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High Steaks Part II, Chapter 27,28,29
"High Steaks" by Rob Loughran: 2002 New Mystery Award Winner

27

 Davis slipped the KFLO HumVee in gear and aimed the vehicle down Sagrado Boulevard.  Although the sun had just risen the bank’s thermometer blinked 96° 96° 96°.  Corine walked by, no collection jar and, Davis noticed, in a black tam o’shanter.  He pulled into the 7-11 across from the Calvada Ecumenical Church of Meditation.  The Most Holy Consecrated Reverend Susan Marshall, in mauve shorts and a tie-die halter, was letter-by-letter removing the Thought for the Day from the billboard.  Davis noticed the two crescent moons of consecrated white flesh that peeped from beneath her shorts as Reverend Susan stooped to retrieve an L. She opened a loose-leaf binder and located a quote certain to inspire the citizenry of Nightingale.  She began placing letters on the board. 

Davis massaged the hand Woody had thumped with the pistol yesterday. Twenty-four hours ago, almost exactly.  Driving a drooling, stupefied racehorse up to Lake Wally.  The same horse that won the Sagrado Derby six hours later.  The same horse? 

Sacred Susan, working out of two plastic buckets—consonants and vowels—had finished the first line of the quote:

DO NOT TELL FISH STORIES WHERE THE PEOPLE KNOW YOU;

Davis’ hand ached; his solenoid-scorched feet throbbed—he needed coffee.  He hobbled into the 7-11.

 

He returned to the HumVee and removed the lid from his 20 oz coffee.  He blew on it, sipped and burned his tongue. Like a child in a candy store confronted and confounded by too many choices, Davis said, “Woody’s dead.  Freddy’s dead.  Wanda Marie’s dead.”

He thought about horses and Woody and horses and Wanda Marie and horses.  You just can’t make a horse run, man; it’s in the blood. He sipped again; burned his tongue again.  He blew on the coffee and read the completed Thought for the Day:

DO NOT TELL FISH STORIES WHERE THE PEOPLE KNOW YOU; BUT PARTICULARLY, DON’T TELL TheM WHERE THEY KnOW THE FISH.

He smiled: Reverend Susan had just quoted Mark Twain.

And he thought about Wanda Marie’s hallway.

All the pretty pictures of all the pretty horses. 

And he thought about fish stories and Woody’s call into his radio show last week.

            Wanda Marie and all the pretty pictures of all the pretty horses, and a single picture of one person, Wanda Marie, standing on two black horses. “Sonuvabitch.”

 

28

 

            Kaitlyn stood on the dock at Lake Wally.  The black horse with the map of Louisiana in the center of its forehead stood on the shore.  The placid and docile beast wore blinders, a bridle, and two one hundred pound sacks of concrete strapped across his back.  Kaitlyn, in a white tube-top beneath blue overalls, held Woody’s 30.06 hunting rifle beneath her left arm. With her right she tugged and jerked and strained, attempting to move Future Glue onto the sturdy homemade dock and closer to the water.  Felicity bumped softly against the dock.  “C’mon you-silly-shit-horsey,” said Kaitlyn.  “Please stand on the dock so I can shoot you.”

            Kaitlyn stomped her foot in frustration.  She had it all planned.  This was the deepest part of the lake, the drop-off directly behind the dam.  She would place the weighted Future Glue on the end of the dock and shoot him in the head.  One shot; one dead racehorse. Dirk or anyone crazy enough to be hiking or mountain biking in the triple digit heat would dismiss the gunshot as target practice or varmint hunting.  The timing was perfect: the cops had just left her house with the Jaguar on a flatbed truck, with what was left of Woody. She had answered all of Svoboda’s questions simply and honestly: I Don’t Know.

Directly after the explosion—the house had been rocked—she ran outside and saw her Jag in flames.  Then, slowly, the way a geometry therom leaks into a sophomore’s brain, Kaitlyn realized that Woody had been killed.  Dirk arrived minutes later in his old Jeep Cherokee.  He skidded to a halt on the McGuire’s front lawn where Kaitlyn stood outlined in the flames’ stark relief.  The Jag blazed bright on the concrete carport; the flames were not in danger of spreading to the truck, the house, or the surrounding sagebrush.  Kaitlyn and Dirk stood like sentinels, both with tears in their eyes; his from the oily smoke, hers from crude emotional confusion.

            A manipulator like Kaitlyn doesn’t just miss out on relationships, they forfeit all spontaneous and honest emotion.  Every smile or frown or moan between the sheets is calculated and measured, designed and determined to produce the expected response.  When they are faced with an unequivocally tragic or joyous situation the manipulators are at a loss.  The manipulator’s knee-jerk-reaction, the question ingrained and asked automatically at a visceral level, “What would best suit me here?” is the only improper response.

And this was the source of Kaitlyn’s confusion.  She stood with Dirk thinking: Woody’s dead, a shitload of cash, Davis’, is gone.  I’d seen Woody reading his will last week.  Shit, I hope the house doesn’t catch fire—no it’s safe.

