Rovanna strode into the convenience store by the dawn’s early light. As usual he carried his Louisville Slugger, the barrel of it cupped in his right palm and the handle resting on his shoulder like a rifle. His back was straight and his gait purposeful. He wore cargo shorts, a black T-shirt, slip-on sneakers in a red-and-black-checked pattern. His hair was a white thatch and he could have easily been mistaken for a surfer, though he had never learned to swim. He bought his coffee and the Iraqi clerk handed him his change with a soft thank-you, “Shukran.”
“Shukran jazeelan,” Rovanna said.
He walked a different route home, noting the Granite Hills emerging into the morning around him and the light poles of the high school stadium growing staunch against the sky. More closely he watched the windows and doors around him because Anbar teaches you to watch windows and doors. It was a weekday in El Cajon, east of bustling San Diego, and the neighborhood had that just-getting started hum.
He came to his street, a narrow avenue of older homes, spiked fences, and grated windows. Some of the trees had grown large. The pit bull that lived in the yellow ranch house growled murderously at him and Rovanna took a dog biscuit from his pocket. He cocked his elbow and flicked it as he might a dart, the biscuit arching over the wrought-iron lances of the fence. The dog fell heavily upon it.
Rovanna lived in a small guesthouse behind a sagging larger home. He walked along the gravel driveway that led to his house, passing his small blue Ford, which was dirty and plastered with large sycamore leaves. He stopped and studied the front door and the windows on either side of it, their plastic blinds drawn. At the porch he turned left as always, rounded the side yard, passed the bedroom and the water meter and the sun-hungry hydrangeas, then went right along the padlocked toolshed and the sliding glass door with the flannel bedsheet nailed inside. He turned the corner and stepped back onto the porch.
Inside he patiently checked each room, then sat on the Salvation Army couch with the Louisville Slugger propped handle-up beside him. The bat was wooden, clean, and waxed, and it shone slightly in the poor light. His front door was half open and he drank his coffee while he watched the light grow through the screen door. It was winter and the towering sycamore in the yard between the two houses was nearly naked, only a few big leaves still hanging on to the branches on this cool morning. The space heater glowed in its corner. There were paperback thrillers in shelves along the walls and newspapers and magazines piled on the floor, all paled by dust.
Rovanna watched the man come around the side of the main house out front and start up the gravel drive toward him. He carried what looked like a medical kit and he moved as if he was familiar with the property. He wore a gray fedora and a navy suit buttoned over a white shirt and a light blue tie. Rovanna heard the gravel crunching, then the thud of shoes on his front porch. The man stood framed by the screen door and raised his fist to knock.
“That’s exactly far enough,” said Rovanna.
“I’m Stren, consulting physician for the Superior Court in San Diego. I hope you have a minute.”
“I’m reviewing your Firearms Rights Restoration application and I have some questions.”
“You shouldn’t have taken away my guns to begin with.”
“I didn’t take away your guns. The court did.”
“I didn’t hurt anybody.”
“Not seriously. Though quite frankly, the court was also concerned with you hurting yourself. The psychiatric hold was for your protection, as well as the safety of others.”
“So do I get them back or not?”
“You need to answer some questions. May I come in?”
Rovanna took the bat by its handle and moved across the small room. He unlatched the screen door and backed away. The doctor stepped inside and removed his hat. Stren was a small man with a ruddy complexion, short black hair, and eyes the same blue as his as his necktie and pocket square. His eyeglass frames were black and oversize and from certain angles the lenses magnified his eyes, such as now when he looked at the bat. He was familiar but Rovanna couldn’t place him. Stren sat on the plaid, misshapen couch and set his medical bag beside him, then his hat atop the bag. He crossed his legs and looked around the room as if he were confirming, not discovering. From a breast pocket of his suit coat Stren brought a trim black notebook and a shiny black pen, which he uncapped and readied. Rovanna sat across from the sofa in a white resin lawn chair. There was an oddly low coffee table between the two men, littered with fast-food wrappers and a half-full plastic gallon bottle of vodka.
