IT WAS LATE NOVEMBER on the edge of the Hill Country, but I had learned very quickly that down here nothing was ever quite what it seemed. As I drove through northwest Austin that day, it might as well have been spring. The thin leaves of the pecan trees hadn't turned. People still mowed their lawns in T-shirts and shorts. Or in this upscale neighborhood, watched various illegal aliens hustle like dung beetles back and forth across the thick St. Augustine lawns through scattershot swarms of gnats. Overhead a brilliant afternoon sun floated in the rich blue sky polished cloudless by the soft southeastern breezes. A single buzzard overhead seemed to be keeping a weathered eye on things. Winter seemed a distant promise, bound to be broken.
Back home in Montana fall already would be hard upon the land, a thick mantle of snow draped across the peaks and high ridges around the Meriwether Valley, the cottonwood branches fingerbone bare, the western larch golden among the dark pines, and the willow aflame along the frost-limned creeks. Of course, back home I would be working my ass off, laying in ten cords of firewood for the winter coming, falling and bucking and splitting pine and fir and alder until my hands bled and my back ached like a heart attack.
This was my fifth fall in Texas, and I had to admit my aging bones hadn't completely forgotten how to dread Montana winters, although the memories seemed as dim as sunlight dazed by a late spring snowstorm. But when the Caddy's automatic air conditioner kicked on, I was reminded that nothing was free in this world. The winter price had to be paid in one way or the other. The vents still carried the stench of a bad weekend with my woman down at her uncle's ornate beach house north of Port Aransas. The air was still thick with the stink of the coastal marshes and mud flats, the spoil banks and tidal pools, the place where everything beginsor endswhere the land rises slowly from the shallow sea like the flesh of a drowned corpse oozing through watery skin. A chase after money and revenge had brought me to Texas, and a woman, Betty Porterfield, had kept me here. But as our love failed, I found myself homesick for Montana more often than now and again.
I was on the job this afternoon, though, so I pushed Montana out of my mind as I cruised toward the southern border of Gatlin County where it nestled like a sluggish political afterthought into the rich, fat software back of northwestern Travis County. Even though I owned a bar the southwestern side of the county, I'd never been in this unincorporated part tucked along the breaks of the Balcones Escarpment. Surrounded by the urban sprawl, this area didn't even have a name. Lalo Herrera, whose sons managed my bar, had told me that the locals sometimes called it el Rinc?n Malo, "the Bad Corner." Whatever the place might be called, though, it was just another un-zoned trashy suburban slum. The limestone slopes were spotted with dusty cedar shrubs, and the narrow potholed street sported two convenience stores on opposite corners wrestling for the beer, bait, and overpriced gasoline concession, and one locker-cum-butcher shop where the local hunters converted their little whitetail deer into dry-smoked sausage or stinky hamburger threaded with hair. Several flashy but cheaply built apartment complexes littered the steep hillsides, surrounding a mobile home park that looked neither mobile nor homey.
Not even the great weather could hide the disorder and deep sorrow here, as the pastoral degenerated into unplanned urban sprawl. I could almost smell the bitter energies of change and failure. And not just the Bad Corner's. I seemed to be in some sort of downhill tumble myself, going from bad to worse as I stumbled through the transition from a semiemployed private eye to a solid citizen and back down again. A few years before, I had recovered my father's stolen inheritance, plus a considerable sum of unlaundered drug funds stashed in an offshore bank, and I had real money for the first time in my life. Lots of it.
But it didn't change my life all that much. Bored and looking for a way to get out of Betty's ranch house, and perhaps, too, hoping to wash a bit of the drug money, I had gone into business with her uncle, Travis Lee Wallingford, investing in the final stages of an upscale motel, the Blue Hollow Lodge, on the southeastern border of Gatlin County.
I also signed on to own and run the bar in the western corner of the Lodge, the Low Water Crossing Bar and Grill. But my enterprising businessman act had worn thin very quickly. So I drifted back into what I knew best, shuffling through the emotional debris of other people's lives, telling myself that going back into private investigation was just a harmless hobby-like building sailing ships in whiskey bottles or collecting beer cans-a silly diversion of late middle age. I picked up a Texas license, put up my own bond, and had taken to spending my free afternoons piddling around at detective work. Mostly pissant jobs no self-respecting private investigator would take.
