A SLOW HORN played through the cabin of the Ford cruiser while I pawed around the crumpled remains of my lunch, salvaging a baby carrot from the mess, hoping for a handful of peanuts, figuring I had two swallows of coffee left to wash down whatever I found.
Here’s to better health. I ate the carrot and consoled myself with a plan of beer and pizza when I got home. The late shift always made me hungry. I turned up the volume on the tenor sax.
A slow pair of headlights pulled out of the Rosie Thorn, maybe saw me parked perpendicular to the road, crept slowly past in the dark. I watched the ember of a cigarette trace orange lines inside the cherry ‘71 Cuda, waving hello. I waved back at Mark Harris, betting he didn’t have smooth jazz playing. Mark was Meadows Ford’s oldest head banger. We’d been unlikely pals in grade school and remained friends through the years, even though our lives had taken separate tracks, me a cop and Mark…well, I wasn’t always sure what Mark was up to, which was probably a good thing.
As I savored the last drop from my thermos, another set of lights spun out of the Thorn, spreading snow and white chat onto the blacktop, swerved toward me, shot past Mark, and was gone over the hill into town before I could throw the car into gear. I hit the lights and pulled out. Mark was safely on the shoulder, his arm waving me forward into the December night. I toggled the siren in thanks.
Just over the hill the highway curved, and I half expected to find the speeding car a mangled wreck in the Methodist Church parking lot, but when I topped the rise, its red tail lights were still moving fast through town, bright Christmas decorations making the square bright as day. I struggled with what I had seen. A gold 1968 Camaro: was it the car I thought it was? I pressed the accelerator.
At 2:00 in the morning, the streets of Meadows Ford were empty like the vacuum of space, the Camaro and me, rockets in orbit. And if my hunch was right, I was chasing a ghost ship, a vehicle I’d killed off in the winter of ‘78.
• • •
What surprised me the most about wrecking Jim’s Camaro in the driveway of Harry’s Quick Stop was the lack of sound. No screeching tires, no breaking glass, Connie quiet in the passenger seat, her expression one of patient expectation. The vintage ‘68, its straight six sputtering into silence, slid sideways like it was made to do just that, heading right at a black-pocked mountain of snow glowing blue in the station’s canopy lights, then up with a light thump and over like puppy falling off its mother.
“You okay?” I said, looking at Connie.
She was already poking her head out the window into the night sky, her blond hair framed by stars, her blue suede Keds marching around on my hip for a foothold.
“This is so messed up,” she said. “Lyle, you oughta get out of there.”
“I can’t get out with you standing on me,” I shouted.
Bracing both hands on the door, Connie easily flipped out and over, the car groaning louder now than it did on the initial impact. She played basketball that year, and was in great shape.
Strolling around the pile of snow to the top side of the car, she crouched down to peer inside. “You coming or what?”
Our second date and already she loved me.
But seeing her there also drew my attention to a stray piece of chrome dangling from the car, loosely swaying back and forth in front of her bell bottom jeans; the windshield had popped loose. I decided if I held my breath, I could push it aside and crawl out. After I did, we just stood breathing the thin Nebraska air and stared at her brother’s car, its front end wadded up like paper.
“We could’ve been killed,” I said more for effect than any real emotion. Actually I wanted Connie to fall sobbing into my arms. Or even squeeze my hand.
Instead, she kicked a softball-size lump of snow into the street and said, “You better get Harry to call Lester.”
My dad always told me never to let anyone borrow my car, so I never did, and I never lived to regret it, seeing what usually happened, especially with half a twelve of beer in the back seat, the other half swirling around inside the driver. My car was parked safely behind Connie’s house, and her car was in the shop.
“Is this Jim Filmore’s car, Mr. Linquist?” said Lester when he got there, thumbs hooked into his gun belt like Barney Fife.
“Well, you know it is,” I said. “And call me Lyle.”
“And you were driving it? Lyle?”
