Time to drive.
The concrete snarl of Orlando's tangled road cluster faded away as I took the turnpike to I-75 and aimed the Impala north. The Florida-Georgia state line put itself behind me, then Atlanta, and I branched off toward Chattanooga.
Spring City was a small town along Highway 27 surrounded by low mountains. The temperature had dipped considerably during my trek north, and the sharp wind hissed and whistled through the cracks and creases in the convertible's top. I'd driven all the way wearing my pea coat and with the heat on.
The dead, flat sky was a uniform gray.
I'd made decent time, stopping only four times to fill up with gas or coffee or take a piss. I didn't want to risk driving such a distance on pain pills, so my stomach burned with too much aspirin.
At the local Days Inn, I asked for a room and checked in under the name Peter Tork. I wanted something around back, away from the traffic noise. They gave me 126.
I pulled into a service station, hopped out of the car near a pay phone. The wind bit into me immediately, and I pulled the pea coat tight.
I unfolded the phone bill I'd salvaged from Tina's trash can, dropped the coins into the slot, and dialed the number. It rang three times.
"Hello," I said. "Is Tina there?"
"Who can I tell her is calling?" A Southern accent, not too thick.
"I'm an old friend from Florida. Pete." It seemed plausible enough when I'd rehearsed it, but coming out of my mouth, it sounded pretty weak.
"She ain't been there long enough to make old friends."
"Is this her brother Tom?"
"This is her husband Tom."
Bingo. She told Jeffers it was her brother. Sure. That made sense. Hussy with a badge.
"Oops. My mistake." I chuckled. Kept it light. "She said to give her a visit if I was ever in the neighborhood."
"She ain't here right now. Went out."
"Whoa, just my luck, huh? And the sky looks like snow too."
"She's out right now. Like I said. She went up the mountain. Won't be back for a while."
I didn't know exactly what "up the mountain" entailed, but it sounded like I was in for a wait.
"I'm at the Days Inn, room number one-two-six," I said.
"You'd better just call back."
"That's not going to work. I need you to take a message."
"Listen, mister, I got things to do and-"
"That's not going to cut it, Tom." I put a little heat in my voice. "Now I want you to get a pen and a piece of paper, and I want you to write this down. Are you listening?"
"Tell Tina I brought some things she wanted."
He went quiet on his end, and I tried to puzzle whether he was in on it or just confused.
"Okay," said Tom. "I think I got your message. I'll tell her when she gets in."
"Thanks, Tom. I appreciate the help."
I hung up.
I felt pretty smug about my little performance as I got back in the car. I'd simultaneously made contact with the kidnappers and let them know they weren't as clever as they thought. I'd found out where they were and who they were, and I had what they wanted.
Very soon now I would shoot them all stone cold dead and send Amber home to Danny.
The cold was bad on my hand. I finally relented, took a pain pill, and sat in the car until it took effect. I bought a bottle of beer in the service station to help push it down.
I pulled into the rental car place in case Tina had seen the Impala.
Here's what I said to the guy behind the counter: "Gimme a car."
His look was so funny.
"What kind of ride do you need, bud?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "Just something comfortable. Price isn't a problem."
"How about a nice mid-size?"
Wow, this guy had bad teeth. Wait? What was it Tom had said? Up the mountain. That sounded fairly rugged.
"Do you have a Suburban?"
Bad Teeth shouted into the back room, "Hey, Leanne, we still got that red Suburban?"
A female voice floated out of the back room, country accent like Minnie Pearl. "No. That big feller took it."
"What big fellow?"
"You know. With all the hair and muscles smoking that godawful cee-gar. Looked like Fabian?"
"Like on the romance book covers."
"Lord, woman," said Bad Teeth. "That's Fabio."
"Well, he had muscles."
"Lou Morgan." I felt my face twisting up into a huge grin. "Was his name Lou Morgan?"
Holy shit. I'd forgotten all about New Guy. I was losing my mind. He must have followed Tina up here on his own.
The woman stuck her head out of the back room. She was wrinkled and flannel. "That's it. You know him?"
"I know him."
"Well, he got the Suburban."
I'll be damned. The big, dumb sonovabitch. He'd found his way to Spring City and was hot on Tina's trail. The town was small, but I still didn't have time to drive around looking for him. But it sure would have been nice to have some backup. Even if it was Fabian. I laughed.
"Mister?" Bad Teeth was giving me the fish eye.
"What else you got in a four wheel drive?"
"You going up the mountain?"
"Abso-fucking-lutely straight up the mountain."
That earned me a bad look, but he filled out the paperwork on a white Chevy Silverado. He said I could leave the Impala around back.
"And how will you be paying for this?"
I threw down a Visa card.
He ran it through the machine and smiled as he handed it back to me. "Thanks for your business, and have a good day, Mr. Minelli."
I sat in the Chevy and watched the doors to my hotel room. I was parked a respectable distance away but close enough to see anyone approach.
After leaving the rental place, I ran a few last-minute errands. I'd found a Wal-Mart and bought a thermos, filled it with coffee later at the same convenience store I'd been to earlier.
