Tom Ashton was frustrated. As the 26 year old sat looking at his computer screen, all he could think about how much closer the clock would tick to 6:30 p.m. You see, Tom didn’t work any normal 9-5 job. He was a news producer in Louisville, Kentucky, and he hated it. He loathed getting up in the morning to discuss ways to scare people into watching the news that night. He hated it when his boss looked over his shoulder and said, “Rearrange this newscast. It’s not going to do well in the book.”
Oh, the book. That’s what the television industry calls the ratings period that happens four times a year. For the average viewer, it’s when they see news “investigations.” For news directors, it’s stressful and they like to throw that stress onto their employees, especially Tom.
“Don’t you think we should make this follow-up to the 18th Street murder your lead? I mean, what else do you have in here … Nothing. Tom, your newscast isn’t sexy enough. We need the numbers to be better. Don’t you want the numbers to be better?”
No, Tom thought. What I’d like to do is tell you how much I hate it when you go into a rant about the ratings period. If it were up to the viewers, all of our stories would be about celebrity gossip and funny mug shots of the day. That’s not journalism.
“Sure, I’ll make that change right away,” Tom said back to his boss, Steve. Steve was a straightforward type of guy. He had been in the business for two decades, and it was showing. He was only 42, and his full head of hair was mostly gray. There were still some patches of the blonde that he probably liked to show off in his 20s. Not anymore. He also always wore a suit to work when the norm is jeans and a nice shirt. Today, he was wearing a simple black jacket with a white long-sleeve button up shirt and solid blue tie.
Tom had worn a suit only twice to his job. That was on his interview and on his first day so he would look good for the ID picture. After that, it just disintegrated into a T-shirt, jeans and his Vans. If it got cold, he’d wear a hoodie, but for the most part he didn’t see the point in trying to impress anybody. He didn’t even gel up his short, brown hair anymore. He wasn’t going out to meet the public like he had when he first going into journalism.
Six years ago, Tom was writing stories for his college newspaper, The Louisville Cardinal, and he loved it. He was winning awards for his investigative work into a counselor who had been drugging students to have sex with them. He received acclaim for his series pieces on the gay community. Most importantly, he felt like he was advancing in his career. He went from a lowly reporter to editor in chief. Life was great, and Tom knew that he would have a great career ahead of him.
That was then … Tom sold his soul the instant he took his first full time job offer to work as a producer. Once he did that, he was stuck writing copy from the wire and network news stories for anchors. There was no going back to reporting. There was no going back to his dream.
“I hate my job,” Tom said after taking a swig of Miller Lite. He was on his second pitcher with his best friend, Rob Muller. Tom had met him while doing a story in college, then called him up for a drink after a bad break up with his girlfriend. The pair hit it off after that …
“Well, lots of people hate their jobs,” Rob said with a half smile. “What makes yours any different?”
“I don’t know, man. I just feel like my life is meant for more than just sitting in a cubicle telling people why they should be so scared to go outside. I mean, I seriously have people calling me asking me if they should be concerned because a suspected child molester lives next door.”
“I think some people just want assurance they’re making the right decision,” Rob said. “I also think that some people think that the news has all the answers.”
“But we don’t. That’s why we quote and cite everybody. I’m not a therapist or an engineer, I’m a journalist!” Tom said a little too loudly. He got some glances from the table over, but a few seconds later, they were back to their drunken conversation about who was going to flirt with the girl by the pool table. She was a rare sight at The Hideaway.
Tom liked to come here to think. It was a perfect dive bar. The lighting was dim. There was pool and darts. The beer was crap, but at least it was cheap. “You can’t beat $5 pitchers,” Tom would say to his friends.
But seeing this woman was not an everyday occurrence. She was stunning with her red hair flowing down to her shoulders. The girl had a frilly top that just came to the top of her jeans that accentuated her perfect ass. If she leaned over to take a shot, she’d grab glances from half the men in the room.
Rob snapped his fingers. “Tom, stop staring, dude. It’s creepy.”
“My bad, man. She’s gorgeous though.”
“You are very right, sir. She is gorgeous, but she’s also taken,” Rob said. “Take a look at that ring on her right hand.”
Tom saw the stone glisten underneath the lamp hanging above the pool table. It was a silver ring with a rock that would have been probably six months of his salary.
“I hate that you have to ruin my good thoughts, buddy,” Tom said.
“Hey, it’s what I’m here for,” Rob said. “Somebody has to keep you from making bad decisions.”
“Oh, is that what this is about?” Tom retorted. “OK. Let’s make a wager. I bet I can take that girl home tonight. If I win, you’re buying me drinks for the rest of the month.”
“What if I win?” Rob asked inquisitively.
“What do you want?”
Rob leaned forward from this laid back position. “I want you to stop bitching about your job,” Rob said stonefaced. “I’m serious, man. You’re always complaining about it, but you never do anything about it. Do something about it, even if you take this girl home.”
“You know I can’t quit … I have bills to pay …”
“So, come live with me a for a few months until you find a new job. It’s OK. I promise you’ll be fine …” Rob glanced to his right. “And I hope I didn’t blow your confidence because your girl is going up to the bar for a drink. Better make your move, playa.’”
“You’re a dick. I just want you to know that,” Tom said. He messed up his wavy, brown hair, stood up, straightened his shirt and walked over to the red-headed girl.
She was about 5’5″. Her heels made her nearly the same height as Tom. She stood in line tapping her fingers impatiently as the giant slob in front of her ordered his umpteenth rum and coke.
“You know, I bet you can push that guy down. That might speed up this line a little bit,” Tom said with a wide grin on his face.
