Copyright 2016 David Kearns
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The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
I was twelve years old when someone tried to kill me. The first time, I mean.
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 learning some of the techniques in the book. I made rabbit snares from willow branches. I cut primitive spears from oak branches with points hardened over an open flame. I hunted edible berries in the forest. I counted the days until my brother’s return and wished I’d paid more attention in school.
My family lived in an undeveloped area east of Oklahoma City where houses were few and far between. The only families who lived in the area were separated by square miles of land that was thick with oak trees, threaded with rutted gravel roads, and spotted with oil wells. One of those 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 its irregular beat as the drill rod went down and up and down again.
One night I’d stayed up past midnight reading a vintage Tom Swift adventure novel, and I’d listened to the oil well motor as if it were a sort of siren song. I finally put the book down, deciding it was time to have my own adventure and conquer my own demons. I’d climbed out the window in my pajamas and house slippers, and then made my way across the gravel road that ran past my house and 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 a common practice in that part of Oklahoma City for people to turn unwanted dogs loose ‘out in the country’ to fend for themselves. This happened often enough that a collection of abandoned dogs had formed, reproduced, and grown into a feral pack capable of taking down mule deer. I’d run across several carcasses in the forest which had been savaged so thoroughly by the pack that the only way I could identify the animal was by looking at the paws or hooves. I’d heard the call and response of the pack several times as I read Tom Swift that night, but I hadn’t really thought much about it at the time.
At any rate, I continued along the game trail until I reached the opening in the forest where the oil well had been drilled. The opening was awash with moonlight, and everything I saw or touched seemed alive with danger. The well, the sludge pond, the trees, the moon, even the sound of my own feet on dried oak leaves crackled with an intoxicating resonance. The ink-black well machinery rocked back and forth like a giant insect, exhaling the powerful scent of raw oil sucked from the ground. The spine of the well was two stories high and twenty feet long, with access to the pivot point provided by a rudimentary ladder welded to the side of one of the Samson beams that held the walking beam aloft. I’d watched the walking beam tip up and down like a magician’s pendant until I’d become hypnotized and walked to the base of the well. I’d clamped the tail cap of the flashlight in my teeth, grabbed the rungs of the ladder, pulled myself to the top of that mass of iron, and straddled the big metal beam like a bronco. I was mesmerized by the sensations of the star-filled sky, the noise of the motor, the horizon rising and dipping in front of me, and the vibration of all that steel. I felt like I was in a dream-state rodeo. Eventually, though, I came to my senses, climbed back down, and started home.
As I made my way along the game trail, the call and response of the dogs became louder and more frequent, and I began to wonder if the feral pack was chasing me. My question about the proximity of the feral pack was answered when I crawled through the window of my bedroom, looked back into the yard, and saw a pair of wolf-like dogs appear in the pale light cast onto the yard through my opened bedroom window. The dogs paced back and forth, looking up at 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 my bed sheets I thought that Tom Swift would have been proud of me. I rode the scary beast, evaded the killers, and survived.
My mother was furious the next day when she saw the oil stains I’d gotten on my pajamas, the carpet, and the bed sheets. I lamely offered her the excuse that I must have sleep-walked to the well. A few minutes later my father came into my bedroom to look at the carpet. I watched as the skin on his face tightened with anger. He left the room with his fists clenched, then returned with a hammer and a handful of galvanized roofing nails. He drove the nails into the window frame so the sliding window couldn’t be opened wider than a few inches.
My father leaned in so close to me that his face 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 the 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. I’m not kidding. 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, hon?” 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 try to do that for me?”
My mom carried the bedsheets with her when she left the room.
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 sleep-walked your way onto an oil well. Mom said your pajama pants looked like you rode it. No one else even comes close. 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 intrusion from someone who lacked my fearless taste for adventure. Looking back, he was trying to save me from myself.
“It’s under control,” I told him. I won’t do it again.”
“Good to hear,” 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 in school had been a new scouting backpack to take to summer camp. He’d given his old backpack to me, along with a plastic canteen that had been chewed on by a raccoon. In Bricklin’s absence, I’d sat in the shade of a tree in my back yard and flipped through one of his discarded scouting survival guides. A section about getting water from air interested 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 run towards the middle and then drop into a cup. I’d picked up a shovel and a plastic sheet from the garage, and then wandered into the forest looking for a place to start digging.
My adventures in the oak forests helped me to manage the stresses I felt when I was at home. I knew that my parents were in trouble financially and that my erratic behavior just compounded their anxieties, but I didn’t know how to stop myself. The solitude I found on those forest trails brought me a feeling of peace and counterbalanced my worries about the roller-coaster ride of my father’s business adventures.
My father 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 upscale “Harper Collectible Classics.” My father, desperate for free publicity for the grand opening of his bigger, better dealership in the wealthiest part of Oklahoma City, had 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 him 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 agreed to my father’s request.
After my father finished at the courthouse, he’d fed the story about our renaming to the tip lines of several of the local newspapers. The story was picked up by the Oklahoma City Times in the weekend section, where the article ran under a picture of my father standing between a Delorean and Bricklin car. In the picture, my brother sat cross-legged in front of the Bricklin, I sat cross-legged in front of the Delorean. It’s the last picture I know of that was taken with me, my brother, and my father in it.
When my father expanded his car business, he’d borrowed heavily to build his inventory and repair the intricate and expensive foreign cars to the like-new condition that affluent buyers expected. To my father’s credit, 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 it would all need to be paid back. My dad waved his hand in the air as if he were shooing away gnats and went back to eating his dinner. Eventually the oil economy went bust as it inevitably did, and demand for antique and collectible Mercedes, Ferrari, and special rarities like the Bricklin and Delorean cars went through the floor. Usually, summertime was 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 machinery I’d ridden a few weeks before. After a half day of digging, I’d made a hole about 3 feet deep and six feet wide in that rust-colored Oklahoma soil. I’d returned home before dinner and washed off the dirt and oil smell with bar soap and hose water on the back porch of our home. My mom kept towels and extra clothes on the porch during summertime so that I wouldn’t bring dirty clothes into the house after my adventures in the forest. Privacy wasn’t much of an issue for me as I scrubbed off the dirt. Our house was nearly a mile from the closest home, and my parents were both at work at the car dealership, so I had the place to myself
That night my parents came home at dusk and we ate dinner in silence. My Dad’s expression told me that I needed keep things quiet or risk incurring his wrath. He was on edge.
While I was getting ready for bed, I overheard my parents having a heated argument in their bedroom. My dad said that even if he gave the lender the title to the car dealership, even if he gave him all the cars on the lot, even if he gave him the title to our house, that wouldn’t be enough. “They’re asking for money we don’t have”, my Dad said. “This guy came by the car lot today and told me I needed to pay or bad things would happen.”
My mom suggested calling the police.
He said “And tell them what? That we’ve been laundering money as a favor to a loan shark, 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, 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 how to build rabbit snares, get fresh water without paying for it, make spears, and forage for berries took on a new sense of 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 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 .45 pistol that he kept in the nightstand beside his bed. The previous day I’d seen feral dogs while I was digging near the oil well, so that morning I’d gone into my parent’s bedroom and taken the .45 from my dad’s nightstand. 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. I reasoned that I’d have the pistol back in my Dad’s nightstand before he discovered that I’d taken 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 were so preoccupied that they barely acknowledged me when I came into the kitchen. I’d filled the plastic canteen at the sink before leaving the house through the garage. As I had the day before, I followed the narrow game trail through the oak groves to the open space. I took off my backpack, picked up the shovel, and started to dig. I reasoned that a deeper, wider pit would make for a better solar still.
I’d been digging for about an hour when I heard a series of muffled booming sounds coming from the direction of my house. I’d 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 game trail, I saw someone walking out of my garage. That memory haunts me to this day. Red tee shirt pulled tight across a weightlifter’s upper torso. Ink-black shoulder length hair with bangs cut like Prince Valiant. Faded bell bottom jeans over pointy-toed black cowboy boots with a brown leather holster strapped to his right thigh, the chrome handle of a pistol reflecting brightly in the mid-morning sun. I was so stunned by his appearance that I froze.
He walked casually towards a gray Dodge Charger parked in the driveway. As he reached for the car door handle, he scanned the surroundings in all directions and finally noticed me standing in the shade of the oak grove. He dipped his right shoulder slightly and his pistol appeared in his hand with astonishing speed. He held the gun waist high and aimed the gun barrel at me. I’d seen actors pull guns from holsters that fast in cowboy movies, but I didn’t think it was actually possible for a person to do it.
“Hey, Sport,” he said in a baritone voice. “Get over here. Now!”
I turned instinctively and ran. There were two quick booms from his gun as I went full-tilt down the narrow trail. One of the bullets hit the trunk of a tree as I passed; splintering the wood as if it had been hit with an axe. The game trail zigged and zagged through the forest as I ran pell-mell towards the clearing. My arms were pumping, my feet barely touching the ground as I flew past tree branches that slashed at my face and forearms. With a hundred yards left to reach the clearing, I heard the big pistol fire again, and I dove from the trail into brambles, ivy, wild grass and fallen tree limbs. I smashed through the undergrowth until I ran headlong into a tree branch. Temporarily dazed, I lay on a carpet of oak leaves with the sunlight cutting through the air above me in ribbons of dusty gold.
I rolled onto my hands and knees and began to crawl, staying low. As I reached an area where the undergrowth was less dense, I rose to my feet. Disoriented from my collision with the tree, I’d lost track of where I was headed, and I exited the forest onto the trail a few dozen yards past where my hunter stood, his gun hanging at his side. Lucky me, though. His back was to me. Then he looked over his shoulder at me and smiled.
I ducked and ran again, with a few quick strides taking me out of the shade of the forest and into the sunny, circular opening. I sprinted for the protection that the oil well could give me. I heard and felt the gun boom again as I reached the far side of the well’s motor housing.
I paused, pressing flat against the throbbing motor housing. The smell of the oil was intense, the iron-rich dirt at my feet a brilliant rust red. The oil well’s black surface gave off heat in the summer sun like a chef’s griddle, and I pulled away from it, taking a deep breath and running flat-out for the far side of the circular opening. I’d rather take my chances with the dog pack than with the gunman.
The gun thundered behind me once more with gut-shattering force as I passed the hole I’d dug for the solar still. I threw myself to the ground and then rolled into the hole, buying myself a few seconds’ safety. I lay atop the plastic sheet, my breath coming in gasps.
In frenzy, I pulled the backpack off and grabbed at the zipper with sweaty, filthy fingers. The air stank of oil, dirt, and hot plastic. My arms and face were ribboned with cuts from tree branches, my skin wet with sweat. My heart jackhammered in my chest.
I felt the familiar heaviness of my father’s Army Colt .45 in my hand. I pulled it free of the backpack and gripped the butt of the pistol with both hands, interlocking my fingers like a child praying before bedtime. I flipped the safety off. The moment had an air of hallucinatory unreality. Was I actually here? Was I dreaming, or actually 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 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.”
He stepped to the edge of the hole with his chrome revolver holstered. He held my shovel over his head by the shaft, 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 .45, and he dropped the shovel. The movement of his hand towards his holster was a blur. I’d seen him move that fast in my driveway, though, and I already had my finger on the trigger. My cannon went off with a force that nearly ripped it from my hands. Then everything was very still. My ears rang like the inside of bell, and my face was peppered with burnt gunpowder from the discharge of the big .45.
I stayed in the hole for a while, waiting to see if he’d come back. Time stood still. Eventually I sat up and looked to see where my hunter had gone.
He was seated in the dirt about ten yards away, his legs fully extended. Facing me straight-on, he looked like a discarded rag doll. His left hand was pressed tight against his abdomen; his right hand still clutched the revolver. His tee shirt was oily with blood that leaked through the fingers of his left hand. When we made eye contact he opened his mouth to talk. He shifted his weight slightly, and then he spoke to me in that baritone voice again.
“Your mom and dad begged us not to hurt you,” he said. His head drooped as if he were going to sleep. Then he pulled his head up again and tried to sit upright. The cephalic veins on the outside of his cantaloupe-sized biceps were as thick as pencils, his forearms bigger than the calves on my legs. “I guess that ship has sailed,” he said. He smiled like he’d just told a dirty joke, and I saw the barrel of his pistol rising fast.
I don’t remember pulling the trigger. What I do remember is the thunderous, heart-stopping sound of the cannon going off repeatedly as he tumbled backwards, the metal in my hands seeming to come alive on its own, the gun jerking with ferocious power with each report, his body spinning and thrashing on that rust-colored dirt as if connected to cables like a marionette.
I remember crying until I couldn’t cry any more.
I began to feel an odd sort of clarity. 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 come out of places like that. Taking care to avoid the blood on his clothing, I grabbed hold of the man’s boots and pulled and dragged him into the hole. He was bigger than I was, but it wasn’t hard sliding him across the loose, sandy dirt. He landed in the pit atop 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’d used the shovel to fill in the hole with the mound of dirt I’d extracted earlier when I’d tried to make the solar still.
I don’t recall walking home, but I remember that the car that had been in the driveway was gone when I got there, and that the garage door was still open. I did what I always did when I came home dirty after spending a day in the forest: I cleaned up on the back porch with the water hose and bar soap, and then put on a clean pair of shoes and jeans from the stack my mom left outside for me. I tossed my dirty clothes in the hamper where I always left them. Even in my dazed state I kept to my routine.
I couldn’t find my parents downstairs, and I wondered if they’d gone for a walk. As I made my way upstairs I began to smell the powerful odor of gunpowder. I walked down the hall to my parents’ bedroom and found both of my parents sprawled on the floor by my dad’s side of the bed. My father had pulled the nightstand drawer open, as if he’d been looking for his pistol. It would have been there if I hadn’t taken it that day.
I was in the Meztec Bar in El Paso talking to Eric Fullmeyer, my contact with the witness protection program. The low-hanging December sun shone brightly through the front windows, making the liquor bottles behind the big oak bar glow like giant Christmas tree lights. It was too early for dinner and the lunch crowd had already left, so there wasn’t anyone sitting close enough to overhear our conversation. That was good, since we were talking about me being dead. Wouldn’t want to upset anyone’s digestion.
“Did you realize you were followed here?” Fullmeyer asked me.
“I thought I might have been,” I said. “Big copper-colored sedan with a white vinyl roof? Texas plates?”
“That’s the one.”
I nodded. “I saw them a few times in traffic on the way over here. Weird color for a car.”
“The driver took a hard look at you when you came in and then parked where he could keep an eye on the front door.”
“Sounds ominous,” I said.
It was warm in the restaurant, and Fullmeyer unzipped his leather coat, revealing part of an automatic pistol in a black shoulder holster. He looked past me out the big plate glass window that faced onto the street and cocked his head slightly to one side like he was trying to hear a distant sound.
“We’re getting signals that the cartel Bullard worked for has decided to make an example of you,” Fullmeyer said. “That could be one of their cars.”
Fullmeyer was tall, with wide shoulders and very short black hair. His beard, black turning to grey, was perfectly trimmed. He wore a brown leather coat over a pressed white shirt and bleached blue jeans. He had sad eyes that made me feel a bit like a student who had disappointed his teacher.
“Maybe so,” I said. The strap for the sling I wore on my left arm dug into my shoulder, so I thumbed the strap onto a part of my shoulder that wasn’t already raw and rested the sling in my lap.
Fullmeyer sighed. “You don’t seem worried.”
“I’m not, Eric. The most dangerous creation of any society is the man who has nothing to lose.”
“Did you hear that in a Kung Fu movie? Bullard’s business partners take people off the street and use blow torches on them. Do you like having all your fingers and toes?”
“James Baldwin said it. He was beaten by cops in Harlem when he was 10 years old.”
“So you’re becoming a philosopher? When did this happen?”
“The library at the hospital is pretty limited, but all the time I spent there did give me time to think.”
Fullmeyer sighed. “About what?” He had very small scars around the base of his nose that made it look like his nose had been surgically re-attached.
“Camille Paglia said that the real world isn’t an extension of our desires for things to be fair and comfortable. It’s a wilderness, and predators like Bullard and his crew are picking people off like wolves taking sheep who’ve wandered away from the fold. The price of personal freedom is vigilance and self-defense. Someone needs to start hunting the wolves, instead of ignoring them until all the sheep have been slaughtered. Or blow torched, in this case.”
“Who the hell is Camille Paglia?”
“One of the nurses in the hospital studied Paglia in a Women’s Studies class. She read that quote to me when I still had cotton pads taped over my eyelids.”
“I’m not unsympathetic to your point of view, Delorean, but the reality is that we can’t pull people off the street until we catch them doing something. This isn’t Russia. We can’t make people disappear just because we think they’re a threat.”
“Clearly. And yet Bullard’s crew arranged to have him killed in a courtroom, in spectacular fashion. That seems like something you should be able to prosecute someone for. Have you arrested anyone for that yet? Bet you know who did it, though,” I said.
“We could go back and forth on this all day. We can’t call in an airstrike on every person who’s ever been connected with the M.T. cartel. We know they poisoned Bullard, but they also killed the inmate in the kitchen who did the handiwork. There isn’t much of a trail.”
“Maybe if you started small you could work your way up to actually doing something about these guys. You could write a parking ticket for the cartel dudes sitting across the street waiting for you to leave. Could be they forgot to feed the parking meter. I could go check, if you want.”
“You’re really starting to piss me off,” Eric said. “Is this your head injury talking, or are you on painkillers?”
“Just calling it like I see it, Eric.”
Fullmeyer pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers and let out a long sigh.
“Let’s get down to business, okay? The answer came down from WITSEC authority. You have two strikes against joining the witness protection program.” He held up one finger. “Your psychiatric evaluation said that you’re unstable.” He held up a second finger. “And you have vigilante tendencies. Obviously. Either of those would be enough for WITSEC to opt out on relocating you. They’re just not comfortable with that level of risk. They’re concerned that you’ll get yourself killed doing something stupid and make the whole program look bad.”
I shook my head. “Then why are you here? You could have just called and told me that WITSEC was taking a pass on helping me.”
“It would also be embarrassing if you got put through a wood chipper in a public place, or whatever the M.T. cartel is doing to people this week.”
“I hope they put me through head first, Eric. I have sensitive feet.”
Fullmeyer cleared his throat and leaned slightly forward in the booth. “Your story’s been all over the news for months. Bullard’s murder made even more of a circus out of it. There’s a lot of downside exposure there.”
I laughed. “Okay. When you balance the downside exposure against the discomfort that WITSEC feels about babysitting an unstable vigilante like me, where does that leave us?” I crooked a finger at the waitress standing over at the bar.
Fullmeyer looked at me with a flat expression. “I can help you disappear. Unofficially. I can help you stay off the cartel’s radar. Unofficially.”
The waitress came over. She wore a black cowboy hat tipped back on her head, a red long-sleeved western shirt with pearl buttons, a short denim skirt, and shiny black cowboy boots. She had trim, muscular legs, glossy black shoulder length hair, and a pretty face with a slash of red lipstick. The name tag on her shirt said “Bonnie.”
“Are you married?” I asked her.
Fullmeyer put his face in his hands.
Bonnie looked shocked for a second and then laughed. She put her hand on one hip and pretended to be outraged. “I have a fiancé, I’ll have you know,” she said. Then she smiled a big smile that melted me.
“If you’re not married yet, I still have a chance. Does he have a sunny disposition and a pure heart like I do?”
“I wouldn’t say his heart is pure, but he’s a pretty happy guy.”
“I don’t doubt it. You have a beautiful smile.”
She beamed. “Thank you, kind sir.”
“Although I am overwhelmed with sorrow that you’re already spoken for, I still have to get on with my life. Would you please bring me a shot of the best scotch you have?”
She gave me the big smile again. “Certainly.” She looked at Fullmeyer. “Anything for you?”
Fullmeyer groaned into his hands. “Do you have anything for a splitting headache?”
“I’ll bring you a double,” she said. She turned on her heel and strode away purposefully.
Fullmeyer looked up from his hands, his expression changing from annoyed to all-business.
“It’s like this, Delorean. There’s a silver Camry in the parking lot out the back door. The keys are under the floor mat on the driver’s side. I’ve got instructions for where to go in the glovebox. New identity. A sizable chunk of the cash you took from Bullard’s house is under the spare. All you have to do is go. Just leave.”
The red Ford XL that I’d restored with my brother Bricklin was parked at the curb in front of the bar. The car was the only thing I had left of him. The cartel took the rest.
“I’ll take the cash and identity, but I’m not leaving the car behind.”
“That car gets too much attention, Delorean. It needs to go. What are there, like ten of those things left on the road? How do you think the posse found you here so fast? We told you to get here and keep a low profile, not take that thing to swap meets.”
I didn’t say anything.
“You wanted them to find you. That’s why you’re still driving the car. Is that it? You have a death wish?”
I didn’t say anything.
Fullmeyer inhaled a deep breath and let it out slow, like he was trying to control himself. Although I barely knew him, I had the feeling that he would be difficult to beat in a fight. The knuckles on his oversized hands were huge, and his ears had the cauliflower shape that you see in wrestlers who’ve spent years in competition.
“Okay,” Fullmeyer said. “If they don’t take you off here in El Paso, they’ll find you and your hot rod again somewhere else, and they’ll put a stick of dynamite under the exhaust manifold with a blasting cap or two to get the party started. Then when you go out to the car to make a run to the grocery store, you’ll turn the ignition key and get blown into pieces so small that someone will have to find a fingertip to prove you were even inside when the car went up. Is that car so important you’re willing to get killed over it?”
“Okay,” I said. “Fine. You win.”
Fullmeyer glared at me.
Bonnie returned with the drinks and put them on cocktail napkins. “Enjoy your drinks, gentlemen,” she said.
I said “Thanks” without making eye contact with her. She searched our faces for a moment, then went back over to the bar and started talking to the bartender. At that point, the only people left in the place were me, Fullmeyer, Bonnie the waitress, and the bartender.
Fullmeyer did a double-take look out the front window. “You should go out the back door,” he said. “One of the idiots just got out of his car and is headed this way. I can buy you some time. Move it.” He pulled a gold badge on a long chain out of his coat pocket and hung it around his neck. He stood up and started for the front doors of the bar. Then he stopped and turned. He pointed at me and said “You! Out the back door! Silver Camry with Oregon plates!”
I didn’t move.
“Get gone. NOW!”
I ignored Fullmeyer and drained my glass in one long swallow, feeling the burn as the scotch settled in my stomach.
Fullmeyer went out through the front door and stood on the sidewalk by my car. Then he took a last look back at me through the big picture window before shaking his head and walking across the street.
I went over to the bar, where Bonnie was talking to the bartender about ordering more cocktail napkins. I had to work one-handed because my left arm was in a sling, but I managed to get my money clip out of my painter pants, put it on the countertop, and thumb two twenties from the roll. I slid the bills across the bar towards Bonnie.
“I wanted to pay for our drinks,” I said. “I gotta go.” I picked up the money clip.
She looked at the cash. “Oh. Okay,” she said. “I’ll get change for you.”
“Keep it,” I said.
She’d seen Fullmeyer put on his badge and heard him tell me to leave. She looked at me with a troubled expression and then swallowed.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” she said. She seemed like she really meant it. “Well, come back some time.”
“I’ll do that,” I said. Then I went out through the back door of the bar into the dusty El Paso afternoon.
The sky had a lemony glow as I walked across the gravel towards the Toyota Camry that Fullmeyer had left me. It was an older model with no hubcaps and a dent in the left rear fender. I climbed in, smelled the musty smell that old cars have, and I lifted the floor mat. While I was bent over, I heard the crunching sound of footsteps on gravel. I sat back up, keys in hand, and watched two men walk to the back door of the bar I’d just left. One of them was dressed in rust-colored jeans, black canvas tennis shoes, and a long sleeved yellow shirt with a shape on the back like a seagull. He manhandled a pair of welder’s tanks on a two-wheeled cart up over the small step that led to the back door. His partner wore coveralls with no shirt underneath, a pair of suede work boots, and a crinkled straw cowboy hat. He had a tribal tattoo running down his right arm from his shoulder to his wrist, and he carried a gray machine gun on a tan canvas sling hanging loosely at the small of his back. The one with the tattoo held the door open for the one with the welding tanks, and he made an exaggerated gesture with his cowboy hat to indicate that his partner should go first. When his partner rolled the welder’s tanks through the opened back door, the one with the cowboy hat slapped him on the butt with the hat and then laughed.
I watched the door close behind them. A coppery taste filled my mouth, and my body suddenly felt like it was being pressed into the seat by a huge weight. The wolf pack had come to take me down inside the bar. Because I’d escaped, the pack would take whatever it could find. Fullmeyer. Bonnie. Because I’d left. Because I was still sitting here letting it happen.
I popped the sling off my shoulder, revealing the double-barrel .410 shotgun that I carried in the sling beneath my arm. I’d bought the gun at a swap meet and used a hacksaw to cut the barrels off before grinding the stock down to a stub of a pistol grip. The gun was so ugly that I’d spray painted it flat black in an effort to hide how crude it was. At that moment, though, it fit my mood perfectly.
I climbed out of the Camry and walked over to the back door of the bar. I clicked off the safety, pulled the gun up to waist high, and silently re-entered the bar.
There was a short hallway at the back of the bar with a pair of bathroom doors on the left, then another few steps to where it opened up to the main bar room. There was a single pool table at the rear of the main room with green ceramic lamps hanging over it and an old Wurlitzer bubbler jukebox playing the Stevie Ray Vaughan song “Cold Shot.”
They were up front by the bar, and both men had their backs to me. The one with the welding gear was off to the left by the booth I’d exited just minutes earlier. He had a welder’s mask on and held a metal igniter against the tip of the blowtorch. He clicked the igniter over and over, trying to get a spark to ignite the hissing blowtorch.
Bonnie and the bartender both leaned against the bar with their hands on the edge of the countertop as if they were doing pushups against it. They had their feet spread wide, their heads hanging down. Bonnie’s flattened cowboy hat was on the floor by her feet.
The one with the machine gun was sitting on a bar stool on my side of Bonnie. He’d taken the machine gun off and laid it on the countertop. There was a shot glass on the bar and he was pouring himself a drink. He told the guy with the blowtorch to get the damned thing lit.
I glanced out the front window. Fullmeyer was gone.
I walked up to the one sitting on the bar stool and put the shotgun barrel against the side of his neck just under his ear. He jumped slightly when the gun barrels touched his skin, but he kept his cool.
“Lookin’ for me?” I asked.
He put the liquor bottle down on the varnished surface of the bar and his hand started to move towards the machine gun. I responded by pushing the shotgun barrels harder into the hollow space in his neck below his ear.
“Do you have a brain in your head?” I asked. He nodded slowly. “Do you want to keep it in there?” He nodded again. “Good. Then put your hands on the bar like your new friends here did and leave them there.”
I heard a popping sound as the acetylene torch came to life. The guy with the torch adjusted the flame to a blue cone several inches long before tipping his welding mask back, and saying “It’s ready, Homie.” His mouth made a small “O” shape when he saw me holding the shotgun against his partner’s neck.
“You hear that, Homie?” I said. “It’s ready. How about that?”
Homie didn’t say anything. I could see the muscles bunch up in his jaw as he clenched his teeth.
“Homie,” I said, “tell your friend with the torch that if he does anything I don’t like I will end both of your lives.”
Homie turned his head slowly and said to his partner through gritted teeth “Don’t do anything. Just stand there.”
His partner held very still. The flame coming out of the silver welding tip hissed like a snake. Black wisps of burnt acetylene residue rose to the stamped tin ceiling and then floated down like crow feathers.
“Bonnie and bartender,” I said. “You need to leave now. Don’t come back.” The two of them pushed away from the bar. The bartender made a wide circle around Homie and ran for the back door. Bonnie put her hands on her hips and gave me an intense look. She had her lips pressed together so tightly you couldn’t have driven a nail between them.
