By Chandler McMillin
One look, and it’s obvious that Mike and his father are a nightmare pairing straight out of a Stephen King story. Dad’s muscle-bound and clad head to toe in hunter’s camo; he’s just back from a morning in the duck blind. Mike’s a narrow-trunked sapling with hair moussed into lemon spikes over an inch of black roots. Elaborate tattoos run the length of both forearms, and there are enough silver loops in his ears to bind a spiral notebook.
These two might as well be from different planets.
Mike spent last night at the Shelter, one of three run by the juvenile justice folks. The cops removed him from home yesterday, after his father had finished tossing him around their living room.
“We’ve patched things up,” the father assures me. “Mike’s mother is flying back from Texas tonight.”
Apparently, she made the mistake of taking a three-day holiday with her sister. Combat broke out between the menfolk within forty-eight hours.
Mike sits silently in the next chair, looking resentful. He and his father avoid eye contact.
“Yup, he’ll be all right once his mom gets home,” the dad drones on. I sincerely doubt that.
Mike’s furious with his father. It’s the sort of fury that spills out at every crack in the conversation. You don’t see this sort of purified hatred in adults. As if all the pain and frustration of his young life crystallized into this frozen arrow of bile, pointed right at his dad’s head.
The old man’s got his own mad going. Mike apparently backed out of a father-son hunting trip at the last minute, embarrassing his dad in front of his buddies and calling up a host of past disappointments. Back home, they went at it, shouting and cursing. When Mike finally took a swing, the real battle started. Neighbors called the cops.
“I never put my hands on any of my boys before. Never,” Mike’s dad swears, holding up an imaginary bible. I don’t believe that for a minute. He knows he could have twisted the boy up like a balloon animal. “I admit I lost my temper. It’s just that he gets right up in your face…” He falls silent.
“Anything you want to say to your father, Mike?” I ask.
The boy grimaces. “Sorry.” Loquacious with me a half-hour ago, he now seems to have run entirely out of things to say.
Mike leaves the room to pack up his stuff. “It’s just that nothing I do is good enough for that kid,” the older man complains. Funny—last night Mike said exactly the same thing about his father.
Family therapy didn’t help, but I suspect that’s because these two spent their energy trying to change each other instead of themselves. The father feels that things were going pretty well until Mom left on her trip. In contrast, Mike’s opinion is that home is hell, all the time. It’s hard to believe they’re talking about the same family.
“We’ll work it out,” Mike’s dad says with confidence. He shakes my hand. At the door of my office, he stops and turns again, an afterthought. “Listen, I’ve got a gun collection at home. A big one. It’s my hobby. I was wondering, do you think I should put a lock on the gun cabinet?”
I’m startled. “Well, yes. I do.”
“It’s not that I’m worried about my son,” he rattles on. “But some of those friends of his are weirdos. Spooky-looking. Crazy eyes,” he adds, for emphasis.
“I’d lock those guns up,” I repeat. “Better yet, put them in storage. Somewhere away from the house.”
Now he’s surprised. “Mike wouldn’t hurt a fly, you know, but I was thinking just as a precaution…”
I realize he isn’t getting it. I pop up from my chair, close in, put a hand on his shoulder and squeeze. “Look, if it were me, I’d pack those guns up and get them out of the house tonight.”
He gives me a funny look. “You really think that’s necessary?”
“Yes.” Raising my voice.
“Okay, okay.” No doubt thinking, what’s this guy’s problem?
Mike’s waiting on the stoop. The two wander down the walk to a dusty Range Rover. Dad is smiling. He pats the boy’s arm, lightly. Mike recoils.
It occurs to me that he probably won’t move the guns, and may not even bother with a lock.
Five days later—right after morning report, so not quite 8 AM—Deputy Darrell Salcedo shows up. Same look as always: slicked-down hair and Texas cowboy boots along with the uniform. Coffee in one hand and a photo in the other. “Remember this kid?”
“Sure. Mike something. You brought him in Thursday night. He left Saturday morning. ”
“Arbuckle,” Darrell supplies. “Michael Arbuckle. He’s in the wind again. Mother says he hooked up with a girl while he was here.”
I buzz my assistant. Jocko immediately recognizes the boy in the photo. “Yeah,” he confirms, “he partnered up with Ella Cranbury.”
The deputy makes the face every cop in El Norte makes when somebody mentions that family. “Well, the mother says she was over at his house on the day.”
“On what day?” I ask.
