Boggs stood before the air conditioner with his hands parting back his fly. To get the full force of the chill, he pushed his heels up and out of his loafers. Every so often he eased up higher, mindful of but unconcerned about the stiffness in his hobbled knee. The bourbon to which his hand strayed saw to whatever pain announced itself. He grasped the dingy glass atop the clanking machine and sipped casually. He let his good eye slip shut. He stared out the office window with the injured eye.
Hours ago a sliding red sun had stilled the east in gray. The unassuming approach of night had almost mirrored that of dawn’s; that shrouded misty turn which Boggs had witnessed while on his way home from his valentine’s apartment. The morning sun had risen red and without beams on which to build its heat; it had shone no brighter than the remnant of a camera flash. Yet come noon and the heat was such that it singed the nostrils. For Boggs, the day began without rest, and the night promised no reprieve. To count the hours he had been awake was to tally the score against him. He took a deep drink, set the glass back and spread his fly.
When the telephone rang, Boggs turned toward it with the indifference of a cat. The answering machine clicked on with the fourth ring. “Hello, this is Boggs. I’m out but leave a message after the beep, and I’ll get back to you just as soon as I can. Remember now, wait for the beep.” The tape rolled up the silence until: “Boggs, Simon Sasser, I think we—at least—“ The line went dead.
“Be that way,” said Boggs. He took a drink and continued to air himself. Although this was the first contact Sasser had made since learning of the franchiser, Boggs gave it no thought. Drink and the weary stretch ahead of him and the hours behind him set him to thinking. He wished he had started a security guard service. He envisioned himself a natural leader; the commander, no, commandant with brocades and tassels on his epaulets, a commandant of a brigade of uniformed guardsmen who would pull long hours and leave him to fret over the retained earnings. It would have been so much easier, but it would have been impossible. That mad bull Rufus Wyche did more than kill his partner.
Boggs saw clearly how prevailing, though never quite public, opinion ordained that he was to be left alone, that he was to be stripped, as quickly as Wyche stripped him, of any genuine stake in the community. The ayes never rose in his defense, and the eyes no longer beheld him. He was not exiled, but he wasn’t given a chance. It happened without notice because, and he came to understand this years later, there were no more chances: in taking on Rufus Wyche he had taken all his chances at once; he bet the future and lost. He saw too how unimpeachable yet unapproachable civility worked, how the sidewalk decency, the feigned friendliness removed any hope of his learning exactly what it was that folks held against him, held as closely as a poker hands. Boggs took a drink. He didn’t taste it. For he also saw that no form of address, neither act nor word, could bring forth or provoke or beguile townsfolk into saying what was on their minds: it was to remain unspoken, maybe even unspeakable. Boggs saw himself clearly; he was on the outside and looking in at himself so intently and balefully that he didn’t hear the steps in the stairwell.
Not until the knob turned did he realize someone was at the door, someone who had no intention of knocking. At least, until the door proved to be open. The intruder knocked. Boggs’ response was to suck in his gut and zip his fly. He leaned against the wall and let the rap go unanswered. The brass knob turned again. The door pushed back. Simon Sasser crossed the threshold as if entering his own office. He neither stopped nor appeared startled to find Boggs.
Dressed in his French Quarter outfit, he said, “I thought you’d be here. I’ve been trying to reach you.” He checked his forward progress at the desk. Motionless, almost timeless, he trained his eyes on Boggs.
Boggs exasperated the silence by casually uncrossing his arms and legs. He reached for his drink. “What about?” With his butt, he pushed himself away from the wall. He walked slowly to his side of the desk, looking at the dredges in his glass. He swished the last of the bourbon and drank, shutting his eyes.
Sasser took the client’s chair, spreading expansively. “Well, what have you been doing? Turn up anything?”
“What, you gone to clown school?”
“What are you—“
“The clothes, man. Auditioning for the big top?”
Sasser smiled good-naturedly. “Oh, this.” He spread out his hands as if to bring his attire into full view. “I thought I’d try to look like I was in the swing of things.”
“Oh, you’re in the swing of things, all right.” Boggs laughed, a genuine expression of mirth.
“So what’s up? Have we learned anything new?”
Boggs let the “we” remark pass. He edged back into his chair. “Mean today? This afternoon? In the heat?”
“This afternoon, yesterday. What’s going on? What have you been doing?” He crossed his legs and inspected Boggs’ bad eye with a slight trace of a wince.
