by Scott Wolven
......It's the day before Christmas
here in New York City, snowing, and I'm sitting in my office
with a brightly wrapped package on my desk, but I'm thinking
about last summer. Last summer, on the first weekend of a stifling
Manhattan August, a letter arrived with an Idaho postmark Bonner's
Ferry, it read, and no return address. That Saturday morning,
I remember it was the only letter I received, the only piece
of mail at all, which was unusual. I was at my office on the
East Side a nice brownstone on East 64th, when the letter dropped
through the slot and fell onto the front hall carpet.
......You probably don't know
me, but you ve seen my work. Pick up The New York Times on any Sunday and flip to the wedding announcements. The last names are easily recognizable -- these are the people who own the bank where you just bounced a check and the factories that produce the car you're making payments on. These names own the companies that own the hospitals that you'll die in, they manufacture the pharmaceuticals that will pump through your veins in those last days and their grandchildren will be the face hidden by the surgical mask, the last pair of eyes you'll see when you depart this debt-ridden life for whatever awaits you after. And it's my job to make sure that those families keep their money, not give it away in divorce settlements.
......My name is Allen McKee.
People don't call me Al or Mac, they call me Allen, always. I
can't stand nicknames, I get enough of them in my work. Every
preppy fool who ever went to Kent or Choate is named Binky or
Kicky or Flippy. But their families keep me pretty well off,
so I can't complain too much. I do background checks, all very
discreet, on a wide variety of prospective husbands and potential
wives. It's always a surprise, what one family won't tolerate
in another. Once I dug up a great-great grandfather with a prison
record and that nixed the whole thing. Another time, I found
out that a ninety-acre piece of property in Florida had a lien
on it. Cancellation notices and deepest regrets went out that
very night, via FedEx. My fees are set by the wallets of my clients,
so I'm pulling down six figures a year, and that's when I'm lazy.
......It wasn't always this way.
Ten years ago, when I first got my PI license, I was a working
class stiff. Nothing really exciting, just chasing bored housewives
to hotels at noon and following drunk husbands back to homes
that weren't theirs. All photographic evidence stuff, very low
pay. I guess I chased justice cheap because I thought everybody
should be able to afford it.
......Then I solved a little
problem for a Princeton professor, one involving his daughter
and a videotape. I was discreet. He was grateful. Soon, one of
his friends came to me, then a friend of a friend. Within two
years I got a new office, and bought my brownstone a year later.
And I guess I'd become pretty refined myself. I'd stopped taking
walk-in business--strictly referral these days. My pistol had
dust on it, and I honestly couldn't remember the last time ran
my knuckles over somebody's teeth. As they say in this neighborhood,
I'm well-coppered. I went upstairs to read the letter.
......The letter was from Mark
Conrad, a man I'd met on a trip out West, three years earlier.
We--he and I, as I was in-between wives at the time, as I am
now-- were the only people on the deck of the ferry coming back
across Puget Sound into Seattle. I'd just finished taking some
pictures out on The Peninsula, pictures that would certainly
nix a certain New York wedding. The job was done and I was enjoying
myself. Mark and I watched a seal play in the wake of the ferry
and struck up a friendly conversation. I forget who spoke first.
We talked about the seal, about how wonderful Puget Sound was,
about how beautiful Seattle looked at night He was recently divorced
and had moved down to Grey's Harbor to work in the timber industry.
He called it his "backbreaking labor" cure for a broken
heart. He earned enough money loading big timber in Grey's Harbor
to start over in decent style. He was a talker, full of plans,
with an easy smile and a firm handshake. He was ruggedly handsome
and I didn't imagine he d be lonely in Seattle for long. He mentioned
his mother living in Arizona and when he mentioned his divorce,
his eyes were honest. Mark Conrad was that rare person, someone
who isn't always the hero of their own conversational stories.
......I was flying back to Manhattan
that night. I had six hours to kill before my flight and Mark
suggested we eat dinner together at this great Japanese restaurant
he knew. I started talking about being a detective, and he was
very impressed. He asked me all kinds of questions about the
PI business and I played it to the hilt, my ego overflowed. It
was all big fees, hot girls and glamor. I told him I was the
toast of Manhattan, that some of the biggest families relied
on me to settle their problems. He said he'd heard Saratoga in
August was beautiful and I told him to come along, we d go up
and put two dollars on some ponies. He admitted that he liked
to gamble. Maybe too much, he said with a look that told me he
......We had good conversation
and a fine meal. And then we lied to each other, that most common
of lies--please write, please call, please visit. If you're ever
in the city. I gave him my card and somewhere in first-class
air over South Dakota, I smiled when I thought of him dropping
my name, maybe showing my card to a potential date. They were
nice cards, slightly oversized on superior bright white Crane's
card stock from maybe the best papiere on the East side.
