Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (18 page)

I pushed him onto his stomach, rushed to my car, and got out the roll of duct tape. I hog-tied him with the tape, checked his pulse to make sure I hadn’t killed him (though I don’t know what I would have done if I had), and left him there with his stolen goods. If he didn’t get arrested, and somehow managed to get away, he would certainly think twice about robbing someone else at a deserted rest stop.

“You’ll rue the night you met Dirty Harvey,” I hissed at him. It was the first time I’d ever said rue to anybody, whether they were conscious to hear it or not.

I picked up his car keys and his knife and drove off in a hurry.

A half-mile away, I tossed his things out the window and smiled to myself, a smile that lasted for the next two hours.

I considered the experience at the rest stop good practice for the day I’d meet Arlo Pelz again, a day I hoped would come very soon.

I arrived in Spokane at daybreak. It didn’t impress me much as a city. If it was worth visiting, somebody would have set a TV series there by now.

It struck me as the kind of place where everybody drove a pickup with a camper shell and owned at least one pair of overalls. There were plenty of old buildings downtown, but I was never interested much in architecture.

I followed I-90 through the city and then drove up Division Street, a row of fast-food franchises that would become the northbound 395 and take me to Deerlick.

As I drove past Riverfront Park, I could see the skeletal remains of the big tent that was the centerpiece of the 1974 World’s Fair. It was certainly no Space Needle. That should tell you something about the city’s character.

I guess they built a big tent as their enduring landmark, instead of a huge camper shell, because they didn’t have the money to erect the giant Ford pickup to go with it.

I only had one set of clothes left after the fire, and I’d just spent the night in them. So I stopped at a Wal-Mart and bought a few shirts, some underwear and socks, and two pairs of pants. I also bought a denim, letterman-style jacket to hide my gun and holster, some toiletries, a nylon gym bag, and a fresh Ace bandage for my ribs.

After making my purchases, I stopped at a Shell station and used the restroom to clean up, put on my new bandages, and change my clothes. I dumped my old clothes and bandages in the trash bin and hit the road.

I felt like a new man.

In fact, I know that I was.

It didn’t take long to put Spokane behind me and find myself winding through big stretches of farmland under bright, morning sun. As I passed places like Denison and Clayton and Jump Off Joe, I discovered it didn’t require much in Washington State to declare a patch of dirt a town, just a couple gas pumps and a burger place.

By the time I got to Deerlick, I wasn’t expecting much and I wasn’t disappointed. The turn-off took me down a narrow road past a trailer park, a small cemetery, and an old brick schoolhouse.

The center of the town was dominated by a ’60s-era supermarket that might once have been the wreckage of a flying saucer before somebody got the bright idea of building a parking lot around it and selling groceries. The original bright colors of the supermarket had long since faded into shades of gray, the big windows fogged by countless layers of transparent tape used to hang posters for the last forty years.

The supermarket was bordered by Main Street, A Street, and Broadway, which were lined with old storefronts, most of them empty. There was a diner, a beauty salon, a barber shop, a drugstore, a tackle shop, and a post office.

I kept driving down the street, past the town center. There were a few car and boat repair shops, a gas station, and a bar; then the road took you behind the trailer park and around to the highway again.

I made a U-turn and headed back into town, took a right on A Street, and found myself in the residential section. The houses were fifty or sixty years old, the kind with porches and basements and detached garages. Almost all of them had some kind of beaten-up boat on a trailer in the driveway. There were bicycles and kids’ toys on the lawns and GM cars parked on the street. I wondered what kind of people lived there and what they did for a living and what would happen to the first person on the block who bought a Japanese car.

I turned around, parked in front of the supermarket, and got out of the car. I was immediately overwhelmed by the smell of sizzling bacon. A hunger I didn’t know I had suddenly asserted itself big time.

Like a drooling dog, I followed the scent of bacon to the diner across the street.

The Chuck Wagon was the kind of ’50s diner that people in LA buy to renovate into authentic ’50s diners.

You lose the real place, with history you can read in the sedimentary layers of grease on the walls, and end up with Johnny Rockets or the Denny’s in Camarillo, full of sparkling chrome and shiny, colored tile and a jukebox playing Chuck Berry songs. You end up with a diner the way people think they should have looked, not the way they actually did.

