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David B. Barnes
Serendipity on a Country Road

I hate Interstates. They're boring, dangerous, and packed with people who pay little attention to what they're doing. I love two-lane roads: the ones that meander through the countryside. They pique my imagination as my car rolls down the concrete or asphalt. There are abandoned gas stations, small stores, farms, and tractors. There are lonely stone chimneys that once warmed farmhouses that have fallen in or burned down. I pass through small towns with character. Best of all, there are diners. The places that have flat-top grills, silver toasters, and batter-caked waffle makers. They smell of hamburgers and bacon. A person can get scrambled eggs, sausage, or a cheeseburger any time of day.

     I'd been driving for several hours since attending a meeting in Greensboro.

     My stomach growled. The last thing I'd eaten was a Krispy Kreme jelly-filled donut at 8:30 this morning. I looked out the windshield of my Tahoe. Twilight was fading into night. I could see lights from the front rooms and bedrooms of farmhouses guarding fields where corn and milo grew before harvest. There was a glow in the distance near the horizon. It had to be a diner. Finally, it came into focus. As the night grew darker, the glow grew brighter. The neon sign above the diner said it was The An time Diner. The "y" was burnt out. Two sulphur vapor lights lit the parking lot like it was noon. It'd be my first visit to this diner, but my hopes were high.

     My Tahoe fit right in with the rest of the cars and trucks in the lot. She's five years old and looks it. Faded black paint and a touch of rust around the rear wheel wells show how much I have used this old girl in less than pleasant circumstances. She's no asphalt queen. No sir, my girl is solid country. From the looks of the other vehicles in the lot, there was a lot of country inside this diner, another plus to my thinking.

     I parked close to the front door and eased my window down. I leaned back against the headrest with my eyes shut. I took a deep breath, and there it was… the smell of bacon and hamburgers. I was close to heaven.

<  2  >

     I walked through the door, and the smell of coffee added to the mix. A young woman was running the cash register. She was blonde, about twenty-something, slim with a kind face. Smiling, she told me to find a booth or sit at the counter. I smiled back and turned to my right. I walked past guys with dirty jeans and shirts; guys with coveralls that said they worked for the power company. In the last booth sat four uniformed cops. They all gave me the once over before they returned to talking; except one who made eye contact and didn't release it. I looked away and walked toward a booth next to the back door hallway. As I slid in, I looked back at the cops. That one still had me locked in.

     She was mid-thirties with short brown hair. I couldn't tell how tall she was. Finally, she broke eye contact after nodding at me with a curt dip of her chin. She went back to her conversation with the other three. After a few minutes, they all got up and left. She didn't look at me.

     The same young woman who was running the cash register came over with a menu. Her pink uniform was clean. In my experience, that's not a simple thing in these types of places. She left the menu and turned to go back to the front. As she walked away, she turned to see if I was watching. I was. She continued to the register, stopping by the kitchen first. I was too old, and she was way too young for more than a glance.

     In a few minutes, a guy came out of the kitchen area and walked up to my booth.

     "You wanna order some food now?" he asked. It wasn't gruff, but it wasn't pleasant. From the guy's body posture and look on his face, he may have thought he figured out who I was. The cook was a rangy guy with jailhouse tats up and down both arms and on the backs of his hands. Some weren't too bad. One, on the inside of his right arm, caught my attention. It was a shamrock with a six on each of the three leaves. Underneath the shamrock in red ink was an ornate AB. Aryan Brotherhood tats outside prison aren't that common. "Sure thing, bud. Three scrambled eggs, some bacon, black coffee," I said.

<  3  >

     "You want any orange juice or toast?"

     "No, just eggs, bacon, and coffee."

     He snatched the menu off the table and gave me another quick look in the eye. He turned and went to the kitchen. The blonde returned to refill my coffee. This time, she didn't turn to look at me as she walked to the front.

     I was sipping my coffee and looking out the big glass window when I saw a car pull into the lot. It parked under an oak tree at the edge of the darkest section of the lot. It backed into a space. I could tell it was a BMW, but not the color. The sulphur lights sometimes cause the color of a car hard to make out unless you're close to it. I turned my attention to the plate of eggs and bacon the blonde had just put down in front of me.

     I salted and peppered the eggs and was getting ready for my first bite when the door opened. Like most would, I looked up to see who was coming in.

