Wednesday, February 01, 2017

Malone Saves the Shady Lady

Perk Malone hadn’t visited “The Duck” very often in his years as a patrol officer or as a private investigator. The place had been there, for sure, he just never had the opportunity to grace it with his presence. But in the last couple of years he had, indeed, gone there, had a few beers, met a few people, and avoided the few fights. Generally. In Madison City, a fight, where the cops got called, resulted in a fine for the business and enough fines the business was gone. It was a contested ordinance, but it was still an ordinance.

Today was not much different than any other time. He and one other guy were at the bar. The oversized televisions were on, on mute, highlights of last night’s baseball games. The barkeep had propped the door open to let in some fresh air and it must have been working since the interior didn’t overwhelm with the smell or sweat, beer, or cigarettes. The Duck was two blocks from the interstate and it’s rumblings filtered through the open door, too, along with a draft of fresh spring air.

The other gentleman at the bar paid no heed to Malone and Malone returned the favor. It was a nice afternoon to have a cold one, even if it wasn’t a craft brew, and the place was relatively quiet and dark.

He had his chin resting in the palm of his hand, elbow on the bar when he sort of felt the presence of someone behind him and then next to him.

She let her knees slightly brush his hip as she slid onto the bar stool. Her name was Hazel something-or-other. He’d met her at the justice center, one time, when he was waiting to be called as a witness and she was waiting to be called to the DA’s office. Malone hadn’t quite understood what that was supposed to mean. He didn’t remember much about that encounter but he did remember she was bull-legged.

“Hey, sailor, buy a girl a drink?”

He smiled with his chin still in his hand and with the other hand waved the barkeep to bring the lady a cold, tall one.

“How are you,” she said.

“Good. You?” He could talk well enough with his chin in his palm.

“Aren’t you glad to see me?”

“Always, my dear. Always.”

Now he slightly turned his head to look at her. She was half brunette and half redhead, tanned, eyelashes the size of tent awnings, and eyeshadow that looked like something a five-year old might have applied, and one very obvious shiner under her left eye.

“I fell down the stairs,” she said.

“Okay.”

“No, really, I fell down the stairs.”

“I believe you.”

“No, you don’t.”

“Yes, I do. I do! Drink your beer.”

She wore a grey hoodie with the arms ripped off and faded blue jeans and tennis shoes. Her hair looked like it hadn’t been combed since winter solstice. She took a long slug of her beer. He had hardly touched his. She took out a crush-proof box of fags and a gold lighter.

“Nice lighter,” he said.

In Tennessee, if under-18-year olds were prohibited from the establishment then smoking was allowed. The Duck was one of those establishments. She didn’t look anywhere near 18-years old. More like 50, thought Malone.

“Thanks, it was a present.”

“You know,” said Malone, “I never did learn why you were at the jail to talk to the D.A.”

“Probably, because it was none of your business, sweetie.”

“Can I ask another stupid question? What does this oak leaf on the lighter supposed to mean?”

“I think it’s the brand name.”

Perk Malone nodded as if he understood. What he understood was different from how she might have interpreted his nodding. He knew, as did most of people in his line of work, as did most of the detectives he knew, that the oak leaf was a signature emblem for the area’s highest ranking importer of pills, marijuana, and women although the Mary Jane side of the business was about to get the kibosh from the legislature. His name was simply Ralph Rose. He was Caucasian, educated, locally born and raised, “free range” one attorney liked to call him, behind his back, but generally not a nice person.

The word was that Ralph Rose (nobody called him “Ralphie” either) did not take fools, women, or enemies kindly. Everyone was potentially an enemy which Perk Malone understood. His respect for Rose did not include kowtowing but it also did not include being foolish. But, for Perk Malone, one thing that had remained true for the years of the rise of Ralph Rose, Perk had never seen the man in real life nor could he recall seeing a picture of Rose. Also, at one time Ralph Rose had portrayed himself as some kind of Mafioso, dressing in a suit, talking tough and mumbling, letting hints drop he wanted to be called “Ralph the nose.” No one knew what to do about that and Rose’s nose wasn’t particularly interesting. It was just a nose. “Rose the Nose” was the inevitable very hush-hush joke.

For whatever reason, the woman now decided to leave. She picked up her purse, package of cigs, and headed straight for the door, not saying “Adios” or “Kiss my Grits” or anything. Perk Malone’s eye flowed from watching her hips wiggle to the old man at the bar as he turned, too, to leave, leaving a half-glass of beer on the counter, and Malone’s eye caught the brown of a pistol butt stuck in the man’s waistband of his grey slacks against a white shirt. Underneath he was dressed a little too nice to match the beat up sport coat and scruffy bearded look on the outside.

Perk Malone had always, and he would emphasize “always,” carried his 32-caliber five-shot in a holster. One, it was required by his license. But, two, he’d been around too many gunslingers who thought a heater in their pocket or belt was way too cool until it caught on in the stitching or belt loop or he managed only to grab the butt not the trigger guard which Perk had seen a cop one time draw his night stick and wallop some youngster across the forehead when the kid tried to quick-draw from his hip pocket only to grab a chunk of wood and not much else.

The two times Malone had used his pistol he knew to get up close, jam the barrel in to where ever you want to hit the man, and then pull the trigger. Both of them survived but both were still spending their nights and weekdays and weekends in west Tennessee curtesy of the state.

Perk Malone wasn’t sure what was going to happen, now as the man really seemed to follow the woman out the door, but he felt he ought to go check it out.

He’d just closed the door behind him, stepping into the sunshine, and breath of fresh air, when he heard the pop of a heavy pistol. A woman screamed, terrified, and then a man screamed, a wounded dog sound. At the back of the parking lot with only five or six cars (for four people), Perk Malone could see the blond head over the roofs. Not sure what to do he instinctively scurried to one side and came up on the man, sitting on the pavement, back against a car, a pool of blood already forming under him. The blonde stood, bent over, hands to her face, now silent screaming. The man’s hat had fallen over his face.

“Oh, God,” she said. “Ralph? No?”

She jumped as Malone approached.

“I didn’t do anything,” she was saying. “It went off by itself. I swear. Oh, God! He’s dying!”

Malone knelt down and put his hand on the man’s chest. His breathing was slow and his heart was hammering. Blood spurted from his left thigh. There was the faint odor of cordite and Malone could easily see the butt of the pistol still peeking out from the waistband. The man had obviously gone for his gun, managed to set it off, and drilled a hole through his upper thigh, the femoral artery, and now his life draining away onto the pavement. The man had a blank look on his face. Malone guessed that he was in shock already from the pain of the bullet and the heat of the discharge in a place where such discharge was not a common thing, but almost instantly his body began to shut down. He was past first aid and past a tourniquet. The next stop was last rites.

Malone grabbed the blonde by the arm and shoved her away telling her to get in her car and leave. Don’t look back, he told her, and don’t come back.

There in the sunshine Perk Malone watched Ralph Rose, Ralphie, Rose the Nose, die. He called 911 but by the time he got through with all the questions before they asked where he was or what had happened, Ralph Rose had pumped out most of his blood and the last was draining by gravity. His chest was still. His heart had stopped. Malone told the 911 operator she probably ought to also call the cops and medical examiner, too. She asked if he needed the fire department rescue squad. Had there been a wreck, were there other injured?

Malone thought about the “others,” not so much the girl, but anyone who had a run-in with Ralph Smith. It took him a moment to get his thoughts back to the parking lot.

He said, “No. No others. No wreck.”

There was nothing left to rescue.
###

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Blonde in a Corvette

“It’s not mine,” she said.

That’s what they all say. It’s the boyfriend’s. It’s the husband’s. Or the ex-husband’s.

She had skidded to a halt in the parking lot of my church on a very brilliant, coolish, fall day. The sky was October blue, the leaves were beginning to turn, the air was cooling. Football weather. I was putting a second coat of paint on the front door when she rolled in. Our church fronts a fairly busy street. The railroad tracks are two house lots over, running perpendicular to the street, and this street was one of only three streets in three miles for crossing the tracks. So we got a lot of traffic. On Sundays, we don’t have enough congregation to need a cop to direct traffic but I have always stated that would be a good problem to have. Some day we would get to that level.

“You ever ridden in a Corvette?” she said.

The ‘Vette was new. I don’t know the models any more. Couldn’t afford one and so I knew as much about Corvettes as I knew about a Rolls-Royce. Except for one.

I stared for a moment if only because I was still taking in the scene. I was standing there in the sun shine, in a sleeveless Georgia Tech t-shirt and paint-dribbled bluejeans, roller brush in one hand and a rag in the other.