“Only just got in. Kind a got at cross purposes at this place I know,” he lied, adding, “Why?”
“Well, I called this afternoon. I wanted—“
“Yeah, done heard it on the tape. You’d a left a message I would have called.” He laced his fingers over his belly. “About what time was it you called?”
“Not too long ago. An hour, two at the most.” He tried to stare down his opponent’s skepticism. “What I—“
“You said you was trying to get me all afternoon, but there was only the one thing on the tape.” Boggs rolled the chair up to the desk and opened a side drawer.
“The point is—“
“I’ll tell you what. Folks ‘round here hide their pleasures.” He removed a depleted bottle of Ancient Age. ”Honest to God, they keep their Playboys and Penthouses hid, their bottles under the sink or out back somewhere, so that come Sunday when the preacher’s up there denouncing porn and whiskey they got a clear conscience. I believe from now on I’ll just set my bottle out. Like every good Baptist, I takes me a drink. Only I ain’t fearful of telling it.” He poured liberally and set the bottle within Sasser’s reach. “You take a pull if you have a mind to.” Boggs drank, looking over the glass as Sasser waved off the offer. He sat back. “So what’s this point you been itching to make all day?”
Sasser took a short but audible breath. “I’ve been thinking about what that deputy—whatever his name was—What he—“
“Tinnin. Deputy Carson Tinnin. Damn near one of the shrewdest men I’ve ever run across.”
“Tinnin, then. In thinking about what he said it occurred to me—“
“Say, you always try the door and then knock?”
Without fluster or frustration Sasser said, “The light was on. I knew you were here but thought better of barging in.”
“That so.” His ham of a hand slapped the desktop. He leaned toward Sasser. “I ain’t one it won’t say something to a man’s face. Won’t say it less it’s to his ugly face. And, boy, I’ll tell you what. I don’t believe you for a minute. Don’t trust you if your sweaty hand was flat on ten Bibles high.” He sat back, took a sip and added, “But then that don’t mean a whole lot. I don’t trust anybody. ‘Cept maybe my wife, and only her on account of she’s long since quit trusting me. But, hellfire, you had a point to make, just dying to make it all day.”
Sasser crossed his legs. “It makes no difference to me how you feel. None whatsoever. What matters—What’s important—Well, you know why I’m here, and you might do well to listen to me because you’re here for the very same thing.”
“I’m all ears.”
Sasser’s glare never broke, even as he said, “Apparently you’ve overlooked one terribly obvious point. This—“
“Now ya know, I might not be hitting on a whole lot, but it just don’t make sense. I mean, you bird-dogging me all day like you done just to tell me I’ve overlooked something.” Boggs carefully set his glass down and folded his arms. He pressed his lips tight and then massaged their edges. “Nope. Ain’t a whole lot of sense to it. Now I spect you got a ready-made list of twenty, thirty answers, but mind debriefing me on just what in the hell it is you and me are here for?”
“To catch the killer.” He recrossed his legs and added, “Or killers. After listening to you and Deputy Tinnin, I’m convinced this can’t be the work of one man. Especially not a cop. When you think about it, this drug business can’t be a one-man operation, this so-called franchiser. There has to be someone else. Perhaps more than a dozen at the street level and two or three at the top of the pyramid. And probably a layer in between. And let’s not forget drugs aren’t cheap. To be operating on the scale you described, the leadership must have financing. A cop doesn’t make that kind of money. Even if there were a group of—“
Boggs, grinning foolishly, interrupted. “Damn, if it ain’t them simple things that are all the time confounding me. Here me and Tinnin was laboring under the notion that Capt. Wynne was our man. I mean, who else but Jesus Christ himself could make 10 pounds of dope become two and then take the eight and resell it? It’s the loaves and fishes, my son. The loaves and fishes. But then here you come along and quick as a whip show us the big picture. But the truth to tell, Mr. Sasser, I don’t believe Wynne ever done it. Tinnin does. I don’t.”
“Then how do you see it?”
“I believe you done it.”
“Oh, I see.” Sasser paused. “So what you’re saying is that I singlehandedly stole from either a drug pusher or the authorities themselves more than eight pounds of marijuana and then brazenly turned around and sold it on the streets of a town I don’t really know?”
