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Even when you’re just passing through, sometimes you can’t help but notice when something’s wrong.
The weekend after Halloween is when they have the annual Punkin Chunkin championship in Delaware, which is where a bunch of backyard engineers compete to turn pumpkins into projectiles. Folks wear hollowed-out pumpkins as war helmets and vendors pass out pumpkins in an open competition for you to catapult as far as possible by any and all mechanical means available in a regulated and officially governed event. These folks take decorative gourd season to a whole new level. It’s local customs like that can make a traveler feel at home.
“Getting married on a dare in Delaware is grounds for annulment, Daddy.”
Missy knew how to keep us entertained. She rarely had her head out of a book, and this one she had been consulting was the state legislature penal code.
“Pays to be well versed in the local laws,” I said. “We ever get married here, and I change my mind, I’ve got a cast-iron get-out clause.”
“Daddy, you really think I’d ever lower myself to marry a man like you?”
“I can be pretty persuasive.”
“But I’m not the kind of gal can be bought.”
Missy and me, a whole year we’ve been together with no last names, no fixed abode, no listed occupations, no tax returns, no traces of the past, nothing, but the two of us, together, forever, treading the blacktop.
The red Toyota I was driving had a hundred thousand miles on the clock because we weren’t looking to stand out from the crowd. Our clothes were always pre-packed in a suitcase in the trunk and there was fifty thousand dollars cash money taped beneath the seat.
Our bumper sticker says, “Eve was framed.”
We were driving through Delaware on our way to Sussex County and the urban sprawl became a repeating pattern of neighborhood, strip mall, home depot, neighborhood, strip mall, home depot, neighborhood, home depot, Christian mall.
“Daddy, you’re driving like we’ve got somewhere to be. We’re not late for an appointment. Slow down.”
It hadn’t taken her long to learn how to give orders and I’ve since discovered it’s easier not to argue, so I eased off the gas.
My name’s Jackson. I’m thirty-three years old. Missy is my wife-to-be, even if she doesn’t know it yet. She calls me Daddy on account of the age difference, me being five years her senior.
I’ve been told I look older and not in the distinguished kind of way — just old. Used to be a captain in the First Cavalry Division, Second Brigade — the Blackjacks. I mustered-out when I won a jackpot after being caught in a roadside IED in Baghdad city and my prize included five cracked vertebrae and eighty-seven pieces of shrapnel removed from my body. I empathize with pin cushions, I truly do. I also won a new titanium hip that provides an unerring ability to forecast rain. Lady Luck spared me that day. But I wasn’t saved till I met Missy. We’ve been together ever since and are equal-stakes partners, and if she wanted to win that Punkin Chunkin championship then I meant to see it happen.
We entered Georgetown at six o’clock on Thursday evening. We’d bed down for the weekend, have a crack at the Chunk, and leave out of town come Monday.
We hitched up at the inn and went to the local watering hole, The Irish Eyes.
The middle-aged barman wore a t-shirt: Warning, I do dumb things.
I ordered two Wild Turkeys, my favorite bourbon.
“You here for the Chunk?”
“Then the first drink’s on me,” he said. “What kinda hardware you bring?”
Missy took a notebook from her purse and showed him her design for a trailer-mounted catapult we’d been towing halfway across the country.
“That’s a beaut of a catapult. Might just be a contender.”
“Still need some supplies to finish off.”
“How far it toss a pie?”
“I reckon it’ll throw far enough.”
“You need supplies, go to Felton’s Hardware. Won’t open till first light. Say Bigpeen sent you.”
“That name get me any kinda discount, Bigpeen?”
“Used to,” he said. “Not no more. New owner’s name is Jim Duke. Just bought the place a week back. He’s the ornery sort.”
“Any tips for the Chunk?”
“Go for the La Estrella pumpkin. Got a thicker rind. Holds up better under pressure.”
The next morning we went to Felton’s Hardware store on Bedford Street but the store was cordoned off with yellow tape and two police cruisers were parked nearby. Missy and me got out of our Toyota and approached an officer.
“There’s been a murder, folks.”
“Jim Duke. The owner.”
A crowd had begun to gather, mainly tourists in town for the championship. There’d be as many as twenty thousand by this evening.
“You catch who done it?”
“Have him arrested at the station. Bigpeen Halloran. Owns a bar—”
“I was there last night,” I said. “The Irish Eyes. What was it over?”
“Money,” the officer said. “Unpaid bill. The two of them had a big argument in the store yesterday.”
