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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

SEX, BIRTHDAYS, AND HOME IMPROVEMENT

     For the benefit of anyone who has been wearing a raincoat over their eyes instead of their private parts, allow me to point out that sex is quite the obsession these days. A lot of people think the contemporary fixation began with Larry Flynt, but I think it predated and bypassed the Hustler "mystique" and in fact is now rearing its head and waving its flag (insert snarky chuckle here, please) in every school, church, shopping center, hotel and leather goods emporium in the country. It's gotten so that you can't even walk into a college town nightclub without some buxom young thing balancing the slight protrusions of her post-adolescent pudenda in your general or specific direction. 
     The truth is, of course, that things have always been this way to one degree or another. To one generation it's the mini-skirt; to another it's the string bikini; and to yet another it's those nipple patches girls wear on the beaches in Mexico. The fact that people--especially young people--are comfortable with their inherent sexuality is in all likelihood a good and healthy thing and there's really no reason for me to get my shorts in a bind over such a silly subject, now is there?


     No, certainly not. That is, not until things become overtly exploitive, by which I most certainly do not mean provocative. The latter word is often a very fine thing, one which I suspect holds together the fabric of the American life and without a doubt makes for interesting travels through what might otherwise be sadly uninteresting times and places. But once the provocation turns into exploitation, then, alas, we have a serious concern. This should not be confused with a matter of degree.  Prudes were outraged by short skirts just as their grown children were freaked out by skimpy swim wear, just as others have been aghast at thongs and sticky things that just manage to cover the female nipple. The real issue, it seems to me, is one of intent. 
three string bikini
     There is, for instance, a huge difference between a sultry blonde roller skating along the sidewalk beaches of San Diego wearing the above alleged clothing for no other reason than to enhance her Vitamin D intake or, more realistically, to feed her own fragile ego, than to do so because she hopes to get the attention of people who, she hopes, will buy bottles of Gatorade or Captain Morgan. 
     It all comes down to commerce. Personally, I feel that once a financial component intrudes upon the otherwise provocative aspect of things, then those things have become, paradoxically, perverted. For some reason this nearly always involves the exploitation of women, an expression most out of favor these days, and yet one which is as prevalent as at any time in recent memory.
     Here is a case in point. Yesterday was my birthday. I don't mind birthdays at all. In fact, I welcome them. There was a time, however, and not that long ago, when my own idea of celebrating such an occasion was to blow as much money as possible getting the attention of the most deranged and avaricious nymphomaniac in the universe, for no other reason than to delude myself into believing that I was still young and vital and highly competent, if you catch my meaning and I suspect you do. 
     But because my appreciation of women has evolved from the puerile and lascivious to the more aesthetic and cerebral, I have developed a nifty way of sublimating whatever remaining sexual tensions I may still have while at the same time avoiding being guilty of the same crude and commercial behavior I deplore. What do I do? I indulge in home improvement.
    Looked at one way, I see that this may sound pathetic. But it really isn't. The best conversations I've ever had with women have been about art or food or school or friendship, pretty much in that order. And I find that I am especially receptive to these genuine pleasures--just listening to a smart woman talk is far more arousing in its own way than watching some intellectual casualty shaking her ass on the dance floor--after a hard day of painting the patio walls of my condo, or raking leaves, or running the vacuum. 
     I'm sure I will always continue to derive some stupid pleasure from admiring the delicious curves and upturned lips of women in various stages of dress or undress. But these days I feel all the more lucky because I can dismiss the looming commercial aspects of such visual transactions and simply roll in psychic ecstasy whenever a female tickles the thinking part of my brain. I recommend it to one and all.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

PABLO PICASSO

Self Portrait

Friendship

Girl Before a Mirror

Weeping Woman with Handkerchief

Old Guitarist

First Communion

Nude, Green Leaves and Bust

Bather

Nude in Armchair


Lobster and Cat

Guernica


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

WHEN PROPHECY FAILS REVISITED

     What with all the recent talk about the world coming to an end, or not coming to an end, as it turned out, I thought this might be a nice time to talk about Leon Festinger and the theory of cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person tries to hold two incompatible ideas in his mind at the same time. For instance, a person might say to himself, "Hey, I'm a bright and clever individual, smart enough to pick out a charlatan from a true prophet" and at the same time believe the rants of a confirmed conman such as millionaire Harry Camping, the latter's name recently said to sound more like an activity at a gay outdoor survivalist meeting than that of a genuine prophet. 
     My point, of course, is that a lot of otherwise nice and more or less well-intentioned folks really did believe what Camping told them was going to happen and now that it did not happen, and they know it didn't happen, how do these folks respond? Do they believe less in Mr. Camping's wisdom, about the same, or more than before?
     Before you answer, let's take a look at the development of the theory of cognitive dissonance and a great book called When Prophecy Fails.
     In 1956, a research team that included Festinger, Henry Riecken and Stanley Schacter infiltrated a cult. The authors comprised a team who conducted a study of a small cult-following of a Mrs. Marian Keech, a housewife who claimed to receive messages from aliens via automatic writing. The message of the aliens was one of a coming world cataclysm, but with the hope of surviving for the elect who listened to them through Keech and selected other mediums. What Festinger and his associates demonstrated in the end was that the failure of prophecy often has the opposite effect of what the average person might expect. The cult following often gets stronger and the members even more convinced of the truth of their actions and beliefs! This is exactly what happened with the followers of Mrs. Keech and this is what I would expect to happen with the believers who put so much time and money into getting ready for the recent rapture.
Marian Keech


     Now, you might argue that things were different then. That's a good point. Back in 1956 there were no twenty-four hour cable news shows and certainly no internet or world wide web telling people how stupid they were to believe in things that they don't understand, as a popular tune once had it. But one thing that has not changed is our collective ability to believe we are a lot smarter than we actually are, if by "smarter" we mean not making commitments to things based on very little evidence. 
     It should be acknowledged that many people who have never heard of Harry Camping believe that the rapture will one day occur, that the true believers who died with their faith in Christ intact or who were saved at the time of the great awakening will be lifted skyward toward paradise while those of us remaining on earth will endure some very unpleasant times. I am not bold enough to critique another person's belief systems, so long as those beliefs do not directly harm anyone else. What is a bit unusual is the claim made by some that the exact date and time of this rapture can be predicted with specific accuracy. Unaccustomed as I am to quoting Gospel, I was pretty sure I remembered a couple verses from Sunday school in my youth that applied and sure enough, I did. I had to look them up, but I found them in the New Testament, right there in Mark 13, verses 32 and 33. This is Jesus talking here and you know when the Big Guy talks, it's good to at least think about the message. It goes like this: "But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is."
     As far as I can tell, that should settle the matter right there. There is tremendous ambiguity in the Bible, especially in the first five books of the New Testament, what with all the translations and parables and figurative speaking. For instance, the old saw about a rich man getting into heaven is as likely as a camel passing through the eye of the needle is usually misinterpreted to mean that the wealthy won't be seeing the pearly gates when in reality the Needle's Eye is supposed to be one of the gates of heaven and the only way a camel could pass through is to unload the treasures from its back, meaning that you can't take your wealth with you rather than being denied admittance on the basis of social stratification. Wow. I'm really sounding theological here, huh? Not my intent, I assure you.
But there isn't much ambiguity in the statement that nobody knows when the end times are gonna be here. With that one statement, the matter should appear closed.
     And let recent history tells us the very opposite. The more people get hoodwinked by one prophet, the more likely another seems to be to come along and pick up the pieces. Part of the reason for this, as I say, is that we as a species have a lot of temerity in thinking of ourselves as intelligent, especially given the fact that our behavior and our beliefs so often conflict. But the other reason this interests me (and maybe you) is that when times are bad, it is very tempting to put our faith in the hands of someone who does stand to benefit from our need to follow them. Think of Jim Jones or David Koresh. Think of any major political person on the national or international scene. 


     A man who had a birthday yesterday once sang a silly song with one good line: "Don't follow leaders, watch the parking meters." Yet after all these years, many of us still cling to the notion that the guy down the street in the necktie and golf shoes, the guy with the Caddy in the garage and the mistress in the back house, the guy who preaches salvation out of one side of his mouth and slurps young boys with the other--we sometimes believe that man has the answers. And so today I will end this with another line from that silly man who sang that silly song, because even silly people get it right once in a while: "Sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace."
    Happy belated birthday, Bob. 

Monday, May 23, 2011

THE TROUBLE WITH SANITY



THE TROUBLE WITH SANITY


Chapter One

Wild, Delicious and Dead 

     I was walking over to pay the Hawaiian Shaved-Ice man the hundred I owed him for the quinnella when a kid rolled up on his skateboard and jabbed a .22 into my ribs. Rick, the ice man, ran a neat little booking agency, taking bets on Turf Paradise races. If you knew how to approach him, you could bet quins, tris, exactas, or daily doubles all day long. For an extra five bucks, he even had a portable closed circuit monitor where you could watch
your horses throw their jockeys. I didn’t suppose the kid would be amused by any of this.
     “Going for a walk,” he said, flipping the board off his foot and catching it under one arm. He was the type of cute little pudding head you wanted to strangle just for looking at you. He used his gun to motion ahead and to the left. I walked ahead and to the left. Rick would have to wait. After all, he’d only spend the money on something he liked.
     “You want to tell me where we’re going?”
     The kid spat from the corner of his mouth. “Going to your funeral, you don’t shut up.”
     It made me happy that old gangster movies had an audience with the young.
     We passed an old guy with long gray hair, a brown parka, and striped shorts about half as thick as a sheet of notebook paper. He sat at a bus stop, his legs crossed in a figure two, the top one bouncing with enthusiasm, as if it were happy to have a purpose.
      Just beyond the bus stop stood the Madama Hotel, a great place to send out of town guests if you never wanted to see them again.
     “Walk inside and wait,” the kid said. I expected him to spit again, but he disappointed me.
     He didn’t follow me inside.
     The lobby was a humble affair, with a rainbow collection of colored chairs and sofas, the nicest of which had been cleaned around the time of Kennedy’s inauguration.
     A man popped up from behind the front desk. “Help you?” he asked, if such can be considered a question.
     Ignoring the twenty-odd No Smoking signs plastered on the walls, I popped one from my pack and met the man across the desk. “Got a light?”
     He brought a Bic up from his pocket and made it flame. “You Konkle?”
     I inhaled and smiled. “Somebody here sent a kid for me. Saved me from paying my bookie. Who do I thank?”
     The desk man rang a bell I hadn’t even noticed.
     An old man not quite large enough to be a dwarf tugged on my jacket. “This way, if you please?”
     I tipped my smoke at the desk man, spun on my heels with what I hoped was a certain nonchalance, and followed the short guy across the lobby into an office with the word “Private” tattooed on the door. My escort waited just inside. I approached the man behind an old cherry wood desk. I recognized him at once.
     “You Konkle?” he asked. In only two words, he managed to convey half a dozen accents, all of them affectations.
     “My friends call me Dr. Konkle,” I said, looking around for an ashtray. The gray on the end of my smoke was arcing like a condemned bridge. “And you are Lloyd Shircore. To what to I owe the honor?”
     Shircore waved off my question as if it weren’t in a dialect of his liking. “Lefty, get Dr. Konkle an ashtray.”
     “Lefty?” I chuckled. “Is it still World War I and somebody forgot to tell me?”
     Again I received the dismissive wave. Shircore said, “His grandfather was a Bolshevik. What can I tell you?”
     Lefty heaved over an ashtray stand which I chose to ignore. “You can tell me what I’m doing here.”
     Shircore frowned, not suddenly, but with a gradation that suggested such an expression was right at home on his mouth. “I got a friend named Bobak. Cecil Bobak. He says I ever need a favor, I should get in touch with you.”
     "In polite society,” I said, spilling ashes on the carpet, “You offer your guests a chair, possibly even a drink. And you make appointments over the phone. Not through some kid with a cap gun.”
    I didn’t notice Lefty move up behind me, but I found out he was there. As fast as I felt something brush against my pant leg, a tiny fist grabbed me by the scrotum and squeezed.
     Some pains are so precise and intense, they can change the way you see the world. Sitting across the desk, the frowning Lloyd Shircore changed from cream white to lavender to orange to green and back to his original color, or at least that’s how it seemed with every internal organ in my body screaming for relief.
     “You can let go now, Lefty,” Shircore said after half a minute or so. The midget dropped his hand and I hit the carpet hard and did not care at all. “And get our guest a chair and a drink. He looks like a gin and tonic man to me.”
     I sucked down the gin and tonic, chewed up the lime and asked for a refill. Lefty obliged. And the third one tasted every bit as good.
     “You see, Konkle,” Shircore explained. “There’s this girl I want you to meet. She’s engaged to my boy. Her name’s Caroline Speaks. I don’t like her.
I had her checked out. She comes up so clean she could be a dish of soap. So what’s she want with Joel?”
     My respiration no longer sounded like I was in mid-marathon. “Joel is your son? Have you talked to him about your concerns?”
     The frown waltzed along his face for a moment and then resumed its stationary pose. “Dr. Konkle, you know who I am, so you know that the people
in this town often think of me as a criminal. Joel is no different from them. Oh, when he totals his Audi and needs a replacement, then it doesn’t matter how I earn my money. But if he’s not needing something, well, I’m just a corrupt father messing in his kid’s affairs. Now here’s the point. Cecil Bobak says you helped him in something like this. I want the same
service. Hey, the girl checks out, I’m a happy guy in love with the world. She turns out to be a shady Sadie, you save my boy a lot of grief. But either way, Joel knows nothing about this.”
     Nobody seemed to care that I wanted a refill. I said, “Look, Mr. Shircore, I’m a retired psychologist.”
     “You’re thirty-seven and you were fired.”
     “I like to earn my money playing drums in a little jazz band down at the Cajun House. We play weekends. You should catch our act.”
     “You’ve done P.I. work off and on for the last three years. Your band stinks, although I hear you personally aren’t that bad. The deal is you bring me proof she’s clear, she’s dirty, I stay happy and you get six grand. Now get out of here, both of you. I need a nap.”

     Cecil Bobak owed me. Not only had his check bounced, but my crushed vitals had to be considered. Back in the office, with a pillow on my chair and feet up on my desk, I used my phone to confuse his secretary into putting me through to him on the golf course at the Country Club. I was glad he still had money for greens fees. After some polite swearing and protestations about his ignorance of the workings of financial institutions, he finally shut up long enough for me to ask him to arrange for me to attend a party where both Caroline Speaks and
Joel Shircore would be holding court. My request was met with some swearing that was not at all polite. After he wore himself out, he said he’d call me back in a few minutes and hung up.
    I used the time to look over the file Lefty had given me. Three credit bureau reports all showed essentially the same things: Caroline Speaks, age
twenty-seven, no aliases, lived in the same Scottsdale apartment for the last eight years, and liked to shop at high-end department stores. She still
had plenty of room to grow on her indebtedness. She rarely missed a payment. The Volvo she drove was hers free and clear. Her motor vehicle report was a study in boredom. No tickets, no violations.
Her Criminal Investigations Record was clear. I could see why the old man was troubled. Even with all his lawyers, guns and money, he didn’t squeak
this clean. For that matter, neither did I.
     Her parents were from West Virginia. Father a coal miner, deceased. Mother a seamstress. No siblings. Caroline moved to Scottsdale right out of high school. Got a job working retail. Still with it after eight years. Her photograph worried me more than anything. Even in back and white, Caroline Speaks wore her beauty the way a used car salesman wears jewelry. She had looks to spare, knew she had them, and knew that you knew. The photo
caught her in half profile, her long dark hair draped over one eye as the other looked out at the camera with all the hunger a coke head brings to flake on a mirror. “I’m a monster with teeth,” her closed lips seemed to say. “But you won’t mind dying.”
     The phone interrupted my highly unprofessional speculations. Cecil Bobak didn’t curse this time. After giving me the when—tonight after nine—and the where—the Zanex Room—he told me we were even and hung up. I had Tamla, my secretary, order a dozen roses from him to his wife.
      “Have the card read: To Anne, with all my love.”
      Tamla made a face I didn’t like. “I think his wife’s name is Beatrice,” she said.
      I told her she was absolutely correct, to send them out as I had directed, and grabbed my hat. “By the way, I need you to go out with me tonight.”
      She pushed back the baseball cap she always wore when she sat at her computer. “Dr. Konkle, we have discussed this before. I work for you.”
     “It’ll be work. Tamla, I’m on the job, as we speak.”
     “Oh.” One syllable, and she filled it with as much contemplation as a room full of psychics. “Then I’d be on the job, too. With overtime pay.”
      “I’ll pick you up at 8:30. We’re going to the Zanex Room, so dress appropriately.”
      “I always do,” she said, as unruffled as her T-shirt and blue jeans. “By the way, Rick called. He wants his hundred.”
      “Thanks,” I said. “But right now I have some shopping to do.”
 
     Caroline Speaks worked in the men’s department at McCains, a somewhat elitist fashion hole redeemed by the fact that you didn’t need an appointment to get in. I made a mental note to keep my receipts. Lloyd Shircore was the kind of guy whose accountants would insist upon supporting documentation for expense reports.
     Finding her was easy. Hell, I could have just followed the trail of drool left by the school boys from other departments sniffing around her in heated delirium.
      “Excuse me, gentlemen, but the young lady has a customer.” I smiled. She blinked.
      The three stiffs fractured a bit, backed away in different directions, and appeared to make little effort to avoid knocking over merchandise.
     “Welcome to McCains,” she beamed. “My name is Caroline. How may I be of service?”
     I pretended to look around her. “I’m a man of many faces, Caroline. Such a man needs an appropriate wardrobe.”
      “Oh, I agree,” she replied, even though I had no idea what I’d meant by that. 
   “Konkle’s the name. Dr. Douglas Konkle.”
    “What can I show you today, Doctor?”
     If one poured expensive molten chocolate into the finest brandy, and the mixture could speak, the sound would have tasted just like Caroline’s
throaty voice.
     “For Monday’s, a lamb’s wool cardigan, perhaps a cotton shirt, silk tie, something from the Burberry London line, flannel trousers, a pair of
Allen-Edmonds leather shoes. Tuesday’s I require a three-button wool jacket and matching blue trousers, something by Prada, I would think, perhaps some Berluti shoes. Ah, but Wednesday, such a problem. What would you recommend?”
     She motioned me still and circled me. My earlier image of the car dealer came and went. “For a man like you, I think a tan double-breasted wool-and-cashmere coat. It stays chilly at night here until April, after all. Then I’d slip you into a pair of delicious black corduroy pants and a natural breathing shirt to show off those pectorals. And I would sponge your tired feet in a dark set of A. Testoni shoes.”
     It had taken me half an hour to memorize what I would ask for and she topped me without a drop of perspiration.
     “I hope I didn’t offend your male colleagues.”
     “Boys,” she said, almost shrugging. “I keep explaining to them that I’m engaged”—she flittered the stone on her ring finger the way a butterfly fans its wings—“but they pretend to be deaf.”
     “Who’s the lucky fellow? Anyone I know?”
     She drew back for an instant, then relented. “Joel Shircore. I don’t recall him mentioning a Dr. Konkle.”
     “Joel Shircore? The private investor? That’s amazing. He and I haven’t been formally introduced, but I’m attending a function this evening at the Zanex Room.”
     “You are?”
     If one compounded the musical drawl of every native West Virginian into two words, it would have sounded exactly the way Caroline Speaks spoke. She knew it, too, coughing afterwards, as if the twang had merely been some phlegm caught in her long neck.
     “Indeed so. My, look at the time. Send that Wednesday attire to my office this afternoon, will you?” I handed her one of my old cards and a plastic rectangle to make an imprint for charging.
    As I left, the boys resumed their sniffing escapades. It seemed to me that Ms. Speaks didn’t find their behavior all that objectionable.
    Three grown men, none of them clumsy in appearance, stood waiting for me by my Taurus. I thought about catching the security guard’s attention, or the valet’s, thought better of it, and soon enough regretted that thought.
    All three men were in their forties and wore loose-fitting suits—one brown, one gray, one blue—none of which had been purchased at McCains. The smallest of the three men would have appeared large leaning against a mature Saguaro cactus. Brown Suit motioned me into my own car. He fell in through the passenger side. Gray and Blue sat together in the back. None of the tires exploded from the weight.
    Brown Suit said, “Start her up. Keep your hands on the wheel. Do like we tell you.”
    I turned the key. The motor purred. “You forgot to say: and nobody gets hurt.”
     He punched me behind my right ear, probably not as hard as possible, but hard enough that I still can’t remember the name of my high school.
     “I didn’t forget,” he said as we hit the road.

    We arrived at the offices of Joel Shircore Investments, Limited, without further incident. The three men delivered me to Joel’s office. Although they didn’t come in with me, the earth did not tremble, so I knew they weren’t far beyond the
closed door.
    “You met with my father early this afternoon, Dr. Konkle,” the young Shircore assured me from within a suit too good for McCains. His screamed
Rodeo Drive. “You used to earn your living as a psychologist, but the phone book has far better ones in it than you, some of whom still hold a license
in this state. Your gambling proclivities are too insignificant to fall under my father’s gaze. The only logical conclusion is that he employed you as a private investigator. I want to know why.”
     Joel gripped the lip of his office desk as if he expected his skinny frame could actually shatter it.
     “You’re very well informed.”
     “Answer my question, won’t you, Dr. Konkle?”
     “Why not ask your father?”
     The young guy possessed his father’s knack for facial expressions. “Last chance, Doctor. Next time I ask, you can answer to the men who brought you
here.”
      “Let me make a suggestion. Why don’t we ring up your dad on your speaker phone there? You can hear the entire conversation. I’ll tell him I screwed
up and you’re onto our meeting. If he spills the beans, you get your answer.”
     He lessened his grip on the desk. I’ve learned to sweat on the inside and I was set to overflow.
     “My father has been apprehended. One of his assistants murdered in the process.”
     “Lefty?”
     He nodded.
     “You notify the police? This can’t have happened more than two hours ago.”
     “It happened,” he said with a sigh, “While you were at McCains. Another matter we’ll discuss later. Perhaps.”
     “You said apprehended. How do you mean?”
     He slid down the front of his desk, leaned against it and sat on the floor.
     “Did I? Kidnapped is a better word. No ransom, of course, but these weren’t the police. Not even in this town. Now, will you please answer my question?”
     “Your father employed me to do research on your fiancée.”
     Joel tipped his head forward and brought it up with a snap. “And what have you learned?”
     I patted myself down for a cigarette and came up empty. “Not much. If I had to guess, which it looks as if I do, I’d say your dad’s just being overly
protective.”
     The young man glared and smiled at the same time, a trick I for one have never mastered. “You’re quite mistaken,” he said. “For instance, I’ll wager
you assumed I’ve helped finance her lifestyle? Well, she won’t take my help and lives as if she doesn’t need it. Her parents can’t afford to help her. She’s an hourly employee at McCains. Very hourly.”
     “No commissions?”
     He shook his head. “I’ll tell you what I suspect, Konkle. I suspect she could tell us quite a lot about father’s disappearance. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
     It didn’t to me, but I nodded. “Tentatively, let’s assume you’re right. My advice is still to call the police. You can’t sit on Lefty’s murder forever.”
     I received the glare and smile combo again. “Of course I can. My business interests differ from father’s more in appearance than in reality. I doubt
the corpus delecti will surface any time soon.”
     I really wanted that cigarette. I suspected where the conversation was headed. Joel didn’t keep me waiting long.
     “You will investigate father’s disappearance.”
     I spoke with all the candor I could muster. “You have a habit of putting me in situations where I have to refuse you. I don’t like refusing a man in your position.”
     “My three associates will provide you with all the assistance you need. What was father paying you?”
    “He mentioned six thousand.”
     Joel stood and pressed a button on his phone. “Dusty! Bring ten K from petty cash. Sign the receipt on my behalf.” He dropped back to the floor. “The advantage, Konkle, of paying in advance is that the other person owes you.”


I picked Tamla up at 8:30 sharp. She looked so good it bothered me a little.
   Her hair was curled and the color of pineapple. It didn’t just catch the light; it waved it in. But as she had pointed out, she worked for me. 

    We arrived at the Zanex Room at 9:05 and it cost me twenty bucks just to get a guy to think about parking the Taurus.
    I asked Tamla if she’d rather stick together or mingle. She looked around at the sweep of one million lights refracted in gold and surprised me by taking my arm. You never knew about some people.
   Someone had laid out the other guests like bumpers on a pinball machine. We managed to avoid tilting and made our way to the bar. Tamla called for a cosmopolitan. I stayed with gin and tonic. The bartender inhaled as if he were about to offer me a quote on the drinks when something behind me caught his eye and he went back to cleaning the bar with a dry rag. Tamla tugged at my elbow. We turned around just in time to catch the cool breeze of Caroline Speaks.
    I thought of a song lyric I’d not heard in decades. It went: “And she asks how are you? as she offers them a drink. The countess of the social grace who never seems to blink. And she promises to talk to you if you promise not to think.” I mopped the grin from my face and said hello.
    “Dr. Konkle! You’re wearing the clothes I sent over. And it isn’t even Wednesday! Won’t you introduce me to your companion?”
    I introduced them.
    Caroline lacked a male entourage this evening. I’d no more than filed that observation for later review than I noticed that the Zanex Room, at least
for this evening, was a couple’s venue. As far as I could see, Caroline was the only one in the room without a “companion.” She may have surmised my
thoughts.
    “Joel will be here any moment. It is the funniest thing. After I selected your wardrobe this afternoon—” She turned to Tamla. “I’m sorry, but you’ll
have to admit there’s nothing more exciting than dressing a handsome man?”
    My secretary didn’t flinch. “I dress all my handsome men.”
    Caroline’s forehead crinkled at that. “Yes, well, I was going to say, after you left the store today, I suddenly remembered who you are. Didn’t you
write a book called Intuition and Other Parlor Tricks? I loved that book. Was that you?”
    I motioned a refill from the bar. “In my more self-important days. Yes, I wrote it.”
    For reasons unexplained, that courageous admission attracted some small attention. Tamla and I began growing onlookers from both arms.
    Within a few minutes, Tamla was telling the story to anyone who would listen and to several who probably preferred not to hear. “Yes, he can talk to you for just a few minutes and tell you things about yourself—not everything, I mean, he’s no magician—that would surprise you.”
    This intrigued Caroline. “What can you tell about me?”
    I was ready for that one. “Nothing you’d want repeated in here,” I said around my lime.
    “Are you having a good time, dear?”
    Joel stepped up from behind us and clasped Caroline’s hand in his own.
    I introduced Tamla and she informed Mr. Shircore that she was indeed pleased to make his acquaintance.
    Joel suggested that he and I should speak privately. I left Tamla in Caroline’s care, or perhaps the other way around.
    “I don’t suppose you have any news for me?”
    I shrugged. “A bit. You won’t like most of it.”
    “I don’t care for sugarcoating. Or for stalling.”
    “Your father’s dead.”
    That stopped him. I didn’t care for the shrimpy big shot wannabe, but I hadn’t wanted to tell him that. I plunged ahead. “You were right about him
being kidnapped. They killed Lefty first, I imagine.”
    “They?”
    The cigarette wouldn’t wait this time. “Look, I know your father had Caroline checked out before he contacted me. She looked swell on paper, but
there was something about her he didn’t like. He just couldn’t figure out what it was.”
    “And you could?”
    I blew out a cloud that would have choked Boston. “She was blackmailing your father, except he didn’t know she was the one doing it. Not because he was stupid, but because she was good. You’re smart. You wouldn’t talk your dad’s
business around her. But face it, she could find out what she wanted through people near you, or near your father.”
    “Lefty! That squirrel-headed—”
    “It makes sense. Why else kill the little guy? They could’ve gotten to the old man without offing anyone else. But Lefty was a loose end.”
    Joel watched me smoke for a moment. Then he said, “You can’t prove any of this, can you?”
    “I think I can. We’ll know pretty soon. But think about it. The old man starts checking her out, she finds out about that from Lefty, and worries your dad will find out it’s her who’s blackmailing him.”
    Joel watched me savor my cigarette.
    "I decided to put your boys to work, since you offered.” Joel took a drag and handed the stick back to me.
    “The one in the brown suit, the one you call Arthur? He’s not that dumb. We got to talking about Caroline’s dad.”
    “The coal miner? What about him?”
   I offered him another hit but he wasn’t interested. All he wanted now was to hear my story. I didn’t keep him waiting. “Arthur used to work for your
father. And when I suggested that ole Artie check out your bride-to-be’s family history, he remarks that your pop used to make business loans to the
West Virginia mine owners. Never had much trouble getting paid back. But just about nine years ago, this one guy had his visible assets frozen during
a routine government inquiry. So he wouldn’t pay. Or couldn’t. Then your father applies pressure. When that didn’t work, the mine owner found himself dead. His name was Elmore Gates, the man your intended called daddy. Step-daddy, it turns out. Speaks is the mother’s name.”
   I ground out my cigarette on the shiny hardwood floor. Joel crossed and uncrossed his arms. “Caroline put father together in this, came out here to extort that information without revealing her connection.”
   “Blackmail was just a means. Revenge was her motive.”
   “Knowing she was on borrowed time, she had father and Lefty murdered.”
   “And lives happily ever after. Pretty neat.”
   Joel found a place for his hands. They parked on his hips. “You will repeat this in Caroline’s presence.”
   I said I’d rather not. He said he didn’t care.
   The five of us—Joel, Caroline, Arthur, Tamla and myself—met in a private room upstairs. You could hardly hear the clinking and laughter from beneath
us. I repeated the story. Tamla fidgeted. Arthur held a canary in his belly, trying to look dutiful and grim while remaining very pleased with himself.
   Joel eyed Caroline. Caroline stared at me. When I finished, she commented, “That is an incredible story.”
   Joel’s bony frame vibrated. “How much of it does he have right?”
   “Want me to handle that one, honey?”
   I knew who had spoken before I saw her holding the Colt single-action on us. I knew because I’d heard a similar drawl earlier in the day. “Mrs. Speaks,” I declared. “I didn’t see your name on the guest list.”
   She tapped a glossy fingernail against her gun. “I brought an invitation,” she said.
   Loretta Speaks didn’t conform to my idea of a seamstress. Someone had poured her into a tight red dress. She wore her hair just a bit shorter and just a
bit lighter than her daughter’s. Otherwise she stood out as a tall drink of water from the same gene pool as Caroline. She also stood out as the only one in the room holding a firearm. I’d found out earlier that Arthur ported a shoulder holster, but if he planned on drawing, he’d waited too long.
    “Tarnished, not ruined,” Mrs. Speaks observed. “Our plans, I mean. Caroline won’t be able to marry the runt because now he knows what we’re up to, and besides, he’ll be dead. But we squeezed enough out of the old guy to get us into a new set up. Honey, you did real fine. Don’t you worry.”
   Caroline sashayed over to stand by her mother. She turned and looked back at the rest of us as if someone had passed wind and tried to blame it on her.
   Joel stood. I didn’t thank that was such a hot idea. He had his back to me, and I could see the skin along his neckline glow. I guess he’d had enough.
    He took three steps forward. “Don’t point that gun at me, you hillbilly bitch.”
   Mrs. Speaks didn’t let him take a fourth step.
   The gun’s muzzle roared, a spark lit up the barrel, and Joel flopped backwards, landed, and was still. He hadn’t hit the ground before Arthur dragged a Mag from beneath his brown jacket. With her gun at waste level, Loretta Speaks turned a few degrees, just before the top of her head exploded from Arthur’s blast. Her gun discharged all the same, hitting the big man between his shoulder and chest.
I wished someone would scream. I couldn’t have been the only one fighting the impulse.
   Joel was too motionless to be anything but dead. Loretta wasn’t gong to target shoot tin cans off fence posts any more, either. Arthur looked to be
in bad shape. His gun had dropped between his feet and Caroline had caught her mother’s Colt before it even had a chance to touch the carpet. She pointed that gun at me.
    “Shame to mess up such nice clothes,” Caroline said, her natural twang accented with a dash of hysteria. “But I got to shoot you all and be on my
way.”
   My body uncurled until I was standing up. I said, “Do you mind if I check to make sure Joel’s not alive?”
   She twitched the Colt in his direction and I inched my way over to his breathless body. I placed my thumb and fingers along his neck. There was
never going to be a pulse there again. So I lied.
   “He’s tougher than he looks,” was all I had a chance to say before she shot him again.
   Those two seconds was all the time Tamla needed to grab Arthur’s Magnum, pull back the hammer, and squeeze the trigger. Unfortunately, she omitted
aiming from her equation. She did buy me enough distraction to grab the .38 from Joel’s jacket and fire one round through Caroline’s abdomen.
   Caroline Speaks didn’t shoot anyone else that night. They DOA’d her upon arrival at Good Samaritan.
   The homicide detectives had a long night. From their point of view it was bad enough they had to keep all the non-witnesses downstairs from slipping
away. Worse yet for them they had to wrestle with the Organized Crime Bureau to maintain jurisdiction over the case. Compared to that, accepting our version of events must have been easy.
   After checking with the hospital and learning that Arthur would live to sucker-punch another day, I drove Tamla to her apartment. She still looked good, especially having saved my life. Before she touched the door handle, I tapped her wrist and kissed her quick on the cheek.
   "It’s a little after five. Take today off.”
   She chuckled and shook just a bit. “I’ll be in by nine,” she said. She surprised me with a return peck on the cheek. “Apparently I need to protect you,” she said on her way out of the car. I watched her climb the stairs to her apartment, slip a key into the lock, step inside and close the door.
   You never knew about some people.
   I drove on home with my windows down, relishing the cool early morning air.

The Trouble with Sanity


     Marcella Knight positioned herself on the sofa with her feet clogging up the office coffee table. She examined my face for possible reactions. She wore a waitress uniform despite her assurances that she’d never been a waitress. She puffed a long lean cigarette despite a stated history of asthma. And now she fluffed her blonde-streaked brunette mane despite earlier protestations that she found such “girlie” behavior absurd. If my face was to avoid
revealing any reactions, it had its work cut out for it. Appearing stoic while conveying engagement in the client’s concerns requires some mastery of self-discipline. The alternative is to lose the equilibrium of the encounter, a condition that’s bound to give one of the two parties an advantage that works against a fair exchange of information.
   Ms. Knight plopped one of her feet to the floor. “Admit it,” she said. “When one of your clients says someone’s out to get her, you figure she’d paranoid. And I suppose now you’re going to ask why I would assume that about you, or if I think I am paranoid. I assume it, as you may have guessed, because I’ve been to guys like you before. So understand this: I am not paranoid. I have no delusions.”
   “I have a suggestion,” I told her, motioning that I’d like to bum one of her cigarettes, unnaturally slender though they were. She tucked her arms together as if a wave of cold air had plunged into the office. “I promise not to out-think you if you’ll show me the same courtesy.” The chill moved on in search of higher ground.
   Ms. Knight smiled. It was the kind of smile a teacher gives a student who has successfully worked through a difficult math problem. “Look, Konkle. I need one thing and one thing only. I need an investigator who’s also a shrink. When I ran into your secretary at the grocery, we struck up a convo. The next thing I knew, she’d talked me into seeing you.” I reminded her that I wanted to bum one of her cigarettes. She asked if business was so bad that I couldn’t afford my own. I answered that Tamla, my secretary, hadn’t picked them up at the grocers. “Latent hostility,” I joked.
   She fished one out of her pack, slid it across the table and sat a lighter down beside it. As I reached for them, she asked, “Do you carry a gun?”
   I said that I had been known to do so, on very rare occasions.
   “Ever shoot anybody?”
   I lit the stick and slid back her lighter. “Why don’t we decide if we’re going to talk about me or you?”
   She stopped playing with her hair and said, “Okay. You. Why’d you lose your license to practice psychology?”
   I fought back the urge to choke. Studying her uneven smile for a moment, I said, “In the therapy sessions here, people aren’t required to talk about things until they are ready to do so.”
   Her smile evened out. “Fair enough. Look, I’ll make it simple. Someone is trying to get to me. Trying to make me think I’m crazy. I’m not. And I want you to prove it.”
   And that was as simple as things between Marcella Knight and I would ever become.
    I buzzed Tamla to bring in our standard retainer forms. Without a trace of humor, she asked if I meant for therapy or field work. I told her the latter and noticed I still had half a cigarette left.
   “How will you proceed?” Ms. Knight asked as she removed the tennis shoes she had been wearing. Tamla walked in about that time and pretended not to notice. I asked her to stick around, explaining to the client that Tamla was often more than a secretary. “First thing, I’ll assimilate what I already know. Second, I’ll fill in the gap. Third, I’ll solve the case.”
    Rather than rebuke me for chutzpah, the client said, “Assimilate.”
   “You’re trying to throw off somebody, make them confused about your habits, your appearance. In the process, people close to you—people who think they’re close, because nobody actually is—have concluded that you’re nuts. To prove to them and to yourself that they’re wrong, you’ve been to a few other psychologists, but you didn’t care for them. Too stuffy, I imagine.”
    I still had a quarter smoke left. What a world.
    She slipped into the pumps she’d pulled out of her handbag. “Is that the shrink or the shamus talking?”
    Tamla leaned forward. “He’s right, isn’t he?”
    Ms. Knight slipped a blue vest from her bag and armed into it. “Let’s say he’s hired,” she said, taking a pen from Tamla and scanning the paperwork.
    The three of us drove in my Taurus past the Camelback Mountains into deepest Scottsdale, where the golf courses act as carpets for jewelry stores, restaurants and boutiques. Marcella Knight lived in a large flat in the Teakwood Apartments at the corner of Belalinda and McCormick, an intersection notable for never having had a pedestrian in its crosswalk. She shared space and rent with two roommates, Jeremy and Jennifer, a couple engaged to one another. They owned a small leather goods store in nearby Ahwatukee. They weren’t home when we entered.
   Someone liked the color red. The three chairs in the living room were red. The sofa was red. The dining room table was clear glass on a cast iron frame, but the four chairs surrounding it were red. I recognized a Jasper John painting over the mantle with a familiar title. An old video starring Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton stuck out of the VCR.
   Tamla tittered. “Okay, this place is creeping me out.
    Ms. Knight gave her a puzzled look. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Let me show you my room.” We walked over a carpet the color of which is often reserved for Hollywood premieres, hopped up a dandy little two step incline, and entered the client’s bedroom.
   Being a reader, I typically notice bookshelves first. Ms. Knight’s boudoir lacked one. No shelves of any sort took up space in the room I estimated to be about halfway between the size of a footlocker and the Bank One Ballpark. But what the room lacked in literature, it made up for in oddities. I enumerated them aloud. “No curtains on the window, even a second floor walk-up, is odd. Each of the dresser drawers being left open about an inch
is quirky. But the suicide note on the vanity mirror in purple lipstick, that’s not unusual. I particularly like the subjunctive.”
   The client walked to the vanity and stared at the mirror as if this message was something new.
     In neat printing it read: “I should not like to live, and cannot.—M.K.”
   She shook her head and pointed at her reflection. “That wasn’t here when I left this morning.”
   I sat her down on the edge of the unmade bed. “Your roommates leave before you?” She nodded. I asked Tamla to check their bedroom. She left to do so.
   I kneeled to make eye contact. “Marcella, who has access to this place?”
   She shivered and recovered, like a little boy at a urinal. “I never have guests. Jeremy, Jennifer, they’re quite popular. I suppose they might have given someone a key, or someone might have snagged one. But I don’t know any of those people. If I’m home, I always hole up in here.”
   I eyeballed the vanity. Someone had dusted it very recently. There wouldn’t be any prints for the police to smudge.
   “You said somebody was trying to gaslight you—make you think you were crazy. What were you going to show us?”
   She stood and opened the door to the bathroom. She stepped inside. Tamla returned and indicated the other bedroom had a similar message. She looked displeased. Marcella came out of the bathroom holding a litter box between her hands. “We never had pets,” she said. “This turned up yesterday. Two days ago I found dresses I hadn’t bought. Gone today, of course.” And several different cars follow me on the way to and from my appointments. I’m a triathlon coach. I’m all over town. Somebody has a lot of time, following me. Oh, and I never use the subjunctive.”
   Tamla said, “I shouldn’t think so.”
   I told Marcella to talk about Jeremy. “His name is Jeremy McKeel. He’s a good bit bigger than you, and better looking. I met him right before I started my coaching business.”
   “How’d you meet him?” Tamla asked. I gave her an appraising glance and she shrugged.
   “His girlfriend, Jennifer Suraski, was telling me that she needed a coach. She’s a good swimmer, but she wanted to branch out. I’d been thinking about going into that business. I’m thirty-five and my competitive days are coming to an end. We were talking about how much my start-up costs would be. Then she says that Jeremy is always looking for a good investment.”
   “How much?” I asked, concluding that no one in the place would have anything harder to drink than wine.
   “Fifty thousand,” she said after clearing her throat. “And he’d only known me a few days at the time. Plus I’m getting a huge break on the rent here. It’s crazy how good they’ve been to me. But it is a good investment. I am worth it.”

