This is chapter 3 of St. Clair, though it is actually the fourth installment. It is in Lesbian because that is where the story started with “Soldier Girl.” I strongly recommend reading the other three first. I am working on next installment and plan on having it out in couple weeks. Readers of this series have been incredibly patient and I appreciate it. These are much harder to write than my usual fare. The subject matter of this story is decidedly dark and very heavy, even by my standards: PTSD, Survivor Guilt, TBI. You have been warned. There is no graphic sex in this story line, and it certainly wouldn’t fit in this one anyway. Special thanks to sbrooks103x for editing and beta reading, and to jezzaz and blackrandi for giving a beta read. Any remaining errors are entirely mine - probably added after their assistance. And thanks again to everyone for the encouragement and support.
“Hotel California” softly whispered around her. It had always been a favorite, even before she’d become lost. She knew it was reaching out, calling in the darkness.
She extended one tattoo covered hand out and tapped the music down just a hair. Had to get the sounds balanced, layered just right. The music. The engine. The sound of the rig’s tires humming on the road. It had to be perfect.
She’d planned on trading in the old Kenworth for a new rig, but when she tested the new one, she couldn’t hear anything. The sound proofing in the new Kenworth was simply amazing. She’d cut her test drive short, practically sprinting away from the confused “Sales Representative,” her suddenly-jittery, screaming, nerves firing like electric shocks until she was miles away, the humming tires and growling engine lulling them back to rest.
Nights like this were perfect. As alone as it was possible to get. Cocooned in her steel shell, protected from the world. The soft, hypnotic song of the truck weaving with the sounds of her precious music, pushing thought, pushing herself, pushing everything away into the blissful dark distance.
She couldn’t bring herself to deal with the only discordant note. A stained, faded, crumpled piece of paper on the console that kept nipping at her thoughts. She resolved to throw it away again, for the hundredth, maybe thousandth time. Even though she knew she couldn’t.
“What’d TJ do to get stuck with shit detail?” Swede watched as TJ pulled the Beast out of the parking lot and headed south.
Shannon watch after her for a second. “What shit detail?”
“Looking in on Luther. Old bastard is mean as hell.”
“Somebody has to do it and she’s the only one that never bitches about it. Asked if she minded doing it, she said it was fine.”
Swede shook his head. “Must be a glutton for punishment.”
TJ pulled the Beast partway up the rock and dirt drive in front of the faded little wood cabin, then shut her down. Mae was sitting in her usual chair on the front porch, shelling beans into a pot, barely bothering to look up at TJ.
“He’s around the side, Deputy.”
“Has he been behaving?”
“No wors’nt than usual. Ornery cuss, but he’s stayin’ mostly out of trouble.” She went right back to concentrating on her beans.
TJ smiled. Mae’s surly attitude toward Luther meant everything was right in the universe. If she’d have sounded worried at all, TJ’d have been calling for either back up or an ambulance.
Around the corner of the forest-sheltered cabin, TJ found Luther pulling a last chunk of firewood from the back of his battered old pick-up truck. He tossed it expertly onto a pile and turned toward her as she stepped carefully over the giant sleeping mountain of black fur that was snoring loudly in the middle of the dirt path between the cabin and the outhouse.
He brushed his fingers through his long, tangled grey beard as best he could. “Morning, Sarn’t”
“Morning, Luther.” TJ glanced back at the enormous dog. “Does he ever move?”
“He must. Something’s eating all that damn food I set out for him. Thought he died last week, but he just had himself a gassy spell.”
TJ winced. “Glad I missed that.”
He turned around, shifted the old roofing hatchet he always kept tucked through his belt, and pulled himself up to sit on the tail gate. “Just finished aging a run yesterday.”
TJ pulled herself to sit on the other side of the tailgate. “That so?”
He looked at her slyly from under his bushy eyebrows while he dragged an old milk crate out from behind him and slid it between them. “It is. Tried some pecan char in this one.”
He pulled two not-terribly-clean coffee mugs out of the crate, handing her one, then he fished a mason jar full of a brownish liquid out and held it up to the light.
“Looks a little doubtful, Luther.”
He grinned showing a panorama of missing teeth. “It does, Sarn’t, but somebody has to try it.”
She held her mug out while he filled it halfway and waited for him to fill his.
They each sipped a bit of the moonshine.
“Smoother than it looks. Strong flavor though.”
“Maybe I need to cut back on aging it a bit. I’ll mix a little more ‘raw’ into this and it’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, I think that’d work. Beats all hell out of that vanilla and orange peel shit.”
Luther looked down at his feet. “Don’t wanna talk about that. Mortifyin’, that’s what that was. Mae loves the shit though.”
TJ shuddered. “Good Lord.”
They sat for a minute looking into the trees, watching leaves rustle a bit in the light breeze, sipping quietly.
“Everything going good with you, Sarn’t? I worry some, what with you hangin’ out with jarheads and chicken chokers.”
