An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth
5 years ago
Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana
‘Sweet Jesus, it’s going to crash.’
They stared in disbelieving horror, feeling like gawking tourists at the top of the Empire State Building watching helplessly as an American Airlines Boeing 767 plowed into the side of the north tower of the World Trade Center in New York City. Except there was no explosion as twenty thousand gallons of jet fuel ignited, no billowing black smoke and licking flames. Just an eerie silent glide into the canopy of trees, the outward calm belying the panic and fear inside.
They stood for what felt like forever on the wooden bridge spanning Alabama Bayou where only a moment ago he’d rattled the flimsy guard rail joking how one false step and they’d be lunch for the hungry ’gators waiting in the swirling brown water below.
Then he was on the move, years of training kicking in.
‘Are you out of your mind? What do you think you can do?’
He stopped as if he’d run headlong into a tree, his brow as lined as its bark.
‘Huh? Have you forgotten what we do for a living?’
The truth behind the accusation in his voice stinging more than the hordes of airborne biting insects could ever do.
Then he was racing away down the dusty trail, only his disappointment left behind.
Nothing to do but go after him, fight through the fear and growing dread.
He stopped again before diving into the mass of trees, his breath coming in heaving gasps, not so fit as he liked to think and brag about.
‘You go back to the car. See if you’ve got a signal there. Call it in. Or drive to where you’ve got one.’ The compassion in his voice as he offered an easy face-saving way out harder to bear than any accusation.
Fighting their way side by side through the dense undergrowth in the relentless strength-sapping heat, tripping and stumbling as gnarly roots and creeping vines snared their feet and branches clawed and scratched at their eyes, startled birds and unseen critters scattering ahead of them in their crazy flight towards God knows what.
Then stopping in their tracks at the sight of the carnage that greeted them, the light aircraft like a broken toy discarded by a spoiled child. Front end caved-in, one wing ripped off and half of the horizontal stabilizer missing, a gaping rent in the fuselage like an open knife wound. Twisted, snapped trees and flattened brush on all sides, a drifting cloud of white smoke lending the scene an ethereal otherworldly feel, the oily smell of gasoline fouling the forest air.
Like a private preview of hell itself.
‘I’m going in.’ Sounding like some comic-book superhero, the rousing music running through his head spurring him on banishing fear and thoughts of personal safety. ‘They might still be alive.’
‘Are you crazy? Can’t you smell that? It might explode any minute.’
‘We’ll just stand here and watch them burn instead, shall we?’
Already fighting his way towards the wreckage. Turning to yell, stay there, like he was talking to a disobedient dog.
The plane creaked and shifted as he approached, twisted metal complaining. The rear passenger door had burst open on impact. He stuck his head inside. Told himself it was just another Saturday night call-out in downtown Lafayette. Blood and broken bones are the same anywhere whatever their cause.
Two men inside.
The pilot slumped forward onto the control wheel yoke, blood streaming down his face. Sunlight filtering through the shattered windshield drawing crazy patterns intermingling with the blood.
And a passenger. In the back, not up front with the pilot.
Also slumped forward, his arm stretched behind him as if he’d tried to hold onto his chair as they plowed into the trees.
Jesus Christ! He was handcuffed to it!
The cuffed man moaned as his rescuer scrambled up and leaned halfway in.
‘Help me. Please.’
He recoiled at the sight of him. Not at the blood on his face, he was used to that. At the man himself. The sort of man honest citizens cross the street to avoid. The sort of man he strapped to a gurney every Saturday night. The loser in a knife fight. Or the man world-weary police officers bundled into the back of a cruiser for putting the loser in a condition to need that gurney.
The cuffed man moaned again.
‘Please. The pilot has the key.’
He climbed all the way in, worked his way to the pilot. Still alive but unconscious, a ragged gash splitting his forehead, the white-gray of bone visible through the glistening sea of blood.
He dug frantically in the pilot’s pockets, blood mingling with sweat making his fingers slick, the choking smell of aircraft fuel thick in the air.
‘Hurry,’ the man behind called, his voice growing weaker, more desperate.
At last, he found a ring of keys in the pilot’s vest. The pilot moaned softly as he pulled them out, words barely distinguishable.
He hesitated, vital seconds lost, a flame of anger igniting in his belly.
They should both be in here helping.
He hurried back to the cuffed man. The guy pointed with his free hand at the keys.
He didn’t have time to think how he knew. Slipped the key into the lock and set him free. The man slumped heavily, crying out in pain as his arm settled at an angle nature never intended.
