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Day Fifty-seven: Mistaken Identity

Arthur was waiting in line to buy beer at the convenience store when he felt a heavy hand tap him on the shoulder. He turned and saw a large man, his face scowling and red and unshaven, who said, “Yeah. I thought so.”

Then he punched Arthur in the mouth.

On the floor and holding his split lip, Arthur tried to ask the guy what the hell his problem was, but it was too late. The man was already stalking out of the store. The other customers were very carefully pretending not to notice the guy who just got socked in the mouth and went back to scrutinizing jars of peanut butter and loaves of bread.

“Did you see what that guy did to me?” he asked the clerk. He took his hand away from his mouth. There was less blood than he expected, even though it felt like his lip had exploded. He touched it again and winced. “Did you see that?” he asked again, his pronunciation soft and strange. The clerk just looked at him with barely concealed disgust. “What?” Arthur asked. “Why didn’t you stop him or something?”

“You can pay for your stuff and get out, mister,” the clerk said. One hand was edging underneath the counter. “Or you can just get out. Your choice.”

Arthur bent down to pick up the beer off the floor, stood up, and dropped it on the counter. The quick change in elevation brought throbbing pain to his jaw, and he wondered if he should go to a doctor. “Just ring up the damn beer,” he said.

The clerk didn’t move. His lip actually curled before he said, “I don’t think so. Why don’t you take your business elsewhere?”

Arthur, his hand still holding his jaw, wanted to shout. He looked around for support, but the other customers were still ignoring him, except when they shot furtive, disgusted glances his way. “Jesus Christ,” he said. “The hell is wrong with you people?” No one said anything. He looked back at the clerk, his mind racing for a threat. “I… I’m calling my lawyer,” he said, wishing he had something better.

The clerk actually spit on his own floor. “Yeah,” he said. “Your lawyer. You go on and do that, then, you sick fuck.”

Without another word, Arthur staggered out to his car. He looked at himself in the rear-view mirror – as he thought, his lip was swelling up and had a cut on it that felt like it should have been a lot worse. “Son of a bitch,” he said. He put the car in gear, turned on the headlights, backed out of the parking lot and headed for his hotel. His mind was racing with all the things he should have said to that snot-nosed clerk but didn’t. What he kept coming back to, though, was that he had no idea what had just happened. By the time he got back to his hotel room, he was almost in tears.

He looked at his face again in the mirror and cursed. This wasn’t going to help him in the interview. Two more days of driving to go, and there was no way this would be unnoticeable by the time he set foot in Barbeau Pharmaceuticals. “Shit,” he said. “How’m I gonna explain this?” He had to wipe his eyes clear and get a grip on the bathroom sink. Okay, he thought. Think. What do I need to do first? He couldn’t call the police, as much as he wanted to. He was leaving at six in the morning for another fourteen hours in the car, and hanging around to fill out police reports would mean missing the interview. And if he went to a hospital – same thing.

He went back into the room, picked up the phone, and dialed out. After a minute, a groggy voice answered. “Hello?”

“Jim! I just got punched in the mouth by some jackass in a convenience store, Jim, and I have no idea what this hillbilly shitkicker wanted! Then the clerk, this little punk-ass kid, he practically kicked me out of the store, and for what? I didn’t do anything!”

“Who is this?” Jim slurred.

“Jim, it’s me! It’s Arthur!”

“Arthur, right,” Jim said. “You said you got hit by a clerk? What?”

“No, some guy in a convenience store just decked me out of nowhere and now I have a split lip and an interview in two days and this is completely fucked up, Jim!” There was a moment of silence on the other end. “Jim?”

“Hey, Art, where are you?”

Arthur picked up the hotel stationery. “I’m at the Stillwater Hotel in Ridgebourne. Why?”

“Ridgebourne,” Jim said. “Hold on a sec.” From the sound, Arthur could tell Jim had gotten up and moved to the computer. He heard typing and a couple of mouse clicks. “Okay,” Jim said. “What do we know about- Oh, hell.”

“Jim? What? ‘Oh hell’ What, Jim?”

“Um, Art – you might want to check the local news.”

“What? Why?” He reached for the remote and turned the television on. He flipped through channels until he got to the eleven o’clock news, which was running a special extended broadcast.

