by Gary Hoffman
This story has never before been published.
“Hey, Barb. Wantta throw one?”
Barb stopped in mid-step. “Sure.” She entered Jason’s office, and he handed her a dart. She took as careful aim as she could and threw the dart at the large cork board hanging on the other wall.
“Hey, at least you hit the board this time,” Jason said.
She winked at him. “When I’m in the mood to do something right, I usually do.”
Jason’s heart fluttered a bit as she left. He thought Barb had one of the best-looking bodies of all the women who worked at the newspaper. He pushed against his desk and his chair rolled over by the board. “Belgrade. Don’t think I’ve ever been there.”
The cork board was covered with a map—the eastern half of Missouri and the western third of Illinois—basically the area covered by the St. Louis Times. It decided where his next story was going to come from. Either Jason, or anyone who came around, would throw a dart at the board and that would be the town he would head for. Once he was in the town, he would usually locate a local phone book, open it to a random page, and blindly point to a name.
He felt he had one of the best jobs at the Times. His column was called “Faces of the Times.” He would go around and interview people who lived in various towns and write his column about them. He would then email his stories to his editor, Ed James. The job not only got Jason out of the office and out from under anyone’s direct supervision, but he met lots of interesting people.
He pushed his chair back to his desk and threw two more darts at the board. They both landed in north Missouri. He retrieved them, wrote down the names of the closest towns and started getting ready to make his run.
His big F-350 Ford pickup truck was in the parking lot. He had already stocked it with fresh water, food, clothing, maps, and other things he knew he would need on the trip. His editor liked the fact that he stayed in campgrounds many times and did his own cooking, but rumbled like an old volcano when the fuel bills arrived. Jason fired up the truck and turned onto a side street that would take him to the interbelt and out of the city.
As he crossed a bridge over Big River coming into the town of Belgrade, he decided he liked it already. The town was smaller than he expected. The only businesses were a gas station, a post office—that also advertised it sold antiques—a bank, and a grocery store. Other buildings that appeared to be where businesses had once flourished, were now crumbling monuments to their memory. The post office/antique store seemed interesting. He decided to skip the phone book routine and start there.
The postmaster was a short, squat man who had tried to comb what few strands of hair he had left over his bald head. In his mouth he had the stub of a cigar that didn’t look like it had ever been lit. He was sitting on a stool behind a post office window reading a magazine. “Help you?” the man said.
“Hope so. My name’s Jason Burns. I write a column for the St. Louis Times. What I do is go out into the surrounding country and interview people for my articles.” Jason handed him a business card and showed him his ID from the newspaper.
“Yeah, I read some of your articles. Who you gonna interview in Belgrade?”
Jason smiled. “How about you?”
The man laughed. “Not much to tell about me.”
“You might be surprised. Mind if I record our interview?”
“No, go ahead.” Jason laid a small digital voice recorder no larger than a cell phone on the counter and pressed Record.
“Been running the post office long?”
“Over thirty years now.”
“Wow. Long time. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any other kinds of businesses in post offices.”
“There’s only a few of us left. Depends on how much mail goes through your post office. If you have a small enough amount that you are rated as a Class C office, you can have another business along with it. If you’re a Class A or B, no other businesses allowed. All of us Class C-ers left are in very small towns. Over in Davisville, guy there runs a post office in the rear of his grocery store. Again, he only handles a small amount of mail.”
Jason cocked his head sideways. “So if I were to bring you an ad mailing from our newspaper, you wouldn’t be very happy about it?”
“Hell no. It’d raise my volume way up. I’d talk like a Dutch uncle trying to get you to take it someplace else. This post office doesn’t make a lot of money, but it pays me to open up in the morning. It’s the antiques that make my money.”
“Where do you get most of your antiques?”
“Mainly auctions. Lots of country auctions around these parts. I also have people who just stop by to sell something, or I have pickers I deal with.”
“Pickers? What’s a picker?”
“Those are people who go around buying antiques from yard sales, auctions, private parties, or just any place they can find them. They’ll bring me a pickup truck-load at a time. Now they could make money from them if they sold them at some retail outlet, but I’ll buy the whole load at wholesale prices. It’s a faster turn over for them. For me? I’m gonna be here anyway. I can afford to wait for the right buyer.”
“And who’s the right buyer?”
Stanley grinned. “The person who wants it badly enough on any given day.”
“So what price do you have on that hay knife on the wall?”
“Good eye. First of all, not everyone even knows what it is. Second of all, none of my antiques have prices on them. My asking price may vary depending on several factors.”
“And what factors are those?”
“Has to be off the record. If I tell you and you print it, I’ll sue your paper for libel.” Jason turned off the recorder. “One major thing is the disposition of the customer. Someone comes in here all gussied up and thinks they’re going to run over me will pay three or four times more than a customer who is polite.”
“Try me,” Stanley said with a small grin. “Also depends on how much I’ve got invested in the item.”
“Can you remember what you paid for each item in here?”
“Bet I can come within a few bucks. I got a book back here where I can double check if I need to, but I usually don’t need to. Then it depends on how long I’ve had something. If it’s taking up space and no one seems real interested, I’ll knock the price down to get rid of it.”
Jason concluded the interview within the next half hour. He was sure he had plenty of information for an article. Stanley was happy because he was going to get some free advertising for his antique store.
When he left Belgrade, Jason went back out to Highway 21 and headed north. Washington State Park was just a few miles up the road. His home for the night.
The next morning, he followed Highway 47 up into St. Clair. He stopped at a truck stop for a muscle-stretching break before deciding to just drive around the town and see if something caught his eye. That was another method he often used to find stories.
