An excerpt from short story by Josh Lanyon
How could you not know?
That was the question everyone asked. Friends. Family. Reporters. The cops. I think even Ricky may have said it the night he tried to kill me.
It was the question I continued to ask myself three years later.
How the hell could you not have known?
Because I didn’t want to know?
Because by the time I began to wonder, it was already too late?
A sudden gust of wind hit the unmarked police sedan, shaking me out of my thoughts. I took note of the distant snow-dusted mountains. Sharp-edged blue silica and granite outlined against darker blue skies. Not much farther now.
I glanced in the side mirror. Caught a slice of my own reflection: dark hair, dark sunglasses, dark and unshaven jaw. The road behind us was empty except for the small speck of an RV we’d passed minutes earlier.
“That’s the turnoff up ahead?” Lt. Stagge asked, double-checking the directions recited by the mechanical voice of the GPS.
A flash flood had taken out the faded, bullet-riddled sign over a year ago. The road department never got around to replacing it. Nobody lived out this way. Not even the deer that Deer Lane had been named for.
“Beautiful country,” Lt. Stagge said, and I laughed.
He looked away from the road, a trace of surprise on his face as he met my disbelieving gaze. “I grew up in Lompoc. I like the high desert,” he said.
“Sure.” I stared ahead at the worn and fading highway. Grayed and pitted asphalt, edges crumbling away to sand and sagebrush. The morning sunshine cast luminous golden light over the stark and unforgiving landscape.
Out of the corner of my eye I watched Lt. Stagge. Not that I suspected him of anything; it was just hard to tune him out.
He was about my age. Late thirties. Medium height, compact build. Light eyes that could have been blue or maybe green. Gray? Square shoulders, square jaw. The kind of haircut that only looked good on a marine. Which, he’d probably been before he’d joined LAPD.
He had that kind of blunt, serviceable attractiveness you see in a lot of those Died in the Line of Duty photos.
I did not want Lt. Stagge dying in the line of duty protecting me.
Enough people had already died thanks to me.
That’s what happens when you fall in love with a psychopath.
The first time I ever saw Ricky Barbour, he was testifying in court against another inmate who had assaulted and nearly killed a prison guard.
Ricky was in his early twenties then. Blond and bearded, with soft brown eyes. In addition to being handsome, he was polite and well-spoken. A very different animal from the predators he was speaking out against. I was impressed by his courage.
Pretty white boys don’t do well in the prison system, and his guts and integrity made me curious about his case.
What I learned was not encouraging. Ricky was starting a life sentence for second degree murder. The woman he’d been living with had come at him with a broken beer bottle, and in the struggle, he’d accidentally killed her. His lawyer failed to get the charges reduced to self-defense or even manslaughter because the girlfriend had placed a couple of domestic violence calls previous to the fatal incident. Worse, Ricky was strongly suspected in the death of his girlfriend’s ex-husband.
There hadn’t been enough evidence to charge him in the husband’s death. And there was a good chance that if he was guilty, he hadn’t acted alone. If he’d had an accompliceassuming he’d been involved at allshe was dead now. In the case of Mariah Evans, the evidence against Ricky was mostly circumstantial, but there was a lot of it. Enough to convince a jury.
You get cynical covering the crime beat. But I kept thinking of how Ricky had acted to save that guardand then how he’d spoken up in court against vicious offenders he still had to live with. He had to know he was risking his own safety, but he had done the right thing. I couldn’t forget the quiet dignity he’d displayed despite the way the defense had tried to discredit him.
I went to see him at the Central Men’s Jail in Orange County.
“You want to stop?” Lt. Stagge asked, breaking the silence. “You need to stretch your legs?”
No, I just wanted to get to where we were going. I did not want to admire scenery or make conversation. I did not want the lieutenant feeling like he had to be courteous, to pretend this was anything but an unwelcome assignment.
What was his story?
Not that I really cared. It was just my natural curiosity.
Or maybe my unnatural curiosity.
My mother was a big fan of the TV show The Hardy Boys when she was growing up. Particularly of Parker Stevenson, which was how I ended up with the first name Parker.
Being named for a prime-time sleuth might even explain my unhealthy interest in other people’s business. During the trialthe second trialsome clever asshole at the Times had referred to me as “Nosy Parker,” and the other papers, including my own, had picked it up.
Anyway, aside from a tendency toward small talk, Lt. Stagge seemed professional and competent, and that was all I needed from him. That was all I had needed from any man for a long time.
Joshua trees, twisted and spiked silhouettes, flashed by in the bright spring sunlight. Despite the ongoing drought, gold and purple wildflowers supplied startling bursts of color in the otherwise bleached landscape.
Another jackrabbit darted out across the road. The last time, Lt. Stagge had veered slightly, and the rabbit lived to endanger other motorists. This time a jeep was coming from the opposite direction, and Stagge never swerved. The rabbit hit the tires with a grim thump, the jeep zoomed past, and we sped on our silent way.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.