Friday, May 5
When Jerome dropped him off at the corner, Jackson Ray "Jack" Ritter flicked his cigarette into the flowing gutter, took a deep breath to steady his nerves, and started walking west on Sheridan.
It was a nice spring evening for a stroll, even in downtown Oklahoma City, where walks at dusk used to be risky at best, until the citizens had voted for a new sales tax to slick things up a bit. Now there was a brand new baseball park just three blocks behind him in Bricktown, said to be one of the very best in the minor leagues. There were new upscale restaurants and night spots as well, in the former deserted factory district, reborn as an entertainment destination.
To Ritter's left, directly across the street, tiers of scaffolding were the visible evidence of major renovations underway on the Myriad Convention Center, the town's largest event center, where most of the major touring rock and country concerts were held.
Things had changed a bit since Ritter had left.
The brief thunderstorm just ended had cleansed the air of exhaust fumes, left the heady scent of fresh rain, made the pavement on Sheridan shine in rippled colors from the late sunset, the car head beams, neon signs and tall vapor streetlights.
He checked out the cars parallel-parked at the curb as he strode along, at the same time watching the people he passed on the sidewalk. He moved at a casual pace, hands in his pockets. Nobody paid much attention to him: tall, clean-cut, blond-haired white guy in a light-brown silk sport coat, white button-down shirt, no tie, faded Levis and green-on-white Reebok track shoes. He looked yuppie, law-abiding, harmless, and a decade younger than his actual thirty-four years – the way he wanted to look at the moment.
He had a flat strip of flexible alloy up his right sleeve, 20 inches long, three-quarters of an inch wide, half a millimeter thick, notched on one end – a tool commonly known among car thieves and cops as a slimjim.
Thunderheads billowed high above the tall buildings as he moved west, the formation colored deep purple and limned with gold by the sun that had already slipped below the horizon. It was about 8:30 on a Friday night, and there was an unusually large number of cars parked along the downtown street, for this time of the evening – unless, of course, there was a bigtime rock or country concert going on in the Myriad.
Or, a regional church conference, complete with Christian-rock concert, which was in progress in the Myriad right now.
Ritter glanced across the street at the sprawling concrete and glass structure that stretched for a block along the south side of Sheridan, saw late-arriving people hurrying across the wide street toward the Myriad entrances. Tonight's flashy holy business was already underway in there; muffled sounds of pipe organs and choir pushing against the high rafters of the arena.
The Myriad's underground garage was already full, the entrance guarded by striped sawhorses and rent-a-cops. But nobody was tending the overflow parking on the street, except for the occasional passing prowl car. Ritter had read in the papers that a portion of the proceeds from the event were going to the families of the dead and also the injured survivors of the Murrah Building bombing, which had taken place just over two weeks ago, turning the city, the state and the nation on its ear. The worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the history of the country – an estimated 168 dead, including 19 children. He counted himself lucky that none of his relatives or friends were on the list of dead. His loss had occurred four days prior to the bombing, completely unrelated.
He came up alongside the automobile he wanted, the one he'd spotted a few minutes ago when Jerome had driven him by here, scouting for jewels. This jewel – a black 1986 Buick Grand National.
He stopped and fished around in his jacket pockets, like a man digging for keys or cigarettes, came up with cigarettes and lighter, fired one up while his darting eyes checked both sides of the street and both ends of the block. He put Marlboros and Zippo away, stepped down off the curb and walked around to the driver's door of the Buick, took a drag on the smoke with his left hand while dropping his right arm down his side, letting the slimjim slip out of his sleeve and into his grip, hanging down along his leg. He took another look around and slid the slim down between the metal and the glass of the door, moved it back and forth like a pendulum until it caught where he wanted it to catch. He pulled up slightly, felt and heard the satisfying click, pulled the tool up and out, reached down with his other hand, grasped the handle and opened the door.
He accomplished all of this in less time than it took most people to unlock a car door the regular way, with a key.
Tossing the slimjim into the passenger seat, he got in and chunked the door shut, closing out the sounds and smells of the street. Now he was in the hushed confines of someone else's private, mobile domain. Another person's ride.
An old feeling charged his senses. Stealing a car was like slipping into someone else's clothing, being enveloped in the scent, the body-mold, the very essence of another human being; finding articles in the pockets that provided clues about the owner. It was a mental and sensory exercise he had always enjoyed when boosting automobiles – a means of income he'd given up several years ago, when he'd left Oklahoma City to establish a straight life elsewhere.
It was nice in here, smelled like leather and a young woman's expensive perfume. There was also the fainter smell of fancy after-shave, but a musky female scent was most prevalent.
