President Charles Shoemaker gazed out the Oval Office window at the White House grounds. The early afternoon sunshine reflected from the fresh blanket of snow with almost painful intensity, causing him to squint against the glare.
"You know, Hal, even in the dead of winter, the homeless would rather sleep in the park than in the shelters we've provided for them."
Attorney General Hal Pitman rose from the antique cherry wood and brocade chair to join Shoemaker at the window. "I know, Chuck. It doesn't make any sense to me either. They'll cover themselves with old newspapers, and kill each other over scraps of food, but you offer them shelter and hot meals, and many just won't accept it. They cry about losing their freedom. What kind of freedom is that to mourn?"
Shoemaker turned away from the window, his hands clasped behind his back as he paced. "When I was first elected to the Senate, I had no concept of what it takes to run a nation of this size and diversity." He stopped momentarily to pick up a crystal paperweight in the shape of an eagle, turning it absently in his hands. "I thought the will of the people should be the primary law, and that it was their God-given right to decide their own destiny. The older I get, and the longer I have responsibility for this country, the more I can see that most people are incapable of making intelligent choices for themselves."
Pitman picked up a silver caraffe from a tray on the desk, and freshened his coffee. "That's why they elected you for a second term, Chuck. You've done a fine job."
"Damn it!" The crystal eagle flew across the room, glistening shards exploding as the delicate bird struck the wall.
"If only those idiots in Congress would give up their holier-than-thou crusade against our crime bill! You don't know how much I regret the loss of innocent lives their bull headed opposition is costing."
Pitman shrugged, his cup stopping halfway to his lips. "Settle down a bit, Chuck. If you're going to make an omelet, you've got to break a few eggs."
Shoemaker swung to face his Attorney General, his finger pointing accusingly. "We're not talking eggs here Hal, we're talking about lives. Living, breathing human beings!"
Pitman angrily set his cup down on the tray. "You knew what it was going to entail from the beginning. It was your plan, remember?"
"As long as I live, Hal. I know it's too late to turn back, but Lord, how I wish we hadn't been so convinced that this was for the best."
"Listen, Chuck." Pitman laid a comforting hand on the president's shoulder. "This crime bill is what America has needed for years. The people have no need for firearms anymore; this isn't the Old West. Think of all the lives that could be saved when all the guns are collected and destroyed. To implement this, Congress must be forced to enact our bill. The only way to accomplish that is by an outcry from the public too loud for them to ignore. Sure, there are some who will refuse to surrender their guns under any circumstances, and they will have to be dealt with harshly, but most will just cry about their freedom, and the Second Amendment, then line up to turn their damned guns in."
"Except the criminals."
Pitman raised his eyebrows in shock. "What's this, Chuck? Are you having second thoughts about this?"
Shoemaker lowered his eyes. "No, Hal. But there will be a transition period when those who obey the law will be left defenseless against those who don't. We'll have to deal with that eventually, and it's going to be a bitch with the courts as clogged up as they are."
"A hundred years from now, history will remember you as the man who cut the murder rate in half."
Shoemaker returned to the window, his eyes locking on a figure huddled on a park bench, his ragged coat collar turned up against the chill. "I just hope history won't remember me as the man who ripped the Constitution in half as well."
An icy drizzle fell on the line of cars and pickups that followed the black Cadillac hurse toward the cemetery. Murphy and Bendell watched from across the street as the column of twelve vehicles filed solemnly past. Murphy took a sip of coffee from a styrofoam cup. "Not a lot of people at the funeral, was there?"
Bendell wiped fog from the side window with the sleeve of his jacket. "Can't blame people for staying away, Murph. After all, Wallace was a mass murderer. In a situation like this, friendship only goes so far."
"Looks like the only ones that showed are his Nazi pals. I'm surprised they're not blowing their horns and waving flags."
That brought a chuckle from Bendell. "Just make sure your love for those guys doesn't show when we start asking questions. Some of those ol' boys are too damn big to tackle more than one at a time."
The graveside service was short. Reverend Alex Kincaide sent Burl Wallace to his final reward with a minimum of oration, which seemed agreeable to all present. Before the casket had been lowered into the grave, everyone had scattered in different directions, leaving just the reverend and the backhoe operator standing under the green plastic canopy. Three cars and four pickups left the cemetery together, heading back into town.
