Category Archives: Action

51 – The Winner

THE STAR SPANGLED Banner finished and the crowd now heard, “Runners, on your mark.”

The cannon’s booming crack sent hundreds of men and women bolting across the startup line. Old, young, streamlined, even portly, running outfits’ casual or to the nines they ran. Each one displayed a prominent identifying number.

On West Street some put on a show, hooting cheers for favorites as they listened to heady, frantic calls from the crowd, so they  smiled and hammed it up. Others carried looks designed to impress the crowd about how serious they were.

On their flatbed truck platform podium, embellished with brightly covered streamers, the judges and other race officials kept up a speaker generated, thunderously loud and excited patter to spur the huge group on. They made light of the runners labors and the seven long miles remaining in this grueling race.

All too soon the vast array of numbered runners were out of sight. The great crowd entertained itself. People reached into coolers for sodas or beer or wine or for wrapped sandwiches. They carried on animated conversations with their neighbors. Friends who hadn’t seen each other for perhaps an entire year smiled and laughed and chatted while idly watching the filler, the little people’s races that followed the main event.

First the four and five-year-olds ran from one end of the street to the other amidst cheers and exhortations from Moms and Dads on the sidelines. Then the six to eight group ran and finally came the nine to twelve-year-olds. That group ran a mile. Time passed. The crowd remained excited and happy. At the thirty minute mark, people at the head of the street began to look for the first runner from the big race. Who would it be?

All runners had left the crowd rapidly behind. All concentrated on their pace while sidelong watching their neighbors. They pretended to be friendly when the only thing in life lay ahead of every runner, the finish line. Everyone, man and woman alike, wanted to win this event, to be the big kahuna, to stand in the limelight, to be the winner.

This story is about the winner. This sad, sad story is about the winner. How I hate to tell it! Yet, I must.

The winning runner started in the middle of the pack. No street in this or any town could contain all the hundreds of runners on one broad line and when they left in a bunch they had barely enough room to avoid tripping each other.

Content to run with his fellows at first, the Runner paced along. Inevitably the field began to stretch out and room to gain on the leaders came to each athlete who owned a need to win. Finally he made his move, slowly passing one runner after another. Twenty minutes and more than half a race later he approached the turn onto Gallows Lane. He had the lead!

Sweat running freely; a dark patch had made its way down the back of the Runner’s blue cotton shirt. The moisture didn’t cool him. It didn’t help at all in this too hot day. Deeply tanned back muscles rippled between his pumping shoulder blades. His shirt moved with them, but the front stuck to him like contact paper. Arm and leg muscles driving hard, he tried to put out of his mind the horrible ache in his side. He had the lead, but at what price? Now the Runner made a sharp turn and faced the hill.

A black, glistening shimmer from the macadam surface sent waves of stifling heat into his face and up his nose. It sapped the Runner’s energy. Hot, hot, hot! Ninety-five degrees hot! He alertly kept watch for shiny spots that indicated melted tar. They would be tacky or slippery. They must be as seriously avoided as a hole in the road. Nothing must slow him down!

He reviewed the map in his head. Less than two miles to go! He checked his systems. Arms—legs—stamina—okay. Mental attitude—okay. Tired, yes, but could he make it? Absolutely! He recited his litany again, Like the little train that could, I can do this…I think I can…I think I can…I think I can!

He rushed the low end of the killer hill. They called it Gallows Lane. It had a bad history, but so what! He had run it in a practice session and he could do it again. He would do it again!

Hot air above, hot pavement below; the heat gave no relief.

He checked behind, a quick over-the-shoulder look, never breaking stride. Another runner behind him! Only fifteen steps back. Where did he come from? He thought he’d left the field far behind. The Runner couldn’t be sure in that quick glance, but the man seemed to be flagging. The guy ran, open-mouthed, and his breath came in ragged gulps. No one else in sight. Good! Him and me, then.

A packet of energy he didn’t think he had surged upward and his body began to function more brightly. This is so good, he thought. Then a worry crossed his mind. What about the kick? Will this last until the kick? That’s when I’ll need it. He put the nagging worry down in the euphoria of his new rush.