She laughed. “Maybe. I think Bob the Builder has a significant size advantage on me. Wouldn’t you say?”
“Nah … I think you can take him if you get a running start. Plus, you look like a girl who could totally win a back alley fight.”
She smiled. “I’ve won a few of those. You’re pretty insightful.”
“Whaddya want sweetheart?” the bartender screamed as Bob the Builder left to go back to his drunken corner.
“I’ll take a dirty martini. Three olives.”
“You know they call that a Jenna Jameson martini, right?” Tom said to the girl.
“Are you calling me a porn star? That’s not exactly the best way to impress a woman … whatever your name is.”
“It’s Tom. And yours?”
“Well, Vanessa. It’s nice to meet you.”
“You too. How are you at pool?”
“I’m OK. I’m not an expert, but …”
“Bring your friend. We’ll play a couple of rounds with my fiance.”
The f-word pierced Tom’s ego. He thought he was running a smooth game, but Tom knew he had to save face. He glanced back at Rob and gestured for him to come play a round.
“Vanessa this is Rob. He’s the guy who keeps me out of trouble,” Tom said.
“It’s nice to meet you, Rob. This is my fiance, Brandon.”
“Hi,” Brandon said glaring at the newcomers who came to the pool table. The stare was cold, and it gave Tom a chill down his spine. They were gray eyes that seemed to have so much hatred behind them.
Tom reluctantly offered his hand out to shake Brandon’s. Brandon slowly put his hand out, then gripped Tom’s hands with what seemed like the intent of crushing every finger.
“That’s quite a handshake, Brandon,” Tom tried to joke while wincing through the pain overtaking his hand.
“You’ve got to have a firm handshake, otherwise people think you’re weak. Isn’t that right, sweetheart?”
“Oh stop,” she said hugging his arm. “He just likes to intimidate new people, but it’s all in good fun. Isn’t that right, Brandon?” It was almost the tone that a parent would use to scold their toddler who was throwing a tantrum.
“Yes, dear,” Brandon said with a smirk. But Tom couldn’t tell if he was joking. Those eyes were still fixated on him as if he just committed a grave and fatal mistake.
The four only played two games of pool before Brandon and Vanessa left for the night. Vanessa said she was getting tired, but that they should look her up on Facebook and set up a day to hang out again.
Tom and Rob left The Hideaway shortly after that. Quincy Street was starting to die down. Most of the cars that had lined the street with frat boys and sorority girls going to the dance club down the street had left. The only cars that remained were the drunks or the night owls who came out every night.
The moon was full as Tom and Rob headed to their cars. They walked a little slower than normal. Part of that was their drunken states, but Tom also couldn’t stop thinking about Brandon’s eyes. They were just so … evil.
“Dude, I was kidding earlier about quitting your job,” Rob said to Tom. “You are a little bitch about it, but don’t do anything stupid, OK. I never know what to expect with you.”
“Yeah, tell me about it … Rob, let me ask you something. Did that guy, Brandon, did he give you a stare that was a little … I don’t know … off?”
“No, I thought he was fine. He was a likeable guy. I think he was a little closed off at first, but then after that he opened up. Why do you ask? Did something happen?”
“Forget about it … It was probably just my imagination. We going out tomorrow night?”
“Nah, guy. I got to work all day tomorrow. Man, I hate my boss. He always makes me come in on Saturday, then schedules work meetings at 7. But it’s a living.”
“I guess you’re right,” Tom said sulking a little.
“I am right.” Rob stopped. They got to his green Buick Sabre parked on the side of the street. “Listen, Tom. You take things like your job too seriously. I know you hate it, but did you ever think that maybe you’re working it for a reason? Think about it … How do you know you’re not going to hate whatever you do after this is over?”
“I don’t …”
“Exactly. Look … Tomorrow’s a new day,” Rob said as he climbed into his car. “I’ll talk to you later, dude. Drive safe.”
“You too,” Tom said. He started walking again. It would be another two blocks before he got to the parking lot with his car. The moon was full, and it was eerily silent for a Friday night. Tom should have heard a giggly couple or a car speeding past. Instead, all Tom heard was wind.
Tom crossed the four lanes of Quincy Street to the Trinity Mall parking lot. His blue Jetta was the last one in a row of cars. He opened the Jetta’s door and slid into his seat.
Rob’s right, Tom thought. Tomorrow is a new day.
He started his car, then noticed the slip of paper in his windshield. When did that get here? Tom thought. God, I hate these stupid promotions for shows. No, I’m not going to your poetry slam on Sunday. Stop wasting paper.
Tom opened his door, walked to the front of the car, grabbed the piece of notebook paper and unfolded it. This wasn’t a notice about an art event. In fact, it didn’t even qualify as a note. It was just a three word sentence, “I’m watching you.”
Tom had never been so careful going home in his life. As he crossed the Kennedy Bridge into Jeffersonville, he was constantly looking over his shoulder. Was there somebody following him? Why was someone suddenly riding his ass?
As Tom made his exit from the highway onto Park Avenue, the car that had been following him so closely decided to make the same exit. What the hell? Tom thought. Stop tailing me. Please …
Tom inched his way into the right lane to make his turn, but the car kept following him, this time nearly on his bumper.
“Look man, it’s just got to be a cop who’s trying to freak you out,” Tom said to himself out loud. It was a nervous tic he developed in high school. As long as he could talk himself through something, it would calm him down … a little anyway. Tonight, it wasn’t working too well.
Tom drove the Jetta up the street, past Aiky’s gas station, past the Dairy Queen, past the Kroger … This guy was still following him. Just stay cool, Tom thought. He moved into the right lane again. It would be the last turn before he got to his apartment complex.
