Desperation

 

                It was a good neighborhood, a decent, middle-class, coastal Central California neighborhood, nothing fancy but well-kept, a mixture of one- and two-story houses built in the forties and fifties, with mature elm, pepper and sycamore trees and a few magnolia and palms thrown in.  Flower beds or hedges defined the borders of front lawns.  Mockingbirds scolded cats on the prowl and waited for their chance to raid vegetable gardens and berry vines.  People walked their dogs on leashes and carried bags for when their dogs did their business.  The downside of this idyllic middle-class neighborhood included  calling cards left by cats in flower beds, and dogs ruining your sleep barking at the cats or perhaps a stray possum looking for an easy meal at their food dish. 

There were few renters in the neighborhood.  The homeowners, mostly older, blue-collar folks ethnically mixed, were cordial.  If you met one on your way to the mailbox, they’d stop to chat about the weather or the news and then go about their business.  Many had raised their kids in the neighborhood and were already grandparents.  On weekends the air was redolent with the smells of tri-tip and chicken on backyard barbecues.  Parties were rarely loud and usually broke up before curfew.  The town itself was so small that one could hardly stop at Albertson’s for a jug of milk and a loaf of bread without running into an acquaintance.

Ed and Sandy Fordham were relatively new on the block, having been there five years.  They fit right into the neighborhood.  They didn’t throw noisy parties and they kept their place up nicely.  On weekends they washed their cars and mowed their lawn.  They, especially Sandy, checked frequently to make sure the elderly people on the block were doing okay.  Shawn, their ten-year-old son, was polite and well-behaved.  Everyone liked them.

Their little Cape Cod house with a mortgage was the only two-story on the block, and the only Cape Cod, for that matter.  Everything else was some version of a ranch style or bungalow, mostly stucco, with one occasionally sporting aluminum siding or a bricked front wall.  It was the first home they’d ever purchased.  Ed had invested a great deal of sweat equity in the place, repainting the entire exterior a pure white by himself, with Sandy holding the ladder, then doing the trim and shutters in blue.  He had re-grouted the original ceramic tile counters; they were white in the kitchen with red borders, pink in the bathrooms with grey borders.  He and Sandy had painted the interior walls and acid-washed the used-brick fireplace so that it looked new.  They had furnished the house mostly with high-quality things that needed refinishing; Sandy was good at that, and had even reupholstered their dining-room chairs.

There was little artwork gracing the walls of their home.  Ed left the decorating mostly to Sandy, who lacked any artistic bent and preferred tastefully-framed family photos, some of which dated to the Civil War, in which her great-great-grandfather had fought for the Union at Shiloh and Antietam.  A lovely quilt handmade in a pattern of hearts made by her grandmother hung over the living room sofa, with examples of her embroidery framed and occupying most of the remaining wall space.  Ed’s family cared little for family tradition; his contribution consisted only of a few family photos that hung in the stairwell. 

                Across the street from their house was a tall streetlight pole, from which an arm extended over the street.  At the end of the arm was a brilliant silver light that had been an ugly sulfurous yellow a few years ago, until the bulbs were switched out for more energy-efficient LED lighting.  Crows often sat on the extended arm, dropping the walnuts they stole from a nearby tree to the pavement below to break up the thin outer shells.  They apparently understood that cars coming along the street might break the thick inner shells, doing their work for them, but if not, the resourceful crows managed to open them anyway by dropping them from great heights.  From September until after New Years the clacking of their work could be heard up and down the street, mixed with their raucous, irritating calls.  Ed liked to fantasize about shooting the bastards with his air rifle.

                This Saturday morning they stood in front of their upstairs bedroom window sipping coffee.  Their coffeemaker was broken and Ed had made it using an old filter cone.  He preferred it that way anyway, because the coffee was burn-your-lips hot.  Sandy, a short, slight woman with narrow lips and nose who looked younger than her thirty-two years, twisted her lower lip and blew a dangling lock of hair out of her vision.  The color of her straight, shoulder-length hair was the source of her nickname, which was fine with her because she hated her given name, Susan, but didn’t know why.  A few pale freckles dotted her cheeks beneath her hazel eyes.  Pretty in a librarian-ish way, her face was somewhat asymmetrical.  People who noticed wondered what she’d look like if either side of her face was the mirror image of the other.  One of her incisors was pushed forward a tiny bit, which gave her face a bit of whimsy Ed found endearing and somehow sexy at the same time.  She was always a little anxious, as if she’d had too much caffeine, which she often did, but she was rarely snappy or short-tempered.

                “This doesn’t look good,” she said softly, her gaze on the house just south of their own.  They were watching the new neighbors moving in.

                Ed looked like a draft pick for a minor-league baseball team; a soft-spoken, medium-sized boy-next-door guy in good shape, with a cowlick of blondish hair on the crown of his head.  His eyes, a soft grey-green, made contact with yours and tended to stay there, so you knew he was paying attention when you spoke to him.  Women thought he was sweet from the moment they met him.  At thirty-four, he too was older than he looked.  He was grounded in responsibility, serious in his approach to life, but loosened up a bit with a couple of beers under his belt.  He walked with a slight limp from shrapnel that had torn into his knee during his tour in Afghanistan.  He received a twenty-five percent disability check from the Veterans’ Administration, and the extra money came in handy. 

“Well, let’s not prejudge,” he said. 

                But it didn’t look good.  There was no Bekins moving van in the drive, not even a large U-Haul, just what appeared to be an outlaw biker gang’s crash truck, an old, white Econoline van with big tires.  A huge and crudely-painted skull smoking a twisted joint adorned its side.  Most of what they were moving in was clothing and stereo equipment, probably because, as Ed knew from glimpses into the windows, the house was already sparsely furnished.  There were a few choppers in the driveway and some heavily-tattooed guys wearing colors milling around, smoking and drinking beer as hard-rock oldies blared from the crash truck’s stereo.  There wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of this situation turning out well.

                When Ed and Sandy had closed escrow on their place, an old man had lived in the small, one-story house that was the oldest on the block.  He was a decent sort, polite, but kept to himself and wasn’t outdoors much.  The house itself, was a bit run down and in need of some TLC.  Its white clapboard siding had gone gray with age and asphalt roof shingles were missing here and there.  The lawn had been minimally maintained by a service that spent fifteen minutes there once a week.  Two years ago the old man had died, and the house had been vacant, apparently in probate, until now.  The place had gone to hell in that time, the paint on the fascia boards now peeling to expose patches of dry rot.  The gardeners had stopped coming.  The lawn and the plants were all dead now, except for the weeds that didn’t seem to need watering to thrive.  Once in a while Ed went over with his gas-powered weed whip, took down the weeds in the front, raked them up and put them out for collection, but the place was becoming an eyesore.    

                Now they watched a porcine woman with hennaed hair, rolls of fat jiggling under her tank top, carrying what appeared to be a two-foot-tall, neon Nazi cross from the crash truck into the house through the garage.  They figured her as the lady of the house, since the only other woman present, a phony blonde with pancake breasts under a denim vest, had been behind the wheel of the crash truck when it arrived.  As she passed a bear-sized, pot-bellied guy in leather pants and vest with a serious case of plumber’s butt above his baggy jeans, and a white, miniature bulldog standing beside him, he reached out and slapped her on the ass.  She jumped and said something to him, a coy look on her face.  He laughed and took a drink from a quart bottle of stout ale in his other hand.  Then he bent down and let the bulldog slurp beer from his bottle. 

                “Hope the dog has been wormed,” Ed said, and swallowed the last of his coffee.  Despite the fact that it was blazing hot, he always finished his before Sandy even had a good start on her own coffee, which she took white with sugar.  He turned to Sandy. “No use putting it off.  I guess I’ll go on a scouting mission, see if they’re renting or what.”

                “I’ll just keep the vigil,” Sandy said.  “Be careful.”  She blew gently over the surface of her coffee and sipped.

                He went downstairs into the kitchen, rinsed his cup, put it in the dishwasher, and looked out the little bay window at their neat backyard.  The lemon and orange trees needed thinning.  Fallen fruit needed to be picked up and put in the green waste disposal bin.  Ed sighed heavily and went out the front door.  Overhead, a mockingbird and two sparrows chased a crow, literally flying rings around it, pecking at it, while the crow cawed and looked over its shoulder and tried unsuccessfully to avoid the smaller birds as they all flapped out of sight. 

Sandy watched from above as Ed cut across their manicured lawn, stepped over a row of peonies and a low picket fence, and into the driveway next door.  The bikers watched him come, but did nothing.  Ed spoke to one sitting in a folding lawn chair, a scrawny guy with chains dangling from his belt loops, who grinned wickedly and pointed around him to the guy who’d slapped the woman’s ass.  That guy, half again as big as Ed, had put down the dog and was already turning to Ed.  Up close Ed could see the dirt mixed with sweat that had settled into the lines and pock marks of his face, which was the color of cheap hamburger meat.  His eyes were a brilliant shade of green any redhead would envy, but they were hard and mean above his scraggly beard.  He looked down at Ed’s offered hand as if it were smeared with dog shit, then ignored the hand and said something that Sandy lip-read as “What the fuck you want?” 

                “Well, this is starting off great,” Sandy said to herself, her thin lips setting into a hard line.  Ed spent less than a minute in conversation before Pot-belly turned away and spat on the ground.  Ed shrugged uncomfortably and retraced his steps.  As he came through the front door he heard Sandy call “I’m upstairs” and went on up.  He found her still looking out the window.  Pot-belly had picked up the dog and was holding it as if it were a baby.

                “Well?” she asked, half-turning from the window.

                His eyebrows were raised and his mouth was a grimace of resignation.  “I guess we can start thinking the worst now.”

                Sandy, arms crossed over her slender chest, nodded.  “There goes our peaceful life.  Just like that.”

                “Now you’re jumping to conclusions again.”

                “Why?  You think they’re going to be great neighbors?”

                Ed sighed and looked away.  “Not really,” he said, thinking “for damned sure not,” but not wanting to concede yet.

                “What did you say to him?”

                “I just told him my name.  He didn’t offer his, but his moniker was sewn right on his vest.  ‘Beef.’”

                “As in ‘beefsteak’?”
                “You got it.”
                “Lovely.  What else?”

                “Told him if there’s anything I could do to help them get settled let me know.  He gave me a look like you would a monkey if it started quoting Shakespeare and said, ‘We got it covered’.  I could tell I was already wearing out my welcome, but I thought I’d try one more thing, so I asked how he knew about the place being for rent because there was never a sign up.  He gave me that look again, and said ‘I ain’t rentin’, dickhead.  I own it.  Free and clear.’  Then he turned around…well, you saw it.”

                Sandy was looking at the floor.  “What an asshole.  When you walked away one of his buddies elbowed the other one in the ribs and grinned.”

                “Nice friendly bunch.  The club name is Two-Bangers…”

“That has great connotations,” Sandy interrupted.

“Yeah,” Ed agreed, “and they had all the right outlaw-biker labels on their vests.”

                “Such as?  I’m not biker-literate.”

                “FTW, for fuck the world, 666, which is obvious, 22, for doing a prison stretch, that kind of shit.  And the tattoos of skulls, bloody daggers, the whole works.”

                “In other words, these are serious sociopaths.”

                “But if you like the smell of heavy smokers who don’t bathe or brush their teeth, they’re your guys.  I think I need more caffeine.  Can we go downstairs?”

                At the bottom of the stairs, Ed veered off to the kitchen.  Still holding her coffee, Sandy put her hand over her forehead, walked from the entry to the living room, and flopped into a pale blue, tufted sofa behind a cherry coffee table with cabriole legs.  She placed her cup squarely on a sandstone coaster and set one over for Ed.  From the kitchen came the hum of the microwave heating Ed’s coffee to near-boiling.  Sandy, always neatly dressed, was wearing a white, sleeveless cotton blouse and beige Bermuda shorts with white tennis shoes.  Ed had always said she had great knees.  When she was standing they were so smooth they virtually disappeared. 

Ed came in from the kitchen with his coffee, but ignored the coaster set out for him and milled around the living room, watching the steam rise from his cup.  They both prized neatness and cleanliness; the place looked staged for an open house, with the pillows plumped and fresh-cut roses on the coffee table; potted plants were spaced here and there around the room. 

“Jesus,” she said, cradling her own cup, “we’re good people.  Where’d we get this bad karma?  Beef and his pals will be there until they get killed or go to prison.”

                “Not necessarily.  Let’s think about this.”  Ed paced, still in his brown UPS uniform.          

Sandy fretted.  “How are we supposed to raise our kid and have a normal family now, Ed?”

                Ed stopped pacing to sip his coffee.  “I still think you’re jumping to conclusions.  Let’s see how things go for a while before we succumb to despair, hon.”

                “You know how it’s going to go.  If they hang in there, there’ll be ‘For Sale’ signs on the block within a few months.  People will have to sell cheap and the only people who’ll buy will be lowlifes like these guys.  Shawn will be afraid to walk in front of his own house.  So will I, for that matter.”  She shook her head vaguely, staring at her coffee cup.

                “So what we going to do?  On the basis of one afternoon watching them move in, are we supposed to start trying to figure out how we can move away?”

                She was rubbing her temples now.  “Move?  We’re upside down on this place.  Remember how the bottom fell out of the market six months after we cleared escrow?  It hasn’t recovered yet, and now the Hell’s Angels, or whatever they are, are dragging the value down.  Who’ll want to buy or even rent this place with those jerks next door?  Face it, Ed, we live next door to hell now.”

                Knowing he sounded false but trying to put a spin on it, he said, “We’ll work something out.  We just have to do some thinking.”

 

Next door, Redskin, a fat, florid guy with a lot of chin stubble, wearing a leather hat with a bill and jeans so filthy they could have stood up without legs inside them, walked up, bumped a fresh bottle of stout ale against Beef’s arm, and held it out.  Beef was still holding the dog like a baby, cradled in his left arm.  He grunted and took the beer with his right hand.  “What’d Dumbfuck from next door want?” Redskin asked.

                “Little pussy pretended to be a welcoming committee.  What he really wanted was information to give the cops when he calls to complain about the noise.  Felt like bustin’ my bottle over his head, but we gotta chill until we make sure who’s who on the block, make sure there ain’t no law doggies.”  He looked down at the dog in his arms and smiled.  “No offense to you, Bruiser.  I know you ain’t no law doggie.”  He rubbed the dog’s tummy. 

                “Sounds like a plan.”  Redskin tipped back his beer and took a long pull.  “Where’d that little mama with the red do-rag go?”

                “You think I give a shit?” Beef asked, his thick eyebrows looking like two fat, wooly caterpillars chasing each other across his sweating brow.

                Redskin watched Beef walk away with his shlumping gait, like a bear that has just learned to walk upright and is showing off. 

               

                Thinking proved difficult for Ed and Sandy.  The move-in had already attracted bikers like flies to rotting meat.  Before long there were twenty or thirty choppers strewn around the little house, half of the riders bringing biker groupies or their old ladies.  Hard rock blared from the crash truck and there was enough pot smoke in the air for Ed to get loaded on his front porch.  

It was late fall, before the time change, the days shortening, at that time when the declining sun shines through the windows and hits the tables and countertops horizontally, and every crumb, every filament of lint, and every speck of dust is highlighted and throws a long shadow.  At six-thirty, a new, silver Honda mini-van pulled into their driveway and dropped off Shawn after soccer practice.  He was still dressed in his uniform, complete with grass stains.  Tall for his age, he was already showing his father’s wiry build and boy-next-door features.  The driver of the van took in the scene next door and had her mini-van reversing down the drive before Shawn was three steps away. 

The living room was growing dim in the fading sun when Shawn found his parents there, still talking. 

“Hey, kid,” Ed greeted him, trying to sound normal.
“What’s going on next door?” Shawn asked.

                “Those people, good buddy, are our new neighbors.”

                “Wow.  They like to party, huh?  Are they all living there?”  His eyes were round with the enormity of the prospect.

                Sandy, touchy despite herself, fielded his last question.  “We don’t know for sure how many will actually live there.  We don’t know how long this party will go on.  We don’t know what we’re going to do about any of it.  We’re talking about how we’re going to handle it.”

                Shawn took a moment to absorb her answer, then looked around and asked, “Are we going to eat?”

                Sandy was suddenly aware of the time.  “Omigosh!  I didn’t realize it had gotten so late.  I haven’t done anything.”  She looked at Ed.  “Maybe we should just go out.”

                “That might be a good idea,” Ed said.  “Get us out of here for a while where we can think.”

               

                Afraid that a restaurant with servers would take too long to suit a hungry boy, they took a table at Carl’s Junior.  The place was packed and noisy, smelling of French fries and seared meat.   Shawn and Ed ate bacon cheeseburgers, bought with a two-for-one coupon.  Sandy had a fish sandwich.  For Sandy and Ed, the sandwiches were sawdust in their mouths.  Shawn plowed through his and looked around for leftovers.  Sandy rarely finished a meal.  As usual, Shawn began picking off her tray before she pushed it away.  She watched him without interest while she sipped a diet soda. 

They managed to agree that Ed would call a real estate agent after work the next day to confirm their belief that the house wasn’t worth what they’d paid for it and there was nothing they could do to get out from under it short of letting it go back to the bank.  Sandy would call a leasing agent on her lunch hour to ask whether they could rent the place out for enough to rent a new place for themselves.  They both doubted it.  With the house next door crawling with bikers, who’d rent it except other bikers?  Although they did okay on what Ed made as a UPS driver and Sandy brought in as a teacher’s aide, there was little to spare.  They were sure that renting a comparable house would cost them more than their current house payment after they factored in taxes and insurance.    

                “Besides,” Sandy commented, “it’s our home.  We love it.  We poured our hearts into it.  We can’t just walk away.”

                Three screaming grade-schoolers ran by their table, parents nowhere in sight.

                “Let’s just make the calls and see,” Ed answered.  “But let’s get out of here.  It’s noisier than home.”

                In fact, it wasn’t.  It was dark when they pulled into their driveway and saw trash and several beer bottles and cans on their lawn reflecting the light streaming from the garage next door.  A biker looked their way and flipped a burning cigarette in their direction.  A few sparks flew off it before it guttered in the dew on the grass. 

                “Asshole,” Ed muttered. 

                He pushed the remote and as the garage door rolled up, watched their short-haired calico cat, Foxie, slip under it and head for the house across the street.  Probably trying to escape the racket, Ed thought.   He slid his pristine, white (keeps it cooler inside), last-generation F150 pickup into the garage.  Even after the door came down behind it, the din from next door penetrated.  They went inside and tuned the cable box to a classical music channel, which helped mask the noise, but Shawn had to do homework and put up with it.  His bedroom was upstairs on the far side of the house from the new neighbors, which helped some.  The master bedroom, also upstairs but overlooking the new neighbors, was not so lucky.  All evening they racked their brains for a plan, dreading bedtime.  If it came to that, they figured, they could sleep in the third bedroom, next to Shawn’s.   

                The bikers knew the drill to avoid noise complaints.  After ten o’clock curfew, they gradually moved inside the house and garage.  By ten-thirty the garage door was down and the driveway was dark, but the noise was abated only slightly, punctuated frequently by shrieks of laughter and yelling.  By then Ed and Sandy had gone to bed and lay in the dark, pillows over their ears, trying unsuccessfully to sleep, thinking of their alarm going off before dawn.  Ed had turned on a white noise machine that helped drown out traffic noise when they slept in freeway motels, but they’d have needed a hurricane to drown out the noise from next door.  They didn’t bother moving to the guest bedroom because they agreed it probably wouldn’t help much. 

Sandy’s voice came out of the dark.  “Should we call the cops?”

“Let’s wait it out and see if someone else does, see if it does any good.”

Sure enough, an hour later there were red and blue flashes on their shades and the squawking of police radios.  They figured the old folks that lived across the street had made the call. Ten minutes later, they could hear windows closing, and the noise level went down a few decibels.  It didn’t help much.  Between midnight and two a.m. someone would kick-start a chopper every five or ten minutes, then roar off into the night with that high-pitched blatting only a biker could love.  Finally the music went silent, and after a while, Ed and Sandy fell asleep. 

                The alarm startled them awake at five.  Sandy, who started work later, rolled over and went back to sleep.  His eyes burning, Ed went downstairs and ate granola with a banana while the coffee maker gurgled, then, his coffee in one hand, spent a few minutes picking up the bottles and cigarette butts on their lawn.  They were wet from the sprinklers.  He left for work at a quarter to six.  At seven, Sandy got Shawn up, listened to him crab about having a hard time getting to sleep, fed him, and took him to school on her way to her job.  He yawned a lot and didn’t talk much. 

                Getting out of the car, Shawn said, “You don’t think they’ll be that noisy every night, do you  Mom?”

                “God, I hope not,” she said.  He closed the door.  She waved and pulled away.    

               

A few days later Ed and Sandy had made the calls and confirmed their fears; there was no getting out of their house without huge financial and emotional sacrifices.  A check at the county recorder’s office revealed that the house next door had passed into the hands of one Elmore Mendenhauser, a single man.  “No wonder they call him Beef,” Ed said.  “Wonder what he’d do if I called him Elmore?  At least he’s apparently not married, so if he dies of a heart attack, that fat bitch won’t inherit the place.”  They were frazzled from lack of sleep, anger, frustration, and constant tension.  Their situation seemed hopeless.

A week later, the party next door had never really stopped, starting about noon when people crashing in the house began waking up, and getting louder as bikers drifted in now and then, bringing six-packs and bottles in brown bags.  After that, things calmed down a bit as the whole pack of them, including Beef and his old lady, roared off every other night or so and didn’t come home until the small hours, drunk, loaded, maybe with a few buddies to crash for the night, and went straight to sleep.  The nights they stayed home never varied; always a loud party until early morning, and then Harleys roaring away before silence descended.  On a few occasions when Beef or one of his buddies noticed Ed looking down on the endless party from his bedroom window, Ed would be offered a middle finger thrust into the air and a distinctly mouthed “Fuck off, “ often followed by his getting mooned or watching another beer can tossed on his lawn.   

                Shawn somehow got used to the noise after a couple of weeks, but Ed and Sandy couldn’t.  By then it was nearly Thanksgiving.  Ed was sick of picking up the bottles, trash and cigarette butts that collected on his front yard.  The biker pricks had decided he would be their personal trash collector.  Ed and Sandy between them had talked to most of the neighbors about the situation; they all agreed that the only effect of trying to talk to Beef about it would likely be getting told to fuck themselves, if not some kind of retaliation.  The cops were out regularly about the noise, but little could be done.  From the husband, who was a cop, of one of Sandy’s friends, they learned that all the bikers apparently had licenses for medical pot, so nothing could be done about that.  She also learned that Two-Bangers was strictly a local club with about thirty associates, and they hung out at a nasty bar called The Four Horsemen up in a canyon about twenty-five miles away.

                “There must be something.  Something we can do,” Sandy was saying as they lay in bed trying to sleep with “Highway to Hell” screeching from next door.

She had lost a few pounds, making her look waif-like, and her eyes seemed to have receded half an inch under her eyebrows.  Her cheeks were gaunt.  She had aged noticeably in a short time.  Ed had dark circles under his eyes.  He had put in for anything he could get on the graveyard shift so that he could sleep during the day, but there was no telling how long it might be before something opened up.

“Nothing we can do but wait,” Ed said.  “We already know from doing the title search that there’s no mortgage on the house.  But they either already owe or will owe property taxes, and they’ll have to pay or eventually the county will file a lien and force a sale.  How long do scum like that stay in one place anyway?”

“That could take years!”
Ed could only shrug.
“I don’t know how long I can take this.  I’m a freaking wreck already.  They’re ruining our lives, Ed.”

“Let’s give it a couple of months.  Then we can check the recorder’s office to see if any tax liens or other claims have been filed against the property.  If so, then it’s probably only a matter of time.  Those lowlifes won’t deal with it, and it’ll probably only be six months or less before a notice of lien sale is posted.  There’s nothing else we can do.  Let’s wait them out.”

“I’ll try.  But I don’t think I can wait six months.  I swear to God that if two months from now there’s no sign of them leaving, I’ll do something drastic.”

She laid there just breathing.

“Like what?” he finally asked, a worried look on his face.

“I don’t know.  Something.”

“Time is on our side, you know.”

“Is it?  Is it really?”

 

The next afternoon was windy and warm for the season.  Shawn, walking home from a friend’s house, approached his home from the far side of the street as he usually did and crossed only when he was abreast of his own driveway to avoid walking directly in front of the biker house.  One of the regular hangers-on was standing and leaning against his glistening, metallic-red bike, the sun glancing off the chrome bits.  A skinny, trampy broad with teeth corroded by methamphetamine leaned against him.  One of his hands was wrapped around her butt, while the other groped her breast.  Shawn gawked, wondering how the bike stayed upright with all that weight leaning on it. 

The biker guy, sporting long Fu-Manchu facial hair that did little to draw attention away from his acne-scarred cheeks, caught him looking and said, “The fuck you lookin’ at, you little shit?  Mind your own goddamned business.”

Shawn’s eyes snapped back front.  Too scared to speak, he quickened his pace. 

“Bet he’s never even seen his daddy grabbing a little tit off mommy, huh?” the broad snickered, her straight, bleached hair with the black roots and split ends waving from under a blue bandana. 

“She don’t have any tits to grab!” the biker quipped.  They both laughed at the terrified expression on Shawn’s face.  “Now run tell mommy we scared you, punk,” the guy said over his shoulder. 

That’s what Shawn did, but he left out the part about the tits. 

 

Ed’s face was taut, his jaw clenching every few seconds, as he and Sandy sat at the kitchen table listening to Shawn tell them about it.  This was taking it up a level, but Ed was sure it was nothing the cops could do anything about.  There was no threat, not even an implied one; just a couple of assholes being mean to a kid.  The guy and his bitch were gone by then, but what could he have done about it anyway?  Confront the guy, maybe start a fight?  Maybe get shanked in the process?  Even if he won, he’d lose; there’d be retaliation.  Better to wait, win the war, not engage in a pointless battle with a peripheral figure, a guy who was one of many.  If Beef moved out, they’d all be gone soon enough.

After Shawn had finished his tale, having taken far longer than the actual incident to relate it, he searched, head slightly bowed as if he’d done something wrong, the faces of his parents.  Both had been sitting with their elbows on the table, fists propping their chins and covering their mouths, as they listened.   Ed inhaled sharply and let out a long sigh.  Sandy sat back and crossed her arms.  No one said anything for a few seconds.  Sandy and Ed exchanged a long look.  Ed pursed his lips and shrugged.

“From now on,” Ed told Shawn, Sandy listening with a stony face, “don’t even walk across the street from that dump.  Go around the block the other way if you have to so you can come in from the other side.  When we can figure out what to do about the whole mess, we want it to be a surprise.  I don’t want to provoke them or telegraph how pissed off we are.  Let them think we’re afraid to do anything.  I don’t want them to see it coming when we figure something out.”

Sandy nodded grimly in affirmation.  To Shawn she said, “We’ll figure something out, honey.  We can’t live like this forever.”

Shawn seemed doubtful, his brow wrinkling.  “You think we will, Dad? Figure something out?”

“We will, son.  But let’s use our brains.  These guys don’t have any.”

“Dad, what makes people want to be mean to people that never did anything to them?”

Ed reached out and put his hand on Shawn’s shoulder, squeezed it, and gave him a gentle push-pull.  “I wish we could understand that, buddy.  But even if we did, we still wouldn’t be able to change it.”   

 

On Friday, Shawn wanted to ride bicycles with his dad.  It was a perfect afternoon for a ride; some fleecy clouds, the temperature barely into the seventies, late fall in the air.  A few sycamore leaves skittered along the street.  Ed got home from his deliveries at three-thirty, and was glad for an excuse to get away from the neighborhood.  The air was brilliant and clean, with the smell of fresh-cut grass on the breeze and a single-engine plane—a Cessna, Ed wondered?—droning high overhead, giving him the sense that all was right with the world, despite all that was wrong with it.  He and Shawn took their bikes down from the overhead hooks in the too-small garage.  Ed asked Shawn to air up the tires while he asked if Sandy wanted to come. 

Sandy was putting on her shoes.  “No, I need to shop for a present for a baby shower this afternoon.  You two go bond for a while.”  She kissed him, but not like she once did before the bikers moved in.

Out in the garage Ed located helmets and bike gloves, handed Shawn’s to him.  He took the garage remote out of his pickup and stuck it in his pocket.  They got their gear on and walked their bikes onto the driveway.  Ed clicked the remote and watched the door go down before they rode away. 

It was a good ride out toward the county dump site.  Less than a mile from home small farms and horse ranches took over from tract houses.  A few cattle grazed contentedly in a green pasture. The licorice smell of wild anise growing along the road unpleasantly reminded Ed of Good and Plenty candy.  He’d always hated it from having gotten sick on it once as a child.  Grey-green broccoli was planted in precise rows running parallel to the road, smelling funky, making him wonder how he could love the taste so much.  Yellow mustard flowers, now starting to die, rose six feet into the air alongside the anise in the ditches and waved in a light breeze that carried away a few petals with each gust.  Another mile went by.  The road got curvy and began to rise before them as the small farms fell away.  Now alongside the road were runoff ditches, and beyond them was chaparral interspersed with old sycamores and black oak trees.

Shawn seemed happy.  He asked Ed about his experiences in Afghanistan.  Ed told him it was mostly boring, too hot in the day and then too cold at night, and always dirty, the dust getting into everything.  Summer was brutally hot but winter was numbingly cold.  Nights were surprisingly beautiful so far from the smog and light pollution that turns night skies gray near cities.  The stars stood out like diamonds on a jeweler’s black velvet and the moon seemed close enough to reach out and touch.  He left out the part about how a bullet striking a man produced a red mist, like the spray from a can of aerosol paint, that hung in the air a second or two while the man dropped away from it, and the sick feeling in his stomach that followed.    

“Do you think I’ll have to go into the army some day?” Shawn asked.

Ed snapped back from the unwanted image.  “Dunno.  Probably not unless you want to.  I’d skip it if I were you, but it’s your decision.  College is probably better for you.  I couldn’t afford college, so I enlisted.  Then I had to wait until I got out to qualify for the education benefits so I could go to college.  Your mom and I can probably help you go to college without you having to go in the service first.”

It was mostly uphill the rest of the way to the dump.  Soon they were clicking down gears and breathing too hard to talk.  A big blue trash truck with a huge bin on hydraulic arms in the back, loaded and redolent of decay, passed them, going up toward the dump.  The shotgun rider of the truck waved at them in a friendly way as it passed.  They didn’t see his face.  After a couple more miles, their shirts were getting soaked with sweat.   When they could smell the dump getting close they decided to turn around.  Going downhill, the speed pushed cool air through their clothes.  It dried the sweat and felt good. 

As they neared the bottom of the grade, they saw downhill rounding a curve two Harleys coming their way. 

“Shit,” Ed said.  “Those are probably Beef’s buddies.  Don’t look at them.  Stay behind me and just pay attention to the road.”

The two motorcycles were doing about thirty when they passed.  The riders looked familiar, one scrawny, wearing a sleeveless, black-leather vest.  He was taller than Ed, his arm muscles deeply tanned and stringy, covered with veins crossing each other like cables on the floor of a movie set.  The other guy was thick through the body, about Ed’s height, with heavy arms and shoulders.  Both men had bushy mustaches and a week’s growth over the rest of their faces.  The spotless chrome and paint of their rides reflected the afternoon sun and hurt Ed’s eyes.  The scrawny one gave them a hard look in passing.   At first the bikers didn’t change speed, but then one and then the other revved his engine and downshifted.  From the increasing engine noise, Ed knew they were coming back, and then the scrawny one was alongside them, pacing them.  When he grinned Ed recognized him as the biker who’d pointed out Beef to him weeks before.  Now eye to eye, Ed saw the guy had a Charles Manson look, with heavy, black brows over wild eyes.  Wild Eyes turned his head over his shoulder and spoke to his buddy as they idled along.

“Hey, isn’t this the trash-picker lives next door to Beef with his gawky kid?”

“Yeah.  We should be polite and say hello,” the other replied. 

Wild Eyes said to Ed, “You sure keep a nice, neat place there, slick.”

Ed briefly looked over.  He didn’t want to be confrontational, but couldn’t keep the sarcasm out of his voice.  “We try, anyway.”

The heavyset guy had pulled up now, crowding the lane.  “Yeah, ever’ night when we leave, your lawn is covered with beer cans and butts, and the next day it’s all clean again. Sure is nice to see someone takes care of his property.”   He winked at Wild Eyes.

Wild Eyes smirked.  “How you figure all that trash gets on your lawn, slick?  You got some messy friends?”

Ed kept his eyes straight ahead, but was unable to resist more sarcasm.  “Hey, dude.  They’re party animals.  Seriously cool dudes.  Six-sixty-six.  Fuck the world.  All that shit.  We got little elves to clean up the mess.”

Wild Eyes’ face set hard into sudden anger.  He spurted ahead a few feet, then cranked his handlebars to the right as he squeezed the rear brake lever and skidded to a stop, forcing Ed to brake hard to avoid a collision.  The heavy guy performed a similar maneuver past Wild Eyes’ ride.  Shawn, riding close behind Ed, bumped into Ed’s rear fender, not hard enough to damage it, but nearly toppled over.  Ed could now read the name of the scrawny biker sewn onto his vest—“Ripper.”  Terrific, he thought, the guy’s probably carrying a switchblade and knows how to use it.  That thought reminded him of the buck knife in a leather scabbard he used to wear on his belt and wished he had now. 