Missy and me got back in the Toyota. About thirty people were crowded around the hardware store jostling to see inside. The body had already been removed, which I clocked straight off having heard the coroner’s van leaving from the side alley. Smelled the gun smoke, too. The murder couldn’t have happened more than a half hour ago.
“He didn’t do it,” Missy said.
“So now you’re a medium? You can commune with the dead?”
“Bigpeen didn’t have murder in his eyes. You can always tell someone fixing to kill.”
“All I know is we’ve got a fifteen-mile round trip to gather supplies for the catapult…”
She stared out the side window at the hardware store. Silence was never a good sign with Missy.
“You fixing to get us in trouble every which where we go to?”
“I can’t stand cowards,” she said. “If someone was wrongfully arrested, and we can help, which we can, then it’s our duty to see justice done.”
There was no arguing with Missy.
I asked around and discovered the murder weapon was a Colt .45 and had been found at the murder scene. The weapon was registered to Bigpeen and contained his fingerprints.
“Can we go get them supplies now?” I asked Missy.
“Why would he leave the gun behind? The police picked Bigpeen up at his home. No blood on him. No trace evidence.”
“Except for the murder weapon.”
I wasn’t agreeing with her but she acted like I was.
“They have hard evidence,” I said. “He’s not getting off.”
“When ever have you taken the evidence at first sight?”
“Then what?” I said. “You’re gonna tell me the gun was planted?”
“The murderer, obviously.”
I took a deep breath. Fanned some air into my face with my Stetson.
“This isn’t our fight.”
Missy said, “Well, Daddy, I’m making it our fight.”
The consensus around town from the dozen people I spoke to categorically stated the same thing: Bigpeen didn’t do it. Not only that, but he wasn’t the type to fly off the handle. He wasn’t the murdering sort. Sure, Bigpeen and Jim Duke had an argument but that was on account of the state of affairs left behind by the previous owner, Harry Felton. Said it was nothing more than a mistake in the accounting books. Bigpeen was known as someone who paid his debts in a timely and orderly fashion. The more I spoke to folks, the more I started to side with Missy. Bigpeen didn’t kill Jim Duke.
“How’d that Colt revolver get to the crime scene?”
Missy and me were in a diner having lunch.
“Bigpeen kept the gun locked away. So it was someone who knew him, knew where he kept it.”
I cut into the cheese steak, and heaped a forkful with slaw, fries and pickle.
“Why’d Harry Felton sell up so quick?” I said. “He owed that store for a couple years, ever since his pa passed on.”
We parked outside Harry Felton’s red brick house on Market Street. I knocked on the door and a forty-year-old man with receding hair answered. This was still the kind of town where people opened their doors willingly. Probably still illegal to profane, too.
“Can I help you?” Felton said.
There was caution in his voice. I can sometimes make the wrong impression. I’m six-two and two hundred and fifty pounds.
“It’s nothing to worry about, sir,” I said. “I’m friends with Bigpeen.”
“I’ve never seen you before.”
“Can I come in and talk?”
Felton looked us over and let us into his living room.
“Bigpeen got his self in a whole heap of trouble,” Felton said. “I would’ve lent him the money, had he asked.”
Missy said, “Did he really owe the new owner all that money?”
“Course he did. The debt passed over when I sold the shop.”
“How long have you and Bigpeen been friends?”
“We were in high school together. But I only moved back when my father died a couple of years ago. I guess you could say we’ve been friends since then.”
“Good enough friends that you’d be in his home?”
“What other kind of friend is there?”
“You think he could do something like killing a man?”
Felton glanced around the room. For a rich man, the room seemed oddly bare, and there were large tracts of space where objects used to be. Like he’d been selling his things.
“Sometimes people just snap. Oftentimes over the simplest things—”
“That would do it,” he said.
“Why’d you sell the hardware store?”
“I was never the hardware store type. My father was, but not me. I kept it on as long as I could. But, you see, I’m a broker. Got my own business.” He pointed to a laptop. “I buy and sell commodities. And I’ve been making a killing.” He chewed his bottom lip. “I’ve been making so much money in brokerage I didn’t need the store anymore.”
It was nine o’clock in the evening. Missy had spent the afternoon on the phone and her laptop checking into Felton’s brokerage company.
“His company has had impressive year-on-year growth,” she said. “Too impressive. He’s being investigated by the IRS for tax irregularities.”
“He’s cooking the books?”
“I believe that’s what the IRS investigation will reveal. But by then Bigpeen will have been sentenced for that murder. We can’t wait for the IRS investigation. Felton’s too sneaky. He’s already got the money from the sale of the hardware store. Two hundred thousand went into his bank this morning. As soon as this murder blows over, he’ll disappear.”
