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Ghost of a Life

Chapter Three

Delores Reese turned off Fox Road into the Belmore driveway. From there she realized Clay was sitting on the front porch. What surprised her was that he had his father's Winchester rifle laying across his lap while he swung in the glider.

"Clay? What are you doing out here?"She got out of her car and removed a bag of groceries from the back seat.

"Nothing."

"With your daddy's rifle?"

"Got company. You watch him for a while."

"Him – who? What's going on?"She stepped up on the porch and glanced through the screen door to the living room.

"Letting that fella I pulled out of my wheat field stay here for a couple days. That's all."

"What fella? That's why you sitting up in here with that loaded rifle?"

"Don't worry. Watch him. Gotta go take my walk." Belmore propped the Winchester against the wall next to the front door and departed.

Delores opened the screen door and tiptoed into the living room. She saw a swatch of dark brown hair and a pale skin of a hand laying on the armrest. She peeked over the couch. The man sprawled on the couch was asleep in Junior's pajamas. The covers were half on and half off his body. A shot glass was tipped over on the floor next to the couch. What had Clay gotten himself into? She glanced back at the Winchester leaning next to door and then at the sleeping white man. She winced at the thought of not knowing what was happening and what could happen.

Joe, awakened by the sounds of pans rattling and the smell of bacon frying, twisted to look behind him into the kitchen. He gasped. Wrong move, his ribs protested. He saw a portly black woman in an apron with her back to him. When the pain in his ribs, subsided, he sat up on the couch. "Morning, that smells pretty good."

"Yeah."

Joe gingerly stretched his arms. He felt the start of a dull throb in the back of his head. He needed a couple of aspirin. He rose slowly, testing his balance. His chest didn't feel as congested. Besides the headache, he was on the mend.

He noticed a neat pile of a pair of jeans, a blue plaid shirt and underwear and socks on the coffee table. He grabbed his shoes and the clothing and slid the 45 underneath them to hide it from the woman's view, and went to the bathroom. He quickly showered, shaved, and dressed. Afterward, he took a seat at the table. "My name's Joe."

"Delores. Don't sit there. That's Clay's spot." She put silverware on the table for two. She returned to the griddle on the gas burner and flipped the pancakes over. Joe moved to the other end of the table.

"Got any coffee?"Joe asked.

"There's the pot. Make it yourself."

Joe found the old peculator next to the sink. He filled it with water and searched the kitchen cabinets for the coffee.

"Third on the left."

"Thanks." He found the coffee, measured for about three cups, plugged it in and sat back down at the table.

"How many?"

"How many what?"

"Pancakes."

"Oh, ah, three."Joe watched her slap the pancakes on a plate and then slam the plate on the table in front of him. Joe and the pancakes jumped. She plopped the bottle of Mrs. Butterworth next his plate. "Are you mad at me for some reason?"

"Damn straight. What have you gotten Clay into? I came here and he's sitting on the porch with a loaded rifle. Damn straight, I'm mad."

"Wait a minute, I didn't know he . . ."

"No, you wait a minute. You need to get up out of here and go back to where you came from. Whatever's going on, this house don't need no more trouble."

"Delores!" Belmore entered into the house. "You don't treat a guest in my house like that."

"Clay! He's trouble."

"I don't want to cause any problems. I'll go find a motel or something."Joe said.

"You got any money?"

"Uh, no."

"Last time I checked, you need money to rent a motel room. Eat your breakfast."

Delores dropped the platter of bacon, eggs and ham in the center of the table."I'll get the laundry started." She retreated down the hallway.

As Clay washed his hands in the sink, he noticed the coffee brewing.

"Who made the coffee?"

"I did."

Belmore retrieved a pair of coffee cups and poured a cup for each of them. He sat down at his place at the table and took a taste of Joe's coffee.

"Hope you get your memory back soon." Clay pushed aside his cup. "You forgot how to make coffee."

Joe reddened. "It always tastes like that."

