by Brian Haycock
I was sitting at the picnic table on my car lot, three in the afternoon. A hot wind blew across the desert, picking up the dust and turning it into a fine haze that swirled in the afternoon air. The wind blew into Flatiron and scoured the town like sandpaper scraping across a raw red nerve. I’d hosed down the line of cars twice that day and they were already showing off a new coat of dust. I wasn’t in the mood to hose them off again. I wasn’t in the mood to look at them.
I opened a Shiner Bock. It was a little early to start on the beer, but I didn’t have much else to do. I kept the cooler under the table. If a customer came by I figured I could offer him a bottle, get him in the mood to do some business. Not that there were any customers coming by. The old state highway was empty and forgotten. The way it looked, I’d have the beer all to myself.
I would have closed down and gone home, but I was living in the old Airstream trailer I’d had on the lot six months without getting a real offer. And I’d have gone in the trailer to drink, but the window unit had crapped out. It had to be a hundred and twenty in there. That evening I’d hose it down hard and open the windows to blow the cool night air through and by two in the morning I’d be able to sleep in it. Then I’d get up around ten and start all over again, hosing down the cars.
I was fed up with the used car business. I’d gotten into it two years before, when the flow of oilfield workers out of Flatiron had gotten going. I got a small loan from the bank and started picking up old vans and work trucks from the roughnecks who didn’t have gas money to get to wherever the jobs had gone. I was picking them up cheap, and I figured I’d turn them over at a pretty good profit.
I was wrong.
The roughnecks were leaving because the wells were running dry. There was so little oil left in Flatiron the companies could cover the remaining wells with relief crews from Midland and a few Mexicans when they got desperate. And there wasn’t anyone coming into Flatiron to replace the roughnecks. Without the oil money, the local economy was based on meth labs and whorehouses out in the desert, and the whorehouses were heading out with the clients.
So I had a line of thirty-six of the ugliest vehicles on God’s brown and burning planet on a strip of bare dirt in a town no one wanted to live in. My best plan was to live on what I could get for the cars and tell the bank to go to hell when they came looking for their loan payments. I felt like I should have blown my brains out when I could still afford bullets.
Jimmy Malone pulled into the lot in his F-250. The truck was ten years old, on its second engine, its third transmission and what little was left of its original paint job. I’d been paying Jimmy to tow house trailers to a dealer up in Midland. The way it was working out, I was making about fifty dollars a trailer on the deal. It wasn’t what I’d planned on making. Jimmy wasn’t making any more than I was, not after burning a gallon of gas every five miles between Flatiron and Midland.
He came over and sat at the table, pulled a bottle from the cooler, popped it. “How you doing, Harker?”
“Bout like you see.”
“I dropped that trailer off yesterday. Clete says hold off on bringing any more for a while. He needs to sell some to make room.”
“Yeah, I kind of saw that coming.”
Jimmy took a long pull, stared off into the clouds of dirt. “Hey, you hear about Cale Younger? He got popped down on the I-10.”
“Popped for what?”
“DPS got him on a traffic stop. What I heard, he was shitfaced, driving about like you’d expect. Then they searched the car — he had that old T-Bird he drives — and they found a couple grams of blow in the glove compartment, about a key of the chronic in the trunk. So that’s intent to distribute right there. And with his history, they’ll be keeping him in jail as long as they can.”
Cale and I had some history. We’d been friends back in high school, played football together for the Flatiron Riggers, but things had soured after that. He’d been working the border for some time, bringing in anything he could get cheap in Mexico and sell in Texas. Mostly low-grade heroin, but he liked to branch out when he could. His attitude had gone to hell somewhere along the way. I tried to avoid Cale as much as I could. Fact was, he scared the crap out of me even on his good days. And he didn’t have many of those.
“He’s screwed,” I said.
“Yeah, that’s what I figure. Here’s the thing. He’s got these storage units out in the desert. A shipping container and a couple of tin storage sheds and a school bus up on blocks. It’s all hidden pretty good. I figure there’s got to be a fortune out there.”