“And just how did I get—get this—How did I steal these drugs from the authorities? Oh, I know.” He snapped his fingers. “I simply teleported myself inside their offices, locate the marijuana and then whisked my ethereal body safely away … like magic?”
The earnest cast of Sasser’s face broke. He lifted his almond eyes to meet, penetrate, sear the obstacle on the other side of the desk. “Boggs, forget your imbecilic, provincial prejudices for a minute and try and listen to reason. Wynne—He couldn’t be the only one involved. He’s only a cop. If there’s a drug conspiracy it has to be bigger than him. He’s a pawn being moved by someone behind the scenes. And you, better than anyone else, probably know who’s directing—who’s calling the shots.”
“You reckon it might could be the sheriff himself?”
“Perhaps. Perhaps it is. I don’t know. The idea occurred to me. But I don’t know the man. I tried—“ Sasser stopped himself.
Sasser watched Boggs drink. “I tried to see him.”
“You went to the Icebox?”
“What folks call the hospital because it looks like an icebox.”
“Yes, I was there, but they wouldn’t let me in to see him.”
“Who didn’t, his men or the nurses?”
“But why see him if you believe he might have done it?”
“To gauge him, to see what kind of a man he is, to determine if he’s capable of killing. Or at least ordering his stooges like Wynne to do his bidding.”
Boggs smiled wryly. “Sasser, if you ain’t something else. Sure he’s capable. Ain’t no one been sheriff longer, and even now when we got free elections. But the man ain’t capable of doing what they done to Blake and the Allen girl. I know him. Used to be that I knew him good. We used—There was a bunch of us used to play cards right regular. There was me, the sheriff, Judge Hardy, Doc Hargrove—He’s dead now, some six years or better. And then there were always two or three others to fill out the table. Never Wynne, though. I used to beat the bejesus out of Harris … And Hardy too. It was that game you and me played that time, Cowboy. But, come to think of it, why not cowgirls since you need queens or better to open?” He paused reflectively.
“Anyway, if Harris had two boys, you could, sure enough, bet I had the other two, and they was riding aces. It liked to tickle me the way he’d get all red. Losing the way he done made him drink hard, drink till come the next day he couldn’t stand the sight, much less the smell, of it for a week or longer. Make him puke something awful. But the man never did show hisself, never said nothing or done nothing ‘cept drink that much more. And the man could drink, that’s for sure. A fifth or more.”
Boggs smiled to himself. He took a drink. The grin turned dour. “Least that’s the way it used to be. I run up on some trouble, and they suspended me. I was reinstated and all, but it was like none of ‘em took to me winning anymore. And then one night me and the Cowboys was riding home a whole lot richer, and damned if I don’t get pulled. A city patrolman pulls me, me his superior. But now I never once believed it was Harris it called. I figure it had to be the judge. Parting with as much as a thin dime chaps that man’s ass. And he don’t mind if he shows his ass and don’t give a flip who he shows it to.”
Sasser asked, “This is the judge you’re talking about?”
“Yeah, the judge … The chief judge.” After a moment he added, “I reckon—reckon it’s on account of him having nothing to achieve. He’s been judge so long ain’t nobody figured there could be anyone else. Like a building. Ya just don’t tear it down. You come to expect it to be there. You come to expect Hardy to be there, and he expects to be there. So what’s left for him to do? He’s got everything he ever wanted. Well, ‘cept one thing. Riches.”
Sasser asked, “I take it these two men are tight?”
“Like tics on a dog.” Boggs stifled a laugh behind a closed yawn. He stared off at nothing in particular. “I went—It was a joke. But I went to Harris’ office the day after I was pulled. I’d filled a vodka bottle with water. He wasn’t lookin’ none too good, rough as rocks around the edges. And here I come with my bottle and tell him how I got pulled and damn near arrested for driving under the influence. He didn’t laugh, or nothing, just looked sicker than a dog. So I set the bottle down and said, ‘J.B., so you don’t think I’m accusing you let’s have a drink together.’ He reeled back and waved his hands like he was washing a window. And in a real hurry about it too. So I undone the cap and drank the water down. Didn’t really need to drink it all. Let it sit there on his desk a little longer and he would a been off and running anyways.” Boggs’ conclusion to the story seemed more of an interruption. He looked into his glass. “But then that was a long time ago.”
“There you said it yourself,” exclaimed Sasser. “It was a long time ago. The man has probably changed. You can’t be certain. You really don’t know.”
