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BEEZER'S JOURNEY BEGAN with Myrtle Harrington, the loving wife of Michael Harrington, whispering down the telephone line to Richie Bumstead, on whom she has an industrial-strength crush in spite of his having been married to her second-best friend, Glad, who dropped down dead in her kitchen at the amazing age of thirty-one. For his part, Richie Bumstead has had enough macaroni-tuna casseroles and whisper-voiced phone calls from Myrtle to last him through two more lifetimes, but this is one set of whispers he's glad, even oddly relieved, to listen to, because he drives a truck for the Kingsland Brewing Company and has come to know Beezer St. Pierre and the rest of the boys, at least a little bit.
At first, Richie thought the Thunder Five was a bunch of hoodlums, those big guys with scraggly shoulder-length hair and foaming beards roaring through town on their Harleys, but one Friday he happened to be standing alongside the one called Mouse in the pay-window line, and Mouse looked down at him and said something funny about how working for love never made the paycheck look bigger, and they got into a conversation that made Richie Bumstead's head spin. Two nights later he saw Beezer St. Pierre and the one called Doc shooting the breeze in the yard when he came off-shift, and after he got his rig locked down for the night he went over and got into another conversation that made him feel like he'd walked into a combination of a raunchy blues bar and a Jeopardy! championship. These guys ¡ª Beezer, Mouse, Doc, Sonny, and Kaiser Bill ¡ª looked like rockin', stompin', red-eyed violence, but they were smart. Beezer, it turned out, was head brewmaster in Kingsland Ale's special-projects division, and the other guys were just under him. They had all gone to college. They were interested in making great beer and having a good time, and Richie sort of wished he could get a bike and let it all hang out like them, but a long Saturday afternoon and evening at the Sand Bar proved that the line between a high old time and utter abandon was too fine for him. He didn't have the stamina to put away two pitchers of Kingsland, play a decent game of pool, drink two more pitchers while talking about the influences of Sherwood An-derson and Gertrude Stein on the young Hemingway, get into some serious head-butting, put down another couple of pitchers, emerge clearheaded enough to go barrel-assing through the countryside, pick up a couple of experimental Madison girls, smoke a lot of high-grade shit, and romp until dawn. You have to respect people who can do that and still hold down good jobs.
As far as Richie is concerned, he has a duty to tell Beezer that the police have finally learned the whereabouts of Irma Freneau's body. That busybody Myrtle said it was a secret Richie has to keep to himself, but he's pretty sure that right after Myrtle gave him the news, she called four or five other people. Those people will call their best friends, and in no time at all half of French Landing is going to be heading over on 35 to be in on the action. Beezer has a better right to be there than most, doesn't he?
Less than thirty seconds after getting rid of Myrtle Harrington, Richie Bumstead looks up Beezer St. Pierre in the directory and dials the number.
"Richie, I sure hope you aren't shitting me," Beezer says.
"He called in, yeah?" Beezer wants Richie to repeat it. "That worthless piece of shit in the DARE car, the Mad Hungarian? . . . And he said the girl was where?"
"Fuck, the whole town is gonna be out there," Beezer says. "But thanks, man, thanks a lot. I owe you." In the instant before the receiver slams down, Richie thinks he hears Beezer start to say something else that gets dissolved in a scalding rush of emotion.
And in the little house on Nailhouse Row, Beezer St. Pierre swipes tears into his beard, gently moves the telephone a few inches back on the table, and turns to face Bear Girl, his common-law spouse, his old lady, Amy's mother, whose real name is Susan Osgood, and who is staring up at him from beneath her thick blond bangs, one finger holding her place in a book.
"It's the Freneau girl," he says. "I gotta go."
"Go," Bear Girl tells him. "Take the cell phone and call me as soon as you can."
"Yeah," he says, and plucks the cell phone from its charger and rams it into a front pocket of his jeans. Instead of moving to the door, he thrusts a hand into the huge red-brown tangle of his beard and absent-mindedly combs it with his fingers. His feet are rooted to the floor; his eyes have lost focus. "The Fisherman called 911," he says. "Can you believe this shit? They couldn't find the Freneau girl by themselves, they needed him to tell them where to find her body."
