Stepping off the boat and onto the land of the free was a feeling like none other for Ron Cavanaugh. He’d been gone for almost six years, and not because he didn’t love his country or because it didn’t love him. It was just the way it happened for him. But that spring morning in 1954 was one of the happiest moments in his life up to that point. After stepping off the long, slow boat from England he leaned on his cane more than he needed to and watched the men unload the large crates with a crane. One of the big containers held his belongings, including his Norton Big Four. He’d sent almost everything else he owned back in the mail.
As he waited for them to get his crate Ron leaned against the wall out an outbuilding and had a smoke. It was unusually cold for this time of year and he was taking some comfort in the heat of the cigarette held between two fingers. The Port of New Orleans had gotten a lot busies since he was a kid and he realized this could be a while. But he was anxious to get home to his small town in Mississippi, just over the border but a few hours by the roads as he remembered them. For the first time in years he’d see his parents, his brother, and all of his friends. He’d meet with Kate Nass and show him his battle scars and the bike, though he was sure Kate would one up him with a story.
Ron always wondered why Kate’s mother saddled him with the name Kate. It fit, though, because the man was one of a kind. He was an old cuss while still in diapers and probably the meanest man to serve in the first War to End All Wars. Kate joked that Hitler shot himself when he found out Kate was heding to Europe. People who knew Kate well weren’t so sure he wasn’t at least partially telling the truth. Between serving his country — the second go around taking a lot of string pulling and old favors to arrange for his fat, old ass — he’d been a private detective. In that career he’d made as many enemies of clients as the people he was hired to watch.
Once, when Ron was a teenager, he asked him why he’d want to do something that was such a hard job with odd hours and no respect. Kate’s response was, “Dames and smokes.” Apparently it was a common question for men in that field. Is it for the peeping? Do they hate people, or just men, or just women? The last part always depended on which spouse was assumed to be cheating. Kate’s bread and butter had been suspicious husbands and wives all up and down the deep south — from Jackson and Birmingham to New Orleans, to Mobile. It was the triangle of Kate Nass, spying on cheaters and landing evidence for divorces.
Ron knew he enjoyed the peeping, though. He was that sort of scumbag, but he was good at it. Kate was the kind of man you had to know well to get the full idea. A short, portly guy with a walrus mustache, horseshoe badlness, and what hair he had unkempt most of the time. His hair had started to fall out when he was in his teen years, and Kate said he figured God was a woman, too, and all women hate Kate Nass.
People also said he had a funny limp, and a funnier gace all cragged with pits. His eternal companion was a stogie, either hanging from his mouth or in his hands. If he wasn’t on the job he had a glass of cheap whisky, and if he was on it, he had a glass of better whisky. He preferred Scotch, neat, aged in sherry casks, but he’d drink a good bourbon, too. Even when he wasn’t working Kate was trying to work, sneaking around town and seeing everything with his near-black eyes. Dishevelled, drunk often, wearing a steel-blue suit with a red and black tie and sweat-stained undershirts. He’d wander around his office in circles, talking to himself or his visitor, waggling his cigar at invisible suspects and clients as he worked through the case in his mind.
Music often accompanied him from the record player in the corner, one of the few surfaces not covered in stacks of paper that threatened to topple at any moment. The top pages were almost always ringed with coffee stains from his mugs. There were rats, of course, but Kate wasn’t a good enough shot with his pistol to kill them.
The one major redeeming quality Kate had was hating everyone the same. Nobody was a nigger, or a spic or a darkie. There were no gooks or wetbacks. Everyone was the same to Kate — “assholes.” He even referred to clients as assholes when they weren’t in ear shot, unless they hadn’t paid. The only exception to the rule of assholes were attractive woman, who were always “dames.” That is, until they slapped Kate or turned down an obscene offer — then she became a “bitch.” Most women eventually became bitches in Kate’s eyes. But then, the only people he regularly spoke well of were Ron’s father, his war buddies, and Ron’s grandfather. Pretty much everyone else had either been a client or a victim.
Except Chester “Chet” Mason, Kate’s only friend other than Ron’s father. They had a beer fight about a week before Pearl Harbor was hit, and Kate run Chet’s bell with a beer bottle good and well. Chet was never right after that, and Kate still regretted it. Kate had looked after Chet after that, but the weird thing was, Chet got better at running his truckstop once he was slowed down in the brain. It was like he refocused on just getting everything done where it needed to be and everything else in life took a back seat to that.
