Carl was jolted awake at 4:30 a.m. by a loud ringing sound. He had been lost in a deep dreamless sleep, and the abrupt ringing had startled and disoriented him. After slapping the top of the alarm clock two or three times, he realized that he was hearing the classic ringer on his cell phone. It was a special ring tone that he used for his station manager Marcus Ramirez. Marcus had been with Carl for about 15 years, and was simply the best station manager in the business. He was honest, great with the customers, and the most reliable and conscientious employee Carl had ever hired. Most importantly however, Marcus did not bother Carl with the small stuff. He ran the station, did the hiring and firing, made sure the numbers balanced, and even placed fuel orders when Carl could not.
The fact that Marcus was calling at 4:30 in the morning clearly meant that something was dreadfully wrong at the station. Carl jumped out of bed, grabbed his jeans from the floor, and fished his phone out of the pocket.
“Marcus is that you?”
“Yes sir, it’s me alright,” Marcus responded. “I am very sorry to bother you so early in the morning, but you need to come to the station right away.”
“What’s wrong?” Carl demanded.
“Mr. Lamonte, you just need to get down here as quickly as possible,” Marcus persisted.
“Okay,” Carl conceded, “I will be there in 10 minutes.”
Carl closed his phone and tugged his jeans on. In the 15 years that Marcus had worked for him, he had never heard him so shaken. Carl grabbed a clean shirt from his closet, jumped into his truck, and peeled out down his gravel driveway. His mind was racing. What on earth could have gotten Marcus so upset? In what seemed like only a few seconds Carl was pulling into the station, and the first thing that he saw took his breath away. Someone had scrawled the word “traitor” in red paint across the windows of the quick store. It had clearly been a rush job, and bright red paint was splattered everywhere. As Carl pulled up to the store, Marcus stepped outside to meet him.
“They really hit us good Mr. Lamonte,” Marcus sighed.
As Carl looked at the red mess his blood began to boil. “Who the hell would do something like this?” he growled under his breath.
“That’s not all sir,” Marcus continued. “They cut our pump lines too.”
Carl felt his heart skip a beat. He had been so fixated on the red paint, he had completely missed the pumps. He spun around on his heels and looked at the closest diesel island. Each of the pump hoses had been severed in two.
“I am going to have to order replacement hoses,” Marcus continued, “I don’t think we will get them for a day or two.”
Carl could take it no longer. He had kept his end of the deal and stayed silent much longer than he had wanted to. He was not going to stay silent any longer. Carl stormed into his office, slammed the door and called the Governor’s office. Once again no one picked up the phone and Carl was passed to an automated attendant.
“You have reached the office of the Governor of Texas,” it droned. “We are unable to take your call at this moment. Please leave a short message and one of our staff will return your call at the earliest opportunity….”
Carl did not try to be polite.
“This is Carl Lamonte and I am tired of waiting for the Governor to return my calls,” he bellowed into the receiver. “I have done it your way for two weeks, and I am fed up! If you do not call me back today and tell me what you are planning to do to save my station, I am going public!”
Carl slammed the phone down. He was furious that he had trusted them, and knew that he should have seen this coming. Carl felt a chill run down his spine. With two weeks left before the 30 day deadline, he still had no plan and felt more alone than ever. At that moment a familiar voice broke his thoughts.
“What’s all the ruckus about in here? What you going public with Carl, a new brand of beef jerky?”
Carl turned around and saw one of his regular truckers standing at his office door.
“Hey there Clifford…sorry for the outburst,” Carl sighed.
“No worries buddy,” Clifford replied with a grin. “You were shaking the coffee pots out in the store so I wanted to bring you a cup before it all spilled.”
With that, Clifford extended a mug of hot black coffee Carl’s way. Carl regained his composure, smiled, and took the cup thankfully. Clifford had been one of Carl’s first station regulars. He was an independent owner operator and ran a coast-to-coast route between Jacksonville Florida and San Diego California. San Antonio was a regular stopping point for him, and over the years he and Carl had become fast friends. Clifford was from the “old school” of trucking when it was more of a lifestyle than a business. He would often grumble about the “new guys” with their GPS units and corporate cell phones. “There are a lot of truck drivers out there,” he would often tell Carl over a beer in the overnight lot, “but truckers are a dying breed.”
“So, if you don’t mind my nosin’ in, why were you calling the Governor’s office?” Clifford pressed. “Are you trying to find out what they are going to do when everyone’s 60 day notice runs out?”
Carl was tired of holding it in. “I wish I had a 60 day notice,” he moaned. “They gave me a 30.”
Clifford’s jaw dropped in disbelief. “You mean to tell me they only gave you 30 days?”
Carl nodded his head and told his friend about the notice, the slow rolling by the Governor’s office, and the FBI incident from the night before. As he told Cliff the story he felt a huge weight being lifted from his shoulders. Finally, someone else knew what he had been going through.
Cliff took it all in while sipping his coffee. “So if no one knows…who did that to the front of your store?”
Carl clinched his jaw in frustration. “I only wish I knew.”
“Well someone sure as hell knows,” Cliff persisted, “and they clearly think you are a traitor.”
