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Title: Unraveling, Interlude 7
Author: dragontatt
Rating: NC-17
Disclaimer: Neither Shelter nor Without a Trace belong to me. No profit is being made from this work of fiction, and no disrespect is intended.
Word Count: 3313





For two and a half long days, and three equally long nights, Martin worked at Tommy’s Smoke Shack in the tiny town of Dumas, Texas. It was hard, dirty work but hard work had never bothered Martin before. His co-workers were nice enough, the small town was pretty and he’d just started contemplating whether he should ask if he could hang around for another week, make some extra money for the road when suddenly everything changed.

---

Thursday afternoon, after a quick lunch on the house, he’d headed through the kitchen to the tiny office and stood patiently in the doorway while Tommy finished his phone call. There was another man in the office, stretched out on the couch, who glanced over at Martin casually. He glanced away, towards Tommy at his desk, and then back at Martin, giving him a little up-and-down once over.

Tommy mumbled something into the phone that might have been ‘goodbye’ before hanging up the receiver. Ignoring Martin completely, he said to the man on the couch, “That’s Martin, he’s here for the weekend. Go show him the ropes.”

The man rose slowly from the couch and left without a word, squeezing through the narrow doorway, his shoulder barely brushing against Martin’s arm. He looked back and made a ‘c’mon’ gesture with his hand and headed for the back door. Once outside, he paused and said, “I’m Tommy Jr. but most everyone just calls me Junior. My dad started this place fifteen years ago when I was just a kid.”

“Nice to meet you,” Martin said with a smile.

“Yeah, you say that now. Let’s see how you feel later on.” Tommy Jr. replied with an evil grin. Then he put Martin to work.

He made Martin split pile after pile of wood for the smoker, mesquite and hickory mostly, stacking the logs in neat piles near the back door. Only after the muscles in his back and shoulders were aching, and he wasn’t sure he could lift the axe for another swing did Junior look out the back door, sagely assess all the piles of split lumber nod and say, “That outta be enough for a couple days.” Then he sent Martin to shower in the tiny employee bathroom that had been tucked in as an afterthought in the corner of Tommy’s office before letting him bed down for the night on the same leather couch Junior had been sitting on when Martin had first seen him. Martin wondered at first why Tommy would be so trusting, letting a stranger sleep in his office like that, but he drifted off into an exhausted sleep before realizing that during the weekends, the work never ended at Tommy’s Smoke Shack.

Friday morning came bright and early when Tommy burst through the office door and bellowed, “C’mon, get up. Gotta get to work.” Martin rubbed his eyes in confusion before accepting the cup of strong black coffee Tommy was holding out for him. He stumbled out to the kitchen, where Junior was standing at a stretch of counter where breakfast was already laid out for the employees. After a couple of sausage biscuits, and more coffee, Martin felt like he was ready for more work. And work he did.

He made the spice mix for Tommy Sr.’s award winning rub, but only after being sworn to secrecy upon pain of death. He added cupfuls of brown sugar and black pepper, garlic powder, paprika and chile powder, cumin and oregano into a clean 20 gallon trash bag, carefully gathered the open end together in one hand, and squeezed and squished the bag all around until the spices were evenly blended. Then he poured the spice mixture into large shakers, filling twenty in a row before Junior peered over his shoulder and said it would be enough.

He used that mix to rub down huge hunks of meat, pork shoulders and beef briskets and chickens that were later stacked in neat rows on the metal shelves of the huge, handmade smoker that took up three quarters of the kitchen. This he did under the watchful eye of Tommy, Sr, who was making a fifty gallon batch of his famous Tommy’s Lipsmacking Sauce. No one else was allowed to handle that particular operation.

Once enough meat was rubbed down and placed in the smoker, and the customers started coming in, Martin was placed in charge of the Fry-o-laters. Tommy Jr. gave him a five minute tutorial that mostly consisted of reading aloud a corroded metal sign that had been posted on the wall next to the fryer station. After that, Martin was responsible for the crinkle cut fries and the hushpuppies, a job that he took very seriously, if only because of all the snacking opportunities he had there.

Friday night, after the last customer was out the door, satiated on pulled pork sandwiches or brisket, he’d had to clean his workstation, and help rub down more meat in order to get ready for the next day’s business. Afterwards, he’d fallen into an exhausted sleep on the worn leather sofa, and he’d dreamt of fire. When he awoke Saturday morning after his first full day on the job, he realized the smoke he’d smelled in his dreams was actually coming from him. It had permeated his clothing, tainted the leather smell of his hiking boots, and seeped into his very pores even after the shower he’d taken before bed.

Junior had explained that every night except Sunday at the Smoke Shack, someone was scheduled to start their shift at two a.m., to get the smoker ready, and to get all the meat started on its long cooking process so it’d be ready at eleven the next morning. Sunday nights were the big clean up night, since they were closed on Mondays. And there was a lot of clean-up, since there were so many customers during the weekend that is was all they could do to keep up. Junior said proudly that most everyone in a two hundred mile radius came to the Smoke Shack at least once on the weekend. Martin had never been afraid of hard work in his life, but by Saturday evening, Martin was exhausted and just wanted the whole weekend to be over with, so he could collect his 75 dollars and hit the road again. But of course, Martin being Martin, once he woke Sunday morning and got some coffee and breakfast down, he was good to go for a few days longer.

