Killing Floor Chapter Thirty Four

IT DIDN'T WORK OUT FOR ROSCOE AND ME. IT NEVER REALLY stood a chance. There were too many problems. It lasted a hair over twenty-four hours, and then it was over. I was back on the road.

It was five o'clock Sunday morning when we hauled that chest of drawers over and shoved it up against the broken door. We were both exhausted. But the adrenaline was still boiling through us. So we couldn't sleep. Instead, we talked. And the more we talked, the worse it got.

Roscoe had been a prisoner the best part of sixty-four hours. She hadn't been mistreated. She told me they hadn't touched her. She'd been terrified, but they'd just worked her like a slave. Thursday, Picard had driven her off in his car. I had watched them go. I'd waved them off. She'd updated him with our progress. A mile up the county road, he'd pulled his gun on her. Disarmed her, handcuffed her, driven her up to the warehouse. He'd driven right in through the roller door and she'd been put straight to work with Charlie Hubble. The two of them had been in there working the whole time I'd been sitting under the highway, watching the place. Roscoe herself had unloaded the red truck the Kliner kid had brought in. Then I'd followed it out to that truck stop near Memphis and wondered why the hell it was empty.

Charlie Hubble had been in there working five and a half days. Since Monday evening. Kliner had already started panicking by then. The Coast Guard retreat was coming too soon for him. He knew he had to work fast to clear the stockpile. So Picard had brought the Hubbles straight to the warehouse. Kliner had made the hostages work. They'd slept just a few hours a night, lying down on the dune of dollars, handcuffed to the bottom of the office stairs.

Saturday morning, when his son and the two gatemen hadn't come back, Kliner had gone crazy. Now he had no staff at all. So he worked the hostages around the clock. They didn't sleep at all Saturday night. Just plowed on with the hopeless task of trying to box up the huge pile. They were falling further and further behind. Every time an incoming truck spilled a new load out on the warehouse floor, Kliner had become more and more frantic.

So Roscoe had been a slave the best part of three days. In fear for her life, in danger, exhausted and humiliated for three long days. And it was my fault. I told her that. The more I told her, the more she said she didn't blame me. It was my fault, I was saying. It wasn't your fault, she was saying. I'm sorry, I was saying. Don't be, she was telling me.

We listened to each other. We accepted what was being said. But I still thought it was my fault. Wasn't a hundred percent sure she didn't think so, too. Despite what she was saying. We didn't fall out about it. But it was the first faint sign of a problem between us.

We showered together in her tiny stall. Stayed in there the best part of an hour. We were soaping off the stink of the money and the sweat and the fire. And we were still talking. I was telling her about Friday night. The ambush in the storm up at Hubble's place. I told her all about it. I told her about the bags with the knives and the hammer and the nails. I told her what I'd done to the five of them. I thought she'd be happy about it.

And that was the second problem. Not a big deal as we stood there with the hot water beating down on us. But I heard something in her voice. Just a tiny tremor. Not shock or disapproval. Just a hint of a question. That maybe I had gone too far. I could hear it in her voice.

I felt somehow I'd done it all for her and Joe. I hadn't done it because I had wanted to do it. It was Joe's business and it was her town and these were her people. I'd done it because I'd seen her trying to melt into her kitchen wall, crying like her heart was breaking. I'd done it for Joe and Molly. At the same time as feeling I needed no justification at all, I had been justifying it to myself like that.

It didn't feel like a problem at the time. The shower loosened us up. Steamed some glow back into us. We went to bed. Left the drapes open. It was a glorious day. The sun was up in a bright blue sky and the air looked fresh and clean. It looked like it should look. Like a new day.

We made love with great tenderness, great energy, great joy. If somebody had told me then that I'd be back on the road the next morning, I'd have thought they were crazy. I told myself there were no problems. I was imagining them. And if there were problems, there were good reasons for them. Maybe the aftereffects of the stress and the adrenaline. Maybe the deep fatigue. Maybe because Roscoe had been a hostage. Maybe she was reacting like a lot of hostages do. They feel some kind of a faint jealousy against anybody who hadn't been a hostage with them. Some kind of a faint resentment. Maybe that was feeding the guilt I was carrying for letting her get captured in the first place. Maybe a lot of things. I fell asleep certain we'd wake up happy and I'd stay there forever.

WE DID WAKE UP HAPPY. WE SLEPT THROUGH UNTIL LATE afternoon. Then we spent a gorgeous couple of hours with the afternoon sun streaming in the window, dozing and stretching, kissing and laughing. We made love again. We were fueled up with the joy of being safe and alive and alone together. It was the best lovemaking we ever had. It was also the last. But we didn't know that at the time.

