"Dreams die hard."
"They really do."
"You'd have made a fine Minnie."
"You think so?"
He smiled. "Lucky Mickey."
"My aunt Lilly didn't think so. She shot me."
"Ah, gee, I wouldn't take it personal," said the waitress. "Everybody's family's screwed up these days." She continued on her rounds.
From the jukebox, a mournful Garth Brooks followed Alan Jackson, and the brims of all the Stetsons at the bar dipped as though in sad commiseration. When the Dixie Chicks followed Brooks, the Stetsons bobbed happily.
Noah had finished half the beer, straight from the bottle, when a slab of beef-marinated in hair oil and spicy cologne, wearing black jeans and a LOVE is THE ANSWER T-shirt-slipped into the booth, across the table from him. "Do you have a death wish?"
"Are you planning to grant it?" Noah asked.
"Not me. I'm a pacifist." A meticulously detailed tattoo of a rattlesnake twined around the pacifist's right arm, its fangs bared on the back of his hand, its eyes bright with hatred. "But you ought to realize that running surveillance on a man as powerful as Congressman Sharmer is substantially stupid."
"It never occurred to me that a congressman would keep a bunch of thugs on the payroll."
"Who else would he keep on the payroll?"
"I guess I'm not in Kansas anymore."
"Hell, Dorothy, where you are, they shoot little dogs like Toto for sport. And girls like you are stomped flat if you don't stay out of the way."
"The country's Founding Fathers would be so proud."
The stranger's eyes, previously as empty as a sociopath's heart, filled with suspicion. "What're you-some political nut? I thought you were just a sad-ass gumshoe grubbing a few bucks by peeping in people's bedrooms."
"I need more than a few right now. How much did your Navigator cost?" Noah asked.
"You couldn't afford one."
"I've got good credit."
The pacifist laughed knowingly. When the waitress approached, he waved her away. Then he produced a small waxy bag and dropped it on the table.
Noah drew comfort from the beer.
Repeatedly clenching and relaxing his right hand, as though he were troubled by joint stiffness after long hours of punching babies and nuns, the pacifist said, "The congressman isn't unreasonable. By taking his wife as a client, you declared that you were his enemy. But he's such a good man, he wants to make you his friend."
"What a Christian."
"Let's not start name-calling." Each time the politician's man flexed his fist, the fanged mouth widened on the tattoo snake. "At least take a look at his peace offering."
The bag was folded and sealed. Noah peeled back the tape, opened the flap, and half extracted a wad of hundred-dollar bills.
"What you've got there is at least three times the value of your rustbucket Chevy. Plus the cost of the camera you left on the front seat."
"Still not the price of a Navigator," Noah observed.
"We're not negotiating, Sherlock."
"I don't see the strings."
"There's only one. You wait a few days, then you tell the wife you followed the congressman all over, but the only time he ever slung his willy out of his pants was when he needed to take a leak."
"What about when he was screwing the country?"
"You don't sound like a guy who wants to be friends."
"I've never been much good at relationships . . . but I'm willing to try."
"I'm sure glad to hear that. Frankly, I've been worried about you. In the movies, private eyes are always so incorruptible, they'd rather have their teeth kicked out than betray a client."
"I never go to the movies."
Pointing to the small bag as Noah tucked the cash into it once more, the pacifist said, "Don't you realize what that is?"
"I mean the bag. It's an airsickness bag." His grin faded. "What- you never saw one before?"
"I never travel."
"The congressman has a nice sense of humor."
"lie's hysterical." Noah shoved the bag into a pants pocket.
"He's saying money's nothing but vomit to him."
"He's quite the philosopher."
"You know what he's got that's better than money?"
"Certainly not wit."
"Power. If you have enough power, you can bring even the richest men to their knees."
"Who said that originally? Thomas Jefferson? Abe Lincoln?"
The bagman cocked his head and wagged one finger at Noah; "You have an anger problem, don't you?"
"Absolutely. I don't have enough of it anymore."
"What you need is to join the Circle of Friends."
"Sounds like Quakers."
"It's an organization the congressman founded. That's where he made a name for himself, before politics-helping troubled youth, turning their lives around."
"I'm thirty-three," Noah said.
"The Circle serves all age groups now. It really works. You learn there may be a million questions in life but only one answer-"
"Which you're wearing," Noah guessed, pointing at the guy's
LOVE IS THE ANSWER T-shirt.
"Love yourself, love your brothers and sisters, love nature."
"This kind of thing always starts with 'love yourself.' "
"It has to. You can't love others until you love yourself. I was sixteen when I joined the Circle, seven years ago. A wickedly messed-up kid. Selling drugs, doing drugs, violent just for the thrill of it, mixed up in a dead-end gang. But I got turned around."
"Now you're in a gang with a future."
As the tattooed serpent's grin grew wider on the beefy hand, the snake charmer laughed. "I like you, Farrel."
"You might not approve of the congressman's methods, but he's got a vision for this country that could bring us all together."
"The end justifies the means, huh?"
"See, there's that anger again."
Noah finished his beer. "Guys like you and the congressman used to hide behind Jesus. Now it's psychology and self-esteem."
"Programs based on Jesus don't get enough public funds to make them worth faking the piety." He slid out of the booth and rose to his feet. "You wouldn't do something stupid like take the money and then not deliver, would you? You're really going to shaft his wife?"
Noah shrugged. "I never liked her anyway."
"She's a juiceless bitch, isn't she?"
"Dry as a cracker."
"But she sure does give the man major class and respectability. Now you go out there and do the right thing, okay?"
Noah raised his eyebrows. "What? You mean . . . you want me to give this bag of money to the cops and press charges against the congressman?"
This time, the pacifist didn't smile. "Guess I should have said do the smart thing."
"Just clarifying," Noah assured him.