Boggs shook his head. “Sasser, it’s you it ain’t listening. I said the man didn’t laugh or nothing. Had he done it, he would a laughed. Because he would have tried to say it was a joke, nothing more. No, it was that weasel Hardy what done it. He made the call.”
Sasser rested his chin on a loose fist. After a weighted moment, he said, “Let’s consider Hardy then?”
“Naw, he ain’t got the stones. Or the sense. And if he’s the one, how’s he keep it from his door? And for all this time. No, it ain’t him. He’s not an overachiever. An achiever, yes, but not an overachiever. He’s already done his achieving.” Boggs cut himself short. After a time, he added, “But then if Wynne’s just a cop, it’s for damn sure he’s one smart cop. Only theorizing now. But to crack a drug ring, don’t you have to know how it works? And maybe he believes he can outsmart everybody and then he comes to find he can’t, so—so he buys ‘em off. Maybe Wynne’s smarter than I ever gave him credit for. You—You only just arrived in Greensburg. But not so long ago the feds popped a bunch of congressmen for taking bribes. And I heard the evening paper asked—Hardy told the evening paper that everyone’s got his price, including him. Imagine him a judge and sayin’ some dumbass thing as that.”
Boggs glanced at the dark windows. He looked back at Sasser after a time. “Now that should give you something to ponder on and deliberate about.” He stood and finished his drink. “When you get it all figured out let me know.”
Sasser remained seat. “Where you going?”
“Can’t remember her name,” he replied on his way to the door. “Lock up when you leave.”
Boggs emphasized every step on his way down the stairs. The glass door closed without a sound. Night pressed itself on him. He felt sticky. He walked slowly past two storefronts and turned down the alley leading to the parking lot. Once inside the cramped confines of his car he was unsure where to go. As envisioned earlier, his plans called for posting himself across from the vice office to wait for Wynne to make his rounds: the sniper attack made even a doubtful suspect a possibility that had to be either confirmed or eliminated. But now having talked so long with Sasser, he might have missed the vice-captain. It was probably for the best. The reminiscence, the speculation, the confusion over who had the stomach, the nerve, the sense, left him tired, sober and lonesome. All he really wanted to do was drink. But so as not to feel too derelict he decided to swing past Wynne’s office.
A maroon Dodge Diplomat was in the driveway. The vehicle had no official markings, nothing in its design or shape to suggest it belonged to the city or county. Boggs knew at once to whom it belonged. He didn’t have to look to see there were no lights shining in the vice squad office. He cruised thirty yards to the traffic light, coasted under a yellow signal, deciding and then undeciding and then redeciding what to do. His foot off the pedal he let the Falcon decide. It stopped at the curb. He shut down the engine and killed the lights.
Wynne’s departure ten minutes later suggested to Boggs that the deputies used black curtains on the windows from time to time; he couldn’t understand why. Paranoia seemed to be a good explanation.
Wynne backed the unmarked car out and turned in Boggs’ direction. As soon as Wynne passed, Boggs switched on the ignition. The engine heaved a little, hacked a lot, shook, shimmied and died. Slapping the wheel, he pumped more gas. He flicked the key. The engine heaved a little, hacked, shook, shimmied and died. Boggs stamped down on the pedal, roaring with undelivered oaths. He twisted the key. The engine heaved, hacked, shook and caught.
Boggs didn’t wait for the whine to stop or the exhaust cloud to settle. He made a U-turn and saw the Diplomat waiting to make a left at the red light on Davis Street. He listened to the transmission groan and pop from second to third. He watched the speedometer so closely that he nearly rear-ended the Diplomat.
Wynne crossed the Appomattox on Jeff Davis Highway and drove through Colonial Heights. He kept within the limits until he reached the outskirts of town. There the signs allowed for 55 mph. Wynne steadied his speed at 60 mph. Because the highway was straight for the next fifteen miles, Boggs was able to keep Wynne in sight. As Boggs expected, the captain was headed for James City. He turned east on Ruffin Mill Road to access the interstate, which he followed to Broad Street and then onto South Fifth Street. He parked in the lot in front of the Southside police precinct.