He was standing just outside the back door early Sunday afternoon, trying to catch a cool breeze and keeping one eye on the batch of fries he’d just dropped when a car cruised by on his left, pulling into a parking spot halfway down the row. One of the things he’d realized on this job was that when you could start to see the cars from the back door, if it wasn’t already busy the kitchen was about to get slammed. He sighed, and snuck another glance at his fries. Close to perfection, but not quite.

In the parking lot, three of the car’s four doors opened, and a family of four got out, two young boys in their Sunday school best, their mother in a conservative blue dress, the father in overalls and boots. The boys shrieked, and the taller one chased the smaller one toward the small stand of trees that stood a few yards away from the edge of the parking lot.

“Boys,” the mother called out in a warning tone, chancing a fearful glance at her husband. He ignored them all though, and stared off toward the distant horizon.

Martin smiled as the smaller boy darted between two trees, and the older one chased him. They were giggling loud enough for Martin to hear over the din of the kitchen noise behind him.

“Boys, come on,” the woman called a bit louder, her tone aggravated. “Your father’s hungry.”

With a loud whoop, the littler boy ran between two slender trees, grabbing one by the trunk and swinging around it to head off in a different direction, toward a group of stubby bushes. He stumbled over something and went down to one knee, almost falling on his face before catching himself with his hands. He froze, on his hands and knees, staring at the ground a foot in front of his face before letting out a shriek and scrambling to his feet.

The boy’s yell finally seemed to break through his father’s fugue, and the man jerked his head to the left before walking toward the trees with purposeful, angry strides. “Cut that nonsense out, boy and git your ass over here,” he called in a hoarse voice.

“But Daddy, there’s blood,” the little boy wailed as he stumbled back through the trees toward his father. The older boy still stood where he had frozen when his brother had fallen, staring at the ground a few feet in front of him.

“What, you skin your knee? Be a man.” The man stopped and looked down, ignoring his son’s tear streaked face and glancing at his legs.

The boy’s khaki trousers were stained at the knee from falling into the dirt, but they weren’t torn. The man relaxed a bit; they wouldn’t have to be replaced. “What was all that yelling about? I don’t see any blood.”

The boy turned his hands over from where he had been holding them oddly away from his sides and showed them to his father. They were covered in blood, not like from a small cut, but the blood you might find on the floor of an abattoir, rich, red blood mixed with the dirt from where the boy had fallen, and it dripped off the ends of his fingers and puddled on the asphalt.

The man’s mouth dropped open, and he stumbled back a step. The boy tried to follow him, but the man shook his head in an awkward jerk. “No son, you just stay still.” He lifted his head and looked at the older boy, who was still frozen in the stand of trees, staring at the ground in front of him.

“Ben, what do you see over there?” the man called in a shaky voice.

The boy jerked at the sound of his father’s voice, and took a halting step backward. He turned his head, and his face was deathly white even in the shade of the trees. He said quietly, “Daddy, she’s all tore up.”

Over Martin’s shoulder, Junior swore and pulled the basket out of the deep fryer. “God dammit Martin, what the hell are you looking at?” The fries in the basket were well past perfection and on their way to cremation.

But Martin didn’t answer; he just stared toward the trees in horrified silence.


---


Martin ignored Junior’s angry bluster and took a few cautious steps toward the end of the parking lot, eyes squinting against the sun that glinted off the asphalt.

He watched as the father cautiously walked over to his elder son, still standing there frozen in terror, and looked fearfully over his shoulder at whatever tableau had so stolen the boy’s ability to move. He could see the man’s face blanch ghostly white, see the way his fingers tightened unconsciously on his son’s tender shoulder before giving it a shake. “C’mon now Ben, got to get outta here.” He pulled his son, weak and stumbling, backwards out of the trees and over next to his mother.

“What is it?” she asked.

“Never you mind,” the man replied roughly. “Take the boys inside and get Johnny cleaned up. I need to call the police.” The tone in his voiced brooked no argument, and the woman gathered her sons to her without question, steering the still-crying Johnny by one hand on his upper back, and holding Ben tightly by the hand.

The man watched as his family walked towards the front of the restaurant before turning around and heading to the back of it, walking emphatically across the grass before he suddenly broke stride, dodged around behind the nearest woodpile and bent over out of sight. Martin could the sound of retching, and he could see the man’s hand holding onto the top of the pile for support. A long moment later, and the man stood upright again, wiping at his mouth with the back of his hand. He blew out a long breath as he stood up straight, squared his shoulders then turned and headed once again for the door.

He walked right past Martin, into the kitchen and said loudly to the room in general, “I need to use your phone. There’s a dead girl over in those trees back there.”

