The office was small and there was too much of Gibbs in it. At fifty-one he was still a big man, bigger than back in prison, where the chow hadn’t done him any favors. He’d gotten the afternoon off from the sawmill for the interview and in lieu of proper meeting clothes he’d worn a pair of pilled double-knit slacks and a cotton shirt that gapped at belt level. In the chair across from the Big Brother woman he must have looked like a cross between an errant golf pro and a couch.
Her name was Mrs. Remington and she was squat and round and Gibbs figured the job was a second calling after kids. He could picture her behind an apron. Indeed, her office felt more like a home than an office, the room likely a former sun parlor, with a picture window opening out on a railed porch where Humboldt’s spring was still sorting itself out.
“Is that one of those computers I keep hearing about?” he asked. It was 1983 and the world was changing in ways Gibbs didn’t completely understand. Not that he had understood the world before.
“Yes it is,” she said. “Now tell me why Big Brother interests you.” In her chair Mrs. Remington bobbed with encouragement, a happy chortle of a voice.
“They didn’t have this kind of thing when I was a boy. Or if they did, nobody told me about it. I could have used a little extra direction.” He smiled even though it was probably better he didn’t. He was missing a tooth. And he figured his horn-rims didn’t help matters either.
Mrs. Remington gave him time to think and continue.
“These days sometimes a father isn’t even around,” Gibbs said. “It gets to me.” He knew he could never fill the holes in his life. But a lonely kid—there was something appropriate about that. “I know working at the sawmill isn’t the ritziest. But it’s about hard work and stick-to-it-iveness and that’s a good message to instill to a boy.” The computer gave him the creeps. Humboldt was Gibbs’s first square shot at regular life and he’d taken it. He was worth something and he had paper to prove it, an insurance policy, courtesy of the sawmill, also a tiny shareholder’s stake. Even so he feared there was a computer back in Jersey that could fuck it all up.
“I have time to devote to this,” he said. He couldn’t gauge how he was faring. So he added, “It’s something I feel I need to do.”
Mrs. Remington then rattled off what the program would entail. Most of the boys were ages thirteen through fifteen. Good kids. They just needed a steadying influence was all.
“What about your employment history before the mill?” She sat poised over the computer.
“Antique-replica business,” Gibbs said.
“I wasn’t aware there was such a field.”
“That was part of the problem.” He ran a smoothing hand over his hair. “Look, I’ll take any kid you got. The worst one of the bunch.”
After the interview he worried whether all this might scare up old bugaboos. He’d lately been keeping a convict’s fitful sleep.
“Regret can be its own jail,” Sheuplein offered at work the next morning. He was a ventriloquist’s dummy of a man, formerly a number himself, at a prison in Arizona. Their pasts were a shared secret.
“What bubblegum card you get that from?” Gibbs said.
A trio of geese dabbled on the millpond. Sheuplein tossed dried beans from his lunch bucket in their direction. The mill was a bald spot in the forest, a building with the same sprawling dimension of the state facilities back in Jersey, except the color of lemonade. The Pacific began only a few miles west, but the wooded hills blocked out any hint other than a film of May ground fog. At intervals the mill’s shift buzzer rang out like a wrong answer on a game show.
“I believe it was one of them TV movies of the week,” Sheuplein said. He had a tumble of silver hair elaborately combed over the top.
“My dreams have been spooking me,” Gibbs said. “Interrupting my circus rhythms. Always about some joker named Dirk.”
Sheuplein smiled. “Ever cross swords with a Dirk?”
“No. Mostly it was dicks.”
In the dream, Gibbs was running because of a fouled transaction unknown to him. He never got to see who this Dirk was, which was the most disturbing part.
Sheuplein tossed another handful of beans to the geese. The little man had boosted vehicles in his earlier life along with a ruinous streak of check kiting. “You ask me, you having some female trouble.”
Gibbs did enjoy the occasional company of women, even though he couldn’t quite relax around them. He lived on a few rented wooded acres in a flat-nosed trailer shaped like a ham box, scarcely bigger than a jailhouse crib. He liked it that way.
“Or perhaps the itch has come calling again.” Sheuplein nodded.
“It’s always calling,” Gibbs said. Lunch was a meat sandwich he’d devoured more for ballast than taste. “I don’t answer the phone.”