"Listen to me," Bear Girl says, and gets up and travels the space between them far more quickly than she seems to. She snuggles her compact little body into his massive bulk, and Beezer inhales a chestful of her clean, soothing scent, a combination of soap and fresh bread. "When you and the boys get out there, it's going to be up to you to keep them in line. So you have to keep yourself in line, Beezer. No matter how angry you are, you can't go nuts and start beating on people. Cops especially."
"I suppose you think I shouldn't go."
"You have to. I just don't want you to wind up in jail."
"Hey," he says, "I'm a brewer, not a brawler."
"Don't forget it," she says, and pats him on the back. "Are you going to call them?"
"Street telephone." Beezer walks to the door, bends down to pick up his helmet, and marches out. Sweat slides down his forehead and crawls through his beard. Two strides bring him to his motorcycle. He puts one hand on the saddle, wipes his forehead, and bellows, "THE FUCKING FISHERMAN TOLD THAT FUCKING HUNGARIAN COP WHERE TO FIND IRMA FRENEAU'S BODY. WHO'S COMING WITH ME?"
On both sides of Nailhouse Row, bearded heads pop out of windows and loud voices shout "Wait Up!" "Holy Shit!" and "Yo!" Four vast men in leather jackets, jeans, and boots come barreling out of four front doors. Beezer almost has to smile ¡ª he loves these guys, but sometimes they remind him of cartoon characters. Even before they reach him, he starts explaining about Richie Bumstead and the 911 call, and by the time he finishes, Mouse, Doc, Sonny, and Kaiser Bill are on their bikes and waiting for the signal.
"But this here's the deal," Beezer says. "Two things. We're going out there for Amy and Irma Freneau and Johnny Irkenham, not for ourselves. We want to make sure everything gets done the right way, and we're not gonna bust anybody's head open, not unless they ask for it. You got that?"
The others rumble, mumble, and grumble, apparently in assent. Four tangled beards wag up and down.
"And number two, when we do bust open somebody's head, it's gonna be the Fisherman's. Because we have put up with enough crap around here, and now I am pretty damn sure it's our turn to hunt down the fucking bastard who killed my little girl ¡ª " Beezer's voice catches in his throat, and he raises his fist before continuing. "And dumped this other little girl in that fucking shack out on 35. Because I am going to get my hands on that fucking fuckhead, and when I do, I am gonna get RIGHTEOUS on his ass!"
His boys, his crew, his posse shake their fists in the air and bellow. Five motorcycles surge noisily into life. "We'll take a look at the place from the highway and double back to the road behind Goltz's," Beezer shouts, and charges down the road and uphill on Chase Street with the others in his slipstream.
Through the middle of town they roll, Beezer in the lead, Mouse and Sonny practically on his tailpipe, Doc and the Kaiser right behind, their beards flowing in the wind. The thunder of their bikes rattles the windows in Schmitt's Allsorts and sends starlings flapping up from the marquee of the Agincourt Theater. Hanging over the bars of his Harley, Beezer looks a little bit like King Kong getting set to rip apart a jungle gym. Once they get past the 7-Eleven, Kaiser and Doc move up alongside Sonny and Mouse and take up the entire width of the highway. People driving west on 35 look at the figures charging toward them and swerve onto the shoulder; drivers who see them in their rearview mirrors drift to the side of the road, stick their arms out of their windows, and wave them on.
As they near Centralia, Beezer passes about twice as many cars as really ought to be traveling down a country highway on a weekend morning. The situation is even worse than he figured it would be: Dale Gilbertson is bound to have a couple of cops blocking traffic turning in from 35, but two cops couldn't handle more than ten or twelve ghouls dead set on seeing, really seeing, the Fisherman's handiwork. French Landing doesn't have enough cops to keep a lid on all the screwballs homing in on Ed's Eats. Beezer curses, picturing himself losing control, turning a bunch of twisted Fisherman geeks into tent pegs. Losing control is exactly what he cannot afford to do, not if he expects any cooperation from Dale Gilbertson and his flunkies.
