Chuck Melville managed to stay out of trouble for six months following his release from the Texas state prison in Huntsville. That’s what folks would say later while passing the syrup at the Waffle House, although it would be more accurate to point out that Chuck got into a great deal of trouble during those six months—he just managed to evade the attention of law enforcement while he was doing it.
That lucky streak ended on a sticky August night in 1974 when Chuck pulled into the shopping plaza parking lot at North and Hutchison and spotted Gary Malloy getting out of his Ford F250. It was Gary who got Chuck sent to Huntsville in the first place, or at least that’s how Chuck saw it. The way he told it to his lawyer, it was Gary who beat the Sac ‘n Pac cashier with a tire iron while Chuck helped himself to the contents of the register. But when the judge read the verdict, it was Chuck who got a five-year stretch in Huntsville for aggravated assault, while Gary got away with six months in the county jail.
Watching Gary make his way from his truck to Discount Liquors, Chuck figured his old pal could use a lesson in aggravated assault. He hit the gas, and the Magnum V8 engine under the hood of the 1970 Dodge Challenger jumped to life. Gary heard it and glanced back over his shoulder, and Chuck saw his eyes go wide as the Grand Canyon just before he managed to dive out of the way. The plate-glass window bearing the Discount Liquors logo and the neatly arranged displays of cut-rate gin and bourbon behind it all exploded at once as Chuck plowed through the storefront.
Chuck shook it off and threw it into reverse as Discount Liquors proprietor Rob “Rooster” McElroy charged at him, arms waving, face redder than sunset. Chuck skidded and slammed into a VW Beetle, crumpling the hood like tissue paper. He glimpsed Gary hot-footing it back to his truck and slammed on the gas pedal again, forgetting he was still in reverse. He pancaked the Beetle into the Olds 88 parked behind it, shifted into forward gear, and clipped Rooster just as he’d reached the passenger side door. He heard Rooster holler and saw him roll to the pavement clutching his ankle in the rear-view.
He’d missed his shot. Gary’s truck was already squealing out of the lot, heading west on Hutchison. At least he’d put a scare into his old pal. He spotted a frantic woman screaming into the pay phone in front of the check-cashing place and decided he’d shop for his liquor elsewhere. He pulled the Challenger out of the lot and drove it like he stole it. Technically, he did steal it, but that was another story.
Chuck headed south until he crossed the county line. He was thirsty and remembered a place somewhere out on Route 46 where he could wet his whistle and maybe hustle up a game of pool. The trees thinned out ahead, and he spotted the neon beer signs. It was nearly midnight, and Sonny’s Icehouse was hopping.
The Challenger’s tires crunched over the gravel and bottlecaps that made up the parking lot. He found a place to park around back, which was perfect since he didn’t want the Challenger attracting undue attention. The events at the shopping plaza earlier might have made the radio news by now.
Once upon a time in Texas, icehouses had been just that—places where you could pick up blocks of ice to keep your food from spoiling in the days before home refrigeration. Having all that ice on hand made them the coolest places in town to hang out, and the proprietors soon realized they could keep beer nice and cold, too. Sonny’s typified the modern Texas icehouse: a dozen or so picnic tables outside, crowded with happy drinkers laughing and whooping it up; a jukebox inside playing Jerry Reed’s “Lord, Mr. Ford”; a couple of cowboys shooting pool and a bunch more crowded around watching; a jar of pickled eggs on the bar. Most surprising of all to Chuck, an attractive woman seated alone at the bar, unbothered by anyone.
Chuck pretended to study the jukebox selections, but his eyes kept wandering over to that woman. She was blonde, probably not naturally, and looked to be about thirty years old. She wore cutoff dungaree shorts and a tank top that barely restrained the gifts God had given her. She had a pack of Virginia Slims sitting on the bar in front of her, one of which she was smoking. She took an occasional sip from a bottle of Lone Star. A bar full of men, all of them ignoring her.
Chuck put a nickel in the jukebox and selected Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried.” He considered it to be his theme song. He walked over and leaned on the bar next to the woman, playing it cool, signaling to the barkeep.
