Read Chapters 11 through 20
Sheriff’s Deputy Ron Norris sat alone in his squad car beneath a little overhang of tree branches that mostly obscured the few remaining traces of daylight.
He had turned off the vehicle’s headlights and taillights, and he hadn’t turned on the rooftop LEDs or the front strobes. He did not want to be recognized, didn’t want some Joe or Jane citizen slowing down to gawk at him, or worse, stop to make an inquiry: “Hello, Officer Norris, is there anything I can help you with?” In a small town like Perryston, civic-minded citizens still made gestures of that sort.
Norris held the muzzle of the Beretta against the soft fleshy area between his throat and his chin. This was the same weapon that he had used in his unsuccessful attempt to kill Lee McCabe.
It would be easy to pull the trigger. The world wouldn’t long wonder about the reasons for his suicide. It wouldn’t remain a mystery. Sooner or later either Lee McCabe would be captured or Lester Finn would be otherwise exposed for the miscreant that he really was. Either way, the trail would eventually lead to him, and his involvement in the events at that trailer park.
As Norris hesitated, he wondered how he could have been such an idiot. He had been given an opportunity to end all of this, and he had faltered.
Lee McCabe, of course, wouldn’t be as cooperative in the future. Never again would the young ex-marine stand passively still so that Norris could take a shot at him.
The metal of the Beretta’s muzzle was cold and hard against Norris’s skin. His mind drifted. Maybe he should switch targets. Kill the source, so to speak.
He could easily kill Lester Finn. He could walk right into Finn’s tavern and gun him down.
But that would pose complications. Despite his many sins, Lester Finn was not currently a suspect for any specific crime. If Norris killed him, the tavern owner’s death would have to be explained or hidden.
And that still wouldn’t prevent the whole thing from unraveling when Lee McCabe was caught. He still didn’t know exactly what McCabe had seen in that trailer. But even that didn’t make any difference now. McCabe would recount the events in that field. And he would be able to back up at least part of his story. He had heard Sheriff Phelps call in over the radio. He had overheard the conversation, heard the lies that Norris had told. McCabe could simply mention that radio transmission, and his story would have immediate credibility.
Norris’s wrist was beginning to ache from gripping the pistol. And then a realization hit him: Despite all of his problems, he didn’t really want to die. Not yet. Not here.
Norris sighed and laid the Beretta on the car seat beside him.
He reflected on the duplicitous and methodical way in which Lester Finn had wormed his way into his own (mostly) law-abiding life. This recollection only amplified his rage—both at Lester Finn as well as at Lee McCabe. These two men were both causing him a lot of trouble. No—trouble was an understatement. Hadn’t he been ready to end his own life only a moment ago?
Lester Finn had caught Norris with his pants down—quite literally. Somehow the smalltime hood had found out about his clandestine trips to Louisville. This debacle could be partially attributed to his own carelessness; but Finn’s acquisition of this highly damaging personal knowledge had not been random. Probably Finn had kept him under surveillance for quite some time before finally catching him.
Norris occasionally liked to make trips to the less savory neighborhoods of Louisville, where young girls often sold themselves for a pittance in order to make money. These weren’t high-class whores—not by any stretch of the imagination; and Norris spurned many of them. But a young jewel could occasionally be found among the chaff of the older, the worn-out, and those in the advanced stages of meth, crack, or heroin addiction. And even the young and pretty ones could be purchased on a rural sheriff’s deputy’s salary. Drug-addicted prostitutes did a poor job of maintaining price floors or assessing their actual worth.
On the day that everything changed, Norris had driven to his customary haunt: a rundown section of Louisville that was only a few blocks from the muddy waters of the Ohio River. This was a bad neighborhood where cars were frequently stripped and left abandoned for weeks, and where local youths openly sold drugs in vacant lots and on street corners. He had reflected on that day—as he often did—that he was probably the only cop within miles. No one would know this, of course: He always made these runs in his personal vehicle and in civilian garb. He always kept a gun beneath the driver’s seat in case he ran into serious trouble: usually the Beretta.
He saw the girl leaning against the dusty façade of a brick building that was probably built in the 1920s. She fulfilled his primary criteria: she was young, reasonably thin, and white. A low-cut yellow tee shirt, blue jeans shorts, a nice pair of come-fuck-me high-heel shoes.
As Norris approached in his car, she seemed to be anticipating him. (Norris would later reflect that she almost certainly had been anticipating him.) She stepped away from her haunt and strolled forward toward the sidewalk. When Norris got a better look at her, his excitement peaked: This was a rare find indeed. There was hardly a blemish on her, and she was definitely young: The ink was likely still drying on her high school diploma (though Norris knew that over half of these girls had never, and would never, graduate from high school.)
Norris dropped all pretense of window-shopping and brought the car to halt alongside the curb. He pressed the automatic window button for the passenger’s side. She leaned forward. He could smell her perfume and from this distance she looked even younger. She gave him a smile that suffused him with warmth and nearly made him speechless.
“You lookin’ for some company, sweetie?”
Staring into the dark cleft between her breasts, which were made more visible by the angle of her stance, Norris felt himself stiffen. Yes, he was definitely in the market for company.
The negotiations did not take long. Norris quickly brought her to agreement on a price, and she slid into the front passenger seat of his car. He removed two bills from his front pants pocket and laid them on the dashboard.
Her hands moved expertly across his lap. She worked his zipper down, and Norris bucked his hips upward against the pressure of her hands.
“Easy, boy,” she said, pausing briefly to stare up into his face. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
Norris might have told have given her any number of reasons for being in a hurry: the dangerous neighborhood and the threat of arrest were chief among them. But in an odd way, the element of danger always heightened his arousal when he made these little pilgrimages into the land of his darker inclinations.
Like always, he knew that this transaction would be followed by a period of shame, and even a brief period of resolve to never return to Louisville again. And then the frustration and the heat would gradually build up in him, and he would come back to begin the cycle anew.
But these inhibitions and concerns seemed a million miles away as the girl worked him loose from his pants and took him in her mouth. In that instant, he wasn’t a middle-aged small-town cop who would never make more than fifty grand per year. He felt powerful, beyond the limits of his daily life, with all its restrictions and drudgery. In that moment, as he felt the girl’s mouth close around him, he might have been Genghis Khan, taking his pleasure with a nubile slave girl whom he had ripped from the tent of a defeated enemy.
And that was when he heard a metallic click.
His first thought was that the click had been made by a round being chambered in gun—or perhaps the click of a safety being turned off. He opened his eyes and his head jerked upright. What greeted him was not a gun, but a digital camera.
A few seconds passed before he fully grasped the situation: Two men standing on the driver’s side of his car. One of them clicking away at a small silvery camera.
The other man did have a gun.
With a quickness that surprised him when he reflected on it later, Lester pushed the girl away. She gave out a little grunt. Lester reached for his own gun.
And now one of the men held a pistol just below Lester’s ear, directly against his carotid artery.
“Don’t even think about it,” he said. He had a receding blond crew cut and a little mustache that looked like a caterpillar. An elaborate swastika pattern was tattooed on his neck: probably the mark of the Aryan Brotherhood. That told Norris that he had mostly likely done time.
The other man continued to click away at his digital camera. Now he was walking around the front of Norris’s car. He stopped at the passenger side and took some more pictures: Norris and the girl, a tableau that would cost his job at a minimum—and possibly his freedom. There was a strong chance that the girl was underage.
In a sudden fury Norris pushed his manhood back into his pants. This occasioned laughter from both of the men.
“Aw, Deputy, you lost your mojo in a hurry there. You know you can buy Viagra on the Internet, don’t ya? Dirt cheap, they tell me.”
They continued to laugh as Norris frantically closed his zipper: How many pictures had been taken? At least a dozen, he thought, from a variety of angles.
The prostitute had now shrunken away from Norris, she was leaning against the door, her head and shoulders scrunched back to an angle that did not interfere with the last few clicks of the digital camera. Was this girl in cahoots with these men?
“Why are you lookin’ at me like that?” she asked, as if reading Norris’s mind.