    We drove back to my office. I told Tamla to take Marcella to lunch and to pick me up a pack of smokes. I waned to drop in without notice on Jeremy and Jennifer. I launched off on the 202 and found their store in less than three hours.
     Action Leather Products sat back off the sedate community of storefronts like a teenage hooker afraid to approach her first john. A wooden sign whispered the name. The window was one long sheaf of what I supposed was lamb skin. The door handle rested on the left side of the frame and opened out onto the street. A display marketer could have spent six months just correcting the exterior. It appealed to me immediately. If the heat in the store didn’t sweat me into a pool, then the girl behind the cash register in the leather bra could have accomplished it. Phoenix in July had nothing on her, and she had nothing on except for that bra and a leather thong. The lamb who’d given its hide for her work uniform had been quite petite.
   “I hardly know where to begin,” I said, removing my bowler and loosening my tie.
    She looked up at me through bright red bangs. “Is there something I can show you?”
   I smiled. “You’ve been nice enough to show so much already, I’d hate to put you out.”
   She thought about that for a moment as she stepped around the counter towards me. She looked down at herself, as if suddenly aware of her costume. “Oh, yes, well, my friend Jeremy, he owns the place, and he says the straight guys’ll love it, the gay guys’ll imitate it, the straight chicks will see themselves in it, and the dykes’ll flip, so why not?”
   I noticed she pretended to be chewing gum.
   “And what do you say?”
   She fanned her bangs out of her eyes and said, “I say we get a lot of people looking, but not enough buying. Which type are you?”
   I walked around her for a better view—of the shop. Jackets, belts, trousers, gloves, whips, and a number of items I mentally grouped as accessories hung throughout the electric candlelit emporium in no order I could fathom. The price tags were cute. One said: “You can buy three of these,” another inquired: “What do you have in trade?” while yet another, a set of jacket, slacks and boots, boldly proclaimed: “You can’t afford it.”
   I turned and she was standing closer than one would to a suspected shoplifter. I eased back my hips and asked, “Who would I talk to about franchising Action Leather products? I’m an investor, you see, and I must confess I have quite the affinity for what we have here.”
    She slipped another inch closer. “Jeremy McKeel is the owner—on paper.”
   She wanted to tell me something but also wanted to get something out of it.
   “By any chance are you the silent controlling partner?”
   She laughed. I tried not to notice the effect laughter had on her bosom.
    “No, I’m just the sexy cashier, engaged to the guy—Jeremy—who is the controlling one.” She kept searching my eyes as if she had lost something of great value in them. I didn’t blink.
   “I’ll tell you what—”I touched the tiny name tag tied to her strap—“Jennifer. If you can help me, perhaps I ca help you. If I’m going to invest twenty mil—a substantial sum in franchising this operation in five states, as well as Canada, Western Europe, and Tibet—”
   She blinked, which gave me a chance to do the same. “Tibet?” she asked. I thought her lower lip trembled.
   “Gets awfully cold there. But if I’m to do all that, then it seems I need to speak with the actual decision maker, not some boyfriend with delusions of grandeur.”
   She pushed herself right up against me, cupped her hand onto the back of my neck and whispered into my ear. “Meet me at Sugar’s at 9:30 tonight. We can help each other.”
   I told her I agreed.

   I had a few things waiting for me back in the office. Tamla and Marcella had gone out, come back, and left again. Sitting on my desk were three items. The first was a boxed pack of Marcella Knight’s brand of cigarettes. The second was a bottle of expensive gin. The third was a note from Tamla. It read: “Douglas, thought you might like a different brand of cigarettes. Haha. The gin is Marcie’s treat. Someone is following her because when we left the liquor store a silver T-Bird stayed right with us. I know what you’re thinking, but her roommates don’t own one of those! Anyway, she had to coach a group at the Preston Spa, and you weren’t back, so I borrowed your gun—”
   I tore open the seal on the bottle and drank a shot right from the neck.
   “—and went with her for protection. Don’t be mad. Back by 5:15pm. Tamla.” That old saying about how in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man was king? It was bunk. He’d be an outcast, a freak, shunned or awkwardly stoned to death. Reading Tamla’s note, I decided the same thing was true of sanity.
    In the meantime, I set out to work on the gin, pace a nice ring in my carpet, and since I had forty-five minutes to kill, finish assimilating and start asking myself the proper questions. I might even have time to smoke an entire cigarette.
   They arrived back at the office twenty-seven minutes late. I was glad to see them.
    “What the hell’s going on here?” I shouted.
    Marcella had changed outfits for her coaching job. Tamla was wearing her standard ball cap, t-shirt and jeans. They both chuckled. “See, he was worried,” Marcella said. “Tamla said you would be, but I didn’t think—”
   “Shut up. Sit down. Tell me what has been going on.”
   They sat.
   Tamla spoke. “You got my note. Well, we thought maybe whoever has been messing with Marcie was probably the guy in the Thunderbird. The windows were tinted, so we really couldn’t see. So when we left here, we drove to the spa, and when we went through the parking lot, sure enough that same car with the tinted glass was already there! I phoned the plates in to our little friend at the DMV—she says hi—and the car’s a rental, big surprise. But I know somebody at Hertz and he checked for me and guess what!”
   I pointed to the gin bottle. “Makes me smart. Jennifer Suraski?”
   Marcie, as we were evidently now calling her, stepped forward and punched me on the shoulder hard enough to raise a lump. “How’d you know that?”
   Tamla shook her head. “I told you he was good.”
   “Someone’s setting up all three of you, using your weaknesses to destroy you.” Why, I haven’t decided.”
    Marcie didn’t like that. “What weaknesses do I have?”
   I still had part of a cigarette going, imagine that. I played with it, the way a man with too much booze in his belly will do. “You worry too damned much. Mostly you worry about going nuts. Plus you’ve been running from problems your whole life. Things get ugly? Poof! You run a marathon. Now you’re worried you can’t cut it. That’s one.”
   She downed a swig of gin without wiping off the mouth of the bottle. I liked that.
   “Two, Jennifer Suraski may have rented that car, but she wasn’t tailing you. Her weaknesses are good looks she can’t quite handle—”
   Tamla scowled. “Oh, really?”
   “Yes, and she needs to please other people far more than is healthy for her. Third, this Jeremy seems to me to have a few problems. Both you and Jennifer claim he’s controlling. I think he feels out of control, but for goodreason. Whoever really owns that leather store is pulling his strings and it’s making Jeremy mighty nervous.”
   Marcie passed the bottle to Tamla who shocked me by taking a sip. Marcie said, “What has any of that to do with what’s been happening to me?”
   I shrugged. “I’ll get the answer to that tonight at a saloon called Sugar’s.”
   Tamla laughed. “You’re going to Sugar’s? A biker bar?”
   I studied her face. What a sweet girl. “I’ll leave my bowler in the car, okay?”

   As it happened, I had already made three crucial mistakes. First, in my haste to please a paying client, I had neglected to check out Marcella Knight. I would soon regret that. Second, I disregarded the proven fact that under the influence of gin, I became bolder than most situations warranted. I would soon regret that. And third, perhaps as a consequence of the first two mistakes, I forgot to retrieve my gun from Tamla. I regretted that the moment I opened the door to Sugar’s.
   A bouncer only slightly smaller than a cement mixer held a hand flat against my chest. I stopped and said, “What.” Not a question. Just a word.
   His shaved head caught what little light there was. It twinkled. “Here to see who?” he grunted.
   I was not in a pleasant mood. I barked, “Out of my way, Snatch.” I bent his index finger backwards until he dropped to one knee. Two of his friends appeared behind him. I didn’t let go.
   “Do I have to rip this off and jam it in his ear, or do I get a table?” Beyond them, several biker boys sat at the bar, indicating us with their thumbs. One of them laughed. “Or maybe I’ll just drag him around all evening? You guys call it.”
   The larger of his two colleagues said, “Private club, Mister. Here to see somebody?”
   I drove my heel into my bouncer’s free hand. “Fine. Your way. Can Jennifer come out to play? Jennifer Suraski? Leather Girl?”
   The two standing bouncers nodded like bubbleheads. The smaller one said, “Yeah, sure, Mister. You just let go of the brother, we’ll take you to her. That or we might get ugly.”
   “Uglier,” I said and released him. He stood right up and flexed his fingers. “Let’s go. Snatch, show me the way.”
   We walked along an old hardwood floor that bowed horizontally when not vertically. Tables filled with pitchers and glasses of hops bobbed up and down on fat round tables. Pool balls cracked and sailed. A dusty jukebox played real vinyl. At the moment it played “Whipping Post” by the Allman Brothers. I peeled a twenty out of my pocket and shoved it into one of Snatch’s hands. “Hard feelings?”
   He looked at it as if I had handed him a dead bug. “Not too hard. I forget things after a while. Here’s your table. I’ll send her over. Drink?”
    In for a penny, I figured. I ordered a gin and tonic.
   The place wasn’t too crowded. Only about half the thirty or so bikers sported colors. The other half sprinkled themselves individually throughout the room, careful not to overdo the eye contact. Stare at an Angel for too long and you’d be lucky if you only wore a pool cue across your head.
   Snatch came back. He wasn’t holding my drink. “’S go,” he said. I followed him into a room marked “office” in black felt pen. We stepped inside. He closed the door behind us. The other two bouncers were already seated. Marcella Knight sat on the edge of a desk, facing me. Snatch said, “Here he is, Miss Suraski.”
   I told myself that made sense. Sometimes I lie to myself, just for the amusement. “You’re Jennifer Suraski?” I asked, wondering how I’d managed to live this long with so little brains.
   She crossed her legs and smiled. If facial expressions could commit crimes, hers would have been quite heinous, I’m sure.
   “In the flesh. Good of you to come. You must have so many questions.”
   I should have had a couple hundred of them, but I couldn’t think of a one. Finally I said, “Maybe you could tell me what’s going on.”
   “Why not?” she said. “Jeremy and I are members of what people sometimes call Organized Crime. Some of our income would confuse the authorities. It becomes necessary to invest it in other enterprises, like Action Leather Goods. Marcella Knight was struggling when we met her. When we offered to help her out, she didn’t care where the money came from.”
   “But eventually she figured it out?”
   “She did. She pretended to be horrified. Oh, she continued to accept our financing, naturally. But her objections came to sound more and more like a prelude to blackmail. Well, you met her. Does she seem like the blackmailing type to you?”
    “That was her at the leather store?” A good question came to me at last. “Why’d she pretend to be you?”
   Jennifer shot me that heinous crime smile again. “She refused to divest herself of that particular holding. It became necessary to make her crazy. The right blend of hallucinogenic and programming. It got to the point where she’d do anything we asked. But then—Jeremy had to go and screw things up!”
   Something about the way she said the word “programming” made my skin itch. “What about Jeremy?”
   The heinous crime frost melted as if someone had brought the flame end of a blow torch to it.
   “He decided that he wanted her. After all, she proved herself easy to control.”
   The tumblers clicked into place. “Let me guess. You frame her for his murder?”
   She actually clapped. “Very good, Dr. Konkle. Excellent. And you make it easy. The client notes you made after visiting with me—as Marcella—make it clear you believe her to be unbalanced. So after Jeremy is shot—with your gun—she shoots you and then herself. That story won’t be questioned.”
   I tried not to sound too coy when I remarked, “After all, you’re the one I claimed was unbalanced.” I was unsuccessful in my attempt. Snatch flew up behind me and twisted my neck with one arm and held that arm in position with the hand I’d crushed.
   “Say the word, ma’am, and I’ll twist his head off.”
   Jennifer rearranged her legs to no great effect. She shook her head. Snatch let go after a while. The blood resumed its flow to my brain, not that that was going to help me in this situation.
   “Dragon,” she said to the man I called Snatch. “Bring out Marcella.”
   He mumbled something and disappeared behind a side door. Out in the saloon someone shot a break that was met with laughter. Jennifer Suraski brought my .38 out from behind her and nobody laughed. I’d lost all buzz residues. I wondered about Tamla, but didn’t want to give them any ideas they hadn’t had already.
   Snatch came into the room walking backwards. In front of him and to one side strolled the real Marcella Knight, more modestly attired than the last time I’d seen her. And walking her out was a big, dark-suited man I’d heard about but had never met. I knew it had to be Jeremy McKeel. He was the only one in the room better looking than me.
   “Hey, babe,” he said to Jennifer without looking at her. “I heard you missed me. Luther, Panto, you two go out and clear the place. Lock it up. Come back. Move. Dragon, eat this.”
   He fired a hole through the bouncer’s chest with a silenced Mauser. You couldn’t quite see the light of day through the bruiser’s chest, but once he finally fell backwards, you could see he was as dead as he was ever going to be. McKeel told Marcella to go sit down. She took Snatch’s seat. He wouldn’t be needing it.
   The two other bouncers ran out of the room, I presumed to follow instructions. McKeel turned to me. Jennifer rested my gun on her knee. It wasn’t pointed at anything in particular.
   McKeel said, “Hey, Doc, I’m sorry you had to get mixed up in all this. Maybe you can still make it out okay. I don’t know yet. What was that question Freud used to ask? ‘What do women want?’ My answer: they want more. More money, more loving, more apologies, more grieving. I make one little mistake with Red here and this one wants me dead? Reminds me of that joke about Moses. He comes down the mountain with the Ten Commandments. He says got good news and bad. The good news is that he talked Him down from fifteen. The bad news—”
   Jennifer cleared her throat. “Adultery is still on the list.” She pointed the gun at him now. Outside it was getting quieter.
   “Before we all get shot up,” I said. “Could somebody tell me if my secretary is okay?”
   McKeel shrugged. He had no idea.
   Suraski nodded. “Sleeping one off in her apartment. I fixed her a drink of aluminum chloro-hydrate. You’d know it as a Micky. Now, I believe I was about to kill some people. Who was it? Oh, yes, the men in the room.”
   The two bouncers bounded back into the room. I peeled off my watch band and flung it at Suraski. She turned the gun in my direction, but I rolled off to my right, hoping to make a nest behind an easy chair. One shot swished and another exploded—him and her, in that order. I didn’t hear anybody hit the ground. What I did hear was the timid and confused voice of Marcella Knight. “Please don’t shoot me.”
   I rolled back up and just had time to see both bouncers draw their pieces. Neither McKeel nor Suraski had managed to hit one another. The bouncers leveled their guns. Marcie started to say something else. The bouncers fired. McKeel and Suraski went down. Neither one got back up. Marcella Knight swooned. I wondered who was next. The smaller bouncer walked over and gave me a hand up. If my face had been punctuation, it would have been a question mark.
   “Everybody works for somebody, huh?” he said. “That somebody gets worried things aren’t going right, you make decisions. Deal with it. You gonna be good about this, take dopey home and forget about this?”
   “That’s exactly right.”
   He put his gun away. “What you waiting for?”
   I had no idea. I scooped up Marcella and we got the hell out of there.

   We went directly to Tamla’s apartment. My secretary was just waking up from an extended nap. She complained about a bad case of cottonmouth. I poured all three of us a glass of soda, drank mine, went home and slept through the night.

   Three days later I was reading the real estate section of the newspaper in my office when Tamla tapped on the dividing glass and tiptoed in. I held up the paper. “Some Nevada firm no one’s ever heard of just bought Action Leather Goods,” I told her. “Looks like they’re aiming to franchise. What’s that?”
   She handed me a note. “We just received a case of your favorite gin. From Henderson, Nevada.” She seemed a little spooked.
    I read the note and handed it back to her. All it said was, “Thanks for keeping your end of the bargain.—Sugar.”
   “What should we do?” Tamla asked.
   I brought out two glasses. “Have a drink?”


 The Gingerbread Man






“Parker Allen is still alive.”






I sensed a tickle of a smile curling up and wiped my mouth back into its uninspired position. The young woman who spoke those inadvertently amusing words whisked a handful of seeds to the hens strutting just outside the library. She hadn’t told us her name, and while meeting anonymous potential clients in public places conjured a certain irksome melodrama, my curiosity at the demise of the Parker Allen gang overruled my objections. In any event, even if this person possessed pencil-shavings instead of brains, we could still soak up the first healing warmth of January now that our miserable two weeks of winter was finally over.






She initiated the covert operator role, so I felt just fine playing along by not looking at her as I said, “The cops and the feds are satisfied that he died in the shoot-out earlier this month. Why aren’t you? Are you a carnivores paranoiac who needs conspiracies to feed her sickness?”






She removed her shoe, massaged the balls of her foot, tapped the toe of the show on the bench, picked up a folded bit of stationery that had fallen out, and tucked her foot back inside. She began counting on her fingers. For a moment I thought she hadn’t heard me. At last she said, “He got in touch with me nine days ago. I was suspicious right away because anyone who knows me well enough to send me flowers knows I’m allergic. And remember, Dr. Konkle, there was no funeral. There were no services. All they had was just a lot of pictures of a guy shot up so bad it could have been anybody.”






A male pheasant staggered up and the hens scampered away. The cock stared at Tamla until she caught on that he expected to be fed.






While she tended to the bird, I asked, “What about the flowers?”






The girl plopped the paper over onto my lap. Her paranoia-bug was contagious. I found myself making furtive glances to both sides before opening it. The hand-printed note said, “Tuesday outside church 8AM.”






Passing the note to Tamla, I said, “You saw him there?”






We again suffered a long delay between the end of a question and the beginning of an answer, a situation made more frustrating because it wasn’t an answer to a question I’d asked.






“We want two things from you,” she said once Tamla refolded the note and tossed it back. “First, we want your complete confidence.”






I shook my head. “Complicity in the biggest crime spree in twenty years? What’s second prize, the clap?”






Tamla leaned in and whispered, “You believe her?”






I shrugged. Some people I liked lied to me on a regular basis. With a little practice I figured I could learn to despise this person, so maybe she was honest. “Just curious,” I said. “What’s the second thing?”






She dropped the Mata Hari number and looked right at me. “Make sure no one else finds out he’s still alive.”






The young lady went on to explain, in her own cryptic way, that Parker Allen wanted to maintain the legend that had built up around him while making sure that two of his surviving accomplices continued to believe he had died. “It’s for their own good,” she told us. “If they knew the truth, they’d come back from overseas and get arrested. They’re better off in the dark.”






I gnawed on my pen cap. I hadn’t smoked since Christmas Day and the urge washed over me like a tsunami from time to time. When it began to subside, I pointed out that all of us—the client as well as Tamla and I—would in fact be accomplices after the fact. I saw no way around it.






She shook her head. “Parker’s exact words were: Tell the shamus that if he’s as good as he thinks he is, he won’t have to worry.”






I didn’t have anything clever to say to that.






After agreeing on the amount of a retainer, we scheduled a second meeting with her for later that evening in the basement of the St. Simon and Jude Parish.










A half dozen or so transients were on either side of the door to the mission’s basement. Most of them wore the slumped shoulders and sunken faces of the borderline emaciated. Packs darkened from moisture and road dirt hung down their spines and among them collectively sprouted enough facial hair to make Norelco delirious. Their oversized pants displayed pockets bulging with whatever personal possessions they couldn’t squeeze into their packs. And their shoes were all so large that I would not have been surprised to learn that each man slept in his left one three nights a week and his right one the other four, with room left over to take in a boarder.






The sole exception was a man an inch or so taller than the others, though about the same age and build. He, too, had missed a few meals lately, but while the others looked up at us from down-turned faces, he thrust out his chin, pulled back his shoulders and gave us an unwelcome view of crusty teeth. “Welcome!” he hollered, though we were only a few feet from him. “Lady inside waiting for you! Well, come on, don’t worry about these boys. They won’t bite and if they do you just let me know. Right this way, now.” So saying, he took both of us by an arm and escorted us down the steps to the basement door. He tapped out a “shave and a haircut—two bits” rhythm on the door, which then opened into a room lit only by the candle of the young lady holding it. The melodrama, apparently, was not quite over.






She led us over to a pair of folding chairs and positioned the candle in a holder which she placed on a cardboard box. The orange flickers illuminated her face as she sat just across from us.






“This is fascinating,” Tamla told her. “Planning on a séance?”






The woman shook her head. “No, no séance. Look, it’s good you came. I’ve been asked to tell you exactly what happened to Parker and the Gang. After that, we’d like your help. Now some of this I was there for myself and some of it I heard from Parker or the others. You see, not everything you hear on TV is necessarily the truth. Interested?”






“Glued to our chairs,” I said. “Go right on ahead.”






It was quite a tale she told. Some of it was sad, parts of it were funny, and a few things were infuriating. But one good thing did come of it: by the time she’d finished, neither Tamla nor I doubted a single word.










II






The six of them, four men and two women, finagled their way to the head of the line as the Mal-Wart doors opened at precisely six in the morning.The sun strained to be seen over the foothills that surrounded the Phoenix valley, just enough so that the robbers could see the gleam of expectation in the shoppers’ eyes shatter like paper-thin champagne glasses in an opera house. By the time the dozens of early-risers realized what was happening, it had already happened.

Roscoe Young wheeled on his boots, whipping the mane of his blond wig, and sealed the entrance doors behind him with a specialty key. He smiled back at the fallen faces on the other side, the ones denied the pleasures of a daybreak sale. Behind Roscoe, leaping over the first of twenty cash registers while fingering his false mustache, Park Allen greeted the uncertain faces of the Mal-Wart staff while motioning with his Buntline Special for the accomplices to fan out through the store and round up any stray employees.



“Now in case you haven’t noticed it yet,” Park announced. “This is a robbery. Armed robbery.” He nodded towards the gun. “I’m going to have to ask that no one operate their cell phones or any other electronic devices until the building has come to a complete stop.”



Roscoe laughed. That Park Allen could act calm at the most stressful times.

Park continued. “Now, don’t worry about those shoppers out there. Just worry about staying coolheaded.” He heard footsteps behind him and stepped to one side, never losing sight of the nearly two-dozen blue-jacketed employees. “Duchess?”



Stephanie crinkled her nose at the nickname. “Just this guy. Says he’s the manager. Worked here three years.”



“Anybody works here three years,” Roscoe acknowledged, “gets to be the manager. Go stand over there with your associates. Isn’t that what you call your employees?”

The rest of the gang returned without report and paired off along the registers. Rachelle and Laramie coded open the first set, while Chet and Stephanie helped themselves to the second tier. Roscoe continued to mollify the crowd outside while Park kept a low hold on his revolver. “Everything okay out there?” he asked.



Roscoe nodded without looking back. “Yep. Always is.” And that had certainly been the case. The Bell Road store was their third Mal-Wart and same as always everybody cooperated, especially the folks who didn’t know what was going on.



“Now we’ll be gone here in a few minutes,” Park explained, somewhat in an effort to speed up his gang in their work. “And after we’re gone, you’ll naturally want to notify the police. Now, you folks all know each other. Let me ask you: Who here will be the first one to call the cops on us? Who do you think?”



One by one the employees looked up like sheep on the witness stand, their heads pointing in the direction of the young man identified as the manager.



“Oh-ho!” Roscoe bellowed. “So that’s how you get to be the boss? You stab people in the back.”



Park Allen nodded. “Yep, same old story. Duchess, you want to do the honors?”



Stephanie crinkled again. “Please don’t call me that again and yes I will.”



From her purse she extracted a coil of twine. Motioning the manager to turn his back to her, she spun the spool around both his wrists a half dozen times, held the extended spool tight, and watched as Rachelle severed it with a pair of Mal-Wart scissors. Stephanie knotted the twine as the manager stared at his shoes.

“Finished?” Park called out to the entirety of his gang. They announced that they were. “Good. Okay. Now we have to be going. But we apologize for the inconvenience. I’m sure most of your customers will not have exact change, so this’ll kind of mess that up for you. Just make sure you don’t let this little weasel take our bad deeds out on you. And you!” Park addressed the manager. “Don’t be so eager to be on the side of the corporation. They were doing fine before you came along and they’ll be fine long after they’ve sacked your sorry ass. Read me?”






“Let’s go!” pleaded Roscoe, unlocking the first of the two door keys. The gang bellied up to the entrance and as the second of the two locks spun free, they squeaked through the onrush of impatient shoppers, none of whom seemed at all concerned about the opened cash register drawers, the idle and open-faced associates, or the incapacitated store manager. More than five minutes elapsed before anyone got around to calling the police.

They were cruising up the 101 Loop around the Valley when Park asked, “So girls, how much did we haul?”



They sat three across in the front and back of a 1995 Ford Taurus sedan. The girls rode in the rear with Laramie. After some quick counting, Rachelle responded. “Two thousand one hundred and eighty dollars.” Roscoe leaned across Chet and said to Park, “They stash most of the cash in those underground vaults and can only get out so much of it at a time. By the time they pull out a few thousand bucks...”



Park acknowledged, “Right, right. By then the cops are lobbing in tear gas. Steph, Rachelle, don’t forget to hold out ten percent for tithing, okay?”



They nodded. Laramie shook his head, a site captured by Park Allen from his vantage of the rearview mirror. “Something you’d like to share with the rest of us, Laramie?”



He continued shaking his head. “So each one of us pulls in, what? About three hundred apiece? Lotta work for just a little payoff.”



Park had been waiting for discontent. All smiles, he tossed his disguise out the window. “I guess you think we should be going after high-tech money, right? Something more white collar?”



“Well, yeah, I do,” Laramie spoke with stealthy defiance. “The days of nickel-diming the local mart are over, Park. These days, the real money is in bonds, municipal holdings, securities scams.”



Park nodded, still all merry in the face. “Guess my time is up, then, huh? I mean, since I don’t know how to commit that kind of robbery? See, I figured liberating two grand from the largest employer in the world might just be a white collar crime.”
Laramie hardened his position while everyone else fell silent. A tension grew rigid in the car. “I think that we need new leadership.”



Park’s foot slipped on the gas and the Taurus lurched forward for just a second. “Tell ya what, Lar.” Park slowly brought the car to a stop right on the shoulder of the Loop. “Tell ya what. Since you’ve been bucking me and the rest of us for a couple weeks now, I think it’s time we cleared the air. Best thing to do is shoot it out. Right here. Right now.”



Roscoe’s head swiveled to the left. He looked at Park as if the latter might have suddenly transformed from a master thief into a self-destructive maniac. But he said nothing.
Laramie’s tone thawed. “Now, Park...”



Park waived him off. “Don’t you ‘Now Park’ me. You’ve been itching for this chance for weeks. Here ya go. We’ll do a duel, right on the 101. Shoot to the death. One that’s left standing gets to lead the gang. All in favor?”



Four voices let out a collective if unsteady “aye.” Park opened the driver’s side door. “Get your gun and let’s get this over with. Folks, if I lose, I wish you all the best. Laramie, you ready?”
Laramie cleared his throat, nodded that he was as ready as he ever would be and eased himself out of the back seat. As soon as he stood upright, Stephanie pulled shut the door and Park roared the engine, sailing the car back onto the road, leaving a querulous Laramie to wonder what the hell had just happened. Roscoe and Chet roared laughter. Stephanie’s eyes glittered. Rachelle chewed on her thumb, trying to repress a smile.



“Well,” Roscoe reckoned aloud. “That’s almost four hundred each, after tithes.”

Four of the five remaining gang members sat on the living room floor in the newly acquired safe house. Roscoe occupied himself with a series of magic card tricks, all of which culminated in turning up four queens, seemingly at random. Rachelle, his girlfriend of two years, worked a New York Times crossword puzzle in pen. Chet, the youngest of the gang, stared at the portable television set, its picture blazing, its sound muted. And Stephanie, who had met up with Park at the same time Rachelle joined, studied with some intensity the photographs in People’s wedding issue.

Perhaps because he was the youngest, Chet took it upon himself to break the silence. “Roscoe, how’d you and Park meet up?”



The amateur magician slid the playing cards aside and put an index finger to his lips. “Not too loud. Don’t want the neighbors to find out we’re here.”



Chet appeared properly crestfallen.



“It’s okay, honey,” Rachelle reassured him. “We just don’t want some local hero to call the realtor. Or the police.”



Chet fingered the beginnings of the soul patch he’d been growing. “You all used to live here, right? But you moved out?”



Stephanie grinned. “Naturally Park saved a key. Then yesterday he called the realtor and told her he was some big shot from Pennsylvania, coming in two weeks to buy the place for cash. In other words, the realtor won’t be showing this house to anyone else for a while.”

Roscoe tapped the top of a playing card. “I thought you wanted to hear how I met Park?” The wounded look returned to Chet’s face.



“Both of us,” Roscoe began, apparently with some satisfaction at having mastered Chet’s attention, “had worked for years at the same multinational. I was a marketing VP. He was in middle management. We’d never met. But we were both laid off about the same time. Neither one of us could find a job. Not as good as the one we had. You know how it goes.” He paused, not so much waiting for an answer as simply to develop the proper rhythm for a story he had told many times before. “So I ended up working as a waiter. At Denny’s.”



“Denny’s?” Chet’s face took on a boyish quality that even the patch of fuzz on his chin couldn’t mask.”



“Then one day in strolls Parker Allen. Looked terrible. Jeans hadn’t been washed in a month. Needed a shave. Hair all messed up. And he really looked tired. Like he hadn’t slept in a week. He draws my table and orders a ton of food. Wolfs it down. And I know this guy’s gonna skip. Can’t have any money. So I bring the check. Twenty dollars and change. He says fine, but can he have another cup of coffee? The second I go back behind the counter, he shoots out through the door.”



Roscoe paused again, noting that even Stephanie and Rachelle, who’d heard this story at least a dozen times, were somehow drawn in, their eyes wide with imagination.



Roscoe grinned. “I hated that damned job. $2.13 an hour plus tips. So I chased after him. He couldn’t run all that fast. He was tired, like I said. Plus he was on a full stomach. So I yelled for him to stop, and when he didn’t, I tackled him. Knocked him right down on the grass. But when I spun him over to punch him out, the bastard was laughing. Laughing!”
Chet pulled an index finger to his own lips.



The storyteller smirked. “Right. So now I’m furious. Just before I was going to knock him out, he sings in a little girl voice, ‘Run, run, fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the gingerbread man.’ There was just no way I could hit him after that, you know.”

“Good thing for you, you didn’t.”



Everyone froze, as if the room itself had just jumped. Park Allen stood looking in from the kitchen, hands on his hips, his smile beaming out across the distance. “Don’t worry,” he teased. “I just got back, so I didn’t hear all the good things Cheese was saying about me. How’s it hanging, Kid? Duchess? Rachelle? Who wants to tell me where these sandwiches came from?” He indicated the dozen or so sliced and cut lunchmeat on wheat bread sandwiches stacked on the short table.



“Now don’t flip out, Park,” Roscoe said, getting to his feet. “The girls were over at the grocery.”



Stephanie grabbed a sandwich, as if to protect it from eminent destruction. “The guy at the deli counter gave them to us.”



“Really?” Park stepped closer to the stack, admiring its height. “And why would he do that?”



Rachelle swallowed hard. “Because we were hungry?” she asked.



Keeping his voice low, Park paced a circle around his henchmen. “Oh, you were hungry? I see. I thought we had a rule? When we need food, we steal it.” He made it back to the stack and picked up one of the offending sandwiches.



“Aw, for God’s sake,” Roscoe admonished. “The girls were there and the guy offered.”
Park spoke around a mouthful of bologna. “Our rule is that we hit grocery stores for personal items, like razors, pantyhose, shaving cream, and that kind of thing. For food, we go to chain restaurants.”



Stephanie cradled her sandwich like a child. “You’re right. You’re right. Good though, huh?”



Park cackled as he joined the others on the floor. “Yeah, it sure is. Kid, you get one?”
Chet nodded as his gaze lowered in the manner of a modest pet praised by his owner.
Seizing the opportunity to change the subject, Roscoe asked, “You take the money to the shelter?”



Park nodded. “Yeah. One thing about it: if we ever need a place to hole up for a few hours, those Sisters will see to it. Say, what’s Laramie doing on TV? Turn that up!”

Sure enough, the image of their former accomplice shone from the screen in living color.
They watched the news telecast at 6pm and then again at 10pm, just to make sure they’d heard it right the first time. Laramie Ullum stood next to a podium, an attorney of his choosing on either side of him, announcing through those same attorneys that he had participated in that morning’s hold-up of the Bell Road Mal-Wart, that he had been an accomplice of Park Allen’s gang’s involvement in at least forty other robberies throughout the Southwest, that a percentage of the proceeds—estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars—had been funneled into domestic terrorist organizations, and that he—Laramie Ullum—would be testifying to all of this before the grand jury in exchange for “substantial consideration” from the U.S. District Attorney’s Office. At this time, both reports concluded, neither the Justice Department nor the Office of Homeland Security chose to comment on the case, citing potential civil liberties issues that were at stake.

After the first telecast, no one in the safe house spoke. Roscoe resumed his magic tricks, although he could not produce more than three queens at a time. Rachelle sputtered out the occasional soft obscenity while scratching out entries in her puzzle. Chet’s eyes narrowed to tiny hollow points as he gazed imperceivingly at the TV set. And Stephanie busied herself by writing variations of her name in the margins of her magazine.

For his part, the gang’s leader paced between the kitchen and living room, punctuating his stride with periodic punches of his fist into his opened hand. The only consolation, he reassured himself, was that Laramie hadn’t known about the house. They’d be safe here for at least another day, or for two at the most. In the meantime, only two parts of the news report actually troubled him, one part being easily anticipated, the other completely beyond his kin to fathom. The first part—identifying the gang members and severely exaggerating the extent of their crimes—that was typicalLaramie. Hell, if that’d been true, they’d all be in some country without an extradition treaty laughing up their martini glasses at that idiot traitor. But the other part—the part about terrorism—that part worried Park Allen a considerable bit. Not that there was a shred of truth to it. The Sisters of St.Simon and Jude ran a shelter for indigents, not a terrorist organization. The government had either planted that idea in Ullum’s head or he’d thought it up on his own, although Park was damned if he could figure out why.

After the last broadcast, when Chet and the couples were nestled off in their respective beds, Park turned to Stephanie and explained his bewilderment. “If all Laramie’d done was tell them the truth, he’d have gotten maybe a six months suspended sentence. But when he throws in all these other crimes, plus the terrorism crap, even with that so called consideration, he’s still looking at ten to twenty years.”



Stephanie grinned at him, hoping to calm his mood. He knew she hated for him to act this way, so he eased off. She elbowed him in the ribs. “He sure looked funny standing on that freeway when we drove off.”



Park laughed and felt peaceful as Stephanie’s giggles mingled with his bellow. He loved the sound of her laughter more than anything in the world.



Seizing the moment, Stephanie whispered, “Park, please don’t call me Duchess. I hate that. My name is Stephanie.”



“You know why I do that?”



She did not know, but had wondered.



“I do that because back when I worked for a living, back when I had a big house and two cars and went to three parties a week—back when I had it made—I guess it sounds corny, but I felt empty because I didn’t have anyone important to share it with. Nobody substantial. But after I hit bottom I met you and for the first time I actually feel alive. And I promised myself almost two years ago that I’m going to make you the happiest woman in the world, someone people will look at coming down the street and honor and respect, like royalty. That’s why I do it.”
For nearly two minutes, Stephanie lay so still that Parker couldn’t tell if she were breathing. He was about to ask if she was alright when she preempted him. “Honey, you can call me Duchess. I like it.”



“How about Dutch?”



She giggled again and that was the last sound Park heard that night.

A little after midnight, the dreams came calling. Park had been having vivid dreams of late, something that hadn’t visited him in twenty years. This dream, or this endless loop of manifest content, replayed in his mind’s senses until nearly morning. In the dream, he sat outside a large hospital on a cold and windy day, wearing nothing but an ER gown, feeling hungry and wondering where all his friends were. He thought he saw some of them coming toward him and tried to stand to greet them, but was too weak to rise. When they finally approached, he saw it was a Mother and Father with their little daughter. “Laugh at the bum,” the Mother said. The child looked at Parker quizzically. “Go on, laugh at the bum,” encouraged the Father. Then all three of them burst into a unified laughter of ridicule. “Bum, bum, bum,” blubbered the child, pointing a bent finger at Parker, who checked his gown to make sure he wasn’t exposing himself. Looking to either side he noticed empty vodka bottles, broken mirrors with cocaine residue, and cold half-eaten sandwiches. “Let’s get the bum,” cried the little girl, and the family came toward him, their smiles suddenly full of dripping fangs. When Parker tried to stand up, he fell. When he tried to crawl away, he slipped. Against the open slit in the back of his gown he felt a breeze of hot breath with an odor of week-old death.

Each time he had the dream that night, he woke up safely next to Stephanie, who purred comfortably beside him. And each time he managed to get back to sleep, the dream came creeping back, like a hangover that tricks you into thinking it’s over. By 6am, he gave up and went into the kitchen to make himself some coffee. And that was when he saw through the kitchen window the first of several federal agents in the process of surrounding the house.



Stephanie shuffled and yawned her way into the kitchen, looking for Park. He tracked her movements, and before she could say a word, he whirled around to face her, made a series of spastic hand gestures, and watched her dash off to alert the others.

By the time she unknotted Roscoe and Rachelle, and pried Chet from whatever dream fantasy he may have been having, Park had fired up the house’s exterior public address system. Roscoe and Rachelle positioned themselves at different windows while Chet loaded revolvers on the floor. Without looking away from the glass, Roscoe made a sweeping motion with his arm, which Park took to indicate that the place was indeed surrounded.

Park rolled his tongue around in his mouth for a moment, as if searching for courage in the cavity. “Let’s see what happens,” he whispered, and threw the switch.
For just an instant the crackle of connecting leads escaped from the four obscured speaker boxes mounted on the brick wall in the backyard. Park inhaled, held it, and commenced to shout: “Who the Sam Hill is in charge of this operation?!?”

They all watched from inside as the twenty-odd agents froze their advance, seeming to grip their rifles tighter.



Park breathed deeply again and resumed. “This is Under Secretary to the Assistant U.S. Attorney General Myron Reddinck speaking! I demand to hear from the Agent in Charge of this operation! Pick up your bullhorn and speak!”

A tall, stout man of about thirty years lifted an orange loudspeaker to his mouth. “My name is Commander Hadley Masters, Mr. Under Secretary, sir! May I ask your position in relation to us?”



“That’s classified, Masters! And if you don’t mind, I’ll ask the questions here! Is that all right with you?”



Masters looked profoundly confused. “Yes, sir!”



“You have a face like an English bulldog! Anyone ever tell you that?”



“Uh, no sir!”



“Oh! Then I must be a goddamned liar! Is that what you’re accusing me of, Commander Hadley Masters?”



“No sir!”



“Are you a bulldog or the Commander of this operation?”



