The Charred Tree

Friends In Low Places

“I can’t help you, Rob. Sorry.” The chain stretched across the opening drooped into a mocking smile as the door started to close. This was the fourth person he had tried since the phone call had startled him from his bed. Robert Penman’s patience broke. He pushed his foot into the narrowing crack and crashed his right shoulder into the veneered wood. Brass links parted and flew in several directions at once. The edge of the door crushed cartilage and parted flesh. Teeth joined the airborne loops of metal. The man behind the door fell with a cry of pain and surprise.

“What the fu—!” The word was cut off along with the air through his windpipe. Carl’s eyes bulged and stared straight into those of the man who had once been his friend. A rivulet of blood flowed from his broken nose and split lips. He struggled to push away the constricting fingers but Robert’s grip held firm despite the gore.

“Carl, I’m going to say this only once and you are going to answer. Where is Kathy? Where’d they take her?” Robert loosened his hold enough for him to answer.

“Waterfront,” the answer came in a ragged whisper through deformed vocal cords.

“Why there?” The grip loosened enough to allow a hoarse breath to slip by.

“You know.” The waterfront warehouse was where the organization took care of their client’s special cases. The old and forgotten building with its hidden access to the Savannah River made it a prime spot for certain activities best kept for the dark hours of the night. He had done several jobs there. Fingers tightened and sudden realization flooded Carl’s features.  He struggled to dislodge the unyielding hand.

“We worked together for years, Carl. Traded laughs. Shared smokes and beers. Even had you over to the house for a fish fry a time or two. Might even say we were friends.” Robert drew in a long breath through clenched teeth.

“But you were just gonna let Kathy die, weren’t you?” He slammed Carl’s head into the wall for emphasis and felt the neck break.

“Goodbye, Carl. See you in hell.”

Robert stood and turned to the door.

Robert stood motionless in the dark beneath the old cotton market along Front Street and listened. He heard nothing except the soft applause of water lapping against the countless wood supports. Normally the noises of the giant cranes and trucks moving containers across the river would have made hearing anything else here impossible but the longshoreman strike had the port shut down. It made it easier for him to hear anything from inside the structure above but it also meant he had to move as quietly as possible. He’d tried to breathe as shallowly as possible but the moldy smell of low tide filled his nostrils.

The floating dock was only a hundred feet ahead. Through the forest of pilings, Robert could see the streetlights across the river reflected off the polished engine housing at the rear of the moored Carolina Skiff. He knew the doors on the street side and along the boardwalk would be locked—they always were—but no one ever gave a thought about the sliding door next to the floating dock. There was a good chance it was not only unlocked but probably unguarded. He checked his gear, slipped into the water, and swam through the maze of supports to the dock.

He surfaced at the stern of the boat and scanned the dark recesses to either side of the door. Nothing. The wooden door would be heavy but the last time he had been here it opened without a lot of noise. Just have to be sure to not let it slam shut. Robert climbed from the water and made his way to the door. Once in the shadows he retrieved the Glock from his wetsuit and shook the water from the barrel. He listened for any sign of a guard on the other side and heard nothing.

Robert grunted as he slid the door a few inches, held it open, and looked across the space. A bare bulb protected by a heavy wire cage mounted on the far wall lit the staging area just off the dock. He froze and listened again. He could hear mumbled voices, probably from dispatch near the loading doors facing the street. The door slid another foot and Robert slipped inside before easing the door closed. He glided across the room and listened at the wide entrance to the wide warehouse floor. Robert moved through the shadows toward rear of the building.

Ten minutes later, Robert had incapacitated the men guarding the main entrances. He knew both men. He’d shed no tears for killing Claiborne at the back door—the man had been a sadist. Jenkins at the front door was a decent enough guy and Robert was glad he had been able put him out of commission without killing him.

