BACKSLIDE

by Steve Elam

We cannot direct the wind
 but we can adjust the sails

–– Anonamous ––

 


"PARABELLUM"
Word coined by German arms maker DWM from the Latin: 

si vis pacem para bellum 
“If you desire peace, prepare for war
"

–– Patrick Sweeny ––

 

 

One man with courage is a majority

–– Thomas Jefferson ––



 

 

PROLOGUE


     

     RICKY JENKINS KILLED THE MOTOR, tightened his grip on the steering wheel of the rusty pickup truck, and coasted down the hill. As the momentum increased so did the difficulty controling the vehicle. The plan seemed pretty good to him back at the college dorms. But now he wished he’d tested it first. What if he woke up Clarice’s father after all, or worse, rammed the bucket of bolts right into her house?

     At the last moment, he got the truck under control and made a quiet stop next to a white picket fence. He breathed a sigh of relief and pushed open the passenger door.

     Clarice Richards stood on her porch, hands balled at her sides, watching Ricky’s predicament. Her heart started again when the truck came to a stop. Then she smoothed her pink cotton dress and tiptoed to the open door.

     The early dawn light lit up Clarice's golden hair.

     Ricky marveled.

     The most beautiful girl in all of Texas!

     He sure wished for a magic chariot to carry away his princess instead of the old Chevy. Clarice had made a promise. They’d waited a long time, forever it seemed.

     Their special day had finally come.

     They drove through Gladewater to the juncture of US Route 80. Ricky chose west toward Big Sandy. After ten minutes of driving and chattering like parakeets, they were forced to stop behind an eighteen-wheel tanker truck making an extra wide turn into the newly-constructed Texas Waterland Family Park.

     Ricky grumbled at the delay, not wanting to waste a single minute, then reminded himself to be patient. At last the road cleared and he pressed hard on the gas.

     Three miles beyond the park entrance, Ricky turned off of US-80 onto a ranch-access road, then drove along a sandy two-track that hugged a half-mile of cattle fencing. At the rear of the expansive property, they passed by a white bull resting atop a hill guarding his grass kingdom. From there Ricky veered across a wide pasture and into the thick forest beyond.

     Immediately, the young lovers were greeted by NO TRESPASSING signs, dozens of them were nailed to nearly every tree in sight.

     Clarice’s face twisted. “Isn’t this the Texas Waterland property?”

     “Yeah, so what?”

     She looked hard at Ricky. “So we shouldn’t be here, obviously.”

     “But it’s just not right,” Ricky said.

     “That’s progress, darlin’.”

- i -

 

     “I don’t care,” Ricky protested. “I used to go to the old reservoir every summer with my brother Billy Ray. Besides—”

     “Besides what?” Clarice pleaded.

     Ricky struck a proud pose. “You’re looking at the newest employee of the Texas Waterland Family Park.”

     “You mean it?” Clarice asked excitedly.

     “Yup. I wanted to surprise you.”

     “Well, you did.” Clarice scooted closer to Ricky.

     He put his arm around her. “Good. 'Cause we're gonna’ have fun this summer.”

     They pressed deeper into the woods until at last the forest opened up. A large body of water appeared before them, the Loma Reservoir.

     Ricky spotted his objective and drove to a sunny clearing beside a high bank overlooking the water. This part of the reservoir had a sandy beach, at least it used to. He hadn’t been back here in years, not since Billy Ray killed––

     Ricky stopped the truck. A dust cloud caught up and settled to earth.

     They looked all about, ensuring their privacy. Then they faced each other. Smiles appeared, a giddy one for Ricky, a nervous one for Clarice. They felt tickles in their stomachs.

     Ricky got out and hurried around to open Clarice’s door. Then he escorted his princess to the shade of a mature oak.

     Clarice spread a blanket on the soft earth and then carefully smoothed the wrinkles from their simple bed.

     Ricky pulled her up into his arms and held her tight. The morning sun filtered down through the trees and dappled their faces with lights and shadows.

     The place was perfect.

     They sought acceptance in each other’s eyes. It was granted. Then slowly, deliberately, they removed each other’s clothing. First off was Ricky’s varsity shirt, next came Clarice’s pink dress, until finally they stood before each other as nature intended of lovers––unashamed.

     Ricky Jenkins lowered Clarice Richards onto the blanket. Youth and inexperience no longer mattered. They made love to the chorus of nature all around them.

     Afterward, they lay naked in the warm air, looking up at the blue sky through an opening in the trees. The sun had risen and so had the temperature.

     Time had sped by too quickly.

     Ricky stood and took Clarice’s hand. “Let’s go for a swim.”

     Off they ran...down the bank and into the water...laughing and screeching in playful delight. They splashed and frolicked, kissed and kissed more.

- ii -

 

     Birds hushed in mid-song. Squirrels hurried away. A blue heron fled its perch and swooped down over the lake, leaving swirls in the morning mist.

     Ricky hadn’t heard them approach. Two men stood silent on the bank. They were outfitted in military gear, their guns pointed down at his and Clarice’s naked bodies.

     Clarice screamed!

     Ricky shouted, “Who are you!”

     The men said nothing. They didn’t move. Beyond the obvious, there was something strange about them, but what? Ricky strained to discover.