“You think you’re funny, asshole?”

Fear ran through Ed like icicles in his blood.  Incongruously, he began instantly sweating again and his bowels felt loose. Jesus, he was thinking, why can’t I control what comes out of my fucking mouth? 

“Just making polite conversation the best I can.  Trying to relate, you know.”

“You really are funny, fuckhead.”  Ripper shut down his engine, got off his bike, and toed the kickstand into place, his leather creaking as he swaggered around the tail of his bike toward Ed. 

Ed was still mounted on his bicycle.  He was struggling to remember what he had learned in the marines about hand-to-hand combat; skills he’d never used in real life.  Whatever Ripper did, Ed didn’t want to be on his bicycle when he did it.  He swung off his bike and just let it fall over, catching a glimpse of Shawn gripping his handlebars, paralyzed, his eyes wide and his mouth slightly open.  Ripper got up close to Ed and stopped, his feet apart, fists balled by his side, his jaw locked in anger.  Ed wanted to run but knew he couldn’t leave Shawn behind.  In his fear he knew his only hope was to attack, bring his knee up into Ripper’s groin, try to disable him, shove the two choppers over and yell at Shawn to run.  He was about to launch a desperate strike when an air horn sounded from up the road.

Everyone looked up at the big blue trash truck swinging around the uphill curve from the direction of the dump.  Downshifting, air brakes hissing, it came to a squealing, groaning halt, straddling the center stripe to avoid hitting the motorcycles angled in the right lane to block the bicycles.  A round, dark-brown, friendly face looked down from the passenger window at Ed.

“I t’ought was you,” the grinning trash man said.  “Is me, Julio.  You on my route.  I see you coming home from work sometimes when I pick up you trash.”

Ed’s face broke into a relieved smile.  “Oh, yeah.  Julio.  I didn’t recognize you.  I’m Ed.  You know Shawn…my son.”

Shawn gave a weak grin.

Ripper snorted and looked at his buddy.  “Shawn.  Ain’t that a cute name?”

“For a girl,” said the heavy friend.  They high-fived each other.
Julio said, “You got bike trouble?”  He opened his door. 

“A little, yeah,” Ed answered, glancing over his shoulder at the bikers.

“Maybe we help you out.”
“I appreciate that.”

Julio got down from the truck, still grinning.  He was as big as Ripper’s buddy, dark like mahogany, with ink-black, Indian hair, sporting a big gut, and holding a tire iron.  The truck’s driver, lighter, taller and more serious-looking than Julio, had set his brake with a ratcheting noise, gotten down from the cab, and was coming around the front, holding a big crescent wrench.  He stopped a few feet behind the heavyset guy still on his bike.  The bikers were looking around, sizing up the situation.  Ripper hooked his thumbs in his belt and relaxed his pose somewhat.

Julio stopped beside Ed, shifting his weight back and forth, his hands on the ends of the tire iron, glancing at Ripper, saying, “Is no problem.  We put the…how you say…bicicletas in the bin in the back.  You son he can sit between us.  You ride outside, hold on to the mirror.  We go slow, take you home.  You be okay.”

“Yeah, that’ll work,” Ed said.  He reached down to pull his bike upright and looked over his shoulder at Ripper.  “Thanks for stopping.  Nice talking to you guys.”  Turning to Shawn, he said, “Son, let’s get these into the bin.”

They walked their bicycles behind the truck and lifted them into the bin while Julio and the driver watched the bikers.  Ripper made a scoffing noise, shrugged, turned around, and mounted his bike.  The Harleys fired up noisily, swung a U-turn to head uphill again, and stopped by the bin as Ed was adjusting the bicycles for the ride.  Shawn moved so that Ed was between him and the bikers.

Ripper said, “We’ll be talkin’ again, Ed,” hitting his name hard“Meanwhile maybe your spic buddies can come over and help you pick up the trash on your lawn.  Better yet, you can all hit the dump this weekend and make a day of it.  Have a garbage picnic.  Don’t forget to bring the wife and your little snot-nosed girl.”

The two bikers roared away toward the dump, middle fingers extended over their shoulders in a parting salute.  The county dump happened to be on the way to that other dump, The Four Horsemen, where the Two-Bangers hung out.  Ed could only imagine the story Ripper would be telling there tonight.  He was ashamed of his fear, angry at his impotence, outraged that assholes like Ripper and all his buddies could get away with shit like this, but still relieved that there’d been no violence.  After the relief came the realization that he and Shawn had been saved by a coincidence and two helpful men he barely knew from an ugly situation that could have gotten deadly serious.

While Ed was settling the bicycles, an SUV coming up the grade had to squeeze slowly by the trash truck, the driver giving Julio and the truck driver a disgruntled look and favoring Ed with the same look in passing.  Ed mumbled “sorry” into the open window as he passed.  Another car, an old Cadillac, was approaching from the rear going down the grade, slowing for the truck’s warning flashers.  Ed looked up to see Julio walking toward them on the shoulder of the road.  The driver had regained the cab by then and was swinging the truck over to the right.

“Ready?  We go now?” Julio asked cheerfully.

“Yeah.”

Julio helped Shawn clamber up into the cab and got in beside him.  The truck driver waved the Cadillac around as Julio closed the door.  Ed stepped up onto the running board and got a good grip on the outside mirror.  The driver checked his left mirror and set off slowly.  So far he hadn’t said a word, and his somber expression hadn’t changed.  He had never met Ed’s eyes, giving him the impression that had it been up to him they wouldn’t have interfered.  Julio seemed perfectly content.

“Why they no like you?” Julio asked Ed. 

“You see their house next to mine when you empty their trash.  Why do you think?”

“I think they…uh…they no respect working peoples.”

“Yes.  People like me.  Like you.  They think we’re stupid, like mules—la mulas—to work for our money to pay our bills.”

“You no like them ademas.”

“They throw trash on our lawn.  They make loud noise all night when we try to sleep.  The neighbors are afraid of them because they’re gangsters.  Sabes?  Bandidos.”

Julio nodded.  His smile had faded.  “Like…how you say…mara salvatruche del sur en Guatamala.  I think they go…” Julio leaned out the window toward Ed and pointed back the way they had come… “to a taberna…how you say it?...bar, where all the bandidos go.”

“I know the place.”
“You not afraid of them?”
“I am.  For my family.  For me too.”
“Why you no call the cops?”

Ed just looked at Julio’s friendly face through the window, smiled, and laughed thinly.  Julio smiled sheepishly, as if he’d said something ignorant, looked down at the tire iron he still held, and then back up at Ed rocking back and forth as the truck negotiated the twists and turns of the narrow road.

Finally he said, “Maybe…como se dice…si tenemos buena suerte, they will fight and kill each other.” 

They shared a laugh.  Even Shawn loosened up a faint smile.  The driver was not amused.

Julio lowered his voice and leaned toward Ed, pointing with his finger at the driver with body concealing his movement.  “Porfirio no speak much English, and his green card is viejo.  He no want trouble, but he is my friend and he help you, for me.” 

“Is there a way I can repay him?”
“I don’ think so.  He not happy.”

“I can see that.”  He looked directly at Porfirio and said, “Lo siento, pero muchas gracias por su asistencia.”

Porfirio did not take his eyes off the road.  “De nada,” he said quietly. 
 

Sandy heard the trash truck pull up in front of the house and looked down from the bedroom window, curiously watching her son and husband retrieve their bikes from the bin in back.  Ed went around to the driver’s side and said something to the driver, then came back and shook the hand of the other trash man, who had gotten down from his seat and was standing in the street, his left hand extended above his head, holding onto the door handle.  Then Ed and Shawn wheeled their bikes up the driveway, the man got back into the truck, and the truck drove away.  Sandy hurried down the stairs, opened the connecting door to the garage, and punched the garage door opener.  As the door rolled up, Ed and Shawn walked their bikes up the drive into the garage and greeted her somberly.  They began putting away their bikes, working around the vehicles that took up most of the space.  There was no sign of anyone next door.

“Why did the trash truck bring you home?  Did you crash a bike?”

“No, the bikes are fine.  We’re fine,” Ed said.

Shawn began talking excitedly, his hands waving.  “Mom, that guy from next door, the one who told me to mind my business…”

Ed stopped him.  “Shawn, better let me tell it.  Let’s finish with the bikes and go inside.”

Sandy instantly became anxious, putting her hand on Ed’s arm.  “What happened?  I want to know what happened.” 

He impatiently ignored Sandy’s hand, his face clouded, and finished hanging up the bikes.   “Honey, it’s not an emergency.  We’re fine.  Just let us get our things off and we’ll tell you.”

He and Shawn removed their gloves and helmets, and put them on a shelf beside the garage window, Shawn impatient to talk, glancing at his father as if to hurry him along. 

 

After Shawn had gone to bed, Ed and Sandy sat down at the birch breakfast table and chairs they had bought at a second-hand store and lovingly refinished the year after they’d bought this place. They seldom touched their glasses of wine while they talked over what had happened.  Ed could not help but notice the changes in Sandy since this all began.  God, she looks ten years older, Ed thought, and she’s lost ten pounds she didn’t need to lose. 

“This is getting dangerous, Ed.  Those guys will be mad Julio butted in, and things are going to escalate.”

“Maybe.”

“Maybe, nothing.”  She twisted the stem of her wine glass, staring into the swirling chardonnay.  The glass had a starburst logo and the words, “Sunstone Winery” printed in dark green on its side.    “They’re going to push harder the next chance they get, and it could be Shawn or me they corner next time, when there’s no one to rescue us.” 

“Oh, come on, Sandy.”  Ed tried to look unconcerned, but failed.  “You’re not going to be riding your bicycle on the road to the dump.  How many places could they catch you or Shawn alone?”

“How about the parking structure at the mall, Ed?  We shop there all the time, and it’s usually half empty.  What if I got a flat or the car broke down on the mesa while Shawn and I are coming home from Mom’s house?  And for that matter, what could you do if you’re there, if there are two or three of them?”

“All right.  All right, it could happen.  Unlikely, but…”

“Unlikely?  Less likely than what happened this morning?  So what are we supposed to do?  Just live in fear and hope they’ll go away?  What legal means of protection do we have?  Do you want me to get a permit to carry a gun?  I’d probably blow my foot off if I ever had to pull it out, assuming I could even get one.  And you’re not immune.  If Julio hadn’t come by when he did, the cops might have found you and Shawn in the ditch by the road!”

Ed held his palms out toward her and said, “I think you’re exaggerating a bit.”

“Am I?  You don’t know what they might do!  Suppose you’re driving that UPS truck and one of those sub-humans spots you driving along with the door open out on Stuart Road.  Maybe he decides to have some fun and roars past you and you find yourself looking down the barrel of a gun just before he blows your head off?”

“Really, Sandy, you’ve seen Easy Rider too many times.”
She looked away with a bitter expression.  “That was rednecks killing bikers.”

“Same principle.  And still highly unlikely.”

“Sweetheart, open your eyes.  Maybe that specific scenario is.  But these guys are psychos.  They hate everybody who’s not one of them.  They hate you and us because we’re everything they’re not, and even worse than most because you dared to step onto Beef’s property and treat them like ordinary people.  There’ll never be peace with them living there.  And no one else is going to do anything about them.”

Ed locked eyes with her.  “So what are you proposing we do about them?”

She snapped out her response as if waiting for the moment.  “Kill Beef.”
Ed thrust his head toward her, eyebrows raised.  “Kill Beef?  Like it’s just that easy?  Honey, you have no idea…

Sandy was suddenly animated.  “I didn’t say it would be easy.  But if we kill Beef, we know it will be over in a matter of months.  He’s not married to his bitch, or whatever he calls her, so she’d eventually have to move.”

“Unless he has a will that leaves it to her.”
“How likely is that?”

He spread his hands and rolled his head around his shoulders.  “I don’t know, Sandy.  How likely is it that we could actually get away with killing Beef?”

“People get away with murder all the time, don’t they?  I Googled it.  Over thirty-five percent of murders in the U.S. go unsolved.  Almost all of the ones they do solve are no-brainers.”

Ed was flustered.  “There you go, Sandy.  Don’t you know that Google search could hang us if we went through with your idea and the cops seized our computer?”

“You can relax about that.  I did it on the computer across the street while I was watching their dog last week.  I’m not stupid.  The point is, what cop is going to put a lot of time and energy into solving a murder he probably stood up and cheered over?  If the solution isn’t obvious, it’ll go into the cold case files in two days.  They’ll think some rival biker gang did it, and they know that no one from either gang is going to talk to the police.”

“Somehow I get the feeling,” Ed mused, looking down at the palms of his hands, “that I’ll be elected to do the dirty work.”

Sandy looked embarrassed.  “Well, you have experience killing people…”

“Killing soldiers in combat isn’t the same as murder, and you know it.”

“I only meant that it shouldn’t be that hard for you…”

“How would you know?  You haven’t felt that sick knot in your stomach you get when you know a human being ceased to exist because of you.  And that was when I believed we were the good guys doing what we had to do, when I got a pat on the back and my lieutenant bought me a beer and a shot of whiskey for it.  I wasn’t looking at life in prison for it.  And besides, it was my duty.  I had no choice.”

Her intensity showed in the way her eyebrows pulled down and her neck strained toward him.  “Do we really have a choice?  Do we?  If we ever want to get back the life they’ve taken away?  If we don’t want to wait until they torch our house in the night, or attack us some place when we’re minding our own business?”

“Jesus.  All those years of watching murder stories on ‘20/20’ and ‘Dateline,’ I never once imagined I’d be sitting at my table with my wife discussing murdering someone.  All those years asking myself how people ever get screwed up enough in the head to actually carry out a cold-blooded murder, and now I’m discussing doing it.”

“How many stories like this have you seen, Ed?  Stories where people are virtually prisoners in their own homes, tormented by sub-humans that no one can touch?”

Ed bent over and put his elbows on his knees, clasped his hands, and lowered his head, shaking it slowly.  “I don’t know, Sandy.  Killing our neighbor…we’ll be suspects.”

“No, we won’t.  Bikers are always shooting each other.  Remember that blood bath in Las Vegas a few years ago?  Even if we were suspected, the cops won’t look hard.  They’ll be on our side.  They’ll want us to get away with it.  I’ll help all I can; I’ll play any part you want me to.  But we have to do it.”

“How?  How do we kill him and not get caught?”

“I’ve been thinking of our options.”

“And?  You have a fool-proof plan?”

Sandy bristled.  “No, Ed, I don’t.  I’m trying to find a way out of this mess.  Do you have a fool-proof plan that doesn’t involve killing him?”

Shaking his head wearily, Ed replied, “No.  You’re right.”  In fact, Ed had checked and found that somehow Beef was paying his taxes.  Beef wasn’t leaving any time soon.  “What do you see as our options?”

“One is self-defense.  We make a lot of noise early some morning when they’re still sleeping and none of his buddies are there.  Loud music would do it, I guess.  You know how belligerent he is.  He’ll eventually come over and pound on the door to demand we turn it off.  You could shoot him with that pistol you brought home from Afghanistan, and say he attacked you.  I’ll back you up.”

“What about Shawn?”

“We’ll make sure he’s out of the house at soccer practice or whatever.”

Ed wasn’t convinced.  “I don’t know.  How do we know he’ll be alone?  What if he comes over with one of his buddies?  Do I shoot them both?  Or apologize and eat crow?  And it depends a lot on him acting like we think he will.  What if he just throws a rock through our front window and yells at us?  Then I have to go out to confront him.  There’d probably be witnesses.  Worse, his buddies will blame me and probably come after me.  I could be charged with manslaughter.  Our home will have his blood all over it.  Even if no guns get involved, the whole neighborhood would know we’re feuding, and then I’d be the first suspect if we do him later.  No way.”  He absently guzzled his wine, fortifying himself.

“All right,” Sandy said.  “We can look at other options and then compare them.”

“What else you got?”

“Well, if you don’t want to shoot him…you know how their water heater is in an outside closet?  You can see it from our bedroom window.”

“Yeah?”

“I was thinking that some night when they’re sleeping off a drunk we could stuff some lint and leaves under it, where the pilot light will ignite it and start a fire.  It’s an old wood-shingle house.  It would be unstoppable in a few minutes.  It’s really unlikely they’d suspect arson if we don’t leave footprints or something.” 

“Too chancy.  Most water heaters don’t have an open-flame pilot light anymore anyway.  And his girlfriend would be there too.  I wouldn’t want her to be hurt, even if she is a fat bitch.  It’s a horrible way to go.  No guarantee he wouldn’t get out alive, either.”  He perked up suddenly.  “But…

“Yes?”

“If his house burns down when they’re not home, they can’t live there anymore.”  He thought a moment.  “But if he has insurance, they’ll just rebuild and it’ll all be for nothing.”

“What are the chances he actually would have insurance?”

“It’s just a big unknown.  Probably whoever administered the old man’s estate kept it insured, and if so, it’s probably still in effect because they haven’t been there that long.  What else?”

“How about following him in the pickup when he’s out cruising?   Maybe we could catch him at a good spot and run him off the road and over a cliff.”

“That might take forever and hundreds of miles to set up, and still no guarantees it would work.  He rarely rides alone, and anyway, he’d eventually spot my truck and figure out what we’re doing.  Even if we got lucky and caught him in the right spot, there might still be paint transfers on the truck.  Too risky.”

“Yeah…”
“What else?”
“Just shoot him, I guess.  Like an ambush.”

Ed turned over his hands, palm up.  For a long moment he sat and stared stupidly at them, as if in them he might find the way out of his dilemma.

“I’m not even sure I can do that,” he said finally.

Sandy had folded her arms and drawn her lips into a tight line.  He looked up to see her profile as she stared through the sliding glass door into their neat back yard, her brows pulled down.

“Fine,” she said heatedly.  “Then we can just sit back like good little sheep while they ruin the rest of our lives.”

“Sandy…”
“Those are our only choices, Ed.  You know that.”
“But taking a human life…”

“You call those people human?  In any sense that we consider human?  What consideration do they have for our lives?  They enjoy bringing misery on us.  They’re taking our lives one day at a time.”

“You’re right,” he said, his voice trailing away, “you’re right.”

“You have that old rifle your father left you…what is it?”

“A thirty-caliber M1 carbine.”
“It’s not registered to you, is it?”

“Never registered to him either, far as I know.  He won it in a poker game down south thirty or forty years ago.  If it was ever registered, there’d be nothing to connect it to me.”

“Well, there you go.  Untraceable to you.  Do you have bullets for it?”

“It’s loaded, and I bought a box of shells for it years ago.  Ammo’s probably still good.  I’d have to rely on it.  All the stores that sell ammo have video recorders now.”  He sighed audibly.  “But I don’t know, honey.  Shooting a man in cold blood.  There must be another way.”

He sat wringing his hands, looking alternately at the floor, the walls, anywhere but in her face.  She reached and covered his hands with hers, leaning over until her face was inches from his.

“Look at me,“ she said softly.  When he looked up, she said, “We’ve talked about this problem until we’re blue in the face.  We are miserable.  Our son is miserable and he’s afraid of them.  I’m afraid of them.  They’ll hurt you or me or Shawn or all of us sooner or later if this goes on.  Our lives are in danger.  The police can’t help us.  The neighbors can’t help us.  There’s no one to rescue us.  If we don’t do this, we’re doomed to live this way until something really bad happens.  We can’t let it.  We have to do it.  They’re criminals, and no one, least of all the police, will spend any time trying to find who did it.  Let’s plan carefully and get it done.”

“I want to sleep on this, Sandy.  I’ve got to consider all the angles.  It’s all on me to get it done.  If I get caught doing it, I’m going to have to convince the cops you had nothing to do with it, or Shawn will be raised by someone else.  It’s a big decision.  The biggest of my life.  And yours.  And Shawn’s.”

Sandy knew that it was time to back off and let him consider it.  He was right.  The whole ugly business would be on his shoulders, but they’d all have to live with what he’d done.  She couldn’t expect him to commit after a brief discussion.  She nodded.

“All right then.”

She reached over and took his hand in both of hers, squeezed, and smiled encouragingly.  He tried to return the smile, but had to look away.

 

Beef liked to think his cock was the size of a horse’s, although a large dog’s might have been a more apt comparison.  At the moment, he was dispensing into the rust-streaked and scummy toilet bowl a stream sufficient to water a horse.  The bathroom was between his bedroom and the one in which Ripper was snoring loudly.  Beef scratched his ample, hairy belly, then rubbed the stubble on his face while he finished his business, shook his cock a few times, not giving a shit whether the droplets hit the toilet or the wall, and then tucked it into his boxer shorts.   He didn’t bother to flush.  The little bulldog, standing at his feet, was looking up at him, its feet firmly planted on the once-lovely oak floor that was now scarred, greying, and sagging in places.

“C’mon, Chopper.  Let’s get this show on the road.”

Barefoot, Chopper’s nails clicking on the bare floor as he followed, Beef went into Ripper’s room without knocking.  Ripper was lying on his back, arms flung out, on a mattress laid directly on the floor.  Beef kicked the mattress.  There was black dirt encrusted beneath Beef’s untrimmed toenails.

“Get the fuck up, Rip.  We got business today.”

Ripper groaned and pulled a blanket over his head.  There were no sheets on the bed.  The blanket, once green, and the battered mattress were grimy and discolored.  There was no other furniture in the room to help hide the orange-and-yellow shag carpet that had been collecting filth since the seventies, with dark trails leading in and out of rooms.  The blotchy walls were bare, and there were no curtains on the window, through which grey pre-dawn light was just beginning to show.

Beef kicked the mattress again.  “If you wanta crash here tonight, then get the fuck up.  Time for us to fuck with those shitheads next door.”

Ripper pulled the blanket off his face.  “It’s still dark.  What the fuck time is it?”
“Five-thirty.”

“Shit, man.  My head hurts.  Let’s do it tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow’s Saturday.  The shithead don’t work Saturday and the momma bitch don’t take the kid to school.”

Propping himself up on his elbows, Ripper said, “Why’n’tcha let me take the bitch?  That way I could sleep another hour.”

“We already talked about it.  ‘Cause then I’d have to be out with Rosa chasing dickhead, and there’d be no one here to make sure you get up.  So get the fuck up.”  Beef kicked the mattress again for emphasis.

“What the fuck,” Ripper grumbled, but threw the blanket off and rolled into a sitting position on the edge of the mattress, his jaw slack and his eyes puffy. 

He was still wearing his Levi’s, stiff with accumulated grease and dirt.  He found his white socks on the floor, the bottoms nearly black.  Picking one up, he sniffed it, scrunched his nose in distaste, and put it on anyway, followed by the other sock and his scuffed black motorcycle boots, talking as he did so. 

“These dumb fuckers better get the idea.  If I hafta do this again, I ain’t gonna just scare em.”

“That’s somethin’ we agree on.  Now finish up dressing.  I got a pack of those donuts you like with the powdered sugar so’s you won’t go out hungry.  You want coffee, you’ll have to stop some place if you got time.” 

Beef turned and went out, Chopper following and looking up at Beef every few steps.  Ripper marveled at how such a fat guy could have such a flat ass.  He picked up a sleeveless T-shirt from the floor and sniffed it.  Turning down the corners of his mouth and raising his eyebrows in an appraising expression, he said, “Not too bad,” and put it on.  It was emblazoned with big red letters reading “FTW.” 

Rosa was breathing loudly, mouth open and drooling, lying on her stomach and dead to the world, when Beef re-entered his bedroom.  He did not kick the bed, but sat on it heavily.  Going back to bed was out of the question. He knew he couldn’t trust Ripper to do his job unless he stayed awake and saw to it that Ripper was on his way within fifteen minutes after the dickhead next door left for work.  He’d need a hot breakfast and coffee before he’d drag his own butt out of the house.  But first…

He shook Rosa’s shoulder.  “Hey, fat ass, how about a quick head job before breakfast?”

Rosa kept her eyes squeezed shut.  “Jesus, Beef, the sun ain’t even up yet!”

“You better forget the sun and think about earnin’ your keep, bitch.” 

“Come on, Beef.  Give a girl a break.”

“You see any girls around here, better send ‘em home to Momma so they don’t get in your way of doin’ what I say.”

“Shit,” Rosa said.  She curled around Beef’s ample waist and reached for his crotch.

“Ain’t no free lunch.  Free breakfast maybe.”  Then his face went slack and his mouth dropped open.  “Ah, that’s it.”

Chopper cocked his head and silently took it all in.
 

When Ed arrived home from work that day, he found Sandy vacuuming the carpet in the family room, her back to him.  Her weight loss was obvious from her hollow cheeks and the shapely hips that were now just a little too slender.  He coughed politely as he approached, startling Sandy.  She shut off the vacuum, and whipped her head toward him, eyebrows pulled together.

“Sorry,” he said. 

“I’m glad you’re home,” she answered, turning to him, but she didn’t meet his eyes, and she seemed distraught.

He approached and gave her a hug.  She let go of the vacuum handle and clung to him a few seconds longer than usual.

“Everything okay?” he asked.
“I guess.”

“You guess?  Where’s Shawn?”

“I dropped him at Jacob’s house to play video games.”
“You look worried.”

She ignored his comment, pulling away until she could look up at him, still holding his arms.  “Have you made a decision on…you know.”

Now he didn’t want to meet her eyes, and looked away.  “I keep going back and forth.  I just can’t see myself actually doing it.”

“Beef and his girlfriend were there when I picked up Shawn from school,” she blurted, hugging herself.  “Does that help you decide?”

“Meaning what, exactly?  What happened?”

“I was in line in that cutout area in front of the school where everyone lines up to pick up their kids, and all of a sudden there he was on his motorcycle, with his girlfriend on the back.  She had that little bulldog in one of those doggie carriers hanging from her shoulders.  They pulled up right next to my window while Shawn was getting in and buckling up.  Beef had this smirk on his face and he just said ‘Hi, neighbor.  Hiya, Shawn.  You making good grades and making your parents proud?’”

“That fucker,” Ed said, clenching his fists.

                “Then his fat girlfriend said, ‘Isn’t he just the cutest thing?  I’d like to give him a big hug, but Chopper would be jealous.’  I guess Chopper is the dog.  They both laughed.  Beef said, ‘Nice seeing you, neighbor.  You have a nice day.’  Then he gunned his engine and they roared away. Everyone was looking at us like they suddenly didn’t know us.”

                Ed’s face was contorted with hatred.  “Those fuckin’ assholes,” he spat.  He didn’t use profanity often.

“Didn’t I say things would escalate after the bike thing?” she said with an edge to drive her point home.

Opening and closing his fists, Ed said, “He’s trying to goad me into confronting him on his turf so he can claim I came after him.”

                “Calm down, sweetheart.  We can’t let that happen.  We have to be smarter than that.”

                “I’m all right,” he said, backing away a foot, “but I had my own little experience today.”

                “What?” she said, trying to lock eyes with him.

                “When I left the terminal today, that guy Ripper followed me along my route for about an hour, keeping right on my tail.  When I’d make a stop, he’d pull over nearby and light a cigarette, and then follow me again.  That’s all he did.  Finally when I stopped at the mall and started walking toward him, he gave me a finger wave and took off.”

                “They want to keep us on edge all the time, don’t they?”

                “Looks that way.”

                She turned and paced aimlessly, her arms folded.  “Maybe they just want to scare us into moving so they can all sit out in their driveway and watch and laugh while we’re loading a moving van.”

                Ed stared at the floor a long time, nodding almost imperceptibly.  “Either way, you’re right. It’s escalating.”

                “Now do you see that we have to do this?” Sandy asked. 

                Ed continued nodding without a break.

 

They first decided that Shawn, especially, and everyone else, had to be completely unaware of what they intended to do, and of everything they would have to do to accomplish the result.  People always talk.  It would have to be their secret to carry to their graves. 

Their next decision was that the girlfriend would not be a victim unless absolutely necessary.  It might take months for the property to devolve to another relative, and months more before she would be evicted, but they did not want the added guilt.  With any luck, lacking anyone to pay the bills and provide transportation, she would move on soon. 

The third decision involved where the crime would occur.  They did not want the neighborhood tainted by it, nor did they want to take the risk of breaking into Beef’s house in the dark and hoping Ed would go undetected until he could find Beef and carry out the murder, or possibly murders.  Doing it in Beef’s house carried at least a fifty-fifty chance of disaster.  They might have overnight crashers, probably Ripper, who could foul up the works, or the girlfriend might get in the way.  To do it next door would be shitting in their nest, as Ed put it.  It had to be done in a lonely place where Ed could do what he had to do and then slip away under cover.

The perfect place would be on Palmer Road, the road that led past the dump and on to The Four Horsemen, above the place where Ripper had accosted Ed and Shawn.  There was a rise along the way with thick weeds and trees off the road on both sides, and a view of the road in both directions, uncultivated on either side because the land was too steep and uneven to farm.  There he could set up his rifle and wait on a night when the moon was full or near full and he was fairly certain Beef would be returning late from The Four Horsemen.  He would have a clear field of fire along the road for at least a hundred yards.  With his combat experience in Afghanistan, knocking him off his big Harley would be easy.

Ed kept thinking to himself a hundred times a day, “Jesus, I can’t believe I’m doing this.  I can’t believe I’m planning to take the life of a man who isn’t shooting back at me.  And if I’m caught, I’ll spend the rest of my life in prison.  I can’t do this.”

But he could, and he knew he could.  If he didn’t, life would continue to be hell, his marriage might sour and fail altogether. He could lose his home and his son and be saddled with alimony and support payments for the next decade, at least, and be lucky if his life ever became livable again.  He would do it.  There simply was no viable choice.

Once the decision was made, he could hardly stop thinking about how to get it done.  He would first have to take the rifle somewhere remote and make sure it was still sighted in, and also to make sure his ammo was still good.  He couldn’t be seen doing that.  That was easy; the Carrizo Plain was not that far.  Then he would scour the entire rifle and its bullets clean of any possible fingerprints and DNA.  After that he would handle them only while wearing latex gloves. 

He could visualize the entire route from his home to the ambush point, having traversed it many times on his delivery route and during runs and bike rides.  Beside the fact that there were no homes anywhere near it, the best things about the location he’d chosen were the ample cover at the scene, and the ditches beside the road deep enough to lie prone in and not be seen by passing vehicles.  The last half mile up to the location had some kind of cover on both sides and a drainage ditch or vegetation or both, so that he could hide from approaching traffic while in route. 

This was important because he would have to walk to the location from his home and back again after the attack.  Too much risk would be involved in taking his truck, because even though the route was little-used at the time of night he’d be there, he’d have to park it off the road, if he could find a place at all, and wait for as long as two hours for Beef to come riding by.  A vehicle would be conspicuous because the road was narrow and there’d be no reason for anyone to be parked and absent from the vehicle for very long at that hour.  Ed figured it only takes one cop or local guy jotting down your license number to send you to prison.  Besides that, a neighbor might notice him leaving in his truck and returning late, something he never did, and furnish that information to police if they asked.  A bicycle would be faster than walking, but concealing both himself and the bicycle if traffic came, as it surely would, would be time-consuming and difficult.  He simply couldn’t be spotted.

No, the plan was to walk, hide if he spotted headlights, try to make it home without being seen.  He’d wear dark coveralls, break the rifle down carry it in a gym bag, and dispose of it on his way home.  Safe at home, he’d shower immediately to remove any powder residue on his body.  Since the clothes he wore might pick up evidence, like pollen or a unique type of dirt from his hiding place, he’d take the coveralls and his shoes with him to work the next day, find a remote dumpster, and discard them before anyone could possibly connect him with the crime, much less get a search warrant.  All the true-crime stories he’d been addicted to for years were coming in handy now. 

Ed wished he had a night vision scope, but buying one now would be a dead giveaway if suspicion ever turned his way.  Security cameras and credit card receipts had nailed more criminals the past decade than eyewitnesses.  But without one, making sure he was shooting the right guy could be a problem.   A fat guy on a motorcycle looks like any other on a dark night.  Definitely best to do it under a full moon if he could.  He’d have to work on that.  He wished he had a deer rifle. 

And what if Beef’s girlfriend was with him?  If he shot Beef, there was a good chance that he could hit her as well, either through ricochet or bad aim; even a pass-through bullet.  And once Beef was hit, he’d lose control of his motorcycle.  One way or the other she was bound to get hurt.  Should he just walk away?  But he would have to get up close for the coup de grace on Beef.  There was no sense going to all this trouble without being sure Beef was dead, and that meant Beef’s girlfriend could identify him unless she were dead or unconscious.  He’d have to assess the situation when it occurred, but he’d have to be ready to shoot her in cold blood too.  Jesus, that would be hard.  But he thought of Shawn and Sandy, of the terror, or worse, they would feel if Ripper and his fat-ass friend caught them alone somewhere, and was sure he would do that too, if he had to.  Maybe if he wore a ski mask… 

Even if he wore a ski mask, though, he still wouldn’t look like a biker.  He wanted the cops to think a rival gang took Beef out.  The girlfriend would be able to refute that if she saw him without the appropriate clothing and colors.  He simply had no reasonable way to assemble such an outfit, and she might still recognize him even if he could.  Best simply to wear the ski mask and if there was any doubt, shoot her too.  All he could do was hope she wouldn’t be there.

