Ten forty-seven a.m. The clock was ticking. “Be out of there by noon”, Sergeant Danny Lopez had said. Jack and I were agreed; we’d be at least a mile away from the Sand Dune Duke’s stronghold by 11:30. That meant moving out at a fast four mile per hour walking pace by 11:15. We couldn’t cut it any closer than that.
Unfortunately, there’d been no way to get here any quicker. It wasn’t like we could just drive up and park next to the sand dune where my dear dirty old Dad was holding court. The sun had come out, southern UV rays beating down fiercely, so we’d worn our cowboy hats, but it had been necessary to stash our boots in the trunk, switching to tennis shoes. The parking lot didn’t look too seedy; hopefully, all our stuff–and the car itself–would be here when we got back.
Firearms…an impossible decision.
No matter where we went, no matter what the laws said, neither Jack Hill nor I ever traveled anywhere without at least two weapons apiece. We’d left our long guns behind in Montana for this run, but we each had a favorite .22 semi auto, his Colt Challenger and my Walther P22. As usual, my pistol was snug in its holster in the small of my back and his was tucked into his waistband, pointing at his testicles.
Both of us had chambered rounds and made sure the safeties were off before we left the car. Leaving the heavier short guns in the trunk made us nervous, but it was the best we could do.
We’d moved across the sand at a steady but seemingly unhurried pace. Hidden cop eyes were on us; we knew that. So were Dirty Harry’s sentinels; we could see them. These guys might be homeless, but the big ex-captain of police had them seriously organized.
Up to a point.
There were close to forty of them all told, about half of whom were too far gone to be “organized” by anybody. Tattered rags, bums and bag ladies, filth and plenty of it…no, that wasn’t right. Most of these people wore dirty clothes, all right. After all, where were they going to come up with dollars for the Laundromat? I thought about the nights I’d slept rough, out in the boonies, but none of those nights compared with what the homeless community endured 24/7, 365.
Hostility. Fear. Curiosity. And everything in between. This might be Texas, but they still didn’t know what to make of an old white cowboy and a big young black cowboy striding around the dune toward them.
Heck, I didn’t precisely know what to make of us, either. Why should they be any different?
There was no sign of police surveillance, but of course there wouldn’t be. Most likely, one or three of the seediest homeless folks were actually undercover cops, just playing the game and playing it well. Had Sergeant Lopez perhaps given them a heads up? Did they know who we were?
No. That couldn’t be. Danny had told us his superiors would be unhappy about him tipping us off if they found out about it; he wouldn’t have jeopardized his own career by blowing the whistle on himself.
We were on our own.
The big black Duke of the Dunes was positioned near the rear of the group, seated on a little pyramid of empty wooden crates that gave him enough height to lord it over his domain. Better clothes than the others, still Salvation Army but not bad. He was clearly king of this hill; there could be no doubt about that. Two girls lounged on the sand below his splintery throne, both of them looking several shades healthier and cleaner than the rest of the group.
There was something off about the group as a whole, though. It bugged me as we closed the final yards, coming up against a wall of homeless men who ringed their leader’s position, several bodies deep. They weren’t about to let us through, and a couple of them smelled something fierce. But that didn’t matter; we were no more than twenty feet or so from my Dad, and I took a good look at the lowlife who’d sired me. Some of his working girls, no doubt, off street duty so they could attend to their master’s needs. I’d have thought becoming King of the Homeless would be as impossible a task as herding cats, but it looked like he’d managed it, just like Lopez had told us.
The bastard didn’t say a word, just looked at me with apparent contempt, completely ignoring Jack Hill. His unspoken message was clear, though: State your business, punk…and this had better be good.
I took my time. Sized him up, while the natives shifted restlessly, barely daring to breathe until their fearless leader told them which way to jump. I felt a little contempt of my own, not so much for the downfallen police captain pimp who had at least found a way to make himself the big frog in the tiniest of ponds, but for the dozens of ragged followers. It wasn’t fair of me; most of them were mentally ill. All had their stories.
But right then, I didn’t care about fair.
My old man looked really rough, rode hard and put up wet. At fifty years of age or a bit less, he looked a worn seventy, deep lines creasing his face, dark unhappy ferocity emanating from his very pores. Somebody had marked him; a scar ran down the left side of his face, no doubt put there by a man with a knife–but a man, I strongly suspected, who was no longer among the living. There was a toughness in him that radiated out in all directions. His eyes were dead, that sort of lifeless look you see in the worst sorts of convicts. Yet he seemed relaxed, possessing the confidence of a ruler who knows he’s fully in control of his own life as well as the lives of those around him. Many of the homeless had no doubt gotten as far away from the monster as possible while these others stuck to him like filings to a magnet. Bottom line, there were no in betweens here; you’d either be drawn helplessly to a creature like this or be violently repulsed…
…unless you were me, blood of his blood and inoculated against his excesses by that very fact. I felt myself find that neutral spot, right in the middle, the unconcerned eye of the storm.
