Copyright 2017 by David Kearns
Discover other titles by David Kearns:
All the Way Down
All the Way Under
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book can be reproduced, scanned, or distributed without permission of the copyright owner and publisher of this book.
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. The book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. The book remains the copyrighted property of the author and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes.
This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction which have been used without permission. The publication and use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
Eric Fullmeyer and I were on the deck of the small house I rented in Oceanside, Oregon. The wood on the deck and railing was a funky blue color and needed re-painting, but the rhododendrons on the street side of the deck were in full bloom, with purple and pink star-shaped flowers serving as an optimistic counterpoint to the fading evening light. I had Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album on the turntable in the living room, and strains of jazz carried through the sliding screen door onto the deck.
“Check it out,” I said. “The sun’s about to set.” The house was two hundred feet up the side of the hill that fronted onto Oceanside Beach, and even if the house was small, old, and somewhat run-down, the views from the living room and the deck were glorious. There was a ribbon of sand at the bottom of the hill, and the Pacific Ocean stretched to the horizon beneath a sparse collection of clouds the color of molten glass. The sun glowed blood red as it touched the horizon before swelling in the curved lens of the earth’s atmosphere.
“Nice,” Eric said. “I can see why you like it here.”
“It’s unspoiled, isn’t it?”
Eric wore a thin black leather coat, a pale yellow dress shirt, blue jeans, and black dress shoes. He was a grey haired man with a short beard, a thin waist, and shoulders a yard wide. The knuckles on his hands were huge, and the muscles in his neck stood out against the skin like a diagram in an anatomy textbook. I’m not sure why he carries a gun. I think that he could probably tear someone’s arms off if he wanted to.
It was very quiet on the deck. The surf is almost always audible there, but at times the sound is much more noticeable. That evening was one of those times when the slap of the waves hitting the beach was noticeably absent. The air was still, and I heard the voices of children waiting by a minivan in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill. The kids sounded like they were negotiating with their mother about what kind of dinner they wanted.
In terms of topography, Oceanside has the Pacific Ocean to the west, a large hill to the east, and an enormous promontory to the north. The population of Oceanside consists of a few hundred people who live in homes sprinkled on the hillside that faces the beach, the parking lot, and the downtown area. The downtown contains one restaurant, one bar, and a tiny self-serve post office. Most of the activity in the town consists of day tourists using the parking lot as a staging area to get onto the beach to search for agates and sand dollars. It was late in the day, and most of the tourists had collected their sand dollars and agates and departed.
“Have you heard anything from Bonnie?” I asked. Eric works for the Federal Marshal’s service and the witness protection program. I’m not in the witness protection program, but I know people who are. Bonnie is now one of them.
Eric looked away. He shifted his position as if he was uncomfortable, and then he fidgeted with the zipper on his coat. “You know I can’t talk about that,” he said.
“I just need to know that she’s okay,” I said.
“She’s fine, Delorean. She’s adjusted to her new circumstances as well as can be expected.”
“Any more problems with the cartel?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Not so far.”
“I guess that going into the program was worth it, then,” I said. “If that’s what it took to keep her safe.”
“Have you had any contact with the cartel?” he asked.
“Not since the bombing, but I wouldn’t tell you if I did, Eric.”
“Why the hell not?” Eric asked. He furrowed his eyebrows, and I felt the weight of his irritation with me.
“If I thought that you, Bonnie, or Sandy were in danger, I’d tell you. Otherwise, I’m not involving you in my problems any more. People who come into my orbit wind up fired, on the run, or dead.”
“The world doesn’t work that way, Delorean. None of what’s happened is your fault.”
“Really?” I said. “I don’t think that’s true. I’ve made choices I didn’t have to make. I’ve done things that brought pain to people I care about, and worse.”
“I’m still your friend,” Eric said. “If you need help, you gotta tell me.”
“I appreciate you saying that,” I said.
Eric looked a little sad. It was early summer, and in the fading evening light a cool breeze passed over the deck. He popped the collar on his leather coat and zipped it up. I heard the doors slam on the minivan in the parking lot. Headlights for several cars came on, and I watched a small convoy of cars leave the parking lot and head back towards the highway, or Tillamook, or possibly Portland.
“I’m getting another beer,” I said. “You want one?”
“No. I’m fine, thanks.”
I went inside, flipped the vinyl on the turntable, and got another India Pale Ale from the refrigerator. The worn oak flooring in the kitchen reflected a mellow glow from the low-wattage bulbs in the faux hurricane lamps. Royal Blue wall paint left behind by a previous tenant contrasted nicely against the beige Formica countertop, and the threadbare sofa seemed welcoming in the dim light. All in all, it was a pretty good place to be. I looked through the picture window that formed the south wall of the living room and saw the running lights on a fishing boat making his way south towards Pacific City or Neskowin. The outline of Three Arch Rocks was faintly visible as a grouping of darker shapes on the horizon. I had the feeling that the world had been put right again.
I flipped the light switch by the sliding glass door, illuminating the small white Christmas lights I’d strung between the roof and the posts at the perimeter of the deck. I stepped outside and closed the screen behind me. Eric slid his phone into his coat pocket and steepled his fingers like someone who was about to pray. He waited until I sat down at the picnic table before he started talking.
“I need you to do something for me,” he said.
“There’s someone I want your help with.”
“What do you have in mind?”
Eric let out a long sigh. “I’ve got someone in WITSEC who thinks they’re being watched. My team looked into it more than once and didn’t find anything, but this lady is convinced that something’s not right and that we’re not taking her seriously. I’ve offered to move her to a new location, but at this point she’s put down roots and refuses to move.”
“Okay. I think I understand, but where would I fit in?”
Eric rubbed at his beard, deep in thought. “I think she’s starting to become unstable, Delorean. It happens with some people who enter the program, especially people who enter alone. They become paranoid from looking over their shoulders every day, and I think this might be one of those cases. She’s threatening to exit WITSEC and go it on her own. If she does that and something happens to her, I’d never forgive myself.”
“You can’t force her to stay in the program, Eric. If she leaves and something happens to her, isn’t that her fault?”
Eric pulled his eyebrows together and frowned. “Delorean, sometimes things are bad for everybody involved. This isn’t about trying to assign responsibility. I’m trying to keep this lady safe, whatever her problems are. Whether she’s actually in danger, I don’t know yet. She certainly thinks she is. This week she adopted a Doberman from the animal shelter, and I just found out that she’s gotten a firearms carry permit.”
I laughed. “Let me just recap. She thinks she’s in danger but you think she isn’t. You offer to move her anyway. She refuses. She’s mad that you’re not taking her seriously, and now she has a guard dog, a gun, and an attitude. Maybe we’re soul mates.”
Eric’s frown turned into a scowl. If we were in a cartoon, I think that smoke would have been coming out of his ears.
“It’s a little different for you, Delorean,” Eric said. “You have a track record of being able to deal with threats. She’s new to being on her own, and I’m not sure she’s going to make it.”
“My track record wasn’t so good with Bonnie, was it?”
Eric didn’t say anything.
“If she hadn’t used the remote start on the car, she’d have been killed when the bomb went off,” I said.
“You had no way of knowing that they were still looking for you,” Eric said.
“And still are, I hope.”
“Is that the plan?” Eric said. “Wait for them to come after you again? Go out in a blaze of glory?”
“I’m not suicidal, Eric. I’m practical. It’s inevitable that they’ll try again. I’ll settle the score with them when they do.”
“All by yourself? I hope it works out the way that you want it to,” Eric said.
“Me too, Eric. Look, what do you want me to do about your lady with emotional problems?”
“She lives ten miles from here, in Tillamook. I told her I would hire an independent contractor to watch her for a while. I want you to form your own opinion about whether something isn’t right. If you see something that my team didn’t, tell me and I’ll do something about it. If you don’t find anything tell me that, too.”
“Just to clarify, did you tell her I was going to follow her around? I don’t want to get shot by her by mistake.”
“I told her. She’ll be expecting you.”
“And what will she be expecting?”
“I told her that you’re smart, observant, fearless, and apparently un-killable.”
“All of that and more,” I said.
“She needed to be sold on you,” Eric said. “Do you think I laid it on too thick?”
“I take a licking and keep on ticking,” I said.
“Like a Timex watch,” Eric said.
“Tough as nails,” I said.
“Battle tested,” Eric said. “To be sure.”
“Did you tell her that I have a mask and cape?” I asked. “Yes. I think you laid it on pretty thick. And suppose I do find someone following her?”
“What if there isn’t time for that?”
Eric’s eyes narrowed, and I sensed the tension in him. “Intervene,” he growled. “Then call me after you’ve sorted things out.”
“I can do that,” I said.
He unzipped his coat, pulled a 3 by 5 inch color picture from his shirt pocket, and slid it across the picnic table top.
“This is her,” Eric said. “Emily French. She works at the Cascade Gold Creamery Cafe in the ice cream line.”
The image was of an hourglass-figured blonde in a lemon yellow summer dress. She wore round, mirrored sunglasses and crimson lipstick. In the picture, she reclined on a large green beach towel with sand and water behind her, and was talking to whoever held the camera. Three Arch Rocks was visible in the distant background. The wind had caught her honey blonde hair and pulled it away from her face revealing perfect skin, a soft chin, and a pert nose. Bright smile, straight white teeth. There was a small mole on her left cheek. She looked like Marilyn Monroe’s twin sister.
“I hope they make her wear an apron and a hair net at her job, Eric. She’s pretty memorable. If you’re trying to keep her out of sight, working at a tourist trap isn’t the best choice. Also, I hate to ask this, but has it not occurred to you that she might have attracted a stalker?”
“She took the job at Creamery Cafe over my objections. I wanted her to work in the back room of the post office. And yes, it occurred to me that someone could be following her because of her looks.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try. Can you tell me any details about why she went into WITSEC? What about her work schedule? Any specific places where she feels like she’s being watched?”
“You know that I can’t tell you why she went into the program. In terms of her schedule, she works the day shift at the creamery, and there really isn’t any one place she feels more like she’s being watched than others. That’s part of the problem. She feels uneasy at home sometimes, in her car sometimes, at work sometimes. The feeling of being watched seems to come and go.”
“Sounds like free-floating anxiety,” I said. “There’s this scary thing out there that you constantly need to be vigilant about.”
“There’s an element of that,” Eric said. “But she doesn’t just feel nervous all the time, she also feels like someone is following her and watching her. That’s different.”
“Paranoia, maybe? What about boyfriends past and present?” I asked. “Anyone she’s broken up with who’s holding a grudge?”
“She says that in the six months she’s been here, she’s only been on a few dates, and didn’t go out on second dates with any of ‘em. A few guys coming through the ice cream line have asked her out or tried to get her to go for coffee, but she turned them down politely. She’s been hit on at the grocery store a few times, but not aggressively. She said that when guys try to chat her up in public she’s been telling them that she’s married, and they’ve accepted it.”
“No. She just says that so they’ll leave her alone.”
“Okay. Do you have her address?”
“On the back of the picture.”
I flipped the picture over and noted the address in Tillamook.
We watched the afterglow of the sunset over the Pacific. I sipped at my beer. Stars appeared and then brightened against the night sky, shining like silver against black velvet. The evening air had cooled and smelled of moss, saltwater, and wood smoke. There was a small fire burning down on the beach. A few people were circled around the campfire, talking and laughing in the darkness.
Eric took a deep breath and then let it out. “Listen,” he said. “There’s something else I wanted to ask you about.”
“I need to talk to you about your parents,” he said.
I felt as if I were on a roller coaster that had just made a sharp turn. My stomach tried to force itself into my throat.
“Why are you bringing that up?” I said.
“You never talk about what happened. I know that you lost them when you were pretty young.”
“That’s true, Eric, but why are you asking about it now?” I said. “We’ve known each other for quite a while.”
“Because I was notified that the Oklahoma City Police are looking for you. Apparently someone doing maintenance on an oil well found a body not far from where your parents were killed.”
I swallowed hard. “And?” I said.
“A credit card found with the body points to someone who was an enforcer for a loan shark at about the same time your parents had the home invasion.”
“Do the police think he was involved?”
“It’s like this, Delorean: they found two pistols in a shallow grave. One was a chrome-plated three fifty seven magnum. The other was a Colt model nineteen eleven forty-five caliber automatic. The serial number on the Colt has been traced back to your father’s service unit in the army. Seems reasonable to assume that your father brought the pistol home when he mustered out. That ties the gun and the body to your parents.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Any theories about why this guy would be buried in your backyard?” Eric asked.
“No. I don’t have any theories.”
“Right,” Eric said. “It doesn’t make sense to me, either. Based on what little I know, I’m assuming that there were two or more guys in the home invasion crew. Seems like the bad guy and his partners finished at your parent’s house, left with your father’s gun, wandered over to the oil well and had a disagreement, and the leg breaker, who was six and a half feet tall, gets put in the ground. I can’t think of a good reason why it would it happen like that.”
I shrugged. “Who was the leg breaker running with at the time he was killed?”
“Well, Delorean, that’s part of the reason I came to see you,” he said. “Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation says the leg breaker’s boss has since become a big deal in real estate development.”
“Are you going to give me a name?”
“Anthony Peck,” Eric said.
“The guy building the casino?”
“Right. The money behind the new casino going in at Newport.”
“It really is a small world, isn’t it?”
“Seems that way,” Eric said.
“To think that I might actually get closure after all this time.”
“Somebody got partial closure for you a long time ago, Delorean. One of the creeps who hurt your parents ended up in a shallow grave.”
“I guess that’s something,” I said.
“You don’t seem shocked or surprised by what I’m telling you.”
“It was so long ago that it feels like a different lifetime.”
“You know anything about it?” Eric said.
“Like I said, I’m not involving you in my problems any more, Eric, including what happened to my parents. I’ll deal with it.”
The album was between songs. You could hear the whisper of the surf against the shore.
Fullmeyer shook his head and sighed.
“If that’s how you want it, fine. From what I’ve heard, you should stay away from Peck. He’s into a lot of legitimate businesses, but he still has Mafia ties and may be laundering money for them, too. This guy is dangerous and well-connected. You should also know that the detective working the case in Oklahoma City has a reputation for being a very smart guy and a bulldog, too. He wants to interview you about your parents.”
“He wants to interview me before or after I talk to Peck?”
“I just told you to stay away from Peck. Were you not listening?”
“I’ve always liked a challenge, Eric. And you knew before you told me about Peck that I’d want to run him down. Right?”
“I hoped that if I talked to you about it first I could keep you from going off half cocked. Peck isn’t a small town crook anymore, Delorean. He’s an influential guy with senators and congressmen in his back pocket, and he can make trouble for you like you’ve never seen. You’ll probably hear all this from the detective, anyway. His name is Eccles and he’s flying into Portland tonight. He’ll be here in the morning to talk to you.”
“Can’t wait,” I said. “I assume he’ll be talking to Anthony Peck, too.”
Eric shrugged his big shoulders. “I assume so,” he said.
“Eccles better be as good as you say he is,” I said.
“We can only hope,” Eric said.
The moon and the pinpoints of stars lit the ocean with a silver-blue shine. The rhododendron blossoms looked grey in the dim light provided by the Christmas lights hanging over the deck.
Neither of us said anything for a minute or more. The people gathered around the campfire on the beach sang, laughed, and sang some more. Their chorus sounded like a drunken version of Bob Marley’s Jamming.
“Okay,” I said. “What do you want me to do?”
“Let Eccles run this down. If Peck’s connected to what happened to your parents, Eccles will get him.”
“If Peck’s guilty, and Eccles can’t make it stick, I’ll bury Peck on my own.”
“I hear you,” Eric said. “I’m on your side, remember? But you need to keep your head and give Eccles the chance to do his job. In the meantime, help me with the lady, okay? Do something constructive.”
I was twelve years old when they came to the house.
My older brother Bricklin was away at Boy Scout camp as a reward for his perfect grades in school. He’d already been gone for a week of his two-week summer camp, and I missed his company sorely. I passed the time by reading his scouting survival guide and pretending I was stranded on a desert island. I practiced making rabbit snares from willow branches. I cut primitive spears from oak branches and hardened the spear points over an open flame. I foraged for edible berries. Most of the time, though, I wandered around in the summer sunshine, scratched mosquito bites, and wished I’d paid more attention in school.
My family lived in an unincorporated area east of Oklahoma City where houses were few and far between. The only families in the area were separated by square miles of land that was thick with oak trees, spotted with oil wells, and threaded with rutted dirt roads that the homeowners shared with oil well service crews. One of those oil wells, an object of my fear and obsession, was a quarter mile from my house. When my bedroom window was open I could hear the oil well’s motor huffing as the drill rod went down and up and down again.
One evening before my brother left for camp, I’d stayed up past midnight reading a Tom Swift adventure novel, and I’d listened to the oil well motor as if it were a sort of siren song. When I finished the book, I decided that it was time to have my own adventure and conquer my own enemies. The oil well drew me towards it with a force that surpassed what little common sense I had, and in my mind it offered the opportunity for adventure. I’d climbed out through my bedroom window in my pajamas and house slippers, and I made my way across the red dirt road onto the narrow game trail that led to the oil well. The shadows cast by the dim glow of my flashlight made the woods seem alive with the potential for menacing encounters. I pressed on, wondering if I would make it back to my house alive. My fears weren’t entirely unfounded.
It was common practice in Oklahoma City for people to turn unwanted dogs loose ‘out in the country’ to fend for themselves. This happened often enough in my neighborhood that a pack of abandoned dogs had formed, connected with the coyotes in the forests, reproduced, and become a feral pack capable of taking down deer. I’d run across several carcasses in the forest which had been savaged so thoroughly that the only way to identify the animal was by looking at the paws or hooves. I’d heard the call and response of the dog pack several times as I read Tom Swift that night, but I hadn’t really thought much about it at the time. The sound of wild dogs calling to each other was just part of the soundtrack of living in my neighborhood.
At any rate, I continued along the trail until I reached the opening in the forest where the oil well had been drilled. In the moonlight, everything I saw or touched seemed alive with the potential for danger. The oil well, the sludge pond, the trees, the moon, even the sound of my footsteps on dried oak leaves seemed to crackle with an intoxicating resonance. The ink-black well machinery rocked back and forth like a giant insect. The air reeked with the powerful odor of raw oil sucked from the ground through a slippery silver pipe. The spine of the well, two stories high and twenty feet long, tipped up and down in the moonlight like a magician’s pendant until I became hypnotized and stepped forward to the base of the well. I’d clamped the handle of the flashlight in my teeth, grabbed the rungs of the ladder that ascended to the pivot point of the spine, and climbed up to the top of that mass of rocking iron. I gripped the two sides of the giant steel I-beam and swung a leg across the top like a rodeo cowboy mounting a bronco. Once I was atop the beam, I was overwhelmed by the sensations of the star-filled sky, the sound of the motor, the horizon rising and dipping in front of me, and the vibration of all that steel. It felt like I was in a dream-state rodeo. Eventually I came back to my senses, climbed down, and started home.
As I made my way along the game trail, the call and response of the dogs that I’d heard earlier that evening became louder and more frequent, and I began to wonder if the feral pack was following me. I hastened my pace and looked behind me frequently to see if I could spot any dogs, but I never did. Even so, my instincts told me that the dogs were closing in on me. My question about the proximity of the feral pack was answered when I reached my house. I crawled through the open window of my bedroom, looked back into the yard, and I watched a pair of wolf-like dogs appear in the pool of light cast onto the dirt through my opened bedroom window. The dogs paced back and forth, watching me and growling with a tone so low and threatening that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I slid the window shut and locked it. As I crawled under the sheets, I thought that Tom Swift would have been proud of me. I rode the scary beast, evaded the killers, and I survived.
My mother was furious the next day when she saw the oil stains on the carpet and bed sheets. I lamely offered the excuse that I must have sleepwalked to the well. The skin on my father’s face was tight with both disbelief and frustration when he heard my story. He clenched his fists and left the room, then returned with a hammer and a handful of galvanized roofing nails. He drove several of the nails into the rail on the window frame so that the window couldn’t be opened wider than a few inches. I wouldn’t be going out that window again.
After he’d finished hammering on the window frame, my father leaned in so close to me that his face completely filled my visual field. The pores in his skin, his beard stubble, even the small veins in the whites of his eyes seemed magnified. I could smell coffee on his breath.
“Are you listening to me?” he asked.
“Okay,” he said. “Good. You sneak out at night like that again, and I’ll put a deadbolt on your door and start locking you in at bedtime. You got that?”
I nodded again.
He looked at me hard, the muscles in his jaw tensed with anger, and then he left the room.
My mom rolled the dirty, oily bedsheets into a ball before putting the palm of her hand on my forehead to see if I was running a fever.
“Are you okay, honey?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”
“You’re scaring us, Del. You need to dial it back a little. Do normal stuff for a while. Would you do that for me?”
My mom left, taking the bedsheets with her.
My brother shook his head in wonder at my behavior. “If you’d quit doing weird stuff, Mom and Dad would stop being mad at you all the time,” he said.
“I prefer to think of myself as creative,” I replied.
“Yeah. Creatively weird. You sleepwalked your way onto an oil well. No one else even comes close to doing the crazy stuff you do. You keep this up and you’re going to get yourself committed to a psych ward. I heard Mom and Dad talking about it. You could wind up in a padded cell.”
At the time, I’d viewed Bricklin’s brotherly advice as an unwelcome nuisance from someone who lacked my fearless outlook on adventure. Looking back, I can see that he was trying to save me from myself.
“It’s under control,” I told him. “I won’t do it again.”
“I hope so,” Bricklin said. “Be better if you hadn’t done it in the first place. You understand that, right? You don’t have to put out a fire if you don’t start the fire to begin with.”
Part of Bricklin’s reward for perfect grades had been a new scouting backpack for him to take to camp. He’d given his old backpack to me before he left for camp, along with a plastic canteen that had been chewed on by a raccoon. In Bricklin’s absence, I sat in the shade of a tree in my back yard and flipped through his discarded scouting survival guide. A section in the guide that described how to get water from air intrigued me. It said that I could make a solar still by digging a hole in the dirt, stretching a clear plastic sheet across the hole, and putting a small rock in the middle of the sheet so that condensing moisture on the underside would collect in the middle and then drop into a cup. I’d gone out to the garage, taken a shovel and the plastic sheet that my dad used to cover his table saw, and then wandered into the oak forest looking for a place to dig a hole for my solar water collector.
Being in the oak forests that surrounded my house was a way for me to manage the stresses I felt at home. I knew that my parents were in trouble financially and that my erratic behavior just compounded their anxieties. The solitude I found on those game trails brought me a feeling of peace that counterbalanced the roller coaster ride of my father’s business adventures.
My dad was a car enthusiast who believed that if you worked hard and were clever enough, the world would reward your efforts. After leaving the military, he’d started a used car business that had done well, but over the years he’d become convinced that if he wanted to make big money he needed to sell imports and collectibles. The small but profitable “Harper’s Reliable Used Cars” became the larger and riskier “Harper Collectible Classics.” My father was desperate for free publicity for the grand opening of his new dealership in the wealthiest part of Oklahoma City, so he legally renamed me and my brother with the names of two of his favorite car makes: Bricklin and Delorean. When the judge at the courthouse asked for an explanation for the name change, my father told him “These cars are so great that I want to give my kids the same names.” The judge had shaken his head, but he agreed to the name change anyway. My father had fed the details about the renaming to several of the local news stations, and the story had gotten legs. It was picked up by the Oklahoma City Times in the weekend section, where the article ran under a picture of my father standing between Delorean and Bricklin coupes. In the picture my brother sat cross-legged in front of the Bricklin and I sat cross-legged in front of the Delorean. It’s the last picture taken that had me, my brother, and my father in it.
When my father went upscale with the car business, he’d borrowed heavily from banks and private lenders to build his inventory and repair the intricate and expensive foreign cars to the like-new condition that affluent buyers expected, and his gamble paid off while the oil economy boomed. I heard him talking to my mother about it at the dinner table one night. “It takes money to make money,” he said. My mom responded by saying that eventually the loans would all need to be paid back. My dad waved his hand in the air as if he were shooing away gnats. “It’s all going to work out, you’ll see,” he said. However, the booming oil economy eventually went bust as it inevitably did, and the demand for collectible imports and special rarities like the Bricklin and Delorean cars went through the floor. Summertime was usually a good time to be in my house. That summer, it wasn’t.
I’d started work on the solar still not far from the oil well. After a half day of digging, I’d made a square hole about three feet deep and six feet across in that rust-colored Oklahoma soil. I’d returned home that afternoon and washed off the dirt and the smell of crude oil with a chunk of bar soap and hose water on the back porch. My mom kept towels and extra clothes on the porch during the summer so that I wouldn’t bring dirty clothes into the house after my adventures in the forest. Privacy wasn’t much of a concern for me as I scrubbed off the dirt. Our house was at the end of a dead end road nearly a mile from the closest home, and my mother was still at work with my father, so I was alone.
When my parents came home that night, they looked haggard. My dad’s expression told me that I needed to keep things quiet around the house or risk incurring his wrath. While I was getting ready for bed, I overheard my parents having a heated argument about money. My dad said that even if he gave the car dealership title to the lender, even if he gave him all the cars on the lot, even if he gave him the title to the house we lived in, that wouldn’t be enough. “They’re asking for money we don’t have,” he said. “They came by the car lot today and told me I needed to pay or bad things would happen.” My mom suggested calling the police. Dad said “And tell them what? That we’ve been laundering money as a favor to the lender, but we’re still going under and the lender is making threats? We’d go to jail regardless.”
I didn’t sleep at all that night. I lay in my bed reading through the scouting survival manual and trying to convince myself that if I knew the right techniques I’d be able to weather any storm that the world sent my way. After overhearing my parents’ conversation, learning outdoor survival techniques took on a new urgency; I needed to know how to take care of myself if we came under siege. When morning finally came and I heard my parents talking downstairs in the kitchen, I hatched a plan for how I would spend the day. I needed a gun, though.
My father had a Colt forty-five caliber pistol that he kept in the nightstand beside his bed. The previous day I’d seen feral dogs at the perimeter of the clearing when I was digging the hole, so before I left the house that morning I’d gone into my parent’s bedroom, taken the gun from the nightstand, and examined it. I pulled back the slide assembly far enough to see that there was a bullet in the chamber, flipped the safety off and on a few times, then dropped the pistol into my backpack. At the time, it made sense to me to borrow the gun in case I needed to defend myself against the dogs. I reasoned that I’d have the pistol back in my dad’s nightstand before he discovered that I’d borrowed it. Better safe than sorry.
My parents were at the kitchen table when I came downstairs. They had a stack of receipts and a bank ledger out on the table, and they were so preoccupied with their discussion that they barely noticed when I left the house. I’d filled the plastic canteen at the kitchen sink, and then gone out through the opened garage door and across the road. As I had the day before, I followed the trail that led through the oak groves to the open space and the hole for the solar still. I’d started digging again and had been there about an hour when I heard a series of muffled booming sounds coming from the direction of my house. I dropped the shovel, pulled on my backpack, and started to run. The forest flashed by in a blur as I raced towards my home.
As I reached the exit of the trail, I saw someone leaving my parent’s garage. I slowed to a stop in the shade of the oak trees and stared at him. Tan tee shirt pulled tight across his weight lifter’s torso, and brown hair cut in bangs across his forehead but long on the sides and back. Faded bell bottom jeans over pointy-toed cowboy boots with a brown leather holster strapped to his thigh. He sauntered out of the garage with the lethal self-confidence of Wyatt Earp stepping out of a saloon. He walked over towards the passenger side of a black Dodge Charger parked in the driveway, and as he reached for the car door handle, he scanned the surroundings in all directions. That’s when he finally noticed me, and his pistol materialized instantly in his hand. He aimed his gun at me as casually as if the gun barrel were his finger.
“Hey, sport,” he said in a baritone voice. “Get over here!”
On instinct, I turned and ran. There were two quick booms from his gun as I ran full-tilt down the twisting narrow trail. My arms were pumping; my feet seemed to barely touch the ground as I sprinted past tree branches that slashed my face and forearms. A hundred yards before I reached the clearing I heard the big pistol fire behind me again, and I went off the trail into the tangle of brambles, ivy, wild grass and fallen tree limbs. I smashed through the undergrowth until I collided with a tree branch at chest level. Knocked flat, I lay on my back with the sunlight cutting ribbons of gold through the dusty air above me.
I rolled onto my hands and knees and crawled across the carpet of dry oak leaves. As I reached an area where the undergrowth was less dense I rose to my feet. I’d lost track of where I was headed, and I exited the forest onto the game trail a dozen yards past where my hunter stood. Lucky me, though. His back was to me. Then he looked over his shoulder at me and smiled.
I turned away from him and ran towards the circular opening in the forest, going hard for the protection that the oil well could provide. The gun boomed once more as I reached the far side of the well’s motor.
I pressed my back against the motor housing as it huffed its irregular heartbeat. The smell of the oil was intense, the sun beat down remorselessly, and the oil well’s black surface radiated heat like a chef’s griddle. I took a deep breath before running flat-out towards the trees on the far side of the clearing.
The gun thundered behind me with gut-shattering force as I neared the hole that I’d dug for the solar still. I threw myself to the ground and then rolled into the hole, buying myself a few seconds of safety.
In frenzy, I pulled the backpack off and grabbed at the zipper.
I heard him yell “Hey boy! You hiding from me? Come out and play.”
The air stank of oil, dirt, and hot plastic. My heartbeat hammered in my chest as my hand scrabbled against the rough fabric at the bottom of the backpack. I felt the familiar heaviness of my father’s Colt as my fingers wrapped around the butt of the gun. I pulled it free of the backpack and gripped the pistol with both hands, holding the metal in a vise-like grip. I flipped the safety off with my thumb. The moment had an air of hallucinatory unreality. Was I actually here? Was I dreaming, or was I about to die? From above, I probably looked like I’d been buried with a pistol to hold against my chest instead of a small bouquet of posies.
I heard his deep baritone voice again. “Aren’t you the clever one?” he yelled. “Found a hole to crawl into. Good thing I’ve got your shovel to dig you out.”
His revolver was holstered when he stepped to the edge of the hole. He brandished my shovel over his head as if it were an axe. I guess he’d planned to beat me to death with it.
His eyes went wide when he saw the gun in my hand, and he dropped the shovel. The movement of his hand towards his holster was a blur. I’d seen his hand move that fast in my driveway, though, and I already had a gun in my hand. My forty-five went off with a force that nearly ripped it from my hands. Then everything was very still. My ears rang with a tone like the inside of a dinner bell, and my face was peppered with burnt gunpowder.
I stayed in the hole for a while. The passage of time felt heavy, slow, and foreign. Eventually, I stood up and looked to see where he’d gone. He was about ten yards away from me and resting in a sitting position with his legs fully extended. With his head tipped forward and his gun hand lying on the dirt, he looked a bit like a discarded rag doll. His tan tee shirt was stained above his belt buckle with blood that leaked through the fingers of his left hand. We made eye contact, and he opened his mouth to talk.
“Your mom begged me not to hurt you,” he said. His head drooped a little, like he was falling asleep. Then he pulled his head up again and used his gun hand to push against the dirt to try to sit upright. The cephalic veins on the outside of his cantaloupe-sized biceps were as thick as pencils, his forearms as big around as the calves on my legs. His face was framed by his hair hanging forward, and his eyes were as black as coal. “I guess that ship has sailed,” he said.
He smiled with a curled upper lip, and I saw the barrel of the pistol coming up fast off the dirt.
I don’t remember pulling the trigger. What I do remember is the thunderous, heart-stopping sound of a cannon going off repeatedly as he tumbled backwards, the metal in my hands seeming alive on its own, the butt of the gun jerking with ferocious power with each report, his body spinning and thrashing as if connected to cables like a marionette.
I emptied the gun into him. Then I sat down and cried until I couldn’t cry any more.
I gradually began to feel an odd sort of mental clarity. I knew that I needed to take action. I knew that killers went to jail, and I felt haunted by what my brother had said about me being committed to an asylum. Above all else, I didn’t want to be locked up in a padded cell. People never came out of places like that. Taking care to avoid the blood on his clothing, I grabbed hold of the man’s boots and dragged him into the hole. He was bigger than I was, but it wasn’t difficult to pull him across the loose, sandy dirt. He landed in the pit atop the plastic tarp and the backpack I’d left in the hole. I tossed in my gun and his chrome revolver, and after staring at his broken shape in the bottom of the pit, I covered the body with the dirt that I’d dug from the hole.
I don’t recall walking home, but I do remember that the car that had been parked in the driveway was gone and the garage door was still open. I wanted to act as normally as possible, so I kept to my routine. I cleaned up on the back porch with the water hose and bar soap, and then put on a clean pair of jeans and a clean shirt from the stack my mom left outside for me. I tossed my dirty clothes in the hamper after I scrubbed the blood stains from the jeans with soap and water.
I couldn’t find my parents downstairs, and I wondered if they’d gone for a walk. As I made my way upstairs to the bedrooms I began to smell the powerful odor of gun smoke. I walked down the hall to my parents’ room and found both of them sprawled on the floor by my father’s side of the bed. The nightstand drawer was open, as if my father had been looking for his pistol. The gun would have been there if I hadn’t taken it that day, and they would both still be alive.
Detective Eccles came to my house in the early afternoon. He carried an old black briefcase and wore an expression of mild remorse, as if he was sorry that he’d interrupted my day. He showed me his badge, identified himself, and I let him in. I’d painted the deck that morning, so we stayed inside.
I judged Eccles to be in his early forties. He wore a tan corduroy coat with brown leather patches at the elbows. Pressed white dress shirt. Blue slacks with a sharp crease on them and brown leather dress shoes polished to a high shine. Bright blue eyes with intelligence behind them. His skin was a healthy pink, and his black hair was cut short, as was his salt-and-pepper mustache. He was a few inches shorter than me, but he was built like a fireplug. When he shook my hand, he squeezed my fingers with the kind of force that implies either a challenge or massive strength. Everything about his bearing told me that it would be a mistake to underestimate him.
I’d offered to make coffee, and he accepted. I stood in the kitchen while the water came to a boil in the microwave. While Eccles waited, he picked through my record collection in the living room. I watched him take the Miles Davis Kind of Blue album from the shelf and look at the cover.
“This Miles Davis album,” he said. “One of my favorites.”
“Mine, too. You can put it on if you want.”
“Maybe some other time,” he said.
“Sure,” I said. “Do you want anything in your coffee?”
When the coffee was ready, I carried the mugs into the living room. Eccles took his mug and briefcase over to the sofa and took a seat. I sat in the old recliner and looked past Eccles through the big picture window. Seagulls riding the ocean breeze hung like kites in the air, suspended and nearly motionless hundreds of feet above the beach.
“Thank you for agreeing to see me,” he said. He took a sip from his coffee mug before putting it on a coaster on the end table. I held onto my mug because it gave me something to do with my hands. If I was a smoker, I would have lit a cigarette. I hadn’t forgotten Eric’s comment that Eccles had a reputation for being a bulldog, and I was nervous.