     I started eating but watched the newly arrived customer with interest. He was over six feet tall, broad shoulders, blonde hair over his ears, and a stride like he owned the world and everything in it he wanted to own. He walked up to the blonde and gave her a quick kiss on the cheek. She said something to him, and he walked to the counter without looking around. The cook came out, and they shook hands. I watched as the cook nodded in my direction and gave the newcomer a cup of coffee.

     I kept eating and watched as he walked to my booth. He stood next to it for a second. I motioned for him to sit down.

     "How's it going Mitch?" he asked.

     I finished chewing a piece of bacon, took a swallow of coffee, and said, "Not bad, Palmer. You?"

<  4  >

     "Not bad. You know how it goes…some good times and some not so good. What are you doing around here, Mitch?"

     "Well, right now, I'm eating breakfast. This is a bit outside your usual range of interest, isn't it?"

     The blonde came over and put down a plate in front of Palmer. It had eggs, link sausage, and two pieces of toast. She came back in a minute with a plate of pancakes and maple syrup.

     "Well, I guess you've expanded your area of interest," I said with a wry smile.

     Palmer gave just a quick grin, then turned to his pancakes. As he put butter and syrup on them, he said, "Maybe I just like the food."

     I looked at Palmer and drank a bit of coffee. It was getting less than hot, so I motioned for the blonde to bring the pot over. I looked back at Palmer, who was now eating and paying me no attention.

     "Palmer, I'm not at all sure you have any need to know what I'm doing or why I'm here. I could just like the food, right?"

     Palmer smiled and put his fork down.

     "Mitch, every time we cross paths, something bad happens. Sometimes things get really depressing. Are you passing through, or are you here for a business reason?" he asked with a serious tone.

     He was looking directly at me and expected an answer. Now he was trying to assert himself. This was the Palmer I knew well.

     "How long have we known each other?" I asked.

     "For years, Mitch."

     "When have I ever let you know my business? Before I wanted you to know it?"

     Palmer looked at me. He had the face of a real bad guy. His mouth could smile, but his eyes remained hard. He was, in fact, the definition of a bad guy. He was not to be trifled with by most people. But I wasn't most people. He had never scared me. He'd pissed me off before, as I know I had him.

<  5  >

     "OK, Mitch, OK. Just wanted to know if I'd be seeing you regularly, that's all." He took another bite of pancakes.

     As he picked up his coffee cup, I noticed a small red tattoo on the web of his hand between his thumb and forefinger- a red AB.

     "Palmer, I forget things now that I'm older. How long have you been out this time?"

     "It's been a year, Mitch. I'm full-time legit now."

     I nodded and drank the last of my coffee. I stood to leave. Palmer grabbed my forearm and said, "Are we going to be seeing each other on a regular basis?"

     I pulled his hand from my arm.

     "I haven't decided yet." Patting him on the shoulder, I then walked to the cash register. I paid the blonde, but she wasn't smiling at me now.

     I'd hoped to have a little while to be a regular person; a little while to decompress; a little while not to be a cop. Palmer screwed that up. He was up to something. Palmer walked over to my car as I was packing my pipe. He motioned for me to roll the window down.

     "Mitch, do you know why I can sit down in a diner with you, and we can talk normal like?" He stood next to the car with his hands on his hips, waiting for me to roll down my window, annoyed.

     I finished packing my pipe. I lit a stick match and puffed, getting a good flame from the bowl. Then I rolled the window down and looked at Palmer.

     He shook his head and said, "It's because it's business with you. Nothing's personal. I'm a bad guy, and you're a straight-up cop. Your job is to catch me, and mine is to keep from getting caught. Remember the first time we ran into each other? I was nineteen. That older guy you were riding with stopped me and started searching my car. I hadn't given you guys permission to do that. He found a pound of weed in the trunk and busted me. At the trial, he testified I'd given consent. After he finished testifying, the Assistant D.A. asked you to take the stand. You refused and walked out of the courtroom. I got convicted and went to prison, but not because of you. I heard when I was in that you left the police department after that and went to the state. I've always owed you respect for not getting on the stand and lying."

<  6  >

     I nodded my head.

     "Gotta go, Palmer. Maybe we won't be seeing each other for a while." I pulled away from Palmer and left the lot.

     Wasn't anything to say to him about the first time we met. He was right. The guy who was training me lied. I wouldn't get on the witness stand and lie, too. So I left the courtroom after telling my partner and the assistant DA I wouldn't take the stand. I went straight to the Assistant Chief's office and told him what had happened. I told him I wouldn't testify to a lie. He thanked me, and that was that. Well, that was that until a captain at the department told me to find some place to go. He said I wasn't fitting in. So I applied to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation as a Special Agent. They hired me after a couple of months. Twenty years had passed since that first time meeting Palmer. He and I had faced off as bad guy and cop several times through the years...

