Blaine steered his battered blue pickup down the two-lane street, his vehicle bumping over its potholes. He glanced in his sideview mirror. Did anyone see him and Ricky over in the Castle Bridge neighborhood breaking into that rich dude’s mansion? Did anyone jot down his pickup’s license plate number and call the cops? If so, the cops could probably trace his address from it. Maybe he and Ricky should’ve swiped some patsy’s truck first, one with a license plate from a neighboring state—Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee. Then use it instead.
He approached the next block. On its corner, two sago palms framed his neighborhood’s large wooden sign, “Friendly Pines,” its words etched in bold black letters. Yeah. Friendly me. Smirking, Blaine brushed his big knuckles along his thick mustache. His foot eased off the gas pedal. His vehicle slowed toward his single-story red brick house, a rental, on the next block. A squirrel scampered clear of his wheels.
Two weeks ago, his boss fired him from his locksmith job while his gambling debts piled higher than bricks in a brickyard. His landlord threatened to toss him out on the street if he didn’t pay his overdue rent by the end of next week. Other creditors besieged him. As for Ricky, whom he’d befriended at the blackjack table in the local casino, he already possessed a criminal record and was a frequent occupant of Alabama’s jails. What they did here in was just another “job” for him.
Blaine turned onto his ankle-high Bermuda grass and parked behind a long wooden shed that abutted his house and carport. Didn’t need nosey neighbors spying on him and Ricky. “Let’s hurry.” Blaine scrambled out of his vehicle into the crisp fall air.
“I’ll be a-movin’, Blaine.” Ricky spoke this from the passenger’s side. He shoved open his door, got down, and strode to the rear of the truck. He dropped its tailgate then sprang onto its bed. Wiry of build, he moved quickly, as agile as a cat.
Before Blaine joined him, he frowned at his littered, sorry excuse of a street. Three cars motored along it at tortoise speed. If only he didn’t love gambling, the lights and action inside the casino, the clatter of dice, the dinging of slot machines, the quiet shuffling of cards, the thrill all games of chance fed him…if only he didn’t love gambling, he wouldn’t be in this predicament nor would he be living here. Nicer neighborhood, nicer home, a wife and a dog and maybe a cat. All the locksmiths he knew lived better than him. Though they didn’t wallow in dough like the rich snob he’d burgled, they at least enjoyed comfortable middle-class lifestyles.
“Any of them coppers comin’?” Ricky hefted a square safe onto a red dolly. Sweat puddled his black muscle shirt.
“I haven’t seen any yet,” Blaine said. “You did a good job disarming that rich dude’s alarm.”
“I got lotsa talent doin’ that sorta thin’.” Ricky flashed a gap-toothed grin and wheeled the safe along the truck bed, up to him. “Gimme some hep with this, will ya’?”
His muscular arms folded around it, Blaine grunted and groaned and hefted the safe off the dolly. A sudden breeze swatted his cheeks. He bent his knees, lowering it onto the ground. “Whew! Wheel it to my back door.”
“I’m a-doin’ it.”
While Blaine followed Ricky to his back porch, he glimpsed a muddy pickup creeping past his house. Its front bumper held a winch. It also had a broken taillight and, judging from its Alabama license plate, it was from around here. Blaine stopped and studied it closer. Kind of familiar-looking. Deer season was several weeks away. Probably a deer hunter on his way to pick up a friend or something. The truck turned a corner.
Blaine brushed aside a spider web hanging off his shed’s roof before he joined Ricky at his back door. He fumbled the keys out of his pocket and unlocked it. After wheeling the safe down a short hall, Ricky turned into the curtained bedroom. Blaine followed.
Dust balls danced in the room’s grayness. Blaine snorted and cursed his nose’s stuffiness. In his matchbox kitchen, a refrigerator hummed. Its ice maker kicked ice into the ice tray. He switched on his light and rubbed his palms together. “Ah! Now we’ll see what Mister High and Mighty has in this iron box.”
“Betcha it’s diamonds or pearls.”
“Are you kidding? I’m counting on cash. Thousands of hundreds. Pay off all my debts. Yeah!” Blaine plopped down on his beer-stained carpet and put his ear to the dial. He turned it one number at a time. “Okay, box. I’ll figure out your combination if it takes me till the earth stops spinning. Ricky, go check the street.”
Ricky went to the window and peeked between the taupe drapes
“See anything suspicious?”
“Ain’t nary a body in sight. You know if we go get ourselves collared and cuffed, they’ll be throwin’ the book at us.”
“That’s not a new experience for you. Now keep quiet. I’ve got to work on this lock.”
“I’m a-keepin’ quiet.”
Some fifteen minutes later Blaine stood, folded his arms, and sighed. The safe seemed to mock him, its black combination lock and white numbers almost laughing out the words: “You lose, locksmith! Try again!”
Ham fists behind his back, he paced back and forth. A light bulb overhead clicked out. His room dimmed. Only one bulb worked now. He stopped, whirled back toward the box, and growled. There had to be a way to break into that thing. Live out of his truck for the rest of his years? Panhandle forever? No. Never. “Go get me a beer out of the fridge, Ricky.”
“Can’t get inside it?”
“No, I can’t!” The angry words launched off his tongue. Then he cleared his throat. “Uh, maybe a cold beer will help me think.”
“Can I get me one, too?”
Blaine smiled. A drill. Yes. That’s it! He’d get his drill out of his shed and drill a hole in it.