......I never thought of Mark
Conrad again, not for an instant, until the day the letter arrived.
I read three years of his life that day, all scrawled out on
cheap, unlined white paper. A story blacker than the ink it was
written with. My detective's mind filled in between the lines.
......Mark Conrad drifted into
Seattle with about twenty thousand dollars in his pocket and
his eye on a poker game. One of the foremen from Grey's Harbor
recommended him. Just give them my name, he said to Mark. They'll
let you sit in. Five grand just to pull up to the table. The
foreman gave him a number to call when he hit Seattle.
......Mark picked out an apartment
in the University district, so he could keep an eye on the coeds.
And he made his way to a restaurant, Knuckleheads, sort of a
Mexican diner just at the edge of the U-district. Mark Conrad
was a gambler, through and through. Late that night, the poker
players came to Knuckleheads and gave him a ride across town.
To a condo overlooking the ocean. He put down five grand to start
the night, and by the time the sun was straight in the sky for
the next noon, Mark had lost eighteen thousand, cash. He lost
and then he lost again. He lost it all. But the fire was stoked
and he wanted to keep going. Then the men he was playing against
told him. They recommended him. To another bar game, out in Spokane.
Where he'd have credit on their say-so. They read Mark like a
book. He asked where the bus station was and seven hours later,
he was getting off a Greyhound in Spokane. Addiction, especially
gambling addiction, gives everything a terrible urgency. It tells
the gambler that everything has to be now, the money and the
game, all now. And when that now is over, it forces the puppet
gambler onto a new now, a new need for money and a game. There's
no time to think of the future if now always demands immediate
attention. No time to think of losing.
......The bar in Spokane was
Benny's. There were five men in a back room playing poker and
Mark Conrad sat down with ten thousand dollars credit on the
word of some men he barely knew in Seattle. He played a hand,
and won. He played another hand, and won again. He could taste
it. Then he lost. It was a fluke, no big deal. He played again
and lost. By the next morning, he was seventeen thousand dollars
in debt to the house. It happened that fast. A terrible urgency.
......"Go talk to Earl,"
the dealer said after he cut Mark off. "I can't let you
......Earl was an older, fireplug
of a man, sitting at the bar, nursing a beer. He had a tan cowboy
......"I'm sorry to hear
you lost," Earl said.
......"I know," Mark
said. He sat on a bar stool next to Earl. "It's going to
take me a while to pay."
......Earl nodded. "Do you
have a job?" he asked.
......Mark shook his head. "No."
......"Well, hell, why don't
you come up to Bonner's Ferry and work it off? You said you did
some logging, right? I've got a sawmill up in the Idaho Panhandle,
right near Bonner's Ferry and we always need good men."
Earl looked at him.
......Earl and Mark took the
ride east into the Idaho Panhandle, to Bonner's Ferry. The Rockies
are big in that part of the country, bigger than Mark had ever
seen. The sawmill outside Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, was a fairly
large operation. Earl put Mark in charge of running the stationary
saw and let him sleep in a cabin with some of the other workers.
Mark collected no paycheck; the money went to Earl, in an attempt
to settle his debt. Seventeen thousand dollars is a lot of money
for a man who runs a saw all day.
Mark Conrad never fit in with the other workers at the sawmill.
The other men all stuck together, talked in low voices among
themselves and everything was silent when Mark entered the bunkhouse
at night. They all seemed to know each other and to know something
Mark didn't. It made him uneasy.
......That was until two new
workers showed up one Monday. Both men seemed different, even
friendly toward Mark. They asked him his name, and where he was
from. How long he d been working at the sawmill and where he'd
met Earl. They sat with him at lunch and worked hard on their
shift. They introduced themselves--Tony and Bill. Mark talked
to them in his own easy-going, friendly manner. The three of
them worked together for a week when things went bad.
......Earl called Mark over one
day, right after lunch.
Earl said. "Come here."
......Mark walked over to where
Earl and several other workers were sitting.