One of these jobs had brought me to the Bad Corner and a flag-stone- and-barnwood beer joint called Over the Line, even though the faded sign painted on the sideboards still clearly stated that it had originally been called Duval's Place. A shy, middle-aged high school teacher up in Burnet County had offered me five hundred dollars to find his young wife, Carol Jean, although I suspected that Joe Warren didn't want his young wife back as much as he wanted something to show for the retirement fund money he had squandered on her orthodontics and breast implants. At least that was the impression I had gotten when he showed me her picture. Carol Jean had one of those narrow but pretty country faces-large, over-painted eyes and full red lips smiling bravely around an overbite only slightly restrained behind a field of barbed wireall of it tucked like a child's Easter egg into the tangled nest of her big, blond hair. The half-moons of her new breasts peeked shyly over the neckline of her blouse, and her sly, metallic smile suggested that these new babies had changed her from a skinny high school girl into a woman with whom to be reckoned. In the six years since Carol Jean had graduated from high school and married Joe Warren, instead of looking pretty, canning peaches, and popping kids for Baby Joe, she had worked as a hairdresser, cocktail waitress, legal secretary, and a kick-boxing instructor at a health club. But the only thing that her heart really fancied was hustling pool in afternoon beer joints. Sometimes at Over the Line. Information that six margaritas and a line of bullshit had bought me from Carol Jean's hairdresser mom.
As I pulled the El Dorado into the parking lot beside three pick-ups and a battered Suburban, I tossed my sunglasses into the glove box with my S&W Airweight .38, then locked it. I had taken a spent .25 round in the guts some years before, lost eighteen inches of intestine and much of my fondness for sidearms. I hadn't carried a piece very often since then. If Carol Jean was here today, I could only hope she wouldn't shoot me. Or bite me. Or hit me with her new tits.
But before I could ease out of the sour mood and the El Dorado, a black Lincoln Town Car with Oklahoma dealer tags slid into the lot with locked brakes, raising a veil of dust that almost obscured the fine afternoon. The black guy who stepped out of the Town Car wasn't any larger than a church or any more incongruous than a nun with a beard. Six nine or ten and an iron-hard two-ninety. Above his dark shades, his shaved head gleamed coppery and metallic like the jacket on a high-powered rifle round. His black leather pants rippled like a second skin and his bloused red shirt announced itself like a matador's cape. And the way he walked across the lot shouted "yard boss," as if he had survived a ton of hard time somewhere and was damn sure ready to do it all over again.
When the big guy slammed through the swinging doors of the beer joint, the hinges squealed and the doors flapped like sheets in a rising wind. I thought about postponing my quest for Carol Jean. But, as usual, once I had started looking for somebody, I made the mistake of feeling vaguely responsible for them. So I climbed out and headed for the joint. Before I got there, though, I heard a nasal drawl, shouting, "Watch out, you fuckin' nigger!" And moments later a large Chicano kid streaming blood from a pancaked nose tumbled out of the joint, staggered to his feet, then ran for the safety of his pickup truck. When I reached for the doors, Carol Jean crashed into my arms, her salty new tits as hard as the custom cue clutched in her hands. Dressed in skintight jeans and a tank top that could have been painted on her torso, I assumed her opponents spent more time watching Carol Jean than the table. She was taller than she looked in her photograph, and without braces, prettier, too, but I had been right on about the attitude. She turned, raised the cue like an axe, and headed back into the beer joint.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you," I said.
"And why the hell not?"
"There won't be enough of you left to fuck, sugar," I suggested.
"Besides, you're holding it all wrong."
But Carol Jean wasn't having any of it. Where reason fails, try money. I slipped a twenty off my money clip, handed it to her. "Just wait over there by that Cadillac, and I'll give you another one when I come out."
Still Carol Jean hesitated, her head cocked like a fairly bright chicken, until a redneck kid flew out of the front window and landed like a sack of shit in a pile of broken glass.
"Hi, Vernon," she said calmly, but the kid wasn't up to answering.
"Okay, man," she added to me, "I don't know what you're doing, but if you don't come back, I'll take the other one off your dead body." Then she laughed, a sound as shrill as worn brake pads.
"Thanks for the vote of confidence," I said, hitched up my jeans, arranged my mouth into my most beguiling smile, and sauntered into the shadows like a dumb tourist.
