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Authors: Chuck Logan

Tags: #Fiction, #Thrillers, #General, #Suspense, #Mystery & Detective

Vapor Trail

BOOK: Vapor Trail
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Chuck Logan
Vapor Trail

FOR
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AN
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ONAWAY

Contents
E-book Extra

Phil Broker: Old-Fashioned Hero Whose Time Has Come

Chapter One

Angel stepped carefully over a crack in the sidewalk.

Chapter Two

Now who the hell was calling before five in the morning?

Chapter Three

Milt’s steep gravel driveway was a clammy maze twisting up. . .

Chapter Four

John got up to use the bathroom. Alone, Broker reviewed. . .

Chapter Five

Broker watched John Eisenhower’s Bronco disappear. . .

Chapter Six

Broker drove the ten miles from Marine on St. Croix. . .

Chapter Seven

Broker had never been to Harry’s home. . .

Chapter Eight

Broker hated offices, so he moved fast through Washington. . .

Chapter Nine

“Cash me in,” Harry said, pushing back his chair.

Chapter Ten

Broker eased the Ranger from Ole’s driveway into traffic. . .

Chapter Eleven

He’d been struck behind the right ear. . .

Chapter Twelve

Broker got out of the cab and paid the driver.

Chapter Thirteen

Easing from North End gravel onto city pavement. . .

Chapter Fourteen

Maybe everybody was invisible down deep.

Chapter Fifteen

Broker drove around the back of the LEC. . .

Chapter Sixteen

Brother, was J. D. Salinger ever full of shit.

Chapter Seventeen

So much for the idea that Dolman’s remains. . .

Chapter Eighteen

Okay. Showtime.

Chapter Nineteen

Angel disliked being closed in, so she drove with the windows. . .

Chapter Twenty

Broker drove back to Milt’s with one eye fixed on the rearview. . .

Chapter Twenty-one

Scricchhhhh. . .

Chapter Twenty-two

As Broker drove west on Interstate 94. . .

Chapter Twenty-three

Broker paced back and forth on the top level. . .

Chapter Twenty-four

Broker, Mouse, and Lymon sat down to talk.

Chapter Twenty-five

Goddamn you, Harry—where are you?

Chapter Twenty-six

“Majority of U.S. Bishops Have Protected Abusive Priests. . .”

Chapter Twenty-seven

Angel glided at the edge of the group of parents. . .

Chapter Twenty-eight

Broker talked to J. T. on his cell as he drove. . .

Chapter Twenty-nine

“The heat index has exceeded one hundred ten degrees. . .”

Chapter Thirty

Friday morning dawned with an arsenic yellow haze. . .

Chapter Thirty-one

You will regret this.

Chapter Thirty-two

Angel watched Carol Lennon write a check. . .

Chapter Thirty-three

Broker observed that, for an old fart, Mouse still really enjoyed. . .

Chapter Thirty-four

Angel was in position for twenty minutes. . .

Chapter Thirty-five

Now Mouse drove at a slow, almost solemn tempo.

Chapter Thirty-six

She heard the sirens, the neighborhood dogs barking. . .

Chapter Thirty-seven

Angel may not have been invisible anymore. . .

Chapter Thirty-eight

Men and women in uniforms, barefoot civilians in shorts. . .

Chapter Thirty-nine

Broker got in Mouse’s cruiser. . .

Chapter Forty

You think you lose it, that it’s gone forever, worn to nothing. . .

Chapter Forty-one

Drew puttered in his cramped kitchen area. . .

Chapter Forty-two

Broker and Janey sat on the deck sipping coffee. . .

My protagonist, Phil Broker, hung out on the social margins of the 1980s and ‘90s. When computers began to invade both his police station and the offices of companies where his undercover work took him, he was technically already a relic — they reminded him of the white plastic armor worn by imperial storm troopers in Star Wars. But in a corner of his mind he always suspected that if he kept driving the back roads and survived long enough he might just come back into style.

