The day before Christmas, and I woke up to a chainsaw alarm clock.
A local service was pruning the ornamental pear trees in front of my Ozark City record shop even as they hacked away at my early morning slumber. I live in the apartment above Spalding’s Groove, and usually it’s quiet, except for a few weeks during the height of the summer tourist season.
Six-thirty in the morning, 34 degrees with a winter storm watch, you’d maybe expect some solitude.
“They’ve got you working early,” I told the living doughnut vault who leaned against the front of my building, the dim streetlights not hiding my irritation. Rousted out of a bed by the noise, I skipped my shower, swallowed a cup of coffee and dressed in layers to go out. Jeans, flannel shirt, sweatshirt, leather jacket and the dark blue stocking cap that Marti says makes me look like a thug.
Weighing in at 210 during the holidays, and standing 6’2”, I tried to look especially thuggish to Joe, the portly tree man. He was dressed in khaki coveralls, work boots and a heavy down-filled windbreaker with fluorescent yellow stripes that matched the reflective stickers on his hard hat. The badge there read “See Saw Tree Service.”
Other than the rumbling diesel engine on the bucket truck and the chainsaw revving away above us, the dark street was lifeless and covered with a light film of frozen precipitation that wasn’t quite frost but looked slick enough to be careful on my morning errands.
Joe casually popped the last nugget of a fat, powdered cake donut into his mouth. “Gotta get this done by Christmas, Mr. Spalding.” he said, watching his pal in the bucket above us who chopped and sliced away at the leafless tree’s top branches, a jerky silhouette in the rig’s bright spotlights. “Dan, was it?”
Despite the sugar, Joe’s breath smelled of onions.
“Yeah,” I confirmed. “Dan Spalding. I own the store here.”
“Not that it feels like Christmas without some snow. I like a white Christmas,” said Joe.
“You’re cutting it awfully close,” I said.
“You an expert on ornamental pear trees?” said Joe. “I guess I don’t tell you how to sell records. Don’t tell me how to trim a tree,”
I stepped back as a light limb popped away, its dozens of tiny offshoots catching the air to parachute the burden to earth. It landed on the sidewalk, only inches away from the building, broken twigs snapping up to scratch the tall display windows, shadow lines like fractures in the glass.
“I meant you’re cutting it close for time,” I said.
What are ya gonna do?
The six ornamental pear trees had been installed along my street by the city a couple years before. Rooted to earth in open squares of sidewalk, each one was bedded down with enough cedar mulch to cover a parking lot. In the spring they made me sneeze, and in winter, they woke me up when their friends came over for a pruning party.
“Didn’t you guys do a bunch of work down here in November?” I said.
“We work twelve months out of the year,” said Joe.
“I’m just wondering why you didn’t do these pear trees then?”
“I just follow orders,” said Joe. He pulled a cellophane package from his coat pocket and unwrapped the final donut.
He pushed the empty plastic back into his pocket and zipped it shut.
“Anyway, we’ll be done by noon or thereafter,” said Joe.
“I open at ten,” I told him.
“Won’t bother us, none,” he assured me. “We’ll be down the street a ways by then. You got stuff to do, you go do it.”
Which was such an obvious dismissal, I stubbornly shoved my hands in my pockets and stayed beside him.
Above us, the chainsaw sputtered and died.
“Out of gas,” came a voice from the truck. “Shoulda checked before we started.”
Joe’s weary sigh carried the weight of the world, which wasn’t a whole lot more than he carried already. He made his way to the driver’s side of the truck with big careful strides, as if on snowshoes. “Slick as a wet hen out here,” he said, pulling one of three levers that were mounted just behind the truck’s cabin.
Above us, the bucket with its lights and chainsaw operator swung toward the street in response to Joe’s control, then fell slowly down to street level.
“You wanna get the gas yourself, Brian?”
Under the street light, Brian carried the saw away from the bucket and through a puddle of pink luminescence.
He was taller than Joe. Taller than me, but with the mass of a broomstick. The decorative pear tree had limbs bigger around than Brian’s.
He was older than me too, with a scruffy gray beard that fell in ringlets from the edge of his chin, like strands of twine.