The bar had been built into the slope, giving it two levels: pool tables and booths on the lower level in front, a short bar and half a dozen tables about four feet higher in the back. The large black gentleman hadn't quite made it to the upper level yet. Another sizable black guy in a Dallas Cowboys jersey leaned over a pool table, leaking blood and broken teeth onto the feltthe big guy seemed to be an equal opportunity disaster area-and a rat-faced beer-joint cowboy had a cue raised over his head, his narrow mouth curled in contempt, but when he brought the cue down, the big guy casually blocked it with a muscular forearm. The cue snapped briskly, and the handle weight spun out to slam the already damaged Cowboys fan in the forehead with a sound like an egg dropped on a sidewalk. He disappeared behind the pool table as if shot. The cowboy grinned apologetically, then dashed past me as fast as his tight jeans and high-heeled boots would let him.
"Next time use it like a bayonet," I suggested as the cowboy stumbled past, "not a club."
"You must not be from around here," the big guy said softly.
"Most of these Texas assholes are dumber than hammered dogshit."
"Nobody ever accused me of being from around here," I said as I stepped up to stand beside the big guy, who loomed over me like an unstable rock outcropping.
"Whatever," he said, slapping me on the shoulder hard enough to make my knees flex. But the huge hand on my shoulder was polite instead of insistent. "Let's you and me have a drink, old man."
It's the hair, I thought. Several white streaks had appeared after a bad session with a bunch of contrabandistas a few years before. I'm not as old as I look, I started to say. But I could tell that the big guy wasn't interested. So I followed him up the short stairway, where we leaned against the bar.
"I don't mind a little whip-ass, when it's deserved," the chubby bartender said as he leaned on the bar, "and that Meskin kid was way outa line." He was a soft, round-faced man with a fat, bald head. "I don't want to have to call the law," he maintained stoutly. But I suspected he had delivered this line a few times before without success.
"Just shut the fuck up," the big guy said as he set his shades on the bar, "and pour us a drink. I ain't had time for a peaceful drink since I left Tulsa this morning. How about a couple of handfuls of that Crown Royal over a little ice."
The bartender found two water glasses and filled them with ice and whiskey. The big guy nuzzled his drink for a second, then poured it down his throat. I nibbled around the edges of mine.
"Goddamn that was good, man," the big guy said, then he noticed my drink. "Come on," he said, laughing and dropping his hand like a grubbing-hoe handle on my shoulder. If he wasn't careful, the big son of a bitch was going to kill me with affection. With his shades off, his eyes were an oddly gray shade of light blue, shining like tiny bulbs on either side of his hooked nose. "When you drink with Enos Walker, man, we don't allow no sipping."
You might as well argue with an avalanche, so I dumped mine down my throat, too, though I didn't enjoy it nearly as much as Enos Walker had.
"Set us up again, bartender," he said, "then I want to have a word with somebody who knew that fuckin' Duval."
The bartender's hand shook a little this time as he poured, then he rubbed his sweaty head as if it had suddenly sprouted hair. "Ah, Mr. Duval ain't been here for some time..."
"I just been in jail, motherfucker," the big guy said as he held up his second bundle of whiskey, "not on the moon. Who the hell's in charge these days? Either Duval's buddies or that fuckin' silver-haired bitch"
"Mandy Rae?" the bartender interrupted, then snapped his mouth shut as if the name hurt his teeth.
"one of 'em owes me big-time, chubby."
"I don't rightly know nothin' 'bout that," the bartender said.
"Well, who the hell you reckon might know," Walker said, leaning easily over the bar and burying his index finger to the first joint in the bartender's pudgy chest, "Mr. Fucking Pillsbury Doughboy?"
"Ah, maybe Mr. Long knows," he answered with a tortured sigh.
"Billy Long? I remember that redneck piece of shit. Where is he?"
"He's in the office," the bartender said, thumbing over his shoulder, "but I don't think he wants to be bothered right now."
"No bother," Enos Walker said, then gunned his drink and headed around the bar.
The bartender mopped his head with a bar towel, chugged a bubbling drink straight from the bottle, then sighed deeply as his right hand drifted under the counter. I reached over to pinch his snotty upper lip. Hard.
"What have you got under there?"
"Sawed-off double twelve," the bartender whimpered as the whiskey courage squirted out of him like puppy piss.
"Better let me have it," I said, "before somebody gets hurt. Stock first, if you don't mind."
The bartender handed me the shotgun, and got his upper lip back in return. I broke the piece open, ejected both shells, and handed it back to him just as we heard loud voices from the office. The shouting ended with an even louder gunshot.
