ELEVEN ‑ INSPECTOR MORANNE

 

 

Senator Pillhauser sucked on his pipe, then blew out an enormous cloud of bluish smoke and hid behind it as he carefully picked his words. As the smoke cleared he studied Inspector Moranne, and was slightly uncomfortable by the coolness the inspector showed in returning his stare.

     "Moranne," the Senator used his best voice, "I have a special assignment for you." He watched the blank face, looking for some weak point and finding none. "It's probably the biggest thing to go through BSI, and I want my best man on it."

     Moranne sat placidly. His small, wiry frame relaxed in the intentionally over‑stuffed chair that faced the Senator's desk in this plush office. His gold framed sunglasses hid blunt, brown eyes. The glasses seemed to be perched like a black butterfly on the bridge of his twisted nose. He smiled at Pillhauser's last sentence.

     "I want you to pick your best men, with you at the helm," Pillhauser continued. "You're more than likely going to be gone for quite a while."

     "Any idea how long?"

     "As long as it takes to burn this Gideon Holley," the Senator said. "I want him burned badly, Inspector."

     "I can do that," Moranne said, then smiled.

     "Yes, I know you can. But, let me make myself very clear. I don't want him to be a bother to me anymore." Pillhauser twisted his thick, soft hands together on the desk top, and Moranne's eyes narrowed behind the dark shades. "Don't get him for anything he can get out of, do you understand?"

     "I understand you completely, Senator," Moranne said. "As of this minute, Gideon Holley has ceased to be your problem."

     "That's it!" Pillhauser said. "That's what I need out there, Moranne!"

     "Yes, sir." The inspector smiled again. "Is that all?"

     "Yes," the Senator said. "Yes, that should just about do it."

     "Very well," Moranne rose from the chair and made his way to the doorway.

     "Inspector," Pillhauser almost shouted, "I do believe the hounds have the scent?"

     "You can count on it," Moranne said as he disappeared through the door.

 

 

Inspector Moranne was truly a bloodhound. Once on a case he never let up until the object of his chase had been devastated. He had been a flatfoot policeman for fifteen years before being promoted to the detective division. It was there he first began to shine. He'd shone so brightly, in fact, that the FBI had snatched him out of the hands of the division before he'd been there three years. Moranne, it seemed, simply picked up speed once on his way until he was unstoppable. Almost exactly two years before he had this conversation in the Senator's office, he'd left the FBI for a lucrative position in the Bureau of Subversive Investigations.

     Pillhauser had promised him complete control over the BSI's Criminal Division at triple his FBI salary. Moranne was no fool. He'd signed on immediately, and the Senator had kept his word.

     The problem for Moranne was that for these last two years, he'd felt like a flatfoot again. Keeping tabs on student radicals held about as much fascination for him as watching golf on television. Never had he seen such boring people.

     "Hell," he told one of his men, "they don't even screw with imagination."

    Two years of babysitting a bunch of big‑talk radicals who did nothing more daring in private than masturbate with the curtains open, saving all their escapades for the public eye, had left Moranne with an itch for something unusual. Gideon Holley was it.

     "Now," he said to himself as he poured himself a drink in his own office, going over the sparse files on Gideon, "now, the chase might get interesting."

     Moranne thought Pillhauser's concept of Gideon Holley being a Russian spy was idiotic. This wasn't surprising. Moranne thought Everett Pillhauser was an idiot. The inspector did believe, however, that Gideon was a dangerous man.

     This was a man, Moranne told himself, who never hesitated using violence, or coercing others to do so, yet he always played down his own role. He was devious and smart and, from the time Moranne was assigned to the case, as far as he was concerned, Gideon Holley was as good as dead.

     "Yes," Moranne said to his empty office, "this should be a good one."

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TWELVE ‑ ON THE ROAD

 

 

Road film sparkled on his windshield in the early, cold sunset, and became a blinding glare with each new turn to the West. He drove in unconscious motions as his hands deftly controlled the wheel. Eyes alert, ears hearing sounds and passing them along to the proper recipients, each action bypassing the thinking part of Gideon Holley's brain.

     The thinking part of Gideon Holley's brain was drowning in questions without answers.

     Light snow fell unnoticed as the van moved through rich crop and cattle lands, tight communities and small towns divided only by Interstate 35. Lands tended by communities of Polish, Swedish, and German Americans who loved their homes and their small towns. These lines of immigrant families had been unbroken until the Vietnam war began snatching their children away like the demonic spirits that haunted their collective European nightmares.

     Gideon spent that first day driving leisurely and feeling sorry for himself. He stopped at a small market just as the sun set, and checked his empty cabinets for supplies before going inside. Still numb from the unexpected changes in his life, he wandered from aisle to aisle, trying to bring back order by thinking of his immediate needs. He fought the glaze that covered his thoughts, and used his life‑long love of camping to assemble a mental list of necessities. He found a few fresh vegetables and dropped them into the little cart with the rest of his supplies. A grey- haired woman pulled them to her one at a time and inspected them before ringing them up.