     Then it struck him, they looked Chinese. “Do you speak English?”

     No reply.

     Moments passed…moments that seemed like hours. Ricky’s mind raced to make sense of it all. Finally, he did the only thing that came to mind. He rose out of the water to march toward the soldiers, or whatever they were.

     Before he could take a single step, a hail of bullets churned the water around him.

     Ricky froze. No bullets had caught flesh. The soldiers had missed intentionally! 

     He lowered himself into the water and faced Clarice, who treaded fitfully some hundred feet offshore. A look of terror possessed her. They made eye contact and her screaming stopped. Ricky decided to get her away from the danger and mouthed a single word, GO.

     Clarice was paralyzed by fear and made no attempt to flee.

     “Go!” Ricky yelled. “Swim on outa here!”

     Clarice blinked rapidly. Logic finally thawed her fear-numbed brain and she began swimming, but made painfully slow progress.

     Just then a black Ford Bronco drove up among the lethal gathering. Out stepped a tall man with broad shoulders, stylish blond hair, and dressed in a khaki uniform.

     The man looked like a game warden to Ricky, but American nonetheless. “Wh…who are you people?”

     “You first, mate?” the blond man shouted. “You kids are trespassing.”

     An Australian accent? Ricky was shocked. “But I’m on Texas Waterland property.”

     “Precisely, lad. That means you’re trespassing.”

     Ricky’s face twisted in confusion. “You all work for the park?”

     “That’s right.” The man’s steel gray eyes stared hard.

     “Me too. I’m Ricky Jenkins and I’ll be working in the ticket office.”

- iii -

 

     Clarice heard the exchange between Ricky and the blond man and stopped her escape. The gunmen looked at each other, too.

     The man extended a hand and received a cell phone. After a short conversation, he returned the phone back to its stocky Asian owner and hopped down the bank to the water’s edge.

     “Why didn’t y’all say so before?” The man's accent was replaced with perfect Texas drawl. “Name’s Wiggins...head of park security. Now come up outa’ there.”

     Ricky hesitated, embarrassed by his nakedness, and glanced at Clarice, who was treading water a hundred feet off shore, and tiring from the effort. He said, "Am I in trouble or something?”

     “No law ‘ginst swimmin’ in your birthday suit I know of.”

     “Then what’s the rush?”

     “This area near the water plant is extremely dangerous.”

     Ricky’s eyes shifted, struggling to grasp the whole picture.

     “Now don’t be shy, we’re all men here,” Wiggins pointed at Clarice, “‘cept for her.” 

     Ricky saw Clarice sinking deeper into the water and realized he didn’t have a choice. “Okay, but y’all need to turn your backs when my lady gets out of the water.”

     “Of course, that’s what gentlemen do.” Wiggins squatted at the water’s edge and thrust out a hand. “Here, let me help ya up outa’ there…before the snakes get ya.”

     Ricky reached out.

     The helpful hand struck with the speed of a viper, snatching him by the hair, and yanking him within an inch of Wiggins’ face.

     Wiggins dropped the Texas drawl. “You and your sheila picked a very bad day, mate!” Then he crammed something in Ricky’s mouth and plunged his head under the water.

     Clarice at first thought Ricky had slipped and fell, and that the blond man had moved to help. But after seeing Ricky thrashing about and his feet kicking frantically, she knew he was in mortal danger.

     She tried to scream, but choked on brown water instead. Then she started toward Ricky before realizing she was powerless to save him.

     Ricky’s white legs kicked. His arms thrashed. Then all movement slowed, and finally ceased. The once stoic soldiers laughed and waved their arms, beckoning Clarice to come ashore.

     With a final grasp at reason, Clarice turned away from the man she loved and resumed her fitful task of escape. She thought to swim for the opposite shore where morning mist still lay upon the water.

- iv -

 

     Wiggins left Ricky’s naked corpse floating at the water’s edge and scrambled up the bank. He grabbed the Asian man’s cell phone again, hit a single digit, and said, “Release them, it’s feeding time.”

     Done with giving orders, Wiggins retrieved a rifle from the Bronco, calmly put the gun to his shoulder, found the girl in the crosshairs of the scope, and pulled the trigger. The gun bucked against his shoulder.

     Clarice felt something sting her buttock, adrenaline masked the pain.

     She stopped, took her bearings, another breath, and swam as fast as she could for the far shore. But something was very wrong.

     She sensed an impending doom and ordered her tired muscles to swim faster.

     Drawn by movement and the scent of blood, a school of ravenous piranhas slammed into Clarice Richards. The tranquil waters of the Loma Reservoir burst into a frenzied boil. Then mere moments later, the feast ended, the food source devoured.

     Serenity returned to the dark waters.

 

     A wooden rowboat appeared out of the morning mist on the reservoir. Standing in the bow, donning a conical straw hat, and draped in black silk, was an ancient oriental man. His white hair and wispy beard fluttered in the breeze of the moving boat.

 

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

EASTHAM PRISON

HOUSTON, TX

 

     The lights came on in the steel jungle and a squawk box announced the start of a new day in hell.

