Also by Wayne D. Dundee from
the BEAT to a PULP catalog:
The smart thing to do, of course, would have been to involve the cops right then and there.
But Terrell wouldn't hear of it.
"One of the things Milt made absolutely clear was that if he saw any sign of the police, he would start shooting."
"Shooting who? Why?" I wanted to know.
"I'm not sure. He was talking wild, crazy. He kept demanding that I come there immediately and that I bring you with me. He's blaming me for hiring you. He said that was the ultimate betrayal."
"How does he even know about me?"
"How the hell should I know! None of this is making a lick of sense. He said if I showed up without you, he'd start shooting. He said if I showed up with the cops, he'd start shooting. He said the only chance to work it out was for us to do exactly what he says and to get over there right away." Terrell's eyes were anguished, pleading. "We've got to do as he says. We can't risk otherwise—not for the sake of the others."
"Something has driven him over the edge. If he really does have a gun, he's going to find a reason to start shooting no matter what. The others may already be wasted."
"But they also may not be! We can't take the chance, I tell you."
I stood up, my mind racing. "Didn't he give you any idea what this is all about?"
"Nothing clear." Terrell stood up too. "Like I said, he was talking wild. Shit about loyalty and betrayal and how he's spent all these years caring about everybody else and now it was his time for some love in return … None of it made any sense."
"Does he know where you're at? How long before he expects you there?"
Terrell nodded. "He knows I just brought Dusty home. He said he'd allow me one hour to make it back there and warned me again I'd better bring you with me."
A rough idea was starting to form in my head. It was crazy, but if we were going to keep the cops out of it and still try to stop Milt Vernon from going on a shooting/killing spree then it was all I could come up with in the time we had …
Terrell had been instructed to come to the front door of the Mantz home, even though he and the other band members had been using the rear carport for their vehicles—rather than parking on the street—and therefore had usually been entering/exiting the house at the rear. As a result, Terrell assured me that when he'd left earlier with Dusty, he hadn't bothered to lock the back door. It was this combination of circumstances I was counting on being able to use in hopes of turning the tables on Vernon before he made good his threat to open up on somebody.
Terrell and I left No Name Bay in separate vehicles, he in the band's equipment van, me in my Honda Element. I barreled on ahead of him, instructing him to use the full hour he'd been allotted in order to give me the time I needed to get in position for what I had in mind.
Neither of us had said anything to Abby about these new developments. I told her I was following Terrell back to North Platte to get ready for my surveillance gig later on at Rodeo Pete's, where the band was scheduled to play tonight. Which would have been the case if Milt Vernon hadn't decided to go off his rocker and throw everything into a panic.
I did let one person know what was going down, though. I put through a call to Thunderbringer and gave him the bare bones of it, telling him to send in the Marines if he didn't hear back from me in two hours max. I gave him the address of the Mantz house, Milt Vernon's name, and reminded him of the license plate number he had run for me earlier.
"If it comes to you having to make that call and the cops haven't already been alerted," I said, "tell them to proceed with caution because there's an armed lunatic involved."
"Would that be in reference to you or this Vernon character?" he quipped.
"I got a million of 'em … Just watch your ass and see to it I don't have to make that call—then you'll be around to hear some more."
"In case you haven't heard, there are some fates worse than death."
My previous visits to the Mantz home came in handy because I rolled in with a good recollection of the layout of their street and surrounding neighborhood. A block and a half down, there was a little community park with a shiny, old-fashioned locomotive for a centerpiece. I parked my Element there, where it could sit for hours without drawing any undue attention.
From the park, I double-timed it up a wide, smoothly graveled alley behind rows of well-tended back yards and houses facing out on either side. In a couple of the yards, elderly men with nothing better to do were putting around on riding mowers; in another, a middle-aged guy was firing up a charcoal grill. It was incongruous to think that only a few doors away there was a madman making threats with a gun.
I reached the carport behind the Mantz house and cautiously eased in behind the Travelers' tour bus. I dropped into a squat and checked my watch. Six minutes before Terrell was due to arrive.
