Crosscurrent, Chapter One

Nov 11, 2010

When Caslon Armand drove home Thursday night, he had a funny feeling that something odd was going to be waiting for him. Not something bad necessarily, or foreboding, but something unusual, out of the routine. As he nursed his chalky blue pickup down County Road 117, he fought a rather alarming urge to hang a left on Benson, head up toward the canals and maybe just park and watch the tepid brown waters of the Texas Cooperative Irrigation System sluice through their concrete jackets. He used to drive out there in high school just to kill time and avoid as much as possible dealing with his father. There was something supremely soothing about the area, that place where the last sad flow of the Rio Grande was pulled apart and channeled away in a massive grid across the otherwise sterile plain of southern Boward County. But he hadn’t been out there in over ten years, and tonight, in the end, he wasn’t destined to break his streak.

The Armand house sat at the end of a long gravel driveway on the bluffs overlooking the Laguna Miera. A few wizened Russian olives, once hopeful in their youth, but now defeated and ugly in age, stood at the head of the drive, and beyond them the acre-and-a-half Armand place was mostly a study in gray. The ground, overgrazed decades ago by the prior owner’s goats, had never recovered and supported only a few small islands of desperate sawgrass. Kate Armand, bless her heart, had planted lilacs and rose-of-sharon back in the 80’s, but the sum evidence of their existence was now nothing more than a rectangle of blunt stumps surrounding the house. Old timers said that the current drought in southern Texas was the worst and the longest ever, and the Armands weren’t alone in their surrender to the elements; all up and down the Gulf coast, formerly lush and verdant landscapes had given way to barren reality, and attempts at saving lawns and flowers had been almost universally abandoned.

Caslon parked behind Kate’s Honda and walked slowly up the porch steps, the weird feeling pushing hard on him like some alien form of gravity. Something was indeed wrong. He knew it as soon as the screen door slammed closed behind him and he saw Kate at the kitchen table, her back to him, her shoulders heaving.

“Kate. What’s up?,” he said as he crossed the little living room.

“It’s your brother. They’ve released him. He’s out.”

Kate’s sobbing was intense, breathless, and it was hard to understand her, but the words “brother’ and “out” were all he needed.

“Jesus. He’s out? He’s out? How in the hell did that happen? He’s supposed to do another ten at least. What the hell…”

“Janine said he got good behavior and that they needed more space in the prison and that there was some kind of political thing going on or something. Oh, my God Cas, what are we going to do?”

Caslon walked to the sink, rolled up his sleeves, and washed his hands. A chicken sat defrosting in a plastic bowl. Spices, assorted vegetables, a cutting board, and an open cookbook were scattered across the counter, and Caslon conjured a quick snapshot in which Kate, chopping and peeling the ingredients for tonight’s dinner, had been interrupted by Janine’s phone call - and everything had come to a halt.

“So does anyone know where he is?”

“No… Janine said they think he was headed for the East Coast, but no one’s sure. Nobody seems to know anything, except that the son of a bitch is out. Oh God, Cas, I’m scared!”

“Look, all that stuff happened a long time ago. It could be that he’s mellowed out. Or maybe he has other things to think about now. I mean Jesus, that was twenty years ago. Plus, they wouldn’t let him out if he hadn’t changed. Right?”

But in spite of his attempt at pulling Kate free of her full-on panic, Caslon felt himself sinking fast. His reaction was physical as well as mental; the feeling in his stomach was that of a raw, gnawing dread, and his legs had gone numb. As much as he wanted to pull Kate from her chair, embrace her and make her know all was well, he couldn’t. He slumped into the chair next to hers and buried his face in his hands. He closed his eyes and saw his brother, that last time in court. Jules was three years younger, big, and wound tight. His hair was worn in a perpetual snarl, and scars from bar fights and dumb accidents webbed his face. The trial had gone quickly enough. There wasn’t much to deliberate, given Jules’ criminal record, the willingness and abundance of the witnesses, and the appalling images presented by the prosecution. It had taken the jury a sum total of thirty-five minutes to come back with a guilty verdict, and the judge had had the sentence—the maximum allowable—bundled up and ready to go. As Jules had been wrestled out of the courtroom by two court’s deputies, he’d screamed he’d have his day, and for Jules that could only mean one thing.