"Oh my God," the bartender moaned and shoved the sawed-off deeply into the ice.
Enos Walker came back to the bar, not hurrying, a huge semi-automatic pistol dangling from his hand. Probably one of those Desert Eagle .50 cannons, I thought. "Is everybody in this fucking place stupid?" he asked, waving arms like small logs, but I didn't think he wanted an answer. Walker shoved the pistol under his belt, slipped on his shades, and said, "You ain't finished your drink, old man."
"I think I've had enough," I said. Unfortunately, getting older had not made me any smarter.
"Don't push your luck."
"Fuck it," I said and left the drink on the bar.
"Maybe you ain't as smart as I thought you were, old man," he said.
"I expect that wasn't your first mistake today."
That nearly kicked it into the cesspool. But suddenly Enos Walker grinned and placed his hands gently on my shoulders, smiled, then said, "You got balls, old man." Then he laughed his bitter, hopeless, hard-timer breath right into my face, breath as rank as the winter den of a grizzly. He picked up my drink, slowly poured it down his throat, grabbed the remains of the bottle from the bartender, then left without a backward glance. As he hit the door, the bartender let out his breath, then leaned against the back bar while he guzzled another drink. I headed to the back to check the damage, which was, as I suspected, extensive.
Long had been a tall man with long gray hair, perhaps even good-looking before the muzzle blast had burned off his face and the heavy round had scattered the back half of his head all over the whorehouse wallpaper and a Troy Aikman poster behind him. A clot of hairy gray matter hung from the quarterback's upper lip like an incipient mustache. I thought the kid looked better with some hair on his face.
The bartender peeked around the edge of the office door, then hit the floor in a dead faint. I checked his pulse and made sure that he hadn't swallowed his tongue, then pulled him over to the side and propped up his feet on a chair. As I did, a meaty fart fizzled out of his backside.
I went back to the office. From the look of the deskcluttered with scales, folded and unfolded Snowseal bindles, milk sugar, and a Jack Daniel's bar mirror-Long had been cutting cocaine and breaking it down into grams, but there was no sign of the source, an ounce bag at least, which was probably riding away in Enos Walker's leather pocket. The right-hand drawer of the desk was partially open; an empty cash box, a Rolodex, and a partial box of .50 Magnum pistol rounds were visible.
"Stupid bastard," I said, but wasn't sure who I was talking to. Because I used the nail of my little finger to flip through the Rolodex to the Ds and wrote down the telephone and address of the only Duval listed, somebody named Sissy. But that wasn't the real stupid part. I wrote it down on the back of the largest bindle, the one that had "mine" scrawled on it. Maybe it's a clue, I thought, as I shoved the bindle into my shirt pocket.
The battered black guy in the Cowboys jersey had disappeared when I went back through the empty joint. I picked up the only purse I saw and a custom cue case with CJW embossed on it. Outside, Carol Jean leaned against the fender of the El Dorado, looking sweetly befuddled, the tip of her tongue sticking out of the corner of her mouth as she concentrated, twirling her cue like a demented majorette.
"Took you long enough," she said, not looking at me. "I would have gone with that big black dude. But he didn't ask."
"A piece of luck, sugar."
"What the hell happened in there, anyway?" she asked.
"Sounded like a bomb or something."
"Something," I said. "You got wheels?"
"Nope. I came with Vernon, but he jumped in his pickup and took off like a spotted-ass ape."
"How about money?"
"Baby Joe sent you, huh?" Carol Jean said as she dangled the twenty from her crimson nails.
I nodded as I dug out another one, then handed it to her. "Listen, kid, carry your ass over to that telephone booth across the street," I said, "and call a cab."
"Shit, man, I can get a ride."
"I'll just bet your sweet ass you can," I said, "and that's probably a better idea anyway. Go home to the hubby, lie like a Navajo rug..."
"A Navajo rug?"
"Complex but serene, simple but beautiful," I explained.
"Are you on drugs, man?"
"Just high on life," I said, "and happy to be alive."
"At your age you should be."
"Listen," I said, slightly miffed, "just keep your head down for a couple of months. I'll tell the cops I missed you, and you tell them you were at home watching soap operas."
"That bad, huh," she said, then finally stopped twirling to look at me.
"Let's just say that Mr. Long lost his head," I said.
"Jeez," she whispered. "Anybody get hurt?"