     "You're lucky we still had some of them left," an old man behind the second counter said, leaning over to see what Gideon had bought. "A man brought them up from down south somewheres."

     "I guess I'm just a lucky guy," Gideon said.

     He found a state park late that evening, seventy miles north of Kansas City, and still open. The ranger told him he'd have the whole park to himself.

     "Good," Gideon said.

     "No tourists left this time of the year," the man said.

     "That's fine with me."

     "Just pick your spot."

     Gideon parked his van on a flat, gravel rectangle cut diagonally across a small plot marked 44B, and forced himself to move slowly, checking out his van before stepping into the sharp air. He tapped the gauge on his LP tank and, satisfied that he had plenty to heat the van during the trip, walked to the front of the van, sat on his warm hood for a while, and savored the silence. When the metal had cooled under him he rose, built a fire from existing wood at the neat campsite, and carefully cut the vegetables before dropping them into a water‑filled pot. He seasoned it liberally with salt and pepper, covered it, and set it aside until the fire had settled into a pool of glowing ash. Cold water from the small faucet still trickled to the ground and he leaned over, twisted it shut, then propped himself up on an elbow.

     "Damn," he said to himself, "I'm getting paid to do this."

     Gideon stared into the darkness beyond his fire and fought the confusion in his mind. He had never been an ambitious person, but wasn't plagued with self- doubt, either. He'd always been satisfied just to let things happen.

     As the stew cooked itself on the rocks, Gideon dropped his eyes to the silky ripples of fire that passed through the coals. He had found peace in campfires since childhood, and searched for it now.

     When the stew was settled on the coals, Gideon walked away across the hard, icy earth and vanished into the woods. He walked for over an hour, then used his fine sense of direction to bring himself back to the campfire. He gingerly lifted the pot off the rocks and inhaled the aroma from the stew.

     Gideon ate slowly, until he couldn't force another spoonful down, then got to his feet and walked again, this time in a different direction. After walking a good distance into the night, he came to a small clearing that sloped down to a little round pond. Overhead, luminous clouds had begun to gather. A line of scruffy trees were the only thing on the dark horizon. The thick, low clouds swirled like the mist had done in the familiar swamps of his youth, and promised him something he wanted desperately to see.

     Gideon had always wanted to see a real snow fall. He looked through a narrow opening in the heavy clouds and saw a forever black sky filled with bright, sparkling stars.

     "I'll be damned," he said, hating the sound of his own voice. He lay down on the ground and stared up at the sky, feeling his tensions ease as the cold seeped into his body. He lay there thinking, finding no answers but discovering how much less important the questions seemed.

     When numbness began to creep through him from the frozen earth he got to his feet and began to run. He ran around the small pond once, then again and again until his breath was raw from the crisp air. Finally, he slowed to a fast walk, each breath exhaled as a chuckle. Gideon had come to terms with himself.

     He thought of his new life as a radical and a lecturer, and thought of seeing America on somebody else's money. He slowed his pace and walked with heavy legs back to the clearing, then stopped and stared at the black pond for several seconds before returning to his van.

 

 

The morning of the second day he woke to find everything covered with snow. Crystals of ice had formed a delicate webbing on all the windows except the small pane of glass over the gas heater. The crystals had built over themselves during the night, layer upon layer and line upon line until the lace draped over each window was as different as a finger print, more beautiful than cut glass. The morning sun that burned its way through these panes turned his tiny home into a low budget cathedral.

     Gideon was from Graceville, Florida, not far from Tallahassee. He'd shivered only through stories of snow, anticipating a world of white while living in a world of permanent green. He hoped each year for a Christmas miracle, longed to see if each snowflake was unique, and dreamed of the taste of a big flake melting on his tongue.

     He had only seen the grey slush on the dirty streets and railroad rights‑of‑way outside St. Louis, Missouri, during an overnight train ride from one military base to another. When he looked out his van window at the transformed state park, he was out of his mind with excitement.

     "God, that's beautiful!" Gideon shouted, tossing off the quilts that covered him and leaping out of bed. He glanced briefly out each little window before flinging open the van door and jumping outside, barefoot and naked, into the snow. He took a deep breath, threw back his head, and laughed as the stinging cold engulfed him. Exhilarated, he let his vision caress the white snow, his senses running free as he bathed himself in the clean world he'd discovered.

     He spun around in a slow arc, taking it all in. When he had almost finished a full circle he saw a black panel truck parked less than one hundred feet away. He went back inside.

     Gideon dressed and straightened up the van while a pot of coffee perked on the gas hotplate, then ate a slow breakfast of cold cereal and hot coffee. He read through the pile of paperwork Carl Truman had given him. Carl had talked to Gideon about his schedule in the few days between his now famous takeover and his departure, but Gideon's mind had been in seclusion then. Now, as he leafed through the thick folders, he remembered little of their discussions.