She spoke in a loud, shaky voice, glaring at Homie. “You son of a bitch. If you ever touch me again I’ll kill you,” she said. Then she spat at him.
Homie shrugged. “You got a tight body,” he said. “Can’t blame me for wanting to check it out.”
She pointed an accusing finger at me. “Are you WITH these assholes? I thought you were one of the good guys. I actually LIKED you!”
“Bonnie,” I said, “these aren’t my friends. They’re insects who came here to kill me. We’re about to have a discussion about how they’re going to leave me alone from now on. You shouldn’t be here when that happens.”
She looked at me for a long moment before going behind the bar to get her purse. I could see that her hands were trembling and her makeup had run like she’d been crying. She picked up her flattened cowboy hat and said “Why did you come back after you left?”
“I thought you might be lonely,” I said.
She swallowed hard.
“I’m not really engaged,” she said. Her lower lip was trembling. “I just tell that to guys so they’ll stop hitting on me.”
I nodded. “You should leave now, Bonnie. While you still can.”
She swallowed again. “Okay,” she said, and then she left through the back door.
The one with the welding torch gave me a confused look.
“You want I should shut this thing off?” he said.
“Not yet,” I said. “Roll it over here.”
Keeping one hand holding the torch and the other on the handle of the welding cart, he rolled his portable torture chamber over to within a few feet of where I stood. With his thin facial hair, his beach-themed shirt and tennis shoes, he looked more like a high school kid in shop class than a killer.
“That’s close enough, Sparky,” I said. “Hey Homie, are you afraid of fire?”
“Hell no,” he said. “I ain’t afraid of nothing!”
“Bet you are,” I said. “I bet you’re afraid right now. Surprised you haven’t wet yourself. Close as you are to dying’ and all.”
Homie jerked slightly. He started to bring his hands off the bar, so I pushed the barrels against his neck hard enough to leave bruises.
“You pick those hands up again and you’ll meet God right here,” I said. “Tell you what, though. If you really are as tough as you say, I’ll give you your gun back.”
“What?” he said. “You mean that?”
“Hell yes,” I said. “Thing is, I think that if I just burned a hole in your hat you’d mess yourself.”
“The proof is in the pudding,” I said. I pointed with my free hand at his partner. “Burn a hole in the brim of his hat. Don’t touch his skin, and keep the flame the hell away from me and my gun. Understand?”
The welder obliged, moving the point of the flame to burn a dime-sized hole in the crinkled-up brim of the hat.
As I’d suspected, the hat had been varnished to maintain the shape that it had, and the flame raced across the surface of the hat like Satan chasing souls at a massacre. Then the fire rolled under the brim of the hat, circling his neck and face in flames. Even with the shotgun barrels at his neck, Homie shrieked loudly and jumped away, knocking off his hat and slapping his shaved head from all angles as if it were still on fire.
I told the welder to turn off the flame and sit down in a booth, and he complied. Homie continued his crazy hop, shouting curses and slapping at his head. I picked up a pitcher from the bar and tossed ice water at him. He didn’t like that, but it seemed to calm him down a bit. I told him that if he didn’t sit down in the booth with his friend that I’d shoot him on the spot, since he lost the bet.
Homie continued to shout obscenities and began rubbing his eyes like he thought they might have melted when his hat ignited. Maybe they had. “OhShitOhShitOhShit,” he said. I put my free hand on his shoulder and shoved him hard into the booth where his friend sat. Then I sat down in a booth across the aisle and rested my shotgun on the tabletop.
Fullmeyer came through the front doors of the bar, his face registering shock as he took in the scene. Homie and his friend were sitting across from each other with sullen expressions. The machine gun was still on the bar, the hoses for the welding gear lay on the floor, and the remains of Homie’s burned hat lay in the pool of water and ice cubes I’d thrown at him. Bonnie and the bartender hadn’t returned. Homie glared at me with pure hatred, his eyes as dark and hard as iron ball bearings. His eyebrows and eyelashes were gone. The smell of burnt hair and skin hung in the air.
“What the hell happened here?” Fullmeyer said. “I gave you a direct order to leave.”
“These two came in the back door when I was in the parking lot. Since I wasn’t here, and you weren’t here, that just left the waitress and bartender to amuse themselves with. I came back inside and took their toys away from them. I told the waitress and bartender to take off. The one with the burns on his head is the killer, I think. The other idiot seems like more of a follower to me.”
Fullmeyer looked at me with a combination of awe and amazement.
He held up one finger. “Category One. You’re crazy.” He held up a second finger. “Category Two. You have vigilante tendencies.”
“I’ve got skills,” I said.
Fullmeyer gestured towards my shotgun with his chin. “Did you make that weapon yourself? Or take it away from these two?”
“It’s mine,” I said. “I had it in my sling.”
“Of course. You carry a sawed off antique squirrel gun in your sling. Is that category one or category two?”
“It’s category three, Eric. Self-preservation.”
“Sure.” Eric nodded to himself. “How’d this one get the scorch marks around his head? Looks like he burned off his eyebrows, too.”
I shrugged. “I make friends wherever I go.”
Fullmeyer snorted a short laugh and pulled the pistol out of his shoulder holster.
“Go ahead and leave,” he said. “I’ll take care of these two.”
I nodded and got to my feet. Then I stood in front of the two posse members and addressed them for what I hoped was the last time.
“Listen to me,” I said. “If I ever see either of you again, there won’t be any warning and there won’t be any backing down. I’ll end you then and there. Understand?”
Homie drilled me with his eyes. “We’ll see about that,” he said.
“If that’s how you want it,” I said. “Now’s as good a time as any.” I held my gun out at arm’s length, the barrel tips only a foot from Homie’s face.
“Delorean. No!” Fullmeyer said. “I’ll take care of this. Leave the keys to your car and just GO.”
Twenty seven hours later I reached the safe house that Fullmeyer had arranged for me. I’d done almost 1800 miles of driving, with short stops for gas, food, and coffee. I’d worked my way through New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, and the Columbia River Gorge, checking my rear view mirrors frequently to see if anyone was tailing me. Nothing. I’d kept the shotgun on the passenger seat under a roadmap, but never needed to use it.
Drugged with exhaustion, eyes burning from hours of driving at night, I finally turned the car into the small driveway described in the directions that Fullmeyer had left in the glovebox of the car. I felt an enormous desire to sleep, even if it was in the backseat of the car. I don’t think I could have driven another mile.
A yellowing bulb above the garage illuminated the short driveway I’d taken off of Highway 101 on the Oregon Coast. The flat-roofed house was sided in cedar shingles faded gray from the effects of salt and rain. Thick hedges of salal, rhododendrons, and blackberries encroached on both sides of the car as I stepped out into the rain. The smell of sea water was strong, and I could hear the surf pounding the shore nearby.
The house key was on the same keychain as the car key. I let myself inside and closed the door behind me after finding the light switch. The heat was off; I’d have to look into that in the morning. Cream-colored carpet, a fireplace at one end of a small living room. There was a chocolate-colored brown sofa and a recliner off to the right, a kitchen to the left with tan linoleum floor covering and bronze-colored appliances. A small breakfast bar with a pair of barstools separated the kitchen from the living room. On the far side of the living room, a short hallway led to two small bedrooms. I picked the closest bedroom, pulled a quilt off the back of a chair near the bed, and collapsed on the mattress.
I slept until the middle of the following afternoon, when the cold in the house overcame my desire to lay under the quilt letting the sound of the waves lull me back to sleep. I wrapped the quilt around me and went through the house turning the dials on the baseboard heater controls up. Gray light came through the window that faced the coast. Streaked with rain and caked with dried saltwater mist, the window gave the living room a view onto a half-acre patch of blackberry brambles and coastal pine trees, with a sliver of turbulent ocean visible between the pine trees.
The kitchen was clean but spare. A reasonable assortment of canned food in the pantry, a few spices in one of the racks. The refrigerator, an ancient Frigidaire, groaned like an old arthritic dog every time the compressor kicked on. Not that the compressor came on very often, since it was cold enough in the cabin to see your breath. I opened the refrigerator door and was shocked to find a dozen eggs, orange juice, bacon, ham, a loaf of bread, margarine, a can of coffee grounds, and a six-pack of Olympia beer. A note taped to the six-pack said "Take care of the house. Don't leave food out where the ants can find it. Stay out of trouble -Eric."
I pulled one of the beers from the refrigerator and drank it on the sofa while I watched the ocean churn and listened to the wind howl through the coastal pines. Occasionally a few snowflakes would hit the window and stick against it before melting and sliding down the glass. By the time I’d reached the bottom of the beer can, the snow had stopped and the skies had cleared. For a few minutes the sun hit the ocean, lighting it up with a brilliant silver shine. Then the next armada of clouds moved in, and the snow began to fall in thick swirls that reduced visibility to a few dozen yards. At that point, I climbed back into bed and slept until the following morning.
After the chaos of Bullard’s trial and the showdown in the El Paso bar, the cabin felt like a sedative. There wasn’t any pressure for me to do anything, so for the first two days I sat in the recliner, read books, and looked at the ocean’s horizon through a pair of old binoculars. Fishing boats and giant cargo ships appeared on the horizon and departed again. There was a shelf of well-read paperback books under the big window that faced onto the ocean, and I picked through them looking for something to occupy my time. I read Robert Crais’ “The Watchman” and Thomas Harris’ “Silence of the Lambs.” I made omelets with bacon, ham, and diced jalapenos. I vacuumed the carpet and cleaned the kitchen. When the rain relented, I went outside and followed the narrow path through the blackberry brambles to the beach. It was a half mile walk on cream-colored sand to the north end of Cannon Beach. Seagulls and pelicans coasted and floated like kites on the ocean breeze under a blanket of grey clouds. Occasionally I passed elderly beachcombers who were looking for shells. As I reached Cannon Beach, vacation homes and small businesses began to encroach on the beach. I turned and headed back towards the cabin when a crystal clear stream cut across the sand in front of me. I told myself that I was in no hurry to do anything or be anything, but I knew that the sensation of peace wouldn’t last. At the quietest moments in the cabin, on the beach, or walking the sidewalks in Cannon Beach I felt something tightening inside of me like a coiled clock spring.
I’d been in the house for a week when the phone in the kitchen rang. It was ten in the morning, and Eric Fullmeyer was on the line.
“How are you holding up?” He asked me.
“Fine so far. Thanks for letting me stay here for a while.”
“You’re welcome. I need you to do something for me.”
“I just put someone on a plane. They’ll be at the airport in Portland around two this afternoon. I want you to meet them.”
“Sure,” I said. “How will I recognize them?”
“You will,” he said. “Trust me. They should be at bag claim 26 between two and two thirty. Okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll take care of it. Do you want me to take them anywhere?”
“Pick them up and take them back to where you are now. It’s just temporary.”
I thought about the fact that he wouldn’t give me a name over the phone, or mention that I was staying at his cabin. I wondered if he thought someone was listening in on the phone call.
“Okay,” I said.
“Thanks,” he said, and hung up.
I was on the road within an hour of Eric’s call. I’d made a pot of coffee and put most of it into a big thermos I carried out to the Camry. I left the sling behind, but I had the shotgun on the passenger seat under a coat I’d found in one of the closets.
I should have had more than enough time to get to the airport by two in the afternoon, but snowfall reduced driving speeds to thirty miles an hour over long stretches of Highway 26, the two-lane road that twists through the mountains which separate the Pacific coastline from Portland. The pavement wasn’t free of snow and ice again until I was down in the Willamette Valley, finally headed for the airport at highway speeds. The sky began to clear, and Mt. Hood was visible in the distance, snow-covered and majestic.
I pulled into the Portland airport garage at 2:45 and found a parking place on the first floor. I left the gun in the car and went out through the exit to the walkway that connected the garage to the terminal. The huge glass awning that covered the arrival and departure levels had kept the area free of the snowfall and freezing rain that had slowed my trip. Now the sky was the color of a Robin’s egg, and the sunshine flooding through the awning made the airport a nice place to be. I went through the one of the glass turnstile gates into the bag claim area and started looking for my passenger.
Bag claim 26 was deserted.
I checked the flight information for bag claim 26 on one of the overhead monitors. A flight from Seattle had used it 30 minutes ago, a flight from San Francisco an hour ago. I was only twenty minutes late, and with the inclement weather I thought that my arriving passenger might be late, too. I stepped back outside through the big glass doors and took a long look at the people standing on the sidewalk waiting for rides. I didn’t recognize any faces. I went back inside and took a seat where I could keep an eye on both the sidewalk and the baggage machinery. Cars stopped, people waiting on the sidewalk got in, and cars pulled away. I wondered if my passenger had already been picked up by someone else. Not much I could do about that. All I could do was wait for the next set of passengers and their bags to hit bag claim 26. If I didn’t recognize any faces in the next couple of hours, I’d leave, go back to Fullmeyer’s cabin, and wait for him to call me again.
There was someone else waiting, too. He sat on a bench on the other side of the bag claim area. Average height, black hair cut short on the sides but long in back, mullet style. Brown Carhartt coat, blue jeans tucked into shiny black Doc Marten boots. Walrus mustache. Hard, sharp eyes that seemed too small for his face. He looked like a cross between a street punk and an old-time Pinkerton detective. Our eyes met, and his expression wasn’t casual. He looked at me as if I reminded him of someone he disliked. Then he pulled a cell phone from his coat pocket and started texting.
The electronic sign hanging over the bag claim belt made a bonging sound, and the display announced the arrival of a flight from El Paso, Texas. The belt began to move, making its serpentine way out through the rubber doors that separated the baggage-handling machinery from the carpeted, comfortable space where people waited for their bags. The passengers began to arrive, coming down the escalator to stand by the still-empty belt to wait for their bags. People in sweatpants, in business suits, some wearing ski coats. A family re-united with hugs that lasted a long time. Kids who looked like they might be in college kissed tenderly before standing with their foreheads tipped together like penguins, barely aware of the crowds around them. Two children wearing Hello Kitty backpacks waited patiently by their parents. I didn’t recognize anyone I knew.
I looked through the crowd towards where the guy with the walrus mustache had been sitting. He’d moved, and I didn’t know where he’d gone to.
I got up from my seat and positioned myself midpoint between the bag claim, the escalator, and the glass doors that opened onto the sidewalk where the cars waited for passengers. If I didn’t recognize my passenger, but they knew who I was, maybe they’d notice me on their way out of the bag claim area.
After most of the crowd from El Paso had left, a woman wearing sunglasses and a cream-colored trench coat walked past me towards the glass doors, trailing a wheeled carry-on bag behind her. As she went past, she turned and stared.
“Hi,” I said, staring back.
She stopped and pulled her tortoise shell sunglasses down, showing me green eyes.
“You’re the guy from the bar,” she said. “With the gun.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Bonnie. Right?”
“Right,” she said. “You remembered.” She gave me a slightly crooked smile. “I don’t think I got the chance to thank you for what you did. I think you saved my life.”
I could see her eyes starting to well up with tears. I held out my hand. “I’m glad I could be there,” I said. “Delorean Harper.”
“Bonnie English,” she said. She took my hand in hers and gave me a firm handshake. “Mr. Fullmeyer said someone would be here waiting for me. I thought it would be another federal marshal.”
“It’s just me for now,” I said. We looked at each other, both nonplussed, both surprised to be seeing each other again.
“Well… Okay… I have my bag,” she said. “What do we do now?”
“Eric – Mr. Fullmeyer told me to take you back to the house where I’m staying for the time being.”
“Okay, good sir. I am putting myself in your capable hands.” She was wearing the bright red lipstick she’d had on in the bar, and I noticed how perfect her skin was and the shine of her black hair against the trench coat.
She pulled her sunglasses back up and gave me the smile again. Then she hooked her arm through mine. I smelled the perfume she was wearing and felt the softness of her leaning against my shoulder as we walked side by side. We went out through the big glass doors and followed the crosswalk across the lanes of traffic waiting to pick up passengers. A pale sun was still shining low in the sky, but a few clouds had moved back in. The first of the snowflakes were beginning to fall in slow motion outside the umbrella of glass between the airport terminal and the parking garage.
“I haven’t seen snow in a while,” she said. “It’s really pretty.”
We entered the parking garage, and I used one of the automated kiosks to validate my parking ticket. Once I had my receipt, we walked down a long aisle of cars to the Camry.
“I’ve never been to Portland before,” she said.
“My first time, too.”
We got to the car and put Bonnie’s luggage in the trunk. I opened the passenger door and picked up the shotgun and the heavy coat, relocating them to the back seat. Bonnie took off her trench coat and handed it to me. She was wearing a pale green cashmere sweater over a short black wool skirt and black leather riding boots. I held the door open for her while she got in, put her trench coat on the back seat, got behind the wheel, and hit the electric door locks.
Bonnie was looking straight ahead. I could sense the nervousness in her.
“You still have that gun from the bar,” she said.
“Right,” I said. I started the car and turned the heater up to cut the cold that had settled in the Camry while I’d waited for Bonnie.
“Is it not safe here?” she asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I said, putting the car into reverse. As I backed out of the parking place, it occurred to me that since seeing Bonnie in the bag claim area, I hadn’t checked a single time to see if anyone was watching us or following us. I would live to regret that.
We drove towards downtown Portland in the early evening traffic. The weather alternated between sun breaks and light snow, but it wasn’t cold enough for the snow to stick on the road surface. I had the wipers going and the rear window defroster on. Bonnie took in the scenery and held her hands in her lap.
“Is it okay for me to ask why Eric sent you here?” I asked.
Bonnie looked away, out her side window. “Those guys who were in the bar?” she said
“Eric charged them with kidnapping and for having the machine gun. They were in jail overnight and then got out on bail. Before Martin – he’s the bartender – and I could testify at the arraignment about what they’d done, Martin was threatened at gunpoint in front of his wife and children. Then some guys came by my apartment when I wasn’t there and told my roommate that if I testified against the men in the bar, they’d kill me and my sister and then maybe my parents, too. I told Mr. Fullmeyer that I was willing to testify anyway, but I thought about it, and I just couldn’t be responsible for putting my whole family’s lives at risk. Those two men from the bar also told their lawyer that the machine gun was yours, and that you’d brought it in with a sawed-off shotgun. Since nobody would testify, all the charges were dropped.”
“Shit,” I said.
“Eric said he thought it would probably be better for me and for my family if I got out of town for a while to let things cool down. I said okay, so he put me up in a hotel last night and then put me on a plane this morning.”
“That makes sense,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they’re going to keep doing what they do until someone and their whole family is willing to get killed just to put them in jail for a while.”
“Or somebody is willing to fight back,” I said.
“Eric said they killed your brother.”
“Not those exact guys, but yeah, some other people they’re connected with. My brother Bricklin was in Alamogordo driving a truck. He found out that some of the drivers he worked with were involved with the cartel. They killed Bricklin to keep him quiet, and almost killed me, too. I was testifying against someone in the cartel when he was poisoned during the trial. So my testimony, and the trial, and my brother’s death didn’t count for much.”
“You must feel so bitter,” she said.
“I’m trying to make peace with it,” I said. “Some things are out of my control, right?”
“I guess so.”
As the highway connected with downtown Portland, we turned south onto Interstate 5 and made our way along the Willamette River past the gleaming high rise office buildings and apartments overlooking the waterfront park. The sun was setting behind the hills that formed the backdrop for the downtown collection of buildings, so I turned on the headlights. We continued west on Highway 26 towards the coastal mountain range. The office buildings gradually gave way to suburbs and shopping malls which gradually gave way to farmland and gently rolling hills thick with Douglas fir trees.
“Where are we going?” Bonnie asked. “Aren’t we staying in Portland?”
“No,” I said. “The house is on the coast.”
“Is that a long way?”
“If the roads stay okay, maybe an hour, an hour and a half.”
“Do you want to stop for something to eat? We’re just about past the part of the drive where you can find a restaurant.”
“I’m not hungry. It’s okay.”
“Do you want some coffee? I have a thermos in the back seat.”
After staring out the window for a while at the darkening hills, Bonnie turned her attention to the shoebox of CDs Eric had left in the foot well of the passenger seat. I pressed the overhead button for the map light so she could see what she was looking at. The music was an eclectic mix of indie rock, heavy metal guitar, bluegrass country music, old-time rock and roll, and acoustic guitar. Music to keep you engaged and awake on a long drive. I’d gone through the entire box during the drive from El Paso to the Cannon Beach. Bonnie looked at each CD in turn, carefully reading the description of the music and artist before finally selecting Coldplay’s “Ghost Stories” from the stack. “You mind if I put some music in?” she asked.
“Not at all.”
She slid the CD into the slot in the dash, and the music began to play through the car speakers, making a counterpoint to the gloomy weather and the steady metronome of the wipers clearing the snow from the windshield.
By then the clouds had changed into a gray-colored blanket, and snow was falling steadily and beginning to stick on the shoulder of the road. The traffic thinned as we headed into the foothills of the coastal mountain range. I began to see logging trucks in the oncoming lane every few minutes, but not much else in my lane either ahead or behind.
As we went through the last village before starting up the grade into the mountains, I noticed that a Corvette was following about a half mile back. Like me, he had his headlights on. I had the sense that he’d been hanging back there for a long time, and that he seemed to be pacing me. If I went faster, he went faster. If I slowed down, he did, too. Maybe he didn’t want to tailgate me or pass me because of the snow on the road.
We started up the long climb that led to the crest of the coastal range, the snow beginning to fall heavily and accumulate on the road. Eric’s Camry had front wheel drive and good tires, and seemed to handle the road conditions okay, though. As we climbed, the Douglas fir trees grew thicker and closer to the highway on both sides, a reminder that the road was a narrow ribbon of man-made convenience through wilderness.
We drove through a stretch of road where the tree branches had formed a canopy over the highway. The huge tree trunks, the arches of the branches joining above us, and the snowflakes being swept over the car gave the impression of flying through a cathedral.
Bonnie pulled her coat from the back seat and covered herself with it like a blanket.
“How much farther?” She asked. “This place feels haunted. I’m ready to get there.”
“Maybe another thirty minutes.”
I kept the speed at a reasonable pace but eventually went around a curve and came up fast behind a small motor home doing about 20 miles an hour on a steep uphill grade. I jumped on the brakes and narrowly avoided a collision. Then another car came around the same curve behind me, jumped on its brakes, and his headlight beams filled the interior of the Camry. I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw the same walrus mustache and mullet haircut I’d seen in the bag claim area at the Portland airport. Then the Corvette receded quickly into the distance, with me crawling along behind the motorhome and the Corvette trailing behind, a quarter mile back.
I shut off the music. “We’re being followed,” I said.
“I know we’re going pretty slow,” Bonnie said. “You mean someone is behind us?”
“No. I mean I just saw someone following us who was also at the airport when you were picking up your bag.”
“Could he just be going to the coast, too?”
“It’s possible, but I doubt it.”
She paused. “What do you think he wants?”
“I don’t know. To figure out where we’re going, maybe.”
It was quiet in the car, with just the muted sounds of the windshield wipers and the Camry’s engine. Snowflakes fell through the headlight beams. Bonnie hugged herself like she’d become cold. I glanced over my shoulder at the back seat to see if I could see the shotgun.
“Does he know you saw him?” she asked.
I shook my head. “I’m not sure. I just looked at him in my mirror for a second.”
The road straightened out again, and I went around the motorhome, picking up enough speed that even with front-wheel drive we began to slide when I went around curves. A minute later I saw the Corvette in my rear view mirror again. Then the road steepened again, and with the increasing altitude the snow fell harder. I was driving at the limit of the Camry’s traction, and the Corvette receded in the rear view mirror again, his headlights becoming pinpoints in the distance.
We crested a hill and started down a long straightaway, and within a minute the Corvette’s headlights surged in my rear view mirror again, his high beams flooding the interior of the Camry with hot white light.
“I don’t think he’s just trying to figure out where we’re going anymore,” I said. “He wants us to know he’s back there.”
“Why would he do that?” Bonnie said. She sounded like she was about to cry.
“I honestly don’t know. To mess with us? Maybe to scare us into driving so fast we have a wreck?”
“Do you think … do you think he has a gun?”
“I think that he probably does, yeah.” I looked over at Bonnie. “I do too.”
Then we started up another steep hill. The road began to twist back and forth through a series of sharp curves cut through thick stands of fir trees, and I watched the Corvette recede in my mirror once again, the rear end of the Corvette fishtailing wildly on one of the curves before he slowed and brought the car under control.
I knew that eventually we would crest the coastal range and begin the descent to the Pacific Coast Highway, and that the Corvette would catch us on the long downhill. When we were at sea level, and the roads were clear again, I was certain that he would find a place to his liking and try to kill Bonnie and me.
A road sign announced a rest stop a mile ahead. I told Bonnie that I was going to pull over.
“My God, please don’t,” she said. Her voice had a tone of near panic.
“Bonnie, if we let him, he’ll follow us to the house. I can’t outrun him in this car.”
“What if we found a policeman?”
“I haven’t seen a single highway patrol car since we left Portland, and that motorhome is the only other car I’ve seen in ten minutes. I think we’re on our own.”
“What if we call for help?”
“Do you have service?”
She pulled out her cell phone, powered it up, and looked at the screen. Then she turned to me and said “I can’t get a signal.”
The Douglas fir trees that lined the right side of the highway gave way to a clear cut. Burning piles of timber debris as tall as houses lined the highway, smoldering and smoking in the snowfall like giant funeral pyres, their inner cores moldering with a blood red glow. A layer of black haze hung in the air.
“Bonnie,” I said. “Listen to me. I’m going to pull into the rest stop. Once we get stopped, get out and run like hell into the bathroom. Lock the door from the inside. I’ll try to come up behind him. Surprise him somehow. Don’t unlock the bathroom door until I tell you to. Okay?”
“I really don’t want to,” she said. Her voice was shaking. “Can’t we stay together in the car?”
“We’ve got no choice,” I said. I told her that she needed to put on her coat, and she unbuckled her seatbelt and started to pull it on. As we reached the exit for the rest stop, I turned the wheel towards the off ramp and we drifted into the parking lot in a lazy arc, gliding on top of several inches of snowfall over frozen rain. Then the tail of the Camry broke loose, pointing the headlights back toward the highway and the trunk of the car toward the building that contained the bathrooms. I pumped the brakes to try to halt our slide, but the back wheels of the Camry did a slow bounce over the curb in front of the bathrooms anyway. The car came to rest with the trunk of the car nearly against the wall of the bathroom. I told Bonnie “GO! NOW!”
I shut off the headlights, reached into the back seat for the shotgun, and we both jumped out of the car, slipping and sliding as we ran for the restroom. I hoped that the Corvette driver hadn’t seen me pull off the highway, and that he’d continue on toward the coast. If he did that, we could turn the Camry around and head back down the long hill towards Portland.
I went past the bathroom door to hide behind the far wall of the building. The only illumination in the parking lot was the bronze-colored glow coming from a single sodium lamp atop a pole in the center of the paved area. The back side of the building was in near-total darkness.
I heard the hollow metal rattling sound that it makes when a door is locked and someone pulls the door handle over and over.
“Shit, it’s locked!” Bonnie said. “What do you want me to do now?”
I stepped around the corner into the light and took her by the hand.
“Come with me and stand up against the wall. It’s dark. Just stay close, okay?”
We went around the corner into the shadow of the building, and she wrapped both of her arms around my torso and put her head against my shoulder. “I don’t want to die,” she said. “I don’t want to die.”
“We’ll be okay,” I said. “We will.”
Then I heard the sound of the Corvette engine shifting into a lower gear as the driver made the turn into the rest area parking lot. Bright white headlights slashed across the trees behind our hiding place, and we instinctively pressed ourselves harder against the wall, deeper into the darkness.
After a few moments the Corvette motor stopped, and it was absolutely quiet. Then I heard a dinging sound from the Corvette reminding the driver that the keys were still in the ignition. Then it was silent again, with only the faint sound of boots crunching in the snow.
The sounds of a car door opening and closing again.
The hollow metal rattling sound that it makes when a door is locked and someone pulls the handle over and over.
