We pulled into Corpus Christi in the middle of a squall, wind driven rain that felt nastier than the much technically colder snow country of Montana by a long shot. Dark, too, since my watch said 10:13 p.m., local time. But the Super 8 was right on the bay, the room had two queen beds plus Wi-Fi and breakfast, all for ninety bucks (tax included)…and the desk clerk didn’t seem upset about our late arrival.
Welcome to Texas.
Of course, we’d been in Texas for a while, first entering the Lone Star State at the western tip near El Paso.
El Paso. Man, I love the Marty Robbins song about that town, but what a sh*thole! We’d had the CB radio on in the Pontiac, but the El Paso chatter had been so foul, we’d finally turned it off in disgust. It seemed like the area prided itself on launching vile language across the airwaves. The f-word wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg; before we’d given it up, we’d heard stuff that made the average rapper sound like a choir girl.
Strangely enough, this Foul Language Capitol of the World also held what looked to be a mighty fine Rodeo Iron prospect. Lawrence Tippett, a man in his forties who’d made a pile of money in the oil fields, had in mind to open up a supply store in El Paso, an outlet that would stock Rodeo Iron fencing panels and gates for everything from rural homeowners to ranchers and even, possibly, customers coming in from Mexico.
“Gonna call it Tippet’s Steel Deals,” he’d stated, reaching for a cigar before remembering we were in a restaurant for our get-acquainted meeting, “and I’d much prefer to be the exclusive dealer in west Texas for Rodeo Iron. I’ve been reading up on your company, Treemin. Even called half a dozen of your customers, not to mention your man in Idaho.”
I’d been impressed. He’d called us initially, and Judi had given him a list of customers he could contact for references, people we trusted not to backstab us. I liked this man immediately, his no nonsense way of going about things, his willingness to take the initiative, all of that. But….
“Little premature to talk exclusivity, Lawrence.” I’d been buttering a roll when I responded to that. “We’re not even at the point yet of being certain moving into Texas is a good idea. It’s a market we’d like to tap, definitely, but it’s a long haul, moving finished product all the way down here from any one of our existing facilities. Even just the transportation–”
He’d waved a beefy hand, dismissing my concern. “Transportation wouldn’t be a problem. For starters, I’ve got flatbeds sitting idle, drivers looking to get some miles. My boys could come get the orders easy enough, just calculate the pricing accordingly so it works for both of us.”
Jack Hill had said nothing to this point, concentrating on his Mexican omelette, but he spoke up then. “Lawrence, are you looking toward maybe getting the franchise for what, all of west Texas?”
“Heh!” The wide man grinned–he stood around five-ten but had to run two-forty, gut hanging over his belt but plenty of hard muscle underneath, shrewd intelligence in his pale blue eyes. “I’d like to end up with the Rodeo Iron franchise for all of Texas if I could get it! But,” he sobered, “I realize we’re new to each other. I’ll be needing to prove myself. So, how about this? We work out the details, I open up Tippett’s, get a couple million in sales going. The majority of those dollars will come from the oil patch; I got contacts everywhere for that. We get to working with each other so there’s a bit of mutual trust, ’cause without trust, you got nothing. Then, say this time next year, we sit down, go over the books, and Hell yeah, I’d like the franchise. I could see cranking up total Texas sales to $20 million or so in five years, providing I can kick a few competitors’ asses, and not to brag or anything, but I’m a pretty fair ass kicker when it comes to making sales.”
The thing was, I believed him. He wasn’t a handsome man, this Lawrence Tippett, but he had charisma. It was clear he knew what he was doing; we’d researched the fellow pretty thoroughly after it had become clear he’d done the same to us. He had enemies, but so what? Don’t we all?
“Well,” I’d told him, wrapping up the conversation, “I like what I’m hearing. Tell you what. Here,” I passed a thick folder of papers across the table, “is a bit of info you may not have on us yet. The entire product line including the toy line, pricing at suggested retail and also our typical actual costs, a few considerations the average Joe out there is never aware of. Inside stuff like that. How be you take that, sit down, crunch numbers from your end, and give me a call or an email around Valentine’s Day? Can you throw together your side of a proposal that quick?”
He’d simply nodded. “Sure. I can do that. But why Valentine’s Day? Any reason in particular…sweetheart?” And he’d batted his eyelashes at me.
I’d smiled back, though out of one side my mouth only, and cocked an eyebrow at him. “It’s not what you might think, big boy. We’ve got some personal business down Corpus Christi way, going to keep me occupied for a few days. Then there’s the long haul back up to Montana…but I’ve got to be back home by the 14th. There’s a twisted dude in jail who appears in court that day, and one of our people needs to be there to see what he has to say. Plus, Rodeo Iron North Dakota is opening officially on that same day. Not a retail outlet, so it’s maybe not such a big deal, but our man there would appreciate it if I’d show up regardless.”
Tippett looked at Jack. “Does he always go into these long winded explanations when a good looking fellow like me flirts with him?”
