A burned-out assassin returns to childhood home, but is followed by his violent past.
The clock-radio went off above my head, playing an old Beatles song:
...help me if you can, I'm feeling down,
but I sure appreciate your hanging round,
Help me get my feet upon the ground.
Won't you pleee-eeze help me?
The music died away with a well-remembered plaintive dissonance, and the radio crackled with the news that I was "...listening to 95.2 on your dial, KMEM, the Music of Your Memories."
Automatically, my hand raised above my head to turn the switch to the off position, finding it there, just as my hand knew it would be.
It's funny how you remember some things--things you supposed were forgotten or overlaid by in-rushing streams of new sensory images or data input. How long ago had it been since I had raised my hand to turn off that damn alarm, seventeen or eighteen years? Say seventeen--and yet my hand reached up unerringly, as though it were only yesterday that I had gotten up to do the chores and go to school.
Funny. Not funny ha-ha, but funny weird, like I was an abandoned robot in a sci-fi story, activated by an implanted command after milleniums had passed to find itself alone on some dusty desolate planet.
I glanced around the room, where reassuringly familiar totems recording the enthusiasms and fancies of my youth still decorated the walls. My arrowhead collection. Framed pictures of nubile young girls, who were probably stout matrons by now with their children almost grown. A deer-horn gun rack, complete with rifles, shotguns, and my beloved Red Ryder BB gun. On the dresser, a faded high school pennant draped a football with "Bi-District Champs" printed in flaking white lettering. All of them, dusty relics, damaged by age and neglect. Like me.
But hidden somewhere among them may be the reason I'd come home. When your life crashes around you, you go back to a place that reminds you of a better time, hoping that some things never change. I told myself that's why I'd come home to Nonnie--to recapture my innocence--and not to flee my recent past.
I shivered, suddenly cold in the pre-dawn darkness.
Must be the early morning dampness causing my chill, I thought, because I'd lain there in the dark, sweating, all night long. The stifling heat of August in Texas was a familiar memory too--especially in this clapboard ranch house, still without air-conditioning after one hundred and twenty years. Not every memory of homecoming is a good one, I suppose.
No point in getting up. I had nowhere to go. Nothing to do. I needed a cigarette, so I shook out my last one, lit up, and put the crumpled, empty pack into the ashtray. It had been a fresh new pack just a few hours earlier. I sat back against the headboard and watched the smoke curl its way up into the bare rafters of the ceiling toward the tin roof. At opium houses in the Cholon district of Saigon, or off Pat Pong road in Bangkok, the users call that kind of pointless contemplation "Chasing the Dragon." But of course I had no opium, nor the nirvana of peaceful dreams.
Suddenly, almost obscenely, the silence was broken by the phone ringing from its location in the hall, the location a holdover from the time when there was only one phone in the house.
Nonnie was awake. I heard the slap-slap of her slippers moving down the hall as she went to answer the phone. My mental alarm faintly sounded. Who could be calling Nonnie at this hour, I wondered? Although country folk are early risers, my Rolex said it was not yet 6:00 a.m.--hardly the time for neighborly calls.
"Honey? Child, you up?" Nonnie's voice came hesitantly, a rising inflection at the end to indicate the question as she paused at my closed door.
She'd probably heard my radio go on. Old folks have a keen ear for unusual sounds in their homes; the normal noises of an old house settling become a living breathing part of the background, and anything out of the ordinary sets off an alert.
When I didn't answer, she added a sweetener, "Coffee's already made, if you want some....and breakfast too. You've got to eat something, Child, you're too thin to be..."
Her grumbling voice trailed off to nothingness as she continued down the hall to answer the phone's insistent ringing. Nonnie had the frail voice and slow shuffle of an old woman now, instead of the hard twang and firm stride I remembered. Contrary to reason I'd expected, somehow, for her to remain the same--exactly the same as the room, the clock radio and even the goddam music.
Angrily, I swung my feet over the edge of the bed and heard the bedsprings' familiar squeak as they gave under my weight. Damn it, everything was the same. It was! Impulsively I turned the radio back on as I got to my feet and stretched. Santana floated out of the art deco plastic box from the early Fifties. General Electric probably thought it looked like something Raymond Loewy might have designed. Maybe Loewy did design the damn thing. It was old enough.
"...You've got to change your evil ways, baybee..."
Santana's Latino-rock got its usual hold on me, and I did a little half-step over to the chair where my pants and shirt hung over the arms. I'd learned long ago not to put anything on top of the crocheted antimacassar, because the damn thing would get stuck to your clothes and fall off on the floor. Then I'd have to try to get it straightened back to just the proper drape that Nonnie liked.
