Past Addresses: a novel

They told the man called Chinook he volunteered to give up his past, his family, and his memories to protect his country from terrorism.  But they lied.  He may have been a terrorist himself, and the question, “What good is it if you become what you are fighting?” haunts him.  All he has left is the memory of a little girl.

Connie is an environmental terrorist who experiences a spiritual awakening.  She is preaching a counter-cultural doctrine that is threatening a major party contributor’s business interests.

Todd is a high school football star who shatters his town’s innocence by turning in his abusive, drug-dispensing coach.  Their football team is the only thing his economically depressed hometown can be proud. 

But this is not a spy story.  Nor is it about religion or sports.  It is a story about three people driven by their sense of justice, their battle against misused authority and influence, the consequences of their actions, and what results when their paths intersect.

Past Addresses  is available as an eBook, download (PDF), and in 9×6 trade paperback format at LULU.com, classified under “Literary/fiction.” 

The first chapter follows, but first:

Copyright © 2010 by Ronald De Torre

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the publisher except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages.

CHAPTER 1

Chinook:

           The year 2002 was one of the worst years on record for wildfires in Colorado and the western United States.  Natural causes ignited most (lightning and draught conditions), some by carelessness, and one by a mine fire.  A forest ranger – of all people – purposely ignited another.

          Four years later, the mine fire that triggered the destruction of the town of Radio Springs was even more of a shock, and a greater tragedy.  There was a great loss of life.  Half the population of the town perished, the rest, relocated or institutionalized because of the trauma.  The exact whereabouts of the relocated is a continuing puzzlement to their families.  The curious rise in suicides in towns and cities that draw their water from the Colorado River downstream also remains officially unexplained.  Stories have leaked out telling of a messenger from God – or the devil.  This is, at best, a confused recollection according to that very messenger.

           Terrorists were blamed for bombing the coalmines, which caused the mine fire, which spread to the town.  At least, that’s the official explanation.  However, why would terrorists be interested in a depressed, coal-mining town whose only claim to fame was their high school football team?  What terrible secrets did this town keep?  No specific terrorist group was accused, nor did any take credit.

            The deaths were not the result of fire, smoke, or the flood created to put it out, but you won’t find that information in any official source.  By the time the town started to burn, there was no one left alive in Radio Springs – except for me.  How convenient was it that a company from the Army Corps of Engineers was nearby and could put out the fire by destroying the reservoir that supplied the town’s drinking water?

            Connie and I have our portion of guilt to carry, but what triggered the whole debacle was a fight between two high school boys.

**

Todd:

            Todd Blackwater warily circled the interior of the sixteen-foot-by-sixteen-foot storage shed while his best friend, Charlie Scott did the same.  In the middle and between them, was a rough board ladder that one of them would climb to the roof.  They both were partially dressed in their football practice uniform: pants and sweaty T-shirts.  Their acrid sweat made the air smell sour and stale as it mixed with the dust their feet kicked up.  Coach had made them take off their jerseys, shoulder pads, helmets and spikes, so their stocking feet hissed over the splintery plywood floor.

            “Come on, Lefty,” Charlie hissed, “Let’s get this over with!”

            Chewing on a thumbnail, Todd replied, “I won’t fight you, Scotty.  I won’t.”

            “Then let me give you a black eye, and I’ll crawl out of here the winner.”  That might have sounded logical to Scott, but Todd couldn’t do that.  The inside of the shed was unlit, so the yellow late afternoon sun painted tiger stripes on the two boys as they moved, the light creeping through the gaps between the dried and warped slats that made up the walls.  Just twenty minutes before, Todd had been out on the practice field luxuriating in the poetry that was the muscular power of the eighteen-year-old as he zipped tightly spiraled, left-handed passes to his teammates.

            “I can’t do that, either,” Todd told him.  “Whatever we do, we have to agree to do it together.  What Coach is doing has to be against some rule.  He can’t just put us in a room and say the one who comes out is our starting quarterback.  He just can’t do that.”