He turned onto Pollup Drive, a windy two lane road that had few businesses except for some trashy motels. The car was still following, getting even closer until the headlights disappeared in his rearview mirror. Tom let off the gas, shifted his car into neutral and let his Jetta coast to the stop sign down the street. The car backed off, and Tom looked into his side mirror. In the fading light, he could make out the sign on the top of the car. It read “TAXI.”
Tom breathed a sigh of relief. Still, that guy’s a douchebag. He shouldn’t be following me like that so closely. The taxi put on its left blinker, about the only proper signal the driver gave during his last 10 minutes of driving, and turned into a parking lot.
Tom continued up the street, made a half-stop at Knobb Drive, then made an immediate left into his apartment complex. Home sweet home, Tom thought as he drove into Kingston Apartments. Tom parked, turned off his car, grabbed his keys and walked up the stairs to his third floor apartment.
Tom walked to his bedroom and stripped off his shirt and jeans, leaving only his black boxers. He didn’t even head to the bathroom to brush his teeth or wash his face. He was just too exhausted from the night’s events. It was about 4 a.m. when his head hit the pillow. He was asleep within 20 minutes.
Tom woke up with the light glaring through his bedroom window. God … What a night, he thought. He rolled over to look at the clock on his dresser. 12:23. Tom hated it when he woke up this late, but he wasn’t going to complain. He felt like he wasted the day, but it didn’t matter today. There wasn’t anything planned. It would be a lazy Saturday.
Tom hoisted himself off the bed and wandered to the shower. He twisted the faucet, waiting for the temperature to reach scalding, hot … lifted the lever, then stepped inside
The water rained down on Tom’s face and chest, and he thought about Vanessa. Why are girls like that always falling for dicks, Tom thought. I could treat her a hell of a lot better than that guy. Oh well … It’s time to move on.
Tom grabbed the towel after he was finished showering, drying off as he ran back to the bedroom to grab clothes for the day. It was supposed to warm up to 70 today. It would be nice enough to sit outside when he grabbed coffee.
His cell phone rang. It was a number he didn’t recognize, area code 520. Where the hell was that from?
“Is this Tom?”
“Yeah … Who’s this?”
There was a pause on the other end. Then, the voice said: “I guess you could say I’m a fan of yours, and I’d be careful if I were you today.”
“OK … What’s this all about?” Tom said.
“Be quiet and listen to me,” the voice said with a raised overtone. “You’re not making friends with the way you’re acting. Like I said … be careful.” Tom heard a click and the voice on the other end was gone.
Tom stared down at the number. 520-867-1221. Who could that be? He nervously dialed the number and hit the call button on his cell phone. There were several rings, but no one picked up. After two minutes, Tom decided to give it a rest. He would investigate this later. Right now, he just wanted get out of his house. He wanted to have his coffee.
Tom grabbed his laptop, iPod and headphones and stuffed it into his duffel bag. Tom was thinking about how to pursue Vanessa when he opened his front door. That’s when he saw the man who was just about to knock. It was Brandon.
“Hello, Mr. Ashton. It’s good to see you today,” Brandon said as he looked at him through the doorway. His stare was still the ice cold glare that he was giving him all last night. This time, the tone was much more authoritative, and it went with the uniform.
Brandon was actually an officer with the Jeffersonville Police Department, and he came dressed in the black on-duty attire. Tom’s eyes darted from his face down to his hip where his Glock was holstered. Tom had the feeling that the way this day was going, that gun may be drawn.
“What can I do for you, Brandon?”
“Let’s leave it with Officer Tandy. I’m on duty,” the officer said. He leaned in through the doorway with his giant frame towering over Tom. “I’m conducting an investigation. You see, we’re seeing a lot more methamphetamine production in this area. One of your neighbors says she’s hearing and smelling a lot of suspicious activity coming from this apartment.”
“I see … Well, Officer Tandy, I can assure you that I am not producing any sort of drugs of any kind,” Tom said with a nervous smile.
“Well, maybe if you’ll let me have a look around, I can verify that.”
“Officer, with all due respect, I’m not going to let you search my apartment unless you have some kind of warrant,” Tom said, trying to gain some ground. “Do you have one?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get one. I’ll be watching you Ashton,” he said. “Oh, and one more thing … Stay away from my fiance.”
The officer turned around, his hulking body sending shockwaves through the floor as he took steps toward the staircase. Tom watched the officer walk down the stairs, but he never shut the door until he heard a car start up and leave.
Tom picked up his cell phone and searched for Rob’s number. He hit the green call button and hoped that his friend would answer for once in his life. Today was just too strange not to talk to someone about it.
Rob finally answered. “What up, man?”
“Rob, I need some advice man. Today has just been crazy.”
“Can’t this wait? I told you that I’d be working today,” Rob said, then sighed. “What’s going on?”
“OK … Remember the big guy from last night, Brandon …”
“Yeah, what about him,” Rob said.
“It turns out that he’s a cop, and he came to my apartment accusing me of manufacturing meth,” Tom said.
“No way … Are you serious?”
“Of course I’m serious.”
“Well, you may want to consider talking to a lawyer,” Rob said. “And you can get some initial consultation for free. I think I might know a guy who can help you out.”
Tom could hear some scuffling papers through the phone. “Here it is … You got a pen? Call this guy,” Rob said. “His name is John Rogers. He helped my cousin when he got hit with a DUI a few years back.”
“Thanks Rob. I appreciate it man,” Tom said.
“I know you do,” Rob said. “Hey, one more thing … Be careful. I’m sure this is all some sort of misunderstanding, but just take it easy.”
