“Oh damn,” Joe said. “What are you gonna do?”
“What are my choices?” Paul asked, hanging his head. “I’ll take care of her, of my kid. What else do you do?” He shook his head sadly. “I want it,” he said. “I know—it’s stupid. I should probably try something, like buying her off or something. Get her to make it go away—but if I have a kid coming, I want a part of that. I’m nuts, right?”
Joe smiled patiently. “I don’t know. Maybe you’re not nuts about that—but what about the mother? Is she someone you’re going to be able to work with on that?”
“No telling,” he said. “She wants to get married. I can’t do that. I’m only planning to do this marrying thing once, and then it’s going to be to a girl I love so much I can’t stop myself. If I married this woman, it would really fuck her up, worse than she already is. I can’t fake it—not something like this. I’d be the worst husband. You don’t marry someone that fast.”
“It’s a big, permanent step,” Joe said. “Only you know if you can make something like that work. If you can’t, you do the next best thing,” Joe said. “Man up. Take care of her.”
“It’s just that I slept with her when I love someone else. Why the hell did I do that? What kind of sorry bastard does that? What was I thinking?”
At this point in the conversation Joe was completely lost. Paul loved someone? It wasn’t as though men got together and talked about women they had crushes on—they just didn’t. They rarely said how they felt, period. He’d known Paul a long time and there’d been very few women. He was the quiet one; he kept back. Even when they were abroad together, at war, with a lot of tension to unload, Paul never hustled the women.
The bartender delivered Paul another beer, from which he took a deep drink.
“Love someone else?” Joe repeated.
“I’m such a screwup…”
“You love someone?”
“It’s wrong, that’s all. I had no business…”
“Paul. You love someone?”
“Yeah. I was a real horseshit best friend for years. Vanni. I just couldn’t help it. I didn’t want it to be that way, but—”
Joe drank a big gulp. He was prepared to help Paul through just about anything, but he never saw this coming. And why hadn’t he? Probably because he’d have done for Paul what Paul did for Matt—stay with the widow through everything. “Whoa,” he finally said. “Oh, shit.”
“Oh, shit,” Paul echoed.
Paul nodded grimly. “You wanna try to imagine how guilty I feel about that? I tried like hell to talk myself out of it. Sometimes I got damn close. I stayed away from them, you know? Because I could talk to Matt just fine, but if I saw Vanni, my heart wanted to explode…Aw God.” He put his head in his hand. “And now I’ve got someone else pregnant. Think I could’ve messed things up any worse?”
Joe shook his head, but he was thinking—yeah. You could’ve been the dead guy. “You sure this baby is yours?” Joe asked. “Maybe it’s not yours.”
“I thought about that,” he said. “Then I decided that was probably wishful thinking on my part. She said there hadn’t been a guy in a long time, which is why she got lazy on the pills. And what did I have? Some poor old condom in the wallet that thought it was never gonna get out of that package. I probably wore a damn hole in it just getting in and out of the truck. Nah, it’s mine.”
“But you’re gonna find out for sure before you set up the college fund, right?”
“Yeah. Sure. Right now, though, I don’t want to push on her too hard. She’s a wreck—a crying, miserable wreck. If she gets the idea I’m not going to step up—who knows what she might do. I don’t want her to get an abortion just out of fear that I won’t be responsible. I’m just going with the assumption it’s mine, since it most likely is. We’ll sort out the details later.”
“What are you gonna do about Vanni?”
“Hell, what can I do? Vanni’s in a lot of pain right now. You think I could help that pain go away by telling her I’ve loved her since the first second I saw her, but I went ahead and got some other woman I barely know knocked up?”
Joe smiled in spite of himself. “We might have to work on your delivery a little bit there, bud. Paul, keep your head here—it’s not like you cheated on Vanni. Huh?”
“Why do I feel like I did?”
“You’ve got your feelings all mixed up in guilt and regret, that’s all. You have to let yourself off the hook about Matt, for one thing. The way you feel about Vanni—it never messed with their marriage or your friendship.”
He slowly turned his eyes toward Joe. “Even though I don’t stand a chance with Vanni, I have to come clean about how I feel. It’s still too soon after Matt. You gotta believe me, I never wanted anything bad to happen to Matt.”
Joe gripped Paul’s biceps. “Of course you didn’t. But this business with Vanni? You owe it to yourself to know where you stand before you borrow all this trouble.”
“Yeah,” he said, hanging his head. “I’m sure she’ll just try to let me down as easy as she can…”
“Then again, you never know,” Joe said with a shrug. “Maybe it’ll go your way for once. In which case, right after she says, ‘I love you, too,’ you’re gonna have to say, ‘I’m going to be a father pretty soon.’ Whew.” Joe gave a short, unhappy laugh. “That’s gonna bite. I think, my friend, your ass is grass. Either way.”
Paul leveled his gaze at Joe. Then he said, “We’re gonna need a lot more beer.”
