Heavy Friends
by Scott Wolven

......It's the day before Christmas here in New York City, snowing, and I'm sitting in my office with a brightly wrapped package on my desk, but I'm thinking about last summer. Last summer, on the first weekend of a stifling Manhattan August, a letter arrived with an Idaho postmark Bonner's Ferry, it read, and no return address. That Saturday morning, I remember it was the only letter I received, the only piece of mail at all, which was unusual. I was at my office on the East Side a nice brownstone on East 64th, when the letter dropped through the slot and fell onto the front hall carpet.

......You probably don't know me, but you ve seen my work. Pick up The New York Times on any Sunday and flip to the wedding announcements. The last names are easily recognizable -- these are the people who own the bank where you just bounced a check and the factories that produce the car you're making payments on. These names own the companies that own the hospitals that you'll die in, they manufacture the pharmaceuticals that will pump through your veins in those last days and their grandchildren will be the face hidden by the surgical mask, the last pair of eyes you'll see when you depart this debt-ridden life for whatever awaits you after. And it's my job to make sure that those families keep their money, not give it away in divorce settlements.

......My name is Allen McKee. People don't call me Al or Mac, they call me Allen, always. I can't stand nicknames, I get enough of them in my work. Every preppy fool who ever went to Kent or Choate is named Binky or Kicky or Flippy. But their families keep me pretty well off, so I can't complain too much. I do background checks, all very discreet, on a wide variety of prospective husbands and potential wives. It's always a surprise, what one family won't tolerate in another. Once I dug up a great-great grandfather with a prison record and that nixed the whole thing. Another time, I found out that a ninety-acre piece of property in Florida had a lien on it. Cancellation notices and deepest regrets went out that very night, via FedEx. My fees are set by the wallets of my clients, so I'm pulling down six figures a year, and that's when I'm lazy.

......It wasn't always this way. Ten years ago, when I first got my PI license, I was a working class stiff. Nothing really exciting, just chasing bored housewives to hotels at noon and following drunk husbands back to homes that weren't theirs. All photographic evidence stuff, very low pay. I guess I chased justice cheap because I thought everybody should be able to afford it.

......Then I solved a little problem for a Princeton professor, one involving his daughter and a videotape. I was discreet. He was grateful. Soon, one of his friends came to me, then a friend of a friend. Within two years I got a new office, and bought my brownstone a year later. And I guess I'd become pretty refined myself. I'd stopped taking walk-in business--strictly referral these days. My pistol had dust on it, and I honestly couldn't remember the last time ran my knuckles over somebody's teeth. As they say in this neighborhood, I'm well-coppered. I went upstairs to read the letter.

......The letter was from Mark Conrad, a man I'd met on a trip out West, three years earlier. We--he and I, as I was in-between wives at the time, as I am now-- were the only people on the deck of the ferry coming back across Puget Sound into Seattle. I'd just finished taking some pictures out on The Peninsula, pictures that would certainly nix a certain New York wedding. The job was done and I was enjoying myself. Mark and I watched a seal play in the wake of the ferry and struck up a friendly conversation. I forget who spoke first. We talked about the seal, about how wonderful Puget Sound was, about how beautiful Seattle looked at night He was recently divorced and had moved down to Grey's Harbor to work in the timber industry. He called it his "backbreaking labor" cure for a broken heart. He earned enough money loading big timber in Grey's Harbor to start over in decent style. He was a talker, full of plans, with an easy smile and a firm handshake. He was ruggedly handsome and I didn't imagine he d be lonely in Seattle for long. He mentioned his mother living in Arizona and when he mentioned his divorce, his eyes were honest. Mark Conrad was that rare person, someone who isn't always the hero of their own conversational stories.

......I was flying back to Manhattan that night. I had six hours to kill before my flight and Mark suggested we eat dinner together at this great Japanese restaurant he knew. I started talking about being a detective, and he was very impressed. He asked me all kinds of questions about the PI business and I played it to the hilt, my ego overflowed. It was all big fees, hot girls and glamor. I told him I was the toast of Manhattan, that some of the biggest families relied on me to settle their problems. He said he'd heard Saratoga in August was beautiful and I told him to come along, we d go up and put two dollars on some ponies. He admitted that he liked to gamble. Maybe too much, he said with a look that told me he did.