Jack Hill? I didn’t give him a thought. He had my back; I knew that. The show was all mine.
Finally, I spoke. “Quite a fine little precinct you have here, Captain.”
His lip curled a little. “Who the Hell are you, boy?”
He really didn’t know? Not why are you here, but who the Hell are you? Odd. Well, I could play it his way for the moment. And I had an answer for him.
“I’m with Internal Affairs.” I paused for a second, just long enough to watch him tense, then continued. “You know. The Internal Affairs you had with my Mom and who knows how many others, back in the day.”
It didn’t take him long. The man’s dead eyes went even deader, if that were possible, and then he came up with the most unbelievable comment. “You ain’t getting a dime from me, boy. Which slut birthed you?”
Boy? Twice already; was that his best shot? Yet I still felt calm, centered. “Oh, Daddy dearest, I’m not after money. Smile; you’re on candid camera.” And I swung the Canon PowerShot up to focus on his face. The distance was perfect; his bulky form would fill a fair amount of the frame while taking in a number of the homeless folks as well.
It took the camera a second or so with the shutter half-cocked to focus, by which time it was clear I’d kicked a hornet’s nest. The two girls were frozen in shock, staring right at me, eyes wide. Dirty Harry started to yell something, mouth gaping. Most of the homeless began to scatter like a covey of quail under fire.
See, there aren’t many homeless who appreciate being subjected to picture taking without permission. Some of them have police records, even outstanding warrants. Nearly all of them have had bad experiences with cops running them in, even just on vagrancy charges, where they’ve had to face the camera for mug shots.
Then I realized what Dirty Harry was saying, and it surprised me a little. “FREEZE!” He bellowed, his old cop command voice no doubt, and everybody did in fact stop their scattering motion, holding their places.
Everybody but me, that is. I kept clicking pictures for a while. Then I calmly turned the camera off and tucked it back in my pocket.
The Sand Dune Duke’s voice cut through the silence. “Are you done, boy?”
“Yep,” I nodded, “and it looks like you’re about done, too.”
He nodded back…and that’s when he started lying. “What makes you think you’re related to me?” His voice was deadly quiet, and I had the definite feeling he was on the brink, as capable of telling his groupies to tear me apart as he had been of telling them to hold position.
Now, I really couldn’t believe he’d said that. I looked more like him than I did my Mom. It pained me to admit it, but it was true–and besides, Louella Jackson didn’t lie. If she said he was the only one she’d bedded when I was conceived, I knew it was true.
Still, the question required an answer. I shrugged. “I’m not related to you in any meaningful way. Just DNA, genetics, stuff like that. No big.” At that moment, Jack snapped his fingers, once. Everybody ignored him, but that was our signal. We were burning daylight. Time to get the Hell out of here. So I added one last thing. “Thanks for the memories,” I said, and I was ready to go.
Not that I turned my back on that bunch right away. I backed out of there, around the sand dune, down toward the beach, putting a good thirty yards between us before turning around to follow Jack back toward the car…
…and the Duke called out, mocking, “Yo mama was a roundheel slut!”
I couldn’t help myself. I stopped. Turned. Called back, “I doubt it!” I was still calm, centered, impervious to emotion.
His voice carried over the distance between us. “She liked it in the car!”
Again I replied, “I doubt it!”
He wasn’t done. “She’d just sli-ide down that seat…”
“I doubt it!” I was still calm. “In fact, I doubt it so much that if I thought you meant it, I’d kill you!”
I was, I realized suddenly, out of body, looking at a corpse. Dirty Harry Murphy was already dead, worm food.
How long it took me to come back, I had no idea, but no one had moved a muscle. The silence was complete except for the distant susurration of the waves and the lone cry of a gull. Despite the more than 100 feet of sand separating us, we were locked eye to eye. What he saw in mine, I do not know–but in his, I saw fear.
Sh*t. The cops no doubt had that recorded now.
Well, what’s done is done. I turned around again, taking no more than a couple of steps before Dirty Harry recovered, bellowing out after me, “WHICH ONE WAS SHE?!!”
I didn’t bother to answer that.
By the time we’d made it back to the Pontiac, discovering that no one had broken into the vehicle, I was shaking. Adrenaline crash.
“I’ll drive,” Hill offered, and I nodded dumbly, knowing I was in no shape to get behind the wheel at the moment. Eleven thirty-two a.m. We were within two minutes of our targeted deadline for clearing the area, twenty-eight minutes before the scheduled takedown of the Sand Dune Duke’s pimpdom by local law enforcement.
