Chapter Twenty-nine

Amy’s shopping bags were stacked on the mud porch and she met him at the door. Before he could open his mouth she reached out and plucked a sliver of computer screen from the folds of his jacket and held it up. Then she cautiously dusted a fine sparkle of the glass from his chest.

“Broker, stay put. You’re covered in broken glass,” she said.

J.T. came through the door, observed that Broker, in fact, was sprinkled with tiny bits of glass, and said, “Hmmm.”

Amy tilted her head. “What happened?”

Broker studied her and thought how she and Jolene were close in age but the comparisons ended there. Amy was someone you’d trust to watch your daughter and Jolene was the one you’d run off to South America with after you’d embezzled a million dollars and abandoned your family.

“There’s this predatory dude camped out in Sommer’s basement and he and I had this minor altercation,” Broker said.

“Uh-huh, and why’s he there?” J.T. asked.

“Well, he’s the wife’s ex-boyfriend.”

“Uh-huh, and he sort of slid back in the picture after Sommer became a vegetable,” J.T. speculated.

“The wife,” Amy said with a sidelong glance to J.T. “I remember her at the hospital. She was what you’d call hot.”

“She cut off her hair, she don’t look so hot now,” Broker said.

“So why did you and this guy get into it?” J.T. asked.

“Well, he sort of manhandled her. .”

“And you didn’t find her boring,” Amy said with a wry downturning of her lips, “and you came to the rescue. How gallant.” Practical, she picked up a short broom J.T. kept in the corner of the porch and thrust it into Broker’s chest. “Go outside and dust yourself off.”

As Broker tidied up on the front porch, Amy came out in her parka, walked past him, descended the stairs, crossed the yard, and proceeded to walk back and forth along the fence next to the barn. A half-dozen female ostriches floated behind her like moody gray animations.

“You really have this way with women,” J.T. said, coming up behind Broker. “She’s getting ready to bail on you.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Broker handed J.T. the notepad with Earl’s license number and the envelope with his name and his St. Paul address.

“What’s this?”

“Could you run this guy for me, see what turns up?”

“You run him. Call John E. at Washington county. He’ll do it for you.”

“You still have a computer link to downtown. If I call John he’ll want to know why. And if he finds out I’m snooping around he’ll get curious about that, too. Next thing, unmarked cars will be following me around.”

“Which is, like, their job-you know-sworn officers, they do shit like that if they pick up on suspicious behavior,” J.T. said. “But, fact is, I could use your help around here over the weekend, so I’ll do your scut work.”

“Help?”

“I’m taking some birds to the slaughterhouse in the morning. The nearest USDA ostrich-approved butcher is in Iowa. And Denise’s sister’s place is on the way, so I’ll spring Shami from school one day and take the family for a long weekend. Leave in the morning, be back Sunday night. If, that is, you’ll feed and look after the stock.”

“Three days,” Broker said, liking the excuse to stick around.

“Friday, Saturday, Sunday.”

“I can do that. I don’t know about her.” He pointed to Amy, who continued to meditate back and forth along the fence.

“Tell her you’ll have the place to yourself, the two of you. You know, during the day you can go over to Sommer’s and rescue the hot wife, then you can come back here and play house with her. Get in a lot of practice that way.” J.T. smiled.

Gingerly, Broker approached Amy and chose his words carefully. “J.T.’s asked me to keep an eye on the place until Sunday night,” he said.

Amy took her time, with a sweet smile. Then she reached out and tapped him once on the chest. “I agreed to ride along for your hunch. But I’m going to skip your midlife crisis.”

She pulled a Mesaba Air Lines schedule from her pocket. Mesaba was the commuter air link from the Cities to points north. “I stopped by the airport on the way back from the mall. I’m going to see about a flight tomorrow. You will give me a ride to the plane?”

“Of course.”

“If you were smart you’d go back with me,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like a good situation over there, Sommer being at home instead of in a full-care facility. It sounds, well, dysfunctional.”

She was right, of course. When he didn’t respond, she continued. “Scenes like that tend to have these messy internal dynamics. They tend to drag well-meaning outsiders down to their level.”

Broker looked up at several female ostriches who bobbed their heads in big-eyed agreement behind Amy. After her sensible advice had faded, he asked, “So tell me something?”

