FEAR OF THE FATHER

excerpt

CHAPTER ONE

Rachael Get Your Gun

Doctor Ruby LaCost adjusted her glasses and looked at the young woman sitting across from her.

“You’re going to what?” she asked.

The young woman’s face was as immobile as porcelain. “I’m going to buy a gun.”

"Ah, Rachael, I'm not sure that's your best possible course of action at this time."

“You sound like a psychologist,” Rachael said, the hint of a smile teasing her glossed lips.

“You’re dealing with memories you’ve kept repressed for a great deal of your life. Now is not the time to get involved with a firearm!”

“I’ve made up my mind.”

Ruby noted Rachael’s rigid posture. “It’s your father, isn’t it?”

Rachael looked at her blankly.

Ruby forged ahead. “Every time you’re dealing with something about your father,” she said, “you go on emotional hold. You become neutral and separate. You tuck in behind your newsreader identity. It’s how you choose to protect yourself from him.”

“That’s why I want a gun,” Rachael said. “To protect myself from him.”

“You haven’t even seen the man in years. Why now?”

“He knows that if I’m going to a psychologist some things could turn up that would be dangerous to him.”

“How long has it been since you’ve seen him?”

“Fifteen years or so. Ever since I went to live with Aunt Ivy.”

“Does your aunt have any connection to him?”

“None. She despises the man.”

“If you haven’t had any contact with him in that long, what makes you think he knows where you are or what you’re doing?”

Rachael plucked absently at the hem of her skirt. Her shoulders sagged and she lifted tear-filled eyes to look at Ruby.

“He knows,” she said. “He makes it his business to know. I’m a loose end. Daddy hates loose ends.”

“And you’ve decided to get a gun.”

Rachael nodded.

“Do you know anything about guns? Have you ever even shot a gun?”

“There are a couple of places that give lessons.”

Ruby fiddled with her pen as she stalled for time.

“Okay,” she said. “I know somebody who might be able to help. Will you give me a day or two?”

After Rachael left, Ruby reached for the phone to call an old friend. He answered on the third ring.

“Hey, Crockett,” Ruby said. “Gotta gun?”

“What?”

“A gun. You know, bang-bang, innocent bystanders lying in the street, blood in the gutter, that kinda stuff.”

Crockett lowered his voice into a stage whisper. “Ruby, if someone is forcing you to make this call, clear your throat.”

“I have a client.”

“One of your own? I told you that 900 number would work!”

Ruby grinned. “If you can drag yourself out of that quagmire of isolation and self-pity you laughingly refer to as your life,” she said, “meet me for lunch.”

“Gee, I don’t know. My calendar’s pretty full.”

“Bullshit.”

“Is this, like, a date?”

“Business,” Ruby said. “I’ll buy.”

“Must be serious.”

“Possibly. The Classic Cup, on the Plaza, one-thirty.”

She hung up quickly, knowing that the Classic Cup did not compliment Crockett’s self image, half expecting him to call back and bitch. He didn’t.

Crockett remained on the couch for a while, feeling like he’d come in during the middle of the movie, a common sensation when he dealt with Ruby. He realized that making him play catch-up was one of her ploys to keep him off balance, but today was different. Today was obviously not just fun and games. She wanted his cooperation. The fact that she needed his assistance for some reason didn’t mean that he had any sort of advantage. Ruby didn’t give advantages. Whatever was on her devious mind would be more than met the casual eye. Still, it was nice to be needed, even if he had no idea why. Sighing, he rose, compensated for the kink in his back, grimaced at the pain in his hip, and limped into his bathroom. He brushed his teeth in the shower, slipped into some faded jeans and a nearly clean flannel shirt, and prepared to venture out into the world.

Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza is one of the more celebrated up-scale shopping districts in the Midwest. Luxury cars adorn its curbs, jowly businessmen its bars, young lions its pubs, junior leaguers its shops, and pretension its restaurants. Ordinarily Crockett avoided the area at all costs. Ordinarily Ruby didn’t ask him if he had a gun.

