Monday, March 4, 2013

Blood Flats: Chapters 51 to 60







Chapter
51.


There seemed to be a voice calling his name. The voice roused Hal Marten out of an uneasy sleep—one that had been filled with turbulent, half-remembered dreams.
“Hal Marsten?” There came the voice again.
It had to be the voice of a dream. He decided that he was still partially asleep. Sometimes dreams could bleed into waking reality, especially when you awoke in the middle of the night.
Usually he was a sound sleeper, but these were not usual times. For Hal Marsten, the past few days had been filled with turmoil and worry. First that horrible pair of murders across the road, and then the call from the hospital about his mother. The call that had sent him on a frantic drive to Lexington earlier today.
Hal knew that his mother probably did not have long to live. When he stood beside her bed, she had barely recognized him, both because of her condition and because of the pain killers they had given her. She was well into her eighties, and she had multiple health problems. He did not hold out much hope; but the prospect of losing his mother weighed heavily on him. The inevitability of his impending loss did nothing to lessen the blow.
“Hal?”
Again the voice: someone calling him. Now he might be dreaming about his conversation with Deputy Norris. After returning from the hospital, he had called the deputy, as the paper wedged in his door jamb requested. His conversation with Deputy Norris confused him somewhat. First Norris spoke of arranging a meeting with himself and his boss—the sheriff.  And then Norris seemed determined to make him describe every detail of what he had seen on Saturday morning. Perhaps it was simply a matter of the police being thorough, he told himself.
Norris had listened silently as Hal told about the four armed men who broke into the Fitzsimmons trailer. He described the screaming, the cursing, and the sounds of struggle, and then the sounds of muffled gunfire.
He told Norris how the young man, Lee McCabe, had entered the trailer after the killing was already done. He knew it was important that Deputy Norris grasp this point.
Hal had reproached himself for not speaking out on Lee McCabe’s behalf much earlier—when the young man was being tried and convicted by a kangaroo court of his neighbors. And he had remained hidden inside his trailer when the police knocked on his door yesterday morning.
But today he had finally revealed the information that should exonerate the young ex-marine. And in redeeming Lee McCabe, he had also redeemed himself.
These were the thoughts passing through his mind when he heard his name spoken once again—now in a louder, more emphatic tone. Suddenly Hal was fully awake. This was no dream. An intruder was in his trailer—in his living room, judging by the sound.
Hal kept a loaded and holstered .22 magnum revolver beneath his bed. Taking care to avoid making the box springs of his bed cry out, Hal slowly rolled over on his side and reached for the gun.
The gun was gone.
“Come on out, Marsten,” the unidentified male intruder said. “I’ve got your gun in here, if that’s what’s keeping you. You can collect it in the living room.”
“Who are you?” Hal cried out, his heart pounding.
“Just someone who wants to have a little talk with you.”
When Hal did not reply, the man spoke again: “Come on out, Hal. I don’t have all night. You have nothing to be afraid of if you simply do as you’re told. If my intention was to kill you now, I could have shot you in your sleep.”
Now that Hal thought about it, this line of reasoning did contain a certain amount of logic. Moreover, the man was in his living room and he was apparently not going to go away without a face-to-face meeting.
What choice did he really have, then?
Hal hoisted himself out of bed. He walked through the doorway of his bedroom and into the main hall that connected the living room and kitchen to the trailer’s two bedrooms and single bathroom.
He was about to flip a light switch when he heard the words: “Leave the lights alone, Hal. We’ve got plenty of light for our little talk. All the light we need.”
There were actually two men in the living room. A late middle-aged man with long hair was seated in Hal’s recliner, and a younger, larger man was standing beside him.
Hal struggled to maintain his composure, to take in as many relevant facts as he could. Although the light in the trailer was sparse, it was not completely dark. The hulking younger man who was on his feet was completely unfamiliar to him—but there was something familiar about the seated, older man. Where had Hal seen him, though?
Then he noted that the older man was holding a shape in his lap. It was Hal’s cat, Bullet. Bullet flicked his tail and nuzzled himself deeper into the stranger’s lap, apparently unaware that anything was amiss here. Bullet was like that—unlike so many cats, he took instantly to strangers.
“You ain’t gonna hurt Bullet, are you?”
The stranger appeared to be surprised by the suggestion. 
“Bullet? I think ‘Gullet’ would be a better name for this cat. This animal needs to go on a diet. But, no I’m not going to kill your cat. As it turns out, I’m rather partial to these feline beasts. Cats have dignity. They are loners, hunters. Far superior to dogs, you know. Dogs, on the other hand, are pack animals. Vile creatures.”
The man looked down at the contented Bullet and Hal suddenly grasped his identity: It was Lester Finn, the owner of that bar in Blood Flats. Hal didn’t hang out in the bars much, but he had visited the Boar’s Head several times over the years.
But why was the tavern owner in his trailer like this, and who was the other man? The younger man had yet to speak. He stood beside the recliner with his arms folded across his chest, his head nearly touching the trailer’s low ceiling.
Lester Finn patted Bullet’s head
“The great masters understood the true natures of dogs and cats. Tell me, Hal, did you ever read Cyrano de Bergerac?”
Hal shook his head.
“Have you seen the movie?”
Hal shook his head again.
“Tell me, have you ever heard of Cyrano de Bergerac?”
Hal Marsten returned a blank stare. 
“No,” Lester Finn said. “I didn’t think so.” He paused and quoted the film: ‘When I see people going about their business making friends—as dogs make friends, I say to myself: thank heaven, here comes another enemy.’”
Hal was about to ask for a clarification—why Lester Finn, a man with whom he had no identifiable business—had shown up in his home in the middle of the night in such a manner. He noticed that Lester’s accomplice had a semiautomatic pistol tucked into the front waistband of his pants, not that he really needed one, given his size and the fact that Hal was unarmed.
Lester gingerly lifted Bullet and placed the purring tomcat on the floor. Bullet idled lazy away, his tail swishing behind him.
“No—I’m not going to kill your cat. But—” Lester Finn raised his hand, as if a profound idea had just struck him. “I’ll make no such promises about your mother.”
Hal started forward, suddenly furious. “If you do anything to Momma—”
The big man standing beside Lester drew the pistol from his waistband. Lester didn’t even flinch. Hal stopped when he saw the gun pointed at him. A stray beam of moonlight glinted off the gun’s muzzle.
“Then you’ll do what?” Lester asked. “It should be pretty clear to you that I didn’t come here for a negotiation. Here’s the situation: I understand that you saw something in that trailer the other morning.”
“Yes,” Hal said. “I saw four men burst into that trailer, and then they up and killed that crackhead Tim Fitzsimmons and his girlfriend.”
Lester sighed. “Luke, I think what Mr. Marsten here needs is a bit of aversion therapy.”
Without warning, the big man lunged forward and drove his fist into Hal’s stomach. Hal cried out as his entire torso exploded with pain. He fell to the ground. The giant named Luke towered over him. He knelt and raised his fist to strike Hal again.
“Enough, Luke,” Lester said. “I think that’s sufficient to give Hal here the lesson he needs. Hal, you are never to speak of those four men—those men who do not exist—again. Do you understand? Answer me, Hal”
Hal gasped for air. His stomach was empty but he felt the urge to vomit. The simple act of drawing breath was a major agony.
“Yeah,” Hal wheezed. “Why—”
“Because if you do otherwise, your mother will die. Then you will die. Does that clarify the situation for you?”
Lying on his side, staring up at his attackers, Hal feared that he was going to lose consciousness at any moment. Why were these men here? Why were they tormenting him so?
“Buh-but, I already tol’ someone. I tol’ that Deputy Norris from the county sheriff’s department.”
“Did you tell anyone else?”
“No,” Hal replied, gritting his teeth as a fresh wave of pain buffeted him. This was the truth.
 “Don’t worry about Deputy Norris,” Lester Finn said. “Another thing: I think it would be a good idea for you to leave town for a while. Go to Lexington, be at your sick mother’s bedside. Do you think you can do that? Otherwise, we may have to come back tomorrow night for another chat. Or we may decide to go ahead and visit your mother.”
“I’ll git,” Hal said. “I’ll git first thing in the morning.”
“That’s what I like to hear.” Lester said, standing up from Hal’s recliner. “Oh—another thing: If you tell anyone about our visit here tonight, first we’ll kill your mother, and then we’ll kill you. If you call the police, we’ll know about it.”
“I won’t tell nobody,” Hal said. And once again, Hal was speaking the truth. He had talked to Deputy Norris—hoping to do the right thing and help Lee McCabe. And just look where it had gotten him.
“Good night, Hal.” Lester said. “It’s been a pleasure talking to you. Why don’t you stay there on the floor for a while? It will give you some time to reflect on the bad things that will happen if you fail to follow our instructions to the letter.”
The two men walked out Hal’s trailer and closed the front door behind him. Hal lay there in the darkness for a long time, thinking about how foolish and naïve he had apparently been.