“Sure.”

“Why does he look at me when I first walk into the room. I mean, right in the eyes. Just like somebody you know. Then his eyes start to roam.”

“That could be primitive reflexes, a reacting to shapes and sounds. Residual brain-stem stuff.”

“What do you look for if you think someone’s coming out of a coma?”

“False hope in the eye of the beholder,” Amy said.

“C’mon.”

“Okay, you look for signs of conscious thought and motor control. Blinking in patterns comes to mind. One for yes, two for no. If you have that you can progress to an alphabet board and communicate.”

J.T. appeared on the porch holding a cordless phone. “So what’s the plan?” he called.

“She’s catching a flight north tomorrow. I’m staying to watch the birds,” Broker yelled back.

J.T. waved and went into the house talking on the phone.

Broker said, “I need to stay and help him out.”

Amy nodded. “You guys are pretty good friends.”

Broker thought about it. “We were partners, we respect each other, but I don’t think we were ever good friends,” he said.

Amy inclined her head. “Why not?”

Broker shrugged. “We’ve talked this out over the years. Maybe it’s semantics. But we figured it’s a stretch for an intelligent white guy and an intelligent black guy to call themselves friends in this country. Especially if they’re cops.”

“But you get along great,” Amy said.

“Yeah, but would our friends get along, see? The problem is always other people,” Broker said. “As long as we’ve known each other, after work, we’d go unwind in different bars, we went home to different neighborhoods. It’s like two religions that coexist but can’t really mingle and still be themselves. So we belong to different-skin religions. It’s the term we made up to simplify things.”

“I don’t know if I like the implications of that way of thinking,” Amy said.

“I can dig it. You can afford to be liberal. You’re from Ely, where the biggest minority is timber wolves, with tourists a close second.”

They walked back toward the house. Halfway, she stopped him with a hand on his elbow. “I was right, wasn’t I, Sommer’s wife doesn’t bore you?”

“Amy, I won’t play games with you.”

She shook her head and released her fingers from his arm and said, “You won’t answer me, either.”

J.T. walked Broker through the feeding and watering routines. He’d already mixed his feed and run hoses. All Broker had to do was scoop and dump and turn spigots. Before supper, Amy and Broker helped Shami and J.T. load nine birds in a horse trailer. Loading involved selecting and moving birds from the outdoor holding pen into one of two smaller stalls inside the barn. The door on the stall was chest-high, inch-thick, reinforced plywood hinged to swing out away from the stall into the lower level of the barn where J.T. had backed up his trailer. When the door was open, it formed one half of a funnel; the trailer door supplied the other half.

If a bird was passive they moved in on either side and grabbed a wing and steered her into the trailer. And seven of the nine ostriches went easily. Two of then were touchy and aggressive. So J.T. gave Broker a long-handled barn shovel to fend off an attack by placing the blade across the bird’s breast if she charged.

He repeated his warnings about staying beyond the kick radius. And moving to the side of a bird, never frontally. As Broker held the bird at bay with the shovel, J.T. danced in and grabbed the head and quickly slipped on a black sleeve. Once hooded, the bird became docile.

As they maneuvered the second feisty female into a corner, hooded her, and put her in the trailer, the walls of the adjoining pen shook with sledgehammer impacts.

Popeye, the truck killer, was announcing his presence.

They closed the door of the left stall and J.T. pointed to the identical door of the right stall. Popeye hovered and hissed, his angry eyes nine feet above the floor, his wings up and out in a rampant threat display.

“I don’t want you going into his pen when I’m gone. Just drop the feed over the door into the side of the feeder and turn on the faucet. I’m serious. Don’t open this door, and you never want to be in front of him when his wings are up,” J.T. lectured.

In the house, as they were washing up for supper, the phone rang and Denise called out. “A call for Mr. Phil Broker from a Mrs. Jolene Sommer.”

Amy, helping set the table, did not look up. She shook her head slightly and continued placing silverware. Broker took the phone from Denise.

“Broker?”

“Yes.”

Jolene said, “Earl did some checking around and found a Phil Broker in a police computer who did time in Stillwater in 1989 for aggravated assault. Anybody we know?”