“How do you happen to know about this?”
“Well, I saw him out on the ranch road one day, way up ahead of me, and I saw him pull off and drive out into the desert. So I was thinking, what was he doing going out there? So I watched the dust he was kicking up out there. I could see it from the road. It looked like he went a couple miles, and there ain’t nothing out there. So I headed back down the road and waited for him to come out. When he was gone I drove down there, followed his tracks, and I found the bus and the units, like I told you. I was plenty worried about being down there, so I came right back out. But I’ve thought about it a few times since then. You know, I’ve got that guy up in Odessa, he can turn over whatever I can get my hands on, no questions.”
“And now that Cale’s in the can you figure it’s time to take a closer look.”
“This would be the time, yeah.”
“And why are you telling me about any of this?”
“Well, what I saw, those sheds are locked up pretty tight. And the shipping container. That’s where the good stuff would be. I’m thinking I’m going to need some help getting things open. And tools, which I don’t have. Like bolt cutters. You still got that welding torch?”
“Yeah. I’ve still got it.” I hadn’t used it in a couple years, but I still had it.
“Plus, you know, I’m a little scared, doing something like this. If I screw up, it’s my ass. I could use someone, you know, a partner. I don’t want to do it alone.”
“Yeah, I’d be a little worried about this myself. Cale finds out, that’s all she wrote.”
“He’ll never know. They’ve got him in a jail cell, and they won’t be letting him out for a long time. He’s got flight risk stamped on his forehead. We could go out this evening, open it all up, take a good look. Hell, this works out, you could get this car lot paid off, get yourself some breathing room. Maybe get out of town. And I could… well, I could think of something. I’d really like to get one of those big-screen TV’s.”
I thought about it. I’d have to be desperate to rip Cale Younger off, even if he was in jail and unable to do anything about it. But the truth was, I was desperate. I’d been telling myself for years that things would turn around, and they’d only gotten worse. And if I didn’t go out there, Jimmy would go out on his own and either get rich or get himself killed. Probably the latter. The truth was, he wasn’t a real criminal mastermind. I had to look out for him. That’s what I told myself.
Besides, I thought we’d get out there, find a rusting old bus in the desert, have a good laugh about it. That would be it.
“Sure. Let’s do it.” I finished the bottle and threw it at the trashcan. “Let’s get rich.”
We met at six. We wanted to get out there while it was still light, but not while it was so hot we’d get heatstroke. I didn’t want to use my red Silverado in case anyone saw us out there. We took a blue Ford work truck off the lot and loaded it with my Truk-Box and the equipment from my tool locker. Bolt cutter, chains, pry bars and a come-along. I had a bottle of acid, figuring I could pour that into a padlock to open it up. Whatever it took. And my welding rig. I hoped I wouldn’t need that. It would be a little too hot out there for welding.
And the .38 I kept in my nightstand. You can’t be too careful.
Jimmy was unsure where to turn off the ranch road. Tire tracks don’t last long in the dirt and I had a feeling Cale wouldn’t have taken the same route every time he went out there. The whole area looked just like everything else around Flatiron. Empty land no one wanted any part of. Finally he turned and started off across the desert, winging it.
“I figure it’s about two miles out,” he said. “We’ll get out there and look around. It’s a little hard to see. He had camo netting set up on everything when I was out there. But we’ve got time. We’ll just look around til we find it.”
I wasn’t so sure. It’s a big desert, and it all looks about the same once you get away from the road. Mesquite brush and red dirt. Creosote. Dead grass here and there. More dirt. We rode in silence for ten minutes, then Jimmy slowed to a halt.
“That’s two miles,” he said. “You see anything?”
“Not from here.” I got out and climbed onto the truck bed and then up on the roof. Everything looked about the same. Then I saw it. A strip of bare dirt set down a little that just looked wrong. As I stared at it I knew it had to be Cale’s stash.