The voices from the small office grew clearer as Robert edged up to a line of outboard motor crates across from the glass-topped door. Two men, one in a white suit and the other wearing what looked like dockers and a sports jacket, blocked the view through the window. McTiernan? Here in the flesh? Holy shit!  The sport jacket had to be Johnny Baker; Jimmy “The Pick” McTiernan had the bodybuilder on call as a bodyguard for the last few months. Word was that Baker had a temper and liked to break things and the older man enjoyed giving the youngster direction on how to best vent his anger to cause as much pain as possible. McTiernan had earned his place of respect and power through ruthlessness and the vicious use of his painbringer of choice—an icepick. What he couldn’t accomplish through guile and his charming southern demeanor, he managed with pain. And worse.

“…like she’s the one who fed the Feds.” Robert heard the voice chuckle at the pun. He recognized the voice. Sam deGroot was the one sitting behind the desk.

“Mr. DeGroot, there are some things you should never do. Thinking’s one of them—leave it to your betters—and sassing me is another. Killing Penman eliminates our immediate problem. His wife’s body sends a message to anyone else in the organization who thinks they can play Tweetie-bird.” McTiernan’s voice turned cold. “Now if you are too much of an idiot to do as you’re told, Mr. Baker here will not only take care of the task assigned to you…he will introduce you to the our retirement plan.”

The Pick leaned forward and put both hands on the bare desktop. deGroot’s ashen face seemed to rise like the moon over the curve of Mr. McTiernan’s back. Robert barely heard the next words, “Now take care of it.” The white-suited man stood and straightened his tie and coat. “Let’s go, Johnny.”

“Yes sir, Mr. McTiernan.” Baker held the door wide for his boss and then followed him. The two men strode into the darkness toward the door leading to the street.

Robert listened to the footfalls fade and watched deGroot push himself upright. He watched the darkness toward the front of the warehouse until the boom of the door slamming told him his boss was gone. deGroot checked the small Smith & Wesson that rode under his right arm. Robert noted the flabby man had trouble reaching the gun much less drawing it.

deGroot left the office and waddled toward the back of the warehouse. Robert, Glock drawn and ready, followed. When the big man came to a padlocked door he drew out a big ring of keys and started looking for the right one. He talked to himself under his breath. “Schlage…Cabo…Blaze…another Blaze…RiteTite, what the…oh yeah, that’s to the pain locker…Brinson…Master! There it is.” He bent toward the door to work the lock and stopped at the unmistakable touch of gunmetal to his neck. He dropped the keys and held empty hands palms out in front of his chest. “Whoa-whoa-whoa! I ain’t done nuthin’ to your woman, Penman. Ok? Don’t fly off the handle and do something we’ll both regret. Alright? We both gonna stay calm, ain’t we?”

Robert’s left hand pulled deGroot’s gun from it’s holster. Safety on. The gun disappeared inside the wetsuit. Robert nodded at the keys. “Pick ‘em up and let her out.”

deGroot made no move to retrieve the ring of keys and the fear in his eyes cranked up a notch. “I can’t do that. Mr. McTiernan would kill me. I ain’t stupid.” A rivulet of sweat ran to the man’s nose and formed a drop which fell to the floor.

The side of the Glock crashed against the fat man’s head; enough to hurt but not enough to knock him out. deGroot yelped before the cold whisper tickled his left ear. “He’ll kill you if he catches you—and you’d have a head start. I’ll kill you where you stand if you don’t do as I tell you. And do it…right…now. Pick up the keys and open the door.”

“He’s gonna turn that psycho Baker loose on me, man!” he half turned.

“Wrong answer.” Robert shoved deGroot further down the aisle where he stumbled and fell to his knees.

“Oh, God! Don’t kill me! I’ll do what you say just don’t kill me!” his puling echoed through the warehouse.

The Glock rose and roared twice. The obese man fell forward and didn’t move. Blood spread out from the body.

