by Frederick Ramsay
Enjoy this never before published mystery/crime short story by mystery writer Frederick Ramsay.
It turns out that remembering when McArdle came to town was real important, and, maybe I am the only one that for sure knows when that happened. Seven years ago, May the twelfth, is when he drove into town. The reason I know is because the day before was Mother’s day and also the day Darla McKenzie had told me that she was, like, two weeks late. So, I had a lot of things on my mind at the time. Also, I had just finished up at the Vo-Tech and Jimmy Shorter give me a job at his garage, on probation. That’s the way he put it.
“Oscar,” he said, “I’m putting you on probation for six weeks and if you work out okay, it’ll be permanent.”
Anyway, McArdle pulls into the station while I’m putting new brake pads on Mr. Granville Hicks’ Pontiac GTO. McCardle’s driving a Ford 150 pickup with out-of-state plates and a camper body in the bed. He asks where he’s at.
“This here is Digby,” I says.
“How many people live here?”
He had me there. “Not too many.” I waited for what comes next, but he didn’t say anything. I tried to sneak a peek into the camper but the curtains was all drawn up tight so I couldn’t see nothing.
“Well,” he said after a minute, “who do I see about renting a place to live around here?”
I sent him over to Granville Hicks’ office and that was that. I didn’t think about him anymore for a while because well, why would I? And anyway, Darla was pestering me to drive over to North Carolina someplace and get married, but I told her I’m not all that sure if her problem is my problem, so to say. See, she was with Bobby Hicks before me. Him and me were pretty tight back then. Not so much any more. But, like I said, she was with him before me, so who’s to say what’s up with her being late. Besides, I just got me this job at Shorter’s Garage and I didn’t see getting married as a good choice at the time, so I put off taking any trips to Carolina, North or South.
McArdle, I found out later, rented the old Barkley place. Bobby said his old man, that’d be Granville Hicks, had said that McArdle especially wanted a place with a barn. But he wasn’t no farmer. Bobby said he told the old man he was a writer for a magazine and wanted to be, like, alone. He used a word Bobby didn’t know and had to ask his dad what it meant.
“Seclusion,” Mr. Hicks said. “He wants to be left alone with his muse.”
Bobby didn’t know what a muse was either but didn’t feel up to asking. He thought it was a kind of flute or something. Anyway, McArdle settled in the Barkley place, paid his rent regular, in cash, and kept to himself. Miz Franklin. Who runs the front counter at the drug store, said he once a month took off for Richmond and she guessed he was visiting fast women up there.
Maybe. But she’s got herself one of those imaginations that sees the worst in folks, so I don’t know. But when he came back he always put money in the bank. Shirley at the First National said it was checks drawn on banks up in Richmond so I guess Miz Franklin got it partly right.
Granville Hicks, besides dealing in real-estate, is also the nosiest man in town and he pestered McArdle every time he came in to pay the rent, about what he did and where he went and such, but McArdle kept a pretty close check on his tongue. He did squire around Miss Davidson, the sixth grade teacher, for a spell but she sort of dropped out of sight. Didn’t send her contract back to the school board one year. She just packed up and left.
People wondered about that, but folks are funny. Jake Engl, the postman, said she’d got some official looking letters from Chicago about that time and so he guessed she probably got a good offer from up there somewhere.
McArdle drove that old pickup around but we never did see that camper body again. One of the farmhands working the pasture next to Barkley’s said he thought he saw it stored up in the barn. Another guy, I can’t remember who now, said he offered to buy it off McArdle but he turned him down. The guy was a little spiffed at that.
“After all,” he said, “he ain’t using it none, and I sure could.”
I think he tried to low ball him on the price and McArdle got short with him. Anyway, he brought that old pickup in regular for lube and oil changes. And he kept pretty much to himself. He paid his bills, tipped good at the diner, and give a hello to most everybody he met when he come to town, of course, so what he was up to out there at the Barkley place was his business and nobody else’s.
