"Daniel! What the hell do you want?" Sam Tipton stood in the open hotel room door oblivious to the fact he was clad only in his skivvies. He brought his hand up and squinted at his watch. "Jesus! It's two o'clock in the morning!"
Daniel Guy, FBI Agent and Tipton's close friend since Vietnam, had never liked Washington. Tonight he hated it. It was forcing Guy to do the toughest thing he'd ever had to do.
"Sam, sit down, we need to talk." His tone was soft. And serious.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Sam Tipton's sleep-blurred mind was struggling to come on-line. "I don't want to sit down. What's going on?"
"Sam," Daniel Guy's voice choked. He put his hand on his friend's shoulder and looked him in the face. "There's been an accident at home. A bad one..."
Tipton didn't let him finish. "Oh, Jesus, God, ...!" He had the agent by both shoulders. "Marilyn? Melissa?"
Daniel Guy dropped his head and nodded.
Sam Tipton, technical-intelligence consultant and engineer, ex-Marine fighter pilot, husband and father, never said a word. He walked silently to his suit case and began getting dressed. The only sound in the room was a quiet whisper from Daniel Guy.
"Oh Jesus, I'm sorry. So, goddamn sorry!"
* * *
Sam didn't remember any of the eulogy. Or the funeral procession. One moment he was in his hotel room trying to wake up and the next he was standing in a cold, gray mist surrounded by friends while he stared at two coffins. One smaller than the other.
Although he knew several days separated the hotel room from the graveyard, they were just a blur of places and friends. Many soft words and warm hugs. Every other word seemed to be "...sorry..."
Afterwards friends would remark how stoic he had been. He hadn't shed a tear and seemed to genuinely appreciate their efforts to carry part of his grief.
As Sam stared at the polished coffins, his mind saw inside them. He saw his Marilyn sleeping peacefully. Because of the bullets, they hadn't let him see her. That thought caused him to remember other times, other bullets. A long time ago. He tried to stop it, but the haunting image returned again. As it often did. The jungle parted and a young woman stared out at him. At first he saw only the hard smile. The gleaming white teeth. The smooth skin. She was beautiful. Her weapon was already spitting flame before he saw the black pajamas and AK-47. His instincts had saved his life, but the image of his own bullets turning the young face into a blood-gray mass sometimes returned. He squeezed his eyes tight. The image went away, replaced by another. Marilyn's face flashed across his mind. He wouldn't let the images mix. He couldn't.
His mind's eye saw Marilyn under the rain-painted metal. In his mind, she was wearing the white turtleneck that set off her long hair and olive skin so beautifully. Well-worn jeans hugged her hips and she wore her favorite rough-out boots. She smiled sweetly, as if having a wonderful dream in which she and Sam, were once again curled up together.
He tried not to think of the bullets.
In the smaller coffin his mind saw a squirming bundle in fuzzy Doctor Denton's waiting for daddy to tuck her in and tell her a story. Or tickle her. Or bite her. And she would fall asleep with her tiny hand curled around his finger while he stroked her soft, straw-colored hair.
Sam sensed there was a crowd around him at graveside, but he saw none of them. He was alone in the middle of a personal desert with nothing in sight but two coffins. With nothing but the long walk away from the coffins to a horizon he would never reach. No matter how long he walked, he knew he would turn and find the two coffins only a few feet away. Never out of sight. Never out of mind.
He felt strong arms around him and looked up to find the sad eyes of his father on one side and Daniel Guy on the other.
"Come on son, it's time to go. We're going over to Daniel's for a while. Come on." His father's voice was slow and deep, filled with the emotion born of a father's love for his only son. Although a man who had seen death in many forms, that was years earlier, as a warrior for his country. This was different. This was death out of place. Out of time. Although, as a rancher he'd faced desert fires and hard droughts and he'd been tempered by the West, that didn't stop the tears. That didn't stop him from being a father. A wrinkled, rough hand tightened around the trembling hand of his grown son.
Sam resisted momentarily. He reached out to each coffin. They were cold and damp to his touch. He leaned over and quietly whispered, "I'll come to take you home. I promise. I love you."
As he walked away with friend and father, he fought the urge to look back.
* * *
Sam Tipton rode in the lead car with his father, while Daniel Guy climbed into his Bureau sedan with his long time partner, Fred Webster. Guy wiped a tear from the corner of his eye. The Tipton's had been family. Marilyn a sister. Sam a brother.
