It’s a nice drive to White River on a winding, two-lane state road.
I usually dawdled through the Muckleshoot Reservation to see the drying gill nets and smell smoking salmon. I didn’t this time because the whole idea seemed screwier than ever.
I felt conspicuous as hell in White River. Too much city work does that to you. I broke into it gradually at a drug store across the street from the little one-story city hall. It was also the Greyhound bus station, so I could have been waiting for someone. I asked when the next Seattle bus was due; rudimentary cover. They said 10:30, giving me an hour to kill inside.
It’s just murder to hang on a street corner in a small town, unless you belong there. Across from the police station at that. I’d picked his address from my crisscross directory last night, checked out his neighborhood before coming to the business district. No car in his carport; I parked a couple blocks from city hall and walked by the official car park toward the drug store. New two-tone blue Ford LTD in the slot marked Chief; police-association stickers confirmed this was my boy.
I wrote the plate number in my notebook before my first sip of drug-store coffee, then stayed at the lunch counter drinking coffee and watched the door with dead neon tubing spelling Police beyond the city-hall entrance. Two cute little Nova-size prowl cars Detroit foisted on cops in the name of fuel economy were parked at the front curb. A uniformed cop came out, got in one, and drifted away like there was no crime in White River.
Later a white state Dodge took the prowler’s place; the trooper sauntered inside. He was back in five minutes, with a local cop. They came down the city-hall front, necks hunched against the drizzle, and crossed the street to the drug store. Nameplate on the town cop’s shirt confirmed he was Karnes. They sat at the other end of the counter. Call it luck. But when hunting, always check the watering holes.
He was a slim-hipped dark-haired character with a hairstyle no cop would be caught dead with a few years ago. Mid-thirties maybe; silver captain’s bars on his uniform and a big .357 Magnum with Sacramento grips on a black basket-weave speed rig. He could have been any small-town cop anywhere. No better-looking, certainly not worse than plenty I’d seen. Especially in rural Pennsylvania.
Somebody had broken his nose once; there was a thin white scar visible in the thatch of his left eyebrow. He didn’t look over six feet tall, nor particularly self-righteous. The blond trooper towered over him, a Norwegian logger escaped from wet timber and chainsaws…
I found a grocery-store parking lot where I could keep a long eye on his Ford, read the entire Seattle morning paper: another attractive co-ed missing. Suspicion focused on a young man introducing himself to girls as Ted, and driving a tan VW. Ted was too close to Ed; I was glad my Bug was black, tricked out with Baja fenders and fat mud and snow tires. That was high point of Day One…
Day Two — a Wednesday — I had been on the ground nearly twenty-four hours without drawing a suspicious glance. The rain held off. My boy was later getting on his way than he must have been yesterday, and he was wearing civvies. I spotted that even without the baby Bushnells I carry for long-range stakeouts. When he pulled out of his carport, I gave him space and fell in.
In Auburn, I caught up and tailed him north onto the freeway that runs from British Columbia through Seattle eventually clear to Tijuana. He got way ahead while I merged, so I got in the fast lane and wound it up. No troopers around; the double-nickel was being roundly ignored. Before long I saw him loafing in the middle lane ahead, and dropped off the jet stream to let the lead foots through. Cranked back the sunroof and drifted with the swarm. If Mrs. Crain had called it, he was in no hurry. Most skin flicks didn’t open until 11:30.
Mrs. Crain had called it. I took him off the freeway on the Seneca Street ramp. We dropped steeply through the city toward the Sound through double-parked delivery trucks and trim coffee-breaking secretaries.
Last time I was on First Ave, with its skin flicks and sex shops and live-girl shows, so many men on the street were wearing a fez it looked like Cairo; the Shriners were in town. In response, the street whores were out in force, twirling actual parasols for God’s sake, ankling along the street in swinging short skirts and strappy high heels. Picturesque as Shirley MacLaine in that Paris movie with Jack Lemon on the Late Show.
No fezzes or working gals today, but city neon still sparkled under the lowering sky. Dirty trash blew frenetically in the gutters, driven uphill by a cold November wind whipping off the Sound. It was raining again. I buttoned up the sun roof in a parking lot between an Army-Navy store and hock shop as he ditched his car in another.
He lined up with half a dozen other early birds beneath a marquee old when Tom Mix hung up his spurs. He was going to see Swap Meet, A Head of the Crowd, and selected short subjects. I saw him through sagging doors and got in a phone booth to note the time, theater, and titles. I was thinking they ought to go over big in White River.
