The Day of the Gun, Part IV
And now, for your reading pleasure, here are chapters 13 through 17 of The Day of the Gun.
Parkwood Cemetery dated from the Civil War era. In the old part of the field, the United Daughters of the Confederacy still tended to the graves of fallen Confederate soldiers. Each April 26, they placed miniature Confederate battle flags on the hallowed ground. In the newer part, row upon row of headstones stretched as far as the eye could see. They came in all shapes and sizes — small granite markers with names and dates; marble angels and cherubs; statues of children holding lambs; life-sized figurines of doughboys from the Great War; large mausoleums that held the bodies of prominent families all but forgotten by time. A wrought iron fence, mostly dilapidated, snaked through the rolling hills of the ancient cemetery. Benches were strategically placed to provide a respite for the weary of body and the faint of heart. Were it not for the vestiges of failing mortality littered about, it would have been an ideal place for a picnic or perhaps a romantic interlude. It may have served those purposes, anyway, judging by the beer cans, sandwich wrappers, and used condoms strewn around the grounds.
The place was enormous, forcing the caretaker to keep a map in his office. Loved ones who wanted to drop by and visit their dead relatives could spend the day searching around the nooks and crannies of the gently sloping landscape unless they knew where grandma lay or they found a map to point them in the right direction.
To make the scene even more complete, like something from a nineteenth century novel, dozens of large oak trees loomed over the Parkwood terrain. Spanish moss hung everywhere. The trees had been planted in the days when Sherman rode through the countryside on his destructive march to the sea while Joe Johnston and John Bell Hood threw whatever obstacles they could find in his path. The noise of the nearby interstate highway was the only concession to the hustle and bustle of a later century.
McLean shared his colleague’s pessimism about the site. “It’s like something out of a movie. Spooky. A thousand places to hide.”
“We can’t possibly cover it all.”
McLean nodded, looking up at the clear blue sky. “At least it’s not raining like it does when they show a graveside scene in the movies.”
Dave parked his hands on his hips and took in the scene. “Even so — damn. Just look at this. Maybe we should go to the church.”
McLean pointed to his earpiece. “Williams and McEnroe from the U.S. Marshals Service are there, just in case. Besides, I told you: Harris would never go to the church. He can’t risk putting himself in a closed-off space. It’s too easy to get trapped and taken down. Out here” — he swept his arm in a circle to indicate the wide expanse of the cemetery — “he can hide out and enjoy the advantage of surprise.”
“How do we find him then?”
McLean had already thought about it. “We don’t find him. He’ll find us. We stay with the widow, and he’ll have to make contact somehow.”
“Think he’s here now?”
McLean let his eyes travel around the graveyard. “Yeah. I would be.”
“Think he’s watching us?”
“I don’t know, but you’re creeping me out.”
Dave smiled. “Good. You’ve already creeped me out.”
As they spoke, a large black sedan appeared and wound its way along the road past the headstones and toward the two men. They stood in silence watching the progress of the huge monstrosity while it crept along the crumbling asphalt at glacial speed. Finally, after an eternity, it came to rest next to the Crown Victoria.
“Are you with the family?” a small man asked as he stepped from the passenger’s side of the sedan. He wore an all-black suit adorned with a red carnation in the lapel. His thinning gray hair was swept back from his forehead and kept in place with a generous helping of Vitalis, which glistened in the bright sunshine.
“No,” Dave said.
After an awkward pause, McLean felt compelled to offer up a word of explanation. “We’re friends of the family. We decided to skip the church service.”
The man nodded. “Ah,” he said, his curiosity apparently satisfied. “I’m Julian Michael,” he explained as he advanced on the two men with an outstretched hand.
The agents shook his hand and nodded.
Straightening and buttoning his suit coat, Julian Michael glanced at the tent. “The church service has just ended. My associate” — he swept his arm behind him to indicate the gentleman, dressed as his twin, alighting from the driver’s side of the car — “and I have come to ensure that all is ready for the graveside service.”
“We’ll stay out of your way,” McLean assured him.
