Read The Man With the Iron-On Badge Online

Authors: Lee Goldberg

Tags: #Mystery

The Man With the Iron-On Badge (19 page)

I didn’t know where the words and the grin were coming from. Maybe it was that big breakfast that did something to me. Or maybe it was my rest stop performance as Dirty Harvey. Whatever the reason, I was running on pure impulse. I hadn’t even stopped to think yet about how everything fit together, how Big Rock Lake connected to drugs, Lauren, Arlo, Cyril, and Seattle.

“What’s to stop me from shutting you up with this bat instead?” Little Billy asked.

“Why don’t you try and see for yourself?”

I said it with surprising self-confidence, which I really shouldn’t have had. In the bright light of day, I couldn’t be sure he’d be fooled by my BB gun or that I’d even be able to whip it out before he took off my head with his bat.

But like I said, I wasn’t thinking.

I walked past him, expecting to get whacked with that bat at any moment, but to my astonishment, he let me go unharmed. As I walked around to the driver’s side door of my car, I noticed the dent his ass had left on my hood and congratulated myself again for taking all the insurance that EconoCar had to offer.

I opened the door and glanced at Little Billy, who stood on the curb, tapping the end of his bat into his palm, staring at me with the flat, dead eyes of a shark.

“I’ll be in touch,” I said.

I got in and drove off before Little Billy could change his mind about taking that swing at me. My work in Deerlick was done. If Arlo was there, he knew by now that I was, too.

The Big Rock Lake Resort billboard, which stood along the highway a quarter mile ahead of the turn-off, promised “exciting water sports, great fishing, rustic cabins, and delicious home cooking” over a cartoon of a surprised fisherman getting yanked out of his boat by the gleeful trout on his hook.

I took the turn-off, a gravel road that ended at the Big Rock Lake Resort Store and Restaurant, a large, white, clapboard building that was mostly porch, and built onto its namesake, allowing it to loom a bit over the lake, the dock, and the beach below. On either side of the store, set back from the shore by a dry lawn, were ten identical white cabins, with small porches facing the water.

I parked my car behind a row of railroad ties and got out. The hot, heavy air smelled of outboard motors, lighter fluid, fish guts, and suntan lotion. Most of the cabins looked empty; a few had families camped out front, the kids running around, the sagging mothers basting on chaise lounges, while the pot-bellied fathers knocked back beers and looked for teenage girls to ogle. There were a few water skiers and fishing boats on the small lake, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of action. It was the kind of lake where people parked Winnebagos instead of building vacation homes, though there were a few of those, most not much more elaborate than the Big Rock cabins.

I strode up to the Big Rock Lake Resort Store and Restaurant, admiring the sign on the roof. Although it was weathered and peeling, I knew it was newer than the one in Cyril Parkus’ living room.

The porch was lined with wooden benches and surrounded the open counter that passed for the store. All the merchandise was on shelves behind the counter, which itself was a glass display case full of melting candy and fishing lures. The restaurant was a screened-in section of the porch that faced the lake, with a hand-painted menu above the counter and an electric fly trap in the corner that snapped every few seconds.

I took a stool at the restaurant counter beside a couple old men smoking cigarettes and nursing mugs of coffee. They looked liked they’d been installed with the stools fifty years ago. A couple kids sat on the bench, staring at the fly trap, letting their Popsicles melt all over their bathing suits as they waited in suspense for another insect to get zapped.

“What’ll it be?” asked the man behind the counter, who wore a big apron that had the same cartoon as the highway billboard. He was as jolly as a department store Santa, with a body to match.

I looked at the menu above the counter. The prices had been painted over and changed many times, but the menu remained the same. Burgers, hot dogs, bacon, and eggs, and a combination of them all called the Big Rock Burger.

I’d had a big breakfast, but acting tough gave me an appetite.

“Gimme a Big Rock Burger, please,” I said. “It’ll bring back memories.”

The man immediately repeated the order to someone in the kitchen, which was hidden somewhere in back.

“So you’ve been here before,” the man ventured jovially, as I’d hoped he would.

I nodded with a smile. “When I was a kid.” I offered him my hand across the counter. “The name’s Harvey Mapes.”

He shook my hand enthusiastically. “Tom Wade, pleasure to have you back.”