“Glad to,” I said.
“How long have you lived here?” he asked.
“About six months.”
“Lucky to have such a nice view. I don’t see much surf in Oklahoma. Whitecaps on Lake Hefner are about as close as I get.”
I gave a small laugh. “I enjoy it. Rainy in the winter, but the rain chases most of the tourists away, so it isn’t all bad.”
“Every cloud has a silver lining,” he said. It was quiet for a moment in the living room. I heard the surf flattening out against the beach with a sighing sound.
“Do you mind talking with me about what happened to your parents?” Eccles asked.
“Not at all.”
He nodded and said “I appreciate that. You could refuse to discuss it with me if you wanted to. Sometimes family members don’t want to dredge things up, particularly when something happened so long ago. It reawakens powerful feelings, many of them painful. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.”
He paused for a beat and then gave a small shoulder shrug. His face conveyed harmlessness. I didn’t believe it.
“I want you to try to relax,” he said. “I’m not going to hypnotize you, but sometimes it helps to clear your mind. Just shift yourself mentally into neutral and put yourself back in that place. Closing your eyes can help sometimes, too.”
“Okay,” I said.
I shifted my position slightly in the recliner and looked past Eccles to the ocean’s horizon.
“Do you have any memories of the day when you lost your parents?” Eccles said.
I looked at Eccles. “I didn’t lose them. Someone murdered them. My contact with the witness protection program says it looks like Anthony Peck might be connected with it. I gather that someone found the body of one of Peck’s enforcers near my parent’s house.”
Eccles took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then he pursed his lips, thinking.
“Wow,” he said. “We’ll discuss Anthony Peck at some point, I promise. Let’s start at the beginning, though. You tell me what you remember, and then I’ll tell you what I think about Peck and everything else. Fair enough?”
“Okay,” I said. “That sounds fair.”
“All right then. Relax, if you can, and tell me about that day,” Eccles said. “It must have been extremely traumatic.”
I focused on the horizon again. “I remember leaving the house in the morning after I came downstairs. My parents were both at the kitchen table when I left. I spent a few hours exploring in the woods near our house, which I often did in the summer. When I came home for lunch, I found my parents. They tell me that I called the police. I don’t remember calling, but I guess that I did.”
“Did your parents say anything when you left that day?”
“Not that I remember. They were sitting beside each other at the kitchen table looking at some papers.”
“Were they bookkeeping ledgers? You were an accountant. You know what those look like, right?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t remember if they were looking at bills or a ledger. My father had a car dealership. He brought paperwork home pretty often.”
“But you’re sure they were looking at some kind of paperwork at the kitchen table when you left?”
I looked at Eccles. “It seemed like it. They had their backs to me, though. I didn’t see what it was.”
I watched Eccles. I could sense his focus and awareness.
“Did your parents tell you that they were expecting someone to come by the house?” He spoke so gently that his words felt more like a nudge for me to continue than a question that I needed to answer.
“You seem sure.”
“Like I said, they barely noticed when I left the house. I told them I was going outside to walk around in the woods, and I left. They didn’t mention any visitors. We had company so rarely that it would have been noteworthy if they’d said someone was coming. Most of the traffic on our street was oil well service crews. That’s about it.”
He nodded. “All right. That’s good information. Did your parents ever tell you that they were in money trouble?”
“Did you suspect that your father’s car business was struggling?”
“It seemed like it was boom and bust with the car dealership. It was either good or it was terrible. I guess I had gotten used to the ups and downs, and I didn’t really think about it.”
“Did either of your parents tell you that they’d been threatened?”
Eccles sat silently for a few seconds. “Okay,” he said. “Where did you say your brother was that day?”
“I don’t remember mentioning my brother, but he was at scout camp.”
Eccles’ eyes narrowed slightly before returning to the flat, expressionless stare.
“Why didn’t you go to scout camp with him?” he asked.
“Going to camp was a reward for him being a good student. My grades weren’t good. I stayed home.”
He gave a little smile. “And did what?”
“Like I said. I walked around in the woods.”
“What did you do that summer when you weren’t walking around in the woods?” he asked.
“Caught bugs in the back yard. Built a fort out of blankets in my bedroom. Watched television. Things like that.”
“When you were in the woods, did you ever visit the oil well near your house?” he asked. He watched my expression very closely.
“Yes,” I said. “I know the one you’re talking about.”
“Okay,” he said. There was a long pause. He watched me. I watched him.
“Did you visit the oil well on the day your parents were killed?”
“No. I walked around on the game trails. That area has deer in it, and they cut trails through the oak forest that surrounded our house. I liked following the trails to see where they went.”
“Did you see anyone else that day when you were away from the house?” he asked.
“Did you hear any unusual sounds? Gunfire, a car engine, anything?”
“It was a very long time ago, but I don’t remember anything unusual.”
“So you didn’t come back to the house for a snack, for a drink? You were away for several hours, right?”
“Didn’t you get thirsty? I mean, it’s summer, right?”
“Sometimes I carried a plastic canteen with me. I’d fill it up before I left the house.”
“Did you carry anything else with you?”
I shrugged. “It was more than twenty years ago. You really expect me to remember that?”
“I’m just trying to clear up a few things,” he said. “That’s why I came to see you.”
“I thought you wanted to talk to me about how Anthony Peck and his leg breaker murdered my parents.”
“We’ll get to that,” he said. “I promise.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Were you a Boy Scout like your brother was?” he asked.
“No, just my brother.”
Eccles surprised me by pulling a plastic evidence bag from his briefcase and laying it on the coffee table. I could see that the bag contained the Scout’s survival guide that I’d used as an adventure playbook. The guide was stained and yellowed by time, but I recognized it just the same.
“You ever seen this before?” he said.
“It looks like the kind of outdoor survival book my brother read when he was scouting.”
Eccles nodded to himself and then pulled a laminated picture out of his briefcase. He held the picture out to me and watched my expression closely.
“Do you recognize this?” he asked.
“Looks like a military forty-five.”
The pistol was covered in rust. The checkered wooden grip on the handle had begun to crack. A small ruler lay beneath the corroded barrel to give photographic perspective to the size of the gun.
“Good guess. It’s a Colt model nineteen eleven forty-five caliber automatic. It’s the kind of firearm that soldiers carry sometimes. The serial number on the pistol was registered to your father’s unit when he was in the army. I think he brought the pistol home with him when he mustered out.”
“Where did you find it?” I asked.
“In a shallow grave about a quarter mile from where your parents were killed. It was by that oil well I asked you about.”
I didn’t say anything.
“We also found the remains of a man in the grave with the pistol. A wallet at the scene said his name was Randall Burton. The scouting survival guide was in the grave, too.”
He pulled another laminated picture out of his briefcase, this time of a ragged piece of canvas.
“Do you recognize this?”
“The forensics lab says that they think it’s what’s left of a backpack of the kind Boy Scouts used when your brother was scouting. Most of it had rotted and disintegrated, but enough of it was left that they’re pretty sure that’s what it was.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Let me ask you something, Delorean.”
“Your father’s gun wasn’t used to hurt either of your parents, but we think it was used to shoot Burton, the man in the shallow grave. Like I said, the gun and your brother’s backpack and scout manual were found with the body. How do you think that happened?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“When we started this interview, I said that I’d tell you what I think. Remember?” Eccles said.
“Sure. I remember.”
“I think it doesn’t make any sense. I can see how your father’s pistol might have wound up in the grave, but not the backpack or survival guide. I can’t see why anyone would steal them. They have no value.”
“I don’t think it’s that hard,” I said.
“Really? How do you think it happened?”
“Suppose the bad guys went through the house after the shooting stopped. Maybe they picked up my brother’s backpack and used it to collect things worth stealing. The backpack could have had the survival guide in it. They decide that one of those things worth stealing is my father’s gun, and they put the gun in the backpack, too. After they leave the house, they walk to the opening where the oil well is. Maybe they’d parked their car on the access road that the oil company used sometimes. They have a falling out for some reason, and one of the bad guys shoots the other bad guy, and then he buries him with the backpack.”
Eccles rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Wow,” he said. “That was really quick. You seem to have a knack for this. That certainly ties everything up neatly.”
“You asked me to explain how it could happen. That seems like one possible way.”
Eccles took a deep breath and let it out. “Yeah. That’s one possible explanation. Here are a couple more possibilities. Maybe your brother didn’t actually go to scout camp. I’m still working on proving that one way or the other. Maybe he was actually home while you were out wandering in the forest and you’re covering for him. Maybe he got hold of your father’s gun, chased the bad guy with the gun and put him in the ground along with his backpack and book. Maybe he thought he needed to get rid of the evidence for some reason. It’s possible that it could have happened that way. He was older and bigger than you, right? Seems more likely to me that he got into it with these guys than you did. You have an opinion on that?”
“Like I told you,” I said. “Bricklin was away at scout camp. Shouldn’t be that hard for you to find that out. He must have been interviewed by the police at the time. Don’t the records show that? You must have already checked. Right?”
He ignored me and continued. “Another possibility is that Bricklin really was away at scout camp like you say and for some reason that day you’d taken your father’s gun from the house, along with the backpack and survival book. Maybe your dad said it was okay for you to borrow the gun, maybe you thought it was fun to carry it around because it made you feel like a stud, maybe you felt like you needed it to protect yourself from rabies-infected raccoons. Who knows? After the bad guy shot up your parents’ house, you two ran into each other at the oil well. You were a little kid at the time, maybe he didn’t take you seriously, and you surprised him with the forty-five. His body is too big for you to drag very far, so you buried him where it happened, by the oil well. What do you think about that explanation?”
“I think you have a knack for this,” I said. “That certainly ties things up very neatly.”
Eccles laughed the way someone does when their patience is being tested. “This guy we found in the shallow grave wore a holster strapped to his thigh like a gunfighter in a western movie. You ever see anybody like that near your parents’ property?” he asked. “I’m pretty sure you’d remember if you did.”
His face was as expressionless as a professional poker player’s.
We locked eyes.
“Thing is,” he said. “That forty-five your father owned was empty when we found it. The damage to Burton’s body is consistent with someone putting all seven rounds into him.”
He didn’t say anything for a few seconds. We watched each other, him sitting placidly on the sofa, me in the recliner. I took a sip of my coffee.
“When someone empties their gun into somebody, Delorean, it usually happens for one of two reasons. Either it’s personal or someone wants to make a statement. Since the body was buried so no one could find it, I think it was personal. But I just can’t see why someone having a falling out with an accomplice would act that way. With an accomplice, it’s usually one shot to the back of the head, or a couple to the body. Not like this. Do you follow my logic?”
“I think you’re looking at evidence that’s twenty years old and making wild guesses, Detective Eccles,” I said. “If you think that Burton was working for Anthony Peck, why not ask Peck if he was at my parents’ house that day, or ask Peck who Burton was running with? Wouldn’t that be more efficient than making wild guesses about me or my brother being involved in this somehow? I’ve been cooperative about answering your questions, but I think we’re done here. I’ve told you what I can remember about that day, and I’m finished with this conversation. Is that clear enough for you?”
“Yeah,” Eccles said. He nodded slightly and let out a short breath through pursed lips. His expression changed to one of resolute determination. “Pretty clear. Just so you understand where I’m coming from, if you put down someone who killed your parents and tried to kill you too, I think you should get a medal and I’d pin the medal on you myself. I’d shake your hand for what you did, okay? You were just a kid. My problem is that if an accomplice to Burton and your parents’ killing put him down, I need to find that guy and get him off the street, even after all this time. Three people were killed that day. I can’t just look the other way, even if Burton had it coming. Do you understand?”
“Yes I do,” I said.
“Then I guess we do agree on something,” Eccles said.
“Are you going to ask Peck about his connection with Burton?” I asked.
“In fact, I am,” Eccles said. He stood, stretched, and put the evidence bag and pictures back into his briefcase. “I’m supposed to meet with him in a little over an hour. Guess I better get going. Let me give you one suggestion before I go, although under that cool veneer you seem like a hothead to me. One who won’t take advice.”
“Off the record I’ll tell you that nobody’s been able to pin anything on Anthony Peck, but he’s been connected with half a dozen killings that I know of. And as bad as that sounds, there’s probably more. It’s possible that he killed your parents, and it’s even possible that he’s the one who killed Burton at the oil well. I don’t know that yet, but I will. What I’m trying to tell you is that if you bother Peck, bad things could happen.”
“I guess you better get him for what happened to my parents, then. If you don’t, I’ll make bothering him my full-time job.”
“Somehow it doesn’t surprise me to hear you say that,” he said. He handed me one of his business cards.
“Call me if you remember anything else, okay?” he said. He gave me a small, tight smile.
“I will,” I said. “Stay in touch.”
“Count on it.”
After Eccles left, I drove over to the Cascade Gold Creamery. It was a sunny summer afternoon, and the parking area was filled to capacity with cars and recreational vehicles, many with California and Washington license plates. I’d parked at the edge of the parking lot in my beaten-down Mustang GT. The sky was as blue as a robin’s egg, and a warm breeze blew through the parking lot. The creamery is at the western edge of many acres of picturesque, emerald-green fields where cattle graze at the base of the Oregon Coast Range. The downside to the picturesque experience is that on warm afternoons the smell of the cattle overpowers the beauty of the scenery. At the moment, the smell of fresh manure was trapped inside the car with me. I lowered the top and then rolled the windows all the way down to try to get some air moving through the car. Unfortunately, there was no wind that afternoon, so my efforts at odor abatement didn’t bear fruit.
The Cascade Gold cheese factory is housed in a multi-story building painted the color of a brick of cheddar cheese. The building covers several acres of land, and a dark blue stripe encircles the top floor with the words “Cascade Gold Cheese” superimposed in yellow lettering. I wanted to see where Emily French worked, but the way most people get to the visitor center inside the creamery is to take the self-guided factory tour first. Since I was pretending to be a tourist, I took the tour through the factory. The path went past viewpoints of the highly automated cheese factory, past life-sized dioramas of Holstein cattle, and finished at a tasting station for cheese curd, pepper jack, and sharp cheddar cheese. Did you know that cheese curd squeaks when you chew it? It does. The tour finally ended in the visitor center where the ice cream counter, fudge counter, and creamery cafe were. I queued up for ice cream, waited my turn, and then Emily French asked me what I’d like.
I was so taken aback that I just stared at her. She was wearing a shapeless white apron, a hairnet, and no makeup, but she was something special to look at. Piercing blue eyes, porcelain skin, honey blond hair, full lips, and bright smile. The picture that Eric had shown me didn’t do her justice.
She smiled at me. “What would you like?” she asked a second time.
“What do you recommend?” I said.
“It’s all good,” she said. “My favorite is the Oregon Strawberry. The berries were picked just a few days ago.”
“I’ll try that,” I said.
While she was scooping the ice cream into my waffle cone, she asked me if I was in Tillamook on vacation.
“No,” I said. “I live in Oceanside.”
She wrapped a napkin around the waffle cone and handed it to me. “Well then,” she said. “We’re practically neighbors. Enjoy your day.”
I walked over to the cash register, paid for my cone, and took a seat at one of the tables in the guest area. I worked on the cone as slowly as I could without letting the ice cream drip all over my hands. I sat off to the side where I could watch Emily without her seeing me. None of the customers bothered her. She smiled and had a short conversation with each person who came through the ice cream line. None of the other employees stared at her or interrupted her work. I was trying to make a connection between this lady in the hairnet and the person who was worried about being stalked, and I just didn’t see it. She didn’t seem stressed or worried. I left the guest area about fifteen minutes later. I knew that Emily’s shift ended thirty minutes after I’d gone through the line, so I put the top up on the Mustang to get some shade. I cast my imagination to places where manure and summer heat do not co-exist, and I waited patiently for Emily.
She came out of the building about a half hour later in a pair of tight jeans, a red sleeveless blouse, and white tennis shoes. She didn’t look over her shoulder as she walked to her car, and she didn’t check under the car for a bomb, either. She got into an old grey Buick Century sedan that was parked fifty yards from where I sat, and then she exited the parking lot without any theatrics. She didn’t make the tires smoke, fishtail the rear end of the car on the gravel, or run the stop light when she turned south on Highway 101. I let several other cars get between us as I followed her in what passed for rush-hour traffic in the small town of Tillamook, Oregon. When we reached the downtown area, she took a right on Third Street, then turned left onto Stillwater Avenue and drove most of the way down the block before pulling into the driveway of a grey and white one story Craftsman style home. As soon as she pulled the car into her driveway, I eased to the curb and parked. I was seven houses down from her house and on the opposite side of the street. She got out of her car and went into her house without checking her surroundings or moving with any haste. I adjusted my car seat to make myself comfortable, and I waited to see what would happen.
I was struck by how ordinary the neighborhood felt to me. No other cars followed us onto her street. No one lurked behind the shrubbery near her house. No eerie music played in the background. Crows didn’t congregate by the hundreds on the roofs of the houses. There weren’t burning barrels of trash at the end of the block. It just looked like a working class neighborhood. Some houses looked like they’d been kept in good repair, others less so. Some cars were newer and well maintained, one tilted to the side on flat tires. Emily’s house had grass that had been cut in the last few days, and the paint looked recent on the siding, the window frames, and the pillars that supported the awning over the front porch.
She came outside a few minutes later with a small female Doberman on a leash. They turned away from me as they left the house and walked down the sidewalk. Emily had a bright yellow tennis ball in her free hand and a small plastic bag hanging out of her back pocket. The dog was excited to be outdoors and bounced from side to side as it tugged at the end of the leash. When they reached a vacant lot at the end of the street, Emily took the dog off leash and threw the tennis ball for the dog to retrieve. Every time the dog came back with the ball, she patted the dog’s head and scratched it between the ears. Then the dog would drop the ball and its body would tense like a coiled spring as it waited for her to throw the ball again. After a dozen throws the dog took a break to do its business. Emily picked up the mess with the plastic bag, clipped the leash back onto the dog’s collar, and walked down the sidewalk and into her house.
I sat in the Mustang for another thirty minutes, then went home and made dinner. I grilled some mushrooms and diced ham and mixed them into an omelet with several eggs. I sat out on the newly-painted deck for a few minutes while I ate my meal, then drove back over to Tillamook. I put the top down on the Mustang so I could enjoy the evening.
As I pulled onto Stillwater Avenue, I saw a pair of taillights pulling away from the curb near Emily French’s house. They were too far away for me to read the license plate, and the car accelerated quickly down the street before turning the corner at the end of the block. I pulled to the curb in front of Emily’s house and parked.
I could see through the front window that Emily was inside, and that she had the television on. She stood up from the sofa, went over to the television, and shut it off. The living room light went off, and then the light for her bedroom came on, illuminating the eaves of the next door neighbor’s house. An hour later the light in her bedroom window went off, and that was that. The street was as quiet, dark, and still as a tomb.
Eric Fullmeyer knocked on my door early the next morning. The weather was cool and foggy, so we stayed inside and talked in the kitchen.
“How did it go with Detective Eccles?” he asked.
“It went tensely,” I said.
“I think he likes Bricklin or me for the shooting of Burton, the thug who invaded my parents’ home.”
“The evidence doesn’t fit what he’s used to seeing at crime scenes. He doesn’t think an accomplice killed Burton. In his mind, that leaves me or my brother.”
“Your brother was away when it happened. Eccles knows that, right?”
I didn’t say anything.
Eric looked at the floor. “Seems justifiable, if true,” he said.
“Worthy of a trophy, even,” Fullmeyer said. “From my point of view.”
I didn’t say anything. I looked at the floor.
“If he does think you did it, why would he want to come after you for it? What’s the point?”
“He’s a very methodical guy. I think he wants to tie up loose ends. He doesn’t like that it was kept a secret all this time since it could have helped solve my parents’ murders.”
“Do you think he can prove anything?” Eric asked.
“I think he was just testing the water to see what I’d tell him.”
“He’s going to talk to Peck, right?”
“He said that he would.”
“Any chance he’ll share his theory about you killing Burton with Peck?”
I shrugged. “He’s a very bright guy, and I think he likes to shake the cage and watch how the animals react. It’s possible.”
“Your world just got more complicated,” Eric said.
“How so?” Eric asked.
“If Peck comes after me after Eccles talks to him, then I’ll know for certain that Peck sent Burton to my parents’ house that day.”
“And I’ll get closure.”
“Or he will. You’re not invincible, Delorean. I’m going to call Sandy and ask her to come up here for a while. You need someone watching your back until this gets sorted out.”
Sandy was an ex-police officer who’d helped me prove that a sheriff in Alamogordo, New Mexico was responsible for my brother’s death. She’d also rescued me from a drug factory on the Mexican border when I’d gone to war with a drug cartel. However, the last time I’d seen her, Sandy was addicted to psychoactive drugs and had impulse control problems surpassing my own. I wasn’t sure that her presence would be a plus.
“You think I’m in over my head.”
“I’m certain that you are. What’s left of the M.T. cartel still wants revenge for what you did in El Paso, and Anthony Peck might want revenge, too, if he finds out that you smoked Burton. Eccles could potentially charge you with a felony for concealing evidence if he can find a way to prove that you killed Burton and kept quiet about it.”
“I appreciate your friendship, Eric. I honestly do. But I’m not worried about the cartel or Peck or Eccles. They want to come after me, so be it.”
“You should be concerned,” Eric said. “Off the record, I think you should put a ‘go bag’ together in case things get worse. Do you need money?”
“I’m through running,” I said. “If they want to come after me, they know where to find me.”
“I’m going to get Sandy up here,” he said. “That’s the end of it.”
“Heed my words,” he said. “You need to get your head in the game, or you’re going to get it handed to you. Asking for help when you need it isn’t a sign of weakness. Have you noticed that the U.S. Army has more than one soldier? There’s a reason for that. Sometimes one person isn’t enough.”
“I get it, Eric,” I said.
Eric pinched the bridge of his nose like he was trying to prevent a migraine headache.
“I hope that you do,” he said.
“I’ve heard you, Eric. I promise. Let’s talk about Emily French.”
“I went to where she works yesterday after I talked to Eccles. I didn’t introduce myself to her. I just talked to her briefly, small talk. She didn’t seem stressed. Nobody bothered her while I was there. Then I followed her car when she drove home and I watched her walk her dog. She didn’t seem worried then, either. She didn’t look over her shoulder while she was outside, and she didn’t close the drapes that night while she was watching television. You sure that this is the same person who’s convinced they’re being watched?”
“I’m sure,” Eric said. “It doesn’t make sense to me.”
“I’ll introduce myself after she gets off work today. See if I can figure out what’s going on.”
“I hope you can make more sense out of it than I’ve been able to.”
That afternoon I waited in the cheese factory parking lot for Emily to leave work. I had the top up on the Mustang to keep the sun off the back of my neck, and for once there was enough of a breeze from the coast that the smell of the dairy was blown towards the coast mountain range. I’d parked three rows away from Emily’s car and was watching the front door of the building in my rear-view mirror.
Emily came out of the building a few minutes after I parked. She had on a white blouse over jeans and black low-heel pumps. Her hair was pulled back by a hair band, and she wore a pair of mirrored sunglasses with round lenses like the ones she’d had on in the picture Eric gave me. She carried a brown leather purse and walked like someone having a pleasant afternoon. I watched her to see if she looked over her shoulder as she walked, or checked for someone hiding between cars, or fumbled with her car keys when she got to her Buick. She seemed unafraid of the world. She did a little hair toss as she unlocked the car, then she got behind the wheel, ran the windows down, and I heard the sound of country and western music coming from her car radio. She rocked her head slightly from side to side, keeping time with the beat of the music. Then she put the car in drive, pulled onto the access road that led to Highway 101, and headed south towards her house.
I followed Emily as I had before. She didn’t seem distracted when she drove. She obeyed the traffic lights, did the speed limit, and used her turn signals. I turned the corner onto Stillwater Avenue as she pulled into her driveway. She exited her car as I approached, and she went into her front door at about the same time that I parked at the curb across the street from her house.
I got out of my car and walked up the driveway to her house. I was unarmed and wearing a faded red shirt over a pair of jeans and running shoes. I rang the doorbell and heard all hell break loose inside the house as the Doberman responded to the sound of the doorbell. Eventually Emily came to the door and opened it as far as the door chain would allow. The dog barked furiously as it tried to force its head through the narrow opening.
“What do you want?” she said loudly.
“I’m Delorean,” I said. “Eric Fullmeyer told you about me. I’d like to talk to you.”
“How do I know you’re who you say you are?” she asked.
“If it would be easier for you, I can come back with Eric tomorrow. I don’t blame you for being nervous.”
She thought about it for a second. “You can come in, but if you try anything I’ll turn the dog loose on you.”
She reached up with one hand, popped the chain off the door, then wrapped both hands around the dog’s collar and wrestled the dog towards the sofa. The animal’s coat shone black and gold as it writhed against the force she applied to its collar. Once she and the dog were on the far side of the room, I followed her inside, stood by the door, and closed the front door behind me.
The front room of the house had hardwood floors and an arched entryway leading to a hallway that showed a single bedroom off to the left, a bathroom to the right, and a kitchen at the rear. Green pastel paint on the walls. Flat screen television on a simple teak stand in the corner. The furniture was inexpensive but looked comfortable. The sofa was covered in brown leatherette. An Adirondack chair with a bright orange seat cushion faced the sofa. I thought about sitting down but wanted to be standing in case the dog got loose. If I moved fast enough I might be able to get at least part way out the door before I felt the dog’s teeth sink into my leg.
“So you’re the guy that Eric said was going to check on me?” she asked.
“You don’t look like a cop. You look like Casey Affleck. Bigger muscles, though.”
“I’m not a cop. I’ve dealt with bad people before, and Eric asked me to take a look. He wanted me to keep an eye on you for a while to see if anything seems wrong.”
“You got an ice cream cone from me the other day, right? You said you live in Oceanside. Was that a lie?”
“No. I really do live in Oceanside.”
“Why didn’t you introduce yourself to me?”
“I didn’t want to interfere until I’d seen what was going on around you, whether anyone was watching you or following you.”
“And what do you think?” she asked.
“I haven’t searched your house, but I haven’t seen anything obviously wrong so far.”
The dog continued to bark. It was pulling hard against Emily’s grip as it tried to get at me. I was concerned that the collar was choking off the dog’s windpipe.
“Do you know much about dogs?” I asked.
“I know this one is loud when strangers are around and would kill anyone who bothers me.”
“I agree. Why don’t I come by the creamery tomorrow and talk to you at lunchtime? There’ll be plenty of witnesses around if I make you nervous. I can bring Eric with me.”
She looked at me hard for a few seconds, then stood and dragged the dog by its collar across the hardwood floor into the kitchen. She closed the kitchen door quickly, and then came back into the front room. I could hear the dog pawing at the door as it tried to find a way through the wood.
“Why don’t we sit on the porch?” she said. “It’ll be quieter out there.”
I followed her out the front door onto the small concrete porch. She sat down and stretched her legs out in front of her on the steps. I sat down beside her, cross-legged. At the far end of the block, a man wearing cutoff jeans and an unbuttoned grey dress shirt pulled the cord on a lawnmower. The engine sputtered to life and he began cutting his grass.
“My legs get sore standing in the ice cream line all day,” she said.
“I believe it.”
“How do you know Eric? Are you in the witness protection program, too?”
“No, I’m not in the program. If you asked Eric, he’d probably tell you that my personality makes me a bad fit for all the structure you have to live with.”
“I have problems with being told what to do. Sometimes I’m impulsive. When I’m threatened I don’t take it well. Things like that.”
“Then why did he choose you to give a second opinion about my situation?”
“I’m an intelligent person, Emily. I just don’t like following rules. Eric also knows that I’ll do literally anything to protect someone I say I’ll protect, including you.”
“That’s pretty strong language, considering that we just met.”
“When I say I’ll do something, I’ll do it.”
“You really mean it, don’t you?”
I stared at her.
She looked down. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay. You don’t know me and I don’t know you. You have a right to ask. So now I need to ask you a few questions.”
“When did you feel like you were being watched or followed?”
“It started about a month ago. I’d be at work, or in the grocery store, or even here at home and I’d feel like someone was watching me.”
“And you told Eric about it?”
“I did. He had someone watch my house for a few days. Then he had one of his people go through the house looking for hidden cameras, had someone come to work with me several times to see if they could see anything, followed me when I was driving in my car, but they didn’t find anything.”
“Do you still feel like there’s someone watching you?”
“The last few days I haven’t felt anything at all. I have the dog now, and that helps. But I just feel like whoever was watching me has stopped. Maybe they’re taking a break or they moved on. I kind of feel like a weight has been lifted off of me. It’s weird.”
“Eric told me that he offered to move you to a new location but you refused. You don’t have a glamorous job. Why didn’t you just move if you were afraid?”
“I gave up everything I had to get what little I have here. I’ll be damned if I’ll give that up, too. They’ll have to drag me out of here.”
“Good to know. Eric said that you were considering leaving the witness protection program because you felt like he wasn’t taking you seriously.”
“He told me several times that his people said that there was no problem, and he was starting to treat me like a mental patient. He’s a nice man, but I’m damned if I’ll be patronized by him.”
The lawnmower down the street sputtered to a stop. The man in the cutoffs and dress shirt took the bag off the mower and carried it over to a plastic trash can in the driveway.
“Could you be more specific about where you were when you did feel like you were being watched?”
“Sometimes when crowds of people would be at the visitor center. I’d feel like I was being stared at, but I could never figure out who was doing the staring. Or when I was in my car. I’d feel like I was being followed when I was out running errands.”
“Do you think it could be a co-worker?”
“I don’t think so. I felt that creepy feeling occasionally at work, and then sometimes days would pass with nothing. Then it would happen again. But nobody at work ever bothered me. People here are friendly enough, but they leave you alone.”
“Any boyfriends in the picture?”
“No. I’ve kept to myself since I’ve been here.”
“Nobody’s asked you out in six months? That’s hard to believe.”
“I went on a few dates with guys I met through a dating site, but they just weren’t the right type for me, so I canceled my membership. I get chatted up occasionally at work by customers, at the grocery store, you know how it is. I’ve already got a cheap wedding ring that I wear when I remember to, but the ring only stops the nice ones. It doesn’t even slow the losers down.”
“Have any of them taken it badly when you told them you weren’t interested?”
“Not enough that I was scared by it. Usually when I tell someone that I’m married to a patrolman and I have three kids, they can’t get away fast enough.”
“Would that scare you, too?” she asked.
“The kids or the husband?”
“Are the kids still in diapers? I hate the smell of diapers.”
Then it was her turn to laugh.
“Eric said you could be funny sometimes,” she said. “Usually when you should be scared.”
“Laugh and the world laughs with you. Cry and you cry alone.”
“So you said that you felt like you were being watched while you were inside your house?” I asked.
“Sometimes. It felt like someone was looking over my shoulder, but whenever I’d turn around there was no one there.”
“Any particular room more than others?”
“I guess I felt it the most in the bedroom. I’d gotten to the point that I didn’t want to undress in there any more. I keep the blinds closed, but I started taking my clothes with me into the bathroom to change anyway.”
“But you didn’t feel like you were being watched in the bathroom?”
“If you saw my bathroom, you’d understand. It’s about the size of a phone booth. I guess I could tell myself that there was no way anyone else could be hiding in there or watching me.”
“Have you had that uncomfortable feeling since Eric had someone check inside for cameras?”
“No. Like I said, it’s gotten better. Especially with having the dog. She has such a quick temper that I just sleep better at night knowing she’s there.”
“Justifiably,” I said. “Let’s do this. Why don’t you take your dog down to the vacant lot and throw the ball for her? I’ll look around your house for a few minutes. Maybe I won’t find anything either, but at least I can check your closets, look under the bed, see if anything seems odd. Right?”
“Okay,” she said. “Thanks.”
The lawnmower down the block sputtered back to life. I went out to the Mustang and waited in the car while Emily went inside to get her dog. Once they’d walked down the sidewalk to the empty lot, I crossed the street and went inside.
I knew that I didn’t have a lot of time, so I started in her bedroom. Fortunately, the room was so small that there wasn’t much to search. There was a yellow four-drawer bureau against the south wall with a hairbrush and an assortment of earrings, bracelets, a simple wedding ring, and a Rolex women’s watch on top. Padded dog bed on the floor beside the queen-sized bed. Nightstand with a small digital clock and a brass lamp with a canvas lampshade. The bed didn’t have a headboard or footboard, just a plaid black and red bedspread over a mattress and box spring. Two big pillows at the head of the bed. I looked under the bed and saw a thin layer of undisturbed dust. I checked the ceiling vent by standing on the mattress in my stocking feet and using a dime as a screwdriver to unscrew the vent cover. Nothing. I slid the drawers out of the dresser and looked for anything unusual built into the frame of the dresser. Nothing. I knew that Fullmeyer’s people had already checked everything, but I looked for pinhole cameras in the coat hooks on the wall, the pull handles on the dresser, the clock on the night stand. I pulled out all the drawers, looked for anything unusual, and put the drawers back. After twenty minutes I gave up. There was a window on the east wall that faced onto the driveway, but she’d covered the window with louvered wooden blinds facing out and down. The louvered blinds were in closed and locked position. Hard to imagine how anyone could see inside past those. Then I moved on to the bathroom. Emily was right. The bathroom was ridiculously small, with yellow and black tile on the walls and white and black checked tile on the floor. I unscrewed the ceiling vent using a dime and checked for a camera inside, and then checked everything else in the bathroom: the shower drapes, the shampoo rack, the toilet. Nothing.
I left the house through the back door in the kitchen. The dog food bowl and water bowl were on the back porch, which served as a useful reminder to unwanted visitors that there was a dog inside. I didn’t see any evidence of the back door or the kitchen window being jimmied from the outside. I walked around the perimeter of the house looking for flattened grass or evidence of the house being tampered with. There were places outside her bedroom window where the grass might or might not have been stepped on recently. I tried to peek in around the blinds in her bedroom window, but it wasn’t possible to see inside from either a low or high angle. I went through the gate that separated the back yard from the driveway, closed it behind me, went around to the front of the house, and stepped up onto the front porch. The front door lock didn’t have any fresh scratches on the lock or on the strike plate attached to the door frame, but it was a very old lock and there was no deadbolt on the door. I’d have to talk to Emily about installing deadbolt locks on the front and back doors.
I didn’t have the benefit of the equipment that Fullmeyer’s team did, but I came to the same conclusion that they did: there wasn’t any evidence of the house being tampered with. It seemed likely to me that if there had been surveillance gear in the house, it had been removed before anyone from Eric’s crew checked the house. Maybe what Emily was sensing was someone peering in through the kitchen or living room window at night.
I walked down the stairs and onto the short gravel driveway. I waved at Emily as I crossed the street. She put her dog back on leash and started my way. I got back into the Mustang and waited while she came down the sidewalk with the dog. Once she had the Doberman back in the house, she came over to my car and leaned against the driver’s side door, bending at the waist and resting her elbows against the top of the door. The top buttons of her blouse were unbuttoned, making it impossible for me not to notice the abundance of her cleavage and the lace fabric on her overtaxed white brassiere.