Halfway up the hill he glanced back again. A tinge of fear crowded his mind. The guy behind him was closer, definitely closer. The runner didn’t want to, but he stepped up his pace. Now his breath came in ragged gulps. At the top the road made a long curve to the left. His legs scissored rapidly. Every sinew spoke to him.

Ignore! Ignore! No time for pain!

Sweat ran into his eyes and clouded the scene. Up ahead he could see one more turn. He ran full steam. He blinked to clear his eyes without changing his gait. As he rounded the turn, in the distance he saw fuzzy images, upturned faces. The distance shortened. The faces began to move and show excitement. He shook his head and tasted salt.

Concentrate!

The Runner got ready for his kick. He made the final turn!

Elation! Hundreds lined the street on both sides. What an audience to play to!

Three hundred yards to go! Under a thousand feet! Two hundred! A sound caused him to look back. My God! Fear welled up! The contender ran three paces behind him now. How could that be?

Am I slowing down, he thought?

He took a chance and glanced at his watch. No! He was ahead of his best time! What kind of a machine could run him down like he’d stopped to chat with a bystander?

At that moment the man drew abreast of him. Can’t be! The runner started his kick. I can’t lose now! My very first win, ever! I have to find more inside; I just have to! The contender ran alongside the Runner without acknowledging him, eyes straight and glazed. He started to pull ahead.

No, man, I can’t lose this! I can’t!

One glance! Number 666 in big, red numerals. Who…?

One hundred yards! The runner reached inside for his dregs of energy and literally pulled them out of his exhausted body. The contender moved a step ahead, running like a robot, the sound of his breath the vocal equivalent of a man running out of total fright, as if something huge and ugly pursued him. But when the man looked over at him, on his face the Runner saw a huge open-mouthed rictus grin.

I think I can…I think I can…I think I can…

He gave it his all. No, more than his all! The Runner caught up with the contender, his own breath coming in whooping, tattered gasps. Twenty yards, God, a few more seconds! His eyes blinked salty runoff from his overheated face! He saw the yellow ribbon across the road, now the only thing in life. He stuck out his chest and “Snap!” the line parted. He had won…he had won!

His energy reserve gave out. The Runner’s chest tightened and a fist formed under his rib cage. His feet carried him to a halt and he stood there, suddenly more frightened than ever before in his young life. From his open mouth came a sound that wasn’t a word and the Runner sank to the road. He heard shouts from those nearby.

“Hey, runner’s down! Get an EMT over here, pronto!”

The shouts faded. Dimly, as darkness engulfed him, over the loudspeaker he heard, “Unbelievable! Fastest time ever for this event! A new course record!”

And near his shoulder, yet from far, far away, the Runner heard, “Ran like something huge and ugly was chasing him. At least three minutes ahead of the nearest contender. He could have loafed in and still got the record. Somebody charge up the defib! We could lose this guy.”

§§§

The Runner’s body jerked as they hit him with electric shock. They tried to bring him back, but it didn’t work. As the closest contender crossed the line and headed for the refreshment tent, two somber EMT’s prepared to move the Runner onto a stretcher and into a waiting ambulance.

When it drove off, the siren’s wail briefly merged with the doleful sound that came from a pretty little widow someone helped into the car that followed.

Bad Sister

I SAID SOMETHING and I wanted to say something else, but held my tongue. I heard a sound invasive as a sliver. It came from behind me and I knew it well enough. In exactly ten seconds I would dive to the floor and bullets would scream over my head from behind the thin closet door in back of me.

I’d had fourteen years living on the edge as a green beret and even the muffled sound of a cocking M-16 existed as a part of my being. Yes, I played a part in all this. I knew what would happen. Why then, you ask, would I want to say something to the woman in front of me?

Well, the sister I’d lost track of twenty years before stood there calmly holding a Glock nine. She didn’t hesitate as a rule, but I’d just finished calling her “Sis” and it stopped her, hopefully long enough. I bet my life on it.