Dislocated shoulder at the very least.
The freed man coughed at the smoke now filling the interior, mumbled through his pain.
‘Help me up. I can’t feel my left leg.’
Getting him to his feet wasn’t easy, the injured man swaying unsteadily as the plane settled into the soft ground. Looking as if he might pass out any second.
‘The pilot,’ he said, starting towards him all the same.
‘I’ll get him. You get out.’ Taking hold of his good arm, stopping him as he said it.
The guy laughed, an unhinged pain-wracked sound.
‘What are you? A Good Samaritan?’
Aftermath of a plane crash or not, the man was deceptively strong for his size. He went to the pilot as if nothing heavier than a small child was hanging onto his arm trying to prevent him. And although he was neither big nor broad across the shoulders, his body blocked any line of sight as he ran his hands over the pilot’s unresisting body.
What the hell was he doing? Stealing the pilot’s wallet?
Suddenly there was a black Glock 43 pistol in the man’s hand, not looking so shell-shocked now.
He watched open-mouthed, frozen by fear and revulsion at the unfolding nightmare, as the guy placed the barrel against the pilot’s temple and pulled the trigger with as much emotion as if he was putting a dog that had been run over in the street out of its misery.
Then the guy turned, all trace of the grateful released man long gone, and now the gun was facing straight at his rescuer’s chest.
And in his last moments before he went to meet his maker, the Good Samaritan understood the cynical wisdom in the old saying that no good deed goes unpunished.
Evan Buckley groaned inwardly as he pushed through the door of the Jerusalem Tavern, his heart sinking at the realization that his evening had just changed. And not in a good way.
It wasn’t because they’d strung a big banner over the bar—No Beer—or even that an escapee from the local lunatic asylum had snuck in and put Abba’s Dancing Queen on the jukebox. It was because payback time had come earlier than he’d anticipated.
Stan Fraser was sitting on his, Evan’s, stool up at the bar. Looking like he owned the place and lowering the tone at the same time. He was watching Evan intently in the backbar mirror as he made his way across the room. As if he wanted to be ready to move quickly should Evan do what any right-minded person would, turned tail and ran.
Fraser was almost as wide as he was tall, as much flab on him as a bull rhinoceros in training for the mating season. Like that rhino, he’d have a surprising turn of speed for such an unathletic-looking man, one that would catch a lot of men unawares.
Evan put some bounce into his step, worked a look of pleasant surprise onto his face. As if his day had been completed by a chance encounter with an old friend. A deception that fooled Fraser for as long as it would take him to break a man’s fingers.
Fraser had a world of experience in that field. A lifelong criminal, an old-school dinosaur who had yet to encounter a problem on his eventful and often-harsh journey through life that couldn’t be resolved with violence. A palpable aura of menace exuded from his pores that triggered hard-wired primeval defense mechanisms in other men, caused them to look away. Or better still, get themselves someplace else.
Except Fraser had risen to a level in his chosen profession that meant he didn’t need to dirty his own hands these days. Not unless he wanted to, and even the satisfaction from that was waning as he grew older. It was the job of his minders-cum-leg-breakers, one of whom was sitting to Fraser’s left. In Kate Guillory’s seat. A provocative choice, as was Fraser’s, sitting in Evan’s chair. He too was watching Evan approach in the backbar mirror.
Evan had come across Fraser’s minders before. They were large and aggressive caricature thugs with shaved heads and pervasive tattoos that advertised a toxic mix of bigotry and ignorance and a penchant for hurting people for no reason other than being able to do so.
This man was different.
He almost looked normal, a worrying trait in a man who clearly isn’t.
Aged around forty, he was dressed in a crumpled blue suit over an open-necked white shirt, his salt-and-pepper hair cut short in a 1950s-style flattop. He could’ve been Fraser’s attorney, if it hadn’t been for the soul patch—the gray tuft of hair under his bottom lip—that he sported. If people were the weather, he made Evan think of a wet winter’s day with a biting wind that made you wish you’d worn a thicker coat. Or better still, not gone out at all.
He was drinking water. Evan got the impression nobody had called him a pussy for it. He figured a lot of overly-confident young bucks too full of themselves had learned the hard, aka painful, way that appearances are often deceptive.
The seating arrangements at the bar were proof of it. The seat to Fraser’s right was empty. Evan took it, as he was meant to, glancing to his right as he did so. All the seats along the bar were occupied. Beside him were two college-football types, gym-toned pumped-up muscles straining their matching black T-shirts. A third clone was standing between them. Maybe they hadn’t wanted to sit in a line along the bar like three wise monkeys. Conversation would be easier in the tighter group. Except Evan didn’t think so. Not from the way the man without a seat glared at him as he sat down on the stool he clearly believed should be his own.