Carl could see the red paint from inside his office. “Well I am going to get some answers real fast,” he rumbled.
A moment of silence passed as both men sipped their coffee and pondered the predicament. After a few minutes Clifford spoke up. “Well…the way I figure it Carl, you are on your own.”
Carl looked down at his coffee, knowing in his heart that his friend was right.
“The way I see it,” Clifford continued, “the Governor’s office isn’t going to do a damn thing.”
“What do you mean?” Carl queried.
“Well think about it for crying out loud,” Clifford scolded. “All the businesses in the state have received 60 day notices except for you…one little gas station. Doesn’t that seem kind of funny?”
“I suppose it does,” Carl conceded.
“You’re damn right it does,” Cliff continued. “Why on earth would they give a little independent truck stop in the Texas prairie a 30 day notice?”
Carl assumed the question was rhetorical and did not answer.
“You my friend are the test!” Cliff concluded.
Carl listened intently. “What kind of test am I exactly?”
“Well, my guess is that the Governor’s office does not know what the Feds are going to do, and the Feds have no idea what the Governor is going to do. I mean, how on earth are the Feds going to foreclose on tens of thousands of Texas small businesses? It would be political suicide and they know it.
“So why the heck am I getting the silent treatment?” Carl inquired.
Cliff continued undaunted. “Well think about it from the Governor’s perspective for a minute. What is he going to do, call out the Texas National Guard and have them stand in front of every store in the state? And even if he did, what would his marching orders be? Shoot any Fed who tries to park in the parking lot? I mean, I love my state, but I just don’t see it. So, they have set you up to settle the whole issue.”
“So I’m nothing but a big patsy, is that what you are telling me?”
“That’s the way I see it,” Cliff concluded. “All those 60 day notices mean absolutely nothing. Nope…what matters is what happens right here.”
Carl’s head was spinning. “So why did they do this to my station?”
Cliff leaned forward and looked Carl directly in the eye. “Ole buddy, whether you like it or not, there is a fight brewin’ and the first battle is going to take place right here at your station. It is also a sad fact that, no matter which side wins, you’re going to be a casualty.”
Carl put his coffee down and took in Cliff’s words. He had suspected that this was the case, and hearing it from his friend only confirmed it. Once again he felt his anger beginning to rise.
“So what am I supposed to do Cliff, stand out front with my shotgun and let my kids watch me get shot down on television?” Carl blurted in frustration.
Clifford rocked back in his chair ignoring Carl’s comment. “I think we are going to have to solve this problem Texas style.”
Carl gave Cliff a sarcastic look. “What are we going to do, hold up in the Alamo? I seem to remember that not ending so well.”
Clifford rocked forward in his chair and stood up. Carl could not help but notice the grin on his face. Cliff walked over and slapped Carl on the back so hard that he almost dropped his coffee cup.
“No ole’ buddy,” Cliff beamed, “we are going to have ourselves a barbeque!”
Carl was dumbfounded. “A what?” he asked trying to make sense of what he just heard.
Clifford was undeterred. “I will handle the details. All you need to do is advertise.”
Carl was still lost. “What exactly do I advertise?”
Clifford looked at Carl with a big toothy grin. “Why the first annual Fill & Fuel secession barbeque of course!”
With that, Clifford let out a big belly laugh and headed out of the room. “We got two weeks Carl, get the word out, and I’ll supply the rest!”
Carl put his coffee down on the desk. “A secession barbeque,” he repeated under his breath. He was not entirely sure what his buddy was up to but, knowing Cliff, it was going to be a wild ride. Carl stared at the pile of unpaid bills on his desk. The fact was, he had already wasted two weeks waiting on the Governor’s office to give him a plan. He had done what they asked him to do and stayed quiet, but all it had gotten him was a vandalized station. Carl had hoped that they would help him out, but it now seemed clear that Cliff was right. He was on his own. Carl shrugged his shoulders in resignation. “What the hell,” he said to himself. “A barbeque sounds like the best idea I’ve heard yet.”
Carl stood up, grabbed his keys, and headed for his truck. As he walked across the parking lot, he could see that Marcus was already busy cleaning the paint off of the front of the station. “I am heading into town Marcus,” Carl called out without stopping.
Marcus hopped down his ladder and ran to catch up. “I should have this clean in a few hours Mr. Lamonte,” he panted.
Carl turned to Marcus as he reached his truck. “That’s good, thanks for taking care of the mess.”
Marcus gave Carl a hesitant smile and nodded his head nervously. “I am worried,” he continued. “What if the people that did this come back tonight? What are we going to do?”
Carl looked into Marcus’ worried eyes and smiled. “We, mi amigo, are going to have us a Texas barbeque!”
With that Carl hopped into his truck and peeled out. As he hit the highway entrance, he flipped his cell phone open and dialed information. “Fox 29 News San Antonio,” he told the operator. After a few rings he was greeted by a woman’s voice.
“Fox 29 news room, may I help you?”
“Yes ma’am, this is Carl Lamonte owner of the Fill & Fuel Truck Stop. I will be there in 20 minutes with your leading story for this evening’s news…”