Julian Michael examined the men for a moment, his head slightly tilted as though he could not quite understand their actions. “Well, then,” he said after a moment. “If you will excuse me, gentlemen?”
“Of course,” McLean said.
Michael and his associate advanced toward the tent. When they were out of earshot, Dave whispered, “he’s an odd fellow.”
“What do you expect from an undertaker?”
A glint of metal in the sun flashed through their peripheral vision. Both men responded instinctively, their training taking over from conscious thought. Without exchanging a word, they knelt, revolvers drawn, their eyes scanning the cemetery.
“What the hell was that?” Dave asked in a small voice.
McLean put a finger to his lips. Motioning with his pistol, he indicated that Dave should move to the left. When the big man crept around the side of the Crown Victoria, McLean moved to the right. His knee was on fire — vestiges of his football days.
The graveyard seemed unnaturally quiet, even for a place of peace. McLean felt his heart slamming itself its cage in an almost painful series of twitches. I’m getting to the age where a heart attack is not beyond the realm of possibility, he thought. Still, it wasn’t that painful. A heart attack might be in his future, but he was pretty sure he wasn’t having one now.
His joints cried out in agony as he duck-walked past a large tree, down a steep slope of ground, and behind a large headstone. Spanish moss tickled his neck; he reached up and tore it loose, allowing it to drop to the ground before he resumed his steady progress into the interior of the cemetery.
He faced the area where the flash of light had originated, but he saw nothing except a family of squirrels scurrying out of his way. One little fellow squawked angrily at this unwanted intrusion, but otherwise McLean saw no signs of life.
“The service just ended and they’re on their way over there,” Lewis McEnroe announced in McLean’s earpiece. “I’d say the ETA is 15 minutes.”
“Roger that,” McLean whispered in response.
Thirty yards away, Dave stood and shrugged. He had replaced his sidearm in the holster.
McLean stood and shrugged as well. False alarm, he seemed to say.
As the two men threaded their way through the graves to rejoin forces, Dave pointed toward the tent. “You think we creeped them out?” he asked, laughing.
Smiling, McLean glanced over to the tent. What he saw — or didn’t see — wiped the smile from his face and sent a crease through his brow. “Where’d they go?” he asked.
Dave stopped and examined the tent. The two undertakers — if that’s what they were — had disappeared. “Maybe they’re hiding from us,” he said, still smiling. “They prob’ly saw our guns and freaked.”
“Maybe,” McLean agreed as he jogged toward the tent, his revolver still in hand. “Or maybe they’re not what they seem.”
Dave fell in behind him as McLean danced around the headstones and up onto the roadway. They could see that the fellows were gone. Their sedan was still parked on the muddy embankment, but the men had faded from view.
Even Dave seemed worried. “What are you thinking?”
“McEnroe,” he said into his portable radio, “you and Williams need to get over here now. We may have company.”
“Roger that,” a voice boomed from McLean’s pocket. “Do you need back-up?”
Surveying the scene, the agent in charge had a bad feeling. The Gilleland family would arrive any minute, which meant that Harris might be lurking nearby. If these two unidentified undertakers were not what they seemed, it could spell trouble.
“That’s affirmative.” After a moment, he added, “McEnroe, do me a favor.”
“What’s that, agent McLean?”
The U.S. Marshals were always so formal, but McLean let it go. “Call Michael & Sons mortuary and see if they sent two men in black suits and red carnations over to Parkwood Cemetery to be on hand for the graveside service or if they went directly to the church. You’ll have to get the number from information.”
“I’ll have someone on it ASAP.”
“Now,” McLean said to his partner, “we’ll see what’s what.”
Seventy yards from the “Michael & Sons” tent, hidden behind a large crypt with the family name “Morris” carved on the front, Steve Harris, aka Kurt Martin, aka 8172483, crouched low to the ground, wincing. He had made a monumental mistake when he moved into position and carelessly allowed the sun to reflect off his AK-47 assault rifle.
He was slipping up in his old age, going soft from suburban living. He could not allow that to happen again. Too many mistakes would cost him his life.