“Did you find anything?” she asked.
“I don’t have the kind of sophisticated equipment that Eric’s people have, but no, I didn’t.”
She thought about what I’d said, and then she nodded to herself as if a suspicion had been confirmed.
“Do you usually leave your Rolex on top of your dresser?” I asked.
“Yes. I can’t wear it since Eric said it telegraphs my wealth. At least the wealth I used to have.” She sighed, stood straight up, and raked her fingers through her hair to comb it away from her face.
I said “It just seems like if someone had come into the house, it would have been irresistible to take the watch. Someone could pawn it in ten minutes for a few thousand dollars. If it went missing you might not notice for days, or you might think you’d misplaced it.”
“So you’re saying it’s all in my head.”
“Not at all. I’m saying that if someone did follow you, or did come into your house, they were disciplined about it and careful about not being caught. That could explain why it’s hard to find evidence.”
She put her hands on her hips and looked down the street towards the vacant lot where she’d thrown the ball for her dog.
“Okay. So maybe I’m not crazy.”
“Right. It’s also possible that someone was watching you for a while but they moved on. Possibly they found someone they liked better in some way.”
“Or maybe Fullmeyer’s people spooked them, or the dog did.”
“I’m feeling very creeped out,” she said.
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” I said. “I’m just trying to connect your feelings with what we’ve been able to find. If you really felt certain that you were being watched and followed, I think you probably were. If you felt like it stopped, I think that it probably did.”
“Marshal Fullmeyer doesn’t see it that way. He thinks I’m losing my mind.”
“Your feelings are real, and I encourage you to listen to them. I can tell when I’m being watched, too. It’s an instinct some people have.”
She had her arms crossed, and she was tapping her foot up and down against the pavement like she was counting off beats for music in her head.
“At a minimum, I think that you should get deadbolt locks installed on the front and back door,” I said. “That’s a simple thing to do, and makes it much harder for someone to get into the house without a key.”
“I’ll call a locksmith. I promise.”
Two boys who looked high school age came out of one of the houses a few doors down. One of them was carrying a football. They gave Emily and me a good look as they spread out across two front yards to play catch.
“Do you have plans for the rest of the evening?” she asked.
“I was going to watch your house for a few more hours, then go home and make a late dinner.”
“Could we just go to dinner together somewhere? I don’t feel like being in my house right now. Dog or no dog.”
“Just friends, right?”
“Just friends,” I said.
“I have a rule about telling guys up front what to expect.”
“I’m all ears,” I said. “What should I expect?” I gave her my gentlest smile.
She looked concerned. “No. I just mean that I don’t want you to think I’m coming on to you by asking you to dinner,” she said.
“I didn’t think that,” I said. “I thought you felt spooked because we talked about the possibility of someone being in your house, and you wanted to be somewhere else for a little while.”
“Right. I just … don’t know you and don’t … know … you.” She tightened her arms across her chest, and her right leg was twisted around the left to the maximum extent possible. It looked like she was trying to hug herself, protect herself, and possibly to turn herself into a pretzel.
“Well, my taste in cars runs to antiques that are fun to drive. I like old music and dark beer. Does that help?”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know it isn’t,” I said. “You asked me to go somewhere with you, and now you wonder if I’ve misunderstood your intent and that I’ll complicate things between us by making a pass at you. I won’t do that.”
“Now things are going to be awkward,” she said.
“Far from it. I appreciate it that you say what’s on your mind. You’re just being authentic with me. It’s not a problem.”
“You seem like a very unusual man,” Emily said.
“More than you know,” I said.
When we drove across the bridge over the Trask River, she’d asked where we were going. I told her that there was a place in Oceanside I wanted her to try.
“Why?” she asked.
“You seem like you need it.”
She didn’t say anything after that. As we followed the twisting, narrow road to Oceanside, she kept her legs pressed together and had her arms crossed tightly over her chest. I couldn’t tell if she was defensive, scared, or both.
The Mustang was fifteen years old and had definitely seen better days. The roof had been left down several times when it rained, so the interior of the car smelled musty. The seats had been flattened by previous owners who were overweight, and the shock absorbers were probably due for replacement. As a result, the impact of every pothole and bump in the road transferred directly to the seat of my pants. Still, the engine, transmission, and brakes were sound, and the car was a pleasure to drive on a country road.
Emily finally relaxed a little when we reached Oceanside and parked in front of the saltwater-bleached shingle exterior of Josephine’s Cafe. I came around to her side of the car and opened the door for her.
“Is Her Majesty ready for her culinary adventure?” I asked.
“Her Majesty is most definitely ready.”
We went inside the cozy restaurant and took a table against the big windows. If you’re lucky enough to sit there, you have a head-on view of the Pacific Ocean and the Three Arch Rocks wildlife refuge. Our table had glass on the tabletop over a white tablecloth. There were hydrangea blossoms in a cut glass vase, and the pleasant hum of activity from the waitresses and the other customers felt comforting and safe.
Emily ordered quiche with a glass of cabernet. I had steak, a salad, and a bottle of hefeweizen beer.
“We came all this way and aren’t ordering seafood. Seems a waste,” she said.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “You needed to be away from your house and Tillamook. I wanted to take you somewhere safe where you could enjoy the view, have a nice meal, and maybe walk on the beach. Just forget about things for a while.”
“Avoidance coping,” she said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Making choices based on trying to avoid things that make you feel stressed. I chose to avoid my house instead of facing my fears. I have a rule about not running away from things. I should have stayed.”
I tasted the beer. The flavor was crisp and clean, with a bit of citrus flavor and something of a bite to it.
“So does that mean that people who take vacations are avoidance coping?” I asked.
“This is different,” she said. “I wanted to be away from there because I was afraid.”
“Well, maybe,” I said. “To me it seemed like you needed a change of scenery for a little while and to take a break from being so vigilant. Either way, aren’t you glad you’re not at a fast food restaurant on Highway 101, or sitting on your living room floor and eating a sandwich?”
She took a sip from her cabernet and put the glass down.
“Right. I just don’t want to get into the habit of running away when I’m scared.”
“Look at it this way,” I said. “You could have moved and you wouldn’t do it. Instead you got a Doberman. And now you have me if you need help and Eric isn’t around. It doesn’t sound like avoidance coping is holding you back. You just wanted to be somewhere else for a few minutes. People who go out to dinner aren’t all avoidance coping from anxiety about their kitchens.”
“Okay, Doctor Phil.”
“I thought you said I looked like Casey Affleck on steroids.”
“I did,” she said. “But don’t let it go to your head.”
“I won’t,” I said. “I’m the best person at being humble that I know.”
“I’ll say this for you,” she said. “You are a unique individual.”
“Let’s toast to that.” I held up my beer bottle and she tapped it with her wine glass.
Our dinners arrived.
Emily liked her quiche. My steak was excellent. We ate in companionable silence, looking up from our meals from time to time to check the view of Three Arch Rocks.
“Lots of birds out there,” Emily said.
“It’s a bird sanctuary for puffins, guillemots, storm-petrels, and cormorants.”
“I’ve heard of puffins and cormorants.”
“The guillemots are the ones that look like black seagulls with white wing-patches. Storm-petrels are small seabirds, usually dark with white undersides. They actually hover over the surface of the water and catch small fish that come to the surface.”
“Are you a bird-watcher?”
“My house is up the hill from here. I look at that rock quite a bit, and I was curious about why there’s usually a cloud of birds flying around it. I did a little reading.”
She nodded. “It would be nice if they had binoculars here,” she said.
“I agree. People would probably stay too long at the tables, though.”
In between bites we watched the surf, the beach strollers, and the bird activity out on Three Arch Rocks.
When the bill came Emily picked it up before I could look at it.
“I’ll cover it,” I said.
“It’s on me,” she said. “You’re doing something nice for me. I’m doing something nice for you.”
“Hard to argue with that logic,” I said. She went to the cashier to pay. I left the tip on the tabletop.
We went out to the car. The weather made it a very pleasant evening to be at the beach, and I asked Emily if she wanted to walk on the sand for a while.
“No. I think I’m ready to go back.”
“Nice evening for a stroll.”
“That would be avoidance coping,” she said. “I need to go back and stand my ground.” Then she smiled.
“If you say so.”
“I appreciate the offer. Another time, okay? I don’t want to leave the dog locked up for too long.”
“Absolutely. Let’s go.”
The next day I was up early and went for a run. If I can start before the sun comes up, I have the beach entirely to myself for a while. I went south from Oceanside and ran the full length of Netarts Bay before the sun brightened over the Coast Range. As the sun rose, the monochromatic greyness in which I’d started the run gave way to the muted greens of the hills, the dark blue of the Pacific, and the coal black of Three Arch Rocks. That sense of heaviness left me as it always did when I reached the turnaround point at mile five, and I picked up the pace as the sun rose higher. The longer I ran, the better I felt. By the time I’d completed the return trip to Oceanside, my head felt clearer and my problems seemed smaller and more manageable. I sprinted up the hill to my house, worked out with the free weights in the spare bedroom, then stretched and took a shower.
Detective Eccles texted while I was eating breakfast. He told me he wanted to talk to me again and said he could be at my house within the hour. I told him that was okay with me, and while I waited for him I took my binoculars out onto the deck. It was a quiet morning in Oceanside, with fewer tourists than usual in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill. That suited me fine.
There was a bald eagle nesting in a dead tree at the top of the hill above my house. Every thirty minutes the bald eagle would glide out towards the bird sanctuary on Three Arch Rocks. The sound of hundreds of nesting sea birds panicking was clearly audible even from half a mile away. As the eagle reached the rock, every bird capable of taking flight would lift off, leaving behind the birds who were either too immature to fly or who were determined to protect their nest. Either way, the eagle would select its next victim from the birds left behind, pluck it from the rock, and lift off with prey in its talons. Then the eagle would fly back over my house and land in the nest at the top of the hill. The birds on Three Arch Rocks would settle again. A few minutes later the eagle would glide seaward from its nest and the process would start again. I wondered if the eagle had a voracious appetite or if it were just feeding its young.
After about an hour I saw Eccles’ rental Buick start its labored drive up the hill to my house. I went back inside, waited for him to park his car, and then I went outside and closed the front door behind me.
He got out of the Buick and locked it with the key remote.
“Car theft isn’t much of a problem in Oceanside,” I said.
“Force of habit,” Eccles said. “Discipline frees the mind from mundane details, so it can focus on things of importance.”
“Deep thoughts,” I said.
“Hardly,” Eccles said. “Common sense is more like it.”
It was a warm and humid morning, and Eccles was wearing a short sleeved red dress shirt over tan slacks and brown leather shoes.
“Want to walk down to the beach with me?” I asked.
“These shoes aren’t made for sand,” he said. “But I’ll walk down to the parking lot with you.”
We started down the switchbacks that led from my house to the parking lot for Oceanside Beach State Park.
“Have you talked to Peck yet?” I asked.
“I did talk to Anthony Peck,” he said. “He is a specimen of humanity.”
“In what way?”
“Well, he had three attorneys present. Every question I asked, his attorneys conferred on it before deciding whether it was okay for him to answer. He says he never had anything to do with your parents and only knew Burton socially. Says Burton was never an employee. Peck’s attorneys made the point more than once that dragging Peck into a twenty year old murder investigation with no proof of his connection to the case could be costly to my career.”
“Your response to the threat to back off?”
“I asked whether Peck would be more cooperative when I prove that Burton was on his payroll at the time of your parents’ murder.”
“I’ll bet he liked that.”
“That ended the interview. My supervisor called me ten minutes later and asked me why I pissed on a wasp nest.”
“Your supervisor sounds like a man who enjoys colorful metaphors.”
“Indeed he is. He suggested that my brain might actually be the size of a gnat’s asshole.”
I laughed. “At least now you know that you have his full support.”
“If I can prove Peck is dirty I’ll have all the support I need. If I can’t, and I annoy Peck again, I’ll be working security at pee wee rodeos.”
The bald eagle flew overhead on his next trip out to the feeding ground of Three Arch Rocks.
“Is that what I think it is?” Eccles asked.
“A bald eagle, yes.”
“Never seen one before. Those things are big.”
We’d made it to the parking lot for Oceanside beach, and we watched the eagle close in on the bird sanctuary. A cloud of nesting birds lifted off from the rock with an accompanying explosion of noise.
“What the hell is he doing?” Eccles said.
“Feeding time, as far as I can tell,” I said.
“No shit,” Eccles said.
Eccles watched as the eagle landed on the rock and then lifted off with new prey. As the eagle flew its return flight in our direction, it became obvious that it now had a large bird in his talons.
“Do you see the size of the bird he’s carrying?” Eccles said.
“He can’t be eating that whole thing.”
“That’s his third or fourth trip this morning.”
“I don’t see how his eaglets could be eating that much, either.”
“Maybe he just likes it,” I said. “Maybe he just enjoys taking down prey.”
“Most animals don’t do that,” Eccles said. “They only kill as much as they have to in order to stay fed.”
“Maybe this one is like Peck,” I said. “There’s nothing stopping him, and he likes doing it, so the killing continues unabated.”
“Maybe,” Eccles said. “Unless he has the misfortune to cross paths with someone like you.”
“What did you want to talk to me about?” I asked.
“After my visit with Peck, I wanted to tell you in person to stay out of Peck’s arena. I got the feeling from some of his bodyguards that if I didn’t carry a badge I might not have walked out of there. No joke.”
“I’ll keep that in mind. Did my name come up during your discussion with Peck?”
“One of his attorneys asked me if I was interviewing you about the killing of Burton.”
“Out of the blue, huh?”
“So someone back in Oklahoma City is telling Peck’s people everything.”
“Seems like it.”
“You still telling your boss the details of what you’re doing?”
“Not any more.”
“You going back soon?”
“Not quite yet. Still got a couple branding irons in the fire.”
“I think your metaphors might be as colorful as your boss’s.”
“It’s the cowboy in me. Always thinking about rounding up the stray cattle.”
“I don’t suppose that after our discussion the other day you decided to be more candid with me about what happened the day of your parents’ home invasion,” he said.
“I’ve told you everything I can remember,” I said.
“I’ll accept that,” he said. “For now.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said.
“I’m just getting started,” he said. “But my impression is that you and Peck both wish that Randall Burton was still buried by that oil well. That makes me curious. And I don’t think either of you are being straight with me by a mile, and in your case that puzzles me. That’s all right, though. Sometimes persistence is the name of the game, isn’t it? It’s like being a gold miner. You just keep digging until you find something.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Enjoy your day, sir,” he said. “I think I can find my way back to my car without difficulty.”
After Eccles left, I sat on the sand and tried to clear my head. Within a few minutes I witnessed another episode of eagle-induced chaos out on Three Arch Rocks. Hundreds of birds lifted from the bird sanctuary in a raucous cacophony of fear. The eagle circled the largest of the rocks in a leisurely manner, orbiting the cloud of seabirds for a while before coasting down for its next meal. “Time to move,” I told myself. “Unless you want to be eaten alive.”
I walked back up the hill to my house and then drove over to Emily’s neighborhood. I knew that Emily was at work, but I was curious about what her neighborhood was like during the day. I parked on the other end of the street from her house, sat on the flattened seat of my Mustang for several hours, and I tried to stay alert. Nothing happened aside from my butt becoming numb. There was a small amount of traffic in the neighborhood. A few cars came and went. Then a maroon Chevy van went past me, tapped the brakes in front of Emily’s house, and continued on its way. I waited to see if the van would come back. It didn’t.
I waited another half hour before driving over to the Cascade Gold Creamery. I drove around the parking lot until I located Emily’s car, and I picked a slot nearby. I bypassed the self-guided tour, went directly into the creamery cafe, and ordered a grilled cheese sandwich and iced tea. I paid for my meal and took a seat at one of the tables which afforded a view of the ice cream line. I could see Emily in her server’s apron and hair net. She was friendly and gracious to every person who came through the line. The men who ordered ice cream seemed polite and non-threatening. Emily smiled from time to time. Even with the hairnet on and no makeup, she was a looker.
The other server in the ice cream line had bronzed skin and straight black hair. He looked young enough to be in high school. I didn’t see any customers or co-workers loitering or staring at Emily. After twenty minutes, I left the restaurant and went back over to Emily’s neighborhood. I sat in my car for several hours until Emily came home, and then watched her house for another hour before finally succumbing to the twin tortures of my full bladder and my empty stomach and going home. The maroon van never returned.
When I got home, there was a red Camaro SS with Texas license plates parked outside of my house. I carefully pulled around the Camaro and parked against the curb. I could hear music coming from inside my house. I got the thirty-eight police special from the glove box and held it against my leg as I opened the front door. Eminem’s Lose Yourself was thumping from the stereo. A woman with a narrow waist, an oversized top, and thighs that looked powerful enough to crush coconuts was doing push-ups in front of the stereo. She wore a hot pink exercise thong that looked too small, and she had a shotgun leaning against the sofa.
I turned the volume down on the stereo.
“Sandy,” I said. “We meet again.”
“Hey there, superman,” she said, pausing in the middle of a push-up to look my way. Then she pushed off hard against the floor and popped to her feet. I was wrong about the exercise thong. It was much, much too small. Manners would dictate that I not stare, but it was impossible not to. She picked a towel off the sofa and wiped the sweat from her face. Her blond hair had grown out since the last time we’d seen each other. It was shoulder length now, and fell in delicate corkscrews.
“I hope you don’t mind that I let myself in. You’re looking well,” she said. “Beach life seems to suit you.”
“You’re looking very … fit,” I said.
“You’ll make a girl blush with talk like that,” she said.
“I think it would take a lot more than that to make you blush.”
“I’m as delicate as a hothouse flower,” she said in an exaggerated southern belle accent. She blinked her eyelashes rapidly for effect. “I’m going to take a shower and put my hoop skirt on. You can put your dress uniform on and take me to the officer’s cotillion tonight.”
“Can you wear a bustle with a hoop skirt?” I asked. “I always wanted to take a girl wearing a bustle to a dance.”
“I think hoop skirts and bustles are mutually exclusive, but do you really think I need a bustle?”
She turned around and showed me her backside, cranking one hip out theatrically to flex the oversized muscles on one perfectly rounded gluteus maximus.
“I think you have the bustle problem covered already,” I said.
“I’ll take that in the spirit I’m sure it was intended,” she said. “It’s shower time.” She put the towel over her shoulder, picked up the shotgun, and headed for her bedroom.
As she walked across the living room I said “How did you get in?”
She stopped and turned slightly in my direction. I could see the well-defined outlines of the muscles in her back produced by years of dedicated weightlifting. The shotgun dangled casually from her right hand by the pistol grip. “The front door was locked, so I climbed over the rail onto the deck. The sliding glass door was unlocked, so I let myself in. You should put a piece of wood in the track for that slider so it can’t be forced open by undesirables.”
“I’ll do that,” I said.
“You’re glad I’m here, aren’t you?”
“Okay. Just wanted to be sure. You’re hard to read sometimes.”
Then she shrugged and went into her bedroom. A couple minutes later, I was standing by the sink when she came back out with a towel wrapped around her. It must have been a challenge for her to adjust the towel for maximum modesty. Like the thong, the towel was simultaneously too small to cover her figure and perfectly sized to maximize the appeal of her feminine attributes.
She gave me a small smile as she went into the bathroom and closed the door. I was left alone in the kitchen with the thirty-eight on the countertop and Eminem still playing through the stereo.
There wasn’t a lot of food to work with in the kitchen. I melted a small amount of butter in a pan and sliced small strips of pork into the pan, then washed green beans and put them in with the pork strips to grill. The overhead exhaust fan for the cooktop barely worked, so I opened the sliding glass door onto the deck to let the air circulate. I diced a slice of a Walla Walla onion and dropped the cubes into the pan, then put a glass lid over the pan to try to keep the juices in.
I took a pair of plates out of the cabinet and set them near the cooktop, then got a pair of wine glasses from the cabinet and filled them halfway with cabernet. I carried the wine glasses, silverware, and placemats out to the deck and put them on the picnic table. Then I went back inside, turned the heat off on the cooktop, and ladled the pork, green beans, and candied onions onto the plates.
Sandy came out of the guest bedroom in a pair of low-heel pumps, and was wearing blue jeans so tight that they looked like they’d been painted onto her skin. She had on a white blouse and a pearl necklace and bracelet set. Classy.
“We’re eating on the deck,” I said.
“It smells delicious. I didn’t know you could cook,” she said.
“I can grill pork and vegetables with the best of ‘em.”
“A renaissance man,” she said.
“Thank you for noticing,” I said. “Genius often goes unnoticed.”
I put the plates down on the picnic table and went back inside and turned on the stereo. I put on Pat Metheny’s Offramp album. The strains of Are You Going With Me? filled the house. I went back out on the deck, closed the screen, and took a seat across from Sandy.
“Thanks for making the trip,” I said. “How much did Eric tell you?”
Sandy tasted her wine and set the glass down. “He said that Anthony Peck had a vendetta with you, that you needed someone to watch your back, and that I should get here as soon as possible. That’s all I needed to hear.”
“I appreciate you coming, Sandy, but this could get pretty heavy. You sure you want to be involved in this?”
She cut a piece of the pork carefully, sliced and skewered a green bean, then put the combination in her mouth. Her forearms were nearly as large as my own, and you could see the muscles and tendons under the skin when she cut the meat. She chewed, swallowed, and washed her food down with another sip of wine. She’d applied makeup expertly before coming to dinner, and her hair was carefully combed, framing her prominent cheeks and slightly upturned nose. She had a muscular build, but her muscles seemed in perfect proportion with her feminine attributes, enhancing the attractiveness that was naturally there.
“You’re staring,” she said.
“It’s hard not to stare,” I said. “You look terrific.”
“A girl likes to hear that occasionally,” she said.
“And I’m sure you do,” I said.
“Actually, not that much. Most guys seem afraid of me.”
“With good reason.”
“Seriously though, Sandy, you might want to bow out on this one. I appreciate you coming, but I don’t want anything to happen to you, and this time I think it could.”
Sandy said “If I may ask an indelicate question, Delorean, why does a mover and shaker like Peck give a shit about a nobody like you?”
“Because a long time ago Peck was a loan shark in Oklahoma City. When I was about twelve years old, he loaned money to my father for his car business. When my dad couldn’t pay, one of Peck’s thugs named Randall Burton came to my house and killed my parents. Afterwards, Burton tried to kill me, too, but I was armed and I shot him to death. I buried him afterwards and never told anyone about it.”
Sandy looked at me with a shocked expression.
“Seriously? Twelve years old?”
“Does Peck know you did it?”
“Not until recently. Someone found Burton’s body, and the police are looking at me for the shooting. Peck knows what the police are up to, according to the detective named Eccles who interviewed me about it.”
“Are the police going to charge you with anything? What would that be? Concealing evidence of a homicide?”
I shrugged. “Unknown,” I said.
“Peck isn’t going to like that very much,” Sandy said. “He’s probably been wondering what happened to his boy Burton all this time.”
“You thinking of taking a run at Peck to get even for what he did to your parents?” Sandy asked.
“I have, but I’ve been warned not to by Eric and by Eccles, too. I get the impression they’re actually scared of what he can do to me and to anyone close to me.”
“Good thing you’re superman, then, isn’t it?”
“And I can cook, too.”
Sandy used her knife to trim the small amount of fat off the last slice of pork on her plate. She skewered the pork with her fork, and then made a delicate circle with the pork to pick a couple of stray bits of candied onion from her plate before putting the last bite in her mouth. Then she drained the rest of the wine in her glass in one long swallow.
“You sure as hell can,” she said. “What’s for dessert?”
Eccles called the next morning and asked to see me again. He said that it might be the last time we talked for a while. I told him that there was no place to park at my house and asked him to meet me at the parking lot at the bottom of the hill.
Sandy slept late. I assumed that she was still tired from her long drive from Texas. I made a cup of coffee and walked down the zigzag road to the parking lot, sipping on my coffee along the way.
While I waited for Eccles I sat on a park bench, drank coffee, and watched the bird activity on Three Arch Rocks. It was one of those rare sunny mornings in Oceanside with warm temperatures, no wind, and clear skies. I hadn’t seen the bald eagle that morning, and I wondered if he would make an appearance while Eccles and I were talking. There was a sign posted at the entrance to the beach which described different threats to tourists including sneaker waves, tsunamis, falling off a cliff, and getting pulled out to sea by the undertow. I wondered if the sign should be augmented to include the possibility of being snatched off a rock by a bird with a seven foot wingspan.
Eccles pulled into the parking lot, got out of his car, and walked over to where I stood. “Have you seen the eagle this morning?” he asked.
Eccles nodded. He was wearing a button down shirt with a thin blue plaid print over blue jeans and new tennis shoes. I wondered if he’d gone shopping. I was wearing cut-off jeans, a Coldplay concert tee shirt, and a faded pair of Nike running shoes.
“Looks like you’re dressed for a walk on the beach,” I said.
“Indeed I am,” Eccles said. “Let’s walk.”
We stepped down onto the cream-colored sand and walked south past the backside of Josephine’s Cafe and the handful of homes which dot the narrow highway leading into Oceanside. The ocean churned as it typically does, but the sound of the surf wasn’t unpleasant. The sun glinted off the waves, making thousands of little diamonds sparkle on the ocean surface. Pelicans and seagulls paralleled the beach, staying airborne on the breeze with occasional flaps of wings. We walked in comfortable silence until we’d left Oceanside far behind, with no homes visible on the hillside fronting onto the ocean. There were no other people within a quarter mile ahead of us or behind us.
Eccles paused at a giant driftwood log lying on the sand. The root system was surprisingly shallow and small compared to the length of the log.
“This looks like a good spot,” Eccles said.
“For what?” I said.
“For you and me to have a conversation with each other. An honest one that won’t be overheard or recorded.”
“All right,” I said. “You have something to say, say it.”
“I don’t think I can prove that Peck hired Randall Burton to go after your parents. There’s no paper trail of payments between Peck and Burton, and there’s no way in hell anyone will testify against Peck in court. Unless there’s other evidence I don’t know about, I’ve reached a dead end.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You took that pretty well,” Eccles said.
“My expectations are low,” I said. “The police had twenty years to do something and didn’t. This is just more of the same.”
“Well, that’s one way of looking at it,” Eccles said. “Another way of looking at it is that because you kept what happened to Burton a secret, we didn’t have anything to go on for twenty years. So it’s at least partially on you that the crime was never solved. You should have said something when it happened. Why the hell didn’t you? Was it because you took your father’s gun that day, and you thought it was your fault that he couldn’t defend himself?”
I didn’t say anything.
Eccles shook his head. “I never cease to be amazed by human behavior,” he said. “Regardless, I’m pretty sure I can make a case against you for concealing the homicide, a justifiable homicide in my opinion, of Randall Burton.”
“I don’t think you can,” I said.
“When you came back to your house from your confrontation with Burton, you took off your clothes and replaced them with clean ones. The dirty ones you put in the clothes hamper after using bar soap to try to wash the blood stains out of the jeans. You missed a few blood spots here and there. When those jeans were processed by forensics at the time of your parents’ home invasion, no one knew what to make of the blood spots on the denim. The spots weren’t very big, and there weren’t very many of them, and while the bloodstains were human, they didn’t match your parents, your brother, or you either. It was a puzzling footnote in the evidence, but so what? Active kids have wrestling matches with friends, or help someone pull a tooth and get a little blood on their clothes here or there. At the time, it didn’t seem important to run it down. Your parents had both been killed, and you weren’t available for questioning. You were hospitalized for some time with depression, if I understand correctly.”
“For two months, yes.”
“And then you lived with your aunt and uncle in Tulsa?”
“That’s right. Until I went to college.”
“Family is important, isn’t it? They’d do anything for you; you’d do anything for them.”
“Thing is, I had the lab compare the DNA in those blood spots on your jeans with Randall Burton’s DNA, and the results came back last night as matching. Your brother was away at camp like you told me he was. You were home, and somehow you got Randall Burton’s blood on your jeans. You killed Burton with your dad’s pistol. There’s no other possible explanation,” Eccles said.
I thought about what he’d just said. “Since you haven’t read me my rights, I assume you’re not charging me with anything. At least not right away.”
“Not right away,” Eccles said. “So now that there’s no doubt about what happened that day, how about you answer a few questions honestly. Off the record?”
“All right. Off the record.”
“You told me that your parents were at the kitchen table looking at paperwork when you left the house that day, right?”
“Well, there’s no record of any paperwork being found in the kitchen. Whoever was with Burton must have collected it before he left the house.”
“Doesn’t that imply that Peck was cleaning up the evidence trail between him and my parents?”
“It does to me, but it doesn’t prove that’s the case.”
“You’re going to let Peck slide, aren’t you?”
“Hold your horses. Burton must have come in a car. What was he driving?”
“A black Dodge Charger. I think it was a ‘69.”
“You’re absolutely sure that’s the kind of car and the year?”
“I know cars,” I said. “I’m sure.”
“There’s no record of that car being there when the police came.”
“It was in the driveway when Burton saw me and chased me to the well. When I came back to the house, the Charger was gone.”
“So someone else drove it away, along with the accounting paperwork for your father’s business.”
“Right,” I said.
“Possibly Peck,” Eccles said.
“Seems right,” I said.
“I might just look into that,” Eccles said. “Did you see anyone besides Burton?”
“No. Burton came out of the house and walked over to the passenger side of the car like he was going to get in. Then he saw me and pulled his gun. I ran like hell and he started shooting. I didn’t see anyone else.”
“There’s a reason we’re having this conversation in private.”
“I could charge you with obstruction of justice or concealing evidence of a homicide, but I think it would be difficult to convict you since you were twelve years old when it happened. Also, Randall Burton was a major league asshole. This guy liked to hurt people for fun. My guess is that you’d probably get a parade in Oklahoma if your story became public. Hell, you’d be a hero in many people’s eyes. Of course, not in Anthony Peck’s eyes. He’d find a way to make you disappear, or possibly have you slaughtered in a public place. And then I’d be the bad guy. It would be my fault that you were killed, since I prosecuted you for doing something heroic and brought Peck down on your head.”
“It sounds like you’re on the horns of a dilemma.”
Eccles nodded slowly. “Well, part two of this conversation is where things get a little tricky. I’ve been trying to understand your relationship with a Federal Marshal connected with the witness security program named Eric Fullmeyer. I gather that you’re not in the witness security program, but Eric reached out to OKC police when he saw us starting to put out feelers to track you down. That seemed odd to me, so I did a little asking around. I have a good friend in the marshal’s service, and he told me – completely off the record and under no circumstances would he testify to it in court – that Eric relocated you at his personal expense to keep an El Paso cartel from turning you into ground beef. My friend also said that the rumor is that the cartel found you anyway and kidnapped your girlfriend. Apparently before it was all over, you snuffed a dozen cartel people, including several professional killers. After that, you took down the head of the cartel itself. Some dude named Marco who got barbecued in an airplane crash in El Paso. Brand new airplane, in fact. Seems the gas tanks had sand in ‘em.”
Eccles chuckled and smiled. He looked at the ocean and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Excuse my French,” Eccles said. “But as far as I can tell, you are some kind of God damned killing machine. When we first met, I could tell you were a hothead, but I had no idea who or what I was dealing with.”
“You still don’t,” I said.
“Well, that’s true,” he said. “That’s true enough. But I know more than I did when we first met, don’t I? Let me just say that if what my friend told me about you and the cartel is true, I don’t feel sorry for those people, and I’m not surprised the feds didn’t came after you. You did the feds a favor, right? People like that ruin whole communities with their drug trafficking, extortion, and worse. However, if I don’t charge you, knowing what I know now, and then you cut Anthony Peck in half with a chainsaw, I’m on the hook for that, aren’t I? This Peck, as bad as he is, is pretty well known. Ordinarily I’d say that no pissed-off vigilante would stand a chance going up against Peck’s security people, but in this case, I think Peck should be worried. I assume you’re planning to do something spectacular like feeding him to scorpions, or painting him with magnesium powder and turning him into a human sparkler. Something like you’d see in a James Bond film. You seem like you have a flair for that sort of thing and you’ve had twenty years to think about how you’d like to get even. I could really get hurt if you do that and I didn’t even try to stop it. Because now I’m absolutely certain that you killed Burton. And I’m absolutely certain that Burton killed your parents.”
“I see your point,” I said.
“I hope that you do,” Eccles said. “So here is the deal I’m offering you. You leave Peck alone and I won’t charge you with concealing evidence of a homicide on Burton. You have my word.”
“Suppose I decide to go after Peck anyway?”
“Anything happens to Peck, I’ll charge you the next day and say I was building a case against you. When your name gets made public, God help you.”
“And if Peck comes after me?” I asked. “Seems likely that he will, since he asked about me when you interviewed him.”
“If you can prove self-defense, you’ll never hear from me again. In practical terms, I would be prepared to disappear, though,” Eccles said. “If you take Peck down, you’ll feel more heat than a branding iron at a round-up.”
“Did that colorful metaphor come from your boss, too?” I asked.
“No. That one is entirely of my own making.”
“So I’m supposed to wait for Peck to come after me, then if I defend myself I should be prepared to disappear. Wouldn’t it make more sense to just disappear now?”
“I sure as hell would,” Eccles said. “Peck is probably on the war path, and his crew is a lot bigger than yours.” He wiped the sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand.
I didn’t say anything.
“I’m heading back now,” he said. “I think I’m getting sunburned. I do hope you’ll take my advice.”
Eccles turned and started back down the beach towards his car. I leaned against the smooth surface of the driftwood log and considered my options.
After a while I followed Eccles down the beach. He had a quarter mile head start on me, and while I walked faster than he did, he still made it to his car and left the parking lot before I exited the beach. The shadow of the bald eagle crossed my path as I walked up the zigzag road to my house. I guess it was feeding time for the eagle, and possibly for Peck, too.
When I reached my house, Sandy was drinking coffee at the kitchen table and looking at a small laptop computer. She peered at the computer screen through half-moon shaped reading glasses and wore white cotton shorts and a pink blouse that looked like it was made of silk. I walked over to the kitchen table and stood by Sandy’s chair. She was reading a story on her computer about Peck building the casino in Newport.
“Who’s your friend?” Sandy asked. “I was on the deck a minute ago and saw you following him down the beach. He looks like a cop.”
“That’s Detective Eccles. He’s investigating what happened to Randall Burton and my parents.”
“He didn’t put handcuffs on you. That seems like a plus.”
“He’s got me cold on the Burton thing. He says he’ll leave me alone if I leave Peck alone.”
“Because Eccles doesn’t want to prosecute someone who was twelve years old when he defended himself against a professional killer. And he doesn’t want me to go after Peck, because it would create problems if it surfaced later that Eccles knew I’d killed one of Peck’s thugs and he didn’t try to keep me from going after Peck, too.”
“What a mess,” Sandy said.
“You don’t seem too worried.”
“People keep telling me that. It’s making me think I should worry more.”