Then there was the escape.  The ski mask would go in his pocket.  He couldn’t just toss it at the scene; it would carry his DNA.   He could discard it with the coveralls and shoes.  The rifle would be untraceable to him and free of prints and trace evidence, but just in case, he’d rather it not be found.  He’d carry it down the grade at least a few hundred yards, then use the rifle butt to scoop out the soft dirt of the drainage ditch alongside the road and bury it.  If it was ever found, any possible trace evidence would have been destroyed in the moist earth and runoff from the rains, if any came this year. 

To get home afterward, he would have to leave the cover of tall weeds at the point a half mile below the crime scene where the road straightened out and became flat, with farm fields on both sides planted with broccoli or lying fallow until spring.  The rows of broccoli plants were high enough that he could lie in between the rows and not be easily seen by passing vehicles, or he could drop into the ditch quickly if surprised, though there was little chance of that.  In the dark, he’d know well in advance if a car was coming, especially if it were a police car with lights and siren.  Once he got to level ground safely, oncoming traffic would be even more obvious.  When he got far enough, he could duck under the bridge over the dry river to cross, then dash up the river bed until he’d be hard to see in the darkness.  When he’d gone far enough, he could burn his latex gloves into a molten mass, scale the chain-link fence on the other side, cross the road that ran in front of the high school, and lose himself in the residential neighborhood that surrounded it.  By then he would be only a few blocks from home, surrounded by his tidy neighborhood, where cops were unlikely to be cruising at that hour.    

From the first shot until he was lying safe in his own bed should take less than half an hour.  There’s be no one to say he hadn’t been home all night. 

 

That night Ed dreamed of crawling on his stomach in the dark through dense brush, his rifle held in front of him, as twigs and branches snagged his clothes and threatened to jab him in his eyes.  Then in an instant, a huge rattlesnake had struck at him.  But the strike was blocked by the stock of his rifle, leaving the snake’s fangs gripping the rifle stock, comically spitting venom like the water pistol Ed had  had as a boy.  He began struggling with the snake, desperately trying to think of a way to kill it.  Its strength was disproportionately great for its size, like that of a champion arm wrestler.  Suddenly the snake’s head grasping the rifle stock became a huge and hairy hand, joined by another, and he was standing up, struggling to keep a man who looked like Beef, but wasn’t, from turning the rifle on him.  He was losing the struggle, and the muzzle was swinging inexorably toward him, when he awoke and sat bolt upright, sweating and panting as though he’d been in an actual struggle. 

Sandy, always a light sleeper, was turned away from him.  She rolled onto her back and asked, “Are you okay?  Is something wrong?”

“No,” he said too quickly.  “I just need to pee.” 

The clock read three-thirty and the block was quiet.  The nightmare was still replaying over and over in his head.  He kept seeing the rattler’s fangs spitting venom as he twisted his head this way and that to avoid the twin streams.  Shaking his head to clear it, he made his way to the bathroom in the faint light of a streetlight that filtered through the curtains.  He closed the door as silently as possible, turned on the light, and found a roll of paper towels beneath the sink.  Ripping one off, he wiped the sweat off his chest and from under his arms.  They turned down the thermostat at night to save money and conserve energy, and now the chill in the room brought out goosebumps. 

Looking at himself in the mirror, he saw an average guy, a guy who never looked for trouble and would cross the street to avoid it.  But here he couldn’t cross the street, couldn’t do a damned thing to avoid this trouble that had visited him and his family, without becoming an executioner.   He wondered that if he were already so disturbed that he was having nightmares, what would sleep be like after he had taken another life, maybe two?  He stared into his own eyes until he heard Sandy asking again if he was all right, then shut off the light and went back to bed.  He wrapped his arms around her and squirmed in close until her warm hips pressed up against his stomach and thighs.  She took his hand in both of hers and held it tight, but still he was unable to sleep again that night.

 

That Monday, Ed was inside the UPS terminal, bent over in the cargo box of his truck checking packages on the racks for the last time, when another driver, Earl, stuck his head inside.  Earl had always reminded Ed of a young Michael Keaton, with his short, wiry hair and in-your-face personality.  His right eyelid drooped slightly, and his mouth was usually twisted in a wry grin.  Brash and unable to stand still, there seemed to be only a tenuous connection between his mouth and his higher brain functions.  Seeing Ed’s back was to him, he slammed his hand against the wall of the truck, making Ed start upright and whip around to face his grinning face.

“Little jumpy there, are we?  Whuzzup, ol’ pal, ol’ buddy?”
“Jesus, Earl, you trying to scare the shit out of me?”

“Yeah, did it work?  You need to run to the head and clean up?”

Earl grinned broadly, then continued chewing a wad of Trident mint gum.

“Nah.  I’m wearing my Depends.”  Ed managed a weak smile, and tried to pick up what he was doing.  He hoped Ed wouldn’t notice the dark circles under his eyes. 

Earl shuffled his feet, trying to look serious.  “So what’s up, bro?  Ain’t seen much of you lately.  Everything okay with you and Sandy?  You’re looking a little down in the mouth lately.  Maybe you could use a little Viagra?”

“Pass, Earl.  I just haven’t been sleeping too well lately.”

“That’s news.  No wonder you look like a zombie on Quaaludes.  How long’s that been going on?”

Ed let out a long breath.  “Since we got the new neighbors.”

“Whoa.  So those guys haven’t moved on, huh?  This sounds like a major life crisis.  Maybe we should have a serious talk, bro.”

“That would take longer than we’ve got.”

Earl looked around at the other trucks, with their roll-up doors being slammed down, engines firing up and emitting belches of diesel and gasoline fumes.  He had to talk over the screeching of heavy tires on polished concrete as drivers with their digital clipboards began moving out the huge doors of the terminal to start their deliveries, all computer-routed for the fastest trips.

“No problemo, buddy.  Meet me at The Sail Loft at three-thirty.  I’m buyin’.  Be ready to spill your guts.”  He started away.

“I can’t, Earl, I gotta take Shawn to his practice…”

Earl spun back.  “No excuses, bro.  What are buddies for, huh?  Just for half an hour.  You’ve got half an hour.  Huh?  Half an hour? Huh?  Huh?”  Earl did a thing with his eyebrows, raising and lowering them rapidly like Groucho Marx while he flicked an imaginary cigar, and grinned big.

Ed couldn’t help but grin back.  “Okay, but make it four o’clock instead.  And I can’t stay long.”

“You got it, buddy.”  Earl raised his wrist and pinched his watch.  “Synchronize watches.  It’s now…”

“Get the fuck outa here,” Ed said, but at least he was smiling.

 

By four-thirty, Earl and Ed, seated among the nautical décor, had finished two beers.  Just above them and hung from the ceiling was a battered dinghy with the unlikely name “Daddy’s Girl” painted on the stern.  All around them in great profusion, strapped or nailed to the walls or hanging from the ceiling, was a mind-boggling collection of oars, nets, glass floats, cork floats, sou’wester hats in various colors and conditions, stuffed and mounted fish, rubber boots, fishing poles, a stuffed seagull with wings extended, semaphore flags, cheesecake calendars, neon beer and liquor signs, photos of ships and sailors, even a fiberglass great white shark ten feet long with its gaping mouth open as if to attack “Daddy’s Girl.”

They had a table by the popcorn machine, and were eating too much of it from a large, yellow Tupperware bowl between them.  The place was still nearly dead because most of the regular clientele rolled in after five.  The barmaid and bartender faced each other across the long, oak bar, playing some kind of board game involving placing pegs into holes in a small board while above and behind the bar, a flat-screen TV was set to a sports channel playing a cage fight at low volume.  The barmaid had skinny legs below a narrow waist and ample bosom.  She was barely into her thirties, but if you looked close you could see the lines that told her story.  The bartender was a large man in his forties with huge arms, a cauliflower ear, and grizzled features who probably didn’t know a martini from a mimosa but could handle a drunk with the best of them.

“One more?” Earl asked.  “I’m still buyin’.”

“I gotta go, Earl.  Thanks for listening.”

“Whoa.  Wait a minute, buddy.  We still gotta talk about what we’re gonna do about this situation.”

Ed was beginning to rise.  “Earl, I appreciate the moral support, but this isn’t your problem.  Whatever we do, I don’t want to get anyone else involved.” 

“Eddie, Eddie, my man.  Sit back down.  I’m not ‘anyone.’  I’m your best buddy.  We went through the war together didn’t we?”

Ed grinned despite himself and sat back.  “If you count being there at different times in different places as together, I guess.”

Earl signaled the barmaid for another round, holding up a ten and then placing it on the table.  “I do,” he said.  “Comrades in arms.  Blood brothers.  Marines.  Semper fi, all that shit.  Who ya gonna call?  Me.  Your enemy is my enemy.  We’re gonna fuck those punks up.  Only question is how.”

“No, Earl.  I appreciate your loyalty.  Honest to God there’s no one I’d rather have on my side in this, but first of all, I don’t know what we’re going to do, and second, I wouldn’t get you involved whatever it is.”

The barmaid swayed over, deposited two more longneck Buds, collected the empties and the ten.  “Keep the change, darlin’,” Earl said to her departing back.  He watched her hips wiggle away, then turned his attention back to Ed.

“Huh-uh, bro.  You’re not leavin’ me out of this.  We go way back, you and me.”

Ed grinned despite himself.  “Two years?”

Earl nodded sagely.  “You bet.  That’s enough for some serious male bonding.  And I am not, repeat not, letting you face down a bunch of psycho bikers all by yourself.”  He took a long gulp of his beer.

“First off, Earl, whatever happens, it won’t be the gunfight at the OK Corral.  We’ll find a way to handle this peacefully.”

Earl pointed the neck of his beer bottle at Ed.  “That is the biggest bunch of bullshit I’ve ever heard.  The cops can’t or won’t do shit.  We already know that.  So what’re you gonna do?  Get a petition going around and politely ask these shitheels to cease and desist trashing the neighborhood?  Be serious, Ed.  This calls for action of the military kind.”

“Spit it out, Earl.  What are you suggesting?”

Earl leaned across the table, dropped his voice low, and said, “We frag the bastards.  Simple as that.”

Ed looked at Earl, his mouth slightly opened, and nodded almost imperceptibly.  “Frag the bastards.”

“Yup.  We frag ‘em.  That’s the only way to deal with pukes like that, pal.”

“You’re talking like Sandy.”
“Was she in the Marines?”  Earl grinned stupidly at his own joke.  “I like the way she thinks.”

                “Earl, we can’t even be talking like this.  If anything happens to one of those people and word gets out we were even hinting at fragging them, whose door do you think the cops will be knocking at?”

                Earl snorted.  “The cops won’t give a shit who did it.  We’d be taking out their trash for them.”

                Ed shook his head.  “Now you really sound like Sandy.” 

“Your problem, Ed, is that you have moral scruples.  It sounds like a disease, and for you, in this case, it is.  You can’t wrap your head around the idea of blowing away somebody who isn’t pointing a gun at you.  Too many Bruce Willis movies or something, but trust me, pal, if this moron, Pork or whatever he calls himself, is ever pointing a gun at you, it won’t be when you have one to fight back with.  Gangbangers don’t work that way.  These guys get their ya-ya’s ganging up on decent people, not getting in man-to-man fights when the odds are even.  The only way to take your life back is to take his.”

“Buddy, I really, really appreciate you being willing to stand up for me.  I’d do it for you.  But fragging them is not the way.”

                “Yeah, it is, actually.  If you don’t see that yet, you will.”

                “I’ll let you know when I do.  Meanwhile, I need to get home.”  He drained his beer and stood up.  “Thanks for the beers, bud, and thanks for being a good friend.”

                “You’ll change your mind.  But I won’t.  The offer stays open.”

                Ed patted Earl’s shoulder in passing. 

“You talk to Sandy,” Earl said over his shoulder to Ed’s retreating back.  “See if she doesn’t agree with me.” 

Ed waved without turning, said “Okay, okay,” then went out the back door, exposing a rectangle of sky lit orange by the setting sun.  A dummy dressed up like an old sea salt smoking a corncob pipe stood by the back door.  A motion detector triggered a speaker in the dummy, which rasped, “Aaar!  Come again, matey!”  When the door closed again, Earl held up his empty bottle.  The barmaid came right over.

                “Another one, honey?”

                “Yeah,” Earl answered, his hand on her thigh.  “What’re you doin’ after work, Gwen?”

                “Thought I’d go slumming.  Wanta come along?”

 

                That night after Shawn was in bed, Sandy and Ed sat on the living room sofa, the television on low volume as entertainers competed for judges’ votes, as Ed told Sandy about his conversation with Earl.

                “You didn’t tell him what we’re planning, did you?”

                “Hell no.  I wouldn’t do that without talking to you first.”

                “But you’re thinking of it.”

                “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea, hon.”

                “But why, Ed?  We talked about this.  It has to be just us.  How do you know he wouldn’t throw us to the wolves if he hit a pedestrian on that rocket bike of his and was looking at a manslaughter  conviction or whatever?  How do you know he wouldn’t testify rat us out to get probation instead of prison?”

                “Because of the kind of guy he is.  He’s a little crazy, but in his eyes we’re blood brothers, combat veterans, different from everyone else who hasn’t been there and done that.  He’d spend his life behind bars before he’d rat on us.”

                “Even if that’s true, what do we need him for?  It’s only one guy, one bullet, and it’s done.”

                Ed crossed his arms and leaned back.  “Well, I’ve been thinking about that all afternoon.  We have to look at this like a military operation.  Something can always go wrong with a plan, and something usually does.  You need someone to look for the flaws in your plan, and you need backup plans.  What we’ve thought out is good as far as it goes, but there’s no room for contingencies.  Once I leave here, I’m on my own.  You have to stay home because we can’t leave Shawn alone.  What if I fell and broke my leg after it was done?  Or worse, what if some of Beef’s buddies weren’t far behind him and come after me with guns blazing?  Then I’m screwed.  Not one in twenty ambushes goes exactly as planned.  The more I think about it, the more I think it would be crazy to do this alone.  I need an experienced combat guy to look for the holes in the plan so we can have plan B ready.”

                “How do you know Earl is what he says he is?  You told me yourself lots of guys who never fired a shot in the war brag and tell war stories.”

                “I know because he showed me his bronze star.  I looked it up online because I doubted it myself when we first met.  I thought maybe he was one of those guys who buys a medal at a pawn shop.  He’s deaf in one ear from the firefight that got him the bronze star or he’d still be a Marine.  He’s gung ho all the way.  Earl’s the real thing.”

                “I don’t know, Ed.  Are you so sure you can trust him all the way?”

                “Let me sound him out again.  I owe him a beer.  I won’t bring it up.  I’ll just act like we never talked and see what he does.  If he doesn’t bring it up, I chalk it up to bar talk.  If he does, I see what he has to say, but no commitment.   Okay?”

                Sandy pursed her lips and stared for a long moment at the singer on TV belting out “I Did It My Way.”  Finally she said “Okay.  See how he acts.”

 

 Ed had grabbed a table at The Sail Loft as far away from the bar as he could and had a sweating pitcher of beer in front of him when Earl pushed through the back door in a blaze of sunlight that made Ed squint as though a camera flash had gone off in his face.  The dummy was cleverly wired to distinguish entrances from exits, and on his entrance boomed out “Welcome aboard, matey!”  Earl waved to Gwen, who was watching Dr. Phil on the TV over the bar while the bartender did a liquor inventory. 

“You two are becoming regulars,” she said, and winked at him. 

A young couple who looked like they were ditching college classes sat at a table near the jukebox, engrossed in each other, their eyes shining, as Jon Bon Jovi sang “Saturday Night Gave Me Sunday Morning.”   At the bar a couple of late-twenties guys in paint-stained coveralls with paint spatters on their hands were sharing a pitcher of beer and talking raucously. 

“Hey, buddy,” Earl said, stopping to scoop out a bowl of popcorn on his way to the table.   Shoving a handful of popcorn into his mouth, he dropped into a chair across from Ed and watched as Ed poured a foamy glass for him.  As the foam threatened to spill over the rim, he grabbed the glass and slurped the foam off, then emptied the glass in one long gulp before slamming it back down on the table.

“Damn, I needed that,” he gasped, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.

“I guess you did,” Ed responded, eyebrows raised as he refilled the glass. 

Earl got right to the point.  “So, did you talk to Sandy about my offer?”

“I did.  She can’t quite digest the idea that it really has to come to what you’re suggesting.  I’m not sure I can either.  It’s a drastic solution, and things can go wrong.”

Earl tipped his chair back and rocked it gently as he tossed individual pieces of popcorn from his

fist into his mouth and looked around conspiratorially.  There was enough noise in the place that there was little chance of being overheard.

“Ed, what you and Sandy need to realize is that there really are people who don’t deserve to live.  Those guys next door to you get off on making life miserable for good people like you and your family.  They think being feared is better than being loved.  They love what they do.  They wouldn’t pull this crap on guys like me because we don’t have families they can threaten.  They’d know right off that I’m crazy as a shithouse rat and I’d firebomb their fuckin’ place in a heartbeat if they fucked with me.”

“I still don’t get why you’re willing to get involved.  You could spend the rest of your life in prison for what you’re suggesting.”

“You gotta understand, Ed.  If I could, I’d still be doing recon patrols.  I’m bored stiff, and you need my help.  The only reason I keep this lame-ass job is so I can finance my Ninja bike and my whoring.  Someday I’ll lose my job when I get tagged for felony evasion or doing a hundred and fifty with a point-one-two blood alcohol, or they’ll scrape me off the pavement and that will be the end of it all and I won’t need a job.  But you—you’re a standup guy, and you’ve got everything to lose.  A good wife, a good son, and a good life.  Someday you’ll be a supervisor and someday after that you’ll get into management and have a nice house looking out over the beach and if I’m still alive we’ll still be buddies because you’re not a prick who forgets his friends.  You need these scum out of your life.  I want to help you make that happen.  It would be my honor.”

“Wow, Earl, that’s the longest speech you ever made, I think, and I don’t mean to mock you.  I am honest-to-God touched by it, but I’m not that great a guy, and I don’t deserve that kind of sacrifice from you.”

“It’s not just the beer talking when I say this, Ed.  It’s not a sacrifice.  I need the action, and this is a righteous cause.  Guys like you are the backbone of this country.  You served it honorably, you do your job, you treat people with respect, you take care of your family and your responsibilities.  You’re not a big fuck-up like me.  You’re a straight shooter.  Decent, hard-working guys like you make this country what it is.  I can’t stand by and watch these pukes put you between a rock and a hard place, where the cops can’t help and you’d have to put your family at risk to confront them, maybe even go to prison.  They don’t deserve a fair fight, Ed.  They’re rabid dogs.  They just need to be put down.  Why don’t you just give in and let me help?”

Ed swirled the beer in his glass while he watched it and thought over what Earl had said.  “So, hypothetically, how would you do it?”

“Easy.  An ambush.  We’ve both done a dozen of them.  I’m not sure where.   Maybe catch him on a lonely road, in a crossfire, you on one side, me on the other.  Somewhere where there won’t be witnesses, with at least two clean escape routes in case one is blocked.”

“What if he’s not alone?”

“Too bad for his pal.  Probably would be this Ripper guy.  I’d just as soon he gets it too.  He’d be the first one to come after you.”

“Actually, Beef’s bitch would probably be with him.  Could you do a woman?”

“It wouldn’t be the first time.  The first one was getting ready to throw a hand grenade at me, but I could do this one because she’s as much a part of it as Beef and Ripper.”

Ed nodded and took a drink of beer.  He was convinced that Earl was serious and willing to go the distance, so he leaned in closer.  Earl tipped his chair until it rested on all four legs and then leaned across the table toward Ed.  On the wall behind Earl’s head a Coors neon sign flickered. 

“Okay, I’ll tell you straight up,” Ed said.  “Sandy and I have talked about this.  We can’t see what other choice we have.  Since my run-in with Ripper, things have gotten real tense.  They’re following us around town.  She’s scared to death of being attacked.  She’s got me worried to leave her alone.”

“Sandy’s a smart lady.  And she’s right to be scared.  A guy like Ripper wouldn’t think twice about kidnapping her and…”

“All right.  All right.  I don’t need any details.”

“You’ve got to do it soon, bro.  If you wait and something happens to your family, you’ll never be able to live with yourself.”

Ed nodded.  “You’re right about that, buddy.”  Over Earl’s shoulder Ed saw Gwen starting toward their table.  He held up one palm, fingers spread, to wave her off.  She went back to chatting with the bartender.

“We’d want shotguns,” Earl said.  “No ballistic evidence and they cause a lot of damage.”

“I don’t have a shotgun.”

“I have a Mossberg.  We can get you one.’

“Think about it, though.  Too big and hard to conceal.  If we had to ditch them and they were found, they’d run the serial numbers and we’d be screwed.”

“Yeah, but…”

“Hear me out.  I have an untraceable M1 semi-auto thirty-caliber carbine I can break down to carry to the ambush point and ditch afterwards.  You’d do better with a handgun.”

Earl rubbed his chin and thought.  “You’re probably right.  I have a registered Tec 9.  If I have to use it I’ll ditch it and claim it was stolen.  You a good rifle shot?”

“Pretty good.”
“Then let’s talk about planning.”   

Ed leaned in closer and dropped his voice.  “Look, Earl, the thing is, we already have a plan.  If you’re serious about this, I want to run it by you, see where you think it has holes, and patch them up.”

This excited Earl.  “You sonofabitch!  I should’a known you wouldn’t take this shit lying down!  So tell me what you’ve got.”

“First I need to know that you really want in on this, that I’m not dragging you into anything.”

Earl expressed his exasperation by flopping one arm over the back of his chair, throwing his legs out straight, and looking over his right shoulder at a brass porthole on the wall as he waved his beer around for emphasis.   Then he turned back to Ed and hunched forward.

“What are you talking about “dragging” for, bro?  Ain’tchu heard me?  I’m volunteering.  I want to be in on this.  I want to be Captain America and fight for truth, justice, and the American way.”  He took a long pull of his beer.

“You’re thinking of Superman.”

Earl waved his beer.  “Whatever.  I want to waste bad guys.”

Ed dropped his voice to a hoarse whisper.  “All right.  I believe that.  But look at it from my point of view.  If I bring you in on this, and we get popped for premeditated murder, you’re looking at life in prison for something I can do by myself.  I couldn’t live with that.”

“Wait.  Don’t be so sure you can pull it off alone.  Anyway, you shouldn’t have to be the Lone Ranger in this.  The system is letting you down here, and you need someone on your side, someone to watch your back, someone with experience taking out bad guys, someone to help plan it all out so neither of us gets caught.  ‘Cause I’m telling you, buddy, it just ain’t right for you to have to face this alone.”

“I’m not alone.  Sandy’s in this with me.”

Earl swung around, planted his feet on the floor, put his elbows on the table, and gripped his beer bottle in both hands.  “With all due respect, Ed, Sandy ain’t got what it takes for this kind of mission.  We’ve both seem women in combat who do, but Sandy could go to pieces at the wrong time and get us all busted.  Am I right?  Can you see that sweet wife of yours putting a gun to someone’s head and pulling the trigger because it’s either us or them?”

This gave Ed pause.  He sighed, let his chin drop onto his chest, and finally nodded almost imperceptibly.  “No.  I have to concede on that one.”

Earl gave Ed a lopsided grin.  “I’m right, right?  She could get us killed or caught.”
“You’re right.”
“So I’m in, right?”

Ed nodded.  “You’re in.” 

“The right decision, buddy.”  Earl raised his bottle.  “To comrades in arms.”

“Comrades in arms,” said Ed, raising his bottle.  They toasted, Earl with a wide grin, Ed with a look that said damned I do, damned if I don’t.  “But one thing.  No one else, and I mean no one,” nodding toward Gwen, “knows about this but you and me and Sandy.”

Earl looked disgusted.  “Give me some credit, amigo.  Even dead drunk I know better than that.”

“My apologies.  But murdering people just scares the shit out of me.”

“This ain’t murder, son.  I don’t know what to call it, but it ain’t murder.”

Ed began laying out what he and Sandy had discussed.  Earl listened patiently, absently forming bubbles of saliva on his tongue and launching then off the tip, which immediately sank to the floor.  After hearing the plan concocted by Ed and Sandy, Earl had a few comments. 

“It’s good as far as it goes, pardner, but you’re missing a few contingencies.  Which one you think bothers me most?”

“What if a couple of his buddies are not far behind him and come along while I’m standing in the road making sure he’s ready for a body bag.”

“Right.  That’s a big one.  Maybe they stayed behind to take a leak or finish their beers.  They come over the hill and find you standing over Beef, rifle in hand.  To be ready for something like that, you need backup.  I’m either right there with you, or I’m two clicks up the road so I’m behind any bike rats who come across the scene while you’re still there.   And unless there are more than six or seven of them, the Tec 9 with a 24-round clip will do the job.”

Ed nods.  “So far so good.  I’ve thought about that, and it’s what worried me the most about going it alone.  I don’t want this to turn into a blood bath, and I don’t want it to be my blood.  Or yours.”

“Trust me,” Earl said.  “We can get this done without friendly casualties.  Now, second is your transportation problem.  You’ve got to walk or run two miles carrying a rifle at midnight just to get to your ambush point.”

“I’ve also thought about that some.  I’d have it broken down and in a gym bag with some other stuff I’ll need.”

“Okay.  So then it looks like you’re carrying burglar tools instead of committing a murder.  You’d still get rousted by any cop that sees you, and any civilian who sees you would remember you.  People don’t walk after midnight in nice neighborhoods.  And what if something goes bad wrong after it’s done?  Being on foot won’t cut it.  If you’re injured and bleeding, you need someone to patch you up and take you to an E.R.  If you’re being chased, either by bikers or cops, you need something fast that can leave those fuckin’ choppers behind.  Am I right so far?” 

“Yeah, those are things that couldn’t be helped if I worked this alone.  The place I picked is the only place I can think of that I know Beef goes that also works as an ambush site, but there’s nowhere to hide a pickup where some cop or local might not pay attention to it.”

“Yeah, but I’ll find a place to hide my Kawasaki ZX.  There’s nothing any biker or any cop rides that we couldn’t lose, even with two riders on it.  If everything goes as planned, you’ll be home in less than five minutes.”

“I’d still better walk the last couple of blocks near my house.  Same as when we go out.  You can pick me up on the corner.  We don’t want any neighbors who know me noticing you picking me up or dropping me off.”

“That goes without saying.”

“What about the M1?  Should we stop and bury it afterward?”

“Didn’t you say it’s untraceable?”

“Far as I know.  Not to me anyhow.  The last possible registered owner was down south while I was still in short pants.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“My dad was a sales rep for the John Deere tractor company.  Why he was down south at the time I don’t know.  Won it in a poker game in a honkey-tonk bar.  Said he was having a beer and got invited to sit in.  Didn’t know any of the guys, including the one he won it from.” 

“Never registered it?
                “Didn’t see any reason to.  He wasn’t big on government regulations.  He never used it much.  Said I might as well have it, and as far as he was concerned, he never owned it.”

“Man, I don’t think they could ever trace it to you.  I’d just throw it as far into the bushes as I could down the road from where we hit them.  What good would it do the cops to find it?  I still wish I could bring a shotgun.  I know a guy with a sawed-off I could conceal okay…”

Ed cut him off sharply.  “No way.  No one else gets involved in any way.  We use what we’ve got or we don’t use it.”

Earl grimaced and nodded.  “You’re right.  You’re right.”

There was a long pause.  Gwen had loaded the popcorn machine for the after-work crowd, and the heavy odor in the closed room was almost gagging Ed, but the popping noise had helped drown out their conversation.  Ed was watching the faux waterfall of an old Olympia beer sign as it sparkled on the wall.

Earl finally spoke.  “’God, Ed, I feel shitty bringing you in.  You don’t have to do this.  You don’t have to get involved.”

“I’m involved already.  I’m just thinkin’ maybe I should bring an extra clip.  I’ve got plenty of room in my leathers.”

“An extra clip?  You don’t think twenty-four rounds is enough?”

“What the hell?  Might as well have the extra along.  If I use the Tec 9, I’m going to have to get rid of it and all the accessories anyway, and claim someone stole it if it ever comes up.  Matter of fact, maybe I should report it stolen before we go out.”

Ed shrugged.  “You’re the one who has to carry it.  But it would be smart to report it missing before the fact.  If you don’t use it, you can always say you found it later.” 

“I’ll get that done.  By the way, I have an old set of black leathers and a helmet you can wear if you want.  You’re about my size, and it’s good camouflage in the dark.  Mine kinda match my paint job, but at least I’ll look cool.”

“That’s important.”

Gwen had gone over and now stood in front of the juke box, leaning on it like a kid playing an old pinball game and swaying her hips, until she finally slid in some money and punched some selections.  “Remember Me” began playing.  It was Ed’s favorite Willy Nelson song.  His dad used to sing it now and then.  Gwen straightened up, closed her eyes, let her whole body go with the music a moment, and then,  looking over at Earl all the time, sashayed back to the bar just as two guys who looked like city workers came in and took the table by the popcorn machine that Ed and Earl had sat at last time.  Gwen trailed after them and took an order while the smaller of the two guys scooped the fresh popcorn into a bowl. 

Earl hunched forward until Ed could make out the separate freckles under his eyes, and lowered his voice now that the popcorn machine was silent again.  “Here’s what I’m thinking.  I should drop you off and then head up the road in the direction they’ll be coming from.  We use a pair of walkie-talkies instead of cell phones for obvious reasons.  You can spring for those.  I’ll be about a mile from you, and wait for him to come by.  When Beef passes me, I call you immediately and let you know whether he’s alone or with his old lady.  If anyone else is with him, like that Ripper prick, we scrub the operation for the night, even if I would like to do him personally for that crap he pulled on you and Shawn.  If he’s with his old lady, we need to do her too.  We really can’t leave a witness if we want the cops to think another biker gang did it.”

“She almost always goes with Beef.  If you want to make sure she’s not along for the ride, Sandy or I could look out the window every time he fires up his Harley, and just wait for a time when it looks like he’s heading out alone to The Four Horsemen.”

“No, that could take weeks.  You ain’t got the luxury of waiting that long.  We’re gonna have to do her too.  I say ‘we’, but you’ll be the one pulling the trigger.”

Ed looked away, staring at the floor for a long moment, then said, “I don’t like it, but yeah, that’s probably best.”

“You’re sure you can do it?”
“We’re talking about my family.  If I have to, I will.”

“Too bad he doesn’t head out on that road on a regular schedule.  I’d rather do him on the way out than have to sit in the bushes for hours waiting for him to come back.”

“People in hell want ice water, Earl.  He could head out any time from early evening to midnight, so either way we’re probably in for a long wait.  That’s the down side of ambushes.  You know that.  We don’t have a choice.  You can always change your mind.”

“Like hell I will.”

Ed belched up a bubble of carbon dioxide that momentarily took his breath away.  The place was getting busier, but the increased noise level made it easier to talk without fear of being overheard. 

“I don’t get it,” Ed said.
“Get what?” asked Earl.

“Why planning to do this thing doesn’t scare the shit out of you too.”

Earl raised his eyebrows and looked away a moment.  Then he looked at Ed and shrugged.

“You’re giving me too much credit.  Just thinking about it makes me feel more alive than I have since I left the marines.  But for the record, I think you hold the moral high ground here, and I’m not going to waste my time agonizing about the philosophical fine points.  Maybe because I really believe what we’re doing is right.  Because there is no other way.  This is one of those areas where moral right and the law don’t agree.  These guys are terrifying you and your family, and there’s nothing the law can do to help you until it’s too late.  There’s no doubt these guys are evil sonsofbitches.  I think we’ll totally get away with it.  So what’s to be scared of?  Morally, it’s easier for me than shooting some guy who at least believes he’s just defending his way of life with Allah behind him.  You agree with that, right?”

“I do,” Ed said, “but it still scares the shit out of me.  Our lives are over if we get caught.”

Earl shoved a fistful of popcorn into his mouth, chewed, and washed it down with beer.  “Try not to let it eat you up, partner.  You might as well back off now if you’d let that happen.  So let’s finish our beer and go check out the spot you picked.”

“While I’m thinking about, today’s Friday.  Maybe this weekend we could head out toward Bakersfield and find a place to zero the M1.”

“Cool.  I could use a little practice with the Tec 9.”

 

“All right, here’s how I see it,” Earl said, pointing at a rough hand-drawn map of the area of the ambush site.  It was Sunday evening.  They had gone the day before out to the Carrizo Plain to zero the M1 and familiarize Ed with the Tec 9.  He and Ed were seated at Earl’s kitchen table, a reproduction of a 1950’s chrome-and-yellow-Formica model with matching padded chairs in shiny yellow vinyl.  “The next week will be optimal for the operation.  We’ll have a good moon most of the night all week.  Whatever night Beef heads out, you’ll call to let me know it’s a go.  You say he gets home between one and two, so I’ll pick you up two blocks from your house right at midnight.  You’ll be walking on Coachman Lane towards Lewis Road with your rifle broken down inside a gym bag along with the other stuff you’ll need.  You sure you can put it together in the dark?”

“I’ll have a penlight with me, but it’s easy.”

“Good.  Just keep walking until I pull up beside you, then you jump on and we’re gone.  I drop you off at Point A and you assemble the rifle and get settled while I go on up the road to Point B and get my bike out of sight.  That’s a little over a mile from where you’ll be.  I’ll be able to see almost two miles farther up the road except for a few blind spots, so once I see a motorcycle coming, I’ll alert you by walkie-talkie.  When it’s close enough, I’ll call and either confirm or deny that it’s him.  If it is him and I see anyone coming behind him, we scrub the ambush for that night.  Otherwise it’s gonna happen.  I’ll follow him to your location a few hundred yards behind with my light off so there’s no worry of me being hit by stray bullets.  By the time I get there, it should be over. Good so far?”