After breakfast, Joe went outside, sat on the porch glider and inspected the farm. He noted that for a farm this size maybe only a quarter of the acreage was planted. Not enough to keep the farm this size glanced over at Clay as he stepped from the house.

"Here's some ugly-ass sunglasses Delores bought me. Probably look better on you than me." He handed Joe the sunglasses.

"Thanks."

"Got chores. Delores's here if you need anything."

"I'd be afraid to ask."

"Don't take it personal. She worries about me being out here alone. You take your pills?"

"Yes, Papa."

"The Winchester's on the inside of the door. What did you do with the 45?" Joe leaned forward and pulled up the back of the plaid shirt. The 45 is tucked into the small of his back with the butt sticking above the belt line of his jeans.

"Funny place to keep a gun."

"I don't know . . . it just seemed right."Joe pulled the shirt back over the gun.

"If you ain't a cop, you outta be."

"You need some help? I'd like to do something to repay your kindness."

"What's a city boy like you know about farming?"

"I . . . my pa . . . has a vineyard." Joe's face brightened. "I remember helping him. I'm from . . . California."

Clay looked at Joe's hands, not a callous anywhere. "Well, you ain't done any of that lately. I'll take care of the farming and you take care of the remembering."He ambled toward the barn.

Delores opened the screen door. "Clay, the girls are asking," she yelled after him. "Are you going to coach softball this summer?"

"Nah, ain't got time."He vanished through the barn door.

"Sorry about earlier," Delores said to Joe. "I worry about him."

"He must be proud of his son. The Medal of Honor and all."

"He don't care about that. He wanted Junior to come home and take over the farm like he did when he got out of the army."

"Do you know anything about his winning the Distinguished Service Cross?"

"He doesn't talk about it. Some say he should have gotten the Medal of Honor for what he did. Some say he didn't get the Medal of Honor because he was a black man." Delores wiped her hands on her apron. "I worry enough about him running around here all alone."

"If he earned the DSC, he can probably take care of himself. Why doesn't he hire someone to help him around here?"

"Since Junior died, he don't want no help." She points to a small hill with trees. "He goes up there every day. To visit Junior."

"How do you know he visits the graves everyday if you only come out on the weekends?"

"Sometimes I drive out before work and make sure I see him moving around."

"Does he know?"

"Probably. You need anything?"

"I'm fine."

"Holler. I'm almost done with the laundry."

She left Joe on the porch. He thought about what he had remembered. He grew up in California working with his father in a vineyard, but that had nothing to do with what he was doing in Enid, Oklahoma, two thousand miles from California. What he knew about himself was contradictory. He knew how to handle a gun and he acted like a cop not a farmer. He'd been in an accident, but nobody knew where the car was and where it happened or why. He realized he had escaped from someone, but again who and why? He wasn't going to get the answers sitting here. He stepped off the porch into the sunlight grateful for the sunglasses Clay had given him.

He paced from the driveway to the end of Fox Road and back looking for any clues that would trigger his memory. He searched the area of the wheat field where he had been found and crossed the road several times looking for anything that would tell him where he had been before he collapsed. Powers was right; the rain the other day washed away any evidence of where he'd come from. He couldn't imagine that he had walked or crawled down the road and then fell into Clay's field. He had to have come from somewhere else.

He trudged back to the shade of the porch. He needed answers and aspirin. His trek started his head aching again. As long as he didn't make any sudden movements, he could almost forget he had bruised ribs. The rest of his body was only sore and stiff.

Joe tired of sitting on the porch and climbed the little hill that held the Belmore cemetery. He eased his body to the ground and lounged against one of the trees providing the shade. He counted ten headstones. If he didn't remember what happened to him, somebody might be picking one out for him, but right now he wanted the aches and pains of his body to go away. Before long under the coolness of the shade tree, Joe drifted into sleep.

