Excerpt for All The Way Back by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





All The Way Back


by


David Kearns




Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2017 by David Kearns



Discover other titles by David Kearns:

All the Way Down

All the Way Under

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This is a work of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons living or dead is purely coincidental. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction which have been used without permission. The publication and use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.


For My Heroes

Chapter One


Eric Fullmeyer and I were on the deck of the small house I rented in Oceanside, Oregon. The wood on the deck and railing was a funky blue color and needed re-painting, but the rhododendrons on the street side of the deck were in full bloom, with purple and pink star-shaped flowers serving as an optimistic counterpoint to the fading evening light. I had Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue album on the turntable in the living room, and strains of jazz carried through the sliding screen door onto the deck.


“Check it out,” I said. “The sun’s about to set.” The house was two hundred feet up the side of the hill that fronted onto Oceanside Beach, and even if the house was small, old, and somewhat run-down, the views from the living room and the deck were glorious. There was a ribbon of sand at the bottom of the hill, and the Pacific Ocean stretched to the horizon beneath a sparse collection of clouds the color of molten glass. The sun glowed blood red as it touched the horizon before swelling in the curved lens of the earth’s atmosphere.


“Nice,” Eric said. “I can see why you like it here.”


“It’s unspoiled, isn’t it?”


Eric wore a thin black leather coat, a pale yellow dress shirt, blue jeans, and black dress shoes. He was a grey haired man with a short beard, a thin waist, and shoulders a yard wide. The knuckles on his hands were huge, and the muscles in his neck stood out against the skin like a diagram in an anatomy textbook. I’m not sure why he carries a gun. I think that he could probably tear someone’s arms off if he wanted to.


It was very quiet on the deck. The surf is almost always audible there, but at times the sound is much more noticeable. That evening was one of those times when the slap of the waves hitting the beach was noticeably absent. The air was still, and I heard the voices of children waiting by a minivan in the parking lot at the bottom of the hill. The kids sounded like they were negotiating with their mother about what kind of dinner they wanted.


In terms of topography, Oceanside has the Pacific Ocean to the west, a large hill to the east, and an enormous promontory to the north. The population of Oceanside consists of a few hundred people who live in homes sprinkled on the hillside that faces the beach, the parking lot, and the downtown area. The downtown contains one restaurant, one bar, and a tiny self-serve post office. Most of the activity in the town consists of day tourists using the parking lot as a staging area to get onto the beach to search for agates and sand dollars. It was late in the day, and most of the tourists had collected their sand dollars and agates and departed.


“Have you heard anything from Bonnie?” I asked. Eric works for the Federal Marshal’s service and the witness protection program. I’m not in the witness protection program, but I know people who are. Bonnie is now one of them.


Eric looked away. He shifted his position as if he was uncomfortable, and then he fidgeted with the zipper on his coat. “You know I can’t talk about that,” he said.


“I just need to know that she’s okay,” I said.


“She’s fine, Delorean. She’s adjusted to her new circumstances as well as can be expected.”


“Any more problems with the cartel?” I asked.


He shook his head. “Not so far.”


“I guess that going into the program was worth it, then,” I said. “If that’s what it took to keep her safe.”


“Have you had any contact with the cartel?” he asked.


“Not since the bombing, but I wouldn’t tell you if I did, Eric.”

“Why the hell not?” Eric asked. He furrowed his eyebrows, and I felt the weight of his irritation with me.


“If I thought that you, Bonnie, or Sandy were in danger, I’d tell you. Otherwise, I’m not involving you in my problems any more. People who come into my orbit wind up fired, on the run, or dead.”


“The world doesn’t work that way, Delorean. None of what’s happened is your fault.”


“Really?” I said. “I don’t think that’s true. I’ve made choices I didn’t have to make. I’ve done things that brought pain to people I care about, and worse.”


“I’m still your friend,” Eric said. “If you need help, you gotta tell me.”


“I appreciate you saying that,” I said.


Eric looked a little sad. It was early summer, and in the fading evening light a cool breeze passed over the deck. He popped the collar on his leather coat and zipped it up. I heard the doors slam on the minivan in the parking lot. Headlights for several cars came on, and I watched a small convoy of cars leave the parking lot and head back towards the highway, or Tillamook, or possibly Portland.


“I’m getting another beer,” I said. “You want one?”


“No. I’m fine, thanks.”


I went inside, flipped the vinyl on the turntable, and got another India Pale Ale from the refrigerator. The worn oak flooring in the kitchen reflected a mellow glow from the low-wattage bulbs in the faux hurricane lamps. Royal Blue wall paint left behind by a previous tenant contrasted nicely against the beige Formica countertop, and the threadbare sofa seemed welcoming in the dim light. All in all, it was a pretty good place to be. I looked through the picture window that formed the south wall of the living room and saw the running lights on a fishing boat making his way south towards Pacific City or Neskowin. The outline of Three Arch Rocks was faintly visible as a grouping of darker shapes on the horizon. I had the feeling that the world had been put right again.


I flipped the light switch by the sliding glass door, illuminating the small white Christmas lights I’d strung between the roof and the posts at the perimeter of the deck. I stepped outside and closed the screen behind me. Eric slid his phone into his coat pocket and steepled his fingers like someone who was about to pray. He waited until I sat down at the picnic table before he started talking.


“I need you to do something for me,” he said.


“Anything.”


“There’s someone I want your help with.”


“What do you have in mind?”


