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Authors: Clinton McKinzie

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BOOK: Badwater
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“Did he push him?”

“Yeah. He says he kind of pushed when he let go of the stick.”

Luke took his hit and thought for a minute.

“Did he know the kid would fall into the water?”

“Yeah. He said he did. He thought the kid was just going to get wet, teach him a lesson, he said. He’s feeling pretty lousy about it.”

Luke smiled, the admission settling happily into his lawyer’s brain. “Sure he is. He’s going to feel a lot lousier, too. They’re not going to make him too welcome in the jail. ’Spect he’s going to have a rough night.”

I thought about arguing, but I made myself keep my mouth shut. It wasn’t my job to give a legal—much less an ethical—opinion. Not even to my old partner Luke, who’d once taken a bullet that was meant for me. Taken it in the ass, as a matter of fact. No, I just gathered the facts and evidence and presented them to the prosecutor. I wasn’t qualified for anything else. Not according to the main office, and, lately, not according to myself.
Just do your job, Ant. Nothing more.

Luke flipped his cigarette onto some dry grass beside the drive. Taking out a small cylinder from his pants pocket, he sprayed a blast of wintergreen Binaca into his mouth. Then he sprayed it on the shoulders of his suit.

“Be at the courthouse in the morning for Strasburg’s appearance, okay? I want you with me every step of the way. The community needs to know we’re taking this one seriously.”

He gave my shoulder a whack, adding, “Glad to have you back on board, Ant. We’re gonna have some fun.”

Before heading back to Mungo and the Pig, I carefully ground out the orange ember in the grass. That family didn’t need another tragedy that night.

nine

H
e’s going to feel a lot lousier.
The words kept intruding into my thoughts as I drove up the highway, higher into the mountains.
They’re not going to make him too welcome in the jail.

All I wanted to do was get to my camp. Stronger than the grind of hunger in my belly—a hunger Mungo shared and was expressing by repeatedly pressing her cold snout into the side of my neck—was the need to get away from all this. From the job. From the tragedy. From people, too. Even people I knew and liked.

I’d had more contact today than I’d had in weeks. Maybe months.

The place where I’d been camping was no more than twenty or thirty minutes away. It was in a seldom-visited canyon, beneath an overhanging granite wall that concealed what just might be the hardest wide-crack climb in the world—a crack I was determined to be the first to climb. The secret project had been a gift from an old friend, who had decided to give it up after more than a decade of torn muscles, ruptured ligaments, and flayed skin.

He’d refused to name it until it was climbed, but I was less modest. I named it before I even saw it. I called it Moriah, after my six-month-old daughter. Both Moriahs were proving to be the greatest challenges I had ever faced. I figured maybe if I could win the heart of one of them, I might learn the secret to the other.

We could be there in just a half hour, then I could cook a late dinner of rice and beans and tofu dogs over an aspen fire. I could drink a little wine. I could howl back at the coyotes. And, most important, I could make the phone call that was the culmination of my dedicated daily training.

But I turned the truck around. I wouldn’t be able to sleep, much less phone my infant daughter, with Luke’s veiled threats about Jonah’s “welcome” echoing around in my skull. Mungo, who seemed to understand that dinner had been again postponed, let out a long, low groan.

“I’m sorry,” I told her.

I reached back to pet her, but she shied away from my touch.

 

The men’s jail in the sheriff’s department basement was more than fifty years old and contained only six cells. The overflow—caused by an increase in population and the availability of cheap narcotics like meth—was housed in bunks around the central “rec” room. All of it was dark and quiet when I walked past in the corridor outside the bars.

Two deputies were in the monitoring station. One was the blonde woman who’d escorted Jonah from the interview room earlier, and the other was a gray-haired man with a buzz cut. They were playing chess and eating microwaved popcorn. The butter smell was so strong it made my stomach cramp. I had to wonder what it did to the inmates. To one side of the deputies was a table with a coffeemaker, a microwave, and a large TV. The screen showed an angle of the darkened rec room. The speakers crackled with only the occasional inmate’s cough.

“Hey. This is that guy I was telling you about,” the young deputy, seeing me, said to her partner. “His name’s Burns. He might not look like it, but he’s with DCI.”

“Hi,” I said.

“I’m Sally, he’s Tom.”

Her voice was friendly. Actually, more than just a little friendly. And her grin was too wide. It set me on edge as much as the fact that I couldn’t hear any snores coming from the rec room. Not when I passed, and not now, coming from the TV’s speakers. Dope fiends, alcoholics, and inmates tend to snore. Loud. It was as odd as a good cop being pleased to meet me.