Headlights . . . No! . . .splash . . . hit the windshield . . . then nothing. Hands pulling him from the car dragging him through water . . . on his back . . . crunch . . . pain, ribs. Searching his pockets, rolling him over. His head . . . Joe? Joe! A hand jarred him awake. His right hand reflexively reached for the gun underneath his shirt. He stared up at the startled face of Delores standing over him.

She watched him replace the 45 in its hiding place.

"What are doing with Clay's gun?"

"Sorry."

She regarded him. "I left dinner warming in the oven, fried chicken and vegetables. Sandwiches on the table for lunch and lemonade in the refrigerator."

"Thanks."

"Don't thank me. Whatever you're mixed up in, get Clay hurt and you'll have to deal with me. Gun or not. Understand?"

"Yes, ma'am."Joe had no doubt Delores would back up her threat. She glowered at him as she drove away.

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Vincenti observed the Belmore farm through the binoculars as he stood on the roof of his car. Mr. Russo was arriving at the Enid Airport later today. He'd be there in plenty of time to pick him up. And then Mannix would need to do some remembering.

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For a while Joe sat and listened to the hot breeze of the late morning rustling through the trees and the wheat fields. He realized what he didn't hear was the sound of tractors or any other farm machinery nearby and he hadn't seen Clay since breakfast.

As fast as his battered body would take him he checked the house and the barn. Clay's truck was still in the driveway. Wherever he was, he had to have walked. He returned to the hill to surveyed the rest of the farm. A large, silver metal maintenance shed stood on the other side of a vacant field.

His dread powering him, he traveled down the hill. As he crossed the field, he noticed a windsock at the far end billowing in the wind. He kept moving; he was out in the open and an easy target. As he approached the shed, he drew the 45. One of the twin sliding doors was opened about three feet. He peeked in and saw Clay sliding a cleaning rag across the riveted surface of a Piper Cub airplane. He exhaled, and stepped into the shed with the gun pointed to the ground.

Clay glimpsed the 45 in Joe's right hand. "Plan on shooting somebody?"

"I hadn't seen you in awhile. I was worried about you."

"You worried about me?"

"I'm worried enough for both of us." Joe put the 45 in its hiding place in the small of his back. He ran his hand along the wing feeling the flushness of the rivets. "She's a beauty. You a pilot?"

"Nah, not me."

"Your son's?"

Clay continued to buff the outer skin of the plane. "Know something about planes?" he asked.

"I . . . flew jets in the Korea. I learned how to fly in one of these. I haven't flown one of them in years."

Clay removed a flask from his back pocket and took a drink.

"Can I have a taste of that?" Joe took a small sip and handed the flask back to Clay. "You want to talk about it?"

"Talk about what? Ain't nothing to talk about."

"A landing field and a plane in a shed. Only a part of the acreage planted. I think there's a lot to talk about."

"None of your business."

"You made it my business when you pulled me out of your wheat field and took me to the hospital. You made it my business when you let me stay here until I can remember what happened to me."

"You ain't family."

"Maybe not but you're the only family I have right now. A person who cared enough to take me to the hospital and make sure I was alright. I'm in some type of trouble and still you put yourself at risk by letting me stay at your home."

"Didn't do nothing special."

"No, you didn't do anything special. You just did the right thing."

Clay swiped at the sparkling surface of the plane."That's what I tried to teach Junior. Do what's right. Yeah, I did what's right." He hit the fuselage with his rag. "I threw him out of the house because he didn't want to be a farmer." He hit the plane again. "Yeah, I did what's right." He struck the plane again and again with the rag. "What did I do? What did I do?" Clay slid to the dirt floor the flask falling beside him. Joe settled next to Clay.

"You didn't do anything any other father wouldn't have done. My father did the same thing to me. The land couldn't hold me either." Joe picked up the flask. "I bet he wanted to fly from the time he was a little boy."

"Built him a play airplane from a crate and wood scraps. He played in it for hours."

"You knew then, didn't you?"

"Louise, his mama, died right after he graduated from high school. She told me before she died to let him go, but I couldn't. I couldn't. Wanted him here with me. Wanted to give him what my daddy gave me – the land the Belmores have owned for almost a century. Wanted to give him a future. Why wasn't this good enough for him?"