“You bitch,” Norris said. “You set me up, didn’t you?”
“You’re scarin’ me baby. I didn’t do nothin’ to you. You drove here. You stopped at the curb. Don’t give me none of that—”
“Shut up.” The man with the digital camera said, and the young whore was instantly silent. He yanked open the passenger side door.
“Get out,” he said.
The girl risked one final, offended glace at Norris. She plucked up the bills that he had placed on the dashboard. Then she slid out of the car and walked quickly away, her heels clicking on the pavement.
The man with the camera gave Norris a smile that revealed at least one missing tooth. Norris noticed that this one, too, had Aryan Brotherhood tattoos.
“Say cheese,” he said, before he clicked the camera tauntingly at Norris for the final time.
“Give me your right hand,” the other one said. He was still standing just outside the driver’s side door. He still held the gun.
“Give me your right hand. And don’t make me repeat myself again.”
Norris had no choice. He obeyed.
Norris had to twist his body around in order to extend his right arm out the window. The gunman grabbed his wrist and yanked it high into the air. Still brandishing the pistol, he somehow managed to close one half of a pair of handcuffs over Norris’s wrist. He leaned into the car and closed the other half of the cuffs over the steering wheel. Norris was awkwardly tethered to his own car.
The gunman removed a small key from his pocket. He held the object aloft so Norris could see it. Then he flicked the key past Norris’s face. It ricocheted off the passenger seat, bounced against the door of the glove compartment, and finally came to rest on the floor.
“We’ll be in touch,” the gunman said. He reached out and took Norris’s earlobe between his thumb and forefinger. Norris arched his back and howled. The man with the camera laughed, held the camera to his eye, and snapped another picture.
“That one was just for fun,” he said, finally pocketing the camera.
It took Norris about half an hour to retrieve the key from the floor of his car. By that time, of course, the men were long gone, and the whore, he imagined, was far removed from the scene as well.
Trembling with leftover fear and building rage, Norris assessed the situation. Genius-level analytical skills were not required to figure out that he had fallen prey to some sort of a blackmail scheme. The operative questions were: Who was blackmailing him—and what did they want?
Norris did not have to wait long for his answer. Within a few days, the humiliating pictures began to show up in his personal email bin, sent from an anonymous Yahoo email account. These were accompanied by no messages, no demands—but Norris knew that these were coming.
At least the blackmailers had not sent the photos to his sheriff’s department email account; but he knew that this could be next. If they were able to acquire his personal email, then acquiring his work account would be even easier. In fact, there was a personnel email directory on the department’s website. This had been Sheriff Phelps’s idea—he had wanted to make the department more “accessible” to the public.
Two days after he began to receive the emailed photos, Norris received a phone call on his personal cell phone from an unfamiliar caller who had a local accent, the gravelly voice of a lifelong smoker, and an infuriatingly presumptuous tone.
“Deputy Norris,” the male caller said. “Hawkins County’s amateur porn star.”
“Who the hell is this?” Norris snapped.
“I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure of an in-person meeting,” the called said. “But we will soon. You’re going to swing by my bar. Nice little place in Blood Flats. The Boar’s Head. You’ve heard of it, I believe. You’re going to come by on your personal time and you’re going to arrive in your personal vehicle. You aren’t going to tell anyone about this call or about our meeting. Otherwise, the sheriff, the state police, and every media outlet in the state is going to receive a copy of those photos.”
“You son of a bitch!” Norris screamed. He wouldn’t realize until later that he had been crying.
The caller—who Norris had now identified as Lester Finn (the mention of the Boar’s Head made this much obvious) was unperturbed. “Don’t worry, Deputy Norris; I’ll pick the best shots. I particularly like the first few—the ones where the whore still has you in her mouth. You seem to be enjoying yourself. I like to see a man take his pleasures in such an unabashed manner.”
This was Norris’s first actual conversation with Lester Finn. Prior to this, he had been aware of Finn’s presence, of course: The tavern owner had been on the radar of the sheriff’s department for years. He had long been suspected of various illegal activities, drug trafficking and the promotion of prostitution chief among them. But these suspicions had been rumors. They had never crystallized into any evidence that could be fashioned into actual charges. The department had been vaguely watching Finn; but he had never been the target of a formal investigation. Once or twice a year they sent a Finn-related memo to the state cops and the Louisville police, where Lester was rumored to have criminal contacts. Officially, though, Lester Finn was a law-abiding citizen who owned a bar in the town of Blood Flats, about twenty miles south of the county seat of Perryston.
Norris knew better than to dismiss Lester Finn’s blackmail threat as idle bluster. After all, it wasn’t as if the tavern owner would have to commit murder in order to ruin his life. He would need to do nothing more than send a few emails. And so Norris had presented himself at the Boars Head, exactly as Finn instructed him.
At first Norris believed that he was going to get off easy. His worst fear had been that Lester would try to compel him to use the cover of his badge to commit acts of violence. But Lester did not try to draft him into the role of enforcer. He seemed to want nothing more than mere information: Finn was especially interested in intelligence about the local meth trade: Not only the local dealers—but also the distribution networks above them, most of which were based in Louisville, Nashville, or Atlanta.
Norris figured that Lester was feeding this information to someone else: Whatever his pretensions of being a local godfather, Lester Finn at the end of the day was nothing more than a small-town hood. He must be working with one of the large organized crime outfits—no doubt another out-of-state group. This alarmed Norris, because that increased the stakes of the game in which he had become an unwilling participant. Nevertheless, there was always a chance that Lester Finn might get in over his head, and incur the wrath of the wrong person. The bar owner was arrogant and overconfident. If Norris were lucky, Finn would eventually end up in a ditch somewhere, his hands bound behind his back and half his head blown away. Another underworld statistic.
And so Norris had not objected strongly when Lester Finn demanded specific information about dealers in the local meth trade. For Norris the paramount concern was the continued confidentiality of the photos of him and the teenage whore. If Lester wanted local names, he would give him local names. He went out and shook down a few junkies, detained them on vague charges, then hauled them out to some secluded back road for one-on-one discussions.
Norris was amazed to discover how quickly a disoriented meth addict will reveal his sources after a few strategically placed baton blows. A few of them, of course, had dared to accuse him of police brutality. They seemed to regard this expression itself as some sort of magical incantation. Perhaps they expected an ACLU representative to walk out of the woods; or maybe they thought that the ghost of Johnnie Cochran was going to materialize and craft some sort of defense for them. If that was the case, they were all sorely disappointed. They had dropped this line of argument quickly after Norris had done a little xylophone routine on their kneecaps.
He had never engaged in any sort of forceful interrogations before; and he had to admit that it did afford a certain power rush. He believed that he now understood how the men of the KGB, the Iranian SAVAK, and the Iraqi Mukhabarat had kept up their work day in and day out. That sort of thing wasn’t as disagreeable as one might think.
In all of these conversations, one name had emerged consistently: Tim Fitzsimmons.
“What are you going to do with this information?” Norris had asked the tavern owner, just after he revealed the name during a cell phone conversation. Finn had recently refused to allow Norris to deliver his clandestine intelligence in person. He had insisted that Norris communicate via cell phone or email. Norris knew that this was Finn’s way of implanting his hooks even deeper, creating an extensive electronic record of communications between himself and the proprietor of the Boar’s Head.
“I only want to have a little business chat with him,” Lester Finn had said.
Norris had thought that he had grasped the subtext: Finn would threaten Tim Fitzsimmons—possibly rough him up a bit, possibly cut him a deal. Norris was familiar with the ways of small-town roughnecks and hoodlums. They threatened, they occasionally committed petty acts of violence. So Norris had been half-prepared for trouble.
He had not been prepared for a double homicide—Fitzsimmons and the woman murdered in their living room, execution style. This was more than Norris had bargained for, even when he had submitted to the blackmail scheme. If you were careful, there were certain things that you could hide: Risky though it was, it might have been possible for Norris to have complied with Lester Finn’s demands without linking himself to misdeeds that would not escape notice. As Norris knew from a lifetime in law enforcement, a great amount of evil takes place each day without most of the world caring one iota.