While pulling on yesterday's jeans and shirt, I wondered how ancient that radio really was. It was certain to have tubes instead of transistors, because I brought it with me to Nonnie's when Mother dropped me off and disappeared from my life. You'd have to throw it away when it finally quit. Not worth repairing, even supposing you could get the parts. A miracle it was still functional. Old, used-up, I thought ruefully, a throwaway like me.
"...with John and Joe and who knows who..."
Yeah, who knows who? The hunters would be checking my friends and connections, looking in my usual haunts, turning over my past. Sooner or later it would dawn on somebody that I wasn't playing out on the Pacific Rim somewhere or south of the border, running my own private game. They had my dossier. It wouldn't take long before some bright guy at a computer would say, "Let's check out his old home down in Texas. Maybe the grandmother has heard from him--if she's still alive. Must be older than dirt if she is."
I heard Nonnie's muffled voice cut short a brief conversation, "...Thanks,Marge, 'preciate it. You, too."
She padded back to the kitchen, grumbling to herself, troubled by whatever "hot" information Marge had given her. I walked out of my room and followed her down the hall to the kitchen.
The flowers on the linoleum floor had black scuff marks through some of the petals and vines, showing the paths worn by decades of human activity. I dropped into a wooden chair at the kitchen table. One spindle in the back was gone, and the cane seating was unraveling and stuck into my thigh. The chair rocked slowly back and forth as I shifted my weight, either from uneven legs, or, more likely, from the uneven settling of the century-old floor.
"I'll take a cup of coffee, please, Nonnie."
The tabletop was covered by a flower- patterned oilcloth, the same one from my childhood for all I knew. Where in Hell could you buy oilcloth in this day and age? Nonnie brought a cup without a saucer. She'd already poured and fixed my "coffee" as she always had. Half milk and half coffee with two spoons of sugar. Well, I laughed to myself, she told me she'd let me know when I got old enough to drink it black like hers. She hadn't had the chance to give me permission before I ran off and enlisted, a crazy teenager looking for adventures to test his mettle. Ah well, the French love their cafe au lait. I sipped. The milk had turned it cold. Awful.
"Thanks, Nonnie, that hits the spot."
She smiled wistfully, and said, "I remembered just how you like it, Honey. Now eat something, won't you? I made those sweet potato biscuits special for you."
I nodded and dug into a biscuit, hot and sweet, dripping with real butter. It was so easy to please her. Besides, I love sweet potato biscuits. They're an old family recipe from the Civil War years when Kellers eked out scarce flour by adding sweet potatoes in the dough.
Almost against my will, my eyes were drawn to the wall over the sideboard. Still prominent in its place of honor was a framed verse in cross stitch:
Monday's Child is fair of face
Tuesday's Child is full of grace.
Wednesday's Child is full of Woe.
Thursday's Child has far to go.
Friday's Child is loving and giving.
Saturday's Child must work for a living.
But a Child that's born of the Sabbath Day
Is fair and wise and good and gay.
When I was young, I used to ask Nonnie which child in the rhyme I was. It became a game we'd play as I "set up straight" at the table, eating breakfast. She'd give a little laugh and say it didn't matter on which day I was born. I was Nonnie's Child--born to go far and do great deeds.
Then she'd make up some fanciful story with me as the hero while she padded about the kitchen, doing her morning chores. There were no limits for Nonnie's Child in that storybook world, nothing he couldn't achieve.
It was always the best time of the day for me. I'd felt warm and protected. You never forget that feeling. It signifies "home." Well, I was home again. I just didn't know how protected I was, this time around.
Nonnie worked with quick economical motions, cleaning up the breakfast mess. She was wearing her best, gray, imitation-velvet robe over a nondescript gray nightgown that fell gracelessly to her ankles. Her house slippers, with toes cut out to protect her "corns", flapped against the cracked linoleum as she moved. Her hair, thinning atop the crown of her head, had faded from the rich auburn of my youth to the flat, lifeless, steel-gray color of the pans and pots hanging on nails over the stove.
I noticed her eyes had faded too. Cornflower blue once, they were now the color of old Wedgewood. Wedgewood! The mere thought of it in this god-forsaken Hill Country ranch house was a joke, an abomination. I checked and saw that my coffee cup was a cracked and chipped relic from a set dutifully delivered, week by week, by our Jewel Tea salesman, who was now only a memory--his hand on my leg under the table--and a pile of moldering bones...
