(in the following excerpt from my novel, The Rabbit Skinners, FBI agent James Strait, on medical leave because he has fearsome attacks of debilitating vertigo, is engaged in a hunt for a missing nine-year-old African American girl named Jophia Williams. Accompanied by a nurse, Katherine Nabors, who is trying to help Strait with his medical problems, he pays a visit to Marvin Williams, Jophia’s father. Decades before, Marvin was a member of an extremist Black Power group and served a lengthy prison sentence for assisting in a bombing of a government building, although his friends claim he was convicted unfairly. His history, along with widespread racism in the town’s police department, has lead to his being considered the only suspect in his daughter’s disappearance, despite his having a firm alibi. A key part of the novel turns on whether Marvin Williams is a hapless victim of injustice himself or a madman and terrorist).
Strait woke gasping in the dark hotel room, confused about where he was.
It was only four-thirty and the sun wasn’t up yet, but he knew he wouldn’t go back to sleep. He made some coffee and turned on CNN. The news these days seemed to be from a country descending into chaos. Mass shootings, domestic terrorism, police brutality, tribal hate. All skyrocketing. If the inheritors of the Earth were decided on this day, they would not be the peacemakers or the meek, but instead the dishonest and the cruel.
Decent people. They seemed to be disappearing from the species. People like Jessie. Like Katherine. After saying goodbye to the guests the previous evening, with an extra-long goodbye to Jessie, Katherine had driven Strait back to his hotel room. He’d asked her in the parking lot to give him directions to the house of Marvin Williams. Father of Jophia. Former black militant and convicted terrorist bomber. He wanted to talk to him face to face.
“I said I’d take you up there,” she answered.
“You don’t need to do that.”
“Actually, James, I do.” She said it with one of her smoldering looks that indicated she would not permit disagreement. “I’ll pick you up at 9:00.”
Strait grew sick of the news and turned the TV off. He took a shower and got dressed. He used the two hours he had left before Katherine would arrive to clean and oil his gun. Afterwards, he took out one of the five boxes of ammo he’d bought at the Walmart. Each box held a hundred 9mm parabellums. The “official” bullet of NATO forces. The bullet sixty percent of police used. His Glock held a 17-round magazine. He filled the magazine to capacity and snapped it into the weapon. He attached the Yaqui holster to his belt and put the gun into it. He put on his coat.
Strait was not one of those men who needed a gun to fill out an incomplete or damaged manhood, but having the gun in his holster again after all those months in the hospital undeniably felt good. Like a missing limb was finally restored. He also wasn’t one of those pro-gun nuts who got off on the power weaponry provided mere mortals and spent their lives immersed with other gun-nuts in arcane talk about gun technology or fairytale conspiracy theories about the evil government coming to steal all the guns from law-abiding citizens. Strait was as knowledgeable and skilled at weapons as anyone he knew, and he had profound respect for guns and for the responsibility required in using them. He carried this knowledge, skill, and respect silently, like his father had taught him to.
Strait was waiting on the curb when Katherine pulled up in her Nissan. A chill wind had mounted from the north and the sky was threatening rain. Another ten degree drop and it would be cold enough to snow. As she drove him around the block and headed south toward the railroad crossing, she talked about Jophia’s father, Marvin Williams.
“Even with me there, James, he might not talk to you. That poor man’s been put through everything and more.”
“’Poor man’? But he was part of a terrorist group, right? Convicted of conspiring to bomb a building?”
“He swears he didn’t know the real reason those men were buying that stuff.”
“And you believe him?”
“You seem so certain.”
“If you heard him talk about it, you’d believe him too. They told him they were buying supplies for a building project at their church. Marvin says if he’d known, he never would have driven them.”
“Of course he’d say that. That ‘church’ he was a member of advocated the violent overthrow of the U.S. government. You’re not saying he didn’t know that, are you?”
“But that’s not why he joined the church. If you know the man like I know him, you’d understand. He was attracted to the passion of it, the idea of African Americans taking power for themselves, freeing themselves. The violent talk at the church was only a small part of the overall message, and I think Malcolm just conveniently ignored that part. He was idealistic.”
“He was stupid.”
“And he was only eighteen years old. When you were eighteen, how smart were you?”
“I was pretty stupid. But I was smart enough not to get involved in a violent organization that killed innocents while promoting its cause.”
