The town hadn't changed much, just looked deader than he remembered. Yeah, there's the old Monte Vista hotel. I should stop in and have a beer, see if Roxy still works there. Later. There'd be time for that later. Besides, after all this time old Roxy probably doesn't look any where near as good anymore. Jack felt his face crease into a grin as he drove by the Romeo Savings and Loan. The big plate glass windows dark and lifeless. God! Did I do that? Just like the town, like a fossil, Jack thinks. Yeah, that's it, just a huge fossil. The town was dying a slow death, like so many other small towns in America as the young left for the big cities. Autumn leaves drift across the street and collect against the silent walls. The beer signs in the saloon windows garish spots of color on a cold gray day.
The old Ford coughed and Jack quickly pushed in the clutch and revved the engine, clearing the fouled spark plugs. Quit daydreaming, dummy. Pretty soon you'll have enough cash for a new car! Just past the train station, which also appeared to be closed down, Jack turns left. The car shaking and rattling as it bumped over the tracks. Two more blocks, there it is! Two small black kids playing in the front yard. The paint peeling on the clapboards. Pickets missing from the once white fence. Wonder where Liz is now? Startled, he suddenly realizes that Joey, the smiling eight year old in his memory would now be twenty five! Jack pushed down on the accelerator, and the Ford groans it's way up to forty miles an hour. The little house recedes in mirror and memory.
Liz had left when Jack was arrested. She had never known the true source of their income. She had thought that Jack was a salesman and the trips out of town were for that purpose. When the FBI kicked in the door, on that spring morning, she and Joey were having breakfast in the kitchen, and Jack was shaving in the bathroom. He could still hear her screaming and crying as they dragged him out the door in handcuffs. She had visited him once while the trial was going on, to tell him that she and Joey were going away. She did not want a bank robber for a husband.
It was a stupid thing to do. Jack had gotten cocky, so sure of himself that he thought he could rob his home town bank and get away with it. After all, he had already robbed more than a dozen, and the police had no clue to his identity. He had always traveled to other small towns, carefully looking them over before making his move. Then striking fast and escaping clean before the local sheriff figured out what was going on!
Bill Wyman had mentioned in passing, that the savings and loan had a large amount of cash on hand for the railroad. Jack had thought that this one last hit would set him up for life. It seemed worth the risk at the time. Unfortunately, even though Jack had been masked, he couldn't disguise his voice enough, and one of the tellers recognized it. It was a stupid mistake, and it was only a matter of hours before the FBI had him. They had only waited till the next morning for additional agents to arrive for the arrest. Bill had been there, too. After all, as local Sheriff, he had a right to be there. Jack clearly remembered the look of disgust on his old friend's face as they were putting him in the back seat of their car.
The FBI grilled Jack for days, but Jack never told them what he had done with the money. He took the secret with him to the federal pen at Lincoln. Jack smiled again as he thought of his old pal, Bill. He'd sure have been surprised if he'd known where Jack had hidden the loot!
Oh, shit, no! Who'd of thought there would be new construction going on in Romeo? Where the trailer park had been, was now surrounded by a chain link fence. There appeared to be two large concrete block buildings going up. One nearly complete and forms set for the foundations of another. The site was quiet now, the workmen spending Thanksgiving Day with their families, but a light was glowing in the small shed by the gate. Hearing the ruckus of the Ford's rusted out muffler; the security guard opened the shed door and came out to investigate. Pulling up the zipper of his jacket, he approached the car.
"Bill Wyman, is that you!" said Jack
"Hello, Jack." said Bill, "I heard you were out. Come back for the money did ya?"
"What happened to you, isn't bein' a rent a cop a little below your station?"
"Well, Jack, after the town council found out that my old buddy had been robbing banks all over the state, they figured I wasn't much of a lawman. I was fired four days after your arrest!"
"Jeez, Bill, I'm sure sorry 'bout that. I never meant to get you in trouble!"
"Yeah, well, you hurt a lot of folks I 'spect you didn't mean to. Might's well come on into the shack, here. I got a pot of coffee on, an' a bottle of Bourbon ain't even been opened yet."