"Jesus, mother of God, I hope I never have to go through anything like this again." Suddenly Agent Guy turned to his partner, "What was Tipton working on for us other than the industrial espionage thing?"
"Nothing. That was it," Webster replied
"I don't get it," Guy said. "What the hell is the shooting all about?"
"I don't know," Webster replied. "My police contacts say it looks to be a drive-by shooting. The Tiptons just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other houses were hit at the same time. Theirs just got hit harder."
"Bullshit!" Guy blurted. "The other houses took maybe a half dozen rounds a piece and they claim they heard some shouting in Spanish. That's it!" He pulled their car up behind the Tiptons. "Tipton's house took nearly a hundred .308 rounds through the bedrooms alone. Give me a goddamned break! Drive-by, my ass!"
"I don't know, man," Webster sounded skeptical. "The cops are writing it off as the first drive-by in a white-collar neighborhood. Mostly, they're afraid it may be the start of a trend. Maybe some sort of poor versus rich thing."
"Bull shit!" was all Daniel Guy had time to say before he merged with traffic. It was going to be a long drive home.
* * *
The house was dark, as Sam Tipton pulled into his driveway. He sat for a long time and watched the street lights play off the yellow police crime scene tape stretched across his front porch. His front porch! He didn't want to believe it.
Shattered glass in the windows caught the light. The reflections were incomplete and fractured. There hadn't been time to board them up. It didn't matter. It wouldn't matter. Not in the long run.
He stepped through the back door into the kitchen where he had breakfast with his family only a few days earlier. The street light played with the shadows as he moved through the dark house. Glass crunched under foot. As his eyes probed the dark, he couldn't sort out his feelings. His thoughts and emotions were dulled to the reality of the situation.
He recognized what had happened, but couldn't bring himself to think past it. Past this life into another life. A life without Marilyn. Without Melissa.
As their names crossed his mind, he wandered towards their rooms. They said Melissa had been found in bed with Marilyn. He found it somehow comforting that they should die with their arms around each other.
Melissa's room was first and the buzz of flies caught his attention. A faint odor reached out to him. The street light touched a small, motionless mound of red fur in the middle of Melissa's disheveled bed. Foxy!
Even the goddamn dog!
That's when the tears began. That's when the lump which had been lodged in his throat from the moment Daniel Guy stepped through the hotel room door, broke free and released the tears. No one saw Sam Tipton as he slumped down in the doorway of his little girl's room. His sobs echoed throughout the dark, deadly-quiet house.
His body gave itself over to the pain. The sobs rolled over one another, barely allowing space to breathe. Only the night and the empty house heard what had been held back for so long.
* * *
Sam Tipton neither knew, nor cared, how long he had been sitting in the doorway. The tears stopped because there were no more. There was nothing left of Sam Tipton to give.
It took more strength than he thought possible to push himself numbly to his feet and walk through the dark kitchen to the garage. He grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniel's on the way. A shovel was in the other hand when he returned to carry the inert puppy to the backyard.
As he dug, he drank. As he drank, he talked.
"Dear God, we commend to your care, the tiny soul of Foxy Tipton. Please, God, please make sure he winds up with my Melissa."
He slumped to the ground beside yet another grave. This time bottle in hand.
Several hours later Sam Tipton walked unsteadily through the dark house with a red can in his hand. First it was Melissa's room. Then he staggered down the hall and sloshed the liquid around the room in which he had spent the happiest moments of his life. The bed got an especially liberal soaking.
He stared at the ragged bullet holes in the walls and the jungle image returned to his mind. This time the face above the black pajamas was Marilyn's. The bullets started and he rushed the bottle to his lips. He didn't remove it until the image went away.
As he stepped into the kitchen looking for matches, the light reflected off a pair of newly-shined boots on the kitchen table. At the sight, he wanted the tears to start again, but they wouldn't. There were no more.
He tucked the boots under his arm and threw a match into Melissa's room. Yellow-blue flames leaped across the floor, over the bed and up the walls. In seconds the same scene repeated itself in the master bedroom. The flames made a hungry, dull roaring sound as they devoured the physical traces of what had been his life. He thought about climbing into bed and pulling the blankets over his head. But he couldn't bring himself to look at the bed. At the place where his life had died.
As the flames built, Mr. Daniel's liquid legacy whispered softly in his ear. He ceased caring and ambled slowly down the hall.
