Six weeks later, Bozeman, Montana
Jerrod should have taken Parker up on his offer, but admitting he was too drunk to drive . . . well, that was just too embarrassing. Besides, he wasn’t that drunk; just a little tipsy. The three-quarter moon illuminated a gray-scale landscape. The truck hit a pothole and suddenly two of the wheels were in the gravel.
“Whoa, Nelly!” He steered the vehicle to the left and got them back on the road.
“Keep your eyes on the road, cowboy.” Trish hadn’t had as much to drink as he had. She never did. But she wasn’t as big as him, either, so it didn’t take much to put her under the table.
Jerrod pulled out his native Tennessee drawl. “Sorry ‘bout that, may-um. They musta inshtalled that pothole this afternoon, cuz I am shooore it was not there this morning.”
She started giggling, which would turn into hiccups if she didn’t get it stopped. He flashed her his best we-aims-to-please-ma’am grin, but she had stopped laughing and was pointing at the windshield chirping, “Oh. Oh. Oh.” A man was standing in the middle of the road in front of them.
He stomped on the brake and wrenched the steering wheel to the left. Everything slowed down, and he thought he missed the man as they skidded past in slow motion. Then he heard the sickening thud of an unprotected body meeting unyielding metal. The truck fishtailed across the road and onto the shoulder on the other side, where it executed a gravel-throwing one-eighty before coming to rest half on the road and half off. He hadn’t gotten his foot on the clutch, so the truck stalled out with a lurch.
His heart pounded in his chest, his throat, his ears. His hands had a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. He could see the man in the truck’s headlights, lying on the side of the road fifty feet away, not moving.
“I think you hit him,” Trish said in a small voice.
A heavy dread formed in his chest. A DUI could get him a fine and a six month suspension of his license. If the guy was badly injured or . . . He rested his head on the steering wheel. He was screwed; totally screwed.
A voice wandered out of an alcohol-fogged corner of his brain and suggested he should see if the guy was alright. Another voice said he should just drive away and pretend nothing had happened. He was leaning toward the second voice’s advice when Trish’s door popped open and she jumped out.
“Get the truck off the road,” she shouted and trotted unsteadily toward the man, waist-length red hair swaying back and forth behind her. How did women manage to walk in high heels while drunk without suffering grievous bodily injury? Another of life’s mysteries.
He got the truck going and parked it on the other side of the road ten feet from where Trish was standing over the man. The glare of the headlights threw everything into harsh relief, every detail jumping out with razor-edged clarity. It seemed like everyone within a hundred miles must be able to see it, and it required a physical effort not to turn off the headlights. He climbed out of the truck and walked over to Trish.
“Is he okay?” He tried to sound calm, but his voice cracked.
“I don’t know. He’s not moving.”
“Is he breathing?”
“I don’t know.” She straightened up and hugged herself, rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. The man was face down on the gravel. One of his legs was twisted in a way that didn’t look natural.
Jerrod bent down, put his hand on the man’s shoulder, and nudge him. “Hey, man. You okay?” The man didn’t respond.
Trish grabbed Jerrod’s arm and pointed at the man’s back. Two neat holes stood out against his white shirt. A dark stain was spreading down his back. Jerrod had served two combat tours as a medic and knew a gunshot wound when he saw one.
“He’s been shot,” he said, “but he’s still alive.”
“How can you tell?”
“The bullet holes.”
“Don’t be an asshole. I know he’s been shot. How do you know he’s still alive?”
He wasn’t trying to be an asshole. But between the copious amounts of alcohol he had consumed and the shock of hitting the guy with his truck, his brain was having trouble keeping up.
“The wounds are still actively bleeding,” he said. “That means the heart is still pumping.”
“Oh.” She took a step back. “What are you gonna do?”
He pressed his lips together. She was disowning responsibility, pushing it off on him. She liked to be in charge until the going got tough. Then she’d step back and let someone else make the decisions. That way, she didn’t have to take the blame when everything went south. Parker called it passive-aggressive.
He looked around. “Where did he come from?”
Jerrod drove this road a lot. It was mostly open fields and scrub brush, and there were no buildings along this stretch. He didn’t see a car, but the man had to have gotten here somehow. He must have been shot just minutes before they came along, so the shooter must still be around. Suddenly, he felt very exposed standing in the bright lights of the truck.
The man groaned and rolled over onto his back, his eyes staring at the stars in the cold, cloudless sky. There were two bullet holes in his chest, too.
Jerrod point them out to Trish. “He was shot in the back.”
“How do you know that?” She said. Her voice squeaked.
“Those are exit wounds,” he explained, hoping to calm her down with a clinical description of the facts. “They’re bigger, messier, bloodier than entrance wounds. Someone shot him twice in the back. Both bullets went straight through and out the other side.”
“Oh.” She turned away and threw up.
