I hit pay dirt with my third convenience store, a mom-and-pop joint housed in a tiny shack with one gas pump out front. There was a hand-lettered cardboard sign taped to the front of the pump that informed me that it had NO CARD REEDER PAY INSIDE THANX
I parked in front of the pump and went inside. A bell above the door jingled when I pushed it open. The inside was dim, lit by a pair of fluorescent lights that buzzed and flickered and gave everything a sickly yellow tint.
The pimple-faced twenty-something clerk behind the counter looked up from the magazine he’d been perusing. The mag’s centerfold featured six naked people doing unnatural things to each other . . . or natural things, depending on your bent. He flipped the magazine closed so that the back cover was visible. Thanks to it, I now knew where to buy a stripper pole and receive a free box of adult novelties.
It stunk in here, like rotten fruit and spoiled milk. That, and the pulsing light, made me feel a bit sick to my stomach.
But the bad smell and the bad lighting wasn’t what made the skin on the back of my neck tingle. That would be my werewolf instincts, telling me that something–or someone–was off here.
The clerk put his hands over the magazine when I approached the counter. “Yeah?” he said, which I translated as, Jolly fine day to you, miss! How may I be of service?
I held up a photo of Billy Perkins. Emily had snapped it the day before he’d disappeared; it was a headshot, taken as he loaded up his Saturn. He’d been caught as he looked up, his mouth half-open, showing a chipped front tooth. His black hair was long; he’d let it go since being discharged, and it was held in a loose ponytail. “Have you seen him? He would’ve been in a couple of months ago.”
The clerk glanced at it. “Nope,” he answered. “You gettin’ gas or somethin’?”
Time for my cop instincts to kick in and agree that something was off here. I’d shown my fair share of pictures: photos of missing children and teenagers, mug shots of shoplifters and child molesters and junkies. Invariably, the people I showed them to would first answer yay or nay to seeing the subjects, then would ask something about them: who they were, what they had done. Just natural curiosity.
But not this guy.
I laid the photo down next to a half-empty container of Slim Jims. Had I been in uniform, I would have proceeded with a bit more subtlety.
Fortunately, I was in civvies.
I grabbed the back of his head and slammed his face into the porno mag. I held it there while he struggled. His hands alternated between clutching my arm and beating it, and once in a while, he tried swiping at my face, but I kept it cocked back out of his reach.
“Listen to me. I’m going to ask again, have you seen this man?”
I let him up. His nose was red. He took a big gulp of air and wheezed, “Yeah!”
“How did you happen to see him?”
“Wh-wh-what? What do you mean? I don–”
Back to the mag his face went. “Did he stop in and ask for directions, for another way to Louisiana? There was a wreck on the interstate that day, and this guy was not very patient. He would have wanted another route. So. Did you give him one?”
I heard something that might have been a yes. I let him up. His nose was bleeding. He snuffled back blood and gasped, “Yeah! Another route! I told him another way to go!”
“Interesting, because my map doesn’t show one. Not one that doesn’t involve backtracking to Mitchum Bay and taking Highway 12. That would have added another hour to his drive, and as I said, he was not very patient. Where did you tell him to go?”
“Twelve! I told him to go take Highway 12!”
I let him check out his magazine again. “I know you’re lying. Where. Did. You. Tell. Him. To. Go.”
No answer, just struggling.
“Come on guy, I can do this all day. Seriously, I can. Just tell me, and I’ll leave, and you can back to whacking off.”
He spoke again. I let him up.
“Road! Road beside this place!”
“What, that path that runs into the trees? That’s a road?” I had seen it when I pulled up, but I had thought it was a driveway. It was a narrow strip of dirt and potholes that snaked into the pine trees that ran along the interstate. “Where’s it lead to?”
“Bayou,” he said, and snuffled blood again.
“Why did you tell him to go to a bayou?”
He tried yanking free. I reintroduced him to Mr. Countertop. He screamed, but it was muffled quite well by the magazine. I held him down and resisted the urge to grind his face into the counter.
“Last time,” I said. “Tell me why you sent him to a bayou.”
Up he came. “She! She paid me! Hundred dollars every time I send someone!”
“She comes in to town and sells vegetables, buys gas and parts for that truck, sells vegetables at the farmer’s market down at the church, she told me, hundred dollars for the cars, just send them on, tell ’em it’s a shortcut away from the interstate, I never see them drive back and I don’t say nothin’, hundred dollars–”
I shook him, said, “Shut up, okay?” and finally released him. He shoved away from me, rammed into the shelves of cigarettes behind him. Packs of Marlboros and Kools tumbled to the linoleum. “Who is she?” I asked.
“Fuck off,” he muttered.
“Why does she pay you to–”
“I said fuck off! Go find out, you stupid bitch!”
Oh boy, did I want to jump the counter and find out how far I could throw him. I settled for flashing my perfect white lycanthrope choppers. “I’ll be back in a bit,” I said.