Tom was in downtown Jeffersonville two days after the confrontation. He had not heard from Tandy, and he hadn’t received any strange phone calls. Still, he wanted to be safe from any prosecution. He scheduled an appointment with John Rogers.
The courthouse was on one side, and all the attorney offices were on the other. He checked the address one more time before he pulled up to Rogers and Associates.
The attorney was set up in this decrepit, white building that looked like it had long been past overdue for a renovation. The exterior siding was peeling near the bottom of the business, and the grass was more brown than green. Not exactly a great first impression, Tom thought.
He got out of the car and opened the glass door and entered the office. A secretary stood behind a desk to greet him. She was plump, 40-something with brown hair, but had a set of lips that made Steven Tyler’s look small. And it didn’t help that she drew attention with a bright red lipstick.
“Yeah, I’ll send them over right away …” she said into the phone and hung up. She took a deep breath, composed herself, and looked at Tom.
“You must be Mr. Ashton,” she said. “Welcome to Rogers and Associates. Would you like a glass of water while you wait?”
“Yeah, that would be great,” Tom said as he sat in the green chair next to the magazine pile.Tom had barely picked one up when a deep, booming voice called from down the hallway.
“Tom, my man. How are you?” said a black man in a power suit walking down the hall. The man in his 50s held out his hand … “I’m John Rogers. Pleased to meet you.”
“Likewise,” Tom said returning the shake. “Thanks for seeing me on such short notice Mr. Rogers.”
“Oh, please. Let’s stop with the formalities. That’s not how I do business, except in court. They don’t appreciate my sense of humor,” John said. “Now, let’s head back to my office, and we can discuss your case.”
John gestured for Tom to follow him down the hallway. Tom watched as the attorney walked with determination, his back arched to make him seem as tall as possible. At the end of the hall, both men entered the small room that was a little too cramped for Tom. He wondered how John could work in this type of environment where he had to squeeze just to get behind his desk.
“Shut the door,” John said. Tom did, and took a seat. “So, you’ve got a cop who’s accusing you of methamphetamine production?”
“That’s right,” Tom said. “He stopped by over the weekend. He said a neighbor complained, but honestly we had met the night before at a bar. I think he’s jealous that I was hitting on his fiance.”
“Is that right?” John said letting out a little laugh. “Well, I can see why there might be some animosity between you two, but it doesn’t seem realistic that he would suddenly show up at your door.”
John leaned back into his chair and grabbed some paper. “Still, we should probably go over these accusations.” John grabbed a pen from his drawer. “Did he say which neighbor complained?”
“No, he didn’t, and I’m pretty friendly with most of my neighbors,” Tom said watching John take notes.
“What about complaints? Have you received any sort of notice from your landlord,” John said.
“No to that one as well.”
“I see,” John said. He stopped taking notes and took a long look at Tom. It seemed like he was evaluating his character. “Tom, here’s my honest opinion. I think you’re over reacting. I don’t think there’s anything that this officer can get on you … But I’m assuming you’re innocent. You’re not actually producing meth, are you?” John asked, then leaned back in his chair. “I know it’s a ridiculous question, but it’s one that I have to ask.”
“No, I’ve never touched the stuff in my life. I don’t even know what it looks like,” Tom said.
“Good. I think you’re in the clear. I wouldn’t worry too much, but …” John fished for a business card from his wallet. “Here’s my card in case something does happen. I think the cop was just trying to razzle you. Don’t let it bother you.”
Tom put the card in his back pocket. “Listen, John. There’s something else. I got a creepy phone call right before he showed up,” Tom said.
“Oh, really,” John said. His eyebrows were raised showing some interest.
“The man told me to be careful, and it was a number I’ve never seen before. When I tried to call the number back, it just rang. Not even a voicemail picked up.”
“That’s rather interesting,” John said. “But you’re putting too much thought into it. It could have been a wrong number.” John glanced at his Rolex. “I have to be in court for another client fairly soon. But you have my card. Give me a call if anything happens. I’ll be happy to take your case.”
John held out his hand as if to seal the deal for a potential new client. Tom shook with some reluctance, then walked out of John’s office. The secretary waved goodbye as Tom exited the building.
He took a deep breath and walked back to his car. The familiar Jetta was there. There wasn’t anything different about it, except there was glass littering the street. What the hell? Tom thought. He picked up his pace to investigate.
The driver’s side window was smashed. It seemed like someone had taken a crowbar to his car. He didn’t know what the thieves were after, but what Tom did know was that he’d need to spend $150 to replace it.
“Fuckers,” Tom said as he opened his trunk for a towel so he could clean the glass. He pulled the towel out and opened the driver’s side door. And there in the pile of shards was a folded note.
Tom reached for it slowly. He pulled it to his chest and ripped off the tape holding it together. Inside, the message was in all caps and red letters: “Careful Ashton.”
The nervousness turned to anger, and it was seeping from Tom. He knew Tandy wrote it. With his fists clenched, he walked across the street determined to get this nut bag cop kicked off the job. He tried to regain his composure as he entered the courthouse that doubled as the police station. Tom knew he would have to pass through security and didn’t want to look crazy. No matter how hard he tried, nothing was hiding his beet red face.
He unloaded his keys and cell phone into a dish before he passed through the metal detector, thinking how something he forgot in his pocket would probably set off the beep. Luckily, that didn’t happen today.
He looked at the board that told him the police station was in the basement. Fitting, Tom thought. A shit cop who works underground just like the slime he is.
Tom walked down the stairs, passing two attorneys who looked like they were rushing to a courtroom on the second floor. The hallway had pieces of paper posted on the wall with arrows pointing to General Inquiries.