Eric let out a long sigh. “I’ve got someone in WITSEC who thinks they’re being watched. My team looked into it more than once and didn’t find anything, but this lady is convinced that something’s not right and that we’re not taking her seriously. I’ve offered to move her to a new location, but at this point she’s put down roots and refuses to move.”


“Okay. I think I understand, but where would I fit in?”


Eric rubbed at his beard, deep in thought. “I think she’s starting to become unstable, Delorean. It happens with some people who enter the program, especially people who enter alone. They become paranoid from looking over their shoulders every day, and I think this might be one of those cases. She’s threatening to exit WITSEC and go it on her own. If she does that and something happens to her, I’d never forgive myself.”


“You can’t force her to stay in the program, Eric. If she leaves and something happens to her, isn’t that her fault?”


Eric pulled his eyebrows together and frowned. “Delorean, sometimes things are bad for everybody involved. This isn’t about trying to assign responsibility. I’m trying to keep this lady safe, whatever her problems are. Whether she’s actually in danger, I don’t know yet. She certainly thinks she is. This week she adopted a Doberman from the animal shelter, and I just found out that she’s gotten a firearms carry permit.”


I laughed. “Let me just recap. She thinks she’s in danger but you think she isn’t. You offer to move her anyway. She refuses. She’s mad that you’re not taking her seriously, and now she has a guard dog, a gun, and an attitude. Maybe we’re soul mates.”


Eric’s frown turned into a scowl. If we were in a cartoon, I think that smoke would have been coming out of his ears.


“It’s a little different for you, Delorean,” Eric said. “You have a track record of being able to deal with threats. She’s new to being on her own, and I’m not sure she’s going to make it.”


“My track record wasn’t so good with Bonnie, was it?”


Eric didn’t say anything.


“If she hadn’t used the remote start on the car, she’d have been killed when the bomb went off,” I said.


“You had no way of knowing that they were still looking for you,” Eric said.


“And still are, I hope.”


“Is that the plan?” Eric said. “Wait for them to come after you again? Go out in a blaze of glory?”


“I’m not suicidal, Eric. I’m practical. It’s inevitable that they’ll try again. I’ll settle the score with them when they do.”


“All by yourself? I hope it works out the way that you want it to,” Eric said.


“Me too, Eric. Look, what do you want me to do about your lady with emotional problems?”


“She lives ten miles from here, in Tillamook. I told her I would hire an independent contractor to watch her for a while. I want you to form your own opinion about whether something isn’t right. If you see something that my team didn’t, tell me and I’ll do something about it. If you don’t find anything tell me that, too.”


“Just to clarify, did you tell her I was going to follow her around? I don’t want to get shot by her by mistake.”


“I told her. She’ll be expecting you.”


“And what will she be expecting?”


“I told her that you’re smart, observant, fearless, and apparently un-killable.”


“All of that and more,” I said.


“She needed to be sold on you,” Eric said. “Do you think I laid it on too thick?”


“I take a licking and keep on ticking,” I said.


“Like a Timex watch,” Eric said.


“Tough as nails,” I said.


“Battle tested,” Eric said. “To be sure.”


“Did you tell her that I have a mask and cape?” I asked. “Yes. I think you laid it on pretty thick. And suppose I do find someone following her?”


“Call me.”


“What if there isn’t time for that?”


Eric’s eyes narrowed, and I sensed the tension in him. “Intervene,” he growled. “Then call me after you’ve sorted things out.”


“I can do that,” I said.


He unzipped his coat, pulled a 3 by 5 inch color picture from his shirt pocket, and slid it across the picnic table top.


“This is her,” Eric said. “Emily French. She works at the Cascade Gold Creamery Cafe in the ice cream line.”


The image was of an hourglass-figured blonde in a lemon yellow summer dress. She wore round, mirrored sunglasses and crimson lipstick. In the picture, she reclined on a large green beach towel with sand and water behind her, and was talking to whoever held the camera. Three Arch Rocks was visible in the distant background. The wind had caught her honey blonde hair and pulled it away from her face revealing perfect skin, a soft chin, and a pert nose. Bright smile, straight white teeth. There was a small mole on her left cheek. She looked like Marilyn Monroe’s twin sister.


“I hope they make her wear an apron and a hair net at her job, Eric. She’s pretty memorable. If you’re trying to keep her out of sight, working at a tourist trap isn’t the best choice. Also, I hate to ask this, but has it not occurred to you that she might have attracted a stalker?”


“She took the job at Creamery Cafe over my objections. I wanted her to work in the back room of the post office. And yes, it occurred to me that someone could be following her because of her looks.”


“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try. Can you tell me any details about why she went into WITSEC? What about her work schedule? Any specific places where she feels like she’s being watched?”


“You know that I can’t tell you why she went into the program. In terms of her schedule, she works the day shift at the creamery, and there really isn’t any one place she feels more like she’s being watched than others. That’s part of the problem. She feels uneasy at home sometimes, in her car sometimes, at work sometimes. The feeling of being watched seems to come and go.”


“Sounds like free-floating anxiety,” I said. “There’s this scary thing out there that you constantly need to be vigilant about.”


“There’s an element of that,” Eric said. “But she doesn’t just feel nervous all the time, she also feels like someone is following her and watching her. That’s different.”


“Paranoia, maybe? What about boyfriends past and present?” I asked. “Anyone she’s broken up with who’s holding a grudge?”


“She says that in the six months she’s been here, she’s only been on a few dates, and didn’t go out on second dates with any of ‘em. A few guys coming through the ice cream line have asked her out or tried to get her to go for coffee, but she turned them down politely. She’s been hit on at the grocery store a few times, but not aggressively. She said that when guys try to chat her up in public she’s been telling them that she’s married, and they’ve accepted it.”


