The handcuffs weren’t particularly tight, yet they pinned my arms behind my back, making it impossible to get comfortable. Eventually I was able to maneuver until one shoulder was leaning against the rear door of the deputy’s patrol car, the other rested against the back of the seat, and my hands hung in the cramped space between them. I wiggled my butt, but it didn’t help. The seat was made of hard vinyl so that it could be easily cleaned—it wasn’t meant to be cushy. My fellow prisoner, his hands also cuffed behind his back, balanced on the edge of the seat and stared straight ahead with glassy and unseeing eyes. He looked walking-dead drunk. However, since he had spent the past few days in the Ramsey County jail being interrogated by FBI and ATF agents, I was betting on mild shock.
I turned my head to look out the window and watched a chunk of real estate whiz past, mostly forest. We weren’t in the North Woods of Minnesota quite yet, although we were headed that way.
“Deputy,” I said. He glanced at me through his rearview mirror. “What time is it?”
His smile made me think he used one of those teeth whiteners advertised on TV.
“What do you care, Dyson?” he asked. “Got somewhere you need to be?”
“Humor me,” I said.
I continued staring out the window.
She’s late, my inner voice told me.
I have a thing about punctuality, which means I spend a lot of time being annoyed. Waiting makes me grumpy if not downright angry, depending on whom I’m waiting for and how long. Nina says if I were less prompt myself I’d be a more agreeable companion. I suppose there’s something to that. On the other hand, if you say you’re going to be in a specific place at a specific time, then you should damn well be there. If I were wearing a watch, I’d be tapping the face with my finger by now. Only I had no personal possessions on me at all—just the orange short-sleeve jail scrubs and a pair of ill-fitting canvas tennis shoes furnished by the Ramsey County Detention Center.
I glanced at my fellow prisoner while pretending not to. He leaned forward until his head was pressed against the steel mesh curtain that separated the backseat from the front. He was muttering to himself. “Going to prison … never let us out…”
“You say something?” the deputy asked.
“No,” Skarda said—that was his name, David Skarda. We had never met; still, I knew everything about him. For one thing, I knew he wasn’t actually headed for prison, at least not yet. He was merely being transferred from one pretrial lockup to another—he was going to be tried in Grand Rapids, about 180 miles north of the Twin Cities, since he committed his armed robbery in Itasca County. He had originally been conveyed to the Ramsey County jail in St. Paul after he was apprehended as a convenience to the ATF and the FBI, which wanted to question him about the gun he was carrying at the time of his arrest. If he had been smart, he would have told them everything he knew. But he wasn’t and he didn’t.
Deputy Ken Olson—I wasn’t supposed to know his name, either, yet I did—drove effortlessly, like a man who had spent many hours behind the wheel. We followed U.S. Highway 169 as it hugged Lake Mille Lacs going north. There were far better, faster routes that led from the Cities to Grand Rapids, yet none of them was as scenic. And none of them narrowed to a single lane in just the right spot.
“What time is it?” I asked again.
“Why?” Olson said.
“Lunch. I hear they serve a nice buffet in the Itasca County jail.”
The deputy thought that was funny. “Relax,” he said.
“Relax, relax,” Skarda muttered.
“What’s this?” The deputy spoke while watching the action unfold through his rearview. A red Honda Accord came up fast until it was hard on his bumper, swung wide despite the double yellow line, and passed him on the left. He laughed as it pulled ahead.
“A blonde,” he said. “Some blond bimbo driving. Who else would be dumb enough to pass a police car illegally, and look at this—she’s going fifteen miles over the speed limit. If it weren’t for you two, I’d have me some fun.”
“Don’t mind us,” I said.
A moment later I could feel the car surge forward. Itasca County was in the process of retiring its fleet of Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptors in favor of the more economical Dodge Charger the deputy was driving—if he had put the pedal to the metal, as the cowboys say, there would have been no contest. I saw Olson’s eyes flicker down and to his right, and for a moment I thought he might be running the blonde’s license plate on his onboard laptop. But then he sighed deeply, the Charger slowed, and he brought his full attention back to the road.
“Protocols,” Olson said. He spoke as if it were the saddest word in the English language.
The Accord followed the highway into a sweeping curve and disappeared from view. A few seconds later, however, we caught up to it. The red car was fishtailing in the lane, and my first thought was that it blew a tire and the driver was trying to bring it back under control. The red taillights flared, and the car pulled to the side of the road and stopped, its nose on the shoulder, its rear on the highway, blocking us. The deputy brought the Charger to a halt several car lengths behind the Accord and watched intently.