I could see a slice of the street where he would be pulling up. When he did, I would close the distance between me and the house's back door. I was counting on all attention at that point being focused on his arrival, not anything that might be occurring in the back yard. Just like whatever conversation took place when he came to the front door masking any sound I made slipping in the back. From there, with any luck, I hoped to be able to shut down the situation before Vernon could work himself up to actually start pulling a trigger.
Involuntarily, my right hand reached down and brushed the spot where my own 9mm rested in its pocket holster. I hoped using the piece—except maybe as a threat—wouldn't be necessary. But I wouldn't hesitate if given no choice. I'd even considered bringing my .45, the reliable old manstopper I always reached for when I sensed in advance that a situation might turn hairy. But I'd decided the nine should be plenty adequate for this situation.
I checked my watch again. Two minutes.
Terrell pulled up and parked at the curb. He climbed out and started for the house in steady strides, doing a good job of hiding the stress and anxiety I knew had to be pulsing inside him. More than anything, this crazy plan of mine hinged on him being able to keep his cool and carry off his end of what I'd outlined for him to do.
As soon as he started for the house, I was in motion across the back yard and up to the door. I turned the knob slowly. As promised, it was unlocked. The door opened silently. I kicked my shoes off. Then, drawing the 9mm and holding it ready, I went in on stockinged feet.
The back door opened onto a small landing. Utility closet straight ahead, on the left a flight of stairs going down to the basement, to the right two short steps leading up to the kitchen area on the main floor of the house.
I went up the steps and edged along in front of a large refrigerator and range. After that, a long counter and bank of cabinets L-ed off to the right and then stopped at the wide opening that fed out into a narrow dining room. On the other side of the kitchen there was the sink, with more cabinets and counter space to either side. Small kitchen table in the center.
Staying low, moving cautiously, I worked to the edge of the L-shaped cabinetry and peeked around the corner. I had a clear view through the dining area into the spacious, open living room.
Terrell had just entered, closing the door behind him, then standing very still and looking off to his left (my right) at the man I presumed to be Milt Vernon. The latter was a paunchy average-sized man with longish hair, thinned to almost nothing on top, streaked with gray and combed straight back above his ears. He was standing near one corner of the room, at the edge of the curtained picture window that dominated the far wall. This gave him a good vantage point to watch outside through a slit in the curtains and at the same time also be able to scan the entire room. In a wing-backed chair directly in front of where Vernon was standing sat Roy Clift, the band's drummer. Vernon's left hand was wrapped in Clift's long blond hair and, hovering to the right and partially above the man's head, his other hand gripped a Glock semiautomatic pistol.
"Where's the goddamn private eye?" Vernon demanded in a surprisingly deep, powerful voice for such an otherwise unassuming man. "Did I not make my demands perfectly clear?"
"Yeah, Milt, of course you did. It's just that—"
"Just what? You think this is some kind of joke? You think this is a fucking joke?" Vernon waved the Glock menacingly.
Glenn Baggins and George Mantz, the other two band members who were seated on a couch straight across from Vernon, shrank down in their seats. It was clear they were terrified by the threat of the gun.
"Nobody thinks this is a joke, Milt," Terrell insisted. "Please. Just let me explain."
"You'd better make it good. I've been jerked around just about enough."
"Hannibal—the PI—he'll be hear any minute. I promise. He was down in McCook when I got hold of him, see. He said he had to finish serving some papers or something and then he'd meet me here. I told him it was important but didn't want to risk pushing too hard for fear of alarming him or making him suspicious. I couldn't think of a good excuse for us to meet somewhere else just so we could arrive here together. So I agreed to him coming here on his own as quickly as he could."
I smiled grimly. Terrell had done a good job of selling it exactly the way we'd practiced during what little time there'd been.
But it didn't matter whether or not I thought he'd sold it. All that really mattered was whether or not Vernon was buying. I tensed, my focus snapping back and forth between Vernon's facial expression and his gun hand. I still held the nine ready. It would be a risky shot for me, with Clift right there so close. But I'd take it if I had to.