“I am the Commander, Mr. Under Secretary, sir!”



“Well, Masters, while your team of misfits has been parading around this house, the local police force has the Parker Allen Gang holed up in the same goddamned store they were in yesterday!”



“Sir, the Mal-Wart?”



“Very good, Masters! I see you got the memo! And I do not intend to lose the opportunity to subdue these pussy-faced terrorists to a squad of local cops! So, Commander Masters, you had best order your troops to return to their units and proceed to where the suspects actually are…or I’ll have you shot for insubordination! Is that clear as a Summer sky?”



“Yes sir!”



“As clear as an unmuddied lake?”



“Yes sir!”



“Then why the fuck aren’t you moving, bulldog?”



“Sir, on whose authority shall I redeploy the agents?”

Parker reflected on what a good question that was. Masters should get a promotion for that, if he didn’t get an official reprimand. “On the authority, you malingering moron, of the Attorney General of the United States! You may take the matter up with him, Commander! Then we’ll reassign you to issuing sodomy citations to three-balled polar bears in Juneau, Alaska! Do you like Alaska, Commander?”



Masters wiped the sweat from the crease above his eyes. “No sir!”






“Do you like three-balled polar bears?”
“No sir!”



“Do you enjoy sodomy, Commander Masters?”



“Sir, request permission to redirect the Commander’s agents immediately?”



“Commander Masters, if that gang gets booked by anyone other than your agents, I will personally fly you to Juneau and tie you down while the bears shit on your bulldog face!”



“Understood, sir! All agents, withdraw and redeploy to 8316 West Bell Road! Suspects are still considered armed and dangerous! Notify local command—”



“Belay that last instruction, you fucking imbecile! The PD will know you’re coming when you get there!”



“Agents! Operation is redirected! Holster and retain all firearms! Redeploy under Code 6 and move out!”

Sure enough, all twenty-some agents and their obedient Commander backed up, reconnected in the front yard, marched off to their unmarked vehicles, and sped away.
A small round of applause met Park as he threw down the switch and turned around. Stephanie had even fallen over, strangling on her own laughter.

Park actually blushed. “Thank you, folks. But there’s not much time. They’ll be back here in less than fifteen minutes. Chet, this is important. I want you to take the women to the Toyota, drive it to the motorcycles, then ride three of them out to the campsite. I know you haven’t been there before, but they’ll show you the way. Once you’re on those bikes, if there’s any trouble, I want you to split up. Don’t lead the cops to the camp. Chet, make sure each of you has a weapon on you. Loaded.”



Chet never once blinked. “What about you guys?”



“Cheese and I?”



Roscoe Young sighed. “My name is Roscoe.”



“Then I have done you a huge favor. Cheese and I will meet you all there tonight. Remember, if they catch us all together, it’ll be a long time before anybody hears from any of us.”



At that admonition, they all shared the same countenance: dread.

The camp, to the extent that it appeared to be one, rested almost twenty miles northwest of the Black Canyon Freeway in a large dry wash whose only other regular guests were the occasional Autumn run-off, rolling balls of mud-heavy sagebrush, and narrow, towering, skipping dirt devils. Nevertheless, the wash’s abrupt banks provided excellent cover, and on cloudy nights, such as this one, when the temperature dipped into the lower 40’s, you could use a small campfire with little risk of detection. The two men sat just downwind of the flames, back to back, their revolvers resting on their bended knees.



“Listen, Cheese. When they get back, do you mind if I talk to Rachelle about something?”



“You don’t need my permission.”



“But she used to be a shrink, right?”



“You think you need one?”



“Aw, hell no. Well, I’ve been having this same nightmare over and over. Think she knows anything about dreams?”



Roscoe adjusted his hat to better consider the question. “She might. She’s smart. So you think they’ll make it here okay?”



“Oh sure. Like you said, Rachelle’s smart. Stephanie’s street smart. And that guy,
Chet...”



“You know he’s been to prison?”



Park shuddered at the utterance. “Chet? But he’s just...”



“A kid. I know. That kid is twenty-seven. He did an eight year stretch for grand theft auto and aggravated assault. He’s only been out for two months.”



“We only picked him up two months ago!”



“That’s right.”



“Wow. Some people never learn, do they?”

Overhead, the clouds blinked and let through just a breath of moonlight. Even with that, you couldn’t see the city. Phoenix had tentacled out a lot in just the last two years alone, but reaching the camp from any part of it still required a monumental effort. For their part, Park and Roscoe had driven the Taurus to within half a mile of the garage where they’d stashed their Kawasakis. From there they managed to dodge much of the desert’s inherent treachery, at least until they came to within five miles of the hideout. Near the foot of an enormous boulder—so enormous it blotted out the sky and so incongruous it might have been a lone meteor from millions of years ago—rested two fueled-up dune buggies. After making certain they both started, the guys picked one and sailed across a landscape that might have flipped a lunar rover.



“How much do we have left?”



Park smiled at the way Roscoe always adjusted his hat prior to letting his ideas roam. “One hundred twenty-eight thousand four hundred dollars. You gonna shoot me for my share?”



Roscoe ignored the question. “You ever think about what we could do with that money? All of us? Together? You’re a smart guy, Park. A good leader, anyway. I know the business world, so I could help with connections. The girls are hardworking and Chet would do anything for us.”

Park sneezed at the cool night air and laughed at himself for not having a handkerchief. “I know what you’re saying, Cheese. I just don’t know if I have it anymore to make it in the business world. When I lost everything else, I lost who I thought I was, too. Oh, even before the fall, I pretended to be a great hard-ass of a manager. But inside I was always somewhere else, being who I really am. Just maybe who I really am is what’s sitting here right now.” The clouds overtook the moon again and the campfire spat in response.

Parker understood what Roscoe was driving at. Hell, he’d considered it himself. He’d imagined the bunch of them running a bar somewhere in lower Canada, treating the customers right, and grinning as the money rolled in. But with all the things he’d done over the last two years that he’d never imagined himself doing, something fundamental within himself had changed. Or emerged. They had all changed, for that matter. Well, maybe not Chet. “So the kid was in prison? He seems so innocent.”

Roscoe nodded, this time without the hat adjustment. “I was thinking maybe he started out like we did. Not a manager or an executive. Just maybe full of himself. Full of anger. Ambition. Energy. And maybe he just found out one day that getting beat down wasn’t worth the trouble.”



“Cheese, that’s pretty good. Rachelle’s not the only shrink in the gang.”



Roscoe’s back stiffened against Park’s. “Listen. I heard something out there.”



Park and Roscoe lay on their stomachs, facing the direction of the city, facing the source of the sound. Separated by ten yards, with the campfire muted behind them, they lay with their guns drawn and secured in the dirt at the end of their arms.



Roscoe whispered, “Who do you think it is?”



Park said nothing.



“Maybe it’s that chump, Masters, and his brigade?”



Park stared straight ahead.



“Will you say something, please?”



At last, Parker Allen spoke. “You know what I think? I think that I need to take a piss. So I really hope it’s not Masters. I’d hate to die with a full bladder.”



“Calm under pressure.”



“What’s that?”



“Nothing. Look!”

The beams of two flashlights twinkled and were gone. The men held their breaths. Half a minute later and a few feet nearer, the spectacle repeated itself. Roscoe focused straight ahead as he asked, “You know what I’m thinking?”



Park nodded. “Me too. That’s okay. Let them come to us.”

Half an hour later, the two people signaling were close enough to be distinguished.



“Rachelle!” Roscoe cried, getting to his feet.



“Stephanie!” Park half-shouted.



The girls came running.




Roscoe grabbed Rachelle at the hips and pulled her up to kiss her, spinning the both of them in a circle and laughing like virgin newlyweds. Park gave Stephanie a bear hug and planted a playful slap on her ass. “It’s good to see you,” everyone said.

Roscoe let Rachelle’s feet down to the ground. “Where’s Chet?”



She looked up at him. Even under the night clouds, he could see her eyes water over. “He’s dead,” she told him.



Stephanie broke free of Parker’s grasp. “You don’t know that, Rachelle! You don’t know that for sure!”



Rachelle turned to the challenge, as if through an air of wool. “We were on the bikes,” she explained. “Riding the Black Canyon north. Chet was in the lead. Steph and I abreast behind him. She said nothing more.



“What happened?” the two men said together.



Stephanie looked away from Rachelle. “We saw it before we heard it. He flipped backwards off the bike. Then we heard a shot. The bike spun out. We almost ran over him.”



Park seized her by the shoulders. “Are you saying he was gunned down?”



Her lips trembled. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying! It had to be someone up ahead of us. So we dodged his bike and took the next off ramp. He separated at the exit and met up at the boulder.”



Roscoe looked from one of the girls to the other. “You don’t mean you just left him there?”



Stephanie stuttered, “Chet. Landed. Fell. On his head. Rachelle’s right. He has to be dead.”



Parker ran his hands across his face. “I don’t get it! Why would the cops, even the feds, shoot him? In two years we have never so much as pulled our triggers!”



Stephanie absorbed the ground with her gaze. “I don’t think it was the police. We heard on the radio. There’s a $500,000 reward for each of us. Dead, alive, who cares?”
“Sweet Mother,” Roscoe shook. “It’s like the Old West.”



She continued. “They know Roscoe and they know you, Park. They only know Rachelle and me by our first names, although they have pretty good descriptions. And they knew about Chet Wilkins. That was his last name. Wilkins.”



Roscoe removed his hat altogether and held it in front of himself. “Okay, boss. This is the time for you to come up with a great idea.”

Parker smiled, although the smile tasted bitter, like spoiled lemons. “Tomorrow night,” he said with the solemnity of a sacred vow. “Tomorrow night we blow the vault at Mal-Wart.”

That next morning, at the beginning of what was—unbeknownst to half the Parker Allen Gang—their final day together, Roscoe and Rachelle had breakfast with a couple they met at the Sidewinder café. The Sidewinder catered to the more affluent set, those inclined toward ingratiating and being ingratiated, although it wasn’t always easy to tell who was doing which. The Davidsons were particularly taken by the young couple, especially Mr. Davidson, who found Rachelle’s purposeful cleavage to be quite the pleasant eyeful. The Davidsons were taken in another manner as well. Rachelle’s purposeful cleavage afforded Roscoe the opportunity to pick the wallet from Mr. Davidson’s inner jacket pocket. And so, although this half of the gang of necessity paid for four light breakfasts—thereby violating one of their own rules of conduct—they did manage to compensate by acquiring a vast array of unsecured credit and charge cards, providing themselves with one of several means to an end.

Two hours later, after some very fast yet calculated shopping, Park and Stephanie entered the Maricopa County Library. In his pale cream suit and hat, his grey-dyed temples and withering moustache, Parker resembled an aging academic in need of a young female assistant, a role Stephanie filled quite nicely in her flowing flower-printed dress. As they entered the facility, Parker whispered, “Duchess, I’ve never seen you more beautiful. You sure you know how to use these computers?”

She assured him that she did and walked him over to the first one with high speed Internet access. While passersby winked at one another over the cuteness of the pair, they busied themselves: Stephanie showing Park how to find what he wanted, and Park soaking up the information.

While Park and Stephanie drew condescending stares in the library, Roscoe and Rachelle, having donned a quick wardrobe change, made a call on the Foothills Construction Company. From their muddy work boots to their overpriced cowboy hats and through their starched denim overalls, they resembled middle income contract workers. It may have been Roscoe’s gold money clip or Rachelle’s ostentatious pocket watch that tipped the perceptions in favor of their being owners rather than laborers. Whatever it was that gave the nod, less than half an hour later, they left with all the explosives they would need for the evening’s festivities.

With their preparations complete, both couples visited Symington Park to unwind a bit and share some unhurried time together. Roscoe rented a paddle boat for himself and Rachelle to take across the lake, and Parker and Stephanie sat together on a picnic table, sharing hotdogs and Cokes, making small talk with kids playing hooky, marveling at the way the Phoenix city-scape meshed with the landscape surrounding it.

Mal-Wart closed at ten that evening, so a little after nine, the four surviving members of Park Allen’s Gang began entering the store. There was no similarity whatsoever in their attire, and because they staggered their entrances in five-minute increments, no one would have sensed that any of the four had connections with one another, unless the tiny headphones and battery-packed chargers they all wore gave it away, which they did not. Each of them started out with an empty shopping cart and a list of acquisitions. As someone had joked years earlier, you could find everything you needed to live on in a Mal-Wart. Well, Parker and his gang could prove that to be true. By the time each had concurred on the total number of employees in the store, their carts were half full and ten PM had arrived.

The instant the last customer passed through the exit, Stephanie and Rachelle began herding the employees to the front of the store, while Roscoe used his trusty key to once again lock themselves inside. Parker held the cashiers at bay, easing them with jovial chatter, and Roscoe removed half a dozen rods of curtain from his cart, draping them over the doors so that no one from the outside could see in. “That’s twenty-four of them,” Stephanie announced as she motioned the staff into the foyer. “Including this guy.”

Parker laughed. “Look, Cheese! It’s the same manager. Well, Mr. Manager, guess they rewarded you by putting you on the night shift. Duchess, Rachelle, you want to secure his hands, please?”



With Stephanie and Rachelle competently guarding the Mal-Wart personnel, Park and Roscoe were free to carry on with their business. In less than five minutes, Park showed Roscoe precisely what they were looking for. In the right rear corner of the store, behind a wall stacked high with paints, a bare shelf held its own, at least until Park pulled the shelf from its mooring, at which time the base of the paint can wall displayed rollers. “See? We just slide this to the left.” There before them was a narrow spiral staircase that descended to a very special part of the store.

“Be hard to tell there was a store above us from down here,” Parker observed once they made it to the bottom and crossed into a dark and low-ceilinged room.



“How does this work?” Roscoe asked.



Parker was pleased to explain. “Simplicity through technology, my friend. As soon as a cashier up there gets two hundred dollars in their register, they signal a manager, who comes over and removes all the currency, except for ones, fives and tens. They need those for change. But he takes the twenties, fifties and hundreds back to his office where he shoves them into different tubes...”



“One for each denomination?”



“Right. Then he shoots the tubes down a suctioned shaft, where it disappears. Where does it go?”



“Somewhere down here, I’ll bet.”



“You win that bet. You know anything about hydraulics?” Roscoe shook his head. “Me neither. Has something to do with air pressure against fluid, or fluid pressure against air. Anyway, this gage right here” he tapped it with his foot, “has to maintain a pressure of at least 20 pounds per square inch to keep those tubes securely floating in their limbo. When the pressure drops below 20, the tubes all collect right here.” Parker indicated a steel chamber that resembled a safe, only because of the built-in combination lock on it front.
“Now that manager upstairs has no idea what the combination is. Who’d trust him with it? So what we have to do is, first, sever the link between this conduit and the money chamber, and second, reduce the pressure to under 20 psi. Swing that hydraulic jack over here, will you?”

A couple minutes later they had a block of wood wedged between the jack and the conduit. “Now,” Parker explained, “when we blow the conduit, the force goes up rather than down. We don’t want to blast a hole in the floor. You have that quarter-stick of blasting powder?”



Roscoe slapped it into Parker’s hand, the same hand that wedged it at an angle between the jack and the conduit. Motioning for Roscoe to move to the far side of the room, Parker lit the fuse and joined his friend in the corner.

The room’s acoustics made the explosion sound nuclear.



Roscoe screamed, “Are you telling me they didn’t hear that up there?”



“Let’s find out.” As they walked over to inspect the damage, Parker pressed the send button on his headphone communicator. “Duchess, everything okay up there?”



She responded, “One of the employees popped the manager in the mouth because he wouldn’t stop complaining. That’s all.”



“You didn’t hear an explosion?”



“Nope. Nothing.”



“See, Cheese? This room is so well insulated, they couldn’t hear one of your farts up there if you let it rip. Look, the conduit cracked!”



“Meaning?”



“Meaning that nothing is going past here and into the chamber. Now all we need to do is drill two holes in this section here, so the air and water are no longer pressurized. We could just blow it, but that might burn up the money. Who knows? Power drill?”

Less than five minutes later, Parker had drilled two holes in the hydraulic canola and both water and air began gushing out from each. “Read that meter,” Parker suggested.
Roscoe grinned up in amazement. “Parker, you’re a genius. It’s falling! 60, 50, 40, 35—”
“You’ll know when it gets to 20.”



Sure enough, a few seconds later, the first of the money tubes spilled out through the crack in the conduit.

As Roscoe began tossing tubes into a duffel bag, Parker pointed out, “If you’ve ever wondered how this place can afford to pay people to stand at the door all day, just to catch a shoplifter, this is how. Today’s Friday. This is a superstore. Guaranteed they did eighty grand in business today.”

Half an hour later, both bags were filled. Parker called out on his communicator. “We’re coming up, girls!”



“Hold on,” Rachelle called back. “I think we have trouble.”



Roscoe groaned. “What kind of trouble?”



“Fuck me!” Rachelle squealed.



Stephanie clarified. “The feds! Park, the feds are outside. Jesus, there must be two hundred of them! How did they know we were here?”



Parker said to Roscoe, although not to the girls, “They know because I tipped them off.”
“What’re you saying?”



“Trust me, Cheese. It’s better that we know where they are. Don’t worry. Hey, Duchess, just stay inside. Don’t open the doors. Don’t let them see you. They’ll all be moving on in just a few minutes. Love ya, honey.”



“Parker Allen, I love you to, but I hope you know what you’re doing.”



“So do I. Hey, Cheese, you feel that vibration under your feet? Guess you know why you picked up so many explosives now.”



Stephanie cut in from above. “Park, somebody set off a bomb!”



“I know, Duchess. It’s the Bank One up the street. I’ll bet half the building’s gone.”

Rachelle squealed again, this time with glee. “That Masters guy is screaming at the whole parking lot. Fuck me! They’re leaving!”



Roscoe tapped Park’s shoulder. “They won’t come back?”



Park shook his head. “They might, except for the fact that a second bomb is going off at the BofA across from the Bank One in five minutes. And five minutes after that, M & I gets the same fair and balanced treatment.”

Park and Roscoe lugged two duffel bags crammed with tiny tubes crammed with cash up the spiral staircase, across the acres of store and into the foyer where everything was indeed just dandy, other than the manager, whose lower lip still oozed blood.
“Now for the hard part,” Roscoe sighed.



Park couldn’t meet his colleague’s gaze. “Right. You wanna tell Rachelle? I’ll talk to the Duchess.”

Roscoe disappeared into the employee lounge and a few moments later Stephanie emerged, her headphones dancing from one hand to the other. “What’s up?”



“We’ve probably got about 75 grand between the two bags.”



“Right. Quite a haul. Are we ready?”



Park gently held Stephanie’s shoulders. “This isn’t up for discussion. There’s a black panel van out behind the store. You and Rachelle get in, hand the driver an envelope. There’ll be five thou in it.”



“Park, what are you talking about?”



“After Chet got shot, I realized it’s just a matter of time for us if we stay here. The driver will hand you each an envelope with fake passports and phony documents to match. Study them on your way to the airport.”



“I am not leaving you.”



“Don’t make this harder than it is. There’ll be two pair of airline tickets. The first pair will take you to Montreal. Stay in a hotel there for twenty-four hours. Then use—”
“No! NO! NOOO!!!”



“Use the other tickets to fly to Paris. Stephanie, YES! Rachelle speaks French, so you’ll be able to get along. You’ll also have a package waiting for you when you land. The Euro equivalent of $100,000 US.”



“I said no!”



“You have no choice. Listen to me. Cheese and I will catch up with you in about two months.”



“If they don’t kill you first.” She brushed his hands off her shoulders and punched him in the chest.



“Yes. If they don’t. But you two will be alive.”



“If it’s such a great idea, why are you crying?”



Park handed her an envelope. “I always cry at great ideas.”



“Give me a kiss.”

A half hour later, the girls were on their way to Sky Harbor Airport and the guys had said goodbye to the employees, after securing a promise that they would not allow the manager to phone the police. The walked out the front doors, their duffels over their shoulders.

“You know what I was thinking, Boogie? I was thinking that maybe you and I ought to get cleaned up, maybe get a couple rooms at a nice hotel, say down in Tucson, and in the morning, have the biggest breakfast of our lives. You know, ham, eggs, French toast, bacon, biscuits and gravy, the works!”



“That sounds fine, Park. The occasion?”



“I was thinking we could lay low for a while. I mean,. Hell, we’ve got plenty of money, even after giving the girls theirs. We can live somewhere between modest and highfalutin for a couple months, then hop a plane to Par-ee, and if we stop pulling jobs, the heat’ll back off.”



“Maybe it will.”



“That’s what I’m saying.”



“That’s far enough, buckos!” a voice said from behind them.



“Drop them bags, damn ya!”

They turned to find two grisly characters with rifles trained on them. Park and Roscoe dropped their bags.



“Let me guess,” Roscoe sneered. “Bounty hunters?”



The first one ignored the question as he said to his comrade, “One million bucks standing right there!”



His associate nodded. “One goddamned million motherfucking bucks!”



“What’s in them bags?” the first one inquired.



Roscoe spread his hands. “It’s two of your cousins. Oh, you know them better as Mom and Dad.”

What happened next could have played out ten times in the span it takes to explain it. The first hunter discharged his rifle, striking Parker above the left elbow. That bullet had no more than broken flesh before Roscoe snatch-dragged his revolver from his shoulder holster and took out the shooter with a clean headshot. The second bounty hunter released his load into Roscoe’s midsection and a moment later lay dead from the retaliatory shot Park delivered.



“Roscoe? Roscoe, how do you feel?”



“Of all the stupid questions.”



The gut shot had to be terminal. Parker had never seen so much blood in his life. He cradled his friend’s head with one hand and pressed against his belly with the other, trying to hold Roscoe’s guts in.



“Park,” Roscoe sputtered. “Don’t tell Rachelle.”



“I won’t, buddy.”



“I never fired my gun before.”



“You always were lucky.”



“Park, sing me that song.”



“What song? Oh. The song.”



Roscoe tried to swallow and ended up spitting down his own chin.
Parker sang, “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.”



By the time the song was over, Roscoe was gone.

Park had taken the precaution of securing false identification for himself. That proved to be helpful during his stay in the Arrowhead Hospitalemergency room. Upon release, he called a taxi company with little idea where he’d tell the driver to take him and his two duffel bags. He waited on the corner, consumed with his own thoughts, consumed by loss, so much so that he didn’t notice the family approach as he waited by the curb.



“Look at the bum,” cried the little girl, jarring Park Allen from the darkness of his daydream.



The mom, who resembled an older version of Stephanie, shared a smile with her husband, who looked like a younger version of Park, and together they paused so their daughter could take in the majesty of the unfortunate situation before them.










III






The candle was now a stub. That was just as well. The beams of early morning sunlight trickled in through the cracks above the door. None of us showed signs of sleep deprivation. The suggestion that Parker Leroy Allen was either dead or alive was itself news. How the bounty hunter had come to be shot up as to be unrecognizable, none of us knew. It might have been the work of the cops, maybe at the behest of the federal agents, although I couldn’t fathom what they’d have to gain since no one in law enforcement was eligible for the reward. Or the shooting may have been the work of Allen himself, either as a last means of payback, or as a method of covering for himself. Maybe my Aunt Harriet went nuts one night. Who knew?






However it had been accomplished, Parker Allen was still out there somewhere, wanting nothing more than to use his share of the money to live out a peaceful life without sacrificing his criminal integrity. That didn’t seem so much to ask.






“Will you help us?” the girl asked. She must have already known the answer.






“I know someone who has a ranch for sale just outside Prescott. It’s mostly horses. Families come up throughout the year and go riding. It’s for sale because the owner’s getting too old to look after the place. And it needs some fixing up. I can arrange for a cash transaction, although I would still hold the deed. We can’t very well have Parker’s name arise in conjunction with this. If you’re all willing to trust me.”






I didn’t recognize the hobo who had escorted us down here when he first stepped forward from out of the diminishing shadows. I didn’t recognize him because he didn’t look the same. This man wore a large cowboy hat, sported a scrubbed and baby-smooth face, a leather vest pulled on over a denim shirt, a pair of chaps and dark brown boots. “I’m Park Allen,” he said. The smile was back, but without the ugly dental stains. He was not in need of food or shelter, he informed us. He was, he said, in need of some peace of mind.






“Look, Konkle, if you set this up for Gina and me, we’re just going to melt right in with the locals.”






Tamla jumped up. “Gina! I knew you had to be her!”






I motioned for her to sit down and relax.






I told them, “There are no locals. Just tourists. And four months a year, the weather turns cold, so you won’t see much of anybody else. Parker, that might be fine for you, but how do you think she’ll take it?”






Gina spoke up before he had a chance. “I’m not stupid. I know Parker’s still in love with Stephanie. I may not even be his second choice, or his third. But anybody who’d give up all that for the woman he loves? I’m willing to commit to that kind of person. Maybe in a few months, a year or two, he’ll comes around. Maybe he never will. The point is we’re going to try, okay?”






“You two aren’t the only ones at risk. That retainer was generous, but if anyone finds out who you really are, they’ll eventually trace you to me.”






Parker said, “You ever been to prison?”






Tamla answered for me. “So far we’ve kept him out.”






“You wouldn’t like it, Konkle. No one’s going to find out who we are.”






“If they do,” I said. “I’ll hang you out to dry. No choice.”






He reached out his hand. I shook it. He had a good grip.










Back in my office, Tamla expressed second thoughts, or at least first-and-a-half thoughts. “I’m a little worried, Douglas. There’s so many people out there wanting to believe in conspiracies. If there’s even a rumor about this, somebody will investigate and it could get bad for you.”






I’d been gnawing the cap of my pen beyond all recognition. I was considering going back to sucking my thumb. “They’ll not catch him. That’s the way I’m going to play it.”






“Why? Because he’s the Gingerbread Man?”






“No, my distrustful partner. Because Gina won’t let them.”






Tamla blew out a long sigh and closed her eyes.





Faith in Something Smaller
Lucien Tambor strode into our office with the frail dignity of an ailing beast who doesn’t know he’s soon to be out of his misery. The slithery mannerisms contrasting his proud gait were among a slew of similar contradictions. The frames of his Australian tortoise shell eyeglasses clung together only by virtue of masking tape. His fingernails bore the reflective shine of a recent manicure, yet were blackened with a bond of dirt and sweat. His brown overcoat retained the stiff glimmer of being new, while nevertheless sporting a gash in the left sleeve approximately the length of a switchblade knife. His baby face radiated from years of professional shavings and talcum, none of which was undone by the slug someone had introduced to his right jaw. And while he spoke with a voice accustomed to precision and melody, his song sounded like it had been dragged across the desert and beaten on the rocks. I didn’t know whether to offer him coffee or a gurney.
Tamla and I must have stared too long for polite company. Tambor cleared his throat and shook his head as if he were trying to dislodge something. “I must look a fright,” he said. “I hope my appearance won’t dissuade you from helping me, Dr. Konkle.”



I strained to convey a magnanimous smile, one that wouldn’t indicate we were choking on his blend of expensive cologne and sweat-drenched detritus. “We’re here to help people, when we can,” I said. “It looks like you could use some.”



He shot a glance at Tamla and straightened his overcoat as if to hold in his embarrassment. “I’ve been victimized,” he said. “Dr. Konkle, Ms. Reeves, I cannot even prove to you as I sit here that I am Lucien Tambor. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for a few moments, you may come to accept what I have to say.”



I spooned the teabag from my cup and dropped it in the trash. Tamla was weaning me from coffee, and Morning Bayou Tea, with its aroma of swamp fog, was amazingly refreshing. “Mr. Tambor,” I said. “From what you’ve told us, I am inclined to believe you.” He sighed as if someone had just spared fifty pounds from the ton he was shouldering. I caught Tamla giving me a look that suggested I wasn’t quite the bastard she thought me capable of being. “Let’s recap, okay? You, Lucien Tambor, descendant of marquis and marquise, chair of Red Card Express, have been relieved of your job, drained of your bank accounts, pursued by the police, attacked by your spouse, rolled by drunks, beaten by hoodlums—”



“Worst of all,” he inserted. “My friends view me with derision. People I’ve trusted most of my life.” His eyes scanned the office as if he suspected someone might be stepping out through one of the walls. “No, I’m wrong,” he said at last. “The worst of it is that I don’t know how to stop whoever’s doing this. And it’s no good asking me who my enemies are since I apparently can’t even judge my friends. Do you have any suggestions?”

Such questions make me wish I smoked a pipe, so as to lend a cover of wisdom over what was at best an educated guess. “In a case of identity theft, if that’s what we’re dealing with, I’d be more inclined to suspect a friend.”



Another small bag of weight lifted from his shoulders. “Then you do believe me? You will investigate?”



I drew in steam from the tea. “Let’s say we’ll investigate. But the first thing we need to do is to get you some place where you’ll be safe. Let’s check you into a hotel.”



Tamla closed her notebook with a brisk snap. “And I’ll speak with your wife.”



Our client repositioned his glasses. “By yourself?”



“Tamla is quite resourceful,” I assured him.



He stopped fiddling with the masking tape. “I intended no offense. It’s just that Mrs. Tambor can be a challenge during even the best of times. Under stress—” he shivered.



“I’m fairly good at walking between raindrops,” she told him.



The three of us stood to leave. He said, “I hope so, Ms. Reeves. Because I’ve found it to be like acid rain.”




The Adams Hotel imposed itself in a redevelopment district just south of central downtown Phoenix. The owner, an old acquaintance of mine, held a few thoroughbreds notorious for finishing just out of the money. The city planners and local developers had tried to buy him out so they could level the hotel and replace it with a more contemporary brand of eyesore, but the Adams, like a mule at the feed trough, remained where it was, a refreshing air of bad taste amid myriad monuments to modern obsolescence. As such, it was the perfect place to stash Lucien Tambor.






I checked him in under my name and, despite the early hour, suggested we chat in the bar just off the lobby. “I rarely drink,” he admitted. “But today I believe I am entitled.”






I ordered a Vodka cranberry for Tambor and a gin and tonic for myself. Neither one of us spoke for a couple minutes. If his story was true, he’d been through the wringer during the last seventy-two hours and I figured he’d unload when he was ready. I glanced to see how he was enjoying his drink and saw that his eyes were filling. He removed his eyeglasses with the haste of contemptuousness and wiped his face with a cocktail napkin.






“I started up Red Card Express ten years ago, turning it into a major player. Sure, we’re not in the leagues with Diners or Discover, but we were getting there. Definitely in the top five charge cards. In that time I’ve fought nervous investors, hostile takeover attempts, unbalanced board members, and the wear of eighteen hour days. But after only three days of this limbo, this Kafka treatment, I’m ready to lose my mind.”






“Sometimes the mind hides to protect itself. A few good meals and a couple nights rest, maybe a shower, your wits’ll return.”






“How psychoanalytic. Just what I need.”






I let that pass. He’d been through a lot.






“But I suppose that is right. At least I’ll have a bed tonight.”






I thumbed off five twenties to him under the bar. “Get your meals here. Don’t order delivery and don’t leave the hotel. Don’t let anyone in your room. And don’t order the chili.”






He eyed the money, ran his palm across it as if stroking a puppy, and tucked it into his pants pocket. “Is she married? Your assistant?”






“Tamla? No. Why?”






“She appears very fond of you. Back in your office, whenever you spoke, she studied your face. Surely you’ve noticed.”






Surely I hadn’t. “Amazing the things I apparently miss. Okay, finish your drink and get on up to bed.”






He drained the glass. “What will you be doing?”






I patted his shoulder. “Talking to nervous investors, hostile takeover types, and unbalanced board members.”






As we were turning to go our different ways, three leathered cretins sauntered in. Two of them took the stools we’d just vacated while the third flopped down on one that an older woman had temporarily given up while using the restroom facilities. The bartender didn’t speak to any of them. Tambor tugged at my elbow and we lingered.






Before I could anticipate his move, he made it.






“Someone’s sitting there,” he told the biker.






The stringy haired tattooed gentleman gave Lucien the look an invincible roustabout gives a cockroach. “Tough shit, ain’t it?”






His two buddies laughed. They appeared to be the types who would laugh at anything said, as long as one of their number said it.






Lucien replied, “It is the toughest of shit, sir,” and reached his fingers into the ends of the man’s long hair. Before any of them knew what was happening, he had whipped the biker’s mane around his neck and yanked him off the stool and down to the floor. But Lucien didn’t let go of the hair. Instead, as the biker fell, Lucien yanked upwards. A small bit of scalp clung to the roots. A large plot of gray and red skin turned more red and less gray. Before he could protest, Lucien back-kicked him in the mouth.






The two fellows at the bar glanced at one another. The bartender smiled. I stepped over their unconscious comrade and suggested they patronize a venue down the street. They thought that wise.






The woman returned to her stool and ordered a sloe gin fizz.






As we watched them hauling their friend out the front door, I wondered how much protecting Lucien Tambor actually needed.










Tamla, who I found to be operating more frequently as my partner instead of as my assistant, arrived at the Paradise Valley home of Lucien and Natasha Tambor within half an hour of leaving the office. Being far more mesmerized by technology than was I, Tamla kept a miniature voice-activated receiver tucked under the brim of her cap and a mini-recorder hooked to her waist band. It was from one such recording that I was able to learn the details of her visit.






Natasha Tambor came to the door panting for breath. She spoke in a voice that crossed Vince Lombardi and Anna Nicole Smith. “Who are you, what do you want, yes, what is it?”






Tamla did not hesitate. “Hello. My name is Tamla Reeves. Mr. Lucien Tambor has requested assistance in investigating a personal matter. Are you Mrs. Tambor?”






At the sound of her own name, the woman moaned like a calf with its neck caught in a fence. “No longer than necessary, young lady. Well, let’s go, come on in so you can be on your way.”






Mrs. Tambor directed Tamla to sit down. “I’m sure you’ll first want to know your husband is safe. He’s a little banged up, but he’s okay.”






The lady of the house replied, “I’m sorry I can’t offer you any refreshments, but everything’s packed away. Hm? Oh, well I suppose I should be glad of his condition, but truth to tell, I simply don’t care. After all I’ve done for that man, he goes and pulls this.”






“He claims he’s been the victim of—”






“Yes, yes, of course. He’s always the innocent one. You say you’ve seen him?”






“The man I work with, Dr. Konkle, has found a place for him to stay. Your husband’s story was pretty convincing. He believes that someone impersonating him liquidated his bank accounts—”






“Our accounts. They are bone dry.”






“Linked him with some improprieties at his company—”






“You needn’t tiptoe around it. He over-valuated Red Card’s stock and sold off his holdings in the organization. Two gentlemen from the Securities Exchange Commission were here earlier this morning.”






“He seems penniless,” Tamla said. “And adjusting to the life of a hobo—well, he’ll be all right now, but he’s had a few run-ins with street elements.”






“Not that this isn’t fascinating, but what is it you want from me?”






“Can you think of anyone who would have the ability to do this to you and your husband?”






“Are you suggesting that I’ve had men in this house while Lucien was away?”






I played that part back twice to make sure I’d heard it right.






Tamla kept things professional. “Mr. Tambor didn’t discuss anything like that with us.”






“No, but that is what you’re suggesting, isn’t it? You think someone used me to get to my husband.”






There are some people who, under various pressures, when asked if they know the time, will confess to stealing a watch twenty years earlier. I don’t claim to know about confession’s value to the soul, but it’s been known to unknot a few people’s anxieties. But there I go being psychoanalytical again.






“Did they?”






“I don’t know it for a fact.”






“Which seems more likely: that your husband would do all of these things, or that this other man would set him up?”






The moaning stretched out over three octaves and wouldn’t have been hurt by at least one intermission. At long last, Mrs. Tambor made a slapping sound and replied, “Delbert Winkworth. He and Lucien have known each other for twenty years. Is Lucien really all right?”






“Yes. Go on about this Mr. Winkworth.”






“His wife Catherine is a research scientist. Del’s been in and out of jams his whole life, I guess. Lucien made him vice president of Information Services at Red Card.”






“I take it you and he have had an affair?”






King Kong dragged his fingernails down a mammoth blackboard. That, or else Mrs. Tambor shrieked.






“Yes. And before you ask, yes, he pumped me for information. And he’s been in this house, parts of this house, many times.”






The playback picked up a muffled sound and I could picture Tamla adjusting her cap as she stood to leave.






“I won’t keep you, ma’am. I’ll share what we’ve discussed with Dr. Konkle. If I were you, I’d steer clear of that Winkworth fellow.”






“My dear young lady, he’s here now, sound asleep in the guest room.”






“Actually, I’m not.”






The voice that spoke those three words—the final words on the recording—was dark and hollow with razors around its edges. I didn’t like the idea of Tamla being anywhere near that voice. Unfortunately, just as she was encountering Mr. Winkworth, I was hopping into a noose without knowing it.










The corporate offices of Red Card Express towered less than a mile from the Adams Hotel, but I drove and parked anyway. Phoenix doesn’t lend itself to convenient walking and so foot transportation is reserved for pursuit and flight. Once inside the circular garage, I wound my way up the carousel until I finally plugged the Crown Victoria into a space that would have been a tight squeeze for a bicycle. After a swift ride in the elevator down to the ninth floor, I found myself standing in an expansive lobby where passersby absorbed themselves in reports as they ricocheted from one office to the next, somehow never quite colliding with one another. I said “Excuse me” to three different people who didn’t so much as look up from their clipboards and palm pilots as they passed. Not intending to spend any more time than necessary among the human pinballs, I grabbed one young go-getter by the upper arm and turned him my way.






Once his feet shifted to neutral, I said, “I understand there’s a board meeting this morning. How do I find it?”






As his face turned to mine, his lips skinned back to reveal a set of teeth that would have been perfect had he removed the strand of floss by the upper left canine. He said, “Take that hall all the way down. Turn right. Third door on your left.”






I thanked him, released his arm, and started off down the hallway. I heard him call after me, “The meeting’s probably over by now.” When I looked back, he was once again absorbed in his reading, moments from colliding into a fat man gargling with a cup of coffee.






It turned out the meeting was behind the fourth door rather than the third, but then again my young friend had also been wrong about it being over. Seven men and two women sat at an oblong table and all discussion ceased the moment I swung open the doors and marched inside. As I made my way over to stand behind a sour-looking gentleman at the far end, I said, “I bring news about Lucien Tambor. Sorry for the disturbance, but I’m sure you’ll want to know that he’s safe. He also gives every sign of being innocent.”






Eight of the nine reacted to this news with a round of indistinct grumbling. The sour man at the head said, “Who are you?”






By that time I was standing behind him with my hands gripping the back of his chair. The only way he could look at me was to tilt his head back and peer up. He squirmed a bit in this position before resolving to stare straight ahead.






I told them, “I am a fellow with a few questions. Mr. Tambor is my employer. You may confide in me as you would in him. Now from what I know, the price of Red Card Express stock rose from an average of $30 a share to $65 in less than two months. Then just before it tanked, Mr. Tambor’s shares were converted into cash. He says the acquisitions and divestitures were accomplished without his knowledge.”






A man to my right said, “Not possible.”






“And I believe him,” I said. “What would it take to frame him?”






One of the two women sneered. “He’s left us all completely vulnerable.”






The man in the chair in front of me shifted a bit, so I pushed him up closer against the table. I said, “Let’s pretend Tambor’s telling the truth. How could the sale be made without his knowledge?” And who would accept it?”






A man on the left raised his hand. “It would take his Social Security number, his employee ID number, and his password. The first two could be gotten through Human Resources. The password? Well, someone he told it to, or someone with a way of tracking his sign-ons.”






“A computer person, then?”






“But that’s really the easy part,” the man continued, finally lowering his hand. “The real question is how could he manipulate the stock prices? Or how could someone?”






The fellow in the chair I was holding piped up. “One of this company’s holdings has been investing in research with the goal of mutating human DNA.”






