Excerpt for Rumrunners by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



RUMRUNNERS

A McGraw Crime Novel


Eric Beetner





PRAISE FOR RUMRUNNERS


“By far the most fun I’ve had reading a novel in a long time.” —Stuart MacBride, author of A Dark So Deadly


“Buckle up...Rumrunners is a fast and furious read.” Samuel W. Gailey, author of Deep Winter


Rumrunners just never lets up. It’s a fuel-injected, mile-a-minute thrill ride. I had a blast.” Grant Jerkins, author of A Very Simple Crime and Abnormal Man


“Few contemporary writers do justice to the noir tradition the way Eric Beetner does. Others try to emulate and mimic; Beetner just takes the form and cuts his own jagged, raw and utterly readable path. Rumrunners is the latest example of his great storytelling skills, and his uncompromising commitment to the dark, often violent truth at the center of the human heart.” Gar Anthony Haywood, author of the Aaron Gunner series


“Beetner is an old school talent, a crime writer’s crime writer like Gil Brewer (although, in my humble opinion, he’s better than Brewer), who writes stuff that is fast and funny and dark all at once.” Jake Hinkson, author of Hell On Church St. and The Big Ugly



PRAISE FOR ERIC BEETNER


“To be blunt, he’s the 21st century’s answer to Jim Thompson.” —LitReactor


“Eric Beetner seems to have a formula that he has used for every book he has published: Fun plot + believable characters + witty dialogue + breakneck pace = novel that knocks your socks off.” —Regular Guy Reading Noir


“Beetner has a keen eye on how to plot a book that never allows the reader a chance to catch their breath.” —Out of the Gutter





Copyright © 2015 by Eric Beetner

Down & Out Books Edition: June 2017


All rights reserved. No part of the book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.


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The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.


Cover design by Eric Beetner



Smashwords Edition, License Notes


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TABLE OF CONTENTS


Rumrunners


Acknowledgments

About the Author

Also by the Author


Other Titles from Down & Out Books and its Imprints


Preview from Leadfoot, a McGraw Crime Novel by Eric Beetner

Preview from Crossed Bones, a Tommy & Shayna Crime Caper by S.W. Lauden

Preview from Polo’s Long Shot, a Nick Polo Mystery by Jerry Kennealy





For Gracie—you make every day better. Now put this book down, you’re not allowed to read it until you’re older.





1


There was a bullet hole in the window of the donut shop, pasted over with duct tape and an unevenly cut square of cardboard. It had been there ever since Calvin McGraw first came to the shop for a morning coffee and a glazed. But Calvin looked beyond the hole, an artifact from some long ago robbery. He didn’t know how much they would have gotten away with from a donut shop heist. Not enough, he thought.

Instead, he watched the cars go by outside the greasy window. His eighty-six-year-old eyes had barely lost any focus and he mumbled to himself with each passing ride, “Ford. Chevy. Ford. Chrysler. Goddamn Toyota.”

His paper plate held only a sugary ring where his glazed had been, but his coffee was still tongue-scalding hot as he sat on the swivel stool and wasted another day. He didn’t want to be watching cars, he wanted to be in them. Driving fast. Cops on his heels, sirens and gunshots in the air. Tires screaming, rubber burning, oil thrumming through a well-tuned engine like the blood pumping fast through his heart.

Like the old days.

Calvin still remembered. Running liquor through the Iowa trees. Sneaking bales of pot across the river into Illinois. Driving anything and everything for the Stanley clan as they built their criminal empire, such as it was in a lonely southeastern corner of Iowa.

Even today he thought he got out of the game too early. He could still have been driving, like his son—in his sixties and still taking jobs. It wasn’t about the money anymore. The goddamn Stanleys never paid that great anyway. It was about the smell of gasoline and the feel of a pedal when it hit the floor and couldn’t go down any more.

Now here he was. Living in Omaha. How the hell did that happen?

Outside, past the streaks of sugar glaze blurring the window, one of those electric hybrid cars passed by on a whisper.

“Disgrace,” Calvin said out loud.

“What’d you say to me?”

Calvin turned. A skinny man in his mid-twenties, but dressed like Calvin might have in the 1940s, glared at the old man.

“Nothing,” Calvin said.

“No, you called me a disgrace. What did you mean by that?”

Ever since this place started making donuts with crazy-ass things like maple and bacon on them—bacon for fuck’s sake—these downtown types who seemed to think they lived in Brooklyn, not in Omaha about as far away as you could get, had been taking all the stools and raising the price on a cup of joe.

“I didn’t say it about you. I said it about the goddamn battery car that passed by.”

“What’s wrong with electric cars?”

Calvin rolled his eyes. He wanted to sit and watch his cars in silence. Longing and regret about the past was a solitary hobby.

“Nothing other than everything. They’re fuckin’ stupid.”

“I happen to drive a Prius.”

“Of course you do.” Calvin swiveled on his stool. He wasn’t sure if the skinny guy was being bold because Calvin’s age made him feel safe, but he was sure the guy had no clue who he was dealing with.

“Do me a favor,” Calvin said. He curled his index finger twice to draw the man near. The hipster pushed his mustache closer, probably thinking the old man couldn’t hear so well.

Calvin grabbed him by the middle finger. He pulled it back until it nearly touched the back of the man’s hand. The man opened his mouth in a silent scream, too shocked to yell out. Or too embarrassed to be bested by an octogenarian.

“Listen kid,” Calvin tugged the finger closer to breaking. “Just take your green tea-dusted donut with quince paste filling and fuck off out of here. I’m drinking coffee and watching the cars go by. I ain’t hurting you.”

The skinny guy was down to one knee now, wincing in pain.

“Oh.” Calvin looked at him. “I guess I am hurting you now. But I wasn’t then.”

He released the man’s finger. The hipster exhaled like he’d been underwater. Nobody else in the shop noticed their tussle.

Calvin said, “So beat it, okay?”

“You’re crazy. You could have broken my finger.”

“Yes. I could have. And I didn’t. Let’s call that a win.”

Cradling his wounded hand in his other, the man grew a pair of balls again and aimed his angry mustache at Calvin. “I can have you arrested, you know.”