Carmine’s mouth curled in a bitter twist and she said, “Roland, I can’t believe you’re a Fed. You engineered this?”

“Yes.”

“You knew it was me?”

“All along.”

“Now I have to kill you.”

“Actually, no,’ I said, and dived for the floor

Her gun followed my motion and I heard the roar and felt pain at the same moment. Got a lung, but missed her heart shot. A half-second later, holes appeared in the door behind where I’d stood as the M-16 cut loose. Carmine went down in its hail of bullets and smoke.

I coughed as blood began to fill the lung, but managed to cry out weakly, “I’m down.” I couldn’t get my breath, but I knew the symptoms and I also knew I’d live if they got me to the hospital in time.

My agent partner ran through the door, first checking to see that Carmine had nothing further to say and not being sure, put a shot between her eyes. The woman much too dangerous to take any chance with, Bob had to make sure. We knew she’d lived for the thrill as much as for the money. We also knew she was as cool a customer as they made them.

I had no regrets. I lost her twenty years ago. I’d stayed good, gotten into a career that used my military skills while Carmine had turned evil; drugs, selling illicit weapons and especially murder. In a sense I could understand. We were the last of our family and every one of them had met violent death. Happens in some families. You don’t get used to it.

This goes back and the story is worthwhile if for nothing more than the object lesson; trust nobody. I’d tell it now but I needed medical attention, something like removing a slug from my right lung.

Bob Ratchett, my second, got on his cell, gave our position and requested an ambulance stat. It seemed like only seconds later I heard the wail of an ambulance siren, but things began to fade about then. I heard Bob shout, “Rol, don’t leave me.”

Unconsciousness has a way of doing that. I woke up four days later in a private room with an armed guard outside the door, my chest taped and flying on some neat drug they’d pumped into me. Guess the department didn’t want to take a chance on a loose end popping up and finishing the job. That kind of made me man of the hour.

I mean it. Assistant Director Burke sat quietly in the chair near my bedside. He glanced up as I woke. “Feeling better?” he asked.

“No pain,” I said.

“I should think not.” He smiled at me. “Good job, but I don’t recall getting shot as part of your job description.”

“It’s in there somewhere.”

“Feel like talking?”

“I can manage.”

“Good. Bring me back to the warehouse part. We have the rest covered.”

“Bob okay?”

“We got his part. Your turn.”

“Okay.” I proceeded to put it together in my mind and launched my five-minute dissertation. “As special hitter for Carlos Magana, Carmine left virtually no trail, so when we put surveillance on the warehouse hoping we’d get the final evidence to put him away, I didn’t have a thought that we’d catch up with her. I think the “E” in her middle name meant “Elusive.” Then I had a thought. I’d been bait before.”

Burke nodded.

“I knew it was dangerous. Carmine had no compunction about murder, but she hadn’t seen me in many years and I felt relatively certain she didn’t know I was FBI. She might or might not recognize me, but I hoped she would. I set it up with Bob to infiltrate the closet behind where I could stand while Carmine got the drop on me. On entering the room she would naturally stand in a position facing the closet.

“Now, I’d checked that closet out at a different time and it wasn’t wide, but it had depth and I figured Bob could easily fire through the door and take her down. I really counted on her recognizing me and I know it isn’t department procedure to handle things that way, but I believed it was the only way we’d get her.”

Burke sat attentively still.

“When she came through the door, I yelled, “Sis!”

She had her finger on the trigger, but she had enough control to look at me and it dawned quickly who I was. The rest is history.”

“Except that you have taken one of my best agents out of commission for a few months.” But he smiled.

“I’ll make it up to you. Is Carlos in the bag?”

“You’ll have to. And yes he is.” He got up, uncharacteristically mussed my hair and left the room.”

Bob came in. “How you doing, buddy?”

I looked out the hospital door at the assistant director’s retreating back. “I think he loves me.”

“Don’t kid yourself.”