“You seem very Zen, Sandy,” I said. “I notice that you’re not taking pills to cope any more.”
“Those pills were artificial shortcuts that I used to cover the sadness I felt about my career and my self image. I’m trying to find better ways to be at peace with myself.”
“That sounds like something a person in therapy would say,” I said.
“Right as rain. Still true though.”
“So what’s your alternative?”
“Well, I exercise more, pay attention to my diet, no pills, and don’t drink so much. I also stopped letting people, particularly men, take advantage of me.”
“It’s hard to imagine any man taking advantage of you,” I said.
Sandy looked at me over the tops of her reading glasses. “Plenty of people put up a front like they’re strong and independent, but they’re really pushovers,” Sandy said. “And then they hate themselves afterwards.”
I thought about that for a moment.
“Seriously,” she said. “I wanted to be liked so much that if you’d made a pass at me before, I wouldn’t have been able to say ‘yes’ fast enough.”
“I’m kicking myself mentally,” I said.
“You’d have to try a whole lot harder now,” she said. “I’m much more discriminating than I used to be.”
“Seems well worth the effort to try.”
“You bet it is.”
“Well, whatever you’re doing agrees with you,” I said. “You have an inner glow and seem cool as a cucumber. Maybe you should write a self-help book.”
“I’ll give that some thought. Now that I’ve got my affirmation out of the way, what are you doing for the rest of the day?”
“Eric asked me to check on a lady in WITSEC who’s convinced she was being watched. I’ve been following her around and keeping an eye on her house for a while and haven’t seen anything. I was going over to tell her that I think she probably doesn’t have anything to worry about.”
“Can I come? Since I need to watch your back and all.”
“Are the seats in your convertible big enough for my bustle?”
“The seats will coddle your bustle like a Fabergé egg,” I said.
She stood up from the kitchen table and looked at me across the short space that separated us.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say that you’re obsessed with my bustle,” she said. I noticed that she’d applied mascara that highlighted the blue of her eyes.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s an obsession,” I said. “At least, it’s not an obsession that’s crippled me yet.”
“My bustle is off-limits to you, mister,” she said. “I have standards.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
She nodded once. “See that you do,” she said.
She turned and walked through the living room. Then she stood at the doorway to her bedroom and looked back at me as if she were thinking of saying something, maybe something important, but then she didn’t say anything at all. She looked down for a moment before going into the bedroom and quietly closing the door.
I got the thirty-eight special out of the nightstand in my bedroom and then waited by the big picture window for Sandy to come back to the kitchen. I looked past the asphalt-tiled rooftops of my downhill neighbors at the dark green ocean and the foamy surf at the base of the bird sanctuary. I saw a pair of elderly tourists get folding beach chairs out of the trunk of a car in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill and then hold hands as they walked down to the beach. I watched people stand patiently in line outside the entrance to Josephine’s restaurant. They were talking and laughing, occasionally waving their hands in an animated way. I felt the jarring mental sensation that comes along with preparing for war within sight of other people who are on vacation. You feel as if you are simultaneously living in two different worlds, and not for the better.
Sandy came out of her bedroom. She’d put on a pair of tennis shoes whose color matched her shorts, and she was carrying the same lethal-looking weapon she’d had when she was doing her workout in the living room: a Mossberg 500 pump-action shotgun with a pistol grip attachment. She toted the gun as casually as if it were a sack of groceries.
“You strapped?” she asked me.
I lifted my tee shirt to show the handle of the gun in my waistband.
“You gotta be pretty close to hit anything with a barrel that short,” she said.
“I’m pretty accurate out to fifty feet or so. It just feels right in my hand.”
She shrugged. “To each his own,” she said.
My cell phone buzzed. I didn’t recognize the number.
“It’s Anthony Peck. Is this Delorean Harper?”
“We need to talk,” he said. “I’m sending a car for you. It should be there soon.” I don’t know what I’d been expecting his voice to sound like, but it had an Oklahoma drawl to it. When he said the word ‘talk’ it sounded like ‘tawk.’
“We’re talking now,” I said. “What do you want?”
“We need to talk in person,” he said.
“Really? Why’s that?”
“Some business is best done face to face.”
“I have an idea,” I said. “There’s a police station in Tillamook. Meet me in the lobby in an hour. Of course, if you’re too much of a coward to meet me there, I understand.”
“That’s a pretty salty thing to say,” Peck said.
“If you don’t like the police station, they have amateur cage fights in Newport on Saturday night. That’s your home turf, right? You want to step into the ring with me, we can talk all you want. Of course, if you’re too much of a coward, I understand.”
“You keep the attitude up and I’m going to burn you down,” Peck said.
I heard Sandy say “Is everything okay?”
“That won’t happen,” I said. “You were with Randall Burton when he killed my parents, right? He was working for you and that was your car in the driveway, wasn’t it?”
“I’d be very careful about making accusations like that,” he said. “I’ll have you in front of a judge if you say that in public.”
“No you won’t,” I replied, “because my claim would become part of the public record, you could be forced to testify, and the state gaming commission would take an interest. That won’t play well with your investors.”
“Let me make myself clear,” he said. “You make trouble for me about this Burton thing, you’ll wish you were never born.” He said the word ‘born’ like ‘bone.’
I surprised myself by actually laughing out loud.
“Are you threatening me, Anthony?” I asked.
“I repeat, if you make trouble for me I’ll hunt you down and make you pay,” he said. “Believe it.”
“Bring it, then,” I said. I killed the connection.
I let out a big breath.
“Was that Peck?” Sandy asked.
“What did he want?”
“He wanted a face-to-face meeting and said he’s sending a car to pick me up. I don’t see how I can be around him without it getting physical. I wanted to reach through the phone and tear his throat out.”
“I heard. I think you should avoid him,” Sandy said. “Eric said that Peck’s a pretty big deal. Could be a career-ender.”
I laughed. “Career? What career?”
“I just mean that Peck’s organization is like an octopus, and a lot of it is legitimate. You go after him and the feds won’t look the other way. It would be like taking down a crooked governor. There’d be so much heat that the police would have to do something even if they’re actually glad he’s gone.”
“Probably true,” I said.
“I don’t think you’re going to be able to avoid him, though,” she said.
“You insulted him, and you challenged him to make good on his threats. He’s not going to take that lying down.”
“Neither am I, and now he knows that. I wanted him to think twice about bothering me.”
“The irresistible force and the immovable object,” Sandy said.
“Are you saying that you think I’m irresistible?” I said. I smiled.
“If I thought it, I’d never admit it,” Sandy said. “You’re hard enough to live with as it is.”
We went out to the Mustang. Sandy put her gun on the back seat and covered it with a dark towel. We’d driven about three miles and were in the small beach community of Netarts when a black SUV went by in the opposite direction. Sandy twisted in her seat to watch them as they went by.
“That car did a U-turn after we went past,” Sandy said. “Looks like Peck kept his word.”
“What’s the plan?” she asked.
“I don’t want them to follow us to Emily’s house. I’m going to a bar.”
“There are a few bars in Tillamook. Let’s pick one, go inside, and see if they follow us in. It’s a public place, so there’s a better chance that they’ll keep it civil.”
“You sure about this?”
“I’m sure. I don’t want these people to know where Emily French’s house is, and I don’t want a confrontation with no witnesses, either.”
We headed for the Ocean’s End bar on Third Street.
As we approached the parking lot for the bar, Sandy turned in her seat to look out the back window. “They’re still back there,” she said.
“Like we thought they’d be.”
“Aren’t you worried about civilian casualties?” she asked. “This could get ugly.”
“We’re leaving the guns in the car,” I said.
“What if they don’t?”
“You may have to unleash the bustle.”
“I thought you said that you weren’t obsessed with my bustle.”
“I’m trying my best to stay strong,” I said.
We parked the Mustang by backing into a parking place so the nose of the car was pointing out. Sandy had a black satin handbag in the back seat and reached for it after she got out. I tucked the thirty-eight special under the floor mat before I left the car.
Sandy slid her arm through mine as we walked towards the bar. When her purse bumped against my hip I felt something hard.
“What have you got in your purse?” I asked.
“Play your cards right and you might find out,” she said.
“Something to look forward to.”
Sandy took a quick look over her shoulder as I opened the door to the bar. She said “The Suburban that’s been following us just pulled into the parking lot.”
It was a warm, sunny day, but it was cool and dimly lit in the bar. The place smelled faintly of cigarettes, beer, and cedar. The room was rectangle-shaped, with an oak bar running the length of one long wall. There was heavy wool carpeting on the floor, faded grey wood paneling, and circular padded booths against the walls. Between the bar and the booths there were a half dozen oak tables, each with four chairs. None of the tables had anyone sitting at them. There was an unused pool table against the far wall with a light hanging over the table that advertised Rainier beer in stained glass lettering. At the end of the bar near the pool table, two large men dressed in construction worker’s clothing and baseball caps watched football on a flat screen mounted high on the wall. Joe Namath and the New York Jets were playing the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl Three. The video had the kind of grainy quality and washed-out color you’d expect from forty years in the past.
The two construction workers glanced at Sandy and then looked at each other as if they’d just seen a movie star. Sandy and I took seats on round, rotating barstools just a few steps from the door. She had her purse on her lap and was turned to the right so she could see who followed us in. I was facing left, so I had a view of Sandy and the two construction workers.
The bartender was a tall, heavyset man with thinning grey hair and a full beard. He wore a white, long sleeved shirt with black pants and had red suspenders stretched tight across the substantial girth of his stomach. He came over and placed cardboard drink coasters on the oak bar top in front of us. I watched the two men who’d followed us inside take a table about a dozen feet from where we sat.
“What can I get for you and your lady friend?” the bartender asked. His name tag said “Jerry.”
Stout beer was on tap and I ordered one. Sandy said “Jerry, I am overheated. I need the coldest, driest martini you can make.” Then she gave him a big smile. She didn’t smile often, but when she did it was dazzling.
The bartender’s eyes swelled as if someone had hooked a bicycle pump to them. Then he smiled back at Sandy before turning away to get her drink started.
“Are you trying to give the bartender a heart attack?” I asked. “I saw the smile you gave him.”
“Not yet,” she said. Then she reached up with her thumb and index finger and popped the top button on her blouse. Several inches of cleavage appeared.
“Abracadabra,” I said.
“Hocus Pocus,” she replied. “The tool bags who followed us in here look like they probably carry most of their brains in their pants. I thought I’d see if I could control their tiny minds with my anatomy.”
I couldn’t help but laugh.
Sandy shifted her position on her barstool so that her knees pressed against both sides of one of my legs. Then she rested one hand on my thigh as she reached into her purse.
“The drinks are on me,” she said, and she slapped a money clip down on the bar. She raised her voice and said “Jerry, I’d like to buy a round for the gents at the end of the bar, too.”
The two workmen raised their glasses off the bar in a salute of appreciation. The one sitting closer to us had a week’s growth of reddish beard. He looked our way, nodded his head, and then smiled. I nodded back, and he turned his attention back to the football game.
The bartender put our drinks on the coasters, sat a polished stainless bowl of party mix on the countertop in front of Sandy and me, and then he went over to get refills for the two workmen.
At that point, the two who’d followed us inside got up from their table. They could have been coming over to talk to the bartender, but I didn’t think so. They were tall, lean, and solidly built mid-thirties dudes with straight postures. They had short haircuts, black shoes with rubber soles under their jeans, and pressed white dress shirts worn untucked. One looked Eastern European, with black hair trimmed to a short ducktail in back and formed to a point over his forehead like the prow of a boat. He had eyebrows that nearly met in the middle over his nose and had a tattoo on the outside of his right forearm that looked like a skull head attached to a dagger. The other guy had pockmarked facial skin, blond hair shaved completely off the sides of his head with half an inch left on top, and a thin-lipped mouth that made him look a bit frog-like. Both men seemed relaxed, and had their hands hanging loose at their sides as they strolled over. Sandy picked up her drink with one hand and slid her free hand inside her purse again.
The two of them stood close to Sandy and me, as if they didn’t want our conversation to be overheard, or maybe they just wanted to pin us against the bar so we couldn’t run away. They were definitely invading our space. I could have reached out and touched the one with the big eyebrows.
The one with frog lips talked first. “Mr. Peck wants to talk to you,” he said. He jutted his chin towards me. His voice was high-pitched and seemed out of place in someone his size. The one with the big eyebrows changed his stance slightly so that he could watch the door and the workmen at the other end of the bar at the same time.
I shrugged and took another sip of my beer. It tasted of caramel, cocoa, coffee, and brown sugar. Just right for a summer afternoon.
“Mr. Peck already talked to me,” I said. “Just a few minutes ago. Didn’t he tell you?”
Frog Lips and Eyebrows looked at each other briefly. Frog Lips said “I’ll go check that.”
“See that you do, Kermit,” I said.
Frog Lips gave me a hard look, and then the two of them went back over to their table. I saw the one with the big eyebrows get out his cellphone.
Sandy said “You know they’re going to be back in a couple minutes.”
“I know,” I said. “I wanted time to finish my beer before we rumble.”
Sandy said. “This isn’t West Side Story, Del.”
“Wasn’t it the Jets and the Sharks in West Side Story?” I said. “By coincidence, the Jets are on the flat screen over the bar. Maybe that means we’re the Sharks.”
“God, you’re strange,” Sandy said. She shook her head, smiled a little, and drank some of her martini.
“Strange but likable,” I said. “How’s the mind control experiment on the two tool bags going?” I asked. “They seem to be staying on task so far.”
“It’s only a matter of time,” Sandy said. “I may have to unleash the bustle.”
“No man can withstand the power of the bustle,” I said. “Have mercy.”
“I’ll hold off on the bustle for now,” Sandy said. “If you insist.” Then she popped the next button on her blouse. Unrestrained by the silk blouse, her chest swelled visibly to devastating effect. Another couple inches of cleavage materialized above the shiny white fabric on her push-up brassiere.
I thumped myself in the chest and coughed as if I’d inhaled smoke.
“I thought you were immune to my charms,” she said.
“Like a rock,” I replied.
“Oh?” she said, cocking one eyebrow. “I may have to unleash the bustle after all, then. That brass pole at the end of the bar looks inviting. I can see if Jerry would mind some gymnastics.”
I looked into her blue eyes and saw ribald humor, intelligence, and fearlessness all mixed together.
“You’re one of a kind,” I said. “I mean that.”
“It’s about time you noticed,” she said. “Shame that I practically had to strip to get your attention.”
“I’m suffering here, too,” I deadpanned. “Against the onslaught of your ripe and overwhelming beauty.”
“Ripe and overwhelming? Are you saying I’m fat?”
I shook my head. “You’re a tidal wave of feminine charm.”
I took several long pulls on my beer and then put the empty glass down on the countertop. I waved over the bartender, who’d been watching the football game at the far end of the counter.
The bartender was one of those men who looked fat at first glance but was probably strong as an ox. His arms looked suitable for moving pianos around. I held up my beer glass and said “Could I get another of these, please?”
“Absolutely,” he said. “Anything else for the lady?”
“Would her ladyship like another martini?” I asked.
Sandy batted her eyelashes at Jerry. “Jerry,” she said. “Your martinis are so good that I’m still savoring this one. Maybe another couple minutes.” Then she gave him a wink. Jerry took a furtive look at Sandy’s décolletage before smiling the big smile and going over to the pump to refill my beer.
“I think your mind control experiment is working,” I said. “Jerry is smitten.”
Sandy took another taste of her martini. She held one pinkie away from the stem of her glass as if she were at a tea party for royalty.
“I’d rather be looked over than overlooked,” she said.
“Mae West said that, right?”
“How’s your drink?” I asked.
“It’s actually excellent,” she said.
The two men got up from their table and came back over, resuming the positions they’d had before.
“You got to come with us,” the one with the frog lips said. I ignored him.
The bartender came back with my beer.
“Are these two bothering you?” the bartender said.
I looked at Frog Lips. “Are you bothering me?” I said. “Yeah. You are. Everything about you offends me.”
At that point, the one with the big eyebrows turned to look at me. Then Sandy took in a big breath and held it, straining both the brassiere and the fabric on her shirt to the breaking point.
I heard the one with the eyebrows say “God,” under his breath. It sounded like he said “Gott.”
“This is no joke. You have to come with us,” Frog Lips said.
“Are you deaf, Kermit?” I asked. “Do I need to use sign language to communicate with you? Beat it.”
“Mister Anthony Peck wants to have a conversation with you,” Frog Lips said. “It’s going to happen.”
“Could be,” I said. “But not today, and not because you’re giving orders. Go back to your boss and tell him that I said his best option is to back off. Yours, too, for that matter.”
The bartender had a deep voice. He pointed at the two men and said “You two either order something to drink and sit down, or both of you get the hell out. Stop bothering the other customers. You hear me?”
Frog Lips gave the bartender a hard look and then met my stare head-on. He laughed mirthlessly. “Don’t threaten me, and don’t threaten Mister Peck, either.” At that point the one with the eyebrows shifted his feet to face Sandy and me directly, like he wanted to be able to throw a punch without turning his body first.
“Did your mother wean you off breastfeeding too early?” Sandy said loudly enough to be heard throughout the bar. “Is that why you won’t stop staring at my boobs?”
“I thought it was advertising,” the one with the eyebrows said. “You’re a working girl, right?”
The bartender turned around and bent over as if he was reaching for something under the cash register. I clenched the rim of the metal party mix bowl in my fist.
Sandy screamed “Get your hands off me!” and threw her martini in the face of Frog Lips. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the two workmen come off of their stools.
Eyebrows’ hand moved for something behind his back. I pivoted on the stool and swung the metal bowl at the side of his head as hard as I could. Party mix flew, and the bowl made a loud, hollow, gonging sound when I made contact. I felt the impact all the way up my arm and into my neck. Eyebrows staggered back, dropped a folding knife, and put his hands to his face like he was trying to keep the contents of his head from exploding.
I saw Sandy’s hand come out of her purse, and she popped Frog Lips squarely in the crotch. He grunted and bent at the waist as Sandy came off her barstool, brass knuckles shining on her right hand.
The two workmen plowed through the oak tables and chairs that blocked their path to Sandy, sending furniture flying out of the way as they came to join the fray.
I jumped off my barstool, too, took a quick step, and stomp-kicked Eyebrows in the sternum, putting the force of all my momentum into the heel of my right foot. He slammed into the cedar-paneled wall behind him and stayed there as if he’d been nailed to the wood.
Sandy stepped forward as she threw her second punch and hit Frog Lips in the mouth. The two workmen arrived as Frog Lips staggered back, slamming him to the ground like linemen taking down a quarterback. Then the workmen started raining blows on him.
The bartender slapped a baseball bat onto the countertop. The bat made a sound like a gunshot when it struck the oak bar top.
We all froze. Then the bartender lifted the bat off the countertop and pointed it at the two workmen.
“Y’all stop,” he said. “These two probably needed a beating, but you’ve already given ‘em that, and you ain’t killin’ ‘em in my bar. Everyone who can walk, get out now. I’ll call an ambulance for the rest.”
The workmen pushed off against Frog Lips’ flattened form and got to their feet. Sandy buttoned her shirt, pulled a stack of twenties from the money clip, and left the bills on the bar top.
“See you around, Jerry,” she said.
“I hope so, Ma’am,” he said.
“See you boys,” she said. The workmen, chests still heaving from the effort of beating the hell out of Frog Lips, just nodded.
The black SUV that had followed us was parked next to our car in the parking lot. Sandy took a thumb-sized can from her purse and sprayed red paint on the driver’s side of the windshield until it was opaque.
“I don’t think either of those guys is going to be driving anytime soon,” I said. “Or walking, either.”
“I know that,” she said. “I just created one more problem for them to deal with. They’ll have to tow it.”
“Is there anything that purse doesn’t have in it?” I asked.
“A love letter from Brad Pitt,” she said.
“You were pretty quick with that,” I said. “Funny.”
We got back into the Mustang. I started the engine but didn’t pull out. We were both keyed up from what had happened in the bar.
“You rattled those guys, Sandy,” I said. “You had them off-balance and got the bartender and customers on our side. Nice work.”
She seemed a little sad. “Yeah. It worked. Guys like staring at my skin. Doesn’t have much to do with what kind of person I am, and nothing to do with having a relationship with me.”
“I think the guy with the eyebrows wanted a relationship,” I said.
“I mean a constructive relationship,” Sandy said. “Not just animal lust.”
“Some men may be too daunted by your presence to think clearly,” I said. “Particularly when you do your mind control trick.”
I put it in gear, took a right, and we headed south towards Emily’s house.
“You’re talking about men’s brains being in their pants?” Sandy asked.
“It’s biology,” I said. “Ultimately, the goal for each of us is to procreate and keep the species going. When a guy sees a woman as attractive as you, he can’t help himself. All the higher level thinking goes out the door. He just isn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate the specialness of your whole package.”
“Uh huh. Sounds like you’re saying I’m too attractive for my own good. I should tone it down so the caveman can keep his wits about him.”
“In a way. Some guys might also think you’re too selective to choose them because your looks give you that advantage. They might not even try to talk to you.”
“Would you ever say that a guy is too attractive for his own good?”
“No. I don’t think that I would.”
“Even if it made him a magnet for every woman, however undesirable she might be?”
“Even then. Most guys would consider that a plus. Biologically speaking, it’s like winning the lottery. A smorgasbord of opportunities to continue the genetic lineage.”
“So it’s a double standard, then.”
“Biologically speaking, procreation means different things for women and men. For the woman, she wants the healthiest and best provider she can find to help raise the child. For the man, the thinking can be much more short term.”
“You’re telling me. The shorter the better for most of them.”
“I’m just saying that the first thing a guy is going to think when he sees you is that you’re beautiful and obviously extremely fit. Maybe he’s intimidated, maybe not. But he can’t know what a special lady you are until he talks to you and finds out how smart and funny and brave you are.”
“Are you sweet talking me now?”
“And finds out that you have brass knuckles and a riot gun.”
“Meaning nothing. Some guys would definitely find that a turn-on. Guys who wear camouflage pants and go to gun shows are likely prospects.”
“Okay. Now you’re being a jerk.”
“When you broke that guy’s pelvis with the brass knuckles, I’m going to have to admit, I was pretty aroused. Shocked, yes. But aroused at the same time.”
Sandy held up a raised middle finger.
“You’ve got skills, though,” I said. “Yelling that you were being groped worked quite well.”
“I read the mind of the one with the eyebrows. Another five seconds and I think he would have tried to jump me.”
“No doubt. Without even asking you about your hobbies first.”
“You can be kind of an ass sometimes, you know that?”
“I think that’s what Anthony Peck said on the phone. I’m detecting a recurring theme here.”
I turned onto Stillwater Avenue and noticed that Sandy’s expression seemed sour.
“Did I offend you?” I asked.
“No,” Sandy said. “Not really. Which one’s hers?”
“Down on the end. The grey and white one on the left.” Emily’s Buick was parked in the gravel driveway beside the house.
I pulled to the curb on the opposite side of the street from Emily’s craftsman style home.
“How long do you think it will be before Peck sends more troops out with butterfly nets to collect you?” Sandy asked. “Since you were crazy enough to beat one of his people with a bowl of party mix.”
“A few days or less,” I said. “They could be on their way now, for all I know.”
“You just upped the ante,” Sandy said. “After what happened in the bar, Peck’s going to want to take you off at the knees.”
I shrugged. “I’ve been thinking about getting even with him since I was twelve years old,” I said. “I’ve gotta start somewhere.”
Sandy looked at me and said “Half measures would make Peck look bad to his people.”
“I know. My guess is that he’ll send about a bigger crew, and he might come himself, too.”
“What’s the strategy?”
“Have you ever been to Newport?” I asked.
“Where Peck’s building the casino?”
“Right. Peck’s using other people’s money to build the casino. They wouldn’t like it if there were problems with the construction.”
“What kind of problems?” Sandy asked.
“The casino sits on a giant concrete pier. Electrical, water, sewage, gas, everything goes in and out of the casino on pipes on the underside of the pier. It wouldn’t take much of a problem for the Newport city council to reconsider the building permit. Anything environmental or structural would stop it in its tracks.”
“And that would happen how?”
“I haven’t worked it out yet. Maybe it doesn’t have to actually happen. Maybe it just needs to be leaked to the press or inspectors that there are problems with the design that Peck’s hiding. His people wouldn’t like that since everything related to the construction would stop while there’s an investigation. Just have a steady stream of issues with the casino that stall the building process, and his financial backers would go on the attack. They don’t get their money back unless the place opens and stays full of gamblers.”
“Wouldn’t it be easier to just blow the entire casino up?” Sandy asked. “Peck’s backers would be furious if that happened.”
“True. It’s also four stories of concrete and steel, with a whole lot of people working on it around the clock. You’d need a mountain of explosives to take it down, and a lot of innocent people would get hurt in the process.”
Sandy said “Do you really think that there’s time to put pressure on Peck through problems at the casino? I expect a knee-jerk reaction from him for what you said on the phone and what just happened in the bar. A few days, tops, he’s going to want to make a statement that shows his people that he can’t be jerked around by a nobody like you.”
“You’re right. My best guess is that Peck will come after me as soon as he can organize a hunting party.”
Sandy said “Suppose Peck disappeared?”
“What do you mean?”
“Suppose we make it look like he did a bunk. Leave a note about the pressure of building the casino being too much, and take him for a swim tied to a hundred pound bag of sand.”
“How do we pull that off?” I asked.
“Don’t know. I like the idea, though.”
“Keep thinking about it. It has some merit,” I said.
We sat quietly in the car and looked at the neighborhood through the windshield. At that moment, I wished that I worked at the cheese factory with Emily and had never crossed paths with Peck’s henchman when I was twelve years old.
“Do you want me to come inside with you?” Sandy asked.
“Sure. Are you afraid of dogs?”
“She has a Doberman that goes berserk when strangers come.”
Sandy shrugged. “Some dogs just don’t like men,” she said. “The smarter breeds, anyway.” Then she pulled down her sun visor down and looked at herself in the vanity mirror. She carefully applied lipstick and adjusted her blouse slightly. “Okay,” she said. “I’m ready.”
We got out of the car and walked across the street. I left my pistol in the glovebox. Sandy carried her purse.
I rang the doorbell and heard the dog start to bark. Emily came to the living room window to see who was there. Then the sound of dog barking receded and was muffled. The front door opened.
Emily was wearing a knee length blue skirt, a plaid green and blue sleeveless top, and had pulled her blond hair back with a red bandanna.
“Hi,” Emily said.
“This is Sandy,” I said. “She’s a friend of mine and also a friend of Marshal Fullmeyer’s.”
Emily held out her hand, and she and Sandy shook hands.
“I just wanted to check in with you to see how it’s going,” I said.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Emily said. “Come on in.”
The sound of the dog barking increased from behind the kitchen door.
“Sorry,” Emily said.
“Del tells me you have a Doberman,” Sandy said.
“I do. She’s very protective. Anytime someone comes to the door she goes nuts.”
“Maybe it’s fear aggression,” Sandy said. “How about Del and I sit on the sofa? You let her out. She’ll see that we’re not a threat and will stop going crazy in the kitchen.”
“She’s so protective that I honestly think she might bite you both,” Emily said. “Let me move her to the bedroom and we can talk in the kitchen. I’m making dinner.”
Emily got the leash and relocated the dog to the bedroom. Then the three of us went into the kitchen. Emily asked if we wanted a glass of wine. We said that we did, and she poured some chardonnay into inexpensive glasses. She had a take-and-bake pizza wrapper on the counter. The smell of baking pizza dough filled the small kitchen.
My wrist joint on my right hand ached from what had happened in the bar, so I asked Emily if she had a plastic bag that I could fill with ice. I told her that I’d twisted my wrist.
Emily found an empty bread sack and emptied an ice tray into it. She handed the bread sack to me and asked if I wanted an aspirin. I said that the ice was enough for the time being.
I took my wine glass and the bag of ice out onto the back porch. I wanted the chance to clear my head, and while I was outside I used the opportunity to look at the back yard again. On the back porch there was a folding aluminum chair covered with yellow canvas fabric, a pair of stainless steel dog bowls for food and water, and a stylish foldable table barely big enough to put a paperback book on. The yard was about twenty feet deep, square-shaped, and enclosed by a wooden fence six feet tall. I walked around the perimeter of the yard and didn’t see any new evidence of grass flattened by someone jumping the fence. There was a gate on the east side of the house that allowed access between the back yard and the front. The latch on the gate looked intact, but there was enough of a gap between the wooden slats on the gate that someone could use a screwdriver or knife to lift the latch from the street side of the gate. Putting a lock on the latch would make it more complicated to get between the front and back yard, but would make the back yard a little safer. Given the circumstances, a lock on the gate seemed worthwhile. I’d have to remember to talk to Emily about that.
I tightened the ice bag against my wrist, walked over to the back porch, and sat on the steps. Dusk settled over the neighborhood. Emily and Sandy’s voices carried through the screen door that opened onto the porch, and they seemed to be enjoying each other’s company. Then Sandy said something in a low voice and I heard them both erupt with laughter. It felt good to hear them laugh. High point of the day, in fact.
Emily opened the screen door and said “Dinner will be ready in a minute. I hope your hand’s okay.”
“No worries,” I said. When I came into the kitchen, I emptied the bag of ice into the sink and put the bag in the trash can. We all sat down at the kitchen table.
“Something kind of strange happened today,” Emily said.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Remember how you said I should listen to my inner voice when it tells me I’m in danger?”
“When I went out to my car this morning, I had that feeling of being watched again. But I looked up and down the block and didn’t see anything. By the time I got to work I felt okay again, like I’d just imagined it. Work was okay, but when I walked out to my car in the parking lot, I had the feeling I was being watched again. For sure.”
Sandy said. “Seriously? But I thought Del said you’d been feeling safe.”
I said “I’m sorry I wasn’t there, Emily. Did you feel like you were followed home?”
“No. I actually felt okay once I left the parking lot. I didn’t see anyone following me in traffic, and everything was all right when I got home. The dog seemed fine, too.”
The timer on the oven buzzed, and she used a pair of fabric oven mitts to get the pizza plate out of the oven. The pizza was Hawaiian style, with Canadian bacon and pineapple. She used a pizza cutter to cut slices onto plates for each of us.
“Do you have a gun?” I asked.
“I do, but I can’t take it onto the property at work. I could lose my job.”
“But you have it when you’re at home,” Sandy said.
I was sitting across the table from Sandy and Emily, and I was struck by how similar they were in appearance to each other. They were nearly the same height and had similar figures. Sandy was more muscular and her hair was shorter, but from a distance you might not be able to tell them apart.
“I have an idea,” I said.
“Always a dangerous thing in your case,” Sandy said.
I looked at Emily. “Do you have to go to work this weekend?”
“No. It’s just Monday through Friday.”
“Sandy, would you be willing to switch places with Emily for a day or two? You’re a trained observer. I think you two could pass for each other if someone didn’t look too closely. If Emily’s right and she’s being followed, maybe you’d spot something she couldn’t.”
“Seriously?” Emily asked. “You mean you want Sandy to live here this weekend? What am I supposed to do?”
“You’d stay with me over at Oceanside, like Sandy’s doing now.”
“What about the dog?” Emily said. “She’s going to notice the difference.”
“Emily, if you can introduce Sandy to the dog, and she sees that Sandy’s no threat, maybe she’ll be okay with having Sandy here for a couple days. Sandy could drive your car, walk the dog, go to the grocery store, do all the things you usually do. If she doesn’t see anything this weekend, it’s probably nothing. If something comes up, she can handle it.”
Sandy told Emily “I’m game if you are.”
Emily nodded thoughtfully.
“It’s a plan,” I said.
The three of us had a pleasant dinner at the small table in the small kitchen. Emily talked about what she liked about living in Tillamook, having her own house, and working a job where she talked to people all day. She told us that prior to her entry into the witness protection program, her boyfriend had kept her a near-prisoner in their home. Sandy talked about her experiences as a police officer in Alamogordo, and her part time job as a security consultant and problem solver for Eric Fullmeyer.
“And you, Delorean, what do you do when you’re not helping Eric deal with nervous people?”
“A little of this and a little of that,” I said. “I’m underemployed at the moment.”
“It seems to work for you,” Emily said. “You live in a beach house and drive a convertible. I drive a Buick and have a backyard the size of a postage stamp. By the way, have you noticed that sometimes Tillamook smells like a cattle drive?”
I smiled. “Yes, I have,” I said. “It goes with the scenery.”
“It isn’t all glamour and beach bunnies for Delorean,” Sandy said. “A little ‘down time’ is probably in order for him after the last couple of years.”
“Oh. Do you want to talk about that, Delorean?” Emily asked.
“I feel like I’m on a daytime talk show. No, I don’t want to spoil our evening talking about it. I’m happy to sit here and enjoy the company of you two remarkable women.”
“That means he thinks we’re hot,” Sandy said.
“Well, we really kind of are,” Emily laughed. I wondered if she’d been drinking before we arrived and was a little drunk.
“Maybe I should go check on the dog,” I said.
“Don’t run off, Del. Just having a little girl talk here. You can stay, if you behave,” Sandy said. She gave me a theatrical wink.
I rolled my eyes.
“Are you two a couple?” Emily asked. “You seem so comfortable around each other.”
Sandy laughed loudly.
“No, honey. We’re not a couple. We just know each other very, very well. That’s different.”
“I hope I didn’t pry by asking,” Emily said.
“Not at all,” Sandy said. She looked at me dreamily and said “He is pretty attractive, though. It’s not like I haven’t thought about it, believe me.”
At that point I stood from the table. Sandy took my hand in hers. “Bet you’ve thought about it, too, haven’t you Del? Come on. Sit down. Don’t be so sensitive. We’re all grown ups here. You’re a guy. It’s natural to consider such things.”
Sandy said. “Del, she asked if we were a couple because she’s interested in you herself, can’t you tell?”
“What … the … hell?” I said.
“In terms of looks, he’s definitely a step up from most of the guys who come through the ice cream line,” Emily said. “Not sure he’s marriage material, though. Unemployed and all. I’m more interested in someone who’d be the healthiest and best provider I can find to help me raise our love child. It’s my biological imperative.”
I felt my blood pressure rising. “You put her up to this, didn’t you, Sandy?” I asked. “Payback for what I said in the car?”
“Still, he did win the genetic lottery with those looks of his,” Emily said. “Every woman, undesirable or not, is going to want his seed.”
Sandy and Emily both laughed uproariously.
“I may never speak to either of you again,” I said.
“Oh, I think you will,” Sandy said. “You love the attention.”
“You two are like evil twin sisters,” I said.
Sandy stuck her tongue out at me.
At that point I quit talking. Emily and Sandy drank more wine and told stories about terrible dates they’d had.
Eventually it became completely dark outside, and I said it was time for Emily and me to leave.
Emily offered to introduce Sandy to her dog, and Sandy picked up a piece of Canadian bacon from the pizza to take with her as a peace offering. I waited at the kitchen table, expecting to hear fireworks when the dog saw Sandy. There were none.
