Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 28

28

“The world is a cold, cold place to be,

Want a little warmth,

But who’s gonna save a little warmth for me?”

—Vampire Weekend, ‘Unbelievers’ Modern Vampires of the City (2013)

I was shooting pool with Flatrock three weeks later when two state police detectives in starchy-looking grey suits walked into the bar. Since I didn’t have to work for several days, I had been thoroughly looking forward to tying one on, and to generally being a pain in the ass to whoever had to work the bar. Then, those two policemen walked in and jacked it all up. Their presence alone served as a formal announcement that the rest of the evening would be totally and completely fucked.

Though the two men didn’t really look like cops—they both were rail-thin and pale, a bit geeky-looking—they were nevertheless easy to spot as policemen. It was something in the way they walked, an arrogant certainty with which they carried themselves. They looked like two nerdy brothers filling a late-night shift at the local Kinkos, but we all made them for what they were before they even opened their mouths.

It was an egotism born and bred from authority, a ripe stench that we could all smell.

My first thought, of course, was that someone had caught wind of our little operation. Of course, we had procedures in effect. Whoever was able would slip into the back room and clear out anything that might be incriminating. We had a drop slot hidden behind the corner of the desk that led to a chute, which emptied outside behind a bush. A special 911 text sent out to the group would alert anyone who could to come to the Hall, check the bushes and get rid of anything there.

Nine times out of ten, though, there wouldn’t be anything to drop anyway. On the night that Whistler introduced me to the side-business, he had done so by showing me a package, but experience had taught me that the bag sitting in the office that night had been an outlier. Whistler rarely, if ever, allowed a drop or a stash to come to the Hall. In fact, he had as many as five different stash houses—that I knew about—and at least ten different, rotating protocols for distribution. Beyond that, he was absolutely paranoid when it came to paper trails of any kind.

Our fearless leader was nothing if not predictably careful when it came to insulation and plausible deniability.

As I looked back towards the two cops, who had posted themselves just inside the doorway, I saw Zevon moving towards the back room, slinking along the hallway. I nearly burst out laughing, watching such a monstrous man tiptoeing along the wall like a half-assed ninja, but my amusement was short-lived. A half-second later, I thought about sneaking down that same hallway myself, moments before I smashed the intruder in the skull with that bat. The recollection left me feeling wobbly and sick to my stomach as the policeman stepped forward, holding out his badge.

“I am Detective Thorn, and this is Detective Radwine. Do all of you men work here?”

I looked around at the faces surrounding the room. Given the fact that the bar had only been officially opened for a little over thirty minutes that evening, all of the people currently standing in the Hall were, in fact, employees of one kind or another.

We all shrugged and nodded, unified in our obvious desire to say as few words as possible. The first detective, Thorn, scanned all of our faces, intently studying our expressions. His sharp chin and beady-looking eyes combined with a scruffy, pubic goatee created a vague, rat-like resemblance.

His partner, who was clearly the more submissive partner in the relationship, leaned against the wall with more ambivalence than the rat-detective. He yawned lazily and flipped through a small notebook, waiting for the rat to continue.

“Detective Radwine and I are homicide detectives with the state crime lab…”

A chill went down my spine, and I struggled to maintain a poker face as I thought about the bloated decaying corpse rotting away in the creek bed out on the Audubon Society lands.

“…we’re investigating the recent discovery of a body.” I could feel myself starting to sweat, my tongue growing thick and foamy. Nothing like puking on the lead detective’s shoes to give yourself away. “… we positively identified the deceased as a Miss Angela Frinke.”

The words hit me with a strange mixture of relief and horror. On the one hand, I was relieved to hear that these men were not here in connection with our friend down at the creek. On the other hand, hearing Brisby’s name was an abrupt and violent shock.

Over the last few months, as she had quickly ingratiated herself into the group, Brisby had become the spunky little sister that I never had, and abruptly learning of her death was like a swift kick to my stomach.

When Tommy died, I was somewhat prepared for the idea of his death, but even the inevitability of his condition didn’t really prepare me for his passing. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that death is like that. Whether it comes at the end of a long road, or happens abruptly like the striking of a match, death is violent and cruel.

