81 Charlie MoPic

The fog swirls up from the road like cream in your coffee, and the miles don’t stop to catch their breath. It’s late. You’ve got Warren Zevon’s “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” just as loud as it’ll go, singing along at the top of your lungs in an attempt to stay awake:

“Through sixty-six and seven/ they fought the Congo war/ With their fingers on their triggers/knee-deep in gore.”

After awhile, you turn on the CB for company, a box that squawks a language all its own. As you drive, you occasionally glance down to double check the map on your right thigh, steering with one hand, drinking lots of coffee with the other. The windows are rolled down and cool night air pours in. A store-bought air freshener of a pin-up girl hangs from the overhead console, jumping and jolting in the breeze.

You haven’t had a proper sleep in two days in an effort to make this drop. But something else is bothering you, and there’s only one person you can think of smart enough tell you what you already know; that you shouldn’t be hauling whatever you’re hauling. You turn down Warren, and thumb the big red button on the CB mike.

“Crazy Driver, Crazy Driver, this is 81 Charlie MoPic, got your ears on, come back?”

There’s nobody out there tonight but the squeal of high-powered distortion, and the wavering voices of a lonely widowers in stained t-shirts armed with powerful radios reading passages aloud from the Good Book. It gives you the creeps. The fog is getting thicker, so you shift down and ease up on the gas.

Thumb it again. “Crazy Driver, Crazy Driver, 81 Charlie MoPic, gotcher ears on? Come back.”

Bzzzt, crack… “Mercy sakes and rattle snakes, 81, old son! Where ya been? Ain’t heard from you since we near flipped that rollin’ refinery shiny-side down on the way to Shaky City two months back! How you be? Over.”

“Here and there, Crazy. You know me. Hot cup of hundred-mile heavy, and I’m moving like a raped ape, wheels turnin’ as fast as I can get the little fuckers to spin. How me? Come back.” You try to sound happy-go-lucky, mentally commanding the butterflies in your stomach to fly in one direction, only.

“There you go, 81, there you go. Got you wall-to-wall and treetop tall, breaking my needle. Damn good to hear you, over.”

“Likewise, likewise. What’s your twenty, Crazy? On back.”

“Matter of fact, I’m fillin’ out my comic book in a pickle park this side of Windy City, wishing like hell I could set fire to the toothpicks I picked up in Bean Town… just made the acquaintance of a fine young lot lizard, 81. Turns out she’s got a dress for sale and it’s just my size, awright awright… Smokey’s thick out here, looks like somebody spilled honey down the road a spell, come back.”

“All right, all right. Sounds good, Crazy. Listen, I’d love to flap gums with you, but it’s about, uh, 10-34 my time. What say we walk on up to Triple Harley’s for a minute? Over.”

“Uh, roger that, MoPic. I’ve got… uh, 10-12 here. Gimme time to change my seat cover… Out.”

Wherever Crazy Driver was tonight, he was probably asking himself what was so goddamned important that it had to be discussed it on a private channel. You turn the selector down a few clicks and key up again.

“Crazy Driver, Crazy Driver, you there? Come back.”

“We’re listening, son. Why the cloak and dagger? You cost me big. I was this close to an all-you-can-eat breakfast at the Y.”

“Sorry for the trouble, just don’t want nobody reading my mail. I think I got a mystery load.”

“Ha! Seems I was just tryin’ to get rid of my load, 81! Didn’t yer momma give you The Birds and Bees Talk?” His barking laugh sounds like an avalanche of sand and broken glass on a tin roof.

“That’s mighty funny and all, but I’m serious. Think I got me a UFO.”

The air is silent for some time. When Crazy keys again, his tone has changed.

“You sure?”

“If I’m lying, I’m dying. Well, shit. I can’t know for sure. The rep paid me twenty-five large to shake his hand and ask no questions, over.”

More silence.

“You gone, Crazy? Come back.”