I pulled out his chair and spun him toward me. “Mutating it?”






He straightened out his shirt sleeves. “Making it so that two previously unique strands from two different people would become similar enough to defy distinction beyond a scientific certainty. The patent will be worth billions. To raise capital to divert to that project, we didn’t keep it a secret.”






The woman who had sneered earlier advised me, “That type of thing is done all the time in the market.”






While I wondered to what legitimate uses such a project could be put, I noticed that the second woman was using her cell phone to send a text message.






“That’s a matter for the SEC to determine,” I said. “My own investments run afternoons at Turf Paradise. Who’s the head computer guy?”






A man at the far end snorted, “That’s Del. Delbert Winkworth. But he and Lucien and great friends.”






My captive rubbed the side of his face and looked at me.






“Something you wanted to say?”






“Winkworth’s wife,” he said. “I’m sure it’s just coincidence.”






“What is?”






“You see, Catherine Winkworth is in charge of the DNA project. She’s a research scientist.”






I patted the side of his face. The second woman put her phone back into her purse.






“None of this is proof,” I said, starting toward the door. “But it’s something to go on. I won’t keep you all any longer.”






I was almost to the door when the second woman caught up with me. “May I speak with you alone for a moment?” she asked.






I nodded to the others and she and I stepped out into the hall. “There’s something in my purse I want you to see.”






It had been years since anyone had said that to me, so as she unsnapped her bag and reached inside, I peeked. A small revolver, about the size of a .22, was in her hand. Both the gun and the hand remained in the opened purse. “Let’s walk to the parking garage,” she said.






The doors to the conference room opened and there stood my friend, the fellow I’d pressed into servitude. “Helen, is everything all right?”






As God is my witness, she batted her eyelashes at him. “Oh, yes, Dave. I’m just walking the gentleman out. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”






The way he stared at her, for a second I thought he was going to tell her the jig was up, rap her in the mouth and catch the purse before it hit the floor. What he did instead was say, “Okay,” and disappeared behind the closed door.






“We’re going out through the garage exit,” she said as we began navigating our way back through the unending currents of oblivious hustlers.






“Lady has a gun in her purse,” I mentioned to everyone we passed, none of whom either heard or considered it a problem. Maybe she was always taking men out to the parking garage.






Out on the ninth floor of the garage, she extracted her weapon and backed me up against a rail. “You’ve stumbled onto a complex scenario,” she said. “And now you’re going to stumble up and over that rail. You might eventually figure this thing out and I simply cannot permit that.”






I glanced around. We were alone. I said, “How about this? You were seeing both Del Winkworth and Lucien Tambor, using the latter to help the former?”






She didn’t bat her lashes at me. “And poor Catherine Winkworth hasn’t a clue. But then again, neither does Natasha. That fool thinks she cheating on her husband. It never occurred to her that she was being used. It’s a pity I can’t think of a use for you. You might be mildly entertaining.”






“I’m a riot. I suppose you’ve contacted Winkworth?”






She nodded. “He and I make a fine team. Strictly business, of course.”






Based on my own admittedly limited knowledge of diligent business types, I’ve found them to be lacking in social awareness. I tested that theory. Glancing over her shoulder, I said, “You didn’t tell me he’d be joining us.”






Her head snapped halfway in that direction before she suspected a ruse. By that time I jammed my foot hard against her knee and grabbed her wrist. Her fingers sought the trigger, but I pried the weapon loose before she could use it.










I was halfway to the Tambor house before it dawned on me that after I’d cuffed Helen to the railing I should have used her cell phone to call Tamla. In the past the fact of my not carrying a phone had always been more of an inconvenience to others than to myself. Tamla had urged me to buy one at least ten times. I floored the Vic’s accelerator and made an illegal pass of a school bus.






Helen had remained tight-lipped as I was securing her, but I had pieced together most of the story. Mrs. Winkworth had cozied up to Lucien Tambor and spilled what she knew to her husband. The information she could supply came through Natasha Tambor, directly to Delbert Winkworth himself. Helen Whatshername served as coordinator and virtual tease for her operation with Mr. Winkworth. Where the money was, I still didn’t know, but Tambor had been the fall guy, the perfect mark. Before he’d even known he was in the game, he was out, literally, out on the street, with everyone from the government to the local police looking to hang him. The chances were good that—lacking access to any funds—he’d either be killed or turn himself in.






I jumped a red light at the intersection of Hayden and Scottsdale Road. I was doing seventy-five and passed a cop. He didn’t even look up. Some days you actually can’t even get arrested.






The DNA project had been the clincher. In the process of tying up loose ends, they’d need to kill a few people, most likely the wives of Tambor and Winkworth. With Catherine Winkworth’s work complete, they could finish the frame by planting Lucien’s DNA (or a reasonable facsimile) at the crime scenes. Juries couldn’t understand regular DNA testing. But mutated DNA? He’d be convicted before anyone even considered the possibilities.






Tamla’s car blocked the driveway so I parked on the lawn, tearing off a few sprinkler heads in the process. I rang the doorbell and charged right in with Helen’s .22 in my fist.






“Douglas, when will you buy a cell phone?”






That was Tamla, sitting just as pretty as pie, her feet up on a coffee table, a TV remote in her hand. In a corner sat a woman roughly the size of a small tuna boat. Beneath her lay the prone figure of a man.






“Get me one for Christmas,” I told her. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”






She smiled. “The man on the floor having trouble breathing is Delbert Winkworth. He has been a bad fellow, fleecing our Mr. Tambor out of so much.”






I pocketed the gun and joined Tamla on the couch. “And the woman?”






“That porcine figure belongs to Mrs. Tambor. She got wise to Winkworth’s shenanigans, but assumed the two of them would run off together. He got the drop on me, Douglas, but when he told Mrs. Tambor—”






“Call me Natasha,” the woman said.






Tamla continued. “When he told Natasha he was taking off with somebody named Helen—”






“I’ve met her,” I said. “Foul disposition.”






“Mrs. Tambor landed a flying tackle. I’ve been watching the soaps ever since.”






We phoned the police and gained Mrs. Tambor’s word that she wouldn’t move until they arrived. Then we headed toward the Adams Hotel to check in on Lucien.






“I wonder what happened to all that money,” I said while looking for a place where I wouldn’t have to parallel park.






Tamla brushed some lint off my knee and said, “I’ll make you a deal. If I guess, and I’m right, you have to make me a full partner, including a raise.”






“Deal,” I said.






Lucien had checked out. From the undisturbed appearance of the room, we couldn’t see that he’d even been there. I scratched my head and Tamla laughed.






“What’s funny?”






“How about this: Lucien Tambor figured everything out before he ever came to us, including the fact that the money was in an account controlled by Mrs. Winkworth. I’ll give you odds, Douglas, that they’re out of the country by now.”






I felt dizzy. I had sort of liked Lucien. I said, “So he came to me—to us—hoping we’d complete the tying up: capture Helen, Mrs. Tambor, and of course Winkworth.”






“That, or he suspected all along and enabled them to scam him, knowing he’d benefit in the end.”






An envelope sat on top of the TV set. I tore it open and my five twenties spilled out, along with a note. Tamla read it aloud.






“Dear Doctor, you will need these far more than will I. Thanks for having faith in me, even though it was misplaced. By the end of the week you’ll receive payment for services. L.T.”






I returned the twenties to my wallet.






“Don’t look so glum,” my new partner said. “I’m going to take you out to celebrate my promotion. Dinner and a drink. Minimum.”






I studied her face and saw it studying mine. “You mean a minimum of one drink?”






“I don’t believe that’s what I meant at all,” she said.





The Prodigal Father
I hate shopping, especially for other people. It’s not the fact of buying something for someone else that swells under my skin like a subcutaneous injection of potent allergens. I enjoy the actual giving of presents. What I hate is the physical act of artificial co-mingling among throngs of consumption-obsessed sociopaths. Sometimes what poisons the experience for me is the young couple necking at the food court, more involved in advertising their affections than in sharing them. Other times it may be the indignant Scandinavian woman bellyaching in high nasal tones that the store won’t give her cash back from her gift card. Or it could be the post-teenage cultural mentor with his cultivated glare of disaffection, his chimpanzee stride and askew cap, taking his half out of the middle of the aisle. Or the salesclerk who has no idea about the special merchandise displayed in the shop window, accented by flashing neon. Or the small children running backwards with soda flying from their uncovered cups, their nearby parents unconscious of everything except the big bargain on lavender turtlenecks. Or the blithering wonder two ahead of me in line at the jewelry store.

She began making a loud and strange chirping the moment the salesman deigned to ask how he could help her. She laughed and half-sang an aria of disconnected concepts which the seller pretended to comprehend. He kept pointing to different items within his display case and she continued laughing and shaking her head, as if his confusion was more comical to her than whatever had so amused her at the start. The customer at long last nodded her head with the enthusiasm a child brings to a new rattle, and with similar sound effects. She paid with plastic and danced out the door with her arms in the air.
Sotto voce, I said to the woman in front of me, “At least someone is happy.”

She considered that for a moment. “Or just starved for attention.”

I liked that. Maybe there was hope for civilization after all. “Shop here often?”

“As little as possible,” she said, evening out the cuffs at the ends of her sleeves.

The salesman called to her. “Ma’am, you’re next.”

She turned toward him. “I’ll be with you in a moment.”

He looked past her to me. “Sir?”

“She was here first.” I encouraged her to tell me more.

Her brown eyes scanned me as if she had a Xerox machine in the back of her head. “Just picking up a watch for my husband. Shame, isn’t it?”

“Tragic.”

“And you?”

“Necklace for a colleague. Tomorrow’s her birthday.”

“Lucky girl.”

“You or her?”

“Both, I imagine.”

Had the salesman been twins, he would have been beside himself.

“Ma’am, you’re in line. It’s your turn. May I please help you?”

She photocopied my face again, nodded, smiled, and strolled to the counter.


Outside in the concrete-reflecting oven bake we Phoenicians refer to as a mild summer, I ran across a man named Ricky Chamberlain. While the meeting was not mutually prearranged, I did get the impression that somehow he wasn’t all that surprised to see me. Ricky and I shared a love of jazz, a fondness no more peculiar for a well-dressed, precision-coiffed hoodlum than for a frequently disheveled private detective. Ricky could discuss Ornette Coleman’s theories of harmelodics, John Coltrane’s sheets of sound phase, or the role the civil rights movement played in the development of the bass patterns of Charles Mingus. He could also tell you where to find three or four decomposing bodies the police were seeking at any given time.

I said, “What a coincidence running into you out here.”

He gazed up at the sun and patted his forehead with a folded handkerchief. “You know how I feel about coincidences, Doug. Your car here?”

I had no idea how he felt about them, but I skipped that. “The Crown Vic.”

He donned a pair of Ray-Bans and bent to tie a shoe that had been fine to begin with. He said, “Let’s take a drive. Your car. Running into you like this, I have an idea we need to talk about. Hey, what you got there?”

“You’ve heard me talk about Tamla?”

“Who? Oh, right, the black chick. Your assistant.”

He knew exactly who she was. He’d probably found out where I was from her. “She’s a partner now and tomorrow’s her birthday.”

He motioned me toward the parking lot. “That’s nice that you’d remember her birthday.”

“It’s not as if she’d let me forget.”

He lowered his shades and considered me. “Douglas Konkle. All these years and never married. Don’t know what you’re missing, pal.”

“That’s why I don’t miss it.”

“Can’t tell me you don’t get lonely.”

“Have you heard the new Carla Bley album?”

“All right. None of my business. Have it your way. But I’m going to tell you something, pal. Family is first and nothing comes in second. Your folks still alive?”

I shook my head. This day was drifting back into the irritating state in which it had begun.

He went on. “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my wife or my father. Dad, he is such a good guy. I should live to be half the man my father is, right? Always took care of us. Always worked hard. And when Mom died a while back, he went a little goofy for a couple months. Then, zap! Right back to his old self. This your car?”

We drove the outer circle a few times around the mall. Ricky Chamberlain requested my assistance. We were not friends. We were scarcely casual acquaintances. I knew that saying no to him was akin to canceling a life insurance policy the day you learn you have liver disease, but I gave it a shot.

“I don’t want to work for you, Ricky.” He stared out the window. I tried to explain. “I’m not making any judgments here. But in your line of work, things could spill over onto me, and I’m only marginally safe on the best of days.”

As he adjusted the air conditioner vent, he said, “If I was the one who needed help, I’d just call in a couple guys from Michigan, okay? I want you for this because you are legitimate.”

“Marginally.”

“Whatever. Look, Doug, it’s for Dad, all right?”

“Webbie? What possible problems could he have? Wait. Don’t tell me.”

Ricky grunted. “Webbie Chamberlain, friendly out restaurateur. Never a foul word for a soul on this earth. Always up before daylight and never in bed before midnight. You could be the president or you could be on the street, and either way he’d feed you. And it would be great. Nicest guy in town, huh?”

“Do you know something to the contrary?”

I slammed the brakes to avoid running down a young pedestrian who crossed in front of us. He thanked me with the single-finger salute.

He’s gonna get popped, Doug.”

“Webbie?”

“he’s hired a couple guys to do a B&E for him at the state prosecutor’s office. Naturally the word got back to me and I put the kibosh on it.”

“Webbie?”

“You want to quit saying that, okay? Yes, Webbie.” He flipped off the AC and powered down the window. “They were supposed to look for a file with his name on it. I don’t know what he’s into. We never talk about—you know, business. Maybe it goes back a few years. Maybe they’re screwing with him to get to me. What I need you to find out us what’s up. Then maybe I’ll fix it. Depending on what it is, maybe it’s a legit mistake, then you’ll also help with that. But first find out what it’s about.”

It was getting hot in the car so I flashed my own window down. “You must have people working for you who could do this.”

He wiped the back of his neck with the same folded handkerchief. “They could do it,” he said. “They could also get the idea of blackmailing me with it. No, you’re the guy for this.”

If my passenger had been a smoker, I’d have wrestled him to the floor for just one puff. “I’m sorry, Ricky. I’d just as soon not.”

He replaced the handkerchief in his suit jacket pocket. “You’re into Harry Isoff for a stack of hundreds.”

Harry Isoff was a local bookie whose front was selling flavored Hawaiian shaved ice. I owed him nine yards. Ricky Chamberlain had half a dozen coke peddlers, a string of pimps, a couple protection crews, and a few six-for-five lenders on his payroll. I wondered if Harry Isoff was now in his employ. I said, “I can handle Harry.”

“Harry is considering asking me to help him collect from you. Doug, we know each other almost two years. I’d have a hard time doing that. But I will. Or I’ll make good on what you owe and throw another two grand your way. Just do me this favor. Go talk to Dad. Talk to him today. Check in with me regular.”

“It’s against my will, especially if I turn up something incriminating.”

“What you turn up, you turn over to me. Hey, there’s my car there. The brown Seville. Pull over beside it.”

I pulled over beside it. He stepped out of my car and slammed the door.

“Dad’s at work. This’d be a good time of day to stop in and say hi.”

I watched him get in the Seville and drive off. Nearby a woman screamed at her son for getting chocolate all over his hands. It would’ve been nice to have that problem.

I used my new cell phone to call Tamla. I told her what had happened. She asked what she could do. I suggested she meet me ay Webbie’s. She said she would.


She got to Webbie’s New American Grill a few minutes ahead of me. She was working on a tuna melt. I ordered a ham on rye with mayo and a side of onion rings. When they arrived with a pitcher of iced-tea, Webbie delivered them himself. He pulled up a chair alongside our table.

“It makes me happy,” he said. “My son having such good friends. Maybe it’ll rub off on him, Dr. Konkle. How’s your sandwich, Miss Reeves?”

Tamla dabbed her mouth with a napkin. “It’s delicious, Webbie. Everything here is fantastic.”

“Nice of you to say,” Webbie Chamberlain said. I pegged him to be in his late sixties, a trim one-eighty, and at six-one, just a little hunched. Gray was nestling in around his temples and he winced whenever he moved in certain ways. But those were the only signs of age. Otherwise, his boyish smile suggested the young bachelor more familiar with chasing skirts than applying arthritis lotion.

“We’ve always been honest with each other,” I observed. “So I’ll tell you why we’re here.”

“We heard a rumor,” Tamla said, easing into it.

“A rumor?”

I dove in head first. “You ask a couple punks to do a breaking and entering job for you?” Tamla rolled her eyes at my lack of subtlety.

He dipped one of the onion rings in honey mustard and savored the taste. In a while he said, “I have a problem. I thought I’d handled it.”

Tamla said, “We’re here to help you.”

“That’s nice, really. I guess I’m in a little over my head. You see, many years ago, when I was about your age, Doctor, or maybe younger, I did someone a favor. It cost me. It cost me my conscience and many night’s sleep. But Ricky was in a jam. He’s my son. Flesh and blood. So I took him out of the jam. I was always straight before and I stayed straight ever after. Ricky, not so much. But he at least got smart from it. Anyway, now I think the District Attorney, he’s got an axe to grind, so he comes after me. Maybe he rattles Ricky’s cage a little.”

“What the hell did you do?” I whispered.

He glanced around, then looked from me to Tamla and back to me again. He said, “Ricky was going to boost an armored car payroll. He didn’t know I knew about it, but I did. I knew I couldn’t talk him out of it, and his plan was stupid, Dr. Konkle. He would’ve been caught. Lots of people hurt. So the day before he’d set to do it, I beat him to the punch. I burglarized the vault where the money was being transferred from.”

I asked, “How long ago did you say this was?”

He scratched his chin. “Almost twenty years ago.”

“Twenty years!” Tamla exclaimed. “Why, the statute of limitations ran out on that after seven years.”

Webbie nodded. “That’s right. But the moment it did, the state treasury got involved.”

I took a shot. “They taxed it as income?”

He nodded. “And after almost twenty years, with interest and penalties? Yech. They were gonna take my house, my restaurant, everything. So I figured they can’t take what I don’t own, so I gave them all to a guy named Lawrence Cowsill.”

I almost choked. “Detroit Larry?”

“The same. I’d heard he specialized in helping people with this problem. But the State of Arizona, the revenue people, they didn’t like the looks of that. So they started an investigation. I just wanted to know what they had on me.”

I stared at him. “I never would have guessed any of this, Webbie. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”

He looked up. “Then you’ll help?”

We both said “Yes.” I added to that. “You don’t involve anyone else in this. If the state or the police contact you, keep quiet and have them call your lawyer. Do not admit to anything.”

“I’ll keep quiet.”

“Make sure your lawyer has our number. And for God’s sake, stay away from Larry.”

“He’s a bug, huh?”

“Webbie, he’s a horde of locusts.”


One of the degrees Tamla held was a Bachelor’s in socioeconomics. That put her closer than me to understanding the tax code, so we didn’t need to flip a coin to decide which of us would pursue that angle. The phony U.S. Treasury identification card cost me two hundred fifty, but that was all right. If I got hungry, I could always snag a quick continental breakfast ay some hotel that had never heard of me. So while I ran down the historical aspects of the case, Tamla followed the more recent paper trail. But Ricky and Webbie had mentioned they thought the anticipated prosecution was motivated more at aggravating the gangster son than some afterthought method of punishing an old man for a crime committed two decades earlier. After changing from her standard cap, T-shirt and jeans into a burgundy pleated skirt and long sleeve white blouse, she dropped in on the Revenue Division of the Arizona State Attorney’s Office. She got the Executive Administrative Assistant a bit confused and within half an hour was rifling the computer files pertaining to one Wilfred Chamberlain.

I decided to have a one-on-one with Detroit Larry. Unfortunately for me, Larry thought it better to make that one-on-three, the imbalance in his favor.

The office of Cowsill Liquidities sprawled out over the entire second floor of a two-story building notable for its absence of spray painted graffiti in a neighborhood where indecipherable tagging predominated. Detroit Larry’s reputation for retaliatory violence was itself sufficient to discourage any semi-literate skateboard punk or ganja-smoking reprobate from marring those bricks with unsolicited ornamentation. Larry the shylock wasn’t the typical backstreet unofficial loan officer. His niche was to pay you in cash for something you’d sign over to him. If you kept up your terms, you’d get your possessions back. Miss one payment and you’d lose your collateral, along with the use of an arm or a leg. “When you play with the band,” he’d been heard to say. “You didn’t need to dance.”

Larry leaned back in his chair and rested his Italian shoes on the edge of a polished cherry oak desk. His two associates sat a few feet back and to his left, thumbing through the sticky pages of skin magazines. Larry fired up an unfiltered Pall Mall and puffed billows toward the ceiling where the air conditioning system shattered and gobbled them into its filtration system. This was the first time since breaking the habit that I envied an air duct.

Before I made the mistake of obsessing on my yearning for tobacco, I plunged ahead with the direct and semi-honest approach. “I understand you’re holding titles for Webbie Chamberlain.”

He studied the rolled stick between his thumb and forefinger as if it contained the answers to some final exam. As last he remarked, “Gum shoe? Shamus? Dick? What do they call you guys these days?”

“My friends call me Dr. Konkle.”

His belly churned up a laugh the way a volcano churns up magma. “Doctor, is it? Billy here already ran your record.” He indicated the red-haired pug-nosed fellow pursuing an advanced degree in pubic-ology. “That’s right. While you were cooling your jets in the waiting room, we read your history. Let’s see. How did that go? You helped a cop under suspension get back on the force by clearing him on a homicide charge?”

Of course I knew what he was talking about, but that didn’t mean I wanted to talk about it now, especially not with him, especially not with that cigarette calling out to me like the Sirens to Ulysses’ sailors. I said, “My involvement was preliminary. Profile stuff. Turned out he was innocent.”

“An honest cop,” Larry said, drawing in on his cigarette. “Guess you had a little conflict of interest on that? Guess he was seeing you as a shrink at the same time?”

I leaned forward. “Your research team impresses me. But I’m here about Webbie. I’d like some information.”

He dropped his Pall Mall in a gold ashtray and stared across the desk at me. “Why should I tell you anything? Nothing in it for me.”

I shrugged off the blatant truth of that statement. “He thinks they’re leaning on him to get to his kid. I just wondered why you’d involve yourself in a messy deal like this? The State investigators take a dim view of diversion of assets. Isn’t that what they call it?”

He let his eyelids fall shut and appeared to relish the trails of smoke wafting up to his nostrils. “You come in here to irritate me, Konkle?”

Larry’s two assistants closed their magazines and turned their attention to me. That couldn’t have been a good thing.

“Look, Larry—”

Just that fast his eyes opened and his feet hit the floor as his head shot forward, his chin in a deviant mode. “The name is Mr. Cowsill, dick.”

I pretended not to be alarmed. “Mr. Cowsill, I could have tried to lay a con on you to find out what I wanted. Out of respect, I’m being straight with you.”

“Respect? Who you think you’re dealing with? You think I’ve got brain damage?”

The two assistants were on their feet now, although they hadn’t advanced from their chairs.

“I think you’re smart,” I said. “Smarter than me. For instance, I can’t figure out the advantage to you in this transaction. But there’s got to be one.”

He drew in one last hit on his square and snubbed it out. “Billy?”

The redhead marched up alongside the desk. Larry said, “Konkle, I’m about to suggest that Billy here take you up to the roof and nail you to the tar paper. How long you think you’d last spiked into the roof in this heat?”

I didn’t care to think about it. “Lar—Mr. Cowsill? Maybe we can help each other?”

He stared at me for half a minute. He fingers motioned Billy back to the chair. Billy moved back but didn’t sit down. Larry fired up another one. I fought against dizziness.

I said, “Look, you help me out with this information, I’ll refer some business your way.”

He scowled. I didn’t know people still did that. He said, “You’d send your friends my way?”

“Oh, no. But my enemies need loans. And I’ve got lots of enemies.”

He coughed out a laugh and for the first time appeared to relax. “Look, it’s simple. The State D.A.’s on my ass about proprietary shell games. Probably can’t make anything cling, but it’s still a headache, dig? So, he says I can take an aspirin or he’ll make the headache go away if I do the old guy a favor. I make him the loan and squeeze. D.A. figures the kid’ll go ape and screw himself to save his pop.”

I nodded. “Like to keep things complicated, don’t they?”

“They got candle wax for brains. We about done here?”

“Almost. The old man, is he keeping up his payments?”

“Still working on the interest. Be years before he gets to the nut. He buys the farm, guess who’s the new beneficiary on his life insurance policy?”

My craving for nicotine subsided. It was replaced with a fierce wave of contempt, a response I tried not to reveal. I wasn’t sure I hated any of my enemies enough to send them to Detroit Larry. I stood to go. There was no question of shaking hands. “Thanks for the information. I’ll get out of your way now.” I turned to leave. Larry was around the desk and in front of me before I’d moved two steps. Only then did I get a sense as to his size. He stood at least six-five, had twin barrels for a chest, and couldn’t have weighed less than the dumpster they kept behind the building.

He said, “There’s one more thing.”

I saw it coming and took it. It was either that or risk the tar paper treatment.

He caught me in the stomach with a closed fist that shook my insides like a jackhammer. The air went out of my lungs and refused to come back. My knees folded and I dropped to them, holding my guts and struggling to coax oxygen back into my starving lungs. The two assistants were laughing. Detroit Larry kneeled down to make eye contact with me.

“You remember this when you think about who you talk to. This conversation gets back to me, I’ll nail you down myself, dick. Now get the hell out of here.”

Forty minutes later I found myself taking the elevator up to my third floor office. I normally took the stairs two steps at a time. This afternoon I was thrilled just to be able to push the elevator’s up button.

The brown-eyed beauty from the jewelry store rose as I stepped into my own reception room. “Another coincidence,” I said. “This day is just full of them.”

She met me with no more than an inch to spare between us. “I waited here for you,” she said, those eyes processing the playback against my present condition. “I followed you to the mall and told Ricky you were there, as a favor to him. Knowing how he operates, I should have known better. Are you all right?”

I tried to smile. “I’ll be digesting soup instead of meet for a few days.”

“He hurt you?” She seemed concerned.

“No. He’s an ace. I took a punch from a twice-removed associate. What’s your connection to Ricky Chamberlain?”

She stepped with me into the inner office and sat down. I offered no amenities. “He’s a friend of mine,” she said.

I studied her legs. “A friend his wife doesn’t know about?”

She moved a strand of hair back behind an ear. “I imagine not,” she said.

“I don’t suppose you smoke, do you?”

That bit of conversational incongruity ruffled her for just a moment. “Sorry, I don’t. Why?”

I sighed. “No reason. Now tell me why you’re really here.”






Her demeanor headed toward ruffled again and then pulled a u-turn back to composed. “I told you—”






“You could have apologized over the phone. Better yet you could have made it unnecessary by telling Ricky to do his own leg work. So why don’t you just get to the point?”






I brought out a glass and bottle of expensive shoe polish that passed itself off as Scotch. I filled my glass and looked at her. “Don’t suppose you drink, either?” She shook her head. “What’s a virtuous woman like you doing playing hide the snake with a paramecium like Rick Chamberlain? For that matter, what’s your name?”






She drummed her nails on the side of her chair. “I’m Margaret Van Zandt and you were far more charming at the jewelry store.”






I gulped down a third of the filled glass and fought back the inevitable gag reflex. “That’s good, Margaret. Avoid the question by commenting on my bad manners. Look, I’m expecting to be drunk any minute now. You may not be safe.”






“I might not want to be,” she parried. Advantage, Margaret. “But you’re right,” she continued. “There’s more to my visit than an apology. I want to help you. The job you’re doing for Ricky, I can help you with it.”






I pegged her to be about thirty, maybe five-five, one-twenty and a surprising dynamo. I said, “Federal, state, or local?”






Her eyes flared with sun spots but the rest of her face said everything was fine. She crossed her arms and said, “Do you always speak in riddles?”






“Sometimes, but they’re not very sophisticated. Let me tell you what you already know before I get too bombed to remember: Ricky didn’t ask you to follow me. For one thing, I can spot a tail and for another I could sure spot yours.”






Her face blushed red as Methyl lade. I charged on ahead. “People like Ricky Chamberlain don’t talk shop with their concubines, pardon the expression. No, you knew about his connections before the first time you met under the bed spread. Which makes you either intuitive as hell, which is unlikely with you sitting across from a sexually frustrated booze hound, or you’re police. I’m asking: state or local? Forget federal. You’re just a shade below their height requirements.”






I poured another third of a glass down my throat and had no trouble keeping it down. She looked just as good blurry as when I’d been sober. I wasn’t going to move on her, but it was fun to think about it.






She drew a shield from her purse and slid it across my desk. I recognized the insignia. “State’s Attorney’s Office. Special Agent?”






She caught the badge on its way back across the desk. “Six years in the same office. This case might get me bumped up to regional commander. With your help.”






“Who you stepping on to get there? Ricky?”






She nodded and fussed with her sleeve cuffs again.






“Too bad,” I said. “I was hoping you were shooting for Detroit Larry.”






She leaned forward. I don’t know which amazed me more, the fragrance of urgency steaming from her pours or the fact that I hadn’t noticed until now that the top two buttons of her blouse were undone. “You’d help us get Larry Cowsill?” She was halfway across my desk.






“East, tigress, easy. Let me see if I can reconcile this. Ricky wants me to get the tax boys off his dad’s back. Plus I like the old guy. He stuck his neck out for his son and now nobody’s willing to do the same for him. Can you throw any weight that way?”






She sat on the edge of the desk and ran me through her laser copier, highest definition. “I can, if you’ll agree to help me tie up both the kid and Larry.”






“I’d give you Larry for free. The only problem with Ricky is that he offered me two grand, plus nine hundred I owe a bookie. If I get him busted, he may not want to pay me.”






She let her skirt ride up and watched as I finished off the glass. She said, “I can authorize maybe fifteen hundred.”






“Make it two grand, wear that same skirt tomorrow, and you’ve got a deal.”






We shook on it and I passed out on the desk.










I don’t know whether I awoke to the ring of the telephone, the smell of the coffee, or the intestinal laceration I’d suffered at the fist of Detroit Larry. All I knew for certain was that Tamla grabbed the phone with one hand and indicated the coffee mug with the other. I shot a beeline for the office restroom and made it with only seconds to spare.






When I finished I rinsed out my mouth and washed my face. Blood had caked around my lips, leading me to suspect that Larry’s punch had damaged me more than I’d realized. I wiped my mouth again, pulled out a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and drank slightly less than half of it.






Back in the inner office I nursed the coffee the was usually verboten while Tamla brought me up to speed.






“That was Ricky Chamberlain on the phone. I don’t care much for him, Douglas.”






That made several of us. “What did he want?”






She watched me as she poured herself a cup. There were far worse things in the world than coming out of a blind drunk to the site of Tamla Reeves.






“He just wanted to know how far along we were. I told him you’d call him in the morning.”






“How far along are we?”






She sipped the dark blend and said, “I was reading the State Tax Attorney’s file notes. He was all set to land on Webbie by the end of the week. Then, while I was still in review mode, a new entry popped up. It said ‘further review unwarranted.’ How do you suppose that happened? I mean, they dropped it, just like that.”






I supposed it was Margaret, redeeming herself. The mix of coffee and pink stuff was bringing me around. “I pulled a few strings on my end. What did the file notes say?”






“The tax attorney’s office was assisting the state prosecutor in building a racketeering charge against Ricky. The goal was to use Webbie to pry a confession from his son, save the expense of a very long trial. All Ricky’s dealings are strictly in Arizona, so it’s not gone federal. They’ve got two prostitutes and their manager in limited protective custody, plus a pair of big deal loan sharks ready to roll over in consideration for time served. There’s also a list of five potential witnesses who appear to be VOV—that’s victims of violence. The theory—unproved—is that Chamberlain has joined up with a lending operation headed by—you’ll never guess who.”






“Lawrence Cowsill?”






“The same. It seems this Mr. Cowsill likes to beat people up.”






“Take it from me, he’s effective.”






“But they’re stuck with the same problem. Cowsill’s only infracted here in the state. So after legal proceedings that’ll stretch out over three years, both of them will still only probably serve two years. And none of that helps poor old Mr. Chamberlain.”






I needed to remember that mix of Scotch, Pepto and coffee because I came up with a flash. “Then why do they call him Detroit Larry? And why did Ricky tell me earlier today—”






“It’s now tomorrow.”






I looked out the window. It was dark outside all right. “Why did he tell me that if he wanted somebody messed up, he’d call people in Michigan?”






“Coincidence?”






“You know how he feels about coincidences?”






“I’m sure I have no idea.”






“Happy birthday.” I laid the package on the desk. She picked it up and looked at me in wonder.






“You’ve been busier than I realized,” she said.






Tamla knew perfectly well I hate to see a woman cry, yet despite that fact, she had no more than removed the pearl necklace from its case than the tears began to flow. She walked over to the wall mirror, fastened the strand behind her neck and looked at herself sobbing. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You hate crying.”






On a hunch, I stood up. She came to me. We kissed. The room spun sideways and it had nothing to do with alcohol.










At two o’clock the next afternoon ten of us sat around a large conference table inside the building that housed the State’s Attorney’s Office. In addition to Tamla and myself, the conference room also hosted Webbie and his lawyer, Ricky Chamberlain and his esteemed attorney, Lawrence Cowsill and his out of state shyster, plus Margaret Van Zandt and her immediate superior, a fellow whose name I never did get. Tamla and I hadn’t slept yet—unfortunately, for work-related reasons—and I still felt a little less than sharp. But I wasn’t so dull that I failed to notice that Margaret had kept her promise about wearing that same skirt. Either that or she had two of them exactly alike.






“No hard feelings, eh, Konkle?”






I looked at the president of Cowsill Liquidities and said, “Nothing but.”






Margaret cleared her throat. “This is a preliminary legal proceeding held at the request of the State’s Attorney to advise all concerned parties and their respective councils of the results of our investigations into the affairs of Wilbert Chamberlain, Richard Chamberlain, and Lawrence Cowsill, as known as Lawrence Conrad, also known as Lawrence Crawford, also known as Detroit Larry.






“In the matter of Wilbert Chamberlain, the State Revenue Department has investigated allegations that Mr. Chamberlain committed state tax fraud by knowingly failing to report earned income in the amount of $154,919. With penalties and interest applied, the original investigator calculated his debt to the state, as of this fiscal quarter, to be $1,839,502.34. At the recommendation of this office, the Revenue Department declines prosecution. No further action is anticipated in that matter.”






Webbie, sitting to my right, squeezed my hand in appreciation. It was a weak and tired squeeze, but he gave it all he had. Personally, I wondered who and what Margaret had had to do to get the tax gang off his back. It might just have been the most expensive bedding since Heidi Fleiss set up operations. But that was just a guess.






The special agent continued. “In the matter of Richard Chamberlain, this office finds that there is sufficient evidence to pursue indictments against Mr. Chamberlain. The charges are in violation of Arizona Revised Statutes, specifically involving illegal procurement, inducement to solicit, operating facilities for illegal gambling, and in-state banking violations.”






Ricky’s lawyer, a fat and untanned man with excessive wrist jewelry, spoke up. “Ms. Van Zandt, I am amazed.”






She said, “What amazes you, sir?”






“I am amazed that you would be willing to disregard the legitimate debt on illegally obtained income while pursuing prosecution which, in a worst case scenario for my client, will result in no more than two years of confinement for him. Either your priorities are inverted, or you are engaging in selective prosecution.”






Whatever else might be my fate in life, I took some comfort in knowing that I didn’t talk like these people. I also observed that Ricky didn’t care at all about his father.






“Objection noted. As to the matter of Lawrence Cowsill, this office is confident we can receive an indictment against Mr. Cowsill on a charge of diversion of assets. As in the case of Mr. Chamberlain, in-state banking violations will be attached.”






Larry didn’t so much as blink. He had an attorney to do that for him. His lawyer said, “What type of deal is the State’s Attorney offering?”






It was Margaret’s turn not to blink. “There are no deals on the table, gentlemen.”






Larry chuckled. “Too bad, Pops. Looks like I’ll have to sell off your restaurant and house to pay my legal bills.”






“I wouldn’t count on that, Mr. Cowsill.” Those were the only words Margaret’s boss spoke during the meeting, but he appeared to relish saying them.






Margaret clarified. “Dr. Konkle and Ms. Reeves performed some investigations at our request. At seems that Mr. Cowsill also owns a business in Inkster, Michigan, just outside of Detroit.”






Larry leaned forward. “A pest control business. So what?”






Margaret returned his stare. “More of an extermination enterprise. Are you familiar with a man named Tyrone Murphy? Oh, no need to answer. Konkle and Reeves contacted Mr. Murphy and persuaded him to turn himself in to local authorities.” She looked at us for just a second and turned back to Larry. “Mr. Murphy is willing to reveal to a federal grand jury that he operated on your behalf as a hired gun. He has spoken of six paid murders and has named you as paymaster.”






Larry started to jump out of his chair, but his lawyer placed a soothing hand on his shoulder. “Hypothetically, is the federal prosecutor interested in knowing on whose behalf my client may have been acting?”






Margaret looked at her superior who responded with a nod. Margaret glanced at Webbie for a moment and said, “He is willing to listen to that information and consider it in negotiating a plea agreement with the proviso that your client divest himself of all personal and business holdings acquired within the previous six months.” That would, conveniently, include Webbie’s home and restaurant. After a brief chat with his client, Larry’s lawyer told us the man from Inkster was willing to accept that proviso. At this news, Ricky slumped in his chair. Everyone in the room knew on whose behalf Larry had been operating.






A team of federal agents, who for all I knew had been viewing our discussion from a two way mirror, cuffed Ricky and Larry and read them their rights.










Webbie, Margaret, Tamla and I sat at a table in the New American Grill, three of us wolfing down the best prime rib I’ve ever tasted. Webbie’d lost his appetite along with his son.






Margaret asked us, “Where in the hell did you come up with Tyrone Murphy?”






I had to laugh at her bewilderment. Tamla fielded the question. “Douglas has one unfortunate habit I haven’t broken him of.”






Margaret’s eyes widened. “Only one?”






“He still bets the horses. His bookie is some mangy dog named Harry Isoff. Harry was actually looking around for someone to muscle Douglas into paying off his debt.”






Margaret reached into her purse with a flourish. “That reminds me,” she said, handing me a cashier’s cheque.






Tamla continued. “Doug called him up last night and promised to pay him—today. Then they started talking about the various people Isoff knew who in turn might know someone who would kill a person for money. About thirty phone calls later we had a list of twenty-some names, but still no way to trace it to Larry Cowsill. Then I called this man I know, a fraud investigator for the telephone company. He ran a local usage detail on Larry’s pest control business, which is just a P.O Box and a voice mail service, to see if any of the twenty had ever contacted Larry or been contacted by him.”






I said, “Tyrone Murphy was the only one.”






Margaret shook her head. “That’s all fine, but why’d he turn himself in? That connection doesn’t constitute proof and he must have known that.”






I said, “We’re off the record here?”






She agreed.






“Tamla’s father was on the force. His uniform fit me pretty well.”






Margaret’s eyes closed. “Tell me you didn’t.”






“I flew to Detroit last night and arrested Mr. Murphy. It’s possible he may have suffered some persuasive injuries in the prowl car on the way to the station.”






Webbie laughed. Tamla put her hand on my shoulder. Margaret said, “Persuasive injuries, huh? Wait! Where’d you get a prowl car?”






I told her, “Margaret, they weren’t about to issue me one.”






“You stole a cop car?”






“I’m sure if I did I would have put it back where I found it.”






She held her face in her hands. “Please never repeat any of this.”






“You have my word. Hey, let’s toast to Webbie, shall we?”






Everyone raised their glasses, the prodigal father included. Tamla’s pearls danced in the glow.









Head Full of Ugly






After forty-two years on this planet, after earning a Doctorate in Psychology and practicing with my blend of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung and W. C. Fields, after working for the past five years as a private investigator, and after as much time spent alone in contemplation as conjoined and oblivious—after all this, I still knew less about people than on the day I was born.