“What the hell is she doing?” he asked.
Forget what you’ve seen on TV and in the movies about inattentive guards who regularly ignore barking dogs; sudden, unexplained noises; and the odd behavior of complete strangers. In reality, most are trained to react—hell, overreact—to anything out of the ordinary, and they are never, ever taken out by a single punch or karate chop. The deputy, however, wasn’t one of them. When the blonde stepped out of the Accord he smiled brightly, showing all his teeth. I didn’t blame him. She was wearing the longest hair, shortest skirt, and highest heels I had ever seen. She tottered toward us, carrying a highway map that hid her chest.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Olson said. He put the Charger in park, opened his door, and slid out. “Lady, what are you thinking?”
The lady dropped the map. She was carrying an M26 Taser gun. She squeezed the trigger and two barbed electrodes exploded from the bright green nose, imbedding themselves into the deputy’s chest and flooding his body with 50,000 volts, all before the map fluttered to the ground. The deputy’s muscles locked up. He fell to the pavement like a square of shingles tossed from the roof of a two-story house.
The woman dropped the Taser, kicked off her heels, and went quickly to the deputy’s side. She squatted next to him, her short skirt riding up high on her thighs, and searched his pockets for the key to the handcuffs. She took the key, removed the Glock from the deputy’s holster, and padded purposely in bare feet to the Charger, where she found the latch that unlocked the back door. She moved as if every step had been carefully choreographed.
I slid out of the backseat and turned around. The woman unlocked the cuffs and gave me both the key and the Glock. I shoved the Glock between the waistband of my scrubs and the small of my back and followed her to the deputy. Olson was just starting to regain his senses as I cuffed his wrists behind his back. He said, “Huh, what?” while the woman and I dragged him to the patrol car.
“What are you doing?” Skarda wanted to know. His mood had switched from depressed to manic just like that. “What’s going on? Is this an escape? Are you trying to escape?” His eyes were bright with the possibility even as he flattened against the far door. “Take me with you.”
We ignored him, shoving the deputy inside; Skarda swung his legs up and away to give us room. The deputy shook off our hands and turned painfully until both his knees were planted on the floor of the car and his torso was folded over the backseat. His forehead was pressed against the hard vinyl as if he were using it to push himself upright.
“Stop this, stop it right now,” Olson said.
I slammed the door shut.
“Luck,” the woman said.
It was the only word she had spoken during the seconds—yes, seconds—it took to disarm the deputy. She gathered her shoes and ran to the Honda Accord. A moment later, she was motoring down the highway at a speed that invited arrest.
I slid behind the wheel of the Charger, shut the door, and put the vehicle in gear.
“You’ll never get away with this, Dyson,” the deputy said. His voice was hoarse and low.
“What did you say?” I asked. I accelerated down Highway 169 until I was going the speed limit and then set the cruise control.
“You’ll never get away with this.” This time he was shouting.
“I bet you say that to all the escaping prisoners,” I said.
“Do you think the police are asleep up here? You think they don’t know what you’re doing?”
“No, actually, they don’t know what I’m doing. That’s why I took your car instead of hightailing it with the babe in the red Accord, so some citizen wouldn’t see you parked in the middle of the highway and call it in. Time is my friend. It’ll be hours before the county sheriff knows what happened, and by then I will be far away from here.”
“This car is equipped with a GPS tracking device.”
“It is?” Skarda asked.
“Cops want to make sure they can recover their vehicles if they’re stolen,” I said. “Did you know some guys started a cab company in Detroit a while back using nothing but stolen police cars? God’s truth.”
“Dyson, listen to me,” Deputy Olson said. “We can still work this out. It’s not too late.”
I glanced at him through the rearview mirror and smiled. “Of course it is,” I said.
“Hey, hey, hey—use your indoor voice.”
“What about me?” Skarda asked.
“What about you?”
“Take me with you.”
“The plan is for one.”
“Then, then you can, you can just let me go.”
I shook my head slowly. “The cops’ll pick you up in about ten minutes, and then you’ll be screwed even worse than you are now. Isn’t that right, Deputy?”
“That’s right,” he said.
“Believe it or not, I’m doing you a favor,” I said.
“I’ll pay you,” Skarda said.
“Pay me what?”
“Fifty thousand dollars.”
That made me turn in my seat. I stared at him briefly through the steel mesh before returning my eyes to the road.
“Where would a punk like you get fifty thousand dollars?”
