Dead, White, and Blue - Preview of Number 4 of the Al Pennyback mystery series


Near Lost City, West Virginia
The autumn morning was ablaze with the orange and red of the oak and maple trees that covered the undulating hills that lined the road. A gentle breeze wafted lazily through the woods, making a soft whispering sound. Fluffy clouds dotted the light blue sky.
Two men, dressed in green and black camouflage suits and carrying 30/30 rifles, stood idly beside the two lane blacktop road, looking back up the slope through the road snaked like one of the many streams that flowed through the sparsely populated hills. They could have been any of the hundreds of hunters who could be found in the forests and hills; hunting turkey or deer in the autumn months.
They were not, though, ordinary hunters. Their prey was not fowl or four-legged fauna. They weren’t waiting for deer or turkey. They were waiting for another kind of animal; the kind that if you were not careful, could fight back, and could turn the hunter into the hunted.
Billy Bob Graystone, the older of the two, and in charge of their mission, pulled his hunting cap down over his eyes. “I wish to hell he’d come on,” he said. “I’m gittin’ tired of standing out here on this damn road.”
“He oughta be along any minute,” Buck Sawyer said. Younger by four years, Sawyer was under Graystone’s command, but in his mind, it should have been him in charge. Billy Bob just don’t have the patience for this kind of work, he thought. Sometimes he didn’t understand the commander’s insistence on older guys being in charge all the time. “We’ll be back at the compound long before lunch.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Graystone said. “I just don’t like standing ‘round on this road. What if somebody else comes along?”
“You know hardly anybody ever comes up here. The sheriff pretty much directs tourists up north to the hunting area, and the locals know better than to come snooping around. Quit worrying will you.”
Graystone grunted and began playing with the rim of his cap. Sawyer kept his eyes focused up the road in the direction he knew their target would be coming.
After twenty minutes of listening to Graystone grunt as he scratched his crotch, Sawyer say the silver Ford pickup come over the hill. “Hey, look alive,” he said. “Here he comes.”
“How’d you know it’s him?”
Sawyer shrugged and gave his partner a disgusted look. “Who else around here has a silver pickup with red and orange flames painted on the hood and a roll bar?” You stupid shit, he thought, you can’t find your own as without help. “Let’s get ready to flag him down.”
The two moved to the edge of the highway and began waving. The pickup slowed as it neared them. The driver, a middle-aged white man wearing a blue denim shirt and a Caterpillar cap, peered quizzically through the windshield, but pulled off the road and stopped. “What you boys doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” he asked the two.
Sawyer approached the driver’s side while his partner walked around to the passenger side. “We was waiting for you, Leyton” Sawyer said. “Got something we gotta talk to you about. It’s real important, and we didn’t want to talk in front of the other fellas.”
Leyton Caldwell was a man of middle years; a craggy face that was seldom clean shaved, and a swarthy complexion from years in the outdoors. His sky-blue eyes regarded the two men with something approaching suspicion, but then, he always had that suspicious look in his eyes.
“Okay, boys,” he said. “What is it you want to talk about?” He knew the two of them; always hanging around the fringes of the groups back at the camp. Sawyer, the younger of the two seldom talked, while Graystone was always bragging about how good he was at everything from tracking to shooting. He’d never demonstrated any of the skills he claimed, but he talked a good game.
“Why don’t you come on down out of that truck,” Sawyer said. “It ain’t easy craning my neck up to talk to you up there.”
Caldwell turned off the ignition and shoved the door open. As he alighted from the truck, Graystone walked around to the driver’s side and stood next to Sawyer. He had a half smile on his ugly face. Damn, Caldwell thought, he’s one ugly son of a bitch. Wonder what his folks look like. “Okay,” he said. “Now, what is it you boys want to talk about?”
“We want to know who you been telling about the unit,” Graystone said. There was an ugly tone in his voice. “And, we want to know what the hell you been telling ‘em.”