Chapter
52.

The radio announcer said that the state and local police were searching the area for twenty-three-year-old Lee McCabe of Perryston. McCabe was considered to be armed and dangerous. The announcer mentioned that McCabe was a Marine Corps veteran who had recently returned from Iraq.
When Dawn heard the name as she drove toward Blood Flats, she nearly slammed her foot on the brake pedal. She took her foot off the gas and her car slowed to a crawl. Another driver who had been following her too closely tapped his horn, then pulled into the left lane and gunned past her. He was a middle-aged man who wore a suit and tie. Dawn saw him briefly interrupt his cell phone conversation to glance in her direction as he accelerated away, shaking his head at another absent-minded young woman who could not drive.
Lee McCabe. Surely it was not that Lee McCabe.
But on the other hand, it had to be. While McCabe was a common enough name, Perryston was a small town. There might possibly be two Lee McCabes of roughly the same age in Perryston. That was an acceptable, though unlikely, coincidence. But there could not be two such men who were both Iraq war veterans.
It had to be that Lee McCabe.   
Even as Dawn recognized the name, and she had no trouble recalling Lee’s face. The thought of Lee McCabe caused her to feel a little jolt of emotion. It was the sort of feeling she had not felt about men for a long time—and a feeling that was completely alien to her in the presence of men like Robert.
At the same time, it was a little silly for her to feel anything for Lee McCabe at all. She did not really know Lee McCabe—not like she might have—though she had definitely met him. It had been only a few years ago. Since that time, she had been unable to decide if Lee McCabe was a man she should have gotten to know better—or simply another small-town arrogant jerk, inflated by a false sense of self-importance.
It had been the summer after her senior year in high school. A pool party thrown by a former classmate named Rhonda Glasser. Rhonda’s father owned a successful contracting business; and the Glassers lived in one of the nicer homes in the county, a rural McMansion built on ten acres of converted farmland.
Dawn had been in particularly buoyant spirits that night. Although in the fairly recent past, this seemed a lifetime before she had taken her first hit of meth. She had been in the full flush of early womanhood. Her body was fit and lean from four years of high school track and lacrosse. As she threaded her way through the crowd in the fenced-in enclosure around Rhonda’s pool, she detected the glances that she drew from the young men around her. Although she had never considered herself to be either a flirt or a tease, she had to admit that their glances gave her a certain feeling of power. Even if you were a straight-A student who had been awarded an academic scholarship, it still felt good to be openly admired by members of the opposite sex.
Lee McCabe struck up a conversation with her near the Glassers’ outdoor wet bar, which was covered by a timber awning and built into an impressive stone foundation. Lee had been wearing civilian attire, but his close-cropped haircut made him easily identifiable as a member of the military.
“Dawn Hardin,” he said. “Last time I saw you, you were leaning over one of your textbooks in study hall.”
Lee had been several years ahead of her at S.H.C.C.H.S. She was surprised that he remembered her at all.
“And the last time I saw you, you were getting your butt kicked in a wrestling match.”
Lee laughed. They both understood what was going on. He was testing her and she was testing him back. “Well, I guess I didn’t win all of my matches. But I seem to remember that I won most of them. Too bad that you happened to see me on one of my off days.”
After that, the conversation had flowed easily between them. They exchanged small talk for a while. He told her about his training in the Marine Corps, and how he would be shipping out for Iraq in a few weeks. She told him about her scholarship to the University of Kentucky, about her plans to be a doctor.
It came time for the conversation to end, and for it to either terminate completely or end on some promise of future contact. She liked Lee. Their paths had rarely crossed in high school. (Her claim to seeing him getting his butt kicked in a wrestling match had been nothing more than a line.) Nevertheless, she liked what she saw in him now. Unlike most of the recently graduated high school boys at the party, Lee seemed sure of himself. He didn’t appear to be posturing or going out of his way to impress her with transparent lies and exaggerations, like so many of them often did. He was simply being himself, and that was more than enough to hold her attention and interest.
She would have been glad to give him her phone number. They could have exchanged email addresses. U.S. service personnel had access to email, didn’t they? And maybe he was going to Iraq, but that wasn’t forever, was it? They might stay in touch via email, and in a few years, who knew?
When she hinted about keeping in touch, Lee shocked her with his reply.
“It would never work,” Lee said simply. “You’re going to UK in a few months, and in a few years you’re going to be a doctor. I’m going to be spending the next few years in a desert hellhole. When I come back to Hawkins County—if I come back—I’ll be a machinist or maybe a manager at a construction site. We’ll be in different worlds by then, and we won’t even recognize each other as the people we are right now.”
These words were more than enough to change her opinion in an instant. In that moment she had reassessed Lee McCabe as a boy who was simultaneously arrogant and hampered by an inferiority complex. 
A number of retorts had been on the tip of her tongue. She was even tempted to make some attempt at rescuing the situation, assuring him that she did not come from money herself, and was not necessarily committed to marrying another doctor or even a rich man. She planned to be with the man she most admired and respected—whoever he turned out to be.
But in the end she had said: “Watch out for yourself in Iraq.”
That had been more or less the end of their conversation. In the short span of a few years, circumstances had changed radically for both of them, in ways that neither would have anticipated. She was no longer a med school-bound honors student, but a meth addict who sold herself for money. Lee had indeed gone to Iraq and apparently acquitted himself well there; but now he was a fugitive—and apparently a murderer.
These realizations brought tears to Dawn’s eyes as she struggled to concentrate on her driving, fighting the distraction of a sharp pang of meth craving. How can people go astray so completely? she wondered. How can dreams turn into nightmares almost overnight?


Chapter
53.


