The morning had already been bad enough.
Five years earlier, Max Marberry had run the Crestwood office of the Warren Insurance Agency, that is, until Harry Warren had sold out to a Spartanburg agency owned by Leland Allin, who had installed his son as the manager of the Crestwood storefront. Now the elder Allin was spinning off the local operation to his son entirely, and “Lee” (Leland Junior) was cutting the fat, so to speak. Marberry made more money than the other employees, so more money could be saved by eliminating his position, which Lee had just informed him he was reluctantly going to do. Marberry sat down, not completely surprised but taken aback by the shock of it actually happening. He sipped coffee. Lee had told him to take all the time he needed, as long as he was moved out by the end of the day.
“Mister Marberry, there’s a Mr. Jones here to see you.”
Marberry looked through the windowed partition separating his cubicle from the lobby. Jesus Christ. It was Golightly Jones.
He had the most inappropriate name ever. He’d never gone lightly anywhere. The name would have matched a running back or a flanker. Jones had been a defensive tackle. Marberry had played center and thanked the Lord Jesus every day before practice for saving him from having to try to block Golightly, who was mean, ill-tempered, and equipped with the most horrifying pair of forearms on the team. He hadn’t gone on to college. He hadn’t been college material. He’d just played high school football because he was less likely to get arrested there for what he liked doing, anyway. Football had been easy for Golightly. He seldom had to expend much energy against the weaker teams Crestwood had met on Friday nights. That’s because he made deals. Back in those days, football players wore foam-rubber padding on their hands and arms. When a defensive lineman pummeled the man in front of him in the head – “rung his bell,” it was called – no flags were thrown. It was legal. Meanwhile, offensive linemen couldn’t even use their hands. Marberry had enjoyed watching Golightly on the films. He cut deals. On the other team’s first play, he’d pummel the poor devil vainly trying to block him, and then he’d make a little deal.
“Don’t make me look bad, asshole, and they won’t have to carry you off the field,” he’d growl, and it was incredible how that almost always worked unless the opponent was similarly powerful. In those games, they’d had to carry the other team’s blocker off the field. Some teams swapped tackles, right and left, from time to time so that perhaps the two of them might last longer.
Playing high school football saved some boys from the penitentiary. In Golightly’s case, it merely postponed it. He’d been hooked on about every substance known to infest the neighborhoods of Crestwood. He’d been sent up several times, but the cops had never pinned anything serious on him. By all rights, Golightly should have been dead. He was just too mean.
What a perfect time it was for a visit.
“Send him back, Miriam,” Max said into the speaker phone.
Golightly was thinner than when he’d played. He looked rough. Heroin would do that to a man. Or meth. Whatever was on sale this week, Max reckoned.
They shook hands. Max told him to sit down. Golightly might be his last “client.” He’d be a tough man to insure. Hah!
“What can I do for you, Golightly?”
“I got a proposition for you, Max. We need to go somewhere where we can talk.” He was taller than the top of the partition. Lee had the only office that was fully enclosed. “I got something to tell you needs to be between us.”
“Sure,” Max said. “Want to walk across the street to the park?”
“Nah, I’m layin’ kinda low, you know. Don’t need to be seen by too many. How ‘bout you and me ride around a while.”
“I’m kinda busy, Golightly …”
“Ah, you just got fired,” he said. “I done heard that settin’ in the lobby.”
Max picked up his briefcase and followed Golightly out the door.
“How long you got?” Golightly asked as they pulled out of the city parking lot.
“Well, as you may have known before I did, my position has been eliminated,” Marberry said. “I reckon I’ve got to get my stuff cleaned out by the end of the day.”
“I need a ride to Spartanburg.”
“You need to take me. It’s worth your time.”
“Now, Golightly …”
“Listen what I got to say. You gonna need money. Me, too. I got something you can’t refuse.”
Max started to say something but just sighed.