“Thank you, God,” he whispered when he realized that McLean and his assistant had abandoned their search. “Thank you.”
He hung his head between his legs, almost vertically, waiting for the feeling of dizziness and nausea to pass. After half a minute, he sat up and felt his pulse returning to normal. Breathe, he told himself. Breathe.
As he peered around the side of the mausoleum, he spied two fellows retreating toward the tent. The shorter man — he resembled McLean, but Steve was not 100 percent certain it was his nemesis — had a fist-sized bald spot on the back of his head. Steve could hear the din of their voices, although the words were lost in the wind. They gestured wildly and even turned back toward the expanse of the cemetery for one heart-stopping moment before they jogged over to the grave site with their guns drawn.
He was aware that two other men had entered the cemetery, but he had been so preoccupied with the federal agents he had lost track of the new interlopers. Scanning left and right, he saw nothing, no movement of any kind save a gentle breeze rustling the tall grass surrounding the larger crypts. Were these black-suited fellows undertakers, guests of the Gilleland family, or — now, here was a sinister thought — associates of the Marciano clan?
Whoever they were, they probably had assumed, like the FBI and the U.S. Marshals, that Kurt Martin would contact Fran Gilleland at her husband’s funeral. What once had struck him as a master plan, a stroke of genius, now seemed obvious and, worse, dangerous.
He considered abandoning the scheme. Hadn’t he done enough to Frannie? Her husband was dead, whether she realized it or not, because of him. If Steve had run in another direction or confronted his attackers outside his own house, Jim might still be alive.
“Enough of that,” he whispered. His long-ago training had taught him that recriminations were best left to another time. When a man was in the field, he had urgent business to handle; if he played his cards right, he would have time to question his actions later.
As he contemplated his next move, Steve turned to his left. His eye was drawn to peripheral movement. A line of cars with headlamps illuminated entered the cemetery and snaked its way along the meandering roadway. A state patrolman on motorcycle, followed by a large black hearse, headed the procession. The hour of decision was at hand.
In the final analysis, he had little choice. If he abandoned his plan to contact Frannie, he was back to square one. He might boost another car and head off in a random direction, but that was a short-term solution to a long-term problem. He must resolve this affair or he would forever-after look over his shoulder, wondering when Marciano’s associates would make their move.
He could envision the scene. He would be walking along a crowded street in a large city of the Pacific Northwest — say, Seattle — enjoying his anonymity. Maybe he would enter a restaurant or check out books at the local library. He might even be searching for a job. The last thing on his mind would be his safety. Then, when he had relaxed his guard, a strange fellow wearing a black trenchcoat with a newspaper folded over his arm would sidle up behind him and, wordlessly, stuff a small-caliber handgun into his back. Before Steve could react, the revolver would discharge, its small explosion muted by a silencer, its muzzle flash hidden from view by the newspaper. Even before the crowd could react, the man would fade into the shadows, shielded from witnesses by his bland, indistinct features and his nondescript wardrobe. The man’s victim would crumple onto the sidewalk, his kidneys destroyed by the blast.
People had it all wrong. In movies and popular spy novels, the hero would disappear and never be seen or heard from again. That was far easier said than done. It took an elaborate series of steps to arrange a new identity. A Social Security Card, a driver’s license, credit cards, a work history, and other such identifying documents were hard to come by. Without them, he was a lost soul drifting on the outskirts of humanity. He had become a non-person.
Lord knows, it had been difficult enough to surrender Steve Harris for Kurt Martin. Without either identity, how could he say he was alive? Where would he go, and what would he do? Who would share his life or mourn his death?
In the end, Steve Harris made the only decision he could make. He stayed in the graveyard, clutching an AK-47 rifle, and inched his way among the headstones so he might encounter the one woman who still knew him for who he was — or what he had been.
