Unpaid Debts

I always spend my Saturday nights at the Close To Home bar and restaurant in Fabyan. Between this and greasy Al’s Hotel, it’s the better bet. Most of the other drinkers come out to Close To Home on a regular basis and we all know each other a bit too well. I was at the pool table on the far side playing with Chris, Logan and Wade and I was getting licked pretty good. The bar was doing well tonight since all of the rowdies had come out and a bunch of the rig workers from the tank farm were throwing big money around. I keep it pretty quiet, same as Chris, cause we don’t need to draw attention to ourselves. We have a silent agreement with Toby, the bar’s owner. If the cops come around we slip out the back door by the pool table and nobody gets in trouble. We haven’t got caught yet and we’re two of the regulars here.

Nobody was paying attention to us tonight since there was enough booze and gossip with the rest of them to get things all fired up. To be fair, my group wasn’t exempt from this either. Cody and his girlfriend were getting into a subtle disagreement. “I’m gettin’ tired Amber. My back hurts an’ I think we should head out.” She didn’t seem to agree ‘cause he stormed off and she stayed. I saw that coming. Cody fell off a forklift a couple weeks ago and cracked his back pretty good. He kinda likes to milk things though, so I’m sure he’s actually fine.We kept on playing, but Logan swapped out with Matt, the only flaming red-head in the county, to grab some more drinks and have a smoke with Amber. We were all getting pretty glossy-eyed, but that’s nothing compared to the middle-aged regulars.

No surprise Keith was off his rocker. He’d lost his job a year and a half back and been pretty well drunk since then. I don’t know why Trish puts up with him. He roughs her up from time to time and he’s guzzling all her money down and ruining her massage practice she’s got goin’ on. It’s no wonder Alison wanted to cut business ties with her and do the spa thing on her own. I guess the biggest shock is that suave piece of business advice to go solo came from Danny – the town’s black hole of transactions. Keith and Trish were really getting into it tonight. I could hear brief snatches of the fight across the bar. “…what are…for…how can you…in the back…”

“…my best… just let… away from me…” After Trish yelled back, it looked like Keith was ready to throttle her, but changed his mind and stormed out of the bar. Typical Saturday night.

I popped out the back door with Wade and Chris for a quick Export A while Logan and Amber snagged the table for a game of one-on-one. We ran into Keith smoking his Lucky Strikes with a few of the rig pigs.

“Man, you shoulda seen old man Clarke at the tie-in today. Could barely get down by the pipe to do the weldin’,” laughed the rigger with a massive, scraggly beard. He was criticizing Clarke’s welding, but that’s only ‘cause he’s friends with Nate who just got his welder’s ticket and thinks he’s gonna take all of Clarke’s business in the county. Fat chance of that. It’s pretty well set in stone around here. The only way Nate will take over is if the old guy kicks it.

“It was bru-tal. Lasted fourteen hours, I couldn’t wait ta get my drank on,” it was the other rigger, Pat, speaking.

“Yeah well, I was at a tie-in about a week back. By the time we finished, it was so dark we couldn’t even see the guy next to us.” Chris just started working oil and gas a month ago and thinks he’s hard core now so he makes sure we all know it. He’s got a long way to go. It’s not even cold yet and he’s already wearing his gloves.

Keith was leaning up against the side of the building practically slobbering on himself with his cigarette dangling just barely by his lips. His nearly shut eyes lolled open when Pat hit him up for a cigarette, “Hey big fella. You gotta spare?” Keith tossed him a single without saying anything. Probably couldn’t. I don’t even know how he was still upright. I guess it’s a skill.

I wanted another drink and another round of pool so I ground my smoke out and asked the riggers if they wanted to play a game, “losers by the next round?” The bearded guy tossed his butt on the ground while Pat put his in his pocket for later and we all went inside as Keith stumbled through the parking lot. They sunk one of their solids and then I took out three of the stripes before the doors crashed open and Danny barreled through. Nobody can ignore this guy – he’s the standing definition of red-necked hill-billy and not in that aw shucks, down-home way city slickers seem to always think of.