“That’s my business,” he said.
“Fifty thousand dollars.” I said it as if the number impressed me. “Who are you?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer.
“What did they bust you for?”
“Armed robbery,” I repeated slowly. “I won’t ask if you have the money on you…”
“Where is it?”
“My gang. Deliver me to my gang and they’ll pay you.”
“Uh-huh. Whaddaya think, Deputy? Think Dave here has a crew?”
“I think he’s a wannabe gangster who’s going to spend the rest of his life in Stillwater State Correctional Facility if he steps one foot out of this car.”
“Hear that, Dave? Best keep your seat.”
“Bullshit.” He said the word as if he had invented it. “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. I’m not messing with you, Dyson. Fifty thousand dollars. On delivery. You have my word.”
“Don’t do this, Skarda,” the deputy said. “It’ll only be worse for you later.”
“Shut up, just shut up,” Skarda said. “Fifty thousand dollars, Dyson. I promise.”
“If I take your word and you don’t keep it—if you’re lying you better say so now and no harm done cuz later’s going to be too late.”
“I’m not lying. Trust me.”
Whenever anyone says “trust me” I automatically think the opposite, but I didn’t tell Skarda that. “Okay,” I said. “Okay. It’s always good to have a Plan B.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means—just be quiet for a while. Both you kids, be quiet. Daddy needs to think.”
While I was thinking I maneuvered the patrol car north on 169 until it intersected Minnesota Highway 18 and I went east. Traffic was not heavy. It was June in Minnesota, and you usually get an inordinate number of city dwellers heading to lake cabins and other getaways “Up North.” But it was also early afternoon on a Wednesday. I followed 18 until it merged with Highway 47 and I went south, effectively driving around the northern half of the enormous Lake Mille Lacs, where I had often fished for walleye. It was a pleasant drive, and I probably would have enjoyed it if I weren’t on the run. Eventually 18 and 47 forked and I went east again. That’s when the radio came alive. The signal was surprisingly strong and clear.
“Six-twenty-one,” a voice said.
It was the patrol car’s call sign. I heard the deputy use it when he cleared St. Paul.
“Hey, Dave,” I said. “Keep the deputy quiet for a minute.”
“Six-twenty-one,” the voice repeated.
I took the microphone from its holster and spoke into it.
“Six-twenty-one, what’s your twenty?”
Before I could click the SEND button and reply, Olson started screaming, “Ten-ninety-eight, ten-ninety-eight, officer needs assistance.”
“Dammit, Skarda, what did I say?”
Skarda used his legs to brace himself against the door and then lunged to his side so that his elbows and shoulders fell on top of the deputy’s head. The deputy screamed again, but this time Skarda’s body muffled his voice.
“Six-twenty-one, say again,” the voice said over the radio.
“Six-twenty-one,” I replied. “Sorry ’bout that. I’m north on U.S. 169, just shy of State 210.”
“Six-twenty-one, running a little late, aren’t you?”
“Six-twenty-one, there was some traffic in Aitkin.”
There was more muffled shouting from the backseat.
“Six-twenty-one, are you sure you didn’t stop for a beer?”
“Six-twenty-one, I thought I’d wait until I got closer to home.”
“Six-twenty-one, what’s your ten-seventy-seven?”
“Six-twenty-one, ETA is one hour.”
I took a deep breath and returned the microphone to its holster.
“It’s okay,” I said.
Skarda managed to roll off the deputy and sit up again.
The deputy sputtered his anger. “You’re screwed, Skarda,” he shouted. “I’m going to have your head on a plate.”
“You have to take me with, now,” Skarda said.
“We’ll see,” I told him.
“What does ten-ninety-eight mean, anyway?”
“Standard police code. It means prison break in progress.”
“You two are totally fucked,” the deputy said.
“I believe the basic code for that is ten-forty-five-F.”
* * *
Less than an hour later we crossed Interstate 35, still heading east.
“My friends are up north,” Skarda said.
“Mine aren’t,” I replied.
Deputy Olson didn’t say anything. He simply sat in the back of the Charger and made angry breathing sounds.
We ended up on County Road 30 and followed it toward the Wisconsin border. Near the tiny town of Duxbury it turned from pavement to gravel; a giant plume of yellow and orange dust followed us down the road. This was no-man’s-land, thinly populated, little traffic.
The radio crackled, its signal not nearly as vibrant as it had been.
I ignored it.
“Six-twenty-one, do you copy?”