Minutes behind, Boggs eased into the parking lot across the street; home of Bert’s, the best fried-baloney sandwich in town. By the time Boggs extricated himself from the wagon, there was no sign of Wynne, only the unmarked car. He leaned against the closed door and folded his arm. The shouts of two black kids riding their bikes in circles caught his attention. He whistled and waved for them to come over. They made one last loop and pedaled to him. He proposed a deal: five bucks now and five bucks after they poked a hole in the Diplomat’s tail light, just a chip so that one light would burn white. The kids made quick work of the assignment and returned for the final payment. In addition to the ten dollars, Boggs offered to buy them a soda if they bought him one as well.
When the kids returned, Boggs ignored them at first. He studied the z28 that had just pulled into a visitor’s space at the police station. Sasser, unmistakable in his clown outfit, went inside, pulling the door back as if familiar with its weight. Without looking, Boggs took hold of his drink and told the kids to keep the change.
“So that’s how you teleport your smart ass into their offices,” he said to himself, unable to deny a sneer.
About ten minutes later, Sasser and Wynne exited the building, both smiling. They stopped at the bottom of the steps. Wynne pointed west. Turning his head in that direction, Sasser nodded. The two talked for another minute and then shook hands. Wynne went back inside while Sasser drove off in his z28.
Boggs stood like a stone. Eventually, he unwound a smile. He resisted the temptation to follow Sasser and waited on Wynne, believing the captain would lead him back to Sasser before the night was over.
When Wynne left forty minutes later, the white beacon worked admirably. Now it didn’t matter how far Boggs fell behind; he could spot the car from a distance. His efforts, though, were for naught. Wynne drove directly to Greensburg. There was no further sign of Sasser.
The night was so muggy that Boggs felt as if a bare fisted pro had worked him over. Taking stock of old and new wounds was unnecessary. They surfaced with an avenging sentience. Pain breaking quicker than any promise burst above his right ankle, zapped his right shoulder and stung the dyed eye. All the while a chorus of wadi-dry cells in his brain howled for more bourbon. To humor himself as much as to kill dead time, he hummed the tune, the hip bone’s connected to …
His surveillance of the vice office was now in its second hour. Before parking at the intersection of Tabb and Franklin about eight p.m., he called the vice squad office. That Wynne answered disappointed him; he loathed stakeouts. What made this one especially detestable was the station wagon, which not only cramped his style but all two-hundred and thirty-six pounds of him. For lack of leg room, his thighs crunched against the wheel, and his knees butted underneath the dash. His feet were crammed behind the pedals like knotted socks. His shoulder complained that the passenger seat was too close, and his head felt the roof a threat. The seat of his pants had an incriminating stain, and sweat likewise left the back of his shirt adhesive. Worse still was the maddening desperation to know who the overlord was: was Sasser a mere accomplice or the overachiever. Boggs had to be certain. Throughout his career, he always depended on certainties even though his conclusions seldom proved true in the end. Unless he was sure, he couldn’t act decisively; he couldn’t be sure of himself. He was sure his service revolver would stop Rufus Wyche on that June 22; he was positive that the weapon would drop the charging bull. Now he was sure he had no need of guns. Knowing this gave him a tremendous edge because more often than not an armed man would point the gun but not pull the trigger.
As he had done last night Boggs planned to tail Wynne, but this time, in the hopes the vice-captain would rendezvous with Sasser. At 10:23 the yellow light over the door brightened. Wynne skipped down the steps and climbed into the Diplomat. Boggs prayed that the broken tail light hadn’t been discovered. He crossed his fingers so tightly that he nearly tore the index out of joint. What began as a snort became a snicker when Wynne cranked the engine and turned on the car lights. Boggs repeatedly pumped the pedal. All four cylinders fired, discharging a cloud of gray toxins. Wynne stopped at the same light as last night and made the same turn. Boggs waited until the Diplomat cleared out before following.
Wynne rolled onto Highway One south and breezed past the speed limit. Boggs struggled to stay with him, beseeching the wagon to 60 mph. He was a quarter mile back when Wynne suddenly, almost recklessly, wheeled onto Harry Jenrette Road. His tires screeching, Boggs swung wide at the turn and nearly lost his rear end in a ditch. The white light was about a mile ahead.
Wynne barreled past a stop sign and struck south onto McKenney. Boggs likewise ignored the red sign, his forehead nearly pressed against the windshield. He questioned whether Wynne knew he was being followed or whether he had just received an emergency dispatch. Boggs assumed it was an emergency by the way the Diplomat fishtailed onto Boydton Plank Road. To make the turn Boggs had to slow down, but once on the flats, the wagon raced west under the pressure of Boggs’ 13 EEE shoe.
