About the Author
Stephen Hunter is the author of eighteen novels, including I, Sniper and Point of Impact. In 2003 he won the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism for his work at The Washington Post, where he retired as chief film critic. He has also published two collections of film criticism and a nonfiction work about the attempted assassination of Harry Truman, American Gunfight.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Third Bullet CHAPTER 2
In Cascade, everybody goes to Rick’s. Even Swagger.
He showed up every once in a while, maybe three, four times a month, preceded by myth, isolated by reputation, and cloaked in diffidence. He sat alone, if he came, at the counter, and had a couple of cups of coffee, black. Jeans, old boots, some kind of jacket, and a faded red Razorbacks ball cap. He could have been a drifter or a trucker or a rancher or a gunfighter. The body was rangy, without fat, slightly tense, also radiating signals of damage. He always arrived, if he was to arrive at all, at 5 a.m. with the ranchers. It was said he had trouble sleeping—said, that is, by Swagger watchers, since the man himself spoke hardly a word—and if he was still awake when the sun cracked the edge of the world, he’d drive from his place out on 144 to Rick’s, not so much to join in the community but to reassure himself that community was there.
That was pretty much Rick’s purpose in the general scheme of things. The food wasn’t much—it was primarily a breakfast place whose short-order cook knew every way to wreck an egg and had the gift for the right fusion of crunch, grease, and chew to pan-fried potatoes—and the early risers—who drove the Cascade economy, paid the taxes, hired the Mexicans, guided hunters for a week or so in the fall, and plowed the roads—always stopped there to fuel up for whatever the long day of honest labor held in store. Swagger, though no glad-hander, seemed to like the company, to enjoy the ranch badinage and the talk of Boise State football and the weather complaints, because he knew no fool would come up to him with questions or requests or offers, and that these sinewy gentlemen, themselves joshers but not speech givers, always played by the rules.
As for them, they knew only what they’d heard, though they weren’t sure where they heard it. War hero. Retired marine. Lots of deep-grass stuff in a war that we lost. Supposedly the best shot in the West, or at any rate, a hell of a shot. Gun guy, got a lot of stuff from Midway USA and Brownells. A late-arriving daughter, Japanese by birth, who was the twelve-and-under girls roping champ and seemed born to horseback. Beautiful wife, kept to self, running the barns the family owned in three or was it four states. Business success. Knew of the big world and chose to live in this one. Out of a movie, someone said, and someone else said, Except they don’t make them kinds of movies no more, and everybody laughed and agreed.
That was the easy truce that reigned at Rick’s, and even Rick and his two gals, Shelly and Sam, seemed okay with it. That is, until the Chinese woman showed up.
Well, possibly she wasn’t Chinese. She was Asian, of an indefinite age somewhere between young and not young, with a strong nose and dark, smart eyes that could pierce steel if she so desired. Though she seldom showed it, she had a smile that could break hearts and change minds. She was short, rather busty, and looked pretty damned tough for someone who was probably soft in all the right places.
She showed at 5, took a seat at the counter, ordered coffee, and read something on her Kindle for two hours. At 7, she left. Nice tipper. Pleasant, distant, not an outreacher, but at the same time completely unfazed by the masculine brio of the 5 a.m. ranch crowd at Rick’s.
She came every day for two weeks, never missing, never reaching out, maintaining her silence and her secrecy. It didn’t take the fellows long to figure out that none of them was of interest to a crafty, contained beauty, so she had to be there for Swagger. She was stalking him. A reporter, a book writer, a Hollywood agent, somebody who saw a way to make some bucks from whatever secrets Swagger’s war mask of a face concealed without murmur or tremor. Yet when he came in, she made no move toward him, nor he—he noticed her instantly, as he noticed everything instantly—toward her. They sat with an empty stool between them at the counter, each drinking black coffee, while she read and he ruminated or remembered or whatever it was he did when he came in.
This ritual continued for another week or two, and it consumed the Cascade gossip circuits, such as they were. Finally, almost as if to satisfy the town gabbers instead of any genuine impulse of his own, he walked over to her. “Ma’am?”
“Yes?” she said, looking up. In the light, he saw that she was quite beautiful.
“Ma’am, it seems the fellows here believe you’re in town to have a chat with a man named Swagger. I’m Swagger.”
“Hello, Mr. Swagger.”
“I wanted to spare you any more trouble, because I imagine you’ve got better places than Rick’s in Cascade, Idaho, to spend your time. I have essentially retired from the world, and if you’re here to see me, I have to disappoint you. I don’t see anyone. My wife, my daughters, and my son, that’s about it. I just sit on a rocking chair and watch the sun move across the sky. I don’t do a thing no more. My wife does the work. So whatever it is you want, I’m sparing you the time by telling you it’s probably not going to happen. And this is more than I’ve said in a year, so I better stop while I’m ahead.”