            “Wake up, Lefty – he just did, and old Liver-lips is right.  We need a leader.  Couldn’t you feel it last year?  With you and me sharing time as starter, the team had no direction.”  The two boys could have been twins cut from light and shadow: Todd, dark hair and eyes, Charlie light hair and blue eyes, both of them strong and athletic, both tall, quick, and nimble.

            “Anything that we lacked last year came from a coach who couldn’t decide whether we were passing team or a running team.  I’m happy as hell sharing playing time with you.”

            “But you know who’s going to end up starting this year, Lefty?  Is it going to be the son of ‘Battling Bob’ Blackwater, All-American, or me, the son of a car salesman?  You already have your scholarship to Nebraska no matter what happens.  Me?  If I don’t start, I could end up at Mesa State.  If I do start, maybe it’ll be at BYU.  That’s a big difference, buddy.”

            “I can’t believe you’re buying into this, Scotty.”

            “Just stand still.  I take a whack at you, climb up that ladder, and it’ll all be over.”

            “Not that way, Scotty.  If Coach Rader wants a leader, he’s going to have to pick one.  That’s his job.  It’s what he gets paid for.”

            “Nah, buddy.  It’s up to us to win games.”

            As much as Todd didn’t want to hurt is best friend, he wanted even less to get hurt himself.  Then there was the matter of the rest of the team out there, and who would be called a loser around Radio Springs High, and who a winner.  What would Karen Sutherland think if he came home from summer practice in this former mining camp in this god-forsaken section of the Piceance Plateau with a shiner and bruised ego?

            “Come on girls!”  Coach Joshua Rader’s voice boomed from outside as he pounded on the rickety wall, causing even more dust to fly and scatter motes in the vertical striping of light.  “We don’t have all day!”  Rader was a three-hundred pound, square headed, rubber-lipped graduate of James Dear Christian College with a degree in Physical Education.  He’d worked his way up the coaching ranks as an assistant for successful college programs that were inevitably punished with NCAA penalties for recruiting and academic violations, so for the time-being, he was making due with jobs at places like tiny Radio Springs.

            Distracted by the pounding, Todd almost didn’t see Scotty’s charge.  His friend was as quick as a cat, but Todd was just as quick.  Dodging his friend’s grasping hands; Todd continued to dance backward, but changed direction.  Scotty spun, and they continued to circle the ladder in their stocking feet.

            “Think about this, Scotty,” Todd said, trying to sound rational and level-headed, “We’re doing this because of a three hundred-pound ex-college lineman who was too dumb to get into a major university on an athletic scholarship.  He went to a bible college founded by an egomaniacal evangelist.”

            “He’s our coach, Lefty.  This is why we need me to be a leader.  You have no faith in him.  You’re not a team player.”

            “I have faith in you, I have faith in me, and I have faith in the rest of the guys.  We can win with a cauliflower as a head coach, which is about what we’ve got.”

            “You’ve got faith in you as a top dog.  What about me?  Am I always second fiddle?  No, Lefty, this is my chance to be top dog.”

            “Okay, then.  Climb up the ladder.  I won’t stop you.”  Todd backed up toward the wall, giving Scotty lots of room.  He stopped circling.  So did Scotty.

            “What’s your old man going to say about that?”

            “Who’s going to tell him?  You?  All he has to know is you beat me out.”

            “Coach might tell him.”

            “Why?  I don’t think he can afford to let anybody know he’s doing this to us.”  Todd stopped backing when he felt the irregular boards against his back.  More puzzling was the question that had hidden in the back of Todd’s mind since Rader had put them in this splintery old shack: why was Scotty even going along with this?  Scotty had been his friend ever since he could remember.  From the sandbox to double dating at the Junior Prom, they’d been like brothers, only better – Todd couldn’t ever remember having a fight with him.

            This would be their first.  Unless…

            “If I let you climb out of here, Scotty, would you pass a pee test?”  Two steps from the ladder, Scott paused.  He reached out for it with his hand.  Todd pushed himself away from the wall.

            “Why wouldn’t I?”

            “Has Rader given you any pills?”  Had he taken amphetamines?  Or steroids?  Was this ‘roid rage? 