It was like jumping into the icy waters of the Illinois River when I was a child—that abrupt stinging sensation that covered my body, sucking the wind directly from my chest. I had felt it with Tommy, and then again with my mother, and now I was feeling it with Brisby, too.

I opened my mouth to speak, but no words bubbled to the surface. I was keenly aware that the policemen would take our stunned silence as some sort of de facto proof of our guilt, but I was absolutely at a loss for words.

Before any of us could think of what to say, another man, who I had never seen, burst into the room. The man was overweight and paunchy, with a drinker’s nose and dark bags under his eyes. He was wearing a well-worn grey suit, and he carried a tragically cliché-looking briefcase. “That’s enough, gentlemen,” the paunchy man in the suit said. “We won’t be doing any interviews here.”

The two detectives looked at each other and rolled their eyes. “You represent all these people do you?” The second detective spoke with a high-pitched, straining voice. Even without the thick layer of sarcasm, the voice was grating. It was no wonder he let his partner do the talking.

“Yes and no,” the man said. “I represent Francis Xavier Patterson, the owner of this establishment. He asked me to personally see to this matter as it pertains to the treatment of his employees.”

It was strange to hear Whistler’s full, given name spoken in the Hall. He was so paranoid about revealing details about his past that he didn’t allow anyone to say it. As if banishing the words from everyone’s lips could erase whatever former existence he wanted to hide.

The rat-faced cop coughed out a quick grunt of derision. “Awefully fishy when a scumbag lawyer shows up for a simple fact-finding interview.”

The chubby attorney wrung his hands together and then pointed at the detective. “Listen, son, I’ve met a lot of detectives over the years, and one thing has always been remarkably clear when dealing with the police.” He paused for dramatic effect, a habit that was clearly cultivated over years of addressing juries. “The innocent need representation much more than the guilty.” He looked behind us and smiled. Though the man exuded an insurance-salesman arrogance, I was happy that we had someone to act as an intermediary between us and the detectives. “Now,” he continued, “we’ll be happy to cooperate fully with your investigation, but only at an approved time and place. Let’s say tomorrow morning at the County Sherriff’s office? Is that acceptable?”

The two cops looked at each other and shrugged apathetically. “That will work,” said the rat detective. “Mr.?”

“Trimble,” the lawyer said, “Ariel Trimble.” He reached into his pocket, and flipped out two business cards with the precision of a street con-artist running a shell game.

After a bit of grumbling from the two detectives, Trimble led the men out the front door, and we stood around staring at each other in mute confusion until the lawyer returned.

“Ok,” he said, “your friend Whistler sent me to make sure that we’re all on the same page before we show up for these interviews tomorrow morning…”

We were told that the interview process would began at 8:30 in the morning and last through the afternoon, each of us taking an individual turn sitting in a small conference room with Trimble and the two detectives. My interview began around ten o’clock. I was sitting in a sparse waiting room when a uniformed police woman called out to me from a desk and pointed down the hall. “Room Four,” she said in a deep, brusk voice. The woman was petite with soft facial features, and the low, blunt voice that came from her body was almost comical, as if she were a badly miscast actor, playing a role stolen directly from a late-80’s police drama.

When I entered the room, I walked into a cloud of stale coffee stench. Our sloppy lawyer was sitting on one side of the table, with Detective Ratso and the high-voiced submissive on the other side, impatiently tapping on the table with pens.

The questions all seemed fairly standard at first—where had a been the previous evening, when did I last see the victim, what was the nature of our relationship—but eventually the interview seemed to take a turn in a new direction. They began asking questions about Whistler—what was my relationship with him, how long had I known him, had I ever witnessed any unusual behavior.

Of course, I gave painfully vanilla answers to each of the questions, and each response seemed to cause a marked rise in blood pressure from the two detectives. Finally, the high-pitched detective, who had said only a few words all morning, exploded in a shrill outburst of anger. “You said you were this girl’s friend, right?”

Though I had been pleasant and calm all morning, there was something in his tone that made me suddenly and almost uncontrollably angry. This shrill little prick in his stained suit, judging me without any real perception of me as an individual, building a case around a pre-formed theory and then throwing a tantrum like a child when I didn’t play along.

