Jeff T. Jefferson Parker

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Black Water

Archie pushed the gear shift into third and set his hand on her knee. Coast Highway, southbound. Man in the moon big and close, like he was tilting his head for a peek down into the convertible. Archie glanced up, couldn't tell if the guy was smiling or frowning. Didn't care because Gwen's skin was warm through the dress, a few degrees warmer than the breeze gusting through the car.

He looked at the speedometer then at her. Saw her hair moving, her face sketched in the orange glow of the dashboard lights. A silver champagne flute in one hand, a smile.

Archie pretended he'd never seen her before. Pretended he was trying to look at something else—the squid boat off of Crystal Cove in a pool of white light, say—only to have this Gwen creature drop into his world like some special effect. There she was. What luck.

He lifted the hem of her dress up over her knees and slipped his hand under. She eased back in the seat a little and he heard the breath catch in her throat. He caught the faint smell of her, windblown but unmistakable. Archie had a sharp nose and loved what it brought him. Like right now, the milk-and-orange-blossoms smell of Gwen, bass scent of his life. All the other notes that came to him‹coastal sage and the ocean, the new car leather‹were just the riffs and fills.

Black Water
She smiled and tossed the plastic champagne flute in the air, the darkness stealing it without a sound. Then she slid her hand under there with his, popping up the cotton dress and letting it settle like a bedspread while she trailed a finger up his forearm and over his wrist.

"Long way home, Arch."

"Five whole miles."

"What a night. It's cool when we mix our friends and they get along."

"They're all great. Priscilla drank a lot."

"The cops put it away, too. Thanks, Arch. You spent a fortune for all that."

"Worth it. You only turn twenty-six once."

Gwen's curls lifted in a random swirl and she pulled his hand in a little closer. She didn't speak for a long moment. "Twenty-six. I'm lucky. Will you love me when I'm thirty-six? Eighty-six?"

"Done deal."

"I'm really sorry about earlier."

"Forget it. I have. Damned temper."

A serene moment then, as the roar of the engine mixed with the comfort of forgiveness.

"I can't wait to get home, Arch. I'll be outrageously demanding, since it's my birthday. It is still my birthday, isn't it?"

"For about three minutes."

"Hmmm. Maybe you ought to pull over."

Archie downshifted and looked for a turn off the highway. There was one at the state beach, one for the trailer park, another one back by the juice stand. They'd used all of them, just one of those things they loved to do. She'd sit on his lap with her back to him. Up that high she looked like a tourist craning for a view of something, one hand on the arm rest and the other on the dash. The great thing about the new convertible was he could look up past the back of Gwen's head at the stars, then at her again, put his nose in her hair or against her neck and wonder what he'd done to deserve her. For a young man, Archie Wildcraft was not a complete fool, because he understood, at thirty, that he'd done nothing at all to deserve her. Dumb luck, pure and simple.

"There's the turn," she said, pointing.

"I love you," he said.

"I love you, Arch. You're always going to be my man, aren't you."

It wasn't really a question so he didn't answer. He braked and steered off the highway and into the darkness.

* * *

Four hours later, Deputy Wildcraft jerked awake when he heard something loud in the living room.

Gwen slept right through it, so Archie cupped one hand firmly over her mouth as he raised her from sleep. Her eyes grew large as he whispered what he'd heard. He prodded her out of the bed and toward the bathroom, which was where Archie had told her to go if something like this ever happened. All the time Archie was trying to listen but he heard nothing from the living room, the house, the whole world.

He watched as she pulled her new purple robe off the floor and moved through the room shadows toward the bath. Archie got a nine-millimeter autoloader from under the bed. He set it on his pillow while he pulled on his underwear‹comic, "Happy Birthday—I'm Yours" boxers with a big red ribbon printed around the opening. They'd made her laugh. Him too, and they'd made love again and fallen asleep damp and tangled in the sheets.

