This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any actual resemblance to persons or historical persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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© Copyright: 2001. Cuz Bonita
Playing with the car radio was more than a pastime. It was a necessity. No matter which way Brian adjusted the tuner, he heard a song that he wasn’t in the mood for. Duuuust in the wiiiind…all we are is dust in the wind…
“Yeeech.” It was a nice song, but it wasn’t the kind of pick-me-up music that Brian was searching for. He turned the dial again, hoping for better luck. Like a bridge o-ver troubled water, I will lay me down…
“Ick!” Definitely the wrong direction. The dial was turned again. Yesterday…all my troubles seemed so far away…now it seems to me they’re here to stay…
“Ugh!” Frustrated, Brian spun the dial like a roulette wheel. He was rewarded with back-to-back favorites of rock n’ roll: Stairway to Heaven by Led Zepplin, and Highway to Hell by AC/DC.
Radio programmers, Brian decided, had a lousy sense of humor. He clicked the radio off, and drove Diablo in silence. It wasn’t that far back to Hazzard anyway. Maybe twenty miles, as the blackbird flew. Only the lateness of the hour and the heavy, moonless sky made the trip seem long.
“Yer momma don’t dance, n’ yer daddy don’t rock n’ roll….doo-bee-do-whop…”
Singing to himself was a sure sign of road fatigue. The trip from Atlanta to Hazzard had never seemed so tiring. “Yer momma don’t dance, n’ yer daddy don’t rock n’ roll,” he repeated, off-key. Anything to stay awake. Anything to get home.
Maybe this trip had been a bad idea. The feeling that he’d made a mistake in picking tonight to visit an old friend was nagging at him. There was no rational reason for his foreboding; only the cold, inner sense that he was in trouble without knowing why.
He checked the mirrors out of habit. Clear sailing. There wasn’t another car on the road. He drove another mile before that thought fully sunk in.
There wasn’t another car on the road. Anywhere.
Highway 36, the main road between Atlanta and Hazzard, was deserted. Even for a late night, there should be a handful of cars sprinkled along the route – or at the very least, the occasional lone semi-truck.
But nothing shone in Diablo’s headlights. The four beams were on high, cutting across the faded asphalt like a lighthouse beacon. As the Chevy flew along, the night swept up the road behind it and left velvet blackness. The only other illumination was that of Diablo’s red tail-lights, which cast their soft red glow into oblivion.
Brian’s eyes went back to the road ahead of him. No moon, no stars. Heavy cloud cover, and air thick with humidity that threatened rain. He felt isolated on this road, and the oppressive weather wasn’t helping.
For a reason he couldn’t explain to himself, Brian pressed the accelerator down a little further. Diablo’s low growl responded, and the oak trees along the road whipped by at increasing speed. Was it twenty miles left to Hazzard, or fifteen? Why wasn’t there any other traffic on the road? Why, Brian asked himself, did he feel something in the mirrors that wasn’t there?
On sudden impulse, he slammed the brakes and held them down, making Diablo scream and skid to a long, sliding, stop. He heard an echoing set of tires before he saw confirmation in the mirrors.
The hot glow of Diablo’s brake lights gave evidence of a car following close behind, the grill caught in the red reflection. It was another black car, one that had been traveling without headlights, dashlights, or license plates. It had used Diablo’s taillights as a marker, and could have been following the old Chevy since the Atlanta city limits.
“Dammit,” Brian whispered, feeling cold all over. “Dammit…” He tromped the accelerator and Diablo’s tires shrieked forward. The Impala shot down the road like a spooked antelope, picking up more speed by the second. For the first time in his life, Brian was praying for a cop to pull him over.
None appeared. It was possible that whoever was tailing him had also taken the precaution of blocking off the highway at key points. That would explain the lack of traffic. It may have been accomplished by subtle means, such as the falling of a few selected trees.
An operation of that scale, however, would mean that whoever pursued him was fairly sophisticated, experienced, and shrewd.
Brian also knew why the pursuit had followed him for so long without going for the attack. Whoever followed him was a professional, and was waiting for Brian to let up his guard as he got closer to home. It had damn near worked.
It might still work. Brian suspected that somewhere ahead, the road was blocked, preventing his return to Hazzard. In essence, the faster he went, the more likely he was hurling himself into the jaws of a waiting trap. Whoever had planned this sting had thought it out good.
He hoped that the friend who had invited him to Atlanta tonight had been innocent of the scheme. God only knew. Syndicate ties ran deep, but betrayals ran deeper. Brian knew this better than anyone, having been on both sides himself. Hell wasn’t only demanding it’s paycheck; it had drawn up a lien, filed it with the county office, and was now sending it’s agents to seize collateral. Namely, his posterior.
There was a time when Brian’s pride wouldn’t have allowed him to call for help. There was the usual concern for his kin’s safety, on top of it. But he also knew that his only chance of getting out of this alive meant getting help – and fast. He grabbed the CB and flicked on the mike. “Blackbird to Songbird, Blackbird to Bear!” he called urgently. “I got trouble on Highway 36 inbound! Repeat, I’ve got trouble…”
BLAM! BLAM! The first two shots were expertly fired, and Diablo lost both rear tires in an instant. Brian was forced to drop the CB and hang onto the wheel. Diablo skidded and bucked wildly, the two blown tires at high speed giving Brian all he could do to keep the car on the road. He slowed down, as if to pull over and stop…but instead, hit the brakes again and yanked the wheel hard, throwing the Chevy into an uneven spin. The car tilted and nearly rolled, but Diablo managed to point it’s high-beams back at the attacker. Leaving the lights on, Brian leapt from the car, drawing an old .38 from his jacket pocket. Though he seldom carried a gun nowadays, trips to Atlanta were never made without one.
He crouched near the front wheel, his black jacket blending him with Diablo’s dark hide. The enemy car had kept it’s lights off, and had given some distance when the Chevy went into it’s spin. Now, both cars were facing one another, and Brian could only wait for his opponent to make a move. He stared at the faceless enemy for several minutes, seeing the car’s outline with the help of Diablo’s lights blazing upon it. It could have been a Ford. Or a Buick. And if Brian was dealing with a real professional, which he suspected he was, it was possible that the front of the car had been modified to throw off identification. There was no telling who he was dealing with…
Piff! The headlights of the other car suddenly burst into blinding whiteness, and Brian could not see beyond it. Gunfire opened up. The driver of the enemy car had spotted him. The tire that Brian had hidden against caught a bullet and blew apart, stunning him. He fell back and rolled to his side, which saved him from the barrage of ammo that pinged over his head and into Diablo’s fender.
Brian didn’t move. The smell of gunpowder in the cool night air surrounded him. He concentrated on it, forcing himself to remain still. He was willing to bet that he couldn’t be seen very well on the ground, which was the only reason he was still alive.
“Where is he?” A rough voice demanded from the other car.
“He went down,” the driver answered. “Could have hit ‘em with that tire shot. Bullet might have gone clean through him.”
Brian’s heart was beating a parade tempo. Two against one. Vegas was calling in new odds and he didn’t like the spread. He was armed only with a six-shooter that he’d borrowed from the Coltrane family heirlooms; his car was out of commission, and the enemy was experienced at nuisance disposal. Brian projected his life expectancy at a minute and a-half, flat.
“Go over there and empty the chamber,” the rough voice said again. “I want to be sure.”
Make that expectancy one minute or less, Brian thought morbidly.
Footsteps. Slow, careful footsteps, coming closer. The breath of the enemy was tense, audible. Brian didn’t move. He continued to lay in the position he had landed in; half-curled on his side, face down. What the hell good this would do, he had no idea, but moving at all guaranteed instant death, whereas playing possum bought him a few extra moments.
Hazzard, he found himself thinking, picturing the quaint town and the vast farmland that surrounded it. I should have never left Hazzard.
“I think he’s dead,” the driver’s voice said directly over him, giving Brian a kick in the ribs. Brian lay still like a bag of garbage.
“Make sure,” the rough voice ordered. “We’ve got enough bullets to see us through another Gettysburg. Don’t be afraid to waste some.”
“A knife’s less noise,” the driver argued. “Besides, I have to bring a souvenir back for our client.”
“He wants proof? A token?”
“That’s what he told me.”
The rough voice paused, then grunted assent. “Take one of his eyes out. Easy to carry and cleaner than the alternatives.”
“Exactly what I was going to do,” the driver answered.
Yuck, Brian thought, feeling ill at the idea. Whoever these goons work for, they know their shop tips…
The driver stooped down, and Brian heard the safety click on the gun as it was holstered away. A snap popped open, and the blade of a hunting knife hissed from it’s sheath. It took every ounce of Brian’s will not to move, not to breathe, and to let himself go lax as his hair was roughly grabbed and his head tilted back.
“Thought this dude would offer more of a challenge,” the driver said. “Syndicate and all…” the knife touched down on Brian’s throat. In the same instant, Brian’s eyes flew open and he shot a fist upright, hard into the nose of the killer that loomed over him. Bone shattered and blood spilled. The knife was dropped and the driver let go of Brian’s hair, having been taken by complete surprise. Brian hit the man again, knocking him out. Now he had another gun, another knife, and only one enemy to go…
…Who was nowhere to be seen when Brian peered up over Diablo. The enemy’s car was still there, but the rough-voiced member of the assassin team wasn’t around. Brian’s eyes scanned the area frantically. He listened to every tiny sound of the country night, but heard only crickets. There was no telling where the second killer had gone.
“Not bad,” a rough voice said behind Brian’s back. “But not good enough.”
Brian swallowed and dropped the gun he held. On command, he also tossed away the spare gun that he had taken from the unconscious driver. He stood there, arms half-raised, defenseless and out of aces. Maybe he could learn who was paying for the job before his chips were cashed.
“Mancini buy you?” Brian asked, not turning around.
“Isn’t it funny, how the victim always needs to know who’s picking up the tab?” The rough voice questioned in turn. “It never fails to surprise me how many people waste their last breath on that question.”
“Professional courtesy,” Brian stated. “I’m asking you for a favor.”
“I don’t owe you one. Though I’ll tell you this much, since you’ve given me some sport. You’re worth enough money, dead, to make this side trip worth my while.”
“You’re…not from Atlanta? Not from the Syndicate?”
The hammer clicked back. “No.”
“Out-of-town mercenary,” Brian guessed, speaking quickly. “You doing any more jobs in these parts?”
The rough-voiced mercenary paused. There was such an urgency to Brian’s question, that there was unspoken information in it. “Depends on what they pay. I take it your unpopularity goes a long way, boy.”
“I’ve earned it.”
The rough voice laughed. “I bet you did.”
Brian nodded. “Yeah…and when you go to collect your money…tell Mancini that I said *&%#@*%&*#! And that if he wasn’t such a #*&%, he would have had the *&#%@ to do this himself.”
More laughter from the mercenary. “I’ll quote your last words verbatim. It’s been nice chatting with you, Mr. Coltrane, but I’m overbooked and behind schedule, and I must be going now. Do give the devil my regards…”
A loud, single shot followed the words, ringing off the hills for miles.
Sirens. Long, distant, howling wails that meant help was on the way. It was too late, but Brian was comforted by the sound nonetheless.
Then light, painful light, intense in his eyes. He was being moved, lifted. Someone carried him past front of the headlights of the cars. Brian tried to speak.
“Hush,” came the order from a voice he knew. “Hush, you’re gonna be okay.”
Liar, Brian thought. He tried to focus. Yes, there was Rosco. And MaryAnne. And the Dukes. And half of the whole damn town.
Rosco carried Brian to the safety of the patrol car, and eased him down in front of the Fury’s headlights, checking for injuries. MaryAnne knelt down beside them. “Brian, do you remember what happened?” she asked gently.
“…Got tailed by a pair of mercenaries comin’ out of Atlanta…”
“One of which has a broken nose,” MaryAnne remarked. “Your handiwork?”
“Yeah….don’t suppose you’re writin’ me up for assault onconna it…”
“No,” she smiled. “Tho’ I’m writin’ him up for few things.”
“Not surprised….hey…one question….”
“What’s that, Bri?”
“How the hell am I still alive?”
“We were gonna ask you the same thing,” Rosco said. “We found you there on the road next to Diablo. We came out as soon as we heard your call on the CB, but with the road havin’ been blocked…”
“We figured that when we found you, it wasn’t going to be pretty,” MaryAnne finished. “I’m not asking for an official statement here, but I have to know something. Did you shoot the other guy?”
“What? No…he was about to do that to me, though. That’s the last thing I remember…”
“Then this is going to take some time to figure out. Listen Brian, you’ve got a nasty bump on your head, but I can’t tell if you were hit with something, or if you conked yourself out in a dead faint…”
“What!” Brian objected to the latter.
“…But in any event, we’re gonna have you go to Tri-County to play it safe.”
“Aw, no, not again, I hate hospitals! I’m fine! Honest! Look, I’m okay…” Brian rose to his feet, swayed a moment, then promptly fell against the hood of the patrol car. Bo and Luke appeared from the background and hoisted him upright.
“C’mon, Brian. Rosco and MaryAnne got work to do, so you gotta come with us. We’ll take you to Tri-County so they can put a band-aid on for ya,” Luke said.
“AAAAH! No! MaryAnne, puh-leeze! Hospitals are one thing, but the Dukes…that’s cruel and unusual punishment! That’s unconstitutional!”
“He’s feeling better,” Bo observed.
“Yep,” Luke answered.
“Take ‘em away, boys,” MaryAnne said with a chuckle, knowing that Brian was in good hands. Bo and Luke all but dragged him to the General Lee, where he was stuffed inside with as much delicacy as could be afforded. “OW! Hey! Damn rollbar…”
With Brian safely, albeit noisily, en route to Tri-County Hospital, MaryAnne turned back to the crime scene with Rosco. She noticed that Diablo’s headlights were yellowing from the slowly-draining battery, but she left them on as they searched for answers.
The ambulance that carried the two mercenaries had already left. It looked like they would both live to stand trial, though the one with the bullet wound would be a long time in healing. Someone had nailed him with a rifle. Not only that, but with a rifle that would have had a night-scope. Not the kind of equipment that your average moonshiner kept for an emergency.
“Anything?” she asked Rosco, as the Sheriff checked the highway with his flashlight.
“Not a darn thing. MaryAnne, that shot musta been fired from more n’ a hundred yards out.”
“I know. Somebody responded to Brian’s distress call before we got here.”
“Good thing, too.”
“Yes…but that means whoever saved him was out running around in the middle of the night with a high-powered rifle and an infrared scope.”
“It’s not deer season, either,” she added.
“That means…whoever shot the thug that was gonna shoot Brian…”
“Might have only been saving Brian for the money, and took out the competition for his own reasons. There’s no expiration on that Syndicate bounty. A patient person could bide their time, wait for the competition to thin itself out…then get Brian at their leisure.”
