Bobby flipped him an ice-cold Bud out of the refrigerator, over his shoulder, before heading out through the kitchen door and into the back yard – mostly ankle-high crabgrass and dandelion. Couple of lawn chairs. Bobby took one, Kenny the other. They sat and drank down the top half of their beers.
Bobby rested his can between his legs and grinned across about four feet of grass at Kenny. “So, all the way from Corinth. What brings you back home after, what six months?”
“’Bout eight, actually,” Kenny said, wondering how long he’d have to wait before Bobby went to get more beer. “Job.”
“Job?” Bobby grinned again, then looked skeptical. “Thought you was out of work.”
“But now you’re not.”
“Doing what? And don’t tell me you working in a convenience store.” Bobby burst out laughing, so hard he almost fell over backward in his chair.
Kenny’s face darkened. He drained his beer, dropped the can, folded his arms across his chest. “That shit is not funny and you know it.”
Bobby shook his head and tried to stifle himself. He bent over double, still trying to catch his breath. “I’m sorry, man, but you the only man I know did time for armed robbery sticking up a store with a fucking hairbrush.” He could hardly get the last two words out without cracking up.
“Shut the fuck up, Bobby.” Kenny glanced around the yard, hoping nobody just happened to be walking by hearing this shit. “I done told you, I didn’t do time for armed robbery. Just robbery.”
“Oh yeah,” Bobby said, finally said. “That shit-hot lawyer of yours got it bumped down. What was his name? Public defender? Simon something?”
“Gideon Hayes. Goofy bastard. But, yeah, he got it knocked down to a year in county. With probation. So knock it the hell off.”
“Ok, Ok,” Bobby said, holding up a hand in surrender. “So what’s this job you got?”
Kenny relaxed, leaned back a little, ready to lay it out for him. “I’m working for a group of businessmen up in McNairy County.”
Bobby’s face went serious. “Tennessee?”
Kenny nodded. “Yeah, pay’s decent.”
Kenny dug this part. Always got people’s attention, especially the women. Got him laid a couple of times. “I’m like what you call a regulator. I’m the guy makes sure the business runs the way it’s supposed to. You know, by the rules.”
Bobby wasn’t buying it, and it was ruining Kenny’s buzz. “The fuck does that mean?”
Kenny frowned. “Means you fuck up and break the rules, I deal with your ass.”
Bobby finished his own beer, set the can down on the grass beside his chair. He wiped his mouth with his shirttail.
“Kenny, I don’t like the sound of this one bit. McNairy County. There’s stories about that place, man. You ever see Walking Tall?”
“Hell yeah, I seen that shit, but that was a movie, man. This is real. These guys have a real business going.”
Bobby shook his head. “And what business is that?”
Kenny smiled. “Food stamps.”
Bobby sat up straight. “Food stamps? Are you fucking nuts? You’re running a food stamp racket?”
“I ain’t running shit. I’m the regulator. Hell, I’m a working man, same as you.”
Bobby slumped back in his chair. Shook his head. Then he stood up. Kenny followed him up with his eyes.
“Stay right there,” Bobby said, “I’m gone get us another beer.”
He came back a few minutes later, still shaking his head. He cracked open the beers and handed one to Kenny, then sat with a sigh.
“Kenny, this is the dumbest thing I ever heard. The fucking law is all over this shit, and especially the law here in Columbus. And these guys up in McNairy are going to get you killed.”
Kenny slurped his beer. “Killed? Man, that’s just crazy talk. We ain’t talking murdering somebody over food stamps. It’s just making some free money off the government, which took the money in the first place.”
“Mmm hmmm,” Bobby said around the top of his beer. He looked skeptical.
“Here’s how it works. Guy gets legit food stamps with a legit application. Then he takes, like, two hundred dollars worth of food stamps, sells them for, say, a hundred, one twenty, in cash. Buyer gets the food stamps, seller gets cash for dope or booze or whatever. Either way, man, it’s free money. Dude got the stamps without going through the system – and now he can sell them again if he wants or use them, whatever.
Bobby was listening now. Still not smiling but listening. “I was wondering why anybody would pay a hundred dollars for food stamps if he don’t need ‘em.”