While she was emptying the contents of her stomach into a patch of scrub brush on the side of the road, the man grabbed Jerrod’s wrist, which almost made him piss his pants. A trickle of blood ran down the man’s chin from the corner of his mouth, and he was wheezing. He swung his other arm over his body in a looping motion and shoved something into Jerrod’s hand. At first, he thought it was a pack of cigarettes. It was about the right size and shape. But it was black and rigid.
“They mustn’t get it back.” The man’s voice was a ragged whisper. “They can’t be trusted with a weapon like that. No one can.” He coughed, and blood erupted from his mouth. Jerrod stuffed the object into his jacket pocket and rolled the man onto his side so he wouldn’t drown in his own blood.
“They’re after the President,” he said. “They’re going to take over. Somebody has to stop them. Get it to Doctor Joe at college park. He’ll know―”
He convulsed and choked up some more blood. Then he was still, eyes open, staring into the distance, no longer seeing anything. Jerrod closed the man’s eyes. He had seen men die before, but it wasn’t something he’d ever gotten used to.
“We should call 911,” said Trish. She wiped vomit off her mouth with her shirtsleeve.
Jerrod stood. “He’s dead. Calling 911 won’t do him any good.”
“Can we stop the bleeding until—”
“Trish. He’s dead. If the police find us here, we’re in serious trouble.”
“W-we can’t just leave him.” A tear ran down her cheek.
He ran his fingers through his hair. She was right. It might be hours before anyone else came along, and coyotes might have dragged his body off into the bush by then. That didn’t sit right with him. But what to do? He was still trying to get his brain to work it out when he heard Trish talking on her cell phone.
“Yes. I want to report an injured man on the Old Mission Road, about two miles east of 191. He’s been shot. I think he’s dead.” She listened for a moment and then ended the call and put the phone back in her pants pocket.
“She wanted my name.”
“Yeah. Let’s get out of here.”
* * *
The next morning, the pounding in Jerrod’s head slowly turned into pounding on the front door. He crawled out of bed, noted that Trish was dead to the world, and made the trek from the bedroom to the living room and then to the front door. It was Parker, and he was grinning. Jerrod suppressed the urge to punch him in the face. After all, Parker was his best friend.
He left the door open and staggered to the bathroom. When he returned, Parker was in the kitchen making coffee, a sign of true friendship. Jerrod collapsed onto a chair at the kitchen table, buried his face in his hands, and thought about throwing up.
“What time is it?” he mumbled.
“Nine o’clock on a fine Saturday morning, my friend.”
Jerrod glared at him from behind his fingers. He had long been of the opinion that the words ‘fine’ and ‘morning’ could not meaningfully coexist in the same sentence. Parker knew that.
He had been out drinking with them, yet here he was, wide awake and disturbingly cheerful, apparently suffering no ill effects whatsoever. He had always been that way. Jerrod, on the other hand, was suffering enough for both of them. It was so unfair.
There were a lot of things in life Jerrod thought were unfair. Like the fact that he was stuck in a dead-end job as a telephone tech support guy for a software company, which wouldn’t have been so bad if it paid anything resembling a decent salary, which it didn’t. Or the fact that he lived in a one-bedroom dump in the middle of nowhere—otherwise known as Montana—which might also have been okay if it was his own house, which it wasn’t. Or the fact that his life was a mess and going nowhere, which might have been okay if it weren’t for his uber-successful sisters, and the worried tone in his mom’s voice when they talked about what he was—or wasn’t—doing with his life. Or—.
“Sooo,” Parker said, depositing a cup of black coffee in front of him. “Seen the news yet?”
Jerrod moved his hands from his face to the cup and guided it to his mouth to take a sip of the elixir of life. His outlook improved immediately. That was a placebo effect, of course. The caffeine hadn’t had time to reach his brain yet. But he was okay with placebos as long as they worked.
“Parker, the only thing I’ve seen so far this morning, apart from your ugly face, is the inside of my eyelids.”
“Yeah, well, there’s actually something interesting happening in Bozeland this morning.” Parker was the only person he knew who referred to Bozeman and environs as Bozeland.
“Oh?” He tried to sound interested, but at the moment, he wasn’t interested in anything other than his coffee.
“Seems some guy died out on the Old Mission Road last night. Hit and run.”
Jerrod was suddenly interested.
Parker swallowed some coffee. “They’ve got the road blocked at Highway 191. I had to go all the way around to the Baker Hill Road to get here.”
Jerrod tried to sound nonchalant. “Hit and run, huh? Do they know who the driver was?”
“They’re still looking.”
Parker walked over to the television set in the living room and turned it on. Jerrod followed him, zombie-like, and they fell onto the sagging couch. Emma Tors was on the scene reporting for Channel 4.
“—received a call at 2:15 this morning. Here’s the tape.”
Operator: “911. What is your emergency?”
Caller: “Yes. I want to report an injured man on the Old Mission Road, about two miles east of 191. I think he’s dead.”
Operator: “May I have your name, ma’am?”