Absolute Zero
[PerfectBound, 2002] was my fourth novel — the third featuring Broker — and it’s been suggested that Broker and I have more than a little bit in common. I was born a week after the Battle of Midway in a country fighting for its existence. I grew up thinking there were only three ways to go for an American male: fireman, cop, or paratrooper. I served in Vietnam; Broker turned out to be both paratrooper and cop. Neither of us was ever a fireman. . .

My father was a dark, absent figure who fought pro in Chicago and stayed mixed up with the wrong people. Mom left
him when I was an infant. For a while I had a step dad who was a cop in Detroit. After the cop left, when I was eight, my mother sent me to Georgia Military Academy. In 1953 mom and I were driving during a storm in Marion, Kentucky. The car went off the road. I was thrown through the windshield into a swamp. Mom died at the wheel. I floated on my back in swamp water, unable to move because my chest was severely injured. I had deep cuts in my face and jaw; I was choking on my blood. If I panicked, I started to sink; so I had to remain calm, swallow the blood, and stay afloat until help arrived.

One of the key characters in
Absolute Zero
spends a good stretch of the book “frozen” — conscious but in a coma; and part of how I understood how he kept from panicking was thinking back to myself as a boy, the day my mother died.

I grew up to become a talented drunk; after flunking out of college in Detroit I matriculated through the auto factories. Initially I wouldn’t enlist for Vietnam because I was opposed to the war. But I was nagged by the question of service. I knew who was fighting the war — I watched them leave the factories month after month while I hid out behind my invalid student deferment. So I volunteered for the Airborne because jump wings were a guaranteed ticket to a combat slot in Vietnam.

And so one of my childhood goals had been realized: I was an Army paratrooper assigned as a radioman to a small advisory team in Vietnam. (Broker makes a profitable return to Vietnam in
The Price of Blood
. Sorry to say, that episode isn’t biographical.)

One moonless monsoon night in 1969 I was crossing flooded rice paddies in northern Quang Tri Province, going to the aid of an embattled Vietnamese militia unit. We hit a VC blocking force. As I dived for cover I split my lip and when I rolled over in the water, in the light of a flare, I saw that the paddy was full of
corpses. The unit we were going to relieve had made a run for it and had been annihilated. There I was, face up to the rain, floating in muddy water, blood in my mouth, surrounded by the dead in an eerie replay of 1953.

Having such experiences recommends storytelling as a personal form of expression.

Several inpatient stints in drug dependency wards later I found employment doing art and graphics at the
St. Paul Pioneer Press
. Somewhere around this time I was asked to do a book review. After it ran, some of the reporters asked who’d written it for me.
Hmmmm. . .

My chances of becoming a writer were about one in a million. I liked the odds and set to work. Fortunately, I had the encouragement of a remarkable editor at the paper, Deborah Howell, and the example and guidance of John Camp, a.k.a. John Sanford, friend and former colleague at the
Pioneer Press
. John was writing thrillers full-time.

Several false starts later, I sold my first book,
Hunter’s Moon
, which was a rehash of many of the dark themes from my earlier life. But it was time to get on the with the second half of my life which included twenty-five years of stone-cold sobriety, a successful marriage, a beautiful daughter and the geography and climate of northern Minnesota. The result was my loner character, Phil Broker. He has been described as a fugitive from modern psychology who believes in monsters because it requires old-fashioned heroes to catch them.

And now it seems that Broker, having driven the backs roads long enough, might be getting some legs. During the 1980s and ‘90s that soldier service stuff was for “other people.” But then the world got more real than virtual. Maybe in this post-9/11, post-Enron
world, the one percent of us under sixty-five who’ve actually served in combat, like my guy Broker, is coming back into style, to stand alongside cops and fireman.

— Chuck Logan

Angel stepped carefully
over a crack in the sidewalk. Like in the kid’s game, she chanted under her breath, but changed the words
, Step on a crack, you get your body back.
Then, reminded of her serious work this evening, she picked up the pace and simplified the chant to an occasional refrain,
I’m not here. Not here. Not here . . .

She had learned to make herself invisible when she was eleven. To leave her body entirely.

