By the end of the day Carl had visited every television and radio station in the city. He made no attempt to hold any detail back. He told them about the notice, the Governor’s lack of responsiveness, the vandalism to his station, and the FBI photo shoot. He had also done as his buddy Clifford had instructed and noted that he would be sponsoring an open house barbeque the day his notice expired. By the time he was on the way back to his station, the local AM stations were already leading their news breaks with the story.
“A local truck stop owner appears to be the first casualty of the Texas tax revolt. Tune in at the top of the hour for more!” one radio station advertized.
“Barbeque or bust for one local businessman!” another touted.
By going public, Carl knew that he had just made himself the focal point of the entire nation. He knew that, within a matter of days, dozens of television vans would be parked in the prairie across from his truck stop. Instead of being apprehensive however, he felt more at ease than he had since this whole mess had begun. By going to the press, Carl knew that he had changed the game. He was not sure if it would work out in his favor or not, but he knew that, now, the Governor’s office would be forced to take action one way or the other. There would be no “wait and see” for them now. The political forces at play would have to reconcile themselves with popular opinion, and Carl was betting that this would be his ace in the hole.
Carl pulled into the station with about 15 minutes of time to spare before the local evening news. Several news trucks had already set up across the access road. Their microwave antennas were fully extended, and the field reporters were busy choosing the correct backdrop for their report. As Carl drove by, he could see their interest shift to him. As he pulled his truck up to the market, he was instantaneously swarmed with eager correspondents asking for live interviews.
Carl stepped out of his truck, waved his hands to get the crowd to quiet down, and then agreed to do interviews for each station. Marcus had been able to clean the front of the station off pretty well, but there were still dry red splatters all over the place. The hoses however had yet to be replaced, so he decided to stand next to one of the vandalized pumps for his interviews. For the next hour, he interviewed with about 6 area stations. He pointed out the cut hoses, the red paint, and the deafening silence from the Governor’s office. He also made sure to invite all Texans to Fill & Fuel’s First Annual Secession Barbeque. “Now this is a BYOB event,” Carl noted sternly as he looked into the news cameras. “Bring your own beef that is.” Carl would then smile and assure everyone that entertainment would most certainly be provided by the Federal Government. By the end of the last interview, over three quarters of Texas had heard his story.
As the news trucks packed their cables and departed, Carl walked into the store where he found Marcus.
“Mr. Lamonte, you were on every channel,” Marcus noted as the phone rang. “You see,” he said pointing to the phone, ”that is about the 20th call we have gotten in the last 10 minutes.”
Carl reached over and picked up the phone out of curiosity.
“Fill & Fuel truck stop, this is Carl…”
“Yeah,” a strange voice responded, “we just saw you on the TV and wanted you to know that your fellow Texans are behind you all the way. We will see you at the barbeque.”
Carl paused not knowing exactly what to say. “Well thank you kindly, we are looking forward to it.”
The caller hung up, apparently content with his short vote of confidence. No sooner had Carl hung up the phone than it rang again. Carl looked at Marcus and picked it up again.
“Fill & Fuel, may I help you?”
“Hey man, just wanted to say we’ll be there. Don’t give up the ranch brother!”
Carl put the phone back on the hook and exhaled.
“Mr. Lamonte, with all these calls, I think things are going to get crazy around here,” Marcus continued. “I am going to sleep in the office tonight, just in case someone tries something.”
Carl shook his head. “Marcus, this is my fight not yours. I want you to go home to your family and get some rest. I am going to do the same.”
Carl could see that Marcus was about to protest, so he raised his hand to cut him off.
“Marcus, if things get too crazy I will stay here, but until it does, we are both better off with our families. I am headed home right now. “
The phone rang again.
“And just let all those go to the answering service,” Carl ordered gesturing toward the phone.
Marcus shook his head. “You’re the boss sir.”
The truck had pulled over to the shoulder of the highway just a few moments after the last news broadcast. The driver had positioned the car so that he could see Fill & Fuel clearly through his binoculars. Ever since the last news truck had departed, the driver had been able to see the entire station clearly. He had seen Carl walk inside the store, but things had been quiet for a while now. Just as he was about to put the binoculars down the door to the market swung open.