Tamla and I were in an upscale Spanish-Italian eatery enjoying a dinner that I wondered how I was going to afford when a slick piece of merchandise saddled up next to her and landed a wet kiss on her cheek. After forty-two years of misjudging apparently spontaneous behavior and often as not living to regret my instant calculations, I sipped my Remy Martin brandy and relocated a strand of linguine from one end of my plate to another prior to offering the obligatory look of inquisitiveness in their direction. As far as I knew, my business partner and I were celebrating the anticipated compensation we’d earned for completing a recent high profile case, and this stranger might well have staggered intoxicated from the bar and mistaken Tamla Reeves for his long lost sister, a woman last seen at the apex of a rollercoaster ride at Palisades Park. It took a man of my years and life experiences nearly twenty seconds to indulge the possibility that I’d been talked into this meal for other than celebratory reasons.






My question mark expression caught their collective attention and once it did they giggled like twelve-year-olds caught dipping into Grandma’s secret cache of Kentucky bourbon. “I’m sorry, Douglas,” Tamla said. “This is my friend, Patrick Reichelderfer. Patrick, meet Dr. Douglas Konkle.”






We shook hands over the remnants of my linguine. He gripped my hand like someone with something to prove. Maybe he wanted to demonstrate his manners were as Stentorian as his last name. I gave that some thought and three seconds later dismissed it because I no longer cared. I said, “What line of work you in, Mr. Reichelderfer?”






He glanced down at his lap with a deferential smile, either a gesture of modesty or else he’d just discovered that he’d sat in some runaway pesto sauce. Tamla said, “Patrick is a professional tennis player. Two years ago he was seeded in the top 200 in the United States.”






Modesty has its limits. He said, “Actually, I was 197 in the world. But, after all, that was—”






“Two years ago,” I said. “Since I gather you two have met, how did you?”






Tamla shot me a quick look I took to mean she wanted me to behave. The tennis player said, “Her brother Eddie used to be the driver we used at the country club. She and I met through him, didn’t we, darling?”






Dogs, often superior to human beings, urinate around what they perceive to be their territory as a way of alerting other professional sniffers to back off. Less enlightened human males snake an arm around a paramour’s hip or shoulder. Some, presumably more sophisticated, stake out their domain with a phrase or a solitary word. The tennis player had just done that.






“I’d invite you to join us,” I said. “But it appears you already have.”






Tamla fired off a double-barreled look of dismay and aggravation, punctuating it with a clandestine kick beneath the table. She said, “Patrick called me last night, Douglas. He has a problem I think you might want to hear.”






My dinner was getting cold anyway, so I said, “Would you like to talk about it, Pat?”






After a welcome flinch at the sound of his name being abbreviated, he said, “I just want you to know I would never have barged in on you except that Tamla insisted.” He paused. Since he hadn’t asked a question I chose not to fill the conversational void. Finally, he went on. “I’ve been approached about fixing matches. Maybe I’m naïve, but I thought that kind of thing only happened in boxing. But his man, this Dustin Meyer, he made it quite clear that the fix was in on my next three meets, and he said that if I played ball, so to speak, I’d be in for a cut. I told him I’d never thrown a match in my life and wasn’t about to start now. Then he tells me it’s my next three competitors who are going to lose. Each of them has probably peaked professionally, and I can beat them without any help, but I don’t want to win and wonder if I earned the victories.”






“That’s it?” I asked. “Why don’t you go to the Tennis Commission or whatever it’s called, and turn this Dustin Meyer in?”






“Patrick wants to avoid an official inquiry.”






“I wonder why?”






“He doesn’t want to look like—”






“A snitch?”






“Like someone who would do that.”






Reichelderfer piped up. “Dr. Konkle, I’d like an unofficial investigation. Maybe the guy is a liar? Maybe Haywood, Sinclair, and Ziebeck know nothing about it? Those are the next three matches: Lucius Haywood, Ernesto Sinclair, and Bardanio Ziebeck. What I want—what I need—is for the fix, if there is one, to be called off. When I beat them, I want to want I did it fair and square.”






I slid my dinner plate over to one side. I was tired of trying to tango to mariachi rhythms. I said, “Dustin Meyer, whoever he is, has something on you, some leverage, or he’d never have approached you, assuming this really is the first time. Was this an unspoken secret between the two of you?”






He lobbed that high bounce back across the net without messing one strand of hair. The ruder I was to this guy, the nicer he acted. “I can appreciate your skepticism, especially considering you and I have only just met. But, no, there’s nothing anyone has on me. My thinking is that the Commission itself could be plotting a sting. If that’s what’s happening and I do win these matches, as I plan, I’m liable to appear complicit in something I had no hand in. Do you see my problem?”






I saw it. It was a strain to care, but I did see it. I said, “So who is Dustin Meyer?”






Reichelderfer snagged a taste of fried ice cream from Tamla’s bowl. “He has more self-confidence than anyone I’ve ever met. The way he walked into the office, strutting as if he owned the building, and then making these demands. But to answer your question, I’ve no idea. That’s the thing. Google comes up blank and so do the other search engines.”






Tamla translated. “There’s nothing about him on the Internet.”






I dug my cell phone out of my jacket pocket, confirmed with Reichelderfer the spelling of the last name, and called up information. The automated system connected me with a home telephone. A man answered on the second ring.






A fast talking voice of fluctuating pitch said, “This is Dustin. I don’t recognize the number you’re calling from. State your business.”






My free hand made an automatic search of my breast pocket, even though I’d put the smokes down a couple months earlier. I said, “My name is Konkle. I’m investigating allegations that you have involved yourself in predetermining the outcomes of some tennis matches.”






Patrick Reichelderfer raised an arm in tentative objection. Tamla caught him at the elbow. She whispered to him, but I was focusing on Meyer’s reaction. He said, “I can see why you called. If you were talking that way to my face, you’d be looking at the sky, chief. That might happen yet.”






I coughed. I’d been doing that ever since I quit smoking. “We can meet if you want, but you sound clever enough to follow this over the phone. My client plays honest. He expects the same from his competition. We’ll be filming the matches. Anything looks odd, we’ll take it to the authorities.”






I’d been yakked at by meth addicts with less hyper animation than this guy. “Who’d you say you were? Konkle? Listen, Konkle, I’m a promoter and I set up events and coordinate sponsorships, so if I was to work up a scam like you’re implying, I wouldn’t tell the guy to win, so you ought to tell your client, whoever he may be, to explain that, but meanwhile you make accusations like that one public, I got lawyers with sharp teeth.”






I drew a deep breath. One of us needed to. “You heard what I said, Meyer. The cameras roll.”






“I’m hanging up, chief.”






“Stay calm.”






“Stay healthy.” He hung up. I did the same.






Our served placed the bill inside a folded black leather case. I didn’t lunge for it.






Once the waiter removed himself from earshot, Reichelderfer’s face took on certain qualities one associates with a prune. He said, “Is this your normal method of operation?”






“No, Pat. But for dinner crashers I make exceptions.”






Tamla whip-snapped her cloth napkin at me. “Douglas Konkle! Stop behaving like a child.”






I addressed him. “My advice is to follow through and film those matches. Meyer’s spooked. If you’re the golden boy you say you are, he’s probably come on to other players. But he did raise one good point: Why tell you about it? And here’s my own point: why offer you a cut to play well?”






He shrugged.






I wrapped it up. “No charge. Tamla, you ready?”






No one dove for the tab. As I examined the bill, Tamla muttered something about how he should call her later.






She and I left together, if you can consider her walking twenty feet ahead of me “together.”






She sat in the passenger side of the Vic while I drove. We spent the first five minutes of the forty minute drive to her apartment in complete silence. Sometime during the second five minutes I coughed. Cars these days are so efficient that all a driver need engage himself with is steering, accelerating, and breaking. That’s well and good if you’re alone or riding with someone who isn’t furious with you. But when your passengers floods your ears with silence, a few more essential knobs, dials and pedals would make things less awkward. Tokyo, take note!






I expected Tamla to say nothing at all for the entire ride. Halfway to her home, she surprised me, although not pleasantly. “How could you behave that way? Patrick was charming as a prince and you went out of your way to be hostile. After I spent so much time telling him how great you are, how many people you’ve helped, how much I like working with you—and you make me look like an idiot!”






The dash display reported our speed at seventy-two miles per hour and yet cars passed us on both sides. I considered what such behavior might say about the human condition. It was that or risk saying things that would escalate the tension.






She continued. “And I guess you thought that phone call was cute? I specifically made a point of telling you that Patrick wanted a low key investigation.”






If we’d been on the surface streets instead of the freeway, I would have pulled into the first convenience store and bought two cartons of Marlboro’s.






“Patrick Reichelderfer is a friend of mine. You treated him like he was the one under investigation. I want you to tell me why you were so hateful.”






We hit an upgrade and I passed a semi. I could feel myself glow from the accomplishment. I said, “I didn’t like him.”






“Would you mind telling me why?”






This had to be said with accuracy and precision. “I didn’t like his attitude. You and I were having dinner—”






She stopped me with an opened-face stare. “Douglas Konkle, are you jealous?”






“Yes.”






“How cute. Isn’t that a sign of insecurity?”






“Or it can be a rational first response to certain social situations.”






She leaned so she could see out the window. “I can’t believe you’re jealous.”






“Start believing it. That’ll expedite the conversation.”






Maybe she didn’t believe it. Or maybe I was wrong. Either way, she didn’t say another word until I let her out at her apartment. We exchanged perfunctory “good nights” and I drove myself home.










It was a little late for tea when I got to my house on Aster, but I brewed some anyway. The gift pack of Earl Grey Tamla had bought me seemed appropriate, and while I let it steep, I examined the day’s mail. Mixed in among some Charles Mingus reissues I’d ordered, the electric bill final notice, and solicitations I’d never read was a bulletin from the American Psychological Association. I’d applied for reinstatement of my license—an act motivated more by pride than any yearning to resume my practice—and that foolhardiness had gotten me positioned back on their mailing list. I had maybe two chances for reinstatement (and Slim was on vacation), but one who can maintain hope lives to endure new failures while one who gives up endures being a quitter. I think Nixon said that right before his resignation.






My mind ached for a pot of thick Turkish coffee, but I’d made a promise. I sipped the foggy tea. It shouted its blandness, and I was looking for the pictures in a new study of the therapeutic advances in the treatment of borderline personality disorder, when a creak in the floorboards disrupted my feeble concentration. The house might have been settling or a minor earthquake might have made an early warning, but I treated the creak as if I had an intruder. After all, settling houses and pre-shocks are not famous for clicking back the hammers of their firearms.






I spun in my desk chair and saw the man standing just within accurate shooting range from me, pointing what looked to be a perfectly adequate .38 Special my way. His dark brown hair was a bit long and parted on one side. Someone had powdered his skin recently, even though his forehead reflected the light from the ceiling. And his self-satisfied grin was as slick as the inside of an oil derrick. I could just make out a baby blue shirt collar poking out from beneath his long black leather jacket, his dress slacks featured creases he could have used for slicing Porterhouse, and the shimmer of his shoes glistened like the hood of a waxed Ferrari. His jaw moved as if he thought he was chewing bubblegum. His arm steadied the .38 at waist level. He said, “You talk pretty big on the phone, chief. How big you feeling now, huh? Why don’t you threaten me now, huh?”






I recognized my guest by the lickety-split patter. I said, “Didn’t you see the no weapons sign on the front door?”






He chomped his imaginary gum with great enthusiasm. “Never sweat, eh, hawkshaw? That’s nice. But inside you’re flooded I’ll bet. I know the type, believe it. See, I’ve traveled the circuit of every lukewarm tennis bum in the southwest. They ride a streak for five months, the press splatters them with a bucket of ego, and they coast until the next tight pair of sneakers kicks them off the curt. But even then, they always hold it together on the outside, just like you.”






Guys wound that tight worried me. I’d been shot twice before, once in the arm and once in the upper leg, the leg shot chipping bone. Both times hurt. Both times I had to buy new clothes. There was also the inconvenience of going to the hospital and thinking up credible explanations for bored police officers. Plus there was always the chance of infection. Depending on the caliber, the range, and the talent of the shooter, a guy could even get killed. Even with very little on my plate at the moment, I just did not want to be shot. I said, “What can I do for you, Meyer?” That imaginary gum must have been delicious. I thought about asking him for a stick.






“That guttersnipe client of yours, he tells you I’m fixing matches? How do I like that? I’m thinking on my way here I’ll shoot you so as you’ll be paralyzed, because you made me mad. Then I get to looking around and I say to myself, this guy Konkle, he’s got to make a living, sleazy as it is. I asked myself who’m I really mad at? Could be Ziebeck, but I figured Reichelderfer. Ziebeck would take me on personally. Patrick is more the type to run for help.”






“Are you asking me?” I had a piece in the middle desk drawer. It might have even been loaded. I thought I might chance it, but only after Meyer announced his intentions. I pegged him for the kind of guy who would.






He dismissed my question. “The point is, Konkle, you, me, people like us, all we got at the end of the day is a reputation. You start believing everything you hear from some washed up never was and like a flash I’m out of promotions and having to work for a living.”






How sentimental, I thought. If we had a band, we could record You, Me, the Moonlight & Meyer.






I tipped my head to indicate the tea. He said to go ahead. I sipped it. Bland never gets better, but it did help me think. I plunged ahead on instinct. “Look, I don’t know Reichelderfer any better than I know you. To be honest, I’m giving him the edge only because he hasn’t offered to paralyze me, but then again, we just met.” Meyer stopped chewing and pursed his lips. I went on. “The truth is I didn’t like his story much. As far as your part goes, sometimes I’m abrasive just to shake out the truth.”






He nodded and drew back his arms. “Done it myself, hawkshaw. That’s why this time I’m going to tell you nice to make a switch. Scratch the kid and pencil me in. I’m in Tucson tomorrow. I’m back the day after. There’s a match between Reichelderfer and Haywood at the Vets Coliseum. Do I care who wins? What I care is that my rep stays clean. Between now and then I got a name for you. Tony Shapiro. He’s a bed bug. Shapiro Promotions been trying to derail me off the southwest circuit. Be smart and check him out. Physical rehab squeezes the wallet, Scarlet. From the looks of this dump, yours is already squeezed out.”






He backed to the front door and opened it behind him. Stepping out, he said, “That kid is a disease. He’s got a head full of ugly. You sleep on it. But you are working for me.”






He gave the nonexistent gum one final chew and bowed out into the evening, thudding the door into place. He hadn’t overstayed his welcome.










I spite of my total lack of understanding of people, being forty-two does have some good things going for it. For instance, you can still tinker with the vestiges of youth without needing to endorse its commercialism. People both younger and older often imbue you with an unearned wisdom. And by that age it was easy to trade in worry over what other people think for a simple self-respect. Case in point: I’d made no commitment to either Reichelderfer or to Meyer, both of whom could, if it were up to me, take the A-train straight to the heart of the ninth circle. The income would have been nice, I’ll admit. But there’s other things of value in life. There was the above par Elvis Presley movie, Kid Creole, currently running muted on my TV screen. There was the Mingus disc I’d popped into the box: The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, complete with liner notes written by the bassist’s shrink. And there were the books in the mystery section of my library, titles from Dashielle Hammett, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ross MacDonald, and—from the Elvis of detective fiction—Raymond Chandler. Back in college I’d idolized the resigned vitality of the main characters in these books. The literary establishment from time to time awakened the Chandler, debating whether a creation like Philip Marlowe was a forerunner of today’s anti-hero. All I knew was that the loner lifestyle was more fun to read about than to live through.






The hum of my cell phone jarred me out of my self-absorption. I gave the caller my last name. After a brief hesitation, a voice I almost recognized said, “I’m sorry, who is this?”






I repeated myself.






“Konkle? This is Hadley Masters.”






If you could mix a bulldog’s face with a rhino’s ass, throw on some human color and adjust it to scale, you’d have a fair likeness of Hadley Masters’ face. “Hadley,” I said. “I was just not thinking about you.”






He spoke to someone and then came back to me. “Doug, I’m with homicide now—special duty—and I’m down at Tempe Town Lake. We’ve got a fresh victim here with this phone number in the wallet.”






With my luck it was a client who still owed me. “Who is it?”






“Driver’s license says Dustin Meyer. What does that name mean to you?”






Police, even when they don’t know much, never tell you all they do know. They’re taught to ask questions in ways that let them gage if you’re telling the truth, which is something most people avoid doing when talking to the law. I said, “His name came up at dinner tonight. I called him from the restaurant. I thought we might get around to meeting each other. How’d it happen?”






He rattled some papers and said, “Victim took three shots to the head at close range from what looks to be a .38. You still carry one, right?”






“From time to time. As seldom as possible.”






“So you never met him?”






“Tonight was the first time I’d even heard his name.”






If Masters noticed that I didn’t answer his question, he didn’t let on.” “What you guys talk about on the phone?”






“I’ve been getting slaughtered on the track. I’d heard he might source me some info on a few matches. Figured tennis would be a change of pace.”






“Uh-huh. I swear, some people would bet on the Second Coming if they got a good point spread. What made you think of this guy?”






“He’s a promoter. Sets up tourneys here locally. Any witnesses?”






“Promoter, huh? We didn’t know that. What time did you last talk to him?”






“I called him around a quarter to eight.”






He asked if I was still living on Aster and I told him I was. He said he’d talk to me later and hung up.






I had something new to add to the mountain of things I didn’t understand: Hadley Masters, homicide detective. I had a right to be confused. Our paths had intersected before. Five years earlier I was still in private practice and he’d been a patient. He’d come in suffering from the familiar bond of anxiety and depression, a condition triggered because Internal Affairs was pruning a tree to hang a murder charge on and he was the prime suspect. When he couldn’t get any support from the force, I agreed to look into it. I uprooted some evidence, Hadley was cleared, and the APA revoked me due to the alleged conflict of interest. When I’d first met Hadley, he’d been assigned to vice. After his exoneration, he’d helmed the tactical squadron that claimed to have brought down the Parker Allen Gang. Now he was in homicide. That bump brought him all the way back to me. What confused me was not so much that Masters worked homicide, or even that he was a cop. The mystery to me was how anyone so alien to good judgment could live that long.






My phone buzzed again. It was getting so a man couldn’t feel superior to his fellows in the peace of his own home. It was Tamla’s number. I clicked off Mingus and turned off the movie. I took her call between the third and fourth rings. Before I could voice some nonchalant greeting, she yelled, “Douglas, I need your help! Please.”






Her voice sounded unusually icy and fractured. I parked the stupid head games in the alley. “Where are you?” I asked, grabbing my jacket and making for the door.






“I’m still at my apartment,” she said. “I never left. Douglas, its Patrick. He’s hurt. He’s—someone beat him up.”






“Someone?” I looked down and noticed my feet had stopped moving before they reached the front door. I should listen to my feet more often. “Who?”






It sounded like a shard of pride had caught in her throat. I waited. My feet weren’t in a hurry. She said, “I don’t think he wanted to tell me. It—at first he wouldn’t say. It was Dustin Meyer.”






I said, “No kidding? That guy gets around.”






“Douglas!”






I opened the door and walked toward the Vic. “Okay. When and where?”






“His hotel room. The Crescent. Right after he left us. Meyer was waiting for him. He doesn’t want to call the police. Douglas, he’s scared.”






Some questions I hate to ask. “He with you?”






“I’m calling from the bedroom. He’s lying on the couch.”






I cranked the engine. “I’m on my way. But Tamla, what is it exactly that you want me to do?”






She sighed. Some answers she hated to give. “Talk to him. And try to be nice.”






I promised to try.






I hit speed dial and connected to Harry Is off, a bookie, the only such person I knew whose front was selling Hawaiian Shaved Ice. He and I were square, so it was time to call in a favor. He was just putting away his flavor bottles for the evening, but he was chipper about my call. Yes, he knew the name Dustin Meyer, although they’d never met. He’d also heard the name Tony Shapiro, and if it was the same Tony Shapiro, the guy had an arterial link to organized crime. No, he’d never heard talk about fixing a tennis match, at least not since the days of Tonya Harding. And sure, he’d be glad to give me the line on Lucius Haywood’s match against Patrick Reichelderfer. The latter was favored to win at seven to one. I declined the bet and hung up.






It takes a long time to get anywhere in the valley. City planners and the developers they favored built the city out rather than up. A twenty mile drive in Phoenix is the equivalent in most towns to going down to the corner. So eating on the road is even more usual here than in most thriving metros. I took the drive-thru through Casa del Taco Grande and snagged a small Nortena pizza, “small” meaning that it would only take five ravenous linebackers to put a dent in one. The sauce was creamy and cheesy and chock full of all the things that give southwestern food a reputation. It was glorious. The grease and spices sparked a few extra brain cells back to life and I began to wonder how Dustin Meyer had traveled from my place to the Crescent Hotel where he’d beat up a tennis pro and then on to Tempe Town Lake—a good forty miles away—just in time to catch a trio of bullets in the skull, all within the span of no more than seventy-five minutes. Several possible explanations existed. One, the dead man at the lake wasn’t actually Meyer, a real possibility since the three shots to the head would make an instant identification difficult, although eventually someone would check prints and dental records, a fact that the killer would likely have known. Two, the guy who came to my place was an imposter, a scenario that likewise presumed that the person I spoke with on the telephone was the same exact imposter. That theory sounded weak. Third, Patrick Reichelderfer was lying about Meyer beating him, the only problem with which was that I had no idea why he would want to lie about it, unless he planned to claim self-defense. What was it that Meyer had said? The kid had a head full of ugly. If Harry Isoff took bets on rational hunches, I’d have bet on Theory Three.






I brought the pizza box to the door with me. I didn’t know how Patrick responded to a beating, but it always made me hungry. After all, I’d promised to try to be nice.






He didn’t look good. There was nothing life-threatening here, but I knew he and pain were now on a first name basis. Someone had cut him with a metal ring just over his left eye. From the way he favored that eye, it was going to be bruised by morning. His lower lip was split. Something—maybe a length of chain—had struck his shoulder hard enough to rip the shirt and spray blood. A shoe imprint marred the right leg of his slacks just above the knee. And his hands rested on his stomach as if he were protecting it. His color was a pale green. Three different pain pill bottles saluted from the coffee table in front of him.






“What are you doing here?” he moaned as I walked a half circle around him.






“Describe the man who did this to you,” I said.






He glowered at me. “It was Dustin Meyer.”






I sat on the edge of the coffee table. I said, “I want you to describe him. Did he hit you with his right fist or left? What color shirt was he wearing? Did you see a weapon? What did he say during this?”






I expected Tamla to object to these questions, but she gave Patrick a concerned look of encouragement.






Patrick said, “He punched me with both hands, like a boxer does. He had on a jacket, so I didn’t see his shirt. As far as weapons go, I didn’t see any. He didn’t need any. And what was your other question?”






“Was this a silt picture or did he talk?”


“I’m standing in my hotel room. I’d just walked in. Someone called my name. I turned around and wham! He caught me right in the eye. He might have said things but if he did I didn’t hear them.”






Tamla looked from him to me and back. I couldn’t tell what she made of this.






I said, “Who’s Tony Shapiro?”






He gripped his stomach. “I give up. Who is he?”






“Think of it as a trick question. Here’s another: are you going to press charges?”






Rather than tell the truth or risk a lie, he changed the subject. “My main concern is recovering to play Haywood day after tomorrow.”






I held my breath as I asked my final question. “Did you kill Dustin Meyer?”






An hysterical giggle bubbled up from Tamla. Patrick tried to sneer, but his face hurt too much. “Kill him? I thought he was going to kill me. What makes you ask that?”






“How’d you get here?”






He sat up, slightly. “I asked you a question.”






“I don’t care.”






Tamla put her arms between us. “Boys, play nice.”






He rose a bit more. “I want to know what he meant by that.”






I’d had enough, so I grabbed another slice of pizza. They didn’t appear to be hungry. Tamla jerked her head in the direction of the kitchen. She and I excused ourselves under the pretext of talking behind Patrick’s back.






“What did you mean by that?” she asked.






I told her about the call from masters. She pulled on her lip. I wondered if she shared my doubts about Patrick’s story, but I didn’t push the issue.






“In the morning,” I told her. “I’m going to pay a call on Tony Shapiro. It’s the only lead in this case. That reminds me: I wonder who’s paying the freight on this?”






“Patrick.”






“Patrick?”






“Can we talk about that in the morning?”






That sounded fair, at least in an alternate universe where everything that happens makes no sense at all. I gave her a chuck on the chin, nodded to Reichelderfer on the way out, and finished my slice on the way home.






A hot shower is a fantastic way of washing off the stains of a disappointing day. Unfortunately, my shower head was busted, so I settled for a tub bath.






I fell asleep almost instantly. Only the eventual chill of the water awakened me. I drained about half that water out and turned the faucet for round two. Someone knocked at the door. The only person I would have gotten out of that tub for was Tamla and she had an emergency key. Besides, I couldn’t imagine her leaving dear Patrick. Whoever it was could find accommodations in hell.










By 10AM the next morning I was sitting in the lobby of Shapiro Promotions on Northwest Grand. The front of the building would have embarrassed the owners of a charity thrift store. The inside, however, was a designer’s dream. Indian mandalas hung on the walls between gold-framed photographic portraits of every major tennis star of the last sixty years. The speckled marble floor supported a variety of Asian rugs, the smallest of which might have overlapped opposite end zones in the Canadian Football League. The receptionist’s desk sat adjacent to a clear glass door through which one could catch glimpses of people marching from one inner office to another with digital headphones in place so they could all do three things at once.






The receptionist had never heard of Dwight Seacrest. According to the business card I handed Michelle, the receptionist in question, Seacrest was an investigative reporter for the Chandler Globe. My duty, as one impersonating a newsman, was to inform Mr. Shapiro that our newspaper was preparing a special report on possible corruption in the tennis promotion industry. It would be necessary for me to speak with Mr. Shapiro personally.






After better than an hour, Michelle interrupted my reading of a magazine article about the correlation between loosely-tied nylon shoe laces and victory on clay courts. Mr. Shapiro, she said, would see me now.






He stood before me just inside his office door. “Tony Shapiro, Mr. Seacrest. What can I do for you on this busy Thursday morning? Michelle said something about an investigation?” He whirled around and slipped into his desk chair, indicating with a jerk of his head for me to sit. He looked to be about thirty-five, with a somewhat pox-faced complexion. His hair was thin on top, his nails recently manicured, and his legs were just a few inches too short for his body. His mahogany desk was home for a series of family photos, a small desktop computer, a carton of tennis balls, and a long hunting knife autographed by the late Elia Nastasi.






“It’s serendipitous,” I told him. “The piece was planned to puff the local industry, but when our senior editors smells a story—well, you know how these uppity career women can be.”






He massaged his temples. “I certainly do, Mr. Seacrest. I was married to one for seven years.”






I nodded. “The reason I’m here today, Mr. Shapiro, is that the senior editor in question—Ms. Reeves—thinks there’s a story concerning all these ominous events.”






When you look up the term “malevolent smile” in English phrase books, Shapiro’s picture serves as the illustration. I thought I’d seen him someplace before.






“Ominous events?” Be more specific.”






I flipped open the electronic notebook Tamla loaned me and pretended to refer to data stored there. “Three primary sources and half a dozen confirming statements leave little doubt about it,” I assured him. “Points are being shaved, players are faking everything from foot faults to missing overhead slams. It’s not the unauthorized gambling that upsets our newspaper, Mr. Shapiro. No, what has my boss’s panties in a bind is the allegation that players are being intimidated or bribed into losing matches. That is news.”






He looked at me closely, as if he expected to see my face transform into Lon Chaney Jr. He said, “The fix is in, the fix is out. Let me tell you something: you think the promoters are the ones who started this thing? Look, I don’t have time to play with the outcomes. I’m setting up interviews, press releases and TV spots for better than twenty players’ managers, none of whom sees the value in what I do. The older ones, the Jimmy Connors, the Bjorn Borg’s, the Bobby Riggs’—they know that people go to car races to see a wreck. That’s why someone like McEnroe, he was the bomb because nobody gave a damn how he played. They just wanted to see him self-destruct. What I’m saying to you is that there’s no need to fix the matches. But I will tell you this: Dustin Meyer, who, God rest his soul, right? The way he went down, that’ll inspire ticket sales world wide.”






“What was your relationship with Meyers?”






He stopped rubbing his temples and readjusted his legs. “We were competitors, at least in his mind. I’m an A List, Mr. Seacrest. I promote matches for talent you see at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French open, when I can get those players here in town. Meyer, he was at best a B List promo man. In other words, although we were technically competitors, there was really no competition.”






“Is Patrick Reichelderfer an A or a B?”






He leaned back in his chair and studied the ceiling. “This is off the record. Reichelderfer was very much the kind of client Meyer wanted. The kid believes he’s better than he is. A lot of fans think he’s better than he is. I’ll tell you something: that kid was to improve to the A List, I still wouldn’t touch him.”






Michelle the receptionist entered, took a sheath of papers from Shapiro’s out box, and pointed to her watch. She offered me a polite smile and sashayed back out to her desk.






“I’m afraid that’s all the time I can give you today, Seacrest.”






“Just one other thing and maybe we won’t have to bother you later?”






He gave me a level stare and waited for the question.






“Before he died, Dustin Meyer was under investigation for involvement in predetermined outcomes. When we pursued those allegations, he insisted we look into your operations. Do you have any idea why he would do that? I mean, when you stand that up next to his murder, imaginations activate.”






Shapiro pressed his intercom switch. Looking directly at me, he spoke to his receptionist through the tiny device. “Michelle, call the Chandler Globeand ask them if they have a Dwight Seacrest working for them as an investigative reporter.” He took his finger off the switch and said to me, “You can’t be too careful in my business. Anyone can flash a business card these days. We had a guy in here, oh, late last year, claimed he was with the Commission. Turns out he was a P.I.”






“No kidding?”






“No kidding. He took a fall on his way out of here. Broke his arm in three places. Bad karma, I guess. Always pays to be honest.”






“As you say, you can’t be too careful.”






He continued to give me the greasy eyeball. At last Michelle buzzed him back. He pressed the switch. She said, “Mr. Shapiro, I spoke with an assignment editor at the Globe. He confirms they do have a reporter named Dwight Seacrest. They wouldn’t say what story he was presently working.”






Shapiro thanked her and released the switch. Lucky for me she hadn’t asked to speak with Mr. Seacrest.






“This is all I’m going to say about it. It’s possible that a player approached me about joining the A List. When I turned him down, he may have offered to disrupt Mr. Meyer’s operation as a favor to me. Meyer was more of a nuisance than a competitor. That’s what I would have said to this hypothetical player. Some people are slow learners.”






“And some just have a head full of ugly,” I said aloud to myself.






Back in the car I called Hadley Masters to see what he might tell me about the department’s investigation of Meyer’s murder. I got his voice mail and left a message for him to call me back. Then I rang Tamla to see how her guest was holding up. She didn’t answer either, something quite unusual for her. I decided to head over to the Phoenix Tennis Club to talk to Lucius Haywood. I was convinced that a tennis player had killed Meyer. My hunch was Patrick had done it, but a hunch isn’t worth spit to the bottled water industry.






The valet looked at the five dollar bill I gave him as if I had handed him a stale and half-eaten cookie. He tore me a ticket and gassed the Vic around the corner. I was just walking to the gate when Masters called back. He asked if I was attached to the Meyer investigation. I admitted that such was a possibility. He asked if Patrick Reichelderfer was my client. I told him Patrick was an old friend of Tamla. “Further, deponent sayeth not.”






“You asked last night if we had witnesses? Three joggers gave general descriptions of a man who looks one hell of a lot like your client. They all remember it pretty well because the two men they saw were physically assaulting one another. No one saw the shooting, but the timeline is close to perfect. The department has a want out on your boy.”






I hated to hear that. First, that meant I’d probably been working for myself. More importantly, if he was still with Tamla, that might explain why she hadn’t answered the phone. I asked Masters if he would meet me at my colleague’s apartment. He said that would be fine, but he wouldn’t be coming alone. I flagged the same valet who looked at me as if we’d never met. I gave him the ticket and he returned in a few minutes with my car.






I spun the Vic around and shot into overdrive. The only close call I had came when a jaywalker crossed in front of me on his way to make a plasma donation. I had to swerve into the center lane to miss him and then jerk back to the right to avoid an oncoming cement truck.






A couple minutes later I wheeled up in front of Tamla’s flat. Her 280Z sat obediently in its normal reserved spot, but I didn’t see any sign’s of Reichelderfer’s Lexus. The cops hadn’t shown up yet, either. There were two Krispy Kremes between here and headquarters, so it might be a while. When no one answered the doorbell, I tried the phone again and went right to voice mail. I had to kick the door, a feat much harder than it looks on TV. I hoped Tamla had renter’s insurance. From the shiver of agony in my upper leg, I hoped I had door-kicker’s coverage.






I didn’t see her immediately. I was too busy noticing that the sofa cushions were overturned, the throw rugs tossed in a pile, and the cabinet doors standing wide open, presumably so they would match the condition of the large work desk in the living room. I called her name and searched every room in the apartment before noticing that someone had placed a large fish tank on tope of a clothes hamper. I lifted the twenty gallon aquarium with a huge burst of adrenaline and staggered it back atop the bookshelf. Inside the hamper, something moved, so I gave it a slow lowering onto its side. As I helped Tamla out, she sucked in air like a woman during childbirth. She crawled on the floor, trying to reorient herself, looked at me, saw what had happened to her door, looked back at me, and collapsed on her back, staring at the ceiling.






“He used me, Douglas. I knew it was too good to be true, but I needed to believe him so much. I was just a means to an end.”






I didn’t know whether to take her hand, embrace her, or just wait it out. I asked her what happened.






“When I woke up this morning a little after six, I was going to surprise him. You know, make him a big breakfast. But when I got up he was going through my desk and the place was a mess. When he heard me, he turned and looked and there was this possessed, fiery hate in his eyes. Douglas, I didn’t even know him. He told me to give him all the money I had here and when I asked him why, he tackled me and shoved me into that thing. He must have put something on top of it. I couldn’t get out. When I heard the door slam open, I prayed it was you.”






She was trembling. Now I knew what to do. I held her.






“Was there any money here?”






She indicated the desk. “I had a little over five hundred in there. Douglas, what is he up to?”






“That’s what I’d like to know,” Hadley Masters said. He and a pair of uniforms were surveying the scene and stepping over miscellany.






“Tamla,” I said. “Meet Lieutenant Hadley Masters.”






She looked from him to me. She knew the story about what happened when he’d been my patient, but the evident strain to hold in a laugh made me suspect she was recalling Parker Allen’s shenanigans.






Without admitting more thaw s healthy, I laid out my theory. Reichelderfer had managed to piss off two promoters, both of whom had indicated a willingness to use violence when they deemed it necessary. He had involved Tamla and me in his mess in the hopes of buying himself enough time to figure out what to do.






Masters nodded. “Could be. We checked his credit reports. The guy owes everybody. The finance company’s foreclosed on his house, the car he’s driving is in repossession status, and all his cards are shut down.”






I resumed my speculations. “Both Meyer and Shapiro went out of their way to try to convince me that they had no interest in fixing matches.”






Before I could go on, Masters interrupted


me with a puzzled look. “Anthony Shapiro? He’s been making loans to local athletes for years. Usually in the lower six figures. Not that those loans show up on a CBR.”






Tamla was eying our faces. Even the two officers were interested now. I said, “Hadley, you know what I’m thinking? Meyer and Shapiro hated one another. I’m wondering if Patrick did Shapiro a little favor to pay off what he owed.”






Tamla stood up. “I don’t like to think he’s capable of what you’re suggesting.”






Hadley said, “Miss, we’re pretty certain Reichelderfer shot Dustin Meyer.”






She took my arm to steady herself and said, “I was going to say, I wouldn’t have thought so before this morning. But while I was in the hamper, he made a phone call. I couldn’t make it out clear but his voice was terrible. Growling, gnashing, and groaning—he was like a monster.”






One of the officers pulled out a pen, pressed the speaker button and then star six nined. A voice rattled off the last number called. I dialed it on my cell phone. Michelle the receptionist asked how she could help me. I hung up.






After admonishing Tamla and me to mind our own business, Masters and the two uniforms left for Shapiro’s office. A bulletin had already been issued for Patrick’s arrest.






I put the cushions back on the sofa and sat next to Tamla. I said, “He couldn’t get that far on five hundred dollars. You know him better than I do, Tamla. Where would he go?”






She trembled again. She said, “You and I have been sort of kissing-face for a while now. But when he turned up the other night it seemed like he really needed me. Douglas, I like being needed. I’m sorry I let you down.”






She lowered her head onto my shoulder. I thought about her convincing me to stop smoking, to cut back on the booze, to lay off the caffeine. I’d thought she was trying to improve me. Maybe she had just been struggling to be useful. “Tamla Reeves, you’re the last person in the world who needs to worry about that kind of thing. I need you, you know?”






“Jacquelyn Durham,” she whispered.






“Who?”






“His ex-girlfriend. She’s an entertainer. A dancer.”






“You mean she’s a stripper?”






“Yeah. Patrick has a weakness for her. When he showed up here he swore it was over, though.”






“Where does she live?”






“She’s out on Ray Road just before you get to Chandler. You’re not going there?”






“The question is: am I going alone?”






We balanced the apartment door back into position and fell into my car. Tamla didn’t say much on the ride. She just hummed a bit and stared out the side window.






A gold Lexus was pulling out of the driveway as we spun onto Ray Road. There were two people in the car. Patrick saw us, dropped the gears into drive and floored it. Up and down the street kids were shooting hoops, young men were sitting aboard riding mowers, and women were pruning rose gardens. Patrick turned north onto Chandler Boulevard and I had to roar up to beyond sixty just to stay with him. We stayed close as he made a sharp left onto Mesa Drive. When the road straighten out, the passenger, a young woman with very long dark hair, leaned out her opened window and pointed a gun in our direction. When you see something lie that, it’s a good idea to lay back. Instead, I rammed the rear of their car. The girl lost her balance and fell back into the seat. I told Tamla to hold on and rammed them again, jarring their car, rattling the driver and destroying the Vic’s grillwork. The oncoming lane cleared, so I told Tamla to hold on again and shot up even with them in the passing lane. Patrick lowered his window. The girl reached across and brought up the gun. As I shot ahead of them, she discharged and blew out both back side windows. I slammed the Vic’s rear into the left front bumper of the Lexus and dropped our speed down. Our car shook like it might hop and explode, but I turned into the skid just in time to drag the Lexus over into the bank of a ravine. The car came to a stop on its side.






I didn’t intend to give them time to think, so I jumped out and ran over to the Lexus. As hard as I could I pushed against the underbody and leaped back as the big gold machine tilted over onto its top. I dragged the girl out, stood her up, and punched her hard on the chin. She dropped like pigeon dung.






Tamla was already over on the driver’s side, trying to open the remnants of what had once been a car door. I pulled her aside and looked in at Reichelderfer. His head was hanging at an odd angle, blood trickled from his left ear, and he moaned as if he were in considerable discomfort. I finally worked the door open and dragged him out onto the side of the road. Tamla stayed beside him while I retrieved the gun. I found the S&W .38 revolver a few feet back in the ravine. I carried it over to my own car and then called Masters to have somebody come and pick up the trash.










I don’t tend to follow cases once they’ve been put down, especially those without a paying client. I take a particular disliking to the ones that end up costing me money. This one had set me back a little over three grand. So when Masters and his bulldog face came into the office several weeks later, I didn’t want to hear about it. I told him so. That didn’t stop him.






“It was all in Reichelderfer’s mind. He thought that if he took care of Meyer for Shapiro, they Tony would forgive the debt. And he owed over sixty g’s. And the part about fixing matches? That seems to have been imaginary.”