“Ooo! Jit! MaryAnne, I don’t like the way you’re thinkin’! Tho’ you do have a point...”
MaryAnne sighed and looked off into the surrounding hills. Whoever had pulled the trigger could be watching them right now. It wasn’t a comfortable thought.
Rosco started working on the needs of the moment. “We gotta git Cooter over here and have these cars hauled off the road. Diablo can be driven once those tires get changed, but we’ll impound that other one. I want to go over it for fingerprints, maybe there’s a something in there that will lead us to the shooter.”
“Good idea. Maybe there was a fallin’ out among them, or…I don’t know, anything’s possible. I suppose we’d better get this road open, too.”
“I’ll get the north end of the highway opened, then head over to Tri-County,” Rosco said.
“And I’ll clear this side up, and start the paperwork on those thugs,” MaryAnne answered. “Don’t forget to call Enos and Cletus in from the traffic duty they’ve been doing since this road got shut down…”
“Now why would I forget to do something like that? Khee!”
Rosco’s innocent reply didn’t fool MaryAnne. Left to his own devices, Rosco would send his other two deputies to the moon. What’s more, they would probably jump at the chance. Yet none of them would have it any other way. No doubt about it, some days at the Sheriff’s Department were definitely fun.
This wasn’t going to be one of them. Too much was left unexplained, too much going without an answer. Brian, somebody was watching your back, but I’ll be danged if I know who…or why. Let’s hope it was for the right reasons.
From the ridge overlooking Highway 36, the rifleman watched MaryAnne. The infrared scope watched her every move, but she was in no danger at this moment. The rifleman had other pressing, and unfinished, business. Syndicate business.
***** ***** ***** *****
“It’s not possible! Graves never misses a hit!”
“He missed this one. I was there.”
Mancini, former Don of the Atlanta Syndicate, put his face to the bulletproof glass. The visiting area of Atlanta Federal Penitentiary had scant privacy, but Mancini had managed to conduct business in hoarse whispers, facing away from the cameras. “Tell Spade to take another $20,000 from my private account. Have him raise the bounty on those Contracts.”
Bruno coughed. “That’ll draw a snake out from under every rock. We’ve already got enough attention from rival outfits. They’ll use the Contract price as an excuse to come to town and get into our business.”
“MY business,” Mancini hissed fiercely.
Bruno said nothing. Even through the glass and behind bars, Mancini was a formidable man. The failure of Eddie Graves was making no impression on the former Don, and as usual, Mancini’s temper was impeding all logic.
“Get this through your head,” Mancini added. “I don’t intend to remain in this prison!”
Bruno opened his mouth to say something about the consecutive life sentences that Mancini had been given, but the ex-Don would have none of it. “Don’t fool yourself, Bruno. You think I don’t have connections to the outside? You think Spade sits idle, sipping brandy and keeping my chair warm?”
Bruno almost nodded but caught himself.
“I will be out of this prison soon,” Mancini promised. “And when I am, the first thing I’d better see is Brian Coltrane’s rotting corpse. You fail me now, Bruno, and I’ll make you wish for his fate.”
Silence hung over the two men as Bruno thought about that one. Mancini knew he’d made his point, but he pressed it home. “Think of it, Bruno. I’m not alone in here. I have the best of the Syndicate behind bars with me. I have Turner and his boys. We have a plan and a network that can carry it out. Do not doubt me…ever.”
“I won’t, boss.” Bruno stood up, and fought the temptation to bow. Mancini had just scared the hell out of him. The old Mancini/Turner alliance might have some teeth left in it after all; teeth that could come back and bite him.
Bruno left the visiting area of Atlanta Federal with one thought in his mind.
He had to kill an old friend.
***** ***** ***** *****
At Tri-County Hospital, Bo and Luke received bad news from Dr. Langsbury. “Are you sure?” Luke asked tensely. “I mean, there’s no chance…”
Dr. Langsbury wasn’t expecting this reaction. “I’m sorry boys, but there’s nothing else I can do. There’s no concussion and there’s no fracture. You’ll have to take Mr. Coltrane home.”
“KHEE!” Brian laughed, and jumped off the cot. He pulled on his jacket, beaming at the Dukes with a smug look.
“Yes, boys, I’m sorry,” the doctor said, cracking a smile at the Dukes.” But he’s going to live.”
Bo put his hands over his face and stifled a sob. “It’s just not fair…”
Luke put a brotherly arm around his cousin’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay, Bo. We have to carry on…be strong…”
“Awright, that’s enough,” Brian grinned.
Luke spoke to Bo. “I’m as disappointed as you are, but we’d best take ‘em home. Maybe he’ll faint and knock himself out again tomorrow.”
“I did NOT faint!” Brian objected.
“You fainted,” Dr. Langsbury said dryly. “In fact, perhaps I should run some tests to see if you have any cardiovascular issues. There’s a series of exams we can run on your neurological condition as well. Nurse, we’ll need an anesthetic. No, I’ll need a bigger needle than that.”
Brian was out the door, down the hall, and sprinting through the exit before the doctor could turn around. The Dukes collapsed to the floor, howling with glee. Dr. Langsbury smiled. “Based on the results I’ve just seen, I’d say Mr. Coltrane is in excellent health.”
“That’s the heck of it,” Luke said, sending himself and Bo into another round of laughter. They came up for air gradually, their sides aching from their mirth. “We’d better go take ‘em home before he hotwires the General,” Bo said. “Thanks, Doc.”
“Yes, thanks anyway,” Luke said in jest, and the doctor shook his hand and chuckled. “Your welcome, boys. Try not to shake him up too much on the way home. I don’t want to see him back here too soon.”
“Can’t blame you,” Bo said. He and Luke left the examining room to catch up with the errant Coltrane in their charge.
They found him, outside, fishing for coins in the hospital fountain. Luke stopped to watch a moment, and Bo followed suit. Sure enough, Brian was scraping for change at the bottom of the fountain, to the happy grins of two little kids at his side.
“I can’t believe him,” Luke said with a sigh.
“I can,” Bo snorted. “I’m surprised he ain’t done any worse in the five minutes he’s been out here.”
The Dukes watched as Brian accumulated a heaping handful of coins, and sat them on the fountain’s ledge. He divided it according to pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters.
“He’ll probably sit right there, count it, and put it in coin wrappers,” Luke speculated.
“Ever wonder,” Luke asked, “What Hazzard would be like without ‘em?”
“All the time,” Bo answered wistfully, brightening at the thought.
“I’m serious, Bo.”
The note in Luke’s voice suggested trouble, and Bo turned to his cousin. “What do you mean by that?”
Luke folded his arms, still watching the fountain. “I don’t know. Just a feelin’ I got. We’ve started getting along with him, but I don’t know if he’ll stay in Hazzard.”
There was a message between the lines, and Bo read it. “You thinkin’ that he’ll leave soon? Onconna this last hired gun that came after him? Or because…”
“I ain’t sure,” Luke said, and his blue eyes were troubled. “But for some dang reason, I might miss ‘em when he’s gone.”
Bo looked over to watch Brian, feeling the same reluctant worry. By silent, mutual consent, the Dukes dropped the conversation and walked over to stand behind him. Brian was flipping coins back into the fountain with a flourish. He handed a quarter to one of the little boys that stood by him, who gave it a short, sloppy flip into the water. Brian handed him another coin. “Try again. Balance it like this, don’t tilt your hand…”
This time, the boy did better, the coin making a musical ching as it spun over and over in the air to plunk into the water. “Khee! Good one! Okay, you try.” Brian handed a coin to the other kid beside him.
The Dukes watched for a couple more minutes, then Luke cleared his throat for Brian’s attention. “Thought you were showin’ them kids how to steal.”
“Nah,” Brian said, flipping three stacked coins at once, making them dance high in the air and splash in sequence. “I’m teachin’ them how to make wishes.” He looked back at the little boys. “Awright, y’all, I gotta go. Remember, no stealin’ coins outta the fountain, ‘cause then you’ll spoil everybody’s wishes…and you want yours to come true, don’t ya?”
The two kids nodded with freckle-faced smiles. “Bye, Mister,” they said easily, returning to their game of wish-and-toss. Brian waved at them and walked to the General.
Bo and Luke hesitated a moment. They each took a coin from their pocket. Two more wishes were made in the fountain, the coins spinning high before landing deep in the water.
***** ***** ***** *****
It was noon when MaryAnne returned to the crime scene on Highway 36. The highway was open, but it didn’t impede her investigation. She and Rosco had already completed much of the routine work, such as measuring skid marks and looking for bullet shells on the road. Now it was Bandit’s turn, and she led the German Shepard up the hill where the rifleman, according to the victim’s wound, must have been standing.
Bandit kept his nose to the ground and his ears forward, picking up the scent. It didn’t take him long to find the impressions in the earth left by the gunman. He began to tug on the leash excitedly, making a beeline for the very crest of the north ridge. He sniffed carefully until he had found the prize, a discarded shell from a rifle. He froze, pointed, and held the pose until MaryAnne picked up the evidence with a tweezers. “Good boy, Bandit,” she praised him. They were one step closer to sorting out this mess.
A mess that could have been avoided, had Brian stayed out of Atlanta last night. Why he felt the ongoing need to tempt fate was beyond her. She decided it was time to have a good, long talk with her cousin, as soon as she and Rosco had their evidence collected.
Bandit tugged the leash. MaryAnne put the evidence bag into her pocket and followed him. Trailing the rifleman’s scent, the German Shepard led her to the tire tracks that matted down the grass. The tracks curved back to the road, and a bare patch of dirt held a clear imprint of the tread. “Good job, Bandit, good job!”
Dog and deputy returned shortly to the Sheriff’s Department. MaryAnne had the prize of new evidence, but she held back her announcement upon seeing Rosco’s face. “What is it, Rosco?”
“I seen them two mavericks in the hospital,” he gruffed from behind the booking desk. “We ain’t gonna get a dang thing outta them. One’s too far under anesthetic to talk, and the other refuses to say a word.”
“Any I.D. on either of them?”
“Nope. They were travelin’ in-cog-neato.”
“What about the fingerprints in their car? Any leads?”
“Nothin’ that makes any sense. I came up with a dozen near matches. Nothin’ ‘zact to the prints.”
Enos looked up from the report he was studying. “Even that car was redone to look like somethin’ else. That vehicle identification number’s been altered. Accordin’ to the Georgia DMV, there ain’t no registration for it.”
Cletus added his two cents, from near Rosco’s shoulder. “Only thing I found was a Georgia map tucked under the seat, next to the ammo n’ guns n’ stuff, but weren’t nothin’ traced from any of that, either.”
MaryAnne’s gall started to rise. They had piles of physical evidence, but it wasn’t getting them anywhere. “I’ve got one empty rifle shell and a tire print,” she said on her own behalf. “Cletus, check on the rifle caliber that matches this shell. Maybe we can narrow down the gun shops that carry this kind of weapon.”
“Roger wilco,” Cletus said, taking the evidence bag and getting to work.
MaryAnne gave a sketch to Enos. “This the tread pattern of the tire. Let’s see if we can find out what cars use this type. I think we’re lookin’ at a P75-R16 tread pattern, performance tire…”
Rosco looked over their direction. “That ain’t too different from the tires on Diablo,” he commented. “I know that ‘cause Cooter just billed me for ‘em.”
“Maverick uses a similar tire,” MaryAnne added. “It’s fairly common size.”
“For leadfoots,” Rosco said, refusing to give up.
“Heck, even the General Lee uses a tire that size,” Cletus chimed in.
“Hush, dipstick. I said ‘leadfoots’ already, and that automatically means Dukes.”
The booking room fell into a temporary silence. Each officer worked diligently on the evidence; each one came up short in putting the pieces together. After an hour of fruitless labor, MaryAnne looked over at Rosco.
He caught the glance. “What?”
“We need more info,” MaryAnne said. “It could take days or weeks to narrow down the leads, and we can’t afford to wait that long. We need to get a statement…”
Cletus was already trying to sneak out the doors. Enos pulled his hat down a little lower and seemed to be deeply immersed in work. Rosco, not catching the drift, simply asked, “From who?”
Rosco narrowed his eyes, then broke into a grin. “Ooo, I get to guess! Khee! Let’s see here…”
MaryAnne sighed, and tapped her fingers on the desk. “I’ll give you a clue. He’s uncooperative.”
“Uncooperative! Okay…one of the Dukes?”
“No. Think back to the scene of the crime.”
“Good idea!” Rosco paused, deep in thought for ten seconds. “Now what?”
MaryAnne smiled. Either Rosco was playing with her, or he’d missed his coffee this morning. Cletus, meanwhile, had almost made good his escape. MaryAnne waved him back over. “I’m gonna kill the suspense,” she said for the good of all. “Somebody’s gotta take a statement from Brian.”
“Negatory,” Cletus said for himself.
“My patrol’s overdue ,” Enos pointed out.
MaryAnne sighed. “Let’s be fair about this.” She took four pencils, snapped the end off from one, then shuffled them in her palm so that they appeared equal length. “We’ll draw lots. Whoever gets the short stick, takes the statement.”
“I’ll go first!” Rosco said gamely, stepping forward. The odds were with him, and he drew an unbroken pencil. “Khee-khee! Lookit, you dipsticks, it ain’t gunna be me.”
Enos took his turn next, and he was another lucky winner, exempt from the duty. He smiled. “Haaaa Ha! Your turn, Cletus!”
Cletus’s eyes shifted around nervously. It looked like a set-up to him. But MaryAnne was smiling, and her blue eyes were calm. “Go ahead Cletus, you’ve got a fifty-fifty chance.”
“Well!” he said with a smug chuckle. “Can’t beat them odds…” He reached over, and drew the broken pencil. He held it up proudly, unaware of his doom. “I won! I won!”
“You sure did,” MaryAnne said, unwrapping her palm, holding the last unbroken pencil. “Cletus, go find Brian and bring him in for a statement.”
“No problemo. I got it covered. Piece of cake…what? Oh no…I’ve been had!”
“You lost fair n’ square,” Rosco said. “Mostly just square. Now git, you lug-nut!”
“Okay, okay…but won’t be my fault, if Brian resists and I gotta use force….”
“He won’t. Now go on,” MaryAnne said. “We’ve got a lot of unfinished work here.”
Cletus walked through the door like a man facing the gallows. Rosco watched him go, enjoying himself. “Khee! Now MaryAnne, we did play that fair n’ square, didn’t we?”
“Absolutely,” she answered, grinning. Enos, knowing the wisdom of silence, asked no questions.
***** ***** ***** *****
“So there I was,” Brian said, “Trapped on the roof, surrounded below by fifteen Atlanta cops, and holding a bag of hot jewelry worth ten grand. Know what I did?”