The driver watched through his binoculars intently as Carl got into his truck and peeled down the driveway. He could see another figure standing in the mini mart, but could not make out exactly who it was. He assumed that it was hired help. The driver swung his binoculars back to Carl’s truck as it disappeared down the access road in a cloud of dust. He put the binoculars down into his lap, took a sip of coffee, and glanced briefly at the shotgun lying next to him. It would be dark soon, and he would be ready.
Carl walked into his house just in time to hear the phone ring. Apparently, his home phone had been just as busy as the station’s.
“I’m not answering it anymore Carl!” Katie called out from the kitchen. “It has been ringing non-stop ever since the news.”
Carl had completely forgotten about the fact that he and Katie were in the phone book.
“Sorry sweetie,” he called back, “I’ll get it.”
Carl walked over and picked up the receiver fully expecting to hear the anonymous voice of some well wisher.
“This is Carl, can I help you?”
The voice on the other end of the line was not like the others had been.
“We know where you live, traitor. You had better grow eyes in the back of your head,” a deep voice growled ominously.
Carl was shocked. “What? Who the hell is this?”
The caller continued. “You get ready, ‘cause we are going to pay you a visit real soon.”
The caller hung up before Carl could say anything else. He stood there for a moment, visibly shaken. He felt like an idiot. In his zeal to get the word out, he had not even considered the fact that he might be putting his family in danger.
“You okay honey?” Katie asked as she walked into the room drying a glass.
Carl bent down and unplugged the phone from the wall.
“Just another supporter,” Carl lied trying to smile.
“Well I wish you would have warned me before you went public,” Katie admonished. “I would have unplugged it hours ago.”
Carl kissed her on the cheek and changed the subject.
“Anything to eat?” he asked, “I could use something other than beef jerky.”
Carl and Katie ate in silence, both mentally exhausted from the events of the past couple of days. Carl did his best to act confident for his family, but the truth of the matter was he was wound tighter than a fiddle string. He knew that he had unleashed a monster by going to the media and, especially after the last call, he was getting more and more uneasy about his decision. After dinner, he lumbered back to the bedroom, took a hot shower, and crawled into bed. Out of habit he reached for the remote but paused before hitting the power button. “Nope,” he grunted to himself, “I ain’t gonna do it.” With that, he tossed the remote back on the mattress and rolled over on his side for a bit of shut eye. He was tired and sleep came quickly.
At about 2 a.m., Carl’s peaceful slumber was shattered by a frantic voice.
“Honey…Carl….You need to get up right now!”
Katie was on the bed shaking him. Carl rolled over on his back and tried to focus on her face. Katie continued to shake him.
“Carl, wake up there is a problem with the station, you need to get down there,” she pleaded.
Her words cut through his grogginess and jolted him awake.
“What is going on at the station?” he mumbled trying to collect his thoughts. “Did Marcus call or something?”
Katie was pale. “No baby…you unplugged the telephone…remember?”
Carl was confused. “So if no one called, how do you know there is a problem?”
Katie swallowed hard and paused. “I turned on the television.”
Carl sat up in bed and looked at the TV. It took him a moment to understand what he was looking at. It looked like an aerial camera shot of the Fill & Fuel, and it was burning.
Carl’s heart jumped into his throat. “Holy Christ!” he whispered in shock as he watched the screen. At that moment a horrible sense of dread hit him right in his gut. Marcus had most likely ignored his direction and slept at the station…but why had he not called? Carl reached for his cell phone and dialed Marcus’ number. There was no answer. Panicked, Carl jumped to his feet, threw on his clothes, and ran for the door.
“Get your father up and tell him to watch the property,” he yelled back to Katie. “You tell him to shoot anything other than me that comes up that driveway.” Hearing no response, Carl paused and looked back at Katie. She was looking at him with her eyes full of tears. Carl took a deep breath and walked up to her.
“Honey, it’s going to be okay, I promise. No one is going to hurt you or the kids.” Carl brushed her hair from her face. “Just keep the doors locked and I am going to get the police to come by and stay with you guys. In the meantime, tell your dad to keep the gun with him.”
Katie nodded her head. “Be careful honey,’ she whispered back.
By the time Carl got to the station it was a beehive of activity. He pulled up to the police line and pushed his way through. Apparently vandals had set one of his fuel islands on fire in an attempt to blow the whole station sky high. The fire department had showed up in time however, and apparently had put out the flames before they could spread and create more damage. The island and all the pumps were a total loss though.