     He wasn't fooling me by what he had just said. It was arrogance. He knew that each time he broke the law, some cop would try to arrest him. He also knew that these investigations were like working through a corn maze. The cops had to follow the proper path, but he could cut through if he decided that was best for him. He knew most of the time he'd clear that maze before we did.

     A veteran agent told me years ago that we had to have patience. He'd looked at me over a Styrofoam cup of awful office coffee and said, "Remember, the sun doesn't shine on the same dog every day."

     I got a good look at Palmer's car as I pulled out of the lot, puffing on my pipe. The car wasn't new, but it was shiny. I couldn't see a tag, but no matter. I'd ask the office staff to hunt it down using the Department of Motor Vehicles computer. I drove on, thinking about Palmer. He was a nasty piece of work sometimes, but he attracted women like nobody I'd ever seen. His was certainly a case for a shrink to study. That side of him was the only softness he ever exhibited. As I drove through the countryside, I wondered what he was up to now.

<  7  >

     For cops, relationships with crooks can be complicated. Investigators like me don't do traffic stops. We don't answer calls for service. We dig deep into the lives of the bad guys we chase. This is especially true for those of us who chase career criminals. We find out as much about these people as we can. Nothing is insignificant to us. They become as familiar to us as our best friend or our family. There were bad guys who always caused a little more focus; a little more effort. We really felt good when we got one of them off the street. People who hurt children and women were in this special category. But as Palmer said, I tried to stay away from investigations becoming personal. Sometimes it was a tough row to hoe. I came close to hating some of them. But a long time ago, I'd built a filter. It warned me to ease off if my efforts were becoming less than professional.

     Then there were criminals like Palmer. For some reason, I had a modicum of respect for the way they conducted their criminal behavior. They were very good at their craft. When I was on the trail of one, I concentrated every fiber on catching them. I knew any slack, and they'd get away with whatever they were doing. In a way, we were in a game of equals. But I had to be as good or better than they were.

     Palmer wasn't a friend, and he wasn't a foe. If this makes any sense: he was an adversary. I'd never trust him. I'd, for sure, never turn my back to him. As I said, it's a complicated matter.

     I got a few hours' sleep before getting back to the office. I could have found a motel a couple of miles east, over near the Interstate. But I saw an old church on the left of the road and pulled in next to the cemetery. I smoked the rest of the bowl and put the pipe in my ashtray. The Tahoe's front seats were damn comfortable, so I eased the seat back to nearly prone and went to sleep pretty fast. I woke up at breaking daylight to the sound of a tractor moving down the highway in front of the church. The guy on the tractor waved to me, and I waved back. I love it in the country. But now it's time to see what's happened while I've been gone. Something always does.

<  8  >

     After a couple more hours of driving, I got back to the office. I checked in with the secretaries. They were the ones who ran the place anyway. If the boss needed to know I was back, they'd tell him. Nothing much was going on other than a meth lab the team was trying to find. So I walked down the hallway toward our team room. I passed pictures of retired agents and old crime scenes.

     I heard them before I ever got to the office door. The team, my team, was arguing about basketball games. It was always the same. Duke was better than UNC. UNC was better than UVA. During football season, it was the same arguments, just a fresh set of games.

     I walked in and sat at my desk. It was a couple of minutes before they realized I was there.

     Germaine saw me first. He was slightly built, mid-twenties, with a permanent smile that hid his intense dislike for bad guys. Many had mistaken the smile for timidity. That was a terrible mistake to make. He was standing next to Annie. She was average-sized, light brown hair, hazel eyes, and was as focused as Germaine. Annie and Germaine had gone through the training academy together six years ago. Both were married to others but on the job, were inseparable. The last member of the posse was Albert. He was six feet five inches and around two hundred fifty pounds of muscle. He had a deep baritone voice, though he didn't talk all that much. Not that he was unfriendly. He told me once that Annie and Germaine just used up all the words, and there were usually none left for him. Many thought he was our point guy, the first through the door on raids and such. But Albert was our computer genius. Smart phones, laptops, and desktops, anything with a chip, were easy prey to Albert. We all had four-year degrees. That was a requirement. Albert's was from Georgia Tech, and he was a magna cum laude graduate. He could make a ton of money at a dot-com, but he had a passion like the rest of us. He loved locking up bad guys.

