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Bakersfield

 

Bakersfield

Steve Stroble

Bakersfield, copyright c 2017 Stroble Family Trust. All rights reserved.

Cover painting by Dave Rodrigues, [email protected]

Formatted by Polgarus Studio.

This book is a work of fiction. All people, places, events, and situations are the product of the writer’s imagination. Any resemblance of them to actual persons, living or dead, places, events, and situations is purely coincidental.

Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright c 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Publishing House. All rights reserved. The “NIV” and “New International Version” trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by International Bible Society. Use of either trademark requires the permission of International Bible Society.

Table of Contents

1

2

3

4

5

6

7

8

9

10

11

12

13

14

15

16

Acknowledgments

1

Not until Wayne Sundowner’s sixth beer did he wonder whether his best friend was dead.

“Hey, Larry, what’s wrong?” Wayne shook the chubby boy, whose shirt and the sand on which he lay reeked of vomit. Wayne rubbed some of the gooey mess from his hands onto his pants.

Dizziness and rhythmic waves hitting Redondo Beach pulled him downward onto the sand. A half hour later, a police officer’s flashlight opened his eyes.

“It’s sunrise already? Wow, is Mom going to be mad.” Wayne sat up. A powerful hand lifted him to his feet as another pointed the flashlight’s beam at his friend.

“Help me lift your buddy up off the ground.”

Wayne obeyed.

Then he and the cop dragged Larry to a black Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser, its rooftop lights flashing a hypnotic rhythm. The stench of Larry’s vomit filled the policeman’s car and nostrils. He radioed his dispatcher.

“This is unit one five. I have two publicly intoxicated white males and am en-route to the station with them.”

Thick shatter proof glass protected the cop from those he transported. The missing door handles and window controls in the backseat compartment protected any who rode in it from themselves.

  • * *

The desk sergeant shook his head and handed Larry’s driver’s license to an assistant. “This one’s eighteen. Go ahead and process him.”

A black police officer helped Larry to his feet. “You want to stop off at the restroom to wash up a little bit?”

“You sure look beautiful,” Larry said. “Can we go out on a date? It’s on me. What’s your name?”

“Let’s go.” She supported him as he caromed off walls along the hallway. “If I went on a date with you then my boyfriend would probably beat you up and I’d have to arrest him.”

The sergeant tapped Wayne’s license on his desk. “Since you’re only seventeen, I can release you into a parent’s or guardian’s custody.”

Wayne pulled his phone from his torn shirt. “I’ll call my mom.”

  • * *

As Sandra Sundowner entered the front entrance of the police station, she decided to gamble, more from weariness and desperation than hope, which she claimed had abandoned her long ago. Stone faced, she ignored her son and walked straight to the desk sergeant.

“I give up. I’ve done everything that I can think of to get Wayne to grow up. You’re going to have to keep him. Maybe that will finally straighten him out.” She shrugged. “I’m sorry if that sounds like I’m copping out to you.”

She turned to avoid Wayne’s stunned expression. Somehow, Sandra kept her tears hidden until she was back outside in a Southern California breeze blowing in from the Pacific. Halfway to her car, she turned around and began walking back to the police station. Ten feet from its door, the one-way conversation between another mother and her daughter as they exited the building stopped Sandra.

“Just wait until your father finds out, young lady,” the mother said.

Sandra sighed and did another about face to return to her car and then home. She remembered when her husband had cut the umbilical cord that had fed Wayne for nine months. Now, it felt as if some kind of psychic umbilical cord, one that had linked their souls since his conception, had been severed forever between her and Wayne.

Maybe Wayne’s father was right that it would have been better if Wayne had never been born. That thought added guilt to the mother’s pain.

Inside the station, scenes of movies with juvenile delinquents being sentenced into a system of no return spun in Wayne’s mind. Maintaining his who cares expression now seemed irrelevant. The desk sergeant interrupted his thoughts.

“Look kid, I don’t want you to go from just another dumb punk to troublemaker to some statistic in the criminal justice system. I probably shouldn’t do this, but isn’t there someone else you can call?”

2

Grandma Cathy Helm’s phone rang sixteen times before she answered it in her kitchen because she knew calls this time of night too often meant drama, most often the kind that comes with having generations to watch over. Waking up and waiting for a neighbor to serve as her driver took a quarter hour. Traveling the 238-mile round trip to fetch the grandson she had not seen in years would last more than four hours.

Lord, help me to keep quiet, Grandma Cathy prayed silently as Wayne sat down in her car and rested his head on the rear seat’s headrest.

An hour later, he still pretended to sleep as they descended from the 4,144 foot elevation of the Tejon Pass to the Central Valley. As a child, he had enjoyed Bakersfield and relatives such as Grandma Cathy. But after being told it was inhabited by Republicans, white supremacists, survivalist preppers, and domestic terrorists, Wayne had severed his connections to the city.

It was 2:32 a.m. by the time the three returned to Grandma Cathy’s wood framed home.

“Going over the Grape Vine twice in one night is two times too many for my old bones,” said Grandma Cathy as she shuffled up a cracked sidewalk to her front door. “Good night, boys. Don’t stay out here too late.”

“I’ll be there in a minute, Grandma,” Wayne said. He turned to the yawning neighbor. “Thanks, Tony, for driving Grandma all the way down to L.A. to pick me up. I owe you since you kept me out of juvenile hall or wherever it is they send you off to nowadays just because you like to party a little bit.”

“No problem, hombre. I drive her around a lot at night because she can’t see too well once it gets dark. Well, guess I should be…”

Tony’s widened eyes and interrupted sentence jerked Wayne’s head sideways to see a slowing yellow Chevy Impala, built when such vehicles were called muscle cars. Its passenger’s sneer and the weapon pointed at him drained the strength from Wayne’s knees and thighs. A high pitched squeal escaped from his throat.

Gunfire and Wayne’s sudden sensation of falling face down on the lawn convinced him that he had been shot.

He wondered why Tony lay on top of him, whether he was dead or mortally wounded. Wayne tried to push Tony’s 164 pounds off of him.

“Stay down, dude!” Tony resisted Wayne’s shoves.

“Are you hit? Are you hit? I think I am.”

“Just stay down.”

When the car rolled to a stop a half block from them, Tony rose to his hands and knees. “Run! Come on.”

As he pulled Wayne to his feet, the slamming screen door on Grandma Cathy’s front porch turned their heads. The first shot from her 12-guage home security shotgun froze Wayne. Tony scrambled behind the front yard’s lone tree, a dogwood. “Over here, Wayne. Hurry up.”

The two who had exited the Impala stopped their march toward their target.

“That first one was just a warning shot,” Grandma Cathy yelled at them. “The next ones are all aimed at your heads.” She lowered her weapon’s barrel half a foot.

The invaders into her neighborhood cursed in Spanish and ran for their customized car. Its doors slammed shut and the low rider’s engine roared, but before the four narrow tires spun smoke, another warning shot of buckshot shattered its right rear taillight. Grandma Cathy muttered as she walked from the sidewalk to her front porch. “You can come on out now, boys.”

Tony emerged from hiding first. “Good shooting. They won’t be back, at least not tonight,” he yelled to Grandma Cathy. He turned to Wayne, whose arms trembled as he tried to remove dust and wrinkles from sweat soaked clothing. “Welcome to Bakersfield, esse.”

“Are you a Sureno or Norteno? Is that why those guys just tried to –” Tony’s glare caused Wayne’s thighs to weaken again and question to end.

“Just because Bakersfield is the boundary line between the Sureno and Norteno gangs doesn’t automatically mean I belong to either one of them.”

“Sorry, man. I mean, if you’re in the Mexican Mafia or Nuestra Familia or Latin Kings instead, I…uh…didn’t mean no disrespect.” Wayne stared at the tattoo on Tony’s forearm, a coiled rattlesnake made lifelike by dozens of tiny, three dimensional appearing shiny scales and long sharp fangs dripping with blood and venom. Its rattles seemed to undulate, even in the faint glow of a streetlight. The reptile looked anxious to inject poison into any venturing too close to its owner.

Tony shook his head. “And just because my skin is brown does not mean I automatically belong to a gang. Comprende, Senor?

“Uh, I was wondering about your tattoo, not the color of your skin, dude. I thought it showed which gang that you belong to, that’s all.”

Tony laughed. “That? I just got it put on to impress girls.” Tony sang as he walked next door to his home:

Por ti sere, por ti sere, por ti sere

Bamba, bamba

Bamba, bamba

Bamba, bamba

At his doorstep, Tony yelled a translation to Wayne:

For you I will be, for you I will be, for you I will be

Bamba, bamba

Bamba, bamba

Bamba, bamba

  • * *

Terrified neighbors dialing 911 brought two police cruisers to the crime scene within eight minutes.

The two officers nodded to each other and went about their job of trying to piece together what had happened by distilling accounts from any witnesses who cooperated. The first one on scene questioned Grandma Cathy. The second one hunted for evidence, her search narrowed by a pointing Wayne Sundowner.

The police officer marking, photographing, and then bagging shell casings walked over to Wayne. “Thank you for your help. Now I just have a few questions.”

“Sure.”

“Was anyone with you when they fired their weapon or weapons at you? We won’t know how many guns were fired until the lab takes a look at these.” She held up the envelope containing the five shells she had found.

“Uh, does it matter if I was alone or not?” Wayne fidgeted.

“Yes. It will help us to possibly get a lead on what motivated the shooters.”

Wayne stared at his worn out running shoes.

“Look, I could be calling for a body bag for you right now. How about helping us out here so maybe we can arrest the bad guys before somebody really does end up dead and in a body bag?”

“All right. My grandma’s neighbor was standing out here with me when those gang bangers drove by and tried to kill us.”

“Which house does the neighbor live in?”

Wayne pointed at the yellow stuccoed house. He thought he saw one of its curtains wiggle as the officer thanked him and walked toward it.

She had to wait two minutes before a yawning girl answered its front door. “Hello, I’m Officer Tanger. We have a witness out here that says someone in this house was standing with him when shots were fired at them.”

The girl shrugged. “Sorry. He must be mistaken. There’s no one here like that.”

The officer sighed because she had twice that shift already endured the unwritten code of silence that ruled too many of Bakersfield’s neighborhoods. “Okay. Here’s my card just in case you or anyone else remembers something.” She tried to hand it to her, but a shutting door caused her to re-pocket the card. Just another person too scared to get involved, the cop thought as she walked over to see if her partner was having any better luck.

“So you shot out the right rear taillight of the suspects’ car with your shotgun, ma’am?” He looked up from his notebook. A twenty-four year veteran of police work, he still scribbled answers to his questions onto a small paper pad and swore he would retire if the department ever required him to use what he called those dumb electronic gadgets when he was out on scene trying to separate the public’s too often overripe imagination or hidden agendas from reality.

“That’s right,” Grandma Cathy said. “You two should be out looking for that car instead of standing around here. By now, those criminals might be shooting at someone else for all we know.”

Smuggled out of Vietnam as a child when his parents had fled their homeland in 1978, the policeman shrugged, a habit displayed when someone who had never been in law enforcement told him how to do his job. He handed his partner his notebook. “Go ahead and call in that description of the suspects’ car that I wrote down. She said she fired her shotgun twice while standing here in the yard so there’s probably still some evidence on the grass.”

“Okay.”

He turned back to Grandma Cathy. “Would you mind if I came inside to see the weapon that you used, ma’am?”

“Follow me.” Grandma Cathy led him to her living room, where she picked up her shotgun from a worn couch and handed it to him.

“Thank you.” The officer ejected the weapon’s remaining four shotgun shells onto the couch and then placed them in a large manila envelope. “I’m going to have to take you downtown on a charge of discharging a weapon within the city limits.”

“But I was just protecting my grandson Wayne and neighbor Tony from those morons who were going to kill them. If I hadn’t done what I did, then one or both of them would probably be dead right now.” The officer’s weary face stopped her objection. “I’ll go get my purse.”

When Wayne saw his grandmother slide into the rear of the police cruiser, he ran to its side and yelled through the closed rear window. “What should I do, Grandma?”

“Go next door and get Tony. My car hasn’t been running too well and I don’t want it breaking down on you in the middle of the night downtown somewhere. It’s not safe. Besides, you don’t know your way around Bakersfield good enough. It’s grown like crazy since you last visited.”

Wayne watched the vehicle drive off and the other police car return to its beat to answer a domestic disturbance call from the dispatcher. He walked next door and pressed the doorbell four times before he heard three deadbolts sliding from the metal door’s frame. A girl his height stared at him as if he were a boyfriend she had broken up with and never wanted to see again.

“I’m the one that almost got killed with Tony. I’ve got to talk with him.” Wayne’s eyes traveled from her dark eyes and hair, down her long white robe, and back again. Her frown made him wonder if she objected to his request or stare. “Please.”

“Wait here.”

Wayne turned on the doorstep as he heard a single deadbolt relock the door. The last of Grandma Cathy’s neighbors had returned home. Now, the block seemed peaceful as the chirps of crickets replaced the fearful conversations generated by the crime. No breeze cooled the previous day’s residual heat from a 114 degree high temperature.

Exhausted, Wayne sat on the porch, his legs stretched out on the sidewalk, his arms supporting his upper body. He remembered Tony’s words of welcome to Bakersfield, and wondered why his welcome had declined into the aloofness of one now acting like a scared rabbit.

“Here. Tony said you should call this number.”

Wayne jumped up and turned in the same motion, which tangled his feet and propelled him forward. He landed in the girl’s muscular arms. Her warmth and body left him unsure of whether to apologize for his clumsiness or try one of the lines he had memorized to impress females. Before he could decide, she pushed his limp body a safe distance from her charms.

“Boy, you sure have a way of asking a girl to dance.” Her wilting laughter relaxed him. “I bet you’re still scared because of getting shot at. What’s the matter, don’t the gangsters down in L.A. ever shoot at you? You’re white enough that you make a really good target at night, pobre chico.”

“Uh…”

“Nevermind, just call this number.” She handed Wayne a slip of paper. “Rex will help you out.”

“Thanks.”

She glanced over her shoulder. “And don’t bother us any more tonight. Tony said he doesn’t like having to tell me to get up out of bed to keep answering the door because it wakes him up.”

The door shut.

Out of bed? Wayne thought as he returned to Grandma Cathy’s kitchen. That girl must be Tony’s girlfriend. She’s beautiful. He studied his forearms. Maybe Tony can take me to the artist who tattooed that snake on his arm.

  • * *

Rex Lafyte’s fourth REM sleep of the night included a dream of him walking through the most beautiful forest he had ever experienced. His ringing cellphone added the sound of a bird chirping from some hidden spot in the imaginary woodlands. He groaned when the ringtone fully awoke him.

“Only one person could be calling this time of night.” He glanced at the luminescent dial of the wind up alarm clock that read 3:57 a.m. and then grabbed the phone. The number displayed on its screen looked unfamiliar. But he answered it because the caller might have news of his mother’s death.

“Hello?”

“Is Rex there? Tony gave me his number.”

Rex yawned. “Tony who? And who are you?”

“Uh, I don’t remember his last name. He lives next door to my Grandma Cathy Helm.”

Rex sat up against the metal headboard handed down through six generations of Lafytes. “Cathy Helm? Is she okay? What’s wrong?”

Wayne gave a condensed version of the last hour and a half’s drama, with his emphasis on his grandmother’s heroics.

“Okay, man. I live outside of town so it’ll take me a while to get there. Lock all the doors there, just in case they come back. Ever since Tony’s brother quit his gang, some of the members have been pissed off enough that they’re taking it out on Tony. What a bunch of losers.”

Rex dressed in a hurry as he thought of Grandma Cathy, who had become more of a mother for him than his natural one.

  • * *

Wayne had showered and was sitting next to the front window of Grandma Cathy’s home when Rex drove into her driveway. His dented, patched, and multi-colored Toyota pickup looked unimpressive. Rex’s dirty blond hair, no more than an eighth-inch long, blue eyes that showed little sign of life hiding in deep sockets, and five days’ worth of stubble on his face looked scary to Wayne.

Must be some kind of peckerwood gang member, Wayne thought. I bet his gang only shaves once a month so they can recognize each other without having to flash any gang signs. He rolled down the window of the passenger side of the pickup’s lone seat because of the eighty-two degree air and Rex’s body odor.

“If I had known you were going to take a shower, I would have too,” Rex said. “Smells like you used some of your grandma’s shampoo.” He chuckled as he backed his truck out of the driveway and pointed it toward the police station. “So where are you from?”

“Garden Grove.”

“What brings you up here to Bakersfield?”

Wayne described his night of partying on Redondo Beach, exaggerating details in hopes of impressing him.

“Can’t hold your liquor, huh? Maybe you shouldn’t be partying so hard. Besides, eventually it’ll eat away your liver and brain.”

His long night of no sleep caused Wayne’s thoughts to become words. “Who are you to be preaching at me? You’re just another skinhead from Bakersfield. The way you look and smell, I bet you’ve been awake for days on crank.”

Rex turned off the country song playing on his truck’s radio. “Sounds like you’re a real tough guy. If you were anybody else, I’d just kick you out of the truck right now and let you walk. But since you know Tony, who is my amigo, I consider you a friend of a friend, okay?” He shoved his hand an inch in front of Wayne’s nose.

Wayne jerked his head back and waited until the calloused hand lowered before shaking it.

“That’s better. The way things are panning out for you, it looks like you might be stuck here in Bakersfield for a while. Just in case you plan on staying alive and want to maybe even enjoy your visit here, you want a little friendly advice?”

“I guess so.” Wayne reverted to his I don’t care expression and tone of voice.

“Rule number one: things aren’t always what they seem. Take me, for instance. Why did you say that I’m a skinhead?”

“Because of your really short hair and the way you smell. Everybody knows that anyone using crank or heroin doesn’t take any showers. And you listen to skinhead music.”