Then complete silence, as if the hunter hadn’t followed us at all. It was just me and Bonnie in a private embrace, with nothing in the world existing beyond the small slice of darkness the two of us shared.
Then I heard his boots crunching back over towards his car. I pried Bonnie off of me and stepped far enough towards the trees that I could watch him from a dark vantage point.
He popped the glass hatchback open on the Corvette, took off his coat, and put on a heavy black vest before putting the coat back on. Then he strapped a pistol to his right thigh and pulled a short-barreled pump shotgun from a soft case. I watched him put a half-dozen shells into the shotgun’s magazine before holding the forestock in one hand and jacking the gun up and down one time to force a shell into the receiver. Then he donned a short-brimmed hat, closed the hatchback, and locked the car. Then he switched on a tactical flashlight attached to the top of the shotgun and he rotated in a full circle taking in the parking lot, the picnic tables, and the small white bridge that marked a trailhead. As he turned the flashlight towards the trees where I hid, I silently stepped back over to the shadow where Bonnie waited for me. I felt the solace of her embrace as she wrapped her arms around me again. She asked if he was leaving and I said “Shhhh,” as quietly as I could.
Then I heard his boots crunching through the snow again, knowing that he had begun the process of circling the building and parking lot to see where we’d gone. The logical place for him to begin his search was with our footprints where we’d left our car, and that’s what he did. I listened to him retrace our steps, his footsteps coming closer and closer.
I raised my shotgun up to head high and held it out at arm’s length. As he rounded the corner of the building and his flashlight lit Bonnie’s and my feet, I watched his mouth open under the walrus mustache in a toothy smile, and I squeezed the twin triggers of the shotgun, distilling the entirety of my existence into the roaring ka-kunk of the two gun barrels and the brilliant cones of fire from the twin .410 shells.
I was blinded and deafened for a while. There was an intense ringing in my ears, and the only thing left in my visual field was the ghost flare etched into my retinas from the flash of the gun.
Gradually my eyesight returned and my world started to remake itself. The feathery snow began to fall again through the cone of light made by the parking lot lamp. The haze from the burning slash piles still carried the pungent smells of wood a hundred years old, of rain and moss and incineration. The dark and crumpled form of the wolf had stalked us at the airport and hunted us in the wilderness began to take shape in the snow only a few feet from where I stood. One of his arms was outstretched over his head, the other at his hip. The barrel of his shotgun rested across one leg, with the flashlight painting me and Bonnie against the wall like shadow puppets. At the base of his neck, his long hair was fanned out on the snow in a circle like a small halo. I watched as the halo was gradually replaced by a growing stain as black and shiny as oil, and I felt the world begin to unmake itself around me again. Then I rested my head against Bonnie’s and we embraced for a long time, Bonnie’s body shuddering with sobs as we waited for the world to right itself once more.
When the ground finally felt solid beneath my feet, I told Bonnie that she needed to go to the Camry and wait for me.
“What are you gonna do?” Her face was still pressed against my chest, so her words sounded like “Whachygundoo?”
“I’m going to make him disappear,” I said. “Like he was never here, and we were never here.”
I felt her head nodding against my chest. “Okay,” she said.
I put my hands on her shoulders and rotated her towards the Camry. I watched her trudge away in a daze.
I knelt down and went through the pockets of his pants and coat, pulling out a cell phone, wallet, car keys, and folding knife. I took the .45 automatic from his holster and put it and his shotgun against the bathroom wall. Then I dragged him to the wall and rested his back against it before picking up one of his limp arms and levering his body across my shoulders in a fireman’s carry.
He was heavier than he looked. I felt the hardness of his bulletproof vest against my neck and realized that I would have to take the vest off to continue, so I bent forward and dropped him on his back. He hit the ground with a thudding sound, a lungful of his breath condensing into a cloud as if he had sighed. I bent over and unzipped his coat, rolled him over, and struggled to get his coat off of him. I felt naked and exposed in the light from the parking lot lamp standing over the man I’d killed. Would the highway patrol pull into the lot, see what I’d done, and arrest me? I pressed on, popping the plastic clips from the thick straps that held the vest in place, and then re-rolling him onto his back so I could finally get the vest off. I left the vest on the ground beside his coat and then picked him up again. I felt my spine compressing and my hip and knee joints aching, but I kept moving, carrying him across the parking lot towards the white wooden bridge that connected the parking lot to the forest.
The snow continued to fall as I trudged towards the bridge. The pale gold light from the overhead light made everything shine with an odd glow as it reflected off the ground, the trees, and the snow.
I tightened my grip on his arm and leg as I carefully made my way onto the footbridge. A sign mounted on a pair of white poles said that the bridge was the trailhead for the path that led to the Steam Donkey trail and the wilderness beyond.
The smell of smoke from the burning slash piles was strong. I began to work my way along the path using the dim light that filtered through the trees from the parking lot. My eyes gradually adjusted to the darkness, and I was able to see enough of the tree shapes around me to keep from tripping and falling. After maybe a hundred yards I started looking for a place where I could drop my package and cover him up somehow. In the distance ahead, a red glow filtered through the trees, beckoning me on. I pressed ahead, feeling the sweat running down my back.
I reached the point on the Steam Donkey trail where the path connected with the clear-cut area that I’d passed on the highway. The red light that I’d seen in the distance became the glowing cores of a pair of timber slash piles that were still burning. On the nearest of the two piles, the scrap timber on one side had collapsed into the center of the pile, leaving a blood red open maw, a kiln made of wood feeding on itself. It looked like a tunnel to hell.
Even from thirty feet away, the heat from the slash pile was intense. I took in a lungful of air, held it, and shuffled forward into the heat until I felt like my clothes might catch fire. Then I bent at the waist and launched him into the open core of the slash pile, turned, and ran. After a dozen steps I took in a huge breath, stopped, and looked back at what I’d done. The light from the slash pile core illuminated the body in demonic red colors. His boots had already begun to smoke from the heat, his shirt spotting with flame and emitting sparks into the air as the fabric began to burn.
Still breathing hard, I started back down the Steam Donkey trail towards the rest stop. I took one last look back at the slash pile as I re-entered the trees. The body was in full flame, now a misshapen lump of fire that was barely recognizable as a corpse.
I made my way back along the trail and across the white footbridge, returning to the place where I’d left his coat and bulletproof vest. I picked up the coat and vest, carried those over to the backside of the restroom, collected the shotgun and pistol I’d left there, and then walked through the snow to the Camry. Bonnie was waiting for me in the passenger seat. I opened the back door and put the hit man’s gear on the floor of the car, then handed Bonnie the keys to the Camry.
“You smell like smoke,” she said. “Like you’ve been burned.”
“I need you to follow me,” I told her. “I’m going to drive the Corvette down the hill to the main highway. We’ll leave the car down there with the keys in it. Someone will find it and take it. Hopefully they’ll never know we were here. Can you drive this car? We’ll go really slow.”
She nodded dully.
“Good,” I told her. “Get behind the wheel.”
I climbed into the Corvette. The interior was impeccably clean, smelling of leather, of gun oil, of cologne, of tobacco. I inserted the ignition key and hit the starter. The engine roared to life and shook the car as it settled into a lumpy idle. The heat was on, and the wipers began clearing the snow that had accumulated on the windshield.
A few minutes ago, my hunter had sat where I was sitting, had touched the same car key, had looked through the same windshield. I tried not to think about it. I put the car into reverse and tapped the gas pedal. The car surged backwards before I hit the brakes, bringing the car to a halt. Then I turned on the headlights, illuminating Bonnie’s shaken, paralyzed face in the driver’s seat of the Camry.
I cranked the steering wheel towards the highway, put it in drive, and we started the long, slow process of making our way down to the Pacific Coast Highway. Bonnie followed me in the Camry, leaving plenty of space between our two cars. After an hour of nerve-wracking driving, we left the snowfall behind us and the skies were crystal clear. The pavement was dry, completely free of the snow and ice we’d endured in the mountains. We’d only seen handful of oncoming cars passing us on their way up the hill, and all of them had tire chains mounted. Then I found out why: a highway patrol car was checking oncoming cars to make sure that anyone headed into the mountains had tire chains on. The highway patrolman took a hard look at Bonnie and me as we went downhill past the checkpoint, but he didn’t stop us.
When we reached the Pacific Coast Highway, we headed south towards Cannon Beach, the closest town to where Eric’s cabin was. We took the exit to Cannon Beach and drove slowly past the city park and into the town center where the shops, bars, and restaurants were. I pulled into the parking lot of a busy pizza restaurant and parked it. I wiped the car key against my pants to make sure there would be no clear fingerprints on it, and then started it up again. Then I rolled the windows down and left the car running and the headlights on. I knew that someone would see it, want it, and take it, hopefully down the coast to California, to a chop shop, or to someplace else far away.
Bonnie waited for me in the Camry. I got into the passenger seat and directed her back out of the Cannon Beach city limits and north up the highway, then onto the small road that led to Eric’s house. When she pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine, she sighed as if every ounce of energy had been squeezed out of her. I went around to the driver’s side and opened her door.
We went inside and Bonnie shrugged off her coat. I got her luggage from the trunk of the car and brought it inside. She took the luggage into the bathroom without saying a word. I heard the shower begin to run. While she was showering, I went back out to the Camry and got the weaponry I’d taken off the hit man. Then I patted my pockets to see if I’d forgotten anything and felt the lump of the man’s cellphone and wallet. I pulled them out and considered launching them into the wilderness between the house and the ocean, but decided not to. I held the power button down until the phone turned off, then put it with the guns under the kitchen sink.
I sat at the kitchen table and waited, aware of how dirty I was. After a while Bonnie came out of the bathroom in a white and blue pinstriped men’s dress shirt. Her legs and feet were bare.
“Where am I supposed to sleep?” she asked without looking up from the floor.
I pointed towards the unused bedroom. She nodded and went in, trailing her luggage behind her. Then she came back out to the living room. She looked like she didn’t know what to do with herself.
“Do you want something to eat?” I asked. “I can make something for you.”
She shook her head no. I could see that she was overwhelmed with stress. There were dark circles under her eyes. She’d washed her hair and combed it out but not dried it. With her flattened hair pulled back, the perfect oval shape of her face, the pert nose, the slightly almond shaped eyes all seemed more apparent.
She caught me staring. “I just want to go to sleep,” she said. “Is that okay?”
“Of course,” I told her.
“I had to take a shower to get the smell of the gun off,” she said.
“There were blood spots on my face,” she said. “The whole way I was driving here there was blood on me, on my coat.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I’m freaking out and I haven’t slept in two days. I’m not sure I can sleep, and I feel like if I don’t, I’m going to lose it. Could you please just hold me while I try to go to sleep?” she asked.
“Sure,” I told her. “Just give me a minute to clean up.”
I went into the bathroom and brushed my teeth. It was the first chance I’d had to look at myself in the mirror since the shooting. My face was freckled with spots of blood. I washed my hands and face at the sink with soap and then scrubbed with a hand towel. My pants, shoes, and shirt were filthy from what I’d done at the rest stop, and they smelled intensely of smoke from the burning slash pile. I felt lucky that the highway patrolman hadn’t taken a closer look at me. He would never have let me pass. I took everything off and stepped into the hot shower, scrubbing myself with bar soap and shampooing my hair. When I came out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, I found Bonnie in her bed under the covers, her back to the darkened room. I went into my bedroom and pulled on a pair of clean jeans, then came to her bedside and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Are you asleep?” I asked.
“We killed someone,” she said quietly.
“We didn’t have a choice,” I told her. “He had a gun. He was going to kill us both.”
“Why? We weren’t doing anything.”
“Bonnie, he was waiting for you at the airport. When he saw I was with you, he came after both of us. I think that the cartel put a bounty on our heads.”
“Are we going to tell the police?”
“It’s too late for that,” I said. “We got rid of the body and the car. It would look like we’re covering up a murder, instead of trying to keep the cartel from knowing what we did.”
She was quiet. “What are we going to do now?” she asked.
“I’m not sure. They knew you were on the plane somehow, and now they know I’m here, too. We can’t stay here for long.”
“Look. Get some sleep and we’ll make a plan in the morning. Okay?”
“Just hold me for a little while,” she said. “Just until I’m asleep. I keep seeing that man’s face. Every time I close my eyes. It’s like… there… again.”
I lifted the sheets and slid in behind her, cupping her body with mine. I put my arm around her and she held it against her chest, her hand gripping my forearm tightly. I felt the heat that her body radiated through her shirt and smelled the perfumed scent of the shampoo she’d used. I felt her tears on my arm, and then her breathing became rhythmic before she jerked slightly and let go of my forearm. As she entered dream sleep I heard murmuring, plaintive cries catch in her throat. Then she was perfectly quiet and still. Eventually I fell asleep, too.
My dreams were vivid and heartbreaking, of snow falling like feathers through headlights, of a shotgun setting the night on fire, of burning slash piles glowing like tunnels to hell, of pale gold light illuminating a white footbridge into darkness, of a halo turning into an oily stain in the snow, of my world unmaking itself in a lonely place where a wolf tried to take down sheep who had wandered away from the fold.
The next morning was clear and sunny. The sunlight reflecting off the ocean was visible through the coastal pine trees again. The baseboard heaters made ticking sounds as they warmed and cooled. The dull thudding noise of the waves crashing at the beach felt like a heartbeat in the cabin.
I was in the kitchen scrambling a pan of eggs when Bonnie appeared in the doorway. She was still wearing the pinstriped shirt but had pulled a pair of jeans on underneath. She’d combed her hair out and put lipstick on.
“Hi,” she said. She was looking past me as if I wasn’t there.
“Hi. Want some eggs?”
“Take a seat at the bar. Scrambled eggs coming right up.”
She picked one of the barstools at the small table that separated the kitchen from the living room. She held her knees close together and had her arms crossed over her chest. Still no eye contact.
I used a Teflon spatula from one of the drawers to divide the eggs in half, then slid Bonnie’s portion onto one of the ceramic plates I’d found in the cabinet. The toaster popped up a pair of brown slices of bread, and I put one on Bonnie’s plate and one on mine.
I slid Bonnie’s plate in front of her, along with the small tub of margarine from the refrigerator.
“There isn’t a lot to choose from,” I said. “We can get out later and go to the grocery store. It isn’t far from here.”
“It’s okay,” she said. “Thank you.”
We sat beside each other in companionable silence.
“Did you sleep okay last night?” I asked.
“I slept but I had nightmares.”
She was quiet again and just stared at her food. After a while she picked up the salt and pepper shakers and seasoned her eggs with delicate shakes. Then she stared at her food again before finally picking up her utensils and beginning to eat breakfast.
I finished my breakfast, washed my plate, then picked up her plate and washed it, too. While I had my back turned at the sink, she left the room so quietly that I didn’t know that she’d gone. After I finished in the kitchen I went into the living room. She stood close to the glass of the window, looking at the ice-blue shine coming off of the Pacific Ocean through the trees.
“I feel like I’m going crazy,” she said. “I’ve never done anything like that before. I don’t know how to be normal after last night.”
“Give it some time. You stepped into a different world for a while but you’re back in this world now. You’re still the same person, but you’re having to find your balance again.”
“Do you feel okay?” Bonnie asked.
“No, not really,” I said. “I feel like I broke something inside myself.”
“I know. It’s just…”
“You think you might be a different person. A bad one.”
“In a way. I wonder if I can trust myself to be around other people. Like it’s in me to kill someone now.”
“I think it’s probably in most people to do what we did. We’re socialized from childhood to get along with other people, compromise, take turns. But we’re really just animals who want to survive, Bonnie. Even if it means killing someone to do it. Every one of us, including you, wants to stay alive.”
“I just want my old life back.”
“I don’t think you can go back to El Paso to work in that bar, Bonnie.”
“I just mean the life where I got up in the morning and went through my day and was sort of oblivious. I just … did stuff and was mostly happy. I flirted with guys like you sometimes; I went to movies with my roommate. On the weekend I had dinner with my parents. Things were good. I don’t think I really appreciated that.”
“You didn’t have anything to compare it to, Bonnie. And I’m sorry.”
“They came into the bar looking for me. That’s when the trouble started.”
“If I hadn’t said I’d testify against those guys they would have left me alone.”
“We’re well-matched for each other, then. That’s how I brought them down on my head, too.”
She rested her forehead against the glass before turning away from the window. Then she leaned against the wall with her arms crossed.
“Do you think they were after you or after me when they started following us?” she asked.
“Initially I think they were looking for you,” I said. “When that guy saw me at the airport he recognized me from a picture or from the news and realized that there might be a chance to cancel both of our tickets.”
“Explain why they would do that. Wouldn’t it just make more trouble for them?”
“Because the people the hit man worked for put the message out that anyone who raises a hand against them gets killed, and maybe their family gets killed, too. You and I both decided to testify anyway, so now they have to make good on their threat.”
“But I decided not to testify. Why come after me anyway?”
“I don’t know. For a while you were talking to the police about testifying. Maybe that’s enough. You told that asshole in the bar that you’d kill him if he ever touched you again. Maybe that was enough.”
“There’s another possibility,” I said.
“That they knew Fullmeyer was sending you to stay with me, so they followed you to Portland and then waited for a chance to kill me once we’d left the airport.”
Bonnie frowned. “So maybe I was just a way to get to you, instead of a target?”
“Maybe you weren’t before. I think that you probably will be once they realize we took down one of their crew. They won’t like that, and they’ll probably think that you were involved in some way.”
“You seem very analytical about all this,” Bonnie said.
“I’m trying to stay alive. I can’t expect the police to watch my back, and the witness protection program won’t take me, so I’m trying to look at this from all the angles.”
“Do you think Mr. Fullmeyer can help?”
“I thought he could before. Now I’m not sure.”
“Are you going to tell him about what happened?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“He’s a federal marshal.”
“I know. He also put you on that plane and they knew you were on it. How did they find that out?”
Bonnie was quiet.
“Did you tell anyone, your family, your roommate, your co-workers where you were going?” I asked.
“Mr. Fullmeyer told me that he called my parents and roommate and told them that he would be providing a temporary safe place for me until things cooled off. That’s all.”
“Did you use a credit card at the airport?”
“Did you travel under your own name?”
“Mr. Fullmeyer walked me through security using his badge and put me on the plane with some kind of special ticket. It didn’t have my name on it. I think it was some kind of ticket related to the
“Do you still have the ticket?”
“No. They scanned it at the boarding gate and Mr. Fullmeyer took it with him.”
“You don’t think he had anything to do with us being followed, do you?” Bonnie asked.
“I doubt it. But somehow the cartel knew, and he was the only person who knew where you were going. Maybe other federal marshals slipped up and leaked Eric’s plans. I guess it’s possible someone was watching the airport and saw you. Was your phone GPS turned on?”
“No. Marshal Fullmeyer had me turn the phone off before we left for the airport. Delorean, if you don’t want to tell the police, and you aren’t sure we can trust Marshal Fullmeyer, isn’t there anyone else we can ask for help?”
“It’s just us, Bonnie. I think until we figure it out, the smart thing to do is just lay low.”
The phone on the wall in the kitchen began to ring. Bonnie and I looked at each other.
“Are you going to answer it?” she asked.
I thought about it, then went over and picked up the handset from the cradle.
“Hello?” I recognized Fullmeyer’s voice.
“Hi,” I said.
“Did you pick up your passenger at the airport yesterday?” Office sounds in the background, like he was at work.
“Did you have any problems getting back? I saw online that they closed the highway because the roads were so bad.”
“We made it through before they shut them down. Your Camry does pretty well on snow.”
“Okay. That’s good. I called last night and didn’t get an answer. I thought maybe you’d had to get a hotel or something.”
“No. Just had to drive slow.”
“Is she there now?” Fullmeyer asked.
“She is. Do you want to talk to her?”
“Yeah. Put her on.”
I held my hand over the mouthpiece and shook my head “No” at Bonnie before giving her the phone. I listened to her side of the conversation from across the kitchen.
“Hello, Mr. Fullmeyer,” she said. “No, I’m doing okay… No, I don’t need anything right now… Yes, I’m fine.” She gave me that small crooked smile for the first time since we’d left the airport. “He’s been a real gentleman, so far. I’ll tell him you said to keep the crazy vigilante behavior on the down low… Okay… Okay… Thank you Marshal Fullmeyer.” Then she handed the phone back to me.
“Hello,” I said.
“Can you keep an eye on her for a couple weeks?” he asked.
Bonnie leaned against the kitchen countertop by the sink. She crossed her arms and watched my face.
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I don’t want her to come back to El Paso until I can get a few things sorted out. Both of you made the cartel people pretty mad with what you did in the bar.”
“Sorry they’re mad. I’ll be more polite the next time someone comes after me with a blowtorch and a machine gun.”
“Laugh if you want. Word on the street is that they’re about twice as pissed off at you as they were before.”
“So they want to kill me twice as dead? Okay, I’m twice as scared.”
“Delorean, they put a bounty on you the same size as what you took from Sheriff Bullard’s house. The person who delivers you to the cartel gets a quarter million dollars. They might feel like Bonnie gives them some kind of angle on you since you protected her in the bar. You still feel like laughing?”
“Eric, I’m just a crazy vigilante dangling in the breeze. The laughs come easily to me.”
“That’s the category one stuff again, Delorean. Crazy talk.”
“Bonnie and I were just headed out the door to get groceries,” I said. “Is there anything else?”
“Yeah, watch your back,” Eric said.
“I’m getting better at that.”
“I’ll check in with you later in the week.”
“One more thing,” I said.
“If our current location becomes compromised, if I think we’re being hunted here, where should we go next?”
“Why? Did something happen?”
“Where would we go next, Eric? Is there another safe house? It seems prudent to plan ahead.”
“If you have to abandon your current location, the address on the driver’s license I gave you is for the alternate safe house. If you have any reason at all to feel unsafe in Cannon Beach, call me and let me know, then get to the other house as fast as you can. If you need help immediately, call 911 and tell them you and Bonnie are under federal protection and you need immediate help. Bonnie has my number on a business card. You can call any time, and I’ll send marshals and will come myself, too. Okay?”
“Okay. Just thought I’d ask.”
“Anything else you want to tell me?”
“Okay. I’ll be talking to you later in the week.”
“Talk to you then.”
Bonnie was still leaning against the counter with her arms crossed. “What were you and Eric talking about?” she asked.
“Eric told me he thought you’d need to stay here a couple weeks until things cool off in El Paso.”
“Do you think Eric’s right? That they’ll cool off if I stay here?”
“I doubt it.” I stood beside her and got a red plastic tumbler from the cabinet to the right of the sink, then filled it at the tap.
“You didn’t tell him about what happened?”
“I heard you say something about another safe house. Does Eric want us to move?”
I shook my head. “I just wanted to know where we should go if we have to run. Eric said the address is on the fake driver’s license he had made for me. So that’s good to know.”
“Okay.” She frowned.
I took a long drink and drained the glass, then leaned forward to look through the window over the sink at the blackberry bushes that encroached on the side of the house. The water left a faint aftertaste of minerals and smelled vaguely of chlorine. The sun was out, though, and I wanted to take advantage of it to escape the cabin.
“We should get outside, Bonnie,” I said. “There’s a sun break, and the beach is just a few minutes walk from here.”
“Before we go, can I ask you something?” Bonnie asked.
“Have you hurt people before, like in the army or something? You just seem like you can live with all this. I’m barely keeping it together.”
I told Bonnie something then that I’d never told anyone else. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I did once.”
Bonnie’s eyes got wide. “And you can carry that weight around every day? Really?”
“It happened when I was a kid, Bonnie. Believe me, there was no other way.”
“Thing is,” I said. “You carry a weight around that long, you get better at carrying it. Some days I hardly think about it.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Bonnie asked.
“Not really, but if you want to know, I’ll tell you. You’ve earned that.”
“Let’s go for a walk then,” I said.
We put on our winter coats and left the cocoon of warmth that the cabin provided. The chill air smelled of the sea and of moss and rain. The sky was clear, with a pale afternoon sun casting everything in a yellow tint. A dark band of clouds was forming at the edge of the Pacific horizon, though. I’d learned how to estimate the speed of approaching clouds from the afternoons I’d spent watching the ocean from Eric’s cabin. I thought we had about half an hour before the next storm hit.
Bonnie and I walked down the narrow footpath that led through several hundred yards of blackberry bushes and salal hedges on the way to the sand. The beach stretched in both directions for as far as the eye could see. To the north, the cliffs rose to about two hundred feet of height. It would be a difficult scramble up steep, loose soil to the top if I were ever trapped on the beach between the water and the cliff. To the south, the slope of the land down to the beach was much more gradual. We turned south towards Cannon Beach. It was a beautiful day, in spite of everything. I was glad to be there and have Bonnie beside me.
“Are you sure you want to hear this?” I said.
The waves that slapped against the beach had water the color of melted coke bottles, and rivulets of sea foam lay in stripes on the sand from waves that had pushed in as far as they could go before giving up and retreating. A gust of warm air pushed across us, portending a cold front.
Bonnie linked her arm through mine and leaned her head against my shoulder. We walked like that for a while.
“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to,” she said. “I’m sorry I asked you about it.”
“No. It’s okay. I guess I feel like I can trust you with this. We’re in this together now, right?”
“Right,” Bonnie said.
“When I was twelve years old, my father got into serious money trouble. He sold fancy cars to people who had lots of money, but the economy got sour and even the rich people stopped buying things they didn’t have to. That’s the way it is in oil country. It’s either up or it’s down, with not much in between. If he’d borrowed from a bank they would have just repossessed the cars, or my parents could have filed for bankruptcy, but this was different. My dad got the money from a private lender who started making threats about wanting his money back. I knew my parents were scared, but they didn’t think they could tell the police about it. I heard my dad tell my mom that he’d been laundering money for the lender.”
In the distance, maybe a mile to the south, I could see Haystack Rock. A few beachcombers were out looking for shells, but none were as far north on the beach as Bonnie and I were.
“It was summertime and we lived in the outskirts of Oklahoma City. It was a kind of wilderness back then. A few homes here and there, but mostly just miles and miles of oak trees, red dirt roads, and oil wells.”
A shallow stream cut across the beach in front of us. The stream was a few feet deep where we were, but the closer it got to the ocean, the more it flared into a fan shape, flattening out as it reached the surf.
“I guess this is the turnaround point, Bonnie,” I said. “If you don’t want to get wet.”
We headed back the way that we’d come. The clouds were much closer now and looked like a dark wall rising from the horizon. The wind coming off the ocean picked up speed and carried a bitterly cold edge to it. In ten minutes the storm would be where we were. The surf seemed to boil, with muddy barrels of sand-infused water churning where the water returning to the ocean met the fierce waves coming on shore.
“Okay, Bonnie” I said. I had to raise my voice so she could hear me over the noise of the wind and the surf.
I tried to remember the landmarks that marked where the footpath led down to the beach.
“So someone came by the house when my parents were there alone. I was about a quarter mile away and I thought I heard gunshots. I ran home, and a man was coming out of the garage with a gun. I took off running. He shot at me and chased me until he had me cornered. I had my dad’s gun in my backpack, Bonnie, and I killed him with it. I was twelve years old and I killed somebody. There wasn’t any choice.”
“Oh my God,” Bonnie said.
“Thing is,” I said. “It was all my fault. If I was a different kind of person, my parents would still be alive, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”
“What are you talking about?” Bonnie asked. “You were just a kid.”
The first blast of sleet and snow cut across the beach.
“Let’s run,” I said. Bonnie jogged alongside me, shielding her eyes from the sleet with her hand. We’d gone about a hundred yards when the snow started coming down hard. We moved higher up on the beach in the hopes that we’d recognize the opening for the footpath in the vegetation that encroached on the beach. The snow wasn’t sticking on the sand, but there was more than enough of it falling to make it difficult to see where we were going. After a while, the cliffs rose on our right side and I knew we’d walked too far.