When he was as close as he dared to venture, he settled behind a series of large headstones. To his left, a tall obelisk obscured his view of the scene, but he could hear the mumbling of the well-wishers as they greeted each other. One woman’s loud, shrill voice rose above the others, but eventually she moved along and no one else spoke so distinctly. Everyone else talked softly; their words were lost in a cacophonous thicket of whispers. Nonetheless, he detected a profound sadness that contrasted markedly with the deep, rich blue sky overhead.
Cars arrived in clumps, their occupants parking farther and farther away, past the tallest oaks, around a 45-degree right turn along the road. To Steve’s dismay, he realized it was possible for the mourners who parked around the block to glance through a diagonal line between the graves and take in an unusual sight. What would they think if they were to spy an unshaven, bleary-eyed man in wrinkled gray trousers and a soiled oxford cloth shirt crouched behind a grave marker with an automatic weapon in his hand?
Everyone was so crazy about terrorists these days. Since 9/11, Americans seemed obsessed with the idea that Osama bin Laden might be loitering about in every Super Wal-Mart they passed. He slid low to the ground and soon he was supine, squinting as he gazed up into the bright afternoon sun. He rested his rifle beside him in the tall grass.
“Thank you for coming,” a voice intoned. He did not use a microphone, but the minister understood the necessity and art of projecting his voice. His deep, rich, mellifluous baritone wafted across the field and reached Steve with a clarity he had not thought possible. The sound was both commanding and soothing at the same time.
“We have come to lay our friend, James Gilleland, to rest.”
Steve rubbed his bloodshot eyes. Frannie was nearby, and what must she be thinking in this hour of her darkest night? He tried to shut it out of his heart, but he could not. If Jim’s death felt like a knife tearing through Steve’s chest, what must it feel like to her?
“For all who knew this gentle, loving soul, James Gilleland was a man of infinite patience, of supreme kindness, of a warmth and character that are often absent from this cold, cruel world.”
Steve jerked his head to the left. Something had moved between the graves; he was sure of it. Rolling onto his left hip, taking care to move quietly but with dispatch, he raised the AK-47, aiming at the spot where the movement had occurred, and rested the handle on the ground. Planting his elbow, he lowered his head to the sight and waited, consciously controlling his breathing so he would not hyperventilate.
“When a young man meets a tragic fate, we who bear witness must remember the good things in his life, the things that make him live in our memory without sorrow or despair.”
He saw it again. A man crouched low and darted between two headstones. He carried a pistol in his hand, its barrel pointed upward. As Steve watched, the fellow came ever closer to the grave site. Soon, he would be close enough to peer into the clump of grass and see the AK-47 pointed at him.
“In my father’s house there are many mansions.”
Steve froze. What should he do? Vicky had frequently castigated him for his passivity, his inability to stand up for himself and make decisions. She always said he was so besieged by doubt it was a wonder he could get up in the mornings. He explained to her that what she called passivity was really just a cautious, deliberate, thoughtful approach to life. He stood up when it counted, but he never took a risk merely for the sake of taking a risk.
Now he struggled with indecision once again. This time, the stakes were far higher than they had been in his life with Vicky. If he pulled the trigger at this moment, he would alter the future for himself and for many others forever after. But if he did nothing, would not the consequences also be severe?
It was the classic thinking man’s dilemma: To act or not to act? To be or not to be?
“This young man walks through those mansions. He is one with the Lord, and surely we can take comfort in that. We must walk this world — a world of doubt and fear — but he is with his Lord, and he shares not our doubt and fear.”
Think, dammit, think. Was this guy FBI, a mobster, or something altogether different?
Whatever he was, he was inching closer. Steve had to act soon, or the element of surprise would be lost, and he would be at the mercy of whatever forces were arrayed against him.
Before he could choose his course of action, a cold steel gun barrel pressed against his temple. A menacing voice, low and gruff, whispered in his ear. “Release the trigger, and put down the rifle,” it said.
Steve’s body tensed; his heart hammered in his chest.
“Don’t even think about it,” the voice advised. It was excellent advice.
“Please join me in reciting the twenty-third psalm.”
Steve shut his eyes. It was the oldest trick in the book, a veritable cliché. One accomplice created a diversion while the other man slipped into position. Steve had been so focused on his prey he had not realized that the identities of victor and vanquished were still open to question.
