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Authors: JM Gulvin

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BOOK: The Long Count
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Isaac Bowen spent the night in Shreveport, Louisiana, and in the morning he took a train to Texarkana and a bus from there to Paris. Late afternoon, he walked five miles west on the county road until he came to the junction where it forked with Route 38. Perched on the top rail of a fence he looked up at the sky where rain was threatening to fall. A few minutes later he heard the sound of an engine in the distance and saw the speck of gray as a vehicle approached. Straightening his tie he fixed the collar on his tunic, picked up his duffel and stuck out his thumb.

A pickup truck, it rumbled towards him but did not slow and Isaac lifted his hand. An older guy at the wheel, he was wearing bibbed denim overalls and a battered-looking hat. Spotting Isaac finally, he came to a halt ten yards further on.

‘Where you headed, son?’ Leaning across the seat he opened the door.

‘Up towards Monkstown; house not far from the lake.’

The old guy indicated through the windshield. ‘I’m driving 38 so I can only take you as far as the T.’

‘Thank you, sir: the T junction will be just fine.’ Throwing his duffel over his shoulder Isaac got in.

They drove west across flatland, the old man working the wheel while Isaac sat upright at the other end of the bench.

‘Got us a little rain blowing in,’ the old man said. ‘Ain’t been so bad over this way but out west they ain’t seen a drop since fall.’ He nodded to Isaac’s uniform. ‘I guess you wouldn’t know too much about that, though, huh? I guess you been overseas. Good to see a man in uniform, son, especially right now what with all them
kids waving placards and shouting the odds. Don’t know what the world’s coming to.’

‘Was always going to happen,’ Isaac told him. ‘The service I mean. When I was growing up a soldier is all I was ever going to be. My dad was in the army and his dad before him, his granddaddy before that.’

‘Is that a fact?’ the old man said. ‘Just get back from over there then, did you?’

Isaac nodded.

‘So where is it you live?’

‘Right now I’ll be staying with my dad.’ He pointed. ‘Our place is way up there in the woods.’

The old man looked the width of the cab. ‘Me, I farm a few acres a little ways south. Don’t know many people up thataway anymore, though if I was a sight more neighborly I would. Wife died a few years back and I kind of got took up with being by myself.’

Isaac looked ahead. ‘Well, sir, maybe you can come visit. I only just got back and I aim to surprise my dad.’

The old man said nothing further. He concentrated on the road ahead until they came to the T junction and he dropped Isaac before turning south.

Isaac walked in the opposite direction, making his way deep into the woods with the wind getting up and the first traces of lightning scattering the landscape ahead. Dry still here, he stepped up his pace and came to the mailbox at the bottom of the drive. He paused now, squinting at a car parked a little deeper into the woods. A Ford Fairlane, two-door with Louisiana license plates, he walked over to take a closer look. There was nobody around, but he could see a briefcase on the back seat and a weighty-looking tape machine with a reel of tape loaded and a microphone clipped to the side.

When he got to the house the front door was locked so he rang the bell but nobody came. He rang it again and still nobody came so he walked the length of the patio to the kitchen door only
to find that was locked as well. With a shrug of his shoulders he crossed to the garage and found the door closed but not locked. Inside, his father’s Pontiac sedan was parked next to the old pickup truck, the keys to which were hanging on a hook. Fetching those, Isaac climbed behind the wheel and backed the truck out then switched off the engine and left the truck on the drive. Inside the garage again he paused to consider the metal trapdoor in the floor that was visible now the truck was gone.

A storm shelter. He lifted the trap and climbed down the ladder into the darkened passage below. He stood there listening for a moment then he sought the light switch on the wall. The passage led to a large, square room made of concrete where his father kept sleeping bags and camp beds as well as water coolers, a propane stove and lots of canned food. From there another passage carried under the drive to another door with no lock, only a handle. Opening that, Isaac was faced by a panel made up of oak boards running lengthwise bottom to top. Working his fingers down the right-hand side he found the spot and the panel swung in.

His father’s study. He stood there catching the stale scent in the air and sniffed like a dog. The door to the basement corridor was open and as he moved around the desk he caught his foot against the leg. On one knee now, he retied a loose shoelace and noticed some tiny stains on the floor. He stared at them then flicked on the lamp but that did not give off enough light so he crossed to the wall and the switch for the overhead spots. Again he paused; the passage that led to the foot of the stairs was dark and chill, no sound of a TV or radio playing and no light shining from above.

‘Dad?’ he called. ‘Are you home? It’s Isaac, back from Vietnam.’