Not good thoughts. I shook myself, shifting back to reality, and found Nonnie had been talking to me. And I didn't know for how long. I had to get a grip. It seemed as though I kept tuning in and out, like my old radio, depending on the strength of the signal. Was that what my life had become--a fading signal in the ether..."Keller, come in! Keller, do you copy? DO-YOU-COPY? Hisssss...."
"Honey, are you listening to me? That was Marge Schleuter on the phone. You remember the August Schlueter's that live down by the Be-Back Inn. Not the Alfred Schlueters, that was the brother whose place is acrost the road from the Augusts' you know." She paused. "Anyways, ever since August died from the cancer last winter, she just sits up there on that hill all day, watchin' ever'body's business come and go.
"Uh huh. Nosy huh?"
She nodded and then said gently, "She means well." Then she straightened up, visibly mustering up her courage, and said, "Anyways, Marge said that same black car that was parked on the side of the road between her place and ours yesterday is back again, just like it was waiting for somethin'--or someone."
She turned and started puttering at the stove again to hide the tension and questioning in her voice. Well, I was getting a little tense too. We both sensed the black car was there because of me.
"I'll swan," she said, "she must have nothin' better to do, but I guess gossipin' helps the time pass when you get old like Marge."
Yeah, Nonnie, I thought, other people get talkative when they get old and lonely. I tried to sort out the wheat from the chaff from all that chatter, what might be important out of the dross of rumor and gossip.
It's funny how HUMINT is seldom objective. You always have to separate rumor or opinion from actual observations or facts. Agents or informants always color their reports with their own subjective patina of beliefs and value systems--or sometimes just what they think you want to know, or ought to know. Wheat from the chaff.
"I'll check the car out, Nonnie, if it's still there come full sunup." She nodded, reassured. "Maybe I'll saddle up the roan and just take a little ride up that way to get the kinks out of her. You said she ain't been ridden since that worthless Shorty Bendele ran off again on one of his drunks."
I caught myself dropping back into the old speech patterns. Texas twang with maybe just a touch of "high Dutch" German accent. Amazing.
"Well, Shorty ain't much of a hand, Mr. Smartypants, but at least he's been here. Better an old drunk, who's around sometimes to help out, than your own kin that just traipses off one day and goes all over the world with hardly a word. So a body doesn't even know if he's alive or dead!"
Her voice quavered as she said the last part, and I felt so damn guilty for not having kept in touch more often. She was so old. Too old to be living out in the country by herself maybe.
"I know, Nonnie, I know, and I'm sorry I didn't come back home more or write very often. Time slipped away somehow. Not much I cared to write about anyway."
She'd dropped her gaze towards her breast after her outburst and picked at the edging of lace on the robe which I had sent her for Christmas three years ago-or was it four? Then she looked up at me with the old fire and fun in her eyes and said, "Well, at least you remembered me at Christmas...," she paused, "most years."
Then she grinned, showing her dentures, taking the sting out...
Nonnie would always take the sting out. She didn't whip me much as a kid,--not like what I can remember of Mother--but when she did, the recollection of it would keep me in line for six months or so. She'd send me out in the peach orchard for a switch, so I'd have to think about it all the way out there and back, carrying the instrument of my own destruction. Christ, if the Viet Cong had had peach tree switches, the war would have been over in a week. Why didn't somebody tell them?
Afterwards though, Nonnie was always there with some Noxema, its cold creaminess a sudden shock to my blistered and burning behind. I recalled the faint astringent odor of Noxema and the cloying odor of rotten peaches in the orchard...
Focus, damn it, don't space out.
Maybe I could make up for the neglect and my guilt feelings by relieving her worry over the black car. "Listen, I'll take the mare up around the North pasture and check out the car, if it's still there, so you can tell Mrs. Schleuter what it is. Probably just another Medicare supplement salesman."
Nonnie nodded her head up and down in agreement; she looked grateful and satisfied. She'd told me how the insurance hustlers had hit the area hard after old Mr. August died. I hoped it was one of those vultures. But at five-thirty in the morning? Would have to be the company's salesman of the century. Not very likely. The mysterious car and its driver definitely required a recon.
Shortly after sunup, I was in the saddle and riding into the cover of the live oaks in back of the house. I wanted to keep out of sight of the road. I trailed along the edge of the ravine where Kellers dumped their trash for over a hundred years. There's some such place near every rural home without trash pickup. In this ravine were bits of old farm equipment, broken bottles, steel drums, the remains of a moonshine still, and rusting hulks of autos, including a burnt-out van with faint lettering on the side --"Jewel Tea Co.-since 1893"--showing through the rust.
