A long time had passed since Luke visited his hometown. He spent the better part of his life travelling from place to place, robbing banks and jewellery stores. Nobody was able to catch Luke, so he kept on doing it.
Alone at first, when the jobs were small enough, then his only stable friend Jimmy found out about Luke's career path and begged to join in his endeavours. They were very successful together, but Luke was heading home now.
It had been fifteen years to the day since he left his parents's house and moved to the big city. His father yelled at him, his mother cried. Both wanted Luke to stay home. Who was going to look out for him, they asked. Who was going to take over the small tractor dealership his father had been running for decades? Luke didn't want any of it, the big city called to him.
He was coming home now.
In a letter that took over two months to reach him, Luke's mother had said that his father was dying. He was diagnosed with a rare form leukaemia and had less then six months to live. She pleaded with him to come back. His father wanted to see Luke before he passed on. Luke needed to say good bye to his father, the letter said.
When the letter reached Luke, he had just finished a big job on the east coast of the country. They robbed a big CITI Bank and got away of close to a million dollars in cash and a few personal belongings of a number of big wigs at the bank.
This heights had earned them a nickname. In the news, the name The CITI Bank robbers was floated around. Luke's past four heights had been CITI Bank branches and all were executed in a similar manner. The name had a historical precedent. It stuck.
Jimmy and their new driver Pat were counting up the cash when Luke came inside the apartment holding the already opened letter from his mom. Luke's expression gave Jimmy a startle.
'What's wrong champ?' Jimmy asked. Luke stopped at the table and put the letter down.
'It's my mom,' he said. 'She wants me to come home as soon as possible.'
'Why?' said Jimmy.
'My father has been diagnosed with cancer.' Luke answered sitting down on a chair beside the table and grabbing his head between his hands.
'Shit!' Jimmy was taken aback by the news. He turned to Luke and said 'I'm so sorry man.'
Jimmy knew Luke had a family somewhere back in the mid east of the country, but nothing else was ever discussed between them. Both preferred to keep their previous lives, including their families, private.
Pat sat silent next to Jimmy. He never knew what to say when things like that came up. Just a simple I'm sorry was always the best reply, yet somehow it always got stuck in his throat. He stood up and walked up to where Luke was sitting and patted him on his shoulder. Luke looked up at Pat with understanding and gratitude.
'You gonna go back home then?' Jimmy said.
'Yea, this letter was sent two months ago, I gotta call my mom first and see what's going on,' said Luke.
'Guess we gonna hold off on the next few jobs,' said Jimmy, 'take a breather until you come back then.'
'Probably a good idea. We've been attracting too much attention lately. Need to lose some heat.' Luke took out a pack of Chesterfields and lit a cigarette. 'Pat needs a vacation anyway. Somewhere nice and quiet.'
'That's probably for the best,' said Jimmy.
'Want us to come with you?' Pat's question came out of nowhere. Both Luke and Jimmy looked at him with wide eyes. Pat was never the one to offer up any ideas. He stayed quiet most of the time and just drove the car. Drove it really well, actually.
'Uh, that's ok Pat. I should be fine on my own. Probably be away for a few months,' said Luke.
Luke left for home that evening.
When Luke finally made it home, his father was on his deathbed. Luke came upstairs to the bed room. His father's thin face had aged beyond his fifty years. Droopy eyelids were accented by the dark purple patches under the old man's eyes. A hairless scalp heralded the imminent arrival of death itself.
'Dad!' Luke said, walking up towards the bed. 'Dad, its me. Can you hear me?'. He kneeled beside the bed and took the his father's frail hand in his own.
The dying man turned towards Luke. He recognized his son and his eyes smiled. He was happy.
'Dad, if you can hear me, I am sorry.' Luke gently lifted his father's hand up to his face. 'I left so abruptly all those years ago, I am sorry Dad. I am sorry. I am here now, dad.'
His eyes were still smiling. Luke looked into them and found love and sorrow. In that moment Luke knew that his father had never been angry with him and whatever had passed between them was not important anymore. Luke saw that his dad's lips were moving and he leaned in closer.