Ritter decided, as he slammed his fist down on the plastic casing of the steering column, breaking it apart with a loud snap, that the Buick belonged to a young Republican couple who believed in God, favored American muscle cars, and occasionally – and just recently, in fact – enjoyed having sex in their automobile.
He pulled a short flathead screwdriver from his side pocket, used it to pop the chrome façade off the ignition lock, then pressed the tip of the screwdriver against the exposed switch. The 3.8-litre SFI turbo roared to life and hummed like a chorus of contented bears under the gleaming, droplet-covered black hood.
Ritter smiled to himself around the cigarette that dangled from his lips, pushed the button that made the driver's window go down, looked over his shoulder for a break in the traffic, pulled the console lever into DRIVE and snaked the Buick out from the curb.
Yeah, a young, conservative married couple with strong Christian beliefs. No psychic feat figuring that one, with the fish-outline decal and the little red-white-and-blue flag sticker displayed side-by-side in the lower center of the rear window, and the gawdawful Christian rap music that started thumping bass-heavy through the surround speakers when Ritter switched on the high-powered stereo that was crammed into the dash. He found Christian rock music offensive enough – like when Ronald Reagan once quoted from a Bruce Springsteen song, as if the old squareheaded Gipper really had a clue what the Boss was really singing about the good old U.S.A. But Jesus gangster rap? Talk about your contradiction in terms.
He walk on the water
Give sight to the blind
Make a cripple man walk
With his powers devine
Yo, all the little homies know Jesus is the way
All the little homies know Je-Je-Jesus –
He hit the eject button as he angled into the left-turn lane at the Robinson intersection and stopped for the light. He tossed the cassette into the handy trash barrel on the median, no longer feeling bad about stealing a young couple's flashy ride.
When the green arrow flashed he turned south on Robinson, stabbing his cigarette out in the ashtray, watching the rearview mirrors and side streets until he was climbing the curving ramp up onto the eastbound Interstate 40 overpass. He began to open it up then, racing away from the wild purple-and-orange sunset and the sparse cluster of skyscrapers silhouetted against it.
It had seemed so easy, but Ritter never allowed himself to be lulled into a false sense of confidence. He held the brawny Buick at a safe 60 all the way out past Del City, Midwest City and Tinker Air Force Base – all the metro satellites that surrounded Oklahoma City on its southeast edges – and when he was beyond the gravitational pull of OKC and its adjuncts – out in open country, rolling green pastureland turning blue-black in the gathering night, he turned on the radio. Big surprise, it was tuned to a conservative call-in talk station, and he heard some half-wit (or half-drunk) air conditioner repairman defending all the conspiracy idiots' paranoid idea that the government had had prior knowledge of the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown OKC, and didn't do anything to prevent it.
Ritter cranked the dial over to 100.5 FM, zipped up the volume in time to hear Robert Plant's wailing cover of "Your Ma Said You Cried in Your Sleep Last Night". He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, nodded his head in time to the raunchy shuffle. He found, to his surprise, that he was pumped. The apprehension he'd felt earlier, riding around with Jerome, had melted away.
It had been a long time since he'd committed grand theft auto. He was walking the wrong side of the line again and liking it more than he wanted to.
It had also been years since he'd left Oklahoma behind, along with its mixed bag of memories.
He reminded himself of his reason for returning, plus his immediate destination, which was cause for utmost caution and concern.
He had an appointment – set up by Jerome, shifty kind of a goof he'd met only a few hours ago at the airport – to deal with some dangerous people. This stolen car was a required part of Ritter's introduction to these folks.
And from what he'd been told, if he didn't make just the right first impression on this bunch, they might just kill him.
Nice homecoming, he thought. Haven't even had time to stop by the cemetery and pay respects to his mom, with Mother's Day only a couple of days away.
He drove deeper into the night, as it grew darker.CHAPTER 2
Following Jerome's directions, Ritter took a rural-road exit off the interstate and ended up in the dark middle of nowhere with a double-barreled shotgun pressed against the side of his face.
The journey had taken him north on two-lane blacktop deep into the hilly and wooded northeastern reaches of Oklahoma County. The Buick's beams flashing through the roadside trees seemed like the only light in the world out here.
After a dozen miles he'd spotted a pillar of red rocks and mortar with an ancient steer's skull cemented on top, marking the turn he was supposed to take.
There was a long downward slope of red-dirt road barely wide enough for one car to pass. The trees, underlit by the headlights, were thick and close on either side, forming an overhead arch of gray, vein-like tendrils with sprouts of new green leaves fluttering in the night breeze.
Ritter had grown up in the city he'd just left a few miles back – one of the largest cities, area-wise, in the world – yet the rural eastern fringes of this sprawling county that contained it were foreign to him. He was reminded anew of the quirky contrasts and variations of the Oklahoma terrain, not just in this central part of the state, but all over the damn place, with people as varied and different as the landscapes.