            It wasn’t until Dirk asked, “Why was Woody driving your Jaguar?” that Kaitlyn had her first honest response.  She stopped crying tears of vague confusion and started weeping when she realized: That bomb was meant for me.

Dirk, and later Svoboda, mistook Kaitlyn’s self-indulgent tears for grief and loss rather than fear and dread.  The men consoled and comforted her as the Sagrado County Volunteer Fire Department—on their first of two calls tonight—put out the blazing Jaguar.  Dirk offered to sit with her through the night. Svoboda suggested she procure a room at the Ode to a Nightingale; this was, after all, an attempt on her life.  She refused offers of brandy, wine, and tranquilizers.  When the men left, shortly after sunrise, Kaitlyn changed into boots, tubetop, and overalls, checked that the 30.06 was loaded and walked up to the dam to shoot Future Glue and dispose of the carcass.

“C’mon,” Kaitlyn placed the rifle on the dock and used both hands on the bridle’s rope.  She dug in like a Tug o’war contestant and managed to move Future Glue five inches nearer to the dock.  She wrapped the rope around her right hand and faced the lake.  In a sprinter’s crouch she strained and groaned; a teardrop of sweat dropped from her nose as she leaned into the rope.

Future Glue retreated five inches to his original location. Kaitlyn collapsed to the dock. Rooster’s blue caddy accelerated down the hill in a cloud of dust.  Before she could hide the 30.06 the caddy skidded to a halt beside the dock.

Future Glue blinked twice and relieved himself.

Rooster ambled to the dock, eyed the rifle and the horse.  “Sorry to hear about Woody. I really am.”

“Thanks.”

“How’d you do it?”

“I didn’t.”

“I mean win the Sagrado Derby,” said Rooster. “Swimming with a tenth-of-a-ton of concrete is your secret workout?”

“Yeah.  You got us.”

“I’m going to drive down to the house and pick up a few things.”

“Mementos?”

“And the mining stock.  I wouldn’t have minded Woody running the company.  But you?  No way.”

Kaitlyn picked up the rifle, still seated, she said, “Svoboda would never look for you and your car at the bottom of Lake Wally.” 

“Or you.”  He took a step forward.

She said, “Shit, Rooster. Turn around.”

Something in her tone—a plaintive dejection—caused him to stop and turn.  Svoboda’s blue-and-white rumbled down the hill and parked behind Rooster. Svoboda got out one side and Jeff the other. Jeff had his nickel-plated .45 pointed at Kaitlyn.  “Lift the rifle over your head and throw it in the lake.”

“Or what?”

Splinters from the dock hit her in the face; the .45’s bark echoed across the water.  Kaitlyn lifted the rifle above her head and, feeling Jeff’s eyes on her, sat a trifle straighter, held the pose, and tossed Woody’s deer rifle into the lake.  She lowered her arms deliberately, winked at Jeff and said, “May I stand?”

Jeff nodded and observed as she popped to her feet and brushed her face and hair clear of docksplinters.

“That goddam horse didn’t flinch,” said Rooster.  “I don’t think it has a nervous system.”

Kaitlyn didn’t question why the John Barleycorn’s bartender was tooling around with Svoboda.  She knew if she didn’t speak, the man who most wanted to have sex with her would tell her what she needed to know.

The trio and the horse stood silent for three minutes.

“I work,” said Jeff, “for the United States Government—“

“He’s a fucking IRS man,” said Rooster.

“Up yours.” Jeff pointed the .45 at Rooster. “You ain’t the baddest dude in town.”

Jeff was right.

Kaitlyn pulled Woody’s .32 Beretta from her overalls, aimed quickly, and shot Jeff.  “Get the gun, Rooster.”

Rooster picked up the .45 and pointed it at Svoboda.  The cop helped Jeff to his feet.  Rooster smiled, knowing he wasn’t Jeff’s only shakedown victim.

Jeff stood and said, “You shot me in the hand, bitch.”

Kaitlyn pulled the trigger again.  “And now I just shot you in the shoulder.”

 

29

 

Vergil said, “What’s this, a coffee klatch?”  Through binoculars, then through the scope of his Russian made Dragunov sniper rifle, he’d watched that brickshithouse-of-a-wife of Woody’s drag a cement-laden horse to the dock, then the arrivals of the three men.  And now, civilians shooting civilians. “If I hadn’t handcuffed Mauro to the oven he’d be here, slobbering on everything.”