“You and me don’t fit into that anymore.” Dopers ran the tables now and Lord knew what else. The only relics Gibbs dealt in these days were his feelings.
“I signed up for that Big Brother deal.” He hadn’t heard either way, which maybe didn’t mean anything. The mill was offering a free afternoon off per week for participants.
Sheuplein spat. “Not a real afternoon off. You have to spend it with a kid.”
“Wouldn’t be just for the afternoon off.”
From a pole in the yard, the shift whistle indicated ten minutes remaining for lunch. During cutting season the mill operated around the dial. Before trucks, timber was transported from the field on a privately built railroad, an astonishing fact of capitalism to Gibbs.
Sheuplein turned from the pond. “A mistake to think us regular folks.”
“I used to have a kid brother,” Gibbs said. “Still probably do. I don’t know anymore.”
“Every family has a tale of woe.” Sheuplein often referred to a mother who’d gotten backed over in a parking lot.
“It’s not just about my brother,” Gibbs said. There was also a hazy feeling he’d come to recognize as charity.
On nights when Dirk got too close, Gibbs quit his trailer entirely and motored to the woods the mill owned, the recesses of old growth where logging vehicles had yet to reach. He had no idea what he was running from in his dream. He knew only the primal jangle of being pursued. But in the night woods, among sequoias old as Caesar, Gibbs felt untouchable. At first he’d hitch one end of a rope to the car bumper and the other to his belt to navigate the dark. Then he came to know the woods so well he no longer needed that. He often encountered deer gliding silently through the ferny undergrowth. He’d seen porcupines that looked like bear cubs; and once an actual bear, an upwind black that scuttled off after detecting him. He was a long way from Jersey, from anything he’d ever known.
It was early June, one of those nights, when he first saw the spider boys swinging from the upper canopy. He heard a rustle from the branches before spotting them. Then he saw two of them in harnesses. They were working wordlessly, a hundred feet up, swimming in air.
He stared at the suspended figures. He saw the third one then, a flashlight from someone who must have been straddling a branch. Gibbs thought they must be doing some new kind of camping up there and left them to it.
The boy’s name was Mondrick. A few days after Flag Day he got a call. Mrs. Remington wanted to know if he’d given any thought to the initial meeting.
“I was thinking of taking the young man agate hunting at Centerville beach,” Gibbs said.
The line whirred and clicked before she resumed. “I’m sure you’re aware Big Brother has a policy about the water.”
“Of course,” Gibbs said. “No swimming.” He had meant to mention that. It was so long since the interview, he’d given up hope.
“We’re always here,” Mrs. Remington said, “if you run into difficulties.” Not the most ringing endorsement, although she did mention in closing she was happy to have him aboard and wished Gibbs luck.
Mondrick was fourteen years old, chunky, with a large pumpkin head. Some color to him, too, perhaps a trace of Samoan. “We’re really going to look for rocks?” he said.
“It’s what you do with the rocks that matters,” Gibbs told him. From his pocket he withdrew a lizard he’d manufactured from a scavenged shard of agate. He’d carved scales on it and a serpentine body, based on a piece from the Zhou dynasty. In his glory days, he might have grifted fifty dollars for it.
Apart from a few stray beachcombers, they had the Pacific to themselves, the surf at a waning tide, to the east, dunes giving out into dairy bottoms. Cows grazed a mile off, as if two picture postcards had been smashed together.
“It looks old,” Mondrick said of the fantasy piece. He studied the lizard, breathing from his mouth. “You could sell this.”
“There you go,” Gibbs said. “Good man.”
A string of pelicans beat hastily beyond the breakers. Off at the horizon, the minuscule outline of a fishing boat tilting on earth’s edge.
“Is there anything you want to talk about?” Gibbs ventured. “Or you have any questions? About girls maybe or whatnot.”
Mondrick appeared mortified.
“It’s OK,” Gibbs said. “We have all summer.”
“Sometimes I shoot guns at my grandmaw’s farm.” The boy wore a watch cap. His mother had shaved off his hair. Big Brother had been his grandmother’s idea. “It’s mostly targets,” he said.
“That’s better than people.”
The kid bent, sifted a handful of sand.
“Mondrick—what sort of name is that?”
“I don’t know.” He shrugged, probably a burden in the schoolyard.