Bo sipped at his beer. “Surrendered peacefully?”
“Hell no. I walked right to the edge of that roof and looked straight down. Saw about a dozen squads with the lights flashin’, and there was the law, standin’ there mean-lookin’, bristlin’ with guns…”
“And?” Luke said with polite interest, between mouthfuls of popcorn.
“And I yelled down there for them to back off, or I’d snuff the hostage I had with me!”’
Bo thunked down his beer glass. “You had a hostage?”
“Nah, that’s just something I told ‘em. So then I turned around like I was lookin’ at somebody, pointed my gun at nothin’ behind me, and shouted, “Talk! Tell the cops I mean business!” Naturally, weren’t no answer, so I had to go back there outta view, and then there was this scream, but it was just me, pretendin’! Khee! The cops put down their guns, and damned if they just didn’t stand there as I came down the fire escape. I’m sure they were waitin’ to nail me once I got to the ground…”
Despite themselves, the Dukes were interested. “How’d you get away?” Luke asked.
“That was the easy part. About halfway down the fire escape, I ducked into the building through a broken window. The cops all picked up their guns and started shootin’, but I had the head start I needed. I waited till most of ‘em had come into the buildin’ after me, and then I went back out to the fire escape, and jumped the rest of the way down, right onto the hood of a patrol car! I put a heckuva dent in it, too. Anyway, I jumped off and started tearin’ down the alley before the cops knew what hit ‘em, but one of ‘em chased me…”
“Howdy fellas!” Cletus said loudly, choosing that moment to stroll into the Boar’s Nest. Brian gave the hapless deputy an unforgiving glare.
“Go on, Brian,” Bo urged. “What happened next?”
With a sidelong look at Cletus, Brian continued. “Well sir, that cop called for me to halt, or he’d shoot. Neither one was a good choice for me, so I turned around and whipped that heavy bag of jewelry right at his forehead. Knocked ‘em clean out.”
“Huh. Likely story,” Cletus grumbled.
“S’ true,” Brian said. “Pure gospel. Trouble was, I’d spilled the jewelry in doin’ that. I could only recover part of my heist, ‘cause more cops were startin’ to charge down the alley. So I took off, runnin’ for my hide, with nothin’ more to show for my pains than the little I could cram into my pockets in a hurry – and that amounted to about four grand, less than half of my original take. I was lucky to get away with anything at all.”
“Must be a moral in there somewhere,” Luke observed with a swallow of brew.
“Yep, there is,” Brian nodded. “Don’t count yer diamonds before they’re fenced.”
Bo groaned and leaned his head on the table. Luke nearly spat out his beer. Brian, laughing heartily, raised his glass in self-salute and downed it in three long gulps.
Celtus, having been put aside for as long as he could bear, spoke up. “Uh…sorry to bother you Brian, but I was wonderin’ if you’d mind comin’ down to the station with me…”
It was Brian’s turn to spit beer. Luke was lucky to avoid the spray. “Watch it!”
“It’s his fault,” Brian said with a thumb at Cletus. “Listen here, blue-shirt. I got nothin’ to say to y’all. Whatever it is, I didn’t do it. I’ve got an alibi. I’ve got the right to an attorney…”
“MaryAnne told me to bring you,” Cletus said pleadingly. “She said you gotta give a statement.”
“For the case we’re workin’ on. You know, the one where you fainted on the road?”
Brian stood up so fast that his chair fell over behind him. He advanced on Cletus slowly, giving the evil eye to the stammering deputy.
Cletus was walking backwards, bumping into tables, nearly tripping over chairs. “Not that fainting is anything to be embarrassed about, I’ve done it a lot myself…”
The Dukes were enjoying the show, chuckling into their beer. They watched as Brian backed Cletus into a corner. Thinking that a demonstration of force was in order, Cletus drew his weapon with a shaky hand, pointing it halfheartedly. “Don’t come any closer!” he warned Brian.
Brian stopped and appraised the situation. He eyed the gun as if it there was something amiss. “Your grip is all wrong,” he told Cletus. “You ain’t supportin’ the weight of the gun properly.”
“Lemme show ya,” Brian offered. “Usin’ a gun one-handed like that without supportin’ the base is tricky.” He took the gun from Cletus, who was dumbfounded. Brian turned the pistol over in his hand, as if testing the balance. “Well, it’s not the gun. Definitely a problem with the grip…”
Brian suddenly spun the gun in his hand, and pointed it between Cletus’s eyes. Cletus gave a small yelp and flattened himself against the wall. The Dukes stopped laughing, and a hush fell over the Boar’s Nest.
“Notice how straight I’ve got the barrel pointed?” Brian said mildly. “It’s all in the wrist…”
“Uh-huh,” Cletus nodded rapidly.
“See, when you held the gun, you had it at an angle, pointing up. That makes no sense when your target’s right in front of ya. With your wrist bent like that, I’d have a better chance of knockin’ the gun outta your hand. Plus, if you had to hold me for any length of time until back-up came, your arm would get fatigued.”
Cletus swallowed. Brian’s voice was pleasant, conversational, but the sight of those dark eyes behind the gun barrel offered no comfort.
The tension in the Boar’s Nest was heavy, silent. Brian let it hang another moment, then lowered the gun, and spun it so that the handle was offered back to Cletus. “Here. Try again.”
Cletus took the weapon eagerly, his relief giving way to embarrassment. He was an officer of the law, darn it, and people ought to have more respect! He aimed the gun at Brian again, matching the stance.
The ex-criminal grinned at the sight. “There, now ya look serious! You look like a genuine cop. Awright, deputy. You win. I’ll come along. Now put that away, or you’ll make people nervous.” Brian turned around and headed for the door, grinning to himself. He waved to the slack-jawed Dukes on his way out.
Cletus holstered his weapon, shifted the gunbelt around his girth, and paraded behind. “Guess I showed him.”
***** ***** ***** *****
Back at the Sheriff’s Department, leads kept falling flat. “Ding dang it!” Enos said as he hung up the phone. “Sheriff, that rifle was sold from an Atlanta huntin’ store a year ago, but the person who bought the gun reported it stolen shortly after that. No tellin’ who got ahold of it.”
“No tellin’ how many times it’s changed hands, either,” Rosco sighed. “MaryAnne, any luck with them tires?”
“Not yet. I’ve narrowed it down, tho’. The tread print I found was deep, so the tires could have been fairly new. I’m down to about a hundred possible stores that mighta sold ‘em.”
“Keep at it,” Rosco encouraged. “There’s got to be something out there that’ll put the pieces together.”
“Wonder how Cletus is doing,” MaryAnne mused.
“I don’t know, but it that lug-nut doesn’t report back in five minutes, I’m gonna halfta call out the dogs.”
“Woof!” Flash answered from under the booking desk. Bandit had the glory of having retrieved evidence, and the Bassett Hound had been feeling a little left out. She had the inside scoop on inbound visitors, though, and she sounded the alert again. “WOOF!”
The booking room doors swung open with the bark, admitting one Brian Coltrane and his escort, Cletus Hogg. “Well, look who’s here!” MaryAnne said cheerfully. “Rosco, see? Cletus didn’t have any problems with Brian. Did you, Cletus?”
“Nope,” Cletus said, looking smug. “Anybody else you want me to bring in? Like public enemies one through ten? Just gimmie a list…”
Brian snorted. “Don’t press yer luck.”
“Alright, Cletus, since you’re on a roll, why don’t you take Brian’s statement,” MaryAnne said. She got up, gathered a clipboard and pen, and handed them to Cletus. “Here, take him into the office and fill out this report.”
“Me?” Cletus said, losing confidence fast. “But…”
Rosco saw the quick grin that flashed across Brian’s face. Brian wasn’t above toying with the law, and Rosco knew that MaryAnne was aware of this fact. Perhaps her strategy was to let Brian work his sarcasms out on Cletus first, before they interviewed Brian themselves. He’d cooperate with them, eventually, but it would be like chipping away at solid rock with a wooden spoon.
“Git,” Rosco told Cletus, who dragged his feet to the Sheriff’s office. Brian followed him, looking decidedly edgy. The door closed behind them.
Rosco looked over to MaryAnne. “We’ve got aspirin in the first-aid kit, don’t we?”
“Yes, a full bottle.”
“Good, ‘cause I think we’ll all have a headache before the day’s over.”
Fifteen minutes later, Cletus came from the office and handed Rosco the clipboard. “I didn’t get much info. Brian kept changing the subject. After he threatened to feed me the report, I figured it was time for somebody else’s turn.”
“Enos, you’re next,” Rosco said. Enos got up and took the clipboard, attached a fresh report, and marched into the office.
Another fifteen minutes passed, and then Enos returned, having made no more progress than Cletus had. He scratched his head in confusion. “Brian says he can’t give a Crime Victim Report because he’s not a victim, he’s an active participant. But that don’t make sense in this case, because he is the victim…but he said if he’d actually been a victim, he wouldn’t be alive. Sheriff, how am I supposed to write this up?”
Rosco rubbed his temples. “MaryAnne, I need that aspirin. We’re goin’ in.”
“Comin’ up.” MaryAnne retrieved the aspirin bottle, shook out two tablets for Rosco, and swallowed one herself. “Think we should give Brian the ‘good-cop, bad-cop’ treatment?”
“I think we should give him a kick in the posterior.”
“Khee!” MaryAnne laughed. “That would make an impression on ‘em.”
Rosco came out from behind the booking desk, and the two cousins walked towards the office. At the door, MaryAnne paused. She looked at Rosco and spoke in a whisper. “There’s something about his case that bothers me,” she said. “There’s a piece missing, but I think the answer is right under our nose somewhere. Rosco, I can feel it.”
“You think Brian knows who those mavericks are? Or knows who it was that saved him?”
“I’m hoping he knows,” MaryAnne sighed. “Tho’ I get the feeling that if he had known anything about ‘em, he would have told us when we found him on Highway 36. He was shook up enough that he would have spilled a few details.”
“MaryAnne…what if we strike out? If Brian doesn’t have anything that’ll help us, and none of these leads pan out, how we gonna prevent another attempt on ‘em?”
“We can’t,” MaryAnne said softly. She opened the door, and the two Coltrane officers stepped inside.
Brian was sitting behind the desk in Rosco’s office, reclining in the chair with his black boots up on the desk. “Well, howdy! I was wonderin’ when the two of y’all were gonna stop by. Got any doughnuts left?”
Rosco was glad he’d taken the aspirin. “Brian, gitcher boots off my desk. And git outta that chair. I’m the Sheriff, that’s where I sit.”
“Awright, awright…” Brian switched places, plunking himself down in a chair in front of the desk, next to MaryAnne. Rosco seated himself behind the desk, and took off his black Stetson. He smoothed a hand over his graying hair, and looked critically at the young man who was already trying his patience.
Brian stared back at him without hostility. If anything, there was a small light of hope in the dark eyes. Hope that his cousins would sort this mess out, and that he’d be safe to roam Hazzard again.
It was hope that Rosco hated to crush. “Brian, you know why we’re all here. Why don’t you tell us ‘zactly what happened.”
“You know what happened,” Brian said defensively. “You can probably guess why it happened, too. What I wanna know is who those guys are. I didn’t get a good look at either of them, but I know they’re not Atlanta boys.”
“How do you know they’re not from Atlanta?” MaryAnne asked.
Brian became quiet. His hands gripped the arms of the chair a little tighter, and he looked away. “I just know.”
“You already said you didn’t get a good look at either of ‘em,” Rosco challenged. “So that means you musta heard something.”
MaryAnne let out an exasperated breath. “Brian, we don’t have time to be delicate here. We’ve got two men under State Police custody in Tri-County hospital, but there’s a third hoodlum on the loose.”
“A third? I only heard two voices…” Brian pondered. Immediately, he’d realized his mistake. Rosco and MaryAnne were looking at him intently, like two bird-dogs spotting the same pheasant.
“Spill it, Bri,” MaryAnne prompted.
“From the beginning,” Rosco added.
Brian sighed and gave in. He’d fought cooperating with them out of habit, but there was no point to resisting their help. “Awright…I’ll tell ya.”
He shut his eyes briefly, recalling the voices. “I heard two men talkin’. They were professionals. They talked about…tokens. Proof of doing a job, you know. I overheard this when I was playing possum, after they’d shot out the tire I was hiding behind. They argued about what to take back for proof…decided on an eye…”
MaryAnne flinched involuntarily. Rosco looked slightly green.
“Anyhow, one of ‘em came over to make sure the job was done, and to collect an eyeball. I played dead, and waited till the last second…then hit that guy with everything I had. Hit ‘em twice, knocked him out. I took his gun, and I was thinkin’ I had half a chance…but then when I got up and looked around, the other guy was gone. Turns out he’d snuck up behind me…”
Brian’s narration paused for an intake of breath. “I tried to stall him, get ‘em to talk to me. Asked who sent ‘em. He didn’t say outright, but he hinted that Mancini might be financin’ it. Said I was ‘Worth enough money, dead, to make this side trip worthwhile.’
Rosco and MaryAnne shifted in their chairs, but said nothing to interrupt. Brian went on. “I asked him if he was from Atlanta, and he said “no”. Then I asked him if he was doing any more jobs in these parts, and he said it depended on what they paid.”
Silence fell over Brian. He gave a slight shiver, as if cold, though his ever-present leather jacket hung over his shoulders. MaryAnne allowed him a minute to gather himself, then gave a verbal nudge. “Do you remember anything else?” she asked quietly.
“I’ll never forget it,” Brian answered, turning to look at her. “He told me he was overbooked and behind schedule, and that he had to be going…and to give the devil his regards. Then….bang! That’s the last thing I knew. I can’t believe I fainted outta plain fear, but it sure sounded as if he’d just shot me in the back, point-blank.”
MaryAnne offered Brian some comfort. “You were brave enough to ask questions and gather some information. You’ve been through a lot, Brian. Under the circumstances, I’d say you did damn good.”
“That’s right,” Rosco agreed. Unnoticed by Brian, the Sheriff had started taking notes about halfway through the interview. The crime victim report was complete…except for one detail. Rosco and MaryAnne exchanged a glance. Here comes the tough part…
MaryAnne cleared her throat. “Brian…I only have one question left. What were you doing in Atlanta in the first place?”
There it was, the question he’d been dreading. The inroads to Brian’s mind were suddenly gated shut, wrapped with barbed wire, and surrounded by a moat. He offered an answer that was truth and yet evasion. “Uh…visiting an old friend.”
“No,” Brian said with a shake of his head. “That’s got nothing to do with any of this. I know it doesn’t.”
Rosco stopped taking notes. “It could have everything to do with it,” he said bluntly. “The road was blocked off. Whoever came after you knew that you’d be going down Highway 36 at that time of night.”
Brian folded his arms and shut his mouth, his posture changing with his attitude.