“Don’t have to need ‘em, man,” Kenny said. “Like I said he can run his own scam if he wants, like at the grocery store or a convenience store – and don’t you start up again.”
Bobby grinned, shook his head. “Grocery stores in on this, too.”
Kenny nodded, sipped his beer. “Oh hell yeah. Grocery stores do this shit all the time. Dude comes and ‘buys’ something, say a hundred dollars. The store logs that hundred as a purchase, gives the customer seventy-five in cash and pockets the rest. McNairy cut in on that action by being the ones give the stores the kickbacks. Grocery stores is where the easier – and safer – money is.”
Now Bobby looked skeptical again. “Kickbacks?”
Kenny sighed. “Yeah, man. McNairy owns a bunch of mom and pop grocery stores. They set ‘em up just to handle this racket. The ‘customer’ gets about seventy percent, store gets about thirty. McNairy gets about half of the store take.”
“But what does the store get in return?” Bobby asked as he drained his beer. “Let me guess. Protection.”
“Well, yeah.” Kenny was getting more than a little annoyed at Bobby’s insinuations. “McNairy keeps the law off their asses and makes sure they get a steady stream of customers, some of who actually buy stuff. The stores themselves are really just a front for the food stamps. They got about a half a dozen dudes running the stores. But this one motherfucker, Jim Burton, runs a place down here, over in town by the river, tried to get into business for himself. Giving the customers say, fifty on a hundred instead of eighty, but giving McNairy its cut as if it was eighty – half of twenty – but keeping forty for himself. The guys in charge got wind of this, sent me here to straighten Burton out. And here I am.”
Bobby stared back at him. “And how much you getting paid for straightening Burton out?”
Kenny leaned back in his chair. “Five hundred.”
“Hey man, it’s a couple hours’ work – and that’s in addition to the other shit I do for them.”
“Like, you know, other folks that need straightening out, making the rounds and picking up the takes from the whorehouses, that kind of thing.”
Bobby pushed himself out of his chair, put his hands in his pockets and threw a tired smile at him. “Kenny, that kind of thing is going to get you sent to Parchman if you’re not careful. Or worse.”
Kenny could not believe this shit. “Aw man, this is cake.” He stood. “I swear. Like this one tonight. This Burton guy, he’s nothing. Some guy grew up in town, never even been around serious crime before this. Hell, that’s his problem. He thinks he’s slick and smarter than the guys up in Tennessee. And after I get done slapping him around a little tonight, he’ll fall into line, and I’ll get five hundred dollars in my pocket and life will go on.”
Bobby sighed, turned toward the trailer. “You say so, man. Just be careful. Like I said, the law down here is all over that shit. Hell, it’s probably safer running oxy. Plus, the sheriff we got now does not fuck around. Trust me. Hell, he went to New Hope. You probably know him.”
Kenny cocked an eyebrow. “Yeah, who’s that?”
“Colt Harper. He was a few years ahead of us. Played football. Was in the Marines.”
“I sort of remember him, from spring training one year. What’s he, some kind of badass now?”
“He’s a sheriff, Kenny. And not one to fuck with.” Bobby started walking. “Come on, let’s go see if Judy’s got anything for us to eat.”
Jim Burton paced behind the counter of his convenience store just off Highway 45 north, on the access road to the lock and dam. He had any sense at all, he’d gas up his car and drive to Memphis right now. Or Birmingham. Or any place big enough for him to hide in. Because this shit with McNairy was way out of hand.
It was near ten, close enough to closing time that he’d already locked the front door, counted up the cash – and taken out his keepings – then put the money in the safe. He had already walked the aisles once, making sure the inventory of candy, paper plates, sodas, magazines and all the other junk people came in to buy was in order and no kids had ripped open a bag of chips and left half sitting on a shelf.
But it was still a little early to be meeting this Kenny guy out at the lock and dam. He walked out from behind the counter and checked out the coolers stocked with beer. They looked the same as they had ten minutes ago. He caught his reflection in the glass.
Do I look scared?
He peered at himself. He knew people said he looked like an old hippie: long brown hair shot with gray, John Lennon glasses, skinny arms sticking out from a yellow T-shirt, loose jeans, dirty tennis shoes.
Naw, man, you don’t look scared. But you sure as hell look nervous.
