Four-Part Dissonance by Edward Doughtie, chapter 17 (For previous chapters see archives)

Chapter 17

Boomer had two Big Macs, double fries, and a large coke. Branch had the grilled chicken sandwich and coffee. Branch showed Boomer his empty wallet. “Doc cleaned me out.” Boomer growled and paid. While they ate, Branch got a good look at Boomer as he tore into his burger. Crowded into the front seat of the car, Boomer seemed even bigger. His face was pitted with old acne scars, and an angry rash covered his neck. As he ate, a vein stood out on his forehead, and sweat trickled past his ears.
“You married, Boomer?”
“Not no more.” Boomer gulped his drink. “Bitch left me while I was in Iraq.”
“Mine too. Not while I was over there, but when I was here being a cop. She didn’t like my job.”
Boomer half smiled. “Didn’t like cops, huh?”
“Didn’t like me being one.”
“Whyn’t you quit?”
“Couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
Boomer snorted. “Now look where it’s got you.”
“Any kids?”
“Nah.”
“Me neither. I think I would have liked some.” Boomer didn’t respond, but he squinted and showed his yellow teeth.
“What would you do if Doc’s job runs out?”
Boomer frowned and dug the aspirin bottle out of the glove box. He swallowed a handful and washed it down with coke. “Might go to Mexico. Find me a senorita.”
“Work security again?”
He smiled. “Maybe. Not in no warehouse, though.”
“Know any Spanish?”
“Enough. Hacerce atras, maricón.”
Branch laughed, and Boomer gave a low chuckle. “Better get back on the road.”
“I need to take a leak,” Branch said.
Boomer thought a moment. “Me too. No funny stuff.”
Branch said. “Ok. But if you go in the john with me, they’ll think you’re a maricón.”
The joke didn’t work. Boomer frowned. “I don’t think so. You just keep your fuckin’ hands to yourself.”
As they got back on the interstate, Boomer called in a report. This time Branch heard him begin with the number twenty-three. Boomer’s voice sounded hoarse when he spoke softly.
Branch became aware that Boomer was looking at him and scratching his neck. Eventually he said, “You don’t seem very scared.”
“Should I be?”
“If you fuck up, I’ll have to kill you.”
“Then I won’t fuck up.” After a moment, Branch said, “You don’t seem scared either.”
“I ain’t.”
“It doesn’t bother you going into a place crawling with armed cops?”
Boomer didn’t answer. “If something does go wrong and you kill me, you know you’d get killed seconds later.” Another pause. “Doc didn’t say anything about that, did he?”
“Just don’t fuck up, and nobody gets hurt.”
“You think Doc will let us all go when he gets the film? Or will he say, ‘Boomer, take these folks out and waste them, please’?” Boomer was silent, but Branch could see him rubbing his temples. “You know, one thing they say about cops is true. If another cop gets killed, cops all over the place go after the killer. It’s like throwing a rock at a hornet’s nest. You’d never make it to Mexico. All the cops at my shop would have a good look at you and remember you if I turned up dead.”
“Maybe I should just waste you now.”
“Then you wouldn’t have done your job for Doc. He wants that film.”
They were silent. The road shimmered in the heat. Trucks roaring past broke the steady drone of the engine and air conditioner. Then Branch asked, “What does Doc expect to get from this film?”
“He don’t want me to talk about it.”
“I know it’s some kind of rocket launcher. Is he going to shoot down an airliner? A plane full of little kids going to visit grandma?”
“Nah, nothing like that.”
“Going to kill the president?”
“Nope.”
“It’s just an old bazooka. He could probably get a fairly recent rocket launcher on the black market. Why’d he have to go to Korea for it?”
“The Koreans were supposed to have something special.”
“What kind of special?”
“What do you care? Why don’t you just shut the fuck up?” Branch shut up. Surely Boomer had thought about what might happen. He wondered if he could work on Boomer’s uncertainty without getting a dangerous reaction.
The road rolled on. Boomer rubbed his temples. The plastic covering the window was getting looser and noisier.
“I don’t think there’s anything special,” Branch ventured. “I think Doc’s desperate. Both your groups only have you three, and you don’t seem to have the commitment Doc and Bledsoe have. Does Doc think if he makes some big explosion he’ll get more members?” Boomer looked up quickly, then out the window. He rubbed his eyes.
Branch pushed. “Yeah, bang, some innocent slob gets killed, and people rush to join three guys running from the law. Doesn’t that seem a little nuts to you?” Rub, rub.
“You seem like a pretty bright guy,” Branch lied. “I think Doc is taking advantage of your good nature. Tell me: when’s the last time you got any actual money for this job?” Silence. Rub, rub. The exit for Buffalo flew past. 135 miles to Houston. Two hours. Improvise.
“Yeah,” Branch said, not holding back the sarcasm in his voice. “Doc pays in IOUs. Big payoff later. When? What from? Membership dues from the pledges of the Lads of Liberty? You going to have an initiation? Make them run naked, get slapped by a paddle?”
Boomer turned facing Branch, the rash suffusing his whole face. Spitting, “He’s getting a nuke! Yeah, a nuke! That’ll make ’em take notice.”