“How have you been?” The doctor’s voice was resonant in the small room. He offered a compulsory smile and studied Rovanna with lively blue eyes.
“I’m taking the meds. I’m on full disability. I eat well enough. I stay home mostly. I walk around the neighborhood for exercise.”
“With the bat?”
“I always have the bat. It’s not as good as a gun but it’s something for protection.”
Stren nodded and wrote something down. “Tramadol and Zoloft?”
“They’re in the bathroom if you want to see.”
“Please do bring them out.”
In the bathroom Rovanna grabbed the two bottles in one hand and brought them back to the doctor and dropped them with a rattle onto the doctor’s lap. Stren lifted them one at a time, positioned the labels, and wrote in his notebook. “How much alcohol do you drink?”
“Two vodkas per day. Maximum. It’s not a problem.”
“The medium-size cups with superheroes they give out at Mr. Burger. Lots of grapefruit juice and ice.”
Stren looked intently at the vodka then at Rovanna. “Voices?” he asked.
Rovanna suddenly felt angry and ashamed. These emotions could hit fast and they almost always arrived together. The anger felt like a mug of scalding black ink upended inside his brainpan. The shame just made him want to become very small. “No.”
“Dr. Webb at Naval said you were hearing voices from radios, addressing you and you only. When the radios were turned off.”
“I don’t have radios anymore.”
“Dr. Webb said you considered these voices to be your friends. So, that is what I am asking about. Voices speaking only to you. ‘Friends,’ as you called them.”
Rovanna took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “I got rid of them. I took the radios to the Salvation Army. All of them. Look around.”
But Stren only let his gaze wander Rovanna’s face. “Or did you put them somewhere you could easily get to—say, in the garage, or in the toolshed out back?”
“I did not.”
“May I look?”
“Fuck yourself. Okay. So they’re in the shed. I locked them in there so I wouldn’t have to hear them. Maybe you should take them away, too.”
“Let’s move on.”
Rovanna felt his anger steal away, then circle back. “You say you work for the court? Where’s your ID?”
Stren reached into his jacket pocket and removed an envelope with a county seal on it. Rovanna took and opened it. Inside was a sheet of San Diego Superior Court letterhead stating that the undersigned was in the employ of the court and as such would be granted all rights and courtesies due an officer of said court. The seal on the sheet was embossed. At the bottom were the scrawled signature of Hon. Betsy Lambeth and the neatly composed signature of Dr. Todd Stren.
“You can’t be a real doctor with a signature like that,” said Rovanna. His anger was abandoning him. He handed the envelope and letter to Stren, who slipped them back into his pocket. “Why would Dr. Webb tell you those personal things about me?”
“It’s my job to recommend whether you get your guns back or not. I’m the consulting psychiatrist. Dr. Webb and I work together and share medical information. He’s a big fan of yours, Lonnie. He believes in you.”
At the sound of his name, Lonnie Rovanna felt the familiar knot form deep down in his throat. It was painful and he knew it well. It was the aggregate of all his sorrows and regrets, a lifetime of bad actions and misdeeds large and small— everything he wanted to be rid of, or at least forgiven for. All of these, compounded into a hard sedimentary lump. Shame. Even something so minor could summon these things out and bring them together: a kind word, a smile, a small gesture. He had no idea Dr. Webb was a big fan of his. He sat forward and rested his elbows on his knees and looked down at the beaten braided rug.
“Do you still hear demons in the walls?”
“Have you ever seen one?”
“Do the men with similar faces still follow you when you walk your neighborhood?”
The knot in his throat was painful now so Rovanna raised his head and took another deep breath. Why had Webb revealed these things about him? Why had the good doctor sold him out to this soulless judicial bureaucrat? The Identical Men all had the same face and the same clothes and the only reason he knew that there were five of them was because he’d actually seen them together, trailing him down the streets and sidewalks, in the park, and even, occasionally, waiting for him right here in the living room of his own home. Five men. Identical clothing. Same face. The quints from Washington, D.C. Maybe Langley. Or maybe hell itself. “Yes,” he said softly.