     A prison guard strode along the metal catwalk dragging his riot stick across the iron bars. Inside of the tiny cells, prisoners yawned and moaned, some cursed the guard’s heritage.

     The guard halted by one particular cage and bellowed, “Jenkins, you ready yet?”

     “Yeah…I guess so.”

     “Then get your ass in gear! The parole board don’t wait on white trash like you, boy.” He raked the riot stick across the cell bars again, then moved on to another inmate and another tongue-lashing.

     Billy Ray Jenkins placed a Bible under his pillow and hopped down from his bunk. He shaved and brushed his dusty brown hair. Then he pulled a fresh uniform from under his mattress and slipped into the formless clothing.

     The prison uniform was designed to depersonalize the inmates. However, the light-weight material did little to mask Billy Ray’s muscular arms and chest, the result from years of lifting weights in the yard.

     Billy Ray faced forward and awaited the opening of the timed bars.

     The parole board consisted of two men and a woman, who the inmates called Dragon Lady. They busied themselves with stacks of paper––Billy Ray’s prison record, criminal history, staff evals, heavily redacted military record, parole request form completed in triplicate, and God only knew what else.

     As if on cue, the board members lifted their heads in unison. Dragon Lady motioned to a solitary chair facing the members. “Please be seated, Mr. Jenkins.” She peered over rimless glasses. “Let us begin. Has your rehabilitation progressed since we last met?”

     “Yes it has, ma’am.”

     “That sounds encouraging. However, it’s my understanding you never accept help, that you’re a loner. Is that correct?”

- 1 -

 

     Billy Ray considered her question. It could take a lifetime to answer. He searched for an explanation and came up empty.

     “Well, is that correct?”

     “I guess it is, ma’am. For most of my life I never wanted help.”

     “Why on earth not?”

     “I was…just feeling sorry for myself. But things are different now. We’ve worked hard to change that.” Billy Ray angled a glance at one of the board members, a black man wearing a dark suit and the white collar of a priest. Their eyes met. Billy Ray was rewarded with a warm smile.

     The Dragon Lady continued, “Given your past record, the State of Texas can ill-afford to return you back into society where you might cause considerable harm to persons or property.”

     “I understand your concerns, ma’am. I believe I’m ready to go home this time.”

     The middle-aged man in a business suit and checkered tie spoke next. “Young man, what do you have to offer society if you’re released?” His role was to protect the state’s interests against the overburdened health and human services programs by ascertaining the employability of prospective parolees.

     Billy Ray knew that mouthful meant keeping him off the Texas teat any way possible. “With all due respect, sir, I’m not a young man. I want to get on with life before it’s too late.”

     The bureaucrat reddened. “You being smart with me?”

     “No, sir. I’m fit and in good health. If nothing else, I can sell my strong back.”

     The man was unimpressed. “Manual laborers don’t make much money. Most end up on state assistance. As you stated, you’re no longer a young man. “I mean what skills do you possess?’”

     “Military training...I can do things––fix things.”

     “Oh really...” the man stole a glance at his notes, “like machine guns and bombs? It seems your training only prepared you to hurt people and break things.”

     “Much more than that. SEALs are cross-trained in various subjects. My specialties were chemical and electrical engineering.”

     “You make it sound like SEALs are a bunch of Harvard grads.”

- 2 -

 

     Billy Ray had heard such criticisms before. In fact, many SEALs were college educated and could’ve entered Ivy League institutions had they applied. Several SEALs were even former Olympic athletes. No doubt the cynical view stemmed from the secretive nature of America’s Special Operations Forces. He chose to consider it a compliment instead. “I’m only at liberty to say that my training was comprehensive and intense.”

     “Don’t play rock, paper, scissors with me, Jenkins.” The man leaned forward. “You must admit, a dishonorable discharge just might screw the pooch with prospective employers.”

     In times past, Billy Ray would’ve bristled, even bit back. Instead, he pointed at the man’s stack of papers. “But I served honorable, plus you have a report confirming my completion of a two-year correspondence course at Texas Lutheran University and earned my degree. That, added with my training, should qualify for entry-level work at the very least.”

     The Human Services man shuffled to a page in his notes. “Theology? Not what I’d call a how-to-make-a-living degree.”

     “No, sir. I consider it my how-to-live degree.”

     It was the final board member’s turn. The Reverend Moses Greer was an imposing figure. Inmates called him “Mosey.” He was a giant both physically and spiritually. Mosey was the founder of Texas Faith on Parole Program, which operated in conjunction with the TDCJ. He had a heart of gold and a soul on fire. His expectations for you were two-fold––grace and repentance. Most inmates at Eastham claimed to be innocent. That mattered little to Mosey. His take on life was that everyone was guilty of something. His reputation of steering scores of “innocent” inmates on the road to redemption was impressive.

     In a baritone voice, Mosey said, “Billy Ray, how’s your day?”

     “Better than most, Reverend. How about yours?”

     “Same as you, better than most. Did you finish reading the Bible I gave you?”

     “Mostly.” Billy Ray’s voice trailed off.

     “How far did you get?”

     “The Book of James. I’ve been stuck there for weeks.”

     “Any verse in particular?”

- 3 -

 

     Billy Ray gave a concerned look. “James 1:27.”