“You know he’s dead, right?” Lester tilted his head back, the pump lights reflecting in his gold tooth. “Jim Filmore, I mean.”
Connie always wondered if that tooth was real gold.
“I know,” I said. “But he’s in the trunk if you want to talk to him,” and brushing past Meadows Ford’s chief of police, I rapped once on the trunk, loud enough to wake the dead.
That’s usually when I wake up from the dream.
• • •
I made the turn onto County Road 12 about twenty seconds after the Camaro.
I had the dream a couple times every year, but otherwise, I never thought I’d see the car again. And you still haven’t, I told myself. Jim sold it for scrap a week after the wreck. What makes you think this is the same car? How could it be?
After graduation, we all moved on with our lives. Connie dumped me for a college guy. Jim forgave me for totaling his car, but we slowly fell out of contact. Years later, he died overseas, and I came back from working ranches in Wyoming to be Meadows Ford’s chief cop. I didn’t have a gold tooth, but I sat behind Lester’s desk and liked to think his ghost was proud.
But that was enough about ghosts. Ahead, the Camaro bottomed out and turned west, heading out of town. In the dark distance, the scarlet lights of a nearby wind farm cast an eerie glow across the horizon. The turbines had been a boon to Meadows Ford in recent months, boosting the local economy as scores of workers came to erect big towers that would provide clean energy to the Great Plains. When I was a kid, windmills vanished from the open range; as an adult, they were back in high tech splendor.
Just when I was sure my quarry would bypass the cemetery entrance, the official edge of the city limits, it went into a spin right inside the driveway, plowing to a stop. I was half a minute behind, more, while I carefully picked a stopping place along the piles built up by the snow plows. I didn’t want to get stuck.
Snowflakes danced through both sets of headlights while I surveyed the scene. No motion, but not quite silent. Above the sound of both engines, a muffled beat came from the Camaro’s sound system.
I stepped out, crouched low, kept the door between us.
“Come on out of there, now!” I called. No answer.
Both doors were closed. I had the sense the car was already empty, but in the glare of the headlights, I couldn’t see anyone moving in the cemetery or running away.
I made my way to the passenger side of the Camaro, sucked in my gut, and stood.
Empty. But more. When I opened the door, the canopy light popped on, revealing a tattered old box of 8-track tape cartridges, one missing, inserted in the deck, playing loudly on into the night.
Jim’s tapes. In Jim’s car. I reached in and switched off the ignition.
• • •
The next morning, I sat at my desk and handed Jennifer the write-up I’d been working on since 7:30. “You want to see if you can get a positive ID on this vehicle? Gold ‘68 Camaro, no registration, no insurance, no plates.”
“You mean Connie Filmore’s car?” she said. “Saw it sitting in front of Louie’s station when I came in. What’s the story?”
“Connie?” I reached back for the papers. “Just wanted to make it official.” I took a long pull of coffee from the to-go cup I’d picked up at the Maple Leaf that morning.
“Didn’t you know she had it?”
“I’m usually the last to know just about anything,” I said. Jennifer Rand, my second in command, was new to the job, barely back from military service in Afghanistan, and already knew more about what was going on around town than I did.
“She just got the Camaro back from Omaha,” said Jen. “Paid big money for some old guy to restore it.”
The phone rang in the other room, and I heard Justin answer. “Meadows Ford Police Department,” he said.
“Still, we should make it official,” I said, pushing the papers back.
“It’s official,” said Justin, poking his head around the corner of the door. “Connie Filmore just reported her ‘68 Camaro stolen.”
“You all don’t need me; I’ll just head back home to bed,” I said.
“I got late shift tonight,” said Jen. “You should hit the sack early.”
“Doubt it,” I said. “Webinar thing I’m supposed to watch.”
“You got coffee made?” said Jen. She picked up a piece of garland from the floor and draped it over the Christmas tree on her desk.
Justin shook his head. “Green tea.”