“The place hasn’t changed much,” I said.

“Just fresh coats of paint,” he replied. “Any of the pictures on that wall could’ve been taken yesterday.”

Wade motioned to a wall covered with about a hundred faded snapshots and Polaroids, some framed, some stuck to the paneling with thumbtacks or yellowed tape.

“The fish were a lot bigger then,” grumbled one of the old men.

“You can say that again,” another old timer agreed. “Coffee tasted better, too.”

Wade laughed and freshened up the old timer’s cup. “Maybe if I warm it up, you won’t notice.”

“The sign out front looks different,” I said, as if making a fresh observation.

“You’ve got a good memory and a sharp eye,” Wade said. “The only thing the family that sold me the place kept for themselves was the sign. Sentimental value, I suppose. Couldn’t really begrudge them that. I tried to copy the original sign as best I could, but I couldn’t get it quite right.”

A woman built just like Wade came out and set the Big Rock Burger down in front of me, then stood there expectantly to see if I was satisfied. I took a big bite out of it. It was wonderful.

“You certainly got the Big Rock down right,” I said through my mouthful of hamburger, hot dog, bacon, eggs, and cheese. “It’s perfection, even better than I remembered.”

Wade’s wife beamed with pride. “Thank you kindly,” she said, then disappeared into the back again.

“That’s my wife, Betty Lou,” Wade said, smiling after her. “The only thing she loves more than cooking is watching people eat what she makes.”

“Where can I find a wife like that?” I asked.

“You can look anyplace but right here!” Wade chuckled good-naturedly and so did I.

I took a few more bites of my Big Rock Burger, then said: “I vaguely remember the people who used to run the place. Their name was Parkus, wasn’t it?”

“Josiah Parkus,” Wade nodded. “This place was in their family since the early 1900s.”

“Then why did they sell it?”

“Too much tragedy, I suppose.” Wade took a cloth from his apron and started to absently wipe the countertop. “Josiah’s wife Esme killed herself in ’74. He woke up one morning and Esme was gone. A few hours later, he found one of their boats floating in middle of the lake. The anchor was missing.”

“Fisherman out trolling for macks snagged Esme’s dress in ’75,” the old man with the coffee said. “Maybe it was ’76.”

“Their daughter Kelly never really got over it, drowned herself the same way a few years later,” Wade said. “That just left Josiah and his son.”

“Cyril, wasn’t it?” I asked.

Wade nodded. “Neither one of ’em was much interested in running the resort after that, though Josiah stuck it out on his own after Cyril went off to California. When Josiah died, Cyril sold the place to me. We used to run an RV park up at Spirit Lake, but we always envied this outfit.”

I finished up my burger and tried to figure out how all of this tied together with what I already knew. After thinking about it for a few minutes, the pieces fit pretty good.

Cyril knew Arlo Pelz because they grew up together, with Arlo probably resenting the hell out of Cyril the whole time. Arlo worked for Cyril’s father at the resort marina, fixing outboard motors, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Cyril treated Arlo as his employee, too.

After Kelly Parkus killed herself, Cyril went off to California, and Arlo got into drugs, eventually ending up in Seattle, where he met Lauren, who was either a drug addict, a drug dealer, or a whore. Or maybe all three.

Somehow they split up, how or why I don’t know. A few years went by. Arlo married Jolene, went to prison for dealing drugs, and when he got out, he stumbled into the discovery that Cyril, wealthy and powerful, was married to a woman with a dark, shameful past her husband probably didn’t know about. Arlo guessed Lauren would pay dearly to keep it that way.

Instead, something went wrong.

That something was me, Harvey Mapes.

I uncovered the blackmail scheme and told Cyril about it. Cyril confronted his wife with what I’d found out and then she, unable to deal with the exposure of her ugly past, killed herself.

Now poor Cyril was left to mourn the suicide of yet another woman in his life.

It all made sense. All that was missing were the sordid little details, which I expected to wring out of Arlo once I captured him.

“How about a slice of pie to go with that?” Betty Lou Wade asked, sliding a huge hunk of apple pie in front of me before I could answer.

I smiled back at her. “I don’t see how any sane man could refuse.”

