Known Associate

by Craig Johnson

2014 Christmas Story Post-It

I listened as Victoria Moretti, my undersheriff, and Santiago Saizarbitoria, my deputy, quizzed Ruby in low voices as the three of them decorated the office Christmas tree—all two feet of it. “For how long?”

The exasperation in my dispatcher’s voice was becoming more and more evident. “. . .A long time.”

I was gathering a few things from the office before I left, most important the container for my Colt semiautomatic. I was having trouble finding the lock box because I used it so rarely—once a year around this time to be exact.

Vic’s voice was low, but I could still hear her as searching in the open space behind the hanging files, I went through the back ends of my cabinets. “He just disappears and doesn’t tell anyone where he’s going?”

The Basquo was also still audible. “For only one day?”

“Sometimes two, according to when he leaves. There was a pause, and I was sure Ruby was checking the old Seth Thomas clock on the wall in the outside office. “He’s running late and it’s snowing, so I’d imagine he’ll be two days this trip.”

I listened as my undersheriff mused. “You’ve never asked?”

“It’s none of my business.”

“Does he take Dog?”

There was a pause, and then Ruby’s tone became more pointed. “Don’t you people have something to do?”

Vic, for one, wasn’t taking no for an answer. “I’m going to ask him.”

Ruby’s voice changed, and it sounded the way it did sometimes when she was sure she was right. “Young lady, it would do you to learn that there are times when people don’t want to discuss things and you shouldn’t ask—it’s called prying.”

I slammed the last file cabinet and called out, loud enough for all of them to hear in an attempt to divert disaster. “Ruby, do you have any idea where I might’ve put my pistol case?”

There was silence from the other room, but then she answered. “I think it’s in the gun safe.”

I exited my office, walked down the hall, and crossed the reception area past the old marble fireplace, a remnant of when our building had been part of the Absaroka County library system. We’d mounted an old bank-vault doorway in the coat closet of the old Carnegie building, and it served as our weapons locker.

Spinning the dial to 4-18-42, the date of the Doolittle Raid, a numerical legacy of Lucian Connally, my old boss and the previous sheriff of the county, I glanced over to the reception desk where the three of them were staring at me. “How’s the decorating coming?”

“Good.” Vic waited for a moment before asking, “Going somewhere?”

Pulling the heavy door open, I spotted the cobalt-blue plastic case sitting on the shelf to my right. Poking a finger through the handle, I slid it out, put it under my arm, and closed the door. The thud of the thing sounding like a tomb closing. I stood there for a moment before spinning the dial. “Yep.”

Without another word, I crossed back to my office, snagged my winter Carhartt from the coat stand, and put it on. I straightened my hat and quickly headed out.

I paused at the top of the stairs and patted my leg. Dog was beside me in an instant, and the combination St. Bernard/German Shepherd/Canis Dirus was at my side as we trotted down the steps making a clean getaway.

Situated between the Big Horn mountains and the Black Hills in the Powder River country, the Thunder Basin National Grassland ranges in elevation from 3,600 feet to 5,200 feet above sea level and stretches 547,499 acres—and there are times when it’s not big enough.

I had an old rancher from the southern part of the county once tell me that I had ghosts hanging off of me all the time. He said that contrary to popular belief, the spirits that attached themselves to you didn’t slow you down but actually propelled you forward, faster and faster toward your inevitable end. The fact that he also believed that his coffee maker with a timer was his long dead mother making coffee for him mornings did nothing to diminish the relevance of the statement.

I had a lot of time for contemplation as I blew through Gillette’s southern suburbs and light industrial sprawl on state highway 59. A two-lane blacktop with opposing traffic, route 59 goes through as desolate and barren a place as any in the country and carries the combined weight of traveling coal miners, oilrig workers, and railroad personnel, some of them self-medicated, all of them sleep deprived, and results in one distinction—more people have been killed on it than any other road in Wyoming.

I drove into Bill, which got it’s name from a local doctor’s wife who noticed that there were a lot of men around by that name. Bill is an unincorporated community with pretty much one building that houses a gas station/rural post office/motel/restaurant, catering to the Union Pacific crew change employees who take their mandatory rests in the town.

Dog whined, knowing that Peggy’s Diner is one of our mandatory rests, where Diane always lets Dog sit in the corner by my booth as I ate.

“Why don’t you call this Diane’s Diner, it’s an alliterative.”

She refilled my coffee and studied me. “What’s an alliterative?”

“A phonetic agreement where two words that start with the same letter are used in combination.”

She glanced around at the fifties-style, pre-fabricated building. “It had the name in neon on the side when they shipped it here.” Her eyes came back to me before taking a crust of Texas toast from my plate and handing it to the drooling monster. “Lusk?”

I nodded. “Lusk.”