Tom opened the door and found a few people waiting for … who knew. One woman had an ice pack to her face as she was filling out a police report. Another guy covered in tattoos looked like he was ready to pass out. The officer in charge looked absolutely bored out of his mind.
“Can I help you?” the officer said. His nametag read Webber.
“Yeah, I need to file a police report,” Tom said. “And if you don’t mind, I’d like to talk to whoever’s in charge. It involves someone in the department.”
“The captain’s out for lunch,” Webber said staring down Tom.
“I’ll wait,” Tom said. He picked a chair in the corner, away from the other people in the room. He wanted to stay as far away as possible. He didn’t trust anyone here.
“You can’t sleep here,” Webber said.
Tom rubbed his eyes and looked at the clock hanging on the wall. It said 4 p.m. He must have dozed off, but he was surprised that he had been out that long. He had spent several minutes contemplating what he was going to say, but as he waited he started to get drowsy. What time had that been? 1? 2? Whatever the case, Tom had an ache in his arm from supporting his head for his nap.
“I’m sorry,” Tom said. “I’ve had an exhausting day and a lot of restless nights.”
“Still, you can’t sleep here. It’s a rule, and we’re getting close to closing time.”
“Did you ever inform the captain I wanted to speak with him?”
“I did, but he was too busy today to meet you.”
“With what? I told you this was urgent,” Tom said. He got out of his seat and walked to the window. “I didn’t just waste my day to get pushed around.”
“I don’t like your tone, sir. Why don’t you sit back down?” Webber said with a raised voice. Tom listened and went back to the corner. He felt like he was 5 years old and in time out.
“Now, listen here …” Webber said. “I’ll put in another note for the captain to give you a call when he has time. In the meantime, did you fill out the report?”
“I did,” Tom said.
“Good. Give it here and let me take a look at it,” Webber said.
Tom walked back up to the window and handed the cop the sheet of paper that detailed what had happened to his car and who he suspected of doing it. Webber glanced over it. His eyes stopped in the middle, then peered over the paper at Tom.
“You’re telling me Tandy did this to you,” the cop said. “Oh, that’s good. So, what makes you think he’s the perp?”
God, cop-speak, Tom thought. He hated it as much as he loathed the situation he was in. “I think he’s upset that I was hitting on his fiance.”
“Well, he’s very protective, but this doesn’t seem like him,” Webber said. “But we’ll look into it, and we’ll stay in touch.”
“Thanks,” Tom said as he turned and walked out the door. This is going nowhere, Tom thought. He walked toward the stairs and saw a tall, muscular figure walk down the stairs. He was dressed in a police uniform. It was Tandy.
“Ashton? What are you doing here?” he said.
“Oh, I think you might know. Someone broke into my car today,” Tom said scowling.
“Sorry to hear that. We’ll catch him,” Tandy said.
“No, you won’t. But I have faith someone will,” Tom said and walked up the stairs. Between the footsteps that echoed the stairwell, he heard someone snickering. He knew it had to be Tandy.
Tom walked out of the police station flustered. How could this be happening to me? he thought. I’m a guy who grew up in Louisville. I graduated summa cum laude from the University of Louisville. I work at a television station for Christ’s sake. I don’t get into shit like this!
But Tom’s thoughts didn’t change the situation. His car window was still shattered and that note was still in the front seat, like a taunt that was beckoning him to make the next move. Tom opened the car door, grabbed it, crumpled it and threw it out of the car.
He then grabbed the towel he left behind to sweep up the glass from the seat. One of the last things that Tom wanted to experience on the rest of this day was getting cut by glass. He swept the last bits out onto the street, stepped into the car and started the engine.
Tom glared at the police station as he drove the few feet to the light. Tom needed to make a right and turn around to go back home. Today, he didn’t. Tom drove straight. He needed time to think, and driving was just what he needed to do.
Tom’s cell phone rang. It had been hours, and he hadn’t stopped driving. In fact, he was miles away from home. He was driving west on I-64 and switched over to I-70 when he hit St. Louis. It was like something had possessed him to get away. He had never done anything like this before.
Tom let the phone ring twice before he picked it up. The next exit showed a town called Principle was coming up in about a mile. If he turned around now, he could make it home by 5 a.m. He wasn’t planning on it.
“Hello?” Tom asked.
“I’ve been watching you,” the voice said on the other end. Tom didn’t get a chance to look at the number before he picked up the phone. He glanced at it, and it said “UNKNOWN.” But the voice on the other end was familiar. It was the same guy who called him right before Tandy showed up at his door.
“Do me a favor and pull off into the next exit,” the voice said. “Make a right. You’ll find a truck stop. I’ll be inside reading a copy of the Post-Dispatch. We need to talk.”
The conversation stopped, and Tom heard that faint tone through the line. The cell phone read “CALL ENDED.” Tom looked up at the exit. Principle was now a half mile away. He knew he could listen to the voice and find out what was going on, but there was a part of Tom that told him to just turn around and go home.
The conflict tore at Tom as he went into the far right lane. He drifted over into the exit lane and stopped at the sign at the top of the overpass. Left would take him back to I-70 east. Right would take him to the unknown, but he might finally get to the bottom of this mystery.
“Time to take a chance,” Tom said out loud. He turned right.
The road didn’t have any light except for the faint sign in the distance that must have been the truck stop the caller mentioned.
He pulled into a parking stall next to the building and turned off the car. When he got out of the car, he looked around. No one was there, minus a few semis filling up. He turned around and saw the building. It was one of those combo convenience stores with a McDonald’s. He opened the door to go inside.