“Call me Anton.”

“You the guy people been talking about?” Tom said, looking me over and frowning. “The famous narc?”

“I don’t know about that.”

“What’s up, Anton?” Sally asked, saving me.

“I need to see your new guy. Jonah Strasburg.”

“Uh, right
now
?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry, but—”

Buzz-cut Tom was shaking his head.

“No can do, Agent. We can’t go in there tonight. It would wake everybody up. Most of these guys are good fellows, but they’ll be grumpy as hell all day tomorrow if we stir them up in the middle of the night.”

“Well, at least your shift will be over by then, right?” I tried a smile, but Tom didn’t return it. “I need to see him now. Really. I just came from a meeting with Luke Endow, your county attorney.”

I hoped that would spur them into action. It made it sound like the county attorney had requested my visit. But Sally just laughed.

“That perv? I’m surprised he didn’t come with you. He never misses a chance to try and grab my ass.”

“He was pretty busy. We were out at the Wallis place—the family of the boy who died. Luke is still out there.”

The two deputies exchanged looks. Then Tom joined Sally in grinning slyly at me.

Tom said, “Oh yeah. I get it. You want to make sure Strasburg gets a little special treatment, eh?”

Sally laughed. “You don’t have to worry about that, Anton. I think it’s probably being taken care of.”

I didn’t like their smiles. I didn’t like their words. They obviously believed the things that had been said about me, and they thought I would gladly be a party to whatever was going on. Neither of them looked like the kind of cops who would allow a young man to get hurt on their watch—Tom looked gruff but solid, Sally looked smart and impish. But you never knew. I’d known jailhouse deputies who watched criminal after criminal placed in their care walk out with lightweight pleas and dismissed cases. Other longtime inmates spent their time amusing themselves by filing frivolous complaints about their wardens, dragging them into federal court for supposed cruel and unusual punishment like serving creamy peanut butter instead of chunky, attempting to secure their jailers’ mortgages and other assets. Some deputies came to think that the punishment inflicted by inmates on one another was the only punishment they’d ever see.

“C’mon. Let’s go,” I said.

Still grinning, both of them shoved back their chairs and stood. Leading the way, they simultaneously adjusted utility belts heavy with the tools of their trade—radios, handcuffs, gloves, Tasers, and batons. Even in this relaxed small-town jail, the deputies knew better than to take a gun into the jail itself.

All was still quiet in the corridor. No snores. No nightmare groans. No complaints, even, when Sally unlocked and rolled back a squeaky steel door. But I thought I could detect the soft rustle of sheets and blankets as bunk-bedded inmates rolled over to look our way.

“He’s in there. We put him in with Russell Smit.”

Sally grinned like I should know Smit’s name. Tom pointed to a cell that was the farthest from the hall.

That was even more wrong. The new guy should have been assigned a bunk. The worst in the place, up against the corridor bars, where the lights would be on him all night. No way was he going to get for himself the greater privacy of a cell while men with more seniority slept on the open bunks. Not unless he was a lot bigger and tougher than I knew Jonah to be.

The rec room was large, but not all that dark. The lights from the corridor, although dim, penetrated the room completely. I passed tables and benches and even a couple of second- or third-hand La-Z-Boys that faced a black TV screen mounted high up on a wall. Life in a county jail was not all that bad. Most of the men would be drunks or wife-beaters serving misdemeanor sentences. The others would be awaiting trial. Anyone convicted of a felony would be sent to far less comfortable housing at the state prison in Rawlins.

The cell door was open, as were the other five I had walked past. It was darker in there, but not dark enough. Sally stepped up next to me, peering in. Tom stayed back to guard the open gate.

There were two cots inside. On one of them lay the form of a man far larger than Jonah. Smit, I assumed. In the second or two it took my eyes to adjust to the diminished light, I made out a heavy blond beard and a pair of close-set eyes glinting at me. Some white teeth, too. He was flat on his back, his fingers laced together innocently across his heavily tattooed chest.

On the other cot there was a shape that was far smaller than Jonah’s should have been.

He was on his side, naked except for a pair of white jockey briefs. His arms were tied behind his back, his feet tied to the same restraint. Hog-tied, the way you do a calf in a rodeo. With strips of shirt, apparently. Beneath his bulging eyes was another shirt that was serving as a gag.

At least he was still alive. I could tell because his body was trembling and jerking.

The big man reclining on the other cot lifted his head.

“Sal, I don’t want this faggot in my crib anymore. He made a move on me—”

But Smit didn’t get to finish his bullshit complaint.