Fifteen minutes later, Emily and Sandy returned, laughing like they’d shared another private joke. The dog followed them into the kitchen. “Apparently this pup is fond of ladies,” Sandy said. “I gave her a treat and we’re best friends now.”
I took a small piece of bacon off my plate and held it out for the dog. It backed away, growling quietly.
“Smart dog,” Sandy said. “Some men aren’t to be trusted.”
Emily laughed. “Should I be worried?” she asked. “I’m going away for the weekend with a stranger.”
“Take heart,” Sandy said. “He won the genetic lottery.”
At that point I spoke up. “I’m right here. You know I can hear all this.”
Sandy patted the side of my face and pinched my cheek. “We know. Your delicate masculinity has been threatened. You’ll just have to buck up.”
“Oh, you know what?” Emily said. “I need to show you where my clothes are, and everything else.”
Sandy and Emily left the kitchen and went back into Emily’s bedroom.
The dog lay on the floor in front of the sink.
“Looks like it’s just you and me,” I said.
The dog watched me with soulful eyes.
“Do you want a piece of bacon, or not?” I said. I held out a piece of pork out to the dog.
The dog came over to sniff the bacon I held in my fingers. It took the bait from me before going back over to lie down in front of the sink.
A few minutes later, Emily and Sandy came back into the kitchen. Emily had put her hair up in barrettes so that her hair appeared to be the same length as Sandy’s. The two of them had swapped clothing.
“Wow,” I said.
“That’s convenient,” Sandy said. “Everything fits.”
Emily said “Sandy said I can wear the clothes she has at your house in Oceanside, Del. I guess this is going to be okay.”
“Well, you and Emily should get going,” Sandy said.
Sandy took her cell phone, brass knuckles, the spray paint, and a small can of mace from her purse. Emily came back into the kitchen with her sleeping pills, toothbrush, and a silver thirty-two caliber semi-automatic pistol.
“I want you to have this,” Emily said, holding the pistol out towards Sandy. “I think you need it worse than I do.”
“I can get the thirty-eight or the shotgun if you want it,” I said.
“That’s all right,” Sandy said. “I don’t want to draw a lot of attention from the neighbors. I’ll make do with the mace and the brass knucks. A steak knife works, too.”
Sandy handed Emily her purse. “You should take this,” she said. “Someone might be watching.”
Emily slipped her pistol, the sleeping pills, and her toothbrush into Sandy’s purse.
Emily said “I appreciate you taking this chance for me.”
Sandy laughed and said “If you’re right about being followed, don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.”
Sandy and Emily hugged like sisters being sent to different summer camps.
Emily and I walked out the front door to the car. I had the prickling sensation in my neck that told me I was being watched, but I kept walking. I scanned the neighborhood casually when I got around to my side of the car before getting in, but I didn’t see anything unusual. I got behind the steering wheel, Emily climbed in on the passenger side, and I started the engine. As I drove out of the neighborhood, I kept checking Emily’s house in the rear view mirror until I couldn’t see it any more.
“Can I ask you a question?” Emily said.
“Did you feel anything when we were walking to the car? I had that creepy feeling when we left the house. Like I feel at work sometimes, or when I’m in my car.”
“Yeah, I actually did,” I said. “I think something bad is going to happen.”
“What do you mean?”
“I think that someone is watching your house, and if he bothers Sandy this weekend they might never find his body.”
“It depends on how mad he makes her.”
I called Sandy’s number on my cell phone.
“Hello?” she answered.
“Watch yourself this weekend,” I said. “When we were leaving the house, Emily and I both had the feeling that someone was watching us.”
“Anything specific?” Sandy asked.
“I didn’t see anything. It’s just a strong feeling.”
“Thanks for the warning,” she said. “You take care of my new best friend, okay?”
“You got it.”
When we reached Oceanside, I asked Emily to wait while I checked the inside of the house. I lifted Sandy’s riot gun from the back seat and clicked off the safety before I opened the front door.
I went inside and turned on the lights in the kitchen, then went through each room checking under beds, in closets, in the bathroom. Nothing.
When I came back into the kitchen, Emily was standing by the kitchen sink. She had the pearl-handled automatic in her hand with the gun barrel pointed at the floor.
“It’s all fine,” I said. “No concerns.”
Emily slid the pistol back into Sandy’s purse.
“Well,” I said. “Let me show you around.” I leaned Sandy’s shotgun against the sofa.
I showed her where to find dishes, glasses, and silverware in the kitchen, showed her the bathroom, and turned the light on in the bedroom where Sandy had slept the previous night. Sandy had left some of her clothing out on the bed and rocking chair, and had hung a jacket on the rack for the free weights.
“I feel like an intruder,” Emily said. “These are Sandy’s things.”
“It won’t be for long,” I said. “Sandy wouldn’t have agreed to take your place if she didn’t want to do it.”
“I guess so.”
I told Emily that I was going to get ready for bed, and then I went into the bathroom to brush my teeth. When I came out, Emily was standing near the window that faces the beach. The moon illuminated the bay and the grey-black shapes of Three Arch Rocks.
“This view is really special,” she said.
I nodded. “You’ll be able to see a lot more in the morning. Good night, Emily.”
“Good night,” she said without looking away from the window.
“If you need anything, I’ll be in the next bedroom. Just yell, okay?”
“I think I can make it through the night,” she said.
“No doubt,” I said. “See you in the morning.”
The next morning I woke at 5 a.m. to the sound of seagulls squawking out on the deck. Occasionally a seagull finds a crab on the beach, carries it up to my deck, and picks it apart there. Other gulls follow, and a fight over the crab ensues. I don’t know why the seagulls like eating crabs on my deck, but they do. Maybe I should get a cat.
I was in my underwear, but it was still dark and there were no other houses next to the deck, so I wasn’t worried about being seen. I opened the sliding glass door onto the deck and the gulls scattered. I walked over to the half-eaten crab and nudged it off the deck with my toe. It fell twenty feet and landed in the grass below.
When I went back inside, Emily was standing in the living room. Her silver pistol was cradled in both hands in the two-handed isosceles stance taught in beginning gun safety classes, and the barrel of the gun was pointed directly at my chest. She was wearing red silk pajamas with a pink rose pattern stitched up one leg and across one side of the unbuttoned blouse. The moment felt so implausible that I checked myself to be sure that I was awake and not having a dream about rampaging fashion models. If I’m honest about it, my sense of shock registered on several different levels at once. On one level I thought “She’s crazy like Fullmeyer said she was.” On another level I thought “I didn’t expect my life to end this way, but if it does have to end, this is a better way than some.” Almost as an afterthought, I wondered what the protocol is for reasoning with a gun-wielding psychopath. I assumed that keeping my words as simple as possible was the way to go.
I said “Everything’s okay, Emily. Just some seagulls fighting out on the deck. You should go back to bed.” I wondered if those were the last words I’d ever speak.
“I heard a commotion,” she said. Her speech was slurred. It sounded like she said “commosha.” Her eyes appeared to be focused on something behind me. She wasn’t looking at me as much as she was looking through me.
“I know. I heard it, too,” I said. “Just some damned seagulls, that’s all. It really is okay. Go back to sleep. Get some rest.”
She nodded her head dully and then lowered the gun. She was still for a moment, like a robot that had been turned off, and then she turned away from me and sleepwalked her way back to her room. She didn’t bother to close the door behind her, and I heard the bedsprings squeak when she got into her bed.
I’d be lying if I said that the memory of her standing in the living room wasn’t burned into my memory.
I went into my bedroom and put on a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved tee shirt, then made a cup of coffee and sat in the recliner. As I drank my coffee, the black outline of Three Arch Rocks gradually became a grey outline against the horizon, and songbirds began calling to each other in high, delicate notes. I heard the faint sounds of car engines and slamming car doors that accompany the arrival of the beachcombers in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill. Emily tossed and turned in her sleep, making her bed springs squeak. A solitary crow cawed several times nearby and then fell silent when there was no response from other crows.
I got up from the recliner and stood at the big picture window. I thought about Anthony Peck and Randall Burton and my parents, and wished I hadn’t taken my father’s gun that day, or wished that I’d stayed home that day and shot Burton when he came upstairs looking for my parents. I’d played the “what if” game with myself many times over the last twenty years. It isn’t a great way to start a day, because every time you play the game, reality reasserts itself and you’re still the loser. I considered putting my running clothes on and heading down to the beach. Intense physical exercise can be a powerful antidote for sadness.
I was putting my coffee cup in the sink when my cell phone buzzed with a text message. Cell service on the beach is non-existent, but I live high enough up the hill that the cell service works sporadically at my house. That morning it was working. Five minutes later it might not be. I reached over and picked up the phone.
The message was from Eric Fullmeyer.
Eric: You up?
Me: Could you be more specific?
Eric: Got a text last night that you swapped Sandy with Emily
Me: Yes. For a day or two
Eric: Really think Emily’s in danger?
Me: Yes. Can’t prove anything, but yes
Eric: Where is she?
Me: In the small bedroom of my house, asleep with her gun
Eric: Are you hoping someone will make a run at Sandy in Emily’s house?
Me: That’s the plan
Eric: Not a bad plan. Sandy can handle herself
Me: Sandy and Emily are friends now. Sandy wanted to do it. I thought it made sense, too
Eric: Next topic
Eric: Heard anything from Eccles?
Me: He has me over a barrel and told me to leave Peck alone
Eric: Will you?
Me: I’ll try. Had a phone conversation with Peck. It wasn’t friendly
Eric: Did he threaten you?
Me: The threats were mutual. Two of Peck’s crew followed me and Sandy into a bar yesterday
Me: I told them to leave us alone and they wouldn’t. It got physical. We walked out. They didn’t
Eric: Peck won’t like that. Time to get your go-bag and leave?
Me: Not yet. I need to see this through with Emily
Eric: I can take care of that. It’s my job
Me: I made her a promise. Not going to break it
Eric: Call if you need backup
Me: Will do
By then the sun was brightening along the beach and hitting Three Arch Rocks, painting it with a lemony glow that I only see in the early morning. I weighed the relative merits of eating pancakes, going for a run, or going for a run and then eating pancakes. Eating pancakes won out over the other choices. I got a pan out from under the stove, buttered the inside of the pan, and got some pancake mix out of the cupboard. I poured some mix into a bowl, added water, got the whisk and spatula from the kitchen drawer, and then beat the mix until it was completely free of lumps. Then I turned on the burner under the pan, bided my time while the pan got hot, poured a single large portion of the mix into the pan, and set the rest of the batter aside until Emily got up. I flipped the pancake a few times while it cooked in the pan, and slid the pancake from the pan and onto a plate when it was a perfect golden brown. It’s harder to feel worried about death threats when you have a fresh pancake in front of you.
I put maple syrup on the pancake, made another cup of coffee, and took the pancake and coffee over to the two-person table in the nook by the big picture window. The bald eagle flew overhead on its way to the bird sanctuary. Meal time.
“The grim reaper is coming,” I said. “Time to fly.”
“Who are you talking to?” Emily asked.
She’d come out of her bedroom so quietly that I hadn’t heard her. She was wearing a pair of Sandy’s jeans and a red sweater with a white dress shirt collar showing at the neck. She’d combed her hair out and put on some of Sandy’s lipstick. She was still carrying the pistol, too, but it was pointed at the floor this time.
“I’m talking to myself,” I said. “That bald eagle is on its way out to the bird sanctuary to have breakfast.”
“Oh,” she said.
“Would you like some pancakes?” I asked. “There’s plenty of batter left.”
“Did I point my gun at you last night? I think that I did.”
“You were sleepwalking, but yes, you did aim your pistol at me,” I said.
“I took a sleeping pill. I’m not exactly sure what happened.”
“All is forgiven, Emily, but I’m pretty sure that’s right.”
“You were in your underwear, I think. White boxers,” she said.
“Right. It was like we had a sleepover that went haywire.”
She looked horrified. “I am so sorry. And so embarrassed.”
I cut a chunk out of my pancake and put it in my mouth.
“Don’t be,” I said, talking around the food I was chewing. “I’ve done worse. I’ll make bigger mistakes than that before the day is over.”
“I hardly slept at all last night,” she said. “I think I’d only been out for an hour or two when I heard the noise. I thought I was in my own house when I got up and saw you coming inside.”
I took another bite of pancakes.
“Emily,” I said. “I’m going to make you a couple pancakes and a cup of coffee. Then we’re going to go down to the beach and walk on the sand.”
“Are you trying to be my therapist again?” she asked.
“Not at all. You have a reprieve from worry about being stalked. I’ve got a short grace period before things get very ugly for me and possibly for Sandy, too. Why not enjoy the day? If you want to spend the day inside, though, I’ll do that instead.”
She nodded slightly and said “Okay. Are your pancakes any good?”
“Tip top. I use a mix but the pancakes are excellent.”
“Then I accept your offer of breakfast and a carefree day.”
I went over to the countertop and got the bowl of pancake batter. I worked the batter with the whisk again to make sure there were no lumps in it. Sandy laid the silver pistol on the countertop.
“You really are a gentleman,” she said. “Like Sandy said you were.”
“In all but the most extenuating circumstances,” I said.
“I’m sorry we teased you so much last night,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I said. “I can take it.”
She leaned against the countertop near where I was cooking. She had her backside against the cabinets and her arms crossed over her chest. The force of her presence was palpable even when I wasn’t looking at her. It felt like there was something coming off of her that was impossible for me to ignore.
She watched me pouring batter into the pan, and then she said “Hey.”
I looked up from the pan.
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate what you’re doing for me.”
“You’re doing something nice for me, too,” I said. “Usually cooking pancakes is a lonely job for me.”
She gave me a chuck on the shoulder with her fist.
“You can’t take a compliment, can you? What would Doctor Phil say about that?”
“As I mentioned before, I am the most humble person I know.”
“Sandy also said you were full of crap. It seems like she’s right.”
I smiled. “I doubt that she used the word ‘crap,’ Emily. Probably something much stronger than that. Your pancakes are ready. Prepare to be astonished.”
After Emily finished her pancakes, I washed the pan and the dishes, and Emily dried and put them away. The sun was fully up and offered the promise of blue skies, white sand, and dark green water.
After we finished in the kitchen, Emily went into her bedroom. When she came out she had Sandy’s purse over her shoulder.
“I’m ready to go,” she said.
I have a pancake-shaped concealment holster that lets me carry a pistol inside my waistband. I was wearing the holster under a dark blue hoodie that was long enough to cover the bulge at the base of my back.
“Should I bring my phone?” she asked.
“I don’t plan to bring mine,” I said. “There’s no cell service on the beach. We only get it here sometimes because we’re near the top of the hill.”
We left our phones on the kitchen counter. I plugged mine in to recharge while we were on our walk.
We walked down the hill to the beach and went south past Josephine’s restaurant and past the houses owned by the lucky few who had property abutting the sand. Emily asked me what kind of trouble Sandy and I were in.
“It’s a long story,” I said.
“I have an entire carefree day to listen to it,” Emily said.
“I’ll tell you mine if you’ll tell me yours,” I said.
Emily smiled but didn’t say anything. It was early enough in the day that there were just a few beachcombers. It was cool, and the sun lit the beach, the water, Three Arch Rocks and the hillside in pale gold light. All in all, it seemed like a pretty good day to walk on the beach with a woman who looked like she could be Marilyn Monroe’s twin sister.
Emily had started the walk in a pair of Sandy’s fashionable flat pumps, but she decided to take them off because the sand was so soft. She asked me to hold up, and then balanced herself by cupping her hand on my shoulder before she bent over to take off her shoes. Then she slapped the soles of the shoes together to get the sand off, and we started walking again.
“You know I’m not supposed to talk about how I got into the program,” Emily said
“Why don’t you tell me about what your life was like before you had any legal problems? No details. How about that?”
She thought about it and then said “I was a star athlete in high school,” she said. “My sport was fast-pitch softball. I was a very good pitcher.”
“What were your favorite classes in high school?” I asked.
“Probably math, drama, and phys ed,” she said. “What about you?”
“Math, economics, history,” I said.
“Seems like we have math in common.”
“We do. An affinity for numbers,” I said.
“And we both need to carry guns now,” she said. “We have that in common, too.”
“What about you?” Emily said. “What did you do before your life came off the rails?”
“I worked with banks to track down people who took out large business loans and then ran off with the money. I liked it because I could be my own boss. I got commissions when I caught someone, especially if I was able to recover some of the bank’s money.”
“Is that related to the problems that you and Sandy have now?” Emily asked.
“I don’t want to spoil our walk by talking about my troubles, Emily. You sure you want to know this?”
“Is it going to make Eric mad if you tell me?”
“I doubt it. It’s not related to WITSEC in any way.”
“Well, you and Sandy are my friends, so I want to know what your problems are. Isn’t that what friends do?” She looked sincere.
“Yeah. I guess it is. The story is that someone connected to organized crime wants to punish me for something I did when I was a kid.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” she said. “Why?”
“A long time ago, an enforcer for a loan shark killed my parents and then came after me, too. I had a gun, and I shot him and hid his body. I never told anyone what I did, but a few days ago the body was found. Now the loan shark knows that I can tie him to what happened to my parents, and he’s worried I’ll make trouble for him.”
“I’m so sorry for what happened to your parents. Really.”
We fell silent after that. It was low tide, and the beach was about fifty yards wide and nearly flat. We found sand dollars from time to time as we walked, and Emily would pick them up, examine them closely, and put them back exactly where she’d found them. A small group of brown pelicans paralleled the beach, flying just a few feet above the peaks of the waves swelling offshore. The birds’ flight path was perfectly matched with the timing of the rise and fall of the waves to stay just above the surface of the water. Emily pointed at the birds and tugged at my arm to get my attention.
“Look at that,” she said. “Isn’t that awesome?” I saw something that looked like childlike joy on her face, and it made me appreciate being on the beach with her that much more.
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah it is.”
I was being vigilant about watching for more of Peck’s boys and I was careful about looking over my shoulder occasionally, but I was distracted by her presence. The way that she walked, the way that her hair shined in the morning light, her elegant neck, her unblemished skin, and even the small mole beside her mouth all pushed me off balance. Her small waist, the form-fitting jeans, and the cashmere sweater accentuated her feminine shape in a way that was impossible for me to ignore.
“I’m glad we came for a walk,” Emily said. “I’ve been in Tillamook for six months but I hadn’t really spent much time on the beach yet.”
“I’m glad, too,” I said. “I never get tired of the view.” The peninsula for Cape Lookout State Park was clearly visible across a strip of dark blue water.
We’d walked several miles from the township of Oceanside, too far for the casual tourists to venture from the parking lot. There were a few footprints on the sand from morning walkers, but no other evidence that humans had ever been there.
We came to the place where I’d planned for us to turn around and head back towards my house. The landmark for the turnaround point was a hill several hundred feet tall that encroached on the beach. The hill was covered with vegetation and blackberry bushes down at beach level, but it transitioned to pines and fir trees as you ascended the slope.
A stream a few yards wide originated at the base of the hill and cut a shallow trench across the beach on its way to the ocean. Emily’s feet were raw from walking barefoot on sand, and she stood in the stream for a minute savoring the sensation of cold water running across her sore feet and ankles. While I waited, I leaned against a sign hung by the park service between a pair of cedar posts. I’d seen the sign before, but I’d never really paid much attention to it. This time I had some time to kill, so I read what it had to say about penalties for trespassing on the hillside, about the danger of landslides, and about the potential for falling on unmaintained trails. I tipped my head back and looked upward at the top of the hill, and I wondered what would make someone want to try climbing it to begin with. Even if landslides and crumbling rock weren’t part of the equation, the hill looked pretty damned steep.
Conveniently, that’s when the guests arrived. There were three men behind us and three in front, with each group about a hundred yards out. The men walked side by side, fanned out across the sand like they wanted to make it clear that they owned the beach. I couldn’t see any guns yet, but I knew it was only a matter of time before I would.
If I’d been by myself I’d have noticed them quite a while ago, but Emily’s presence shortened my attention span considerably. It wasn’t that she talked too much. It was that she radiated something that tugged relentlessly at my consciousness. I wondered how long I’d have to be around her before I stopped thinking about the effect that she had on me and just shared a laugh with her or discussed ordinary things. It didn’t matter, anyway. We’d probably both be dead in the next five minutes.
I went over to Emily and took hold of her arm. I jerked my head towards the hill.
“We’re going up that hill,” I said. “There are six of them, and they’ve trapped us. There’s no choice. We’re going up.”
“What are you talking about?” Emily asked.
“We’ve got to go now,” I said. “Right now.” She picked up her shoes, I took her hand, and we headed into the chest-high weeds that grew all the way down to the beach. We pushed through tall grass for a dozen paces before we crossed a narrow trail that looked like something that deer or coyotes might have made. We turned towards the uphill branch of the trail and ascended maybe fifty feet through huckleberry, pyracantha, and English laurel until the trail ran alongside a nearly vertical part of the hillside. Emily stopped to put her shoes on, and that was when I heard excited shouting below and behind us. I looked downhill in the direction we’d come from and saw the six men collected into a small circle on the beach. One of the men pointed up at us and yelled. I told Emily that we needed to get going, and we started moving again. We followed the trail onward and upward until I saw the reason for the sign’s warning about landslides: a chasm opened to the right of the trail, and the higher we ascended the trail, the narrower the trail became and the wider and deeper the chasm. After another fifty yards the trail was barely wide enough for one person to stand on, and the chasm which ran alongside the trail became much wider and was seemingly bottomless.
Emily pressed ahead at a brisk pace for another hundred feet until the trail made a sharp, hairpin-shaped turn around a corner of the rock face. I would have told Emily that I’d go first to see if it was safe to go around the corner, but there was no way for me to get around her on the narrow trail anyway. I suppose I could have told her to press herself flat against the rock face, and I could have tried to work my way around her backside, but there just wasn’t enough room. Probably best that I didn’t try it, either, because if I’d been in direct contact with her body from head to toe, my brain would likely have shorted out like an overloaded fuse and I’d have fallen to my death. That was the kind of effect she had on me. Up to that point, my intoxication with her was manageable, more like a pleasant buzz than a full-on drunk, but knowing that we were likely going to be dead in the next minute or two had put a very fine point on my infatuation with her. Walking on the beach with her, or even having her aim a gun at me in her unbuttoned pajamas I could handle, but with a team of Peck’s bad boys chasing us up the trail, the fog she induced in my brain was a serious drawback. Probably better that I stay behind her anyway so I could deal with Peck’s minions when they caught up to us. If I failed, Emily would have to get her silver gun out of the silk purse that dangled stylishly from her shoulder and play for keeps on that narrowing trail to nowhere.
Emily tipped her forehead against the rock face for a moment as if she were unsure that she could go on. Then she began to move again. She craned her neck around the corner for a half second to get a view of what was there, then pressed herself against the crumbling rock and straddled the angle of the rock face, her trailing leg stretching out straight as she searched for footing on the other side of the corner. For a fraction of a second I considered taking hold of her sweater in case she lost her balance, but I still had enough of my wits about me to know that making a grab for her would startle her and likely cause her fall. I held my breath instead. Then I saw the weight shift off of her back leg as she edged delicately around the hairpin, the leather pump on her trailing foot seeming so out of place against the dirt, the polished leather scuffing against the rock face as her left hand splayed against the crumbling rock, bits of loose soil dropping at my feet as her fingers raked across the dirt, her fingers searching for something to grip, and then she completed the rotation of her pelvis around the corner with a quick and confident move. Her trailing leg disappeared around the corner while the fingers on her left hand gripped the edge as she stabilized her balance on the far side of the turn. Then her fingers straightened out against the rock as if she were waving farewell to me, and she was gone.
At that point, the men below us started shooting. One-two-three shots, each shot separated by about a one second delay. The gunfire was accompanied by echoes that caromed off the rock face and reverberated from the far side of the bowl-shaped hillside. The first round that they fired hit the wall twenty feet from where I stood, but the next shots came closer and then closer still, spraying me with dirt and gravel-sized rock. I wiped the debris from my eyes with the back of my forearm, and then worked my right arm, my right leg, and finally my pelvis around the corner in an intimate dance of balance, trust, and commitment with the crumbling rock and the pathetically narrow trail. Once I was on the far side of the corner, I took a few shuffling side steps with my body still pressed against the rock, taking occasional glances down at the narrow trail. As the trail widened again to a path that was several feet wide, I rotated my body to face the trail and began to move faster. Emily was already thirty or forty feet ahead of me and striding quickly upward on the widening trail.
Under other circumstances I would have cheered our good fortune in having cheated death, but the chasm which ran alongside the trail was now wide enough to drop a house in, and where the bottom of the chasm was visible I’d estimate its depth at a hundred feet. I hustled up the trail, keeping my feet and shoulder as close to the wall as possible, moving as fast as I could manage while still watching where I put each footstep, and it occurred to me that they’d picked the perfect place to confront us on the beach. We’d gone uphill to escape, and we’d taken a trail alongside a chasm deep enough that if someone went into it they’d be unlikely to ever be found, or if a body were found, it would be assumed that they had fallen in. If Peck was strategic enough to have planned this exact spot to stage his attack on me, then I’d grossly underestimated his cleverness and I wouldn’t do that again. I wondered if he was clever enough to station people at the top of the hill along the highway that led into Oceanside. If he’d thought ahead that far, we were probably finished. Still, we weren’t going down without a fight. After all, Emily had gone to the trouble to get her silver gun. Might as well use it at least once.
I was only a few paces behind Emily when the trail forked, offering a choice to cut left uphill on rocky soil into pine and fir trees, or stay right and follow the footpath along the edge of the chasm which now looked both bottomless and wide enough to swallow a gas station. No coming back from a fall like that.
I told Emily “Go left! Go left!” and I watched her scramble up the slope toward the trees, losing traction in her smooth-soled leather pumps and then getting down on her hands and knees to grab at pine seedlings to aid her ascent toward the tree line. When her shoes slipped repeatedly on the dirt, Emily kicked off her pumps like a hillbilly at a summer picnic and went up the slope with athletic grace, stabilizing her purse with her right hand to keep it from swinging. By the time she disappeared into the trees, she was moving quite fast. I was moving at a dead run, too, digging into the soft soil with the toes of my running shoes and pumping my arms like pistons as I climbed to the tree line and beyond. We paused twenty yards past the first of the fir trees and maybe fifty yards down a steep bit of hillside from the highway, and I wondered again whether more of Peck’s boys were up there on the pavement waiting for us. The men below must have cell phones. If they got lucky and found cell service on the beach, they could have called ahead and posted more killers above us on Highway 131. I imagined shooters standing by the side of an anonymous sedan with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips as they checked the loads in their pistols and waited for us to be chased up the hill. Then again, cell service along that part of the coast was so erratic that cell phones were usually worthless. Perhaps there was no one above us on the highway after all. It wouldn’t be long before I found out.
Emily was on the uphill side of a Douglas Fir that had a trunk about three feet thick. Her chest was heaving, her hair was mussed and wild, her sweater ripped at the left shoulder from where she’d snagged the cashmere on something. I watched her tip her head down as she put her hand into her purse and pulled out the pearl-handled pistol. Then she dropped the purse to the ground, raked the hair out of her eyes with the fingers on her free hand and let the air out of her lungs in a single big exhalation. I heard the click as her thumb flipped off the safety on her pistol. Then she looked over at me and she nodded once, slowly and deliberately.
“Stay here,” I hissed. “I’m going to try to slow them down.”
She nodded again.
I worked my way back down the slope far enough that I could see the narrow trail that Emily and I had climbed. The landslide danger was obvious. The soil was loose and broken, with chunks of black basalt embedded in the crumbling dirt. I picked up a rock about the size of an apple and carried it to a better vantage point of the hairpin turn in the trail. I was about seventy-five yards away from the hairpin, too far away for me to be accurate with the short-barreled pistol I carried, but all I had to do was to get them to turn around and head back down the trail. Rocks seemed like a good choice for a weapon.
Peck’s bad boys had moved up the trail quickly. I heard swearing, first quietly and then louder as number one rounded the hairpin turn and began to appreciate the narrowness of the path and the depth of the chasm off to the right. He was wearing a grey windbreaker with white fabric at the neckline, bleached blue jeans with a cut in the fabric across one knee, and brown leather loafers with white rubber soles. He looked like he’d planned for a day on a yacht.
Number two put a tentative leg around the corner and then began the delicate process of shifting his hips around the sharp edge of the hairpin turn. He wore a blue cotton jacket with the collar turned up, tan slacks, and black loafers. Not really beach attire, but maybe they hadn’t been given much notice before Peck told them to come down to the beach to chase after us.
I threw the rock at the one in front. I actually aimed the rock at a place about ten feet ahead of him, head-high, with the plan that the rock would bounce off the wall, scatter debris in his face, and then hit him. That was my intent, anyway. The motion of my throw must have caught his peripheral vision, because I saw him turn his face in my direction. Then he jerked his arms up to protect his head and pressed his body against the wall. The rock that I’d thrown hit the wall a few feet over his head, spraying him with dirt before it fell soundlessly into the chasm. He shook off the dirt and gravel, pulled a pistol out of a holster at the base of his back, pointed it in my direction, and pulled the trigger. The bowl-shaped cliffside amplified the sound of the gunfire to gut-punching levels.
I bent over and then stayed low, and I began throwing rocks downhill as hard and as fast as I could. The two men on the narrow trail tried to reduce their sizes as targets by squatting down, and then they opened fire in my direction, clicking off one round every few seconds, conserving their ammo in a very disciplined way, not panicking, but I kept throwing anyway, squatting down between throws, and after six or seven throws I finally hit one of them with a rock. There was a cry of acute pain followed by a scream that gathered volume before becoming shrill and then stopping suddenly. I stood straight up so that I could see what had happened, and it was apparent that the second man, the one in the boarding school attire, had fallen into the chasm. The one who’d been in front was on his hands and knees, peering down into the void after his fallen comrade. A third man, much bigger than the first two but with such a large belly that it was impossible for him to go around the hairpin turn, leaned his head around the corner every few seconds to see what was happening. He had a pistol in his right hand, aimed the gun up the hill in my direction, and squinted along the gunsights at me. As I did not want my head blown off by a lucky shot, I squatted on my haunches once more and considered whether to shoot at the one remaining on the trail, throw more rocks, or just rejoin Emily in the trees and then make a run for my house.
I heard a soft grunting sound followed by a whistling noise. I lifted my head in time to see part of the cliffside near the hairpin turn explode as a rock smashed against it. The fat man edged out of sight. I looked over my shoulder and saw Emily pick up a fist-sized rock and throw it with the kind of precise body mechanics that come from years of practice. I watched the trajectory of the rock as it bounced once off the trail and then struck the shin of the man wearing the grey windbreaker. He cried out, brought his pistol around, and fired wildly in my direction. Emily threw a second rock that caught him in the cheek, and he stepped back with a jerking motion as if he’d touched an electric plate. He let go of his gun and then his hand came up towards his face. Emily threw a third rock that caught him squarely in the face, snapping his head back before his body did a swooning pirouette to the right. His attempt to regain his balance was both heartbreaking and sickening to watch as he tottered, fell to his knees, and clawed at the edge of the cliff on his way into the chasm.
The fat man peered around the corner, saw that both of his companions were gone, and he began firing one round after another at Emily and me. I think that he’d decided to empty his pistol at us because there was nothing else he could do. Emily turned her back to me, picked her pistol up off the ground, and ran for the trees again. I followed close behind, ignoring the sound of gunfire as I chased her up the hill.
We stopped running once we were back in the shade of the Douglas Firs. Emily’s chest heaved as she gulped for air. She held the silver pistol in the two-handed shooting stance, forming a triangle between her torso, her arms, and the gun.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
She nodded without saying anything.
“We’re going to have to go up top to get to the highway. We can run back to the house from there. Okay?”
She didn’t say anything. I walked over to where she stood.
“Emily,” I said. “Are you okay?”
She nodded. Eyes straight ahead, gun still out and ready to fire.
“We’re going now, okay?” I said. “Right now. Can you walk?”
She nodded stiffly. I could see that the barrel of the pistol was shaking.
“We’ll go up the hill together,” I said. I cupped her elbow gently with my hand and pulled slightly. The two of us moved uphill, trying to keep our footing on the layer of pine needles that topped the crumbling soil. When we had climbed high enough that the crest of the hill was visible, I told Emily to hold off, and she waited behind while I continued up the hill on my own. I peered around a tree to check the road, and there was no carload of thugs, no anonymous sedan, no threat of any kind. Highway 131 looked ordinary, inviting, and safe.
“Emily!” I shouted. “Come on up! It’s okay.”
Emily worked her way up the hill to join me, still holding her gun at the ready. I put my pistol back in its pancake holster and felt the pressure of the holster against my sweaty skin. The hooded sweatshirt which had been a good choice for a walk on the beach had turned into a sweaty hothouse during the battle on the cliff. I considered taking the sweatshirt off, but my gun would have been clearly visible, so I pulled the sleeves up to my elbow to allow my arms to cool off.
“You should put the gun away,” I said. “It’s okay. There’s nobody here.”
Emily looked uncertain about where to put her pistol. She’d dropped Sandy’s purse when she’d taken the gun out, and it didn’t make sense to go back and look for it. Her pants were too tight to put the gun in her pocket, so I held out my hand and asked her to give it to me. She reluctantly agreed, and I took the gun from her sweaty hand. I clicked the pistol’s safety on and slid it into my back pocket.
My jeans were dirty but my clothes were otherwise intact. Emily was barefoot and her sweater was torn. She looked like she’d been the victim of an assault, and I suppose that she was. Her eyes were unfocused, as if she was still in shock.
“Emily,” I said. “Your sweater is ripped. Take it off. Let’s just leave it here so we’re not so conspicuous, okay?”
Her hands were filthy from what we’d done on the cliffside, and she seemed reluctant to touch Sandy’s clothes with her fingers. She stood passively while I took hold of the waistline of the cashmere sweater and then pulled it gently up to her bust line, and then I stretched it out and upward. She raised her arms over her head while I lifted the sweater free of her arms. Once I had the sweater off, I balled it up and threw it into the undergrowth.
The white dress shirt that she’d worn under the sweater still looked good enough for a walk on a country road on a nice sunny day. It was stained with sweat but otherwise clean.
“I killed that man, didn’t I?” Emily said.
“You hit one of them with a rock,” I said. “He was shooting at us, remember?”
She shrugged slightly. I could see tears welling in her eyes.
“We’re walking back to my house, okay?” I said.
“Yeah,” she said, and we started walking. If I’d been by myself, I would have been running like hell, but Emily seemed so fogged by what had happened that running was out of the question. We would probably have looked like bank robbers if we’d been running down the highway, anyway. Instead, I held her hand and we walked on the grassy shoulder of the road all the way back to Oceanside. Half a dozen cars went by during our walk, and each time that happened Emily grabbed hold of my arm in fear. I tried to be casual about it, but I was on edge, too. Peck had declared war.
