Henson shoots the young cop in the bicep just as he gets his service pistol clear of its holster. The kid howls and drops the weapon, stomping on the gravel driveway as if his feet are on fire. Henson kicks the gun away, grabs the keys from the ignition and opens the trunk to the cruiser.
“In,” he says.
There is no protest. The cop looks into Henson’s eyes and understands the score. As he climbs into the trunk he smacks his wounded arm on the spare tire and cries out. “Fuck motherfuckin fuck,” he says.
“Use your belt as a tourniquet,” says Henson, slamming the lid and hurling the keys into the neighbor’s trees.
He gives a last look to his brother and ex-girl staring wide-eyed from the picture window, then gets in his car and drives away. After a few miles, he hears a siren, then another, and suddenly the city is full of them. He’s never been so popular. Shoot a cop, get your fifteen minutes.
They’ll be looking for a disfigured male driving an early model green Cutlass. Henson knows he can do nothing about the former but he can change the latter, so he drives to the Lansing airport, cutting through subdivisions and at one point ducking into a strip mall when two state cruisers blow by on the cross street.
He chooses the long-term lot and idles along until he sees what he wants: a man walking toward the terminal with suitcase in tow. He pulls next to his vehicle, a black Dodge Ram, steps out and begins working the slim jim. Henson learned the trade as a teenager after his father’s death, in the years when his mother couldn’t pay the mortgage. The owner of the garage where he apprenticed, a man who called himself Big Rick, paid five hundred per car—a thousand for a Beamer or Lexus—and Henson would become Big Rick’s best before he even earned his driver’s license.
Within five minutes, he’s got the Ram hotwired and is heading for the gate.
In the extended cab is an array of hunting gear. Bow season is two days away and Henson figures the owner plans a beeline for his blind the moment he returns from whatever mind-numbing conference he’s flying to in Baltimore or Indy or Raleigh.
He pulls on a pair of black wraparounds and a bright orange cap, checks himself in the rearview mirror. The hunting cap has a long bill and side flaps that hide his face. The effect is Elmer Fudd meets the Terminator, he thinks, and nearly smiles.
“Afternoon,” he says, extending the ticket. The booth attendant is a fat, expressionless man who takes the ticket with barely a look at Henson, his attention focused instead on the red and blue flashers to his immediate rear. The incoming sheriff’s deputy slows at the booth to examine the Dodge, staring straight into Henson’s dark shades, before continuing into the airport proper.
The attendant watches him for several more seconds before turning back to tend to Henson.
“Some bad voodoo going on,” he says.
“Looks like it,” Henson says. “Glad I’m heading the other way.”
Henson intends to head south. And they’ll expect him to head south, back the way he came, or perhaps east through Detroit and then into Canada, a ninety-mile trip. So instead he goes north and west, sticking to the secondary roads, planning to follow the lake up and around the Upper Peninsula and then down through Wisconsin. Take his time, let the trail cool. Boost another vehicle when the time comes.
Snow begins to fall through the waning sunshine. October in Michigan, he thinks. Goddamn. At the tourist town of Manistee he picks up the highway to cover some mileage. Traffic is sparse but he keeps to the speed limit, passing only the occasional semi. On the passenger seat is a soft case of compact discs and he thumbs through them: mostly bullshit country. There’s no one on the road behind him so he drops the window and flings the discs one after the other, keeping only a select few: old Hank, Skynyrd and Seger, the hometown boy. He slips in a disc and leaves the window down, invigorated by the cold air and mouthing the words to the familiar anthem.
Working on our night moves. Trying to lose the awkward teenage blues …
It gets him thinking. Henson can’t help but love this iceberg of a state, the raucous memories of his youth, the people from his past. But such nostalgia cannot last, and before long his knuckles are white on the wheel. For he hates them also, hates them all, for not protecting him from what he’s become.