'What is it Dad?' Luke said. 'Tell me. Do you want some water?' He tried to get up to get a glass but his father clasped his thumb in his hand and weakly pulled him back. Astonished, Luke leaned in again and said, 'Dad?'
'I love you son.' The words were barely a whisper, like a tiny soul escaping the confines the earthly body.
'Dad! I love you too,' Luke said. He looked at his father's face and saw his eyes close. A soft smile was frozen on the face, a smile of a man at peace with himself.
The funeral was small. A few close friends and family attended the church service and the burial ceremony. Luke cried when they put his father into the grave. His mother could not bring herself down to look at the coffin. Supported by her son, she had to be almost carried away from the grave to the car.
At the wake, the priest gave a brief account of the deceased man's life. He was a good man, the priest said. He took care of his family, helped friends and family, and never took advantage of his customers.
Of course Luke knew all of this. Countless hours spent helping out in the repair garage, at the back of the dealership, helped Luke get to know his father's business. When he was older, Luke wondered why his dad rarely charged for small repair services. It made him angry. His father didn't know how to run a business, Luke said. You have to charge people for your work, that's how you make money, Luke would tell him. But, it seemed the words fell on deaf ears. His father would always say help those in need and you shall be rewarded in kind by our Lord Jesus Christ. He was a good man indeed, Luke thought, and it made Luke miss him ever more deeply.
After the wake, Luke and his mother sat in the kitchen. They were drinking tea and talking quietly about the goings on in town. She told him how the big agribusiness put local farmers out of business, one after another. His father had try to help, she said. He'd give free tune ups to the farmers and and sell framing machinery at cost. But event that was not enough to save those poor souls.
When all of land was taken over, the dealership went out of business. The big corporations had their own mechanics and garages. They did not need to buy equipment from Luke's dad. Their tractors were much cheaper, purchased in bulk and sent around the country to plough and till stolen soil. And since the repairs were done in house, no one needed a tractor mechanic in town.
Luke's father had to find another job. An opportunity opened up at WasteCo corporation. They were hiring truck drivers to haul some sort of waste product to the Devil's Hill dump. The job was to be permanent and paid good money. Luke's dad took the opportunity and spent his last years driving big rigs.
'The Devil's Hill is a waste dump now?' said Luke. He remembered hiking up to the top of the hill with his friends. They used to set up camp there and spend evenings sitting around fires, singing and partying till the wee hours of the morning.
'It's been there for quite sometime now,' his mom answered. 'They dug into the mountain, built some concrete enclosures in there and been storing garbage for, oh ten years now, I'd say. Rumour has it, it's chemical waste they're storing in there.'
'They're storing what?'
'Yes, I heard it from the Robertsons,' said his mom. 'Mr. Robertson saw some weird signs on the containers he was delivering to the hill. Told his wife and she told me.'
'Incredible,' said Luke. 'How are the Robertson's anyway? I didn't see the at the funeral. I sure would love to have a chat with the old man.'
'That you won't do, that's for sure,' said the mother. She looked up at Luke, a single tear rolling down her left cheek. 'He's in the county hospital. He's got cancer.'
Mr. Robertson had cancer, is that what I heard, Luke thought. Mr. Robertson was probably the healthiest man in the town. Cancer? Luke's head was spinning.
'How long, mom?' He asked.
'He'd had it for six months now. They said it's about time he passed away, but he's still holding on strong.'
'I'd like to see him,' said Luke.'Tomorrow, perhaps.' Then after a brief pause he asked. 'Anyone else got cancer or some serious illness?'
'Plenty.' She said. Putting her fingers into a fist, she started counting. 'Robertsons, Greers, Kellys, Ericksons, Woods, Foresters, McGuintys, Smiths, Stevensons, Johnsons, Gustafsons.' She ran out of fingers to count on.
There were plenty more. Twenty three in total. Most had someone in the family with cancer, few had some sort of illness that was not known around here and was unique enough for them to be sent to a big university hospital on the other side of the country. Few had died in the past year or so.
'Mom! Did anyone from the government show up to find out what was going on?' said Luke.
'There were a few people here, last year,' she said. 'They came, tested the water source on the south side of town. Said everything was fine and we haven't heard from them since.'