“Look, I cut my hair once a year, on my birthday, which is May third, so I can stay cool through the long hot summers here. If I’d met you in April, you probably would have thought I’m an old burned out hippie because my hair is longest then. In case you’re wondering, that makes me fifty-five years old.” Rex sniffed the dry, hot air. “You’re right about me being pretty ripe. But it’s not because I’m snorting or shooting some kind of illegal white powder into my body. I hauled butt down here so we can get your grandma back home as quick as possible. That meant no time for a shower and smelling all nice and fresh like you do. Besides, the water doesn’t get hot enough to take one until around noon this time of year.”

“Why not?”

“I’m off the grid.”

“What’s that mean?”

“My house has no electricity, no natural gas. I don’t even have a propane tank out at my place.”

Oh great, he’s a survivalist prepper, Wayne thought. I wonder if he carries his loaded guns in the glove compartment or under the seat, even though that’s against the law now.

Rex changed the radio station. When Simple Man by Lynyrd Skynyrd blasted through the speakers a minute later, Rex joined in singing the tale of a mother loving her young son enough to counsel him about finding love, forgetting riches, enduring troubles, and remembering the Lord in heaven above Who watched over him.

When the song ended, Rex slapped the dashboard.

“That’s me to a T. I’m a simple man, Wayne. Maybe the good Lord above sent you here to learn how to grow up and become one, too. Right now, you’re just a complicated boy.”

  • * *

During the ride back from the police station, Wayne squeezed between Grandma Cathy and his new mentor, who had begun his introduction into Surviving Bakersfield, Rex Lafyte’s title for his lecture. So far, Wayne had heard two rules: Things are not always what they seem and TWTTIN, an acronym for that was then, this is now.

Now Wayne listened to a new lecture, one from Grandma Cathy.

“Our country is going to hell on a sled barreling down a steep hill. Since when can’t a woman shoot her lawfully purchased and registered shotgun to protect family and neighbors?”

“I always said you should give up on city life and move out to the country and live at your daughter Eve’s place,” Rex said.

“I helped my George, God rest his soul, build the house we lived in together for fifty-three years. If he could die in it, then so can I.”

Rex whistled. “Women, you can’t live with them and can’t live without them.”

“That’s a fine thing to be saying.” Grandma Cathy’s shaking finger, meant for Rex, only reached as far as Wayne’s face. He pressed the back of his head against the truck’s rear window to avoid its knife like motions. “The good Lord blessed you with a fine, God fearing woman, Rex Lafyte. If you weren’t such a jackass, you would have married Audrey years ago. Like it says in Proverbs, A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies.”

When they arrived home, Wayne did not thank Rex for his help but instead stumbled into Grandma Cathy’s house for an upstairs bedroom.

After blowing an imaginary kiss to his adopted mom, Rex waved to acknowledge Grandma Cathy’s “Thank you,” and put his truck’s transmission into reverse. The sun’s rays peeking over the mountains to the east foretold another hot day, but there was still time for a short nap before starting work.

Rex cursed when his cellphone’s ringtone forced him to pull to the curb. He dreaded the phone number on the phone’s screen. “Hello.”

“It’s me, man. You got to pay up now, man, or I’m dead.”

3

I knew I shouldn’t have borrowed that money from Manny, Rex thought. He’s too reckless and assumes way too much, like I would be able to pay him back in a hurry. He mumbled a phrase he had heard dozens of times from his father, Paul Lafyte.

“Every time you assume something, you make an ass out of you and me.”

Rex looked heavenward toward the father who always seemed to be looking over his shoulder whenever life turned unpleasant. “Looks like Manny probably borrowed money from a loan shark again. You know, Dad, I wish you hadn’t always been too busy to spend time with us kids. Maybe you could have taught me not to do business with fools like Manny.”

As Rex drove through Bakersfield, its buildings turned older and neighborhoods more rundown every few blocks, until he reached the first business that would let him use its pay phone at such an early hour. It sat in the back of a dingy bar, a courtesy to those patrons whose fondness for alcohol rendered them either unable to afford cellphones or remember to bring them when they visited the bar. Because the owner had served Rex and his father for decades, she unlocked the front door.

“Don’t tell me that you need a drink this time of day,” the owner said as she relocked the door. “You know that I don’t open up until noon.”

“Nope. Just need to use your phone.”

“You run out of minutes on your cellphone again?”

“The way things are going, I feel like I’m running out of minutes, period.”

Rex walked to the back and dialed a ten digit number and obeyed the computerized voice by inserting the required change for the first three minutes. A weary sounding voice answered Rex’s call.

“Hello, this is Rodney.”

“Hey, the fish are really biting. I’ll be there in about two hours. Pack a big lunch, enough for both of us for all day.” Rex hung up without waiting for a reply.

  • * *

Fresno’s suburbs reminded Rex of those he had seen in a dozen California cities; wide streets, well-tended lawns, and houses that had been kept in repair, except for the foreclosures or short sales. He parked his Toyota in the shade of a 121 year old English oak tree at the back of a park.

Early Saturday morning risers: moms walking or jogging as they pushed strollers, kids laughing on the swing sets and slides, and older folks walking their dogs provided sufficient cover, Rex thought.

Rex opened the glove compartment and pulled out what he believed could transform him into what he called my evil twin. A minute later, he studied his image in the rear view mirror. Gone was the skinhead look that had befuddled that punk Wayne Sundowner, replaced by shoulder length black hair and a droopy mustache. His sunglasses extended an inch above and below his eyes and wrapped around their edges so that no hint of their color could be detected. The disguise obscured all but a few patches of skin on his face.

Thirteen minutes passed before a clean shaven man of about thirty, dressed in hiking boots and matching sports jersey and baseball cap, opened the passenger side door and sat down. He placed a grocery sized bag filled with sandwiches, potato chips, cookies, and cold sodas next to Rex.

“You’re late.” Rex started the truck and pushed its worn gas pedal until his vehicle traveled three miles under the speed limit, a habit whenever he wanted to be cautious.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think you would need me this soon.” The passenger removed his baseball cap and ran his fingers through his neatly trimmed black hair.

Rex’s crooked smile revealed no teeth. Can’t be letting him see my pointed incisors, he thought. They’re too much of an identifying trait. “No problem, man. Here, put on this sleep mask. If you ever found out how to get to where we’re going…”

“You’d have to kill me. Yeah, yeah, I know the drill.” The passenger adjusted the sleep mask until everything remained black, no matter how hard he squinted or focused his eyes.

Rex fiddled with the dial of the radio until an away game of the baseball team whose green and yellow colors the passenger wore flowed through the truck’s two speakers.

Little conversation passed between them as they traveled southeast from Fresno. They appeared to be just another pair of friends trying to escape the Central Valley’s extreme heat by heading into the Sierra Nevada mountains. Rex waited until they had been surrounded for an hour by Sequoia National Park before assuming his role of leader of their joint venture, one which could ensure Manny’s continued existence and his passenger’s tax free payday.

“Okay, we pull off a couple miles up ahead,” Rex said. “Don’t do anything to draw attention to us like talking. And don’t get out of the truck or take off that sleep mask until I tell you to.”

“All right.”

Rodney Crawly wished he was at the ball game playing on the radio. But that took money, the only reason he had answered the short ad a month ago that read: Chemist needed to help develop line of organic fertilizers. His short introduction to whoever drove this truck had proven more mysterious than the ad.

During their first meeting, only a fuzzy silhouette had faced him because the sun was setting directly behind his potential employer as they sat in a Fresno park at a picnic table. Every time he had tried to shade his eyes for a better view of who had placed the ad, Rodney had been ordered to keep your hands down by your side. He had agreed to be ready to disappear for four days within two hours of being called.

Wearing the sleep mask that had covered his eyes for the last two hours further disoriented him and fed his worries.

When Rex pulled off the highway and parked at the back of a small restaurant’s parking lot, Rodney’s fears peaked. What if this guy is going to kidnap me and hold me for ransom? The thought made his mouth turn dry.

Rex stepped out of the truck and grabbed and put on the large backpack that had been tied to the truck’s bed. He opened the passenger side door and led Rodney by the arm into the forest that bordered the parking lot. Once they had passed over the first hill, he stopped and removed the sleep mask from Rodney’s face, tanned from regular visits to golf courses before he had become unemployed.

“Here, you can carry our lunch and your dinner.” Rex handed the grocery bag to him. “You walk in front of me. I’ll tell you which way to go.”

Rodney set a moderate pace.

“I know you’re really into all this secret squirrel routine,” Rodney said over his shoulder.

“Your point is?” Rex asked.

“Look, I don’t even know your name or what it really is you want me to put together yet. The only reason I’m doing this is because I still haven’t found a job and my unemployment checks are ending this month.”

“If I were you I’d be thinking about how to spend all that easy tax free money you’re going to be making.”

“But I’ve been wondering about a few things.”

“Look, if it’ll keep you quiet, I’ll tell you just enough to make you calm down, okay? You’re way too uptight. That’s when people make mistakes.”

“Okay.”

“I owe this dude money, lots of it. The last time he called me, which was this morning, it now sounds like he’s also dug himself a hole that’s just deep enough for both him and me to fit into after we get shot up or cut up into little pieces, depending on the preference of whoever he owes.”

“But you didn’t tell me any of that when you hired me.”

“It’s about three miles to where we’re going. How about if you cut down on all your worrying? It’s beginning to infect me.”

  • * *

Rex’s drive home took him through Exeter, Lindsay, and Porterville, foothill communities he preferred over those inhabited by the flatlanders of cities like Sacramento, Stockton, and Fresno. The problem with flatlanders is that they think too much, Rex thought. And they ask too many questions, especially that Rodney Crawly.

Rex replayed their conversation during the trip to the clandestine lab.

“You sure the place that you set up is safe enough? What if someone finds it?” Rodney had asked.

“Stop worrying so much. They won’t.”

“Is all of the equipment that I told you I needed there?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“You realize how deadly what I mix up is going to be?”

“Do you realize how dead I’ll be if you don’t do what you agreed to do?” Rex had replied. “My friend probably already told whoever he owes money to my name. So if I seem a little bit more motivated about what I need you to do than when I first met you, you’re right, kemosabe, dead right.”

The DJ’s voice on the radio giving the time and weather reminded Rex that that conversation had been hours ago. By now, Rodney the chemist was hopefully already at work.

Rex still needed a mule, somebody naïve enough but also street wise enough to deliver the batch for him to the buyer. It had to be someone familiar with the maze of L.A.’s freeways to rendezvous with the buyer, but no one Rex knew in or near Bakersfield met all of those criteria. He grew agitated until a recent acquaintance seemed to rematerialize where he had sat in Rex’s truck during a roundtrip to the Bakersfield police station.

“Wayne Sundowner.”

Rex smiled for the first time since receiving Manny’s phone call that morning. “Wayne, good buddy, you’re the man.”

  • * *

His alarm clock read 11:03 p.m. when Rex collapsed onto his bed. He tried to picture whether Rodney was at a point in his job that he could also sleep. I should have paid attention during chemistry class, instead of checking out all of those babes, Rex thought. Then I could be doing everything myself instead of having to hire someone and paying him more money than he’s worth.

With his previous night’s sleep interrupted twice by unexpected phone calls from those needing his help, Rex thought he would soon fall asleep and maybe re-enter that beautiful forest he had walked during his last dream.

But after a half hour of his overactive mind being unable to yield to his tired body, he got up and stumbled to his kitchen and found the bottle of herbs that its seller had promised would help even the worst insomniacs go to sleep. Although the label’s recommended dose was one or two capsules, Rex dumped five of them onto his palm and then washed them down his throat with tepid water.

But something herbs or even stronger prescription or illegal drugs could not quell ate at his soul. Rex concluded that despite all of his methodical planning, some important detail had been overlooked. After five minutes of introspection, rule number one: things aren’t always what they seem, surfaced, causing him to clap his hands.

“Guess it’s time for what Cathy and Audrey have been saying I need to do all these years, have myself a come to Jesus meeting.”

4

Listening to Sunday Morning Coming Down had long been Tom Sundowner’s feeble attempt at acknowledging God. He sang along with it as he prepared to go to a worship service for the first time in seven years. His last occasion had been his mother’s funeral.

After a year of mourning her death, he had claimed, “I have successfully gone through my grief period” to anyone willing to endure his unhealed pain. But his unchecked depression had destroyed his marriage to Sandra and alienated him from his son Wayne and daughter Ally.

Kris Kristofferson sang about a father and his daughter at a park on a Sunday morning, a place where Tom wished he could meet a younger Ally, one who had not yet been exposed to the world and its ways, especially its males.

Tom turned off the music and groaned when he read the name of the one causing his cellphone to ring. “I know I’m late with the alimony payment, Sandra.” Tom spoke softly in hopes of a short conversation. “You did get the check for child support already, right?”

“I’m not calling about any of that,” Sandra said from her home forty-two miles to the east. “I just wanted to let you know about Wayne. He got picked up by the police on the beach for being drunk.”

“When?”

“On Friday night.”

“They released him to you, right? Let me talk to him.”

“No, I’m afraid not. My mom came down from Bakersfield and got him. She finally called me late last night and said Wayne and some neighbor of hers got shot at.”

“What? Was he wounded?”

“Of course not. You know Mom. She said she chased off the gangsters with her shotgun.”

Tom sank into his apartment’s lone stuffed chair. “Thank God.”

“Anyway, I thought you’d like to know where Wayne is. Maybe you can talk some sense into his thick head. I’ve given up. Look, I’ve got to run. Ally’s out in the car honking the horn. We’re late for church. Bye.”

“How is Ally do…?” Tom stopped when Call ended flashed onto his phone’s screen.

  • * *

Uncertain of whether to skip the invitation to visit his coworker’s church, Tom pulled his 2004 dark green Subaru into the parking lot of the Caffeine Unlimited closest to his apartment.

After studying the selections posted above the employees’ heads during his wait, Tom could not decide what to order.

“Uh, can I have whatever is the strongest, you know, what has the most caffeine in it?” he asked a cashier who reminded him of Ally.

Half of his unsweetened coffee was in his stomach as he reached for his Subaru’s door handle.

“Hello, Tom. Long time no see.”

As Tom spun around, part of his unfinished drink sloshed onto black patent leather shoes belonging to the man who had startled him.

“Ralph Peterson? What are you doing sneaking up on me like that?” Tom dropped his gaze from the six-foot, three-inch tall man’s black curly hair and mustache to his feet. “Sorry about messing up your shoes, Ralph.” Tom tried to hide his impish grin. “At least I missed your suit.” He ran his eyes back up the tailored gray suit. “Looks like you’re prospering these days.”

Ralph shook his feet to dislodge most of the hot liquid. “I need to talk to you in private, Tom. You mind stepping over to my car? This will just take a minute and you can be on your way.” He led Tom to a black 2014 Chevy SUV.

Tom settled into the front passenger seat. “Can you roll down the windows? It’s sort of stuffy in here.”

“No, I can’t roll down the windows. Do you want someone to hear us?” Ralph pointed at the closest person walking by the car. “There are way too many people milling about this parking lot.”

“So, what have you been up to? I heard a rumor that you’re working for the feds now, for one of the alphabet agencies, right?”

“Never mind all that. I tracked you down to tell you that your son Wayne is hanging around some guy named Rex Lafyte up in Bakersfield. You should be thankful I didn’t show up at your apartment, which would have embarrassed you in front of your neighbors, at least any of the nosy ones.”

“Rex? I haven’t seen him in years. What’s he mixed up in now? And what does Wayne have to –?”

Ralph’s glare silenced Tom. “All I can tell you is that he showed up on our computers, okay? I need you to find out from Wayne anything he can tell you about what Rex is involved in. Anything, no matter how small, will help us out.”

“Okay.”

Ralph pushed a button that opened the passenger side door. “I’ll be in touch. I suggest you get the information we need from your son as soon as possible. You don’t want him getting mixed up in something that will ruin his life, do you?”

Ralph waited until Tom was next to his Subaru before flipping on the transmitter hidden in the SUV’s dashboard. “Did you put the tracer onto his car?”

“Yeah.” A voice responded through one of the vehicle’s six speakers. “You want me to follow him?”

“No. Just monitor him via the computers. Let me know every location Tom Sundowner goes to.”

  • * *

“Ralph the mouth.” As he exited the coffee shop’s parking lot, Tom lifted his empty cup in a toast to Ralph’s shiny SUV.

Agent Ralph Peterson smirked in reply before texting an update to the three other agents on his task force. When none of them responded, he cursed.

  • * *

Smoke from nearby wildfires drifted past Tom Sundowner’s car as it descended the mountain range that divided what he called Bakersfield desperados from L.A. GMOEs, short for gimme more of everythings.

What is Rex Lafyte up to now? Tom wondered. I haven’t got a clue but secret agent man Ralph expects me to do his dirty work for him anyway.

The growing knot in Tom’s stomach made him wish he had stayed in bed.

5

Rex Lafyte shaved and put on his only suit, a pin-striped light blue outfit that gave him more of an appearance of a Roaring Twenties gangster than a fervent seeker of salvation. He timed his arrival at the small church so that he was only required to shake one hand, belonging to an usher.

Pastor Bindle strode to the pulpit as the first hymn ended. “Folks, we’re a little pushed for time this morning, so I have to cut our worship time short. Choir, we will have to postpone your song until tonight’s service. So everyone be sure to return this evening.” Their pastor motioned for the choir members to find a seat.

“You see, we have an unexpected guest today, Evangelist Charles Farrington. Brother Farrington?”

After walking from a side room where he had been praying, a wiry man whose head barely poked above the top of the five and a half foot tall pulpit positioned himself behind it. The one running the sound board that controlled the pulpit’s microphone turned its dial to 10 to amplify the evangelist’s soft voice.

“As your pastor was saying, I was supposed to be preaching up at Delano this morning but that church caught on fire yesterday, so after calling around to five other churches, this was the only one that would take me on such short notice. I’m due to speak tonight at six 320 miles from here so this just might be my shortest sermon ever.”

The evangelist launched into a message Rex had heard as a child but never with such power. By the time Charles Farrington closed his Bible, it seemed that time stood still for the congregation of 163 people. Rex did not know a church could grow silent enough to hear the sound of the handheld fan pushing air onto the sweating face of the one seated in front of him.

