Personally, I think it’s one of the best books I’ve written and I hope you’ll pick up a copy. Here’s an excerpt:
It was late evening when I got the word. I was alone in the Sheriff’s Department’s BCI — the Bureau of Criminal Investigation. I went out into Processing and found Deputy Hank Dunn typing up his dailies.
“Deputy Dunn. You want to go catch a mad dog killer?” I asked him.
Deputy Dunn is about twelve years old, or maybe twenty. He looks like a crewcut and an Adam’s apple pasted to the top of a stalk of corn. But there’s an eager mind and the makings of a noble heart in there somewhere, so he practically leapt to his feet, as I expected he would.
Only later, sitting in the passenger seat of the Beamer 5 heading out to Bess’s house, did it occur to him to have second thoughts. Probably thinking about Sally, the schoolteacher he was engaged to, who was well worth thinking about.
We were on a stretch of Route 52 outside of Tyler. Forest close to the road on either side of us. No houses in sight. No light but the headlights and a three quarters moon disappearing and reappearing from behind the treetops.
“So who’re we really after?” Deputy Dunn asked me with a nervous laugh. “You find your gas thieves finally?”
“I wouldn’t lie to you, Hank. It’s a ladykiller,” I told him. “Fugitive out of Tennessee. This woman we’re going to see, Bess MacIntyre—she’s his sister.”
“Well, that doesn’t mean he’s out there, does it?”
“He’s out there. She’s been buying him groceries.”
Deputy Dunn went quiet. I glanced over at him from behind the wheel. Saw the Adam’s apple bobbing up and down in the cornstalk. Smiled to myself in the dark as I faced forward and guided the blue Beamer round another turn. I was almost twenty years older than he was, nearly forty, but I remembered what it was like to go into action for the first time, real action, violent action. Hard to tell the difference between excitement and fear. Maybe there is no difference.
“Shouldn’t we have some backup?” Deputy Dunn said after a while. “I mean, if you’re not just putting me on. If it really is a killer. We could have the staties send tactical.”
“Seems a lot of taxpayer money to waste on one scumbag.”
“Right,” he said—trying to laugh like he meant it. Then, after another pause: “Guess you got used to this sort of thing down in the city.”
“I won’t let you get killed, Dunn,” I said. “And if you do, I’ll take good care of Sally for you.”
“She’ll never even miss you.”
“Thanks. I feel a whole lot better now.”
“That’s what I’m here for, my friend. I’m glad we could have this little talk.”
I turned the Beamer 5 off the highway onto Lawrence Post Road and off the Post Road onto the long dirt drive that bounced down between forest and swampland toward Bess’s place. Middle of nowhere. Had to ease off on the gas to make it over the corrugation without dropping a strut. Over the thumpety-thump of the tires—even with the car windows up and the air on—I could hear the racket of frogs and crickets in the nearby swampwater. I could see the houselights through the trees, then the house itself, the gibbous moon bright in the April sky just above it.
“Vest in the back,” I said to Dunn.
I didn’t have to tell him twice. He popped his seatbelt and practically climbed back there to get at the Kevlar.
As he worked the body armor on, the Beamer 5 bounced over a last stretch of road. We came into the open dirt space Bess used for a driveway. Both her cars were there: her rusty, trusty ‘94 Accord—and it was somehow just like Bess to own the most stolen car in America—and the old Mazda pickup Harvey the meth man left her when he metamorphosed into a cloud of cold medicine and dust.
I turned the Beamer sideways at the end of the road and shut her down. I unlocked the LTR, the black tactical rifle, from the rack between the two front seats.
“Take that,” I told Dunn. “Stay behind the cars. If anybody kills me, you kill him right back and teach him a lesson, you hear me?”
“Yeah,” he managed to say, taking out the rifle.
“Move as close to the house as you can under cover, but make sure our boy’s not sleeping in the back of the Honda or the truck bed so he doesn’t pop up and blow your brains out. Or, even worse, mine.”
“And hey, there are kids in there, by the way. A six-year-old boy and an eight-year-old girl who say their prayers and believe in Santa Claus. So if you decide to shoot someone by accident, try to make it yourself.”
“You sure we shouldn’t call the staties?”
“You’re gonna be fine, Dunn,” I said, pushing the door open. “Tonight, Sally’s gonna be having sex with a hero.”
“I wasn’t talking about you.”
