Archive for February, 2010

Four-Part Dissonance, chapter 18, by Edward Doughtie (for previous chapters, go to archives)

February 28, 2010

Chapter 18

While he waited for the Huntsville police to pick him up, he tried calling Celia once again. Only the machine answered. He called Chat’s cell phone, putting a finger in one ear to reduce the noise from the highway.
“Aldo, you ok?”
“Yeah, this time I really am.” As he strolled to a shady spot from where he could see any arriving police car, he briefly explained where he was. “But Mattingly and his girlfriend are still being held by the other two.”
“I wondered about that,” Chat said. “I smelled something wrong in your first call. That’s why I talked the state guys into putting a couple of cars by the road to that compound.”
“Good. Just keep them out there until we can figure out what to do. Maybe now that the big guy is gone, we can talk them down. Have you heard from Celia?”
“Thought you’d never ask.” Chat smiled audibly. “As a matter of fact, she called me, she was so worried about your old white butt, and that reinforced my hunch. She gave me the directions to the bad guys’ hole.”
“Do you know where she is now?”
“Not really. She said something about checking on Mattingly’s girlfriend.”
“Uh-oh. Do you have a cell number for her? I don’t know why I don’t.”
“Yeah. Guess she didn’t think I’d harass her.”
“If you don’t give it to me in the next second, I’ll strangle you the next time I see you.” Chat gave him the number, which he quickly called. This time she answered.
“Where are you?” Branch asked, relieved to hear her, her voice making a lump in his throat.
“Where are you?”
“I’m in Huntsville, waiting for a cop. “
“What?”
“Long story. Please answer me.”
“Keeping an eye on Teresa’s place.”
“Get away from there, right now. Where’s Colin?”
“At my brother’s. What’s going on?”
“I don’t hear your car starting. Get moving.”
“Don’t be so bossy.”
“Sorry. I’ll explain everything after you get going.” Branch thought he heard her engine start.
“Ok, I’m going.”
He began his explanation, which she interrupted at several points with questions, and once with an “Oh no” when he told her that Teresa was now a hostage. She was sympathetic and horrified when he told of his ordeal in the car with Boomer. “I’m glad I didn’t know that was going on, though I was worried when I didn’t hear from you.” At the end of his tale, she said, “Well, if the state troopers have them blocked in, I should be ok, right?”
“Yes, if the bad guys were still there when the troopers arrived.”
“Oh.”
“Go to your brother’s. I’ll keep you posted, and you do the same. Here’s my ride.”
“Be careful.”
He waved at the police car that just pulled into the rest stop. After showing his shield and introducing himself to the two uniforms, he climbed into the car.
“I don’t guess any of you guys want to taxi me up to the woods near Phalba.”
“Don’t think the chief would let us,” the young cop driving said.
“Well, maybe you could take me to a rental lot.”
“Why don’t we take you to the impound lot and give you your old car?” the other cop said with a grin over his shoulder.
“What?”
“We caught the big guy about two minutes ago. Just heard it on the squawker.”
“Wow, you guys are good. Any trouble?”
“Doesn’t sound like there was. We’ll get the full story later.” Branch had a moment of worry for Boomer. He was a violent man, and shouldn’t be running loose, but he was a victim himself, and might have been better if he had been dealt a better hand.
They got to the impound lot before Branch’s car did. It was a large area surrounded by chain-link fence and filled with dozens of cars of every make, year, and state of repair. Branch and the uniforms found shelter from the heat in a concrete block building with noisy air conditioners sticking out of the walls. Branch had done most of the talking on the ride over, explaining the situation yet again, and urging everyone to hurry. In the back of his mind, he was worrying about what Doc and Bledsoe might be doing or thinking. He checked the time. Maybe he should risk another report pretending to be Boomer. It might buy them some more time. He explained what he was about to do, found a spot in a relatively quiet corner, and punched the number.
“Yes?” Bledsoe answered.
“Twenty-three. ‘Bout to go get the film.”
“Be careful. Everything ok? You sound different.”
“Just a little nervous,” he said, truthfully. “It’ll be ok.”
“Call when you get it and get out.”
Branch realized that they must be still in the compound, since the phone number was not to a cell phone. He called Celia.
“You can relax a little. They’re still in the woods. And the cops caught Boomer.”
“Who?”
“The big guy. The one who probably shot out my window.”
“Good. Thanks for letting me know. I think we might stay at my brother’s for a while anyway.”
“Wouldn’t hurt.”
“What are you going to do now?”
“I’ll get back up there as soon as I can. I’ll see if a Dallas hostage negotiator can get out there before they realize Boomer’s been caught.”
“Be careful.”
“I always am. That’s why I’m an old cop.” He took a breath. “Can I see you when this is over?”
