In case you missed the installments, here’s the whole story.
Nothing ever worked anymore for Jerry Lowndes. He was on a bad run.
When Lowndes checked his email, he found more evidence that his book on the heroes of the Atlantic Coast Conference wasn’t a blockbuster. He had hoped it would provide some aid in fulfilling his daughter’s wish to transfer from a state school to a private one that cost fifty grand a year. It was part of a vast array of responsibilities Jerry had acquired as a result of his divorce settlement. He was satisfied the former and once again Penelope Livermore had played a crucial role in convincing their daughter, Leona, that Randolph-Macon College was the place for her.
Leona played the cornet. Oh, there was money in that. Her mother hated him. Why else would anyone go back to being named Livermore?
When a man gets in a bind, the solutions get more and more drastic, not to mention more and more unlikely to succeed. Jerry was betting. Hell, he was taking bets. He was quite a bit better at taking them than making them.
The phone rang. The office. Oh, great. One of those “mandatory” meetings. What a shame Jerry wasn’t at the ACC Tournament or some NCAA first round. He got out of a lot of “mandatory” meetings. When he got to the office, the sports editor, ostensibly an ally, informed him with rehearsed solemnity that it looked like there were going to be “furloughs.”
Jerry had heard of them. He just didn’t really know what they were. In old war movies, sailors went on furloughs – for some reason, the Army didn’t seem to get them – and generally wore Hawaiian leis, chased women, drove Jeeps drunk and were rounded up by MPs.
It didn’t seem so bad. It was, though. Every employee, at least those in the newsroom, had to take two weeks off. Not vacation. Off, as in, no money. For Jerry, this was, in fact, a crushing blow. He tried to schedule his furlough at the end, the seventh and eighth weeks, but of course, that had been done for his convenience and, as a matter of fact, Jerry was off the payroll right now.
“Oh, and by the way, don’t use your company email during your furlough. It will be temporarily disabled.”
For my convenience.
Jerry imagined himself sitting in a room full of sheep. If it was possible for people to be happy while being told they wouldn’t be earning a dime for two weeks, these were. A few almost panted with excitement.
This is what’s going to save us!
Thing is, Jerry needed money for more than the usual reasons. Tax time was approaching. He wasn’t going to be getting a refund. Au contraire.
On the positive side, he now had plenty of time to consider his plight and wallow in self-pity.
Lowndes could have been doing many things had he immediately rolled up his sleeves and gone to work, making proposals of free-lance stories he could write, or arranging for some sort of loan to get him by, but any comprehensive plan for relief required a great deal of consideration, so Jerry headed for a place where he knew he could get good advice.
He decided to pull a double shift at the Lovable Loser Sports Bar, which was coincidentally a place where betting had been known to take place. Jerry had taken some losses, having laid a hundred on Connecticut and Kentucky to lose when in fact they hadn’t. That took care of his cash on hand – he’d won big with Clemson in the NIT a week earlier – but he still had an airlines VISA with $5,000 on it but $15,000 available. Jerry was pretty sure he’d made a minimum payment recently, but if he hadn’t, he’d know soon enough. A gal he had his eyes on was known to hang out there in the afternoons, too, and she was about as fetching as a drunk gal could be. She wore it well, the alcoholism, and was a heap of fun. Jerry had every reason to be in that “nothing to lose” mood.
The best mistakes were always comedies of error.
Laurie was there with an open stool next to her. Their eyes met significantly when Jerry walked in the door. He ordered a beer, but she said “fuck that” and told Adam the young and wary bartender that Jerry needed “a drink of liquor,” and, by God, so he did. Laurie was still reeling from the loss of her job, which was unjust because she’d been peeling off a piece of the action from the cashbox for years, and it was always just fine as long as her and the boss were “seeing each other.” He broke up with her, and next thing you know, tucking her usual “commission” turned out to be against the law.
“Aw, well, fuck it,” Laurie said. “How the hell has your day been?”
“Peachy,” Jerry said. “Let’s you and me get a fucking room.”
