We decided to meet again on Monday. Latisha had a late L.D. Mess rap gig downtown at ten p.m. and a sellout venue in San Francisco on Saturday. Her return flight to San Diego wouldn’t touch down until late Sunday afternoon and, surprisingly human, she would need to decompress at home overnight. Besides, it made sense for us to meet during my regular office hours as much as possible. If anybody asked her why she’d gone back to the psychologist she’d assaulted mere weeks earlier, she’d simply tell them it was none of their bidness. Maybe whack ’em with a hunk of rebar.
That meant I had the weekend to myself. Yay me.
The only aftermarket addition to Red Ryder–as I’d named the Chevy Apache–was a plain old radio. Plain by today’s standards; it would have been beyond high end in 1958. Solid little AM/FM unit with a single Bose speaker. Stereo doesn’t do squat for me. Never has; an audiophile I am not.
As it happened, I had just turned onto El Cajon Boulevard, heading for ye olde McDonald’s to grab a bag of takeout for the journey home, when I spotted the white car. Across the street from City Cuisine, tucked in among the inventory at Karl’s Used Kars. My hand froze in the act of reaching for the radio knob; the ’50’s rock music station could wait. Or was it–yes, it was. There went the cloud of smoke. Puff the Magic Dragon, back on the job.
“Hmm…”, I murmured aloud. “Zee plot, she thickens.” My adrenaline bumped up, just a little. Nothing panicky, merely a minor excitement tweak. As Red and I motored on past the stakeout, or maybe the stalker–take your pick–I flashed back. Way back. One solid year of UWT, Urban Warfare Tactics, right out of high school, accepted in a federally funded trial program. Two more years of putting UWT to practice in Chicago, both undercover and assault takedown work, taking it to the gangs. In the end, I’d become disillusioned by the politics of it all, quit, and headed off to college at the age of twenty-one, packing more experience with the nitty gritty of shitty city life than all the rest of my University classmates put together.
It had been a long time, nearly half a century, but the reflexes were still there. Time to see about the tradecraft.
Instead of hitting the drive-through, I pulled into the parking lot at Mickey Dee’s, parked, and went inside. Internally, my awareness was up and running, singing in what I couldn’t fail to recognize as the pure joy of the hunt. Whoever was behind Smoker Man was clearly seeing me as the prey. Unless they really did have my office bugged, they couldn’t know I was hunting them back–and I did not believe they’d managed to plant anything in the office. My brother in law was a man of many talents; he’d have told me if he’d found anything.
True, the NSA probably had technology I couldn’t even imagine. Progress marches on, and all that. But this didn’t feel like anything coming from that level. For one thing, Smoker Man was way too clumsy. And a stoner.
Maria, according to her name tag, spoke up brightly. Five-two, Hispanic, a chunky little bowling ball with sparkling eyes and a ready smile. I had no idea what she said. Wasn’t paying attention. “Number one meal,” I responded, keeping the parking lot in my peripheral vision. Only half a dozen vehicles out there. Sure enough, Smoker Man pulled in, parking one row behind me and off to my left, his right, so that his car was blocked from my view. I could sense the shadow moving, though, as he got out of his car and moved toward Red.
I dawdled, enjoying the Big Mac and fries, even finding a newspaper someone had left behind with the comics still in it. Smoker Man was slow; I was nearly through my Dr. Pepper and thinking about a refill by the time he eased his white car back out of the lot.
10:37 p.m. A go order, two grilled chicken sandwiches, and I was outa there. It didn’t take long to find the tracker, one of the cheap magnetic GPS jobs. At least it wasn’t a bomb. Next time, maybe. Pulling a right hand buckskin glove out of the jockey box, removing the gizmo, and attaching it to the only other vehicle in the lot I could be sure had enough ferrous metal in the bumper to hold the thing–an old school Jag, no less, don’t ask me what a car like that was doing at McDonald’s–I headed on out on a meandering route that would allow me to spot any follower short of a helicopter or a drone. Didn’t see Smoker Man again, but he had to believe he’d done his job. With luck, Jaguar Dude would turn out to have a mega rich billionaire daddy who’d turn the dogs loose on the bad guys, if and when they stopped the sleek green machine.