She hesitated. “Call me and let me know what happens. And do be careful.”
“Ok.”
“Got to go. Colin—”
“Sure. I’ll call.” Branch frowned. Celia’s hesitation made him think of the distance he felt when they met to look at the burnt bows and cases. He thought of Allegra. And his ex-wife.
He didn’t have time to brood. He called the compound again, speaking in Boomer’s hoarse voice.
“Twenty-three. Got it. We’re on the way.”
Doc was on the line this time. “Good. Everything ok?”
“Yeah.”
“Ok. Listen. Get rid of Branch on the way. We don’t need him anymore. Dump him in the woods. Or better, tie a rock on him and throw him in Fairfield Lake or the Cedar Creek reservoir. Then you can take care of the others when you get here with the film.”
“Ok.” Branch hung up, and felt the hair on his arm rise. Mattingly and Teresa were safe only as long as they were useful.
He called his friend in the Dallas department, “Smoky” Stover, and brought him up to date. “Can you or the state boys get a hostage negotiator out there soon?”
“I’ll do my best. I think our man, Tom Bustamonte, is pretty good, but I expect the staties will claim jurisdiction. Their man is ok; maybe they’ll let Tom assist.”
“Good. I’d like to be there, if possible. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep them calm with my Boomer imitation. Keep me posted.”
After what seemed to Branch a very long wait, his car appeared in the lot, driven by one of the cops who stopped Boomer. A kindly officer at the impound lot retaped the plastic over the window while they hurried through the inevitable paperwork and Branch heard the story of Boomer’s capture.
The officer introduced himself as Daryl Higgins. He was red in the face and soft in the belly—he clearly enjoyed the occasional doughnut, and tended to use jolliness to cope with life on the force. He must be a twenty-year man, Branch thought.
“Yeah, we saw him right after we got word. We had set up a roadblock around a bend just after you went under a bridge, so you couldn’t see us until it was too late to do much, and the bridge abutment kept him from going around us.” He smiled and winked. “He had to stop. We had him by the short hairs—it just took him a while to realize it. He got out with an ol’ long-barreled revolver, and waved it around until he saw we had a rifle and shotgun on him. Then he threw it away and put up his hands. He was redder than me. I thought he was going to cry.”
Branch was relieved. Boomer had not killed anyone else, and didn’t get himself killed. “You done good. And thanks for not shooting up my car.”
“Looks like somebody already took care of that.”
“Speaking of guns, you got one I could borrow?”
“Sure. Take my spare.” He reached down and unbuckled an ankle holster with a short .38.
The young cop who had driven him came out with a paper to sign. “You need some glass. Maybe you’d better go get that rental.”
“No thanks. I’ll take this one on up the road. Thank you all for your help.”
Branch shook hands all around and roared up the road he had recently driven down, this time considerably faster.
As he drove, he talked to Stover and learned that the negotiator had been delayed. He got the cell number of one of the state troopers guarding the road to the compound, and got a report from him.
“I don’t know if there’s another road out,” Branch said. “Did you check a map or ask a local?”
“Both,” the trooper said. “No other road. Those guys should have taken lessons from the critters. Groundhogs and prairie dogs always have a back door.”
“I hope I can get there before they make a move or anything. I hear the hostage negotiator may be late.”
“I hope he’s good. I took a course, but I wouldn’t feel very confident about trying it.”
“Well, let’s hope neither one of us has to.”
As Branch sped by Fairfield, he saw flashing lights in the rearview mirror. Must be the sheriff. He tried to raise him on the radio, but failed, and reluctantly pulled over. He stepped out holding his shield up in one hand, the other in the air.
“Get back in your vehicle, sir,” came a voice from a loudspeaker in the car.
Great, thought Branch. A by the numbers guy.
“Get your license and registration out, sir, and keep your hands visible.”
Branch did as he was told. He waited and waited. Finally, the voice from the sheriff’s car told him to get out of the car, holding both hands in the air. Branch complied. The young man in the car got out, gun at the ready. A deputy, Branch thought, new uniform, sharp creases.
“Hands on the car,” he said much less politely.
“I’m a police officer,” Branch said, “and I’m in a hurry. There’s an emergency.”
“This police car was reported stolen.”
“Yes, it was, and now it’s been recovered. It’s my car. Please go call the Huntsville police. Officer Higgins will confirm my story. Or you could call Lieutenant Stover in Dallas. Or Sergeant Billings of the State Police.”
“All right. Put that shield and your papers on the trunk and get back in the car.”
The deputy picked up Branch’s things and returned to his car. After another wait, he came back, handed Branch’s shield and papers back, and apologized. “How about an escort to the county line?”
So Branch enjoyed a few miles at top speed, a sheriff’s car blazing with lights ahead of him. He was able to go the rest of the way without legal interference.