I lifted my Styrofoam cup and showed her the Maple Leaf logo.
The phone rang again. Jen started to make some coffee.
“Ron Bohl from the motel,” said Justin from the other room. “Says some of his guests are making a porno video in the king suite.”
“Okay,” I sighed. “Tell him I’ll be there.” Justin nodded and ducked away.
I pitched the cup into the trash. “I’m tempted to send you out on this,” I told Jen.
“Hey, I gotta file the stolen car,” she said. Then: “No idea who it was?”
I shook my head. “Empty when I caught up to her. I know that car pretty well. Or I did once. There wasn’t anything to work with.”
“Tracks in the snow?”
“Yeah. I followed them into the cemetery. They crossed through and ended up in the Little Branch. Sorta disappeared after that.”
“Whoever it was must’ve been in good shape,” said Jen. “Long run in the cold.”
I agreed, told her to keep in touch, and went for the car.
It was snowing big flakes when I got there. I let the defroster work for a few minutes.
Stolen cars and porn at the motel.
“Egads,” I said, just to hear myself. “This ain’t the same old Meadows Ford.” I pulled onto the street and prayed everyone involved was from out of town.
• • •
My second visit to the Maple Leaf was for lunch. I ordered the pizza burger, fries, and coffee, same as I did most days. Before I got my order, Mark Harris came in and buried a cigarette in the sand-filled ashtray just inside the door.
“What’s the story on the motel?” he said.
“I’m not sure what you mean.” I raised my eyebrows, and he smiled.
“Heard it was some middle-aged hippies.”
“Word travels fast,” I said.
Mark pulled out a chair and sat down.
“It’s all straightened out,” I assured him. The middle-aged hippies were actually a retired married couple from Sioux City who got carried away with the potentials of digital technology. “No harm done.”
Linda Wells brought my coffee and took Mark’s order.
“You don’t mind if I join you?” said Mark.
I shook my head.
“Connie get her car back?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She picked it up about an hour ago. Complained that the interior smelled heavy with perfume.”
“Bet you never thought you’d see it again.”
“The car? You got that right.” Mark’s comment brought back the dream and all the memories that went with it. “You got any idea who was driving it last night?”
“Well, sure,” he said. “Connie was driving it.”
“She called in this morning and said it was stolen.”
Mark shrugged. “She drove it up to the Thorn last night, wanted a bunch of us to come look at it.”
“She just got it back from Omaha.”
“That’s what she said. She was really wired man, really keyed up.” Mark shook his head of shoulder-length hair and moved a hand over his salt-and-pepper beard. “I never saw her so worked up.”
I was thinking about how to reply when I looked through the window and saw a familiar blue shirt cross the street toward us.
Jennifer wore her red hair pulled back behind her black MFPD cap, her shirt and slacks pressed to fine crease. Her two tours of duty in Afghanistan showed. She was tough, serious, and disciplined. She was alone in town. Until she found a better life, I welcomed her help.
When she didn’t come inside, I knew there was trouble. Stepping out onto the sidewalk, I could see the dark set of her eyes that confirmed it.
“Windmill worker,” she said. “Taped to a tree down at the fairgrounds.” I didn’t ask any more questions. Her tone of voice confirmed the guy was dead.
• • •
“Yeah, he’s dead all right,” said Val Merton, our county coroner as he huffed up the short embankment away from the body. “You gimme a hand there, Lyle?”
I reached out reluctantly, not because I didn’t want to help, but out of fear Val’s 300-plus pounds would pull me forward. I braced myself as Val grabbed on for dear life. Sweating and panting, he took a few minutes to catch his breath while I made a final survey of the scene.
We stood beside a gravel road on a plateau of dried brome. Behind us, the county fair grounds were open and accessible, but here the ditch knifed away into a tight bramble of dry stinkweed and thistles. Melting patches of snow clung to scrappy young cedars and small elm saplings. The dead guy was sitting on the ground, strapped tight to a little maple with about two rolls of fluorescent green duct tape. His head was a mess. Blood was just about everywhere.
