Chapter 2 (Continued)
A few blocks down – nearly the length of the entire town – Mal spotted the tavern with several cars and trucks outside. A few neon beer signs flickered by the door. There was no sign proclaiming a name. It was the lone tavern in the town. No need to get fancy.
The interior of the squat, brown structure was utilitarian. A single pool table dominated the northwest corner, with a few small tables around it. A bar ran the length of the east wall – tended by one overweight woman. Mal guessed she was at least ten years older than him – close to fifty. Of course, the cigarette hanging out of her mouth might have added a few years to her face.
Didn’t Washington ban smoking in bars and restaurants? Yes, now that he thought about it, they did. At least five years ago. He let a wry smile dance across his face. Must take a little longer for news to reach Copperside.
There were several patrons at the tables, the bar, and playing pool. One of them stuck out because he was wearing a Pierce County Sheriff uniform – probably the local deputy. Mal recalled there was a deputy more or less permanently assigned to Copperside and the surrounding area. At least there was when he was a kid.
It wasn’t lost on Mal that several of the patrons stopped their conversations to watch him enter. A stranger in a small-town bar. He ignored their stares and walked up to an empty stool at the bar.
“What can I get you?” The overweight lady asked. Mal suppressed a smile. Her voice was exactly how he would have pictured it: raspy, yet syrup thick.
“I need food. It turns out my body doesn’t like the all scotch diet.”
She grunted a smile.
“Well, we got burgers and fries. Also the usual stuff – poppers and such.”
“Cheeseburger with fries sounds perfect.”
“Yeah. A beer. Whatever you have on tap.”
The woman returned with a glass full of something yellow and slightly foamy and disappeared through a door behind the bar. He sipped the beer. It wasn’t bad – but it wasn’t good, either. Some generic American lager. Not the kind of craft beer he was used to drinking in San Francisco.
Mal let his eyes wander around the room while he sipped the beer. An old policeman’s habit – watching the crowd. He noticed the deputy and another, older, man talking and looking up at him. Now that he noticed, the deputy wasn’t exactly a spring chicken, either. Greying hair and crow’s feet suggested a man somewhat older than Mal, at least. Not that big of a deal, of course, Mal had originally planned to stay on the force until he was sixty-five.
The TV was turned to a Seattle station. The local news was about a hiker lost on the slopes of Mount Rainier – not too far from Copperside, as the crow flies. Search and rescue operations were suspended for the night, but would begin again as soon as the sun came up.
The bartender returned with a bottle of ketchup and some napkins.
“That’ll be up soon.”
Mal watched out of the corner of his eye as the deputy and his older friend begin to make their way across the bar, straight for him. He idly wondered if he was about to get the small town speech. “We don’t like no strangers ‘round these parts.” He grinned and then moved to cover it up. No need for them to think he was laughing at them.
The two stopped on his left. Mal turned and raised an eyebrow.
“Evening, sir.” The older man spoke.
“I’m Christopher Jacob Baran, mayor of Copperside. This is Deputy Grayson Anders.”
The deputy nodded.
“Malcolm Evers.” Mal offered his hand. Mayor Baran shook it.
“Grayson here says you were driving a black Explorer.”
“He also said he’s pretty sure he spotted that Explorer earlier today out at the old Ambrose place. You know anything about that?”
“I would hope so. It’s my house.”
The mayor and deputy looked him up and down.
“You buy it from Mary Ambrose?”
“Mary Evers, my mother, died two years ago. I inherited the land from her. I only came up here once since then, to make sure the utilities were running – phone, dish, electricity – in case I decided to use the house for a vacation thing.”
“Ahh. So, are you on vacation now?” Deputy Anders asked.
“Look, Deputy, I just retired from the force in San Francisco. I understand why you want to know this stuff. But, frankly, what I plan to do with my property is none of your business.”
The deputy flushed. Mayor Baran looked at the two men and swallowed.
“Of course,” Baran offered. “Your business is your business. It’s just that we’re a small community here, Mr. Evers, and as the Mayor I like to get to know anyone living in my town. And, I’m sure you know this too, knowing the people makes Deputy Anders’s job a lot easier.”
Mal sipped his beer and nodded.
“You’re right. I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions. It’s just – well, I’m going through a divorce. I had to leave my job on the force and move up here – the only other house I own. So I’m a little touchy. Plus,” he grinned, “I’m a little hung over. I may have overdone it when I decided to celebrate my arrival last night.”
Both men grinned and visibly relaxed.
“Women problems, huh? Shit, we’ve all been there, haven’t we, Grayson?”
The deputy nodded. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a can of chewing tobacco, thumped it against his leg, and loaded a plug in his mouth.
“That’s the truth, CJ. I see you already got a little hair of the dog to help you out. You ain’t gonna push yourself too far and not be able to get home safe, are you?”
Mal shook his head.
“Not this time, deputy. A beer with my burger is all I want tonight.”
“Well, maybe two would be fine, Grayson? I’d like to buy Copperside’s newest citizen one as a welcoming gift.”
Deputy Anders shrugged.
“Alright, Mr. Evers. When you finish that one, I’ll have Mary bring you another on me. I’ll make sure its the same watery piss she always has in the tap – that stuff couldn’t get an infant drunk.”
The three men shook hands and parted. Mal sighed. Well, it wasn’t exactly the typical small town welcome, but it was definitely a small town welcome.
Mary returned with a plastic basket lined with paper, filled with fries and a burger.
“Need anything else?”
Mal looked at his food.
“You have any malt vinegar?”
She shook her head.
“That’s fine. This looks good. Thank you.”