     The paperwork gave him a tentative schedule of dates and events ‑ whom to meet and a summary of what each particular group at each particular campus was involved in. There were auto club maps and several credit cards with RADICAL SPEAKERS BUREAU stamped in official lettering on each. It created a sort of paradox. Carl had cashed the first voucher check for him the day before, and Gideon was amazed by how much money he had.

     "Remember to collect all your receipts, Gideon," Carl had said.

     "Sure."

     "You'll find a name on your itinerary for each campus. Just leave the receipts with them, and they'll forward them to the Bureau. Got it?"

     "Got it," it had been like a game, then. Now, alone in his van, things had taken on a more serious edge. He wished he'd listened closer as Carl rattled on.

     "The Bureau will send the receipts on to the Blackledge Foundation, and you'll have another check waiting for you at the next campus."

     Gideon had heard that part. He smiled, and thought how much better the world looked on that clean, white morning.

     He finished breakfast and put on his thick coat, took one last sip of coffee and opened the door to step once again into the snow. He slipped gloves on his hands as he crunched through the drifts, choosing a new direction for his morning walk.

     As Gideon disappeared through a white curtain of trees, a low groan reverberated off the thin, cold walls inside the black panel truck.

     "Oh, Jesus," a thin, dark man said. He ran numb fingers through his black hair. "There he goes again!"

     "Keep your voice down, Coletti!" Moranne hissed, his words turning to mist as they left his lips. He glanced over at his second man, Lobajeski, who lay curled up in the back corner of the panel truck, his gloved hands buried inside the pockets of a quilted jacket.

     "Your turn, Lobajeski," Moranne said.

     "Shit," it was this man's turn to groan.

     "You wanted this job."

     "Shit, anyway," the man reached back and swung open the back door of the panel truck, letting in air not much colder than that already inside. There was no heater except for the one in the dash, and they couldn't use it without running the engine. All three men were cold and miserable, and if it weren't for a strong chain of command, they would've been at each other's throats. Lobajeski stepped outside and closed the door.

     Moranne was humiliated, and it made the rage in him burn that much hotter; so much so that he alone in the panel truck was unaware of the cold. Here, in his first formal role as the true leader of Pillhauser's organization, he was being made a fool. He had assumed Holley would use his considerable money from the Blackledge Foundation to stay in fine motels along the way, but when Holley jumped naked out of his heated van and grinned at Moranne, the inspector recognized the challenge. Gideon had dropped the gauntlet by letting Moranne know he'd seen them, and knew he was being followed.

     "Holley must have a good network," Moranne thought bitterly as he flipped the scant few pages of the man's dossier.

     "Anything in there says he's the abominable fuckin' snowman?" Coletti said dryly.

     "God damn him," Moranne's intensity startled the other man. "He wouldn't have camped in this shitty snow unless he knew we didn't have any way to warm up this damned truck."

     "You think so, sir?"

     "I know it." The inspector watched the crazy pattern of heat dance from the exhaust stack in Gideon's van.

     "Bastard," he said. Lobajeski opened the door and stuck his head back in.

     "Where the hell did he go?"

     "That way," Coletti pointed in the direction Gideon had walked. Lobajeski rolled his shoulders inside the bulky jacket and stepped cautiously away from the truck. His eyes darted quickly from one side to another, then slowed to a full sweep. He smiled, satisfied that no one was watching, and trudged off on a line parallel to the route Gideon had taken, his footprints filling with black shadows under the morning sun.

 

 

Gideon relieved himself just inside the line of trees, then moved on. He had walked less than fifty yards when he met another set of deep footprints that drifted off in the general direction he'd intended to go. They were made by Sy Wallace, the park ranger who had tended this park for fifteen years. Every morning, just at daybreak, Ranger Wallace walked through the park and lovingly inspected the wilderness entrusted to him by the state.

     Gideon had no idea whose footprints they were, but he hesitated. He really wasn't in the mood to meet anyone out there, so he turned back toward his van. "I might as well make some miles," he said aloud. As he stepped back into the camping area he missed seeing the back of Lobajeski's quilted jacket as it disappeared through the trees.

     He opened the driver's side door and stepped inside his van, cranked the engine and turned on the heater. While the truck warmed up he went through the back, turning off the gas heater and securing his things. A look around satisfied him, and he returned to the driver's seat.

     "Here goes nothing," he said, and drove off.

     "Where the hell is Lobajeski?" Moranne was almost screaming as he watched Gideon drive away, tires spinning on the snow‑covered blacktop. Coletti peered hopelessly out into the white wilderness.

 

 

Lobajeski had been following the set of footprints through the snow for over an hour before he stepped silently around an outcropping of rock and came upon Sy Wallace, the park ranger. The man sat on his haunches, lighting a pipe.

     "Holy shit!" Lobajeski said.

     The ranger looked up into the thin, frantic face of Lobajeski, towering above him before a backdrop of Christmas card trees.

     "Lost?" Sy Wallace asked helpfully, puffing on his pipe.

 

 

 

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