When the chess game is over,
the pawn and king are placed
in the same box.
Piss—that distinct smell. Decades of piss had collected on the bathroom floor in this shit-hole bar and now filled Nick’s nostrils as vomit fire-hosed its way from his mouth. Looking down at the black stains that covered what should have been white grout helped him belt out the last little bit. Like most binge drinkers, twenty-nine-year-old Nick Harmen had a short memory of how these occasions usually ended.
To his left was a stall wall covered with phone numbers, graffiti, and a perfectly stenciled Tootsie Pop owl staring back at him. Nick rose to his feet, keeping his baby blues locked with the owl’s beady pen marks. “I must be having a reaction to the cinnamon in that whiskey. What say you, Mr. Owl?”
The pores on Nick’s forehead were starting to close, cutting off the tiniest beads of moisture and leaving them to drip down and rest over the red of his clean-cut cheeks. His T-shirt hung from his chest and belly like a circus net until he stood up, causing it to drape around his stocky torso in a more form-fitting manner. After a thorough stain check, he left the stall and headed for a sink that was every bit as grimy as the toilet he’d just been acquainted with.
Desperately needing to rid his hands of the pungent cinnamon-whiskey odor that had somehow wrapped itself around them, Nick scrubbed for thirty seconds before rinsing away the well-earned lather. Only afterward did he realize the hand soap was cinnamon scented, causing his return to the stall and more vomit. What fucking bar has cinnamon soap?
Meanwhile, out at the bar and having no trouble with his own gag reflex, Nick’s younger cousin Ryan sipped on a cocktail and hit on the twentysomething bartender. Like most good bartenders—or strippers—she was just the right kind of flirtatious and knew exactly how to work the eyes. Ryan had just turned twenty-three and was still riding that wave many young people do when they don’t yet know the agony of a real hangover.
One look at Ryan and Nick, and most people would feel safe in assuming the two were related. The cousins had what friends and family often referred to as the “Harmen stamp.” It had been passed down from Grandpa George. Most of the Harmen boys were wide in the shoulders, baby in the face, and mean as rattlesnakes—or sweet as raw honey, depending on the circumstances.
Walking back to the bar area, Nick wiped his mouth and took notice of the thumping sound of Waylon Jennings coming from the jukebox speakers. It was a nice break from the Christmas music Nick couldn’t seem to avoid. Not that he didn’t appreciate a good Christmas song, but it wasn’t even fuckin’ Thanksgiving yet. It was Tuesday, November 25, 2014, to be exact.
While Nick returned to his stool and took turns shamelessly hitting on the bartender with Ryan, the television made a silent announcement to all six people in the bar.
A grand jury in Saint Louis, Missouri, declined to indict a police officer, Darren Wilson, who had fired six shots and killed a young man, Michael Brown, during a confrontation. The incident had taken place in a small town called Ferguson, Missouri, back in August that same year, and there were two versions of the story. The first version was that a white police officer mercilessly gunned down an unarmed black teen in the middle of the street, in the middle of the day. The second version was that a police officer shot and killed a grown man after the man robbed a store and attempted to take the officer’s gun.
As with many decisions well publicized by media coverage, a firm line was established, and people were quick to pick a side. That night in Ferguson and other places across the country, protests and riots served as a messenger for those who were unhappy about the jury’s conclusion. Windows were shattered, televisions were stolen, and hashtags ran rampant. But when the announcement was broadcast over a tiny tube television in the corner of an old Iowa dive bar, no one in the room even noticed.
“You ready to go?” Nick asked.
“I was gonna order us another couple shots,” Ryan said.
Nick felt his esophagus widen. After one deep breath, he was able to limit the output to a burp.
“What, you not feelin’ so good?” Ryan was flashing his trademark shit-eating grin.
“No, I’m good, but we gotta get goin’.”
“OK,” Ryan said, turning to the bartender. “We’ll cash out, hon.” Normally, the bartender didn’t take kindly to patronizing nicknames like hon or sweetie, but there was something sincere about the way it rolled off Ryan’s tongue. She acknowledged this with a smile while handing over their tabs.
Their location was Pleasant City, Iowa, just outside Des Moines. Their destination was home, almost three hours southeast to rural Junction, Iowa. Over the previous three years, the two had made monthly trips to Pleasant City—fifteen pounds of quality pot joining them each time. Over the past six months, they had begun a new tradition to conclude their business in the small town. Once they made the drop-off and collected their money, a few celebratory drinks would follow at the town’s pub.