Joe drank from the flask. "I can't speak for your son, but for me, all I could think of was I'd be doing the same thing my pa was doing until I died. It scared me. I was afraid my whole life would be in that vineyard. I'd be stuck there the rest of my life and I couldn't live my whole life there. So I went off to college on a basketball scholarship and then the Korean War started. I came home before I was sent to Korea. The entire time I was home all I did was argue with Pa about the vineyards. Mama tried to be the peacemaker. He pretty much told me if I wasn't coming back to his vineyards, don't come home ever again, so I packed my dufflebag and left."

Joe passed the flask to Clay.

"But you came back. You had a chance to straighten things out between you."

"Yes and no. I came back, but we didn't get this straightened out between us until about five years ago. At least now we can talk without getting into an argument."

"So why are you remembering all this and not what happened to you a couple days ago?"

"I do remember but only in pieces. I see faces and remember someone was chasing me. I can't remember why. I think I was looking for someone."

"A relative?"

"No, my family's back in California. Sometimes I can almost I can touch . . . I'm supposed to be . . ."

"Did you forgive your father? You know he was trying to do the right thing."

"You fathers have a funny way of saying 'I love you'. Did your son ever write to you from Vietnam?"

"A letter came the day after he died. Never read it."

"I'd say he forgave you. Do you still have the letter?"

Clay nodded. "On his dresser, in his G.I. Joe footlocker. Wrote him a letter. Never mailed it."

"Why?"

"Don't know." Clay placed the flask on the ground between them. "Guess I was scared, too. Do you think he'd would've come home?"

"He is home." Joe inclined his head toward the little hill. "If he didn't want to come home, he would have asked to be buried in a military cemetery."

The simple truth of Joe's statement staggered him. Junior had returned home to his farm, to his father. Clay stood and walked out of the shed to the cemetery with Joe trailing behind. From his shirt pocket, Clay pulled a folded, ragged letter, the letter he'd been carrying around since before Junior died. He stopped in front of Junior's headstone and unfolded his letter.

Every day in the last year he had stood in this same spot wondering if his farm was worth the guilt. He questioned whether he had been more afraid of losing his farm than losing his son. Whether the Belmores owned it or not, land would always be here.

Clay finally read his letter to Junior.

"Dear Clay, I want to apologize to you for what I did and said. You . . . a grown man and you can make your own mind up about your life. I've . . .always dreamed . . . of our working the farm together . . ."

Clay wept like he hadn't done during his son's funeral. He wept for all the words he shouldn't have said and for the words he should have said.

Joe placed his hand on Clay's shoulder. He took the letter from the sobbing man's hand and continued reading for him.

"Your mother knew what I wouldn't admit. Before she died she tried to tell me to let you go. That if you really wanted to, you might come back to the farm after you were gone a while, but it had to be for you decide not me.

The farm is yours if you want it. If not, please come home to visit. I'm sorry for what I said. Please come home."

Joe refolded the letter and gave it back to Clay. Joe had wondered what would have happened if he hadn't returned alive from Korea, how his father would have felt. Through Clay, he glimpsed what could have been his father's anguish.

"Did you your father ever forgive you?"Clay asked.

Joe thought a moment. "No, I don't think he ever forgave me. He learned to live with it."

Clay pulled an old blue bandanna from his back pocket and wiped his face. "Thank you."

Joe smiled. "Hey, how about lunch? Delores left us some sandwiches and lemonade."

Before they reached the house, Deputy Powers drove up.

"Afternoon, Mr. Belmore. Joe, Flint Jones found your car. It's nose down in a creek in the next farm over. How about taking a look?"

"Of course. Coming, Clay?"

"Go on without me." He glanced back at the hill and then at the house. "Got something I got to do."

"Let's go," Powers said.

Joe hesitated. "You sure?"he said to Clay.

