The air was clean and warm in the forest, and I found myself breaking a light sweat as we walked. It would have been a pleasant journey if not for the constant whining of my companion—“The cuffs are too tight, it’s too hard to walk, where are we going, are we there yet?”
“What are you, eight years old?” I asked finally. “Shut up and walk.”
“I want to know the plan.”
“The plan is you stop talking or I’m going to leave you here. Can’t you just enjoy the scenery?”
“I need to go to the bathroom.”
“Oh, for God’s sake.”
Skarda was not a bad guy unless you want to hold being a Green Bay Packer fan against him. He was born in Krueger, Minnesota, went to the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point, and returned home to work in construction until the bottom fell out of the housing market. As far as I knew, in twenty-seven years he had never committed a single transgression against God or country until they caught him outside the ticket booth of a country music festival with a ski mask over his face and a Kalashnikov submachine gun in his hands. After he relived himself against the trunk of a tree, we continued walking.
All the tricks the Old Man taught me about finding my way in the woods were as fresh in my mind as if I had learned them yesterday, including how to locate the points of a compass using nothing but the sun, a wristwatch, and a blade of grass. I didn’t need any of them, however. I had been over this ground before, and I knew exactly where I was going.
Eventually we broke through the trees and found a narrow gravel road with a drainage ditch on either side. A Ford Explorer was parked on the shoulder about a quarter mile up from where we emerged from the forest. A man was sitting on the driver’s side of the SUV, his body twisted so that his legs hung out the open door. We were about a hundred yards away before he spotted us approaching.
“I almost gave up on you,” he said. “Who’s he?”
Skarda had worn a worried expression on his face ever since I met him, so I didn’t know if he was taken aback by my partner’s question or not.
“Someone I picked up along the way,” I said. “Dave, Chad, Chad, Dave.”
“Jesus Christ, Dyson,” Chad said. “We’re using names?”
“Beats saying ‘Hey, you’ all the time.”
I moved to the back of the SUV. Chad popped the rear cargo door. There was a nylon bag in the cargo bay, and I opened it to find several changes of clothes. I pulled out a pair of jeans and a shirt and gave them to Skarda.
“You’ll have to wear your own shoes,” I said.
Skarda held up his cuffed hands, a pleading expression in his eyes.
“Okay,” I said. “But let’s not do anything stupid, all right?”
To emphasize my point, I took the deputy’s Glock and set it where I could easily reach it but Skarda couldn’t before I unlocked one cuff. I left the other wound around his wrist.
While we were changing clothes, Chad talked and paced, paced and talked. Mostly he was complaining about the change in plans, claiming that I was supposed to be alone. “Just you, you said. Just you. Everything’s planned for just you.” He was another guy who didn’t appreciate the beauty of his surroundings.
After I changed out of the jail scrubs into a pair of blue jeans, a polo shirt, and Nikes—looking every inch like a tourist from the Cities—I picked up the Glock and turned toward him.
“Someone once said that genius is the ability to improvise,” I said.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
I brought the Glock up, went into a pyramid stance, and fired three times. Tiny volcanoes of blood exploded out of his chest as he fell straight backward against the gravel road, his arms and legs spread as if he were attempting to make snow angels.
Skarda screamed, screamed like a bad actor in a horror flick.
“What?” I said.
“You shot him.”
“Of course I shot him. Are you telling me you wouldn’t have?”
“He was your friend.”
“If Chad was my friend, why did he sleep with my girl? Why did he turn me in to the cops and try to steal my money?”
“He—he helped break you out?”
“That’s only because the money isn’t where he thought it was. Chad broke me out so I would lead him to it, and once I did, he probably would have killed me. Are you paying attention, Dave?”
Skarda looked as if every word would be indelibly etched in his brain forever and he wasn’t happy about it.
“Stay here,” I said.
I slid the Glock between my jeans and the small of my back and crossed the gravel road to where Chad had fallen. I grabbed him under the shoulders, dragged him to the far ditch, and rolled him in. Afterward, I bent to go through his pockets. The depth of the ditch effectively hid Chad from Skarda’s view.
“That hurt,” Chad whispered. “Now I know why stuntmen make so much money.”
“How’s the deputy?” I asked. I was trying hard not to move my lips.