“What did you do instead?”
“I joined the army.”
Katherine laughed out loud.
“You know what Malcolm did to get convicted? He drove a car to a hardware store. That’s it. Nothing else. He gave a couple of church acquaintances a lift. So they could buy some random hardware stuff that could have been used for a hundred things other than bombing. And they told him—and even testified so at their trial—they were going to use that stuff for repairs on the electrical system at the church. For giving them that one, ten-minute ride, Malcolm was sentenced to twenty years in a maximum security prison. Malcolm is a small man physically. Not a fighter. He was brutalized there. Beyond anything you can imagine. It messed with his mind. Despite all of this, he managed to pull himself together enough to start a family. He’s been an excellent father to his two kids, even after that poor, mentally ill wife of his was institutionalized. He’s struggled to make a decent life for himself and his daughters. But now, the same garbage is happening again. The police are trying to railroad him.”
“Chief Kladspell said he’s got an alibi for the day Jophia disappeared.”
“But he thinks the alibi is phony.”
“He’s dead wrong. My husband was with him. But alibi or not, Marvin Williams isn’t capable of hurting any child, much less his own daughter. His kids are everything to him.”
They crossed the tracks and drove through the grim industrial area that Gus had passed through with Strait the previous day.
“This is the way Jophia would have ridden her bicycle?”
“Yes. Her school is east of the hotel where you’re staying, maybe ten minutes on foot.”
“The day she disappeared, teachers saw her leave?”
“Yes, along with several kids, including Eliza.”
“I wouldn’t want my nine-year-old girl riding her bicycle in this area.”
“It’s not as bad as it looks. And the guys working down here, and even the bikers at the bar we just passed, it’s a point of honor for them not to hurt kids. Any guy who tried to mess with her would be the one who’d have something to fear because the men around here would hurt him. Still, no way Marvin could drive her home, because he can’t afford a car. Welcome to poverty, Mr. Strait.”
“I thought private schools were expensive.”
“Not this one. It’s funded in part as a magnet school for the district, but it gets extra private funding. Actually, your organic chemistry woman Jessie does some fund-raising for it at her church. It’s a damn good school, which is why we drive Eliza all the way down there every day even though we could send her more easily to the one in our neighborhood.”
“Strange there’s no school bus going out this way.”
“Not enough kids to ride it.”
They passed out of the factory area to the open, empty road. Pine forest rose on either side, green foliage darkening to black under the threatening clouds.
“Now we’re heading toward two of Pine River’s most exciting enclaves of poverty, one for blacks and one for whites. You remember this area?”
“Not very well.”
“Originally, this was going to be a development.” She gestured toward the right. “About six or seven years ago, this land was owned by the family of one of the original white settlers. They decided to sell it. Two big companies, an electronics firm and a soft drink corporation, were going to buy it and build factories. The tech firm planned a big training program for new employees, so you could get a good job there with only a high school education. There was talk of some planned housing development over that way, you know those new kind of sustainable communities, where they leave something like fifty percent green space? Those projects would have turned a lot of people’s lives around who live out this way, both black and white.”
“Magic Industries, Inc. I know you’ve heard of it. Magic Lumber? That’s their local business. But they have tentacles everywhere. And they foresaw money in the forest around here. So, in a back-alley deal, they stopped the other companies from getting a foothold by buying all the land at a higher price.”
“Maybe. But the whole population out here was really counting on the jobs those industries would bring. With Magic, the jobs will be fewer, the salaries will be lower, and the conditions will be worse. That company is notorious for terrible treatment of its workers. Accusations of racism too.”
“Magic doesn’t seem to have done anything with the land yet.”
“Not yet. But, trust me, the day will come when they cut down all these trees and replace them with something bad.”
Bear Brothers Auto Shop appeared on the right. The garage doors were open and the car Lennon had been working on was still hoisted on the pneumatic lift. But Lennon was nowhere to be seen. When they passed to the other side of the building, Strait glimpsed Gus in his overalls in the back lot carrying an engine part.
Strait pointed. “I know that guy.”
“The one in overalls, at that auto mechanic shop. Gus Bear.”
She made a face.
“You don’t like him?”
“I’ve heard he’s a very unpleasant man. How do you know him?”
“He sits at a table near mine when I have breakfast at the Pot Belly Café downtown. He makes small talk. And he sold me a car yesterday. The one I showed you last night.”
