“He’s got my guitar …”
Deputy U. S. Marshal Ron Toledo pulled up across the street from the coffee shop, slid the black Tahoe into park, and then checked the messages on his phone. A cold January wind blew frozen leaves past his windshield while he alerted the home office that he had reached his destination in beautiful downtown Dismal, S. C. He had just grabbed his navy pea coat from the passenger seat when he saw the woman heading into the shop.
“Shit,” he said. He slid out, locked up the Tahoe, and pulled the coat on over his gun and badge.
What passed for the early morning rush was long over and Max Houze was sitting alone in one of the big, comfortable recliners at the front of the coffee shop reading the latest Ace Atkins novel.
Houze was the last name picked for him by some genius at WitSec, WitSec being short for the witness protection program of the U. S.Marshal’s Office. When they offered to set him up with the little business, he chose the first name Maxwell just to mess with them. The coffee shop became Maxwell’s Houze.
Max looked up when he heard the jingle of the bell over the front door and saw Mary Anne come in.
He nodded as she swished by and then finished the chapter knowing that, as usual, she would help herself to coffee with half and half and a zucchini muffin. He found her at a booth in the back near the small stage and slid in across from her with a carafe and his own cup.
There was no muffin.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
She stared into her half-filled mug, turned it slowly in a complete circle and barely shook her head.
Max poured himself some decaf into the big mug with cream already in it and waited.
Her freshly washed brown hair had fallen around her face and when she finally looked up she appeared more his age than her own. Dark half moons hung under her troubled green eyes and he noted a bruise that makeup didn’t quite cover on her right cheek.
Silence stretched between them broken only by the muted music that floated down from speakers strategically placed in the high tin ceiling.
“I guess I’m going to have to cancel tonight,’ she said after she finally sipped from her cup and looked over at the stage.
“Frankie,” Max said. It wasn’t a question.
“I moved out last night,” she said looking down into her cup as if the answer to her problems might be found floating there. “Still have my own place, I’m done with him.”
“Mary Anne you’ve got a great voice and you play that old Fender like you were born with it in your hands, but this is a tune you’ve sung before.” Max drank some of his coffee then waited for her to look up. She did.
“He never liked you working here,” Max said. “Or playing your music on Friday nights. If you guys are really finished then there is no reason for you to give this up.”
Tears welled up in her eyes but she held them back.
“He’s got my guitar, threatened to bust it up if I called the the cops on him.”
“I’ll get you another guitar…”
“No!” She slammed her mug on the table and coffee sloshed out. Max watched her soak it up with her napkin, then crumple the napkin into a tight ball and drop it into the cup.
“That’s my grandfather’s Strat and the only thing I have left of him and I can’t loose it.” She said. “I just can’t.”
Finally tears fell as John Fogarty wondered who’d stop the rain and as the two sat quietly for a time.
“Where might I find Mr. Frankie this time of day?” Max asked.
“You don’t need that kind of trouble,” she said. “I don’t want you getting hurt on my account.” She shook her head but her eyes dried up and filled with hope.
“That crappy double wide over on Rose Lane?” Max asked.
“But Max, he might…”
“Mary Anne,” he interrupted her. “I’ve not always run a coffee shop.”
He smiled and Mary Anne saw something in his face that she had never seen before. She sat back and that was when the bell on the front door rang and she tore her eyes away to see a tall man in washed out Levi’s, brown cowboy boots and a navy pea coat come in the door.
“I got him,” she said and jumped up and all but ran to greet the man at the counter.
Max watched as she waited on the man and then rang him up on the iPad. She swiped his card and he ambled over, nodded at him, and took a seat at the table next to him.
Mary Anne went into the back and Max heard her banging around in the kitchen cleaning and straightening up the mess.
“You’re supposed to notify the office before you hire anyone, you know.” Ron Toledo spoke quietly, looking straight ahead out the window at the front of the shop.
“Well, good morning to you too Marshal.” Toledo frowned and looked over at Max who rolled his eyes. “She’s off the books, part time, been here about a month.”
“Still…”the Marshal ran his hand through his hair, ate a bit of the doughnut and washed it down with some black coffee. “You start doing whatever you want, violating the rules, next thing you know this fine establishment burns to the ground and I have to explain how you got to be a crispy critter.”
“And?” Max said.
“Paper work would be a bitch.”
“Your empathy is truly breathtaking, Marshal”
“Bite me,” Ron said. He looked over his shoulder at the sounds from the back of the shop. “Tell me you didn’t do that to her face.”
