THE GRAVEYARD MAN


By Kathleen Buckley



"I guess you wonder why someone like me would be working as a rent-a-cop."

That was the first thing he said to me. I didn't wonder. He had a small, wussy mustache. A loser.

He probably figured me for the same. Wrong again. I'm still alive.

"I didn't have to take a no-brainer job," he went on. "I'm a game designer. But I wanted a break from the hassle of success."

Sure.

When I applied, I said I'd had some personal setbacks. They figured I meant a divorce. They didn't ask for a resume and I knew they weren't going to check my references. There's more jobs than guards to fill them. If you breathe and don't have a record, you can be a security officer.

When Pete started acting cool, I vanished from the airport long-term parking with the necessary stuff: money, underwear, a couple old shirts and jeans. I was sorry to give up my suits, ring, gold chain and Rolex, but I needed to change my image.

When I got up here, I re-stocked my wardrobe, Pacific North Wet style: twill pants, plaid flannel shirts, and hiking boots.

I wasn't cheating Pete — I was being trained for upper management, because I knew how to stay out of trouble. But he had years of twitchy building up, so sooner or later I was going where Hoffa went.

Most people can't leave their families or they can't change their ways. And to have a real life, you need a social security number. The SSN is the key. You can only get along without it until your money runs out. Without it, you can only work under the table. Or live by crime. Hanging out in those circles would get me tracked down and dead.

But when I was starting out, an old guy showed me how to set up a new identity in case things went sour. It was a lot of work, but it was like a hobby, too, like a model railroad. I funneled some money into my identities' accounts, even filed tax returns. Of course, they didn't have much to report as income: without W-2s, they had to be self-employed. So I reported the income as coming from self-employment — yard work, cleaning gutters, hauling, handyman stuff.

When I travelled, I'd go to (or through) Seattle, Portland or Los Angeles to get a feel for the place and give the appropriate credit card a little workout. Renew my driver's license at the right intervals.

The Los Angeles identity was a little too close to home so when I bailed, I decided to use the Seattle identity. Plus I was tired of hot, dry weather.

Working as a security officer on the waterfront was what someone with my new identity's background would do, if he got a real job.

Eight hours a night at the marine terminal I patrolled rows of stacked cargo containers waiting to be shipped out or picked up. Off duty, I watched DVDs, listened to music and did my laundry. Easy but lonely, which is why I started talking to Chad. When he came in at midnight, I stuck around to gas a little. When you don't see anyone to talk to for days at a time, you relax your standards.

It might not have gone farther than sports chat, except that when a ship came in, the longshoremen worked at night and on graveyard shift to unload and re-load it. So once a week or so, I'd work a double shift: swing, with a college boy driving the longshore guys and gals across the terminal to the ship, then graveyard, with Chad on the gate and me on the bus.

Once their shift started, the driver could park and hang out in the guard shack until it was time to bring them back.

"I could be making a six-figure income," Chad said. "But when my lawyer started talking about child support, I got a stress-related illness and had to quit. Now I pay hardly anything. Amy can't have ballet lessons now. That will change, when..." He glanced at me.

I didn't say anything. I wasn't interested, for one thing, and for another, I was feeling ashamed I'd let the manager who'd hired me think I was like this clown. Finally, I had to say something. "See your kids much?"

He answered through clenched teeth, "Never. The judge said a social worker had to supervise any time I was with them — and I have to pay for that, too. So I don't see them."

For a moment, he looked almost scary. I used to know someone who only got supervised visitation — but he was a druggie with a history of assault.

"My wife claimed I said I'd snatch the kids."

"That's tough."

It would have stopped there, except for the drunk.

The lots near the stadiums are expensive. People who don't mind walking park along the street down here. Sometimes they get towed.

About 2350, I saw Chad's car turn into the lot at the terminal gate. The headlights went off, he got out, and I started to gather my lunchbox and newspaper. Then I heard raised voices.

"Where the hell's my car? I want my freakin' car..."

A big guy was shaking Chad. I flew out of the guard shack.

"How would I know where your car is? Where did you leave it?"

"It was right out there and now it's gone, you sack of —"

From ten feet away, I could smell liquor. He was built like a football player, his athletic career recent enough that he hadn't gone to fat, yet. He was at least three inches taller than me, and I'm 6'2". I was surprised to see Chad was about my height. He seemed shorter.