<  9  >

     I broke through the basketball nonsense and asked what was up with the new clandestine lab information.

     Annie explained, "We got a tip from Psycho Charlie that some new boys have set up to distribute meth in the area. He said we could recognize it because it had yellow specks in it. He didn't know what the specks were, but the meth was killer." To Psycho Charlie, that meant it was really good.

     When she stopped speaking, Germaine continued. The best they could tell from other confidential sources of information was that the lab was east of here. He had a call out to one of his prime sources but hadn't heard yet.

     I looked over the paperwork, and as usual, it was thorough. The hardest part of an investigation like this was waiting for information. I grabbed a stack of reports that required reviewing, and the team restarted the basketball nonsense. Albert was working on a cell phone in another case. He had it hooked up to his laptop and was typing away. I returned to my reading and blocked out the static from my teammates.

     A cell phone rang. It was Germaine's because it sounded like a rooster crowing. He talked to someone for about ten minutes and took notes all the while. When he hung up, he motioned for all of us to gather round his desk.

     "That was my snitch. He says a cooker who made meth in California is making the stuff we're seeing. DEA busted him about six years ago. He built four years because he flipped on the guys that were paying him. It was a bunch of bikers that thought they were a one-per-center biker gang. They weren't, and the Hell's Angels ran the wannabes out of the area. When they were restarting in a different location, a DEA snitch got info on them. They got busted in short order, and one of them gave up the cooker. He got busted too. He got pissed and testified against the others. The bikers got major time, and he got the four years. While he was in, the Aryan Brotherhood recruited him. The AB boys on the outside were waiting for him, and since his release, he's been busy cooking when he hasn't been at the diner. Other AB's have been selling."

<  10  >

     Germaine took a breath and looked at his notes. There's a no-smoking rule in the office, so I went out to a little porch off of the team room with my pipe. I wondered if old Palmer might be the lynchpin here. He'd never been one to mess with anything other than hippy dope: weed, acid, mushrooms. That stuff was early in his criminal life. Most of his gigs centered on armed robberies and theft. But he'd never been in a gang before, and I saw the AB on his hand. That cook also had the AB tat.

     The three agents followed me to the porch. I told them of my encounter with Palmer and the diner cook.

     "Lady and gents," I said. "You know it's rare that good luck blesses us with info like this. We're gonna take this and run before it does an about-face, and we lose again."

     So we formed a plan. We'd follow the cook or Palmer till we found where they were staying. We went back to the area of the diner where I'd talked to Palmer and set up surveillance. While we were watching the diner and waiting for the cook to leave or Palmer to appear, Germaine got another call from his guy. Albert stayed to watch the diner while Annie and I left to meet Germaine.

     We met up at a pull off a good way from the diner. Germaine said the bad guys had asked his guy to step up and sell some of the meth. He met some of the AB boys at a farmhouse and asked to use the head. Accidentally, he opened the wrong door and saw pounds and pounds of meth in a bedroom. He gave Germaine a detailed description of the farmhouse and its location. He said the house was old. It had chipped white paint and a fence surrounding it that was falling down in places. There was an outbuilding behind it, but the roof had fallen in. The only light near it was hanging from a light pole, but somebody had taken a shotgun to it. It wasn't working. There were cornfields that had been harvested on two sides of the farmhouse.

<  11  >

     The three of us drove immediately to the farmhouse. We called Albert to tell him what we were doing and that we'd call if we needed to change locations.

     After Annie did a drive-by to confirm the farmhouse location and description, I called and told Albert to rendezvous with us. He and I got out of our cars and found a hiding spot in a wooded area to the west side of the target location. Here we started our part of the surveillance. Annie and Germaine remained mobile. We planned to watch for twenty-four hours to see what we could. We had been at it for about four hours when I saw a dark BMW show up. It was well past midnight, but the moon provided enough light for me to recognize the diner cook and Palmer as they walked to the back door of the farmhouse.

     I felt there was probable cause for a search warrant and called Annie to get the process going. I instructed Germaine to get a Special Response Team ready and to get some local cops in uniform to assist. There was no point in doing this by half. The SRT agents were tough, no-bullshit agents, and the uniforms would make it clear to the bad guys we weren't there to rip anybody off.

