Cullen Gallagher is a writer and musician. He was born in Georgia and raised in Maine, but he's spent most of his life in New York, and currently lives in Brooklyn. His non-fiction has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Paris Review, and CrimeReads. His fiction has appeared in Crime Factory, and the anthologies Bourbon & a Good Cigar (2018) and Time to Myself (2018). For more information, visit www.cullengallagher.com or his blog, Pulp Serenade (www.pulp-serenade.com), or find him on Instagram or Twitter @pulpserenade.
We heard Sheriff McPartland’s truck rumbling down the dirt road from a mile away. It’s pretty remote here in the hills outside of Lincoln, Nebraska, where Leona and I run our clinic. Wide and open. Has to be—that’s the way the horses like it.
The door slammed shut, and Leona stayed behind with our patient, monitoring its limp in the corral behind the clinic while I went to see what the sheriff wanted.
“You get any late night business past couple nights?”
The sheriff was from Massachusetts and not much for pleasantries.
“A horse is just as liable to get sick in the nighttime as it is in the day,” I said, “though most owners don’t find out until morning when they do their rounds, less’n the horse makes a lot of noise that wakes ’em up.”
“Cut the crap, Harlan.”
More of that Massachusetts hospitality.
“There’s a meth war going on and there’s been reports of shooting going on. New sellers trying to stake their claim, and someone doesn’t appreciate the competition.”
“I can’t imagine the sheriff’s department appreciates either party.”
“No, Harlan, we don’t. They can kill each other off, for all I care, but I don’t want this to spread into a massacre where innocent people get shot. I stay out of your affairs, but if you get any visitors, you call me.”
“We treat animals, not people.”
“These kind are more animals than people,” McPartland said. “Just don’t let me find out that you’ve been helping them out. Judge Stadden is mighty interested in putting these dealers behind bars. Just remember that.”
The sheriff got into his car and drove off without even a “goodbye.”
Nobody else came to visit us that evening, but the following night we heard the familiar crunch of wheels on a dirt road.
Leona leapt out of bed as soon as the high-beams shone through our windows and into our darkened bedroom. While I put on my robe, she was pulling down the steel curtains, locking them into place. I kissed her and she locked the door behind me. I twisted the doorknob and yanked twice to make sure, even though I didn’t have to. Leona knew the routine by now. We didn’t even exchange words or “I love you” or Good luck.” This was part of business. We each did what we had to do and played the role we had chosen for ourselves.
I went downstairs but didn’t bother going to the front office. Leona and I lived above our equine veterinary office, but it wasn’t likely that whoever was coming this late at night was bringing a horse. If they were, they would have called first. Most owners do. It’s my other customers that don’t want any phone record of having called me. Whoever was coming this time of night knew what they were supposed to do.
I slipped on boots and walked through the garage, using the side entrance connected to the house, and flicked on the lights. It was a three-car garage, but our Suburban only took up one of the bays, the one closest to the house. The middle bay was filled with spare parts for cages and crates of bulk chemicals and materials needed for tending to horses. The last bay was empty. That was where I operated.
I punched the button and the mechanical door lifted up.
The SUV was idling right in front, my next patient bleeding in the open trunk. Two men with shotguns stood on either side of the vehicle wearing balaclavas over their faces and dual bandoliers of ammo across their chest. Behind the patient I could see the driver still behind the wheel, ready to bolt at a moment’s notice.
I pushed a stretcher across the concrete floor at the nearest guard. “I don’t do any lifting.”
He leaned his shotgun against the truck and dragged the wounded man onto the stretcher and pushed him into the garage. The other guard started to follow behind.
“That’s against the rules. You both stay out front and guard. You don’t trust me in here alone with the guy, then take him to another doctor.”
They didn’t protest.
I lowered the door and was alone with my patient.
The guy had been shot wide open. His chest was so messy I couldn’t even guess how many bullets. So much blood had been lost he was barely squirming.
He seemed like a lost cause to me. But I would try my best, that’s what they were paying me for. They knew the risks. No guarantees. Whoever he was, he must be awfully valuable to somebody.