“That’s it,” Emma Tors said. “The caller hung up. Police and paramedics were dispatched to the scene where they found a man lying on the side of the road, dead, apparently the victim of a hit-and-run. Police are asking people to call the number shown on the screen if they have any information that might help with the investigation. They are especially interested in talking with the woman who made the 911 call.”
A strangled gasp came from behind them. Trish was in the hallway, her hand over her mouth, a wild look in her eyes. Jerrod grabbed the remote from Parker and turned off the TV. Nobody said anything for several seconds. Trish slid down the wall to the floor.
“I heard it earlier,” Parker said, “and thought I’d better come over and find out what you two have been up to.”
“They left out the part about him being shot,” Trish said.
“He was shot?”
“Did you tell that to the dispatcher?”
She nodded again.
“Why would they edit that part out?”
Trish just stared at him, so Jerrod explained.
“We almost ran over him last night on our way home. Clipped him, I think. He just appeared out of nowhere right in front of us. When we got to him, we discovered he had been shot. Twice. Entrance wounds in the back, exit wounds in the front. We called 911 and high-tailed it out of there.”
He got Trish up off the floor and over to the couch, where she kind of folded in half and fell into it. Parker moved to the rocking chair so Jerrod could sit with her.
“So, let’s see what we’ve got,” Parker said. He gulped the rest of his coffee down and put the mug on the table beside the rocking chair.
Parker was one of those guys who actually had a four-year degree from a real university. In philosophy. Jerrod had never asked him why a philosophy major was working as a mechanic at a used car dealership. He figured it was because there wasn’t a huge demand for philosophy majors in Montana. Anyway, when he said, “Let’s see what we’ve got,” it meant he was about to launch into a point-by-point analysis of the situation. Parker held up a finger.
“One. The two of you found a man on the road last night who had been shot twice in the back.” Jerrod nodded. Parker held up a second finger.
“Two. You, or rather, Patricia”―he always called her Patricia―“called 911 and reported it, but left no name.” Jerrod nodded again.
“Three. You fled the scene.” Jerrod decided to stop nodding. It didn’t seem to be adding anything important to the conversation, and his head spun a little every time he did it.
“Four. You told the 911 dispatcher that he had been shot, but they edited that part out of the version released to the media.”
“Five. The police will trace the call back to Patricia.” He stood up, walked over to the window, and looked out on the gravel driveway as if he expected black SUVs to drive up to the house any minute.
Jerrod hadn’t thought about that. Of course, they could trace a cell phone call. At least, he assumed they could. Parker thought so, and he knew about things like that.
Trish pushed herself away from him and wiped her eyes with the sleeve of her robe. “We need to call the police and turn ourselves in. All they have on us is fleeing the scene. We didn’t kill anyone. I’m not sure we even hit him.”
Parker turned to face them. “Before you do that, there’s something else you should know.”
“They didn’t show it on TV, but there are FBI agents crawling all over the scene. And some navy people.”
Jerrod put his coffee down. “That seems like over-kill for a hit-and-run.”
“Yeah.” Parker returned to the rocking chair. “That’s what I was thinking.”
Jerrod’s mind flashed to the scene on the road, and the small black object the man had shoved into his hand. They can’t get it back, he had said. They can’t be trusted with a weapon like that. Jerrod had stuffed it in his jacket pocket and forgotten about it. His eyes locked onto the jacket hanging on a hook by the front door. In the right-hand pocket was the reason the man on the road was dead.
He needed time to think, but time was exactly what they did not have. The police or the FBI or the navy or who-knows-who could show up anytime. A plan was forming in his mind, but the first thing was to get his friends out of harm’s way.
“Parker, you need to leave now.”
“So do you, man. I don’t know what you got yourselves into, but you kicked somebody’s hornets’ nest, and they’re mighty riled up about it. You don’t want to get mixed up with the FBI. Or the navy. Or the police, for that matter. If they decide you’re the killer, you’re toast, and it doesn’t matter whether you did it. Once they find a reasonable suspect, they will find the evidence they need to put him away. That’s how these people work.”
“Thanks. That makes me feel better. Now, you need to leave before you get yourself anymore implicated than you already are.”
“Leave now, Parker. Please.”
The two of them walked out to Parker’s car. As Parker started the engine, Jerrod leaned into the driver’s side window. Parker pulled some bills out of his wallet and pushed them into his hand.
“It’s all I have on me,” he said. “I figure you’re gonna need it more than me.”
“You’re a good friend, Parker. Thanks.”
He produced his patented wry smile. “Let me know how I can help.”
“You’ll hear from me.”
Jerrod watched him drive off. He’d given him four hundred and twenty dollars. Who carried that much cash around? When he went back inside, Trish was sitting on the couch where he’d left her. He sat beside her and took her hands in his.
“Here’s what we’re going to do, hon. I am going to leave now. Then you are going to call the police and tell them you made the 911 call, and that you wanted to stay until help arrived, but I made you leave with me. I think that’ll fly.”
“What are you going to do?”
“It’s better if you don’t know.”