Until this morning at Deuce's store, I hadn't seen Dealie for five years, yet it only took me twenty minutes to find him, and most of that was driving time. He had been adamant about me and Jesse not ever going to see him in prison, and he'd get spitting mad if we mentioned bringing Rowdy to visit his dad. I only had about five minutes with him after they found him guilty, and he made me promise to take care of his sister and his son.
There was this old farmer named Dickie Miranda who grew almonds out by the river north of town. Dickie had lost a leg in WWII and was an old poker playing buddy of Pepper Jack's. When I was a kid, and someone would mention him losing leg in the mountains of Italy, I'd always if anyone ever found it. He'd like he was mad and get into a boxer's stance with his hands up, and he's say, "Bring it on, you little basted." Then he grab around the head and act like he was beating the shit out of me. He had this cool little cabin, a true man cave if there ever was one, set back in some trees on his property where him and friends would play cards and let their hair down when their wives were started to annoy them. The outside of the cabin looked like a well-maintained hundred year old building. The inside was outfitted pretty nice, it had a fully stocked bar, big leather chairs, and a big screen TV. It had great stereo system, and Dickie always Sinatra or Toney Bennett spinning on the turntable. About a hundred yards from that cabin, almost completely hidden from view, was a beautiful little fishing hole where me and Dealie would fish while Pepper played cards. Miranda had three daughters and no son; he loved Dealie like his own boy and gave him the only other key to the gate that would let you into the property and the road that led back to where that cabin was.
It was late in the morning when I got there; I discovered that Dealie had placed the lock back on the chain to only make it look like it was locked. I got a little choked on that because it showed that even after these last five years, Dealie still trusted me enough to know that I might want or need to find him. I didn't want my car to be seen from the road, so I opened the gate, drove in, and placed the lock back as I found it. A half mile in, there's a place where you could drive back into the trees that you wouldn't know where it wast\ unless you knew about it. I saw Dealie's truck and parked beside it. There was a real narrow, barely noticeable path between some bushes. I slipped in between them and right there he was, sitting in a beat-up, old school orange lawn chair, sound asleep.
I picked up a assed big rock and threw it in the river where it landed with a loud splash. I was surprised when huge white crane suddenly flew out of the tree that Dealie was sleeping under. Dealie woke up with a start, looked around like he was worried then saw me and grinned. "Damn it, Lee! You scared the shit right out of me. How'd you like being woke up like that?"
"Naw, one or two nibbles. What brings you out this way."
I told him the news straight out, "Jake Barlow's dead. Someone shot that fool in the head. Shot him twice. They think that maybe you did it."
To be perfectly honest, he didn't seem all that surprised, but I thought that could be explained by the fact that most people in town who knew him, didn't figure that Old Man Barlow wasn't going die of old age any way.
"Who exactly is they?"
"Jesse got a call from Eunice down at the station. They said he'd been shot twice in the head, and they wanted to talk to you about it, Sheriff Johns and Deputy Dumbass that is."
"They got a warrant for me?"
"I don't really know. I don't think so." I was about to tell him about them pulling up in front of my house when that damn chicken came rustling out of the bushes with half of a piece of bread in its beak and walked over and sat down by Dealie. "Jesse made me promise to go look for you. She wants me to convince you to go talk to them. They pulled up in front of the house when I was about to leave. They seemed pretty convinced you did it. I did find out though, that the house, Barlow was renting Old Man Martin's place out by the river on the other side of town, was locked from the inside, and that somebody, a woman, called the murder in."
"That means a woman was involved somehow."
"I expect that's true."
"Well, that right there leaves me out. I been in prison for five years.
Sides, I don't have a gun. I used to have a hunting rifle, but I left in Mama's house before I burnt it down. Hell, I also wouldn't a wasted one bullet on that fool, much less two. If he was locked in how'd he get shot."
"Well, it had to be a rifle, shot him through a side window and it appears they used the trellis to steady their aim. Dumbass said that Barlow's eyeball was smashed into the TV screen. Sheriff Johns sure seemed like he got mad because Dumbass told me that."
He chuckled, "Dumbass probably made that detail up thinking it'd make him look good in the eyes of a female reporter."
"Dunno, when that mobster Bugsy Siegel bought the farm, they said his eyeball flew across the room and smashed in the keyhole on the door handle."
"What happened to Bugsy Siegel's eyeball is neither nor there. We need to focus on Jake Barlow's eyeball."
His answer made me a little mad. I thought I raised a perfectly pertinent point. "Well, we going in?"
He answered back right away, "No. Can't right now. I got some other stuff I gotta do. Besides, I don't think I'd be too damn safe sitting in the jail at Hartford."
"I promised Jesse I'd see to it that you got there safely."
"Well, that's your problem, Lee. Shouldn't go making promises you can't keep. Hell, you didn't know my itinerary for day before you made that promise."
"I don't understand why, if you're innocent, why it would hurt to go talk to them fools."
He didn't say nothing at first, just stood there scratching his ear and looking out over the river. It was so quiet that I could hear a tractor start up on the other side of the river.
"Lee, did you ever talk to that detective your daddy hired to find Lucky."
I got to admit the question caught me more than a little off guard.
"No, I didn't. I told him thanks and all, but I was purely relieved to get my ass out of that damned jail."