"Yeah, go on. We'll talk later."

"Okay."

Joe and Powers departed as Clay disappeared into the house.

"What was all that about?"

"Learning to forgive yourself."

"What?"

"You had to be there."

Powers drove to the wreck. "Still having trouble remembering anything."

"Faces, some things, but pieces to a puzzle I can't put together because I don't know what it looks like. Nothing that seems to have any connection with what I'm doing here. I need to know what happened to me here."

"Maybe seeing this wreck will help you."

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Anthony Russo was as short as Sal Vincenti was tall. He never let his lack of height keep him from letting others know he was the boss. Even in the afternoon heat he wore a suit and tie. Vincenti had stripped down to a shirt and slacks. He watched through binoculars as Powers and Mannix left and Belmore entered the house. Russo handed the binoculars to Vincenti.

"So that's Mannix. The word is he's a pretty tough guy."

"He can't be too tough. His brains got scrambled when he ran his car off that bridge. He can't even remember who he was. We'll find out how tough he really is. Right, Mr. Russo?"

"He'd better get unscrambled, real quick or he'll be permanently fried."

Vincenti moved toward the car.

"Where you going?"

"The cop's gone, I thought . . ."

"You thought? Don't think. I do the thinking. We'll wait a little bit."

"Sure, Mr. Russo. Anything you say."

"We're going to need that colored guy. Keep an eye on the house."

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Clay opened the door to Junior's room. He stood there a long time remembering his son. He looked at the model planes, his son's bat and glove, his desk and books and his dufflebag in the corner with unopened box of Junior's personal items from Vietnam. He stroked the bat and walked over to the dresser. The old, worn photograph of Junior in the wooden plane Clay made for him was jammed in a corner of the dresser mirror. Clay touched the footlocker gently. Clay Belmore, Jr was written on it in a childish scrawl. He took the footlocker from the dresser, sat down on Junior's bed and held it on his lap. Finally he opened it.

He read the letter and like Joe said, Junior had forgiven him. He knew his father didn't mean what he said. His letter talked of his everyday life as a helicopter pilot. Inspecting his ship before take off, talking with his crew chief about that hesitation in the turbine when he pours on the power to lift. About his flight crew and the only time the chow is any good is on the holidays. His trip to Japan on R&R. What it's like to fly at night. How much he loves flying. On how when he gets home he wants to take his father up in a plane and let him feel that freedom he does when he's up above the clouds.

Clay held Junior's letter in his hands for a while and then he carefully folded it and placed it back in the toy footlocker. As he stood to leave the room, he heard the jets from Vance Air Force Base fly overhead. He remembered how Junior would always look up to the sky whenever he heard a plane. He looked up now knowing that Junior had died doing what he loved.

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When he saw the wrecked rental car, he wondered how he even survived. The hood and half of the passenger compartment were completely submerged in the creek. The windshield cracks spiraled out from his head's point of impact with the glass. Credit cards, receipts and maps were scattered across the bank of the creek. A small suitcase had its contents yanked out and thrown about.

Powers picked up and examined several pieces of debris. He smiled when he found Joe's driver's license. "Hey, your last name is . . "

". . . Mannix."

"Your middle name is Ricardo?"

"My father's best friend in the army in WWI. He was killed in the Meuse Argonne."

"Glad to meet you, Joseph Ricardo Mannix."

"Yeah." Joe examined the skid marks on the wooden planks that signaled the car's plummet off the wooden bridge.

Powers pointed out another set of tracks. "Those aren't tractor or pickup truck tire tracks. Looks like car tire tracks. Skidded right into that field. Somebody else was here."

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Deputy Marshal Rivera strode into the Garfield County Sheriff's Office carrying a manila file jacket with him. His eyes browsed the empty office. A man of medium height and balding entered the reception area from an open office door.

"Morning, what can I do for you . . ."Rivera showed his badge. ". . . Marshal Rivera?"

"Is Sheriff Kline available?"

"You're talking to him."

