By Patrick J. Lambe


     My greatest achievement as a police officer actually occurred when I was off duty, over twenty years ago during my first week of paid vacation from the force. An acquaintance of mine and I had driven up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for the beginning of deer hunting season.

      We could see our breath that pre-dawn October morning as we trudged up a hunting ground recommended to us by a flannel clad logger we had a few drinks with at a bar the pervious night. There were a large number of vehicles parked in the available spaces between balsam fir, cedar and maple trees lining both sides of the road leading to the trailhead.

      A police officer, dressed in a heavy dark brown nylon jacket, with a wool cap pulled down around his ears under a smoky the bear hat, separated himself from the crowd milling around a knot of emergency vehicles and walked up to us.

      “Sorry boys, but you’re gonna have to hunt someplace up the road. I’m not much of a hunter myself, but I’m sure someone here can recommend a place.”

       He explained that a little boy of seven had gone missing the night before. My friend and I already felt the effects of a cold spell coming in from Lake Superior. The radio station we tuned to on the way in from the hotel said they expected the first freeze of the season that night. 

      We returned our hunting rifles to the rack behind my pick up truck and volunteered to help out. The officer thanked us and assigned a local man to keep an eye on us because we had never been to this area before.

      We’d been searching for half the day when we came to a steep natural rock formation. The rocks were covered with moist algae, already crystallizing with the cold in the spaces hidden away from direct sunlight.

      The local man was in his mid-fifties, and although a lifetime outdoorsman, didn’t appear to be in the best physical shape. He thought we were crazy to climb up the formation, but my friend and I were twenty-two years old and full of enthusiasm. According to the local, we were wasting our time; a boy would never bother to go up there if he was lost and scared in the woods.  Huffing in exasperation, he agreed to meet us on the other side after we insisted that we’d make the climb.

      We found the boy near the top of the formation, wedged in a narrow cave, conscious but going into the first stages of hypothermia. We wrapped him in our jackets to stop his uncontrollable shivering. I stayed with the kid as my friend continued down the other side of the formation to hook up with the local man, who had the radio.

       The kid was in much better shape after we’d gotten his body temperature down and packed him into the ambulance at the trailhead. At least two search parties had been by the rocks the day before, and I asked the boy why he didn’t respond when the volunteers had called out his name.

      He said his parents told him to never go with a stranger, even if they knew his name. I thought the whole situation ironic and near tragic, until years later, when I learned that evil often did call you by name, but the words were more often spoken by someone you would not necessarily consider a stranger. 

*  *  * 

      I’d been called to Hank’s farm on official business before. A disgruntled farmhand once poured a five gallon can of gasoline over the contents of the equipment shed and held a lit zippo lighter out at arms length as I talked him out of a pyrotechnics display. Hank’s elderly father had experienced chest pains during a Fourth of July weekend barbecue. A domestic dispute whisky had helped get out hand called in by a wife who later refused to press charges.

      Dent corn, interspersed with an occasional county road was the only feature for miles around Hank’s place. This part of Iowa was given over to cornfields and small towns, both emptying out fast after several years of low produce prices.

      Sheriff’s deputies and state troopers formed a circle around Hank’s field. I noticed a garish Cadillac with Louisiana license plates parked amongst the police cars. A rookie state trooper with his hat turned backwards leaned over the hood of one of their patrol cars, an unnatural eagerness in eyes staring down the sight of a fifty caliber Beretta sniper rifle that could punch through a half inch steel plate from three football fields away.

      “Who called the state boys in on this?” I asked Deputy Sanderson when I caught up with him as he stood talking into a radio behind his cruiser, looking at two vehicles facing each other across an expanse of cut corn.

      Hank sat on the hood of his pick up truck, a shotgun lying across his thighs, sipping from a Stroh’s can. Hank’s five-ear old combine stood impotently in the field on three flat tires. I couldn’t make out the features on the man’s face behind the combines controls, but he was talking into a cell phone.

       Sanderson put the radio away and said, “The guy on the combine’s named Jimmy Debaneau. He called it in on a cell phone. He and his partner are New Orleans bounty hunters displaced by the hurricane, picking up work wherever they can get it. You recognize the last name because his uncles’ right over there, talking to the other bounty hunter.”

      Sanderson pointed over to a state trooper van, where a guy around forty, dressed in tan kakis, imported Italian shoes that looked like they’d be ruined after five seconds in the corn, and a pale tropical shirt, talked on a cell phone next to a uniformed state trooper peering through binoculars.

      Sanderson continued.  “There’s a lot of farm equipment in default around these parts after the price fell out of the corn market. I was hoping my last week would be a quiet one.”

      Our budget had been chipped away little by little over the years as the corn farmers moved away after they were forced to sell their parcels to conglomerates who found it economically sound to let the fields lie fallow while they waited for the prices to go up. We had to let two officers go this year. One man went out on early retirement, but Sanedrson was laid off because he was low man on the totem pole.