“I know your friend might be innocent in all this,” MaryAnne explained. “We just need to ask him a few questions. He might be able to tell us who those two gunmen are.”
“My friend’s from Atlanta. Those mercenaries ain’t. It’s coincidence. They could have been comin’ to Hazzard to nail me anyway, and then heard I was outta town for few hours, and used the time to set things up.”
MaryAnne tried again. “I know you really want to believe that…but do you?”
Brian stood up from the chair. “You’re damn right I believe it.”
MaryAnne stood up as well, staying shoulder to shoulder with him. “Brian, simmer down and think! If Mancini’s reach goes beyond Atlanta Federal, and he’s putting up the kind of money that attracts out-of-town pros…don’t you think it could tempt some folks you know in Atlanta? ”
It probably could, Brian knew, but he refused to concede it. “I’ve got nothin’ else to say. Y’all through?”
Rosco put down his notepad and sighed. “For now. Go on home, Brian. We’ll talk some more later.”
Brian nodded curtly and left the office, closing the door behind him with more force than necessary. MaryAnne winced at the slam. “We struck a nerve.”
“You think his friend set him up?”
“I’m almost sure of it.”
Rosco took a deep breath. “You think he’ll set Brian up again, don’t you.”
MaryAnne turned and looked Rosco straight in the eye. “Absolutely.”
***** ***** ***** *****
Cooter Davenport knew better to meddle in other people’s business. When Brian stormed out of the courthouse looking like a dissatisfied customer of the legal system, Cooter barely noticed. When Brian proceeded to skulk through town without lifting his eyes above his boots, Cooter paid it no mind.
When Brian’s aimless walk took him to the threshold of Davenport property, Cooter hardly seemed concerned. Brian stood at the garage door without speaking, his black-clad form casting a shadow over Cooter and the car engine he worked on.
Cooter kept to himself and the carburetor. Brian watched him work, not making a sound. Five years passed, or so it felt to them both. Finally, Cooter gave up on the float valve and faced the living shadow. “Is there somethin’ on your mind, Brian?”
“Huh? I guess so. Nah, not really. Well, it’s nothin’. Um…is Diablo ready? I hear ya replaced the tires on ‘em…”
“I replaced the tires, to the tune of a hunnert n’ fifteen dollars. Rosco paid for it. Diablo’s back at the house, drove ‘em there myself.”
“Oh. Awright. Thanks.” Brian shifted his stance, put his hands in his jacket pockets, and pretended he was going to leave at any minute. Cooter went back to work, but he opened conversation for the sake of his troubled customer.
“You had some trouble comin’ back into town, I hear.”
“Nothin’ I couldn’t handle.”
“Ain’t what it sounded like over the CB.”
Brian felt his face warm up. “So I got spooked. Could happen to anybody.”
“Rosco n’ MaryAnne got spooked too. They about called out the militia.”
Brian looked surprised. Cooter glanced over at him from under the car hood. “Don’t you worry, they were plenty sneaky about it. They spread the word by talkin’ on all different CB channels. You called ‘em on channel 9, but I picked up their signals on channel 3, and the Dukes heard ‘em a second later on channel 8, and so on. The Hazzard net did the rest. Yessir, anybody who had their CB on, knew there was trouble on Highway 36.”
Brian wasn’t sure if he was flattered, or embarrassed as all hell. “Sonofagun...”
“Yep. Ya see Brian…when somebody’s in trouble, it don’t matter none whether they’re a Coltrane, a Duke, a Davenport, a Strate, or a Hogg. Hazzard will answer the call.”
Brian absorbed that statement and felt humbled by it. Unsure of what to say, he dropped his eyes to the floor.
“That doesn’t mean anybody likes you,” Cooter said next, grinning from beneath his baseball cap. “Far as I’m concerned, you’re the next thing to rotten fish guts.”
Brian snapped his head up and saw Cooter’s clever grin. His own smile broke open. “Khee! Well, when it comes right down to it…you ain’t much above rancid horsemeat, yourself!”
Cooter laughed heartily, wiped his hands on an oily rag, and threw it in Brian’s direction.
***** ***** ***** *****
After comparing notes with MaryAnne, Rosco sent his report to the FBI in Atlanta and headed out for patrol. Enos and Cletus were off-duty until the late shift, which left MaryAnne alone in the booking room. Alone, except for her headache. She had worked this case incessantly from the moment of Brian’s distress call, and it was a matter of time before fatigue would set in. Yet her inner sense of urgency allowed no time for rest. She continued to examine the evidence, research FBI profiles, and call tire wholesalers. Perhaps if she could get decent lead on the rifleman’s identity, she could get Brian to confirm it. That would be enough…
Unless the pieces fit together too late in the game.
Ring. A call came in on the booking desk phone. MaryAnne grabbed it.
The voice of Agent Roger Kelley filled her ear, delivering unexpected news. The FBI had completed their research on the two-man hit squad that Rosco had detailed. One of the gunmen was none other than…
“Eddie Graves?!” MaryAnne said into the telephone. “You’re positive?”
“Near as we can be,” the FBI agent told her. “Ready-Graves” Eddie, as they call him in the business. You’ve got another big arrest on the books.”
“Ack.” MaryAnne put a hand to her forehead, as if to hold in the migraine.
“Your department gave us enough clues to put the picture together,” the agent said. “There’s a good pile of Federal warrants on that assassin team. You won’t mind if Uncle Sam takes them off your hands, will you, Deputy Coltrane?”
“Not at all. You can have them with my compliments. I should tell you tho’, that I don’t intend on closing this case just yet. I want to find out who took Graves down and why.”
“We have the same questions ourselves,” Kelley said. “Keep in contact with us. I’ll notify you of any new developments.”
“Thanks.” MaryAnne hung up the phone, and pushed back the loose hair that had strayed from her ponytail. Eddie Graves. Good Lord. He was an expensive, custom-tailored killer. Crimelords referred to him as an “outside contractor.” Shady CEO’s called him a “business consultant.” Several third-world nations considered him the instrument of democracy…or tyranny, depending on who was buying.
MaryAnne considered him a pain in the rear. She’d had enough of his kind to last her a lifetime. Stay outta my county. All of ya.
The Feds had congratulated her on another big fish. She didn’t want the glory. God help them if they put her picture in the paper again.
She let out a sharp breath. Would it ever be over? Or would she be cursed with the goddamn Syndicate and it’s companions of evil for the rest of her life?
MaryAnne clenched her fists at her sides. No, she decided. It was the other way around. The Syndicate and it’s companions were cursed with her. She’d fight them so long as she had breath in her body. And when she died, her spirit would haunt their dreams, rattle the windows, and poltergeist small objects under their feet to trip them. Muahahahaha.
In the meantime, she had to keep Brian from reaching a spectral plane. The fact that there was a rifleman lurking around with unknown motives, who just happened to be at the right place, at the right time - thoroughly upset her.
The man who had shot Eddie Graves had held a position staked out in advance, since highway 36 had been blocked off at the local junctures. That led to a long list of theories, of which came three main possibilities. Either Brian had been saved by an old buddy who had sniffed out the plot…
Or he had been set up as bait for Graves, and nothing more…
Or he had been purposely set up, saved, and would be set up a final time, now that the bounty on him had probably been raised. No doubt about it, it was door number three that was making MaryAnne nervous.
If only the prospective victim would cooperate, and give the name of the friend he had visited in Atlanta.
If only the prospective victim had more horse sense. Then maybe she could save his ass.
Brian was being foolhardy. Protecting a friend who might be very well setting him up was definitely on his list of dumber moves.
Well, he was a Coltrane, and they all had their moments. There had to be a way to keep him safe, without locking him inside the barn for the next ten years. She maintained the impression that the answer to it all was right under her nose…but that she was missing it because she was thinking too damn much.
“Yer gonna be late,” Rosco said from the booking room doors, strolling in and startling her. “Ain’t you workin’ at the Boar’s Nest tonight?”
MaryAnne looked at the wall clock. It was six-thirty. In a half-hour, she needed to be in her waitress uniform and serving customers. Time flies when you’re losing your mind…“You’re right, I gotta skeedaddle. Rosco, listen, I got some not-so-good-news from the FBI….”
“They get a positive I.D. on those mavericks?”
“Yes, and one of ‘em turned out to be an elite, independent gunslinger by the name of Eddie Graves.”
“You can say that again.” MaryAnne frowned and considered their next move. “Rosco, I don’t wanna rile Brian too much or he’s liable to take off and run. You know how he gets. Any idea how we can keep him out of harm’s way without lookin’ too obvious about it?”
Rosco furrowed his brow, thinking. “Lemme see…hmmm. Ooo! I gotta idear! I don’t know if Boss will like it, but…”
MaryAnne beamed at him. “Good! Whatever it is, it’s better than nothing. I’ve gotta go. Keep Brian safe and I’ll see you at home later.”
“Khee! He’ll be safe n’ sound, sweetheart.”
MaryAnne gave Rosco another smile, then left the booking room. Whatever her older cousin had in mind, it was bound to be interesting.
***** ***** ***** *****
A rifle case lay open on the bed. Bruno sat at the end of the mattress, carefully cleaning and packing each piece of the weapon, from the stock to the scope. The old hotel room was crammed with the instruments of his trade, cluttered with guns and knives of every description. Empty bottles of liquor were stacked on top of the old dresser, next to an overflowing ashtray.
Bruno shut the rifle case, then checked his handgun, clicking open the chamber to ensure that it was loaded. He shook it shut and returned the pistol to the shoulder holster beneath his coat. He stood and eyed the inventory available from within the room. Nothing else appealed to him.
He rubbed a hand over his three-day growth of beard, considering the job he was about to do. It should be easy enough, if he could get Brian to come to Atlanta again. If not…he would have go to Hazzard and finish the job.
The fact that Hazzard had been the final stop of many a criminal gave him pause. The unassuming rural community had accounted for the cream of the Syndicate crop.
Bruno had to admit that Eddie Graves might have succeeded where others failed – if Bruno himself hadn’t ruined things with a shot in the back. The way Bruno saw it, Graves wasn’t one them, and he resented Syndicate money going to outsiders.
Brian Coltrane, dead, was worth a lot of Syndicate money. No surprise there. Bruno himself had been among the few public spectators at the Syndicate trials. Watching Brian change sides, deliberately and completely, was a stab in the back. Even so, Bruno said nothing of the testimony to his Syndicate associates. What good would it do? Chasing down Brian had already cost them more than it was worth. Hazzard County and anything to do with it was bad luck, plain and simple.
Mancini didn’t see it that way. Once wronged, the ex-Don knew no pity.
Conversely, once fallen from power, the rest of the Syndicate lost interest in their former boss. Bruno surmised that he was probably the only visitor Mancini ever had in prison. Perhaps the rest of the gang didn’t consider the risk worthwhile. Why stick your head in jail any sooner than you have to?
Bruno jabbed a toothpick into his crooked teeth and chewed it. Damn Brian anyway. He had to go. Mancini was right. Brian had been a friend once, but so what. He’d made his choices and betrayed them all.
And if Mancini and Turner somehow did succeed in escaping from Atlanta Federal – a plot that Bruno considered improbable, but feared all the same – then it would pay to have Brian eliminated in advance.
Bruno knew he could handle the job. Brian trusted him, after all. They went way back, having spent the same detentions together in high school. It was only fitting, Bruno rationalized, that Brian should meet his end from someone who knew him well. This was an internal Syndicate matter, and it would be solved at Syndicate hands…or not at all.
With his shallow conscience appeased, Bruno picked up the rifle case and headed out the door. He had a call to make.
***** ***** ***** *****
The screen door slammed with such a bang, that Brian nearly hit the kitchen floor and hid out of reflex. When he saw the grinning Sheriff peek around the corner, he knew he was in trouble. For what, he didn’t know, but when Rosco looked this happy, it was bad news for somebody.
“Ain’t you supposed to be on patrol or somethin’?” Brian asked him.
“I’m gunna start patrol in a few minutes. I just stopped by to pick you up.”
Brian looked for exits. The kitchen window was too small to dive out of. Rosco blocked the door. Something was cooking and Brian didn’t care for the smell of it. “Yeah? Well, that’s mighty nice of ya, but I don’t plan on goin’ nowhere just now…”
“Khee! Ain’t you forgettin’ somethin’?” Rosco walked into the kitchen, moved the curtain away from the window, and pointed to the black Chevy parked outside. “I paid Cooter for them tires. You owe me a-hunnert n’ fifteen dollars.”
“Put it on my tab.”
“I did, only yer gunna pay up now. Ya see, my sister Lulu wants some furniture moved at her house, and Boss can’t hardly move it, and seein’ as how you got a strong back…”
“Oh, no. Nuh-uh. I ain’t doin’ it. Fergit it.”
“…and seein’ as how you owe me a-hunnert n’ fifteen dollars…”
“I figured you can just help Lulu and we’d call it even.”
Brian started to protest some more, but Rosco only smiled and tapped the handcuffs on his belt. “OR…” he began ominously, “We can talk about how you stole a handgun out of this house, and carried a firearm without a permit!”
“I was gonna put it back! I always put it back…”
“See? Ya done messed up, you just confessed to stealin’ n’ concealin’! Khee! That’s thirty days to three years, dependin’ on how I write it up.”
The trap was sprung, and Brian was caught in it. “Dammit, Rosco…”
“That’s Sheriff Rosco, to you. What’s it gunna be?”
“This is blackmail!”
“I know, and it’s a doozy. Khee!”
“Awright!” Brian said, knowing that when it came to railroading, Rosco was the chief engineer. “Awright, fine. I’ll move their furniture. I’ll wallpaper their house if it’ll make ya happy. Let’s just forget about the temporary misplacement of that gun, okay?”
“So long as you do what you’re told. Now c’mon. Gitcher overnight bag packed, you might be there a day or two. They got an awful lot of furniture.”
“Move, boy! Or you can think about it in the holdin’ cell!”
“Aw, man…” Brian moved past Rosco to gather his things. As Brian’s boots hit the stairs, Rosco looked at his watch. “I’m givin’ you five minutes to git back down here, I can’t be late for patrol.”
“#*&%,” came the muted retort from upstairs.
***** ***** ***** *****
When the doorbell rang, Lulu hurried to it as fast as she could. She opened it to see the smiling face of her baby brother, standing tall in his uniformed glory. “Rosco! Come in, I’ve been expecting you!” Lulu then peeked outside. “Where’s Brian?”
Rosco turned, grabbed the back collar of Brian’s jacket, and swung him around front and center. “Right here. Lulu, say hello to one of the lower branches in the family tree…your cousin Brian.”
“Brian!! I’ve heard so much about you! Oh, you poor boy, you look pale! What you need is a good meal…come in, come in!” Lulu pulled Brian inside, and Rosco followed. He watched as his sister made a complete fuss over the young man.