“Bonnie,” I said. I leaned in close and said it loudly so she could hear me over the drone of the wind and the hiss of the sleet hitting the beach. She had her face turned away from me. I took hold of her arm and turned her towards me.
“Hey,” I said. “We gotta turn around. The path is behind us.” She nodded, and I could see that she’d been crying. I put my arm around her and said “It’s not far.”
We walked slowly, both watching for the entrance to the footpath to appear on our left. I tried to shield her from the weather by standing between her and the water. The wind tugged at our coats and made Bonnie’s trench coat pop at her legs. Periodically a wave would crash against the sand with a sound like a thunderclap.
I noticed a cut in the vegetation that I took for the cabin footpath. We stepped off the beach with me in front and Bonnie behind, and we started up the trail. After several hundred yards of back and forth on the winding path we entered the opening behind Eric’s house.
We went inside and stayed on the linoleum by the back door, trying to keep our wet shoes and coats off of the carpet. I helped Bonnie get her coat off and put it on one of the hooks by the door, then got a towel from the bathroom and used it to help her get the snow out of her hair. I started taking off my coat while Bonnie leaned against the wall, struggling to remove a riding boot.
I took one of her hands and said “Hey. Come on over here.” I led her to the kitchen table and told her to take a seat. She sat down, and I got on one knee, and then lifted one of her boots by the heel. I began to work the boot off by rocking the heel back and forth while cupping my palm against the leather around her calf and pulling the boot towards me.
“Point your toes, Bonnie,” I said. “It’ll make it easier.”
When she did that the boot began to move, and I pulled it towards me as the wet leather finally came free. I lowered her foot to the floor, then cupped the heel of her other boot in my palm. Then I lifted the leg and began rocking the heel back and forth. She pointed the toes of her foot, but the leather was so wet that it became a tug-of-war, and Bonnie gripped the chair with both hands to brace herself against my pull. I gripped her calf above the top of the boot with my left hand and felt a tremor under my hand. I pulled with my other hand, and finally the boot began to slide. After I got the boot off, I lowered her foot to the floor and let go of her calf. She was still gripping the chair with both hands.
The only sound in the cabin was the hissing noise of the sleet hitting the big window.
I stood up and looked down at her. Her pants were discolored by the sleet from mid-thigh down to the where the tops of the boots had been.
“I’m going to change my clothes,” she said. “My pants are soaked.”
“Sure,” I said.
I held out my hand and helped Bonnie get to her feet. Without the boots on she was half a foot shorter than me. We were close, then, maybe six inches apart. Her hair was still mussed from when I’d used the towel to get the snow out of her hair. A strand of wet hair fell across her cheek and I lifted it gently behind her ear. I could feel the blood moving through me, felt the specialness of her presence and of the moment. I was intensely aware of the green cashmere sweater, her raven black hair, the perfect skin and the red lipstick she wore. Her eyes were jade green, with a depth to the green I’d never noticed before.
She reached out and put her left hand on the side of my face. Her palm felt like silk against my skin. “That was really brave for you to tell me what you did, okay? I’ll never tell anybody. I promise. Anytime you want to talk about it, I’m here for you. All right?”
“I’m going to get out of these wet pants,” she said. “I’m cold.”
Then she went into her bedroom but left the door ajar. After a moment I heard the squeak of her bed springs.
I stood at the window and watched the feathery snow flatten itself against the glass, listened to the hiss of the sleet against the house, and heard the intermittent thunderclap of a wave slapping down against the sand. Then I got into the overstuffed chair by the big picture window and thought about that summer day in Oklahoma City.
Bonnie woke me from my reverie by taking my hand in hers. I was still tipped back in the overstuffed reclining chair. The baseboard heaters made a ticking sound as they started another heating cycle.
“Are you doing okay?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
She gave my hand a squeeze. “It’s quit snowing,” she said.
And it had. The view through the window showed that all of the snow on the blackberry brambles had melted. The sky had reverted to a featureless blanket of grey clouds.
“That’s a plus,” I said.
“I checked the refrigerator,” Bonnie said. “Do you think we could go to the grocery store? There’s not much here.”
“Of course. Let’s go,” I said.
Bonnie was wearing a pair of white jeans under the green cashmere sweater. She’d traded the riding boots in for black leather tennis shoes.
“You’re not wearing your boots?”
“Still a wee bit soggy from our beach outing.”
“But stylish,” I said. She’d combed her hair out and lipstick on.
“Sometimes a girl has to be pragmatic.”
“But still beautiful,” I said.
“Thank you, good sir,” she said.
We put on our winter coats and went out to the Camry. The wind was blowing off the coast, but not as hard as earlier that day. It felt like the temperature was in the low 40s. No snow or ice anywhere. Seagulls wheeled and circled overhead. The mountains that slumped down toward the beach still had a dusting of snow on them.
I used the wipers to clean the saltwater mist from the glass. Bonnie didn’t say anything, but I knew that she was thinking about how the interior of the car still smelled faintly of gunfire and of smoke.
We backed out of the driveway and made our way along Highway 101 to the exit for Cannon beach and on into the small downtown area. We drove past the pizza restaurant where we’d left the Corvette the previous night. The Corvette was long gone.
I pulled into the parking lot of the small grocery store on South Hemlock Street. We went inside and I got a small shopping basket. I picked simple things that we could take with us if we were in a hurry: a big loaf of fresh bread, butter, sliced turkey, Swiss cheese, mustard, lettuce, and a six-pack of Coca-Cola. Bonnie followed me around as I shopped for a while, then shook her head and walked away. She came back later with her own basket containing whole wheat pasta, a baguette, mushrooms, smoked ham, bell peppers, salted butter, honey Dijon mustard, shredded jack cheese, ground turkey, a head of lettuce, vinegar salad dressing, and a bottle of cabernet.
“You’re a gourmet,” I said. “Does that mean I’ll be eating the turkey and Swiss sandwich on my own?”
“I like to have flavor in my food. You, good sir, have picked food suitable for a beach picnic. I have picked ingredients to prepare a dinner for the man of my dreams.”
I laughed out loud. It felt good to laugh after my confession earlier that day.
There were several people in line in front of us when we went to pay for our groceries. Bonnie got her wallet out of a maroon leather purse and pulled a credit card from it. I shook my head. “I’ll get it,” I said. “It’s my treat.”
“I can pay my own way.”
“I know that. Let me get it this time. You can get it next time, okay?”
I pulled four twenties out of my wallet. I’d gotten them from the stash that Fullmeyer had left in the Camry when he gave me the car. As I handed the bills to the cashier I noticed that the twenty dollar bill in the middle had a big blue cross drawn on it with chalk. I thought about asking for the bill back from the cashier, but by then the cashier was already making change.
“Did you two get trapped here by the weather last night?” the cashier asked. She was mid-sixties, grey hair pulled back tightly in a bun, weathered skin, reading glasses, a cinnamon-colored sweater under a dark green apron with the logo of the market sewn onto it.
“Not exactly. Why?”
“I guess they closed Highway 26 late last night when a truck jack knifed at the Quartz Creek Bridge. The roads were so bad they couldn’t get a tow truck up there until this morning. I thought maybe you’d come over from Portland and gotten stuck. We don’t get a lot of tourists here in the winter.”
Bonnie slid her arm through mine. “We’re on our honeymoon.” She gave me a peck on the cheek. “We’re not going anywhere for a while. Are we?”
I put my arm around her waist and pulled her close. “I don’t think so.”
“Well, congratulations,” the cashier said. “I hope you have a great honeymoon here. The beach is beautiful in the winter, and no crowds. If you haven’t been here before, the one piece of advice I always give is that when it’s stormy don’t ever turn your back on the ocean. You can get waves as tall as a house coming out of nowhere because of the wave action. When the surf’s really churning just stay back close to the houses if you walk on the beach. Okay?”
Bonnie pressed herself against my side and giggled a bit. “We promise,” she said.
“You two enjoy yourself,” the cashier said.
Bonnie gave me a squeeze on the butt before picking up her grocery bag. “Oh, we will, I’m sure.”
I picked up the other bag, in shock from Bonnie’s performance.
“What was that all about?” I asked her once we’d gotten into the car.
“That lady in the store really noticed us, I could tell. She was sizing us up because it’s the slow season here. I wanted her to remember a young couple on their honeymoon, not a man and a woman who couldn’t agree on what to shop for.”
I nodded. “Well… Nicely done.”
Bonnie took a quick glance back at the store window before leaning in and kissing me hot and hard on the mouth. I put my hand behind her neck and returned the kiss. Then Bonnie leaned back in her seat, smiling that crooked smile of hers.
“What was that for?” I asked.
“She might have been watching us through the window.”
“You’re very thorough,” I said.
“By the way, you have a pretty nice ass,” she said.
“You squeezed it hard enough. I think you might have put a bruise on it.”
“Well, as a newlywed, I’ll be checking for damage about five minutes after we get back to the cabin, so no worries there.”
As we backed out of the parking place I said “Thanks.”
“For not freaking out. For keeping it together and making me laugh.”
“I just wanted to be someone else for a while,” Bonnie said. “It actually felt good.”
“I’m not complaining,” I said. “When you’re in character you’re a lot of fun.”
“You haven’t seen anything yet,” Bonnie said.
I made the turn onto Highway 101 back towards Eric’s cabin.
“I’m glad we met,” I said. “Honestly.”
“I am too. When I saw you in the bar you just seemed different than most of the guys who come in for a drink. Most of them are nice enough, but there was something special about you. Like I hoped we’d get the chance to talk to each other before you left. Is that silly?”
“No. Not at all.”
“Well… thanks for holding me last night. I felt like I was going crazy, and when you held me you were a gentleman about it and didn’t try to take advantage of the situation.”
“So now I know I can trust you.”
“That’s good to hear.”
“Which is good since we’re on our honeymoon, and trust is an all-important part of any relationship.”
I laughed as I made the turn into Eric’s driveway. “Wait a minute, are you back in character, or is this really you I’m talking to?” I asked.
“And I know that you trust me, too,” Bonnie said.
“That’s a fact.”
I parked the Camry in the gravel driveway for Eric’s cabin, and Bonnie and I carried the groceries inside. After what had happened between us that day, we felt awkward in that confined space. We kept bumping into each other in the small kitchen, reaching around each other for things. Finally I just stood out of the way and let her put the food in the cabinets or refrigerator, watching her move about in her efficient way. When she was finished putting things away, Bonnie took one of the pans from the cabinet under the sink and filled it with water. She put a pinch of salt in, put the pan one of the electric burners, and turned the temperature to high.
I was opening and closing drawers while Bonnie got the cutting board out and started slicing the lettuce.
“What are you looking for?” Bonnie asked me.
“Corkscrew for the wine.”
“Top drawer left of the sink,” she said.
Sure enough, the corkscrew was there. Then I started opening and closing cabinet doors.
“Wine glasses are in the cabinet above the dishwasher,” she said.
Sure enough, the wine glasses were there.
The water began to boil in the aluminum pan. Bonnie carefully poured the whole wheat pasta into the pan without splashing any of the water.
I poured a couple inches of cabernet into each of the glasses. Bonnie sliced off the end of the baguette with a deft flick of her wrist and then cut a pad of salted butter onto it.
“Try the sourdough,” she said. “Pretty good with salted butter.”
I took the piece of bread from her. “You seem to know your way around a kitchen,” I said.
“I do,” she said. “My mom taught me how to cook. First rule is to know where the corkscrew and wine glasses are. Second is to know where the sharpest knives are. At least in my household.”
“Your parents sound very wise.”
“A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou, my dad always says.”
I smiled. “I’d like to meet your dad sometime.”
“I hope that you get to, Del. I think that you’d like him.”
Then Bonnie slid the sleeves back on her sweater. “Dinner will be ready in about fifteen minutes,” she said. Why don’t you sit at the table and keep me company?”
For the next few days we pretended that the rest of the world didn’t exist. We ate breakfast at the table that separated the kitchen from the living room and drank coffee near the window that showed a sliver of the ocean through the coastal pines. We drove into Cannon Beach and shopped at the stores near the beach. I bought Bonnie a warm and waterproof hooded coat and a pair of hiking boots. We shopped for groceries at the store where we’d first pretended to be newlyweds. We walked along the narrow trail that led from the cabin to the beach and then hiked down the beach to Haystack Rock in the afternoon at low tide, when the sea stars and anemone were visible in the tide pools. We held hands on the outdoor deck at the Bald Eagle Coffee House under ice blue skies, our shoulders hunched against the cold. We spent hours in bed in the afternoon and made dinner together in the kitchen. Sounds of Bonnie cooking filled the kitchen: the sound of the knife on the cutting board, the hiss of the burner on the stove as it brought the water to a boil, Bonnie shaking a tablespoon of salt into the boiling water before tossing a pinch over her shoulder for luck. I remember taking Bonnie’s hand and pulling her towards me, her eyes deep, pure pools of jade green. Bonnie raised one eyebrow and asked me if I was having impure thoughts again. I told her it’s the only kind I have. She responded with the slightly crooked and knowing smile, the softness of her lips and the touch of her tongue against mine, her body pressed against me in the tiny kitchen, the pot starting to rock as the water reached a full boil, the dull thudding sound of the waves crashing on the beach resonating in the cabin like a heartbeat.
We’d gone into the grocery store three or four times by then. On a previous visit, the cashier had asked us how the honeymoon was going and had teased me about always doing what the wife told me to do if I wanted to keep peace in the household. I held up several fingers. “Scout’s honor,” I said. Another time she’d commented on how nice it was to see a couple in love. Bonnie had blushed before hugging me.
The final time we went into the store, the cashier watched us furtively as we shopped. When we put our groceries on the countertop she said “You seem like nice folks, so I’m going to tell you something. Somebody was in her yesterday afternoon with pictures of you both. Offered five hundred dollars to call a number if I see you.”
The cashier held up a pair of pictures of the two of us. The picture of me looked like it was captured from a television news report. The picture of Bonnie looked like it was from a high school yearbook. She wore a cheerleader uniform with a bulldog mascot on the sweater.
“I said I’d never seen either of you before. I’ll tell you though. The man who asked about you is a scary-looking guy. If I were you, I’d be on my way to somewhere else.”
“What did he look like?” I asked.
“Not from around here, that’s for sure. Looks like he’s a bad-ass. Coveralls and boots. Denim coat. Cowboy hat tipped back, stripe of pink skin around his head like he’d been burned. ”
I felt the air go out of my lungs.
“Okay,” I said. “Thanks. And I appreciate you telling us.”
“No charge,” she said. “There are a lot of mean people in the world. Avoid them if you can.”
We paid for our groceries and went out to the car.
“We’re leaving, aren’t we?” Bonnie asked.
We drove back to Eric’s cabin, with me checking the car mirrors every few seconds. No other cars seemed to be following us. After we parked the car we went into the cabin and began collecting our belongings. Bonnie got her suitcase out from under the bed and started putting her clothes inside. I got the shotgun and bullet-proof vest from under the kitchen sink and put them in the back seat of the car under a blanket from one of the bedrooms.
I took the pistol and put it in the back of my jeans. I slid the killer’s phone and wallet into my coat pocket. I had never looked at them. Everything I had taken from him carried an emotional weight that made me want to bury it under concrete. I put the cash from Bullard’s wall safe in Alamogordo into a gym bag along with my clothes. Bonnie came into the bedroom, her eyes wide with fear. “I’m ready to go,” she said.
The phone began to ring and we looked at it for a moment, then ignored it and went back to packing. It stopped ringing.
We loaded our belongings into the car, and then started collecting the things we’d bought at the grocery store. I kept an eye out the kitchen window that gave a view of the car and driveway. Nothing obviously wrong. Another gorgeous, cold, crystal-clear day on the Oregon coast. Bonnie filled two brown paper sacks with our groceries.
“Do you want the beer?” she asked me. “There are a couple cans left.”
“Leave it here,” I said.
“Okay. That’s it, then,” she told me. She closed the refrigerator door. She looked sad.
“Are you all right?” I asked.
She put her head against my chest. “I’m going to miss this place. I was happy here with you. I loved looking at the ocean.”
“Me too. We’ll find somewhere else to be safe. I promise.”
“Let’s just go,” she said.
We locked the cabin and walked to the car. We put the groceries on the floor of the back seat, wedging the grocery bags against each other so they wouldn’t tip over during the drive.
As I began backing out of the driveway, Bonnie asked me “Are we going to Eric’s other safe house, the one he told you about?”
“I’m still thinking about that,” I said. “I don’t know if we’d be better or worse off there than we are here.”
“I thought he told you he’d come and bring other marshals.”
I made the turn onto Highway 101 and headed south towards Manzanita and Tillamook.
“Yeah. He said that. He also said we’d be completely safe here. They found us not once, but twice. We have enough cash that we can rent a place wherever we want. I’m not certain that I can trust Eric at this point, so let’s just take it one step at a time.”
“Do you really think he told the cartel where to find us?”
“I just don’t know.”
“Maybe they were just checking all the towns along the coast and checked Cannon Beach, too.”
“It’s possible. I think we need to put some distance between us and Eric’s cabin. And we need to get rid of this car as soon as we can, too.”
“Won’t Eric be pissed about his car?”
“I’m not going to abandon it. We’re just going to stop driving it. Maybe it’s got a tracking device on it. The sensible thing to do is just park it somewhere that Eric can pick it up. We’ll get something else to drive that isn’t connected with him.”
We continued south on Highway 101 with the Pacific Ocean on the right. The heart-lifting sight of all that blue water and the curve of the ocean’s horizon made me forget about the danger we were in, at least for a little while.
When we reached Lincoln City, the views of the rugged coastline and the brilliant blue Pacific Ocean gave way to gas stations, fast-food restaurants, car dealerships, and grocery stores. It felt safer to be there, more anonymous among the natives and the sparse collection of tourists than it had back in Cannon Beach. I started looking for an internet cafe and found one in a strip mall off of Highway 101. After half an hour online I’d found a furnished townhouse for rent on the bank of the Siletz River. A thousand dollars deposit and a thousand a month for rent, all utilities paid. I called from a pay phone at a nearby convenience store, said that I thought I wanted to rent it, and asked if it was okay to pay cash or if they needed a cashier’s check. The landlord said that cash was always fine.
We drove over and toured the townhouse. The landlord, a lanky man with bushy brown hair and sunken cheeks, didn’t even ask to see a driver’s license. He took one look at Bonnie and said the place was ours if we wanted it. I pulled twenty of the hundred dollar bills out of my wallet, handed them to him, and he dropped the keys in my palm. He asked how long we’d be staying, and I told him that if I could find work we’d be staying for a while. He wished me good luck and walked away, counting the money. Over his shoulder he said “The rent’s due on the first of every month. I’ll be by to collect it.”
The townhouse came with a one-car garage. I drove the Camry inside the garage, closed the garage door, and Bonnie and I took our groceries inside. The townhouse had three bedrooms, pine cabinets in the kitchen, and a deck with an unobstructed view of the Siletz River. It came with wireless service and a big-screen TV. Not a bad place to be for a while.
I took a seat in a folding beach chair on the small deck off of the master bedroom. The view was first rate: nothing but pine trees, the crystal-clear Siletz River, and the sky. There was an open area maybe fifty yards wide between the river and the back porch, and it was covered with short grass and spotted with debris from the last time the river had overrun the banks. Clouds were rolling in from the ocean, a light rain starting to fall. I went inside through the sliding glass door and saw Bonnie putting the last of the groceries away in the pantry.
I sat down on the sofa, feeling that we had dodged the people who were hunting us, but unsure of what to do next. Bonnie came over, sat down on the sofa and leaned against me. “What now?” she said.
“I’m going car shopping,” I said. I’ll be back in an hour or two.” I went into the bedroom and took ten thousand dollars out of the gym bag, taking care not to pick any of the bills that had chalk crosses on them.
The internet cafe was only a ten minute walk from the condo. I searched for local cars which were “for sale by owner” who’d included the word ‘cash’ in the advertisement. I found a 2008 Chevy Impala SS in good condition for $7800. It had 126 thousand miles on it, but the pictures showed paint that shined, the interior looked new, and it had new tires and brakes on it. I bought a pay-as-you-go cell phone at the convenience store that had fifty dollars worth of phone credit on it. I called the number for the car and said I wanted to buy the car and was willing to pay cash if the driver could meet me to show me the car. I explained that I’d been saving for a while for the car but didn’t have a ride over to his house.
Fifteen minutes later I was test driving the car. The white paint was faded, there were rust spots behind the rear wheels, and the interior was in worse shape than the pictures suggested. On the other hand, the brakes were good, the V8 engine under the hood pulled strong, and all the accessories worked. Thirty minutes later I’d bought it and driven it back to our condominium.
Bonnie was sitting on the sofa watching Home and Garden Television. She looked up when I came in. “Did you find another car?”
“Can I see it?”
Bonnie followed me out to the parking lot. I opened the driver’s door for her and she got behind the steering wheel. “Looks like it would be fun to drive. Can I drive it, too?”
“What’s mine is yours,” I said.
“I might just hold you to that,” she said.
We went back inside and started working on dinner together. I found a jazz station and put some music on low. Bonnie had packed a bottle of cabernet with our groceries, and I opened it up and poured some into glasses I found in one of the cupboards. Bonnie started chopping up some mushrooms to put on salads.
I sidled up against Bonnie. “What is the chef preparing for dinner tonight?”
Bonnie gave me a bump with her hip and brushed hair back out of her eyes with the back of her hand. “The chef is about to slice up some bacon, good sir.”
“You are a lady of many talents,” I said.
She picked up her wine glass and looked at me over the rim of the glass. “You don’t know half my talents yet.”
“I suspected as much. You’ve been holding out on me.”
“I was concerned that if I used all my talents on you at once you might get another life-threatening bruise.”
“That’s a risk I’m willing to take.”
She gave me the crooked knowing smile. “Do you feel like you need to fortify yourself with dinner first? I don’t want you to be physically compromised when I unleash all my talents at once.”
“I’ll just have to risk it.”
Bonnie took a long sip off of her wine glass, the reached out and slid her hand silkily up my arm before it came to rest on my bicep. Then she leaned forward and put her mouth on mine. When she kissed me I tasted the wine on her tongue. She pulled my hand under her shirt and rested it over her heart. I could feel the strength of her heartbeat against my palm. She whispered in my ear “Do you think you could carry me into the bedroom?”
“Absolutely,” I said. My voice was hoarse and I could feel the blood rushing in my ears.
“Then what are you waiting for?” she said. “Afraid I might have too much talent?”
“Challenge accepted.” I picked her up. She felt weightless to me. Her cheek was against mine, and I smelled the wine on her breath, the subtle scent of her perfume.
As I carried her into the bedroom, she said “You know I’m falling in love with you, right?”
Lincoln City, even in mid-winter, was big enough and had enough tourist traffic that it offered a degree of anonymity that Cannon Beach didn’t. Highway 101 was fronted on both sides by a large number of restaurants, gas stations, convenience stores, and beach-themed venues, so in that sense, it felt safer. At the same time, I didn’t kid myself that we’d left the danger behind us. I knew it was only a matter of time before the hunters who’d been looking for us in Cannon Beach expanded their search and started passing pictures of the two of us around in Lincoln City.
I asked Bonnie if she’d be willing to cut her hair to make her harder to recognize.
She looked at me for a long moment. Then she said “If you think that we’re in that much danger, even a hundred miles from Cannon Beach, then I want to call Marshal Fullmeyer. If you’re right, and he’s involved in all this somehow, I’ll never doubt you again, but I need to know that for myself, even if you don’t.”
“If he’s involved in this somehow, even indirectly, we could get killed in the process of finding that out.”
“You seem to be a pretty clever guy, Del. Figure something out that would prove one way or another whether we can trust him. Until then, no, I’m not cutting my hair. This is the way I look, and I like it that way.”
I went out on the deck and sat under the awning off the living room. The blanket of grey clouds which loomed over the coast and Lincoln City gave the Siletz River a black appearance, as if it were flowing with oil.
The following morning I told Bonnie that I was going out for a while, then I drove an hour North to Tillamook, where any phone call I placed would come from a cell phone tower in that area instead of from Lincoln City. If Eric traced the call location I wanted it to show that I was in Tillamook, not Lincoln City.
I pulled into the parking lot of a shopping mall and picked a parking space that offered a good view of Highway 101 in both directions. Then I called the number on the business card that Eric had given Bonnie. It was nine in the morning in Tillamook, so it was eleven in Texas. I used the cell phone I’d bought at the convenience store to make the call.
“It’s Delorean,” I said.
“Where the hell have you been?”
“Bonnie and I took a sightseeing trip.”
“I’ve had the Cannon Beach police chief checking the cabin three or four times a day for you two. His patrolmen, who have better things to do, have been looking all over the place for you. Next time you decide to drop off the radar screen, you Goddamn well better tell me first.”
I weighed his words and tone.
“Oh? Why did you treat our absence as an emergency, Eric? What’s the threat?”
It was quiet on the phone.
“Bonnie is under my protection, and I’m trying to keep you above ground, too. I need to know where you are to keep bad things from happening to you. Why is that a surprise to you?”
I pulled the wallet belonging to the hit man from my coat pocket and flipped it open. I looked at the name on the driver’s license and put the wallet back in my pocket.
“Eric, I have a question for you.”
“What? What question?”
“Who is Julian Silver?”
It was quiet on the phone again, at both ends. I could hear a small amount of office noise at his end of the phone.
“How do you know Julian Silver?” he asked me. “Have you crossed paths with him?” he asked. I could hear the tension in his voice.
“Answer me,” I said.
Silence for a few seconds. Then “He’s a known associate of the M. T. cartel. How do you know his name?”
“For now, Eric, I’m asking the questions. What’s his role in the cartel?”
Silence again, followed by “He’s a hitter, Delorean. He makes people go away.”
I thought about whether it meant anything that Eric had answered that question honestly.
“Again, have you crossed paths with him?” he asked.
“I’m still asking the questions.”
“Well, boss man, here’s a fun fact for you. Julian Silver’s Corvette was picked up on Highway 101 near the California border. It was being driven at over a hundred miles an hour on the wrong side of the road by a couple of stoned hitch hikers. Initially the driver told the trooper a story about been given the car by someone, but he finally admitted to lifting it from a parking lot in Cannon Beach the same night you and Bonnie got there.”
“That’s a coincidence that’s pretty hard to believe, Eric. You’re saying that a hired killer from the cartel showed up at the exact spot where Bonnie and I were, right after you put her on the plane to Portland? How could that be? What are the odds?”
“What is this shit, Delorean? You think I put this guy on to you?”
“Tell me about the dude with the burn marks on his face.”
“The guy in the bar that I burned with his cowboy hat. Who is he?”
“Lavar Macone. Another hitter from the M. T. cartel, not as far up the chain as Julian Silver.”
“Where is he now?”
“I have no fucking idea, Delorean. He walked on the weapons charges and kidnapping charges for what he did in the bar because no one wanted to testify against him, like always.”
“Let’s play a guessing game, Eric. Take a wild-ass guess where you pal Lavar is. Put a pin through a cardboard tail and then see if you can guess where the donkey is.”
“Pretty much,” I said. “I am fucked, that’s true. However, my half of this conversation is authentic, so I have that going for me. I’m going to take some performance anxiety off of you by telling you that Lavar is in Cannon Beach, showing the locals pictures of me and Bonnie and offering a big reward for whoever finds us first.”
“Have you seen that guy? You’re sure it’s him?”
“Not many people have a scar on their face like a ninja turtle mask. One of the shopkeepers described him to me. I’m pretty sure it’s him.”
“Get out of there NOW! Go to the other safe house. The address is on your driver’s license.”
“Aren’t you even curious about how Julian Silver and Lavar Macone found us, Eric? Aren’t you going to ask if we’ve used a cell phone since we left the airport, or if Bonnie called her folks from the phone in your cabin, or if maybe we used credit cards with our name on it?”