“What the. . .” Caldwell turned to get back in the pickup, but Sawyer grabbed his arm.
“Not so fast, Leyton,” he said. “The commander wants to know who you been talking to.”
Graystone grabbed his other arm. He found himself pinned against the door of the pickup, unable to reach the .45 colt automatic he kept in the glove compartment. “I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” he said.
“Bullshit,” the young man snarled. “ATF intercepted our last shipment of weapons, and there was only five people who knew about it. We can account for four of them. You’re the only question mark.”
“You think I snitched to ATF? That’s a crock of shit,” Caldwell said. “You ain’t got no proof I talked to anyone.”
“You got a point,” Graystone said. “We can’t prove you were the one who told about the last shipment, but we can damn well make sure you don’t do it no more.” He pulled a hunting knife from beneath his jacket and thrust it up to the hilt in the older man’s chest.
Caldwell grunted as the blade struck home; blood gushed from his mouth and his eyes rolled up. The two men grabbed the body as it started sinking toward the ground.
“Why the hell you do that?” Sawyer asked. “The commander didn’t say nothing about killing him.”
“He said we had a leak, and he wanted it plugged,” Graystone said. “I think it’s plugged now. Let’s get him and this truck outta here before somebody comes along.”
Just at that moment they heard the sound of a car coming up the road from the town below. The tires made screeching sounds as it came to a stop about a hundred yards below them. Letting the body slide to the ground, they whirled, whipping their rifles off their shoulders.
Before they could take aim, the car sped backward, made a J turn and sped back down the mountain.
“Damn,” Sawyer said. “I bet they saw everything. Did you get a look at them?”
“Yeah,” Graystone said. “A couple of spades; a man and a woman. The car had DC plates on it.”
“What if they report it?”
“Hell,” Graystone said. “Old Lum Kellum ain’t gonna listen to no niggers. The sheriff knows who runs these hills. We put Caldwell and his truck down one of the old mine shafts, and they ain’t got nothin’.”
“Still,” Sawyer said. “We gotta tell the commander. He’ll know what to do.”
* * *
After cleaning up the blood spatters from the macadam and shoulder, the two men moved the pickup and its grisly cargo to an old abandoned mineshaft deep in the hills. They went back to the compound and quickly found themselves standing at attention before Jameson Halliburton, commander of America for True Americans (AFTA), a militia group that he’d founded. Halliburton, a beefy, red-faced, man of about fifty, was an insurance agent by trade, owner of the main insurance company in the region. As a teenager he’d joined the local KKK unit, but had become disillusioned with their lack of sophistication. In his late twenties, he’d abandoned his hooded companions and formed his own organization, devoted to returning America to its true owners, whites of northern European descent.
Normally of dour disposition, Halliburton was livid after hearing the two men’s report of the morning’s events.
He leaned his large frame forward against the big oak desk and slammed his beefy hands on the surface. The veins in his florid face pulsed in anger.
“I send you two idiots out to do a simple job, and you fuck it up? Billy Bob, I don’t expect too much from you, but Buck, I had high hopes for you.”
“But, boss,” Billy Bob Graystone said. “You said you wanted the leak plugged.”
“Shut your trap, you fucking idiot,” Halliburton said. “You couldn’t plug a leak in a kitchen sink. I didn’t fucking tell you to kill him. I wanted him brought back here so I could question him.” He stared at Sawyer.
“You’re right, sir,” Sawyer said. “We fucked it up. But, Billy Bob jabbed that pig sticker in him before I could do anything.”
“This idiot’s always too quick to use his knife instead of his brain. Worse yet, you had witnesses and you let them get away.”
“That jig drove away too fast,” Graystone said. “He drove like a. . .”
“Billy Bob,” Halliburton said. “I told you to shut up. What about shut up don’t you understand?”
“Yes sir,” Graystone said, and lapsed into a sulking silence.
“They was about a hundred yards away,” Sawyer said. “Ain’t likely they saw too much.”
