The small sound of tires crunching on gravel awoke Shad Badger from a deep sleep. Leaving his wife Liz snoring at his side, he jumped out of bed, stole like a thief to the window, and shoved aside Liz's pretty, white curtains.
The sodium arc lamp, a few feet to the right of the window, produced a blinding, white light that was as bright as the sun at midday. Parked next to the tall, wooden pole, where the tiny strip of grass on that side of the house ended and the gravel parking lot of the Monotoning Hotel began, was a metallic-grey Malibu. The engine was still running and the door on the driver's side was flung open.
A small, shadowy figure in jeans and a shiny, white T-shirt, and a blood-red bandana tied Indian-style around his forehead, emerged from the car and stood there a moment, contemplating the side wall of the Hotel. He turned his head, glancing back down the alley. Shad's eyebrows shot upward and he froze in a mild state of shock at the sight of those cold, drug-dazed eyes and the leering, drunken grin on that pale, freckled face.
Shad located his cell phone on the nightstand, next to the bed, and quickly snapped Jimmy's picture, before his unsuspecting subject could turn away.
He continued to snap picture after picture, as Jimmy stalked across the short expanse of gravel and bounded up the two cement steps to the Hotel's side door. Jimmy huddled close against the door, with his shoulders bunched tight together and his head bowed. The door inched inward. Jimmy slipped like a shadow inside the deserted building.
And then, there was nothing. Just darkness, just silence.
His wife's voice drifted to him through the darkness. "Honey, what's wrong?"
"Call 911. Tell them someone just broke into the Hotel."
Jimmy exited the bar at last. He sauntered over to his car, as if he had all the time in the world. But he didn't get back in his car. He leaned his torso into the back seat. When he once again emerged into that cone of sterile, white light, he clutched a baseball bat in his right hand.
A car sat under a grey tarp, next to the dumpster, at the rear end of the old, barn-like structure. Jimmy ambled over, stopping short at the head of the trunk, on the left side of the trunk. Jimmy had a big, happy smile on his face.
Jimmy grabbed the short end of the bat in both hands and drew the wooden instrument as far back as he could take it. He sent it sailing forward with all the speed and power of a runaway freight train.
The bat struck the rear window. The tarp over the window billowed outward like a sail filling with air, and just as quickly, sank back into place.
Shad shook his head. "Your uncle Goody's not going to like that," he sang and laughed, as he gleefully shot another picture of Jimmy in action.
Jimmy back his bat a second time and a third. Apparently satisfied, he slung the bat over his right shoulder, strolled back to his car and got inside, slamming the door behind him.
While Jimmy had been skulking around inside the bar, his car's engine had stalled out. He cranked the starter unmercifully, but the engine stubbornly refused to turn over. He waited two seconds and tried again, with the same result. On his third attempt, the old engine roared like a lion.
Jimmy turned to his left and pulled up alongside his notorious uncle's wounded car and backed out slowly, careful not to inflict any further damage on Goody Carlisle's prized burgundy-colored Cadillac. Jimmy's car made a loud, deep, rumbling sound like a tank and thick plumes of grey smoke spewed from his dual chrome exhaust pipes, as he puttered down the alley to where it met Main Street.
There, he paused. The Malibu's rear tires spun crazily, sending up a huge geyser of loose gravel enveloped in a roiling fountain of impenetrable, grey dust, which seemed to momentarily blot out the Hotel and the rest of the world from Shad's astonished view.
Shad managed to snap one more picture, before the Malibu lurched forward and zoomed like a rocket ship around the corner to his right, its rear tires squealing like a pair of frightened pigs.
And then, just one short second later, it suddenly seemed as if Jimmy and his Malibu had been sucked into a black hole somewhere. There was no sound of a car anywhere that Shad could head.
"Well, that's odd," he muttered to himself.
He looked and found his tattered pair of jeans lying on the throw rug in front of the bed. He could feel Liz's eyes on him, watching him from their bed, as he stooped to step into his jeans.
"Honey where are you going?"
"I'm going out there."
"But you don't know what's out there. It might be dangerous. You could get hurt."
"If the story won't come to you, then you have to go to the story." He stuffed his cell phone deep inside his right front pocket.
Shad raced down the broken sidewalk in front of the Hotel, underneath the faded, green-and-white striped awning of the bar. He froze when he saw the dark metal husk of Jimmy's Malibu stopped dead in the middle of the railroad crossing, only twenty feet away from the Hotel's front door.
He stepped down into the street and approached the car from the driver's side. Jimmy sat slumped in his seat, the right side of his face resting against the steering wheel. Jimmy's eyes were shut and his lower jaw hung down. Shad saw Jimmy's narrow chest under his tight T-shirt rise and fall and knew that the poor kid was still among the living.
He rapped a knuckle on the window. "Yo, Jimmy. You okay, man?"
There was no response from inside the quiet car.
Shad looked up and noticed with a start that the air around him suddenly appeared lighter and greyer than it had when he'd left the house and the stars were not as distinct as they had been a minute ago. The dense line of trees and bushes on the other side of the tracks no longer stood out in sharp silhouette against the receding darkness.
He rapped on the window again, louder and little more insistent, this time.
"Hey, man, come on, wake up. The 4:15 should be coming through town any minute, now. You really don't want to be sitting here when that happens."
Again, there was no reply from the inert body behind the steering wheel.
Shad whirled around on the balls of his feet. All the houses on either side of Main Street were dark and silent.
Where was everyone? And where were the police?