The pretense he had planned to cover his illegal operation now became inner turmoil for Rex.

Feeling a Holy Presence that seemed to both invite and repel him, Rex stepped into the aisle to answer Rev. Farrington’s altar call. He joined three others at a rail that divided congregation from two steps leading to the platform supporting the pulpit and risers for the choir. Rex glanced at those kneeling next to him. He judged at least one to be a worse sinner than he was because the man was known to have beaten his wife after a night of drinking and carousing.

This is working out better than I could have planned it, Rex thought. Everyone will think I really mean what I’m doing because old man Johnson is finally getting saved, too.

The four repeated the version of the sinners’ prayer for salvation the evangelist led them in. Instead of something mumbled, this prayer cut Rex’s soul. Two of the four at the altar began to weep.

No longer sure of himself, Rex began to believe what he prayed.

Before he could return to his seat, Rex was surrounded by dozens of others who had answered the call to come forward for any other needs. He squirmed and wiggled his way through the crowd and then forced himself to slow his escape out the front door. A voice from behind him stopped Rex on the wooden steps.

“Boy, can you help walk me to my car?”

Rex turned and saw a man who looked even smaller and older when not behind a pulpit. “Sure.” He supported the evangelist’s left side while a carved ash cane supported his right side. “I thought you’d still be in there praying for all those people who came forward. It looked to me to be a bunch of them needing prayers.”

The evangelist smiled. “I had to let your pastor and the deacons handle those prayers because I have to be hitting the road.”

“Oh.”

“All the other churches I called to try and set up a meeting for this morning were north of here and a lot closer to where I’m preaching tonight. I only called this one because it seemed like the Lord kept impressing me to do so. I almost disobeyed Him.”

Rex wondered why this preacher’s words sounded so ordinary, with no pretense or slightest hint of exaggeration. Every other evangelist he had heard committed the sin of evangelistically speaking, of exaggerating numbers saved and miracles and healings witnessed at previous meetings. “I guess the Lord works in mysterious ways, huh?”

“Yeah. Now I’m beginning to think He sent me all the way down here just because of you.”

“Me?”

“Yes, sir. Are you in some kind of trouble, son? Your face sure says so.”

Rex decided to gamble with a half-truth because he preferred every relationship to be at arm’s length, especially with a true man of God. “Isn’t everybody in trouble these days? Especially the way you put it in your sermon. It was like you were reading my mail.”

“Well, whatever it is that’s got you by the tail, deal with it before it deals with you.”

  • * *

His helping the evangelist slowed Rex’s planned exit enough that Grandma Cathy caught up to him as he slid into his truck.

“Please come have Sunday dinner with us, Rex. You don’t know how long I’ve been praying for this day to happen for you.” Her tears convinced him to accept.

He started the Toyota and put it into gear. “Okay, I’ll meet you there.” Before Rex could take his foot from the clutch pedal, Wayne Sundowner was opening the passenger side door. The unwanted rider remained silent until they had exited the church’s dirt parking lot.

“That was some show you put on back there, Rex.” Wayne slapped his knee. “You think I should’ve gone down to the altar, too? Maybe then Uncle Ben and Aunt Eve would quit preaching at me all the time.”

Rex waited until Wayne’s guffaws ended. “Well, it appears to me that you’re more than ready for rule number three.”

Wayne’s smile transformed into pursed lips and wrinkled forehead.

“Good. Now, here’s rule number three: don’t judge someone until you’ve lived through everything that they have. Take your aunt and uncle, for example.”

Wayne frowned. “No way, man. The real saying about all that stuff is that I only have to walk a mile in their shoes before I get to know why people are the way they are. Your rule number three sucks. There’s no way that I ever want to experience everything that all you peckerwoods have up here in Oakie Bakersfield. No way, man.”

“So we’re all just a bunch of dumb PWs?”

“You said it, not me.”

“Well, truth be told, you’re just one step up from being a peckerwood. You’re PWT.”

“PWT? What’s that mean?”

“Poor white trash. Oh sure, your dad is some hotshot computer guy for that big company he works for down there in L.A. and I imagine that your mom is liked and respected by all her neighbors down there in Garden Grove. But they’re just one generation away from being poor white trash. The problem with you, punk, is that you never got to see what their parents went through. Let me tell you, I only heard stories about part of it, but what I heard was more than enough. Some of those you call Oakies starved to death back during the Great Depression.”

  • * *

When they found Tom Sundowner sitting in his Subaru in front of Grandma Cathy’s home, Rex frowned and Wayne cursed.

“Oh, great. What’s he doing here?” Wayne asked.

Rex parked at the curb behind the Subaru. “Your Grandma Cathy’s cooking is the best in Bakersfield. Maybe your old man got homesick for it.” Rex exited his truck and shook Tom’s hand. “Long time no see, amigo.

Not long enough, Tom thought. He wondered if his limp handshake betrayed his unwanted assignment as a spy for Agent Ralph Peterson. Wayne stood on the lawn of Bermuda grass and patches of dirt, ten feet from his father.

“Hey, Dad, I guess you heard about what happened Friday night?”

“Yeah. Are you all right? Your mom said you got shot at?”

Father and son huddled on the front porch for partial protection from the ninety-seven degree heat while Rex crouched in the shade of the dogwood tree. He thought it good that they were at least talking to each other. But Rex did not like how Tom kept alternating his stare from Wayne to Rex to Wayne to Rex, as if he were watching a tennis match being played in slow motion.

I’m not hanging around here waiting for the other shoe to drop, Rex thought. I don’t like those dirty looks that Tom keeps flashing my way.

“Oh, man.” Rex slapped his forehead with the heel of his left hand as he walked toward the porch. “I just remembered. I have some things to take care of out at the nursery. If I don’t get back out there right now, I’ll lose a lot of flowers because I didn’t get around to watering them this morning.” He stepped backwards toward his truck. “Tell Grandma Cathy I’ll have to take a rain check on Sunday dinner.”

As Rex’s Toyota rumbled from its parked position, a Ford F-150 pickup pulled next to it. Rex hit the brake pedal and tipped his torn Stetson cowboy hat. “Praise the Lord, Brother Ben and Sister Eve. You two missed a barn burner of a sermon at church this morning. I’ll come on by your place later tonight to talk about me borrowing Wayne from you.” He punched his gas pedal before either one of the pair could reply.

“What was that all about?” Ben Hitson nodded his head at the smoke left from Rex’s truck’s squealing tires.

“Looks like that time he was running from the law,” Eve Hitson answered.

Noticing his aunt and uncle’s quizzical faces as they exited their truck, Wayne called to them from the porch. “Rex got religion at church this morning, Uncle Ben,” Wayne said. “He told me afterward that it was his come to Jesus meeting.”

  • * *

Grandma Cathy’s dinner of pot roast, carrots, and potatoes matched her outlook on life: Keep it simple because life is already too complicated as it is.

Some traditions she could not forsake, such as Sunday dinner with any available family, her most cherished occasions since her husband had died. She used this one to describe their family tree to Wayne.

“I don’t know who was harder to raise, your mother and your Aunt Eve or their brother Ted.”

“I never even got to know Uncle Ted,” Wayne said.

“I know. He’d still be here if it weren’t for that crazy Gulf War. He was one of the ones who had to blow up Sadaam Hussein’s chemical weapons. After that, he got real sick and…” She shook her head. “He told me that there was no way that they could have destroyed all of them. Right before Ted died, he told me that Sadaam Hussein moved his weapons of mass destruction into Syria right before we invaded Iraq the second time.”

Wayne turned toward his aunt and uncle. “How come all your kids moved away from Bakersfield?”

Aunt Eve smiled. “Same reason your daddy did, most likely. Right, Tom?”

Tom Sundowner glanced at his watch and wondered how best to shorten his visit. “You have to go where the jobs are. Uh, Wayne, can I talk to you outside for a minute?” He led his son to the front porch.

“What’s up, Dad?” Wayne let the screen door slam shut.

Tom stared at the worn pine planks of the porch’s deck. The missing wood from their knotholes reminded him of a relationship of missed opportunities with Wayne, of being too busy with work to spend time with him. His phone rang, breaking his train of thought.

Wayne was surprised when his father neither answered it nor at least looked at its screen to ID the caller. Son braced himself for something Dad must believe more important than answering a call.

“I only have a few minutes so I’ll make this quick, okay? That was probably my boss calling. You know I have to call him back as soon as I can.”

“Yeah.”

“So, what happened that made the cops pick you up the other night on the beach?”

“Me and Larry just had a few beers is all.”

“But you’re still only seventeen.”

“I know. You sound just like Mom does all the time.” Wayne began to pace, his face beginning to flush from pink to crimson. He grabbed the wooden rail as his arms and voice shook. “Get real, Dad. I turn eighteen next month, okay? Or did you forget about my birthday like you always do? How is it that you always remember Ally’s birthday? Is it because she’s still Daddy’s little girl?”

Tom stepped back as the anger he had learned from his father and a series of bosses and passed on to his children boiled inside of him. “Hey, life is a two-way street, you know. The way I remember it, most of the time you never wanted to visit me on the weekends or holidays when I got to have you two kids stay at my place.”

“That dinky hole in the wall? It’s barely big enough for just one person.”

“You know it’s all I can afford. Do you have any idea of how much alimony and child support I have to pay every month to your mother?”

“According to her, it’s not near enough.”

“That’s because…” Tom’s phone rang again. This time he glanced at its screen before smashing it against his ear. “Hello. Look, I’m right in the middle of something really important. I promise I’ll call you right back…in just a minute…Goodbye.”

Wayne walked over to his dad until inches separated them. “I’m still hungry.” He reached for the screen door. “Are you done yet?”

Tom gritted his teeth. “You know what your problem is?”

“Yeah.” Wayne smirked. “That I have you for a father.”

As he stomped to his car, spittle joined Tom’s last words. “I’m not your father. So don’t blame me for the way you turned out. And stay away from Rex Lafyte. If you don’t, you’re going to get in real trouble next time.”

6

Wayne returned to the dining room table. Because the house had no air conditioning, the loudest and angriest words from the porch had drifted into the ears of his relatives through the screen door.

“Is what he said about not being my real dad true?” Wayne looked at his grandmother, then aunt, before fixing his stare on his uncle.

“All I remember is that you were born about eight months after Tom and Sandra eloped,” Uncle Ben said. “The nice kind of folks kidded them about how they must have had a wild honeymoon. Not so nice folks gossiped about how they were practicing for their wedding night before they got married.” He lifted his glass of iced tea to moisten his dry mouth. “Look, either way, you’re still my nephew, so I’m doing my best to be straight with you, okay?”

“Grandma, what do you know?” Wayne asked.

“Don’t look at me. What Tom said is news to me, the first I ever heard anything of the sort. Any more, it’s not too uncommon for babies to be born premature. That’s what I always tried to believe about you, until today, anyway. Excuse me.” As Grandma Cathy took hers and Tom’s plates to the kitchen, she kicked out the wooden doorstop to the swinging door that divided it from the dining room before dialing her middle child’s phone number.

Silence filled the dining room until Aunt Eve moved to the empty chair next to Wayne and touched his forearm. “I don’t know what went on with my sister back then, Wayne. If I did I’d tell you since you’re old enough now to know. But Sandra and me…” she shrugged. “Sandra never really told me much about anything, especially about any of the boys she hung out with.”

“Boys? You mean there was more than one? Are you saying that my mom messed around a lot?” Wayne pulled his arm away from his aunt’s gentle touch.

“No, that’s not what I’m trying to say. All of us gals back then dated more than just one guy, unless we got engaged or real serious with just one boy. It’s the way things were back then.”

“Wait a minute, how do I know I wasn’t adopted? Maybe Mom isn’t even my real mother either.”

Aunt Eve smiled. “Not much chance of that, unless they switched you out in the delivery room. Tom was the first one to see you when you were born. Then the nurse brought you out for your grandma and me to see you.”

Uncle Ben leaned back in his wooden chair, his way of assuming control of situations, whether domestic or business. “I hate to break up all this unexpected family drama of ours but we still need your help to finish up that new septic system out at our place, Wayne. We best get going.” He stood and picked up his and Eve’s plates. “You mind bringing yours in to the kitchen, Wayne?”

Aunt Eve held the door to the kitchen open for them and then scraped the plates clean and filled one half of the two-chambered metal sink with hot water and dish soap. Grandma Cathy sat alone at the small table where she had shared thousands of meals with her husband and now ate meals alone.

“Well, now I know for sure that what Tom said is true,” Grandma Cathy said.

Wayne slid into the only other chair at the table. “How do you know that, Grandma?”

“I just got off the phone with your mother. When I asked her about whether or not Tom is your natural father, she hung up the phone on me.”

  • * *

The sun had touched the ridge of the coastal range of medium sized mountains by the time Rex drove onto Ben and Eve’s 320-acre farm. When he saw the Toyota, Uncle Ben pointed at the two perforated plastic leach lines that remained uncovered in the freshly dug trenches.

“We should make Rex cover these last ones up,” Ben said. “It’s just like him to show up whenever a job is almost finished.”

Rex nodded as he surveyed the loose soil that covered the new concrete septic tank and other six leach lines. “Looking mighty fine, boys.” He sat in the sturdiest looking lawn chair in the shade of a weeping willow tree 100 feet from the closet leach line. “Now I know just who to call when my septic tank clogs up and needs replacing – Ben and Wayne’s Septic Tank Service. I even got a motto for your company, ‘We’ll take care of everything from your kitchen sink to your bathroom stink.’”

Ben walked to the other lawn chair and sat down. His shirt and jeans looked a darker shade because of the sweat soaking through every cotton fiber. “It’s a good thing it’s just you left out at your place, Rex. Otherwise, that Oakie septic tank you got would’ve clogged up a long time ago. I’m surprised it ever worked at all.”

“I’ll have you know that my pa and I buried the biggest junked car we could find when we redid our septic system just before he died. Besides, how many chambers does that fancy new concrete tank of yours that you just put in have?”

“Two, just like the code calls for.”

“What’d I tell you? Ours has three chambers – the engine compartment, the passenger compartment, and the trunk. So, it’s even better than yours. Yup, we might be just poor old Okie peckerwoods, but we sure do know how to save on materials by recycling whatever we can.” He glanced at Wayne, whose shoveling had slowed as he strained to eavesdrop. “Just like you know how to save on paying for labor. That poor nephew of yours deserves a break. You’ve been working him to death over the last two days. Hey, Wayne, come on over here and rest for a while. Maybe your Uncle Ben might even fetch us some cold drinks, seeing how I’m company and you’re family.”

Rex’s toothy grin and smart aleck tone of voice brought a grunt from Ben. “You sure you got saved this morning, Rex? You’re still piling it on as thick as ever.” Ben’s bulging muscular arms lifting his 234 pounds from his chair bent its frame another eighth of an inch, just one more item that would be used around his farm until it became unusable and would be recycled as scrap.

Wayne sat in the sagging chair and waited until his uncle was inside his farmhouse. “Uncle Ben said you want to borrow me for something. All I know is that I’m tired of replacing septic systems. Why don’t they run a sewer line out here instead?”

Rex laughed. “Welcome to the country, son. No such thing as city water or sewer lines out here. Listen, this is my busiest time of the year for my nursery business because I have to be planting and harvesting pretty much nonstop. I’m afraid I can only use you temporarily, though, because I’m not big enough yet to take someone on year round.”

“So how much you going to pay me?”

“Afraid it’s got to be just minimum wage. I…ah…I have sort of built up some debts that I need to take care of.”

“Yeah, I know, I know. You sound just like Tom does all the time.”

“So you’re calling your dad by his first name, now? Sounds like you two must’ve had a real good talk today. I guess it’s a good thing he showed up after all, huh?”

“Ha, ha, very funny. Don’t tell me you don’t know what he told me right before he took off without even saying goodbye to anyone.”

Rex shrugged. “Look, kid. I have no idea how fast gossip travels down where you live in L.A. But, no lie; I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. But then again, I don’t go around hunting down gossip.”

  • * *

When Rex returned for Wayne at 5:00 a.m. Monday morning, the boy’s sullen mood surprised him because he thought his suggestion of get a good night’s sleep would not only prepare the city boy for a ten-hour work day but also help him to get over the man Wayne thought was his father for seventeen years telling him otherwise.

“You still upset about what Tom told you yesterday?”

“Wouldn’t you be upset? I thought you were big on walking in other people’s shoes, right?”

“You win. If you don’t want to talk about it, I’ll just shut up.”

Wayne fiddled with the straw hat his Aunt Eve had given him so you won’t get sunburned on your face and neck. A thought first planted in his mind as he lay awake last night tormented him, forcing him to ask what he had to know. “Are you my dad? Is that why you’re trying to help me out ever since I got to Bakersfield?”

When Rex’s jaw dropped, his open mouth almost appeared funny to Wayne. “Back up a minute, amigo, what makes you think that? Has your Uncle Ben been bad mouthing me again?”

“Well, are you?”

“No. You see, your mom must be about ten years younger than me. The only reason I even know about her is because Bakersfield only had about 60,000 people back when we were growing up. Now that it’s got almost half a million people, I don’t know hardly anybody anymore. Most of the people I ran with are either dead, in jail, or moved away. Now, Tom Sundowner is another story. Everybody knew who he was, Mr. BMOC.”

“What’s that mean?”

“Big man on campus. He played basketball and ran track so he even got his name and picture in the paper sometimes.”

Wayne remembered Tom giving him tips on how to win the races he ran with his cross country team. “I don’t care about him anymore. I just need to find out who my real dad is, okay?”

Rex swallowed the last of his lukewarm instant coffee from a large metal thermos. “I don’t usually talk about this but since it’s you, I’ll make an exception, as long as you don’t go blabbing it around. Deal?”

“Whatever.”

“I was in the joint when Tom and Sandra ran off and got married. So, I really don’t have any idea of what all the details are between them, especially who Sandra hooked up with before she and Tom said, ‘till death do us part.’”

The thought of his mother with some unknown stranger who had made no effort to connect with Wayne while he grew up caused him to change the subject. “The joint? What did you do time for? I bet it was for selling dope, huh?”