Bendell pointed with his chin as the group disappeared into the misty rain. "Think we should follow them?"
"Why not? Maybe they'll be in a mood to discuss the dearly departed."
The Ford's heater took several minutes to defog the windshield, and Murphy leaned forward, staring intently as he maneuvered through the wet streets a block behind Bubba's friends. "Just what I figured they'd do," he said, as the group turned into the parking lot of Tracey's Tavern, a dive next to the railroad tracks. The gravel in the parking lot crunched under the tires as Murphy parked the unmarked Ford next to an ancient International four wheel drive truck. At one time, it had been painted in a camouflage pattern with spray cans, but most of the colors were now replaced with surface rust.
"I've seen that truck before," Bendell said. "It belongs to Buck Henry. We had it in impound a couple of years ago when we picked Buck up on a D.U.I.rap. His girlfriend at the time called in a spousal abuse, but refused to press charges. The D.U.I. was all we could make stick."
By the time they reached the front door of the little tavern, their hair and the shoulders of their jackets were soaked. Bendell stopped just inside the door, stepping to the side until his eyes adjusted to the gloom before he proceeded into the room behind Murphy.
Seven men were crowded around a table in the far corner near a pot bellied stove that glowed a dull red, heat radiating from it's surface in visible waves. Their hats and coats were spread out on bar stools to dry. Three pitchers of beer sat in the center of the table, and all seven lowered their mugs to the scarred table top as the detectives entered.
Looks of sullen disapproval met the badges Murphy and Bendell displayed as they approached the table.
A big man with shoulder length hair and a dark bushy beard picked up the nearest pitcher and refilled his mug. "What the hell do you want with us?" he growled. His dark eyes seemed to penetrate as they locked with Bendell's.
"Just need to ask you a few questions, Buck," Bendell said, slipping his badge case back into his pocket. "Won't take too long."
"It damn well better not," Buck said, taking a big swallow of his beer. "We just come from a friend's funeral, an' we damn sure don't feel like talkin' to no pigs. 'Specially black ones."
Bendell ignored the taunt, but Murphy stepped forward and leaned over the table, his knuckles against the rough surface. "We can do this the easy way, boys, or we can go downtown and talk it over there for a few hours. It's up to you."
Buck grinned, revealing teeth stained by years of chewing tobacco. "Take more'n you two to take us in."
Murphy looked Buck straight in the eyes, then let his glare drift to the others. "We'll get however many we need to do the job, Buck."
Seeing that they were headed for a confrontation, Cal raised halfway out of his chair, and waved both hands in a calming motion. "Now ain't the time, Buck. Let's just answer their questions, an' send 'em on their way."
Buck glared at Cal for several seconds, then nodded his shaggy head. "Okay, pig. Ask away."
* * *
Hal Pitman relaxed in the plush softness of the leather executive chair, his feet resting on the edge of his desk. Ray Allen sat on the other side of the desk, a tumbler of brandy in his hand. "How did the meeting with President Shoemaker go, Hal?"
The Attorney General chuckled softly. "He's starting to get cold feet. He was okay with the plan until the media put names and faces on the body count."
Allen turned the glass in his fingers, peering through the amber liquid. "We've almost succeeded, Hal. You're not going to let him blow it now, are you?"
"Shit no. If he blows the whistle, he goes down with the rest of us. Besides, the N.A.A.C.P., the Jewish Anti-defamation League, and several other groups are screaming their heads off. It's only a matter of time before those fools on The Hill will be forced to listen. The N.R.A. is a powerful lobby, but when the death toll rises enough, we can beat them."
"Did Tony get any of that Orange County bunch fired up?"
"He sure as hell did, Ray. Didn't you hear about the Jewish center that got shot up a few days ago?"
"That was Tony's boy?"
"Sure was. The Congresswoman from Los Angeles is here in Washington screaming her head off to anyone who'll listen. They're talking about a ban on ammunition sales, and they've already closed down all the gun shows. It won't take too much more to push Congress into a corner."
"Well, here's to Tony and the boys," Allen said, reaching out to clink the rim of his glass with Pitman's. "And the passage of Shoemaker's crime bill!"