“You don’t seem to like my new car.”
“No one in their right mind would like your new car. It’s an eyesore.”
“It’s got an interesting history.” He told her the story of the accident that killed the previous owners and how the car had been resurrected by Lennon.
“I remember that accident. Okay, then, I suppose I approve of the purchase of this eyesore.”
“Do I need your approval, Mom?”
She laughed. That bright, pure laugh. “No. But men like you have a habit of not knowing how to take care of themselves.”
“Men like me?”
“Large, shy men.”
“What a shallow stereotype.”
“Which you’ve demonstrated repeatedly to represent quite well.”
“I’m deeply offended.”
She laughed louder. “No, you’re not.”
Strait smiled. “How have I demonstrated this?”
“Bad coffee. Bad car. Bad eating habits. No brains about when a woman likes you.”
She slowed and peered at the wall of forest to the right and soon found the cut in the trees she was looking for. She turned into it and they were on an access road of rutted, unmaintained path.
“Jophia rode her bicycle home on this bumpy road?” asked Strait.
“Sometimes in the rain and the snow. Welcome to poverty, James.”
After driving a few minutes, Katherine turned onto a side path that was even more poorly maintained. He glimpsed through gaps in the trees shanty-like structures, ramshackle barns, patchwork gardens. A stone water-well. A hand-painted sign nailed to a post: RABBITS 3 DOLLARS PETS OR MEAT. A metal mailbox that had been peppered with gunshot on one side. He saw people here and there, all black, carrying farm tools, one carrying a hunting rifle. Katherine had to stop once and back up into the trees to let pass a half-functioning Chevy four-door from another epoch, crammed with seven people.
They drove up a hill that was curiously barren of trees and which flattened out to a tranquil flatland. The car was stopped by a reef of tree stumps. Beyond it, he could see a dilapidated shack with one side collapsing inwards.
“This is where we get out,” said Katherine. “We still need to walk some from here. And there’s another hill to go up. One reason I hate coming out here.”
“He really lives out in the middle of nowhere. It must have taken Jophia more than an hour to ride her bicycle this far.”
“Yes. And she could have walked down in ten minutes and caught the bus to the county school, but she chose the Montessori one instead. It was her idea to go there, but her father supported her. Such a bright girl, full of promise.”
They left the car and moved around the tree stumps and walked past the broken slat-board shack. It was hard to tell if it had been a habitation for humans or horses.
Katherine was breathing hard from the exertion of climbing the hill.
“Do you remember this area?” she said between breaths. “One of the oldest enclaves of black folks in northern Arizona. Population steadily declining.”
“I kind of remember.” Strait said, but the truth was when he was growing up people from his neighborhood had stayed away from this area. Some boys at his high school bragged one time about how they’d driven out here at night and used a baseball bat to smash up mailboxes, but Strait himself had never been here.
“Most of the people inherited their land and the houses on them from ancestors going back a hundred, hundred and fifty years. That’s how Marvin got this land. It was owned by his father, who died not long before he got out of prison.”
Strait didn’t feel the exertion as much as Katherine and he walked the last fifty yards faster, putting some distance between them. He was the first to reach the clearing, which still was sloped enough to make it a poor place to put the house in front of him. Marvin William’s house had that unique feel of a building designed by someone with no background in the conventions of architecture but nonetheless was very skilled at crafting things with his hands. It was constructed atop a stone foundation that endeavored to compensate for the slope of the land by stacking large rocks, probably within a wooden frame which had long since fallen away, in such a way the upper layer was flat and the bottom sloped along with the hill. The gaps between the stones were then filled with concrete. The house had an odd design, a hodgepodge of add-ons formed from different kinds of wood at different periods extending from the original rectangular structure. The blue paint on the planks that made up its long southern exterior wall was faded nearly to white, and the shutters on two long windows could open outwards to catch the sun. The only entrance door he could see was in a strange place, on the short side of the house facing west. Firewood was stacked up beside the door, split logs stacked and partially covered with a sheet of dark green plastic. Next to the woodpile was a block of stacked rabbit hutches, about ten of them, all empty. The door was covered with tiny hand-painted blue, green, and yellow flowers, now very faded, and there was a small window on its upper half, covered with a dingy-looking lace curtain. Touches of decoration from a woman no longer present.