Unless it was the smell. Evan worked hard at not wrinkling his nose as he became aware of it. Eau de stale ashtray. It was coming from the man on the other side of Fraser. Now that he looked closer, Evan saw that the man’s suit was flecked with ash.
He did his best to ignore it. Wondered how Fraser—these days a committed non-smoker—put up with it. Except all smells had their work cut out navigating the bends in Fraser’s nose.
‘Ban you from The Backroom for good behavior, did they?’ Evan said.
Fraser chuckled in acknowledgement of the joke. The Backroom was a dive bar from where he ran his illegal operations—of which Evan knew nothing and was happy to keep that way. The last time Evan had come looking for him there, Fraser had made a similar crack about Evan being banned from the Jerusalem.
Fraser glanced to his left. The man seated beside him was still watching Evan in the backbar mirror as he sipped at his water.
‘Landry here wanted to sit on Detective Guillory’s stool. He’s heard a lot about her.’
Evan was accustomed to Fraser’s voice. Deep and croaky, the rasping aftermath of a partial laryngectomy rather than the electronic distortion of a full removal. The result of a two-pack-a-day habit, of too many nights spent in smoky bars before the interfering, overprotective do-gooders took away half the fun. He guessed the unnerving sound of it had further encouraged the three young men to leave a seat free for him at the bar.
‘All good, I hope,’ he said in response to what Landry might or might not have heard about Guillory.
Fraser shrugged, answered as if a different question had been asked.
‘You do know her association with you isn’t doing her career any good, don’t you?’
‘I’m worth it.’
‘That’s not what I hear.’
Fraser was clearly enjoying himself killing two birds with one stone. Insulting Evan in a good-natured way, while at the same time demonstrating the depth of his inside knowledge of the local police department.
It went to the core of why Fraser was here, in Evan’s bar, sitting on Evan’s stool. They’d traded favors back and forth in the past. The last occasion had been when Evan asked him to make discreet enquiries of those police contacts of whom he was so proud about whether a detective called Tony Giordano was on the take. Fraser had reported back that the guy was so clean his shit sparkled. Evan had been in his debt ever since.
That chicken had now arrived firmly home.
There were no prizes for guessing what he’d soon be doing for Fraser.
‘Arlo,’ he said.
Fraser nodded, sipped at his drink. Whiskey, as always.
‘I’m getting old.’
‘You’ve been doing that for years. Why now?’
Fraser laughed out loud, slapped him on the back. A lot like a grizzly bear would. Ribs flexing, lungs compacting.
‘That’s what I like about you, Buckley. You don’t care what you say to anybody.’
Evan smiled self-consciously as if Fraser had paid him a compliment.
‘It just sort of slips out.’
‘I’ve heard that’s what Detective Guillory says, too.’
Evan chose to ignore the smutty innuendo, asked his question a third time.
Fraser swiveled on his stool to look directly at him, a crease in his brow. The young guy standing up who had been staring at Fraser as he talked, turned quickly away.
‘Does it matter?’
‘Maybe. You might have received a postcard from him.’
‘Then I wouldn’t need you.’
Wouldn’t that be nice, Evan thought and had the sense not to say—even if Landry was looking at him as if he’d read Evan’s mind.
Arlo was Fraser’s son. Evan had come across the girl he’d run away with—Eleanor Fields—in the course of one of his investigations. That knowledge had filtered back to Fraser through his connections in the police department and caused Fraser to come looking for him. Evan’s confirmation through Eleanor that Arlo was alive and hadn’t been abused, killed and buried in a shallow grave by an itinerant child molester as Fraser had always believed, put Fraser in his debt.
Except it hadn’t been good news all the way.
Evan had been obliged to tell Fraser that his son had run away not only to be with the girl he believed he loved at the time, but to escape from his father’s influence. So as not to slip into a life of crime, allow himself to be groomed to take over the reins from the old man when the time came. Luckily, that disclosure—you’re a shit dad—had been mitigated by a surprising degree of self-awareness on Fraser’s part.
Trouble was, the bad news hadn’t ended there.
Arlo and Eleanor had gone their separate ways as they entered adulthood, an amicable split as they grew apart. As a result, she hadn’t known anything of Arlo’s current whereabouts. Or even if he was still alive, for that matter.