Lee found Brett St. Croix exactly where he said he would be, in a little clearing within a patch of woodland that was sufficiently isolated. St. Croix had told him to travel a half a mile north of the Chickasaw Creek, and to then go east until he came to an unusually large, rounded shape rising up from the earth. St. Croix said that he had set up camp on the other side of the massive hill.
“That’s an Adena Indian burial mound,” the journalist had said over the phone. “Did you know that?”
“I may have heard about it at some time,” Lee replied. “I’ve spent a lot more time than usual in the woods these past few days. And what did you say your name was? ‘Brett St. Croix’? Where have I heard of you?”
“I wrote a book about the U.S. military establishment,” St. Croix said. “It’s called The Death Factory: How the U.S. Military Turns American Youths into Killers. I’ve been interviewed on television a few times recently. I was on just the other day, in fact; but my guess is that you were otherwise occupied.”
Of course, Lee thought. The author whom he had seen on the television in the feed store.  
Lee had been surprised a few hours earlier when he had received a phone call from an unfamiliar number, with an area code that was definitely not local. He had been continuing his trek through the woods when his phone had chirped. At first he had expected that it would be Deputy Norris or Sheriff Phelps. It would make sense for them to contact him, if only to use the cell phone signal to triangulate his position.
The call, though, had not been the police, but this Brett St. Croix.
“How the hell did you get my number?” Lee asked. “And what do you want?”
“There isn’t an investigative journalist worth his salt who can’t get anyone’s cell phone number within a few hours,” St. Croix explained. “And I’m calling you because I saw you on television. And I want to tell your story, if you’ll let me. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that you could use a competent spokesperson about now.”
Starting from this preamble, St. Croix informed Lee that he was on his way to Hawkins County as he spoke. St. Croix was based in Cincinnati—only hours from Perryston, “where the very shootings took place,” St. Croix noted.
“Just let me tell you right off the bat that I didn’t do it,” Lee said.
He heard St. Croix snort into the phone. “For the time being, Mr. McCabe, it matters not to me whether you killed those people or not. I’m not an attorney and I’m sure as hell not a judge. My mission is to find out what motivates you—what makes you tick.”
Lee agreed to meet with St. Croix. While it was possible that the journalist was working in cahoots with law enforcement, Lee did not believe that this scenario was likely: St. Croix was clearly hostile to the military. Most of those types were on equally unfriendly terms with the police as well.
If the man wants to talk, I’ll talk to him, Lee had decided. If he doesn’t attempt to screw me over, then he might be able to tell the outside world the truth about what happened in Tim Fitzsimmons’s trailer.
These were the thoughts that Lee McCabe was mulling over as he rounded the top of the wooded hillside that Brett St. Croix had identified as an Adena Indian burial mound. He saw the journalist’s campsite in the clearing, and then the journalist himself, seated on a folding camp chair. He was booting up an expensive-looking laptop. An empty, identical chair had been set up across from him, in a conferencing position.
When he heard Lee approach, St. Croix merely smiled and gave a short wave of his hand. 
Lee stopped short of the campsite. Something about this entire situation seemed quite unnatural. Lee was literally fleeing for his life; he had been forced to kill one man, and he had seen three more people shot dead. And here this man was, camped out in the middle of the forest, affecting a casual posture that suggested that none of this was as serious as it appeared to be.
“I know you’re armed,” St. Croix said. “And you have probably already figured out that I’m not. You have two choices, Mr. McCabe. You can either shoot me or sit down and talk. Do one or the other.”
He had expected Brett St. Croix to be an effete, timid sort of man. But the journalist’s present demeanor belied his short, pudgy stature and pale complexion. Lee had the impression that St. Croix was not afraid of him, and this engendered a grudging twinge of respect for the man. It took a certain amount of courage for an unarmed man to stare down another who had a gun.
Lee scanned the nearest hillsides on either side of the clearing, and the woods behind St. Croix’s tent. He looked for any sign of movement: a shooter with a scope and a high-powered rifle, or perhaps a group of men who would attempt to force his surrender.
St. Croix momentarily stopped tapping on his laptop. “Oh I get it: You think I’m working as a police decoy. If you’ve studied my work at all, you should know that I’d never work for them. Or perhaps you think I am in the employ of one of the criminal factions that is involved in this little fray. Ah, yes, I would truly relish the idea of putting myself in the middle of a shootout between yourself and a band of drug traffickers. What a lovely way to meet my maker.”
“I thought you were an atheist,” Lee said.
“So you’ve read my work. I’m flattered, Mr. McCabe.”
“No,” Lee said. “I’d never heard of you until I saw you on TV the other day. It was just a logical assumption. You can’t be a proper anti-establishment type if you believe in God. You’ve got to be able to roll your eyes and act all superior when someone mentions religion at a cocktail party.”
“Touché, Mr. McCabe. Touché. Now, are we going to trade clever barbs all afternoon, or are you going to take a seat so that maybe, just maybe, I can tell the world your story and possibly alleviate your current predicament? Or do you enjoy the life of a fugitive? Keep this up, and you might make the FBI’s ten most wanted list by the end of the week—if you’re not already on it.”
“I said I would talk to you and I will,” Lee answered.
“Very good. Very good, Mr. McCabe. By all means let’s talk.” St. Croix made a flamboyant gesture to the chair opposite him. “Have a seat.”
Lee stepped forward and took a seat in the proffered chair. He was downwind from St. Croix and he could smell the writer’s cologne.
“Excellent,” said St. Croix. He pointed to a red Igloo cooler beside his own chair. “Would you like a refreshment? Something to eat?”
“Thanks, I’ve already had lunch.”
 “Frogs and possums don’t count, Mr. McCabe. Here—” He leaned over, flipped the cooler open, and removed two items: a large granola bar in a red foil wrapper, and a box of Capri Sun. St. Croix tossed both items to Lee.
McCabe caught the juice and the bar. “I said I’d already—”
St. Croix rolled his eyes. “Oh, please, Mr. McCabe. Drop the macho bullshit already. You’ve been living in the woods. You’d probably sell your mother for a Big Mac right now.”
“My mother’s dead.”
“My condolences. Your wife or your girlfriend then.”
“I don’t have either at the moment.”
Without waiting for St. Croix’s next rejoinder, Lee tore open the foil wrapping on the granola bar. He removed the plastic straw taped to the side of the juice box and perforated the drinking hole. He took a bite of the bar and a long drink of the juice.
“Hit the spot?” St. Croix asked.
“It’ll do,” Lee said.
“A lot better than prison food, I imagine.”
“I don’t plan to go to prison,” Lee said, chewing the granola bar.
St. Croix smiled indulgently but said nothing. He tapped away on his laptop as if he had momentarily forgotten about Lee.
After Lee had finished eating and drinking, St. Croix looked up from his computer.
“Well, Mr. McCabe, I would be willing to bet that you’re surprised to see me here.”
“Almost as surprised as you must be to see me.”
“Not at all, actually. You’re a fugitive and I’m a well-known journalist who has volunteered to tell your side of the story. You have much to gain from this meeting, if you handle it right.”
Lee let the Capri Sun box and the granola bar wrapper fall to the ground beneath his chair. This one time, he was willing to be a litterbug.
“I’ll say this for you, Mr. St. Croix. You’ve got a brass pair for coming out here.” 
“Oh, I get it,” the journalist said. “I’m supposed to be shaking in my boots, afraid that you’ll shoot me.”
“What makes you so sure that I won’t?”
St. Croix smiled thinly. “Because you’re not stupid. At least, I don’t think you are. I’ve read your service record—and all about the medals you were awarded in Iraq. As much as I disapprove of our government’s current actions in the Middle East, I have to admit that your ability to stay alive demonstrates a certain resourcefulness. For you to kill me now would be a misuse of resources. I’m worth far more to you alive than dead.”
“True,” Lee allowed.
 “And I’ll tell you once more, Mr. McCabe: Drop the macho bullshit. You aren’t the most dangerous thing I’ve ever encountered—not by a long shot. I was a junior correspondent in Rwanda back in 1994, when the country’s Hutu majority decided to launch a genocide against their Tutsi neighbors. Do you know how most of the killing was done, Mr. McCabe? With machetes. And a handful of Westerners who got in the way were among the victims. One day, I had to rely on my high school French to talk a Hutu vigilante out of carving me up with a seventeen-inch knife.
You see this?” The journalist rolled up his sleeve, revealing a long, white scar that was clearly recognizable as a blade wound. “One of the vigilante leader’s followers took a swipe at me before the leader shouted him down,” St. Croix explained.
Lee nodded. “Close call.”
“Yes. Close call indeed. I could also tell you about the Serbian soldier who knocked me unconscious with his rifle butt in 1999, or the Mexican drug lord who threatened to shoot and decapitate me when I contradicted him during an interview. I’m no marine, Mr. McCabe, and I’ve never won a medal; but I’m no coward either. Now, you make up your mind: Do you want to tell me your story, or do I fold up my tent and go home?”
Lee folded his hands in his lap and sighed. He wanted to spar further with this pompous journalist, this sanctimonious intellectual who wrote books that portrayed U.S. Marines as robotic murderers. But there was no point in it—no time, and nothing to be gained.
Perhaps he would be wise to accept the journalist’s offer, after all. No one from the outside world seemed to be on his side at the moment. Lee had no illusions that St. Croix was motivated by genuine concern for an ex-marine who had been wrongly accused of a crime. The journalist doubtlessly had his own angle; he had something to gain from this. But that did not mean that the journalist would necessarily betray him.
And it was possible—just barely possible—that St. Croix’s recounting of events would turn the tide in his favor. A long shot, but the only shot Lee had at present.
“Once again,” Lee began. “I didn’t kill those people in that trailer. Nor did I have any involvement in their killings.”
Lee told St. Croix how he had overheard the attack on Tim Fitzsimmons and Jody White, and how he had attempted to intervene—only to find the victims already dead, or dying, in the case of Jody White.
For the most part St. Croix listened patiently, interrupting only to ask for clarifications and more details. When Lee recounted his initial flight from the scene of the crime, St. Croix interrupted him:
“If you were innocent, why didn’t you stay put and cooperate with the police? “
“Sheriff Phelps hates me,” Lee said.
“The sheriff hates you?”
Lee elaborated the history between Sheriff Phelps and a long-ago local girl named Lori Mills. This caused St. Croix to burst out laughing. Lee suspected that the journalist’s laughter was genuine, and not merely done for effect.
“Let me get this straight: You ran because you believed the sheriff would try to frame you, all because of some youthful drama that occurred long before you were even born—long before the sheriff was even a sheriff.”
“I understand your doubts,” Lee said. “But there’s a bit more to it. The sheriff’s deputy tried to gun me down in cold blood.” Lee told the story of his attempted surrender to Ron Norris, and the shots the deputy fired at him.
“I don’t suppose there were any witnesses to this encounter, were there? I mean when the sheriff’s deputy allegedly tried to gun you down.”
Lee shook his head slowly. “No.”
“Hmm.”
“I suppose that comes across as a little too convenient.”
“Some people would say so. But anyway—” St. Croix tapped furiously at his laptop. “Give me a second to catch up.”
St. Croix asked a few more neutral questions of clarification: Exactly where were the bodies positioned in the trailer when you entered? Did the young woman, Jody White, say anything to you before she died?    
He continued to tap on his keyboard. Finally, he looked up from the laptop and said to Lee: “Let me get this straight: You had absolutely nothing to do with those murders. You have absolutely no involvement in the local meth trade. Nor are you working for any faction involved in the manufacture, sale, or distribution of meth.”
“No, no, and no.”
“In fact, Mr. McCabe—the truth is quite the opposite. Far from being the villain here, you were acting as a sort of gun-toting Good Samaritan. You came upon a scene of dastardly evil, with every intention of playing the hero, even if it meant risking your own life and limb.”
Lee was unsure of how to interpret the question. Was the journalist expressing doubt at the story he had just heard? Was he trying to bait Lee into making a transparently false statement? Or—least likely of all—was St. Croix expressing genuine admiration, albeit in a backhanded sort of way?
There was no way to know for sure, but some response was incumbent on Lee.
Lee said as evenly as possible: “What else would you expect of a U.S. marine?”
“Touché once again, Mr. McCabe. What else would one expect, indeed?...Well let’s suppose, Mr. McCabe, that I was to take up your cause—sort of act as a proxy for you, if you will. What would you have me do?”
“You could start by telling people the truth.”
“Oh, my dear boy,” St. Croix began. “Sorry—I know you’re not a boy. You’ve been to war and you’ve seen some terrible things. But you are still very naïve about the way the world works, aren’t you?”
“Suppose you tell me how it works, Mister St. Croix.”
“Very well. Here’s how it works. Let’s say I leave these woods and go forth into the world proclaiming, ‘Call off the manhunt. Lee McCabe is innocent.’ There’s a problem there, you see. That would be nothing but my word against the word of various legal authorities, who believe that you are quite guilty. And as you’ve probably gathered, I don’t exactly have a lot of pull among the establishment—law enforcement, the military, that sort of thing.”
“So you’re basically saying that I’m screwed and there is nothing you can do for me.”
St. Croix held up his hand patiently, as if imparting an obvious lesson to a small child. “Not at all. Not at all. Let’s say that I was somehow able to discover who really did commit those murders in the trailer—and more importantly, the men who paid them to commit them. Then the actual culprits would be charged with those crimes, and your lack of involvement in the crimes would be clearly shown. You would not only be exonerated, but given the—forgive me if this sounds a trifle patronizing—the hero status to which you are entitled.”
“I’m not asking to be a damned hero,” Lee said. “I just want my life back.”
“Well and good. But your acclamation as a hero is inevitable—once the public discovers how you have been the victim here—no less a victim than the two young people who died in that trailer. Trust me, it’s an inexorable outcome.”
To Lee, it seemed that the pretentious man sitting before him was speaking a different language. His words made sense enough—but St. Croix didn’t seem to grasp the essential nature of the “predicament” as he called it. No doubt the journalist espied some opportunity to make himself a co-hero—or to gain publicity for himself at the very least. Well, that much was inevitable, Lee thought.  The journalist wasn’t camped out in these woods for altruistic reasons. He had something to gain. But if St. Croix was willing to help, then why not trust him? What other choice did he have?
“If I become a hero as a result of all this,” Lee said. “You can ride beside me in the ticker tape parade. But let me ask you: What makes you think you can get to the bottom of all this?”
 “I’m a journalist, Mr. McCabe. That’s what I do for a living. I get to the bottom of things. Just tell me where to look and whom to look at.”
“Okay,” Lee said. “As far as I can tell, you need to focus on two items, one human, one material: a guy named Lester Finn, and sawdust.”
Lee told St. Croix everything about his shootout in Jimmy Mack’s garage, and the meth that was inexplicably coated with sawdust. Then his brief conversation with Lester Finn.
“Give me a bit of time to work on this,” the journalist said when Lee had finished, closing his laptop. “We might just have something here.”
Once again Lee had the feeling that St. Croix’s overwhelming concern was the journalistic potential of the situation. “Any advice concerning what I should do in the meantime?” Lee asked.
“Try to remain free, since you can’t trust the police,” St. Croix said. “And try to stay alive.”