“The day he shot his father.”
Jocko’s stunned. “Shit,” I mutter. “I told that idiot to move those guns.”
“Mom’s in bed and hears this loud bang about 3 AM,” the deputy reports. “Found her husband on the floor in the den, no sign of the kid, gun lay a few feet away. It’s a Cosmi Autoloader. That’s a $10,000 shotgun,” he adds, with admiration. “Now Papa’s in ICU and we’re lookin’ for Mike.”
I finally get it. “That’s why you’re here. You want me to talk to the Cranburys for you.”
He grins. “Well, they sure as hell won’t tell us anything.” True dat.
“Department’ll pay your gas,” Darrell offers, then reconsiders. “Well, mileage, anyway.”
After he leaves, Jocko insists I’m nuts to think old woman Cranbury or her sisters will tell me where the girl is.
“I know where she is,” I laugh. “The same place her brothers used to go when the law was hunting them.”
The trailer’s an old Airstream that sits in a clearing off a rutted track. When the rains come—if they ever come—it will be impassable. We’re not far from town, but it feels like the middle of the national forest. Very little wind and you can barely smell the last of the fire smoldering to the south.
Years ago it belonged to a hermit. When he died nobody came to claim the body, so Wally and Windy Cranbury dug a grave out back and turned the trailer into their own personal refuge. We went there to drink in high school. Now the twins were locked up, in separate institutions – the authorities had learned from experience.
Door’s locked. I bang on it. “Ella,” I call out. “It’s Frankie. I brought donuts.” A minute later she’s standing there in the doorway, topless, in pink bikini underpants. I give her a threatening look. She disappears inside and reemerges in tee shirt and dirty cutoffs.
We take seats across the picnic table. She roots through the bag and comes up with something chocolate frosted with a cherry center. “Ooohhh,” she exclaims happily. “You got the good ones.” The donut’s gone in less than ten seconds. She helps herself to half a fritter.
“You know why I’m here?” Not really a question.
“You want Lemonhead,” she states, between gulps. The name I get: Mike’s hairstyle. “Too late,” she says simply. “He’ll be out of state by now.”
I figured that. “The cops’ll want to talk to you.”
“When I’m ready.” The fifteen-year-old momentarily vanishes, replaced by a savvy forty-year-old ex-con. Glimpse of the future, I suppose.
“You two go to the house to have sex?”
She giggles. “Mike’s not into girls.” Ahah. “He gave me money,” she explains. “To help me out.”
“What time did you leave his house?”
“Maybe ten that night.” She hesitates. “Is his father dead?”
“Not yet. In a coma.”
“Good,” she says finally. “He’s a shit.”
“Did Mike shoot him?”
She hoots. “Mike’s scared to death of guns.”
“What about you?”
A look of genuine surprise. “I don’t have to shoot nobody. I got brothers for that.”
Good point. “So who did it?”
“I don’t know.” Then, coyly: “I bet I know who Mike thinks did it.”
So do I. “His mama.”
She nods. “See, if he runs, they chase him and leave her alone. If they catch him, he’s still a minor, right?” A pause for breath. “At the Shelter he was talking about California.”
And if he makes it that far, they’ll never find him.
It’s a reasonable hypothesis. I only met his dad the once, and even I can begin to understand his family’s desire to shoot him.
“You’re not as dumb as you look,” I inform her.
Ella grins back. “You neither. Tell you what,” she says, serious now. “I’ll go down tomorrow and sign a statement. But don’t give this place up, huh? Pretty please?”
“I cannot make promises to a dangerous criminal,” I say. Her laughter follows me all the way back to the car.
Later that day I catch up with Darrell Salcedo as he finishes one of the online training courses beloved by his employer. “That course any good?” I ask.
He rolls his eyes. “Oh yeah. I’m a changed peace officer. You find her?”
I shake my head. “Not exactly. She heard I was looking and called. Wouldn’t give up her location. But promised to come in and give you guys a statement.” I hesitate. “By the way, she claims the boy didn’t do it.”
Darrell snorts. “Was she there? Can she prove that?”
“Then we’ll file it with the rest of the invaluable public input.” Pointing at the wastebasket under his desk.
“Any other suspects?” He does some more eye-rolling. Guess not.
I take my leave. Turns out the evening counselor didn’t show and Jocko’s got a softball game, so I’m covering. Can’t be late.
I don’t bother mentioning Ella’s hideout.
We’re already short of places where it’s safe to be a kid.