He turned back to Jimmy's car. Shad coiled the fingers of his right hand into a tight fist and banged the heel of his hand against the dirty window.
"Come on, come on, come on! WAKE UP, WILL YOU?!" Shad's voice quickly rose from a shout to a scream.
He pounded his fist harder against the window, which chattered like a set of false teeth inside its hollow metal frame. He saw Jimmy's wiry, little body jump and jerk a little each time his fist struck the window, but that was all the response he got from the kid. Jimmy's eyes were still closed and the right corner of his mouth was pulled upward in a smug, superior smirk.
Shad almost jumped out of his skin the first time he heard the loud, brassy blare of the locomotive's horn. It was still far away, yet it sounded frighteningly close.
Shad stepped back from the car. He shook his head, unable to think of what he should do next. Then he ran around to the back of the car. Bending down, he pressed his right shoulder against the rounded edge of the trunk and with the fingers of both hands, gripped the sharp, inner edge of the bumper.
He closed his eyes and gritted his teeth and leaned all his weight against the rear end of the car. He pushed with all his strength, digging his bare feet into the macadam. Shad did that until his face turned brick-red and the veins and muscles in his neck and forehead stood out in graphic detail like a bunch of electrical cords. The heavy metal framework of Jimmy's car rocked forward, maybe half an inch or so, before settling back on it rusty shocks.
Again, he tried, and again. The car rocked forward a little and then leapt back at him, again.
The train's horn blared again, louder and more persistent---and much closer. This time, he heard the low, steady rumble of the train's wheels on the trembling tracks. He saw a small circle of brilliant light coming straight for him. That small circle of light was followed by a long, eerie shadow that made an ominous, rattling sound that grew louder and louder, as it drew closer and close to Jimmy's stranded Malibu.
Well, I'm out of here! Shad turned and started to run up the middle of Main Street, bent double at the waist.
Lifting his head, he saw the town's one-and-only, blue-and-white cruiser car speeding toward him, zeroing in him. Shad stopped, still bent double at the waist, his hands cupping his knees, drawing in huge draughts of air through his open mouth. He managed to stop huffing and puffing long enough to croak dryly, "Well, it's about time!"
At that same moment, the train struck the right side of Jimmy's Malibu with a tremendous crash!, that made Shad jump and turn around again. There was the high-pitched, shrieking sound of metal twisting and crunching and buckling against the fantastic weight of the train. The train dragged Jimmy's Malibu along with it for about twenty feet. The left side of the car scraped against a telephone pole, splintering but not shattering the wooden pole. Then the car just seemed to let go of the train of its own accord. It jostled and bounced, finally coming to rest in the little stone-filled gully at the bottom of the grassy railroad embankment, its rear end pointed upward and slightly askew like a fish with its tail out of water.
The train continued its relentless rush out of town, oblivious to the ruin it had left in its wake.
Shad stared in a sort of child-like awe and wonder at the way the minute shards of glass and bits and pieces of chrome and metal glinted and gleamed and twinkled against the grey stones in the gully and in the grass of the embankment. They were scattered like diamonds on the greasy tracks and the wooden cross ties and on that portion of Main Street nearest the railroad crossing.
A warm, beefy hand came on rest on his bare right shoulder. "You okay?" Buck Ryder, Monotoning's chief of police.
"Well, well, well, If it isn't good, old Jimmy Shanks, Monotoning's Public Enemy Number One." Buck sounded somber and ominous. But Shad was sure he detected a thin edge of sarcastic humor in his husky voice. "I suppose you have pictures of all this---as usual?"
Again, Shad nodded.
"Stay close. I'm going to want to see them after I'm through here."
Shad waited, untill Buck reached the gully, then sneaked one last picture of Jimmy's car. People were finally leaving their homes and crowding together on the sidewalk and spilling into the street. Shad scurried across Main Street on his sore feet and stepped up onto the sidewalk in front of his house. He found Savannah Meuller's number in his cell phone's directory---Savannah was the managing editor of the Morning Ledger, in nearby Ellentown---and emailed her his pictures of the ill-fated Jimmy Shanks and the last hour of his turbulent life.
Far up Main Street, he caught the shrill, imperative wail of an ambulance and close on its heel, a fire truck. He wasn't surprised to discover he didn't care. All he wanted to do was crawl back in bed and sleep the sleep of the dead.
Liz greeted him at the door, clutching a bowl-like cup of coffee in her small hands.
"I was so worried," she gasped, carefully handing him the steaming cup. "Are you okay?"
"Weren't you afraid you'd get hurt?"
"All I cared about was getting those pictures."
"You're crazy. You know that?"
"Yeah," he told his wife. "I probably am."
His cell phone burbled in his pocket. It was a text from Savannah in her usual terse style. "Story?" He laughed and climbed the stairs to bed.
As he drifted off to sleep, his over-active imagination was already composing notes on what just might become a new short story or his next novel.
"By the time he was eighteen, the kid had been in jail so many times, the county seriously considered installing a revolving door on his cell, just for him. His uncle was no stranger to the wonderful world of crime. His little empire included drugs, gambling, pornography, and prostitution. Besides the old Hotel, at one time or another, he had owned a half-dozen backwoods bars, all of which had mysteriously burst into flames in the middle of the night. He often paid his nephew lavish sums of money to do odd jobs of money. Apparently, this time, he'd paid his nephew to torch the Hotel for him, so that he could collect on the insurance. Unfortunately, he not only failed but lost his life in his attempt to do his uncle's bidding..."
Liz woke him ten minutes later. "Honey, you're never going to believe this. The Hotel is on fire!"