Ed sat back with his arms folded over his chest, his legs stuck out straight ahead of him, ankles crossed.  He had a grim look on his face as he went through his mental checklist, looking around the small apartment, neat as a barracks before an inspection.  No pictures of family, no knick-knacks, no memorabilia, nothing but posters of motorcycles and sports cars on the walls.  Nothing came to mind to fault the plan they’d worked out to this point. 

“Good so far,” Ed finally said.  “Just remember, if you don’t see the little bulldog, it’s not them.  The bimbo always carries it in one of those doggie carriers hung around her neck.”

“I’ll remember.  When I get to where you are, I’ll jump off and we can confirm that Beef is KIA.  Same with his bimbo if she’s there.  If they’re not, we deliver the coup de grace.  I won’t use my Tec 9 unless I have to. If there’s any problem, we’ll have a couple of minutes to take care of it before anyone coming from The Four Horsemen could surprise us.  You check to make sure your gloves are intact so that you haven’t left any traces on the rifle.  You grab your bag, we jump on my bike and haul ass.  We go on down the road a ways, then you fling the rifle as far into the brush as you can.  Done deal.  We head for your neighborhood.  I drop you off a block or two from home.  You go inside and burn your gloves and wash your clothes.  The next day you dispose of your clothes and shoes like we discussed.  Did I leave anything out?”

“No, I think that nails it.  It’s simple and effective.”
“But no ambush ever goes as planned, right?”

“This one should.  They won’t be expecting anything.”  Ed pondered a moment.  “So definitely no masks?”

“What for?  If he has a rider, she’s gonna be dead meat too.  You gotta accept that.  The mask is just one less piece of evidence to come back and bite us on the ass.”

“II guess I’m just having trouble with doing his girlfriend.  Couldn’t we just…I don’t know…warn her not to talk if she doesn’t want the same?”

Earl tossed his head with an exasperated look.  “She’s a witness, dude.  She could bury us.  You really think she wouldn’t at least tell Ripper it was you?”

“But she hasn’t really done anything.”

“Now you’re talking philosophy.  First off, it doesn’t matter.  If there’s a witness and we don’t do her, we’ll get caught, so I’m out if you’re not willing.  Second, she’s not innocent.  She’s an enabler.  You’ve heard of enablers, right?  She’s attracted to bad boys like a moth to a flame.  She encourages him because she gets her kicks out of seeing him and his buddies hurt people.  He likes to impress sluts.  She likes knowing that people fear him and thinks she’s hot shit because she’s giving him blow jobs.  Fuck her, Ed.  She’s worthless scum.  Are you going to do her or not?  Because if you don’t, I will, but don’t get in my way.”

Ed was practically gnashing his teeth in trying to deal with the idea. 

“Make up your mind, dude.  Either we call it off or she has to go if she’s with him.”

“All right.  All right,” he said finally.

“Okay then.  At the first chance, we put those fuckers out of your misery.  Now go home to your family and keep your eyes and ears open.”

 

That same night, Ed heard the Harley next door being kick-started at ten, a common time for Beef to head for The Four Horsemen.  He looked out in time to see Beef speeding away with a roar that rattled the windows, his taillight rapidly receding down the empty street as he went through the gears.  Beef was alone.  Relieved that they might avoid having to kill the girlfriend, Ed immediately picked up his walkie-talkie and thumbed the button, hands shaking slightly.  Since Earl lived several miles across town, Ed had paid the extra money for a long-range model to avoid leaving a record of calls back and forth to Earl on his cell or land line.  The expense would be worth it if he were ever a suspect. 

“He’s on the move,” Ed said without preamble when Earl clicked on.  “He’s alone.  If he comes back, I’ll let you know. Otherwise, at eleven-forty-five, I’ll start walking toward our meeting point.”

Earl, sounding completely calm and composed, said simply, “Cool.  I’ll be there,” and clicked off. 

Ed was a bundle of nerves.  He had to keep telling himself there was no reason to hurry; they had plenty of time.  At eleven-fifteen, he got dressed, put on clear vinyl gloves, and checked all his gear, wiping down the disassembled rifle once more for good measure.  They had decided that his original plan to wear coveralls would work better than wearing leathers, because a man on foot carrying a gym bag at that hour would seem even more unusual in leathers than in coveralls.  Half an hour later, he heard the racket of Beef returning, which probably meant he’d only gone for a beer run.  Bitterly disappointed, he called Earl to let him know.

The next night, a bit after ten, Sandy heard it first, and watched at the window as Beef took off, his girlfriend on the bike with him.  Ed went through his routine again.  This time Beef had not returned before midnight.  Ed confirmed with Earl via the walkie-talkie, then put his coveralls over his clothes, added a watch cap to keep his head warm, picked up the bag he’d already packed, and set off for their rendezvous point.  He left by the side gate, moving as soundlessly as possible, feeling like a criminal, and worse, like a coward, for not confronting Beef and Ripper.  Except that he knew that was not an alternative; that they were sociopaths with a gang mentality, and that confronting them would only get his ass kicked, or worse, and put his family in more danger than it already was. 

Walking down the street trying to avoid streetlights, Ed kept repeating, “Fuck!  I can’t believe I’m doing this!” under his breath, while cursing the luck that had put Beef and his friends next door.  He looked over his shoulder at his home, a few windows still glowing with a warm light that gave him a pang in his chest, its white siding making it stand out from its neighbors.  “Never again be the same as it was,” he whispered, the words coming out as puffs of white vapor as he turned front again. 

It had been a warm day, but was cooling off quickly. The low clouds, grey and featureless, were coming in on the breeze from the coast, turning the moon into a bright spot in the haze.  The houses he passed were mostly dark, serene in their middle-class ordinariness, some with Christmas lights already hung and twinkling, projecting a reassuring air of comfortable, middle-class normalcy.  His neighbors would be asleep, or watching the late show, or worrying about things like job security or a tax audit.  There were traces of wood smoke and fabric softener on a light breeze.  Leaves sporadically skittered down the street.  He should have worn a sweat shirt.  He kept thinking of his warm bed, knowing Sandy would be in it, watching television with the volume down low, and wishing he could be there and this whole thing could be a bad dream.  It felt like it.  He didn’t want to kill anyone. 

An unfamiliar late-model Honda Accord, going over the speed limit, was the only vehicle that passed him in his short walk.  A block from the rendezvous point, a gray long-haired cat stepped out from behind a bush, startling Ed.  He was jumpier than he thought.  The cat meowed to get his attention and brushed up against him, looking for a scratch, but Ed ignored it and kept walking.  Behind him, he heard the turbine-like sound of Earl’s ninja bike, and turned to see it pulling over.  He hopped on the back, hooking the gym bag over his shoulder.  Earl kept the engine at just over an idle until they were blocks away, then let it rip.

“It just occurred to me that we might pass him if he comes home early,” Ed said, speaking over the comparatively muted roar of Earl’s ninja bike. 

“Just look the other way and keep your head low.  He won’t recognize you.”

Three or four minutes later Earl dropped Ed off.  Earl went on up the road.  The overcast hadn’t reached this far inland yet.  He hoped the light the moon gave would still penetrate the thin cloud layer if it came.  Ed got into place off the road and behind a dense bush that left him an opening to view the road in the right direction.  He trampled down some weeds and leaves and made a spot big enough to sit by the trunk of an ancient sycamore tree with a trunk the diameter of an oil drum, its peeling bark covering the ground around it.  The layer of bark would insulate his butt from the cold ground. 

He sat and opened his gym bag, took out a penlight, the M1 rifle parts, and the scope, and set to work piecing it all together, switching off the light and going prone whenever he sensed a vehicle approaching.  The night got very quiet after Ed had assembled his rifle.  The night was getting cooler, and he shivered, wishing again for a sweat shirt.  Sitting with his back against the sycamore tree, Ed made a note to wear a sweater under his coveralls if he had to come back another night.  He wished he had brought something to read, but knew he wouldn’t have wasted the batteries of his penlight.  He didn’t trust batteries.

There was nothing to do but wait and occasionally check in with Earl.  Once in a while a pickup truck would pass in one direction or the other, mostly outward bound.  A Porsche Cayman came screaming through headed uphill, doing at least twice the speed limit.  He could hear it coming from down the canyon, the sound echoing off the walls.  Pretty damned good driving, Ed thought.  No cops at all came through, probably because this was a secondary county road, lonely and boring duty for a sheriff’s deputy or highway patrol officer.  Unlikely it got more than one pass a night.  Ed had a view of about six hundred yards of road downhill from his ambush point.  A car would need less than a minute to cover that distance, so in the worst possible case, they might have that little time after the shooting started to get the hell away from the scene before they’d have company.  At least they’d have the choice of fleeing in either direction.  Earl would only be twenty seconds or so behind Beef, so they should be okay by a narrow margin.  As long as things went well.

Time wore on.  Periodically the dry leaves of the sycamore and oak trees rattled ominously in the wind that came gusting down the road.  Then the low clouds rolled in and a misty rain passed through quickly, leaving Ed slightly damp, with microscopic beads of water clinging to his eyebrows and eyelashes.  He brushed them away with his sleeve and prayed no more would come.  The sky above cleared, but more would come.  Even in the cold and damp, he could feel sweat trickling down his ribs.  The dampness was bringing out the cat-piss smell from a windbreak of eucalyptus trees across the road above a hillside planted with wine grapes.  Despite, or perhaps because of, his anxiety, the boredom was excruciating.  Finally, at two-thirty, Earl’s voice came over the radio.

“The bar’s been closed for half an hour, pard.  They must’ve gone somewhere else.  I’ll pick you up in a couple of minutes.”

“Affirmative.  I’ll pack up.” 

Ed clicked off, relieved to get the call.  He was miserable, thinking of nothing but a warm bed, even if he’d only get a couple of hours sleep.  He was starting to break down his rifle when Earl’s voice came again.

“Hold the fort, amigo.  I see a single headlight coming this way, and it sounds like a chopper.  Get ready.”

                Ed felt a stab of panic.  His heart began to race and he felt short of breath, but he forced himself into combat mode.  All thoughts except the mission at hand were pushed from his consciousness.  He reversed his actions, assembled the rifle back into one piece, and jacked a round into the chamber.  The moon was almost directly overhead, showering its light, cold and bright, over the road.  He could even make out the color of the solid center line, a bright yellow.  He got into a sitting position facing uphill, knees bent.  Placing his left elbow near the bony part of his left knee, he tucked the elbow under the rifle, then placed his right elbow near his right knee to form his triangle.  Clicking off the safety, finger on the trigger, he waited, breathing rapidly as he willed his system to calm down.

                Within two minutes, the radio came alive again.  “It’s him and the girl.  I can see the dog.  No one behind them that I can see.  It’s a go.  Confirm.”  They were avoiding names in the off chance that some bored ham radio operator was surfing channels. 

                Ed reached for the talk button of the radio in his lap without breaking his shooting position.  His heart was thumping as hard as it ever had in Afghanistan.  “Confirmed.” 

                “I’ll be right behind them, lights off.  They’ll be there in less than ninety seconds.  Shoot straight, buddy.”

                Ed did not reply.  Instead he firmed up his spot weld, aiming at a point in the air that he thought would be close to the angle he wanted on Beef’s center of mass.  He could already hear the ugly note of Beef’s chopper approaching.  When the headlight finally crested a rise two hundred yards away, he realized that it blinded him to the riders.  Through the scope the headlight was all he could really see.  This was not a condition he’d ever had to deal with in Afghanistan.  He picked a spot he estimated to be a foot or so over the headlight and tracked it as it got nearer, trying to gauge the motorcycle’s speed and distance.  He didn’t want to fire too soon. 

                Taking his eye away from the scope for a brief look back down the road to make sure no vehicles were approaching from downhill, he saw nothing.  When his eye returned to the scope, it was time.  He lead the motorcycle very slightly, since it was only about fifty yards away, he swallowed hard, then  gently squeezed the trigger.

                Almost simultaneous with the crack of the rifle shot, the headlight swerved wildly back and forth for less than two seconds, then the motorcycle laid down.  He was dimly aware of two bodies flying off the motorcycle.  The metal parts began emitting showers of sparks as the chopper screeched along the asphalt, sounding louder than the gunshot, coming toward Ed.  The headlight went out just as the cycle slid to a stop with one last groan across the road about thirty feet from him in the uphill lane. 

                The sudden silence, pierced only by moaning, galvanized Ed into action.  He sprang up with his rifle and ran toward the chopper, looking around to be sure no vehicles were coming up or down the grade.  In the bright moonlight he found Beef in a twisted lump on the dirt off the road, the moaning now deeper in pitch.  From his angle, Ed could see nothing to indicate where Beef had been hit.  It didn’t matter.  He was alive, and had to be made dead.

                Ed felt no anger, no rage, no lust for revenge.  He only felt sick at what he had to do.  There was no time for rumination.  He set his jaw, carefully aimed at Beef’s temple, and put a round through his head.  Then, to be sure, he put another into the base of his skull, aiming upward, so that the round emerged through the top of his skull, taking with a large clump of blood and brain.  It was final. 

                He felt truly sick to his stomach then, but could not vomit.  That would leave DNA evidence.  Fortunately, he’d had nothing to eat for almost eight hours and little to drink, so if he threw up in the weeds, there wouldn’t be enough to find.  He gagged despite himself, bringing up acrid bile that he forced himself to swallow.  Constantly fighting the urge to throw up, he looked around for the woman. 

                Instead, he saw the little white bulldog wandering the road in a daze.  Ignoring the dog, he finally saw the woman about twenty feet behind Beef, on her hands and knees, struggling to get to her feet, but too dazed to accomplish it.  She was swaying back and forth, mumbling “Wha’ happened, Beef?  Wha’ happened?”

                This was the time to do it; she was out of it, wouldn’t even know it was coming.  Ed approached her, rifle at the ready, but his knees threatened to give way.  His brain was screaming in protest, telling him to run.  Run!  She was unaware of his presence.  He aimed at her skull, willing himself to do it, but couldn’t.  He was scared and horrified to the point of violent shaking, and something inside his head kept saying, “She didn’t do anything.”

                He was standing over her, rifle still aimed at her head, when Earl was suddenly there, skidding to a stop.  Ed hadn’t even heard his approach.  Earl left the engine running, jumped off, and set the kickstand.  “What the fuck are you doing?  Finish it!”

                When Ed turned his face numbly to Earl, Earl instantly understood that Ed was frozen.  He couldn’t do it.  Earl had seen guys like this in Afghanistan.  He walked over and calmly took Ed’s rifle, then handed him the walkie-talkie from his pocket.  “I’ll handle it.  Go and get your bag, buddy.  Put this in it with yours.  Be sure everything’s in there and nothing’s left behind.” 

Moving in a daze, Ed did as he’d been told.  Earl had some difficulty getting his leather-gloved finger through the trigger guard, but couldn’t risk leaving his prints on the weapon.  He walked over to the woman and without hesitation shot her twice in the head.  She flattened out like a pancake.  Blood flowed rapidly from her head, mixing with chunks of skull and brain on the asphalt.  When the breeze died for a moment, he could smell the coppery aroma of all the blood around him.  Earl walked over and checked Beef, satisfying himself that he was dead because he’d lost too much blood to be alive.  That and the fact that the top of his head was missing.  Then he jogged back to the cycle, toed the kickstand up, and swung his leg over the seat, rifle still in hand. 

Earl looked over at Ed, still in sleepwalking mode, slowly walking toward the cycle.  He had  passed the long strap of the gym bag over his head onto his right shoulder so that the bag was secure on his left side, hands free.  The dog had found Beef and was standing next to his body, sniffing it and whining pitifully.  The dog appeared to be uninjured. 

“Hurry up, Ed!  We’ve got to get the fuck out of here!”  Earl gunned his engine a few times for emphasis.

Ed seemed to be slowly coming around.  He awkwardly climbed on behind Earl.  Earl passed the rifle back to Ed, who took it in his right hand, still covered by his vinyl glove. 

“Hold onto that for now.  Is everything in the bag?” Earl said, almost shouting. 

“I’ve got it all,” Ed answered woodenly.

“Jesus!  There’s a car coming.  We’ve got to move.  Hang on!”

It was a pickup, actually, and it had just rounded the curve down the grade and stopped.  Probably a couple of drunk farmers heading home, Earl thought, and they’d seen the muzzle flashes and heard the shots, were discussing what to do.  They were too far away for their headlights to illuminate the ambush scene, but they’d be able to see shapes moving around in the moonlight.  If Earl and Ed took their planned route, they’d have to pass the truck and be seen clearly.

“We’ll have to turn around and go the long way,” Earl said over his shoulder. 

Earl gave the Kawasaki a little throttle and had moved only a foot or so when he heard the crack of a big-bore pistol from behind them.  He and Ed turned simultaneously to look over their shoulders and saw a figure on a chopper behind them uphill, and about a hundred yards away taking aim at them with an automatic pistol, probably a nine-millimeter. 

Still rolling, Earl began swinging the Kawasaki around as he yelled “Shoot the bastard, Ed!”

Jarred into instinctive action, Ed brought the M1 up as another shot came at them.  The shooter was too far away to expect any accuracy from a handgun.  When the shooter saw the rifle come up, he shoved the pistol into his belt and hit his throttle, swinging into a U-turn.  Earl stopped abruptly so Ed could aim.  Ed fired and saw sparks struck off from the chopper’s rear fender.  He snapped off another shot, but the chopper was picking up speed and soon cleared the rise, to be lost from sight.  Looking behind them back down the hill, Earl saw that the pickup was now reversing.  Just what anyone but a fool would do, he thought.  “Hang on!” he yelled, sounding exhilarated, even happy.  Ed was too scared to think.

Earl twisted the throttle so hard the front tire came briefly off the pavement.  It was all Ed could do to hold onto Earl’s shoulder with his left hand to keep from being thrown off.  Within seconds they were doing sixty or seventy miles an hour in pursuit of the chopper, following the narrow road around curves, up low rises and down into depressions, like an amusement park children’s ride.

“Toss the rifle into the first clump of bushes you see,” Earl shouted over his shoulder.  “It’s no good to us now and it’s in the way.”

Trying to lean into the turns with Earl and hold on while getting the rifle in a position to throw it was difficult.  When he saw a brush-filled ravine ahead on the right, Ed screamed, “Slow down so I can toss it!”

Earl slowed to about forty as the neared the draw.  Ed took the rifle by the barrel, swung his arm back behind him as far as he could, then brought it around sidearm, swinging as though it were a tennis racket, and let the rifle fly into the ravine, where it disappeared into the brush.  He instantly realized that the iron sight on the rifle’s muzzle had caught his vinyl glove, tearing out a strip and taking a small chunk of his index finger with it. 

“God DAMN it!” he swore. 

“What?” Earl asked. 

Ed leaned in close and explained as best he could over the noise of the chase, silently praying that the rifle would never be found.  The result of his fuckup could be life in prison.

It was too late to worry about that now.  Earl gunned the ninja bike again while Ed clung to him for dear life.  Their headlight seemed to slash back and forth like a sword over the road and vegetation alongside as they flattened the curves at seemingly impossible speeds, Ed leaning in unison with Earl, fearing each time they would lean too far and the bike would go down spinning, tearing the very flesh from their bones.  He had no choice but to trust Earl’s skills, and they emerged from each curve intact,  to Ed’s eternal gratitude.  Every time they could see the chopper’s taillights, they were closer.  It was only a few miles now to The Four Horsemen.

“Did you recognize the guy who shot at us?” Earl yelled.
“I’m pretty sure it had to be Ripper.  He crashes at Beef’s a lot.”

“Open the zipper pocket on the right side of my jacket.  The Tec 9 is in there with the loose magazines.  Pull it out and get it loaded.”

Earl did as he was told, but it was a harrowing task at speed on this winding road.  Earl had familiarized him with the weapon during their meeting in his apartment, but trying to stay on the motorcycle and lean in the right direction and at the right times made the job drag out.  Finally it was done, just as the road straightened and leveled out and they could see Ripper ahead of them only a couple of hundred yards. 

“It’s now or never, buddy!” Earl shouted.  “His pals could still be hanging out in the bar parking lot, and we’ll be there in a few minutes.  When I tell you, hand me the Tec 9, with one in the chamber and the safety off.  Got it?”

“Got it,” Ed answered.  His teeth were chattering from the cold wind piercing his thin coveralls and the fear in his heart.

Earl cranked the throttle, sending them over a hundred miles per hour in the space of a breath.  Ripper also accelerated, but his chopper wasn’t in the Kawasaki’s league.  He could see the reflections of the Kawasaki’s headlight in his chrome handlebars, and knew they were closing in fast as his speed topped a hundred and twenty.  His chopper was unstable at that speed, and the Kawasaki was bearing down on him.  He managed to bring his pistol up, and when the Kawasaki was only a hundred feet back, began snapping shots over his shoulder, weaving back and forth across the center line.  His shots were becoming more accurate as he concentrated on shooting and risked losing control of his chopper. 

“Now!” screamed Earl.

Ed shoved the Tec 9 beneath Earl’s right arm and close to his right hand, holding it by the long magazine so that Earl could wrap his hand around the pistol grip.  Ed was thinking, good God, at this speed, one wobble of the handlebars and we’re dead.  Earl took the pistol, aimed by instinct, and began firing three-round bursts at Ripper as they gained on him.  Ripper continued firing, but his rounds went wild.  He’d almost lost control and was once again accelerating to bring his bike under control.  He was only guessing where they’d be.  When his pistol was empty, he tossed it away.  By then Earl was only fifty feet or so behind him.

With the third or fourth burst Earl fired, Ripper’s rear tire exploded and the chopper went wild, first fishtailing radically in short arcs, then as the rear end was swinging forward, the bike flipped and began rolling, throwing fenders, miscellaneous parts, and Ripper at least a hundred feet through the air and sending up rooster tails of sparks.  Earl instantly cut the throttle and hit his brakes as Ripper landed on the pavement, tumbling and sliding.  The chopper rolled ten or twelve times and came to rest, a pile of twisted metal. 

Earl brought his machine alongside Ripper, who was lying on his back, his limbs at odd angles, probably all broken, his face smashed and covered with blood.  Bubbles of blood emerged from his mouth with every breath.  Then his eyes fluttered open and focused on Ed.    

“You motherfucker,” he said, his voice coming so weakly that it was barely intelligible.

“Eat shit and die, asshole,” Earl said, and sent a three-round burst into his head.  “Let’s get the fuck out of here,” he said to Ed.  He expelled the clip from the Tec 9, shoved both back into a jacket pocket, and closed the zipper. 

Once again Ed could barely hold his urge to vomit.  Earl rapidly accelerated away from the scene.  Ed waited as long as he could, then expelled a thin stream of bile over his shoulder.  At least he could be fairly certain that there’d be too little too far from the crime scene to be discovered and linked to it. 

Earl ran his machine up to about a hundred until they were near The Four Horsemen.  It was a lonely outpost, a frame-and-shingle dump from the twenties that in better times catered to travelers between Bakersfield and the coast who needed a drink or a ham sandwich or a bathroom or just the sight of another face on the long stretch of road.  It faced the long stroke of a T intersection, hoping to attract attention from three directions with its name in red neon emblazoned on a five-foot sign suspended perpendicularly over the door, and its huge Coca-Cola sign on the roof.  It hadn’t always been The Four Horsemen, but few people remembered what it had been forty years ago. 

The bar’s lights were all out except for the neon beer displays in the windows.  A few moths and beetles still flitted against the neon; others had settled down against the windows for the night. There were no motorcycles or cars in the graveled lot.  Just as they arrived, a light came on in the back, where the living quarters were.  The shots fired must have roused someone not yet fully asleep, but there was no cause for alarm yet.  Earl rolled to a stop in the middle of the intersection and turned off his headlight.  A left turn would take them into the next county and through the little town of Shandon.  That was the way most of the Two-Bangers would come and go, because most of them lived in San Luis Obispo County.  Coming from the east, the direction they were now pointing, and about a thousand yards out, Earl could see headlights approaching.

“It’s a long way to anywhere if we go straight, and besides, we don’t want to pass that oncoming car that might get a good look at us,” he said at normal volume.  “We can’t go back the way we came, because the guys in that pickup almost certainly have already called the cops, and they’ll be coming from town.  I guess we’re going toward Shandon.” 

Ed said nothing.  Earl made the left turn toward Shandon, leaving his headlight off until they were sure the oncoming car had passed The Four Horsemen and hadn’t turned behind them.  Then he switched the headlight back on and put the speedometer on sixty, just over the speed limit.

Earl’s brain was still racing.  “The cops will be thinking motorcycles.  Within ten minutes, every cop in the area will be stopping them.  I need to ditch this Tec 9, and then we need to get out of sight.  Look for a place to turn out and dump this thing.”

It didn’t take long.  The area was mostly rolling hills planted in grape vines.  The road often crossed narrow gullies grown over with weeds, the gullies going beneath the road in corrugated iron culverts.  The first one they came to seemed as good as any.  Earl pulled over, put one foot on the pavement to steady the Kawasaki, and retrieved the Tec 9 from his zipper pocket.  He passed it back to Ed. 

“I cleaned it up pretty well before I used it, but go over it with your gloves so that you smear any possible prints I might have left.  Don’t use the finger that has a rip in the glove.”

“Right,” Ed replied, and started in on it. 

Pulling the magazines out of his pocket, Earl said, “Every bullet was wiped down before I loaded the magazines, but…” 

He used his gloved hands to rub down the magazines, then looked up and down the road, saw no cars.  “We gotta get off for a second,” he said. 

Earl got off, followed by Ed, who set the kick stand.  He then flipped up the seat and retrieved a white plastic grocery bag from which he pulled out a greasy old T-shirt.  “My quick-polish rag,” he said.  He put the T-shirt back below the seat and pushed the seat down.  Stuffing the magazines into the bag, he asked Ed if he was through with the Tec 9.  Ed handed it to him.  Earl wrapped it up in the T-shirt with the magazines, stuffed them into the plastic bag, tied a tight knot in the top, and clambered over the bank into the gully.  Kneeling down, he stuffed the bag into the culvert as far as he could, then hurried back to the motorcycle.

Ed looked confused.  “Is it safe to leave it where it could be found?  Isn’t it registered to you?”

“Not to worry, old buddy.  I reported it stolen, remember?  If it’s found, they might be suspicious, but I’m covered.  What are the odds, though?  The culvert is clogged with weeds.  Who’s gonna go there?  Anyway, we might need it again, especially if one of the biker crew thinks you had something to do with it.”  He patted his pockets.  “Did you bring a lighter?”

“Yeah.  In my bag.”

“Get it out and burn your gloves right here.  You’re gonna need to find a stick.  Hang the gloves on the end of the stick and light ‘em up.”

Ed did as he was told, moving as if in a state of shock, while Earl swiveled his head back and forth, watching for approaching cars.  Earl seemed perfectly normal, even happy, accepting the role of squad leader and making sure the mop-up operation got done quickly and efficiently.  He watched as Ed hung the gloves on the end of a stick and lit them.  They quickly caught fire.  Little drops of burning, molten vinyl made an odd blooping sound as they fell.  In a few seconds, the gloves were completely consumed, leaving a tarry mess on the gravel beside the road. 

“Get on and let’s go,” Earl said. 

Ed climbed back onto the seat.  Earl pulled away slowly and kept his speed down.  “There’s no traffic at all.  We stand out like a sore thumb.  There’s no doubt in my military mind that we’ll get pulled over by the first cop that spots us.  We need to get off the road.”

Ed seemed to be slowly gathering his wits.  “Sandy’s going to be worried by now.”
“She’ll just have to worry.  You didn’t bring a cell phone, right?”
“Right.”

“Good.  No sense leaving a trail.  Start looking for someplace we can hide until morning.”  

“Jesus, I hope no kids find those things,” Ed said.

“You mean the guns we tossed?  What’re the chances?  Does it look like kids spend a lot of time playing in there with the poison oak?”

“I guess not,” Ed said.  “But I wish I’d at least taken the magazine out of the rifle before I tossed it.”

“Too late to worry about it now.  It held what?  Ten rounds?”

“Fifteen.”

“If they cops don’t find it, you can probably find it yourself and pull the magazine out after the heat dies down.  Toss it fifty feet away from the rifle and no one ever will find it. For right now, forget about it.  We’ve got other things to worry about.”

“All right.”

Earl suddenly brought the motorcycle to a halt.  “Look over there,” he said, pointing into a field off to their left.  “It’s a packing shed, but the field is bare.  It’s not being used.  We’ll be okay there until first light.”

He switched off his headlight and turned toward the shed.  There was a ditch to cross, but it was shallow.  The Kawasaki was not meant for dirt riding.  He made Ed get off and walk so that he could ease the machine into the ditch and out the other side.  In doing so, the rear tire spun somewhat, throwing a tail of damp dirt behind it.  He figured it wouldn’t be noticeable, since none of the dirt hit the pavement.

Earl got the motorcycle out of sight behind the packing shed.  Ed unslung his bag and put it on the ground.  Then they set about making themselves as comfortable as possible inside the shed.  There were no benches or chairs, so they sat on the cold ground, their backs against the back wall of the shed. 

“I’m freezing,” Ed said. 

“Sorry, buddy.  Can’t be helped.  We’ll share my jacket.  I’ve got another layer under my shirt.”  Earl began removing his gloves so that he could get the jacket off.  “Shit!”

“What is it?”

“I forgot.  My gloves have to go.  They’re covered with gunshot residue.”

At that moment, they became aware of sirens, and raised up enough to peek over the packing table and look out through the open front of the shed in time to see three black-and-whites screaming by, lights blazing, headed toward the intersection they’d passed through only five minutes before. 

“Jesus, am I glad we got off the road when we did,” Earl muttered.  He finished pulling off the gloves, then removed the jacket and handed it to Ed, who accepted it eagerly.  Searching the shed, he found a rusty hoe.  “This’ll do.  I’m going to bury my gloves.”

He left through the door in the back wall.  Stillness had returned to the night.  He jogged to the edge of the field and dropped into a waist-deep drainage ditch.  The earth at the bottom was soft and damp.  Chopping and dragging with the hoe, he dug a hole to a depth of about eighteen inches, then dropped the gloves in and covered the hole.  Using the hoe, he smoothed the soil for several feet around the hole, hoping to conceal evidence of digging.  Clambering out, he did his best with the hoe to smooth out and conceal his footprints all the way back to the shed, thankful for the moonlight.  If his tire tracks in the soft dirt of the field were noticed, the cops might learn where they had gotten off the road, but with any luck, they wouldn’t find his gloves.  They would have good tire impressions, but that couldn’t be helped.  The tracks were too long, and anyway, they’d leave another set going out.

He returned to the shed and put the hoe back where he’d found it.  Ed had stretched out on the packing table. 

“You could be seen from the road if a cop put his spotlight on the shed, pal.  Better get down.”

Ed clambered down.  The two of them returned to their original positions on the ground, backs against the wall.  Both men tucked their hands into their armpits for warmth.

“I was thinking,” Ed said, his tone of voice more normal now, “that we can’t stay till it gets light.  The neighbors might notice me walking in the neighborhood carrying a bag at a time when I would normally be getting ready for work.  And I need to go to work like I always do.  So do you.  That means we need to get home while it’s still dark.”

“You’re right.  Good thinking, buddy.  We’ll rest until it’s going on five o’clock, and then we’ll have to risk it.  Most of the cops in the area will still be at the ambush scene anyway.  There’ll be some early morning traffic by then, but the cops will figure if they haven’t found us by then, we’ve gone to ground.  Even if we get stopped, the evidence is gone.  Let’s make up a story to cover what we’re doing out early, and grab a little shut-eye.”

They came up with an unconvincing story about going for an impulsive dawn ride, but could think of nothing better.  Earl had a wristwatch with an alarm.  He set it, squirmed around getting as comfortable as possible, and closed his eyes.  Ed, his bare hands uncomfortably cold from the ride, kept reliving the scenes he had lived through, finally falling into an exhausted but fitful sleep of sorts, still seeing the horrific images in his dreams, repeating endlessly until Earl’s alarm went off.

 

Earl and Ed left the shed in the dark at five a.m. and got back on the road.  Knowing Earl would be taking the brunt of the chilly morning air, Ed had given Earl his jacket back.  The night chill and the damp morning air had Ed cursing himself for failing to wear a jacket.  At least he felt more clear-headed. 

They went through Shandon and wound their way back to the 101 freeway, then south and off the freeway to Ed’s neighborhood without ever seeing any law enforcement.  Though he was taciturn, Ed seemed more like his old self, paying attention to his surroundings and focusing more readily.  Earl stopped on a different corner two blocks from Ed’s home.  No one was about.  Earl got off the Kawasaki shivering, his fingers chilled to the bone, the rest of him miserable with cold.

“I’ll see you in a couple hours,” Earl said.  “Do you watch the morning news?”
“No.”

“Neither do I.  We’ll play dumb if anyone asks if we’ve heard.  That way they’ll do all the talking and we won’t risk slipping up.  Let’s have a beer after work.  We’ll need to stay on top of this until it blows over.”

Ed nodded.  “Okay.  I’ll see you then.”

Walking briskly, Ed was unlocking his front door five minutes later.  Beef’s house was dead silent.  No one was about.  He let himself in, still shivering, grateful for the warmth of the indoors that enveloped him. 