“Guilty as charged. We had us a pretty good thing going back then. Someone introduced me to some growers who had their pot farms up in northern California. They said they needed someone to sell their weed in Bakersfield. I said, ‘I’m your man,’ and the rest is history. That was then, this is now.”

“How did you get busted?”

“Some gal I sold a couple bags of pot to got busted when she was pulled over after smoking some of the dope and driving crazy. So she copped a deal and got probation for ratting on me.”

“I bet you hate her, huh?”

“I used to. But then Ranger Dave turned me around. Whenever he tried to help one of us inmates, he’d say, ‘son, it’s time for your come to Jesus meeting.’ Some of us listened, others did not.”

“So he was one of those religious nut cases?”

“No. It was just his way of letting us know when he was being serious. Because I behaved, they eventually moved me out to a camp to be a fire fighter with other inmates. Ranger Dave taught us a lot, not just how to survive fires but how to survive once we did our time and got out.”

“So he’s the guy who taught you all those rules that you’ve been telling me?”

“Some of them. The rest came from my dad. The main thing Ranger Dave taught us is that if a fire is coming at you too fast to outrun it, you have to hit the ground and pull your protective gear over you and pray that the fire passes by quick enough before you run out of air to breathe.”

“You ever have to do that?”

“Just once. Unfortunately, one of the guys on our crew panicked and tried to outrun the fire and got second and third degree burns all over his body.” Rex stared through the windshield, as if the injured fire fighter were writhing on the hood of his truck. “I still can remember how much he screamed. Lucky for him, Ranger Dave got him to the hospital in time so they saved his sorry butt. But he was never the same after that and quit fighting fires. Neither was Ranger Dave. After that, he drilled us over and over on safety.”

  • * *

Wayne welcomed his chance to go from Uncle Ben’s large operation of hundreds of almond, apricot, and walnut trees and fields of alfalfa, to the nursery Rex owned.

Wayne saw two structures as they drove off the highway onto Rex’s five acres, an 1100 square foot house whose roof had missing shingles and a greenhouse five times that size. When Rex opened the greenhouse’s only door, the blast of hot air reminded Wayne of the oven in his mom’s kitchen. Instead of some delicious food’s smell, an odor of sweet humidity, of plants reaching maturity hovered above them. He smiled as Rex introduced him to his plants and flowers as if they were his sons and daughters.

“The main thing this time of year is keeping all of them watered enough. If we don’t, they either die or shrivel up to the point that my customers don’t want to buy them.” Rex leaned against a long homemade table of two by fours and sheets of plywood, one of seven rows that elevated the plants to waist high level, which eliminated having to bend over or squat down hundreds of times a day.

“Who do you sell them to?” Wayne asked.

“Florists mostly, but I also do business with some gift shops. Seems like they can’t get enough of what I grow. You see, I want to spend more time selling and finding some new customers. That’s where you come in. You hold down the fort here while I’m in town. That way I won’t get ripped off.”

“You mean you had some of this stuff stolen?”

“The thieves mostly take tools and fertilizer and water. So far, not that much of what I grow has been stolen. The crooks probably give the plants and flowers to their mothers or old ladies. But it all adds up big time for a small grower like me. It destroys my profits, according to my bookkeeper. You’ll get to meet her this afternoon. You have to fill out all the forms for taxes so she can put you on payroll.”

“Huh? I thought you were going to pay me cash under the table so I don’t have to pay into Social Security, workers’ comp, state disability, and state and federal income taxes. My friend Larry showed me his paycheck stub. By the time they take everything out, there’s hardly anything left for him to spend on beer and dope. I even had to pay for the six packs of beer for us the other night because he was broke as usual.”

Rex unfolded his arms and scratched his chin. “Tell you what, if I stick my neck out for you, will you be ready to do the same for me, if push ever comes to shove?”

  • * *

Wayne’s duties seemed routine enough – drag the 150-foot long hose down the aisles and water what he thought must be thousands of containers with vegetation, some common and others exotic. He bent down to read the names of the ones he thought looked or smelled most interesting. Because the nozzle on the hose’s end had been crimped to a position that allowed only a trickle to flow, watering all of them took two and a half hours. Unsure of what to do next, Wayne dropped the hose on the greenhouse’s dirt floor and went to the farm house in search of his boss.

By the time he and Rex returned to the greenhouse, a small mud puddle was growing where Wayne had dropped the hose. Rex grabbed his arm and marched him to the 1,000 gallon water tank that sat next to the greenhouse.

“After you finish watering, you’re supposed to do what?” Rex asked.

“Uh, turn off the water?”

“Well, don’t just stand there, dude. Do it. Maybe that way you can remember the next time that you water.”

Wayne reached to turn off the tarnished brass handle. “I’m sorry. Are you mad because you’re on a water meter and have to pay a lot like at my mom’s house? She’s always nagging on us to not take such long showers.”

Rex leaned against the water tank, which sat three feet off the ground on a frame of two by fours connected to metal posts cemented into the ground. “We’re off the grid out here, remember?”

“But then how do you get the water you need if you don’t have any electricity to pump it out of the ground like Uncle Ben does?”

Rex pointed at an 80-foot tall wooden tower. Its metal fan blades stood motionless, waiting for the breeze that often arrived during late afternoon. “The wind runs the pump, which sends the water up from the ground into this tank.” He rapped his knuckles on it and frowned at its hollow sound.

“What’s wrong?”

“It’s getting really low. The way the water table is dropping around here because so many farms are putting in wells because the feds and state don’t deliver us hardly any water at all anymore, I’m going to have to get a well driller to send my well deeper to where the water is, probably as soon as next fall.”

Wayne craned his neck to see the tower’s top. “Wind power, that’s real cool. You’re green, you know, environmentally conscious.”

“The only green I care about comes in this size.” Rex pulled a crumpled $1 bill from his pocket and unfolded it. “I can’t afford electricity to pump water. You have any idea what an operation like your aunt and uncle’s has to pay for electricity every month?”

“Aunt Eve said some months their bill is tens of thousands of dollars.”

Rex smirked. “And you city slickers all whine and wonder why walnuts now cost about $10 a pound.”

Wayne studied the two rusty gutters that ran along the greenhouse’s eaves and connected to downspouts that ended at holes in the water tank’s top. “At least you have it set up to catch the rain water that comes off the roof. Maybe once we get caught up around here I can help you put in another tank that can catch the rain water off of your house’s roof, too.” He pointed at the low pitch of the roof on top of the farmhouse.

Rex smiled and patted Wayne on the back of his shoulder. “I’m beginning to like you, boy. Maybe between your Uncle Ben and me, we can make you into a farmer yet. With this mega drought still going on, we need every drop of water we can get. Did you pull all the weeds out of the plant containers yet?”

  • * *

An hour later, they loaded Rex’s truck with that morning’s deliveries to fourteen businesses around Bakersfield.

“Monday always has the most deliveries,” Rex said. “I’m showing you the route for when you can start doing it for me.”

By their last delivery, it was after 1 p.m. and Wayne’s stomach growled to remind him that he had opted for a bowl of cereal instead of the bacon and eggs his Aunt Eve offered him for breakfast. “Man, I’m starving.”

“Good, that means you’ve been working hard.” Rex smiled. “You can eat while I do my grocery shopping for the week.”

  • * *

Wayne groaned when he saw the name on the sign of their destination for lunch: Audrey’s Natural Foods and Herbs. But his aversion to organic foods dissipated as he bit into his second avocado, tomato, alfalfa sprout, and lettuce sandwich.

“I never knew health food tasted this good.” He complimented the store’s owner and sole employee, who reminded Wayne of pictures he had seen of hippies from the 1960s. A colorful dress covered Audrey from shoulders to ankles and her wavy black hair seemed to protect her large breasts from unwanted inspection by customers more controlled by hormones than reason, such as Wayne. Her smile carried as much warmth as her words.

“I’m glad you like it.” She lowered her voice. “If Rex is buying your lunch, then maybe he really did get saved yesterday at church. He’s pretty tight with money. I should know because I lived with him for nine years before I got saved.”

At the back of the store, Rex finished filling a sixth plastic container with peanut butter ground from the peanuts he had fed into an electric grinder. When he wheeled his grocery cart to the checkout counter, Audrey shook her head. “Just five loaves of bread and peanut butter?” She punched the items’ prices into her ancient manual cash register.

“But it’s your super healthy ten grain Bible bread, darling. The label says it has everything a body needs.” Rex recited a loaf’s list of ingredients. “It says right here that’s where the recipe came from, straight from the Bible. Maybe it’ll even help me be more righteous.”

Audrey sighed as her eyebrows arched. “We can only hope, Rex Lafyte.” She bagged the groceries. “That will be $52.08, which includes Wayne’s two sandwiches and three natural root beers.”

“I’m a little short, honey pie. I…”

Audrey pulled a green ledger book from under the counter and wrote $52.08 under Rex’s name. “Look, Rex, just because you did your I’m born again show at church doesn’t mean that I can keep on giving you credit like this forever. You’re up to over $200 that you owe me now.”

Before she could dodge it, Rex kissed her cheek.

“And don’t think that I’m going to become your concubine now, either.”

7

Rex shuffled through growing darkness to his small kitchen and chose what he often told Audrey was his 100% veggie meal, a baked potato topped with salsa and parmesan cheese. He stifled a yawn as he tried to punch 5:55 into the microwave’s controls, but did not notice the 8:88 minutes he accidentally entered.

As he waited for the familiar ding to signal that his potato was cooked, Rex noticed two headlight beams dancing across the wall opposite from him.

Adrenalin pumped life into tired, aching muscles and he hopped to the living room window. Rex tensed as an unfamiliar car stopped far enough up his driveway that the porch light gave him no chance of identifying who was in the car. Hearing two car doors open sent him back pedaling into the short narrow hallway. He turned halfway down it and ran toward his bedroom and reached for his fully loaded .38 caliber revolver on the edge of a dresser before diving out an open window.

As he landed, weak joints worn away by decades of manual labor left him with a mouthful of dirt. He half crawled and half duck walked to the far side of the water tank by the greenhouse. Crouching behind it, he watched as one light after another flashed on inside his home. His heartbeat reminded him of how a friend pounded his drums – as if there was no song requiring a slow beat.

Whoever had come calling did not even believe in common courtesy, the kind that prevents one from entering another’s house unless invited inside first. Something else nagged at Rex as if reminding him of an important task he had neglected. His hoarse whisper carried only a few feet as he remembered.

“The potato.”

He had forgotten to poke holes into it before starting the microwave to bake the spud. A minute later, a muffled explosion and two gunshots told Rex that the unvented baking potato had built up adequate steam to explode. To keep a low profile, Rex crawled around the edge of the greenhouse.

He inched toward the open fields that stretched into his neighbor’s vineyard. The grape vines there had enough new growth of branches, leaves, and maturing fruit to hide him. Even if the unwelcome visitors searched for him there, Rex knew he could stay ahead of them by moving from row to row of the seventy-three year old trunks. His feet began pounding toward the vineyard.

“Rex, it’s me, Al Barkly. Where are you?”

Rex hesitated as the familiar voice of the one who had arrested him long ago echoed off his greenhouse’s walls. He pulled his shirt tail from inside his jeans’ waistband and hid his revolver underneath it between clammy skin and boxer shorts.

“Hey, Al, what’s going on? I was out here working when I heard gunshots. Who were you shooting at?”

“I’m afraid your microwave scared the living crap out of us, Rex. Something blew up inside of it and sounded like a gunshot.”

Rex took a few steps backward. “Who’s us?”

“I’m here with Agent Ralph Peterson.”

  • * *

Because agent was attached to the name of the stranger with Al, Rex decided to ease his way out of the shadows cast by the greenhouse, water tank, and the wooden tower that fed it. The stranger glanced in every direction, as if hidden allies of Rex lurked in the shadows, waiting for his signal to ambush him with either automatic or semiautomatic weapons. Agent Ralph Peterson did not lower his 9 mm pistol until he saw that Rex’s hands were empty.

“Don’t shoot, boys. It sounded like you’ve already had enough target practice for one night.” Rex flashed the sheepish grin he reserved for those he was certain looked down on any such as him. “You two sure have a way of making yourselves at home, even when no one has let you in.”

“Smart ass,” Ralph said as he and Al met Rex halfway between the farmhouse and greenhouse. “Just what were you cooking in that microwave, anyway? I bet it was eggs still in their shells. Everyone knows that cooking eggs in a microwave is dangerous. They explode too easily if you leave them in for just even a little too long.”

“I must have forgotten about my potato after I went out here to the greenhouse while it was baking. What brings you two out here?”

“This.” Ralph waved a search warrant in Rex’s face. “We need to search your house.”

Rex grimaced as he strutted past his two unexpected visitors. “Help yourselves. I’m cleaner than Mr. Clean ever was. No way am I ever going on back to the joint, not this guy, no, sir.”

As Al and Ralph spent twenty-five minutes searching drawers, cabinets, closets, and poking their heads and shining their flashlights into the house’s crawl space and attic, Rex cleaned up the mess in his kitchen. The two bullets fired at his outdated microwave had shattered its glass, gone through its thin metal wall and lodged in the plaster wall behind it.

By the end of their search, Agent Ralph Peterson wore a more disgusted expression than he had while talking to Tom Sundowner two days earlier. He wondered if Tom had tipped Rex off.

“Hate to be a pain, but I really need to get my microwave replaced ASAP,” Rex said as he followed them to Ralph’s unmarked car. “With my being off the grid out here out here and all, it’s the only way I have of cooking things. I tried some raw foods diet that my ex-old lady Audrey was really into but it first constipated me and then gave me the runs so bad I had to give it up. I’m afraid I need to cook all the vegetables I eat.” He patted the thin layer of fat on his stomach. “Must be because of the diet I ate in prison. That got me used to well-cooked food for life, I guess.”

“Here.” Ralph tossed two $50 bills at Rex. “That should cover it. You can give any change that’s left over to Al.”

Al’s mouth grew dry. “But, Ralph, I fired one of those shots into the microwave. It’s partly my fault and –” His word’s trailed off when Ralph waved his hand.

“We’re wasting time here. Let’s go.” Ralph slammed the driver’s side door and pulled the safety harness into place over his shoulder and waist. He pointed his index finger at Rex. The thumb extended at a ninety degree angle above it gave his hand the appearance of a weapon shorter than the one hidden next to Rex’s belly. “Keep your powder dry, Mr. Lafyte. You win, this time. But next time? I play to win.”

Rex waved as the black SUV pulled away from his house. As he dialed Wayne’s number, Rex hoped Wayne Sundowner was asleep and his cellphone turned off. He smiled when he heard a recording that announced the options for leaving a message and waited for the beep tone before speaking.

“Hey, Wayne, this is Rex. I had a family emergency come up and won’t be back home until late tomorrow afternoon. Ask your Uncle Ben to give you a ride over here tomorrow morning and tell him I’ll pay him for him using his gas. You’ve done the watering and weeding for two days now so it should be a piece of cake for you. Bye.”

Rex walked out to the greenhouse. Once inside of it, he shone his flashlight until he located a five-inch high marijuana plant he had hidden behind the tool cabinet. He placed the jagged seven-leafed green plant on the first table that Wayne would see the next morning.

“That should do the trick,” Rex said as he returned to his house to make six peanut butter and honey sandwiches, one for dinner and the rest for his round trip of retrieving his chemist and the finished product.

8

“Why did Rex say he couldn’t pick you up?” Uncle Ben asked.

“He said he had some kind of family emergency,” Wayne answered. “He’ll be back this afternoon, so you don’t have to come pick me up.”

“Well, since his brother and sister both live out of state, that leaves his mother. She’s really getting up there in years. I’ll say this much for Rex, at least he visits her once in a while.”

Ben turned his pickup around at the entrance to Rex’s property. “I need to get back to start pulling out the dead and dying trees at my place. The guys who are buying them off me for firewood are due out there any time now.” He glanced at his watch. “Oh, I almost forgot. Your dad called after you went to bed last night.”

Wayne froze, with one foot still in the truck and the other on the ground. “My real dad called? Mom got in touch with him and told him to contact me? Who is he? Where does he live? What did he say?”

“I’m sorry, I keep forgetting. I meant your stepdad Tom called.”

“Oh, just him.” Wayne stepped out of the truck and shut its dented door.

“Yeah. He said that you need to be real careful around Rex. He got real mad when I told him that you’re working for him. He said Rex is in some kind of trouble but didn’t say what it is. Tom was real vague about the whole thing.”

  • * *

Rex ate three of his remaining peanut butter and honey sandwiches as he hiked from the café’s parking lot to where he had left Rodney Crawly four days ago. He was tempted to eat the last two also, but decided to save one for the return hike and the other for his chemist, if he had made good on his promise to have everything finished by Wednesday afternoon.

So what if I’m five or six hours early, Rex thought. Besides, that was then, this is now. How was I to know that Al would bring that other bozo, Agent Ralph whatever his last name was out to search my place last night? Now I have to stay at least one or two steps ahead of those two clowns.

It had been Al who years earlier had arrested Rex for selling plastic sandwich bags filled with marijuana. But because the resulting jail time led to his meeting Ranger Dave and his careful sustained mentoring of Rex, in the end, Rex’s life had gone from “a wreck of a hell bound train” to “now you have a chance to live out some kind of decent life.” At least that was what Rex’s mother had told her son when he was released from prison.

Thoughts of his house being rummaged through by a local and a federal law enforcement officer the night before ratcheted up Rex’s musings.

If one thing goes bad, sometimes it’s just a domino starting a long series of bad things to happen, Rex thought. What if Rodney still doesn’t have his job completed and I have to wait around past the deadline I gave him? That means we might have to walk out of the forest at night, which means…Rex uttered something akin to a mixed growl and curse.

“If he’s not done on time, then I’m just going to keep both sandwiches for myself.”

Because he was not loaded down carrying the backpack and guiding Rodney as he had been the last time he hiked to the mine, Rex’s pace was twice as fast. He hurried, not so much to see if Rodney had succeeded, but more to buy every minute he could to keep from being busted and sent back to prison, this time maybe for life.