“Hey boyzz,” he talk-shouted as he came up alongside the table, “what? You lettin’ these kiddies beat you?” He ruffled Chris’ hair while he razzed the riggers. Everybody gets insulted when Danny’s around. He was strolling about the bar giving lip to everybody and making sure everybody knew he was there. “Logan, you owe me a hundred fifty for those tires I dropped off. I’ll give ya those speakers, the jumper cables and the plough for five eighty. I’ll just take that outta what I owe your mom for the remaining rent, so that’ll put everything about square,” he came up closer to Logan and put his arm around his shoulders while ogling Amber, “hell cousin, you better be gettin’ on that tonight.”

Logan just laughed him off, like he always does, while managing to shrug himself out from under Danny’s arm. He moved up to the pool table, put down a dollar and claimed the table, “I get next game.” Me and Wade beat the riggers so they went up to the bar to grab our drinks while Matt set up the next game against Logan. Danny took leave, staggered up to the bar and started draining beers. Cradling one in each hand, he draped himself between two of the women playing slots. Must have said something filthy ‘cause they both scowled and moved away from him. It didn’t seem to bother him, ‘cause he just kept going making more filthy jokes to the rest of the bar. He looked pretty disheveled. No doubt had a lot to do with how drunk he was, but I’d say he’s been sleeping in his truck since Thursday. He’s been dating Alison, who’s married to a guy named Casey. Casey works like hell up in Fort McMurray making big money, but comes back to town whenever he can to be with Alison and when he’s down, Danny can’t stay at her house. Since he’d skimped out on paying rent for a year to the Hutterite Hofer and seemed to forget his rent payments to his Aunt and Uncle he’s burnt a few bridges and has nowhere to live when Alison’s husband is around .

Logan and Matt finished their game with Logan sinking the cue ball while going after the eight-ball. Everyone’s game has deteriorated by this point since none of us could really line up the balls right in the fuzziness. He was also getting agitated with Danny because the guy was getting all high and mighty about the new heavy duty truck he was picking up on Tuesday. He’s always got new stuff that he loves to brag about and I have no idea how he gets it since he’s always flat broke and tryin’ to wrangle money out of anybody he can. Finally, Logan pulled out his car keys, gave Amber a sideways nod and they left by sneaking out the back door. That guy is the king of drunk driving. Does it every weekend and he’s never gotten a DUI or even a ticket. Not that it takes much to be evasive here. Even Big T, the stupidest guy in the county, hasn’t been caught once for all his vandalism. The pigs around here can’t figure a thing out. Not even when it’s obvious.

The rest of us gave up on pool and sat down with a few drinks to watch with scandalous eyes for who was picking up who tonight. There’s a real shortage of women that come here, but there are the usuals – Kim, Trish, Alison, Kat and Ashley. Ashley and Kim have a huge man-hate going on, but they’re always in here trying to get laid with the riggers. Greasy. Although, it looks like they’re succeeding tonight. Alison must be trashing Keith with Trish ‘cause of the quarrel from before. Alison’s by far the best looker here tonight. In fact, I’d say she makes the top five list of Fabyan women. The rigger, Alex, was shamelessly hitting on her, something she was thoroughly enjoying. She might be a mom, but she definitely makes her rounds – even worse than the others. This was a poor decision on Alex’s part with Danny around since he can’t take any blows to his lumberjack ego.

“Whaddya think you’re doin’ there, buddy?” Danny was getting close to Alex’s face and puffing his chest out, “You better back off.”

“Oh yeah? What’re you gonna do about it, Danny? She ain’t your broad. Or are you just sleeping in your truck for fun?” Alex also had a tough-guy image to uphold on the rig so a fight was inevitable. Danny decked him and within the minute they’d broke tables, chairs and were separated. Alex had blood running down his face and Danny’s arm was scraped up and oozing from the broken tables.

