It was coming down to the last months of the twentieth century and I couldn't wait for the parties to end, particularly since it didn't seem I had been invited to any of them.
It had been two months since the shooting and I still hadn't shaken off my bad mood. Whether I was to blame or not had never really been decided but when I saw my friends downtown in the bookstore or in the coffee shop they would pat the outside of their pockets, then look at their watches and mumble excuses as quickly as they could.
This is only partially to explain why I was crouched in a wet salmonberry bush watching a chicken coop through my foggy binoculars. My feet were wet and my legs were cramping. The rain dribbled down on me like warm beer. I had thought of giving private investigations up before but never with as much seriousness as this.
It was the middle of August and we had had now only three sunny days all summer long. Those days had been emeralds of sparkling green water and blue sky. Gray rock, white snow and the lush blanket of trees running down the steep sided mountains to the tidelands. Those sunny days were actually cruel, because the rest of the summer had been so wet: warm and mild, no dramatic storms, only low clouds closing off the mountains and pebbling the surface of the shallow puddles with rain.
It had been on one of the only clear emerald days that Grant McGowan had taken a gun and held it to his fiancée's head out on the back deck of his derelict boat moored in Thomsen Harbor. He told the first policeman on scene that he wanted to talk to me.
Grant had been a mill worker before the pulp mill closed down. He had made a decent living working as a shill for the company's public relations crew after the shutdown. They would trot him out at hearings or in set-up articles about the impact of the mill's closeout on the community. Grant made a good unemployed blue-collar victim for the congressional committees that were convened to bail out the timber business. Grant was smart and hard-working and he was living in appalling conditions on a forty-foot wooden boat that was sinking, very slowly.
But the truth was Grant never lived any better when he was working. He had always been a drinker and a fuck-up. That was how we had become close.
Grant had a florid imagination that embellished every story with a kind of heartfelt drama. He wanted his tales to be more than barroom talk, more than the drama that fills every heavy-metal rant and cowboy ballad. Grant wanted to be bigger than life, in real life, and as a result he lied about almost everything. It was the world, he claimed, that had kept him from realizing his true potential, the demands of making a shitty living that kept him from following his true nature. And this true nature changed with almost every sitting at the bar.
Once he had grabbed me by the elbow at the bar and blared into my ear: "Canada, Younger! They've got working-class poets in Canada!"
"No shit?" I said and kept looking at my wobbly reflection in the bar mirror. "Hell of a health care plan too," I added.
"Younger . . ." He wheeled around, stepping on the foot of a bald-headed cannery worker with five earrings in one ear. I couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman. "Younger. God dammit, there's no reason I can't be a poet of the working class too." The person with the earrings limped toward the bathrooms. I strained my neck around to check out which room this creature was headed for.
"Other than the fact that you're no longer a worker," I offered.
We laughed and Grant bought a round and we toasted to working poets of Canada.
The police had given me a radio hidden in a flack vest that I wore over an extra-large black raincoat. So as I walked down the dock to where Grant was holding his fiancée at gunpoint I looked like a badly dressed umpire who was hearing voices.
Grant had his arm around Vicky loosely. I would have mistaken it for a casual embrace, until I saw the Ruger Blackhawk .44 with rust blotching the blueing. Grant had to cock his elbow out at an odd angle to get the long barrel to rest on her ear. Vicky's head was shaking. Her mouse-brown hair hung limply to her shoulders. She had a cigarette in her right hand but I never saw her take a draw on it. The ash fell on the painted deck.
The police had briefed me. They would listen on the radio. They just wanted me to talk. Keep him busy. Don't argue. Don't make deals or negotiate. Try and emotionally free up the situation; avoid hard choices. They were getting their people in place. Standing in front of Grant and Vicky I felt stupid in the clothes and the vest. I started to take the flack jacket off and Grant became tense.
"What is this shit?" I asked him. "You want to be in Newsweek
or something? This is crazy."
"I know you've got a gun in there, man." Grant tightened his grip on his own pistol and stood up straighter. Vicky grimaced, her breath escaped in short whining bursts. She dropped her cigarette.
"Oh for Christ sakes, Grant!" I said and slipped back into the vest. "Like I'm going to come down here to kill you? What do I need a fucking gun for?"
"She says she's leaving me, Younger."
Vicky shook her head and shoulders but did not speak. "Well, I can't see why. I mean, you're such great company, Grant." I smiled and tried to step over the gunwale of the boat. Behind me more police cars were rolling up into the parking lot of the Forest Service building. It was about a seventy-five-yard shot. Doable, I thought, but not preferable.
"Let's get out of here, man," I said, and my voice cracked. "This is more trouble than either of us need. Especially on such a beautiful day. I'll tell them it was a gag. Vicky, I'm sure, will back me up on this. Come on, man--we can work this out and I bet we can watch baseball on TV. What do ya say?"
The radio in the vest squawked. I fished for it and Grant pulled the hammer back on the Blackhawk. Behind me I heard police car doors slam. I heard footsteps on the gravel.
"I'm a fuck-up, Cecil," Grant said and he was crying. "I'm not fooling anyone. Vicky's all that matters."
"Oh you're not a fuck-up," I said. "If you are, what does that make me? I've been right there with you and I'm not about to kill anybody."
"Oh, you got everything, man. You got a rich family. You got a sister and a girlfriend with a good business. I ain't got shit. All I got is Vicky." Grant was crying hard now. Snot rolled down his lip into the stubble of his three-day beard.
"Then kill yourself, asshole, and let Vicky go!"
He took a deep breath and the muscles on his arm relaxed. He smiled at me sweetly and, as I think back on it now, with some pity, then lifted the gun to his temple and fired.
Excerpted from The Angels Will Not Care by John Straley. Copyright © 1998 by John Straley. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.