If they had truly evil intentions and killed the driver, that’d be some bad karma on me. Hopefully they weren’t that stupid.
By the time I’d run I-8 far enough east to clear El Cajon (the town, not the boulevard), I was convinced I was in the clear for the night. Why our mystery adversaries felt they needed to track my truck, I had no idea. It wasn’t like the location of my residence was that much of a secret.
Or…was it? True, the property was still listed on the county tax rolls as belonging to Ralph Harrison. Also true, I continued to pay the annual taxes via money order from that same person…who had been Cheryl’s grandfather on her mother’s side and would be celebrating his 127th birthday next month, had he lived through the cerebral aneurysm that had sent him off to explore the higher planes when he was eighty.
God bless the lazy side of the Cunningham clan, who believe in eternal procrastination when it comes to filing things like, oh, death certificates and probate and such.
Home Sweet Home wasn’t all that hard to find…if you knew where you were going. Otherwise, yeah, it was downright invisible and nonexistent, one of those phantom homesteads worthy of a ten volume fantasy epic. Past El Cajon. If you reach Alpine, as Mapquest would say, you’ve gone a little too far. Leave the freeway, head south, then east, then do the twist. Eight miles of desert track, final two miles so barren and hostile that even northbound illegal immigrants avoided it like the plague. This area made Death Valley look good.
Until the final turn, over solid rock with a bare dusting of sand on top, scoured clean every time the wind blew…and here, it blew more days than not. Up the final rise…and then the sudden drop, down into a little pocket that showed on Google Earth as nothing more than a bit of green. Trees. Shelter from the wind in the hollow. A small tank, or seep, that surprisingly contributed up to forty gallons per day of non-aquifer-dependent potable water to the 3,000 gallon concrete cistern. A veritable oasis, protected from re-discovery by property lines and extremely rugged terrain all around.
The crowning touch? An ancient adobe, sprawling over more than six thousand square feet if you counted the inner courtyard. Thanks to Cheryl’s skill at graphic arts and Darrell Hickman’s willing help, Google Earth still saw it as a tumbledown relic of the area’s ancient past, even more decomposed than it had before we took it over. Roofing and even walls painted to fool the satellite cameras completely. It wouldn’t, if it was situated in a town or city where street level cameras could capture the snot on a sick child’s nose, but out here? Yeah, it worked.
Illusion rules. Miss you, babe. After most of a decade, I knew it was more than time to let my darling go, but my habits stick like ivy to a building wall. Ripping them out might be best for everybody and everything other than the habits themselves, but I just couldn’t do it.
I just couldn’t.
After Red Ryder was tucked into its spot beside Gramps and Toby–the other two ’58 Apaches, don’t ask–I stood with the garage door open, just leaning against the wall in the doorway, listening to the night. Not a sound to be heard at first other than the cooling Thriftmaster engine and a far-off coyote, barely audible. Young, no more than half grown, still practicing pieces from the Coyote Songbook. The adults were silent at the moment, letting the kid do his thing. Very cool, but living alone in a place like this, I didn’t ever take anything for granted. Especially not after having spent the week in town, sleeping on my cot in the half-basement of the office building.
There could be anything out here, human or other, inside or outside the house. Literally anything at all.