......We had good conversation and a fine meal. And then we lied to each other, that most common of lies--please write, please call, please visit. If you're ever in the city. I gave him my card and somewhere in first-class air over South Dakota, I smiled when I thought of him dropping my name, maybe showing my card to a potential date. They were nice cards, slightly oversized on superior bright white Crane's card stock from maybe the best papiere on the East side.

......I never thought of Mark Conrad again, not for an instant, until the day the letter arrived. I read three years of his life that day, all scrawled out on cheap, unlined white paper. A story blacker than the ink it was written with. My detective's mind filled in between the lines.

*****

......Mark Conrad drifted into Seattle with about twenty thousand dollars in his pocket and his eye on a poker game. One of the foremen from Grey's Harbor recommended him. Just give them my name, he said to Mark. They'll let you sit in. Five grand just to pull up to the table. The foreman gave him a number to call when he hit Seattle.

......Mark picked out an apartment in the University district, so he could keep an eye on the coeds. And he made his way to a restaurant, Knuckleheads, sort of a Mexican diner just at the edge of the U-district. Mark Conrad was a gambler, through and through. Late that night, the poker players came to Knuckleheads and gave him a ride across town. To a condo overlooking the ocean. He put down five grand to start the night, and by the time the sun was straight in the sky for the next noon, Mark had lost eighteen thousand, cash. He lost and then he lost again. He lost it all. But the fire was stoked and he wanted to keep going. Then the men he was playing against told him. They recommended him. To another bar game, out in Spokane. Where he'd have credit on their say-so. They read Mark like a book. He asked where the bus station was and seven hours later, he was getting off a Greyhound in Spokane. Addiction, especially gambling addiction, gives everything a terrible urgency. It tells the gambler that everything has to be now, the money and the game, all now. And when that now is over, it forces the puppet gambler onto a new now, a new need for money and a game. There's no time to think of the future if now always demands immediate attention. No time to think of losing.

......The bar in Spokane was Benny's. There were five men in a back room playing poker and Mark Conrad sat down with ten thousand dollars credit on the word of some men he barely knew in Seattle. He played a hand, and won. He played another hand, and won again. He could taste it. Then he lost. It was a fluke, no big deal. He played again and lost. By the next morning, he was seventeen thousand dollars in debt to the house. It happened that fast. A terrible urgency.

......"Go talk to Earl," the dealer said after he cut Mark off. "I can't let you play anymore."

......Earl was an older, fireplug of a man, sitting at the bar, nursing a beer. He had a tan cowboy hat on.

......"I'm sorry to hear you lost," Earl said.

......"I know," Mark said. He sat on a bar stool next to Earl. "It's going to take me a while to pay."

......Earl nodded. "Do you have a job?" he asked.

......Mark shook his head. "No."

......"Well, hell, why don't you come up to Bonner's Ferry and work it off? You said you did some logging, right? I've got a sawmill up in the Idaho Panhandle, right near Bonner's Ferry and we always need good men." Earl looked at him.

......Earl and Mark took the ride east into the Idaho Panhandle, to Bonner's Ferry. The Rockies are big in that part of the country, bigger than Mark had ever seen. The sawmill outside Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, was a fairly large operation. Earl put Mark in charge of running the stationary saw and let him sleep in a cabin with some of the other workers. Mark collected no paycheck; the money went to Earl, in an attempt to settle his debt. Seventeen thousand dollars is a lot of money for a man who runs a saw all day.
Mark Conrad never fit in with the other workers at the sawmill. The other men all stuck together, talked in low voices among themselves and everything was silent when Mark entered the bunkhouse at night. They all seemed to know each other and to know something Mark didn't. It made him uneasy.

......That was until two new workers showed up one Monday. Both men seemed different, even friendly toward Mark. They asked him his name, and where he was from. How long he d been working at the sawmill and where he'd met Earl. They sat with him at lunch and worked hard on their shift. They introduced themselves--Tony and Bill. Mark talked to them in his own easy-going, friendly manner. The three of them worked together for a week when things went bad.

......Earl called Mark over one day, right after lunch.

