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I tried to put Mulkern or Paulson or Vurnan with this and it didn’t fit. Mulkern, the house liberal, would never publicly stand behind something like this. But Mulkern, the pragmatist, would never take a public stand in favor of the gangs either. He’d simply take a vacation the week the bill came to floor.

“When’s it coming to floor?” I asked.

“Next Monday, the third of July.”

“There’s nothing else coming up you can think of?”

“Not really, no. They got a mandatory seven bill for child molesters will probably sail through.”

I knew about that one. Seven years mandatory prison time for anyone convicted of child molestation. No parole possibility. The only problem I had with it was that it wasn’t called the mandatory life bill, and that there wasn’t a provision that ensured that those convicted would be forced to enter mainstream population, and get back a little of what they gave.

Again Richie said, “Why the interest, Patrick?”

I considered Sterling Mulkern’s message: Talk to Richie Colgan. Sell out. For the briefest moment, I considered telling Richie about it. Teach Mulkern to ask me to help him soothe his ruffled feathers. But I knew Richie would have no choice but to put it in his next column, in bold print, and professionally speaking, crossing Mulkern like that would be the same as cutting my wrists in a bathtub.

“Working on a case,” I told Richie. “Very hush-hush at the moment.”

“Tell me about it sometime,” he said.

“Sometime.”

“Good enough.” Richie doesn’t press me and I don’t press him. We accept the word no from each other, which is one reason for the friendship. He said, “How’s your partner?”

“Still mouthwatering.”

“Still not coming across for you?” He chuckled.

“She’s married,” I said.

“Don’t matter. You’ve had married before. Must drive you nuts, Patrick, a beautiful woman like that around you every day, and nary a single desire to touch your dick in her whole luscious being. Damn, but that’s got to hurt.” He laughed.

Richie’s under the impression that he’s a real hoot sometimes.

I said, “Yeah, well, I got to run.” Something moved again in the black pocket of the schoolyard. “How about a couple of beers soon?”

“Bring Angie?” I thought I could hear him panting.

“I’ll see if she’s in the mood.”

“Deal. I’ll send over a few file reports on those bills.”

“Gracias.”

He hung up and I sat back and looked through the slit in the curtains. I was familiar with the shadows now, and I could see a large shape sitting within them. Animal, vegetable, or mineral, I couldn’t tell, but something was there. I thought about calling Bubba; he was good for times like these when you weren’t sure what you were walking into. But he’d called me from a bar. Not a good sign. Even if I could track him down, he’d just want to kill the trouble, not investigate it. Bubba has to be used sparingly, with great care. Like nitro.

I decided to press Harold into service.

Harold is a six-foot stuffed panda bear that I won at the Marshfield Fair a few years back. I tried to give him to Angie at the time; I’d won him for her, after all. But she gave me that look she’d give me if I lit up a cigarette during sex, the withering one. Why she didn’t want a six-foot stuffed panda in bright yellow rubber shorts adorning her apartment is beyond me, but since I couldn’t find a trash barrel big enough to take him, I welcomed him into my home.

I dragged Harold from the bedroom into the dark kitchen and sat him in the chair by the window. The shade was drawn, and on my way out, I flicked on the light. If someone was watching me from the shadows, Harold should pass as me. Although my ears are smaller.

I crept through the back of the house, took my Ithaca from behind the door, and went down the back stairs. The only thing better than an automag for the total firearms incompetent is an Ithaca .12 gauge shotgun with a pistol grip. If you can’t hit your target with that, you’re legally blind.

I stepped out into my backyard, wondering if possibly there were two of them. One for the front, one for the back. But that seemed as unlikely as there being one of them in the first place. Paranoia had to be checked.

I hopped a few fences until I got to the avenue, slipped the Ithaca under my blue trench coat. I crossed the intersection and walked past the church on the south side. A road runs behind the church and the school, and I took that north. I passed a few people I knew along the way, gave curt nods, keeping my coat closed with one hand; have gun, will offend the neighbors.

I slipped into the back of the schoolyard, soundless in my Avia high-tops, and pressed close against the wall until I reached the first corner. I was at the edge of the E and he was ten feet away, around another corner, in the shadows. I considered how to approach it. I thought of just walking up on him, fast, but people tend to die that way. I thought of crawling along the ground like they used to on Rat Patrol, but I wasn’t even positive anyone was there, and if I crawled up on a cat or two kids in a lip lock, I wouldn’t be able to show my face for a month.

My decision was made for me.

It wasn’t a cat and it wasn’t teen lovers. It was a man and he was holding an Uzi. He stepped out from the corner in front of me with the ugly weapon pointed at my sternum, and I forgot how to breathe.

He was standing in darkness and wearing a dark blue baseball cap like they wear in the navy, with gold leafs embroidered on the brim, and gold writing of some sort on the front. I couldn’t make out what it said, or maybe I was just too scared to concentrate.

He wore black wraparound sunglasses. Not the best thing to see properly when you wanted to shoot someone in the dark, but with that gun at this range, Ray Charles could put me in the grave.

He wore black clothes over black skin and that’s about all I could tell about him.

I started to mention that this neighborhood wasn’t known for its courtesy toward its darker neighbors after sunset when something fast and hard hit my mouth, and something else, equally hard, hit my temple, and just before I lost consciousness, I remember thinking: Harold the Panda doesn’t fool ‘em like he used to.

SIX

While I slept the sleep of idiots, the Hero came to visit. He was dressed in his uniform, carrying a child under each arm. His face was covered with soot, and smoke rolled off his shoulders. The two children were crying, but the Hero was laughing. He looked at me and laughed. And laughed. The laugh turned into a howl just before brown smoke began pouring from his mouth, and I woke up.

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