"Hey, next time you want to take off, at least talk to Baby Joe first. He's a little miffed about the teeth and the tits."
"Things change," she said as she broke down and packed her cue. "But never quite enough," she added sadly, then just as quickly grinned brightly, as lively as a baby chick. "Is that what you do for a living? Find people?"
"Hard times, people, lost dogs," I said as I lit a cigarette.
"Want to see these puppies, old man?" she asked, smiling as she cupped her new breasts.
"Not right now, sugar," I said, "I've got a headache." Carol Jean squealed with laughter. It sparkled like a wire behind my eyes. She pranced out of the parking lot, then across the highway, where she stuck out her thumb. The first passing pickup smoked its tires stopping to give her a ride.
Truth is, I would have liked nothing better than to rest my weary head on her firm young chest. Maybe it would wash the image of the dead man out of my head. But I knew better. Nothing ever really washed the images of the dead away, not tears, or time, or whiskey. At eleven, I'd seen my father on the floor of his den, the top half of his head demolished by a Purdey double-barrel. Some years later, but not long enough to suit me, when I was stuck in a muddy front-line trench in Korea near the end of the war, everywhere I looked, everybody looked dead. Except the dead don't blink. So I finished the cigarette, ground the butt into the settling dust, walked across the road to the dirtier convenience store, stashed the bindle behind the toilet tank, bought a couple of beers, then went back to the empty joint to call the cops, preparing myself for their serene complexity.
Of course, it wasn't that simple. Absolutely nothing in Texas had been simple yet. The bartender had revived and disappeared, and I didn't want to be in the office, so I dialed 911 from the pay telephone in the parking lot. When the dispatcher answered, I told her that there had been a shooting at a place called Over the Line. "Again," she immediately said as if she were a regular, then asked for my name and the details.
I thought about lying, wiping my prints and heading for Montana but elk season was probably over and it was too late to catch the brown trout run on the Upper Yellowstoneso I decided against running. I had too much invested in Texas now.
After several hours of the usual cop rigmarole, most of it done by rote because everybody knew Billy Long was headed to no good end, I wound up in a small gray office filled with the inevitable paperwork clutter of a cop's life in the limestone fortress of the Gatlin County courthouse across a messy desk from a large, paunchy man with tired gray eyes and an even more exhausted suit.
"Mr. Milodragovitch, I'm Captain James Gannon, chief of detectives for the Gatlin County Sheriff 's Department," he said in some sort of gravelly East Coast accent, "and I've got some good news for you. We found the bartender at homeone Leonard Wilburand when we sobered him up a little bit, he verifyed your story."
"I can go home?"
"They're typing up your statement right now," he said, ignoring me. It was clear Gannon was a street cop disguised as a deputy sheriff and that he wasn't ever going to answer a question. "There's a couple of things bothering me. Maybe you can set me straight."
"I feel a little more cooperative now," I said. "Your deputies pushed me pretty hard."
"They're just kids and they've covered a lot of confused and bad calls at Billy Long's place," Gannon said, but it didn't even border on an apology. Then he rubbed his worn face. "Well, sir, I'm a bit concerned about the fact that we couldn't find the bulk cocaine that Long was cutting. Not even with the dogs. We found the cut stuff. But not the other."
"I wouldn't know anything about that, Captain."
"And then you wouldn't let my boys go through your vehicle without a search warrant..."
"Which they got very quickly."
"Well, things move pretty quickly in a small county down here, and in spite of urban sprawl, this is a very small county," he said, sighing, "but you know what your refusal says to me?"
"Well, sir, to me it says 'ex-con' or 'ex-cop.'"
Gannon knew exactly who I was, but it was easier to play his game. "I was a deputy sheriff a long time ago," I said, "up in Meriwether County, Montana. And I held a private investigator's license up there for a long time and I'm duly licensed and bonded in the state of Texas."
"Oh shit," Gannon said, shaking his head in mock surprise.
"You're the guy who owns the bar at the Blue Hollow Lodge? How the hell did you ever get a liquor license with your record? Hell, the Gov did it for you, didn't he?"