            Scotty’s grin was sly.  “No pills.”

            “Some kind of injection?  It’s not going to do you any good to win the starting job and then get suspended for failing a pee test.”  Todd tried to remember if Scotty had begun to put on more muscle lately – but who knew?  They were all growing boys reveling in their own testosterone.  Who could tell by looking if they’d been given any extra?  He tried to determine if his friend’s pupils appeared dilated, but in the gloom of the shed, his were probably wide as dimes, too.

            “Coach won’t let that happen.”

            “I’m not sure he’s smart enough for that.  Don’t take the risk, Scotty.  Don’t ruin everything.  Isn’t Mesa State better than nothing?”

            Scotty’s face took on an ugly expression as he lunged for the ladder.  Todd couldn’t let him ruin his future and lunged after him.  Scotty’s feet were on the second step of the ladder when Todd got his arms around the other’s waist, threw all his weight against him and tore Scotty from the ladder.  They tumbled to the floor.

            “Fuck!”  Scotty screamed, and came up spitting, kicking and swinging.  Todd took a hard right hand to the side of his face and the world swam, the straight shafts of sunlight moved worm-like through his haze.  Dimly he felt other blows land on his sides and back as he grappled with his friend.  Realizing he was going to lose this fight unless he cheated, he went down on one knee and raised a hand.

            It was their private shorthand from play – raising a hand meant, “I give.”

            The plea they used so often at play to end a scuffle caused Scotty to pause long enough in his pummeling for Todd a catch a breath and open his eyes long enough to gage the other boy’s position.  He had two choices: crotch or solar plexus.  The situation was desperate.  He chose the crotch and put all he had into one punch.

            Scotty screamed, but he wasn’t incapacitated.  Again, he was all over Todd, raining punches and kicks.  For a moment, Todd tried to shield himself with his arms over his head, but realized he had to attack.  He got to his feet and reached for the front of Scotty’s T-shirt.  Letting down his guard, he grabbed a handful of sweaty cotton and pirouetted, rotating Scotty around him and slammed him into the ladder.  The ladder creaked and came loose of its moorings on one side.  Scotty went down with a groan, but was back up in seconds, still attacking like a wounded bull.  Todd grabbed his shoulder and swung him again, this time toward a wall.  The whole building shook with the impact.  Again, Todd took his friend’s arm and swung him toward another wall.  Timbers creaked and even more dust filled the air, making the two boys swim through a veritable fog.  Again, Todd slammed him, and yet again, until he was dragging Scotty across the floor.

            In shock, Todd gazed on what he’d done to his friend.  Blood poured from scratches and abrasions, and huge splinters of wood poked from numerous wounds.  His eyes fluttered momentarily, and then closed.

            “Rader, you son-of-a-bitch!”  Todd screamed.  He swung himself up the ladder even as it swung madly in a circle about its remaining anchor.  He threw open the hatch and scrambled back down, where he threw his friend over his shoulder, then climbed one-handed back up to the hatch.  At the opening, he held on with one hand and pushed his friend’s limp body onto the roof where it rolled halfway down.

            “Here’s your hero, Liver-lips!” he screamed in fury, “Here’s your hero!”

**

Connie:

            Constance Cherie’ Spring was a terrorist: an environmental terrorist, for the most part, but she’d dabbled in women’s rights, too.  In her teens she began by spray-painting fur coats as they and their owners passed her on busy big-city streets, and sit-ins at nuclear power plants, but graduated to skunk-oil bombs in schools and office buildings, then vandalism of buildings and computer hacking.  She bragged that so far she’d never hurt or injured a human or an animal, but couldn’t guarantee that wouldn’t happen if people didn’t come to their senses.  At the time I was checking Jim’s pulse to see if he still had one, she was about fifteen hundred miles to the west, preparing to cut north off the Mancos River trail in the Ute Indian reservation in the shadow of Mesa Verde.  Connie and her partner, Dewey Weis, had no interest in the history of the Anasazi people, but in things more modern.

