Crandall Against The Grain

[Author’s note: Here’s the story I’ve been working on that features my character Ace Crandall. I’ve been posting in pieces, so for reader convenience, I’m putting the entire story on this page in case people want to catch up or look back. I’ll update this page whenever I post a new chapter. This is the working title. Let me know if there are plot hiccups. — AB]

1.

If only there were someplace to put my knee, Crandall thought.

Then he almost laughed. Amazing what becomes amusing in these situations. The boniest portion of his left knee scraped against the rusty floor of the trunk as the car clonked over a bump. Crandall was no longer amused.

He blamed the fireman. Or more accurately, the guy posing as a fireman, pretty convincingly too. Outside the kids’ bookstore on Mississippi, the fire engine had pulled up, and the crew were showing the tots all the shiny, immense hardware. Crandall struck up a conversation with the trim, middle-aged fireman (or fireman poseur), whose chiseled face and sandy pompadour sure said fireman to Crandall. And all was well, until Crandall noticed an unmistakable stoning up of the fireman’s face as he glanced over Crandall’s right shoulder. Crandall himself turned just in time to see the tail end of a light blue Chevy out of the corner of his eye. At least he thought that’s what it was. Older, boxy. He didn’t get a good look; it was already cruising on its way south by the time he wheeled around.

Crandall thought little of it. He wrapped up with the fireman-ish person and found Camilla, who was by the curb chatting up a three-year-old and taking phone pictures, two activities that made her smile.

And that was about the last thing he remembered until he woke up in the dark in this moving box, knees folded towards his chest at an agonizing angle, head throbbing. His instincts told him he was in the back of the Chevy he had partially seen, that the fireman wasn’t a fireman, and that he, Crandall, now had a big fire to put out. That all rose to the level of annoyance. But he also realized he had no idea what had happened to Camilla after he had been tossed into the boot, and that fact tightened his chest muscles in a very uncomfortable way.

He blew out a deep breath and took stock. The car was going very fast, and it was loud in the trunk. It had to be an older car, Crandall figured, because there was no glow-in-the-dark release handle to pull, the kind they put in modern cars in case a kid locks himself in. And there was a spare tire, a big one. Crandall knew this because it was wedged against the back of his head, very near the bump that had arisen from whatever the thug du jour had used to pummel him.

His arms were folded too, and he felt like a pretzel. He took a couple breaths of the rusty air and thought, trying to stay calm. No telling when they would stop. Or where. He could not hear anything being said in the car; he wasn’t even sure if there was someone other than the driver.

There was one bright spot: nothing bound his hands. Clearly, on the side street where he had been thumped and thrown in the car, there was enough possibility of being discovered to make his assailant hurriedly shove him into the trunk without zip-tying his wrists. But Camilla…

Damn.

He thought some more, trying not to get frantic. Moving his arms to release some of the tension, he found he could extend them a bit. His hands bumped the left rear wheel well, and the knuckle impact made a brittle sound.

A brittle sound. Hm.

Crandall arched his neck back, trying to look and extend his arms more. He began to poke with his first two knuckles. Hard steel there. And there. Not as hard there. And then…flaky. Flaky like metal pastry. He pushed his knuckles harder into the wheel well wall.

They went through.

Crandall gasped. A rush of cold air and a tiny shaft of light came into the trunk; he drank the air despite its rubbery smell. The wheel, obviously, was very close. He listened to the now-louder highway whine.

It took about fifteen minutes, but soon Crandall had a hole in the rusty wheel well about the size of a  golf ball. Whatever debris there had been had fallen out unnoticed by the driver. Now, to make some use….

Crandall re-curled himself, shoving his hands between his knees. He felt around with his fingers, under the spare tire. And sure enough, there it was: a good, old-fashioned tire iron, a rod of steel with a flanged end. That would do. Just needed some luck now.

He wasn’t sure it would ever come. The car drove on, never changing speed appreciably — it must be highway. Crandall may have even fallen asleep for awhile. When the light had stopped coming in the hole for a good while, he suddenly felt the car slow and drift right. An exit ramp?

Indeed, it did stop shortly after, and in the absence of road noise, Crandall could listen. One door. Two. Slam, slam. Voices receding; couldn’t make out what they were saying among sounds that suggested a truck stop. Bite to eat or pit stop? Either way, Crandall decided to work fast.