If they had decided to hang around the bar a while, and if Ronnie Shingler hadn’t spotted Jerry and Laurie leaving the Loser, and if Jerry hadn’t covered the game where Ronnie’s son John Lee dropped the game-winning pass in overtime, and if Jerry and Laurie hadn’t been smoking marijuana when the police came knocking, then Jerry wouldn’t have wound up spending the night in jail and wondering at some point why Laurie wasn’t there, too. Jerry wouldn’t have had to hear that “Oh, Jerry, you couldn’t have” routine from Penelope, and he wouldn’t have had to hear Penelope say that Leona was going to be crushed at not having her father to help celebrate her birthday, and that was going to happen because it would be a cold day in hell before she, Penelope Livermore, was going to bail his sorry ass out.
That was his one phone call.
Lowndes decided just to rot there, for two whole weeks if he had to, because they had to feed him, so maybe they’d just let him go after a while. Stranger things had happened. Jerry wasn’t going to hang himself or try to find something to slit his wrists. No, he was going to do what God intended and just rot.
It never seemed as if Lowndes slept. The jail cell wasn’t exactly the Hilton, though neither had been the motel room where he and Laurie had been cavorting. His mind had been alive, considering the depth of the hole and paucity of ways to get out of it, but no solutions had presented themselves. It was going to hit the papers, most notably the one from which he was on furlough and would certainly soon be scuttled. Oh, it would look nice and polite in The Patriot, but other nearby rags wouldn’t be so discreet, and TV would get hold of it the way it usually did, by reading about it in the papers and then blowing it up out of all proportion.
Jerry had to admit, though, the proportion was pretty large.
He must have slept some. It was inexplicable that all the thought had taken up six hours of brooding and despair. If they were dreams, they were full of images of his sobbing daughter, reproachful ex, and the managing editor of The Patriot, who would surely be delighted at the opportunity to erase the sports columnist’s salary from the docket. They wouldn’t care about replacing his job, but they’d be ebullient at replacing his salary, knowing full well they could hire some wide-eyed, apple-cheeked lad, or some similarly guileless lass, to replace him for somewhere between thirty-three and fifty cents on the dollar. Jerry was in the clink. He’d been busted for pot, which was only, by the way, because Laurie had some. He hadn’t smoked weed in pursuit of anything but sex since he was, oh, thirty or so. He saw his predicament for what it was. He’d beaten the odds too many times, skated his way through a license check with his offhand affability, claimed he’d been desperately trying to get home to see a sick child or a dying mother, whatever it had taken to charm his way out of trouble. Jerry, for all his faults, was a charming guy, and, at long last, he had staggered, quite literally, into a fix where charm was irrelevant.
That hanging-in-the-jail-cell option wasn’t looking bad, but it was just Jerry being dispirited. Gallows humor had spiced up his columns on occasion. He wasn’t going to end it all. He just couldn’t figure out a way to make earth much better than hell.
Lowndes figured the noise had something to do with breakfast, but the trusty, or jailer, or whoever he was, walked down the hall to where Jerry was thankfully confined alone. He opened the door.
“Yes, sir, that’s me.”
“You’re free to go.”
There wasn’t much to the “processing.” They just gave him back what had been “on his person”: wallet, change, car keys, a plastic room key, a lighter, half a pack of smokes, and two condoms safely packaged and sanitized for his security and convenience.
Seeing Penelope Livermore at the counter would have seemed a miracle. She wasn’t there. A deputy was waiting.
“Jerry, how are you? Been reading your columns for years.”
“Why, thank you, sir.” Jerry was wary and disbelieving. The tag above the badge said the deputy’s name was Shingler. “What’s … the … deal?”
He ought to have been able to do better than that.
Shingler led him through the first of two double doors. The fifteen feet or so between them was vacant and thus private.
“Nothing ever happened,” Shingler said. “All charges dropped. As a matter of paperwork, they never existed.”
“You won’t lose your job. If you do, you won’t lose your severance or unemployment eligibility.”
“I hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“Me, too, Jerry, but you have got a commitment.”
“Yep,” Shingler said. “I want you to meet me, oh, at, uh, five or thereabouts. I get off at four, you see. You remember the motel room where you got arrested?”