At Loggerheads

THE BIG RIG came lumbering slowly out of the low-lying fog. The truck announced its presence long before the Hatch family saw it. Sue and John stood silent beside their car. The Honda sat off the one lane dirt road at an odd angle, both passenger side wheels in a muddy ditch up to the rocker panels.

Sue gave a little cry of relief when she heard the flatulent diesel sound as the unseen driver eased off the accelerator. They’d been stuck for hours.  She couldn’t get warm wearing the light sweater she’d brought, but she couldn’t sit another minute in that car.

She looked at her son kicking in John’s arms. Jason needed food.  The last of the milk went an hour ago. The kid cried incessantly now. Damn John and his scenic shortcuts!

John took it on the chin first in her unhappy tirade and later in her pointed silence. It matched exactly the hush of the deep woods until Jason got started. John, for his part, bore Sue’s mood stoically.

He got them into it and he didn’t know how to get them out. Their Honda had stood them in all kinds of weather, but nothing did well in mud.

Sue’s petulant attitude didn’t help. He’d tried all the things a man will try, first with confidence and later in desperation.

The pine forest stood majestic in the coolness of the fall day. The fog that began in the lower valley after the sudden rainstorm had moved upland as the sun heated it from above. Now it covered the entire valley but not the high ground above them.

Looking up the hillside, searching for some inner peace, Sue thought the tall pines’ dark green needles should strike a pleasant contrast to the big patch of vivid blue sky that appeared after the quick storm. It could be a picture postcard, but her mood wouldn’t let her enjoy it.

Here they were, miles from civilization. They didn’t dare try to walk back to the seldom-traveled highway in mid-state Maine they’d left for this route because of bears. The woods were full of them. She wouldn’t even consider it, and no way did she want John leaving her and the baby.

“Ouuu!” she cried in utter frustration, “John, do something with Jason!

John had seen frustration in his wife in their past ten years of marriage. He’d just have to wait it out.

He said as gently as he could, “We’ll get out of here, honey. I’m doing the best I can.”

“You’ve said that five times and we’re still here!” she screamed.

John subsided. He walked with his son in his arms on the nearly dry crown of the road. Motion sometimes distracted Jason. Not this time. His clock said time to eat so he let his parents know.

John looked at the sun. Nearly noon. He pictured his watch on his dresser at home. Lot of good it did there, and the car’s electric clock had quit a couple of months ago. Meant to have it fixed…the road to hell, he thought.

This lark he’d planned didn’t turn out that way. Route 633 had to be five miles back, at least. He rued his decision after a mile but couldn’t find a turnaround. Maybe at the next curve he’d find a place, but it didn’t happen.

The sudden downpour, gone as fast as it came, turned the road into a quagmire. It came on so quickly and hard he had to stop. He literally couldn’t see the road. It worried him that they were still going up the side of this mountain. Once he started driving again, he feared they’d be in trouble, only a matter of time.

Out of the fog the big Mack logger nosed its way upward. The driver saw them and stopped. A man his late thirties got out of the cab, nimbly caught the step and jumped to the ground. He wore an insulated red and white, checkered flannel shirt with sleeves that came just above his wrists. He had plenty of muscle under the shirt. He looked them over and then at the Honda and stood silently for a moment.

“Private road, mistah,” he said in his quaint Maine accent. “Didn’t yuh see the sign back theah?”

No,” John said, “I didn’t see any sign. My map showed this road and I thought it went to a scenic overlook.” John still had Jason and he whimpered and fussed even as John bounced him in his arms.

“Yuh got a bit of the way up the hill.”

“I know. I was looking for a place to turn around, but it kept going up and up.”

“Ay-uh. No place to turn fur another mile, I guess.”

“Then we got the rain and instant mud and you can see what happened.”

“This road’ll handle a rig. That little pip-squeak car’s no good here.”

“I found that out.”

“Lemme see thet map o yourn.”

John handed the baby to Sue and she cooed at Jason and bounced him some more without much success. John went into the passenger’s side of their car and grabbed the map off the dash. The logger didn’t introduce himself. John went up to him and turned so they could both look.