“I guess you didn’t get the message, son.”

Calvin snatched the man’s good hand, twisted his index finger while jerking up on it. Felt the pop. This time, the guy screamed.

Calvin lifted his coffee cup. Still hot. He walked out.





2


“Webb, got a big one for you.” Hugh Stanley didn’t call many people directly, but when you’d known an employee and his family since the day you were born you made an exception. Webb’s father Calvin had driven Hugh’s mom to Mercy Hospital to deliver the boy in a snow storm an early January morning in 1958. Webb was six years old and helped his dad wipe down the back seat afterward, soaking up all the fluid she dumped when her water broke. Didn’t smell like no water to Webb.

“Thank Christ you called, Hugh,” Webb said. “I was beginning to think you all forgot about me.”

“You know how it is, Webb. Things are slow.”

“Yeah, yeah. The economy and all that shit. Isn’t that when people do more illegal substances? Crime goes up? Shit like that?”

“Look, I got a doozy for you. You want it or not?”

“I want it.”

The Stanley family would have liked to think they ruled over a vast criminal empire but really they just happened to be the biggest fish in a very small pond. Running anything and everything illegal was all the Stanleys had known for nearly a hundred years.

And all along the McGraws had driven for them. Like one of those remora fish attached the underbelly of a shark, a McGraw had been swimming along with the Stanley clan for almost a century.

Webb McGraw was the last one. His boy, Tucker, wanted no part in the driving business. Just as well. Didn’t have the nerve for it.

Webb was getting up in years, but still he was the man to call when a Stanley needed a driver. And not some chauffeur around town open-the-door-for-you bullshit. It might not be the thrill-a-minute days of running liquor through the backwoods, but plenty of things got shipped that you wouldn’t call FedEx for.

“This one will set you up for quite a while,” Hugh said.

“Well, color me curious, boss. Whacha got?”

“A certain shipment from a certain pharmaceutical company has been, shall we say, lost en route. I need you to go get it and bring it to me.”

“Alright. What about the boys who found the lost items?”

“Intermediaries. Don’t want them too close to this one, lest they get big ideas.”

“I see.”

Webb stayed true to one of the cardinal rules for driving—never ask what the cargo is. Doesn’t matter if it’s a ton of heroin or a ton of candy canes. You do the job, deliver the goods, say goodbye.

This one, however, was too good for Hugh to keep to himself.

“You know how meth has been our growth industry lately?”

“Lately being the last fifteen years, yeah.” The Midwest was the birthplace of trucker’s speed and now the whole damn country was off the high falutin’ booger sugar of the cities and deep into the hick high of crystal meth. That and corn. Iowa had it all.

Hugh continued with an excitement in his voice like his teenage granddaughter talking about the latest pop music haircut with a record deal.

“We got a whole shipment of pseudoephedrine. Straight from the factory. A whole mountain of the stuff.”

“That’s big time.”

“You better believe it. This one score will keep us in the pink for three years, I figure.”

“My usual cut?” Hugh had blown any chance to lowball Webb on this one.

“For your trouble, twenty-five Gs. How’s that grab you?”

“Wish I got grabbed like that a lot more. When and where?”

Hugh gave him an address across the river in Illinois then almost derailed the whole affair. “You can drive a big rig, right?”

Webb hoped the boss man didn’t notice the pause before, “Sure. No problem.”

An eighteen-wheeler? Hell no, he couldn’t drive that. Webb grew up a muscle car guy. American only. Hated the feeling of anything less than eight cylinders under his feet, but always four wheels and only four. He didn’t go the other way and do motorcycles. But a big rig?

For twenty-five grand, he’d learn.



There were very few pleasantries whenever Tucker’s father called him. He knew he’d turned out to be a big disappointment to Webb. No aptitude for driving, no interest in a criminal lifestyle, hated watching NASCAR.

“You know stock car racing was born out of bootlegging, don’t you? Your granddaddy practically invented the sport.”

“Yes, Dad.” Sigh. “I know.”

Reminding Webb how many times he’d told that story was beside the point. Webb knew he’d explained it hundreds of times before. The kid wasn’t getting it. This was him. This is who he was. It was all in there and Tucker refused to let it out. The real McGraw inside him lived as a prisoner in solitary.

Tucker ignored his dad as easily as he ignored the caged DNA animal inside.

“Tucker, you know anyone who’s a trucker?”

Tucker heard his dad snigger on the other end of the phone, amused by his own rhyme.

“A truck driver? No, Dad. I don’t.”

“Shit.”

“Why?”

“’Cause I’m looking for one.”

Seven phone calls and about a dozen layers of referrals later he found a guy who knew a guy who worked with a guy who did a favor for someone or other who owed some money to Webb.

How the fuck could it be so hard to find a truck driver? Freaking highways were littered with ’em.



When they met up outside Moline, Illinois, neither one could unravel the knot that tied them together. They decided to hell with it, the five grand Webb was paying sure smelled good and this guy, Lonny, could drive a truck and that was that.

“So what are we hauling?” was the first question out of Lonny’s mouth after he got in the car next to Webb.

Webb turned to look at him. Fat gut hanging out a good six inches over a longhorn steer belt buckle, thinning hair at the top that tapered off into a wispy pony tail in back, black T-shirt under an open red-checked flannel. Yep. A trucker all right.

“We don’t ask that.”

“What do you mean?”

“It don’t matter what’s inside. We get in, drive it to the destination and take our check. You always know what you’re hauling?”

“Yeah, I do. I got it on the manifest.”

“Well, no manifest for this one.”

For the forty-minute drive Lonny’s mind wandered to wild speculative places. Guns. That was his first assumption. Arming some militia out in the sticks against the government or the zombie apocalypse, whichever descended first.

Human trafficking. A trailer’s worth of Russian prostitutes or Central American workers. Lonny lingered a little longer on the vision of the prostitutes.

Eventually the curiosity gnawed at him like a chigger under his skin.

“I can’t do the job if I don’t know what I’m hauling.”

Webb nearly drove into a ditch. “What do you mean?”