There was nothing shiny about the Chuck Wagon and there was no jukebox. The red-vinyl upholstery in the booths was torn. The linoleum counters and floors were scuffed and chipped. The wood-paneled walls were yellowed by sunlight and steam. There were store-bought bottles of catsup and jars of mustard at every table. The windows had ratty drapes and the ceiling fan twirled lazily.

It was my kind of place.

The Chuck Wagon was about half-f, and just about all the customers were deeply-tanned men wearing faded jeans, faded shirts, and sweat-stained baseball caps that advertised outboard motors or farm equipment. The Evinrudes and Chris Crafts and John Deeres looked at me in my new shirt, new jacket, and new slacks as if I were some kind of alien being the likes of which they hadn’t seen since the supermarket landed from outer space in 1962.

I smiled feebly and took a seat at the counter. I snatched the one-page, laminated menu from the napkin holder and gave it a quick look.

There were less than a dozen items on the menu: combinations of eggs, pancakes, hamburgers, and steaks. On the back there was a list of four homemade pies (apple, pecan, chocolate, and banana cream) and two kinds of ice cream, chocolate or vanilla, to choose from. The prices were covered with white tape and written over by hand in ballpoint pen. There wasn’t anything over six bucks. I wanted to try everything.

“What’ll it be, sir?” the waitress asked wearily.

I looked up and saw a tired woman in her forties, stuffed into a too-tight, stained white uniform, her hair pinned into a bun. She wore a bra that made her breasts look like airplane engines, her name stitched in script across one of them.

I ordered the Rancher’s Breakfast of eggs, steak, bacon, pancakes, and hash browns, and asked Georgette for an extra-thick chocolate shake to wash it down with.

While I waited for my meal, I watched the short-order cook move piles of hash browns and stacks of bacon strips around the grill, making room for the eggs and pancakes and steaks he was preparing. In between all that, he ladled oil onto the grill and used an ice cream scooper to dig butter out of a bucket, dropping the gobs into his frying pans. It was excruciating, gastronomical foreplay.

By the time Georgette set my plate down in front of me, I was so hungry I was nearly slobbering. I wolfed the hot meal down in about ten minutes and immediately ordered another shake.

It may have been the best breakfast I ever had in my life.

When she brought me the shake, with a dollop of whipped cream sprayed on top, I was sated and finally ready to get to work.

“Excuse me,” I said, stifling a burp. “Have you seen Arlo around?”

She looked like I’d slapped her, but she recovered quickly. I guess she was used to being slapped.

“Who?” she asked unconvincingly.

“Arlo Pelz,” I replied, and took a big slurp of the shake to drown out another burp. “You know Arlo, don’t you Georgette?”

I was aware that everybody in the restaurant had stopped talking. They were all listening, which was fine with me. The more people who heard, the better. I wasn’t all that great at detecting, so I figured it would be a lot easier to let him find me.

“I haven’t seen him,” she said. “You a friend of his?”

“You could say that.” I smiled and leaned over, plucked a pen from her apron pocket, and started scrawling a note on my napkin. “If he stops by, maybe you could give him this for me.”

I wrote:
Jolene is really into her TV. She asked me to thank you. Your pal from the Sno-Inn.

I read it out-loud in case she lost it, and so everybody else got my message. I wrapped the napkin around a ten-dollar bill and put it, and the pen, back in her apron pocket.

“I appreciate it,” I said, flashing her another insincere smile.

She dropped my breakfast check on the counter and walked away without bothering to ask me first if maybe I wanted a slice of pie or something.

I took the hint, though I would have liked to try a slice. I gulped down the last of my shake, dropped another ten on the counter, and walked out.

I visited the barbershop, the beauty salon, and the drugstore, and left pretty much the same message at each place. In the post office, I asked the aged clerk behind the counter if he knew where the Pelz family lived.

“There isn’t any family left here except for little Billy,” the clerk said. “Still lives at their place on A street. Sixteen A Street.”

“What about Arlo,” I asked. “Seen him around?”