"About three days ago your office made a fingerprint request on somebody we're looking for. His name is Joseph R. Mannix, a private investigator from Los Angeles. I need your help to find him." Rivera handed him a photo from the manila folder.

"Yep, he's our Joe Doe. He's got amnesia. Can't remember anything but his first name. That's why we fingerprinted him. One of our local farmers found him in his wheat field with a concussion. He's been recuperating out at his farm. Right now he's with Deputy Powers. He took him out to see what's possibly the wreck of his rental car. A Los Angeles PI, you say?" Kline waved Rivera into his office and pointed to a chair in front of his desk.

"Have you noticed anyone in town that you haven't seen before? Someone who doesn't fit the usual tourist types you get around here?"

"Does this involve the Mafia? The witness program?"

"Yes, how did you know?

"One of my deputies noticed a guy, like you said, not one of the usual tourist types we get around here, staying at a motel out by Vance Air Force Base. You want him brought in for questioning?"

"Unless this Mannix remembers what or if he did anything to him, we don't have probable cause."

"I don't like organized crime parking on my doorstep." He picked up his phone and dialed a number. "Dispatch, this is Kline. Have Tim Powers get in here with Joe." Kline returned the phone to its cradle. "I'll help you get this guy anyway I can."

"I have an idea, if Mr. Mannix is willing."

"I'm listening."

"We've already moved our witness, so there's no further problems there . . ."

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Powers and Joe drove away from the car wreck after the deputy signed the authorization to tow Joe's rental car for local tow truck operator. Joe was lost in memories of his accident and his life.

"So," Powers said, "you were being followed by this guy. Why'd you turn off onto a dirt road?"

"I thought I might be able to lose him. You know, no street lights, turn off my lights. That sort of thing."

"Yeah, we see how well that turned out."

"If I hadn't driven into a dead end, it might have worked. Just as I turned around, he turned in and we almost hit head on. I went off the bridge and he went into the field."

"You didn't get a look at him?"

"No, it was too dark and I was too hurt. One thing though, I owe him."

"He's following you for reasons unknown, probably going to do you bodily harm. You owe him?"

"He pulled me from the car. He could have left me there to drown."

"Rightly so, but most likely he needed you alive." Powers rounded the corner to Fox Road. "Now that we've got that part figured out, what about the envelope? Why a blank envelope and blank paper?"

"I agree with Clay on that. He said somebody was messing with me. I didn't know the paper in the envelope was blank. I was told it had instructions on how to contact the lawyers about the estate. The blank envelope must have been a signal. As soon as I handed it to the missing person, he was marked."

"And so were you."

"Yeah, somebody's using me for a bird dog. Why? That's the question I'm going to ask John R. Regan as soon as I can get another rental car and be on my way to Medford."

"That guy's still out there waiting on you."

"This is where I was hoping for a little cooperation from the local sheriff's office."

"Oh, a little game of cat and mouse?"

Joe shrugged. "I don't mind being the mouse as long as I know the cat has a tail."

Powers laughed. "I'll see what I can arrange. Let me know when you plan to leave."

"Thanks for everything."

"Just part of your taxes at work."

"I don't pay taxes here."

"But you pay taxes somewhere."

Joe watched Powers drive away. He had regained his memory and his life. Clay had been right when he guessed he was a cop, a private cop on a missing persons case.

He gazed around the farm and remembered the smells and sounds of farm life: the dual smells of freshly plowed earth and fertilizer, the sound of the irrigation towers spraying droplets of water to the thirsty crops and the sun warming his bones. Clay's farm reminded him of his good memories of growing up in a vineyard in California.

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The ringing phone interrupted Rivera. Kline answered and listened. "Yeah . . . okay . . . tell him as soon as he's finished there, go back and get Joe and bring him in . . . thanks." He hung up the phone. "Powers already dropped Joe back at Mr. Belmore's. He's tied up with the OHP on a collision/death on 81. Also he said seeing the car wreck jogged Joe's memory. He remembers most of what happened to him."