“You offer me five grand to drive a rig and you won’t tell me what’s in it? It don’t smell good. Might be the risk isn’t worth five grand.”

“I knew it. You bucking for a raise?”

“No. I just want to know what I’m hauling so I know how to proceed.”

The timetable had already begun. Webb was due back in Iowa by morning and it took too damn long to find this lazy trucker. Protocol had to be broken.

“It’s a shipment of unprocessed drugs used to make methamphetamine. The stuff they use to make cold medicine, only before it gets put into the pills and shit. That’s about all I know about it except that it’s worth a shit-load of money and we need to get the load back to my employers by the a.m. Is that enough for you?”

Lonny’s eyes went glassy, lost in thought again. He never would have guessed.

“Yeah, sure. Okay. I’ll do it.”

“Damn right you will.”



The rig sat parked behind a self-storage unit. Two skinny twenty-somethings in hooded sweatshirts and jittery limbs waited by the back of the trailer, twin orange dots from their cigarettes glowing.

Webb parked the car, watched the two kids he was to meet and figured they’d be using a little of the product they were helping to make. No matter what profit they made from their little truck-jacking, most of it was going right back to the Stanleys for powder to put up their nose. Ah, the circle of life.

Webb saw Lonny eyeballing the truck. “Can you drive it?”

“Yep.”

“Then let’s go.”

The two orange dots hit the ground and were crushed underfoot. “Where the fuck you been?” The taller of the two oozed smoke as he talked.

“Driving. Where you been?” Webb countered. Sixty-four years old and he could still bring a cement hard attitude to a meeting if needed.

“We been here freezing our asses off.”

“It’s not even cold out. You should put a little meat on your bones.”

“What, like this fat fuck here?” he said, gesturing to Lonny.

“Why don’t we make this happen so you can get out of here and go soak in a warm tub or some shit.”

“Alright, alright. You wanna check it?”

“Nope.” Webb moved his eyes between the two tweakers. “If it’s not all there the Stanleys will know it and they’ll send someone else out. You know what that means, so I won’t go all schoolteacher and spell it out for you.”

The two men shifted on their feet. It looked like they were about to start a two-on-two basketball game except Webb and Lonny remained flatfooted.

“I wanna see it,” Lonny said.

Webb shot him a look like, didn’t you hear what I said?

“I always check my load against the manifest.”

“I told you there isn’t any—”

Webb heard the metal scrape of the trailer door rolling up. The skinny silent one had pushed open the back and now shone a mag light into the trailer. It wasn’t filled top to bottom with cargo but there were two long stacks on either side leaving an aisle up the middle. Boxes were stacked three high. Webb had a flash vision of the ending to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Lonny’s eyes wouldn’t have been any more hungry than if it had been those Russian hookers.

“Okay, looks good. Shut it now.” Webb tried to hustle it along. All three of the men in his company made him nervous.

Skinny boy jumped up and grabbed hold of the strap then leapt off the tailgate and used his slight body weight to draw down the roll door. It slammed shut like a prison cell.

“You’ll be contacted with payment. Keys?”

The tall one tossed out a single key on a ring. Webb raised a hand to catch it but Lonny intercepted the missile instead.

Webb caught his eye. “We good?”

“Oh yeah, real good.”

Webb saw him spending that five grand already behind his eyes. More belt buckles, probably.

“What about your car?” the tall one said. “Someone coming to collect that too?”

“Keep it,” Webb said. “It’s stolen.”



The rig started right up and after an awkward left turn to make it out of the storage lot they were headed back toward Iowa and Lonny already found a country station on the radio.

The driver’s side window had been left open and the cab had a chill, but the heater worked fine and Lonny seemed to be enjoying the nearly-new condition of the Peterbilt. He rolled the window up and noticed a smear as he did. Something on the weather stripping around the window that streaked as he cranked it back into place. Something red. He cranked the gearbox up as they gained speed toward the highway then Lonny reached out and touched the smear. He checked his fingers.

Blood.

He showed the stain to Webb who shrugged his shoulders. He sure didn’t figure it was those two kids who drove the big-rig out there in the first place. Some poor sucker on his night shift drew the short straw and ended up hauling the wrong cargo.

The after midnight traffic on the interstate moved a steady five miles over the limit. There wasn’t much to be said so Webb and Lonny let the country crooners do all the talking.

Webb breathed a little easier once they were back across the river and into Iowa. Illinois never quite felt right to him. Something about that state felt like a kid who’d been dropped on his head as a baby. There was something…off about it.

When his body relaxed Webb realized how badly he had to piss.

“Hey, pull off the next stop. I gotta take a leak.”

“Yeah, I don’t see any trucker’s friends in here.”

“A what?”

“Empty bottle you can pee in.”

“Jesus Christ, you do that?”

“You get real good at taking out your prick at highway speeds.”

Webb shook his head.



Lonny piloted the rig into a space along a row of other trucks parked and idling.

“Hey, grab me a Mountain Dew in there,” Lonny said.

“You don’t need to piss?”

“Nah. Got a bladder of steel.”

“Okay.” Webb hopped down out of the cab. He dodged oil stains as he walked across the lot to the brightly lit mini-mart and fast food combo.

Easiest twenty grand I ever made, he thought. I don’t even have to do the driving.

More country music assaulted his ears inside, but he could tolerate some whiny twang for the next hour it would take for the truck to be delivered.

After an epically long piss he bought two Mountain Dews and wove between more oil slicks on his way back to the truck.

Looking at the long line of sleeping cabs, yellow running lights on and heaters, TVs and DVDs of porn starring chubby girls playing inside, he felt a wave of nausea. The fumes didn’t help, but it was the realization that he left Lonny unsupervised with the stash.

His brain made a logical justification out of the illogical idea that Lonny couldn’t take off with the load because he didn’t have the address where it was being delivered. Only now did Webb see that if Lonny was going to make off with the rig he would go anywhere but the meeting place.

He gripped a can of Mountain Dew in each hand and began running. The backs of all the trailers looked the same. One truck was a moving van with a bright green logo on the trailer so that wasn’t it. His truck had almost no markings at all. It was generic. Easily lost. Easily hidden.