Now, everything so carefully planned had to be reworked, and the timeline for the delivery moved up by one day.

The plans of mice and men, Rex thought.

His anxiety quieted a little when he saw no campers, hikers, or horseback riders within viewing distance as he neared his lair’s entrance. It was in the middle of a grove of trees, old growth mixed with new growth, perfect camouflage, all natural, all native to this part of the Sierra.

Rex sat next to a boulder that outweighed him by 118 pounds. After bracing his back against a Digger Pine, he planted his dirty boots on the rock and straightened his legs until it slid two and a half feet, revealing a crevice in the rocky outcropping. The blast of damp air flowing upward from the opening cooled Rex’s sweating body. He found a large branch that had fallen from one of the nearby pines and used it as a broom to erase his footprints. Then he slid into the small shaft feet first and pulled the pine branch over the opening that the small boulder had concealed.

The first six feet of the shaft was wide enough that Rex could contort his body so that his bowed head now pointed to where Rodney Crawly worked. “It’s best to crawl like a snake, boy,” Rex’s grandfather had told him the first time he navigated the tunnel as a seven year old.

After crawling on his belly in the blackness for ten feet, Rex was able to move forward on his hands and knees. He smiled when he could stand and run his left hand along the gradually enlarging tunnel until he reached a two-inch thick metal door. There he donned his disguise of long black haired wig, mustache, and wraparound sunglasses.

The door felt cold as he slid his fingers to the keypad that controlled the door’s lock.

He had no need for light as his index finger found the middle numbered button labelled 5. When he pushed it six times, a four-inch by one-inch deadbolt retracted from the door’s frame. The creaking sound of rusty hinges brought a shout from the other side of the door.

“Oh, thank God, you made it. I was starting to think you weren’t coming to get me out of here.” Rodney Crawly danced as he hugged Rex in the light provided by seven kerosene lamps.

“Oh, you of little faith. How did it go? Are you done yet?” Rex pointed at the makeshift lab assembled on the mineshaft’s floor, littered with a jumble of long abandoned ore samples and small rocks ground to dust by boots during the mine’s heyday in the 1800s.

“It’s all ready. I even was able to make more than you wanted because of the extra ingredients you left with me in here.”

  • * *

Overjoyed by Rodney’s extra effort and early completion of his task, Rex gave him both of the last two peanut butter and honey sandwiches to eat during their hike back to the parking lot.

As he walked, Rodney savored the taste of something not out of cans, which had been his diet since he had been sealed into the mine four days ago. Even though Rex carried the backpack, he set a pace that did not allow the sleepy chemist to ask questions as he had on their earlier hike.

But the questions began again when they reached the car.

“You’re still in cloak and dagger mode?” Rodney asked as they shut the car’s front doors. “Your disguise looked more real on our drive up here. Now you’re sweating so much that your wig is starting to slide off to the side and your fake mustache looks like it’s going to fall off. But don’t worry, I still don’t have a clue about what most of your face looks like because of those huge sunglasses you have on.”

“The less you know…” Rex waited for an answer.

“The better off I am,” Rodney finished the sentence he had heard a half dozen times since meeting whoever this strange man was. “You even switched cars for our trip back to Fresno.” Rodney tapped the top of the dashboard of the 2008 Dodge Neon.

“Here, put this on, you know the drill,” Rex said as he handed the sleeping mask to Rodney, who placed the black fabric on his eyes and the elastic strap around the back of his head.

Rex frowned as he drove the car onto the two-lane highway. “Well, there was a slight change of plans since I dropped you off out here. You know how it goes. Instead of boring you with all of the gory details, why don’t you just sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride?”

  • * *

For the next hour, Rodney slept because his circadian rhythms were askew after four days of working in a mine with only artificial light. When Rodney awoke, Rex spun a tale that at times sounded like a B-movie from Hollywood’s Golden Age because Rex’s voice changed tone and pitch to match its characters.

“I’ve heard this story so many times that I have it memorized,” Rex said.

“My Great Great Grandfather Joshua was born in 1833 in Illinois after his parents immigrated to America. When news of a gold strike in California reached their homestead during Christmas of 1848, Joshua got the itch to head west.

“Joshua said, ‘I’ll be back here in a year, just two years at most. They say that the gold nuggets are just lying there in all of the creeks and rivers in plain sight. All’s you have to do is bend over and snatch them out of the water. Nothing can be an easier way of getting rich. I tell you, Ma and Pa, it will be a whole lot better than planting and harvesting corn and wheat. Shucks, I bet I’ll even find so much gold that I can come on back here and buy this farm from you just so’s you both can retire in style early. I’ll even take you on up to Chicago and down to St. Louis, Ma, and buy you the fanciest dresses they have in those big stores there.’

“His mom quoted Scripture verses that Joshua had never heard before.” Rex laughed. “But in the end, her husband sighed and said, ‘How can we not let him go seek his fortune? Remember how my mother and yours were against you and me leaving England for America? At least Joshua is only venturing to the far side of this continent. There’s even been some talk that California will become a state before too long. I heard their winters in the valleys there have no snow. Maybe we can eventually join Joshua out there.’

“Then his mom raised a real fuss and said, ‘We’re staying put right here. There is no way on earth we will join some wagon train of likeminded fools such as you and Joshua have turned into.’

“Then she started crying,” Rex said. “It took them a while to convince her to let Joshua go.”

Rodney thought the rest of the tale sounded as if it belonged in the alternative history genre.

“By the time he reached California in the winter of 1849 it rained so much that every part of California from the Oregon Territory as far south as Mudville was getting flooded.”

“Mudville?” Rodney asked.

“They changed its name to Stockton later on,” Rex said. “So Joshua went to Sacramento and found work building levees, burying those who drowned, and reburying those whose coffins tore free from the graveyards because of all the high water everywhere.

“He headed up to the Yuba River that spring but thousands of miners had beaten him there and the nuggets were already gone for the most part. So he worked a year running tons of silt and gravel through sluices and pans. Just one egg or two small potatoes sold for $1 worth of gold. Joshua wrote his parents, in hopes they would understand why he had been unable to fulfill his promise of returning home a rich man.

“After traveling south to the three forks of the American River, and seeing all of the miners and mining companies, Joshua went even farther south. But it was the same along Dry Creek and the Cosumnes, Mokelume, Calaveras, Stanislaus, and Tuolumne rivers, too many miners and not enough gold left to be found by all of them.

“Then he met a miner named Abe who claimed he was thirty-two years old but Joshua thought he looked like fifty. They formed a mining partnership. Abe said, ‘Only one thing left for fellers like you and me to do. I can tell you got the gold fever worse than me, maybe even for as long as the rest of your natural days. We need to switch to hard rock mining. Sure, it’s a heap more dangerous and a whole lot more work than mining the creeks and rivers. But I know just where it’s still hiding, just waiting for you and me to come along and dig it out.’”

“Did they strike it rich?” Rodney asked.

“They didn’t find anything during the first year,” Rex said. “But once their mine extended seven feet into the mountain, they lived in it year round. They ate fish and fowl mostly, with an occasional deer or bear if they were lucky. When the mineshaft reached 194 feet in length, they found a small vein of gold. At first, they were speechless. Then Abe fell to his knees and started bawling and said, ‘Thank You, Lord, for letting me strike this vein of gold before my aching body gives out and has to return to the dust that Your Good Book tells us about. From here on in, we ask Thee to guide our picks and shovels so we can follow this slender reminder of Your mighty provision. Oh, may it lead us to gold such as Your servants King David and King Solomon found to build Your temple thousands of years ago there in Jerusalem.’ Then he leaped to his feet and began to dance and started hollering again. ‘Yes, O mighty God! Your humble servants, Joshua and me this day do declare that half of what we find will go to build that church that that reverend has been itching to erect in Fresno.’”

Rex laughed. “Joshua said, ‘Half?’

“So Abe says, ‘this is no time to be getting stingy, boy. I turn thirty-four before too long. That makes me an old man because of my years of mining and working on the docks of New York City before that. If we don’t turn this mine in just the right direction from here on out, we’ll miss the Mother Lode for sure. It sure as hell can’t hurt none to be asking for some divine guidance from the Good Lord above.’

“Then Joshua said, ‘How about if split what we find fifty-fifty like we agreed on before we started to dig this mine. Then you can give half of your half to the Lord.’

“That made Abe mad.” Rex’s grin widened. “He said, ‘Now you’re sounding just like Judas who sold out the Lord to the Pharisees for thirty pieces of silver.’”

Rex slapped his knee. “Joshua got in the last word when he says, ‘Look, I was planning on giving ten percent of my half to the Lord. Ain’t that good enough?’”

When Rex paused to drink from a plastic bottle of tepid water, Rodney Crawly questioned the elaborate detail of the story to this point.

“It sounds to me like you’re making up a fake family history to impress me,” Rodney said.

“They kept journals and diaries back then,” Rex said. “Since they didn’t have TV or radio or the internet back in those days, they had to do something with their free time. I have three journals at home, going as far back as Joshua. Besides that, my grandpa told me exactly what his grandpa told him, word for word. I heard more stories about gold mining than I have time left to tell you, okay?”

“I’ll let you finish your story if you let me take this thing off of my eyes.”

“Okay, go ahead. We’re far enough away from the mine that it won’t matter what you see now.”

After removing the sleep mask, Rodney glanced at the radio. Rex noticed the longing look.

“Man, you go for a few days without knowing how your favorite team is doing and you act like you’re going through withdrawals. I’ll just condense the rest of my story and then you can listen to the radio.”

“Okay.”

“Anyway, Joshua inherited the mine when his mining partner Abe got killed in a cave-in. Later on, the mine passed down to my Great Grandfather William, who passed it on to my Grandfather John. He named my mom in his will to inherit it because his son-in-law Paul was too much of a drunk and would have sold the mine for a bottle of booze.”

“So Paul is your dad?”

“He was before he drank himself to death.”

“Oh.” Rodney stretched his aching legs. “I still don’t understand why you have a secret entrance to the cave.”

Rex sighed. “That came about when they decided to make Sequoia National Park out of all the land around the mine. It was my great grandfather who decided to dynamite the main entrance to the mine and seal it off. From what my grandpa told me, his dad was afraid that all the campers and hikers coming to visit a national forest would be too tempted to pass up a chance to explore a real gold mine. There’s something about trying to get rich quick that makes people act crazy and do dangerous things.”

“Like you and me? Look at what we’re doing.”

Rex turned on the radio to let Rodney find a station that would hopefully keep his curious passenger happy.

And quiet.

  • * *

They said nothing during the final thirty-nine miles to the park where Rex had picked up Rodney last Sunday. Once again, Rex parked in the shade of the old oak tree. Because it was a weekday and already 105 degrees, only three men sat at picnic tables, one reading that morning’s paper and two waiting for sundown before looking for a place to sleep that night.

“If you’re thinking of trying to trace me because you memorized the license plate numbers on either this car or the truck I picked you up in a few days ago, don’t bother,” Rex said. “Both vehicles belong to someone else and I changed the license plates on them both times before I picked you up. In fact, the first thing I’m going to do once I leave here is find a nice quiet place to put the original plates back on this car. So if you’re thinking of turning me in for some kind of reward money, don’t do it unless you want to spend time in prison too. I’m sure you left your DNA on at least a few things back at the mine. Since you made what I wanted, you’re just as guilty as me.”

Rodney shrugged. “Actually, all I want is what you owe me, okay. Don’t forget that there’s some extra of what I made back at the mine. That means I did more than my fair share, right?”

“Yeah, yeah, I know. Quit bellyaching like I’m going to rip you off or something. But you can’t get your money until next week. I have to deliver what you made to Sacramento this weekend. Once I sell it, I’ll send you a money order.”

“But what if it gets lost in the mail?”

“It won’t.” Rex opened the glove compartment and pulled out an oblong box that held thirty envelopes. “Open the box up and write your address on one of those envelopes. When you’re done, put one of the stamps from inside the glove compartment on it.”

While Rodney addressed and stamped the legal sized white envelope, Rex put on a plastic glove he had pulled from beneath the driver’s seat. He took the envelope from Rodney by pinching it with his gloved thumb and middle finger.

“Open up that manila envelope that’s there in the glove compartment.”

Rodney unfolded the large golden colored envelope and opened it under Rex’s hand. As the smaller envelope landed inside the larger one, Rex started singing. “We’re only in it for the money…”

Then he ordered Rodney to seal the manila envelope, first by moistening the gummy strip on its flap, then by folding its metal clasp until it was flush with the back of the envelope.

“I’ll be handling that envelope that you wrote your address on the same way I just did now with a glove on like this one.” Rex snapped the plastic glove off of his right hand and tossed it by his feet. “It’s not that I don’t trust you, Rodney. I just need to be sort of extra careful just in case someone shows up at your house asking questions.”

“Now I get it. No fingerprints, no DNA, that’s pretty smart on your part.”

Rex laughed. “Not really. It’s because my ex-old lady loved watching all of those CSI shows on TV. It’s amazing what you can learn from these days from the boob tube.”

  • * *

Rex obeyed the speed limit signs as he drove from Fresno to Bakersfield. He took an exit marked Oildale and after a series of turns during the next six miles, he pulled into the parking lot of a large convalescent home. His mother’s doctor was exiting a room but did not seem to notice Rex.

Her reaction caused Rex to remember that he still wore his disguise. He hurried to a restroom and into its lone toilet stall. After latching the door, Rex removed his wig and fake mustache and threw them in the trash can. “I haven’t been getting enough sleep lately,” he said as he re-entered the hallway in search of the doctor. “That was dumb, wearing it inside of here.”

After glancing into two dozen rooms, Rex found Dr. Arnold, who answered his questions as they walked from the home’s north wing to its south wing.

“Your mother seems to be the same, I’m afraid,” Dr. Arnold paused at the doorway to her next patient. “Her cancer is still spreading and her memory…”

“Yeah, I thought so,” Rex said. “Thanks, Doc.” He walked to the home’s east wing past rooms that held more of the dying than the living.

At least Mom’s roommate isn’t home, Rex thought as he entered a room with two beds, two chairs, two dressers, two of everything, it seemed.

“Hi, Mom.” Rex sat on the foam cushioned chair next to her bed.

Beth Lafyte, feeling every one of her eighty-eight years and even more the diseased cells multiplying within her, smiled at the one she believed had come to take her home. “Is that you, Pete? I was wondering when you’d get here to take me home.”

“No, Mom, it’s me, Rex.”

“Rex? Who’s that? Are you Pete’s friend? Where is he?”

For the next half hour, Rex tried to explain that his brother Pete lived in Florida and how, even though Rex was her youngest child, her baby, that “I’m here for you, Mom.”

When he gave up on the mostly one-way conversation, he kissed her forehead. “Take it easy, Mom. I’ll see you sometime next week, okay?”

“Okay. What was your name again?”

9

Rex’s next stop was in a lower-class neighborhood of Bakersfield. When he tried to greet his friend Sean, the six-foot, three-inch, 258-pound bearded man pressed his forefinger to his lips. After Sean stepped onto his front porch and locked his front door, he tilted his head for Rex to follow him.

Sean waited until they were a block from his house before speaking. “You were right, man. I found a tracer attached to your pickup truck.”

“Did you take it off and get rid of it?” Rex asked.

“No way, man. That’s the worst thing we could do. You want to keep whoever’s tracking you thinking that you don’t know anything about how they’re spying on you. Otherwise, if they know that you know that there’s something that they want to know…”

“Okay, you’re right. Were you able to deliver all those orders for me to my customers?”

“Yeah, no problem. I told them you would settle up with them the next time you make your deliveries.”

“Good. Then whoever is tracking me must think I was just driving around Bakersfield today, just another day in paradise.”

“Listen, you got to be extra careful about what you say. The reason I didn’t want to talk at my house is because maybe that device that’s attached to your truck can pick up conversations, even through walls for all we know.”

“What do you think is the range on it?”

“Who knows? They got so much money in their off the books black budgets that they are light years ahead of what the average citizen can even imagine.”

“What about using my cellphone? Is that okay?”

Sean laughed. “They’ve been able to track us for years now, just because we carry those around.”

  • * *

Rex pulled into his driveway at 8:04 Wednesday evening, looped the two straps of his full backpack over his left shoulder, and walked past Wayne, who was opening a cupboard in the kitchen.

“About time you got back,” Wayne said. “Uncle Ben and Aunt Eve stopped by here on the way to church, but I told them that I needed to hang around and keep an eye on your place until you got back home so I wouldn’t have to go with them.”

“Thanks.” Rex hurried to his bedroom and gently set the backpack on his bed. He then joined Wayne in the kitchen. “You find yourself enough to eat yet?”

“Yeah, I was just looking for something for dessert.”

Rex reached into a box in a lower cupboard and tossed one of the two apples he grabbed to Wayne. “You get everything watered and weeded out in the greenhouse while I was gone? Or are you one those slackers whose motto is, ‘while the cat’s away –’”

“No way, man. I did my job. How’s your mom doing? Uncle Ben said that’s who you probably had to go see.” Wayne followed Rex to the living room and sat on the couch.

Rex stared at the floor as he fell into his easy chair. “She’s okay. Her doctor said she’s still hanging in there.”

“By the way, I found your pot plant out in the greenhouse. I thought you said you’re straight now, clean and sober.”

“I am…for the most part.” Rex rubbed his tired eyes until they watered.

Wayne thought Rex’s bloodshot eyes and sunburned arms and face made him look like a boiled lobster. “I guess it’s really not any of my business what you do, anyway.”

“No, I’m afraid that it is your business because I need your help big time.” Rex clasped his hands, in a way that Wayne was not sure if he were begging or praying. “Can I count on you to help me out without you telling anyone about what I need you to do, not even that best friend of yours that you run around with and get in trouble?”

“That depends. Larry always says that you should never promise anybody anything until after you hear all the details first.”

“Fair enough, he’s a wise man. First off, my mom is dying. A while back her doctor thought that if she took some new experimental drugs they might help her live longer. But the American Cancer Society only paid for the first two months’ worth of the medicine. To keep on paying for the pills, I borrowed money, lots of it.”