“Lone Star longneck,” he said.
The man nodded and set a cold one in front of him. “Fifty cents.”
Chuck set a dollar on the bar. “Might as well give me another. This one ain’t gonna last.”
True to his word, Chuck chugged down half the bottle in one go. Licking his lips, he turned his attention to the woman next to him. “Maybe you can help me understand something.”
“Maybe I can,” she said, lighting another smoke.
“How is it that such a gorgeous woman as yourself can sit here alone at the bar, and not one of these red-blooded Texans in here even seems to know you’re alive?”
“Oh, they know I’m alive. Only reason they ain’t drooling all over me like you is they’re afraid of my husband.”
Chuck laughed. “Perks of being from out of town, I guess. I don’t know your husband, and I damn sure ain’t afraid of him.”
The woman looked him over. “Well, that’s a refreshing change. What’s your name, stranger?”
“Charles Melville III. But you can call me Chuck.”
“I’d rather call you Charles, honestly.”
“That’ll work. And your name is…?”
“Gwen Harlan. See, everyone else in here knows that.”
“And now I know it. Buy you another round, Gwen?”
“I was hoping.”
He did so, and they clinked bottles and drank.
“So what do you do, Charles?”
“Well now, that is a complicated question.”
“Didn’t sound complicated when it left my lips, but I guess we’re just getting to know each other.”
“What I mean is, I had a job. Working at a car wash. I quit it this morning. Had a little disagreement with my boss. He was under the impression that I had stolen some quarters out of the ashtray of this Buick station wagon while I was vacuuming it. Now, we’re talking about maybe six to eight quarters, so that’s two dollars at most. How the hell am I gonna risk losing my job over a lousy two bucks?”
“But it sounds like you did lose it.”
“No, ma’am. Like I said, I quit that job. Just the very suggestion that I would do such a thing was too much for me to bear. And anyway, I could tell he was gearing up to fire me, and no way was I gonna give him the satisfaction. Turns out it was the best thing I could have done because I ran into an old associate of mine this afternoon, and we discussed a new business opportunity.”
Chuck didn’t feel it was the right moment to mention that the associate in question was also a former inmate of the state prison in Huntsville. The particulars of the business opportunity were criminal in nature, and Chuck and his friend had discussed them while snorting crank and shooting at empty beer cans. Nor did Chuck think the time was right to disclose that he’d later tried to run over another old associate of his. Maybe once they’d gotten to know each other a little better.
“So where is this husband of yours everyone is so scared of?” he said by way of changing the subject. “You expecting him tonight?”
“No, he’s working the night shift.”
The overhead fluorescents flashed, signaling last call. “So that means your place is free for the rest of the evening?”
She looked him over again: his bushy muttonchop sideburns, his prominent chin, the gleam of a gold tooth in his smile. She’d seen worse. “You’ve got a lot of confidence, Charles.”
“I’m a man who knows what he likes. And what I’d like right now is to get a six-pack to go, take you out to my car, and drive you back to your place. At that point, we can just see where the night takes us.”
“My car is here.”
“And I’m sure it will be safe here until the morning. But I’ve got a Dodge Challenger out there, and you would not believe what that baby can do on these back roads.”
“Charles, I think you talked me into it.”
When Gwen climbed into the passenger seat, her foot hit an object on the floorboard. She picked it up. “What do we have here?”
“That’s my Saturday night special,” said Chuck. He’d been using the .25 semi-automatic pistol for target practice earlier in the day, after which he’d stuffed it under the passenger seat. He figured it must have gotten kicked loose while he was barrel-assing around the shopping plaza parking lot. “Why don’t you be a doll and stuff that back under your seat for me.”
She squinted and aimed the pistol toward Sonny’s front door. “Next one out is a dead man.”
“Come on, now. That ain’t funny.”
She shrugged and stuffed the gun back under her seat. “I thought it was.”
Chuck started the car. “Which way we headed?”
“Turn right out of the parking lot and show me what this thing can do.”
Chuck cracked open a Lone Star and peeled out of the lot. He gunned it when he hit the blacktop, and ten seconds later, the speedometer hit 80. It was a winding Hill Country road, and the car hugged every turn.
