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      SHOWDOWN

      (Previously Gun Truth)

      Ed Gorman

      

      Digital Edition published by Crossroad Press

      © 2012 / Ed Gorman

      Copy-edited by: David Dodd

      Cover Design By: David Dodd

      Background Images provided by:

      Image from the public domain

      Chapter One

      You couldn't pick up a newspaper these days without finding an article or editorial about how barbed wire had changed everything out west. Some were for it, some were agin it.

      It was 1886 and people were still arguing about it. Some said it made good friends; some said barbed wire made blood enemies.

      Al Woodward was agin it. While it was fine for ranchers and farmers and livestock breeders, it was hell on insurance investigators.

      Take tonight.

      Al Woodward, a freelance insurance investigator for several different companies, had been climbing through some barbed wire when one of the barbs tore the right buttock of his new trousers. And dug a painful little trench of hot blood across the same buttock.

      But Al was more worried about his trousers than his buttock.

      These weren't your Sears & Roebucks or your Monkey Wards at $1.49. These were $3.98 trousers bought at one of the best men's stores in Chicago, purchased only two weeks ago.

      Al cursed himself for wearing these tonight. Damned barbed wire.

      Now that he stood upright, his hand unconsciously favoring the rip in his trousers, he looked around at the large round lake whose surface shimmered with moonlight, some of the shimmers even playing off the scrub pines that encircled three sides of the water. Pretty as a painting of a lake at nighttime, but

      Damned barbed wire. And damned stupid dime-novel melodrama. Meeting out here. There wasn't any place closer to meet?

      Al Woodward was in town working on an arson case. He'd been here two days now and had just this afternoon started putting the scheme and the person responsible together. The local fire folks, amateurs at best, hadn't seen any evidence of arson. But to Al it was obvious. He'd talked to some people who lived near the small factory, and the way they described the fire, there wasn't much doubt that it had been set by human hand. He'd even found two pieces of two-by-four that had been scorched in a way that indicated kerosene.

      Al had also turned up a man who claimed—by letter—that he had been paid to start the fire. He'd found the letter late this afternoon in his hotel room. Pushed under the door.

      The letter contained a map of the lake here, and how to reach it, and the time to be there and meet the arsonist.

      Well, here was pants-torn Al . . . where the hell was the man who'd summoned him?

      He heard a distant noise from the town of Claybank. He responded instinctively by turning his head in that direction. And when he did, he saw the object on the narrow band of sandy shore that ran around sixty percent of the lake.

      He had a pretty good idea of what it was, which was why he hesitated at first to tromp over there for a closer look. He wasn't a brave man and never pretended to be. When saloon friends boasted of their courage, he kept his mouth shut. He was no hero.

      What had moments before been a lovely scene of moonlight-limned pines and lake had quickly become a deserted and sinister collection of shadowy crevices, forbidding woods, and a body of water that held God knew what.

      He was for that instant a child again, afraid of the dark because of all those stupid ghost stories his cousin Purvis was always telling him when he stayed overnight. Even at seven years old, he'd recognized those stories as so much bushwah. But they scared him nonetheless. (He was a suggestible boy, just as he became a suggestible man, unable to read any medical articles because he came down with every disease he'd ever read about, totaling, by now, six bouts of leprosy and something like forty-one heart attacks.)

      He had to go over there and see what the hell was lying on the shore. Even from here, it was obvious what it was. But maybe the person was still alive. Maybe there would be something Al Woodward could do to help him.

      He didn't hurry.

      And he kept moving his eyes around, looking for the merest sign of life. Maybe the man had been felled by an animal. Or maybe been bitten by a snake. Or maybe simply had a heart attack like one of the forty-one heart attacks he himself had had.

      But then again

      It didn't take an Edgar Allan Poe to come up with the idea that maybe the man (and the closer he got, the more clearly the shape became a facedown man) had come out here to meet Al and was then met by the man he was going to snitch on. And the snitchee killed him.

      Happened all the time. Al, right off the top of his head, could think of six or seven incidents like this working out of the Kansas City office alone.

      Arson was a serious charge, especially when it involved, as this case did, the death of a man who'd been trapped inside. The man had been a late-night worker who'd been trapped in the flames because they engulfed the building so quickly. Now, maybe the arsonist hadn't planned on killing anybody—probably hadn't, in fact—but that didn't matter. A man was dead, murdered. First degree, second degree, manslaughter. That would be up to a jury to decide.

      The man wore a tan twill shirt and tan twill trousers. The kind of clothes, almost uniformlike, that workmen in the city had started wearing.

      His elbows were cocked on either side of him. His feet were in the gently lapping dark water from about the top of the ankle on down. He had dark hair, small ears, wide shoulders, slender hips. There was really nothing remarkable about him at all.

      By this time, Al Woodward was on his haunches. He gaped around because he had this feeling that somebody was watching him.

      That darn Purvis.

      He had a terrible thought: Maybe he was going to pee his pants. Wouldn't that be something? At his age? He'd peed them right in front of Purvis one night. Humiliating.

      Al really didn't have time to register much but pain. The man came up so quickly—right up from the beach like somebody who'd been buried alive—and locked his hands on Al's throat so forcefully that Al felt his life choking away immediately.

      Al's eyes began to pop. Blood imbued his cheeks with an ugly redness. Sweat beads like transparent warts covered his forehead. Saliva began to erupt out of him. His nostrils ran with blood. His false teeth flew out and hit his killer in the face. Far from being annoyed by this, the killer only laughed, as if the false teeth had been a part of a joke.

      The killer had thought this through.

      His next move was to spin around—taking Al with him—and push Al into the dark, lapping lake itself. Noise of water splashing furiously. Noise of Al making strangled screams in his throat. Noise of the killer breathing hard. This wasn't easy, not easy at all.

      And then the killer baptized Al unto death. Held his head under water until Al had ceased his useless thrashing, his faint, would-be cries.

      The killer spent only a few more minutes with Al, roping twenty-pound blocks of iron onto each ankle and then swimming the corpse out to the middle of the lake, where the water was at least thirty feet deep and numbingly cold.

      For a long moment, Al bobbed on the surface of the lake, a sad puffy figure painted gold by the moon, and then the water around him began bubbling and his sightless eyes addressed the earth for the last time.

      The vortex took him then.

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