“Vaguely.” Jerry smiled.
“That’s where I’ll be waiting,” Shingler said. “That key in your pocket? It still works.”
“See you at five,” said Jerry, bewildered.
Still clueless, Jerry Lowndes knocked on the door of Room 227 of the Nocono Lodge, where last he had been arrested. A voice from inside said, “Use your key.”
Amazingly, it did, in fact, still work.
“Sit down,” said the deputy who had delivered Jerry from incarceration early that morning. “I’m Ronnie Shingler. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
Lowndes certainly suspected as much. He’d wracked his brain all day. Was he getting some kind of informal sentence of community service? Of course not. What was the need for setting him up, which was obviously what had happened? He was grateful for not being ruined, but what was the need of holding that ruination over his head? He’d called Laurie Bigelow, but it had not been a lengthy exchange.
Jerry: “You set me up.”
Laurie: “You had it coming.”
Now it was time to find out what the hell was going on. He sat down.
“This is going to take a while,” Shingler said, “but I want you to know what you’re getting into.”
Shingler made no mention of there being any option.
“The county administrator is a fellow named Bob Siderowf,” Shingler said. “A few years ago, Bob got together with me and the sheriff, and he talked about the need to raise some money. Every government entity has run into the same thing over the past decade. We’ve had this rise of doctrinaire conservatives who have taken this solemn oath not to raise any tax for any reason, so we’ve started running our law-enforcement operations for profit. We send our cars out on the interstate to horn in on the Highway Patrol’s business. We run speed traps just over the top of every hill. When some kid gets arrested for anything, we tack on mandatory collect calls and service charges and court costs, and we say folks got to pay for the cost of services like fire and ambulances, which might be fair if it weren’t for the fact that all those salaries get paid whether the personnel is hauling ass out to some house or not. So the people who got money don’t have to spend more of it, and we stick it to the people who ain’t got none. Me and some of the boys got together and figured out a new way to bring some money in. It works real well, but it’s got to be a secret ‘cause it just happens to be illegal.”
“Well, shit, sounds like I’m poster boy for who you trying to help,” Lowndes cracked.
“Well, Jerry, you are ideal, I’ll give you that.
“What we still do is try to keep the county free of drugs. Where the money comes in is when we take the pot we confiscate and spread it around to other places. We use some of it for the purposes of law enforcement. For instance, some of that marijuana was used to nab you.”
“Deputy Shingler …”
“Please call me Ronnie.”
“Ronnie, I don’t even smoke pot as a general rule. If Laurie hadn’t pulled some out …”
“And if you hadn’t been interested in getting in her pants …”
“Obviously, we had factored all that in, Jerry.”
“Be that as it may, let me finish what I got to say. You travel a lot, and you don’t just cover one sport. You go to the races at Charlotte and Martinsville and Richmond. You’re at the ballgames in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Durham, Winston-Salem, sometimes even Boone and Greenville. We just need somebody to make deliveries, and it can’t be just anybody ‘cause it’s got to be safe. Having you transport it is as safe as we can get.”
“Look, there’s nothing to it. Everything is set up. We can cover you here in the county, but we need somebody who is smart, reliable, relaxed, and professional. It’s easy. Maybe you walk into a hotel lobby to check in. You carry a briefcase. You set it on the floor, talk to the clerk, get your room key. Then you turn around, leave the briefcase and pick up the one sitting on the floor that the fellow behind you brought with him. He takes yours. Same way at a restaurant. Maybe it’s a little backpack. Dude meets you for dinner. He doesn’t look suspicious, either. You leave. He takes yours. You take his. There’s a variety of methods, all of them safe and all of them foolproof as long as we ain’t got fools doing them. We ain’t never had one yet, and we’re not going to.”
“How do you do it? You know, don’t have to account for everything you confiscate?”
“Yes, but it’s all a matter of getting the right people in the right places. One of things that makes it tough to be a cop is it don’t pay much. If a cop ain’t on the take a little, he can’t support a family. It ain’t getting no better and ain’t gon’ get no better ‘cause the money’s not there.”