After a long period of quiet, Caslon reached out and took Kate’s hand. She sat back, looked at him and attempted a smile. There was a small pool of tears on the linoleum table, and as she absently wiped it away with the back of her hand, she said “Better get yourself a beer; there’s more.”

“What do you mean, ‘more?’”

“They had a big meeting at work today, and there’s for-sure going to be more layoffs.”

“You’re kidding. I didn’t think they had anyone left.”

“Just me, I guess.”

“So, is it you?”

“Actually no one knows right now. But they’re saying it’s going to be big this time. All of the guys down in receiving are freaking out. I think I should be safe, but so did Amy Booth. She thought she was in-like-Flint, then, boom. Remember?”

“Yeah. Jesus, that’s just what we need right now, huh? How soon do you find out?”

“They say Monday, but who knows.”

As Caslon ran the numbers through his head, trying to figure just how devastated their finances would be without Kate’s job, a new thought arrived, giving him a start.

“We need to call Adam,” he said. “He needs to know about Jules.”

“I tried. The phones are still out in his dorm.”

“Oh great. Then I guess we better call the main office or whatever at the school. He needs to know his uncle is out. And he needs to be careful.”

“Not as careful as you do.”

“I know.”

Jules Armond was starving. He’d eaten earlier in the day at a little deli in New Berrington, but that was hours ago, and now it felt as if the bottom had dropped out of his stomach. It was raining like hell, and from what he could see of southern Indiana, the prospects of stopping anywhere soon were nil. Farms. Why were there so damn many farms? He’d like a little sleep as well; he’d been driving non-stop since 4pm yesterday. Several times in the past hundred miles, he’d caught himself drifting across the interstate, feeling alternately alarmed and numb, then fighting the inevitable slip back into drowsiness. The radio in the rental was preset to a bunch of talk stations out of Chicago. He’d spun back and forth through them, looking for something to keep him awake, and at first he’d been successful. But now, down here in Indiana’s rural dead-zone, all he could find was country. He’d heard enough of that crap in Marion. Three in the morning in C Block, and half the dumbass crackers on the wing would still have their radios cranked, Randy Travis or Shanya Twain echoing up and down halls. He used to wonder, as he lay in his bunk late at night, if any of those guys on the floor ever considered just how far beyond Shanya Twain’s orbit they truly were. Popular culture—music, magazines, TV—all depressed him terribly, making him feel ever more the outsider, ever more irrelevant. Jules had a unique zero-tolerance policy, deeply etched into his psyche: he refused to be anyone’s mark. You could take him damn near any way you wanted, but you had better take him serious. And the beautiful people of the world, the jocks and the attorneys, the singers and the actors, the head-girls, he knew from experience, never took guys like him seriously. The stooges in Marion didn’t seem to get that. Most of the guys in the joint harbored cartoonish, delusional images of themselves; they were big-shots, strutting through the mess line or the metal shop as if they were the real deal. But Jules knew them for what they were: weightless, tattooed losers, preening away the years in a sick parody of real life. Marion sucked.