Strait approached the house and a man’s voice came from behind. “Don’t you fucking move.”
Strait felt pushed against the back of his head the unmistakable shape of the business end of a double-barrel shotgun.
Strait spun around, cracked the shotgun aside and threw a vicious kick into the man’s kneecap. He snatched the gun away and whipped it around and snapped it into the man’s nose. The man dropped to the ground screaming. Strait shucked the shotgun and aimed it at his face.
The man was on his back, eyes wide, one hand on his knee, the other waving frantically at Strait. “Okay, okay, okay,” he said. Blood was splashed from his nose across one side of his face. Strait had nine and a half pounds of pressure on the ten-pound trigger. He held for a few seconds, inhaled, blew it out. He decreased the pressure. How could he shoot a man so stupid he hadn’t even pumped the shotgun before aiming?
Katherine had come up from behind and was standing with her mouth wide open.
Strait asked, “Is this Jophia’s father?”
“Yes!” Katherine sounded like she was gagging.
“He tried to kill me.”
“Marvin! Are you out of your mind?”
The man on the ground was shorter than Katherine and thin and wrinkled as a tree root. He had a scraggly beard spotted with grey and bloodshot eyes. The scrawny arms poking from his t-shirt were scrofulous and sore-ridden. The shirt had a picture of Sponge Bob on it.
“Don’t shoot me!” he begged. “Katherine…this…stranger was at my door! What was I supposed to do?”
Katherine bent and slapped at Marvin’s head. “How about saying hello, how can I help you, like a normal person? You don’t shoot someone for knocking on your door!”
“Why didn’t you call and tell me you were coming?”
“I did! Many times. But you never answer your phone.”
“I have the ringer off.”
“This man’s here to help you, you fool.”
Strait lowered the gun. “To help you find your daughter.”
He moved the gun to his left hand and put it at his side, barrel downwards, and reached his right hand out to Marvin. The man stared up dubiously at the offered hand.
“You really here to help?”
“Yes. But don’t point any more guns at me.”
Marvin let Strait help him up.
“You all come on inside.”
The three walked up the porch steps, Marvin limping. He was about to open the door for them when someone else did it from the inside. A woman stood there. She looked like a much younger, healthier version of the man. Same flat nose, same scraggly hair and wiry build, same manic rage in the eyes.
“What the hell is going on, Papa?” Then she saw Katherine and her face softened.
“Katherine? What you doing here?”
Katherine pointed toward Strait. “I’m with him.”
“Just a misunderstanding, Bernie,” Marvin said.
The woman fixed Strait with a furious look. “You a cop?”
Katherine said, “Bernadette, calm down. He’s here to help us.”
“After all the shit that’s gone down around here, don’t be telling me to calm down.”
“Don’t act uncivilized to our guests, Bernie,” said Marvin.
Strait suppressed the urge to point out that Marvin had threatened his guest with a shotgun only a minute before.
“We’ll offer this man a cup of tea and hear what he has to say.”
Bernadette gestured with a jab of her finger for them to enter.
Fifteen minutes later, they were seated in the living room of Marvin’s house. Furniture worn down with use, but everything was clean and tidy. Against the wall was an antique cabinet with wood-framed glass panes inscribed with roses in which could be seen neatly stacked dishes. Well-cared-for possessions. A bookcase formed from bricks and fiberboard. Strait scanned the titles and saw books about philosophy, history, civil rights. Marvin was settled on a recliner, the brown fake leather faded and cracking in places, his injured leg straight out on the footrest. An ice pack was tied to his knee with a towel, and he was pressing a second ice pack to his nose. Bernadette had brought them tea, although the way she shoved the cup at Strait, sloshing it, and the way she now glowered at him from her place standing at the doorway across from him made Strait wonder if he could drink it without risk of poisoning.
Marvin’s expression wasn’t any better. “Okay, you in my house. Talk. Who are you?”
“Sir, my name is James Strait. I’m with the FBI…”
Marvin’s eyes bulged. “Get the fuck back out of my house.” He started to rise. “Get me a gun, Bernie. I’m going to shoot this motherfucker.”
Katherine snapped at him like he was a disobedient child. “Marvin, sit back down. You aren’t going to shoot anybody. You don’t even know how to use a gun. No wonder everyone thinks you’re crazy. Just listen to the man.”