“That’s fine, Mr. Swagger,” she said. “Time isn’t the issue. I’ll stay years if I have to. I’m in this for the long haul.”
He didn’t know what to say in response. He just knew he had no need whatsoever to go back to what he called, in the argot of that war so many years ago, The World. Each time he went, it seemed to cost him. The last time it had cost him a woman he’d allowed himself to care about, and he did not relish a revisit to that grief, at least during waking hours. He had enough to worry about with two daughters and a son, and at sixty-six, with a steel ball for a hip, enough scar tissue across his raggedy old body to show up on satellites, and so many memories of men dying, he needed no more adventures, no more losses, no more grief. He was afraid of them.
Then she said, “I know about you and what you did in the war. It seems to be a profession that prizes patience. You sit, you wait. You wait, you wait, you wait. Isn’t that right?”
“Waiting is a part of it, yes ma’am.”
“Well, I can do nothing to impress you. I can’t shoot, ride, climb, or fight. No book I’ve read would amaze you, no accomplishment I’ve achieved would register on your radar screen. But I will show you patience. I will wait you out. This week, the next, this month, the next, on and on. I will wait you out, Mr. Swagger. I will impress you with my patience.”
It was a terrific answer, one he’d never counted on. He let no emotion cross the Iron Age shield that was his face. Possibly he blinked those lizard eyes, or ran tongue over dried lips, as he was a dry old coot, wary and contained, who made noise when he moved because one adventure or another had left him with a limp, and even if the wind and the sun had turned his face the color of Navajo pottery, his eyes had somehow bled themselves of color and were reptilian irises, untainted by empathy.
“Yes ma’am,” he said. “So we’ll wait each other out.”
It took over three weeks. Each time he showed, he thought she’d be gone. But there she was, tucked away in the corner, not looking up, her face illuminated by the glow of the reading machine or whatever it was. He skipped for ten days straight and assumed that would surely drive her away. It did not.
Finally, halfway into the fourth week, she went to her rented car in the general cloud of pickups pulling out for the day’s first duty station and found his truck, a black Ford F-150, next to hers. He lounged against its fender, ropy and lean in his baseball cap, a high-plains drifter, a Shane, a truck driver off the interstate.
“All right,” he said. “If you were in this for money, you’d be long gone. If you’re crazy, the jabbering of those old men in this joint would have sent you off to the nut bin. What I’m getting is some kind of stubborn in you that usually equals high purpose. You win. I’ll give you what you want, as much as I can and stay my own man.”
“It’s not much,” she said. “No, no money, no contracts, no angles. I’m not from a big flashy city, just a blue-collar rust bucket called Baltimore. I want your judgment, that’s all. You know things I don’t. I want to put something before you, and then I want you to tell me if it’s anything or if it’s craziness, coincidence, whatever. That’s all, except I forgot the best part: it’s very dull and boring.”
“All right,” he said, “you have earned the right to bore me. I can be bored, it’s not a problem. Can you meet me at the T.G.I.F.’s off the interstate in Iron Springs tomorrow at two? It’s a craphole, but it’s crowded and loud and nobody’ll notice a thing. We’ll drink coffee and talk. I chose that place because I don’t want the old goats in this place all giddy over seeing us.”
“Fair enough, Mr. Swagger. I’ll see you there.”
She was punctual and found him sitting in a booth in the rear of the gaudy place, whose cheesy cheerfulness seemed in counterpoint to his grave countenance and all the hollows and planes of his tight old face, with its deltas of fissure extending from each eye like the broken cataracts of an ancient river of kings. Or maybe, sans the warrior romance, he was just a beat-to-hell old guy. Meanwhile, the kind of citizen who defines the interstate as freedom and paradise swirled and bobbed through the busy place, raising clamor, eating ice cream, yelling at children, and exhibiting all the discontents of motorized civilization that one can manage.
“Ma’am? Say, I don’t even have a name for you.”
She sat across from him. “My name is Jean Marquez. I’m Filipino by heritage, born and raised here. I am a journalist by profession, though this is not about a story, and I’m not working for my newspaper. I’m the daughter of two doctors, fifty-five years old, and a widow.”
“I’m sorry to hear of your loss, Ms. Marquez. I’ve lost some very close people and understand the hurting.”
“I thought you might. Anyhow, you should call me Jean. Everybody does. My husband was named James Aptapton. Does that name mean anything?”