“It straightens out up here for a couple miles,” said Gwen, sipping her beer. “Bet you can’t hit 120.”
“Shit, I can get ‘er to 130 without breaking a sweat.”
The engine revved and the speedometer climbed. The stars hung low in the Texas night sky, zipping by like comets. Gwen ran her fingers along Chuck’s leg. The Challenger hit 120 as it squealed past the police cruiser hidden by a mesquite tree just off the road.
Gwen spotted the red and blue flashing lights in her side-view mirror first. “Better hit it or quit it.”
Chuck had no intention of quitting it. He pushed the tachometer into the red as the Challenger hit 130 miles per hour. Whatever their pursuer had under the hood, there was no way he could catch them. Except the stretch of straightaway had come to an end, and the road started winding again. At 80, Chuck could still hug the curves. At 130, no chance. “Keep it between the ditches,” his Daddy always told him, the golden rule. The Challenger spun out as Chuck hit the brakes and did three full donuts before leaving the road entirely.
The car came to a rest gently enough under the circumstances. Chuck surveyed their surroundings. Running wasn’t an option, as the wide-open plain they found themselves in afforded no cover. The cruiser rolled to a stop behind them.
“You just let me handle this,” said Chuck. Gwen turned her head and stared out the passenger-side window.
The beam of a flashlight filled Chuck’s window. The cop knocked, and Chuck rolled it down.
“License and registration, please.”
Chuck handed them over. The cop examined them for a moment. “Now, you’ll have to help me out here, sir. Your driver’s license says Charles Melville, but this here vehicle is registered to a Dean Melville.”
“He’s my cousin.”
“Does he know you have his car?”
“He’ll figure it out.”
The cop leaned down and peered into the car. As Chuck’s eyes adjusted, he could see he was dealing with a sheriff’s deputy. He had a calm demeanor and an ingratiating smile, as if they were just neighbors chatting over a fence. His nametag read “Harlan,” and that sounded familiar.
“This woman in the car with you,” said Deputy Harlan. “Is that your wife?”
“Nothing so formal as that,” said Chuck.
“Ma’am, I’m going to need to see your face.”
Gwen turned to face the deputy and gave a little wave.
“See, this is exactly what I thought,” said Deputy Harlan. “She couldn’t be your wife, because she’s my wife.”
“Gwen Harlan,” Chuck muttered.
“That’s right. And I’m Beau Harlan.”
“Listen, deputy, this is all a misunderstanding. She didn’t say nothin’ about being married.”
“No, I believe I did,” said Gwen. “I distinctly remember telling you that no one else in that bar was talking to me because they’re all afraid of my husband.”
“I’m going to have to ask both of you to step out of the vehicle now.”
“Deputy, I think we can settle this up real simple,” said Chuck. “Why don’t you just take her with you, and I’ll be on my way? After all, I was simply giving the woman a ride home with no bad intentions, and now there’s no need for me to do that.”
“Get out of the car. Now.”
Chuck sighed, pushed open his door, and climbed out.
“Put your hands on the hood and spread your legs, please.”
Chuck complied. “Listen, I’m gonna be completely straight with you. I am on probation. Anything you could do in the way of letting me off with a warning would be greatly appreciated.”
Deputy Harlan patted him down. “I guess I don’t even need to ask if you’ve been drinking tonight, judging from the empty containers in your vehicle. Well, your cousin’s vehicle, I mean to say.”
Chuck and the deputy both looked in the direction of the outburst. Both saw Gwen standing there, holding Chuck’s Saturday night special, but Deputy Harlan didn’t see her for long. She squeezed off three shots. The deputy stumbled backward, his face transformed into a mask of shock. He touched his chest, and his hand came away covered in blood. He collapsed to the ground.
“Holy shit!” said Chuck. “Are you crazy?” He knelt down to confirm what he already knew. The deputy was gone. “Jesus Christ. I mean, yeah, you got us out of our immediate predicament, but this is really bad. He must have called in the license plate before he got out of his car, searching for wants and warrants and what-have-yous.”