      Lieutenant Debaneau was the highest-ranking officer from the state police on the scene. We’d butted heads over jurisdiction a couple of times before, but I had a high opinion of him, and I wanted to maintain good relations with his office. Although people were moving away, our case work was growing exponentially as those who staid turned to drinking during idle time waiting for unemployment checks to arrive. The state troopers helped out now that our manpower was down, but they generally only showed up when we invited them.

      Debaneau took his field binoculars from his eyes and shook my hand when I walked up to him. “We’ve got ourselves a situation here Lucas,” he said. “This is Chet Redden. Hank caught him and my idiot nephew before dawn this morning trying to repossess his combine. He shot out three sets of tires with his shotgun.”

      I shook hands with Chet. “Is you’re partner armed?”

      “I’m pretty sure he’s carrying a stun gun,” Chet said. “You could ask him yourself, but his cell phone just died.”

      “You shouldn’t be running around an unfamiliar state with a weapon.”

      “I checked the laws, it’s perfectly legal.”

      Lieutenant Debaneau motioned me to the side with a jerk from his head. “How do you want to play it?” he asked after we’d moved out of earshot of the bounty hunter.

      “I’ve known Hank for over twenty years. He’s always been a reasonable man.”

      Debaneau shook his head and spit out a wad of chewing tobacco onto the ground. “His wrap sheet indicates otherwise.”

      “He’s perfectly reasonable sober.”

      “Check out the pile of aluminum at his feet.” He handed me the field glasses. I made it an even dozen dead soldiers on their way to the recycling bin, perhaps another dozen full ones in the cooler sitting next to Hank on the hood of his pick up.

      I said, “I’m gonna walk out and have a few words with him. Think you can put a net on your boy with the fifty caliber?” 

      “That’s my sister’s kid out there with a shotgun pointed at his head.”

      I undid my pistol belt and handed it over to Debaneau.

      “You sure that’s a good idea?” he said, looking at the gun belt in his hand.

      “There’s too many weapons out there already as far as I’m concerned.” I grabbed a bullhorn out of the state van and said, my voice magnified, “Hank, It’s me, Luke. I’m coming out unarmed to talk to you.”

*  *  *

      The books and TV shows about alcoholic cops usually portrays them as people driven to drink by the daily obstacles they encounter during the course of doing their jobs. I think it might have been the terror of the monotony of the corn fields, combined with a feeling like boredom, only more profound, that led me to spend so much time in barrooms during the first decade and a half of my career as police officer. It was on these worn bar stools, dented like a kernel of corn by the same asses night after night, where I had first made Hank’s acquaintance.

      I wouldn’t say we were friends, until I read an article that outlined several forms of friendships, including one called an ‘anchored friendship’. Some people rarely see each other outside of one location, the anchor. But they formed a floating community, trading intimate details about their lives in this safe environment. Some of us find ourselves forgoing the weight and experience of a friendship or romance in exchange for the anchored friendships we have with the people occupying the bar stools in the haze around us.

      Our community was called McNulty’s Taproom, and it floated on a sea of Jack Danial’s shots, backed up by drafts of Strohs. The only time I saw Hank outside of the bar, besides the occasions I was out to his farmhouse on official business, was when, on a drunken whim twenty years before, we’d decided to go hunting in Michigan.

      *  *  *

      Hank put the beer can down on the hood of his car, shielded his eyes with his free hand, and waved me in.

      “You could at least strap on some Kevlar,” Debaneau said.

      “I don’t see the point. Hank’s not gonna shoot me, and that 50’d leave an equal sized hole on either side of the vest.”

      Debaneau reached into the van, pulled out a bulletproof vest and handed it to me. “Do it for my heart condition then.”

      I strapped it on and walked out to the two vehicles staring at each other in the middle of the cornfield. Hank was wearing old work jeans, Timberland boots and a tucked in kaki chore shirt. The shotgun looked right at home lying on top of the faded denim.

      “Sorry you had to come out here for this mess,” he said. His hair and the stubble on his chin were mostly gray now, with a few touches of black left over from his younger days. “Want a beer?”

      “Don’t mind if I do,” I said, reaching into the cooler and pulling out two cold cans of Strohs.

      “I was only being polite. I didn’t think you were allowed to drink on duty,” Hank said, staring, as I popped open the two beers and started toward the combine.

      “I’m just gonna check up on your playmate. We’ll talk when I get back.”

      Hank took a tiny sip from his beer can, shrugged his shoulders and said, “Suite yourself.”

      I walked over to the combine and looked up into the unconcerned face of an anachronism. Jimmy Debeneau was wearing a black shirt with flame designs across the un-tucked bottom. His jeans were black, as was the pointed leather motorcycle boot propped up on the machine’s huge steering wheel. Jimmy’s blondish hair was slicked back in a pompadour and he had an unlit cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. I’d guess he was in his mid twenties.

      He kept an eye on Hank as he opened up the combine’s door. I handed him up one of the beers and asked, “Do you need a light for your cigarette?”

      He looked confused for a second, then pulled the cigarette out of his mouth with his left hand as he took the can with his right. “I’ve got a lighter, but I didn’t want to smoke in the man’s machine. I noticed the ash tray was empty.” His accent was working class New Orleans, sounding almost like he was raised in Brooklyn.