Dunn and the LTR rolled out on the far side of the car, all saucer-sized eyes and adrenalin.
I shut the driver’s door and started across the dirt.
The house was a rundown two story shingle with a porch out front. Lights on upstairs and in the back of the first floor, but I couldn’t see anyone moving. Dunn was ducking from car to car, checking the truck bed and the back of the Accord like I told him. He settled behind the Accord with the rifle braced on top and pointed at the house’s front door. I headed for the porch.
As I came close, the moon went behind the roof, casting the porch’s recesses into deep shadow. I could make out the shape of a swing just to one side of the front door and a rocker just to the other, but further in than that everything was blackness.
I went up the stairs. I didn’t draw my 19. I still had an undercover’s instincts and figured I could talk my way out of pretty much anything. I stepped onto the porch. Deep darkness on either side of me. No noise but the frogs and crickets riddling and peeping in the swamp nearby. I reached out to pull open the screen.
The next second, the night was all roaring and snarling as a dog, a huge German Shepherd, launched itself at me out of the blackness to my right. Lance, Harvey’s drug dog. I’d forgotten all about him. I saw his dripping fangs flash and his angry eyes burning even as I stumbled backward, arms wheeling, off the porch onto the top step. Lucky I hadn’t drawn my gun. If I had, I’d have shot the creature dead. Then I’d have had that on my conscience along with everything else because old Lance was chained up and couldn’t reach me. He snapped the chain tight and hung off the end of it, his front legs suspended in air as he snarled and yammered at me in a helpless rage.
Bess opened the front door, turning on the hall light inside as she did.
“Dan Champion from the Sheriff’s Office.”
“I’d like to talk to you, Bess, and I don’t want to have to shoot your dog to do it.”
“Quiet, Lance! Quiet! Go lie down!”
Lance gave a last disdainful woof and figured to hell with it. Receded into the porch shadows and lay down in the darkness. My heart was knocking at my ribs like a cop’s fist on a whorehouse door. Had to breathe my pulse back to normal as I stepped up onto the porch again.
“Sorry about that,” said Bess. “Harvey trained him. It’s all show. He doesn’t hurt anyone.”
She tried to smile but she was too worried to pull it off. That tenderness I sometimes noticed in her eyes was a hunted tenderness now. Plus she’d been crying and had black mascara rings highlighting her eye pouches. Reminded me of a cornered raccoon—just like a cornered raccoon, in fact: defiant and terrified.
I stepped up close to her, towered over her. The dog growled from the shadows. I spoke low.
“I’m here to take your brother, Bess. I don’t want the kids to get hurt.”
She looked up at me, right at me. Her lips trembled. “He’s not here,” she said, starting to cry.
“I don’t want the kids to get hurt,” I said again. “Where are they?”
She barely managed to get the words out: “Upstairs in their bedrooms.”
The mascara streaked her right cheek as the tears rolled down it. “Hiding on the cellar stairs,” she whispered. “Behind the door in the kitchen.”
I squeezed her shoulder. “Go up to your babies. It’ll be all right,” I said.
She nodded quickly. I held onto her arm, guiding her back into the house. I went in with her and let the door close hard so Frank could hear it, maybe think everything was back to normal. I nodded at the stairs and gave Bess a little shove that way. She glanced back at me once but then went, scurrying up to the second floor.
I moved on, past the staircase, toward the bright light of the kitchen in back. Down a narrow hall. I could see the cellar door just at the end of it, just where the kitchen began, on the wall to my right. The door was hinged to open toward me.
I knew Frank would come out of there gun first and he did. Meaning to curl around the door, take a shot at me and run for it. I was there too fast. As the door swung open, I kicked it back on him. It smacked him in the shoulder. The pistol fired, a deafening blast. A china serving tray on a kitchen shelf exploded into fragments and white powder. A black hole opened in the flowery wallpaper. Then I was on him. I grabbed his wrist. I snatched the gun out of his hand and dragged him into the kitchen by his shirtfront and smashed the gun butt into his face, breaking his nose. I hate a scumbag with a gun, hate it. I twisted his shirtfront in my free hand and slammed his back full force into the wall. Held him there with a forearm and stuck the barrel of his own weapon into his eye socket.
“You pull a gun on me?” I said. I slapped him in the face with the barrel. “You hit women. That’s what you’re good for. You don’t pull a gun on me. Not on me.”