“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”
He released the gun, and his breath. The audible sigh met with approval as his body went limp. “Good, good. Smart move.”
“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures.”
The unseen assailant gripped Steve by the neck and jammed the gun barrel into his back. “Now, very carefully, get to your feet. Slowly, slowly. Stay out of sight.”
“He leadeth me beside still waters.”
“No need to alarm these good folks.”
Grunting, he struggled to his knees; he set one foot on solid ground, then the other. As they rose, he glanced back at the funeral service.
“He restoreth my soul.”
The man must have read his mind. “Don’t worry. Nobody’s looking over here.” He pushed Steve with the gun barrel. “Let’s keep it that way. If you do as I say, nobody else gets hurt. Understood?”
“He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.”
“Good. Now, walk.”
Behind him, he heard the sound of his assailant grunting as he hoisted the AK-47 from the ground and slung the strap over his shoulder.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me. They rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
They moved past the Morris family crypt toward the back of the cemetery, away from the glut of people surrounding the tent. A gentle breeze swept through the graveyard, chilling the captive as he stumbled through the grass.
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.”
After a moment, the first man Steve had seen stepped from between two graves and joined them. He was a short, sinewy fellow dressed in a dark suit adorned with a red carnation jutting from the lapel. In many ways, he resembled an undertaker.
“Thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.”
“Good work,” the undertaker-looking-man stage-whispered to his confederate.
“Textbook,” the other fellow said from behind Steve’s back. “He didn’t even put up a fight.”
“Jesus, is that an AKM?”
A low whistle. “Shit. You can do some damage with that. Where’d he get it?”
“I dunno.” The man grunted as he handed the rifle to his companion. “Here. You carry it. The sumbitch’s heavy.”
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”
“What now?” the undertaker asked as he threw the rifle strap across his neck. The response of the man holding the pistol must have been a facial expression — a wink, a nod, a raised eyebrow, or the like — because Steve waited for an answer that never came. What would happen to him now?
“And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. Amen.”
They hustled him through the high grass until the minister’s voice was just a distant muffle, hardly audible. If they were going to kill him free from prying eyes and questioning looks, they would soon be in position.
“This should do it,” the unseen man announced when they had entered a clearing.
The undertaker reached into his pocket.
Steve heard the cock of a pistol behind him. Could the bullet be far behind? He closed his eyes, wondering how long he would have to wait for the inevitable. Would he know when the bullet tore into his brain or would it just be nothing but blackness, the darkness of the void?
Maybe it would be a blessing. He would finally be at peace. He had not known much peace since Michael and Vicky had died.
And then a strange thing happened. In fact, it was so strange that Steve could never have imagined it. Another voice, one far behind him, spoke up.
“Drop your weapons,” the voice said.
Judging by the look of bewilderment plastered on his face, the undertaker was as surprised as Steve was by this unexpected turn of events. His mouth dropped open. It was so unintentionally comical that for one brief moment Steve almost laughed in his face.
“Paul Hewson, Lakeland Police Department,” the voice announced. “You men are under arrest.”
The man standing next to Steve spoke up, and the menace in his voice was amazing to hear. “Under arrest? What for, officer?” The way he said the word “officer,” dripping with venom and sarcasm, was almost as frightening as the way he shoved the gun into Steve’s back. It was a voice devoid of empathy and compassion.
“Well, it seems to me,” the policeman, Hewson, said, “that you gentlemen were about to harm a material witness in a murder investigation.”
Steve started to turn, but his captor pushed the gun barrel harder against his back. “Don’t look at me,” he snapped.
In a softer voice, the man spoke to Officer Hewson. “Whatever do you mean? We would not hurt our associate here. Would we?”
The undertaker grinned. “No way.”
“We were just having a friendly little chat.”
Hewson was skeptical. “In that case, unhand him, drop your weapons, and lie down on the ground. You can chat later, after your arraignment.”