Next I cased side-alley fire exits on the thin chance Karnes was using the theater as a dodge, feeling like a derelict in the faded Levis and blue plaid mackinaw I wore for a White River disguise. Didn’t stop a wino sprawled in a sodden mass of old newspapers from hitting me up. I swapped him a half-dollar for a sneer. Karnes didn’t show. So I coughed up five bucks of Mrs. Crain’s capital and dropped into a rear seat while my eyes adjusted to the gloom. The place was filling up fast with a lunch crowd of business suits and the usual assortment of the unwashed. This being the seventies and the Mitchell Brothers a new kind of celebrity for their porn films, there were a few giggling couples. There for pointers, I suppose.
This was sure the place to get them. I didn’t know if the living color belonged to Swap Meet or A Head of the Crowd. On-screen activity suggested either. A good time seemed being had by, all except one bored peroxide blonde who did a lot of the heavy lifting. My man was about halfway down, blocking off a whole pew by sitting in an aisle seat. There was a kind of unwritten protocol about seating in these entertainments; the message he broadcast was clear. Don’t tread on me; I’m just a voyeur.
So was I, to a certain extent. After that I dozed. When I caught myself nodding to light classical melodies behind the ritual groans and gasps, I cleared out and caught a window seat at a greasy spoon across the street. It was raining hard, but that didn’t stop the faithful. They came slipping down the storefronts, necks hunched against the rain, appearing furtive whether they meant to or not. Two young couples exited after long enough for the second feature to be under way. They swaggered off laughing: first timers.
Some arriving patrons caught my eye. Two Asian women, chattering like they were headed for a Disney cartoon. A distinguished-looking character whose chauffeur took the modern gunmetal-blue Caddy Seville away. No tail fins. A street hustler with a white cane and dark glasses tucked his shades in his old overcoat and studied marquee art before taking the plunge. Uniformed soldiers, probably from Fort Lewis. A crippled-up hippie — maybe a Viet vet — with damp tangled blond hair and beard to match. His awkward limp set an empty, unpinned field-jacket sleeve flopping.
The day wore on. Two full helpings of the main features plus coming (so to speak) attractions should have been enough for anybody. I spent time in a used-book store four doors from the greasy spoon and bought a paperback about a fat private eye who raised orchids and worked for rich people before I began to think Karnes had given me the slip. His car was still in the parking lot. But there were other new features just down the street if he wanted a fresh thrill. Maybe he’d slipped out a side door to head for another theater. The rain came down. Sidewalks weren’t crowded. I didn’t see how he could have dodged me. I wasted another half-hour in the Army-Navy store. Spent more of Mrs. Crain’s money on a black Navy watch cap to ward rain off my thinning hair, went back across, and bought another ticket.
The lunch crowd had thinned. Karnes was right where I left him. Not sitting at attention anymore. He had slumped down til the back of his head rested against the chair top. I was in the middle of the bored peroxide blonde’s film again. I wondered what they paid her. She certainly was earning it.
I sat closer behind him, watched until I began to nod again. The cold rain had chilled me, but the theater was warm. It was a temptation to catch a few z’s but I was afraid he would wake up and get away from me. I had a notion he would wind up the day at a sauna for a little number three or whatever they called it these days, and that would wrap the case. First the skin flick, then the magic fingers. Nobody would need a diagram, even in White River.
A newcomer came fumbling by me in the dark, trying to find a row with the aisle seat unoccupied. He didn’t see Karnes and started in. Karnes’ head slipped lower; there was a light thump that carried in the dark. The newcomer’s hands flew out and down. He stumbled and almost fell. Then jerked upright and backed away, his shadow ludicrously stiff against languid flesh tones on the screen. I wondered if Karnes pulled a gun on him. The newcomer went away in a hasty shamble, straight out beneath a dimly lit exit sign.
Karnes was lower in the seat. Only the top of his skull showed. He wasn’t moving, and stayed like that for what seemed a long time before it came crawling out of the back of my brain to gnaw at me.
The film ended. The second crowded right in. The next feature got right down to business as if there had been no change in the reel. The peroxide blonde was the star of Swap Meet.
Karnes still hadn’t moved. It took time to muster the nerve in the dark to get up and go down there. My legs were sluggish as if I waded a river strong as the Skagit. I had to to force myself to stand beside him and look down. The old scar gleamed in his eyebrow. His half-open eyes gleamed in the flicker from the screen but didn’t respond to the stimulus. He was crumpled there, wedged by his knees, one arm curved down, hand spread on the aisle, as if he had tried to rise.
Somebody came down the aisle behind me. I moved automatically into the row behind Karnes. They went on down while I sat looking at the top of his head and wondered if I was going to be sick. Images on the screen split and came together in an intricate arabesque, totally meaningless. Patterns on celluloid with a light shining through. I got hold of myself and slipped a hand low over his left shoulder to his neck. I would have given a lot if he grabbed my arm, let out a yell, even pulled his big .357 on me. He didn’t do any of those things. I knew he wouldn’t, but had to be sure. Not that there was really any question.
No grab, no pulse. No more magic fingers for Captain Karnes.