“You look more like a Mandrake to me. Incredible hypnotic powers. Used to be on the radio when I was your age.”
“Everybody just calls me Mondrick.” Despite nuttish skin, the boy’s eyebrows were blond, with unnerving blue eyes, as well; an all-American mutt.
“Mondrick it is,” Gibbs agreed. “Maybe we should check out that driftwood over there.”
The child stepped over a tuberous leaving of sea kelp.
Gibbs told the boy about the mill, his job. “I’m pretty sure you’d like it. Thanksgiving and Christmas they hand out turkeys and hams.”
Mondrick nodded at this information. “Why don’t you sell rocks?”
“Let’s just say I didn’t appreciate the people in that business.”
A number of other vehicles had pulled up. It was a Saturday, after all. There was still time before Mondrick’s mother would return.
Now Mondrick showed him his hand full of stones.
“Bingo,” said Gibbs. “You’re an official rock hound.” He had a pouch for keepers and added the kid’s handful to the total.
“What are we supposed to do now?” The boy glanced over his shoulder in the direction of the shoreline road, where his mother was due to reappear.
“Anything we want. This ain’t church.” A quartering wind was luffing in, not a bad day for a kite if Gibbs had thought of that.
Mondrick considered the surf rushing up the ramp of beach.
“I want to get gold shorts,” the boy said.
Gibbs squinted behind his lenses. “Is that some sort of catchphrase I should know about?”
“It’s from gym. The best athletes wear gold shorts in class.”
“What color are the shorts normally?”
Gibbs watched a couple of cavorting dogs ahead on the beach playing fetch with their owner. He understood a piece of what was up for grabs. Gold shorts might lend an identity the rest of school and adolescent society had not. Mondrick hoped to reinvent himself over the summer. The test in the fall involved push-ups and chin-ups, running and jumping—not a far cry from prison-yard calisthenics.
“I have to warn you my sporting days are over,” Gibbs said. “I don’t want to disappoint you.”
Mondrick peered up from his middle vantage. The fishing tub at the horizon had vanished, chasing halibut into the deeper Pacific. “You’re like an ox,” he said.
It was Tuesdays and Saturdays; inch by inch the kid was opening up. Mondrick wasn’t going to win any academic contests, and the same might go for the coveted shorts. Gibbs tied a rope to a tire for the boy to pull around the deserted high school track. Mondrick obliged until the retread’s whitewalls were ground down to cinders. It was clear nobody had ever taught him how to run properly. And he threw like a girl.
One Tuesday Gibbs arranged a row of pop bottles on a temporarily undrowned sinker log on the banks of the Eel River. Mondrick had a rimfire Colt pistol, a field gun designed more for plinking than game shooting. He smiled frequently now. He still wore his watch cap, dead summer and all.
The current moved seaward with a sluggish chop, a number of side pools marooned from the body of river, filled with the static green of absinthe. The kid had a thousand tests to gauge whether Gibbs was still on his side, that nothing had happened since the last visit.
“Why don’t you like guns?” he said.
Gibbs’s hands had been his preferred choice of weapon—something more personal about it. Only once had there been a gun, but he didn’t bring that up because he wanted to be a solid influence for the kid. “I don’t like tomatoes, either. Or women with mustaches. It’s nothing personal, little man.”
Mondrick flicked the gun’s safety on. They’d parked at the concrete footings of the bridge several hundred yards upbank, the bridge an arching staple holding two opposing sides of land together. “What’s the matter with tomatoes?”
“Too runny for my taste.”
The boy laughed, an unguarded bark going over the river and bouncing back. Everything smelled of water and sunshine. Out at the coastal road, a faint wash of traffic, like another river.
His horsey laugh stayed with Gibbs—that and a shrinking sense he was cheating Mondrick by not being on the up-and-up about himself, which he hadn’t expected to be part of the equation.
It was the middle of July when he saw the spider boys in the night woods again. He’d started bringing his binoculars along for his walks, just in case. But for several weeks they’d eluded him. And Gibbs had been unable to locate the specific tree they’d scaled.
There were two up there this time, their lantern in the branches. Through the binoculars, Gibbs saw a crude platform of planks was arranged in the crotch of two adjacent limbs. They wore harnesses with ropes attached. In the shadows thrown by the lantern they sometimes appeared to multiply in number, though the platform could scarcely hold the two. A pile of sacks plumped at one side. Gibbs thought the sacks were bedding.