By the time we’d gotten back to Oceanside, half an hour had passed. Emily hadn’t said a single word. I thought about how four of the six men who’d come after us on the beach were still alive and no doubt motivated to get even for what happened. I assumed that my next encounter with Peck’s people would come in the form of a bullet fired across a parking lot, or from a knife in the back as I waited in line at a hardware store, or possibly from my house burning down around me in the middle of the night. I started thinking about ways to take the battle to Peck.
There were several dozen cars in the parking lot for Oceanside Beach. None looked suspicious or out of place. There were no black panel vans with the windows painted out, and no thugs loitering about with machine guns. Everything looked ordinary in a way that should have been reassuring but instead felt jarring after what we’d been through on the cliff. We walked past the parking lot and continued on up the hill to the house. There were no visible signs of break-in at my front door. I drew my pistol and used my key to let us into the house, and we went inside. I locked the deadbolt on the front door and led Emily over to a chair at the kitchen table. I laid both of our pistols on the countertop and pulled off my sweatshirt.
“Emily,” I asked. “Do you want a drink?”
She looked down at her feet and didn’t respond. Her legs were filthy from the knees down, as were her hands. She looked like someone who’d been living in the wilderness for a while.
I got a bottle of cabernet out of the cabinet and poured several inches of wine into a glass. I held the glass out in front of her, and she took it from me without making eye contact. She tipped the glass back and drained it like someone chugging lemonade on a hot summer day.
“Do you want more?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“I’m okay,” she said. “I’m not sorry I did what I did. I’m okay.” She was still looking at her feet.
“If we didn’t stop those two men on the trail, they would have caught us on that slope, or on the highway.”
“Why were they chasing us?” she said.
“Remember the story I told you about the loan shark?”
“I think that they’re part of his crew.”
“How did they know where you were?”
“I haven’t made it a secret that I live here,” I said. “My guess is that Peck’s people were watching the house and saw us going down to the beach. They called for reinforcements who started at opposite ends of the beach we were walking on, and they caught us in the middle.”
“Won’t they come back?”
“They can’t leave those men in that ravine,” I said. “Once they find a way to get them out of there, they’ll probably try again.”
I poured three inches of wine in another glass and leaned against the kitchen countertop while I drained the glass. I relished the quiet of the house, the wood floors, the blue walls, the hurricane lamps. Everything was tidy and in its place, but I knew that wouldn’t last.
Someone’s car alarm went off in the beach parking lot and then quieted.
I walked over to where Emily sat.
“Come wash your hands,” I said. “You’ll feel better.” I took her hands and pulled her gently upright, then walked her over to the sink. I turned the faucet on and began washing my hands but she just stood there, so I took her hands gently in mine and held them under the faucet. She stood perfectly still as I used a soapy washcloth to rub off the grass stains and dirt stains from her forearms and fingers. After a while I rubbed her palms with bar soap. We were pressed hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder at the sink, and out of the corner of my eye I noticed a single tear roll down her cheek. I shut off the faucet, then took the towel from the countertop and wiped her hands dry. She had her lips pressed together like she was deep in thought, and she stared at the floor as if she were afraid to look at me.
I held out my hand to her as if I were asking her to dance.
“Let’s get your feet,” I said. “Come on.”
She put her hand in mine.
We went through the living room to the bathroom, and she sat on the commode while I ran the water. I held my hand under the faucet until the water warmed.
“Okay,” I said. “Water’s ready.”
Emily stood from the commode and then sat on the edge of the tub with her feet under the faucet. She rubbed bar soap against the skin on her feet and shins, and after a while she asked if I had any nail polish remover to use on the soles of her feet. The skin had been made black by road tar.
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
“It’s okay. It can wait.”
She shut the water off and I handed her a dry towel. I stood in the doorway briefly while she dried her feet, and then I went into the living room and stood by the big picture window. The parking lot at the base of the hill looked the way that it usually did. Three Arch Rocks, the beach, the surf, the roofs of my neighbors’ houses appeared unchanged. Everything looked familiar and timeless from that window, but I knew that I’d crossed a line and couldn’t go back.
I heard Emily’s bare feet brushing against the oak floor, and then she was beside me. She put her hand on my shoulder and said “Thank you” so quietly that I barely heard it.
I turned to face her.
When I did that, she stood on her tiptoes and kissed me once on the cheek, then patted me absently on my chest several times before leaving her palm resting against my skin. We stood like that for a while, neither of us moving or wanting to move. Then she leaned in and put her body against mine as if music for a slow dance had started to play. Her forehead was against the hollow of my neck, and I could feel her breath on my skin.
I put my hand lightly against the small of her back and felt the softness of her through the linen shirt. She rested one of her palms on my waist so carefully that I barely felt its weight at all. I took her other hand in mine, and we began to move as if music were playing. I applied gentle pressure with my palm, pulled softly with my other hand, and we rotated slowly around the living room floor. We moved to our own music, finding solace in each other’s company, touch, and rhythm. I felt her relax in my arms, and I held her closer and tighter.
In spite of the likelihood that Peck’s thugs would arrive at my house soon, the sensation of Emily’s touch overwhelmed my common sense. I thought that I’d put on a certain amount of armor during our battle with Peck’s bad boys on the cliffside, that I’d found a way to get past the effect that she had on me, but I experienced something like an electric shock running through me when her body was pressed against mine. She tipped her head forward, and I felt the warmth of her breath against my neck again, the silky softness of her honey-blonde hair against my cheek. We stopped moving as if the music had ended. Then she slid her hands higher on my back. I put one of my hands against the base of her neck and she tilted her head back slightly. Our eyes met for a moment, the blue of her eyes so pure in that sunny room, our lips touching with infinite gentleness before she pressed her mouth against mine.
Emily had gone through Sandy’s clothing and picked out a white and red pinstriped short-sleeved shirt to wear over a pair of blue jeans and red low-heel pumps. Her hair was freshly washed and brushed out, and she’d put makeup and lipstick on. I’d showered, too, and I was wearing a blue polo shirt over faded jeans and running shoes. We were standing at the big picture window looking at the view of Three Arch Rocks. Emily had her arm around my waist and her head against my shoulder. I had my arm around her and held her against my side.
“You ready?” I asked.
“No,” she said.
“I don’t think we can stay here,” I said. “Not after today.”
“What’s going to happen after you take me back?”
“We’ll see what Sandy has to say about whether someone is stalking you. If so, we’ll deal with that. Then I’ll make a decision about what to do about Peck. I can’t just let him keep coming after me. Eventually he’ll catch me with my guard down. You could get hurt if you’re around me when that happens. You should think about that.”
“You’re trying to scare me off,” she said.
“Then don’t try to push me away. I can take care of myself.”
“Like no other,” I said.
“Okay, then,” she said.
We kissed for a long time in front of the big window before I reluctantly picked up Sandy’s shotgun and collected our pistols and cell phones from the kitchen counter. “Are you going to tell Marshal Fullmeyer about what happened today?” she asked.
“I think that I have to.”
We left the binoculars on the kitchen table. Maybe the next renter would enjoy the view as much as I had. I left the Miles Davis and Pat Metheny albums, the Marantz amplifier and the McIntosh speakers, the pots and pans and everything else that was too big to fit in the duffle bag that I carried. It occurred to me as we headed for the front door that there is a romantic idea associated with leaving everything behind and starting over somewhere else, and that fantasy is completely at odds with actually being forced to jettison everything you own and depart with no destination or plan. You feel as if you’ve been stripped bare and thrown into a snowbank.
Emily brought Sandy’s suitcase into the kitchen. I looked out the window, didn’t see anyone near Sandy’s Camaro or my Mustang GT, and we headed out. I didn’t feel good about leaving Sandy’s car behind to be destroyed by Peck’s crew, so we took Sandy’s car and left the Mustang behind. I wondered if I would ever see it again.
I drove slowly down the hill towards the Oceanside beach parking lot, looking at Three Arch Rocks for the last time. That landmark had been there for eons before I moved into the neighborhood and would be there long after I left. There is something to be said for being made out of stone.
When we reached the bottom of the hill, I saw that Detective Eccles had parked his rental car near the entrance to the Oceanside Beach parking lot. He was getting into the driver’s seat of his car.
“Look who’s here,” I said.
“Do you know this guy?” Emily asked.
“He’s a police detective from Oklahoma City,” I said. “Relax.”
I pulled alongside the Buick and parked the car. Eccles walked over to the driver’s side of the Camaro as I shut the engine off and rolled the window down. Eccles’ baseball cap had the Texas A&M logo on it.
“Detective Eccles,” I said. “What can I do for you?”
“Well, I’m headed back to Oklahoma City, but I wanted to share something with you in private before I leave.”
“Anything you have to say to me, you can say in front of her,” I said.
“Maybe that’s okay for you,” Eccles said. “It isn’t okay for me. Five minutes. Walk with me down to the water.”
“It’s okay,” Emily said. “I’ll wait.”
I got out of the Camaro and followed Eccles across the parking lot, down the short rocky trail, and onto Oceanside beach. It was low tide, and we walked thirty yards across the cream-colored sand to the edge of the waterline. It was late afternoon, warm, and the surf was as mild and languid as if the water were made of motor oil. Eccles turned his back to the parking lot and started talking.
“I have a flight leaving Portland in about three hours,” he said. “I tried to call you on your cell but couldn’t get through.”
“Sorry,” I said. “That’s part of the charm of living in a remote spot like this. Fewer intrusions from the outside world.”
“I was on my way up to your house to talk to you, but I wanted to check out the view one last time.”
“So, I’ll get to the point,” he said. He tipped the bill of his cap back slightly and I could see how pink the skin on his sunburned face was. “I looked into the business about the car you said you saw in your driveway the day of the home invasion, and Peck did own one like that. So that’s something. However, I tried to sell that to my boss as evidence, and he said that it didn’t prove shit since you’re an unreliable witness, it was twenty years ago, and those cars were not uncommon back then.”
“What do you think?” I asked.
Eccles shrugged. “I don’t think I can prove that his car was at your house that day.”
“Suppose I told you that I memorized the license plate on his car,” I said. “Would that matter?”
“It certainly would,” Eccles said. “Give it to me.”
I stared at him. “Yeah. I memorized Peck’s license plate while someone was firing rounds from a revolver at me. The number is on the tip of my tongue.”
Eccles looked irritated, but he continued. “I also checked the manifest of what was found at your parents’ house by the forensics people. There was no record of any bookkeeping paperwork or accounting information. Pictures of the kitchen table don’t show any paperwork, either.”
“So we assume Peck took it,” I said.
“Without any way of proving that he did.”
I crossed my arms. “So why come over here to tell me?”
“I felt like I owed it to you to tell you where we stood before I leave.”
“Well, here’s your parting gift,” I said. “I tried to keep my half of the agreement we made,” I said. “Peck has other plans.”
“This thing is going to escalate, isn’t it?” Eccles said.
“It already has,” I said. “Yesterday two of Peck’s thugs tried to force me into a car for a meeting with Peck. Blood was spilled. This morning, six of Peck’s people came after me when I was walking on the beach. I got away, but a couple of Peck’s guys wound up in a deep ravine. They’ll have a hard time getting the bodies out.”
“I can’t let this go,” Eccles said.
“I tried to avoid Peck’s people,” I said. “They won’t leave me alone. This is all Peck’s doing.”
“You really are something, aren’t you?” Eccles said. “Most people would be at the police station raising hell, begging for protection, and insisting that Peck be arrested. Not you, though. One man stands alone against impossible odds. You’re like an action hero.”
“Think about this,” I said. “How much good have you done me since we met? Why would I turn to the police when the answer is always the same?”
“Hi, boys,” Emily said. She was barefoot and had the red low-heel pumps dangling from the fingers on her right hand.
Eccles looked at Emily and then said “Ma’am.” He tipped the bill of his cap to her in a gesture of respect.
“Anything else we need to talk about here?” I asked Eccles.
Emily touched my arm and said “I’m sorry to interrupt, but do you remember the guy from earlier today on the trail? The one who got stuck on the corner?”
“I do. Fat guy. Peach-colored shirt. Buzz cut.”
“I just saw him drive up the hill towards your house,” Emily said.
“You sure it was him?” I said.
“I’m pretty sure,” Emily said. “It looked like the same person to me.”
“What was he driving?” I said.
“A dark red Cadillac.”
“I’m calling for backup,” Eccles said. “I’m going up to your house to talk to this guy.”
“Calling who?” I said. “There’s no police department here. You could go up to the top of the hill and see if you can get a signal on your cell phone, or maybe you could drive over to Tillamook and bring a posse back. Either way, he’ll be gone before anyone comes. Besides, what would you arrest him for? Being at my house?”
“You could press charges for menacing, attempted murder, or attempted kidnapping.”
“You and I both know that I wouldn’t live long enough to testify.”
Eccles clenched his fists in a graphic display of frustration.
“Don’t worry about it, Detective Eccles,” I said. “We live different worlds. Mine has a few advantages; yours has a few advantages, too. I can take care of myself.”
Eccles raised his eyebrows in disbelief. “Really? You’re going to take on Peck’s whole organization?”
“I don’t need to do that,” I said. “He’s the only person I need to connect with.”
“This is going to ruin me because I didn’t stop you,” Eccles said. “You’re going to destroy us both.”
“You’re going to miss your plane,” I said. “Emily and I have places to be, too. Go back to your life and forget about me. I’ll try to keep you out of this as much as I can.”
“You know I could arrest you for your own good?” Eccles said. “Maybe I should.”
“For what? Prove that I’ve done a single thing to Peck’s people other than in the course of defending myself. Prove that I’m planning to do anything to Peck. The law’s on my side, for once.”
“I want the right things to happen here, too,” Eccles said. “Can you not see that?”
“I think you’re too worried about your career to make waves,” I said. “Prove me wrong.”
I crooked my elbow and Emily hooked her arm through mine. We walked back across the sand to the parking lot and I held Emily’s door open for her while she got into the car. Before I got into the driver’s seat, I looked up the hill at my house. The fat man wearing the peach-colored shirt was standing on the deck of my house. He looked down at me and our eyes met. It wasn’t lost on me that he’d had to break into my house and stroll through my kitchen to get onto the deck. I gave him the raised middle finger with an outstretched arm, got behind the wheel, and started the car.
The fat man’s car didn’t appear in my rear view mirror on the drive over to Tillamook. We got to Emily’s house and parked the Camaro at the curb. Sandy was sitting on the front porch steps in a white bikini that she’d borrowed from Emily, and she was rubbing suntan lotion on her legs. Emily and I walked across the grass towards the house.
“Hey there, girlfriend,” Sandy said. “Looks like you survived a weekend with the genetic lottery winner. You look good in my clothes.”
“Hi,” Emily said. “You look good in my bikini.”
“Thanks,” Sandy said. “What do you think, Del?”
“I’m surprised none of the neighbors came over to get acquainted.”
“A couple high school boys asked if I wanted them to mow the lawn. I think they just wanted to look down the front of my bikini from up close, if you want to know the truth.”
“I doubt that they were disappointed.”
“God gave me this body,” Sandy said. “I’m not embarrassed by it.”
“Clearly,” I said.
The knuckles on Sandy’s right hand had bandages going all the way across. “What happened to you?” I asked.
“I did a little house cleaning last night.”
“Did anything happen?” Emily asked. “Anyone bother you?”
“Funny that you ask that,” Sandy said. “I had a visitor last night.”
“Why didn’t you call me?” I said.
“I tried three times before my battery died,” she replied bluntly. “You should move somewhere with cell service, or install a wireless router at your house. It’s not that hard.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
Sandy said “No worries. It gave me a chance to work on my tan. Let’s go meet your new friend.”
Sandy stood up and turned towards the house. Her shapely backside rocked from side to side in the tightly-stretched fabric of the bikini as she went up the steps. Emily followed Sandy up the steps, with me bringing up the rear.
He was in the utility closet by the bathroom. The Doberman lay on the hallway floor just outside the utility closet door. The dog lifted her head slightly and then put it back down.
The man’s eyes were swollen and bruised from the beating he’d had. His ears and mouth were taped with duct tape. His hands were tied with nylon rope to the arms of the kitchen chair that he sat on; his ankles were tied to the chair legs. As a backup for the rope, thick layers of duct tape had been used to tape his arms and legs to the chair. He wasn’t wearing any pants, but he did have a towel across his crotch. He had on a black long-sleeved shirt and was barefoot. He was about six feet tall, had a thin build, and had hollow cheeks, black eyebrows, and short black hair.
“He looks like a ninja,” Emily said.
“That’s what I thought, too,” Sandy said. “I left the window cracked in the bedroom with just the window screen on it. It was too warm and I was just trying to cool the room off. I fell asleep, and I’ll tell you one thing: this guy is quieter than a church mouse. He came in more than once, I’m certain, and I didn’t even hear him until his last trip. I heard something that woke me up, and I saw him coming through the window. The dog had to have been drugged, because she didn’t even get up.”
“Oh my God,” Emily said.
“He crawled through the window like a giant black spider. Had a sap in one hand and a rag in the other.”
I heard the air go out of Emily’s lungs.
“I backed up against the headboard and got on my knees. I had my arms up like a boxer and waited until he came up onto the mattress and swung the sap at me.” At that point Sandy lifted her left arm and I could see the starburst-shaped bruise under her armpit. The purple and yellow discoloration was the size of a coffee saucer.
“Is anything broken?” I asked.
“I don’t think so. I pulled my arm up high when he swung, and brought it down and trapped his hand in my armpit. Then I started punching. He wouldn’t stop putting the rag on my face, so I spear-fingered him in the eyes.”
Emily put her face in her hands.
“Glad I could do it for you, sister,” Sandy said. “Honestly. This is a very bad person.”
“What happened then?” I asked.
“He freaked out and pulled so hard that his hand got free, and he tried to get away but he couldn’t see where he was going. So I jumped off the bed and got hold of his pants and the back of his neck, and then I ran him face-first into the door frame.”
“You must have been so scared,” Emily said.
Sandy shrugged. “At that point he seemed like he was knocked out, so I picked up his chloroform rag and tied it over his nose. Thought I’d let him breathe it for a while since he’s so fond of it. Then I went into the kitchen to look for tape or rope and got a little surprise. Why don’t you go in there and take a look so that you know what we’re up against?”
Emily and I went into the kitchen, and what I saw was chilling. On his first trip into the house he’d assembled something on the kitchen counter that looked like a homemade torture kit. There were pliers for pulling teeth and pencil-sized instruments with sharp tips. A piece of broom handle with crude metal screws embedded in it so they could be screwed into flesh. A pair of giant alligator clamps cut from a pair of cables originally made for jump-starting a car. A rubber ball with a string run through it that could be used to muffle screams. I guess that hadn’t been enough. He’d gotten several of the bigger knives from the kitchen drawer and arranged them in a star shape on the table as if he’d planned to experiment with them. The fact that he’d been able to do all of this without waking Sandy or the dog was remarkable.
“Oh. Oh. Oh,” Emily said.
I put my arm around her shoulder.
Sandy was standing in the doorway of the kitchen. “I’ll bet he’s done this a dozen times if he’s done it once,” she said. “Probably best that he not be released into the wild. Ever.”
“Did you find his car?” I asked.
Sandy nodded with exaggerated slowness.
“Two streets to the west,” Sandy said. “Purple van with Arizona license plates.”
“And you’ve gone through it,” I said.
“What do you think?” I said.
“I think he drove here from Phoenix, figured out where Emily works and lives, and he’s been staying for almost a month at a day-to-day hotel off the highway. Guess he was just waiting for the right moment.”
“You get all that off his cell phone?”
“Peter and I played with some of his toys. The alligator clamps work wonders.”
“Did you find out why?” I asked Sandy.
Sandy said “Emily, did you have a conflict with the Backett family in Phoenix? Is that how you got into WITSEC? You testified against the kid and now he’s doing twenty years?”
“I thought that’s what he said,” Sandy said. “The tape on his mouth makes him hard to understand.”
“How did he find me?” Emily asked.
“Apparently one of his friends who knows how to use search engines did a reverse image search of your face and found a picture of you on some dating website,” Sandy said. “I guess they hacked the site and got your address. Didn’t Eric tell you not to post any pictures online?”
“It was just the one picture,” Emily said. “Eric took it when I first got here and gave it to me to remind me that there can still be good days, too. I used the image when I joined an online dating service. I was only a member for a few weeks before I realized I wasn’t going to meet anyone who was right for me. I closed down the account and thought that was that.”
“Apparently the Backett family wants you to know that putting their son in prison for twenty years comes with a price,” Sandy said.
Emily leaned her back against the wall and put her face in her hands.
Sandy said “When this guy doesn’t check in they’ll send someone else. Emily’s going to have to move.”
“I know,” I said. “Do you know if he’s a family member or just a hired gun?”
“His name is Peter Stargen. He moves in the same circles as the Backett kid did before he went to prison. He said the Backetts paid him twenty thousand and told him if he brought back pictures of what he did to her it would be worth twenty more.”
“Did you find a camera on him?”
“He had footage on his cell phone of Emily leaving work, walking the dog, and going into a grocery store. And some of me lying on top of the sheets.”
“At times I’m shocked at the level of depravity my fellow man will sink to,” I said.
“I’ll bet,” Sandy said. “He told me he would have done the same thing for free, but they fronted him the money for the trip. I don’t have proof yet, but if the Backetts aren’t involved in organized crime I’ll eat my hat. How about it, Emily?”
Emily nodded sadly and said “I need to go check on my dog.” She left the room.
“And how was your weekend?” Sandy said.
“Six of Peck’s people tried to take us down when we were walking on the beach this morning. We escaped by hiking up a cliff. Two of Peck’s guys didn’t make it back.”
“We threw rocks at the two who came closest. It won’t be easy to retrieve the bodies.”
“We? Emily did, too?”
“She can throw a hundred mile an hour fastball. Or rock, in this case,” I said.
“She has an arm like a cannon. She clocked one of them in the head with rocks that hummed when they went past me.”
“Good girl,” Sandy said. “Is she doing okay?”
“I think she’s getting there. It was us or them. Not a lot of choice.”
“Still,” Sandy said. “That kind of event can mess with your mind for a while.”
“She seemed pretty shaken at first, but I think she made her peace with it,” I said.
“I hope so.”
“Remember Eccles, the cop from Oklahoma City?”
“Right,” Sandy said.
“I talked to him a little while ago, and he’s confident that Peck was behind what happened to my parents but can’t do anything about it. He’s getting pressure to drop the case,” I said.
“At least he tried.”
“I think I have an idea, though.”
“Sowing the seeds of chaos in your unique and misbegotten way?”
“The chaos is a byproduct of confronting evil on its own terms,” I said.
Sandy laughed a big, deep laugh. She put her hand on my cheek and said “I don’t know how you can say that with a straight face. Remember Alamogordo? Remember El Paso? You’re like a wrecking ball. You get results, but you leave a path of destruction in your wake.”
“I am an agent of change,” I said.
“You’re the master of disaster,” she said. “So what’s your idea?”
She’d left her hand on my cheek, and I felt a pleasant amount of heat coming off of her palm. I smelled the coconut oil in her suntan lotion and the floral scent of her perfume. She was still wearing the bikini, and as attracted as I was to Emily, it was impossible for me to ignore Sandy’s figure when it was six inches away from me and all of it but about ten square inches was uncovered, nicely toned, perfectly shaped, and slick with suntan oil.
“Eyes up here,” Sandy said. “I know you have more self control than those high school boys do.”
“What if we turn our friend in there loose on Anthony Peck?”
“Suppose we could get Peck loose from his crew? Let the ninja take him down to the bone marrow. Then tell Peck’s crew that what happened to Peck is a message from the Backett family.”
“So … start a war between two monsters and hopefully not be destroyed in the process?”
“Right. After we find a way to make sure that Emily doesn’t get caught in the fallout.”
“You’ve noticed the specialness of her whole package, have you?” Sandy said. She tilted her head slightly to one side, sizing me up. “You did. Didn’t you?”
I didn’t say anything.
“That’s okay. Your silence speaks volumes.” There was darkness in her blue eyes that I’d never seen before. She pursed her lips like she was thinking about something unpleasant, and then she left the room.
I found Emily standing in the hallway outside the utility closet. She had her arms crossed over her chest and was looking at Peter Stargen with an expression of morbid fascination. The dog, usually so quick-tempered in the presence of strangers, barely lifted her head from the floor when I came down the hall. “I think he must have drugged her,” Emily said. “She’s always been so upset when strangers come. Now she just lays there.”
“Maybe he put something in her water bowl or hit her with his sap,” I said. “Do you want to see if she’d like to go down the street to the vacant lot? If she won’t get up for that, we should get her to a veterinarian.”
Emily went to get the leash and tennis ball while I watched the stranger. Emily came back and hooked the leash on the dog’s collar. The dog got unsteadily to her feet and started for the front door.
Once Emily was gone, I peeled the tape off of Peter’s mouth and one of his ears.
“I need to talk to you,” I said.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” he said. The skin around his Adam’s apple was yellow where Sandy had hit him in the throat, and his voice sounded like it was coming through several inches of gravel. “And I’ve needed to for about eight hours. I didn’t want to piss myself in this closet, but if I don’t go in the next five minutes, I will.”
“So you’ve been tied up in this closet since last night?”
“That’s right,” he said.
Sandy said “Like hell,” from over my shoulder. “I’ve taken him to the can every two hours.”
“How do you manage that?” I asked her.
“I make him hop the chair across the hall into the bathroom. Then I tip the chair forward so he can pee into the toilet. Then I drag the chair back to the closet. I’m damned if I’m going to untie this guy. I don’t want to have to fight him again. Once was enough.”
“I want my phone call and I want to talk to a lawyer,” he said.
I said “We’re not the police, and you’re half an inch away from finding out if there’s an afterlife. If you help us out, you stay alive. If you don’t, this is the end of the road for you. Do we understand each other?”
“Tell me what you know about the Backett family,” I said.
Sandy leaned in close and whispered in my ear “You can’t threaten a rabid animal into submission. I would never, ever trust this guy. He’s just waiting for a chance to turn on you and kill you. That’s the gospel truth.”
For the first time Peter opened his blackened eyes, and I knew that he’d heard what Sandy said.
“It’s too bad that you woke up when you did,” he said. “We could have had a lot of fun together.”
“We still can, Peter,” Sandy said. “I’ll let you suck on the barrel of my shotgun while I play with the trigger. In fact, I’ve been trying to decide whether you should keep breathing the same air that I do, and I’ve decided that the answer is no. If you’re still feeling frisky, I can go get the shotgun.”
He closed his eyes again, and I watched his mouth curl into a smile.
Sandy said “This guy should be worm food” as she walked away.
I said “What did you do to the dog, Peter?”
He ignored me.
“Peter, if I have to ask you again, I’m going to boil a pot of water and cook your gonads like meatballs. Am I getting through to you?”
“Easy, cowboy,” he said. “I put cold medicine and sugar in the water bowl on the back porch.”
I stared at him.
“See?” he said. “I can be reasonable. You do something for me and I do something for you.”
“I can be reasonable, too,” I said. “You keep doing what I tell you to do, and I won’t tape your mouth and nose closed.”
“Can I ask a question?” he said.
“Make it quick.”
“Are you getting it with either of these ladies?”
“What’s it to you?”
“Just wondering why you’re in the middle of this thing. The Backetts will send someone else if I don’t come back. Next time they’ll come after you, too.”
“You could let me go. I’ll tell the Backetts that I took care of business, and both of us could get on with our lives.”
“Here’s the thing, Peter,” I said. “You promise has as much integrity as a politician’s handshake. And if I let you get on with your life, that implies that I endorse your hobby and don’t mind you moving on to your next victim. Because I know that you’re not going to quit doing it. The thing is, when you came through the window in your ninja suit last night, you made the choice that it was worth the risk of getting caught so you could have fun at the lady’s expense and maybe kill her, too. Some risks pay off, but this time it didn’t. You went to the well once too often, and things went badly. I guess it’s remotely possible that I’ll think of a reason to turn you loose, although if you’re the kind of person who likes numbers, that chance is about one in a million. You should start thinking about things that you could do to move the needle. Next time we talk, you need to be ready to give me something worth having.”
I tore a fresh strip of duct tape off the roll and re-taped his mouth and ears. He didn’t resist.
I went out to the back porch and picked up the dog bowls. I carried them inside, flushed the contents down the toilet, and rinsed the bowls out in the bathroom sink. After I’d put the dog bowls back on the porch, I went into the kitchen and called Eric Fullmeyer.
“Delorean,” he said. “How is the girl-swapping experiment going?”
“I need to take out some trash,” I said. “And Emily is going to have to move.”
I heard him groan.
“Is everyone okay?” he asked.
“Where’s the trash?”
There was a pause for a few seconds.
“How much is there?” he asked.
“Just one bag, but it’s too heavy for one person to carry. Someone might get hurt.”
“Before I get there I need you to do something for me,” Eric said. “Pull Emily’s car out of the driveway so I can back the van up against the gate for the backyard.”
“I’ll be there in an hour.”
“We’ll be here.”
I parked Emily’s car across the street. When I came back inside, Emily and Sandy were in the kitchen, and Emily was apologizing to Sandy about leaving Sandy’s purse, the cashmere sweater, and the leather pumps on the cliffside when Peck’s boys came after us. Emily said that none of that mattered, and that all of it could be easily replaced. Sandy tried to engage Emily in conversation about what had happened on the cliffside, but Emily seemed reluctant to talk about it. Sandy kept probing, and Emily said “If you really want to know what happened, I killed someone today. That’s what happened.” That was the end of the conversation.
I offered to prepare dinner in the vain hope that it would cut some of the tension in the room. I browned ground beef in a pan while I sliced tomatoes, peppers, onions, and lettuce to make a countertop assembly line for soft shell tacos. I’d found flour tortillas in the refrigerator, and I’d microwaved half a dozen of them and then wrapped them in a dish towel to keep them warm.
We’d each prepared our own plates and sat together while we ate, but none of us said anything. Occasionally we heard a creaking noise from the hallway when Peter shifted his weight in the chair.
After Sandy finished her meal she got up from the table, washed her plate, and put the dish away.
“Thanks for dinner,” Sandy said. “I’m going to mosey on over to a motel. I was up most of last night, and I think I’m going to collapse if I don’t get some sleep.”
She leaned over and gave Emily a hug. “See you later, girl,” she said.
“Your car is out front,” I said. “Your suitcase is in the back seat.”
“That was thoughtful of you,” she said. “Where’s your car?”
“I left it for the vultures.”
Emily stood from the table. She wrapped her arms around Sandy, and the two of them held each other for a moment, swaying slightly. Then they separated.
“Bye, kids,” Sandy said.
Sandy walked down the hall, stopped in front of the utility closet, and stared at Peter Stargen. Then she hooked a toe around the edge of the opened door and slammed it shut. I followed her outside. When we reached her car, she held her hand out to me and I put the keys to the Camaro in her open palm. I got in the passenger seat and retrieved my gun and Emily’s gun from the glove box.
Sandy glanced at the suitcase and shotgun in the back seat before getting behind the wheel. I stayed in the passenger seat longer than I needed to, very aware that our paths were diverging.
“Goodbye, superman,” she said. She gave me a tired smile.
“See you later, Sandy.”
“Remember what I said about this guy,” Sandy said, tipping her head towards the house. “Don’t take him off the leash. He’s got fast hands and he likes killing.”
“I promise,” I said.
Then I got out of the Camaro and she started the car. She looked at me one last time as she pulled away from the curb, gave the car some gas, and she was gone.
Emily and I were holding hands at the kitchen table when Eric came into the house. We’d been sitting silently, just listening to the noises coming from the hall closet as Peter shifted his weight in his chair. Emily had her gun in her lap and had been flipping the safety on and off obsessively for the last half hour. Click. Click. Click. I’d turned off Peter’s phone and had placed it on the kitchen counter to give to Eric. The darkness outside matched my somber mental state.
Eric walked down the hallway into the kitchen. He was wearing a dark pair of coveralls and black tactical boots with rubber soles. It was late, and he looked like he needed a shave.
“Emily,” he said. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Where is he?” Eric asked.
“Hall utility closet,” I said.
He looked at me. “You ready?” he said.
I nodded. “Yeah.”
I stood from the table, picked up Peter’s phone from the countertop, and handed it to Eric. “This is his phone.” Eric checked to make sure that the phone was turned off before he slipped it into a pocket. Then he cocked his head towards the hallway.
“We’re going to have to bring him through the kitchen, Emily,” I said. “Eric’s got the van on the side of the house, and we’re taking him through the back yard.”
She stood up from the table and went over to stand by the refrigerator.
“Do what you gotta do,” she said.
I followed Eric out of the kitchen, and we went down the hall to the utility closet.
Eric slid a black wand about eight inches long from a pocket in his coveralls. I heard a click and then the high pitched whine of a capacitor charging. Eric nodded his head at me. I turned the doorknob and pulled the door open.
Peter’s head started to come up off his chest, and Eric stepped forward and pressed the stick against Peter’s neck. Eric kept pressure on the tip of the stick while Peter’s body jerked against the ropes that tied him to the chair. The muscles in his arms and legs tightened against the ropes and the duct tape, and his face seemed locked in a rictus of pain. A few seconds later Eric pulled the stick off of Peter’s neck, and Peter’s head slumped to his chest.
The chloroform rag was on the floor of the utility closet. I picked it up and wrapped it around Peter’s face. I tightened the knot on the rag to secure it in place.
Eric and I cut off the ropes and duct tape that bound Peter to the chair. Eric lifted him to a standing position, I pulled his pants on, and we each took an arm.
Emily was standing by the stove when we entered the kitchen.
“I need you to open the back door,” Eric said.
“What are you going to do with him?” Emily said.
“Relocate him,” I said.
“I’ve got something I want say to him first,” she said.
“Okay,” Eric said. He peeled the tape off of one of Peter’s ears.
“Can he hear me?” she said.
“He can hear you,” Eric said. “He just can’t do anything about it at the moment.”
She leaned in close to Peter’s uncovered ear and whispered “I hope you rot in hell.”
We drove for half an hour on the twisting road that hugs the Oregon coastline. We saw other cars and trucks occasionally, but minutes would pass when the whole world seemed to consist of our van, the pavement, and the darkness that enveloped us. Our headlights flared into the black emptiness of the coastal highway, the high beams painting the pavement in front of our car with a pale grey light. The road writhed like an asphalt serpent in the moonless night, the highway coiled against the boundary of the coastline as tightly as a python wraps itself around its prey. It felt like we were on a bus ride to hell.
“You want to tell me what you know about this guy?” Eric said.
I told Eric everything that Sandy had said about the torture kit, about the way Peter entered through the window with the sap and the chloroform rag, about Peter drugging the dog, what little I knew about the Backett family and the son in prison, and about the reverse image search of Emily’s face that matched her through a dating website to an address in Tillamook.
“I told her not to post any pictures of herself online,” Eric said.
“I guess she thought a profile picture on a matchmaking site didn’t qualify.”
Eric sighed. “Doesn’t leave us much choice, does it?”