Parking was a predictable hassle. He left Thumper on Ward Parkway and walked to the Classic Cup, wishing he’d brought his cane. Ruby was waiting just inside the door when he arrived. As usual, her slow grin brought butterflies to his nether regions, and he gave her a peck on the cheek as they were approached by a waitperson who looked a great deal like Uma Thurman. Uma raised his eyebrows and looked at Crockett. Crockett raised his and looked back. They held their mutual pose for a couple of beats and Ruby snorted.

“Two,” she said. “A sidewalk table please. He smokes.”

Uma permitted one eyebrow to fall and curled his lip. “This way,” he oozed, and led them outside.

Crockett looked at Ruby as they walked to the table. She hadn’t changed much over the years. Still the thick mane of nearly black hair, still the oversized mouth and eyes, still the flawless olive complexion. At five-ten and about one-fifty he found her wonderfully substantial. In heels they stood nearly at eye level, with him on the short end. Ruby never went out in public without heels.

She smiled at him as they sat.

“You didn’t have to get dressed up just for me,” she said.

“Clothes do not make the man, Ms. LaCost.”

“No, but they evidently do make mistakes.”

“My underwear’s silk,” Crockett said. “Chinese. Raw.”

“I wouldn’t know.”

“There’s still time.”

Ruby blew him a tiny kiss. “It is possible that I may require your assistance,” she said.

Crockett bumped his eyebrows. Ruby ignored him.

“I have a client who believes she needs to learn how to use a gun to protect herself,” she said. “I have attempted to dissuade her from that course of action.”

Crockett peered at her over the top of his menu. “Of course you have,” he said. Their waitress arrived.

Ruby ordered something with the oxymoronical title of Southwestern Pizza. Crockett had a turkey sandwich, hold the sprouts, hold the avocado, hold the cilantro, hold the orange-mustard sauce, add some mayo, tomato, and lettuce. The young woman looked at him askance. He lit a Sherman.

“My client needs to be handled with kid gloves,” Ruby went on. “I am concerned that she will purchase a firearm and cause herself injury, or patronize a less than scrupulous instructor, or find herself immersed in a situation with which she, as emotionally fragile as she is, will be unable to cope.”

“No shit?”

Ruby broke out in laughter, a rich contralto that was irresistible.

“Do you really talk like that to those poor unsuspecting victims of yours?” Crockett asked.

Ruby rested her chin in her hand and smiled. “None of this crap works on you, does it?”

“Probably not.”

“Crockett, no matter what I say, this woman is going to get involved with firearms. I want you to teach her how to handle a gun safely. I trust you. I believe she will, too.”

Crockett knew Ruby’s seemingly open declaration of purpose and need was not the whole story. She had other motives. Ruby always had other motives.

“I’m not qualified,” he said.

“You used to be a cop. You are a truly sensitive and honorable man. This woman is very vulnerable. You would never take advantage of that.”

“I wouldn’t?”

“I’ll discuss it with her. If she goes for it, I’ll set up a meeting for the two of you. Feel free to charge her something unreasonable for this service. She can afford it.”

“You’re being both civil and complimentary,” Crockett said. “I’m a little scared.”

“Of course you are.”

“Aroused, too.”

“Of course you are.”

“Dammit, Ruby, you know I don’t like guns.”

“Yes, but you need my approval so badly that you will most certainly do as I ask.”

He gave up. “Alright. I’ve got a recording session tomorrow morning. Tell her to call me after ten. I should be home by then. She can buy me lunch or something. I want to spend some time with her in a semi-social situation before I hand her a loaded gun. Nothing can screw up a brand new relationship like getting shot in the foot.”

Ruby grinned.

“No shit?” she said.


CHAPTER TWO

Born to Rust

Putting a sincere smile in his voice, Crockett said, “Bob Bailey Homes, Olathe, Shawnee, and Overland Park.”

“That’s it,” squeaked his headphones. He took them off and walked out of the booth to where Rob sat amid his recorders, processors, computers, and speakers. The little girl from the advertising agency, who thought she was a copywriter, a producer, and terribly sexy, beamed at him.

“Really great job, Mr. Crockett, really. It’s always really great to work with a professional.”

“It is, isn’t it? That Rob’s a helluva guy.”

She giggled in what she assumed was a fetching manner and crossed her legs. “We’ve got some other stuff coming up in a couple of weeks,” she said. “We’re gonna need kind of a hillbilly country voice, and a real nervous wimpy guy.”