“Don’t look at me.” Wayne shrugged. “Maybe Grandma Cathy or Uncle Ben and Aunt Eve can lend you some money.”

“No way.” Rex shook his head. “All of them have known me for way too long to want to help me out. Besides, I need to pay up quick, by this weekend.”

“This weekend? You talk like you didn’t borrow the money from a bank.”

“No, I didn’t. Look, cut me some slack here, Wayne. You’re the only one I got left to help me out. You saw that backpack I brought in when I got home, right?”

“Yeah. It looked pretty heavy because of how you were carrying it.”

“That’s because it’s crammed full of high grade pot. We’re talking the best in the West, primo, grade A, numero uno smoke. I need you to deliver it down to a buyer in L.A. for me and then bring the money back up here right away after the deal goes down. Are you in?”

Wayne smiled because he had been looking for a way to visit his mother and confront her about the identity of his biological father.

After taking care of Rex’s illegal transaction, maybe I can take a little detour, Wayne thought. He sure knows how to lay it on thick. That sob story about his mom needing medicine like that is too much. What a crock.

“Well?” Rex asked.

“Deal me in, Mr. Dealer. It just so happens that I could use a day off from the way you and Uncle Ben have been working me to death.”

Rex leaned his head until the back of it rested on the top of his chair.

“You have the plan,” Wayne said. “And I’m your man.”

10

With his illegal delivery set for Friday, Rex decided to celebrate. To ensure a memorable evening for Wayne, Rex assumed a new role, matchmaker.

After the last drop-offs of his plants to his customers on Thursday, Rex drove to Tony Flores’ house. Wayne perspired not just because of the ninety-nine degree day, but because he thought his introduction to the one he had assumed was Tony’s girlfriend had exposed him as the clown his classmates claimed he resembled.

“You sure this is going to work like you said?” Wayne hesitated as he walked to the Flores’ door. “I hardly even know her.”

“Trust me,” Rex said as he pushed the doorbell. “Have I ever let you down? Remember how I helped you get your grandma back home after the cops took her downtown just because she was doing her best to protect you and Tony over there?” He pointed a thumb at the front yard of the house next to the Flores’ small bungalow.

Tony Flores answered the door and shifted his weight from foot to foot when he saw who stood on the doorstep. “Look, dudes. I’m sorry that I didn’t help you the other night. But you know how it is. I’m dead if I don’t watch my every step.”

“Cut the small talk, Tony,” Rex said. “The real reason you don’t want to talk with us is because your mom and dad said I’m evil, right? Are they home?”

“No, they’re up north working the lettuce harvest.”

Rex elbowed Wayne and smiled. “Didn’t I tell you this was just the right time?” Rex turned to Tony. “The least you could do is invite us in out of this hot sun. Us white boys burn a whole lot worse than you do.” Rex stuck out his tongue and panted as if he were related to the border collie standing by Tony.

Tony gestured for them to come inside.

The three clustered at the door until Rex added his next requests. “Talk about treating us old pals like we’re just a couple of door to door salesmen trying to sell you something you don’t need. I mean, we aren’t inconveniencing you all that much are we? You think Wayne and me could at least sit our tired butts down for just a few minutes? We’ve been working really hard all week and sure could use something cold to drink.”

Tony blinked. “Next, you’ll probably be inviting yourself to dinner, Rex. I know how you operate.”

“Oh, chill out, big brother.” A soft voice came from the hallway as Tony’s sister Ida emerged from it. “Oh, I see you brought along Cathy’s grandson. What was your name again?”

Wayne’s mouth felt dry as his face flushed red. “Uh, I’m Wayne Sundowner.” He inched his way toward one who seemed to undulate between innocent looking school girl and jaded woman tired of life in Bakersfield.

“Well, at least there’s one person that’s friendly around here,” Rex said. “Hate to be in a rush but we don’t got all day, folks. Wayne and me have to get back home and shower and change before we pick up Audrey so we can go out to dinner tonight. That’s why we stopped by here, so Wayne can borrow a set of nice looking clothes from Tony. They’re about the same size. Nothing I own is going to fit Wayne.”

Ida rotated her eyes between her brother and Wayne. “Yeah, maybe Tony does have something in his closet that might work for him.” She shepherded Wayne toward Tony’s bedroom.

Rex placed a hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Where’s my cold drink, amigo? What’s a man have to do to get service around this joint? The way things are going, I’ll probably even have to ask Ida out for Wayne because he’s so scared.”

  • * *

As if to honor Bakersfield’s melting pot of second, third, and fourth generation descendants of Oakies transplanted during the Great Depression; migrating Hispanics, most of them from Mexico; and those who had fled the smog, traffic, and crime that lay 100 miles to the south on the other side of the Grapevine, the menu at Roy’s Bar and Grill offered a mix of Mexican food, meat and potato dishes, and seafood.

Because it was Thursday night, no band played on the tiny stage crammed into a corner of the restaurant. That relieved Wayne, who was certain that he would make a fool of himself dancing, especially if his partner was Ida. But Rex seemed disappointed by the absence of live music.

“Too bad that they only have bands here on Friday and Saturday nights.” Rex handed four menus back to the waitress, who hurried toward the kitchen with their orders. “Maybe once Wayne and me get all caught up out at the greenhouse, we can come on back here again sometime when there’s a band playing.”

“Last of the big spenders, that’s Rex all right,” Audrey said. “All we ever did was stay at home when we were…uh, in a common law type of living arrangement.”

“Look at me now, honey,” Rex said. “Skinnier than a horse that’s been worked too hard and not fed enough. Without your home cooking, I’m just wasting away right before your eyes, darling.”

Rex turned to Wayne. “Ever since I got saved, Audrey’s been saying that I won’t be happy until I go to heaven. I told her that that sounds like a one-way ticket but she can come on up there to visit me if she wants to.” Rex lifted his arms and gazed heavenward. “I’m ready whenever You are, Lord.”

“Excuse us, but it’s getting pretty deep in here.” Audrey slid from one of the booth’s red vinyl covered benches. “Ida and I had better go and freshen up before you bury us alive with your malarkey, Rex.”

Rex watched the two ladies make their way to the restroom labelled Cowgirls. “Mighty fine women, huh, Wayne?”

Wayne stopped gawking at the movements made by Ida’s slender legs and wide hips. “Uh, yeah, right.”

11

As his stepson Wayne enjoyed the angst of falling in love, women were not dancing in Tom Sundowner’s mind. He had finished his day job and was heading for his true love, freelance writing. After months of false starts, Tom had at last arranged a meeting with a high level boss of a Russian gang for what he hoped to be the next in his series of magazine articles titled The Gangs of L.A.

While he parked at the grocery store parking lot that a go between had arranged as a pick up point, Tom remembered what his editor at the magazine had said: “Be careful, Tom. Sure, your articles on the Bloods, Crips, Mexican Mafia, Surenos, and all those Asian gangs were good. But I have a really bad feeling about you meeting alone with that Russian. He sounds like he might be high enough up to be some kind of godfather.”

Tom smirked as he recalled her warning.

Waiting ratcheted up into worrying after he had sat in his Subaru for five minutes, watching anyone who drove or walked by him. His head snapped to the right toward a rapping sound on the passenger side window.

“Mr. Sundowner? Come with me, please,” a stranger said.

Tom locked his car and followed a blonde who appeared to be only a few years older than his daughter. She led him through the rows of cars and left him by a dark blue Chevy sedan that looked as if it had been rebuilt after being salvaged after a collision. The ten-year old car seemed too perfect: new paint job, tire black so heavy on the rubber that it appeared brand new even though most of its tread had worn away, and a front bumper and grill that sat slightly cockeyed.

“Give me your cellphone, please.”

She extended her slender arm, one that should be holding a tennis racket at Wimbledon, Tom thought. How can her arm could support all of the gold she has on? And her watch, probably worth more than my car.

“Do I get it back later on tonight?” Tom asked as he gave it to her.

“Of course.” She slid the phone into her fashionable jeans’ front pocket and walked away.

“Please get in the back seat with me,” said an unseen occupant of the car.

Tom obeyed the man, who opened the rear door for him from the car’s back seat. Sitting next to him was an unsmiling, well-dressed man big enough to play on any offensive line of the NFL. In the front seat, the driver, small enough to be a jockey, said nothing and acted like he was alone in the car.

“Please place this over your eyes.” The hulk who reminded Tom of a beardless Rasputin handed him a pair of sunglasses that looked much too dark to wear, even on the brightest day.

“Hey, I can’t see a thing through these glasses,” Tom said. “What did you do to them, put black paint on the lenses?”

“If you can see no evil, then you can speak no evil, isn’t that the way you say it in this country?” The one next to Tom asked. “You Americans have such strange ways of saying things.”

The glasses’ wrap around lenses did not allow any of Tom’s peripheral vision to orient him. After a series of turns that further confused him, the car picked up speed on what he assumed was a freeway.

But which one, he wondered. There were at least four choices near the parking lot where he had met the three go-betweens: the 710, 405, 110, and 103 freeways. Listening to a conversation solely in Russian that was punctuated by laughter further unnerved Tom during a drive that seemed to last hours.

I wonder if they’re joking about the best way to kill me and dispose of my body if I ask the wrong questions of their boss, Tom wondered. To try and focus, he ran through the questions his editor had told him to ask of the one she thought might be a godfather.

A half hour later, the car’s engine shut down. Two pairs of muscular hands grabbed Tom’s arms and led him inside a musty long rectangular room. Those guiding him did not release their grips until Tom sat in a cold metal folding chair. His eyes needed little time to adjust after the sunglasses were removed because only a forty watt bulb dangling from a cord attached to the ceiling provided light for the musty room.

The source who sat fifteen feet in front of him looked more like a silhouette than a person. The two who had accompanied Tom in the car took positons two feet in front of their boss. Whoever he was meeting spoke with a heavy accent.

“So, you are the famous writer, Tom Sundowner? I have read all of your stories about what you call gangs here in Los Angeles.” He tossed a magazine with Tom’s latest story on Vietnamese gangs so that it landed at his feet. “You say so many bad things about those who are merely trying to survive in this jungle called America. To be totally honest, I’m very surprised that you remain alive after some of what you wrote about them.”

The two bodyguards laughed and nodded.

“Well, maybe your operation is not as evil?” Tom asked. “I’ll say this much for the way you operate, you run a tight ship. Out of all the gangs I’ve talked to so far, yours took the longest time to set up a meeting. You don’t have anything to hide, do you?”

A loud groan echoed off the metal walls surrounding them. “Do you know what the KGB called journalists in the Western hemisphere during the Cold War?”

“No,” Tom answered.

“Useful idiots. And now, the majority of Americans have become useful idiots, not just your media and academics. Why else would they elect as president those who love communism more than Putin or Yeltsin or Gorbachev ever did? You want to know about Russian gangs here in Los Angeles, right?”

“Yes.”

“Bah, who cares? All that and what you have written so far is all just old news. How about if I give you a…a…” He turned and spoke in Russian. The driver answered him in Russian.

“…a hot tip,” the boss continued. “You Americans have such crazy ways of saying things. Lucky for me, I have some working for me who were born here to explain such things to me.”

“That is exactly what I need, for you to explain –”

“Enough of this. You are wasting both your time and mine. If you will please…ah…” Once again he turned to the tutor who had taught him much of the English he knew for the best phrase to use. “…shut up, I will give you a hot tip.”

Tom leaned forward. The only maxim he recalled from the one journalism course he had taken was, if you get sent to cover a city hall story, don’t ever come back to the newsroom and say, “sorry, boss, I couldn’t get into the building because someone shot up the place and it was all sealed off.” You better be phoning in whatever you stumbled onto ASAP.

“You need to write about the Chinese and their plans to take over your country. That is, if the Islamic terrorists don’t destroy it first.”

Tom leaned back in his chair. “What are they going to do? Nuke us and start World War III?”

“You really are a useful idiot. Of course not. They might let North Korea launch a few missiles to distract you. But the Chinese want your country to be intact, not a radioactive wasteland like what happened at Chernobyl.”

“Why?”

“So they can bring in some of their elite party members here to rule your country. It would only take five or six million of them and that many troops to rule your land once it has been infected by their germ warfare.”

“What?”

“First they will decimate your people with biological agents. My sources tell me that it will most likely start on both of your coasts and spread quickly inland until almost all of your population has been exposed to it. Those who survive will be so weak that they will offer no resistance when the Chinese troops land in your country.”

Tom shook his head. “There’s no way that could ever happen.”

“Ha! Back in the 1990s, the Chinese could not even successfully launch their missiles. All of them would either blow up or crash shortly after they took off. Then your President Clinton gave them your country’s missile and satellite technology in exchange for secret campaign donations. What a fool. How do you think that the North Koreans got their missile technology, from Santa Claus as a Christmas present?”

“Are you saying that the Chinese helped out the North Koreans?”

“Maybe there is hope for you, yet, Mr. Sundowner,” the boss said. “You are one of the few useful idiots who I have met that has shown any hope of waking up and…and…” He spoke in Russian, asking something and waiting for an answer. “…and is smelling the coffee.”

For the next ten minutes, the Russian boss punctuated his warnings with, useful idiots! and Tom began his rebuttals with, you just don’t understand America.

The interview ended when orders were given for the dark glasses to be placed back onto Tom’s sweating face. As Tom was being led from the room, he heard a final question.

“Oh, I almost forgot. Do you know Rex Lafyte?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you interrogate him next? He came here to Los Angeles a few months ago and bought some lab equipment from someone who is another useful American idiot in an organization other than ours. Mr. Lafyte was very secretive about what he planned to do with it. Surely you can put two and two together after all that I have told you.”

  • * *

As Tom had been driven to the meeting, the attractive twenty-four year old woman who had taken his cellphone followed her orders. First, she drove east on the 405 Freeway and exited southbound on the 710 Freeway.

As soon as Tom’s cellphone was a half mile from his parked car, the agent working that day’s swing shift called Agent Ralph Peterson, who answered his phone at home.

“This is Ralph. What’s going on, Bob?”

“You told me to let you know if Tom Sundowner’s cellphone got too far from his car’s location, right?”

Ralph stood and walked to the closet to retrieve the shoulder holster that cradled his government issued pistol. “Yeah?”

“Well, they are now a mile apart and whatever Tom Sundowner is riding in is picking up speed.”

“Okay, tail that vehicle.” Ralph strapped his weapon to his torso. “Patch a link to where it is headed to the GPS unit in my vehicle. I’ll meet you at wherever Tom Sundowner ends up.”

  • * *

Because it was 7:40 p.m., much of the rush hour commuter traffic had already exited the 22 Freeway as Ralph guided the SUV toward Long Beach.

He smiled.

After months of planning and false starts, such as his introduction to Rex Lafyte the night he and that Bakersfield cop had destroyed Lafyte’s microwave, Ralph’s tension felt as if it were oozing from his being. Nineteen years of moving from one federal alphabet agency to another was about to pay off, Ralph thought. When you reel in a big one, your name becomes legend, at least among those who spy on others for a living.

Whenever he had grown bored with his duties at one of the agencies, he had moved on, often just a lateral transfer, always searching for a final one at which to end his career before settling into retirement.

Everything he had longed for in a career of law enforcement was available at his current agency. So what if the laws had become too overreaching, casting a net that made all of the more than 300 million souls who called America home suspects? Somebody’s got to do what we do, Ralph thought. This is a war, and every war has collateral damage.

When Ralph’s GPS unit’s artificial voice informed him, “Your destination is 200 feet on the right,” he groaned. Expecting the meeting place to have at least a little class, where Tom Sundowner and whoever he was to meet could find a dark quiet corner or maybe a back room as they enjoyed a nice dinner or a few drinks to fuel their conversation, Ralph had dressed for that sort of location. He wore a blue silk tie and tweed sport coat that he considered the best one from his wardrobe.

But everything about this bar spelled out dive. Its parking lot had cars with dents or faded paint. Only the four motorcycles lined in a row near the front door showed any pride of ownership, their chrome shone and tear drop gas tanks had elaborate custom paint jobs.

Agent Ralph Peterson pulled off his tie as the other agent joined him.

“If I had known that Tom Sundowner was going to a joint like this one, I would have put on jeans and a T-shirt before starting my shift,” Bob said.

“Well, at least one of us has to look grungy enough to fit in there when we walk in,” Ralph said. “I’ll change real quick and be out in a minute.” He crawled into the back of the SUV, glad that some of its windows were tinted to conceal his changing into the sweat pants and shirt that he jogged in during lunch breaks.

Inside the bar, the woman who still carried Tom Sundowner’s cellphone in her pants pocket watched as the man who had parked the SUV a few minutes earlier emerged from its rear passenger door. She finished her diet cola and walked into the ladies restroom.

After locking its door, she slid the card from the cellphone, the electronic component that connected it to microwave towers and a network that extended worldwide. She tossed the card into the toilet and flushed it.

She smiled as she walked by the bar’s two newest customers, sitting at a table and scanning the room as if they were looking for someone.

  • * *

The ride back to his car seemed even more uncomfortable than the one that had brought Tom Sundowner to meet the Russian crime lord. Now these two escorts probably think I’m just a useful idiot, just like their boss did, Tom thought.

He pretended to clear his throat with an exaggerated cough and lifted hand to cover his mouth. Before dropping his hand back into his lap, he lifted it two inches, leaving the sunglasses that blocked his vision ajar. By tilting his head, he could see a sliver of the landscape rushing by the car. A huge hand grabbed his shoulder as another adjusted the painted glasses, returning his vision to inky blackness.

“No, Mr. Sundowner. No peeking allowed until we drop you off at your car,” the one Tom thought was Rasputin because of his size and serious tone said. “We’ll be there in a few minutes and you can be on your way home.”

Disappointed that his interview of their boss had yielded speculation that his editor might reject, Tom hoped these two might prove more helpful. “Why do you think your boss mentioned Rex Lafyte buying that lab equipment to me?” Tom asked loudly enough so the driver could also hear his question.