"Mr. Wallingford and I are partners in the motel," I said, calmly, "but I own the bar outright." Travis Lee Wallingford had served half a dozen terms in the state legislature from Gatlin County, both the House and the Senate, both as a Democrat and a Republican, but he was always more interested in inflammatory oratory than detail, and his favorite speech involved an empty threat to run for governor, a position that in the morass of Texas government was usually reserved for a figurehead, rich men or unsuccessful politicians at the end of their careers. So lots of people referred to him as the Gov, and not always in a flattering way. "And in spite of any rumors you may have heard, I don't have a record of any kind. Down here or anywhere," I said.
"Whatever," Gannon groaned dramatically, "you've got too much local clout for me, Mr. Milodragovitch. Just sign your statement and be on your merry way." Then Gannon paused to rub his face again. "Goddammit," he said as he jerked his tie open, "sometimes I wonder why the hell I ever took this job..." Then he buried his face in his hands again.
"You playing on my sympathy, Captain? Good cop and bad cop at the same time?"
Gannon peeked like a child through his thick fingers, then lifted his smiling face. "Hey, it's a small department, everybody's got to cover two or three jobs."
"What the hell are you doing down here?"
"My son-in-law teaches at UT," he said. "I came down here to be close to the grandkids and..."
"Bayonne, New Jersey," Gannon said. "What the hell are you doing down here?" he asked as if he really wanted to know. Even the dumbest cop had to be an actor occasionally, and I suspected that Gannon was far from dumb. "A woman," I answered honestly.
"Ain't it the shits," he said. "Truth is my ex-wife moved down here after the divorce. She followed the grandkids down here, and I tagged along like a piece of dogshit stuck to her shoe. Damn woman took off after twenty-six years of marital bliss..."
"Hell, I've been married five times, and all of them don't add up to half that."
"Look," Gannon said suddenly, taking my revolver and license out of a drawer, then leaned over the desk, clasping his meaty hands together, "can I put it to you straight?"
"Nobody wants to be fucked without a kiss." I had never gotten along all that well with cops even when I was one, so I braced myself for whatever bullshit Gannon had in mind.
"Walker stepped out of McAlester this morning. Served a long jolt for possession with intent to sell and some other shit. Stopped at a bank, probably for a stash of money nobody could ever find, a Lincoln dealership, then drove straight down here, and killed Billy Long. Probably revenge for a coke deal gone bad."
"I didn't see it that way," I said.
"Doesn't matter," Gannon said. "Billy Long's a known slimebag, but Walker's a dead man down here, no matter what. Hell, there's more handguns than cows in this state, and since the governor signed that new carry law, almost everybody's got one concealed on their person. If some hotshot rookie or dipshit civilian doesn't get him, the needle will. And a guy that size, he won't be all that hard to find. He's probably gone to ground down in Travis County. He's got family in Austin. That's his old stomping ground, where he first went into the cocaine business big-time," Gannon said, "and Austin or Travis County, well, they don't give a rat's ass about me. Or my job."
"The sheriff who decided he needed a big-city cop to prepare for big-city crime and hired me to organize his detective division... Well, he died last year," Gannon said, "and this new guy, Benson, he sure enough hates my Yankee ass. He's not about to let me make it to retirement, if he can help it. I may be the most unpopular peace officer in the state of Texas. Hell, if I don't end up in the slam, I'll end up shaking doorknobs until I'm sixty-five, and eating dog food till I die. But if I could put my hands on this Enos Walker skell, I'd be locked until my time is in.
"Because you're freelance and because of your connections, Mr. Milodragovitch, you've got resources I can't touch," he continued, "and you can go places I can't go."
"You didn't see this big bastard in action," I said. "I'm looking forward to spending my twilight years in one piece."
"Which is why you're chasing this nickel-and-dime shit? Runaway wives? Give me a break," he said, waving his stubby arms.
"What's next? Lost dogs?"
"Man likes to keep his hand in," I said. "And, what the hell, once I made ten grand dognapping a stolen Labrador retriever from a bunch of Japanese bird hunters in Alberta."
"Whatever," Gannon interrupted, not interested. "You're not exactly at the height of your career right now, are you?"
"Hey, fuck it, man," I said, trying to smile. "I'm good at what I do. I'm just about the only son of bitch in the world ever repossessed a combine in a wheat field. Drove the pig all the way to Hardin at three miles an hour. Made more money that day than you make in a year. So don't run that career shit at me."
"Right," Gannon said, shrugging. "Look at it this way. Your bar's in my county, not too far down the road. Maybe I'll stop in for a drink someday."