Chapter
54.

The second he saw the truck round the bend, Lee realized that he had let his guard down and made a terrible mistake.
After his odd interview with Brett St. Croix, he continued onward. At this point, he was weighing a question: Should he flee or should he fight? The Hunter had told him to fight, of course; but this strange man in the woods had offered very little in the way of practical advice.
Brett St. Croix, on the other hand, seemed to advise that flight would be the better option. With a bit of time and resourcefulness, he could make his way out of Hawkins County. He might go south to Tennessee—or maybe north to Ohio. Wherever he went, the tentacles of the law would follow him. But if he merely stayed out of police custody and away from men like Jimmy Mack and Lester Finn, Brett St. Croix might unravel the connection between Lester Finn and the killers at the Tradewinds, and whatever Deputy Norris had in all of this. The journalist might very well do the heavy lifting for him. In the meantime, he would be able to stay free if he fled and maintained a low profile.  He knew how to survive in hostile territory. This was a skill that his time in Iraq had given him.
His momentary distraction with this issue prevented him from noticing that he was approaching a road: A winding, serpentine country road that did not carry much traffic; but a road nonetheless. And roads are dangerous for a man on the run.
The vehicle that came around the bend was not a police vehicle; but Lee immediately recognized that this was no ordinary citizen or family out for a drive. This was a four-wheel drive truck. There were two men riding in the cab, and another two in the back.
The speed of the vehicle, and the postures of the men, suggested wary surveillance rather than mere travel. They looked from side to side as the truck judiciously navigated the downwardly sloping curve. These men were on the lookout, either for quarry or for danger. Such was the bearing of either the hunter or the hunted. This was the way men used to drive about in vehicles in Iraq.
When one of the men in the back made eye contact with him, there was an immediate flash of recognition. And Lee knew: this man not only recognized him, but he had been looking for him, also.
The man whistled and pounded on the rear window of the cab. Then the other men looked at him, and their faces all bore the same mixture of emotions: A tiny bit of fear perhaps, but a stronger intent to capture or kill him. After all, the numerical advantage was on their side.
“Hey, Lee McCabe,” the man who had first recognized him shouted. “Hold it right there, buddy. We want to talk to you!” And now the truck was accelerating toward him, rapidly closing the distance.
He saw the two men in the back reach for unseen items on the bed of the truck. Lee knew even before he saw the black barrels of the weapons that they were retrieving their guns.
Lee realized that he had one chance to save himself, for a firefight at close range with four men would be suicide. He drew the .45 and aimed it at the windshield of the speeding truck. He fired two rounds, and the windshield of the truck shattered.
This had the desired effect. The truck careened wildly, tossing one of the men in the back to the bed of the truck. Another was tossed overboard. He cried out as he tumbled into the ditch on the opposite side of the road.
The truck failed to negotiate the next bend. The wheels left the pavement; and the front end of the vehicle plowed into the brush-covered hillside. Lee heard at least one of the men in the cab cry out.
Even in this state, the truck and the men were still dangerous. He caught only a glimpse of the weapons carried by the men in the back; but they did not appear to be mere hunting rifles or shotguns, which were deadly enough. These weapons had appeared to be automatic assault rifles: probably AK-47s.
Lee spun and ran, knowing that he would be vulnerable to their gunfire until he made it into a cover of trees. When he reached the tree line he did not look back but kept running.
Finally, he allowed himself to stop for air. He stopped and remained perfectly still, peering through the woods in the direction from which he had come. If they were actively following him he would be able to hear or see them by now, probably. But it would be wise to increase the distance between himself and the truck, nevertheless.
This was an entirely new development. Up until now, the local and state police forces had been pursuing him. Even if Norris (and probably Phelps) were intent on shooting him on sight, Lee assumed that the state police were only intent on capturing him. Jimmy Mack had drawn a gun on him, but he had deliberately walked in to Jimmy Mack’s lair.
Now it appeared that bands of armed, irregular gunmen were also pursuing him, and they would be working for whoever was responsible for the murders of Tim Fitzsimmons and Jody White. Surely the men in the truck had not been mere vigilantes or bounty hunters. They were hired killers, like the men who had done the shooting at the Tradewinds.
Remain free, and stay alive,” Brett St. Croix had advised him. This was simple advice, but it was growing more unlikely and difficult with each passing hour.