“We can’t take that chance. We’re too close to the date for our most important operation, and if they cause trouble, well, let’s just say, we don’t need any more fuck ups.”
“Yes sir, what do you want me to do?” Sawyer deliberately replied as if Graystone would not be included in the assignment, and in that he was right.
“I want you to make sure that couple don’t talk to the wrong people,” Halliburton said. “And, this time, no killing. I just want them kept quiet. If they think they saw anything, they probably reported it to Lum Kellum. I’ll call him with some kind of story and get their names. You said they had DC plates, so it should be easy enough to get their address. You think you can do this?”
“Yes sir,” Sawyer said. “You can depend on me.”
“What about me, boss?” Graystone asked.
Halliburton gave him a look that would have stopped most men in their tracks. “Billy Bob, until further notice, you’re on compound detail. You ought to be able to do that without fucking up.”
“But, boss, that ain’t fair. I been a loyal member of this troop since you founded it.”
“You questioning my orders, soldier?” The menace in Halliburton’s voice was unmistakable, even to someone as dense as Graystone. “You want I should cashier you out?”
“No sir,” the chastened Graystone said. “You know I’d follow you anywhere.”
“Good. Now get the hell out of here before I decide to put you on latrine detail.”
Graystone saluted sloppily, gave Sawyer a murderous look, spun on his heels and left the office.
“When do you want me to get started, sir?” Sawyer asked.
“Soon’s I call the sheriff and get the names of the witnesses,” Halliburton said. “You think you’ll need anybody to help you, make sure they have an ounce or two more brains than that shit bird Billy Bob.”
Sawyer saluted crisply and beat a hasty retreat as Halliburton picked up the phone.

Chapter One

Washington, DC – One Week Later

Fall is my favorite time of the year in Washington. The weather is cool enough for a sweater, but not yet the biting cold of winter. The trees are decked in a kaleidoscope of colors; orange, yellow and red, and there’s no pollen to upset my sensitive sinuses.
In my line of work, I spend a lot of time outdoors, and I hate the way the pollen makes my sneeze and cough. Makes it hard to interview subjects, or concentrate on what they’re saying. I’m a private detective; have been for more than ten years. I run a two person office, A.E. Pennyback, Confidential Enquiries. I’m A. E. Pennyback; Albert Einstein Pennyback, but my friends just call me Al. My associate, right hand, and sometimes conscience, is Heather Bunche. We’ve been together since I opened shop. Mostly I just do leg work for the law firm of Holcombe, Stein, and Chang. My old army buddy, Quincy Chang, is one of the partners and he’s the one who talked his partners into putting me on retainer – ten thousand a month, and all I have to do is check backgrounds, and on occasion run down a client who fails to pay on time.
It was Friday, and business was slow. Heather was pecking away at her computer in the outer office, and I was playing a game of chess on the computer in my office.
I was just about to put the computer in check when the phone rang. I paused the game and picked up the receiver. “Yeah, Heather,” I said. “What is it?”
“Buster wants to talk to you,” she said. “Should I put him through, or are you occupied?” She knew I was just killing time, but it was a game she liked to play.
“Put him through,” I growled.
The phone clicked, and Buster’s gruff voice came over the line. “Hey, bro,” he said. “You busy, or do you have time for lunch?”
I looked at the gold Rolex on my wrist. It was five before eleven; a bit early for lunch for normal people, but when it comes to eating, Buster’s not normal.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess I could do an early lunch. The usual place?”
“No, I was thinking we’d do something different,” Buster said. “You remember that Vietnamese noodle restaurant out by Seven Corners, just off Arlington Boulevard you took me to last month?”
“Yeah, but I never remember the name of the shopping center. You want to eat Pho? Funny,” I said. “I didn’t think you were too impressed.”
“Oh, I liked it okay. I just wasn’t feeling too good that day. Besides, the name is strange the way you say it. Sounds like you’re saying ‘fur’ without the ‘R’.”