"Sit down for a minute, we need to talk." I pulled up another lawn chair that was sitting on its side. It looked just like the one he was sitting in which I recognized as the set that Jesse and I used to sit in when we was courting. He waited till I was sitting down before he started to explain things, "I talked to that guy. He told me that when he found Lucky, that Lucky didn't want to come back."
"Didn't want to come back! We were on trial for killing him!"
"He said that your dad had to pay a little extra for him to hire a couple guys to further explain to Lucky the benefits of his participation in our defense."
This was new to me. In fact, it was total surprise. I didn't know what to say. I was trying to process the information but kept running into the fact that Jake Barlow was lying in morgue with two bullet holes in his head.
Dealie let the news sink in a bit before he went on, "I've had five years to think about things, especially about finding that damn finger with the ring on it sitting on that blood soaked table."
He stopped to see how I would react. All I could do was give him a questioning look that meant, "And what the hell is that supposed to mean?"
"Why a finger with a ring on it? Why were Sheriff Johns, Lucky's dad and that sumabitch DA in such an all-fired hurry to get us convicted of murdering Lucky? It had to be a set up. Why, I don't know. You knew something though. You tried to talk us out of going, remember? If I wasn't so obsessed bout seeing where that dragon tattoo on that blonde's back was leading, I mighta sensed it too."
His words triggered a long forgotten memory, "All three of them girls had same tattoo. That's why I relented. I was curious about that shit too."
"My cellmate was from San Diego. He said that Lucky's down there selling cocaine to the sailors on the base and running a couple of girls. I'm going to go talk to him."
"Are you kidding me? They want to question to you for a murder. That can wait. We need to clear this shit up first. Else every cop in the area going to be looking for you. I'd bet ya that that stupid ass sheriff would put it out that you're armed and dangerous. Jesse's worried that some idiot would shoot you first and ask you questions later."
He didn't say anything at first, just went back to scratching his ear. Then he asked me another question. "You remember Barlow at the trial?"
This one caught me off guard too. Then suddenly a memory I hadn't thought of in years came rushing back, "Yeah, now that you mention it, I do remember that fool used to come in and sit in the back every day. He was Petey sometimes, then sometimes with Belinda."
"Pop was still alive back then. Barlow had no dog in the fight. Why was he so interested in what happened to three dumb kids?"
"You think he might be tied up with them other three."
"I can't put my finger on things, but I expect so. I need to time to get to bottom of things, and I can't do from a jail cell."
"But if you was innocent, why would they put you in jail?"
"You didn't kill Lucky, but they put you in jail. You need to tell Jesse that you looked all over and couldn't find me."
"Damn, Dealie, I know it sounds corny, but I hate lying to her more than anything else in this world. I bend the truth a little try to make things easier, but I don't like telling her full scale lies. She knows when I'm lying."
Dealie laughed, "I understand. You just need to lie better. You remember Coach Haroldson the football coach?" I nodded, so he continued, "They always called him One Way Joe because he was all cut and dried about everything, only saw things as being black and white. He cost Bill Anderson a football scholarship to UCLA. Bill's mom died, and he missed practice to attend her funeral. The scouts were coming down to see him play and Coach Haroldson benched him for missing practice."
"Am I supposed to learn something from that?"
"Now, think about our basketball coach, Coach Moore. I was having a drink with him at a bar one time, and he told me that real coaches have to be masters of operating in the gray. He cut Ruben Sanchez because Rueben posted a picture on-line all dressed up in gang clothing and chugging on a forty. He had helped Ruben stay eligible for years but said that Rueben gave him no choice in the matter by being so public."
I remembered this stuff. It was local legend. Bill Anderson was so good he could have played in the NFL. He had a brother who was even better. The brother moved to Hartford because he wouldn't play for Haroldson. That was also why they finally fired One Way Joe. Still, I had to ask Dealie, "And the moral of the story is?"
"Coach Moore said that he never went home until the last kid got picked up. Every time the bus came in from an out of town game, and while everyone was waiting for their parents to pick'em up, a voice would invariably come out of darkness from someone riding by on a bike, 'Moore! Celtics Suck!' Coach would just laugh. One night, it was just coach and two cheerleaders left and couple of clowns thought they could impress them girls by acting stupid. Coach told them them fools leave, and they got mad and jumped him and started kicking him. Out of nowhere, Ruben came riding in on a bike and plowed into them fuckers like a hurricane. They never knew what hit 'em. He picked Coach up, dusted him off and told him, 'I been riding by here every away game checking up on you, waiting all these years, Coach, for a chance to pay you back for letting you down.' Coach just hugged him, looked him in the eye and told him, 'Ruben, you never let me down, Son. You let yourself down, but you need to forgive yourself.' One of them girls later told me that Ruben broke down and started crying while coach held onto him. Think about that, hard core gangbanger that Ruben was, crying. Then he got back on his bike and rode back into the darkness.'"
I loved Coach Moore and teared up at the story. He had died while Dealie was locked-up. "I still don't get it, Dealie. You telling me this story to tell me what, me lying to Jesse is what's best for her?"
"No. I love the fact that you don't want to lie to her, Lee. It's why you're my best friend. But sometimes the situation places demands on us, and we can't just sit here with our thumb up our ass moralizing bout and thinking shit over. You got a few people who can afford to be like One Way Joe, but most of us have to learn to master the gray zone where the black and the white overlap. I need some time to answer some questions. Then I'll come back, and we'll go talk to them fools."
It only took a second to reply, "What do you need me to do here?"