Roscoe took the Bentley up to Eno's for some food. She was gone an hour and came back with news. She'd seen Finlay. She was talking about what was going to happen next. That was the big problem. It made the other tiny problems look like nothing at all.

’’You should see the station house,’’ she said. ’’Nothing left more than a foot high.’’

She put the food on a tray and we ate it sitting on the bed. Fried chicken.

’’All four warehouses burned down,’’ she said. ’’There was debris exploding all over the highway. The state police got involved. They had to get fire trucks all the way from Atlanta and Macon.’’

’’State police are involved?’’ I said.

She laughed.

’’Everybody's involved,’’ she said. ’’It sort of snowballed. The Atlanta fire chief called in the bomb squad because of the explosions, because he didn't know for sure what they were. The bomb squad can't go anywhere without notifying the FBI, in case it's terrorism, so the Bureau is interested. Then the National Guard got involved this morning.’’

’’The National Guard?’’ I said. ’’Why?’’

’’This is the best part,’’ she said. ’’Finlay says when the roof blew off the warehouse last night, the sudden updraft of air blew the money all over the place. Remember those burning pieces that kept landing on us? There are millions of dollar bills all over the place. Miles around. The wind blew them everywhere, in the fields, all over the highway. Most of them are partially burned, of course, but some of them aren't. Soon as the sun came up, thousands of people came out of nowhere, swarming around all over the place, picking all the money up. So the National Guard was ordered in to disperse the crowds.’’

I ate some food. Thought about it.

’’Governor calls in the Guard, right?’’ I asked her.

She nodded. Mouth full of chicken wing.

’’The governor's involved,’’ she said. ’’He's in town right now. And Finlay called the Treasury Department, because of Joe. They're sending a team down here. I told you, it sort of snowballed.’’

’’What the hell else?’’ I said.

’’Big problems here, of course,’’ she said. ’’Rumors are flying around. Everybody seems to know the Foundation is finished. Finlay says half of them are pretending they never knew what was going on, and the other half are mad as hell their thousand dollars a week is going to stop. You should have seen old Eno, when I picked up the food. Looked like he's furious.’’

’’Finlay worried?’’ I said.

’’He's OK,’’ she said. ’’Busy, of course. We're down to a four-person police department. Finlay, me, Stevenson and the desk man. Finlay says that's half of what we need, because of the crisis, but twice as many as we can afford, because the Foundation subsidy is going to stop. But anyway, there's nothing anybody can do about hiring and firing without the mayor's approval, and we haven't got a mayor anymore, have we?’’

I sat there on the bed, eating. The problems started bearing down on me. I hadn't really seen them clearly before. But I was seeing them now. A huge question was forming in my mind. It was a question for Roscoe. I wanted to ask it straightaway and get her honest, spontaneous response. I didn't want to give her any time to think about her answer.

’’Roscoe?’’ I said.

She looked up at me. Waited.

’’What are you going to do?’’ I asked her.

She looked at me like it was an odd question.

’’Work my butt off, I guess,’’ she said. ’’There's going to be a lot to do. We're going to have to rebuild this whole town. Maybe we can make something better out of it, create something worthwhile. And I can play a big part in it. I'll move up the totem pole a couple of notches. I'm really excited. I'm looking forward to it. This is my town and I'm going to be really involved in it. Maybe I'll get on the town board. Maybe I'll even run for mayor. That would be a hell of a thing, wouldn't it? After all these years, a Roscoe for mayor, instead of a Teale?’’

I looked at her. It was a great answer, but it was the wrong answer. Wrong for me. I didn't want to try to change her mind. I didn't want to put any kind of pressure on her at all. That's why I had asked her straight out, before I told her what I was going to have to do. I had wanted her honest, natural response. And I had got it. It was right for her. This was her town. If anybody could fix it, she could. If anybody should stick around, working her butt off, she should.

But it was the wrong answer for me. Because I knew by then I had to go. I knew by then that I had to get out fast. The problem was what was going to happen next. The whole thing had gotten out of hand. Before, it had all been about Joe. It had been private. Now it was public. It was like those half-burnt dollar bills. It was scattered all over the damn place.

Roscoe had mentioned the governor, the Treasury Department, the National Guard, the state police, the FBI, Atlanta fire investigators. A half-dozen competent agencies, all looking at what had gone on in Margrave. And they'd be looking hard. They'd be calling Kliner the counterfeiter of the century. They'd find out the mayor had disappeared. They'd find out that four police officers had been involved. The FBI would be looking for Picard. Interpol would get involved because of the Venezuela connection. The heat would be tremendous. There would be six agencies competing like mad to get a result. They'd tear the place apart.