"You could clarify yourself right into a casket
With the coils of his soul exposed for all to see, the bagman, sans bag, swaggered toward the front of the tavern.
On their barstools and chairs, the cowboys turned, and with their glares they herded him toward the door. If they had been genuine riders of the purple sage instead of computer-networking specialists or real-estate salesmen, one of them might have whupped his ass just as a matter of principle.
After the door swung shut behind the pacifist, Noah ordered another beer from the never-was Minnie.
When she returned with a dew-beaded bottle of Dos Equis, the waitress said, "Was that guy a stoolie or something?"
"And you're a cop."
"Used to be. Is it that obvious?"
"Yeah. And you're wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Plainclothes cops like Hawaiian shirts, 'cause you can hide a gun under them."
"Well," he lied, "I'm not hiding anything under this one except a yellowed undershirt I should've thrown away five years ago." "My dad liked Hawaiian shirts."
"Your dad's a cop?"
"Till they killed him."
"Sorry to hear that."
"I'm Francene, named after the ZZ Top song."
"Why do a lot of cops from back then like ZZ Top?" he wondered.
"Maybe it was an antidote to all that crap the Eagles sang."
He smiled. "I think you've got something there, Francene." "My shift's over at eleven."
"You're a temptation," he admitted. "But I'm married." Glancing at his hands, seeing no rings, she said, "Married to what?"
"Now that's a hard question."
"Maybe not so hard if you're honest with yourself." Noah had been so taken with her body and her beauty that until now he hadn't seen the kindness in her eyes. "Could be self-pity," he said, naming his bride. "Not you," she disagreed, as though she knew him well. "Anger's more like it."
"What's the name of this bar-Firewater and Philosophy?" "After you listen to country music all day, every day, you start seeing everyone as a three-minute story."
Sincerely, he said, "Damn, you would have been a funny Minnie." "You're probably just like my dad. You have this kind of pride. Honor, he called it. But these days, honor is for suckers, and that makes you angry."
He stared up at her, searching for a reply and finding none. In addition to her kindness, he had become aware of a melancholy in her that he couldn't bear to see. "That guy over there's signaling for a waitress."
She continued to hold Noah's gaze as she said, "Well, if you ever get divorced, you know where I work."
He watched her walk away. Then between long swallows, he studied his beer as though it meant something.
Later, when he had only an empty bottle to study, Noah left Francene a tip larger than the total of his two-beer check.
Outside, an upwash of urban glow overlaid a yellow stain on the blackness of the lower sky. High above, unsullied, hung a polished-silver moon. In the deep pure black above the lunar curve, a few stars looked clean, so far from Earth.
He walked eastward, through the warm gusts of wind stirred by traffic, alert for any indication that he was under surveillance. No one followed him, not even at a distance.
Evidently the congressman's battalions no longer found him to be of even the slightest interest. His apparent cowardice and the alacrity with which he had betrayed his client confirmed for them that he was, by the current definition, a good citizen.
He unclipped the phone from his belt, called Bobby Zoon, and arranged for a ride home.
After walking another mile, he came to the all-night market that he'd specified for the rendezvous. Bobby's Honda was parked next to a collection bin for Salvation Army thrift shops.
When Noah got into the front passenger's seat, Bobby-twenty, skinny, with a scraggly chin beard and the slightly vacant look of a long-term Ecstasy user-was behind the steering wheel, picking his nose.
Noah grimaced. "You're disgusting."
"What?" Bobby asked, genuinely surprised by the insult, even though his index finger was still wedged in his right nostril.
"At least I didn't catch you playing with yourself. Let's get out of here."
"That was cool back there," Bobby said as he started the engine. "Absolutely arctic."
"Cool? You idiot, I liked that car."
"Your Chevy? It was a piece of crap."
"Yeah, but it was my piece of crap."
"Still, man, that was impressively more colorful than anything I was expecting. We got more than we needed."
"Yeah," Noah acknowledged without enthusiasm.
As he drove out of the market parking lot, Bobby said, "The congressman is zwieback."
"Toast done twice."
"Where do you get this stuff?"
"What stuff?" Bobby asked.
"This zwieback crap."
"I'm always working on a screenplay in my head. In film school, they teach you everything's material, and this sure is."
"Hell is spending eternity as the hero in a Bobby Zoon flick."
With an earnestness that could be achieved only by a boy-man with a wispy goatee and the conviction that movies are life, Bobby said, "You're not the hero. My part's the male lead. You're in the Sandra Bullock role."
DOWN THROUGH THE HIGH FOREST to lower terrain, from night-kissed ridges into night-smothered valleys, out of the trees into a broad planted field, the motherless boy hurries. He follows the crop rows to a rail fence.
He is amazed to be alive. He doesn't dare to hope that he has lost his pursuers. They are out there, still searching, cunning and indefatigable.
The fence, old and in need of repair, clatters as he climbs across it. When he drops to the lane beyond, he crouches motionless until he is sure that the noise has drawn no one's attention.
Previously scattered clouds, as woolly as sheep, have been herded together around the shepherd moon.
In this darker night, several structures loom, all humble and yet mysterious. A barn, a stable, outbuildings. With haste, he passes among them.
The lowing of cows and the soft whickering of horses aren't responses to his intrusion. These sounds are as natural a part of the night as the musky smell of animals and the not altogether unpleasant scent of straw-riddled manure.
Beyond the hard-packed barnyard earth lies a recently mown lawn. A concrete birdbath. Beds of roses. An abandoned bicycle on its side. A grape arbor is entwined with vines, clothed with leaves, hung with fruit.
Through the tunnel of the arbor, and then across more grass, he approaches the farmhouse. At the back porch, brick steps lead up to a weathered plank floor. He creaks and scrapes to the door, which opens for him.