“Is she?”


“No. She just says that so they’ll leave her alone.”


“Okay. Do you have her address?”


“On the back of the picture.”

I flipped the picture over and noted the address in Tillamook.


We watched the afterglow of the sunset over the Pacific. I sipped at my beer. Stars appeared and then brightened against the night sky, shining like silver against black velvet. The evening air had cooled and smelled of moss, saltwater, and wood smoke. There was a small fire burning down on the beach. A few people were circled around the campfire, talking and laughing in the darkness.


Eric took a deep breath and then let it out. “Listen,” he said. “There’s something else I wanted to ask you about.”


“Shoot.”


“I need to talk to you about your parents,” he said.


I felt as if I were on a roller coaster that had just made a sharp turn. My stomach tried to force itself into my throat.


“Why are you bringing that up?” I said.


“You never talk about what happened. I know that you lost them when you were pretty young.”


“That’s true, Eric, but why are you asking about it now?” I said. “We’ve known each other for quite a while.”


“Because I was notified that the Oklahoma City Police are looking for you. Apparently someone doing maintenance on an oil well found a body not far from where your parents were killed.”


I swallowed hard. “And?” I said.


“A credit card found with the body points to someone who was an enforcer for a loan shark at about the same time your parents had the home invasion.”


“Do the police think he was involved?”


“It’s like this, Delorean: they found two pistols in a shallow grave. One was a chrome-plated three fifty seven magnum. The other was a Colt model nineteen eleven forty-five caliber automatic. The serial number on the Colt has been traced back to your father’s service unit in the army. Seems reasonable to assume that your father brought the pistol home when he mustered out. That ties the gun and the body to your parents.”


I didn’t say anything.


“Any theories about why this guy would be buried in your backyard?” Eric asked.


“No. I don’t have any theories.”


“Right,” Eric said. “It doesn’t make sense to me, either. Based on what little I know, I’m assuming that there were two or more guys in the home invasion crew. Seems like the bad guy and his partners finished at your parent’s house, left with your father’s gun, wandered over to the oil well and had a disagreement, and the leg breaker, who was six and a half feet tall, gets put in the ground. I can’t think of a good reason why it would it happen like that.”


I shrugged. “Who was the leg breaker running with at the time he was killed?”


“Well, Delorean, that’s part of the reason I came to see you,” he said. “Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation says the leg breaker’s boss has since become a big deal in real estate development.”


“Are you going to give me a name?”


“Anthony Peck,” Eric said.


“The guy building the casino?”


“Right. The money behind the new casino going in at Newport.”


“It really is a small world, isn’t it?”


“Seems that way,” Eric said.


“To think that I might actually get closure after all this time.”


“Somebody got partial closure for you a long time ago, Delorean. One of the creeps who hurt your parents ended up in a shallow grave.”


“I guess that’s something,” I said.


“You don’t seem shocked or surprised by what I’m telling you.”


“It was so long ago that it feels like a different lifetime.”


“You know anything about it?” Eric said.


“Like I said, I’m not involving you in my problems any more, Eric, including what happened to my parents. I’ll deal with it.”


The album was between songs. You could hear the whisper of the surf against the shore.


Fullmeyer shook his head and sighed.


“If that’s how you want it, fine. From what I’ve heard, you should stay away from Peck. He’s into a lot of legitimate businesses, but he still has Mafia ties and may be laundering money for them, too. This guy is dangerous and well-connected. You should also know that the detective working the case in Oklahoma City has a reputation for being a very smart guy and a bulldog, too. He wants to interview you about your parents.”


“He wants to interview me before or after I talk to Peck?”


“I just told you to stay away from Peck. Were you not listening?”


“I’ve always liked a challenge, Eric. And you knew before you told me about Peck that I’d want to run him down. Right?”


“I hoped that if I talked to you about it first I could keep you from going off half cocked. Peck isn’t a small town crook anymore, Delorean. He’s an influential guy with senators and congressmen in his back pocket, and he can make trouble for you like you’ve never seen. You’ll probably hear all this from the detective, anyway. His name is Eccles and he’s flying into Portland tonight. He’ll be here in the morning to talk to you.”


“Can’t wait,” I said. “I assume he’ll be talking to Anthony Peck, too.”


Eric shrugged his big shoulders. “I assume so,” he said.


“Eccles better be as good as you say he is,” I said.


“We can only hope,” Eric said.


The moon and the pinpoints of stars lit the ocean with a silver-blue shine. The rhododendron blossoms looked grey in the dim light provided by the Christmas lights hanging over the deck.


Neither of us said anything for a minute or more. The people gathered around the campfire on the beach sang, laughed, and sang some more. Their chorus sounded like a drunken version of Bob Marley’s Jamming.


“Okay,” I said. “What do you want me to do?”


“Let Eccles run this down. If Peck’s connected to what happened to your parents, Eccles will get him.”


“If Peck’s guilty, and Eccles can’t make it stick, I’ll bury Peck on my own.”


“I hear you,” Eric said. “I’m on your side, remember? But you need to keep your head and give Eccles the chance to do his job. In the meantime, help me with the lady, okay? Do something constructive.”


Chapter Two


I was twelve years old when they came to the house.


My older brother Bricklin was away at Boy Scout camp as a reward for his perfect grades in school. He’d already been gone for a week of his two-week summer camp, and I missed his company sorely. I passed the time by reading his scouting survival guide and pretending I was stranded on a desert island. I practiced making rabbit snares from willow branches. I cut primitive spears from oak branches and hardened the spear points over an open flame. I foraged for edible berries. Most of the time, though, I wandered around in the summer sunshine, scratched mosquito bites, and wished I’d paid more attention in school.


