Read The Passenger Online

Authors: Jack Ketchum

The Passenger

The Passenger

 

Jack
Ketchum

 

 

 

 

2001

 

It wasn’t the best of days even before
her car died.

She’d fallen asleep the night before at
her desk in the study and awakened from a dream of Micah Harpe, all
three-hundred-plus pounds of him, crashing through the picture window and
spraying her with shards of glass, slamming up against her desk and scattering
papers and cigarette butts everywhere and then laughing, leering up at her,
saying,
troubles, counselor
? and she
rode that sudden wakefulness for a moment like a bucking steer.

Then
Alan walks in from his shower wrapped in a towel, carrying a manila file
folder, drops the folder on the end table and asks her not to let him forget
these briefs tomorrow, please.
Sure, Alan, thanks, no problem. It took him a full two minutes to really see
her there, pale as chalk, and yet another to ask what was wrong.

“Dream,” she said.

He glanced at the desk littered with
paperwork.

“You been down here all night?”

She yawned, nodded.

“So? How’d it go?”

“So I think I’m screwed without Micah
Harpe, that’s what it comes down to.”

“I could have told you that.”

“All I can do is argue insufficient
evidence.”

She watched him throw the towel over his
shoulder and turn and walk toward the kitchen.

“Uh-huh. You want some coffee? I need
some coffee.”

“I want some sleep. I want a case I can
win, goddammit.”

He said, “Settle for the coffee.”

 

* * *

 

Then later she and Milton Wendt, the
prosecutor, before the bench and Judge Irma Foster—
another
stunning excuse for a conversation.

“We’re not arguing,” she said, “that my
client wasn’t at the Willis home that day, your Honor. They were old friends
and he had every reason to be there. The prosecution has placed my client in
the house and we allow that he was, in fact, present. But Big was there too and
there is nothing ...”

“Big?” Judge Foster squinted at her.

“Micah Harpe, your Honor, the defendant’s
older brother.”

The judge looked past her to Arthur
“Little” Harpe at the defense table. Arthur was looking pretty good today,
Janet thought, all told. As good as he
could
look, anyway. A new suit and tie off the rack at Burton’s and
a shoeshine in the courthouse lobby. But
Janet still knew what the judge was seeing—a chubby pasty-faced country-ass
snake watching them through idiot eyes. She just hoped he wasn’t using the
eraser end of the pencil to clean out his earwax again.


Big
and
Little
?’’ she said.

“Yes, your Honor.”

“Good God.”

She tried to move on.

“The prosecution has presented no
physical evidence whatever to suggest that it was my client and not, as we
contend, my client’s brother, who was responsible —
without
my client’s knowledge or cooperation—for the murders of
these two people. I move to dismiss.”

“He confessed, Counselor.” Wendt sighed.

“He’s since recanted and implicated Micah
as the shooter. That confession was taken under duress and you know it. The
police went at him for over twenty- two hours. All because they couldn’t find
his brother.”

“They still can’t.”

“That’s
simply not true
, your Honor.”

Then the judge sighed too. “Let’s take
this into chambers,” she said.

 

* * *

 

In chambers she fared no better than
expected. The trial was set for Monday morning. She had the weekend to prepare.
But to prepare
what
? She certainly
wasn’t putting that little weasel on the stand. The best she could hope for
was to shake the detectives who’d handled the interrogation, or to pull off a
miracle in summation. It wasn’t very promising. Harpe had confessed to the shotgun
murders of Joseph and Lilian Willis over a drug deal gone bad and that was
probably that. In the hallway she gave it one last try with Wendt, though.

“It should have been postponed,” she
said. “It should never have come to trial.”

“Come on, Janet. We don’t know
Big’s
even in there.”

“And you don’t know he isn’t.”

“Nobody’s placed him there. Not even his
brother has definitively placed him there. What do you want the cops to do?
Remember
probable cause
, for god’s
sake? We’ve gone onto that estate half a dozen times. The place is an armed
camp—safe house for half the psychos in the state. But every gun in the place
is registered to its owner.
You
know
what the locals call it.”

“I know. Hole-in-the-Wall.”

“That’s right. We’re talking Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid right here in quiet old
Adderton
County. But it’s still
private property
.
These guys have influence. They’ve got bucks. Big bucks. With a cleanup crew
to dispose of their
disposables
as
good as any in the U.S.A. And we don’t have probable cause.”

“He’s in there. And he did the crime.”

She stopped and opened her briefcase and
pulled out the folder second from the top. She handed it to Wendt. “Look at
this.”


Big’s
rap
sheet. I’ve read it.”

“Read it again. Arrests for arson, rape,
armed robbery, another rape—this one a man, sodomy—murder, attempted murder,
assault...”

She was aware that her voice was rising,
echoing through the nearly empty halls,
turning
a head
or two. She didn’t give a damn.

“You can
do something
, Milton. You can send them in there after him.”