That had to be the surprise of that twisted Italian’s life.  Two nights ago, when the Navy doctor from Naval Air Station, Fallon, Nevada landed on his flagstone patio, Mauro thought he was through with Vergil.  But then the doctor field-autopsied Wanda Marie—Vergil had been keeping her chilled, packing her and eighty pounds of ice into an inflatable kiddie pool he’d bought at Nightingale’s Value Fair Garden Center—and decided to stay for a few beers. Mauro, gracious host that he was insisted on appetizers so he straps on a yellow apron and cooks for the doctor, the pilots, and Vergil. Then Wanda Marie was loaded onto the chopper and when Mauro was cleaning the kitchen, Vergil cuffed him to the oven.  Vergil now brought his host food, pillows and a blanket, and even a Cinzano Bianco nightcap.  The Italian didn’t like it, but Vergil couldn’t afford another excitable civilian running around, so fuck him.

He’d heard from the doctor since: cause of death, congestive heart failure. Blood work had been done, over fives times the normal amount of potassium in Wanda Marie’s blood.  Someone killed the poor dumb bartender: she’d been in the wrong place; wrong time. 

But Woody always ran with a tough crowd. 

So Vergil slept for twelve hours, woke up, went to gym and ran into that IRS agent; Vergil would have taken him out, but he had strict orders to leave the twerp for the Feds. After a short workout, he returned to Mauro, fed him, and monitored police calls.  Officer Brisco had arrested two people for being drunk in public.  Then he heard that Woody had bought it.  War is hell, thought Vergil. I’m gonna miss that old fart. He was one of the best; he and me am a dying breed.

Responding to another police call, Vergil drove out to John Barleycorn’s—he beat emergency services by twenty-three minutes—and watched that bonfire.  The sprinkler system hadn’t kicked in and Vergil knew it was arson.  Multiple combustion points equals arson, plain and simple. The firetruck—singular—arrived and pumped water onto the blaze.

Like pissing into Mount Pinatubo.

When the restaurant had collapsed in on itself and the fire crew determined that the fire wouldn’t spread across the natural firebreak the parking lot provided, they split and Vergil left his truck and walked to the goddam derrick that started this whole fucking mess.

There are so many uses for uranium in modern warfare—beyond the simple, boring, all-out nuclear holocaust—that the public simply isn’t aware of. Depleted uranium shells are the primary ammunition utilized by anti-tank platforms like the Apache and Comanche attack helicopters, the A-10 warthog, and the Marine Corps harrier jump jet.  The radiation depleted rounds are heavy and hard enough to penetrate an enemy tank’s armor. Although the Pentagon denies it, Hot Rounds are also used if the situation dictates.  These are radioactive—not nuclear—shells and bombs that can be lobbed into an insurgent city, country, or continent.  When the shell explodes a certain amount of uranium oxidizes into an airborne radioactive soot.  Beyond the damage done by the explosion the survivors breathing this venomous filth are exposed and in six months to a year parts will start falling off their bodies until they eventually die a writhing death from radiation poisoning.

High tech, baby.

These soldierly necessities was why the United States’ military-industrial complex was scouring the deserts of the Great American West for what were previously considered marginal veins of uranium. One of the best indicators of uranium was tungsten; the minerals appear in nature together.  So Vergil chose Nightingale as a likely spot because of the old M & R Mining’s tungsten supply.  With the need for U-232 rising and improved retrieval techniques available, uranium prospecting had become a viable and profitable business.  And whenever greed cloaks itself in patriotism the competition is cutthroat.

But you just can’t waltz onto private land and start prospecting for uranium. It had been Vergil’s idea to cover this operation by having the drillers pose as free-lance water-wildcatters.  It had worked perfectly for nearly a decade—the program had begun right after the Gulf War—until Umberto Cicarelli decided he wanted to invest in the drilling company that was drilling in his parking lot.  His lawyers researched the company and discovered that, technically, it didn’t exist.

Mama-fucking-mia the shit hit the fan. Umberto bribed a core sample away from a driller and the CIA didn’t want Umberto to discover that John Barleycorn’s sat like a lugnut on a decent sized hub of uranium so they called the IRS to put the screws to Ciccarelli.  But it had turned out he had been busted the previous year, and in addition to paying penalties and interest he agreed to allow the IRS use John Barleycorn’s in a covert sting operation to incriminate a rogue agent.

Umberto wouldn’t go to jail for the uranium theft unless he blabbed to the press.  The IRS would use the stinking steakhouse to set up and bust that Jeff asshole, then send him to jail quietly and avoid this NY Times headline:

IRS AGENT BLACKMAILING TAXPAYERS

Vergil sighted down his German-made scope and watched that smartass-bodybuilder-IRS-scumbag writhe in pain.  If Waitzkin hadn’t had specific and forceful orders not to interfere with the IRS sting he’d have shot the fucker in the left ocular socket.

With a smile on his face.

But he had another target.  With Woody dead Rooster owns M & R Mining.  With Rooster dead, the Navy picks up the mine for a song.

Anchors aweigh.

He inhaled and held a lungful of air to block out all distractions and lower his heart rate. What the hell is that noise?  A chainsaw? A tractor? He exhaled and inhaled again.  He aimed and precisely, almost daintily, squeezed the trigger.