A year or so after he came to Digby, a couple of guys in suits drove into town in a big Cadillac and were asking about a fellow they wanted to find. They had a picture. They waved Jimmy over. Now Jimmy was a straight guy so he goes over and he asks, real polite, “Where’re you all from?”
And they say “It’s none of your . . .” They used a word you don’t hear much in Digby, we being a family town and all, “. . . business. All we need to know is have you seen this man?” And they flashed a picture at him.
I guess Jimmy figured they didn’t deserve the time of day after they blew him off so he says, “No, I ain’t never seen the guy.”
One of the men—they were big guys, tough looking—calls to me, “Hey, Squirt, come here and look at this picture.”
Squirt, he called me. By now, I am full time at the garage and a working stiff. I ain’t no squirt. I went over and looked at the picture. It’s of a clean shaven guy, youngish, with one of those pencil-thin mustaches you see on them old time movie stars. I say, “Nope, never seen him, either.”
Now McArdle, when he come to town, was growing out his beard like he hadn’t shaved for a week. He let it grow out full since then and I’m used to seeing this bearded man, not what he might of looked like before. That’s the way of it, you know. The face you see is the one you know. You forget the old one so if somebody says, do you recognize this guy, and it don’t look like the one you see every day, you say, nope.
It’s like them obituaries that people do where they put in a picture of this dude when he was, like, in the World War Two or something, and it don’t look anything like the old guy you sell gas to. You get old and your nose gets bigger and your ears grow, and your face sorta slides and no matter what anybody says, you don’t look the same at all. If you study the eyes, though, you can sometimes tell. They stay pretty much the same.
The picture they had could have been McArdle. It had the eyes, see, but like I said, I ain’t no squirt and these bozos from out of town were way off the reservation as far as I’m concerned. They was pretty shirty with everybody in town that day and got nothing from nobody. They hung around town ‘til about evening and then pushed on south.
It was about this same time that a couple comes through looking for their daughter. Funny how that happens. Nobody asks about anybody from one year to the next and then, bam, you get two or three folks in town looking for this person or that. This old couple had a picture too. I seen it and it reminded me of Miss Davidson and before I could stop myself I asked, “Is she a teacher?”
“No,” they say, sort of startled, like, “She worked in a bank. Why’d you ask?”
I tell them I don’t know. It just kinda popped out. The picture is definitely not Miss Davidson. So they ask around and leave the next day. Essie up at the Motel Six where they spent the night, said the daughter might have been in some kind of trouble a while back and run off. I thought about Darla McKenzie and her trouble and reckoned it was the same thing. But Darla didn’t run off. After she gave up on me, she got Bobby Hicks to go up there to wherever in North Carolina, and they got married. Old Grandville Hicks was madder’n a wet hen when they got back. He made Bobby get a job at the hardware store instead of going off to college which was what he wanted him to do. That baby came right on time and it had the reddest hair you ever saw. Now there ain’t no red haired people in my line as far as I can tell, and I ain’t sure about the Hickses either. The only red-haired fellow I ever met was Mr. Harvey the English teacher up to the high school.
So that’s the way it was for a time. Things stayed pretty peaceful until Jimmy Shorter got himself killed out hunting during deer season. That’s the thing about hunting. I ain’t got a thing against it, for sure. I do a bit now and then, myself, but, like the Surgeon General says, it can be hazardous to your health. Jimmy had a bead on a six pointer, we think. Most of this is put together after the fact, of course, because Jimmy is, like, dead and ain’t talking. He’s got the buck in his sights, it seems, and across the hollow there’s some city fellows aiming at the same buck and guns go off. Jimmy takes a thirty-ought-six between the eyes. They found him the next day when his dog was heard howling in the woods.
Jimmy was a reloader and had this habit of scratching his initials on the end of the slug. Most times the business end will expand when it hits the deer. That’s what it’s supposed to do and it so was sometimes hard to see the J.S. scratched on the end. He did that because sometimes two people would claim the same kill and then Jimmy would dig out the slug and show them his initials and it’d be his deer. Anyway, these two city fellows show up at Burns’ dressing station and get their deer cut and wrapped and Burns says he found Jimmy’s bullet in that deer.