And one or another of them would snarl me up. I was a stranger in the wrong place at the wrong time. It would take about a minute and a half to realize I was the brother of the dead government investigator who had started the whole thing off. They'd look at my agenda. Somebody would think: revenge. I would be hauled in, and they would go to work on me.

I wouldn't be convicted. There was no risk of that. There was no evidence hanging around. I'd been careful every step of the way. And I knew how to bullshit. They could talk to me until I grew a long white beard and they wouldn't get anything from me. That was for sure. But they'd try. They'd try like crazy. They'd keep me two years in Warburton. Two years up there on the holding floor. Two years of my life. That was the problem. No way could I stand still for that. I'd only just got my life back. I'd had six months of freedom in thirty-six years. Those six months had been the happiest months I'd ever had.

So I was getting out. Before any of them ever knew I'd been there in the first place. My mind was made up. I had to become invisible again. I had to get far away from the Margrave spotlight, where those diligent agencies would never look. It meant my dreams of a future with Roscoe were going to be snuffed out before they were even started. It meant I had to tell Roscoe she wasn't worth gambling two years of my life for. I had to tell her that.

We talked about it all night. We didn't fall out over it. Just talked about it. She knew what I was going to do was right for me. I knew what she was going to do was right for her. She asked me to stay. I thought hard, but said no. I asked her to come with me. She thought hard, but said no. Nothing more to say.

Then we talked about other things. We talked about what I would be doing, and what she would be doing. And I slowly realized that staying there would tear me apart just as much as leaving was going to. Because I didn't want the stuff she was talking about. I didn't want elections and mayors and votes and boards and committees. I didn't want property taxes and maintenance and chambers of commerce and strategies. I didn't want to be sitting there all bored and chafing. Not with the tiny resentments and guilts and disapprovals growing bigger and bigger until they choked us. I wanted what I was talking about. I wanted the open road and a new place every day. I wanted miles to travel and absolutely no idea where I was going. I wanted to ramble. I had rambling on my mind.

We sat around talking, miserable, until dawn. I asked her to do one last thing for me. I asked her to arrange a funeral for Joe. I told her I wanted Finlay to be there, and the Hubbles, and the two old barbers, and her. I told her to ask the old guy's sister to be there and sing a sad song for Joe. I told her to ask the old lady where the meadow was where she'd sung along with Blind Blake's guitar, sixty-two years ago. I asked her to scatter Joe's ashes on the grass there.

ROSCOE DROVE ME DOWN TO MACON IN THE BENTLEY. Seven in the morning. We hadn't slept at all. The trip took us an hour. I sat in the back, behind the new black glass. I didn't want anybody to see me. We drove up the rise from her place and threaded through traffic. The whole town was getting packed. Even before we got up to Main Street, I could see the place was swarming. There were dozens of cars parked up everywhere. There were television trucks from the networks and CNN. I hunched down in the back of the car. People were crowding everywhere, even at seven in the morning. There were ranks of dark blue government sedans all over. We turned at the corner where the coffee shop was. People were lining up on the sidewalk, waiting to get in for breakfast.

We drove through the sunny town. Main Street was parked solid. There were vehicles up on the sidewalks. I saw fire chiefs'cars and state police cruisers. I glanced into the barbershop as we crawled past, but the old guys weren't there. I would miss them. I would miss old Finlay. I would always wonder how things turned out for him. Good luck, Harvard guy, I thought. Good luck, too, to the Hubbles. This morning was the start of a long road for them. They were going to need a lot of luck. Good luck, too, to Roscoe. I sat there, silently wishing her the best of everything. She deserved it. She really did.

She drove me all the way south to Macon. She found the bus depot. Parked up. Handed me a small envelope. Told me not to open it right away. I put it in my pocket. Kissed her good-bye. Got out of the car. Didn't look back. I heard the sound of the big tires on the pavement and I knew she was gone. I walked into the depot. Bought a ticket. Then I crossed the street to a cheap store and bought new clothes. Changed in their cubicle, left the filthy old fatigues in their garbage can. Then I strolled back and got on a bus for California.

I had tears in my eyes for more than a hundred miles. Then the old bus rattled over the state line. I looked out at the southeast corner of Alabama. Opened Roscoe's envelope. It was the photograph of Joe. She'd taken it from Molly Beth's valise. Taken it out of the frame. Trimmed it with scissors to fit my pocket. On the back she had written her telephone number. But I didn't need that. I had already committed it to memory.


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