'Typical,' said Luke. 'They never find anything wrong. The big business has got all the money and they can afford to pay the government off. I want to talk to the people who have cancer tomorrow. See what's really going on.'
He looked at his mother. Her face was scarred by the grooves of years of hard work and constant worry. The loss of her husband had made them even deeper and pushed them closer together. Her silver hair accented her pain and struggle to survive without her partner.
'I'm gonna find out what they're hiding in the Devil's Hill,' said Luke.
The next morning Luke drove to the other side of town to look for Robertson's house. As the car rolled down main street, closed signs stared out from the empty shop windows. Grim faces watched the car from the only two places still open. Only the local diner and a thrift shop survived the coordinated corporate assault on family business.
Robertsons had moved into town from their farm about five years ago, Luke's mother told him. Their new house, a rather small bungalow, was located on the south side of town. It was the first house to greet you if you were on your way in. It's once white walls were now more of beige colour as years of accumulating dust had taken the life away from this house. Rotten boards here and there added to its aging look.
Luke pulled into the driveway and got out of the car. There was no one outside the house.
He walked up the stairs to the porch and knocked on the door.
'Hello! Anyone here?', he said while knocking on the door. 'Mrs. Robertson?'
No one answered. Luke knocked again, 'Hello! It's Luke Evans, Mary's son.'
He tried looking through the window next to the door to see if anyone was inside. It didn't look like Mrs. Robertson was home. Luke turned to go back to his car.
'Luke?'. The voice came from the inside. Soft, barely a whisper, it reminded Luke of the his father's voice.
'Yes, Mrs. Robertson,' he turned back towards the door. 'It's me. Are you in the house?'
'I am.' Mrs. Robertson undid the locks and opened her door.
A short, elderly woman was standing in the door, looking at Luke. Her hair was disheveled and heavy bags under her eyes gave away a badly hidden secret. Mrs. Robertson was sick. She was very, very sick.
'Are you alright Mrs. Robertson?' Luke said, noticing the mustard yellow colour of her skin.
'I'm ok,' she said smiling softly. 'Holding on while I can for now.'
She looked frail. Aged well beyond her sixty years, Luke could see that Mrs. Robertson was on her way join her husband. What was happening in this town, he thought.
'I haven't seen you since the time you graduated High School with my Geoffrey,' she interrupted his thoughts. 'So you're back now, huh?'
'It's been a while,' said Luke. 'I guess, yea, since my high school graduation.'
'Sorry about your father,' said Mrs. Robertson, suddenly remembering the funeral. 'He was a good man, always willing to help.'
'Thank you, my condolences to you as well.' Luke chided himself silently for forgetting to mention it when he first saw her. She was still standing at the door and Luke realized that she shouldn't be standing this long.
'Mrs. Robertson may I come in and ask you a few questions about your husband's illness?'
Her smile was gone in a instant. She narrowed her eyes and said, 'you too? They've been coming around asking me questions for months now. Journalist, government analysts, scientist and all sorts of other riffraff. I know what killed my husband. I know who killed my husband. And I know what is going to kill me in a few months time. Leave me alone, and let me die in peace.'
She slammed the door. Luke heard soft sobs coming from inside the house. He went down the stairs towards his car and drove slowly away.
'There've been many cases in the past fours years.' Dr. Sanderson was leaning back comfortably in his office chair. 'Strange ones too. Usually we'd get one or two cases of colon or lung cancers a year. But in these past few years it'd been leukaemia, thyroid, myeloma and stomach cancers. Five to eight a year.'
'Wow, that many?' Luke was astonished. After visiting Mrs. Robertson he'd driven to Dr. Sanderson's office to see if he could find out more about the illnesses going around. The doctor had been treating patients here for the past thirty years and Luke trusted him to be the most informed when it came to spotting unusual illnesses.
'Yes, your father wasn't one of the first ones,' said the doctor. 'But he definitely survived longer then other.'
'Do you know what's causing these cancers?'
'Hmm,' the doctor paused. Luke could see him contemplating the answer. Something was amiss here that much was obvious was obvious to Luke. But would Dr. Sanderson know for sure what was triggering these cancers? He could just tell Luke what the government officials have told everyone else.
