Chuck Berenson’s home base was not hard to find. He’d been operating as Chuck Trucking out of St. Regis for nearly 20 years. Everybody in the small Montana town knew him, or at least knew of him.
We pulled into his driveway a few minutes after three p.m. The acreage was situated four miles out of town, tucked back in a canyon with steep, heavily timbered walls to either side. Sunset came early here; the light blazing through heavy stands of ridge top pine trees would be gone soon.
There was no sign of Berenson’s Peterbilt, but his wife–a trophy wife, we’d been told, barely in her twenties and built like a brick sh*thouse–stepped out of the double wide mobile home’s front door to greet us.
The gossips hadn’t lied; Carrie Berenson was indeed stacked. She filled out her blue jeans in a way that reminded me of my ex, though Tania Overgood certainly hadn’t had sky blue eyes or long blonde hair tied in a ponytail.
“Greetings, gentlemen.” She spoke first, almost before Jack Hill and I were fairly out of the Pontiac. “You’d be Tree and Jack of Rodeo Iron?”
Wow. News traveled fast in this country. “That’s us,” I replied, putting on my best charm face. “I see our reputation has preceded us.”
She grinned at that, kind of lit up the whole canyon. There are plenty of homely women in Montana, just like anyplace else, but this wasn’t one of them. My respect for Chuck Berenson shot right up off the charts. Any man in his forties who could both snag and keep this hormone rich hunk of femininity was a force to be reckoned with.
“Mostly,” she explained, “Jenna called me from the curio shop to say you were coming. But yes, Rodeo Iron does have a bit of a rep around here. Not just with the ranchers, either; Diffie got a complete Catch Pen toy set for Christmas last year.”
She was holding the door open, welcoming us in. As we were climbing the steps, I asked, “Diffie?”
“Me!” A pert little snub nosed face peeked around the doorjamb. “Diffie is me!”
“My daughter.” Carrie ruffled the five year old girl’s hair. “My ex was a big fan of singer Joe Diffie. Unfortunately, he was also a big fan of crack cocaine, women of easy virtue, and a few other things. Last Diffie and I heard, her father was on the run from the FBI. At least, the agent who stopped by a month ago told me they hadn’t caught him yet.”
“Ah,” I said, at a loss for words. I’d never met an obviously intelligent mother who discussed matters like this in front of a child this young. It did throw me some.
Not Jack, though. I’m pretty sure it didn’t throw the ancient Protector one little bit. He twinkled at little Diffie–who was staring at him in open curiosity, seemingly more intrigued by the old white man than the handsome young black man, go figure–and asked, “So, Diffie, would you rather see your Dad get away or would you rather see the FBI catch him?”
The child looked almighty indignant at that. She squared herself away, planted her fists on her hips, and declared, “He’s not my Dad. He’s only my biological father. Chuck is my Dad. There’s a dif-rence, and don’t you forget it!”
I had to cover my mouth with a hand to keep from cracking up. Jack just nodded gravely. “My mistake. I see what you mean, and I promise I will not forget it.”
“O-kay!” With that, the precocious tyke spun on her heel and marched off through the kitchen to what we presumed was her bedroom, closing the door behind her–not with a slam, but firmly enough to underscore her point.
Carrie gave us a wry look. “We’ve already started home schooling her. I’m not about to unleash Diffie on the unsuspecting public school population. Chuck called, by the way. He had a delivery to make in Superior, but he should be home in another hour or so. I’m guessing that if you men get to talking business–or politics; look out for my man when it comes to politics–it’ll take a while. Which is my way of saying, will you join us for supper?”
It would mean calling our people at home to say we’d be running late again, but–“Be delighted, if it’s not putting you out.”
“Wouldn’t have offered if it was.” By this time, she’d gotten us seated around the kitchen table, but she jumped back up, pulled out a package of stew meat from the freezer, ripped off the wrapper, and deposited the entire frozen block in a large crockpot sitting on the counter. “Let me put on a fresh pot of coffee, slice up a few more veggies for the mulligan, and a couple of hours from now, there’ll be more than the bunch of you growing boys can consume.”
Jack took up the conversational slack. “So, Carrie, you grow up here?” He knew she hadn’t, of course; young as she was–maybe 22 at most–this girl had been places, seen the elephant.