“Those would be me,” Crockett said.

“Really great. We’ll be in touch. You’ll invoice us for today?”

“Count on it,” he said, easing out the door.

“That’ll be really great,” she said. “Really.”

Crockett left the truck in his drive, quietly opened the gate to the backyard, and was almost to the door when he heard the snarls and barking. Two giant schnauzers came bristling and roaring around the corner of the house.

“Sit!”

They slid to a halt on their butts about three feet from him, grinning and wagging their stubby tails. It was all part of the routine. Their owner, a mousy woman named Charlene, rented the second floor of his house, a big old stone monstrosity that Crockett bought for a song nearly 20 years before, when he first came to Kansas City. Over the years he replaced the plumbing, the wiring, the windows and the doors. He insulated and sealed, painted and peeled and, because of all that and the fact that the Valentine district had worked very hard to become respectable, the place was now worth nearly ten times what he paid for it. Because he didn’t need over four thousand square feet, Charlene had the second floor, he kept the ground floor and basement, and the third floor remained untouched. Charlene’s rent covered Crockett’s utilities and taxes, and her large toothy dogs covered his ass.

When Crockett opened his back door the hounds charged inside. Treat time. Charlene had named the canines Wolfgang and Hildegard. He called them Stupid and Shithead. Shithead was the one with the blue collar. They waited for him by the refrigerator. In the middle of the kitchen floor, carefully avoided by the dogs, ever hopeful of hanging a claw in a curious muzzle, sat over thirty pounds of one-eared, buff-colored, feline attitude. Nudge.

Crockett grabbed two turkey hot dogs and a small chunk of broiled chicken out of the fridge. The dogs inhaled the franks and whined at Nudge as he daintily consumed his treat, one tiny morsel at a time, often stopping to peer at the hounds as they circled him and begged, hoping one of them would come within reach. They both had. Once.

An hour later Crockett was sitting on the couch with Nudge purring on his lap, contemplating the possibility of lunch. The phone rang.

“Hello.”

“Mister Crockett?”

“Yes.”

“Mr. Crockett, my name is Rachael Moore. Ruby LaCost suggested that I contact you. She said you are a man worthy of trust.”

“The fruit baskets are finally paying off.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Nothing, Miss Moore, just a feeble attempt at humor.”

“I see. Ruby suggested I buy you dinner.”

“Or lunch. Or a new truck. Your choice.”

“Lunch will be fine. Today?”

“Where and when?”

“Let’s say the Classic Cup on the Plaza, in thirty minutes?”

“My favorite.”

“How will I know you, Mr. Crockett?”

“I’ll have a white gardenia in my cleavage.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ll be the worst dressed man there.”

“Very well. In thirty minutes then. Thank you, Mr. Crockett.”

She disconnected. Crockett called Ruby.

A client had cancelled and Ruby was contemplating what to do with the extra hour, when the phone rang.

“This could very easily be an obscene phone call,” Crockett said.

“Sorry. I have to wash my hair.”

“Tell me about Rachael.”

“I can’t tell you much.”

“Don’t violate your ethics.”

“My ethics are intact, Crockett.”

“Damn shame.”

“Rachel is a very closed person, frightened and fearful. Abused as a child, definitely suspicious of men. She needs the opportunity to relax a bit and open up to a non-threatening male.”

“A what?”

“A non-threatening male.”

“C’mon, LaCost. What are you getting me into? I’m not a therapist and I don’t want anything to do with guns. Besides, since I have you, why the hell do I need another crazy woman in my life?”

Enjoying Crockett’s obligatory complaining, knowing it was part of his process for dealing with the world, and glad to participate in his emotional ritual, Ruby replied, “I have every confidence you shall fare well.”

“I can’t win here, can I?”

“But you will win, Honey. You’ll get to go out in public, see new things, make new friends, and learn to work and play well with others. Just think, if we can get you socialized, the next time we go for a walk in the park, I can take your leash off and let you run loose. Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“I don’t like the park,” Crockett said. “The geese scare me.”

“Let’s try another motivation. As I said before, she’ll pay you.”

“Where do I sign?” Crockett asked. “Can’t talk, Ruby. Gotta go. Got a heavy date with a real babe for lunch. I found her phone number off the men’s room wall at Denny’s. She sounds really nice. What’s a Chinese wax job?”