Everything, in short, that nineteenth or twentieth century Kellers had found of no further use. I wondered what an archeologist of the thirtieth century would think of this midden-heap of artifacts of the ancient Texas civilization. I knew of a few surprises, I thought with a small grim smile.
I cut off the trail into the woods, angling over to the gravel farm road running past the Schleuter's place from the main highway. Making sure I stayed in the cover of the trees, I carefully rode up to the edge of the tree line that bounded the north pasture. If the mysterious visitor was still there, I wanted to make damn sure I saw him before he saw me.
The car was there all right, half-hidden by a clump of cedar growing out of the bar ditch. It was a nondescript black Ford that could have been sent by any one of several large, powerful and vengeful organizations--the Internal Revenue, Ma Bell, the CIA or the Mafia--all of whom tend to prefer anonymous sedans when they send out their hit men. It was positioned so a watcher could observe the knoll Nonnie's house sat on as well as the lane that led to the county road.
Suddenly, I caught a reflected glint from within the cedars by the car. I flinched and nearly spooked the mare beneath me as she reacted to my reflexive movement. A glass lens, hopefully only binoculars, had been trained on me. If it was a long gun, I was completely exposed and dead meat.
I gentled the mare and tried to neck-rein her back further into the cover of the trees, but she was skittish and curvetted to the side, fighting the bit. By the time I got her under control, I was sure that there was no danger. If he wanted to take me out, it would already have been over. I looked back and finally saw the watcher as he moved out of the cedars and unhurriedly got into his car.
He was dressed inappropriately for the country in a dull gray, three-piece suit. He didn't wear a Stetson, despite the growing heat and glare from the sun, which made him an outlander. His thatch of lank blond hair was visible, but his facial features were indistinguishable at that distance.
That didn't matter. I knew what he would look like up close. The eyes would dominate--the cold, flat, unblinking eyes of a predator--an otherwise unremarkable face. I'd recognize the face because I shaved one just like it every day.
He stopped, trained the glasses on me again, and then raised one arm tentatively as if in acknowledgment or salute, before starting the car. The Ford moved off down the road, slowly, kicking up a cloud of gray caliche dust behind it that hung in the air long after it passed from sight over the next hill like the sign of a passing army. Going to report to his master, no doubt.
The mare sensed my lack of attention as I considered the implications of the car and its silent driver. She started moving back toward the corral the short way across the open pasture at a walk at first, then breaking into a trot as she realized I wouldn't bring her up short. I grinned, and gave her some rein.
"Feelin' frisky?" I asked her. She tossed her head, so I kicked her up into a gallop, and finally, into a dead run for the last hundred yards up to the fence enclosing the stable yard. Her flanks were heaving from the unaccustomed run when I pulled her up. I walked her for a while, cooling both of us out. I needed some time to think about my options when the watcher returned. I had no doubt he'd be back. And he didn't look like a insurance salesman to me.
After cooling the mare down, I opened the gate without dismounting and trotted her over to the corral fence. As I swung down from the saddle, she rolled her eyes back, still not sure of me.
"Don't look at me all wall-eyed, you little tramp," I told her as I started to uncinch the saddle. "You need to be rode hard and put up wet ever damn day for a month, and then you might, just might, be a pretty fair horse one of these days."
I finished with the tack, led her inside the corral gate and slipped the bit and reins off her head. She snorted, feinted her head at me in a "play" bite, and then trotted over to the stock tank that formed part of the corral fence. The rusty windmill that fed the tank creaked and whined as it turned slowly in the rising breeze. I closed the gate and stood with one boot on the lowest rail of the fence. The mare nosed aside some of the green scum on the water in the tank and drank in long, loud, snorting gulps. My thoughts were still on the watcher in the car. I don't know how long I stood there deciding my next move.
"Well? Was there anybody out by the pasture or not?"
Nonnie had come up behind me so silently that I hadn't heard her. Or maybe I was too deep in thought to hear. Either way, I was slipping--badly--and dangerously.
"Nothing to worry about. I'll take care of it."
It was my turn.
She turned me around with one age-spotted hand on my arm and looked directly into my eyes, searching for an answer that I wasn't ready to give her yet. I gazed steadily back at her, not giving an inch, willing her to accept my silence as an answer.
"Child...you know your Nonnie will always love you."
I nodded. I knew. I had reason to know.