On the road he had time to think about several things besides getting Mattingly and Teresa out of danger. He replayed his recent conversations with Celia, flashing back to their night in her hotel room. Maybe he shouldn’t hope too much for the future. Maybe she was just taking advantage of a moment without the responsibility of a child, a moment with a man she liked and could trust, but who wouldn’t need to be in her life afterwards. That thought saddened him, for he had hoped for more.
Music helped. Haydn quartets kept him thinking that even with surprises, things could work out. The cheerfulness of the music faded, however, when he realized that the group on the recording was the late Kyoto Quartet.
When he drew near the big reservoir between Corsicana and Athens, Branch called the compound. He focused on trying to sound like Boomer. He had to keep Doc from getting nervous and killing his hostages. “Twenty-three. Took care of ol’ Charlie.”
“Good,” Doc said. “No witnesses, I hope. Use a big rock?”
“Better. Found an old truck wheel.”
“Good. We can put these two in our lake.”
“Think we ought to keep ‘em around in case we need to bargain?”
“What for? Since we have the film and are rid of Branch, nobody knows they’re here. We never saw them, never heard of them.”
“Well, I thought—”
“You aren’t paid to think, Boomer.”
“I ain’t got paid in a damn long time.”
“What’s the matter with you, Boomer? Don’t you trust us?”
“’Bout as far as I can spit. Remember, I got your damn film. Maybe I’ll keep it until I get paid.” There’s a riff, a change of key. Let’s see where that leads. Got to keep Teresa and Mattingly alive.
“Hold on there, Boomer. Don’t forget those Japs. You make me angry enough, I’ll drop a dime on you and tell the cops where to find you. And don’t forget that Austin business.” Branch thought he heard a note of fear under the anger in Doc’s voice. “Remember we have Mattingly. He can get us some money.”
“Not if he’s dead. I don’t get paid, I don’t get laid. I need to get laid pretty soon, Doc.”
“All right, all right. How about the girlfriend?”
“Don’t like fucking dead women.”
“Ok, don’t worry, just bring that film and we’ll get you paid up. And you can have a go at Teresa.”
“Maybe I’ll just keep the film until I see your money.” Branch hung up, a little relieved. They would stay alive a while longer.

Advertisements

Four-Part Dissonance by Edward Doughtie, chapter 17 (For previous chapters see archives)

February 20, 2010

Chapter 17

Boomer had two Big Macs, double fries, and a large coke. Branch had the grilled chicken sandwich and coffee. Branch showed Boomer his empty wallet. “Doc cleaned me out.” Boomer growled and paid. While they ate, Branch got a good look at Boomer as he tore into his burger. Crowded into the front seat of the car, Boomer seemed even bigger. His face was pitted with old acne scars, and an angry rash covered his neck. As he ate, a vein stood out on his forehead, and sweat trickled past his ears.
“You married, Boomer?”
“Not no more.” Boomer gulped his drink. “Bitch left me while I was in Iraq.”
“Mine too. Not while I was over there, but when I was here being a cop. She didn’t like my job.”
Boomer half smiled. “Didn’t like cops, huh?”
“Didn’t like me being one.”
“Whyn’t you quit?”
“Couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
Boomer snorted. “Now look where it’s got you.”
“Any kids?”
“Nah.”
“Me neither. I think I would have liked some.” Boomer didn’t respond, but he squinted and showed his yellow teeth.
“What would you do if Doc’s job runs out?”
Boomer frowned and dug the aspirin bottle out of the glove box. He swallowed a handful and washed it down with coke. “Might go to Mexico. Find me a senorita.”
“Work security again?”
He smiled. “Maybe. Not in no warehouse, though.”
“Know any Spanish?”
“Enough. Hacerce atras, maricón.”
Branch laughed, and Boomer gave a low chuckle. “Better get back on the road.”
“I need to take a leak,” Branch said.
Boomer thought a moment. “Me too. No funny stuff.”
Branch said. “Ok. But if you go in the john with me, they’ll think you’re a maricón.”
The joke didn’t work. Boomer frowned. “I don’t think so. You just keep your fuckin’ hands to yourself.”
As they got back on the interstate, Boomer called in a report. This time Branch heard him begin with the number twenty-three. Boomer’s voice sounded hoarse when he spoke softly.
Branch became aware that Boomer was looking at him and scratching his neck. Eventually he said, “You don’t seem very scared.”
“Should I be?”
“If you fuck up, I’ll have to kill you.”
“Then I won’t fuck up.” After a moment, Branch said, “You don’t seem scared either.”
“I ain’t.”
“It doesn’t bother you going into a place crawling with armed cops?”
Boomer didn’t answer. “If something does go wrong and you kill me, you know you’d get killed seconds later.” Another pause. “Doc didn’t say anything about that, did he?”
