Tanner Brogdon carries a shotgun. He handles it like his riot baton, twisting and readjusting his grip, fighting against the anxious sweat under the black leather gloves. In the reflection of the driver’s side window of the dusty yellow pick-up truck, he’s a figure in a tan jacket over dark blue coveralls with an evergreen ski mask, revealing an abstract image of a face, eyes and lips protruding from holes in the appropriate places—red, white, and intent.
He closes in on the pick-up truck driver, who isn’t looking his way. The driver’s attention is toward the front of the truck, focused on Tanner’s partner, Daniel, standing there, dressed the same as Tanner, pointing a long-barrel silver pistol. Daniel touches the tip of the index finger of his free hand to his pursed lips, shushing the man. From their surveillance, they know the driver’s name is Earl.
The truck is the only one with a camper shell at the Mcdonald’s parking lot over the highway near Vinita. The camper shell is a sun-washed white, dented and rusted, with a cardboard-covered back window. It’s early, three o’clock, still dark. Business is slow before the morning highway rush. The parking lot is near empty with dormant semi-trucks, still, like sleeping dragons, and a few cars. Light poles dot the lot like hunched sentinels and cast harsh white glares across the paint and glass of the vehicles.
Earl, in blue jeans and a Carhart jacket, mumbles a half-believing, “what the hell?”
Then Tanner’s on him, marching in giant, hurried strides. The shotgun slams into Earl’s back, Tanner’s weight and momentum behind it. It drums the driver loose from his frozen stupor, causing him to drop his hot cup of coffee, which splashes across his feet. The guy is wedged between Tanner’s compressed bulk and the truck.
Grimacing like they do in the movies to make his voice deeper, Tanner says, “Keys? Where are the keys?”
Earl tries to push away from the truck to turn to look at Tanner, but Tanner flicks a wrist and clips the bridge of his nose with the shotgun’s barrel.
“Don’t you fucking move,” Tanner says, shoulder-shoving Earl into the truck. Earl groans. He tries to look without moving his body, but Tanner nudges him again, adding a knee strike to the back of Earl’s fat thigh. The blow knocks him off balance. Tanner threatens, “Don’t look at me.”
Tanner doesn’t say, but his actions imply:
Don’t fight back. Surrender. Know when you’re beat.
The element of surprise is a powerful thing; it overwhelms. This isn’t the first time for Tanner; other drivers were like this. They start tough, then come to realize what exactly is going on. Already, Tanner can feel the shivers of fear raking Earl’s body, but he can tell Earl isn’t the type to roll over without an extra incentive.
Daniel provides that. He stomps forward and pistol whips Earl in the face. Tanner pushes Earl tighter against the truck to keep him from falling to the pavement. Earl sags, Tanner lifts.
“Where are the keys?” Daniel doesn’t give Earl time to answer, and pistol whips him again, opening a large gash on Earl’s head.
Earl stammers out an answer, lips quivering, snot and blood running down his face. “My pocket.”
“Which one?” Tanner asks, constricting Earl’s movements.
“You cut me open. What the fuck?” Earl squeezes his eyes shut. “What do you mean, which one? They’re in my pocket. Don’t fucking hit me anymore. You want them; take them.”
“Which one, dumb fuck?” Daniel demands. Eyes searching Earl.
“Left or right,” Tanner adds, increasing the pressure against Earl’s back. Earl’s body tenses. Tanner tells him. “Don’t move for them, just tell us.”
“Jesus,” Earl starts but then thinks better of it. “Left pocket,” he shouts. “Left pocket.”
Daniel slips his hand into Earl’s left jeans pocket to fish out the keys.
Earl says, “do you know who owns this truck?”
Daniel yanks the keys from Earl’s pocket, ripping the man’s pants. He shows the keys to Tanner. They’re shiny in the parking lot lights. Daniel wraps his hand around the keys, making a fist.
“Why do you think we’re here?” Tanner says.
Earl spits snot and blood on the ground. “They’re going to kill you. Both of you.”
Daniel laughs. He can’t help himself.
This load belongs to Fat Tommy and Short Philly, and from what Tanner understands, they’re running it as contractors for some Siriano adjunct. Old man Siriano is done, going to prison. Oklahoma’s quickly becoming a new Wild West.
Daniel says, “If they are going to kill us, they would have done it the first time we did this. They would have taken some precautions.”
Tanner adds, “but they didn’t.”