“Aren’t you going to answer?” Skarda asked.
“Nope. Let ’em wonder.”
The turnoff came up so fast that I was fifty feet past it before I could stop safely. I put the Charger in reverse, backed up, and then turned in. It was a logging road used so long ago that now it was little more than an overgrown trail with plenty of potholes that made the Charger bounce like a carnival ride. I followed it deep into the forest until we reached the edge of a small river—it might have been the Lower Tamarack; I didn’t know for sure and never cared to ask.
When I turned off the engine, the radio went with it.
Trees—poplar, birch, and fir—surrounded us. The only noise came from the wind in the branches and the low gurgle of the slow-moving water. The sun was high in the sky, and there were few shadows on the forest floor. It was the kind of place where a guy might pitch a tent and try his luck with a fly rod, where most people dream of escaping to and Minnesotans generally take for granted.
“Gentlemen, this is where I leave you,” I said.
“Here,” the deputy said. “Here?”
“Your guys aren’t going to be looking for me. They’re going to be looking for you. First things first, right? It’s going to take a long time to find you here, GPS or not. By the time they do and turn their attention to me, I’ll be out of the country.”
“Yeah? The average speed of a man hiking over unbroken ground is two miles per hour. How far do you think you’ll get on foot?”
“All the way to where a car is waiting. Do you think I’m making this up as I go along, Deputy? C’mon.”
“Dyson, you can’t leave us here.”
“Us?” Skarda said.
“You’ll be all right until help arrives,” I told them. “There hasn’t been a bear attack around here in, I don’t know, weeks.”
“Us?” Skarda repeated. “You’re taking me with you, right?”
“No, I didn’t. Good luck to you, pal.”
“Wait, wait, Dyson. What about the fifty thousand dollars? What about Plan B?”
“You can’t leave me here. I helped you before. I helped you, remember? Remember? Forget the armed robbery. Even if I beat that rap, they’ll send me to Stillwater for whatchacallit, aiding and abetting your escape. Right? Right?”
“How about that, Deputy?”
Olson’s eyes were like roadside caution lights flashing SEVERE ACCIDENT AHEAD. “I look forward to testifying at your trial,” he said.
“You owe me,” Skarda said.
“Actually, you’re going to owe me,” I said.
I opened the back door and helped Skarda out. He was smiling when I unlocked his cuffs. The smile went away when I relocked them with his hands in front of him.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“Fifty thousand dollars,” I said. “The cuffs come off when I get the money.”
“This’ll make it hard to walk.”
“Yes, it will.” I shoved him more or less toward the northwest. “That way.” While Skarda stumbled forward, I turned toward the deputy. “It’s been a pleasure,” I said. “Sorry I couldn’t stay.”
I locked him inside the patrol car and made a production out of dropping his car keys just outside the door where he could see them.
“Damn you, Dyson,” he shouted. I turned and walked into the woods. “Goddamn you.”
So far so good, my inner voice said.
* * *
I’m a city boy at heart. I can’t imagine living anywhere that doesn’t have a professional baseball team, jazz clubs, and a wide assortment of Asian, Mexican, Greek, and Italian restaurants. Still, there were times when the city boy loved to visit the Great Outdoors, fish in pristine lakes, hunt unclaimed forests, or just hike the countryside in search of wildlife you can’t see close to home, especially birds. I love the sight and sound of birds. I have a clock at home that announces each hour with the warble of a different avis. Trust me when I say it’s not the same as hearing them in the wild.
The air was clean and warm in the forest, and I found myself breaking a light sweat as we walked. It would have been a pleasant journey if not for the constant whining of my companion—“The cuffs are too tight, it’s too hard to walk, where are we going, are we there yet?”
“What are you, eight years old?” I asked finally. “Shut up and walk.”
“I want to know the plan.”
“The plan is you stop talking or I’m going to leave you here. Can’t you just enjoy the scenery?”
“I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.”
Skarda was not a bad guy unless you want to hold being a Green Bay Packer fan against him. He was born in Krueger, Minnesota, went to the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, and returned home to work in construction until the bottom fell out of the housing market. As far as I knew, in twenty-seven years he had never committed a single transgression against God or country until they caught him outside the ticket booth of a country music festival with a ski mask over his face and a Kalashnikov submachine gun in his hands. After he relived himself against the trunk of a tree, we continued walking.
All the tricks the Old Man taught me about finding my way in the woods were as fresh in my mind as if I had learned them yesterday, including how to locate the points of a compass using nothing but the sun, a wristwatch, and a blade of grass. I didn’t need any of them, however. I had been over this ground before, and I knew exactly where I was going.