            Weis eyed the shrubbery before them, and then turned his head back toward the Mancos River and the trail they’d left.  “You sure you want to go this way, Cherry?”

            Connie hated that nickname, but put up with it for the Cause if she had to.  She’d picked Weis for his strength, stamina, climbing and photographic skills, not his compatibility and sensitivity.  She looked up from studying her compass.  “Yes.  Straight north, we’ll cross another trail, and then be in the West Ute Mesa area.  The government vehicle activity centered there – where no roads are marked on the map.  I wonder how much the Ute tribe was paid for this transgression of their ancient grounds.  Apparently, greed is just another one of the deadly sins the mother-fucking Whites have passed on to the Native Americans.”

            Weis studied his hiking and climbing companion with a good humor that he couldn’t hide.  Here was a woman as white bread as you can get, condemning every one of her race.  She wasn’t a striking physical specimen, with short, mousy blonde hair, receding chin, a myopic stare, and average build, but she was a firebrand when the time came, and he hoped she’d be a spitfire in the sack, which is what she’d promised him after this expedition.  His first choice would have been money, but she’d convinced him the Cause was what mattered and that there were other, more valuable and precious things one could have.  All Dewey was hoping for was an entertaining overnight hike, and a trip into Constance’s pants.

            “What are you laughing at, asshole?” she wanted to know.

            “Just thinking a few days down the road,” he smiled.

            “Don’t count your hemorrhoids before they swell sphincter-face!  If you don’t take decent pictures of all the fuel-efficient technology the government is hiding away underneath these mesas, they’ll be no pussy for you!”  As she put away her compass, she pushed her wire-rim glasses back up her nose.

            Annoyed at her crudity, which was what she wanted, Dewey snapped back, “If it’s there, I’ll get you damn good pictures!”

            “It’ll be there,” she stated confidently, “It’ll be there.  Go on,” she pointed, “Lead the way, you stud.”  Connie did not intend to let this arrogant piece of shit have her, of letting his tiny pecker up inside of her.  It’s not that she hadn’t traded her virtue for the Cause before, but Dewey had been too easy.  The Cause had no meaning for him.  He was only with her to get what he could get.  If they met a Brittany Spears look-alike in the caves they were seeking, Connie knew she’d be past history in a New York minute.  Never mind how many years the United States had stolen technology from the American public so oil companies, friendly Arab Sheiks, and special interests could make obscene profits from raping the world and selling precious, irreplaceable natural resources.

            “You know,” Dewey opined as he forged a trail, “We could solve our fossil fuel problems almost overnight if we wanted to, and end farm subsidies in the bargain.”

            “How is that?” Connie asked, not really caring what he said and suspecting it would be something she’d already heard a hundred times.

            “Alcohol,” he said, and her suspicions were confirmed.  “We have the farmers grow grain to make alcohol in their fields, and either sell alcohol-blend gasoline, or offer tax incentives to convert automobiles to burn alcohol instead of gasoline.  There would be some technical problems, and fuel mileage and power would be reduced, but we’d end our reliance on foreign oil almost overnight,” he said.

            “Brilliant,” Connie offered without much enthusiasm, “But there’s not enough arable land in the United States to do that.”

            “Huh?”

            “If you calculate the amount of gasoline consumed in this country and try to replace it with alcohol, it would take nearly the entire crop of the United State’s grain belt to do that.  Then what would we eat?” she asked him.

            “Oh,” was his only reply.  Brilliant, Connie thought, and only hoped he was a better photographer than he was a conservationist.

            After several hours of hiking almost due north, they came to the foot of a mesa.  Connie consulted the hand-drawn map she’d gotten from a government informant, part of the price for which had been her aforementioned virtue.  “We have to climb,” she said, and Dewey started across the talus at the bottom of the slope with a weary sigh.  Connie tightened her backpack straps and followed.  On the loose footing, the climb was hard and frustratingly slow.  Before they reached the mesa wall, Weis began searching for a relatively easy route, and found what he thought would be their best hope after a few minutes.  About halfway up the slope he stopped and grunted.

            “Huh.  Cave up ahead,” he pointed to what might look like, to a less experienced eye, a large crack between two sandstone boulders.