Evan hoped he was.
Not only because nobody wants to see a young life cut short, but because Fraser was eminently capable of shooting the messenger if he wasn’t.
Hence the weight that had settled on him when he saw Fraser at the bar.
Fraser sipped his drink and it seemed to Evan that he was very ill at ease, very unlike his usual self. If Fraser hadn’t been Fraser, Evan would’ve teased out more details. Because something was lurking in the background.
But Fraser was Fraser, so that was the end of that—remarks about saying anything to anybody notwithstanding. Then it came to him. Fraser was embarrassed about what he was about to say.
It took a while, until eventually he came out with it.
‘I didn’t get a postcard. I got a call.’ He immediately backtracked. ‘I don’t know for sure that it was from Arlo. The phone rang. An unidentified number. As soon as I answered, they hung up. I tried calling back. No answer. The next time I tried, it was dead. People say don’t fix it if it ain’t broken. I say don’t waste your time trying to fix something that is broken. The relationship with Arlo was broken so I let it go for all these years. It’s when suddenly I think it isn’t too late after all that I want to do something about it.’
Now Evan understood the reason for Fraser’s embarrassment. Here he was, the big bad criminal, the man honest citizens crossed the road to avoid, reduced by his personal loss to clutching at straws. A single call from an unknown number—very likely a wrong number—was all it took to turn him into a worried father like any other. Just another man with his own personal cross to bear, no heavier nor lighter than anybody else’s.
‘What makes you think it was Arlo?’
‘You got kids?’
Fraser knew that he didn’t. It was simply the way he chose to phrase his inability to provide an adequate explanation. And to remind Evan that as a man without them, he hadn’t earned the right to question another man about his children.
Evan shook his head.
‘Then I can’t tell you,’ Fraser said. ‘I know, is all.’
Evan didn’t argue or press him. He certainly didn’t point out that wanting something so badly that you ached was not a guaranteed means of achieving it. He also knew the spiteful tricks Fraser’s own mind played on him in the small hours of the morning. The questions that would pop unbidden into his consciousness as he lay wide awake staring at the ceiling.
Was it Arlo and my voice was sufficient to make him hang up?
Or has the man who killed him found his phone and is now calling numbers at random?
Evan got out his own phone.
‘Send me the number.’
Fraser’s phone was out in a heartbeat. Evan’s pinged a moment later. He dialed the number Fraser had sent him.
Fraser mouthed Dead? as Evan put the phone to his ear. Evan nodded.
‘Have you got a picture you can send me?’
Fraser looked at the phone lost in the expanse of his large hand and laughed, a self-deprecating sound at his lack of technical savvy.
‘Not on this thing, I haven’t.’
He got out his wallet and fished out an old photograph. Studied it a long while before handing it over.
It showed a dark-haired teenager already more a man than a boy, tall and starting to fill out. He was standing in the back of a boat holding a good-sized largemouth bass, a proud smile on his face.
‘He gets his looks from his mother,’ Fraser said, ‘before you start blowing smoke up my ass saying what a good-looking kid he is.’
It was true, even if Evan hadn’t been about to rub Fraser’s ego and say so. He took a picture of it, then made notes as Fraser gave him his son’s basic details, as well as telling him all the things Evan could see with his own two eyes from the photograph.
Then it was time to waste his breath.
‘What can you tell me that might give me somewhere to start?’
It was vague to the point of being less than worthless. Besides, he was only going through the motions. He knew exactly where he was going to start. But Fraser would expect more than a quick, leave it to me. It was also pointless by definition. A man whose son runs away because he’s scared of turning out like his father is not going to have access to the boy’s heart and mind.
Fraser shook his head to confirm it. Eyes down, his words damning all fathers, not only himself.
‘We didn’t talk.’
‘What about his mother?’
Again, the headshake.
‘Is it okay for me to talk to her?’
That made Fraser smile, a sadness in his eyes behind the amusement.
‘I’d like to see you try.’ He pointed upwards, eyes also raised to the ceiling. ‘She died a month before Arlo ran away.’
Evan nodded without saying anything. No meaningless insincere platitude about being sorry a decade after the event. But it made sense. The future for the boy looked bleak with his mother gone, his only ally against his overbearing father. More difficult for him to resist his father’s efforts to push him into a life that scared and appalled him.
Evan glanced at Landry in the backbar mirror as a random irreverent thought went through his mind.
Did you have anything to do with it?