“Howdy, Missus Hogg,” Brian said with courtesy. “Sorry I ain’t never visited before, but with things bein’ what they’ve been…”
“Oh, you poor lost soul! Don’t you worry about a thing! Now that you’re in Hazzard, my baby brother Rosco and my cousin MaryAnne will take good care of you! So will I!” With that being said, Lulu gave Brian a hug that nearly squashed him flat. “Urg!”
“Here now!” Boss’s voice bellowed from the dining room, walking over with heaping plate. “What in tarnation is all the noise over? Can’t I eat two meals in peace without…AUGH!”
Boss saw Brian staring back at him, and it was hard to tell with whom the greater repulsion lay. Boss was quicker on the protest. “Oh, no! No sir! No no no no! Uh-uh! I’m not havin’ any known criminal under this roof!”
“Too late. You’ve lived here for years,” Brian said wryly.
“Jefferson!” Lulu snapped. “That’s no way to talk about this poor young man!” She clutched Brian to her body protectively, suffocating him. “…gah!..”
Lulu had found a new a personal crusade. “Here this good, kind-hearted kin of ours…”
“Yours!” Boss corrected.
“…Comes over here to lend a hand expecting nothing in return but our goodwill, and this is how you treat him! He’s staying, and if you don’t like it, you can sleep at the Boar’s Nest!”
“Harumph!” Boss snorted. “Better that than sleepin’ here with one eye open!”
“J.D., for that one, you can forget about another dinner tonight!”
Lulu released Brian from her clutch so that she could rave at Boss with everything she had. Rosco, accustomed to his sister’s dramatics, watched with amusement. Brian used the respite to take in a few deep breaths and un-crush his gizzard. Once recovered, he began looking around the Hogg household, silently appraising the furnishings and considering their street value.
Boss, spying the sight of Brian ogling the tea set, paused in his tirade to glare at the young man.
“Nice digs,” Brian said mildly. “Is that real silver?”
“AAH! Lulu, hear that? He’ll rob us blind!”
“J.D., you stop that talk this instant!”
“Don’t worry Mr. Hogg,” Brian said with piety, laying it on thick. “I’ll be on my best behavior.”
“Bah!” Boss turned to the usual outlet for his ire. “ROSCO! Anything turns up missing in this house, it’s coming out of your paycheck!”
“I gotta git out on patrol,” Rosco remembered suddenly, and slipped out the door. Lulu shut it behind him, then took Boss’s plate right from his hands. “You’ve been eating all day, and here this poor young man is almost passed out from hunger! Brian, honey. Have a pork-hock and mustard sandwich. Sit down at the table there, I’ll bring you a nice glass of lemonade. Do you like praline cookies?”
“Yes ma’am. Thank ya.” Brian sat down and ate the sandwich, primarily because it irritated the heck out of Boss.
***** ***** ***** *****
The Boar’s Nest was busy when MaryAnne arrived for her shift. She flew inside and punched in with a minute to spare. After twenty minutes more, the orders were caught up and she had a chance to say hello to Daisy. “Whew! Has it been like this all day?”
“It’s been like this for the last hour,” Daisy said. “Either folks know when your shift starts, or they know when mine ends!”
“Well, it can’t be the food that’s bringing ‘em in,” MaryAnne chirped, and the two of them laughed. They started wiping down trays and washing glasses, keeping busy as they talked.
“How’s Brian?” Daisy asked.
MaryAnne shrugged. “He’s doing okay. He’s feeling good enough to stonewall my investigation, if that tells ya anything.”
“Maybe he’ll feel more like talking tomorrow.”
“I hope so. I’ve got ninety-percent of this thing figured out. It’s the other ten percent that bothers me.” MaryAnne stacked the trays, then darted back among the tables to fill some orders. Daisy re-stocked the bar with supplies before rushing off to clean a vacated table. New customers filed in as previous ones left, and both waitresses were busy when the phone rang.
It was Daisy who made it to the phone, at the fifth ring. She had to interrupt an order to pick it up. “Boar’s Nest,” she said with pleasant haste.
“Is Brian there?” A friendly voice asked.
“No sugar, he ain’t here. Sorry!”
“Can you give him a message for me?”
“Sure,” Daisy said, taking out her order pad and pen. “Go ahead.”
“Have him call Bruno. He’s got the number.”
“Much obliged.” The caller hung up, and Daisy did the same. She felt no undue concern over the message. Many Boar’s Nest regulars, including Brian, received calls from people who looked for them there. Daisy flipped her order pad back to the original page, and returned to the customers that had been waiting. “Sorry about that folks. Now what can I get y’all?”
***** ***** ***** *****
Business didn’t let up at the Boar’s Nest for a good while. By the time Daisy’s shift was over, her feet hurt, her legs were tired, and she wanted nothing more than to go home to a hot bath and soft bed.
MaryAnne felt about the same, but she had two more hours to go. “Daisy, you’ve been here since noon,” she said to the weary Duke girl. “Things have slowed down finally. Go on home before Boss has to pay you overtime.”
“Not that he’d ever pay it,” Daisy said. “You sure you’ll be okay ‘till closing?”
“I’m fine,” MaryAnne smiled. “Piece of cake.”
“Then I’m gone! Have a good night, MaryAnne!” Daisy paused only long enough to grab her keys from behind the bar. “G’night, Daisy,” MaryAnne called back to her.
Daisy trotted outside and climbed into her Jeep. She couldn’t wait to get home. It had been a long, busy day, and tomorrow she had the early shift. She wasted no time in heading back to the farm, sticking to the main roads and not sparing the gas.
Uncle Jesse had left the porch light on for her. Daisy felt good just looking at it. Home sweet home! She parked Dixie in the front yard, giving the Jeep a goodnight pat as she headed for the porch. The screen door creaked and banged with her entry, and at the moment she got halfway into the living room, she remembered something. “Gosh-dang it!”
“Nice to see you too,” Bo joked. He and Luke were busy tuning their guitars, each with their own opinion of pitch.
Uncle Jesse looked up from his newspaper. “What’s the matter, Daisy? Did you forget something?”
“I sure did…” She pulled the order pad from the pocket of her shorts. “I took a message at the Boar’s Nest and forgot about it. I brought the dang thing home with me.”
“Who’s it for?” Luke asked.
“Brian. He wasn’t there by the time I left.”
Uncle Jesse pointed towards the phone. “Why don’t you jus’ call ‘em up and give ‘em the message at home? That’s likely where he is.”
Daisy tried it, unsuccessfully. “There’s no answer. Shoot!”
“MaryAnne’s at the Boar’s Nest and Rosco’s probably out on patrol,” Luke surmised. “Which means Brian could be dang near anywhere.”
“Is the message important?” Bo wondered. “Can it wait?”
Daisy read the message and shrugged. “I don’t know…”
“If somebody went through the trouble of callin’ and leavin’ a message, it’s probably important,” Uncle Jesse said. “Since Daisy took the message, she’s responsible for deliverin’ it.”
“We’ll do it,” Luke offered. “Me n’ Bo can take the General into town. If Brian ain’t at home, and he ain’t at the Boar’s Nest, then he’s probably out somewhere in Diablo.”
Daisy handed over the message. “I can’t be chasin’ the county all night lookin’ for him when I got the early shift tomorrow. Thanks, fellas.”
“We’ll get the message to ‘em,” Bo said, setting down his guitar. “Just call us Western Union.”
“I appreciate it, ‘cause I’m callin’ it a night.”
As Daisy spoke, both her cousins were heading for the door. “Be careful,” Uncle Jesse called at their backs, out of habit. The screen door banged shut, and the General’s high-powered roar echoed out of the driveway.
***** ***** ***** *****
Bo drove while Luke kept an eye out for a notorious black Chevy. They saw no sign of it. “That’s one blessing,” Bo remarked. “At least Brian wasn’t in our neck of the woods stakin’ out the farm.”
“He’s done that enough.” Luke didn’t care to remember those days. Forgiving was one thing; forgetting was another. “Swing by the Boar’s Nest. If he turned up there, we won’t have to go no further.”
“Ten-four.” It only took a few minutes of travel on Mill Pond Road. As the General trundled by the popular establishment, it was clear that Diablo wasn’t parked outside.
“What next?” Bo asked.
“Let’s pay a social call on the Coltrane residence,” Luke answered. “I’m getting a funny feelin’ about all this. It ain’t like Brian to pass up his evenin’ cruise.”
“Under the circumstances, can ya hardly blame ‘em? Stayin’ home is the smart thing for him to do.”
Luke gave Bo a patient glance. Bo read it and sighed. “You’re right. If it’s the smart thing to do, it’s the last thing he’d be doin’.”
“You got that right.”
Bo pressed the gas a little harder. He took the shortcuts to Hazzard, and soon the General was looping through the town square. Luke stuck his head out the passenger window as they came up on Cooter’s garage. There was no black Impala lurking in the car lot. “Diablo ain’t here waitin’ on repairs,” Luke muttered. “So that ain’t what’s keepin’ Brian off the road.”
Without adding comment, Bo drove them to the Coltrane homestead, which lay just outside of town. He slowed the General as the old house came into view, the yellow porch light glowing cheerfully by the door. No other lights were on.
The General rolled to a stop. Diablo was parked alongside of the house, not far from the kitchen window. The yellow porch light touched the chrome, giving it the color of candle fire. Bo and Luke stared at the car wordlessly. The Chevy stared back with it’s four headlights and sharp-cornered grill, malevolent in appearance.
“Well,” Bo said after a moment, “We found Diablo.”
“Yep. But we ain’t found Brian. The house is too dark.”
“Maybe he hit the hay,” Bo suggested. “Could be sleepin’.”
“It’s too early yet,” Luke said. “I don’t think he eats breakfast until seven o’ clock at night.”
“Then he’s gotta be in jail.”
“Let’s head on over there and find out,” Luke agreed. Bo guided the General back towards the center of town. As they neared the courthouse, Luke happened to glance towards the large Victorian home that belonged to the Hoggs. The living room drapes were pulled back slightly, and a silhouette moved slowly between them, dragging something.
“Bo! Pull the General up to the curb, quiet-like!”
Bo did as ordered, shutting the car down. “What is it?”
“Look,” Luke hissed in a whisper. “Boss’s place, in the window!”
Bo peered at the house, and saw a figure that was neither Boss nor Lulu moving something around inside. It looked like…
“Brian? What’s he doin’ in there? Where’s Boss and Lulu?” Bo said in confusion.
Luke shook his head. “I don’t know, but it sure don’t look good. C’mon, Bo. We gotta investigate.” The two cousins slid silently from the General. They ran half-crouched to the house, keeping away from the windows as they approached the front door. After sneaking up to it, they waited, listening. There were no voices. There was only the sound of something heavy being dragged across the floor, slowly and deliberately.
Luke put a hand to the doorknob and turned it cautiously. It was unlocked. He looked over his shoulder at Bo, giving a nod that said get ready. Luke cracked the door and chanced a look inside.
Brian had his back to them. His jacket was off, hanging instead on the coat rack next to Boss’s white Stetson. Brian wore the rest of his typical wardrobe, however, and with his black shirt, jeans, and boots, resembled a thug at first sight. Especially when he was dragging a wooden chest across the floor, which probably contained Hogg heirlooms worth a small fortune. By the looks of the rest of the house, Brian had been hard at work for some time, and was getting ready to clean the place out.
It was enough for Luke. He gave Bo a silent countdown with his hand. One…two…
Luke flung the door open wide and he and Bo rushed in, surprising Brian with an open-field tackle that took the unwary Coltrane to the floor. Pinning him to it was more of a challenge. Brian, with the strength born of total panic, threw them off and came up fighting. He got in two good punches before Bo used one of his own tricks against him, and Brian grunted at the blow that would have been a foul in regulation boxing. The Dukes grabbed his arms and held him still. “Ain’t no use fightin’,” Luke told Brian. “You just cool it, and we’ll have Rosco pick you up. You can explain to him why you’re robbin’ Boss n’ Lulu…”
“Dammit, I’m not robbin’ anybody. And who the hell taught y’all to fight dirty like that?”
“You did,” Bo said. “Now what do you mean you ain’t robbin’ anybody? Sure looks as if you’re makin’ off with a haul. You got everything in this dang house moved around!”
“BOYS!” Lulu cried from the stairs, her large form descending in a powder-pink robe. “What in heaven’s sakes is going on here? Let him go! Brian, honey, you alright?”
Shocked, the Dukes released Brian, who made a great show of wincing from pain while making it look like he was actually trying to hide it. Lulu clucked in worry. “Oh my goodness, let me get you an ice pack. You poor thing, you’ve been working all night and now this! I can see there’s been a misunderstanding here…you boys all shake and make up, I’ll be right back.”
Lulu disappeared through the doorway. Brian turned to the Dukes, put on a cocky smile, and stuck his hand out as if to shake…then flipped it into a rude gesture. Bo coiled his fist to sneak in another punch, and Brian backed off, laughing. “Khee! Awright, I know how it must have looked. No hard feelin’s.” He offered his hand again, sincerely this time.
Bo shook it with a half-grin. “This ain’t over, ya know.”
“Never,” Brian agreed. He offered his hand to Luke, who shook it in turn. “So you’re moving furniture for them?” Luke asked.
“Yep. Rosco’s idea. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.”
“I bet,” Luke chuckled, starting to get the picture. “Sorry we thought the worst.”
“I don’t blame ya. Ya damn near gave me cardiac arrest, though.”
“Beats police arrest,” Bo quipped.
“Khee! That’s a fact.”
Lulu returned with an ice pack, as well as a serving tray laden with milk and cookies. “You boys refresh yourselves. I’d stay and visit, but if Jefferson wakes up, I’d have to start cooking another meal – and I need my beauty sleep.”
No one debated that. “Goodnight, Lulu,” Bo and Luke chorused. “G’night,” Brian said. Lulu ambled upstairs, her weight creaking the steps. When she was gone, Luke took a note from his shirt pocket and handed it to Brian.
“Almost forgot. This here’s the real reason we’ve been lookin’ for ya. Daisy took a message for you at the Boar’s Nest, and since you didn’t show up there tonight, we brought it over.”
Brian unfolded the paper and glanced at it. It was a very short note. Call Bruno. Says you have his number.
“Thanks,” Brian said, giving a smile. He folded the note back up and tucked it inside his jean pocket. “Appreciate the favor.”
“You’re welcome,” Luke said. “Well, we’d best be goin’. It’s getting late and we’ve got chores to do before the sun’s up.” Bo nodded to that, while finishing off a handful of cookies and a glass of milk.
“Thanks again,” Brian told them. “See ya around.”