She knew it was a mind trick. She knew that here and now, physically, her body was walking, down the main street, in Stillwater, Minnesota, under a sweltering 104-degree July sky. The 84 percent humidity draped her face like a dishrag. Sweat trickled down her back and her stomach and collected in the crotch of the tights she wore underneath her sweatpants. She knew she was sweating because she was way overdressed for the weather.

She wasn’t dumb. She knew she had a problem.

The people out there looking in, with all the big words in their mouths, had names for it. When she heard the term
dissociative
fugue,
she imagined a cannonade of piano keys. She thought of Bach. She had read that other cultures understood the necessity to occasionally escape your life. Eskimos called it
pibloktoq
. To the Miskito Indians of Honduras and Nicaragua, it was
gris siknis
. The Navaho had their “frenzy” witchcraft, and the one she really liked the sound of—
amok
—came from Western Pacific cultures.

Personally, she preferred to keep it simple and was fond of the glass analogy.
Of course they never took it far enough; the question was not whether the glass was half full or half empty, but rather what happened when the goddamn glass boiled over and started steaming away.

And all that stuff about identity disorders and multiple personalities reminded her of the old movie
The Three Faces of Eve.

But this wasn’t about Eve, was it?

No. This was about fuckin’ Adam.

But even invisible she had dressed with great care for this night’s work.

The thick, wraparound praying mantis sunglasses distorted her face, and she intentionally overapplied the lipstick and the makeup. She wore her cheap woolly wig, not her good wig. The cheap wig was the color of dust and complemented her baggy oatmeal-colored sweatsuit and her scuffed tennies.

But the genius touch was under the sweatsuit. A custom-made padding suit called a body pod by the costume designers who’d sewn it together at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, who then had rented it to the Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson, Wisconsin.

Which was where Angel had stolen it from a prop wardrobe, along with a pair of black tennis shoes with two-inch-lifts.

The tight-fitting body stocking was made of Lycra with generous
foam pads expertly sculpted to add the appearance of thirty pounds to her hips, rear end, and stomach.

The rig was light but bulky and made walking feel like being swaddled in inflated balloons.

She’d topped off her outfit with a flimsy navy blue nylon jacket stamped on the left chest and across the back with the scripted name of St. Paul’s minor league baseball team: Saints.

So Angel rolled when she walked with the round-shouldered gait of a person who’d accepted the extra pounds of cottage cheese slung on her butt and hips and thighs. A full green cloth shopping bag dangled from one hand and bumped behind her on the concrete.

Layered in cheap cloth like a bag lady, she appeared odd moving along main street on the blazing late afternoon. The pedestrian traffic was smartly turned out sleeveless, in shorts, showing bare arms, expensive orthodontics, and tanned legs. Shoppers cruising the boutiques and antique stores did not look twice at Angel. She suggested the animated contents of an overstuffed trash closet that had burst out onto the street. People saw throwaway clothes on a throwaway person whose bottom-heavy body had veered out of control.

They averted their eyes.

Behind her sunglasses Angel studied the fleeting stares.
Hi there. So look right through me.

Good.

See. Invisible
.

So she tramped unnoticed down the main drag, left the shops behind, on past the historical society, past the patchy whitewashed walls of the old territorial prison and continued on, past Battle Hollow where a Sioux war party annihilated a Chippewa band in 1837.

Up the bluff the real estate took a nosedive where the city sewer stopped, and she arrived at the North End.

Angel took a left and climbed up a steep broken-asphalt street and into a gritty maze of ravines and gravel dead-end lanes. Her Goodwill camouflage blended right in with this little corner of Minnesota Appalachia. The yards had gone to seed, and weeds grew past the hubcaps of rusted cars hoisted on blocks. Paint peeled on the sagging trim and doorjambs of old frame houses. She paused in front of a house that tilted on its sinking foundations.

The broad-shouldered man in the sleeveless Harley T-shirt sat on his slumping porch. Just like he had the last two evenings at this time. An overgrown vacant lot separated his house from the yard of St. Martin’s church.