“No question,” I said. “He’s a serial predator, and next time he’ll succeed. He’d come after Emily again if he had the chance.”
“And I can’t put him into the system,” Eric said. “The Backett family will find a lawyer and they’ll get it plead down to a simple breaking and entering that went wrong. You and I both know different.”
“People like this have no place in our society. The only way to make them stop is to put them down permanently.”
“I don’t disagree, Eric. If Sandy and Emily hadn’t swapped places, Emily would be dead and he’d be on his way back to Phoenix.”
“I just want you to know what you’re getting yourself into.”
“I already do. I’m not bothered by it.”
“You haven’t been through it yet,” Eric said.
That was when Peter revived. The chloroform rag had come loose from Peter’s face as he’d rolled back and forth on the floor of the van, and he’d decided that making noise was his only option. It’s hard to yell through duct tape, but Peter’s muffled screams were primal, loud, and they grated on my nerves. After a while I got enough of it, and I took Eric’s bump stick to the back of the van to give Peter another jolt. Peter was still handcuffed hand and foot to a chain attached to the floor of the van, but the chain was too long to keep him from covering up, and he was still dangerous.
Peter had managed to get to his feet and was leaning against the back doors. He saw me coming, and he jerked and twisted his body to keep the skin on his face and neck from being exposed to the stun stick. After I wrestled with him to get him turned, he whipped around and head-butted me in the cheek. I dropped the stun stick, then backed up half a step and hit him with a right cross, a left, then an uppercut that started at my waist, went through his jaw, and finished above my head. When I connected with the last punch, his teeth knocked together so hard that there was an audible clack. His head rocked back and then forward before he dropped to the floor of the van.
When he went down, I retrieved the stun-stick from the floor. I turned the stick on, listened to the whine of the stick charging, and then I held it against the side of his neck while his body jerked like a crippled bronco bull. I pressed the metal probes against the skin until the unit turned itself off.
I returned to the passenger seat.
“You okay?” Eric said. “It sounded like you got into it back there.”
“This guy is really quick,” I said.
“Sandy said he had fast hands, so it’s not like I wasn’t warned, but he turned on me and popped me with a head butt so fast I didn’t even see it coming.”
“Thanks for the warning. He’s quiet now, so I guess you got the upper hand.”
I put the stun-stick on the console and held my hand against my cheek where he’d head-butted me.
“How much farther?” I asked.
We both watched the road. We rounded a curve, and I heard the chain clattering against the floor of the van as Peter’s body slid across the bare metal.
“Emily is going to have to move,” Eric said. “No question.”
“Even if she left WITSEC, she’d still have to go. The Backett family knows she’s in Tillamook now. No way around that problem.”
“Damn,” he said.
I didn’t say anything.
“Anything new with Anthony Peck?” he asked.
“Peck sent six guys after Emily and me on Oceanside Beach. Emily and I got away, but in the process we ended two of Peck’s people.”
“Was Emily involved?” Eric asked.
“She hit one of them with rocks and he fell into a ravine,” I said. “They were shooting at us at the time.”
He shook his head.
“So now she’s in this thing with you and Peck,” he said.
“I don’t think they know who she is,” I said.
“Yet,” Eric said.
When he spoke, his voice sounded deeper and sadder than I’d ever heard it sound before.
“When we get back, I’m going to expedite her exit,” he said. “She needs to be relocated immediately. Between Peck and the Backetts, God help her.”
“I agree,” I said.
The van slowed, and we turned left on an unmarked exit from the highway. We went down a short slope, the tires thrummed across a cattle guard, and we continued for several hundred yards on a narrow logging trail. The van pulled from side to side as the tires bumped up against the sides of the ruts that the tires followed. Our headlights cut across the trunks of Douglas Fir trees, and several times illuminated the reflective silver eyes of deer and coyotes deep in the woods. Then the headlights flashed across a hinged gate made of steel pipe.
Eric got out, unlocked a padlock that held the gate closed, and moved the gate out of the way. We drove through and re-locked the gate, then continued on for another quarter mile before the road terminated in an opening large enough for a small number of cars to park. Eric slowed the van to a stop.
“What now?” I said.
Eric tipped his head towards the forest on the right side of the van. I looked to the right, and there was a red lightbulb glowing maybe fifty feet from the van.
“You an ordained minister?” he asked.
“We’re going to preside over a funeral. You want to stay in the van, you can do that, or you can come along. It’s my mess to clean up, so I’ll do the dirty work.”
“It’s my mess, too,” I said.
Eric nodded. “I guess it is now,” he said.
We went to the back of the van, and Eric opened the double doors. Peter was curled on the floor in a fetal position. Eric unhooked him from the chain that connected his handcuffs to the U-bolt in the center of the floor of the van. We each took hold of an arm and dragged him to the rear of the van, then stepped onto the dirt and slid his body out.
“Lay him down,” Eric said.
We were gentler with him than he deserved.
Eric closed the back door of the van, locked it, and pocketed the keys.
We picked Peter up by the arms and pulled him towards the red light bulb. The night felt like we’d dropped into a kind of alternate reality. The only sounds came from our breath and from the twigs that snapped beneath our feet.
The red bulb was mounted on a piece of galvanized steel pipe that jutted fifteen feet from the forest floor. At the top of the post there was a metal screen protecting the bulb, a motion sensor, and a video camera. When we approached the base of the pipe, the proximity sensors at the top of the pipe must have registered our arrival, because the red bulb went out. Everything was completely dark for a second, and then another bulb began to glow, this time about a hundred yards deeper into the forest and to our left. This time the bulb was white.
“What the hell is this place?” I said.
“Doomsday preppers built it,” Eric said. “I bought ‘em out for the price of unpaid property taxes when the financial markets cratered. The demand for concrete bunkers isn’t very big. The lights are part of the security system that came with the property. There are video cameras on each of the poles, too. Gives the occupants a chance to see who’s coming, and to turn the lights off if they don’t like what they see.”
“Couldn’t people find it during the daytime anyway?”
“I gather that the plan was to shoot anyone who showed up during daylight hours.”
“Of course. I should have guessed.”
“These were not what you would call run-of-the-mill home builders. There was a certain kind of sense to what they were doing, but craziness, too. Refusing to pay property taxes was part of their philosophy.”
As we reached the post for the white bulb, the light went out, and then a few seconds later a blue light illuminated deeper in the forest and to our right.
“Very patriotic,” I said. “Red, White, and Blue.”
“No doubt,” he said. “In their minds this is what it meant to be free.”
“Are we being watched?” I asked.
“Only by God,” Eric said. “Nobody’s lived here for years. I come a few times a year to make sure the electricity and water still work when I need it to.”
By the time we reached the third bulb, my eyes had fully adjusted to the darkness, and the outline of a one-story concrete building was visible among the tree trunks. The blue bulb was mounted over the front door of the building. There were no windows, but there was a steel door with three deadbolt locks and a simple pull handle screwed into the face of the door.
“Put him down,” Eric said.
We dropped him without attempting to be gentle. Eric took a flashlight and a set of keys out of one of his pockets. He unlocked the deadbolts and used the door handle to pull the door partially open before hooking his fingers around the steel door and opening it wide. Then he stepped inside and flipped a light switch. Beige linoleum floors, metal rack bunk beds, and a kitchen with stainless steel appliances were visible through the open door.
“Inside,” Eric said.
We picked him up and dragged him through the door. Once we were inside, Eric locked the deadbolts with the key. It smelled musty and damp, like a storm cellar that hadn’t been opened in a long time.
“You’ve done this before,” I said.
“Twice,” he said. “Nearly got killed the first time. Stopped paying attention for one second and he almost took my head off with the chain on his handcuffs. Taught me a lesson.”
I didn’t say anything.
“All the way to the back,” Eric said.
We dragged Peter past the beds and the kitchen into a room that was probably twenty feet by twenty. There was no furniture, no windows, just linoleum on the floors and concrete on the walls and ceiling. There were a few dark marks on the walls that looked like old blood stains, but otherwise it was very clean. The room was lit by a square of bright LED bulbs mounted on the ceiling.
“In the corner,” Eric said.
We dragged Peter to the far side of the room and laid him down in the corner. Both of us took a few steps back. Eric pulled a thirty-two caliber Beretta from his coveralls and handed it to me.
“He gets past me, kill him. Kill me, too, if you have to, but he doesn’t leave here under any circumstances. No matter what. Understand?”
“I get it. What’s the plan?”
“You and I are going to teach him some empathy before he leaves the land of the living,” Eric said. “He likes torturing people. I think he should understand what his victims felt like, if only for a few minutes. Don’t you?”
Eric walked over to Peter’s prone form and unlocked the handcuffs on his hands and feet. He tossed the two pairs of handcuffs back to me before pulling on a thin pair of leather gloves and squatting down beside Peter. He slapped Peter hard on the face and said “Wake up, Romeo.”
Peter groaned and shifted himself into a sitting position. Eric and I stood back and watched as Peter became alert and aware. Peter scanned the room with calculating eyes and checked his joints with subtle movements to see if anything was broken. It was like watching a spider that had been dropped into a bottle. After a little while it uncurls its legs, and then it starts looking for its next meal.
Eric said “I think he’s ready.”
Eric walked over to Peter, squatted down, and put a hand on each side of Peter’s head. The he used the power in his legs to pull Peter upright by his ears in a single, swift motion. Peter’s eyes went wide and he screamed in pain as his head reached chest-high on Eric. When Peter’s fists swung at Eric’s face, Eric snapped his arms to full extension, bouncing Peter off the concrete wall. One of Peter’s fists connected with the side of Eric’s head, but Eric didn’t seem to notice.
Peter fell to the ground briefly before getting to his feet. Then he peeled the duct tape off of his mouth and ears. His nose and cheeks were burned from the chloroform rag, and his neck had a bruise the size of a silver dollar from the pressure of the stun stick.
Eric took three steps back and said “You like hurting people. You’re about to understand pain from the other side. I’m going to break your arms and your legs, maybe your jaw, and then I’m going to drag you out into the forest and bury you alive.”
Peter straightened up and began moving in a dazed manner towards Eric. When Peter was close enough to make contact, he snapped a very fast roundhouse kick at Eric. Eric rotated into the kick and caught it with his hip before pinning Peter’s leg against his side with his left hand. Then Eric punched Peter in the mouth with a savage right hook before lifting Peter’s leg and launching him into the wall. Peter grunted when he hit the concrete.
Peter came off the wall like a fighter bouncing off the ropes in a boxing match. He had his hands in tight fists and his arms raised to block punches to his head. Eric circled slowly to the right, forcing Peter to circle, too. The two of them began to close the distance to each other. When they were close enough to each other to make contact again, Peter threw a side kick from the hip. The kick was so fast that I barely saw it happen. Eric deftly stepped aside and threw a vicious down block on Peter’s knee. Peter grunted and then began circling again. After a few steps, Peter moved quickly towards Eric, jumping forward and throwing a powerful front kick at Eric’s chest. When Peter began the kick, Eric stepped just out of range once again, and he punched Peter full-force in the ribs when Peter landed. Peter doubled over in pain.
Eric said “Maybe you’re a big deal in some dojo, but I’m a lot better at this than you are. When you’re inferior to your opponent, the sensible thing to do is to wait for an opening and exploit it. Not attack head-on and hope you get lucky. You know that, right?”
Peter bent over and spit a mouthful of blood on the floor. He rested his hands on his knees like a boxer who’d had enough.
“Another thing,” Eric said. “You telegraph every kick by shifting all your weight to the supporting leg about half a second ahead of time. All I have to do is wait for you to do that and then move out of the way. You’ve got speed, but you’re so obvious about what you’re doing that it doesn’t matter.”
Peter lifted his head and stared menacingly at Eric.
“Finally,” Eric said. “Even when you have the chance to use your hands, like you did when I picked you up by your ears, it was obvious that you’re about as strong as watered-down beer. You should have spent the last few years in the weight room, instead of stealing panties in your ninja suit. When you want to continue, do it, but I think I could probably take you with both hands behind my back.”
Peter ran full speed at Eric. As Peter closed the distance, Eric rotated his hip, grabbed hold of Peter’s arm and rolled him over his hip, sending Peter flying into the wall. Peter’s back and head hit the concrete with a sickening thud.
“I don’t think you’re worth fighting,” Eric said. “I’ve seen plenty of street kids tougher than you. Not meaner than you, but tougher. Is that what your costume is about? A way to convince yourself that you’re deadly?”
Peter rolled over on the floor, put his hands against the wall, and started pulling himself upright.
“It’s reckoning day,” Eric said. “You’re not that tough and I’m tired of playing with you. If you believe in God, start praying. I’m breaking bones from here on out.”
Blood streamed from Peter’s mouth and nose. He leaned against the wall as if he was having trouble standing upright. Then he reached behind his back, fumbled with something in his waistband, and his hand came around. He held a pencil-thin blade no longer than a finger.
“He’s got a knife!” I shouted.
“I see it,” Eric said. There was no fear in his voice. Eric extended his arms and made an X-shape with his wrists, one arm crossing over the other so that he could trap the knife hand if Peter lunged with it.
“Did you hear that bell ring, Peter?” Eric said. “This is the twelfth round of your last fight. You got anything left let’s see what it is.”
Peter formed his left hand into a fist and held the knife in his right hand. He shuffled a few feet to the side so that he was backed fully against the corner, making it harder for Eric to get at him without getting cut in the process. I thought about an incident that occurred when I lived on my aunt and uncle’s farm. A fully grown rat had been cornered by my uncle’s dog on the back porch of their house. The rat tried to crawl under the siding of the house to escape, couldn’t find a way out, and then dropped back down onto the concrete patio. Each time the rat moved left or right to escape, the dog moved too, blocking the rat’s escape. The dog was a mutt, but a big and fearless one, and he growled with a force that you felt in your gut. The rat bared its yellow teeth and hissed, challenging the dog to attack. The dog growled and bared his teeth, too, daring the rat to try to escape. My uncle watched the drama for a minute before he went to his farm truck and returned with a single-barrel shotgun. He strode casually over to stand beside his dog, pointed the shotgun barrel in the general direction of the rat, and fired.
“You going to make me come in there and take that knife away from you, Peter?” Eric said. “I’m going to bury that thing in your Adam’s apple.”
Peter’s knife hand was shaking. “Come on then!” he shrieked. “Come on!”
Neither of us said anything as we made our way back along the logging road to the highway. The tires thrummed across the cattle guard once more, and then we drove up the short hill to the pavement. Eric turned right on the highway and we headed north, back to Tillamook and the problems waiting for me there.
We’d been driving for a while when Eric finally broke the silence.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. What about you?”
“Sometimes I feel like I’m trying to keep a dam from breaking by putting my fingers in the cracks,” Eric said. “With all the budget cutbacks it feels like I’m running a refugee camp on a shoestring budget. Every fix is temporary, there’s never enough time, and it all comes down to me. And the people in the program trust me with their lives. I cannot fail.”
“You’re doing everything you can, Eric. No one could do more.”
Eric rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes. The tires hummed on the asphalt, the chain rattled against the floor of the van, the engine surged and quieted as we went up and then down the hills on Highway 101. The sky over the Pacific Ocean was a color halfway between purple and black, a velvety color that made the horizon impossible to distinguish.
Eric coughed like someone does who’s about to give a speech and said “I’ve been thinking about your problem with Peck.”
“I think you have to go public with your story,” Eric said. “Peck is too big to take down.”
“Really? Call Peck out for what he did to my parents?”
“I don’t see any other way.”
“The OKC police department doesn’t think they can prove Peck was involved. What would I get by going public?” I asked.
“Neutralize the threat. The reason Peck wants you gone is so you can’t tell your story.”
“And after I go public, the reason Peck will want me gone is revenge.”
“True, but it would come back on him if something happened to you,” Eric said.
“Eccles told me that Peck’s got a long track record of getting away with murder.”
“Your best option might just be to disappear. Move to someplace remote where Peck doesn’t have connections, like Maine or Rhode Island. Vermont, maybe.”
“How long do you think it would take Peck to find me?”
“I don’t know. It would depend on how low a profile you kept and how much cash you had to live on. Where you were willing to live. What kind of job you were willing to do to support yourself. Whether you needed legitimate I.D. to work.”
“You’re really selling it to me. So if I worked in a cranberry bog for minimum wage and lived in a tent, I might be able to avoid Peck’s people. That’s what you’re saying.”
“It could be a rustic, peaceful, simple life,” Eric said. “It would be better than being dead.”
“I can’t argue with that,” I said. “But I don’t think so. I’m not going to let Peck ruin me.”
“I have to ask you a question,” Eric said.
“You were holding hands with Emily when I got to her house tonight. Is something going on between you two?”
“We’re friends,” I said.
“That’s all?” Eric said. “Just friends?”
“We slept together,” I said.
Eric let out a long sigh and shook his head.
“I asked you to protect her, not take advantage of her.”
“It wasn’t like that, Eric, believe me. It’s something both of us wanted. There’s chemistry between us.”
“Under different circumstances, I’d be madder than hell, but in the scheme of things it doesn’t matter. You’re both in so much trouble that it’s a drop in the bucket.”
“It just happened,” I said. “We’re both adults.”
Eric was quiet. Then he said “Do you realize that Sandy has been carrying a torch for you for a long time?”
“Don’t act like you don’t know. Why do you think she keeps dropping everything to come to your rescue? When I called her and told her you were in trouble, she couldn’t get here fast enough. What do you think that means?”
“I didn’t realize that she felt that way about me. I’d do the same for her.”
“Really? You never have. You had to know when you saw her in El Paso that she was in pretty bad shape. Did you do anything to help? I don’t have the best social skills, but compared to you I’m pretty good. Does Sandy know that you and Emily slept together?”
“I don’t think so. I’m not sure.”
“There’s something I think you should know,” Eric said. “Emily isn’t a damsel in distress. She was engaged to be married to the son of a mob boss. I know that she watched this guy, her future husband, kill several people who got sideways with his dad in a business deal. She never said anything to the police about it. In fact, the only reason she didn’t go to prison as an accessory when he was prosecuted for murder is that she agreed to testify against him. You really think that you two have a future together? How much do you actually know about her?”
I didn’t say anything.
“Just think about it, okay?”
We made the turn onto Emily’s street. It was 3:15 in the morning.
“What now?” Eric asked.
“My brain is melting,” I said. “I’ve got to get some sleep. I’ll see if Emily will let me sleep on her sofa.”
“All right,” Eric said. “We’ll talk tomorrow.”
I got out of the van and Eric pulled away from the curb. I went to the front door and tried the knob. It was locked. I rang the doorbell, the Doberman went crazy as it always did, and I watched Emily rise from the sofa and shuffle to the front door. She had the silver pistol in her hand when she cracked the door. She looked at me for a moment before she unhooked the door chain and let me into the house.
“C’mon in,” she said.
Once the dog recognized me, she quieted and sat down. Emily’s finger twitched against the safety on her pistol. Click. Click. Click.
“You were gone a long time,” she said. “I was afraid something happened to you.”
“I’m okay,” I said.
She closed the door and locked it, hooked the security chain onto the door, then took me by the hand and led me back to her bedroom. She flipped the light switch on and pulled me inside, still holding the pistol in her hand. The dog was two paces behind and wanted to follow, but Emily pushed the door closed behind us, leaving the dog on the other side of the door.
She laid her pistol on the nightstand. I took my phone and wallet out of my pocket and put them on the nightstand beside the gun. I was between her and the bed, and she put her palm over my heart. She pushed against my chest and I took a step back. I felt the backs of my legs press against the bed frame and I sat down on the mattress. There was something distant in her eyes, as if her desire for intimacy was a practiced routine and she was just going through the motions. The muscles in her face seemed slack, her eyes puffy from sleep. She unbuttoned her shirt and slid it off, then reached behind with one hand to unhook her bra. She shrugged her shoulders forward and the blue brassiere straps slid down her arms. She watched my facial expression as if she wanted to gauge the impact that her body had on me.
She leaned forward and pushed on my chest once again, keeping the pressure up until I was laying flat on my back on the mattress. I closed my eyes.
“You tired?” she said.
“It’s been a long day.”
She got up onto the bed and straddled me with a knee on either side of my hips.
“Just a little longer,” she said. Then she leaned forward and her body pressed mine into the mattress.
I was dreaming about being in a boxing ring. I couldn’t see anything but darkness beyond the confines of the ropes, and I was fighting a faceless opponent who was much bigger than I was. My fists moved in slow motion, and my opponent was always able to move out of the way without difficulty. My feet could move, but when I threw a kick, my leg moved so slowly that my opponent simply stepped to one side before he punched me with devastating force. I kept getting up off of the canvas when I was knocked down, but each time I got up from the canvas I felt like I had less fight in me than the time before. The last time that I was knocked down I considered staying there.
The bell announced the end of the round. I lay face down on the mat feeling the roughness of the canvas against the side of my face and enjoying the relief that I did not have to fight for a while. Then the bell sounded again, and a dog began to bark. Consciousness seeped back into my thought processes. I felt Emily roll away from me and heard the springs in the mattress squeak as her weight shifted. Then the mattress bounced once as she got out of bed.
I opened one eye and watched Emily’s naked form walk across the bedroom to her closet. She picked a red silk robe off of a coat hanger, pulled it on, and tightened the belt. She checked herself briefly in the mirror, and I was struck by how much she really did look like Marilyn Monroe with her creamy skin, her full lips, her tiny waist and hourglass figure more than evident through the thin fabric. Her honey blond hair was rumpled, but that added to the appeal somehow.
I rolled onto my back and rose up on my elbows as she walked over to my side of the bed.
She put a hand on my shoulder.
“It’s just the doorbell,” she said. “I’ll take care of this.”
She picked up her silver pistol from the nightstand and thumbed off the safety as casually as a smoker flicks the igniter on a cigarette lighter.
Then she went through the bedroom door and pulled it shut behind her.
I heard the front door open and close, and then the dog stopped barking. I heard women’s voices talking quietly in the living room before the voices moved to the kitchen and there was the sound of a pan being put on a stove. A few minutes later I smelled the unmistakable scents of coffee brewing and bacon cooking.
The duffel bag I’d brought with me the previous day was in the corner of the bedroom. I pulled clean clothes from the bag, pulling on jeans and a pullover sweatshirt to fight the chill of the summer morning. I took my toothbrush from the zip pocket on the duffel and went across the hallway and into the bathroom. As I closed the bathroom door, I heard Emily’s voice saying that everything was quiet after Eric and I left the previous night.
I splashed water on my face, brushed my teeth, and put my toothbrush in the rack beside Emily’s. Our toothbrushes being in the same rack was a small thing that meant something much larger, as many small things do. It meant something about decisions made about the present and assumptions made about the future. I felt disquieted, but I shrugged off my concerns. I splashed water on my hair and then towel dried it before combing it into a semblance of order.
I went into the kitchen, lured by the scents of coffee and bacon. Sandy was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of coffee in front of her. Emily had her back to us both. She was bent over the frying pan and using a metal spatula to flip the bacon. Emily’s red silk robe seemed out of place against the old cabinets and the worn linoleum on the kitchen floor.
The silver pistol lay on the countertop within Emily’s reach. I wondered if the wiring in Emily’s head had been permanently affected by the stalker and by what happened on the cliffside, and that the gun had become a permanent extension of her.
“Hey, superman,” Sandy said. “Your cape is looking a little wrinkled this morning.”
“Rough night,” I said.
Bacon grease popped in the pan and spattered on the countertop, and Sandy and I watched Emily bend forward to reach for the roll of paper towels on the counter. When she did that, her robe rode up her backside and exposed several inches of uncovered curvature at the top of her leg. Sandy glanced in my direction and raised her eyebrows.
“So I see,” Sandy said flatly.
I got a mug from one of the cabinets and poured a cup of coffee from the drip coffee maker. I went over to the kitchen table and sat down across from Sandy. She was wearing a blue blazer over a dark grey skirt and dark blue heels. The white silk shirt underneath the coat was buttoned all the way to the neck. She looked prim.
“You’re very well dressed,” I said.
“It’s Sunday,” Sandy said. “I went to church.”
I nodded. I was so tired that I was only vaguely aware of what day it was.
“Emily said that you and Eric took care of our guest,” Sandy said.
“He’s gone,” I said. Sandy watched as Emily used a spatula to lift the bacon from the pan onto a paper towel on a plate, then cracked four eggs into the bacon grease. Emily pressed the button on the exhaust fan over the cooktop to pull the smoke from the kitchen. The roar of the exhaust fan filled the kitchen.
“For a while? Or always?” Sandy asked, raising her voice slightly.
“Permanently,” I said.
Sandy nodded before saying “I don’t think that’s a bad choice.”
“Me either. Now I need to sort things out with Peck.”
For the first time since I’d sat down, Sandy made direct eye contact with me.
“How are you going to do that?” she asked.
“I’m not sure yet.”
“You sure you don’t just want to hit the road? I’ve got my car out front with a full tank of gas. We could be two states from here by midnight.”
“And let Peck chase me out of here?”
“And find a new place to live, Del. Going after Peck won’t change what happened to your parents. If you really think about it, you know I’m right.”
“I’m not going to let him get away with it.”
“Even if it costs you everything? It’s really worth that to you?”
“I’m not running,” I said.
Emily shut off the exhaust fan over the oven. It suddenly seemed very quiet in the kitchen. Emily brought a plate of eggs and bacon and put it on the table in front of me. Then she went over to the cooktop, brought her plate back over to the table and sat it next to mine. She laid her silver pistol on the table with the gun barrel pointed towards Sandy.
Sandy gave Emily a hard look and then made eye contact with me. Her expression seemed to say “Are you sure about this?”
“I offered Sandy breakfast, but she’s already eaten,” Emily said. She looked down at her plate and cut her eggs with a knife.
“I’m just not hungry,” Sandy said. “Thank you, though. I won’t be staying.”
Emily used the salt and pepper shakers to season her eggs.
“I’m going to have to go,” Sandy said. “I’m sorry.”
“Are you sure you can’t stay?” Emily said.
“Thanks,” Sandy said. “I’m good.” She stood from the table, and Emily and I also stood. It felt like I was saying goodbye to Sandy for the last time. We’d been having a conversation just moments before, but a bridge had been crossed and burned when Emily sat down.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’ll let you know when I get there,” she said. “How ‘bout that?”
Sandy went out the front door. I followed her outside onto the front porch, and then closed the door behind me. I stood by the door and watched her go down the steps and walk to her car. She opened the passenger door of the Camaro, tilted the seat forward, and reached into the back seat. She retrieved the shotgun and re-wrapped it in a towel. After she did that, she carried it across the yard and held the bundle up to me as if she were making an offering to the gods.
“I’m not doing this anymore,” she said.
“I don’t understand.”
“I can’t watch you kill yourself, Del. I know that I can’t fix you, and I can’t save you any more, either. And I’m giving up on waiting for you to notice me. I have to move on, and you have to save yourself if you can.”
I wouldn’t take the shotgun from her, and she laid it carefully on the porch at my feet.
“I’m going to try to face the world in a new way,” she said. “I think I’m going to look for a new job that doesn’t require a gun, too.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a small semiautomatic pistol.
“Take it,” she said. “You’re going to need this more than I will.” She held the pistol out to me at arm’s length.
The front door opened. Out of my peripheral vision I saw that Emily had the silver pistol in her hand.
Time moved in slow motion. I felt the cold concrete of the porch through the soles of my bare feet. I was exquisitely aware of the colors in Sandy’s blue cotton coat and ivory silk blouse, of the way that Sandy’s blonde hair fell delicately along the side of her neck, and of the amplified presence of Emily in the blood red robe as she shouted and raised her pistol.
I moved towards Emily as she extended her arm to fire, pushing my palm against her forearm and slamming her into the door frame. The silver gun went off with a sound like a firecracker, and the pistol snapped out of Emily’s hand and skittered across the front porch, pinwheeling on the smooth concrete until it came to a stop. I let go of Emily’s gun arm, and after glaring at me for a moment, Emily swung at my face with a backhanded slap. I jerked my shoulder up to protect my face, and I took the blow with my deltoid muscle and the top of my head.
“Don’t ever hit me like that again,” she said. “I’ll kill you if you do.”
“I don’t doubt it,” I said.
The dog came onto the porch tentatively, as if it were afraid.
I moved past Emily towards the silver pistol. I picked it up from the concrete and sensed the weight of it, felt the heat that Emily’s hand had imparted to the mother of pearl grips, and smelled the odor of burnt gunpowder. I looked at the filigree and the chrome on the gun’s frame. Stylish, feminine, and lethal power collected into one shiny package. I hopped off of the porch onto the cool grass of the lawn.
“I thought she was going to shoot you,” Emily said.
“I was giving him my gun,” Sandy said quietly. “Why would I shoot him?”
I wrapped my fingers around the butt of the gun and walked across the grass towards the street. “Lucky, lucky, lucky,” I thought. I stepped to the curb, bent over the storm grate, aligned the gun barrel parallel with the rusted bars, and dropped the pistol through the slot into the muddy water below.
Emily stood by the open front door as I walked back towards the house. Sandy had picked the shotgun up from the porch and held it against her leg.
As I walked up the steps onto the front porch I told Sandy to give me two minutes. Emily had a sour expression on her face as I passed. I went inside and walked back down the hallway towards the bedroom. The scent of bacon and eggs was still strong.
“Right,” I thought. “We were having breakfast before Emily decided to kill Sandy in the front yard.”
I pulled on my running shoes before I picked up my cell phone and slid it into my back pocket. I put my gun inside the duffel bag, took one last look around the bedroom, and came back out through the front door.
Sandy was standing by the driver’s side door of the Camaro. Emily hadn’t moved. I walked past her without saying a word, and then went down the steps and across the yard.
“Are you leaving?” Emily said to my back. She sounded as if she thought I’d betrayed her. I ignored her and kept walking.
“You still willing to take me with you?” I asked Sandy.
“Only if you’re ready to leave,” she said.
I opened the passenger side door, tipped the seatback forward, and put my duffel bag on top of the shotgun.
Eccles’ rental Buick pulled up behind Sandy’s Camaro. I watched Eccles get out of his car. He appeared to be wearing the same clothes he’d had on the day before.
“You were headed for the airport the last time I saw you,” I said.
“I changed my mind,” Eccles said. “May I speak to you?” He gestured with his hand towards the interior of his car.
I said “Sure.” I told Sandy that I needed to talk to Detective Eccles for a minute and asked her if she would wait for me. She nodded.
Eccles and I got into his rental car. He looked past me towards Emily’s house. Emily was still standing on the front porch and had her back against the door frame. Her eyes were closed, her head was tipped back, and her arms were folded across her chest while her body heaved with sobs. The dog sniffed at the corner of the porch where I’d retrieved the gun.
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“Well, since your phone appears to be turned off, I contacted Marshal Fullmeyer through the Federal Marshal’s service, and he directed me here. Looks like I just caught you.”
“You did,” I said. “Another thirty seconds and I would have been gone.”
“So I gather,” he said. “Is your lady friend okay?” He jerked a thumb towards the porch.
“No,” I said. “Not by a mile.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Well, I thought about what you said yesterday. It made me mad, as truth sometimes does.”
“What you said about me being more concerned about my career than about justice.”
“I don’t think that we can get a conviction on Peck with the evidence we have today,” he said.
“I still know that he’s guilty,” I said. “You do, too.”
“You thinking about going hunting?” he asked.
“I’m thinking about disappearing,” I said.
“I’m surprised that you’re willing to do that. You seemed hell-bent on revenge the last time we talked.”
“I can’t see a way through this that won’t get other people hurt. Even if I was able to get at Peck and then find a way to get myself clear, Peck’s people would hunt down everyone I know and make them pay for what I did.”
“I’m surprised at how sensible you can be. I think you’re right, though.”
“Sadly,” I said.
“I want to help you, but if you want him to go to jail, we need more evidence.”
“Give me an example.”
“Like him telling you that he did it. You’d have to meet with him and wear a wire,” Eccles said.
“That seems like a long shot,” I said. “You think he wouldn’t expect that?”
“Maybe not if you get him off guard. Make him think he’s got the upper hand.”
“You said he wanted to meet with you. Tell him you want to meet face to face. You could say that you’re going to talk to the newspaper or the authorities that monitor gambling establishments and wanted to talk to him first. Hint that you’re looking for a relocation bonus to move away and forget about the past,” Eccles said.
“You think he’ll buy that?”
“No, but I think he’ll agree to meet with you. He doesn’t like loose ends, and he can’t afford to have you making trouble at an inconvenient time.”
“So you want me to put my head in a noose and hope to get him on tape admitting to everything?” I said.
“More or less,” he said. “There’s an alternative, though.”
“Get Peck rattled in public. Make him feel trapped. Maybe he’ll blow his top and we’ll get something incriminating on tape,” Eccles said.
“A public confrontation?”
“A public humiliation of some kind.”
“Does your boss know what you’re up to?”
“I told him I was taking a few personal days here to soak up the scenery,” Eccles said.
“It’s going to cost you when he finds out different.”
Eccles shrugged. ”Sometimes you’ve got to grab the bull by the horns if you want to brand him.”
“Another campfire metaphor,” I said.
“Seems to fit in this case.”
I thought about Eccles’ suggestion.
“Looks like we have company,” Eccles said.
I looked over my shoulder and saw Eric’s van pull up behind Eccles’ Buick.
“You know this guy?” Eccles said.
“Eric Fullmeyer,” I said.
“I finally have a face to put with the name,” Eccles said.
I got out of the Buick. Eric stepped from his van and motioned with his chin towards Eccles’ car. Eric was wearing pressed jeans, a white dress shirt, and black and brown saddle oxfords.
“What’s up?” Eric said.
“This is Detective Eccles. We’ve been … strategizing,” I said.
Eric said “He said he wanted to talk to you. I couldn’t get through to you on your phone, so I sent him by.”
“It’s all right.”
“Well,” Eric said. “I’ll leave you to it. I need to talk to Emily.”
I looked towards the front porch. Emily uncrossed her arms and then took hold of the dog by the collar and dragged it inside. Once inside, she slammed the door.
“I don’t envy you,” I said.
“I don’t envy me, either,” Eric said. “I signed up for it, though, so I honestly don’t care how foul a mood she’s in.”
“You should know that she tried to shoot Sandy a minute ago.”
“Are you kidding me?”
I stared at him.
“Is Sandy okay?”
“Does Emily still have the gun?” Eric said.
“I threw it down the storm drain.”
“Did anyone call the police?” Eric said.
“Not that I know of.”
“Did Emily discharge her firearm?”
Eric’s shoulders sagged. “What a cluster,” he said. Then he walked across the grass towards the front door.
I tapped on Eccles’ window and he rolled it down. “We need to include Sandy in this conversation,” I said.
“That would be the lady in the car in front of us.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, you switch partners more often that a cowpoke at a square dance.”
“It’s a long story,” I said.
“You’ll have to tell it to me sometime,” Eccles said. “Well, let’s go talk to your new lady friend. I was just getting used to the other one.”
