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Mystery Writers of America Presents The Blue Religion
New Stories about Cops, Criminals, and the Chase
By Michael Connelly
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2008 Michael Connelly
All rights reserved.
BY T. JEFFERSON PARKER
So we moved up here to Spirit Lake in Idaho, where a lot of Jim's friends had come to live. After forty years in Laguna Beach, it was a shock to walk outside and see only a few houses here and there, some fog hovering over the pond out front, and the endless trees. The quiet too, that was another surprise. There's always the hiss of wind in the pines, but it's nothing like all the cars and sirens on PCH. I miss the Ruby's and the Nordstrom Rack up the freeway. Miss my friends and my children. We talk all the time by phone and e-mail, but it's not the same as living close by. We have a guest room.
We've had mostly a good life. Our firstborn son died thirteen years ago, and that was the worst thing that's ever happened to us. His name was James Junior, but he went by JJ. He was a cop, like his father, and was killed in the line of duty. After that, Jim drank himself almost to death, then one day just stopped. He never raised a finger or even his voice at me or the kids. Kept on with the Laguna Beach PD. I had Karen and Ricky to take care of, and I took meds for a year and had counseling. The one thing I learned from grief is that you feel better if you do things for other people instead of dwelling on yourself.
We're living Jim's dream of hardly any people but plenty of trees and fish.
There's some skinheads living one lake over, and one of them, Dale, came over the day we moved in last summer and asked if we had work. Big kid, nineteen, tattoos all over his arms and calves, red hair buzzed short, and eyes the color of old ice. Jim said there was no work, but they got to talking woodstoves and if the old Vermont Castings in the living room would need a new vent come fall. Dale took a look and said that unless you want to smoke yourself out, it would. Two days later, Dale helped Jim put one in, and Jim paid him well.
A couple of days later, I went to dig out my little jewelry bag from the moving box where I'd kind of hidden it, but it was gone. I'd labeled each box with the room it went to, but the movers just put the boxes down wherever — anyway, it was marked "bedroom," but they put it right there in the living room, where Dale could get at it when I went into town for sandwiches and Jim went outside for a smoke or to pee in the trees, which is something he did a lot of that first month or two. Jim told me I should have carried the jewelry on my person, and he was right. On my person. You know how cops talk. Said he'd go find Dale over in Hayden Lake the next day — skinhead central — what a way to meet the locals.
But the next morning, this skinny young boy shows up on our front porch, dark bangs almost over his eyes, no shirt, jeans hanging low on his waist and his boxers puffing out. Gigantic sneakers with the laces loose. Twelve or thirteen years old.
"This yours?" he asked.
Jim took the jewelry bag — pretty little blue thing with Chinese embroidery on it and black drawstrings — and angled it to the bright morning sun.
"Hers," he said. "Hon? What's missing?"
I loosened the strings and cupped the bag in my hand and pressed the rings and earrings and bracelets up against one another and the satin. It was mostly costume and semiprecious stones, but I saw the ruby earrings and choker Jim had gotten me one Christmas in Laguna and the string of pearls.
"The expensive things are here," I said.
"You Dale's brother?" asked Jim.
"What's your name?"
"Come on in."
"No reason for that."
"How are you going to explain this to Dale?"
And he loped down off the porch steps, landed with a crunch, and picked up his bike.
"Take care of yourself."
"That's what I do."
"We've got two cords' worth of wood and a decent splitter," said Jim.
Jason sized up Jim the way young teenagers do, by looking not quite at him for not very long. Like everything about Jim could be covered in a glance.
Later I asked Jim why he offered work to Jason when he'd held it back from Dale.
"I don't know. Maybe because Jason didn't ask."
THE WAY JJ died was that he and Jim were both working for Laguna PD — unusual for a father and son to work the same department — but everyone was cool with it, and they made the papers a few times because of the human interest. "Father and Son Crime Busters Work Laguna Beat."
If you don't know Laguna, it's in Orange County, California. It's known as an artist colony and a tourist town, a place prone to disasters such as floods, earth slides, and wildfires. There had been only one LBPD officer killed in the line of duty before JJ. That was back in the early fifties. His name was Gordon French.
Anyway, Jim was watch commander the night it happened to JJ, and when the "officer down" call came to dispatch, Jim stayed at his post until he knew who it was.