Chapter
55.

 
Seated in the driver’s seat of the pickup truck, TJ Anderson did an inventory of his limbs and torso. The rounds fired by Lee McCabe had not struck him. He believed that he would know immediately if he had been shot. Nor was he paralyzed, from what he could tell. He was still able to wiggle his toes and his fingers. His chest hurt horribly—he had struck the steering wheel when the truck collided with the hillside—but he had no difficulty breathing. Possibly a broken rib, but probably not.
The man in the passenger seat—another ex-con who Lester Finn had hired—was groaning, his face contorted in pain and his eyes clenched shut. He appeared to be hurt a bit worse: Blood was flowing from an open wound on his forehead. Not a bullet wound, but a laceration from the broken glass.
“TJ!” one of the men who had been riding in the back of the truck shouted. Judging by the sound, he was somewhere back along the roadside. “You alive?”
“Yeah.” He leaned his head out the window. “Did either of you get a shot off at McCabe?”
“Naw. He done got away.”
Well, that figures, TJ thought. It would be too much to ask, wouldn't it—that McCabe would be felled by a lucky shot this early in the game.
“I think my leg might be broke!” the fallen gunman shouted. “And Delray here is alive but he’s torn up, awful bad.
Time to regroup, TJ thought. The truck was stolen so it could simply be scoured of fingerprints and abandoned. They would be able to commandeer more vehicles, if necessary. That was the sort of logistical arrangement that Lester Finn was actually quite good at.
And he would need a fresh crew as well.
TJ began to brush the largest shards of glass from his lap and chest. The front seat of the pickup truck was filled with more glass. There was no time to waste. Lee McCabe would no doubt be spooked by this little incident. He might decide to haul stakes and head out of the county. And if he did that, he would take TJ’s big payoff along with him.


Chapter
56.

Dawn pulled into the driveway of her parent’s house and turned the ignition off. She sat there for a while, listening to the engine tick. She wanted to go inside the house. And at the same time, she wanted to start the car again, back out of the driveway and go somewhere else—anywhere else.
This small ranch house, with its weather-faded bricks, uneven blacktop driveway, and weedy lawn, had been Dawn’s home for most of her life. It carried the association of Christmas mornings, first days of school, and long, lazy mornings during summer vacations.
She had taken her first steps here—which she did not remember—but which her father had delighted in recounting during the standoffish, self-conscious days of her adolescent years. Bobby Hartman had nervously kissed her for the first time on this front porch. When she had been four, her father had taught her to ride her little pink-and-white bike in this driveway, walking right behind her with his arms outstretched in case she should lose her balance.
These were the memories she tried to keep in the front of her mind as she tentatively stepped out of the car and approached the front door. She had grown up here; this was the residence of the only family she had. But now she felt compelled to ring the doorbell before entering. It was still home—and yet it no longer was. And she could no longer cling to the illusion that she was completely welcome here.
Her mother answered the doorbell on the second ring. No doubt she had been actively waiting for Dawn’s arrival; perhaps she had been peering through the gauze curtains of the front window.
I’m coming home, Dawn had said to her mother on the phone as she drove toward Blood Flats.
Oh, Dawn, her mother had said. You broke your father’s heart. Don't expect too much from him.
But in the end her mother had agreed that she could come, and so here she was.
“Come on in,” her mother said. The lines on Marcia Hardin’s face were noticeably more pronounced than they had been when she had last visited home. But how long ago had that been?  Going on a year now.
Dawn stepped inside, all the possessions she carried in a single gym bag. Is that all you brought? Her mother seemed to ask, looking at the little bag. Dawn had once had a shelf full of books and a laptop computer that was her pride and joy. But those days were long gone.
Once inside the house, she recognized the familiar smell of her mother’s cooking. What was it? Meatloaf, probably.
In the living room, her father was reading the newspaper. He did not stop reading when Dawn entered. Her father did not look at her; he did not even acknowledge her.
She felt her mother’s hand on one shoulder.
“Give him time, Dawn,” she said in a low whisper. “I warned you that this is going to be rough for him.”
Dawn’s life on the streets of Louisville was no secret to her family. None of them approved, of course. But her father—who had been so protective of her during her growing up years, ferrying her to soccer practice and church youth group meetings and whatnot—his reaction had been the most severe and damning. And also the reaction that had stung the most. Dawn knew that every father was protective of his daughter, especially men like Bill Hardin, who had been raised on God and Americana and solid blue-collar values. There would be a part of him that had wanted to preserve her as pure, to let no man touch her until her wedding day. This made her particular fall from grace all the more galling. Bill Hardin knew that his daughter had not only become an addict—she had become a whore as well. She gave herself to unknown men for money, and she used this money to buy drugs.
Walking past the living room, Dawn carried her gym bag down the hall. The house was not very large and so the main hall was not very long, either.
At least her bed was still there, though it was covered with folded piles of Liz’s clothes, which she would presumably move so that Dawn would have a space for sleeping tonight. Liz was lying supine on her own bed. Dawn’s younger sister was leaned back on a pile of pillows, earbud headphones in her ears, and her attention absorbed by the tiny keyboard of her cell phone. No doubt sending texts to one of her friends in town. Or maybe to a guy. Did Liz have a steady boyfriend now? This was the sort of family information that did not reach Dawn in this current phase of her life.
For years she and Liz had shared the bedroom. Her sister had taken sole possession of it when Dawn left for college. That had been a running joke: Liz finally evicting Dawn from the bedroom. How nice it will be to be rid of your snoring, and of course to take over your closet space, Liz had joked.
There had been a good-natured sibling rivalry between them then. That, too, had changed when Dawn’s meth addiction became known. Liz was close to her parents; and she seemed to view her older sister’s failure as a testament that the fates would punish those who dared to rise above their preordained stations. Dawn was supposed to have been the one who would lead the way. Instead she had become the one who broke their parents hearts and plunged lower than anyone in the family—or practically anyone else that any of them knew.
Dawn understood Liz’s judgment of her—and the repulsion that she now provoked in her younger sister. Liz was determined to escape the dicey blue-collar future that Blood Flats offered her. At eighteen, she had already seen many of her female classmates fall into teen pregnancy and a hasty wedding to a local boy. Others merely fell into teen pregnancy without the wedding part.
Liz and Dawn shared many of the same physical characteristics: the same blonde hair, similar mouth and nose, and high cheekbones.  But that similarity was harder to see now, given the extent of Dawn’s deterioration. The older sister might have been mistaken for the mother of the younger one.
Liz removed the headphones and did a double take when Dawn walked in, before conspicuously averting her eyes.
“What?”
“Nothing,” Liz said without looking at her.
“Go ahead and say it.”
“Well, you look like hell,” Liz said.
“Nice to see you, too.”
“Would it be better for me to lie?”
“No, I guess not.” Dawn sat down on a narrow strip of her own bed, between the piles of Liz’s clothes.
“So you’re going to be staying here for a while?” Liz asked. Something about Liz’s tone suggested that her younger sister was less than pleased by this prospect.
“It depends. We’ll see how things go with Dad.”
“Well, I wouldn’t expect too much there,” Liz said, oddly echoing what her mother had told her on the phone earlier. “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but Dad has taken to telling new people he meets that he has ‘a daughter’, and not ‘two daughters’ as had always been the case. Hey, don’t look at me that way, I’m just telling you like it is. Dawn, are you crying? Look, I’m sorry I said anything. But I thought it would be better for you to know the score.”