......"Hey, Mark," Earl said. "Come here."

......Mark walked over to where Earl and several other workers were sitting.

......"Sit down," Earl said. "We want to talk to you about something."

......"What is it?" Mark asked. A couple of trucks pulled out of the sawmill, on their way to Canada with new boards.

......"Now, you know you owe us a lot of money," Earl said.

......"I know," Mark said. "But I'm working as hard as I can to pay it off."

......"We appreciate that," Earl said. The other workers nodded. "But we might need it a little faster than the rate you're going at."

......Mark looked at him. "Earl, for Christ's sake, you're the one that pays me. I can't do it any faster."

......"Now don't be so negative," Earl said. "We've got some extra work that needs taking care of, and if you did it for us, we d be all square."

......"What extra work?" Mark said.

......"That's the tricky part," Earl said. "Very tricky."

......Mark nodded. "What is it?"
"Those two fellas who just came to work here, we don't like 'em."

......"Fire 'em," Mark said. It didn't surprise him that the two new friendly men were disliked by the others.

......"It's not that simple," Earl said, stroking his chin. "They're Federal agents."

......"What are you talking about?" Mark asked. He looked over at the building that housed the big circular saw, where Tony and Bill were working.

......"They were sent here to spy on us. I think they're FBI, but I really can't tell." Earl lit a cigarette. "They need to be gone out of here."

......"Well, what are you talking about, precisely?" Mark asked.

......"I think you know," Earl said. "We're very private up here. We don't like the government poking its nose in our business." He looked through Mark and across the woodlot. "Let me tell you something. The Posse Comitatus has a long reach."

......"You want me to kill them," Mark said. He started to sweat and feel sick.

......"Now you're talking," Earl said.

......"No way," Mark said. "You're crazy." He sat there shaking his head.

......"We're free men," Earl said. "Not subjects of some king in Washington."

......Earl picked up a cell phone out of his bag and dialed. He spoke into the phone. "Hello? Right, put her on." He waited, then spoke again. "Hi Irma, how are you doing?"

......Mark looked up. Irma was his mother's name. Earl kept on. "Would you like to speak to Mark, he's right here. Hold on." He handed the phone over to Mark.

...... "Mom?" Mark said. His voice echoed from Idaho, to the cell satellite, to the little house in Arizona that he knew so well.

......It was his mother s voice. "Oh my god, Mark, what are you into now?"

......"Nothing, I'm working in Idaho and. . . ." She cut him off.

......"They came here at eight this morning. They strapped me naked to this chair and. . . ." she trailed away and Earl grabbed the phone from Mark and turned it off.

......"That's your mother," Earl said. "She's not doing too well today." He paused. "So what's it going to be? I've got to call these boys in Arizona back, and give them an answer. They get itchy." Earl looked at him.

......Mark Conrad just sat there. Finally, he nodded. Earl hit a button on the phone and spoke into it. "Hi, it's me again. Right Just hang around the house for a couple hours, don't do anything. I'll call you when the tab gets settled on this end. Right." Earl hit a button and the phone went dead.

......"I'll just have the boys sit around until everything is set up here," he said, looking at Mark.

......"What do you want me to do?" Mark asked.

......"Accident would really be the best thing," Earl said. "But if you have to, fuck it, just shoot 'em."

......"What type of accident?"

......"After lunch, I'll send both of them in to clean out the big saw housing. While they're messing around with it, why don't you turn it on," Earl said.

......"I don't think I can do that," Mark said.

......"Then take that rifle that hangs in the back of the work truck and shoot 'em." Earl paused, then continued. "I want two dead bodies in about ten minutes, or you'll have a funeral to attend outside of Phoenix. You pick."

......Mark Conrad did pick. He walked across the sawdust filled woodlot and took the .30-06 Marlin out of the back of the work truck. He made sure it was loaded and clicked the safety off. Tony and Bill never knew he was coming. The roar of the saw muffled the gunshots and the sawdust soaked up their blood.

......And Mark took one of their wallets and looked in it. It contained a shiny US Marshal's badge. Earl had been right.

......"What were they looking for?" Mark asked Earl.

......"Us," Earl said. "They were looking for us. The Posse Comitatus."