She shook her head, making her ponytail do delightful things. “Not hardly. I’ve worked my butt off since Chuck brought me home last year, getting to know folks, working to have at least a few contacts who are willing to talk to me. But the good people of St. Regis never laid eyes on me before that.”
“Well…first off, guys, Diffie and I don’t open up with the locals the way we did with you two.”
“We rate?” I had to ask.
She nodded. “Anybody who can listen to my husband’s political rant in an Idaho truck stop and decide he’s worth talking to about business matters…I can read men pretty well. Tell you what.” She finished slicing carrots and moved on to a couple of oversized yellow onions, never wasting a motion. “I’m going to give you a bit of my backstory. Just to fill in the time, you know, waiting for Chuck, but also to help you understand about us. Nobody here has heard this, of course.”
Hill and I both nodded encouragingly, but I’m not sure Carrie even noticed. She was lost in her own world, remembering.
“Chuck and I met at a truck stop in Denver. I was working as a lot lizard, totally illegal, and the worst thing about it wasn’t even the scumbag truckers who might be passing on diseases they didn’t even know they had. The worst thing was the other girls. It was cutthroat stuff, watch your back. The competition for a horny truck driver with a hundred to blow, so to speak, was fierce. We all worked the CB radios, Channel 19 till you got a hot one, then jump to another channel.
“You’d think the cops would be the worst danger, and yeah, they did try their best to bust us. There was almost always a team of vice cops monitoring Channel 19. But the po-leese could be bought off most of the time, cash bribes or freebies, sometimes scoring drugs, all depending on the cop. So, they were an occupational hazard for sure.
“But the other girls would flat take you out. There were a couple of big fat ugly b*tches that really hated my guts. They messed up a friend of mine really bad, cut her face and…other places. Beat her so bad, she had brain damage. I don’t know what happened to her in the end; she disappeared into the system, welfare or something.
“And one woman, not a bad looker but not nearly paranoid enough to survive as a lot lizard…I can’t prove it, but I’m certain they killed her outright.”
She calmly related all this while continuing to finish up her additions to the crockpot, then moved to pour coffee for all three of us. After placing a pint container of Lucerne half and half on the table and pointing out the sugar bowl, she sat down, cradling her mug in both hands as if drawing comfort from the warmth.
It was getting chilly outside, for sure, but I didn’t think that was the cause of her need for comfort. On the other hand, as I knew from experience, it’s often easier to tell of your own grim travels through life than it is to hear about them.
After adding three heaping teaspoons of sugar to her coffee, no cream, she went on with her tale. “Them two tried to corner me more than once, and they finally got it done. They didn’t know about Diffie; I had her hidden in a little studio apartment miles from the truck stop. My next door neighbor was a sweet old lady, Karen Hockniss, eighty-something years old. I’d leave Diffie with Karen when I went to work, give a her a share of my earnings every time I earned some. She was on food stamps, plus some little bit of fixed income, so it was win-win all around.
“Anyway, the killer fat chicks couldn’t trail me home. They drove a big old beat up K-5 Blazer with a bad exhaust you could hear coming a mile away. They tried following me a bunch of times, but they were just no good at it, and I was thankful for that.
“However,” she mused, stirring her coffee idly, “the truck stop was a small place. I sidestepped them for a long time, but it couldn’t last forever, and it didn’t.
“One night, right around eleven o’clock, I climbed down out of a driver’s Kenworth condo cab–one of the nicest sleepers I’d ever been in, and one of the nicest tricks I’d ever turned. It wasn’t like I was careless, but I couldn’t keep much of an eye out while I was taking care of business, if you know what I mean.
“Normally, the killer witches couldn’t hang around the stop. They’d come blasting in with that noisy old Blazer, make a few bucks from a trucker for a sixty second special, and get the heck outa there before the occasional cop who was not on the take showed up.
“But this time, they’d recruited some dumb young buck, a kid with a little black Honda the cops didn’t know about. They’d seen me go to that Kenworth, and when I climbed back down outa there, they were ready.
“I could feel something was wrong, sixth sense and all, but couldn’t spot where the danger was coming from. Them two timed it pretty good, too, came lunging out from behind this sort of retainer wall just as I was passing through a pretty dark area. That truck stop’s not all that well lit from end to end.