Chapter
57.

After another night spent in the woods, the barn looked like an oasis in the desert. Lee trudged wearily through the dew-soaked grass toward the sagging wooden structure, his feet stirring up eddies in the predawn fog that blanketed the ground. On one side of him was a field of June tobacco; the low, broad leaves drooped with the morning’s moisture.
The barn was old; it had probably been built more than a hundred years ago. But that did not matter: It might contain running water, and possibly other useful items if he was lucky.
Lee detested the fact that he was now reduced to living like a scavenger—a common burglar, in fact. At the same time, there seemed to be little choice. He was being pursued by the law; and it was now clear that another group was hunting him—probably the same people who murdered Tim Fitzsimmons and Jody White. The few dollars that he had in his wallet were useless; he could not walk into a store; even a vending machine constituted an enormous risk. Nor could he ask anyone for help.
I’ll take no more than I have to, he determined. And when this is over, I’ll make whatever restitution I can.
As he drew closer to the barn, he got a better look at the white farmhouse situated a good distance beyond it. There were no lights in the windows, so it was safe to assume that the occupants were still sleeping. Nevertheless, his span of opportunity would be short; he had to get moving.
He forced himself to jog the rest of the way to the barn. The side facing him was dominated by a large painted-on sign that read “Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco.” He loped around the corner of the barn and saw a pair of sliding wooden doors.
He stole another quick glance at the farmhouse: Still no lights. He slowly pushed one of the massive wooden doors open, being careful to make as little noise as possible. He opened the door no more than was absolutely necessary. When he had created a gap wide enough to squeeze through, he edged into the murky, musty interior.
The inner space of the barn was filled with the smells of bare earth, oil, and mildew. The darkness was partially alleviated by three windows along the far wall. The light that filtered through the dust-covered glass allowed Lee to make out what he needed to see. There was apparently no livestock in here; Lee looked up and saw the apparatuses that the farmer would use to hang his tobacco later in the season.
And then, in one corner of the vast room, was an item that Lee could only describe as a godsend.
The refrigerator was an old model, probably dating back to the 1960s. Lee heard its ancient motor pumping refrigerant. It had been placed in a little workbench area. The farmer who owned the barn probably used it to store drinks and snacks to consume during breaks in his daily labors.
Doing his best to avoid the considerable debris on the floor, Lee walked over to the refrigerator and pulled the door open. The rush of frosty air was magnificent—but not as magnificent as the sight of the twelve-pack of Coca-Cola that occupied the top tray. There was also an assortment of Hostess snack cakes.
Lee removed a can of Coke and one of the Hostess snacks—a chocolate cupcake that gave off a rich aroma when he tore open its cellophane wrapper. He took a bite of the cupcake and popped open the Coke can. The caramel-scented liquid was cold, gaseous, and wonderful as he chugged it down. He crumpled the empty can and placed it atop the refrigerator. Then he removed another one, and he suddenly realized that he was placing too much sugar-rich food into an empty stomach. He drank the second Coke more slowly, so as to avoid any chance of nausea.
When he had finished a second cupcake and the second can of Coke, he pulled his wallet from his rear pocket and fished out a single dollar bill. He folded the greenback at the center and placed it underneath the twelve-pack of Coke. It would be plainly visible when the refrigerator was opened. Someone had already framed him for murder; no one was going to frame him for petty theft. 
Lee was closing the refrigerator door when the semidarkness around him vanished in the glow of overhead electric lights. Lee whirled. He thought of the .45 in the rear of his waistband, but he did not draw it. It would probably only make matters worse.
“If you were hungry, you should have come up to the house and knocked,” said the man in the doorway of the barn. He was a large fellow with sandy blond hair and a heavy beard. His jeans and faded denim shirt suggested that he had come to the barn to begin the morning’s chores. He held up his empty palms, “Please don’t draw that gun on me. I mean you no harm.”
Lee shook his head. “Of course not. Listen, I left you a dollar for the food I took. If it’s alright, I’ll just be on my way, I-”
“I know who you are,” the stranger said. “Your name’s Lee McCabe. You’re the guy they say killed those people in that trailer park. You’re in a world of trouble, son.”
A statement like that demanded a response. Its very enormity could not go unanswered.
“I didn’t do it,” Lee said simply. “I haven’t killed anyone.” Then he amended, “Not since I got back from Iraq.”
The man’s response surprised Lee. “I believe you. You don’t know me; but I used to run around with your father sometimes. Back in the old days. I don’t believe that any son of Tom McCabe would be a cold-blooded killer.” 
“No,” Lee agreed. “That I’m not.”
It seemed that finally his luck had turned for the better. What were the odds of him trespassing on the property of a man who was favorably predisposed toward him, all because of a past association with his father—the father who had been such a hell-raiser and such a source of agony for his mother?
The blonde man scratched his beard. “I tell you what: Why don’t you come back to the house and we can talk about this. I can’t promise anything, but maybe the two of us can think a way out of the box you’ve got yourself into.”
“I don’t know,” Lee said. “I don’t want to—”
“It’s no trouble. And if we can’t think of anything, then you take off again and I never saw you. Let my wife fix you a proper breakfast, at the very least.”
Lee capitulated. If this man was willing to help him, then perhaps it would be foolish to turn down the offer.
“OK. Thanks.”
The man killed the light switch, turned, and began walking toward the farmhouse. A waving gesture indicated that Lee should follow. “You like scrambled eggs? My Peggy makes the best scrambled eggs in the county.”
Lee hurried after the stranger. At this moment, the thought of real scrambled eggs—cooked in salt and butter—was almost as appealing as the potential logistical assistance that this stranger might provide. Yesterday men he didn’t know had been shooting at him; and now another stranger was going to have his wife make him eggs. Maybe she would make biscuits and bacon as well. Lee wouldn’t ask for either of these, but he would gratefully eat them if they were offered.
“Mister, I really appreciate this,” Lee said to the big blonde man’s back. He stepped out of the barn and into the pale sunlight.
“Don’t mention it. It’s the least I can do for a son of Tim McCabe,” he said.
Lee stopped, wondering if his sudden sense of misgiving was justified, or simply a product of the recent days’ events. When you entered a combat zone, you naturally became suspicious of everything. Often that impulse kept you alive; but sometimes it could be a detriment. This fellow had been nothing but friendly so far. Lee didn’t want to overreact. At the same time, he had to answer the anxiety that was now roiling in his stomach.  
“Tom,” Lee said. “My father’s name was Tom.”
The big blonde man stopped and turned around. He was now only a few paces ahead of Lee. He rubbed his beard and appraised Lee thoughtfully.
“So it was,” he said. “That was my little mistake, wasn’t it?”
Without saying another word, the big man closed the short distance between himself and Lee and sucker-punched Lee in the stomach. Lee saw the punch coming at the last second. On another day he might have been able to deflect it; but he had been too weakened by the lack of sleep and food. Lee doubled over and grabbed his stomach, then he straightened up and moved for his .45.
He stopped cold when he felt a round metallic shape jab him in the temple. While Lee had been doubled over, another man had approached from behind the barn. This one was carrying a high-powered rifle of some sort. He had the rifle leveled at Lee’s head.
“Easy,” the gunman said. “This one has a hair trigger. Could be messy if it were to go off just now.”   
The big blonde man—the one who had posed as the farmer—moved quickly behind Lee and plucked the .45 from his waistband. Lee now realized that he had been fatally deceived. The man who had surprised him in the barn was no farmer; and there was no wife waiting for him in the kitchen. These two were part of the group that had been pursuing him the previous afternoon. They had apparently seen him enter the barn, and decided to dislodge him with an impromptu ruse rather than a gunfight.
“Should I do it now?” the gunman asked the big blonde man. “I can get it done with right here.”
“No. Hold on, and don’t be an idiot. We’re in the middle of someone’s backyard, for chrissakes. We aren’t going to do anything here. We’re going to walk him back into those woods. Then we call Anderson, and Anderson will call Lester Finn. Then Lester either tells us to bring him in or to get it done right then and there.”
Lester Finn, Lee thought. The ultimate source of the methamphetamine that Jimmy Mack had sold to the addicts in the woods. Now Lester Finn wanted him dead; and he was willing to mobilize an entire army of men to get the job done.
The big blonde man jabbed a forefinger in Lee’s face. “Let’s get moving. Just follow me. And if you try anything at all, this situation is going to get even worse for you. We can make this very painful for you, you know.”
At that moment Lee heard the sound of a screen door creaking open. It was the real farmer, awakened to three strange men—one of them bearing a rifle—in his backyard.
“What the hell is going on out there?” cried a voice that was older but not quite elderly. Lee saw a figure in the rear doorway of the farmhouse atop the back porch. The owner of the farm held a shotgun.
“Hold on!” the big blonde man whispered sharply to his accomplice. Lee could discern that his intention was to talk his way through this situation. He did not want his apparent hothead of a companion to overreact.
But it was too late. The man who held the gun to Lee’s head removed it from Lee’s temple and swung it in the direction of the front porch.
A gunshot exploded near Lee as the man with the rifle fired at the back porch. The shot went wide of its target, tearing a chunk out of the white wooden exterior of the farmhouse. The man on the porch returned fire. Lee saw a mound of earth erupt directly in front him, blowing grass and wet topsoil across the front of his pants.
Lee knew that he had no more than a few seconds to make his move. He drove his elbow into the ribcage of the big blonde man, just as he was raising Lee’s .45 to fire. The gun fell from his hand onto the grass; but the force of the blow caused him to fling it away rather than simply drop it. It landed too far away for Lee to make a move for it.
He still had to worry about his other assailant, who held a high-powered rifle.  And then there was his final problem—the homeowner with a shotgun. Under the circumstances, he wouldn’t make any distinction between Lee and Lester Finn’s henchmen.
The rifle borne by the blonde man’s accomplice was a bolt-action weapon, probably a .30-06. He had ejected an empty shell and was about to ram another one into place when Lee propelled his shoulder into his bulk. This caused him to stumble in the opposite direction, though he quickly righted himself. Lee attempted to grab the rifle away, but a few seconds worth of struggle convinced him that it was a lost cause.
If he could not win a fight, he would have to flee. On the other side of the backyard Lee saw a woodpile: cords of firewood stacked six feet high, forming a long wall. Lee took the only option realistically open to him at the moment: he bolted for the protection of the stacked firewood. Three voices were yelling behind him. Then he heard another round of shots, likely another exchange between the farmer and the other two.
Lee dove behind the woodpile as shots landed in the grass, in a trajectory that would have hit him if he had been a bit slower. Another shot blasted a cord of wood at the top of the woodpile, showering him with fragments of pungent, moldy smelling wood.


