BERT and ERNIE and THE MAN
Five years since I’ve been here. I doubt if I’ll be recognized--that’s a good thing. I change my appearance, as needed, like a chameleon. I can’t change what I do like a leopard can’t change its spots. The last leg of this trip was five hours, I needed something to eat and some beer. I drove into town hoping to find both at the Wayward Inn. What I found was the same place was now called Tommy’s. Close enough. It was early, only a few cars were in the lot. I backed into a parking space, so I was ready to book. I didn’t think I’d need to today, but it’s a good habit to keep. I sat at the corner of the bar near the door where I could see the rest of the room and behind me through the mirror. The few other guys at the bar never looked in my direction, and the bartender didn’t ask any questions.
I ordered two chili dogs and two Rolling Rock longnecks. I sucked down the first one and kept the second waiting for the food. I saw the reflection of a woman enter and walk toward me. She stopped, looked around, then sat at the stool to my left, as though she had a plan. She looked about forty. With better light, I could be more precise. Blonde bottle hair that needed some work. The bruise on the side of her face had too much heavy make-up. It was more lumpy than swollen. The large blue lens glasses hid her eyes, and the oversize Steeler’s sweatshirt hid her shape. I imagined a pretty good rack. At some earlier time in her life, she might have been called pretty, but today looked like she carried a lot more baggage than was hanging from the strap over her shoulder. She ordered a Rum and Coke, fumbled in her bag and put a lighter on the bar then went digging again for the cigs, shaking one out of a Marlboro box and put it between her lips.
I beat her hand to the lighter and flamed it. She took a drag and said, “Thanks.” I nodded and started on the dogs that had just arrived. Washing a big bite down with a pull on the bottle.
“Why are you drinking from the bottle?”
I faced her and said, “It makes a good weapon.”
She shrugged, like that made sense, and said, “You must be a tough guy.”
I nodded and said, “When needed.”
“What’s your name?”
I gave her one. “Ernie.”
“You’ve gotta be shittin’ me. My name’s Bert.”
I chuckled, “Really?”
It’s Alberta. My dad wanted a boy, so they compromised.”
“What if I call you Al?”
“I’ll kick you in the balls.”
“Okay, I won’t. So, what do you do for fun?”
“Sit around, wishing my husband would die.”
This wasn’t the first time I heard a woman with bruises say something like that. I tapped the left side of my face and said, “Did he do that?”
She nodded and said, “That’s not the worst of it.”
I shrugged and started on the dogs again. Two years ago, I met a woman whose husband used a propane torch on her. I did that one pro bono. I settled the dog with some beer and said, “Why don’t you do something about it?”
It was her turn to shrug, then she said, “I’d like to. I don’t know how, and I’m afraid.”
I looked at her glass and signaled the bartender, holding up two fingers, ordering for both of us. “What the hell, put some rat poison in his soup. Get him drunk in the car and leave it running in a closed garage. Use your imagination.” I put a fifty on the bar and let the change ride, figuring we’d have at least one more round.
“I’ve thought about a lot of ways, but I’m afraid I’ll get caught.” She looked scared, just saying that.
“If you’ve got enough evidence of continuous abuse, the worst you’d get would be a light sentence. Maybe not even that.”
She picked up the new glass and tipped it toward me before saying “Thanks,” and taking a drink. Then she said, “It’s not the law, it’s his family. They’re all crazy, and they’d get revenge in some horrible way. His brother once told me he’d chain me behind his truck and drag me down the highway.”
“He’s a fucking bully, just like my husband. They’re all crazy.”
“I almost did, but he kicked me in the belly when I was five months. I lost that child, something happened inside, and I can’t have kids. Good thing, actually.”
I finished my beer and held up one finger. Waited until it got to me and said, “Sounds like you have a problem.”
“No shit, Sherlock. Do you have a solution?”
“Maybe if you have some money, I might know a solution.”
“Know or do?”
“Let’s talk about money.”
“For you, three large.”
“That’s a lot of scratch.”
I tapped the side of my face again and said, “Could be a bargain. Like you said, that isn’t the worst of it. Do you have any money?”
“I’ll get some. After that prick is dead, I’ll get all the insurance money. Forty grand a legit policy we took out when we got married twelve years ago. Nothing that would be suspicious or anything.”
“I can see you’ve been thinking about this. But these things don’t work on credit.”
“I have a down payment.”
She dug into her purse again and took out a small wad of tissue. Unwrapped it and handed me a diamond engagement ring. I looked at her finger which housed a narrow silver band.
She said, “That was my mother’s my asshole husband never gave me one.”
I kept my hand below the bar and turned the ring over several times, trying to assess the value.
She gripped my arm and said, “I’ll give you a bonus after.” Then dropped her hand into my lap.
I gave her back the ring and said, “That won’t be necessary; maybe we can work this out.” I was beginning to sympathize, something I keep warning myself about, but maybe it’s my way of justifying my work.
She said, how can I contact you?”
“You can’t.” I took a burner phone out of my jacket pocket. “Give me your number.” She hesitated a split second, gave me the numbers, and I punched them into the phone, then said, “Give me an address.”
She looked scared like this was maybe going too far, but finally gave it to me. “Aren’t you gonna write it down?”
“I’ll remember it. Give me some more details.” She tapped her empty glass, and we waited for a refill before she gave me all the info I needed. I asked for a picture, and she said she couldn’t stand to look at him and had none.
I looked at the money on the bar. Pushed a tenner out of that to her leaving the rest for a tip, and said, “Have another drink, I’ll be in touch,” then headed for the door.
I heard her say, “When will I hear from you?”
I ignored that and left.
I drove eleven miles to East Jeffery and got a room there at an old motel for my cat and me using fake ID’s and writing a phony plate number on the sign-in card. The clerks at places like this don’t give a shit. The only thing that bothered me was that when she came into the bar, with many empty stools, she chose to sit next to me. I need to be careful.
Over the next two days, I gathered all the information I needed and got a good look at that prick. I could see the meanness oozing out of his pores. I knew just what I’d do—easy peasy. I called her at 3 p.m. while he was still at work. I didn’t say my name, I didn’t have to. All I said was, “Do you have it?”
“The ring is that okay? Please. I’m counting on you.”
“Meet me tomorrow, same bar, same time.”
* * *
I drove around the place, checking. Everything seemed all Jake. I backed into a parking place and went inside to the same stool. Two guys at the bar, two guys at a table, different bartender. “Rolling Rock longneck.”
I saw her approach in the mirror and spun on the stool. She was so different. Hair done. Clear skin. Business suit. Striding right toward me. I opened my hands, suggesting, What gives? Then I knew instantly. The bartender’s gun at my back, the table guys, stood up with full hands.
She opened her jacket, held up her ID, and said, “FBI Agent, Bert Merriweather. Jerry Lambert, you’re under arrest. Sorry, Jerry.”