Beezer leads his companions around a crapped-out old red Toyota and is visited by an idea so perfect that he forgets to strike unreasoning terror into the beater's driver by looking him in the eye and snarling, "I make Kingsland Ale, the best beer in the world, you dimwit cur." He has done this to two drivers this morning, and neither one let him down. The people who earn this treatment by either lousy driving or the possession of a truly ugly vehicle imagine that he is threatening them with some grotesque form of sexual assault, and they freeze like rabbits, they stiffen right up. Jolly good fun, as the citizens of Emerald City sang in The Wizard of Oz. The idea that has distracted Beezer from his harmless pleasures possesses the simplicity of most valid inspirations. The best way to get cooperation is to give it. He knows exactly how to soften up Dale Gilbertson: the answer is putting on a baseball cap, grabbing its car keys, and heading out the door ¡ª the answer lies all around him.
One small part of that answer sits behind the wheel of the red Toyota just being overtaken by Beezer and his jolly crew. Wendell Green earned the mock rebuke he failed to receive on both of the conventional grounds. His little car may not have been ugly to begin with, but by now it is so disfigured by multiple dents and scrapes that it resembles a rolling sneer; and Green drives with an unyielding arrogance he thinks of as "dash." He zooms through yellow lights, changes lanes recklessly, and tailgates as a means of intimidation. Of course, he blasts his horn at the slightest provocation. Wendell is a menace. The way he handles his car perfectly expresses his character, being inconsiderate, thoughtless, and riddled with grandiosity. At the moment, he is driving even worse than usual, because as he tries to overtake every other vehicle on the road, most of his concentration is focused on the pocket tape recorder he holds up to his mouth and the golden words his equally golden voice pours into the precious machine. (Wendell often regrets the shortsightedness of the local radio stations in devoting so much air time to fools like George Rathbun and Henry Shake, when they could move up to a new level simply by letting him give an ongoing commentary on the news for an hour or so every day.) Ah, the delicious combination of Wendell's words and Wendell's voice ¡ª Edward R. Murrow in his heyday never sounded so eloquent, so resonant.
Here is what he is saying: This morning I joined a virtual caravan of the shocked, the grieving, and the merely curious in a mournful pilgrimage winding eastward along bucolic Highway 35. Not for the first time, this journalist was struck, and struck deeply, by the immense contrast between the loveliness and peace of the Coulee Country's landscape and the ugliness and savagery one deranged human being has wrought in its unsuspecting bosom. New paragraph.
The news had spread like wildfire. Neighbor called neighbor, friend called friend. According to a morning 911 call to the French Landing police station, the mutilated body of little Irma Freneau lies within the ruins of a former ice-cream parlor and caf¨¦ called Ed's Eats and Dawgs. And who had placed the call? Surely, some dutiful citizen. Not at all, ladies and gentlemen, not at all . . .
Ladies and gentlemen, this is frontline reportage, this is the news being written while it happens, a concept that cannot but murmur "Pulitzer Prize" to an experienced journalist. The scoop had come to Wendell Green by way of his barber, Roy Royal, who heard it from his wife, Tillie Royal, who had been clued in by Myrtle Harrington herself, and Wendell Green has done his duty to his readers: he grabbed his tape recorder and his camera and ran out to his nasty little vehicle without pausing to telephone his editors at the Herald. He doesn't need a photographer; he can take all the photographs he needs with that dependable old Nikon F2A on the passenger seat. A seamless blend of words and pictures ¡ª a penetrating examination of the new century's most hideous crime ¡ª a thoughtful exploration into the nature of evil ¡ª a compassionate portrayal of one community's suffering ¡ª an unsparing expos¨¦ of one police department's ineptitude ¡ª
With all this going on in his mind as his mellifluous words drip one by one into the microphone of his upheld cassette recorder, is it any wonder that Wendell Green fails to hear the sound of motorcycles, or to take in the presence of the Thunder Five in any way, until he happens to glance sideways in search of the perfect phrase? Glance sideways he does, and with a spurt of panic observes, no more than two feet to his left, Beezer St. Pierre astride his roaring Harley, apparently singing, to judge from his own moving lips
Can't be, nope. In Wendell's experience, Beezer St. Pierre is far more likely to be cursing like a navvy in a waterfront brawl. When, after the death of Amy St. Pierre, Wendell, who was merely obeying the ancient rules of his trade, dropped in at 1 Nailhouse Row, and inquired of the grieving father how it felt to know that his daughter had been slaughtered like a pig and partially eaten by a monster in human form, Beezer had gripped the innocent newshound by the throat, unleashed a torrent of obscenities, and concluded by bellowing that if he should ever see Mr. Green again, he would tear off his head and use the stump as a sexual orifice.