“Not always,” Hill replied with a straight face. “I think it’s your man boobs that have him worried.”
The oil man roared with laughter–partly at the old Protector’s comeback and partly at the look on the face of the waitress, who was just dropping by with the coffee pot.
But that was then and this was now. When we got to our rooms, I took advantage of the free Wi-Fi to go online for a few minutes. Cranston had been sending me regular email updates; the feedlot customer east of Billings had gotten his shipment delivered, thanks to Chuck Trucking, and was reportedly as happy as a pig in slop. Judi reported that the year end figures for Rodeo Iron Idaho were in, eleven percent better than projected. Mom had even dropped me a line, letting me know that uncle B.J. and his Wicked Witch of the West were still on track for her Congressional run. Sissy had even got into the act despite not being a great typist, advising that she believed she had a line on the rustlers plaguing the Trace Ranch and would be bringing the Powell County Sheriff up to date shortly.
Enough for the night. We turned in, and I was gone before my head hit the pillow.
“Daylight in the swamps!” Jack’s cheerful voice underscored the wakeup call from the motel’s computer.
I cursed them both under my breath and stumbled out of bed, into the bathroom to shave and shower. Cut myself shaving, in two places no less, but the hot shower sealed things up pretty well, and the sting of Mennen Skin Bracer finished waking me up.
The motel’s so called free breakfast didn’t appeal to us, so we repaired to a nearby restaurant and paid for our morning meals. The thing was, I still had no idea how to go about finding my dear dirty old Dad.
When I admitted as much aloud, Jack Hill took things into his own hands. First, he asked the waitress, “If you were looking for a big, tough, homeless dude that looks a little like Treemin here, only older and uglier, where would you start?”
She had no idea.
Which didn’t faze Jack. He repeated the question to the cashier, and when that didn’t work, to a cop who was just coming in to have his own breakfast.
The cop stared flat-eyed at the old man. “Why?”
I took it from there. “My, um, biological father, not exactly your, ah, most upstanding citizen, but used to be a police Captain in Connecticut. He–”
“Oh, him!” Oddly enough, the officer’s eyes had come alive with obvious curiosity. “You’re his son?”
I shrugged. “So my mother tells me. I never met the lowlife sonofa–.” Stopped myself just in time, remembering we were in a public place with women and children within earshot.
Segeant Lopez (that was the name above his shirt pocket, anyway, and he had the stripes) cocked his head for a moment, considered, and came to a decision. “I’m sorry to hear that,” he said finally, “but–you’ve eaten, obviously, but, care to join me? I do have some knowledge of the man you’re seeking.”
Wow. How, I wondered, does Jack Hill do it? The old man still amazed me every now and then.
“Kathy,” Lopez signaled to the same waitress who’d served us, “the usual. And bring the coffee pot.”
“On its way.” The girl smiled, more sunnily than she had for either Hill or for me. Had a crush on the good sergeant, without a doubt.
We waited, sipping coffee we didn’t need, though I suspected Jack was secretly grateful for an excuse to get back to caffeine and away from his infernal peppermint tea. At first, Lopez seemed to be waiting us out, knowing that most folks aren’t comfortable with silence. But we were both pros at that game; our new buddy with a badge spoke first.
“Danny Lopez,” he said, offering his hand across the table. I took it gladly, introducing myself.
Once he’d shaken hands with Jack, Lopez laid it on us. “The man you’re looking for, your father–”
“My sperm donor, anyway,” I put in drily.
“–your sperm donor showed up here in town about eight, nine months ago. He might have been here before that, but probably not. My contacts on the street would have known.”
So, I thought, my dream had it right. He really is here.
“Anyway, I first heard about him when Rabid Johnny, a homeless guy who got his name from being crosseyed and drooling a lot, Johnny came into the station one day, wanted to lodge a complaint against a new guy in the area who called himself Harry. Seems this Harry had thrown his roll down behind Johnny’s favorite sand dune. Now, Rapid Johnny is mostly harmless, psycho as they come but not normally violent, just one of the guys you see pushing a stolen grocery cart around the city, picking up aluminum cans to recycle. But he has one quirk; he’s hardcore possessive about his sleeping spot, and this Harry had just jumped his claim.
“So Johnny went off on him. Now, the other homeless, they leave Rabid Johnny pretty much alone. He’s even crazier than most of them are, they know it, and that’s that. Leave the dude his spot, and everything will be fine; he won’t bother you. Might talk to the bats in his own belfry, but he won’t attack or anything like that.
“Thing is, according to Johnny–it wasn’t easy getting the details from him, he’s hard to understand when he’s excited–this Harry didn’t respect his craziness one little bit. Johnny got right up in the big man’s face, spittle flying, eyeballs staring at each other, and Dirty Harry just gut-hooked him. Didn’t leave a mark but put him down for the count, gasping for breath like a fish out of water, crossed eyeballs bulging, tongue hanging out.”
“Wait a minute,” I interrupted. “You called him Dirty Harry?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, that the cops in town, as well as the homeless, thought of dear dirty old Dad the way I did.