"Good, that's one story I want to hear."

"Now, tell me what this is about. What's Joe involved in and what's he doing in Enid and what are we doing about it?"

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"Clay?"Joe clambered up the two steps to the porch. "Clay! I remem . . ." After he took two steps into the living room, Vincenti slid behind him and jabbed a pistol in his back.

". . . remember? Good, now tell us."

Joe recognized the man holding a gun to Clay's head as Anthony "the Cat" Russo. Now he understood. Somehow he had found Johnny Russo, AKA John R. Regan.

"Move." Vincenti urged Joe further into the living room with another stab of his pistol.

A couple of years ago Adam Tobias told Joe about the new Witness Security Program, how it had been created to encourage the Mafia to rat on itself by giving immunity to squealers in return for their testimony against their former mob bosses. The turncoats got a new life and the bosses got a new address in care of the federal pen.

Clay sat at his place at the kitchen table with Russo standing to his right and slightly in front. "Stay cool, Mannix. I only want to know where Johnny is."

"So you can kill him, kill your son?"

"He's my son! He broke the code." Russo waved his gun at Clay. "It's him or your colored friend here and we both know Johnny's not worth it."

"Wait a minute, Russo, let's make a deal. Johnny for Clay."

"This isn't the DA 's office or the Feds. I don't cut any deals."

"You kill us and that's another charge, probably worse than what you're facing now." Joe inched away from Vincenti.

"Yeah, but at least I'll still be breathing."

"Stop moving, Mannix," Vincenti jabbed his gun deeper.

Clay jumped from the chair. "Joe, don't tell 'em nothing!"

"Shut up! You coloreds been getting too uppity lately."Russo elbowed Clay in the stomach.

Joe launched himself backward and slammed Vincenti into the wall. He knocked the hit man's gun away and reached for his 45. Vincenti knocked it away and punched Joe. He stumbled back onto the sofa. The hit man jumped him and landed punches to Joe's face.

Clay doubled over then suddenly brought his head up and butted Russo on the chin. The mobster fell back onto the kitchen table. Clay grabbed his hand and struggled with him for the gun. They fell to floor causing the gun fire. Tangled and twisted they rolled on the floor each trying to gain control of the gun. It fired again.

When Deputy Powers arrived at Belmore's he heard gunshots. He skidded to a stop and grabbed his radio mic.

"This is Golf Three,10-14. Shots fired. Belmore's farm. I need backup." He rushed from his car to the side of the house and peeked in the window. He glimpsed movement in the living room and hear another gunshot. With his weapon drawn, he kicked in the screen door and tucked and rolled behind the couch.

He popped up pointing his revolver. "Sheriff's Office! Hold it right where you are! Drop your weapon!"

Russo stared at the barrel of the deputy's revolver. He was aiming his pistol down at someone on the floor. The pistol in his hand slipped to the floor. Powers heard grunting and punching. He stood up to peep over the couch and saw Joe ramming a man's head into the wooden floor. Clay laid doubled up on the floor at Russo's feet. "Back off!" Powers indicated for Russo to move away from Clay.

"Joe, stop! It's over. Stop!"While keeping an eye on Russo, the deputy jerked at Joe's shirt. "Joe!"

Joe stopped. He yanked Vincenti upright and rubbed his face into the wall. Smiling at Powers he said, "Glad to see my tax dollars coming to the rescue."

"My pleasure."

Joe held Vincenti upright long enough for Powers to cuff him. Joe and Powers grinned when they heard sound of sirens.

"Clay?" Joe twisted around to look for his friend. "Clay!"He was startled to see Clay on the floor doubled up in pain. He knelt by his side. Clay clutched his hands to his midsection and Joe saw the blood seeping through Clay's fingers.

"Let me take a look." With gentleness, he removed Clay's hands to view the wound. The bullet had torn through Clay's stomach. "Hold on." Joe pulled a towel from the kitchen table to soak up the blood.