Two smaller lights were illuminated. The spider boys had donned headlamps and were preparing to descend. They consulted harnesses and coils of rope, and then there was a pig squeal of pulleys as one went over the side. Gibbs didn’t wait around for the figure to touch ground.
“Let’s see those biceps,” Gibbs said. He and Mondrick were curbside, surrounded by the rest of the Saturday-night crowd at a vintage-auto cavalcade. Main was blocked off for the procession, the sidewalk throng assembled before a boxy facade of storefronts.
The boy hoisted the sleeve of his T-shirt.
“The size of an ostrich egg,” Gibbs pronounced.
Out on the street a green midfifties Chevy pickup rolled by, a hay bale perched in the back where a party of passengers tossed candy to the crowd. Kids just a bit younger than Mondrick flocked to collect the bounty.
“I used to own a Chrysler like that one over there.” Gibbs stretched an arm at an Airflow model from the late thirties. “Mine wasn’t in such good shape. And it wasn’t so old either.”
An orange Javelin wheeled up, engine revving like a raging gland. Gibbs had less than a month left of his Big Brother mentorship—the mill’s participation ended once the school year resumed.
Mondrick rubbed his nose with the heel of a palm. He was interested in the provenance of Gibbs’s ride, a scabby Willys jeep of unknown production date—to Gibbs’s credit, it wasn’t stolen. It still had its Montana tags.
“Why isn’t your car out there?”
“I don’t need to show it off,” Gibbs said.
“I won it in a poker game.” He glanced at Mondrick to gauge his reaction.
“I know what poker is.”
“It was a long time ago. You still had baby teeth when it happened.”
“You can tell me,” Mondrick insisted. “I won’t tell anybody.”
Above the ground-light of street lamps the sky was a darkening scrim, moon in the wings.
“What’s in it for me?” Gibbs said.
“Anything you want.” Mondrick thrust out a hand of moist stubby fingers to shake.
A Hillman Minx convertible toddled past and then Gibbs began. “Me and a few other gentlemen decided to wait out a snowstorm at a poker table. The last hand everybody believed I was bluffing and I wasn’t.” That he hadn’t pulled a firearm from his waistband before the cards fell was still a miracle.
“I’m not proud of it,” Gibbs said, though in truth he was. If luck had called his name before then, he’d never heard it. He could afford a more respectable ride—the clutch on the Willys stuck and the engine was balky on cold mornings. But it was his charm.
“Now you promised not to tell that to anybody.”
Mondrick peered up at Gibbs with newfound admiration.
“I think you’re forgetting something.” The air was tumid with exhaust, the chain of autos mounting a concluding run up the avenue. “Your end of the bargain.”
The boy steeled himself for the worst.
“Your hat,” Gibbs said, indicating the omnipresent watch cap. For weeks the top of the kid’s head had been a mystery. “Let me have the hat.”
Mondrick turned around in place before bringing a hand to his head. His hair was an uneven growth of bristles the same blond wheat as his eyebrows.
“That’s more like it,” Gibbs said. He rapped knuckles on the boy’s noggin. “A big head means superior intelligence. And how’s a girl supposed to fall in love with you if you never take your hat off?”
There was nothing wrong with him. He was a follower essentially. An army needed foot soldiers more than it did generals.
“I’ll show you what I think of this hat,” Gibbs said before swiveling around, hurling it high over the throng and the wall of storefronts, into the oblivion of a back alley.
The summer was fleeing toward fall. But there was still the county fair with pig races and rides and a tight bullring track for wagering on thoroughbreds, everywhere the noisome aroma of fried sugar and barbeque. Mondrick hadn’t replaced the watch cap. Under the carny lights, it was evident his mother had had another go with the shears.
“You got the right shape of head for the hairstyle,” Gibbs assured him. “Takes a certain man to pull it off. Here.” He fished the kid a sawbuck and told him to knock himself out.
Mondrick’s favorite booth was a pirate ship with masts for shinning, an area for bouncing, and an underdeck bulkhead to explore. He climbed the ropes to the high crow’s nest, a feat he couldn’t have managed at summer’s beginning. Gibbs and the boy dallied until after the last note from the bandstand, then waited behind the windscreen of the Willys for the lot to empty itself of cars and become a field once more. Mondrick worked at a caramel apple on a stick. He offered Gibbs a bite.