M ike Valenzuela was the Virgin River town constable and, as such, he spent a great deal of time driving the back mountain roads surrounding the town, taking in the lay of the land. It was important to know the people, the structures, the vehicles. There was no better way to identify something unusual. He got out of his Jeep and walked among trees and shrubs for a while, staying mostly out of sight. He came upon a half-buried semi-trailer and metal storage unit that he’d seen before and had been keeping an eye on. There was a generator between the building and the trailer and camouflage netting stretched over the tops, strung between the trees, which identified it as a cannabis operation, but he’d never seen any activity around it. Mike kept his distance—they were sometimes booby trapped.
This time he happened to see a vehicle departing, and he recognized it—a Ford truck, dark, tinted windows. The driver was known around these parts as an illegal grower.
This guy had been seen around here a few times in the past couple of years. The bills in his pocket were large and carried the stink of freshly cut marijuana. When Mel had barely arrived in Virgin River, he had hijacked her out to a trailer, to an illegal grow like this one, to deliver a woman in childbirth, in trouble. Not so long after, Jack’s cook Preacher’s wife, Paige, had been abducted by her abusive ex-husband, and this guy had stepped in, whopped him over the head and facilitated Paige’s rescue. But most significant, Mike had seen him just a few months ago meeting a Sheriff’s Department detective in an isolated location. It had been a sheer accident that Mike had seen them. But the two men had probably handpicked the place—Virgin River had a reputation as dope free—there weren’t any illegal growers nearby that Mike or anyone else knew about. It was a good place for a secret meeting.
Mike decided to check out the trailer. The guy had a relationship of some kind with a cop and Mike wanted to see what he had going on in there. From twenty feet away he could see that the padlock on the semi’s door was left unhitched. Sloppy, was his very first thought. He stepped slowly, carefully, listening for a click, a trip wire. One rule of thumb—growers want to protect their crop from other growers, but really do not want to hurt or kill anyone from law enforcement, not even lowly, nonofficially recognized town constables like Mike. It brings a barrage of cops down on the area, busting up everything that might have otherwise been missed or ignored.
But Mike saw nothing; no trip wires, so he slipped off the padlock and slowly opened the door. The place was almost empty. There were a few medium-size plants right inside the door, so few he could grow that number legally with a prescription and permit. But, all the equipment was there for a large grow—pots, irrigation tubing, lights, fertilizer. The guy obviously bought what a grower would need for a large operation, but there was no real crop. So, he looked like a grower, but he wasn’t growing.
Jesus, Mike thought. The guy was a narc. He was either undercover police or a confidential informant. He’d set up something to look like an illegal grow, but it was a ruse. There was only one reason to establish oneself as a grower when you weren’t—to search for other growers.
It took a long time to form even a nodding acquaintance with other growers, and even when they got friendly, they kept a safe distance unless they were doing business together, and they never showed each other their hidden grows. They spotted each other at the hardware store, the nursery, buying supplies, carrying around bags of chicken shit in the back of pickups. But they didn’t have dinner parties with each other at their grow-sites.
The other reality was that local law enforcement couldn’t keep up with the illegal crops; their resources and manpower were limited. They let a lot of cases slide when they were too small to make an impact, or to get a conviction. When a call came in about a hairdresser who was driving a Hummer and had a generator behind the house and a couple of windows blacked out, it was pretty obvious what she was doing, but the cops had bigger fish to fry—they were looking for over a thousand plants to press for a conviction or ten thousand plants to drive it into a federal crime, otherwise it was a waste of their precious time.
So—this guy, planting himself in the area, making himself known as an illegal grower…He must be looking for something. Mike slowly exited the trailer and once outside, looked around cautiously. Then he looked at the padlock. It had obviously been an oversight on the part of his buddy, the guy in the truck. If he didn’t think it would compromise his operation, he’d find him, tell him he understood what was going on and to be more careful. Instead he removed the lock and pocketed it. He’d think about all this for a while before taking any action.
Paul sat in a small Italian restaurant in Grants Pass, staring into a cup of coffee, waiting. He looked up to see Terri enter the restaurant and he frowned slightly; there was no reason not to be attracted to her. She was a beautiful, tenderhearted girl. She had a very attractive figure that would soon blossom with motherhood.
When they connected eyes, he smiled and began to rise. Yes, she was a lovely girl, but she just didn’t do to his blood pressure what Vanni did to him. The chemistry between them was nice, but it wasn’t explosive.
He held a chair out for her to sit down. “Everything all right, Paul?” she asked a bit nervously.
“Sure,” he said. “Fine. We haven’t talked since last week. I apologize for that—I meant to get in touch sooner.”
“That’s all right. What’s up?”
“I thought we should have a conversation. I think the shock and tears kept us from getting anything resolved the last time we saw each other.” He reached across the table and gave her hand a pat. “I don’t know how we could have avoided that.”
“Resolved?” she echoed.
“You haven’t really explained what you think I can do for you right now.”
“Well,” she said, “I just found out myself, so I haven’t given it much thought, either. I mean, the best-case scenario didn’t work out for me.”