“Actually, I am,” I said. “That’s the way you say it in Vietnamese.”
“Well,” he said. “Funny sound or not, it’s pretty damned good. Sort of addictive in fact, and I think it cured my hangover.”
“It does help hangovers. I know guys who swear by it,” I said. “Okay, Pho it is. I can meet you there in about an hour, okay?”
“All right, I’ll see you in an hour.”
After he rang off, I shut my computer down and told Heather I was going out for an early lunch.
“I hope it’s not a liquid lunch,” she said.
“Hey, you know better than that. I don’t usually drink before six, and Buster is probably on duty.”
“I’ve never known that to stop him,” she said. “That man can find more excuses to drink than anyone I know, and he always talks you into joining him.”
Heather knows Buster almost as well as his wife, Alma does. For that matter, she knows me all too well. “I promise, mommy,” I said. “No drinking. We’re going to that Vietnamese place over off Arlington Boulevard for noodles. I’ll probably only have a lemon soda.”
She snorted and went back to her typing, dismissing me.
The noodle restaurant is located just off Arlington Boulevard, near Seven Corners, in the Willston Shopping Center. A modest place with tables down both walls and a few in the center, it is in the center of a line of shops, mainly selling Asian products to the large Vietnamese population that lives in the area. Over the years, ownership has changed hands a number of times, and each time, the name changes. Fortunately, the food remains excellent; large bowls of the steaming traditional Pho, Spring Rolls, and other Asian delicacies.
Buster had gotten there before me, and was sitting at a table near the door, facing the inside of the place. He knows how I hate to sit with my back to an outside door, so he always takes the seat that allows me to sit so I can see the door.
I walked over and took the seat opposite him.
“You must really be hungry,” I said. “You’re not usually on time for anything.”
“I wasn’t doing much at the precinct, so after I called you, I decided to come on over and get started lubricating my stomach,” he said. He had a large bottle of “Beer 33,” the traditional Vietnamese beer familiar to generations of Vietnam War veterans, sitting in front of him. The bottle was half empty, and so was the glass in front of him.
“Good thing, the noodles will soak up the beer,” I said. “Your captain might not like having you come back on duty smelling like booze and weaving.”
“Hell, I’ve only had this one. ‘Sides, if I let you talk me into eating the same as last time, I’ll need it soak up the peppers. The damn things near ate through my stomach,” he said. “It burned my ass for two days every time I took a dump.”
I laughed. Unlike me, Buster didn’t much care for spicy food. As far as I’m concerned, the pepper is the best part of the meal. “Okay,” I said. “Today, you can skip the peppers.”
“Naw, I might as well go the whole route. I’ve already prepped my stomach.”
The waitress, a tiny Vietnamese girl who looked not much more than fourteen, came over to take our orders.
“What’ll it be today?” She spoke English without a trace of an accent. Probably born right here in Virginia, and unlike her parents, had managed to avoid an accent.
“What would you like to try?” I asked Buster.
“You’re the expert,” he said. “You decide.”
“Okay,” I said, and then to the girl. “Two large specials; and I’d like a nuoc da chanh.”
“Hey, your Vietnamese is pretty good,” she said. “Where’d you learn it?”
“I picked it up here and there,” I said. She didn’t need to know my background. Hell, even Buster didn’t know everything about me. “It’s a beautiful language, but I don’t get much opportunity to practice.”
“Not bad for just picking it up,” she said. “You want the lime juice with sparkling water or plain?”
“Plain will be fine.” The Vietnamese drink, nuoc da chanh, is concentrated lime juice mixed with water and served over ice. Next to the coffee with concentrated sweet milk, it’s the best thing with noodles.
“Okay,” she said. “I’ll bring your drinks. The Pho will take a few minutes.” She turned to Buster. “Would you like another beer?”
“No, I’m fine,” he said.
She went back to the bar in the back, made my drink and brought it, then went back to the kitchen to put our orders in.
I took a sip of the lime, letting it slide slowly down my throat.