“Bye now. Goodnight,” they answered. The Dukes left, their obligation fulfilled. Brian watched the Charger pull away. He then walked to the coat rack and gathered his jacket, putting it on without a sound. With equal stealth he opened the door, slipped through it, stepped outside and shut it noiselessly.
He walked to the pay phone near the center of town. He had a call to make.
***** ***** ***** *****
“Got your message,” Brian said.
“Good. Listen man, I got heavy news. You need to come to Atlanta. Tonight.”
Brian gave a hollow laugh into the phone. “No dice. I had a little trouble the last time I left town. Not takin’ any chances.”
“That’s what we need to talk about,” Bruno said urgently. “I got news that you can’t live without.”
Brian was silent for moment. “So tell me.”
“Can’t, over the wire. You know the score. Either you get to Atlanta – or there’s nothing I can do.”
“I’ve been to Atlanta. How about you comin’ to Hazzard County this time?”
“Guess I could do that – just once. You’re gonna owe me, Brian.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. Awright, listen. There’s an old sawmill just off of Highway 36. Take County Line Road, south, into the hills. Can’t miss it.”
Bruno memorized the directions. “I’ll be there. Alone. You do the same. What I got to say, goes no further than you. Dig?”
Bruno hung up the phone. That was that. Brian was going along with it. Country living had made him too trusting by far. So much the better; it would mean a quick job, no witnesses, and a nice cash bonus.
Bruno left the old hotel and headed for his black Cadillac coupe. The .30 caliber rifle and night scope were already in the car. He fired up the Caddy and threw it into gear, the new tires giving a screech as their rubber marked the asphalt.
**** ***** ***** *****
The orange Charger rumbled down Mill Pond Road, heading
home. The Boar’s Nest was between them
and the farm, and it proved too great a temptation to pass up. “A cold one sounds pretty good about now,”
Bo said to his cousin.
“Why not. We’ll say howdy to MaryAnne while we’re at it.”
“Ten-four!” Bo didn’t need any further convincing. He pulled the General into the parking lot, pulling up next to the blue Firebird better known as Maverick. “Hello, Maverick,” Bo said to the Pontiac. Luke gave the car a light pat on the hood as he walked by it. Maverick was a familiar fender in Hazzard, and seeing the car was like seeing an old friend.
Seeing MaryAnne was even better. Bo and Luke walked into the Boar’s Nest and took a seat at an open table. It was getting near closing time, and the crowd had thinned out. MaryAnne was busy carrying empty mugs back to the bar when she noticed the Dukes. A ready smile greeted them. “What can I get for you boys tonight?”
Bo flashed his teeth with home-grown charm. “Just the sight of your radiant face…”
“Oh, stop.” MaryAnne giggled. “You know, the way y’all hang out here, we should re-name the place the ‘Duke’s Nest.’”
“I think Boss might get upset with that.” Luke smiled and looked up at MaryAnne. “Then again, that’s a pretty good reason to re-name it.”
“Khee! Don’t tempt me. Now what’ll it be?”
“Two beers,” Bo answered lazily, stretching his arms. “Got popcorn?”
“All you can crunch. You want frosty mugs for those beers? It’s an extra fifty-cents.”
“Sure, what the heck,” Luke said. “Let’s go for the gusto.”
“You got it.” MaryAnne spun away to get their order, and the Dukes covertly watched her strut away.
“Know somethin’?” Luke said to Bo. “When she’s wearin’ that outfit, I forget she’s got a badge.”
Bo grinned, sharing the thought. “Heck, I even forget she’s a Coltrane.”
Luke nodded, his smile adding creases to the corners of his eyes. “Then there’s times you see her with the badge, and you hear that khee…and it’s still alright.”
Both Dukes chuckled. They each held a great deal of respect for MaryAnne, and their masculine witticisms weren’t a detraction. They enjoyed her presence in Hazzard, even when it was announced with the howling siren of her patrol car.
“Two beers and a basket of heat-lamp popcorn,” MaryAnne said with her return. She looked around the Boar’s Nest as she plunked their order onto the table. Seeing that no customers needed her right now, she sat down and joined the Dukes.
“Thanks, MaryAnne,” Bo said, and Luke nodded, lifting their glasses together in a wordless toast to her. They downed half the beer in a few swallows, then picked at the popcorn. “You been busy tonight?” Bo asked conversationally.
“Crazy. I’ll be glad when tonight’s over.”
“You don’t have too much longer to go,” Luke said with a glance at the clock. “We just stopped in to say howdy on our way home. We won’t keep ya past closin’ time.”
“That’s nice of ya,” MaryAnne said. “What were you boys up to tonight?”
“Fightin’ with your cousin Brian,” Bo grinned.
“Yep,” Luke said. “Daisy had taken a message for him but forgot about it, so we ran it into town and delivered it. Found ‘em over at Boss n’ Lulu’s of all places…saw him movin’ stuff around in their house, and we thought maybe he was up to somethin’, so…”
“We had a misunderstandin’,” Bo finished. “But Luke n’ me won.”
“This time,” MaryAnne said blandly. She’d given up trying to keep Brian and the Dukes from fighting. So long as no one needed stitches and nothing got broken, she didn’t worry about it anymore. Still, there was something in the conversation that set off a tiny alarm in her head, but she was too tired to recognize it right away. “Did Brian say what he was doing over at Boss’s house?”
“Moving furniture,” Luke said. “Sure looked suspicious from the road. Turns out that Rosco put him up to it. Brian described it as, ‘an offer he couldn’t refuse.’”
“Khee,” MaryAnne smiled. “I told Rosco to keep Brian out of trouble until we sorted out this mess from last night. Looks like he found a way.”
“Sure enough.” Luke took a long drink of beer. “We almost couldn’t find ‘em.”
“I couldn’t have helped you either. I didn’t’ even know where the heck he was...” MaryAnne paused in thought, frowning. “Wait a minute…go back to that part you said earlier. What was this message you delivered to Brian?”
“I dunno,” Bo shrugged. “Daisy got a call for him here at the Boar’s Nest. She wrote it down on her order pad, and brought it home with her on accident. So we took to Brian.”
MaryAnne felt her heart drop down to splash into her stomach. That’s it! That’s how Brian keeps in contact with his old Atlanta cohorts! Messages coming in at the Boar’s Nest, right under her nose! He never had any calls come to the house. No wonder he spent so much of his free time here!
“Bo…Luke…” MaryAnne said urgently, her blue eyes narrowing. “I need to know what that message was. I need to know when it came in, who it was from!”
Confused, Bo and Luke looked at one another. “Guess you’d have to ask Daisy,” Luke said. “I took the note from her, but I didn’t read it.”
MaryAnne stood up from the table. “Call her. Tell her it’s an emergency. I’m going to close the Boar’s Nest early.”
“MaryAnne, what is it?” Bo questioned.
She put her hands on the table and leaned forward. “I think Brian was set up by someone he considers a friend. I think that same person is gonna set him up again. I don’t have all the proof yet, but this message could be from that same ‘friend…’ and a matter of life and death.”
Luke was out of his chair and on the phone in an instant, calling for Daisy. Bo hurriedly stacked the chairs on the tables to help MaryAnne close up, as she ushered the handful of customers out the door with apologies. When Luke got Daisy on the phone, he handed it to MaryAnne.
“Daisy!” MaryAnne said. “Daisy, I need to know about that message you took for Brian. When did you get it? Who was it from? What’d they say?”
“I’m not sure,” Daisy said hesitantly. “We were really busy when I took the call. Could have been eight o’ clock…I don’t know!”
“It’s okay,” MaryAnne said, forcing herself to stay calm so that Daisy could think. “Was it somebody who called here before? Did you recognize the voice?”
“The voice sounded familiar. He’s called here before, I’m pretty sure.”
MaryAnne took a deep breath. “When was the last time he called, not counting tonight?”
“Last night,” Daisy said, sounding confident. “Early. Right before the dinner crowd started.”
Right before Brian went to Atlanta, and nearly didn’t come back. MaryAnne shut her eyes, controlling her reaction to the facts. She had to think clearly and act quickly. “Daisy, that helps. I could use a name, tho’. Do you remember the caller’s name?”
“I think…it was ‘Bruno’ or something like that. I’m not positive…”
“It’s enough,” MaryAnne said. “Thanks, Daisy. If you think of anything else, call me on the CB.” The moment the phone was hung up, MaryAnne picked up the CB behind the bar and called Rosco. “Songbird to Bear! You got your ears on?”
“That’s an affirmative, Songbird,” Rosco said with sleepy drawl. “Come back.”
“Bear, I think Blackbird’s in trouble. I’ll explain later, but right now we need to confirm Blackbird’s twenty. Fast.”
Rosco’s voice became strong and alert at the mention of trouble. “Ten-four, Songbird. I’m on my way.” The sound of Rosco’s siren could be heard before the transmission ended.
MaryAnne turned off the Boar’s Nest CB and headed for the door, the Dukes following. “I want you boys and the General to head out to Highway 36. If you see anything on the road resembling a black Chevy Impala…get that car to stop.”
“You got it,” Luke said. He and Bo ran outside and fired up the General. MaryAnne paused to lock the Boar’s Nest up for the night, then madea running dash for her car. The General was already spitting gravel out of the parking lot.
Maverick fired up with an eager growl. MaryAnne skidded the car through the gravel parking lot with no concern for neatness. Every minute counted. The steering wheel was in one hand, and the CB in the other. “This is MaryAnne callin’ the Hazzard County Sheriff’s Department! Enos, Cletus, you read me? Come back!”
“Hey, MaryAnne,” Cletus answered. “What can we do for ya?”
“Take this down and radio it into the Atlanta police department! I need to run a profile on the following name – Bruno! It could be a first name, last name, nickname, or an alias! Have them check everything they’ve got.”
“Right away, MaryAnne! Here, Enos wants to talk to ya.” Static snapped over the CB, then Eno’s voice came over the air. “Scuze me MaryAnne, but that name matches one of the bills of sale from a tire store in Atlanta! There’s a receipt to a “Bruno” for a set of P16 tires on an ’81 Cadillac…”
“From were, Enos? Where was the sale made?”
“Discount City Tire Center, downtown Atlanta.”
MaryAnne swore softly. The pieces were coming together, and the picture was ugly. She snapped the talk button back down on the mike. “Good work, Enos! Get an A.P.B. out on that Caddy to the Atlanta Police and the State Patrol! Have them cover the main roads between Atlanta and Hazzard! Cletus, you get that suspect profile in the meantime!”
“Ten-four, MaryAnne! Over and out!”
MaryAnne hung up the CB and pushed Maverick’s RPM into the orange. There was a chance that Brian remained safely under Boss and Lulu’s roof. There was a chance that he hadn’t fallen for the same trap twice. There was a chance that she was wrong, despite the evidence…
There was a chance she’d win the lottery, too. The odds, all in all, were still one in a million.
***** ***** ***** *****
Rosco’s patrol car slid up to the curb, braking hard enough to make the tires squeal. The rack of red and blue lights flashed their colors against the Victorian home, and Rosco left the car running as he made the short jog to the house. The living room looked lit up. It was just possible that there was nothing to worry about…
The front door was locked. Rosco rang the doorbell, then rang it again when it wasn’t immediately answered. Through the door, he could hear the stairs creak as his sister and brother-in-law descended them. “Alright alright alright!” Boss shouted. “You lay off that bell or I’ll have the Sheriff come out here!”
“He’s already here!” Rosco shouted from the other side of the door. “Boss, open up!”
“Bah! I’ve had it with Coltranes entirely,” Boss grumbled, but he opened the door. Rosco pushed his way inside. “Where’s Brian?”
Lulu, wrapped in her pink robe, looked around anxiously. “Why, he was right here, last I seen! He and the Duke boys were talkin’! Why, Rosco? What’s happened?”
“I’m not sure yet.” Rosco stared at the torn-apart living room. It looked like Brian had been actually moving furniture, before he took his abrupt leave. There was something depressing in the sight of his unfinished labor, as if he wouldn’t be returning to complete it.
Boss sensed his brother-in-law’s mood. “There’s trouble, ain’t there Rosco?”
The Sheriff nodded. “There’s trouble…” He took his gaze from the furniture and landed it on Boss and Lulu. “You all best stay in and keep your doors locked. I’ll call you when I know what’s goin’ on myself.” Rosco hurried from the house, hearing the distraught wail of his sister lingering behind him.
“That poor boy…oh, my!”
***** ***** ***** *****
“Bear to Songbird! Bear to Songbird, come back!”
MaryAnne grabbed the CB. “Go ahead, Bear!”
“He’s gone,” Rosco said sadly. “Blackbird’s gone, and so is his car. Nobody’s seen ‘em in nearly an hour.”
MaryAnne kept her reaction to that news off the air. She clicked the mike again. “What’s your twenty, Bear?”
“At the bookin’ room. Dipstick and Lugnut filled me in on the latest. I ain’t even gunna tell ya what it looks like.”
“In other words, it looks like I was right,” she sighed. “State Police find anything on that Caddy?”
“Negatory. I asked ‘em to keep an eye out for Blackbird, too…but nuthin’ so far.”
“I’ll be there in five minutes, Bear. Have my spare uniform ready.”
“You got it, sweetheart.”
MaryAnne turned the CB channel to the Dukes home frequency. “Songbird to Lost Sheep, come back!”
“We read you, Songbird,” came Luke’s voice.
“Any luck?” MaryAnne asked.
“Not yet. Listen, you two be careful. We’re dealin’ with some old, bad influences here. Keep an eye out for an ’81 Cadillac while you’re lookin’ for that Impala.”
“Ten-four. We’ll holler if we see anything.”
“Thanks, boys. I’m gone.” MaryAnne took a deep breath and got ready to send another broadcast, knowing darn well that this one wouldn’t be answered. She turned the CB to the channel used by her kin. “Songbird to Blackbird, come back...”
Random static, silence. MaryAnne counted to ten and tried once more. “Songbird to Blackbird! I know you’re out there somewhere, but you have your radio off, don’t you? That’s because you’ve got one of two possible answers to everything! Run or fight! You need to think for a change! You’re being set up!”
Silence, thick and empty. MaryAnne tossed the CB down. “ARGH!”
***** ***** ***** *****
Diablo ate up County Line Road in huge chunks, swallowing the rustic trail under its wide wheels. The thrumming song of the motor reverberated off the hills, the vrrrruuumm-vahoom echoing from the tailpipes. Relentlessly, the high-stanced Chevy made the steep climb to the sawmill, traveling a route that few people ever found reason to venture.
The foolhardiness of his journey wasn’t lost on Brian. Bruno could be either friend or foe…or both. Yet for that slim, outside chance that Bruno had critical information and was risking his neck to deliver it – Brian would risk his own neck to hear it.
With any luck, he’d be back from his little jaunt before Rosco and MaryAnne suspected a thing. With any luck, his faith in Bruno would not be misplaced.