When Jim got there, JJ's cruiser was still parked up on the shoulder of PCH, with the lights flashing. It was a routine traffic stop, and the shooter was out of the car and firing before JJ could draw his gun. JJ's partner had stayed with him but also called in the plates. They got JJ to South Coast Medical Center but not in time. One of the reasons they built South Coast Medical Center forty-seven years ago was because Gordon French was shot and died for lack of medical care in Laguna. Then they build one, and it's still too late. Life is full of things like that, things that are true but badly shaped. JJ was twenty-five — would be thirty-eight today if he hadn't seen that Corolla weaving down the southbound lanes. They caught the shooter and gave him death. He's in San Quentin. His appeals will take at least six more years. Jim wants to go if they execute him. Me too, and I won't blink.
THE NEXT TIME we saw Jason was at the hardware store two days later. I saw his bike leaned against the wall by the door, and I spotted him at the counter as I walked through the screen door that Jim held open for me. He had on a knit beanie and a long-sleeve black T-shirt with some kind of skull pattern, and his pants were still just about sliding off his waist, though you couldn't see any boxers.
"Try some ice," the clerk said cheerfully.
Jason turned with a bag of something and started past us, his lips fat and black. His cheeks were swelled up behind the sunglasses.
Jim wheeled and followed Jason out. Through the screen door, I could hear them.
"Dale do that?"
Silence then. I saw Jason looking down. And Jim with his fists on his hips and this balanced posture he gets when he's mad.
"Then what happened?"
"Nothing. Get away from me, man."
"I can have a word with your brother."
Jason swung his leg over his bike and rolled down the gravel parking lot.
The next evening, Dale came up our driveway in a black Ram Charger pickup. It was "wine thirty," as Jim calls it, about six o'clock, which is when we would open a bottle, sit, and watch the osprey try to catch one of the big trout rising in our pond out front.
The truck pulled up close to the porch, all the way to the logs Jim had staked out to mark the end of the parking pad. Dale was leaning forward in the seat like he was ready to get out, but he didn't. The window went down, and Dale stared at us, face flushed red, which with his short red hair made him look ready to burst into flames.
"Dad told me to get over here to apologize for the jewelry, so that's what I'm doing."
"You beat up your brother because he brought it back?"
"He deserved every bit he got."
"A twelve-year-old doesn't deserve a beating like that," said Jim.
"You can't miss the point much further," said Jim.
Dale gunned the truck engine, and I watched the red dust jump away from the ground below the pipe. He was still leaning away from the seat like you would back home in July when your car's been in the sun and all you've got on is a halter or your swimsuit top. But this was Idaho in June at evening time, and it probably wasn't more than seventy degrees.
"Get out and show me your back," said Jim.
"What about it?"
"You know what it's about."
"You don't know shit," said Dale, pressing his back against the seat. "I deal with things."
Then the truck revved and lurched backward. I could see Dale leaning forward in the seat again and his eyes raised to the rearview. He kept a good watch on the driveway behind him as the truck backed out. Most young guys in trucks, they'd have swung an arm out and turned to look directly where they were driving. Maybe braced the arm on the seat. JJ always did that. I liked watching JJ learn to drive because his attention was so pure and undistractible. Dale headed down the road, and the dust rose like it was chasing him.
"Someone whipped his back," I said.
"You made some calls."
Jim nodded. Cops are curious people. Just because they retire doesn't mean they stop nosing into things. Jim has a network of friends that stretches all the way across the country, though most of them are in the West. Mostly retired but a few still active. And they grouse and gossip and yap and yaw like you wouldn't believe, swap information and stories and contacts and just about anything you can imagine that relates to cops. You want to know something about a guy, someone will know someone who can help. Mostly by Internet but by phone too. Jim calls it the Geezer Enforcement Network.
"Dale's father has a nice jacket because he's a nice guy," said Jim. "Aggravated assault in a local bar, pled down to disturbing the peace. Probation for assault on his wife. Ten months in county for another assault — a Vietnamese kid, student at Boise — broke his jaw with his fist. There was a child-abuse inquiry raised by the school when Dale showed up for first grade with bruises. Dale got homeschooled after that. Dad's been clean since '93. The wife sticks by her man — won't file, won't do squat. Tory and Teri Badger. Christ, what a name."
I thought about that for a second while the osprey launched himself from a tree.
"Is Tory an Aryan Brother?"
"Nobody said that."
"Clean for thirteen years," I said. "Since Jason was born. So, you could say he's trying."
Jim nodded. I did the math in my mind and knew that Jim was doing it too. Clean since 1993. That was the year JJ died. We can't even think of that year without remembering him. I'm not sure exactly what goes through Jim's mind, but I know that just the mention of the year takes him right back to that watch commander's desk on August 20, 1993. I'll bet he hears the "officer down" call with perfect clarity, every syllable and beat. Me, I think of JJ when he was seven years old, running down the sidewalk to the bus stop with his friends. Or the way he used to comb his hair straight down onto his forehead when he was a boy. To tell you the truth, sometimes I think about him for hours, all twenty-five years of him, whether somebody says "1993" or not.