“Mr. Williams, some very decent people, Katherine here, and her daughter and husband, and Pastor Jessie, asked me to help, so I’m here. I think something strange is happening in this town regarding your daughter’s disappearance.”
Marvin said, “Strange don’t begin to cover it. We’re dealing with a racist conspiracy goes all the way up to the fucking governor’s mansion.”
“Listen. I’ve been living in this house for five years, and not one month has gone by without my getting harassed. I can’t trust nobody. No one white anyway.”
He eyed Strait, waiting for him to disagree, ready to fight him if he did. “They all been trying for years to make me suffer, put me back in prison. Drove my poor wife right over the edge. Then the latest thing, my girl goes missing. On a road she’s ridden her bike on a thousand times, in an area she knows like the back of her hand. And that girl’s smart. I don’t mean book smart, but she’s that too. I mean street smart. With all the shit they pull on us, she knows not to talk to strangers and she knows how to handle herself. Whoever took her wasn’t no stranger. It was some authority figure, like a police. You know they took me in and interrogated me all day? With no lawyer? I says I won’t talk without no lawyer, and they keep saying, fuck the lawyer, we have some questions need answering. I said, I have an alibi, check it out. I was with my friend Francis fishing. They say, bullshit, that alibi’s fake. Meantime, they ain’t doing nothing to find her. To find out if someone is out there who’s got her locked up somewhere and…” Marvin’s voice faltered. His eyes glassed up and he made a choking sound as the words he tried to form were broken up in his throat.
His daughter went to him and put her arm around his shoulder. “Now, Papa, don’t you worry, we’re going to find her. We’re going to find her,” she repeated, with more determination in her voice.
Strait said, “I want to help you.”
“You mention you’ve been harassed since you moved here. Can you tell me more?”
“Sure I can. I could write a book 10,000 pages long about it. This here was my daddy’s house. I moved in after they let me out of prison. You probably know how I ended up there.”
“You were a member of the MRA.”
“Yes. For the white man, there ain’t no scarier words than Moorish Republican Army, right?” He said it in a challenging way, again expecting Strait to argue.
Instead of arguing, Strait said, “I agree with you. The racist white power structure was completely blown away then over the idea of black people actually arming themselves in the service of getting civil rights. It was scary enough that Dr. King had brought massive protests to the streets and won equal access to public services and promoted voting rights, and terrifying that Malcolm X was openly calling for militant action, but the MRA was the one that really made the racists piss their beds at night.”
Malcolm blinked in surprise. “You know more than I thought you would. True, some of the brothers were calling for violence, but I sure wasn’t.” Malcolm had a dazed look in his eyes that Strait at first thought was due to shock from the incident with the shotgun but now he understood it was that jittery stare some people get from being in constant danger for years. The eyes of prey. “I got swept up in the propaganda. I was young and stupid.”
“How did you help them?”
“I drove them to a hardware store and paid part of the bill for some stuff.”
“Hammers and screwdrivers. Couple rolls of electrical wire and duct tape. A lot of nails, nuts, and bolts. We were building our own sanctuary back then where the most faithful brothers and sisters could live. It was a beautiful thing. And we were all working together on the building. The tools and stuff were supposed to be for that.”
“The nuts and bolts and nails were used as schrapnel in the bombs. I swore I didn’t know. I really didn’t. But the judge and jury didn’t believe a word of it and I was convicted just like the ones who did the bombing. I spent fifteen years in a maximum security prison.”
“Hush, Papa,” said Bernadette. “Try to think about something else.”
“Bernie’s right. You need to look ahead now,” said Katherine.
“Look ahead? My wife’s in a mental hospital, my youngest daughter’s missing and our chief of police is saying I killed her. Trying to get me back in prison. He’ll do it too, you just wait and see. They always find a way.”
“Can you tell me more about your daughter?” said Strait.
“What do you want to know?”
“If I can get an idea of the sort of kid she was, her hobbies, interests, personality. Her normal movements during the day, I might be able to get more of a notion about what happened to her. Also, I know it’s been a long time, but if you have any possession of hers that might have some of her DNA on it. A toothbrush, maybe. Some of her hair. If not, we might arrange to get a DNA sample from you. That might be enough to know if the blood at the riverbank was hers or someone else’s.”
Marvin stared at Strait and his eyes clouded over. “Jophia is the smartest kid in her class, but she wears it humble, you know? She wants to become a scientist.”