She watched me for a moment more, fed Dog another piece of bread, and then shook her head and walked away with my empty plate. “See you next year.”

“Maybe not.”

She called over her shoulder. “Yeah, maybe.” She turned at the counter and looked at me, just to make sure the sentiment carried. “How was your dinner?”

“Delicious, Diane.”

She grinned as she disappeared through the swinging doors of the kitchen. “That’s an alliterative–did you know?”

After checking into the Trail Motel, I lay on one of the double beds and listened to Dog pant on the other. I called the room next door and let it ring five times before hanging up.

Possibly asleep or maybe she wasn’t there yet.

I had the heat set on low, but it was still overly warm, the hot air left over from the previous occupant who must’ve been attempting to achieve an environ similar to Senegal. I watched the weather channel for a while and attempted to get a read on what the roads would be like tomorrow, but my eyes weren’t focusing and I finally got up and brushed my teeth.

Glancing in the mirror, I looked at the scar on my forearm, exactly 357/100th of an inch. Turning my arm over, I looked at the other side. This scar there was about the size of a silver dollar and ragged with a tail that pointed down toward my elbow.

I thought about that night when I’d pulled over a scours-colored Oldsmobile with a shedding vinyl top. It had had two hubcaps—it’s funny, the things you remember; it also had had a taillight out, which was why I’d stopped them.

I turned off the television and flipped the switch on the lights, climbed into bed, and then peeled the covers back so that I could breathe.

Dan Waldheim was his name. He’d owned Waldheim’s Liquor Shack down in the Sand Bar section of Casper for thirty-two years when the two of them had come in on a crisp Saturday night in November. Kids, they wandered around for a few minutes and then brought a bottle of blackberry brandy to the counter, along with a Smith & Wesson ’51 pre-model 27, .357 revolver and a Model 60 snub-nose .38.

There are a lot of versions on what happened next, but in the official transcripts it is agreed that there were words and when Waldheim made a movement with his hand, the nineteen-year-old had pulled the trigger and fired a 125 grain bullet through Dan’s heart at 1,600 feet per second, sending the fifty-four year old man crashing back against the wall of bottles like a loading chute gate at a rodeo.

They’d fled north with $943 and the idea that they could make it to Canada. I’d followed them east of Durant and finally lit them up alongside the Co-Op. I’d slung myself out the door of the tiny Bronco that Lucian had bequeathed to me—I smiled and was getting ready to yell that they had a taillight out that they needed to get fixed and happy motoring.

The shooter had flung open his door and was marching toward me, and I hadn’t even seen the revolver in his hand until he raised it and fired.

They say the slug ricocheted off the chrome trim on the door and then continued it’s merry way through my forearm. I’d like to think that I was cool and calculated when I returned volley, but that would require me remembering that I had pulled my .45, aimed, and fired—but all I really remember is standing over the young man and kicking the Smith & Wesson into the grass alongside the gravel.

That and her screaming; I don’t think she was remotely aware that she still had the snub-nose .38 in her back pocket.

I got up early the next morning and tried the room next door, but there still was no answer, so I loaded up Dog and drove over to The Outpost Café and Truck Stop to grab two quick breakfast sandwiches, one for me and one for Dog, before heading north.

I took a left, wound my way around West Griffith Street, and parked at the very far corner of the snow-covered lot under the sign that read NO DOGS ALLOWED.

I drank a cup of coffee, gave the ends of my sandwich to the beast, who would have felt slighted if I had not shared, and then pulled out my pocket watch to check the time. I lingered there, waiting to see if she would show, but she didn’t, and I finally got out with my locking case. I held a hand up to let Dog know he wasn’t to follow. “Stay.”

He sat, expecting a treat as I closed and locked the truck.

I crunched across the dry snow of the parking lot past the chain-link and razor wire, and they buzzed me through the two heavy doors. I immediately went to my right where I knew the visitor lockers were and placing my Colt in the locking case along with my pocketknife, turned and facing the revolving security opening, looked up at the monitor, unpinned my badge ,and placed it and my driver’s license on the tray.

“Do you have a cell phone?”

I turned toward the voice to my left where a tall, bespectacled man held open one of the heavy doors. “No.”

He held out a hand. “Brian Sales, I’m Heather’s new parole officer.”

“What happened to the other guy?”

“Retired.” I followed him through another door into a hallway, where we stopped in front of another and waited for the guard to buzz us through. Sales folded his arms over the thick file at his chest. “She’d like to speak with you.”

I think orange was one of my favorite colors before I got used to being around it all the time in correctional facilities. She was palming a basketball and shooting a few foul shots in the gymnasium under the watchful eye of a female guard who stood at the baseline, sometimes collecting the ball and bouncing it back out to her.