Sliding the flanged end of the tire iron through the whole he had made, Crandall shifted it around until he felt like he had lodged it in the rubber of the tire, but against the inside rim. Careful not to let the end move, he shifted himself in the trunk to get as much leverage as he could. With great effort — and the knowledge that this would earn him a serious neck kink — he pushed the bolt-driver end of the tire iron as hard as he could.

Please, please, please let them have parked out of sight. The car rocked slightly with his effort. But soon, the end gave a little, and there was a “pop,” the sound of which was likely lost in the noise of truck air brakes and country music on outdoor loudspeakers.

Crandall felt the left rear end of the car settle. Good. Real good. He then pulled in the tire iron, gripped it in both hands, set his jaw, and waited.

2.

Vandergrift P. Shinott, jowly of face but solid of body, strode out the side door of the truck stop restaurant into the cool Oregon evening. It was unusually clear for this time of year, and dry. The moon, a lovely crescent, was about an hour past rising, and Shinott would get a nice view of it most of the evening as he pushed on toward Boise.

Shinott slowed his pace toward his company’s only asset, a semi with the words “Vandy’s Transport” done up in jaunty script on the cab doors, above the words “Nationwide Service” and “Tullahoma, Tenn.” Such a nice evening, and he was not tired. No rush. He pawed another pork rind out of the bag in his hand.

But as he ambled toward the edge of the truck lot, where he habitually parked to avoid snooping eyes from looking into his sleeper windows, he saw something unusual enough to make him stop the pork rind midway in its course to his mouth. Not the two guys — one definitely black, the other dark, but not as much; maybe Mexican — discovering a flat tire on their old car, which was parked about 30 yards past Shinott’s truck. No, it was what happened next, after Shinott had taken two purposeful steps to go help. What he saw stopped him cold and made him drop the pork rinds.

The second the chagrined black guy turned the key in the trunk to get to the spare, the trunk lid flew open like an explosion and the black guy doubled over like he had been hit in the stomach. Instantly, a man in torn jeans and a dirty golf sweatshirt emerged from the trunk, fell over the rim onto the pavement, and scrambled to his feet. He had a tire iron in his hands, and now he crouched and swung it, baseball style, at the black man, who had managed to get up from flat on his back to propped on his elbows. When the tire iron found his jaw, though, he went back down like a popped balloon.

Meanwhile, the Mexican, who had been looking for something in the front passenger seat, drew his head out of the car to see what the hell was going on. Shinott saw him stop for a second, then reach back in the car and quickly pop out with a pistol.

Shinott dropped into a semi-crouch, expecting to need to find cover. He glanced at his truck, which was about 30 feet to his right. By the time he glanced back, the man in the sweatshirt was just letting fly with a huge right-handed heave of the tire iron. It flew end-over-end and clipped the Mexican in the shoulder, sending him spinning and howling while the gun bounced on the concrete. The Mexican dropped to the ground in pain.

The sweatshirt guy looked around frantically. Shinott was frozen, watching him. Who should he help? This one-man wrecking crew from the trunk? Or the guys he was abusing? But wait a sec. What the hell did they have him in the trunk for?

This freed Shinott’s feet from being cemented to the pavement, and he dashed to his truck as best he could in work boots and too-tight jeans. He slammed himself into the seat and fired up the engine, watching through the windshield as Sweatshirt ran and just in time, Mex reached up from where he had been writhing on the ground and grabbed his ankle. Sweatshirt pitched forward like he had thought touchdown and been unexpectedly dropped for fourth and four. The Mexican got up and walked toward his gun, which was about midway between Shinott’s truck and Sweatshirt, who was rolling on the ground and grimacing.

No he wouldn’t. At a truck stop? Even out on the perimeter, there were all these lights. This is what Shinott thought as he saw the Mexican reach his gun, pick it up, cock it, and level it at the prone Sweatshirt.

Sweeeeeeeet Jesus McCree. He’s gonna do it, Shinott thought. He set his jaw, downshifted, and got going.