But now things were completely different. Even in the final hours before the hit, when Norris had suspected that Fitzsimmons might not be long for this world, he had not anticipated a brazen massacre in a residential area.
The situation with Finn had exploded into a veritable bloodbath—the kind for which everyone, from the local taxpayers right up to the governor of the state, would demand to have answers.
And Norris knew that he was one of those answers.
His life now depended on keeping that answer hidden. And that meant that Lee McCabe—who could now incriminate him from multiple angles—would have to die.
The last traces of the dying day provided little light beneath the canopy of the forest. To the west, an orange sun burned here and there through a silhouetted latticework of trees. The shadows were long, and Lee knew that soon the forest would be completely dark.
Lee had never been frightened in the woods at night; and there was no reason for the uneasiness he felt now. There were no monsters in these woods, after all. The monsters were all in town; they walked on two legs and assumed human form, though they were not quite human in fact. They had killed Tim Fitzsimmons and Jody in cold blood, shot them in the head and in the face at point-blank range. That had not been a shootout—but a pair of executions.
And this was not even the worst of it, at least not from Lee’s own perspective. He had always known that Sheriff Phelps detested him. He had realized that Phelps would give him the benefit of no doubts; and he could even have imagined Phelps allowing him to be framed for murders that he did not commit.
Nevertheless, he would have supposed that there was a line that Phelps would not cross. That assumption no longer held. Today Phelps’s deputy had attempted to gun him down after he had already surrendered. Although Phelps had not fired the shots, those shots would not have been fired without the sheriff’s approval. Deputy Norris would have had no personal motivations for killing him. Phelps had to be behind it—more or less as Norris had asserted.
He shuddered at the depths of the sheriff’s hatred. Phelps had loved his mother—but in the end she had spurned him for another man. That man—Tom McCabe—had become Lee’s father. Since his father was now dead, he supposed that meant that the sheriff had simply transferred his rage to the next generation.
Apparently the sheriff had never gotten over the rejection, or the heartbreak, or whatever it was. The dark emotions inside of him had grown over the years, metastasizing. What was once a young man’s bitterness was now a middle-aged man’s openly murderous intent.
The rough forest pathway ahead of him sloped upward. At the crest of the hill, Lee could see a break in the trees and a pale orange wall of twilight. He paused for a moment when he heard a twig snap on the far side of the hill. For a full minute he stood there, listening. When he was satisfied that he had heard nothing more than a random forest sound, he continued walking.
His thoughts returned to the sheriff and the man’s unrelenting anger. He had almost died in that field. If Norris had been a steadier shot…
Lee shook his head at his own naivety. He should have seen it coming. After all, he had glimpsed into the depths of Phelps’s ill will once before, when he was still in high school. He remembered the spring night when Phelps had pulled him over on a flimsy pretense, then ordered him out of his car.
Lee had not been drinking that night—and the sheriff knew it. Nevertheless, he had forced Lee to step out of his vehicle and walk the line like a common drunk.
“I haven’t been drinking,” Lee had protested.
“Well, it’s not like you haven’t been taught to be a drinker,” Phelps had said, in obvious reference to Lee’s father.
Up until that point Lee had maintained a polite veneer. But then he had snapped, telling Phelps that he was pathetic—a loser who could not get on his life. Then Phelps had snapped, too, telling him that he no better than the man who sired him.
Phelps had never said as much, but he had been wanting Lee to take a swing at him. He had been hoping for the blow and the license to violence that such an act on Lee’s part would give him. He had been praying for it, Lee thought.
But Lee had controlled himself, resisting the urge to escalate the verbal conflict into a physical one. In the end Phelps had found nothing to charge him with, so he had simply ordered Lee back into his car with a vague warning to “keep an eye on his speed.”
That was in the distant past now, a minor adolescent blip compared to the troubles of the present. But he might have seen the present troubles coming, based on what he had seen that night.
Lee silently cursed the sheriff: How could a man remain bitter for all these years over an unrequited love? Now—when both of his parents were dead?
These thoughts were interrupted by a shadow that blocked the path ahead of him. Lee started: This was no mere shadow; the shadow quickly assumed the shape of a man—a man bearing a rifle.
“Whoa,” the unknown man said. “Who are you?”
Lee made a split-second decision: His pistol was tucked behind the small of his back. To reach for it would imply threat. Lee stopped in the middle of his path and raised his open hands to shoulder level, so as to demonstrate that he was carrying no weapons and intended no harm.
“My name is Lee. And I’ll tell you right now that I have a weapon but you have nothing to fear from me. I’m simply passing through. Excuse me for startling you.”
After taking what seemed like an interminable moment to ponder these words, the man who blocked the pathway finally nodded. He slung his rifle over one shoulder and removed a small flashlight from the front pocket of his jeans. He turned it on so that they were both illuminated by a little pool of light, which appeared to be very bright in the darkness of the forest. For the first time, Lee got a good look at the man’s features: He had broad shoulders, cold blue eyes and blond hair that was fringed with white. This man was much older than Lee—much older than Steven Phelps, for that matter.
“Very well, my young friend,” the stranger said in a tone that struck Lee as patriarchal—almost Biblical. “I can see that you intend me no harm. But you have to be careful, creeping through the woods alone at night. I might have shot you where you stood.”
“I might have shot you,” Lee replied.
The man turned away, as if he felt absolutely no threat from Lee’s presence. “You would not have shot me,” he said. “And if you had tried, you would be dead by now.” He switched off the flashlight. “But enough of that. Follow me.”
“Wait a minute,” Lee protested “I’m only passing through. I have to get moving.”
The flashlight came on again. The man turned back to him, a half-smile on his weathered face.
“Where could you be going at this place and in this hour that is so important?” And when Lee did not answer he said. “You’re wandering. That is what you’re doing.”
The man turned back around and continued forward, the beam of the flashlight bobbing ahead of him
“I can tell that you are tired and hungry,” the man said. “And these woods are not friendly to a man late at night. It’s your choice, of course. But you should follow me.”
He switched the light off once again, and Lee could only discern his presence by sound. But the man moved more quietly than most, like one who is experienced at maneuvering his way through hostile environments.
The stranger’s implied promise of food and a place to rest swelled, large and inviting, in Lee’s mind. How long had he been walking, driven by fear and adrenalin but steadily depleting his inner resources?
Lee knew that he would have to go now, or he would lose the stranger; and he did not think that the man would come back for him later, were he to change his mind and call out for the unknown man in the darkness.
So before he could change his mind, Lee walked after the muted sounds of the stranger making his way through the forest.
By the time they reached the stranger’s camp, Lee had figured out who the man was—or at least roughly who he was.
This stranger in the woods was a local legend of sorts, though not one who inspired any particular degree of awe or dread. Lee could not recall the last time he heard him mentioned, though he had certainly heard him mentioned at some unspecified time in the past.
They called him the Hunter. Whether or not the Hunter actually hunted anything was not known. What was known was that he lived in the woods, or in a cabin or a trailer at the edge of the woods. He was not regarded to be dangerous or sinister; but nor was he a man to be trifled with. He kept his distance from others. And others afforded him a similar courtesy.
“James Hunter,” the man said, when they finally reached a little clearing in the woods. Lee gripped the Hunter’s rough and calloused hand and said his own name once again. Lee omitted his last name; but this was probably a meaningless bit of subterfuge. If the Hunter had heard of the earlier events in town, then he would be able to grasp Lee’s identity with the information that he already had. But nothing about the Hunter’s manner suggested that he recognized Lee to be a fugitive.
The minimal formalities of introduction concluded, the Hunter squatted down before a circle of smoldering coals that was surrounded by a barrier of odd, randomly shaped rocks that had been culled from the forest, and a little trench that might have been scraped from the earth with a camper’s shovel. The Hunter laid some twigs and other kindling on the coals and began to blow into the few embers that were still glowing orange. Soon there was the crackling sound of the fire taking hold, and the flames shot up to knee height.