“Do you consider yourself dangerous to yourself or others?”
“Do you consider yourself sane?”
“Pretty much so, yes.”
“I see that your larynx has constricted. I know this can be painful. And there are tears ready to come out. Are you ashamed?”
“Yes.” Rovanna lowered his head and dropped his gaze to the floor again. His tears came faster than he could wipe them away, hot drops born of the aching knot in his throat, tapping on the old rug and his canvas sneakers.
“Now, this is important, Lon. I need to ask you about the body-guarding. I understand that early last year you were hired to protect Congressman Scott Freeman.”
At the word Freeman, Rovanna shivered. After a long minute his tears finally stopped and the clench in his neck relaxed a little. Now his shame was beginning to leave him, too. Without anger and shame he felt abandoned and uncontrollable, like a boat without crew or rudder. “He hired me. I protected him a few times. I’m not licensed but I’m good at it because of my military training and experience. When my firearms were taken away I couldn’t get more jobs with him. That’s one of the main reasons I need to get my guns back.”
“How many were confiscated?”
“Of what type?”
“Handguns and legal assault-style semiautomatic rifles.”
“For work as a bodyguard?”
“To protect Representative Freeman.”
Stren sat forward. “When was the last time you saw him in person?”
“After the last big rain.”
“Three weeks ago, then. Late January.”
“He was at a rally in El Centro,” said Rovanna.
“And you had no gun?”
“No. They’d been taken. But I wasn’t hired to protect in El Centro.”
“Yet you were present. Do you have a personal relationship with Representative Freeman?”
“No, only as a politician. I never talk to him except about security. His staff, I mean. Obviously. I talk to his staff.”
The doctor was quiet for a while. When Rovanna looked at him Stren was neither writing nor looking at anything determinate, just gazing out through the screen door, his magnified pupils large and black, gorging on the new morning light.
“Then why did you go to the rally, if not to protect him?” asked Stren.
Now Rovanna was silent for a long moment. “I . . . I thought it would be good to be seen.”
“Yes. As a future potential bodyguard. A bodyguard again, I mean.”
Stren sat back. “I’m confused about something here, Lonnie. Scott Freeman does indeed represent your district, the fifty-fourth, which is the southeasternmost district in the state. He’s a proponent of immigration reform, tougher gun-control laws, and decriminalizing marijuana. He’s considered very liberal. Some say radical. His recent book has raised the ire of the right-wing, Tea Party types.”
“So, Dr. Webb tells me that you are precisely that type. You are vehemently against everything Scott Freeman stands for. Yet Mr. Freeman hires you to carry a gun, and stand close by and protect him.”
Rovanna rubbed his hands together then set each one palm down on a knee. “I don’t mix politics and business.”
“Everyone does. Tell me, have you been hired to guard other politicians, or perhaps celebrities of another kind? Actors? Athletes?”
“No. Scott Freeman was my first job. But I know there are other people who need me. That’s why I need my guns back. Personal security is a growing business. I want it to be my career. I want to get a letter of recommendation from him someday. So I can protect other people.”
Stren looked at Rovanna, then wrote something down and underlined it. “Have you ever dreamed of using one of your guns to save the life of Representative Freeman?”
A ripple of embarrassment went through Rovanna, then indignation. He looked through the screen door to the sycamore tree. A big leaf fell. It came down faster than Rovanna expected it would, an old leaf, folded in, hugging itself on the way down. “No one can control their dreams.”
“Have you ever imagined using a gun on him?”
“I’ve imagined worse things than that. But you can’t control your imagination either.”
“Have you ever just wanted to shoot him, Lon?”
“I really don’t like you using my first name. It’s for friends and you’re no friend of mine.”