I don’t wanna kill anyone, he thought as he built speed. But I don’t wanna let anyone get killed, either. He got to 20 feet from the Mexican and slammed on his brakes. He had timed it just right — the cab stopped just in time to bump the Mexican and knock him down, but not hurt him badly.

“CHIT! Wat da fahck?!” This, from the downed would-be shooter as Shinott jumped out of the cab, walked calmly to the Mexican, kicked his silver gun a few feet away, and then kicked the Mexican himself firmly in the gut.

“Gaah-AHHH, mudderfuggin’ hayseed! Mine your own beezness!”

Shinott did not answer. He was busy helping Sweatshirt to his feet and getting him into the passenger side of his cab. As he closed the door and began to go around to the driver’s side, he heard a dull pop and felt something on his neck like a bunch of mosquito bites all at the same time. Not even enough to be stunned. He looked at the Mexican, who had retrieved the gun and, evidently, fired it. Shinott was more annoyed than hurt. He put a hand to his neck. Tiny blood pinpricks, like he got with an old razor.

“Shit. Izzat all the ratshot y’all kin afford?” he said to the Mexican. He got in his cab and drove away as the Mexican stood watching, sweaty and breath heaving.

Shinott got out onto the interstate and got up to speed, glancing occasionally at the panting man slumped in the passenger seat. He had a bruise on his head and a nosebleed, but otherwise he seemed alright. Only partly conscious. After awhile, Shinott reached for the wallet that was half out of the man’s pocket. Sweatshirt did not resist. Shinott looked at his drivers license.

“Well, Mister Asa Crandall of…” (he paused to check the road) “…Annapolis, Maryland. You are one lucky man.”

“Please,” drawled Crandall thickly. “Ace. Not Asa.” There was a long pause. “And thank you.”

3.

Crandall saw a maroon fuzz around everything: the dashboard lights, the shifter lever, the knee of the driver. He heard himself panting, the radio playing low on some country station, the steady growl of the Kenworth engine. He felt his wallet come out of his pocket, and he had a vague notion of having exchanged a few words with the truck driver. He was too weak to resist the move to examine his wallet, but he also knew that if this guy wanted to rob him, he had already had numerous chances.

“Name’s Vandy Shinott,” the driver said. “Gener’ly don’t like to poke inna people’s business. But I do wonder how it is you got inna trunk o’ that car.”

“Me too,” Crandall said, sitting up a little and rubbing the bump behind his ear. “When those guys were blackjacking me on the head and stuffing me in there, I didn’t have time to ask where we were dining.”

Shinott scowled at him; returned his eyes to the road. Crandall sighed.

“I’m sorry,” Crandall said. “I didn’t mean to be such an ass. I really appreciate you taking that kind of risk for me.”

“Hmph. Where I come from, we don’ ’low that kinda behavior. Puttin’ people in trunks. What was the problem? You owe them boys money er somethin’?”

“No, no; nothing like…”. Crandall stopped. “Were you…did you just shave at that truck stop? You have, like…your neck is bleeding. Little pinprick cuts.”

“Huh? Naw; hell no. Kin you b’lieve that Mexican feller? ’At pistol he had? Fulla little ratshot pellets. I don’t think they’d do much more ’n make a rat laugh.”

Crandall looked out the windshield. Shinott let a few minutes pass.

“So…you got no…um, theory on why them boys was treatin’ you like luggage?”

“I do not,” Crandall said, shaking his head. “Well, not that I can…” — he sat up straight like a shot — “holy shit!”

“What. What is it?”

“Camilla!” Crandall said.

“Kuh…what?”

“Um…uh…friend of mine,” Crandall said as he patted his pockets. “Cell phone. Did you see a cell phone on the ground back there?”

“Mister Crandall, I was just tryin’ to keep us alive. Never did look for no cell phone.”

“It’s alright, it’s alright,” Crandall said. But it wasn’t. His cell phone might be in the trunk, still. And Camilla might be….dammit. “You have a radio, right? Can I somehow get through to….do you have a cell phone? Do you mind?”

“Hayl, I don’ mind; here ye…” — and as Shinott reached for his back pocket, there was a deep, rapid tom-tom sound from behind the truck, and the big rectangle of driver’s side rear view mirror shattered into a thousand shards of glass and chrome.

