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“So I threatened to kill my wife, the bullets came from my handgun, and only my prints are on that. What does that prove, copper?”
Lucas Pool did not for one minute consider reneging on his vow.
He had broken many promises in the past, including those to the one he now owed a debt of gratitude. But this debt would be paid. Only an act of a kind and loving God could have been responsible for the outcome of his recent brush with the Internal Revenue Service.
Pool had had only himself to blame, and he knew it. He had let his books get sloppy, and when the IRS audit landed in his lap he had little time to work anything up. He had hired Theo Rikmann simply because he was available, but Theo’s work was always suspect.
And so Pool had prayed to God: “God, if Theo’s bookwork gets me past the IRS, I promise I’ll do something nice for you. I’ll rid the world of something ugly. I really will.”
When the miracle occurred, Pool cast about in his mind for the something ugly he could rid the world of on God’s behalf.
His first thought was Theo Rikmann. Had Theo’s work not been of sufficient caliber to soothe the auditor, Pool had planned to make certain Theo apparently committed suicide rather than be dragged into the process. Theo was something of a loose end, but he wasn’t the sort to blab or demand more money. So Theo Rikmann got to live.
“It’s an ugly world,” Pool said, looking out his window. The summer sunshine bathed the street in gold as children played in the yards and old men smiled at them from rocking chairs on porches. “I should be able to reach out my hand and touch something God would want to see gone.”
He looked as far as he could to the south. Ten blocks farther and about fifteen or so west was a little synagogue. It might make God happy to see it burned down. Those were the bastards who killed His Son, after all. “Aaaah, as long as there’s all of Israel, what’s one little synagogue here?” So the synagogue was left untouched.
He looked as far as he could to the north. That held possibilities. That homo couple lived some twenty blocks north and five or six east. The guys who had gotten married in California last year and came back and made a big deal of it. Not that it was recognized as legal in Pool’s state, but they still flaunted their fake marriage everywhere they went.
“That might just do,” Pool told himself. “God just hasn’t gotten around to dealing with them yet. He’s gotta clean up San Fran first. Now how to do it?”
There were ways to get a gun that would be tough to trace, but Pool wasn’t a great shot. He kept shotguns at the store and at home and a handgun in his car, but he never seemed to find the time to practice with them. Recognizing this drawback, he always kept the safeties off so he didn’t have to fool with that in an emergency.
Pool snapped his fingers. He went into his kitchen and rummaged in a couple of drawers and a tiny closet before he found it – a wrist-braced slingshot. He had taken it away from a kid who was shooting at the side of his store one day a few years back. It had come in handy when he needed to deal with wasp nests and the occasional stray dog that was crapping on his lawn.
He looked it over and blew some dust off of it. This might be the weapon, but he wasn’t yet sure how to make the best use of it.
It seemed obvious to Pool that the removal of the ugliness would have to be carried out at night, when no one could see him. Maybe he could shoot a ball bearing at the house, get the homos to come outside and look, and then pop each of them in turn.
The memory of a couple of wasp stings reminded him that his aim wasn’t as true as he would require. It would be best just to burn down the homo house with them in it. Molotov cocktail, of course. Maybe he could launch one with the slingshot.
The uprights were kind of close together, though. Pool picked up a fallen soldier from the previous night and tested it. Nope; the bottle wouldn’t go through. “Maybe … I can just launch it over the top, though. I still get the power. It’ll arc up, come down through a window, and boom! Yeah. That’s how. Gasoline’s in the garage.”
Pool took a little nap between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. so he would be refreshed and ready to do the Lord’s work. He had everything in the garage. The slingshot was on the never-used passenger seat, and two beer bottles – each filled with gasoline and a rag protruding from its top – sat on a shelf. He picked them up, set them between his legs to keep them upright, and headed out to fulfill his vow to God.
The block where the homos lived was nice and quiet. Just a typical block. Kids lived there, probably even went trick-or-treating at the sodomites’ house. How parents could raise their children like that Pool couldn’t understand. “It’s an ugly world,” he said. “But it’s about to become more beautiful.”
He parked two houses east of the homo dwelling and got out of his car with his equipment. He walked around to the right rear side of the car, planning to use the trunk to steady his aim. The car was just far enough from the curb to let Pool crouch on the pavement.