“This is where I think we are.” He pointed to a place on the map.

“Ay-uh. I kin see whayah yuh made yuh mistake. Yuh see this nub ovah heah?” the man pointed.

“Yes.”

“Now, yuh see this nub ovah heah?”

“I’m on the wrong mountain, aren’t I?”

“Ay-uh.”

“Can you help us out and get us turned around?”

“Well,” the man said, “yer trespassin’ and Mr. Mulgrave don’t take kindly to trespassers.”

The man didn’t sound at all friendly.

“Look, all we want is to turn around and get out of here. You can’t pass my car. It’s blocking the road.”

“That’s not a problem, mistah. I kin push you right over the edge there. Yuh see the edge there, don’t yuh?”

John looked involuntarily. He didn’t like the steep down-slope at all. Sparse growth and fifty feet further down a cliff that dropped out of sight.

Now the guy looked mean. John gauged what kind of man he could be. Thin but hard muscled, he couldn’t weigh more than one fifty. John had him by thirty pounds. Pretty obviously the man had an active physical life and worked hard at it. John had a desk job a few years of sitting away from his iron pumping days. He doubted he’d be a match for this stranger.

Sue took this moment to get into the conversation. “Look, mister, we’re in your way and you want us out of your way, right?”

For the first time the man really looked at her. Cute little thing. Her turned up nose kinda reminded him of his dead sister Maude. About the same age, too. Two years since the cancer got her. He loved his Sissy, so ‘bout that time he told God to go screw.

The gal wore a light blue dress with some kind of lacy white stuff bordering the edges, made for riding comfort in a car, but not for standing around outside in a mountain wilderness. Her light sweater wouldn’t cut a Maine wind, no how. Like he’d asked, he saw her shiver.

She had a cute kid, too; would have been cute if he wasn’t caterwauling right about now. The woman tried to push its face against her breast to muffle the noise. That just made him notice her chest.

Kid didn’t matter, but Mr. Mulgrave had strict instructions about people nosing around. He had a lot to lose if anyone saw his operation and got outsiders involved. Pretty likely they’d see it if he got them to a turnaround.

“That’s right, little lady.”

“So won’t you help us?”

The man pondered. Foxy looking thing. His eyes narrowed. “Maybe I kin. Maybe yuh kin do somethin’ for me. Maybe yuh kin help me a bit and maybe then I kin help you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Flat out, I ain’t been with a woman fer a real long time. I’m feelin’ a need.”

“You don’t mean…?”

The man stared at her.

John gaped at the two and horror came to his face.

“Wait just a minute!” he said, “What you’re suggesting you’re going to have to do over my dead body. Forget it, mister!

“You got nothin’ tuh say, buddy. I’m talkin’ tuh the lady. But since yer talkin’, you wouldn’t have a problem with returnin’ one favor fer another, would yuh?”

John saw white! He felt hot all over. Nobody could do this. Maine was part of a civilized country, wasn’t it?

The scenario had turned strange and ugly. He decided he couldn’t argue with the guy and no man would rape his wife before he lay stone cold dead trying to prevent it.

“You’re doing nothing, mister. Who the hell do you think you are?”

Sue looked confused for a moment, but now she could see a confrontation coming and she could stop it.

“John, let me talk to him.”

“No, Sue. Don’t you know what’s going on here?”

“Yes, I do. I want to talk to him.”

“No!”

“Excuse me,” she said to the man, and took John’s hand and led him away out of earshot.

The trucker watched with interest while Sue in low but intense conversation gesticulated wildly and John gestured back with finality. Finally he threw his hands up in disgust, turned and walked rapidly back to confront the man.

“Under no circumstances am I going to give my wife to you. Forget it! She has nothing more to say.”

“Whatevah.”

The logger turned, walked back to the truck and quickly got in. John divined his next move. He ran to the idling truck as the driver put the rig into low gear. With a rage he hadn’t felt since he’d pasted that bully Bobby Hunt in the face as a boy, John jumped onto the step, reached through the open window and punched the man in the side of the head.