     Mosey leaned forward, interested in his parishioner’s problem.  “Why?”

     “It kind of explains where my warring comes from, and…” Billy Ray searched for words, “what to do about it, I guess.”

     “And what is that? What will you do if you’re paroled?” Mosey moved smoothly to the business at hand.

     Billy Ray felt a wave of clarity sweep over him and answered without hesitation, “Serve the fatherless and widows and help them battle their afflictions.” With one simple statement, Billy Ray felt a massive weight lift from his shoulders, his mission clear at last.

     “Thank you, Billy Ray.” Mosey crossed himself and said to the other board members, “I’m finished.”

     Dragon Lady ordered, “Prisoner 49508, please stand.”

     Billy Ray did so. Chains rattled at his ankles.

     “You were tried, convicted, and sentenced to fifteen years confinement at hard labor for the crimes of marketing illegal drugs, and malicious mischief resulting in the death of one Brenda Lee Payne….”

     Billy Ray barely heard the woman’s words. Visions of Brenda Lee’s smiling face filled his mind. Then those same visions degenerated into the horror-stricken look of a drowning victim, eyes bulging in terror, face stretched in panic. Dead.

     Dragon Lady’s voice came back to his ears...“Court records show you refused counsel and offered no defense at your trial. In fact, the record states you ignored all instructions by the presiding judge and remained speechless, even to the point of contempt. You’ve now served ten years of your sentence. It is the opinion of this board that you be…set free.”

     Billy Ray’s knees nearly buckled. Yet, he felt no joy.

     “Any last comments from the board?” The Dragon Lady asked.

     The Health and Human Services man shook his head. The Reverend did likewise, then changed his mind and rose from his chair. At six-nine and three hundred solid pounds, Mosey towered over all. He cleared his throat and said, “Billy Ray, if you wish to know true freedom, seek out the innocent, serve the fatherless and widows, relieve them of their burdens. This is ‘pure religion undefiled before God,’ sayeth James, the Brother of our Lord Jesus.”

     Billy Ray listened intently. In Mosey, he recognized a true warrior.

     Mosey expanded his chest and said in a deep voice, “You’ve accepted the gift of our Lord, so hear my warning. You will be forever lost if you backslide.”

 

Chapter 2​


     

     The Greyhound bus picked up speed leaving Houston. Billy Ray stared out the window at the passing countryside. Mile after mile of fence posts strobed across his view with hypnotic rhythm. Focus on the present blurred until all that remained were the ghosts of his past. Images played before his mind’s eye like a bad film strip. Scenes filled with pain, disappointment, and finally, of loss….

 

     It seemed any good thing he attempted only led to pain. The cycle always repeated, good intention met with ridicule, ending in grim results. As when his drunk father beat his mother and showered her with vile insults. If only he hadn’t helped her with housework, or wiped away her tears, maybe his father wouldn’t have punished her. The neighbor kids would line up at the windows of his house to peek in on the latest whoopin’ Rodney “Switch” Jenkins was givin’ the wife. He hated them. He hated his father, too.
     Martial arts were meant to instill self-control and help channel his emotions—the inner rage––and did, for a time. Then one night after Big Sandy defeated their Gladewater rivals, he spotted his school’s star player knocking around a Gladewater cheerleader. His blood boiled over. Martial arts to be thanked, he hesitated. Then the Big Sandy player tore off the girl’s uniform, threw her onto a bleacher, and began taking what was wanted. Something deep inside snapped. He beat the kid bad enough to put him out for the season. Brenda Lee Payne testified that Billy Ray Jenkins saved her from both harm and disgrace. And because her father was the sheriff, it came as no surprise when all charges were dropped.
     Perhaps it was then that Brenda Lee saw something different in him, something to be loved. Their relationship marked the beginning of love for them both, and a hopeful future. But it was not to be.
     Sheriff Roy Payne saw to that.

- 5 -

 

     Word around town was that if he hadn’t enlisted in the service on the day he turned 18, the sheriff would’ve shot him at first sight. The Navy brought respectability to him and his family. He was accepted to and successfully completed the Navy SEAL program.

     His paychecks provided relief to his mother. She managed to hide the money from his alcoholic father, though only for a time. One night, Rodney stormed home from the bar looking for money. Lela wouldn’t give it to him. He beat her up and even hurt little Ricky, then tore the house apart in search of the hidden cash. If not for a call to the sheriff by the parents of a young window-peeker, Lela Jenkins might’ve died from her injuries. Rodney was gone by the time the sheriff arrived. No one ever heard from Rodney “Switch” Jenkins again. 
     Life had gotten better for his mother and Ricky, even for Brenda Lee and him. Although he only managed a homecoming once a year, he and Brenda Lee grew deeply in love. Letters were heartfelt. He would read them again and again until the paper crumbled in his fingers.

     Eight years had elapsed since leaving home and the woman he loved. He'd just reenlisted for his third tour and was granted a fat bonus. He could now afford a wife and a home. He bought a large diamond while on assignment overseas. It was all arranged.

     He arrived stateside and brought the ring with him. They would meet at their favorite place, “God's little garden in Texas,” Brenda Lee called it. Among the rolling hills of East Texas and the Piney Woods, their place by the tranquil waters of the Loma Reservoir on the Ambassador Ranch had no equal.

