Elizabeth Smith print version
Francis shook his head a little and frowned because he had a feeling that he should know what she was talking about.
"Where are we going again?"
"You're the one who set it up, Slim. Dirk is meeting us at a truck stop outside Denver."
Francis' stomach began to feel a little funny. He couldn't recall anybody named Dirk and Sing Sing was a prison. He didn't know anybody in prison.
"We don't have to use our conversation for the article, Slim. Anything you want to be off the record can be. You just say the word."
The worrisome thoughts about Dirk and a friend from Sing Sing went right out of his mind. Wait until his daughter saw an article about him, Francis thought gleefully. He opened his mouth to ask her if she worked for Cowboys and Country.
"But I think including everything you said would portray you as one of the most famous criminal minds of the Twentieth Century, in a more personal, intimate light. What you said was amazing, Slim."
Francis shut his mouth tightly and stared at Biggs. She had her eyes on a bus in the lane ahead of them, probably the same bus he had ridden in, and she sounded perfectly serious.
"I mean, the way you talk about safe cracking," she laughed and shook her head. "It's against the law, it's dangerous, you steal money, but you make out like you're a real American craftsman."
The sudden understanding that she was not interviewing him for an article about horsehair bridles deflated him against the door like an old balloon. The door handle dug into Francis' back, but he could not move.
Biggs marveled, "Dirk just jumped at the chance to interview you. And now I see why. You are an American classic, Slim!"
Francis gave her a wan smile. His stomach hurt.
"I thought you'd be this hardened criminal -- some tough-talking guy. Or, maybe some dithering old fart. No, you're really cool, Slim. Really cool. Wait until we get there. Dirk talked to you in prison already, but this is going to blow him away!" Her eyes were shining.
Francis swallowed and croaked, "Biggs? There's been..."
"I've learned a lot from you, Slim, about how to look at my own life..."
Biggs' eyebrow with the two attached silver baubles arched animatedly as she spoke.
"And you know what?"
Francis' dry lips framed the word, "what," but he couldn't manage to get his voice out.
"I'm glad that some of the interview wasn't caught on tape. I feel...I feel honored, Slim. Thank you."
Francis stared out at the road before them, which was slowly rising to wind through long, flat mesas. He had to tell her. The SUV accelerated and they pulled past the gleaming Greyhound bus that pressed close to the right, out of their way. But it was easier to think about his daughter. She thought he was on that bus. He had to call his daughter. He'd never hear the end of it.
"Thank you," repeated Biggs.
"It was my pleasure," he managed to say.
He couldn't tell Biggs. He didn't want to see the expression on her face turn dark and sour or to hear her snarl some smart-ass something that his grandson might say. His wallet fell to the floor and gaped open revealing his driver's license. Carefully, he pushed the wallet under the seat with his heel.
"I don't want you to think I'm narrow-minded," said Biggs. "I don't see eye to eye with you on everything, but I really respect your integrity."
Francis worked up a weak smile.
"If all young people were like you, the world would be a better place."
At least that wasn't a lie. He might not be this famous criminal, but he was worth something. The words he had said were his and they had impressed Biggs. As he stared out the window he silently reviewed their conversation and felt a little glow of pride. She had been impressed with him.
Biggs was friendly-still animated.
"No, but if you are, we'll stop."
He recalled the man he was supposed to be.
"Prison food messed up my appetite."
He cringed at the lie.
"If we go a little further, we'll be at that truck stop where you wanted to meet Dirk."
Francis massaged his neck. He had to figure a way to get out of Biggs' sight and call his daughter. For a moment, he wished that he really was one of the most famous criminal minds of the Twentieth Century because then his little problem would seem like child's play. He wished he knew who he was supposed to be, but he couldn't exactly ask Biggs his own name.
Another two miles passed then Biggs announced, "Here we are," and Francis read Best in the West Truck Stop on a tall sign sticking high into the air, like a radio antenna.
As Biggs maneuvered the SUV through the ranks of trucks in the parking lot, Francis fretted. He didn't think it was fair that a man named Francis Hightower would be disappointing to this young woman. But, he couldn't fake being a brilliant criminal mind if his life depended on it, and Biggs would find out, anyway because Dirk knew the man that Francis was supposed to be.