“You see, I got a problem. I done won a heap of money, and I can’t collect it.”
“I mean, I’d like to help, but …”
“It’s a lottery ticket, Max. Ain’t nothing illegal.”
“How much you win?”
“Two hundred thousand dollars.”
“Hey, man, don’t get on Twenty-Six. Let’s go through the country.”
“Golightly, I haven’t driven to Spartanburg this way in ten years, and I’m an insurance man.”
“Was an insurance man. Go straight.”
“So, what you’re telling me is, you won the lottery and can’t collect it because they’ll arrest you,” Max said. “What? Do you want me to turn it in for you?”
“I wish,” Golightly said. “I’m just guessing you can’t afford to pay the taxes.”
“I can hardly afford to pay the light and water, as of about an hour ago. Divorce is hell, man.”
“How much you got? I mean, in the bank.”
“I’m not exactly sure, but … around five hundred dollars.”
“Shit, you worse off than me.”
“I just paid all the bills off last night. You should’ve gone to Joyce.”
“I can’t trust Joyce,” Golightly said. “Me and her didn’t never play ball.”
“That’s good to know,” Max said. “Her and everybody else did.”
“You still funny as hell, man. Look, I’ll get right to the point. I need about fifteen hundred dollars, and I need it quick. You get me that much, and you’n have the damn lottery ticket.”
“Surely you can do better than me, Golightly.”
“I can’t. Ain’t nobody else come to mind, and I ain’t got time.”
“Who’s after you? How hard’s it gonna be to get out of it?”
“Trust me, Max. You don’t need to know. I make a living getting out of shit like this.”
They drove through the rolling hills, occasionally passing an aging convenience store or a stately brick church named after some biblical site. Max tried to memorize them. Mount Moriah, Gethsemane, Jericho …
“I just thought of something,” Max said. “Thank God I brought my briefcase.”
“I’ve got some checks where I can draw from my credit card.”
“How ‘bout if I come up with two thousand dollars? I think I got that much left on my credit limit.”
“That’s more than I asked for, man.”
“It don’t feel right giving you less than I can afford. We played ball.”
“Yeah,” Golightly said. “We played ball.”
It wasn’t much trouble for Max Marberry to draw from his Master Card and get two thousand dollars at the Suntrust branch on the outskirts of Spartanburg. He couldn’t make the transaction at the drive-through window, though, and had to walk inside. He parked the car and instinctively removed the keys. It wasn’t because he thought Golightly Jones might steal his Pontiac, but that’s the way it looked. When he returned, Max handed Golightly the envelope.
“I reckon it’s all there,” he said. “I didn’t count it.”
Golightly just tucked it into the pocket of his old windbreaker, which looked like it came from Goodwill and most likely did.
“I wish I could come up with more. If I could, I would.”
“I know that, Max. It’s two grand I didn’t have.”
Max was uneasy, though, with honor among thieves. He worried that the money would never leave him alone. There’d be another time when Golightly needed money, and coming back to Max would seem the only way out. Blood was thicker than water, but so, too, was sweat. They’d never been friends. They’d never hung out together. They’d damn sure never been partners in crime, at least not until now. He didn’t agonize. Just accepted it as inevitable. It would come back to haunt him, but there wasn’t any other way, and not the least of the factors in play was a selfish one. Max needed the money. It was a strange day, the kind that defines an era in a man’s life. That morning he’d had a job. Now he had money, or was apparently about to get it. He’d never known employment and money to be separate. They’d always worked together. Fortune had given what Lee Allin had taken away, or that was the plan, anyway. Max didn’t have days like this. His were seldom mediocre. In his bones, he knew this excursion could not possibly be without complications.