TJ stifled a chuckle at the crude references to Shannon’s Marine Corps service and especially the 101st Air Assault Division that Swede had been with when he was in. Luther just couldn’t get past that.
“Swede was young, he needed the money.” She paused. “We all make mistakes.”
“Nobody’s that desperate. He always was a damn good lookin’ boy. Could always have turned tricks at a truck stop. More respectable.”
TJ shook her head. Luther got along fine with the Vietnamese couple in town, but Swede had obviously done the unforgiveable. “We should be a little more accepting of our lesser brethren, Luther. Even if they associate with rotor heads.”
“Ain’t happenin.” He took another sip. “I hear you gotta start attendin’ some board meetings.”
“Yeah, kinda strange. I guess the board wanted somebody from the Department at the meetings. I figured Shannon would do it, but he said something about them asking for me.”
“Shannon’s been making noise about retiring for a while. I hear Harlan brought your name up, thinks you ought to attend some meetings, see if you would work as Sheriff someday. Shocked the pure hell out of some of the church-goin’ members, but they kept their mouths shut.”
“Harlan?” TJ tried to hide her own shock.
“Yep. Said how you dealt with that Angie stuff showed how you handled pressure.”
“Tammi took her down, not me.”
“But you figured it out, got everyone away from the river. ‘Sides, everyone knows you ‘n Tammi are a package deal. He also said something about knowing you had discretion and empathy.”
“How’d you hear all this?”
“Mae goes and sits in when they have their meetings. Says it’s her ‘civic duty.’ I think it really just gives her an excuse to dress up some once in a while. Even buys herself hats to wear at the meetings.”
“Harlan.” TJ mused, more to herself than to Luther.
“Yeah. He seems a little stiff necked most of the time, but he’s just trying to live down his blood, ya know.”
“You know that song ‘Long Line of Losers?’ That’s his family. Drunks, losers, not even very smart ones. His older brother’s in the state penitentiary, armed robbery of a gas station. Didn’t even get any damn money. His grandfather died in prison. His Dad drunk himself to death, ‘bout 45 years old. His mom ran off with a trucker when Harlan was fifteen. Boy thought he was cursed. Thought if he did one bad thing, he’d fall into the same hole. Started hitting church every day, didn’t date, didn’t drink, didn’t do anything. He coulda turned into a real self-righteous prick. Ellie’s the best damn thing coulda happened to him.”
“They seem good together.”
“She was a wild one, couldn’t make a right decision till she’d tried all the bad ideas first. She needed him just like he needed her.” He swirled the moonshine in the bottom of his cup. “Sorta like you and Tammi. You two doing good?”
“Yeah, getting everything ready for the baby. Angie’s getting close.” She heard her own voice crack a little, and looked away to hide it, embarrassed. Having kids was something she’d always tried not to think about, something she’d never thought she’d get.
Luther pretended he hadn’t noticed. “That’ll be a big change, but you two can handle it.”
TJ didn’t say anything, suddenly not sure she could keep her voice even. Luther kept on.
“You still steady?”
“Yeah. I don’t know what I’d be without Tammi. Sometimes I don’t even know how she puts up with me.”
“Same with Mae, when I get to rememberin’ she ends up dousing me off with a bucket of cold water and haulin’ my ass inside to throw me on the couch. Gives me hell for weeks.”
Luther, not too surprisingly, drank a bit when it got bad. A little different than TJ who retreated into herself; before Tammi was around to push her, she’d gone silent for days, even weeks. Maybe it was better than drinking, maybe not.
Decades before TJ lost her squad in Iraq, somewhere near Pleiku Vietnam, right after coming in from patrol, Corporal Luther McCabe, 82nd Airborne, 22 years old, had knelt to re-tie a boot. That meant he was the only one from his squad that was below the razored fan of chest-high shrapnel that sliced out from a single harassing 81mm mortar round detonating right at the top of a bunker entrance. He’d come home just in time to find his brother had been shot by a federal agent and his mom killed in an ensuing fire.
Without Mae, he’d have been just another alcoholic, probably be dead already. Without Tammi, she’d have been just another ghost.
TJ swirled the last of the pecan char moonshine in her mug, watching it spin for a second, then downed it while Luther followed suit. She placed the mug back in the old faded milk crate, straightened up, and sighed. “You know I gotta ask.”
“Just doin’ your job, Deputy.”
“Do you have any information on the whereabouts of one Kevin Cooper, from the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms?”
Luther looked contemplatively at the ground. “No, Deputy, can’t say where that particular snake might have gotten himself to. Most likely in a world of shit.”
TJ nodded. “I’ll put that in my report.”
“You do that, Deputy.”
TJ pulled herself off, the tailgate, official duty done. “You keep yourself outta trouble, Airborne.”
She pushed the “next” on the player three, then four times. Until the mournful beginning of “Turn the Page” came up. It was unsettling, but she couldn’t make herself push the button again to end it. Maybe there was somebody out who could hear it, hear her. Maybe. She didn’t really think about that.