It is this threat that causes Wendell's moment of panic. He glances into his rearview mirror and sees Beezer's cohorts strung out across the road like an invading army of Goths. In his imagination, they are waving skulls on ropes made of human skin and yelling about what they are going to do to his neck after they rip his head off. Whatever he was about to dictate into the invaluable machine instantly evaporates, along with his daydreams of winning the Pulitzer Prize. His stomach clenches, and sweat bursts from every pore on his broad, ruddy face. His left hand trembles on the wheel, his right shakes the cassette recorder like a castanet. Wendell lifts his foot from the accelerator and slides down on the car seat, turning his head as far to the right as he dares. His basic desire is to curl up in the well beneath the dashboard and pretend to be a fetus. The huge roar of sound behind him grows louder, and his heart leaps in his chest like a fish. Wendell whimpers. A rank of kettledrums batters the air beyond the fragile skin of the car door.
Then the motorcycles swoop past him and race off up the highway. Wendell Green wipes his face. Slowly, he persuades his body to sit up straight. His heart ceases its attempt to escape his chest. The world on the other side of his windshield, which had contracted to the size of a housefly, expands back to its normal size. It occurs to Wendell that he was no more afraid than any normal human being would be, under the circumstances. Self-regard fills him like helium fills a balloon. Most guys he knows would have driven right off the road, he thinks; most guys would have crapped in their pants. What did Wendell Green do? He slowed down a little, that's all. He acted like a gentleman and let the ass-holes of the Thunder Five drive past him. When it comes to Beezer and his apes, Wendell thinks, being a gentleman is the better part of valor. He picks up speed, watching the bikers race on ahead.
In his hand, the cassette recorder is still running. Wendell raises it to his mouth, licks his lips, and discovers that he has forgotten what he was going to say. Blank tape whirls from spool to spool. "Damn," he says, and pushes the OFF button. An inspired phrase, a melodious cadence, has vanished into the ether, perhaps for good. But the situation is far more frustrating than that. It seems to Wendell that a whole series of logical connections has vanished with the lost phrase: he can remember seeing the shape of a vast outline for at least half a dozen penetrating articles that would go beyond the Fisherman to . . . do what? Win him the Pulitzer, for sure, but how? The area in his mind that had given him the immense outline still holds its shape, but the shape is empty. Beezer St. Pierre and his goons murdered what now seems the greatest idea Wendell Green ever had, and Wendell has no certainty that he can bring it back to life.
What are these biker freaks doing out here, anyhow?
The question answers itself: some creepy do-gooder thought Beezer ought to know about the Fisherman's 911 call, and now the biker freaks are headed to the ruins of Ed's, just like him. Fortunately, so many other people are going to the same place that Wendell figures he can steer clear of his nemesis. Taking no chances, he drops a couple of cars behind the bikers.
The traffic thickens and slows down; up ahead, the bikers form a single line and zoom up alongside the line crawling toward the dusty old lane to Ed's place. From seventy or eighty yards back, Wendell can see two cops, a man and a woman, trying to wave the rubberneckers along. Every time a fresh car pulls up in front of them, they have to go through the same pantomine of turning its occupants away and pointing down the road. To reinforce the message, a police car is parked sideways across the lane, blocking anyone who should try to get fancy. This spectacle troubles Wendell not at all, for the press has automatic access to such scenes. Journalists are the medium, the aperture, through which otherwise prohibited places and events reach the general public. Wen-dell Green is the people's representative here, and the most distinguished journalist in western Wisconsin besides.