He put on his robe and picked up the gun. Then he got the phone and carried it toward the bathroom, where a thin horizon of light shone under the door. He opened it and gave her the phone and whispered don't worry this guy picked the wrong house to burgle maybe just a bird flew into a window if something goes wrong call 911 but let me check it out first.

I'll call it now, Archie.

Don't call it until I tell you to call it. Turn out the light the twenty-two's under the sink with a full clip and one in the chamber. The safety's down by the triggerguard, push it 'til the red shows.

Be careful.

I'll be careful.

Archie got his flashlight and walked out of the room and into the familiar hallway. Carpet, bare feet hardly making a sound. There was a light switch at the end of the hall, where it opened to the living room. He flipped it on but didn't step in, just stood there scanning right to left then back again over the sights of the automatic: wall, sofa, window blinds with a big hole in them, chair, wall with a painting, Gwen's birthday presents on the floor. Then the same things again, but in reverse.

He looked down at the big rock in the middle of the living room carpet. Size of a grapefruit. Saw the shards of glass twinkling near the slider. Saw where the wooden blinds had been splintered when the rock came through. Offed the light and listened. The refrigerator hummed and car tires hissed in the distance.

Archie moved quietly into the kitchen and hit another light. The kitchen was empty and undisturbed. Breakfast nook the same. Little family room with the TV and fireplace looked fine, too, just the VCR clock glowing a steady 4:28 a.m.

He checked the bath and the laundry room. Went back to the living room and shined his flashlight down on the rock. Kind of a rounded square, red and smooth with clear skinny marbles running through it like fat. Schist, thought Archie, veined with quartz. Common.

He wondered who'd do something infantile and destructive like this. Kids, probably‹don't know who lives here, just want to bust something up, video it, have a story to tell. Maybe some forgotten creep he'd shoved around in Orange County jail when he started work eight years ago. Cops make enemies every day and Archie had made his. They all came to his mind, though none more than any other. The crime lab could get latents off that schist.

All of this sped through Archie's brain as he unlocked the front door, slipped outside and quietly pulled the door shut behind him.

The moon was gone so he turned on the flashlight, scanned the porch and the bushes around it. A rabbit crashed through the leaves and Archie's heart jumped. He stepped across the porch then down to the walkway. It was lined with Chinese flame trees and yellow hibiscus and bird of paradise. The drooping branches of the flame trees made a tunnel. Archie followed the walk around to the back, moving his light beam with his left hand, dangling the nine millimeter in his right.

He stayed on the walk and it led him around the swimming pool. The water was flat and polished and Archie remarked for maybe the millionth time what a beautiful home they lived in now, big but plenty of charm, on a double lot in the hills with this pool and a three-car garage and palm trees fifty feet high leading up the driveway. An extra room for his viewing stones. An extra room for Gwen's music. An extra room for the baby someday.

He continued along the curving walkway then stopped in front of the window where the rock had come through. The beam of his flashlight picked up the big ragged hole and the gleam of fissures spreading in all directions. He saw no footprints, no disturbance of the grass.

Archie stood still and listened, clicked off his flashlight. Never did hear a getaway car. Kids, he thought again: they would throw the rock, haul ass giggling along the west fence, jump it at the corner and be down the hill before he'd gotten Gwen into the bathroom. He thought of her just then, standing in the hard light with her robe on, hair all messed up, scared as a bird and listening to every little sound, the twenty-two probably still in the cabinet under the sink because she didn't like guns. And he thought what a jealous little jerk he'd been for a few minutes at the party. Married to her for eight years and he'd still feel his anger rise when his own friends hugged and kissed her.

He missed her. Wondered what in hell he was doing out here with his happy birthday boxers and a gun and his wife afraid in a locked bathroom a hundred feet away.

He turned back up the walk. Past the pool. Into the tunnel of trees. Then a beam of sharp light in his eyes and by the time he found the flashlight button it was too late.

Up close, an orange explosion.

Bright white light and Archie watching himself fly into it, a bug in the universe, a man going home.

© T. Jefferson Parker