“Blunt force trauma,” said Val, still breathing hard. “Looks like somebody played a few innings of T-ball with his skull.”
“We got an I.D.?” I said.
“Oh sure,” said Val, pulling his oversized nylon fleece vest tight. “It’s Beezer Wilkes. Nora there knows him from the grocery.” Val pointed at one of the three EMT workers talking with Jennifer. Nora Soames was a senior member of the squad and worked at one of the grocery stores. “Said even beat up like that, she recognizes him. Knows how he dresses.”
“Time of death?” I asked.
“Probably after midnight, but not much. Maybe 2:00, 2:30.” Around the time I was speeding across the opposite end of town. Of course the irony was that before I wheeled out after the Camaro, I’d been parked not 300 feet away from today’s crime scene. I had been lured away at precisely the wrong time.
Or was it the right time?
“No weapon we could find,” said Jennifer as she joined us with three quick steps.
Val chuckled. “Wish there was a time I was in as good shape as you,” he said. “You see the way she ran up that hill?”
“I’ve always loved my ice cream too much,” said Val.
Jennifer smiled politely then turned to me, all business.
“No weapon,” I repeated.
“No immediate suspects, either,” said Jen. “Nora says he’s a loner, just moved in to work on the turbines a few weeks ago.”
I took a deep breath and wondered again about the coincidence of my having nearly been on the scene.
“You coming down?” said Jen. I nodded and shook hands with Val.
I followed Jennifer into the ditch, happy at least that I hadn’t finished my pizza burger.
• • •
“Yeah, Beezer hung out here,” said Mark. “Him and two or three windmill guys.”
We sat together in a booth at the Rosie Thorn, the afternoon clouds adding to the warm, dark atmosphere of the place. Mark was nursing his first beer, I had a Coke. “I hate to admit it,” said Mark, “but those fellas are a little too fast for me.”
“I never really thought of you as fast,” I said.
He laughed and lit a smoke. “Ah hell, Lyle. Everything is different now.”
“I just mean you were kind of a loner. We both were.”
“Connie, too, in a way,” he said. “The only girl who could be alone in a crowd, you know?”
“I thought we were talking about Beezer?”
Mark pulled in some smoke, let it out slowly.
“We were talking about us when we were kids. Like Beezer and his friends.” He smiled. “The late Beezer. And his friends.”
“You know these friends’ names?”
Mark shook his head. “Like I said, I don’t hang with them.”
“You seem a little out of it today,” I said.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s just the weather. And this job I got writing blog posts for overcommitted corporate types.”
“Work at home, make millions,” I said.
“On a possibly different topic,” I began, “you think Connie was telling the truth about her car being stolen?”
“Possibly different topic?”
“I don’t like the coincidence,” I said.
We were quiet a few minutes, listening to the Top-40 hits of our youth, Mark stamping out his cigarette, me finishing my drink. I had a couple more questions for Mark, but I’d learned long ago not to push him. And with the morning’s caffeine long worn off, another Coke would be good. I started to stand when Mark motioned for me to sit.
A girl crawled onto one of the bar stools and dropped her shoulder bag onto the bar. “Could use me a drink,” she announced. The bartender was a local guy named Willy. I had planned to visit with him when I got done with Mark. He took the girl’s order, and she reached into her bag to retrieve her wallet.
That’s when I noticed the strap had been repaired with bright fluorescent green duct tape.
“She’s one of the gals that partied with Beezer,” said Mark. “She’s who you ought to talk to.”
Skilled investigator that I am, I figured Mark was probably right.
• • •
“Tell them to pick up a 24-year old female,” I told Jennifer over the radio. “Caucasian, brown hair to the waist, butterfly tattoo on her neck. Name is Anna Dawes, drives a 1991 Toyota Celica.” After Jen acknowledged the call, I repeated the information and smiled at the rearview mirror. The girl in the back seat gazed out the side window. She wasn’t looking at me.