"I hope that's not a threat, Captain," I said, no longer smiling but trying to be polite. I was in the process of laundering the stolen drug money through the bar, and I didn't need even the smallest bit of heat.
Gannon stood up quickly, opened his arms, and grinned. "Jeez, I sure as hell hope it didn't sound that way," he said, moving around the desk. "I sure as hell didn't mean it like that. Just thought that both of us being strangers down here, you might hear something I can use."
"As far as I can tell, Captain, everybody down here is either a stranger or strange." And getting stranger by the minute, I might have added.
"Hell, listen, we'll have that drink anyway. And there's no reason for you to wait around to sign your statement. I'll have one of my boys run it over to you tomorrow."
"Maybe I'll just wait."
"You know, I'm like that. Favors from strangers make me nervous, too," Gannon said. "But we'll tip a few and maybe we won't be strangers anymore."
Then he reached out his broad, thick hand. I shook it as well as I could with my fingers crossed. I still had Walker's hard-timer's breath in my mouth, the dingy stench of prison in my nose, and could still feel the friendly grip of his huge hands on my shoulders.
At the end of summer before my senior year in high school, during that brief period between the time my job pulling the green chain at the mill ended and two-a-day football practices started, I had a free weekend. My football buddies and I had filled the backs of our rigs with ice and cases of Great Falls Select, then driven up a jeep trail deep in the Diablo Mountains to my grandfather's land so we could celebrate our brief release by getting shit-faced in the wilderness, a hoary Montana tradition.
We built a huge fire and drank ourselves stupid as we danced half-naked around it, as innocently savage as any beasts that ever lived. Until the bear showed up. About midnight, a curious black bear cub, drawn by the noise or the smell of the burned elk burgers, nosed into the circle of firelight, sniffing as if he wanted to join the dance.
Once when my father and I were fly fishing up Six Mile, a black bear had come up to the bluff across the creek. I must have been four or five, old enough to be curious and young enough to be nervous. He told me that if I wanted the bear to move on to bark like a dog. I barked as loud and long as I could. The sow scrambled up the nearest tree. "Sometimes, they'll do that," my Dad said. So when I saw the cub, I started barking. Within moments, my buddies had joined me, and the little devil scooted up a bull pine, where he swung precariously from a thick branch, hissing and spitting like a tomcat.
We laughed like madmen at the frightened cub, swept by gales of drunken mirth, until I spun and fell on my back at the base of the pine, my mouth wide open. The cub spit straight down into my mouth, a skunky stream of saliva, more solid than liquid, which I swallowed before I could stop. An electric moment. Suddenly I was sober and sorry for the cub. But I couldn't stop my friends from laughing and barking. I punched and shoved and wrestled them, but they thought I was crazy and wouldn't stop. I fought them to a standstill. Or until they got tired of beating on me. Nobody remembers which came first. Then they decided what they really needed was a road trip to the whorehouses in Wallace, Idaho, another hoary Montana tradition, so they drove down the mountain, leaving me with a couple of six-packs and a very sore head. I sat by the dying fire until dawn, the stink of the bear in my mouth, my nose, and seeping through my guts. The raspy sound of the bear's breath echoed in my head. When the sun cleared the saddle below Hammerhead Peak, we both went home. I never looked at a bear the same way againor my friends, for that matterand never got that wild taste out of my mouth. Leave me alone, fool, it seemed to say, we're in this shit together.
Something else had changed that night, too, but I didn't know what until much later. Turned out that it was the end of my childhood. After football season, after a shouting match with my crazy, drunken mother-she had accused me of only going hunting in eastern Montana so I could go whoring in Livingston like my worthless, dead father, which was only half-trueI said I was leaving for good, and she said "good riddance to bad rubbish." Three days later she signed the papers lying about my age, and I was in the Army, where I learned a bitter lesson about fear. But I never lost the taste of that bear. We were brothers, somehow, in this life and death together.
I shook Gannon's hand, reluctantly. Whatever had happened in Long's office, and whatever Enos Walker had done, he was a man like me. If he lived long enough to make it to court, chances were, with the testimony of the bartender and me, Walker could cop a self-defense or involuntary manslaughter plea and wouldn't have to die at the hands of a state I found much too fond of the needle. I knew the sweet taste of revenge, but living in a place that killed people with such casual aplomb made me a little jumpy. In the long run the death penalty had nothing to do with revenge or deterrence. It was just a way for the fools to get elected.
Copyright (c) 2001 by James Crumley