The Mexican Tree Duck

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9780446677912: The Mexican Tree Duck

Ex-private eye C.W. Sughrue has been depressed, jobless and living in the basement of a morgue, but now a job has come up. He sets off on an odyssey of liquor, sex and gunplay to find a missing woman who has eluded the FBI and cocaine dealers.

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About the Author:

James Crumley was born in Three Rivers, Texas, and spent most of his childhood in South Texas. After serving three years in the U.S. Army and completing college degrees in history (BA, Texas College of Arts and Industries) and creative writing (MFA, University of Iowa), he joined the English faculty at the University of Montana at Missoula. He was also a visiting professor at a number of other institutions around the country, including the University of Texas at El Paso, Colorado State University, Reed College, and Carnegie-Mellon. His works include a novel of Vietnam, One to Count Cadence, and seven detective novels: The Wrong CaseThe Last Good Kiss, Dancing Bear, The Mexican Tree Duck, Bordersnakes, The Final Country, and The Right Madness. He died in Missoula in 2008.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

When the 3:12 through freight to Spokane hit the East Meriwether crossing, the engineer touched his horn and released a long, mournful wail into the wet, snowy air of our second early fall storm in western Montana. It sounded a hell of a lot like the first note of a Hank Snow ballad. I slipped the dolly from under the jukebox and plugged it into the extension cord. When I dropped a quarter into the slot, the large machine burped, the bubbling neon tubes glowed softly in the night, and the machine seemed to settle more solidly onto the railroad tracks.

“You sure you know what you’re doing, Sughrue?” Lawyer Rainbolt asked, squatting beside the roadbed.

“Hey, man, I don’t know who this supposed rock-­and-­roll guy is and I don’t even much care if he sings like a girl,” I maintained, “but I’ve shaken hands with Hank Snow, by god . . .” I waved the damaged Herradura tequila bottle across the white space of the parking lot toward the back of the Hell Roaring Liquor Store and Lounge. “. . . right over there, and they ain’t got no right to take him off the jukebox.”

Solly took the tequila from me, had a hit, then handed it back, and dumped a small but dangerous pile of crystal meth into the palm of his scarred hand. He glanced up, smiling, huge snowflakes melting in his shaggy blond hair. “Which one is he?” Solly asked. “All those country and western singers sound like girls to me.”

“Asshole.”

Solly was very amused, grinning like the cat that fucked the canary before he ate it. Fucking amused lawyers.

“Let’s do it before it blows away,” he suggested.

I make it a policy never to argue with drug lawyers: they have decent arguments and the best drugs.

So we knelt together as the engine came around the long curve at the base of the Devil’s Hump, its brilliant headlamp whipping through the snow-­cursed night, knelt and snorted the speed off the circular cicatrix in Solly’s palm. I stood up, shakily, stepped onto the tracks, and punched P-­17. Solly limped across the parking lot toward the shadowed rear of the bar as the engineer hit his heavy note one more time.

The first time I saw Solomon Rainbolt, he was dead. Or we thought he was. The base camp CP bunker had taken at least three direct RPG hits, and after forty-­eight hours under the monsoon rain, we couldn’t tell the bodies from the sandbags. When one of the muddy lumps opened a pair of red-­rimmed eyes and grinned, white-­toothy and wild, one of my FNGs shit his pants and touched off an M-­16 clip into the clotted Vietnamese sky before Willie Williams could grab him. Then the lump became a head, raised itself, grinning.

“Hey, Sarge,” it said in a deep southern accent, “where the fuck you guys been?”

“Sorry, sir,” I said, “but the rain held us up . . .” I had the lead squad of a company patrol at the end of a four-­day hump into the dark heart of the Central Highlands. Our choppers had been grounded by the monsoon, and the regiment had pushed us hard to get to the overrun ARVN position, not to garner survivors but to dig the code safe out of the CP. Solly was the bonus upon which no one had counted. “. . . and nobody knew you were waiting.”