He pays the toll and makes it across the Mackinac Bridge without incident. The snow has become a blanket in the night sky, cutting visibility to a matter of feet and forcing most of his fellow motorists off the road. He puts the Ram in four-wheel drive and continues at a snail’s pace as far as Escanaba, where he pulls into the parking lot for a Wal-Mart.
He rummages around in the glove box and finds a pair of horn-rimmed reading glasses.
Together with the orange cap they seem to provide suitable cover—just another anxious hunter—and Henson tracks through the snow toward the entrance, dreaming of deli chicken and barbecue chips and a cold six pack. It’s after midnight and the place is all but empty. He collects the food and beer and wheels the cart to the back to pick up a few more discs. He has to remove the glasses to read the titles. As he does, he notices an old man staring at him from the wall of televisions.
“Nice hat,” the man says, offering a two-fingered salute. He’s wearing a similar cap, only black, and flaps up.
Henson returns the gesture. When the old man turns back to the televisions he reapplies the glasses and pushes off for the checkout, thinking, Dumb fucking move. In and out, Einstein, in and out.
He has to wait for a cashier. A baby-faced woman with pigtails and a humpback finally hobbles up. She could be twenty for all he knows; she could be fifty-five. She snaps her gum and stares at Henson the entire time she’s ringing up his order. It’s a skill, to be sure, although the scrutiny makes him feel claustrophobic, itchy, and the sweat rolls from the furry flaps down his neck.
“Nice hat,” she says finally.
“So I’m told,” he says.
He drops his cart off in the entryway and takes his bags. The man with the black cap is leaning against the wall near the doors. Henson makes an effort to avoid eye contact, lest he encourage the old guy, though he understands it’s probably too late for that.
“Come with me if you want to live.”
Henson is in his face before he can draw another breath. He jabs two fingers into his fragile ribcage and says, “They won’t find you when I’m done.”
But the old man doesn’t flinch. A corner of his mouth curves up and he nods slightly, as if Henson has met his expectations. “Saw you on the TV news back there, Sergeant. And guess what? If I can recognize you, they can too.”
Henson stares into his wrinkled face. “Fuck you want, old man?”
“Buying records in the Wal-Mart? Christ, son, you might as well paint a bulls-eye on your chest.” He shakes his head like a disappointed father. He’s nearing seventy, Henson guesses, with sharp gray eyes and the rigid posture of a military man.
“Soldiers stick together, Sergeant. My place is just down the road. I assume you’ve lost the Cutlass by now?”
Henson backs up an inch, squinting through the glasses. What’s his angle?
“I’ll take that as a yes. I’m in a red Bronco. When you pull in the driveway, come around back, behind the house.” The old man adjusts at his collar and steps through the doors. Henson follows him out, staring at his leathery neck, thinking how easy it would be out here in the driving snow, no one in sight. He’d make it clean, leave the old man slumped over his steering wheel. By the time they figured out it wasn’t a heart attack or stroke, he’d be long gone.
Then he considers the cashier’s intense gaze and the nearly impassable highway. But more so he thinks of his desire to sit down and eat his chicken and drink his beer in a warm dry place, maybe put his head down for a few hours.
He’s tired; so bone-fucking tired. One way or another, he decides, the old man will provide him some rest.
The black Lab’s name is Barry, the old man explains, after the Lions’ only decent player of the past half century. The dog sits like a statue next to Henson on the futon, eyes straight ahead. He will not lie down, he will not nuzzle the stranger for attention.
“He doesn’t trust you yet,” the old man says.
They sit across from one another nursing glasses of scotch.
This isn’t what Henson expected: a big modern house with surreal art lining the walls and a sunroof. The old man, who goes by Burl, says he recently sold the business he had built from scratch, imports-exports, although his wife of forty years is the one who has brought meaning and substance to his life.
“She’s here with us now,” Burl says, rubbing the gold box on his lap.
“My darling Rae, meet Sergeant Henson.”
“Just Henson,” he says, before he can stop himself.