I left him alone for a moment to get my portable kit, prepared especially for emergencies like this. Preparing for surgery alone is reckless and idiotic—like that time I was interning, before I decided to specialize in horses, and tried to anesthetize a cat by myself and wound up in the emergency room myself for facial stitches—but so is helping criminals like these guys. Criminals, however, pay well enough that Leona and I might be able to pay off our school loans and mortgage and retire sometime before we’re eighty.
As I pushed aside power tools and set up a makeshift cleaning station, I thought about how dangerous this was for the patient. I took the precautions I could, but I knew it wasn’t enough. Having Leona would have made things easier, but she and I had been over this before. Risking one of our lives was enough. She didn’t love what I was doing, but she understood why I was doing it. Push come to shove, Leona would push back—hard—but she wasn’t as reckless as her husband.
The first set of gloves I put on snapped and broke. I crumpled them up and tossed them aside.
That’s when I heard the tire crunching.
Even through the closed garage doors, the sound was unmistakable.
I hoped it was more business, because I hadn’t even started and I knew there wasn’t much I could do for this guy.
With the crunch getting closer, I put on another pair of gloves, grabbed my forceps, and said a prayer.
For me and for him.
When the guns went off, I knew it wasn’t one of this guy’s comrades.
Shotguns pumped and glass shattered.
My patient’s eyes had that wide-open stare of pure fear.
At least I knew he wasn’t a goner.
“Heh-heh-heh—” he gurgled.
Was my patient trying to laugh?
He struggled against the restraints binding his arms, legs, and torso to the stretcher.
I leaned in closer.
He coughed blood all over my ear. I could have sworn it was oozing straight into my brain.
Banging on the garage door shut him up and stopped him squirming. Terror paralyzed his body.
“Open up, doc, or we open fire.”
My patient shook his head as much as he could. Which, in his condition, wasn’t much.
I clicked the “open” button and returned to my patient while it slowly lifted. It didn’t bother me that my back was to the door. If the man out there was going to shoot, his mind was already made up. My patient and I might both only have seconds to live, but I was determined to do what I could.
“Is he still breathing?” the gunman said.
“For the time being.”
“Then hand him over?”
The gunman fired into the ground. It sounded like a pistol of some kind. I couldn’t tell just from the sound, but I didn’t much want to turn around and look.
“I don’t want to kill you if I don’t have to, Harlan. I know your reputation. You’ve helped some people I know. You’re a useful man to have around in these parts. So just hand him over and I’ll be out of your way.”
My patient closed his eyes and for a moment I thought he died, but then I started to feel the tremors from the stretcher. He was scared. He didn’t want to die. Not at the hands of this man.
“I can’t do that. I took an oath when I entered this profession. I’m doing my duty. Same as I did with your friends.”
“This here’s different. He’s no friend of mine.”
“I took that oath all the same.”
The gunman outside fired another shot. This one hit the concrete an inch from my foot.
“Stop with the bullshit. You took an oath for animals, not humans.”
The metal stopped trembling and I realized I was staring into a dead man’s eyes.
I pushed the stretcher away from me.
“Take him. He’s dead.”
With my back towards the man outside I walked over to the table and removed my bloody gloves.
“What the—” the gunman outside snapped.
I dove behind boxes of medical equipment.
The stretcher thudded as it hit the ground.
“Motherfucker was still alive, doc. Got his bloody hands all over me.” A shot cracked the bowl of alcohol. “You’re one lousy doctor, you know that? Couldn’t even keep the guy alive long enough to spill what he knew.”
“Wasn’t anything I could do for him,” I said from behind the boxes. “Just go and leave us alone now. You got what you came for. The man’s dead and I haven’t seen your face.”
“Maybe that’s not all I came for.”
For the first time, my body shook. A tremble from way down deep. Chills colder than I’d ever known before.
“If you’re gonna shoot, then do it now.”
“Maybe I will. But maybe it would be more fun to start with your wife? I know she’s locked up in that room. I have enough firepower to open any lock.”