Luck was about all Brian had. Coltrane luck, at that. The old .38 that he had “borrowed” from Rosco on prior excursions was not with him. Rosco had collected it when he was scooping Brian’s fainted form off Highway 36, and there was no telling where the damn gun was squirreled away now.
That left Brian with nothing more than his jacket, his knife, a few cigarettes, and Diablo. At least Cooter had filled up the Chevy with a full tank of gas. Racing fuel, no less, by the way Diablo was running tonight. God bless ‘em.
Brian made one last try at the FM radio for song. One decent song, that’s all I ask. Lemme go in there on a high note.
It was a decent song, though ill-timed. “Don’t Fear the Reaper” by Blue Oyster Cult poured from the speakers. “GAH!”
The radio knob was turned off and left alone. Brian’s hand almost went to the CB. He still had time to call his cousins. Once he left the relative safety of Diablo, however, he wouldn’t be able to call for help if he needed it.
Nah. He decided against it. Besides, if Bruno was on the up and up, it wouldn’t do to have cops lurking in the bushes. And if Bruno wasn’t on the up and up, why risk his family’s safety? Hazzard had paid enough. Whether for good or evil, Brian had to face Bruno alone.
Diablo’s throttle rumbled low as the Chevy crested over the last hill. The sawmill was in the crossbeams of the four headlights. There wasn’t any sign of another soul.
So far, so good. As intended, Brian had beat Bruno to the meeting place. He parked Diablo near the rickety mill, keeping the car in obvious view. He wanted Bruno to know he was here.
Brian got out of Diablo and looked at the mill. Weathered and ancient, the water-wheel stood broken in the river, slowly rotting against the elements. The rest of the mill was nothing more than a run-down barn, with yawning, crooked doors. Paint-deprived wooden planking composed the sides of the building, open gaps showing between the boards. The roof itself was held up by optimism alone.
One good strong wind would probably flatten the whole joint. Well, if he hated the thought of going in there, then so would Bruno.
Brian looked inside. Spider webs hung liberally from every rafter. Pale moonlight shone through the uneven slats of the roof, revealing a thick blanket of sawdust that covered the entire floor. Centered in the floor was a wooden bench with an enormous round saw. In it’s day, the saw had provided the lumber cuts that built half of Hazzard. Now it was a rusted hunk of metal with broken teeth, an invitation to tetanus shots.
There wasn’t much time left. Brian’s dark eyes looked from the mill to Diablo, and he considered his chances if Bruno was against him. Coltrane luck...
***** ***** ***** *****
MaryAnne flew into the booking room, shoving the doors open wide and letting them bang behind her. Her uniform hung ready near the booking desk. She grabbed it without breaking stride and went to Rosco’s office to change clothes. For the moment, she ignored the organized pandemonium that surrounded the booking room, tuning out the voices of her fellow officers.
She kicked off the waitress heels and changed clothes in seconds flat. She pulled her hair back into a ponytail and snapped the hair band in place. Balancing on one foot at a time, she pulled on her boots and straightened the pant legs over them. MaryAnne quickly marched from the office, wrapping her gun belt around her waist. “Awright, tell me what we’ve got.”
Rosco handed her the profile report. “We’ve got diddily-squat. The profile came back showin’ the one thing you’ve already guessed.”
MaryAnne’s eyes scanned the report and she read it aloud. “Suspected member of organized crime, considered armed and dangerous…gee, no kidding.” She skimmed over the rest and sat it down. “All this does is confirm my worst suspicions.”
“Mine too.” Rosco’s voice was tight. “We’ve got our work cut out for us…”
“There’s no tellin’ where Brian is by now,” Cletus said freely. “He might be halfway to Atlanta.”
“He got ambushed comin’ out of Atlanta last time,” Enos pointed out. “Can’t figure him going back in there like this…”
“If he did go back to Atlanta, he would have taken Highway 36 again,” MaryAnne speculated. “It’s the fastest route. He’d probably figure that lightning wouldn’t strike twice…”
“And he’d want to get to Atlanta and get back before we knew he was gone,” Rosco added. “He’s done it before.”
Enos spoke up again. “But if Brian took Highway 36 out of Hazzard, the State Police shoulda caught sight of ‘em by now.”
“The Dukes haven’t seen him either, and I’ve got them watching Highway 36 at the county line,” MaryAnne reminded. “That means…”
“Brian is still somewhere in Hazzard County!” Rosco exclaimed.
“What about the other guy, Bruno?” Cletus asked. “State Police ain’t seen him, either!”
“I think I know why,” MaryAnne said quickly. She took a short stride to the county map on the wall, pointing to the roads. “If Bruno set up Brian on Highway 36, then that’s the last road that he’d take himself. All the junctures to it were blocked on that first attempt, remember? If Bruno gunned down Eddie Graves, he didn’t do it by following anybody on Highway 36. Those tire tracks were up on the ridge – right about here - ahead of where Brian had stopped! Bruno was already in position and waiting the whole time, and he escaped after the shooting without using Highway 36.”
“Yer right!” Rosco said. “All we have to do is cover that back road…I think it’s Willow Ridge you’re talkin’ about …and if that Syndicate snake tries to get into Hazzard county that way, we’ll nab ‘em!”
“Yeah!” Cletus said excitedly. “I know how to handle his kind!”
“You do?” Enos raised both eyebrows.
Cletus nodded. “Sure do. Stay in the car, and call for backup!”
“We’ve got to get moving,” MaryAnne interrupted, looking at Rosco. “Brian’s out there and he doesn’t know about all this. His CB is off, so the only way to warn him is to find him.”
Rosco agreed. “We gotta keep an eye out for his old buddy, too. We’ll have to split up. Enos, Cletus, I want you two to stick to Willow Ridge Road like bubble gum on a shoe. If that Caddy tries to sneak into the county, stop ‘em any way you can!”
“Yessir!” Enos and Cletus saluted and ran out of the booking room, colliding together at the door. They managed to squeeze through at the same time. Rosco shook his head and turned his attention back to MaryAnne.
“MaryAnne, let’s you n’ me take Highway 36 out to where the Dukes are waitin’. Brian likes that road too much not to use it. If he ain’t made it as far as the county line, then he mighta turned off Highway 36 on to some side road…”
“Unless he hasn’t made it to the county line because…”
“I’m not gunna say that.”
“Neither am I.”
The two uniformed cousins locked a blue-eyed gaze of steel and sapphire. It was all the admission to the odds they would make. As one, they turned sharply to the doors and left the booking room.
***** ***** ***** *****
The Cadillac coupe was a low-riding cruiser, and Bruno swore at every pothole on Willow Ridge Road. With every bang that shook the suspension, Bruno chalked it up to another reason to snuff Brian out.
He couldn’t understand what his former associate saw in this area. To Bruno, breaking rocks in Leavenworth sounded more attractive than spending any portion of his life in the sinkhole known as Hazzard County.
Brian wasn’t himself anymore, Bruno decided. That’s what happens when someone spends too much time amid cornfields and cow manure. How anyone could sell out the Syndicate and then spend the remainder of their life rotting away in a small town was beyond him.
If Brian was in his right mind, he’d thank Bruno for killing him. Well, what were friends for?
Bruno was already planning the funeral, picking the floral arrangements, and preparing a touching eulogy for his unfortunate friend. He’d give Brian a classy send-off. He could afford it, thanks to Mancini’s generous bounty. And with the price of betrayal paid in full, Brian could be remembered as a friend – not as a traitor. It was beautiful. Bruno was thoroughly convinced that once Brian was tucked under a layer of sod, he’d make better company.
Three cheers for Mancini, Bruno thought, for giving him the motivation to do something he should have done long ago. Shooting Eddy Graves had felt good, but killing Brian would be personally and financially rewarding. Honestly, Bruno couldn’t remember the last time he’d had such a golden opportunity in front of him.
The old, broken sign for County Line Road appeared in the Cadillac’s headlights. Bruno nearly missed it. He slung the black Caddy off Willow Ridge and immediately began to curse to himself. This road was in worse condition than the last, being no more than a long dirt rut that lead up into the hills. His low-framed car shimmied and shook and bounced like a stagecoach.
Mentally, Bruno added another nail to Brian’s coffin.
***** ***** ***** *****
Twin Plymouth Furys roared along Willow Ridge Road. The white patrol cars streaked through the darkness like a pair of comets, zeroing in on the county line. Enos and Cletus knew their objective, and they searched for the Cadillac coupe in earnest.
About ten miles away, Rosco and MaryAnne ran a parallel route on Highway 36. The logic was simple; anything coming into Hazzard County from Atlanta would be intercepted by Enos and Cletus. Anything going out of Hazzard to Atlanta would be intercepted by Rosco, MaryAnne, and the Dukes.
It would have worked like a charm, if Bruno had not already turned off Willow Ridge on to County Line Road about five minutes ago.
It was that very possibility that Rosco dreaded the most. One by one, the CB’s from his deputies reported the same thing. No sign of suspect. The Dukes had been staked out here for some time as well, and had seen nothing. Time was ticking away.
Rosco watched MaryAnne’s Plymouth Fury comb the highway once more. She guided her patrol car down the shoulder of the road, shining the spotlight into the ditch and into the trees beyond it. Rosco half-hoped she’d find something, but hoped more that it wouldn’t be Chevy debris if she did.
MaryAnne radioed Enos and Cletus and asked them to search as she was doing. Were there skidmarks, or tire tracks in the ditch, or any cars parked off the road? The hope in her voice was reserved. Rosco knew exactly what she was thinking. They were too late.
Rosco waited another minute, praying for a sign. None came. He radioed MaryAnne.
“Bear to Songbird.”
“Go ahead, Bear.”
“We need to split up once more and check the side roads.”
“I copy that…” There was audible hesitation in MaryAnne’s response. Rosco heard it.
“More on your mind, Songbird?”
“We’re missing something. I got that same feeling that I had when this whole thing started. There’s something right under our nose and we’re missing it.”
“That’s why we’re out lookin’ for it,” Rosco said in gentle humor.
The sound of a light snort came through the mike. At least he’d made her smile. “Awright,” she called back to him. “We’ll map out a grid…you n’ me take the north-south roads, while Enos and Cletus take the east-west roads.”
“What about us?” Bo called from the General Lee. “Me n’ Luke ain’t quittin’ here.”
“You boys take the off-roads,” MaryAnne radioed to them. “The General can do better cross-country than any of our patrol cars.”
“Ten-four, we’re gone.”
A moment later, the five-car posse spread out the search. Bo and Luke waited while the Hazzard County Sheriff’s Department split off. Rosco and MaryAnne headed in opposite directions as their counterparts on Willow Ridge did the same.
“There they go,” Bo said, watching the Coltranes depart. “Okay, Luke. I know you’ve got a plan. Where we headed?”
Luke looked at his younger cousin blankly. “Plan? I didn’t say I had a plan!”
“You always have a plan,” Bo insisted. “You gotta have some idea where Brian is.”
“How in the heck would I know?”
Bo’s face fell. “You really don’t have a plan?”
The disappointment on his cousin’s face was too much to bear. Luke put an idea together on the fly. “Alright, here’s what we’ll do. We’ll look for ‘em at all the practical hideouts. There’s plenty of hunting shacks and moonshine stills out this way – I’m willin’ to bet that Brian’s hidin’ at one of ‘em, if he didn’t already hightail it outta the county.”
“That still leaves a lot of territory to cover.”
“Then let’s start coverin’ it.”
The General spat gravel from the tires and headed for the hills.
***** ***** ***** *****
It wasn’t too long before Brian heard the smooth purr of the Cadillac’s engine. He waited inside the sawmill, standing in the far back of the dilapidated structure.
He had shut the mill’s barn-style doors the best that he could. Bruno would have to squeeze through them in order to enter. The doors, having settled into the ground by a good three inches, had more or less broken from the rusty hinges and collapsed into the doorway when Brian tugged on them.
In any case, he was fairly protected from outside assault. He’d deliberately avoided lighting any lantern inside the mill. If he couldn’t be seen, he couldn’t be shot at.
Not that Bruno would do such a thing. No, it was simple precaution that Brian exercised. Let Bruno come inside to talk.
The car door slammed on the Caddy. Bruno had parked it away from the mill, closer to the road. Brian’s heart sped up. He knew Bruno could see Diablo, and with basic reasoning, Bruno would know that Brian was inside the mill.
Brian carefully lit a cigarette, stood in the back of the mill, and waited. He heard footsteps, measured and cautious, shuffling through the dry grass outside. Bruno was giving the place the once-over, not liking it.
“It’s awright,” Brian said so that Bruno could hear him. “It’s just me in here.”
More shuffling outside, then a large shape loomed near the doors. “Brian?”
“Yeah, man. It’s cool. C’mon in.”
Cautiously, Bruno took a sideways glance through the gap in the doors. He saw Brian’s silhouette standing in the back of the sawmill, the glowing ember of the cigarette marking his position. The square-shouldered stance was one that Bruno recognized. Brian had his guard up – but he also had his back to the wall, and was far away from the exit.
It looked easy enough to take him down. Bruno thought it a pity that he couldn’t use his scope and rifle this time. He’d left them in his car, upon seeing that there would be no effective way to shoot Brian from a distance.
So it would be a close-range job. Brian was a fast shot, though. If he was armed…
“I ain’t packin’,” Brian volunteered when Bruno didn’t come inside. He stuck the cigarette between his teeth and held his jacket open one side at a time, smoothing the lining as he did so. “See? Empty pockets. We’re friends, Bruno. I trust ya.”
“We’re friends,” Bruno agreed, squeezing through the doors to step inside. He could see Brian more clearly now. Dim moonlight filtered through the mill’s rotting roof, and the graying light fell over Brian’s back, illuminating him in a chalky haze. The cigarette was burning slowly in his teeth, and Brian took a small drag from it, watching Bruno with dark, cold eyes.
Bruno figured it was a good time to get things over with. Why mince words? He shifted his weight and took a half-step forward, reaching into his own jacket.
Brian plucked the cigarette from his teeth before Bruno could draw. “Bruno,” he said so suddenly and in such a low, quiet voice that the Syndicate loyalist froze in his movements.
Brian held the cigarette at arm’s length, and that same, terrible calm stayed in his voice. “You don’t want me to drop my cigarette.”
Bruno felt perspiration breaking through his scalp. Had he been the one set up this time? But Brian could be bluffing…
The ex-criminal laughed harshly, reading the thought in Bruno’s vapid face. Brian took another slow drag on the cigarette, then sobered and looked at his old friend with genuine sorrow. “You see, Bruno…I siphoned 20 gallons of racin’ fuel out of Diablo’s tank and saturated this damn place,” he said softly. “Can’t you smell it?”