She beamed again. I dug into the pie. Marie Callender and Sarah Lee had nothing on Betty Lou Wade. I picked up my plate and fork and worked on my pie as I wandered over to the wall of photos.

The snapshots captured nearly identical moments in time, spread out over decades, of people standing in front of the store, posing with their fish, smiling into the lens. Occasionally, a portion of a parked car or a particular style of clothing would give away when the picture was taken, but otherwise they could have all been shot today.

I saw what probably amounted to tons of dead fish.

I saw the Parkus family, I saw Arlo, and I saw most of the citizens of Deerlick that I’d met, even Little Billy when he actually was little.

And as I stared back through decades, the pie plate slipping from my hands and shattering on the floor, I saw what I got right and what I got wrong, and just how cruel and inescapable fate could be.

Chapter Twenty-Two

I
rented the cabin closest to the woods for the night, parked my car right behind it, then called Carol from the pay phone outside the store.

I didn’t tell her anything that happened to me or what I’d found out. All I said was that I was in Deerlick, asking around for Arlo, and that I’d be staying at Big Rock Lake overnight. I told her I thought Arlo might be in town, but I didn’t know for sure.

That last part was the biggest lie of all.

I knew he was there. I felt it as clearly as my own heartbeat.

I gave Carol the number at the Big Rock Lake Resort Store, since the cabins didn’t have phones. She didn’t ask me why I gave it to her, and I was glad, because she probably would have seen through whatever lie I came up with. The truth was, if she didn’t hear from me in a day or two, I wanted her to know who to call first to go look for my body.

I wasn’t being morbid or fatalistic, just practical. I had every intention of capturing Arlo and bringing him in to pay for his crimes, but I also knew how badly things could go wrong. Recent experience certainly proved that.

I told Carol I loved her and this time it wasn’t hard to say. It sounded to me like saying it came pretty easy for her, too.

I spent the afternoon sitting on a chaise lounge on the lawn in front of my cabin, right where everybody could see me, drinking Cokes and looking at the lake.

I was surprisingly relaxed, considering what I still had left to do. I guess I was either confident in my abilities or too stupid to realize just how much danger I was in.

Sitting there like I was made me think of an episode of “Maverick,” which starred James Garner as gambler and conman Bret Maverick.

My dad loved that show. There was this one episode where Maverick wins a poker game, then convinces a banker to let him make an after-hours deposit to keep his money safe. The next day, Maverick goes in to get his money and the banker says slyly, “What money?”

See, nobody witnessed the transaction. It’s Maverick’s word against the banker’s, and who is going to take the word of a conman?

So Maverick tells everybody he’s gonna get his money back … and what he does is, he sits in a rocking chair across the street from the bank and just starts whittling. People walk by every day and ask him, “How’s it goin’, Maverick? You gettin’ your money back?” And every day he says, “I’m workin’ on it.”

The thing was, while he spent the whole episode sitting in that rocking chair, unnerving everybody by happily doing absolutely nothing, a gang of his conman friends were swindling the banker out of exactly what he owed Maverick.

My dad was a gambler, but mostly he was a loser. Whatever he won at the poker table, when he rarely won, was lost the next day. He never got ahead. I think my dad wanted to be James Garner as Maverick the way I wanted to be James Garner as Rockford.

What did that make me?

I didn’t have a gang of conman friends, or anybody else, to help me do what I was going to do that night. So it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for me to be sitting there, sunning myself like I didn’t have a care in the world. I should have been laying down some clever plan.

I had a plan. It wasn’t clever. It wasn’t likely to work any better than my dad’s bluffs at the poker table.

It didn’t matter anyway. I was powerless to control what was going to happen next and I pretty much knew it. What I’d learned over the last few days convinced me that the outcome was inevitable and that I was just doing my predestined part.

When the sun set, it started to get chilly. The resort guests slowly drifted back to their cabins. I stayed where I was for a while, listening to the water lapping against the boats tied to the dock and watching the bats skim the surface of the dark lake.

I imagined Esme Parkus on the muddy bottom, her dress swirling around her skeleton, dozens of sparkling fishing lures caught in the tattered fabric.

And I thought about Kelly Parkus, rowing her boat into the middle of the lake late one night, contemplating the same fate for herself.

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