The next few days passed incredibly slowly for Carl. He felt lost and overwhelmed. For his entire life he had been blessed with vision and direction. He had always had a plan…until now. Carl had no idea what was going to happen next. Would the Governor’s office back him up, or just stand aside as the feds rolled in, took his station, and hauled him off to jail? The thought of his two sons standing in the yard and watching as FBI agents drove him away was simply too much to bear. Since his initial discussion with the Governor’s office, he had called back several times and was assured that they were working on a plan. Other than a few reassuring words however, they had really offered him nothing. The fact that they were working on a “plan” was of little comfort to him. Especially if their plan involved him losing his station. For the first time in his life, Carl felt completely helpless – and that really made him angry.
Since the 60 day notices had been delivered around the state, the press had been in a feeding frenzy. News agencies from around the world had descended on Texas with correspondents, satellite vans, helicopters, and cameramen. Between lengthy debates on the constitutionality of Texas’ move, they roamed the streets asking business owners who had received the notices “how they felt about it,” and “what they would do when the feds came.” The chatter was endless, and for the most part meaningless. The owner of a bakery in Houston, pretty much summed things up for everyone when he exclaimed to one reporter:
“How the hell do you think I feel about it? Any other questions?”
At the request of the Governor’s office, Carl had not told anyone that he had received a 30 day notice. They had warned him that doing so would bring every fruit and nut in the country out of the woodwork, and that things would get out of hand quickly. The last thing that the Governor’s office wanted was a media circus on their hands until they had a plan. Carl had reluctantly agreed to stay silent, but was growing more and more uneasy with this approach. In the evenings Carl would drive home to have dinner with his family, and then tell them he had to do some paperwork at the station. When he got there, he would sit out front next to the old RC Cola machine that he had kept running and just think. There had to be something that he could do to save the station and stay out of jail, but he simply could not pay the federal taxes and fines and stay in business.
Late one evening about a week after he had received his notice, Carl was sitting outside the station and pondering his situation. The convenience store had been closed for several hours and, with the exception of a few trucks idling quietly in the overnight lot, Carl was completely alone. As he sat musing, a pair of headlights caught his eye. A large black Lincoln Town Car car turned into his station from the access road. Carl watched intently, as the car pulled up to the front of the convenience store. Maybe it was just a businessman driving to the city and looking for a late night cup of coffee. After a moment, both front doors swung open and two men hopped out. They were both dressed in business suits, and one of them appeared to be carrying a camera. Carl’s interest peaked and he stood up to confront the two men. Just as he was about to call out that the station was closed, a breeze blew the coat of one of the men open, reveling a shoulder holster. He froze instantly. What the heck were two armed men in business suits doing at his station?
All of a sudden, it occurred to Carl that he had been sitting in the shadows behind the soda machine, and that they had not seen him. Slowly, he eased away from the vending machine’s cover, and slipped around the corner of the store to a side employee entrance. As silently as possible he unlocked the door and slipped inside. Once inside, he inched into the dark convenience store and concealed himself behind a shelf so that he was out of sight. Carl could hear their voices right outside the door, but he could not make out what they were saying. He drew in a breath and looked around the edge of the shelf at the exact second that the beam from a Mag Light came sweeping through the window. He pulled back right as it swept past him. “Why the hell are they looking in my store?” he whispered to himself. He peaked around the corner again to look, but they were gone.
Staying in the shadows, Carl moved up to the window and looked outside. Both men were walking toward an island of diesel pumps. It was dark but the security lights on the island were bright enough for him to see them clearly. The man with the camera started taking pictures while the other appeared to be taking notes on a digital voice recorder. Carl was baffled. Clearly they were not there to rob the place….but what were they doing? Carl watched them for about 45 minutes as they walked around the perimeter of his station taking notes and pictures. Carl knew every safety inspector in the state, and none of them drove Lincoln Town Cars or made it a practice to inspect stations after hours. No, these two guys were definitely up to something else.