Before he could even turn away from the door, Sandy had rushed down the stairs, face full of worry, and staggered him with her embrace. 

“Thank God you’re here!  You’re so cold!  I was worried sick!  Where were you?”  She was speaking in a hoarse whisper. 

He turned within her arms and held her, smelling her hair and kissing the top of her head, speaking softly.  “It’s all right.  I’ll explain later.  Is Shawn still asleep?”

“Yes.  It’s still too early for him to get up.”

“Good thing he sleeps like a rock.  Let me get out of these coveralls and drop the gym bag.  Follow me, okay?  I have to be getting ready for work.”

She followed him through the connecting door to the garage, where he could talk louder, and stripped off the coveralls.  “Have you seen the news?”

“No.  You said not to do anything out of the ordinary that might alert Shawn, so I didn’t want to have the TV on.  I don’t think I slept all night. I didn’t know what I’d have told him if you hadn’t come home.”

Ed got the coveralls and watch cap off, took off his shoes and put them into the back of his pickup.  He opened the gym bag, removed the walkie-talkies and set them on a shelf where Shawn wouldn’t see them, tossed the gym bag atop the work bench, then carried his coveralls and the watch cap into the house.  He opened the washing machine, stuffed in the clothes with some detergent and bleach and set it going while he talked. 

“It went south on us, but I think we’re good.  The first shot hit Beef and the motorcycle went down.  I had to finish him off.  She was on the back with the dog and wasn’t badly injured.  I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger on her.  I just…froze.  Earl did it when he got there.  Then Ripper came up on us when we were about to take off and took a couple of shots at us.  At the same time, a pickup was coming up from below and saw what was going on, but they were too far away to see any details.  Probably couldn’t tell whether we were outlaw bikers or not.”  Ed was talking so fast she could hardly understand him, his hands waving wildly as he stared into his own memory.  “Ripper took off back toward The Four Horsemen, and we had to chase him down.  Scariest fucking ride I ever had, doing over a hundred most of the time.  Earl finally took him out with his Tec 9 not a mile from the bar.  We got rid of the guns and our gloves, hid out in an old packing shed for a few hours, then took off.  No one else spotted us as far as I know.”

“Oh, thank God,” she said. 
“There was one more hitch.”

She looked frightened.  “What?”

He looked down and saw in good light for the first time the small, bloody divot in his fingertip the iron rifle sight had torn out.  He showed it to her.  “I left some DNA on the rifle sight when I tossed it.”

She took his hand and looked at his finger.  “That’s not good.  Let’s go clean it up and put some antibiotic ointment on it.  Where’d you toss the rifle?”

Following her, he said, “In the bushes maybe a quarter mile from where we did it.”

They stopped talking as they went softly up the stairs and into the master bedroom, closing the door behind them.  Sandy led him into the bathroom, where he washed his hands thoroughly, then spread the ointment over the tear in his flesh and wrapped it with an elastic bandage from a box in the medicine cabinet.  The strain on her is really showing, he thought.  I wonder what I look like.

“If anyone asks, I gouged it when I was using a screwdriver to open a can of spackle and it slipped.”  He sniffed at his armpit, which was still damp from nervous perspiration.  “I need a shower but I’m running late.  I think I’ll just shave and go.  Everything has to be just like it always is.”

“What are you going to do about the rifle?” Sandy wanted to know.  She watched him while he shaved, the whir of the electric razor helping cover their voices.

“I’m not sure.  Assuming it hasn’t been found, I’ll probably take a jog out to where I think it is.  All I need, if I can find it, is an alcohol swab to clean the iron sight and I’m done.”

“You’d just leave it there?”
“That was the plan all along.  It’s untraceable, but my DNA isn’t.”
“There’s a lot more traffic during daylight hours.”

“I know.  And there’ll be more ghouls out there looking for the blood stains on the pavement.  But I’ve got to try.”  He was starting to shake as he recalled the bloody scene.

Sandy put her arms around him and held him tight.  He rested the shaver on the sink, held her, and closed his eyes.  “Oh, God, sweetheart,” she said, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this.  But it will be all right.  You’ll see.”

“It has to be.  It has to.”

Ed released her, finished shaving, and quickly washed his face, then reached in the medicine cabinet for eye drops to get rid of his bloodshot eyes.  While he was doing that, Sandy turned on the little flat-screen facing the bed, keeping the volume low.  When he left the bedroom to get his uniform on, Sandy was staring at it, her hand over her mouth. 

“It’s all over the local channels,” she said.  “They think it’s a war between rival gangs.”

She shut up when a witness interview came on, illuminated by hot quartz lights, the red and blue lights of emergency vehicles strobing across his face as he spoke.  He was short and chubby, so excited about his moment of fame that he was talking fast in Spanish-accented English.  “We go around thees curve, an’ right away we see the—whatchucall them—flashlights from the guns an’ we hear like crack! pow!”  He clapped his hands for emphasis.  “We no see much because they far away.  Then one motorcycle, the one most far away, he turn around and go the other way.  The other one shoot at him, then he turn around and chase that guy.  We very scared, just want to get away, so we back up, around the curve, and I punch the 9-1-1 buttons.”

The news anchor, a dumb-blonde type they both hated because she frequently stumbled over words and phrases, came on, saying, “The two witnesses could not describe either of the motorcycles that roared away from the scene or their riders.”  She looked down to consult the notes in her hand.  “They believe they saw two riders on the one that pursued the other.  Palmer Road remains closed to traffic while the former—sorry, that’s forensics—team’s investigation is ongoing.  Identification of the victims is being withheld pending notification of relatives.”

Sandy muted the television.  “Nothing so far about any rifle being found.  That’s good.”

Ed’s jaw was set hard.  “I just hope it stays that way.”  He had hastily donned his uniform.  Do I look normal enough?”

Sandy got close to him and brushed invisible lint off his shirt.  “You look okay, but tired.”  She held him again.  “Waiting for you last night was just hell.  God, I was so worried that they’d killed you somehow.  When Beef and his girl didn’t come roaring in by three, I knew something had happened, but I didn’t know what.  I thought I’d heard shots after midnight, but I wasn’t sure.  Then about an hour ago, a squad car stopped in front of his house and the cops knocked at their door.  When no one answered, they went away.  How bad was it?”

“Pretty bad,” he said.  “It’s not something you get used to.  Not me, anyway.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not now.  I have to go to work.”

He went to the window and parted the blinds enough to see out.  Grey light was coming into the overcast sky.   June gloom, it was called by locals.  The house next door was still dark and silent.  The leaves on their sycamore tree, already turning brown, waved and whispered in a slight breeze.

“If you wind up talking to cops,” Ed said over his shoulder, “tell them we were here all night and didn’t notice anything unusual until the cops woke us up knocking on their door.  Just say you wondered what was going on until you heard the morning news, but I had already gone and hadn’t heard.  At work I’ll pretend it’s news to me.”

“Okay,” she said, and pecked him on the lips.  “You’d better go if you want to be on time.”

“I’m meeting Earl after work.  We need to stay on top of developments.  Home about four-thirty.  If everything’s copasetic we can relax a little.”

He was trying to sound upbeat, but Sandy detected a note of doubt in his voice and could see the strain in his eyes that mirrored her own.  She knew it was done, for better or worse, so she hugged him hard and quickly and said, “We did the right thing.  You’ll see.”

Patting her shoulder, Ed stepped by her and was gone.
 

“Damn!  We did okay, didn’t we, pardner?” 

They were in the dining area of Earl’s apartment, drinking Heinekens from the bottle.  Earl’s eyes were alight with his enthusiasm.  Watching him, Ed wondered whether Earl’s participation in the ambush had more to do with being an adrenaline junkie than his loyalty to Ed.  Ed gulped his beer like man dying of thirst.

“Except I froze and left you to finish my job, and then I left my DNA on my rifle.”

“Which hasn’t been found.”  Earl drank like a man celebrating the Fourth of July. 

“As far as we know.”

“If they’d found it, buddy, the cops would be crowing about it.  We’re cool.  Listen to this guy.”

Earl nodded toward the widescreen TV in the living room with the sound turned up.  A representative of the sheriff’s department was speaking.

“…casings from three different weapons.  Sheriff’s deputies found shell casings from two of the weapons at or near the scene where the first two bodies were found, and a number of casings from one of those weapons, as well as a third one, strung along the route near where the third body was found.  Detectives from the sheriff’s department theorize that there was a shootout between several members of rival biker gangs at the scene where the two bodies were found, which led to a chase resulting in the death of the third victim.  Detectives recovered a nine-millimeter Glock automatic pistol found near the body of the third victim, but declined to comment on who the gun might have belonged to.”

Earl punched the mute button and turned his attention back to Ed.  “So it ain’t likely they found the rifle or we’d know already.”

“Unless they’re withholding evidence from the public for some reason.  Like they want to try to trace it before they alert the owner that they have it.  Like they want to get a DNA result on the tissue I left on it and see if they can match it.”

Earl did that little rocking motion with his head and hands and said, “Yeah, maybe, I guess.”

“It’s too risky to leave it there.  I’ve got to try to find it.”
“How?”

“Just go look.  I’ll jog out toward the dump, and try to spot where I threw it and whether anyone’s watching the site.  At least I know which side of the road it’s on.”  Ed was hunched over on his chair, elbows on his knees, swinging his beer between them.  “If things look good on the way out, I can stop and look around some.  All I have to do if I find it is wipe off the sight with an alcohol swab and leave it where I found it.  If I get caught in the act, I should still be able to swipe off the sight no problem, and then they can have it anyway.  I can say I just happened to notice it and was going to turn it in.”

Arms crossed and folded, Earl made a face like Benito Mussolini in an old newsreel, the corners of his mouth turned down hard, as he nodded.  “Yeah, I think they’d buy it.  If you find it, we’re probably home free.”

“You’re already home free, Earl.”  Ed belched softly.  “Whatever happens, I’ll refused to tell them who helped me, and where we dumped your Tec 9.  I owe you.”

“No you don’t.  Trust me on that, comrade.  That was the most excitement I’ve had since the war.”

“I wish I shared your enthusiasm.  I wish I believed down deep it was the right thing to do.”

Earl leaned over the table and adopted his most sincere face.  “It was, bro, and you’re going to realize it when Shawn can walk on his own side of the street, and Sandy can go to the mall without worrying she’ll be abducted from the parking lot, and you can sleep at night like you used to.  I don’t like to say it, but you both look ten years older since they moved in.  Before you know it, things will be like they used to be.  You’ll see.”

“Jesus, I hope you’re right.”

“Hell, if we could talk about what we did, we’d be heroes to two-thirds of the people in this country.  People are sick of gangs running loose.  There are times when you have to take the law into your own hands to protect innocent people.  That’s all we did.  Don’t lose any sleep over it.  You’ve lost enough already.”  Earl punctuated his statement with a long pull on his Heineken, looking around the neck of the bottle to gauge Ed’s mood.

Ed wanted to believe.  He’d even had his doubts about the morality of the killing he had done in Afghanistan, based largely on the words of his father, a Viet-Nam vet, who’d said, “Look what we did to those poor bastards who only wanted a rice paddy and a water buffalo to live out their lives in peace.  Look what our own country did to us, turning us into sacrificial lambs in a war no one believed in.”  But Ed had seen firsthand the Taliban’s disregard for human life and the way they treated women, and despised then for it.  He had chalked up his father’s bitterness to his forced induction; the Viet-Nam war was the last gasp of the draft.  What Ed had done yesterday was another matter.  Ed believed in the rule of law as much as he believed in a father being the protector of his family.  He couldn’t get it out of his head that three people were dead because of him; three people executed without a trial.  It was a punishment far exceeding the crimes Ed knew them to be guilty of, if they were crimes in the eyes of the law at all. 

He had made a choice he wasn’t sure he could live with.  In his mind’s eye he kept seeing, not Beef lying there broken, but his fat girlfriend with her muffin top obscenely exposed when her jacket rode up somehow during the crash, one leg of her dirty jeans torn from bloody ankle to knee, one of her motorcycle boots missing as she took Earl’s bullets in her head and collapsed.  Sickened by the image, Ed struggled for a way to change the subject.

Inexplicably, he blurted out, “Looks like I owe you about a thousand bucks.”

Earl recoiled slightly.  “For what?”

“For the Tec 9 and the magazines you had to throw away.”
“Save your money, Ed.  It’s still where I left it.  Besides, I never used the thing anyway.”
“You’d be crazy to ever use that thing again.”

“If I’m still around when you’re making the big bucks, you can worry about it then.”

“Right now what I’m really worried about is my rifle.”

“Think about it, Ed.  Looking for it could do more harm than good.”

“How?”

“All the cops can do is interview people.  They won’t find one biker who’ll tell them what color the sky is.  They might interview you, but they’ll be asking questions about his associates.  Not likely they’ll even consider you a suspect.  They probably aren’t even looking for weapons because they’ll assume the shooters kept theirs.”

“Maybe.  But I won’t sleep well until I find it.”

“Hear me out.  With nothing else to go on, and with cheap electronic watchdogs, they could easily rig motion-detecting cameras to capture photos of everyone who comes by the scene where the first hits occurred.”

“Yeah, but that’s not where I’ll be looking.  The rifle is at least a few hundred yards from there.  I’ll be jogging.  People in the neighborhood see me doing it all the time.  Nothing suspicious there.”

“If you’re gonna do it, just keep a sharp lookout.  If you get caught looking, say you thought you saw…I don’t know…what you thought might be an injured dog hit by a car or something and were trying to help it.”

“Any idea where to start looking?”

Earl got up and put his empty bottle in the trash.  “Actually, I do.  It’s probably farther than you think.”  He began illustrating with his hands.  “We had gone over the rise, down to the bottom and around at least one curve to the right and then back to the left before you tossed it.  It was before you get to the spot where I waited for Beef, so that leaves over half a mile to search, but I don’t think it was much past that second curve.”

“That sounds about right.  That’s where I’ll start looking.”

“But if you see anyone else around, just wave and keep jogging.  Just falling through the bushes could have wiped off that little patch of skin, and unless it’s there, even if they find the rifle maybe they won’t think of swabbing the sight for DNA.  Maybe the skin didn’t stick to the sight at all.  I think you’re worrying over nothing.  It’s a real long shot.”

“Maybe,” Ed said, “but plenty of guys have gone to prison on long shots.”

 

Ed decided to take a run out past the scene the next day, a Saturday, figuring the cops would have lost interest in the scene by then.  Dressed in his jogging shorts, baseball cap, and a T-shirt, he slathered sunscreen on his exposed arms and neck, put on a baseball cap with the bill backwards to protect his neck from the sun, and took off at a steady pace.  It felt good to get into the rhythm of the run, pushing his worries farther away from his consciousness as he concentrated on the smooth placement of each step.  After he’d gotten onto Palmer Road, he noticed more traffic than usual, perhaps a car going one way or the other every thirty seconds or minute, about twice the normal traffic.  Still, for a mile and a half he felt almost like his old self, until the ambush scene got very near, and the troubling memories flooded in again. 

An Hispanic couple in an old, gold Chevy Caprice was slowing down to gawk as they came down the hill.  They totally ignored Ed.  There was nothing to distinguish the scene except for a few numbered X’s of fluorescent green paint apparently marking the locations of shell casings or other evidence found, some scraps of crime scene tape, some gouges in the asphalt, and dark stains that might have been either blood or engine oil from Beef’s hog.  Ed studiously avoided looking down at the pavement, focusing instead on the spot where he had sat and aimed the fatal bullet that began the chain of events.  He didn’t look for long in case there were cameras, as Earl had predicted.  Looking around, he saw nothing to indicate they might be there, but they could be too tiny to see these days.  The Caprice had gone by then.  He kept his pace even, and then the scene was behind him.  He was running facing traffic, as the law required, but knew that after he got to that second curve he would have to switch to the other side.  Running with traffic at your back made him nervous, but it would have to be done.

Rounding the last curve before his target area Earl had described, he feigned running out of steam and slowed to a walk, breathing heavily and looking around himself to gauge whether it seemed familiar.  After fifty paces or so, he stopped and bent over, putting his hands on his knees for fifteen seconds.  Then he straightened up and looked around again.  He was apparently quite alone, but decided to keep up the pretense.  Daylight changed everything, but he tried to recall what he’d been seeing that night just before he flung the rifle. 

The road straightened out far enough ahead for him to think he might be near the spot.  He resumed walking, looking to the right side of the road for any sign of the rifle.  Sparrows were hopping in the underbrush, searching for tidbits.  These were English sparrows, lacking the white throat patch of the prettier native, but less aggressive, American variety, which had been gradually pushed almost to extinction through interbreeding and competition.  Tiny wrens were flitting about from bush to bush looking for, he imagined, seeds or edible flowers.  Up ahead a hundred yards he saw what might have been the ravine where the rifle landed.  Jogging again, he got closer and decided it didn’t look brushy enough, but stopped anyway as if exhausted, and bent over by the side of the road to closely investigate it.  He saw nothing, but felt he should look closer anyway. 

He pushed through the chaparral to a point where he could examine the area more closely.  The vegetation was so dense that the rifle would be hard to spot, a fact that gave him some reassurance that if he couldn’t find it, knowing what he was looking for and approximately where it should be, it would be unlikely that anyone else would.  That is, assuming it hadn’t already been found.  He heard a big V8 pickup approaching from around the curve ahead and ducked down in time for it to pass without anyone inside seeing him.  He stood up again.  Looking around for a minute or so, he saw no rifle.  He was sure it couldn’t have gone more than twenty or thirty feet off the road, so he moved back to the road.  Getting down on one knee, he tried looking through the brush at ground level, but again saw nothing.  He stood up, returned to the road, and began jogging.

The next ravine wasn’t far beyond, and this one looked right.  The closer he got, the more right it looked.  He visualized himself on the back of Earl’s motorcycle, approaching the point at which he threw the rifle, and this looked like it.  He slowed to a walk, keeping his eyes on the ravine.  There was a shredded truck tire lying on the shoulder that he now remembered seeing just before he threw the tire.  This was it. 

He listened for approaching cars; heard nothing.  His nerves were raw and on edge, his imagination supplying spy cams everywhere.  What if they’d found the rifle and had the DNA evidence already?  They could have replaced the original with a duplicate rifle—a common model—and have him on video at this minute to record his search and the recovery of a fake.  Christ.  Why had he gotten himself into this?

He bent over and put his hands on his knees, repeating his act to give himself time to think.  If it was here, he had nothing to lose by finding it, did he?  A quick swipe with the alcohol swab he carried in his pocket, then he could leave it where he found it.  He could even turn it in, just in case he was on camera.  Why not?  Fuck it, he thought, then crossed the dirt shoulder of the road and began scanning the thick vegetation.  He walked slowly forward, afraid the wooden stock and black barrel of the rifle would blend in too well to be seen.  Despite spending twenty minutes thrashing through the brush, getting scratches on his arms, and ducking when cars came along, the rifle was not to be found.  Worse, he crossed what appeared to be footprints here and there in the dry litter of vegetation on the ground.  Christ, he thought, this is bad.

 

When Ed was dropping off his van key at the motor pool Monday after he’d finished his route, Jerry Eggleston, the day terminal manager, approached him.  Jerry, a little hard-charger with hair slicked straight back and a clip-on bow tie who’d been a driver when Ed was new, said “How ya doin’, Ed?” and handed him a card.  “Guy from the Sheriff’s Department came by a while ago and asked if you’d call him.”

Ed took the card and looked at it.  The card belonged to Jim Butler, identifying him as a detective for the Sheriff’s Department.  He felt a chill crawl up the back of his neck.

“Must be about your neighbor, the one got himself blown away, huh?”

“Don’t know why else he’d want to talk to me.”
“Somebody did you a favor takin’ that guy out, right?”
“Me and the whole neighborhood.”  Ed tucked the card into his pocket.  “Thanks, Jer.” 

He walked out and got in his pickup.  Taking out his cell phone and the card, he punched in Butler’s number. 

“This is Jim Butler.  Help you?”  Something was oddly familiar about the voice on the phone.

“Yes, this is Ed Fordham.  My super gave me your card and said you wanted me to call.”  Ed had left his door open, and was scanning the lot while he talked.  He saw Earl’s motorcycle still parked at the side of the building

“Oh, yeah, the biker shooting.  Thanks for calling.  I’m lead detective on the murders of Elmore Mendenhauser and the other two folks out on Palmer Road.  You’re the one lives next door to Elmore, the one they called “Beef,” right?”

“Right.  What can I do for you?”  His heart was thumping hard enough that he could feel it in his throat.

“If you could meet me this afternoon, I just have a few questions to ask you.”

“Sure.  I’m on my way home from work right now.  You want to meet at my house?”

“That would be ideal.  I’d like to talk to your wife a little too.”

“Fine.  You have the address?”

“Yeah, I was out today talking to your neighbors.  Lotta retired folks on your block, huh?”

“Yeah.  Used to be a quiet street.  You doing any good so far?”

“Not much, but I still gotta ask around some more.  See you in about fifteen minutes?”
“See you there.”

He ended the call, thinking Jim sounded like it was all routine.  Jesus, he hoped so.  Why did his voice sound familiar?  He couldn’t place it.  Still puzzling it over, he turned the key and drove home.

Ed hadn’t bothered to change clothes after he got home.  He was trying to keep his expression neutral as he and Sandy watched from the front window.  She was wearing a white, long-sleeved, Oxford-cloth shirt with a button-down collar and faded Levis that made her butt look good over white tennis shoes with no socks, her hair pulled into a ponytail.  She could have passed for a college girl in the same outfit before Beef moved in next door.  They hadn’t waited long before Butler pulled up at the curb in a white Crown Vic, clearly an unmarked cop car, got out, and came up the sidewalk.  He was about six feet even, average build, with a narrow face, a straight nose, startling sky-blue eyes, and thin brown hair combed straight back.  He wore a decent grey suit over a white shirt set off by a maroon tie with a narrow navy stripe.  Ed went to the door and had it open before Butler could reach for the doorbell button.  Ed noticed he was wearing black cowboy boots that looked incongruous with his business suit.

“I’m Ed,” he said, extending his hand.  Butler stopped and shook it in a firm grip.  At that distance Ed could smell cigarettes, garlic, and a mild odor of whiskey on his breath.  “C’mon in.”  Ed’s hand swept toward the living room and shut the door behind Butler.  He introduced the investigator to Sandy and asked him to take a seat.  He and Sandy took the sofa; Butler took an armchair placed perpendicular to it.  Jim was looking around, taking in the house.

“Nice place,” he said.  “Bet you weren’t real happy seeing that crew move in next door.”

“That’s putting it mildly,” Ed said, looking at Sandy, “We would have put the house on the market if we could’ve gotten out of it for enough to pay it off and get enough for a down on a new place.  But with those dirtbags for neighbors…”  He let his voice trail off.

“Yeah, that real estate thing hit everybody hard.  I still can’t believe hardly anybody served time for all the fraud in the mortgage and banking industries.”

Ed let his bitterness show.  “Oh, well, that’s life.  They got the finest justice money can buy.”

“So anyway, did you have much contact with the bunch next door?”

Sandy had just noticed that Butler had a faded scar shaped like a small fishhook at the corner of his mouth, giving him a soldier-of-fortune look.  She spoke first.  “Ed went over and introduced himself the day they moved in.  He was trying to look on the bright side.  A lot of good it did.  Beef blew him off.  Things went downhill from there.”

Butler pursed his lips and nodded sympathetically  “Yeah, I’ll bet.  Every neighborhood’s worst nightmare.  So did you notice anything that might indicate some gang rivalry going on?  Fights?  People arguing?  Guys from a different biker outfit, wearing different colors?”

Sandy and Ed exchanged a look, eyebrows raised; then Sandy answered again. 

“No.  But after that first day we just tried to ignore them as best we could, tried not to provoke them.”

Jim:  “Scary guys, huh?”

Ed this time:  “Psychos, pretty much.  So yeah.”

Jim:  “Nothin’ stands out that might give me a clue as to who might have killed them?”

Sandy:  “Everyone on the block had a motive, but I can’t think of anyone who might have actually done it.  The papers are saying it looked like a hit by a rival gang.”

Jim:  “Well, yeah, it does, but the funny thing is that our sources tell us that The Chain Gang, the only other local outlaw club of any size, is acting like it was a surprise to them.  Usually there’s some bragging going on, some innuendoes at least, when they‘re involved in something.  This time, nothing.  Nobody taking credit, no rumors about who did it.  Pretty unusual.”

Ed:  “Interesting.  Maybe they got smart for once and everyone’s playing dumb.”

Jim:  “Could be.  I just gotta look at all the angles.”

Ed:  “Too many suspects I guess,” saying it like a question. 

Jim:  “A lot.  Obviously, another gang, or someone who hated them.  Or feared them.  Could even have been a dispute with whoever supplied them with the drugs they sold.  Other than that, I’m stumped so far.  Another thing that bothers me about the rival-gang theory is the use of a rifle.  Bikers don’t use long guns much; too awkward to carry and shoot on a chopper.  Hard to conceal ‘em.  They like handguns.”

Ed:  “You’re sure they used a rifle?”

Jim:  “Pretty sure.  No thirty-caliber handguns using long-rifle bullets that I know of.”

Ed:  “Perfect for an ambush, though, if that’s what this was.”

Jim:  “It looked like it.  We found some vegetation flattened out under a tree where a sniper probably sat.  But still, the rifle is unusual…”

Ed:  “Must be a fair number of veterans in outlaw gangs.  They’d be comfortable with rifles.”

Jim:  “You got a point there.”

Sandy:  “Are you checking with people from their old neighborhood?  He’d only lived next door a few months.  Maybe an old grudge?”

“Oh, yeah,” Jim said, rubbing his jaw.  “Nothing on that angle so far.  He was more at home in his old neighborhood, but no one liked him there either.  They were just more used to his type.”  He looked at the little wire-bound notebook he’d taken out of his jacket pocket, flipped it open, and took a pen out of the opposite pocket.  “So, were you in the military, Mr. Fordham?”

“Yes.  Marine Corps, served in Afghanistan.”

“What was your MOS?”
“Rifleman.”
Butler wrote a few words in his notebook.  “See any action over there?”
“Some.” 

“I was in the Army at the tag end of the Viet-Nam thing.”

That was when Ed got it.  Butler was doing a pretty good impression of Clint Eastwood.  Now the cowboy boots made sense.  “Drafted? 

“Enlisted.  I needed the G.I. bill for college.  How was your war?”

“It sucked.  I don’t have the military mind, I guess, but I needed the G.I. bill to go to school.”

“Tough way to earn tuition, wasn’t it?”
“You got that right,” Ed answered ruefully.
“That leads me to another question.  Do you own any firearms?”

Ed didn’t hesitate.  “No.  Had enough of them for a lifetime already. ”

“I hear you,” Butler said.  “Always hoping I never have to make the decision whether to use mine on the job.”  He reached out and knocked on the wood of the coffee table.  “Any of the neighbors into guns?”

“Not as far as I know,” Ed answered.  “The only ones we would call personal friends, the Ewells across the street, aren’t.  They’re elderly anyway.  The other people on the block are just acquaintances.  I wouldn’t know about them.”

Butler nodded.  “Anyone ever talk about how they might get rid of the bikers next door?”

“Not really.  We all knew there was nothing we could do about them but put up with them and call the cops if we spotted any seriously illegal activity.  We just hoped they’d move on one of these days.  I’m sure you know that patrolmen have been out a few times about the noise, but there’s not much they could do.”

Butler said, “Yeah, these people are experts on skirting the law.  I guess you won’t miss them much.”

Sandy emitted a sharp “Ha!” then, noticing a photo on a far wall was canted slightly off level, got up to straighten it, and sat down again, fiddling with a stray thread from the seam of her pants.

Ed said, “I wouldn’t wish their fate on anyone, but I’d be lying if said we’re not happy they’re gone.”  He was a bit nervous despite himself, his hands clasped between his knees to avoid unconsciously cracking his knuckles.

“Speaking of the Ewells,” Butler said, looking interested, “Mrs. Ewell mentioned that you’d recently had a little run-in with a couple of the bikers who hung out next door.  A guy goes by the nickname ‘Ripper’ and another guy?”

Ed shot Sandy a glance and then spread his hands in a dismissive gesture.  “It wasn’t much, really.  They stopped my son and me when we were riding our bikes out on the road to the dump and hassled us a little.  Our trash-truck driver came along and defused the situation.  No big deal.”

“Could’a been worse if a friend hadn’t come along, huh?”
“I think they were just blowing a little smoke, really.”

“You never know.  Kinda coincidental, wouldn’t you say?”

“I guess it is.  Not much I can do about that.”

“We suspect Ripper and the boys in the Two-Bangers for a few violent crimes, and he’s had a couple of stretches in County for assault and battery.  Nothing recent though.  I’m glad nothing came of your run-in with them.”

“Yeah, well, nothing did.”

“And now he’s dead, along with Beef and the girlfriend, what’s-her-name, Rosie—Rosa, actually—Mendoza.  Kinda rhymes, now that I think of it.”  He offered a thin smile.

“First time I’ve ever heard her name,” Ed said, trying to fight off the image in his head of Rosie on her hands and knees in her ripped clothing, asking what happened, then lying in her own brains and blood.

“Her folks say she was a nice girl until she started hanging with Beef,” Jim said.

“I’m sure she was,” Sandy said, twisting it and rolling her eyes.

“Sandy,” Ed said, giving her a look, “she was a human being.”

Sandy shook her head slowly.  “You’re right.  I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.  But living next to those people would try a saint.”

Butler said, “I can’t think of anything else right now.  In case I do, would you mind giving me your cell numbers?”

“Not at all,” Ed said, and recited his and Sandy’s numbers as Jim wrote them into his notes.

“Well,” Jim said, standing up, “If anything else occurs to you, you’ve got my number.”  He started for the door.  Sandy and Ed got up to follow.  His hand reached the knob, where he turned and said, “Oh, one other thing…”

Clint Eastwood doing the Columbo thing, Ed thought abstractly, dreading what he might ask.

“If I needed a DNA swab, do you have any objection to that?”  He was asking Ed.

Ed knew he couldn’t hesitate.  “None at all.  You want it now?”  He felt a cold sweat beginning to pop out on his forehead, and hoped Butler would leave before it showed.

“No time like the present.”  Butler reached into his inside coat pocket and produced a sealed plastic bag containing latex gloves, sterile swabs, and an envelope marked with lines to write in the donor’s name, the date, and other pertinent data.  While Sandy and Ed watched, trying to contain their nervousness, Butler opened the kit and donned the gloves.  He tore open the envelope with the sterile swabs, asked Ed to open his mouth, swabbed the inside of his cheek, asked Sandy to hold the envelope, dropped in the swab, and sealed the envelope.  He stripped off the gloves, reached in his shirt pocket, and brought out a pen, which he handed to Ed.

“Now if you’d just sign and date the envelope right here,” he said, pointing out the proper space to Ed. 

Ed did as he was told, holding the envelope up against the wall for support, then handed it back to Butler.  “That it?”

“That’s it,” Butler said cheerfully.  He extended his hand to Ed, and as they shook, commented on the bandaged right index finger.  “Work injury?”

“Actually, no work comp claim there,” Ed said, a tight smile on his face.  “Screwdriver slipped while I was opening a can of spackle yesterday.”

                Butler smiled back, relaxed.  “The right tool for the job is what my dad always taught me.  They have those little tools they give you at the paint store with the bent tip that you use to pry open paint cans.  Saves that kind of problem.”

“Yeah.  Got one somewhere, but in a hurry as usual.  I’ll know better next time.”

“Experience is the best teacher,” Butler responded.  ”Well, you folks have a nice day.” 

Sandy and Ed mumbled something similar.  Butler stuck the envelope into his coat pocket, turned the doorknob, stepped out, and was gone.

Ed immediately turned on Sandy.  “What the hell were you thinking, telling the Ewells about the thing with Ripper?  We didn’t have enough motive to kill Beef already?”

Sandy shook her head and looked flustered.  “I just never thought about her talking to the police…She’d been telling me how it wakes them up every time one of his friends roars away at two in the morning, and I…”

Ed shook his head and spread his hands in a dismissive gesture.  “Never mind.  It’s done, and they can’t arrest me for having a motive.”

 

Two days later, while he was headed home in his pickup after returning his delivery truck to the terminal, Ed’s cell rang.  He looked at the number and recognized it as Jim Butler’s.  He pulled over and took the call.

“Ed, this is Detective Butler” Jim said, sounding more like Eastwood than ever, “when do you get off work?”

“I just finished and I’m headed home.  What can I do for you, Detective?”

“Call me Jim.  I was hoping you could drop by my office for a few minutes.  Got something I want to run by you.”

“Sure.  If there’s anything I can do to help out.”

“Good.  You know where the Sheriff’s office is?”

“Sure.  Delivered there many times.”

“Good.  Just ask for me at the desk and they’ll bring you right back to my office.”

“It’s on my way.  See you there.”  He rang off, wondering what Butler would want to “run by” him.

Ten minutes later Ed was shaking hands with Butler across his desk, which was nearly covered with files.  There was a window looking into the secretarial pool, with venetian blinds half-closed, and another behind the desk with the blinds open to a parking lot. 

“Have a seat,” Butler said, indicating an institutional-looking chair facing his desk.  “Thanks for coming.  I appreciate it.”

Ed sat and planted his right foot on his right knee as if it were a barrier to any hard questions.  “No problem.”

“I made a fresh pot of coffee.  We buy the good stuff from Starbucks.  Can I get you a cup?”