“So, you’re saying that the county’s selling drugs so that school kids can get their books,” Lowndes said.
“That’s not the case directly,” Shingler said, “but that’s the basic idea.
“Not only do you not need the expense of being busted for marijuana, but you’re like a cop, Jerry. You need the money, too.”
“Damned if that ain’t true.”
“Five hundred bucks a week, minimum. More if, you know, it’s more than once in, say, a week. I’m generous.”
“At some point, doesn’t there have to be some … certification of what happens to the pot?”
“Let’s just say something gets incinerated,” Shingler said. “It may be shredded paper. It may be grass clippings or pine needles. Like I said, it’s just a matter of having the right people in charge. We’ve got a good bit of control over how people are slotted, and believe it or not, there really aren’t all that many people who know what’s going on.”
“And I don’t have any choice.”
“You don’t have any choice.” Shingler pulled out a newspaper clipping. “This is a column of yours, Jerry. Let me read to you what you wrote.”
One of the great myths of journalism is that a reporter can’t keep a secret. Oh, he can keep a secret. You tell him it’s a secret, that it’s off the record, and he won’t even tell his mama. The trouble is, if you don’t tell him it’s a secret, it’s his job to tell the whole world.
“I’m really hoping, Jerry, you weren’t just whistling ‘Dixie.’”
“I was writing about the NASCAR Hall of Fame, Ronnie.”
“You were writing about this job, Jerry. You just didn’t know it.”
Months passed and the dirty feelings subsided in Lowndes. It was just another job, just errands he had to run, like going to the post office or shopping for groceries. It paid the bills. The packages had no smell. They were all vacuum-packed in black plastic. It had occurred to Lowndes that black plastic also came in handy for the tossing of grass clippings and shredded paper into furnaces. He’d made some concessions. He’d purchased a pistol, on sale at the grand opening of a Cabela’s store. He’d never come close to having to use it, but one never knew. He started driving to places where once he’d flown. It had been some years since the rag had dismissed its in-house travel agent. Now all the traveling journalists, what few were left, had to make their own arrangements, and who’d have known that would ever come in handy? Lowndes rather enjoyed the lonely sojourns, making sure to drive no more than five miles an hour over the speed limit. As Shingler had told him, there wasn’t much to it. Put the briefcase down. Pick up the other one. Sometimes he had a brief visitor in his motel room, but there was never anything sinister. Usually the contact looked just like any other college kid.
In late September, Lowndes drove to Richmond for a NASCAR race and checked into a Hampton Inn north of town, one that had been suggested by Shingler for the proximity to the contact. The appointment was a bit inconvenient in that, otherwise, Lowndes would have gone to the track. But since being a drug mule paid every bit as much as being a columnist, Lowndes had made arrangements. He’d written a column before he left the apartment and filed it from the motel room. Then he just sat back and waited for his contact to show up at seven. He fiddled with his phone a while, then read an Esquire he’d packed in his suitcase.
It was like being in a fraternity, full of little codes and signals. When he’d make a swap at the front desk, the contact squeezed the top of his right shoulder, and he’d set the briefcase down, turn, and say something like, “Hey, how you doing?” and the other fellow, though not always male, would say, “Oh, about the same.” They’d shake hands, Lowndes would check in, pick up the other briefcase, grab the handle of the rolling suitcase with his other hand, check in his room, and that was that. There was also a code for room exchanges. Most people knocked three times. The contact would knock twice, pause, and knock twice again.
Lowndes put down the magazine, picked up his revolver, made sure the safety was on, and tucked it into the back of his pants. Nothing to it. When he opened the door, he looked at the pretty young woman standing there and was speechless.
Oh, no. This is the end. My life is over.
They looked at each other for ten seconds. Finally, Lowndes turned toward the table where he’d been reading Esquire and said, “Here. Sit down.”
“Well,” Leona Lowndes said, “I guess now you know why I wanted to transfer to Randolph-Macon.”
She reached in her purse, pulled out her own revolver, held it barrel up, pursed her lips and blew at imaginary smoke.
“Puh-shoo,” she said, started laughing, picked up the briefcase, and left the room.