“Okay, Buster,” I said. “You have something else on your mind besides eating. As much as you like eating, it’s not like you to pick a place like this.”
He played around with his glass, looking down at the table. For a long moment he was silent. When he finally looked up at me, he had a worried look on his brown face. “Yeah,” he said. “I do have something I want to talk to you about.”
“Well, spill it. What’s so important that you’d subject yourself to food you don’t really like? And, don’t try to tell me you’ve become addicted to Vietnamese noodles. I saw your face the last time. You looked like someone had served you dog meat.”
“Hell, man, give me a break. That was my first time, and the tripe took a little gettin’ use to,” he said. “I ain’t never eaten that stuff before. Have to admit, though, it wasn’t half bad. It kinda grows on you.”
“Okay, I’ll believe you for now. What do you want to talk about?”
“Last week, Alma and me went up to West Virginia for the weekend,” he said. “I didn’t really want to, but she wanted to look for some antiques, and wouldn’t take no for an answer.” He played with the glass again. “I ain’t too hot about being up there in cracker country. Some of them white boys up there don’t cotton too much to black folks, and they got a lot of crazy militia types runnin’ around.”
“Did you run into any?”
“I ain’t sure,” he said. “We were driving up this back country road, and I think I might have seen two dudes in cammies knife another guy. We were too far away to get a good look, but I swear that’s what it looked like.”
“What did you do?”
“What the fuck you think? I turned the car around and got the hell out of there. Them dudes had what looked like hunting rifles, and they was takin’ them off their shoulders when I split.”
“Did they shoot at you?”
“Naw, I got around the curve ‘fore they could, and didn’t let up off the gas until I got down to the town.”
“I take it you reported it to the local authorities?”
“Local authority,” he said. “Damn town only has one sheriff. Dude named Lum Kellum. Looks like he stepped out of Deliverance. He took my statement and said he’d look into it.”
“So, that’s about all you could do. You’re a DC cop with no jurisdiction or responsibility for what happens in another state. I’m sure he’ll take care of it.”
“That’s just the problem,” Buster said. “Dude was nervous when I told him where I saw the incident. I don’t think he’s gonna do jack shit.”
“Nothing you can do about that, Buster,” I said. “Hell, you have enough homicides in the District to keep you busy. Why are you worrying about a crime in West Virginia?”
“I know, you’re right, but it just bugs the hell out of me. Dude gets iced in broad daylight, and the perps just walk,” he said. “Plus, Alma’s still shook up about it, and with her being pregnant and all, it ain’t good for her to be upset.”
“Alma’s expecting? You never said anything about this before,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “She’s four months along. I been meaning to tell you. Just hadn’t had the chance.”
“Well, congratulations dad. Is it a boy or girl?”
“Don’t know,” he said. “Alma won’t do the sonogram. Say’s if God meant us to know what the baby was ‘fore it was born, He’d of put a window in a woman’s belly. That woman is so damn hardheaded about some things.”
“She has a point. Something to be said for the mystery of birth and all that.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Long’s it’s got all its parts in the right place and comes out healthy, I don’t really care.”
Just then, the waitress brought our noodles. We mixed in the greens and bean sprouts that came in a separate plate and ate in silence. Buster dove in with gusto; even including a couple of the fiery little peppers.
I had another lime drink, and Buster ordered another beer after we’d finished our noodles.
“Well, what’d you think?”
“Not bad,” he said. “I really do like them things. We have to come here more often. Maybe next time, we can bring the girls. Sandra likes Asian food, right?”
Sandra is Sandra Winter, the lady in my life. I hadn’t dated much after my wife and son were killed in an auto accident. Sandra, a teacher at one of Washington’s inner city schools, had been involved in a case I investigated, and you might say we were sort of thrown together. We’d almost been killed by the perp in that case, and the relationship just sort of developed after that. She and Alma Mayweather had hit it off right away and when Sandra wasn’t at school or with me, she usually hung out with Alma.
