A GED, a bastard daughter and an unemployment check from Southern Textiles was all Elias Denton had to show for his 23 years of life. The century old mill shuttered in April, the machinery sold overseas.
The laid off weavers and machinists now fought over the same crap jobs at Wal-Mart and Winn Dixie. Furniture and tobacco workers fired the year before already had dibs on the rest. The one horse town had three legs in the air.
Eli sat in the Schoolfield Diner drinking a Budweiser, eating fried eggs, bacon and toast. It was 8:15am. Before the mill closed, he’d worked the graveyard shift. He and his buddies would get off work around eight and cross the street to the greasy spoon for “happy hour.” Beers and breakfast. No point giving up the daily ritual, just because the mill gave up on him.
Jolene, the nineteen-year old pregnant waitress who looked twice her age, and not in a good way, put Eli’s check down beside his near empty plate. Yes, her mama named her after the Dolly Parton song and no, she doesn’t want to hear you sing it, thank you.
An older man Eli didn’t recognize approached and stood beside the empty stool next to Eli’s. Rare to see a non-regular. Not exactly a “word of mouth” kind of place.
“Seat taken?” He asked.
“Yeah, the Pope’s just powdering his nose,” Eli mumbled, barely raising his head as he sopped egg juice up with a triangle of Wonder bread.
“Name’s Delbert Franklin,” the man offered. Eli declined.
“What’ll it be?” Jolene smacked.
“2 eggs, scrambled. Sausage and hash browns. Cup o’coffee, black.” Delbert instructed.
Jolene waddled away. Eli had stopped bothering to stare at her ass long ago.
“Now friend, you don’t know me, but I’d like to know you.”
“All my friends are dead or in jail. Don’t need any more. Just as soon eat my breakfast in peace.”
“No job. Child support piling up. Mother dying of lung cancer. I’d say you could use a friend, Eli.”
That got Eli’s full attention.
“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m a business man, Eli. And I have a job for you.”
“Not interested.” Eli said, leaning forward to pull his beat up leather wallet out of the back pocket of his faded Levi’s. He opened it to pay his bill, but Delbert quickly produced a ten-spot.
“Please, allow me.”
“Eli, do you know the name Jack Littleton?”
“Sure. He’s the sum bitch who sold his soul and the mill to the Pakistanis.”
“I represent individuals, who, much like yourself, are not shall we say, fans of Mr. Littleton.”
“I ain’t a hit man, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“You’ve already done the job, Eli.”
“Can’t say I follow you.”
“Sometime around noon, Littleton’s corpse will be discovered.”
Again, that got Eli’s attention.
“Like, I said. Not following.”
“Jack Littleton’s been murdered. You’ve been framed for it. I’m simply offering payment for a job well done,” he said, sliding a thick crumpled manila envelope across the counter.
Eli cracked it open. At least twenty grand stared back at him.
“There’s a small plane at the municipal airport waiting to take you wherever you tell the pilot. Your mother’s medical bills have been squared. There’ll be another 40 grand for you when you land.”
“Sounds like a swell offer, but no thanks.”
“I don’t think you understand, Eli. The wheels have already been set in motion. The evidence has been planted. The police, anxious to solve the case, will chalk it up as a disgruntled former employee who snapped out of frustration. Take the money, or spend the rest of your days rotting in a cell.”
“Let’s just say, putting this town out of work was the least of his transgressions.”
Eli slowly stood up, stuck the envelope in the back of his jeans and covered it with the tail of his flannel shirt.
“One last question,” Eli said as he turned to leave, “Why me?”
With a sly grin, Delbert replied, ”Everyone else was dead or in jail.”