Waiting in the truck was a three-hour deal. I'd sucked back most of the coffee and pissed behind the Chevy four times.
Another pain pill.
It was well after dark when they finally appeared.
Tina wasn't with them, but this was the group all right. They parked the car two spaces down from the room, a dirty red Camaro a few years old. They piled out, three of them, and stood shuffling with indecision in the parking lot, hands deep in flannel coats, steam trailing from their mouths in the cold. The looked at each other nervously. Hesitation. Amateurs. Good. I wasn't looking for a challenge. Two must've been local. Feed caps, baggy trousers, scuffed boots, three-day beards. One was tall and fat. The other was short and fat.
The third guy was out of place, the only one wearing a wool, gray overcoat and wingtips. He had a tie. Neat haircut. Red hair. Ex-military maybe.
Or maybe FBI. Dunn would be sad to learn that another of his sheep had deserted the flock.
When they took the iron police battering ram from the back of the Camaro, I figured I'd guessed right. He was clearly in charge and directed the two locals to charge the door with the battering ram while he pulled his revolver.
This made me laugh. I'd left the door unlocked.
They smashed down the door on the first try. It flew open, and they followed, all three crowded in. The locals dropped the battering ram, drew pistols. I couldn't see them once they were inside, but I imagined them standing there with idiot looks on their mugs. They'd spot the page and pick it up, realize what it was, turn it over, see my note.
This isn't how we do business. Now go home and wait for a call.
I laughed at the looks I knew must've been on their faces. They were so dumb, and I was so smart. They should elect me president of the world.
The trio emerged from the motel room, shoulders slumped, faces confused. The guy I thought might be the agent signaled them back into the Camaro. They drove.
The agent was the only one I worried might spot me, so I kept as far back as I dared. It wasn't any trouble. I followed them through the little town, climbing steadily through the hills. Soon I was on a looping zigzag, the beginning of the slow, back-and-forth climb. I was finally going up the mountain. I was glad I had the truck, although the Camaro seemed to be doing fine.
The climb was steep and dark, and I was the only vehicle behind the Camero now. I felt fairly conspicuous, but there was nothing to do but keep going.
Up the mountain.
Into the darkness.
And the snow started falling.
Up the mountain might as well have been a different world. After climbing a thousand feet or so, the road leveled off, and the socioeconomic difference between up the mountain and down the mountain became clear. Down the mountain meant civilization. Up the mountain was the frontier.
Almost completely dark except for moon and headlights. The Camaro led the way.
To the left or right or above, the occasional cabin or mobile home twinkled in the night. I passed a poorly lit shack nestled among the evergreens just off the road. A sign out front said: Store. The sky was a panorama of black velvet. It was peaceful and quiet and cold. The snow came heavier.
The Camaro slowed, turned up a steep gravel driveway. I followed the wandering path with my eyes, and it ended at a surprisingly elegant, two-story house lit well by outside floods. I kept driving.
Two miles later I passed what might have been a service station, with a single-wide mobile home right next to it. I pulled into the dirt lot. The single-wide had neon beer signs in the window. A sign out front declared Top of the Mountain Tavern. Impossible. There must've been zoning laws against such a thing. It couldn't be a tavern.
I went in.
The little trailer tavern was close and hot and heavy with a layer of tobacco smoke.
They had an itty-bitty pool table jammed up under where there should have been a dining room table. A jukebox played a country song I didn't know. A bar. The patrons looked like guys you'd imagine drinking beer in a single-wide. I went to the bathroom. It was the first barroom bathroom I'd ever been in that actually had a bath.
I wanted to give Tina and her partners some time to settle down. They'd be all wound up now, waiting for the phone to ring, and that would make it hard for me to spy on them. I grabbed a barstool and ordered coffee.
The bartender was skinny and greasy, a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his T-shirt. "This ain't Denny's. It's a drinking establishment."
"A beer then."
"Draft or bottle."
He nodded and returned a moment later with a foamy mug.
I popped a pill, chased it with the beer.
On the jukebox, George Jones let everyone know that he stopped loving her today. I ordered another beer and made myself take this one slow. I didn't know the next two songs, and I'd had enough of the Top of the Mountain Tavern. I paid for the beers and went outside.
The truck had a half-inch layer of snow on it. It was still coming down. I was freezing.
Back inside I asked the bartender if he sold half-pint flasks of Chivas.
"We got Jim Beam."
"I'll take it."
I sat in the cab of the truck and twisted the top off the Jim Beam. It burned its way down my throat, spread to my arms, all through my chest. I cranked up the truck. Turned on the heat.
I drove back to the kidnapper's house and parked the truck at the bottom of the hill. Even with the headlights out, they couldn't fail to spot me coming up the driveway. I parked a quarter mile away and started up the slope at a slow march. There was a good blanket of snow underfoot now, and it crunched clean and hard with each step. The moon filtered through the sparse evergreens, cast everything in an otherworldly glow. I buttoned the pea coat, took another hit of the Jim Beam, headed for the smear of light at the top of the hill.
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