“Oh I hear you, ya dumb bastard. Just watchin’ a buncha four-legged go-go dancers chase away my concrete blonde. Shit, MoPic. Why’d ya have to go and do a dumb damn thing like this fer? You got peanut butter in your ears? I know I didn’t teach you that trick. Hot loads ain’t worth it, boy. Johnny Law gets it all, and the Devil take the hindmost. You hurtin’ for money, or just common sense, come back?”

I let the road feed bumps of painted cocaine to the nose of my rig while I formed my response. “Took it same as you would, Crazy. Bills to pay, food on the table. The cost of life. Speaking of, how’s your better half? You getting beaver fever already, come back?” You hope this change of subject will lighten the mood.

It doesn’t.

“Uh, the lovely young bitch in question done run off with a Hog daddy and took my credit cards with her. And don’t change the fucking subject!” growled Crazy Driver. “You seriously got no idea who’s picking up the tab on this X box?”

“Negative on that, Crazy. I get the rest after I drop trailer and bobtail out. Listen, I don’t know if it’s really hot, per say, but it don’t feel right, you know? First I get a shiny quarter for showing up. And when I pulled into a scale house a ways back, the chicken inspector takes one look at my invite and stamps me straight to heaven. It’s a locked reefer car, but it rides empty. I got a whole lot of hush-hush locked away back there and there ain’t a body that seems to want to answer a one of ‘em. What do you make of it, over?”

Another long pause.

“You running shotgun?” There was a growing concern in his voice.

“Negative, speak easy.”

“You think its drugs?”

“What kinda high needs a reefer ride to the middle of Moses?”

“Guns?”

“Damn too few to do any good the way this pig’s riding.”

“Paper?”

“There’s easier ways to do your banking, over.”

“Shit…” There’s a long hiss as Crazy exhales over a Marlboro. “What’s your twenty?”

“Let’s just say I’m on the magic mile to the drop, over.”

“Guess I don’t really need to know that. You say it’s an ice box?”

“And locked up tight like prom queen thighs.”

“I dunno, Charlie. Could be anything, might be nothin’. You listen to what old Crazy tells you for a change. Do what you gotta do, but see to it you’re hammer down and pecker in the wind, and not a minute later, copy? Over.”

“Lima Charlie, over.” I understood his meaning, loud and clear.

“I mean it, son!” There was a force to his words. “Don’t stop for groceries and damn sure stay ahead of the meat wagon. Keep a sharp eye peeled for bears and give me a shout right after you drop. I’ve got some time on the books. Once I drop this load, I’ll deadhead on down and meet you at that chew ‘n choke near 270 East of Bikini State, where I will PERSONALLY kick your dick in the dirt for making me fret. Over.”

“Roger that, Crazy.”

“Don’t ‘Roger’ me, boy, I mean it! Watch your donkey. You’re likely to get yourself a severe case of ‘dead’, at the very least. I expect to hear from you soonest.”

“Roger wilco, Crazy. Momma didn’t raise no fool. I’ll shout you in a few hours, and we’ll make short-short for seaside suds. Three’s and eight’s, Crazy Driver, much obliged. 81 Charlie MoPic out.”

“Crazy Driver, tried, died, and on the side…”

You hang the mike up and turn the radio off in order to collect your thoughts. In a nutshell, you’ve been given $25,000 to deliver a refrigerated mystery trailer to the middle of nowhere, after which, you’re supposed to unhook and drive away. You’ll collect $25,000 more when it’s done, no questions asked. It could be a trap, except you don’t know of anyone with that kind of power, or that kind of grudge. You’re just a stupid truck driver…

Doesn’t this shit only happen in the movies?

What if there’s no money waiting for you? Well, then why would someone spend $25,000 for a set up? Maybe there’s someone waiting to kill you and get the money back. But how do they know you haven’t already spent it? Christ, you’re only human, you got bills to pay just like anyone else. Half that money went in the bank. The rest of it went toward putting your wallet in the black for the first time since you left home.

