“Peter said to Paul, you know all those words we wrote?
They’re just the rules to the game, and the rules are the first to go.”
—Josh Ritter, ‘Girl in the War,’ The Animal Years (2006)
The next morning, I woke with a cloudy head and a mouth full of cotton. I came upstairs to find Whistler sitting at the kitchen table sipping a cup of coffee. If he had any recollection regarding the previous evening, he didn’t say so. I sat next to him, opened a bottle of water and acted as though I was just as clueless about the previous evening’s events. In that moment, we both agreed to a silent covenant.
We never spoke of that night at all. Not a single word.
I spent the rest of the summer continuing to gradually take on more responsibility at the bar. I became a de facto accountant, schooled in the art of rolling large piles of cash into the legitimate cash flow from the bar.
It wasn’t lost on me that my new career was exactly the kind of enterprise that my father had joined as a young man. Logically, it wasn’t hard to see that there wasn’t a tremendous difference between being Gil Grady’s bagman and Whistler’s dirty accountant, but that knowledge didn’t stop me.
Given the complexities of our bodies, you would think that the human mind would come with some kind of safeguard against lying to yourself, a failsafe trigger that tripped the moment we tried to pull the wool over our own eyes, but the truth is quite the opposite. The human capacity for self-deceit is almost limitless. If we want to believe something badly enough, we will deny every single one of our senses, suppress even the strongest natural instinct.
When I looked at Whistler, I saw a friend, not a gangster like Gil Grady, and nothing was going to convince me otherwise, even if I was learning how to launder drug money.
The following September, my duties changed once again. Though I was growing weary of attending classes at Whitehaven, Whistler pushed me to keep at it. “We need to keep a foothold on the campus,” he said. “That’s an important percentage of our revenue.” With Farley officially dropping out to pursue the more lucrative components of the drug trade, rather than finishing the work towards his teaching certificate, Okie and I became the lone representatives of Whistler, Incorporated, on the campus.
The process was simple. I acted as a recruiter, bringing in potential dealers. “It’s important to realize that we work at the distribution level, never directly dealing with sales,” Whistler told me. I soon found that it was more involved than that. I was to facilitate meetings, which were never to take place at the Hall and rarely, if ever, involved the same people more than twice in a row. I was never to talk specifics. “You leave that to the other guys,” he said.
“What if we fuck up?” I asked. “Take a risk on the wrong guy?”
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “I’ve got contingency plans in place for those situations.” He never elaborated, but it was easy to see that Whistler was plugged into some kind of political protection that shielded his small-time operation—most likely the same strings he pulled to deal with the Tae problem.
The biggest rule, of course, was that Whistler was never to meet with any prospective employees directly. He assured us that we were all shielded from the risk, but he made doubly sure that he kept himself protected, shielded behind many layers.
By October, I had recruited two new dealers to supply the campus. On a campus of that size, everyone knew where to find a connection, and each of our new employees supplied a small but steady pipeline of business. My only role after recruitment was to facilitate campus drops. We had a few different locations, but the best and most secure was the back of the chapel, which stayed open twenty-four hours.
Thanks to the school’s Presbyterian roots and a blind faith in the safety of small towns, the campus provided us with an inconspicuous, secured area that afforded easy access. As long as you avoided the late-night couples looking for some thrill sex in the back of the church, the drops typically went off without a hitch.
That’s why I nearly pissed myself one night in early November when someone approached me from the shadows after I walked out of the church, immediately after a drop. My months of on-job training with Whistler and his crew had taught me to be careful and observant. In any dangerous line of work, a lack of awareness can get you killed.
That night, however, a cold blast of November air blasted my face as soon as I walked out of the door, and I was more concerned with wiping away the tears stinging my eyes than checking over my shoulder.
“Hey!” The voice came from behind me, a high-pitched whisper-scream that caught me completely off guard. As I turned to look over my shoulder, I missed the top step and tumbled ass-first down the ten or fifteen stairs leading to the door of the chapel.
Though I could feel a sharp pain radiating down my leg, I jumped to my feet as quickly as I could and spun around to face the stranger in the shadows. A short, mousy-looking girl with curly hair walked out of the shadows, a strange, quirky smile plastered across her lips.