She was just past Phoenix before she knew what was going to happen. She wanted to turn off; turn north or south, anywhere but where the highway was taking her. But the Kenworth had its head, it refused to turn off, to look for another way. She struggled with it, fighting the obstinate, bullheaded machine for stealing her solace. She knew, even though there were hundreds of miles to go, she knew it wouldn’t be budged from its goal.
There was almost trouble at a truck stop after she fueled up and ate. Two men followed her out of the restaurant, pacing behind her through the dark lot as she walked to her rig. They were trying to be stealthy. As if she couldn’t notice. As if every movement of everything, everyone, didn’t constantly scream for her attention in shrill hate-filled voices. They followed her out, walking as silently as they could.
She popped the door open and pulled the three-foot lead-weighted “tire thumper” out in a single smooth motion, while tossing her crushed woven cowboy hat into the cab as she turned to face them.
They both stopped and stared at her. She didn’t say anything, just stared through them as if they weren’t both bigger and stronger than her. As if they might not even be real.
Her blank unfocused stare didn’t move at all. She waited an eternity, until her truck called impatiently to her. They had a road to be on.
She didn’t change her expression at all. “Are we going to do this? I have things to do.”
The bigger guy shifted, sensing something dangerous. “Uhh...”
Her voice didn’t waiver. Calm, even, dead. As dead as her eyes. “The little lady doesn’t need a hand doing anything. I’m not looking for a good time. You aren’t here to ask me about the truck. So are we doing this?”
The bigger one looked over her, eying the sleeveless AC/DC shirt, the ragged mop of black curly hair and the map of bleeding rose tattoos that seemed to cover her from neck to fingertips. He shook his head. “Our mistake.”
She watched them until they were well away before pulling herself into her cab and winding up the huge engine.
She almost wished that they’d tried. It would have delayed her from reaching the truck’s destination.
“Technically, it’s harassment.” Ray flipped a paper over, making notes. “If Luther lodges a complaint, we have to stop.”
Shannon shrugged. “He won’t. It’s a damn sight better than having BATF agents sniffing around every few months. The whole reason we agreed to this was to keep things cool.”
Ray stifled a snicker. The last time the BATF had shown up at the McCabe house unannounced, almost eight years ago, Mae had held them at gunpoint, called the sheriff’s department and lodged what turned out to be a very legal trespassing complaint. “Still, they’ve got nothing. It’s been almost 35 years since their man went missing. Luther has been questioned a thousand times. You really think he’s gonna tell anyone anything?”
“Nobody really believes Luther doesn’t know anything, but that place has been searched a dozen times. One of the reasons they push it is because it came out that their agent was dirty and they want to redeem him somehow. They want to show he died a hero or something. I don’t think there’s any doubt he killed Luther’s brother on purpose, or that it was to keep him quiet about the pay-off scheme.”
“You’d think, after this long, it’d go away.”
Shannon shook his head. “Not with the Cooper family pushing for answers. Politicians.”
Ray flipped his paper over. “You think Luther killed him?”
“He killed Luther’s brother and probably set the fire that killed Luther’s mom. I saw his Army records during the investigation. Luther McCabe was a LRRP in Vietnam, even went to RECONDO School. Honor graduate. What do you think?”
“I think it’d be better for everyone if they stopped looking.”
It was the Nina Simone version that came up. “House of the Rising Sun,” in one of the few versions that lamented the fate of a “poor girl.” Maybe she could appreciate the irony on some level. Maybe not. It would likely sound a little strange to anyone who could hear her call. “The Animals” cover of the song was far better known.
She fought it right to the last minute, but in the end, the truck won, turning off I-44 and heading south, road after road after road, pavement to asphalt to gravel to river rock. It found its way through the maze as sure and certain as if it was following a star. A part of her idly wondered if the truck would be able to find its way out again, or if it planned to stop forever and slowly become part of the wild Ozark woods that arched over them.
The truck pulled into a small field in front of a cabin and shut down. Of course she saw herself shutting it down, but the truck, she knew, was calling the shots. As it had for the last thousand miles.
She sat for a while, looking blankly at the door to the cabin, studying the small brown car pulled up on the side. Nothing familiar, nothing to show what waited inside. She listlessly pulled her case of medications out and searched through them, trying to focus on words on the bottles, words that squirmed and moved under her eyes. She settled for grabbing a couple familiar horse-pill sized tablets, hoping that would work. She waited for them to take effect, staring into the darkening woods.
A distant voice, then a loud banging sound tried to pull her out of her reverie, but she ignored it.
Her door suddenly popped open, though she was sure she didn’t remember unlocking it.
A woman, with masses of blonde curls, and the body of one of those busty 1950s pin-up models glared at her as she stood on the running board. “I asked if you’re lost.”
Fear hit her, such a familiar feeling, but one that she’d thought was lost to her. “I ... I made a mistake, I need to...”
The blonde’s eyes widened in shock. “Sweet Jesus. You’re her. Marina isn’t it?”