“Hell yes, I want to know. Nobody else knew I was putting her on that plane. Nobody but you and I knew you were at my cabin at Cannon Beach. I assumed you had the good sense not to advertise your presence there.”
“You’re the common factor, Eric. And I have to say, you knew the names of those hitters without even having to look them up.”
“Listen, you paranoid moron, I’m on your side.”
“Prove it,” I said.
“Prove you’re on our side.”
“I don’t have to prove anything, you asshole! I’m a Federal Marshal who is trying to keep you and Bonnie from getting put through a wood chipper.”
“I’m going to call you back in a few days. When I call, you better have an explanation for why Julian Silver was waiting for us at the airport, and for why Lavar Macone was looking for us in Cannon Beach. And it better be good.”
“Are you threatening me now? You’re staying in my cabin, driving my car, and you think I’m working for the M. T. cartel? You really ARE crazy!”
“I’m not staying within missile range of your cabin any more, Eric, and I’m not driving your car, either. They both seem to attract the M. T. cartel like a picnic attracts ants.”
“You’re going to have to learn to trust people, Delorean. I had nothing to do with that.”
“Great. When I call back tell me how it happened.” Then I hung up.
I pulled the phone that the hit man had used out of my pocket and powered it up.
I scanned the call log to see if there was anything directly connecting Julian Silver with Eric Fullmeyer, but didn’t see Fullmeyer’s phone number in the contacts list or message list. The phone appeared to be completely clean except for one contact and one stream of messages.
The first message Julian had received was telling him to pick up his target at bag claim 26 at the Portland airport at 2:30 in the afternoon.
The first message Julian had sent was from the airport saying that he’d had recognized me as Delorean Harper while waiting for the target.
The responding message said ‘Change of plans. Take them both out’.
Julian had responded ‘Understood.’
An hour later, Julian had sent a message saying ‘About to pull the trigger. Still the plan?’
The response was ‘Do it.’
Julian had replied ‘Understood.’
The person he was swapping messages with was identified as only “MARCO.”
I selected Marco’s name from the contacts list and listened to the phone ring on the other end.
It was picked up quickly. I could hear a roaring sound in the background like you hear in a jet if you’re sitting close to the engines.
“Hello.” Hint of a Spanish accent. “Who is this?”
“I just found this phone and wanted to return it. Not sure who owns it. Yours is the only phone number in the contacts list. Do you know who I should send the phone to?”
“Who is this?”
“I’m a good Samaritan.”
Silence. Then he said “Mister Harper. I wondered if I’d be hearing from you.”
“Dreams can still come true,” I said.
“I assume that Julian is dead since you have his phone and the police found his car near the California border.” Clipped and aristocratic speaking style. All business and used to things going his way.
“Is that a question?”
“No. It’s a logical deduction. It would be a question if I asked how you did it.”
“Thanks for the semantics lesson, Marco. I’m humbled.”
“Why did you call me?”
“Because I wanted to know what your voice sounds like. Now I know. You sound like a prick.”
“And you sound like an unstable vigilante, as I expected.”
“Really? Why would you expect that?”
“Your reputation precedes you, I suppose.”
“How’s my reputation now?”
“More substantial than expected. I didn’t think Julian would have much trouble with you.”
“Getting Julian off my back wasn’t that hard, Marco. I can give you a demonstration if you want.”
“You grossly overestimate both my vulnerability and your skills, I think.”
“That’s what Julian thought, too.”
A short laugh from Marco. “You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that. I may remove them with pliers at some point, so you should enjoy them while you still can.”
“I’m squeezing them now, Marco. It’s pretty satisfying.”
Marco laughed hard. Then I could hear the jet engine noise in the background again.
“Why are you hunting me and Bonnie?” I asked. “Bonnie isn’t going to testify against your people, and I’ve already testified. What’s the point?”
“You made a very public example of yourself in the trial. Your girlfriend spat on one of my people and then threatened to kill him, as did you. You set him on fire with his hat. What did you think would happen?”
I didn’t have an answer for that.
“I’m going to sign off now, Marco,” I said. “I just wanted to say Hi. Hope to see you soon.”
“Just a minute, Delorean. If Julian and Lavar aren’t good enough to take care of business, that’s valuable information to me. It tells me that I need to replace them with people who are better. In a way you’ve done me a favor, so maybe I can do a favor for you.”
“So instead of having me murdered, you want to do something nice for me.”
“Is that a question?”
“No. What you’re proposing sounds like such total bullshit that my brain felt compelled to eject the idea verbally. I logically deduced that there was absolutely no chance that you’re telling the truth.”
“Here’s some truth: your cell phone has a GPS tracking system on it, and when it’s turned on I know where you are, as do my associates. They’ll be there to say hello in less than a minute.”
“Why are you telling me this? What do you get out of it?”
“You amuse me,” he said. “Most things don’t.” Then the phone went dead.
I hit the power button on the phone and dropped it on the passenger seat. I started the car, put the transmission in drive, and floored the accelerator pedal in a single fluid motion. The engine roared and the tires spun on the asphalt as I launched the car from the parking lot and aimed it back down the highway towards Lincoln City.
A lowered black Chevrolet Suburban went past in the opposite direction. As they went by, I noticed that the driver was pale, with a pinched face, silver close-cropped hair, and wore a military style black sweater with a black shooting patch on the shoulder. The back seat window was down, and a bald head and a shotgun barrel protruded from the window. The gun was held by Lavar, the hitter with the ninja turtle scar on his face. He blinked into the wind as our cars passed each other, and then the Suburban receded in my rearview mirror. I continued on my way as if nothing had happened at all.
Bonnie was waiting on the sofa for me when I got back to the condominium. She didn’t look happy. “You said you’d be right back, and you’ve been gone more than two hours. I was worried sick about you. Don’t ever do that again!” She stood up, scowled at me, went into the bedroom, and slammed the door.
I went out onto the porch and waited for Bonnie to cool down. It was cold but not raining on the porch. The Siletz River looked like it was flowing with black molten glass, and low altitude winter clouds made the afternoon light seem grey and dim. I didn’t care, it was quiet there. I thought about my phone conversations with Eric and Marco. If Julian’s cell phone had a GPS tracker on it and I hadn’t turned it off until I got to Eric’s cabin that could explain how they’d followed us to Cannon Beach. That still didn’t explain how they’d known that Bonnie was arriving at the airport, though. I couldn’t make sense of that part of the puzzle. Then Bonnie came out and stood beside my chair.
“I was so worried about you,” she said. “When you didn’t come back right away I started watching out the front window. I saw someone drive by slow, looking at the garage where we parked the car.”
“What happened then?”
“They drove on. I didn’t see them come back.”
“What kind of car was it?”
“It was one of those big white ones like the police use, but it didn’t have lights on the roof.”
“How long ago was that?”
“An hour. Maybe more.”
“Did they check to see if the garage door was unlocked, or just drive by slowly?”
“They stopped outside the garage. I could see the driver’s window go down. Then the window went back up and they drove off.”
“Have you seen them since then?”
“No. Maybe it’s nothing.”
“Bonnie, if we think we were followed here then the smart thing is for us to pack up and go.”
“Where would we go? We just got here.”
“To the safe house that Eric told us about.”
“Does that mean you trust him now?”
“Not really, but more than I did before. If we get to the safe house and there’s no one else there, then maybe he really is on our side. If we get there and Eric and the cartel people are in the hot tub together then we’ll know Eric’s dirty,” I said.
“I don’t think this is funny.”
“Me either. Sometimes you have to laugh to keep from going crazy, though.”
“We only had one night here.”
“If the safe house really is safe, we’ll just let ourselves in and live there like squatters for a while. I’ll mail Eric the keys to the Camry and tell him where it’s parked. I don’t think he wants to talk to me right now.”
“I spoke with him on the phone and asked him how it was possible for a hit man to be waiting for you at the airport and then track us to Cannon Beach. He said it wasn’t his fault. I told him that he needed to come up with a better answer than that, or we were finished talking to him.”
“I’m still not convinced that it isn’t his fault that the people at the M.T. cartel knew where you were going, intentionally or not. If it wasn’t Eric, then they would have had to follow you to the airport, follow you inside, get through security somehow, which means they would have needed their own airline ticket, and then follow you all the way to your boarding gate so they’d know where you were going. Right?”
“I guess so. I still can’t believe that Eric is a bad person, though. I think he really cares about me, and about you, too.”
“I thought so, too,” I said.
“Do you think those people in the white car are part of the cartel, too?”
“Not sure. It could just be someone looking for a place to rent.”
“Can’t we stay here a little longer? If we see that car again, we’ll go. I promise. Okay?”
I thought about it. “Okay.”
We settled into a routine in our apartment on the Siletz River. Days came and went. We stayed inside, read paperbacks left behind by the previous renters, and spent afternoons walking along the banks of the Siletz River. We’d been out shopping for groceries one afternoon and were driving back to the condominium when I noticed a white sedan trailing us that looked like an unmarked police car. I’d left my guns at the condominium, and I didn’t want to scare Bonnie, so I didn’t say anything. The car followed us to within a quarter mile of the condominium before pulling onto a side street.
We still had enough groceries that we were able to make a simple dinner without going out. We browned some ground beef and mixed it with shredded cheddar and diced onions. Bonnie had finished setting the table when she put her arms around me and reminded me that we had each other and she loved me, whatever happened. I felt her hands slide to the base of my back, and she felt the pistol I’d put there when we got back to the condominium.
“You haven’t worn the gun for a while. Did something happen?” Bonnie asked.
“I saw a white unmarked car like police use in traffic today. Looked like it might be the same one you saw earlier outside the garage. It seemed to be following us. Then it pulled off onto a side street. I’m spooked, but at this point I’m starting to think that I’m imagining things. And I’m tired of running.”
“Do you think I should be worried?”
“I just don’t know, Bonnie. Maybe you’re right and we should call Eric.”
“I told you that if we saw that car again, I’d be okay with leaving. Why don’t you sleep on it, Del? If you feel like we should leave tomorrow morning, we’ll go.”
“That’s fair. Let’s pack up tonight so we can leave while it’s still dark if we decide to go.”
That night I barely slept. I’d spent the half hour before we went to bed checking the door locks, window locks, and wedging the shower curtain rod into the sliding glass door rail so it couldn’t be opened from the outside. I had the shotgun I’d taken from Julian Silver leaning against the wall by the bed and Silver’s pistol on the nightstand. The gym bag containing the cash and my clothes was by the bedroom door.
Bonnie and I lay spooned together under the comforter, her breathing a combination of a very quiet snore and a purr. We had gotten into bed with our clothes on so we could leave at a moment’s notice.
A winter rainstorm that night brought pea-sized hail mixed with heavy rain, punctuated with lightning strikes that lit up our bedroom. Bonnie managed to sleep through it. I couldn’t. Finally the rain and hail stopped, but the lightning strikes didn’t.
Half-asleep, I got out of bed to close the bedroom window drapes, hoping that it would finally become dark enough and eventually quiet enough that I could get some sleep.
A lightning strike hit the big fir trees on the far bank as I reached up to pull the curtain closed. The flash lit the river like molten silver, the trees like huge arrowheads, and brilliantly illuminated a canoe against the bank of the Siletz behind our condominium. One man was climbing out of the canoe; another man was already on the riverbank holding the canoe steady. Both wore ponchos and rain hats. Then it was completely dark again, and I was left with was the afterimage of the lightning strike burned into my retinas.
I went over to Bonnie’s side of the bed and pushed her shoulder gently.
“Bonnie. Get up. Right now. We’re leaving.”
“What time is it?”
“Time to go. Now!”
She slid her legs out from under the comforter and put her feet on the floor.
“Can I at least brush my teeth?”
“I think there’s someone coming from the river. Don’t turn the lights on. Just put your shoes on and go to the front door.”
Bonnie had her coat and shoes on within a few seconds. I slid the pistol into my waistband and aimed Julian Silver’s shotgun at the sliding glass door. Blood was pounding in my ears. I heard the noise of Bonnie’s suitcase clunking as it hit the doorframe of the bedroom, and then everything was quiet again.
I pulled on my shoes and coat and followed her to the front door. The only light in the room was spilled from a night light in the bathroom between the kitchen and bedroom. We could see each other’s shapes, but not much more.
“Are you ready to go?” I whispered. “You have your purse?”
“It’s in the suitcase.”
“I’m going to get the car. Wait here. If they break in before I pull the car up, come running. Okay?”
I looked out the peep hole in the front door and didn’t see anyone outside. I strapped the gym bag containing the cash over my shoulder, then stepped through the door into the weak light of the parking lot with the shotgun held across my chest. I clicked off the safety on the gun and walked across the parking lot towards the space where I’d left the Chevy.
As I approached the car, I saw the shape of a man emerge from the darkness and stand between me and the car. There was enough light in the parking lot that I could see he held a semi-automatic pistol against the side of his leg.
“Hey,” he said. “You guys were really quiet. I didn’t hear anything.”
I ignored him and kept walking until he was almost within arm’s reach. A moment of shock registered on his face as he recognized me and he started to bring his gun up. I slammed the stock of the shotgun across his face hard, and he bounced off the car and went down, his pistol clattering on the pavement.
I opened the back seat door and laid the shotgun across the seat. I tossed the gym bag in and then grabbed the unconscious thug by the front of his down vest and pulled him away from the car.
Then there was a low booming sound, and I saw Bonnie running towards me with her suitcase trailing behind. I took the suitcase from her, threw it in the back seat, and we climbed into the front. The car was parked nose-out, and I started the engine, dropped it in drive, and jammed the accelerator pedal to the floor. The only exit from the parking lot required me to go directly past the front door of the condominium that Bonnie and I had just left, so there was nothing for it but to head back towards the killers we’d just escaped. The engine roared as we closed the distance to the front door of the condominium. The car launched past the doorway as the two hitters stepped outside, guns held chest high. I clipped the first of the men with the front fender of the car, knocking him back into the second shooter and bouncing them both off the front wall of the condominium. I turned on the headlights as the car fishtailed onto Highway 101 and we sped south. Ours was the only car on the road. No cars behind us or in front of us, just two souls heading into the darkness with the devil chasing close behind.
The clock on the dashboard showed 3:10 in the morning as we drove out of Lincoln City. I turned on the dome light, pulled the phony driver’s license out of my wallet, and looked at the address of the safe house that Eric had given me. Bonnie looked up the location on the map.
“Del,” she said.
“It’s just a ten minute drive.”
“I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. At this point I’d rather it was a thousand miles from here.”
“Do you want to just keep driving?”
“No. We’re here. Let’s check it out. The car’s pulling to the left, so if we stop there I’ll have a chance to see why.”
By the time we reached Gleneden Beach, the car was pulling much harder to the left and the front wheel was making a grinding noise. I didn’t want to stop on Highway 101 where we’d be easy to find, so we turned off the highway and headed towards the beach, following the residential road towards the address on my license. It was 3:30 in the morning when we arrived.
The safe house was completely dark except for a single bulb over the front door. The neighbor’s houses were dark, as well.
I shut off the headlights and lifted the shotgun from the back seat. I went over to peer into one of the windows and could only make out vague shapes of furniture through the glass. It was cold, the wind was blowing off the ocean hard enough to add a bite to the cold, and the sound of the surf was constant.
The front door was locked. I walked around the side of the house onto the deck that wrapped around the back of the house. A set of stairs nearly as wide as the house led from the deck down to the beach, which sloped away to the surf across a few dozen yards of sand. In the moonlight, the crests of the waves breaking on the beach shone silver. I tested the sliding glass door on the deck. It was locked. I continued walking around the house, looking for a way in. Bonnie was standing in the driveway when I finished circling the house.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I don’t think there’s anyone here.”
“Can you get inside?”
“Not without breaking a window.”
“Do you want to call Eric and tell him we’re here? Maybe there’s a key hidden somewhere.”
“No. I don’t want to call Eric.”
Bonnie went to the car. She retrieved her purse from the suitcase and got out the keychain that had Eric’s cabin key and car keys on it. She walked past me to the front door, slipped the key into the lock, and turned the key. The door opened and she went inside.
I followed her in with the shotgun hanging at my side.
“How did you know that the cabin key would work on this place?” I asked.
“I didn’t. But I thought it might, since it would make things simpler for Eric if he needed to get into either place in a hurry.”
“You are one smart lady.”
“And you are one lucky man,” she said. She wrapped her arms around me and we kissed in the entry hall of the safe house. “Why don’t you get the car into the garage and bring in the bags, and we’ll find a bed and try to get some sleep, okay?”
I nodded. There was a doorway off of the entry hallway that I assumed opened onto the garage. I leaned the shotgun against the wall, opened the door, and groped inside of the darkened doorway for a light switch. I found it and turned the light on.
There garage was wide enough for two cars. A large coupe with a car cover on it was on the far side the garage. The size and shape of the car under the cover intrigued me: bigger and wider than most new cars, with a flat hood and long, sloping back. I grabbed a corner of the car cover and then peeled it all the way back, letting the cover fall to the garage floor.
My Ford XL that I’d left behind in El Paso, Texas stood before me. I ran my hand across the hood. Memories of the times that I’d spent with my brother Bricklin working on the car; taking it to drive-in movies and ripping down country roads at 120 M.P.H. came flooding back. I had the same sense of my world coming apart that I’d had when I killed Julian Silver at the rest stop. Bonnie came into the garage and stood beside me.
“Are you okay? I thought you were going to pull the car into the garage and come to bed.”
“Bonnie, this car is the one I had in El Paso that Eric said to leave behind because it attracts too much attention.”
“Maybe he was planning to surprise you with it, like a birthday present.”
I laughed. “I’m surprised it’s here, all right.”
She looked puzzled. “Isn’t this a good surprise?”
“Definitely. My brother and I built this car together. It was all I had left of him.”
She nodded and then put her hand on my shoulder. “Does that mean you think we can trust Eric now?”
“I’m still in shock about the car. Eric didn’t say anything to me about shipping it up here. Ask me about it tomorrow morning.”
Bonnie took me by the hand and led me out of the garage and up the stairs to the master bedroom. The west-facing wall was all glass, with a panoramic view of the ocean and the short strip of sand between the house and the water. Each time a wave would crash against the beach, the bedroom would reverberate with a sound like distant thunder.
“Do you think we’ll be safe here?” Bonnie asked.
“I thought we’d be safe in Cannon Beach, and thought we’d be safe in Lincoln City. I have no idea at all. I hope so.”
Bonnie nodded and went into the bathroom. I went back downstairs, let myself into the garage, and pushed the garage opener button. I held the shotgun in my hand as the door went up, then stepped towards the Chevy SS we’d driven from Lincoln City.
In the distance, I saw a car’s taillights disappear over the hill that insulated the safe house from Highway 101.
At that moment I felt that I knew the answer to Bonnie’s question about whether we were safe there, but I didn’t want to believe it. The taillights could have just belonged to one of the neighbors heading out early, but in my heart I thought that we’d been followed to another new killing ground by wolves that wouldn’t rest until they’d taken us down. I decided that it was time to stop running from the wolves, and start hunting the wolves instead. Somehow the wolves knew how to find me, wherever I hid. The only way to stay alive was to turn the tables. But how? I didn’t know where Marco lived, or how many killers were on his payroll.
I pulled the Chevy SS into the garage beside the Ford XL and put the garage door down. With the illumination from the garage lights, I could see that there were dents on the left front fender of the SS from where I’d clipped the hit men in Lincoln City. The left front tire was completely flat and had a cut on the sidewall. I’d need to fix that to drive the car, but I was too tired to do anything about it. I put the garage door down and headed back inside.
The smell of fresh coffee and bacon worked their way up to the bedroom. We’d stayed in bed until nearly noon, and rain slapped against the windows of the master bedroom with enough force that a walk on the beach seemed like a bad idea. I stood at the window and watched the surf pounding on the beach. The tide was high and fast, with waves crashing high up the beach before sliding back out with a speed that was shocking. Then the next huge wave would come in and the process would start over again.
I brushed my teeth and went downstairs to the kitchen. Bonnie had turned the heat on in the house and started a fire in the wood burning stove in the family room. It was probably 80 degrees in the kitchen. The rain was blowing sideways against the big double glass doors that gave the view onto the deck, but it felt tropical in the kitchen. Bonnie was at the stove with her back to me. She was barefoot and wearing one of my tee shirts.
I walked over to Bonnie and wrapped my arms around her from behind. She was grilling several large slices of ham in a frying pan.
“Breakfast is almost ready, good sir,” she said. “I thought that the smell of ham might get you out of bed.”
“I came downstairs because I missed you,” I said. “The breakfast is just a nice byproduct of my hunt for the woman I love.”
“You said it,” she said. “You just told me you loved me.”
“Did you have any doubt?”
“I just wanted to hear it,” she said. She turned in my arms, facing me now, and tipped her head back. We kissed.
“I’m tempted to carry you back upstairs, honeymoon-style,” I said.
“Are you having impure thoughts again?”
“I thought I told you,” I said. “I’m plagued by impure thoughts in your presence.”
She looked at me with those jade green eyes. “I don’t mind,” she said. “As long as they’re just about me.”
“Always,” I said.
“Well then,” she said. She turned the burner on the stove off. “Would you like to carry me upstairs?” She gave me the crooked smile.
I felt the tightness in my chest, heard the hoarseness in my voice when I told her I loved her. I had that profound sense of good luck, the swirl of lightness in my head, all the aches and pains and sadness letting go of me, if only for a short while. She felt light as a feather, the skin of her bare legs hot against my arms, as I cradled her and carried her up the stairs to the master bedroom, her cheek against mine and her lips kissing me under my ear, telling me to never let go.
The kitchen in the beach house was well-stocked, with enough food to last for at least a week. If we didn’t want eggs or milk, there wasn’t really any reason to venture into the nearby coastal towns, so we stayed in the house that day and went for an occasional walk on the beach when the rain relented. I kept the pistol I’d taken off of Julian Silver tucked into the waistband of my jeans, but otherwise we might as well have been on vacation.
That evening I went out to the garage and sat in the Ford XL. I’d been thinking about telling Eric that we were staying at the safe house, and that I appreciated him taking care of my car. I put my hands on the steering wheel, turned on the headlights, even opened the garage door and started the engine up to let it run for a minute. The sound of the 429 cubic inch engine idling in the garage brought with it a wave of memories of my time with Bricklin, of our times in college when the car had seemed like all we needed to meet girls, find our place in the world, and grasp the happiness that eluded us since our parents were killed. I reluctantly shut the engine off, and then left the garage door up so the garage could air out for a few minutes. I tilted my head back against the headrest and closed my eyes, remembering when Bricklin and I had sanded the entire car down before having the candy apple red paint applied. We’d taken the body panels down to the bare metal with sanding blocks, corrected the rust spots, and filled in the door dings before driving over to a professional body shop to have the primer, paint, and clear coat applied.
The sound of Bonnie’s voice calling my name brought me back from my reverie. “Del. Are you out here?”
I jerked awake and got out of the car. Bonnie was standing in the doorway with a glass of red wine in her hand.
“It’s cold out here, Del,” she said. “Do you want to come inside and sit with me on the sofa? We can watch the moonlight on the surf.”
I pushed the button that put the garage door down, turned off the lights in the garage, and followed her back into the house. She had a fire going in the fireplace, and we sat on the sofa and enjoyed the view of the beach, watching the waves crash relentlessly against the sand.
As beautiful as it was there, I felt a sense of unease in the house, and while she was getting ready for bed I moved a few things into the Ford XL in case we were ever in the car and had to make a run for it: Julian Silver’s cell phone, half the cash from the gym bag, and the sawed-off shotgun I’d carried into the bar in El Paso. I slipped everything under the carpeting in the trunk, snugged up against the back seat. Unless someone knew that car as well as I did, or dismantled the car to search it, they’d never know I’d hidden things where I did.
Bonnie was waiting in the doorway to the garage when I closed the trunk of the car.
“I thought you were coming to bed,” she said. “Is something wrong?”
“No. I’m just making sure that we’re ready if we have to make another run for it. In either car.”
“Did you see someone?”
“No. I think we’re okay for now.”
She nodded, and I followed her upstairs to the master bedroom, turning off the lights behind me as we went.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that would be my last night with Bonnie.
The next day was blustery and cold, with a blanket of grey clouds overhanging the coast. Bonnie and I had stayed inside all day. We’d eaten dinner at the table in front of the big glass window before I’d put on my winter coat and headed outside alone for a walk on the beach. I wanted to clear my head before I made a decision about whether to call Eric.
Evening was approaching and the wind was blowing from the west, carrying with it the smells of the ocean, of decaying vegetation, and the sharp scent that often indicates imminent rainfall. None of the other dozen houses on the small stretch of beach had any lights on. It was the middle of the week in wintertime, and I reasoned that that the houses were vacation homes used on weekends or during summer. I’d pulled the hood up on my coat to stop my ears from stinging from the bitter wind, and I was walking at the high water line where the sea grass started to grow out of the sand. Chunks of ragged sea foam bounced and rolled down the beach like disembodied souls. Waves that thundered against the beach rushed back out as quickly as they’d come, producing giant muddy barrels of spinning undertow which sucked at the water’s edge. Occasionally one wave’s exit would perfectly coincide with another wave’s arrival to produce a surge which rose out of the water like an animated wall before crashing down with a sound like a thunderclap. The surge that those waves produced sent me sprinting above the high water mark to stay out of the water’s path.
Not surprisingly, I had the beach to myself. I’d walked several hundred yards when I first noticed that I wasn’t alone anymore.
I felt that tickle in the back of my neck that I get when I’m being stared at. I quit watching the wave action and looked up. The man approaching me on the beach wore a black Gore-Tex coat, black running shoes, and blue jeans. Pepper-colored hair, six feet tall, big shoulders. He was maybe a hundred yards in front of me and seemed to be checking out the seagulls racing down the beach. I wondered where he’d come from. I hadn’t been watching the ocean that long, so he must have just stepped onto the beach from one of the houses. Like me, he was staying high up on the sand, avoiding the surges from the surf. If one of us didn’t turn around, we’d probably bump into each other in a minute or so.
As we moved closer to each other, I recognized his face from when I’d seen him in Lincoln City. He’d been driving the big Chevy Suburban, with Lavar Macone riding in the back seat.
He gave me a small smile like a rancher might give a cow he’s about to use a branding iron on. I felt a dizzying sense of unease, as if gravity had stopped working properly, or I was watching a movie of myself and the credits were about to roll. I was intensely aware of the roar of the surf slamming against the beach. The air felt thick and smelled strongly of salt water. I unzipped my coat as I walked, feeling the resistance of the zipper in my hand and then the rush of the cold air onto my skin.
Then the man stopped and pulled his hands out of his coat pockets, letting his arms hang loose at his sides. I kept walking. When I was about ten feet from him, I heard a clicking sound and saw a black blade several inches long materialize in his right fist. He held his left arm out towards me like a traffic cop might if he wanted someone to stop.
“Hold it right there,” he said.
I stopped. He had small eyes under the short pepper-colored hair. In the waning evening light his pupils had the appearance of dark marbles.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said. “You’re coming with me and my friends. Mister Marco wants to meet you.”
“Tough,” I said.
I saw the skin get tight around his eyes. “What Mister Marco wants, he gets,” he said.
“Not this time,” I said.
Then things started happening fast.
A high wave came, leaving the two of us standing knee-deep in icy water. I reached behind my back for the pistol I had tucked into the waistband of my jeans. I brought it around fast, pulling the safety off, and watched him drop the knife. I thought he’d duck, or run for his life, anything but what he did. He kicked a spray of saltwater into the air as he closed the distance between us, chopping at my wrist with the force of an axe and sending the gun into the water. I grimaced and threw a hook with my other hand at his face, catching him just below his eye. He staggered back, spun inside my reach, and used the leverage of my arm to do a judo throw that launched me onto my back in the water. I felt the wind go out of me with a rush as I hit the water and submerged, then rolled over and tried to get to my knees as the water went back out.