After he has inched along another thirty feet, he sees that the cops riding herd on the traffic are Danny Tcheda and Pam Stevens, and his complacency wavers. A couple of days ago, both Tcheda and Stevens had responded to his request for information by telling him to go to hell. Pam Stevens is a know-it-all bitch anyhow, a professional ball-breaker. Why else would a reasonably okay-looking dame want to be a cop? Stevens would turn him away from the scene for the sheer hell of it ¡ª she'd enjoy it! Probably, Wendell realizes, he will have to sneak in somehow. He pictures himself crawling through the fields on his belly and shivers with distaste.
At least he can have the pleasure of watching the cops giving the finger to Beezer and crew. The bikers roar past another half-dozen cars without slowing down, so Wendell supposes they plan on going into a flashy, skidding turn, dodging right by those two dumbbells in blue, and zooming around the patrol car as if it didn't exist. What will the cops do then, Wendell wonders ¡ª drag out their guns and try to look fierce? Fire warning shots and hit each other in the foot?
Astonishingly, Beezer and his train of fellow bikers pay no attention to the cars attempting to move into the lane, to Tcheda and Stevens, or to anything else up there. They do not even turn their heads to gape up at the ruined shack, the chief's car, the pickup truck ¡ª which Wendell instantly recognizes ¡ª and the men standing on the beaten grass, two of whom are Dale Gilbertson and the pickup's owner, Hollywood Jack Sawyer, that snooty L.A. prick. (The third guy, who is wearing an ice-cream hat, sunglasses, and a spiffy vest, makes no sense at all, at least not to Wendell. He looks like he dropped in from some old Humphrey Bogart movie.) No, they blast on by the whole messy scene with their helmets pointed straight ahead, as if all they have in mind is cruising into Centralia and busting up the fixtures in the Sand Bar. On they go, all five of the bastards, indifferent as a pack of wild dogs. As soon as they hit open road again, the other four move into parallel formation behind Beezer and fan out across the highway. Then, as one, they veer off to the left, send up five great plumes of dust and gravel, and spin into five U-turns. Without breaking stride ¡ª without even appearing to slow down ¡ª they separate into their one-two-two pattern and come streaking back westward toward the crime scene and French Landing.
I'll be damned, Wendell thinks. Beezer turned tail and gave up. What a wimp. The knot of bikers grows larger and larger as it swoops toward him, and soon the amazed Wendell Green makes out Beezer St. Pierre's grim face, which beneath its helmet also gets larger and larger as it approaches. "I never figured you for a quitter," Wendell says, watching Beezer loom ever nearer. The wind has parted his beard into two equal sections that flare out behind him on both sides of his head. Behind his goggles, Beezer's eyes look as if he is aiming down the barrel of a rifle. The thought that Beezer might turn those hunter's eyes on him makes Wendell's bowels feel dangerously loose. "Loser," he says, not very loudly. With an ear-pounding roar, Beezer flashes past the dented Toyota. The rest of the Thunder Five hammer the air, then streak down the road.
This evidence of Beezer's cowardice brightens Wendell's heart as he watches the bikers diminish in his rearview mirror, but a thought he cannot ignore begins to worm its way upward through the synapses of his brain. Wendell may not be the Edward R. Murrow of the present day, but he has been a reporter for nearly thirty years, and he has developed a few instincts. The thought winding through his mental channels sets off a series of wavelike alarms that at last push it into consciousness. Wendell gets it ¡ª he sees the hidden design; he understands what's going down.
"Well, hot doggy," he says, and with a wide grin blasts his horn, cranks his wheel to the left, and jolts into a turn with only minimal damage to his fender and that of the car in front of him. "You sneaky bastard," he says, nearly chuckling with delight. The Toyota squeezes out of the line of vehicles pointed eastward and drifts over into the westbound lanes. Clanking and farting, it shoots away in pursuit of the crafty bikers.
There will be no crawling through cornfields for Wendell Green: that sneaky bastard Beezer St. Pierre knows a back way to Ed's Eats! All our star reporter has to do is hang back far enough to stay out of sight and he gets a free pass into the scene. Beautiful. Ah, the irony: Beezer gives the press a helpful hand ¡ª many thanks, you arrogant thug. Wendell hardly supposes that Dale Gilbertson will give him the run of the place, but it will be harder to throw him out than to turn him away. In the time he has, he can ask a few probing questions, snap a few telling photos, and ¡ª above all! ¡ª soak up enough atmosphere to produce one of his legendary "color" pieces.