She was blonde. Always is. Riding with the top down and with no kerchief her hair was wind blown in every direction. Big smile, big hair. She had on a blue-on-white striped sailor’s shirt.

I hadn’t even spoken to her yet and she had already said the ‘Vette wasn’t hers. I guess I should have known it wasn’t. It never was.

Yes, I had ridden in a Corvette. In my younger days I had a friend who worked magic with a wrench. He’d married (if I could ever remember the details right) a ’65 StingRay bac kend with a classic ’63 Corvette front, like the one from the television show. Don’t ask me how he did it. What I also remembered was we took her out for a spin and it was probably a bit of luck we made it back home alive. I lived in Illinois then, in the flat, corn country, and we shot out of town headin’ south on a warm summer’s night, as they say, hauling the mail. It was a convertible and the interior (although I don’t which interior it was) was in good shape and all the right parts worked and we flew down the highway, straight and level for about five miles. I had to go out behind the garage to relieve myself when we got back home. So, yes, I’d ridden in a ‘Vette. Next question?

She had a big smile. Lots of teeth. Tanned face that looked a bit drawn perhaps from too many cigarettes. Her voice seemed strained and hoarse. But her attitude was cheery and light hearted. She struggled a bit to climb out the car. It was too low slung and she was too tall.

My mind shot back to wondering why it was young women never seemed to own the hot sports car or the big tall truck. Income? Social pressure? Maybe part of our culture demanded she earn the privilege to drive his car. I was glad my wife was not like that.

In the background noise I could hear the rise and fall of a police siren.

The young woman bounced on her feet. Giddy, like.

“You work here?” she said.

“I’m the pastor. So, yeah, I work here.”

I did my best to smile, being very warm from the heat and the work, and standing in the sun.

“I don’t go to church,” she said.

“Sorry. Any particular reason?”

“No. Just not my lifestyle, I guess.”

I wasn’t immune to other church goers, even some in my congregation, who saw church as a lifestyle. I sort of wished there was a better articulation but I didn’t argue.

“Nice color,” I said.

When you’re painting a door basic white a convertible in royal blue looks pretty spiffy. The sirens were getting closer but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Because this was one of the few railroad crossings made this a busy route for EMS, the cops, and the fire department. It was not unheard to have a siren go racing by in the middle of the prayer requests. I didn’t pay an overly amount of attention to the squad cars as they raced by us, this time, sirens in full throat, neither apparently noticing a blonde and a Corvette at the front of the church talking to a man holding a paint roller.

The blonde didn’t seem to notice the squad cars going by us. She continued to smile and I could see her lips move but couldn’t quite make out what she was saying. When I visit some of more elderly congregates who talk very quietly, I’ve learned to watch them talk and then smile and make an intelligent reply.

“Nice church,” she said.

“Thanks.”

It was still in nice shape and an attractive building for being well over 35-years old. Prior pastors and congregations had worked hard to keep it fresh and alive, inside and out.

“I should go to church,” she said.

“Wouldn’t hurt,” I said.

“I’ve done some things wrong, you know?”

“Who hasn’t,” I said.

“Would you forgive me?”

“Not my call, actually. But if you behave I reckon we’d let you stay.” I smiled by best pastoral smile. Oh, some days, I thought, some days, it would be so nice.

The two squad cars returned, one to each entrance to our parking lot. The officers didn’t jump out with weapons drawn. They didn’t shout orders or make demands. Almost casually they walked towards the the blond standing next to the Corvette.

“It’s not mine,” she said.

“Yeah,” said one of the cops. He was older, had all the braiding of a veteran cop. “We know.”
###

Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Donahue Eats Brick

[THIS IS A SCENE MAYBE FROM THE NEXT NOVEL. I LIKE TO TRY OUT SOME THINGS JUST TO SEE WHERE IT LEADS.]

A young woman found him. She worked late at the Lazy Dog Tavern as a waitress and had taken this route before just because she didn’t usually meet strangers in the dark of one o’clock in the morning. The alley was lighted at the ends, of course, by the street lights and by the parking lot lights but the remaining stretch between the street and lot was dark. The city didn’t allow the dumpsters to be parked there just to reduce the number of hiding places for attackers or street bums. During the day the alley was moderately presentable and used by folks as a short cut.

Donahue had probably walked this alley day and night for more times than he could remember. He’d been in this office in the Jefferson Building for about 10 years and had never once been accosted in the alleyway.

There was always that first time.

Donahue’s view of the world, at the moment when the young woman came upon him, was a flat one, that stretched from his left eyeball, tilted 90-degrees from upright, out over the bricks and ruts of the alley. In a sepia tone view of the rolling landscape he noted for the first time the rise and fall of particular loose bricks and long groove of the previously-thought-of shallow rut. But, this turned-over world was upsetting too if only because he’d never quite so closely examined the alley’s deck.

The brick was cool, at least. He lay in a crumpled pile. He had one arm under him and one leg folded back about half-way. He could feel his knee sitting on a sharp corner of a brick and he could feel the slight trickle of blood from his temple and from his nose. And one foot felt cool as if he was missing a shoe. His breathing was slow and even. He’d been hammered, for sure, by pros, but purposely left in a reasonably good shape perhaps as if to indicate that he was lucky.

He was lucky the girl found him and even luckier she had the where-with-all to call 911.
Donahue’s brain took several long minutes to realize he was on his right side and the corner of the brick was poking him in the right temple and his right eye was half-open staring hard at another brick half-an-inch away. He could see the girl, standing off to one side, back lighted by the lights in the parking lot or were those street lights?
He was confused.

She didn’t get any closer than she had to. She could see he was alive and moving in pain, a body trying still to protect itself even though the attack was over. She had seen enough horror shows to know two things: never, ever back up in a dark alley or hallway; and never get within arm’s reach no matter how dead the guy looked.

He’d been ambushed. Caught unawares like some amateur, play-time P.I. Two of them. From behind without hardly a hint of the rush. One with a punch like a hammer. He’d hit Donahue hard enough, Donahue bounced off the wall. Reflexively, Donahue had thrown a wild right hook that missed and only opened him up to a punch to the ribs. The ambush was just about over that soon. A kick to a knee. A hard smack to his chin. A quick stomp on his hand and they were gone. But the lights had stayed on, for the most part, and the hand stomper had worn a very old pair of wingtips that even in the bad light he could tell really needed a re-dye. He had wingtips but they didn’t look as bad as that pair.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Steele Bends

[THIS COULD BE A FINE BEGINNING TO ANY NUMBER OF STORIES. TAKE IT AND GIVE A WHIRL!]

Derek Steele stared at the 45. In the hot, white spotlight from overhead he could see a trace of gun smoke leak from the muzzle, and he could see a wisp of smoke from the ejector slide. Steele looked down to his right side and inspected the hole his sport coat. The most recent round from the 45 had yanked his coat to one side and burned a hole in the cheap polyester-cotton blend ugly coat.

Crap, he thought, and I just got this coat from Goodwill.

He slowly looked behind him and saw where the second-most-recent round from the forty-five went. It was buried in the chest of his business partner, Jesus Jones. Jesus Jones had a surprised look on his face, slumped as he was across the vinyl and chrome sofa. It was the best they could do for office furniture. A small dribble of drool was forming in the crease of his lips. The bullet had plowed into Jonesy dead-center in the middle of his tie, an especially ugly and garish paisley tie now darkened with powder burn and blood, through the shirt, and shattered Jonesy’s breast bone, drove shrapnel and bone through his heart. His shirt front was soaked with blood. Jonesy might not have died right off but he was certainly dead now.

Steele carefully returned his look at the gun. He could see the dull-black 45 and the slender white hand that held it and the bright-red finger nails, and the slim wrist, and most of a forearm, covered with fine hair, and then see nothing as the arm left the light.

His face, his eyes, stung from the heat of the blast. He was about ready to mess in his pants, he thought, and he desperately wanted a drink of water. For the moment his hearing was gone.

Derek Steele was scared.
###

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

47 Across

The job was easy enough. Take a few pictures. Collect the evidence. Donahue had done it before, he was proud to say, in all kinds of light and conditions as if he were Ansel Adams or somebody. The few clients that visited his office noticed that in fact he could take some very fine black and white photographs. Not bad, they seemed to express in a few words, but dropping the implied, for a private detective.

Donahue worked for several attorneys in Madison City. There was Mike Fisher who specialized in corporate “work” and Hamby “Hump” Martin who seemed to always steer the stranger divorce cases Donahue’s way. And then J.P. Norman who seemed to like to send Donahue chasing the cheating husband into every mean bar in town. There were several of those and Donahue had mad it a practice to visit Norman’s office to collect his fee before doing the job.