“What have I done?” I asked numbly, staring out through the windshield as Jack piloted our way back toward I-37. “If the old man ends up dead now, I’m going to be their number one suspect.”
“Maybe, maybe not. Man like that, he’s had plenty of people threaten to kill him over the years. But maybe it wouldn’t hurt to make sure we’re alibied up.” He glanced at the clock on the dash, thinking. “There’s a restaurant coming up. Let’s see if they’ve got a TV in there. We could watch the local noon news, and–”
“You think they’ll put something about the bust on the news? It’s not that big a deal for a city like Corpus Christi, is it?”
“I’m thinking maybe it is. But even if it isn’t, what we do now, all the way from here to home, is the dead opposite of our usual evasive action.” He was already pulling off into the restaurant’s parking lot. “We document every place we go. No paying for lunch with cash; you use your credit card and make sure the receipt gets home so Judi can log it in as a travel expense and find it later if need be. Every time we gas up, every meal, and you put a few notes in your journal, too.”
A tightness in my chest loosened. Hadn’t even known it was there. Heck, now that I thought about it, I might even be hungry.
We lucked out. Chris’s Corpus Cuisine did indeed have a TV…and the news program did include three minutes of Breaking News on the arrest of the homeless man who called himself Harry Murphy. My dear dirty old Dad’s cop instincts had not gotten completely rusty; he’d spotted two of his “followers” as undercover guys and gone after them with a blade the newscaster described as “a rusty kitchen knife”. Both cops had been injured, one seriously enough to require hospitalization.
Our waitress, Penny Raye, was bringing us the check when the clip came on. She noticed our interest in the program and remarked, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”
“Amen, sister,” I agreed fervently. “Amen.”
Jack didn’t let it go at that. “We were there, you know. Talked to Murphy less than an hour before the bust.”
“You were? Why?” Her dark eyes widened. “Are you cops?”
“Harry Murphy is this man’s Dad,” he said, and I could have strangled him.
Until we got out of there, this time with me driving the Pontiac, and Hill explained. “She won’t forget us now, Tree. Now, next stop, you update your journal. Crank up that eidetic memory of yours and record some of the conversation with miss Penny Raye. Load the pictures you took of Dirty Harry into your laptop. I’m guessing he’s going to be behind bars for a while. Nobody’s going to cover for him in Texas like they did in Connecticut, and he just stuck a knife in a cop. If they don’t try him for attempted murder, I’ll be surprised, and if they try him, you can bet they’ll convict him.”
Oh. No strangling. Part of the plan. Okay. “All right, partner. My brain’s starting to function again, a little bit, anyway. That makes sense. And I did get probably the last ever pictures of Daddy Dearest as a free man, right?”
“Right. By the way, if you don’t mind my asking, what you figure to do with them?”
“The pics? Oh, I dunno. Blow up the ugliest one and throw darts at it, maybe. I’m kidding. Mom still has a photo of him, you know. Keeps it tucked away out of sight, but I turned it up once during my young and snooping years, going through her stuff when her back was turned. Maybe I’ll keep these as reminders of what I never want to be. Truthfully, I have no idea…but it feels right to have them, anyway.
“And you know what? I never told anybody this, but I was still mad at Mom for shipping me off to my uncle when I was 17 and out of control, even though she didn’t really have any other options. And I was even madder at her for thinking uncle B.J. hooking up with the Wicked Witch of the West was a good idea. But I’m not mad any more. She’s doing good, I’m doing good, and I owe a bunch of that to her. Seeing what she got me away from, looking at those photos every year or two…I kind of think it’ll help me keep my balance. You know, There but for the grace of God go I.”
“Ah. That’s awesome.”
“Yeah, it is.” I sighed. “But one thing still feels wrong, Jack.”
“You know how we’ve made so many runs where we were covering our tracks at every step. Now here we are shining spotlights on our activities, like we had our own personal drone hanging over our heads, documenting every move we make.”
Jack Hill laughed aloud. “Shucks, Tree, what makes you think we don’t have a drone watching us?”
I slapped my forehead. “Way to cheer a guy up, Mr. Hill. Way to cheer a guy up.” Then I had a thought; no use letting the old Protector get in the last word every time. “Uh, you might want to get that round out of your Colt’s chamber before you blow your own genitals off.”
“Good point,” he admitted, “though with a .22, it’ll most likely just blow a hole in ’em and leave ’em hanging. Ventilated cojones. Set a fashion trend.”
Huh. Maybe there was a point in letting him get in the last word. I certainly didn’t have any comeback for that.