“Not worth losing the rest of my teeth over,” Gibbs said.
“Why didn’t you ever get them fixed? My grandmaw has fake ones.”
The fairgrounds in the distance were still lit up like a city they might be driving toward, as close as Gibbs would ever get to regular life, a fleeting summery taste. He pointed at his mouth. “Exhibit A. The niceties of prison dentistry.”
Mondrick’s head turned on a slow pivot. “You were in prison?”
Gibbs paused. He hadn’t meant to be so bald about it. He still wanted to be a positive example for the boy, but this corner of him wanted to have its say as well and he was tired of editing himself. Now he was afraid he’d given up too much and there was no going back.
“I could’ve told you sooner,” he said, “but you can understand why I don’t brag about that chapter of my life.” Gibbs glanced at the boy. “I wasn’t one of the true bad guys there.” He’d always drawn that internal distinction. “I can tell you stories about bad guys.” He realized he might have to, if only to convince the kid there was nothing to fear. He’d never killed anybody.
“My old cellmate, Hokanson. He slept in the upper bunk with a razor blade in his mouth.” Hokanson was from the other side of the country, then, from geography as unknown as the gases of Jupiter, his nightly stories an appealing cocktail of appetite and opportunity. There was gold yet in the Rockies. Every last redwood hadn’t been picked clean.
“One night I went to sleep and he was there,” Gibbs said. “Next morning he wasn’t.” Hokanson had crawled through a heating vent. From his detail in the prison barbershop he must have squirreled away enough pomade to grease his passageway, navigating the waste pipes, which let out into the Atlantic. “I believe he might have turned into a fish.”
Mondrick was speechless on his side of the front seat.
“That agate curio I showed you the first day we met—I used to try to pass them off as authentic pieces.” Gibbs could have fixed his smile. He had dental insurance. The gap was another memento from the poker game.
He tightened his grip on the steering wheel of the parked Willys. “My past returns to me in nightmares. I did my time but I can’t escape what I did. That’s the hell of it.”
“But you were different than that Hoke guy.”
“Yeah,” Gibbs said. At least he wanted to believe as much.
“Jesus forgives your sins.” Mondrick was no doubt parroting a common refrain. His grandmother was a churcher.
“Maybe. It’s me who has trouble swallowing it.”
“It’s OK,” the kid said.
“That means something from a stand-up gentleman such as yourself.”
Mondrick smiled, teeth regular as dice.
The Willys started with a rumble. “Everything copacetic? I’m trusting you not to tell on me.”
“Sure,” said Mondrick, staring ahead, not caring to ruin what they had any more than Gibbs.
The boy’s grandmother lived on a dome of pastureland large enough to keep horses. Near the crown of the hill was a barn of splintered wood. Gibbs found her there, a woman in overalls and knee boots. She had some years on him, but not many. She was in the middle of mucking out the stables.
Grandmaw proved more a talker than a listener. Her husband had run off with the town hussy. Mondrick spent the odd evening out here because you couldn’t count on his mother.
Gibbs attended the litany until he realized attending wasn’t completely required. From the crest of the hill he could see a laundry line of clouds hanging over Humboldt Bay. He wanted to tell her something about Mondrick she might not know. He’d accomplished something over the summer—if nothing else, the kid stood up straighter.
The other—and main—reason for the visit was for permission for an overnight camping trip with the boy to commemorate the end of summer and the mill’s participation in Big Brother.
Grandmaw’s approval scarcely interrupted her discourse.
“I believe your Mondrick is one of them late bloomers,” Gibbs said, still panning for a crumb of acknowledgment.
Grandmaw gazed at the lower sloping end of the field, the hillside dressed out with late-summer blooms of Queen Anne’s lace.
“It would have been easier if Francine just got the abortion.” The comment was plainspoken, without rancor. She was up to the task of mucking out a stable, but not being a second mother to the kid.
“What about his father?” Gibbs said. Mondrick never discussed him. He had a darker-skinned extract than the doughy face of the old lady, an unplumbed depth of history and genes.
“His father,” Grandmaw said. “He was nothing more than a sperm donor.”