      “You’d steal a man’s combine, but won’t smoke in it out of politeness? I’m glad to see the concept of a southern gentleman hasn’t gone out of style.” I said.

      “I ain’t stealing nothing. The man hasn’t made a payment for almost a year.”

      I made sure he saw my eyes wander to the stun gun sitting within easy reach of his hand on the combine’s control panel. “I’d feel a whole lot better about this situation if you’d hand me the stun gun.”

      “No offense, sir. But I’d feel a whole lot more inclined to give it to y’all if your buddy handed his shotgun over to you first.”

      “You’ve got to try to see my situation. I’m the official here, and I’m the only guy unarmed,” I said.

      “The ironies not lost on me,” Jimmy said, switching his attention back to Hank.

      “I’ll see what I can do,” I said, turning toward Hank.

      “You have my utmost confidence,” Jimmy replaced the cigarette in his mouth and put the beer can between his legs.

      I smelled gasoline as my shoes crunched cornhusks on my way back to talk to Hank.

      “Where’s the gas smell coming from?” I took up a position in front of the truck.

      “I missed the back tire with the shotgun. I think I punctured the gas tank.”

      “You’ve got to hand the gun over, Hank.”

      “That mans not riding off on my combine.”

      “You’ve been in the service, right?”

      “Reserves mostly. I did a tour during our first round in Iraq.”

      “You ever see one of those fifty calibers over there? The state police just got one, and they gave it to a kid to test drive. He’s got your head in the crosshairs.”

      “He can take a ticket and wait in line, behind the bank, the credit card company, the corn growers association.”

      “You can rent a combine and finish up after you make bail. We may even get them to drop the charges. The whole thing’s a misunderstanding.”

      “I haven’t seen you around McNulty’s recently. Doin the twelve step boogie?” Hank looked at the untouched beer can in my hand.

      I took a sip from it. “Just slowing my act down a little. I can’t tie it on like I used to since I hit forty.”

      “Sorry I got you into this mess, Luke.”

      “Nothing to apologize for. You can thank me by handing over the shotgun. I’ll spring for a couple of rounds after we get the paperwork filed.”

      “Remember the time we found that kid in the woods up in Michigan?”

      “We saved the boys life.”

      “I wondered for years about how he must have felt, waiting in the cold, more scared of strangers calling his name than the elements.” Hank finished off his beer, reached into his cooler and pulled out another one.

      “I think the same thing sometime.”

      “I don’t anymore, haven’t in years. Finish up your beer with me, and I’ll go in with you.”

      “I’m just gonna tell the plan to the kid in drivers seat.”

      “I don’t have anything against him.” Hand said, staring into the hole in the top of his beer can, like there was something important in there. “He’s just doing his job.”

      I ambled over to the combine, waited a second while Jimmy assured himself Hank wasn’t going to send a shell sailing in his direction before he opened the door.

      “You lose a lot in the flood, Jimmy?” I asked.

      “Everything. But I didn’t really have that much to begin with.”

      “Hanks gonna hand me the shotgun and we’re walking in. I want you to leave your stun gun in the combine and come in with us.”

      “Sounds like a plan, my man.”

      “I hear things are getting better in the Big Easy. Maybe it’s time for you and your partner to head back down south?”

      “You don’t have to convince me. There’s not much left to repossess around this shithole.”

      The smell of the gasoline was almost overwhelming as it leaked out of the ruptured tank. “Ease up a little. I raised my family here.”

      “They didn’t stick around too long after graduation though, did they?”

      “Don’t light that cigarette until we’re back at the police cars, there’s gasoline all over the field.”

      “Don’t worry about me mon, I’m a total pro.”

      I went back to the pick up. “Bottoms up,” I said, and we both emptied our beers, crushing the cans in our fists when we’d finished.

      Hank handed over the shogun, and I ejected the shells one by one onto the hood of his truck, and then held it over my head to make sure the cops saw I had control of the situation. Hank eased onto the field and picked up a couple of cornhusks off the ground, letting them go from his fingers; watching them intently as they fluttered in the wind.

      Jimmy climbed down from the combine and we started off toward the cars, Jimmy on my left, Hank on my right.

      I caught a glint of sunlight reflecting off metal in my peripheral vision from Hank’s hand the same instant as the kid with the fifty-caliber, but I was close enough to make out the Zippo lighter Hank flicked open in preparation to throw behind him on the gas pooling under the combine.

      The lighter fell out of Hank’s hand onto the field too far from the gas to ignite anything, but the fifty caliber round did the trick; lighting the combine up like an oil rig exploding out of control after it ripped apart Hank’s upper torso. 

Copyright 2007 by Patrick J. Lambe

Pat Lambe lives in New Jersey, the cradle of civilization.  He’s had short stories in various web sites and magazines, as well as short stories in the Plots with Guns anthology, Dublin Noir, with more coming out soon.  My short story 'Union Card' was listed as a distinguished mystery story in The Best American Mystery Stories of 2005.  I'm currently working on several novels, while working as a telephone technician.