There was no reply. With light flooding the study now he went back to the desk and considered those stains again. A little air escaped his lips. A few blackened-looking dots, scraping at one with his fingernail he tasted it and his expression was grim. His attention was taken by the weapons cabinet fixed on the wall where
one of the hooks was missing its gun. He looked at the floor once more and then back to that empty hook, then he heard the doorbell sound from above. Closing the wooden panel he cast another short glance at the gun cabinet then made his way along the basement passage and climbed the steps to the hall.

Through the window he could see a Fannin County prowl car parked in the drive outside. A skinny-looking deputy in his twenties was at the door in his light brown uniform with his hat in his hands, hair cut close and his cheeks carrying old acne scars.

‘Mr Bowen?’ he said, looking closely at Isaac’s uniform. ‘Sir, are you Isaac Bowen?’

Isaac nodded.

‘We’ve been trying to find you, sir, through the Army. Is it all right if I come in?’

Isaac ushered him into the kitchen and the deputy stood there shifting his weight.

‘Last couple of days,’ he said, ‘we were making a whole bunch of calls to see if we could track you down.’

‘Why?’ Isaac said. ‘What’s up?’

The deputy worked a palm around the brim of his hat. ‘Well, sir,’ he began, ‘the fact is I have some bad news. Mr Palmer from the farm down the road there, he called the department just now and told us he’d given you a ride. He figured who you were but he didn’t let on, on account of how he didn’t think it was down to him to be the one to tell you. That had to be one of us.’

Isaac’s gaze was taut. ‘One of you – tell me what?’

The deputy looked him in the eye. ‘Mr Bowen; there’s no easy way to say this. I’m afraid your father is dead. I’m real sorry, sir; but it seems he took a gun to his head.’

Isaac stumbled backwards into the living room as if he’d been hit. One hand to the mantelpiece he leaned his weight before bending double as if he was about to throw up.

‘Are you kidding me? My father – dead?’

The deputy avoided his eye.

‘A gun to his head? But why? Why would he do that? Why would he shoot himself?’

The deputy lifted his shoulders. ‘I’m not qualified to say, I’m afraid. I don’t know is the fact of it. I said as much to the Ranger.’

‘Ranger? What Ranger?’ Isaac stared at him now.

‘Well sir, it was a Texas Ranger that found his body and I have to say his first reaction was that your dad had been murdered, but the county doesn’t see it like that. I’m real sorry, but he took his own life.’ A little helplessly he gestured. ‘This house is pretty isolated and it seems he was very much on his own. We’ve asked around but there wasn’t anybody that knew him real well and none of them had ever met you.’

‘I haven’t been here,’ Isaac said. ‘I’ve done three tours, been fighting in Vietnam.’

‘Yes sir, I can see that, and I’m sorry you had to come home to this.’

Isaac stared hard at the floor. He was biting down on his lip. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘A Ranger said someone killed him and you’re telling me he killed himself?’

‘That’s what he told me,’ the deputy confirmed. ‘The Ranger I mean. But it was a first reaction and he wasn’t here very long, and it’s a county matter anyhow. Detective Crowley was here much longer than he was and he sees it as suicide. There was no sign of anybody else ever being here and no indication of a struggle. And your dad – well, I’m sorry, but he had a gun in his hand when I saw him and that gun was registered here at the house.’

Isaac had tears in his eyes, they were weighted and shining. He was shaking as he stood there looking from the deputy to the photograph and back.

‘Is there anything I can do for you, sir?’ the deputy asked. ‘Anyone you want me to call? What about your mother?’ He regarded the photo himself. ‘Where’s she at, sir? Would you like for us to try and get a-hold of her?’

‘I don’t know where she is,’ Isaac said. ‘She left when my brother and me were kids.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry about that. I guess it’s best if we leave it to you. I can see how this is a terrible shock.’ The deputy shook his head. ‘I never had to tell nobody nothing like this before and I’m sick to my stomach, I swear.’

Isaac did not seem to hear him. He was staring into space.

The deputy flapped his hat. ‘Anyway,’ he said, ‘your daddy’s body is in the mortuary over in Bonham. If you want to see him you’ll need to call the coroner but I’m sure it would be OK. There’ll be an autopsy of course, but I figure you’ll want to make the funeral arrangements and there’s a parlor on Chestnut and 5th.’ Turning to go he glanced again at the photo. ‘I guess that’s you and your brother there, am I right?’

Isaac nodded.

‘You look alike. Not identical, but about the same age.’

‘We’re twins,’ Isaac told him. ‘He was born fifteen minutes ahead.’