With a cheerful heart, Wendell poodles down the highway at fifty miles per hour, letting the bikers race far ahead of him without ever letting them pass out of sight. The number of cars coming toward him thins out to widely spaced groups of two and three, then to a few single cars, then to nothing. As if they have been waiting to be unobserved, Beezer and his friends swerve across the highway and go blasting up the driveway to Goltz's space-age dome.
Wendell feels an unwelcome trickle of self-doubt, but he is not about to assume that Beezer and his louts have a sudden yearning for tractor hitches and riding lawn mowers. He speeds up, wondering if they have spotted him and are trying to throw him off their trail. As far as he knows, there is nothing up on that rise except the showroom, the maintenance garage, and the parking lot. Damn place looks like a wasteland. Beyond the parking lot . . . what? On one side, he remembers a scrubby field stretching away to the horizon, on the other a bunch of trees, like a forest, only not as thick. He can see the trees from where he is now, running downhill like a windbreak.
Without bothering to signal, he speeds across the oncoming lanes and into Goltz's driveway. The sound of the motorcycles is still audible but growing softer, and Wendell experiences a jolt of fear that they have somehow tricked him and are getting away, jeering at him! At the top of the rise, he zooms around the front of the showroom and drives into the big lot. Two huge yellow tractors stand in front of the equipment garage, but his is the only car in sight. At the far end of the empty lot, a low concrete wall rises to bumper height between the asphalt and the meadow bordered by trees. On the other side of the tree line, the wall ends at the swoop of asphalt drive coming around from the back of the showroom.
Wendell cranks the wheel and speeds toward the far end of the wall. He can still hear the motorcycles, but they sound like a distant swarm of bees. They must be about a half mile away, Wendell thinks, and jumps out of the Toyota. He jams the cassette recorder in a jacket pocket, slings the Nikon on its strap around his neck, and runs around the low wall and into the meadow. Even before he reaches the tree line, he can see the remains of an old macadam road, broken and overgrown, cutting downhill between the trees.
Wendell imagines, overestimating, that Ed's old place is about a mile distant, and he wonders if his car could go the distance on this rough, uneven surface. In some places, the macadam has fissured into tectonic plates; in others, it has crumbled away to black gravel. Sinkholes and weedy rills radiate out from the thick, snaking roots of the trees. A biker could jounce over this mess reasonably well, but Wendell sees that his legs will manage the journey better than his Toyota, so he sets off down the old track through the trees. From what he took in while he was on the highway, he still has plenty of time before the medical examiner and the evidence wagon show up. Even with the help of the famous Hollywood Sawyer, the local cops are mooning around in a daze.
The sound of motorcycles grows louder as Wendell picks his way along, as if the boys stopped moving in order to talk things over when they came to the far end of the old back road. That's perfect. Wendell hopes they will keep jawing until he has nearly caught up with them; he hopes they are shouting at one another and waving their fists in the air. He wants to see them cranked to the gills on rage and adrenaline, plus God knows what else those savages might have in their saddlebags. Wendell would love to get a photograph of Beezer St. Pierre knocking out Dale Gilbertson's front teeth with a well-aimed right, or putting the choke hold on his buddy Sawyer. The photograph Wendell wants most, however, and for the sake of which he is prepared to bribe every cop, county functionary, state official, or innocent bystander capable of holding out his hand, is a good, clean, dramatic picture of Irma Freneau's naked corpse. Preferably one that leaves no doubt about the Fisherman's depredations, whatever they were. Two would be ideal ¡ª one of her face for poignancy, the other a full-body shot for the perverts ¡ª but he will settle for the body shot if he has to. An image like that would go around the world, generating millions as it went. The National Enquirer alone would fork over, what ¡ª two hundred thousand, three? ¡ª for a photo of poor little Irma sprawled out in death, mutilations clearly visible. Talk about your gold mines, talk about your Big Kahunas!