Solly shook his head as if coming back from death hadn’t been all that pleasant, then he struggled out of the sucking mud, shifting aside the dead Rhade mercenary who lay across his legs, pulling his lanky frame upright. Then he held up his left hand and clenched his fist. Even in the rain, I could hear the bones grind against each other. A ribbony snake of blood drifted out of his tight, muddy fingers and down his thick wrist.

“Captain Solomon Rainbolt,” he said as he looked at us, “bound for the free world.” Then he stared at the remains of his advisory command. Only he had survived. By playing dead, perfectly. Suddenly, Solly laughed, thunderous in the hammering rain, squeezed his fist again, and shouted, “Pin my Purple fucking Heart to my ass, boys, and send me home!”

They pinned it to his chest, though. And some other chicken-­shit baubles, too. But he left most of his lower left leg there floating in a rice paddy and he didn’t find his way back to the free world for a long time. He did one more tour for the green weenie, then another long one as one of those spooky hard-­assed dudes dressed in tiger-­striped tailored fatigues, Swedish assault rifles, and eyes from hell.

But finally, he came home. Not to Athens, Georgia, though, where his mother taught chemistry and his father law, but to California and law school at Boalt in Berkeley, where he kicked ass and took names, just as he had in the war, a joy he continued as a federal prosecutor and then in private practice in San Francisco once he had tacked his sheepskin like another military bauble to his wall.

By then, I was back on the mean streets of home my own damn self, busy with my own troubles, so our paths didn’t cross for a long time. At one point I had tracked a runaway wife from Wichita to San Francisco, where I found her among the remains of the flower children. I stayed for the end of the era of peace and love, stayed until Tricky Dick Nixon gave up his political ghost and left the sixties without purpose.

Solly’s name appeared in the paper, so I went to court to watch him work one afternoon. He was defending a rather famous biker against a murder-­one charge. Solly was something to see—­a half-­Jewish, half-­peckerwood, half-­crippled war hero. One of the courthouse buffs whispered to me that Solly could make a jury eat his shorts and convince them it was fettuccine Alfredo. He never lost a murder case that went to trial, and his plea bargains were taught in law schools all over the country.

I stopped by the defense table to say hello after the jury acquitted his client, and he seemed glad to see me. It looked as if it might be easy to renew the friendship we had begun during the four-­day two-­ambush hump out of the bush. So we exchanged numbers, promised to call. But I went to Vegas on a skip-­trace and when I got back, Solly had dropped suddenly out of the public view. There were rumors of an acrimonious divorce, a dead child, a missing ex-­wife.

Solly eventually reappeared in Denver, where he specialized in defending heavy drug dealers, guys who moved serious weight. He seemed to have a real hard-­on for the DEA, and he kicked the government’s ass with disturbing regularity. When he had taken whatever revenge he intended—­I don’t know because we never talked about it—­he cooled his jets and moved his practice to Meriwether, Montana, a town I had called home for a while now, and we picked up that friendship we had left in the bush. Friends, true, maybe even running buddies, so I made it a practice never to work either for him or against him. He seemed to agree. However brief our time in the bush, we both clung to the notion that it was better to have a buddy to watch your back when the hump got tough.

And things got tough for me that year. The PI business died with a blizzard the third week of September that dumped sixteen inches of cold wet snow on Meriwether. People seemed to be able to divorce quite nicely without my help during the cold snap and icy drizzle that followed the blizzard. Those local merchants who might have had repossession on their minds chose to be nasty to deadbeats up close and personal.

I wouldn’t have had time, anyway. The part-­time bartending job at the Hell Roaring Liquor Store and Lounge that kept me fairly solvent had degenerated into a full-­time chore as the customers lurched madly toward the stone-­cold heart of winter. The owner of the Hell Roaring, Leonard the Sly, a man whose heart usually only sang with the music of the cash register, suddenly fell in love with Betty Boobs, our prettiest cocktail waitress. They fled to Mexico before the first snowflake hit the ground. God knows what Leonard thought. Perhaps he thought his wife, Betty Books, who kept them, might not notice their absence. No such luck. A week later, she picked up the weekend cash deposit bag and climbed on an airplane bound eventually for Fiji, muttering something about “revenge fucking in the third world.” But she said quite plainly to me, “It’s yours, C.W. Drink it up or burn it down—­I just don’t give a shit anymore.”