"Do you need any help to take care of it?" she asked harshly. I shook my head. She sighed and turned away toward the house. "Mind you don't let that mare founder, you hear me."
One thing about life that I knew was as immutable as the rising and setting of the sun--a good ole Texas boy had to be polite to his elders, come Hell or high water. I walked over to the stock tank and waved the mare off. She was through anyway. She shook her head at me playfully across the water-filled tank.
I stood staring into its depths as though looking for a sign. Goldfish swam among strands of algae and green moss. I wondered if they were the progeny of some pet goldfish I'd dumped in there thirty years ago when I got tired of cleaning their bowl. There was a large one that had almost outgrown its gold color with age, almost white except for the odd patch of gold along its sides and around its eyes. It might be one of the same ones, I thought. I remembered from somewhere that the Chinese keep them for years and years; they're supposed to be oracles or good luck or something. The fish stared out, masklike, from its hiding place in the green tendrils of mossy growth. Its mouth opened and closed slowly in time with the motion of its gills, almost as though it was trying to tell me something, a secret...
I already knew too many secrets.
I was roused from my musing by the sound of tires crackling over gravel. I turned and realized the sun was high overhead. How long had I been looking at the stock tank? Forget it, I told myself, try to concentrate.
The car and driver were the same that I'd seen earlier on the county road, and it was into the stable yard and almost upon me by the time I turned around. It coasted to a stop a few feet away. I remained by the stock tank without moving. The driver looked out at me from over the steering wheel for a long moment. I couldn't see his eyes because he wore mirrored aviator style sunglasses. What a jerk, I thought angrily. It crossed my mind that neither of us was going to enjoy this interview.
Finally, without saying a word, he opened the door and stepped out of the car. He probably didn't know he was breaking the first rule of courtesy in rural Texas--always wait until you're asked before you put your foot down on a man's property. In the old days such a breach of courtesy could get a man killed. In the old days. I couldn't help but smile.
He stopped about ten feet away from me. Apparently he'd learned something about caution and tactics at some time and place. Or maybe he was just surprised at the smile on my face and misread it. No doubt.
He pushed the sunglasses up on top of his head. Nowadays they all want to look like Robert Redford with the glasses up on the head. Then he brushed at the dust that tried to settle on the three-piece suit I'd noted earlier.
The first thing I checked was whether he was armed, and of course he was. The suit was custom-tailored to hide the bulge of the shoulder holster, but he had the coat buttoned. He was so musclebound, the suit fit tight enough to make it easy to spot the rig. On the other hand, maybe he wanted me to know about the gun.
Young guys always want you to know, and this one was real young. Maybe twenty-five. He looked fit, though of course he would be. You don't send out a hunter that's out of shape, even for a broken-tusked old bull who's looking for the elephant's graveyard.
I wondered if I was his first assignment. I could see it either of two ways. Somebody sends the kid out as a practical joke: "Listen, Kid, all you got to do is go out and drag in this old burnt-out head-case for Mr. Paloma." Or maybe they really thought I was so messed up that this fresh-faced punk could bring me in? For a moment it irritated me, pride I suppose, and then I didn't care. The grunts in Nam had a phrase that covered everything--"It don't matter."
When I just looked at him without speaking, waiting, he began to talk. Couldn't take the tension. Score one for my side.
"You're Keller." It was a statement, not a question, and I saw no reason to answer. I shrugged. After a short awkward silence, he continued, annoyed at my refusal to acknowledge his importance.
"Mr. Paloma's been looking for you, Keller. The message I'm supposed to give you is: he doesn't like it that you just took off without a word."
His voice had a nasty sneer in it, like he wanted me to challenge him. As if he were vested with the power of Mr. Paloma simply by virtue of carrying his message. It doesn't work that way. Power doesn't delegate or travel well. The further you get from the source, the more it dissipates, so that you have to project your own aura. Frankly, his aura looked a little fuzzy to me.
"I quit," I said. "Nothing more to say about it." I turned away from him and stood looking down into the stock tank at the fish.
"It's not that easy, pal." His voice was getting uglier now that I had turned my back on him. He was confused. He sensed that he wasn't intimidating me, and he wasn't used to that. I waited as he moved closer.
"Isn't it?" I pitched my voice lower, so he would either have to strain to hear or move near me, into range.
"You know it, Pal."
I wasn't his "Pal", and I was beginning to mentally work up the hate necessary to build an adrenaline charge. Come on, I thought, come closer. Make it easy.