It wasn’t too often that Nick drank during daylight hours, but he always loved the born-again feeling that came when his eyes adjusted from the neon lights to sunshine. When he and Ryan stepped out of the pub, the bitter November air wrapped around their faces and ears like an ice blanket. The two hunched down into their coats, hands deep in their pockets.
Nick didn’t consider himself to be drunk, just buzzed, but the commercials that warned him not to drink and drive had informed him several times that “buzzed driving is drunk driving.” Three o’clock. Who the fuck gets a DUI at three o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon? Before he hit the unlock button to his brand-new Dodge Ram, he needed to wipe away a gnat-sized speck of dirt on the tailgate.
“I’m just glad it’s not the coldest day of the year,” Ryan said, waiting for his door to unlock.
The closest major highway to Pleasant City was Highway 61, a ten-minute jaunt from the small city’s limits. Nick’s driving was spot on that day, and getting to the on-ramp was no problem. Only one red light kept him from the concrete artery that would guide his truck back home to Junction. The red light, however, would not budge.
“If this thing doesn’t turn in ten seconds, I’m just goin’.”
Ten…nine…eight…seven…slam. Out of nowhere, a rusty Chevy Blazer smashed into the back end of Nick’s truck. The jerky impact sent him and Ryan backward and then forward, jostling their necks like newborn babies.
“Son of a bitch. You all right, Ry?”
“Yeah. I’m good,” Ryan said, rubbing his neck.
“What the fuck?” Nick opened his door and took a slow stroll toward the other driver. “You OK?”
There was no verbal response, only an answer from the Blazer. kahkahkahkah. The driver was trying to start it up and flee.
“Hey,” Nick said, picking up his pace.
vroom. Click. vroo-o-o-m.
The Blazer sped to the right of the Ram and zipped back to the left, entering the highway. “Fucker!” Nick sprinted back to his truck and hopped in.
“Did you get his insurance?” Ryan was only half-smiling but fully aware of the answer and what was about to happen next.
Within thirty seconds, Nick’s truck had caught up and was centimeters away from the Blazer’s back end. Highway 61 looked like Talladega as the speeding vehicles weaved recklessly through any others unfortunate enough to be on the road.
By judging the Blazer’s moves, Nick got the feeling its driver had some experience being chased down. There was one thing the guy had never experienced, though. The Blazer’s front end had gotten so crinkled that the oncoming air slicing under the hood forced it to pop open. At ninety-two miles per hour, with his windshield completely covered, the man behind the wheel was nowhere close to ready.
“Holy shit!” Ryan said.
Seconds later, honking cars zoomed by as the Blazer pulled to the left and into the median. The Ram screeched to a halt right behind it. Before the hit-and-runner had a chance to lock up or prepare his defense, Nick had him down on the pavement and was beating him as if the guy were a third-generation garage-sale couch. Although traffic was heavy, the large Blazer concealed everything. Curious motorists passing by assumed mechanical trouble was involved.
As Nick’s fists sent shudders through the young man’s skull, Ryan grabbed a bottle of whiskey from the backseat of the Ram. The bottle was half full but emptied to a quarter quickly as Ryan poured it all over the Blazer’s front seats. After snagging a cup full of loose change, he joined the other two. By this time, Nick had stopped punching, leaving the young man barely conscious. Ryan stepped forward and poured the remainder of the whiskey in the guy’s bloody mouth and on his shirt. Then, Ryan smashed the bottle to bits on the driver-side door.
He and Nick got in the Ram and left the guy lying on the ground, covered in one part blood, two parts whiskey, and five parts regret. A few miles later, Nick thought about how harsh they had been. It was only for a moment, though. It didn’t take long to remember what the guy had done to his brand-new truck and the attempted takeoff afterward.
“Fuck him.” Maybe less people would hit-and-run if that were the penalty.
“It’s mostly quarters in here,” Ryan said, digging two fingers through the newly acquired change cup.
As Nick thought about the $3,000 worth of damage riding behind him, he noticed Ryan still rubbing his neck.
“You all right?”
“Yeah. I’ll make it.”
“Quit being such a pussy, then,” Nick said, smiling.
As the adrenaline began to wear off, sleigh bells introduced the next song on the radio. Nick twisted the knob with angry fingers, allowing the Who to take over. “It’s not even fuckin’ Thanksgiving yet,” he said.
Ryan smirked, agreeing in silence.