Broker exhaled audibly and did not answer.

“Yeah, well, Earl’s feeling a little lonely and threatened and is off looking for a friend of his whose brains are all down in his neck, if you know what I mean. I just thought you should know it could get rough if you’re thinking of coming back over here.”

There was this interesting new edge to Jolene’s voice. Daring him.

Broker could feel Jolene gauging his silence on the other end of the connection. After an interval, she asked, “Are you?” she paused, then added, “Thinking of coming back here?”

Her voice skipped pretense and caution and cut straight to the danger. And it was Jay and the Americans in Broker’s head, and she was defying him to come a little bit closer. And she knew he knew it. It was just that simple.

And he was just that dumb. And she knew that, too.

Do it. Go.

“How about in an hour?”

“I’m here.” She hung up.

Broker hung up, turned, and Amy was standing two feet behind him.

“For what’s it’s worth, I think you’re headed for trouble,” Amy said simply as he stepped around her.

Good. About time something happened.

Broker had lost his appetite, so he walked out to the Quonset hut and levered open the door to his mangled truck. He reached behind the seat, under a tarp, and removed a winter-survival pack containing some highway flares and clothing. Then he took out a 12-gauge shotgun, shells for it, and a sack of cleaning tools.

He sat on the bent running board and disassembled the old Mossberg, a practical, no-frills farm gun with a cut-down, barely legal, barrel, which he swabbed, and sprayed some WD 40 on the slide and the safety. He reassembled the piece and worked the slide, thumbed the safety on, then off, and cleared it. Satisfied it was in working order, he stuffed four double-aught rounds into the magazine, wracked one in the chamber, set the safe, and wrapped it in a blanket. Then he took the gun and the survival bag to the Cherokee loaner. He folded down the rear seat, making a handy compartment so he could quickly reach back, flip up the prone rear seat backrest, and access the weapon. Then he tucked the box of double-aught shells and his survival kit in with the gun.

As he shut the Jeep door and turned around he saw J.T. standing in front of him with a manila folder in his hand.

“This guy isn’t that heavy,” J.T. said.

“Really?”

J.T. opened the folder and handed Broker a sheet of fax paper. He squinted at the smudged writing on the ruled form. It was a fax of a photo negative, an old police report from Redmond, Washington.

Officer responded to report of a fight at the Microsoft offices. Subject was a programmer who had an argument with a superior and assaulted the CEO who tried to intervene. Subject was arrested and escorted from premises and held overnight. No assault charges filed.

“So nothing, so that’s it?” Broker said, smiling slightly, but not entirely relieved. His instincts told him Earl Garf was still trouble.

“But look where it happened. Microsoft. So, for the hell of it, I called out there. They’re two hours behind and I got a sergeant in records who remembered the incident.”

“Good memory.”

“Not exactly, what he said was, ‘Oh, yeah, the guy who took a swing at God. He’ll never work in the computer industry again.’ ”

“God, huh?” Broker said.

“Yeah, your boy Earl tried to punch out Bill Gates. Know what else the Redmond cop said? He said that if he would have controlled his temper and kept his nose to the grindstone he’d be a cyber millionaire now. He was in on the ground floor. They fired him and rescinded all his stock options before they were vested.”

“That’s interesting. But this guy is still an asshole,” Broker said.

“But not exactly a heavyweight,” J.T. said. Then he paused with droll apprehension, “unless. .”

“Unless what?” Broker grinned.

“Unless he’s the vampire,” J.T. said, raising his eyebrows in mock-foreboding. The vampire was their lingo for the hypothetical perp who didn’t cast a reflection in mirrors, who left no trace, no fingerprints or tracks. Who was way too smart to get caught.

They both laughed. And Broker said, “I don’t think so. He’s just another asshole who deserved to be jammed up, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to chase him off and give Sommer’s wife some breathing room.”

“So, you want some company so you don’t fuck this guy up too much?” J.T. asked with a flavor of the old days in his tone.

“It’s not like that,” Broker said.

“Right. Story of your life. Nothing is what it looks like, huh?” J.T. shook his head.

Broker climbed into the Jeep and turned the key. “I’ll be back tonight.”

“Sure you will,” J.T. said.

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