.”
“Where’d she come up with that idea?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“I still don’t see why you had to dump her.”
“What good am I to her? I’m going to be in prison for the rest of my life. She deserves better, and you know it.” Jake said, annoyed at being put on the defensive for something that hurt so bad. “I don’t know what you’re so steamed about; now you have clear sailing.”
Denny made a big production out of pitching an apple core into the field. When he turned back, his face was closed, eyes flat.
“You mind explaining that remark?”
Jake was sorry he had said anything, but it was too late now. “You’re in love with her. Any fool can see that.”
“Any fool, huh? Well, you’re the fool if you think I’d ever touch her. I love her, I won’t deny it, but more like a big brother.” Out of apple cores, he began pitching small stones. “I’m too old and too big, not to mention too crazy to think of her any other way.”
“Crazy like an overgrown fox, near as I can see. Now cut the baloney and tell me what’s going on with you. Why are you so distrustful of the sheriff? You enjoyed messing with poor old Merle’s head way too much. What did he ever do to you?”
“Nothin’. Merle’s too dumb to be dangerous to anybody but himself. By the way, I saw the gun, too, but I don’t know if it was loaded. I doubt it, myself. Even Merle knows he’d shoot his own business off before he ever pulled the gun out of the holster.” Another stone pinged off a steel post several yards away. “Sheriff Staley isn’t much for training his deputies in the art of shooting straight, mostly because he wouldn’t know how.”
“You aren’t just distrusting; you’re downright cranky. What’s it all about?”
Denny looked at his watch and made a 360 degree visual sweep. “Looks like nothing is going to happen for a while. How about we drive a little farther and then settle down in a grove of trees I know about until it’s time to make a run for Harrison?”