The clearing thus illuminated, Lee was able to take in the outlines of the Hunter’s campsite: There was a crude tent strung on a clothesline between two trees, several duffel bags of supplies hung from large, low-hanging branches, and a rucksack leaned against a fallen log.
“I’m going to make dinner now,” the Hunter said. “You’re welcome to stay if you’d like. The choices on the menu are beef stew or beef stew.”
“Beef stew sounds great,” Lee said, “And thank you for your hospitality.”
For the first time since he had arisen that day, Lee allowed himself to relax. He sat down on the ground before the fire and watched the Hunter prepare the food over the fire. While he was cooking, the Hunter dismissed Lee’s few attempts at conversation with peremptory grunts.
The Hunter ladled their dinner onto two plates, drawing the stew from a metal cooking pot that was suspended over the fire by a tripod. They drank lukewarm water from tin cups. This was basic fare even by military standards; but Lee thought that it was the most delicious meal he had tasted in a long time, given the circumstances.
“I suppose you’re wondering about me,” the Hunter finally said at length, having spooned and eaten the last of his beef stew.
Lee had been so lost in his own troubles that he had given the Hunter’s biographical information little more than a passing thought. But he nodded nonetheless. If the Hunter were to talk about himself, that would delay questions about Lee’s full identity, and why he had been trekking alone through a remote part of the woods at such an odd hour.
“I grew up around here,” the Hunter began. “But there are few details from my earliest years that you or anyone else would find extraordinary. My life did not begin in full until I left home. There was a war on those days; and so my chance to see the world was ready-made. I considered it to be an opportunity. Little did I know back then what awaited me.
“In 1968 I was an eighteen-year-old Marine stationed at a fire base in the Khe Sanh valley. I was attached to an artillery battery. We had rows of Howitzers—both the towed as well as the self-propelled kind. We were fighting a peasant army that was pulled from the rice paddies and grass huts of a Third World nation. We should have felt safe and confident. But that was not the way things were.
The Viet Cong made sandals from pieces of old tires. At night they would walk into the perimeter around our base, and in the morning we would walk out into those areas that had been cleared of vegetation, and see their tire-tread footprints in the mud and loose earth. Sometimes they launched mortar attacks on us at night. At other times, their snipers killed some of our number from a distance.
For a little more than a year, I lived constantly in the shadow of death. But I did not face death passively. During that year, my god was Ares. And I was faithful to the doctrine of that god of war. Marxists are pure materialists, you know. They do not believe in hell. But I do. And I dispatched as many of them as I could. Somewhere in the darkest corner of Hades, I liked to think, there was a gathering of Marxist devils who were there because of me.”
“Devils?” Lee asked. “Aren’t you exaggerating a bit? Did you ever consider that some of them were there for other reasons? They might not have even been Marxists at all.”
“I killed only true Marxist believers, my friend. That was what I told myself.”
“When I returned to the States,” the Hunter continued, “A crowd of peace protestors was there waiting for us at the airport in San Francisco, with signs calling us baby killers and whatnot. So much for the gratitude of the American public. I was quite sure that I had killed not one single baby during my tour of duty; every man I had killed was firing back at me. So their signs angered me, of course, but I would have let them go, all but one of them.
One of the protestors—a young man about my age at the time—strode forward from the crowd and directly approached me. I could tell that he had decided to make an example of me. He was going to use me to make his mark, to cement his reputation as the bold one among the group. I knew immediately that I was not going to be able to simply walk away from this. Most of the peaceniks were passive, you see—but this one was different. He was not a true believer in their cause—not a pacifist by nature. Like so many of them, he had joined the movement because it kept him out of the war, and provided constant access to drugs and compliant women. This young man was as big as me and almost as strong; and despite his long hair, peace medallion, and colored beads, I believe that he was a killer in his mind.
But he was not a killer in his heart, and that proved to be his undoing. You see, I had actually taken men’s lives over the past year, and it was obvious that this fellow never had. He made his move for me, and he might have taken me down had I been the person that I was several years before; but now he hesitated whereas I did not. I struck him, and he fell at my feet and then I was upon him. And I was in no mood for mercy—not after all that I had been through.
You’ve heard that old expression about seeing red. And most of the time it is nothing but an exaggeration. But in that moment, I truly did see red. Blood filled my eyes as I was suffused with pure rage. I began to pummel the young man with my fists. I was in a daze. Until finally they pulled me off of him.
And then I saw what I had done. The young man’s face was bloody. His blood was on the collar of my dress shirt and the sleeves of my uniform jacket. There were police at the airport; but they simply smirked and looked away; they pretended that it not happened. Then the other protesters saw what I had done to this one of them that was apparently their leader. One by one they lowered their signs and they shrank away. I walked through that terminal of the airport unaccosted. It was a silence unlike any I had heard before—or since.
After my discharge from the Marine Corps, I was in no mood to return to Hawkins County—not yet. So in an odd turn of identity, I grew my hair long and moved among the numbers of the hippies themselves. For a brief while I even lived in a commune on the West Coast. And I knew women. Many, many women, my young friend. I was tall and strong and quite good-looking back then, if I do say so myself.
You should not think, though, that I completely abandoned myself to hedonism. I also developed my mind. I read many books in those days. Many, many books. In keeping with the times, Hermann Hesse was one of my favorites. His writings had quite an influence on me. I can’t say for sure, in those days, if I was more of a Siddhartha or a Steppenwolf. Perhaps I was a bit of both.
But finally I had had enough of the women and the communes and yes, even the books. I returned home. And one day I met that one woman who made me forget all the rest. Have you met that woman, my young friend? No, something tells me that you have not.”
The Hunter paused only briefly in his monologue, as a courtesy. It did not seem necessary for Lee to answer. Somehow, Lee thought, he already knew the answer to the question. As crazy as that sounds.
The Hunter went on: “And so I married her. And within a few years we had a daughter. She was beautiful and kind like her mother, and headstrong and defiant like me. Meanwhile, I prospered in business. I owned a business that once existed in town—Hunter Concrete. Have you heard of it?”
Lee stopped to consider this. Hadn’t he heard of a company by that name, from sometime in his distant childhood? “Yes,” Lee said. “You owned—”
The Hunter finished his thought for him. “That big building and storefront just east of town. You see? “You remember more than you think you do.”
“Then why,” Lee began. He could not think of a tactful way to phrase the inevitable question.
“You want to know why I am living here in these woods, if I had a wife and a daughter who loved me, and a successful business. Is that correct?”
“Something like that.”
“Very well. I never speak of these things that follow, but I will make an exception in your case. Because I can see that we are alike in various ways. For example, you’ve been to war, haven’t you?”
“How did you—”
“How I know is not important. When you are older, you’ll be able to see things in a man’s eyes that he doesn’t put into so many words. But anyway, the rest of my story:
One day—it was more than twenty years ago—when my daughter was a young woman, and my wife was no longer so young, but still very beautiful, at least to me. My wife was driving along Highway 168. My daughter was in the passenger seat. They didn’t see the truck coming at them from the other direction. They had no time to react. Do I need to tell you what happened, or can you piece the rest together by yourself?”
“Yes,” Lee said quietly. “I understand.”
“After that, I wanted no more part of the world. I sold my business, and purchased a cabin on a small piece of property in the woods. I spend most of my nights in the cabin. But sometimes I like to head out, as is the case tonight. On those nights I feel the need to sleep under the stars, to be alone with myself and look up into the face of God.”
Lee said nothing for a while after the Hunter finished his story. And then the inevitable moment came—when the Hunter asked him to give his own account. Lee had no inclination to lie; it would have seemed unthinkable after listening to the Hunter lay bare his past as he did.
He therefore told the complete tale of how he had happened upon the aftermath of the murders earlier in the day, how he had run, and how he had wandered through the forest.
“You and this Sheriff Phelps,” the Hunter said after Lee’s story was complete. “It reminds me of Saul and David. When the two men returned from their battle with the Philistines, the women sang, ‘Saul hath slain his thousands and David his ten thousands.’ And thereafter Saul, the older man, hated David, the younger. David was a reminder to him of all that he could not be.”