I didn’t have time to do either. The help, surly in the best of times, rankled quickly under my guidance. When Big Linda’s check was short the second week in a row, she responded by drop-­kicking a tray of drinks across a five o’clock throng. One poor woman protested the death of her silk blouse, and Big Linda hit her so hard half of her houseplants died. Big Linda quit on the spot, moved to Tucson the next day to follow a career as a professional mud wrestler. All the mud in Meriwether was frozen. Little Linda followed quickly, packing her three kids and two broken television sets from four marriages into her old Falcon station wagon, with a large sign that said SNOW painted on the back window. She planned to drive south until somebody asked her what that was, that snow thing. Then the cruelest blow of all: my best, most experienced, most dependable bartender, the Original Linda, fell back in love with her second husband when he got out of Deer Lodge Prison. They got married, joined AA, and Linda quit her job.

Bars can be nice places, comfortable, homes away from the loneliness or confusion of home, but nobody, not even the most confirmed degenerate drunk, can spend eighty or ninety hours a week in one. I went through so much help that I actually hired a woman so drunk she had forgotten that I had fired her the week before. I don’t know what my excuse was. Something to do with my nose, I suspect. As far as I was concerned, the sun was something that happened in another country. I didn’t care if it came out. Then it did just to prove me wrong.

The first day, the snow melted like sugar in a golden shower. On the second afternoon it was all gone, and I had hammered my few customers with free drinks until they mostly sat still and silent, stunned in the flat rays of the lowering sun that flooded the front door of the Hell Roaring, an autumn light alive and full of hope and glory. I played every Hank Snow song on the jukebox ten times. Two of my semi-­mobile customers—­an independant gypo-­logger with a broken leg and a real estate saleswoman with a broken arm—­had fallen under the spell of the gravelly romantic voice; they danced with clumsy grace around the pool table. I could have danced myself.

A thousand years ago when I first came to Meriwether, the first time I set foot in the Hell Roaring as the sixties drifted, late as usual and dying, into the seventies, I found that soft autumn light filling the magic afternoon easiness of the bar. I eased myself onto the stool next to the poor schmuck I had been chasing for six months. He looked so pitiful I nearly walked away, but drink in hand, I swiveled around and stopped in that light, that sun-­filled silence.

I don’t even remember his name. Just some wretch from Redwood City, California, a pale, wrinkled man, a pharmacist once, an unhappy man wedded to a woman hard with unhappy fat and a gut bucket for a mouth. The pharmacist read the wrong books, maybe, or watched the wrong television shows, whatever, he became convinced that the sexual revolution had taken place without him. So he faked a robbery, fled with the money and the drugs and a hippie chick with flowers in her hair, fled toward the peace and freedom of the Mountain West, Montana, the word like a benison on his trembling lips.

By the time I caught up with him, though, he had had enough of his dream. He should have been glad to go home. I bought him a drink and explained the hard way and the easy way back to California. He wept like a child, a man leaking everywhere, everything. He had a junkie’s sniffles, oozing tracks inside his elbows, behind his knees, and between his toes. A revolutionary strain of gonorrhea had started a commune in his urinary tract and none of the miracles of modern pharmacy could dislodge it.

But it hadn’t all leaked out. When I tried to console him with the information that his wife still loved him, wouldn’t press charges, and wanted him back in the family home, he shook his head, murmured something about his additional curse of a weak bladder, then raised a flaky eyebrow and nodded toward the john.

Maybe if I hadn’t turned my stool back to face that blessed light, I might have heard the muffled thumps from the bathroom. Five minutes later when I decided that not even the most painful piss should take that long, I went to check. He really wanted to die. I found him on his knees in front of the urinal, hanging from his belt, leaning into the leather strap. This time everything had finally leaked out.

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