“Just don’t fuck up, and nobody gets hurt.”
“You think Doc will let us all go when he gets the film? Or will he say, ‘Boomer, take these folks out and waste them, please’?” Boomer was silent, but Branch could see him rubbing his temples. “You know, one thing they say about cops is true. If another cop gets killed, cops all over the place go after the killer. It’s like throwing a rock at a hornet’s nest. You’d never make it to Mexico. All the cops at my shop would have a good look at you and remember you if I turned up dead.”
“Maybe I should just waste you now.”
“Then you wouldn’t have done your job for Doc. He wants that film.”
They were silent. The road shimmered in the heat. Trucks roaring past broke the steady drone of the engine and air conditioner. Then Branch asked, “What does Doc expect to get from this film?”
“He don’t want me to talk about it.”
“I know it’s some kind of rocket launcher. Is he going to shoot down an airliner? A plane full of little kids going to visit grandma?”
“Nah, nothing like that.”
“Going to kill the president?”
“Nope.”
“It’s just an old bazooka. He could probably get a fairly recent rocket launcher on the black market. Why’d he have to go to Korea for it?”
“The Koreans were supposed to have something special.”
“What kind of special?”
“What do you care? Why don’t you just shut the fuck up?” Branch shut up. Surely Boomer had thought about what might happen. He wondered if he could work on Boomer’s uncertainty without getting a dangerous reaction.
The road rolled on. Boomer rubbed his temples. The plastic covering the window was getting looser and noisier.
“I don’t think there’s anything special,” Branch ventured. “I think Doc’s desperate. Both your groups only have you three, and you don’t seem to have the commitment Doc and Bledsoe have. Does Doc think if he makes some big explosion he’ll get more members?” Boomer looked up quickly, then out the window. He rubbed his eyes.
Branch pushed. “Yeah, bang, some innocent slob gets killed, and people rush to join three guys running from the law. Doesn’t that seem a little nuts to you?” Rub, rub.
“You seem like a pretty bright guy,” Branch lied. “I think Doc is taking advantage of your good nature. Tell me: when’s the last time you got any actual money for this job?” Silence. Rub, rub. The exit for Buffalo flew past. 135 miles to Houston. Two hours. Improvise.
“Yeah,” Branch said, not holding back the sarcasm in his voice. “Doc pays in IOUs. Big payoff later. When? What from? Membership dues from the pledges of the Lads of Liberty? You going to have an initiation? Make them run naked, get slapped by a paddle?”
Boomer turned facing Branch, the rash suffusing his whole face. Spitting, “He’s getting a nuke! Yeah, a nuke! That’ll make ’em take notice.”
Branch was quiet for a while, letting Boomer cool off. “What would he do with this nuke?” he asked softly.
Boomer sighed, deflated after his outburst. “He’d blow something up. Not kill very many, he said, just something that people would notice. Then he said he’d negotiate.”
“Negotiate for what?”
“Shit, I don’t know. They talk about so many things. Run off the Jews. Make all the niggers move to Mississippi. Get all the fags out of the government. Pray in the schools.”
“You think these are good ideas?”
“Some are, seems to me.” He frowned and rubbed his temples.
Branch guessed that Boomer was not an ideologue. He should return to Boomer’s most immediate concerns. “So Doc couldn’t help with your headaches.”
“Naw.”
“Think he’s smart enough to put a nuclear bomb together?”
Boomer just rubbed his eyes. Branch kept quiet. A sign ahead told him they were approaching Madisonville. He checked the fuel gauge. “Getting low on gas. Should I exit here?” He pointed to the Conoco sign.
“Ok.” Boomer stuck the gun out of sight by the door and made one of his phone calls. Branch worked the self-service pump and paid with his credit card. Boomer fidgeted with the phone, scratched his neck furiously, but relaxed when they returned to the interstate. After a few minutes he began rubbing his temples again.
They were getting close to Huntsville, and time was growing shorter. He surveyed some of the extras cops have in their cars. “Ever work a police band scanner?”
Boomer shook his head, and grimaced as if he had stirred the needles in his head.
“Want me to show you?”
Boomer shrugged and said, “No funny stuff.”
“No, this is just to receive. Just turn this on”– he turned a knob—“and it’ll pick up local police calls.”
The speaker crackled. A dispatcher called a patrol car to check out underage drinking at a party at Sam Houston State. A fender bender near the Huntsville exit. Domestic disturbance at an apartment complex.
“So,” Branch said, “they’re not after us yet.” He switched off the scanner.
Boomer nodded, gently. He was either thinking, or just nursing his headache.
“Another thing. That cell phone you’re using?” Boomer had put the cell phone in the bracket on the dashboard. “There’s a tracking gadget that the cops in Houston can use to tell where the phone is. Like if I left it somewhere, or it got stolen, they could find it.”