Right now he felt like he was driving into the subterranean depths of hell's woods; seedy and tangled and untraveled.
Fortunately it hadn't rained much out this way today. The Buick's tires murmured over damp but not muddy red hardpack.
Then had come another downhill grade, and at the bottom was a break in the trees to the left, flanked by two more redrock columns like the one he'd seen back on the asphalt road, both topped with steer skulls, their empty eye sockets dark and ominous, their long, bony, snaggle-toothed snouts grinning a macabre welcome.
He'd turned in between the pillars, still following Jerome's directions, and the headlights centered on a wide, low, aluminum-slatted gate. He stopped just short of it and saw no one in sight at first. He'd spotted one of those electronic push-button combination locks on the upper left-hand corner of the big gate, a pinpoint red light glowing from it.
Beyond the gate, near-total darkness and lots more trees.
He was startled by a short tap-tap on the side of the car, but was steeled enough that he didn't jump out of his skin. He turned his gaze to the left and was blinded by a flashlight beam in the face.
"You lost, friend?" rasped a voice from behind the light.
"No, I don't think so. But I feel like a condemned deer," Ritter said. "How 'bout getting that light out of my face?"
After a moment the light was lowered, but Ritter caught the scent of gun oil and knew that this guard – who he was still too dazzled to see – held more than a flashlight on him.
"Just keep your hands on the wheel." The voice sounded wheezy, like the actor Andy Devine, only lower. "You lookin' for someone in particular?"
"This is Skull Ranch, right?" Ritter asked, careful not to move his head too much as he spoke. "Hoyt Gilstrap's place?"
"Where'd you get that idea?"
"Well, all these cow skulls I've been seein' around here for one thing. And the directions I was given. I was told this is the place, and this is the back entrance to the place."
"The place for what?" the dark shadow croaked.
"The place to make my delivery," Ritter said.
"Delivery? What, you got a pizza in there or somethin'?"
"Why don't you ask Mr. Gilstrap what I'm delivering, friend?" Ritter asked pointedly. His gut starting to tighten with worry. Jerome was supposed to have smoothed the way for him. He was supposed to be expected right about now.
"The Gilstraps're expectin' you?" the sentry asked with a doubtful note in his rasp.
"Hoyt Gilstrap's supposed to be expecting me."
"Who told him to expect you?"
Ritter hesitated a beat, then said, "Jerome."
"Jerome ...?" The shotgun guard seemed to search his dulled memory.
Ritter was more angry than worried now. Where the fuck was Jerome?
"Didn't he come through here in the last few minutes?"
"I seen one raccoon in the last hour, buddy. This is the back gate. Guests enter through the front gate, mile north of here. Who's Jerome?"
"Jerome Barnett," Ritter said calmly. "He was supposed to tell somebody I was coming. Tall, acne-scarred geek in a little red Viper. He was supposed to be here by now. Maybe he got held up. I –"
"I ain't seen nobody like that," the shadowy guard said. "No geek, no Viper. Not tonight anyway."
"Mmm hmm," Ritter said, nodding as he thought this over. "Well, maybe I'll come back some other time."
He shifted into reverse, figuring it might be time to get the fuck out of here, but the cold twin muzzles of the guard's shotgun suddenly poked against his jaw, and he froze.
"Sit tight," the guard ordered. The flashlight beam was lowered and Ritter heard the rustle of the man's raincoat. Out of the corner of his eye, Ritter saw that the man now fumbled with a walkie-talkie. There was a click and some static.
"This is Otis here. Over."
A moment later, a responding click. "What?" answered a metallic but unmistakably female voice.
"Uh, got a character here, drivin' a black Buick Grand National. Says the boss is expectin' him. Says somebody named Jerome sent him. Says he wants to make a delivery."
Click, hisss, silence. Except for the idling engine.
Then the female voice came back with, "Bring him in."
The guard clicked back and said, "Okay, comin' in. Uh, over." He didn't seem to be comfortable using two-way radio etiquette or protocol, or whatever. To Ritter he said, "Okay, I'm gonna open the gate, then I want you to drive real slow up to the house, so's I can walk alongside ya. You understand the drill, friend?"
Since the shotgun was still pressed tight against his cheek, Ritter said, "You got it, friend."
The guard eased the shotgun away, then walked up into the headlight beams to punch the buttons on the gate lock, and Ritter got his first clear look at Otis: a hulking, middle-aged oaf in a wrinkled black-plastic raincoat, with a shaved, bullet-shaped head and a battered bulldog face of an ex-prizefighter. The shotgun in the crook of his arm was a long, double-barrel 12-gauge, a weapon capable of horrendous damage.