L is for Lawless Page 2

I said, "Well, don't you look terrific." His hair is stark white and he wears it brushed softly to one side. Today it was slicked down with water, and I could still smell the warm citrus of his aftershave. His blue eyes seem ablaze in his lean, tanned face. He's tall and slender, good-natured, smart, his manner a perfect blend of courtliness and nonchalance. If he wasn't old enough to be my granddaddy, I'd snap him up in a trice.

Henry smiled when he saw me. "There you are. Perfect. I was just leaving you a note. I didn't think you were home or I'd have knocked on the door instead. I'm on my way to the airport to pick up Nell and the boys, but I have a favor to ask. Do you have a minute?"

"Of course. I was on my way to the market, but that can wait," I said. "What's up?"

"Do you remember old Mr. Lee? They called him Johnny here in the neighborhood. He's the gentleman who used to live around the corner on Bay. Little white stucco house with the overgrown yard. To be accurate, Johnny lived in the garage apartment. His grandson, Bucky, and his wife have been living in the house."

The bungalow in question, which I passed in the course of my daily jog, was a run-down residence that looked as if it was buried in a field of wild grass. These were not classy folk, unless a car up on blocks is your notion of a yard ornament. Neighbors had complained for years, for all the good it did. "I know the house, but the name doesn't mean much."

"You've probably seen 'em up at Rosie's. Bucky seems to be a nice kid, though his wife is odd. Her name is Babe. She's short and plump, doesn't make a lot of eye contact. Johnny always looked like he was homeless, but he did all right."

I was beginning to remember the trio he described: old guy in a shabby jacket, the couple playing grab-ass, looking too young for marriage. I cupped a hand to my ear. "You've been using past tense. Is the old man dead?"

"I'm afraid so. Poor fellow had a heart attack and died four or five months back. I think it was sometime in July. Not that there was anything odd about it," Henry hastened to add. "He was only in his seventies, but his health had never been that good. At any rate, I ran into Bucky a little while ago and he has a problem he was asking me about. It's not urgent. It's just irksome and I thought maybe you could help."

I pictured an unmarked key to a safe-deposit box, missing heirs, missing assets, an ambiguity in the will, one of those unresolved issues that the living inherit from the newly departed. "Sure. What's the deal?"

"You want the long version or the short?"

"Make it long, but talk fast. It may save me questions."

I could see Henry warm to his subject with a quick glance at his watch. "I don't want to miss the flight, but here's the situation in a nutshell. The old guy didn't want a funeral, but he did ask to be cremated, which was done right away. Bucky was thinking about taking the ashes back to Columbus, Ohio, where his dad lives, but it occurred to him his grandfather was entitled to a military burial. I guess Johnny was a fighter pilot during World War Two, part of the American Volunteer Group under Claire Chennault. He didn't talk much about it, but now and then he'd reminisce about Burma, the air battles over Rangoon, stuff like that. Anyway, Bucky thought it'd be nicer: white marble with his name engraved, and that kind of thing. He talked to his dad about it, and Chester thought it sounded pretty good, so Bucky went out to the local Veterans Administration office and filled out a claim form. He didn't have all the information, but he did what he could. Three months went by and he didn't hear a thing.

He was just getting antsy when the claim came back, marked "Cannot Identify." With a name like John Lee, that wasn't too surprising. Bucky called the VA and the guy sent him another form to complete, this one a request for military records. This time it was only three weeks and the damn thing came back with the same rubber stamp. Bucky isn't dumb, but he's probably all of twenty-three years old and doesn't have much experience with bureaucracy. He called his dad and told him what was going on. Chester got right on the horn, calling Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, which is where the Air Force keeps personnel files. I don't know how many people he must have talked to, but the upshot is the Air Force has no record of John Lee, or if they do, they won't talk. Chester is convinced he's being stonewalled, but what can he do? So that's where it stands. Bucky's frustrated and his dad's madder than a wet hen. They're absolutely determined to see Johnny get what he deserves. I told 'em you might have an idea about what to try next."

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