Charlie Anson peered through scratched binoculars at the small bird flitting through the cattails. Song sparrow? He couldn’t see the telltale black spot on the breast. He shook his head. It was another LBJ—little brown job—to birdwatchers who can’t identify what they are seeing. The bird hopped away in the thick foliage lining the park’s nature trail before he could pull out his field guide and look at photographs.
His 11-year-old Leica binoculars lacked the light-capturing capability of glasses with more modern optics. Buy new ones? Not with his 401K down and politicians in Washington feuding over whether or not to take away his health care. Anson sighed and gave up on the bird, just one more mystery in a lifetime of frustrating sightings.
Late summer heat lay on the park like a suffocating hand. The hills, green only months ago, had been seared brown and yellow. Ponds shrank. Only a few determined walkers kicked up dust on the trails. Picnickers sheltered in the shade of trees. He stopped briefly to view a gathering of the usual suspects, a few stilts, avocets, and yellow legs that shared a small spit of land with mallard ducks.
Anson came to a junction in the trail and stopped. Decision time. Should he keep going or call it a day and head back to the parking lot? A pale sun hung lower in the sky, and the birds were inactive due to the heat. To his left, farther down the trail, two men stood arguing. Not birdwatchers, he decided, because neither carried binoculars or a scope. Not day-trippers, either. They weren’t accompanied by bored children, or dressed for the heat. Snatches of conversation drifted his way.
“next week … swear I can raise the money. My sister is going to get another mortgage on the house.” The hurried words gushed from the mouth of a short, fat guy in a loud sport coat. He faced a thin man in a dark suit. The fat man glanced at Charlie, and turned back to his companion.
A light breeze set the cattail stalks to rustling along the trail. It carried more fragments of the conversation drifting to Anson. “… too late, too often, (words unclear) … bad example for the other deadbeats” he heard the man in the dark suit say. His voice was flat, without emotion, as if he had delivered the same message at other times in other places. Then he reached inside his jacket, produced a gun, and jammed it into the fat man’s stomach.
Anson couldn’t hear the muffled sound, but the fat man grabbed at his stomach and tumbled backwards to the dirt path. The thin man leaned over him, held the gun above his victim’s forehead, and squeezed the trigger twice in rapid succession. He stood back to assess his work.
“A double tap,” muttered Anson, “just like on TV.”
As if feeling the presence of eyes, the gunman swiveled, glancing down the path. His eyes fell on Anson. He took several steps toward him. “Hey. … You. … Come over here. This guy fell down. He’s hurt. We need to call an ambulance. Have you got a cell phone?” He tried to conceal the gun behind his back.
Anson turned and stumbled back down the trail as the killer began running toward him. He had just witnessed a murder, maybe a gangland execution judging from the final shots. He had a pretty good idea what the guy with the gun wanted to talk about, and the conversation would be brief. White hair spilled over his eyeglasses, but he didn’t bother to brush it away. Binoculars bounced back and forth on his chest. Where could he go? How could he escape?
As he lurched down the path, he risked a glance over one shoulder. The killer had rounded the junction of the nature trail and was gaining ground on him. Too quick! Anson’s breath came in gasps, and arrows of pain stabbed his lungs. His bad knee, the one that was left after the worse one had been replaced, sent pain signals up his right leg. Gunshot! He felt a stinging sensation in his right ear and touched it. His fingers came away bloody.
The killer was gaining on him. He knew that without seeing him. The shooter was likely younger, probably in better shape. It was only a matter of time until … and then he saw a narrow break in the wall of cattails that lined the path. Could he escape by hiding in the underbrush? Would the killer follow, ruining his business suit and shoes? Getting dirty was no problem for Anson, especially since he wore sneakers, jeans, and a tee shirt with the picture of a white bird and the words “Egrets? I’ve had a few.”