We couldn’t prove nothing but we figured one of them shot wild, dropped Jimmy and they took the deer and left my boss out there in the woods for dead. Burns talked to them a bit, about how Jimmy marked his bullets and all. They denied everything, of course, but they looked pretty shook up. Burns said it’d be a good idea if they never come back to hunt in this part of the country because we are a pretty tight community and deer hunting, as they for sure knew, could be a pretty dangerous undertaking. I reckon they got his drift because we never saw them again, although there were a dozen or so of Jimmy’s friends out looking for them for the next couple of deer seasons.
Mrs. Shorter, that’d be Jimmy’s wife, not his mom, took it pretty hard for a while. Got to be a regular at the liquor store, vodka mostly, and spent her time bawling and drinking. They didn’t have no kids and her family wasn’t from around here so she was pretty much alone. She made me the manager of Shorter’s Garage and I got a pay raise. That’s about the time Darla Hicks started hanging around again. But I say, once burned, twice shy. So she skinned off after a bit. I guess being a Hicks wasn’t all she hoped for. But she did have a couple of more kids by then. None with red hair, though.
Mrs. Shorter, Emma, finally sorted herself out and took an interest in the garage again. Emma and me got pretty close on account of me running the garage. It was a good little business. She was happy with how I managed and had put the money in the bank and all. That’s when I’d see McArdle. At the bank. He’d bring his check in about the first of the month and I’d be there with the week’s takings and we’d nod and say hello, you know, like that. He said he got his royalty checks every month. I didn’t know what that meant but guessed it had to do with his writing and all. He had some gray streaks in his hair by then but looked pretty much the same.
“Location,” Granville Hicks had said one day to Jimmy. “Jimmy, you got the premier location in town here. Right off the freeway. You get all the drop-ins and all the locals.”
He was right about that. We done a good business and I was after Emma to add another bay so we could handle the business. Some kids from the Vo-Tech were working for us by then. She didn’t know about a new bay, though.
Then one day she said, “Oscar, why don’t you move into the empty apartment over the garage and save yourself some money?” I’d been living in a trailer I rented from an old lady. I moved there after my folks retired to Bradenton, Florida. Well, that seemed like a pretty good idea only she had the apartment next to that and I wondered what folks might think, her being Jimmy’s widow and all. She was looker, too, and that’s the truth. She could have been one of those Cover Girl models if she dropped a pound or two. She was younger than Jimmy by six or so years, more my age than his. Well, the rest was pretty simple. I moved over the garage, okay, but not in the empty apartment.
Me and Emma had a long talk over some of her vodka and the next thing I know we are in the same apartment, which turned out to be a good thing. After the insurance company paid off on Jimmy, we went down the Methodist church and got married to make it all legal and such. Some folks had a word or two to say about us, but most said they were okay with the situation.
I don’t recall when McArdle surfaced in the news again. I mean, he kept to himself, like I said, and he was a good neighbor. We’d see him at the local ball games. He didn’t join any clubs, though Granville Hicks was after him to be a Rotarian. But McArdle said he wasn’t no joiner. The same thing happened with the Lions, Elks and all the other social animals around town. He didn’t go to church, so the Knights of Columbus was out, too.
One day a big black SUV with government plates pulls up and some men got out. They flipped open their wallets and they showed their FBI badges. Well, that was something. We ain’t never had no G-men in town as far as I can remember, so pretty soon there’s a whole mess of folks down to the garage. Emma come down the stairs then. She was pretty big with our first baby and it was an effort, but she wanted to see the Feds, she said, like she knew all about that sort of thing. Like I said, she wasn’t from around here so, I don’t know, maybe she did. The men were showing a picture around and I swear it’s the same one them goons had back then. Maybe a different pose, though.