The guard company tells us not to be confrontational, which I thought was good advice, so I punched the drunk in the kidneys. Twice. I figured if I confronted him, he'd shake me the way he was shaking Chad. Then I did a couple of other things I learned on my old job.

He went down like a rock falling.

"Help me get him into..." I looked at Chad's Volkswagen beetle. "My car. We'll put him in my Volvo."

"Shouldn't we...?"

"What? Call the cops? Lose our jobs? Get sued by this joker?"

"Uh, no," Chad said.

"So we load him into my ride. You take over the post now — it's almost time, anyway. Here's the keys."

"Uh, okay."

After I was out of sight, I stopped and got out the bottle of Scotch I'd picked up earlier. Jumbo had to forget where he got beat up. Thanks to my bottle of booze, I figured that could be arranged. I poured some down his throat, hoping he wouldn't throw up, and saved the rest. I'd pour a little on his shirt, and leave the bottle with him. With any luck, a bum would roll him.

I dumped him on the other side of the rail yard, propped up against a dumpster in the industrial area. By morning, when he woke up, I didn't figure he'd remember us. If he did, the condition he was in, no one would believe him.

* * *

The next night, Chad was nervous as a cat.

"Relax," I said. "Nothing's coming back on us." I'd been a little worried, myself: after I'd rattled the drunk's kidneys it occurred to me that if the police investigated, I was in trouble. I could live with being fired. But if I was booked and charged, I'd be spending time in places where someone might recognize me — the jail and the courthouse.

"Uh, not exactly," Chad muttered. "I mean, not for sure. But there was this thing on the news — a guy who was found on the tracks..."

I hadn't heard about it. I don't usually watch the TV news or listen to news radio. Could Jumbo have come to and stumbled onto the rails?

"I didn't put him there." I actually felt guilty: intending to whack someone is one thing, but doing it by accident is something else.

"Sure," Chad said. "It's probably not even him. If it was, he must have done it himself." He was filling out his time sheet so he didn't have to look at me. "Thanks for taking care of it. I didn't want to really hurt him, the way I would have if I'd used karate."

"Sure."

"You, uh, must have been around some to put him out like that, without even using martial arts."

I said, "I've been around."

"I mean, where did you pick it up?"

He actually looked curious.

"I was a bouncer for a while at a tough club." It wasn't true but it was close. Anyway, I left all that behind me a long time ago. I've been middle-management for years. But I've kept in shape.

"You must have met a lot of tough guys."

"A few."

"Criminals?" He sounded hopeful. What the hell was he fishing for?

"Maybe a few," I allowed.

"Is the club still around?"

"It's been closed a while."

"Oh." I could tell that his shifty little brain was working.

"Anyhow, you must know nicer places to have a drink and pick up a woman."

"I'm...um, writing a book. It's a suspense thriller with a technological background. I can do the tech stuff in my sleep. But I need some authentic touches. How to buy forged identification. How to drop out of sight. You know."

Yeah. I don't know anything about writers but I know a lie when I hear one.

"Naturally, I wouldn't expect to make use of his expertise for nothing. I'd be willing to pay for the information. Of course, I'd want total confidentiality. I wouldn't list him in the credits, either." He said it very seriously.

"I could ask around. You're strictly looking for a document guy, right? You don't need to interview a hit man? Or a fence?"

He looked a little startled. "No, a document guy would be fine. There could be a little something in it for you, too."

Like a jelly doughnut, or maybe a load of trouble. But I figured I was okay, because I didn't intend to do anything. You've got to be on good terms with the guys you work with, even a stooge like Chad. Especially Chad, who could talk about how I'd roughed up the drunk, and maybe killed him. So I'd pretend to look for a seller of phony paper, and he'd be happy.

* * *

Over the next week or two, he asked a couple times how I was doing.

"It takes time to find the action," I said.

"I guess. But if you can't make a connection, maybe I should use our encounter with the big guy for gritty realism." He squinted at me, trying to look hard.

I was wondering if I wanted to take a class at the community college in how to meet people. Women, for instance. No way was I going near a hangout where I might meet a crook. But when he mentioned Jumbo, I realized the little sleaze was threatening me.

I said, "The people you want don't do business with somebody off the street. I can't just say I'm looking for a forger."

He bought it, but I knew I'd gotten in too deep. Sooner or later, he was going to want results. If he started pushing too hard, I'd have to disappear again, and use one of my other identities.

* * *

I was worrying and feeling low after my shift so I had a few drinks at home. You know how it goes: you have one to relax, then you have another. You forget to eat and have a third and fourth.