* * *
Daniel Guy coughed slightly as the smell of Sam Tipton's smoldering house found it's way into his lungs. Gaunt, blackened bones of the structure appeared angry and naked in the early morning light. Water was everywhere. He shivered and it wasn't from the damp coolness.
"Agent Guy, my name is Lieutenant Shraeder." As the fireman spoke, he removed his yellow hard hat and wiped a smoke-smudged brow. "My guys were the first on the scene and I was right behind them. There wasn't much we could do. The house was already totally involved. We were damned lucky to get your friend out."
"My friend?" Guy asked.
"Yeah. He was sitting on the couch in the living room which was engulfed. He had a bottle in one hand and the TV remote in the other and was channel surfing as if nothing was wrong. He didn't want to leave and we damned near had to cold cock him to get him out. Two of the guys tossed him on the front lawn. He was drunker'n a skunk."
"Where is he now?" Daniel Guy was looking around his friend's property. Sam Tipton was nowhere to be seen.
"We don't know," the fireman answered. "We got busy fighting the fire and didn't see him after that."
A new voice piped up from behind them, "I saw him."
The speaker was a graying gnome of an old lady. A Hummel figurine in a tightly clutched house coat. She was standing next to the white picket fence separating her neat front yard from what used to be Sam Tipton's neat front yard.
"For a while, while they were fighting the fire," she said, "he just sat in the water on his front yard. He was wearing a dark suit. But, he wasn't wearing any shoes and had his arms wrapped around a pair of cowboy boots."
She leaned forward, looked both ways and whispered, "I think he was drinking. He had a bottle with him."
"Where'd he go?" Guy asked.
"Go?" The gnome replied.
"Yes, where is he now?" Guy asked.
"Oh, I don't know. But, he was a nice man, you know." She smiled.
"Didn't you see which way he went?" Guy was getting impatient.
"Oh, yes, I did," she nodded as her mind went in another direction, "Well, let me see. I last saw him walking up Elm Street. Did I tell you he had no shoes?" Her voice lowered again, "And he was drinking."
She looked back at the water pooling in Tipton's front yard. Ashes and scorched reminders of the Tiptons' life floated in shallow pools. She shook her head and frowned.
She looked at Agent Daniel Guy and said, "You know, it really is a shame how some people can't seem to handle stress."
* * *
Grover's, one of Georgetown's long established meet and greet bars, hadn't changed much in the two years since the Tipton shooting. It still smelled of polished brass, oiled leather and old money. A slightly balding, middle aged gentleman in a dark suit at the bar looked as if he hadn't changed much either. He was closely scrutinizing a half empty glass of Scotch and didn't look up when a tall, thin graying individual sat down next to him. Senator Foster Ward ignored the Scotch drinker as he settled on the stool and reached for a bowl of midget pretzels on the bar.
Only the occasional eye had followed Ward in. Senators weren't that unusual in Grover's. He popped a pretzel into his mouth then stared intently at a second pretzel as he quietly said, "So what's the latest on Tipton?"
"Nothing," came the answer. "He has completely disappeared. It's been over two years and we don't have a thing on him.
The speaker had his head down quietly addressing his Scotch and Ward had to strain to hear over the background noise. "He simply dropped off the face of the Earth. Our best guys figure he tried to commit suicide when the house burned and he probably succeeded somewhere else. Eventually his body will wash up somewhere. We're not worried about it."
"Not good, not good." Ward's words were quiet and worried. The pretzel disappeared into his mouth. "We would prefer a much more definitive end to this thing. Don't forget, I flew with that sonuvabitch in 'Nam and believe me, Sam Tipton's not to be underestimated. Given another two weeks on that technical thievery project and he would have nailed us on the memory-chip sale. If he's alive, he's still damn dangerous. The last thing I need is him re-surfacing after I get the cabinet appointment."
"Yes sir, we understand," the man again addressed his Scotch, " but either he's dead, or he's crawled in a hole somewhere. We haven't found a single person who even saw him after the fire."
"Okay, we'll drop it off the priority list." Senator Foster Ward said, "but, don't even think about closing the case. Keep an ear to the ground in case he shows up someplace. It's essential we find him before the good guys do."
"So we're agreed?" Pale hazel eyes left the glass of Scotch and swiveled over to connect with Ward as the senator spoke. "The Sam Tipton case is inactive, but not closed."
Message delivered, Ward threw back another pretzel and disappeared into the crowd.
THAT'S ALL FOLKS!
RETURN TO ORDER FORM To order.