They also had a bunch of computer pictures of what this guy would look like if he was older. Well, they had ones
of middle aged guys with no mustache, big mustaches, bald, thin-haired, and so on. It was when they flashed the picture of the guy with a beard that I knew they wanted McArdle.
“What’d he do?” I said. I wasn’t feeling so good at the time.
“We just want to ask him some questions.”
“About what?” Darla Hicks asked. She had by then split with Bobby and was living next to me and Emma in the other apartment over the garage. That got to be a little tight at times because Darla . . . well, a leopard don’t change its spots and Darla was a man-eater for sure. But I’m loyal so nothing happened though I was sure tempted once when she come to the door in her peek-a-boo nightie and said she locked herself out. As it happened, Emma come up behind me then and took Darla by the arm and marched her off pronto.
“Bank robbery,” the FBI said.
“Bank robbery?” We was all pretty amazed. McArdle didn’t seem the type. But I’m ahead of myself here. See, nobody had said McArdle’s name yet. I don’t know if they didn’t see the resemblance to the bearded guy pictured or, like me, decided to dummy up.
“Who done the robbery?” Jake asked. See, I was surprised at him asking that on account of he’s in and out of the post office all the time and they hang some of them wanted pictures there, don’t they?
“We aren’t sure,” the other FBI says. We think it was a plan where one of the tellers set the whole thing up and so there’s no suspicious activity on the surveillance tape or anything. It’s just that the teller didn’t come to work one day and there was a lot of money gone.”
“How much?” Darla asked, and I don’t like the look in her eyes. She’s a piece of work is Darla. She’d find a way to make trouble if she could. “Is there a reward for this man?” she goes on, and I right away see what she’s up to.
“A little over a million dollars was missing,” the guy says. “That includes some bearer bonds. The bank just wants its money back. But we want the guy who took it. Robbing a bank is a Federal offense.”
He says that like he’s reading from the Ten Commandments. But Darla ain’t done.
“So, there’s no reward?” Her face was all scrunched up, like she’s thinking hard.
“Ten thousand dollars.”
“That ain’t much for a bank robber who took a million plus.”
“No, Ma’am, it isn’t, but since we don’t know who did it or how it got done, we can only offer money for information.”
I can see that Darla is turning that over in her mind and then she says, “Never seen that man.” She was lying as sure as Monday comes after Sunday. She’s thinking the same thing as me. McArdle or whoever he really is, is sitting out there at the Barkley place on a million dollars, minus what he’s spent since he got here. And Darla’s scheming up a way to get her hands on some of it. Ten thousand might be tempting but a million plus . . .?
Now I ain’t got a thing against McArdle and, well, I give it some thought but figure I’m happy here with my own garage and Emma, and I don’t want to risk all that on a “maybe” with McArdle. Now, Darla don’t have anything and, so, McArdle is like the world’s biggest lollipop in front of a candy-starved Darla. I know she’s gonna go for it and McArdle had better look out.
Since the FBI were pretty vague about the whole deal and the folks in town not too familiar with McArdle, then or now, they didn’t get much more than them other guys. But I was wondering about those folks—that old couple what was looking for their daughter back then.
“When did this all happen?” I asked, and they say late April of the same year that McArdle come to town. That’s why it got to be important to know when he did, see? I looked around and Darla’s heading up the stairs to her apartment. I went after her. Emma can’t follow so quick on account of being so heavy with the baby so I have a minute or two with Darla before she’s in earshot.
“Don’t do it,” I said.
“Don’t do what, Mr. I-Married-the-Garage-Big-Shot?”
“You leave McArdle alone.”
“Why? Is he some kind of all of a sudden pal of yours? Maybe you already figured this out and you and him is in this together. This garage can’t be making the kind of money you’re spending on it. Are you, like, laundering his money?”