In one ear was a plastic gauge that looked like a LEGO™ wheel, and an unlit cigarette drooped from his tired lips.
“You get filled up, let’s take a break for coffee,” said Joe.
Brian grunted his approval and walked to the rear of the truck.
“You got something to do, you go ahead,” Joe told me again.
I watched him turn back to the truck where he opened the driver’s side door. “Union rules,” he said. “Gotta take a break whether we want to or not.”
He climbed up and situated himself behind the steering wheel.
I looked at the tree, assessing the damage done.
Other than the branch I saw come down, Brian hadn’t accomplished much. For all the racket they’d made, only a few small branches decorated the sidewalk.
Not being an expert on ornamental pear trees, I couldn’t see what more needed to be done, but as had been confirmed earlier that morning, I’m no expert.
Inside the store, I unzipped my jacket and tossed my cap on the counter next to the cash register before snapping on my desk lamp. On the other side of the glass, Joe and Brian warmed up inside the tree service truck.
Might as well get on with the day.
Looking at my to-do list, it all seemed manageable.
Wrap up a couple record boxes. Take them to the post office.
Stop past the bank.
I glanced at the old vinyl case full of 8-track tapes sitting beside the window.
Trade fodder from a kid who’d been in earlier in the week.
I had to deal with those tapes.
Maybe make that a priority, I told myself, but decided I needed a cup of Mrs. Thapa’s Himalayan coffee first.
I zipped my coat back up and went back outside, making sure the door locked behind me.
Joe waved as I walked past the truck and made my way past the open alley between our buildings and up the sidewalk to Thapa’s Kitchen.
Once inside, the heady smell of warm Gurung bread and rich lentil pan cakes made me almost feel more at home than I had next door. She had the radio tuned to a local jazz station, and Vince Guaraldi was playing one of my favorites.
“Morning, Dan,” said Mrs. Thapa, already dressed in her red apron, with the sleeves of her white cotton blouse rolled to the elbows. “Sit down, sit down.”
I took the first booth on one side of the restaurant under a miniature tear drop chandelier and ordered thick strong coffee flavored with a shot of honey.
“To go,” I said.
“Nothing to eat?” said my hostess.
“Too early,” I said. “I’ll stop in later.”
As I waited, the radio jockey reminded us that the local ice skating rink promised a white Christmas—guaranteed—to the lucky winner of their yuletide contest. I imagined some beleaguered suburban father out there in Ozark City-land, waking up Christmas morning to the sound of a jolly diesel-powered civil servant complete with Santa Claus hat dropping an avalanche of chopped ice onto his lawn because his kid’s name was picked from the radio station’s virtual hat.
I wished that poor guy my best.
Outside, the chainsaw roared back to life.
Mrs. Thapa brought my coffee in a tall paper cup with a cardboard sleeve and plastic lid. “Such a noise,” she said.
“They’ll be done soon,” I said, walking with her to the cash register.
“Almost as bad as your rock and roll,” she said with a mischievous smile.
“I’ll bring over that Megadeth record you ordered this afternoon.”
“Oh, you goof,” She smiled. “You’re always teasing.”
And then came some real noise.
A crack and a smash and the sound of shattered glass. I flinched, and Mrs. Thapa came around the counter, waving me away with my coffee.
“Go see, go see,” she said. “Pay later.”
“If those frickin’ idiots have put a limb through my display window,” I began.
Of course they had.
The combination of light and shadows from street lights, truck lights and the orange pink band at the horizon made the spectacle of a tree limb reaching through my store window like the tentacle of some great wooden squid, almost elegant.
Joe leaned over the jagged threshold, inspecting the damage, while Brian stood close to the truck, the dormant chainsaw hanging from his fingers like a broken appendage.
“What the hell, guys?”
The limb had three prominent forks which reduced down to a few dozen smaller branches and sprouts. Two of the arms had plunged into the front of the building, taking out the first of the three adjoining windows, the fresh cut stump laying across the sidewalk, perpendicular to the building.
Already something didn’t look right.