The old man narrowed his eyes at me. “Once, right after he got out of prison. You a friend of his?”

“Not really,” I said. “How about you?”

The clerk just turned and walked away, disappearing into the back of the post office.

I walked out and went next door to the tackle shop. They sold fishing poles, reels, lures, hooks, and all kinds of worms, crickets, and maggots. A man sat at the counter stringing a fly. As I got closer, I realized if you drew a line connecting the five moles on his cheek, you could make a lopsided star. I wondered if he knew that.

He looked up at me as I approached the counter. “Can I help you?”

“I’m up here doing some fishing,” I said.

“Whatcha interested in catching?” he asked. “Salmon, trout, perch, bass, mackinaw?”

“Arlo Pelz.”

I felt really cool saying that. I don’t think Mannix could have delivered it any better.

“I understand he’s a bottom-feeder native to these parts,” I said.

He stopped working on his lure, stood up, and gave me a hard look. “Are you a cop of some kind?”

I smiled thinly. “Of some kind.”

“I haven’t seen him.”

“Where do you suppose he’d be likely to go, if he came back for a visit?”

He thought for a minute. He wasn’t searching for the answer, he was trying to decide if the answer might get him hurt.

“You could check out his place on A Street,” the man replied. “Of course, you’d have to get past Little Billy first.”

I shrugged as if getting past anyone was easy for me. “Anyplace else?”

“Maybe the woods around the lake,” he said. “He used to hang out there a lot when he was a kid.”

“Why was that?”

“Same reason kids still do,” he replied. “To drink and fuck. He also liked to hide there.”

“What was he hiding from?”

“Everybody,” he replied. “He used to work in the marina, fixing outboards, before he gave that up to break into homes on the lake. Vacation places, empty most of the time. It’d be months before anyone realized they’d been robbed.”

“Where can I find the lake?” I asked.

“It’s about ten miles farther up the highway,” the man said. “Can’t miss it. Big Rock Lake.”

I got that chill of creepy realization up my back, only I was missing out on the realization part. I didn’t know why the name of the lake sounded strangely familiar to me.

“They got some place to stay the night up there besides the woods?” I asked.

“You can rent a cabin at the Big Rock Lake Resort.”

I got that chill again and it bugged me. I thanked the man for his help and left, thinking maybe the fresh air would clear my head.

It wasn’t until I’d crossed the street and was halfway to my car that I remembered where I’d heard the name of the lake before.

Actually, I didn’t remembering
hearing
it, I remembered seeing it. On the peeling, faded sign that hung above Cyril Parkus’ fireplace. The sign that said
Big Rock Lake Resort
.

I was so busy thinking, I didn’t see the guy sitting on the hood of my car until I was nearly standing in front of him.

And that’s when the guy, three hundred pounds of bad karma in a Grateful Dead tank-top and shorts, slid his huge ass off my car and stood up in front of me, resting a baseball bat on his shoulder.

Chapter Twenty-One

A
ll the books and TV shows are very clear about what I was required to do in that situation: show no fear and come up with lots of smart ass remarks. I realized right away that acting on my instinct, which was to either run away or beg for mercy, wasn’t appropriate.

I tried to exude tough-guy calm which, at that moment, mainly consisted of suppressing my urge to whimper.

“I hear you’re looking for my brother,” the Neanderthal said, his voice full of menace.

“I was hoping word would get around,” I said, letting one hand slip behind my back. “You must be Little Billy.”

“You know why they call me Little Billy?”

“Because it’s supposed to be humorously ironic, given how big, fat, and stupid you are?”

Little Billy took a step toward me, but I held my ground, not so much because I’d mastered the tough-guy thing, but because I was petrified with fear.

“I got the name because a cop once snapped a billy club in half on my head and still couldn’t take me down.”

“It’s a shame about the brain damage, but at least you got a cute nickname,” I said, surprising myself. “Where’s Arlo?”

“I don’t know.” Little Billy grinned. “Then again, maybe I do.”

I grinned back. “Tell him I know how he found her and what he had on her. Tell him I want sixty percent of the action or I give everything I know to the cops.”

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