The harsh fluorescent lights bothered Tom’s eyes. He had been driving for too long.
The store was pretty bare compared to most highway convenience stores. He saw some magazines for sale, next to the snacks and soda. But on the other side, he could see the store turned into McDonald’s.
Tom crossed into the restaurant and saw a few people gobbling up their fries and burgers. But in the back corner, he could see a man in a St. Louis Cardinals ball cap. He was heavy set with a beard, probably in his 50s. He was wearing a jean jacket over a red shirt. He was sipping black coffee as he was reading the Post-Dispatch.
The man glanced from his newspaper, saw Tom, then went back to his reading. Is this the guy? Tom thought. I was picturing someone more intimidating.
Tom walked over to the man. “Tough year for the Cardinals. It’s a shame they didn’t make it to the World Series,” Tom said.
“Tell me about it,” the man said glancing up at Tom. His eyes were a light blue, sage-like even. He seemed like he knew so much about the world. But his voice was the opposite, a commanding bass that gave a vibe of untrust. “You must be Tom. Sit down.”
Tom listened and joined the man. They couldn’t have appeared more out of place.
“So, I’m sure you have a lot of questions. Shoot,” the man said.
“How’d you get my number?” Tom demanded.
“Well, I have friends in the right places.”
“That doesn’t answer my question,” Tom said back.
“It’s not really important,” the man interrupted. “What is important is that we handle your situation with care. The man you know as Tandy isn’t who you think he is.”
“You’re starting to sound a little weird,” Tom said.
“I assure you, I’m not,” the man said back to Tom. His eyes never glanced away. “Tandy is a former associate of mine. I sent him to Jeffersonville to keep our operations under wrap without interference.”
“Are you saying he’s a dirty cop?” Tom said.
“I’m saying he’s not doing what I sent him there to do,” the man said. “You see, Tandy has decided that he’s going to cut ties with the people who helped him.” The man paused. “I don’t appreciate that.”
“Well, what are you suggesting?” Tom asked.
“I’m not suggesting anything, but I am saying this situation needs to be taken care of. I think you’re the man to do it,” the man said. He leaned back, took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, in violation of the no-smoking sign on the wall next to them. The man took a puff. “You know, Tom. Some people are ungrateful to the ones who helped them achieve their dreams. They leave them, like an unwanted dog. That’s not fair, Tom. Everyone … I mean everyone should make sure they respect their friends and family. The ones who don’t … Sometimes, bad things happen to them. It’s necessary in this life. Some call it karma. I call it justice.”
“But you’re not telling me what I need to do,” Tom said.
“I don’t need to,” the man said. “You look like a smart, young boy. I’m sure you can figure it out.”
“You want me to kill him?” Tom whispered. His eyes were wide with surprise.
“Oh, you use such crude terms,” the man said with a sly smile. “I prefer the term ‘eliminate.’”
Tom’s mouth was half open as he was searching for the words. “I … I can’t do that.”
“I’m not asking you. I’m telling you,” the man said. “And my methods of enforcement are very convincing.”
“No,” Tom stammered. “I … I won’t do it. I mean, I’m not that guy. I’ve never even been in a fight.”
“It doesn’t matter,” the man said. He got up out of the seat and smashed his cigarette on the table. “Come with me. Let’s finish this.”
The man had given him instructions. He was to go to Tandy’s house tonight and wait until he was leaving for his shift the next morning. Once, he saw him leaving, Tom was to gun the pedal and hit him as hard as he could.
Tom didn’t feel like he had a choice in the matter. The man told him that the rewards would be great. Tom would be given anything he wanted: money, power, women. The consequences would be grave. The man said he had associates who would track Tom’s family down and kill them one by one. He said they’d start with his mother, cutting off her limbs while she was alive, then tossing her into a dumpster like the trash she was. Then, there was his 18-year-old sister, excited to finally graduate Manual High School. He said they’d have some fun with her before she died. Then, they’d douse her in gasoline and throw a match on her. As for Tom’s father, the man said he would storm his East End home, duct tape his mouth, tie him up and bury him alive past the Outer Loop. The man said that was just the beginning. They would also hurt anyone Tom ever loved.
Tom couldn’t live with that. He knew that if he was caught, he would be going to prison for several years. But to him, the instant death of one horrible cop was worth the lives of his family and friends. He couldn’t imagine the torture his family would endure if he didn’t go through with this demand.
The clock on the dashboard read 2:52 a.m. He was speeding on I-64 through Illinois. A sign on the highway said he would be crossing the Wabash River in a matter of minutes. Two hours from home, Tom thought as he crossed into Indiana.
Tom pulled onto Johnston Street. His mind was blank for the past two hours. He hadn’t really been thinking about much for most of the drive except for what he had to do. He had a new mission.
Tom glanced for the address. He was looking for 1621. The houses weren’t great in this part of Jeffersonville. They were small with little driveways. Most of the people who lived here parked their cars and trucks out in the street.
The numbers turned to 15. Tom suddenly felt a rush of adrenaline. He realized he would soon find Tandy’s home. In the distance, Tom thought he saw what he was looking for, a Jeffersonville police cruiser off the side of the road.
Tom pulled off to the side of the street a couple of houses down. The clock read 5:15 a.m. The man had said Tandy would start his shift at 6 a.m., and that Tandy always leaves his house at 5:40. Tom had 25 minutes to wait.
As he sat in his car, he could hear an owl hooting in the distance. The birds are always noisy at this time of the morning, Tom thought. That’s when a voice popped in his head. Stop what you’re doing. Are you crazy? You’re about to kill someone.