“Actually, that sounds good.”  Actually, he thought, I need more time to think.  He’s going to spring something on me.  I can feel it.

Jim stood.  “Won’t take a minute.  Cream or sugar?”

“Black,” Ed responded, looking around the office at the framed certificates. 

“Sit tight”

Jim went out, closing the door behind him.  Ed took in the photos on a bookshelf of Jim Butler posing with a little-league team, receiving an award for Detective of the Year, he and a woman, presumably his wife, in Hawaii, a couple of teenage kids, Jim in front of a rat-rod ’32 Ford Victoria, and the like.   He turned his attention to the file in front of Jim’s chair, labeled “Mendenhauser, et al.”  None of the other file names meant anything to him. 

He was starting to get impatient, wondering what was taking so long, when Butler returned, awkwardly pushing open the door with a cup of coffee in each hand.  Ed got up and held the door open, closed it again after Butler came through, and sat down.  Jim placed a steaming cup in front of Ed and took his seat.

“Sorry to take so long.  Got button-holed by a guy working a gang case.”

 “No prob.” He sipped the coffee.  It was surprisingly good, unlike what he’d come to expect from station-house coffee based on every cop movie he’d ever seen.  “So, what’s up?”

Butler looked over the rim of his cup as he took a sip.  “We found the rifle used in the murders.”

Ed tried to act natural as an icy wave went from his head down the length of his body.  “Really?”

“Yeah.  It was in plain sight.  Apparently it was thrown from the motorcycle that left the scene.  The bushes were so thick there that it got stuck on top.  An officer walking the road looking for shell casings spotted it, and brought it to me.  Preliminary ballistics match it to the slugs in the bodies.”

“Great,” Ed said without enthusiasm.  “So did you trace it?”

“Yeah, and I got lucky.  It was more complicated than you think, but I found out it was sold in Illinois thirty years ago to a guy named Sheb Wooley, a farmer at the bottom of the state near Carbondale.  Got his address and phone number.  He’d died in a tractor accident a few years ago, but his wife was still living there.  I called and asked her what she knew of the rifle.  She remembers he used to play poker at a local dive every Friday night.  Came home mad as a hornet one night.  Said somebody invited a traveling salesman from California to join the poker game after one of the regulars felt ill and left early.  Sheb was already low on cash.  The regular fellas would have taken an IOU, but not the salesman.  He wound up betting the rifle on what he thought was a winning hand.  Aces and eights.”

“The dead man’s hand,” Ed said absently, focusing on a new, red Corvette parked nearest the window.  

“You got it.  Anyway, he lost the rifle to the salesman.  She wouldn’t have remembered that much even, but said he’d only had the rifle a year or so, and it was his prize possession.  He kept saying what a fool he was to gamble it away.  Anyway, that’s why it stuck in her mind.”

Ed couldn’t meet Jim’s eyes, but looked straight out the window when he asked, “So, did she know the salesman’s name?”

Butler stared at Ed.  “No, but she recalled Sheb making a bitter joke about who the guy worked for, the John Deere Tractor Company, because their slogan is ‘Nothing runs like a Deere,’ and the guy ran off with his rifle before Sheb could find the cash to buy it back.”  He gave Ed a long, piercing look.  “Who’d your dad work for back in the late seventies, Ed?”

“I’m not sure.  I’d have to…”

Butler interrupted.  “Let’s cut the shit, Ed.  Your dad was a traveling rep for John Deere.  You used his rifle to kill Beef and Rosa.  You made a dumb mistake tossing the rifle instead of burying it because it was in the way when you were chasing Ripper down.”

Ed stared into his coffee cup, trying to think his way out of this.  He sat in silence a moment,  then looked up and said, “That won’t hold up in court.  I watch true crime shows.  The wife’s story is hearsay.  Besides, there were other traveling reps.  And even if my dad ever had the rifle, he must’ve gotten rid of it when I was young, because I never saw it.”

“Maybe you’re right.  The connection is thin,” Butler said, pausing to sip coffee, “but DNA will cinch it.”

Another icy wave ran down Ed’s spine.  “What DNA?”

“The DNA from the skin that was stuck to the front sight of the rifle.”

“You’re bluffing now.  You couldn’t have a profile yet.  It’s too soon.”

“That’s right.  But you and I both know that when we do, it’ll come back positive, don’t we?”

“No way,” Ed answered, swallowing hard.
“Now who’s bluffing?”
Ed didn’t answer, just sipped coffee, mind racing. 

Butler hunched forward across the desk, cradling his coffee cup in his hands.  “Come on, Ed.  We know ballistic tests will match your dad’s rifle to two murders.  We photographed it where we found it, several officers watched while the DNA sample was collected, we bagged and tagged the rifle and the sample.”

“So why are you telling me all this?  Why not wait until you get DNA results and arrest me for murder if you’re right?”

Jim took a long pull on the cigarette before answering.  “Because I don’t want to see you go to prison for killing that motherfucking scumbag, and even if his girlfriend didn’t deserve to die, she egged him on.  And because the rifle made it to the evidence lockup, but the DNA sample somehow never did.”

Another wave, this time of relief, passed through Ed.  Butler let silence hang in the air a moment.  Ed finally saw where this was going and turned toward him.

“Let me guess.  You had something to do with that.”

Butler nodded, turning to look out the window. 
“Why?”

“Like I said, I don’t want to see you going to prison for killing a dirtbag.”

“I believe you,” Ed said, “but I don’t believe you’d risk your career and your pension for me without expecting something back.”

Jim swiveled back to face Ed.  “You shoulda been a detective, Ed.  Of course I wouldn’t.  I know where the sample is, and unless we work something out, I’ll find it in a day or two and nature will take its course.”

Ed knew it would be no use claiming the DNA wouldn’t match.  He was screwed. 

“What do you want?  I barely have enough to pay the mortgage every month.”

“I know you don’t have much.  I’m not after money.”
“Then what?”
“I want someone dead, and I can’t do it myself.”
“Who?”

Butler grinned.  “My wife.”

Ed heaved a long sigh.  “You might as well send the sample to the lab.  I can’t do it.  I won’t kill an innocent person.”

“You sure about that?”

“Look, detective, I’d never sleep another night if I did what you ask.”

Butler looked steadily at Ed, nodded and finally smiled again.  “I was just shitting you about my wife.  We get along fine.  I knew you wouldn’t agree to it.”

“Then why ask if I’d kill her for you?”

“To illustrate that there’s a moral distinction at work here.  Like with you and Beef.  Because the guy I actually want you to kill makes him look like an altar boy.”

“I’m listening.  I’m not sure why.”

“The guy we’re talking about is a pedophile.  He’s been molesting grade-school boys for years and getting away with it.  He’s not going to stop.  Every boy he molests is a life ruined.  He scares the living shit out of them so that they’re too scared to identify him.  The kids give a description of a guy who looks nothing like the real guy, and a car that’s different every time.  He leaves no evidence at all.”

“Then how do you know he’s your guy?”

“Because he’s got two prior misdemeanors for loitering around schools and playgrounds over the years and got probation both times.  He got a hundred and eighty days for possession of child pornography involving boys under twelve and has to register as a sex offender.  Read it yourself.”

He pointed at a file on the corner of his desk labeled, “Shipley, A.”  Ed took the file folder. It contained a lengthy printout with a grainy, Xeroxed photo paper-clipped to the first page.  The photo showed a perfectly ordinary-looking guy with short hair and a round, clean-shaven face; his only noticeable characteristic was a mocking smile.  Ed took the printout and looked it over, upper lip curling in disgust, while Jim talked.  The record was for an Asa Shipley, aged forty-five.  It confirmed what Butler had just said.  His worst offenses were for the creation and possession of child pornography involving pre-teen boys.  He was still on probation for his last offense.  There were also transcripts of interviews with Shipley concerning several sexual assaults of pre-teen boys, of which Shipley denied any knowledge.

After Ed finally looked up from the file, Butler said, “But the real reason I’m sure it’s him is because we’ve put him in a lineup a couple of times after kids came home crying and finally admitted they’d been molested by an older man.  He just smirks at us and the kids because he knows they’re scared to death of him.”  He looked out the window then, and spoke as if to some unseen person.  “I know what they’re going through.”  Then he looked at Ed again.  “We did a lineup for the boys.  One of the kids wet himself just looking at him.  Another one broke down crying.  Then both of the kids I.D’d guys who were police officers or jailbirds at the time of the offense.  They were so scared they’d have fingered their mothers before they’d identify Shipley.  We get a new victim every month or two.  There are probably as many others who never speak up.  I have two boys at home.  I want this fucker dead before he does it again, but I was stupid and shot my mouth off too often.  I threatened him.  I’ll be the first one looked at, so when he gets it, I wanta have the perfect alibi, being somewhere with half a dozen witnesses.”

“Jesus Christ,” Ed said, looking at his lap and shaking his head.  “And what if I’m caught?”

“You won’t be.  There’s not a cop on the force who’ll spend a minute on it unless he’s ordered to, and even then he won’t even try to find anything.  They all know he’s guilty as sin.  We’ve tailed this guy enough to know his regular moves, but he knows how to slip the tail when he’s up to something.   We know he goes to the Central City Lounge every Saturday night and gets loaded.  That’s two days from now.”

“Wait a minute,” Ed interrupted.  “The file says he’s still on probation for his last offense, and one of the terms of his probation, besides staying away from kids, is that he stay away from alcohol and any place it’s served.  Why don’t you just violate him and send him to jail?” 

“So he maybe gets thirty days in lockup?  Why bother?  He needs to be buried.  Period.  Now listen.  He leaves the bar at 11:15 to get home in time to watch Saturday Night Live.  You’ll be waiting in the parking lot, carrying an old .380 Beretta pistol I’ll supply.  You’ll walk out of the shadows wearing latex gloves and a hoodie while he’s stumbling out to his car, put two in his head, and walk away.  Your car would be parked a block away.  You’ll be home before anyone finds the body.  You burn the gloves.  Simple.  No one will give a shit.  Except for all the kids he won’t molest, and the ones he did.” 

“What about the pistol?”
“You bring it back to me.  We’ll work out how.”
“Nothin’ to it, right?” Ed said, staring Butler down.

Butler’s face went tight, the fishhook scar on his lip standing out in bas relief. “Look, Ed, I’m sorry to have to do this to you, but this is a case where the end justifies the means.  I can’t do it.  I could trade favors with a career criminal to get it done, but those assholes would rat me out for a better deal the next time they got popped.  But you’ll go the rest of your life and never break another law.  And no one would ever connect you with this even if they were looking.  Same would have happened with the bikers you blew away if your rifle hadn’t landed in a bush in plain sight, or it would have been a cold case in two days.  I don’t want to solve it, and no one will want to solve this one either.”

“What if I just walked out of here and told the sheriff about this conversation?”

Butler spread his palms and shrugged.  “You could try that.  I’d bring him up to date on the rifle, and say you must have read Shipley’s file while I was out of the office for ten minutes getting our coffee, and you’re trying to taint the investigation, knowing the DNA will incriminate you.  And then, of course, I’d have to send off the DNA for testing.”

Ed nodded grimly in acknowledgment of the trap he’d fallen into.  “You’ll give me the DNA sample after I’ve done your dirty work?”

“Of course.”
“How do I know that?”

“Because I know goddamned well that if I tried to use it against you, you’d spill your guts to make a deal where you’d plead to manslaughter for Beef and his buddies and immunity on the kiddy-diddler killing to put the finger on me.”

“Why would anyone believe me?”

“Once Shipley’s been taken out, your story would have a lot more credibility.  And how else would you know that I’ve told a dozen other cops how bad I want to see him dead?”

“Assuming you’re being straight with me.”

“I am.  Besides, you don’t really have a choice.  You either do a public service and take this guy off the street, or you get life in prison for killing people that had it coming.  Which is better?”

Ed was clenching and unclenching his fists, one in his lap and one covering his mouth as he stared at the photo of Butler’s children.  “God damn it.  I don’t know.  I need time to think about this.”

Butler puffed out his cheeks and blew out a long breath.  “I can give you until noon tomorrow to decide.  Your DNA sample has to permanently disappear or it has to be sent to the lab by Monday or there’ll be a huge stink about it and people will really start looking for it.  I know where it is, but I can’t risk taking it out of the building until I give it to you.  If they look hard enough before then, they’ll find it.  So you either commit by noon tomorrow or I gotta move on the DNA.  Are we clear on that?”

“We’re clear.”

“And another thing.”  Butler waved his cigarette around while he talked, leaving a trail of smoke.  “I know you had help killing Beef.  I don’t care about that.  He walks too.  But you don’t tell him about this.  I know you’ll tell your wife, but that’s it.  Okay?”

“Okay.  Can I keep this?” he said, holding up the printout.

“No.  If you want to read it all, I’ll wait.”

Ed flipped through, trying to find the parts that confirmed what Butler had told him.   He found enough in a few minutes to believe the guy was a serious pedophile, and handed the printout back to Butler.  “I’ve seen enough.”

Butler returned the printout to the folder and put the folder in a desk drawer.  “When you confirm that you’re doing it, I’ll let you memorize the photo so there’s no mistake.”

Ed said, “I’ll call you tomorrow,” and got up. 

“Wait.”  Ed waited.  “No cell phone calls between us.  You call me on a land line to my home phone between twelve and twelve-thirty tomorrow to let me know if you’re in.”  He recited the number and told Ed to memorize it.  “I always answer when I’m home for lunch, but just in case my wife answers, you’ll be Officer Costigan, the dispatcher, asking to speak with me. Remember, nothing incriminating on the phone.”

“All right,” Ed said.  He went to the door and opened it.

“Thanks for coming in, Mr. Fordham,” Butler said loudly. 

Ed looked back at him, but nodded and said nothing.  He closed the door quietly and walked away.

Butler had lied about not caring who had been Ed’s accomplice in the biker murders.  He wanted to know exactly who he was dealing with.  As soon as he had linked the rifle to Ed, he had gone to speak with Ed’s supervisor, Jerry Eggleston, after all the trucks had headed out on their route.  He had asked whether Ed had any close friends at the terminal.  Earl’s name had come up immediately as the only guy with whom Ed seemed to have more than a nodding acquaintance, but Jerry didn’t mention his last name.  Butler had asked to see Earl’s personnel file. 

Eggleston had proven to be a tough little nut after that.  He bristled at the request.  “That file contains personal information that we don’t give out.  I think you need a warrant for that, don’t you?”

“It’s just an informal request at this point,” Butler said. 

“Are Earl and Ed considered suspects?  At this point?” Jerry asked, squinting suspiciously at Butler.

“Not necessarily.  We’re just trying to rule out everyone we can, Mr. Eggleston.”

“Well, detective, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, and I’m going to have to honor Earl’s confidentiality until you go through formal channels.”

Butler smiled as warmly as he could, though he felt like punching the little shit.  “I understand.  Thanks anyway.”  He started to walk away, then turned as if by afterthought, and said, “By the way, I’d rather you keep my visit here confidential, if you don’t mind.  Ongoing investigation and all that.”

“I guess I can do that,” Eggleston had answered. 

“Appreciate it,” Butler said, and walked away, inwardly fuming that he’d gotten essentially nothing.  Earl might be his guy, but no way in hell he’d be able to get a warrant, and with no last name there was no way to get what he wanted any other way. 

Eggleston watched Butler walking out of the big bay doors.  He didn’t like Butler much.

 

Ed did exactly the opposite of what Jim Butler has instructed him.  He didn’t tell Sandy about his conversation with Butler.  Much as he loved her, she was inclined to speak too quickly.  The less she knew, the better.  Instead, he met Earl at his apartment that night and told him everything Butler had said.  Earl, his chair tipped back, sipped a Heineken and listened patiently through the whole story, interrupting only a few times with brief questions.   After Ed went silent, Earl asked, “Do you think he’s being straight with you?”

“He sounded like it.  Straight or not, do I have a choice?   He must have the rifle because his story about finding the original owner fits, and he knew about the skin fragment on the front sight.”

“No, what I meant is, is he being straight about the guy he wants you to kill? Do you think he could be setting you up somehow?”

“I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  Why would he set me up on another murder when he’s already got me nailed on the first one?  He showed me the guy’s rap sheet and police reports, and the guy is obviously a sick pervert.  He sounded angry just talking about the guy.  The story makes sense.  I’ve got a son too.  He could be a victim.  It pisses me off just to think about it.” 

“So you’re convinced the guy is a serious pedophile, and that’s why Butler wants him dead?

“Well, yeah.  I mean, he hasn’t been convicted of physically molesting anyone, but it all adds up.”

“What if he wants him dead for some other reason?”

“So what?  At least he deserves it on general principles.”

“I’m gonna have to take your word for it, ol’ buddy.”
“What do you mean by that?”

Earl leaned forward, the front legs of his chair rapping sharply on the linoleum floor.

“I’m gonna do it.”

“What?  No, Earl.  You’ve done too much already.”

“Hear me out.  There’s no way I’ll ever be connected with the bikers unless you tell them.  He already told you he knows you didn’t do it alone and he doesn’t care.  Without the DNA there’s no case against you.  And there’s no way I’ll ever be connected with this new one.  Neither will you, because you’re going to have a solid alibi for the time I do it.”

“Earl, no.”

“Yes, goddamnit!”  Earl rapped the table with and index finger.  “I convinced you to take out the biker crew, and that’s what led to this shit you’re in.”

“No, you didn’t.  I was going to do it anyway.”

“Bullshit, Ed.  You needed moral support and a good hard shove to do it.  You wouldn’t have shot Rosa.  I did.  And I killed Ripper.  I’m in it as deep as you, but I got no worries now.  You do.  No one’s gonna suspect me, and even if they did, they’ll never prove it.  I’m doing it.”

“Earl, I…”

Earl held up his hand, palm out, like a crossing guard.  “No arguments.  I owe you this and I’m doing it.  But listen now.  You need more out of Butler before you agree.”

 

Ed called Jim Butler at home during lunch.  Butler answered.  “We need to meet in person tomorrow,” he said.

“Is it a go?”
“Yes, as long as we agree on a couple of things.  Where would you suggest?”
“We can’t be seen together again.  The parking lot at the Carpet Barn.  You know where it is?” 
“Yeah.”

“On the east side of the building where there’s no windows and no security cameras.  Twelve-fifteen tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow.”
 

It was Friday.  Ed was driving his pickup.  Butler was already there when he arrived.  It took Ed a moment to recognize Butler, who wasn’t driving his county vehicle but a new Ram pickup with big wheels and tires.  Ed got out, carrying a yellow ruled pad, and walked up to Butler’s truck.   Butler indicated with a sweep of his hand that Ed was to get in.  The door handle was high off the ground, and he had to step up on a running board to get in.

After Ed got seated, Butler looked at the pad Ed was holding.  “What’s that for?”

Ed had a resolute look Butler hadn’t seen before.  “I’m going to do it, but I’ll need a little more assurance from you that I’m not a patsy here.”

“I told you…” Butler started.

“Yeah, I know, but right now you hold all the cards.  I need an ace in the hole for myself.”

Butler looked put out.  “What’re you looking for?”

“Simple.  I want you to write out what our deal is, then sign and date it.  You’ll get it back when the deal is done and you hand over the DNA sample you ‘misplaced.’”

“Why the hell would I do that if I hold all the cards here?”

“Because you have no choice if you want me to do it.  You’re a crooked cop, and this deal stinks.  How do I know you’re not setting me up for another murder?  I’m in enough hot water already.  So if you want it done, I want some insurance.  Otherwise, I’ll take my chances on the Palmer Road thing.”

“If I gave you what you’re asking for, you could tell me you’re not going through with it, and probably skate on the Palmer Road shootings too.”

“I’ve thought it all out to where we’re both covered.”
“I’m willing to listen, but it better be good.”

“First of all, what I want you to write implicates me in the Palmer Road shootings.  That way you can rest assured I wouldn’t use it unless you try to double-cross me.”

“All right.  Keep talking.”

“Okay.  We meet again tomorrow at my place at eleven in the morning.  You can see the bank of mailboxes from my front window.  I want you to see that the carrier arrives at eleven-fifteen like clockwork every day.  You’ll have your statement all written out and signed.   While she’s putting the mail in the boxes, we put your statement in an envelope addressed to me.  Then we walk it across the street and hand it to her.  That way it won’t get delivered back to my box before Monday, postmarked before the hit on Shipley.  Your insurance is that if Shipley isn’t dead by then, you can meet me at my mailbox Monday before she gets there.  That way you can watch her put the mail in my box so I have no opportunity to get to it first and hide it.  Then you can retrieve your statement, and keep my DNA.  If he is dead, and he will be, you hand over the DNA from the rifle and I keep the letter until I’m sure you haven’t double-crossed me.”

“What if the letter isn’t there Monday?”

Ed shrugged.  “We come back the next day.”

“I don’t like the idea of the mail carrier seeing me and you together twice or more in those circumstances.  It’ll look suspicious, and she’d remember it.”

“Well, neither of us would trust the other to mail the letter.  We both have to be there.  How about if you write your initials across the envelope flap so you can be sure it’s the same letter, and after it comes back to my box I bring it somewhere else to exchange it for the DNA?  Your choice.”

“What’s to keep you from copying it before you hand it back to me?”

Ed snorted.  “You ever see a letter that’s been steamed open, much less tried to line up the initials on the flap and reseal it after it’s been opened?  Maybe it works on ‘Mission Impossible,’ but not in real life.  I know.  I already tried it with self-sealing gummed envelopes and the old fashioned lick-‘em kind.  Try it yourself if you don’t believe me.”

“How do I know you’ll hand over the letter?”
“First of all, I want the DNA sample.  Second, you’re a cop.  You’d stop at nothing to get it back.  I’m the one who has to worry here.  How do I know you’ll hand over the DNA?”
“You’re asking me to take a big risk, Fordham.”

 “And you’re asking me to kill a guy on your word.  Besides, what good would your statement do me if I didn’t hold up my end of the deal?  Shipley would be alive.”

“You could go right to the DA with it.”

Ed was getting angry and impatient.  “For what?  We’d both lose.  I already told you that it implicates me in killing three people.  Right now I’m not even a suspect in Beef’s murder as far as the DA’s concerned.  I’ve got absolutely no use for it unless you double-cross me somehow.  I do my part, you give me the evidence, I keep the letter, and we’re done.  Four murders go unsolved.  What’s the problem?  So if you want this done, you write out our deal.  Otherwise, kiss my ass.  You can send the DNA to the lab and I’ll use a defense on the Palmer Road case called ‘imperfect self-defense’ that I found doing some research online, and maybe plead to manslaughter.  No prosecutor will want to go to trial on that case after hearing what those bastards put me and my family through.  Maybe I’d get eight or ten years.”

Butler lit a cigarette, then stared out the window, thinking for a few minutes while Ed alternately watched him and looked out the window.  The breeze was making the tops of the cypress trees across the street wave in unison while Ed was thinking, God, how did my life get so fucked up so fast?

Finally Butler finished his cigarette, tossed the butt out the window, and spoke.  “What do you want me to write?”

“I’ve got it all spelled out for you.”  Ed produced a pair of blue vinyl gloves and put them on.  “Just to be on the safe side,” he said. 

Ed pulled out a piece of notebook paper placed loosely among the pages of the pad he held.  Butler read it aloud:  This is my admission to soliciting Ed Fordham to kill Asa Shipley with a .380 Beretta pistol provided by me.  I have directed him to carry out the killing this coming Saturdaybetween eleven and eleven-thirty p.m. in the parking lot of the Central City Lounge.  This admission is written and signed by me of my own free will without coercion or force or threats of any kind.  However, Ed Fordham has been coerced into doing the killing under threat of prison time, based on DNA evidence that would implicate him in the Palmer Road homicide.  He was not paid for his part in this.  Signed, Detective James Butler

“You’ll have to write it out yourself, of course,” Ed said helpfully.

Butler sighed and looked out the windshield for a long moment.  “And if I won’t do it?”

“Then like I said, Shipley keeps molesting boys.  I don’t trust you not to set me up somehow for both cases, so I’d take my chances in court on the Palmer Road thing.  I’ve also come up with a plausible explanation of why that DNA sample got ‘lost’ and how you obtained my skin sample to substitute for the one that came off the rifle, which wasn’t mine in the first place.  And if I have to, I’ll testify that you set this whole thing up and see how a jury likes the case.”

Butler was pissed and gritted his teeth, his jaw muscles working.  “This is bullshit, but all right.”

Ed smiled triumphantly.  “Good choice.”  He pulled a white security envelope, already addressed to himself, out from under the last page of the note pad and held it up, tore off the top sheet and stuffed it in his pocket, then handed the envelope and pad to Butler.

Butler grinned ruefully.  “I know.  Staying on the safe side.”  He took the pad and the envelope.  Ed handed him a pen.  He tore off the top sheet from the pad, then turned the pad over and laid the clean sheet on the cardboard backing.  “Don’t want to leave any impressions on the next sheet, do we?”  He grinned again. 

Ed watched while Butler copied his original and signed the copy.  Ed took his original back and stuffed it in his pocket.  He then held out his hand to indicate he wanted to read the copy.  Afterward, he handed it back to Butler, who then signed it, dated it, folded the note into the envelope, and started to lick the flap.

“Don’t seal it yet,” Ed interrupted.  “Bring it with you tomorrow.  I want to see the note go into the envelope right before we mail it.  Just in case you watched a ‘Mission Impossible’ episode where they steam open an envelope and it actually works.’” 

“Trust me.  I’m gonna check on how to get away with opening and resealing a letter to be sure you’re not lying to me.”   

“Good luck with that.  Did you bring the gun?” asked Ed.

Butler opened the lid of the center console and extracted a fast-food bag containing a short-barreled .380 Beretta automatic pistol.  “An oldie but goodie,” he said.  There are seven rounds in the magazine, one in the chamber.  More than you’ll need.  I’ll want it back with the letter when I hand you your sample.  I’ll make it disappear.”

“Bring it with you tomorrow.  And I want to see that picture of the guy again and get a description of his car.”

Butler pulled a folded copy of the picture out of his jacket pocket and handed it to Ed.  “He drives a white Chevy Suburban with blacked-out rear windows, about a ’08, but looks nearly new.  The ‘Burb is where he does his business with the boys.  The license number is on the back of his picture.  No one else drives it.  The guy who gets into it is your man.  It has to be done tomorrow night.  We’re running out of time.  No more screwing around.”

Ed popped the door and started to get out. 

“Wait a minute,” Butler said.  “Leave the picture.  Take a good look at it first.  There’s only one place you could have gotten it, and I don’t want it found in a trash can.”

“Don’t sweat the small shit, Jim.  I’ll give it back to you tomorrow.”

Without waiting for a response, Ed jumped down and walked away, stripping off the gloves.  Butler let him go.

 

Later, back at Ed’s apartment with the picture between them, Earl and Ed sat and sipped beers and discussed what would happen the next night.  Neither doubted that Butler could not be trusted, and wondered why he would accept such a tremendous risk to take a pedophile off the street.

Ed could only shake his head over it.  “The guy just seems too cool, too…aw, man, I don’t know the word for it…bloodless, unemotional, to be that set on taking this guy out.”

“I hear you, dude.  I mean, I haven’t met Butler, but detectives see a lot of ugly shit in their jobs, and you’d think they’d have to be, you know, detached, to keep on doing it year after year and not go stone crazy.”

“And yet…and yet…something he said, like it just slipped out from where it was buried, was the most convincing.”

“Yeah?  What?”

“He was talking about the victims, not even looking at me.  He said, ‘I know what they’re going through.’  Like he knew from personal experience.”

Earl raised his eyebrows.  “Well, that would certainly explain it, wouldn’t it?”

“It would if it had happened to me, that’s for sure.”
“So you buy the story?”

Ed was swinging beer between his knees, holding it by the neck.  “Yeah, I think I do.  I just want to be sure it’s the same guy in the rap sheet he showed me.  If it’s the guy, then I don’t have any serious problem with doing it—I mean you doing it—even if he has other reasons for it.  But the problem is, it’s going to be dark in the parking lot.  How can you be sure it’s really Asa Shipley?”

Earl picked up the picture Butler had given Ed, looked at it, and said, “For that matter, how can I be sure this guy in the picture he gave you is Asa Shipley?  How would you know?”

“Shit, man, we’ve gotta make up our minds soon.  Who else could it be?”
“Anybody, I guess.”

“We don’t have much time.  You’ve seen the photo.  How about if you just ask the guy if he’s Asa Shipley before you do it?”

Earl shrugged.  “Works for me.  If he says no, I’ll have the gun pointed at him.  I’ll demand his ID.  Assuming there’s time.”

Ed’s mouth drew a grim line across his face.  “I guess it’s the best we can do.”  He looked at his watch.  “I’ve gotta get home for dinner.  Sandy’s wondering why we’re hanging out so much all of a sudden.”  But he didn’t move.  He was staring at the picture on the table, thinking that his life had turned into a slow-motion train wreck.  Finally he said, “Jesus, Earl, I can’t believe I got us into this.”

Earl patted Ed’s shoulder as he passed on his way back to the kitchen.  “Ed, you gotta relax.  Nobody’s gotten hurt who didn’t deserve it, and nobody will.  Okay?  Go home.  After Shawn’s in bed, break out a bottle of wine and get cozy with Sandy.  Start a fire.  Watch a good movie.”

 

Saturday came.   By the time Jim Butler showed up at a quarter to eleven, Ed was waiting, again wearing blue vinyl gloves, and let him in.  Sandy and Shawn had gone out Christmas shopping.  Ed hadn’t mentioned to her that Jim was coming by.  Ed took the Beretta that Butler pulled from under his belt behind his back, checked the magazine, and then put it under a sofa cushion. 

“You got the letter?” Ed asked.

Butler produced the letter from an inside pocket of his jacket.  Ed took it and removed the document inside.  He scanned it, satisfied it was the one Butler had copied and signed yesterday.  He returned the document to the envelope and handed it back.

“Seal it any way you want.” 

Butler licked the flap, sealed it, took a pen from his pocket, drew squiggles along the edge of the flap, and remained standing, looking out the window.

“Keep it in plain sight,” Ed said, removing his gloves.  He tossed them onto the coffee table.

They watched the street in stony silence, Ed frequently glancing at the letter in Jim’s hand.  A few minutes after eleven, the mail carrier showed up in her little blue and white truck.  She left the engine running, got out, and opened the back side of the bank of mailboxes that served the whole block. 

“She’s on the early side because it’s Saturday,” Ed commented.  He watched her for less than a minute, then said, “She’s about done.  Let’s go.”

He went out the front door behind Butler, watching the envelope swinging in his hand.  They walked across the street to the boxes, arriving just as the carrier was locking up the back, a stack of outgoing letters in her hand.

“Hi,” Ed said to her.  “Just caught you.”  Indicating Butler, he said, “He’s got a letter to go.  Mind adding this to your stack?”

“Sure,” she said.  She took the letter from Butler without even glancing at it, heading for her truck.  “Have a nice day.”

“You too,” Ed responded. 

The carrier drove away.  Butler turned to Ed.

“All right.  You have what you wanted.  Get it done tonight or I will be a seriously pissed-off cop and you’ll be a sorry sonofabitch.  Don’t fuck with me on this, Fordham.  If you do, I swear to God you’ll regret it.”

Without waiting for a response, Butler walked away, getting into his truck without a backward glance.  The truck roared to life.  As it came past him, Ed smiled and gave it a sardonic wave.

 

Ed, with his gloves on again, wasted little time putting the Beretta into a bag and heading for Earl’s place. He stayed only long enough to drop off the gun and discuss how they’d stay in touch after it was done.  Earl was hyper and cheerful, as usual.  Nothing fazes this guy, Ed thought, his own brow furrowed with worry as he walked back to his car.

Still suspicious of a setup, Earl carefully checked the Beretta.  It appeared to be in good order, but just to be sure, he drove outside of town and fired it into a drainage ditch.  The bullet slammed into the mud with a satisfying splat.  Satisfied, he put the weapon beneath the seat of his motorcycle and went home to take a nap. 

Just after eleven o’clock the same evening, Earl was standing in shadow under the carport of an apartment building in an alley behind the parking lot of Central City Lounge.  Beside him were two Dumpsters he could duck behind if anyone came or went.  From his position he could watch the back door of the bar without fear of being noticed.  There was still mild traffic along Main Street in front of the bar, the headlights easily piercing the thin fog that the season brought.  Through the gap left by the driveway into the lot, Early could see the Christmas lights strung along the front of a Rite-Aid store across the street from the Central City Lounge.  The parking lot ran in an L shape, with the short end behind the bar, where Earl found the Suburban with the right license plate number.  It was no more than thirty feet from him. 

There were only half a dozen cars, mostly family sedans a few years old, in a lot that would hold about thirty.  Probably just the usual crowd for this time on a Saturday night.  No one had come or gone in the fifteen minutes he’d been there.  He was wearing thin, black vinyl gloves, a navy-blue blazer over a dark plaid shirt, grey slacks and black tassel loafers to give him a semi-official look, and had used brown poster paint to give himself a heavy mustache and soul patch.  In the dark, they would look real enough to anyone more than a few feet away.  He had read somewhere that witnesses rarely notice anything that doesn’t stand out, particularly when the witness is staring at a gun barrel.  An ounce of prevention, he thought. 