"Mr. Paloma said to tell you that he'll let you know when it's time to go. Meanwhile, he has another little job for you. It won't take long, and after it's over, he said to tell you he would talk to you about your retirement."
There was a sneer in his voice at the highly improbable and amusing concept of my retirement. I almost smiled myself as I visualized receiving a gold watch and a farewell party.
He was almost to my right shoulder from the sound of his voice, and I risked a quick glance to verify his exact position. He caught the look and hesitated, starting to back away. But his pride wouldn't let him. Or maybe his touching faith in the power of weaponry to turn anybody that was unarmed into yellow Jello sent him a false signal. Didn't he bother to read my file? Perhaps they didn't think it was a good idea to give him a look at it.
"Don't get cute, Keller," he warned with an anxious edge in his voice. "You ain't packin'."
The little swine actually giggled as he patted the holster under the suit coat as though I wasn't aware of it. Who knows why. Maybe it was for reassurance, like the True Believer's unconscious touch of a talisman or religious relic, guaranteed to protect them from harm. It didn't do much for me, but it seemed to bolster his courage. There's a whole generation who have been taught by television to believe that a gun, like a magic wand, is guaranteed to give you power over people. The mere mention of a gun, therefore, makes you King of the Hill. I wondered if he still believed in the Tooth Fairy.
Oh, I didn't doubt he had the ability, or even an eager-beaver willingness, to use his gun, even though his job was to bring me in. But the crucial point was: he didn't have it in play. All buttoned up in that nice, snugly-tailored outfit, his gun could be discounted, and I didn't plan to let him get it out.
"No. You can see I'm unarmed," I said, meekly, "I don't want any trouble." Just a little closer, asshole.
"Yeah? Well, if you don't want any trouble, you better just get in the car like a good old fart and come with me. I got orders to bring you in one way or the other--soft or hard--and it don't matter to me. Besides, you wouldn't want that sweet old lady in the house to get hurt, would ya'?"
Like manna from heaven, the hate rush of adrenalin kicked in.
"Nooooooooo," I screamed as I kicked for his kneecap with a side kick.
He saw it coming at the last instant and made a move, but it was the wrong move. He went for his gun instead of trying to get out of the way or block. Going for his gun twisted him far enough around to keep me from breaking the leg, but not to prevent some ligament damage.
He was still fumbling with the buttons on his coat when I used a sweep on his already useless leg. He toppled forward over the side of the stock tank, face first. As he went into the tank, he set up a big bow wave of water and algae that slopped over the sides, drenching both of our legs and filling my boots with water. Now I was really pissed.
Maybe he could have saved himself, if he'd quit trying for the gun. As it was, it was very easy to just lean on his back and keep his head under the surface. He realized his mistake too late and tried to thrash and kick his way free, but I was ready for that and kept him under.
I dont think he had much underwater training. Surprisingly soon, he quit moving, and bubbles stopped rising to the surface. I moved up to the edge of the tank and looked in to make sure he wasn't playing possum. A few stray bubbles rose from his open mouth. A small goldfish nibbled at one of the bubbles, and as it broke free, the little fish followed the bubble up into his ear. Perhaps he was telling him a secret that young goldfish tell only to young fools.
"Did you...Is he dead?" Nonnie's voice came from behind me, and I whirled around, surprised to find her there. She was holding the old twelve gauge double-barrel that had been in the family for years. She wore a look on her seamed face that said she'd been ready to use it.
"I reckon he is."
"Good. We'll bury him in the ravine with the rest of the trash."
I looked at her wordlessly and pulled him out of the tank. His body flopped onto the ground with that peculiar lack of backbone that belongs only to the newly dead and to people who've fainted. The human body becomes like a half-full bag of beans, totally without structural rigidity and almost impossible to control.
Nonnie turned and walked away toward the house. I stood looking at her back as she shuffled slowly across the yard. For no good reason, I turned him over, cleared his mouth of some algae and started to administer CPR. It was nasty work and took some time. Once I thought about letting him go, but something made me keep on with it. Finally he twitched, coughed, spluttered and some more water dribbled out of his mouth. I opened up the front of his coat and retrieved the automatic. Some people are so ungrateful, even if you save their lives, and he seemed to be the insensitive type.
I went over and sat on the fender of his car while I watched him return to the land of the living. I'd been willing to help, but he was going to have to make it the rest of the way on his own. After a while, he turned over on his stomach, quietly retching some more water out of his system. Eventually he groaned and tried to get up on his hands and knees, but the left knee went out on him, and he rolled onto his side with a screech.