The masks were off now. The chief assailant dropped any pretense of joviality and offered his assessment of Hewson and the Lakeland Police Department. “You’re in way over your head, officer. You’ve got no idea what you’re up against. You’re just a two-bit cop in a podunk town.”
“Son,” a world-weary voice replied, “I been doin’ this for longer than you’ve been alive. I think I know what I’m doin.’ Maybe it’s you who don’t know what he’s up against. Now, don’t make me tell you again: Drop your weapons and lie down on the ground.”
“Or what? You’re gonna shoot me?”
“Maybe. I’ve done it before.”
“There’s two of us,” the ringleader said, stating the obvious. “I only see one of you. Are you sure you can handle both of us?”
The policeman never hesitated. “My partners Fazio and Marlowe are also in the cemetery. Don’t try anything stupid. I won’t be pushed.” For the first time he sounded scared, as though his façade had cracked under the strain.
The assailant sensed the change. “I don’t see them here. It’s just you — all alone. One against two.” He sounded almost gleeful. “And you can’t shoot us both before we get you.” He laughed a short, gruff bark that his partner in crime soon joined.
A single shot rang out, resounding through the field like a cannon fired across the bow of a ship. But it was no warning shot. The fellow immediately loosened his grip from Steve’s neck and crumpled to the earth.
The undertaker’s eyes went wide. He dropped his revolver and the smirk from his face. Without another word, he raised his hands skyward.
“Why aren’t you laughing now?” Hewson asked. “Not so funny, is it?”
“Jesus Christ, you just shot him down like a dog, with no warning,” the undertaker complained. He squinted at his friend’s glassy eyes and absolute stillness. “I think he’s dead.”
Hewson nodded. “When I shoot, I shoot to kill. That sounds like a TV show, don’t’cha think?”
“The police ain’t supposed to do that. There’s gotta be a warning shot.”
“Nah. You watch too much TV, friend.”
“The police can’t just shoot people down like dogs. It’s against the law. We’ve got constitutional rights.”
Hewson chuckled. It was amazing how insistent a criminal became about the sanctity of the Constitution, especially criminal procedure, when he was faced with a denial of his civil rights and liberties, to say nothing of his life. “Don’t you understand that out here in the jungle I am the law?”
Steve frowned. He wasn’t sure if this policeman was putting on an act of supreme bravado for the benefit of a still-dangerous, would-be assassin or if the man was genuinely crazy. In any case, it was good not to have a loaded pistol jammed into his back.
“This ain’t right,” the undertaker whined.
The policeman sounded annoyed. “I tell you what. You don’t tell me how to be a cop, and I won’t tell you how to be a thug. How would that be?” When the man did not respond, Hewson spoke again. “Now, like I said, get on the ground before I put you on the ground like I did your partner there.”
The undertaker muttered under his breath, but he did as he had been ordered.
“If you don’t like the way I’ve handled the case, tell it to the judge.”
Steve turned to find an old, tired-looking balding man with a pistol in one hand and a badge in the other. He wore a rumpled brown suit. They considered each other for a moment before the officer spoke.
“Mr. Martin, I presume. Kurt Martin?”
Steve stood immobile. He had not yet identified this man’s motives or mental condition. Until he knew more, silence was the best policy.
“Believe it or not, I recognize you from your driver’s license photo. Not everybody looks like Bela Lugosi in those things.”
Steve looked at him blankly.
“At least that was your latest name — Kurt Martin — before the shooting on Friday. Am I right about that?”
Steve nodded, glancing down at the gun lying at his feet. A desperate thought raced through his mind.
Hewson caught the look and understood the implications. “Now, see here, Martin, don’t make it worse. You’ve avoided getting shot so far. Let’s not make the situation worse.”
Steve looked at him. Yes, this man would shoot him if it came to that. Some men didn’t have it in them to pull the trigger — they were all bluster and buffoonery. This man was different, and Steve had a dead man lying at his feet to prove it.
“Good,” Hewson said as he let out his breath. “We’ve had enough shooting for one day.”
No sooner had the words left his mouth than the shooting began.