I felt the spine-wrenching force of him landing on my back with all his body weight, elbows down. I went face down on the beach with him on my back. He grabbed a fistful of my hair and pressed my face into the wet sand with all his body weight. I tried to jerk left, to jerk right, to get to my knees, but he was murderously strong and I could not break free. I did a push-up to get my mouth out of the sand so I could take a breath. When I did that, he put a forearm across my throat and locked it in place from behind with his other arm. I dropped onto the sand again and reached back, clawing behind me to try to gouge an eye, but he kept his face turned away. My efforts only elicited a grunt from him, followed by the pressure of his knee on my spine as he bent my back like an archer’s bow. The force he was applying to my windpipe was suffocating me.
I did another push-up and tried to roll him off of my back, but he wouldn’t let go, and we both fell on our sides. My visual field began to shrink like I was dropping down into a well. I couldn’t hear the surf any more, or smell the salt air, and I felt my consciousness fading. At least I went down fighting.
My left arm was laying on something hard. In desperation, I scrabbled for it with my right hand, thinking it might be a rock, or possibly a stick that I could use to pry his forearm from my windpipe. My right hand came up with the knife that he had dropped when I pulled my gun. I held the knife by the handle with the point down, and swung my arm back like a scythe with all the force I had left, catching him just below the hip bone with the tip of the blade. It felt like I’d struck bone. He let out a loud grunt but didn’t let go. I pulled back and slammed the point in a second time. This time the blade went in up to the hilt. He screamed in pain and let me go, rolling off my back and going into a crouch. The blade came free of his leg as he rolled away.
I was gasping for air, staggering to remain upright, spitting sand out of my mouth and wiping the sand from my eyes. I had the knife in my hand, ready to stab or slash if he came close again. He stood just out of reach, holding pressure with his right hand against the gash I’d cut on the inside of his thigh. We both breathed hard, each measuring the other. I could see blood flowing through his fingers onto his pants.
“I could have killed you easy if I’d wanted to,” he yelled over the sound of the surf. A hint of an accent. Boston? New York? “Now I’m going to take that knife from you and gut you with it.”
“Really?” I said. “You want it; I’ll give it to you.” My throat felt as raw as if I’d swallowed sandpaper. “Hold out your hand.”
“Fuck you,” he said. “Crazy son of a bitch.”
I did an exaggerated shoulder shrug and took a couple steps back, beginning a slow shuffle away from him and back down the beach towards the safe house. He limped behind me, holding one hand over the cut. In my half-suffocated state he was having no trouble keeping up, even with one of his bloody hands pressed on his thigh.
When he would try to close the distance between the two of us, I would swing the knife at him in a slashing backhand and he’d retreat a few paces, and then try again. I could tell he was trying to get a feeling for how fast I could react to his advances so he could predict the timing of my swing and grab my arm as it went past.
Surges of icy surf came up high on the beach as we walked, sucking at our shoes. The two of us were something to behold: me carrying a knife and covered with sand, him following behind with one leg dragging behind and his hand pressed against his crotch. As we made our way along the beach, I began to feel strong enough that I started jogging. He could keep pace with me, but I could tell he was in agony. His face was a mask of pain as he fought to keep up.
I yelled back at him. “If you don’t get that cut looked at, you’ll bleed to death.”
“Don’t worry about me,” he growled. “You’ll be dead before I am.”
I took a few fast strides, and as I looked over my shoulder to check on my attacker, a wave ten feet tall rolled up the beach and knocked me off my feet. I sucked in a huge lungful of air as I went down, gasping from the shock of the cold. I felt his hand grab hold of my coat as I went under, then experienced the breathtaking power of the undertow as the water went back out, sucking the two of us along with it. We began to tumble in one of the spinning barrels of water produced by the undertow as it collided with another incoming wave. I experienced a kind of hallucinatory sensory overload from the heart-stopping cold of the sea water, the roar of the water in my ears, the sand blasting at my skin, the accelerating end-over-end gymnastics tumble, and the blows from his arms and legs colliding with mine as if we’d climbed into a washing machine together. My coat and shirt were ripped from me, and then the killer and I were slammed together against the sandy bottom. He locked his arms around my waist as the undertow pulled us out into the Pacific Ocean. We accelerated and tumbled deeper and deeper, spinning and bouncing against the sand as the pressure built on our bodies and it became immensely quiet and completely black.
As we continued our descent I realized that he had decided to hold onto me at any cost, even if we both drowned. I’d lost the knife when the wave knocked me down, but I had to get him to let go somehow so I could try to push for the surface before I blacked out. In desperation, I reached down and jammed my thumbs into his eyes, feeling his eyeballs push in and hearing a muffled scream as he finally let go.
The pull of the undertow began to slow and weaken, and the next time my feet touched the sand, I pushed off as hard against it as I could, swimming frantically toward the direction I thought was up. I was close to losing consciousness when I finally broke the surface and took in a huge lungful of air. My lungs felt like they were on fire.
I was a hundred yards from shore and far down the beach from where I’d gone in. As I bobbed between the waves, I could see lights on in one of the beach houses, so I began to swim at an angle towards it. Numb from the cold, dizzy from being dragged out to sea and nearly drowned, I swam mechanically towards shore. My legs felt as if they were made of wood, and it took an act of supreme willpower to keep swimming and not give up. Knowing that Bonnie was by herself in the beach house kept me going. I closed the distance to the beach and then swam through the curling waves that broke a few dozen yards offshore, and then more waves came behind me and pushed me most of the way up the beach before receding. Totally spent, I lay on my back against the wet sand, gasping for air.
Desperately cold, my teeth chattering, leg muscles numb and wooden with exhaustion, I began walking down the beach towards Eric’s house with the stiff-legged, shuffling gait of a zombie. My hands were shaking from the cold as if I had nerve damage. I finally came to the safe house back porch with fantasies of seeing Bonnie, soaking in a hot bath long enough to relieve the hypothermia, then escaping in the Ford.
It didn’t work out that way.
I looked through the windows at the back of the beach house and saw several men moving around inside. One was tall enough to be a circus freak, with a huge square jaw and big red headphones covering his ears. He wore a blue plaid shirt over faded jeans and was spraying down the dining room table with some kind of cleaner. The other was Lavar Macone, the one I’d burned with his cowboy hat. Lavar wore coveralls under a denim coat and had a black felt cowboy hat tipped back on his head. For the first time I saw the stripe of the rubbery pink scar tissue around his head. Lavar looked out through the window towards the beach like he was waiting for someone to return, lifted a shotgun across his shoulders like he was going pheasant hunting, and moved away from the window. No sign of Bonnie.
I shuffled around the side of the house, and as I came toward the front, I heard the garage door start to go up. I peered around the corner and saw a big, bronze-colored Cadillac parked on the grass. They’d fixed the flat tire on the Impala SS and pulled it out into the driveway where it idled with its headlights on, a pair of lazy smoke trails rising from the dual exhaust. A white Ford Crown Victoria, the same car I’d seen in Lincoln City, was parked on the far side of the Cadillac. I heard the sound of an engine start in the garage, and then a blue Chevy Suburban with dark-tinted windows rolled out of the garage and stopped in the driveway. The Impala SS began to roll, and the big Suburban followed the Impala down the country road that led back to the highway. I heard the garage door start to go back down, and I ran around the corner of the house and dodged under the garage door as it closed.
The Ford XL was still there. The small bulb attached to the garage door opener was illuminated, lighting the car and the garage interior.
I heard the front door slam and knew I was running out of time to prevent Bonnie’s departure. In desperation I picked up the hedgehog-shaped boot scraper off of the garage floor near the doorway and let myself into the house. I didn’t see Lavar Macone anywhere, but the giant I’d seen from the beach was in the living room with his back to me. He still had his headphones on, and he was moving to the beat of the music as he used a spray bottle to clean fingerprints off of the kitchen countertop. Bonnie and I had prepared our meal there only an hour before. Something about seeing him erasing the evidence of our existence made me explode.
I ran across the living room in fast strides, holding the boot scraper over my head. He must have felt the vibrations of my feet hitting the floor, or maybe he saw my reflection in the mirror over the countertop as I leapt at him. Either way, he spun towards me with a shocked expression that only lasted as long as it took me to bring the boot scraper down on his head with all the force I had left in my body. When I connected with his skull there was a sound like a log being hit with a baseball bat. My momentum carried the two of us into the side of the dining room table, knocking it off its pedestal onto its side. He staggered under the blow but managed to remain upright. He tried to bring one huge arm up to grab at me, but he was weakened by the blow to his head and moved in slow motion. I slapped his paw away with my free hand, stepped inside his reach, and then swung the shoe scraper down with the kind of force people use at a state fair when they’re trying to win a prize. He went down on the dislodged table top like a tossed rag doll and the wood shattered under his weight.
He didn’t get up again.
I searched the house hoping that I’d catch Lavar Macone with his back turned. Everyone else had already left, and the only evidence left behind of a crime was the giant who lay sprawled across the smashed dining room table. I could hear music coming out of his dislodged headphones. It sounded like Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller.’
My body felt like it was shutting down from hypothermia and the aftermath of the adrenaline. I pulled a bottle of whiskey from the shelf behind the bar in the living room and carried it with me into the shower. I stepped under the spray, still wearing my pants and running shoes. I took pulls off of the bottle, letting the hot needles of water wash the salt water from my clothes and drill into my flesh until my skin reddened. When my teeth finally stopped chattering, I took my clothes off, toweled off, and went through the house a second time, checking the closets and looking under beds.
There was an assortment of clothes in one of the bedroom closets that looked like they’d been left behind by previous occupants. A blue dress blazer with brass buttons. A grey water-repellant woman’s coat. Several dress shirts and hooded sweatshirts. The largest of the dress shirts and hooded sweatshirts were close enough to my size that I put them on.
I almost cried when I found Bonnie’s rolling suitcase under the bed in the master bedroom. The suitcase wasn’t fancy. It was made of plastic with a textured cover that looked like polished aluminum, but it was all she’d brought with her from El Paso. Her purse was inside the suitcase, and I opened up the purse and went through it. Two hundred and sixty dollars. Driver’s license. A debit card. An old college ID card from University of Texas at El Paso. Evidence of a life interrupted. There were several pairs of jeans, several pairs of underwear, and a lacy brassiere, all neatly folded. I closed the suitcase, picked it up, and carried it into the kitchen. Maybe I’d get the chance to give it back to Bonnie someday. If I couldn’t, I’d die trying.
I tossed my pants and shoes, still soaked from the shower, into the clothes dryer. I set the temperature to high and sipped on the bottle of whiskey while my clothes dried. I had no idea where they’d taken Bonnie; just that she was gone and that I’d failed to keep her safe.
The giant was where I’d left him.
When I tried to turn his body to get the wallet out of his pants, he stirred, moaning with pain. He was unbelievably heavy, and I was grunting with effort by the time I got him rolled onto his face. There were twenty five one hundred dollar bills in his wallet. Two of the bills had the same chalk crosses on them that I’d found on the bills I’d taken from Bullard’s house. I slid his wallet into my back pocket, then worked his belt off and tied his hands behind his back with it. I tied his ankles together with the electrical cord from a tabletop lamp. Then I left him face down in the debris of the smashed tabletop.
I moved the Ford XL out into the driveway and pulled the giant’s Cadillac into the garage.
When I came back into the house he’d regained consciousness and rolled himself face up. His hair, face, and eyes were covered with blood from where I’d clocked him with the shoe scraper.
“Hey,” he said. “I think I’m blind. You really hurt me.” His speech was slurred.
“One of your friends tried to kill me this evening. It seemed like the right thing to do.”
“Would you call a doctor for me?”
“I’ll think about it if you answer a few questions.”
“What would you have done to me if you and Lavar Macone had caught me?”
“Lavar really hated you, so he would have tortured you for a long time before he killed you. Then I would have cleaned up the mess so nobody could prove we were here.”
“Did he torture the girl before he left?”
He shook his bloody head side to side. With his huge square chin and the dents in his skull, his face looked like an animated Halloween mask. I noticed that even though blood flowed from the dents in his skull across his eye sockets, his eyelids stayed open and he never blinked.
“Did Lavar take the girl with him?” I asked.
He shook his head no again.
“Where is she, then?”
“Two of the other guys left with her. I think they were driving a blue station wagon.”
“Do you know their names?”
“One of them is named Jaime something. I don’t know the other one.”
“Do you know where they took her?”
“I think they said they were going to a private airport.”
“To go where?”
“Probably to Marco’s factory in El Paso.”
“Where in El Paso?”
“I’ve never been there. I think it’s close to the border. I’ve heard it’s big.”
“Why did Marco send an army here to kill me and Bonnie? Why do we matter?”
“They wanted to take you alive, not kill you. Marco wanted to make an example out of you for what you did to Julian and other people who work for him. Publicly, in front of his people in El Paso…You’re embarrassing him.”
“How did you know we were here?”
He shrugged again. “The order came down that you and the girl were here, in this house, and that you had killed Julian Silver, and we were supposed to come get you and bring you back.”
“What happened then?”
“I drove down from Seattle to Lincoln City and met Lavar and the other guys. We came down here and were watching the house when the girl went outside to look for you. Lavar grabbed her but she wouldn’t say where you were. We couldn’t find you, so Simon went down to the beach to look for you but he didn’t come back. After a while everyone left, and they took the girl with them.”
“Just like that, huh? Marco says to grab someone up, it just happens.”
“Have you ever heard the name Eric Fullmeyer?” I asked. He shook his head.
“Do you know who owns this house?”
He shook his head.
“Have you ever been here before?”
“How many times have you cleaned up after Lavar murdered somebody?”
He shrugged. “Maybe a dozen times.”
“You’re not bothered by it?”
“It’s what I do. I usually wait outside until Lavar’s done, so I don’t have to watch. The headphones help.”
“What do you do with the bodies?”
“It depends on how hard the ground is, and how many people are around. What I have to work with.”
“I heard you like using wood chippers on people. You ever done that?”
He didn’t answer me.
My pants and shoes were dry, which I appreciated. They still smelled like the Pacific Ocean, but at least they weren’t wet. The hooded sweatshirt was warm. Being choked and nearly drowned in the ice-cold Pacific seemed like a distant nightmare, except for the abrasions all over my body, and the fact that it hurt like hell to swallow.
I went through the drawers in the kitchen and laundry room looking for an envelope or a utility bill or something that showed who owned the house. I found a receipt in the laundry room that had Eric’s name on it. Another receipt in the kitchen had Eric’s name on it. Did that mean anything beyond him coordinating some home repairs on a safe house operated by the federal marshal service?
When the giant heard me rummaging through the drawers in the kitchen, he stirred again, looking in my direction with that bloody face.
“Would you call a doctor?” he asked.
“I thought if I answered your questions you’d call a doctor for me.”
“I changed my mind when I found out you helped kill a dozen people,” I said. “You’re on your own.”
He paused. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
“I’m thinking about burning this place to the ground. With you in it.”
He was quiet for a moment. “Why?”
“Because I’m madder than hell.”
“I don’t want to die like that.”
“My guess is that the people you and Lavar killed had the exact same thought.”
“I have some money. I have a nice car. You can have it. Just let me get out of here and call a doctor for me. I won’t tell Marco we talked.”
“I moved your car into the garage. It’ll burn when the house burns.”
“I don’t want to burn to death,” he said. “Lavar used torches on people sometimes. It’s really bad.”
“Your comfort is not a priority for me,” I said. “In fact, if Lavar were here, I’d chain the two of you to a tree and set you on fire.”
He put his head against his chest, rolled onto his side, and went into a fetal position. He started to cry. His hair poked out of the top of his head like bloody straw.
I lit a fire in the wood-burning fireplace and left the glass fireplace door open. Then I turned all the knobs for the gas burners on the cooktop to the highest setting but didn’t light any of the burners. I thought I’d let the fireplace do that for me.
I carried Bonnie’s suitcase out to the driveway and put it into the trunk of the Ford XL. I got the things I’d hidden under the carpet in the trunk of the car and moved them into the front seat where I could get at them in a hurry. I wanted Julian’s cell phone, the cash, and the sawed-off shotgun close at hand.
Then I started the car and drove it slowly along the country road that led back to the highway. I parked at the top of the rise that hid the beach houses from view of the highway, watching the safe house in my rear view mirror. I sipped at the whiskey bottle until I had a nice warm glow going, and then tossed the bottle into the weeds.
After a while, I got out of the car and walked back down the hill, wondering if the house were going to explode with me in it. At that moment, I didn’t care if it did. I reached the front door, took a deep breath, and turned the doorknob. I left the door open and walked through the kitchen to the big double glass doors that fronted onto the back porch. I pushed them open and felt the blast of cold ocean air come in before I shut off the gas burners on the cooktop. The giant stirred for a moment. He was still lying on his side near the wreckage of the dining room table. He lifted his empty-eyed head off the floor for a moment. “You came back,” he said. Then he lay his head back down and was still. His lips moved as if to say “Thank you.”
Having the front door and back door open produced a wind tunnel effect. The drapes near the opened back door flapped like flags. “I didn’t do it for you,” I said. “I did it for myself.”
I left him where he lay and went back out the front door and up the hill to the Ford. I started the engine and listened to the sound the 429 made as the engine ticked over. The engine rumbled deep and solid and even, like it would run forever if you kept feeding it gasoline. There’s something honest about taking a broken piece of machinery and rebuilding it with your own hands to put it back the way it should be. Something pure and right about it. I pulled out onto the highway and pressed the gas pedal to the floor. For a fraction of a second, I imagined that I was back in college with Bricklin, and the two of us were going to take on the world. Then the force of the engine slammed me back in the seat, the tires spun and caught and spun again, the car rocketing forward and the smell of tire smoke filling the car. I turned on the headlights, and the green lights that illuminated the instrument panel came to life. The halogen high-beams lit the pavement out to a mile ahead in stark white light.
“Next stop, El Paso,” I said. “I’m coming for you, Bonnie.”
I drove south on highway 101 until I hit Newport, then went east through the coastal mountain range towards Corvallis and I-5. There was no snow or ice to contend with this time, just gently rolling hills and a ribbon of pavement cutting through stands of emerald Douglas fir trees which lined the road. I pulled into a gas station in Corvallis as the sun was coming up. I filled the gas tank with premium and then pulled over to a parking area where I could have some privacy. It was nearly 8 a.m. when I powered up Julian Silver’s cell phone and dialed Marco’s phone number.
He answered after a few rings. “Delorean,” he said. His voice sounded tired.
“I didn’t wake you, did I?”
“You did, but I was wondering when you’d call.”
I heard a woman’s voice, quiet and questioning, in the background.
I heard a muffled reply from Marco. He’d put his hand over the mouthpiece while he talked to his girlfriend.
“I want Bonnie back,” I said.
“Wanting is different than having, isn’t it? By the way, what have you done with Simon? He was supposed to bring you back with him.”
“Oh. Right. Simon. Pepper-colored hair. Likes to play with knives. Wanting is different than having, I guess.”
A small laugh from Marco. “Not for me, it isn’t. Perhaps from your perspective, that’s true.”
“From my perspective you’re living on borrowed time. Savor it.”
“You enjoy violence, don’t you? But you consider yourself a victim and a hero. How do you reconcile that?”
“I want Bonnie back,” I said.
“Tell me what you did to Simon.”
“He’s dead, Marco. You already know that.”
“Tell me how you killed him. I want to know.”
“In return for what?”
“In return for Bonnie breathing another ten seconds.”
I felt the blood rushing in my ears. My sense of powerlessness and rage made me feel like I would explode.
I gritted my teeth. “He pulled a knife on me, Marco. We got into a wrestling match and he tried to choke me out, but I got hold of his knife and stabbed him in the leg with it to make him let go. Then a big wave came up the beach and we both went under. The undertow took us down and pulled us a long way out. I was able to get to the surface and back to the beach. He wasn’t.”
“That’s what I wanted to know. Now tell me about Julian.”
“Put Bonnie on the phone.”
“You can listen to her die while we’re on the phone together. Or you can tell me about Julian.”
Something about his tone told me that I was never going to get Bonnie back, no matter what I did. The blood rushing in my ears was dizzying. I felt something shift inside me. I no longer cared about anything other than hunting Marco down. If I lived five minutes or fifty years, there was only one goal worth breathing for now: to find the leader of the wolf pack and put him down.
“I’m coming for you, Marco, and I’m going to hurt you in ways you can’t even imagine.”
“More impotent threats from the vigilante.”
“I am going to burn you down if it’s the last thing I do.”
“If you want to come to El Paso, we can sit down and discuss your missing person problem. And Julian. You’ll need to be prepared to … humble yourself. Maybe I’ll trade you Bonnie in exchange for cutting off your balls, or let Lavar put a cowboy hat on your head and light it. That seems fair, doesn’t it?”
“You’re in a joking mood” I said. “I’m not. I get Bonnie back, or you better find a cave to live in.”
“I don’t need to run from you,” Marco said. “That’s the advantage of having an army. My address is 9905 Olmos Drive. My home is across from the country club. I have to go,” Marco said. “I’m taking delivery of a new airplane this morning and need to sign a few papers. That’s what people like me do. We want things, and we have them. There’s no threatening or drama. Money shifts here, money shifts there, and we get what we want. I want Bonnie, I get Bonnie. I want to know where you are, I find out where you are. Looks like you’re in Corvallis, Oregon. Still driving the Toyota?”
I didn’t say anything. I was clenching my fists so tightly that the fingernails cut into my palms.
“I’ll be waiting for you in El Paso,” he said. “Drop by anytime.”
Then the line went dead.
I called information in El Paso and asked for the Federal Marshal’s office. I asked to be put through to Marshal Fullmeyer. He wasn’t available, but I was connected to his answering machine.
“Eric,” I said. “It’s Delorean.” Then my mind went blank. The accumulated stress, lack of sleep, physical violence and alcohol landed on me like an anvil. I had to claw my way back from the edge of despair to continue.
“There’s a body in the ocean near the safe house at Gleneden Beach. Another of Marco’s hitters tried to kill me and nearly succeeded. There’s another guy in the safe house with his head bashed in. He’s still breathing as far as I know. They’re both part of the same organization that Julian Silver and Lavar Macone belong to. You should probably send someone down there to clean up the mess before the neighbors come for the weekend.”
I thought carefully for a moment before continuing.
“They took Bonnie, Eric. I think she’s on her way to El Paso. Lavar or one of his friends has her. I’m coming to El Paso to meet with Marco and try to get her back. If I fail, I’m hoping that you really are what you say you are, and that you’ll try to get her back, too. Bonnie’s a good person, one of the best I’ve ever known. If you’re not who you say you are, and it’s your fault that Marco’s people found us at the beach house and took Bonnie, then you better pray I never find that out.”
Twenty six hours later I crossed the city boundary line of El Paso, Texas. It was mid-morning, the sun was bright, and the skies were deep blue. My eyes and back ached from driving and lack of sleep. I drove around until I found a part of town where older cars like mine seemed to fit in, and where I could pay cash for a hotel room without showing a driver’s license. I got a room at the Royal Cortez Hotel, only half a mile from the Mexican border. The hotel looked like it had been built back in the days of Route 66, with small adobe buildings, tired red carpet, and beds as flat and indifferent to comfort as a pool table.
I brought the shotgun in from the car under a towel I’d gotten from the bathroom, and then collapsed on the bed. I slept until eight O’clock the next morning, when I was awakened by a knock on the door.
I rolled out of bed, expecting to see someone from Marco’s team or maybe the police through the peephole in my door.
I was shocked to see Sandy Burroughs looking back at me. She still had the muscular build, the short blonde hair I remembered from our time together in Alamogordo. But this time she wasn’t in uniform. I put the gun back on the nightstand under a towel and let her in.
“Eric Fullmeyer sent me,” she said. She came inside and took a seat on the edge of the bed, crossed her arms, and gave me a smile. She had on blue jeans over tan cowboy boots and wore a tight white polo shirt highlighting a chest bigger than most women have and biceps bigger than most men have. Wraparound mirrored sunglasses. An automatic pistol in a black nylon holster hung from her belt.
“Are you with the marshal service now?” I asked.
She gave a short laugh.
“No. I was bounced from the force in Alamogordo for what we did to Bullard. They said I was lucky not to get charged with felony assault. No way the marshals would take me after that.”
“I’m sorry I got you involved in that,” I said.
“It’s all good. He earned the treatment we gave him. I have a gig doing private work now. Actually pays better than it did on the force. Fewer rules, so that suits me.”
“So what’s your connection with Eric?” I asked.
She picked up the edge of the towel which covered the sawed-off shotgun and whistled.
“That is one ugly piece of hardware. You make it yourself?”
“Try to focus,” I said. “What’s your connection with Eric?”
She dropped the corner of the towel and paid attention. “Oh… Right… Well… I do things for Eric sometimes.”
“Like stuff that needs to be done that he can’t do, or doesn’t have time to do. We talked after the trial for Sheriff Bullard was adjourned due to the defendant being croaked. I told him about the Alamogordo P.D. turfing me. He was sympathetic and said that he could send some work my way if I was a private contractor.”
“Have you ever had anything to do with someone named Marco?”
“Well, funny you should ask that. Yeah. Marco is pretty well-known in El Paso for his flamboyant way of dealing with his enemies. Eric told me that you said you smoked a few of Marco’s killers in Oregon and were headed back here to rescue a witness that Marco grabbed. Eric flew out yesterday to Oregon to check on a safe house the marshals have there. Said if he was on the hook for you leaving a bloodbath up there, he could wind up in a lot of trouble. So he went to go clean up the mess you created before someone else found it.”
“Is it true? You punched the tickets on some of Marco’s hitters? I’m impressed.”
“I assume Eric told you to find me. Why?”
“He asked me to try to keep you from turning El Paso into a free-fire zone until he has the chance to talk to you.”
“Marco’s people took a woman hostage that Eric asked me to protect. These people’s idea of fun is using wood chippers and blow torches on anyone who irritates them. If Marco won’t give her back to me, I’m going to war. Period. Whatever you or Eric says, I’m going to put Marco in the ground.”
“That’s bold talk for someone with a hundred year old shotgun held together with duct tape. How do you propose to take him down?”
“I just rolled out of bed. Wait until I get some momentum going.”
She laughed. “Well, count me in. This sounds way more fun than serving eviction notices. Or following husbands to see if they have girlfriends.”
“So,” I said. “I just got here. How did you find me?”
“You told Eric you were on your way here. He thought you’d be driving that huge Ford parked outside and sent me a picture of it. There are only a few dozen hotels to check. Here I am.”
“You’ve become a pretty suspicious person. I’m surprised you don’t trust me after what we’ve been through together.”
“Somehow the cartel knew that Eric put Bonnie on a plane to Oregon, and they managed to find us at the airport and in three different places on the coast. I’m still wondering if Eric had something to do with that.”
“No way. I guarantee it.”
“You’re that sure, huh? What’s the alternative?”
“You said they knew she was on the plane?”
“There was someone waiting at the Portland airport when I got there to pick her up.”
“Maybe they knew she was going to split, and they put a tracker on her that she brought it with her onto the plane. Did you go through all her stuff?”
“She had a coat and a suitcase. I didn’t see anything in the suitcase.”
“Did you go through everything she brought with her? Check the lining of her coat; really look closely to see if the suitcase had something in it? Did she leave her phone turned on?”
“I know that the phone was turned off. I never checked her coat. I still have the suitcase, though. They left it behind at the safe house when they kidnapped her.”
“That’s convenient. Let’s look at it.”
I went out to the Ford and retrieved Bonnie’s suitcase from the trunk. I brought it inside and put it on the bed. Sandy popped it open and started taking Bonnie’s things out of it. She went through each of the items closely, running her fingers along the clothing seams and looking for anything that could send an electronic signal. The purse. The jeans. The underwear. The brassiere. Finally, the suitcase was empty. She got hold of the fabric lining on the inside of the suitcase and pulled it free. Under the padding where the handle attached to the suitcase, there was a packet about the size of a cigarette lighter attached to the shell of the case with double-sided tape. She pulled the packet free and scrutinized it.