Robert retrieved the ring of keys, removed the padlock, and shoved the door open. The tiny room was no larger than a walk-in closet but it had a cot and a single lightbulb hanging from a bare wire. Kathy was sprawled across the cot face-down. Robert’s breath caught in his throat and he lunged across the room to his motionless wife. He turned her over and felt for a pulse at her throat and listened for her breathing. Slow and steady pulse. She breathed out and Robert smelled the pungent note of chloral hydrate. He lifted her from the cot and headed toward the door to the floating dock.

The door slewed open and Robert, with Kathy in his arms, stepped through and let it slam shut.

A voice hissed from the dark near the moored skiff. “Damn! Make some more noise and you’ll bring every cop aroun’ here to see what’s going on? Miss Kathy OK?”

“She’s fine—just knocked out. All the cops that patrol this area are bought and paid for by McTiernan. Nobody’s coming to investigate a few gunshots and a slammed door.” Robert followed the dock around the fiberglass boat to join the voice. “Thanks for coming, Lew. I owe you one.”

“Nah! You don’ owe me a damn thang. If I wa’n’ doing it outta friendship, I’d be payin’ you back for gettin’ ma boat outta hock last winter. ‘Sides, that dude you work fo’ is a mighty scary fella. I ‘sume this means you gettin’ shed o’ him?” Lew Allen spoke softly from the back of a home built wooden jonboat. Robert knew Lew’s dad had made it years before and the family used it to pole around the shallow waters of the tideland. He stepped aboard and eased Kathy onto the bottom of the boat before he pushed away from the dock into the river. Joe stood and started pushing the boat against the current.

“I’m afraid I won’t be buying any more fish from you, Lew. Most likely I’ll end up somewhere far from here with a new name. If we get away, that is.”

“Jenny’s waitin’ wit’ the van at the landing a few miles up river, the one on the Sou’ Carolina side.”

“But I told you…” Robert interrupted.

“Pshah! You ain’t da only one with some smahts. Figured someone mighta heard you talking to me on da cell, so me and Jenny changed the meetup jus’ in case.” He pushed against the pole and angled the craft across the river.

Robert looked stunned. “I don’t know what to say, Lew. Thank you.”

“No problem, Rob. You been a good frien’ to me an’ mine over the years even tho we’s jus’ po’ river folk. One thang we always do is take care o’ our own.” He lifted the pole and pushed against the muddy bottom again. “Now hush up—sound goes fah ovah da water. Help me watch fo’ snags. Cain’t risk a light since we skulkin’ ‘way so hafta make do with da moonlight.”

Rob looked back at the man who risked his life and family to help him get away. When he had called Lew to ask for help he had only thought of him and his boat as a way to get Kathy away from McTiernan but the fisherman’s words drove the realization home. They were indeed his friends and he found that he cared what happened to them. Yes, he’d helped them out when their boat had been repossessed but that was as much his own desire for the fish he bought from them and he could afford it. But was that all it was? Now he didn’t think so.

Rob turned and looked forward for hazard in their path. The small boat glided across the water into the darkness.

This story is in response to an InMon prompt at BeKindRewrite! from last month. Thank you for providing inspiration and motivation on a weekly basis.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.


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5 thoughts on “Friends In Low Places

  1. This is a fantastically rich story. You’ve built a detailed world and a gripping story.

  2. Pingback: Inspiration Monday: things you can’t hide « BeKindRewrite

  3. There’s so much going on here – I hope you’re going to carry on with this story as it definitely feels like part of something much bigger. You weave a lot of fantastic description in and although there is some repetitive phrasing (I noticed “as .. as possible” at least 3 or 4 times, for example), those wrinkled can easier be ironed out in comparison to all the detail and weight you’ve given the characters. Good job!

    • Thanks! …and thanks for mentioning the “as…as possible” thing. I’ve added it to my list of things to look for in edits. 🙂

      So far as a “plan” goes, it’s still pretty nebulous. I was kicking around the idea of building a cloud of vignettes and short stories around the Jimmy McTiernan character. It’s kind of weird since I started off with his death in “The Price of Four Minutes” but something about that character makes me want to flesh him out even more.

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