***** ***** ***** *****
The General Lee jumped and roared along the rocky fields, cutting through the edge of the county line. “Why start here?” Bo asked, hanging onto the wheel as the General danced over the terrain. “There ain’t nothin’ down this neck of the woods but that old sawmill.”
“It’s the closest thing around. Process of elimination, Bo.” Luke held on to the General’s roof panel with his right hand and declined to say more.
Bo darted an eyeball at him. “You got a hunch, don’t ya.”
“Never said that…”
Bo chuckled. “You didn’t have to.”
Luke gave his cousin a short smile. “Well, I was kinda thinkin’ about places I’d hide out if I wanted somethin’ close to the county line, ‘specially if I had company comin’ out of Atlanta. That old mill is the best bet.”
“Assumin’ that Brian’s still in Hazzard County at all,” Bo added.
Luke nodded silently. Bo said nothing more and urged the General up a steep incline, drawing near the dirt rut known as County Line Road. At the crest of the hill he turned off the General’s headlights and cut the engine, sensing the need for stealth.
“We can coast to the mill from here,” Luke said in approval. “Keep a look out…”
Cruising in neutral, the General crept towards the mill. They could see it now, set back towards the river, moonlight showing the ruined structure in stark view. A car was parked near it, and even at this distance, the chrome glinted enough in the moon’s brightness to be recognizable.
“There’s Diablo!” Bo pointed excitedly. “And there’s another car, parked on the road – it’s gotta be that Caddy!”
Luke already had CB mike in his hand. “Lost Sheep to the Hazzard County P.D.! Bear, Songbird, the rest of y’all! Come back!”
“We read ya,” Rosco answered quickly. “Go ahead, boys!”
“We found ‘em…” Luke said into the mike. “They’re at the old sawmill on County Line Road. Diablo’s sittin’ right there and that Caddy ain’t far from it.”
MaryAnne’s voice cut over the air. “We’ll be there in a few minutes! Don’t go chargin’ in there without us!” The sound of her patrol car screeching into a 180-turn was in the background.
“Heck no,” Luke agreed. The eerie stillness of the mill was anything but inviting. “We don’t plan on it. Y’all better come in quiet, though.”
“Ten-four,” Rosco said. “Enos, Cletus, you copy that?”
“Loud n’ clear, Sheriff!”
Radio silence followed as the minutes passed. The four patrol cars sped towards County Line road from different points. MaryAnne got there first, making the tight turn onto the rustic path with shrieking tires. Her Plymouth Fury was just moments ahead of Rosco, who barreled around the turn next. Enos and Cletus followed shortly behind.
MaryAnne cut her engine about the same point where the Dukes had. The General’s orange hide was ahead, parked off the road. She coasted up to the Dodge Charger and parked next to it, leaving room for the rest of the Sheriff’s Department to line up.
Bo and Luke were crouched down outside of the General. MaryAnne took a position next to them, looking at the mill. They each held their silence and waited until Rosco, Enos and Cletus were gathered around, giving everyone a chance to examine the scene for themselves.
The river’s endless, timid burble against the broken mill was the only sound. The ancient sawmill stood resolutely against time, somehow refusing to cave in to it. The two cars nearby, one Chevrolet and one Cadillac - sat empty. With no lights glowing from the mill, the situation was impossible to gauge.
“Any sign of life?” MaryAnne whispered tensely.
“Nothin’s moved since we’ve been here,” Bo whispered back.
“Jit...MaryAnne, I don’t like it,” Rosco said quietly.
“Me either,” Enos whispered. “We go rushin’ in, we might put somebody in danger…”
“If we wait, we could be lettin’ somebody get into danger,” Cletus said worriedly.
MaryAnne considered everything and summed it up. “Goddammit...”
***** ***** ***** *****
The cigarette was burning down slow, and Brian nursed it just enough to keep it lit. He tapped the ash into his palm and pocketed it. Bruno stood across from him, sweating and swearing. “You’re one crazy son-of-a…”
“I know,” Brian admitted. “Goes with the territory.”
“Look, man. We can talk about this. It wasn’t my idea…”
“It was Mancini’s,” Brian growled. “You apparently liked it.”
Bruno stammered out excuses, watching the smoldering cigarette. He couldn’t let Brian drop it, so he couldn’t shoot. He couldn’t lunge and take the cigarette away without risking it hitting the ground. The only thing he could do was keep talking and let the thing burn out. Once it was extinguished, Brian would hold no threat. The moment there was no glowing ember, Brian would be dead.
Brian, listening to Bruno with half an ear, knew the same thing. It didn’t matter. He already had confirmation of his suspicions. Bruno had set him up.
Another short puff on the cigarette, and Brian continued to glare at Bruno with dark, cold eyes as the smoke curled up in a wispy strand. The cigarette was getting down to the filter. Bruno watched it with fascination, waiting for his opportunity.
Brian took the cigarette from his teeth, looking at it resignedly. “Guess it’s time we said goodbye, ain’t it…”
***** ***** ***** *****
Outside, the law and the Dukes watched the sawmill with growing unease. MaryAnne made a decision. “I’m going in. Rosco, cover me….”
There was a sudden, gusting whiff of sound, and the sawmill was abruptly glowing from within. Flames licked up the sides of the ramshackle building, tongues of fire darting between the boards. Flickering, deadly light was joined with the smell of burning fuel, and low crackles filled the night as the wooden structure grew ablaze.
MaryAnne screamed and ran straight for it. Rosco was on her heels. “NO! Sweetheart, you can’t go in there!” Unheeding, MaryAnne ran faster. The Dukes took to the chase, and fleet as deer, they cut MaryAnne off and held her back. She fought their grasp frantically.
“MaryAnne! No! You can’t help him!” Luke yelled. “You’ll only get yourself killed!”
The heat from the flaming structure fanned at them. Held fast in the Duke’s arms, MaryAnne watched the flames reach for the roof. “Brian…” she choked out, hope fleeing her heart.
Rosco took her from the Dukes and held her tightly, turning her so that she no longer faced the fire. MaryAnne let out a small sob into his chest.
***** ****** ***** *****
The flames consumed the old mill with insatiable hunger. The interior of the blaze was like being inside the eye of hell. In a matter of seconds, heat permeated the air and made it impossible to breathe.
Brian had moved the instant he tossed the cigarette into the fuel-soaked sawdust. He lunged at Bruno and knocked the big man to the floor, grappling for the gun. The fire streaked up the walls and engulfed the old mill quickly, traveling rapidly along the areas that were saturated from Diablo’s tank. The center of the floor, where the two men fought, was the only area free from the fire – but it too was being engulfed from the edge, the flames eating their way inward along the sawdust floor.
Brian fought with determined fury. Bruno was larger, heavier, and he couldn’t afford to let his opponent win. Given the pace of the fire, however, it was very possible both men would lose.
Bruno fought wildly. He didn’t care about anything but escape and getting Brian away from him. His former friend was attacking him with savage force, punching hard and going for the face. Bruno’s fighting experience kept him conscious, but even then he could only block a few of the blows. He was losing, and the heat was suffocating him, making him weak. Brian was after his gun, and if he got it, Bruno had no chance.
The knowledge gave Bruno terror-struck inspiration. He blocked Brian’s next punch with his left and went for the gun with his right, going for the draw. Rather than take the risk of trying to shoot and having the gun turned on himself, he simply pistol-whipped Brian as he drew the weapon. Brian’s head snapped back from the blow and Bruno shoved him off, kicking away and scrambling to his feet.
The blazing surroundings confused Bruno and he saw no escape. Coughing and wheezing, he made his own, bull-rushing through the flaming doors. The boards gave way and he fell through to the other side, hitting the ground rolling. He got up and ran for his Cadillac, leaving Brian, and any thoughts of Mancini’s bounty, far behind.
The sound of the crashing lumber drew the Duke’s attention. “LOOK!” Bo shouted, pointing to the running figure. Bruno was sprinting for the Cadillac, and he made it to the car before anyone knew what was happening.
The sound of the Caddy’s engine awoke Rosco’s wrath. “GET HIM!” he snarled to Enos and Cletus, who drew their weapons and fired, aiming for tires. The Cadillac pulled away, the shots pinging off the low-slung chassis. Enos and Cletus ran for their cars to give chase.
MaryAnne bolted from Rosco, and this time nothing was going to stop her from that sawmill. “MARYANNE!” Rosco yelled, fearing that he’d lost one cousin and was about to lose the other. “GIT BACK!”
The mill’s roof was burning and small pieces of it were starting to fall down inside. Bo and Luke, who had been ready to join the chase on Bruno, found themselves running after MaryAnne again. “MaryAnne! WAIT!”
She halted at the remains of the doors, which had collapsed altogether with Bruno’s exit, and were now nothing more than part of a tremendous bonfire. She couldn’t see past the flames. “BRIAN!” She screamed desperately. “BRIAAAAN!”
The scream sounded like it was a mile away, but Brian heard it, dimly. Dazed and uncomprehending, he pushed himself up from the floor, heaving with the effort to breathe. Everything was on fire. Pieces of flaming lumber were starting to rain down from the roof, adding to the chaos.
“BRIAN!!” MaryAnne shouted again, standing too close to the fire for her own safety. She refused to budge. The Dukes were trying to pull her away, and Rosco was yelling at them all to get back, get back, but his own voice called out Brian’s name in the same desperation.
Brian turned to face the direction of the voices. There was a wall of flame in that direction, same as everywhere else. Well, what the hell. Either he was hallucinating or it was Coltrane luck. He pulled his jacket up to protect himself and took a running start. Overhead, the burning roof creaked and fell apart, spilling chunks of fire. Brian dodged the fallout and leapt towards the flaming wall with a yell. “AAAAAAHHHHH!!!”
Crashing, splintering noise and a loud whoosh of fire announced the end of the sawmill. Brian felt himself hit the wooden barrier and break through it, but the sky seemed to be literally falling with ash and flame. The force of his landing knocked the wind out of him, and he wasn’t safe yet.
Hands lifted his shoulders and hoisted him up, and he felt himself being carried away from the inferno’s wake. The clean night air bathed him in oxygen and Brian breathed it in with heavy gulps, his bearings slowly returning. Finally, he was gently eased to the ground, and given a chance to recover himself. “Man…that was close, huh?” he said with a cough, looking up to the faces looming over him.
MaryAnne and Rosco were starting down at him with a mixture of complete relief and utter exasperation. They each wore the “you-damn-near-gave-us-heart-failure-look”, and seemed torn between hugging him and kicking him in the butt.
“Howdy,” Brian said with a weak grin, standing up to face them.
MaryAnne shot a serious gaze back at Brian, not knowing whether to yell at him now or save it all up for later. Later, she decided, and flung her arms around him. Yes, he was a fool, but he was her kin.
A deep-sounding va-hooom sounded from the direction of the sawmill. The Dukes had been thoughtful enough to rescue Diablo from the proximity of the fire, and Brian found their act of kindness deeply touching. Saving his life was one thing, but his car….now that was neighborly.
MaryAnne released Brian and tossed him into Rosco, who gave him a gruff embrace. “Ya damn fool,” Rosco muttered.
“Awwww…hell,” Brian chuckled. “I feel the same way about you, Sheriff…”
Rosco shoved Brian away lightly, both of them grinning. The Dukes brought Diablo up next to the patrol cars and the General Lee. Brian walked towards the cars, his cousins flanking him. In front of them, the Dukes sat on Diablo’s doors, speculating aloud on how the car would look painted orange.
“Pretty bad,” Luke ventured.
“Awful,” Bo agreed. “Let’s do it.”
“Y’all hush and get the hell off my car,” Brian yelled at them merrily.
***** ***** ***** *****
The Boar’s Nest was crowded again. MaryAnne and Daisy had their hands full with their waitress duties, and they bustled among the tables with full trays. The beer was flowing steadily, the music was blaring from the jukebox, and the tips were adding up handsomely.
MaryAnne felt content. She cast a quick glance over at a large group of customers seated near the corner. Two tables had been pushed together to accommodate a group of regulars, and at the end of the table sat Brian, telling some story or another about an incredible escape from the law. Around him sat Bo and Luke and their uncle Jesse, along with Cooter Davenport. Enos and Cletus, off-duty, had joined them. Rosco, who was on duty but was hanging around because he was the Sheriff and he could get away with it, also sat with them, his occasional “khee!” drifting across the Boar’s Nest.
MaryAnne caught bits and pieces of Brian’s story as she worked. “So there I was,” she heard him say, “Caught between two roadblocks on each end of the bridge. There musta been forty cops there…”
She shook her head and smiled. Some things would never change. Briefly, a spark of worry flashed into the base of her mind, arguing with her that everything changed sooner or later. Brian was fitting into Hazzard, but he had a long way to go in some respects. Lord knew what tomorrow held with him. Never a dull moment…
She thought of Brian’s old friend, Bruno. He had escaped Enos and Cletus, and had apparently found a way to evade the eyes of the State Patrol and the Atlanta Police. He was likely back in Atlanta, drinking beer with the Syndicate, while Brian sat here at the Boar’s Nest, worlds apart. Based on the manner of their parting, MaryAnne suspected that Bruno wouldn’t chance Brian’s goodwill again.
Hopefully, Brian had learned a lesson in all this. Earlier today, MaryAnne and Rosco had a long talk with their cousin – during which Brian admitted that MaryAnne had been right all along, and that he should have cooperated with them. He had felt compelled to find out if Bruno was for him or against him in his own way, he’d explained. It was personal.
When MaryAnne had told Brian about Bruno making good on his escape from Hazzard, her cousin had only shrugged in apparent unconcern. He didn’t expect to ever see Bruno again. The complex world of Syndicate loyalty and mutual betrayal forever bound their past, but Brian had a new life, and new friends, in which to console himself.
Brian’s voice was carrying over, interrupting MaryAnne’s thoughts. She caught another part of his story. “I couldn’t get through that roadblock, so I did the only thing I could. I stopped Diablo in the middle of the bridge, held up my hands, and walked over to the side. I climbed up on top of the guard-rail, and told ‘em if they didn’t throw down their weapons, I’d jump into the river! Now mind ya, the same cops that were gonna blow my head off a minute ago were suddenly worried about me drowning…”
Laughter burst from around the table, and MaryAnne couldn’t hear the rest. She looked over to see Brian standing up on his chair, illustrating his story. He jumped off it and rolled under the table, to the hoots of his audience. Shortly thereafter, he popped up from underneath a different table altogether, causing the ladies sitting there to give a little squeal of surprise. Brian scooped one of them up into his arms and put a drinking straw in his teeth, readying an impromptu tango. He caught MaryAnne’s glance across the Boar’s Nest and nodded towards the jukebox, asking for a tune.
MaryAnne smiled. Fine, she’d humor him. She dug out a quarter and dropped it in, picking out a song. When it started, Brian froze, looked back at her in amazement, then grinned widely and started to move to the music.