At the intersection with Stiff Branch Road, Wynne swung south. Again Boggs had to decelerate. But he gained speed as he neared the Blake farm and then decelerated. Parked diagonally in the road was the Diplomat, the blue lights in the rear window blinking. Boggs coasted up to Wynne. He rolled down his window.
Armed with a flashlight in one hand and a pistol in the other, Wynne approached. He blinded Boggs with the light. “Boggs!”
“You doin’ all right, captain?”
“Get out of the car.”
Boggs killed the engine. He braced one hand on the top of the open door and curled the other over the roof. He hoisted himself out with a grunt. His feet under him, he turned in time to see Wynne holster the weapon.
“You don’t learn, do you? Thought we had an understanding.”
Boggs stepped into his space. “Ain’t nothing says I can’t drive this road.”
“You’re following me, why?”
Boggs shrugged. “To see where the action is.”
“Well, you found it.”
“Well, it don’t look like a whole lot of nothing to me.”
“What’re you doing, Boggs?”
“Tailin’ you. What’s it look like?”
“You’ve been drinking. Get against the car.”
Wynne pushed him, the meat of his hand landing squarely on Boggs’ right shoulder. Boggs winced as he faced the wagon. Wynne padded him down.
“You’re under arrest. Driving under the influence and possession of a scheduled—“
“Possession of what?”
Wynne held up a thin joint and grinned.
A gunshot spilled them on the pavement. A second bullet slammed through the back of the Falcon. Boggs scurried on hands and knees to the other side of the wagon. Wynne fired three times in the direction of the sniper and clambered around to safety. A third shot struck one of the two blue lights in Wynne’s car. The captain popped up over the hood and returned fire. He crawled over to his car and opened the driver’s door. He reached in for his radio. “Two to Rock, two to Rock, 10-33 at—“ The door window shattered. He scrambled into the vehicle. “10-33 on Stiff Branch Road near—“
The windshield broke. “Near Boydton Plank Road. “
Wynne dropped the radio and slid out of the car and onto the ground. He wormed his way to the front, now protected by the full length of the Diplomat. He sprang up and loosed a wild shot to draw fire. He had to keep the sniper occupied until help arrived. He waited a moment, then jumped and fired. The answer from the woods was silence. Soon the crickets and frogs reemerged. Wynne hunkered down and called to Boggs. He said, “He’s either circling or running. You got something to cover me?”
“How about your flashlight?”
As Boggs laughed, Wynne raced across the street and threw himself in a ditch. In the distance came the sound of a car engine starting. Wynne sprang to his feet and sprinted down the road.
From the opposite direction came a cruiser, its siren wailing, its lights spinning. It skidded to a stop at the station wagon. Grinning, Boggs came around his car, his hands in the air.
“You?” hollered Tinnin. “What in the hell?”
Boggs dropped his arms but not his laughter. “Your boy’s gone after ‘im.” He pointed south toward the Blake residence. “Might need your assistance.”
Tinnin ran back to his car, jammed the stick into reverse and then drive. He left rubber as he passed the two vehicles.
Boggs’ laughter suddenly stopped. He scrambled back to his car and drove to the Blake homestead. There was a light on in the kitchen. He pulled in back. The sight of the two buzzards stilled him. He sat in the car, staring, until Agnes stepped outside.
“Heard sirens,” said Agnes as she pattered up to the wagon.
It took more work than he ever imagined to yank himself out of the car. “Yeah, sniper fire up the road. Tinnin and the vice-captain went after him.”
Before Agnes made any sort of a comment, he asked, “So where’s Will?”
“Where he can’t be drinking.”
“In the bed.”
“Mean can an old man too drunk to walk get his rifle, run up the road and fire upon the law?”
“Something like that.”
“Well, you can look for yourself or listen real close and maybe hear him snoring from here, one.”
Through the windshield, Tinnin saw the midnight sky as a stove pipe. He didn’t see stars. Instead, he saw bullet holes, the black pipe riddled and the piercing light was only a faint suggestion of some mysterious and immemorial holocaust sunk deep in eternity and only now coming forward to confess.