“Yeah, Sandra likes all kinds of Asian food,” I said. “What about Alma?”
“Since she got pregnant, she eats all kinds of strange stuff,” he said. “This would be right up her alley.”
“Okay, then. I’ll check with Sandra and let you know.”
“Sandra and Alma are goin’ shopping for baby clothes this weekend,” he said. “Maybe we could meet them here after.”
“Sandra knows about Alma’s pregnancy?”
“Yeah,” he said with a frown. “Hell, I think Alma told her ‘fore she even told me. You know how women can be. Always keepin’ secrets from us.”
“I know that all too well,” I said. “I’m going to have a little heart to heart talk with Sandra.” I was a bit put out that she hadn’t told me.
“I’d go careful on that if I was you,” Buster said. “We ain’t got the secret code for some things. Better to let it lie.”
Maybe I would, then again, maybe I wouldn’t.
We promised to call and arrange the weekend and Buster left, steady even after two beers. I finished my lime drink and went back to the office.

Chapter Two

Sandra came to my place out in Maryland, an old farm just off River Road west of Potomac Village, and I cooked a simple dinner which we ate on my back porch.
I took Buster’s advice and didn’t mention Alma’s pregnancy as we ate. After finishing dinner, we put the dirty dishes in the sink, poured two glasses of red wine and went back outside.
As we sat side by side with our legs hanging over the edge of the porch, I leaned into her. “I had lunch with Buster today,” I said.
“I know. Alma told me.”
“We were thinking of taking the two of you to the same place tomorrow,” I said.
“That would be nice,” she said. “It would have to be a late lunch, though.”
“Yeah, I understand you and Alma are going shopping.”
“Yes, we thought we’d do a little Saturday morning shopping,” she said.
“For baby clothes, right?”
Maybe it was the tone of my voice; a bit tight; or the slight stiffness in my posture as I glanced around at her. She frowned and put her hand on my arm.
“Look, sweetheart,” she said. “I know you’re a bit upset with me for keeping the news from you.”
“I’m not upset,” I protested. “Well, maybe a little. I’m more disappointed, though. I thought we were going to be open with each other.”
“We are. I am,” she said. “I don’t hide anything about myself from you, and I’m convinced that except for some of your military exploits, you tell me everything. But, this wasn’t about me, and I just felt it should be up to Alma who she told and when. I’m sorry. I guess I should have told you.”
She had a point. It was Alma’s business, and I had to admit, in the same circumstances I would probably have done the same. “You’re right,” I said. “You did the right thing, and I was just being an old curmudgeon. I guess, I’ve got to get use to this relationship thing. I’m sorry if I seemed a little testy.”
“Al, baby, you don’t have anything to apologize for. Whether you know it or not, I’m actually pleased you felt that way. That means you care, and that’s all that matters.”
“So,” I said. “You’re not miffed at me?”
“I could tell you that I’m not,” she said, and a sly look crossed her face. “But, I think I’d rather show you that I’m not.”
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”
She put her wine glass down on the porch and stood. “Why don’t you give me about ten minutes and come join me in your bedroom, and I’ll show you.” She walked away, a little exaggerated wiggle in her hips. I like watching her walk. She has the body of an athlete, slim and fit, with curves in all the right places and not an ounce of excess anywhere. She had recently cut her blonde hair so it clung to the nape of her long neck and framed her oval face, setting off her eyes. She was beautiful and knew it, but didn’t flaunt it – except on occasions like the present moment when we were alone.
After she disappeared through the door, I looked at my watch, giving her fifteen minutes, and then I put my own glass down and followed her.
She was true to her word. She showed me that she wasn’t angry with me at all.

Chapter Three

Sandra and I got up early on Saturday morning, showered together, went for a run in the woods, and then returned for another shower.
I fixed a big breakfast of crisp bacon, hash browns, and pancakes. We ate on the back porch, washing the food down with mango juice and freshly brewed Colombian coffee.