"Read Junior's letter. . . right . . . he forgave me," Clay fought to stay conscious. "Never been . . . in a plane."

"Hold this." Joe placed Clay's hand on top of the cloth to secure the make shift bandage. The towel was already drenched in blood. Joe rushed to the bathroom and pulled the towels from the rack. He piled them on the wound trying to stop the blood loss. He laid the afghan from the couch to cover Clay.

"Wanted . . . Junior to take me .. . . oh." Clay gasped in pain.

"Lie still." Joe comforted him."You get well and I'll take you flying." Clay closed his eyes. ". . . Clay, stay with me. Clay!"

Powers touched Joe on the shoulder. "Ambulance is on the way."

Clay opened his eyes. "Hope you fly better . . . than you make coffee."

mannixmannixmannix

The ride to the hospital seemed longer than ten minutes. Joe sat in the passenger seat while the medic tended to Clay. He hadn't felt this helpless since Peggy had been shot. If he hadn't taken the case, if he hadn't tried to shake the man following him, if he hadn't skidded off the bridge, none of this would have happened. For once he wished he was the patient not a passenger.

At the hospital, Clay was rushed into the emergency room. Within a few minutes, Doctor Hampton had him moved into the operating room.

Joe paced the waiting room. A couple of punches from his fight with Vincenti started his head aching again. He eased onto the nearest couch and started massaging his temples.

Deputy Powers tapped him on the shoulder. "Here." He opened his hand to reveal a couple aspirin. Joe took them gratefully. Powers handed him a paper cup of water and sat next to him on the waiting room couch."You ought to get that cut on your face looked at."

"Yeah, later."

"Don't be blaming yourself. You didn't cause this. Russo started this whole mess when he became a gangster. You and Clay just got caught in the middle."

"I know."

"Sheriff Kline and a guy from the Marshal Service are interviewing Russo and Vincenti. Russo's squawking that he won't even give them his zip code without a lawyer. They want to talk to you when they're finished with them."

"Later on that, too."

"Doc Hampton's working on Mr. Belmore. He'll be fine."

"Yeah."

"Geez, I liked you better when you had amnesia."

Joe chuckled. His headache began to ease. "Thanks again. I guess the calvary really does come to the rescue out here in Oklahoma."

"Just remember me in your will." Powers glanced down the hall. "I can't help you with this one, buddy." He pointed his head in the direction down the hall. Joe looked to see Delores making her way toward them. They both stood when she entered the waiting room.

"Miss Delores,"the deputy tipped his hat to her. She ignored him.

"I told you. I told you." She slapped Joe. "You supposed to keep him safe. You supposed . . ." Joe grabbed her hand in midair before she could strike him again.

"I'm sorry." He held onto her hand. In that moment, he knew she had the strength to knock him to the ground. Her hand went limp. "I tried," he said.

"He don't need no more trouble. He just don't need no more."She dropped to the couch and sobbed. ". . . don't need no more . . ."

Joe placed his arm around her shoulder and let her cry. She cried for both of them. After a while, she began to rock and sing. Joe didn't recognize the song, but it comforted him.

mannixmannixmannix

"Delores? Joe?" They looked up to see Doctor Hampton, in operating room scrubs, standing over them. He smiled.

"Barring any complications, in two weeks he'll be back on the farm."

Delores wiped her eyes. "Thank God."

"Thank you, Doctor," Joe said. Joe was relieved. He grinned thinking of the promise he had to keep.

mannixmannixmannix

"You ready for this?" Joe asked Clay.

"Ain't got all day. Got chores, you know."

"Yeah, I know."

Joe and Clay walked to the Piper Cub sitting at the edge of the field. Clay stood and watched as Joe did the preflight walk around of the plane. Then Joe checked the windsock for wind direction.

"Well, get in," Joe urged.

"You sure you know how to fly this thing?"

"Better than I make coffee."

"We're gonna die," Clay teased and got into the passenger seat.

Joe laughed. He knew it would be a great day for flying.

The End