“Franc, ol’ pal,” said Hump Martin. At least he knew to call Donahue by “Frank” despite the spelling. Martin wasn’t quite able to complain about someone else’s name spelling. “Got a job for you if you are interested.”

The job was to take a handful of pictures of a husband meeting with a woman, not his wife, because, said Martin, said wife, believed, if fact she knew, that the man was cheating.

The man, whose name Donahue didn’t need to know, was going to meet his current squeeze at a local brewery. The brewery was tucked in the corner of a former department store itself the home of a nice downtown restaurant. Martin e-mailed a profile of the man and his wedding photo. He had short, grey-at-the-temples hair, long nose, close eyes, thin mouth. He looked handsome enough, thought Donahue, but it had been his experience that looks and love worked hand-in-hand as easily as polar opposites. But the face would be easy to recognize and just as easy to overlook if he were not prepared.

All he had to do, said Martin, as if reminding Donahue the location in the downtown relative to the rendezvous point which was supposedly set for seven o’clock sharp, was walk down the street two blocks, through the old department store building to the brewery and wait. Donahue was tempted to tell Martin that it usually wasn’t that easy but the size of the fee beckoned brilliantly. Apparently the irate wife had plenty to spend, so it was not going to be Donahue who talked himself out of job.

Six-thirty was soon enough for Donahue to leave for the brewery and establish himself in a corner of the room, there was only one room for customers, before the mark arrived. He would use his cellphone camera because it should look innocent enough out in the open. He also stopped by Jimmy Bogart’s newsstand at the bottom of the staircase in his building, just as Bogart was closing and bought one each of the three local area newspapers.

The evening was warm. The hill country of east Tennessee had been fortunate to have an early-summer rainy spell and that cleaned the air and made walking in the evening ever more the delight. Traffic was light along Main Street in front of Donahue’s office in the Jefferson Building. Main Street ran one way, towards the same direction as he was walking but here in the middle of the week, early evening, even with the college in session, half of the curb-side parking was empty.

On his side of the street all the store fronts were occupied. One was a new age emporium that sold some fairly interesting dress accessories, or so he’d been told by the women who ran the beauty salon on the first floor of his building, and there was a new taco place (making it three in the two block downtown) who he had not tried yet. Tacos seemed to be the rage lately. On the edge of the downtown were two more places that specialized in tacos. He wasn’t a taco affectionado but he didn’t dislike them either. There was also a wedding dress shop along the way that had been here long before Donahue set up shop ten years ago. In the middle of the block was coffee/sandwich shop that doubled as a music venue which after a couple of years in business seemed like it ought to make a go of it.

But across the street was almost like a different downtown. There were three storefronts in a row that looked like either they had been bombed or forgotten. One, in the middle, had been renovated and made ready to rent but no one would probably want to have the other two for neighbors. The first had a timber scaffolding holding the facade in place. The city had sued for demolition but the owners dumped about fifty-grand to start work instead of losing a demolition suit and then that stopped and the ball went back into the city’s court. The other had a plywood wall storefront except the roof line was about two feet higher than the plywood which allowed the weather and the pigeons to wreck havoc inside. He could look through the gap and see an open window at the back of the building which fronted, of course, the street a block up. Despite sometimes full parking lots later in the evening, particularly on the weekend, the downtown still had it problem spots.

What he also liked was the city’s continued faith in planting trees in the big concrete planters. During the winter the bare trees made the downtown seem really dead but in the summer when the greenery began to show up the downtown looked like a decent place to go have a bite to eat and a beer. Which was maybe why the mark had chosen the place he did. It served cheap, crazy beer.

Cheap crazy beer. Not this manufactured-mass produced cow piss that was so overwhelmingly popular in the dark bars. The nation’s beer habits had declined steadily and then changed its preferences almost over night catching, certainly, the local distributors off guard. It certainly also had revived Donahue’s interest in something different to try and experiment with. His taste buds had been reborn.

Donahue licked his lips as he walked along the street. He could see people going in and out of the various businesses. The billiard parlor, known for its exceptional hamburgers, was busy. The music venue next to it, though was having a tough time lately. The punk scene was notoriously fickle. About as fickle as the beer drinkers.

At the corner, he stopped and studied for a moment all the changes and some of the non-changes in the downtown. The corner opposite had been a bank and then a data processing center. Now it was up-scale condos but only three-quarters full, he knew. The price was out of his range but people seemed to like living in the city itself. There was one, store-front-wide, grocery just down the street. No pharmacy. Not many neighbors as he knew neighbors with dogs and cats and yards and kids playing in them. He liked hearing the kids shout and holler and chase each other. That was what kids were supposed to do, weren’t they, and the dog joining the fun not knowing or caring whose side was chasing or being chased.

But also, on the other corner was shop that seldom seemed to not have tenants for long. The facade was polished black and pink granite that nowadays and in that spot, looked out of time and place if not downright ugly. From his own experience of renting his office he knew that landlords were notorious for not wanting to do much of anything until cornered. At least his landlord, who Donahue had made it a point many years ago to investigate, and maybe having a private eye for a tenant spooked the landlord, they got along famously and the several tenants in the building had seldom changed. Mostly Donahue was concerned that Jimmy Bogart might someday be forced out. He and Jimmy had become friends. Jimmy was born with above average birth defects but had managed by guile and effort to at least be able to sale newspapers and smokes and snacks in the building. Someplace along the way Franc Donahue had  discovered Jimmy was a long lost relative of a friend of the landlord and that helped, too. The city’s handicapped re-employment efforts helped. Now Jimmy enjoyed his status as Franc Donahue’s sentry!

The light changed, Donahue crossed the street, took the first door to the right and entered the wooden floored lobby of the old department store.

At the back of the building on this floor was a local brewery. Not a commercial beer in the place and thank goodness, he thought. Despite some of the stranger brews, most were variations and personal tastes of the folks than ran the shop. For a buck he could get a four-ounce glass of beer. Tonight he’d have to order four, at least, four bucks on the expense account, too. A blond ale. Some kind of peach cream that sounded positively awful, a locally named stout, and a wheat-oak blend stout that sounded more like wood stain than beer.

Donahue bought himself a sampler of four for four dollars. He didn’t know if he’d have to nurse these all night or go for seconds or thirds and walk back to the office sloshed. But the sample of four might have amounted to one full pint. He was gettin’ old and not ready to admit it.

Donahue found himself a spot in a corner, in a niche, where a wide-angle view took in the entire room. The place was lighted by tall windows to the south, but during noon time shadowed by the building across the alleyway. That building across the alleyway was a rebuilt office turned into modern downtown living, too, and it was also maybe three-fourths full. Here in the evening the drinking room had a cool glow to the walls and tables and mixed chairs. He wasn’t alone, either.

Another man was seated alongside the serving bar, his back to the room, but it wasn’t the mark. This man was bull-necked and wearing a shabby long-sleeved shirt in the summer time. He had on shorts and hiking boots with socks that didn’t match. Homeless, perhaps. Or just thirsty after a warm day. Donahue had worn mismatched sox. One time he even wore mismatched tennis shoes. They were both black and he’d dressed in the dark one morning, in a hurry. At least that was his excuse.

On the table he set his newspapers and phone and the four tall shot glasses of his beer. He hadn’t thought through exactly how he was going to take pictures but the plan was to prop his cell phone between two glasses, set it on 60-second timer and then ignore the scene. He would concentrate on his crossword puzzles and not look at the phone once it was shooting. At least the idea worked, sort of, back at the office. Set on shooting once a minute, no flash, Donahue could photograph all night. Fifteen minutes to go. Fifteen wasted shots but now was the time to find out what worked.

Donahue leaned the phone against the four-ounce cups, aimed between, satisfied he had a wide-enough angle to take in the whole room. He rustled his three newspapers gathering up the crossword puzzles and then finally took a sip of one of the beers. He sat back, pencil in hand, not doing the puzzles, waiting at least until the mark showed up. The TV was on, replaying last year’s Super Bowl game, the room felt small, the man in the shorts at the table by the serving bar moved so little Donahue could have easily said the man was either asleep or dead. Donahue wanted to present himself as nothing more than the furniture. It occurred to him that the mark could easily become suspicious and leave immediately. His experience had been that the men were leery of public places and the women wanted it.

Donahue ran through one crossword puzzle quickly doing all the easy clues first. Halfway through the second the mark showed up at the door. The server waited patiently as he checked the room either for his date or his wife. But, neither, just some hapless looking fellow in clothes that needed matching and needed washing and some guy in a sport coat and hat drinking a lot of beer and working the crosswords.

The man about town, the husband about to make a terrible mistake, or perhaps he had already made one, ordered a pint of dark ale. Paid cash, Donahue noted. No electronic trace there. At least the man was cautious to a point. But, by now he had his picture taken.