The half moon was just topping the eastern ridge, throwing long shadows, lighting up the place in a way that was both beautiful and deceptive. Or terrifying, if you were a city type. There might be Injuns hiding under them thar trees, fixin’ to take my scalp. Or a hungry mountain lion; I still treasured the time we’d seen a big tom at first light, padding silently through. Could still feel Cheryl’s presence beside me, cradling the ten gauge in her arms. Only woman I’d ever known who was crazy enough to shoot a monster shotgun like that and laugh about the recoil. She hadn’t fired. Hadn’t even pointed those cannon-sized double barrels at the cat. Just stood there, quietly broadcasting her message. You’re a fine looking fellow, great fangs, long claws, but don’t test me ’cause I got you beat. The coug had eased on by, no more than thirty feet from us at his closest point. Turned his head, looked my wife right in the eye–not me, the deadly female beside me. Most critters automatically judged the male human to be the greater danger, but not ol’ Tom. He had us pegged right. He didn’t stop or turn at us or anything, though, just kept on meandering.
Nothing like that tonight. I’d know; a big cat like that, you can feel him. Or at least I can, when I’m away from the city. My senses were opening up; I could finally hear the crickets. Not many and not loud, but they were out there. Got no use for crickets. Look too much like cockroaches.
All seemed copasetic, but overconfidence will stick the rabbit’s head right in the snare. Time to check out the house. Not all of it, just the kitchen and my sleeping quarters. Laid out in a sixty-six by one hundred and six foot rectangle, the overall design was simple: Twenty feet worth of building-ring, all the way around. That allowed for the interior courtyard size at twenty feet across by sixty feet in length and a converted-to-garage space barely deep enough for the trucks to nose in but thirty feet wide, enough to accommodate a sizeable fleet. Literally hundreds of feet of rooms, all (duh) twenty feet deep. And of course, adobe walls three feet thick. There was never any need for air conditioning and very little for heating; the huge thermal mass of the walls handled all of that. The roof, supported by massive log beams imported from who knows where, looked at first glance to be one of those flat things…but it wasn’t quite. Set a marble down near the courtyard side and it’d roll across to the outside, every time.
Cheryl had thought I’d lost my marbles when I bought it from her aunt after tracing the ownership trail down from dead old Ralph Harrison. Ralph had indeed left a will, left the place to Aunt Corinne. It had just never been probated. The never-married (and thoroughly Lesbian) Corinne had simply kept paying the reasonable property taxes (120 acres of “bare land” rated “agricultural”).
I had the original will in my safe, along with the Warranty Deed Corinne had signed in front of a notary. Not registered, heh heh, but I had them, should push ever come to shove. For that matter, Squatter’s Rights in California might be enough to retain possession. I’d done my research on that issue before buying the place, committing one online post to memory:
The term “squatters rights” suggests legal possession. Essentially, if a squatter lives in a property long enough, and the owner does nothing about it, he could end up owning that property. The state specifies exactly what a squatter must do to take eventual legal ownership of a property. Generally, to gain possession, a squatter must make property tax payments over a continuous 5-year time period.
Five years? Hah! I’d been paying the property taxes for eighteen years now! Or was it nineteen? Sure, the money orders had been sent in ol’ Ralph’s name, but the stubs resided in the safe, right in the same stack with the deed and will. So yeah, maybe Smoker Man’s employer(s) were curious about my place of residence.
Time to shut the garage door and get ready for bed, perchance to dream.
No point in retrieving the .380 from its hiding place in the truck. That had its purpose, but for home checks, something a little heftier was available. The big Snap-On toolbox wasn’t exactly stock. It had taken Hickman a full week of his spare time (as if he had any of that) to modify the metal, but not all of the drawers rolled out quite as far as they used to. They couldn’t, their depth having been abbreviated a bit to accommodate the access panel in the back. My choice this night–it varied–was the silenced Glock .40. All those books and movies where good guys and bad are blasting each other in close quarters with no hearing protection whatsoever? Gimme a break.
None of the locks in the house are cheap, but they are all keyed alike, well lubricated, and virtually silent if you’re careful with the key. I was careful.
“Ah!” I walked back into the kitchen. Turned on the light. Set the pistol and small Maglite on the counter. Turned to squat, awaiting my roommate as he ambled in, blinking his single eye. “You’re home! All righty, then, Sinbad. Fancy feast do ya tonight?”