Eventually we broke through the trees and found a narrow gravel road with a drainage ditch on either side. A Ford Explorer was parked on the shoulder about a quarter mile up from where we emerged from the forest. A man was sitting on the driver’s side of the SUV, his body twisted so that his legs hung out the open door. We were about a hundred yards away before he spotted us approaching.
“I almost gave up on you,” he said. “Who’s he?”
Skarda had worn a worried expression on his face ever since I met him, so I didn’t know if he was taken aback by my partner’s question or not.
“Someone I picked up along the way,” I said. “Dave, Chad, Chad, Dave.”
“Jesus Christ, Dyson,” Chad said. “We’re using names?”
“Beats saying ‘Hey, you’ all the time.”
I moved to the back of the SUV. Chad popped the rear cargo door. There was a nylon bag in the cargo bay, and I opened it to find several changes of clothes. I pulled out a pair of jeans and a shirt and gave them to Skarda.
“You’ll have to wear your own shoes,” I said.
Skarda held up his cuffed hands, a pleading expression in his eyes.
“Okay,” I said. “But let’s not do anything stupid, all right?”
To emphasize my point, I took the deputy’s Glock and set it where I could easily reach it but Skarda couldn’t before I unlocked one cuff. I left the other wound around his wrist.
While we were changing clothes, Chad talked and paced, paced and talked. Mostly he was complaining about the change in plans, claiming that I was supposed to be alone. “Just you, you said. Just you. Everything’s planned for just you.” He was another guy who didn’t appreciate the beauty of his surroundings.
After I changed out of the jail scrubs into a pair of blue jeans, a polo shirt, and Nikes—looking every inch like a tourist from the Cities—I picked up the Glock and turned toward him.
“Someone once said that genius is the ability to improvise,” I said.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
I brought the Glock up, went into a pyramid stance, and fired three times. Tiny volcanoes of blood exploded out of his chest as he fell straight backward against the gravel road, his arms and legs spread as if he were attempting to make snow angels.
Skarda screamed, screamed like a bad actor in a horror flick.
“What?” I said.
“You shot him.”
“Of course I shot him. Are you telling me you wouldn’t have?”
“He was your friend.”
“If Chad was my friend, why did he sleep with my girl? Why did he turn me in to the cops and try to steal my money?”
“He—he helped break you out?”
“That’s only because the money isn’t where he thought it was. Chad broke me out so I would lead him to it, and once I did, he probably would have killed me. Are you paying attention, Dave?”
Skarda looked as if every word would be indelibly etched in his brain forever and he wasn’t happy about it.
“Stay here,” I said.
I slid the Glock between my jeans and the small of my back and crossed the gravel road to where Chad had fallen. I grabbed him under the shoulders, dragged him to the far ditch, and rolled him in. Afterward, I bent to go through his pockets. The depth of the ditch effectively hid Chad from Skarda’s view.
“That hurt,” Chad whispered. “Now I know why stuntmen make so much money.”
“How’s the deputy?” I asked. I was trying hard not to move my lips.
“Upset that you took him the way you did. I explained that we couldn’t let him in on the scam for fear that he might give it away, but that we would tell his boss he agreed to cooperate with us so he won’t be embarrassed.”
I took Chad’s wallet and stood up so Skarda could see me rifling through it. I pulled cash out and tossed the wallet away.
“Lousy hundred and eighty-seven bucks,” I said. “What a schmuck.”
Skarda was watching me closely, looking as if he wanted to run away very fast. I bent down again, and he moved to the door of the SUV, slid behind the wheel, and reached for the ignition. I stood up again, this time dangling Chad’s car keys from a ring around my pinky.
“Hey, Dave?” I said. “Going somewhere?”
“I was just—I was getting ready. We should leave.”
“Yes, we should.”
I glanced down at Chad, and he winked at me. I climbed out of the ditch, crossed the gravel road, and moved to the Explorer.
“I’ll drive,” I said.
Skarda scrambled out of the SUV and went around to the passenger side. When he was safely inside, I told him to lock the loose cuff around the handle above the window.
“Why?” he asked.
“Good handcuffs make good neighbors.”
“One of Robert Frost’s lesser-known works. Do it.”
I fired up the Explorer, put it into gear, and headed down the road.
“Where are we going?” Skarda asked.
“To see a girl,” I said.
Copyright © 2013 by David Housewright