Gibbs wanted Mondrick to experience the graybeards of the old-growth forest firsthand. Several times during the hike into the forest Mondrick asked how late they’d stay up. “That’s entirely up to you,” Gibbs promised.
For dinner he fried a scrambled egg and potato and sliced wiener concoction known familiarly in the clink as Frankfurters George. After the meal, Mondrick gave Gibbs a neck lanyard, woven and braided and knotted with a clasp on the end attached to a whistle.
Gibbs couldn’t recall the last time he’d gotten a gift. “The black and yellow reminds me of fireflies from where I grew up. It’s got that going for it.” He trilled a smattering of blasts.
“How about a round of evening target practice?” he suggested. He leaned over, lanyard dangling, and gave the boy a thankful thump on the yoke of his shoulders. “Go on and get your pistol. You packed damn near enough ammo to bring down Santa Ana’s army.”
They didn’t set out on their walk until after midnight. Gibbs didn’t need a flashlight. He wanted the boy to appreciate the cunning design of the spider boys’ industry for himself. It was an achievement, like an exhibit in a museum.
“Can you smell it?” he said after a half mile, the odor thicker than the tannic exhalations of redwood, oily, much like coffee.
Mondrick sniffed like he didn’t know what he was sniffing for.
“Up there,” Gibbs indicated.
The kid peered up blindly. There wasn’t anybody in the branches. There’d been no sign of the spider boys for weeks.
“You don’t know it, but you’re looking at someone’s gold mine.”
The kid smelled of onions from dinner, his hair coming back in blond filings just in time for the school year. “I don’t see anything.”
“Sometimes I come here to walk off bad dreams. Stumbled on it purely by chance.”
The platform was havering into view—a splotch where limb fused with trunk. The dope garden was hidden in plain sight, one hundred feet above the floor. The spider boys would have to ferry water in, hoisting it high in containers via their block-and-tackle equipment. They must have visited solely under cover of dark, dressed black as chimney sweeps. Gibbs hadn’t put it all together until recently.
He crouched, the kid crouching alongside. “I expect you’re familiar with marijuana from your teachers at school.”
“In health class the gym teacher said he could tell if we were on it or not.”
“Right. Plus, you’re an athlete now. Athletes have nothing to do with drugs.”
Mondrick’s face pinched up in thought. “How much is up there?”
“I was hoping you might tell me.”
The climbing netting was army-surplus camouflage, draped around the trunk of a tree. Above the lattice of netting, there was a rope knotted at intervals for ascending the remainder. Mondrick calculated the distance. He’d been climbing ropes all summer for training.
“You don’t have to,” Gibbs said. Showing the garden was sufficient. It made him feel smart and that was enough. “Whoever did this—I don’t approve of it.”
“I’ll do it.” The boy was done up in a junior hunting outfit that must have been a gift, a many-gusseted khaki field vest. Here was a chance to get it properly dirty.
“Drop and give me twenty,” Gibbs instructed. “Warm up your muscles.”
Mondrick pumped out the push-ups. Three months ago he couldn’t get past three wobbly attempts. “I got this,” he said.
“There you go. Confidence—strongest muscle of all.” Gibbs jerked a thumb heavenward. “Just count the plants and get back down. We’re innocent bystanders at this affair.”
The boy ascended in a vertical crawl, reaching the top row of netting at thirty feet. He paused to survey the darkness separating Gibbs and himself. The knotted rope ended in a secured loop around the limb that held the platform. The climb approximated the back of a steep triangle. The kid inchwormed up the knots and then for several minutes the rope was still.
The blow struck Gibbs from behind, unseen and abrupt. His horn-rims tumbled from his face and he followed likewise. He was sprawled, a scratch of needled duff under cheek, his head bulging with pain. He was aware of a pair of biker boots, the directed glare of a flashlight.
“Easy there,” the voice said. “On your knees.”
Gibbs fit his eyeglasses back on.
From behind the scanning light, a rumbling laugh broke into a hacker’s cough. “Ever been to Jersey?” Gibbs shaded his eyes with his hand.
Black Boots nudged him with a steel toe. “Louder, boss.”
Gibbs was slow to find the cords to his mouth. A body of medium build occupied the boots.
“No need to be shy.” Black Boots gripped a massive spring with a steel ball welded on its end. Restraint had been exercised. The coiled blackjack could have split Gibbs’s head open like a tin of soup. The specter of Dirk floated to mind, replaced by the thought it was someone from the mill.