Just outside Sevlin, Indiana, on the right side of the on-ramp, an enormous sign emerged from the mist, advertising a family-style steakhouse. Jules wheeled off the highway and into the parking lot. The first thing he noticed on entering the restaurant was the acrid smell of frying food. This was one of those naugahyde places where every table was set in a booth and seemingly every surface was soft and pleated. For the seventh or eighth time in the past twenty-four hours, Jules had the odd sensation that he was watching himself from his bunk back on the block. It was weird; it was as if, after years of dreaming it, he had finally escaped, and now inmate GR2225-Y was seeing the whole thing go down in grainy black and white. The Please-Wait-to-be-Seated sign, partially hidden behind a potted palm, was hand lettered in metal-flake gold. A short, dumpy girl with shockingly pale skin appeared from behind the palm, grabbed a tattered menu, and led him to a booth near the back. The fare almost made him long for Marion. After a few frustrating moments of perusing the dinner choices, he settled on the chicken-fried steak, flagged the waitress, and placed his order. While he waited, with the wonderfully pungent steam from his coffee rising up and around his unshaven face, he mentally stepped through the hoops that awaited him in the coming weeks. All the stuff he’d worked out with Paulo and Shim seemed so easy now that he was out. The contacts, the routes, everything. Everything except Caslon; that was going to be tough.

If there was on thing Hector Montoya truly hated, it was flies. And the flats on the lower end of the Laguna Miera were the worst place for flies he’d ever seen. Jesus, he could hardly get any fishing done, needing as he did a ceaselessly swatting hand to keep the great buzzing mass of sand flies at bay. The Backwoods Off had given up the ghost an hour ago, but the fishing—of course—had started to peak at exactly the same time. In the livewell of his little 16-foot runabout, three nice redfish and a fat sea trout hammered away at their confines. Hector made a long cast up against the shoals, settled back in the captain’s seat, and started a slow retrieve when his cell rang. Good God, why did he bring the damn thing?



“Yeah, it’s Hector. Who the hell do you think it is?”

Derek Larson’s distinctively thin voice went dead for a moment as he tried to decide how deeply he’d just wounded himself by calling the boss while he was fishing.

“It’s Derek. Sorry to bother you, but we just brought a guy in for that theft in Ft. Griff last week. He was trying to sell a bunch of computer stuff to Schnabel’s. Everything matches; there was a buttload of stuff in the trunk of his car, and we’re running the prints right now. Art said you’d want to know.”

It must have been the flies; Hector felt peevish, hostile, and a little loopy at the same time.

“Jesus Derek, can’t you guys do anything without me there? I mean I’ve been trying to get down here and fish since April. Just a few hours without the goddamned phone ringing. And every friggin’ time I do, something comes up! What do you want me to do now, come down there and show you guys how to use the fingerprint kit? Boot the computer up for you? Hell’s bells…”

“Sorry, Hector. Art just said you’d want to know.”

Truth be told, Montoya was a bit relieved to have an excuse to escape the flies and the heat. And he had three good fish for the freezer. It actually worked out okay. As much as he believed he loved to get away by himself for a day on the water, he usually found some convenient reason to cut it short after a few hours. Indeed he generally got bored and antsy after “quality time” of any duration, and was always anxious to get back to work.

“Okay, well I guess you did the right thing then. So who’s our little thief?”

“Kid named Allen Hall. Skinny little bastard from Port Arthur. He’s got a bunch of priors, all from over around Galveston, mostly petty dumbshit stuff.”

Hector had to turn the phone aside and chuckle. Derek had a tough-cop patter that heated up when a suspect was brought in. In the station they all called him “Barney Fife,” and Hector could picture Derek now, leaning against the door jam, probably inspecting his nails as he reported the play-by-play to his boss.

“Alright, fine. I’ll be there in thirty minutes. You guys know how to run this till I get there, right?”

“Yeah sure, Hector, sure.”

“Remember that print kit needs to be refrigerated for at least twenty minutes before you do the finals. And those forms have to be filled out in front of a witness this time. Don’t screw that up again, right?”

“Jeez no, Hector. We’re all good-to-go on that stuff, don’t worry.”

“Well alright. I’m on my way.”

As he closed out the call his rod tip banged down hard against the boat’s gunwale and he nearly lost his grip on the cork handle as a wildly-determined redfish tore away across the shoals, Hector’s silver Rapala lure implanted firmly in its lower jaw.

“Or not…”

To be continued.