......"Sit down," Earl
said. "We want to talk to you about something."
......"What is it?"
Mark asked. A couple of trucks pulled out of the sawmill, on
their way to Canada with new boards.
......"Now, you know you
owe us a lot of money," Earl said.
......"I know," Mark
said. "But I'm working as hard as I can to pay it off."
......"We appreciate that,"
Earl said. The other workers nodded. "But we might need
it a little faster than the rate you're going at."
......Mark looked at him. "Earl,
for Christ's sake, you're the one that pays me. I can't do it
......"Now don't be so negative,"
Earl said. "We've got some extra work that needs taking
care of, and if you did it for us, we d be all square."
......"What extra work?"
......"That's the tricky
part," Earl said. "Very tricky."
......Mark nodded. "What
"Those two fellas who just came to work here, we don't like
......"Fire 'em," Mark
said. It didn't surprise him that the two new friendly men were
disliked by the others.
......"It's not that simple,"
Earl said, stroking his chin. "They're Federal agents."
......"What are you talking
about?" Mark asked. He looked over at the building that
housed the big circular saw, where Tony and Bill were working.
......"They were sent here
to spy on us. I think they're FBI, but I really can't tell."
Earl lit a cigarette. "They need to be gone out of here."
......"Well, what are you
talking about, precisely?" Mark asked.
......"I think you know,"
Earl said. "We're very private up here. We don't like the
government poking its nose in our business." He looked through
Mark and across the woodlot. "Let me tell you something.
The Posse Comitatus has a long reach."
......"You want me to kill
them," Mark said. He started to sweat and feel sick.
......"Now you're talking,"
......"No way," Mark
said. "You're crazy." He sat there shaking his head.
......"We're free men,"
Earl said. "Not subjects of some king in Washington."
......Earl picked up a cell phone
out of his bag and dialed. He spoke into the phone. "Hello?
Right, put her on." He waited, then spoke again. "Hi
Irma, how are you doing?"
......Mark looked up. Irma was
his mother's name. Earl kept on. "Would you like to speak
to Mark, he's right here. Hold on." He handed the phone
over to Mark.
...... "Mom?" Mark
said. His voice echoed from Idaho, to the cell satellite, to
the little house in Arizona that he knew so well.
......It was his mother s voice.
"Oh my god, Mark, what are you into now?"
......"Nothing, I'm working
in Idaho and. . . ." She cut him off.
......"They came here at
eight this morning. They strapped me naked to this chair and.
. . ." she trailed away and Earl grabbed the phone from
Mark and turned it off.
......"That's your mother,"
Earl said. "She's not doing too well today." He paused.
"So what's it going to be? I've got to call these boys in
Arizona back, and give them an answer. They get itchy."
Earl looked at him.
......Mark Conrad just sat there.
Finally, he nodded. Earl hit a button on the phone and spoke
into it. "Hi, it's me again. Right Just hang around the
house for a couple hours, don't do anything. I'll call you when
the tab gets settled on this end. Right." Earl hit a button
and the phone went dead.
......"I'll just have the
boys sit around until everything is set up here," he said,
looking at Mark.
......"What do you want
me to do?" Mark asked.
......"Accident would really
be the best thing," Earl said. "But if you have to,
fuck it, just shoot 'em."
......"What type of accident?"
......"After lunch, I'll
send both of them in to clean out the big saw housing. While
they're messing around with it, why don't you turn it on,"
......"I don't think I can
do that," Mark said.
......"Then take that rifle
that hangs in the back of the work truck and shoot 'em."
Earl paused, then continued. "I want two dead bodies in
about ten minutes, or you'll have a funeral to attend outside
of Phoenix. You pick."
......Mark Conrad did pick. He
walked across the sawdust filled woodlot and took the .30-06
Marlin out of the back of the work truck. He made sure it was
loaded and clicked the safety off. Tony and Bill never knew he
was coming. The roar of the saw muffled the gunshots and the
sawdust soaked up their blood.
......And Mark took one of their
wallets and looked in it. It contained a shiny US Marshal's badge.
Earl had been right.
......"What were they looking
for?" Mark asked Earl.
......"Us," Earl said.
"They were looking for us. The Posse Comitatus."
......"What is that?"
......"We believe in freedom
and freedom from government interference. And no taxes."