All sound in the kitchen seemed to stop and everyone turned to look at the man standing just inside the back door. Tommy came out of his office, anger apparent by his movements, but one look at the man’s face and he motioned him over, saying, “You can use the one in here.” Then he looked around quickly and called out two names. “Bert, Ray, you guys go out back and make sure nobody goes anywhere near those trees, you hear me?”

A tall, heavily-built man who had been washing dishes at the sink in the corner nodded silently before pulling his apron off over his head and tossing it to a co-worker. Then he headed out the door, followed closely by an even more heavily-built man. They passed by Martin without a word, and took up stations near the back of the parking lot, but Martin noticed they were both careful not to look too closely between the trees.

---


Martin stepped back inside the door, gave a sheepish shrug to Junior, who was skimming bits of burned potato out of the fryer. “Don’t just stand there, throw in another batch,” Junior barked, motioning to the other fryer. Martin got another batch going as quickly as he could, so the platters wouldn’t be delayed going out to the customers

While he was working, the man who’d come in to use the phone slowly walked back out the door, and headed over to the sidewalk. He resolutely refused to look toward the end of the parking lot, where the two burly kitchen workers silently stood guard.

Martin hurried over to help plate up a few lunches, adding fries and hushpuppies, scooping out cole slaw or barbecued beans, and every few seconds he tried unsuccessfully to glance out the still-open back door. When the orders were finally caught up and he could step over and peek out the door, there was a tan four-door vehicle parked at the end of the lot, the light bar on its roof flashing. Pulled up behind it at an angle designed to block the rest of the spaces was a big white pick-up, the bubble light on its dashboard spinning as well.

Three men in the tan uniforms of the Moore County Sheriff’s Department stood in a small huddle which looked to Martin to be carefully positioned so neither the two men still standing guard in front of the trees nor the rapidly enlarging group of watchers outside the kitchen door could hear anything they said.


---


After the sheriff’s car showed up, work in the kitchen pretty much came to a halt. All the kitchen staff, the dish washers and the cooks and the waitresses stood outside the kitchen door and watched the flurry of activity going on at the end of the parking lot. Tommy sent his son over with a couple of large trash cans to barricade the entrance, preventing any more cars from pulling in.

Slowly, the dining room emptied as all the customers finished their meals and either wandered out back to watch the show, or drove off, maneuvering their vehicles carefully around the barricade of metal cans.

The employees mostly stood in little groups, whispering among themselves, wondering out loud what was going on. But Martin stood a ways off, alone and silent, left hand grasping his right elbow, shoulders hunched slightly together as if for warmth. It wasn’t cold outside, but he felt a chill deep inside that he wasn’t sure would ever go away.


---


About an hour after the first sheriff’s cars arrived, another one drove up. Lights flashing but sirens off, it waited for Junior to roll on of the trash cans out of the way before pulling into the parking lot. The driver parked behind the white pick-up and sat there, lights flashing eerily out of sync with the other two cars for a long moment. Then the driver’s door opened, and a tall man in a tan uniform got out. His uniform was indistinguishable from the uniforms the other men were wearing but Martin was certain he was the one in charge. He stood tall, sending a quick glance around and placed his hat squarely on his head then headed around his car. He opened the passenger door, holding out his hand to help whoever it was out.

A slender woman, gray-haired and slightly stooped, stepped carefully out of the car. She lifted her hand to shade her eyes, and looked around, looking slightly aghast at the crowd of people huddling in the back of the Smoke Shack. She straightened her back and turned away, looking at the trees and the group of uniformed men huddling near there.

The sheriff took her solicitously by the elbow and walked her over to where the cracked asphalt ended and the dirt began. They passed slowly through the trees and he helped her once or twice over a root or around some rocks. Martin shook his head in confusion. Surely he wouldn’t…? As the duo walked, her gaze never seemed to leave that place in the trees, and as they neared it the men parted wordlessly to let her through.

Martin watched in horror as the woman’s back straightened abruptly, free hand rising to cover her mouth. Then her shoulders crumpled, and she let out a heartbroken wail. She spun around, and her knees went weak. She would have fallen if the sheriff hadn’t caught her under the arm and he half-dragged, half-carried her away from the trees and back out to his car. He sat her in the front seat, legs hanging out so that her feet rested on the pavement before removing his hat and setting it carefully on the hood of the car. Then he stood protectively in front of her to block her from the view of the watching crowd.

Martin couldn’t help himself, and he moved a few feet to one side so he could see the woman in the tiny space between the sheriff and the door. She sat there silently even though there were tears streaming down her face, and Martin watched as she stared at the sheriff, evidently listening closely to whatever he was saying.

She shook her head, and thrust her hand forward as if to push him away. The sheriff took a quick step back as she stood up, but she followed and stood right into his face, her slender body shaking with rage. She pointed at him as she spoke, and her words were clearly heard by everyone around them, “What do you mean, you’re sorry for my loss? The hell you are - I told you ten days ago my daughter was missing, and all you did was call her a tramp who’d run off with her boyfriend. You said if she didn’t come back in a couple weeks, you’d check into it. Well, that’s her lying dead over there, and now instead of hearing how sorry you are for my loss, I want to hear you say you’re sorry for being a worthless son of a bitch.”


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