Webb hadn’t run in quite a while and thoughts of a heart attack now flooded his brain with the influx of fast moving blood. Pressure was building inside the cans of soda as he pumped his arms and ignored the spots of oily ground, his eyes skimming from one trailer to another, all of them blending into one anonymous truck barreling past on the highway.

A lifetime in service to the Stanleys and this was how it ended. Webb would finally be the one to bring disgrace to the McGraws. Losing a few cases of liquor for his dad would have been a hanging offense. Losing an entire big rig full of unprocessed meth? Webb’s mind didn’t even know of a punishment to suit the crime.

A sound penetrated the pounding thoughts. A high lonesome wail. Country music. Webb stopped. He turned to his right, looking at the tractor trailer he stood behind. It had no markings. Plain. He followed the sound.

Inside the cab the tunes were cranked and a tin-eared trucker sang along. Sounded like he was celebrating something.

Webb hoisted himself up on the running board of the cab and saw Lonny belting out a tune, big ol’ smile on his face.

Webb exhaled, felt his blood pressure drop fifty points. Better than leaving a hundred Illinois times. He opened the cab door and slid in, trying to catch his breath.

Lonny didn’t turn down the music or stop singing. He took the can of Mountain Dew. “Thanks!” he shouted over the song. Webb wasn’t sure, maybe Willie Nelson?

Before Webb had his answer he was falling backward out of the cab. The tire iron hit him square between the eyes. That smile never dropped off Lonny’s face.

He tumbled down and hit the cool asphalt, hard. He already tasted blood from the split in his skin across the bridge of his nose. The can of Dew split and sprayed like champagne mocking him.

The sound of the engine coming to life was a T. Rex, King Kong and a Terminator all rolled into one. Webb slid back away from the tire as the gears clawed into reverse like teeth gnashing at meat. The truck began to move and Webb reached out a hand but it only brushed against the front tire as the eighteen-wheeler rolled away.





3


There was a war inside Webb McGraw. Fess up or fuck off were the two sides. The battle had been fierce.

After hitching a ride with a friendly trucker who wanted neither cash nor a blow job for his trouble, Webb arrived back at home base with a choice to make. Tell the Stanleys they weren’t getting their truck or split town and do what he did best—drive. And keep on driving.

There was always the nuclear option—the elaborate lie. Webb never was much for lying. Always too worried he’d get caught to commit to a tall tale. He’d seen too many people over the years get caught out in a lie and pay the price in more ways than he could count. From cash money to digits of the finger and toe kind—to life itself.

No, better leave the lying to the pros. He was a grease monkey, Richard Petty wannabe, leadfoot McGraw like his dad and granddad before him. It wasn’t like them to run, but in his experience it wasn’t like the Stanleys to do a whole lot of sympathetic understanding either.

He landed home about four-thirty in the morning, made a pot of coffee and sat in his empty house to think. No wife. She was cooling in the ground about five miles away under a tombstone built for two waiting for Webb to come home. His only child, his son Tucker, hadn’t been to visit in over a year.

No, Webb faced this dilemma alone. On his second cup of coffee he noticed he hadn’t been spiking it with bourbon. A subtle sign, but a sign nonetheless. He never drank on driving nights. Somehow his body knew he wasn’t done driving for the evening.

In his car—his favorite car, the 1970 Plymouth Barracuda—on his way to see Hugh Stanley he almost banged a U-turn at every intersection he drove through. Integrity got the best of him. The closer he got, though, the harder it was to keep the wheel on the straight and narrow. It didn’t help his nerves any to be parking out front of the Stanley compound at six a.m.

It was six-thirty by the time he stepped out of the car. His finger hovered over the call button at the gate. His name would gain him entry at any hour, but anyone arriving unannounced and this early would get an armed escort to the door. After that, Webb had no idea what could be in store. All his ideas gave him a headache. All Hugh Stanley’s ideas, or one of his shitbag sons, were sure to give him a headache of a very different kind. The 9mm kind. The chainsaw kind. The back tire of his own Barracuda backing up over his melon kind.

Last chance, Webb, he thought. Nothing holding you here except steady employment that had grown not so steady lately. Tucker wouldn’t give a shit if you up and left town. Maybe head out to Omaha and see Dad. Calvin, the old bastard still kicking ass and taking names.

That finger hovered like a mosquito waiting for a fat vein.





4


Tucker burned the pizza. Always going for the extra brown on the cheese like the picture on the box. Dinner was served. The freezer offered little else in the way of second prize so blackened pepperoni pizza it was.

While the dark brown disk cooled in the kitchen, Tucker set up a tray in front of the TV. He’d bought the set of four when he and Jenny were still married. He saw the gesture as an attempt at family togetherness, she saw it as the opposite. An admission of defeat.

“We can’t even sit at a goddamn dinner table anymore?”

“Well, I don’t know. Milo just watches TV over our shoulders anyhow. I figure we could all sit together and watch some programs for families like that Survivor or something.”

“Don’t give me any ideas about running off to a desert island.”

“It’s not like it’s a vacation for those people. It’s hard you know.”

Jenny bore down on him with one of her stares. Her eyes, pretty as they were, burned like twin soldering irons sometimes.



The knock at the door caught Tucker before he could retrieve his charred pizza.

The man at the door did not immediately intimidate. He came alone, wore a tie and button-down shirt under his tasteful leather jacket. He held no weapon and made no move to enter Tucker’s home and yet Tucker was still scared right away.

“Mr. McGraw?” the stranger began.

“Yes.” Tucker held firm to the edge of the door in a pudding-tough attempt at keeping the man out.

“I’m Kenny Stanley. You father works for us from time to time.”

He knew the name. “Yes?”

“May we have a word?”

Tucker thought they were having a word, but what the young Stanley meant was could he come inside and dump a truckload of shit all over his house that would take maybe the rest of his life to clean up. But Tucker knew the name and what the name meant so what else could he do?

“Come in.”

He stepped aside and Kenny walked in with the confidence of a boss over an employee.

“What’s this about?” Tucker asked, declining to offer his guest any pizza.

“I was wondering if you’d heard from your father at all.”

“We talk from time to time.”