There was no talking to her. And just then Emma heaved herself up to the landing and that was the end of the conversation. Ever since Emma got big and all, she’s thinking me and Darla were doing it behind her back. Emma’s that is, but we weren’t. Like, everybody knows, Darla is trouble with a capital T. So Emma give her a look and I went back downstairs again because there was business to get done.
Next couple of hours, I’m thinking about McArdle. The FBI didn’t say he did it and they didn’t say he didn’t. I tried putting the thing together in my mind and the only thing that kept popping up was that missing daughter. I was pumping gas in this old folks’ car turning the whole thing over in my mind, like I said, when Darla peeled out and headed east. The Barkley place is east. That’s when I got really worried. If I had it figured right, McArdle wasn’t someone you wanted to mess with. And Darla was the absolute last person in the world to be doing the messing. It gnawed at me pretty good. I didn’t want to be responsible for Darla getting hurt or worse. By the time I made change and sent the old people on their way I had my mind made up and I called Chief Evans at the police station.
It took me about twenty minutes to clear the thing with the police. Chief Evans ain’t the sharpest tool in the shed, so I had to go over it a couple of times. He didn’t get the missing daughter part right off and didn’t see what Miss Davidson had to do with anything. So, by the time he caught up and called those FBI guys in, near to an hour had gone by. It took another twenty minutes or so to assemble some more cops and drive out to the Barkley place.
Darla’s car was sitting over in the weedy part of the yard to the right but there was no sign of her anywhere. The police, FBI, and me, all piled out of the cars and moved toward the house. Some circled around back. It was quiet. Too quiet for my liking. I hoped Darla was okay or she wasn’t hurt too bad. I heard a motor start up and then McArdle come flying around the corner, his old pickup truck kicking up gravel which was flying all over the place, and he’s heading down the lane. The FBI guys started yelling at him to stop and drew out their guns. He just stepped on the gas. The cop next to me started hopping around like he needed to pee or something and he jerked out his gun, too. The next thing I know, he’s shooting at McArdle. The truck slewed all over the road kicking up more dirt and gravel. There’s another cop in the first cop’s line of fire and he takes one in the shoulder. He’s lucky. In the same kinda deal, Jimmy took one in the head.
“I’m hit,” the shot cop yells, and the FBI and the rest think McArdle is returning fire and then everybody is blasting away at the back of that truck which by now is looking like Swiss cheese. They must have got McArdle because he slammed that truck into a tree, wham! And steam shot out of the radiator, so I know he ain’t going anywhere any time soon. McArdle staggered out and collapsed which was a good thing or “Quick Draw McGraw” next to me would’a shot him dead and maybe two or three others as well. Evans came over and took the cop’s gun away before he did.
Someone else called for ambulances and we rushed the house. We found Darla trussed up on the floor in her underwear. I don’t want to guess how that came to be. She had a pretty bad knock on the head which was bleeding. It give me a start, the blood, I mean. For a second I thought we was too late and she was, maybe, dead. But she wasn’t. Darla was lucky that day. The other women who got mixed up with McArdle we found buried out in the barn.
And the inside of the camper that he had stored out there, looked like somebody splashed chocolate syrup all over the inside. The FBI guy said it was probably dried blood from the woman who worked as a teller at this bank that McArdle come on to. Miss Davidson was buried next to her. I guess she must have figured McArdle out and he found out, or something. I don’t guess we’ll ever know for sure.
Anyway all her stuff was in trash bags in the loft along with some of the money from the robbery and some bank statements. It wasn’t me that was laundering the money, like Darla said. He took bunches to banks around Richmond from time to time and had them issue checks which he brought back here as his “royalty” money. It was something like that anyway.
Well, Darla never did say thank you for me probably saving her life and got really mad when they give me the ten thousand dollar reward money. I told her she could’a had it if she hadn’t got so greedy and tried to shake down McArdle, but she didn’t listen. She never does.
McArdle wasn’t his real name, by the way, but that just stands to reason, I guess. Emma named our baby Reward on account of me getting the money. Kind of a dumb name.
I wanted him to be Oscar Junior.
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