“I don’t think it’s exactly like that with the sheriff and me,” Lee said. He recalled just enough of the Old Testament story to grasp the Hunter’s metaphor. “Phelps isn’t envious of me personally. He loved my mother; but in the end she would not have him.”
“Yes,” the Hunter said. “And you are a constant reminder of what the sheriff views as his own failure—or the way fate cheated him. Just like David reminded Saul of the warrior that he would never be. A woman gives a man many things. Life on this earth would be worthless without them. And one of those many things is immortality. Through the children he begets with her. Your mother—for whatever reason—denied that to the sheriff. And now he seems to hold you accountable.”
“Wait a minute,” Lee said. “My mother didn’t deny him any of that. This whole business about ‘immortality’ and whatnot, well, it seems a little bit melodramatic to me. What you’re talking about is simply a part of life. So my mother broke things off with the sheriff and went with my father instead. It happens to almost everyone at one time. He had a choice: He could have simply accepted the situation and moved on.”
The Hunter gave Lee a half smile. “You’re making a rational argument my young friend. But that part of the self is irrational. It taps directly into the animal self—what Freud referred to as the ‘id’. Have you heard of Sigmund Freud?”
“I’ve heard of Freud,” Lee said, a trifle defensively.
“This moving on that you’re talking about. Some people can’t—or won’t—move on. Or perhaps they simply choose not to. In any case, it would seem that this Sheriff Phelps is one of these men. So all of your dealings with the sheriff will be colored by what went before you even existed. You are the child he never begot—a living reminder of his failure.”
“Thanks a lot,” Lee said. “Is this supposed to cheer me up?”
“I’m not trying to cheer you up. I’m trying to help you assess the predicament you’ve found yourself in. If I can.”
“I still don’t understand why the sheriff couldn’t just let it go,” Lee said, shaking his head. “All that happened more than twenty years ago—before I was born. About the same time that—” Lee stopped himself, shocked at what he had been about to utter.
“About the same time that I lost my wife and daughter, you were about to say. No, don’t deny it, my young friend. That is what you were thinking. And don’t be naïve enough to believe that time heals all wounds. It doesn’t. I will say this to you once again: You are the child that the sheriff never begat. That another man begat with the woman he once loved. Still does love, if all that you tell me is true.”
“So what are you saying? Does that mean that the sheriff will never stop hating me? That he’ll end up killing me? Or arresting me, so that I will go to prison for the rest of my life?”
“These outcomes are possible. But not inevitable. One thing is certain, though: You have a battle in front of you.”
“It seems that I have a life of hiding ahead of me. Or death. Or prison.”
“So you are going to keep running?” the Hunter asked.
“You tell me.”
“No—you tell me. What do you intend to do? Wander around these woods until they finally come in and hunt you down?”
“What other choice do I have?”
“You might try going on the offense. Give it some thought, my young friend.”
Lee stared into the crackling fire: What the Hunter was saying was crazy; and what the Hunter was saying made the most perfect kind of sense. There was no percentage in this acting and thinking like a fugitive. He had to take matters into his own hands, somehow—Sheriff Phelps, Deputy Norris, and the gunmen who killed Fitzsimmons and Jody be damned.
The question was: How? He knew that this answer would be complicated. And it would, in all likelihood, not come to him tonight. Nevertheless, this seemed to be his only real choice. He knew that his temperament would not allow him to passively flee forever.
Then he said to the Hunter: “Would you be willing to help me? You seem like a capable man.”
This was an enormous presumption, Lee realized. But you could never tell with people. Sometimes strangers did grant you unexpected favors. Not often, but sometimes. And the Hunter had turned out to be anything but typical so far.
However, the older man shook his head. “I wish that I could help you. In another time and place, it might have been possible. But not now. That world out there is not for me anymore. I cannot leave these woods.”
This struck Lee as stranger yet. Apparently the Hunter was still brooding over events that had happened a lifetime or two ago. Well, it had been worth a try; he would not push the issue.
“It is getting late,” the Hunter said. “And time for an old man to turn in. Feel free to make your bed here if you would like. I’ll keep the fire burning. It should drive away whatever wild beasts still reside in these forests.”
“Thank you for the dinner,” Lee said. “But I don’t believe that I’ll impose on your hospitality any further.”
“As you wish. Take care, my young friend. And find a way to go on the offense. No matter how much your instincts may tell you to run. Sometimes the world is as dark as this forest, son. It doesn’t just seem that way—it is. But you have to find a way to fight it—both for yourself, and for those who cannot fight for themselves.”
Lee only nodded in reply as he stood up and brushed off his pants. He felt the urge to get moving, to continue his journey. For some reason that he did not fully understand, he did not want to stay here with this man who seemed to have an unobstructed view into his soul.
The inside of his townhouse was pitch-black by the time Phelps called it a day and returned home. Although June was the season of long days and leisurely evenings that seem to last forever, it was full dark at eleven-ten p.m., the time reported by the digital readout on Phelps’s cable television box.
He flicked on the overhead light switch in the main foyer of the townhouse, and the entire room was bathed in artificial light. Phelps lived alone; and he had no pets. His abode was clean, well maintained, and decorated with the requisite minimum of wall hangings and bric-a-brac; but something about the townhouse looked barren. This was arguably an inevitable characteristic of all bachelor pads, though Phelps reflected that the term “bachelor pad” was probably intended to describe the lairs of prowling twenty-five year-old men just out of college—not those of middle-aged men who were already thinking in terms of aching backs and prostate exams.
He had spent most of the afternoon with a borrowed canine unit, combing the long swath of woods between the Tradewinds and Highway 168. No luck. Not a single sign of Lee McCabe.
Phelps had anticipated a faster response from the state police. He had expected actual assistance in the form of boots on the ground, as that was what was needed to find a man on the run in dense forests.
While manning a roadblock, Phelps had heard the thucka-thucka of a helicopter and looked up to see a Kentucky State Police airborne unit pass overhead. He had known right then that this would be mostly a waste of time. The canopies of the surrounding forests were thick with early summer foliage, and the airborne unit’s approach could be heard from a long distance. McCabe would have had no trouble evading the helicopter. The young man was an ex-marine, after all. He had only recently spent months in the role of pursuer, ferreting al-Qaeda terrorists from their hovels and secret bunkers in Iraq. He would know all the best strategies of the fugitive.
Walking into the kitchen, Phelps opened his refrigerator and removed a chilled brown bottle from an open case of Samuel Adams Boston Lager. He would stop at one, he told himself. Two at the most. He would not get drunk tonight.
He knew that his mood—his focus—was all wrong. Two people in the county had been murdered today. And his only suspect was on the run. He should be thinking about the case, about how he would capture Lee McCabe.
But instead he was thinking about Lee’s mother—Lori McCabe. Or Lori Mills, as Phelps preferred to think of her. The Lori who had not yet met Tom McCabe.
Moving to the living room, he placed his beer on a glass-topped coffee cable, barely taking the time to set a coaster beneath the dripping bottle. He knew that his next course of action would do him no good; but he felt drawn to it nonetheless. He supposed that this was how junkies must feel. They know better: but sometimes even bad medicine seems preferable to the impulse that won’t let you rest.
He walked into this bedroom. The shoebox was at the bottom of his closet. Exactly where it always was.
He carried the shoebox back into the living room and let it rest on the cushion adjacent to him on the couch. This was his Pandora’s box, a shoebox full of memories that would be better left covered and stored away. Or better yet—discarded completely. He knew, though, that he wasn’t up to this latter option. It was enough of a struggle for him to maintain the first.
The shoebox contained mostly photographs—relics from a few decades ago, a time when no one had thought in terms of photographs as bits of electronic data to be stored on computer hard drives and posted in cyberspace—another term that was completely alien to that time. These were photographs that bore the words PRINTED ON GENUINE KODAK PAPER on their backs in faded red lettering. Or they were Polaroids taken on bulky squares of instant film, the kind that had developed within a few minutes of taking the shot.
He shuffled through the pictures, and the odd assortment of concert ticket stubs and letters that also filled the box. Lori had often written him letters in those days; which was kind of silly, since they had lived in the same town, their houses separated by no more than a few miles. Then he remembered how her letters abruptly stopped not long after he had moved away.