Ruby chuckled. “Have fun,” she said.

“You too, Darling. Pat yourself on the bottom for me.”

“In progress, Crockett. ‘Bye.”

In therapy, Crockett and Ruby had seen each other at least twice a month for over three years. He had been more open and willing than she’d expected him to be. Crockett had felt responsible for a failed marriage and the death of his partner on the police department. He seemed to enjoy the fact that Ruby wouldn’t knuckle under to him and that he couldn’t push her around or intimidate her.

Ruby adored Crockett. And now, once again, she was dragging him out into the light. She smiled. It was true. Therapy is never finished. It’s just abandoned.

For Crockett, the only redeeming aspect of venturing onto the Plaza was taking his truck. The natives found Thumper distasteful. Actually, almost everybody found Thumper distasteful. Constructed in the years before Chevrolet found a way to really rustproof their vehicles, Thumper began his life as a diesel work truck. After many years in that incarnation, he was obtained by a hot-rodder who painted him an unfortunate shade of blue, removed the original motor, and installed a 454 with about four hundred twenty-five horsepower. Crockett had had the truck for over ten years. Thumper’s body was falling apart, his four-wheel drive ride was rough, his exhaust loud, his tires huge, his seat ripped, and not once had Crockett given him a bath. The truck bore the only bumper sticker Crockett had ever put on a vehicle, “Born to Rust.” Thumper was tall, ugly, noisy, had neither a radio nor air-conditioning, and the doors wouldn’t lock. He didn’t get out much.

Driving through the erratic traffic on the Country Club Plaza was one of the tiny joys in Crockett’s life. One look at the truck and then at him, and the lesser vehicles parted in much the way the Red Sea did for Charlton Heston. It was easy to see that neither Thumper nor Crockett had anything to lose. Finding a rare parking space, he eased the truck in behind a BMW around the corner from the Classic Cup.

Several pedestrians issued furtive glances. When Crockett slammed the door, a small piece of rusty rocker panel fell into the street.

As he approached the restaurant, so did Rachael Moore. Crockett recognized her immediately. She was the relatively new news anchor for channel 36 or 32 or some popular independent station. Her picture graced several billboards and a few city bus flanks. Five-six, early thirties, great cheekbones, ash blond hair, socially acceptable thin figure, good skin, impeccable make-up, expensive shoes, fixed smile, green eyes, and the solid warmth of bathroom tile. They arrived at the door together.

“Miss Moore,” he said. “Forgive me, I misplaced my gardenia.”

“Ah,” she said, “you would be Mr. Crockett.”

“Only because I don’t have a choice.”

“Ruby cautioned me about your sense of humor.”

Crockett opened the door. “Ruby who?” he asked. They came face to face with Uma.

He and Crockett looked at each other. Uma raised his eyebrows. Declining the opening gambit, Crockett left his in a fixed position.

“Two please,” he said, “outside if possible. She smokes.” Uma turned to Crockett’s companion and brightened considerably.

“Miss Moore, how nice to see you! It’s so good of you to drop by today. This way, please.” Turning expertly on one heel, he swept them to a sunlit table, seated Rachael and, with a flourish, presented her menu. He dropped Crockett’s on the tablecloth.

“Your waitress will be with you in a moment. If you need anything at all, Miss Moore, just call,” Uma gushed.

She smiled at him. “Thank you, Ricky.” He darted away.

“His name’s Ricky?” Crockett asked.

“Yes, it is.”

“I woulda gone with something more feminine.”

A tiny smile flickered on her penciled lips as she scanned the menu. “No, it’s Ricky, Mr. Crockett.”

“Let’s loosen up a little. If you don’t mind, I’ll call you Rachael and you can call me Crockett.”

“What’s your first name?”

“David.”

“David? Davey Crockett? Like born on a mountaintop in Tennessee?”

“See? I knew it would come to this. It always does.”

Rachael smiled. “I can see why you don’t use Davey,” she said. “It’s a little feminine.”

“So,” he said, “who do you want to kill?”

Crockett watched an amazing range of emotions flicker over her face in the next moment. Rachael quickly composed herself and settled on insulted. She glared at him and whispered.