“Nope,” Max said. “but I know who did.”
The doughnut was gone and the coffee was cold by the time Max finished the story.
“What you got on the guy?” Ron asked and pulled his iPhone out of his jacket pocket.
“Mills, Franklin J. He’s a white male.” He took a pen out of his shirt pocket and while Ron fiddled with his phone, Max jotted down a DOB onto the back of a laundry receipt. He tossed it over to Toledo who obviously wondered where he got it.
“Don’t ask,”Max said. He took the Marshal’s cup to the counter and tossed the cold brew then filled it with fresh from the pot.
“Mills is a real piece of work,” Toledo said when Max returned with the coffee. “His rap sheet is longer than yours, not nearly as interesting of course, but still…”
“Anything I should be worried about?”
“Yeah, your deal with WitSec is contingent on you not being convicted of ANY crimes.” Toledo sipped from the fresh cup. “You might want to consider that.”
“I’m just going to get Mary Anne’s guitar back.” Max said. “I’ll play nice.”
“Sure you will.”
“More or less.”
The Mills residence was a red neck cliche: a double wide trailer with faded white paint and rusty blue tin underpinning. It was the last trailer on a long dirt road off of a two-lane country road about three miles out of town. An old flat black Dodge truck sat on cinder blocks in the front yard and a mongrel dog chained to a dogwood tree on the side stared at him but didn’t bark as he got out of his car. Duct tape kept the broken glass on the front door from falling onto the rotting stoop.
Max banged on the door, waited and listened, then banged harder. When no one answered he walked back to his car and considered his options. He drove to the end of the road and parked his car out of sight down an old dirt utility access trail.
Things looked exactly the same after he walked back to casa Mills and circled around to the back door. After putting on a pair of latex gloves, it took him about twenty seconds to jimmy the cheap lock.
Max checked the house, quickly confirmed that it was empty, and then began to hunt the guitar. He found it under a single bed in one of the smaller bedrooms and nestled in a black hard case.
The case was fairly new, the guitar definitely not. Max did not know much about guitars but he knew older American-made Fenders brought good money. This one was a survivor, worn with nicks and dings here and there but still Mary Anne cherished it and that was that. He closed the case and was carrying it up the hall when he heard a car with a leaky muffler pull up outside. He peeked out the closed blinds in the den.
Max considered slipping out, but then hurried back down the hall and popped into the closet in the so called master bedroom. He sat the guitar down and had just eased the door shut when he heard Frankie on his phone coming down the hall.
“Yeah, I got the stuff and no I’m not going to step on it before tonight’s delivery. Big Mike would kick my ass halfway to Memphis if he caught me doing that…. yeah, see you about nine.”
Through the slats in the door Max watched as Freddie threw his backpack on the unmade bed. He took off his coat, then pulled a Glock from the back of his jeans, and lay it on the night stand. He got a plastic baggie with about a half a kilo of heroin out of the backpack and walked over to a dresser.
“Not your first rodeo,” Max thought as he watched Mills skim about a third of the product out of the plastic bag and replace it with something the same off white color. He lay both bags on the dresser and got his kit from a drawer. Next he sat on the edge of his unmade bed and cooked up a sample from the stepped on bag in a spoon. He drew the liquid into a syringe and then tied off his left arm and injected it into a vein.
Seconds later Mills slid unconscious to the floor.
Max watched for a couple of minutes and when Mills didn’t move he eased the door open. He crossed the room, picked up the Glock, checked the magazine, slid it back home and stood over Mills thinking.
“Nice to have options,” Max thought as he looked at the empty syringe. He stuck the Glock in his belt and retrieved Mills lighter and lined it, the syringe, and the two bags of heroin up on the dresser. He sighed, then began to prep a hot shot. He took some powder from the undiluted bag of heroin, heated it in the spoon, and loaded the syringe.
Max tied off Mills’ arm, found a vein, inserted the needle but hesitated without pushing the plunger home. He glanced around the room at the shoddy furniture, the rumpled and dirty sheets on the bed, the stolen Red Roof Inn towels that served for curtains and then his gaze settled back on the guitar case still in the closet. He took a deep breath and then bent back over the unconscious man. He was ready.
A loud banging on the front door startled him and he instinctively jerked out the needle. Max lay the syringe back on the counter and headed down the hall.