“Oh, uh, hey. Yeah,” said Joe, rubbing the back of his neck so that his hardhat fell down to the bridge of his nose. “Our bad, Mr. Spalding.”
“Our bad?” I strode past Joe to the shattered pain, held my arms out to demonstrate the enormity of their bad. “Our bad? That’s all you’ve got to say?” I took a sip of coffee to clear the mad from my throat.
It didn’t help.
“There’s a tree in the front of my store!”
“Don’t…uh, worry,” said Joe, backing toward the truck. “We’re bonded. Insured, I mean. It was an accident.”
“I hope it was an accident,” I said, moving along the length of the branch.
It didn’t look like an accident.
For one thing, the bucket hadn’t moved since I’d stepped inside Mrs. Thapa’s. Add to that Brian’s presence beside the truck.
I decided to get in his face. Or maybe the kick of Himalayan caffeine wouldn’t let me do anything else.
“Question for you, Joe. What were you pruning down here? Recalling, of course, that I’m no expert.”
“That was my call,” said Brian. “I thought that side looked dangerously close to your store.”
“Did it?” I looked back and forth from the store to the tree. “Glory be, if you don’t have a good eye there, Brian. Because you know what? It’s sure as hell dangerously close to my store now.”
“We sorta lost control of it,” said Joe.
“Yeah,” said Brian. “That’s what happened.”
I gulped some more coffee and turned my back on the men. Looked at the space where the tree had fallen in.
How much would a new window cost?
I gave the limb a second look. And a third.
Then I looked at the pear tree, figuring angles in my head, judging distances.
I’m pretty good at judging distances.
See, before running the record store, I was an investigator for the State Highway Patrol. Used to work a lot of accident sites on wide open expanses of road. Got pretty good at things like angles and distances.
The front of the store was open to the elements, so I walked over and looked inside at my desk. One stray branch had tipped over my lamp. Another had pushed my legal pad to the floor.
There was the old, brown torn vinyl case full of 8-track cartridges.
With one difference.
Being careful not to cut myself on the jagged edges along the sill, I leaned way inside to be sure.
One tape was missing.
It had been an orange cartridge with a hand-made label listing some familiar hit songs.
Back in the late ‘70s, you could buy blank 8-tracks just like blank cassettes. They weren’t as plentiful as their more compact relation, but custom tapes showed up in collections on occasion.
The kid who brought the tapes in yesterday said they had belonged to his dad.
When I examined the tapes the night before, the orange one had been especially interesting.
But not for what was on it.
I took another slug from my coffee cup, then reached in and set it on my desk.
I turned around and looked at Joe.
The pocket that had been empty except for an empty donut wrapper, was now full of something, and it was zipped shut.
I hitched up my belt and hooked a thumb next to my concealed holster. I wasn’t ready to pull a firearm on Joe based on my suspicions, but it didn’t hurt to send him a message.
Joe didn’t get it.
“I promise we’ll make this right, Mr. Spalding,” he said, walking toward the sidewalk. “Like I said, we’re insured and everything.”
“You want to tell me what this is all about, Joe?” I gave him my best flat-eyed look and put a sense of command in my tone. “What it’s really all about?”
This time he got it.
And turning, bolted down the alley way.
Next thing I knew, I was laying spread-eagle on the sidewalk, eating cement. If I didn’t bite clean through my lower lip, I might as well have. My mouth was awash in blood and the back of my neck felt like it’d been hit with a dump truck.
Or a chainsaw.
I rolled over onto my back and saw Brian running around the back of the truck, assault saw still in hand.
“Damn it,” I said. I really hated being hit from behind.
Especially when I should’ve known better. Should’ve guessed they’d be in on the heist together.
“Heist,” I said to myself as I crawled up to my hands and knees, then pulled myself to my feet. “The Great 8-track Cartridge Christmas Heist.”
Nope. Just didn’t have a ring to it.
I walked into the alley where Joe had run, and heard a clanging sound from the rear of the building.
I followed the noise at a jog.
Rounding the back of my building, I saw my blue garbage dumpster, emptied the morning before, my bolt-locked back door, and my old Dodge van parked near the door.