“…are asking people to remain calm and not overreact,” the anchor was saying. “Craig Wilburn has been taken to an undisclosed location following his release from the county jail. Several death threats have already been received by authorities and they are concerned for Wilburn’s safety.”

Arthur put the phone back up to his ear. “I don’t get it, Jim. Who the hell is Craig Wilburn?”

“He was acquitted on six counts of molesting little boys,” Jim said. “The article I’m looking at here says that the jury wasn’t convinced by the State’s physical evidence and set the guy free. But the mood in the town is…”

“They all think he’s guilty. Okay, fine, what does that have to do with me?”

Jim paused for a moment. “Have they shown a picture yet?”

A cold, sinking feeling spread through Arthur’s gut. “Nnnoo,” he said slowly. He glanced up at the TV just in time to see the photo flash up on the screen and the sinking feeling became ice. His own face was staring out from a small frame next to the news anchor’s head. The hair was a little off, and Arthur was pretty sure he never scowled like that, but for all the world the guy up on the screen looked like him.

“Oh, hell,” he said.

There was a knock on the door to his hotel room, and Arthur stood up fast. “What was that?” Jim asked.

“Nothing,” Arthur whispered. “Someone at the door.” The knock came again.

“You’re not going to answer it, are you?”

“I… I…” Arthur swallowed hard. The knocking came again. A muffled voice announced itself as the hotel manager. “Ju-just a sec!” he called.

Jim’s voice was tinny and frantic on the other end of the phone. “Are you nuts? It’s probably a lynch mob! Arthur, I’m calling the police – stay there and don’t answer the door!”

“No, Jim, wait!” Arthur said, but it was too late. The line was dead.

The knocking came again. “Hotel manager,” the man said again. “I would like to talk to you, mister…” There was a deliberate pause. “Wynne.”

Arthur hung up the phone and glanced at himself in the mirror. He looked like hell, with a swollen lip and a bruise starting to spread across his face. He tried to smooth back his hair, but it wasn’t working. He stood up a little straighter and set his shoulders. Whoever this Wilburn guy was, he wasn’t him. This could all be cleared up. He wiped sweat from his forehead and walked to the door with purpose.

When he opened it, a small man in a hotel uniform was poised to knock again. The man looked up at him and lowered his hand. “Mister Wynne?” he asked.

“Yes,” Arthur said. “Arthur Wynne.” He enunciated his name clearly and slowly.

The man glanced at his swollen lip. “Have an… accident?” he asked, the implication clear in his voice.

“Actually, someone punched me in a convenience store,” Arthur said. “Your little town has a long way to go as far as hospitality.”

The little man bristled. “I see.” He straightened. “Mister Wynne, I am Riley Hensler, the manager of this hotel. I would like you to leave.” He clasped his hands in front of him. “Now.”

“What?”

Hensler pursed his lips. “Mister Wynne, for the last hour, we have been receiving phone calls offering threats of physical violence against us. The callers seem to believe that Craig Wilburn,” and here his mouth twisted against the name, “is staying with us. Despite our reassurances, the threats continue, and one of my front desk clerks recalled checking in someone who greatly resembled the man in question.” He pointed to Arthur.

Arthur wanted to shake the little man. “But I’m not him!” he shouted. “It’s not my problem if the people in your town are brainless, slack-jawed sheep!”

Hensler raised an eyebrow. “I have a clerk whose life and well-being have been threatened three times tonight, Mister Wynne. She’s twenty-five years old and is a rather sweet girl.” His face went slowly cold. “I will not have my employees treated like this, and if ensuring her safety and well-being means seeing you leave, then that’s what I will do.” He flashed a perfunctory smile. “Given the unusual situation, I am willing to waive your room fee for the night. For your troubles.”

Arthur wanted to hit him, to scream, to curl up in a ball and cry. His eyes started to fill up, and he leaned against the doorjamb. “This is stupid,” he said. “I’m not him, I didn’t know who he was until tonight. I just want to sleep and go and get to my interview.” He wiped his eyes and looked up. Hensler looked unmoved.

“You have half an hour,” he said. “Then I call the police. You may in fact not be him, but I don’t think you want to spend the night explaining that to the local brainless, slack-jawed sheep with a badge. Given the choice, I think you know what’s best.” Hensler gave a shallow nod, turned on his heel, and walked down the hall.