“Sorry about that,” she said, “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
In a matter of seconds, I realized how ridiculous I must look, standing in an attack pose with my fists clinched, ready to throw down with this diminutive little girl bounding down the steps.
I relaxed a bit, struggling mightily to maintain my dignity. “What the fuck are you doing?” I barked.
“I need to talk to you,” she said.
“Well, I don’t know you.” I turned to walk away, fully intent on leaving her standing on those stone steps in the bitter cold, but her next words stopped me dead in my tracks.
“I know about your little package inside the chapel.”
I spun back around and got right back into her face. “What the fuck is your problem? You need to shut your damn mouth, now!”
Though my burst of anger felt impressively terrifying, it had absolutely no effect on the girl whatsoever. She stood passively, that same little grin still hanging on her lips. “Calm down,” she said. “I’m not trying to jam anybody up. I just want to talk to you. I want a job.”
I couldn’t believe what she was saying. This girl, less than five-and-a-half feet tall, had bigger balls than any man that I knew. “Are you crazy?”
“Come on,” she said, “my car is over here. Let’s get out of the cold.”
The next thing I knew, I was sipping a cup of coffee at BJ’s Diner. The girl, who was as talkative as she was ballsy, was telling me her whole life story. Grew up in the suburbs, the typically repressed daughter of a preacher and a stay-at-home mom. She was nearing the end of the first semester of her sophomore year, and Mom and Dad’s finances were hitting the skids. On top of that, they were also headed for divorce, even though she had heard her father rail against the evils of divorce many times.
“It’s his typical bullshit,” she said. “He can’t say three words without contradicting himself, and he wonders why I’m so fucked up!”
I had humored the girl as I ate a plate of biscuits and gravy, but it felt like time to end the whole charade. There was no way in hell that Whistler was going to go for this—a random girl approaching us—but still, I knew he would want more information.
I was reasonably sure that she wasn’t a cop, and I had already checked her for a wire—I made her strip down while we were sitting in her little hatchback to check. Although I was more than a little disappointed to get a girl almost completely nude only to have her immediately get dressed again, I knew there wasn’t really time for anything like that. This was going to be a business conversation.
“Ok,” I said, “Let’s say I believe you. Let’s say you’re not trolling for information for some cop, and let’s say, for the sake of argument that I can help you find the kind of job you’re looking for.” She nodded enthusiastically. “The question is, why? Why do this? Why not just get a goddamn student loan and finish out your degree? Marry some chunky businessman, push out a few kids? I mean, no offense, but you don’t exactly fit the bill of your typical pusher.”
She leaned forward against the table, the smile quickly draining away from her lips. “Look,” she said. “I’ve dealt with that bullshit my whole life…following other people’s plans and expectations. I’m done with that.” She clenched her fist and lightly pounded against the table. “I need money fast so that I can get out of here. My real life is going to start somewhere far from here, and the how and the why is none of your goddamn business. All you need to know is that I will work my ass off for the next sixth months, and I’ll make you a lot of money.”
I looked at the girl for a long time. She was nothing if not persistent, and I had to admit that there was something undeniably charismatic about her. Still, there was no way Whistler was going to go for it.
“Alright,” I said. “I’ll talk to my guy, but I can’t make any promises…”
The goofy, wide smile immediately returned to her lips.
“…but there’s one more thing you have to do.”
“Look,” she said, “I already told you in the car that I’m not gonna…”
“Not that,” I said. “It’s something much more important.” She looked at me with her big, expectant eyes. I had never quite seen eyes like hers before, a dark shade of forest green. “The church,” I continued. “I need to know how you knew about the church. If you refuse to tell me that, this conversation is over, right here and right now.”
It was easy to see the wheels turning in her head, but I couldn’t decide if she was wrestling with her conscience, or coming up with a lie. “I meant what I said earlier, I don’t want to get anybody jammed up, and he’s….”
“Who?” I snapped. “You better tell me who right now, or we’re both in for a world of shit.”
