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Owen Cecil

RACK HARD

QUARTERLY EXPENDITURES AND WRITE-OFF

Medium caliber rifle, head shot: B. Somers
.357 mag HP, untallied upper and lower torso hits: L. Creighton
0000 buckshot, shredded and unsorted residue: D. Lockwood
Unaccounted for: H. Johnson

CARRY OVER:

Much as I hoped my involvement ended the night they bagged out that sorry greaser's remains, I understood the ledger in Meat's world might balance if left open long enough. Therefore, with vague misgivings about the unorthodox bookkeeping methods, I acknowledged Carla's grief by joining her in the Udell Hills one dank November morning. The C-O said she needed "closure." I could hardly disagree. Two of her former associates occupied the write-off column, and, as any numbercruncher will affirm, data entry is a never-ending process. Dark clouds scudded across the wooded ridges as we made our way along the trail.

"Then you knew all along, didn't you?" she asked.

"No."

"How did you find out who he was?"

I told her about the yearbook photograph. "You were more of a puzzle than him." She frowned, but I saw no sense in explaining my inquiry with the East Lake mailcarrier. Perusal of county records, just days before the madman called with his aftermarket K-bar, had confirmed my suspicion about her connection to the bag. What I didn't know was why Dennis Lockwood murdered Bobby Somers.

The news didn't surprise her. "I know Bobby was living with Dennis's younger sister. After she got pregnant, Bobby started messing around with young girls. The police arrested Dennis."

We made the fork in the trail and turned up the logging road toward the spot where I had seen Meat sitting in the woods, six weeks before. How could I have known the chance meeting with a walking cadaver would suck me into a backwoods vendetta? The same groaning trees, misty swamps, and sinister hills that lingered unmercifully on my bedroom walls now played before me like revolving mirrors. Was it simply deja vu?

"Why did they arrest him?"

"Dennis's sister borrowed her brother's truck a lot. Bobby was driving it when he and another guy assaulted a young girl in Manistee."

Or possibly rendezvous? I had no proof Harry was dead, and less assurance a Lockwood brother didn't intend to resurrect the vendetta, Visiting the outskirts of dirtbag culture fosters dirtbag thinking, and I half-suspected the bearded cur who slinked away from the parking area could be a new player.

"Dennis hated him anyhow because he kicked his sister around a lot. Then I heard the sheriff took Dennis in for questioning about a Kaleva murder . . ."

Black facial hair - greasy in the main - shadowed the entire ugly ordeal. Movement in an alder thicket to our right failed to reappear above my gunbarrel. Rising ground vapors eventually cleared to reveal a fluttering garbage bag caught in tree branches.

". . . - the guy Bobby worked with who threatened to talk about what they were doing to Uncle Harry. Maybe Dennis thought Bobby was trying to set him up in that too." (Leroy "The Sieve" found passage in a shallow pit at the far end of an overgrown horse pasture.)

He was on top of a low, steep-sided ridge, an erosional remnant of sand deposited 13,000 years ago during the Mankato glacial advance. I looked around, thumbing the knurled hammer and wishing I had removed the magazine plug. An old clear cut, now regenerated in young aspen, made foot travel difficult. Even with foliage down, visibility didn't exceed fifteen paces. On elbows and stomach struck me as the best assault, but we took the ridge her way: straight ahead, standing up, as if we owned the entire National Forest.

My aversion to celebrations with the dead wasn't helping digestive matters. I shifted uneasily, hoping the sphincter would pass its burden back to an upstream organ. "How did you get him up here?" Yellow leaves now covered the spot where she had buried Harry "Meat" Johnson.

"This is where he died, with the rifle I gave you."

Only yards away a deer run of interstate proportions stood engraved into the earth by generations of whitetails passing between eastern swamps and oak hills to the west. The clean bore of his rifle told me Harry never fired a shot on his last afternoon: he was too tired and eaten away inside by the harassment and running and worrying and not having anyone to care about him except a niece he had rescued from abusive parents decades ago. In the final gasp, Lockwood and Somers couldn't find him, and Meat checked out solo. Carla became a far easier target and I, the fatherly refuge.

She vanished into the bush - a rerun, I feared, of shuffled identities and hardball gutter play. Three deafening blasts and crimson carnage would haunt the killer to his grave, much like Somers' coyote-scavenged body that I found beside a haystack, ragged goatee still intact. Now the engraved words on a dog-eared card she gave me after the coroner left came drifting back in fragments. "All the miseries and evils which men suffer from vice, crime . . . despising . . . Bible - Noah Webster."

When she returned she was carrying a rusty D-handle shovel. From a coat pocket she took a small package wrapped in opaque plastic, then buried it over Harry's grave and bowed her head. The sound of a snapped branch in that dismal Pleistocene morgue would have finished me off, but in its hurried and unplanned passage even my intestinal gas escaped in silence.

So much remained unsaid. The state trooper summed up best as he surveyed my premises the night Lockwood tried to avenge his ex-wife's friendship with an innocent CPA. "Those old Winchester 97's rack hard, don't they?"

Come to think of it, Grandfather lectured on that very subject, back in '58 when we shot Blue Rock behind the Ivesdale cemetery on Sunday afternoons


Owen lives in Oscoda, Michigan where he works as a freelance writer. Rack Hard is one of his first attempts at fiction. The piece started out as a novel, then got more lively in short form.

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