Momentarily stunning the man, John pressed his advantage, grabbed his coat and pulled him toward the driver’s window. The driver’s foot came off the clutch and the big truck started forward. John hung on, one arm around the man’s neck as the other reached wildly for the steering wheel.

Fifteen feet from the Honda, Sue, between the car and the oncoming truck, screamed and tried to run up the hillside, slipped on mud in the roadside gully and went down with the baby, instinctively twisting to save Jason.

Her head hit a rock. She lay suddenly quiet and still, while the baby screamed on her chest. The truck headed directly for her legs.

John hit the driver full in the face. Then he grabbed the wheel desperately, turning it hard to the right. The vehicle found the edge and went over, missing Sue’s legs by inches.

As the big truck’s rear wheels cleared the road and the rig started slowly down the steep slope, the man stirred and sat up.

John grabbed his neck and squeezed. With a violent twist to the left, the man hit John in the face and John reeled away, lost for a moment. As he fell back the crook of his arm found the outside mirror and hung him up. Recovering quickly, he savagely went back through the window and hit and gouged at the man. They were twenty-five feet down the slope and gaining speed.

The man’s foot found the air brakes. Fending John off, he stomped on the pedal. The engine stalled, but the brakes couldn’t stop the rig. On wet ground ten tons of steel riding on ten huge rubber tires slid slowly toward the precipice, making long, reddish dual skid marks.

Ten feet…five…John screamed a horrible epithet and fell away from the truck as the front end went over the cliff. John grabbed at the hardy root on a stunted tree. It tore away and he slid closer to the brink. He grabbed wildly for another. It held. He lay, feet out over space, eyes closed, terror in his heart.

He heard a cry with a sob and then the wrenching sound of the loggers rig leaving the ground on its way over. Sound followed sound, first nothing but a wail, then crashing, crashing, crashing, trees going over forever…then silence.

Sue! Jason!

He pulled himself carefully up and got ground under him. His gorge rose. He swallowed it back. Painfully, he grabbed any handhold he could find as he worked his way up the hill. His fingers began to bleed and mix with blood from his scored knuckles. He wore holes in his pants and his face felt numb.

Not as bad as the other guy, he thought with well-deserved malice.

Nearing the road he heard Jason’s healthy cry and as he gained the crest, he saw the baby on unmoving Sue’s chest, her arm across him.

With a catch in his throat, he called, “Sue?”

With halting steps he walked to his wife. Bloody ground under her head and the sharp rock next to her told the story. He bent down and felt. Pulse weak but regular. He gently moved her arm and gathered up the baby. Jason whimpered in his daddy’s arms.

Sue needed attention. Jason would have to wait. He carried the baby to the car and locked him into his car seat. Grabbing the first aid kit from the passenger’s side door well, he went to the trunk and got the picnic blanket out. He felt Sue over. Only the head wound. She moaned.

“Sue?”

Gradually she came to. He gentled her in his arms.

Sue’s eyes focused and she let out a short scream as a nightmare passed through her and reality crept in. When he could see reason in her eyes, he told her the man had gone and wouldn’t be back. She clung to him.

The road dried by mid-afternoon. John had Sue get in the drivers seat and told her how to rock the automatic up one side of the rut he’d made, stand on the brake while she shifted and then run up the other side to gradually widen the lock he’d placed on the right wheels. While she did that, he pushed; first front and then rear. In that manner they eventually got free of nature’s muddy trap.

They drove the mile the man said would have the first turnaround and found it. They also found a side valley with several acres of healthy growing marijuana plants. The authorities would be very interested in the crop. What was the owner’s name…Mulgrave…yes…Mulgrave.

The police would no doubt be interested in another story they had to tell, too.

Rock, Scissors, Paper

I FUMED ACROSS half of Kansas’s boring terrain, fields upon fields of low, nondescript greenery. The upside? I had lots of time to think. That I needed, because I’d picked a bold and possibly dangerous solution to a problem that begged a solution. I’m on my way to Susank to take my sister away from her abusive husband.