“M-R-R.” The oversized tomcat didn’t always say a lot, but when he did, it was always in caps. Thirty-one pounds the last time I’d weighed him. Pure Siamese by his coloring, but no way in hell they’d ever deliberately bred a Siamese with those lines. Heavy, squatty almost, built like a small bulldog on steroids. Pure muscle. Whatever fight had cost him that left eye, over which the scarred lid stayed down, giving him a perpetual wink, it was a good bet the other guy looked worse. He’d showed up two years ago, right when my depression was at its worst. When it became clear he’d adopted the oasis as his home turf, I put in a pet door. Big enough to let a bobcat through, but nothing else had ever used it. He wasn’t feral, must have known humans before, but aside from me, he was certainly alone now. Except for me. Like him, I came and went.
He’d saved my life back then, but best of all, if Sinbad was here and saying hello tonight, I had no need to worry my dense human head about possible intruders. Nobody was a better monster-spotter than the Sailor.
Minutes later, I was out of my clothes and under the covers, snoring from the time my head hit the pillow. I felt the big cat join me, jumping up on the bed and padding up next to my back. Couldn’t mess up his routine, now could I? I turned over automatically to my right side, no more than half awake, and stretched both arms out in his general direction. For such a killer cat, ol’ Sinbad had a surprisingly tiny purr, almost delicate, but when he went to kneading, you’d better have a couple of thick blankets between you and his claws.
The clock said 11:43 a.m. when I opened my eyes again, my bladder full to bursting. Danged if I hadn’t forgotten to pee before going to bed. That never happened. Almost.
Sinbad was gone, out and about somewhere. I barely made it to the toilet in time and sat down like a girl to pee, thankful that I kept a spare dream journal in the magazine rack. Something about one of the night’s out of body adventures was telling me something…if I could only remember it. Some clue that left me with the feeling that the bad guys were definitely after both of us. Couldn’t pull up the memory, though, so I ended up making a simple entry in the journal.
Saturday morning dn/ No recall, but definite feeling they’re after us both.
Grunge is the weekend dress code. Jeans, tennies, a blue tee shirt with a cheeseburger logo and THE ART OF THE MEAL silk screened in place. Brunch turned out to be a huge six egg omelette, suffused with Swiss cheese and wrapped around half a can of corned beef hash, topped with tomato slices, a halved avocado on the side. Chilled milk to go with, the nice fat four percent kind.
Far more than I could eat, but so what? Sinbad was sitting by the study door, waiting for me to unlock. So much for him being out and about. That cat knew my routine better than I did.
Relatively few rooms in the hacienda possessed exterior facing windows of any sort–and mighty small ones where they did, enough to peek outside a little, maybe shoot a marauding Indian or Zombie Apocalypse victim, but the courtyard side was different. Extremely different. I pulled the curtains open, the big tomcat leaped up into the deep window well, I split a third of the omelette off onto a stoneware plate for the Sailor, and we settled in to eat. My desk faced the window, halfway open so my friend could peer out and lash his tail at the songbirds flitting about the various bushes and handful of flowering plants. Cheryl had known the names of all of them, birds and plants alike. I only recognized the Coastal Cactus Wrens. Endangered, those were, but there’d been a family of them living in the courtyard when I bought the place.
It comforted me that they’d never left.
Sinbad paused every so often, trusting his meal to remain in place while he tested the screen with a massive paw. Industrial strength wire, that stuff. Couldn’t trust the cat not to try snagging a songbird for dessert.
I turned on the TV, muted with closed captions. Anybody really wanted to find me, all they had to do was ask DirecTV. And if Apple eventually caved to the FBI in the case of the terrorist’s encrypted phone, could DirecTV be far behind?