My family lived in an unincorporated area east of Oklahoma City where houses were few and far between. The only families in the area were separated by square miles of land that was thick with oak trees, spotted with oil wells, and threaded with rutted dirt roads that the homeowners shared with oil well service crews. One of those oil wells, an object of my fear and obsession, was a quarter mile from my house. When my bedroom window was open I could hear the oil well’s motor huffing as the drill rod went down and up and down again.


One evening before my brother left for camp, I’d stayed up past midnight reading a Tom Swift adventure novel, and I’d listened to the oil well motor as if it were a sort of siren song. When I finished the book, I decided that it was time to have my own adventure and conquer my own enemies. The oil well drew me towards it with a force that surpassed what little common sense I had, and in my mind it offered the opportunity for adventure. I’d climbed out through my bedroom window in my pajamas and house slippers, and I made my way across the red dirt road onto the narrow game trail that led to the oil well. The shadows cast by the dim glow of my flashlight made the woods seem alive with the potential for menacing encounters. I pressed on, wondering if I would make it back to my house alive. My fears weren’t entirely unfounded.


It was common practice in Oklahoma City for people to turn unwanted dogs loose ‘out in the country’ to fend for themselves. This happened often enough in my neighborhood that a pack of abandoned dogs had formed, connected with the coyotes in the forests, reproduced, and become a feral pack capable of taking down deer. I’d run across several carcasses in the forest which had been savaged so thoroughly that the only way to identify the animal was by looking at the paws or hooves. I’d heard the call and response of the dog pack several times as I read Tom Swift that night, but I hadn’t really thought much about it at the time. The sound of wild dogs calling to each other was just part of the soundtrack of living in my neighborhood.


At any rate, I continued along the trail until I reached the opening in the forest where the oil well had been drilled. In the moonlight, everything I saw or touched seemed alive with the potential for danger. The oil well, the sludge pond, the trees, the moon, even the sound of my footsteps on dried oak leaves seemed to crackle with an intoxicating resonance. The ink-black well machinery rocked back and forth like a giant insect. The air reeked with the powerful odor of raw oil sucked from the ground through a slippery silver pipe. The spine of the well, two stories high and twenty feet long, tipped up and down in the moonlight like a magician’s pendant until I became hypnotized and stepped forward to the base of the well. I’d clamped the handle of the flashlight in my teeth, grabbed the rungs of the ladder that ascended to the pivot point of the spine, and climbed up to the top of that mass of rocking iron. I gripped the two sides of the giant steel I-beam and swung a leg across the top like a rodeo cowboy mounting a bronco. Once I was atop the beam, I was overwhelmed by the sensations of the star-filled sky, the sound of the motor, the horizon rising and dipping in front of me, and the vibration of all that steel. It felt like I was in a dream-state rodeo. Eventually I came back to my senses, climbed down, and started home.


As I made my way along the game trail, the call and response of the dogs that I’d heard earlier that evening became louder and more frequent, and I began to wonder if the feral pack was following me. I hastened my pace and looked behind me frequently to see if I could spot any dogs, but I never did. Even so, my instincts told me that the dogs were closing in on me. My question about the proximity of the feral pack was answered when I reached my house. I crawled through the open window of my bedroom, looked back into the yard, and I watched a pair of wolf-like dogs appear in the pool of light cast onto the dirt through my opened bedroom window. The dogs paced back and forth, watching me and growling with a tone so low and threatening that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. I slid the window shut and locked it. As I crawled under the sheets, I thought that Tom Swift would have been proud of me. I rode the scary beast, evaded the killers, and I survived.


My mother was furious the next day when she saw the oil stains on the carpet and bed sheets. I lamely offered the excuse that I must have sleepwalked to the well. The skin on my father’s face was tight with both disbelief and frustration when he heard my story. He clenched his fists and left the room, then returned with a hammer and a handful of galvanized roofing nails. He drove several of the nails into the rail on the window frame so that the window couldn’t be opened wider than a few inches. I wouldn’t be going out that window again.


After he’d finished hammering on the window frame, my father leaned in so close to me that his face completely filled my visual field. The pores in his skin, his beard stubble, even the small veins in the whites of his eyes seemed magnified. I could smell coffee on his breath.


Are you listening to me?” he asked.


I nodded.


Okay,” he said. “Good. You sneak out at night like that again, and I’ll put a deadbolt on your door and start locking you in at bedtime. You got that?”


I nodded again.


He looked at me hard, the muscles in his jaw tensed with anger, and then he left the room.


My mom rolled the dirty, oily bedsheets into a ball before putting the palm of her hand on my forehead to see if I was running a fever.


Are you okay, honey?” she asked.


Yeah,” I said. “Sure.”


You’re scaring us, Del. You need to dial it back a little. Do normal stuff for a while. Would you do that for me?”


I nodded.


My mom left, taking the bedsheets with her.


My brother shook his head in wonder at my behavior. “If you’d quit doing weird stuff, Mom and Dad would stop being mad at you all the time,” he said.


I prefer to think of myself as creative,” I replied.


Yeah. Creatively weird. You sleepwalked your way onto an oil well. No one else even comes close to doing the crazy stuff you do. You keep this up and you’re going to get yourself committed to a psych ward. I heard Mom and Dad talking about it. You could wind up in a padded cell.”


