control of her metabolism and cause her to slip from one personality into another. Well, she got hers when she took a fall off the rocks on the property that eventually became his. It was an accident, of course. More or less. Yes, “accident” was a good word for it, he thought. Even though he had been in his late thirties when it happened, the details had never quite come together for him. How had the chain of events started? She had tried to grab his hand, right? Yes, he was sure about that, although he was a little hazy on what caused her to trip and start slipping backward off the ledge. But he definitely remembered her reaching out, her fingers clutching at his shirt, then at his wrist, then at the ends of his fingers. So he was not really a player in any of it, just a witness. Maybe that was her way of airbrushing herself out of his life. One second she was there; a second later, she was receding into the ground, growing smaller and smaller as she fell, looking back at him as if she had just spread herself out on a mattress for a brief nap.

When anybody got up the nerve to ask Jack how his mother had died, he always gave the same reply: “As she had lived. On her back. All the way down.”

Jack loved crime novels and film noir but could never understand the film critics’ laudatory attitude toward James Cagney’s portrayal of Cody Jarrett in White Heat. Would a mainline con like Jarrett crawl into his mother’s lap? Yuck, Jack thought. The image made his phallus shrivel up and want to hide. And how about that last scene, when Jarrett stands on the huge propane tank outside a refinery, shouting at the sky? Here’s a guy about to be burned to a crisp, and what does he say? “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!”

What a douchebag. Didn’t Cagney know better? The real Jarrett would have had his mother stuffed and used as a hat rack or doorstop.

Jack stood in the middle of the kitchen and gazed at the house’s interior and the level of destruction he had visited upon it. No one could accuse him of leaving the wounded on the field. Everyone he had shot was not only dead but dead several times over. He turned in a circle, the Thompson cradled across his chest, a tongue of smoke curling out of the barrel. The rain and wind were cool blowing on his skin through the shattered windows. On the lawn, he could see the slop bucket the maid had dropped when she was highballing for the cornfield. Where oh where was little Josef?

“Can you hear me, little fellow?” Jack called out. “Let’s fix a cup of tea and have a chat. Did you ever read And Quiet Flows the Don ? It was written by a guy named Sholokoff. Are y’all related?”

There was no reply from the devastated interior of the house. Jack felt a terrible thirst but did not want to set down the Thompson to pour himself a glass of water. “It’s pretty quiet downstairs, Josef. I have a feeling Frank lost out to Sheriff Holland and his deputy. What do you think?”

In the silence, he walked across the linoleum, bits of glass and china crackling under the soles of his cowboy boots. “I checked the upstairs and the attic, but you weren’t there. That means you’ve got yourself scrunched under the floor or up a chimney. I cain’t think of any other possibility. Unless you’ve already hauled ass. No, I would have seen you. Tell me, do y’all have a volunteer fire department in these parts?”

Jack lifted the Thompson to a vertical position and gazed at the ceiling and then out the window. He went through a mudroom onto the back porch and opened the screen door and looked up at the window in the attic area and at a roof below the window. The roof was peaked, and Jack could not see on the far side of it. However, if anyone ran from the house, he would not find cover except in the barn, the cornfield, or the pecan orchard, where the flatbed truck and Jack’s Ford Explorer were parked.

“Josef, I think you might have outsmarted me,” Jack said to the wind. He walked to the hallway door that opened onto the cellar stairs. “You down there, Mr. Holland?”

“What do you want, Collins?” the sheriff’s voice replied.

“You sound like you might have sprung a leak.”

“We’ve got several dead people down here. You can join them in case you’re having any bright ideas,” the sheriff said.

“You never give me any credit, Sheriff. What have I done to you that’s so bad?”

“Tried to kill me and my chief deputy?” the sheriff said.

“Y’all dealt the play on that one. Regardless, I think I squared the deal when I dug up that young fellow Bevins from his grave out in the desert.”

“You’re talking too much, Collins. That’s the sign of either a guilty or a frightened man.”

“It’s Mr. Collins. What does it take for you to use formal address? In the civilized world, men do not refer to one another by their last names. Is that totally lost on you, Sheriff? If it is, I’ve sorely misjudged you. I’m coming down.”

“We need medical help, Mr. Collins.”

“Every one of the locals is on a pad for Sholokoff. They’d have you and your friends in a wood chipper by sunset.”

Jack stepped into the doorway, silhouetting against the hallway light, then began walking down the stairs, his eyes trying to adjust to the gloom. His left hand was on the stair rail, his right holding the Thompson at an upward angle. Then he saw the Asian woman and the man named Krill and the sheriff and his chief deputy. “Looks like y’all got shot up proper,” he said.

The sheriff had stood up but was bracing himself against a wood post, the heel of his hand pressed into his side. “Where’s Sholokoff?” he asked.

Jack didn’t answer. He crossed the cellar and scraped back the metal door to the outside stairwell and walked up the concrete steps into the rain and gazed at the yard and the barn and the pecan orchard and the cornfield, then at the roof that traversed the area under the attic window. He stepped back into the cellar, rainwater running off the brim of his hat.

“You planning on taking me out, Mr. Holland?” he said.

“Could be.”

“But you won’t.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.”

“You won’t gun me unless I give you cause.”

“What brought you to that conclusion?” the sheriff said.

“Your father was a history professor and a congressman. You were born with the burden of gentility, Sheriff: You either obey the restraints that are imposed on a gentleman or you accept the role of a hypocrite. The great gift of being born white trash is that no matter what you do, it’s always a step up.”

“You’re referring to yourself, Mr. Collins?”

“I’d wager I have more education than anybody in this room, but I never spent a complete year in a schoolhouse. What do you think about that?”

“I don’t,” the sheriff replied.

Jack ignored the slight and glanced out the cellar window at the yard and the barn and the pecan orchard. Then he took a bottle of burgundy from a shattered crate and broke the neck off against the wall. The glass was black and thick and had a red wax seal on the label. He poured from the bottom of the broken bottle into his mouth, as though using a cup, not touching the sharp edges. “You want one?” he asked.

“I don’t drink,” the sheriff said.

“You ought to start. In my opinion, it’d be an improvement. Who popped the two guys by the stairs?”

“I did,” the Asian woman said. She was sitting on a wood chair, the Airweight. 38 in her lap, strands of her hair hanging straight down in her face. “You have something to say about it?”

“You decide you’re not a pacifist anymore?”

“You murdered nine innocent girls, Mr. Collins,” she replied. “I don’t think you have the right to look down your nose at me or anybody else.”

“If you ask me, your true colors are out, Ms. Ling. You’re a self-hating feminist who tries to infect others with her poison. I’ve been entirely too generous in my estimation and treatment of your gender. The serpent didn’t make Adam eat the apple. Your progenitor did. You’re the seed of our undoing, and I won’t put up with any more of your insolence.”

“I warned you once before about addressing me in that fashion,” she said.

“Mr. Collins?” the sheriff said softly.

“Enough of you, Sheriff,” Jack said, his eyes burning into the woman’s face, his hand flexing on the pistol grip of the Thompson.

“Ease up on the batter,” the sheriff said.

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