Tamla said, “So Meyer is dead. Shapiro is free. And Patrick? What happens to him?”






Hadley tried to appear sympathetic, a waste of time on his part, to be sure. It was like a politician trying to appear human. “He’ll get twenty-five and probably serve seventeen. And they don’t have tennis courts where he’s going.”






No one said anything for a minute. Tamla handed me the day’s mail. There was a letter from the APA. I still wonder what it said.









Jazz Killed the Movie Director






One cannot destroy the world without destroying oneself. David Jarvis was a smart guy. He knew he would bring himself down in the process of toppling Pronoun Studios. He just didn’t care.






Warm weather in Phoenix isn’t dependable until early April. In mid-March anything can happen—and usually does. What with Hollywood being six hundred miles to the west, I didn’t expect a hail storm to chase anybody in from that far away. Hails storms here in the valley are the local version of the calm before the storm. Ice boulders possessing not quite the diameter of softballs pelt the pineapple palms while the raised arms are the Saguaro cacti surrender in humiliation. I was watching these meteorological festivities from the relative safety of my third floor office. Through the window glass I saw a man with a determined stride escape into the building. He entered wrapped in a calf-length brown trench coat and somehow I pegged him as a client of one of the dermatologists up on the fourth floor. Why they’d be working at 7:30 at night I didn’t know, but then again I couldn’t explain to myself why a man without a helmet would risk a concussion by being out in this weather.






The door to the outer office whined open and even through the translucent glass dividing that room from my private office I could recognize that the man tapping on the partition was the same character I’d seen race in from below. I’d been sipping a gin and tonic during my meditation on the affairs of the universe, and more out of selfishness than of any sense of propriety I hid the glass inside a drawer before letting the man in.






“Nice weather you folks have here,” he said, strolling past me and lighting next to the chair on the client’s side of my desk.






“It isn’t designed for the convenience of out-of-towners. My name’s Douglas Konkle. How can I help you tonight?”






Before I had a chance to steer him away, he draped the trench coat over the back of the chair and took a seat. Another time I might have enjoyed his approach. But this was March and that only came once a year. I walked back over to the window and looked out. The same winds that had lifted the ice crystals up into the clouds now dropped right along with their load. The pine trees protested and mangy tomcats skirted for shelter. It was a fine night to be inside, safe from the howls and shrieks. It was a fine night to be alone.






“My name’s David Jarvis. I’m a motion picture director. I have a crew down in Scottsdale. We’ve been here a week, scouting locations, building sets, doing a few loose rehearsals.”






I could feel the abrupt chill through the window glass. Yes, it sure was nice to be inside tonight.






He was still there. “A woman named Gloria Alto is a liaison for the studio. She’s the one who brought me aboard this project. I don’t like her and I don’t trust her.”


With my back still to him I considered a couple rejoinders, but decided to let him make his point, all the sooner for him to leave.






“Hollywood is not like in the movies. We have sharks. But not everybody is one. Gloria sought me out specifically for this job. Her motives are sordid. I think she’s bad news.”






I’d had enough of him doing a monologue, so I said, “What seems to be the trouble?”






In the distorted reflection I saw him rap his knuckles on my desktop. I suppose he was coaxing me to turn toward him. He said, “I’m attracted to her. Even without the scheme she’s pulling, that’s the best indication that she’s up to no good.”






For braving this weather he’d earned a little respect. But not much. I turned and sat across my desk from him. “Have you ever been treated for a serious mental illness?”


He said he hadn’t and gave me some background.






“We need your help, Dave,” the media liaison told him across the marble terrace table reserved for people involved in important discussions.

David Jarvis winced. “Let’s keep it ‘Mr. Jarvis’ for the moment. I haven’t decided what our relationship is going to be, Ms. Alto.” The young woman across from him nurtured her brandy glass as if it were an embryonic explosive. Whoever had sculpted her for this position had done a remarkable job. On the outside, she radiated shoulder-padded femininity; on the inside, she purred a blind self-assurance known only to small children and sociopaths. Even her admittedly striking good looks were as much a job-related mutation as any act of nature, and probably more so.

“Make it Gloria. We need your help, Mr. Jarvis. And much as we appreciate you taking the time to meet this evening, I assume what I have to tell you must interest you a little.”

“I’m all ears.”

He did in fact have large ears, a condition that since childhood had led him to avoid saying ridiculous things like “I’m all ears.” Throughout prep school his classmates referred to him as “Jarface.” If anyone did that today, David would jab a fork in the perpetrator’s heart.

Gloria Alto, media liaison by day, clandestine conduit by night, lifted a resume from her open purse and read--Jarvis admitted to himself--with considerable aplomb: “David Jarvis, graduated 1992 from UCLA in Cinematography. Ghosted a screenplay for Peter Sandor the following year. In 1994 served as Assistant Director with Zarnoff Productions on three films, one of which was actually released. Did some independent work until 2000 when Homestead Pictures announced he would screenwrite and direct Hell, which went on to win a Golden Globe nomination, as well as substantial critical acclaim. Has several films in development at the present time.”

She folded the paper and replaced it in her purse. “We want you to accept an offer from Pronoun to direct their next major project.” Gloria Alto smiled everywhere except her mouth.

“There are quite a few things wrong with that statement, Ms. Alto.” David Jarvis smiled, but only with his mouth.

“I doubt you can ruffle me. Take a shot.”

Jarvis hid his grin within the brandy for a moment and considered. This bitch Alto was exactly the reason he had chosen filmmaking as a career. She was the complete emotional mess who could only hold herself together by exploiting whatever deranged benefits her mental illness afforded her. His two ex-wives had tried to be that way, but they weren’t quite as adept, he suspected, as Ms. Alto.

“Start by explaining ‘we.’”

“I could say that it doesn’t concern you, but I won’t insult a man of your conviction. I represent an international media conglomerate with diversified holdings in several unrelated industries, united, you might say, by a grave concern with the current political climate.” She indicated the buildings visible across the hundreds of yards of nighttime. “The people who work in this city, and cities across this country, have an absolute right, Mr. Jarvis, to know what they are up against. And they cannot know what they are up against as long as they are subjugated by the lies and corruption so thoroughly inculcated in the works of Pronoun Studios.”

Jarvis laughed. “Oh, so it’s not enough to remind them that if they find something offensive, they can change the channel, or watch a different film?”

He thought he could hear her purr with the contentment of all omniscient beings as she replied, “We are not children, Mr. Jarvis. You and I know that people will believe what they see and hear as long as what they see and hear is all they see and hear. What we are proposing, quite simply, is to remove one obstacle to the freedom of choice.”

“You have that little speech rehearsed?”

Gloria Alto locked her fingers. Jarvis stared at the tiny knots on her hands, wondering vaguely about the idea that it might be better to lose the battle than to do business with this synthetic type of vermin. Ah, well. “Fine, fine. What are you proposing?”

Alto’s fingers unlocked and joined in the conversation. “Pronoun is going to contact you about directing a whale. Actually, it’s a remake. This will be a grand opportunity for you to bring down those sanctimonious bastards.”

“Are you suggesting, Ms. Alto, that I deliberately direct a film badly?”

Alto’s fingers never hesitated. “Absolutely not! We have no desire to see your career derailed. No, what we want is for you to be--oh, how to say it?--elaborate in your work.”

“Elaborate? Grandiose? Ornate? Over the top?”

Alto beamed. “Exactly! It’s an opportunity for you to make a film that is so great a work of art that no one will be able to deny its beauty, and yet no one will be able to endure watching it.”

“Sort of like Heaven’s Gate?”

Alto’s fingers locked again. “Actually, that’s the film they want you to remake.”

Jarvis drained his glass and ordered two more.



He looked at me for a reaction. I gave him one. “I’m not a bit political, Mr. Jarvis. I’m not apathetic; I just reject politics. And this sounds to me—”


“It’s not political.”


“Of course it is. This liaison, or whatever she is, is a paymaster for a mercenary, in this case, yourself. Whoever she works for wants to bankrupt that studio for reasons that don’t have anything to do with economics. That makes it political. And if there’s anything I hate worse than corporate entertainment, it’s politics.”


“So you like Coltrane?”


He pointed toward the large boxed set of CD’s next to the office computer. This guy had no scruples at all—appealing to my musical obsessions was grossly unfair.


“I’m partial to his spiritual period, I said, trying to bury him with his own ignorance. “He believed that his gift as a saxophonist was an opportunity to take on a higher consciousness, to blend with the Creator.”


Jarvis was already standing beside the collection. He pulled out A Love Supreme. “This is one of the best,” he said. “The drum solos alone are worth the price of the disc.”


“You know much about free jazz?”


“Charlie Haden’s bass playing with Ornette Coleman is the best in the idiom.”


“Okay, okay, I’m hired,” I said. “But for rich Hollywood directors I charge $400 a day. The expenses are on you. We’ll fax you a contract in the morning.”


He lifted his coat off the chair. “You’ll need to meet some of the players to get a handle on this. I want you to be my extra set of eyes. Share your observations, plus anything you dig up on Alto. Make recommendations. I may reject them, but at least I’ll be making an informed mistake.”


“I’ll need a cover. Some pretext to explain my presence.”


He slipped into the trench coat. “We’ll call you my spiritual advisor.”


I looked back out the window. The winds were whipping so hard it had begun to rain sideways.


“Want to listen to some ’Trane?” I asked.


He said he did.




“Remember one thing, David,” the executive producer cautioned from the safety of the far end of the boardroom conference table. “Jazz killed the movie director.”

Jarvis observed as a silent chuckle seized one face after another on its way to his own, where the false humor crumbled and evaporated. The fourteen others in “The Tower,” as Pronoun execs had come to refer to their conference room, were all Money Men, even the women, none with more than the most fleeting concept of Art as anything but an adjective.

“You understand what I mean, David?”

Jarvis drew out his best look of deranged benevolence. “Of course not.” The chuckling reassembled itself and dominoed its way back to the executive producer.

Incandescent lights, bright to the point of invisibility, reflected a deliberate harshness off the redwood table. If executive producer and senior vice president Jack Volcrum gauged his staff’s attitudes by the flare of their nostrils, this table made the perfect examination tool.

“What I’m saying, David,” Volcrum replied, impervious, “Is that there can be no beauty without an homage to technique.”

The Moneyman sitting next to Volcrum tapped a pen on the table, as if such a gesture were the accepted way of asking to interrupt. “What I think Jack means is that people go to the cinema to see a movie and not an opera.” The Moneyman glanced at Volcrum for confirmation of his translation and the executive producer nodded.

“I’ve been accused,” Jarvis conceded, “of being quite excessive. People who watch my movies may not even know what the story is, but they don’t forget the experience. So if you’re worried about profitability, you should be talking to your distributors and marketing department.” Then, shifting his answer from the Moneyman to Volcrum, he summed it up: “You asked me to direct this movie. If you’ve changed your mind--well, we’re scheduled to start shooting tomorrow. If you are prepared to settle the pre-production costs right now, then I’m prepared to have you wipe your ass with my contract and I’ll call my assistants and ask them to please stop banging your wife and go find another job. Jack.”

The Tower took on the tones of a mortuary. Even the air conditioner stopped humming. Jack Volcrum toyed with a paper clip, sighed skyward, and lowered his tired eyes until they settled directly across from Jarvis’ own. “I think when this is over, David, I’m going to have you thrown off the roof of this building while young children applaud. This movie is business. And that’ll be another kind of business. I hope you see what I’m saying.”

Jarvis and I stood to leave. “As if you were speaking in cartoon balloons,” he said.




I met with Jarvis in a cantina in old Town Scottsdale. He’d been supervising the completion of the soundstage in the desert a few miles east. Even in his ratty brown leather jacket and long, wind-blown hair, he still had the air of eccentric Hollywood about him. A trio of stores clerks in for lunch pointed our way and tittered. The bartender gave us a respectful girth.


“Thought you said not everyone was a shark?”


He sucked down half a gimlet and sighed. “They breed, don’t they? Even in the desert. Any obserbations?”


Out of habit I scanned the room in the mirror behind the bar. “Jack Volcrum: He’s something of a cannibal. While we were in L.A. I took the liberty of reading some back issues of Variety. They’re too polite to say it, but combining their articles with what I’ve seen, I’d say his approach to the business is to lure outsiders into his circle, exploit them for their successes and blame them for his own failures. His armor guard of trained monkeys take the bullets for him, but they aren’t the source of his power. Offhand, I’d say his directors and media people are the muscles he likes to flex.”


HE signaled for another gimlet. My gin and tonic hadn’t even chilled yet. He said, “In this business, small failures are never forgiven. Large ones are always someone else’s fault. And colossal screw ups are substantially rewarded. This film will run over two hundred million before we’re through. It won’t gross half that, even after foreign distribution and DVD sales. And they’ll have to release and promote it. They won’t be able to stand the embarrassment of going straight to video. Shelving it is completely unthinkable.”


“You could always double-cross them, Jarvis. Make a good movie instead.”


It was his turn to scan the room. At last he said, “I don’t see a good movie in this. Besides, I don’t have a hot property in my at the moment. You know what The New Yorker said about my last two films? They called them fascist masterpieces. Do you have any idea, any concept, how that type of remark effects a person?”


As part of my research, I’d watched all of Jarvis’ directorial accomplishments. My own view was that The New Yorker hadn’t been far off the mark. “As your spiritual advisor, I recommend that you give up your ambitions to make Gloria the most expensive roll in the hay in history and either make the best movie you can or else bail on the project.”


He pushed himself off the stool. “I have to get back. Those cost overruns won’t happen by themselves. Do me a favor: see if you can find any links between Gloria and Volcrum. I’m willing to wager she’s on more than one payroll. If she’s also working for Jack, that’d be worth knowing, wouldn’t it?”


I supposed it would at that. I put his drinks on my tab and watched as he hurried out the door. I phone Tamla and asked her to find a media database and request any connections between Gloria Alto and Jack Volcrum.


“Should I do an algebraic search?” she asked.


I told her never to ask me questions I couldn’t possibly answer. She laughed and explained that it was possible there was a variable, a Mr. or Ms. X, operating as a go-between in their presumed involvement. “In other words,” she said. “There may be no direct link, but they may have third parties in common.”


“Is that something you can find out?”


“I can certainly try, Douglas. By the way, I processed that questionnaire you had Mr. Jarvis complete. I think you’ll want to see the results.”


“Bottom line it for me.”


She read: “Minimal impulse control. Despondency masked by fierce tenacity. Sexual tensions sublimated through a perverse combination of work-aholism and hedonistic indulgences. Candidate for stress-related illnesses. Moderate to high likelihood of self-destructive behavior. Hey, this could be you. Douglas, this program you designed—is it usually accurate?”


That was a fair question. “It’s a tool. It’ll never take the place of in-depth analysis, but Jarvis wouldn’t have the patience for that.”


“Do you think we’ll be able to help him?”


“Remember a few weeks ago you and I were talking about different levels of readiness? I’d say David Jarvis benefits from being a miserable son of a bitch.”


“Or he thinks he benefits from it.”


She understood in a few minutes what it had taken me years to grasp. “See what you can find out,” I said.




As David Jarvis sat in the chair signified by his own last name, he tugged at a curly lock of beard, imagining the shot in its final formulation, while simultaneously studying the bass patterns on the CDs that blared across the set, and also simultaneously contemplating why it was exactly that Gloria Alto wanted Pronoun Studios destroyed from within.

The set projected a conflux of New Age imagery with a hint of John Ford style wild west ambiance, all the better to convey the vastness of contemporary sterility. The music--which would play no role in the soundtrack--was a harsh blend of mid-Seventies punk poetics and unsoothing Rostopovich cello orchestration. It was just the kind of cacophony that Jarvis liked to use to disorient his players as they prepared their spontaneity. That kind of complexity reminded him of Gloria Alto. As best Jarvis and I could figure it, the people she represented did not approve of the “politics” of the studio and wished to use him to destroy its credibility and, as an inevitable extension, its marketability. Pronoun was in fact a fairly left wing operation, begun in the early 1940’s by a consortium of actors and directors, several of whom shortly would join others on a list that made it impossible for them to obtain work elsewhere. In those days, Pronoun handled their own distribution and even owned their own theatres, providing one of the few major outlets for progressive or counter-formulaic cinema. Times change.

Jarvis answered the call that had been beeping in his earphone for the last three minutes. “What is it?”

“Ferocious tits, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Jarvis?”

“Where are you, Gloria?”

“Almost behind you. We had a meeting in the Tower and I thought I’d stop by. You like them?”

The media liaison was apparently referring to the exposed breasts of the female protagonist, some eighteen year old named Natalie Corso who’d wowed over the Moneymen in one way or another, hence landing this plum assignment. The actress presently occupied herself by leaning against the tail of the motorized covered wagon, drinking--illegally, I surmised--a Long Island, pouting from nipples to chin. Gloria, it had since come to our attention, rather enjoyed the company of eighteen-something actresses, almost or maybe more than she enjoyed Jarvis himself. They’d been sleeping together ever since she had maneuvered the system into releasing his first unreleased film, and since the release of his second, Gloria had not been shy to invite nubile females into their little nest. Jarvis found the whole business more comical than arousing. Because of the impression I was forming of Ms. Alto, it scared me to death.

“Not tonight,” he said, taking the earphone off and rising to face Gloria. “She’s going to have a headache. What was your meeting?”

Gloria locked a Come-Hither, I’m Cold look at the young actress. “This really isn’t the place.”

David studied her as she continued to launch lust arrows. “Weakening the infrastructure or just convincing them to over-invest?”

At last she lowered her gaze. “Both,” she said, and I recognized a sound in her voice, that bottomless sound she normally reserved for those rare moments, usually just prior to ruining some newcomer’s reputation. That dense, hollow sound reminded me of some prehistoric beast, freed from slumber and full of hunger--all in one syllable and sharp as teeth. She’d be bringing that actress home tonight whether the poor thing suffered from a drunken heat stroke or not.

“I understand,” she said, breaking his concentration, “That there’s only three more days of shooting.”

He nodded. “That is, if we can get back to work now?”

Gloria smiled as she flipped open her cell phone and clicked away. “Sandy? Hi. Get me Natalie Corso’s manager on the phone, will you?”

The dense, hollow sound had vanished. Jarvis mopped a handkerchief across the back of his neck.






Some people claim to watch very little television. Most of those who make such claims couch their aversions to the medium in an unearned pride often bordering on the snobbish. Unlike that majority, I strayed from regular TV viewing because of my feeling that it had become somewhat compulsory. Popular discourse, news gathering, fashion, and even spiritual enlightenment had come to be visibly intertwined with the phosphor-dot box of magic colors. I’d been getting the troublesome feeling over the years that our ability to function was now at least partially dependent upon watching television. The idea that entertainment should evolve from the desirable to the mandatory was abhorrent to me. So I only looked at TV in spurts.


I was staying at the La Posada Resort, an overpriced accommodation befitting someone passing himself off as David Jarvis’ spiritual advisor. I sat in a recliner in the main body of the living area flashing from one snip of high-definition crapola to the next. Here was a show about well-dressed New Jersey gangsters. There was a self-fulfilling prophecy on the banality of domestic tranquility. One broadcast offered the distressing image of philosophically identical automatons screaming at one another for being too passive in their support of the government. I even accidentally learned that poker had transmogrified from a game into a sport. I was giving thought to calling Jarvis to tell him that he was destroying the wrong field of endeavor when a brisk tap at the door jarred me from my somnambulism.


I flipped off the set and went to the door. Gloria Alto asked if she might come in. I had no better sense than to say she could.


She accepted the chair I offered and came straight to the point. “You worry me, Doctor.”


I feigned amazement. “However did I gain such power over you?”


She lit a Winston. I handed her a saucer to use as an ashtray. “Don’t flatter yourself.”


“I seldom do, Ms. Alto.”


“The studio is concerned,” she said. “And so am I. This project is too valuable to have it derailed by inappropriate influences.”


It was no longer necessary for me to feign. “Who would you rather have derail it? Jarvis? I’m in no position myself to derail anything. But since you brought it up, I’d say your involvement in David’s life—professionally, personally—is an impediment. And besides, the only people who can wreck this movie are Jack Volcrum and David Jarvis. They both appear committed.”


She looked around the room. “Are we alone?”


“Completely.”


“Then understand this. I am prepared to convey to my contacts in the Justice Department and the national media that you have been illegally prescribing anti-psychotic medications for Jarvis. A very reliable handwriting forger in my employ has mastered your scrawl. A distinguished pharmacist in Paradise Valley is happy to confirm filling the scripts. You’ll definitely do federal time, Doctor. Plus, any irregularities in David’s work can be attributed to your malfeasance.”


I leaned forward. “If you’re talking about a pharmacist named Peter Velasco, he’s already contacted my office. He’s not really all that distinguished, but he did offer to tear up your forgeries and delete the files. A colleague of mine used to date him and I guess he felt some loyalty.”


She jumped to her feet. “You rat-fucking bastard! We’re going to crucify you!”


“Have a seat, Pilate. Go on, sit down.”


She glared. She sat. She continued to glare.


I said, “You know the name Mitchell Yancovich? Of course you do, so don’t bother not answering. Let me refresh your recollection. Mr. Yancovich heads a religious action committee—apparently they call them RAC’s nowadays. His little consortium includes the president of a large university, the occasional captains of industry, a sprinkling of foreign dignitaries and the like.”


“What about it?”


I’d seen happier faces on torture victims. I said, “Jack Volcrum and Mitchell Yancovich share a common world view. They also share an unfortunate business relationship with you. You’re a pawn, lady. Oh, you probably convince yourself otherwise, but that’s just the effects of a little girl with no power growing into a woman with a little power.”


“Shut up.”


“It’s my room, doll-eyes. I paid for it, so I can talk all I want.”


“Shut the fuck up.”


“Before you or your masters go getting any new ideas about damaging my reputation—which is already as low as crocodile piss—I should admit that I will take great pleasure in announcing to anyone who will listen about a project you ran last year for Yancovich. You remember a TV program called ‘The Drum’? Number one in the ratings for twelve straight weeks. And yet the network abruptly cancelled it.”


She smashed out her cigarette in the saucer. “You don’t know what you’re dealing with, fucker.”


It was my turn to stand. “I know that your repeated use of that word means you feel impotent. Ironic, isn’t it?”


She smashed the saucer on the arm of the chair and threw a piece at me. It missed. I grabbed her arm and pulled her to the door. She got in the parting shot. “Jarvis will still screw it up. The studio is as good as dead. There’s nothing you can do about it.”


I pushed her outside and slammed the door. I was worried that she might be right.




“I like jazz,” Jarvis mused to himself as he slid into his midnight blue Audi convertible, the least pretentious sports car he’d ever owned. “I like it more than I like Jack Volcrum.” He did in fact like jazz and typically would have blared some Coltrane or Mingus, but tonight curiosity weighed heavier than familiarity. The hour drive to the apartment where he was due to linger with Gloria and guest would be filled with the furtively obtained recording of Gloria’s meeting with Jack Volcrum, the two people on the planet Jarvis trusted least. I supplied him with the recording. It didn’t do him any good in the long run, but you can’t save the world when someone is that determined to destroy it.

Jarvis recognized the monotoned boredom of Volcrum’s voice instantly. The more unhappy the executive producer became, the less animation his voice conveyed. Such affectations, the director had told me, were the bullshit that glued this business together.

“I don’t believe he has our studio’s bests interests at heart. He’s sabotaging us. I want you to do whatever magic you do with the press. It’s the only way we can salvage the project. And I don’t want any of his remarks to hit national.”

“He’s irresponsible. Irrepressible.” Gloria might have been trying to erect an accessible balance, but that really wouldn’t have been her style.

“That’s your headache.”

“I can handle the situ--”

“You haven’t handled it at all. I want contingency plans in place right now. If the pre-release press reports focus on anything remotely negative, I want Jarvis murdered in the media. Distance him from the studio, make it obvious we’re the bad guys, and generate sympathy for the poor, abandoned creative genius. If the reports are neutral or positive, then you misquote him everywhere to the effect that he claims this is the most mainstream, accessible masterpiece anyone’s ever made and that we stand behind a man of his caliber.”

“He won’t be able to back away from that type of praise.”

“Right. What’s he going to say, that he never said the movie was great?”

“Okay.”

Staring out at the line of cars in front of him, Jarvis wondered aloud how much easier it would be for Pronoun to simply concentrate on supporting good movies than to engage in such convoluted crap.

The rest of the recording concerned itself with tangential projects that had no bearing on Jarvis’ film. The director was asking me where the local NPR station was when we heard that dense, hollow sound in Gloria’s voice. He swerved across the lane and jerked the Audi back in line. “Let’s pull a Polanski,” Gloria said.

“I’m intrigued,” Volcrum responded, sounding anything but.

“Jarvis and I are having a sexual relationship and--”

“I know.”

The Audi swerved again. We could almost feel Gloria Alto swerving as the executive producer’s off the cuff remark ricocheted across the room.

At last she continued. “I see. In any case, I’ve been working on a scenario that could build a great deal of excitement around his proclivities. Depending, you understand, on how far you want me to push it. But if you remember when Roman Polanski was accused of statutory rape with that thirteen year old, his movie, Tess, shuttled way up there. Especially since he had to leave the country.”

“If you’re talking about--”

“No, no. Not that. But a little tar titillates.”

Goddamn that sound in her voice. Goddamn her, period.

“All right, Gloria. I have another meeting. Get lost.”

Sound of heels on granite. Door opens, door closes. Fade.



“Do I look nervous?” the actress asked the director across the particle board table.

“I was just making conversation, Natalie,” the director demurred. “You look--very nice.”

“The only one of your movies I’d seen before was Hell,” she gushed without intent. “But who hasn’t? Even then, I knew someday I’d star in one of your motion pictures. I mean, that movie was scary, sure. But it had that kind of depth they teach you to look for in acting class. So many oppor--I’m sorry, you probably hate hearing all this.”

Gloria broke the awkward moment by striking it with another. “There is nothing sexier than watching a woman do a line of coke. Here, Natalie, try some. It’s the best you’ll ever do.” So saying, the media liaison leaned back across the actress’ lap, sprinkled fine white powder across her own neck and handed Natalie a short gold straw. Jarvis admitted to himself that the move did have a strong sexual component, through he was damned if he knew why. “We can’t let Mr. Jarvis try this. It’ll effect him in a diminishing way.” Natalie smiled down as Gloria smiled up.

“I hear you,” the actress nodded. “After all, they don’t call it blow for nothing.” She then proceeded to do the first of several lines.

Within a few minutes and after some slammed martinis, Natalie Corso lit up the room. Gloria Alto glowed a bit herself, although her buzz light shown a trifle less bright, due, no doubt, from imbibing with more caution.

“I’ve been coming to Hollywood parties since I was fifteen. But I’ve never partied with anyone of your stature, David. Man, it is hot in here. Are there any more martinis? Gloria, you look so lovely. Are you two having a good time, too?”

“Very good,” Gloria reassured as she touched her nails onto the back of Natalie’s hand. “We were hoping you might want to get wild and intimate a bit later.”

“Maybe sooner,” the actress laughed. “Absolutely! Let me get naked!”

Gloria folded her hand onto the girl’s neck. “Let me get you naked. In our bedroom. Give us five minutes, Mr. Jarvis. Then you come join us.”

“That’s right, Mr. Jarvis,” Natalie giggled. “Don’t you forget about us.”

They made it difficult to resist, that was for sure. But something extremely bad was going to happen tonight, he knew it for certain. There was no question this Natalie person was of legal age and unless she got pregnant or overdosed, he couldn’t see where the real risk lay. Hell, this kind of thing happened all the times nowadays. In fact, it had been happening to him a lot over the past month or so. Maybe Alto had just been leading Volcrum on. God knew she rarely if ever spoke the direct truth. And besides: what could she do to him without implicating herself? He did enjoy the ménage thing. Gloria had such skill at bringing the wild side out of other women. It would be great fun. But…

“Mr. Jarvis,” the two female voices cooed from the other side of the bedroom door. “We’re waiting.”

He walked to the door, sighed, adjusted himself, and opened the door.

Two seconds later he fell to the floor, dead from a gunshot wound to the brain.


The next day, Natalie Corso faced a sea of microphones that had been placed due to the shrewd workings of Gloria Alto. The police lieutenant in charge of public relations in high profile murder cases spoke next.

“After a thorough and complete investigation, the Los Angeles Police Department has concluded that Ms. Natalie Corso did in fact act in self defense when she mortally wounded Mr. David Jarvis. Mr. Jarvis supplied the young woman with a quantity of alcohol and cocaine immediately prior to announcing that he was going to rape and kill her. This information was confirmed by an eyewitness to the attack. We will not, at this time, release the name of that witness. We are not taking questions at this time.”

Heaven’s Gate II broke all box office records that year. Three weeks after the film’s release, Gloria Alto accepted an offer from Jack Volcrum of Pronoun to become vice president in charge of production.






Tamla and I left the movie theatre and leaned up against the side of the coffee shop next door. We never did get around to talking about the film. She asked me if I still disbelieved in political solutions and I told her I deisbelieved in them now more than ever. I asked her what she thought about it. She said, “I’ve been listening to a John Coltrane CD called Ascension. Do you know it?”






I told her I did. I asked what she thought.






“At first I couldn’t follow it, but it’s getting so I love it.” I looked at her closely. She looked back.






“That’s the first time I’ve seen you smile in a long time,” she said.





Going Mobile






I hadn’t seen my old friend Jeff Huckelby in almost twenty years. When he called from my home town of Nostalgia, Ohio, he said—in that understated way that I’d forgotten—that there was nothing urgent. On the other hand, if I happened to be in his area some time within the next couple of weeks, he might have a job for me. He didn’t elaborate other than to say that he was now an attorney in Hujuke County and was working for a controversial client who had been involved in some social activism causes. Randall Harmon, the popular mayor of Nostalgia, had been murdered and Jeff’s client was charged with the crime. The whole matter intrigued me far more than Jeff had anticipated. I told him Tamla and I would be there in a few days.





There had no gray and only the slightest signs of a waistline spread, but the sensibilities of middle age mutated sufficiently those days, enough so that the time had come to make a substantial adjustment. Inspired by the late David Jarvis—or at least by his taste in automobiles—I bought a sports car: an Audi TT Roadster: Moro blue with vanilla interior, convertible, turbo engine, two-seater, automatic with a secret “S” gear for aggressive driving purposes, and a remarkable stereo system with a volume that went up to thirty, ignoring the fact that my ears bled somewhere around twenty-two. The only unanswered questions remaining: (1) What music would I take, and (2) Would I take Tamla along?

Born and raised in Ohio, I had not returned from Arizona to the Buckeye state despite frequent longing for my artificial boyhood paradise. I already missed this year’s World Famous Annual Nostalgia Pumpkin Show, but there remained plenty to see and do in Central Ohioan bohemia, so I mapped out a rough outline of a route, threw three sweat shirts and a pair of jeans in an old suitcase and psyched myself up for the journey, mostly focusing on question number one, since Tamla made it clear that she was in fact going along: what would be the perfect sounds for this mid-life road experience? I immediately abandoned obvious selections, such as The Ramones’ Road to Ruin, AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, and Dion’s The Wanderer, classics all, but a tad too predictable for our forthcoming nervous collapse. No, we needed music for both the general between-city-tedium, and locale-specific sonics, music and noise that would propel my traveling companion and me through the stratosphere of interstate highway ecstasy. This was gonna be fun.

Remember that jive by Elton John about “Get back/Honky cat/Better get back to the woods”? Well, from my personal point of view, that notion stinks and EJ too. The high point of our trip, as far as meeting expectations was concerned, was when we hooked up with my old college friend Ruth Ann. The three of us motored stately into my old neighborhood--Jefferson Addition--for the narrow and specific purpose of taking a few pictures of my old house. The place looked pretty much the same, despite the thin and fractured roadways which had seemed so much wider before, and we pulled over alongside my former abode, the morning rain yielding to a brisk pre-winter cloud sulk, and I hopped out with my camera. There I stood, in awe of my former home, located at 367 Ludwig Drive, in case anyone wants to visit. Just as I was lining up the exposure, a craggily retiree came bounding out from my old living room and threw open the door. “Hey!” he hollered, for that is what one does to get attention in Nostalgia. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

Looking over my shoulder, I noticed Ruth Ann and Tamla slouching low in their seats. Ah, the things friends must endure. “I used to live here and I’m taking some pictures of the house. Could you step out of the frame please?” The old guy was having none of this, but to my surprise, he did move out of the way so I could snap my photos.



“I don’t like people taking pictures of my house. Who are you?”



I explained that this had been my house long before he owned it and that I was indeed going to take pictures of it. He displayed a lot of flag decals on the garage, so he may have thought we were terrorists, staking out the structure of the house, all the better to position our surface-to-air rocket launchers. By the time I’d shot the third exposure, his glazed eyes were steaming, so I said “I suppose a tour of the place is out of the question” and hopped back in, spraying mud while Ruth Ann and Tamla laughed themselves silly. They are good eggs, those girls.

Our trip from Phoenix began well enough. Having mapped out our destination and estimating our overnight cities, I popped the CD’s burned especially for the occasion into the compact storage case and plunged ahead down I-10 toward Tucson en route to the first night’s stop in El Paso, a mere 650 miles away.



The proper musical accompaniment, I explained to Tamla, not only provides a much needed surcease in the audial road burn; perhaps more importantly, it imposes upon the driver and his passenger a vivid soundtrack with which to recall the trip, possibly many years later. And so I divided the CD’s into the general category--for those long stretches of interstate where nothing much more than tumbleweeds and rusted-out cricket pumps decorate the landscape--and the specific category--songs which made some implied or overt reference to the city or region through which we were passing. Sometimes those references boasted the glories of the area and sometimes they made their point with a bit less reverence. In either case, volume was key and the top was definitely down.



Just out from the biospheres of Tucson, as the road straightens and clocks its hours of monotony, we plugged in the ideal tune to launch the trip: “Highway Star” by Deep Purple. As the dust devils swirled up and above the copper-coated dirt fields, threatening to transplant companion, car and self into Oz the hard way, Ian Gillan’s counter-twister scream wail strangled up with Ritchie Blackmore’s controlled adrenaline guitar boxing match and propelled the Audi’s contents forward with such velocity that “airborne” fails to capture the sensation. My hair straightened, the hat I was wearing is now attached to some motorist’s CB antennae, my cheeks went taut and the feeling is just now beginning to return to my gums. Tamla laughed as if we were all going to die. There was nothing much to see along the southern border of Arizona anyway, except a few rattlesnake pits and the bursting tires of eighteen wheelers. Just as my heart palpitations yielded to police-induced paranoia, the irony of the next song’s title took hold: The Byrds’ version of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.” There remains something about the line, “Strap yourself to a tree with roots,” that perfectly encapsulates the cartoon futility of the trip ahead.

The Sweetheart of the Rodeo album from which the aforementioned number came provided the ideal transition into the Flying Burrito Bros’ take on Dave Dudley’s “Six Days on the Road,” the most often repeated tune here. From this, it was a cold water crash directly into the instrumental abutment of The Ramones’ “Durango 95,” the song that crashed down just as twilight warned that it was time to get specific.



The southern leg of New Mexico hasn’t lent itself to an overabundance of name-place musicality, primarily because nothing much between Deming and Las Cruces jumps up and demands attention, other than the occasional patch of fallen cattle, apparently either the victims of underground nuclear testing or a simple lack of imagination. Las Cruces itself was clearly a bi-pass town, although I did come up with a Geronimo’s Cadillac song called “Crack Up in Las Cruces” to get us over the hump.

About seventy miles beyond Las Cruces is the Southwest Texas town of El Paso, which presented more problems of an overnight nature than of musical. I flipped in the CD marked EP and charged up the intro mariachi slash flamenco chords of Marty Robbins’ classic, a tune local town folk were quick to point out they were so tired of hearing, a stay in the local jail is the proscribed punishment for blaring it past eight pm. Heeding this timely advice, I skipped forward to “El Paso” by the Gourds, from their Bolsa de Agua LP. This choice meeting with some favorable nods, we inquired where might be a nice place to stay the night. The look of alarm on the kids hanging outside the Dairy Queen spoke volumes. “You’re not gonna park that car outside a motel, are you?” one of them asked.



“Oh, no!” Tamla assured him. “This thing disassembles in just a few minutes.”






I asked, “Hey, you guys ever heard of Kinky Friedman?” Having not, I played them the classic “Asshole From El Paso,” which cheered them up so much that one young honey with a waistline tattoo offered directions to the local Holiday Inn.

We had not much more than checked in, watered, fed and walked off dinner, when the look on that one kid’s face started giving me the jitters. Our room leaned on the first floor, the car rested right outside the window, and the alarm system screeched loud enough to unhinge arms from their sockets. But darned if I could sleep for fear of getting stuck for God knows how long in a Holiday Inn this far from home. Insurance is fine, but how long would it take for them to wire us the funds, get the check cashed, and hop a plane the hell out of here? Nope, better to take a quick shower and shave, grab a burger and get on down the road a ways.



This jittered-out paranoia settled into a warm place in my mind, becoming a defining element of the rest of the journey.

Just outside of Van Horn, we jotted up to I-20, climbing steadily on the overnight drive to Dallas, a little more than 600 miles in the distance. On past Pecos, Odessa, Midland and Big Spring we drove, a confused Tamla trying to get comfortable on her small leather seat, constantly insisting on inspecting the exterior of every semi we passed. Between Big Spring and Abilene, I entertained my passenger with a variety of general Texas tunes, like the bassist Randy McDonald’s “Texas Flower,” Elton’s Merle Haggard parody “Texas Love Song,” Louis Armstrong and King Oliver’s “Texas Moaner Blues,” and Lester Young’s “Texas Shuffle.” It was the situationally appropriate “Texas to Ohio” by Damien Jurado that actually introduced me to trouble. I’d cranked those ghost guitars and gravel road vocals so high that my gaze wired itself to the highway and I didn’t detect the friendly Texas State Trooper until long after he’d seen us.



Imagine if you will: you’re a Texas cop and you see a dark blue sports car speeding through the night at somewhere between 85 and 90 mph, temporary tags and out of state ones at that, plus the driver doesn’t even slow down when he passes you. The red white blue bubble lights did compel my attention, however, and I pulled over, admonishing Tamla to be on her best behavior.



“Is this your first trip to Texas?” the friendly trooper inquired with what appeared to be genuine concern for his own safety.



“But not our last,” I responded, all bleary-eyed with good humor.

He turned out to be a very nice guy, letting me off with a warning, all of which made what happened less than an hour later moderately embarrassing. Having stopped briefly at a McDonald’s drive-thru for a freshening pair of cups of coffee, we revved the midnight beast up just past 115, the hazel stars sparkling in admiration at my inability to learn a simple lesson about local law enforcement. Somewhere between a replay of The Ramones’ instrumental “Durango 95” (the title lifted from a late-night drive in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange) and the Collins Kids’ “Hot Rod,” the unhappy contra flash erupted over the oncoming crest, a flash I passed as fast as it approached from the other side of the median. A quick glance in the tiny rearview assured me of my toast status: the trooper-mobile spun across that divider and sprayed angry gravel in the air as it yearned for sufficient traction to end my careless ways. I eased off the gas, found a strip of shoulder, and reined the Audi in for a graceful stop.



It felt like a scene out of Les Miserables as the same trooper sauntered up, flipping the pages in his ticket book.

He explained that at the speed we’d been traveling, he had every right known to God and Man to throw my skinny ass in the pokey, but since that might not bode well for Tamla, all alone as she would be, he would record the pace at 98, just low enough to keep the my companion from having to seek out food and shelter on her own. I admitted that I found his actions quite generous and wondered aloud if he’d be interested in taking the Roadster for a spin. I figured he wanted to, and the pause between my question and his answer confirmed my suspicions. He politely declined despite my offer to keep an eye on his short. As a result of this fine officer’s manners, I did indeed learn my lesson and that was my final speed infraction in the state of Texas.