They drink the scotch and Burl caresses the urn. For the first time in days Henson is sated, and despite the dog sitting rigid next to him he finds the futon more than comfortable enough to sack out. At this point he’s simply waiting on the old man to come out with it.
“Okay,” he says. “I’m guessing you’re taking the long way down the Mexico, gonna disappear in the jungle or some such.”
Henson says nothing.
“You’ll never make it alone. Every cop from Michigan to Texas wants a piece of you. That young officer lost his arm, you know.”
Henson didn’t know. He exhales and sets the scotch down. “So you’re proposing to come with me. Why is that? And don’t give me that all-for-one bullshit.”
“Fair enough,” says Burl, standing. “A business proposition, plain and simple.” He strides to the bookshelf and pulls down another gold urn, hands it to Henson.
“Sergeant Henson, meet Charles. Twenty three years old, smart as a whip, whole goddamn life ahead of him.”
Revenge story, Henson thinks, reading the dates on the box. The kid’s been dead a year.
“A bad man cut him down, Sergeant. A man who lives like a king off the backs of others.”
“And you aim to end his reign.”
There’s a pair of crossed wooden swords on the far wall. Burl takes one down and holds it out in front of him, two handed, sight-lining the blade. The dog whimpers and adjusts his stance on the couch.
“The bad man lives in luxury in Waco, Texas.” Burl swings the sword with surprising speed and spins closer to his guest. The dog jumps down and begins to growl. Henson stays where he is, slouched on the sofa, motionless.
“All I need from you is backup, Sergeant.” The sword cuts through the air, the dog barks. “The bad man is mine.” Another arc, the old man spins gracefully, and now he’s at the couch holding the tip of the sword a half foot from Henson’s face, samurai style. The blade is sharp as a razor.
Henson says, “Backup, right,” as the old man snaps the sword away and continues his swinging dance across the room, the dog circling him, yapping continuously. This goes on for some time, to the point Henson believes it to be the old man’s daily regimen, and eventually he puts his head back and closes his heavy eyelids and simply listens to the commotion until it fades to nothing.
He sleeps for thirty hours, waking only to piss twice and kick off the blanket the old man has draped over him. Smelling sausage, he sits up and watches the old man moving around the kitchen. The dog jumps on the couch and resumes his sentry duty, just out of Henson’s reach.
“He lives,” Burl says. “Eat some breakfast, get yourself cleaned up and we’ll hit the road.”
Henson makes his way to the dining room where the old man meets him with a pot of coffee and a newspaper. He drops it on the table and Henson looks at a picture of himself staring up from the front page.
“You’re a star,” Burl says.
Henson sits down and sips his coffee and reads the story.
Fallen Solider: Did War Vet Kill For Money?
Tim Hoffman and Corey Kerr
Associated Press Writers
LANSING, Mich. – Three weeks before he turned 18, John Henson stood before District Court Judge Harold Robinowski and was given a choice: five years in prison for grand theft auto or a stint in the military.
“Your father died and you went out and made some money to help your mother. That’s admirable,” Robinowski said, according to court transcripts. “What’s not admirable is the way you made that money, by stealing cars. Nonetheless, your record is otherwise clean and you strike me as a young man who learns from his mistakes. Because of that I’m giving you the opportunity for a second chance.”
Seven years later, Henson, now 25 and recently discharged from the Army, faces homicide charges in Houston stemming from the death of a nightclub bouncer, as well as attempted murder charges in Lansing after authorities say he shot a city police officer. The officer, a 22-year-old father of two, lost his right arm.
The charges raise the possibility the judge made an error in judgment. The same Ingham County prosecutor who recommended the full sentence for Henson seven years ago, William Laughlin, now says he is a “cold-blooded murderer” who killed the bouncer for money.
“No offense to the judge,” Laughlin said, “but the evidence says this suspect was a rotten seed from the start. And now he’s graduated from car thief to hit man.”