“Looks like a portable GPS tracker to me.” She pointed at the indicators on the side of the grey and white unit. “Battery’s dead. When it’s charged, it’s like a cell phone, really, but it just reports speed and location. Unless there’s no cell service available to get the signal, or it’s inside a metal box, this thing can probably report where you are with pretty high accuracy. The person who installed it could follow you on a map on his cell phone, if he wants. You can buy a setup like this on Amazon for a few hundred bucks to track your kids or dog or where witnesses go to hide before they testify against you, in this case. Makes it pretty convenient to know when someone’s vulnerable, if you want to hurt them when there’s no one around to watch.”
I thought about how Marco’s people had been able to find me and Bonnie in some places but not others. I doubted that there was cell service at Eric’s cabin because it was tucked into the side of a hill that fronted onto the Pacific Ocean. In Lincoln City and at the safe house on the beach it seemed more likely that cell service was available. “Is there any way to know how long the battery would last?”
She shook her head. “Depends on how often it’s reporting your location. A week? Two weeks maybe.”
“You know, there is a positive side to this.”
“We could charge the battery and it would start sending again, if we wanted to create a diversion. Make them think you were somewhere else with the suitcase.”
“Wouldn’t they be suspicious that it started sending again?”
She shrugged. “I doubt it. They’d probably think that the suitcase had been in the trunk of a car, or was in a cell phone dead spot. Most of the bad guys I’ve dealt with aren’t geniuses. They take the easy way out every chance they get. They’d be glad to know where you and the suitcase are again. Makes their lives easier, right?”
“It’s still going to be hard to get her back. You realize that. Marco’s got a crew. You got me. Maybe Eric when he gets back.”
“The most dangerous creation of any society is the person who has nothing to lose.”
Sandy gave a short laugh. “Eric said you’d turned into a vigilante philosopher, and I agree with you about dropping the hammer on these guys, but I’d prefer to come out of this with my ass still attached to me. A frontal assault on an army is usually a bad idea.”
“I’d like to come out of this alive, too, but I can’t leave Bonnie where she is.”
“Let’s take an inventory of what you’ve got. You’ve got a GPS tracker with a dead battery. An old hot rod and a shotgun held together with duct tape. Anything else?”
“I’ve got half the cash I took from Bullard’s safe, a cell phone with Marco’s phone number on it, and a message trail between him and one of his hitters when Marco told him to kill us both.”
Sandy let out a long breath. “Okay.” She ran her fingers through her short hair, thinking about it. “Maybe we have something to bargain with. Of course, if you turned the cell phone over to the district attorney he’s going to want to know what happened to the guy Marco told to kill you. Did you tell Marco you snuffed his guy?”
“Not directly. Bonnie was there when it happened, though.”
“Okay. The messages implicate Marco in conspiracy to commit murder. That might be worth quite a bit to him.”
“Try to trade Bonnie for the phone?”
“It’s worth a shot. Of course, Marco’s still going to kill you the first chance he gets.”
“We have the beginning of a plan,” Sandy said. “However, your shotgun is as dangerous to you as it is to whatever it’s pointed at. We should fix that problem before we do anything else. Don’t you think?”
“I’ll be back in an hour,” Sandy said. “Don’t go anywhere.”
While she was gone I took a long shower, and then sat on the edge of the tub in the steam of the bathroom for a few minutes, feeling the aches and pains in my muscles dissipate. After a while I went out into the bedroom and lay on the bed in my towel. Exhaustion from what happened on the Oregon coast and from the long drive took me back to the edge of sleep.
I heard a pounding at the door and went to see who was there. Sandy was back with a big rucksack over one shoulder. She gave me a smile through the peephole. “It’s me, you idiot,” she said with a heavy British accent.
I let her in and she looked me over. “Wow. You’re pretty ripped. You could be on the cover of a tawdry women’s novel. Not that I read that kind of thing … very often.”
“Six months of physical therapy will do that to you.”
“Six years of weightlifting is my recipe. Want to have a push-up contest?”
“Is it okay if I put some pants on first?”
“If you’re worried the towel will fall off and I’ll faint, I understand.”
I went into the still-damp bathroom and dressed.
When I came out, she’d laid out a pair of short pump shotguns on the bed with straps for extra shells pre-loaded into elastic loops, a pair of automatic pistols in shoulder holsters, and what looked like a small rubber brick.
I picked up the brick. “What’s this?” I asked.
“It’s an external battery that we can use to recharge the GPS tracker from your girlfriend’s suitcase. Don’t plug it in until we’re ready for Marco’s people to come running.”
“Okay. One question.”
“Why are you helping me with all of this? This isn’t your fight.”
“Well, ultimately Marco is the person who cost me my career using Bullard as his proxy. He destroys the lives of innocent people. From the picture you showed me of her driver’s license, your lady friend seems like a sweet person who doesn’t deserve what’s happening to her. And you’re a square-up guy who has the balls to stand up to these people. That’s enough reason for me to make it my fight, too.”
“And you look extremely hot when you just wear a towel. Now can we have the push up contest?”
“I can do about a hundred.”
“Won’t be much of a challenge then. I can do more.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“Are you involved with the woman we’re going to try to rescue?”
“Is it serious?”
“I thought it was.”
“All right then. Let’s rock this thing. Platonically, I mean.”
It was noon when we left the hotel. Sandy was driving a new white Camaro SS with a pair of orange stripes running down the center of the hood. “We’ll take my car and do some recon,” she said.
“Seriously?” I asked. “Your car isn’t built for stealth.”
“These things are as common as tumbleweeds around here. Your car, while kind of a cool antique, sticks out like a sore thumb. I want to be ignored, not noticed.”
We put the guns in the back seat, Sandy started the car, and we pulled out of the hotel and onto Mesa Street.
“Where are we going?” I asked. “Do you know where Marco lives?”
“Eric gave me a list of the properties and businesses Eric owns, including an address by the country club and a hangar at the airport. First we’re going to a drive-through to get food that’ll stick to our ribs. We got some work to do.”
After loading up on hamburgers, onion rings, and giant cups of soda, we headed north. Sandy looked at the printout of Marco’s properties and then asked me to put the printout in the glove box.
Mesa turned into Highway 20. There were exit signs for Resler Drive and Interstate 10 North. The road was three lanes wide in both directions and perfectly flat. Sandy stopped when the stop lights were red, and stomped on the gas pedal when the lights turned green. The road was marked for 45 M.P.H., but Sandy was driving at 70 between the intersections.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“There’s a city park across the street from Marco’s country club home. I don’t know if he actually lives there, but Eric didn’t even know if Marco was in El Paso. He has several warehouses and a number of businesses that look legit from the street, so it isn’t like we can just ring one doorbell and then beat it out of Marco about where the girl is. He might be keeping her across the border in Mexico, too. That could complicate things big-time.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Don’t go all punk on me. We’re just getting this party started. We’ve got goodness and righteousness on our side. Think positive thoughts. Okay?”
“That’s more like it.” By then Highway 20 had turned into Country Club road. We took a left on Vista Grande and drove through a neighborhood of tidy, modest houses.
“I don’t know what I expected,” I said. “I thought Marco would live in a mansion, or a castle with a moat or something dramatic. This looks pretty tame.”
Sandy laughed out loud, a deep, rich guffaw.
“Hold on, now,” she said. “We aren’t there yet.”
We took a right onto Lombardy Avenue, and the housing went upscale. One acre yards with big trees providing shade. Houses set back from the street with circular drives in front. Lots of natural rock on the facades of the homes.
“What do you suppose these houses go for?” I asked.
“Maybe half a mil,” Sandy said.
Then we turned onto Olmos drive, and the housing went upscale again. Olmos dead-ended at a city park across from the Country Club. The houses in the neighborhood were set back away from the street behind a hundred yards of manicured trees and lawn. Tall wrought iron fences with electronic gates provided additional security.
“Still disappointed in the crime lord’s estate?” Sandy asked.
“Jesus,” I said.
Sandy pulled into the parking lot for the city park. There was a home the size of a hotel facing onto a park where working-class people from adjacent neighborhoods pushed children in strollers along paved paths, and children played soccer while parents looked on. Sandy slowed the car to a stop and then pointed at the enormous house across the street. With acres of pink granite and curved arches for the doorways and windows, the home looked like an import from the Italian Riviera.
“That’s his,” she said. “That’s Marco’s.”
An old Hispanic man in a white sleeveless t-shirt and a straw cowboy hat was hand-washing a new four-door Maserati in the driveway of Marco’s 20,000 square foot mansion. Sandy backed the Camaro into a parking place in the shade of a huge sycamore tree so our windshield was facing Marco’s residence. “This Marco seems like an asshole. After all we’ve been through together as a country, he doesn’t build an American house, and he doesn’t buy American cars. I’m not kidding. That puts frost on my ass.”
“The Maserati has a Chevy engine in it,” I said. “Doesn’t that count for anything?”
Sandy growled. I finished my burger, onion rings, and drink. The lethargy induced by the overload of sugar, fat, and salt was so intense it was like a narcotic. I tipped my head back against the headrest and closed my eyes.
I don’t know how long I was asleep. When I woke, Sandy was gone. I panicked briefly when I saw the empty driver’s seat, then looked through the window and realized she was walking over towards Marco’s mansion.
I got out of the car to try to stop her, but by then she’d reached the driveway of the mansion. The old man who’d been washing the car was gone. The Maserati gleamed in the driveway, a perfect blend of black, bright chrome, and tinted glass. From where I stood, the car looked like a panther about to strike. As she reached the Maserati, Sandy looked back over towards me and gave me a huge smile.
“No,” I said. I shook my head side to side.
She slowly nodded her head up and down to indicate “Yes.” Then she picked up a rock about the size of a Thanksgiving turkey from one of the decorative plantings near the driveway and carried it over to the Maserati. She held it out at arm’s length over the roof of the car and dropped it. She gave me a satisfied smile and then held both arms over her head in the universal sign of victory. Then she walked back over to the Camaro with an exaggerated swagger in her stride. She was throwing her hips from side to side like an amateur lingerie model.
As she passed me on the way to the car she said “That felt so damned good.”
I was fuming when I got back into the Camaro.
“Why the hell did you do that? Now he knows that we’re here.”
“I hope so. That was the whole idea.”
“I thought today was about surveillance. Figuring out where he is.”
“I don’t think there’s time for spending several days on stakeout. He needs to know that we’re here, and we’re unpredictable, and we’re going to fuck with his toys. That should get him off balance enough that we have a chance.”
“You actually just did that because you wanted to, really. If it had been a Corvette in his driveway you would have left it alone.”
“American iron is sacred, it’s true. I might have just left a note on his windshield wiper threatening to chainsaw his balls.”
It was quiet in the car for a minute.
“It looks like a dinosaur took a dump on his fancy-pants car, doesn’t it?” Sandy said.
I laughed. “Yeah. It does.”
Twenty minutes later, the old man returned to the Maserati. This time he was dressed in a shiny silver silk suit with a pressed white shirt. No tie.
He walked to the Maserati and gaped at the rock, then hurried back into the house.
He came back with four other men, all younger. Two were Hispanic, two were white, and all had the look of being ready to fight. They were dressed casually, and one was barefoot. One carried a pool cue; another had his shirt off showing knotted abdominal muscles under the skin. The men made a big show of looking around for whoever had done the dirty deed, walking around with their fists clenched. We were parked deep in the shade a hundred yards away, just one more car in the parking lot. One of the men pulled up his t-shirt to reveal an automatic pistol in his waistband, and then headed around to the back of the mansion along the grass. After about ten minutes, they’d all gone back inside.
Five minutes later another car showed up, this time in a gold Ferrari coupe.
“I don’t think that’s American, either,” Sandy said.
“Nope. It’s a Ferrari California. It’s got an American name, though.”
A tall man with refined, angular features, an oversized torso and bronzed skin stepped out of the Ferrari. He strode over to the Maserati, lifted the rock from the roof, and tossed it towards where Sandy had picked it up. He must have been strong. He made it look as if the rock was weightless.
“Dude is a specimen, isn’t he?” Sandy said.
“Maybe you can challenge him to a push-up contest after we get Bonnie back, if he’s still alive.”
Marco scanned the surroundings and got back in his car.
Sandy started the engine in the Camaro. “Let’s see where he goes, shall we?” she said.
The engine in the Ferrari wailed. Then Marco spun the back tires as dropped the car into gear. Plumes of grey tire smoke flared from the rear of the car as it rocketed past the entrance to the parking lot.
Sandy floored the accelerator pedal and launched the car from the parking lot onto Olmos Drive.
It didn’t take him long to notice us. We pulled up behind him at a stop light, and Sandy got so close to his rear bumper I was sure she’d hit him.
Marco looked in the rear view mirror. Sandy held up a raised middle finger. Marco waited until there was a gap in traffic and then ran the light. Sandy followed, using the paddle shifters on the steering wheel to keep the engine screaming as she accelerated and decelerated to keep from hitting other cars.
We ripped along behind Marco threading our way through afternoon commuter traffic. We hit speeds over 80 miles an hour on one section of a surface street.
“You’re going to get us both killed,” I said.
“Nah. It’s under control.”
Marco veered onto an on-ramp for the Interstate 10 and accelerated like a rocket. We blasted onto the on-ramp behind him. Even with the blistering pull of the Camaro’s engine, we had trouble keeping pace with him. Marco cut back and forth between the other cars like a scalpel, continuing to pull away from us. Sandy finally realized she was never going to be able to keep up with him, and she pulled onto the right shoulder, then pushed the pedal to the floor and held it there. We ripped past the other drivers on the highway and finally pulled even with Marco’s Ferrari. He cast a quick glance at us and then pulled onto the left shoulder before jetting ahead again.
Then the brake lights on Marco’s car flashed as he executed a panic stop before the sleek gold Ferrari fishtailed in a 180 degree turn, leaving it pointed back towards us. Then he deftly cut across the median, joined oncoming traffic for a few dozen yards, and took an exit into an industrial area.
Sandy looked for gaps in traffic to cross the highway and get to the off-ramp he’d taken, but we both knew that he was gone, and we weren’t going to catch him. He’d outmaneuvered us.
“I think the road-runner got away from the coyote that time,” Sandy said. She took the next exit and cruised into the parking lot of a fast food restaurant.
When we were stopped I noticed that her hands were shaking.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“It’s all good,” she said.
I watched her reach into the console and pull out two unmarked pill bottles. She dropped one pill from each bottle onto her palm before popping the pills into her mouth like candy. She crunched them with her molars and swallowed them dry.
“What’s up?” I said.
Sandy got out of the car and went into the restaurant. She came back with two cups of coffee.
“I didn’t know if you take yours with sugar,” she said. “I got extra packets if you need some.”
“What’s wrong with you? What’s with the pills?”
“Well, since we’re tight, I’ll tell you that the blue ones are mood stabilizers, and the white ones make me feel one hell of a lot better. Right now I feel pretty excellent, really.”
She pulled off her sunglasses for the first time and rubbed her eyes with the back of her hand. Then she looked at me and smiled.
“Are you worried about me? That’s kind of cute.”
Her pupils were so dilated by the pills that the irises of her eyes were barely visible.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said.
“Nothing to say. It’s under control,” Sandy replied.
“Really? Not so sure. We’ve made our presence known by denting the roof of his Italian toy and chasing him through traffic. How are we better off than before? What if he runs now?”
“He won’t run. He’s dug in here. And it only took five minutes for him to get home once they found the rock on the car, right? We know he’s in town and staying pretty close to his house. I’ll bet he’s got your girl close, too.”
“I guess that’s something.”
“You said you have the phone you took off of one of his killers, right?”
“Call Marco and tell him you want to trade him the phone for the girl.”
“The phone is back at the hotel in the Ford. Can I just ask what we’ll do if he tells us that he’s going to kill Bonnie and us too unless we do what he says?”
“You can do what you want,” Sandy said. “I don’t take orders from people like Marco, and my response to being threatened usually involves someone else getting their ass kicked in.”
“Okay. So we’re not negotiating. We get Bonnie back or we do what? Shoot him in his driveway? Kidnap him? We’re not going to surprise him twice. He’ll surround himself with people now.”
“We’re not choirboys,” Sandy said. “If he doesn’t take us seriously about getting the girl back, my next step is to burn his mansion to the ground. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start burning his businesses down, too. He might kill the girl, but if we both become hostages to him, he’ll kill her anyway.”
“Let me get this straight. Eric asked you to keep an eye on me so I wouldn’t start an all-out war with Marco. And yet you want to do just that. Why? What did Marco do to you?”
“It’s possible that I have anger issues. What happened with Sergeant Bullard just brought it to a head. Like I said, independent contracting is a better fit for me than the police department. Now when I see a cockroach, I step on it instead of writing up five different reports about my interaction with the cockroach who now wants to sue the police department because I told him to stop beating his wife. Or abusing kids. Or killing people. Bullard threatened to sue the department for three million dollars because I strip searched him and dragged him around on the sand by his ankles. This guy is a cold-blooded murderer and the banker and enabler of a drug cartel, okay? He filed a civil suit against me, too. It was actually a good thing for me when the cartel killed him. Just that one time, organized crime and I both agreed on something. Bullard was better off dead.”
“Marco was Bullard’s boss, and is a world class cockroach. Am I right?”
“No question. One of the worst.”
“Then let’s step on that son of a bitch, shall we?”
That evening I called Marco’s phone number from a burner phone purchased at a convenience store.
“I’m ready to trade you Julian’s phone for Bonnie.”
“I don’t care about Julian’s phone.”
“Sure you do. There are messages on it from you telling Julian to kill me and Bonnie. I’ll turn it over to the federal marshals if you don’t give Bonnie back to me. We’ll see how long it takes a prosecutor to take an interest in you.”
“You can’t prove those messages came from me,” Marco said. “And I’m tired of dealing with you and your friends. However, I’m willing to consider a trade. I have a warehouse near the airport. The sign out front says Helica Associates. Be there at 8 tonight. Bring the phone and the rest of the cash you took from Bullard. Your girlfriend told me you still have some of it. You can trade the money for the girl and we’ll call it even. I’ll get back what’s mine, and you’ll get back what’s yours.”
“How do I know she’s still alive?”
“Oh, believe me. She is.”
“She better be.”
“Come alone. You don’t, you’re dead and the girl is, too.”
Marco’s warehouse wasn’t listed anywhere on the printout that Eric had given Sandy. We looked it up online to get the address, and rolled to the gate at 8 on the dot. There was a big sliding fence topped with barbed wire that had been pushed open across the entrance. I was driving the Ford. Sandy was in the passenger seat. Between us we had the two shotguns and a small bag containing the rest of the cash I’d taken from Bullard’s safe in Alamogordo.
The building was an anonymous-looking warehouse in an industrial park off of South Kansas Street. I could see the lights of Ciudad Juarez across the border.
Sandy broke the silence.
“You shouldn’t go in by yourself, whatever Marco said. You know this is a trap.”
“This is my only chance to get her back. If I’m gone more than ten minutes, just leave. I’m probably not coming back. I don’t want to take you down with me again.”
Sandy laughed. “If you’re not back in ten I’m going to drive this tank through the side of the building and go through this place like a buzz saw.” Sandy was wearing black jeans, a black sweater and black leather gloves. She looked like a ninja except for the wraparound sunglasses and her oversized chest.
I shrugged on the shoulder holster Sandy had gotten for me. I checked the clip on the .38 automatic and put it back in the holster. I pulled on a windbreaker and zipped it up.
Sandy shook a half-dozen pills out of a pill bottle and started crunching them with her molars like peanuts
“It’s been good working with you again,” I said. “See you.”
“You will,” Sandy said. “In ten minutes. I guarantee it.”
There was a large, padlocked door on the side of the building which could be raised to let trucks as big as a semi through. Off to the right, under a florescent bulb, an ordinary door with the words ‘Helica Associates’ painted on it stood propped open.
I went inside. There was a simple receptionist’s desk, a few chairs covered in black vinyl, some old magazines on a coffee table.
Lavar was sitting in an office chair behind the receptionist’s desk, smoking a cigarette and flipping through a copy of People magazine. The pink band of scar tissue around his head shined like plastic wrap in the harsh office light.
“Did you know that your lips move when you read?” I asked.
Lavar tossed the magazine on the desk and stood. He was shirtless under the coveralls.
“I been waiting for you, man,” he said.
“Like the obedient servant that you are.”
Lavar nodded to himself. “Boss man says to bring you inside.” He stepped around me and went to the front door. He kicked the brick out of the way that held the door open and closed the door, flipping the deadbolt in the doorframe.
“This is a high crime area,” Lavar said. “Don’t want any undesirables coming through when I’m not here.”
He looked over at the Ford. Either Sandy was ducking down in her seat or she’d gotten out of the car. She wasn’t visible from where we stood.
“You come by yourself like you’re supposed to?”
“You bring the money?”
“Yeah. I brought it.”
“Sounds like you have business with Mister Marco, then,” he said, and walked past me towards the door behind the receptionist’s desk. His shoulder bumped against mine as he went past. “You got some business with me, too,” he said. “After you’re done with Mister Marco.”
“Can we light your hat again?” I asked. “That was really fun last time.”
“No, man. You already had your fun. This time I get to have mine.” Then he pushed open the door to the warehouse.
I followed Lavar into the warehouse. There were a few semi trailers parked inside, facing nose-out towards the doors. A forklift was up against the tailgate of one of the semis, and against the far wall a big container like the ones you see on ocean-going ships rested on the floor. Lavar led me over to the big container.
Marco stood against the doors of the giant metal box. I recognized him from earlier in the day when he’d come by his house to inspect the damage that Sandy had inflicted on his Maserati. As I came closer to Marco, Lavar dropped back a step and then I felt the stab of a pistol barrel in my kidney.
“Hold up,” Lavar said.
“Drop the bag.”
I let the handles slip from my fingers and heard the dry thud of the bag on the concrete.
“Is that the rest of the money from Bullard?” Marco asked.
“All that’s left, yes.”
“Is the cell phone in the bag, too?”
“As I promised.”
Lavar pushed harder on my kidney with the gun barrel. “Take off your coat real slow,” Lavar said. “And take the gun off, too.”
“Or what?” I asked.
“Or else I paint the floor with you.”
I unzipped the windbreaker and took it off, then slowly shrugged off the shoulder holster containing the pistol. I lowered it by the strap to the concrete. Once it was there, Lavar used the toe of his boot to kick it over against the wall.
“You got anything else on you?”
“I gotta check.”
Lavar held his gun at the base of my spine while he frisked me back and front. He smelled of menthol and cigarettes, and something else like lemon drops.
Once he was done, he gave me a push in Marco’s direction.
“He’s clean,” Lavar said.
“Come over here, Delorean,” Marco said. “You want your girl back, she’s this way.”
Marco unlatched the doors to the container and flipped on a light. The floor of the container had been cut away to reveal concrete stairs that began at the level of the floor of the warehouse. As I approached the open door of the container, I could see that there were about thirty steps, enough to go several stories beneath the warehouse, and that the tunnel headed south towards Mexico.
“She’s in Mexico?” I asked.
Marco was wearing a white silk shirt over black slacks and tan ostrich hide boots. “Follow me,” Marco said. “I’ll take you where the action is.”
He gestured with his right hand into the container.
“Play time’s over, Marco,” I said. “I kept my part of the deal.”
Marco stifled a yawn. “When I make a deal, I keep it,” Marco said. “It’s the only way to get respect, and stay alive in my business. Walk with me. I’ll take you to your girlfriend.”
I exhaled a big breath and then walked down the steps. There were low-wattage bulbs hanging from an overhead wire and our footsteps echoed in the confined space. When I reached the bottom of the steps and turned right, I felt that sense of dizziness, like my world was coming apart again. The tunnel was probably a quarter mile long.
I stopped and stared. “You dug a tunnel to Ciudad Juarez?” I asked.
I felt the barrel of Lavar’s pistol in my spine and I began to move again. Marco and I walked together, side by side. Lavar followed too far back for me to surprise him if I wanted to take his gun. In my gut I knew that I was reaching the end of my life, that I was never going to see daylight or Bonnie again. Lavar was going to put a bullet in my back.
“Of course,” Marco said. He kept walking. “The tunnel has an opening on the other side of the border. I can move as much product as I want with no interference from the Border Patrol, or Customs agents, or anyone else. Actually, you’re the first person who’s created problems for me in some time.”
I caught up with Marco and we walked together, side by side.
Every ten yards or so there was a cross painted on the wall of the tunnel. The color and shape of the cross was like the ones I’d seen drawn with chalk on the money I took from Sergeant Bullard’s safe.
“What’s with the crosses?” I asked.
“The cross is a symbol of dying for sin. A few of my customers die every day, and sometimes my employees do too, as you well know. We’re all part of the same big family, in a way. We collectively agree that having what we want is worth dying for. As do you. Under different circumstances you could have been my business partner.”
“What you’re doing destroys people’s lives. I’ll never be part of that.”
“You already are. Either indirectly or directly you’ve caused the deaths of six people in my organization and put two others in the hospital. They were willing to die for what they believe in, and you’re willing to die to prove you can’t be bought or scared off. That’s your sin, Delorean. You think you’re better than me, my people, my customers, even the police. You could have called the authorities down on me but you didn’t, because you think no one else is worthy of your trust. Now that you’ve killed a few times, you think you’ve become a law unto yourself.”
“I think you’re insane,” I said. “There’s no collective family of drug-sellers and drug-buyers. You and your thugs spend your days trying to get more poison into people’s bodies to enslave them to you. The fact that you’ve attached the symbol of the cross to that doesn’t change what you do.”
“I don’t need a lecture from you, Delorean. Your girlfriend told me that you killed your first man when you were twelve years old. If you stay alive long enough, you’ll have more notches on your belt than Lavar does. Maybe you already do.”
“You beat that out of her, did you?”
“No. The first time she tried my product she told me that. Among other things.”
We’d reached the end of the tunnel, where a pair of large wooden doors blocked the passage. A huge wrought iron slider prevented anyone coming through from the other side. Marco stopped walking and turned to face me.
“We don’t hold a gun to people’s heads to make them buy our product. In fact, the first few samples are free. My customers say it makes them happier than they’ve ever been before. For a few dollars a day they feel better than they’ve ever felt before. Does that seem like enslavement to you? And I want you to think about this: I’m keeping my half of the bargain we made. I’m letting you and your girl go. When I tell someone I’m going to do something, I do it. Can you say that about yourself? I doubt it. Your opinion doesn’t matter to me very much, Delorean, and we’ve reached the end of our journey together.”
Marco put his hand on the wrought iron slider.
“Your girlfriend is at one of the far tables. She’s good with her hands, so I put her to work as a cutter and packager. The people who work here do it by choice and they like it, Delorean. They can sample the product as much as they want, as long as they keep working. But don’t be surprised if she doesn’t recognize you at first. She is already… very attached to the product. I’ll leave the tunnel open and no one will stop you. But I’m warning you, take her and go. If you interfere with me again, I’ll kill you both.”
Marco pulled back the slider and opened the big door a crack. Then he turned and started back down the tunnel.
I pushed open the door into a room as wide and long as a basketball gym. It had a polished wood floor and was illuminated by industrial lights hung with chains from a white-tiled ceiling. There were several dozen women and men seated at benches, all wearing white fabric coveralls and elastic boots. Jeans, t-shirts, and dresses hung from hooks on the wall by the door, with tennis shoes and sandals scattered on the floor below the clothes. I spotted Bonnie’s riding boots at the far end of the collection of shoes.
A guard who looked young enough to be in high school leaned against the wall on my left, a machine gun held across his chest. He gave me a hard look, clicked the safety off on the machine gun, and gave me the kind of look a hawk gives a mouse before he drops from his perch and goes for the kill.