“What do we do?”
“Daddy, you need to teach Felton a valuable lesson. Where’s the pliers?”
I lashed Felton to a hard chair in his kitchen. Breaking in was easy when the door was unlocked.
Missy told him everything we discovered, laid it all on the line.
“Bigpeen’s innocent,” she said. “You framed him. Even though I shouldn’t, on account of you lying to me, I will give you this one opportunity to admit the truth.”
“They’ve already charged Bigpeen,” Felton said. “And I’m never going to confess.”
“You’re forgetting something,” Missy said. “We’re not the police. And Daddy here is a trained military specialist. What specialism did they educate you in, Daddy?”
“Information extraction through the utilization of systematic torture techniques.”
I clamped a pair of pliers onto the fingernail of Felton’s index finger.
On Saturday morning I drove toward the World Championship Punkin Chunkin or The Chunk, as they call it, which is a field outside Georgetown at grid coordinates 38° 43′ 20″ North and 75° 32′ 08″ West. We wore our “Gonna Hurl” t-shirts. In Bridgeville I took the turnoff near the intersection of Seashore Highway and Chaplains Chapel Road. Over twenty thousand people were in attendance.
I parked in my designated area and set about fine-tuning our catapult.
People were staring. News travels fast. That’s the thing about small towns: folks were always up in each other’s business. A couple came to shake my hand, oily and greased as it was from work.
Felton had made a full and frank confession, which Missy recorded on her Dictaphone, then we delivered the memory card and the perp to the Georgetown police department. The “torture” was just a bit of karmic digression, something to scare the bejesus out of him. I didn’t actually hurt Felton. Amazing what a prop (such as pliers) and the confidence of your convictions can do to a cowardly individual. It’s a simple and effective technique.
It transpired that Felton ran the hardware store into the ground. He cooked the books, inflating its net worth, and sold the business to Jim Duke. Felton knew it would only be a matter of weeks until Duke discovered the fraud. But it didn’t matter. Felton had already planned to frame Bigpeen for the murder. He waited for Duke to tell Bigpeen that ten thousand dollars was owed for unpaid bills, knowing Bigpeen always paid his debts and would be shamed into a public argument. Felton killed Duke with Bigpeen’s gun. So much for friendship.
The championship was about to begin and we were first to shoot. I had a couple minutes to complete the build on our catapult. I’d be surprised if it worked at all.
“Looks ain’t everything,” Missy said.
“Don’t expect it to beat Big 10.”
Missy had been researching the best build techniques, finding the perfect device and Big 10 Inch had set the world record in Moab, Utah. It was a pneumatic cannon. But Missy was old school. She liked the idea of entering the catapult category because it was based on Roman technology, except taken to the extreme. The goal is simple: controlled mechanical explosion.
“But the Moab record doesn’t count,” she said. “It’s only here in Bridgeville that counts. And last year’s record breaker shattered the distance by…”
Didn’t let her tell me anymore. Ignorance is bliss. Not knowing can free you up.
I tensioned the rubber bands, each as thick as a two-inch piece of PVC pipe, and traced the couplings to the throwing arm and the winched-down bucket. No obvious weaknesses. It very well might not kill everyone in a fifty-yard radius. Small mercies.
Missy finished spraying on its name. We were going to call it “Sir Chunks A Lot” but due to the clunky appearance from the rushed build we called it “Chunky.”
The arm was cocked into the loaded position and Missy selected a green-gray La Estrella pumpkin and placed it in the bucket. I hit the quick-release mechanism. The arm snapped forward, bucket whipping overhead. Something crunched. The mechanism lurched and the pumpkin shattered to vapor.
“It’s pie,” a woman said.
Pie — short for pumpkin pie in the sky. It didn’t count.
We moved to leave but the crowd called for another. Strictly speaking, you’re only allowed a single shot per day but they made us take another. Such are the perils of being a temporary celebrity. Bigpeen brought us a pumpkin this time. Officially, this throw wouldn’t count, but we carried on regardless.
I struck the quick-release and the pumpkin hurled upwards. Intact. Landed seven hundred feet away. Not too shabby. Best of the day so far. Although we were the first to launch.
“I believe we have a winner,” I said.
“Not exactly, Daddy. The record’s five thousand feet.”
Oh well, there’s always next year. Might even dream of breaking the mile.
Michael McGlade has had 35 short fiction stories appear in journals such as Spinetingler, Ambit, Grain, J Journal, Green Door, and r.kv.r.y. He holds a master’s degree in Creative Writing from Queen’s University, Ireland. You can find out the latest news and views from him on McGladeWriting.com.