“In the last forty-eight hours?” Kenny surveyed the living room with the meager light provided by the single bulb floor lamp and the glow of the muted TV playing Jeopardy.

“Not in about six weeks. Why?”

“We can’t seem to raise him either and he has something of ours. One of his jobs for us. He never made his delivery.”

“I don’t know anything about it.” This was just the sort of visit that kept Tucker far away from the family business all his life.

Kenny grinned with an insincere reptile curl of the lip. “Your family and my family have been in business together for a long time.” Kenny let the statement of fact hang in the air to mix with the charcoal smell of the burnt pizza. “No McGraw has ever missed a delivery. Especially not one of this size.”

“I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about my dad’s business. I don’t have anything to do with it.”

“But, you are a McGraw, right?”

“Yeah. Just not that kind of McGraw.”

“Well, as the next of kin—”

“What? Is my dad…dead?” The meeting had quickly turned into the other sort of visit that kept Tucker out of the business.

“We don’t know. He’s gone is all we do know. No one at his house. His car gone and, more importantly, our cargo gone.”

More importantly? Than a man’s life? Tucker had every reason in the world to hate the Stanleys. Add one more.

“What was your cargo?”

“That’s not important. It was large and very valuable. Those are the key items.” Kenny sounded like he either had one year of law school before he dropped out or he watched a lot of TV.

Tucker had a thought. “He did call the other day.” Kenny perked up. “Only for five seconds which is why I forgot. He asked if I knew any truck drivers.”

“Truck drivers?”

“I don’t.”

“I see.”

“That was it, though. I never heard what he wanted someone like that for.”

“To drive a truck, I assume.” The cold-blooded smile came back to Kenny’s lips.

“Anyway, that was the last time I talked with him.”

“Uh-huh.” Kenny spread his legs shoulders wide like a soldier at ease. “Like I was saying, as the next of kin and me acting as my daddy’s representative, I have to ask you now for your father’s debt to us.”

All three contestants on Jeopardy got the final answer wrong. Some guy won the whole shebang with a hundred bucks in the bank. Tucker was faring no better in coming up with an answer to why this jackass was in his house.

“Excuse me?”

“To put it simply, the debt transfers down. Your father has fucked us for a large sum of money. Money you now owe.” The even keel of his tone stretched even more even, giving it a threatening tautness.

“I can’t…I mean, why should I owe you any money?”

“Because your father owes us money and we can’t find him.”

“So go look for him. I can’t help you.”

“We can find ways for you to help us.”

Tucker sat back onto the couch. “You can’t be serious.”

“I’m a Stanley. We’re always serious.”

Silence enveloped the room thicker than a bad first date. Tucker kept waiting for Webb to jump out of the shadows and announce his big practical joke. When no one did any jumping Tucker began to get angry at Webb for bringing him into a life he’d told his dad he wanted no part of. Tucker knew the infectious nature of a life of crime and wanted to keep himself fully stocked in penicillin against his own dad and anyone like him.

“How much?”

Kenny displayed some of that famous Stanley seriousness. “Ten million.”

“What?” This had to be a joke now.

“And that’s being generous. Years of service have to be worth something.”

“You expect me to come up with ten million dollars?”

“Yes, we do. Unless you can return our merchandise. Then we’ll call it even.”

“Oh, call it even. How nice. Do you have any idea who you’re talking to? Look around you. I sell insurance. My ex-wife takes half my paycheck. I’m about to eat my fifth frozen pizza in as many days because they were on sale last week at the store so I bought a week’s worth. How the hell am I gonna get you ten million dollars?”

“I have no idea. But, I’ll be back to collect it.”

“It won’t be here.”

“Then you’d better find your father.”

There it was. He didn’t really expect Tucker to come up with that amount of money. The Stanleys were using it as leverage to make Tucker dig up his dad. The cash may have been easier to find.

“Let me tell you something,” Tucker said. “He’s much more likely to take your call.”

Kenny moved toward the door, never having made himself comfortable in Tucker’s house, if that was even possible.

“Like I said before, we’re being generous because of your family name. We don’t want to think the worst of a McGraw. Maybe there’s a simple explanation for all this.”

Tucker stood. “I’m sure there is.”

“Until we find out what that is, ten million. Good night. Enjoy your pizza.”

Kenny opened the door and let himself out. Tucker stood in the gloom of his living room trying to get the joke.

Final Jeopardy answer: a lot. Question: How fucked am I?





5


“Tucker who?”

“Your grandson. Your only grandson.” Granted, Calvin hadn’t spoken with Tucker in at least three years, but to not even recognize his only grandchild’s name?

“Oh, shit, yeah. How the hell are you, boy?” Calvin came across the line from Omaha clear as lake ice. The gravel in his voice only faked his age. That rough road of a voice box had been that way for decades.

“Dad’s gone missing.”

“Who’s dad?”

“My dad. Your son. Webb.”

“You don’t say?”

Tucker slapped an open palm to his forehead. “I do say, Granddad, and the Stanleys say too. They came around here asking me to pay for something he stole on his way out of town.”

“Stanleys, you say?”

“Yeah. The Stanleys.”

“Sons a bitches. Been using us McGraw men like slaves for eighty years. Never once looked on us as any more than chauffeurs and errand boys. Fuck ’em.”

“Well, Granddad, I can’t exactly eff them. They want money from me. And I don’t know where Dad is. Have you heard from him?”

“Not in a few weeks. Stole something you said?”

“Yes. A delivery he was making.”

“Bullshit. No McGraw would ever steal cargo. Hold tight. I’ll be right there.”



A trip across the flat cornfield carpet between Omaha and Iowa City took most people about four hours. Calvin showed up in two and a half. The original leadfoot. His dad, Edgar, never lived long enough to see a car with three hundred horsepower. Would have wept like a baby to be behind the wheel of a ride like that.



When his grandfather arrived at Tucker’s house he looked like a returning soldier. Calvin’s face glowed with the wind-blown top-down aura only high speed night driving could accomplish. He walked straight and with purpose to his grandson, a thick hand extended out before him.