Chapter
58.


Sheriff Phelps and Deputy Ron Norris surveyed the damage in the kitchen belonging to John Poe. This man, a sixtysomething farmer who raised and sold tobacco, was the most recent Hawkins County citizen to have contact with Lee McCabe.
Poe was seated at his kitchen table. He was still trembling from the gunfight that had erupted in his backyard less than an hour ago. Mrs. Poe, a woman of similar age, sat beside him. Their hands were interlaced and Mrs. Poe leaned against her husband.
“I’ve never been so scared in my entire life,” she said. “I was upstairs and I heard all these guns going off downstairs. It was like being in a war zone. I knew that John was down there and I figured that he had to be in the middle of it.”
Sheriff Phelps nodded. “I can understand your being frightened, Mrs. Poe. Anyone would be under similar circumstances.”
The main kitchen window had been shattered by gunfire, and there were two slugs lodged in the wall opposite the window. Poe informed him that there was also substantial damage to the rear exterior of the house.
Amazingly, the gunfight had left no casualties. All three men had apparently run off when Poe stopped to reload his shotgun.
“And you say that one of these three men was Lee McCabe, the one that we’ve been looking for?”
“That’s right,” Poe said. “Of course, I didn’t know it was Lee McCabe at the time. But now that you’ve shown me his picture, yep, I’m sure it was him.”
“And you also said,” Phelps continued. “That Lee McCabe and the other two men seemed to be involved in some sort of a conflict.”
“That’s sure what it looked like to me. First the fella with a rifle took some shots at him—this while he was in the middle of shootin’ at me. Then that young man, McCabe, was wrestlin’ around with the other one. They were fightin’ over a pistol. But finally that fella got the best of McCabe. And McCabe, he ran off and the other one grabbed the pistol.”
“Could you tell what sort of a pistol it was?”
“Some sort of a semi-auto,” Poe said. “I couldn’t really tell for sure. Keep in mind that I’m getting’ shot at all this time. But it wasn’t a revolver, that I could tell for sure.”
“I understand, Mr. Poe. By any standard, it was an extremely high-stress, and very dangerous situation. The information you’ve given us will be quite helpful in our investigation. If you don’t mind, Deputy Norris and I would like to take a look around the rear of the house, as well as in the backyard.”
After the interview with the Poes had been concluded, Phelps and Norris finally climbed into their respective squad cars. In the Poes’ backyard, they had collected five .30-06 shell casings. They had also dug slugs from the Poes’ kitchen wall, and from the rear exterior wall of the house.
“What do you make of it, Norris?” Phelps asked. “It’s been a while since I’ve heard of a three-way gunfight.”
“Doesn’t really surprise me,” Norris said. “It wouldn’t be the first time that scumbags turn on each other. We’re talking about drug pushers, after all. Maybe it's a money dispute. Or maybe some of Lee’s buddies have decided that his new visibility is too much of a liability.”
“It’s possible,” Phelps allowed.
“The world will be a better place when they’re all put away,” Norris said, climbing into his patrol car. “Put away in jail forever or put six feet under. Ask me—the latter option would probably be a better service to the taxpayers.”


Chapter
59.