“Yeah, sure.”
He’s not buying that one now. But maybe he’ll remember.
The Huntsville exit appeared. The plastic finally tore loose part way and flapped while the road noise roared in. I’d better go for it now, Branch thought. Please, all you lords of jazz, let my improvisation swing for once.
“Boomer, you know what I’d do if I were you?” Boomer didn’t answer, but looked at him, his eyes expressing pain or curiosity.
“If I were you, I’d let me out and take this car down to Mexico. Well, maybe not this car. You could keep that scanner on, and if you heard anything about this car, you could dump it and pick up a nice BMW. Go down there and find that senorita. Just drop me by the side of the road and take off.” He glanced at Boomer, who rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, if I’m not dead, the other cops won’t bust a gut just to catch a carjacker.” Boomer rubbed savagely, and his breath started coming faster. “Yeah, and if you lose that cell phone, you get rid of the tracking gadget.” The redness started rising from the rash on his neck, and covered his face. “Here’s a rest stop. Want me to stop? Need to pee?” Flap flap flap went the plastic.
“Yeah,” he said hoarsely.
Branch pulled into the rest stop and parked by the facilities. He turned off the ignition, leaving the key in, and opened the door. Branch took a breath and grabbed the cell phone as he left the car. Boomer, red and panting, raised his gun. Branch ducked around the front of the car, hunched low. Boomer opened his door and stood, pointing the gun. Branch braced himself, shaking his head. Boomer hesitated, blinked rapidly, slid into the driver’s seat, wrenched the ignition, slapped the car into gear, and burned rubber out of the rest area. Branch got out of the road and turned on the phone. Please let it work. The screen lit, and Branch sighed with relief. He hit the menu, found the number that had to be the one Doc put on speed dial, and punched in.
“Yes?” It was Doc.
Branch spoke softly, imitating Boomer’s hoarseness. “Twenty-three. Near Huntsville. Ok.”
“You’re a little late. Watch the time.”
“Ok.”
He disconnected and punched in a number. It rang and rang, until a machine picked up, and Celia’s voice asked him to leave a message. “It’s Aldo. Do not waste a second, but get Colin and go to a hotel. Call me when you get there.” He left his cell number. Then he called 911. He identified himself and his location, and warned of an armed and dangerous man driving an unmarked police car with loose plastic on the rear window. “Don’t use radio. He’s listening to the scanner.” He asked that the local police pick him up and call his cell. Then he took a deep breath and went into the men’s room. Afterwards, he took a long drink from the water fountain and waited for his Huntsville colleagues. He allowed himself one flattering thought: I played him like a violin—or at least a viola.

Four-Part Dissonance, Chapter 16. (For previous chapters, scroll down or go to archives.)

February 6, 2010

Chapter 16.

“Take the lady back to the house,” Doc said to Bledsoe, who led her back down the stairs. “Don’t worry, Mattingly.” Doc gave a crooked smile. “We’ll see that she is safe and comfortable. Boomer will leave her alone, won’t you Boomer?”
Boomer grinned and shrugged.
“I’ve told you I don’t have what you want,” Mattingly said. “I’d tell you if I did. Teresa doesn’t know anything.”
“Maybe not. But maybe her presence here will refresh your memory.”
Mattingly clenched his fists and raised his voice. “Goddamit, I don’t have it. I never had it. I never saw it.”
Doc and Mattingly stared at each other. Boomer rubbed his eyes and grunted. Branch thought it was his move. He spoke. “I have it.”
Doc and Boomer turned widened eyes toward Branch, who said, “At least I know where it is. That is, if you’re referring to a piece of microfilm in Korean with plans for some kind of rocket launcher.”
“Where is it, then?” Doc almost whispered.
“Why don’t you let Ms. Lopez go? Then we can talk.”
Doc turned up one corner of his mouth. “I don’t think you understand your situation. You are in no position to bargain.”
“Time is on my side,” Branch said. “In a matter of hours cops will be here with warrants and firepower. You can kill us and get away before then, but you still won’t know where the film is.”
“Maybe the pretty lady from the insurance company could tell us. Or her son.” His smile widened. “Yes, we know about them. We could dispose of you, get out of here, and pick them up on our way.”
Branch spoke as calmly as he could, despite the stab of fear he felt for Celia. “She doesn’t know what it is or where it is. Besides, I don’t think it’s worth more murders. You could blame the quartet on Boomer here–”
“Hey!” from Boomer.
“—and get off lightly. But four or five more bodies would start to look bad. And from what I saw of the film, I don’t think you would have much. Have you translated the parts you have?”
Doc said nothing, but his eyes shifted to the left. Boomer frowned and tossed his gun from hand to hand.