“Put ’er in the old vice, kid.” Vice is about right. He pumped Tucker’s hand up and down, squeezing until the bones ached and knocked against their neighbors. McGraw men don’t hug.

“Hope I’m not too late for the wife and kid.”

“They don’t…we’re separated. About three years now, actually.”

“Goddamn. Sorry as shit to hear it, Tuck. Goddamn. McGraw men don’t get divorced, we outlive our wives. My dad, your dad, me.”

“Yeah, well. First time for everything.”

Tucker ran down what he recalled about his conversation with Kenny.

“Ten million?” barked Calvin. “They’re fucking with you.”

“I don’t think they are. I think they wanted to light a fire under me to help find my dad. He didn’t set a specific timetable. Just said he’d be back.”

“Which one was it you say?”

“Kenny.”

“Hmm, don’t know him. Been a while I guess. Hell, I ain’t even seen my own great-grandson in a coon’s age. How is the boy?”

“With his mom. Can we focus here?”

Calvin eyed Tucker with a judgmental look, assessing some kind of weakness in a man who would let his ex-wife take away his only son. With a shake of his head Calvin finished the can of Pabst Tucker gave him the moment he walked in. “Got any more?” Tucker went to the fridge to get another round for Calvin. He stuck with water for himself.

The forced bachelor squalor of Tucker’s house didn’t bother Calvin. He’d been a widower for twenty-seven years and his place in Omaha would take a bulldozer and a hazmat team to clear out. Retirement hadn’t agreed with him. Still spry and in shape he spent time fidgeting around the house like a teenager low on Ritalin. The tank-and-a-quarter blast across Iowa to get there had been the most fun he’d had in years.

“I’ll tell you one thing, Webb didn’t steal nothing and he didn’t run off. He wouldn’t do that. He was a McGraw through and through. We don’t disrespect the job that way.”

“Then where is he?” Tucker had been avoiding the D word since Kenny arrived at his door. If Calvin said it, or at least brought up the possibility, it might lessen the blow.

“I don’t know. But I aim to find out.” Calvin drained the second beer. “That ought to help me hit the hay. What do you say we pick this up in the morning and find out a few things?”

Tucker checked his watch. Twelve-thirty. No other eighty-six-year-old man in the state was still awake. With visions of his dad dead on a roadside and a pile of ten million dollars about to topple over and crush him, Tucker knew he wouldn’t get much sleep tonight. Something about having Calvin there made him feel a little better though.

Calvin lifted his feet and began pressing his body into the couch cushions.

“Granddad, you can have the bed. I’ll take the couch.”

“Couch is good enough for me. Don’t you worry.”

Tucker brought him a blanket from the hall closet.

“Thanks, kid.” For the first time since he arrived, he looked old. “Good to see you.”

Tucker smiled, but it faded quickly. “Good to see you, too.”

Calvin looked back at him with a stare only years can bring. “You want me to tell you it’s all going to be fine, don’t you?”

Tucker turned his head down, fighting off a wave of embarrassment. “It’d be nice.”

“I’m not gonna. Them Stanleys are good, upstanding business people who may have treated us like the help, but always treated us square. But let’s not forget what business they’re in. And these young kids now taking over, they don’t have the same length of memory. Might be your dad isn’t treated with the respect he deserves. But I mean what I say when I say he didn’t steal nothing. No truck. No drugs. Whatever it is, no son of mine ever turned crooked and ran.”

Tucker’s head might have thought his father capable of anything criminal or unsavory, but his heart knew Calvin was right. Webb operated under a strict code of ethics in an unethical profession. It made the alternative harder to stomach.

“G’night, Granddad.”

“G’night, kid. Nice to see you got some of the McGraw code of honor in you yet. Might be you can’t drive worth a shit, but you know never to leave a man behind.”

“He’s my dad.”

“And he’s my son. And we’re gonna find him.”





6


Calvin scratched his balls as he stepped into the kitchen, his white hair at kinky angles from his night on the couch. He ignored Tucker and went straight for the fridge, pulled the last can of Pabst from the plastic rings and cracked the top.

“I made coffee, y’know,” Tucker said, offering a mug.

Calvin took the cup by the handle, looked at the beer, then the mug, then the beer, back to the coffee. He took a long pull on the beer can, swallowed deep, set it on the counter and followed with a coffee chaser.

A loud knock rattled the door. Calvin halted the coffee mug half-way to his lips as he and Tucker shared a look.

“Stanleys?” asked Tucker.

Calvin set the mug down next to the Pabst. “You got a piece?”

“A piece of what?”

“A gun, you fool.”

“No.”

Calvin shook his head like the boy had admitted he couldn’t change a tire.

“Go on ahead,” Calvin said.

Tucker walked to the door. Calvin stayed behind, hiding his body in the doorway to the kitchen which gave him a partially obstructed view of the front door. No way the Stanleys would be so dumb as to come back the very next day to make their claim, and no way they’d come in guns blazing without some talk first. This was not a vengeful clan, they’d rather have the cash.

Tucker opened the door to Jenny, his ex. Tall, blonde with boobs barely two years old and still smelling of that boyfriend who wasn’t much older. Ron. Jerk-off smoked menthols like a high school girl.

Tucker felt the same tugs, like marionette strings, to his heart, his stomach. The flush to his face. The torch he still held for her burned him every time.

“Jenny,” Tucker said with genuine surprise.

“What the hell is that?”

“What’s what?”

“That.” She pivoted her hips and pointed to Calvin’s convertible 1980 Trans Am, his dream car. The Smokey and the Bandit car. The fruits of Calvin’s labor. “Did you get a goddamn new car?”

For a woman who cheated and left him, Jenny was a shit to Tucker.

“No. That’s not my car.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Do you have a woman in here? In my house?”

“Okay, a few things. One, it’s not your house. Two, I don’t have a woman in here and even if I did it’s none of your concern and three, it’s my granddad’s car and he’s here for a visit.”

Calvin faded back around the doorjamb, not wanting the she-devil to spot him.

“Oh.” Jenny’s anger had no place to go. She strained for a direction to aim her momentum. “How is Calvin?”

“Good. He’s good. He was asking after Milo. Wanted to see him.”