Arthur snuffled. “Screw it,” he said. He went back into the room and grabbed his bag. He hadn’t really unpacked, since it was only supposed to be an overnight stay, so he threw things back in the bag and zipped it closed. He checked the bathroom, got his razor and deodorant and, after a moment’s battle with spite, grabbed a towel off the rack. All these went into the suitcase as well. He wanted to do more, to overturn the desk and throw the mattress out the window and write obscenities on the walls with the shoe-shine kit. But he didn’t.

He didn’t look at the front desk as he left. He just plowed through the double doors, threw his suitcase in the backseat of the car and started driving west. Maybe I can sleep in the car or something, he thought. Whatever he did, getting the hell out of this town would have to come first.

He stopped at a red light and took a few deep breaths. Okay, he thought. In a month, this’ll be a funny story to tell around the water cooler at Barbeau. Me and my new co-workers, having a good laugh about the time some cowtown South Dakota hicks thought I was a serial child molester. Good times, good times.

“Well lookie here!”

The pickup that had pulled up next to him was full of large, probably drunk men. The guy in the passenger seat had rolled down his window and was peering through the dim sodium light to get a good look at Arthur’s face. “You know who we got here?” he yelled back to his friends. Several of them started to get out of the truck.

“Oh, hell,” Arthur said, and jammed his foot on the gas.

Day Twenty-two: Sidekick

June 12, 2011 1 comment

Dominic Glover gave his eyes a moment to adjust as he entered the tavern. The bright South Dakota sunshine gave way to a dim stuffiness, heavy with the smoke of cheaply rolled cigarettes, spilled whiskey and unwashed bodies. There was no piano player in a place like this, and no pretty girls trying to earn a little on the side. No card game going on in the corner. Just working men, down from the only silver mine in fifty miles, eating better food than they could make themselves in their tents and lean-tos. There wasn’t much talking. What was there to talk about?

He stood up to the bar, which at least was clean, and signaled the keeper. “Gimme a whiskey,” Dominic said, and hated himself for it. It would kill him one day, that was for sure. It had been trying to kill him for a long time. Came pretty close, too. But not today. After the… incident in Harmony, after letting Cordova dance out of town the way he did, Dominic managed to keep himself to a drink a day. That was enough, or so he kept telling himself. Any more than that, and what little career he had left would be gone, and probably the only place left to go from there would be right into the barrel of one of his own guns.

The keeper put the glass in front of him, and he slid a silver coin across the bar. “Keep it,” he said, not looking at the man. He gave himself a moment to look at the drink, to tell himself what he was doing.

Just the one. Just this one, old man. You’ll have this, and you can get to what you came here for. Just this, and you can start putting your life together. Just this, and you can find Roman Cordova and finish what you should have finished in Harmony.

He gingerly picked up the glass, willing himself to feel it in his fingertips, to feel its barely perceptible weight in his hand. Just this, he thought.

The liquor went down quickly, leaving a cold burn that ate its way to his stomach. As frontier whiskey went, it was pretty bad. But it was good enough. Dominic squeezed his eyes shut, and when he opened them again, he knew what he had to do and how.

He raised his hand to signal the keeper – these men were always the best place to start for information – but stopped when he heard a voice from behind. “Well, I’ll be dipped in shit. If it isn’t Dominic Glover, the Scourge of the Badlands.”

Dominic felt his chest tighten when he recognized the voice, but didn’t turn around. The voice was deeper than he remembered, stronger. But there was no other voice like it. “And if I’m not mistaken,” he rasped, “I believe I am talking to Santos Osegueda.” He took a deep breath and smiled. “The worst horse thief in three territories.” He turned around.

The young man was admirably clean, as he had always been, and it made him stand out. He had unruly black hair and sun-dark skin, and a smile that he never hid. He went and grew up, Dominic thought. And he grew up good. “How’ve you been, Santos?” he asked, leaning back on the bar as casually as he could.

“I can’t believe you’d bring up that horse, Dom,” Santos said, slapping him on the shoulder. “I was twelve. What did I know about horse theft?”

“Not a whole lot.” He looked at the young man for a moment, and broke. A smile cracked his face and he held out a steady hand. Santos, never one to hold back, grabbed the offered hand and pulled Dominic in for a hug. A few pats on the back and a few sidelong looks from the miners, and the moment passed. Dom nodded to the bar and signaled the keeper again.

