“Phone?” Inez buckled the seatbelt. The delivery van was so old it didn’t have a cross-strap. Each time Inez buckled-up, she looked a little confused at its absence. After fumbling with the buckle, she looked straight ahead repositioning her bare feet on the dash.
Seward started the van and pulled away. He’d press her again in a few minutes, when they were on the highway. For some reason, Seward found that people were honest at high speeds. However, he was impatient. So, as he pulled on the on-ramp, he asked again.
Inez didn’t budge.
To Seward, she looked like she was trying to pretend to fall asleep. What was it with women, Seward thought, that they could so easily devolve from perky-go-lucky to bitchy-go-cranky? Either way, she was going to have to tell him something. Whatever she told him, he’d decided that it would likely be a lie.
Shifting her weight a little, Inez asked, “When did you get your scar?”
“Scar?” He knew exactly what she was asking about, but he wanted her to be specific. He needed her to engage him in conversation, so he could read her responses. He was good at lie detecting. He had known she hadn’t been forthright with him from the start, but he hadn’t had this much fun in years. Fun, he thought, it all really comes down to fun. Am I so simple?
“The one behind your right ear that curves down your neck, how far does it extend?” She sat up, removing her feet from the dash.
“Her name was Julie Ryerson. She died in Albuquerque.” He paused to focus on the road. An eighteen-wheeler passed on the left disrupting the headwind just enough that he had to compensate to keep the van on the road. After it passed, Seward was able to pick up where he left the story.
“Julie was lovely. The kind of firecracker that could ignite the soul of the most calloused man.” Seward looked over at Inez, taking his eyes off the road to meet hers. “She was a lot like you.” He quickly resumed watching the road.
“Julie died for the cause. She was leading a protest of eighty concerned environmentalists who were trying to have a specific species of butterfly added to the endangered species list. The locals were not amused.”
“Why?” Inez asked, “Wouldn’t the preservation of a species help to create an eco-tourist destination?”
“Yes. It would have, but the habitat in which the species resided had already been turned into a series of mixed-use nature trails. The most profitable type of tourism was from off road bikes. The town hosted several motocross competitions every year, including the X-Games.”
“So, couldn’t a compromise work?”
“Compromise! Compromise, are you for real?” Seward had to ease up off the gas. He noticed that he was pushing his van a little too hard. “You just blew up a water bottling plant, and you want to talk about compromise?”
“Hey. I tried to compromise with them.” Inez was leaning forward in her seat one hand on the dash. “I had asked them to slow down, pump a little slower and allow more water from the spring to travel down river.”
“So you know how it is.”
“Yes, I fucking do.”
“Good. Now you know how Julie felt when the town wouldn’t budge. They didn’t want to see their tourism dry up just because some butterflies’ habitat needed to be protected. They saw their livelihoods in jeopardy.”
“What do you mean?”
“The stuff about protecting habitat jeopardizes livelihoods.”
Seward had her. He would now have to double check everything she had told him. She was no environmentalist, and she hadn’t taken classes from the University of Michigan in any scientific field. If she had, she’d have known the answer to her own question.
“Okay. Let me put it this way: The EPA, under the second Bush administration – that’s Bush Jr. – proposed adding the Polar Bear to the endangered species list even though the species’ numbers didn’t qualify its addition.” Seward let out a long sigh. “These are the issues that get my blood fired up, sorry. Anyway, the proposal was denied. Any guesses why?”
“No.” Inez shrugged her shoulders. “You just said there were plenty of them running around.”
“True. However, the proposal predicted that the Polar Bear’s numbers would drop significantly in just a few years because their habitat was fragmenting too quickly for the species to adapt.”
“Do you know what happens when a species is added to the endangered species list?” Seward asked.
“Sure. We protect it.”
“Yes, we do protect it, but when a species is added to the endangered species list, we go further – we attempt to help it recover.”
Inez butted in, “How?”
“We have to protect the species’ habitat. The only way to ensure the protection of a species is to protect its habitat.”
“So we protect its habitat. What’s the big deal?”
“Where do Polar Bears live?”
“The North Pole.”
Inez was slow to answer, “We’d have to protect the North Pole.”
“Yes, which would mean we’d have to find a way to slow the retraction of polar sea ice, which, in turn, would mean we would have to do something about anthropomorphic climate change.”
“I thought we were talking about Polar Bears?” Inez asked.
