It was the third time in a row Martin saw the man. A stranger that didn’t belong to that small community. First, he saw him at the local news agency, wearing a dark suit and tie, browsing the magazines. Then, he picked up a camping and caravan magazine, The RV Great Escape, and casually flipped through the pages. The man’s dress and demeanor didn’t match with a nature lover. He was a city born and bred person who knew nothing about nature, camping, and so RVs. He looked like a law enforcement agent, an undercover police detective, or FBI agent in Martin’s eyes.
Later, Martin saw the same man at the Green Java, his favorite coffee shop, the largest of the three existing café in the town. The man deliberately took a chair that gave him a panoramic view of the street and the shop’s main door. He could easily monitor both the shop’s patrons and the pedestrians on the street from that point. This time he wore a jean, a cotton flannel shirt, and a low-end stetson, a city slicker acting cowboy. He but missed the boots. Instead wore a pair of shiny, out-of-the-box black Nike. Possibly the high cost of the leather boots dissuaded him from buying a pair, Martin presumed.
Though Martin found the man out of place at the news agency, he didn’t give a damn about his presence there. But seeing him for the second time triggered an alarm in Martin’s cautious mind. He didn’t believe in coincidences. Pleasantville was a small town on the highway between two large cities, so it was common to see travelers stop there to refresh, to have a coffee and a bite to eat or fill their cars’ tank, but seeing someone staying there for more than half a day was an unusual sight.
On the next day, late afternoon, Martin saw the stranger again, sat on a bench on the street near his residence, busy reading Pleasantville post, a local free weekly paper full of ads. He called it a minute paper. And he was generous in picking that name. As for him, it would take less than ten seconds to go from its cover to the last page. And the only reason Martin was going through the paper was the occasional printed discount vouchers for the local supermarket and restaurants.
The stranger was watching him. ‘I can do a better job than this idiot. He lost his cover on his first day at the news agency.’ Martin told himself. ‘The watchman!’ He nicknamed him. ‘From now on, I am going to watch the watchman.’ He smiled at the thought of watching the watchman. It sounded poetic to Martin, though he knew nothing about poetry.
Seargent James MacDougall was a navy seal soldier who served three tours in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan. But when he returned home found life difficult. No one gave a damn to his service, and all the unique skills he learned in the military were useless in the civilian world. So first, James tried to become a police officer, which sounded similar to his previous profession as a soldier. But he failed the required psychological assessments for getting into the police academy because of the mental scars he carried from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Later he joined a security firm. However, the money sucked, and the long hours of work made him quit after a little more than a year on the job. So finally, after a long period of unemployment, just doing a little here and there, he and two of his mates, ex-soldiers, who were also unemployed, came together to do something about their situations. After a few failed tries to run a business, frustrated and out of money, out of desperation and angry from the society that neglected them and their sacrifices, they agreed to rob a bank.
After a few months of surveillance and planning, they raided a suburban bank on one Friday afternoon. Though their original plan was to rob the bank, harming no one, when one of the two security officers draw his sidearm and fired at them, they fired back and kill the shooting officer and badly injured the other one. Security officers overestimated their abilities in stopping the bank robbers. They were no match with their skills. They were trained killing machines.
On that raid, they stole four million dollars in cash from the bank. Robbing a bank by itself was a serious crime with a lengthy jail sentence, but they had killed one security officer and badly injured the other. If they were arrested, they would face the death penalty or life imprisonment.
‘Now we are on Police and FBI wanted list for both bank robbery and homicide. So we have to disappear from law enforcement agencies’ radars.’ James told his friends.
‘It’s funny that we will receive medals if we kill in the war, but killing a security officer is now a capital crime.’ Alex, the youngest one in the group, commented.
‘Tell me about it.’ Peter, his co-conspirator, a former navy seal corporal, responded.
‘What should we do now? Sergeant.’ Alex asked anxiously.
‘We must separate. We must disappear into thin air and never contact each other.’ James stated.
‘Why shouldn’t we see each other? We can rob a few more banks.’ Peter suggested acquisitively.