Finally, two dock hands came over to see if he was waiting on anything in particular. Ron indicated the one that had “CAVENAUGH” stencilled across it, wondering how the guy who packed it managed to misspell his last name when it was clearly written on the form and payment slip. Then one of the men noticed the jacket Ron was wearing and pointed at it.
“You a pilot?” He asked.
“Not anymore,” Ron said. He dropped his cigarette on the ground and stepped on it, twisting his foot and grinding it into the ground.
The man who’d asked nodded at him. “You need anything?”
“My crate opened,” Ron said. “It’s got my ride out of here in it.”
The two men went to it, getting the large crate open faster than Ron expected. He tipped them a couple bucks each and got on the bike, heading out toward home. Once he cleared New Orleans the drive back was mostly pine trees and then more pine trees. Despite the cold, the day was mostly clear and sunny and he enjoyed the ride. As he approached town it seemed like not much had changed. There was more to the town, of course, as the businessmen fought hard to bring the town up and make it the Mississippi version of New Orleans. They couldn’t get a foothold there and wanted their own little metropolis to play power games in.
He stopped at the quickstop to gas up and saw his high-school friend Murphy “Stretch” Dwyer stepping out of a very nice car as the young kid who worked at the station came up and began filling the car. Ron got off his bike and approached, waiting for Stretch to return. When he did, Ron hung back for a second until he got in the car, then helped himself into the passenger seat. His friend jumped and bowed up at Ron.
“What, Murph, you owe money to the wrong guys — again?” He asked.
“Ron, you fink. When did you get back in town?”
“Just now. What kind of car is this boat?”
“Wow, Ron, when did you get back in the country? This is a Chevrolet Bel Air. It’s only the –”
ROn interrupted, holding a hand up and signalling surrender. “I don’t want to hear about how great your car is, Stretch. If I let you start that you’ll be on about it until the Second Coming. I remember how long you talked about your new bicycle in third grade.”
When Stretch laughed, Ron noticed a suspicious band of gold on his finger. “When’d Stretch Dwyer get hitched?”
STretch looked guilty. “Aw, Ron, I wanted you to be my best man but you were gone and we just…”
“She wouldn’t put out without a ring, huh? So who is the unlucky lady?”
“That’s a nice bike, Ron,” Stretch said.
“Who is it?” Ron pressed. The deflection only increased his curiosity.
“Ron, you were gone for six years. We barely heard from you, you weren’t… Don’t punch me. Lynn and I got married.”
Ron almost punched him in the face. How could Stretch marry Ron’s gi rl? Then he sighed and shook his head. She hadn’t been his girl since before he left, and at least she was with a decent guy instead of the losers all of her friends fawned over.
“No, Murph, it’s all right. She and I split it off. I didn’t expect her to wait for me to get my head straight.”
“Things have changed, Ron. The town is growing, bit by bit. Chet now runs a trucking service in addition to his truckstop. While you were off trying to conquer the world…”
“Hey mister, is this your bike?” The boy asked, sticking his head in the driver’s side window and totally ignoring Stretch.
“Yeah, fill ‘er up?”
“Sure thing, mister!”
“So while I was out shooting at commies, the town grew and you moved in on my girl.” He let it hang in the air for just a moment longer than Stretch was comfortable with before punching his shoulder. “Just messing with you, relax.”
“Did you see a lot of action?” Stretch asked.
“Not while I was wearing my uniform!” Ron said. Then he waited, and waited more, as it took Stretch a moment to get it. The town sure had changed. When they were younger that sort of joke would have been the first place Stretch looked for humor. Apparently getting married took his mind off that sort of thing. “Not until the end,” Ron said. “Not really a lot at all. My last flight, I took shrapnel to the knee. Place barely landed in one piece. It was like courting a girl for months just to get five minutes of second base.”
“What’d you fly?”
“The Thunderjet, F-84. I was with the 49th Fighter Wing, but like I said, I didn’t do a lot of flying in combat zones. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to come back here and pretend I did all the flying and saved the world. I shot some guys down and blew up some ground targets, but Sunon was the most action I saw, and it was over pretty fast.”
“How’s the knee?”
“It’ll heal, a bit more. I spent about six months at a ROyal Air Force station called Molesworth watching paint dry. Do you know how hard it is to go from flying to piloting a wheelchair around a hospital full of Brits?”
“Why didn’t they bring you home?”
“There was some talk about some joint training mess with England, but by the time I was out of the hospital my service was up, and my knee wasn’t in good enough shape for me to re-up and get to fly. I didn’t want to be a desk jockey.”