You wake up feeling like a compost pile where all the worms are dead. Your liver feels dried out and curly around the edges. I stared at my face in the bathroom mirror: unshaven, messy hair, pasty face, dark circles under my eyes, drooping shoulders...

Hell, I looked like Chad.

Or Chad looked like me. Not that Chad didn't shave or comb his hair. He just had a bad haircut. He did look like he spent all his time indoors, hunched over a desk. I didn't like to admit it, but otherwise, we could be brothers.

* * *

"How's it coming?" he asked, sounding tense. "You know...finding someone for me to talk to...Or maybe I should just give up on it and go ahead with my book. I could title it, Getting Rid of the Big Guy..."

"I found someone," I said slowly. An idea was coming on. "And I'm satisfied he's the real thing, but..." What he really wanted was to drop out of sight to avoid paying child support, I figured.

"What's the problem?"

"He doesn't want to be interviewed. He says it sounds hinky. Figures you're some kind of cop or maybe from one of those news shows."

Chad was buzzing like a bee. "I could convince him," he insisted. "Besides, what about the money I'm willing to pay him?"

"He figures you'd cost him if you're a ringer. He sort of trusts me because it turns out I used to know a friend of a friend of his. But even with me vouching for you, he won't do it. Nothing personal: just business."

"You've got to make him talk to me," Chad said. "Whatever it takes."

If I'd guessed what a mistake I was making...but who knew? And I had to get him off my case.

"Look, he'd be willing to make ID for you — or he would have been, if I hadn't mentioned the interview thing. That spooked him."

"Oh, hell," he said. He sounded like a little kid who's been told he can't have a candy bar, and is thinking of breaking his brother's toy for spite.

"But if you wanted the experience of getting a fake identity, it'd cost the same as you'd have paid to interview him."

He perked right up. "So I could send the money and a photo of me and he'd make me a phony driver's license and stuff?"

"He takes his own pictures, to make sure you don't give him a photo that's on your passport or your sweetie's desk."

"But if he won't meet me..."

I interrupted him. "You and me look alike. Same shape of face, same color hair, same height. I've got more of a tan. You look like a desk jockey." I gave him a gentle punch in the stomach. "You're a little out of shape. If you went to a tanning place, and worked out for a week or so, it'd be hard to tell us apart. Not if we were standing side by side, but a driver's license photo is usually bad anyhow."

I hate that look dogs get when they expect a treat. To end it, I said, "If you want to pay for the ID, I'll get a set made for me, and you can have it. I'll describe the whole process for you. You lose the thrill of doing it yourself, but you probably want to get going on your book. It'd take too long to find another forger — if there's even another one in town."

"I guess I can trust you," Chad said. He gave me the hard look again.

"You bring the money and I'll go see him."

"I'll have it on Friday."

* * *

He brought in the money, all right. Four days later, I brought in my LA ID. The picture on the license looked as much like him as it looked like me. There was a genuine birth certificate from a Midwestern state but the real Thomas Brawton died young. There was a Social Security card, too, and some stuff I'd accumulated. Library card. Credit card. The name and address of a private mailbox place (not the one I'd been using — a new one I'd rented when Chad came through with the money).

Chad was impressed. "Pretty good," he said. "What about the credit card? Can I really use it?"

"It's good. There's no balance on it, and it's not stolen. The statement will go to your mail drop. If you make the payments, there's no problem. The guy who set this up knew what he was doing."

"So if I moved, would there be a problem?"

I shrugged. "Send the credit card company a change of address. Show your old license when you apply for a new one."

He just nodded and put the stuff away in his lunchbox.

* * *

Days went by and I began to think maybe the guy really was just weird, not bent. Then I'd think, no one spends that kind of money for background.

It was a quiet night, with spits of rain. The terminal was locked down, with no ships in. I patrolled occasionally and worked Sudoku. At five of midnight, I packed up my stuff and started making plans for my two days off. Maybe I'd do something fun. Something strenuous outdoors. There was an article in the paper about building houses for poor people. I used to work construction once in a while when I was a kid. All those earnest, smiling do-gooder types in the photo made me forget the sore muscles, sunburn and banged-up fingers. Maybe I'd volunteer for a few hours.

Twelve-fifteen and still no Chad. By twelve-thirty, I was ticked; this was my Friday night, after all. I called his cell phone and got the message: "Hi, this is Chad..."