“Jophia is about the most decent kid around,” said Bernadette. “You probably think, sure, we’re family, of course we’d say that. But it’s really true. She always wanted to help people.”
Marvin smiled shakily. “Quarters for the homeless folk.”
Bernadette nodded. “Back when we used to go to town, if we’d run into a homeless person, she’d be all over Papa, saying, ‘Daddy, give me a quarter so I can give it to that man.’”
“Animals too. She loved animals. You see those empty cages outside.”
“Rabbit cages. I used to breed them, mostly for meat. Got to do what you got to do, right? But she ordered me to stop, on account of she loved rabbits. So I stopped. My daughter was always bringing home animals, wanting just about anything for a pet. Squirrels and pigeons.”
“Don’t forget the baby bear,” said Bernadette.
Marvin laughed. “Oh, yes, the baby bear. Jophie come running up the patch over there saying, ‘Papa, come quick, can I keep it? Can I keep it?’ without saying what it was. She pulled me by the hand over that ridge and suddenly we’re two feet from a baby bear. And the mama bear was only twenty more feet off. Oh, the Lord never saw a man hoist a child into the air and sprint faster for shelter than I did that day.”
“Did she ride her bicycle on the same path every day? On that road past the auto shop?”
“Never went another way?“
“No other way to go.”
“Do you know the men who own that shop?”
“Oh, sure. Truth be told, those three are almost the only white folks in town that have treated me civilly. I don’t have it any more, but I bought a car from them and they knew I didn’t have money so they let me buy on credit. No interest. When the car broke down, they gave me big discounts on the repairs.”
“So you don’t think they had anything to do with Jophia’s disappearance?” Katherine cut in. “I’m given to understand that the police questioned all three brothers and they had good alibis. The police, along with reporters from a Phoenix newspaper, looked at the security camera footage from their shop, and they said there was no sign of the girl or of foul play.”
“I thought you didn’t trust the police, Katherine.”
“Well, not exactly.”
Marvin said, “I don’t trust the police at all, but I do trust them Bear brothers. They might be a little strange, but they would never hurt my girl,” said Marvin. Bernadette nodded in agreement.
“Anyone else you can think of who might have wanted to bother Jophia?”
“There are people who would want to bother me. The cops. I think if you want to hunt for who took my Jophia, that’s the group you should check out. Anyone with the government too. Them or the confederates.”
“You know. New Confederation people.”
“Oh, right. I heard they were active here too.”
“Damn right they’ve been active here too. Bernadette, where’s that paper we found last week?”
Jophia’s sister went out of the room and returned with a folded piece of paper. She handed it to Strait. On the cover, it had a symbol, a twisted cross with beams of light coming out of it, which was drawn on the green head of a cartoon frog. The frog’s big eyes had a mischievous, sidelong look, and its fat red lips that formed a sadistic smile. Under the frog were the words
NORMIES, TAKE THE RED PILL! THE NEW CONFEDERATION IS EXPOSING THE STINKING HYMIE CONTROLLED GOVERNMENT AND ITS NEGRO ARMY! MAKE AMERIKA GREAT AGAIN!
“Jesus,” said Strait.
“Jesus got nothing to do with it. Last month, someone threw a rock through that window. Another time, they spray-painted ‘Nigger die!’ on our shed. We’ve found human shit and dead animals tossed on our yard. I could go on and on, back through the years, but it’s gotten worse lately.”
“I don’t suppose you’ve reported this to the police.”
“No fucking way. Half the police are confederates themselves.”
“The only thing worse than the cops are the reporters. I go to a newspaper and they write a story making it sound like I imagined it all or I made it up to trick people. Crazy black American ex-con terrorist imagines he’s a victim. No sir, I don’t trust the police and I don’t trust the newspapers.”
“Maybe you’re selling them short. They can’t all be bad.”
“James, I can tell you’re a decent man. Even though you smashed my nose. But all my life, I’ve been cheated, lied to, and brutalized by white people. White cops. White reporters. White politicians. I’m finished with trusting any of them. I’m on my own. The second I find Jophia, we’re going to pack up and head north, take the whole family to live with my brother up in Baltimore. No justice up there either, but at least there’s power in numbers.”
“I’m white. How do you feel about that?”
“If Katherine says you’re okay, I believe her.”