Ron got out of the car and paid the kid for the gas, and then added a tip. “See you around, Murph. Tell Lynn I said hi, maybe we can get together some time.”
He watched Murphy drive off into the distance. It was weird being home and seeing people. Murphy was right about Ron not writing or keeping in contact. He didn’t want to be in contact with them. Ron had been a punk kid, mad at the town and the world with no rhyme or reason. Then he turned into a hotshot pilot flying so fast he felt like nothing could catch him, nothing could touch huim. Then something did touch him. The cool breeze made his knee ache. Now he couldn’t run, and they wouldn’t let him fly anymore. He slipped the kickstand up and started his bike. He couldn’t fly, but he could ride.
Despite his misplaced anger at the town he had to admit it was nice being home and hearing familiar voices and accents. His parents were happy to see him when he got to their house, ecstatic even. They had a good dinner, and he brought them up to speed on his adventures across the globe. After they ate, he and his father retired to the study. His dad handed him a fine, hand-rolled cigar. Ron spun it in his fingers as his dad held the lighter up, keeping it just off the flame, puffing enough to get the tip cherry red and smoking. They sat down at the desk and his dad poured each a Scotch.
“In the morning I’m going to go see Kate,” Ron said.
His father froze, his hand midway to his own Scotch glass. “Son, I… didn’t you get my letter?” Ron shook his head. “Ron… Kate was murdered three months ago.”
This time Ron froze. An ill feeling washed over him, and he felt simultaneously sick and angry. The word murdered echoed in his mind. It wasn’t a surprising way for his friend to have died, but he hadn’t expected to hear it. He downed the Scotch and puffed at his cigar. Dread and an enormous weight on his shoulders were fighting with the anger and alcohol.
“Who did it? Why?”
“We don’t know.”
Ron blew a single smoke ring and watched it dissipate. Now he had to hurt people. For Kate to be murdered and no one to find the person or persons responsible couldn’t stand. There were things he’d have to figure out in the mean time like where he would start looking. Kate had enough enemies to take him a life time to sort through. But someone actually going so far as to kill him was entirely farther than any anger he’d ever seen directed Kate’s way. He leaned back in the chair. This wasn’t some jilted woman angry because of the truth of the photographs Kate presented her, or an angry husband caught giving it to the maid. But it could be someone Kate photographed who felt they had a lot to lose.
“What about his office and things?”
“That was in the letter, too. He owned the building his office and apartment are in, straight and clear. Without any family… he left it to us. I haven’t been in there, except to watch and be sure the cops didn’t mess anything up when they were searching for clues. I didn’t know what to do, and was going to wait on you to let me know what you wanted to do.”
Ron nodded. “I think tomorrow I’ll start going through it, looking to see what Kate was up to.”
“Are you going to pay me to fly?” Ron asked.
“I can fly, I can shoot, or I can be an engineer. There’s not an airport here, I’m not going to be a cop, and what can I engineer in town? For now, until I decide what to do next, I’m going to try and figure out what Kate was up to. Maybe some people owed him money and weren’t keen on paying.”
“There’s an airstrip now.”
“What?” Ron asked.
“You said there wasn’t an airport. There is an air strip.”
Ron nodded. Somehow flying a crop duster didn’t appeal to him just now. At this moment he pictured himself in a steel blue suit with a red and black tie, figuring out who murdered his friend and offering them some lead-coated attitude adjustment. He shook his head and leaned back, puffing on the cigar some more. It was a fine smoke, straight from Cuba and well cared for.
“So, Lynn and Murphy. Who knew?” Ron said to break the silence.
His dad laughed and poured him more Scotch. They spent the better part of the evening catching up, including a more detailed explanation of what happened to his knee. The unpleasantness he kept in at dinner came out. His dad understood; Winston Cavanaugh had been shot by a German sniper and barely made it. At the end of the night, Ron set the nub of his cigar in the ashtray and requested that his dad leave the key to the office and apartment. Winston agreed and Ron went up to his old room.
It was as he’d left it. Somehow his mother had even resisted taking down his scantily clad pin-up girl that had been there since he was fourteen. His old radio sat next to the window, the place with the best reception from his favorite station. The bed had been made that evening, with fresh sheets. He tore off his shoes and collapsed onto the bed but couldn’t sleep right away. The idea that his friend had been murdered kept him up for a good long while. He mentally played over various revenge and justice scenarios in his mind.
When he came back to town Ron hadn’t known what he would do. Now he knew with certainty what he had to do.