It began with a collect phone call, a crosscountry Greyhound ride, and a one-meal-a-day budget. Jeffery Digger got off at night, picking his teeth with a ticket stub. Nobody met him at the terminal, and he started walking the city’s latent, sun-broiled pavement, roasting his dogs into suburbia.
By two a.m. the Santa Anna winds kicked up, and his eyes grew scratchy and raw as he scrutinized the darkened house. He smoked, hiding the cigarette’s glow. His knuckle-scarred hand softly rapped a bulging garbage can and then crushed a jutting pizza box. With a last puff, he shredded the rollie between nicotine-stained thumb and forefinger, and then peeled and ate two Tums. Far away backfires sputtered like gunshots.
The dead, frazzled lawn whispered but didn’t show Digger’s passage. Everything except for the big, leafy elms looked desiccated, and the warm breeze sucked the budding moisture from his face. A walkway of riverbottom stones led to the front door. Examining the door’s rococo carving, his hungry mouth turned bitter. Muted thuds came from inside. He stabbed the buzzer and grimaced at its gong. Seconds later, a rear door banged to the scuffle of running feet and the clatter of a pot. “Damn him.”
Digger scrambled along the lava-rock facade, avoiding the barbed roses, to a locked wooden gate with a BEWARE of DOG sign nailed to the center board. Beyond, a car engine shrieked, and somebody slammed the transmission into drive, tires squawking as they grabbed asphalt. Hammering the sign, he waited for a canine protest. When there was none, he gazed to the stars, shrugged and unfisted his hands. Quietly cursing, he tried the front door’s handle; it gave and a dim shaft of light spotted his tennis shoes. Along with it came something heavier, deadlier: a stale, unpleasant coppery fragrance. His nose scrunched, eyes narrowing and suddenly flat. From his waistband a .38 appeared, and in his thick fingers it looked like a child’s toy pistol.
Indigo streaks glossed the foyer’s cobalt tile in the crack of light. He locked the door behind him. Digger stole along the beam to a coat rack and hid in the shadow of a grandfather clock. Its ponderous ticking filled his ear. His fingertips traced geometric patterns on the velvety wallpaper. Through double french doors left ajar, he saw a lighted entertainment center, ceiling-to-floor drapes beyond it, and lumpy furniture. The davenport cushions were slashed and askew, books, newspapers, and magazines scattered.
Pushing one door with a stiff finger revealed a wooden rocker. Through its walnut slats he saw a blue robed man. The blue matched Digger’s Nikes. He edged closer. The stereo’s volume meters danced silently, and a black ringlet of cord snaked from the headphone jack into the man’s lap. Black and silver headphones capped the amber-haired head. The hair fluffed nest-like about the headphone’s band. The air was blood-laden and strong. With quivering nostrils he detected the lingering stench of cordite. The tip of Digger’s whitish tongue worried his feverish lips. He tucked his .38 and crabbed sideways.
The man’s nose was straight, and the lemon-brown eyes stared up to the right with a dull softness they never possessed in life. The mouth drooped, and a swollen, bluish tongue draped the bottom lip. The left arm hung as if asleep, the backs of the fingers trailing across the plush urine-spotted carpet. A diamond ring gleamed on the pinky. Near the waxy hand lay a .22 seven-shot automatic. On his knees he saw the gun’s serial numbers were filed from the butt and barrel. To the right lay an overturned cocktail glass, reeking of scotch.
On the scalp and partially covered by strapping, the hair oozed darkness to the ear and forked. One crimson trail had wormed its way behind the ear and was sponged by the robe’s pinstriped collar while the other inched along the jaw and knotted as if a rubied chin buckle. From the headphones music buzzed like an errant fly. A smear of lipstick graced the cheek, and against his fingertips the pulseless throat was as cold as an Eskimo’s nose.
“Well, Johnny, you’re out of shape, but I’d still beat you senseless for what you pulled.” Jeffery Digger’s frigid eyes glittered as he studied his identical twin, the wound, the gun hand, and the room. Using two fingers, he lowered Johnny’s eyelids until they stayed. “Somebody wanted something, and you always had a way of making friends enemies.”
His eyes turned as dead as his brother’s. From his shirt Digger fished a Bull Durham pull-string pouch and papers, rolled a cigarette, and smoked it. Raking his tongue over his teeth, he spit a tobacco tad at Johnny’s slippered feet.
Digger stalked the silent, disheveled house. The master bedroom was in shambles. A mirrored ceiling reflected the knifed mattress below. Its navy-blue comforter and sheets lay crumbled on the light blue carpet, touching a matching wall. To his right, double-mirrored closet doors gaped, clothes on the floor and shoe boxes emptied. On the left sat a Maplewood dresser, drawers wrenched and their contents underfoot. Using his toe, he probed the debris and discovered a .45, two .38s, and another .22.
The back door hung open, showing pool, patio, pottery shards, and a twisted lounge chair. No dog. He closed it. In the basement there was a workbench complete with jewelry casting equipment, plywood shelves of canned goods, and a dusty weightlifting machine. One of those gizmos that used big rubber bands. At the far wall a Kenmore freezer, only a quarter full, hummed. The slash of his mouth up turned.