Donahue was stumped for the moment on “Capp’s child,” five-letters.

The mark sat nearly out of camera range, back to Donahue, staring out the tall window. Minutes passed. Photos were taken of the same unchanging scene. Donahue had a flash of thought about how many photographs he’d have to delete! A problem for tomorrow.

In the door, now stood a tall red-head. Porcelain skin. Bright-red lipstick. Long skirt, jacket, big hat, big purse. Showy, to a fault. She was used to getting looked at and she liked it. Donahue liked it, too. So did the mark, obviously, turning and rising to greet her with a hug and a kiss, in between shots. Donahue’s luck might change. And then again, it might not. He didn’t look at his cell phone. The photographs didn’t have to win awards. They had to only convince the judge or the husband.

They chatted. Giggled. Smiled. Had fun. Donahue nursed his beers. An hour wore on. Donahue was getting  hungry but still had not completed any of the three puzzles. It wasn’t his night for crosswords. Ninety minutes later, ninety photographs later, one full bladder later, eight four-ounce beers down the hatch, Donahue was almost glad to see them leave. He was stumped again, this time at five words for “reaper” with an “e” in the second letter. All he could think of was “deere.”

Nature called just after the couple left. Coming back from the bathroom (unisex, warm water, beer advertisements plastered on the walls) Donahue didn’t pay much attention to the siren as it came down the street next to the building.

A second siren ought to have gotten his attention but the bartender, a she, had stopped by to chat and clean up and Donahue wasn’t likely to pass up a chance to talk to a pretty young woman even if she was married. Business was good, she was saying, craft beer was the in-thing although she, like everyone else betting on the revival of the downtown, hoped it would continue some unspecified long time.

The third siren, going away from someplace got his notice finally, but by the time he walked out into the night even that was now in the near past. He was halfway down the block to his office when his cellphone buzzed in his coat pocket. It was Hump Martin asking where was Donahue.

“Well,” said Martin, “ the case just took a turn for the worse. You for hire? Got another job, if you want it?”

“How’s that?”

“My client has just been arrested for gunning down her husband and a red-head. Not two blocks from the rendezvous point.”

Well, thought Donahue, forty-seven across, five letters, second one was an ‘e’, could have been ‘death.’”
###

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

A View For A Kill

[With a nod to Ian Fleming's story, I've tried to make a newer version of it. Obviously, it won't come near to as lively as the original.]

Victor Webb wasn’t bored but he didn’t like doing paperwork either. Since his release from the hospital followed by three days leave and a weekend off he was now reading reports from the Middle East that made early afternoon feel like nap time. His therapy was his work but a light lunch, a walk in the warm summer air in D.C., conspired when he returned to his desk to put him to sleep. The hum of the office, the rattle of the phones, the beeping of all these electronic gadgets, even the delicious behind of Ms. Joanna Martin, took away any inspiration of work. Well, he thought, except for Ms. Martin’s seductive rump. Did she know how she looked? He convinced himself she did and she enjoyed the attention. Something to tell the girls on Friday at the bar, he supposed. Why wait until Friday, he thought.

His position, as a special agent on leave, suggested he was due someplace else beyond the office on Jefferson Street in Georgetown. Anywhere but here, but instead, here he was. His office did not have a window. The Service occupied two floors of the three-story building and the two stories under the garage across the street. In a roundabout way they occupied the top deck of it, too, but all any person would see was a plethora of antenna.

There was no signs on main office building suggesting the Service was located there. The various tenants were step-children of the Service or some nearly alike organizations so they didn’t ask questions about not having access to the basement or the floors above. A smallish plaque at the front center door said “International Business Consulting Services, 1105 North Jefferson Avenue” was all anyone saw except for the few public who entered through the front door and passed through security. Curious folks were politely but firmly steered back out the front door an action that caused their photographs to be taken. There were three doors, all of them secure, so far. The odd door was disguised as a maintenance entrance that would, of course, fool no one who knew the business of the place.

IBCS was incorporated in Delaware, had three stockholders and three Directors (different names from the stockholders) of whom two worked for a larger consulting firm itself part of a conglomerate incorporated in New York. The Directors were from a law firm in Wilmington that provided such service to countless corporations in the United States.

None of this was a concern or even a notion in the thinking of Victor Webb. He was just doing his duty and trying his best to read through the dull, third person reports of agents in the field in the middle-East who saw little individually but relied on the Victor Webbs to connect a dot or two before passing the report onto the next analyst. There were eight signature lines on this particular red folder and his was the eighth.

His cubicle had one filing cabinet, one desk, his chair, a potted palm, and a bland nature calendar on the wall. He actually shared this office with four other agents two of whom he’d never met and probably would never meet. Those four rotated in and out on an irregular basis as demanded by their station chief. There was nothing on the desk or the walls of the cubicle to indicate anything about who used this cubicle. Webb’s other assignment meant he be in the field doing surveillance or following a potential target although most of the time he spent just watching. On four occasions he had been ordered to pick up his weapon, trail the target to an end satisfactory to both the Service, the US government, and probably some other entity, of whom he had never known.

A head popped over the cubicle, the head belonged to Ms. Martin, she of the delicious rump, that roamed the office doing bidding and fetching for the Director. Ms. Martin seemed to own only pencil styled skirts.

“Boss. Wants to see you. In his office,” she said. “Pronto.” She had a clipped speech. As if she couldn’t say more than a few words at a time. A long sentence of ten words might have been impossible.

Webb picked up his coat and headed straight away to see the boss. He lost for the moment any desire to follow Ms. Martin and her random rear end.

Ms. Martin ushered Webb into the office within an office. The Director, Dr. Joel Sallinger was deep into reading a report and at first ignored Webb. Without looking up the Director waved Webb towards the coffee pot on the credenza. Webb poured himself a half-cup, black, no sugar. Saucers and cups were not his usual fare at his apartment. But he also knew from experience it would get cold before he drank much of a full cup. He took his cup and saucer and quietly sat down in one of the arm chairs opposite the mammoth desk.

The Director’s office was on the second floor of the main building and had a northern view. Some said that his gloomy attitude came from his lack of sunshine. He was pretty much desk bound from before the day shift started until after the day shift ended.

“You don’t have to skulk around, Webb,” said the Director.

“Yes, Sir. Sorry, Sir.”

Webb still tried to not slurp his coffee or crash the cup down into the saucer. Five minutes passed as the Director read a report and inked comments in the margins. Finally, he shoved the report into the out box and rose to get himself a cup of coffee. He sat down at his desk with a deep sigh and swallowed down a big gulp of hot coffee.

“What do you know,” he said, “about this business in Aden? The shooting of the oil minister?”

“Factually,” said Webb, “nothing more than what was in the papers. The AP coverage was fairly good. I could glean several facts from it but I haven’t seen an official report on it yet.”

“And you won’t see a report. Not that it isn’t your concern. We’ve decided to keep several important details under wraps. What would you surmise, say, if I was hunting for details?”

“I know Tamhiz Square. The footprint might be this building or smaller. One report suggested the shooter missed the first shot but got the target in the second. In the back. Then, incredibly, missed a third time. Have they said anything about the weapon?”

“Yes. Still, what would you infer?”

“That particular shot was not far away. Maybe less than fifty yards. Wouldn’t take much of a scope but it would have to be sighted in well. The gun? A good varmint rifle would do. You need to deliver a heavy shell a short ways versus a heavy shell a long ways always with the chance a piece of glassware or plant or flag or something will sneak into the path. I wondered if the shooter hadn’t been up high and missed because his target was below him at too steep an angle. Would mean the shooter was not very good. A cheap hire. A throwaway shooter, perhaps. A clumsy shooter actually.”

“Meaning?”

“A completed mission requires discipline. You have to, and I have, we’re all trained to do this, you have to pass up that tempting first shot to wait for a more sure thing. I’ve come home without fulfilling my mission, right? To take out the wrong person or an innocent bystander creates more problems than it solves. The job has to be done right. There are stories galore of hunters shooting too soon and bagging an ear. Or for that matter, guides who push a shot just so they can get back home. Even the gangs learn really quick that to just gun down half a dozen people to get the one target spells the end of the gang.

“The only reason,” continued Webb, “he got the minister in the back was because the minister was trying to hide under a table. Wrong time all the way around and despite the power of a bullet a table top could protect the target for at least one shot. Pretty sloppy.”

“The police arrested the shooter an hour ago,” said the Director. A nobody. Supposedly a dis-contented former employee. If it had been a professional, somebody needs to do better vetting. How hard is it to miss at that range?”