     He would ask Brenda Lee this night to be his companion for life.
     They would be free.

- 6 -

 

     His plane had been delayed. He arrived late to their special place. Brenda Lee was nowhere in sight nor was her car. The bedroll was spread out, there was the picnic basket, and even a beer can still cold to the touch. But where was she?
     He walked to the bank and listened. Maybe she’d gone in for a swim. All was quiet. He turned to leave and that’s when he heard it, a strange noise. First once, then a second time...glub-glub. 
He couldn’t tell where the noise was coming from, the night was so dark. So he ran back to his mother's car to fetch a flashlight.

     Back at the water’s edge, he shined the light up and down the shore. Nothing. He was about to give up when it happened again. He hurried to the spot and pointed the light into the water.

     Submerged some twenty feet from shore was the perfect outline of a car roof. Colorful petroleum rings bubbled to the surface.

     Panic struck! Panic like he’d never felt before, not deep beneath the ocean rigging explosives, not in the snake-infested waters of the Amazon, not atop the scorching sands of Africa, nor even in firefights when he lost buddies.

     This panic ripped his heart out!
     He dove into the water alongside the car, flashlight in hand that thankfully stayed lit. Brenda Lee was in the car. She wasn’t moving. He tried frantically to get in. No luck. The doors were locked and the windows rolled up for the air conditioning.

     Again and again he took the breath of life to her. It went undelivered.
     He finally found a large rock, broke the glass, and pulled Brenda Lee’s lifeless body to shore, where he sat for hours rocking his dead angel.

     It killed him to know he hadn’t been there to save the woman he loved.
     He somehow managed to drive Brenda Lee to to Doc Hastings. Together they called the sheriff.
     The autopsy revealed that Brenda Lee Payne died as a result of drowning. The toxicology report confirmed the existence of high levels of barbiturates in her system, and what the coroner guessed to be six ounces of beer.

   Also found in a heart-shaped locket alongside Billy Ray's picture was a rock of cocaine wrapped in plastic. The coroner was curious to know if the sheriff was aware of his daughter’s drug habit…or that she was also pregnant.

- 7 -

 

     Sheriff Payne arrested Billy Ray, charging him with selling drugs, reckless endangerment, even murder if it could be made to stick. But the worst charge of all was for rape.
     He offered no resistance when the sheriff cuffed him, only stood in stunned silence as the Miranda warning was read loud and slow. Hatred filled every word uttered by Roy Payne, but he’d ceased hearing voices, only saw lips moving in a fog.
     Neither did he resist when on the way to the jailhouse the sheriff turned into a pecan orchard nor when getting dragged from the car. He didn’t even resist when Payne kicked him and slugged him and beat him with a night stick, over and over again, until too winded to go on. He was feeling none of it.

     He was past feeling.
     Only when the sheriff, too exhausted to go on, pulled a gun, crammed it in his mouth, and the deputy intervened, did he finally protest. 
He parted swollen, bloodied lips and cursed the deputy for interfering….

 

     The Greyhound airbrakes snorted and the bus came to a stop at the tiny Gladewater depot.

     Billy Ray made no attempt to exit, still struggling to clear his mind of the painful memories from a decade ago.

     Passengers bumped him on their way past. Then the bus driver called out, “Hey, mister, you gettin’ off?”

     The dark clouds finally parted.

     Billy Ray crossed himself and then stood and retrieved his seabag. As he did so, a Bible verse came to mind, it was the Prodigal Son.
     He was back.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

FBI  FIELD OFFICE
DALLAS, TX​

 

     The Special Agent in Charge for the Dallas division of the FBI poured a last cup of tea for the day and returned to his desk. Nothing was more important to Chris Dreyfus than keeping America safe. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had 56 field divisions located in major cities throughout the United States. Each was headed by a Special Agent in Charge or SAC. So large was Texas, the state hosted three field offices. His Dallas Division had a backyard totaling 137 counties that covered 125,000 square miles and was home to more than nine million people.
     His career with the FBI had run the traditional route. He hailed from the East Coast, had attended preppie schools, and had risen through the detective ranks in Baltimore. In age, he was nearing the senior discount on the Denny’s menu and, he hoped, retirement on a boat in Florida.
     He carried the tea back to his desk and turned his attention to reading the latest threat assessment from headquarters. There was a new monster on the prowl, a “super meth.” Several people had already died from the drug. Besides the deaths in Texas, there’d been cases on both coasts. Strangely, there were no known living users of the new product. The worst could be yet to come and his investigators had nothing to go on. No one had a clue where the new drug was coming from. The matter needed attention. However, most of his agents were spread thin investigating the enormous flow of traditional products entering the U.S. from Mexico. He could only spare one agent from his Field Intelligence Group. He chose the best man for the job––a real pit bull––perfect for chasing down the new mystery drug.
     Dreyfus called out, “Hey, Johnny, anything new on the wire?”
     “UFOs and missing honey bees.”
     “Smartass! We don’t do X-files.”
     Agent Johnny Lam scrolled through the text on his computer screen. “Wait…here’s something. Give me a minute.”

