Chapter 36 -- Empire
“This is a great place to watch sunsets. Are you staying long here in Empire?” The man in the wool cap and the striped sweater looked like he belonged. The poodle beside him yipped and bit at the tassel bound to the base of his walking stick.
Tommy said, “No. Just passing through.”
Although that just might be false.
The man nodded and moved on down the beach.
His watch said he’d been standing here over an hour. He was afraid to move. He’d parked the bike sideways to the water, so it could be seen more easily from a distance. His legs ached, but he feared to sit down, just in case he’d be missed by binoculars.
I missed the pick up time. I was late. Marvin couldn’t risk waiting for me.
And he’d been right. The reason he was late was because he’d been noticed. The police were looking for him. It would be suicidal to hang around.
The ship was gone when he was forty minutes late. What made him think it would be any less missing at two hours late?
But the instant he turned away, all hope was gone.
I’m on my own. Broke. No resources. The motorcycle would take him miles more, he was sure, but it would eventually run out of juice.
He could recharge it, but Marvin had been very clear that it required pure distilled water to recharge it to full capacity. The dregs of water in the super battery’s holding tank wasn’t enough to do the job. Tap water would poison the membrane and make it useless.
That’s why Nick put in a different RO unit on the boat, I bet. The old one didn’t make pure enough water.
The poodle’s excited play in the distance made him turn his head.
He sighed and gave Empire another look.
In the shade of some trees, out of sight of the road, he parked the bike. Starting now, I save juice.
The whole town was less than a mile wide, and if he couldn’t walk that, then he needed to get in shape.
Empire was mostly houses. There was a store, but it wasn’t until he reached the highway that he saw any place to eat.
But he needed food. Breakfast had been hurried, as he’d prepared to leave on the expedition. He hadn’t realized it was his last meal on the Marissa.
The couple at the table next to him were talking about the Sleeping Bear Campground and their kayaking trip. There was a tourist industry here. Could they use cheap labor? He’d need something to keep him in hamburgers, and he’d need a place to sleep.
I could camp out on the beach, but that’ll only hold for a little bit. Most places didn’t like vagrants. He’d need a job if he stayed here.
Jobs. Off the books jobs. He had no social security number he dared use. He’d be in direct competition with migrant labor.
It was the first time he cracked a smile since he’d turned the police scanner on. How far he’d fallen -- from rich white elite, to someone who needed a fake Social Security number to get a job. He’d always thought that only Hispanics needed those.
Am I racist?
It was an uncomfortable thought.
His mind went back over the past few days, especially his last visit with Slab. His fear of those black faces had come so quickly -- so instinctively.
There’s caution, and then there’s prejudice.
He nodded to himself. I’m prejudiced.
Almost immediately, he began rationalizing the thought away. But it had a bad taste, and it felt true.
I grew up with whites and Hispanics, and then moved into a dominantly black high school. Has it tainted me? What prejudices will I pass on to my kids?
If I live that long.
And he was now faced with living the same economics as the undocumented migrants. I’ve become a wetback myself. If I cross over into Canada to look for work there, will there be derogatory names for people like me?
He stared down at the dregs of his fries.
Now I need work, off the books. I’ll have to learn how it’s done.
I should never have left the boat.
A bum with a boat was in much better shape than a bum on his feet.
There were things he could do with a boat. He could haul things. Be a smuggler? Maybe not that, but surely he could deliver a few things a lot cheaper than FedEx, if a bit slower. And he could haul passengers. That’s what the Valentes are. Were. Now they had his boat.
Marissa is gone.
He sighed and stirred the salt again.
Really, what resources did he have?
A motorcycle, with a battery that was too dangerous to turn over to anyone, with a false license plate that’d never stand up to inspection.
A brand new laptop, barely out its wrappings. If it survived the tumble. I’ll need to check on that.
The same for the cell phone. Though, it probably could handle some knocks.
And the police scanner.
Selling the laptop probably made the most sense. He’d have to talk to a few people to find someone who’d understand that it wasn’t stolen.
Empire was a small little town. The population was probably only a few hundred. It would be hard to be invisible here, especially once he started selling stuff. People bragged about their purchases. Word would get around.
Tommy looked at the windows. Bert stood there, on the outside, looking at him.
And behind the dog, a Michigan State Police cruiser pulled up in the parking lot, a single red light on the roof.
Frantically, he scanned the place. There was no back door visible. Could he hide in the bathroom?
And how did Bert get here? Did Marvin come back for him?
He looked back to the window. Bert had vanished.
How much does he really know? Did he understand that there’s a policeman here?
And was the cop looking for him?
The man in the blue-gray uniform walked in the door. He pulled off his cap and greeted the owner. Ordering tea and ‘the usual’ without stopping, he plopped down in a booth immediately behind Tommy.
I can blow it, right here. Deliberately, Tommy closed his eyes and calmed his breathing. Any half-decent policeman should pick up guilty body language vibes in a flash.
But how to avoid it?
Well, I’m not guilty! He looked out the window, seeing the occasional passing car. It’s not my fault!
He let the pent-up anger leech out into his arms and shoulders. Ignore the guy sitting behind him. Let him eat in peace. Think about something else.
Had that really been Bert? Or just a dog that looked like him. How could Bert have shown up here?
The waitress appeared, carrying a big glass of tea, and a set of silverware wrapped in a white paper napkin.
“Here you are, Jim. You’re late today.”
Tommy heard the clink as the tea was stirred.
“Yeah, they’ve got us running the roads, looking for a kidnapper.”
“Really? Got any good-looking FBI agents following you around?”
“You watch too much TV, Beth.”
“Well, spill it. What’s the story?”
There was silence.
“Don’t ask. Some Chicago businessman and a young boy.”
She sighed. “The times we live in.”
Tommy felt his muscles bunch up. How dare they!
Nick’s company had pulled no punches. How to get the police working for them without telling the true story? Slander Nick with a tale of child molestation.
How old am I supposed to be in this fantasy?
He closed his eyes again. Breathe. Breathe.
“Honey? Are you done here?” It was the waitress, looking over his cleaned plates.
“Would you like some apple pie to finish it off?”
The kidnapping has nothing to do with me.
“Um. That sounds good.” She reached for her pad to note it down.
A flash of motion, a motorcycle, outside caught his attention.
“Oh, wait! I think I see my ride. I’d better just pay the check.”
She nodded and handed him the paper. He fished out a couple of bills, figured a modest tip and handed it to her on the way out.
He snagged Bree’s arm at the doorway and dragged her out of sight before she had a chance to open her mouth.