Crandall had ducked his body down; now he had his feet on the dash and his hands over his face. When he removed them, he saw a dangling wire (the mirror heater power supply, maybe?) whipping in the wind created by the semi’s speed and the redness of Shinott’s angry face in the dashboard light.

“TARNATION I GUARANTEE YOU ONE DANG THING AH AIN’ GON’ LOSE A LOAD UH SIXTEEN HUNNERD DOZEN EGGS TUH NO GOTTANG KIDS ON A JOYRAHD WITHUH TWELVE- GUAGE!” Shinnot shifted lanes quickly, then tapped the breaks twice to throw off a little velocity in the hopes that the suspected teenagers would involuntarily come up alongside in their vandal glee. Instead, there was a metallic bump that sounded distinctly as if it came from the top rear of the trailer. It shook the whole rig, and Shinott had to hold on tight to keep the truck on line. There was a huge, flapping roar behind them.

Crandall, meanwhile, had not yet straightened up. But he saw a pair of bright lights slide into the mirror on the passenger side, then rise upward. He got a sick feeling.

And suddenly the flapping roar accelerated and enveloped the truck, and in a moment hanging in front of and above them over the interstate was the spidery mass of a helicopter, a very fast and nimble and nasty helicopter. Crandall could just make out a crew of two, but could see no details behind their helmets: just blue-black face masks. Robots, for all he knew. There was not much time to think about it, because on either side of the copter, tube-like structures were whirring, moving, positioning missiles…

“SWEET. JESUS. McCREE!” Shinnot yelled, and yanked the truck back over to the left lane at the same moment he pushed hard on the gas. The helicopter, fearing a collision, jerked up — and Crandall winced as a missile launched with a blinding phosphorous glow from the copter’s left tube. It missed the swerving truck by next to nothing and exploded on the road several hundred yards behind. Jesus, Crandall thought. Was there more traffic?

Shinott, busy righting the truck, looked over at Crandall while the helicopter disappeared above the truck. It was surely repositioning. Shinott swerved back and forth, lane to lane.

“This yer friends from back there? The trunk boys?” Shinott said. “Looks like they didn’t lose THEIR danged cell phones.”

“Mr. Shinott, I guarantee you, I know nothing about any of….”. huh-WHIIISHAH! Another missile, now from behind, this one left of the truck as Shinott pulled wildly right.

“Well, Ah’d ’preciate any suggestions you might have ‘bout gittin’ us outta this….”. And then Shinott went glassy-eyed, caught his breath twice, and his chin slumped onto his chest. His hands dropped off the wheel. Crandall, wide-eyed, unfroze and grabbed the wheel from the side.

“Mr. Shinott! MR. SHINOTT! What…are you…oh my God. DO YOU HAVE A HEART CONDITION, MR. SHINOTT?” Crandall yelled in his ear. He heard no breath, did not see the man’s chest rise.

“Medicine, medicine; he’s got to have heart pills.” Crandall held onto the wheel and tried to keep the truck on the road from the middle of the bench seat while kicking open a compartment on the dash. He could see no pill bottles. He looked back at Shinott. Stone. Nothing. And out of the corner of his eye, descending into a menacing hover 50 yards in front of the cab….

Crandall saw the tubes on either side of the copter lock into place. He looked up through the windshield. His only hope. Oregon Power & Light.

He gunned the truck’s engine, leaning hard against Shinott’s body, and shoved the steering wheel hard left. The truck blitzed over the shoulder, cab flying over a drainage ditch and trailer behind bumping before the whole rig landed and started churning up sheep-pasture dirt. Crandall headed straight for the five-story erector set ahead of him. The copter worked to stay in his way. Crandall could almost see the finger of the pilot’s hand squeeze the stick….

And at that moment, maybe 30 yards from the high-tension line tower, Crandall pushed the wheel as hard left as he could. Oh God. Not hard enough, he thought. He rapidly made a blanket peace with everyone and everything. But he refused to close his eyes. They would be closed soon enough, he thought.

But amazingly, the cab made it. Just. As it slid past the tower in a clattering, screaming rooster tail of soil and smoke, the cab scraped the leftmost steel strut of the tower, which plucked of the passenger side mirror with a quick “tck” sound. The trailer, swinging around in a violent jackknife, slammed into the tower full on with a deep, crashing boom and….