The pundits were still agog about the meteoric rise of Donald Trump toward the Republican nomination. Yay, Donald J. Build that wall, make Mexico pay for it. And while you’re at it, get your administration ready to deal with the massive uptick in mental health and crime issues once the wall is completed. All those addicts going cold turkey, doncha know.
Hm. I flipped open my day planner between bites, made a note to email the Donald when I got back to town on Monday. Couldn’t hurt him to know about that ahead of time. And oh yes, by the way, the border fence (such as it is) sits ten feet inside the United States. Get all that acreage back while you’re negotiating with the Mexicans, wouldya?
“Huh?” Oh. “Nothing much, Sinner. Just flashed back to last week when a former Mexican official stated, We’re not going to pay for that wall! Who does Donald Trump think he is? So a reporter picks that up, asks Trump what he has to say about that, and Trump says, The wall just got ten feet higher! Then he explains to the reporter, We have a 58 billion dollar trade deficit with Mexico. The wall will cost ten to fifteen billion. Mexico will pay for it, one hundred percent. The media doesn’t understand a word he’s saying, but its obvious; he’ll get it done.”
Sinbad didn’t look impressed. One of the Cactus Wrens had spotted him, flown up to perch near the window, and cocked his head at the monster feline behind the screen. Which is where the term “birdbrain” originated.
“You’re not into politics, Sin? Thinking feather sandwich, are you?” The cat’s tail lashed, a lion preparing to pounce on an unsuspecting gazelle. He probably wouldn’t put the metal to the test again. Probably. “Did you know I read The Art of the Deal the first year it was published? Bought it again, for my Kindle. Rereading it. Tell you what, the capacity of that man for getting things done boggles the mind.”
Whoa. The cat’s plate still had a bit remaining, but mine was cleaned to the very last bite. Good enough.
The thumb drive containing backup copies of every set of client case notes for the past three years–all the time I’d been in practice–went into the USB slot on the laptop. No Internet connection out here, but I didn’t need one. Didn’t want one for that matter. Latisha would be in the air at the moment, en route to San Francisco for her evening gig. Nothing much she could do by way of investigation when she was hurtling 30,000 feet above the earth in an aluminum can. Nor was she necessarily expecting me to accomplish anything immediately, but what else did I have to do? Mow the lawn?
Yeah, as if. Though I’d seen idiot desert dwellers who thought they had to manicure the sand. Jerks.
Thank goodness for the postage stamp patches of grass in front of the San Diego office. Didn’t take much to keep the neighbors off my back. Okay, mind, no more wandering. I shut the TV off and got to work.
And hit pay dirt, or at least possible pay dirt, almost immediately. Son. Of. A. Bitch. James Roberts Zabrewski, the third client to come see me for counseling. Thirty-six years old then, which would make him thirty-nine now. Claimed Caucasian heritage, ignoring the features that said otherwise. Pale, almost like Michael Jackson at the end, but otherwise he could have passed as James Butler’s uglier older, whiter, spookier brother. James Butler…the Harlem Hammer, they called him. Now where did I put that article on Butler?
Found it. A copy-and-paste from the listverse website. Zabrewski was in no way related to Butler–I’d actually checked that out–but the resemblance was uncanny. I read the text carefully.
Butler was a very promising young fighter from New York City, known by the nickname “Harlem Hammer”. In November 2001, James Butler fought Richard “The Alien” Grant. The bout was a charity event to benefit survivors of the September 11 attacks. After losing by unanimous decision Butler made his way to the middle of the ring to purportedly congratulate Grant. Grant reacted by stretching his hand out in a motion to embrace. Instead, Butler (who had already removed his gloves) threw a vicious haymaker to Grant’s face. Richard Grant suffered numerous facial injuries including a broken jaw, lacerated tongue and several stitches. Butler, in turn, was arrested and convicted of assault, and served prison time for the attack.