So, if it’s not a trap or a smoking gun, then just what the hell are you carrying? The hair on the back of your neck is standing up, but your t-shirt is sticking to your back. You turn the AC down, knowing that’s not the real cause.

The trailer feels empty, jumping and bumping over every pothole in the road, which twists and turns its way through a series of faceless, sleepy towns. The road sings a sleepy lullaby to each of your eighteen wheels, and you pour yourself another cup of Joe, all the while shifting up a gear, and pressing down on the gas. Ten minutes later, the road terminates at a concrete pad deep in the woods.

This is it.

You set the brake, and jump out of your rig. First, turn the crank until the support struts touch down, accepting the weight of the trailer with a quiet groan. Next, disconnect the nest of multi-colored lines and hoses that marry tractor to trailer. Sliding behind the wheel, you edge the cab forward slowly until you feel the familiar jolt of the trailer sliding free of the fifth wheel.

Crossing the pad to a small utility shed, you open the locked tool shed using the key the shipper gave you and throw a breaker switch on the wall, which activates a set of halogen floodlights aimed toward the sky. Lock the door and slide the key in through a narrow window. Listen as it hits the floor.

That’s it. You’ve just earned an easy $25,000.

Looking around, you still can’t figure it out. The perimeter lights are pointed straight up, lighting the forest like some Hollywood premiere. There’s no one here, no one’s popping out the trees threatening your money or your life. All you have to do is climb into your truck and drive away.

So why don’t you do it?

You climb into the rig and put it in gear, determined to forget the whole thing. Just get out of these woods, call the number on the envelope to have the money deposited, and give Crazy a shout so he doesn’t have a heart attack. Next stop, Florida. Seventy-two hours from now, you’ll be flirting up that cute little waitress, the one with the dragon tattoo running up her thigh.

But you can’t do it.

Without knowing why you pull off to the side of the road about a hundred yards later and start making excuses to yourself. All the while, you’re glancing in the side mirrors, watching the light show in the woods behind you, illuminating the fog for miles around like an alien encounter. You realize you’re scared of something, but you don’t know what.

You climb out to take a thundering piss, still contemplating the mystery trailer and wondering why the hell anyone would want it delivered to the middle of Buttfuck without a dock or a forklift, or even someone to sign for it. The questions are eating holes through your head.

Just as you’re climbing back into the rig, the lights on the pad behind you wink out. The woods are plunged into darkness.

When you’ve finished shitting yourself, you shut down the engine, grab the .45 from the glove box and the flashlight from the toolbox. “I’m just doing the responsible thing,” you tell yourself as you hurry along. “I’m protecting my cargo.”

When you arrive, you find the trailer empty and the doors unlocked. The door of the shed is wide open, the envelope gone. The heavy chain blocking the entrance to a winding path leading into the forest is swaying gently. Something big brushed it, and not too long ago. No tracks, no signs. You’d only been gone a few minutes. You can probably get a peek at whatever made it move.

If you still want to.

Without thinking, you step over the chain and head up the path. You know this is a stupid idea. You’ve done everything they’ve asked you to, everything Crazy told you not to, and now you’re throwing away the easiest $50,000 you’ve ever earned. But you don’t care. You just have to know.

After stumbling along the twisting path for about ten minutes, the opening narrows, terminating in a neatly carved doorway in the side of a mountain face. It looks likes it’s been here awhile, and it’s only big enough for one person to walk through at a time. That’s a relief. It limits the size of whatever moved through here last.

Your hands are shaking as you peek into the tunnel, not sure of what might be peeking back. The beam of your light paints a subway of pearl white light, and you take a deep breath to steady your nerves before entering. The rock walls are stale, and cool.

A short distance later, the beam from the light falls on a faded yellow line, and the sight makes your heart skip a beat. A few steps further still, the tunnel widens and ends. You play the beam around your feet. You’re standing on a section of road leading straight into the night, a road that dead ends into the face of a mountain. Shivering uncontrollably from the cold night air, you thumb the safety off, and walk forward…

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