She looked at me in silence, biting her bottom lip, the same way Aimee used to. We sat in silence for at least two minutes. Logically, I knew that I should be skeptical of this girl. Nothing about the situation seemed right—her hiding in the shadows, her knowledge of the drop—but I found myself believing her. She had an earnestness about her that invited me in, made me want to believe. I could fully buy that she was trying to protect someone. At the same time, if she was really telling the truth, if she was really as desperate as she said, she’d have no problem throwing the mole under the bus.
“His name’s Billy,” she said. “Billy Winner.”
“The walking oxymoron?” She had taken a sip of her orange juice as I asked the question, which she proceeded to immediately spit all over me as she broke into loud laughter, her high-pitched voice echoing through the sparsely-populated diner. “Ok, ok,” I said, wiping drops of juice from my face with a napkin. “Quiet down.”
Clearly, she knew Billy Winner because she got the joke. Billy was the second recruit I brought to Whistler’s attention. He wasn’t exactly a typical choice, but I felt like we could manipulate him pretty easily. “The guy’s a real spaz,” I told him. “He’s chunky, and he always wears these stained sweatpants, and he doesn’t appear to place a high premium on daily personal hygiene.” Karl, who was sitting in the corner as I gave my debriefing, burst into laughter. “Still, I said. I know he needs the money, and he seems desperate enough to do just about anything.”
It was Billy Winner that made me realize my natural proclivities for this particular job. As it turned out, I had a skill in finding and manipulating weak and desperate people. Within a week of meeting Billy, he was confessing his inner demons and asking me for life advice.
“The question is,” Whistler said, “does this guy have the ability to make connections? Can he make friends? Can he formulate a customer base?”
“Well,” I said. “He hangs out with the service organization kids, whatever the hell their called, Gamma Alpha or whatever.”
Karl snorted from his corner table. “They’re dorks,” he said. “Every single one of them.”
“Yeah,” Whistler agreed, “but you’d be surprised how many of those dorks are itching to embrace their wild side.” He scratched his chin for a moment, then pointed to Karl. “Talk to Flatrock,” he said. “He’s got a calm demeanor, and a level head.” He pointed back to me. “Karl will set up a meeting, you get your boy there.”
“Are you sure?” I asked. “I mean, I know it’s a risk. The guy is kind of a loser.”
“That’s ok,” Whistler said, “he’ll offer us diversity, and that’s what we want, a broader base of solid connections.” He held up his hands triumphantly, “Let’s give the Walking Oxymoron a shot, ok?”
Though I was a little annoyed about the thin layer of orange juice covering my face and shirt, I was glad that the girl got the joke. “Ok,” I said. “Now you need to tell me, how exactly did you find this information out.”
She told me that she had met Billy a while back, through a friend that was involved in the service organization stuff, and then a few weeks before, she had started using him to buy her weed.
“I figured I could work him,” she said. “I mean, it’s pretty obvious that a guy like that is not the head of criminal enterprise.” She stopped to scarf down the last bit of her rye toast. “I assumed that he could be my in.”
“So he just came right out and gave us up?” I asked.
“Not exactly,” she said. “I had to get high with him and let him feel me up a little first.”
I bit my tongue and tried to hold back my laughter. “So,” I said, starting to giggle, “you went to third base with the Walking Oxymoron?” By the time the words got out of my mouth, I was openly laughing at the girl.
Though she was smiling, she grabbed a knife and waved it my direction. “Shut the fuck up!” she yipped, but I could hardly even catch a breath.
I went ahead and paid our tab and we walked back out to her hatchback. “Like I said, I’ll talk to my guy, but I can’t make you any promises.”
She jumped up in the air, and grabbed me around the neck, landing an awkward projectile of a kiss on my lips. “Jesus,” I said. “Where did that come from?”
“What?” she asked. “You’ve already seen my nipples, what’s a little kiss.” As she darted over to the driver’s side door and started the engine, I realized that she was probably right. I slipped into the passenger seat, rubbing my hands together against the bitter cold. “You never told me your name,” she said.
“My name is Scribe.”
She crinkled her nose and turned to me. “Really?” she asked. “My name is Angela.”
“Well,” I said, “if my guy likes you, that won’t be your name for long.”