“Maybe this is a mistake,” she said.

“Probably.”

“Look, I’ve already phoned a place called The Bull’s-Eye. They said they have a two hour session to teach people how to shoot.”

Their waitress arrived. Rachael ordered some sort of ethnic Czechoslovakian greenery, and herbal tea.

Crockett chose what appeared to be a tuna salad sandwich and lemonade.

“Here’s the deal,” he said. “I am not a mental health professional, but I have an autographed picture of Doctor Phil on the wall above my bed. I will not teach you how to defend yourself with a handgun. That implies you are waiting to be victimized and I don’t like the entire victim mindset. It is my intention, if you decide to do this, to teach you how to respond to lethal threat with overwhelming counterattack. You will learn how, when the situation offers no other alternative, to kill another human being.”

Crockett cleared his throat and leaned over the table toward Rachael. “This is some very serious shit, Sweetheart. It is not two hours with ten other students blazing away at cute little targets. It is not fun and games in a group of gigglers. It is a course of action that will result in you knowing how and when to take someone’s life. If you are not prepared to take another life to protect your own, you don’t need a gun or shooting lessons. You need a bodyguard or something else to hide behind.”

Rachael looked at him for a moment.

“Are you trying to scare me?”

“Yeah. Is it working?”

“I’ve thought about this a lot. I really think I could kill someone to save my own life.”

Crockett smiled. “Nothing to it,” he said. “Child’s play.”

Rachael’s eyes narrowed. “Well, how ‘bout you, then, tough guy. You ever killed anyone?”

“Yes.”

“Really? You have?”

“But not this week.”

Rachael drew a deep breath and studied her hands for a moment. When she again looked up, it seemed to Crockett her eyes were darker.

“Okay,” she said. “You got me.”

“It’s mutual, Kiddo.”

Crockett’s tuna salad had grapes in it. The lemonade was pink, with a black straw.

When he arrived home a phone message was waiting from Ruby.

“Have a good lunch? Why don’t you come by tonight, if you can remember where I live. Bring dinner. I have a cute little Australian merlot we can try. It has an excellent nose, great legs, and finishes well. Me too. See ya around seven.”

Crockett filled a pot with water, dropped in three diced potatoes and put a fourth in the oven. In a sauce pan he installed a half pint of heavy whipping cream, a small can of chicken broth, half a stick of butter, dried dill, cracked pepper, some lemon juice, and a half-pound wedge of brie with that nasty white stuff cut off. When the potatoes were about done, he poured off the starchy liquid, replaced it with fresh water and allowed them to cool. The baked potato, minus the skin, went in the pan where it disintegrated into the sauce. He poured the water off the potatoes, added a handful of diced green onions, a cup of sour cream, and the contents of the saucepan, then set the whole thing on slow simmer and headed downstairs to throw in a load of laundry. By five, Crockett’s famous potato soup was cooling in the fridge and he was in a hot tub, trying to get his hip and leg to settle down.

He picked up some sourdough rolls on the way to Ruby’s place, an apartment over by the Art Museum. In her ongoing attempt to defraud the federal government, Ruby actually had two apartments. One was a small one-bedroom where she received clients and claimed, for tax purposes, she lived. The other was across the hall, a two-story, three-bedroom extravaganza where she lived and claimed, for tax purposes, she received clients. The guard at the gate looked at Crockett and his truck with thinly disguised disgust. His nametag read “Larry”.

“Deliveries go through the back drive,” he said.

“I’m sure they do Larry,” Crockett replied.

The two of them looked at each other for a moment. Larry spoke up again. “Deliveries go through the back drive,” he repeated.

“That’s good to know, Larry,” Crockett said. “I, however, am not a delivery. I am a visitor.”

“To who?”

“Whom.”

“What?”

“To whom am I a visitor.”

Larry squinted at him. “That’s what I just asked ya. Who you here to see, Mister?”

“I am here to join in the company of Ms. Ruby LaCost, apartment 203 or 204, depending on whether I give or receive therapy.”

Larry consulted his regulation clipboard. “Don’t got no guests listed here.”

“Perhaps if you were to contact the tenant in question, this matter would be easily resolved.”

Larry had had about all the conversation he wanted. Crockett could feel him yearning for a gun to go with his snappy uniform.