Without thinking or really being aware of what I was doing, I’d lifted the gun-shaped Taser out of the holster on Sally’s utility belt. I pointed it at the broad, bare chest and depressed the trigger. A tiny red dot appeared just below the man’s wide neck. Then I pulled the trigger all the way.

With a pop of compressed air, two barbed darts trailing insulated wires shot out of the muzzle at 120 miles per hour. They embedded themselves among the dark etchings on Smit’s chest. Tiny pieces of confetti scattered in the air as proof that the weapon had fired.

No such proof was needed, though, because for the next five seconds the big man’s body bucked on the bed, flopping like a fish, one arm beating without rhythm on the concrete wall. His mouth opened and snapped shut with audible force.

“Hey!” Sally was yelling. “Hey!”

I stuck the gun back in her holster and scooped up Jonah in my arms. I wanted him out of the way before Smit regained his senses. I used him to push the deputies out of the cell. Back in the main room, I dropped Jonah on a Ping-Pong table then turned to slam shut the cell door.

“Are you crazy?” Tom demanded angrily. “What the hell did you do that for?”

Sally shoved me. “Shit, man! Why’d you do that?”

Amazed and excited prisoners were sitting up in their beds and beginning to chatter.

I had done what anyone would do. Anyone, that is, but a cop. I’d Tased a man who was showing no resistance. Good cops don’t do that. They stick to the use-of-force rules and leave to the courts any question of punishment. I hadn’t even had the presence of mind to shout the way bad cops are supposed to—
Stop resisting! Stop resisting!
—long after you’ve wrung the last bit of resistance out of them.

I used my pocketknife to cut the T-shirt gag out of Jonah’s mouth. Still tied, he began to take huge, shaky breaths.

Just behind us, a bellow of rage exploded from the locked cell. Something with the mass of a piece of chewed gum struck my back, accompanied by a spitting sound. Turning, I saw the shirtless, bearded giant gripping the bars as he snarled at me. What looked like blood was running down the beard.

The chewing gum, I realized, was a hunk of tongue that he’d bitten off while convulsing on his cot.

ten

I
t was after one in the morning when I finally reached my isolated camp below the overhanging cliff. It was cold, too, up at well over nine thousand feet. I was too exhausted to build a fire, so I just heated a can of beef stew on my little blowtorch of a stove. Mungo received her usual share, dumped over dry dog food. She was still angry and gave me a baleful stare before gobbling it up.

“I read that wolves in the wild can go weeks without food. What kind of chickenshit wolf are you, anyway?”

Mungo didn’t reply.

There were a million pinpricks of light in the black sky. With no smog and no light pollution in these mountains, the stars were so numerous and bright it was almost impossible to make out the individual constellations. Directly overhead, though, was only blackness. Up there, three hundred feet above my head, the cliff jutted out with a roof that I was coming to know very well. On its underside was the forty feet of never-been-climbed rock that I’d made my goal.

Actually, it was forty feet of never-been-climbed
not
rock. The hardest crack in the world. It was parallel-sided, flaring outward, and stuck straight out from the cliff face where the massive overhang topped it like the long brim of a ten-gallon hat.

My Moriah. One of them, anyway.

I spooned up my stew and contemplated the fact that it had been a bad day. I’d risked my life for nothing, let a kid die with my hands over his heart, failed to get in any training, gotten a tourist locked up and tortured, and violated my oath as an officer of the law. Far worse, I’d failed to make the daily phone call that was the one thing in my life—other than the fat crack over my head—that gave me hope.

My phone, a little Motorola Iridium that was the only thing that got consistent service in Wyoming’s mountains, lay on my lap. I kept looking at digital numbers on the phone’s screen that told me the time. It never got any earlier. And it was far, far too late to call.

Instead I got a jug of cheap red wine out of the back of the truck and took a long draw. With the heavy taste in my mouth, I thought about calling Roberto. He was the only one I knew who would be pleased with my actions. He’d absolutely love the story of me Tasing the defenseless Mr. Smit. But, as usual, thinking about my big brother brought me no solace. I took another swig from the jug to try and keep down the sudden but familiar nausea. I couldn’t afford to lose the stew, since I’d need the calories for climbing tomorrow. A cold sweat broke out on my skin as I thought of my brother’s once-magnificent and now-wrecked body—the wasted legs, the cracked spine, the myriad scars, and, worst of all, the long grin of puckered white skin across his throat from the blade of a machete.

All of them my responsibility. I’d let him go in there, to the narcos’ compound.