Toby shook his head and pointed to the door, “Alex. Get out of here. Go home and clean yourself up. I’ll let you know how much you owe me.” Alex went out the main door by himself while Toby turned to Danny, “And don’t think you’re getting out of this. I’ll add the damages to what you already owe me. You better pay up soon Danny-boy. And you’re not leaving yet. I don’t want more fighting outside my bar.”

I looked at Chris and he nodded. It would be best if we left now, just in case. We slung our drinks back and within a few minutes we’d left. I climbed into my Lincoln as he got into the passenger seat, rolled down the windows and each of us lighted a cigarette. The inside of my ride was as disastrous as the rusted and dented outside. Country road dust from the vents covered the interior and textbooks I never use lay scattered about with other garbage and junk. My eyes were heavy and the edges of my vision fuzzed the dashboard in front of me as I tried to turn the key in the ignition, but I passed out before I could succeed.

I burst awake to a sound that was similar to what I’d heard that time when I’d burnt a bag of garbage and there was a bag full of aerosol cans inside. Only this was deafening loud and roared in my ears. I shot up and saw Chris’ gray face looking out his window at a silver truck in pieces with a sickening flame engulfing it. Three guys came running around the side of the bar into the main parking lot. I could hear yelling as one of them ran back into the bar while the other two watched the burning truck.

A fire truck came screaming into the parking lot and the guys on board quickly doused the flame. Two of them ran up to the truck and after a couple of moments carried an unmoving, badly burnt person out. I looked at Chris in disbelief but said nothing. Three cop cars showed up just as the firefighters set the body on the ground, apparently dead. With the roaring gone I could hear everything that was being said. “Parsons. You get all the witnesses back into the bar. And make sure nobody leaves. Ramone. You help Parsons. Morris, let’s look at the truck.”

I turned to Chris, “We better go back to the bar.”

He just looked at me hard, “No. We can’t. Think about it. They can’t know we were here tonight.” I thought about Toby, nodded and slunk down in my seat so that I wouldn’t be seen. Luckily I’d parked in the neighboring industrial lot so I was far enough away that the Lincoln went unnoticed even though we could still hear everything.

One of the cops came out of the bar and addressed the one in charge. “Carleton, call in Ramsey. This guy, Danny Sykes, seems he had been in a fight with a rig worker tonight and they both got kicked out. Not to mention the fight was over Danny’s girlfriend Alison – who’s married to a Casey Thomas who also just happens to be in town this weekend.”

It wasn’t long before a rugged man, about fifty and calling himself homicide detective Ramsey, showed up and started snapping orders at everybody. The identification officer, Pearce, combed over the vehicle and the rest of the parking lot before speaking to Ramsey. “The cause of the explosion was a leaking gas line ignited by a cigarette. I’m not an automotive expert, but it was a substantial leak, especially coming off of a 2009 model that shouldn’t be suffering wear and tear to this extent.” Pearce held up his camera and a few evidence bags. “I’ve shot the vehicle and the victim and I’ve picked up a few other things. Near the rear of the truck someone urinated and beside that was this discarded cigarette butt.” He held up the evidence bag with a Lucky Strike stub inside and then held up the next bag with a long Export A inside. “This is the one to start it all. It’s still intact, but the fire scorched it good so I wasn’t able to get a print off it.”

Ramsey nodded then went into the bar. He was just getting off his phone when he came back out.

Leonard Johnson, the local mechanic, arrived soon after and began looking at the truck’s engine. “In mos’ engine explosions everythin’s prit well burnt or melted outta place. Usually a few things’ll stay intact though. Sturdy metal can withstand some intense force. Looks here like the carburetor’d been loosed up and the way the hoses are melted at the ends rather’n the middle seems they’d bin ripped out before the explosion. Seems anythin’ that coulda bin taken apart by hand was, meanin’ the emphasis weren’t focussed on the gas line. They knew what they was doin’. They were makin’ it so’s the truck obviously wouldn’t run instead a cuttin’ the brakes or jus’ the gas line. I’d guess somebody jus’ got carried away. Definitely somebody muckin’ about here. I had a look at the engine about a week back when he brought it in to get a headlight fixed and it was fine. His cousin was bringin’ in his own ride then an’ had a look at it too. He can tell you there ain’t nothin’ wrong with the thing then that woulda caused an explosion.” Dagwood shoved his hands into his Wranglers and I could just barely hear him say, “that bugger. Sure gonna be a lotta people upset now.”