I got back in and pointed the way. It was a quarter mile, maybe less. Jimmy was getting excited. He was talking about what he was going to do with his share of the money we were going to find out there, but I just tuned him out. I didn’t want to think about the money. I was too worried about what Cale Younger would do to us if he ever figured out who’d robbed him.
I pulled up. There was a huge tan camouflage tarp weighed down by rocks. Red dirt had drifted across parts of it. We worked a corner of the tarp loose and pulled it back. There was a shipping container and a ruined wooden shed. Behind that was an old school bus covered with graffiti and dust. We went for the shipping container. At one end was an overhead folding door secured at the bottom with a simple padlock. Apparently Cale hadn’t expected anyone to get that far or he would have spent a little money on a better lock. Not that it would matter. Any lock can be beaten with enough time, and there was plenty of that out here.
I got out my three-foot bolt cutters. It took a few tries, but then the hasp folded up and split open. We pulled the lock away and pulled the door open.
It had to be a hundred and fifty inside. Hot air blew out hard into our faces.
I got out a couple mag-lites and we took a look. There were wood crates stacked along one side. Unmarked. I thought there had to be a hundred of them. At the back were a couple beat-up suitcases. That was it. We let the air circulate for a minute before we went in.
Jimmy went right to the suitcases. He was thinking they’d hold cash. I got a prybar out of the truck. I wanted to know what was in the crates. Knowing Cale, I didn’t think it would be stereo equipment. I climbed in and put the pry bar to the crate closest to the opening.
I got the top loose and bent it back. There was packing material in the top. Straw. I pushed it to the side and felt my jaw drop open.
The crate was packed with assault rifles. Big, mean-looking ones. Hard slate gray. I felt through the crate. I counted eleven, but I thought I might have missed one. That would be a dozen. I looked down the line. The crates were piled four high, two deep. Two dozen piles. That would be about a hundred crates, a dozen of the rifles to a case. That would be… a lot of rifles. A thousand. Two thousand. More than that. Enough to invade a small country. Down at the end were stacks of cardboard boxes. Bullets. Lots of bullets. I pushed the lid back in place and stepped back toward the opening.
I could figure what Cale Younger would be doing with a few thousand assault rifles in a storage unit. Guns were popular in Mexico, and hard to get. He was probably shipping hot assault rifles south, using them to buy drugs. Something like that, he wasn’t working alone. I was in way over my head. I wanted to get out of this.
Jimmy had one of the suitcases open. He was staring into it. From where I stood I could see brown bars wrapped in clear plastic. Heroin. It had to be. A lot of heroin. Enough to get us both killed a hundred times over. Slowly and painfully.
“Jimmy, we need to get out of here.”
He looked over his shoulder at me. He was scared, but he was trying to smile. “You know what this is?” he asked.
“It’s trouble. More trouble than we need. More than we can handle. Let’s just get out of here. We’ll go back to our lives, pretend none of this ever happened.”
“No, listen, Harker. I know someone. This guy up in Odessa, I told you about him. I can take this to him, he’ll turn it right over. Man, a suitcase full, that’s got to be…” His voice trailed off. He had no idea what it was worth. “We’ll be set. Come on, man, we can’t just leave with nothing.”
I didn’t like it. But I knew Jimmy wouldn’t give it up. He’d lug a suitcase across the desert and back to town on foot if I didn’t help him. He pulled another suitcase out and opened it. More heroin. I thought I could load one of the assault rifles, blow Jimmy’s brains out all over the storage unit, then get the hell lost. No one would care. When someone found Jimmy in the unit they’d just take him out in the desert and bury him.
“All right, Jimmy. We’ll take one suitcase. No more. But we have to leave now. We really need to get out of here. Just pick it up and let’s go.”
He was reaching down for the last suitcase. He was hoping for money. So was I. It would be a lot easier to deal with. But I didn’t think we’d be that lucky.
We weren’t. The third suitcase was full of heroin. He picked up the first suitcase.