I dug deeper in the back of the Pig and came up with a small Tupperware container. In it were an eighth of clumpy weed and a small metal pipe. It worked for chemo patients suffering from chemically induced nausea—why not me? I packed the bowl and took a few hits. It was good stuff. Indigo Red. There were purplish hairs on the sticky buds, a sure sign of potency. As a narcotics officer for eight years, I was adept at telling the good from the shake.

Mungo watched me, still bitter. Or maybe shocked at my behavior.

“It’s been a bad day,” I tried to explain. “A really bad day.”

After cutting Jonah loose with the blade on my pocketknife, I’d half-carried him into the officers’ lounge and dumped him on the sofa. He wouldn’t talk at first. He didn’t trust me, and I didn’t blame him. It had been me, after all, who’d put him in there in the first place. I had to spend a lot of time explaining. And apologizing.

I chased the deputies out of the room, got Jonah a new shirt and pants, and apologized some more. I closed the door, too, to muffle the outraged roars of Smit and the complaints of the other inmates. I promised Jonah that he would be locked each night in his own cell, and that he could remain there during the day, too, if he chose. That I would do everything I could to see that he was protected from now on.

Finally he talked.

He hadn’t been sexually assaulted, it turned out. Not yet. Apparently Smit had been working up to it when we came in. Jonah had been bound and gagged by Smit alone, he said, then was used as a punching bag. There were red swellings on his face, stomach, chest, and lower back that confirmed this. By the morning, I knew, the contusions would turn black-and-blue. Jonah said Smit kept calling him a faggot, getting more and more excited, and telling him he was going to teach him a lesson he and his kind wouldn’t soon forget. Rape, I knew, was a crime of violence and domination, very much a part of prison life even if few admitted to either perpetrating it or being victimized. Smit would see Jonah as “fresh meat” that needed to be brought under control. The big man might even see himself, like the guards had, as assaulting Jonah for a just cause, to punish him for the killing of a local boy.

The sheriff, whom someone had awakened and notified about the ruckus in his jail, barged through the door. He didn’t need to ask who the hell I was. He just demanded to know what had happened.

While Tom said he hadn’t seen anything, Sally unexpectedly backed me up.

Sally said, “It was really dark, so it was hard to see, but old Smit suddenly started up. Like he was jumping out of bed or something. Coming at us, I guess. Lunging. I was reaching for the juice myself, but Anton here beat me to it.” She laughed, a little nervous. “They don’t call him QuickDraw for nothing, you know.”

“I know,” said the sheriff glumly.

He looked at me, making it clear that he knew very well another reason for the nickname.

The sheriff, of course, had also known Sally was covering for me. But he didn’t want a scandal coming out of his jail. It was bad enough that an inmate had been beaten by another inmate. It would look much worse if an officer was charged with beating the inmate who had been allowed or encouraged to beat the first inmate.

Because of Sally’s adherence to my side of the blue line, there was no case to file, no statements to make. Only a use-of-force form to fill out that contained mostly fiction and conjecture. Smit could make a complaint about me, but no one would believe an inmate over a cop. Not even over this cop. Not, at least, with Sally backing me up. Jonah could file charges against Smit, but Smit would repeat his story about Jonah having “made a move” on him, and no jury would likely find one inmate credible over the other to the point of “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

It was an impasse.

I felt pretty bad about having violated my oath, just as I was violating it now by smoking some high-grade dope in a remote canyon. The oath about being good, staying out of trouble. But, at the same time, I felt pretty damn good, too. The stars were beginning to pulse. Gravity was losing a little bit of its influence. And I was smiling into the night.

God, but that had been fun. A much-needed outlet for all my other failings during the day. It wouldn’t teach Smit a lesson, it wouldn’t make him law-abiding or compassionate, but it had been a nice bit of payback. And fun—I couldn’t forget that. No. I’d gotten to pump fifty thousand volts into an unarmed, nonthreatening criminal for free.

I heard myself laugh. Good cop, my ass.

And it was only for free until Smit got out. Then there might be a price.

“You’d better watch your back when he gets out,” the sheriff had grumbled. “That fellow tends to hold grudges.”

Smit had emphasized the sheriff’s point by bellowing from the rec room throughout our conversation, “Who was that little motherfucker? I want that motherfucker’s name! I want his ass!”

Only because he was missing the tip of his tongue, it sounded more like “Who was wat moffa-fucker? I wanh wat moffa-fucker’s name! I wanh his ass!”

Remembering, I laughed some more.

Since I knew he would find out who I was soon enough, there hadn’t been any point in hiding from him. I knew that it would be the very worst thing I could do. To show fear would only fuel his desire for vengeance. So, after finishing up with the sheriff, I walked out into the corridor and stepped up to the bars.