When Biggs switched off the ignition, she looked at him seriously.
"This has been one of the best experiences of my life."
"I won't forget it, either," Francis said. He stifled a sigh.
"Are you ready?"
Francis swallowed and nodded. He trailed behind Biggs as they crossed the parking lot, but he hastened up to the glass door to hold it open for her and for the large family that walked out in front of him. When he finally went through the door himself, Biggs was waiting for him by the Seat Yourself sign. She was plucking at the spike below her lip.
"Dirk's not here. Let's have breakfast."
There seemed to be a mile of yellow linoleum to cross before they found a table, but the smells of bacon and burnt toast and the hum of the conversations of other patrons soon warmed the air. Biggs sat so she faced the door, and Francis wished he had a good reason to trade seats. A woman cheerfully re-potted a dahlia on a television program. Francis waited until they had ordered from a very tired looking waitress, before he leaned over the table to tell Biggs that he was a nobody. If he did it before Dirk came, at least he'd save her that embarrassment.
Suddenly, a menu smacked the table between them.
"Out of bacon," the waitress said.
"Out of bacon?" repeated Francis, incredulously.
"Out of bacon," she said flatly and Francis had the feeling that it was his fault.
"May I have some sausage?"
"We got hash," said the waitress as she swept the menu up and marched back to the kitchen.
Francis hated hash. Biggs looked surprised at his meekness and he blushed.
"I have to tell you something."
She sipped her water and watched him curiously.
"I'm not what I think I am. I mean, you think...I mean..."
Biggs patted his hand.
"I don't know what you're trying to say, Slim. Just take your time."
She might have really god-awful jewelry, Francis thought, but her eyes were the most compassionate eyes he had ever seen.
A newscaster in a neat suit broke into the gardening program. Francis watched him distractedly. He vowed to himself that if Biggs were not too disgusted with him, then he would step right up to his daughter and confess to her without any excuses that he was an old fool for missing that bus. He scarcely heard the newscaster's earnest voice saying something about a bank robber, a rest stop, a robbery. Then, his picture was on the television screen with Dallas J. Price emblazoned in bold letters beneath it. His heart thumped painfully against his chest before he realized that the man only looked a little like him.
"That was the rest stop where I met you!" exclaimed Biggs.
She sipped her glass of water then froze, looking into Francis' eyes.
"You're a quick worker," she said, coolly, but the ice chattered in her shaking glass as she sat it down.
She moved her hand slightly so that it covered the hilt of the butter knife.
Francis looked at the hard edge of Biggs' eyes then around the restaurant. The busy hum of conversation had died away. All faces were turned toward him. The waitress stood looking at the TV then at Francis then back to the TV again, with a steaming plate of eggs, hash and toast balanced in each hand. She sat them on the counter and backed into the kitchen. Slowly, the other patrons melted from their seats, pressed themselves against the wall or slid under their tables. A few scurried out the front door into the bright sun.
"Biggs, that's not me," he whispered.
Biggs whipped around to stare at the TV knocking her knife onto the floor with a clang. She jerked back to face him. There was a pause.
"You're right. That's not you."
She glared at him angrily.
Francis came to his feet, also holding his hands out to her.
"Who do you think you are? I missed a big interview because of you," she hissed.
"And you might have been in a robbery? Use your head!" Francis hissed back.
"Those were my own words you liked so much!"
"You liar!" she whispered vehemently.
Francis couldn't think of what to say so he banged the table with his fist. The silverware and dishes jangled and everyone in the truck stop gasped. Francis looked around him. Rows of pale faces gaped back at him. He noticed a little boy mouthing the word, "Cool!" He took a step forward. Everyone, including Biggs, pressed back from him. Someone whimpered behind his back. He waved both arms. People dropped to the floor. Someone shrieked. Francis drew in a deep breath.
"Right," he said clearly and loudly into the silence.
"Mr. Dallas J. Price wants his breakfast-with bacon!"
He marched to the counter and took a forkful of eggs from one of the plates.
"Everyone keep quiet and no one will get hurt," he added.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Dallas Price, sir," said the waitress from the kitchen.
A cowering customer pushed his plate over and Francis picked off a strip of bacon as he ordered more coffee-black. The waitress stretched out her arm with a pot at the end of it, but her hand was trembling so much that most of the coffee slopped onto the counter. Francis laid a paper napkin gently over the spill.