The driver turned his head at a slight angle to the right so he could answer as he kept his eyes on the three lanes of traffic. “You must understand something. He is a man of very few words. Anything that he told you is important. Believe me.”

Da.” The one in the back seat slipped into his native Russian.

“So, you think Rex bought that lab equipment to make the biological agents that your boss said the Chinese are going to use to take over America? Or maybe he was just acting as a middleman, you know, he buys the equipment to sell to some Chinese bad guys for a big profit.”

While Tom’s two escorts conversed in Russian, the only words he could decipher was an occasional da or nyet, which he knew meant yes and no. Because their conversation contained more nyets than das, Tom began to slouch into the leather seat as he remembered his editor’s final instruction of, please try to be nice, Tom. Any posing as a tough guy reporter on your part will get you nowhere with those Russians. They will see right through you.

Tom leaned forward when the driver spoke over his shoulder in English. “You are the instigator, no, I mean the instigative…instigative…”

“Investigative journalist?”

“Yes. You are the instigative journalist. My friend sitting next to you and I will get into big trouble if either of us do your job for you. Besides, you appear to be smart enough. Our boss had me read your articles on gangs here in L.A. and asked me whether he could trust you. I told him I was not sure because you Americans can be so treacherous. Whoever heard of spying on your allies, like when your president tapped into German Chancellor Merkel’s cellphone? What a blunder. Without Germany on your side in Europe, you are nothing.”

The driver turned on the radio and set the volume loud enough to let Tom know there would be no further discussion.

  • * *

Before the sunglasses were removed from Tom, he heard what sounded like a window opening and then shutting a few seconds later. As Rasputin took off the sunglasses from Tom’s nose, the driver handed Tom his cellphone.

“I’m sorry but it appears that your cellphone is broken,” the driver said. “Maybe it is because it was made in China?”

Tom stepped outside and watched the Russians drive away. He cringed when he heard his two escorts laughing as they waved goodbye and Rasputin said, “Good luck, useful idiot.”

12

Rex Lafyte’s wind up alarm clock roused him an hour earlier than usual, 4 a.m. After splashing water from the bathroom sink on his face, Rex filled a stained cup with water and put it into his new microwave.

“Not bad for $59,” Rex said. “Maybe next time I can get the lawmen to total my truck by shooting it full of holes.”

He set its timer for 3:00 minutes and punched its Start button. Instead of the familiar humming sound of the oven, the flickering light bulb above him slowly lost its glow until the only light in the house came from a quarter moon’s glow through the windows. Rex bumped into one wall and two pieces of furniture on his way out the back door.

What he called his utility shed sat next to the back door and shared one of the farmhouse’s walls. He pulled a flashlight from the shed’s shelf and shone it on a series of twelve connected lithium batteries. When fully charged, they powered his microwave and the lights in each of his house’s five rooms, the only electrical conveniences for him because of his living off the grid.

Wayne must have run the batteries down because he was here all week, Rex thought.

He found a two gallon gas can and used it to fill the generator next to the batteries. An old model, it started when a rope cord was yanked to crank its seven horsepower motor to life. After pulling on the cord a dozen times, Rex concluded that the generator’s fuel system had clogged.

“I got no time for this.”

He backed out of the shed. Because of the gas on his arms and hands, he decided to shower, no matter how cold the water might be. The fumes evaporating off of Rex brought back memories of his father’s truck when its tank ruptured and front end became embedded in an oak tree after too many beers at his favorite bar.

His father had died at the scene cursing instead of saying goodbye to his wife and Rex after they arrived.

Rex’s bare feet kicked up dust as he walked to the stained plywood walled shower stall underneath a 130-foot tall redwood tree that his Grandfather John had planted as a sapling. A twenty-gallon metal tank rested on two by fours above him.

Rex shed his pajama bottom, all that he wore to bed eight months of the year, and hung it over one of the wooden walls. As he pulled the brass chain attached to the small tank’s bottom, water splashed his head, arms, and torso.

Thank God that it got up to 112 degrees yesterday, Rex thought, glad that yesterday’s sun had set about seven hours ago. With the stall positioned to the southwest side of the massive tree, the shower’s water tank had absorbed enough heat from the sun’s rays to provide lukewarm water.

His plans of cooking three of the eggs from the dozen that Audrey had given him last night would have to wait until tomorrow. “They’re non-GMO, organic, and were laid by free range chickens,” she had said as she handed him the carton. “You need more protein. It’s beginning to look like you’re burning muscle off of your body again. If you really were born again you would start working only six days a week, like God’s Word tells us to.”

Rex opted for a peanut butter and honey sandwich and ate his breakfast seated on his front porch. When Wayne had not arrived by his usual time, Rex began to pace back and forth between the house and greenhouse. He was on his thirty-seventh lap before Wayne exited his Uncle Ben’s truck.

  • * *

“Okay, what do you do when you get to Torrance?” Rex asked as he and Wayne walked to Sean’s house.

“Sit down on a bench next to the lake at the park. Then put the backpack on my right. Wait until your buyer sits down on the other end of the bench and says the right thing. Then he takes your pack with the dope and I pick up his pack with the money and drive the speed limit all the way back here to bring it to you. How many times do we have to go back over this? Don’t you trust me yet?”

Wayne stopped walking.

“And why is it that you parked so far away from your friend’s house? Another thing, why do I have to take his car instead of your truck?”

Rex picked up his pace, which made Wayne have to jog to catch up to him.

“Hey, if I’m going to be risking my whole future for you, I have a right to know, don’t I?”

“Yeah, I guess so. I parked two blocks away because my friend Sean doesn’t like his neighbors seeing my truck in front of his house. And the reason that you’re using his car to make the delivery is because it has a trunk. If you used my truck instead, then this pack would be in plain sight if a cop pulled you over and he might want to search it. Just drive really safe, okay?”

When Wayne saw a man who looked like a linebacker for a professional football team wave to Rex from the porch of a dilapidated house, he stopped walking. “Is that Sean that just waved to you?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t think you hung around with his kind.”

“What’s wrong? Is his skin too black for you?” Rex asked. “Look, life is too short to be worrying about crap like that.”

After the backpack was locked in the Neon’s trunk, Rex sent his courier off to L.A. with a final warning.

“You’re carrying really pungent weed in that pack. Whatever you do, don’t open it up because I lined it with two layers of aluminum foil just in case a cop with a drug sniffing dog checks out the car. If you even open one strap on the pack, it could be enough to blow this whole deal and put both you and me in jail for a long time. Dogs’ noses are something like 40,000 times more powerful than ours, you know. They can even smell survivors buried under tons of debris after earthquakes or tsunamis.”

“Or terrorist attacks,” Sean said.

  • * *

Traffic was normal for a Friday as Wayne Sundowner drove across the Grapevine.

Heading south were those stretching the weekend into three days to visit Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Universal Studios or other getaways in the Southland. Heading north were those who worked a four-day, ten hour schedule in L.A. and were going home for three days away from the region’s smog, traffic, and crime.

Crime.

That word now had new meaning for Wayne. Running a red light or doing a rolling stop at a stop sign or getting drunk on the beach had been minor league. By transporting a back pack full of potent pot, he had entered the big leagues.

The question that nagged him was whether he was destined to end up like Rex Lafyte, busted and doing time at some correctional facility?

But as Wayne let the Neon coast downhill into the San Fernando Valley, a more important question, who his real father was, returned to eat away at his soul. What if he works in San Pornando? Wayne wondered as he scanned the buildings to the left and right of I-5. The valley was home to a pornography industry that employed thousands and produced most of the world’s porn. A running joke among his high school friends had been how they should skip college and go to work making skin flicks instead.

Oh no, if he does work there, then I’m just the product of a one-night stand, Wayne thought.

He took the 405 Freeway exit and drove south past the northern part of L.A., then Beverley Hills, Santa Monica, and L.A. International Airport before entering a series of suburbs whose only boundaries were signs that defined where the next one began. After exiting the 405 at Redondo Beach Boulevard, he drove back under the freeway past Alondra Park’s golf course and entered a parking lot near the park’s artificial lake.

He retrieved the green canvas back pack from the trunk, slung it over his shoulder, and walked until he found the first empty bench next to the lake. Someone joined him on the bench two minutes later.

From the corner of his right eye, Wayne saw an Asian-American dressed in brown loafers, khaki pants, and an expensive looking blue shirt. He was clean shaven and his short neatly trimmed hair was unmoved by the breeze blowing in off of the Pacific Ocean four miles to the west.

The stranger spoke the agreed on passwords. “You have to wonder if the Dodgers will even make the playoffs this year.” His slight accent betrayed his birth in Hong Kong.

“My money is on the Red Sox,” Wayne said to confirm who he was.

The pickup man smiled and slid the small black nylon backpack that hung on his left shoulder onto the bench. He stood and as he passed Wayne, he scooped up the much heavier canvas backpack.

“Give my regards to Rex, Wayne,” the man said.

When Wayne stood and secured the nylon pack to his back and turned around, he could no longer see the pickup man, whose name he still did not and would never know.

  • * *

According to Wayne’s phone, it was a sixty-two mile roundtrip from Alondra Park to his mom’s home in Garden Grove.

He calculated it would take an hour of extra travel time and five minutes for him to grab some of his clothes and find out who his real father was. Then he would be back on the road toward Bakersfield to deliver the money to Rex. So all together, about an hour and fifteen minutes, tops, Wayne thought. I’ll just tell Rex that I stopped off on the way back for some lunch.

Although he had been away from his neighborhood for only one week, it looked strange to Wayne, something to be forgotten as he made a new life for himself. Wayne parked the Neon in the driveway of the home where he had lived since coming there from a maternity ward. When he burst through its front double doors, his mother met him in the entryway.

“Wayne? What are you…?” Her words ended as her son hurried to his bedroom. She found him throwing clothes from his closet onto his bed. “Your Aunt Eve said that you’ve been working with Rex Lafyte?”

“Yeah. Listen, Mom. I only got a few minutes. Rex got his friend to lend me a car so I could pick up some clothes from here.” Wayne moved to his dresser and pulled out drawers full of underwear, socks, and T-shirts and dumped them on top of his other clothes. He grabbed the four corners of the bedspread and clutched them with both hands. When he pulled the bundle’s end onto a shoulder, Sandra Sundowner thought Wayne resembled Santa Claus.

“Can’t you stay for a little while?” she asked as she followed him down the hallway. “I hope you’re not getting too attached to living up in Bakersfield. I think you’d be a lot safer moving back home here.”

“Sorry, Mom. It’s the busy season for Rex and I’ve got to get right back.” When he stopped at the front door, Sandra almost bumped into him. “Who’s my real dad, Mom?”

Sandra retreated to the living room and sat on a brown upholstered couch and waited while Wayne shoved the bundle of clothes into the trunk of the Neon. She did not look up from the white carpet when Wayne’s shoes entered her field of vision.

“Please tell me, Mom. I need to get out of here and back on the road. Rex needs me.”

Sandra sighed, the kind that Wayne remembered hearing from her whenever something in life had proven too great for her to bear any longer. “His name is Sam Washburn.” She lifted her head until her gaze was fixed on her son’s chest. “I was in love with him. When I told him I was pregnant with you, he dumped me.”

“Where’s he live?”

“The last that I heard, he’s somewhere in Iowa.”

Wayne continued to manipulate the screen of his phone. “How old is he?”

“A couple years older than me, either forty-nine or fifty. I don’t remember when his birthday is.”

Wayne scanned the list of names on his phone’s screen. “Here he is. Sam Washburn, age fifty. It says that he lives in Clear Lake, Iowa.” Wayne shut off his phone. When he reached the front door, he called over his shoulder. “Thanks, Mom.”

  • * *

Not until Wayne entered El Segundo did he decide to act on the plan that began as he drove away from his mother and came to full fruition as he traveled north on the 405 Freeway during his return trip to Bakersfield.

With freeway signs warning that the exit for L.A. International Airport was minutes away, Wayne mumbled a phrase his best friend Larry had often said when he could not decide what to do, “you got to either fish or cut bait, Wayne.”

After parking in LAX’s short term parking lot, Wayne opened the nylon back pack and counted out $1,000, all of it in $50 and $100 bills. He slid the $1,000 into his wallet.

Then he placed the rest of the money in the trunk, wrapped inside of a long sleeved shirt. After shoving a pair of his best pants, a short sleeved dress shirt, and two changes of underwear and socks into the empty pack, he placed the blanket containing the rest of his clothes on top of the shirt that held the remaining money and locked the trunk.

He waited until he had purchased a round trip ticket from L.A. to Minneapolis/St. Paul before he texted Rex. As always, Wayne used a series of words, acronyms, and abbreviations as he tapped out his message:

Ch of plns. Car at S end LAX Sht Tm Pkg Lot. Key n fr bmpr. IOU $1K.

13

After reading Wayne’s text message, Rex dropped the hose inside the greenhouse, where he had been watering his plants, one at a time. He sprinted by the water tank without turning off the water.

Loose gravel and dirt spun off his pickup’s tires as it veered onto the two-lane highway next to Rex’s property. Tires connected with asphalt, smoke from melting rubber leaving a trail as Rex power-shifted from first gear to fifth gear in six seconds, the fastest sequence he had ever inflicted on the clutch and transmission during his 205,000 miles of using them.

A speed limit sign displaying 50 MPH in large black numerals and letters caught his peripheral vision as the dashboard’s tachometer neared 7,000 rpm. Rex lifted his foot from the accelerator and watched the speedometer drop from 80 miles per hour to the speed limit.

“Keep your cool, Rex.”

The sound of his own voice calmed him until he tried to pin motives on the one he had trusted. “Why did that dumb ass do what he did?” He imagined how far $1,000 would take Wayne by air. I’m glad that he doesn’t have a passport, Rex thought. At least I don’t think he does.

Once again he spoke aloud, hoping it would focus him enough to get to LAX in as short a time as possible. “That was then, this is now.”

But the tail end of his elaborate plan to get out of debt and save Manny’s life kept surfacing: after Wayne brought the money back, Rex had planned to have Wayne drive the Toyota pickup around Bakersfield to make deliveries while Rex used the Neon to deliver the money owed to Manny at a half way point between Bakersfield and L.A., Magic Mountain, the huge amusement park with parking for thousands of cars. That way, the tracking device on his pickup would make whoever was spying on him think he was merely taking care of business around town.

The tracking device! Rex thought as he slammed the steering wheel with both palms. He remembered Sean’s warning that it possibly could also pick up conversations.

“I wonder how many customers will pay up today,” Rex said in a loud voice as he tried to picture what the possible eavesdropper might look like.

  • * *

As they began to leave the southern end of California’s Central Valley and climb the Grapevine, Sean still was trying to piece together everything Rex had told him.

“Man, you dug yourself a hole so deep that I don’t know if even God can help you out,” Sean said.

“Never mind all that,” Rex said. “I just want to know if you moved that tracer from my truck to the right car back there.”

“Well, there were enough of them to pick from back at that restaurant’s parking lot.” Sean’s eyes grew wide as he pointed at a passing red Chevy Malibu. “Wow! There it is now. That’s the car I put the tracer on.”

“What? Are you jiving me?”

“Stop worrying so much. That car is going so fast that pretty soon it’ll be miles away from us.”

A small smile replaced Rex’s frown. “What about that text message that Wayne sent to me? You think that whoever’s been trailing me intercepted it?”

Sean shrugged. “Hard to say. The way I understand it, the phone companies collect the data from calls and then hand it over to the feds. My guess is that there might be enough lag time between when they collect the data and when the feds get around to taking a look at it. Guess it depends on how high up you are on their list. Besides, you’re no terrorist so maybe they aren’t even monitoring your calls and texts.”

“Well, I left my cellphone at home just in case they might be tracking my location through that, too. You never know.”

“You got that much right. So, what time are you supposed to meet this Manny dude to pay him off?”

“Four p.m.”

Sean glanced at his watch. “We’ve got plenty of time then. In fact, maybe we can even find Wayne before his plane takes off.”

“Forget it. I have no idea where he’s headed or even what airline he’s flying on. After we find your car are you going to go visit your old ‘hood?”

“South Central L.A.? Are you crazy? If I hadn’t moved away from there to Bakersfield like I did, I’d probably be dead by now. I’m so big that even the gang bangers who can’t shoot straight would have hit me.”

  • * *

It took them a quarter hour of slowly cruising the short term parking lot at LAX before Sean spotted his Dodge Neon.

“There it is.”

Rex pulled his truck into the nearest empty parking space and then walked with Sean to the Neon. “He parked on the west side of the lot,” Rex said. “That figures. He said the south side. The little punk doesn’t even know his directions or how to follow mine.”

Rex found the car’s key under the front bumper and hurried to the trunk and opened it. He tossed clothes aside until he felt the long sleeved shirt with the money hidden inside it. After clutching it to his chest with his left hand, he thrust his other one at Sean.

“Thanks, man. Look, I can’t pay you now because Wayne took at least $1,000. That leaves me at best a thousand short that I owe Manny. But maybe the guy Manny owes will make a deal and give me some more time.”

Sean let go of Rex’s sweaty hand and wiped his palm on his faded jeans. “Man, you’re sweating like a stuck pig. Don’t worry about it. You just owe me one, okay?” He paused. “You sure you don’t want me to hang with you just in case there’s trouble because you’re $1,000 short?”

“Nah, I’ll be fine.”

  • * *

With two hours left before his scheduled meeting with Manny, Rex exited the 405 Freeway three times as he drove north, once in Culver City, then Santa Monica, and lastly, San Fernando. In each city he visited the addresses of three check cashing services that Sean had written down for him during their trip to LAX.

At each one, Rex purchased a $5,000 money order made out to Rodney Crawly. Wearing thin leather gloves, he took them from the clerks, carried them to his truck and placed them in the envelope that Rodney had addressed two days earlier.

Only the third clerk who processed the last money order asked Rex about his gloves.

“I have a case of bad dermatitis,” Rex had answered. “The doctor said to wear these to keep the lotion that he prescribed from rubbing off. Can you tell me where the nearest post office is?”