He put one of the bottles against the slingshot’s pocket and made a few test pulls to get the right angle. After the second dry run, he turned the rag farther away from him so as not to singe his own hair while pulling back on the rubber bands.
Pool’s heart thumped in his chest. He had only one chance to get this right. If he failed, the homos would be alerted and it would be far more difficult to make good on his promise to God.
He took out a disposable lighter and set the rag aflame. He pulled back on the rubber bands and took aim. He let the bottle fly. It went straight over the end of the car and smashed in the middle of the street, burning brightly.
Pool cursed and snatched up the other bottle. He lit the rag and loaded the slingshot. He drew the bottle back and aimed upward – and the right rubber band snapped of old age.
Pool’s hand, no longer held in tension, continued to come toward him. Both his hand and the bottle smacked up against the side of his head. He tipped the bottle, allowing a little gasoline to spill down his back, and the burning rag lit it.
Pool screamed in outrage and blossoming pain, and he dropped the Molotov cocktail. It bounced off his car and broke on the pavement at his feet. The burning gasoline found purchase on Pool’s shoes and pants, and he rapidly became a living torch.
It might have interested Pool to learn that when a neighborhood is awakened by flames and screaming, people do not rush off their porches to investigate. They hang back in their doorways, trying to wake up enough to discern what is happening. By the time the police and fire department arrived, Lucas Pool was dead.
He had, however, made good on his promise to God.
“I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here,” said Inspector Trottitt of Scotland Yard. He looked sharply around the room as if expecting an answer.
One man, in an overstuffed chair, shook his head slightly, causing the inspector to frown.
“Well, I shall tell you,” he continued. “After a thorough investigation, I have determined that one of you … is the murderer!”
Three constables stood behind him at the closed door, keeping watch on everyone. Trottitt began to pace around the room. As he did, he took a cigarette case from his jacket pocket and selected a smoke. The cigarettes were an expensive brand, distinguishable by the gold, silver, and black bands ringing the center. Trottitt came to a halt in front of Miss Wensley and lit his cigarette. Then he pointed at the man seated next to the young woman.
“Mr. Haversham! You stand to profit greatly from Mr. Haddock’s demise. The business is now in your hands alone. Such an opportunity has driven many a man to murder.” Haddock opened his mouth to protest, but Trottitt kept talking. “But His Royal Highness has vouched to me that you were in his company on the evening of the murder, and his word is, naturally, unassailable.”
“I should think so, too,” said Mr. Haversham.
The man in the overstuffed chair sighed loudly and repositioned himself. Trottitt took note of it and began pacing again.
“Mrs. Cravat! As his longtime housekeeper, you stood to know all of Mr. Haddock’s secrets. Perhaps he learned one of yours, too, and you killed him to keep him quiet.”
The housekeeper sniffed. “I have no interesting secrets.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” the detective snapped, “but you also have an alibi, having been at the church jumble sale at the time the murder was committed. The vicar has said as much.”
“Of course he has.”
The man in the overstuffed chair groaned softly. Trottitt whirled to confront him.
“Mr. Reed! Does the unveiling of a murderer – someone who is so anti-social and depraved as to kill a fellow man – bore you?”
“Not at all,” Mr. Reed said. “But your theatrics do. Couldn’t you just make an arrest and bugger off?”
One of the constables snickered but had regained his professional face by the time Trottitt had turned around to find the guilty party. Trottitt glared at all three for good measure and returned to Mr. Reed.
“I have my methods, Mr. Reed, and I will keep to them.”
“I hope you keep to your methods in the courtroom. And that the judge fines you £5 for delaying the trial.”
Trottitt fumed silently. “While we are dealing with you, Mr. Reed, your company has been losing money hand over fist to Mr. Haddock’s.”
“That’s putting it nicely. My company is all but bankrupt. But do tell the room why I didn’t kill Haddock.”
Inspector Trottitt smirked. “Your stature, of course. You are – ha! – shall we say, too slender a reed to have done the deed.” Reed rolled his eyes. “The murderer is possessed of much greater physical strength. Which means it was you, Mr. Soames!”