Never had I regretted not carrying a gun on me more than now. I used to think it would keep me safe, prove that I wasn’t a threat. Now I realized it may be the death of me.
“Maybe I should just leave and call the cops,” the gunman said, “let them know about your operation, and see you try to squirm out of this. Watch you and your wife’s life go down the drain as the judge puts you behind bars and you lose this here business.”
Behind me I saw a box of bulk medical equipment that might have a box of scalpels. I admit that I thought about how long it would take to reach in and search for a blade to cut my own wrists.
Then I heard the sound of a door shutting, an engine revving, and the diminishing grinding of tires as it drove into the night.
Minutes after the sound had died, I didn’t move from my spot, afraid that he or one of his men might still be waiting for me.
“He’s gone, Harlan.”
Leona’s voice startled me.
Her sight calmed me, however. Even now, on the brink of death, she brought a sense of security I never thought I’d again know.
She lifted me up and held me close.
“We planned for a lot, but never this.”
Over her shoulders, I could see the carnage scattered over our driveway.
The driver, shot through the window of the SUV.
Two guards, hands still on their guns.
And the overturned stretcher, the patient still strapped in, still bleeding.
“How much time do you think we have before someone reports those shots and McPartland comes nosing around?” Leona asked.
“An hour. Maybe,” I said.
“Then we have a lot of work to do before then.”
“Harlan, is this your watch?” Leona asked as she retrieved shell casings and glass shards from the ground.
She handed the bloody watch to me.
“Looks like mine, but it’s not. I’m still wearing mine.”
“Could it have belonged to the guy they brought here?”
“No, he wasn’t wearing a watch, I’d have noticed it when I was examining him. It must have belonged to the gunman, and the dead guy must have ripped it off him when he grabbed him.” I looked it over and under, noticing a series of words engraved, one on each section of the metal flex-band. “There’s an inscription here, but it’s too dull to read.”
Leona took it back to inspect. “Maybe if I put it under the microscope. There’s years of sweat and grime covering it, whoever wore it was absolutely filthy and never cleaned the damn thing. Shame, too. Expensive watch.”
“You should know, you bought one for me.”
“Who could forget that bill? I bought it for you back when we were still in school. Took me almost a year to pay it off.”
She grabbed me and kissed me hard and said, “Worth every penny.”
I wished we didn’t have so much work to do.
I finished piling the bodies in the back of the SUV while Leona picked up the last of the shell casings and glass shards. She tried to obscure the blood on the driveway as best she could, shoveling clumps of dirt into a garbage bag and replacing what she had removed with fresh earth. Then she stamped around in her boots, trying to hide the disparity between the new and the old soil.
The keys to the SUV were still in the ignition, thankfully. I didn’t want to rifle through the dead men’s pockets. I’d touched the dead bodies enough already. I suggested to Leona that I dump the car up near the highway and wipe off my prints. The car was bound to be found sooner or later—and I just wanted it off our property before McPartland showed up. I even hoped that maybe if the bodies were found soon enough, that might occupy the sheriff and give us a little extra time to clean up.
“I’ll follow behind and pick you up.”
Black of night was fading to the pale gray-blue of early morning when we heard Sheriff McPartland’s truck rumbling down the dirt road from a mile away and closing fast. I was on my knees in the garage, drying the last remaining puddles from where I had mopped the blood away. Leona was outside, replacing the watch back where she had found it.
Stepping into the garage, Leona wiped the dust from her jeans and said, “I’ll get a pot of coffee on and jump in the shower. You might want to change clothes, real quick. He’s not gonna believe you dirtied your clothes that much this early in the morning.”
She was right.
The sheriff was banging on the front door while I was still getting dressed.
I let him bang a little longer, grabbed an undershirt, pulled on my boots, and got us two cups of coffee.
Stepping outside to greet McPartland, I offered him one of the cups. The sheriff swatted it out of my hand, the ceramic thudding onto the dirt and its black contents pooling into mud on the ground.