At the time, I’d viewed Bricklin’s brotherly advice as an unwelcome nuisance from someone who lacked my fearless outlook on adventure. Looking back, I can see that he was trying to save me from myself.


It’s under control,” I told him. “I won’t do it again.”


I hope so,” Bricklin said. “Be better if you hadn’t done it in the first place. You understand that, right? You don’t have to put out a fire if you don’t start the fire to begin with.”


Part of Bricklin’s reward for perfect grades had been a new scouting backpack for him to take to camp. He’d given his old backpack to me before he left for camp, along with a plastic canteen that had been chewed on by a raccoon. In Bricklin’s absence, I sat in the shade of a tree in my back yard and flipped through his discarded scouting survival guide. A section in the guide that described how to get water from air intrigued me. It said that I could make a solar still by digging a hole in the dirt, stretching a clear plastic sheet across the hole, and putting a small rock in the middle of the sheet so that condensing moisture on the underside would collect in the middle and then drop into a cup. I’d gone out to the garage, taken a shovel and the plastic sheet that my dad used to cover his table saw, and then wandered into the oak forest looking for a place to dig a hole for my solar water collector.


Being in the oak forests that surrounded my house was a way for me to manage the stresses I felt at home. I knew that my parents were in trouble financially and that my erratic behavior just compounded their anxieties. The solitude I found on those game trails brought me a feeling of peace that counterbalanced the roller coaster ride of my father’s business adventures.


My dad was a car enthusiast who believed that if you worked hard and were clever enough, the world would reward your efforts. After leaving the military, he’d started a used car business that had done well, but over the years he’d become convinced that if he wanted to make big money he needed to sell imports and collectibles. The small but profitable “Harper’s Reliable Used Cars” became the larger and riskier “Harper Collectible Classics.” My father was desperate for free publicity for the grand opening of his new dealership in the wealthiest part of Oklahoma City, so he legally renamed me and my brother with the names of two of his favorite car makes: Bricklin and Delorean. When the judge at the courthouse asked for an explanation for the name change, my father told him “These cars are so great that I want to give my kids the same names.” The judge had shaken his head, but he agreed to the name change anyway. My father had fed the details about the renaming to several of the local news stations, and the story had gotten legs. It was picked up by the Oklahoma City Times in the weekend section, where the article ran under a picture of my father standing between Delorean and Bricklin coupes. In the picture my brother sat cross-legged in front of the Bricklin and I sat cross-legged in front of the Delorean. It’s the last picture taken that had me, my brother, and my father in it.


When my father went upscale with the car business, he’d borrowed heavily from banks and private lenders to build his inventory and repair the intricate and expensive foreign cars to the like-new condition that affluent buyers expected, and his gamble paid off while the oil economy boomed. I heard him talking to my mother about it at the dinner table one night. “It takes money to make money,” he said. My mom responded by saying that eventually the loans would all need to be paid back. My dad waved his hand in the air as if he were shooing away gnats. “It’s all going to work out, you’ll see,” he said. However, the booming oil economy eventually went bust as it inevitably did, and the demand for collectible imports and special rarities like the Bricklin and Delorean cars went through the floor. Summertime was usually a good time to be in my house. That summer, it wasn’t.


I’d started work on the solar still not far from the oil well. After a half day of digging, I’d made a square hole about three feet deep and six feet across in that rust-colored Oklahoma soil. I’d returned home that afternoon and washed off the dirt and the smell of crude oil with a chunk of bar soap and hose water on the back porch. My mom kept towels and extra clothes on the porch during the summer so that I wouldn’t bring dirty clothes into the house after my adventures in the forest. Privacy wasn’t much of a concern for me as I scrubbed off the dirt. Our house was at the end of a dead end road nearly a mile from the closest home, and my mother was still at work with my father, so I was alone.


When my parents came home that night, they looked haggard. My dad’s expression told me that I needed to keep things quiet around the house or risk incurring his wrath. While I was getting ready for bed, I overheard my parents having a heated argument about money. My dad said that even if he gave the car dealership title to the lender, even if he gave him all the cars on the lot, even if he gave him the title to the house we lived in, that wouldn’t be enough. “They’re asking for money we don’t have,” he said. “They came by the car lot today and told me I needed to pay or bad things would happen.” My mom suggested calling the police. Dad said “And tell them what? That we’ve been laundering money as a favor to the lender, but we’re still going under and the lender is making threats? We’d go to jail regardless.”


I didn’t sleep at all that night. I lay in my bed reading through the scouting survival manual and trying to convince myself that if I knew the right techniques I’d be able to weather any storm that the world sent my way. After overhearing my parents’ conversation, learning outdoor survival techniques took on a new urgency; I needed to know how to take care of myself if we came under siege. When morning finally came and I heard my parents talking downstairs in the kitchen, I hatched a plan for how I would spend the day. I needed a gun, though.


My father had a Colt forty-five caliber pistol that he kept in the nightstand beside his bed. The previous day I’d seen feral dogs at the perimeter of the clearing when I was digging the hole, so before I left the house that morning I’d gone into my parent’s bedroom, taken the gun from the nightstand, and examined it. I pulled back the slide assembly far enough to see that there was a bullet in the chamber, flipped the safety off and on a few times, then dropped the pistol into my backpack. At the time, it made sense to me to borrow the gun in case I needed to defend myself against the dogs. I reasoned that I’d have the pistol back in my dad’s nightstand before he discovered that I’d borrowed it. Better safe than sorry.