- 9 -

 

     Like his boss, Lam had a good nose for trouble and a sixth sense for detective work. Similarities ended there, however.

     Lam was a Texas native, born and bred in the steamy bayous near the Louisiana border. He'd been raised by his French mother and never knew his dad. There'd been rumors about his father, but didn't care to share them anyone. The Army was his ticket out of town, and, ten years and a daughter needing her daddy, took the military route to the Agency.

     As an Army Captain in the Green Berets, his exploits in the jungles of South America were legendary. He’d distinguished himself countless times battling ruthless drug cartels during joint operations with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. He was fearless, determined to engage the drug lords on their own turf—to the death when necessary.
     On style, Dreyfus and Lam were yin and yang. But on results, trigger and finger.
     “Here it is, boss, a drowning in East Texas…19-year old male.”
     “For a second there, I thought you said drowning.”
     “I did.”
     “Call the Red Cross. We don’t do drownings or flying saucers.”
     Lam rolled his eyes. “There were drugs in the victim’s system. I flagged notices involving that new drug.”
    “Rapture?”
     “That’s the one. According to the report filed by Upshur County Sheriff Roy Payne, the kid drowned while high on Rapture.”
     “This new drug’s a killer,” Dreyfus said.
     “It’s weird stuff, too. Kinda’ makes LSD look like a smart pill.”
     Lam had read the coroner reports on the deaths involving Rapture. The facts were shocking. The new designer drug shared much of the chemical structure of methamphetamine, but was faster acting, longer lasting, and exponentially more potent. The departure from meth was that Rapture also incorporated a powerful hallucinogen. None of the deaths from Rapture thus far had been a result of toxic overdose. Instead, five of the deaths were from accidents, like the drowning victim in Big Sandy, while two others had actually starved to death.

- 10 -


     Dreyfus held up a sheet of paper. “This just came in. The lab has a new theory about Rapture. They think the drug is still evolving, that an additional compound is being added.”
     “As in accessorized?"
     Dreyfus looked worried. “Something like that. The lab won’t speculate, except to say it won’t be good.”
     “Like the drug is a gun and the accessory––”
     “A silencer,” Dreyfus finished Lam’s words. “Guns have functions, good or bad. Attach a silencer and the use becomes predetermined.”
     “Murder!” Lam said. “If you’re right, we better find out where the stuff's coming from before the bad guys figure out what they have.”
     Dreyfus’ look worsened. “What if the makers of Rapture already know and they’re test-marketing the product?”
     “Then I’d say that puts them one giant leap ahead of us.”
     “You got that right. Now you know what I know, or think.”
     “That would suggest a conspiracy, something far greater than peddling drugs for the sake of cash.”
     Dreyfus pointed to his nose. “That’s what my sniffer’s telling me. But I can’t take theories to headquarters, I need something firm.”
     Lam felt his mind spin. The idea of a drug having a purpose beyond lust for money was nearly unfathomable. It flew in the face of the usual profit motive. Drug dealers had at least that much in common with legitimate businesses: profits suffered when products killed. Good guys or bad, the bottom line was the same––money.
     “What if you’re right and we did nothing until it was too late?”
     Dreyfus looked hard at Lam. “My nose is also telling me we’re running out of time.”
     Lam felt a chill. “This could become a national disaster.”
     They stared at each other, both considering the dangers of Rapture and how little information they had to go on.
     Dreyfus broke the silence. “We need to find out who’s behind this drug and punch a big hole in their plans.”  
     “Then I’ll turn up the heat on it.” 
     “You know I can’t afford to pull any of the troops in on this without firm evidence. So you’re on your own.” Dreyfus changed track. “Back to that little matter in Big Sandy…dig a little deeper. Let me know what you find.” Dreyfus turned his attention back to the stacks of paper on his desk.
     Lam spent the next hour studying reports of the drowning incident in Big Sandy, making phone calls, and reading relevant files. One file in particular held his attention, the background for a convicted felon, Billy Ray Jenkins.

     He was amazed. No way was this coincidence. He didn’t believe in happenstance any more than he bought the story of a chubby fellow in red pajamas snaking down chimneys at Christmastime.

     Lam also had to question what the cops in East Texas were smoking. And that went double for the folks at Eastham prison. It didn’t take a good nose to figure out what came next.
     There was going to be trouble in the Piney Woods.

Chapter 4



East Texas 

 

     As the rhyme goes, April showers bring May flowers. That might be the case in the northern states, but not in East Texas.

     April brings back heat, with May comes bugs and humidity, and then June is anyone’s guess. Proof was the beads of sweat covering Billy Ray’s forehead from lugging his seabag a half-mile down Main Street in Gladewater. He ducked in at the nearest tavern, a place called the Frontier Inn.

     The dark, air-conditioned building was a welcome relief. The lunchtime crowd had vanished after refreshing themselves on chicken gizzards, home fries, and cold beer. The heavy drinkers and pool players hadn’t yet arrived.