In the front seat beside me was the shoulder bag, repaired with the same kind of tape used in restraining Beezer Wilkes. Another coincidence. The smell of her perfume was strong, almost nauseating.
“Am I under arrest, or what?” she said.
“I just thought we’d go down to the station. Nice woman there who will ask you some questions.”
“I answered your questions,” said my passenger. “I told you Anna helped fix my purse. Told you all about her.”
“Funny that she left town today,” I said. “Considering Willy just gave her the afternoon job tending bar.”
No answer. I backed the cruiser out of its spot beside Mark’s Cuda and turned onto the highway, staring at the spot where I’d been parked the night before. I turned up the heat, and the girl’s perfume wafted through the system.
“You ever have occasion to drive a Camaro?” I asked, just to make conversation.
• • •
“Smells like a flower garden in there,” said Connie. “You know I’m allergic.”
There was no escaping the sense of déjà vu as we stood together looking at the Camaro, though this time it was right-side-up and I didn’t want Connie to hold my hand. Not much, anyway.
Since she’d moved back to town, we’d traded a few words here and there. Hi and bye at the post office, a brief wave if we passed each other on the street. I’d had no idea she cared enough about her brother’s car to have it restored.
“We have the person who stole it. She confessed. Jennifer’s with her at the station.”
Connie ignored the news. “It’s like he’s still here, still with me, you know? It’s like having the car is, well…I don’t know, it’s just really, really important.” She stamped her feet in the slushy driveway, but the cold was only part of it.
“Can we go inside?” I said. “You used to make a mean cup of hot chocolate.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” she said. I started to follow her, but she turned and pushed a long, stringy clump of locks away from her eyes. “But I wasn’t driving this out by the cemetery last night,” she said. “Somebody at the Thorn stole it. You can smell the lilac perfume in there thick as anything. I’m allergic to lilac.”
“I know,” I told her again. “Like I said, this girl confessed.”
Her eyes were wide with dark circles underneath. Hell, mine probably didn’t look much better. What concerned me more was her complexion, pock-marked, patches of dry skin and blackheads.
“You taking care of yourself, Connie?”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“Just that you were always…I don’t know,” I struggled to find words that wouldn’t set her off. “So pulled together.”
“Was I?” she said. “Was I pulled together?”
“I’m sorry, let’s go in and get that cup.”
Before we could move, Jen called on the radio. The car door half-open, I sat behind the wheel and took the message. The State Patrol had picked up Anna Dawes on the way to Lincoln with half a roll of green duct tape and a bloody baseball bat in her trunk.
“You doing that Web thing tonight?” Jen asked. I looked out the windshield at Connie huddled in the breeze, her arms thin and pale.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “Still a lot to do.” I signed off and locked the car.
Connie tilted her chin up as I joined her.
“You remember those songs we used to listen to?” she said.
“Rock and Roll party songs.” She did a short, stumbling dance. “Rock and roll woman.”
I remembered, thought about the box of tapes inside the Camaro. She sneered and started to laugh. Her teeth were brown, anemic. More damage done by the drug coursing through her system.
“That was the real me, Lyle. That was what I wanted to be—but I couldn’t.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Basketball. Honor society. Choir on Sundays. I didn’t want to be that.”
Not bothering to brush away the accumulation, she sat down hard in the snow on the steps to her front porch.
“After I got married, it was neighborhood hostess, wife, mother.” I knew Connie had a teenage son. I wondered how he was doing.
She looked at me with pleading eyes. “Now I’ve got the car.” She shivered hard, her arms trembling. “Now I’m who I wanna be.”
“How’s that working out for you?” I said.
She started to sob, her body shaking with the spasms, so I sat down beside her, squeezed her hand.
Turns out it was still the old Meadows Ford after all.
We were the ones who had changed.