There was a box about the size of a steamer trunk at the end of each table. Workers would wait in line to access the box, scoop a portion of the white powder into a measuring cup, carefully cut off the excess and let it fall back into the box, then carry the measuring cup back to their seat. Once seated, they would empty the measuring cup onto a large cellophane square, then fold the cellophane around the drug, press the cellophane bag into a box shape using a small wooden frame, then seal the cellophane with an adhesive tab that had Marco’s cross stamped on it.
At the far end of the room, I saw Bonnie hunched over a table. She was attaching an adhesive label into a sealed packet.
I turned to Lavar. “Why are they wearing the surgery gowns?” I asked.
“So they can’t steal anything or contaminate anything. They got to change back into their own clothes before they can leave the room.”
I went to Bonnie. She didn’t seem to recognize me, and when I tried to draw her away from her table, she resisted. I told her that Marco had ordered her to come with me. She looked sad, but nodded robotically, and I put my arm around her and led her over to her clothes.
A low booming sound echoed in the distance like a car backfiring, followed by the sharp staccato of automatic weapons fire. The young guard with the machine gun exchanged a look with Lavar. Lavar told the guard to go upstairs to see what was going on, then stepped forward and put the barrel of his pistol against the side of my head. “Put your face against the wall, NOW!”
I did as he asked, pressing my cheek against the cool, smooth wall. He pushed the gun barrel into the hollow space below my ear. “You move,” he said, “you’ll get to meet God right here.” Then he laughed.
Bonnie stared at her clothes on the rack as if she were unsure of what to do with them.
Lavar yelled at Bonnie loud enough to make her jump. “Hey! Sirenita! Take off your damn suit and put your clothes on. NOW!”
Then I heard another staccato sound of automatic gunfire echoing through the tunnel, followed by several booming reports that sounded like cannon fire.
Bonnie seemed to wake halfway from her trance, and pulled off her gloves and hairnet. She moved as slowly as moss swaying in a river current.
“Damn, girl. Get moving,” Lavar said.
Bonnie picked up one of her riding boots with one hand. With her other hand, she reached behind her back for the bow tie that held the paper-thin surgery gown in place.
“She’s wasted,” Lavar hissed under his breath.
“Can’t she just leave her clothes here?” I said. “What difference does it make?”
Lavar jabbed the gun barrel against my neck.
“Shut up!” he said.
“Estupido! Get over here!” Lavar yelled. Bonnie shuffled over towards Lavar. She was still reaching behind her back for the bow-tie knot on her gown.
Lavar grabbed a fistful of the fabric on the front of her gown with his free hand, and then jerked her close enough that their eyes were only inches apart.
“If you don’t change your clothes in the next 30 seconds, I’ll kill your boyfriend and kill you, too.”
I watched as her eyes widened with recognition and her chest swelled with fury. She took a half step back, jerking away from him with revulsion and, in the process, tearing the paper-thin gown from her body. Then she screamed like a wildcat and swung the boot at his head. Lavar jerked to one side like a fighter trying to slip a punch, but the boot heel caught him square on his chin before the boot came free of Bonnie’s grip and sailed across the room. When the boot landed, it connected with the arm of one of the other drug-packing ladies as she scooped product into a measuring cup. A cloud of the powder dispersed into the air.
Lavar said “God Damn.” Then Bonnie came at him hard, her hands cupped like claws, screeching like a banshee. He tried to hold her off with his free hand, but she’d turned into a human tornado, raking her fingernails on his arm and clawing at his face. Lavar slapped her hands away with his free hand, got hold of one of her wrists and tried to restrain her, but she swung her other fist into his crotch.
I heard the air go out of Lavar’s lungs, and he took the gun off my neck but didn’t let go of Bonnie’s arm. Then he swung Bonnie away from him, sending her spinning between two rows of drug-packing tables before she lost her balance and fell headfirst onto the floor. She didn’t even try to get her hands up to arrest her fall. Lavar clutched his genitals in one hand and raised the pistol with the other. He pointed the gun at Bonnie’s crumpled form.
Lavar had his back to me, and I hit him at the base of his neck with a punch harder than any I’d ever thrown. I swung through as if I were trying to connect with something about six inches beyond his spine, and his head popped back like a rag doll’s when I made contact. As he staggered forward, his pistol went off with a deafening boom. The people wearing white suits dropped what they were doing and began running pell-mell for the doorway.
Lavar staggered forward but managed to hold on to the gun. He started to turn in my direction, and I took a quick step and stomp-kicked him with the flat of my foot at the base of his spine. He went down, the gun sliding away from him as he hit the floor. He got on his hands and knees, and began scrambling across the linoleum towards the pistol, but I jumped on his back before he could reach it. The two of us crashed into the legs of one of the nearest tables, rocking it onto one pair of legs before it came to rest again. Then Lavar tried to get to his feet with me riding on his back, and we crashed into the table a second time, this time tipping it over. The trunk-sized container of the drug capsized as it hit the floor, sending a cloud of powder into the air. Lavar was on his stomach beneath me then, laying face-down in several inches of Marco’s powder. I tried to get a forearm under his chin, but his body convulsed and he rolled out from under me. He staggered to his feet and faced me once more.
So much of the drug had adhered to Lavar’s face that it looked like he was wearing a Japanese Kabuki mask. The only part of his skin that wasn’t covered was the scar. He’d gotten the powder in his mouth, his nose, and his eyes.
The air in the room seemed to shimmer and sparkle. Lavar began to throw haymaker punches at the space between us like a bear swatting at honey bees. I charged, tackling him to the floor. I felt lightheaded from the drug I’d inhaled, but I pressed him to the ground, my vision beginning to stipple with silver pinwheels. I straddled his chest and began raining punches down on him. At first he held one hand in front of his face to try to stop the blows. Then his arm dropped to the side and he went completely still.
I felt power growing inside me as I threw the punches, each punch coming from someplace deeper and stronger than the one before. I believed that if I kept punching, eventually my fists would have the force of a wrecking ball, and Lavar’s head would come clean of his torso. I kept swinging, one-two-three-four, like I was counting off pushups on autopilot. Then my visual field began to undulate like a flag in a summer breeze. Lavar’s white Kabuki mask dissolved into a sea of crimson silk, his eyes and mouth disappearing as if his head had submerged beneath blood red waves.
I heard someone calling my name in a dreamy, musical way. Telling me to stop. Telling me to stop again. Then something grabbed my right arm and pulled me off of Lavar before dragging me over to where Bonnie lay on the floor. I sat on the floor beside her, watching vacantly as Bonnie was first wrapped in a faded print dress, and then lifted in a fireman’s carry on the shoulder of a blond-haired woman who resembled a ninja fireplug. Then the fireplug-woman reached down and pulled me to my feet.
“C’mon, Superman,” she said. “You put a beating on Lex Luthor. Party’s over.”
We stepped around crumpled, crimson-stained forms in the tunnel, on the stairs, in the warehouse. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder was heavy in the air. Outside the warehouse half a dozen men and women in white cloth stood shivering in the cold. It looked like a surgical team had just stepped outside for a smoke break.
One of the women came over to the car as Sandy lay Bonnie down in the back seat of the Ford.
“Hey,” the lady said. “Should we go back to work now?”
“There’s no boss any more,” Sandy said. “You can do whatever the hell you want.”
Sandy helped me get into the passenger seat and then went behind the car to come around to the driver’s seat.
The lady in the surgery suit came over to the driver’s window.
“What are we supposed to do now?” she asked.
“Run for it,” Sandy said. “I’m setting you free.”
The next day I was sitting in a hospital chair beside Bonnie’s bed. This chair had orange vinyl covering, brown plastic armrests with most of the wood pattern worn off, chrome legs, and a seat cushion that had been flattened by a thousand other worried hospital visitors before I sat on it. I was grateful to be alive, though. Sandy had checked Bonnie into the hospital, kept me under observation at her own house until I came down from my exposure to Marco’s drugs, and then tossed me the keys to my car.
“Go see Bonnie at the hospital,” Sandy had told me. “I’ll be here if you need me.”
“What are we going to do about Marco?” I asked.
“Eric will be back soon. Let’s wait until he gets here before we push the button down, okay?”
“I’m not going to look over my shoulder the rest of my life,” I said.
“Understood, bubba. Me neither.”
I’d driven over to the hospital and sat all night in the chair beside Bonnie’s bed.
Bonnie’s arm hung limply over the edge of the mattress. She still had the nail polish on that she’d applied when we were together in Cannon Beach. I held her fingers in my hand, waiting for her to turn back into the person she used to be.
Finally I’d asked one of the nurses why Bonnie didn’t wake up.
The nurse shrugged. “Could be several things: accumulated stress, lack of sleep, the MDMA and coke in her body, the concussion. Her vital signs actually look good. Don’t give up on her, okay? She’s going to need you when she snaps out of it.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll be around.”
That night I went to the El Paso airport. I’d gotten the address of Marco’s hangar from the list of properties that Eric had given Sandy, and the hangar wasn’t hard to find. I left the car in a parking lot within walking distance of the hangar but outside the airport grounds. I strolled over to the exit gate closest to the hangar, ducked under the retractable arm that kept people like me from driving onto the airport grounds, and shuffled over to the hangar as if I belonged there.
The hangar was tall and wide, with giant double-doors locked with a new padlock that had a shackle on it nearly as thick as my thumb. I wasn’t there to steal the plane, though. I just wanted to get a look at it. I walked around the hangar and found a steel door built into the side of the hangar. The only lock on the door was built into the doorknob, and I was able to slide the blade of a screwdriver into the crack between the door and the doorframe to force the latch back into the doorknob. It took a couple of minutes, but I gradually forced back enough of the latch that it came free of the strike plate and the door opened. I found the light switch just inside the door and turned it on.
Marco’s airplane gleamed in the hangar lights. He’d had it painted gloss black with a red cross emblazoned on the vertical stabilizer. The paint job turned a beautiful piece of machinery into a billboard advertising the owner’s wealth, power, and brand.
There was a set of metal stairs on wheels at the back of the hangar that could be rolled over to the aircraft for reaching an engine or getting onto the wings. I pushed the stairs to the front of the left wing surface and climbed up to where I could reach the gas tank fill panel. I pushed the button on the fill panel and it popped open on a hinged spring, exposing the fuel nozzle. I hesitated, but only for a moment. I rested my backpack on the wing surface and got out the plastic funnel and the small gardening shovel I’d brought. Then I inserted the funnel in the fuel nozzle and began scooping sand. When I’d scooped about five pounds of sand into the funnel, I closed the fill panel, wiped the surface clean with a rag, and moved on to the other side of the plane. Once I’d finished, I rolled the stairs back over to where I’d found them, shut off the lights in the hangar, and let myself out.
The following afternoon, I took the twisting road from El Paso towards the base of the Wyler Aerial tramway. The pavement snaked back and forth, affording impressive views of El Paso as it climbed the side of Franklin Mountain before terminating at a parking lot where people board the tram. The parking lot was nearly empty when I arrived. I paid eight dollars for a ticket and got onto one of the small orange tramway cars for a solo ride to the top. As the car ascended, I looked back towards El Paso, where I’d first met Bonnie and where she now lay unconscious in a hospital bed. I wondered how long she’d sleep, whether she’d be okay when she awoke, and whether she’d be able to forgive me for involving her in my war with Marco’s people.
A few minutes and a thousand feet of elevation later, the tram slowed and bumped to a stop at the top of Ranger Peak. A park attendant opened the tram door, and I stepped out into the sunshine. I made my way out onto the viewing platform where there were several yellow metal benches and a coin-operated telescope. It was a sunny, clear, cool afternoon. Fifty degrees and almost no wind at all. Picnic weather. It was the kind of day that makes you glad you’re alive.
I pulled out my burner phone for the final time and dialed Marco’s number.
“I contacted the FBI, Marco. I told them everything. About the drugs, the tunnel, the killers you use to intimidate and murder witnesses. They’re coming after you.”
“We had a deal,” Marco said. “You broke it when your friend shot up the warehouse. Now you’re dead.”
“Lavar tried to kill Bonnie and me,” I said. “Was that part of the deal?”
“It wasn’t supposed to go that far. Lavar was supposed to let you both leave after he knocked you around enough to even the score.”
“Well, Marco, whatever plans you had before; I’d make a new one. The FBI is getting search warrants for your properties, and they’re going to kick down your front door as soon as they have ‘em. Been nice knowing you.”
I tossed the phone into a nearby trash can.
I had some time to kill, so I walked out onto the Thousand Steps trail and found a rock to lean against. I tipped my head back and closed my eyes, letting the sunlight flood through my eyelids. It was too late to turn back now.
I don’t usually smoke, but I’d brought a pack of Marlboros with me and lit one. I took two or three long pulls on the cigarette, feeling the nicotine flood my system. An old Rolling Stones song, “Sympathy for the Devil” started running through my head. I reached into my backpack and brought out the small bottle of W. L. Weller Kentucky Bourbon. The liquor glowed in the sunshine like an amber Christmas tree light. I lifted the bottle in a salute to the sun before taking a long draw off the bottle. The pleasant burn of the alcohol returned like an old friend.
I could have sat there and finished the bottle, but I had work to do.
I reached into the backpack for the Celestron binoculars that Sandy had left in my car, then pulled my knees in close to my chest and rested the binoculars across my knee caps. It took a minute to get the binoculars focused and oriented on the hangar where Marco kept his new airplane, but I managed it okay. Marco’s gold Ferrari was already parked off to the side of the hangar, and the plane was taxiing towards the runway. Marco had taken the bait and was trying to escape in his new toy.
The airplane held position at the end of the taxiway briefly, then launched forward with tremendous acceleration. Halfway down the runway, it lifted from the pavement in one beautiful, miraculous moment before the nose of the plane tipped skyward, the wheels retracted into the underside of the wings, and the plane began its ascent. As it climbed, the plane began a slow, lazy arc towards the south, towards the Mexican border. As the aircraft neared Franklin Mountain, the roar of the airplane’s twin engines overwhelmed the humming of the tramway motor and the sounds of El Paso below. Then the roar of the airplane’s twin engines was silenced.
Suddenly, Marco’s airplane began a sharp U-turn back towards the airport. With just a few hundred feet separating the plane and the mountainside, the shiny black torpedo went into a stall without enough altitude to use to recover from the stall. I watched as the airplane descended and slammed into the side of Franklin Mountain not far from where I’d boarded the tramway. A giant fireball blossomed from the wreckage, followed by a concussive thud that might have knocked me off my feet if I’d been standing.
It became very quiet on Ranger Peak again. My world collapsed down to the sand, the rocks, the sun, and the breeze blowing across the Thousand Steps trail. I took a final pull of Weller’s from the bottle and screwed the top on tightly before putting the bottle back in the backpack with the binoculars. Waste not, want not.
It was a long walk down, but the view made it all worthwhile. Ambulances and fire trucks raced towards Franklin Mountain with sirens wailing and rooftop strobe lights flashing. A plume of grey smoke drifted skyward from the flames engulfing the wreckage of Marco’s airplane.
The hospital bed creaked, and then Bonnie’s head turned on the pillow to look in my direction. She looked at me like I was a piece of furniture at first, then her focus seemed to change and I knew that she’d recognized me.
“You came for me,” she said quietly as a whisper. A tear welled in the corner of her eye.
“You knew that I would.”
I got up from the chair and went to the side of her bed. I put my cheek against hers.
“I was so scared,” she said.
“They told me if I didn’t do what they said; they’d kill me and kill you, too.”
“They made me take that powder. I don’t remember much after that. It was like a nightmare where you’re trapped in your body but can’t move on your own. I know that I did things, terrible things. I wanted to die.”
She cried for a while after that and became still again. I went back to the bedside chair, thinking that she’d fallen asleep. Then she shifted her position in the bed and forced her body into an upright position.
“Are you sure you can sit up?” I asked.
“Pretty sure,” she said. She slid her feet out from under the sheet. She was wearing a paper-thin hospital gown with small sunflowers printed on it. I stood and rested a hand on her shoulder to try to keep her from getting out of bed.
“Seriously,” I said. “You should lie back down.”
“Let me do this,” she said. “Please. I need to.”
She put her feet on the floor and leaned her backside against the frame of the hospital bed.
“This gown is horrible, isn’t it?” she said.
I nodded again. “You take sunflowers to a new level of style, though.”
She gave me the faintest hint of the crooked smile.
“As fetching as that hospital gown is,” I said, “I thought you might want to change into something else. I brought your suitcase with me. You left it at the house on the beach.”
Her lower lip trembled and she began to cry again.
I popped open the suitcase at the foot of the mattress where the blankets and sheets had bunched together.
Bonnie was looking at the floor. “Do you love me?” she asked.
“Of course I love you.”
She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrist.
“Okay,” she said. “Okay.”
I took her hand and held it. I kissed the silk-smooth skin on the back of her hand.
“You and me, kid,” I said. “We’re going to see the world.”
She gave me the crooked smile again, a little bigger this time.
She had an ugly bruise on her forearm where Lavar had grabbed her and swung her across the room. I took her arm gently in my hands, covering the bruise with my palm.
“Many bruises can be life-threatening if not treated promptly,” I said.
“Then I think you’d better get started,” she said. “Don’t you?” The crooked smile again, this time more like the way it used to be.
I slid my hand through her glossy back hair and cupped her neck with my palm, feeling the heat of her skin. I looked into her jade green eyes before taking her in my arms. I felt a sense of weightlessness and then falling as I offered a trade to the universe: everything that I had or would ever have in exchange for keeping Bonnie safe.
It was a sensation not unlike stepping into a pool and wading towards the deep end: as the water rises to your knees, your hips, your throat, and finally your eyes, you know that you’re at the edge of a different world you couldn’t see before. Then you submerge and realize that there is a better world, really, where all that matters is that moment of perfect clarity and sensation and letting go of everything that came before. In that instant all the needs and cares and pain fall away, completely forgotten.
I took a deep breath. And went all the way under.
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Discover Other Titles by David Kearns
All The Way Down
Coming Soon From David Kearns
All The Way Back
Eric Fullmeyer and I were on the deck of the small house I rented in Oceanside, Oregon. The wood was a funky blue color and needed re-painting, but the Rhododendrons encircling the porch were in full bloom, with purple and pink star-shaped flowers visible in the fading evening light. I had Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” on the turntable in the living room, and strains of jazz carried through the sliding screen door onto the porch.
“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 the Oceanside beach, and even if the house was small, old, and run-down, the views from the living room and deck were glorious. There was a ribbon of white 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 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 had on a thin black leather coat, a grey button down 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. He looked like someone who could change a car tire without using a jack. 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 carried a gun. I think he could probably tear someone’s arms off if he needed to.
It was very quiet on the deck. The air was so still that it felt as if the world was holding its breath.
“Have you heard anything from Bonnie?” I asked. Eric was my connection with the Federal Marshal’s service and the witness protection program. I’m not in the program, but I know people who are. Bonnie is now one of them.
Eric looked away. He shifted his position as if he were uncomfortable, and then 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.”
“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 going into the program was worth it, then,” I said. “If that’s what it took to keep her safe.”
“Have you had any issues?” 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 hunted, fired, 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 late spring, and in the waning evening light a cold breeze passed over the deck. He popped the collar on his leather coat and zipped it up.
“I’m getting another beer,” I said. “You want one?”
“No. I’m fine, thanks.”
I went inside, flipped the vinyl record on the turntable, and got another Laurelwood IPA from the refrigerator. The worn oak flooring gave off a mellow glow from the low-wattage bulbs in the faux hurricane lamps. The royal blue wall paint left behind by a previous tenant looked almost passable against the beige Formica countertop. The threadbare sofa looked welcoming in the dim light instead of beaten-down as it did during daylight hours. I looked out through the picture window that formed the south wall of the living room and saw the running lights on a shrimp boat in the distance. I had the feeling that the world had been put right again, just for a moment. Good things could still happen.
I flipped the light switch by the screen door, illuminating the Christmas lights I’d strung above the deck on small wires stretched between the roof and decking posts. It made the deck look almost festive. Eric was sliding his phone into his coat pocket when I stepped outside. He waited until I was back 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 keeping an eye on.”
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
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 your problem, but I don’t know how I could help.”
Eric rubbed at his beard, deep in thought. “I think she’s not that far from becoming unstable, Delorean. 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.”
“Understood, but you can’t force her to stay in the program. If she leaves and something happens to her, isn’t that on her?”
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. Whether she’s actually in danger I don’t know. She certainly thinks she is. This week she adopted a Doberman from the animal shelter, and I just found out that she’s applied for a firearms carry permit.”
I laughed. “Let me just recap. She thinks she’s in danger but WITSEC thinks she isn’t. You offer to move her anyway. She’s mad that you’re not taking her seriously, she refuses to relocate, and now she has a guard dog, a gun, and an attitude. So far I like her style. Maybe we’re soul mates.”
Eric’s frown turned into a scowl. If we were in a cartoon, I think smoke would have been coming out of his ears.
“It’s a little different for you, Delorean. You have a track record of being able to deal with threats.”
“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 in it when it went up,” 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? Wait for them to come after you again? Go out in a blaze of glory?”
“I’m not suicidal, Eric. I’m just tired of looking over my shoulder. It’s inevitable that they’ll try again. I plan to settle the score with them when they do.”
“All by yourself, huh? I hope it plays out that way.”
“Me, too, Eric. What do you want me to do about your lady with the stalkers?”
“This lady only lives ten miles from here, in Tillamook. I told her that 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, which is extremely unlikely, 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 check on her?”
“I told her. She’ll be expecting you.”
“And what will she be expecting?”
“I told her that you’re smart, tough, 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 a nails,” I said.
“Battle tested,” Eric said. “To be sure.”
“A man without equals,” I said.
“Captain of the brass balls battalion,” Eric said.
“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?”
“Suppose 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.”
“You got it,” I said.
“This is her,” Eric said. “Emily French. She works at the Tillamook Creamery Cafe in the ice cream line.”
He pulled out a laminated 3 by 5 inch picture from his coat pocket and slid it across the picnic table to me. The picture was of a leggy blonde in a lemon yellow summer dress. She had on round, mirrored glasses and wore blood-red lipstick. She reclined on a green beach towel with a sand dune behind her, and was talking to whoever held the camera. The wind had caught her shoulder-length hair and pulled it away from her face, revealing perfect skin, a soft chin, and a smooth, rounded nose. Bright smile, perfect white teeth. I bet she got noticed wherever she went.
“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?” I asked.
“She took the job at Tillamook Creamery over my objections. I wanted her to work in the back room of the post office. And yes, it has occurred to me that someone is following her because she’s attractive.”
I let out a long breath. “Okay. I’ll try. Do you have an address? Work schedule? Anyone she’s dated or turned down for a date? Information about where and when she thought she was followed or watched? Details about why she went into WITSEC to begin with?”
“You know that I can’t tell you why she went into the program. The rest of it I can get you by tomorrow afternoon.”
We sat at the table for a minute or two in silence, watching the afterglow of the sunset over the Pacific. Stars began to appear and then brightened against the night sky, shining like silver against black velvet. The air smelled of moss, saltwater, and wood smoke. A small fire was burning down at the beach. A few people were circled around the fire, 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 rollercoaster that had just made a sharp and unexpected turn. I had the sensation of my stomach trying to force itself into my throat.
“Why are you bringing that up?” I said.
“You never talk about what happened. I know 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 about a quarter mile from where your parents were killed.”
I swallowed hard. “And?” I said.
“A credit card found with the body points to someone who was a leg breaker 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 .357 magnum. The other was a Colt Model 1911 .45 caliber automatic. The serial number on the Colt was traced back to your father’s service unit in the army. Seems reasonable that your father brought the pistol home when he mustered out. That ties the gun and the body to your parent’s home invasion.”
I was reeling, just trying to digest the news.
“Any theories about why this guy would be buried in your backyard?” Eric asked.
“No. I don’t have any theories. What you’re telling me doesn’t make any sense.”
“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 dad’s gun, then wandered over to the oil well, had a disagreement, and the leg breaker, who was six and a half feet tall by the way and had a .357 magnum, gets put in the ground. I can’t think of a good reason why it would it happen like that.”
“I can’t either. 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 thinks he worked for a loan shark back then who has since turned himself into a money launderer on a massive scale.”
“Are you going to give me a name?”
“Anthony Peck,” Eric said.
“The guy building the casino?”
“Right. The money behind the Gold Beach casino going in at Astoria.”
“It really is a small world, isn’t it?”
“Six degrees of separation, and all that,” Eric said.
“To think that I might actually get closure after all this time.”
The album was between songs. You could hear the whisper of the surf against the shore. Seagulls gliding on the onshore breeze called to each other.
“Two things to know,” Eric said. “One: Stay away from Peck. He’s dangerous and extremely well connected. Two: The detective working the case in Oklahoma City has a reputation for being a bulldog. He’s going to want to interview you about your parents.”
“Before or after I have a discussion with Anthony Peck?”
“I just told you to stay away from Peck. He’s big-time, Delorean. I can’t protect you from him.”
“I’ve always liked a challenge, Eric. And you knew before you told me about him that I’d track him down and peel him like a grape. Right?”
“I hoped that if I talked to you about it first I could keep you from going off half-cocked. Peck has senators and congressmen in his back pocket. He can make trouble for you like you’ve never seen. You’ll probably hear 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 interviewing Anthony Peck, too.”
“He’s communicating with Peck’s attorney. Apparently Peck’s schedule is very tight.”
“So is mine. I planned to paint the deck if the weather stays dry. You probably noticed that the paint is peeling.”
“If Eccles says he’s going to interview Peck, it’ll happen.”
“Maybe I can tag along when he talks to Peck. That would be fun.”
“Can you try not to be such an asshole?”
“Discretion is my middle name,” I said.
Eric let out a long sigh. “Unlikely,” he said.
“Like a grape,” I said.
The moon and pinpoints of stars lit the ocean with a grey-blue shine. The rhododendron blossoms, deprived of sunlight, had reverted to grey.
“Okay,” I said. “What do you expect me to do?”
“Let Eccles run this down. If Peck’s connected to what happened to your parents, Eccles will get him.”
“If Peck was behind what happened to my parents, and Eccles can’t make it stick, all bets are off,” I said. “I’ll bury him regardless of how well-connected he is.”
“Understood,” Eric said. “In the meanwhile, just help me with the lady, okay? Do something constructive.”
The second in the Delorean Harper series. Delorean Harper has a gym bag full of cash, a new identity, a cabin on the Oregon coast, and a beautiful girlfriend. He also has a small army of assassins on his trail. What his hunters don’t know is that Delorean had his first encounter with a killer when he was twelve years old, and he hasn't forgotten how to take care of himself in a fight to the death. Rejected by the government witness security program for being dangerous and unstable, Delorean is on his own against an El Paso drug cartel who wants to punish him for testifying against one of their top lieutenants. Delorean gets assistance from a sympathetic federal marshal, Eric Fullmeyer, who offers Delorean a new identity and place to live if he'll agree to leave town without starting a shooting war with the cartel. After a heated confrontation in an El Paso bar with a pair of cartel killers, Delorean agrees to Eric Fullmeyer's offer, and Delorean escapes to a remote Oregon beach town to shake the cartel from his trail. He isn't there long before he's asked by Eric Fullmeyer to protect Bonnie, a beautiful woman who has her own problems with the cartel. Keeping her safe isn't easy - the cartel's relentless hunters know Delorean's moves so well that he suspects that the federal marshals are leaking information about his location. As professional killers track Delorean and Bonnie through snowy forests, in small towns, and on isolated beaches, Delorean is forced to become as ruthless as the cartel assassins just to stay alive. This isn't the first time he's had to defend himself against hired killers, though, and he knows how to fight dirty to keep himself and his girlfriend alive. Eventually Delorean's luck runs out when he's ambushed on a secluded beach and Bonnie is kidnapped by the cartel. She's taken back to El Paso and held for ransom. The price of her freedom: Delorean's life. If he wants her back, Delorean's going to have to go to war with the cartel on their home turf of El Paso. Delorean likes his odds. He knows that the most dangerous creation of society is the man who has nothing left to lose.