Hat Check - Prologue
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Rick Hairre, had not known before today, that the barrel of a gun tasted like pennies. Or maybe that was the coppery taste of his own blood pooling in the crevices of his ever-swelling mouth. He also had not known that the butt of a gun felt so heavy and cold when used as a hammer on one’s head. He guessed he would probably lose most of the teeth he’d spent so much on veneering prior to the last election cycle. He wondered if he’d ever get a chance to see his dentist again… an odd longing… to see the dentist.
As the current Vice-Chairman of the 2012 Murrell’s Inlet’s Board of Directors, he counted his acquisition of funding in excess of seven million dollars for the Tourism Conservation and Wetland Education Project as his crowning achievement. It was a private deal with understandings that were not exactly what one would call above board. All parties to the deal would remain anonymous. It didn’t hurt that there was also a small fee of half-a-million deposited directly into his own account for managing the deal with… discretion.
But beyond selfish interests, the money would provide the local community with informational pamphlets, catchy bumper stickers, kids coloring books and rental home refrigerator magnets discussing and educating tourists about the delicate ecosystem at work in his precious inlet home. Counting the zeroes on the check helped him stomach the fact that the money had come from the nearby Consolidated Paper Mill. Naturally, the check had come with an understanding that Rick would bury any mention of the pollution the independent environmental scientists had discovered traveling downstream from the mill. The mill’s owner had channeled the money through a governmental sounding company and encouraged Rick to say he’d procured a federal grant for the work. With this cover story, he’d soon be rising above Vice-Chairman.
As the blood trickled from his nose, he vaguely wondered if the two hooded men interrogating him suspected that a completely untraceable cashier’s check with a seven and six zeroes on it was tucked away in his Outback Tea Stained straw cowboy hat. Another thought occurred to him through his throbbing haze of pain. What if these two men had been sent by the mill owner to collect the check and get rid of any evidence of the deal – namely Rick. But that didn’t make any sense. The deal had just been made and everyone was happy to go along with the stipulations of said deal.
Ok, “happy” was a stretch, but when Rick had chosen the life of a politician, he hadn’t really considered the fact that the lower tier guys in local governments made little if any in the way of salaries. Some were even volunteer posts. Most were only in it for the power. He smiled wanly at that last thought… what power did the Vice-Chairman of the 2012 Murrell’s Inlet’s Board of Directors actually have? Not much.
But his acquisition of these funds – however ill gotten – would’ve gone a long way to further his ambitions. And he’d long since given up being selfish in that regard. He was in it for his daughter. He thanked God he’d had the foresight to wire his half a million straight into her account. He smiled at the thought of her checking her balance the next time. He ached with the thought that he probably wouldn’t be around to explain the huge addition of funds to her.
The Outback Tea Stained straw cowboy hat he wore had been a gift from her long ago. She’d only been six or seven at the time and thought the hat was just perfect for her dad. And though it was somewhat out of character for a short, pudgy, bald man to wear such a thing, he wore it proudly. As he struggled to maintain consciousness, he couldn’t remember why he had folded the check and slipped it into the band of his hat behind the colorful peacock feather perched there, but there it remained.
Rick retraced his steps back to the meeting at the mill and pilfered through what he could remember of the conversation, but nothing struck him as sinister. He’d walked out after shaking hands with the mill’s owner and there had been smiles all around. His last text to his daughter (a newly acquired skill for him) had said he’d be stopping by for dinner. For the life of him, he couldn’t figure out what had prompted his sudden kidnapping outside Lee’s Inlet Kitchen and was even more unsure of why they had smashed the butt of what had appeared to be an AK-47 against his face sending his beloved hat skidding across the floor. He would’ve handed over the check had they just asked! He’d tried to tell them that, but now his efforts to speak were hampered by his crushed jaw.
His dinner of Lee’s homemade clam chowder exploded violently from his stomach with the pain from the first wicked blow to his skull and he was still retching as they hovered around him whispering to each other.
“Where is it, mate?” one of the hooded men growled in a strange broken accent. Maybe Australian… or South African?
Rick opened his mouth to answer but all the came out was more of his favorite from the appetizer menu at Lee’s.
This apparently was an unacceptable answer as the man’s fist slammed into the top of Rick’s head dislodging his expensive European hairpiece. Guaranteed to stay on in a hurricane, my ass, he thought to himself as the toupee flopped to the ground.
His baldpate glistened brightly as blood began to flow warmly down into his eyes. His thoughts began to jumble wildly through his life and he saw himself in his high school senior pictures with already thinning hair. After a few unsuccessful attempts at a comb-over, he just clipped it closer and closer to his head. By the summer of his senior year, he was a nineteen-year-old bald guy. It’d been bad enough that he was born with a build like that of Danny Devito and not as good-looking as most of the guys he’d played with on the football team, but his last name was Hairre. Hairre, for God’s sake. With a name like that, and a chance to re-invent himself upon starting college, he’d sought out remedies to his ever-expanding baldness. Since the summer between high school and his freshman year at Clemson University, he’d been a closet member of the Hairre Club for Men.
Before the chocolate-brown strand-by-strand woven head of hair had become part of him, his high-school classmates often asked if he had shaved it because of sickness or cancer treatments; sometimes he said yes. Years later, his wife, Susan, of fourteen anniversaries had succumbed to the pancreatic version of his lie. When he visited her in the hospital, he would remove his hairpiece and be bald with her as she suffered. He wondered if his current hair-jarring episode was karma circling back around for another go at him.
As the images faded from his mind, he wasn’t sure if he was losing consciousness, the blood was clouding his eyes, or his thick-rimmed glasses had finally shattered away, but his vision began to swim and darken. His head lolled down to touch his chest and he thought with sadness that he would never get the blossoming red stains out of his seersucker sport coat. God, he loved that jacket… just like Matlock.
As if on cue, South African number one ripped the front of the jacket open and shoved his hands down into the inside pockets.
“No,” Rick moaned, but no one was paying any attention to him – just like no one paid attention to him at the city council board meetings. But all that would change when he delivered the seven million dollar check.
His view of the world was dimming rapidly when the man tore into his pants pockets, scattering the assorted contents on the concrete floor of… wherever they had taken him. A small crumpled toddler picture of his now grown step-daughter floated out of the hooded man’s grasp and hit the floor. A spatter of blood from Rick’s forehead dripped down on the picture. Everything was in slow motion now. He knew his end was near.
He wanted to cry out, take my wallet, take my ’56 Dodge Royal convertible… take anything you want… take the check for God’s sake, just let me live to tell my daughter I still love her! But his wrecked jaw could only mumble and spew blood.
The check! In his final thoughts he wondered how they had missed it. His eyes flitted to the forgotten cowboy hat lazily tilting to and fro under a nearby metal table. And that’s when the darkness ended Rick Hairre’s tenure as the 2012 Vice-Chairman of the Murrell’s Inlet’s Board of Directors.