Jack turned off the key, and the Ford chugged on for a few more seconds before wheezing to silence. The two men silently entered the small shed. Inside, a kerosene heater provided an illusion of warmth and a naked bulb hanging from a wire lit the space. A metal desk with two folding chairs was under the single window. On the opposite wall, a Playboy calendar hung from a nail. Miss November really should put something on; she'll catch her death, hanging there like that! In the corner by the heater was a file cabinet with a coffee maker steaming on top, and in the opposite corner, next to the door, an ancient wooden coatrack with Bill's cap and gunbelt hanging from one peg. The flap of the holster was open, exposing the stag handled butt of a shiny revolver.
"I see ya still got the .44, Bill. I remember when ya bought it at Smith's hardware. Man that was a long time ago!"
"Yeah, that was when I first went to work for old sheriff Hickman. He never would let me carry it. Said that the town bought me a perfectly good .38 and I was by gawd not gonna pack no fancy chrome iron while he was in charge!"
Jack nodded, remembering, "He about had an attack after he retired and you got to be Sheriff. The first time he saw that thing in your holster!"
Bill smiled, "Well, I was the boss then, and I figgered I'd pack what I liked!"
Bill handed Jack a steaming mug of coffee and poured one for himself. The two men sat at the desk and Bill pulled a bottle from one of the drawers. Without asking, he poured a generous shot in both cups. Bill put the bottle on the desk and leaned back in the chair. Sipping from the mug, he asked, "So, what did you do with the money?"
"It's gone, Bill. Those FBI pricks found it and never turned it in. Just like I said at the trial."
"Uh, huh." he replied, blowing on his coffee, "I didn't believe that then, and I sure don't believe it now, Jack. Why don't you come clean? If you'd told where it was, you'd have gotten a hell of a lot less time in jail!"
"That's my story an' I'm stickin' to it, as they say. What the hell's goin up here, anyway? The town looks like it’s darn near to expire, and here's all this new construction?"
"Matsubita Electronics is what it is, the town council give 'em a ten year tax exemption to locate here. It's gonna bring this town back, Jack! It's gonna be a real nice place to live again. They say this plant will create over a hundred new jobs and I'm gonna be in charge of security!"
"Congratulations, Bill," Jack said, toasting him with the mug, "Sounds like you got a real sweet deal going."
"Yeah, well, it's the first break I've gotten since your arrest. I worked at the mill for a few years, pulling green chain till it closed down. The government's about wrecked the logging business in the last few years. I guess you don't know much about that, though, do ya?"
"We did get newspapers up at Lincoln, Bill." Jack replied, draining the last of the coffee. Grounds from the bottom of the cup gritty against his teeth.
"'Nother cup Jack?" Bill asked, gesturing at the bottle.
"Don't mind if I do!" said Jack, rising. Pouring the coffee. Another dollop of bourbon. "Show me around the place, why don'tcha Bill? I'd like to see what the Japs are gonna make here!"
"Sure, just let me fill my mug an' I'll give ya the nickel tour!"
Jack opened the door and let in a swirl of cold air. It was starting to snow, and a few flakes settled on the bare plywood floor. Shivering, Jack buttoned his thin jacket and stepped out. The light snow was melting on the warm hood of the Ford. A ten year old Toyota pickup was parked behind the shed. One tire was flat and the truck leaned drunkenly to one side. It didn't look as if it had been driven in a while.
"You ought to roll up that window, Bill, the snow's getting in!"
Bill shrugged, unconcerned, and pointed to the nearly finished structure. "That building is gonna be offices. My office will be in there. The other will be the plant. They are gonna make semiconductors here."
The men entered the building. Window and doorless, snowflakes were dusting the tools left by the workmen.
"This area here is gonna be the lobby, when it's done, there'll be trees and a pond in here with fish in it! They call it an atrium. My office will be right over there, off the lobby so's I can see who comes an' goes."
They walked down a hallway past empty doors revealing bare concrete rooms. A steel circular staircase led to a second floor. More barren offices opened on either side. Jack entered one of the cubicles and glanced out a window. His heart raced madly. There it was!
"I see your trailer is still here." Jack said, putting his shaking hands deep in his pockets.
"Yeah, I still live there. They let me leave it there 'till the plant's finished. Then I guess I'll haveta move it. I'm gonna buy me a house though, so I'm tryna sell it. Come on up front, I want to show ya the boss Jap's office!"
At the end of the hallway, they entered a large double door. A space opened onto the lobby and ended abruptly in mid-air.
"This sucker will have a glass wall at the end overlooking the atrium. Over there is his private bathroom with shower and Jacuzzi. On that wall there is gonna be his wet bar, and this wall here is his communication center. He's got a satellite dish coming that will link him with the head office in Japan! Ya ever seen the like?"
