Chapter One
Russell Bruen drove down I-275 in a stolen Chevy. Bruen may have been a proficient killer, but he wasn’t as proficient a thief. The automobile was over a dozen years old. Rust stains and holes littered the body of the sedan. He assumed the owner was grateful that he stole his car. An insurance claim, if the victim owned insurance. The vehicle shuddered; the gas gauge needle bounced between empty and a quarter. With any luck, all his ride needed was some fluids. He pulled onto the nearest exit. The rain picked up, and he hadn’t paid attention to the name of the exit. He turned the car toward the nearest gas station, a service station with no recognizable gas brand and a small garage that advertised services. The car spit and conked out a tenth of a mile away from the station.
"Well, fuck a duck."
The rain spattered on his windshield. Another roll of the thunder was followed by a crack of lightning. Bruen opened the door and stepped out. Drops hit his baseball cap and dribbled off. He opened the back door to remove his gear.
Headlights hit him. He looked up. A police car.
Shit. He froze. Bruen slid his hand into his duffel bag. He couldn’t reach the .38. The gun must have sunk to the bottom of the bag. The officer exited the Ford and put on his hat. The cop was all smiles as he wandered over to Bruen.
"What seems to be the problem, sir?"
"The engine just up and died. I tried to steer her into the garage over there but couldn’t make it."
"Well, I’ll ya what. I can help you push in. Otto is off for the night." The policeman was middle-aged. Bruen wagered that this officer had lived around here since birth. "You aren’t from here, are ya?"
Fat droplets paraded his hat, splattering Bruen’s shoulders. "Naw, came down from the Peach State. On my way to the Keys. Hemingway fan and always wondered about those six-toed cats."
"Never been down there, myself. Not sure if your car can make it that far. What is it, about a ’94?"
"Suppose so. Got it used."
"Let me help you ease it on in to the garage. I’ll leave a note for Otto."
Bruen drew his hand from the bag, opened the back door, and tossed the duffel into the backseat. His feet slipped on the wet asphalt. He released the turn on the steering wheel and put the car into neutral. "You sure are hospitable in this area."
"Southern hospitality, I suppose. Push, please."
The slickness of the road made the traction very weak. Bruen maneuvered the car while the officer pushed. The rain transformed the task into a much more difficult activity. After five minutes of pushing and twisting, they turned into the garage gas station.
The cop wiped some rain from his forehead. "You need a ride anywhere? I can take you to the Princess Motel. It’s down the street. It’s cheap, but accommodating." He walked to the driver’s side.
As much as Bruen didn’t want to ride inside a squad car, the refusal would raise suspicion. "That’s mighty generous of you. I think I’ll take up your offer."
"Here, let me take your bag." The officer stopped at the car’s back door. He stared at the back seat.
"You know what? I think that I can call AAA to get me a ride somewhere."
The officer’s hand drifted to his firearm. His finger flipped the holster. "Show me your hands, sir."
Bruen brought his hands up in the air. The cop didn’t give him much of a choice. While his hands were in the air, the officer grabbed his radio. "This is Deputy Ratcher. I need officer assistance on Holden Road." He released the button. "Sir, would you mind stepping over here. Loop your hands behind your head." Bruen did as Deputy Ratcher instructed. "I want you to face your vehicle, with your legs shoulder width apart. You want to explain what you have there in your backseat." He indicated Bruen’s duffel bag, which had tumbled over during the push into the gas station.
The spilled contents showed the deputy an assortment of tools: screwdrivers, rope, duct tape, hammers, and saws. The gleam of his .38 drifted from the package. Dammit, I knew I should have carried the weapon. Bruen was a gifted liar. "Look, I’m a carpenter. Sometimes it gets dangerous. You never know when someone is setting up to rob you."
"I thought you were heading down to the Keys to see Hemingway’s home and six-toed cats?"
"Florida’s rebuilding, ain’t it? What the fuck, man? Can’t a man earn a living in this day and age?"
"Sir, I’m gonna need your license and registration."
"What for?"
"There’s been a lot of break-ins in this area, but I suppose you don’t know nothing about that, do you?"
Bruen laughed to himself. If this dipshit only knew. This wasn’t his break-in kit, this was his murder kit. Shit, if this deputy hauled him in and ran his prints, his gig would be up. Bruen didn’t bust his ass breaking out of prison to get busted by Barney Fife. "Look, I only just got here. I told you, I’m just passing through this area. I don’t know nothing about any break-ins."
"Nonetheless, sir, I’m gonna need to see your license and registration." The deputy placed his hand against Bruen’s back. "Now, just do what I’m asking and there won’t be any trouble, sir."
"If this is how you treat tourists, no wonder you aren’t the next Disneyland."
"Please, sir, if you would remain still. Is that your wallet in your back pocket?"
Bruen nodded.
"Okay, sir. I’m reaching into your back pocket to remove your wallet. I don’t want you doing nothing stupid. By stupid, I mean anything to cause me to react. Do you understand what I mean?"
"I understand." Bruen braced himself. To grab his wallet, Deputy Ratcher would have to dig deep, and his balance and hands would be occupied. This was not a law enforcement officer who was used to dealing the criminal types.
Fingers slid into his pocket. Bruen made his move. He rotated, and his right elbow clipped the cop in the jaw. Deputy Ratcher dropped to the ground. Bruen reached for the officer’s sidearm. The deputy kicked out with his left leg and cuffed him in the kneecap. Bruen groaned. Stars formed in his eyes.
He had a split second to regain his vision. The cop rolled in the rain. Bruen lunged. His wonky leg gave, and he slipped and landed into a puddle. Ratcher popped to his feet and drew his firearm. "Don’t you move, you sonofabitch."
The gun’s sight was fixed onto his forehead. Of all the shitting luck. Bruen sniffed. This cop had no clue what he caught. Deputy Ratcher wiped the blood from his face. "I think you broke my nose."
"God must fucking love you, shithead. You are the luckiest bastard I’ve ever seen. You should have been dead."
The deputy wrinkled his forehead, the rain mixing in with the blood. "Are you threatening an officer of the law?"
"No, I’m stating a fact. If God wasn’t watching over you, I would have killed your useless ass."