After a while, the men turned back toward the convenience store and Carl ducked out of sight, this time right next to the door. Though he could not see what they doing, he could see the flash of their camera reflecting on the windows. After a few moments, they were standing back in front of the building by their car. Carl moved his ear closer to the window in an attempt to hear what they were saying. Their voices were muffled, but he could make out their words.
“Okay, I think we have what we came for,” one of the men announced. “You ready to hit the road?”
“Yeah, let’s clear outta here before one of the truckers wakes up and calls the cops on us,” the other man chuckled.
The first voice chimed back in, “I really feel weird doing this, I just think that…” Before he could finish, the other man cut him off. “Hey, it is our job to follow orders not save the world, let’s get rolling.”
A second later Carl heard two car doors slam and the engine start. He was overwhelmed with curiosity; who the hell were these two guys? He had to know. Without even thinking, he dashed through the store and out the back to his truck. He hopped in, took a deep breath, and started the engine. He had no idea what he was doing, but knew he had to find out where they were going. He inched around the corner with his lights off and watched as the Lincoln pulled out of the station and back onto the access road. Carl gripped the wheel tightly, counted to 1o under his breath, and pulled out to follow them. “This is dumb,” he whispered to himself as he clicked his truck lights on.
Carl tried his best not to be noticed, but felt like he had a huge sign on his truck announcing what he was doing. Once on the highway, he stayed several car links behind the Lincoln, and tried to blend in with the sparse traffic. He followed them toward San Antonio for about 10 miles doing his best not to get too close. Once or twice a car had pulled between them, but he had been able to keep them in sight. Finally, confident that he had not been spotted, Carl pulled directly behind them in the left lane of the highway. At that moment his cell phone rang. He picked it up and saw that Katie was calling to check on him. It was well after 1 a.m. now and she was clearly perturbed at his absence from their bed. Carl looked up from his phone and to his shock realized that the Lincoln was no longer in front of him. He looked frantically to his right and saw it taking an exit into the city. Carl looked in his rear view mirror and swerved right across three lanes of traffic just making the off ramp. Instantaneously he found himself right on their tail at a red traffic light. He slammed on his breaks locking the back tires and stopping just a few inches from the Lincoln’s rear bumper. His heart was racing. “Idiot!” he cursed under his breath, trying to regain his composure. He could see the Lincoln’s driver looking intently into his rear view mirror. Carl tried not to make eye contact and looked away trying to appear calm. Just then the light turned green and the Lincoln accelerated away turning left two blocks down the road. Carl let them turn, took a deep breath, and then followed. He turned onto the street just in time to see the Lincoln disappear into a parking garage underneath a large office complex. Carl pulled over to the curb, exhaled, and wiped the sweat from his eyes. “What the hell do I think I am doing,” he mumbled to himself.
He inched his truck along the curb until he was next to the garage entrance. It was dark, but just over the garage doors he could make out a small sign. He leaned across the truck and squinted trying to bring the letters into focus. After a few attempts he was finally able to make it out:
Federal Bureau of Investigation
San Antonio Field Office
Official Vehicles Only
Carl let the words sink in. Could these two men have actually been FBI agents? It would certainly explain the shoulder holsters. Carl felt a chill race through his body. He was a gas station owner for crying out loud! He had never so much as stolen a pack of cigarettes, and now the FBI had him under surveillance. Did the Governor’s office know that this was going on? If so, why had they not warned him? A thousand questions started racing through Carl’s mind. As he stared blankly at the garage entrance sign, he could not help but wonder what was coming next.
All of a sudden, a knock on the driver’s side window jolted Carl from his thoughts. Startled, Carl spun around to find himself face to face with one of the two men that he had followed. He felt his heart jump to his throat. The figure rapped on the window again and motioned for Carl to roll it down. Carl knew of nothing else that he could do, so he reached down and cracked his window a few inches.
“Mr. Lamonte?” the agent inquired.