"Painful, isn't it?"
"Mmphaggg." More retching and water.
"Well, Pal, if you're still planning on taking me back to see Mr. Paloma, you'll need some clean clothes and maybe a wheelchair. Oh, and you'd better bring your lunch and some help."
"You sonuvabitch." He moaned again. His voice sounded raspy. " You must of knocked me out...hit me with something."
"Nope," I said cheerfully, "I killed you."
"Think about it. You went into the water. Everything went black, right? I drowned you. Want to try it again?"
The enormity of what I had just said suddenly hit him. He threw up again and was left with the dry heaves when nothing else would come up. I waited. Finally, he made it, wobbling, up onto his feet, but it took quite a long time and a major effort of will to get up and face me.
"You...you're crazy," he whispered as though his throat was hurting. Perhaps he was afraid to set me off, knowing I had his gun in my hand. Although I couldn't see any point in killing him with the pistol. It was so much fun to do it the other way--I could revive him, and do it again. I grinned at him to let him know I was thinking about it.
"Yep, crazy as a loon," I agreed cheerfully. "Maybe you better get back to Mr. Paloma and tell him I'm of no use--or any danger--to him. For now. As long as we're even, we're quits. Tell him I'll waive my retirement party."
"That's it? Are you...You're just going to let me go?"
I guessed that if our positions had been reversed, it would never have occurred to him to let me go. Actually this was the first and only time that I'd ever done anything so quixotic or dumb myself, so I couldn't fault his disbelief. The first rule in our business is that errors are terminal. No second chances or second thoughts, because they usually come back to haunt you.
He limped over to the Ford and edged the door open as though there might be an explosive charge wired to it. As he slid behind the wheel, I jumped down off the fender and walked over to the door. He was trying to get the key into the ignition, but his hands were shaking too hard to get it aligned. He looked up at me as I loomed over him and cringed away from the open window. I guess he thought I had changed my mind. I reached over, took the keys from his unresisting hands, and inserted the right one in the ignition. He'd been trying the trunk key.
My face was only inches from his. I looked him in the eyes. His eyes didn't have the predator look anymore, I noticed. But I made sure mine did.
"Listen, Sonny, I'm going to give you some good advice. I don't think you're smart enough to take it, but what the hell, it's free. Get another job. I don't think you're very good at this one. At least not good enough to stay alive very long. And the end of the line is Mr. Paloma, or somebody like him, sending you out on one last job. The partying and the excitement will get old before you do, even if you manage to make it last a few years."
"Up yours, Keller."
Well, the kid still had some spirit left in him. Misplaced perhaps, but starting to give him back some spine. Maybe he would make it long enough to regret not listening to me. A fitting, lengthy, and excruciatingly painful death sentence. Meanwhile his clothes dripped water down onto the seat and floorboards of his car, and I'd had enough of his young bullshit.
"Don't mess with me, Kid," I said, putting a steely edge into my voice. I'm told it's quite effective. "Hear me good. If I ever see you again,--anywhere, anytime,--I'll kill you. Whether you're after me or not, it won't matter. I'll kill you. You might be out with your children ten years from now, shopping for Christmas presents in the Mall, or in church, or anywhere, and it won't matter to me. Because if I ever see you again, you just might be on another assignment. So if I see you again, I'll kill you without waiting a second. You're unfinished business; your life belongs to me. Got it?"
He just looked down at the floorboards of the car. I wanted more than that. Was "plays well with others" in my dossier, for Chrissake? Was this kid unreachable?
I gave him my best DI voice. "Do you understand me, Asshole?" I shouted.
This time he nodded his head up and down rapidly. I backed away from the door, gave him my best smile, the one with all the teeth, to show I meant it. I halfway hoped he had another gun in the car and would go for it, because I already regretted the impulse that had led me to revive him. What the heck, Paloma had a phone; I didn't need a messenger. So why let this jerk off the hook? Ah, the Hell with it, I thought disgustedly, you're trying to quit. It's not like it was cigarettes.
He finally got the car started and backed up in a cloud of dust, spinning the tires in the gravel. The engine died, flooded by his panicky jackrabbit start, but he managed to get it started again, and turned down the lane toward the county road. He roared off, raising a plume of gray dust that marked his retreat like the burning baggage train of a beaten army.
I stood there for a moment and watched him go. I noticed his sunglasses had fallen in the dust during our brief struggle. I picked them up and tried to catch my reflection in the mirrored surfaces, but water and a film of dust conspired together to show only an indistinct and blurred image staring back at me.