Judge Robinowski would not comment for this story, but several of Henson’s friends and colleagues characterize the former solider as a misunderstood war hero. Joanie “Soshanna” Johnson, an adult dancer and college student who is charged with hiring Henson to kill the bouncer, said he “only took the case because of what that (expletive) was doing to us.”
Johnson and three other dancers at the club where the bouncer worked have come forward to say he was sexually assaulting them. Johnson, 20, said she didn’t go to police because the bouncer, Javon “Bertrand” Washington, had threatened to inform the authorities the dancers were having sex for money, a felony.
Prosecutors in Houston have publicly questioned the dancers’ stories.
Johnson said she’s speaking out for Henson against her lawyer’s advice “because the man went through hell over there (in Iraq ) and now he’s being hunted for doing society a good thing.”
“Yes sir, we made some mistakes,” said Johnson, a sophomore education major at the University of Houston. “But no one should get away with what that animal did. If you want my opinion, Sergeant Henson should get a medal.”
Not long into his second tour of combat duty, Sgt. Henson’s patrol was ambushed by armed militants in Fallujah. A grenade was thrown into his armored personnel carrier, killing three fellow soldiers and wounding Henson.
Henson was captured and taken to a militant stronghold where he would be held for nearly a year, according to military sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. There, he was beaten and denied food and medical care, the sources said. As a result, a shrapnel wound on his face became infected, leaving him severely disfigured.
Henson escaped and was discovered by allied forces stumbling along a rural highway, delirious with dehydration. He would spend more than a year in several Army hospitals before receiving a medical discharge.
The Army would not release Henson’s records, but several sources said he didn’t necessarily establish himself as a hero. He received a Purple Heart for his injuries, but beyond that was given only basic service commendations, they said.
In addition, it took Henson six years to get his sergeant’s stripes, about two years longer than the average. He was punished at least once, as a private first class, for striking an officer in a non-combat setting, the military sources said.
But Ernie Ward, who served with Henson in Iraq and now faces conspiracy charges in the murder-for-hire case, said he was “the best (expletive) leader I ever served under.”
“I’d follow Sarge anywhere,” he said.
Ward, 22, lost his legs and now talks through an electronic box after sustaining injuries in a roadside bombing separate from the explosion that injured Henson. After Henson was released, he spent time at Ward’s home in Houston —and it was there, authorities say, that the plan to kill the bouncer was hatched.
Ward, who’s accused of serving as Henson’s go-between with the dancer, faces life in prison if convicted. During his preliminary hearing he claimed he and Henson were being set up by Middle Eastern terrorists hell-bent on exacting revenge, a theory prosecutors call absurd.
“We serve our country with our blood and our guts, and now we’re hit men?” Ward said in court. “That’s crazy. Y’all are (expletive) crazy.”
On The Run
Henson came back to Michigan to confront his younger brother and former fiancée, according to the fiancée, Sylvia Kubiak.
Kubiak said she and the brother, Leonard “Red” Henson began dating not long after she received a phone call from an Army official in Virginia informing her that Henson had been killed in the war. The Army denies making such a call, saying it goes against procedure.
“They lied to us,” Kubiak said. “They ruined my life. They ruined Johnny’s life.”
On Friday, Henson returned to his childhood home on Kalamazoo Street , sent his widowed mother to a casino in northern Michigan and waited for his brother and Kubiak to return from the supermarket where they work, Kubiak said.
When they arrived, he pulled a gun, she said.
“I knew Johnny wouldn’t hurt us, and he didn’t,” Kubiak said.
During the confrontation, the younger Henson apparently contacted Lansing police by text message. Leonard Henson refused to comment, other than to say, “You make your bed you lie in it, that’s what I know.”
Officer Larry Erb, a two-year veteran, responded to the home and was shot once by Henson in the driveway, police said. Henson then shut him into the truck of his police car, threw the keys into the woods and drove away in his dark green 1971 Oldsmobile Cutlass.