“This would be ten years back.”
“I was in high school then,” Gibbs said. “On the bowling team.” He smiled—he couldn’t help himself.
“Different team, boss. You bunked with a hard case from Wyoming.”
Gibbs’s knees burned with the weight of himself. It was the opposite of winning the lottery, encountering
an alumnus of Pine River, yet a similar remoteness of odds. “You have me mixed up with somebody else.”
“I don’t think so, boss. I remember a lummox.” Black Boots circled, checking Gibbs for weaponry. “We ran in different crowds.”
“That was a long time ago even if I was there.”
He was thwacked again and pitched forward on bent knees, knocking him clear of the tree.
“The question’s why a person who shares our kind of history is here in the middle of the night.”
“I come here when I can’t sleep.” Gibbs was returning to himself. He hadn’t yet thought of Mondrick. The boy must still be on the platform. Black Boots hadn’t seen him, only Gibbs staring skyward like an outfielder about to haul in a fly ball. He understood he was merely being softened up. Black Boots wouldn’t dispatch him without answers; another con tripped alarms. Gibbs rehoisted himself to his knees.
A series of shots rang out, the reports no more threatening than a cap gun, overlapping pops raking the dirt behind Black Boots. From instinct Gibbs ducked and Black Boots did as well. It was a flicker of an opening and Gibbs took it, lunging forward from the hinge of his knees, not an optimal vantage for launching himself, aiming for legs but settling for lower down, at the cups of both boot heels. It was like pulling two oars toward him and Black Boots went down flat and Gibbs was on top of him.
He punched him in the face without any knowledge of what it looked like, then left the rest of the beating to the more purposeful club of his forearm. He had a knee on the chest of the other man. He picked up the flashlight and he shined it at the platform, sweeping downward until locating Mondrick at the top of the netting, one arm crooked around the cable, the other pointing in Gibbs’s direction, and Gibbs realized that Mondrick had brought his Colt with him up there.
“Allow me to introduce my assistant. The magnificent Mandrake.” Gibbs inspected the face of the other man, already pulping up. Even without the beating it had the ruined quality of hamburger. Gibbs thought he remembered him. His name was Wellington or something, a member of a biker gang called December’s Children.
He stood with Wellington before him in the clasp of a full nelson. After descending, Mondrick was skittish about getting closer than need be. He hadn’t seen blood before. Maybe an animal’s; a human’s was different. It was bubbling out of Wellington, down his chin into a dark bib on the front of his shirt.
“You did good,” Gibbs said.
“What am I supposed to do now?” Mondrick had gone up the tree a boy and come down something else, unsure what his responsibilities entailed.
“Find your way back to camp.” Gibbs pointed the flashlight in the general direction. “Me and this gentleman need to reach what the newspapers call a mutual accord.”
Mondrick took a prospective step nearer. “Are they his plants?”
“I bet so.”
“He hit you.” Mondrick scanned Gibbs for signs of injury.
“He didn’t know then we didn’t mean any harm.”
Wellington sputtered a fragmentary comment and Gibbs tightened his hold. “Go on. Get back to camp. I’ll be there soon.”
Mondrick permitted himself a last examination.
“You did good,” Gibbs repeated. He handed the flashlight over and watched the kid head off. The beam tunneled past the front line of trees until there was nothing left to see.
His name was Whitlock, not Wellington. Gibbs finally placed him once it was just them in the old
growth—the stringy hair gathered into a tail, arms featuring an intricate inking of tattoos several grades above prison scratch. Whitlock got his mouth going after Mondrick left, suddenly all eagerness and olive branches. The DCs had reassigned him to the West Coast. “I’m operating on my honor,” he said. “Nobody’d be the wiser.” He had two other platforms in the woods. “Maybe this was meant to happen, chief. The sheer odds.”
“We should talk about it,” Gibbs agreed. He wasn’t interested in partnering. On second thought it wasn’t that far-fetched to run into Whitlock. Gibbs was somewhere he shouldn’t be. He should have known what sort of flies this place attracted. He shoved Whitlock forward. He didn’t care to stick around the garden to see who else might show up. “Why don’t we walk back to where you came from. I got your magic wand right here.”
Whitlock stood. “Sure. We’ll discuss it there.”