            “You didn’t think it would be here?” Connie asked pointedly.

            “To be completely honest?  No.”

            “Let’s head for it,” Connie told him, “See how deep it goes.  It might not be the right one.”  After ten minutes and a few skinned knuckles, they neared the dark opening.  Connie shone a flashlight above her into the break in the friable sandstone.  “Looks promising,” she said, but Weis had his eyes on an overhang that jutted just above them.

            “I don’t like the looks of that.”  A rattle of pebbles rolled down the slope to their right.  “Those boulders that frame the opening – they’re not native.  They look like part of the fall – like they came down from above, too.”

            “I’m sure it’s been that way for thousands of years, Brave-heart,” Connie told him, “Come on.  Time’s wasting.”

            “Maybe we should look for another cave, or at least approach from a different angle,” Weis volunteered, “This stuff were climbing on is loose and rolling downhill.  We’re disturbing the underpinning of those boulders above us.”

            “In,” Connie commanded as she scrambled upward, and reluctantly, Weis followed.

            “Who told you about this cave?” he asked.

            “A government insider,” she threw back over her shoulder as she pulled herself over loose rocks and shale.

            “I hope this insider was a friend of yours,” Weis mumbled, but when the slow rain of pebbles matured into a full fall of ever-increasing size, he concluded that maybe he wasn’t.  With a spurt of strength from his powerful legs, he pounded up the slope, oblivious of the footing, hoping speed and momentum would get him through.  Without explanation or warning, he grabbed Connie around the waist and carried her up while she cried and protested, beating at his head with her fists then scratching at his eyes with her fingernails.  Eyes closed and ignoring the woman’s onslaught, he kept working his legs like pistons on the uncertain footing.  When he felt himself losing momentum, he threw Connie toward the spot he thought the cave mouth to be.

            Connie felt herself flying through the air and heard the roaring of tortured earth and stone around her.  She cried out as she landed on her back on an uneven, rocky surface, and pinpoints of light swam before her eyes.  Dust and grit swirled around her, getting in nostrils, throat, and eyes.  Coughing and gagging, she rolled over until she could arch her back and crouch on her hands and knees.

            “God-damn you Dewey!” she cried into the darkness, but only a faint rattle of stones answered her.  Soon, even that was gone.  The silence was as oppressive as the darkness.  She fumbled about her as she searched for her flashlight.  She’d had it in her hand just before that jackass Weis attacked her.

            “Weis?  Where the flying-fuck are you?”  Even through her rage and frustration, she realized the ledge Dewey was so concerned about must have come down on them.  Had her informant fucked her then screwed her?

            “Damn it Weis!  Where the hell are you?”  All her searching fingers could find was dirt and loose rocks.

**

Chinook:

The cleaners called me Chinook.  Just Chinook – it was my code name.  It was someone’s clever idea to name us after winds and kinds of wind, perhaps in the naive hope that my kind and I would blow the threat of terrorism from our heartland.  To quote a lady that I would come to know, “What happens when we become what we’re fighting?”

            I remember cold, damp, crumbling, stone walls, the mortar packed between the rocks soft and friable from age and moisture.  The stones themselves were all different shapes and sizes, hand-packed wherever they would fit to leave the smallest gap.  The walls marched up a steep hillside, each one holding back tons of dirt and stone to allow the building of houses there upon the earth, sometimes becoming part of the walls themselves.  These were long, narrow buildings, built that way so they could fit on those constricted steps of earth.

            The cleaners told me these were memories from early childhood.  Total elimination of these earliest of recollections might remove psychic blocks that prevent me from becoming insane.  I could recall things that I had been taught, but not when or by whom or where.  I remembered being held by my parents, sung to and cradled, but the faces and actual voices remained beyond my recall.  According to the cleaners, not all memory could be erased – that would leave an operative ignorant of his environment.  They could not take the time to teach everything, and the operative might very likely become a social outcast – someone obviously who did not fit – and therefore a risk to their assigned missions.

            The cleaners themselves were only electronically disguised voices heard over the telephone. 