“Easy. Like I say, looking down you are a hard target. I’ll take a front or back shot anytime even from a greater distance. You don’t have to kill the target outright. A lung shot with a heavy slug is easier to do but not always as quick as a head shot. But sometimes that’s what it takes.”

“You relish that? A quick death but not instant?”

“Not in the least. Part of the job. I suppose sometimes the target needs to die slowly but I don’t want to waste the time or risk interruption. And it is not in my nature to make anyone suffer. I’ve done it, however, others have done it, too.”

“I think we should get down to business, Webb. How do you feel?” said the Director.

“I’m okay,” said Webb. “The doc cleared me, right?”

“I want to know if you feel you are mentally ready to try again. That last job was a near disaster.”

“But it wasn’t a disaster. I got my man and I got the man who’d set us up, too.”

“Both good scores. I know. I commend you for being good at your work. But, this one is different.”

“If I may, Sir, they’re all different.”

“This one is personal, Webb, for me and I am very hesitant to ask you to do it. Jobs that we sanction as a department have a different context and meaning. This one is not like any of those.”

“Can I be the judge of that, Sir?”

The Director held his coffee cup in suspension as he stared out the window for a moment. Perhaps he was debating telling anything or debating only what to tell.

“No, you can’t. I need to be assured that you are fit, mentally and physically, Webb.”

“How do I prove it to you. Sir.”

“Do you know who Benny Larsen is?”

“Can’t say I’ve heard the name.”

“He is the head of a mafioso-type family in Mobile, Alabama. Runs drugs and slaves. Both in and out of the US. He isn’t as big a player as their local press wants to think but the various law enforcement agencies keep an eye on his business and make busts when they need to. So far, Larsen has avoided even getting arrested!”

“Knows somebody on the inside?”

“Maybe. I don’t know.”

“You need to know that three weeks ago, in Mobile, was a rare gangland shooting. Four bystanders were gunned down along with a fifth, a shooter for one of the smaller opposing gangs.”

“A cover up for snuffing the shooter? A awfully expensive proposition. The local news and cops swarmed all over this Larsen man?”

“He wasn’t even in the country. I imagine they won’t do that again. Even the mob avoided public heat. But, the intelligence is that he ordered the hit himself.”

“But there isn’t enough evidence to arrest him?”

“No. Again, like you say, maybe someone on the inside keeps us at bay.”

“We’ll get ‘em. It takes time, I know, Sir.”

“Except for the four people gunned down.”

“Yes,sir.”

“One of the four was the nephew of my first wife.”

“Oh, no. I’m sorry.”

“She and I are still best of friends and I knew him because he also liked to fly fish out west. We even tried the upper reaches of the Snake together many, many years ago. I liked him. I liked him a lot. Despite her and my relationship, he was good kid and we became friends.”

The Director had swiveled in his chair to face the window, away from Webb. There was a slight tremble in his voice and his coffee cup, resting in his hand on the arm of the chair, shook ever so slightly.

“I am not allowed by law to send you on a task on my own. But, I am willing to risk it. Revenge is a nasty feeling, I can taste it right now, as we speak, Webb, and you would be right to refuse.”

“And that would be?”

“Do I have to spell it out? Larsen owns a summer place in the hills of east Tennessee.” The Director slid a satellite map across the table. “X marks the spot.” Then the Director tossed a rubber-banded bundle of money on top of the map. Webb rifled the bundle to see mostly used twenties and fives. “My money,” said the Director. “No accounting necessary. There is a phone number on the sticky note for your contact. My friend and retired associate. Goes by the nickname of ‘Mad Tom.’ He’ll handle all the local logistics. I’ve had the firing range notified you’ll be out there at noon. If you want to go.”

“I’m fit. Ready, Sir.” And bored, but he didn’t say that.

“You should leave as soon as you can. A day’s drive, be there by midnight tonight. Mad Tom’ll help you get near the sight. I think you’ll need to take your hiking boots, however. You should be home again in about four days. Maybe a week.”

“I’ll need some special tools, Sir.”

“At the range. I’ve called in several favors, Webb, including you. I might be in jail this time next year for doing this but I think it would be worth it.”

“I understand, Sir. No one will know.”

At the range, north of town about fifteen miles, in a place where shooting was not all that uncommon, the Range Officer and the Assistant Chief of Staff were waiting for Webb.

“Afternoon, Sir,” said the Range Officer. He was a wiry man, taller than Webb, perhaps at 6-foot-2, dressed in work clothes more like a farmer than a shooting instructor. “You’ll have position 17, far left. Good day to be shooting, don’t you think.”

“Thank you,” said Webb. “It’s a great day to shoot.” They were all great days to shoot. He never knew quite how to address this man, whom he was barely acquainted with, but at least always wanted to show respect.

They walked together out to the position which was shaded by an oak. Webb could see his target out about 250 yards was also shaded, underneath a canopy. The range limit was 300 yards tucked between two large farms. From his stand the life-sized profile looked very small. Shading his eyes, he could squint enough to see the target.

“We want you to know the trigger pull, Sir, and at least have a few rounds under your belt. This is the new Weatherby that has just come on the market. Good gun. Reliable gun. Flat trajectory. We have two full clips and half a box of loose rounds for you. We’ve sighted her in but that’s just me and my old eyes, Sir. Take your time. Whenever you feel you’re ready, use one full clip and one round to shoot for score, okay?”

It wasn’t a friendly suggestion. The ACOS was here to be sure Webb was fit enough to do the job. Otherwise the mission would be scrubbed.

Instead of a mat, the range had only provided a blanket for Webb to lay on. Experience dictated that the ground was never as nice as a mat on sand or dirt. He needed to reacquaint his elbows and knees and body parts with the earth. Webb settled in, his stomach once again feeling his belt buckle and the little knobs of dirt and rock.

He knew of the gun. Most commercial rifles were potential tools of his trade. He hadn’t fired the model but the design would be first class. Webb calmly loaded a single round and closed the bolt and then loaded the three bullet clip. He settled himself into the prone position knowing only that the sighting-in was close. He needed to further learn, and learn quickly, how the rifle handled.

From the small speaker next to his place number came a voice, “The range is yours, Sir.”

His first four rounds were all high and to the right. He reloaded and put the second four all in the black although the 10-ring that was a dot tucked deeply inside the cross-hairs of the scope. He backed off one magnification. His target would be considerably bigger if he got this close. He saved the last four rounds to score all dead center.

“I think you’re ready, Sir,” said the range officer. Webb could hear the man smiling.

The Range Office produced a cleaning rod and rag. Fifteen minutes later the rifle and scope were zipped into a camouflaged carrying case, loaded in a wooden crate, and sent back to a discreet office for shipping.

The Assistant Chief of Staff cornered Webb at the range officer’s hut. The Range Office apparently for the moment had unexpected duties down range.

The ACOS handed Webb a wallet.

“Take your own car but the gas is on us. You’re to drive to the local airport. In the wallet are the coordinates for you GPS and a phone number to call when you get near there. His name is Tom McGuire. He’ll act as your guide. He’ll find a place to store your car for a few days and he’ll outfit you except you need to take along your best hiking boots. You should be back in a week, easily. The drive will fully take eight hours plus a stop or two. The target is on vacation in the area with his wife and two bodyguards, at a minimum. Mad Tom will have all the details and last-minute information for you.”

They shook hands. The ACOS patted Webb on the back.

Two hours later Webb was on the interstate heading west out of DC and then turned south. The drive through the Blue Ridge was always busy. Webb kept at the speed limit. Stopped often enough to be sure he was not being tailed although he had not reason to think it would happen. He exited at the local airport about midnight and called Mad Tom McGuire. McGuire told Webb to stay in the parking lot and wait.

Webb parked in a corner of the lot furthest away from the front door and it’s prying eye camera. McGuire seemed to know for sure who Webb was, probably alerted to the car and license. Mad Tom McGuire was a half-a-head taller than Webb and as about stout as piece of pipe. He had a quick smile, warm handshake, and was always, it seemed at first glance, to be nervous and looking over Webb’s shoulder as well as his own.

They left Webb’s car and drove out of town into the dark to an office complex. McGuire had apparently a small, undefined business there.

“I’m a consultant,” he said.

“About what?”

“Anything you want to consult me about.”

In the back room, McGuire pulled out long box that looked very much like one that would hold a rifle. He produced a stack of maps and aerial photos but also ground-level photos. The maps and pictures were of the Larsen compound.

“What we have is a man who likes to think because he has mountains and forest around him protects him. But, he must not have complete faith as he took along two guards armed with M16s. These overheads are only a week old. The frontal shots are from across the lake. You can see from the map it’s about a half mile from his compound directly south across the lake to the highway. I stopped there a couple of times and got some good photos of the place. Notice that background mountain ridge. You’ll come over that along the power line cut to about a quarter mile from the compound, to the left in this photo. On the topographic photo you can see the power line runs from behind the compound to just about where you need to be. That distance you have to go is about only three and half to four miles. Half uphill and half downhill.”