I slapped him again just to see his eyes spin around. Then I hustled him and his bloody face back down the wall, past the stairs, to the front door. I heard the German Shepherd going nuts on his chain again and when I pulled the door open I saw Deputy Dunn and his rifle trying to edge around the creature’s teeth to reach the door.
I pushed Frank out onto the porch.
“Shut up, Lance!” I shouted, but the dog kept barking.
I went past him—and past Dunn—and threw Frank down the stairs. He landed face first in the dirt below and lay there, dazed and groaning.
“Kill him,” I told Dunn.
“Oh, all right, cuff him then, and get him in the car. Shut up, Lance!”
The dog howled and squealed and barked some more.
While Deputy Dunn kneeled on Frank Bagot’s back and wrestled his arms behind him for the cuffs, I stepped into the house again. Went to the bottom of the stairs. Looked up to where Bess now stood on the landing, a frightened child huddled one under each of her arms.
“It’s all right,” I told her. “Someone’ll come by tomorrow, pick up his things and take a statement from you. Tell them how he held you hostage, threatened your kids.”
“He did, you know,” she said, sniffling.
“Well, you tell them. And you ought to get rid of that dog too before he hurts one of you,” I said.
“I will,” she said.
But she wouldn’t. Or if she did, she’d get herself a man just as bad and he’d do the damage instead of the dog. That’s how it was with her, with everyone more or less. By my reckoning, maybe fifteen percent of the suffering of life is unbidden sickness and disaster, the rest we bring on ourselves.
I hesitated a moment at the base of the stairs. Beautiful kids, too. A porcelain girl with silk blonde hair. A dark solemn boy with far-seeing eyes. It was a shame what was going to happen to them in this house. But there was nothing I could do about it. Nothing anyone could do.
I gave them a nod. “You have a good night,” I said.
The dog was still straining and barking as I stepped out onto the porch again, but I think it was beginning to get tired of the sound of its own voice. When I glared at it now, it whimpered and shut up and circled the floorboards, its chain scraping. Finally, it lay down again. I went down the stairs to the dirt drive.
Dunn was just working Frank Bagot into the back seat of the Beamer. I stood where I was a while and composed myself, considering the night sky: the gibbous moon rising and the big dipper bright and the bright stars and planets flickering out from behind the trees, making the woods seem mysterious and deep. With the dog quiet, I could hear the swamp creatures again. Whistling, chattering, humming, groaning like bulls. There was a peacefulness about it after the sudden violence, an atmosphere of rightness and content as if things were working in the dark of the forest the way they were intended to.
That’s when the ghosts returned to me—the memory of the ghosts, I mean. The memory of the city with all a city’s suddenness and jarring noise. I was thinking about Frank Bagot and the way he came back to his past and the way the past comes back. I had lived three years in exurban Tyler County, but New York was always with me. I was always half-afraid that I would turn this way or that and see the little boy who wasn’t there, see him staring at me with his phantom eyes. Or the woman. Samantha… The past shapes your desires and your desires lead you back into the past.
I took a deep breath of the cool spring air, rich and moist and somehow green, full of the swamp and the forest. You’re fine, I told myself. Fine. But I guess the thing is: once you’ve been crazy, once you’ve seen ghosts and lived with delusions, you can never be quite sure of yourself anymore. Reality seems fragile to you. You’re always worried it’ll crack and you’ll step through it into the bad time again.
I heard Deputy Dunn shut the Beamer’s rear door. I walked over to the driver’s side.
“Nice work,” I said.
He nodded, big-eyed, big Adam’s apple going up and down. He was still all fired up and confused. But I could see by the look of him that he was beginning to realize he had come through it, and he’d have a good story to tell his Sal tonight.
We both got into the car, me behind the wheel.
“You bastard, you hit me,” said Frank Bagot out of the back.
“You’re lucky I didn’t shove that gun up your ass and blow your brains out,” I told him. I started the car.
I paused for a moment there, my hand on the gear shift. Looking out the windshield at the lighted house with the moon above it. Finally, with some small trepidation, I scanned the edges of the surrounding forest. Fearing I would see those old ghosts standing there, watching me, from just within the trees.
But there was nothing. Of course not. I felt fine. Good. I had for years. Not likely ever to see what I once saw, what I saw back then, down in the city. The boy. The woman. Not likely.
But once you’ve been crazy, you can never be quite sure.