Joe was on the old iron lattice work fire escape, slogging his way up the steps, two flights from the roof top.
What kind of idiot would go up?
“Coming after you, Joe,” I called, but if he heard me, he didn’t show it. His entire focus seemed to be on getting up the stairs.
I pounded after him, two steps at a time.
He made it to the roof just before I did and had time to shuffle his way across the level lumpy tarred surface to the front of the building.
“Brian!” He called out between gasps for air. “Brian! Catch it, man.”
Red-faced, panting, hardly able to stand, he leaned against the waist high brick edifice edging and jerked at his pocket zipper.
Ah-ha! Maybe not such an idiot after all.
He got me to chase him up on the roof, now he could throw his ill-gotten gain back down to his buddy who could scurry off and leisurely disappear in the downtown before I could even get back down the steps.
But for Joe, one stuck zipper stood between success and failure.
He pulled at his pocket with increasing frustration.
I pulled my compact Glock semi-automatic from its belt holster.
Desperate and panting, Joe ripped the zipper of his windbreaker open with a grunt and the bright orange cartridge fell out onto the roof.
He bent, picked it up, and called again for Brian.
“Drop it, Joe,” I said, showing him the gun.
He forced a chuckle through the heavy breathing. “You gonna shoot me for a worthless 8-track tape?”
“No. I’m gonna shoot you for what’s inside the tape. Tell me about the heroin, Joe. Is it yours? Was that your kid that brought the tapes in yesterday? Guess he didn’t know about your stash?”
“You got no clue,” said Joe, clutching the tape in trembling fingers.
I took a step and waited.
“This job. Me and Brian. Working trees. You know how dangerous that is?”
Once he started talking, Joe couldn’t stop.
“You know what kind of toll that takes on a guy?” he said. “Especially somebody Brian’s age? The wrenched back and bunged up joints? Smashed fingers? The pain, Spalding. The chronic pain.”
“There’s legal pain medication—”
“There’s not,” said Joe. “There’s prescription. And if the script ends, there’s nothing.” He held up the cartridge, “Nothing except this.”
And I knew what he meant.
After the kid left the tapes, I gave them the once over. Eleven of the dozen tapes were of no commercial value. Number twelve was something else. Held together with transparent tape, the shell clicked apart easily enough to reveal its contents.
Three plastic packets of high-grade heroin.
But not for Joe.
“You’re right that Brian’s kid didn’t know. Don’t blame him.” Joe slumped against the brick ledge. “Let my friend have the dope, Spalding. Let him live pain-free for a while. Is that such a bad thing?”
“It’s not the answer,” I said. “I’ve seen what that stuff does to people. I was planning to turn it in to an associate later today.”
“An associate?” Joe laughed. “That’s right. I heard you was a cop once. Don’t you mean you’re planning to turn Brian in? That’s what you meant, isn’t it? Turn in my friend? Hell, he’s the victim here. Not you.”
If Joe dropped the tape into Brian’s waiting hands, there was no way I’d catch up with the guy. I had no solid evidence of any wrong-doing, and I’d sound like a crackpot to anybody willing to listen.
Then there’d be no way to help Brian at all.
“I promised my buddy a white Christmas,” said Joe. “Get it? A guaranteed white Christmas. Just like that radio contest.”
“Joe.” I motioned with the gun. “We can get Brian some help. Some closure. We do this your way, it just perpetuates his misery.”
Joe looked down at his hands.
“To hell with you,” he said and pitched the cartridge high over the edge.
“Catch it, Brian!”
For a split second, the spinning orange cartridge was suspended in mid-air. Like a clay pigeon.
In the Patrol they make you go in every so often and qualify with your firearm at the range. It’s a test they make you take to prove you’re proficient with your weapon. I got high marks.
Every single time.
I pulled the trigger and the cartridge with its contents exploded in a puffy white cloud.
“No guarantees, Joe.”
It wasn’t the gift Brian wanted for Christmas when he and Joe had planned the raid on Spalding’s Groove.
But with the drug samples and plastic shards I’d collect from the sidewalk, I hoped it was one that Brian could eventually live with.