“We are. In order to protect the Polar Bear, we would need to solve climate change, because climate change is fragmenting the Polar Bear’s habitat, and we can’t help the Polar Bear if we can’t preserve its habitat – its ecosystem.”
Confused, Inez asked, “Weren’t we talking about Julie and your scar?”
“No.” Seward said, sternly. “I wanted to know who you were yelling at on the phone back at the gas station.”
* * *
Seward pulled the van over onto the side of the road. Without looking at Inez, he turned off the van’s engine. From under this seat, he pulled a gun and pointed it at Inez’s chest. The gun was small, sliver, and loaded. To prove that he was serious, he pointed the gun at the roof and fired. The small gun snapped like a cap gun the kids in the neighborhood played with on summer afternoons. Unlike the plastic replicas, his gun put a small hole in the roof.
Pointing the gun back at Inez’s chest, “I’m only going to ask each question once.” He was calm. He’d been in situations like this one before. Still, his outstretched arm with the gun quivered slightly. Smiling, he relaxed further by lowering the gun, but he kept it aimed, his finger on the trigger.
Inez sat very still. Her hands were open and rested on her lap. “If you look in my bag, you’ll find your answers.”
At hearing her confession, Seward didn’t hesitate. He fired a killing shot.
* * *
Seward replaced the small gun under his seat. Before moving, he watched traffic on 35 slide by his van. He took a couple of deep breaths and steadied himself. He asked the silence, “How many people have I killed over the years? How many people have I had to become?”
He got out of the van. He needed to work quickly. No telling how long before someone would pull over to help or worse. Highway Patrol would be by soon, and he didn’t want to be on the side of the road.
Opening the passenger door, the pool of blood that had accumulated dripped on to the asphalt. Seward pulled Inez out and dumped her body over the highway embankment. Inez’s body rolled slowly and came to a halt at the bottom.
Seward pulled cleaning equipment out of the back and started to scrub the passenger’s seat. The blood wasn’t easy to sop up, but he made short work of the seat and floor mat. What a waste, he thought. Inez had been a pretty girl. He’d hoped that she was legit. The reservations he’d made for exiting the US were real, and now he’d exit alone.
Back in the driver’s seat, he started the van. He pulled out from the shoulder and made his way to the next major highway. He could have taken 35 most of the way, but that wouldn’t have been smart. Instead, he chose to take 90 West, knowing that he’d have to double back eventually.
While he drove, he pulled an envelope from under the dash near the steering column. Opening it, he dumped a pile of passports onto his lap. “I’m not going back to prison. I’m not going back.” He picked one: Rupert Earlson, Henderson, MN. He thought about Rupert for a while. What types of things did Rupert like? What did Mr. Earlson do for a living?
One thing was for sure, Rupert Earlson wasn’t a bike mechanic. He needed to unload the bikes and trade in his van for something sportier. Rupert was a poor teacher of English that wanted to see the world before he died of AIDS/HIV. In order to make his dreams of seeing the world come true, he’d signed on to teach in foreign countries. His first stop was Peru, but he planned to hit Korea, China, and Japan.
Before Seward could become Rupert Earlson, he’d need to clean up a few loose ends that Daniel Emmett Seward had created. As much as he cared about his bike shop and the community that he’d lived in for the last several years, it was his connection to Al that gave him the most reason to pause. The only way that the Feds could have found him was to go through Al. Al was the only person who knew his true identity. Before he could become the traveling English teacher, he’d have to take care of Al.
Seward new that if what Inez had told him about Al was true, and he believed her, he’d find him in a hospital. Al was a sickly fellow and if anyone was going to die of cancer at an early age, it was going to be him. Seward pounded his hands on the steering wheel. Al was the only one who knew all of his aliases. Seward would just have to hope that on his deathbed, Al had forgotten a couple of them.
“Ah! The life of an eco-terrorist,” Seward said over the hum of his van. “You blow a couple of buildings up and kill a few people, and the government won’t rest until you’re behind bars or dead. However, if you’re a multi-billion dollar industry that pollutes the air and the water, killing thousands, the government gives you a tax break for creating jobs.” Frustrated, he punched the van’s steering wheel three times. On the third, he accidently sounded the van’s horn.
What made him truly angry wasn’t having to kill Inez, but was that he’d changed personas so many times since leaving prison that he didn’t remember his real name. Up until this moment, he had been Daniel Emmett Seward and had been his entire life. His immersion into Seward’s life had been so perfect that he had started to even fool himself, but killing Inez—that brought back memories.