The garishly colored neon sign announcing “Bailey’s Come Back Inn” and the booming of the bass coming from the band inside could easily be seen and heard from the road.
The gravel parking lot was full, leaving patrons no choice but to park on the patchy snow on the lawn near the building.
Though it had started to snow and he was still miles from a warm bed, Alex Redford turned into the lot and parked up on the lawn.
“What’ll it be?” asked the bartender.
“I’ll have a pint of craft beer,” said Alex. “The darker the better.”
Behind the bar, a chalkboard stated:
FRIDAY NITE FISH FRY
5:00 TO 9:00
And below that:
“FRIDAY AND SATURDAY NITES
9:00 TO 2:00
BOBBY’S CAJUN ROCKERS
Apparently they didn’t mix their fish with their live music at Bailey’s.
It was 8:45. The band had finished setting up and was now doing the “test, test” into the mics.
Still scanning the bar, Alex’s eyes came to rest on a sign above the back bar:
NOT TO EXCEED 175 PERSONS
Someone had used a black magic marker to add a “1” before the 175, thereby giving the bar plenty of room for customers on Friday and Saturday nights.
Out of the corner of his eye, Alex saw someone step up to the bar next to him.
A young woman carrying a large duffel bag motioned for the bartender to come over.
“Can you call a cab to come from the city for me, Ned?”
“Cabs don’t come out here from the city no more, Amanda,” said Ned. “Too long a drive one way without a fare. And before you ask, nobody here’s gonna give you a ride, either. You oughta know that, right?”
Amanda nodded slightly and hung her head.
“Hey, Amanda,” said a voice behind Alex. “Ronnie know yer here?”
“I guess he probably does now,” said Amanda looking at Ned who was now talking on the phone.
“I’d sure hate to be you tonight,” said the voice as the guy walked away.
“Yeah, it’s a bitch bein’ me all right,” said Amanda under her breath.
Having taken this all in, Alex now turned to the woman.
“There’s a dark blue sedan with Illinois plates parked up on the lawn just outside the door,” he said. “I’m gonna get back on I-90 and then go west.
“If you’re going that way and need a ride, go out to the car and wait for me. I’ll be about two minutes.”
Alex had said all this very quietly while the bass player and the drummer were still checking out their instruments. By the way Amanda stared at him without moving he wasn’t sure she had heard him.
Amanda had heard him; she was just weighing her options.
She gave him a brief nod and headed for the door.
“See ya, Amanda,” called the jerk who had spoken to her earlier.
Alex waited a bit so it wouldn’t seem as though they were leaving together. His intuition told him he didn’t need to get into it with this Ronnie guy. But he wanted to.
When he got outside he saw Amanda waiting by the passenger side door. He unlocked the doors with his key fob and walked around to the driver side.
“Where ya think you’re goin’, Amanda,” called the guy who had talked to her in the bar.
“Get in the car,” said Alex to Amanda. “I’ll just be a second.”
Alex intercepted the guy, Arnie Sutton, and put a hand on his chest. “Go sit on that concrete slab over by the building,” he said. “Don’t go back inside until we’re well down the road. If I come back to check and you’re gone, I’ll come in and find you.”
Arnie wound up to take a roundhouse swing at Alex. Alex easily blocked the telegraphed punch and planted a right jab onto Arnie’s nose. There was a “crack,” followed by a gush of blood and a howl from Arnie.
“You broke by dose,” Arnie yelled.
“You should’ve just sat down when I told you to,” said Alex. “Now do it.”
Holding his nose with both hands, Arnie stumbled over to the slab and sat down.
Alex got in the car and waited for Amanda to get settled in on her side.
“Ready?” he asked as he buckled up.
Amanda looked out the windshield at Arnie sitting on the slab, still holding his nose.
“Who are you?” she asked without looking at Alex.
“Oh, yeah,” said Alex, extending his hand to her. “I’m Alex.”
Turning, Amanda looked at Alex’s hand and then into his eyes.