“Milo’s grounded. He skipped school again. Third time this month. That boy, Tucker…that boy. He needs a talking to.”

“I wish you’d let me then. This every other weekend crap doesn’t exactly lend itself to a close father-son relationship. He doesn’t tell me things anymore. He’s at the age when he doesn’t want to tell anyone over age thirty a damn thing about his life.”

She thrust out a hip and her bracelets rattled as she planted a hand on her jutted out midsection. “You expect me to increase your visitation without you increasing your monthly payments? No judge is gonna agree to that.”

“Why do we have to get judges involved? Can’t we just be his parents? If the boy needs something, if he’s drifting, let me help.”

“I don’t know, Tucker. I just do not know. Look, I don’t have time to argue about this now. I was driving by and saw the car and I thought…”

“You thought I was holding out on you and buying myself toys.”

She at least had the decency to look ashamed. “Something like that.”

“Believe me, Jenny, you get every last cent that’s left over each month. I’m not going to be buying any new cars any time soon.”

“Okay.” She did her best to peek around Tucker and make sure no women were hiding under the couch or behind the potted plants. “Say hi to Calvin for me.”

“I’ll do that. Would you tell Milo his granddad wants to see him?”

“Okay. Maybe y’all can get a Dairy Queen together or something while I go to the gym.”

“That’d be nice.” Tucker realized his definition of what would be “nice” had eroded over the years.

The high tick-tick-tick of Jenny’s heels faded away as she walked down the driveway, eyeballing the Trans Am.

Calvin stepped out from the kitchen, coffee mug back in his hand. “Quite a reunion there.”

“That was about average.”

“What’s she on about with the money?”

“Alimony. My monthly bill. Her lawyer went after me during the divorce and it happened at a high point in the insurance game. People buying homeowners policies for houses they shouldn’t have ever been in. People with extra money to spend on some peace of mind. Nowadays people spend their extra money on stuff like food and clothing. They set my monthly payment at a time when I made more money than I ever had. Now the judge won’t hear my appeal to get it reduced to match my salary ’cause my base salary is the same, but it was the bonuses and commissions that make the difference. Those are all gone.”

Calvin sipped his coffee, shook his head. “A goddamn shame.”

“I know. The whole system is—”

“A McGraw man hard up for cash.”

“Well, it’s the whole industry really. It’s—”

“You’re pissing away your gift, boy. Selling insurance. What the hell is that?”

“It’s a decent, honest living.”

“It’s a cemetery plot with a business card. It’s an iron lung with a company car. It’s a slow suicide by bus bench advertisements. And it’s a waste of valuable resources. McGraw blood is meant to be coursing through a V-8, not an actuary table. Yes, I know what that is.”

“I’m not a criminal.”

“Bullshit. What you’re doing with your own blood is the biggest crime I know.”

Calvin turned and went back to the kitchen. Tucker followed. Calvin set the coffee mug in the sink, picked up the can of beer, upended it and slurped down the last drops. The can thunked empty on the tile countertop. “Let’s get going.”



Tucker waited for the Trans Am’s engine to quiet from the revs after Calvin started her up.

“Where are we going exactly?”

“Sounds like you need a little dough.”

Tucker sat up in his seat, reacting like he’d been told the roller coaster he was on didn’t have brakes. “I’m not going to steal it.”

“Neither am I. There’s a guy who owed your dad some money. We’ll go see him.”

“Who?”

“A guy.”

“How do you know about it?”

“I actually talk to my son.”

The Firebird squealed tires away from the curb. Somewhere Jerry Reed was singing “East Bound and Down.”



The farmhouse sat with fifty acres between neighbors on either side. The isolation made Tucker uneasy, but anywhere this transaction was to take place would have made him uneasy.

Calvin took it slow down the unpaved driveway, careful not to ride the Firebird’s shocks too hard. Dust kicked up and swirled in through the open T-top. Tucker covered his mouth to keep out most of the dirt which, this being an Iowa farm, he assumed was fifty percent manure.

The fields were low, as if nothing was planted on them at all. The telltale smells of livestock were absent. Whoever lived on this acreage made their money some way other than farming.

The sky had gone overcast in thick gray clouds like lint balls overhead. A slow breeze moved a tire swing on the oak in front of the farmhouse. The house itself was well-kept. White with dark green shutters. Trimmed lawn. No rusting farm implements in the yard like most properties in the Midwest.

“Should I be scared?” Tucker asked.

“Every day, all the time,” Calvin said. “That way you don’t get surprised and you don’t get hurt.”

Calvin turned off the car, reached over Tucker’s lap and opened the glove box to remove a .38.

Seeing Tucker’s reaction Calvin said, “Relax. This is a just-in-case gun. This ain’t enough to get in any real trouble.”

“I’m not all that interested in any trouble, real or imagined.”

Tucker stared down his grandson. “You sure your mom didn’t fuck the milkman?” Calvin popped his door open, slid the .38 into the belt on his pants and walked toward the door. Tucker chased after him, a feeling in his chest like a rope tightening around his heart.

Before Calvin reached the top step on the porch the door opened. A man stood just inside, a shadow cutting him at the knees and making his face impossible to see. A long straight shape ran down from the man’s right arm. Tucker thought it could either be an umbrella or a shotgun. He made up the part about the umbrella to make himself feel better.

“Help you?” said the shadow.

“I hope so,” started Calvin. “You owe my son, Webb McGraw.”

“Maybe I know him.”

“Oh, no, I know you know him. I said you owe him. About five grand as I heard it. We’re gonna need that.”

Tucker inadvertently shielded his body with Calvin’s. When he realized he was doing it he felt ashamed to be hiding behind an eighty-six-year-old man.

“You’re his dad, you said?”

“And this here’s his son.” Tucker held up a hand in a short wave. “This is not a shakedown. You owe that money legit. I aim to collect it. Seems my son is in a bit of trouble. We’re gonna need some resources to help him out.”

The shadow stepped forward into the flat cloud-covered light. The man wore a T-shirt, dirty jeans. Long drooping mustache, silver hoop earrings in both ears, tan skin that pegged him as at least part Latino. You could practically hear the rumble of a Harley between his legs. He did not hold an umbrella.