Strait perceived a sound outside. A sound that didn’t belong. He turned his head just in time to see a man across the clearing aiming a rifle into the living room.
Strait leapt over the table and landed on top of Marvin as gunfire blew out the window. The chair collapsed backwards and the two men fell to the floor under a shower of splintered glass. Strait rolled off the old man and dropped to his hands and knees and started to maneuver back under the window when another blast of gunfire belted through the window in an abrupt flash of glass splinters that slapped Strait across the right side of his face like gust of fire. On the left side of the window frame he raised himself onto one knee and pulled his Glock from under his jacket and aimed it at the front door. Katherine and Bernadette were both on the floor, Katherine howling with her face in her hands, Bernadette silent. Marvin hadn’t moved from where he’d fallen backwards in the chair.
Strait stepped to the door with gun drawn and threw it open and stepped to one side. No sound. He ran back to the window and at an angle popped off three shots, then leapt back to the door and ran outside.
The sunlight seemed fantastically bright, like he was viewing the world through a gold-yellow filter that burned away all but the most essential features. He dropped into that light and rolled behind the wood pile as a gun cracked and bullets ripped into the logs near his head, sending puffs of wood dust into his eyes. The shots seemed to be coming slantwise from where the trees were thickest. When Strait had caught sight of the shooter through the window, he saw a man in combat fatigues wearing some kind of helmut. The weapon looked like an assault rifle. An AK-47, judging by the sound. What to do?
Strait shouted, “Hey asshole! You picked a really bad day to kill Marvin Williams. Because I’m a cop.”
“So why don’t we make this easy? You throw down your weapon and come out with your hands over your head so when the army of other cops I called arrive in a minute, you’ll seem cooperative instead of caught in the act of trying to kill a cop.”
“Or how about you and me have a little talk? I’m really curious to know why you would come here and start shooting through the window like that. You must be really pissed about something.”
“Want to talk about it? I want to understand you better.”
Through the atmosphere rendered dreamlike by the yellow-gold blanket of sunlight slanting from the west and illuminating the floating specks of wood pulverized by the man’s bullets, not the slightest sound could be heard. A gust of wind sent dry leaves hissing across the clearing.
Strait knew the man was still out there because he hadn’t heard him move away. He was aiming his weapon at Strait behind the pile of firewood, waiting for him to show himself so he could shoot him dead. He hadn’t responded at all. Why?
Because he’s confident.
Of course. He knew Strait was bluffing about an approaching army of police because he hadn’t had time to call anyone and it would take any police a long time to get up the mountain anyway. He wasn’t worried about shooting a cop. His target might have been Marvin, but he planned to kill everyone in the house.
In his mind, he had already won.
In his mind.
Strait wanted to hear precisely where the man was and for that, he needed him to shoot again. What could provoke this guy into shooting at the wood pile without Strait actually coming out? What was his greatest insecurity? There wasn’t much to go on, but if he was forced to do a spot profile, he’d say this guy’s most sensitive spot was…
“Hey, why the hell aren’t you answering me? Are you a…faggot…or something?” Strait shouted.
The man instantly shot twice at the lumber pile and Strait cried out in pain, secretly happy because the sound of the gunfire had given him all he needed. He moaned loudly and cursed. With his left hand he jostled the far side of the lumber pile as though collapsing against it, and flailed his left arm above the wood there, then lowered it as gunfire spit at him. Strait leaped to the other side of the woodpile, stood with his gun aimed and fired three shots and dropped to the ground again.
The man screamed. This scream was authentic because he was hit. There was a sound of breaking timber as the shooter lurched into the forest. Strait jumped around the woodpile, weapon raised. He had the fucker. It was just a matter of running him down.
But halfway across the clearing the world shuddered and Strait’s vision bent sideways.
He collapsed to one knee. Nausea overcame him and he collapsed on his side, the world in full spin. He closed his eyes and vomited. He groaned and vomited more. With a kind of surreal fascination he realized the abrupt pooling moisture he felt at his groin was his own urine spreading on his pants.
Through the wildly hissing tinnitus, he heard footsteps approaching. The shooter had returned. Strait was completely helpless. He couldn’t lift his weapon. Didn’t even know where it was. He couldn’t see anything through the vertigo to find his gun, to pick it up, to aim it. He couldn’t even move his head to look at the man. He wanted to sob.
What a pathetic way to die.