side terrace as well as the swimming pool, then he sat down and rested the Smith amp; Wesson on his thigh. Bankers and creditors could take his home and his cars, his thoroughbreds and his oil properties, even his flyfishing equipment and rare gun and coin collections, but Earl Deitrich would leave behind a punctuation mark none of them would ever forget. Neither would his wife.

He had never killed anybody. He had been stationed in Germany and had missed Vietnam; as a consequence he had always competed with the soldier whom Peggy Murphy had truly loved and who had died at Chu Lai. She denied this, but he knew better. She closed her eyes throughout their lovemaking, her lips always averted, whatever degree of sexual pleasure he gave her always muted behind her skin.

He bit down on his molars, his hand clenching and unclenching on the pistol's checkered grips. He was going to love blowing Jessie Stump's liver out.

Then he heard the lock turn in her bedroom door.

She stood at the head of the curved staircase, in a white nightgown, her hair brushed out on her shoulders, her bare feet enameled with moonlight.

In his hatred of her he had forgotten how beautiful she could look, even in her most unguarded moments. He started to speak, then he heard the footsteps by the swimming pool. He rose from the chair and looked up the staircase at Peggy Jean and put his finger to his lips, barely able to control the energy and excitement and gloat that surged in his chest.

The moon was behind a black cloud now, but Earl could make out a figure walking across the patio toward the back door. He cocked back the hammer on the Smith amp; Wesson, wetting his lips, aiming with two hands, trying to steady the trembling sight on the top of the sternum.

He pulled the trigger. It was a perfect shot, right through the throat; he was sure he even heard the hit, a thropping sound like a bullet coring through a watermelon.

Then Earl systematically blew his target apart: a round that hit an elbow, one in the upper thigh, another just above the groin, a final one through the face.

Earl lifted the revolver up at a right angle with both hands, his body canted sideways, his heart thundering with adrenaline. He had never experienced an exhilaration like this one, and he knew for the first time how men could come to love war.

Now Peggy Jean was standing behind him, her face small with fear, her eyes staring into the darkness. Her breath was sour and he stepped back from it.

'Billy Bob Holland ratted you out, Peggy Jean,' Earl said.

'What?' she said.

'I killed Stump. I blew him apart. By God, I did it,' he said.

He went to the circuit breaker box and began shoving banks of switches with the heel of his hand. When he walked back to the open door, his wife was out on the patio, her skin white in the flood lamps, her fingers pressed against her mouth.

Jeff Deitrich floated facedown in the pool, the blood from his wounds trailing like clouds of red smoke in the lighted water.


We would never be sure about the events that occurred next, not unless we accepted the explanation given to us later by Kippy Jo Pickett.

Earl wandered into his front yard, the Smith amp; Wesson hanging from his hand. The wind was blowing hard now, but his skin felt numb, dead to the touch, as though it were freezer-burned. To his left he saw the fire in the ravine glowing against the clouds and sparks fanning across the sky, drifting onto his roof.

There was no sound anywhere. He opened and closed his mouth to clear his ears and tried to rethink what he had just done. But it was like waking from an alcoholic blackout. The images and voices had become shards of glass that he couldn't reassemble in his mind. Could he have killed his own son only moments ago?

The fire had climbed out of the ravine and was burning through the soft pad of dead grass in the woods, crawling up the trunks of trees into the canopy. The sky was red and yellow now, swirling with ash and smoke, and the heat was as bright and hot on his cheek as a candle flame.

Why hadn't Peggy Jean called the county fire department?

He turned and stared at his house. It looked enveloped in heat, shrunken, the symmetrical lines distorted, smoke rising from the eaves. The black-and-white-striped canopy over the side patio burst into flame, snapping dryly in the wind; the flowers in the beds stiffened and their petals fell like confetti into the baked dirt.

Then he saw her at a downstairs window, talking urgently into a phone.

Finally she did something right, he thought.

The fire truck came hard up the road, sooner than he expected, almost out of nowhere.

He probably looked pretty foolish, standing in the front yard, with a revolver in his hand.

Well, to hell with them.

It was a pump truck, the windows filmed with mud, the running boards full of dark, hatted figures who clung to handrails. The driver pulled parallel to the house and left the engine running and got out and walked around the front of the truck and grinned at Earl.

' Cholo?' Earl said.

'The job's got its moments. Hop on. There's a space next to your son.'

'Jeff's there?'

Cholo shrugged good-naturedly, but he didn't speak. The other men on the truck were stepping down from the running boards. They wore slouch hats and bleached, nineteenth-century canvas dusters and laced boots and tightly belted, baggy khaki pants, and Earl realized they were not firemen at all but men who had worked in Africa with his great-grandfather and who carried braided leather whips folded around wood handles in their coat pockets.

' You thought you had me on that first take-down scam, remember?' Earl said. ' You handed me a gun with a blank in it.'

'Yeah, man, you surprised us. It took cojones to stick it up to your head and snap it off.'

'I still don't rattle, Cholo. Ready for this? Because I don't know if I popped off six rounds or not.'

'Do what you gotta do, man.'

' Beaners don't take down River Oaks white boys. You're not a bad kid. You're just dumb,' Earl said, grinning.

Earl pulled back the hammer and placed the muzzle of the Smith amp; Wesson against his temple. He looked directly into Cholo's eyes and smiled again, then squeezed the trigger.

There was no report, in fact, no sound at all, not even the metallic snap of the firing pin against a spent cartridge.

Earl felt a wall of heat from his house baking the clothes on his back. Then the hatted men approached him and took him by his arms and led him toward the truck. Through the muddy window in the cab, he thought he saw Jeff's bloodless and terrified face staring back at him from the rear seat, a bullet hole below one eye.

Early the next morning Temple Carrol and I followed Marvin Pomroy out to the crime scene. The sky was a cloudless blue, the air crisp, the trees turning color on the hills. The Deitrich home was half in shadow, the immense white walls speckled with frost. The chrysanthemums were brown and gold in the flower beds, and the zebra-striped canopy over the side terrace puffed with wind.

'His wife said he was hollering about a fire truck. With Cholo and Jeff and dead slavers on it. She came outside and he put a big one right through his head,' Marvin said.

'Fire truck?' I said.

'He told two of Hugo's deputies the ravine was on fire. There was a fire way on up the river but none around here,' Marvin said.

'Where is Peggy Jean?' I asked.

'Sedated at the hospital. Did I tell you we got Stump?' Marvin said.


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