Tinnin suspected the sniper was like that fire, burning without regard to the law of consumption. The sniper was also like the holes, a 30:06 slug slamming through a windshield, the brass casings that were so telling and yet revealed nothing, neither who nor why. Before the sniper there was no true mystery, there was only the effluvium of fear as a result of ruthless, brutal murders committed for one all-consuming reason. The sniper dashed the hope of uncovering that reason any time soon, for the attempt of Wynne’s life, removed him as a suspect.
The Herald Chronicle emblazoned the banner: Sniper Stalks Vice Captain. The front page story quoted Wynne as saying his investigation pointed to the man who killed Billy Blake. A television crew, so Tinnin heard, even went to the hospital to talk to the convalescing sheriff. Harris said he was relieved to hear no one was injured and vowed to return as soon as possible to add his years of experience to the manhunt.
Yesterday’s shooting brought all attention to bear on Wynne and the unknown assailant and reducing the unsolved slayings of Blake and Allen to less than an honorable mention. The urgency comforted Tinnin. He no longer had to carry his suspicions and the attendant fear of what Wynne might do, not necessarily to him but to the law. At the same time, it frightened Tinnin to think a man, a civilian, would try to take out a cop. He could understand a fit of passion, but the calculation of a sniper outraged him.
The brazen assault on his own turf and on one of his own infuriated him to the point that his concerns for his Outlander image in the community took a back seat. He rejoined the rank and file of the sheriff’s department, no longer feeling like a stranger among his peers.
Tinnin now cringed for ever having confided in Boggs. Everyone held Boggs in disrepute and dislike, and now Tinnin had reason to do likewise. He encouraged Boggs to think he was close to the killer when all along it was Wynne who was making progress. Unbeknown to anyone, Wynne conducted his own investigation, but not for money. Wynne was closing in on the killer, or why else would someone try to take him out, why else would the sniper aim only at the captain. The so-called attempt on Boggs’ life was an accident, but if there was, in fact, a sniper involved, he meant to eliminate Sally Allen. She was probably in the same predicament as her sister; unaware she had seen the killer. But who was the killer. Tinnin resisted the notion of the hatchet-faced Will Blake and considered the stranger, Simon Sasser. After all, it was Sasser who produced the 30:06 casing.
In retrospect, it was a grave mistake to tell Sasser about the franchise, about Wynne. Confiding in someone you found odious was one thing, but trusting a stranger was perilous. For all Tinnin knew Sasser could be the franchiser, and if he was, Tinnin’s name was right below Wynne’s on the hit list. Still, a man simply couldn’t write a shopping list and then execute each person one by one. A man might get away with one murder, maybe two, but three or four was unthinkable. If Sasser’s target were Wynne, the assassin would never take him from close range, and from a distance, he demonstrated he wasn’t much of a marksman unless he meant to take out windows.
Tinnin eased off the gas in anticipation of the speed-bumps on the quarter mile drive leading to the Moose Lodge. Only incoming traffic had the benefit of thin yellow lines to indicate the obstacles. Once past the first two, set on either side of a sharp curve, the woods fell back, and the grounds opened. The third bump awaited below a knoll beyond which was the parking lot.
Tinnin found the parking lot nearly empty; in keeping with a Sunday night. Even though his shift was on call in case of renewed sniper attacks, he had the day off, and since his Atari was on the blink, the idea of tossing back a beer or two appealed to him. And the Moose offered a viable video alternative, El Grande 5 Card Draw, and if he lost too much, there was Playboy pinball.
Under the portico lights, he searched his wallet for his membership card. Finding it, he wiped his canvas sneakers on the green, all-weather carpet and stepped inside. He inserted his plastic card in the appropriate slot. The lock clicked, and a buzzer sounded, the signal to open. He walked into a 30-table dining room, which was dimly lit and nearly empty.
A long horseshoe bar commanded the far side. Membership, fully aware that the bar was the center of attention, strung its prized possessions along the walls: paintings of Moose Heart and Moose Haven and a neon American flag with a clock set among the stars. Positioned over the mounted moose was the bar television. Tinnin couldn’t remember when it wasn’t silently glowing.
A boisterous gathering at the center table drew Tinnin’s attention. Three brown wine bottles, thick as store-bought logs, rose above the crushed cans, dead drinks, crumpled napkins, and dirty plates. Tuned to the laughter, he thought that more than bottles and cans were empty. Judge John Hardy sat like a totem at the head of the table, his contentious voice pitched, his pontifical speech slurred.