As Carl scanned the crowd for Marcus an ambulance caught his eye. Its rear doors were open and there was a group of EMTs and firemen in the back loading a stretcher onboard. Carl’s blood ran cold with fear as he pushed past the firefighters toward the ambulance. As he got nearer, he could see that it was Marcus on the stretcher. He was on oxygen and badly burned.
“What happened,” he demanded from one of the paramedics. “Is he going to be okay?”
The EMT looked at him somberly and shook his head.
“He is in pretty serious condition. Whoever did this, gave him a real good beating before setting the place on fire. He’s burned pretty badly and in shock.”
Carl felt his heart racing.
“Can I talk to him?” Carl pleaded. “I mean is he conscious?”
The EMT shook his head as he pushed past Carl to the driver’s compartment of the ambulance.
“Buddy, if we don’t get this fellah to the hospital real quick, he may not talk to anyone ever again.”
With that he jumped into the ambulance and headed for the road. Carl watched in disbelief as the vehicle disappeared into the sea of flashing lights around the station. His mind was spinning. Had they contacted his family? Did they know? Who would do something like this?
At that moment a hand gripped Carl’s shoulder jolting him out of his thoughts. Carl spun around on his heels surprised to see Agent Tate standing there. Instantly he felt his gut fill with rage.
“Who the hell would do something like this?” Carl demanded. “Who would do this to my station and to Marcus?”
Agent Tate was visibly shaken. “Mr. Lamonte, I’m very sorry,” he whispered.
“Was it you?” Carl jabbed. “Is this what they used your pictures for?”
Tate grabbed Carl by his arms, squeezing so tightly that Carl lost his train of thought.
“Mr. Lamonte, you shouldn’t have gone public like you did,” he scolded. As soon as I saw the news reports this evening, I came out and started watching your place from back at the highway. I knew something like this was going to happen! Damn it, I knew this would happen.”
Carl was undeterred. “You were watching my station? Did you see who did this?”
Tate grabbed Carl’s arm even harder. “Yeah I saw them alright. I saw the whole thing. A big van pulled up to one of the islands and some guys got out with crowbars and started bashing your pumps. Your fellow…Marcus…came running out of the station and confronted them. They exchanged words for about a second and the men started beating him. I dropped my binoculars and laid rubber over here as fast as I could, but by the time I got here the island was burning and they were gone.”
Carl could not believe what he was hearing. “Did you catch them?” he demanded. “Why didn’t you go after them?”
Tate was clearly frustrated. “I couldn’t. By the time I pulled up to the station the pumps and that fellah Marcus were both on fire. I had to pull him out of the flames and hit the fire suppression before the entire place went up.”
Carl could see that Lanum’s eye’s were full of tears. They were not tears of sorrow however…he was in pain. Carl looked down at the two hands still gripping his arms and saw that they were covered with second and third degree burns. Carl was at a loss for words.
“You saved him….you saved Marcus,” he muttered in disbelief.
“I tried, but I am afraid that I may have been too late.”
“You did what you could Lanum, and thank you….l mean… I am sorry I snapped at you…” Carl had no idea what to say.
“Look Carl,” Lanum continued, “I had nothing to do with this, but I can tell you one thing, I will find out who did.”
Carl felt his anger returning. “You better believe that we’re going to find out.”
“Not we Carl,” Tate butted in. “I need you to keep your head down. The people that did this, were not playing around. They came prepared; they had incendiary devices, and almost killed your employee when he got in the way.”
“He still may die,” Carl butted in.
Tate locked onto Carl’s eyes like he had done the evening they spoke in front of the FBI office. “Carl, I have been thinking a lot about what is going on here, and you are getting a bum rap. The way I see it, sooner or later, every one of us is going to have to decide what side of this issue they’re on. I want you to know that I am on your side. There are a lot of other cops around here that are as well. You may not know it Carl, but you have a lot of friends in this town, and the more the hammer comes down on you the more you will get.”
Carl nodded letting Tate’s words soak in.
“You better believe that I am going to get these guys. I am already calling in a few favors to find out who they are and keep it under the wire, you know what I mean?”
Carl thought he knew, and nodded again.
“I am going to arrange protection for your family, but you are going to have to do me just one more favor.”
“You name it,” Carl heard himself say.
“I need you not to get yourself killed.”
Tate’s words hung in Carl’s ears.
“Don’t worry Agent Tate, I won’t bite off any more than I can chew.”
Lanum let out a huge belly laugh as he walked away.
“You did that a long time ago my friend! “