He wasn’t exactly shocked but was surprised to see Marshal Toledo through the blinds on the front door.
Toledo stood to one side of the door, hands on his hips and coat pushed back to reveal the Glock in the brown Safariland holster on his right side and his badge on the left.
“Howdy, Marshal.” Max said and then eased the door open.
“You killed him yet?” Toledo asked as he stepped into the trailer past Max.
“No, but honestly he may have done himself in,” Max said. “Don’t you have anything better to do than follow me?”
Max handed over Mills’ gun. Toledo popped the mag out and slid the slide all the way back catching the chambered round. Then he followed Max down the hall.
“Why don’t you just saddle up and ride out of here?” Max asked after Toledo checked the still unconscious Freddie Mills’ vitals.
“And what, you give him a little extra and take care of the problem permanently?” Toledo said looking at the stuff on the dresser.
“Never occurred to me.” Max said and Toledo rolled his eyes.
“Sure,” Toledo said. “You touch anything without those gloves?”
Max shook his head.
“Grab the Fender on your way out.” Toledo said.
“With the gun and the drugs and the three strikes, you can stick a fork in this turkey,” Toledo said. “He’s done. I’ll just call it in.”
“How are you going to explain being here?’
“A ruse, you never heard of a ruse?” Toledo picked up the syringe and squirted the drug out onto the dirty carpet.
“Yeah, I’ve heard of a freaking ruse. I think you people call it sworn testimony.” Max smiled when he spoke. “So you just wandered by, the door was open, and you found him like this.”
“No,” Toledo said. “Suppose I’m looking for some info on Big Mike and an informant tells me Frankie here is the man to see. I show up, hear him moaning, come in to render aid and the rest is text book plain view doctrine.”
“You’re good,” Max said.
“And YOU were never here.”
“Chief, I was just wondering if you’d heard anything about the Maxwell situation here in Dismal.”
At ten after ten that night Ron Toledo sat in his SUV with the heater jacked in an alley behind Maxwell’s Houze. He could hear guitar riffs of Johnny B. Goode through the window and over the sound of the car’s fan. He drummed his fingers on the console.
EMS had taken Mills to the hospital until he came around at which point the Dismal County narcotics unit arrested him. Toledo hung around signing statements, witnessing search warrants, and then by the time he ate with a couple of the deputies it was too late to drive back to Columbia.
“What I’ve heard, Marshal Toledo, is that you turned a fifteen minute routine WitSec interview into a Dixie Mafia drug bust guaranteed to ratchet up the continuing shit storm between you and Big Mike.”
Toledo imagined Chief Deputy Amanda Barnes sitting in her office behind her old oak desk with the phone call on speaker and her feet up. He hit the FaceTime button on his iPhone and sure enough there she was.
“I didn’t go looking for trouble,”Toledo said. “Big Mike and the Dixie boys will just have to get over it.”
“Imagine if you ever actually went looking for trouble,” Barnes said shaking her head. She sat up straight behind the desk. “To answer your implied question, I got nothing from the honchos at Witsec.”
“So I don’t tell Mary Anne about Maxwell…” Toledo said.
“And you don’t tell Maxwell about Mary Anne,” Barnes poured herself a bourbon from a bottle in the bottom drawer of her desk, raised the glass to the screen, and sipped.
“There’s a huge difference between him being a thug turned state’s evidence—” Toledo said and Barnes immediately interrupted.
“Like Max,” Barnes said.
“And entering Witsec because you innocently witnessed an organized crime murder and testified, like Mary Anne,”Toledo said.
The song ended and Toledo rolled his window down to get some fresh air. A winter breeze brought the smell of hickory smoke and grilled onions from a BBQ joint down the street.
“I’ll be back in Columbia tomorrow afternoon,” Toledo said.
“Before lunch, Marshal Toledo,” Barnes said but she smiled when she said it.
“Sure thing, boss.”
Two guys came out the back door to smoke and the drum intro to the theme song from Hawaii-Five-o blasted from Maxwell’s followed by Mary Anne on her guitar.
“Is that Mary Anne?” Barnes asked.
“Yep,” Toledo said. “Her grandfather played with The Ventures.”
“No, not The Who,” Toledo laughed. “The Ventures. If I have to explain it, you wouldn’t understand.”
“Columbia before lunch, Marshal,” Barnes said and ended the call.
“Book ‘em, Dano.” Toledo thought. He dropped the Tahoe into drive and pulled out of the alley.