By one o'clock, I figured he wasn't coming. But I wasn't going to call the site sergeant about it: he'd tell me to take the graveyard shift myself and sorry for the inconvenience. Why wake him up?

* * *

Thursday, there was a suit in the guardhouse, talking to Harry, the dayshift man. I made her as a cop, right off.

Harry jerked his head toward me and said, "This here's my relief. John Allen. I got to get going. Nothing I can tell you about him, anyway." He put on his cap, picked up his lunchbox and jacket, and marched out the door. I put my lunch away. "Can I help you?" I said. I figured it was either about Jumbo or Chad.

She was a detective with SPD. I forget her name, so I guess I was a little rattled.

"Is this your usual shift, Mr. Allen?" she asked.

"Yes." The schedule was posted on the wall.

"Are you acquainted with Chad Gunderson?"

"He comes in at midnight. Why? Did something happen to him? He didn't show up to relieve me Monday night."

The cop looked at me the way alligators do. Evaluating you as dinner. "His ex-wife's dead. It looks like she drove her car into the Sound."

"Hell!" I must have looked...I think the word is dumbfounded. Maybe just dumb.

"I don't much care if people kill themselves," she said, "As long as they don't take anybody else with them. I hate when it's kids. It makes it worse that we haven't got the kids' bodies. But the water's deep, and with the currents...I'm sorry, am I upsetting you?"

I said, "How could a mother do that?"

"Now that's the funny thing, John. Her sis told me that Chad must have done it. I wanted to ask Chad a few questions."

I couldn't think of a thing to say. Killing your old lady and kids is low and I'd helped by being his patsy.

"He didn't return calls, his cell phone's turned off, and he wasn't home. Your boss says he hasn't been in for his shifts and hasn't called in. I checked his place," she said. "His stuff was there but he wasn't. Is he a neat freak? — because everything was spotless, except for a fresh smear of jam and peanut butter on one of the kitchen chairs."

"He's not a slob but there's not much to mess up in here," I jerked my head at the counter with the phone and radio.

"Did he ever say anything about leaving town?"

"No."

The cop asked about his behavior, his routine, his taste in reading material, stuff like that.

She handed me her card. "If you remember anything, give me a call."

* * *

Did the cops think he had the kids? Had to, if they knew he didn't get visitation. Peanut butter and jelly smears? That's kids.

I set up a disposable phone with a California area code, and called a former associate.

"How're things going?"

"Jeez! We figured something had, like, happened to you."

"Yeah." Richie's worry didn't go very deep. "How's Pete?"

"You coming back?" he asked.

"Nah. But I want to know if he's looking for me."

Richie didn't answer fast enough. "Not hard. Wasn't like you stole anything from him, as far as he can tell. Why'd you go?"

"A girlfriend of mine got pregnant before we split. Never told me she had my kid. She died a few months ago and her sister got tired of keeping the kids — mine and another one, a little boy she had later. Suddenly finding out I was a dad...The sister was going to put them in foster care. I couldn't let her do that."

"Damn, you went and turned into a daddy," Richie crowed. "I love it!"

"So I wondered if Pete has guys out. I figure I can trust you, Richie." To rat me out.

"Sure you can," he said heartily. "You're okay if you don't come back here."

"If he changes his mind, let me know, okay?"

"No problem. Where are you?"

"Write to Thomas Brawton at this address..." Wherever Chad was now, they could track him through the box down in LA.

* * *

The kids will be okay because Pete is a big believer in the sanctity of the family. When the cops figure out where they belong, Chad's sister-in-law will probably get them.

Once Pete thinks I'm dead, the heat will be off.

There's a new graveyard shift officer. She's cute, she's funny and she used to be a schoolteacher, until she decided she didn't want to teach armed 7th graders with anger management problems. I'm taking her out to dinner on our next day off. So it's all good.


KATHLEEN BUCKLEY lived in Seattle for many years and worked several kinds of jobs (which used to be virtually required for any aspiring writer). She learned something from all of them. In the 90's she sold a couple of stories to Robert Bloch. Ms. Buckley realized she could live without the rain in Seattle and moved to New Mexico a few years back. She has learned to make tamales, bizcochitos, and beef jerky. She's built furniture (hint: if you plan for it to be rustic, the imperfections don't show), done research on Spanish clothing of the 16th century and popular English lyrics of the Middle Ages, and is currently writing an 18th century novel...sort of romance, sort of Jane Austen.


Copyright 2012 Kathleen Buckley. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.