Unfortunately, the tale does not end there. James Butler continued his career after this incident, but could never duplicate his earlier success. In October of 2004, Butler was arrested and charged with murdering Sam Kellerman, brother of HBO Boxing analyst Max Kellerman, with (ironically) a hammer, and setting his body on fire after a dispute. Butler pled guilty in 2006, and was sentenced to 29 years in prison.
“Damn.” I got up, paced around the study for a while, thinking. Talking to myself, because when the chips were down, Sinbad really wasn’t all that much as a conversationalist. “It’s coming back. Zabrewski, nickname Brewski. No drugs, or at least so he said, but heavy into Budweiser. Rap sheet, mostly domestic abuse, with one aggravated assault on a neighbor.”
I sat back down. Studying my case notes. Refreshing my memory. Zabrewski had never overtly threatened me, certainly never attacked me like Latisha had done…which was a good thing for me. If he had, I’d have most likely been dead. Five-eight, maybe, but probably close to two hundred heavy-muscled pounds. Genetic bulldozer. Rage simmering just beneath the surface, evidenced in the tension in his body and the barely suppressed fury in his eyes. Involved in a divorce case. Wife got the kids; yay kids. But when he’d first come in, the hearing hadn’t happened yet. Took him two sessions to get around to telling me his real reason for visiting a psychologist: Lana Zabrewski’s lawyer had experts lined up to testify against him, and he’d wanted me to go to court on his behalf, saying he was a nice guy and great father who clearly deserved full custody of the pair’s little darlings.
One of those little darlings was fifteen years old, promising to end up as big and ugly as Daddy, but according to James, “a real pansy ass”. Five of them in total, ranging on down to age three. Ol’ Brewski had just about beat his woman to death the last time, and unlike Nicole Simpson, Lana had possessed enough survival instinct to find a safe house capable of handling the entire brood.
James Butler. James Zabrewski. Huh. Couldn’t find Mama and the Little Ones–that’s what he called his children, the Little Ones–but for sure he could prove she was a psychotic bitch in court, if only, you know, a solid white shrink like me would testify on his behalf.
That’s what he said. A solid white shrink.
I’d declined to participate, of course. Even had I favored the fellow, my help wouldn’t have helped one little bit. He didn’t even have an attorney. But most of all, more than anything else, I’d done his chart by then. A Grand Cross, the most terrifying combination of planetary angles in all of astrology, with Saturn and Pluto opposing each other, both squaring the Sun and, opposite the sun, a conjunction of Mars and the ultimate master of illusion, Neptune.
The Grand Cross, it has been said by those who should know, represents a crucible of unimaginable intensity. With the aspects tight–and none of Zabrewski’s missed by more than five degrees–the result will inevitably be a human who becomes either a saint or a monster, a Jesus or a Hitler.
I could not see James Roberts “Brewski” Zabrewski aspiring to sainthood. Quite frankly, he scared the living crap out of me. There’d been no news of him since he left my office in a disgusted huff, calling me a worthless honky racist bastard and subsequently losing in court when he didn’t show up for the hearing, but that made sense. Despite the Grand Cross, other aspects of his chart showed the possibility of at least temporary restraint until cold revenge could be taken. Mercury was far enough away from the Sun to allow him some independent clarity of thought, though even Mercury was afflicted. His thinking would be disconnected to reality at best. Venus was literally as far away as it could get, enough to qualify as a semi-square; he could divorce his emotions from his need for action. Not indefinitely; the pressure cooker would continue to build steam. But for, say, three years?
Well. I got back up from the desk again. Put on the sombrero with the seven inch brim. Went out into the sunshine, meandering around the oasis, scuffing the dirt with my tennies. Ignored the sunshine, the shade beneath the trees, the tracks that showed a raven had swooped down and wandered around for a while. My mind was still but certain. How this man was connected to Latisha Dawn Messinger, I had no idea…but he was connected. To her and to me both. The chills running up and down my spine were proof enough. Hadn’t had chills like that in nearly forty years…and that time, two men had died.