After an upright two hour nap at a breezy roadside rest, Tamla and I greeted the dawn with the multi-level hyper speed ping pong attack of The Who’s “Going Mobile.” The beyond perfect production from Glyn Johns--the most incredible separation in all of rock --in harmony with grand musical ambitions and acid-accurate lyrics that shot out like Kerouac, reminded me of something my friend Paul Hormick had told me years and years earlier: “The more you listen to Who’s Next, the better it gets. Forever.” Better advice I have never received.

As we roared on in search of our next major stop in Dallas, we punched up Bachman-Turner Overdrive’s teenaged eight-track classic “Roll on Down the Highway.” The song’s mechanical rhythm section, indecipherable vocals and moderately inspired lead guitar encouraged Tamla and I to shoulder dance even as BTO faded and the Rolling Stones dirged into all eleven plus minutes of “Going Home.”



Neither Tamla nor I had Mick Jagger’s baby waiting for us back home, but despite this social inadequacy, we were both dying to get back there, even though Tamla had never heard of the place and the only thing I knew for certain was that I believed I had been happy living there. I did in fact have some splendid specific recollections, most of which centered around various bicycles I had owned and the places they had taken me. One of those places was The Blue Drummer Steak House. I was a frightened yet brash sixteen year old anticipating college with about as much clarity as I was old age pensions and my parents insisted I take the job not only to defray up and coming educational expenses but mostly as a way of guiding myself along the path toward some infantile form of maturity. And so for nearly two years I rode my ten-speed racer the two miles from our garage to the Bicentennial-appropriate steak emporium.

My friendships there weren’t lifelong, but they were deep. As The Beatles’ “Get Back” bled into Elvis Presley’s version of Hank Snow’s “Movin’ On,” some of those memory images came rolling back. Most stark was a kid about my own age at the time, just an average friendly kid named Jamie Welliver. One night Jamie and I were toking up in his Duster, listening to the soundtrack from the new Tommy movie, and he asked me if I wanted to go for a ride. It was cold as a shit storm out, and I was already in enough trouble for one night, so I passed. The next morning, a Sunday, if memory serves, I came back to work at eleven, just a few minutes before the lunch crowds emerged from the various church services. I walked in, bebopping a whistle to some self-composed tune, when the look another co-worker delivered stopped me cold. “Jamie Welliver’s dead. He wrapped his car around a telephone pole.” Before I even had a chance to register the horror of this, our manager, Pat Bevan, charged in through the big metallic doors and ordered us to get ready for the lunch rush. Ms. Bevan knew what had happened. She knew that we knew. But she had an insignificant job to perform and nothing was going to get in the way of that.



The most peculiar aspect of the entire experience was that when I had first begun working there, my number one concern, fear, obsession, was that by earning an insubstantial living there I might lose the young kid in me that I so cherished. Every man in the world frets about this constantly. Lose that internal boy and prepare to crawl inside a box and pile on the dirt. I never did completely lose him, of course, but that Sunday morning, a little part of him died for the first time.

On the outskirts of Dallas, the pre-encore take of Gram Parson’s live version of “Six Days on the Road” filled the air for miles and my heart muscles tightened for the first time since the trip had begun. An ominous cloud clings over Dallas and always will. A lot of that stems from the Kennedy assassination, and a lot of it sprouts from social conditions that could allow something like that assassination to take place. There was a lot we wanted to see in Dallas, but there was only one song I wanted to hear: “Willin’” by Little Feat. Sadly, the story of Alice--Dallas Alice--was nowhere in my collection. So sitting in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn, I rolled up the windows and sang the damn thing myself. Tamla wept.



By the time we checked into our room, we had been on the road exactly twenty-four hours. We had driven thirteen hundred miles. Giddy with exhaustion, Tamla plopped herself into the shotgun seat and we set out to discover Dallas.

About a mile and a half from the hotel we found ourselves so hopelessly lost it took the better part of three hours just to stream our way back. We never unearthed Dealey Plaza. We did learn, however, that Dallas sports a lot of road construction that only slows down the out-of-towners. Prior to motoring along freeways reduced to one lane with unyielding SUV psychos and crypto-tank drivers both fore and aft, I would have sworn that Phoenix drivers are the most hateful pack of self-absorbed sons of bitches who ever lived. After three hours sweltering and choking in the blood pools of Dallas congestion, I can honestly report that Phoenicians are among the most polite motorists in the world. If I ever return to Dallas, it will not be unarmed.

One of the primary reasons for my purchase of the Audi TT was that it is the ultimate anti-SUV. Despite the fact that every one of my current friends drives one, I do not like SUV’s. More importantly, many people who drive the rough-riding death traps do not like the occasional little sports cars that punctuate the road like dots at the end of exclamation points. In particular, they do not like Audi’s, most likely because SUV drivers recognize that there are only three or four non-Audi’s that can outrun the Roadster and none that can are the modern day urban tanks that in reality have nothing to do with either sports or utility. They are, in fact, only marginally vehicular. They do, however, serve as excellent tools for committing interstate homicide. Just ask the guy in the onyx black Denali a few miles south of Little Rock who tried to stampede his moon-roofed marauder up and across my roll-over bars, or the tailgating Esplanade, both of whom endeavored to careen their armored kill machines up and over our backs just because I had the audacity to mouth the words “stupid twat” in their directions as I passed them merging back onto the freeway. Like a breath of fresh air irony, George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass” filled the Audi and we switched lanes just as the mini-convoy barreled boldly by.

Arkansas is the most beautiful state, blessed as it is with miles of aisles of cotton, soybeans, wheat, corn and stacks of flax. The unsettled purr of idling semis spills a churn of its own kind of symphony. Strangely, a lot of great music comes from Arkansas but there’s not tons of tomes about it. That may be because in the early autumn, the scenery is so splendid, nearly nothing could approximate the grandeur. The fading foliage from the Ozarks announce themselves modestly and the timber trembles in awe of its own multihued gorgeosity. If there were ever a region in which it is manifestly appropriate to put the top down on the car, this is most definitely that place. The dying allergens kissing tightly to forsaken cotton balls, the colliding spruce and pine perfumes, the lust grip of cones and cinders: the sights and smells alone make a majestic visual-olfactory orgy that mere music cannot replicate. So we settled--if one can call it that--for a smorgasbord of CCR’s “Cottonfields,” “Arkansas Hop” by Boz and the Highrollers, “Joan of Arkansas” by Dorothy Shay, Big Medicine’s “My Ozark Mountain Home,” Black Oak Arkansas’ “Jim Dandy,” “Sweet Little Rock and Roller” by Chuck Berry, the American Gypsies’ “Bottle of Hope” (get it?), and--may God have mercy on my weary soul--Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell’s duet of “A Little Girl From Little Rock.” I’m no snob. I played the latter ditty three times as we wound our way around and through LR (as the local signs refer to it) on our way northeast to Memphis.

No city on our trip boasted a greater selection and variety of place-specific songs than did Memphis, Tennessee. About twenty miles out from this remarkably friendly border town, I snapped in the first four versions of Chuck Berry’s classic: the first was by Chuck, of course; then came the slightly hokey rendition by Flatt & Scruggs (recorded, no doubt, because of its title), followed by the rave up instrumental take by Lonnie Mack and the sloppy but transcendent cover by Sandy Denny. “Long distance information,” we sang as loud as our frayed vocal cords would permit. “Give me Memphis, Tennessee!”
Flipping from manual back into automatic as I stretched my neck to find a place to eat that wasn’t part of the burger axis of indigestion, Dan Bern’s “Graceland” whupped us upside the head:



Well look at me, Lord
I’m at Graceland
On a Saturday afternoon
I threw up last night
At a rest stop
From eating cheese grits
At the Waffle House
The Memphis horns hit us like a Gospel brick house as the late Dusty Springfield cued herself up on “Willie and Laura Mae Jones,” another place and another time belting out as real and immediate as front porch lemonade. Memphis Minnie sashayed in shout-singing the “Killer Diller Blues,” the guitar sounding just like a banjo. King Curtis spooned up today’s special of “Memphis Soul Stew,” and when those fat back drums strolled in, I swear the trees along the roadway actually bowed. The obvious Mott the Hoople number bleated like a dying calf, but that memory quickly faded with the authentically ridiculous “Memphis Train” by soul papa Rufus Thomas. “Whoo! Aw, shucks now!” And before we knew it, we were leaving Memphis behind, the tires twirling and oblivious as the steady country rhythm of Rosanne Cash’s version of daddy John’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box” battered down on Tamla and I like rain on the roof of a caboose.



Along I-40 East and slightly north toward the former country music capital, as the winds whipped and the sun brayed in harmony, the first genuine scenic rhythms of recognition gripped us like a corpse. Tennessee houses a thousand tiny towns, most of which are thoroughly ignored by the grand interstates that double-X their arms across the expanse. Jackson--one of the biggest names in all the South--retains a bear’s share of promotion, but real people also live and die in Brunswick, Rosemark, Gallaway, Braden, Keeling, Stanton, Shepp, Leighton (“I been everywhere, man, I been everywhere”): God, so many towns and people Tamla and I will never meet, many of whom may well someday be doomed to course their ways on wheeled rafts between the banks of paved pathways, fishing for legal fireworks and dreading the oncoming hug of familiarity. That familiarity spooked me like a slime monster peeking from a hollow log as we neared Nashville, the world’s most down home town. As we strained our eyes for yet another Holiday Inn, we got caught up in the porcine okey-doke of “Nashville Cats” by the Lovin’ Spoonful, melted into the leather buckets with “Nashville Radio” courtesy of Jon Langford, self-paralyzed with nostalgia during a dose of Waylon Jennings’ “Nashville Bum,” damn near cried from the pain of Ringo’s “Nashville Jam,” received scads of curious looks throughout the playing of Godhead’s “Nashville Bust,” and felt like genuine cowboy punks as we blared Hank Williams Jr.’s “Nashville Scene.” I awoke a little after three the next morning, sweating like a fever blister, completely unaware of where I was. Tamla jumped away from the wet foot she’d been leaning against and stared at me as if I’d suddenly become real. “Nashville!” one of us said to the other, or maybe the word came from the radio alarm clock that some fool before me had set. Over that tinny radio transmission, Mississippi Fred McDowell, who surely don’t play no rock ‘n’ roll, reminded us we had to move, so after a quick run through the shower we did just that, with all the haste of unrepentant sinners fleeing the wrath of a jealous God. I threw Tamla a cheese McMuffin and chugged my own magic milkshake as Chris Knight serenaded us with his eerily appropriate “Devil Behind the Wheel,” that Mellencamp impression never sounding better. We’d be in Nostalgia sometime within the next twenty-four hours and despite the dark thumb tapping its warning against my heart, I hastened us on, my own internal cruise control as unyielding as time itself.

Running on I-65 North en route to Louisville, the next major stop, we passed a sign that said “White House 18 Miles Next Exit.” We also passed a Tennessee State Trooper who was himself somewhat exceeding the speed limit, and both Tamla and I realized that another citation lay in our progress.



This guy stayed parked behind us for at least five minutes--no doubt staring us down from the rear to see if we’d run--during which time I searched vainly for Springsteen’s “Mr. State Trooper.” The best I could come up with was Randy Newman’s “Rednecks,” but by the time the cop swaggered up to our car, that song had come and gone. I smiled and killed the engine.



“You come up here from Air-ee-zonaw,” he began. “So I know you seen the sign at the state crossing that admonishes you to obey Tennessee speed limits, right? Whose this gal?”



“Yes sir, Arizona. On our way to Ohio. Haven’t been there in over twenty--”



“Ohio?” he queried, although when he said it, the state name sounded like “Ah-hi-ya.”



“Yes sir, Ohio. That’s where I’m from. Looking forward to--”



“I don’t have all day to hear about that. Sign this and answer my question. Whose this gal?”



I signed the receipt of citation without even looking at it. “Right, my colleague, Tamla Reeves.”



“She obstruct your view in that little thing you’re driving?”



I desperately needed a drink or something to blur out the shades of simmering paranoia.



“No. She sits still. Rides low. Rarely moves. No trouble.”



“This here ticket’s going on your driving record, boy. You’re almost out of Tennessee. You make sure you pay this when you get to Ohio or wherever you’re going. You make sure that colleague of yours don’t obstruct your view. And you better make sure you don’t get no more tickets in this state. You follow me?”



“Assured clear distance,” I replied as I hummed up the engine and rolled on toward Louisville.

My ears popped and clogged steadily as we climbed the road altitude that glides one almost unconsciously into northern Kentucky. Late in October, the trees coughed out crackling colors like daytime fireworks, each leaf a silent harbinger and leaden weight. Law enforcement warnings and penalties to the contrary, I shot us up to ninety just after we crossed the Kentucky line and the music took over for the next hundred miles. The deranged banjo stomp of Danny Barnes’ “Life in the Country,” The Byrds’ “Goin’ Back” (with its self-referential and irreverent line: “a little courage is all we lack”), the unsolemn roll of BTO’s “Freeways,” Joe South’s high strung “Don’t It Make You Want to Go Home,” the heavy-light xylophone of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s “Reunion Blues,” the harmelodic majesty of Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America,” the power and the glory of Phil Ochs’ “Power and the Glory,” the pop up grind and slash of Tom Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream”: aw, it was somnambulant, it was invigorating, it was a bunch of purple mountain majesty, it was pure and fleshy, and my terror finally backed off. We truly were, as Funkadelic promised, “One Nation Under a Groove.” A zombied-out nation in our protective shells sealed for our own sanity, but one nation nevertheless. “Here’s my chance/to dance my way/out of my constriction.”



When we come to the place where the road and the sky collide
Run me over the edge and let my spirit glide
They told me I was gonna have to work for a livin’ but all I wanna do is ride
I don’t care where we’re goin’ from here, honey, you decide.



Jackson Browne, “The Road and the Sky”

Somehow wedged in between Deep Purple’s heavy lunged version of Neil Diamond’s “Kentucky Woman” and Elvis Presley’s maudlin as hell “Kentucky Rain,” the song excerpted above trumpeted itself, one of a handful or two of which it is quite fair, balanced and accurate to say: “That there song, well, it just came along at a time in the boy’s life when something was bound to change him forever. In this case, it happened to be a song about a car thief who prophesizes--correctly--the apocalypse. There ya go.”



Not to give a false impression, I should clarify: I do not steal cars outside the line of duty; I’m not prone to prolonged lethargy; and while some may say the world will end in fire, some in ice, and with all due respect to Robert Frost, I’ve always assumed it would terminate in a more abstract way, probably as a result of a lack of imagination. In other words, Browne’s centerpiece from Late for the Sky influenced me more in terms of sensibility than in terms of prophesy. And that sensibility occasionally leans toward a studiously pronounced gloved sweat of dread. So there I was, riding along with Tamla, the top down on the Audi, the northern Kentucky hill winds straightening back my blond hair, an absurd set of aviator goggles swatting away stray flying insects, lamb skin leather jacket insulating my torso, and matching black Kenneth Cole boots against the pedal, pretentious as hell, when along comes Jackson Browne, declaring, “Hold on steady/Try to keep ready/Everybody’s gonna get wet/Don’t think it won’t happen/Just because it hasn’t happened yet.”

A reasonable person might, at this point (if not sooner), wonder aloud at what it was exactly that I was so dreading about the approaching denouement to a trip that I had, in all fairness and accuracy, undertaken freely and without apparent coercion. The answer to that requires the most difficult degree of self-discovery it has ever been my misfortune to explore. Maybe it will help illuminate what eventually happened when we met up with Jeff Huckelby and his client.

My high school graduation was the Class of 1976. For the benefit of those of you who weren’t around at the time, 1976 was a year of much ballyhoo in the United States. After decades of involvement in Vietnam and what seemed like decades of Watergate-related embarrassments, America poised itself to celebrate 200 years of Independence. Special coins were minted, CBS launched sixty-second spots featuring various luminaries recounting historic tales of bravery and the overcoming of adversity, banners and plaques and monuments sprang up out of our blood-drenched soil heralding the good life we had created. “We must be doing something right,” Henry Gibson sang in Robert Altman’s Nashville, “to last two hundred years.” And in that year of justifiable (if enforced) patriotism, my graduating class, like doubtless hundreds of others throughout the country, came to believe that, perhaps by association, perhaps by divine decree, we were something special.



No. That’s not right. We did not just believe it. We knew it.

My graduating class at Nostalgia High School boasted a whopping eighty-three students. Just like many classes before and after, there and elsewhere, we had our share of jocks, leaders, hoods, followers, brains, dopes, beauty queens, sluts, and a hefty percentage of kids too bland for classification. But regardless of whatever in-group or out-group to which each of us belonged, the one immutable fact to which we clung was that as a reigning member of the graduating class of 1976, we were somehow imbued with the ability and even responsibility to make something big of ourselves. This state of affairs existed, as I’ve said, in large part because of our chronological connection to the Bicentennial. Part of it emerged as a consequence of being subjected to well-intended propaganda from the staff and teachers. And some of it developed simply as a result of what then sure seemed like reasonable expectations.



For instance, there stood in one corner of my mind Jeff Carter who excelled in football, basketball and baseball, did well if not exceptionally in his academic pursuits, came from an above average economic farming family, had a warm and friendly nature, and certainly lost no favor due to his handsome appearance. Jeff would certainly be a force with which the world would reckon.

Barbara Bolander, her hair a magnificent fiery red, was a brilliant student, not only academically, but theatrically, musically, and personally. Rather than stunting herself with mere bookishness, she exuded a broad popularity that contained not a trace of snobbery.



Keith Dumm, certainly neither an athlete nor a wild-eyed Rasputin, marched to his own political drum, achieved a splendid grade point average (he was class Solitarian), struck me as highly sophisticated beyond his years, and perhaps best of all, evoked a sense of humor as at home in academia as in the gutter. Keith was a good guy.



Randy McKay smoked a lot of dope, worked third shift at a donut factory, sported a mischievous yet piercing twinkle in both eyes, and had one foot firmly planted in the camps of both the winner’s circle and the marginal hoodlum square. It was easy to see that Randy would grow out of his fascination with the dark side of life, and he’d probably quickly become the CFO at a growing pharmaceutical conglomerate.



I could go on, but what’s the point? You already know what happened.



Jeff Carter now runs the family farm. He has a bunch of kids taking up most of his time.



I have no idea what happened to Barbara Bolander. The successes she presumably accomplished have been lost to me, most likely due to a marriage-induced name change.



Keith Dumm, during our senior year, impregnated a lovely young girl, thereby derailing his plans to attend medical school. He owns a Nostalgia retail store known as Treasure Isle.



Randy McKay died in a motorcycle accident.

None of my former classmates ever became famous actors, successful politicians, renowned artists, benevolent patrons, esteemed literary figures, or any of the other millions of wonderful things we all knew we would begin doing about three to four weeks after graduation.



Of course, I knew all of this before ever launching our adventure. I knew all this just as I knew that I’d been willfully repressing memories of the genuinely horrible experiences that befall most high school kids, elevating in my forebrain only those half dozen or so good times at the expense of the thousand or more rotten things that had been banished from my recollections. That’s why it’s no mere coincidence that the majority of the songs I culled for the Mid-Life Nervous Breakdown came from approximately the time that I graduated. May the roar help me ignore what a bore I am to explore!

It is likewise no coincidence that I chose to drive to Ohio, rather than to avail myself of this nation’s vast air transportation network. You see, although I am capable of being a very fine driver, proving that statement requires a great deal of concentration on my part. So there I was, still mastering the various idiosyncrasies of a new car, operating on damned little sleep, trying to keep a newly acquired dog entertained, and playing my self-burned CD’s so loud that I am certain to have violated several local noise ordinances. Simply put, anything I could do to distract myself from the abject horror of recognition that awaited me--well, I was ready, Freddie. I was ready, that is, until that fucking Jackson Browne song came on, a song I myself had sequenced for selective self-sabotage.



An hour later we crossed a bridge and suddenly gazed down the descent into Cincinnati. Jesus, I was in Ohio. Long time, no think.



“I’m living on the air in Cincinnati,” I sang to my companion. “Cincinnati WKRP!” Tamla thought that was hilarious.



Riverfront Stadium, sometimes recalled as Cinergy Field, met with a purposeful and violent demolition on December 29, 2002, an act of domestic terrorism committed by people with every legal right to do so, an act transgressed without moral twinge or beleaguered conscience. Teamed up, Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden could not have done a better job of crucifying testaments to those things that make America great. The aptly named Riverfront had been the home to both the Reds (Redlegs, originally) and the Bengals. The stadium accommodated a capacity of 60,400. The website “Stadiums of the NFL” calls the former landmark “boring,” but a packed house on a Saturday afternoon, smelling the cold hotdogs and warm beer with The Big Red Machine of Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo and other local luminaries activating something unconstrained inside those of us in attendance--bliss personified, I assure you. What became “boring” to the Bengals, and maybe even to the latter-day Reds, I suspect, was the consistency with which it became impossible to fill a stadium so large. It would have taken time and money and effort to rid society of its virus of CheapFastEasy, so they destroyed the medicine rather than the disease. “I went back to Ohio,” sang Chrissie Hynde. “But my city was gone.” My father took me to games at Riverfront. The stadium and my father may be gone, but the mindless wheels of professional progress cannot topple the memories, one-sided as they may be.
Tamla and I tattooed our minds to the amplified pop blues of Delaney and Bonnie’s “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” and “Comin’ Home.”

The Ohio River demarcates the state named by the Iroquois from both Kentucky and West Virginia. Route 52 stays just barely on the Ohio side of the River, ushering a gateway, as it were, to such small Buckeye towns as New Richmond, Ripley, Aberdeen, Rome, and Portsmouth, the latter being a smartly named burg that also happens to be the city of my birth, although, again, I grew up in Nostalgia. Once in Cincinnati, we considered following the River toward my birthplace, recalling how, as a child raised on Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, I’d often fantasized about modern day explorers traversing the wide and winding River in search of nothing more economic than adventure. But there were people living in Portsmouth who claimed me as a relative (although not quite family) and I thought it best to get my strength back before meeting up with that particular tribe. And so we selected Interstate 75 Northeast, a direct path right into the capitol city of Columbus.

Twenty-one years: the lifetime of a young adult. That much trivia had urinated into the streams of my soul since I’d last laid eyes on this route, its preexisting landscape increasingly familiar with every accelerated rpm. About fifty miles out from Cinci, the state levels off and the farms flourish. October held court now, so the main remnants of agronomical decline were weather-beaten signs proclaiming that delicious hybrids of silver queen sweet corn could indeed be picked by hungry customers for two dollars a dozen: from our fields to your pot in only minutes! Most of the remaining forestry lay off deeper into the heart of the state, but mountainous wrecking yards and a panoply of country kitchens hyphenated the compelling monotony of our final miles. Gillian Welch squeaked out “Look at Miss Ohio” and Lucinda Williams soul-crooned “American Dream.” As we approached the exit for Grove City, Roger Miller sang-spoke “Trailer for sale or rent/Rooms to let fifty cents,” and I knew we had to park immediately. Another night in a low side of corporate Holiday Inn and a coroner might have had to perform an autopsy on me. Jackpot Road brought us quickly to the Cross Country Inn, a fitting temporary reprieve for we two road weary wanderers.



We weren’t quite home. But, damn, we were close.

With less than six hours of legitimate sack time under our belts in the last three calendar days, I needed sleep. And inviting as the huge queen-size bed appeared, I knew that such an idea was a goofy distraction. I dove into a suitcase for my personal address book and flipped to the page marked Jeff Huckelby. When he answered and I told him where we were, he cried “Grove City! What are you doing there? Let me give you directions! Whoo-ee!” That was exactly the kind of welcoming I’d always hoped for myself.

Jeff was the kind of kid you’re delighted to know, and as my best friend, I’d felt like the luckiest kid in the world.

Jeff Huckelby transferred to our township when we were both in sixth grade. It had been, then as now, October, so the school season was a month old when he joined us, and since it was a small school in the central Ohio suburbs, my friend Roger and I didn’t know any better than to approach the short new kid during recess, as a way of making him feel welcome. He asked us what we did for fun during recess and of course we said we didn’t know, being a little embarrassed about our surroundings, what with him coming from Florida and all. This was during the time of the Apollo moon missions, and all I knew about Florida was that Cape Kennedy was there, so I asked him if his father was an astronaut. Jeff said he didn’t think so and pulled himself up onto the chin-up bar we had on the playground. He sat up on it as Roger and I struggled between the desire to look away and at the same time just surreptitiously gawk. Jeff shifted and crawled on that bar until he managed to hook it between the bend of his knees. “Can you guys do a dew drop?” he asked as he swung back and forth upside down, gaining momentum with his hands clasped in front of him in a praying grip. We shook our heads. “It’s easy,” he said, and propelled his body forward as his knees straightened and his legs arched around, landing him perfectly flat on his feet.



By the time Jeff had performed this miracle three more times, he’d attracted a considerable audience away from the twenty-minute football game that typically held top billing. One bystander claimed the dew drop wasn’t all that hard to do, and Jeff agreed as he swung through yet another one perfectly. But nobody climbed up on that bar with him. Most of us just stared and whispered among ourselves. When the first bell rang, Jeff added a twist by drawing up enough momentum to spin all the way over the top, unfold his knees, leap out and land. Several lips mouthed the word “wow.”



“You got a bike?” Jeff asked me as we ran back to class.

I did have a bike. I had a terrific bike. I had the coolest bike in the world, even though it was a Huffy. The model was called a Spider. It was bright yellow with black racing stripes, and it had a banana seat, a sissy bar, monkey handle bars, caliper brakes and a three-speed gear box right along the universal join. The front wheel was a low sixteen inches and the rear was twenty. I’d also installed an odometer on the front wheel and a speedometer sat right below the handlebars. I had a rearview mirror aligned along the right side of the front wheel. I’d been clocked at 44 miles per hour downhill and the Spider had neither shook nor shimmied. Plus I could rare back on that sissy bar and do wheelies all afternoon.

Jeff rode his bike over to my house after school that day. He had a much more traditional bike, but it was still pretty sharp: black with lots of chrome. Besides, his had a transistor radio affixed to the handlebars. He asked if I wanted to ride over to the garbage dump. I didn’t even know there was a garbage dump. Once again he showed not the slightest sign of dismay at my evident inadequacies. As for me, I suppose the thought of seeing something different drew more appeal than any wonderment about how limited our chances for fun could be at such a place. So I said sure.

We rode up my street and out of that subdivision, across the highway and into his subdivision. The street his house was on was called Chippewa, and it had a swerving descent that allowed us to tilt our bikes down low as we crossed Sioux Drive and Tonopah Circle while WCOL-AM crackled out the Top Ten hits of the week. At the end of the street lay acres of thick, loose, recently upended clogs of dirt from the perpetual residential development. We struck the dirt doing just under forty at a slight lean and rolled about thirty feet out before we realized the earlier October snow had moistened the dirt, made it soft, and as a result our wheels transformed into mud pies. We had to push our bikes a mile to the dump and on the way more snow fell, which was nice except that as the temperature dropped, the mud froze into our wheels so they wouldn’t turn. A song called “Candida” came on the radio and before I could even beg, Jeff snapped it off.

We climbed up on top of the mountain of new suburbanites’ discards, and in addition to bottles, cans, paper, undigested food stuffs and other visual noises, we discovered unopened boxes of packs of baseball cards, mangled metal, bent wood, large rubber tires, and busted eight track tapes. And even in Ohio, even in October, even in the snow, we found furry little rats. They darted and tore and squealed, but they left us alone.

Mr. Mays was much larger than the rats and he did not leave us alone. His first name was Clarence, but all the kids called him Willie, which made him angry since he hated black people, and so we continued to call him Willie. Apparently it had fallen to Mr. Mays--who as far as I knew was a farmer whose farm was miles away--to prevent eleven-year-old boys from frightening the rats away from whose ever garbage dump this was. He had pulled up in his old black farmer’s pick-up truck with commercial plates before we’d realized he was there. Jeff and I were trying to see if any of those eight-tracks could be salvaged when the first rock plunked behind Jeff’s feet.

Once we realized that Willie’s aim was to conk us on the heads with his hurling rocks, Jeff yelled, “Let’s split!” (which was pretty cool talk, I thought, for a kid his age) and used his frozen-wheeled bike to slide down the far side of the dump. I reached down to pick up something to throw back and came up with only an eight track, but this one didn’t appear to be busted, so I jammed Stormy Weather into my jacket pocket and followed Jeff down the far side of garbage mountain. Willie climbed up onto the icy bank of trash, but by that time we had pushed our sleigh-bikes back around front and were smacking glop out from between our spokes so we could escape. We heard him yell something about “heathens,” and through nothing but sheer boyhood strength we stood up on our pedals and forced those wheels to turn, leaving twin thin trails of trash mud behind us.

Jeff and I parted at his driveway as he hurried to hide his bike in the garage and I sped on like Clyde Barrow running from a Texas Ranger, oblivious to the fact that we’d done nothing wrong. The feeling of being a big time criminal was exhilarating and I filled my lungs with cold October air.



About halfway down my street, Ron Kitchen--who years later would tell me that Jamie Welliver got killed in a car crash--and his younger sister Missy--who everybody called Messy--waved me down. “Have you seen your mother?” Messy asked, eyes tall with barely restrained panic. The cold in my lungs lifted to my brain. I said no. Ron told me my mom was out looking for me, driving around in our family car, hyperventilating as she asked any kids she could find if they’d seen me. I checked my watch. It was about six-thirty and darkness was about to control the sky.

After a lengthy, well-intentioned and bitter lecture about me being a sickly child who had to remember that his mother wasn’t in very good health either and certainly shouldn’t have to be driving up and down the snowy roads searching for a young boy no one had seen, I was sent to my room, which was just fine with me. I had been feeling so great there for a while, I should have realized the great cosmic equalizer would come along and pound my high spirits back into their basement. In my foolishness I had forgotten all about being sick with whatever horror this week’s favorite was and instead had gone crazy with happiness at being out with Jeff and actually doing something.

So I stood there on that platform more than thirty years later, seeing the boy within the man who now had responsibilities. He and his wife Lynette had a young teenaged daughter, he had a small but efficient-looking law firm, and as I endeavored to take in the physical changes that threatened to engulf the child within my friend, I realized that in a few hours it would be All Hallows’ Eve, a night when the sycophants of Satan don their masks and scare hell out of one another. It was, as it turned out, his fiirm’s busiest day of the year.

”This is my partner, Tamla Reeves. Tamla, meet Jeff Huckelby.”






Many people reveal their inner feelings—even feelings they may be hiding from themselves—without realizing that their attempts at polite camouflage are thoroughly transparent. Jeff looked at Tamla a few seconds longer than necessary before his arm reflexed out to shake hands with her. Whentheir hands finally did meet, rather thanthe warm and firm grip he’d used on me, he offered Tamla a tepid hold that would have embarrassed a bluegill. And a sky cap could have lost a complete set of luggage in the vacuity of his smile.






I almost understood his surprise. Our graduating class of eighty-three students had had only one black person in it. I doubted Hujuke County had changed all that much, even over the last two decades. When I’d lived here, a white man could go for months at a time without making any substantial interaction with a black woman.






As we stood beside his desk, I told Jeff we were anxious to hear about his case. He motioned for us to sit down, but we protested that we were hungry and preferred to talk over lunch. Tamla said, “Douglas has been raving about a place called the Watt Street Grill. He swears it has the best food he’s ever eaten.”






I hadn’t held out much hope, but Jeff surprised me. “It’s still here. Elmo Patski’s son Tracy took it over when Elmo got too sick to run it. But you all didn’t drive 2500 miles to eat there.”






Tamla grinned and chucked me in the ribs with an elbow. “I think maybe we did,” she said.






The place was only two blocks over. I decided not to make a point of showing off the car. Funny how much I’d looked forward to him seeing it, but now hoped he wouldn’t ask what we were driving.






The Watt Street Grill, located on the northwest corner of Court and Puckett Roads—but don’t look for it—still had the best food I’ve ever tasted. There was enough grease in my double cheeseburger to lubricate a jet engine twice and the French fries were so salty and sweet that they could have caused thrombosis and diabetes simultaneously. Our Cokes came in large, old style Mason jars, and even though the refills weren’t free, we downed three glasses apiece. My meal was better than sex, cigarettes, and sleep—combined. I was not alone in my assessment. While Jeff wolfed his down just like in the old days, this was the first time I’d known Tamla to finish every last bite of a meal.






Once we’d all been rendered two weak to do anything else, I said, “Tell us about your client.”






By now I’d observed that Jeff Huckelby had gained at least fifty pounds since I’d last seen him. Someone had double-parked a mustache above his upper lip. And the crown of his head did not hold as dense a population of hair as it once had. Despite those few cosmetic changes, he was still very much as I’d remembered him. In fact, certain mannerisms begun in his youth now flourished in middle age. He still tilted his head a bit when he laughed. And his chuckle had become a cackle that lit up the room. He used to hunch forward when telling a joke. Now he leaned in like a foreign spy. And even though he’d always been known to amplify his speech with hand gestures, Jess the grown-up revealed that his words were an extension of his body language rather than the other way around.






If it had been anyone else, I’d have suspected he was nervous. Perhaps he was. He placed both hands on the table, one palm up, the other down. He brought them together, separated them, then clasped them together again. No one could say how long they might stay that way. “Weldon Ruby is my client. Do you remember him, Doug? He was in our class.”






I said, “What I remember mostly is that he had unusual eyes. One pointed toward Cleveland and the other toward Cincinnati.”






Jeff cackled. “That’s the guy. His eyes still do that. Anyway, Weldon got himself mixed up in some social actions here locally. Civil disobedience. That kind of thing.”






Tamla said, “I hope it’s not political. Douglas hates politics, don’t you, honey?”






Jeff gave the corner of his moustache a quick rub and said, “That’s surprising. I always thought you might get into politics.”






“Me? Where did you ever get that idea? Wait, don’t tell me. Go on about Weldon.”






“Well, folks, it got to the point where half the town wanted to kill him and the other half wanted to put him on a throne. The half that wanted to kill him were inclined to support our recently deceased chief official, Randall Harmon.”






An old man in farm clothes was at the cash register paying for his lunch. He looked over at our table. When he opened his mouth I thought he was going to speak to us, so I waved a quick hello. Instead, he brought his hand to his mouth and adjusted his upper plate. He paid and left.






Tamla asked, “What did happen to Mr. Harmon?”






Jeff’s hands unclasped themselves and took sanctuary on his knees. “Randy liked to fish in Doecreek. He used to say the reason he kept running for reelection was it gave him more time for fishing than an honest job would. So about six weeks ago, Randy’s out on the boat near the north end. There’s some big catfish that favor the shallow parts of that area. Rob Manson, the guy who runs the boat shop, sold him his usual twelve-pack of Stroh’s.”






I almost fell over. “Stroh’s? They still make that? Tamla, we have to get some of that beer.”






“I thought you hated beer?”






“I do. But Stroh’s is fire-brewed. Nothing in this world tastes like it. Sorry, Jeff. Go on.”






“Over twenty people reported seeing him out there in his little two-man rowboat. It was anchored and his line was in the water.” Jeff tapped his fingertips together. “They rent those boats right there at the dock. Even in a town like Nostalgia, when the Mayor doesn’t return his charter, somebody goes looking. Rob, the bait and tackle guy, he starts out just before sun-up the next morning. He was thinking Randall might have gotten drunk and fell asleep in the boat. It wouldn’t have been the first time. Well, it didn’t take him long to find Randall Harmon in that boat.”






Tamla reached across the table and steadied Jeff’s hands with her own. “What did this Rob Manson person find?”






Jeff looked at her with a helpless appreciation. He drew in a long breath and let it out. He said, “The Mayor was lying there, face up at the sky, right in the bottom of that boat. Someone had sawed off both his arms at the shoulders. Our coroner says Randall died of a heart attack. If he hadn’t, he’d have bled to death. Rob got so sick from what he’d seen he couldn’t eat for three days. Hell, those sawed-off arms were propped under Randall’s head and neck like a pair of pillows. I’ve only seen the pictures, but it’s grizzly stuff.”






When I’d lived there, about once every year some teenager driving drunk or stoned would crash up a phone pole or sill off a bridge. Those were tragic deaths that haunt every small town. But premeditated murder? In Nostalgia? “How did they come to pin it on Weldon Ruby?”






“He was the first person everyone suspected. Weldon Ruby and Randall Harmon hated one another’s guts.”






Tamla said, “You say Mr. Ruby was a social activist? Did that have anything to do with their feelings against one another?”






Jeff leaned in like a spy telling a joke. “I believe everyone is entitled to a fair trial, complete with due process and zealous representation.”






“So do we,” I said. “Go ahead. Answer her question.”






Jeff found a place for his hands somewhere behind his neck. He said, “Two-and-a-half years ago, Fox Run Township got itself annexed into Hujuke County. That made it part of the Nostalgia Regional School District. Until then, whenever the schools needed extra operating money, a levy went on the ballot and it passed. But when Fox Run needed money to keep its doors open, the levy didn’t pass. The school shut down.”






Tamla said, “What happened to the students?”






“The school board took a different kind of vote. They rolled Fox Run right into Nostalgia Twonship. This is just the high school I’m talking about, but that’s still 400 new students piling in through the doors of old Nostalgia High. Some people were upset.”






The waitress asked if we wanted anything else. I saw a couple of kids eating something that caught my eye. I told the waitress to bring us each a slice of hot apple pie. People can always eat just a little bit more, even when they’re full. I asked Jeff, “Was Weldon Ruby upset?”






“Very. Randy Harmon had come in and told the school board that those Fox Run students were entitled to an education and that since the voters had denied them that, it was up to the board to make things right. When the new school year started, Weldon organized pickets outside the grounds. People got tired of doing that pretty quick, so he headed up a telephone campaign to beg the parents to keep their kids home from school. A few did at first, but that petered out, too. Then Weldon talked some of the angrier folks into doing something more dramatic. What they did even made the evening news on one of those Columbus TV stations. This one Monday morning, Weldon Ruby and ten other people laid down in front of the school’s driveway so the buses couldn’t pull in. It took the sheriff and his deputies about three hours to get out there and arrest them all. They made bail, of course, and wouldn’t you know, three days later they were right back out there. Except this time there were more than fifty of them. We don’t have the room or the manpower here to process and hold fifty offenders, so the sheriff singled out Weldon and ran him in. Mayor Harmon decided to have a word with him. He told Weldon that if he didn’t stop interfering in these kids getting an education, he, Ruby, would be headed to the state pen. A week later, the Mayor was dead.”






The waitress served us our pies. Mine was a la mode. Steam rose up around the ice cream and I could taste those sweet apples before the fork reached my mouth.






Tamla said, “Jeff, these Fox Run students—are they mostly minorities?”






“Yes, ma’am.”






“African-American, by any chance?”






“About ninety percent, yes.”






“And you’re representing this guy, this racist?”






“I’m a court appointed attorney.”






“Disgusting.”






“I also believe Weldon Ruby is innocent—at least of murdering Randall Harmon.”






I pointed out how delicious the pie was. No one cared but me.






I said, “Look, Jeff, we’ll talk it over. We’re staying at the Elm Tree Motel. We’ll let you know in the morning, okay?”






He said that was just fine and tried to pick up the check. I beat him to it. Tamla only ate half her pie, so I finished it for her.










Tamla didn’t think much of the beer. I had to admit it was an acquired taste. “So is this town,” she said, giving me a wink.