......"What is that?" Mark asked.

......"We believe in freedom and freedom from government interference. And no taxes." Earl took off his cowboy hat and scratched his head. "Some people think we're outlaws, but we're the good guys." Mark had managed to save his mother's life by taking two others.

......So they hid Mark on a sawmill in Belt, Montana. The Posse is spread out all over the West. And he labored there for almost a year, until the police came for him. They held him in the Helena jail. A Posse lawyer came to him in jail and told him to waive extradition. It meant he could get it over with faster. No, the Posse lawyer told him, he didn't know how the police had found him. But once he was in Idaho to stand trial, the Posse would stand with him. Juries in Idaho were sympathetic to this notion of government interference. He'd get Mark off with a couple years in prison, nothing more.

****

......Mark did as he was told. He waived the extradition and within two weeks, the Idaho State Police sent a detail of two officers to drive him back to Idaho to stand trial. They cuffed him in the back of the police cruiser and took off toward the Rockies and Idaho. It was dusk when they saw the sign for the state line. "Leaving Montana," a sign read and right after that, "Welcome to Idaho." The Idaho State Police drove about twenty yards beyond the state line, then pulled over. And in accordance with state law, they took Mark Conrad out of the cruiser, to re-arrest him and read him the Miranda rights on Idaho soil. The two officers and Mark stood by the side of the road. It was quiet there in the Rockies.

......Suddenly, a pickup truck came speeding down the road from Idaho, followed by another. At a hundred feet from the police cruiser, the pickup truck slowed and came to a stop. As the Idaho Staties reached for their guns, two men stood up in the bed of the pickup truck with automatic weapons and fired point blank. The bullets went through the cops as if they were paper targets on the range. The whole thing lasted a minute and the Posse put Mark in the back of a pickup and headed up into the Idaho Panhandle. They'd managed to tie the murders of four cops to one man, one innocent man. Mark had no choice but to hide out with them.

......The letter ended saying he could probably last out about another six months. Could I please help him.

......I didn't do anything. I didn't care. I mean, I'm safe, right? I'm making a good living, I'm doing what I want. I didn't do a thing, and that's the worst part of the whole story.

****

......So now it's the day before Christmas and I've got this package on my desk, this package that I found this morning on the steps leading up to my office, that had left a bright red ring of blood on the snow around it.

......I don't have to open it. My own business card is stapled right to the bow on top; it's Mark Conrad's finger, or his hand, or his eye, his ear -- I don't need to see it. They must have found my card on him, figured correctly that he contacted me and they're sending me a message. We can touch you in New York. The Posse Comitatus has a long arm. Come out West and die. We'll kill you just like we killed Mark Conrad. We'll make you never want to start your car again.

......The package is literally bleeding onto my desk. I have a framed picture of Raymond Chandler on the wall and I wonder what Marlowe would do. Marlowe wouldn't have let him down to begin with. I know what the hell happened. I didn't have to be there. The trail starts in Grey's Harbor: they set him up right from jump-street. They took one look at him, sized up his character and the way he operated and moved him like a pawn from square one. And I didn't do anything. I expect the picture of Chandler to turn itself toward the wall at any minute. I deserve that and more.

......I look around the office for the last time and head out into the snow. I hail a taxi and get on my cell phone. Kennedy, I tell the driver. I call my bank and have them transfer funds out to the American Express desk at the airport in Seattle, to be held until I call for them. I call a Madison Avenue lawyer friend of mine and ask him to give me the rundown on gun law in Washington and Idaho--I'll need to buy a weapon when I get out there. I call an airport hotel in Seattle and book a room for a week.

......"Coming in for Christmas," the desk clerk asks me. "Yeah," I say. "Me and Scrooge. We've got to mend our ways." I hope the Posse's ready, because with the money I've got, I can buy a lot of bullets.
I'm sorry, Mark. I promise I won't lose my soul again.

Copyright (c) 2000 by Scott Wolven



Scott Wolven's stories have appeared in handheldcrime.com and Plots With Guns. He also has fiction forthcoming in Blue Murder. He'd also like to say "A very special thanks to Pacheco, and the editors. You're aces."

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"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking to a man that likes to talk."
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