“No, I mean, who are you?”
“Just a guy who sometimes doesn’t mind his own business,” said Alex as he drove out of the lot.
The exit ramp was just a mile down the road. Alex took it, and since the snow was still fairly light, accelerated to 70 MPH.
“Is Sturgis where you were trying to get a cab to come from and give you a ride?” asked Alex. “It’s coming right up; I can drop you wherever you want there or you can ride west with me.”
When Alex looked over at Amanda he saw she was aiming a .22 at him.
“I need to know more about you before I ride past Sturgis,” said Amanda. “I’m not gettin’ out of a bad situation only to get into a worse one.”
“We’re going 70 miles an hour, Amanda. Think about what would happen if you pulled that trigger.”
Amanda glanced out the windshield at the large snowflakes illuminated by the headlights and the highway disappearing under the car.
“Now,” said Alex, reaching into his jacket. “If I were to shoot you going 70 miles an hour, not much would change at all.”
Amanda turned and stared at the.38 pointed at her.
“So, if you’ll just put that back in your bag,” said Alex. “We’ll get back to talking about how far west you want to go.”
Amanda put the pistol back into her bag and stared at the dash.
Neither said anything until the highway signs and billboards started announcing Sturgis.
“I’m gonna go through Sturgis and stop at a Hampton Inn in Spearfish,” said Alex. “You need to decide what you’re gonna do. I was trying to help you out back there because you appeared to be in a bind. But since you chose to show your gratitude by pulling a gun on me, I’m not sure we’re all that compatible.”
“And if I decide to go on with you to Spearfish, just how will you be expectin’ me to show my gratitude?’” asked Amanda without looking up.
“I’ll get a room with two beds,” said Alex. “You can sleep in a bed, on the floor, or in the car.”
“And what do I have to do to sleep in the bed or on the floor?”
“You give me your pistol until we get as far as you want to go or until I can trust you.”
Amanda went back to staring at the dash. ”I’ll go to Spearfish,” she finally said, handing him the .22.
Alex woke up first and packed his things in his overnight bag. He took the bag with him into the bathroom, where after locking the door, he took a quick shower. He didn’t care one way or the other whether Amanda took the opportunity to leave.
“A good deed rarely goes unpunished,” he thought to himself as he dressed in the bathroom.
When he came out, Amanda was dressed, packed, and sitting on the bed. She had brushed her hair and looked a little better than she had the night before.
“We’ve got time if you want to clean up,” said Alex. “There’s soap and shampoo in there, and I’ve got some toothpaste.”
“Why you bein’ so nice to me?” asked Amanda.
“I guess you must’ve come from someplace pretty awful if you think I’m being all that nice,” said Alex. “I’m just being decent is all.”
Amanda sighed and took her bag into the bathroom, where she also locked the door. Now it was her turn to wonder. Would Alex still be there when she came out?
She found herself hoping he would be.
“Can I have my gun back?” asked Amanda.
They were sitting in a booth in a room off the hotel lobby having breakfast.
“Are you leaving?” asked Alex around a mouthful of sausage.
“Then you can’t have it back. Yet. We’ll see how today goes.”
“You never did say who you were,” said Amanda. “I’d feel better if I knew somethin’ about you.”
“If you mean what do I do for a living, I guess you could say I do things for people who don’t want to do those things themselves.”
“You’re a criminal?” asked Amanda.
“Not everything I do is criminal, but sometimes I’m pushed into being a little forceful. Most often I just have to explain things to folks so that they see the error of their ways.”
“You are a criminal,” said Amanda with a small smile.
“You think that’s funny?” asked Alex.
“Just reassurin’,” said Amanda. “Like if Ronnie were to come up to this booth right now to try and take me back home, you might just show him the error of his ways.”
“That I would, Amanda. That I would.”
It was a good day for driving. The snow had stopped by mid-morning and the interstate pavement in Montana was fairly dry by noon.
