Chapter 12: A Murder of Crowns

The first thing we did was look for the Kia, the one Carl had borrowed from Stupid Gandalf. We didn’t think we’d seen a Kia in the parking areas around Maxwell Mechanical, so we reasoned that it had to have been parked somewhere around the food truck warehouse. We looked around for it as we exited the warehouse but didn’t see it on that side of the building.

Mike said, “Did you grab that rifle?”

I shook my head grimly. Why hadn’t I done that? “Maybe I should run back in and get that.”

“We know Carl’s got a gun.”

“Well, he’s got a .38.”

“Well, we don’t.”

I shrugged, nodding my head, like a guy watching his opponent execute a really tough shot in a game of pool. He had me there. I turned to duck back under the garage door and almost ran into Jackson, who was dragging his unconscious brother behind him across the concrete.

I said, “Hey, didn’t I tell you to call the cops?”

“Yeah,” Jackson said. “And you also told one of those clowns that Carl might have rigged the building to blow up. I think I’ll call out here if it’s all the same to you. Can one of you give me a hand?”

Mike was just blinking at the guy, his jaw hanging open in astonishment. But after a moment, he went over, reached down, and hauled Jeremy to his feet like a rag doll, telling Jackson, “You know you were one hundred percent worthless in there, you think you could follow some simple instructions? Criminy, you wouldn’t have even had to get up.”

“I’m not trying to get blown up in a warehouse, man,” Jackson said as the two of them dragged Jeremy to the grass and laid him down.

“Look,” I told him, following and sort of making helpful gestures. “I was just saying that to try and get those clowns on our…”

And then the warehouse exploded.

It was the single loudest thing I had ever heard, and then I could hear nothing at all except a constant, numbing ring. The ground shook, and all of us were thrown into the grass around Jeremy, our bodies writhing as we struggled to get ourselves together. It was probably about fifteen seconds before I could form coherent thoughts, raising my head to blink around at the complex around me.

Darkness had been rising since we’d left my house, and it was abruptly here now, as if the explosion had somehow shut off the sun. When we’d argued about going back in after the gun, the daylight had just barely been holding dusk at bay. It was the sudden contrast, I imagine, between the fire and the dimming sky.

The warehouse walls had mostly held. The explosion had blasted the garage doors to shattered planks, blew out every window on the building. Broken glass and debris covered the place where we’d just been standing, talking about going back in there to get the gun. The heat was on us like a blanket, the air itself seemed to have been sucked from our lungs.

Mike got to his hands and knees coughing while Jackson just lay there beside him on the grass, screaming and crying like an angry toddler. Jeremy started to stir, lifting his face from the ground and blinking, as if waking from a bad dream right into a truly awful one.

Carl D’Antonio was a ruthless and yet cautious man. Looking back I can practically see him as he walked out of the warehouse, confident that his crew would take care of us, and confident that it would take them at least a few minutes to get down to it. He probably didn’t even hurry as he went to Stupid Gandalf’s Kia, but I’ll bet he had the detonator in his hand. I’ll bet he held it up in his hand with his finger on the button, imagining the blockbuster movie satisfaction he’d get from pressing it and hearing the warehouse blow up fifty yards behind him. I’ll bet it was hard not to do it that way, and I know now that his caution was the only reason Mike, the boys and I weren’t dead along with the clowns.

Because caution no doubt told Carl that it was possible someone could pull into the parking lot, even possible that a police cruiser could do so. It could happen randomly, or the timing could be just right, the cruiser passing the complex just as the building went up. Either way, there he’d be in front of a blown-up warehouse with a detonator in his pocket and nine dead guys inside. He’d have the key to one of their cars with him, too.

So Carl got into the Kia. He would have had to adjust the seat – Stupid Gandalf was a much larger man – and adjust the mirrors. He’d have put his seatbelt on, and he’d have made sure all of the lights worked. He’d want to rule out the possibility of any sort of traffic stop, keep the statistics in his favor, keep any edge that he could.

Because in the next ten or fifteen minutes, Carl D’Antonio, who was already responsible for the death of a beekeeper, and possibly that of Arturo de Modelo depending on whether or not he ever woke up, was planning to murder ten more.

He’d be sure he was well clear of the parking lot, he’d wait patiently until the road was empty before pulling out, so that he wouldn’t be seen by any random passerby with a photographic memory. Then he’d pull carefully out into the street and he’d check his mirrors, looking for any sign of anyone watching, and then before he was too far away to be gratified by the sight and sound of the explosion, he’d pressed the button.

From a distance, he’d have been able to see a miniature mushroom cloud. It was reported on local news and footage of it appeared on social media within minutes. The explosion punched a hole right in the roof of the warehouse. He’d used a brick of C-4 explosive; it was anybody’s guess where he got it or where he learned to set it all up, and he’d set it up inside the fried chicken truck that Gary had been standing on. Some observant viewers on the web even found a few frames where he may have been visible, blasting up into the sky. I guess he’d never get that counseling after all.

From there Carl drove carefully, hands at ten and two, back to my neighborhood, where he parked just a little down the street. He left the car running, the door slightly ajar. He was hoping to sprint back to it and be gone before anyone could look out the window at the sound of a shot.

It was fully dark out by then, like a blanket falling over the city. There were lights in the window, and no one in the streets except a single jogger down the block, running through a pool of street light the other way. There was no way to be sure whether or not anyone was looking randomly out a darkened window. He’d have to do it without being sure, and Carl hated that.

But he took a deep breath, and checked the .38, put it in his pocket, and kept his face down as he approached the front door. The front porch light hadn’t been turned on yet; he couldn’t believe his luck.

Just a few seconds now, he must have been thinking, and then he rang the doorbell.