We pulled the tarp back in place and weighted it down. I hoped Cale would be gone a long time and a giant dune would form over it and no one would ever find it again. I knew I’d never be that lucky. My hands shook when I got into the truck and started it. I had sweated through my shirt. I could hear the roar of motorcycles somewhere in the distance. Buzzards were circling in the sky. I wanted to be gone.
Jimmy was excited. He acted like he’d snorted a dozen hits of meth. He threw the suitcase in the space behind the seat and got in and started slapping the dash. He was giggling as I drove across the hard dirt. He started talking about how rich we were going to be. He told me he was going to buy a new truck. An F-350 this time. If there was a 350. And a big old Harley. I’d never seen him so happy.
When we got back to the lot Jimmy put the suitcase in his truck. He drove out of there and I never saw him again.
The next day I worked a deal with a guy in Monahans to swap the Ford truck and a crapped out Taurus for a Chevy S-10 he’d had on his lot for a few months. The S-10 was in good shape, and I thought I’d come out ahead on the deal, but he probably thought he was coming out ahead, too. I just wanted to get rid of the Ford. I was worried that someone might have seen us the night before, and I didn’t want the truck I’d been driving sitting on my lot. I drove the Ford down there with the Taurus in tow and drove the S-10 back. It was after four when I finally opened for business, but there wasn’t any business, so it didn’t seem to matter.
It was around six when Cale Younger drove up in his Thunderbird. I was sitting at the picnic table working on my third beer. Usually I’d be closed down and on my way to a bar before that, but for some reason I’d just been sitting there. Maybe I was expecting Cale to drive up. I wasn’t surprised when he did.
“Evening, Cale,” I said. “It’s been a while.”
“Sure has.” He looked down the row of vehicles. “That’s a fine assortment of rides you got there, Harker. Real fine.”
“If you’re in the market I could fix you up with something. You could drive around without worrying about scratching up the fancy paint job on that old Thunderbird there. Nice thing about these trucks I’ve got. You don’t need to worry about screwing them up.”
“I’ve got a work truck. It’s a hell of a lot better than these. Seen Jimmy Malone lately?”
Right to the point. That was Cale. He didn’t dance around a lot.
“Sure. He’s been hauling trailers up to Midland for me. It’s not a lot of money in it, but there’s some. It’s steady, you know?”
“Well, there might be a problem with that. It might get a lot less steady. What I hear, Malone died last night.”
I stood up and stared at him. “What do you mean, died?”
“What do you think? He was alive, screwing around like always, getting into shit he shouldn’t have been getting into, then he wasn’t. You know, dead.”
“What happened?” My voice came out in a low growl.
“Hard to say. He might have OD’d. He had his face in a pile of heroin when he died. Then again, it might have been the bullet wound in the side of his head. Real nasty-looking bullethole. Didn’t you have an old Ford truck out here last week? A blue one?”
“The fuck are you talking about, Cale? What happened to Jimmy? You have something to do with this?”
“I might have. Or not. You don’t want to screw around with me, Harker. This ain’t high school.”
“I know that. For one thing, we were friends then. You come out on my lot telling me Jimmy’s dead and not to screw around with you, it sounds like we aren’t now.”
“I asked you about that truck. Let me be straight with you. Jimmy robbed me. That doesn’t happen. Ever. I had a little legal problem the other day and while I was dealing with that some sons of bitches robbed a storage unit. Some guys I hang with saw a blue truck driving off from there. They thought a Ford. Of course, I paid a visit to a couple of the local lowlifes when I got back to town, and when I turned up at Jimmy’s he was working on a pile of smack with a straw. He’d have been shooting it if he could have figured out how to do it. So, like I said, he died. And of course I thought of you. You were always hanging around with the guy. And I was wondering about that blue truck. Tell me about it.”
“I moved that last weekend. It’s out in Monahans. You know, this is West Texas. There’s a lot of blue F-150’s around. You killed Jimmy.”
I paused, let that sink in. Then I went for Cale Younger. He was two steps away, too far for a sucker punch, but I caught him off guard and threw him to the ground, then got a knee into his chest and started throwing punches into his face until I got bored. That took a while. Then I got off him.