“Yeah,” Lopez nodded. “Why?”
“Well…that’s what his ex, my Mom, and I decided he should be called. I had no idea that….”
“Ah. Well, here in Corpus, Rabid Johnny put that moniker on him, and it stuck. He’s big, he’s mean, and he fights dirty. No mercy.”
“So,” I wondered, “did somebody go talk to Dirty Harry about assaulting his fellow homeless citizen?”
“Nope,” he shook his head. “Not right then. We had other things to do, couple of murders, several rape cases, one really credible terrorist threat. One punch between homeless people over an illegal sleeping spot–it’s not legal, sleeping on or near the beach or for that matter anywhere on private property you don’t own, but of course they all do it. And they fight. Sometimes they get hurt bad. If it comes down to a killing, sure, we investigate that, but….”
I got it. “Okay.” I could see Kathy coming with his order; we were running out of time. “I take it, you’ve kept tabs on him, though? You know where he is?”
“Oh yeah. The Department has a file on him an inch thick already, and he’s never even been arrested yet. That same sand dune where he punched Johnny? He’s still there. Has himself a sweet little kingdom, close to forty other homeless hanging around sucking up. He’s become a local strong man for those people.”
Jack Hill raised an eyebrow. “And the police tolerate that?”
Lopez shrugged. “So far. One thing Dirty Harry does is, he keeps order. If he gets word that one of the homeless in the area has been shoplifting, for example, he’ll grab that man by the scruff of the neck and march him right back into the place of business from which the fellow lifted the goods. Seems he’s developed his own network of snitches, so nobody operating within a mile of his dune can fart without him knowing it. In that sense, he’s cleaned up a fair amount of crime here.”
“But?” I could hear it in his voice; there was more.
“But,” he continued, slicing his breakfast sausage as he spoke, “word also is, he’s turned some of the homeless women into working girls.”
What else? “In other words,” I said, simply to make sure I hadn’t misunderstood, “my old man is a pimp? A homeless pimp?”
He nodded. “That’s the word. I wouldn’t be telling you all this, but you look like a solid citizen to me, Mr. Jackson. I wouldn’t want you stumbling into a hornet’s nest blind. We purely hate having to drag out the bodies of fools who rushed in where angels fear to tread.”
“You’re warning me off?”
For a moment, he put down his fork and just stared at me. I got the impression that this was one tough cop.
“No,” he replied at last, “not warning you off. Mainly ’cause I expect it wouldn’t do any good. I know if I was looking for my old man, nothing anybody said would stop me. But at least if you go in with your eyes open, maybe I won’t end up on a body bag detail. Which is why I’m being more open with you than my superiors would approve, believe me.”
“I do believe you. Homeless hookers….”
“Yeah. He collects tribute from his followers, rents a cheap motel room, cleans up the girls, gets them some skimpy but clean clothing, turns them out. Our contacts tell us some of the girls even appreciate it; they’d been dirty and starving before he came along. Now they’re not. Trouble is, prostitution is still illegal, and the girls certainly aren’t telling the johns when they have herpes or HIV or whatever.”
Jack had been mostly sitting quietly, studying the situation, but now he summed it up. “You’re getting ready to bust him.”
“You didn’t hear that from me.”
“Of course not. Hear what? But, Tree, if we’re going to find this Duke of the Dunes, I’m getting the impression we’d best get a move on. He may not be a free man much longer–or else he’ll smell it coming like he did in Hartford, and he won’t be in Corpus Christi much longer.”
Sergeant Lopez had speared a piece of sausage with his fork, which he now pointed at Jack. “You, my friend, are an astute judge of character.”
“He tries,” I admitted. “Sergeant, if you could just do one last little thing for us, like give us directions to where this Sand Dune Duke might be holding court, we’ll get out of your hair–with gratitude for the information, of course, and then some.”
“I can do that. And gentlemen?”
“You’d not be thinking of tipping off the Dirty Duke, would you?”
“Heaven forbid. As far as we’re concerned, his karma is his karma. I’d like to lay eyes on the Devil’s spawn that sired me, just this once, but that’s it.”
“Then besides directions to his dune, I’ll also tell you, were it me, I’d be well clear of the area by noon today.”
I glanced at the restaurant’s wall clock. Eight thirty-seven a.m. The Sand Dune Duke would be discovering he’d literally built his house on sand in three hours and twenty-three minutes.
Once we were back in the Pontiac, I felt I had to mention the obvious. “He’s under surveillance.”
“No kidding,” Hill agreed, “so let’s hope we don’t need to shoot him, eh?”
“Agreed. Let’s hope we don’t. And Jack?”
“Let’s try not to look like johns, either.”
“Hell, Tree,” he laughed, “with our hats and boots and belt buckles and all, we’d best just hope Dirty Harry doesn’t take us for a couple of cowboy pimps out of Montana, coming to steal his business!”
Damn. I hadn’t thought of that possibility.