'You know, the government guys have been here,' said Dr. Sanderson. 'And their theory was that the deaths were just random. Spoke about higher cancer rates all over the country and how we're just catching up.'
'Did you believe them?' Luke said.
'No.' The answer was categorical and finite. Dr. Sanderson looked into Luke's eyes and said, 'Son, I have my suspicions about why cancer rates here are so high now, I may even know where the source of the problem is, but I can't tell you for sure. I am not an authority on this subject. I am not even an oncologist. I'm just a family physician.'
'Tell me what you think then,' said Luke. 'Let me decide if you're right about it or not.'
'I think the source of all this trouble is that damned Devil's Hill,' said Dr. Sanderson. 'They've been storing some chemical waste there, you know. Son, I think that's where the trouble comes from.'
Dr. Sanderson turned to one of the file cabinets across from his table. On it there was a few newspaper cutouts with articles and pictures of local events and people. He scanned through them quickly and pulled out one of the clippings.
'A year ago, The Town's Cryer did a piece on the cancers and the connection to the chemical waste storage,' said Dr. Sanderson and handed the article to Luke. Luke took it from him and looked at the title. WASTECO'S WASTE IS KILLING US IN HASTE, it read.
'Catchy title,' said Luke.
'Yes, and even catchier story,' said Dr. Sanderson. 'There was a leakage of chemicals into underground stream, the paper said. That's what was poisoning the town's residents. And it must have been true otherwise the paper would still be around.'
'What happened to it?'
'The company leaned on the local bank, and it decided to call in newspaper's loans and when they tried to get an extension the bank denied them. So they had to shutdown. Then the editor, name's Michael Hadley, died of thyroid cancer.'
'Assholes!' said Luke.
'Yes, that's what they've been called a million times or more around here,' said Dr. Sanderson. 'But that don't help anyone recover or prevent them from getting sick now, does it?'
'Not yet,' said Luke. 'We'll just do something about that one, we will.'
Pat heard the phone ring in the apartment. Must be long distance, he thought as he got up to answer it.
'Hey Pat! It's me, Luke. Is Jimmy around?'
Luke's sounded anxious on the phone. Something was clearly amiss. Luke would never have called during a layoff period.
'Yea, he's sleeping right now,' said Pat. 'Want me to wake him?'
'Do it,' said Luke, 'I need your help, both of you.'
When Jimmy got to the phone, Luke told him about his father and the cancer epidemic hitting his hometown. He told him how he tried to find out what was happening and the conversations he'd had with his mother, Mrs. Robertson and Dr. Sanderson.
He told them he needed their help to break into the Devil's Hill facility and find out what kind of waste they are storing there and if it were somehow leaking underground.
'I need your help on this one,' said Luke. 'Just to find out if the rumours are true.'
'We're right behind you,' said Jimmy with Pat nodding beside him. 'Me and Pat both.'
'Thanks so much,' said Luke, 'I owe both of you.'
'Have you thought about what you are going to do once you find out?' said Jimmy.
'Don't know,' answered Luke truthfully. 'But I want to take them for all they've got.'
Pat pulled into the driveway at 9. Jimmy was in the car, sitting in the back seat. Pat honked twice and a few minutes later Luke came out of the house and got in.
'Ready?' he asked.
'As ready as we'll ever be,' answered Jimmy. 'I've cased the place last night and this morning. It doesn't look like we'll have any problems getting in. They have four guards for the whole facility, one at the gate and three patrolling the inside.'
'You haven't seen anyone else go in?' Luke said.
'No, it's the weekend, remember?' Jimmy said. 'There are no employees there on Saturday.'
Luke nodded. They were used to pulling off similar jobs. Case the place out for a few weeks, find out routines and habits of the employees, then hit them when they were most vulnerable. Robbing banks became a full time job for them. They had gotten so good, sometimes they would know how to pull off the job by observing the place for a day or two. This facility should be a breeze.
'In and out,' said Luke. 'Two minutes tops, take pictures and get out.'
'Wish there was some cash we could grab,' said Jimmy.