‘Listen, sir, why I’m asking – we tried to get hold of him as well. Your brother. When we couldn’t trace you we tried to find him, but there’s no address for him anywhere about. We got his name from letters you wrote your dad, which are back in his desk, by the way. We couldn’t find an address for him though. I guess he’s over there in Vietnam too?’

Isaac shook his head. ‘No. Ishmael isn’t in the service.’

‘Oh, OK. It doesn’t matter. I guess you know where he’s at and you-all can get in touch. It’d be better him finding out about this from family rather than us.’ Again he flapped his hat. ‘You have our condolences, sir. Everybody at the department, we’re all real sorry for your loss.’

When he was gone Isaac went back to the living room as the clouds let go and rain started to rattle the windows. For a long time he stared at the photo on the mantelpiece and then he got to his feet. He was about to go back down to the study when he
heard another car in the drive. The Fairlane he had seen parked on the dirt road, he watched as it pulled up and Dr Beale from the hospital climbed out.

Brows deeply furrowed, Isaac had the front door open before Beale could ring the bell. ‘Doctor,’ he said. ‘I didn’t know that was your car out there. What’re you doing all the way out here?’

Beale stared past him into the hall. ‘I came to see your father,’ he said. ‘I meant to offer you a ride yesterday and I don’t know why I didn’t. Your dad’s been calling the hospital to see if we’d heard anything from the fire marshal. When you showed up, I guess it prompted me to drive on out.’

Slowly, Isaac nodded. He was gazing beyond Beale to the garage where the trapdoor was lying flat.

‘Is he in?’ Beale said. ‘Your father, I’d like to talk to him. Is he here?’

Pacing around him Isaac strode across the drive to the garage and stared at the hole in the floor. For a moment Beale hesitated on the step. Then, with a short glance inside the house, he followed Isaac across the drive.

‘What’s down there?’ he said, indicating the trapdoor.

‘A storm shelter my dad put in.’ Eyes glassy, Isaac’s voice was distant. ‘He was clever like that, learned how to do stuff, what with all those years in the army. There’s a room down there with cans of food and that, first aid and water. Dad, he … Dad …’ He was sweating suddenly, lines of perspiration running from his hair all the way to his jaw.

‘Are you all right?’ Beale asked. ‘Where is Ike? I need to talk to him. Is he here?’

‘No.’ Isaac’s voice cracked as he spoke. ‘He’s not here. He won’t be here. He’s dead, Doctor. A sheriff’s deputy told me he killed himself.’

For a moment Beale just stared. Mouth open he lifted a hand as if to gesture then he let it fall.

Isaac was trembling, he was shaking his head. ‘He came by just
now – you must’ve passed his vehicle. He told me my dad shot himself.’ He had tears in his eyes. ‘I don’t believe it. He wouldn’t do that, not my dad. He was a soldier. All his life in the army and what reason could he have?’ The pitch of his voice was rising and Beale took a short pace back. ‘That deputy told me a Texas Ranger found his body and he said somebody shot him, only the detectives from the sheriff’s department think he killed himself.’ Again he shook his head. ‘My dad would never do that. He’s no coward. He’s the toughest man I ever knew.’ Spreading his fingers he gestured. ‘Suicide, Doctor. No Bowen would do it. We’re soldiers. We trace a line all the way back to when we carried colors in the war for the South.’

Beale looked down at the open trapdoor. ‘But if that’s what the sheriff’s department said?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Isaac stated. ‘They don’t know my dad and I don’t care what they think, he would never take his own life. My mother left years ago and he survived that. He brought me and Ish up on his own and he’s dealt with Ish being in and out of the hospital. There’s no way he’d abandon us. It doesn’t matter that we’re grown. If he was shot in the head then somebody shot him. He would not shoot himself.’

He paused for a moment then he murmured, ‘They must have been watching the house.’ He glanced towards the tree line then stabbed a finger at the hole in the floor. ‘They must’ve found out about the passage. They must’ve seen Dad down here when the trapdoor was up and this is how they snuck in.’ He was nodding to himself. ‘There’s a passage down there that leads all the way to a wood panel that opens into Dad’s study. He put it in as an escape route so we wouldn’t have to cross the yard if a tornado hit. That’s where they found him, sitting at his desk in his study.’ Again he paused and then again he gestured. ‘There’s a switch down there in the passage and you have to know where it’s at, but I reckon if somebody was down there long enough they’d be able figure it out.
There’s a door that opens onto this wall of wood and that’d tell you there’s got to be something behind it. Come on, Dr Beale. I’ll show you.’

BOOK: The Long Count
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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