And then, as Crandall had hoped and prayed….

The cab had separated from the trailer and was still bouncing along in the field when the sky flashed orange and there was another boom, much louder, and the bang-skittick-tck-clank of a spray of metal debris over the moonlit field.

The cab stopped bouncing at a depression in the field, a stream perhaps…and when the right front wheel came to rest in the dip, the cab paused for a second. Crandall was as still as he could be. But even so, the entire cab slowly tilted right and fell on its side in the mud, with Crandall pinned against the door and the lifeless body of Vanderbilt P. Shinott on top of him.

4.

If only there were some way to move my knee, Crandall thought. Only this time, it wasn’t even vaguely funny.

The leaden weight of Shinott’s body pressed down on him, pinning him against the shattered window glass, whose shards were held in place by the laminating. Crandall struggled to breathe, and in frustration began to push on Shinott’s shoulder. He wriggled, stretched, strained, and finally worked his torso up a little. He felt disrespectful as he manhandled the body of the man who had rescued him into the footwell under the dash. He paused to suck in a full breath before working on his legs.

After its brief and bumpy off-road adventure, the cab had landed facing away from the interstate. So all Crandall could see through the windshield was the orangey glow of the burning helicopter and, soon, the flashing lights of Oregon State Police cars. That, and beyond the stream, about two dozen sheep gathered in a circle, looking scared even beyond sheep standards. A Border Collie, front legs spread wide to stabilize him in his outrage, barked wildly from the other side of the stream in which the cab had come to rest.

Crandall put his hands on Shinott firmly and pushed upward in an effort to get his legs out. Just as he was working his feet free, he heard running on the splattery mud and the clanking sound of someone climbing up the chassis. A flat-brim-hatted head looked in.

“Ho. Lee. Shit.” The trooper, a young one, paused, mouth hanging open. “Is he…?”

“Yes, he’s dead. Had a heart attack while that helicopter was trying to blow us off the road,” Crandall said. He was rubbing his hips, trying to get some feeling back into them.

“GET. Your goddamned hands in the air.”

“Son.” Oh. Bad idea. Crandall raised his hands. “Trooper. I don’t have a weapon. I’m a U.S. Mars…”

“You’re jackSHIT until I get you out of there and frisk you. DELANEY! BACKUP NOW!” He hopped down from the truck window.

“O.K. O.K. Yes,” said Crandall. “Whatthefuckever.”

“Alright,” the trooper said. “Climb out, and I better see BOTH your fucking hands first.”

Crandall looked at the face of Shinott, now peaceful. He quickly found the man’s wallet, memorized the address on his drivers license, and slid the card back into its slot. As he was shoving the wallet back into the pocket of Shinott’s denim jacket, he saw a photo sticking out. Shinott, a woman, two teenage boys. Posed shot in front of one of those frosty studio backgrounds. Everyone in Sunday clothes. Smiling.

He took the photo, put it carefully into his own jeans pocket, and replaced the wallet on Shinott. Then Crandall climbed out of the truck, and stopped when he had gotten out to the waist.  Seven, count ’em, seven state troopers, Glocks drawn and leveled at Crandall. And the frantic Border Collie.

“Come down SUPERFUCKINGSLOW and STAND STILL on the ground.”

Wearily, Crandall did. The first trooper cuffed him and shoved him toward the cars.

Interesting day, Crandall thought. Coffee with Camilla, the fireman who wasn’t, a forceful invitation to ride in a trunk into rural Oregon, chased by an attack helicopter that only succeeded in killing the poor man who rescued him from his hosts for the trunk ride. And now walked through the mud like he was the criminal. Banner day. And where the hell was Camilla? Alive? Dead? Hostage?

They walked by the trailer, which had a giant crimp in the middle thanks to its encounter with the high-tension line tower. Crandall saw the disembodied arm of the copter pilot next to what could only be eggs, spilled out of Shinott’s load, cooked solid yellow in the mud from the heat of the copter crash. With the trooper’s hands on the cuffs behind his back, Crandall doubled over and vomited in a puddle.

Copyright 2012 Adam Barr

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