My parents were at the kitchen table when I came downstairs. They had a stack of receipts and a bank ledger out on the table, and they were so preoccupied with their discussion that they barely noticed when I left the house. I’d filled the plastic canteen at the kitchen sink, and then gone out through the opened garage door and across the road. As I had the day before, I followed the trail that led through the oak groves to the open space and the hole for the solar still. I’d started digging again and had been there about an hour when I heard a series of muffled booming sounds coming from the direction of my house. I dropped the shovel, pulled on my backpack, and started to run. The forest flashed by in a blur as I raced towards my home.


As I reached the exit of the trail, I saw someone leaving my parent’s garage. I slowed to a stop in the shade of the oak trees and stared at him. Tan tee shirt pulled tight across his weight lifter's torso, and brown hair cut in bangs across his forehead but long on the sides and back. Faded bell bottom jeans over pointy-toed cowboy boots with a brown leather holster strapped to his thigh. He sauntered out of the garage with the lethal self-confidence of Wyatt Earp stepping out of a saloon. He walked over towards the passenger side of a black Dodge Charger parked in the driveway, and as he reached for the car door handle, he scanned the surroundings in all directions. That’s when he finally noticed me, and his pistol materialized instantly in his hand. He aimed his gun at me as casually as if the gun barrel were his finger.


Hey, sport,” he said in a baritone voice. “Get over here!”

On instinct, I turned and ran. There were two quick booms from his gun as I ran full-tilt down the twisting narrow trail. My arms were pumping; my feet seemed to barely touch the ground as I sprinted past tree branches that slashed my face and forearms. A hundred yards before I reached the clearing I heard the big pistol fire behind me again, and I went off the trail into the tangle of brambles, ivy, wild grass and fallen tree limbs. I smashed through the undergrowth until I collided with a tree branch at chest level. Knocked flat, I lay on my back with the sunlight cutting ribbons of gold through the dusty air above me.


I rolled onto my hands and knees and crawled across the carpet of dry oak leaves. As I reached an area where the undergrowth was less dense I rose to my feet. I’d lost track of where I was headed, and I exited the forest onto the game trail a dozen yards past where my hunter stood. Lucky me, though. His back was to me. Then he looked over his shoulder at me and smiled.


I turned away from him and ran towards the circular opening in the forest, going hard for the protection that the oil well could provide. The gun boomed once more as I reached the far side of the well’s motor.


I pressed my back against the motor housing as it huffed its irregular heartbeat. The smell of the oil was intense, the sun beat down remorselessly, and the oil well’s black surface radiated heat like a chef’s griddle. I took a deep breath before running flat-out towards the trees on the far side of the clearing.


The gun thundered behind me with gut-shattering force as I neared the hole that I’d dug for the solar still. I threw myself to the ground and then rolled into the hole, buying myself a few seconds of safety.


In frenzy, I pulled the backpack off and grabbed at the zipper.


I heard him yell “Hey boy! You hiding from me? Come out and play.”


The air stank of oil, dirt, and hot plastic. My heartbeat hammered in my chest as my hand scrabbled against the rough fabric at the bottom of the backpack. I felt the familiar heaviness of my father’s Colt as my fingers wrapped around the butt of the gun. I pulled it free of the backpack and gripped the pistol with both hands, holding the metal in a vise-like grip. I flipped the safety off with my thumb. The moment had an air of hallucinatory unreality. Was I actually here? Was I dreaming, or was I about to die? From above, I probably looked like I’d been buried with a pistol to hold against my chest instead of a small bouquet of posies.


I heard his deep baritone voice again. “Aren’t you the clever one?” he yelled. “Found a hole to crawl into. Good thing I’ve got your shovel to dig you out.”


His revolver was holstered when he stepped to the edge of the hole. He brandished my shovel over his head as if it were an axe. I guess he’d planned to beat me to death with it.


His eyes went wide when he saw the gun in my hand, and he dropped the shovel. The movement of his hand towards his holster was a blur. I’d seen his hand move that fast in my driveway, though, and I already had a gun in my hand. My forty-five went off with a force that nearly ripped it from my hands. Then everything was very still. My ears rang with a tone like the inside of a dinner bell, and my face was peppered with burnt gunpowder.


I stayed in the hole for a while. The passage of time felt heavy, slow, and foreign. Eventually, I stood up and looked to see where he’d gone. He was about ten yards away from me and resting in a sitting position with his legs fully extended. With his head tipped forward and his gun hand lying on the dirt, he looked a bit like a discarded rag doll. His tan tee shirt was stained above his belt buckle with blood that leaked through the fingers of his left hand. We made eye contact, and he opened his mouth to talk.


Your mom begged me not to hurt you,” he said. His head drooped a little, like he was falling asleep. Then he pulled his head up again and used his gun hand to push against the dirt to try to sit upright. The cephalic veins on the outside of his cantaloupe-sized biceps were as thick as pencils, his forearms as big around as the calves on my legs. His face was framed by his hair hanging forward, and his eyes were as black as coal. “I guess that ship has sailed,” he said.


He smiled with a curled upper lip, and I saw the barrel of the pistol coming up fast off the dirt.


I don’t remember pulling the trigger. What I do remember is the thunderous, heart-stopping sound of a cannon going off repeatedly as he tumbled backwards, the metal in my hands seeming alive on its own, the butt of the gun jerking with ferocious power with each report, his body spinning and thrashing as if connected to cables like a marionette.


I emptied the gun into him. Then I sat down and cried until I couldn’t cry any more.