“But I have to do it,” Tom answered.
No, you don’t. I will keep you from harm. Just do as I say.
“No!” Tom shouted. “You can’t help me now. I have to do this.”
Brandon Tandy’s alarm clock woke him up at 5 a.m. It was another early shift for his job, but he loved it. And he loved the woman who was sleeping next to him. Vanessa looked so sweet as she laid there with her bare back exposed.
They made love the night before, and it was one of those times where they felt so connected. Nothing else mattered except the passion they were feeling at the moment.
Brandon kissed her neck softly. “I love you,” he said. Brandon got up and put on his uniform. He had to make sure it was perfect before he headed into work. You have to be the model of society … an upstanding citizen when you’re an officer of the law, he thought.
He went downstairs. The clock on the microwave read 5:30. It was still dark outside. He hated this time of the year. The sun rose late, and it set early.
He grabbed a banana from the kitchen counter and devoured it. He was still hungry, but he’d probably stop at Sonic or something while he was on patrol. A breakfast sandwich sounded so good right now.
He turned on the television. He caught the last bit of news on the TV. A reporter was talking about growing meth production in the area. Brandon had had his suspicions on that guy named Ashton. There was just something about him that bugged him. He was a little off. Vanessa had admitted that she was a little creeped out by him, too. She said he seemed nice at first, but now he was constantly barraging her with Facebook messages that didn’t make any sense.
And there was that look about him that something wasn’t right. Ashton was ghastly thin. And his appearance was disheveled when he went to go visit him over the weekend. Then, there was the snide comment he made when they met at the police station. The guy was clearly on something … And he needed to make sure that he was locked up. Well, he probably needed help, but Brandon didn’t trust the guy.
The clock read 5:39. Time to go to work, Brandon thought. He walked out the front door and saw his police cruiser in the street. He shut the door behind him and walked toward the driver’s side of the car. Brandon heard a car engine roar, but he never saw the headlights coming.
The impact was loud. A thunk! Tandy’s body rolled on top of the hood and cracked the windshield. His face was the perfect combination of shock and pain. Tandy’s eyes focused on Tom’s.
“I got you now you dirty cop,” Tom said before letting out a sinister laugh.
Tom floored the pedal. The Jetta’s speed climbed to 40 as it drove down an unlit Johnston Street. Tom could see that Tandy was slipping out of consciousness, if he hadn’t already. Tom saw that he was nearing a T-intersection with a stop sign. Perfect, he thought. He slowed down to about 30, then made a hard left onto Richard Ave.
The momentum of the turn threw Tandy into the street. Tom looked behind him to make sure that by some stroke of miracle the cop wasn’t getting back up. He wasn’t. Good. Time to finish this job, Tom thought.
He shifted the car into reverse, backed into a driveway, then banked left. Tom could see the body lying on the ground, motionless. Even in the bright headlights, Tom could see the cop’s uniform was spattered with blood. Tom pushed the accelerator again, and lined up his car so that the tire would hit the part that would most certainly finish him off: Tandy’s head.
Eddie Green heard the crash outside his window.
“What the hell was that?” the 67-year-old husky man said as he got out of bed. His wife Dorothy had also heard the crash. The plump woman in her 50s was sitting straight up in her pink cotton nightgown.
“That sounded like a train wreck,” Dorothy said.
“I know. Damn kids,” Eddie said as he made his way to the window. He split the blinds to see a car speeding down the street. It looked like someone was on top of the hood of the car.
“I can’t believe this,” he said. “Dorothy call the police. I think there’s a man on top of this car.”
Dorothy grabbed the phone next to the bed. Eddie could hear her talking to the 911 operator as he watched what happened next. The car made a hard turn onto Richard, throwing the man’s body to the ground. Is that a cop? Eddie thought.
He rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn’t imagining things. No, that was a cop alright. He was bleeding right in the middle of the street and not moving.
Eddie ran outside his front door to help him. He hadn’t been in this type of action since he was sent to Vietnam. That was a different time then. He had killed a man, a Viet Cong. His squadron was traveling through the jungle to go back to base. That’s when a group of men opened fire on the soldiers.
Eddie hit the ground as fast as he could. He glanced left. Meyers was hit in the chest. He would be a goner in a few minutes. Randall was also hit, but it looked like the bullet only grazed his leg.
Muscle memory kicked into Eddie’s brain at this point. He pointed his M3 into the trees and fired. He heard a scream. He knew he got one of the bastards. His squadron also followed his lead. The two sides exchanged rounds for what seemed like hours, but in reality it would only be 20 seconds. Eddie lost four friends that day, and when he went to go search for the people who shot at him, he found a pile of bodies. Only one man was alive and breathing.
Eddie felt hatred pulse through his veins. He pointed his gun to the head of the man, when he realized just how old this shooter was. He was just a kid, 20 years old tops. But emotion won that day.
“So long, Fucker,” Eddie said and pulled the trigger. The man’s chest expanded one last time before it collapsed, never to move on its own again.
As Eddie ran to the cop’s body, he thought it was unusual how a memory like that can return in just an instant. He wasn’t 25 anymore. He was an old man, but he could still help someone in need.
He kneeled down. “My wife’s calling for help. Are you hurt?”
Car tires squealed in the distance and headlights pointed in their direction.
“Watch out,” the cop said to Eddie.
Eddie glanced to his right. He saw the headlights getting closer, and he had no more time to think. With an adrenaline surge, he dragged the cop’s body into his driveway. Eddie watched as the car veered toward their direction, almost as if the driver was planning on killing them both. Then as if a miracle from God, the car turned to the other direction. It’s speed was too fast. The driver swerved, turning the car into something like an out-of-control top.