“Your cousin’s license plate.”
“Well, yeah. I see what you’re saying, but it’s not going to take long for anyone investigating this here crime to learn that you and I were together at Sonny’s Icehouse tonight and that we left together. Maybe even an eyewitness saw us leaving in this car.”
“Stand up, Charles. I need you to explain something to me.”
Chuck did as she asked, nice and slow. “What is it, dollface?”
“Two questions. First, is my husband dead?”
“Oh yes. He’s really most sincerely dead.”
“Second question. How could you kill my husband like that? In cold blood?” She pointed the gun at him.
“Now, let’s think about this, Gwen. I get what’s going through your head. You want to pin this on me, and that makes sense from your point of view. That is my gun, although I should tell you it is not a registered weapon. I bought it at a flea market, paid cash. But here’s the most important thing. If you shoot me with the same gun that killed your husband, well, it’s not gonna take Columbo to figure out you’re the one who pulled the trigger on both of us.”
“Step away from my husband’s body.”
Chuck did so. Gwen took a few steps toward the corpse.
“What’s the plan here, Gwen?”
“What you say is true. I can’t shoot you with this gun. But if I shoot you with my husband’s gun, it looks like you shot each other. And I’ll just be the grieving widow they find on the scene. I’ll tell them how you made me leave Sonny’s with you at gunpoint. How you drove like a maniac with me as your terrified prisoner. It’s all gonna work out for me.”
“It does sound that way, except for one minor detail,” he said as she leaned down beside her dead husband. He watched as she reached for his holster and found it empty. He raised Deputy Harlan’s .38 and took aim. “You see, I already liberated this from your husband while I was checking his vitals. Not that I knew right away what you had planned. I ain’t that clever. But seeing what you had just done to your husband did make me kinda wonder what you’d do to a man you just met tonight.”
Gwen stood up, hands raised. “Now, listen, Charles. We can work this out another way. We can get back in your car and drive all the way to Mexico.”
“No, I don’t believe that will work. Like I said, this car is already burnt. He called in the plates, so if we try to cross the border, they’ll have the number and we’ll be in cuffs. Here’s how I see it. They’re gonna find you and your husband here, both shot dead with separate guns. Some kind of lovers’ quarrel, who knows. They’ll find his patrol car, they’ll find both guns on the scene, but I’ll be gone.”
“You’re not going to kill me, Charles.” She turned and started running back toward the road.
Chuck didn’t want to shoot her in the back, but the way he saw it, she hadn’t left him much choice. He kept squeezing the trigger until the gun had nothing left.
It was three a.m. by the time Chuck pulled the Challenger into his cousin Dean’s driveway. He knocked on the door, and a bleary-eyed Dean answered.
“I brought your car back.”
“Why the fuck did you take it in the first place?”
Chuck lit a cigarette. “For one thing, you made it too easy for me. I came by to see if you wanted to get breakfast. Your front door was unlocked, and the car keys were on the kitchen table.”
“That’s not really an answer.”
“No, it’s not,” said Chuck, tapping ash onto the driveway. He stared at the Challenger for a long moment. “This car is everything I dreamed on when I was locked up. I mean, not this one in particular. Just the idea of it. That I was gonna get out of prison, and I was gonna be a free man. With a cool car. Picking up hot chicks in bars. And I wasn’t ever gonna do anything to get myself locked up again.”
“How’s that going?”
“Well, I’ll tell ya. This is a fast car, cousin. Just not fast enough for me to outrun myself.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Chuck. And I’m tired.”
“Here they come.” Chuck pointed down the road to the flashing lights on the horizon.
“They’re coming for you?”
“Yeah. Afraid they might take your car, too. You’ll get her back, though. I’ve got no stomach for another trial. I’ll tell them everything I did, and that you had nothing to do with any of it.”
“What did you do, Chuck?”
Chuck ground his cigarette under his heel as the police cruiser pulled in behind the Challenger. “When you do get her back, take good care of her. Don’t take her for granted. Good car like this needs a good man behind the wheel.”
He got down on his knees and laced his fingers behind his head as the cops came up the driveway.