“Well, we translated ours. All our part showed was something like a bazooka from the Korean War era.”
Doc narrowed his eyes and half smiled. “You wouldn’t make a very good poker player.”
“That’s your trouble. You don’t recognize truth when you see it. You’re acting on some paranoid fantasy about the government, or blacks, or Jews, and reject any facts that conflict with your ideas.”
“I don’t have time to argue politics with you.”
“Good. But did you ever think that your ideas might make you vulnerable to a scam?”
“What do you mean?”
“How much did you pay for that film?”
Mattingly spoke up. “They scammed me. I put up half a million bucks for this deal. To help the country, not these creeps.”
Branch whistled. “And how much did you pay your Koreans or whoever got you the film?”
Doc was again silent. His thin lips got thinner under his little moustache.
Branch tried another angle. “What’s the membership of your great organization? Or organizations? I’ve only seen you three.”
Boomer smirked. “Don’t worry about us. We’ll have plenty after we—”
“Shut up, Boomer,” Doc interrupted with a jerk of his head.
Branch turned to Boomer. “He doesn’t give you much respect, does he?”
Doc waved Boomer back. “Listen here, Branch. We will do what we need to do. You have ten minutes to decide to let us know where the film is. If you refuse, I’ll let Boomer have his fun. Then we’ll pick up your girlfriend and her kid. Ten minutes.”
Doc strode out the door. Boomer scowled after him, then shook his gun at Branch and Mattingly and followed.
Mattingly slumped against the wall. “Now what?”
“I’m not sure. I’ll tell them where the film is, but it won’t do them any good, since it’s in the evidence room in Houston.” Branch rattled the locked door. Maybe they’ll see it’s hopeless and let them go. Or they’ll be furious and kill them all. Or they won’t believe him, and start killing. Or Chat will send help—and they will get killed anyway. Or they’ll get Celia and Colin. Shit.
Branch paced, looked out the windows, and tested the bars for the nth time. He picked up one of the cot legs and tried to lever the bars loose, but to no avail.
He sometimes envied jazz fiddlers their freedom, their instant creativity. Improvisation now seemed forced on him, though he was used to playing from notes. He’d tell them where the film was and try to play it from there. He hoped he wouldn’t stink up the joint.
He looked at Mattingly, who had slid down to a sitting position, his back to the wall. “Got any ideas?”
“No. If I had any, they would hear them, thanks to your gadget.” He sighed. “Wish I’d never gotten mixed up with these bastards.”
Branch considered several sarcastic comments, but refrained. “I’ll tell them where the film is and see what happens.” He spoke loudly in the direction of the other building: “Okay, Doc, I’ll tell you. Come on back.”
In a minute, he heard Boomer’s heavy tread on the stairs, followed by steps he assumed were Doc’s.
The door opened, and Boomer was there with his gun at the ready. Branch and Mattingly moved so they could be seen; Boomer nodded to Doc, and both stepped in.
Branch said, “The film is locked in the evidence room of police headquarters in Houston.”
Doc frowned. After a moment, he said, “Assuming you are telling the truth, what would happen if you called them and told them to send it here?”
“They wouldn’t do it. Someone they know has to sign for it in person.”
“Then call another cop you know and have him get it.”
“It still couldn’t leave the building. I’d have to explain too much.” Branch watched the growing frustration register on Doc’s face. A riff from Stephan Grappelli’s violin popped into his head. Improvise. But wait. Let them come up with something and play on that.
Doc said, “You could get it.”
“Yes.”
“You could smuggle it out.”
“Under the circumstances, I could try.”
“You could do it.”
Branch nodded. Maybe they’re desperate enough.
Doc turned to Boomer. “Lock up. I’m going to talk to Walter.” They left.
Mattingly asked, “What’s going on?”
“I think they’re trying to think of a way to send me to get the film. That may give us a break. Keep your fingers crossed.” Branch put his finger on his lips. Mattingly slumped back down and stared at his feet. Branch paced, imagining various possibilities. Whatever they did, Mattingly and Teresa would still be hostages and in danger. Maybe Celia and Colin as well. Whatever chance Branch was offered would have to be taken with care.
After half an hour, Boomer and Doc returned. Branch could see that both were worried. Doc spoke, wagging his finger at Branch like an exasperated parent. “Here’s what’s going to happen. And if you screw up in any way, Mattingly and the woman get it. Boomer is going to Houston with you in your car. He will be with you every minute, and if anything goes wrong, he’ll kill you, and we’ll kill the hostages. He’ll have your cell phone and report to us.”
“How will I get him into the evidence room? I assume you wouldn’t want us separated.”
Doc grimaced. “I don’t like any of this, but we’ve gone this far, and we’ve got to see it through.” He frowned and looked away. Boomer passed his gun from hand to hand. Finally, Doc said, “Tell them he’s a witness and you need him to identify some evidence.”