In the space of a thought, Soames leaped from his chair and flung himself on the detective, working to crush Trottitt as he had Haddock. The constables were jarred from their reveries and joined in the fray. They pried the murderer from their boss and laboriously handcuffed him.
“Take him downstairs, men,” Trottitt ordered as he regained his breath. “I’ll be along shortly.” Two constables pulled Soames out the door. The killer left a stream of invective in his wake.
As he straightened his tie, Trottitt stared hard at Mr. Reed.
“I took note during our earlier interviews that, curiously, you keep a small gun up your right sleeve. It is on a rail and may be produced quickly. May I ask why you did not employ it in my defense just now?”
Reed shrugged. “Soames is going to hang for one murder. I didn’t mind if he were to hang for two.”
Mrs. Cravat and Miss Wensley gasped at the rude reply.
“May I inquire, Mr. Reed, what I have done to earn the enmity we have seen you display this evening and that I saw privately on earlier occasions?”
Reed sat up in his chair. “Really? Something the great Inspector Trottitt doesn’t know?”
“How could I?”
“You could think back to your school days. The days when you were a bully without a badge.” Trottitt’s eyebrows began to climb. “The days when you would put firecrackers down the pants of someone like Jerry Whitsun, who couldn’t possibly fight back. The days when you would shoot peas at someone like Billy Street as he battled his stutter to recite a poem before the class.”
“Reed,” Trottitt whispered.
“Yes, and you called me a slender reed in those days, too. I’d have thought you’d have recognized your own pitiful joke. I still remember the awards day ceremony when you tripped me as I went to collect my award for top speller. I went down on my nose and lost my moment in the sun before my peers and my parents.”
The others in the room frowned at Trottitt.
“Well, Reed, that was a long time ago. Water under the bridge, eh? Boys will be boys?”
Reed stood and began to pace the room in imitation of Trottitt.
“Oh, I let all that go. But then you did something unforgivable: you married Maisie Andrews, the prettiest, most vivacious girl in the class. Why her father pushed her into your arms I never knew and never shall.”
“And you are upset with me over my choice of wife?”
“Not for my sake, but for hers. She deserves better.”
Trottitt pulled himself up haughtily. “I think she is well satisfied as my wife.”
“I know you think so. That, in addition to your not recognizing me after two private interviews and this gathering, tells me you’re not at all the detective you believe yourself to be. Maisie is miserable as your wife. You’re scarcely home, and when you are you treat her like a servant. You insist that she remain in when you’re out. You’ve had her locked up like a princess in a tower.”
“Everything I do is for her particular benefit. This is none of your affair,” Trottitt said.
“Actually, old bean, it is my affair. My affair with your wife. We had a chance meet one day when she disobeyed your order to stay home. We’ve been meeting ever since, and I’ve been giving her some of the joy you otherwise take from her.”
Trottitt’s face reddened.
“You have been meeting with my wife? Behind my back?”
“More like under your ruddy nose, you twit. There’s been no great need to be careful about it as you pay her no mind. Oh, yes, you caught a murderer today, but for all intents and purposes you lost your wife ages ago without having a clue.”
Trottitt now imitated Soames and leaped onto Reed, forcing him to the floor. The detective beat his wife’s paramour savagely. It took the remaining constable and Mr. Haversham together to pull Trottitt off of Reed, and their hold on him was shaky.
Reed flexed a muscle in his right arm and produced the little gun Trottitt had mentioned. The sight of it in Reed’s hand froze Trottitt in place.
“What wonderful headlines I can see,” Reed said. “ ‘Cuckolded Detective Pummels Smaller Man,’ perhaps. Or ‘Yard’s Finest Bloodies His Wife’s Lover.’ Something along those lines. Maybe ‘Inspector Fails to Detect Trouble at Home.’ That’s got a nice sound to it.”
“I will kill you, Reed.”
“First he batters me and now he threatens murder. Constable, I want this dangerous man arrested and charged.”
The constable pulled on Trottitt’s arm. “Come along, Inspector, before more harm is done.”
“He can’t get away with this!”
“Inspector,” the constable said quietly, “you’ve got a murderer downstairs to deal with. Plenty of good headlines in that. This bloke can wait.”