After what seemed like a long time, Vernon said, "All right. I'll give it ten more minutes. In the meantime, Travis, sit your ass down there with those other two traitors."
Terrell hesitated but then did as he was told. I didn't blame him for hesitating. The three of them bunched together on that couch would have little or no chance if Vernon started blasting.
Damn! If I only had a clearer shot, I'd take Vernon down in a heartbeat. Not shoot to kill, not if I could help it, but at the same I'd want to make sure he went down and stayed down.
From the couch, Terrell said, "For God's sake, Milt, can I at least be allowed to know what this is all about? Isn't there any hope of talking it out—something, anything besides this?"
"It's all my fault!" Clift blurted out. "I'm the cause of everything."
Vernon glared down at the man he was hovering over. He said nothing, as if giving Clift permission to continue.
"For a number of years—" the drummer began.
"Six!" Vernon interjected sharply. And then, his voice softening: "Six years we've had, Roy."
Clift hesitated and then started over. Haltingly, he told the rest of it.
For six years, Clift and Vernon had been lovers. Unbeknownst to the other band members, it had started during the years Vernon had managed Travis and the Travelers and had flourished from random frantic sexual encounters to shared deep feelings between the two. Not deep enough, however, to bring it out in the open. For one thing, there was fear of the strain it might put on the rest of the band. For another, there was a keen awareness of what an open admission of homosexuality would mean for any chance of success in the Country Western market.
And then, too, there was the matter of Martha Vernon. Milt and Martha had already been married for several years before Milt finally admitted to himself his true sexual orientation. While this caused some awkwardness in the marital bed, Vernon nevertheless maintained a strong devotion to Martha and could never bring himself to do anything to hurt her, especially on top of her growing physical ailments. When he made his break from the Travelers and his other business interests to focus on Martha during her final months, it had been a genuine and heartfelt gesture. But at the same time, he and Roy Clift had pledged to one another that they would resume and expand upon their relationship once Martha was gone.
Trouble was, by then Travis and the Travelers were on a trajectory aimed at taking them higher than they'd ever dared hope before and Clift suddenly found himself reluctant to veer away from possibly achieving a lifelong dream for the sake of taking up openly and exclusively with Vernon.
"That's what all the harassment stuff was about," Clift concluded. "Milt was trying to discourage me from sticking with the band. Even if it meant ruining the album session."
"And now it's escalated to this?" Terrell asked incredulously. "Guns, for Christ's sake, Milt? You're threatening to kill the whole bunch of us just because you got jilted in a love affair? After all our years together, you think we wouldn't have understood about you and Roy? You think we wouldn't have tried to help? If you'd given us half a chance we could have talked it out and tried—"
Vernon thrust his head forward aggressively. "No! I'm tired of 'talking things out' for the sake of other people's interests. I've spent all of my adult life looking out for the interests of others—the businesses I took control of, the band, my wife and her endless ailments. Now it was time for somebody to give me some consideration." Vernon's hard glare bored into Terrell. "If you wanted to 'talk things out', why didn't you come to me when the harassment trouble started? You used to run whining to me with every other piss-ant little problem you had in your lives. I was counting on that—counting that it would give me a good excuse to get back in with the group, to get closer to Roy again so I could talk some sense into him. But no, instead you betrayed me, too, Travis."
"How? How did I betray you, Milt?"
"You brought in that fucking private eye, that's how."
Clift hung his head lower. "I'm the one who caused that, too, Travis. I told him about Hannibal. I thought it might be enough to convince him to back off before things got even more out of hand … But it only made it worse."
"Why wouldn't it? You brought in a fucking outsider when always before we worked out our own problems. That was your betrayal, Travis. But you were all in on it. First Roy betrayed my heart, that was bad enough. And then the rest of you betrayed the loyalty and trust we've had for all these yers. Betrayal on all sides!"
"Nobody ever set out to hurt you, Milt," Terrell argued.
"But that's how I ended up, all the same. Roy swore he would go away with me once Martha was out of the way. I've got all the money we'd ever need, we could have gone somewhere where they allow same-sex marriages and lived openly. We could have admitted our love and shown it to the world."