“Miss LaCost?” Larry intoned into his official phone, “there’s a guy says he’s here to see ya.” His eyes drifted to Crockett as he listened. “What’s yer name?”

Crockett smiled. “Tell her it’s Raoul the pool boy,” he said.

“Who?”

“Raoul, the pool boy.”

Larry gave Crockett a suspicious glance, relayed the information, and listened for a moment. “She says to c’mon in an’ bring your big skimmer,” he said.

“My skimmer and I thank you, Larry. You’ve been very kind.”

“Just doin’ my job, sir. Park your truck over there an’ try to keep it quiet.”

“I’ll do my best,” Crockett said, “but with my truck, as with Ms. LaCost, better men than I have tried and failed.


CHAPTER THREE

Single Malt and Cigars

When Larry phoned and confirmed Crockett’s arrival, Ruby was surprised to find that she was a little nervous. She had never called on an ex-patient to assist a current patient before and was still struggling with a list of unintended consequences that could crop up from such an arrangement. Still, she had great faith in Crockett’s innate ability to read people and behave accordingly. Plus, she knew he was anything but a predator. Sure, he exhibited testosterone-powered behavior with her from time to time, but that was part of their play. Both of them were free to behave outrageously if they chose to, trusting the other one not call their bluff. Liberating to be sure. Frustrating now and then for Crockett no doubt, but great fun for Ruby.

When she realized part of her nervousness came from the anticipation of continuing her relationship with Crockett in relatively intimate surroundings, she was actually embarrassed. She checked her face in the entryway mirror and decided a bit more lipstick was called for. It would have to wait. Crockett was knocking.

She answered the door wearing a man-tailored black silk blouse over white calf- length tights. Her feet were bare, her hair loose, her grin wide. She looked Crockett up and down as he stood in the doorway.

“Raoul, you’ve come.”

“Carmelita, I could no longer stay away.”

“Damn, Crockett! A jacket? You wore a jacket?”

“The best Sport Coats ‘R’ Us had to offer.”

“Those lapels are hand stitched.”

“I didn’t want the wine to be embarrassed.”

“And slacks!”

“I even brushed my teeth,” Crockett said. “Didn’t want to offend Larry.”

Ruby grinned. “How is ol’ Larry?” she asked.

“Confused,” Crockett replied.

“Well get your bad self on up in here!” Ruby went on, stepping back from the door.

He regarded her feet. “The least you could have done was put on shoes. I haven’t been here in nearly a year.”

“You haven’t been here in nearly two years,” Ruby said. “Put the sack in the kitchen.” She headed off up the stairs.

Crockett wandered through the massive living area, through the overly large dining area, into the huge, stainless steel encrusted kitchen area. He had just finished putting the pot on her six-burner stove to warm, when Ruby walked in, now wearing earrings and darker lipstick. Jesus. The sight of her always brought a flutter. She assaulted him with a long, full-bodied hug that he enjoyed immensely.

“What’s in the pot?”

“Potato soup.”

Ruby arched a perfect eyebrow. “Potato soup?”

Crockett enjoyed the contact of her palms on his shoulders and his forearms on her ribs.

“You haven’t been here for dinner in almost two years and you bring me potato soup?”

He caressed her chin with a forefinger and allowed his voice to drop an octave. “Once its succulent creaminess passes those pouting lips and warmly caresses that ever so sharp tongue of yours,” he said, “you will never again want another, but will yearn only for mine.”

Ruby smiled and slipped out of his arms to collect dinnerware.

“Open the wine, Hotshot.”

Thirty minutes later she pushed her empty bowl away with a tiny belch.

“Ambrosia, Crockett, goddammed ambrosia. I never tasted anything like it. Bet it goes straight to my thighs.”

“An appealing thought, but not true. Crockett’s famous potato-brie sludge never gets past the heart. That’s why I hardly ever make it.”

“To the terrace, Raoul, and breathe. I’ll be right there.”

Crockett walked out through the sliding glass doors and flopped on her patio couch. Night was coming on and the air was beginning to cool. He looked at the Kansas City lights reflected off low cloud cover and rolled Ruby over in his mind. As always, she remained an enigma. During the infrequent occasions when they spent time together, he was never sure if it was therapy or social. The only thing he was sure about, was that it would never escalate into anything romantic.