One complication was the firm that had provided him a living. Allin had inquired about where he had gone when he noticed Marberry’s desk still clogged. Miriam Boatright, the receptionist, told Allin he had left with Golightly Jones, a thoroughly disreputable character. Allin feigned concerned and, when he got back to his office, made a call to the authorities. Whether that call was a result of Allin’s genuine concern, or because he thought Marberry might be involved in some criminal activity, such as, oh, buying drugs from Jones, was impossible to determine. Allin rationalized it away as concern for a former colleague, but Marberry getting himself in trouble might relieve Allin of the obligations he had described in eliminating his job. The severance package Max thought less than generous, but it was a few thousand dollars Allin could keep in the till if the cops carted Max off to jail. For whatever reason, conscious or unconscious, laudable or nefarious, Allin made a phone call. He called the sheriff and said he was worried that one of his employees might be in trouble. The sheriff, Ingall Hufstetler, was Allin’s brother-in-law. Sheriff Hufstetler was interested in the whereabouts of Golightly Jones and was thankful for the lead.
Max and Golightly had benefited from driving to Spartanburg on a state highway instead of the interstate, but police across the Upstate were looking for Max’s Pontiac. Max might have known this had he turned on the radio.
Golightly had a crucial call to make. His plan had been to pay off what he owed a drug dealer named Nikita Pough. Now, though, that money was in his pocket, and he wanted to keep it. This required a change of venue. As Max made his way into the heart of the city, Golightly wondered where he wanted to go. Atlanta was too obvious and too close. Regardless of where he went, people would be looking for him, the law on one side and the alternative on the other. Nikita Pough wasn’t one to forgive and forget. That’s how Golightly had gotten himself into this mess.
Golightly told Max to let him off at the bus station. They turned off the highway onto Liberty Street. It was four blocks away. Golightly tentatively decided to buy a ticket to Jacksonville, Florida. He wanted to be warm. He needed some blow. He had two thousand dollars, and he’d ridden on buses before. They were excellent places to score. He knew he was in trouble, and he knew both the cops and Pough were looking for him. What he didn’t know was how far along they were. Max dropped him off and wished him good luck.
“I got no interest in where you’re going, Golightly,” he said. “I just hope you get there okay.”
“I ‘preciate it, Max. I don’t begrudge you a dime of what you making.”
We’ll see about that, Max thought. He’d have been lying if he said he hoped they’d see each other again, so he didn’t.
When Golightly Jones emerged from Max Marberry’s blue Pontiac, he was almost immediately spotted by a Spartanburg city policeman, and the radio word of Golightly’s presence reached the ears of Nikita Pough, who was monitoring it in his makeshift office, an ancient, crumbling house that had once housed one of the city’s prominent families. Its neighborhood had grown downtrodden, only half a mile from the bus station, and Pough dispatched two hoods, De’Shon Edwards and Tay Lennart, to intercept Jones before he got away.
As Max watched Golightly disappear inside the Greyhound station, he panicked momentarily. The ticket! He held his breath, opened the glove compartment, and exhaled. It was there. He had to get back to Crestwood and clean out his desk. The payoff could wait a day. He felt little relief as he drove out W.O. Ezell Boulevard back to Interstate Twenty-Six. He’d done nothing wrong, just given someone a ride. It still made him uneasy, and a few exits east, just past Dorman High School, he had company. Two squad cars zoomed off the exit, lights flashing, and as they neared him, the noise commenced: Woo-woo-woo-woo-woo …
One cruiser pulled in behind him. The other wedged him in at the front, its rear sticking out into traffic. Orange cones appeared quickly, and one of the troopers cordoned off the lane as the driver emerged to “cover” him. Max had a revolver pointed at him, and that was a first, other than, perhaps, a cap gun during his youth. A megaphone instructed him to get out of the car with his hands visible and away from his pockets. Max complied. He spread ‘em and tried as best he could not to get excited. Somehow the trooper who had been placing cones on the dotted line had managed to procure a rifle or shotgun from somewhere, and it required little provocation for him to give Max a little love tap in the right shoulder with the stock. Then, obligingly, he read Max his rights.