“Two whiskeys,” Santos said, before Dom could say anything. The keeper nodded and grabbed a bottle.

“Just the one,” Dominic told him. “Gimme a beer.” The keeper nodded again and went back to the cold storage closet.

Santos raised an eyebrow. “A beer?”

Dominic nodded.

“A beer?” He whistled softly through his teeth. “So the stories about Harmony are true.”

Dominic looked at him. “Stories?”

“Yup. Legend has it you nearly broke the bar the last night you were there. Sheriff would’ve arrested you if you didn’t scare the hell out of him, and on top of all that… You let Cordova slip away and you’ve been off the bottle ever since.”

“I didn’t let him slip away,” Dominic muttered. “I was distracted.”

“Three girls would be distracting,” Santos said. “Or so I imagine. Often.”

Dominic chuckled, and Santos held up a finger. “That’s one,” he said.

“Your record is five, if I remember.”

“I think I can break it.”

“Not today, you can’t.”

Santos started cracking his knuckles. “A challenge then, old man?”

The keeper came out of the cold closet and put an already sweating bottle down in front of Dominic. The whiskey came a moment later. Santos flipped a coin in the air, caught it, and handed it over. “It’s on me,” he said. He tapped the glass against the beer bottle and downed the whiskey in one gulp. A quick shudder, and he said, “Christ, that’s shitty whiskey.”

“It is indeed.”

They turned around and leaned back against the bar. The miners were starting to finish up their meals and head back out to work. Dominic didn’t envy them in the least. His was a rootless life. No family, no friends to speak of, and all the risks that came with a lifetime of bounty hunting. But it was all better than going down in the dark, mining metal so someone else could get rich. Not that he couldn’t think of better lives than the one he lived, but in this part of America, better lives were few and far between.

He took a pull off the beer bottle. “So what brings you to Ridgebourne? Seems a little out of your way.”

Santos looked at him sideways. “I’m collecting,” he said.

Dominic sighed and passed the bottle to his other hand. “You’re collecting.”

“Yup.” Santos pulled a bar stool over and sat down. “I learned a lot, jobbing with you all those years. After we split, I thought I’d try my hand at it.”

“I’d hoped that you’d learned collecting is no good life for a man to live.”

Santos turned to him. “You were good at it,” he said, his expression straight. “And you are the best man I know.” He paused, perhaps hoping to let that sink in. “Anyway, I put what I learned from you to work, and it turned out I have the knack. Been doing this about three years now, and it’s keeping me out of trouble. Mostly.” He glanced over, but there was not even a smile.

Dominic nodded. “I see.” He took another pull off the beer bottle and asked the question he already knew the answer to. “So who are you after?”

There was a long silence, and Santos’ innate cheerfulness went dim. After a minute, Dominic decided to be the one to break it. “You realize that bringing in Cordova isn’t going to be like rolling over a two bit highwayman. Don’t you?”

“I know what kind of man Cordova is,” Santos said. “I’ve been following him, keeping track of him. Honestly I thought you’d pick him off in Harmony, but…” He shrugged. “Anyway, I know where he is, and I’m going to pick him up.”

Dominic didn’t look over. “By yourself?”

The smile was back in Santos’ voice, and Dominic knew what kind. “Well, that was the plan. I figured I’d go in there, guns a-blazing.” He mimed a few shots, blew the top of his fingers and holstered imaginary guns. “I mean, even a stone-hard killer like Cordova would tremble at the might of the legendary Santos Osegueda, roller of drunks and pickpockets.”

Dominic let out a small laugh. He couldn’t help himself.

“Two.” Santos waved the keeper over and ordered another whiskey. “But I figured that just in case my terrifying reputation doesn’t precede me, I could bring yours along as a backup.” He stood back up and held out a hand to Dominic. “So what do you say, old man? Partners?”

“Partners,” Dominic muttered. He emptied the beer bottle and set it on the bartop. Santos was young, so young. When he looked at him, he could see the skinny kid he had been. Utterly fearless, not nearly bright enough, but with a kind of endless self-confidence that everything would work out in the end. The young man standing before him was very much the same, and Dominic could tell that he’d yet to see what kind of pain the real world could deliver when it was determined to make a man’s life hell. The glint in his eyes, the stiffness in his spine showed that Santos Osegueda had not been broken yet.

But he would be.

Dominic took the young man’s hand. “Partners.”