“Provisions?”

“You’ll have plenty of water and maybe find some along the way. I have you four days of MREs which I hope you like ‘cause that’s all you’re gonna get.”

“Then I guess it’ll have to do,” said Webb.

“I have your rifle and twelve rounds.”

“That ought to be plenty.”

“If you need more, I can’t help you, pal.”

“I hardly expect a gunfight.”

“Me neither. Two guards. If they want to shoot up the woods, let ‘em. The sheriff might be out in a day or two answering an anonymous phone complaint. He’s been out there before.”

“How do I contact you?”

“You don’t. Be back to the drop off point at either noon or 7:30 in the evening. Bring everything back with you, too. That test merchandise has to go back to our friends. All this camping gear is mine but hardly traceable. This is not hunting season but the rangers are elsewhere until they get a call. We just have to be cautious. You don’t show up after a couple of days I’ll just have to leave you. So don’t break a leg.”

The property was surrounded by national forest. The close up aerial photo showed a rock outcropping to the west of the house about three hundred yards, maybe less, out. In front of the house was a large concrete pad as if someone had intended to land helicopters there. In front of the pad was low scrub forest that allowed a view of the lake and far shore. It also, said Mad Tom, allowed a view from the far shore to the house. 

“Otherwise, we’d set you up on this road but then I think Larsen figures, correctly, he is probably safe from such long-distance attack.”

“Someone needs to send a drone,” said Webb.

“We got one,” said McGuire. “You.”

Webb didn’t sleep much but he did sleep. Well before dawn McGuire drove out from the office complex to a grass and gravel turn out.

“Up that road,” said McGuire. He waved a hand towards a gap in the trees that was an old track of a road protected by a mound of dirt and a pipe gate. “You get a nice flat walk to work out the kinks in the ol’ bones.”

“Thanks,” said Webb. “I’ll keep that in mind!”

They shook hands. Webb loaded up his small pack and rifle duffle. His pack was smallish carrying a sleeping pad, a gallon of water, power bars, poncho, and a summer-weight sleeping bag. Three-quarters of a mile up the abandoned road he stopped at a stream, entering from the left, uphill, was a marked trail, just as McGuire had said he would find. The trail left the stream soon and struck savagely uphill to a power line cut which had a small trail on the left side straight up to the top of the ridge.

Webb put his mind into making the trudge up the slope. The weeds were thigh high and dry but level across the power line gap. He resisted looking up at the ridge. It was a solid mile or more and he was making his distance in yards-per-hour it seemed. The ground was unworked. The trail was more like a deer path that might have been a deer trail first and then a hunting trail but not maintained to level out the rocks and roots. The sky was starting to lighten over the ridge which helped him focus on the ridge top more. His pace slowed with each breather and each breather was coming more quickly on the heels of the previous one. At this rate, he told himself, he might survive long enough to get there but not much more.

By noon the sweat was poring off his face, his hat band was soaked and so was his shirt but he had crossed the ridge, hiding in the trees and could enjoy glimpses of the lake in front and to his right. There was no sign of the housing complex someplace below him and to his left. That would probably come as a surprise. The weather had become cloudy, high clouds of the front coming on but he might get lucky and be back in his car when the rain came.

Early afternoon he was crouched in the edge of the cut looking down at the lake. He felt he was level with the roadway, half a mile away and across the lake. He turned left, and tried to keep his path straight, Webb made his way towards, he hoped, a rock outcropping that overlooked Larsen’s compound. The first indication he might be at the right spot was a clearing in the trees, then a wide open rock formation at least twenty yards wide. He worked his way around the lowest end keeping the high wall to his left to cover his position. From here he could easily see the house and the front pad, the driveway, the gate, and the county road beyond. Leading off from the gate was low, iron fence undoubtedly electrified. Webb retreated to a higher location behind the rocks and then flattened himself on the top to peer out over the landscape.

Larsen’s mansion in the hills was large but not gigantic. Three story, blond brick, cathedral windows looking towards the lake, double-door entrances on either side of the cathedral windows. Wide, flat flagstone terrace in front which might have been a helicopter landing pad for some previous owner. Dormers on the front roof only. To the back was an addition. From above the house was T-shaped. If there was a pool it must be indoors, thought Webb. For a couple with two bodyguards, maybe a maid or cook, the house looked large enough but would soon feel a bit confined. He’d seen bigger houses and he’d entered smaller houses. It was a place. A livable place. Not too fancy. Not poor. What counted was the person living there of whom there seemed to be no sign at the moment.

Webb could see images through his scope of someone walking in front of the windows. He would have to wait for Larsen to appear long enough in a window to dare a shot but that would also mean keeping an eye on all the windows. Or, he’d have to wait for Larsen maybe to come out onto the deck for some sunshine or his morning exercises instead of doing those inside or at an indoor pool if there was one.

The afternoon was beginning to wear already. The sun was ducking behind horse’s tails but the clouds were not yet pink with a setting sun. Webb had time to scout the rock formation in hopes to stay just behind the brim of the crest for a good shooting position but also not risk being seen from a distance either. Whether Larsen would even make an appearance on this side of the house was a guess. Mad Tom seemed to think Larsen enjoyed his morning exercise and yoga on this deck protected by the two bodyguards. What Mad Tom still didn’t know was whether the woman was Larsen’s wife or girlfriend.

Webb would have to make some decisions quickly once Larsen showed himself otherwise if he waited a day or a day and a morning it would be time to head back.

Someone appeared at the door to the left of the main windows. It was a bodyguard, coming out for a smoke. Webb quickly unpacked the rifle and shimmied up to the lip of the rocks careful to not expose himself to the sky. He used his rolled sleeping pad as a fore stock support. He uncapped the scope again and eased the rifle forward but his own position was too rugged to lay smooth in the prone position. He mostly wanted to check his distance and lighting.  The guard loved to smoke all of his cigarette. Webb had him in the crosshairs long enough to unload all four rounds if needed. Webb like the distance--two hundred yards, barely--flat and level, straight on full body shot.

Near sundown a woman came out onto the front deck, as if to enjoy the last of the sunlight. Webb kept his curiosity down by not watching from a good shooting vantage point but wedged himself beside the rocks. He used his rifle’s scope only as a spotting scope to watch her. She was talking on the phone and gesticulating with her free hand. Once in a while she’d smile. She looked attractive in slacks and sweatshirt. No shoes. No sunglasses. Brunette. She paced. Not that he could tell, she never seemed to stop and look at the sunset. Whoever she was, the woman ended her call and went back inside.

Lights came on and lights went off as the evening settled down. Webb munched his power bars and drank a little water and with his back propped against a stump watched the house. The night sky darkened slowly. The stars seemed to take a while to make up their minds to put on a show. The house lights didn’t overpower the dark sky and soon he could see more constellations than he ever saw in the Washington area. He tried not to look at the lighted windows. Over the years, he’d found that lighted windows made his eyes want to constantly focus and soon tired them. Tonight he would just have to imagine what might be going on inside and at the same time enjoy the clear sky. Enjoy the barred owl that was now calling from up the county road. Enjoy the a very faint whip-poor-will calling from someplace high up on the ridge. He reckoned it had been decades since he had heard a whip-poor-will.

Webb unrolled his pad and bag, got out of the top layers of his camouflage. He lay on his back and watched the stars grow every so slightly brighter as the sky darkened. Despite his best efforts to stay awake for a while, despite his best efforts to be sure he didn’t get shot, he was asleep before he could stop it.

And awake sooner than it seemed possible. The time itself didn’t matter. He arranged his pad and the rifle again just below the crest of the rocks. The sun would be against him which eliminated one problem of being seen perhaps against the background and also provided good lighting to just see his target.

He set his water bottle carefully to his left and as soon as he lay down and could see no activity at the front of the house he chose to chow down a power bar. Toilet would have to wait a moment or two. It was early enough that maybe no one was up yet. One room, on the upper floor, had a light on, still. In any other movie, there’d be smoke from the chimney but not here. Webb sighted in on a door. Brought the scope into focus. Only then did he load the single round, closed the bolt to engage the safety, and then load the three-round clip.

The sun was glowing behind the mountain tops. The high clouds glowed white against the blue sky. A good day to come out on the front deck and take some exercise. Do some Tai-chi. Do some yoga. Do come calisthenics. Get shot.

He began to see shadows against the windows. A guard paused for a moment with a cup of coffee in his hand.