Branch was quiet for a while, letting Boomer cool off. “What would he do with this nuke?” he asked softly.
Boomer sighed, deflated after his outburst. “He’d blow something up. Not kill very many, he said, just something that people would notice. Then he said he’d negotiate.”
“Negotiate for what?”
“Shit, I don’t know. They talk about so many things. Run off the Jews. Make all the niggers move to Mississippi. Get all the fags out of the government. Pray in the schools.”
“You think these are good ideas?”
“Some are, seems to me.” He frowned and rubbed his temples.
Branch guessed that Boomer was not an ideologue. He should return to Boomer’s most immediate concerns. “So Doc couldn’t help with your headaches.”
“Naw.”
“Think he’s smart enough to put a nuclear bomb together?”
Boomer just rubbed his eyes. Branch kept quiet. A sign ahead told him they were approaching Madisonville. He checked the fuel gauge. “Getting low on gas. Should I exit here?” He pointed to the Conoco sign.
“Ok.” Boomer stuck the gun out of sight by the door and made one of his phone calls. Branch worked the self-service pump and paid with his credit card. Boomer fidgeted with the phone, scratched his neck furiously, but relaxed when they returned to the interstate. After a few minutes he began rubbing his temples again.
They were getting close to Huntsville, and time was growing shorter. He surveyed some of the extras cops have in their cars. “Ever work a police band scanner?”
Boomer shook his head, and grimaced as if he had stirred the needles in his head.
“Want me to show you?”
Boomer shrugged and said, “No funny stuff.”
“No, this is just to receive. Just turn this on”– he turned a knob—“and it’ll pick up local police calls.”
The speaker crackled. A dispatcher called a patrol car to check out underage drinking at a party at Sam Houston State. A fender bender near the Huntsville exit. Domestic disturbance at an apartment complex.
“So,” Branch said, “they’re not after us yet.” He switched off the scanner.
Boomer nodded, gently. He was either thinking, or just nursing his headache.
“Another thing. That cell phone you’re using?” Boomer had put the cell phone in the bracket on the dashboard. “There’s a tracking gadget that the cops in Houston can use to tell where the phone is. Like if I left it somewhere, or it got stolen, they could find it.”
“Yeah, sure.”
He’s not buying that one now. But maybe he’ll remember.
The Huntsville exit appeared. The plastic finally tore loose part way and flapped while the road noise roared in. I’d better go for it now, Branch thought. Please, all you lords of jazz, let my improvisation swing for once.
“Boomer, you know what I’d do if I were you?” Boomer didn’t answer, but looked at him, his eyes expressing pain or curiosity.
“If I were you, I’d let me out and take this car down to Mexico. Well, maybe not this car. You could keep that scanner on, and if you heard anything about this car, you could dump it and pick up a nice BMW. Go down there and find that senorita. Just drop me by the side of the road and take off.” He glanced at Boomer, who rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, if I’m not dead, the other cops won’t bust a gut just to catch a carjacker.” Boomer rubbed savagely, and his breath started coming faster. “Yeah, and if you lose that cell phone, you get rid of the tracking gadget.” The redness started rising from the rash on his neck, and covered his face. “Here’s a rest stop. Want me to stop? Need to pee?” Flap flap flap went the plastic.
“Yeah,” he said hoarsely.
Branch pulled into the rest stop and parked by the facilities. He turned off the ignition, leaving the key in, and opened the door. Branch took a breath and grabbed the cell phone as he left the car. Boomer, red and panting, raised his gun. Branch ducked around the front of the car, hunched low. Boomer opened his door and stood, pointing the gun. Branch braced himself, shaking his head. Boomer hesitated, blinked rapidly, slid into the driver’s seat, wrenched the ignition, slapped the car into gear, and burned rubber out of the rest area. Branch got out of the road and turned on the phone. Please let it work. The screen lit, and Branch sighed with relief. He hit the menu, found the number that had to be the one Doc put on speed dial, and punched in.
“Yes?” It was Doc.
Branch spoke softly, imitating Boomer’s hoarseness. “Twenty-three. Near Huntsville. Ok.”
“You’re a little late. Watch the time.”
“Ok.”
He disconnected and punched in a number. It rang and rang, until a machine picked up, and Celia’s voice asked him to leave a message. “It’s Aldo. Do not waste a second, but get Colin and go to a hotel. Call me when you get there.” He left his cell number. Then he called 911. He identified himself and his location, and warned of an armed and dangerous man driving an unmarked police car with loose plastic on the rear window. “Don’t use radio. He’s listening to the scanner.” He asked that the local police pick him up and call his cell. Then he took a deep breath and went into the men’s room. Afterwards, he took a long drink from the water fountain and waited for his Huntsville colleagues. He allowed himself one flattering thought: I played him like a violin—or at least a viola.

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