We were at the Sea Breeze restaurant in Newport, Oregon. The restaurant has a platform dining area that puts you over the water, giving you the sensation of being out at sea. It’s so far out of my price range that ordinarily I wouldn’t consider eating there. However, I knew that Anthony Peck would be there that night, so I didn’t worry about the cost. I also felt like I had a lot of ground to make up with Sandy, so I’d taken her shopping that afternoon at one of the finer dress shops on the Oregon coast. She was wearing a blue silk off-the-shoulder dress with buttons up the back and slits on the sides of the mid-thigh hemline. She looked fantastic.
Eccles and I were both dressed in formal evening attire. I’d rented a suite at a hotel near the restaurant, and the three of us had spent several hours getting ready for dinner.
We’d arrived at the restaurant early for the dinner seating, and I’d slipped the waiter a hundred dollars to seat us as far out over the water as possible. The table was up against the glass and was accessible only by a narrow aisle between two large circular tables. Those tables also had nice views, but not quite as nice a view as our table had.
Peck had arrived with an entourage a few minutes after we’d been seated. He hadn’t known that I’d be there, and he’d looked talkative and self-confident before he and the others in his group had taken seats at a horseshoe-shaped table on the far side of the room. There was a black tie dinner for the gaming commission at the Sea Breeze that night, and as the man with the plan to reform the economy of the Oregon coast with a mega-casino, Anthony Peck was the celebrity guest. The members of the gaming commission fluttered around Peck like moths around a streetlight. I had a visceral reaction when I saw him having casual conversations with other people in business suits.
I felt Sandy’s hand on mine. “Easy, superman,” she said. “We’ve got this. All you have to do is keep it cool and let us take care of it.”
The waiter came and took our orders for drinks. I had a stout beer. Eccles had an inch of whiskey over ice. Sandy had a glass of club soda with lime.
“I haven’t been dressed like this since senior prom,” Eccles said.
“You clean up very nicely, Bernard,” Sandy said.
Sandy had taken to calling Detective Eccles by his first name. We’d spent the day together getting ready for the big event, and Sandy and I had both come to appreciate what an intelligent, pleasant, and funny guy Eccles was. If things went badly wrong during dinner, at least I’d be going out with my friends by my side. I didn’t know how much security Peck would have with him, or what he’d be willing to do in public to punish me. I wouldn’t have to wait long to find out.
Bernard had ordered salmon, Sandy ordered cod, and I’d asked for rib eye. We had a pleasant wait with our drinks until our meals came, and we’d already started eating our meals when Peck finally looked over in our direction. I returned his stare for a moment and then I went back to eating. Peck waived over the huge bodyguard who’d been standing by the main entrance to the dining area. Peck stood from the dinner table when the bodyguard arrived at his side.
Peck was wearing a grey silk suit with a white shirt and pink tie. The fabric on the suit was shiny as if it were made to reflect light. Peck’s bodyguard had on a white dress shirt over black pressed slacks. I guess they don’t make tuxedo coats that big. He followed Peck over to our table, staying one pace back and one pace to the side like an obedient pet gorilla.
I’d been waiting to confront Peck for twenty years, to be able to slaughter the man who’d haunted my dreams since I was twelve years old. Somehow, seeing him up close in his shiny suit diminished him in my eyes to the point of caricature. He was shorter, fatter, and older than I thought he’d be. In the pictures I’d seen of him, he looked youthful, barrel-chested and virile. Maybe the fact that he always appeared at public functions with a beautiful woman on his arm imparted the impression of youth, power, and attractiveness. In person, he looked like a rich old guy who was fat but knew how to hide the weight. He was shorter than I thought he’d be, and his skin had the grey pallor of a lifetime cigarette smoker. He looked human and vulnerable, and I felt my anxiety and fear begin to fade.
Sandy stood up from her chair as Peck and the bodyguard arrived. Peck looked her up and down with the practiced gaze of someone who was used to evaluating people’s worth and then trading away their future without emotion or concern. Sandy leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.
“Back in a minute, dear,” she said. She walked by Peck closely enough that her shoulder bumped into Peck’s shoulder, knocking him off balance. The security guard started to reach for her, but Peck waved him off. Sandy kept walking, heading for the far side of the room where the gaming commission members had set up a podium, a projector, and a screen. A young man who I took for a member of the restaurant staff was connecting a laptop computer to the projector.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Peck asked me.
“I’m eating dinner, short stuff,” I said. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“I’m conducting business. And you damn well better not disrupt it.”
“Then go conduct it,” I said, “fatso.”
When I said that, Peck’s security guard stepped past Peck and stood very close to my chair.
The bodyguard was bald and closely shaved. Aside from his jet-black eyebrows, he appeared to be hairless. He leaned over and put his face quite close to mine. I could see the individual pores in the skin on his nose. “You do not speak to Mister Peck like that,” he said. “Do. You. Understand?”
“You want a piece of me?” I said. “Put your hands on me and watch what happens.”
Eccles stood up from the table and opened his coat to show his gold detective’s badge. He pointed his finger at Peck and said in a conversational tone “Call off your boy, Peck. Right now.”
At that point, another man moved quickly past Peck. I saw a huge hand grab the shoulder of the bodyguard. The knuckles on the hand were as wide across as golf balls, and I watched the fingers disappear into the trapezius muscles of the bodyguard in the way that the bucket of a steam shovel disappears into soft dirt. The fingers dug deeper and deeper, and I saw the bodyguard wince.
The bodyguard and I both rotated our heads slowly. Eric Fullmeyer stood behind and to the left of the bodyguard, his right hand clamping down on the bodyguard’s shoulder with iron force. Eric was dressed in a black tuxedo with a white dress shirt, and his yard-wide shoulders made his tiny waist seem even smaller. Apparently they actually did make tuxedo coats for people with torsos that large.
Peck’s bodyguard winced a second time before he got out of my face and stood upright. Eric let go of the bodyguard’s shoulder and took a smooth step back to a distance just out of punching range.
The bodyguard and Eric eyed each other across three feet of carpet. It was like watching a pair of giant monsters confront each other across the Golden Gate Bridge. Destruction of nearby landmarks seemed imminent.
Eric pulled his coat back slowly so the bodyguard could see Eric’s Marshal’s badge hanging on his belt.
“Back down and walk away,” Eric said. “Unless you want to try for the title. That would suit me fine.”
“It’s easy to be tough behind that badge,” the bodyguard said.
Without losing eye contact with the bodyguard, Eric reached down and unclipped his badge. He tossed the badge onto the dinner table.
“It’s easy for me to be tough without it too, princess,” Eric said. “If you’re still here in ten seconds you’ll find out just how tough that is.”
The skin on the neck of the bodyguard flushed bright pink.
I stood from my chair. I was about two feet from the bodyguard and five feet from Peck. I heard a buzzing noise in my ears, like my blood pressure was too high. I considered jumping Peck, his bodyguard, or possibly both. I could see Sandy talking to the kid who was setting up the projection system. She rested her hand on his shoulder, smiled, and handed him something small. Her smile was dazzling.
I heard Peck tell Eric “I’m going to have your job for this.”
Eric said “Take your best shot,” without taking his eyes off the bodyguard.
“What do you want me to do, boss?” the bodyguard said.
I was aware of how quiet the room had become. The other customers seated nearby were watching our table intently to see if there was going to be a brawl. No one was using their cutlery or drinking from their glasses. People who were seated with their backs to us had twisted in their seats to watch the show.
There was a squeaking noise at the front of the room as the public address system came on. Sandy stood at the podium and tapped the microphone several times. She had put her hair up in a chignon, wore dark red lipstick, and she’d chosen pale blue eyeshadow that mirrored the color of her dress. She looked stunning. People looked in her direction, then looked back at Eric and the bodyguard as if they were unsure of which show to watch.
“I’d like to make a testimonial speech about what a fine man Anthony Peck is,” Sandy said. “I hope no one minds.”
“Oh my God,” Peck said. “Get her off of there.”
The bodyguard turned to head for the dais, but Eric was blocking his path. The only alternate path for the security guard would require him to climb across the top of one of the adjoining tables.
“Move,” the bodyguard said.
“Make me,” Eric said.
“Let me take you back twenty years,” Sandy said through the public address system. “No one could have guessed that Anthony Peck would someday be the important man he is today. Let’s talk about his roots, where this fine man came from.”
At that point, Sandy nodded to the skinny kid working the projector, and the screen to the right of Sandy illuminated with a picture of the house I’d lived in when the home invasion occurred. Earlier that day Sandy had found a picture of the house on a real estate web site and put the picture on a USB drive. It hadn’t seemed likely to me that we’d get the chance to use the picture, but she’d proved me wrong.
“Oh. My. God,” Peck said. “I’m going to kill you for this. Every one of you. I mean it. I’m going to have you cut into pieces. You’re going to wish you were never born.” He said the word ‘born’ like ‘bone.’
“If I’m dead,” I said, “thinking about being bone is at the bottom of my to-do list. You can’t have it both ways.”
I held my right hand up high, with the thumb and first finger in the shape of an “O” to indicate “OK” to Sandy. Sandy leaned into the microphone. “I’m so sorry. I got the schedule mixed up. I’ll be back for Mr. Peck’s presentation later.” Then she turned off the microphone and left the podium. The kid working the projector shut it off.
Detective Eccles held up a cell phone for Peck to see.
“You just threatened to kill four people, including me, and I recorded the audio and video,” Eccles said. “That’s enough for me to go forward with my investigation of you in Oklahoma City, and to talk to a district attorney here about you threatening the lives of two civilians, a federal marshal, and a police detective. I wonder if the gaming commission and your investors would care. Let’s find out, shall we?”
Eccles gave Peck a pleasant smile.
Sandy had come back from the podium, moved carefully around Eric and the bodyguard, and said “Did you enjoy the show, Anthony?” as she moved past Peck. If Peck had laid a hand on her, I would have killed him then and there.
Sandy took my hand and whispered into my ear “C’mon, superman. Let us take care of this. You have to stay out of it for this to work. Let’s sit down.” She took a seat, tugged on my hand, and I sat down beside her. Eric stepped around the bodyguard and took a seat across the table from me.
“You were brilliant,” I told Sandy. “You had them in the palm of your hand.”
Eccles sat back down in his chair, too. That left Peck and the bodyguard standing by themselves in the narrow aisle that led to our table.
“I meant what I said,” Peck repeated. “You’re all dead. That’s not an empty threat.”
Eccles held up his phone a second time and said “Duly noted. Video recorder is still going. You reiterated your threat to kill four people and said that the threat wasn’t a joke. Anything else you want to say?”
“What should I do, boss?” the bodyguard said. “Do you want me to take the phone from him?”
Eccles said “I sure as hell hope that you try, pumpkin.”
Sandy gave Eccles a peck on the cheek. “Nice work, Bernard,” she said.
Bernard had sent the recording of Peck threatening our lives to the district attorney of Newport, to the Oregon gaming commission, to the Oklahoma City police department, and to two dozen news organizations. In the parlance of modern communication, the video had gone viral and had made front page news on several prominent newspapers. It doesn’t happen too often that someone with Peck’s level of wealth and influence is captured on film threatening to murder people. Sandy mentioned to me that one of the news articles said that the investment syndicate behind the casino was looking for someone besides Peck to run the project.
Peck hadn’t been seen in public in several days. Eric told me that he thought Peck might have gone to another country to avoid prosecution. I asked Eric what he thought about Peck’s thugs taking another run at me, and he said that he thought Peck was so tainted that the thugs would likely look for new leadership. “Peck’s a sinking ship,” Eric said. “Rats need something that floats when the surf gets rough.”
I wondered if Peck really would disappear, and I also wondered if Peck’s investors would want to do more to Peck than just fire him for bringing such bad press to the casino operation. I thought about the chances of Peck coming after me one last time, but I also felt relieved somehow. In a way I’d thrown my best punch, so if I still lost the fight I was okay with that.
That is not to say that Peck and his goons hadn’t made things hard for me. Peck’s pals had trashed my house in Oceanside in my absence. Bernard, Eric, Sandy and I spent a full day putting the house back in order, but I didn’t mind. Cleaning my house was, in the larger scheme of things, a very small problem.
When I’d first returned to the house with Sandy, I’d been shattered to see the destruction, and I’d felt violated like any homeowner does when someone breaks in and smashes prized belongings.
The doors on my much-worn Mustang GT had been open when I’d gotten home, and the glove box had been rifled. I lifted the hood and saw that the spark plug wires had been pulled loose so the car wouldn’t start. If that was all they’d done to the car, I’d gotten off easy.
Sandy could see how upset I was when I saw the damage to the interior of the house. She’d picked the binoculars up off the floor, handed them to me, and ordered me to go out on the deck while she triaged the damage. A few minutes later, I’d watched the bald eagle circling Three Arch Rocks before it landed. It lifted off the rock heavy with the prey it had caught, and then flew back in my direction. I watched the bird as it flew back over my house before landing in one of the Douglas Firs at the top of my hill. A few minutes later it flew to a second nest a hundred yards to the north, and I realized that it was trying to keep several sets of eaglets alive long enough for the young birds to take flight and survive on their own. Seeing that the eagle wasn’t just killing for the sake of killing settled something inside me that had felt jagged and out of place for a long time.
“That’s really what it’s all about,” I thought. “Isn’t it?”
Sandy came out onto the deck. She said “We need painter’s mud and tape to fill the holes they punched in the walls, beer, wine, steaks, mushrooms, green beans, onions, and a chocolate cake. Get enough food for four people.”
“You sound like you’re throwing a party,” I said.
“In fact, I am,” she said. She kissed me before handing me the keys to her car and telling me to go into Tillamook for the supplies. I hesitated, but she put the shopping list in my hand and told me to get moving.
“I didn’t realize what a ‘take charge’ person you are,” I said.
“We’re going to put this place right, Del,” she said. “Go on. Get going and I’ll start picking up.”
It’s hard to refuse a direct order like that.
I’d gotten in Sandy’s Camaro and headed towards Tillamook. The reflection of the sunshine on the Pacific Ocean never looked prettier. The roar of the engine sounded just right as I accelerated through the gears on the twisting roads. I felt a kind of freedom and joy that made me appreciate just being alive.
When I’d gotten back to the house two hours later, Eric and Bernard were there with Sandy. Eric had a big toolbox on the kitchen counter, and he and Bernard were talking about a ‘punch list’ for fixing everything that had been done to the house. They both nodded at me when I arrived and then went back to their conversation.
Sandy took a beer out of the grocery sack, twisted off the cap, and handed the bottle to me. “Enjoy,” she said. “We’ll get this place sorted out.”
“I’ll get the furniture if you’ll get the stereo,” Eric said to Bernard. Bernard nodded and said “Can do.” Those two made a good team.
I’d gotten the vacuum cleaner from the front closet and was rolling it into the kitchen when Eric sorted out the upturned sofa. He picked up the sofa by one end, tucked it under his arm as if it were a giant loaf of bread, rotated it against his hip, and then laid it down gently in an upright position. Sandy and I watched from the kitchen, dumbfounded at Eric’s feat of strength.
“Christ, Eric,” I said. “How did you do that?”
Eric said “What? It’s cheap furniture. If it had a fold-out bed inside there’s no way I could do that.”
Sandy had picked up the silverware and plates from the floor and dunked them in soapy water before scrubbing them with a sponge. She washed. I dried. We stood at the sink together in comfortable silence, each appreciative of the other’s presence.
One of Peck’s thugs had pulled my record albums from the shelves and scattered them across the floor. Most of the albums were still in the cardboard sleeves, including my Miles Davis Kind of Blue album. Bernard’s excitement at seeing that the album was still intact almost brought me to tears.
Someone had tipped over the big McIntosh speakers and left them face down on top of the record albums. Bernard put the speakers back where they belonged, reconnected the speaker wires, and powered up the Marantz amplifier. The first strains of So What filled the interior of the house. “It seems okay, Del,” Bernard said. “Still sounds really good.”
Eric turned out to be very good with mud and tape, and the holes that had been punched in many of the walls were soon just big white splotches against the Royal Blue paint. One of the holes was actually just a dent. It seemed that the puncher had hit metal beneath the surface. There was blood in the dent, and a trail of dried blood started on the floor beneath the dent and continued through the rest of the house like markings on a treasure map.
Once we’d sorted out the interior of the house, we’d gone out onto the deck to enjoy the view. I’d started the grill going as evening fell. Sandy turned on the Christmas lights that hung over the deck and she brought out the steaks that she’d been marinating for an hour or so. The steaks made a satisfying hissing noise as they hit the hot metal grate on the grill.
Bernard announced that he was taking a week’s vacation before he went home. He planned to drive down the coastline to San Francisco and catch a flight back to Oklahoma City from there. He took a swallow of India Pale Ale and pronounced it to be sweeter than honeysuckle nectar on a summer day.
Eric was in the kitchen cooking the vegetables in a big frying pan. He came outside and said that the vegetables smelled like they might be burning, so I handed Bernard the spatula I’d been using to flip the steaks, patted him on the back, and told him that he was in charge of the meat.
“If there’s one thing a cowboy knows how to do, it’s how to get the most out of a piece of beef,” Bernard said.
“I have to ask you something,” I said. “Have you ever actually ridden a horse?”
“I was one of the best rodeo riders in Tulsa when I was in high school,” he said. “Got thrown into a fence one time and nearly paralyzed. Decided law enforcement would be a safer bet than the rodeo, so I studied criminal justice in college. Not sure it’s been safer, but I’ve definitely had a longer career. And I can still walk.” He gave me a big smile before picking up the spatula and turning the steaks with practiced ease.
I went inside and turned down the heat on the vegetables. I added a little seasoning and mixed it in with the vegetables while Eric finished patching the dent where the blood trail started. Eric smoothed the tape over with wallboard compound and then used a sharp edging tool to make the surface as even as possible. “You can paint that tomorrow if you want to,” he said. “Sand it gently, and then put a little primer on it before you paint it, and it’ll look even better.”
“I will, Eric,” I said. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” he said. I turned back to the stove and he came over and squeezed my shoulder for a moment. “Anytime, Del,” he said. “Anywhere too, for that matter.” Then he got a beer from the refrigerator and went outside onto the deck.
I slid the mushrooms, green beans, and diced onions from the Sauté pan onto a dinner plate and carried the plate outside.
Eric, Sandy, and Bernard were seated at the picnic table. Sandy had put a bedsheet on the picnic table as a substitute tablecloth and laid the place settings. We passed around the plates of vegetables and steaks, savoring and appreciating the moment. Sandy was on my left, and she was sitting close enough to me that our hips touched. As the evening wore on, Bernard, Sandy, and Eric told stories about some of the misadventures in their careers. I laughed and sometimes cried along with them as they told story after story about trying to do the right thing but failing miserably. Sometimes their attempts at upholding the law had turned out so badly that they wished they’d chosen different careers.
Dusk turned to darkness, and we decided to move indoors. We stood in the kitchen and talked for a few minutes before Eric and Bernard said their goodbyes. “You’ll be hearing from me soon enough,” Bernard said. “You’ll have to testify under oath about what happened between you and Randall Burton, but it won’t be so hard.”
I nodded. “Looking forward to it,” I said.
Bernard said “Happy trails, Del.” Then he shook my hand and Eric’s hand, nodded bashfully at Sandy, and headed out the front door. I think that Bernard had a crush on Sandy. I didn’t mind. I had one, too.
Eric squeezed my hand in a bone-crushing grip and told me to try to stay out of trouble for once. I held up three fingers and said “Scout’s Honor.” Then Eric went out through the front door. I heard him say “Hey Bernard, wait up.”
Sandy closed the front door and then it was just the two of us in the little kitchen with the Formica countertops and the Royal Blue paint and the small hurricane lamps on the walls. I walked over to the big picture window that fronted onto Oceanside Beach. I could see running lights on a chain of fishing boats heading south. I felt that sense of things being right again.
Sandy came over to me and put her hand on my back.
“Hey,” she said. “Are you okay?”
“Better than okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
“For what?” Sandy said.
“For everything. For caring about me. For wanting to protect me from myself.”
“It’s not that hard,” Sandy said. “I sensed the specialness of your whole package. At that point I was a prisoner to my own biology.”
“Right,” I said. “I suspected that was the case.”
It was quiet in the house. “We forgot to eat the chocolate cake after dinner,” I said.
She shook her head. “That cake is for you and me, Del.”
She slipped a hand around my waist and pulled close against me, the sensation of her body against mine producing a feeling as satisfying and whole and right as any I’d ever known. She rested her chin on my shoulder. The only sound in the cabin was the distant sigh of the surf exhausting itself on the shore.
I wrapped my arms around her and locked my wrists at the small of her back.
“We’ll take it slow,” she said.
I kissed her gently in the hollow at the base of her neck.
“As slow as you want,” I whispered.
Sandy and I were in bed when I heard the sound.
We’d been living together for two weeks, and things were going so well that I was actually concerned. I’m the kind of person who is suspicious of good news and comfortable with bad news, so Sandy’s optimistic, supportive, loving presence naturally had my pessimistic radar on high alert.
As Sandy I spent more time together, things just seemed to click between us. Not just physically, either, but the part where we enjoyed each other’s presence and did ordinary things like painting the kitchen or buying groceries or watching the news together felt life-affirming in an ordinary and at the same time extraordinary kind of way. Sandy had the habit of coming over to me when I was doing something like washing the dishes, or working on my car, or sweeping the pine needles off of the deck, and she’d take my hand and then look deep into my eyes, and give me the gentlest, softest, most loving kiss imaginable. I’d never been kissed that way before. Then she’d go back to what she was doing, and I would too, aside from thinking about that kiss for the rest of the day.
At any rate, Sandy and I were in bed together when I heard the noise on the deck. I rolled over to check the time on my cell phone, and the display said it was 4:10 a.m. I thought about ways that I could get the seagulls to stay off my deck, but it didn’t really matter just then. I heard another noise on the deck, louder this time, and I wondered if a raccoon was out there dueling with the seagulls. I pushed the bedsheets off, sat upright, and put my feet on the floor.
“What’s up?” Sandy asked.
“Seagulls fighting on the deck again.”
“It’s the middle of the night, Del. Even the seagulls are asleep.” She tugged the chain on the small lamp on her nightstand, bathing the room in soft light.
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
I heard Sandy say “Just a minute,” but I kept moving.
I used the light that spilled from the bedroom doorway to navigate the furniture in the living room. I felt the cool surface of the oak flooring against my bare feet and thought about how a big area rug wouldn’t be such a bad idea on top of the oak. I flipped the light switch that lit the Christmas lights over the deck, and then unlocked the sliding glass door. I pushed the door open and heard the noises that I often hear when I’m on the deck: the sound of the surf, the hiss of the wind moving through the fir trees at the top of the hill, the delicate wind chimes on my neighbor’s balcony. I didn’t see any seagulls or crab entrails, and I assumed that a raccoon had to be on the deck somewhere. Maybe he was on the other side of the picnic table.
Then I noticed a shape that I didn’t recognize beside the charcoal grill. In my half asleep state, I wondered if a black bear had wandered out of the nearby forest onto the deck.
“What the hell?” I said.
At that point, the bear shape by the charcoal grill stood up and turned into Anthony Peck dressed head to toe in dark clothing. He pointed something in my direction that looked like a short baseball bat, and I instinctively took a step back.
“Don’t move,” he said quietly.
I rarely take orders from other people, but this time I did.
“Any sudden moves, I’ll shoot,” he said. “Understand?”
“We’re going inside,” he said. “Turn around slowly.”
I turned to go back inside, and I saw the light spilling from my bedroom onto the living room floor. I paused, and then I felt the cold metal of Peck’s silencer pressing against the skin between my shoulder blades.
“Go,” he said. I stepped back through the doorway. Once we were in the kitchen, he told me to stop, and then I heard the door slide closed behind me.
“Are you alone?” he asked.
“I want to see for myself,” he said. “Move slowly.”
I felt the pressure of Peck’s silencer on my back as we went across the living room. My heart was pounding as we approached the opening for my bedroom. If Sandy was still in the bed, I’d have to make a try for the gun.
The bed had obviously been slept in but was now empty. Sandy had been with me only moments before. I wondered if she’d realized what was happening and was hiding under the bed, or perhaps she’d just gone into the bathroom.
“All right,” he said. “Next room.”
I took three steps to my right and then reached into the darkened doorway of the guest bedroom to flip the light switch. The room was sparsely furnished with a bed, a rocking chair, a standing lamp, and a bedside table. A rack of free weights was over against the far wall.
“Okay,” he said. “Next room.”
I took a few steps and then reached into the doorway to the bathroom. I flipped the light switch on. Empty.
“Back into the living room,” he said. “Slow.”
He followed me towards the living room, and then prodded me in the direction of the sofa.
“Sit down,” he said.
I took a seat on the sofa. He stood by the recliner and reached into one of his coat pockets with his free hand. He tossed a pair of handcuffs onto the sofa.
“Loop them through the arm of the sofa and put them on,” he said.
“Go to hell,” I said.
He adjusted the aim on his pistol slightly and pulled the trigger. I felt a tug on the side of my head as the bullet cut through the hair over my ear. The gun had made a sound like a stick snapping when he’d pulled the trigger.
“I won’t ask again,” he said. “Put them on, and put them on tight, or I shoot you as you sit.”
I turned to the side, slid one arm through the opening under the arm of the sofa, and put the handcuffs on myself.
“Tight,” he said.
I closed the jaws on the handcuffs forcefully. The metal was colder than I thought it would be. I guess he’d been out on the deck for a while.
“Play time’s over,” he said. “Now it’s time to pay the tab.”
“I was never playing,” I said. “I told you to leave me alone and you wouldn’t. I warned you.”
“You did, didn’t you?” Peck said. “Still. Look where you are and look where I am.”
“It’s a setback all right,” I said flatly. “I guess this means that we won’t get to be buddies now.”
“Your stunt at the restaurant cost me dearly,” he said. “The investing syndicate is finding someone new to finish the casino. I’ve been subpoenaed to testify in Oklahoma City. And the organization I built with my own sweat is being run by attorneys now. Did you think I’d let it go?”
“The wheels of justice grind slowly,” I said. “But they do grind.”
“This isn’t about justice,” he said. “It’s about money. It’s always about money.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“Twenty years ago your father borrowed all the cash I could scrape together so that he could prop up his car dealership, and then he wouldn’t return it when I needed the money back to cover my own debts. When I couldn’t pay, I got this.” He lifted his shirt on one side and showed me a horseshoe-shaped scar on his ribcage. “They held me down and a blacksmith burned me with a red-hot horseshoe. They gave me two days to pay or they said that they’d wrap me in barbed wire and drop me down a dry well.”
“Hope you had your tetanus shot,” I said.
“Always with the jokes,” he said. “Well, my associate Randall and I tried to talk to your father, but he didn’t take my request seriously. We went by to see him at his dealership, but he said that business was bad and he just didn’t have any cash on hand. All he had were cars. He told me that he could sign all the car deeds over to me, the house deed, all of that over to me, but that wouldn’t have helped me. It would have taken too long.”
“You threatened him.”
“That’s right. And the next day we went to your house to talk to him again, to see if there was some way he could hold an auction or take out a bank loan using the cars as collateral, but he said it would take a week or more to do something like that. I tried to explain that I didn’t have that kind of time.”
“That’s your excuse for what you did?”
“I told Randall to get his gun from the car. Sometimes that’s enough to make someone think creatively. They realize that the time for excuses is over and suddenly they remember they actually do have the money. In this case it had the effect of sending your parents over the edge. Your mother thought I was going to kill your whole family and started begging me to spare your life. When Randall went outside, your father grabbed her hand and they ran upstairs to get a gun.”
I closed my eyes and leaned back against the sofa.
“When Randall came back into the house, I told him that your parents had gone upstairs to arm themselves, and he followed them. He fancied himself a gunslinger, you see. Holster strapped to his leg and all that. I heard screaming and shouting upstairs, and then gunshots.”
“You bastard,” I said.
“I just wanted what was mine,” he said. “I wanted to scare them, not kill them. What good would it have done me to murder them? They had my money.”
“You evil son of a bitch.”
“Your father called the play when he went for the gun,” Peck said. “If he’d given me my money back, or kept his cool, it wouldn’t have been a problem.”
“You called the play when you told Burton to get his gun,” I said.
“I never knew what happened to Randall when he disappeared from the driveway,” Peck said. “I wondered if he had tangled with you or your brother, but I heard the gunfire coming from the woods and decided that my best course was to leave and let him fend for himself. I guess you were better at killing than he was, which says something about you. Not many twelve years olds are stone cold killers.”
“He was going to beat me to death with a shovel,” I said. “I didn’t have a lot of choice.”
“Really?” Peck said. “I understand that you emptied a forty-five into him. Seems like a shot or two would have been enough.”
“He seemed like he needed it,” I said “In for a penny, in for a pound.”
“You really are a nitwit,” he said. “I can’t fathom how you managed to make so much trouble for me.”
“Did your lender put a barbed wire jockstrap on you and drop you down the well when you couldn’t pay?”
“I didn’t give him the chance,” he said. “My lender had me backed into a corner, so I learned how to fight dirty. I have you to thank for that education, since you took your father’s gun that day and used it to shoot Randall. If you’d left the gun where it belonged, your father would likely have killed us both.”
“That would have been a special day,” I said. “To be sure.”
“You’re really something,” he said. “One small move of my trigger finger and I could spray your head all over that wall. Yet you still keep going with the disrespect and attitude.”
“What difference does it make?” I said. “You want me to grovel before you pull the trigger? I won’t do it.”
There was a clattering noise on the deck. Then I heard the squawking that often accompanies fights between seagulls when a crab dinner is at stake.
Concern registered on Peck’s face. “What the hell is that noise?” he asked.
I shrugged. I looked through the sliding glass door and saw the faint silhouette of a large raccoon moving on the deck railing. The raccoon paused, leaned forward, and then dropped onto the deck behind the picnic table. The thump of the raccoon landing on the deck was accompanied by the raucous explosion of noise produced by enraged seagulls.
Peck walked over to the sliding glass door. He glanced back at me before opening the door to see what was going on outside. When he slid the door open, Sandy stepped soundlessly out of our bedroom in her red silk pajamas and aimed her shotgun at Peck’s back.
Peck slid the door closed. He must have seen Sandy’s reflection in the glass, because he began to turn around quite fast. Sandy cut down on him with the shotgun, blowing him through the sliding glass door and obliterating the door in the process. Peck landed on his back in a hail of broken glass. I watched him grab his pistol off of the deck and start to sit upright. Sandy stepped forward and chambered another round. I heard Sandy yell at Peck to drop his weapon, but Peck started pulling against the bench to try to regain his feet. She yelled at him to drop his weapon a second time as he stood upright and began to turn towards her with the gun. Sandy fired again, blowing Peck backwards against the deck railing. Peck rebounded off of the deck railing, gun still in hand, as Sandy stepped forward and fired a third time, sending Peck crashing through the deck railing and falling to the grass below.
After the thunderous explosions of the shotgun, it seemed absurdly still in the house. My ears rang from the gunfire.
Sandy laid her shotgun on the kitchen counter and then came over to the sofa.
“You okay?” she said.
“Never better. You?”
“My ears are going to ring for a week,” she said.
“I can’t hear you,” I said. “My ears are ringing.”
She smiled grimly. “I told you it wasn’t the seagulls,” she said. “You should have waited.” She had her hands on her hips and gave me the stink eye to indicate her disapproval.
“No argument,” I said. “However, the seagulls did come eventually. You have to give me that.”
“What if I hadn’t been here?”
“I’d have died happy, knowing that you love me.”
“I haven’t actually said that I love you yet,” Sandy said.
“Actions speak louder than words,” I said. I gestured with my chin towards the blown-out sliding glass door. Gun smoke hung heavy in the air. “If that wasn’t an act of love, baby, I don’t know what is.”
“I would have done that to Peck even if you weren’t here,” she said. “Just on principle.”
“Come here,” I said. She sat down beside me and put her head on my shoulder. Is it possible for a moment to feel perfect? Yes. I think that it actually is.
“Tell me about your hobbies,” I said.
“Did you finally notice the specialness of my whole package?”
“I noticed it a long time ago.”
“You’re just saying that because you’re handcuffed to the sofa and want me to free you from captivity.”
“It hurts me when you’re so suspicious of my motives,” I said.
“Right. If your hands weren’t chained to the sofa, you’d probably be trying something lewd right now.”
“If I lay on my back, we can try something lewd anyway,” I said. “Handcuffs or no handcuffs.”
She crossed her arms over her chest and eyed me with mock disapproval. “You’re a randy one, aren’t you?” she said.
“Under the circumstances, it would be a crime if I wasn’t,” I said.
“I know what you mean. When Peck handcuffed you to the sofa and fired a round past your head, I’m going to have to admit, I was pretty aroused. Shocked, yes. But aroused at the same time.”
“What? Wait. Are you still mad at me for teasing you about your brass knuckles and riot gun?”
“Now that I think about it,” she said. “I guess this is as good a time to start a family as any. Just stretch out on the sofa and I’ll unleash the bustle.”
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Who said anything about starting a family?”
“So are you saying that we don’t have a future together?”
“No. That’s not what I meant at all,” I said. “I just mean that kids are a huge responsibility and we need to think about it.”
“You’re so gullible,” she said. “That’s one of the things I like about you.”
She got up from the sofa, and I watched her walk across the living room towards the bedroom door. “I’m sure that some of the neighbors called 911. Guess I better get dressed before the police get here. I don’t want them to think we had an orgy that got out of hand.”
“Could you help me get out of these handcuffs?” I said.
She looked over her shoulder. “Sure,” she said. “Do you have a hacksaw or bolt cutters?”
“Then I guess I’m going to have to go outside and search Peck for the keys. What’s left of him, anyway.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“It’s all part of the service,” she said. “You’re the genetic lottery winner. I’m powerless to resist.”
“You’re never going to let me forget that conversation, are you?”
“Not in this lifetime, sweetie.” She gave me the dazzling smile, batted her eyelashes at me, and blew me a kiss.
Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, won’t you please take a moment to leave me a review at your favorite retailer?
Discover other titles by David Kearns:
All The Way Down
All The Way Under
Delorean Harper would like to sit on the deck of his beach house and watch the surf, but the body of the man who murdered Delorean's parents is found in a shallow grave in Oklahoma City, and the police finally have the chance to solve the crime that made Delorean an orphan. Evidence in the grave points to an Oklahoma City loan shark who's since become a powerful casino developer on the Oregon coast, and also to a twelve year old named Delorean Harper. It isn't clear who's going to go to jail or who's going to die in the cat and mouse game between a relentless police detective, Delorean, and the casino developer. As if that wasn't enough trouble, Delorean is asked to babysit an unstable woman in the witness protection program who's sure that she's being stalked. With her movie star good looks it's not an unreasonable fear, but Delorean can't find any evidence that anyone's following her and he starts to fall for her himself. As time passes he realizes that she's tougher than she looks and that her favorite toy is a loaded gun. This time Delorean's got a target on his back and nowhere to hide. He's going to need all the help he can get if he wants to survive.