That Saturday Jason came back over and split the wood. I watched him off and on from inside as he lined up the logs in the splitter and stood back as the wood cracked and fell into smaller and smaller halves. Twice he stopped and pulled a small blue notebook from the back pocket of his slipping-down jeans and scribbled something with a pen from another pocket. The three of us ate lunch on the porch even though it was getting cold. Jason didn't say much, and I could tell the lemonade stung his lips. The swelling around his eyes was down, but one was black. He was going to be a freshman come September.
"Can your dad protect you from your brother?" Jim asked out of nowhere.
"Dale's stronger now. But mostly, yeah."
Jim didn't say anything to that. After nearly forty years of being married to him, I can tell you his silences mean he doesn't believe you. And of course there were the broken lips and black eye making his case.
"If you need a place, you come stay here a night or two," he said. "Anytime."
"You'd be welcome," I said.
"Okay," he said, looking down at his sandwich.
I wanted to ask him what he wrote in the notebook, but I didn't. I have a place where I put things for safekeeping too, though it's not a physical place.
Later that night, we went to a party at Ed and Ann Logan's house on the other side of Spirit Lake. It was mostly retired SoCal cops, the old faces from Orange County and some Long Beach people Jim fell in with whom I never really got to know. I've come to like cops in general. I guess that would figure. And their wives too — we pretty much get along. There's a closedness about most cops that used to put me off until JJ died and I realized that you can't explain everything to everybody. You have to have that place inside where something can be safe. Even if it's only a thought or a memory. It's the opposite of the real world, where people die as easily as leaves fall off a tree. And the old cliché about cops believing it's them and us, well, it's absolutely true that that's what they think. Most people think that way — it's just the "thems" and the "usses" are different.
A man was stacking firewood on the Logans' deck when we got there. He was short and thick, gave us a level-eyed nod, and that was all. Later Jim and I went outside for some fresh air. The breeze was strong and cool. The guy was just finishing up the wood. He walked toward us, slapping his leather work gloves together.
"I apologize for Dale," he said. "I'm his dad. He ain't the trustworthiest kid around."
"No apology needed," said Jim. "But he's no kid."
"He swore there was nothin' missing from that bag."
"It was all there," I said.
Badger jammed the gloves down into a pocket. "Jason says you're good people. But I would appreciate it if you didn't offer him no more work. And if he comes by, if you would just send him back home."
"To get beat up?" said Jim.
"That's not an everyday occurrence," said Badger. "We keep the family business in the family."
"There's the law."
"You aren't it."
Badger had the same old-ice eyes as Dale. There was sawdust on his shirt and bits of wood stuck to his bootlaces, and he smelled like a cord of fresh-cut pine. "Stay away from my sons. Maybe you should move back to California. I'm sure they got plenty a'need for bleedin' heart know-it-alls like you."
WE LEFT THE party early. When we were almost home, Jim saw a truck parked off in the trees just before our driveway. He caught the shine of the grill in his headlights when we made the turn. I don't know how he saw that thing, but he still has twenty-fifteen vision for distance, so he's always seeing things that I miss. A wind had come up, so maybe it parted the trees at just the right second.
He cut the lights and stopped well away from our house. The outdoor security lights were on, and I could see the glimmer of the pond and the branches swaying. Jim reached across and drew his .380 automatic from its holster under the seat.
"We can go down the road and call the sheriff," I said.
"This is our home, Sally. I'm leaving the keys in."
"Be careful, Jim. We didn't retire up here for this."
I didn't know a person could get in and out of a truck so quietly. He walked down the driveway with the gun in his right hand and a flashlight in the other. He had that balanced walk, the one that meant he was ready for things. Jim's not a big guy, six feet, though, and still pretty solid.
Then I saw Dale backing around from the direction of the front porch, hunched over with a green gas can in one hand. Jim yelled, and Dale turned and saw him, then he dropped the can and got something out of his pocket, and a wall of flames huffed up along the house. Dale lit out around the house and disappeared.
I climbed over the console and drove the truck fast down the driveway and almost skidded on the gravel into the fire. Had to back it up, rocks flying everywhere. I got the extinguisher off its clip behind the seat and walked along the base of the house, blasting the white powder down where the gas was. A bird's nest up under an eave had caught fire, so I gave that a shot too. Could hear the chicks cheeping. I couldn't tell the sound of the extinguisher from the roaring in my ears.
Excerpted from Mystery Writers of America Presents The Blue Religion by Michael Connelly. Copyright © 2008 Michael Connelly. Excerpted by permission of Little, Brown and Company.
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