There was a lot of blood. It looked like there were some teeth on the ground. He had one hand over his face. I kicked him a hard one in the ribs and stepped away. I picked up my beer and took a long swig. I waited.
After a few minutes he sat up, using his elbows for support. “You’ll be sorry you did that,” he said. He was trying to sound tough, but it’s hard to pull that off when your mouth is broken and you can’t stand up.
I kicked him again and he went back down. This time it took longer for him to sit up and when he did he didn’t say anything. Finally he worked his way to his feet.
“That’s it, Cale. You’re done here. You go home and pack. I don’t care what you do in this life, but don’t do it here. Right now, I own you. You’re here, you’re dead.”
Cale walked back to his car and worked his way inside. I wasn’t kidding myself. He wasn’t going anywhere. I could take Cale in a fight, but he had plenty of guns and he knew a lot of people who wouldn’t mind using them. He wasn’t finished in Flatiron. I was. I looked down the row of vehicles, trying to do the math. Wondering how far in debt I’d be if I sold them off and tried to cover my loans. Far enough. It didn’t matter.
Time to liquidate. Time to vanish.
I knew trouble was coming and I thought it might be coming fast. I didn’t want to sleep in the trailer that night. I didn’t want to sleep at all. I took stock first thing. I had a hunting rifle and a .38. I loaded them with plenty of bullets and took a sleeping bag and a cooler with beer and hiked across the street. There was a closed-up Texaco gas station with plywood windows over there. A hand-painted sign that said “tune-ups.” I went around the side and stashed the guns with the sleeping bag and the cooler behind a low wall of cement blocks that had hidden some of a dumpster. I thought I could wait there during the night, see if anyone showed up. I started back for more supplies, then decided to stick the .38 in my belt, just in case. I went back to the lot.
I went into the trailer and called the man in Monahans. “I’m thinking about getting out of the business,” I told him. “Why don’t you come up here tomorrow and make me an offer on my inventory?”
“Sudden, ain’t it?”
“Not really. The truth is, I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while. Really, I’m not that good at selling cars.”
“Well, it helps to have better cars. But sure, I’d be happy to come up and work something out with you. Ten okay.”
“Yeah, that should work.” If I was alive at ten.
That settled, I looked around the place. I thought about packing some things. I didn’t have it in me. The way I felt, I could have put a match to all of it myself. I took a duffel bag and threw in some clothes, some family photos. The papers for the business. Things I’d miss. There wasn’t much. I made a couple roast beef sandwiches and put on a light jacket, carried everything across the street. I got comfortable behind the little wall.
The problem with bringing beer when you’re supposed to be watching out for some kind of trouble is that you’ll get bored and drink the beer. Then you’ll fall asleep. I woke up after midnight to an explosion across the street. I sat up hard. My heart was slamming in my chest. I looked across the street at the trailer. It was in flames. A couple of Harleys went by. The riders were waving shotguns. They went down the row of vehicles, firing into each of them, blowing holes in the quarter panels, blowing out the windshields. There was another explosion and a Dodge Ram caught fire. A grenade. I could hear the riders howling as they worked. I counted four of them.
Then Cale Younger pulled up in his Thunderbird. He was on my side of the street, not thirty feet away. He got out and stood at the front of the car, watching with his back to me. I took the .38 and the rifle and stood into a crouch. I moved forward, being quiet. Not that it mattered with all the shooting the bikers were doing. No one knew I was there I got to the car and pointed the .38 at him.
“Cale,” I said.
He turned around. His face was bruised and swollen.
I smiled at him. “I told you leave.” He reached for something under his jacket but there was no time. I fired the .38 into his face. He flew backwards onto the asphalt. I moved to the back of the car and crouched. Now I had a problem. Younger was lying in the street. The others would see him before long. I thought it out. I wanted to wait there and pick them off one by one, but that would lead to trouble. I would have to explain that to the sheriff when the smoke cleared, and I didn’t think that would go well. I backed away into the darkness.