“Isn’t Representative Freeman due to make a public appearance in the near future?”
“Later this month. A Sunday. He’s signing autographs at the Alternative Book Fair in San Diego.”
Stren pursed his lips and nodded curtly, then he flipped his notebook shut and capped the pen and returned them both to his coat pocket. He leaned elbows to knees and looked at Rovanna. “Thank you for your time and honesty. I’ll be writing my letter of recommendation later today. Of course, the final decision will be left to one of the judges and this could take some time. The courts are terribly backed up at the superior level.”
“What are you going to say?”
“I haven’t decided. But, in the meantime . . .”
The doctor straightened, set his hat on his head, tilted it back at a casual angle, then brought his black leather medical bag to his lap and opened it. He held out the sides with both hands and stared down into it for a long moment, then reached in. Rovanna expected a syringe and vial, or maybe a sample packet for a new prescription drug, or maybe a form to sign. Or one of the dread orbitoclasts used in lobotomies. He even imagined a cobra, because, just as he had said, he could not control his imagination, and a cobra had just crawled into his mind.
Instead Stren pulled a firearm from the bag, then set the bag aside. He balanced the gun in his small hands, framing it like a salesman for Rovanna to behold. It looked like a common, medium-size, semiautomatic handgun, although Rovanna had never seen one exactly like it. The finish was stainless and the grips were checked black polymer, and it had a slightly plump and heavy look.
“What is it?”
“The Love Thirty-two.”
“The manufacturer was the old Orange County outfit, Pace Arms.”
“I never heard of them.”
“Saturday night specials. Pace Arms was run out of business not long ago.”
“Why call it Love?”
“Something to do with history.” Stren reached into the bag and pulled out a sound suppressor, which he screwed onto the end of the barrel. Then he pointed the barrel down and with his left thumb and forefinger depressed two buttons on either side of the frame, near the back end of the weapon. Out popped two short rods connected by an end piece. The doctor then extended the assembly, like the telescoping handle on a piece of luggage. Rovanna heard it lock into place. A skeleton butt, he thought, to brace in the crook of your elbow when firing. Truthfully, it seemed more like a gimmick than something you’d need.
“It’s fully automatic,” said Stren.
Not a gimmick at all then, thought Rovanna. The doctor pulled a very long magazine from his bag, and Rovanna could see the glimmer of the brass and copper within until Stren pushed it up into the handle of the gun. It snapped into place with a sharp click. The bottom half of the magazine protruded from the handle in a gently lethal curve.
“Thirty-two caliber ACP,” said the doctor. “Fifty rounds in one five-second burst. Or, several shorter bursts. Or, you can choose semi and just squeeze them off one at a time. Subsonic, of course, and practically silent. The casings hitting the floor make as much noise as the gun.”
Stren took his sky blue pocket square and wiped down the weapon. He ejected the magazine and wiped this also. When the Love 32 was whole again, he dabbed away once more with the silk square then set the gun on the couch. From his bag he took a box of ammunition and a spare magazine and put them beside the gun. He pushed the square back into his coat pocket, zipped shut the doctor’s bag and stood.
“I’ll recommend that your constitutional rights be restored,” he said. “Though quite honestly I don’t think your chances are good. It will take time for the court to decide. There is nothing wrong with you, Lonnie. Sometimes friends are all we have. And voices speak to all of us at different times. Listen to them and do what you think is right. As a human being you are free to decide. Anyone who tells you differently is trying to enslave you. In the meantime use this gift to protect yourself and those around you and to advance the ideals you believe in. I cannot force you to accept this gift. You are free to reject it at any time.”
Rovanna watched Stren walk back down the gravel drive. The doctor turned and tipped his hat, then disappeared around the main house. The lump in Rovanna’s throat had returned, and he realized how badly he had misjudged this man. He sat on the plaid couch and looked down at the Love 32 for a long while before picking it up.
Excerpted from The Famous and the Dead by T. Jefferson Parker
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.