At almost exactly eleven-fifteen, the back door of the bar swung outward and a tall figure in Levis and a poplin windbreaker stepped briskly through and was illuminated from overhead by a bare bulb in a conical metal shade.  Earl was nearly sure he was the man in the photo.  There was a clear resemblance, at least to the extent that he was round-faced, short-haired, and clean-shaven, and the hair looked right, with a pronounced widow’s peak and very short sidewalls.  He was alone and showed no sign of alcohol impairment as he walked toward the Suburban.  Halfway there he reached for his keys.  Earl’s hands were in his coat pockets, his hand on the Beretta in the right pocket.

Earl had begun walking purposefully toward the man the second he saw the door starting to swing open, hoping he was conveying a no-nonsense demeanor.  The man noticed him almost immediately; they were fast approaching each other and it was clear that Earl meant to intercept him.  He continued walking, keeping an eye on Earl, who did not stop until he was about six feet away.  By then they were only a few feet behind the Suburban, just as Earl had intended.  Now it was clear that this was the man in the mug shot.  It was brighter near the Suburban than Earl had thought it would be, and it made him jumpy, practically dancing on the balls of his feet.  

“Can I help you with something?” the man asked.  He was searching Earl’s face, sensing something was off.

Earl’s jaw was set rigidly.  His words came out between clenched teeth.  “Are you Asa Shipley?”

The man did not seem afraid; instead he instantly became irritated and suspicious.  “Who the hell are you?  You’re not from probation.  I know all the guys from probation.” 

Just then the back door of the bar opened again.  Music and voices came through as a man turned back toward the inside, saying good-bye to his buddies.  Earl hesitated only a moment.  The remark about probation was tantamount to an admission.  Ed had told him Shipley was on probation, and drinking alcohol would violate his probation.  This had to be his guy, and it was now or never.  Earl glanced around as he pulled the pistol out of his jacket pocket.  Without another word, he raised the pistol and shot the man in the heart. 

The man crumpled to the ground instantly.  The man at the door hunched over at the sound of the shot and disappeared back inside.  Earl stepped forward and put another round through the  forehead of the man on the ground, then turned and began running, heading for his motorcycle parked a block away around a corner and facing away from Main Street.  As he ran, he set the safety and stuffed the pistol into his pocket.  He was already rolling at a leisurely pace so as not to attract attention, rubbing at his phony facial hair with wet paper towels he’d left on the handlebars, before the 911 operator could get patrol cars dispatched. 

Earl knew that every cop in the city would converge on the parking lot within ten minutes.  Until then, no one would be looking, even if they knew who to look for.  Under a streetlight in a residential neighborhood he pulled over and checked in his side mirror that his face once again looked clean-shaven.  A few blocks later he found a trash can at the curb and dropped the paper towels into it, followed by the vinyl gloves.  Then, being careful to drive at the speed limit, he drove to the same road where they’d ambushed Beef and found a spot under a tall sycamore he’d easily recognize again.  He pulled onto the shoulder and shut off his engine.

He heard nothing. He got off and flipped up the seat to open the storage compartment, out of which he pulled a trowel and a large zip-lock bag.  The Beretta had already been thoroughly cleaned to remove any trace evidence.  Taking it from his jacket pocket, he thrust it into the bag and sealed it in.  He stepped behind the tree, kneeled, and began digging a hole between the roots.  When it was deep enough to contain the weapon under a few inches of soil, he dropped in the bag and quickly covered it over, brushing leaves over it and smoothing it out.  No one had come by in the minute and a half it had taken.  He tossed the trowel back into the storage compartment, closed it, got on his motorcycle, and went home.

 

                Sunday morning Ed was up at sunrise putting on his sweats while Sandy and Shawn still slept.  He turned on the coffee maker and went out for the Sunday paper. It was lying in the driveway just like always.  Yawning, he picked it up and slipped it out of its thin plastic sleeve, unfolding it to see whether Earl had gone through with it.  A second after he read the headline his jaw dropped open and the blood froze in his veins. 

                “HOMICIDE DETECTIVE SLAIN AT LOCAL BAR!” the headline screamed in seventy-two point type.   Ed didn’t need to read the rest.  He instantly realized that he’d been duped by Butler into eliminating a professional rival.  Fury mingled with amazement at his own gullibility flooded through his brain.  How the hell could he not have seen it?  Now an innocent man was dead and he was as much to blame as Butler.  He forced himself to read further as he stood dumbfounded on his sidewalk.  The gist was that little was known other than that Deputy Sheriff Robert Schoenberg had been shot twice while walking to his car from Central Coast Lounge shortly after eleven o’clock the previous evening.  He was pronounced dead at the scene.  The lone eyewitness had seen nothing helpful beyond a vague description of a man of average size, dressed in dark clothing, with a lot of facial hair.  There was no apparent motive, and there were no suspects.  Sheriff’s Detective Jim Butler, who was working in conjunction with local police, was interviewed at the scene and declined comment, as did local police detectives. 

                Trying to act unruffled, Ed went in to have his coffee and think about what to do, damning himself for his own stupidity.  In his distracted state, he burned his tongue on the coffee and cursed.  Earl would know soon enough if he didn’t already.  Of course, he would have to share in deciding what to do.  But the shock and the rage were bringing out in Ed a murderous streak that he didn’t know he had—he wanted to kill Jim Butler.  Somehow he would have to get his DNA sample back and then tie up the one remaining loose end—Butler. 

                He decided to continue remaining silent as far as Sandy was concerned.  This had gotten out of hand, and she might go to pieces over this latest fiasco.  Her emotional state was bad enough already.  There was no need for her to know.  What she didn’t know she couldn’t let slip.  He would contact Earl for a discussion, but he had already decided that if they agreed Butler needed to be taken out, he would do it personally.

 

Gene Danzig was a third-generation cop, and, like his father, had risen to the rank of detective.  At six-foot-five and two hundred and eighty pounds, Gene was the largest cop on the force.  He wore a short, black beard to camouflage  his double chin and was proud of his paunch, which was considerable.   The beard and the paunch had earned him the nickname “Bluto,” after Popeye’s nemesis in the old black-and-white cartoons.  He was a good cop, and a straight one.  The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up.  His tie well-worn tie had never been in style; it was black, with a jagged yellow lightning bolt running its length. 

                The morning after Schoenberg was killed, he was in the break room at the police station, grabbing a cup of their fairly decent coffee, when Leo Martinez came in for his daily jolt.  Martinez was Bluto’s partner and polar opposite; short, slight, and clean-shaven, young and baby-faced, wearing Macy’s best tan suit over a blue shirt and a coordinated paisley tie.

                “Man, that’s some shit with Schoenberg, ain’t it?”  He found his cup on the rack and went about filling it, adding cream and sugar.  “I bet it was one of those bangers from MS13.  He put a lot of them in Tehachapi.”

                Bluto gingerly sipped his coffee, found it lukewarm, and stuck it in the microwave for fifteen seconds. 

                “It’s some shit, all right.  But I don’t think it was a banger.  I think it was somebody who had an inside track.”

                “Why’s that?”

                “They knew where he’d be.”

                Leo thought a moment.  “Sure, but they coulda tailed him there.”

                “So why wait around for a couple of hours while he was in the bar?  Why not just pull up next to him when he parked, wait for him to get out of his car, and get it done?”

                “I dunno, maybe he didn’t have a chance to pop him goin’ in and they had to wait.  Maybe there was someone else around.”

                “So all that time he waits, nobody noticed a Hispanic guy with gangbanger tattoos hangin’ around outside a white man’s bar?  If they did, they haven’t tipped us off.  The shooter had to be in the carport of the apartment building, where he could watch for him to come out of the bar.”

                “Well, hell, it’s only been twelve hours.  Maybe a witness will turn up.”

                “Maybe.  But I think the shooter knew when to expect Schoenberg to be heading for his car.  You’d have to tail him for weeks to know that he went there every Saturday night and left a little after eleven.  I only know that because we’re both fans of “Saturday Night Live” and he mentioned once that that’s his routine. That makes it likely to be someone who knew him, or hired by someone who knew him.”

                Leo dropped a buck into a coffee can labeled “Toys for Tots” and took a granola bar out of a box beside it.  He ripped open the wrapper and took a bite.  “So if it was, who would that be?  You?”

                Bluto snorted, then looked around to be sure they were alone.  “Come on, Leo.  Who was competing with him for the same promotion?  And what a coincidence that the lucky winner was supposed to be announced by Sheriff Vargas this week.”

                “Rick Mayhew said the same thing to me half an hour ago.  Except he already alibied Butler.  He and his wife were with him and his wife until nearly midnight.”

                “Pretty convenient for Butler, huh?  He’d be too smart to pull the trigger himself.”

                Martinez swallowed and shook his head.  “And too careful to hire it done.  He knows damned well that the first time the shooter was pulled in for anything serious, he’d be offering to give up Butler in exchange for immunity and a sweet deal.  No, Bluto, Schoenberg had plenty of enemies.  He put away a lot of bad guys in his time.  I can’t see Jim being crazy or greedy enough to be behind it.”

                “It’s just a theory, bro.  Don’t take it too seriously.”

                Leo finished stuffing down his granola bar.  “Yeah, well, I’d be careful who I ran it down to.  I’m cool, but this place is full of snitches.  You don’t want Butler on your case.  He’s the kind of guy who’d hold a grudge, and when the time was right…”  He bit his lower lip and feigned an uppercut with his right fist, stopping it by grabbing the bicep with his left hand in a classic “up yours” gesture.

                “No sweat.  I’ll keep it to myself.  Anyway, it’s the shits about Schoenberg.  He was a great guy.”

“Yeah..,” Martinez agreed, swirling the coffee in his cup.  “He’d have made a good watch commander.

“Well, I got paper to push.  Catch you later.”
“Later, bud.”

                Bluto walked out, sipping his coffee and thinking, Yeah, Butler’s the hot suspect, but he’s one smart sonofabitch, and if he did it, he’ll get away with it.

 

                Earl and Ed once again sat at Earl’s kitchen table, Ed tense and agitated, Earl displaying his usual unruffled demeanor as he rolled a quarter over the backs of his fingers.  

                “I know it’s a bitch the poor bastard got nailed, and I feel shitty about it.  I really do.  But I asked him like we agreed and he got all up in my face and asked who I was, then says ‘You ain’t from probation, I know all the guys from probation,’ which sounded to me like he was admitting he was a felon on probation.  So I did what I came for.”

                “He didn’t deny being Asa?”

                “No.  Like I said, I asked him was he Asa Shipley, and he asked who the hell I was, like I was a cop pretending to be from probation just to hassle him.  Why would anybody act like that that if they weren’t him?”

                Ed gritted his teeth.  “Because he was a cop and was used to asking the questions and he damned well knew who Asa Shipley is.  He was just surprised that some strange guy in a parking lot was asking about him, so he acted like a cop.”

                “So how would I know that?  Shipley probably would have answered the same way.  Anybody but Shipley or a cop who knew him would have just said ‘You got the wrong guy,’ and kept walking.”

“I thought if there was any question you were gonna pull the gun and ask for his I.D.”

“Right then someone opened the back door of the bar, so that forced my hand.  What would you expect me to do? In my mind it was like he was admitting it.” 

“Well, he obviously wasn’t.”

Earl seemed somewhat put out that Ed was questioning him.  “Well, what am I supposed to do about it now?”

                Ed shook his head apologetically.  “You’re right.  I’m not second-guessing you.  I’m just so fucking mad at Butler that I don’t know how to act.  The motherfucker suckered me.”

                “And me.”

                “We can’t let him get away with this.”

                Earl was dubious.  “We may have to, bro.  He has you sewed up pretty good.”

                “But I have the gun that killed Schoenberg.”

                “And he has your DNA on the rifle that killed Beef.”

                “I’ve been wondering what the chances are that he’s going to give me the real DNA sample if I give him the gun and the letter that should be here tomorrow.”

                Earl hunched over his kitchen table and looked right into Ed’s eyes.  “We have to think this through, buddy.”  His index finger tapped the tabletop to emphasize his point.  “I killed an innocent guy.  We’re both guilty of murder one on a cop.  Not to mention three other people.  We can’t rush into anything.”

                Ed was rubbing the stubble on his jaw.  “He knew I’d be pissed when I found out I was tricked.  He called me at home this morning, trying to convince me that Schoenberg had it coming for planting evidence and getting false confessions out of low-volt repeaters.  I tried to be cool, but I know he could tell I’m very pissed.  He reminded me that it’s done and I might as well get used to the idea.”

“The man’s a snake, and his blood is just as cold.  We gotta be careful here.”

“The original plan was that we’d meet out by the mailboxes tomorrow, and assuming the letter arrives, exchange all the evidence.  Now he says he doesn’t want the mail carrier to see him around there again because it would look funny, especially if the letter doesn’t get there tomorrow and he had to come back twice.  That’s what I hoped he’d think.  I suspect he did the research and is sure that there’s no way I could get the admission letter out of the envelope to copy it without it being obvious.  Now he wants to wait until I have the letter, then exchange everything the same night, in the parking lot at the fairgrounds, just before they shut down.  The Renaissance Fair is going on right now.  Butler says the security cams are junk, widely separated and barely able to tell the difference between a car and a bus.”

“I don’t think he’d lie about that.  He doesn’t want to be on video any more than you do, and you both want to meet in a public place where there’ll be people around.  But that doesn’t mean he won’t try to kill you right there.  That would tie up all his loose ends.  We have to approach this with extreme caution.”

“I know.  And I can’t give him the Beretta without some assurance that he’s giving me all the DNA I left on that rifle.  And I don’t believe he’ll give it to me.”

                “Not if he can avoid it.  It should be in a sealed in some kind of zippered plastic bag, dated, signed, and all that shit.”

                “I assume so.  One thing in our favor is that the longer he hides that sample, the less good it is to him.  There’d be chain of custody problems a good lawyer could run with. He wanted Schoenberg hit right away because plenty of other people know about the sample, and if he doesn’t turn it up soon, there’ll be a full-scale search for it.  He definitely won’t give up the sample without getting the gun back along with his confession.  He’s got to be running out of time.”

Earl was looking puzzled.  “I don’t get why he wants the gun back.  He told you it’s untraceable.  If it is, why is he so worried about getting it back?”

“Maybe because it is traceable.  Like the rifle I thought was untraceable.  Maybe he wanted me to think it was untraceable so I wouldn’t think I had anything on him.  What if the gun came out of the evidence locker and having it used in a homicide would point back to him or at least someone who could get into the locker and take it?  If I’m right about the gun, he doesn’t dare use what he’s got as long as I have it.  What if we could hide the gun on his property and then make an anonymous call?”

                “No way.  If he hadn’t ditched the official sample, that’s when he’d be forced to spring it to take the heat off himself.”

                “Which would make my story about how he got it even more likely.”

“What’s this story?”

“That when Butler came to interview me, I was out in the garage.  Sandy brought him out and he was watching while I was using a screwdriver to pry the lid off a can of spackle when it slipped and took a chunk out of my finger.  Sandy took me upstairs to clean it up and bandage it, and when I got back Butler had cleaned up the blood and was out front smoking a cigarette.  I’d say he later tried to blackmail me into killing Schoenberg, but I refused.   And besides, I have an alibi for Schoenberg.” 

                “Not bad, but I wouldn’t rely on an excuse for how he got the sample when you’re looking at life in prison, buddy.  The real sample should be pretty well documented.”

                “Yeah, well, remember the chain of custody has been broken, and all I need is a reasonable doubt.”

“Anyway, something isn’t adding up,” Earl said, cracking his knuckles.  “As long as you’ve got the confession, the gun shouldn’t be that important.  The confession is all they’d need to hang him.  If the gun was taken out of the evidence locker, the cops could know by now because they’d have a ballistics test on it to compare with the bullet they took out of Schoenberg, but proving Butler took it might be impossible.”

                “He’s still holding the winning hand.  If I was sure he’ll deliver the real sample, I’d just kill him right on the spot.”

                “One thing you can be sure of, buddy.  Once he has the confession and the gun, he’ll want you dead.  He won’t want to spend the rest of his life wondering whether you might get an attack of conscience and blab to someone who’ll blab to someone else, or get cancer and make a deathbed confession.  He’ll want the loose ends tied up.  And he’ll want me dead too, if he can find me and identify me, which he probably can.  Probably has.  But without you and the confession and the gun, it wouldn’t be enough, even if I was willing to confess to shooting Schoenberg.  Which I’m not.  That’s on Butler.”

                Ed rubbed his jaw in contemplation.  “You’re right.  If he gets rid of me, he wouldn’t worry about Sandy, because he knows she’d be too scared to say anything, even if she knew enough to hurt him, which she doesn’t.  Anyway, she’d probably think the Four-Bangers figured it out and took revenge on me.  So he’d be in the clear to spring the DNA evidence and solve the first murder.  If I’m right about the gun he gave me, it has to either disappear forever or wind up back in the evidence locker.  Either way, it would likely never be positively connected to him.”

                “The DNA evidence needs to turn up fast, and he needs the gun.  He’ll move on you as soon as he has what he wants.  So we have to get to him first.  Meaning when you meet to exchange the stuff.  He’s probably thinking the same thing about you.  If we get him first, we can plant the Berreta and his own confession on him.  The cops may wonder who the contractor is, but figure that whoever it is, he killed Butler to keep him quiet and they’ll never know.  Why would you ever be a suspect?”

“Butler got a cheek swab for my DNA…” 

“Because you’re the only one in the neighborhood who’s young enough and with enough history with guns to even be considered.  It’s filed away.  Besides, maybe he took everyone’s on the block as standard procedure.  Anyway, the cops are still thinking rival gang warfare.  Besides, the more I think about it, the more I think that Butler practically has to give you the real sample.  The chunk they have would have to match the divot it left in your finger.  Remember the OJ case:  If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit, so make sure the sample you get fits.  Where would he get one to match it?  He can’t use his own skin.  Who’d volunteer and why would they?”

“Good point.”

“And once you have it in your hot hands, you’re gonna destroy it while I’m taking care of Butler.  Problem solved.”

“I hope.”

“Dude, once Butler meets his maker, we’re home free.  And I’m doing him.”

“Jesus, Earl, you’re way too deep in this already.”

“Don’t wanta hear it.  Because of that bastard, I killed a guy who’s at least probably innocent.  It’s the classic eye-for-an-eye situation.  No argument.  He’s mine.  The problem is, I don’t have the Beretta now.  I’m gonna have to go back to where I buried it.  I’ll use it on him and then drop it beside him.  The cops will have Schoenberg’s killer all tied up with a bow.”  He grinned mirthlessly.  “Lotta irony in that, huh?”

“But if you have the Beretta, how am I supposed to exchange it?”

“You take his signed confession, and tell him he gets the confession in exchange for the skin sample.  You don’t trust him enough to have a murder weapon on you when you meet him.  Say you were afraid of a setup to tag you with both murders.  And you want to see the skin sample in better light to be sure he gave you the real one.  If you don’t have the Beretta, he’ll hesitate to kill you until he has it.  Give him an envelope with a map in it showing where the Beretta is supposedly buried.  No prints and no writing because it’ll be on him when they find him.” 

“Sounds workable,” Ed said.  “And you’ll be close by to step in and finish things as soon as the exchange is done, right?”

“That’s the idea.”

“I’m supposed to buy a burner phone and call him on his burner phone to exchange numbers as soon as the letter is in my hand, which should be tomorrow.  Then I’m supposed to be in the parking lot of the fairgrounds at nine-thirty and wait for his call so we can find each other.  You and I can communicate with the walkie-talkies.”

“No,” Ed said.  “They don’t have a mute function or allow texting and we might need both.  I’ll buy a burner phone.  As soon as you have your burner phone, call me on my regular cell from somewhere far away from the fairgrounds and give me the number.  If I get mine first, I’ll call yours and give you my number.  Avoid texting anything specific, like numbers, and don’t leave voice mails.  All critical info by live voice exchange only.  Okay?”

“Right.  Good.”

Ed and Earl agreed they’d both park on the street outside the fairgrounds lot to avoid the congestion at the parking lot exits in case there was a screw-up and they needed to move fast.  Earl would come to Ed’s location without getting closer than fifty yards or so.  Earl, with the Beretta in rhe pocket of a bulky hoodie jacket, would then discretely tail Ed into the parking lot.  Once Butler had called Ed with the exact location where Butler would meet him, Ed, if possible, would call or text Earl with that information.  If he couldn’t do either for any reason, Earl would have to wing it, trying to keep Ed in sight, staying low and keeping behind parked cars to avoid being spotted by Butler.  Once Butler and Ed met, Earl would try to get in close behind Butler while they were doing the exchange and checking each other’s items.  As soon as Earl had the DNA he’d walk away fast.  Regardless of how many people were around, Earl would hustle up behind Butler, push the Beretta into his chest, squeeze off a couple of rounds, and run, leaving the gun that would hang Butler on the ground beside him.

It sounded good and simple, but they both knew that Butler might not do what was expected.

Earl took off to retrieve the Beretta.  Ed stopped and bought a burner phone at a little market on the west side of town frequented mainly by illegals where the clerks spoke no English, figuring even in the unlikely event that they had security cameras, the cops would never think to check there.  He called Butler from home and gave him the number, then called Earl’s cell and did the same.  Earl had already picked up his own phone, and gave Ed his number. 

The rest of the evening and the next morning passed as though time had slowed to a crawl.  Despite his hatred of Butler and his desire to see him dead for his sins, Ed was sick with fear over the coming confrontation.  Butler might simply shoot him before saying a word and hope he that the evidence he wanted back would be on his body.  Ed reassured himself that Butler would be too cautious for that, because Butler knew Ed had an accomplice and he’d have to be very sure he was in control before attempting to eliminate the man who could put him on trial for murder by proxy.  But the man was evil, and he’d have a plan.  Some kind of plan.

Ed altered his route on Monday so that he’d be waiting when the mail carrier arrived.  He was just in time to see her little truck pulling away, and hoped that he could grab his mail and be on his way without encountering any neighbors.  He wasn’t so lucky.  After finding the envelope he was awaiting, he was just stuffing the rest of the mail back into the box for Sandy to find when Leslie, a retired lady who lived a few doors down with her invalid husband, appeared from around the corner, headed for the mailbox.  She seemed surprised.

“Hello, Ed,” she said.  “Don’t usually see you around this time of day.”

Ed had an explanation prepared.  “Yeah. Wanted to intercept a gift certificate I’m giving Sandy for Christmas.”  He waved the envelope in the air and then stuffed it into his pocket before Leslie could get close enough to see the handwritten address, then got back into his idling truck.  “Don’t mention to Sandy that you saw me, okay?”

Leslie winked.  “It’s our little secret, Ed.”

He flicked a quick salute and drove away.
 

A couple of quick calls later, Ed had set up the meeting for that night at the fair.  Butler had told him to be nearby and wait for a call once Butler was in position for their meeting. 

“Remember what I told you,” he warned Ed.  “Don’t fuck with me on this thing.”

After dinner that evening, he told Sandy that he and Earl were going bowling.  She took this as a sign that things were getting back to normal and encouraged him.  Shawn wanted to come along, but Ed told him “Not this time, partner.  We might be out a little late.”  He threw on a black, hooded sweatshirt over black jeans and a T-shirt, and left.

Ed hustled to find a place to park within blocks of the fairgrounds.  His burner phone rang as he was squeezing into a tight spot.  Earl had parked a few blocks away and was checking in.  Ed gave Earl his location and said he hadn’t heard from Butler yet.  He got out of his truck and waited for Earl to call to say he had spotted Ed and to proceed.  As soon as he opened the pickup’s door he could hear the noise of the crowd and the calliope music coming from the carnival rides, and see the colored lights atop the Ferris wheel and the high arc of the Tilt-a-Whirl over the roofs of the single-story homes on this block. 

Within minutes his phone rang again.  It was Jim Butler, telling him to meet him in the southwest quadrant of the lot near a white plumbing supply truck.  Ed immediately relayed this information to Earl, who said he was close by and told Ed to start walking.  Ed jaywalked across Main Street, dodging the fair traffic.  By then he could smell the odors of popcorn, hot dogs, and pizza wafting on the evening breeze. 

He kept walking toward the surreal ambience of the fair.  Now he could smell the scents of ammonia and urea emanating from the livestock exhibit, feeling mildly nauseous in the knowledge that most of the chickens, rabbits, hogs and cattle would be sold and butchered into table meat after the fair ended.  He had never liked carnivals and fairs, with their creepy clowns and cotton candy and rigged games and dangerous, poorly-maintained rides.  The patrons, all but the teenagers hooked up or looking to be, seemed to represent the lowest rungs of society, stuffing their faces with disgusting food and leering at everything in sight while their children ran amok or begged for one more ride or one more corndog.  He fervently wished it could be just the bad dream it seemed to be, this mission to kill one last human being and hope that his conscience could somehow rest and let him sleep again like he had only a few months before. 

He entered the southwest corner of the lot through a pedestrian gate in the chain-link fence surrounding it, and began searching for the plumbing supply truck.  Scattered sodium lights on poles thirty feet above the ground glared in the darkness and glanced off the tops and hoods of cars in the lot, where dew was beginning to settle.  It was an hour before the fair would close, and a few parking spaces were already empty of cars.  He spotted the plumbing truck unexpectedly soon.  A figure he was certain would be Butler was standing by a rear corner, smoking a cigarette.  He was wearing thin leather gloves, a baseball cap pulled low in front, and a black nylon windbreaker, the collar turned up, with Levi’s and his usual boots.  Now Ed was too close to risk a call to Earl, and silenced his phone.  

He pulled the sweatshirt hood over his head, not liking the way it narrowed his peripheral vision, but he couldn’t risk a witness getting a look at his face, even though the lights in the lot were widespread and not very effective.  Within a hundred feet or so there were a few couples scattered around looking for their cars, dragging along cranky young children who didn’t want to leave.  One of  the adults, alone and dressed like himself, he hoped was Earl, and that Butler wouldn’t notice him.  He walked right up to Butler.

Without any greeting, he said, “Do you have the DNA sample?”

“Yeah.  You got my letter?”

“I have it here.”

“All right.  What about the Beretta?”

“First we exchange the letter for the DNA.”

Ed pulled on a pair of surgical gloves while Butler reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a transparent plastic evidence bag.  He held it up.  Ed pulled up his sweatshirt and took the confession letter from beneath his belt.  He held it out toward Jim, and each grabbed the other’s merchandise.  Each man pulled out a penlight, flicked it on, and began examining what he held. 

A particularly shrill scream from the tilt-a-whirl rose above the background noises.  Butler was jumpy, looking around often as he examined his envelope for signs of tampering and found nothing on the outside that indicated it had been opened.  He opened it and confirmed it was his original writing.  Meanwhile, Ed peered at the skin inside the plastic bag.  It looked about the right shape, but the sample was desiccated and he couldn’t be sure.  The sample bag appeared correctly sealed, and there was a signature followed by the date, although the signature could have been anyone’s.  He still doubted Butler was producing the real thing, and realized he should have also asked for the sample Butler had taken from his cheek the day he came by for the interview, so there’d be nothing to compare with the one taken from the rifle.  What a fuckup.  But now, he would have to accept what he had.  What was the choice?  He was sweating as he realized killing Butler might solve nothing.

Finishing his inspection, Butler returned his penlight to his pocket, and still holding the envelope in his left hand, said, “Now where’s the Beretta?”

“I didn’t bring it.”
“Don’t fuck with me, Ed.  Where is it?”

“Buried.  I didn’t trust you not to shoot me right here when you got what you wanted.  Don’t get nervous now, I’m just reaching for another envelope with the location.”

He started backing away, simultaneously reaching into his back pocket, then pulled another

envelope, folded in half, from the pocket and dropped it on the ground.   Pointing at it, still backing away, he said, “There’s a map in there.  It’s easy to find.  Now stay the fuck out of my life.”  He turned to walk away. 

                Instantly suspicious of the move, Butler swiveled his head around, looking for Ed’s friend, Earl.  He failed to spot him, and decided not to bend down for the envelope yet.  Instead, he pushed his right  hand inside the open right flap of his windbreaker to reach for the pistol stuck in his belt at the small of his back. 

                “Stand still and turn around or I’ll shoot you in the back,” Jim ordered.

 

                Earl, meanwhile, had found the truck easily enough, and now was one row from the two men he was watching, crouched down so that he could see them through the windows of a parked car, while constantly swiveling his head to be sure he wasn’t being observed by passersby.  The reflections off the car windows were effective camouflage, though Ed didn’t know this, so he duck-walked to get in position.  He had angled around to come in from Jim Butler’s right side, figuring  if he were right-handed, it would take him longer to bring around the pistol Earl was certain he’d have under his windbreaker. 

He watched as Jim failed to take the bait of the dropped envelope, and then heard him order Ed to stop and turn around as his right hand made a furtive movement toward his back.  Sure that Butler was going for a gun, Earl saw no choice but to move on him.  He stepped out and walked quickly forward with his arm straight out and his gun pointed at Jim, who caught Earl’s movement from the corner of his eye.  Jim’s attention shifted to Earl.  He turned toward Earl and as he grabbed at the pistol tucked into his belt, but the gun snagged on his belt.  Earl shot him in the chest.

Butler was stunned and staggered back from the impact to his body armor, the pistol now in his hand and flailing aimlessly in the air as he tried to regain his balance.  Without conscious thought, he squeezed the trigger, sending a bullet into Earl’s left calf.   The envelope slipped from Butler’s hand.  Earl yelled, “God DAMN it!” and glanced down at his injured leg.  It was too dark to see much.    

Butler momentarily felt he had lost control of his body.  He was weaving like a drunk looking for a light pole to hang onto.  His chest felt like it had taken a blow from a sledge hammer and he couldn’t catch his breath or control his aim to take down Earl before Earl could fire a kill shot.  To distract Earl, Jim squeezed off another shot that went wild, but it worked long enough while Earl ducked for him to recover his legs somewhat and scramble away toward the plumbing truck.  Nearby fair-goers were turning toward the gunshots, some screeching “Look out!  They’re shooting at each other!”

Ed rushed in and snatched the two envelopes from the ground.  Earl started to limp after Butler to finish him off, but suddenly Ed was pulling at his arm and thrusting the envelopes into his hand, saying “Hold on to these.”  With his free hand he took the Beretta from Earl’s hand and said, “You’re out of this now.”

“Listen, man, I…” Ed protested.
Ed pushed him toward the gate they’d come through.  “You’re done, man.  Get the fuck out of here now!”

Earl stood, lost for a response, as Ed turned toward where Butler had gone.  “He’s wearing Kevlar,” he blurted out.  “Go for the head!” 

Ed jogged after Butler, who had stumbled around the front of the plumbing van, bouncing off the hood.  People nearby were now scattering and yelling “Run!”  A woman frozen to her spot was shrieking.  Ed waved the gun in her direction and yelled at her to get out of here.  She finally turned and ran for cover.  Within seconds any potential witnesses were out of sight. 

Only seconds remained to finish Butler and escape, but Ed had to be cautious and think for a moment.  Jim would know that running would only make things more complicated and solve nothing.  He had a gun and, Ed figured, he would wait for Earl or Ed to rush him, so Ed stopped before going around the front of the truck.  When he did he heard Jim’s gun going off, and realized the only targets he was presenting were his legs.  Butler was on the ground shooting under the truck, trying to disable him.

Ed danced backward for the cover of the front wheel of the van, where he crouched down low.  He was terrified, yet there was adrenaline pushing him into action; that, and the need to face the cowardice or whatever it was that had kept him from doing what he should have done by himself in the first place.  Now Earl had taken a bullet for him and the whole thing was fucked up.  He had to end this now or feel the shame the rest of his life.  He realized that Butler must be as terrified as he was, maybe more so.  

Another shot punctured the tire.  It began rapidly deflating with a nearly inaudible “whoosh,” like a big man breathing a sigh of relief.  From the direction of the shadow of the tire produced by the gun’s flash, Ed got a general idea of where Butler was lying, which was near the passenger door on the other side of the van.  There was no time to work up a plan; the cops would be here in minutes.  Nothing to do but choose which side to go around.  All he knew was that Butler would be on the ground, either prone or on his right side so that he could aim under the truck.  There was simply no time to waste.  Going around the back would expose his legs for too long.  Might as well just rush him from the front.

Ed took a deep breath, crouched as low as he could get, and took the longest strides he could in going around the front of the van, with the Beretta in both hands held straight out before him.  Butler saw where he was headed and fired one more round at his legs, which tore through the cuff of Ed’s left pants leg without hitting flesh.  Butler had been lying on his stomach, and now tried to get his weapon pointed up toward where Ed’s center of mass would be when he came in sight.  Mistake.  He should have kept aiming at the legs in hopes that a bullet would knock Ed’s legs from under him and bring Ed down to his level.  Getting his pistol elevated to the angle he’d need at such close range would have been an awkward move at best if he hadn’t just taken a blow to his chest, but now the bruised muscles protested with a jolt of pain that stopped his movement and forced a guttural grunt from his throat as he sank back down, losing precious time. 

He was left looking at Ed’s legs when Ed came around the front of the van.  His gun had dropped to pavement level in reaction to the pain in his chest.  He squeezed the trigger once as Ed began firing, but he never got off a second shot.  Ed emptied his magazine, firing four rapid shots at Butler’s head, but the first was all he needed.  It hit Butler in the forehead.  Two of the bullets went into his shoulders, and the fourth hit near the first, blowing a chunk of his skull away.  No question about it; Butler was dead. 