One particular photograph caught his attention and he removed it from the shoebox: It was a picture of himself and Lori Mills. They were seated on a sofa at a friend’s house. Phelps remembered the moment that the photograph had been taken as if it were yesterday. Lori’s arms were wrapped around him and her mouth was pressed against his cheek. Phelps had seen the camera but Lori had not, so Phelps’s gaze was on the person taking the picture, and Lori’s attention was focused on him.
She was wearing faded jeans and a pullover top with black-and-yellow horizontal stripes. A lock of her hair—she had worn it loose and shoulder length in those days—had fallen across one of her cheeks. The photo made Phelps’s heart ache.
The two of them had gone to a concert that night at Rupp Arena in Lexington. The headline band had been Foreigner—one of the big pop-rock acts of the 1980s. Phelps had always been lukewarm toward the group’s music but Lori had loved them. He remembered the way she had gyrated during one the band’s fleshier songs, her body occasionally brushing against him in rhythm with the drums and bass onstage. His mental image of Lori was young and immortal, nothing like that of the early middle-aged woman who had wasted away from cancer.
Enough was enough. Phelps turned the photograph over to its white paper side and dropped it into the shoebox.
Phelps did not want to look at any more old pictures. Before he could change his mind, he stood and carried the entire box back into his bedroom. He felt relieved when he closed the closet door, the shoebox safely stowed in the rear corner.
He paused in the middle of his bedroom, thinking. Nothing could be accomplished by focusing on these old memories. Phelps knew better. He realized that he was chasing ghosts—quite literally, in the case of Lori. She was gone now; and she had been gone to him even before she had died. Years before, in fact.
He also knew that despite his best efforts, he would always think about Lori Mills. He had become resigned to that defeat long ago. Connections to Lori’s son were another matter, though. There had been some good times with Lori. But no good had ever come from any of his connections to Lee McCabe.
He recalled that flashback he had in Fitzsimmons’s trailer—remembered glimpses of the Iraqi dead on the highway in Kuwait. How old had Lee McCabe been then? He would have been a mere child.
Phelps had not known then, of course, that Lori McCabe’s young son would enter this same hot, dusty land as a U.S. marine nearly two decades later. Nor could Phelps have predicted that he would one day be the Sheriff of Hawkins County, and that this role would make him Lee’s pursuer.
He thought again about those burned Iraqi soldiers. Phelps had been unable to find much pity for them at the time: he had known what the Iraqi army had done in Kuwait. As the years passed, though, he had gradually adopted what he considered to be a more philosophical view. He concluded that not all of those men could have been heartless killers who murdered and raped and tortured. At least a few of them must have been innocent men who had been compelled to take part in the invasion. Their innocence had not saved them, though. They met the same fiery deaths as the guilty.
Phelps had seen Lee McCabe run from the trailer. He had seen the young man’s gun. All the circumstantial evidence was aligned against him. And yet, there was something about the scenario that didn’t make sense. McCabe had been trained in military tactics and he had survived a war and its unsettled aftermath. Phelps had to assume that he had some tactical sense and a degree of street smarts. If McCabe had gone to Fitzsimmons’s trailer to commit murder, he would have planned it more carefully; he wouldn’t have gone about it in a way that was guaranteed to place him at the crime scene with a dozen witnesses.
Had McCabe suffered some sort of a breakdown and snapped? Possible, but still a stretch. When men broke and went amok with guns they usually took many innocent lives. The violence at the Tradewinds had been narrowly targeted at Fitzsimmons and the unfortunate Jody White.
For Phelps personally, the path of least resistance was to assume that Lee McCabe had committed those murders, and then to direct all his energies toward apprehending him. Then the justice system would do its work and Lee McCabe would either go free or to prison—perhaps even to the lethal injection table. Kentucky was a death penalty state.
Perhaps that last option would be best for all; it would provide a bit of closure. With Lee’s death, he could forget that Lori had betrayed him all those years ago, forget about the man who was Lee’s father.
Damn you, Steve, he cursed himself. Damn you for even entertaining thoughts like that.
Not for the last time, Phelps reflected that his own life might have had more meaning if it had ended somewhere in the Iraqi desert in 1991; then he cursed himself for that thought as well.
He whirled around, stood before the closet and pounded his fist twice on its closed door. Then he resolved to do what he should have done years ago: He opened the closet door and retrieved the shoebox again. He would throw it away, all of it.
He carried the shoebox outside and placed it in the backseat of his police cruiser. He permitted himself one last look at the snapshot of him and Lori: Yes, he was chasing ghosts, and his obsession with the past would only cloud his judgment in the present. That might get him—or someone else—killed in the days ahead.
His name was Terrence James Anderson; but everyone had always called him TJ—even in prison. TJ was a late riser; and he regarded the late morning sunshine with a touch of irritation. He had always preferred the nighttime.
He was cleaning his gun: a 9 mm Bersa Thunder semiautomatic. The gun had a thirteen-round magazine and could be easily concealed inside a piece of clothing, or even inside a boot. The gun was stolen, and his possession of it would have violated the terms of his parole in any case. But TJ wasn’t worried about anyone seeing it—not this far out in the country. He leaned back in the rocking chair and let the nickel plating on the gun’s barrel gleam in the sunlight. He was proud of the way that barrel gleamed. He gave it a few more rubs with the cloth in his lap before declaring the job done.
He saw a crow land in the front yard. The bird jabbed its beak into the grass and pulled out a squirming, living thing that might have been a small toad or a frog. TJ was tempted to take a shot at the crow; he had shot at birds before from the front porch and had even hit a few. But that would be a waste of ammo; and he didn’t want to antagonize any of the neighbors in the adjacent farmhouses. Word traveled fast—even in rural districts like this. By now, all of his neighbors would know that an ex-con had taken up residence in the rental house atop the hill.
He heard the front screen door squeak open. Tammy was leaning just inside the doorway, her long, bare legs looking so inviting in a pair of gym shorts. To think that he had lived in an institution with only nine hundred men for company until a few months ago.
She walked out onto the front porch and approached the rocking chair from behind. Then she began to massage his bare shoulders. He felt himself stir when her fingers dug into his skin: Tammy Lynn Davis—twenty-one years old and damn easy on the eyes.
“What are you doin’ out here, TJ, when I’m inside?”
“I won’t be much longer,” he said.
Tammy didn’t seem to mind the fourteen-year difference in their ages, nor the fact that TJ had done time behind bars. This did not completely surprise him—he had long known that some women liked their men older and harder, particularly spoiled princess types like Tammy here. Her father was the sales manager at the John Deere dealership in town, and the old guy no doubt laid awake at night agonizing over the fact that his precious daughter was shacking up with a thirty-five-year-old ex-con. He wanted her to date Biff the Football jock, or some promising young egghead who planned to study law or engineering.
TJ realized that Tammy was, in her own way, using him as an instrument of her private rebellion against her parents. That was all right with him, though—a man could be used in worse ways.
“You’re always polishing that gun,” she observed.
“Well, like I said, I won’t be much longer. While don’t you go inside and make us a couple of sandwiches for lunch?”
“TJ, you’re bein’ a jerk,” she said. But she did as she was told when she saw that he was serious and not in the mood to talk.
And TJ didn’t have time to talk to Tammy right now. He needed time to think about the money, and what he would need to do in order to get it: Lester Finn had called him late last night with an offer: lead a team of men and kill Lee McCabe. Finn had offered him a princely sum if he achieved this—more money than he had ever seen in his entire life. Six figures. In cash.
TJ had done one small job for Finn since his parole from prison. Lester Finn seemed to contact all of the ex-cons in the area sooner or later. That one job had been easy work: TJ had shaken down a john who had failed to pay one of Lester Finn’s hookers. The payment for this minor service had eased TJ’s financial concerns for several weeks.