She bent and adjusted the contents of her shopping bag so he could get a good look at her.

He wore tattoos, a red bandanna, and sweat. He was drinking a can of Pig’s Eye Ale. He watched Angel straighten up and plod through the listing wrought-iron gate and into the church grounds.

“Big ass,” he said as he mashed the empty can in his fist, dropped it, and went inside to avoid the sun.

Pleased, Angel turned her attention to the church. She knew that the North End was also known as Dutch Town and that St. Martins had once served a faithful enclave of German Catholics. The date
1864
was chiseled in the cornerstone. But the congregation had drifted off, and now the small stone Gothic building persisted virtually empty of parishioners. Neglect showed in the overgrown vines that clambered on the limestone walls. Coming up the flagstone walk, she noticed the lawn. Several slabs of new sod glistenened under a sprinkler; the rest of the lawn was a tightly woven mat of crabgrass, creeping charley, burdock, and dandelions. The new priest was trying to fix the place up. But it was a gesture. He was more custodian than clergyman.

She trailed her hand over the arched stone entry as she walked through the door. Her hand came away cool.

She did not touch the fount of holy water. She did not bless herself.

Our father.

Yeah, right.

Angel had stopped praying to God when she was eleven.

She went inside and looked around while she pulled on a pair of latex gloves. It was dark in here. Cooler. She could almost hear the drip of the dead Latin Mass sweat out from the damp stone.

That’s when the sadness hit her. The awful double-edged stab of love and hate.

Help me, You.

Just don’t touch me.

The church newsletter lying on a table just inside the door was a mimeographed sheet. Ticking down the items, Angel found the announcement:
Basic Drawing; an art class for all ages taught by Father Victor A. Moros.

So the priest was up to his old tricks. Angel confirmed the time set aside for penance: 6:00-6:30
P.M.
Tuesday.

It was 6:02 on a Tuesday. Supper time. No one around, except the priest in the confessional in a hallway off to the right of the altar. Angel stood in the empty church with two old-world statues for company. The Roman goddess on the left and the corpse with the outstretched nailed hands in an alcove on the right. Candles guttered in the ornate gloom.

Is this really the way You want us to think of You?

She looked down the nave at a brooding wedge of stained glass and the clumsy images imprisoned in it: a knife-wielding Abraham was getting ready to stab his son Isaac. Just like God was willing to sacrifice Jesus. What a bloody-minded bunch of Aztecs they were.

Angel stared down the aisle of pews to the vaulted chancel, the organ, the choir stalls, and the altar. She could not imagine a place more removed from trees and clouds and fresh air. Her skin crawled. The old cramped stone and tired wood closed in on her. Cold rigid angles. Tortured figures imprisoned in the fractured windows. In all this heat, goose bumps prickled on her arms. Being here was like standing inside the replica of a man’s mind.

Father Moros heard the scuff of rubber soles. The bell on the door to the private confessional booth jingled as the door opened. The confessional was one room with two doors and was divided by a wooden partition. He placed a bookmark in the Liturgy of Hours. He had been reading Psalm 144.

Lord, what is man, that thou takest knowledge of him! Or the son of man, that thou makest account of him!

Man is like to vanity: his days are as a shadow that passeth away.

He adjusted the purple stole around his neck and faced the grille. Cheap perfume, Ponds facial cream, and hairspray seeped through the partition.

The dime-store essence reminded him of the trailer-park Anglo girls he’d grown up with in El Paso. In Albuquerque the confessional had reeked of Estée Lauder. He allowed himself a smile. He had come full circle.

Nothing happened. Some squirming from the other side; perhaps the penitent was having difficulty with the kneeling rest.

So Father Moros offered a prompt in his habitual avuncular tone. “May the Lord be in your heart and help you confess your sins with true sorrow.”

“It’s been years since my last confession, but I do feel sorrow,” said the penitent. A low voice, strained and hard to place.

“Yes, my child.”

“I’m not your child, and you sure as hell aren’t my father.”