“Hmm,” he said, and somehow, yes, it did. His mind and face fogged in search, and finally, he said, “I’m coming up with some kind of writer. Wrote about snipers? Knew guns, is that right? Don’t believe I ever met the fellow or read his books, but I’d run into the name here and there. I’d get asked, now that I remember, if I was some hero he wrote about, Billy Don Trueheart, something like that?”
“Something like that. Yes, Jim was a gun guy. He was one of those men who loved guns, and if you lived with him for twenty years, as I did, you got used to guns everywhere. He eventually got wealthy enough to spend seventeen thousand dollars on a Thompson machine gun. If you want to rent a Thompson machine gun, let me know. I can let you have one at an affordable daily rate.”
“I’ll bear that in mind, but I hope my Thompson days are long over.”
“Anyhow, the guns everywhere, the gun magazines, the biographies of people like Elmer Keith and John M. Browning, the dead animal heads, all that, that was who he was, and I knew that going in and accepted it. His politics, never, but the gun thing, it was okay because he was also funny about it, as he was funny about everything. He was also kind, and even when he became successful, he never turned into an asshole and stayed true and decent to his kids and my family and his mother and the people he knew. It was never about getting to the table where the cool kids sat. It was about buying guns, drinking vodka, and making people laugh. Everyone who knew him is missing him and will for a long time.”
“Is this about his death?”
“Yes. The idiot went to a bar one night and had three instead of the allowed one martini. He walked home, reflexes all messed up, and managed to get himself killed by a hit-and-run driver. It was merciful, they say, he went fast.”
“I’m sorry. Did they catch the driver?”
“No. That’s part of the issue. It seems that over two thousand people a year are killed by hit-and-runs, and about ninety-eight percent of those cases are solved. There are those that aren’t, and it is remotely possible that he was murdered. I know, I know, it was probably some kid high on meth in a hopped-up car who saw an old guy staggering down the street and stomped on the pedal. For kicks, for laughs, for the warm and fuzzy memories, I don’t know. But . . . maybe not.”
“I have had experience with a man who killed by car. It’s more than possible. Driven by a professional, it can be a lethal instrument. I suppose you’re going to tell me why this could be a murder.”
“I am. We are at the boring part. Maybe you’d better pour yourself a cup of coffee.”
“I like your husband. I like you. It’s fine. Go on, try to bore me.”
“As I say, it’s a story in which almost nothing happens. It has no vivid characters, no sudden turns of fate, no dramatic reversals, no humor, no drama. It’s about something that happened in a workplace a long time ago.”
“So far, so good.”
“It can’t be verified. It’s hazy in parts. It might be a hoax, though it’s so dreary, I can’t imagine how anyone could gain anything off it. I don’t have the exact dates. It was first told in a letter, then years later in another letter, then years after that in a third letter. I’ve read none of the letters, and the passage of time between each installment suggests the erosion of failing memory. On top of that, my only experience with it was as told to me by my husband, and I must confess I didn’t pay much attention, so my own memory is questionable as well. All in all, as evidence of a crime, it’s a pretty pathetic deal.”
“It must linger?”
“It does indeed linger. People can’t quite put it aside. They think they have, and go about their lives, and then it comes back in the middle of the night and pokes them awake. It did that to the three letter writers and to my late husband. It did it to me enough times that I found out about a Mr. Bob Lee Swagger and tracked him to a flyspeck diner in a dying wide-spot in the road called Cascade, Idaho, and invested close to two months in earning an audience with him.”
“The lingering part is very interesting. So far, you’ve got me hooked.”
“We start with a young man, a recent graduate of an engineering school in Dallas, Texas. The time is unknown, but I’m guessing mid-seventies. He’s smart, ambitious, hardworking, decent. He wants to join a construction firm and engineer giant buildings. The first job he gets is entry-level, for an elevator contractor.”
“Right. Not exactly the glamour trade. But elevators, which we all take for granted, are heavily engineered. That is, they are overde-signed, overmaintained, overregulated, and no one involved with them takes them for granted. His firm installs them and maintains them on contract so they can pass their yearly examinations and don’t drop ten people fifty stories.”
“It’s hard, crummy work. The shafts and ‘engine’ rooms, as they call the motor and pulley devices that make them run, are dark, poorly ventilated, and not air-conditioned. Even more so back then. The space is cramped, and it involves a lot of twisting and bending to get access. The work is intensive and highly pressurized, because the building managers hate it when they have to shut down the elevators and the tenants hate it and everybody hates it. Are you getting a picture?”
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