He had no idea where he was going, and quickly found himself in an older subdivision. Most of the houses were nice and well-kept, but had probably been built some thirty years ago when the interstate highways were constructed and people could easily commute to their jobs in larger cities.
He decided most of these places were owned by younger couples since each front yard and car port seemed to be an advertisement for Toys-R-Us. Lush green lawns were not a high priority because the kids probably kept them trampled down. Lawn chairs were scattered about like they had been through a major wind storm. But, one house did stand out to him.
It had a nice lawn, a couple of small bushes beside a dinky-sized front porch, a car parked in the car port, and a trash can beside it. No lawn chairs in sight. The car also appeared to be an older model than most of the others on the street. He drove past it a couple of times before he decided to stop.
The man who answered his knock was wearing house slippers, a pair of dress slacks, and a white sleeveless undershirt that was tucked neatly into his pants. He had a large nose and needed a shave. “Excuse me, sir. My name is Jason Burns. I write a column for the St. Louis Times called ‘Faces of the Times.’ Have you ever heard of it?” Jason got out a business card and his newspaper ID.
“Not interested in a newspaper subscription,” the man said and started to close the door.
“No, sir. I’m not selling subscriptions. I’m trying to interview people and write about them.”
The man stood back while trying to look around Jason at the street in front of his house. “So how’d you pick me?”
“Just noticed your house looked different from most of the others on the block. Thought maybe there was a reason.”
“Who sent you?”
“Nobody sent me. I was just driving by.”
“My house looks different because I don’t have all those damned kids running around my place. They’ve learned to stay away from my lawn. Now look, I’m busy. Try somebody else around this God-forsaken place.” He shut the door.
Jason headed back for his car. People seldom turned him down when they found out they had a chance to talk about themselves. And then have it in print. This wasn’t the first time, but his no-gos were less than one percent. Jason didn’t like that. He often wondered if these people had something to hide or were hiding from someone.
He stopped at the same truck stop he had been to earlier. He needed to find a bathroom. He also found they had a good-looking buffet line set up for lunch. Those things were one of Jason’s several downfalls. Good food, beautiful women, and exciting football games topped the list.
“What’s the name of the guy you just went to see on Meadowbrook Lane?”
“Look, you just visited a guy at his house. What’s his name?”
“Actually, I don’t know, and if I did, I doubt I’d tell you.”
The man smiled showing tobacco-stained teeth. “Believe me, it would be to your benefit to tell me.”
“What’s going on here?” Jason asked.
“All I need is the name of the man.”
“I think I’ll call the police.”
The man slid from the seat. “I’ll be in touch. Think about it.” Jason was sure the man purposely opened his coat just enough so Jason could see the butt end of a pistol in a shoulder holster. His heart started beating faster. His appetite suddenly wasn’t nearly as large as when he first sat down. He pushed his plate to the middle of the table and watched the man’s back as he left. A car pulled up by the front entrance and the man got in. Jason tried to read the license plate but only got the first three letters—YPL. He took out a small notebook and began writing down a description of the man, the car, and the driver. He jotted down as much of the conversation as he could remember. He flipped open his cell phone and started to call the police, but changed his mind. He wasn’t sure why.
As he approached his car in the parking lot, two men got out of another car parked directly behind his. Jason froze as they started toward him. His body went into panic mode; he felt like his bones were melting, and he couldn’t move.
One of the men stopped behind his car, but the other man came face-to-face with him. He was holding up some kind of a wallet with a badge in it. “Mr. Burns?” the man asked.
“Yes,” Jason answered tentatively.
“Agent Hopkins, FBI. That’s Agent Warner back there. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Jason leaned against the hood of his car. “Okay.” In his own ears, his voice sounded weak and far away.
“Who was that man you were talking with in the restaurant?”
His mind came back into reporter mode. What the hell is going on here?
“I have no idea, but maybe you can answer that question for me.”
“What makes you think that?” Agent Hopkins said.
“Something screwbally is going on around here. First that guy in the restaurant wants to know who I talked to this morning and now you two show up.”
“And you have no idea why?”
“I’m a reporter for the St. Louis Times. I…”
The agent held up his hand to stop him. “We know all that. What we want to know is what connection you have to the man on Meadowbrook Lane and to the man who talked to you in the restaurant.”
“Connection? None. I was just trying to get a story.”
“Why’d you pick out that particular house for a story?”
“It looked different than the other ones on the street, that’s all. My job is to try and get different stories.”
“Why was the house different?”
Jason went into his whole story, but kept wondering why it was important to the FBI. He was stopped again when he tried to give the agent information about the man in the restaurant.
“We have all the information we need about him,” Agent Hopkins said.
“Can you tell me just what’s going on here?” Jason asked.
Hopkins turned to Werner. Werner checked his watch and nodded.
“The man you first talked with is in federal witness protection. Right now, he has already been moved from that house. The man in the restaurant is probably mob connected or just a contract hit man.” Jason felt like he was going to lose what little he had eaten for lunch.
“So am I…safe now?” Jason stammered.
“Probably. They’re smart enough to figure out what happened. And once they find out Mr. Kelley has been moved, they’ll start their search all over again. But I do want to thank you for your insight about the house looking different. That’s something we didn’t think about enough.” He handed Jason a business card. “Call me if you have any problems in the near future.”
The two agents left. Jason managed to get into his car, lock the doors, and lean back for a few seconds to get his mind straight.
As he pulled from the parking lot, he decided the phone book routine was his best way to go to get stories from now on.
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