He stroked his brother’s chilled, smooth face with the back of his hand and gazed down, picked the butt of a Marlboro filter from where it had smoldered through the robe to the hairy thigh beneath. He moved to the bar, hoisted a virgin bottle of Jack Daniels, broke the seal and took a giant swig. The liquid lava flowed down his throat, ate through his stomach, settled and came up his tailbone. He gazed without seeing, eyes flinching now and then, Johnny’s corpse reflected in their booze-heated pupils. He sat and smoked, and rolled more before he stood.
The organized kitchen looked immaculate, pots dangling above a food preparation island. He dunked his face in a sink of cold water and reached for a dish towel; by it sat a cocktail glass. He patted dry. Nearby a Nikon camera with a telescopic lens, loaded with film and batteries, eyed him. Meticulously he snapped photos of his brother.
In a fireman’s carry, Johnny over one shoulder, he staggered three steps when the doorbell gonged. Turning in fright, eyes ringed white, Digger gritted his teeth and crept to a picture window. Through a wedge of open drape he saw a car with a police crest on the door. Hunched, he trudged across the kitchen tile, his soles squeaking. Sweat broke like rainfall on his furrowed brow, and his knees went rubbery, but he kept going. Dumping Johnny on the basement steps, bell tolling, he gasped. Quickly he pulled Johnny’s robe free, let go of the body and tore at his own wrinkled, thriftstore garments as his brother slid head first into darkness. “Even you don’t merit that.”
He jammed his arms into the sleeves, yanked free his Nikes and smelly socks, letting them tumble after Johnny, and dashed barefoot to the living room. He kicked the .22 under the davenport as he went, swearing and hopping on one foot as he shut the foyer doors. The grandfather clock chimed three times. Digger snapped on the porch lights, silently chained the door before opening it, and peeked out.
The waiting policemen drilled him with their stare. The younger one stood in front while the veteran watched from the side.
“Is something wrong?” he asked, squirming as the clotted blood of the robe’s collar bit at his neck.
“I’m Officer Patricio and this is Officer Norris. Is everything okay, sir? We had reports of a prowler.” The veteran officer with cop’s eyes, green agates of mistrust, gazed over Digger’s head.
“Everything’s hunkie-dory, officers. When I came home I didn’t have my keys. I keep one hidden out here for such occasions, and somebody probably saw me poking in the rose bushes.”
“Can we see some I.D., Mr. …?” Officer Patricio asked and narrowed his beady silverfish eyes, waiting for Digger to fill in a name.
“Yes, yes,” Digger said, stalling, heart thumping his ribs. “Hold on I don’t carry identification in my bathrobe.”
Digger clamped his back to the door and covered his face with his hands and whispered, “I hate’em.” He found the wallet open and scrambled on the bathroom floor off the master bedroom. The face on the California Driver’s License was his brother’s.
He sighed as the cops gonged a funeral dirge, reached the foyer and heard muddled voices. When he opened the door, he unhitched the chain, chuckled and squinted. “Here it is, officers.”
They passed the I.D., and the older cop, the brains, matched Digger’s face to the photograph; recognition softened the agates, but they were still cop’s eyes. Officer Norris returned the driver’s license and asked, “Did you hear any gunshots this evening, Mr. Digger?”
“No gunshots. Backfires earlier. I’m a sound sleeper.” The younger one stared at Digger’s neck above the blood spot but didn’t say anything. “Maybe it was teenagers with firecrackers. If that’s all …?”
“Sorry to disturb you,” Officer Patricio said, nudged the brim of his cap respectfully.
“No problem. Always glad to help our men in blue.”
The cops started off the doorway when Norris swiveled. “Hey, ain’t you that Peeper going with a girl named Bonnie Harvest?” Officer Norris crowded the door intent upon Digger’s response.
“Bonnie Harvest?” Digger repeated, and saw the younger cop studying the blood spot again. “I’ve known a couple of Bonnies, but no Harvest.”
“I thought I saw the two of you at Piccolo Pete’s. Bonnie’s a friend of my wife’s sister. It was only a couple of weeks ago. She’s a tall redhead, the Julia Roberts type with a pair of knockers Chinamen dream of.” He waved his hands chest high, fanning catsup and french fry breath.
Digger’s eyes shifted up and paused. “I look like a lot of people.” He mimicked his brother’s short nervous laugh, a chicken-hearted, hyena-like grunt.
The officers glanced at each other, the tiny corners of their mouths curling contemptuously. “Tit man myself unless they’re bouncing off her kneecaps,” Norris said, ignoring Digger’s response and earning a smirk from Patricio.
“You like tits, yes, you do.” Digger faked another Johnny laugh—better this time, eyes wolfish. The cops looked stupidly at him. Norris snorted and shrugged, his gaze momentarily hooked by Digger’s stained collar. “Good night, officers. It’s been a rough day.”
“Sure, sure enough,” Officer Patricio said, and Norris looked like he’d already said too much, his thin lips and facial lines set in concrete.
Digger forced a three a.m. grin, though not very well, and then watched their jacketed-backs with the gun bulges on the right hips recede to their squad car. When its headlights winked on, he closed and chained the door, grabbed some wall, shaking. He swiped the whiskey bottle off the coffee table and drenched his tonsils. From the curtained window, his hands steady, he burped and saw Norris speaking into a microphone as the patrol car left the curb.
Digger’s lips formed an O and blew.
The aquamarine telephone rang.
His sweaty hands clenched and his stomach did whiskey backflips. Flecks of yellow caught fire in his eyes. “Blue, blue, and shades of blue. No wonder you’re dead.”