I gradually began to feel an odd sort of mental clarity. I knew that I needed to take action. I knew that killers went to jail, and I felt haunted by what my brother had said about me being committed to an asylum. Above all else, I didn’t want to be locked up in a padded cell. People never came out of places like that. Taking care to avoid the blood on his clothing, I grabbed hold of the man’s boots and dragged him into the hole. He was bigger than I was, but it wasn’t difficult to pull him across the loose, sandy dirt. He landed in the pit atop the plastic tarp and the backpack I’d left in the hole. I tossed in my gun and his chrome revolver, and after staring at his broken shape in the bottom of the pit, I covered the body with the dirt that I’d dug from the hole.


I don’t recall walking home, but I do remember that the car that had been parked in the driveway was gone and the garage door was still open. I wanted to act as normally as possible, so I kept to my routine. I cleaned up on the back porch with the water hose and bar soap, and then put on a clean pair of jeans and a clean shirt from the stack my mom left outside for me. I tossed my dirty clothes in the hamper after I scrubbed the blood stains from the jeans with soap and water.


I couldn’t find my parents downstairs, and I wondered if they’d gone for a walk. As I made my way upstairs to the bedrooms I began to smell the powerful odor of gun smoke. I walked down the hall to my parents’ room and found both of them sprawled on the floor by my father’s side of the bed. The nightstand drawer was open, as if my father had been looking for his pistol. The gun would have been there if I hadn’t taken it that day, and they would both still be alive.

Chapter Three


Detective Eccles came to my house in the early afternoon. He carried an old black briefcase and wore an expression of mild remorse, as if he was sorry that he’d interrupted my day. He showed me his badge, identified himself, and I let him in. I’d painted the deck that morning, so we stayed inside.


I judged Eccles to be in his early forties. He wore a tan corduroy coat with brown leather patches at the elbows. Pressed white dress shirt. Blue slacks with a sharp crease on them and brown leather dress shoes polished to a high shine. Bright blue eyes with intelligence behind them. His skin was a healthy pink, and his black hair was cut short, as was his salt-and-pepper mustache. He was a few inches shorter than me, but he was built like a fireplug. When he shook my hand, he squeezed my fingers with the kind of force that implies either a challenge or massive strength. Everything about his bearing told me that it would be a mistake to underestimate him.


I’d offered to make coffee, and he accepted. I stood in the kitchen while the water came to a boil in the microwave. While Eccles waited, he picked through my record collection in the living room. I watched him take the Miles Davis Kind of Blue album from the shelf and look at the cover.


“This Miles Davis album,” he said. “One of my favorites.”


“Mine, too. You can put it on if you want.”


“Maybe some other time,” he said.


“Sure,” I said. “Do you want anything in your coffee?”


“Black’s fine.”


I nodded.


When the coffee was ready, I carried the mugs into the living room. Eccles took his mug and briefcase over to the sofa and took a seat. I sat in the old recliner and looked past Eccles through the big picture window. Seagulls riding the ocean breeze hung like kites in the air, suspended and nearly motionless hundreds of feet above the beach.

“Thank you for agreeing to see me,” he said. He took a sip from his coffee mug before putting it on a coaster on the end table. I held onto my mug because it gave me something to do with my hands. If I was a smoker, I would have lit a cigarette. I hadn’t forgotten Eric’s comment that Eccles had a reputation for being a bulldog, and I was nervous.


“Glad to,” I said.


“How long have you lived here?” he asked.


“About six months.”


“Lucky to have such a nice view. I don’t see much surf in Oklahoma. Whitecaps on Lake Hefner are about as close as I get.”


I gave a small laugh. “I enjoy it. Rainy in the winter, but the rain chases most of the tourists away, so it isn’t all bad.”


“Every cloud has a silver lining,” he said. It was quiet for a moment in the living room. I heard the surf flattening out against the beach with a sighing sound.


“Do you mind talking with me about what happened to your parents?” Eccles asked.


“Not at all.”


He nodded and said “I appreciate that. You could refuse to discuss it with me if you wanted to. Sometimes family members don’t want to dredge things up, particularly when something happened so long ago. It reawakens powerful feelings, many of them painful. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.”


“Ask.”


He paused for a beat and then gave a small shoulder shrug. His face conveyed harmlessness. I didn’t believe it.


“I want you to try to relax,” he said. “I’m not going to hypnotize you, but sometimes it helps to clear your mind. Just shift yourself mentally into neutral and put yourself back in that place. Closing your eyes can help sometimes, too.”


“Okay,” I said.


I shifted my position slightly in the recliner and looked past Eccles to the ocean’s horizon.


“Do you have any memories of the day when you lost your parents?” Eccles said.


I looked at Eccles. “I didn’t lose them. Someone murdered them. My contact with the witness protection program says it looks like Anthony Peck might be connected with it. I gather that someone found the body of one of Peck’s enforcers near my parent’s house.”


Eccles took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Then he pursed his lips, thinking.


“Wow,” he said. “We’ll discuss Anthony Peck at some point, I promise. Let’s start at the beginning, though. You tell me what you remember, and then I’ll tell you what I think about Peck and everything else. Fair enough?”


“Okay,” I said. “That sounds fair.”


“All right then. Relax, if you can, and tell me about that day,” Eccles said. “It must have been extremely traumatic.”


I focused on the horizon again. “I remember leaving the house in the morning after I came downstairs. My parents were both at the kitchen table when I left. I spent a few hours exploring in the woods near our house, which I often did in the summer. When I came home for lunch, I found my parents. They tell me that I called the police. I don’t remember calling, but I guess that I did.”


“Did your parents say anything when you left that day?”