“Because they don’t care about you,” Daniel says as if he’s offering a revelation of salvation so that a sinner may know the truth. He’s pretty convincing. “They’re like Walmart; they make money no matter. When they win, they’re making money, and when they lose, they’re making money. What they aren’t doing is paying you enough money to act like a hardass.”
Tanner doesn’t know much about Daniel. He’s seen him around, but he doesn’t know his full name and doesn’t know how Daniel likes his coffee or what, if anything, he wants on his pancakes. Outside of here, these moments, they don’t talk. They don’t interact–all Tanner knows about Daniel is he’s old enough to have gone straight for a time, then decided to come back into the life. Outside of these jobs, this being the third hijacking this month, they don’t associate. Just as Daniel doesn’t know details about Tanner beyond his first name, like he doesn’t know Tanner is a deputy or Tanner’s struggled with opiate addiction. How breaking an ankle in high school football led to Lortabs, how Lortabs led to oxy, and how that eventually led to the German. Not that Tanner can’t control the addiction. Most of the time, he can. That’s why he works out. But it’s always there. An itch begging for attention.
The German is what connects them and their third associate, the deadbeat Jeremy, who Tanner remembers as a dirty, stringy-haired kid from high school a couple of grades back. He’s their driver and sitting in his big green boat on the other side of the building, waiting for the truck to roll out.
The German plans and finances these hijackings, using men he has something on. The German knows whose marijuana loads these are, and that’s why Tanner and company are hitting them.
Tanner shifts his weight and position and aims a second knee strike, this time at Earl’s balls while scraping the shotgun up Earl’s spine and knocking the butt against the back of Earl’s head.
With the pistol still pointed at Earl, Daniel reaches forward while Tanner lets off Earl some, grabbing his jacket’s hood with one hand and dragging him a step back so Daniel can open the driver’s side door. Tanner shoves Earl into the single cab pickup and prods him across the seat. Already, Daniel’s at the passenger side, the door flung open, grabbing for Earl’s arm, yanking him toward the middle of the cab while loading up into the passenger seat himself. Daniel shoves the pistol into Earl’s side and tells him to stay still. Daniel reaches across Earl and inserts the keys into the ignition, turning them. Tanner slips in behind the steering wheel. He stores the shotgun barrel down on his left side, protecting it from any brave and stupid move from Earl. Foot on the clutch, Tanner puts the truck in gear as he closes the driver’s side door.
The truck with the three men snuggly in the cab slips around the building, heading west toward Tulsa. The opposite of Earl’s route out of state. They followed him from the warehouse to here, where he stopped to take a piss and get some coffee.
As they leave, Jeremy’s green Marquis falls in behind them, three car lengths back.
Tanner takes the first country road exit and goes a ways before turning around on the semi-gravel road typical of Oklahoma backcountry. He shifts the lever to park.
Daniel exits the vehicle, jerking the silent, rigid Earl across the passenger seat and onto the grass embankment.
“Lie there,” Daniel says. “Facedown.”
On his hands and knees, looking up at Daniel, Earl grimaces but complies. He turns face down into the grass.
“Hands over your head,” Daniel commands. Earl obeys. “It’s just marijuana. It’s not your marijuana, don’t die over it.”
Daniel waits to see if Earl will argue or agree.
When the man doesn’t say anything, Daniel says, “I don’t want to hear about this on the news. We know who you are. We know where you work and who lives with you. I’m not fucking with you. No news. No headlines. Your bosses don’t want the attention either. Call this the price of doing business. Count to sixty—slow—and then take your happy ass home.”
With that, Daniel climbs back into the cab of the truck. He slams the door. He rolls down the window and pulls his ski mask off his head.
“Remember, sixty—slow.” Daniel pauses, staring at Earl in the grass. “Do it out loud, so I know you’re counting.”
Earl shifts from silence to saying the numbers out loud. He’s already at three. “Four…five…six.”
Daniel says, “good.”
Tanner lifts his mask to his forehead and pops the clutch, letting the truck idle forward. He slips it into gear. By the time Earl should be on thirty, Tanner’s been counting at the same cadence in his head; they’re back on the highway.
Mark Atley is the author of The Olympian, American Standard, Too Late To Say Goodbye, and the forthcoming Trouble Weighs a Ton and A Bright Young Man, as well as a handful of short fiction. Mark works as a detective for a suburb of Tulsa, OK, and has dedicated his life to crime. Check out markatley.com for more information or follow him on Twitter: @mark_atley.