Ramsey looked at him keenly and asked, “What’s that? He pretty well liked?”

Johnson barked a hard laugh, “Nah, far from it I’d say. That cheap bastard owed money to prit well e’erybody in town. You lend ‘im money an’ you ain’t never gonna see it again. You’d think people would learn.”

“And how much did he owe you?” Ramsey asked inquisitively while taking notes.

“Ah, I’m stiffed ‘bout eighteen hundered. That kid’s about aggravatin’ as they come. Acts like a big wheel, always braggin’ about this ‘n’ that but he’s dead broke an’ actin’ like a child. There ain’t nobody he won’t try an’ hose, even his fam’ly. I heard a while back his folks an’ him finally got into it an’ haven’t spoke since. Couple a years, I think,” Johnson spoke bluntly.

“What about the rest of his family? You mentioned a cousin?” Ramsey questioned.

“Oh same ole story there. Took advantage of the kid Logan  an’ the kid’s folks too. Seems they still try an’ help ‘im out a bit though. Don’t know why since it seems they’re unimpressed with the bum, too.” After Johnson’s response, Ramsey replied with something I couldn’t hear and then Johnson got into his truck and left. In the meantime, an ambulance had come and taken the body away and so Ramsey went back into the bar, leaving the lot empty.

I looked at Chris and gestured down the street, “Let’s get outta here.” He tried to pass my keys to me, but his gloves made him clumsy and they fell at his feet. I reached over and grabbed them from beside his dripping boots.

When we woke up the next day, we talked about everything we had seen and decided that we’d really seen nothing so it was fine that we didn’t say anything. It would only cause problems. We went to The Stop restaurant for breakfast and to get the gossip. Lorne, the local information channel, was having coffee inside and letting the news be known to all. “They arrested Keith Miller last night. The way they got it figured is he was surly drunk, had been fighting with Trish because she was talking to Alison even though Alison’d basically destroyed Trish’s business on Danny’s say-so.

I grabbed a stool next to him, “But how’d they prove it?”

“Well everybody knows he’s the only guy in these parts who smokes Lucky Strikes and they found one near Danny’s truck and a pile of piss that turned out to be his.”

I looked at him doubtfully, “But that doesn’t actually prove that he did it.”

“Well, the reasoning is ‘cause the engine got messed up and the gas line cut up so all it needed was something to ignite it. It was a barely touched Export A that caused the explosion. So they figured he used an Export A to throw the heat off of him while he enjoyed his own Lucky Strike.”

I was dumbfounded. It all just didn’t seem right. That was when I remembered Pat, the rigger, borrowing Keith’s smoke and I knew I had to talk to Ramsey. Chris went back to his place to sleep off the rest of his hangover and I went to the motel room Ramsey had set up his office in. As I got out of my car, I couldn’t help looking at it in disgust. I really need to clean it up – even my car jack junk had made it from my trunk into the backseat.

“Why didn’t you come forward last night?” he asked with an air of noticeable disgust.

I handed him my personal identification. “I didn’t want to get Toby in trouble, but that was when I thought I hadn’t seen anything important”

He glared at me from under dark, bushy eyebrows and replied, “Look kid. I’m doing a homicide investigation. Underage drinking is small potatoes.”

I told Ramsey of the entire night exactly as it’s been put down here and then he let me go. I got into my Lincoln and hit the highway out to Logan’s place to offer my condolences since, despite everything, he was probably the closest person to being a friend of Danny’s. When I arrived I saw him covered in grease with his head under the hood of a ’52 Chevy pickup. I’d been helping him with this project of putting a ’79 Thunderbird engine into the pickup truck’s shell that he’s been working on.