TJ knew that Lester Finn was full of himself—he apparently fancied himself to be some sort of big-time gangster. Pure bullshit. But Finn had indeed paid for the last job in cash. He had been good to his word so far. And if he was promising six-figures to kill Lee McCabe, then TJ was willing to assume that old Lester must have access to that kind of money. And if Lester turned out to be a liar, he would be a dead man, of course. The proprietor of the Boar’s Head would not be stupid enough to promise what he could not deliver.
He grasped only the rudiments of Finn’s beef with McCabe: Something about McCabe being a witness to some other act of violence: Probably those killings at the trailer park yesterday. The whole county was talking about those murders. Hell—even the Cincinnati and Lexington stations were talking about events in Hawkins County now. TJ did not give a damn about the Internet; but Tammy had told him that the killings had made the national online news sites—CNN, Fox, and MSNBC.com, no less.
So Lee McCabe would have to die because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Too bad for him—plenty of people had died for far less.
The crow, having devoured its first kill, resumed its hunt through the grass. TJ sighted the bird down the barrel of his pistol. He did not want to spend the rest of his life as a scavenger, subsisting on meager funds from payoff to payoff. He had a lot in common with that crow, now that he thought about it.
But not for much longer. He would have to act quickly in order to catch McCabe before he left the area. The young ex-marine was going to put a permanent end to his money problems.
If one watched carefully from the street, it was possible to catch an occasional glimpse of one of the armed guards who loitered about the front porch and foyer of the house at 2130 Montpellier Avenue.
These guards did not wear the blue uniforms of a security company. Instead they wore dark blazers and dress slacks, silk shirts and expensive penny loafers. They leaned against walls, sometimes smoking, sometimes speaking in low, smirking whispers with toothpicks protruding from their mouths, with their hands in their pockets. They did not have the bearing of conventional security guards. They watched, but they watched furtively.
Nor did the men did not carry their guns openly in hip holsters. They kept their weapons tucked discreetly in clandestine holsters beneath their blazers. They would not identify themselves as guards when visitors arrived at 2130 Montpellier Avenue. And of course they wore no badges. There was no need for such trappings. Everyone knew their function. Everyone gave these men a wide berth.
This was one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Chicago. Manicured ivy crept up the fieldstone facades of houses that regularly exchanged hands for seven figures, even in the currently depressed real estate market. Mexican and Salvadoran gardeners labored to maintain the early summer lawns in an immaculate state of weedless green. Unlike so many sections of the great city, this neighborhood had never decayed into ghettos and tenement housing. It had started out as a realm of money and influence when the foundations of its first mansions were laid in the mid-nineteenth century. And it remained so more than a hundred and fifty years later.
The house at 2130 Montpellier Avenue belonged to the Coscollino family. Everyone knew the nature of the Coscollino family’s business—though spokespersons for the Coscollinos publicly insisted that it comprised nothing more than a passel of legitimate concerns: a trucking firm based in Cicero, a wholesaling business that had locations in various points throughout Chicagoland. The Coscollinos also owned a string of convenience stores, and an airport restaurant that sold hot lattes and fresh sandwiches to travelers at O’Hare. The family even owned a jewelry shop in Naperville, a suburban enclave located thirty miles west of Chicago, where few people gave much daily consideration to the criminal enterprises of the teeming, smoking, insular city on the shore of Lake Michigan.
The people of Chicago had lived with organized crime since the 1800s, when La Mano Nera had begun running extortion rackets in Italian-American neighborhoods. The Five Points gang had been operating gambling dens and prostitution rings in the city when the American frontier was still being settled, and there were still living men who were awakened at night by memories of the bloodshed that had occurred at Gettysburg and Shiloh. Organized crime was as much a part of the city as its streets and towering skyscrapers. The city’s residents had long since learned when and how to look the other way.
No one would have been surprised to learn the full extent of the Coscollino family’s other, less public enterprises. But few people would have dared to openly talk about them, either. More than one crusading journalist at the Tribune or the Sun-Times had dared to make accusations in print against the Coscollinos over the years. These men had quickly learned the limits of the Freedom of the Press. Threats had been sufficient to silence all but one of these men. The one who had defied the Family’s threats had suffered an unfortunate accident. His drowned body had been pulled from the lake days after he had apparently slipped and fallen from a pier. The journalist did not own a boat; and his widow told police that he had hated the water.
In one of the three living rooms of the Coscollino house, an elderly man sat alone before a 72-inch Toshiba flat-screen television. He was watching a reporter who was employed by a CNN affiliate in central Kentucky. The reporter was an attractive woman in her mid-twenties. She had long blond hair and a pronounced southern accent. She was interviewing a Perryston resident regarding local reactions to the murders at the Tradewinds trailer park. The interviewee was a much older woman. She responded to the reporter’s inarticulate questions with even more inarticulate platitudes. What was the world coming to, when people were gunned down like animals in the heartland of America?
The onscreen image of the reporter and the random Kentucky woman was replaced by a brief still shot of the trailer where Tim Fitzsimmons and Jody White were killed. Alfonzo had learned their names by now.
He had also learned the name of Lee McCabe. His was the next image to flash across the surface of the Toshiba: a young Marine in dress blues, solemnly standing at attention, an American flag in the background.
Alfonzo Coscollino was seventy-two years old. Though he bore the dark, Romanesque features of southern Italy, Alfonzo had been born in America. His Italian was poor, barely adequate for basic conversational purposes. It had been the language of his grandparents, after all; and Alfonzo was now a grandfather himself. He did not wear the expensive European fashions that characterized the mafia dons of the Godfather movies and their numerous imitators (though he had in his younger years.) Nowadays he dressed for comfort—not style. Most days he wore a warm-up suit. Two years after surgery for prostate cancer, his bladder still plagued him at times; and the warm-up suits facilitated his frequent trips to the bathroom.
Alfonzo had cut his teeth in the family business during the glory days of the organization, when the Sicilian clans controlled everything worth controlling, from influence pedaling in the longshoremen’s unions, to the seedier venues of narcotics and prostitution. Now he ran the family business himself, the sole survivor of the last generation to come of age in a more dignified time, before the dons had become the fodder of tabloid magazines and made-for-TV movies. A time when even public officials still uttered the words, “There is no mafia” with a straight face.
Now the pundits were saying that the old Italian underworld was all but finished, defanged by savvy federal prosecutors armed with aggressive RICO statutes and modern, technologically driven law enforcement practices. They called the families anachronisms, and said that the Sicilians were bound to go the way of the dinosaurs. They were gutted, dying. On their last legs.
As usual, Alfonzo knew, the pundits were largely full of shit. Nevertheless, Alfonzo was savvy enough himself to realize that the federal government had been sporting a hard-on for la Cosa Nostra since the Kennedy Administration. Their cumulative efforts had not driven the families out of existence, but they had certainly driven them into a corner. Times had changed. The families had to be careful nowadays, just like the management teams of large corporations. No one swallowed the line that there was no mafia—and that had been the case for more than thirty years. When a judge seemed to be on the take, or a renegade union leader ended up floating in Lake Michigan, the mob was the first place people looked. Any misstep could bring unwanted attention, and ultimately ruin.
Which was why Alfonzo was so concerned about events in Hawkins County, Kentucky. He seethed as he reflected on the stupidity that had created this mess: Stupid to hit a small-time hood like that in broad daylight, in a way that was practically guaranteed to attract wide attention. Even stupider to leave a probable witness alive, a man who would eventually be nabbed by the police, who could then spin a tale that might eventually lead the authorities to the room in which Alfonzo now sat.
He balled his hand into a fist. The hand was liver-spotted and arthritic now, but it had once been a hand that had dealt vengeance to the Family’s enemies. Twenty-three men and one woman had died by this hand.
He knew that something had to be done. If the feds ever established a link between the Coscollinos and the events in Kentucky, they would take his scent and pursue him like the merciless, baying hounds that they so often were. How the FBI and the Justice Department would love to see him sent to prison, doomed to live out his remaining years behind bars.
This thought filled him not only with anger, but also with dread. He had done a two-year stint in prison many years ago. But he had been much younger and much more resilient then. He had been looking forward instead of looking backward. If they sent him to prison now, he would never survive. He would take his own life first.