When we’d checked into the Elm Tree Motel, the clerk has asked how many rooms. Tamla was standing next to me, scanning a brochure on local attractions. “One,” I said. Tamla said nothing. The clerk asked how many beds. “One,” I said. I’d expected some reaction from my colleague, but none was forthcoming. She seemed far more displeased with the beer than with the sleeping arrangements.






She sat on the edge of the bed and kicked off her tennis shoes. “It’s all right with me if we take this case. Your friend may be right. Maybe Ruby didn’t do it.”






I said, “If we find out he’s guilty, that’s tough. We just hand Jeff whatever we learn.”






“Agreed.” She peeled off her jeans. Her T-shirt hung down to mid-thigh. She pulled the blanket off the bed, rolled back a cover and crawled beneath it. She said, “Douglas, I don’t know if we’re going to have sex tonight or not. But we are sleeping together. You know how much I care for you. Besides, I didn’t like the look the clerk gave us when we checked in.”






I was out of my shirt and pants in less than twenty seconds. “There was a hostile look?”






“Come to bed,” she said. “If we do become a couple, you’ll notice a difference in how people look at us.”






I came to bed. I put my arm around her waist and drew her close. “I don’t give a damn how people look at us.”






“Even Jeff?”






“Even Jeff, the hotel clerk, Weldon Ruby—he ought to get a charge out of us working for his lawyer. Say, is that why you became so agreeable?”






She was shaking with laughter. I kissed the laugh right out of her mouth.










We did not make love that evening. The wear of traveling so far in such a short time overwhelmed us. And when that exhaustion met the natural state of relaxation that comes from being beside someone with whom it is possible to be oneself without one trace of pretense, the urgency of sleep defeated what would have been under other circumstances more compelling biological imperatives.






I dreamed a lot that night. I dreamed with the assurance one finds in a dog dreaming of chasing pussycats. The body mass of all but one of those dreams has blown away like a dried up dandelion flower. But the fragments of that other one will haunt the hallways of my memory forever because they built upon a dream I’d often had as a child. I never did tell Tamla about it. The trouble with sanity is it weakens our resistances to the pressures of reality. I didn’t see how telling her about it would be any particular favor.






My father died when I was nine. The strain of his passing wore my mother down to the point where two years later she too would depart this mortal coil. In reality, I cared after her those two years—cooked her meals, gave her baths, brushed her hair, did all the housework, made her take her medicines: the typical scenario a child brings to such a situation. We lived in Phoenix and the rest of her family—three brothers and two sisters—still lived in Nostalgia. None of them hopped a plane to come help their sister, so to this day I would not walk across the street to spit on the best of them. In my dream this specific night, just as it had come dozens of times years before, I sat by my mother’s bed, holding her wet and cold hand to the point where I saw that she was dead. At that exact instant, the faces of all the adults I knew—aunts, uncles, teachers, bus drivers, merchants and doctors—swarmed above my mom’s motionless body there in that bed, bussing sounds at me that I couldn’t quite make out—at first. “Oook ledder,” rang the cry of the disembodied flying faces. “Ook ledder, ook kledder, yook kledder, you killed her!”






Of course I had done no such thing. But I have always been cursed with doubts about how I could have done more for her at the time. It’s called survivor’s guilt and it’s not uncommon. What was a bit unusual was that mine had gone into dormancy for thirty years and reawakened at a time when I should have been having sex instead of torturing myself with this kind of thing.






Human beings are the only creatures known to experience guilt for things they did not even do.






On the other hand, some people feel no guilt for things that they absolutely did do. The next morning, Tamla and I met several such people on both sides of freedom at the Hujuke County Jail.










The Hujuke County Jail reaked of ugliness. The fat Sergeant who signed us in wore a face with a natural expression that would have scared Karloff back to the lake, LaGosi back to the crypt, and both Chaney’s back to the silver bullet gun store. The administrative assistant who recorded the purpose of our visit hid behind what was either a rash running from the left corner of her mouth to just beneath her right eye or else the largest pimple I have ever seen. The chief of detention sported arms not quite as thick as guitar strings and legs that would have embarrassed a chicken, and yet his middle projected out like the base of a pyramid. The high, round ceiling lights had last been exposed to soap and water around the time Nixon resigned; although in fairness, the floor had been mopped fairly recently, albeit, no one had given it a chance to dry before tracking fresh mud all over it. And everywhere we went in the jail that morning, the putrid fog odor of a damp exhumation wrapped its spongy claws around us.






The five cells would never make the pages of the penal edition of Better Homes and Gardens. Behind corroded yet stubborn cross bars were rooms that measured five by ten feet, allowing for the placement of a narrow bunk with what was either a half inch mattress or a very thick sheet. The toilet bowl served as a wash basin. And someone far more depraved than anyone who ever inhabited these cells had taken the initiative to paint the interior walls a color that can only be described as baby-vomit green. This was no place for an innocent man to spend his free time. I tried to cling to the comforting notion that Weldon Ruby was probably guilty. The man himself made it easy to believe.






Tamla and I sat on the free side of the crossbars. Weldon Ruby chain smoked and evaded. But we learned a few important details, although they didn’t seem all that vital at the time.






“I ain’t sorry Harmon’s dead. And you know what I did when they told me about his arms? I laughed. Piss ran down my leg. You know why? ’Cause Randall Harmon was a son of a bitch.”






I shot a glance at Tamla. She was already taking notes.






“Where were you the night Mr. Harmon was murdered?” I asked. It seemed a fair question.






His head tilted down and then bobbed up again. The eye he’d been leading with changed. I tried to just stare at the bridge of his nose. He said, “I was drunk as fifteen fucks, Konkle. Maybe sixteen. I got a shack out by the river. Don’t allow niggers or nigger-lovers in it, but I do get drunk a lot.”






Freedom of speech was never intended as an absolute right. If you don’t believe me, look it up. Unfettered critical verbal or written attacks against government and industry deserve the most protection, personal slanders and libels the least, although in practice it goes just the opposite. I did not intend to suffer Weldon Ruby gladly. I said, “Weldon, make up your mind which eye you’re going to use to look at us. It gets confusing.” He responded by grabbing the cell bars and spitting at me, so I whacked his knuckles with the shaft of my umbrella. He yelped like a sick dog. I said, “Listen to me, you little faggot, and listen good. I hope you did do this thing and that you take it up the ass three times a day until you’ve been stretched into one human anus. We’re doing this work only as a favor to Jeff. You piss me off again, I’ll give one of the guards twenty bucks to turn his back and I’ll tear that filthy tongue out of your mouth.”






He kissed on his fractured fingers and rolled off a smile. “Watch it, hawkshaw. These boys here weren’t no fans of Harmon, neither. So you just go ahead and get tough.”






Tamla said, “Drunk as fifteen fucks? What exactly does that mean? Were you so drunk you can’t account for your actions?”






He said, “Jimi Hendrix was a nigger.”






She didn’t give up. “What about other people in your little coalition of the ignorant? Would any of them have been mad enough to murder Mr. Harmon?”






He said, “Jesus Christa and grandma, too.”






“Are you listening to me, Mr. Ruby?”






He said, “Jackson Pollock was a nigger.”






I poked the umbrella through the bars and caught him in the throat. He fell off his stool and hit the floor. After a couple minutes of gasping and wheezing, he sat back up. “Friendship only goes so far,” I told him. “Fuck you, Ruby, and anyone who looks like you.”






“Wait.”






“What?”






“There’s a lot of hate in this town, Konkle. You think I’m bad? Listen, you grew up here. Think about it. Remember how bad it really gets. Look, I got no use for black people, and I don’t want my kids going to school with them—”






I laughed. “Weldon, you don’t even have any children. Comes from being a blank-shooting homo, I suppose.”






“But I wouldn’t’ve killed Harmon over it! Shit, Harmon may have been a race traitor to some, but mostly he was just a politician, doing what he wanted to do. Naw, I don’t even blame him for what happened. Now, my sister—you never met her—”






“What about her?”






“Her name’s Sherry. I call her Sherry The Douche. She used to let Harmon pork her from time to time, strictly on the sly.”






“Therefore what?”






“Therefore, Konkle, she might know more about this thing than anybody, in terms of who his real enemies were. I’ve been in here for weeks, getting ready to go on trial, probably gonna lose, and that cunt bitch ain’t even been in to visit me once. Sherry the goddamned Douche.”






That was about all of the slime pouch we could stand, so I made a separate stare into each of his eyes and we left.










Sherry Ruby worked at Ward’s Cardinal Market, right near the epicenter of Nostalgia. Ward’s was one of those hometown groceries certain locals favored over the big food chains despite the fact that the small retailer had half the selection and twice the prices. I’d gone to high school with Ward Mulson’s kids, Brad and Betty. Both of them worked in the store, all those years later. Brad had taken on a bit of a waistline, although nothing unsightly. Betty, with just a touch of early gray, still held onto her cheerleader figure. Science was a wonderful thing.






I don’t like being directed on who to interview by antisocial vermin like Weldon, but in this instance we needed all the direction we could get.






Brad pointed out Sherry to us. She was in the toiletries aisle, zapping price-stickers with some kind of electric scanner. She was hunched over a stack of discounted single-ply toilet paper rolls when we approached. She looked up at us as if we were members of the Thought Police.






“Terrible thing that happened to Randy. He was such a sweet man, at least with me.” She was all out of breath. Her hair kept falling over in front of her face and she continued to shoo it out of the way rather than to simply yank it out at the roots. “After his wife died and all—drunk driver, some kid from the school—he just fell apart. Anyway, we weren’t exactly in love, but there’s a lot of people I’d rather see dead, if you know what I mean.” Staccato thought patterns ran in the family, I gathered.






Once I got her to focus, she explained that Weldon was assumed by their family to be guilty as sin and for her part she had no interest in helping us free him. She didn’t wish us any harm; she simply couldn’t see assisting the guy who had killed her boyfriend. Yes, Weldon did tend to drink to excess. Yes, she had spoken to him the evening of the murder, although he’d been too raving wasted to make any sense. And yes, Harmon had received some angry phone calls as a result of his presumed position on the bussing issue.






Tamla said, “Your brother suggested that Mr. Harmon’s position was merely political.”






She nodded. “Sure, Randy knew where the butter was. The election was going to be close. But with a couple thousand extra votes from Fox Run, he’d pull it off. ’Course, we’ll never know for sure, I guess.”






The new mayor, Ted Bargess, had won unopposed.






I remembered Teddy Bargess quite well. He’d been a state swimming champ and a low-level bully, the kind of guy who sneaks up behind you on your way to class and tips your books out from under your arm, the kind of guy rumored to douse cats with gasoline and torch them alive, the kind who usually fade into the background after high school and never reemerge, except as the occasional serial killer. But Bargess was different. Somehow he’d pulled together the loot to buy a franchise of the 78 Lumber Company out off the State Highway. His had become one of the names you heard at least once a week on the local radio station, always associated with some small-scale philanthropic deed or misdeed.






“I used to go with Teddy,” Sherry told us. “He never did marry, but he always liked the ladies and they always liked him. But I wanted a one-woman man, and that was more Randy’s speed than Teddy’s.”






We were getting nowhere fast. We spoke to people that day who knew both principles—Ruby and Harmon—along with plenty of people who didn’t know either of them. We interviewed all the original group arrested at the high school. We chatted with Rob Manson, the bait man who’d found Harmon’s body. And we poured over the police records until our eyes threatened to look like Weldon’s. The only person we had trouble reaching was The Mayor. He always seemed to be in a meeting. He was nice enough, however, to send an emissary to our hotel room.






Tamla read a few questions to me across our work desk at the Elm Tree. “The police found the gas-powered chainsaw used to kill Harmon in Ruby’s garage. The blood on the blades positively matched Harmon’s. Ruby cannot account for how the chainsaw ended up in his garage. No hardware stores in the county carry that brand of saw. Here’s question one: how did the killer h=get the chainsaw out to Harmon’s boat?”






That was a good one. “I don’t know,” I said.






She went on. “Everyone who rented a boat or was out on a boat after the last time Harmon was seen alive has a verified alibi. So, assuming someone was strong enough to swim out to Harmon’s boat with that buzz saw in tow, why wouldn’t Harmon have heard them coming? That’s question two.”






“Too drunk, probably. Might have even passed out.”






“Sure, but how could the killer have known that for certain? Douglas, this was a high risk execution. So many things could have gone wrong.”






“My God, you think he’s innocent.”






She shook her head and tapped a pen to her notebook. “I think that I don’t know. I’m like you. I was kind of hoping he’d be guilty. You cannot understand how those things he said back in the jail affect me.”






“I have a pretty good idea.”






She smiled at me. It looked like a mask over a mouth that has tasted something spoiled and rancid. “No,” she said. “You really don’t. Here’s the other thing: who uses chainsaws around here? Some farmer, maybe, if he needs to level a tree that’s in his way. Someone who builds dams. Who else? I’ll tell you who else: people who work in lumber.”






We heard the knock at the door but neither of us moved to answer it. I said, “I would love it if Teddy Bargess was behind this. He was always such a bastard as a kid.”






The knock repeated. I opened the door. A man in a suit and tie walked in. We offered him a seat. He preferred to stand.






“I’m Fred Bargess,” he announced. I say announced because he paused, as if he were accustomed to the utterance of his name being met with gasps of recognition. When none were forthcoming, he went on. “You two have raised quite a stir over the past twenty-four hours. I’m referring, of course, to your investigation of the homicide of my brother’s predecessor. My brother sends his regrets at not being able to meet with the two of you personally.






I always assume anyone the size of a bread truck is hungry. “Can we get you anything?” I asked. “The selection is a bit limited, I’m afraid.”






He shook his head. “Please don’t confuse this with a social call. You see, Dr. Konkle, Ms. Reeves, the two of you have upset a few people in Nostalgia.”






“Us? However did we do that?”






“Douglas, don’t be rude.”






One guest sneered. “That’s all right, Miss. Ill be glad to tell you. Miscegenation, for starters. Add to that the fact that you’re threatening to unbalance the scales of justice, what with Mr. Ruby being quite guilty, and we have a mess to clean up. And we Bargesses hate messes.”






I was quite ready for our guest to leave. I said, “What do you want?”






He moved across the room to the appropriately named vanity, where he checked his appearance in the mirror. Finding it satisfactory, he said, “Positive or negative? My brother and I had a brief discussion earlier today about which would be more effective: offering you something of value to leave, or taking away something of value. Ted favored the former. I preferred the latter. In this instance, my view prevailed.”






Tamla said, “Douglas, now you may be rude.”






He turned and faced me. “When I was discharged from the Marines, I became a military interrogator based in Iraq. I was famous—or notorious—for my methods. Do you have any idea, for example, how quickly I could reach out, grab your neck and reduce to a trickle the flow of blood to your brain? Oh, the girl would scream or pound on me, but the damage would still be done, wouldn’t it?”






He certainly was satisfied with himself. “But that’s merely one option. Another is that I have you two arrested on charges of, say, passing child pornography on to a local attorney, say, Mr. Huckelby, for instance. The charges probably wouldn’t stick, but the damage to your lives would cling. Like tar.”






The time had come to kick Fred’s ass. I turned to Tamla. “Scream,” I said. She wailed like a Banshee. Fred turned just in time to catch a glimpse of her flashing her top, an additional diversion I hadn’t considered. That distraction gave me all the time I needed to bury my knee in Fred’s groin. He doubled over, although admittedly more slowly than I’d hoped. While his face hovered above the floor, he reached and swept an arm out, taking my legs with him. As a result, I hit the floor hard. He was on me in an instant. His first punch took me on the chin—and when I say punch, that is the equivalent of calling what happened at Nagasaki an explosion. His second delivery connected a closed fist to my ear. The third caught me under the eye. The fourth aimed for my mouth, so I bit his hand like a starving man attacks a steak. I yanked out a wad of flesh that would have done Jeffrey Dahmer proud. With his knees pinning my shoulders to the floor and blood spraying from his open wound, he did what I least expected. He laughed. It was not a comforting sound.






The sound I heard next, a rigid click, comforted me far more. Tamla held her .22 against the rear of Fred Bargess’ skull and drew back the hammer. “Fast, isn’t she?” he said. He stood, as did Tamla, holding the revolver in place. “I should go now,” he said, and spun, dipping low as he did, reaching up and swallowing the gun in his bleeding fist. He relaxed the hammer and tucked the weapon under his belt. “It’s been a pleasure meeting the two of you.” He backed to the door. “Until next time, then?” His hand found the door handle and he backed out into the evening.






I stood up, just long enough to watch the room spin out of control. I fell back onto the bed and ached in the glory of defeat.






Within the hour I was doing what I do when I lose a fight. I found a bar and ordered a gin and tonic. Tamla came along for damage control. We weren’t alone together for long. The bartender at the Court Street Tavern was pouring my third round and asking Tamla about my injuries when Jeff Huckelby walked in. He joined us at the bar, positioning himself so that I was between him and Tamla. He said, “Thought that might have been your car out there. We don’t see that many shorts with Arizona tags. Hey, what happened to your face?”






“The risks of going mobile,” I said. “Tamla was reading back to me something Weldon Ruby told us earlier today. He said there was a lot of hate in this town. I suppose my face is proof of that.”






Jeff watched the bartender fix his whiskey sour and said, “There always has been, Doug. I guess I’d forgotten that myself until lately. But think about it.”






Gin makes me too sentimental for my own good. “I remember you teaching me how to build and launch model rockets and how we used to ride our skateboards down your sidewalk, shooting girls with our water pistols. I remember waking up the neighbors with my drums and your guitar. I even remember both of us hitting triples in the same game against that snotty pitcher from Westfall. But I don’t remember much in the way of hate.”






Jeff downed his drink and ordered another. After catching his breath, he said, “You don’t remember that time we caught Teddy Bargess and his friends digging up graves out back of our subdivision, looking for jewelry they could hock? Or that time half the Phys Ed class sprayed Lester Payne with dry ice and locked him in the girls’ bathroom? Or how old man Mays came after us with those rocks?”






I remembered. I probably had never forgotten. “But every town—”






“Not like this one,” he said. “Tamla, listen to this. There was this kid named Adam. We were all in the seventh grade. One day, Adam—who everybody liked—told us he was moving away. So Craig somebody got together during recess with five guys who held Adam down while Craig used a magnifying glass to focus a hot beam of sunlight right on Adam’s throat. I can still hear that kid screaming. That was their way of saying nice to know you.”






“How awful,” Tamla said.






He shook his head. “Most places have their share of mean kids and most of the kids grow out of it. But not here. In Nostalgia, the kids grow up, but the hate stays. Now, not everybody ends up bad, but folks, I’m here to tell you, half the people in our friendly little town about scare me to death. Just look at you. And you’ve only been here for one day! I’m really sorry I got you involved in this mess.”






Tamla surprised me by saying, “I think you did him a favor. He always talks about how wonderful it was growing up here. I think he’s learning that it wasn’t wonderful for everybody.”






The bartender, who spoke more with his eyes than most did with their mouths, rapped on the bar and rolled his gaze from us over to the entrance. The Bargess brothers, Teddy and Fred, walked in, paused to wait for the applause that never came to at last die down, and sat a couple stools over from us.






Jeff pushed himself off his stool. He looked more alive than he had earlier. He looked more the way I remembered him. Talking to us, but aiming his mouth at the Bargesses, he said, “And then there’s these two. I ever tell you about the time Teddy here took Debbie Azbell out on the Lake? When they came back—oh, this was a good ten years ago—her blouse was torn and she’d been crying and she had that look, you know? That look of a woman who’s been forced. The next day her brother Gary went to the sheriff and told him she’d been raped. But she was afraid to testify. Gary told the sheriff that if he didn’t lock Teddy up, he would take matters into his own hands. The next morning they found Gary in his car at the bottom of Crater Lagoon. No skid marks. Bottle of Tequila lodged in the car seat. Ruling was death due to misadventure. Funny thing was Gary Azbell was a diabetic. He never drank. But when you have the medical examiner in your pocket—Well, Debbie got the idea. A couple weeks later she moved to Orlando. That’s what kind of town this is, Doug: the little tin god and his salivating bulldog. Make way for the emperor, ye peons! All Hail, MacBeth!”






It was nice to have Jeff back, even for a few minutes.






“Little surprised to find you here, Huck,” Teddy said. When he spoke, a train load of memories came roaring back. I smiled at the large wrap of white gauze on Fred’s hand.






“Don’t know why you would be, Mayor,” Jeff replied.






“You look familiar,” His Honor said, looking across the others at me. “You used to live here, I think. Moved away. Looks like you’ll be leaving soon. Or is that just talk?”






“With all due respect, Bargess, what’s it to you?”






He and Fred shared a quick whisper. Fred laughed and Teddy smirked. “Lots of people would say it’s none of my business. Lots of people would be wrong. Fred here tells me you bite. I urged him to press assault charges, but he tells me you’re leaving in the morning.”






I stood and walked right up to Teddy. In addition to making me sentimental, gin also gives me a courage I don’t deserve. I said, “I’ve had enough threats from you emotional delinquents. You want me to leave? The more you want it, the longer I’m staying.”






Fred moved right up beside his brother. Teddy stopped his advance with a wave of the hand.






I went on. “I’m wondering why the police never asked either of you boys where you were the night Harmon died? I’m wondering if you’re still as good a swimmer as you were in high school? Only thing you were good at. And I wonder if you can account for every chainsaw you’ve sold in the last year?”






“You know what I wonder, Dr. Konkle? I wonder what use you will be to Huck now? I mean, what with his client having hung himself in his cell just over an hour ago? Kind of leaves you all swinging in the wind, so to speak.”






The coroner’s preliminary report, under the heading Probable Cause of Death, listed three words: Suicide, possibly abetted. Since Weldon ceased being Jeff’s client at the moment he died, Huckelby was not entitled to a copy of the police report or medical records, both of which set of documents would soon undergo a number of serious deletions. But he did get a glimpse of them. According to the initial report, Ruby’s neck displayed evidence of two sets of ligature marks. One set, quite prominent, came from the belt loop around his neck when the detention officers found him. But there was another half ring of gouging discoloration an inch or so lower on his neck. The speculation around the jail was that these marks were from a failed attempt, probably just minutes earlier. The conjecture in the bar, once Jeff returned with the details, was that someone had acted against Weldon’s will. Jeff said it best when he asked, “Who shoves a handkerchief into his own mouth before hanging himself?”






Unless Weldon had thought to spare his jailers the inconvenience of cleaning up his spittle, the handkerchief made no sense. Weldon didn’t strike us as being all that considerate a fellow.






I said, “Guess you were right about our old town after all.”






Jeff drummed his fingers on the bar top. “In a way,” he said. “I was hoping you’d all prove me wrong. Well. No client. No case. This is strictly a matter for the coroner, who, by the way, is a second cousin to the Bargess brothers, so, gee, I wonder how that’ll turn out.”






Tamla ordered a Stroh’s. Jeff and I exchanged a knowing glance. The stuff did grow on a person. She said, “We aren’t just giving up on this?”






Had my face not ached so bad, my mouth would have been too exhausted to respond. As it was, I said, “We’re left with two possibilities. Either this town is just as evil as Jeff thinks it is—”






“Or?”






I could tell already Tamla didn’t care much for that option. I said, “Or, the roots off all this connect with the Bargess boys.”






“It’s really none of my business to interrupt.”






That was more than our bartender had contributed all night. I said, “What the hell? It’s your town, too. Go ahead.”






He shot quick peeks around the room. No one else was there. He said, “Teddy and Weldon spent a lot of time in here together before all this integration stuff became an issue. And that monster brother of his used to stand watch just inside the door. He collected donations from the faithful. Discouraged my business right out the door. I’ve got two kids of my own and I don’t care who sits next to them in class, as long as they go to class.”






We stared at him in wonder. Who’d have thought he’d had that little speech in him.






Tamla asked, “What were Bargess and Ruby talking about?”






The bartender polished a perfectly clean spot on the counter. At last he said, “I couldn’t always make it out. Once in a while they’d get loud. When I could hear, it was one of two things: registering the black voters on Fox Run and how much trouble Sherry Ruby was turning out to be.”






Jeff landed a fist on the bar. “Son of a bitch! You know what I think? I think the Bargesses wanted the whites to think Teddy favored them and the blacks to think he supported them. National politicians talk out of both sides of their mouths. Why not here?”






That made a certain kind of sense. I was already missing the simplicity of Phoenix. I addressed the bartender. “How much trouble was Sherry, if you know?”






He threw his bar rag into the sink. Jeff stopped drumming his fingers. Tamla wiped the mouth of her beer bottle. I dropped my lime on a napkin. The bartender said, “I don’t know this for a fact, okay, but I got the idea that maybe Bargess was using Sherry to get information from Harmon. Randy was a good guy, but he never could keep his mouth shut, especially around the ladies.”






“You may be right there, Ginty,” I said, reading his name tag for the first time. “So, assuming Harmon and Ruby’s deaths are connected—”






Ginty raised an open hand. “I didn’t say that. It’s not my business to interrupt you folks.” He flopped the cap off a cold Stroh’s and drank half of the bottle straight down. We looked at him foor more. He said, “Brad Mulson comes in here sometimes, mostly Monday nights. He’s Sherry’s boss over at Ward’s. he says Sherry’s been getting lots of calls at work from Fred Bargess. He says she always looks white as a sheet after she talks to him.”






Tamla said, to no one in particular, “White sheets. How appropriate.”






The bartender finished off his bottle and moved to the far end of the bar where he wiped another perfectly clean spot. He did not return to our end of the bar.






I tried out an idea. “This is just speculation, but what if Weldon agreed to act as a suspect? Or maybe he was set up? Think about it: Teddy and Fred decide the surest way to win the election is to get Harmon out of the way?”






Jeff spun in his chair. “What would any of that have to do with Sherry?”






Tamla picked it up. “Again, just speculating, but let’s suppose it was her job to lead a trail to Weldon. Set him up. Afterwards, she can’t face him, which is why she doesn’t visit him in jail.”






Jeff moved in between us. “Weldon was murdered, then, and he was murdered because he had a change of heart once he got locked up? That’s pretty conspiratorial.”






I said, “That, or he finally figured out what the Bargess boys were up to and they got spooked.”






Jeff shook his head. “We may be right about all of this, although for my money a political conspiracy here in Nostalgia is a stretch. But either way, we’ll never know. Any records of financial transactions—which you’d expect in something like this—would either be in the mayor’s home or office. The police wouldn’t execute a search warrant against them, even if they wanted to, which they wouldn’t.”






Tamla slapped Jeff on the back. He looked at us with the desperate eyes of a child who suspects there may be no Santa Claus. She said, “If I know Douglas, he has a plan.”






I did. I knew Tamla would go along with it, both for the thrill and because of her misplaced faith in my ideas. Jeff was another matter. One time, years and years ago, he’d have jumped at the chance to be a hero. Time has a way of clouding our judgment with common sense. Pretty soon we become so common and sensible, we no longer exist. Or, as Jack Nicholson said to the psychos, “I tried, God dammit. At least I did that much.”






I put my arm around his shoulder and looked at him hard. “Remember when we were men? Back when we were twelve? Back when we couldn’t fail?”






I heard him swallow. He was going to hate doing this. I was only half sold on it myself.










Fred Bargess had his own personal parking space across the street from City Hall. His red Trans Am sat in that spot even at 2:45AM. Jeff said the car was mostly for show, that Fred would drive it around the block every two or three days to keep the battery charged. Being the high-level enforcer type that he was, there didn’t seem much chance that anyone would mess with it. After all, the car was in perfect view of the night guard just inside the lobby.






Standing beside the Trans, I could just barely make out the security guard as he answered Tamla’s phone call. Perhaps he’d enjoy an anonymous and salacious female voice at such a ripe hour? It didn’t take long to find out. At the first few dirty words he was out of his seat, pressing the receiver against his ear, pacing around his desk. I went right to work.






I popped the car’s gas flap and jammed the tip of a screwdriver into the cap. I had to give it a hell of a twist to get it off, and when I finally did, the car’s alarm began to blare.






Even in a burg like Nostalgia, people have become so accustomed to false alarms, their responses are delayed, when they bother responding at all. Inside the building across the street, the guard stopped pacing but he hadn’t hung up yet. I pulled the real distraction out of my jacket pocket and tossed the screwdriver under the car. What I had in my hand was a Spalding ping pong ball that I had injected with Liquid Drano. I had wrapped the ball in a few layers of electric tape. Once the gasoline in the car’s tank ate through the tape, it would chew on the ball itself. Then, once the gasoline tasted the drain cleaner, that car would be airborne. I shoved the ball into the nozzle hole, replaced the gas cap, and ran to the mouth of the alley across the street, next to City Hall.






The tank must have been close to full. Once I found Jeff in the darkened alley, I didn’t even have a chance to turn around before I heard and felt the explosion. The blast sounded like the bowels of Hell erupting on Court Street. It stood Fred’s Trans Am on its nose, once the car landed.






The guard charged out through the front door and stood in the middle of the street, watching his career go up in flames. Jeff and I hugged the face of the building and slipped in through the door the guard—in his haste—had neglected to lock behind him.






We ran up the stairs to the third floor. The Mayor’s office was on that floor. I assumed his door would be locked. I was correct. I also assumed the door would be wired with an alarm. On that score I was incorrect and happy to be so.






“Anybody need a key?”






Tamla made us both jump. She held out the guard’s key ring and smiled. I figured I’d wait to lecture her about following orders later. We found the right key on the third try. “Tamla,” I whispered. “Take these keys back so nobody misses them.”






She shook her head. “You’re funny. Let’s go in.”






The three of us went in.






Teddy Bargess looked up at us from his desk. He was just sitting there, appearing to be doing nothing in particular: just sitting there, as if people often dropped by his office at three in the morning. He didn’t look at that happy to see us, but then again I didn’t know him that well. All he said was, “My brother loved that car. He’ll be upset, I imagine.”






I didn’t have any other bright ideas, so I ran over to the Mayor’s desk and popped him across the chin. He fell back in his chair and took a nap.






Bargess’s computer was up and running, so Tamla began a methodical search of the files. I tried the filing cabinet which, just our luck, was locked. I removed a tin-foil Drano refer from my pocket, wedged it in the gap near the cabinet’s lock, spat a pool of saliva on the reefer’s protruding end, and lit a match. A small fireball shout out the opened end and flamed halfway across the room. The lock gave easily after that.






Tamla said, “Ted might have had the keys in his pocket. You ever think of that?”






I hadn’t thought of that, so I said, “That all lacks a certain flair I associate with my work.”






Jeff stood near the office door, shaking his head. “If this doesn’t work, we are in so much trouble.”






Tamla said, “I’m restoring his system now for the last six months. In about five minutes we’ll know if he kept good records.”






I pulled a couple sheets from a file headed “Ruby, S.” There were dates and dollar figures there, but unless they connected with some other documents, they wouldn’t be of much value.






“We’ve got company,” Jeff said. “It’s Fred and that guard!”






My face still ached from the earlier beating. I decided to put the Drano to one last use. Just as the guard and Fred charged into the Mayor’s office, I pulled my orange squirt gun and fired off a dose right in big Freddie’s face. His yapping weakened the guard’s concentration long enough for Jeff to conk him on the back of the head with a thick book. He dropped to his knees and fell over.






Fred Bargess rolled on the floor, his hands tearing at his face. “I can’t see! You bastards! I’m blind!”






The burning would wear off in a couple days.






Tamla retrieved the files she wanted and emailed them to The Nostalgia Herald, the chief of police, and to herself.






It had been a long night and we still needed to find a new place to sleep. Whatever might happen to us, nobody but Ted had seen Jeff, and by morning the word of Ted Bargess wouldn’t be worth much.










The next day Tamla and I went over to Ruth Ann’s house.

Ruth Ann and I were great friends in college despite my not infrequent efforts to take her to bed, a highly unlikely situation given her disposition toward--oh, how to say it? She’s gay. She’s also brilliant, beautiful, strong, deep, hilarious. She was then and she remains the same. She’s also a great hostess, allowing a pair of silly road-weary bumpkins to join her for pizza on Halloween Eve, when what she obviously wanted was to serve treats to the stream of decked out children beggars. We sat on her porch steps, filling in for each other the missing connections in the past twenty-odd years. I often make it difficult for people to like me. Nothing in the last two decades has meant more to me than the fact that Ruth Ann still did.

A couple days later she and I drove by my old house. Undiscouraged by being chased away by the present tenant we motored off down Tarlton Road to Logan Elm High School. Being a Saturday, no one stood sentry to scare us off. Dave Dudley sang, “My home town’s a-coming in sight/If you think I’m happy, you’re right!” How many times had I ridden my ten speed up and down these waves of narrow two-lane spirals, some goofy-ass tune in my head, sublimating God knows what into super-human strength I’d never feel again? Ruth Ann and I road those waves and bellied those curves at ridiculously high speeds, nervous as kittens but safe as angels. Anna McGarrigle declared in the voice of Linda Ronstadt: “Some say the heart is just like a wheel/When you bend it you can’t mend it.” For that four mile drive to my old school, our wheels never so much as threatened to bend.



Except for a refreshment center near the rear exit, the school hadn’t changed a bit. Hysteria bubbled up in my neck. I’m amazed still to have survived that sight.







I’ve been swimming in a sea of anarchy
I’ve been living on coffee and nicotine
I’ve been wondering if all the things I’ve seen
Were ever real--were ever really happening.
--Sheryl Crow, Brian MacLeod

Tamla and I spent the next couple days doing some private sightseeing, giving the paper and police a chance to respond. Cruising up and down the roads in and around the old neighborhoods was more fun in the Audi than it had been years earlier on my trusty ten-speed. Kids glued to shopping mall fashions and video games and mono-dimensional music had no idea what they were missing. And it wasn’t my job to tell them. Who would listen? Not even me, were I in their shoes.










Ted had been working his coup since just after the previous election, two years earlier. From the files Tamla uploaded off Ted’s hard drive, he’d delegated most of the detailed work to Fred. The hulking Bargess brother set up the meetings with Weldon Ruby, hired Sherry to elicit pillow talk from Randall Harmon, who, it turned out, had planned to initiate an audit of 78 Lumber Company’s accounting records. According to the Hujuke County District Attorney, Ted and Weldon had both been involved in Harmon’s murder, Bargess holding the Mayor under his foot while Ruby operated the chainsaw. No one suggested whose idea the placement of the severed arms might have been. Sherry had done the math on her fingers and figured out that she’d been involved in far more than she’d signed on for and might be next on the hit list. She was, it turned out, scheduled for the day of Weldon’s funeral. Ruby had been eliminated, so the D.A. reasoned it, because he wasn’t getting the support he felt was his due from City Hall and was becoming far too talkative.






The entirety of the legal proceedings looked to drag out over more than a year. A week to the day after our arrival, Tamla and I said goodbye to Nostalgia. I decided not to make a point of bidding adios to Jeff. It would only complicate his life even more and he deserved better than that. Eventually his hurt feelings would heal. I didn’t know if his career ever would, but being seen with us wouldn’t help him any.






Before we left, I insisted we eat again at the Watt Street Grill. This time out I had a gloriously greasy fried fish sandwich just dripping with soggy lettuce and tartar sauce. They brought me a side order of macaroni and cheese so rich and creamy it would have killed a normal man. The fried potatoes came with a thick brown gravy laced with chopped sweet onions, and as I finished my third Mason jar of Coke, I knew there was no better meal anywhere on the face of the earth, although Tamla’s dish of spaghetti and meatballs looked like it might come close. We shared a raspberry-chocolate-topped apricot cobbler, ordered six burgers and fries to go, and wound our way over century-old railroad tracks, down a pair of intersecting gravel-paved roads, past a thicket of churches, and out onto State Route 23 South.




Home! For the first time in twenty-one years, I actually thought of Phoenix as home. It took coming back to Ohio to awaken me to the fact that home is where the driveway is. Or something. And with all due respect to the saintly Johnny Cash, the green, green grass of home can turn brown and burn, for all I care these days.



The music took on an amusing, ironic tinge. The Shangri-Las admonished “You Can Never Go Home Anymore.” And that’s called glad.



Clarence “Frogman” Henry, who indeed sang like a frog and like a girl, gutter-chirped “Ain’t Go No Home.”



Randy Newman croaked his version of his very own “I’ll Be Home,” followed close and tight by Harry Nilsson’s take on the same tune. A bit more Harry? Thank you, no problem. “Driving along at 57,000 miles an hour/Look at those people standing on the pedals of the flower.” Do I know what those lines mean? Nope. Do I care? Even less.

A-huh huh/ Oh yeah. So glad to be back in the USA. Now if only those patrols would leave us alone.



The car’s owner’s manual makes a subtle point about the tires being guaranteed for speeds up to 130 mph. Then in tiny italics it states: This is not the maximum speed of your vehicle. And that is quite true. Barreling through Big Bone Lick Kentucky bluegrass like a B-52 above a napalmed field of rice paddies, I shot the Audi up the 150, click clock, then 155, no problem, no shake, no shimmy, what’s next? Lord, it’ll never stop, let’s hit the mark. 160 proud and bold and free on winding roads built to accommodate slow moving horse trailers. It was every amphetamine dream without a trace of sediment in the bloodstream. Each fraction of doubt in my steering could roll us sideways to Tennessee and yet that vile spark in my eyes shining back from the rearview mirror kept the road hug just as tight as the lid on Aunt Mabel’s jam. “Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday…” chanted The Clash’s “Police on my Back,” and like an aerial target ignited for our inconvenience, three Kentucky State Police vehicles damned near skyjacked us over to the side of the road, and “angry” does not do their collective mood any justice.
“Put your right hand on the wheel and open the door with your left! Do not step out of the car! Put your left foot on the pavement! Move!”






They held us over for three days. When they released us on bond, we noticed the Audi had an additional 150 miles racked up on the odometer.



Taking a slightly alternate trip back home, specifically one that avoided our earlier nightmare in Dallas, we departed Memphis and motored through central Arkansas, and onward through the long stretch of Oklahoma. We only had four Oklahoma-specific songs with us: The first two were actually the same song, “Okie From Muskogee,” one by Merle Haggard and the other by Phil Ochs, diametrical opposites if such things ever existed. I even forgot we had these two with us until we came upon a road sign that declared: SOME CALL IT ABORTION. GOD CALLS IT MURDER. We actually had to circle back and take that one in again. Snapped a picture just so the folks back home would believe it. “We don’t take our trips on LSD,” crooned Merle, and I realized he was right. All you had to do was read the signs on the road and your genetic make-up would never be the same again. “Living on Tulsa time” indeed.

The only other Okie song we could come up with was The Raiders’ “Indian Reservation.” Oklahoma means “Indian Territory,” according to the history books, and the song seemed appropriate to the trinket factories and refurbished fallout shelters that housed much of the indigenous population. My mind was clearly no longer the boss.

Early November in northern New Mexico is cold. Stark, beatific, radiating splendor and holly jolly, but windy and exceedingly cold. Cold, in a religious sense. I yearned for a full-service filling station and nevertheless had to pump our own. No one owns a coat warm enough to stave off the fruit-juice thick winds of northern New Mexico. That kind of cold seeps through the emptiness in a man and magnifies the hollow passages. Had my perceptions deteriorated so sufficiently that my faith in a dream that hadn’t been more than bullshit twenty years ago would be all that sustains me? Was it possible that this nice little sports car represented a motorized phallus, a wheeled libido, its turbo engine so roaring and fragile that even the soft breath of something real would shatter it, scatter it to the winds, and damned cold winds at that? Were my quick wits and sparkling humor a way of disguising me from myself? Chances are.



Five hours out of Albuquerque we recognized the familiar, the formerly despised, the ridiculously comfortable. It looked good.

We’ve been back home for a few months now. Nothing here is either better or worse. We are both better and worse. Worse for confronting self-delusions that most of us get to ignore, blissfully, and better for knowing that about ourselves.



But all was not lost. When we checked the mail, there were more than a dozen new CD’s waiting for us.