     He made his way to the end of the bar, dropped his bag, and climbed aboard an open stool. The bartender busied himself wiping down the bar. Billy Ray eventually caught the man's attention. “I’ll take whatever’s cold, Guinness if you have it.”
     “No Guinness. We don’t get many Irish folk passing through.” The bartender stopped wiping the bar. “How ‘bout a Lone Star?”
     “Lone Star it is…so long as it’s cold.”
     Billy Ray allowed his eyes to adjust in the dim lighting. there were a few people were scattered about the tavern, some speaking in hushed tones, some not at all. Only one other person sat at the bar, and he wasn't saying much, either, due to being slumped over, snoring. He was an elderly fellow, and his withered fingers still clutched a glass of warm beer. But the man looked familiar, then Billy Ray remembered. His name was Jonesy.

- 12 -

 

     Jonesy had been the town drunk as far back as Billy Ray could remember. Most people called him Four Eyes, due to Jonesy usually seeing double. With the abuse Jonesy heaped on himself, it was a miracle the man was still alive. He had to be pushing ninety on the age meter. Billy Ray recalled when the old drunk once said to call him Jonesy, like his friends had done. Afterward, Jonesy had wept.
     For as far back as Billy Ray could remember, Jonesy had worn the same battered US Marine Corps hat. The emblem on front had long-since faded. Moreover, Jonesy had always been a mystery, and the tarnished ring on his bony finger only deepened that mystery. It bore the insignia of the United States Naval Academy.

     A former US Marine officer, Billy Ray guessed.

     Billy Ray was also left guessing what in the man’s past had made him check out of life . . . just what kind of pain was Jonesy trying to forget?
     Billy Ray sympathized with the old man. Jonesy was the example of what he’d become if he didn’t bury the past and get on with life.
     The bartender returned and slide a bottle of beer and frosted mug across the bar.

     Billy Ray fished a twenty from his wallet. “I’ll just be having the one beer. How about you making sure the old man gets a hot meal when he wakes up.”
     “That’s nice of you, mister. Ol’ Four Eyes don’t mean harm to nobody. What did you say your name was?”
     “I didn’t.”
     “Have it your way.” The man wiped his way to the other end of the bar.
     On a whim, Billy Ray fished a quarter from his pocket and strolled over to the jukebox, at least he thought it was a jukebox. It had fancy buttons and lights, and looked like something from the NASA space program.

     If the new technology wasn’t shock enough, then the price was––fifty cents a song or three for a dollar. He scanned the artists, names like Grip, The Whines, AKA 360,  Lady Gaga, Vito and the One Eyed Jacks, and dozens more. But no Hank Williams, no Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band, no Lynyrd Skynyrd. What had the world become? 

     Ten years in lockup had been more like an eternity. Time stood still for no man, least of all a convict. Even art had marched on without him.

     He felt like Rip Van Winkle.

- 13 -

 

     Billy Ray gave up and plodded back to the bar. What had he expected, that the world would stop and wait for him, that the good people of Gladewater and Big Sandy would line the ten miles of US Route 80 to celebrate his return? There would be no welcome mat for him. Not in a million years. He was hated in both towns. That, in part, was why he hadn’t told anyone of his release from Eastham.
     The other reason for coming home unannounced was more subtle. His mother never visited him at the prison. Even her letters stopped several years back. She loved him, he had no doubt, and merely stated in her final letter how she could bear it no longer. But why she’d relocated to Gladewater so soon after his trial was a mystery to him. She would only say there’d be no running from trouble—his or hers.
He didn’t know what that meant, only that the Payne family lived in Gladewater. In his opinion, her move was like jumping from the frying pan and into the fire.

     But maybe she’d been right, Ricky was sure doing well.
     Ha! Little Ricky. The boy was a young man now.

     In addition to a picture of Ricky standing hand in hand with a beautiful blonde with his last letter, there’d also been a photocopy of a college report card. Ricky was a four-point-oh student.

     Billy Ray tipped his beer at the thought. Maybe there was hope for the Jenkins family after all. 
     Jonesy awoke from his stupor and then interrupted Billy Ray’s thoughts. “Heyee, I know you from shumwhere….”
     He turned to see Jonesy pointing a crooked finger.
     “Yeaahh…I do know you.”
     “I know you too, Mr. Jones.”
     “Call me Jonesy, my friends did.”
     For a quick moment the old drunk’s eyes caste a faraway look before refocusing on the present.
     “Okay. Jonesy it is. So how are things?”

- 14 -

 

     “Same old crap, boy, jus’ a different day,” he said and then launched into a coughing fit.
     Billy Ray waited for Jonesy to recover and wipe phlegm from his mouth with the end of a tattered coat sleeve. “You ain’t been ‘round for awhile.”
     “Nope.”
     “Well, I know why you’re back, then.”
     Billy Ray hadn’t a clue what Jonesy was getting at. Alcoholics could look through things as if they weren’t there.
     “Yeah, and you won’t like it none, neither.” Jonesy wobbled.
     “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Jonesy.”
     “I saw them. Nice kids they were.”
     The old drunk was rambling. Maybe the ghosts of his past were back. More likely, it was just a brain rotted by decades of booze. Time had no meaning for severe alcoholics. Past and future had their confluence in the present.
     A lot like himself, he thought. After all, a quarter of his life had just been wasted in prison. And wtih exception for a few blissful moments with Brenda Lee, plus the meaningful years on the Teams serving his country, the rest hadn’t been worth much. He couldn’t tell whether time really had stopped or if it was about to catapult him naked into an uncertain future.
     “I fought the Japs…Koreans too," Jonesy continued. "I’d do it again if I had to. I jus’ don’t trus’ ‘zem bastards.”
     The bartender finished cashing out the last of the afternoon crowd and started wiping his way in their direction.