“Jerk,” said Webb. He muttered to the rocks and squirrels and any other living thing around him. The morning sounds were there, he just wasn’t paying any attention to them. He concentrated on what his open eye noticed but kept his scope’d eye sharp. He didn’t dare even touch the safety, yet.

The sun was up, now, flooding the deck and the house. He’d put on his camouflage hat and jacket but not the pants. He’d helped himself to another power bar but his stomach growled for real food like sausage and egg and hot coffee.

As if he’d willed it, one of the doors opened up. A guard appeared, dressed in shorts and t-shirt, looking awfully like a woman, he thought, with a black baseball cap and sunglasses, an M16 poised on his, or her hip. Then came Larsen in blue shorts and tennis shoes. And last was the second guard also dressed casually in t-shirt and shorts and automatic rifle but with a shoulder-slung pistol. This might be it, he thought. He concentrated on Larsen, hidden behind the first guard. They didn’t walk ten feet from the front of the house but then they stepped farther away as if some unknown reluctance to be out in the open had whisked away. Webb let his thumb drift to the safety. It was a two-position safety. He clicked it slowly to the upright position and waited.

C’mon you sucker, he thought. Step out there where I can see you. Don’t be shy. Enjoy the sunshine. And Larsen did. He stopped and inhaled the sweet air and spread his legs and began windmilling his arms, loosening up. Larsen continued to stretch. Some bending only and some kind of tai-chi-made-up stuff and then stretching his hamstring but the first guard was just still in the way. Webb rechecked his elevation. Flat seemed right. No windage to speak of. Just a stupid, slow guard that seemed to want to stand there like an idiot and block Webb’s nearly full-on body shot!

Webb growled at the guard. Behind the guard he could see Larsen move but never long enough or exposed enough to snap off a shot. To quick fire and miss would be disastrous. To not shoot at all would be better. Webb tightened his grip on the rifle, squeezed his scope eye a bit tighter to the rubber eye piece.

He could barely see Larsen’s body behind the guard, the angle was just wrong, when he noticed a silver-ish, metallic streak with a touch of green, flash by Larsen’s neck.

Larsen was a startled as Webb. It took Webb a long moment to process that anything had really happened, that what he saw was not an aberration of light. Larsen knew it wasn’t. Reflexively he was on his feet and sprinting toward the house. The guards, reacting some from Larsen’s flight and some from their own amazement began to crouch preparing to fire towards the low ground in front of the deck.

Webb swore out loud and then muttered something like “Outrun this, sucker,” and thumbed the safety over it’s last notch. Larsen’s back filled his scope. Webb didn’t try to hit him square in the spine but anywhere within a foot of the middle of his back would probably rip out an entire lung. Webb firmly pulled the trigger. The big Weatherby barked and banged against his shoulder and in the scope he saw Larsen’s back dent and then saw him pancake face first on the flagstone. Larsen landed so hard he skidded. Webb held his view as he worked the bolt to reload. Larsen didn’t move. Webb watched his flanks for tale-tell breathing. But, also, now he could hear the automatic fire from below seemed to shift more towards his position.

Webb counted to ten still watching Larsen, either begin to move or at least breath. Then he shifted is attention to the near guard who was trying to spray too far out of range to have much affect. Webb flicked off the safety as he steadied his aim on the guard’s upper chest. Counted to two and pulled the trigger. The Weatherby smacked his shoulder again and the heavy rifle make a clap sound amid the noise. In the scope he saw a hole appear about six inches below the chin and the guard collapsed back as if struck with a fist. Webb watched the guard fall back and his hat fly off releasing a long braid of pony tail. Either a guard with lots of hair or he’d just shot a woman. A woman guard in charge of an M16 on auto-fire.

The second guard sensed or saw his partner flatten and now turned his attention towards Webb, too. But, Webb by now had regained Larsen’s body to see now that he was up on his elbows and one knee. Webb could hear bullets zinging through the trees and one or two ricocheting off the rocks. He waited for Larsen to get his head up high enough for a finishing shot. Webb could see blood spurting from underneath Larsen’s body. The man was seconds from being bled to death.

As if irritated by flies, Webb did not want to waste this bullet on Larsen. He slightly shifted his aim to the second guard. This man was in a panic. If he knew where to look among the trees and rocks he might get lucky before he had to pause to change clips. He was shooting fast and unsure. He was scared and that meant he would make mistakes and Webb would put him out of his misery.

Webb ran his crosshairs up the man’s rifle to his head and flicked the safety to off again. But this time a second silver-metal shaft interrupted the scene and stuck in the man’s side, just underneath the ribs. The arrow sank until the leading edge of the fletching was inside his shirt. He had a surprised look on his face, tried to look under his left side, the side towards the shooter, and then his right side and didn’t see anything apparently but instead pitched forward on his face. Webb followed the guard down, as he spun and twisted with a death grip on the trigger, the automatic rifle scattered bullets up into the air and then across the front of the house drawing a line across the windows until the magazine was empty. Webb counted to three and then flicked the safety on. He took in a deep breath and let his eyes relax.

That just left Larsen who now lay flat on his stomach in a pool of dark red blood.

Webb was not in a hurry to shoot and leave. Whoever the archer was, they’d have to wait. He had one concern and that looked like it was taken care of. Webb scanned the two guards. The woman was staring at the sky, blood pooled on her shirt front. The breeze rustled her hair. The other guard lay on his side in a twisted form as if flash-frozen while trying to crawl to safety.

The gunfire echo died quickly. Did anyone notice all the shooting? Was it not surprising? The whole gunfight had lasted a minute, tops. Three people dead. Maybe fifty to sixty rounds fired. He had shot only twice. There were two arrows on the killing field. That ought to keep the cops guessing!

He waited until his bladder and his stomach were both starting to bother him. He had enjoyed neither breakfast nor a morning visit to mother nature.

The door to the right of the cathedral windows opened. The woman he’d seen before stood there for a long moment. She looked out and to each side as if to see a gunman still there. All she saw were dead bodies and lots of blood. She stepped slowly onto the pad, awkwardly, frightened, dressed in lounge pants and blouse. She stood over Larsen’s body. If she was crying he couldn’t tell. She did push her hair behind her ears. She seemed to only glance at Larsen and quickly stepped to the woman guard. She went down on her knees and Webb could see she was crying, sobbing.

Don’t pick up a gun, lady, he thought. Whatever you do, don’t pick up a gun. He reassured himself the safety was on but was one click from being off. The woman caressed the guard’s face, soothed her hair. Was the guard a lover, a sister, daughter? The woman laid a hand on the dead guard’s throat. Don’t pick up a gun, lady, he mouthed. The thought flashed through his mind that the archer was also waiting to let loose another shot. The woman kissed the guard slowly on the lips and then allowed her forehead to lay on the guard’s lips and her body heaved a bit more in sorrow. A minute or two passed and the woman sat back on her heels, holding her hand over her mouth, and cried some more. Several moments passed and the woman rose to her feet, still sobbing, still shaking in grief. Without so much as a glance at the other guard the woman staggered towards the house. She paused over Larsen’s body. Certainly not saying a prayer for his soul, she wrenched off her wedding rings, and dropped them on his back. Crying or not, saying something or not, Webb couldn’t tell, the woman turned towards the house and disappeared through the door.

Webb watched Larsen’s body long enough determine if the man was dead or not. The pool of blood was seeping into the cracks in the flagstone. His body was too low for the mysterious archer to launch another arrow. For all Webb knew, the archer may very well had been injured in all the shooting. He was going to investigate. Once satisfied that Larsen was done for, he had no reason to stay.

Time to leave. Webb slid off the rock, ignored any thought of the archer. He jammed his loose gear in his backpack, carried the gun and gun case far enough away from the rocks until he was sure no one would see him. Then he took his time re-packing for the hike, then unloading the rifle and getting it zippered in its carrying case. He was not at all worried about the two shell casings.

It was still very early in the morning. Some folks were out jogging. Somewhere close, kids were going off to school. Housewives were perhaps finishing up that first coffee of very ordinary day. Ordinary folks were beginning their mornings doing ordinary things. Webb began his day by killing people.

He tightened his shoelaces, struggled into his pack, shouldered the rifle bag, and headed up the hill. He still ignored any threat from the archer. Whoever that person was couldn’t run fast enough to catch him from a position out in front and below the house and both he and they seemed to have had the same goal.
###

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

At the Bus Station

Donahue had the office windows open. It was a hot day, little breeze, and only minimal air conditioning in the Jefferson Building. He was trying to concentrate on the fine points of the medical examiner’s report for his client’s client, a young woman charged with stabbing her boyfriend. She had been caught holding the knife, she had his blood on her clothes, and she had publicly an hour earlier said she hated his guts and wished he were dead. And then he was. Dead. Seated at the kitchen table, slumped over with his head resting on folded arms on the table, the knife sticking out of the back of his neck. She’d been found a block away and incoherent.