One of the bikers saw Younger and went over to him. He sat on the bike, looking down. The others stopped shooting and pulled over. They sat there with their engines idling, looking lost. I could almost hear them thinking. Wondering what had happened to Younger. Wondering who was around, waiting for another shot. They looked at each other and revved their engines, headed west on the highway.
Suddenly I could hear the sound of sirens. There was a car coming from the east, another from the west. There was a squeal of tires down the road, some shooting. A cruiser went by, light bar strobing. More shooting. Another cruiser went by, heading into the action. I stashed the rifle in a stack of rotting pallets and stuck the .38 in my belt and pulled the jacket to cover it. I started running down the highway.
It was a quarter mile away. It took me a couple minutes. I passed the Arena Bowl, the Dairy Queen, both of them closed down, the lots gone to weeds. It gave me a chance to go over my story. I could see the scene on the highway. There was a cruiser sideways, blocking the road, another dug in on the shoulder. The third was on the road with the doors open, lights going wild. When I got there two of the deputies were standing over an overturned Harley with a dead man twisted up next to it. They looked twitchy. They put their guns on me, but only for a second. “That you, Harker?”
“Yeah. What the hell?”
“Bout to ask you the same. That’s your place they blew all to hell.”
“It is. And Cale Younger’s back there. They put a bullet in him.”
“Why’d they do that?”
“I don’t know. Me and Cale were out there, having a beer. You know, he was driving by, I was sitting outside, couldn’t sleep. We heard the bikes coming, he got me to go across the street with him. Just being careful, he said, but he was spooked. Like something was going on, you know? So we kind of stayed in the shadows. They saw his T-Bird and figured he was around. They started in, blowing the hell out of my car lot. Started with the trailer. Maybe they thought we were inside, or somewhere around. Anyway, one of them pulled up and was going to toss a grenade into the T-Bird. Cale went nuts when he saw that. You know, he loved that car. He ran out there. I think he was going to shoot the guy, but then he went down. Someone shot him first. One of the other bikers.”
The first deputy nodded. “The sheriff’s on his way. He’ll want to hear that from you.”
“I’ll be here.”
“We’ve got Deputy Riley in that cruiser there. He took a round off a shotgun. Not close enough to do much damage, but he’s pissed off. And Deputy Clark is with him. He’s got a bullet in his shoulder. He’ll be okay.”
“Well, that’s good news.”
“We’ve got this guy, plus two more bikers up there, another one over in the ditch. Not breathing. That’s what happens, you start shooting at us. We don’t miss. And we never run out of bullets. Take a look, see if you know any of them.”
“Sure. I don’t know this one. I’ll check the others.” I walked up the road. The first one I came to was Double Dave. He’d been around Flatiron for a while. He weighed about four hundred. He’d died two feet from his bike. I guessed he’d want it that way. I looked back at the deputies. They weren’t watching me. I slipped the gun out, wiped it on my jeans, got it in his hand for the prints, then tossed it in the weeds. It was a gun show piece, not traceable. I stood up, walked to the other one. I’d never seen him before. I called out. “That one’s Double Dave. I don’t know the rest of his name, but he’s a regular. Used to hang out with Cale, but I guess they had a falling out. This one I don’t know.”
It was dark in the ditch. I didn’t think I knew the one in there, but I wasn’t sure. I didn’t look that close. I walked back up the road to where the deputies were standing. I could see the flames dying out over my car lot. Smoke drifting away in the starlight. There were more vehicles arriving. The sheriff in a cruiser, wearing clothes he’d thrown on when they woke him up. A couple ambulances.
I got out of the way. I went over it in my head. Took stock. My car lot was destroyed, the vehicles totaled by the shotguns. I had insurance for that. The bank had insisted on it. I’d get more on that than I would have from selling off the lot. I thought I’d have enough to pay off my loans and get started on something else.
And I knew where there was a whole lot of heroin out in the desert. I didn’t think anyone was left alive who knew where it was. I thought when things calmed down I could do something about that.