He felt nervous. Bad enough this Kenny idiot – and the guy sounded dumber than that on the phone – was down here. The McNairy boys were onto him, sure as shit, and that couldn’t be good. They’d want their money – which was really his money fair and square, but they wouldn’t see it that way. But they’d probably want to “teach him a lesson.” He sighed and made little quote marks with his fingers. Or worse. That’s what this Kenny guy was down here for.
But McNairy weren’t the only ones who’d want a chunk of his ass over this. And that could land his ass back in the joint. And he most definitely didn’t want to go back to jail. This time it wouldn’t be county jail for felony possession. This time it would be a parole violation and he’d be off to Parchman.
Jimmy boy, you got to make some choices, he told himself as he walked to the back room, the one with the “Employees Only” sign on the door. He stepped in, still keeping his eye on the front door, and cut off the lights, except for the one over the register.
Either way, you’re in a bad spot. You might be able to talk your way out of this McNairy problem or you might be able to talk your way out of getting run up on a violation, but you sure as hell ain’t gone talk your way out of both.
He sighed and pulled his car keys and his cell phone out of his pocket. He punched one of his speed-dial buttons and walked out to his Honda. He put the phone to his ear.
“Hey, it’s Burton. We need to talk.”
Kenny sat hunched over his steering wheel in a darkened parking lot near the lock and dam. He’d been there twenty minutes. Pulled in and turned his car around so that it was pointed toward the road, so he could see all approaching traffic from Highway 45 to his left. The park at the lock and dam closed at sundown, so no traffic would be coming from the right.
He felt pretty good about this one. But this Burton asshole was late, and it was beginning to piss him off.
Lack of respect, that’s what it is. Well, he’ll learn a little about respect tonight.
He glanced again at the glove compartment, where his .45 sat, and again decided he wouldn’t need it for this. Burton was a pothead, old one at that, probably a queer, so he figured slapping him around wouldn’t be too hard. Besides, he had a Buck knife in his hip pocket. Just in case.
Headlights off to the left caught his attention.
Well, about damn time.
He sat up straight, psyching himself up, as the Honda rolled into the parking lot and stopped, nose in and outside of the halo of the parking light at the entrance. He couldn’t tell if it was Burton in the dark. The engine cut off, then the lights.
He watched the driver through his passenger window. The door clicked open and the interior light shined on the driver.
Fucking hippie. Jesus.
He opened his own door and swung his legs out. He slammed the door for effect, and saw Burton flinch and turn in his direction.
“Are you Kenny Jenkins?” Burton called across about twenty feet of asphalt.
Jeez, what an amateur. “I’m the man you’re supposed to see. Walk this way.”
Burton walked, and met him halfway between the two cars. Kenny eyed him. About the same height, skinny, like him, but older.
“Hidy,” Burton said.
Kenny figured gruff would be best, so he put his hands on his hips. “Look, Burton, I ain’t got all night and you’re already late, so let’s just get down to it, ahite?”
Kenny kept his hands on his hips, but lowered his voice. “You know, you’re not real smart. And some folks up in Tennessee have figured that out, that and your little skimming deal you’re running down here. The men I work for don’t think too much of that. Shows a lack of respect. Just like showing up late for our meeting tonight shows a lack of respect.”
“Look, Kenny, I know it wasn’t part of the arrangement, but I’ll be glad to give them the money.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Kenny snapped. “I’m doing the talking. You’ll give them their money all right. You’re going to give it to me. Within twenty-four hours. But tonight you’re going to get a lesson in respect.”
Burton raised his head just as Kenny closed the distance and slapped him, hard, across the face. He staggered back a step and put his hands up. Kenny grinned, stepped in and slapped him again, harder.
“See, Burton, you can’t just decide to go into business for yourself. It don’t work that way. Never has, never will.”
Burton was turned away, bent over at the waist. He straightened up.
Kenny didn’t even see the punch coming. Burton slammed the left side of his head with a fist that spun him halfway around.
“Don’t ever slap me again,” Burton hissed as he moved in, right hand raised again. He swung, but this time Kenny saw it coming and dodged the blow.
Kenny straightened up just in time to catch a left under his eye. The jab knocked him backward, and he almost fell.