Wendt shook his head. “Wish I could.
Look, nobody’s saying
Big’s
a sweetheart, Janet.
I’ll even grant you that they could have done it together. But the point is
we’ve already got your boy. So I think I’ll go right ahead and fry him if
that’s okay with you.”

 

* * *

 

The Turtle Brook Inn was all amber lights
and dark wood paneling and tables and chairs upholstered in burgundy—a steak
joint with romantic aspirations. Seven- thirty on a Friday night and not half
the tables full, nor even half the bar, a testament to northern New York
State’s fundamental lack of any real trickle-down prosperity. She was halfway
through her second glass of wine when Alan finally made his appearance. There
was no point scolding him. Alan was late. Fact of life.

“So?” he said.

So again. She took a sip of wine.

“Alan, you can be boring as spit sometimes.
You know that?”

“It didn’t go well.”

“No, it didn’t.”

He reached across the table and gave her
hand a squeeze. His own hand was warm and dry and despite herself she always
found comfort in his touch.

“I love you, honey,” he said.

“Alan, you damn well
cheat
on me.”

“That doesn’t mean I don’t love you.
Don’t worry about the case. You’ll think of something. Listen, I’m staying at
the apartment in town tonight. I have to take a deposition first thing in the
morning. You mind?”

“No, that’s okay.”

Behind him their young pretty blond
waitress was approaching.

“I do,” he said. “I mind. I may be boring
as spit sometimes but I know one or two sex crimes we haven’t committed yet
that I’d rather try tonight.”

The waitress froze.

“It’s all right,” Janet told her. “He’s
an officer of the court.”

 

* * *

 

She was on her way home when the Taurus
started shuddering and then died, cresting a hill on the dark slice of two-lane
country road that was Route 605 northeast of
Meville
.
She managed to pull over to the shoulder and tried to start it up again but
the ignition only screeched at her like an angry cat. She stepped out onto
black macadam and a warm still moonlit night. Below and far away across the
valley she could see the lights from a single farmhouse. She walked to the
front of the car and then the back and looked at emptiness in both directions.

She’d been meaning to get a new cell
phone for nearly a week.

This
could take a while
, she
thought.

It did.

Nearly twenty minutes passed with her
standing there smoking Winston after Winston and listening to the frogs and
crickets and she was seriously considering the trek down to the farmhouse
before she at last saw a pair of headlights moving north in her direction. She
was relieved but apprehensive too and wondered why in hell she hadn’t had the
sense to take the tire iron out of the trunk when she had a chance to. It would
be nice to have it on the car seat where she could reach it through the window
in case of trouble.

Especially when the moonlight revealed
the outline of a pickup with a wooden frame.

By then it was too damn late.

She thought of the old joke,
What’s the difference between a good
ol
’ boy and a redneck? A good
ol
'
boy throws his empty beer bottles in the back of the pickup— a redneck heaves
’em out the window.

She was hoping for the former.

The headlights washed over her. A pickup
wasn’t what she had in mind. Not at all. She waved anyhow.

And the truck rolled right on by.

“Jesus!” she said.

She couldn’t believe it. How the hell
dare he?

She whirled and ran to the front of the
Taurus. “You asshole!” she yelled.

The truck slowed.

Stopped.

Sat there idling thirty feet away.

Oh,
shit
, she thought. Now
you did it. He fucking heard you.

You
better get that goddamn tire iron after all
, she thought, and started digging in her purse, watching
the compartment of the cab, a man’s silhouette inside, waiting for the
driver’s door to open and the light to come on, which would mean he was coming
out to god knows what purpose and praying that he’d just start moving again,
get moving and go the hell away and then she had the keys out and was headed
toward the trunk fumbling for the right one. As the truck moved slowly into
reverse and started rolling back, taillights stalking her like glowing eyes.

And then suddenly she was stabbed into
bright light again and a horn blared long and loud behind her.

She turned to see a station wagon in the
process of slowly passing, pulling up alongside the Taurus and stopping, and
she glanced at the pickup and saw it start to roll again—this time forward,
this time in the
right
direction.
Inside the wagon the driver leaned over and pushed open the passenger-side door
and she saw that the driver was a woman smiling at her and she damn near leapt
inside.

“God! Thanks!”

“No problem. Car died on you, huh?”

She shut the door. “That truck. He was
coming after me.”

“He was? The sonovabitch. You want to go
after him?”

“God no.”

“You sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay. We’ll just drive.”

Janet looked at her. A woman of about her
own age. Tight jeans and a tight pale yellow short-sleeve blouse, braless, her
long hair pulled back in a lush dark ponytail. Rings on every finger of her
right hand and hooped costume-jewelry bracelets, at least half a dozen, dangling
from each wrist. A good strong profile, a little too much mascara maybe but
still, she thought, quite attractive in her way. And then the woman turned to
her and smiled again as they pulled away, and she saw the slightly crooked left
incisor.

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