“Alright. Let me know when you’re ready for another one. CJ says he’s buying.”
“CJ? Oh, the Mayor? Yeah.”
Mary chuckled. “Mayor. Right.”
Mal already had a bite of the burger in his mouth. He swallowed hard. “I wondered at the title. Isn’t Copperside a little too small to have a mayor?”
“We ain’t an official town. Whatever you call it.”
“Right. CJ used to be a county commissioner, so he has connections and such. A few years back, when money started getting tight ’round here, a bunch of folks decided we needed someone to represent the town with the county – you know, make sure we get a fair shake. A bunch of the business owners and Deputy Anders there met at the grange and voted CJ as Mayor of Copperside and town representative. Figured he’d be the best one for it since he knew how the county worked and knows people up in Tacoma and such.”
“So, does he get paid for the job?”
“Hell no. Just gets a bit of a swagger in his step out of it. Not that he needs it – the guy is what passes for rich around here. He bought a bunch of Weyerhauser land during the sell-off in the eighties and nineties and then sold it to the government and Californians. That was when he was still working for the county.”
“But don’t let that fool you. CJ has power, if he wants to use it. Does good for us, too. He lobbied to get the county to spare us some snow plows and sand trucks every winter. Got the school new buses, too.”
“Welp, I better get back at it.”
Mary waddled off, leaving Mal to his greasy burger and limp fries.
Mal finished the burger and most of the fries while watching a recap of a Mariners game. Mary returned to take his basket away and pointed at the beer.
“Gimme a minute, and I’ll be ready for another.”
Mal drained the pint and stood up to find the bathroom. He made his way through the respectable crowd, passed Mayor “CJ” Baran and Deputy Grayson Anders, and entered the men’s room. The urinal was a trough – something he hadn’t seen in many years. He cursed himself and the trough when some splashed back on his shoes.
On the mirror above the lone sink someone had scratched, “CJs wife sucked me off”.
“Not exactly universally loved, are you, CJ?” Mal whispered to his greasy reflection.
Outside the bathroom, Anders waved Mal over to their table. He pointed at a full beer in front of an empty chair. Mal nodded and walked over.
“Thank you, gentlemen.”
“No problem,” CJ replied. “Have a seat. Grayson and I were talking about you and thought you might be interested in hearing something.”
Mal sat down and took a slow drink from the beer.
“Well, you see, I’m not just the Mayor. I’m also the Volunteer Fire Commissioner. I’d imagine you have some experience with fires and EMT stuff from your old job. We could sure use some more experienced people in the department. It ain’t a paying job, I know, but it is rewarding and a great way to fit in with the town.”
“Guys, I really don’t know anything about fighting fires. I was a detective in a city PD. Very different work.”
“We know that, Mr. Evers.” Anders replied. “But I can tell you, emergency work is emergency work. You have the right kind of mind for it – you know what I mean? Some people are just better at dealing with stuff like that. And we’re always short-handed.”
Mal raised an eyebrow. “You’re on the department, too? Doesn’t that kind of cause problems between the two jobs.”
CJ smiled. “Nope. You see, Grayson here pretty much has to be at any fire around here as deputy, anyways. So, this way, he’s there as the deputy and he helps with the fire. Works out well.”
“Aha. Well. I still don’t know the first thing about fighting fires, guys.”
“Malcolm,” CJ raised his hand. “I can call you Malcolm?”
“Every year we all go over to Fort Lewis and train on their burn house there. We have a two-week course that can get you right up to speed. You already know most of the stuff – even if you don’t know you know it.”
“Look, guys, I appreciate the offer. But I’m just getting back on my feet here. I need time to think before I do anything.”
“Oh. Of course, Malcolm. We didn’t expect you to decide tonight. But, wildfire season is coming up in July and August, and we could use the extra help. Even if it’s just logistical stuff. So we wanted to see if you’d think on it.”
“I can do that.”
Mal drained his beer.
“Oh, right. While we’re on the subject, Deputy, I saw some light in the woods between my house and Route 7. Could be a fire, or it could just be some kids or something. Thought you might want to know.”
Anders scratched his chin. “The woods on the north side?”
Anders smiled. “Probably kids out at Bunker Hollow. I’ll drive by later tonight, but no real reason to go in there. They’ll just scatter.”
“Those woods between your place and the Anderson farm used to be Weyerhauser land. CJ here bought it from them in the eighties and then sold it to the government. They started building something out there – local rumors say it was going to be a nuclear missile silo – but then abandoned it. Left behind a big concrete bunker that they sealed off. Kids go out there and party sometimes. Every few months I have to go and replace the chain on the gate, and fix the door to the bunker. They always manage to break the thing open and get inside.”
CJ shook his head.
“Even had one kid drown in there in the nineties. Sad. College kid from Tacoma who came out here with his buddies to party. People don’t realize those old bunkers fill up with water when they are abandoned.”
“Oh. Well, I thought you should know. Now, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to settle up with Mary and head home. I still have a good portion of last night to sleep off.”
CJ waved his hand. “Don’t worry about the bill. Already covered.”
“You don’t need to do that.”
“I own the bar, Malcolm. Bought it from Mary when she was having trouble. She still runs it, but it’s my business. Don’t worry about it.”
“Alright, then. I can’t argue with the Mayor, the Fire Commissioner, and the owner. Thank you, again. I’ll see you gentlemen soon, I’m sure.”
“Thanks for the tip, Malcolm. I’ll stop by tomorrow at your place and let you know if it amounted to anything.”
“Alright, Deputy. Good night.”
The light was gone from the woods when Mal went home. He shrugged it off, went inside, and collapsed on his unmade bed.