The Beretta’s slide had locked open after the last round.  Ed used his sweatshirt to quickly wipe the Beretta clean, trying to avert his eyes from the growing pool of blood spreading under Butler’s head and hoping that Butler had no children who were now fatherless.  He tossed the pistol onto Butler’s body and ran, dodging away from any people he saw, pulling the hood of his sweatshirt tight.  The few people anywhere near him ran away from the path of his flight.  He slowed to a walk as he neared the sidewalk.  There were fewer people about here on the outside edge of the lot, all leaving the fair. 

A stocky guy in his thirties with a bundled-up grade-schooler hanging on to each hand saw him emerge from between parked cars and asked, “Was that shooting?”

“Yeah,” Ed answered.  “That’s what I was running from.  I think it was gangbangers having it out.”

“Jesus.”  He jerked his kids’ hands and said, “Pick it up, guys.  This town ain’t safe anymore.”

“Daddy, what’s happening?” asked his little girl, her face tilted up toward his.

“Never mind.  Come on.”

They were walking in the direction of Ed’s car.  There were sirens approaching from every which way, but it didn’t matter.  Too many people; the cops wouldn’t be stopping anyone who wasn’t acting suspiciously.  He fell into step behind the trio, close enough that most people would think he was with them, figuring it never hurt to blend in.   The dew had already settled on the leaves and the air was misty.  Here and there the concrete was darkened by drops that had fallen from the trees along the sidewalk.   Everything stood out with crystal clarity; the smell of the asphalt damp with dew, the streetlights that made the magnolia leaves glow, the voices of the people coming out of the parking lot wondering about all the sirens rapidly approaching.  Just get me to my truck, Ed thought, and I’m home free.

 

Danzig turned his swivel chair to face his boss, who had just come into his cubicle, questioning the lack of progress on Butler’s case.  The chair groaned under his weight.

 “What do you expect me to do, Captain?  Make something up?  It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours.”

“Goddamn it, Bluto.  The press is eating us alive.  We’ve gotta get something.”  Captain Jablonski looked like he was going to have a heart attack.  His face was puffy, red, and blotchy.  His shirt was tucked in haphazardly and skewed toward his belt buckle.  His thinning blond hair looked like someone had just given him a noogie.

“We’ve got plenty, actually, but all of it is bad news, nothing we wat to give the press yet.  Butler was killed by the same Beretta .380 that killed Schoenberg, which we just learned was taken from the destruction pile, presumably by Butler.  Butler has a solid alibi for the time of Schoenberg’s murder, so if Butler set up that hit, which is the only reasonable explanation for why he was killed with the same gun…”

“Unless somebody wanted both of them dead,” Jablonski interjected.

“That’s kind of a far-out theory.  It was obviously a planned meeting.  No, I think Butler planned on taking out a contract killer he hired to do Schoenberg, and it backfired on him.  His guy could be any one of the thousand or so violent felons Butler ran into over the years.  And more bad news; the gun in Butler’s hand wasn’t his service weapon, it was stolen years ago in a burglary and never recovered.  ”

Leo Martinez, his head and shoulders above the partition separating his cubicle from Bluto’s and popping peanuts into his mouth, said, “Yeah, and if there was a deal with one of those guys, he’ll never get to use it in a plea bargain for some other crime because with Butler dead, his information isn’t worth much.  It would never buy him immunity or any other kind of deal.  He’s in the wind for good unless some other con rats him out.”  

“Yeah, yeah,” Jablonski said impatiently, “But then, who’s the third guy, the one the witnesses said looked like he was doing a drug deal with Butler?  And where’s the money or the drugs? 

“My guess?” Bluto said.  “It had nothing to do with drugs.  The contract guy set up a meet to collect his money and return the Beretta to Butler.  He cut in a friend for part of the money to stand by in case Butler tried to double-cross him, which is what happened.  From what the witnesses tell us, it looks like Butler pulled a gun, but took a round in his Kevlar vest before he could use it.  He manages to put a bullet in the leg of the guy who shot him.  We know he was hit in the leg because a witness saw him limping away.  Butler tries to hide, but gets in a firefight with the other guy and loses.  I figure the contract boys got their money, because a witness saw one of them picking up what looked like an envelope from the ground.  The witnesses give us nothing else useful.  Two guys, medium height, medium weight, dark clothing, hooded sweatshirts, no descriptions.  We don’t even know whether they’re white, black, brown or green.  The guy with the wounded leg hasn’t shown up at any doctors or ER’s.   We’ve got blood from him that we’ll try to match in the data bases as soon as we have a DNA profile, but if that gives us nothing, this case is gonna go cold fast.  And maybe that’s best for everyone.”  

                The captain sighed and rubbed his face with both hands.  “You’re right.  You’re right.  I think that’s about as good an explanation as we’re gonna get unless someone drops a dime on the guys who got away.  But the fuckin’ press is hounding me, the undersheriff is on me like stink on dog shit, and my blood pressure is up twenty points.  I gotta convince the brass that the less we know, the better.  If we decline to speculate on the connection between the Beretta and the two murders, maybe the press will give up in a few days, and we won’t hear any more about it until the next election.”

                “I wouldn’t count on it,“ Bluto said.

“Maybe we’ll we get a hit on the DNA,” Martinez said.

“I wouldn’t count on that either,” Danzig said.

                “I don’t know which way to hope,” Jablonski said, thrusting his hands into his pockets.

                “Either way, it’s a can of worms,” Martinez commented, spreading his hands.

                Jablonski sighed, said, “For now, nothing gets out to the press.  Use the old ‘pending investigation’ stall.”  He shook his head, turned and left.

 

                Ed’s burner phone chirped on his way home from work Monday.  “Where are you?  You okay?”  He had been waiting for news all day.

                “Chill, buddy,” Earl answered cheerfully.  “I’m good.”

                “The leg.  How’s the leg?”

                “It’s all right.  I got right on Skype with an old buddy, a medic in my unit, lives down in Goleta.  Showed him the wound.  The bullet went straight through.  He said unless Butler had rubbed shit on the bullet, I shouldn’t worry about infection much.  I had put a tourniquet on it and loosened it every few minutes. After I loosened the tourniquet and showed him, I could see the blood flow had slowed down.  He had me pour alcohol into it from both sides and tape it up good with that three-way antibiotic cream.  Told me what to look for in case of infection and said if nothing showed up in a week, I’d be home free.  If it does, I see a doctor and make up some bullshit story the doctor and the cops won’t believe, but how they gonna connect me to anything by then? Don’t worry.”

                “I can’t help it.  It’s in my nature.”

                “Yeah, what am I thinking?  That’s why I love you.”

                Ed managed a pathetic chuckle.  “Did you call Jerry?” 

                “Yeah, told him I threw out my back, because I’m gonna limp for a while.  Said I keep in touch but don’t expect me to be in for a few days.”

                “Good.”

                “What about you, man?  You okay?  What we did is all over the TV.”

                “I’m okay.  I think we’re in the clear so far.  But they’ll have your DNA.”

                “Won’t do them any good.  It’s not in the database, and I’m gonna clean up my act to keep it that way.  Did you tell Sandy what went down?”

                “I still figure it’s better if she doesn’t know.  She’ll be talking about it when I get home.  By the way, I told her we were going bowling, but we decided to hang out at your place and play video games instead.  Just in case anyone ever looks at our credit card statements.”

                “That’s cool.  We’re gold, man, unless someone got the whole thing on an iPhone that has night vision.”

                “Take care of that leg, buddy.”

                “Smell you later,” Earl said, and was gone.

 

                As usual, Martinez was eating when he came into Danzig’s cubicle a few days later.  This time it was a Klondike bar.  How the guy never gained weight was a mystery to Danzig, who put on two pounds just looking at a pepperoni pizza.  In Martinez’ other hand was a red manila folder, which he dropped on top of what Danzig was reading. 

                “We got a match on the DNA sample we found in Butler’s file cabinet in the wrong folder,” he said, grinning around the Klondike bar.  “The one that came off the rifle that killed that biker.  Beef.”

                Danzig immediately sat up straight and grabbed the folder.  “No shit?” he said, weighing the folder.  “Who’d it match?”

                “One of the guys Butler interviewed, Edward Fordham.  We sent a sample he got from Fordham to the lab at the same time.”

                “Very, very interesting.  Wasn’t there something in Butler’s notes about some history on the rifle he thought connected Fordham to the rifle?”

                “Yeah, but it’s a little thin.  He spoke with the wife of the deceased first owner of the rifle, who said a traveling salesman from a farm implement company won it from her husband many years ago.  That guy lived in California.  Fordham’s father worked for that same company.”

                “She didn’t get a name?”

                “No, and what she says is all hearsay anyway.  Even if she agreed to come here to testify and a judge allowed her testimony, which is highly unlikely, the jury would have to wonder why a sales rep from California was working the mid-west.  I talked to the farm implement company; they don’t keep employee records that far back.  Said a California rep working the mid-west would be unlikely because the mid-west is a big territory with a lot of local reps.  Could be she was mixed up, thinking of some other salesman, whatever.  It was a long time ago.  And would the dad admit it was his rifle?  Doubtful.  But what difference does it make, as long as we got Fordham’s DNA right off the rifle?”

                Danzig was glancing at the results in the folder.  “Don’t forget that the DNA sample from the rifle went missing for a few days and was found in the wrong case folder.  Doesn’t matter whether it was misplaced or hidden there on purpose, which is probably what happened.  The cop who bagged the sample gave it to Butler.  But it wasn’t logged into the evidence locker the day it was collected, so that gives us a chain of custody problem, and Butler’s dead so he can’t even try to fill in the gap.  Plus his credibility would be a big issue if he’d survived the gunfight, given his link to Schoenberg’s murder.” 

“So, we just pretend we don’t have a result?”

Danzig shifted his weight and his chair groaned, echoing his feelings.  “lt’s worth having Mr. Fordham come in and talk to us.  Show him what we’ve got without mentioning the problems we have with it.  Maybe he’s ready to get it off his chest.”

Leo crossed his arms.  “You set it up and I’ll buy the coffee.”

“Good.  We can meet him in a booth at Denny’s when things are slow so we can get a table off by ourselves.”

“Why not do it right here where we’ve got him on video?”

“Two reasons.  One is that when he lies to us, and he will, we can point out inconsistencies in his statements after we bring him back for a recorded interview.  Second is that I have a hunch that Butler’s death is related somehow to the Palmer Road killings.  Two guys were in on the massacre on Palmer Road.  Two guys were involved in Butler’s shootout.  Fordham’s DNA sample was the only one Butler got after the Palmer Road thing.  Butler set up Schoenberg’s murder and he might have been framing Fordham for the Palmer Road thing.  Before we open a can of worms, we should read the label.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“Figure it out.  It actually kinda makes sense.”
“If you say so.”
 

Ed knew he had to show some surprise if this Detective Danzig sprung a DNA result on him, which seemed like the only reason he’d ask him to come in for a talk.  He had doubted all along that Butler had handed over the real DNA sample.  What he’d gotten was a dessicated piece of flesh that could have been a tiny slice of chicken skin or bacon rind.  He had burned it along with the plastic bag it came in on the way to his truck that night. 

Now as he entered the Denny’s, he could see two guys sitting in a booth next to a window in a section that was closed off, but a waitress was pouring coffee for them.  It pays to have a badge, he thought.  One of the cops was an enormous guy who looked like an actor playing a fat cop.  He was in his mid-thirties with thinning hair and bearded jowls that blended into his neck, wearing an electric-blue shirt with a garish red-and-white tie.  The other guy looked tiny sitting next to him, but was probably average size, with thick black hair and a youthful face that looked like it belonged in a college math class.  Ed, still in his driver’s uniform, walked toward them.  Both men slid out of the booth and stood, angling around the waitress. 

                “Mr. Fordham?” Danzig inquired, extending his beefy hand.

                Ed’s hand was completely enveloped by the detective’s hand.  “Yes.  You’re….?

                “Detective Danzig.”  Indicating Leo, “My partner, Leo Martinez.”

                They shook hands, and then sat, Ed facing the two detectives.  The waitress caught Ed’s eye.

                “Coffee?”

                “I’m good.”

                “Let me know if you need anything else,” the waitress said to the table at large, and went away.

                “Cops are coffee junkies,” said Martinez.  “You’re not, obviously.”

                “I can’t drink caffeine after lunch and the decaf is always overcooked,” Ed said.

                Danzig spoke up.  “Mr. Fordham, I’ll get right to the point. We asked you here because we’re pretty sure that you and an accomplice recently killed three people out on Palmer Road.”

                Despite being prepared to hear that, Ed a wave of cold sweat ran from his forehead to his chest, and he could feel his armpits growing damp almost immediately.  He looked back and forth between the two detectives.

                “Why?”

                “Because Elmore Mendenhauser and Rosa Mendoza and their friends were making your life miserable and driving down property values.”

                “No, I mean why do you think it was me who did it?”

                “Well, first of all we have a pretty good witness linking the rifle that killed two of them to you through your father, who we are told won it in a poker game a few decades back.”

                Ed started to speak, but Danzig cut him off.  ”And we have your DNA, from a sample taken off that same rifle.”  He pointed at Ed’s right arm.  “Could I see your right index finger, Mr. Fordham?” 

                Without responding, Ed placed his forearm on the table and extended the finger.  The divot caused by the gunsight was covered by a flesh-colored plastic bandage. 

                “Mind taking that off?” asked Martinez.

                Ed flashed a look back and forth between the two cops.  “Look, gentlemen, I know where this is going, and there’s no point in beating around the bush.  I didn’t kill those people and I don’t know who did.  It wasn’t me.  But there’s a whole lot you don’t know about Butler and what he was up to.  When he came to my home right after they were killed, he saw a golden opportunity and he took it, but he apparently wound up getting himself killed for it.”

                Danzig and Martinez looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  Danzig leaned on the table and entwined his fingers.  Martinez leaned back and crossed his arms.  When a suspect wants to talk, you let him talk.

                “We’re listening,” Danzig said.

                Ed ran it all down to them, his story of how Butler got the DNA sample they had tested. 

“Wait a minute,” Martinez interrupted.  “Why wouldn’t he just process the DNA he already had instead of stealing a sample from you?”

“That’s the golden opportunity I’m talking about.  First, he couldn’t be sure that the DNA he already had would be mine, even though he may have thought so, because of the story he thought connected my father to the rifle.  My father never owned the rifle, by the way.  Ask him.  Anyway, Butler needed to be absolutely sure he could get a DNA hit so he could blackmail me into killing Detective Schoenberg for him, and he was on a short timeline.”

At this announcement, both detectives sat bolt upright and leaned into the table.

“What?  You killed him?”

“No!”  He proceeded to tell them that Butler had set up a meeting in which Butler described having taken a DNA sample from Ed’s self-inflicted cut and substituting it for the real sample, which he told Ed he had destroyed, and that he now could rely on a DNA result to incriminate Ed.  That substituted sample he intentionally “misplaced.”  Then, he said, Butler had tried to blackmail Ed, showing him Shipley’s file and Schoenberg’s photo, to get him to kill a man Ed thought was Asa Shipley or else face life in prison after that sample was “found” and sent to the lab.

Danzig looked at Martinez, then back at Ed.  “That part makes sense, even if the part about how he got your DNA sample is a little bit too convenient.  As for Shipley and Schoenberg, you wouldn’t know either one from Santa Claus, but every cop in this county wants Shipley’s ass in the slammer.  But why pick you to kill him?”

Ed shrugged.  “Like I said, a golden opportunity.  I’m the only guy on my block young enough to be a serious suspect in Beef’s murder, and with the stolen DNA and the fact that I was a combat rifleman, I’m the perfect guy to blackmail and get the job done.  He probably thought killing a pedophile wouldn’t be that big a deal to me if it got me out of going to prison.  Remember, in his mind I’ve already killed three people just for being scumbags, so what’s one more?”

Danzig pulled down the corners of his mouth and shrugged with his eyebrows.  “Okay.  So how did you react?”

“I was blindsided,” Ed said.  “I couldn’t believe what he was saying.  I told him I needed to think about it.  He said I had twenty-four hours, because he was claiming he’d misplaced the DNA sample and would have to come up with it before long.  Plus the window of time to kill the guy I thought was Shipley was only open on that coming Saturday night.”

“With you so far,” Martinez said.  “Go on.”

Ed was getting in the swing of his act.  “Well, my head was swimming trying to figure all the angles.  I couldn’t be sure whether he’d already destroyed the real DNA from the rifle that would have cleared me, but probably had.  After all, why would he keep it?  Without that, he had me by the balls.  The whole thing reeked, and I suspected he would double-cross me somehow but I couldn’t figure it out.  I didn’t want to wind up being the patsy.  So I worked on how to get something on Butler to protect myself.”

“And that was…” Danzig prompted.

“This,” Ed said.

He produced the letter, still sealed, and laid it on the table.  “Notice it’s still sealed.  You’re my witnesses.  Look at the postmark.  Open it carefully.  I want it back because I kinda have a hard time trusting cops right now.  I’ll make a copy for you later.”

Bluto maneuvered a knife and spoon from the table to carefully lift the flap without touching the envelope.  “Yeah, it’s sealed, all right.”

Martinez looked over his shoulder as he worked the letter out and unfolded the admission, still using the utensils.  Reading it took only seconds.  Both men looked stunned.  Danzig whistled lowly. 

“Whew!” Martinez breathed.  “Why would he sign this?  What if you got it and went right to internal affairs with it?”

                “He knew I couldn’t ever do that.  I had written a draft identifying myself only as an anonymous hit man, but he insisted my name be included to implicate me so that if I backed out of the deal, I wouldn’t be tempted to use it against him.  The idea was that he was going to be there with me when it got to my mailbox and take the letter back, unopened, after I did the shooting, but I already had decided I would back out at the last minute.  I was stalling for time so I could think of a way to keep the letter.”

                “So why didn’t he take it back?”

                “We were waiting down the block and saw the carrier load the boxes.  It didn’t arrive in Monday’s mail.  It came Tuesday, after Butler was already dead.”  Ed hoped there was no way to prove that the letter was actually delivered on Monday.  

“Assuming this is genuine…” Danzig began.

                “It is.  You’ll find his fingerprints on it.”

                “This is powerful stuff,” Martinez said.  “But I still don’t get what would prevent you from backing out of the deal once you had this.”

Ed shrugged.  “Let me back up.  Our deal was that he’d write the letter and then meet me at my mailbox on Saturday before the carrier came and hand it to her then, which we did.  She’s like clockwork, and that way he’d know what time to be there Monday when we expected it to come back.  It had to be there Monday or Tuesday, and he intended to get his letter back whether Shipley, that is Schoenberg, was dead of not.”

“What was he going to do, shoot you in broad daylight right there on the street if you wouldn’t hand it over?”  Danzig was skeptical.

“He reminded me that I’m a family man and that one way or another he’d get his confession back and I’d be a sorry sonofabitch if I didn’t go through with it.  The guy was scary, fellas.  And I hadn’t come up with a plan yet as to how I could hang on to the letter.”

Martinez tilted his head toward Danzig and raised his eyebrows as if agreeing. 

“So going back to the day you mailed this letter, are you saying then that you agreed to kill Schoenberg?” Danzig asked.

“No, I had agreed to kill who I thought was Shipley.”

Even though they could smell some evasions and half-truths, so far it mostly had the ring of truth for the detectives. 

Martinez had his elbow on the table and his chin in his hand, and was tapping his finger on a front tooth.  “So did you shoot Schoenberg or not?”

“I couldn’t go through with it, even believing I’d be killing a child molester.  I can prove it wasn’t me.  I was having dinner with my wife and another couple at the time of the shooting, and I have a credit card receipt to prove it.”  Ed put on his most sincere face.  “And yes, I set up the alibi because I didn’t know whether Butler would do it himself or get someone else to do it.  Butler had me pegged as some kind of Rambo in Afghanistan.  How he figured that I don’t know.  I only joined up to get the educational benefits because that was the only way I could ever afford college.  But I was terrified every time we saw action and the only thing that kept me from curling up into a ball was peer pressure.   I gagged every time I had to shoot someone.  So as soon as the letter was handed over to the carrier and she drove away, I told Butler I couldn’t do it.  He about threw a shit fit right there on the street, but what could he do?  He finally said he’d see me at the mailbox Monday, and then he said, “You’re fucked, buddy.” 

Danzig was harsh.  “Why didn’t you just not show up to kill Schoenberg and then make some excuse?  Then Schoenberg would still be alive.”

Ed spread his hands.  “You know what they say about hindsight.  I didn’t think he could arrange another shooter with only a few hours to go, and I hoped that with the letter in the mail he’d just give it up.   He’d already told me he’d arranged to have an ironclad alibi and that he couldn’t do it himself.  And frankly, since I still believed the victim was Shipley, I suppose I secretly hoped he would go through with it somehow.  I have a son the age of Shipley’s victims.  And I was worried that if I didn’t give Butler a chance to get it done without me, he’d be even more inclined to find a way to make me pay.”

“As if running your DNA sample wasn’t enough?” Martinez asked.

Ed could only shrug.  “I still had a story to tell about him, even if I didn’t find a way to keep the letter with his confession, and I knew a lot that could only have come from a cop.”

Danzig and Martinez sighed and exchanged doubting looks.  The waitress brought more coffee.  Danzig waved her off. 

“Excuse us a minute,” Danzig said, and cocked his head at Martinez.

They left the booth and went out the front door, where they stood talking with the traffic noise to cover what they said.

“Whaddya think?” Danzig asked.

“It’s cockamamie, but it sorta adds up,” Martinez said.  “I still don’t get why Butler would do the confession, because he had the guy over a barrel, but I think it’s real.  Too easy to check his signature out.  So it’s a non-issue.  The confession speaks for itself.”

“Jim was so fuckin’ cocky.  He thought he had Fordham too scared to use his confession unless he had no choice, and he was right.  Butler getting hit changed everything.  Besides, he was confident he’d get it back one way or the other.  And he was desperate to get that promotion.  Maybe he thought Schoenberg was a kiss-ass with his tongue in all the right places, but that’s why he was sure Schoenberg would get the nod unless he was out of the picture.  It was Dirty Harry versus Schoenberg the Suckup.  Butler had over twenty-five years in, and he knew if he didn’t get this one, there wouldn’t be any more chances for a promotion.”

“Could be.  And the decision was coming right up, so he’d have to have planned to get Schoenberg out of the way before Fordham came along with his ‘golden opportunity.’  He must have already had someone lined up to do it.  Who else could he get to do it besides some banger or meth freak looking at a long stretch?  Way more risky than a guy like Fordham.  Those guys would flip on him the first time they were busted for spitting on the sidewalk, and he knew it.”

“Right.”  Danzig rubbed the back of his head.  “So when Fordham came along, he seemed perfect for the job.  Butler probably enjoyed killing people back in Vietnam, and thought everybody was like him.  He never figured Fordham would wuss out.”

Martinez folded his arms and squinted in the bright sunlight, looking out at the traffic on Main Street.  “So how do we play this?”

Danzig looked down at the sidewalk.  “Despite what Fordham says, I think he was in on the Palmer Road murders.  We know there were two guys on the Palmer Road thing, and maybe the other guy did the shooting.  Maybe it was his DNA on the rifle, but we’ll never know for sure because the DNA that was on the rifle may already be gone.  Or the original could be the same one we tested, but there’s a chain of custody problem, and there’s his cover story.  The story is shaky on several points, like how Butler got the substitute DNA sample.  But the rest of it is plausible, especially given the fact that the gun that killed Schoenberg and Butler was stolen from our own inventory, which puts Butler right in the middle of things.  Add in that he’s found shot to death under very suspicious circumstances.  If Fordham is telling the truth, the only conclusion is that Butler was meeting two guys to exchange the Beretta for money or whatever with his hired guns, and things went south for some reason.  Maybe the guys thought they were being set up.  Or whatever.”

“Yeah,” Martinez agreed.  “And we got problems if we arrest Fordham for any of the murders.  Like you said, we got problems with the DNA evidence, the confession letter, and Fordham’s story.  He has an ironclad alibi for Schoenberg’s murder, even though the same guy who helped him in the Palmer Road murders could have done it.  We’ve got nothing on that guy, and even if we did, it’s still a can of worms that would make the whole department look bad.  And don’t forget that with Butler and Schoenberg gone, you’re one of the guys they’ll consider for the promotion.  You don’t need the grief.”

Danzig looked up, squinting in the sunlight, and looked around as if the sky or the ground held an answer.  “Bottom line is that I personally applaud the guy if he took two scumbags like Beef and Ripper out of the picture.   The girl was an unfortunate piece of collateral damage, maybe, but she knew what kind of guys she was spreading for.  I’d hate to see a basically decent guy like Fordham do time for it anyway.  What good would it serve?  The state would spend fifty grand a year for the rest of his life keeping him in prison, and for what?  He’ll never harm a fly again.”

“I think you’re right about that.  And we’d never prove he had anything to do with Schoenberg unless we found the guy who took a bullet that night and got him to roll over on Fordham, which is unlikely because he hasn’t turned up at any doctors or hospitals yet.  I think Fordham’s probably telling the truth about that anyway.  He doesn’t strike me as the cold-blooded killer type.”

Danzig nodded.  “Which leaves us with the DNA results on my desk.”

“Yeah, that’s a tough one.  We aren’t the only ones who’ll see those.”

“Well, the final decision isn’t ours.  I suggest we go up the line with it, with the recommendation  that we let Fordham walk unless other evidence comes to light.  We’d get shredded in trial if we charged him in either case with what we’ve got.  It would look like we were setting up a fall guy, and the damage to the department wouldn’t be worth it.”

Martinez was a little uncomfortable.  “Then you’re talking about a cover-up.”

“Not really.  What I’m talking about is lack of evidence against Fordham.  If the brass agree, they can stonewall the press with the old ‘can’t comment on a pending investigation’ line until it all blows away or we find out who really killed Schoenberg.  Anyway, it’s not our call, but I think the brass will agree.  You on board with that?”

Martinez shrugged.  “Yeah.  I got nothing else to suggest.”

“All right.  Let’s go talk to him again.”

They re-entered the restaurant and sat down.  Fordham was using his finger to push ribbons of coffee around the surface of the table, and didn’t look up at them at first.  “So?”

“So I’ll tell you right now I don’t think you’re giving us the whole story.  But it’s not our decision,” Danzig said. “We’re gonna float what you told us and what we already know by the guys who run our show, and we think they’ll agree.  The evidence against you in the Palmer Road murders is heavily tainted by Butler’s actions, and frankly, even if we think you did it, no one really cares who killed the assholes anyway.  Schoenberg was a good guy, but the only thing that even implies you had anything to do with it is in the confession you showed us, and you say you’ve got a solid alibi for the time of the murder.  Which we’ll check out, believe me.  So we’re going to recommend that you remain a ‘person of interest’ but no charges filed unless we turn up further evidence.  That suit you?”

“How could it not?”

The two cops slid out of the booth and stood looking down at Ed. 

Danzig said, “Then we’ll be on our way.  If we need you, we’ll call you.  Meanwhile, keep your nose clean and check the shelf life and date before you buy meat.”

Martinez nodded and the two detectives walked out.  Outside, Martinez asked, “What the fuck was that supposed to mean?”

“You have no sense of humor, Leo.”

 

Captain Jablonski sat in his swivel chair, sleeves rolled up and tie loose, listening intently to what Bluto and Leo were running down to him, one arm folded on his ample stomach and the other elbow resting on it, his hand covering his mouth while he stared into space.  Beside him sat Sheriff Emilio Vargas, a lean, olive-skinned man with dark eyes and thin lips, ramrod straight and looking coolly professional in a grey suit and charcoal tie with diagonal silver stripes.  The two detectives sat across the table from them in the conference room adjoining Vargas’ office.

When they were done, Jablonski leaned forward and put his elbows on the table, with a look on his face like he had a toothache.  “I still think he did the Palmer Road murders.  The thing about the rifle is too coincidental.”

Vargas frowned and tapped his finger on the table. “That may be so, but it’s unlikely we could convince the filing D.A. to charge him, given our evidentiary problems.

Jablonski nodded.  “Every time I think about it, it gets worse.  All we’ve got is compromised DNA and hearsay linking Fordham to Palmer Road.  Any greenhorn defense attorney would get him off.  And the press is clamoring to know what we’ve got on the Butler gun battle.  If we do nothing else, we’re still gonna have to give up the info linking Butler to a gun taken from our own department.  And what’s to assure us that this thing about Butler’s confession won’t leak?  Then we get charged with a cover-up.”                 “We have to get proactive,” Vargas said.  “We have to put a spin on it that will make good press, with no hint of any cover-up.  We have to put it all out there.  First let’s get the original of Butler’s confession letter and verify the signature.  Then we tell the press that we believe Butler blackmailed Fordham based on evidence he planted, and that Fordham said he’d go along at first to buy time.  We say he volunteered his information and make him a hero for coming forward.”

                Martinez asked, “How do we explain why he didn’t go right to internal affairs once he had the confession letter?”

                “Simple fear.  Thanks to mass media, everyone knows that innocent people have been railroaded by cops looking for a fall guy to take the rap on a high-publicity crime.  He had only a few hours to decide his next play.  Imagine the pressure on him, knowing Butler had his DNA.  A civilian wouldn’t necessarily know about the chain of custody problem.  And what would have happened if he just hadn’t show up for the hit on Schoenberg?  Would Butler run the DNA on the sample he stole, arrest him with a search warrant, and tear his house up looking for the confession?  Or simply threaten Fordham’s family to get it back?  Cops scare people; even innocent ones.  Who doesn’t break into a cold sweat when they get pulled over for speeding?  Imagine what the average guy feels like when he’s told there’s evidence that will convict him on a murder he didn’t do.”

                “Or did,” Bluto said.

                “Maybe, but that seems to be irrelevant now,” Jablonski said, with a side glance at Vargas.

                “To get back to the point,” Vargas said, “we’d play it that Fordham told him up front he had changed his mind and wouldn’t do it, like he said he did, thinking Butler would give it up.  Remember, Butler had already told him his only other choice was to hire a contract killer, a guy with a serious record who’d be likely to be picked up on a major felony someday and rat him out for a plea bargain, which gave him reason to believe Butler wouldn’t carry out his plan if Fordham backed out.  Fordham had no way of knowing Butler either already had a back-up guy set up or someone he knew would take it on short notice.  I think whether he admits it or not, he wanted Butler to have a window of time to allow Butler to get it done without him, and probably hoped he would, which would get him at least partly off the hook.  If Fordham had simply no-showed for the hit, Butler’s reaction would have been unpredictable.  Keep in mind that everyone agrees Butler was smart and ruthless.  Fordham couldn’t predict what Butler had up his sleeve.”

                Danzig added, “Also remember that Fordham says he believed all along that Butler wanted a pedophile hit, and he figured that if it went down without him, then the world would be better off in the long run.  Don’t forget that Shipley’s file was on Butler’s desk the whole time this was going down, including the day he brought Fordham in for an interview.  I believe him on that.  Butler was too smart to tell him who the target really was.  It’s likely Fordham probably didn’t know, didn’t know what was at stake, or why it had to be done that day.  Maybe he thought that by telling Jim in advance he was giving him time to reconsider.”

                “That’s just between us chickens,” Jablonski said.  “We can’t excuse his inaction based on that.”

                “You’re right,” Vargas said.  “But let’s face it.  It’s the best we’ve got.  We tell Fordham how we’re going to handle it.  We tell him that for his own good and the good of his family, he take the modesty approach and decline to be interviewed by the press.  ‘I was only doing what’s right.  No further comment.’  That kind of thing.  Then we can reassure the public that we’re still looking for the real killers in both cases.  If we find them, so much the better, but we all know the only thing that will solve either one is someone coming forward with information.”

                Danzig said, “And it won’t be from a motorcycle club on the Palmer Road thing or a guy in custody on the Schoenberg thing.  With Butler dead, we’d have no reason to plea bargain with his killer, or Schoenberg’s, so unless we have a guy willing to put the finger on those guys and wear a rat jacket in custody, we’re done with both cases.”

                “That’s about the size of it,” Vargas said.  Looking at Danzig and Martinez, he asked, “Did you guys verify his alibi for Schoenberg?”

“Yes sir,” Danzig answered.  “Three other people with him at the time of the murder, and a credit card receipt for the check on top of that.”

Looking at Jablonski, Vargas said, “So as soon as we verify Butler’s signature, we get a formal statement from Fordham.  If everything looks good, we call a press conference and give it to the wolves.”

“You got it,” Jablonski said.

To Bluto Vargas said, “You did the right thing talking to Fordham without making a record.  Good job.”

“Thank you, sir,” Danzig said, nodding his appreciation.

“By the way, how do you feel about feel about taking the spot I would have given to Schoenberg?”

Danzig looked shocked.  “Well…yes sir.  I would do my best to be worthy of it.”

“And Detective Martinez, I think you’re about due for an upgrade on the pay scale.”

“Thank you, Sheriff.”

“Your discretion in this matter is appreciated, gentlemen.”  Vargas addressed Jablonski.  “We push the Schoenberg investigation hard, with Danzig here spearheading it, but we all know it’s mainly for show.  Every guy in custody who’s looking at a long stretch should know we’re willing to deal for info on Schoenberg, and we run through all the snitches we can think of.  Maybe we’ll get lucky.  But when the media frenzy dies down, let’s quietly let it grow cold.”

“And the Palmer Road massacre?”

Vargas was sitting with his fingers laced in his lap, his face as blank as the back of an envelope.  He stood up and pushed his chair in.  “I don’t see any reason to waste any more resources on it.  Let’s face it, Detective.  No one really gives a shit.”

 
 
               
 
               
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