I did remember one face: a girl, six or seven years old, with honey-colored hair.  She must have been my age.  Perhaps I was afraid they would take her away, too – the only thing I had I could call my own.  Her name was Sheila – she had dimples on both sides of her mouth.  She had a dog named Skipper, and a car killed it.  I remember how hard she cried.  I remember holding her while her father (who was conveniently out of my field of view) told me not to let her see the poor suffering mutt as its life bled out onto the dust of the dirt road.

            I think if a six-or-seven-year-old can be in love, I was in love with Sheila.  I think that’s why her face and hers alone, survived the cleaning process.

            The cleaners said they made me a hero.  They told me out of a deep sense of patriotism, I volunteered for my duty, but of course, I can’t remember that.  I was what John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, and Sly Stallone could only pretend to be.  They told me, I willingly gave up my life, family, loved ones, and memory for you.

**

            I was of average height, hair and skin color for a male citizen of the United States.  What set me apart was my training and things inside that you could not see, my actual body weight higher than normal thanks to my muscle mass.  Always, I wore lose clothes to hide my physique.  My apparent age was somewhere between my mid-twenties and forties.  That day in late August when I visited Jim Sloan, the identification in my wallet said I was Owen Henderson, employee of ABS Business Services.  Officially, my job was an insurance adjuster.  You’d be amazed how far a simple business card will get you.  I also could use ID that said I was Richard Stuart, Norwin Johnson, John Blaine, and Joseph Hardy.  In a safe place at my home, I also had a special packet that included identification and access to a secret bank account in the event I had to disappear entirely and indefinitely.  The cleaners thought they’d thought of everything.

            The road I was following was rutted and narrow, high on the ridge above Seneca Lake, not far from the town of Seneca Lake, Pennsylvania.  The road saw little maintenance, because it saw little regular traffic, and no one ever noticed anyone complaining.  For the most part the people who used it were not the kind to have much influence with their local governments.  Their campaign contributions would be classified as nonexistent – a perfect breeding place for terrorists.  Perhaps that would have been different if not for the premium placed on lakefront property.  If not for Seneca Lake, the ridge itself might have been prime development material – clear out the trees, and one could have a fine view of the low Pennsylvania mountains marching off into the distance.  If that had been the case, I’m sure the original residents – the people like Jim Sloan – would have been cheated of proper compensation for their property somehow anyway.

            Reaching the turnoff I was searching for, I turned up the rocky drive, trying to steer my car onto the larger stones so they wouldn’t make Swiss cheese out of the nondescript Ford’s oil pan.  To be fair, the house at the end of the road was more of a shack built in worship of the creed that men need shelter and not necessarily comfort to survive.  Its walls were constructed from odd pieces of lumber – one-by-sixes that blended awkwardly with rectangles of stained and warped plywood, certainly not built to please the eye.  Its heat came from an old-fashioned kerosene stove with a galvanized chimney poking out through a ragged hole in the roof.

            From what I’d learned of the occupant of the house, he was also patched and tattered – figuratively as well as literally – but he survived.  That was unfortunate.

            I got out of the sedan and slammed the door loudly.  Stealth was not necessary.  I needed to get close to him.

            “You stop right there if you want to keep both your ears!”

            Dutifully, I stood still next to my car.  The man who’d spoken stepped through a side door.  He held a stubby rifle, its barrel aimed at the ground.  I couldn’t be sure of the brand (Remington, maybe, twenty or thirty years old with rust on the barrel) – guns were not part of my work normally, but if the cleaners had decided they needed to be, I would have been provided with a huge mental catalog.  What I did know was that it was a sawed-off shotgun, and I doubted it was accurate enough to take off one of my ears without removing my head.  More likely, it posed more danger to him than to me.  I recognized the man from the surveillance photos: James Arness Sloan.  He was dressed in greasy and stained T-shirt and jeans.