The car’s momentum sent it into a driveway and into the garage of the Van der Hoffs’ home. The car door opened, and a young man tried to get away. He was so frail looking. He staggered before he could finally get the balance to leave his wrecked car.
“Oh no you don’t,” Eddie said, and he ran to face the driver.
Tom was in a lot of pain. He would have bruises tomorrow, but at least his legs still worked.
That fucking old man had to get in my way, Tom thought. You’re not the one I’m after. Why didn’t you just stay inside.
But Tom knew that he was done. He didn’t have a weapon to finish the job and kill Tandy. He was also sure that if someone hadn’t called the police by now, they would soon be. He needed to get away.
“Oh, no you don’t,” an old man screamed from across the street. Tom saw 200 pounds of antiquated human muscle heading in his direction. This guy probably hasn’t run in years, but he’s still built like he was a marine or something.
Tom tried to move, but his legs buckled and he collapsed on the ground. Seconds later, he felt the old man on top of him. The man restrained his arms.
“You’re not getting away, now,” the man said.
Tom looked up to the sky. He knew he may be able to summon some strength to get away. He tried to push the man off his skinny frame. He thought he got a budge and might have gotten free. That’s when Tom heard the sirens. Now, he knew it was hopeless. Tom laid there in a stranger’s driveway waiting for whatever fate had in store for him.
“How you feeling, sweetheart?” Vanessa said to her fiance lying in the hospital bed.
“I’ve been better,” Brandon said. He had spent the past 12 hours in this place. He didn’t remember anything that happened. He was told that the creep Ashton hit him with his car. They caught the guy, but Brandon would be on a desk job for the next six weeks as his broken leg healed.
“Well, when you get home, I’ll take care of you. OK?” she said as she squeezed his hand tightly.
Brandon squeezed back. It felt good. It was nice to have comfort, and for a little bit, the pain running up and down his leg didn’t bother him. He just looked into the eyes of his fiance.
“I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too,” Vanessa said back before she started tearing up. “I’m just so glad you’re OK.”
She never left his side for the rest of the day.
Rob got the phone call at work.
“You have a collect phone call from … Tom Ashton … Will you accept the charges?”
He sighed. Out of all of his friends, he had a feeling Tom would be the one to get in trouble first. It was probably DUI. He’d be out a couple grand, but he would live through it. I hope he listened to that advice I gave him, he thought.
“Yes. I accept,” Rob said.
There was a click as he heard the call being transferred. “Hello?” Rob said.
“Hey man,” a hurried voice said on the other end. It sounded like Tom, but somehow he didn’t seem like himself.
“Look, you got to get me out of here,” Tom said. “There’s this guy after me. He told me that I had to kill that cop.”
“What are you talking about?” Rob said.
“They’re charging me with attempted murder,” Tom said.
“You’ve got to be kidding me. Why would you … OK. I’m going to talk to John. We’ll see what we can do to get you out of there. How much is bail?”
“250-thousand dollars,” Tom answered.
“Jesus. I don’t have that kind of money. What about your family?”
“Mom doesn’t have it. So, what are you saying, man? Am I stuck here?”
“It sounds like it. Look, we’ll get it worked out. Just …” Rob hesitated. What does a person say at a time like this? he thought. “Just hang tight.”
The trip to jail was one of the most awkward Rob ever felt in his life, but it was nothing compared to the state of his friend when he visited him in the Clark County Jail. It had been a few hours since he got the collect phone call. That would mean Tom had been in jail for at least 13 hours.
Rob entered the building, where an officer showed him to the room where inmates get to talk to family and friends. The glass wall divider and the phones stunned him. He knew his friend was in trouble, but it was at this moment he realized that these barriers would be with him for a great deal of time.
A door opened on the other side of the glass wall, and there Tom was … in an orange jump suit … over his Vans. Tom’s face was filled with cuts and bruises. But that wasn’t all. He looked like he hadn’t gotten any sleep in days. The black spots under his eyes made him look like a raccoon. His normally, spiky, wavy hair was tussled, like he had rolled around in his bed for hours. Rob knew that wasn’t the case. He knew inmates only had a green cot with an itchy wool blanket.
Rob grabbed the phone and smiled at his friend through the window. “How’s it going?”
“Not good,” Tom said. “I think they’re after me.”
“Who is?” Rob said concerned. Something definitely wasn’t right, he thought.
“Those guys I was telling you about on the phone. The man I met outside St. Louis,” Tom said.
“You never told me you went to St. Louis. What were you doing there?”
“Getting away … But listen. That’s not important. What is important is that I need to leave the country? I need to help my family. They’re in danger. Please, please, please, Rob. You got to get them and me out of here.”
“I can’t. I told you; the bond’s too high. And you won’t be able to leave the county, let alone your house if you get out.”
“No. There’s got to be something you can do,” Tom said. “Help me, please!” His words rang through the window so clear that he didn’t need the phone to hear them.
He saw a cop come to the window like he was about to take Tom away. Rob couldn’t hear what the cop said, but he heard what Tom said: “No! He’s out to get me! Please let me go officer.”
The cop pulled out a taser and fired. Tom fell to the floor, convulsing as the electricity pulsed through his body. He saw another cop help Tom to his feet and carried him back to his cell.
Rob couldn’t believe what he just witnessed. The buddy he knew as the astute reporter, the guy who always made nights out fun, the man who probably would have been the best man at his wedding, was gone. All that was left was a crazy man. How did this happen? Rob thought as he got out of his seat.
He looked back one more time at the window before he put on his coat. Tears were in his eyes.