He led Gibbs in a different direction than camp. His jabber didn’t slow, playing to the audience of trees. He claimed his operation could use an individual of Gibbs’s talents. He had plans to expand next year and Gibbs would be a perfect fit.
“A perfect fit,” Gibbs echoed.
By his reckoning they were heading northeast, the moon a fickle beacon above the overstory. There were no trails to speak of, just spaces between the ferns. Whitlock’s car, a Pontiac Tempest from the sixties, was parked on a logging road Gibbs hadn’t known existed. Poor man’s GTO, Gibbs thought. Beer cans were littered beneath the door. Whitlock must have fortified himself before heading out to inventory his platforms, not trusting his spider boys to handle plants so close to fruition.
Gibbs suspected Whitlock would find his courage in the familiar setting of the Pontiac. There’d be a weapon of some kind in the car. He’d have to drop Gibbs and then spring for it.
Whitlock waited until fifteen feet from the car to wheel around. The turn ate up his momentum. He had to punch up at Gibbs and Gibbs warded off the blows with an arm, tagging Whitlock with the other, his fist standing him up. Swinging from the bolts of his ankles, he brought his elbow down, driving it homeward, the popsicle-stick snap of septum and resident cartilage, knocking Whitlock over onto his back. Whitlock threw up drowning arms, scratching for the Pontiac. Gibbs could have employed the hoked-up blackjack. Instead he removed the lanyard from his neck, taking several tries to loop it over the struggling head. Whitlock’s eyes registered sadness, but not resignation. He wasn’t much younger, perhaps seven years separating them, both too old for this. Gibbs twisted the lanyard around the captive windpipe. Whitlock writhed, gasped like a fish. If his eyes could see, they’d have found sadness in Gibbs’s own, but matters had already moved far past such things.
It had all gone down with the suddenness of a man falling down a steep hill, limbs flailing in the name of survival. Gibbs could claim victory in that regard, but in the queasy aftermath he had the sense he was still falling.
Mondrick was asleep by the time Gibbs reentered camp, sacked out in his bag. The kid was still in his hunter’s rig. He woke up and wanted to know where Gibbs had been.
“I was just apologizing for the big misunderstanding back there,” Gibbs said. “He thought we were raiding his garden. It’s been worked out.” At the Pontiac his composure had returned in bits and pieces until his con instincts took over. This was new territory for him. He managed to rinse blood from his hands and face and rub dirt over the parts of his clothes that wouldn’t wash out. He doctored the trailhead to give the impression the conflict concerned another biker gang, arranging a number of rocks in the shape of the letter V, for Vandals, a rival from Pine River. Gibbs then left the Pontiac idling to burn its gas, turning the radio to the only signal it could pull in, an oldies station playing Sonny Burnette crooning for the downcast and disheartened. With any luck, it’d be years until the discovery of Whitlock’s body surfaced and by then there’d be only bones and answerless questions.
Mondrick leaned on an elbow in his bag. “I was scared.”
“You didn’t act like it.”
“What’d you say to him?” Mondrick crinkled up his forehead. He’d been up the tree for most of it. Whitlock was just a random bad guy to him.
“I appealed to his better nature,” Gibbs said.
“You really pounded him.”
“There was that, too.” Gibbs’s smile felt as if it owned one more gap. “I couldn’t have done it without you. You kept your head. Better in my book than gold shorts any day.”
A wind pushed through, stirring the upper section of forest. They stared up the barrel sides of trunks, a dry rain of redwood needles shaking down on them through the opening, the cracks of summer allowing fall to leak through.
“I’m tired,” Mondrick said.
“Me, too,” Gibbs agreed. He was tired of running. He’d run out of land. Everything else meant going backward.
“Is it OK if I go to sleep?” Mondrick lifted the flap of his bag. “I have the Colt right here in case we need it.”
“I don’t think we will,” Gibbs said. He planned on them being up early in the morning and gone.
“There were thirteen plants up there.” It was still an adventure to Mondrick. Gibbs could be king if the world were made up solely of fourteen-year-old boys.
In a matter of heartbeats the kid dropped off. Gibbs tugged on the black-and-yellow lanyard that was again around his neck. He would of course have to toss it. But for now and the rest of the night he wanted to enjoy the gift because he didn’t know when he’d get another.