Although Erb remained in the trunk for less than 15 minutes, his arm sustained massive nerve and muscle damage and surgeons were unable to save it. He remains in the hospital in stable condition.
Lansing police wouldn’t comment on where Henson may be heading. But Chief Joseph Wills vowed he will be captured, noting that there’s a nationwide alert out for his arrest.
“You don’t shoot a cop—one of my cops—and get away with it,” Wills said. “We will use every resource in our power to bring this man to justice.”
Henson puts the paper aside and glances around the table. There’s a spread of scrambled eggs, sausage, hash browns, buttered toast. He looks up at the old man, who is well into his breakfast, fork gripped like a club.
“So,” he says around a mouthful of food. “What is it: Rotten seed or misunderstood hero?”
Good question, Henson thinks, and drains his coffee. Instead, he says, “Does it matter?”
They ditch the Ram at a park-and-ride lot and set out in the Bronco, the old man taking charge. Henson is to wear the getup even in the vehicle and, if trouble surfaces, act the fool. “You know, drool on yourself, beat your chest, whatever.”
The sun is out, the highway clear and Burl keeps the speedometer at seventy. On the seat behind them is Barry, nose against the cold glass. The urns are packed in the back, along with the wooden swords, a rifle and a thirty-eight: the old man’s personal arsenal.
He’s letting it out. His son, Gregory, got him a full ride to play baseball down at Baylor but hooked up with the wrong crowd. Booze, drugs, the whole shebang. Next thing, he’s calling home for money and Burl decides to intervene. He flies down to find the kid hooked on the smack, and selling for the bad man. Joey Torres. Gregory is dead within a year. Police rule the stab wounds self-inflicted, but Burl knows better. He goes back down, actually gets inside Torres’ home before he’s hauled out and beaten bloody by his cronies.
“It won’t happen again,” Burl says.
Two hours later, near Green Bay: a roadblock. Burl sees the buildup too late to get off. “Play it cool,” he says.
Traffic’s being routed through an off-ramp, the line of vehicles fifty deep. Henson sees multiple sets of flashing lights and a crew of cops questioning two cars at a time.
“This can’t be for you,” Burl says.
“Unless they found the Dodge, put it together.”
Nothing more is said until they reach the checkpoint. The head cop engages Burl while the other circles the Bronco, peering in the glass. He stops at Henson’s window, motions for him to unroll. Henson obliges, hearing the head cop tell Burl about a prison break.
“Nice dog,” the cop says.
Henson nods and pushes up the glasses with a knuckle. Staring at the passenger, the cop gets a look in his eye, actually tilts his head, and says, “Sir, can I see some identification?”
Henson pauses for a second to look over at Burl and then lets loose with a bellow. He lurches forward and smacks his fist off his forehead. The cop steps back and puts his hand on his weapon. Henson keeps it up, bellowing and twisting in his seat. From the back, Barry begins to bark.
“Boys!” shouts Burl, and puts a hand on Henson’s shoulder. “Officer,” he says, “I’m afraid my son here don’t carry identification. Perhaps you’d care to see mine?”
The dog continues to bark and Henson rocks slowly in his seat, moaning and tugging down on his hat flaps. The head cop shakes his head and waves Burl off.
“That won’t be necessary, sir. You gentlemen have a nice day.”
Passing through Chicago, the old man says, “I did some things in Korea I’m not proud of. I was a sniper, you know. The power of God at my fingertip.”
Henson chews on a beefstick, listening.
“That warped me for some time, after. But then I met my wife and I could breathe again.”
Henson knows the old man is trying to help him. But the truth is, he doesn’t get it. They are nothing alike.
“I killed a man in Texas for mocking me. For mocking me.”
“Listen, kid, I’m not your priest. When’s the last time you got laid anyway?”
Henson looks over, baffled at this old man with his gold urns and robot dog and wooden swords.
“That’s what I thought,” Burl says.