Pat parked the car on the side of the road. They were a few hundred yards from the storage facility and a parked car here would not draw too much attention. Jimmy and Luke got out and headed toward the facility.
The storage facility was on top of the Devil's Hill. Half the mountain was carved out to make room for the collection yard. The actual garbage was stored inside the mountain, sealed off in the big cave. The walls of the cave were hardened with concrete and sealed with rubber materials to prevent water leaking from the inside.
Jimmy had the layout of the facility figured out. Somehow he managed to convince a young lady clerk at the mayor's office that he was one of the architects who designed the site. He told her he needed to review the blueprints to check for water seepage flaws. The girl believed him or wanted to believe him. Jimmy was a bit of ladies man. And he promised her a night on the town as soon as he was done with his assignment. He fully intended on keeping his word, of course.
The only way to access the facility was through the front gate. Around the collection yard, a steel wire fence was topped off with barbed wire coils. Luke told them that cutting through the fence would not be a good idea. He wanted to make sure no one knew they were ever there. The guard at the gate had to be distracted some how giving Luke enough time to sneak inside the yard and make his way into the cave. The same trick do the job on Luke's way out.
Jimmy reached the gate first. Giving Luke some time to check his camera and equipment, Jimmy pulled out a bottle of bourbon and took a swig from it. He poured some on his shirt and arms and through the bottle toward the gate.
The bottle hit the pavement and broke apart into a hundred little pieces. The sound of breaking glass woke the security guard from his nightly stupor. Jimmy approached the gate swaying from side to side and singing.
'When Jimmy comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah! The girls will prance and the women will dance, hurrah, hurrah!'
'What the hell is going on here?' The security guard stormed out of his booth. 'Why the fuck are you singing?'
Jimmy was swaying back and forth, the song frozen in mid chorus. His eyes bulged wide open as if he'd seen some sort of an apparition.
'Dad, it's you,' he blurted out. 'It is you. I haven't see you in so long.'
Jimmy ran toward the security guard. With his arms outstretched, he jumped onto the guard wrapping his legs around his body. They both crashed on ground. Jimmy squeezed the guard's face into his chest, burying the guard's face in his chest.
The diversion was working. While the would be drunk and the guard were getting to know each other on the pavement, Luke ran toward the booth. He slid through the door and ducked under the table. Pausing for a second, Luke popped his head above the table to check if the guard was still fully focused on Jimmy. The two were wrestling on the ground so Luke creeped over to the yard door, opened it and ran towards the cave entrance.
-- Luke got back inside the car. Pat was sitting in the driver's seat tapping his fingers on the top of the steering wheel. Jimmy was not back yet.
'What did you find out?' said Pat.
Luke gave the digital camera to Pat. There were pictures of radioactive waste being stored in unprotected containers inside the mountain.
'They're storing some nasty shit down there,' he told Pat. 'That's the garbage that's probably leaking into the ground and killing the people here. I wonder what's holding Jimmy up.'
As Luke was coming back, he saw Jimmy having a passionate argument with all of the guards about the first guard being his old man. Distracted, the guards didn't notice Luke slip through the guard's booth and sneak quickly into the nearby bushes.
'Caaaw, Caaaw, Caaaw!' Luke made three crow sounds to let Jimmy know that he was out of the facility and on his way back to the car. Jimmy's job now was to get himself away from the guards as quickly as possible and meet up on the other side of the mountain.
'Jimmy should be on his way now,' said Pat. 'Should we go?'
'Give him a few more minutes,' said Luke. 'All four guards were trying to calm him down up there.'
They waited a few minutes. Then Pat started the car and pulled onto the road. As they drove past the gate, they could see the guards talking to each other and laughing. Jimmy was not with them anymore. He was probably on his way to the other side.
As the car reached the top of the mountain and began heading downhill, the road bent left along the cliff. Luke saw Jimmy disappearing behind the bend.
'Slow down Pat,' said Luke. 'There's Jimmy, behind the bend.'
Pat hit the brakes. Something popped under the wheels of the car. Pat hit the brakes again, but the car did not slow down. It was gaining speed and heading for the guardrail.
'Someone cut the brake line,' Pat whispered to Luke.