The big man was gripping them with his fists, tattooed knuckles at almost the level of my head. There was snot in his mustache and a red stain in his beard. His cheeks and eyes were filled with blood.

“Stop lisping like a little girl, Smit. The name’s Burns. Antonio Burns.”

 

Getting sleepy and too tired to deal with the tent, I had just thrown my sleeping bag in the dirt when the phone on my hip chimed. My heart leapt, but then settled back down when I realized it could only be work related. Someone calling to chew me out in the middle of the night. Probably Ross, who had an uncanny ear when it came to hearing about me getting into trouble.

So it was without enthusiasm that I put the phone to my ear.

“Yeah?”

“Are you all right? You didn’t call.”

It was Rebecca. My heart rode the roller coaster right back up.

“I was just, uh, busy.”

“Oh, yeah? You seeing someone finally? Never mind, forget I asked.” She sounded amused, not angry. “So how was your day, Ant?”

“Good,” I lied. “Just busy.”

“I bet.”

“What are you doing up this late?”

“Feeding your daughter. She’s biting my boob as we speak. The little monster has got teeth like Mungo’s.”

“Let me talk to her.”

The phone moved so that I could hear small sucking sounds.

“This is your dad, sweet thing. You doing okay? I miss you. I love you.” The sucking sounds stopped. “You may not see me all that much, but I think of you all the time.” A whimper could be heard. It quickly began to escalate to a wail. I added quickly, “Sleep well, honey. Have sweet dreams.”

Rebecca came back on the phone after murmuring to make the crying stop. “It’s late, and she’s tired,” she tried to explain.

“Sure. I understand.”

But I didn’t. She always cried when I held her or talked to her. It was as if she could see right through me with her penetrating blue eyes, see all the stuff I tried to keep inside. Instead of just a father’s love, she saw something that scared her.

“Hey, Ant. It’s okay. Dads can’t really do a lot for kids this age. Some friends of mine say their kids act like this, too. Unless you’re going to grow some boobs, you’ll just have to wait until she gets older. And you need to hang around some more. Speaking of which, are you coming to Denver tomorrow like you said?”

“No. I can’t. There’s a hearing in the morning I have to be at. A thing here in Colter County. Then I have to do some stuff after that. But I should get there on Saturday.”

I wondered where I’d sleep. In a motel, in Rebecca’s bed, or on her couch. It was different on each occasion, depending on her moods and other romantic interests. Rebecca, even six months after giving birth and still breast-feeding, had little trouble getting dates.

“Anything interesting?”

There was more than just normal curiosity in her voice. She had left her full-time job as a newspaper reporter to cohost a morning news show on TV. I knew she missed doing her own investigations—now she pretty much just read off a TelePrompTer and conducted inane five-minute interviews with local authors and chefs. But she made a lot more money this way and worked far fewer hours.

I assured her the court hearing wasn’t about anything interesting at all.

That made her chuckle.

“Then you’re slipping, Ant. Good thing, too.”

“Have you seen Roberto?” I asked.

Pretty high now, and no longer queasy, I could actually speak his name without wanting to vomit.

“He was here this morning to take Moriah for a walk.”

Roberto’s legs were almost entirely paralyzed, but he liked to put our daughter in a backpack and hobble on his steel crutches around the homeless and the executives on Denver’s 16th Street Mall. It wasn’t something I was particularly enthusiastic about—my brother, handicapped and with his addictions and his criminal record, wasn’t exactly the best role model for my daughter. But how much better was her dad? And for some reason Rebecca had grown fond of my brother. A year ago, before the accident, she couldn’t stand the sight of him. Just the mention of his name had made her back go stiff.

“Mary’s back?” I asked.

Roberto couldn’t drive and didn’t own a car. His girlfriend, a former FBI agent, was supposed to be out of town doing private protection for some Fortune 500 big shot.

“No, she’ll be gone for another week at least. A monk brought him.”

“A monk?”

“Tibetan, I think. He had a shaved head, saffron robes, and everything. A little VW, too. He was very sweet and very shy, so I let him drive my Porsche with the top down while Roberto took Moriah out. He seemed to really like it.”

My daughter was certainly getting exposed to a lot of diverse lifestyles. Just not mine.

After a few more minutes of talking inanely, I asked to speak to my daughter one more time. The phone moved and the gentle slurping could be heard again.

“Good night, Moriah,” I said quickly while staring up at the dark blot in the sky I’d named after her. “Sleep tight. Have sweet, sweet dreams.”

I hit the
END
key just as I heard the first whimper.

BOOK: Badwater
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