What the fuck? He thought. This skinny fucker throwing punches like a damn welterweight.
Infuriated, he balled his fists and regained his balance. He was so focused on Burton that he didn’t notice the headlights quietly rolling into the parking lot. Burton took two steps back just as the big maroon Crown Victoria stopped. The driver got out, his profile and uniform illuminated by the dome light. Kenny froze.
Well, shit, Kenny thought as Sheriff Colt Harper walked around the hood of the car toward them. Burton relaxed immediately, stood up straight.
Harper walked over to Burton. “This him?”
Kenny stared at Harper. Brown sheriff’s uniform, fitted. Looked like a football player gone a little soft. Still big in the arms and across the chest, but a little gut on him, too. Dark hair, no hat. Gun belt holding some kind of auto. Kenny guessed a Glock. Cops carried Glocks nowadays. Even in the uniform he looked mighty damn casual.
Kenny then realized his .45 was still safely secured in the glove compartment.
Harper stared back at him, almost smiling. “Kenny Jenkins? That you?”
“The hell you want, Sheriff?”
The almost-smile disappeared. Hands at his side. Still casual.
“Looks like you two were disturbing the peace when I drove by. Figured I might ought to have a look.”
“Naw, this was just an argument I was having with Mr. Burton here over, uh, a gambling debt he owes me.”
Harper grinned. “That right? Well, Mr. Burton tells me different. He called me a few minutes ago, worried about his own personal safety because he was being called down here to meet with a fella he’s never met. Has to do with a misunderstanding, is how he put it.”
Burton, for his part, stood silently, about three feet behind Harper, not moving a muscle.
“Like I said, he owes me money,” Kenny said, hands back on his hips.
Harper noticed the movement. “Kenny, keep your hands where I can see them. You don’t remember me at all, do you? We went to New Hope together. ‘Course you were a couple years behind me. I remember you got hit so hard one time in spring training that you dove on your helmet, thinking you were recovering a fumble. What did you do after high school?”
Kenny shrugged. “Worked mostly.”
Harper nodded. “Did some time, too, didn’t you? Robbery – started out as armed, but ol’ Gideon pled you down. Gideon’s about a sorry excuse for a lawyer, but he does know how to deal.”
Kenny cringed on the inside. This was not going the way he had planned it.
“After you did your time, then what? Corinth?”
“Mmmhmmm. Then you hooked up with them crooks up in McNairy, got you a nice job busting folks’ jaws as part of their food-stamp racket.”
Kenny’s anger flashed. “How the hell you know all this, Harper? Him? He a fucking rat for you?” He jerked his head at Burton.
“Me and Mr. Burton have you would call a business arrangement. That ain’t important. What is important is you committing assault and battery, intent to extort, probably robbery and a whole bunch of other shit I’ll think about on the way back to the office – with you in the back seat. Put your arms out to your side, straight out, Kenny.”
Kenny sighed. Bobby’s words came back to his mind, mocking him now. This Harper asshole had him dead to rights. He’d be fucked, literally, if he ended up in Parchman. If he got that far without somebody driving a shank into his ribs, courtesy of McNairy. He stared at Harper. Still all casual, like he had this whole situation under control. Hands nowhere near his pistol, still in the holster.
He eased his fingers back to his pocket, felt the knife. He could flick the blade and cut Harper before he got his hand on his gun.
“Kenny, straight out. Right now.” Harper still hadn’t moved.
Kenny grabbed the knife and swung both arms to his side, flicking the big blade of the Buck knife out as he did. He leapt forward.
Harper pulled and shot him on his second step. One shot, center of the chest. Dime-sized hole shooting blood in arc toward Harper’s gun. Kenny arched backward, then stumbled forward. His knees buckled, and the knife fell from his hand, clattering across the asphalt. Kenny collapsed in a heap, his face smacking the pavement like a basketball.
Harper kept the gun trained on him, blue smoke curling out of the barrel.
Burton stood, immobilized by fear. “Shit, Harper.”
“Shut up, Jimmy.” Harper holstered his pistol and turned toward his car. “I gotta call this in.”
“Now what?” Burton said to his back.
Harper stopped, turned back to him. “Now you’re going to tell me why you think I’m not going to run your ass in on a parole violation.”