He should have known that something like this would eventually happen. He should never have entrusted the work in Kentucky to subordinates. The family had long known how to navigate its way through the big-city unions, the casinos, and the Chicago city council. The family had no experience in Hicksville. Yet the family had taken Hicksville lightly, based on the assumption that everything in Hicksville would be a pushover. And Hicksville might end up taking the entire family down.
What had his nephew Paulie said? “We’re talking about Kentucky, Uncle Alfonzo. They mate with goats down there. We’ll run circles around them.”
He would have to deal with his nephew; and he would have to rethink the Family’s strategy for handling Kentucky.
The family had been able to ignore places like Kentucky a mere twenty years ago. Even with the feds already nipping at the family’s heels, there had been plenty of opportunities in Chicago and the northern Midwest. But competitors had arisen since the mid-1980s. First the Columbians and the Mexicans, then the Russians in more recent years. In one area after another, these upstarts were squeezing the family’s traditional profit centers.
Take women, for example. The Coscollino family had once dominated the sex trade on the south side of the city. Then the Russians had come in, with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of doe-eyed farm girls from the former USSR. Alfonzo had heard that habitual south-side johns were now buying Russian-language phrasebooks along with their condoms.
So when the methamphetamine trade had exploded in the rural south, the family had taken notice. Here was an untapped market: Rural America had not been a target for serious contraband since the moonshine running days of the Prohibition.
Moreover, this was an area that the foreign gangs were unlikely to crack, due to linguistic and cultural barriers. A Russian or a Columbian would have a difficult time blending in and establishing networks in the states below the Mason-Dixon Line. But a third-generation Italian would be relatively inconspicuous.
And the Coscollino family’s strategy had hinged on using locals for enforcement and distribution. That meant local dealers and local muscle. The Coscollinos’ plan had been almost corporate in its calm methodology: Begin by establishing a monopoly: Frighten off the less competent local dealers who were already selling meth, hire the rare few who were found to be talented and pliable. Then fill the pipelines with cheap, mass-produced methamphetamine from Mexico. Sit back and watch the profits roll in.
That had been the plan for Hawkins County, until a stubborn small-time dealer named Tim Fitzsimmons had decided that he was too good to work for the Coscollino family. Alfonzo felt no remorse for the man’s death—not a single iota. Fitzsimmons had been offered a buyout before threats were used. He had been given a choice between life and death. And he had opted for death.
But the Coscollino family’s local operative, this Lester Finn, had botched the hit, and now all hell was poised to break loose.
Lester Finn’s incompetence was obvious. Finn required constant supervision. He was an amateur, after all, a yokel who had been barely getting by before the Coscollinos had made him an offer—which Finn had so eagerly accepted.
Alfonzo was dismayed and puzzled, though, by the fatal negligence of his nephew Paulie. The Hawkins County operation had been Paulie’s responsibility. He was supposed to be watching Lester Finn, making sure that the Kentuckian didn’t pull something stupid.
But Paulie had not even known about the hit before Alfonzo had summoned him to this house. The young man had failed. He had been negligent in his duties.
Now Paulie would have to make things right, or he would suffer the consequences.
A don of the Coscollino family had never ordered the execution of his own flesh and blood; and this was not a prospect that Alfonzo relished. But if Paulie continued to demonstrate gross indifference to the family’s concerns—if his negligence actually brought down the family…
Hopefully it would not come to that. He would give the young man a chance to clean up his mess. As bad as this looked, it could still be salvaged. More deaths might be required to assure the secrecy of the first deaths. Yes, more killing would be inevitable. This Lee McCabe, for one, would almost certainly have to die.
If the situation became too ugly, the family might need to resort to something like a scorched earth policy in Hawkins County. That would mean aborting the whole operation. So be it, if it came to that. There were other depressed counties in other Southern states. But the family’s interests—let alone its survival—could not be compromised. No matter what.
Alfonzo reached inside his breast pocket and withdrew a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He coughed violently on the first puff. He covered his mouth with one hand and felt relief when he examined the open palm: no blood. He had been hospitalized twice in the past year for emphysema. He kept a tank of oxygen beside his chair, though he usually did not need to resort to it this early in the day.
His doctor had warned him to stop smoking. Prostate cancer is one thing, the doctor had counseled him. It has a ninety-five percent survival rate. Lung cancer is another. Only fifteen percent survive that. And for a man of your age and health…
Alfonzo sighed. If it was not one thing, it was another. He seemed unable to rest. He would have to remain vigilant and preoccupied even in his final days. Alfonzo had been shot three times. He had endured the years in prison, and for most of his life, any number of people had wished him dead. Death he could face—but not an ignominious farewell in a federal prison cell. Nor would he endure the humiliating circus of a drawn-out public trial, with puffed-up journalists and officials exposing the Family’s secrets in open court. There would be too many of them to silence with either threats or bribery.
He would tell Paulie to go to Kentucky, to look into the situation.
He would tell Paulie to take care of it.
Phelps looked up from his desk as he heard a soft rap against the metal frame of this office door. The door itself was open. Deputy Justin Hathaway stood in the doorway. He was not wearing his uniform. He looked like he was preparing for an afternoon at a shopping mall or a casual outing with friends: jeans and a red golf shirt. Phelps could not see the young deputy’s shoes; but he knew that these, too, would be non-police issue. Probably Nikes or loafers.
The uneasy expression on Hathaway’s face made Phelps feel equally uneasy. He had always questioned his newest and youngest deputy’s dedication to the job. Hathaway was chewing on his lower lip, nervously shifting his bodyweight from one leg to the other.
Nevertheless, Phelps decided to play the situation straight.
“Hathway!” Phelps said. “There you are. We could have used you yesterday. Did you hear what happened?”
“Well, get your uniform on. From now until the foreseeable future, we need everyone on the job. That means no more sick days.”
“That’s what I wanted to talk to you about,” Hathaway said.
“We’ll talk about that later,” Phelps replied. “Right now I need in you in uniform.”
Hathaway took a deep breath and said: “I’m afraid that won’t be possible.”
It was now clear that some version of Phelps’s worst misgivings about Hathaway was about to materialize.
“What are you talking about?”
“Well,” Hathaway said. “I’ve told you about my uncle before. The one who owns the chain of nightclubs in Florida.”
Phelps nodded. He had indeed heard about Hathaway’s entrepreneurial uncle who lived in Florida. From what Phelps had discerned, the “chain of nightclubs” was actually just a pair of rather seedy bars on the outskirts of Daytona Beach. Hathaway had always seemed very impressed with the uncle, though, as if he were some sort of mogul.
“You see,” Hathaway went on. “My uncle has offered me a position at one of his nightclubs. I’ll be assistant club manager and director of security. That’s what my business card will say. My uncle even said.”
“You couldn’t have picked a worse time, Justin.”
“I realize that. I’m sorry.”
“You couldn’t wait until we get our hands around this? Most people give two weeks notice when they quit, you know.”
“My uncle says he needs me right away,” Hathaway said quickly. “And it will take me a good week to move down there.”
Phelps suspected that the uncle’s urgent need for Hathaway’s assistance was mostly a fabrication. It was difficult for Phelps to imagine anyone having an urgent need for the young deputy—though the young man’s presence would be sorely missed in the midst of the crisis in Hawkins County.
More likely, Phelps suspected, Hathaway had been made skittish by the carnage at the trailer park. He had been talking to the uncle about a job in Florida for a while, no doubt. The killings had compelled him to make his move sooner rather than later.
“Anyway, Justin, what the hell do you want to go to Florida for?”
“Kentucky gets damned cold in the winter,” Hathaway said. “And there’s nothin’ goin’ on here. Except—” he amended. “Except for those murders. And I think I can miss out on that.”
With an attitude like that, Phelps thought, I’m better off being short a man. If Hathaway stayed, he might get himself killed. Or his negligence might lead to the death of another officer.
“Alright, Justin. Go ahead and clean out your locker. Before you leave, write a formal letter of resignation for the file, and give us the address where we should send your last paycheck.”
Read chapters 31 to 40...