Sandra offered to help with the dishes, but I shooed her out for her shopping expedition with Alma. We made plans to meet at the Vietnamese restaurant at noon. She said she’d let Buster know, so I wouldn’t have to call him.
When she’d gone, I washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen. With four hours to kill, I decided to go out back to the barn where I kept a set of free weights and a heavy bag to do an hour of taekwondo exercises. An hour of kicking and punching the bag, followed by drills and a few sets of bench presses got me sweaty as hell, so I took a third shower.
I put on a pair of tan chinos, a golf shirt, tan socks and my brown loafers, went back to the kitchen and poured myself another cup of coffee and went out on the back porch to enjoy the fresh breeze blowing in from the woods behind my house and the nutty aroma of the coffee.
At ten, I went out, fired up the Brown Bomber, my 1974 Volkswagen that was still running after more decades than a car ought to run, and headed for Arlington Boulevard. I arrived at the Willston Center at about ten forty. The others hadn’t arrived, but I didn’t expect them to be on time. When women shop, in my experience, it’s naïve to expect them to rush. As for Buster, he’s a crackerjack cop, but when he’s off duty, time loses its relevance.
I let the young waitress know that there’d be three other people arriving around noon and that we’d want four specials, spring rolls, and an order of goi cuon, little vegetable rolls wrapped in rice paper. I got us a table in back near the kitchen, and ordered a Beer 33.
I was about halfway through with the beer when Buster came in. He came over and sat down.
“Hey, bro,” he said, pointing at the beer. “A little early for you, ain’t it?”
“It’s never too early on the weekend,” I said. “Want to join me?”
“Might as well. Alma and Sandra ain’t likely to get here on time. Man, them women can spend more time in stores than a bank robber in a vault. Matter of fact, bank robbers can hit ten banks before they get tired of shopping.”
The waitress came over and took Buster’s order, and I asked for another. Guys I knew in the army who’d served in Vietnam said they swore the Vietnamese put formaldehyde in the ‘33’ to age it quicker, and that it gave you one hell of a headache. They got addicted to it anyway, because most of the American beer the army shipped over had rust on the cans by the time it got there, and with 3.2 percent alcohol content, tasted like watery piss anyway. The stuff the Vietnamese were exporting to the U.S. didn’t have any contaminants; it had to pass FDA and Agriculture inspection; and it didn’t taste half bad. It never gave me headaches any worse than I got from drinking American beer, and tasted a lot better with noodles.
We sipped our drinks in silence, Buster occasionally looking at his watch.
“Stop fretting,” I said. “They’ll get here sooner or later.”
“I know,” he said. “But, I like to eat on time.”
“Hell, you like to eat any time.”
“You got that right,” he said, and laughed, that booming laughter of his, that caused the few other patrons to glance at us suspiciously.
“Hey, don’t scare the customers,” I said. “They might think you’re drunk.”
He nodded and smiled. Just then, his phone rang. He took it out, looked at the screen, then flipped it open. “Mayweather here,” he said. “What’s up captain?”
As he listened, his face contorted, first in disbelief, then in a mixture of anger and pain. “Wha-, what do you mean? They were what? No, that can’t be,” he said. “Yeah, I know, okay, sorry. You know where I am, right? Yeah, I’ll wait here until you get here.”
He broke the connection and sat there looking down at his unfinished beer. I began to get a cold feeling in the pit of my stomach. The look on his face; the fact that he’d gotten the call from his supervisor; it all brought to mind the first time I saw him, when he came to my door with two uniformed officers to tell me that my Sarah and Ethan had been senselessly slaughtered along with several of Ethan’s classmates by a drunken truck driver who’d run a light.
I took a deep breath, so my voice wouldn’t betray the emotions that were raging through me. “What’s up?” I asked.
He looked at me, sadness and anger in his eyes. “It’s Alma,” he said quietly. “She’s been kidnapped. Sandra was taken too.”
Now, it was my turn to feel anger.

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