- 15 -

 

     Jonesy brought his swaying body under control and struck a proud pose. “I got medals too, like you.” He rewarded himself with a swig of beer.
     Billy Ray attempted a new subject. “How about I buy you some food?”
    Jonesy paid no attention and continued with his war stories. “Fought in the Pacific in dubya dubya two…and in Korea.”
     At the mention of Korea, the old warrior’s eyes misted. There was a long pause. Billy Ray thought the conversation was over. Then Jonesy slapped the bar. “I know they ain’t Japs, they’re Gooks!”
     That got the attention of the bartender, who hurriedly worked his towel down the bar until standing opposite of them.

     Jonesy looked around, as if about to tell a secret. “I’ve been watching them. Those guys are Koreans, I just know it. Except for the big fella.”
     Billy Ray didn’t know what to say. His first conversation on the outside and it was with an old drunk consumed by booze and history.

     Fortunately, the bartender took the lead. “You talk too much, Jonesy. I told you before there ain’t no Koreans around these parts. You must be talking about the Chinese restaurants.” The bartender set a bowl of peanuts in front of the old man. “Now let the new guy drink his beer in peace, will ya?”
     Jonesy knocked the bowl onto the floor. “Hell there ain’t no Gooks!” He pointed at the door. “Right over there. And they joined up with the Mexicans. They’re up to no good, I say!”
     Billy Ray wondered what in the world Jonesy was talking about. Certainly, the old man was delusional. He was about to give up on all the nonsense and leave when a name stopped him in his tracks.

- 16 -

 

     “I told Sheriff Payne, too. Those Gooks killed them kids.”
     “You don’t know that, nobody does. Besides, there’s no trace of the Richard’s girl. She probably was never even with the boy.”
     “She was!” Jonesy shot back. “I saw those kids together. Drove past me this morning laughin’ and carryin’ on like a couple of lovebirds. And the girl’s pretty hair flyin’ all o’er the place.”
     Jonesy’s talk upset the bartender. “The sheriff declared it an accident!”
     Billy Ray felt perplexed. “What are you two talking about?”
     “Nothin’, just a local matter. A boy was found drowned this morning back behind the new waterslide park. Apparently he’d been joyridin’ under the influence when his truck went off into the water. By the time anybody got to the boy, it was too late.”
     Tragedy! Drowning! Vehicle in the water! A dead body! The past attacked Billy Ray’s mind. He stared at the bartender.
     “You all right, mister? Looks like you seen a ghost.”
     Billy Ray took a swallow of beer, anything to chase away the demons.
     The bartender wiped the bar. “I Haven’t seen you around before.”
     Billy Ray found his voice. “Probably not.”
     “Ol’ Four Eyes seems to know you.” He laid down the towel and extended his hand. “Name’s Harper, what’s yours?”
     “Billy Ray–– Billy Ray Jenkins.”
     Harper’s hand went limp. He pulled away and took up his towel and compulsive wiping. “You relation to Ricky Jenkins?”
     “Yeah. He’s my baby brother. Why?”
     Harper looked stunned. “He’s the boy who drowned.”
     Billy Ray’s world caved in.
     Harper attempted to rescue the situation. “I’m real sorry. We’re all real sorry, Mr. Jenkins. Word is your brother was a good boy.”
     Billy Ray ran out of the tavern.
     The drunk came alive. “You dumbass, Harper. He didn’t know.”

- 17 -

 

     Billy Ray sprinted the two miles to his mother’s house. He’d never run so fast in his life. His clothes dripped with sweat.

     He raced up the dirt driveway and past a Cadillac with an I HEART JESUS bumper sticker. Then he vaulted onto the porch, nearly ripped the screen door off its hinges, and stumbled into his mother’s living room.
     From a threadbare couch, three heads turned.

     Each registered shock at seeing Billy Ray standing before them. On one side of Lela Jenkins sat a woman extending a compassionate arm. On her other side was a balding man in a black suit and maroon tie. The minister and his wife. They looked as if the devil entered the room.
     “Billy Ray?” Tears streamed down his mother’s cheeks.
    “Yes…Mama.” He fought for breath.
     Lela moved to lift herself from the couch, faltered, and fell back.

     Billy Ray went to her.

     They explored each other’s faces before the instinctive love mothers feel for their children overrode all other considerations. And then with shaking arms, Lela pulled her long lost son to her bosom.
     After the warm hug missing so long from his life, Billy Ray pulled back. “Is it true, is Ricky dead?”
     The preacher answered for Lela. “Yes, Mr. Jenkins, it’s true. He was discovered this morning at the Loma Reservoir, drowned.”
     “No! Not again!”





Return to top of page.

Enjoying BACKSLIDE?

© Elambooks.com Copyright 2013 by Steven M. Elam. Web design courtesy of WritersRelease.com.