Their Crooked Mile
“I got something in the mail.”
Tom Billings sounded like he was drunk. His voice, cracking and slurring.
“Tom,” Russ said, rubbing sleep from his eyes. “It’s after two in the morning. Why don’t you go sleep it off and call me tomorrow at a more reasonable hour.”
“It’s a picture of me and some…some kids, Russ,” his voice trailed off.
Russ sat up on the side of the bed.
“Russ?” his wife asked, sleepily. “What is it?”
“Just Tom, honey. He’s a little drunk. Go back to sleep.”
She moaned. “Take the phone downstairs, please,” she said irritably.
Russ got up and left the room. “What kids, Tom?”
Tom sighed irritably. “You know good and damn well what kids.”
Russ fought back panic started to grow in his chest. Something was going on. “Who sent it?”
Tom hesitated. “I don’t know.”
“Well is there a return address, a P.O. box, something?” Russ said, angrily.
“I said I don’t know who sent it, Russ! It’s just—”
Russ took a deep breath to calm himself and hopefully it was deep enough to calm Tom’s fears too. “It’s just a picture? A picture of you and some kids,” he said, trying to rationalize the situation. “So what?”
“I knew it would come to this,” Tom said, woefully. “I knew it.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Russ asked frustrated. He filled a small shot glass with scotch, and drank it quickly.
Tom was so quiet on the other end of the phone that Russ thought he had hung up, or passed out. “You mess around with the devil long enough, Russ, and sooner or later, he’ll get you.”
Russ grimaced. “You’re fuckin drunk off your ass!” he growled. “Go to sleep, Tom.”
“Ida Green cursed us, Russ,” Tom chuckled menacingly. “She cursed us the day we put her daughter away in prison.”
Now, the man was just talking nonsense. “Ida Green’s dead and buried in the ground. She ain’t in the business of cursing anybody these days.”
“We got greedy, Russ,” Tom continued, unaffected by anything coming out of Russ’s mouth. “I knew it in my gut that someday—someday it would come back to bite us in the ass.”
Russ hadn’t given energy to a single thought about Ida or about what had happened back then. Shit, too much time had passed to care. Desi Green was out, and ended up being a very rich woman.
“We saved that girl’s life,” Russ explained.
“We took it. And we kept on taking lives, Russ. For too long. Too many.”
Rage flushed over Russ like a heat wave. “Don’t you put that shit on me, Tom! Don’t you even think of trying to put what you did on me!”
“You reaped the benefits of what I did, Russ,” he said, quietly.
“Fuck you! What I do ain’t illegal! It ain’t a crime if two people are consenting adults!”
Tom chuckled. “And that’s the rub, ain’t it? They tell you what you want to hear, and it makes it fine as wine in your mind? Is that how it works, Russ?”
Russ rubbed sleep from his eyes. Tom was a fuckin' alcoholic, and tonight he was drunk and talking out of the side of his head about nonsense. “What’s in the picture, Tom? So, it’s you and some kids. What? Are you beating the kids? Eating them? Stuffing them into burlaps sacks and tossing them in the river? What?”
Again, Tom was quiet, and the empty sound on the phone was deafening. “I’m just…taking the kids. I’m taking them—from across the border.” An anguished sob crossed the phone lines. “I think she sent it,” Tom finally admitted out loud, a thought that had probably been driving him crazy ever since he found out that Desi Green was writing that book.
“How? Tom, how could she know?” Russ asked with desperation. In his mind, she couldn’t know a thing about either of them. Desi was nothing. She was just—a woman who’s suffered under some unfortunate circumstances in her life, but that was such a long time ago. Russ and Tom were probably nothing more than distant memories to that woman.
“You remember,” Tom started to say, drifting off onto another conversation. “You remember how Ida cried that day? You remember how she cried and cried…”
Russ squeezed his eyes shut trying to block out a memory he thought was long gone.
“She begged us, Russ… Begged us to…”
“You know she didn’t do this!” Ida’s eyes were bloodshot red. She was on her knees for crying out loud. On her knees tugging at Tom, and then crawled across the floor to Russ.
Tom had called Russ when he’d gotten the call from the Gatewood lawyers. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what—”
“Oh, God!” Ida sobbed. “Tom—Tom, please! Judge Fleming! She’s just a baby! She’s my baby!”
It was hard to watch. Deep down, conscience convicted both men, but not enough.
“Sign your statement, Ida,” Tom told her, after looking at Russ. “You have to sign it.”
“No!” Ida shook her head so hard and fast that she nearly fell over. “No! I won’t! I ain’t signing nothing! Cause you know it’s a lie!” she struggled to her feet, and took a defiant stance in front of both men. Ida pointed. “You know it’s a lie! And you know it! And I ain’t signing a motha fuckin thing!”
Finally, Russ stepped forward. “You sign it, Ida, or I swear to God I’ll put the death penalty on the table when it comes time to convict that girl!” he stood nose to nose with her. “And you know just like I know that the jury will find her guilty!”
Tom pulled out the chair for her. Ida deflated right before their eyes, and she signed the document.
It hadn’t affected him back then. Russ stood in the middle of his kitchen feeling like he’d been bathed in mud. Ida had inherited some of Julian Gatewood’s money, but not enough to keep her daughter out of prison.
“Take me instead,” she said, solemnly, sitting down at that table over the statement she was supposed to sign. “She’s too young. Take me,” her voice trailed off.
Tom shifted uneasily from one foot to the other. “I’ve got witnesses who saw her with the gun in her hand, Ida.”
She looked up at him with hooded, red eyes. Tom turned away. Ida signed her official statement.
“Men like us, take liberties with people’s lives, Russ,” Tom spoke unemotionally into the phone. “We’re not gods, but we pretend to be. We have no right to do the things we do.”
“You need to get some sleep, Tom. It’s late.”
Tom sighed. “It is late. Too damn late, and we’re about to be held accountable for all our trespasses, Russ. You get ready.”