A minute later Ruby came out, handed Crockett a short scotch, and reclined on the remainder of the couch. Unable to resist teasing him, she draped her calves across his lap. As usual, Crockett did his best to remain casual.

“Twenty-five year old, single malt,” she said, then reached into the pocket of her shirt and removed two cigars. She clipped the ends off both, lit one for him, the other for herself. Smoke wafting slowly from her lips, she grinned.

“Macanudo Maduros and good scotch, Pal. This is surely better than either of us deserve.”

Lightly rubbing her calves, Crockett said, “What’s going on, Ruby?”

“Could be seduction,” she said.

“As I recall, you don’t sleep with men.”

“I don’t fuck men.”

“So, is this therapy?” he said.

“Crockett, every minute I spend with your tired old ass is therapy for me.”

Crockett leered, drawing his finger lightly along the bottom of her foot. “Think how therapeutic it could be if I really tried,” he said.

Ruby shivered, stood up, leaned over, and kissed him lightly on the lips.

“I’ll be back with more scotch and a quilt,” she said. “Don’t move.”

When she’d settled in again, Ruby asked, “What about Rachael?”

“That is a very troubled woman,” Crockett said.

“You have no idea how troubled. I suspect that I don’t either.”

“She’s pretty cute,” he said. “Nice bod. So I’ve decided to gain her confidence, have my manly way with her, and cast her cruelly aside. It’s a guy thing. Like football.”

Ruby flipped a cigar ash in his general direction. “When do you see her again?”

“I’ve got an early recording session at Airbourn Studios in the morning, then I’m meeting her for breakfast at the IHOP by I-35, then we’re going to the Bull’s-Eye and blaze away.”

“How do you feel about that?”

“See? Now there you go,” Crockett said. “I didn’t go to all the trouble of building my potato masterpiece just to let you pick my brain. Why can’t we just get along?”

“Fess up. How do you feel about that?”

“Well, Doctor LaCost,” Crockett whined, wringing his hands, “I feel that my feelings are feeling that they feel a feeling that feels full of feelings. Can you feel how full that feels?”

“C’mon, Asshole.”

Crockett thought for a moment.

“All right,” he said. “Rachael has a lot of snakes crawling just below the surface, but I think she’ll be okay. I’m a little worried about how I should deal with her.”

“You’ll deal with her fine,” Ruby said. “It’s instinctive with you. Don’t concern yourself. You’re not here because I’m worried about Rachael. You’re here because we have been too long apart and this was a perfect excuse to spend time with you. Christ, Crockett, the Classic Cup was the first time I’d seen you in forever. You spend more time with Uma than you do with me.”

“Yeah, but I like Uma.”

“Fickle bitch that you are.”

“And I’ve got a better chance of scoring with Uma than I do with you.”

“When’s the last time you fired a gun?” Ruby asked.

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“I don’t know.”

“Bullshit. You know. You know exactly. C’mon, Crockett.”

“The night I got shot, I guess.”

“The night Paul Case was killed.”

“Yeah. The night I got shot,” Crockett said, feeling an all too familiar flutter in his chest.

Relentless, Ruby kept after him.

“That would be the night Paul died, right?”

Cold emptiness surged behind Crockett’s heart and the taste of metal leaked into his mouth.

“Yes,” he said. “The night my partner and friend, Paul Case, was shot to death, Doctor LaCost. March third, nineteen eighty-four. The night that Margie became a widow, the night that Clifford and Janet didn’t have a daddy anymore, the night a useless piece of shit named Clevant Pelmore took it upon himself to shoot me and kill my partner. The night that I popped a cap on that same useless piece of shit and sent his dog-ass into the cold hard ground. That shot, Doctor LaCost, is the last time I fired a gun!”

Shoulders sagging, Crockett lurched to his feet. Ruby reached for him, but he brushed her hand away and stalked off through the apartment. The sound of the slamming door was flat and final.

Fog had formed at ground level and Crockett surged through it on the way to his truck, the pale vapor swirling behind him. He got in and put the key in the ignition before the cold behind his heart overtook him. Fingernails digging into his palms, he rested his forehead on the unyielding steering wheel and let the tears come.

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