“Hey. Lookee here.” Ricky, still peering through the parted drapes, gestured Blaine forward.
When Blaine looked out the window, his eyes narrowed. That muddy pickup with the broken taillight…It pulled over and parked across the street. The driver, a hulking square-shouldered man dressed in hunting camouflage and boots, got out of the vehicle. Then he reached inside his truck’s cab and grabbed a shotgun. A twelve gauge? Double-barreled?
Blaine jerked away from the window. Though he was muscular and tall, five feet eleven inches, the hunter towered over him like a Goliath. “He’s coming at us.”
“Go fetch your pistol.” Ricky also withdrew from the drapes.
“It’s in your truck,” Blaine said.
“Yeah.” Blaine’s fist smacked his palm. “We don’t stand got a chance against that guy’s gun. Let’s get out of this place.
“We ain’t gonna make it. Truck’s low on gas you said on the way here.
“Yeah.” Blaine clutched his head. “I forgot.”
The man pounded Blaine’s paneled front door.
Clearing his throat and forcing steadiness into his knees, suddenly turned to jelly, Blaine led his friend to it. “Who’s there?”
“Open up,” the baritone voice boomed.
“Because if you don’t, I’ll blast a load of buckshot through your door and your body.”
Blaine winced when the man cocked his gun. He reached for the doorknob, then hesitated. “What’d you want, Mister?”
“You’ve got something belonging to me. Open up.”
“You’re on my property. Get off it.”
A chortle outside. “All right. I know a good taxidermist who’ll do a nice job with your heads.”
Blaine cracked open the door, just a sliver, thanks to its chain lock. He studied the double-barreled shotgun. His tongue tasted like sandpaper.
“If you don’t let me inside, I’ll shoot both of you where you stand.”
Stomach in his throat, Blaine stammered. “I’ve got a chain lock on this door. I’ll have to close it first to unlock it.”
“No.” Blaine shut the door, glanced at owl-eyed Ricky, steadied his hand. Out of its casing came the chain. He opened the door.
His shotgun aimed at them, the man ducked beneath the doorway and swaggered into the house. He continued speaking, his tone as icy as deer season’s winter. “You broke into my house a half hour ago, disarmed my alarm.”
“How’d you know?” Blaine eyed the man’s thick forefinger, slipping around one of his gun’s two triggers.
“I didn’t hear it go off when I saw you two back out of my driveway onto my street. So naturally, I assumed one of you did it.”
“You’re the rich dude?”
Thin lips tight, the man nodded. “Coming back home from my hunting camp when I saw you hefting my safe onto your truck.” He shrugged. “I decided I’d follow you to see where you’d take it.”
Blaine raised his palms defensively. “L-Look, Mister, all we stole was your safe.”
“And we ain’t even figgered out the combination yet,” Ricky said.
“You can have it back,” Blaine said. “H-Honest.”
The man pointed his gun at their chests. “Lead me to it. I’ll help you open it.”
Blaine and Ricky swapped worried glances.
“Do it,” the man said, “else I’m liable to blow your brains out, process you two like a couple of eight-point bucks, and eat your hearts for supper.” He licked his lips, reminding Blaine of a cannibal about to roast them on a spit. “Then I’ll take your heads to my taxidermist so I can mount y’all on my wall.”
Blaine and Ricky fled to the bedroom where sat the safe, the man at their heels. He positioned himself behind them and called out the combination.
Blaine’s hand fumbled and stumbled through the lock’s numbers. “Two left, ten right, four—”
The gun’s cold muzzle pressured his neck. “Those are the wrong numbers. Let me repeat them again…slowly.” The man did.
And again Blaine, his brain scrambling through a haze, fumbled and stumbled on each number without success.
“What’s the matter?” the man said, snarling. “You never watched Sesame Street before?”
“You ain’t got no right insultin’ him!” Ricky snapped.
“It’s my box,” the man said. “I’ll insult whomever I like.”
Again Ricky felt his cold muzzle, this time against his spine.
“Now then,” the man said. “Let’s try it once more.”
On the third attempt, his mind calmed a little, Blaine got the combination right.
“Now open it,” the man said.
Blaine did so. “What the…?” A book, a fat black book, inside the safe. He lowered his head to peek deeper inside it. A book, only a…. “Where’s the–?”
“Money?” The man chortled. “Get that book out.”
While Ricky looked past the man’s arm, Blaine obeyed.
“My great-uncle’s diary from World War One,” the man said. “He won the Medal of Honor fighting in the Argonne Forest. I can’t afford to lose his memories.”
Mouths agape, Blaine and Ricky stared at him.
A siren blared till its car squealed to a stop outside.
“You two are under arrest,” the man said.
Blaine scrambled to his feet. “You can’t arrest us.”
“That so?” The man’s bushy brown brows arched high. “I’m not only a real estate developer. I’m also a reserve police officer. My backup, the arresting officer, has arrived.” He marched them to the opened front door.
“Your house is fine, Reid,” the police officer said. “Your neighbor met me out front and said you called him on your cell.”
Reid shoved Blaine and Ricky toward the uniformed cop.
After the uniform read them their rights, he handcuffed them.
Reid laughed. “Oh, you two. One more thing. My shotgun wasn’t loaded.”
Blaine’s face burned. He kicked a beer can off his front porch. “A book. All you had in it was a stupid book and dumb memories!”