Thursday, February 16, 2012

Surviving the Autocalypse: Episode V

Dwight didn't have "A Farewell to Arms," but did have an old library copy of "To Have and Have Not." It was missing its cover, so someone had written on the first page in red magic marker, "To Have and Have Not a Cover, by Ernest Hemingway." The book -- and the shoddy shape it was in -- fit my mood perfectly, and I spent most of the afternoon reading it.

From the angle of the sun coming in through the front windows of the jail, I guessed that it was almost 5 pm when the judge finally came by. He opened the door and leaned in, looking me up and down for a couple of seconds, and then walked the rest of the way in. The sheriff watched him from behind "Islands in the Stream," but didn't take his feet down from the desk until the judge was in front of it.

The judge wore a decent dark brown suit -- off-the-rack, but still fit him well -- with oxblood tassel loafers. The right shoe had lost a tassel somewhere. He had excellent hair that almost hid his outsize ears, but somehow emphasized his weak chin. He was the kind of guy that you could tell was custom-made for some kind of embarrassing moment within minutes of meeting his wife.

"Sheriff Gordon," he said, nodding. A classic southern baritone, it was a voice well-suited to lulling a jury into a coma. "I heard that you needed to see me."

"Yessir," Dwight answered, getting up slowly. "Thanks for coming so soon."

The judge pretended to ignore the rebuke. "Certainly, Roger."

"Sure. Well, I needed to see you about this fellow. I arrested him this morning for disturbing the peace. There may also be a couple of cases of battery, but those could be ... well, tricky. I don't think the boys involved in the fight really want to press charges."

"Yes," the judge answered, looking me over. "I heard about it." He studied me for another few seconds, and then, "Well, sir. What do you have to say for yourself."

I'd been lying on the bunk through the whole charade, but got up now and carefully laid the book down. I walked up to the bars on the door before speaking.

"I'm just passing through. I don't want any trouble. I'm delivering a package to John Miller."

The judge nodded. "And what is in the package."

"It's a package ... sir. It's wrapped up. I have no idea what's inside."

He lifted an eyebrow at me. "Really?"

"Yes, sir. Plain brown paper, tape, and twine. It's about two feet long, one foot wide, and six inches high -- just big enough for Sheriff Gordon's boots. Weighs about 10 pounds."

The sheriff had the next question. "Where did you get it?"

"Crayton Industries in Jacksonville, Florida. They do machining. I've been delivering small specialty couplings off and on for them for about a year. Mostly for farm tools, going to small towns in north Florida and south Georgia."

The judge and the sheriff exchanged a look. I'd confirmed some kind of suspicion.

"Why not send it by train?" the judge asked.

"That would take a week, at least," I answered. "I left Jacksonville three days ago ... well, four now, since you fine folks have managed to disrupt my schedule."

Sheriff Gordon grunted. "Well, I'll be. You're the Federal Express guy?"

I nodded. "I'm what passes for UPS in the Autocalypse."

The judge was nonplussed. He had the chin for it.

"Well, I don't care what you are. We can't have strangers coming in to town and beating up law-abiding citizens on the street. In these trying times, it is ever more critical that we maintain order." The sheriff rolled his eyes a bit at that, recognizing one of the judge's stock speeches.

"Guilty. Fine is $100, or you can spend 30 days in jail. Maybe John Miller should have tried to get his gee-gaw by train after all."

"You want cash, Allen?" a big man said then as he walked in the door.

The judge turned, looked up at the man, and then deflated. "Hello, John," he said.

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