I imagine he would have rather done that to my face. And maybe he would, before the morning was over.
“I heard what you did last night, Harlan.”
I played dumb, just like Leona and I planned.
“You got a warrant?” Leona said as she joined us outside, still drying her hair with a towel.
“I’ll be back with one,” McPartland said, “mark my word.”
After he drove off, Leona scanned the driveway for the watch.
It was gone.
We finished the coffee and made a second pot. Neither of us felt like cooking so we nibbled on Pop Tarts as we figured out how to save our asses.
“But that wasn’t McPartland’s voice you heard last night,” Leona said. “You’d have recognized that Eastern accent of his.”
“No, it definitely wasn’t him. It’s someone local. He even mentioned that he knew someone I had fixed up in the past. Whoever the gunman is, McPartland is involved with him. That’s why he came back. For the watch.”
We both knew McPartland would return.
An hour later, McPartland had come back with a search warrant.
Truth be told, I didn’t even look that closely at the paper. He could have showed me anything and I’d have been ok with it.
He wanted to look in our garage. And that was right where we wanted him.
For someone who never said “hello” or “goodbye,” McPartland liked to talk. All about how they had found the SUV with the bodies. How someone had already seen the vehicle turning onto our property early this morning. Witnesses heard the gunshots. All he needed now was evidence to back up the story and he would haul Leona and I in and book us.
Neither of us questioned how he pieced this all together in an hour, or fabricated witnesses so quickly. That might have undermined his confidence.
McPartland was on his knees looking under the table, searching for any minute trace of blood. He knew where to look. Because someone told him where to look.
“You cleaned damned good,” the sheriff said, “but not good enough.”
He didn’t get the chance to say anymore.
Leona stuck his ass with a needle full of horse tranquilizer.
When he came to, the sheriff was in the clinic in a cage built for horses. He had plenty of room to run around, but those bars wouldn’t break, and there was no one around to hear him scream.
No one but the horses.
Leona dangled a plastic bag containing the watch in front of him.
“You know what this is.”
It wasn’t a question.
This time, it was his turn to play dumb.
Leona read the inscription.
“‘To Henry, The world’s greatest son—let me be the ‘judge’ of that. Love, Father.’ Wanna bet that belongs to Judge Stadden’s son? Probably plenty of DNA on that watch.”
“You can’t prove nothing, Leona.”
“Not on my own, but the D.A. might find it an interesting angle to investigate. A local judge’s son dealing meth and gunning down the competition. And our very own Sheriff McPartland is knee-deep in all of it, cleaning up the mess that the kid leaves behind. Want to take that chance?”
He spat. Those Massachusetts manners.
“Fine. Name your price.”
Leona hit record on her tape recorder, and McPartland sang until he, Judge Stadden, and his son Henry, were implicated enough to put them all away for several lifetimes. I sat with McPartland while Leona duplicated a copy on our stereo, and then drove into town to drop the watch and a dupe of the tape off with our lawyer. She had helped us plenty in getting the business going, and with a nasty, unfair lawsuit a couple years back from a client whose horse couldn’t have been saved by God himself. But she’d never done anything like this for us, before. We hoped she could be persuaded by a fat envelope filled with some of our rainy day funds.
By the time Leona was back, dawn was in full bloom. The sun shone high and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, just pure blue as far as the eyes could see. Leona smiled and said everything was all set.
It sure was a beautiful morning.
I opened the cage and Sheriff McPartland stumbled out. I reminded him that if anything should happen to us, our lawyer would open that envelope. But as long as Leona and I lived long, healthy lives, we’d uphold our end of the bargain. I suppose the sheriff heard me, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t have, but he didn’t say a word. Just went straight to his truck and lit out for town without even a goodbye.
What is it with folks from Massachusetts?
No manners. None at all.
We stood outside and watched the sheriff trail away into dust, while the horses from the stable out back neighed.
Leona went to check on them while I got her another cup of coffee.
To the horses, this was just another day.
Copyright © 2021 Cullen Gallagher.