            “It wasn’t my fault,” he complained – he obviously could read some since he thought he knew what I was here for from the sign on my car, “I got injuries.”  He was thirty-five, had two boys in high school, and was divorced from his wife who, with his daughter, was living with her father.  With his angular good looks, golden hair, and muscular build, he could have been a movie star, but when you looked into those startling blue eyes, you saw the truth – something was missing in Jim.  The dullness and apprehension in those eyes told you he was innocent – child-like.  He would never be able to comprehend the intricacies of modern society.  The rusted hulks of Chevrolets and Chryslers spread around though the forest that surrounded his home attested to his failed attempts at mastering auto repair.  “Your guy hit me, not the other way ‘round,” he emphasized with a childish pout.

            Was that what had brought him to the ultimate solution of terrorism?  Blow up and burn down whatever you can’t understand?

            Sighing inwardly, I played my part.  “The police charged you, didn’t they?” I asked, taking a step forward.  When the rifle failed to come up, I took another step.

            “They was going too fast!”

            “So, what are you going to do, get a lawyer?”  I took another step forward, and still the gun barrel didn’t rise.  One more step.

            At last, some kind of intelligent life woke in those ice-blue eyes.  “Yeah, I’ll get a lawyer!”

            Letting my shoulders slump, I said, “Okay, okay.  I’ll tell you what, if you sign this release,” reaching into my sport jacket, I pulled out a sheaf of papers, “We’ll give you the amount of money on these forms, and we won’t bother you again.”  Another step.  I was halfway between him and the car.

            “No,” he forced what he thought was a clever grin on his face, “No.  I’ll sue.  That’s what I’ll do.”

            “Are you sure?”  Another step.  “A lawyer is going to take thirty percent of what you get in a lawsuit – one third.  Don’t you want to look at what we’re offering?  It’s very generous.”  Holding out the papers, I took another step.

            Jim’s eyebrows pulled together in doubt.  “How much?”  I held the papers out, inviting him.  Closing the space to me, he reached with his free hand and took the forms.

            “Here, have one of my business cards…”  My other hand flashed out and the tiny cardboard rectangle distracted his eye for just a moment.  Reaching out with my other hand, which was then empty, I caught his gun hand and twisted it back toward his forearm.  Crying out in surprised agony, Jim dropped the gun.  It clattered to the ground.

            Startled and hurt, he jumped back, but I was on him in a flash.  Backing up, he dropped the papers and gripped his tortured wrist with his other hand, and whined, “What have you done to me?”  Before he’d finished I had his arms twisted behind him and a grip on his throat.  I wasn’t trying to choke him.  I but applied a twisting and pinching movement to the proper nerves.  Long before he would have passed out from lack of air, he was lying limp in my arms.  Without dropping him, I gathered up the papers, folded them indifferently, and stuffed them into my jacket pocket.  The gun I picked up with a handkerchief.  No one who checked would have been able to identify my fingerprints, but why add complexity to an open-and-shut case?

            Holding his gun in one hand, I reached down for his belt and dragged him back into the house.  Inside, the odors of cooked cabbage and urine assaulted me and I gazed around what must have been his kitchen.  A stained wooden table and three chairs sat along one wall, while a greasy propane stove, laundry tub and small cabinet lined another, all beneath a single naked light bulb.  Dropping Jim, I snapped the shotgun’s chamber open, removed two shells, and dropped them into the laundry tub.  I had stashed a couple pairs of pantyhose in my jacket and used them to tie his wrists and ankles together.  The exposed beams under the roof over the kitchen were too low for what I had in mind.  Kicking a door open that was painted the color of baby shit, I discovered his bedroom: three beds, an electric space heater, a rust-stained sink, and another naked light bulb suspended  under an aluminum pie plate with a hole cut in the middle, a couple of tables with the varnish peeling off, and a stained, stuffed chair.

            Looking up, I saw that the roof with its uncovered pink insulation, sloped upward, and the naked beams would be high enough for what I needed to do.  Through the single window, I could see Jim’s outhouse.  On one of the tables were a few snapshots in cheap frames: Jim and a moon-faced woman who I assumed was his ex-wife, two teen-age boys trying to look tough, and a little blonde-haired girl with brilliant blue eyes, maybe ten or eleven years old.  Jim’s daughter had taken after him physically – hopefully, she took after her mother in the area of intellect.  In another picture, standing next to Jim’s wife, was an older couple, who I assumed to be Jim’s in-laws.  The man looked familiar, a large, stocky man, powerful, but going to fat.