“They had me cornered. I knew I could outrun them in a heartbeat, but there was nowhere to run. Odds were I could have whipped them, too–in fact, I’d cold cocked the bigger one once already, uppercut to the chin, laid her out flat. Or, as flat as that flabby pig could get without being squished by a steamroller.”
Little Diffie chose that moment to pop her door open and poke her head out, announcing, “Dad will be home soon.” With that, she pulled back into her room like a blue eyed turtle, closing the door once more.
“She’s psychic that way,” Carrie noted. “I’d best get this little tale wrapped up…so, there I was, cornered. The bigger one, the lizard I’d knocked out before, had a billy club in her hand. Not one of the modern police batons, one of the old school clubs, from way back. I’d seen it up close a time or two–she liked to flash it around. The smaller one, but by smaller I mean no more than 200 pounds or so of suet on a five-four frame, had some kind of folding knife.”
Jack Hill appeared to be as engrossed in the story as I was. It reminded me a bit of the first time I’d seen the 265 year old man in action, packing what appeared to be an old black cane, feebly wobbling down the sidewalk in a bad neighborhood in Connecticut.
Appearances had been deceiving then. In Carrie’s story, they must have been equally so, or she wouldn’t be here alive to tell us all about it.
Hold on just a bit, Chuck, I thought. Don’t get home too soon. We need to hear the rest of this.
“It wasn’t like I went around unarmed,” our storyteller continued, “but the Chicago Cutlery all stainless steel paring knife I carried in a homemade sheath under my shirt wasn’t exactly a broadsword. In fact, it had a blade about the same length as Little Fat’s folding knife, maybe 3 1/2 inches at most.
“So I did the only thing I could do. I attacked. Went for the big one with the club, partly ’cause I thought maybe me having knocked her out once already, she’d be afraid of me even if she wouldn’t admit it to her partner, and partly in the hopes I could get her elephant body in between me and the girl with the pig sticker.
“She seen me coming, reared back with that billy club, but I beat her to the punch. My ex had showed me a few Shotokan moves using weapons, which gave me the idea. I’d stuck that paring knife in my right fist, blade out to the right, edge forward. Didn’t catch her in the chin this time, but punched her right in the nose. Broke it, too, from the way it felt, and then when I pulled my fist back, I used a short backhand stroke to stab her right in the throat.
“Caught the billy club with my left forearm as it was coming down, just about broke the bone but not quite, and then followed through, got her shoved over toward her partner, who slashed her in the side fat while trying to get me.
“Long story short, Little Fat realized her buddy was bleeding and screaming, and now I’d gotten hold of the bily club, too. She took off running as fast as her pudgy legs would churn, left her friend to bleed to death or whatever, no honor among hookers.”
“Wow.” I held my hands up and put them together, clapping quietly so as to avoid arousing Diffie’s curiosity. “Not bad, Carrie. Not bad at all.” Jack Hill was just sitting there, sipping his coffee, grinning like a fool.
“Chuck didn’t think so, either.” We could hear his big Pete gearing down now, climbing the last bit of grade before leveling off on the home stretch into the canyon. “Turned out he’d seen the whole thing. When I came striding out of that corner they’d had me in–Little Fat had already gone lumber-thundering out of the parking lot entirely, and the big one was still screaming and bleeding like a stuck pig–I came face to face with old Chuck Trucking himself. He was just leaning up against the wall, his tire thumper hanging loose in his hand, casual as could be.”
“All he said was, ‘Need a ride?’, and I didn’t even hesitate. Just followed him to his truck, climbed up in his cab, and hid in the sleeper. He pulled out just as the cops were pulling in. Tons of ’em; all that screaming apparently drew the blues like flies. I told Chuck–didn’t even know his name yet–that I had a daughter. He said no problem, drove his flatbed right down residential streets to get to the apartment, we grabbed Diffie from Karen and my bugout bag from my place, and boogied.”
“And lived happily ever after!” Five year old Diffie made the final announcement with her hands stretched up above her head, palms facing each other like a football referee declaring a touchdown. She’d silently slipped out of her bedroom, joining us while waiting for Daddy Chuck to hit the front door.
We grinned ear to ear, Jack and I did, nodding our heads in vigorous agreement.
That we’d be recruiting this man to haul loads for Rodeo Iron was a given, even before we ran the obligatory deep background checks. It was clear we’d found another one, another gentleman of strong convictions and a weakness for rescuing good looking damsels in distress.
Trophy wife, indeed.