Reed stood. “You’re all witnesses. He struck me. He threatened me. I demand justice!”
The constable kept a snarling Trottitt moving, and they left the room.
Mrs. Cravat produced a small cloth for Mr. Reed, who applied it to his bleeding face.
“I agree, Reed, that we’re witnesses to what he did to you,” Mr. Haversham said, frowning sternly, “and that police officials have to set the standard for good conduct. But I don’t know that given the circumstances a judge will have much to say about it.”
“No, likely not,” Reed agreed. “But Maisie, at least, will get a divorce from that rotter. He won’t keep her, now.”
“That’s a rather callous way to talk about a woman, Mr. Reed,” Miss Wensley complained.
“Oh, fear not, Miss. I’ll make an honest woman of her again. We’ve already discussed it. Tonight, I’d better go see her safely away from her home, in case Trottitt would decide to stop in and confront her. I’ve a friend who will put her up.”
“Yes, that would be best,” Mrs. Cravat said.
Mr. Haversham turned to Miss Wensley. “I beg your pardon for asking, Miss, but why were you considered a suspect in Mr. Haddock’s murder?”
“Oh, that’s easy. He and I had been secret lovers. I’m from the wrong side of town, so he was never going to marry me, and he had just spurned me for another woman. I suppose Inspector Trottitt had thought I might want to kill him for that.”
“Oh, I see,” Mr. Haversham said, coloring at the sound of still more improper carnal activity.
“I would have, too, but Mr. Soames beat me to it. Lucky for me, really.”
Mr. Haversham looked at the floor.
“One last thing, Mr. Reed,” said Mrs. Cravat. “Did you consider killing Mr. Haddock?”
As the late Mr. Haddock’s partner, the question caught Mr. Haversham’s interest, and he studied Reed’s face.
“Goodness, no, Mrs. Cravat. My business is failing because I’ve been ignoring it to be with Maisie. My fault entirely, not poor Haddock’s. And I’m getting into a new line of work soon.”
“What line is that, Mr. Reed?” Miss Wensley asked.
“Those fancy cigarettes of Trottitt’s? My brother’s firm makes them, and I’m going to work for him. So every time Trottitt lights one up, I’ll be getting part of my salary paid.” Reed smiled. “I’ve got a feeling that the way his nerves are, business will be good.”
A bullet whizzed past the bartender’s string tie. He calmly reached out and took the gun from his assailant. “You’re cut off, Ma.”
“Five-card stud,” the new dealer said. “Aces and Colt .45’s are high.” One of the other men sighed. “So much for a friendly game.”
“Gentlemen, will you not be reconciled?”
Morning sunlight streamed through the leaves of the trees in the little forest, dappling the world and the three people beneath the canopy.
The other men looked at each other.
“John, will you defer to me in the matter of the heart and hand of Elizabeth Parkwood?”
“Andrew, I fear I shall not do so. Will you defer to me in the said matter?”
“No, John, I fear I shall not do so, either. We are not reconciled.”
Morton sighed. As the mutually agreed second for both duelists, he opened the box containing the pistols and began preparing them for use. The pistols belonged to John’s family, and they had all shot with them for sport. Morton knew the guns to be exceptionally good ones; nothing within fifteen paces stood a chance of survival.
He was about to lose one of these friends.
After killing all but one of my enemies, there was a single bullet left. Now I had to decide whether he would get it, or I would.
“You want my body?” she asked. “God, yes!” he said. “Good. I want yours.” She drew her gun and fired. “At the bottom of a lake.”
With a respectful nod to the late, great Jim Croce for the title
The door to the bar opened, spilling a little fresh air and a gringo inside.
A few of the locals looked up from their beers and their cards to study the gringo. He was young but not a boy. He was nicely dressed but not expensively. He was clean but he had been sweating in the southwestern heat. He was not one of them, but the pain in his eyes made him an honorary citizen of their little bar so they left him alone.
The gringo took a stool at the bar, leaving a few polite open spaces between himself and the other man sitting there.
“Una cerveza, por favor,” the gringo said. The bartender nodded his graying head and produced a lightly chilled bottle of beer. The gringo stared at it for a long time. At last he spoke quietly: “All the time I have left is in this bottle.” He picked up the beer and downed half of it.