Earl took off his cowboy hat and scratched his head. "Some
people think we're outlaws, but we're the good guys." Mark
had managed to save his mother's life by taking two others.
......So they hid Mark on a sawmill
in Belt, Montana. The Posse is spread out all over the West.
And he labored there for almost a year, until the police came
for him. They held him in the Helena jail. A Posse lawyer came
to him in jail and told him to waive extradition. It meant he
could get it over with faster. No, the Posse lawyer told him,
he didn't know how the police had found him. But once he was
in Idaho to stand trial, the Posse would stand with him. Juries
in Idaho were sympathetic to this notion of government interference.
He'd get Mark off with a couple years in prison, nothing more.
......Mark did as he was told.
He waived the extradition and within two weeks, the Idaho State
Police sent a detail of two officers to drive him back to Idaho
to stand trial. They cuffed him in the back of the police cruiser
and took off toward the Rockies and Idaho. It was dusk when they
saw the sign for the state line. "Leaving Montana,"
a sign read and right after that, "Welcome to Idaho."
The Idaho State Police drove about twenty yards beyond the state
line, then pulled over. And in accordance with state law, they
took Mark Conrad out of the cruiser, to re-arrest him and read
him the Miranda rights on Idaho soil. The two officers and Mark
stood by the side of the road. It was quiet there in the Rockies.
......Suddenly, a pickup truck
came speeding down the road from Idaho, followed by another.
At a hundred feet from the police cruiser, the pickup truck slowed
and came to a stop. As the Idaho Staties reached for their guns,
two men stood up in the bed of the pickup truck with automatic
weapons and fired point blank. The bullets went through the cops
as if they were paper targets on the range. The whole thing lasted
a minute and the Posse put Mark in the back of a pickup and headed
up into the Idaho Panhandle. They'd managed to tie the murders
of four cops to one man, one innocent man. Mark had no choice
but to hide out with them.
......The letter ended saying
he could probably last out about another six months. Could I
please help him.
......I didn't do anything. I
didn't care. I mean, I'm safe, right? I'm making a good living,
I'm doing what I want. I didn't do a thing, and that's the worst
part of the whole story.
......So now it's the day before
Christmas and I've got this package on my desk, this package
that I found this morning on the steps leading up to my office,
that had left a bright red ring of blood on the snow around it.
......I don't have to open it.
My own business card is stapled right to the bow on top; it's
Mark Conrad's finger, or his hand, or his eye, his ear -- I don't
need to see it. They must have found my card on him, figured
correctly that he contacted me and they're sending me a message.
We can touch you in New York. The Posse Comitatus has a long
arm. Come out West and die. We'll kill you just like we killed
Mark Conrad. We'll make you never want to start your car again.
......The package is literally
bleeding onto my desk. I have a framed picture of Raymond Chandler
on the wall and I wonder what Marlowe would do. Marlowe wouldn't
have let him down to begin with. I know what the hell happened.
I didn't have to be there. The trail starts in Grey's Harbor:
they set him up right from jump-street. They took one look at
him, sized up his character and the way he operated and moved
him like a pawn from square one. And I didn't do anything. I
expect the picture of Chandler to turn itself toward the wall
at any minute. I deserve that and more.
......I look around the office
for the last time and head out into the snow. I hail a taxi and
get on my cell phone. Kennedy, I tell the driver. I call my bank
and have them transfer funds out to the American Express desk
at the airport in Seattle, to be held until I call for them.
I call a Madison Avenue lawyer friend of mine and ask him to
give me the rundown on gun law in Washington and Idaho--I'll
need to buy a weapon when I get out there. I call an airport
hotel in Seattle and book a room for a week.
......"Coming in for Christmas,"
the desk clerk asks me. "Yeah," I say. "Me and
Scrooge. We've got to mend our ways." I hope the Posse's
ready, because with the money I've got, I can buy a lot of bullets.
I'm sorry, Mark. I promise I won't lose my soul again.
Copyright (c) 2000 by Scott Wolven
Scott Wolven's stories have appeared in handheldcrime.com and Plots With Guns. He also has fiction forthcoming in Blue Murder. He'd also like to say "A very special thanks to Pacheco, and the editors. You're aces."
And head here for more Thrilling Detective Fiction!
Please direct comments on the above
story and inquiries about submissions to the fiction
editor, or check out this page.
"And I'll tell you right out that I'm a man who likes talking
to a man that likes to talk."
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