“What’s wrong with Webb?” the man said with genuine concern.

Calvin kept on speaking in his even keel. No need to relax because he’d been relaxed from the get-go. Tucker felt the rope around his heart slacken a bit.

“Seems he got in a bit of a mess with the Stanleys.”

“No shit?”

“None at all. Ambrose is it?”

“Call me Brose.” Brose lifted his chin, his form of a handshake. Calvin reciprocated. Brose scratched the soul patch below his lip, smoothed his mustache with his forefinger and thumb. “Wish I could help you man. I don’t got it right now. Webb was giving me a few more weeks.”

“I don’t have weeks, Brose.”

“I don’t got it. Sorry, man.”

“You have a son, Brose?” Calvin was all faux friendliness. This is what people think of when they think insurance salesman, Tucker thought, dripping insincerity and a pistol tucked in their belt.

“No, man. I don’t.”

“But, you have something that’s valuable to you.”

The tip of the shotgun lifted very slightly. Like an animal smelling a threat from across a valley, Brose tightened his senses.

When he didn’t answer, Calvin continued. “The other accessory we’re gonna need for this trouble we’re in is another ride.”

“You got a pretty sweet set of wheels right there, bro.”

“Yeah, but see, I don’t want anything to happen to that. If Webb is my son, that there is my baby girl. So we need another vehicle.”

“Can’t help you, man. I got a pickup but it’s got a hundred fifty thousand on it, tailgate’s busted off, stereo don’t work.”

“I knew your name, Brose. I knew where you lived. What makes you think I wouldn’t know about your car?”

Calvin stepped off the porch, turned left and began walking toward the barn. Tucker chased after him, suddenly exposed and aware of how close the shotgun was. Deep tire ruts finished the path from driveway to the double barn doors and Calvin walked steadily to the classic American red-painted barn.

Brose followed anxiously. “Why you want my car, man?”

“I told you. We need it or the five grand.”

“I don’t have the cash, man.”

“Then it’s settled.”

Calvin opened the barn doors. Tucker waited for the shotgun to erupt.

There was only silence. Silence and a bright orange 1970 Plymouth Superbird, a car most notable for the absolutely ridiculous three-foot-high spoiler on the back. A genuine stock car, made street legal and sold to hicks, rednecks and outlaws for a few short years before even GM realized how silly it was.

To Calvin, she was a centerfold beckoning him forward with a smoldering look and whispering, “Turn-ons: guys who drive fast, white hair, senior discounts and arthritis.” It was automotive Viagra.

“Come on, man,” Brose said, appealing to the better part of Calvin’s manhood.

“Nothing personal, Brose. Just business. Keys?”

Tucker looked at the pumpkin-colored eyesore and knew this was what his dad wanted him to have posters of in his room growing up. Not Joe Montana and Troy Aikman. Cars like this, cars in general, were where the communication began to break down.

“I can’t let you take my car, man.”

Tucker snapped out of his memory. Here came the shotgun shells. No help for miles. In Iowa, no one could hear you scream.

“I’ll bring it back. And know this, Brose. No one respects a vehicle more than me. Look at my baby. Cherry as the day she was born. I know what you got here. She’s a classic. Proud as a peacock. Think of it as a rental. I’ll drive it five grand worth and then bring it back.”

Brose worked his soul patch some more. Almost wore his lip clean. The shotgun weighed in his hand. Tucker could see him feeling its weight versus the weight of killing two men. Over a car.

“Let me make it easy on you,” Calvin said. He swooped up a hand, gripped the barrel of the shotgun and twisted it, ripping it free from the younger man’s grasp. Once Calvin held the single barrel firmly he pushed forward, driving the butt of the gun into Brose’s chest, knocking the wind out of him.

Tucker backed up until he hit the side of the Superbird. He turned his head, saw the spoiler almost at eye level and flinched, thinking it was someone else in the room.

Brose stumbled back, hit hard off a post from one of the old horse stables and fell to the dirt and straw floor. Calvin followed him and swung the stock of the gun like a golf club, clipping the man’s chin and making a sound like a backfire in the high-ceilinged barn.

Calvin stood over him, Tucker held his breath. Brose groaned from the ground.

“Keys,” demanded Calvin. Brose dug into his front pocket. Two small keys on a single ring. “Can’t say I didn’t give you a chance, kid.”

Calvin spun and tossed the keys to Tucker. He flinched again and cringed like a flaming sack of shit was headed his way. The keys hit him in the chest and fell to the ground.

“Ow,” he said.

“You drive that one,” Calvin said.

“Me? Why?”

“Because no one but me drives the Bandit.”

Calvin turned and walked out of the barn back toward his car, taking the shotgun with him. Tucker almost stepped over to check on Brose, but thought twice. The faster he was off the farm, the better.

He feared Brose’s retaliation. After all, how you gonna keep ’em down on the farm after you’ve kicked their ass? For the time being, though, it was Calvin’s problem.

The acoustics in the barn turned out to be perfect for the throaty roar of the Superbird’s engine.

Deep down in Tucker, in a place that doesn’t have a name, something stirred. An echo through the ages, a flash of lightning down the helix of his DNA.

Tucker barely noticed, but above, the clouds parted a little, carving a path of light for the drive home.





7


With the Trans Am safely stored away in Tucker’s garage Calvin powered the Superbird and its ridiculous tailfeather toward the office of Hugh Stanley.

“You mind telling me what we gain by doing this?” Tucker asked.

Calvin drove with one arm propped in the open window, breeze blowing his still-thick hair. “You dealt with one of the kids, right?”

“Kenny.”

“Yeah. You’ll never find out anything that way. We go to the top. Lucky for you, we have an in. Me. Hugh Stanley will see me and he’ll act glad as hell. Inside he’ll be shitting a brick, and if he is, that will tell me a hell of a lot about what really happened to Webb.”

“You think the Stanleys are behind it?”

“I doubt it. They’d be pretty stupid to take out one of their best men. But, it’s a start. Our other option is to start knocking on doors and asking if anyone has seen him. Or take out one of those milk carton ads.”


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