Biggs sidled up to him.
"That's some way of getting what you want, Slim...or whoever you are."
"Slim's fine," he said through a mouthful of toast. "Last bit of advice, Biggs. You recording? Be careful what you wish for."
"I'm sorry I called you a liar, Slim. You're all right."
"I appreciate that, young lady."
Then he noticed that Biggs was staring past his shoulder. Francis turned around.
Two uniformed police officers stood solidly beside the counter. They had their hands on the butts of their guns and their eyes flickered watchfully between Francis and Biggs. Two more entered the truck stop and stood by the door.
"Could be him," the older officer by Biggs said to the other out of the corner of his mouth.
The younger one brought his hand closer to his gun. He looked Francis up and down with something like wonder.
"Never thought I'd be taking in Dallas J. Price," he said breathlessly. Wait until my dad hears about this. Everyone's heard of..."
"That's enough, Hardle," ordered the older one. Price is a criminal, not Robin Hood, for Chrissakes."
He said quietly to Francis, while gesturing for him to face the counter, "Let's keep it relaxed, Pops. Just want to know a little more about you. Got any I.D? Keep your hands where I can see them, Pops."
Francis thought that this had gone far enough. He read the name on the badge.
"Officer Stickel, there must be some sort of mistake..."
As he spoke, his hand moved behind him to tug his wallet with his identification from his pocket. But his wallet wasn't there. He backed away two steps from the counter, his hand still searching his empty pocket.
Stickel narrowed his eyes and raised his voice one notch.
"Your hands should go right on that counter, Pops."
"Tell them, Slim," whispered Biggs.
Francis Hightower, a.k.a. Pops, dutifully opened his mouth to tell the police everything. Then he would finish his hash and eggs while everyone stared at him getting on the next Greyhound bus and sit next to someone who would refuse to move for him if he had to go to the bathroom.
"I'll go with you quietly, Officers."
Francis hurriedly brought his hands together so that Officer Stickel could handcuff his wrists.
Officer Stickel raised his eyebrows.
"Relax," he said easily, although he still kept his hand near his gun. "Keep your hands on that counter. Name?"
Francis sighed and averted his eyes from Biggs. "Fran..."
"He robbed them! He waved his gun and..."
Francis had jumped forward in alarm at Biggs' first shriek, bumping into Officer Stickel. The handcuffs gripped his wrists tightly. Officer Hardle shouted for the two back up cops who swooped over to Biggs as the first two police officers held Francis' arms. They rushed Francis across the vast expanse between the table and the entrance.
Francis found himself grinning as he was quickstepped past the pale, luminous faces of the patrons lining his passage, their sharply exhaled breaths fanning his cheeks. At the entrance, the driver from the Greyhound bus opened the door, recoiled and held it open as the two officers pressed him aside. Francis smiled at him.
They stepped outside and a brilliant light flashed.
"Dirk Belgrade," shouted a voice.
"Mr. Price, what prompted you to rob several people at a rest stop early this morning, one day after your release from prison?"
Francis blinked away brightly colored spots in time to see Dirk Belgrade frown, withdraw the microphone and crane his neck to search behind Francis for the famous criminal.
"Mr. Price, you have the right to remain silent..."
Francis ducked his head as he entered the police car and stared down at his handcuffed hands. They were the hands of a real American classic, Biggs had told him. He glanced back and saw Biggs leaving the truck stop with Belgrade and the two other police officers beside her. She gave him a slight wave that no one else noticed. He lifted his hands in a short gesture in return.
Then Francis lifted his handcuffed hands to the gathering crowd and to the passengers on the Greyhound bus. He winced and tried to adjust the bands more comfortably about his wrists.
"Why, you're a real celebrity, Price," said Officer Stickel, dryly.
"Just call me Slim, officer."
"This will make my dad's day. He told me so many stories about you," said Officer Hardle.
Francis eyed the two police officers with Biggs who were just now opening the doors of the SUV. He had a few minutes left before they found his wallet and he became Francis Hightower once more.
"Well," Francis said brightly as he adjusted his handcuffs again. "...there's no time like the present. You got any questions you want to ask me?"
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