Paulie Sarzo watched the hardscrabble countryside of central Kentucky roll by through the front passenger’s window of a gold-colored Lexus, cursing the day that he had first heard of the town of Blood Flats.
He doubly cursed the two-bit player who ran the operation out of the Boar’s Head. If Lester Finn told him one more story about his granddaddy, Paulie resolved, he would put a bullet in the old redneck’s forehead, the Family’s business interests be damned.
“Yo, check that out,” Tony Loscotti said from the driver’s seat. Tony was referring to a young woman climbing the front porch of a farmhouse that had already raced by them. The young woman was clad in blue-jean cut-offs and a white halter top that had seen better days. The girl was likely not a day over twenty. Her movements were languid, as if she were in no hurry. And why should she be in a hurry? Weren’t most of these hicks unemployed? Didn’t most of them draw welfare checks?
“Wouldn’t mind having some of that Daisy Mae action.” Tony briefly decelerated to take a second look back at the girl. Paulie frowned. Tony was a useful tool: a reliable man to have in a fight. Tony also had a knack for intimidating people. However, he was not much older than the girl was, and he occasionally needed reminders about priorities.
Paulie gave Tony’s attempt at conversation no more than a grunt in reply, and the car accelerated forward again. Paulie had no interest in Daisy Mae at the moment. He was still focused on the image of pointing his 9 mm Beretta at Lester Finn’s forehead, then pulling the trigger.
Paulie had olive skin, a prominent chin with a cleft in the middle, and curly black hair.  He was only of average height, but also muscular, thanks to a lifetime of weightlifting. At the age of thirty-five, Paulie could bench-press more than three hundred pounds.
Paulie could use his fists when he had to; but he was ready to leave that role behind. There was no future in the rough-and-tumble role of an enforcer. Sooner or later you were bound to end up dead. That work was best left to the young and dumb ones like Tony here.
The thought of shooting the hillbilly was cathartic, but Paulie knew that Finn was safe from him unless Uncle Alfonzo gave the word. So far his uncle seemed determined to ride out the current troubles with Lester Finn. That could change if this business with the ex-marine wasn’t cleaned up quickly and without further incident. Who knew what GI Joe had seen in the trailer? He might be able to identify some or all of Lester Finn’s men. If the police nabbed the ex-marine first, he could lead them back to Finn, and that trail would eventually lead them north, to Chicago and the Family.
By that time it would no longer be a local matter. The FBI and the DEA would be involved, and the federal authorities would descend upon the family like a biblical plague of locusts. Paulie saw a mental image of FBI men escorting his Uncle Alfredo from his Chicago mansion in handcuffs and leg shackles. The thought alone was sufficient to make Paulie shudder. If that happened his future in the business would be over. Probably his life would be over as well. It was rare but not unprecedented for the Family to kill its own.
 Uncle Alfredo had ordered him to go to Kentucky and make sure that the ex-marine problem was cleaned up. Time was of the essence, of course, he and Tony had been driving south since the previous night.
Lee McCabe, Paulie thought, contemplating the Kentuckian whose name had been on CNN so much in recent days. The cursed name that had caused Uncle Alfonzo so much grief, and caused Paulie so much distress and outright fear.
Before I head north again, Paulie silently vowed to the unseen fugitive, I am going to see you dead.


Chapter
60.

Lester Finn tensed as the two Chicago mafia men walked through the front door of the Boar’s Head. Paulie Sarzo was already flashing that arrogant wiseguy grin of his. Paulie was accompanied by a younger man who seemed to exude violence. This one practically strutted; he reminded Lester of the recently departed Dan.
Both of them were wearing expensive sports jackets and white silk shirts that were guaranteed to stand out anywhere in Hawkins County. Their dress, as well as their manner, seemed calculated to mock Lester. The message was: You’re nothing but a pissant country bumpkin, and we all know it.
Lester occupied his normal place behind the bar. The “Sorry…We’re Closed” sign had been displayed in the Boar’s Head’s front window in anticipation of this meeting.
Luke was seated at a table in a far corner of the room. Lester had ordered him to remain seated and quiet unless called upon while the Chicago men were here. Luke would be a mere prop at this meeting: the Coscollino family was an organization. Lester had to remind them that he, too, had an organization.
Lester nodded as the two men approached. He removed three shot glasses from the shelf beneath the bar and filled each one half full of Maker’s Mark. This was premium bourbon whiskey; and it was made not in some smog-filled Northern city; but right here in the Bluegrass State.
“Lester Finn,” Paulie said, his tone openly taunting and infuriating. “The leader of our Kentucky comrades. How are things going in your little neck of the woods these days?”
“We’re managing,” Lester said neutrally. “Thanks for asking.”
“Don’t mention it.  So what else? Any problems down here that y’all can’t handle?”
“Like I said, we’re managing.”
“I see. The stone-cold killers of Hawkins County!” Paulie laughed. The younger mafia man laughed in appreciation of his boss’s witticism.
“You might want to ask Tim Fitzsimmons for an opinion on that,”
Paulie accepted one of the proffered glasses of whiskey and took a sip of its contents.
“Oh, yeah. Tim Fitzsimmons. Seems I heard something about that.”
“We took care of the situation. Tim Fitzsimmons won’t be selling any more product in central Kentucky.”
“Hmm.” Paulie took another sip of whiskey and regarded Lester contemplatively. “Yeah, I guess you did ‘take care’ of the ‘situation’ as you call it.”
Lester lifted his own glass of Maker’s Mark. “Right. No more competition from Tim Fitzsimmons.”
“That’s great. Just great. But I think you’re leaving out a few details, Lester. And maybe you’re giving yourself too much credit. You started with a simple task: You needed to remove one smalltime dealer who was too stupid to listen to simple persuasion. But what did you actually do? You sent four men into a hillbilly trailer park with guns blazing in broad daylight.”
Lester smiled: “I wanted to be thorough.”
“No, you wanted to be stupid. You could have taken out this Fitzsimmons quietly. He was an easy target and no one would have missed him. Ex-cons disappear all the time. Nobody gives a shit. But your men have to go in there and commit two murders.”
Lester could feel his color rise. This little wop prick had just called him stupid.
“Jody White was a junkie, if that’s what you’re talking about. And I happen to know that she was even turning tricks at one point.”
I don’t care if she was blowing Osama bin Laden!” Paulie shot back. “Now that she’s dead, they’ll turn her into Mother Teresa.”
“Bullshit,” Lester said.
Bullshit? Do you ever watch TV? The media loves a dead white girl—as long as she’s young and passably pretty. Did you know that Jody White’s picture is already plastered all over CNN? Did you know that FBI agents are harassing my Uncle Alfonzo?”
“I’m sure the turmoil will pass,” Lester said primly. “We only need to be patient. And as for your uncle, I certainly regret any inconvenience this affair might have caused him. But when people get killed, it usually makes the news. Surely you know that, Mr. Sarzo, given—well, your particular line of work and all.”
Lester was satisfied to see the little dago’s face redden. At the same time, he wondered if he had pushed Sarzo too far. For a second the Chicago mobster seemed poised to reach over the bar and throw a punch, or worse—draw his weapon and start shooting.  Finally he did not.
No, he wouldn’t dare, would he? His family needed Lester, after all. How else could they run their operations in Hawkins County?
“You stupid hillbilly fuck,” Paulie said quietly. “Do you realize what you did?” 
Lester felt his temper snap. “Damn right!” he shouted. “You wanted Tim Fitzsimmons out of the way. I took him out of the way!
We wanted him out of the way quietly! We didn’t want you to make national news!”
“Killing is a noisy business, Mr. Sarzo!”
Paulie snorted out a derisive laugh. “Listen to you: ‘Killing is a nasty business,’” He aped a rural accent as he quoted Lester. “You’d last about two minutes if you had to operate anywhere outside of this bumfuck corner of nowhere.”
“If this is bumfuck,” Lester asked. “Then why is the Coscollino family so intent on establishing itself here?” Lester asked.
Paulie shook his head.
“You took a hit that absolutely no one would have cared about if it had been done quietly. But instead you turn it into a double homicide that turns the world’s attention on what you’re doing down here—and by extension, what we’re doing. Did you know that even Nancy Grace is talking about Hawkins County and your hit at that trailer park?”
“Please, Mr. Sarzo,” Lester said in his most placating voice. I’m a businessman, Lester thought to himself. No matter what this puffed-up Chicago peacock may think, I’m the one here with class.
“At the moment our main problem is Lee McCabe,” Lester went on. “He was the only witness, the only one who could possibly lead police to our involvement in the matter. Once he disappears, our mutual problem disappears. Then we keep our heads down for a little while, and it’s back to business as usual.”
“Alright Lester,” Paulie said, draining the last of his whiskey. “Suppose you tell me exactly what you’re doing to make sure that Lee McCabe disappears. Then we’ll decide if you have a future ahead of you.” 



Read chapters 61 to 69...