At the post office, Rex walked inside of the brick building and slid the letter into a slot in the wall marked Outgoing Mail. The small type under the slot told Rex that the next pick up was 5 p.m.

Well, at least Rodney should have his money by Monday, Rex thought. Not a bad way for him to start off the week.

14

As Wayne Sundowner walked through the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, he thought it should be renamed Mooseapolis after he passed a coffee shop with a sign bearing a moose head for its logo and then a ten foot tall moose carved from wood.

Wayne’s wait at the Greyhound bus terminal lasted three and a half hours. During his bus ride south, he thought of what to say when he called to introduce himself to the father he knew only by name.

But after exiting the bus, his prepared introduction fell apart after hearing his dad’s voice for the first time. “Ah, my name is Wayne Sundowner. You know my mother, Sandra. Her last name was Helm before she got married.”

“That’s all ancient history, kid.”

“You…you’re my father.” The voice on the other end of his connection turned angry.

“What is this, some kind of scam? I bet you’re a grifter, just looking for a way to milk me for some money.”

“No, listen. Sandra said you got her pregnant and –”

“Where are you?”

“At the bus station. I just wanted to see and talk to you is all. I’m not after any of your money, honest.”

“Okay. Be standing out in front of the station. What do you look like?”

“I’m wearing brown pants and a blue shirt. I have a green backpack with me.”

“I’ll be there in about fifteen minutes.”

  • * *

Sam Washburn tried his best to combine the Midwestern hospitality he had learned from almost two decades of living in America’s heartland with what he hoped could be as painless of a brush off as possible by taking Wayne to a coffee shop and buying him breakfast. As Wayne devoured sausage and eggs and a side of buttermilk pancakes, Sam delivered his monolog.

“You’ve got to understand my situation, Wayne. After Sandra told me she was pregnant, I went down to the recruiter and enlisted in the Army. I was out of Bakersfield in less than a week.” The resemblance between father and son unnerved Sam. “I’m sorry, but I got a wife and kids of my own to think about now. There’s no way that I can let my wife find out about you.”

“But why didn’t you at least write to me or call me or something?” Wayne asked.

“I didn’t even know that Sandra went ahead and had you. I gave her money to get an abortion. I always thought…” Sam Washburn signaled the waitress for the check.

15

Rex was able to park in the same row at the Magic Mountain parking lot where he had met Manny two months earlier to borrow money to buy his mother’s medicine. He snapped his face toward the rear window when a 2014 white Cadillac stopped behind his truck and Manny emerged from its front passenger seat.

“Man, am I glad to see you,” Manny said as he opened the door opposite Rex and sat next to him. “Where’s the money?”

“Right here.” Rex patted the bulging long sleeved shirt that sat between them. “I’m afraid it’s only $49,000.”

“I don’t know, man. Wait here while I go tell the dude I owe the money to.”

When Manny returned five minutes later and rapped on the window, his expression made Rex sweat.

“He wants to talk to you,” Manny said.

After settling onto the Cadillac’s white leather seat next to the stranger, Rex studied the collector. Anyone that’s wearing that much gold knows who he can trust, Rex thought. He’s no fool.

“I counted what Manny brought me and we’re $1,000 short,” the stranger said. “Just so’s there’s no misunderstanding, I’m just a debt collector. This is nothing personal between any of us here, just business. Manny borrows money, doesn’t pay it and the interest back on time and those he owes hire me to collect it, that’s all.”

“How soon do you need it?” Rex asked.

“Today.”

“I’ve got $5,000 worth of crank,” Rex said. “That will leave $4,000 extra for you. I have it stashed a couple hundred miles north of here. It’s pure so if you cut it you can make even more of a profit. I’m sure Manny here will be willing to sell it for you.”

“Uh…” Manny glanced at Rex’s worried expression. “Yeah, yeah, man. I can do that. No problemo, hombres.

The debt collector took a deep drag on his half smoked Kool cigarette and crushed it into the dashboard’s ashtray before pulling out his phone and staring at its screen. “You’re in luck; my next appointment isn’t until Sunday morning.”

“You mind if we take my truck back into Bakersfield first so I don’t have to come all the way back down here for it?”

“No problem, as long as Manny drives it. He can follow you and me.” The debt collector patted Rex’s four pants pockets and one shirt pocket.

“What are you looking for?” Rex asked. “You think I’m carrying?”

The searcher lifted Rex’s pants and felt his socks.

“You never know. I’m not just checking you for a gun or knife but also for a cellphone or a wire in case you might be a narc. If you are working for the cops, you guys would like nothing better than to lure me out to the woods, load me down with a big bag of crank as evidence and then the cops that followed us by homing in on your cellphone’s GPS unit could waste me out in the middle of nowhere, where there are no witnesses.”

“Stop being so paranoid, man,” Rex said. “The only reason so many of you blacks get shot by the cops is because you don’t obey their commands when you get pulled over. My friend Sean told me that. He should know. He said too many blacks turn lawless because they’re raised in families without fathers thanks to the welfare plantation white liberals stuck them on.”

“Sean who?” asked the debt collector.

“Sean Bullock. He’s my main man up in Bakersfield.”

The debt collector laughed as he lit another Kool. “I used to know that Uncle Tom when we were growing up. Sounds like he hasn’t changed, he always was more white than black. He’s a chump.” He blew two lungs’ worth of smoke into Rex’s face. “So are you.”

  • * *

Agent Ralph Peterson’s butt lounged on the trunk of Tom Sundowner’s Subaru at the same coffee shop where he had drafted him a week earlier to spy on Rex Lafyte and Wayne.

“How did you know I was here? Have you been tailing me?” Tom asked.

“Never mind that,” Ralph said. “What did those damn Russians tell you?”

“Huh?”

“Don’t play dumb with me. We know how you or they monkeyed with your cell phone when you met with them. I bet they took out its SIM card, right?”

Tom wavered.

His story of what the Russian boss had told him was a tale of espionage so incredible Tom hoped to eventually sell the movie rights to a Hollywood studio. But if he told Ralph first, he would probably order him to tell no one else what he had learned.

Ralph decided for him with a threat.

“Come on. Tell me what you know and we’ll go easy on your son Wayne. Otherwise he could get busted as an accomplice to whatever Rex has been up to. It can go either way in cases like these. Trust me.”

“Okay. From what the Russians said, the best I can figure out is that Rex Lafyte is acting as a middle man by buying lab equipment.”

Ralph groaned. “We already know about how he bought that lab equipment to cook up some meth. Why do you think we’ve been watching him?”

“No, you got it all wrong. The Russian boss told me that Rex bought the lab equipment to sell to the Chinese so they can make some kind of biological weapon here on American soil.”

“What the…Are you sure?”

“Think about it. If any of the Chinese agents bought the lab equipment, you secret agent guys would bust them in a heartbeat, right?”

As he walked away from Tom, Ralph pulled out his cellphone and punched a button.

“Hello? Is that tracer we put on Rex Lafyte’s truck still working?” He paced as he waited for an answer. “It is? Good. Where is it?… Here in L.A.?”

Visions of Rex Lafyte concocting a rudimentary biological weapon with some other right wing domestic terrorists to strike a blow against America flashed through Ralph’s head. Busting a domestic terrorist would be a ticket for him to at last move from the DEA to the NSA or CIA and land a big promotion. He issued his order as he slammed his vehicle’s front door shut.

“Close in on him right away and arrest him. Be careful because he might have some kind of biological agent with him. Alert the haz-mat team just in case we need them. I’ll meet you there.”

Forty minutes later, Ralph and his fellow agents had surrounded a red Chevy Malibu, parked in a suburban driveway in Dominguez Hills. After questioning its owner and pocketing the tracer transferred from Rex’s truck to the Malibu that morning by Sean, Ralph called the Bakersfield Police Department and asked them to have an officer meet him at Rex’s house in two hours.

  • * *

During the two and one half hour drive from Rex’s farm to the café’s parking lot surrounded by Sequoia National Park, Rex remained handcuffed to a metal bar bolted to the rear floorboard of the Cadillac. He could either squat or kneel on the floorboard or lay on the soft leather seat if he let his left arm dangle to the floor. He chose to lie down and pretend to sleep and listen to the options being discussed about him after the debt collector heard that Rex was being sought by the Bakersfield police and DEA on the police scanner in the dashboard.

“I don’t know man,” Manny said after hearing the debt collector’s rambling monolog about how Rex was working as an undercover informer and the search for him was because law enforcement had lost contact with him.

“That’s what’s wrong with you, Manny,” the collector said. “You’re too soft. You keeping on trying to be nice is going to get you nowhere except dead. If you hadn’t been nice to that cracker by lending him all that money in the first place we wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”

Because the length of daylight was near its annual peak, enough remained that Rex could guide the other two to the mine’s entrance before twilight had been replaced by darkness.

The debt collector ordered Rex to lead the way through the tunnel to the underground methamphetamine lab. He cursed as he brought up the rear of the procession, flashlight in one hand and 9mm pistol in the other.

But once Rex had lit the lanterns inside the lab, the debt collector’s attitude changed. “Look at all that crank.” He tasted some of the white powder. “Mmm…mmm…mmm. Pure as fresh fallen snow, and even whiter than you, honky.” He chambered a round in his gun. “Just one thing left to do, you narc.”

Certain of the option ordained for him, Rex stopped leaning on the metal door, their only exit from the mine, and pushed against it with his full weight until it clanged shut.

“What are you doing, fool? Open that door back up.”

“Do what he says, Rex.” Manny grabbed Rex’s shoulders and shook him. “He was only messing with your head about shooting you.”

“Sorry, guys, but I don’t like the idea of being left down here all alone with a bullet in me. I’m afraid the only way to unlock this door is from the other side of it. Look at it this way. At least there’s enough crank in here to keep you guys from eating my dead body for quite a while once you start getting really hungry.”

16

One Week Later

“So you won’t do anything to Wayne if I go ahead with my story about Rex?” Tom Sundowner asked.

“Who cares? Just don’t quote me by name.” DEA Agent Ralph Peterson yawned, his constant habit from little sleep and then boredom after following too many dead ends during the last seven days. “There’s been no trace of Rex Lafyte for days. He’s either dead or out of the country, especially if what you claim the Russians said is true. Besides, Wayne’s alibi checked out. He really was back in Iowa visiting his real father when Rex went missing. So he’s no longer even a person of interest.”

Tom rose to leave Ralph’s downtown L.A. office. “Okay. Be seeing you.” I hope no time soon, Tom thought.

“You know, Wayne was Mr. Cool when I talked to him,” said Ralph. “Based on the text message that he sent to Rex that day, we think that Wayne probably really did take $1,000 from Rex’s house to use for his plane ticket. Wayne was real stone faced until he talked about meeting his real father for the first time. Then he started crying before he banged his fists on my desk and started cussing him out. Maybe you should spend some more time with him?”

  • * *

The editor who had bought Tom’s stories on L.A. gangs proved more skeptical than Ralph. “We can’t print this unless we can verify your sources, Tom, none of whom you named. Your article mentions a DEA agent who spoke on the condition of anonymity, an unnamed Russian gang lord, unnamed Chinese agents… the only person you mention by name is Rex Lafyte and he is currently still missing. We have a set of journalistic ethics that we live by here, you know.”

“But…” Tom stopped his argument of why his story about biological warfare and the hunt for the missing Rex Lafyte was big time news after the editor looked at her watch. He thanked her and walked out of her office.

As soon as her door had shut, the editor forwarded Tom’s story as an attachment in an email to her best investigative writer:

Take a look at this attached story. There might be a story for you here. Start with your sources at the DEA. If at least one of them confirms any part of this, go ahead and write up what you’re told.

Two Months Later

Audrey offered the last of the chicken stew to Wayne Sundowner before scooping it from the crock pot onto her plate. Second helpings since Rex Lafyte’s disappearance had added fifteen pounds to her belly, thighs, and buttocks.

“What makes you so sure that Rex isn’t ever coming back?” Wayne asked. “Maybe he just decided not to pay off his debt and instead disappeared with all that money.”

Audrey shook her head.

“No. He told me if he was ever gone more than a month with no word from him that would mean he was dead. Sometimes I wonder if he sensed something bad was going to happen to him. Why else would he make up a will to leave half of everything he owned to me and half to you?”

“But then why did he order that engagement ring the day before he disappeared? I thought you said it was exactly your size.”

Audrey bowed her head. “I don’t know…”

One Year Later

Rodney Crawly saw the photo of Rex Lafyte as he scrolled down his news feed on Facebook. Underneath it was Rex’s description and a plea from the Bakersfield Police Department for “any information concerning his whereabouts…” The description’s height and weight measurements seemed to match whoever had hired him to be a chemist in a mine making methamphetamine. And the date of Rex Lafyte’s disappearance was only a couple of days before Rodney had received $15,000 worth of money orders, time enough for the meth Rodney had made to be sold and the mastermind who had hired Rodney to…

After nights filled with dreams of Rex returning to the mine for the leftover meth, Rodney called the phone number from the Facebook post and said, “I can tell you of Rex Lafyte’s possible whereabouts if you agree not to prosecute me for anything.”

  • * *

“You sure this is where Rex parked both times, when he dropped you off and when he picked you up?” Al Barkly, the police officer who had arrested Rex decades earlier and then shot his microwave a year ago, asked.

“Yeah, this is it,” Rodney Crawly said as he led the way into the surrounding forest. “I drove around for the last two weekends before I finally found this place. Rex wasn’t as careful when we hiked back out from the cave and I got a glimpse of that restaurant.” He pointed at the nearest building. “And Rex didn’t know I was wearing this when he led me to and from the mine.”

Rodney lifted his shirt and patted the pedometer attached to his belt. “I know the exact number of steps to get back there because I wore this when Rex took me to the mine.”

  • * *

Because of the cold, dry conditions of the mine where the three bodies were found, they had mummified more than decayed.

Two bullets, one in the head and one in his heart, were found in the remains identified as Rex Lafyte after DNA tests. Seven bullets were located in various parts of Manny’s remains.

A single bullet to the side of the head was pulled from the unidentified third body. The autopsy also revealed that body still contained methamphetamine, so much that the coroner concluded the third person had ingested massive quantities of it and become psychotic before placing his gun to his head.

Not until a check of DMV records by police officer Al Barkly did he discover that a white Cadillac had been towed from the parking lot closest to the mine the day after Rex Lafyte had been reported as missing a year ago. The DMV records of the car’s owner identified the John Doe as a missing person from L.A.

  • * *

I wish Rex hadn’t told Wayne about what he wanted done in case of his death, Tom Sundowner thought as he opened the back door of the funeral home and let his two accomplices in.

“Everything in order?” the funeral director asked after Tom returned to his office. “Did you have an adequate visit with the deceased?”

“Yes. I shut the lid of the coffin after I took a last look at Rex,” Tom said as he sat down.

“Unfortunately in Mr. Lafyte’s case, there is not much left to see because of his…” The funeral director coughed. “….of his rather desiccated condition. I suggest a closed casket type of service.”

While Tom distracted the funeral home director with question after question about his various prepaid funeral plans and their accompanying black hearses, coffins, flowers, and music, Wayne and Audrey lifted Rex’s body from his coffin and lay it on a blanket. Then they placed a bag of concrete mix into the coffin and re-shut its lid.

Wayne and Audrey carried the blanket and body out the back door to the trunk of Audrey’s car. As Wayne drove away with Rex’s remains, Audrey circled to the front door of the funeral home and joined its two living occupants.

“Hi, Audrey,” the funeral director said. “Everything is ready for tomorrow’s funeral. Perhaps you too might have some questions about our prepaid funeral plans? Losing a loved one makes one want to prepare for the end we all must face some day.”

“Can I take a look at Rex’s coffin?” Audrey led the way to where caskets and their occupants awaited one final trip. “Maybe I can be buried in one just like his.”

She shed a few tears as she patted the shiny brown coffin. “You know Rex would never ever want anyone besides you two to see what he looks like. Can you please put some kind of seal on his coffin right now so we can be sure no one else sees him?”

The funeral director squeezed her hand. “Of course.”

Tom, Wayne, and Audrey waited until dark to bury Rex Lafyte next to his greenhouse under the towering redwood tree he had loved since childhood.

  • * *

Rex Lafyte’s memorial service was held at the church where fourteen months earlier he had answered an altar call. Only two dozen attended it, among them Audrey, Sean, and Wayne and Tom Sundowner. The Helm Clan was represented by Wayne’s Grandma Cathy, her daughters Eve and Sandra, and son-in-law Ben.

“I wish we all had had more time to watch Rex grow from a spiritual babe into a mature child of God,” said Pastor Bindle to begin his message. “Regardless of the circumstances that he ultimately found himself in, it appears Rex Lafyte was ready to die, even the way that he did…” He paused. Unable to continue, for the first time during the 172 memorial services he had officiated, Reverend Bindle folded his five pages of notes and sat down and let the tears flow.

Wayne Sundowner and police officer Al Barkly sat in a back pew and exited the church first.

“You know, I still think that maybe we could have solved this case and given all these people here today some kind of closure a lot sooner if you had been more forthcoming when I talked to you right after Rex went missing,” Al said.

Wayne laughed and continued strolling to the Toyota truck left to him by Rex Lafyte’s last will and testament. “You didn’t know Rex like I did, Al. Whenever I started asking him too many questions, he always told me the same thing.”

“What?”

“He always said, ‘You really don’t want to know.’ I’m just thankful that he took the time to teach me what it means to be a simple man.”

Acknowledgments

Thank you, reader, for taking the time to read this story.

Thank you to my alpha reader for the last forty-one years, Jean Stroble.

Thank you to Dave Rodrigues for his painting, which was used on the cover.

Thank you to Emily Nemchick for her edits.

Thank you to Polgarus Studio for their formatting.

Any errors that remain are mine.

If you enjoy short stories, a sample of some free ones are available here: https://shortstorystop.wordpress.com/.


Bakersfield

  • ISBN: 9781370299843
  • Author: Steve Stroble
  • Published: 2016-11-17 17:00:12
  • Words: 31152
Bakersfield Bakersfield