Twelve hundred eighty seven miles from my home in Hershey; twelve hundred eighty seven angry miles. My wife said I shouldn’t make the trip. She tried to make me be reasonable.

“Too much for your heart, Jake. I know how much you love your sister, but…”

“I’m going, Maeve. Don’t stop me,” I told her. “The bastard didn’t believe me. I’m going to make a pretzel out of him.”

“Don’t talk like that. He’s bigger than you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m madder than him. Special Ops training should do the trick.”

“C’mon, Jake, that was ‘Desert Storm!’”

“You don’t forget,” I said, convincing myself in the process.

She tried a few low blows. I’m not twenty-seven any more. What if he hurts me badly? What if he kills me? What about Amy? Our daughter needs a father. What about your management job at the Hershey plant? And the lowest blow of all. What about her? She loved me, but at the moment I’d blocked everything she said with white-hot anger and no room for reason.

“My sister, Maeve, my sister!” I tried to brush her arguments aside. “I’m not going to do anything stupid.”

She got quiet about then. She didn’t believe me, except that I’d be going and she knew it.

I don’t tell her I had an equalizer and I meant to use it if my “visit” didn’t work to my satisfaction. I took my S&W 32 out of the lockbox yesterday, loaded and locked, relocked the empty box and slid the gun into my Pathfinder’s glovebox.

Angry is a kind of craziness.

I kept tight control over my features. She’d know she’d lost the argument to pigheadedness. I’d had it with the phone calls and Judy’s tears and the secret confirmation I got from my call to boyhood friend Geoff Wilucz, who still lived in that little town of thirty-four souls.

He told me Dave lost his job several months ago. He’d descended into drink to compensate and he wasn’t fun to be around. Geoff said he’d stopped being neighborly. I couldn’t tell Maeve that.

Then I wondered why Judy hadn’t shared with me. I answered my own thought. Probably knew I’d act like I’m acting. Then the disaster of my phone call to Dave. I lost it. I ended up calling him all sorts of names and I threatened him. He laughed at me and hung up. Nobody did that to me!

I gave it the test of time, twelve hundred miles of it. I left Hershey with an edge of angst, but that I directed to my wife for lying to her. It didn’t set well. We had no secrets. I grimaced at that pronouncement. If she had a secret, I wouldn’t know, right? And now I had one and she didn’t know, except we’d been married almost thirty years and if anybody knew me, she did.

My first day driving I went all out; sixteen hours seething inside kept my body at a long distance edge so I stayed plenty alert. I did most of it on the I-70 Interstate, cruise set on seventy. I found a Comfort Inn off the highway for the night in Topeka. My anger fell away and I slept the sleep of the righteous. Before climbing under the covers I thought about what Maeve might do. It gave me pause. Did she give up a little too quick?

If I were her, what would I do? I would call ahead to the Kansas State Police and have a welcoming committee waiting for me, but would she do that? I didn’t think so, but she might. She knew how upset I could get and she knew what I could do…used to do.

Hell with it! I’d cast the dice and what would be, would be. I patted the pocket with the lockbox key. She wouldn’t know about the gun and the idea wouldn’t occur to her; that I believed.

My triple bypass now two years in the past and with the blessings of the best recovery my surgeon had seen in years beating inside, I thought about my plan for maybe the thirtieth time. I’d arrive unannounced. Dave might be home, but likely he’d be over at Moe’s Bar in Beaver.

I gave some thought to the price his mortgage paid toward his drinking. The anxiety in Judy’s voice in our final conversation convinced me it would get worse for her before it got better. That’s when I made my decision to go for the showdown.

I left Topeka around ten, figuring I’d get to my sister’s place about one-thirty, give or take. I’d be ready for anything, but truly expected the confrontation in the late evening.

A niggling thought tickled my mind. What if Maeve called Judy; put her on alert? I could picture it. Put it in the mix, I told my brain. What would Judy do? I considered it as I drove the last boring stretch of the 189 off I-70, a knife straight road girdled by flat green fields. When I ran out of that road, I made a left and a right onto Susank Road with rising anticipation. It had been years since I had a knockdown, drag out. I’d stayed in shape. I could do it.