‘We have almost four million dollars now, which each one’s share will be over 1.3 million dollars in cash. It is more money than we can make by honest work during our lives. So if we manage it well, it will be enough for our entire lives. And the reason we shouldn’t see each other is that if one of us is arrested, police cannot squeeze him to give up the others.’ James commented.
‘At least let to rob one or two more banks, and then we can retire with a large sum of money.’ Peter suggested.
‘Do you remember our training?’ James asked. ‘Never walk the same route twice on the combat zone. It will give the enemy the chance to predict your behavior and so kill you. Be unpredictable.’ James paused and looked at the other soldiers to see the impact of his comment. ‘Now all the law enforcement agencies are looking for us. So the best course of action is to disappear, to stay low.’
James interrupted Peter and said, ‘Peter, this is greed talking and not a well-trained navy seal soldier. There is no but. As we planned and agreed, it would be only one bank robbery, and it stays that way. I am out.’
‘Sergeant is right. It’s risky. I am out too.’ Alex stated.
After a short pause, musing on James’s comment, Peter also agreed.
So after they divided the stolen money, they shook hands, said their farewells, and separated. James MacDougall adopted the new identity of Martin Carpenter as his alias, and after a thorough search, moved to the other side of the country to the small town of Pleasantville. ‘Everyone thinks a fugitive bank robber should escape the country or hide in a big city and not in plain sight in a small town.’ James believed.
Pleasantville was originally a mining town formed during the gold rush in the region over a hundred and fifty years ago. But a few decades after its establishment, when its limited gold deposits diminished. Like a deciduous tree losing its leaves in the fall, the town lost its population in a matter of a year and became a ghost town. Years later, when the federal government planned to construct highways connecting major cities, a highway passed by Pleasantville. Therefore, as an oasis, a place for travelers and truckies to stop, have food and coffee, and refill their cars’ tanks, some new businesses flourished in the city. Once at the peak of the gold rush, Pleasantville had about ten thousand residents. It never grew that large again. Now it had a steady population of about one thousand. Pleasantville was a small and cozy town ideal for those who seek a laid-back life.
A month after the bank robbery, Martin (James) arrived at the Pleasantville. Martin’s cover story was that he left the big city and his job after finding his wife was cheating on him with his best friend. So after the divorce, he left the city and its bad memories behind, looking for a calm place to start a peaceful life. Martin began working on the only gas station in the town and rented an old house on the town’s outskirts. Later, he started his own business, a small taxi service that initially started with one car, which had grown to have fifteen taxis.
In the beginning, locals looked at him as an outsider. However, Martin was friendly and helped people as much as he could. So after ten years now, he was an accepted member of the community and loved by everyone.
Martin followed the man. He was staying in the only motel in town. As he knew the motel owner, Tony Talbott, it was easy to get needed information indirectly over one or two beers. By the end of the night, Martin learned that the man arrived four days before and booked a room for two weeks, and his name was Dean Baker. Probably an alias, Martin presumed. After he found about the stranger, Martin got anxious. ‘Why the man wants to stay in town for two weeks? What is his business? Is he after me?’ He sensed an immediate danger and decided to do something about it.
Martin couldn’t sleep well that night. He had one nightmare after another. He found himself handcuffed in police custody in one dream, and in another one, he was locked up behind bars in a cold and dark cell. It was around 3:00 AM when he left his bed. He wore his black windcheater, stuffed his black balaclava in the side pocket of his military fatigue pants, took his tools, and walked out of his house. It was dark and quiet. Air was cool and crisp, and the town was deadly quiet. Pleasantville was always quiet from the early hours of the night until sunrise. Martin checked his watch. He had three and a half hours until dawn. The motel was just two kilometers east of his home, but the town’s only 24/7 gas station was on his way. To avoid being seen by the station’s workers or travelers filling their cars’ tanks, he chose a detour, a longer but safer route, passing through the desert that encompassed the town.