Victor Armondo Moros sat up at the sharp tone. Here was something different to break up the hot afternoon. The intensity in the tightly controlled voice intrigued him. The passion of it.

“How can I help you?” he asked sincerely, in a less officious tone.

“I’m not real sure. See, I’m not what you’d call a good Catholic; I mean I’ve never done something like this before.”

“This?”

“You know,
explain
something like this.”

“I’m here to listen,” Moros said.

“First I need to go back over the rules. I mean if I tell you something, you keep it to yourself, right?”

“Of course.”

“Even if it could get somebody in trouble?” The tight voice rose, strained.

“I’m here as a minister of the church to hear your sins if you are sorry for what you’ve done,” Moros said.

“Yes, but you won’t tell anybody?” The voice rose again.

“I’m bound by the seal of confession to keep what we talk about in confidence. The seal of the confession is absolute.”

“Okay, the thing is, I feel real bad, but I don’t think I offended God. I think I pleased God. But there are parts to it that I don’t understand.”

“What parts?”

“Well, the basic part, like why does God permit evil? Why do children have to suffer? This stuff that’s been in the news—those priests and that cardinal in Boston—that really bothers me a lot.”

Moros took a deep contemplative breath as he scanned the agony of the Church. “It’s the mystery of evil.”

“You have to do better than that,” the voice parried sharply.
“Like, I know this woman who has six kids, and she went to confessional and told the priest she’s gotta go on the birth control because her family was killing her, and the priest tells her birth control is a sin that will send her to hell. So you guys have quick answers for some stuff, don’t you?”

Moros hunched forward, closer to the grille. “One can assume that God created the best possible world, but he gave us free will. So evil comes into the world through the choices some individuals make . . .”

“But why?”

Moros inclined his head. “Perhaps because the human heart is vulnerable to the whole parade of venal and mortal sins. We must never forget that God has a rival who wants to collect our souls.”

Then the penitent’s words tumbled out in a rush. “There was this man. It was real big in the news. But this was before you came here, so you probably didn’t hear about it.”

“What?” Father Moros was taken aback by the personal reference, but before he could say another word the penitent raced on.

“He violated this child, and they let him get away with it. They said some of the people on the jury would not believe a kid over an adult, and that’s why they acquitted him. I mean, that’s not right. This guy was a teacher, and he got this six-year-old to play with his thing, you know, he told him it was a popsicle and got him to . . .”

“Please, calm down,” Father Moros said, not prepared for the lurch of velocity building in the language coming through the grille.

“I’m sorry, but I have to get this off my chest; it bothers me so much I can’t sleep. Okay?”

Father Moros nodded his head.
Yes. Yes.
This was the work he was called to do. The thing every priest knew could walk through the door at any time. And now here it was. “Go on.” Moros fingered
the rosary in his hand for reassurance and found the black beads shiny with sweat.

“All right,” the penitent said. “I always thought God was, you know, like a real fierce micromanager, that he was involved in everything. But maybe it turns out he’s more laid back, and sometimes he uses ordinary people to make things come out right. Is that possible?”

Father Moros wondered if she was on medication. This was swerving on the line that separated the spiritual and civil spheres.

“Well, is it?” the voice said, quavering. When Father Moros didn’t answer, the penitent began to cry.

The anguish in her voice brought him back on task. “Are you ready to confess your sins?” he asked.

“Yes.” The penitent’s voice caught in a sob. “You see, they wouldn’t stop him. Somebody had to stop him, or he’d hurt more children. I mean, they were going to let him go back to work in the same school where he did that to the boy. So I went to his house when he was all alone. I took a gun and I shot him and he died, and nobody knows who did it except you, me, and God.”

It was silent in the confessional for ten seconds. Angel kneeled awkwardly on the prie-dieu. She could smell the Tic Tacs on the priest’s breath not more than a foot away through the grille. And Old Spice aftershave. With her left hand she picked up the printed form on the top of the kneeling rest. It was titled: “Summary of the Rite of Reconciliation of Individual Penitents.” Her right hand reached into the shopping bag.

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