            Returning to the kitchen, I grabbed one of the chairs and dragged it into the bedroom.  Going back to Jim, I knelt over him and smoothed his greasy hair.  Looking down at him and remembering those pathetic eyes, I told him, “Your boys probably can take better care of themselves right now than you can take care of yourself, right?”  Standing up, I dragged him into the bedroom.  Finding a trapdoor in the floor, I let myself into the crawlspace and found everything I needed: a length of thick nylon rope, and enough kerosene, fertilizer, laundry detergent, gasoline, and old wine bottles to scorch a good portion of Seneca Lake – though the cleaners would have known about that already or else I wouldn’t be there.  I took the rope and left the rest, settling the door of the crawlspace back into place.

            “Pretty primitive, Jim,” I said as I worked on my hangman’s knot, “Plastic explosive is easy to get these days, though I wonder what you would have done about detonators?”  Using the chair, I tied off the rope on one of his exposed beams.

            Then came the difficult part: getting Jim’s limp body up on the chair and his head in the noose.  I was very strong.  It took only a few minutes and a few curse words.  When I was done, I stood back and surveyed my handiwork.  Jim was hanging by the rope so that his jaw supported his weight and his feet were placed on the chair just right.  The noose would not cut off his breath until the chair was kicked out from under him, and he wouldn’t be able to move without stepping off the chair.  Sitting down on the floor, I waited.  Soon, his muscles began to twitch, signaling returning consciousness.

            Logic told me I should not have waited.  I should have kicked the chair out from under him while he was still unconscious.  The cleaners would not have approved, but there was that sense of innocence – helplessness – about him.  At the same time I felt disgust for what he was planning to do, I felt pity, for he obviously didn’t have the intellect to be the brains of this outfit.

            The cleaners knew this already for in my jacket pocket was a suicide note, forged in Jim’s handwriting, saying he had caved into the demands of an Arab terrorist group, but now couldn’t go through with it.  The note was written in pencil on a page torn out of one of his son’s school notebooks by the cleaners.  There was also a list of names – co-conspirators that the cleaners knew were terrorists, but needed this little bit of trickery to pursue the bastards legally.  I put it on the nearest table, next to the picture of Jim and his family.

            Walking up to him, I stroked his beard-stubble cheek as his eyes opened.

            “James,” I said softly, “I am truly sorry things came to this point, and I sincerely hope there is a forgiving and compassionate god.  I’d like to think the both of us could…get together on the other side and talk.  Talk about what brought us both to this spot in space and time – talk about why you have all those fixings for bombs and explosives under the house.”

            He struggled to speak against the weight on his jaw, “Wayne said,” he hissed past the constriction of the rope, “if I did this favor, he’d let me see my girl.”

            Was I fooling myself?  Was he really much cleverer than I was giving him credit?

            “Who’s Wayne?”  Why did I ask?  Interrogation was not my job – I had pointedly been instructed it was not my job.  He nodded as well as he could, and his eyes pointed to the photo of his in-laws.  Turning, I studied the picture of the couple with his wife.  Did the cleaners know the connection?  Of course, they did, or else I wouldn’t be there.  Turning back to Jim, I reached up and tightened my knot, then gave the chair a little kick – just the kind he would have given it if he was committing suicide, and I watched him swing and kick until he was dead.  Then I untied his hands and feet, then stashed the pantyhose in my pocket.

            “You shall not kill,” the Bible says, but that’s the sixth commandment.  The fifth commandment is, “Honor thy father and mother.”  The government of the United States of America was now my father and my mother.  I couldn’t remember any other.  Yet, before I left, like an inquisitive child at Christmas searching the house for presents, I took one last look at the list of names I was leaving.  There was a Habib, Yoko, Farad, Jerome, Hussar, Julio, Ona, and Tyrone – but no Wayne.

**

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