“Not that I remember. They were sitting beside each other at the kitchen table looking at some papers.”


“Were they bookkeeping ledgers? You were an accountant. You know what those look like, right?”


“I’m not sure,” I said. “I don’t remember if they were looking at bills or a ledger. My father had a car dealership. He brought paperwork home pretty often.”


“But you’re sure they were looking at some kind of paperwork at the kitchen table when you left?”


I looked at Eccles. “It seemed like it. They had their backs to me, though. I didn’t see what it was.”


I watched Eccles. I could sense his focus and awareness.


“Did your parents tell you that they were expecting someone to come by the house?” He spoke so gently that his words felt more like a nudge for me to continue than a question that I needed to answer.


“No.”


“You seem sure.”


“Like I said, they barely noticed when I left the house. I told them I was going outside to walk around in the woods, and I left. They didn’t mention any visitors. We had company so rarely that it would have been noteworthy if they’d said someone was coming. Most of the traffic on our street was oil well service crews. That’s about it.”


He nodded. “All right. That’s good information. Did your parents ever tell you that they were in money trouble?”


“No.”


“Did you suspect that your father’s car business was struggling?”


“It seemed like it was boom and bust with the car dealership. It was either good or it was terrible. I guess I had gotten used to the ups and downs, and I didn’t really think about it.”


“Did either of your parents tell you that they’d been threatened?”


“No.”


Eccles sat silently for a few seconds. “Okay,” he said. “Where did you say your brother was that day?”


“I don’t remember mentioning my brother, but he was at scout camp.”


Eccles’ eyes narrowed slightly before returning to the flat, expressionless stare.


“Why didn’t you go to scout camp with him?” he asked.


“Going to camp was a reward for him being a good student. My grades weren’t good. I stayed home.”


He gave a little smile. “And did what?”


“Like I said. I walked around in the woods.”


“What did you do that summer when you weren’t walking around in the woods?” he asked.


“Caught bugs in the back yard. Built a fort out of blankets in my bedroom. Watched television. Things like that.”


“When you were in the woods, did you ever visit the oil well near your house?” he asked. He watched my expression very closely.


“Yes,” I said. “I know the one you’re talking about.”


“Okay,” he said. There was a long pause. He watched me. I watched him.


“Did you visit the oil well on the day your parents were killed?”


“No. I walked around on the game trails. That area has deer in it, and they cut trails through the oak forest that surrounded our house. I liked following the trails to see where they went.”


“Did you see anyone else that day when you were away from the house?” he asked.


“No.”


“Did you hear any unusual sounds? Gunfire, a car engine, anything?”


“It was a very long time ago, but I don’t remember anything unusual.”


“So you didn’t come back to the house for a snack, for a drink? You were away for several hours, right?”


“That’s right.”


“Didn’t you get thirsty? I mean, it’s summer, right?”


“Sometimes I carried a plastic canteen with me. I’d fill it up before I left the house.”


“Did you carry anything else with you?”


I shrugged. “It was more than twenty years ago. You really expect me to remember that?”


“I’m just trying to clear up a few things,” he said. “That’s why I came to see you.”


“I thought you wanted to talk to me about how Anthony Peck and his leg breaker murdered my parents.”


“We’ll get to that,” he said. “I promise.”


I didn’t say anything.


“Were you a Boy Scout like your brother was?” he asked.


“No, just my brother.”


Eccles surprised me by pulling a plastic evidence bag from his briefcase and laying it on the coffee table. I could see that the bag contained the Scout’s survival guide that I’d used as an adventure playbook. The guide was stained and yellowed by time, but I recognized it just the same.


“You ever seen this before?” he said.


“It looks like the kind of outdoor survival book my brother read when he was scouting.”


Eccles nodded to himself and then pulled a laminated picture out of his briefcase. He held the picture out to me and watched my expression closely.


“Do you recognize this?” he asked.


“Looks like a military forty-five.”


The pistol was covered in rust. The checkered wooden grip on the handle had begun to crack. A small ruler lay beneath the corroded barrel to give photographic perspective to the size of the gun.


“Good guess. It’s a Colt model nineteen eleven forty-five caliber automatic. It’s the kind of firearm that soldiers carry sometimes. The serial number on the pistol was registered to your father’s unit when he was in the army. I think he brought the pistol home with him when he mustered out.”


“Where did you find it?” I asked.


“In a shallow grave about a quarter mile from where your parents were killed. It was by that oil well I asked you about.”


I didn’t say anything.


“We also found the remains of a man in the grave with the pistol. A wallet at the scene said his name was Randall Burton. The scouting survival guide was in the grave, too.”


He pulled another laminated picture out of his briefcase, this time of a ragged piece of canvas.


“Do you recognize this?”


“No.”


“The forensics lab says that they think it’s what’s left of a backpack of the kind Boy Scouts used when your brother was scouting. Most of it had rotted and disintegrated, but enough of it was left that they’re pretty sure that’s what it was.”


I didn’t say anything.


“Let me ask you something, Delorean.”


“Go ahead.”


“Your father’s gun wasn’t used to hurt either of your parents, but we think it was used to shoot Burton, the man in the shallow grave. Like I said, the gun and your brother’s backpack and scout manual were found with the body. How do you think that happened?”


“I don’t know,” I said.


“When we started this interview, I said that I’d tell you what I think. Remember?” Eccles said.


“Sure. I remember.”


“I think it doesn’t make any sense. I can see how your father’s pistol might have wound up in the grave, but not the backpack or survival guide. I can’t see why anyone would steal them. They have no value.”


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