“We’ll stop in Missoula tonight and then be in Seattle late tomorrow afternoon if the roads stay dry,” said Alex when he saw that Amanda was awake from her after-lunch nap.”
Alex thought the Black Hills scenery and the approaching Rockies were beautiful. He guessed that having grown up with it, Amanda was used to it and had chosen to nap.
“What are we gonna do in Seattle?” asked Amanda.
“Well, I have a job to do,” said Alex. “You can use the time when I’m off doing that job to decide what you’re gonna do.”
“I’ve already decided some of what I’m gonna do,” said Amanda. “Tonight when we get to the hotel, I’m gonna take a shower and get a little dressed up. Then I’m gonna buy us dinner at someplace nice in Missoula. Not fancy; just nice. Ya know, someplace that doesn’t have a drive-thru window.”
Amanda laughed at her little joke and Alex thought this was a good sign. Even if she wasn’t completely comfortable with her situation, she no longer was scared to death.
“That all sounds fine to me,” said Alex, smiling at her. “But I was thinking that you should be deciding what you’re going to be doing with the rest of your life.”
“Well, I don’t know about the rest of my life,” said Amanda. “But for the immediate future I thought I’d like to ride with you.”
“We’ll see,” said Alex. While he sometimes wished for company when on long road trips between jobs, he didn’t think he’d be doing Amanda a favor by letting her hook up with him. Things often got a little dicey in his business.
Their hotel was just off the interstate. After getting cleaned up, Alex and Amanda had to drive into downtown Missoula to find “someplace nice” for dinner.
They decided on what appeared to be a family run Italian restaurant. Dinner was good and over dessert Amanda asked Alex if it would be all right if she slept in his bed with him that night.
Alex wasn’t sure if this meant Amanda was working on that rest of her life plan, but he decided to take things as they came for now. He thought that it was possible she didn’t have an agenda and was just taking things as they came herself.
He did want to see if she would open up a bit during tomorrow’s drive about Ronnie and whatever else she may be running away from. Alex found that it was good to know as much about a person’s background as you could if you intended to get close to them.
They had a light breakfast at the hotel and were on the road by 8:00.
“So, tell me a little about Ronnie,” said Alex. “He your boyfriend, husband, or what?”
“Boyfriend, I guess. We started dating when I was still in high school. He’s five years older than me. After I graduated I moved in with him. That was two years ago. That’s when I found out what an asshole he was.”
“Abusive?” asked Alex.
“Yeah, he was. And he thought he owned me,” said Amanda. “Wouldn’t even let me get a job. I just sat in that trailer of his out in the country all day watchin’ TV while he and his dirtball friends cooked meth and drank beer.”
“Well it’s good you left that situation, but I don’t know if it would be a good idea to go from him to me. My line of work can be dangerous.”
“I can handle a little “dangerous.””
“I suppose just living with Ronnie for two years would give you a little experience in that,” said Alex. “But I’m talking about having to deal with some pretty rough characters. Professionals; not just small-time druggies.”
“You remember yesterday at breakfast I told you I thought you could handle Ronnie if he were to come in and try to take me back?” asked Amanda.
“Yeah, and I told you I could,” said Alex.
“Well, that’s not gonna happen,” said Amanda. “An hour before I ran into you in the bar I shot Ronnie in the head with one of his own guns. I threw the gun into some woods on the way to the bar.
“The authorities won’t be lookin’ too hard for me because I phoned an old high school friend and told her I was leavin’ because I thought eventually one of Ronnie’s customers was going to kill him because of some bad meth he sold them. I told her I was scared I might get killed too.”
“What about that phone call the bartender made?” asked Alex. “Won’t that raise some red flags?”
“I took Ronnie’s phone when I left. I smashed it real good and threw the pieces under a trailer that’s been abandoned for years.”
“I may have underestimated you,” said Alex.
“That’s okay. People have been underestimatin’ me my whole life,” said Amanda. “Can I have my gun back? If we’re gonna be a team I should have it.”