Tinnin plunked a ten down and asked Wiley, the bartender, for change of five in quarters. In addition, he ordered a draft and chips. The corn chips came first and were the first to go.
“See the judge’s here.”
Wiley finished counting quarters before he spoke. “Holdin’ court as usual. You his escort tonight?”
Tinnin stopped the mug on its upswing. “It’s a damn sorry sight for the chief district court judge to be drunk like that.”
“Ain’t no one to arrest him.”
“I reckon.” The deputy left for the back.
A pool table and bottle lockers filled the first room. To get past the next closed door required more money than Tinnin was willing to part with; there was always a no-limit poker game going. He ambled into the door-less room to his right to play El Grande.
His concentration was loose, too loose to win. His mind was elsewhere, at times on the Honorable John Hardy, at others on the drive home, the judge was quite prepared to make. Let any other man be caught driving in the same condition, and the judge, the one sitting out there lording over the dissipated remains, would leave him as poor as Job’s turkey: license revoked, fine imposed plus court costs and insurance company notified.
After losing his eighth quarter, Tinnin finished his beer and went back for a refill. The sight of the pay phone in the first room stopped him. He smiled until he remembered he now had to deposit a quarter instead of a dime. He tried to do the math on what percentage of an increase the price hike represented. His answer was 300%, but he wasn’t sure. Why isn’t the sheriff giving me a 300% raise, he asked himself. Without bothering to answer, he dialed 911.
“Yeah, I want to report a DUI.”
“Well, he hasn’t gotten in his car yet.”
Tinnin hung up upon hearing how ridiculous he sounded. His anger now doubled, half aimed at the judge and two-thirds at himself. He went to the bar.
The judge’s party was at the door. When Wiley approached, he slid the mug toward him and said he was finished for the night. He cashed in his quarters for bills.
Under the portico, he stuffed the ones into his wallet. He heard what sounded like a quarrel in the parking lot. He smiled; this was much better than video poker. The judge had the enraged voice, his wife the demure one. She matched his vitriol with sweet reminders of how much he had drunk. Tinnin stifled a laugh.
“Well, damn you to hell. You can walk home,” shouted the judge.
A door slammed. A powerful engine started. Tires squealed. A gray Mark IV flashed into view. Hardy hit the first speed bump as if it wasn’t there. Only the jouncing shock absorbers told of the impact. The tail lights disappeared.
Smirking, Tinnin strode into the lot. He listened to the Mark IV motor while looking at the still-life pose of the wife. The grinding of metal and splitting of wood suddenly riveted him. The cacophonic piece ended with the pop and shatter of glass. The wife turned calmly to the clubhouse. Tinnin raced up the knoll.
At the second speed bump, he was so badly out of breath that he had to stop. He bent over and inhaled fitfully. Under the street light, he looked down at the swath the Lincoln had cut through the woods. The judge probably never knew he went off the road until the car struck a tree. Tinnin started down the embankment and slipped on the slick grass. He rolled to the bottom. Cussing, he brushed himself off as he stepped to the car. The bent door opened with a yank. He jerked the moaning judge back against the seat. To stop the heavy bleeding along the hairline he took the handkerchief tucked in the judge’s breast pocket. Though it was stained and crusted at the center, he pressed it against the wound. He flinched at the shards of embedded glass and resorted to use the fat of his palm. As he applied an even pressure, he looked out to see if there was any indication of fire. The smoke hissing from what he assumed was a broken radiator persuaded him not to take a chance. He dragged the heavy man away by the jacket. The sleeves tore at the shoulders but still held, as he struggled up the rise. The judge groaned and mumbled. Tinnin dropped him to catch his breath and to wrap the handkerchief around the man’s head. The judge jerked his head with surprising strength. “Get us all killed … You’ll get us all killed …” He drifted into incoherence.
Unsure what to do, the deputy felt Hardy’s pulse. It seemed strong enough.
The judge gasped, “It doesn’t make sense …. No!”
Tinnin sat back on his heels. He repeated what Hardy had just said and then leaned over, asking, “What don’t?”
Hardy muttered a No.
“What don’t make any sense?”
“Cowboys … All the time cowboys.”
Hardy rambled beyond comprehension. Tinnin was about to slap him when he heard a siren. He stood and looked down at Hardy. “Cowboys and Indians,” he sneered and kicked the judge in the shoulder.
About the photo below--Taken when I was a young man traveling through Europe.