"Nope, I sure haven't." said Jack. "Show me the other building willya?"
"Well, there ain't much to see over there, but come on."
Bill led Jack into the private bath, inside was a doorway leading to another flight of stairs.
"Boss's private entry!" said Bill. "Once this is finished, won't nobody but him be able to use it!"
The stairs ended at a door that opened on what would evidently be a parking lot between the two buildings. Bill led the way across, and stepped over the partly finished footings of the manufacturing area. Pipes and conduit jutted from the ground like a forest of stunted trees. Jack could see the trailer clearly from here and unobtrusively tried to find the rose bushes along the sides.
"This part here's gonna be what they call the 'clean room'. They gotta have a place where there's no dust of any kind. The folks that work in here are gonna wear these outfits like spacesuits!" Bill walked toward the rear, "This place here is where they assemble the hardware, and over there is, I guess, the machine shop!"
Yes! There were the roses. Just pruned down twigs along the side of the trailer protruding from the skiff of snow.
"Jeez, Bill, I'm getting cold. Ya got any booze in the trailer?"
"Nah, just the bottle in the guard shack. Go on in and warm up if you want, I'll walk back and get it."
This was too good. Jack entered the trailer and watched through the porthole shaped door window as Bill rounded the corner of the office building. Quickly rummaging through a couple of drawers in Bill's kitchen. he found a large wooden spoon. On that spring day, so long ago, Bill had just finished planting a new rose bush in his garden. Bill was proud of those roses. Bill's wife had started him on the hobby when they were first married, and he was a green deputy just starting out with the force. After she died, Bill cared for those flowers more than ever, claiming that when he looked at them, he could still feel her with him.
Moving quickly, Jack ran outside, counting the stubs of the plants. Two, three, four, five. This was it! Jabbing into the frozen dirt with the spoon, Jack dug into the roots of the rose. A final stab, and a green bank bag came into view. With shaking hands, he wrenched it from the grip of the roots. The faded legend "Romeo Savings and Loan" was still readable, if barely. Jack tugged at the rusty zipper, and, protesting, it slowly gave way. Inside, in startlingly new condition, were the thick, wrapped stacks of bills. Seventy-five thousand dollars. At last!
"All this time, I been watering that money. You bastard."
Jack froze. slipping one hand into his jacket pocket, he slowly turned.
"Go ahead, Jack! Try it! You might even get off a shot! But I will surely blow you away!" The shiny muzzle of Bill's .44 was pointed unwaveringly at the center of Jack's chest.
"Come on Bill, let's talk about this."
"Nuthin' to talk about, Jack. Just you hand over that money right now!"
"Bill, listen, there's seventy-five grand in this bag! I'll split it with you, fifty-fifty. You can buy that house you were talkin' about! Hell, Bill, you can leave this stinking little town!"
"I ain't leavin' nowhere. That money belongs to the railroad, an' they are gonna get it back. The reward money will make a nice enough down payment on that house. Hell, they might even make me Sheriff again!"
Jack's right hand, clammy in spite of the chill, gripped the butt of his automatic. Thinking frantically, he tried to figure a way out. There had to be a way!
The driver, angry at having to deliver a load on the holiday, wound the Kenworth through the narrow streets of the small town. What the hell kind of a name was Romeo anyway! Who would want to build anything in an armpit like this anyway. Probably wasn't even a decent restaurant open for Thanksgiving dinner. At least there were a couple of bars open. He'd be able to get a burger and a few beers before sacking out in the sleeper. Damn fine way to spend a holiday! Jill and the kids were probably just sitting down for turkey and all the fixings right now. Damn! Well there's the site anyway, I can drop this trailer and head back downtown. Oh fine! Some son of a bitch left an old car blocking the goddam gate! What else can go wrong today? Angrily, he reached for the air horn.
At the blast of the horn, sudden in the growing dark, Bill's head jerked around toward the gate. Dropping the bag, Jack fumbled with cold hands, trying to free the automatic from his pocket. Bill turned back, and shaking his head once, fired.
The heavy slug slammed Jack back against the wall of the trailer. Jack slid down, leaving a red smear down the faded tan paint. Through dimming eyes, he watched Bill recock and fire. Strange, I didn't feel that one. Again Bill fired. Must be shooting at someone else, I didn't feel that one either. At least it's not cold anymore.