Henson knows what the old man is up to, but still he lets it happen. It has been too long, indeed. Sitting in a brown-paneled room in a St. Louis motor court, he hears the knock and gets up to encounter a blonde in a short red dress.
She looks at him and says, “Damn, buddy.” Henson steps aside. She’s a knockout, young and fit, and he can’t help but wonder how much Burl shelled out.
“Is that leprosy?”
“Okay, buddy, whatever.”
She turns from him and goes to the bed. Crawls up on her elbows and arches her back. Her heavy breasts fall free of the dress. Henson lifts the material and thinks, Wow. He fumbles a bit and just gets going, fingers digging into her hips, when there’s a thump against the adjoining wall. Then a dog barking—yelping—and Henson withdraws and runs for the door.
“Hey buddy,” she says, but he’s already outside, cock wilting. He busts open the cheap door and stumbles into Burl’s room. The pimp is rifling through a wallet thick with cash. Burl is sprawled on the bed, a wooden sword in his chest. The dog is nowhere in sight, though Henson can hear it whimper.
He waits a beat to see if the pimp pulls a gun and, when he doesn’t, steps back and lets the whore enter the room. He pushes her to the floor. The pimp grabs the other sword from the dresser. He’s a forty-something playboy, well dressed, with slicked hair and a goatee.
Henson walks to him, ducks the sloppy swing and knocks the pimp to the bed, next to the old man. He takes the sword from his hands and drives it two-fisted through his abdomen and into the mattress. The playboy sucks wildly for air and paws at the handle.
The whore breaks for the door. Henson catches her by the back of the dress and flings her back down. “Stay or die,” he says, and turns back to the pimp. He’s pulled the sword free and is attempting to rise from the bed. Henson retrieves the weapon and finishes the job, a swath of arterial blood spraying the whore in the face. She makes to scream until he drops to her eye-level and says, “No you don’t. We’re going to walk out of here and drive away. You stay quiet, you stay alive.”
The whore surprises him by asking about the dog, what about the poor dog? Henson looks over to see her stroking the panting, broken heap on the floor.
“Leave it,” he says.
The whore needs to die. They both know it. She cries hysterically as he drives through a barren industrial park in East St. Louis, Glock in hand. Twice she’s tried to hurl herself out of the moving Bronco, gun be damned, and twice he’s pulled her back in. “One more time and it’s over,” he says.
Burl didn’t need to die. No fucking way. Just a strange old bird trying to make amends.
The old man had checked them into the motel, Henson remaining hunched down in the Bronco, meaning only two people had seen his face. The pimp was dead. The whore needs to die.
He stops the vehicle. The whore cries out, begs for her life. Henson wonders if she was part of the action or if the pimp simply saw the old man’s money and took his shot. He also knows that if all goes as planned, if his face gets changed, she’ll never recognize him.
That’s too many ifs.
“Pleease,” she says.
Henson turns and puts the barrel to her forehead. The whore reaches up and ever so gently wraps her hands around the gun, Henson’s fingers. Snot runs down her nose.
“Pleease,” she says again.
Henson relaxes, takes the gun away. The whore breathes like a baby for the first time. He pulls out the old man’s wallet, withdraws three hundred-dollar bills and drops them in her lap.
“Get out,” he says. “And keep your mouth shut or I’ll find you.”
The whore takes the cash and climbs out. Shaking, she stands at the side of the road and glances around at the decaying buildings, with their knocked-out windows and graffiti. Henson imagines the type of vermin that must inhabit such a place as he drives away.
BIO: Andy spent three years as a cavalry scout in the U.S. Army, although not, thank God, under W. He lived for a stretch in South Texas but now is back in his native Michigan. His crime fiction has appeared in A Twist of Noir, Plots with Guns, Hardluck Stories, Pulp Pusher, Lynx Eye and elsewhere. For a different slice of his prose, try this one in Poor Mojo. The first part of HENSON COMES HOME won third place in the first-ever A Twist Of Noir Contest and can be found here.