"We can still do those things," Clift wailed. "I told you I'm sorry, Milt. I will go away with you. Anywhere you want. Just let us cut the album so we can see—"
"No! No deals. If you're truly willing to go away with me then you should be ready right now. If the album turns out to be the success everybody thinks it's going to be, that that will only make it harder for you to walk away from the band."
"But if I leave now, it will screw over the rest of the guys. Who will they find to fill in and learn all the songs on such short—"
"I don't give a fuck about anybody else getting screwed over!" Vernon roared. "Can't you understand that?"
He sort of reared back with his head and shoulders as he said this, jerking hard on Clift's hair with his left hand. At the same time, his right hand, the one holding the gun, momentarily pulled up and away from Clift's head and for a second was aimed nowhere threatening.
I recognized that moment as the best chance I might get.
I took the shot.
I pumped two quick rounds into the meaty part of his left arm, just below the shoulder. The impacts slammed him back against the wall at the end of the picture window. He bounced off, knees buckling, Glock slipping from his grasp and clattering to the floor as Vernon himself pitched to sprawl directly behind Clift's chair.
"Secure that gun!" I hollered as I broke from the kitchen.
Vernon bled out before the paramedics arrived in response to our 911 call. Despite my efforts not to deliver a kill shot, one of my slugs had caught a bone somewhere and been deflected so that it veered off and down and ended up tearing through some major heart vessels.
But my actions were seen as justified and no charges against me were ever seriously considered.
The news media played up Vernon's meltdown as a combination of being distraught over the death of his wife following her prolonged illness, and feeling cheated due to no longer being associated with the band now that they were ascending in popularity. That's the picture we painted for them.
In the end, Travis and the Travelers cut their album. It was a modest hit but they couldn't seem to come up with anything afterwards to sustain that same level of success. The song Hard Side of Heartbreak maintained its popularity, however, and numerous big name stars went on to record their own versions of it. But that wasn't enough to assuage the guilt Roy Clift allowed to consume him over what he insisted was his betrayal of Milt Vernon and, by extension, the rest of the band. The following summer he hanged himself from the high crossbar of a swing set in a public park.
He left a note requesting that the verses of his song be put on his tombstone. After everything that happened, the words sounded now almost like a lament from the perspective of Milt Vernon. Maybe that's how Roy saw it, too. Still, Travis and the other band members honored his request. In time, few walking through the cemetery where the marker stands will know the story behind those words. But they'll always be a sad reminder of the damage that can be wrought by love gone wrong.
Be careful what you wish for
That's what they always say.
If you give your heart too freely
It's bound to get broken some day.
We all want someone special
To cherish and to hold.
But when love only cuts one way
Nothing can leave you so cold.
Now emptiness fills each night
In place of everything that seemed so right.
And there's no getting past the ache
When you're standin' on the hard side of heartbreak.
Copyright © 2015 Wayne D. Dundee.
Wayne Dundee grew up and spent the first fifty years of his life around the state line area of northern Illinois/southern Wisconsin. Always an avid reader, he decided at an early age that one day he wanted to be a writer himself. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer influenced the direction his writing would initially take -- hardboiled detective mysteries.
Dundee sold his first short story, featuring his blue collar PI Joe Hannibal, in 1982. Since then there have been, to date, over twenty Hannibal short stories, three novellas, and nine Hannibal novels, including the latest (BLADE OF THE TIGER, 2013) and a short story collection (BODY COUNT - THE JOE HANNIBAL CASEFILES, VOLUME I, 2013), marking Hannibal's 30th year in print. The Hannibal books and stories have been published in several languages and have been nominated for an Edgar, an Anthony, and six Shamus Awards from PWA.
In recent years, Dundee has also gained acclaim for his work in the Western genre. His 2010 short story "This Old Star" received the Peacemaker Award from the Western Fictioneers writers' organization. His debut Western novel, DISMAL RIVER, won the 2011 Peacemaker for Best First Western. And his 2012 story "Adeline" won again in the short story category.
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