Mike was still putting on his seatbelt as I squealed out of the parking lot in the exact opposite manner that Carl had, cutting off a red Tahoe which nearly went into a ditch. I didn’t care. I punched the gas and the Highlander liked it, surging forward, weaving around another car going too slow, narrowly avoiding a white van coming the other way.

We’d left Jackson and Jeremy behind. I had noticed Jackson’s phone on the ground and kicked it over to him before we left. “Call the police, and this time do it right now,” I told him.

“If I’d done it right now last time you told me, Jeremy and I would still be in there,” he said, his voice so whiny I thought Mike was going to slap him. Still, he wasn’t wrong.

Jeremy was still groggy. He said, “That smell is awful. What is that?”

“It’s either roasting chicken or roasting clowns,” Mike said.

“Oh, then it’s clowns,” Jeremy replied.

He was so confident, Jackson had to ask. “How do you know?”

“Because they smell pretty funny.”

I clapped my palm to my face while Mike reared his hand back to collect on that slap, but he thought better of it.

“Yeah, good one,” I said. “Just call the police. Tell them absolutely everything.”

And we ran, our ears ringing, our bodies aching from hitting the ground, back through the path to the Maxwell Mechanical complex. It was harder in the dark, roots sticking up out of the ground tripping us up, branches slashing against our faces. Mike snagged another brick off the pile as we passed them and muttered, “Didn’t need a gun on those clowns, don’t need one on Carl.”

We raced through the traffic. My thinking was, any squad cars wanted to follow me back to the house were welcome to follow me back to the house. The more the merrier.

Mike dialed Julia’s number again. No answer. He did it again. He said, “She’s not going to know. She’s not going to know what Carl’s up to, she’ll let him right in the front door.”

And we both wondered but didn’t say out loud, would he bother going in the front door? Or simply open fire from the doorway, Mob-style, and walk back to the car?

“He won’t have driven like a lunatic,” I said. “We can catch up to him.”

Mike looked at the time on his phone, but we didn’t have any idea what time he’d left. How long of a head start did he have? Five minutes? Or was it ten?

“We can catch up to him,” I said again as if repeating it would make it true.

In the end, we didn’t catch up to Carl before it was too late.

He rang the doorbell, and he smiled his nice, genuine smile to put her at ease when she saw it, his hand coming out of his pocket with the .38, clicking off the safety as it moved slowly, like a Tai Chi move.

The door opened. Carl went for a befuddled dad sort of expression at the last second, as if he’d left something silly at the house earlier that he needed to pick up. The gun came out of his pocket, rising in front of him, but not very far.

Because he froze instantly at the sound of a shotgun racking in a load to his right by the garage. He swung his eyes around and Julia was standing there, Charlene in her hands aimed at his head. She said, “Listen, Carl, I’ll be honest with you. I made Becky super duper promise that she wouldn’t shoot you, but seriously, man. I don’t know. I’m not sure I’d bet on it.”

And the sound of his wife’s .357 cocking drew his eyes back to the doorway, and there was his wife, standing in the front doorway to my house, her gun pointed also directly at his head.

No, we didn’t catch up to Carl before it was too late.

It’s just that it was too late for Carl.

It is both miraculous and more than a little alarming that I made it all the way home without any police cruisers in pursuit. In fact, I came fairly close to hitting the jogger Carl had just seen. When we skidded around the corner, Carl was lying face down on the grass, his hands folded over the top of his head, my wife standing over him with Charlene, Becky holding the .357 she’d taken to the gun range with Julia the other day. We screeched to a stop in front of the house, and then leapt out.

There were sirens approaching and I saw that Becky was talking into her cell phone. Irrationally I thought, see how she keeps that thing right there handy, in case anyone’s trying to call her with an important message?

Mike still had the brick in his hand as he stomped past me toward Carl. I had to get between them.

“Okay, Mike,” I told him. “Okay, we got him.”

“You’re a bad person, Carl,” Mike said.

“Yep, I know,” Carl said to the grass. “I know, you’re right. I think it was my upbringing.”

“Oh, is that what you think?”

Julia and I nodded at each other across the yard and I asked, “Did you finally get my messages or did you figure this out on your own?”

The sirens were getting closer. Julia and Charlene both remained motionless as she said, “The other day when Becky and I went to the gun range I told you I stopped by their house and saw the remodeling they’d done. And something was bothering me about that when Carl was over here eating chicken. I couldn’t put my finger on it until after you left and then I realized that you told me when you met Carl out for a drink right after this thing started, that he claimed he had Chelsea’s information handy because he had all his old Franklin planners archived in his office. But everything was digital when I was there, and the remodel was months old.”

I looked at Charlene and said, “That’s a little thin, isn’t it? For pointing a shotgun at someone? I mean fortunately you were right but…”

“I called Becky up and asked about it. She said all that Franklin Covey stuff went into storage three months ago. So then I’m wondering, how did he know all that stuff about Chelsea right off the top of his head, and you know you look at Chelsea, and the reasons for a guy to be hanging out with her learning details like that is pretty short.”

The sirens were screaming toward us now, had to be right around the corner. She raised her voice to finish, “Then I remembered the boys said they saw a dark BMW leaving Chelsea’s house. That’s what Carl drives.”

I said, “Oof.” Because that was true and I probably should have noticed that. It was odd enough that he hadn’t brought his car.

“So I asked Becky straight out, were you having a telephone conversation with Carl a few minutes ago. Because that’s who he said he was talking to outside. She said she hadn’t talked to him since this morning.”

Now the squad cars were piling in around us. All of us put our weapons down and hands up.

I said, “Hey Becky, you think I can have the rest of Carl’s cheese spread since he’s going to jail now?”

“Absolutely,” she replied. “That’s my cheese spread now.”

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