“It will take hours to get there and back,” Branch said. “What if my colleagues come here looking for me while we’re on the road?”
“God damn it!” Doc clenched his small fist and hit the wall behind him. “I can’t think of everything.” His eyes roamed the room. “You’ll have to call them off.” He hesitated, and said, “Call your partner on your cell phone. Say you’re coming back to Houston, and that everything’s ok, but your cell battery is weak and you can’t talk.” He let his arm fall. “You could tell them you’re bringing a witness. Prepare them for Boomer.”
“All right.”
“Wait. You don’t really use your cell. Come into the house. You’ll call from one phone and I’ll listen on the extension. So no code or funny business.” Doc tugged at his collar, but didn’t touch the bow tie. Branch noted that the danger to Boomer in the cop shop, surrounded by cops with guns, had not been mentioned. If he killed Branch there, he’d be dead himself. Doc was having to manipulate Boomer as well as Branch.
They ushered Branch out the door and locked Mattingly in. In the house, Doc pointed to a phone on the kitchen wall, while he picked up a portable from the next room. Doc stood in the doorway watching as Branch punched in numbers. Boomer grimly held his long-barreled .22 trained on Branch. While the phone rang, Branch stared at the peeling wallpaper, a procession of fading but cheerful pansies.
“Police, Jackson speaking.”
“Chat, Aldo. Cell battery’s going, so I can’t talk. Everything’s ok. I’m coming back to Houston and bringing a witness to look at some evidence.”
“Wait, where are you? You find Mattingly?”
“Yeah, everything’s cool. Be cool. Got to go.”
“Hang on, you’re still coming in ok. What about–”
Doc signaled him to hang up, and Branch put down the phone. “That better work,” he said. “If they come after us, we’ll still have Mattingly and his lady. I don’t like guns the way Boomer does, but I can use one, and so can Walter. So you and Boomer get going.”
“Better give me back my wallet, keys, and shield,” Branch said. “You don’t want me to get pulled for speeding and driving without a license.”
He considered a moment. “Very well.” He opened a drawer and returned Branch’s things, first removing the cash from his wallet, two twenties and a ten. Petty, Branch thought. He picked up Branch’s cell phone, punched a few buttons, and handed it to Boomer. Doc said, “Go. And be careful. Remember what I told you.” Boomer pointed Branch to the door with his gun.
The sun had come up, but the air still had a touch of coolness; as they walked down the road to his car, Branch breathed in the scent of the pines. Boomer said, “I’m real fast. So even if you don’t see my gun, remember that I can get it before you can do anything.” He snorted. “I’d rather just off you all right now and not drive to Houston. I don’t like Houston.”
“How come?”
“Too much traffic. Not enough trees.”
“More trees than Dallas.”
“Don’t like Dallas either. Now shut up.”
They reached the car and got in. Boomer’s sweaty odor filled the car. Could that be the same t-shirt he was wearing last night and days before? Branch cranked up the air conditioning. Boomer put his gun between his knees and punched a number on the cell phone. As they drove off, he muttered “We’re gone,” and a few words Branch couldn’t hear. Boomer checked his watch. Doc must have him make progress reports, Branch thought.
The plastic taped over the hole that was the rear window flapped noisily.
“What happened to your window?” Boomer asked.
“Somebody shot it out.”
“Tough shit.”
Branch glanced at Boomer and saw the flicker of a smile.
Branch stayed within the speed limit. If they got stopped, Boomer was likely to kill him and the poor cop who pulled them over. Boomer started playing with the radio. He found a country station that he listened to for a while, but changed it during a string of commercials. Branch would have preferred Mozart, but he didn’t mind country, and he silently agreed with Boomer about the commercials. Boomer stuck with another station, country gospel, until a preacher came on. “Shit!” He turned the radio off. He closed his eyes, frowning, and began rubbing his temples.
“You ok?” Branch asked.
“Fuckin’ headache.”
“Aspirin in the glove box.”
Boomer opened the box, rummaged around, pulled out a bottle of aspirin, and shook out four tablets. “Shit. Didn’t bring no water.” He looked around, then tossed the aspirin into his mouth and chewed, grimacing and cursing. So Boomer had headaches. Maybe he now had a theme for improvising on.
“Heard you were in Iraq, first time,” Branch said.
“Yeah.”
“Headaches start then?”
“Yeah. Got that Gulf War shit. Damn VA docs don’t believe it. If they’d been there, they’d fuckin’ believe it.”
“You army?”
“Marines.”
“Me too,” Branch lied. “Semper fi.”
Boomer looked at Branch more closely. “They let a pussy like you in?”
Don’t ask me too many questions, Branch thought. “Lots of guys got that Gulf War syndrome. Drove a buddy of mine crazy.”