The night was moonless and dark. He could still navigate his way under the soft light of the shining stars. A cold breeze was brushing against his skin. All brought long-forgotten memories back, both pleasant and unpleasant. He was again on a reconnaissance mission, as he had in Iraq and Afghanistan. Again, he felt the euphoric surge of adrenaline in his blood. Martin wasn’t there anymore. It was Seargent James MacDougall in action mode. He walked like a cat, tuned to pick up the tiniest sounds or movements in the environment.
Martin finally reached the motel. But before getting closer, he wore his balaclava to conceal his identity. The motel was a large one-story building with twenty-four guest rooms, and based on the information he extracted from Tony, only four were occupied at that time. And the watchman, Mr. Dean Baker, was in room 12.
The outside sodium lights were on and filled the motel’s peripheral with their bright, warm light. But excluding the reception, all rooms were in the dark. The greeter at the reception desk, knowing that no one would disrupt the night’s peace, was in a deep sleep on his not so comfy chair. Martin walked toward the back of the building, and when he was out of the sight of any onlooker, with a swift movement like a gecko, he climbed up the wall and reached the roof. Martin came down on his fours to avoid being seen. Then he moved until he reached the motel’s sunroof, which was in the middle of the building close to his destination, room 12. The glass sunroof had a small window, worked as a low-cost ventilation system. To his advantage, the window was left open.
Martin squeezed himself through the tiny window and silently slide down like a cat on a hunting quest. He softly walked toward room 12. The room was dark and quiet. He put his ear on the door and listened. Soon he picked up a faint breathing sound. It seemed the room’s occupant was in a deep sleep. He slowly tried the door handle. It was locked and didn’t budge. He swiftly took his lock-picking tools out from the side pocket of his pants and began working on the lock. His ear was on the door, listening to the sounds of the lock and any other noises that might come from inside. His fingers were masterfully manipulating the picking tools. The door was old, same as the motel, and the lock was ancient, so he hacked the lock in less than a minute. Then slowly pushed the door handle down and opened the door. He was worried about the noise the opening door might create, but the door opened smoothly, with less noise than he expected. Luckily the door’s hinges were oiled recently.
Martin walked into the room and slowly closed the door. He stopped at the small entrance hall and observed his environment. Dean was on the bed, slept on his left side, in a fetal position, lightly snoring. His face was away from the door. A sound back in his head told him to finish the man. But Martin wasn’t a cold blood murderer, and the incident in the bank was just self-defense. He didn’t want any harm to those security officers.
By further observation, Martin saw Dean’s coat that he wore on the first day was hanged in the wardrobe, which its door was left wide open. Then he noticed Dean’s wallet, watch, phone, and a few coins left on the bedside tabletop. He slowly got close to the wardrobe and quickly patted the hung suit. Its pockets were empty. Then he silently got close to the bed and swiftly snatched the wallet and phone. Then he gently left the room and tiptoed into the motel’s men’s room in the lobby. There he examined the wallet. He quickly found Dean’s driver’s license and ID card. Dean Baker was a real estate developer. ‘But this is a strange place for a real estate developer?’ Martin asked himself. ‘What is his real business here in Pleasantville? This dying town with no bright future. Is this his cover story?’
By searching a little more, Martin retrieved an old cracked black and white small photo of a young lady, somehow attractive, out of the wallet. The young woman looked familiar. He had seen her somewhere. ‘Oh, this is Beth.’ Martin recognized her. Beth was in her fifties now and owned the only flower shop in the town. She was the town’s lone florist. Dean looked at the back of the photo. In a pale blue ink, lost its color by the passing time, there was a handwritten message- to my love Dean. Signed Beth.
At that moment, everything became clear to him. Dean wasn’t a police officer or FBI agent. He was a desperate, middle-aged man in search of his lost love. He silently returned Dean’s wallet and phone on the bedside tabletop and left the motel.
Martin relaxed for the first time since when he saw the watchman. He was safe, and his cover was intact for now.
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What a beautiful end to a crime story... Love always wins, despite the tough realities of life. So inspirational! Thank you, Sasan!