Max said that he understood, and added, “Would you give me the courtesy of letting me know just what it is I’m being charged with?”
The cop with the rifle, young, short, and excitable, called him a smartass and seemed interested in giving him another whack, but an older man interceded.
“Accessory after the fact,” he said. “Aiding and abetting in the flight of a criminal. Maybe more. I’d like your permission to search the car.”
“Officer,” Max said, “I’m aware that I have the right to refuse, but I’m not going to because I have nothing to hide. Go ahead.”
In the back of his mind, Max hoped there was nothing suspicious in the trunk. He wasn’t aware of anything, but he felt a little paranoid, his mind flashing across far-fetched scenarios. The officer, whose badge identified him as Dalton Brooks, asked for license and registration and told him to get in the passenger seat of the squad car. As Max watched, a sport-utility vehicle arrived, and two dogs, apparently for the purpose of drug sniffing, emerged.
Brooks got back in the car.
“Maxwell Wendell Marberry,” he said, copying information from the driver’s license. “Fifty-Two Red Horse Road, Crestwood … You go by Max, Mister Marberry?”
“What business you in?”
“I sell insurance, Officer.”
“How you get involved with this Golightly Jones character?”
“There’s not much involvement at all, Officer. He asked for a ride to Spartanburg, and I gave him one.”
“Were you going to Spartanburg anyway?”
“Would you care to provide an explanation of why you dropped everything and set out to give a convicted felon a ride to the bus station?” Brooks asked.
“Officer Brooks, did you play ball?”
“Did you play high school football?”
“Why, yes. Greer. What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Golightly Jones and I played ball together. Won the state championship. I know he’s bad news. He ain’t never done nothing to me, though. He told me he had to get to Spartanburg and he didn’t have no other way. I didn’t ask him any questions. I reckon I didn’t want to know.”
“Mister Jones had a warrant out for armed robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. You don’t know anything about that?”
“Come on, Max. You had to know something.”
“With respect, sir, prove it.”
A radio transmission interrupted the conversation. Brooks grabbed a remote device from its mount. “Excuse me for a moment,” he said and got out of the car.
Max watched the dogs scour the trunk with little interest. There wasn’t anything for them there. Brooks appeared to be having an animated conversation with “headquarters.” Then he and the excitable young officer talked.
Brooks got back in the car. “You got a business card, Mister Marberry?”
He handed him one that would be outdated tomorrow. It had his personal email address on it, though, and his cell.
“This fellow you played ball with, Golightly Warren Jones, aged forty-six …”
“He’s dead. A Spartanburg County deputy sheriff just found his body in a dumpster behind a pizza joint on Ezell Boulevard. We may need to talk with you further.”
“I don’t know a thing, Officer. Honest.”
“You didn’t deliver Mister Jones to his, I don’t know, creditors, did you?”
“No, sir, I did not. I’m sorry he’s dead. He didn’t never do nothing to me other than save my ass about fifty times on a football field, oh, twenty-seven-eight-some-odd years ago.” Max took a deep breath. “It occurs to me, Officer, that letting a man off at the bus station isn’t exactly the place you’d expect some gangland murder to take place.
“I don’t know what he did. I don’t know who’d want to kill him and why. I just gave him a ride to Spartanburg. I will concede that, right now, I wish I hadn’t.”
“Well, you’re clean,” Brooks said. “Sergeant McLeroy says there wasn’t nothing much in the whole car. Briefcase full of insurance documents. Couple books in the trunk. Umbrella. Windbreaker. Did you know there’s a scratch-off ticket in the glove box?”
“Yes, sir. Triple Green 777. I buy a couple of them every week. I reckon I need to look it up and see if I won anything.”
“You be careful,” Brooks said. “We’ll be back in touch.”
My books — including my novels, The Intangibles and The Audacity of Dope — are available here: http://www.amazon.com/Monte-Dutton/e/B005H3B144/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1416767492&sr=8-1