She was tall, very tall, with Raphaelite curls around her face and an easy grin that was only marginally lessened by a bruise on her cheekbone and a scab on her chin. “Hey, Sheriff.”

I pulled up next to the ball rack. “Howdy, Heather. How are you doing?”

“Nervous.” She glanced around at the cavernous room, the rafters and ceiling painted a light blue as if mimicking the walled-off sky. “Where’s Roberta?”

I shrugged. “Snow must’ve slowed her up.”

“That, or ol’ Roberta’s finally given up on me.”

“I don’t think that’s the case.”

She dribbled the ball to the top of the key, held it for a second, then turned and executed a lovely three-pointer, all net. “They let me come in here and burn a little of it off.” The guard bounced the ball back to her, and she dribbled to the far side of the perimeter, palming it in an easy saunter. “I used to hate this game when I was on the outside. In school, short people were always asking me if I played basketball and I always wanted to ask them if they played miniature golf.”

The guard laughed as Heather sank another. “With your height you play, right Sheriff?”

I ignored her question and glanced up at the clock, caged against the wall—even time got solitary confinement here. “We should get going.”

She surprised me by tossing me the ball, and I held it for a moment before placing it in the rack, the movement causing the wheels to roll it a little away from me on the glimmering wooden floor.

“I’m not doing it this year.”

I turned, unsure if what I’d just heard was what I’d thought I’d heard. “Excuse me?”

“I got a couple of 115s, and they’re not going to take me seriously.” She dropped her eyes and wouldn’t look at me. “I had a cell phone.”

“In prison?”

“My mother in Douglas is dying, all right?” She turned her face away, and I was pretty sure there were tears. “A friend smuggled it in to me.” She wiped her eyes with a savage movement of her hand, which landed on the bruise on her face. “One of the girls heard I had a phone so there was a fight.” I stepped in bounds, but she held her hand out like I had to stop Dog. “No.” She stayed like that for a moment and then slowly let the hand fall before calling back to the guard. “Wendy, I want to go to my cell.”

The parole officer, Sales, was waiting for me in the hallway. “Did you still want to go to the hearing?”

“I suppose not.”

He nodded as we returned to the heavy metal doors and the long hallway. “To be honest, I’m just as relieved—I haven’t had much of an opportunity to review the case.” He looked at me. “She’s been in here seventeen years?”

“Yes. For possession of a firearm during the commitment of a robbery resulting in a homicide.”

“But she never used her gun?”

“No.”

“Can’t the other individual, the one who shot the guy…” He flipped open the file, searching for the name.

“Dead.”

“Oh.” They buzzed us through, and I collected my badge, license, and gun case. He shrugged on his coat as we walked outside, and he stared at me. “How long have you been doing this?”

“A while now.”

“You mind if I ask why?”

I turned to look at him.

“I mean no offense, but she’s a basket case. I just don’t understand why you would—?” There was a noise, and he stared at me and then the inside pocket of his jacket. I waited calmly as he fumbled with his cell phone. “Probably the board, wanting to know why I’m not in there.” He touched a button. “Yes?” A second passed, and I could hear the other voice on the line. “Who? Oh, yes… His eyes flicked to me. “Actually he’s right here, would you like to speak with him?”

He handed me the phone. “A Roberta?”

When I got the thing to my ear, she was already talking. “Walter, I’m so sorry, but I was in a wreck.”

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, I just slid the stupid thing into a ditch and had to walk two miles to get help. How did it go?”

I held the phone to my ear and looked around as if the parole board might’ve snuck up on me. “Well, it hasn’t, and it’s not.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s not going to the hearing this year; she got a bunch of 115s… Um, cautionary reports for breaking rules–she had a cell phone for goodness sake.” There was a long pause, and a thought dawned like a bad day. “Roberta, are you the one who gave her the phone?”

I listened, and she finally spoke. “Walt, her mother is dying.”

Sighing, I stared at the concrete and the drifting snow that was blowing around my boots. “Well, I don’t know what to tell you; there are other charges and she didn’t even bother going to the hearing.” I shook my head. “It’s not your fault, she does something like this every year.”

The parole officer began pointing at his wrist and throwing a thumb over his shoulder as I explained. “I’ve got to give Mr. Sales back his cell phone so that he can go to the hearing even if she isn’t.” She apologized some more, and we made promises for the coming year, the kind of thing you did during the holidays, finally saying goodbye.

I handed Sales his phone, and he glanced at the screen as he turned and started back into the building. “Who is Roberta Waldheim, anyway?”

I stretched my back and took a deep breath of the cold, free air and called out after him, sure that the buzzing of the prison door drowned me out. “She and her husband used to run a liquor store down in Casper, but she’s in the rehabilitation business now.” I watched him disappear and then trudged across the tundra toward my truck, and Dog.

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