     It shocked me as we watched the lights go out in the farmhouse. Palmer and the cook were spending the night. Palmer must be worried about something to stay close to that much product. Albert and I got comfortable and maintained watch. Just before daybreak, Annie called to say she had the warrant, and Germaine was with SRT a short distance down the road. I told her to get with Germaine and start the search. Albert and I would close in from behind and watch for runners. I reminded her to make sure she notified SRT we were there. As we watched, SRT rolled in. Four SUVs rushed into the driveway of the farmhouse.

     Just before the SRT guys dismounted, the back door of the farmhouse came crashing open, and two men ran toward the woods. I told Albert to take the one on his left, and I'd get the other.

<  12  >

     Albert and I had made our way to the edge of the woods and the backyard of the farmhouse. I was standing behind a large white pine. Palmer and the cook were running, not looking back. They split up, and Palmer ran right to where I was standing. He stopped just inside the woods to take a peek over his shoulder to see if he was being followed. When he saw no one was there, he gave out a short laugh as he moved quickly by the tree.

     I stepped out from behind the pine and immediately saw the look of shock on Palmer's face. Anger quickly replaced shock. He moved his right hand to the small of his back. I stopped him with my left hand in the air, palm facing him.

     "Palmer, get your hand away from that gun. You should know by now not to try that with me. Get on the ground! Hands to your side, please."

     I was pointing my 9 mm at him. He looked at my face, and his bravado disappeared. He sank to his knees and then all the way down on his face. I got his gun from his waistband and cuffed him. I helped him stand.

     As we stood there, I pulled my pipe out of my pocket. I packed it with tobacco and slowly lit it. After a couple of puffs, I looked at him. He was staring at me but had calmed down.

     "Palmer, do you remember that time I searched your house? You had bought a load of pharmaceuticals from that mutt who was stealing from every CVS in the area? When we found nothing, you laughed at me. Do you remember what you told me?"

     . "Yeah, I told you, 'if you snooze, you lose.' You were so damn mad."

     "Yep, but this time you did the snoozing. What the devil were you doing in there, anyway?"

     'Shit, those idiots got scared we weren't selling the stuff fast enough, so they started getting some users to be sellers. I found out about it yesterday morning and decided I'd better get more involved for a bit. What a bunch of illiterate, racist dumbasses." He spat on the ground.

<  13  >

     "Why'd you get hooked up with the Aryan's anyway, Palmer?"

     "Inside's different now. If you aren't associated with one of the prison gangs, you're going to be somebody's prize. I am not built that way!"

     "Well, it looks like you may get another try. Hey Palmer, what's that up there?"

     I pointed to the sky. He looked at me, puzzled.

     "What? That's the sun, Mitch."

     "Yes, it is Palmer. Yes, it is." I said with a smile.

     We walked for a few minutes in silence. Palmer stopped. The next words I heard were a first of their kind from him.

     "Mitch, I may have just become the wisest ex-con you ever arrested. How about I get a lawyer. Then you, a prosecutor, and me sit down to see if I can tell you stuff you don't know?"

     I took Palmer's arm and turned him toward the farmhouse.

     "Sounds like a plan to me, Palmer." I puffed slowly on my pipe, shaking my head. Bad guys always work an angle.

     I looked for Albert. He was walking to the farmhouse with the cook in tow.

     When we got back to the farmhouse, the SRT guys were putting their gear away. A group of local cops were searching several guys that had been arrested in the farmhouse. One local walked up to me. It was the female cop I'd seen in the diner.

     She stuck out her hand and said, "Name's Della. If you're going to ask me if I'm married, the answer is no. If you're going to ask me out, the answer is maybe."

     "Well, hell Della; maybe I'm married."

     "Nope, you're single. I already checked." She was nodding at Annie.

<  14  >

     I looked at her and was about to say something when Palmer spoke up.

     "Hell, if he doesn't ask you out, I will…Soon as I can anyway."

     I grabbed Palmer's arm and began walking again.

     "Made me at the diner, right?" I asked.

     "Yeah, those damn cops' eyes; always searching and measuring; always roving."

     "Well, the others didn't seem to notice."

     "They did. They just wrote you off as some fed. So they didn't care."

     I looked at her and smiled.

     "Hey, I'm a girl, they're guys, so…"

     "Well, Della, do you think there's anyone left at the Anytime Diner that could cook up some eggs?"

     "Pretty sure there is, Mitch."

     After we got to the police cars, Palmer looked at me, then at Della.

     "Well, I would… If I could." Then he laughed.

     Della winked at him, and for once, he had nothing to say. I shook my head, laughing.

     This may well become an interesting friendship.

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