There, a left onto unpaved Pope Street. The Pathfinder raised a cloud of dust behind me. I could see Judy’s place with its add-on’s and the miscellaneous mechanical crap Dave left to rot behind the shed. Little place – testament to Dave’s ineptness or to laziness? I believe he tried hard for some years, but never got anywhere and I sensed his resentment through my phone conversations with Judy. She made excuses for him right along.

I couldn’t understand it, but I’d read somewhere that a lot of women stuck by their husbands even after they started beating on them. We’d had conversations and Judy always took his side, until about a year ago when Dave threw the bills across the room and then slapped her when she tried to confront him about it. The abuse began and escalated over the coming months. Judy wouldn’t call the police and unless she made a complaint, they couldn’t act. The resident State trooper, a guy named Crowley told me that when I tried.

Three days ago my last conversation with Judy did it. I would do something. The law could do nothing, I’d been told. She would do nothing, she sobbed. She loved him.

I drove onto Judy and Dave’s property. I didn’t see his truck, so I figured he’d gone to Mo’s. I presumed I’d have time to talk to Judy, to convince her that my appearance could begin a new life for her, that she’d go to a shelter while she divorced the bastard, or failing that, that I would convince Dave to get some help.

How wrong I could be. I parked, got out, knocked on the front door and after a few moments the door opened a few inches.

“Surprise!” I cried and threw my arms up. Then I saw Judy as the early afternoon light settled on her features. Blood moved slowly down her cheeks and I saw welts on her once pretty face. My face got hot and my rage became a force of nature. I pushed into Judy’s house without thinking.

Jake, NO!” she yelled. Just then she was yanked violently out of sight. Dave hulked into the doorway. Damn it, Maeve did call her after all. I backed up fast.

“So, you little piss-ant,” Dave started, “you’re going to do what to me?” In his hand he held an eight-inch kitchen knife. “I think I’ll cut you up, asshole.”

With that he lunged, the knife aimed for my stomach. If my adrenaline hadn’t been working overtime from the moment I saw Judy—his mistake—he would have impaled me and game over. I jerked backwards and twisted to the side, grabbed his arm at the wrist with my left hand and pulled hard. Not expecting it, Dave’s considerable bulk came through the doorway and his foot caught on the threshold. He crashed face down on the dirt. He still had the knife.

With amazing forethought I’d worn heavy brogans for the confrontation. I stomped on his hand and he let go with a cry. I kicked the knife ten feet away. He started to rise. I had less than a couple of seconds to reach behind and pull my Smith and Wesson from my belt. I bent down, stuck it in his ear, hard, and shouted, “Move, you simpleton. All I want to do is to put a bullet in your brain!”

He deflated quickly. “You wouldn’t do that,” he said, but didn’t sound sure.

“Find out! Move, you bastard.” I called to Judy, who had appeared back in the doorway. “Are you through with this piece of trash now, Sis?” Rock.

“Yes I am. I’m calling the police, Jake.” In a few seconds Jake heard her talking to the resident Trooper. She hung up. Scissors.

“He’ll be here in five minutes, Jake.” Then she started to cry. Paper.

Epilogue

Aftermath is always anticlimax. I told the trooper I’d get Judy to the nearest medical facility and get her fixed up. Crowley led Dave away in cuffs. Judy agreed to testify against her husband.

I had to prove I had a carry permit in Pennsylvania. Trooper Crowley advised me that didn’t hold for Kansas, but considering the outcome, he wouldn’t give me grief about it.

“Lock it in your glovebox on the way home, okay?” I said okay.

After the police presence departed, and we were on the way to the Walk-in, Judy and I had a heart to heart. Judy wanted to stay in Susank. The trooper assured her Dave would not bother her again, that his next stop was the county jail and after that, someplace even more impressive.

Judy had decisions to make and plenty of time to make them. I’d better call home soon. I had a story to tell and a bit of forgiveness to ask for.