When he saw me he straightened up and I could see the whiteness of shock on his face which was due, without a doubt, to the news about his cousin. I couldn’t think of a thing to say so we both pulled out our cigarettes as we leaned against the truck. His greased hands trembled as he pulled out an Export A. I felt like I’d been sucker-punched.

He must have registered the look on my face ‘cause he began pleading, “I didn’t do it. I swear. I fiddled with the engine so he wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere. That’s it. I didn’t blow him up. I was pissed ‘cause I’d done so much for him, giving him a place to store all his junk. And then he treats me like I’m him! Like I owe him. I swear I didn’t kill him. Amber was with me, she knows I didn’t kill him. I can’t tell the cops cause they’ll charge me and I can’t bring Amber into it all or else Cody will know about what’s been going on between me and her. You can’t let anyone know. You gotta believe me.”

I don’t know why I believed him, but I did. The only problem was that Keith was getting charged for something he didn’t do and there was that issue of who actually did it. I needed to think on what to do. When supper rolled around I went to greasy Al’s since Close To Home was shut down for the day and found a crowd of people inside. Keith Miller was right up at the bar tossing shots back like kingdom come. Wade was at a table by the door and I slid in beside him. “How’d he get out?”

“Weak evidence or something like that. They were just questioning him last night. Turns out they never actually charged him.”

“So who are they gonna charge?” I could feel the apprehension growing as I asked.

“Nobody. All the suspects had provable alibies. The only prints they could get on the engine were Johnson’s and Logan’s, but both those guys had recently been looking at Danny’s engine. Besides, that’s only to charge someone with destruction of property. Turns out Danny killed himself,” Wade raised his eyebrows nonchalantly as he spoke this. My head began to spin with all of the information and I winced as my hangover magnified. Wade continued, “They called in some other guy who does scenario work or something like that. The only way the smoke could have ended up like that was if it was flicked down at the same time as someone about to get in the truck. We all know Danny smokes Export A, so I guess it makes sense. He must have passed out real quick so he didn’t notice he’d started the fire that caused the explosion,” he motioned to Chris as he walked in, “besides, Chris saw the whole thing.”

I raised my eyebrows as Chris sat down, “I thought we didn’t see anything?”

He wrapped his hands around a drink while answering, “You didn’t. But I did. You passed out while still smoking. You nearly started a fire in your own car, man. I was getting rid of your cigarette when I saw Danny leave the bar, toss his smoke and get into his truck. I didn’t think much of it at the time and then I was KO, too. Besides, I only remembered this when the cops came askin’ after you went talkin’ to them.”

I looked down to avoid his scrutiny. “Sorry man, but there was no way I could let Keith take the rap for something he didn’t do.” He seemed to accept that because none of us said anything more about the accident.

Close To Home was business, as usual, the next weekend. Once the funeral was over it was like there had never been a Danny Sykes. We were celebrating like animals since it was Chris’ eighteenth birthday and he was now legal. We were all there. Cody still doesn’t know about Logan and Amber and I’m sure not about to inform him; in fact, I try to steer pretty clear of Logan from now on ‘cause I really wouldn’t want to piss him off. The cops interrogated everyone a couple of times each, but nothing new ever came up. Ramsey left once it was no longer a homicide and the locals went back to pushing speeding tickets – the one thing they were good at. Toby still lets me into the bar and everyone still shows up Saturday night to drink their sins away. Chris was blind drunk which made him incoherent and nonsensical. I think he was talking about working the rigs rather than finishing high school, but I’m not sure. We were all laughing at him as he draped himself over Alison while slurring his wisdom to us. “Plans change man. Yah gotta take advantage a opportunities when they come. It’s like, like a, yah think yur doin’ sumthin’ an’ then sumthin’ else comes up and it’s so, like, so much better. Like perfect.”

There was something odd about his eighteen year-old body pressed up against Alison’s thirty-two year old figure that didn’t seem like it was anything new. But it must have been the age thing.

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