“What do you want?” Carl snapped back. “Why the hell were you taking pictures of my truck stop?”
“Mr. Lamonte, please just roll your window down so that we can talk,“ the agent continued.
Reluctantly, Carl rolled the window down the rest of the way and turned his engine off.
“Ok, I’m parked,” Carl jabbed, “now perhaps you can tell me what the hell is going on?”
The agent took in a deep breath and let it out.
“Mr. Lamonte, you most likely do not remember me, but I grew up near your station.”
“Yeah, well so did a lot of people over the past 30 years,” Carl snapped.
The agent continued undeterred.
“I remember when I was 10 years old, my father took me to your place for a pony ride. No sooner did I get on the horse when something happened and he took off across the prairie. I held on for about 30 seconds or so until he threw me into a prickly pear.”
The agent’s words disarmed Carl. “Well I’ll be dammed…I remember you,” Carl mused. “My partner Phil and I were sure that your dad was going to sue our pants off.”
The agent gave Carl an embarrassed smile. “No…he did buy me a horse though. He told me that he had never been more embarrassed in his life watching me flop around on that pony like a rag doll, and that he was going to teach me to ride like a real man.”
“Well did he?” Carl queried.
“Texas Junior Bareback Riding Champion for 3 straight years,” the agent beamed.
Carl smiled for a moment remembering the spectacle. “What did you say your name was?”Carl asked.
“Lanum Tate sir,” the agent responded sticking his had through the window to shake.
Carl ignored the gesture. “So Agent Tate, are you going to arrest me or did you come out here to thank me inspiring your rodeo career?”
Agent Tate withdrew his hand and shifted back to business.“Yesterday we got a call from the home office telling us to head out to your place and map it,” he continued. “They did not tell us why, they just told us what they wanted. That is the God’s honest truth.”
Carl felt his anger beginning to rise again. “So you guys, make it a habit of trespassing on private property and taking photographs?”
“Not at all,” Tate responded defensively. “I have been with the bureau for 5 years, and this is the first time I have ever been asked to do something like this. They are planning something big, and it looks like you are going to be right in the middle of it.”
“Well that certainly is reassuring,” Carl replied sarcastically.
Agent Tate looked around and then lowered his voice. “Mr. Lamonte, I am a Texan just like you…born and raised. I may work for the FBI, but I love this state…it is my home. I just wanted you to know that something was in the works, and that you need to be ready for it. Whatever it is, you are going to need a friend or two.”
Tate reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a business card. “I cannot promise you anything you understand, but if anything happens out at your place…anything….please feel free to give me a call, and I will see what I can do.”
Carl took his card. “Is that your word as a fed?”
Agent Tate, looked squarely back at Carl with an unblinking stare. Any trace of the dorky 10 year old boy was now completely gone. “Mr. Lamonte, that is my word as a Texan.”
With that the agent turned and headed back to the building. After about four or five steps he stopped and spun around on his heels. “And please promise me that you won’t try to tail anymore federal agents.”
“Why not?” Carl shot back.
“Because you stink at it!” Tate laughed.
As Carl drove silently back to his in-law’s ranch, he could not get Agent Tate’s words out of his mind. It was more clear than ever that the feds were getting ready to make him an example for Texans everywhere. Once again, he started to feel alone and isolated. One thing was for sure, whatever was coming, he did not stand a chance alone. As Carl pulled up to the ranch house he looked at his watch. It was well after 3 a.m. and he was exhausted from the evening’s adventure. His mind was made up though. He had endured the state’s silence too long. First thing in the morning he would call the Governor’s office and demand to know what their plan was.
As Carl slid into bed, Katie rolled over and hugged him. “It’s late honey,” she scolded softly, where have you been?” Carl reached out and pulled her close. “In a car chase with FBI agents,” he whispered back to her. “They have apparently declared war on me.”
That’s nice dear,” she responded still lost in sleep. “Try and get home earlier next time.”
(To Be Continued in Part III)