The guy stared back at him as if he’d read his mind. Then it was as if he passed it on to Fraser, by osmosis, perhaps. Whatever it was, Fraser felt the need to unburden himself. He swallowed thickly, took a sip of whiskey to ease the words.
‘Janet had pancreatic cancer. It tore me apart watching her suffer. I’ve done some terrible things in my life and I’ll burn in hell for them. At times I thought the monster, the so-called loving God up there’—pointing again at the ceiling—‘made her suffer for my sins. At the end, all she wanted was for me to put her out of her misery.’ He lifted his hands, held them flat side-by-side and pushed down into the bar top. ‘A pillow over her face and it’s done. She didn’t need to say the words. I knew. And I couldn’t do it. So I watched her die slowly and in pain instead.’
It seemed to Evan that the whole bar had fallen silent. A mark of respect in the face of Fraser’s own pain. Or dumbstruck at the revelation of human weakness in a man people crossed the street to avoid.
In reality it was only Evan reluctantly invited into a private place with Fraser while his unnerving companion, Landry, watched over them.
In the silence that followed he waved at the Jerusalem’s manager, Kieran, for another round. He didn’t know if Fraser had more to say, but he sure as hell looked as if what he’d already said had left him needing the emotional support that lives in alcohol.
The arrival of the drinks a minute later followed by Kieran’s hasty retreat to the far end of the bar snapped Fraser out of his reverie. Less of the maudlin in his voice, too.
‘I told you last time about that bartender. He needs to work on being more friendly.’
‘He’s worried you’ll offer him a job at The Backroom if he is.’
Fraser coughed out a wry laugh.
‘Always got an answer. I think I told you that last time, too. Your mouth will get you in trouble one day.’
Guillory’s astonished face popped into Evan’s mind, her incredulous squeak in his ears.
What’s with the future tense?
He was thinking how and whether to ask the question that was in his head when Fraser turned away from him towards Landry. Something passed hands. Then Fraser gave him his attention again.
‘Don’t think I don’t know how unfair this is. All I did for you was ask a couple people some questions. Now here I am sending you running around all over the country looking for Arlo. So I’m paying you.’ He held up a large callused hand before Evan could object. ‘Don’t worry, we’re square as far as owing favors goes. Accepting the job takes care of that. But I’m paying you, too.’
Evan hadn’t been aware that the option to decline had been available. It was academic now, as a fat manila envelope landed in his lap.
‘That’ll keep you going for a while,’ Fraser said.
Evan didn’t inquire how much the envelope contained. That would be rude. Nor did he ask whether the IRS had already taken their share. That would be stupid.
And to turn Fraser’s money down would be stupider still. An insult. He worked the envelope into his pocket, then avoided the question in his head once again, asking another instead.
‘Why did you bring Landry with you?’ He patted his bulging pocket. ‘Getting old or not, you don’t need a minder just because you’re carrying a wad of cash around.’
Fraser smiled broadly at the compliment.
‘No, I don’t. I wanted you to meet each other.’
Meet didn’t seem an appropriate word for sitting three feet away from a man who did nothing but stare impassively at your reflection in the mirror. However, it wasn’t his place to lecture Fraser on his choice of words. Instead, he leaned forwards, nodded at Landry. How-do. Landry nodded back. Evan got the impression that in Landry’s world it was now as if they’d known each other since elementary school.
‘Why?’ he said to Fraser.
‘In case you need any assistance.’
Evan looked at Landry again. The point of the exercise being to demonstrate that he was aware of the nature of the assistance a man like Landry might provide.
‘Do you have any reason to think I’ll be needing any?’
Fraser shook his head firmly.
It had the ring of absolute truth about it. The subtext of what he said next revealed another undeniable truth.
‘I want you to keep in touch just in case.’
Evan translated: He’s keeping tabs on you.
‘I gave him your number,’ Fraser said. Then to Landry, ‘Send him your number, Landry.’
Evan’s phone beeped and he couldn’t help wondering if another of Fraser’s associates wasn’t grubbing around under his car at this very moment fixing a tracker to it.
Fraser downed the last of his drink in preparation for leaving. It was Evan’s last chance to ask the question on his mind.
‘What if I find Arlo and he doesn’t want to be found?’
Fraser didn’t even have to think about it. He prodded Evan with a thick finger where the fat envelope sat in his pocket.
‘I’m paying you to find my boy. Not to play at being some crackpot shrink telling me I can’t see my boy because I didn’t hug him enough when he was a kid. You find him, you let me know, or you and me are going to have a big problem.’
It wasn’t necessary to say that the problem would come in the guise of Landry.