Perhaps he'd be back for them, I mused hopefully. Was that an inappropriate response, I wondered? When Paloma got the message, either he wouldn't believe it, or he wouldn't like it. They'd probably send someone else. Someone smarter and better. It didn't matter.
Mentally, I'd gotten over any innate fear of death long ago. Only the inborn reflexive action of the organism for self-protection was still operating, and I wondered if that would also flicker and die eventually.
"Attention. Attention. Tomorrow will be canceled for lack of interest."
I walked over to the chain link fence that surrounded the small front yard of the house. Honeysuckle and a few late blooming Morning-Glory vines partially covered the fence. They gave a heavy, cloying, sweet smell, almost like putrefaction, to the heated air. Inside the fence, for a distance of about ten feet, a few ragged tufts of Bermuda grass, covered like everything else with the summer's thick patina of gray, caliche dust, tried to soften the underlying mantle of hard bare earth and stone.
The house had been painted white originally and re-coated sporadically in the decades since, depending upon the abundance of the crops or herds--in later years by the income of the family from its outside activities. No one in the Hill Country could survive by farming or ranching anymore. The land was played out long ago. As were most of its inhabitants, who stubbornly refused to admit it.
In the glare of the sun, the ramshackle clapboard house looked like a grinning skull. The wooden flooring of the porch sagged in tandem with the rusting tin roof that covered it, forming a shadowy open mouth. Along the eaves there was a scrollwork of gingerbread carvings that were popular in the 1800's, but the years and weather had caused sections of the trim to disappear. The same neglect had left sections of the porch railing missing. The gaps in the gingerbread and the railing now gave the appearance of missing or snaggled teeth. The two blank and dark upper dormer windows were sightless eyes. It was a gloomy sight or maybe an insight into my mood.
I climbed the worn and splintered wooden stairs heavily. It seemed that the heat of the day had suddenly intensified, baking the house and the hard unforgiving land around it into somnolence. I realized I was getting old and out of shape. I suppose the reaction from the incident in the stableyard was just setting in and my adrenaline level was dropping fast.
I sat down in the rocking chair nearest the front door. Looking down at my lap, I was surprised to see that the gun was still in my hand, and my knuckles were white where they gripped the checkered-steel butt.
When I was a child, before the days of guns, I would sit and rock in this chair and dream, imagining the endless wonders of far off places--mountains, jungles, blue seas, and exotic cities--all filled with unknown and boundless delights. Now I sat and looked out over the dusty gray land whose hard edges wavered in heat haze and saw nothing. Nothing at all. Where had all the dreams gone?
I sat there as the sun set and night came. Night was merely the absence of the white-hot glare; after the red ball of the sun was gone, the heat remained, soaked into the limestone and then released into the air as though some demented god wanted to keep the blighted land baking into complete desiccation.
Nonnie came out onto the porch once. I heard the screen door slam on its springs. I think she asked if I wanted supper, but when I didn't respond, she retreated to the dark interior of the house, grumbling to herself.
Finally I roused myself and went down the dark hallway to my room. The dim, blue-white glow of Nonnie's television came from under her bedroom door. I paused for a time outside her room, trying to think of something to say to her, then went into my own room and lay back down on the bed. Full circle for one day, I thought.
Absently I reached up and turned on the radio on the shelf above the bed. The music was an old favorite by the Eagles--The Hotel California. I remembered the words and hummed tunelessly along...
They're dancing it up at the Hotel California
Some dance to remember; Some dance to forget.
I wondered if I had come back to Nonnie to remember or to forget. Maybe both. There wasn't much I wanted to remember from my life; most of the past worth remembering was wrapped up in this dilapidated shack. There was too much horror to forget.
"Child? Are you still awake? Can I come in?"
"Sure, Nonnie. I'm awake."
Christ, what a joke! I couldn't sleep. Hadn't been able to sleep regularly for years. She opened the door, came in, and moved over to sit on the edge of the bed. The radio was still playing the Eagles.
They stab him with their steely knives,
But they just can't kill the beast...
I shuddered and then shivered with a sudden chill. Nonnie opened her arms to me wordlessly. I sat up and put my head on her withered breast.
"Nonnie, they just won't leave me alone. And I'm so tired."
"Hush. Hush, Child. Nonnie's here. Nobody will hurt you now. No one will ever hurt Nonnie's child again."
She crooned the comforting words from the past, over and over again, as she rocked us back and forth.
And I fell into a peaceful, dreamless sleep.