A sign rolled into view at the side of the road. You are now leaving Roiville. Jessie didn’t think she’d ever been happier to leave anywhere. The only thing tempering her relief was the knowledge she would be coming back.
Back to what? A town with one foot in the grave and the other stuck so far in the past they probably believe Abraham Lincoln is the president.
The radio was chattering away in the background. She turned the volume up to drown out her morose thoughts. And now a special announcement from President Nixon. Her hand shot down and flicked the radio onto static. Dialled the volume back down to an indistinct hum.
Politics. No thanks.
When Jessie got behind the wheel of her new ride for the first time there was a Lynn Anderson cassette in the slot. Blasting country music from the moment she turned the key in the ignition.
‘Brand new and ready to drive off the lot,’ the salesman had said.
Yeah, and pigs can fly.
If it really was brand new, then someone at the factory in Japan or wherever had an ear for country. Jessie doubted it.
Turning off the main road the trees crept closer on either side. Dense, dark forest visible through breaks in the treeline. A dirt track, rutted by the passage of tractors and trailers. Was she lost? Jessie couldn’t be sure. There were no landmarks, nothing of note save the dust blowing in her rear-view mirror and mangled roadkill in her peripheral vision.
Something crept into view as she pulled the pickup round a winding bend. A monstrosity of corrugated iron and plywood. Not even worthy of being called a shack. A backwoods hovel. Jessie eased down on the brakes and the car nudged forwards, jolted to a halt.
She peered through the windscreen. Flecked with dust and dead bugs. There was no movement at the end of the road. All she could see was the tin-roofed hut and a beat-up chevy with rust glaring through flaking paint.
Is this the right place? I mean it looks like the kind of place an ex-con would live, but I don’t see how anyone could live here.
Two glances over her map and she was certain this was the felon’s house. A man stepped outiside, letting the door slam behind him. Jessie watched him put a cigarette to his mouth and freeze. Motionless. Like a deer catching a predator’s scent.
She lifted the map higher, making it half-visible over the dashboard. A match flared and touched the end of the cigarrette. One puff. Two. He started walking over, arms hanging heavy by his sides.
Very thin, almost emaciated. Sunken cheeks. Puffed red eyes. She wondered if the ex-con was sick. Perhaps he had the flu.
No, not sick. He’s a burn-out. Drugged off his head, most likely. Probably hit a doobie just before I arrived. Keep cool and don’t spook him.
Jessie slid one hand across her breast and down towards her ribcage. As if checking for her own smokes. The small .38 revolver was reassuringly solid against her side. A good weight to it.
What if I have to draw it?
The damn thing was wedged in so tight by her suit jacket, it would take at least a minute to wrestle from its holster. Bending over and feigning a closer expection of her map, Jessie tugged at the smooth wooden handle. It didn’t budge.
Come on. You’ve got to be kidding me!
A short struggle and the pistol came free. With a sigh of pure relief, Jessie dropped it into the side door compartment. A loud tap on the window. She squinted up, blinded by the sun shining overhead, and rolled down the window. Realised how dishevelled she looked after her fight with the holster. Unkempt hair and creased jacket.
‘You lost, miss?’ he asked in his hooting country midwestern accent. Took a drag and flicked ash on the side of the car bonnet. ‘Don’t see many unfamiliar folk out here.’
‘Maybe you can help me,’ Jessie replied, pulling out her badge and flashing the I.D. ‘I’m looking for Jim Melcom. Does he live round here?’
No reaction to seeing the badge. Not even a twitch. His eyes remained cool, easy as if she’d asked his opinion of the weather and shown him her driver’s licence. Another drag. Another slug of crumbling ash on the pickup’s pristine bodywork.
‘Oh yeah? That’s my brother. I’ll head on in and fetch him.’
He flicked the butt out into the roadside undergrowth. Strolled back towards his iron sheet and plywood shack. Limping. Why was he limping? It didn’t matter. Jessie knew he was her man. His mugshot had been in the damn report.
For Christ’s sake, who does he think he’s fooling?
Her hands were trembling as she folded up the map and stowed it in the glove compartment. Deep breath, hold for ten, release. She opened the door and stepped out into the midmorning sunlight.
I should start wearing a hat. It’s dumb not to. Tom and his deputies all wear one, but then again, they’re not federal agents. What sort of hat does an agent wear? They don’t teach you that at the academy.
Lectures on the national security threats of Communism, counter-culture and organised crime were less than useless out in the northernmost midwest. Jessie doubted she’d find anyone within a hundred miles who could tell her who Karl Marx was.
He was coming back. Melcom walked down his dirt-and-weed driveway with one arm around his wife’s waist. Thin as a rake, hollow-cheeked and with a pinch in the bridge of her nose. Say what you might for the grime and rips in her dress, the woman’s hair was gorgeous. It stunned Jessie. Everything else about them and their home was falling apart at the seams, but there she was. Golden hair tumbling in soft curls over her shoulders.
A sneer tugged the corner of Melcom’s lip. Baring dark molars in a bestial grin. The easy sway of his shoulders. His wife stepping away to one side. Something was wrong.
Jessie reached inside her jacket. Empty. Smith and Wesson .38 revolver still lying in the side door compartment of her truck.
Melcom’s hand gripped a thick wooden stock. The long, black double-barrel emerged from behind his wife’s back, as if time had slowed to a gut-clenching crawl. Sick fear weighed heavy in Jessie’s gut. She reached out her hands, palms open. Reassuring. Non-threatening. Following every lesson she had learned at the academy.
Two loud cracks and something punched into her chest. Like being kicked by a mule. It knocked Jessie off her feet and the world drowned in red in her eyes. Explosion. Fireworks. Red lights. Flashing. More explosions and dust blowing around her.
Wailing, screaming outside her head. The world dissolved around Jessie as the squad car pulled up to the hospital doors.
Don’t worry, it’s not over yet…