When Wendell has covered about a tenth of a mile of the miserable old road, his concentration divided between gloating over all the money little Irma is going to siphon into his pockets and his fears of falling down and twisting his ankle, the uproar caused by the Thunder Five's Harleys abruptly ceases. The resulting silence seems immense, then immediately fills with other, quieter sounds. Wendell can hear his breath struggling in and out, and also some other noise, a combined rattle and thud, from behind him. He whirls around and beholds, far up the ruined road, an ancient pickup lurching toward him.
It's almost funny, the way the truck rocks from side to side as one tire, then another, sinks into an invisible depression or rolls up a tilting section of road surface. That is, it would be funny if these people were not horning in on his private access route to Irma Freneau's body. Whenever the pickup climbs over a particularly muscular-looking length of tree root, the four dark heads in the cab bob like marionettes. Wendell takes a step forward, intending to send these yokels back where they came from. The truck's suspension scrapes against a flat rock, and sparks leap from the undercarriage. That thing must be thirty years old, at least, Wendell thinks ¡ª it's one of the few vehicles on the road that looks even worse than his car. When the truck jolts closer to him, he sees that it is an International Harvester. Weeds and twigs decorate the rusty bumper. Does I.H. even make pickups anymore? Wendell holds up his hand like a juror taking the oath, and the truck jounces and dips over another few rutted feet before coming to a halt. Its left side sits noticeably higher than the right. In the darkness cast by the trees, Wendell cannot quite make out the faces peering at him through the windshield, but he has the feeling that at least two of them are familiar.
The man behind the wheel pokes his head out of the driver's window and says, "Hidey-ho, Mr. Bigshot Reporter. They slam the front door in your face, too?" It is Teddy Runkleman, who regularly comes to Wendell's attention while he is going over the day's police reports. The other three people in the cab bray like mules at Teddy's wit. Wendell knows two of them ¡ª Freddy Saknessum, part of a low-life clan that oozes in and out of various run-down shacks along the river, and Toots Billinger, a scrawny kid who somehow supports himself by scavenging scrap metal in La Riviere and French Landing. Like Runkleman, Toots has been arrested for a number of third-rate crimes but never convicted of anything. The hard-worn, scruffy woman between Freddy and Toots rings a bell too dim to identify.
"Hello, Teddy," Wendell says. "And you, Freddy and Toots. No, after I got a look at the mess out front, I decided to come in the back way."
"Hey, Wen-dell, doncha 'member me?" the woman says, a touch pathetically. "Doodles Sanger, in case your memory's all shot to hell. I started out with a whole buncha guys in Freddy's Bel Air, and Teddy was with a whole 'nother bunch, but after we got run off by Miss Bitch, the rest of 'em wanted to go back to their barstools."
Of course he does remember her, although the hardened face before him now only faintly resembles that of the bawdy party girl named Doodles Sanger who served up drinks at the Nelson Hotel a decade ago. Wendell thinks she got fired more for drinking too much on the job than for stealing, but God knows she did both. Back then, Wendell threw a lot of money across the bar at the Nelson Hotel. He tries to remember if he ever hopped in the sack with Doodles.
He plays it safe and says, "Cripes, Doodles, how the hell could I forget a pretty little thing like you?"
The boys get a big yuck out of this sally. Doodles jabs her elbow into Toots Billinger's vaporous ribs, gives Wendell a pouty little smile, and says, "Well thank-ee, kind sir." Yep, he boffed her, all right.
This would be the perfect time to order these morons back to their ratholes, but Wendell is visited by grade-A inspiration. "How would you charming people like to assist a gentleman of the press and earn fifty bucks in the process?"
"Fifty each, or all together?" asks Teddy Runkleman.
"Come on, all together," Wendell says.
Doodles leans forward and says, "Twenty each, all right, big-timer? If we agree to do what you want."
"Aw, you're breakin' my heart," Wendell says, and extracts his wallet from his back pocket and removes four twenties, leaving only a ten and three singles to see him through the day. They accept their payment and, in a flash, tuck it away. "Now this is what I want you to do," Wendell says, and leans toward the window and the four jack-o'-lantern faces in the cab.