“One of mine can’t talk right no more.” He looked at Branch again. “You got it?”
“Naw, I was lucky. They kept me in Kuwait.”
“Pussy. At least I got to shoot some of those ragheads.”
At Athens they turned onto 31, the road that led to Corsicana, where they made the fruitcakes, and to the interstate.
“Let me give you a little legal advice.” Branch paused. “Naw, forget it.”
“What?”
Make him ask, Branch thought. “No, you’ll just get pissed off.”
“No more than I am already. Speak up.”
“Well, if you ever get caught, and Doc tries to lay those murders on you, you could tell them about your Gulf War syndrome. Bad headaches make you impulsive. Not responsible for your actions. You might get a Desert Storm vet on your jury.”
Boomer didn’t answer, but he squinted into the distance. Branch let that possibility sink in. Boomer, he noticed, didn’t spout any bravado about not being taken alive. After a while, Branch asked: “Doc help you with those headaches?”
Boomer snorted. “Hell no. He gave me some shit he made out of weeds and mushrooms. Didn’t do squat. He ain’t a real doc. Used to run a drug store, got in trouble for selling that oxy shit. He keeps trying to make drugs out of leaves and shit.”
“Doesn’t sound like you think very highly of him.”
Boomer shrugged. “He’s a tough little pisser.” After a moment he grinned. “He knew enough to take care of that pissant reporter.”
“The Texas Examiner guy?”
Boomer shrugged. “Some guy–he wrote an article that really pissed him off. Slipped him some badass mushroom shit.”
“How’d he do that?”
He shook his head. “You don’t wanna know.” But I do, Branch thought.

Branch waited for more, but nothing came. They passed through Corsicana and swung onto the interstate. The plastic over the window made more noise as they picked up speed. Make conversation. “How’d you get hooked up with Doc?”
Boomer looked at him and frowned. He glanced at his watch, and punched his cell phone. Branch saw that he only touched one button. Doc must have made it easy for him by putting his number on speed dial. Boomer turned away and put his hand over his mouth as he spoke, but Branch heard him mutter a number, twenty something, before giving his report.
Boomer took off the orange cap and scratched his head. His buzz-cut hair was graying at the ends. “Met Doc through Walter. Heard about Walter’s church, thought he might heal my headaches. He didn’t manage that, but he offered me a better job than the piece of shit I had.”
“What was that?”
“Security. Night job. Walk around a warehouse punching a clock. Had a gun, wimpy little .38, but never got it out of the holster.”
“Boring, huh.”
Boomer nodded. They were silent for a while. The landscape rolled by—farmland, a few clumps of trees, a cluster of houses and filling stations, a strip of dusty stores. The heat made waves in the air above the road ahead.
Branch thought about the big man, returning from the excitement of a war, hardened to killing, but his physicality compromised, stuck in a boring routine, filled with dangerous anger. He almost felt sorry for him.
Finally Branch asked, “Do you buy the stuff Doc writes?”
“Never read it.”
“He thinks whites ought to kick blacks, Mexicans, Asians, and Jews out of the country.”
Boomer grunted.
“That’s a lot of people. Be hard to do.” Boomer, rubbing his temples, didn’t respond. Branch asked, “You have any black guys with you in Iraq?”
“Yeah. Sergeant was. Tough bastard. But he kept most of us alive. Fuckin’ lieutenant was gung-ho, wanted to send us through a minefield. Sarge talked him out of it.”
“Lieutenant black?”
“Naw, he was white.”
“Doc ever talk about politics?”
Boomer snorted. “All the time. Him and Walter, politics and the Bible.”
“Any of it make sense to you?”
Boomer looked at Branch and scowled. “I got a job. I don’t have to understand all the Bible stuff Walter goes on about. Some of the politics makes sense. I know the government is full of crooks. Somebody cut a deal so we didn’t go on to Baghdad and get Saddam while we had him by the balls. Now we have to go back and do it again. More poor fuckers have to go over there and get this Gulf War shit. Doc thinks it’s the Jews. May be.” He squinted. “Now what I think is this. We saw the ragheads hauling all kinds of stuff out of Kuwait, just stealing the shit out of the place. I think Saddam stole something from Kuwait that he could blackmail the politicos with. You know, if you don’t stop, I’ll show pictures of senators fucking camels, or whatever.”
Branch let that rest for a while. He said, “You don’t mind killing people.”
“Nah. I’d kill you right now if I had to.”
“But not if you don’t have to.”
“Naw, you’d make a mess.” He almost smiled. Then he grimaced and rubbed his eyes.
They were approaching a town—Fairfield. Boomer said, “I’m hungry. Get off at this exit and stop at Mickey D’s.” He punched the cell phone and mumbled into it as Branch slowed for the exit.