She said she didn’t remember doing it.

Murdock’s task wasn’t to necessarily believe her or not but rather he job was to search for holes in the investigation.

Between the lack of really chilled air, too much coffee, and it being late Friday afternoon he just couldn’t quite fathom the jargon in the report. No matter if he walked around the room or turned on the radio or made fresh coffee with a dash of Fireball in it he kept reading the choppy writing over a few times before moving to the next sentence.  It wasn’t like he didn’t understand the report, he just couldn’t concentrate. His room, so-called office, consisted of a small foyer with a desk and chair and a fake phone, no secretary, and a coat rack, the main room with a couch, two arm chairs, his desk and chair, a credenza, four file cabinets and a partitioned-off private spot for his computer and cameras. And a half bath. At least it was on a corner which gave him two windows, one easterly, in this part of the world they didn’t speak in strict cardinal compass points, looking over a pocket park at the blank wall of the building across the way, and a northern exposure over Main Street which ran one-way, from left to right towards downtown Madison City.

When the Jefferson Building shook, then, he perked up for a moment. Once in every ten years this part of Tennessee, in the mountains, or at least in Madison City’s case, nestled up against the mountains, was disturbed by an earthquake. Usually, and he thought this was normal for everyone, no one noticed it until the news mentioned it in the evening and then everyone of course was sure they’d identified it at the time. But this time it seemed obvious to him and severe.

He pivoted in his chair away from his desk, curious to see if any visible signs were on any of the downtown facades. The window to his back looked across a pocket park the city had put in when an older building just was too far gone to be allowed to remain standing. That was so long ago he couldn’t remember what building had been there. Now he looked across the grass and serpentine sidewalk and the few trees to the yellow-painted brick wall with it’s two windows and decorative brickwork. The wall, of course, really didn’t look out of place. A brick or two stuck out of the smoother background of bricks but that gave it a tired look in order to authenticate the age of the site.

Murdock stepped to the front window that overlooked Main Street. Either direction he couldn’t see beyond the end of the block. A block up was Market Street, one-way, the other way and he could hear the rise of siren and a patrol car shot across his vision heading away from downtown on Market. There was nothing unusual about that.

His cell phone buzzed on his desk. Well, while I’m up, he thought, might as well stay up. The ID showed it was Dejardens.

“Sarge,” said Donahue, “what’s going on with you today.”

“Franc,” said Sergeant Dejardens, one of the few people who knew Donahue’s first name was Francis but he went by Frank but spelled it “Franc.” “What’s just happened at your end of the downtown?”

“What? Nothing, I don’t think.”

“Check, would you?”

“For what?”

“Anything!” Donahue could hear a rise of babble and shouting in the background and the increase in concern in Dejardens’ voice.

Again, Donahue tried to look up and down Main but nothing seemed out of place. Another cop car went screaming past them on Market Street heading away from his office.

“I felt an earthquake a minute ago? Was it serious?”

“It’s beginning to sound like it wasn’t an earthquake, Franc.”

“Hang on. Let me get outside,” said Donahue. He was already out the office door and heading for the staircase. He hot-footed it down the big, wooden stairs, told Jimmy Bogart at the news stand to stay inside and told the two girls in the hairdressing salon to stay put and he pushed his way out the swinging double doors on to the sidewalk in front of the Jefferson Building.

For no reason he turned left. Maybe because the two police cars had gone that direction?

From two blocks down rose a column of black smoke that was as high as the sky. Donahue almost dropped the phone. The cloud was dark, mean looking. Above it and drifting into the breeze was a black glob of burning, burned, trash and debris and deadly-looking smoke. From behind him, he noticed, came another squad car, racing against the one-way inbound of the Main street. Donahue started to quick step towards the smoke.

What was down that way? A couple of warehouses. A brand new refurnished building just opening up for rent. An auction house. The news paper building. The bus station. The big Presbyterian church was across the street from the bus depot, on his side of the street, and the smoke was definitely on the other side of the street. What ever had happened it must have been huge and still burning
.
Donahue was at a quick trot now. From behind him he could hear the angry klaxon of the firetruck. It sounded way far away, perhaps still at the downtown station on the other side of downtown. Response times were less than ten minutes nowadays.

As the scene came more into view the more speechless became Donahue. He couldn’t quite hear Dejardens shouting over the phone.

It was indeed the bus station, the side towards him as he skirted debris on the sidewalk. Where the interstate system parked. In a circle one-hundred yards out was debris and the smell of burned air. In the center was a black spot on the pavement where a bus might have been parked. The big diesel engine was twenty feet to where it ought to have been, now a burning mass of metals. A bus lay on its side, the side was peeled off. All the windows on this side of the building were gone. Both floors. Across the street the store fronts and windows on the second floors were gone. Paper debris was falling to the ground. Other papers were drifting with the breeze. There were three patrol cars and one fire truck on the scene. In the distance more sirens started to rise.

Dejardens was screaming out of the tiny speaker of the cell phone. “Donahue. Franc. Donahue, talk to me.” Dejardens sounded strung out. They’d been on the phone all of three minutes. The tension had risen about as high as it could get in his voice.

“God,” said Donahue. It was a groan as much as a word. “The bus station.”

“What about it?” Dejardens voice was near cracking.

“This whole side is gone. The bus is gone. The bus next to it is on its side. The whole body is gone! The wheels…there’s a wheel over here on the other side of the street up against the church door…I see a large part of the body, now, jeez, it’s on the roof! What happened. Sarge? This isn’t some gas tank that went up. It had to be a big bomb. There’s body parts, human body parts all over, oh, God, I see a foot here front of me in the gutter and there’s a person up against a wall who’s been shredded. I’m gonna puke.”

“No, Murdock. Stay with me. We’re flooding the place with people but I need your eyeballs, hoss. C’mon. Stay with me!”

More sirens filled the air. More than he could almost distinguish. Patrol cars slid to stops at the edge of the destruction. A fire truck rumbled into view but could not avoid a limb --a leg, shoeless but still netted by a length of pantyhose -- on the sidewalk. The bile rose in his throat. People were beginning to stir. Those injured and those stone blasted by the shock wave, moaning in their corners or agains the walls, coming back to life. The parking lot and the street on either end of the bus parking lot sparkled with broken glass. He could hear car alarms and smoke alarms ringing everywhere. But, he could also see beyond the bus station building towards the massive brick fortress of the newspaper building built to house, once up a time, printing presses and heavy paper rolls. The brick wall, three stories high and forty or fifty, maybe sixty feet across, was riddled with shot and pieces sticking out of the brickwork but the bus station had taken the brunt of the blow and pulled the energy out of the explosion. The street between the press building and the bus station was a glaze of broken glass. Two, three, now four bodies all shredded came into his view as he walked. He stepped over and around one hand, a woman’s hand, with a wedding ring, on the sidewalk and then a pants leg but no leg.

“Sarge, I don’t even know where to start.” Donahue had taken a long moment to lean against a wall, gather his thoughts, catch his breath, fight down the sick feeling in his stomach, try not to stare at the carnage. “It’s a massacre, Sarge. You got people dead. Walking wounded. Probably many dying right in front of my eyes. The lower floor of the bus depot looks like somebody went through it with a bulldozer. The upper floor looks shredded. Those shops across the street, on Market, the windows are gone. I don’t see anyone moving there. The cars are all jacked over against the curbs. The sides are riddled and peeled off. Jesus Christ, what the hell kind of bomb did this? The church is riddled and peppered but the stained windows are intact. It might be needed for an emergency shelter.”

His attention went to the top of the church.

“Oh my God,” said Murdock.

“What?” Dejardens was getting hoarse. “Talk to me, hoss.”

“The steeple,” said Murdock. He was barely able to talk. Emotion and phlegm were catching in his throat.

“What about the steeple? Is it gone?”

“No,” said Murdock. He tried his best to not stare but the scene was beyond ignoring.

“There’s a body up on the cross of the steeple. Oh, Phil, I don’t know if I can take this. I got to sit down.”

“Hang in there, hoss.”

“We’re not talking some little pipe bomb. We’re talking like a military bomb. In a bus, Sarge. Luggage. There is really no bus left but there’s no crater either. Holy Chri…. I don’t know…Sarge. Bring everyone. Send every ambulance you got. Every cop car. Every firetruck. And you better bring in the big guns.” Donahue was starting to babble. Tears clouded his vision and his voice cracked. “This was no accident. Somebody set out to blow up a bus and take half the town with ‘em.”
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