“Yes,” I said, a biting edge rising up in my voice. “She was my friend, and I’m sick of you wasting time. You’re in here fucking around rather than actually finding who did this…” As I began to lose my cool, Trimble reached over and grabbed me hesitantly by the shoulder, pulling back on the reins before the wagon lost control.

The shrieking detective pulled a picture from a file and slammed it on the table in front of me. It was a crime-scene photo of Brisby, lying naked and bruised on a dust-covered concrete floor. Her body was covered in deep-purple splotches, and her face was impossibly swollen, black goose eggs hiding her eyes, her cheeks streaked with blood.

Ghostly white skin peaked out around her body, standing out in stark contrast to the tar-black blood that covered most of the picture. That milky white skin reminded me of the first night that I met her, giving her the strip search in her hatch back in the diner’s parking lot. She had been so unashamed that night, confident and secure—easily swiping through her embarrassment with a quick flash of her quirky smile.

I felt tears welling at the corners of my eye, but I took a deep breath and held it. The last thing I wanted to do was give those two pricks the satisfaction of watching me break down. I looked away from the photo and tried to steady my breathing. The high-voiced detective grunted with satisfaction, and I felt a red-hot rage boiling inside of me.

I had always wondered how so many people got tricked into false confessions. I would watch the shows on Dateline or 48 Hours, and I would always wonder, how could they be so stupid? How could they not cover their tracks any better? How could they say something so dumb?

Listening to the smug prick across the table chuckle, I finally understood. They were pushed there. Manipulated and coerced in a thousand different ways. We see the suspect’s face on the news, and we hear the leaks of testimony during the trial, and we assume the suspect’s guilt. We assume it because we are predisposed to judgement. Finding others guilty reassures us that we, in fact, are one of the good guys—guilty of our own petty sins but otherwise incapable of pure evil.

The truth is never that simple.

We’re all very capable of evil. Evil of all kinds.

Before I could say anything to the chuckling investigator, the door of the room opened abruptly. A tall man with a thick, brilliantly white tuft of puffy hair and a long, handle-bar mustache stepped half-way into the room. He motioned towards the rat-faced one and then stepped back into the hall.

Through the closed door, we could hear only the hushed murmurs of excited voice, but the look on the other detective’s face told us all that we needed to know. Whoever this man was, and whatever he was telling Ratso, it was not good news for their investigation.

When Ratso walked back through the door, he stared down towards Trimble with unrestrained loathing. “You need to leave now,” he said, through semi-clenched teeth. “The interviews are done.”

Trimble smiled and stood, ushering me gently toward to door. “Thank you, gentlemen,” he said. “Let me know if any more of these boys can be of service.”

As I walked out of the door, Ratso slapped a business card against my chest. “You really want to help your friend, you need to give me a fucking call,” he said.

I took the card and walked out of the conference room in a daze.

A few hours later, I was sitting in another all-hands-on-deck meeting at the Hall. This time, instead of formulating a game-plan for my fuck-up, Whistler was trying to put us at ease regarding a very different homicide. “I wish I could tell you guys what happened to her,” he said calmly. “At this point, we’re digging in very seriously into Tae or maybe another rival gang.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Bonnie shouted, “I mean, people know we have heavy backing, right?”

Whistler shot hateful daggers towards Bonnie. It was, in fact, a generally known fact throughout the building and throughout town that, somewhere far down the chain, our particular supply line had connections with a Mexican cartel. Of course, knowing something to be generally true and saying it aloud were two very different things, especially within the confines of a place housing Whistler’s perpetual paranoia.

Bonnie held his hands up in a mea culpa gesture, and Whistler moved on. “Like I said, we’re trying our best to figure this out, but it’s going to take some time. “ He pointed to the back of the room towards Karl, who was leaning against the back wall with his leg kicked up and his arms crossed, brooding in the far corner. “Karl has already found out a little bit of information, but it’s too early to say anything.” Whistler looked out over the room, and took a deep breath. “Somebody has killed one of our own,” he said solemnly, “and we’re not going to let that stand.”

Zevon, who had been sitting at the card table while Whister spoke, raised dramatically and began filling a row of shot glasses. He was pouring from a bottle of Bulleit Single Barrel, which he held out in front of him like a cross, dipping the bottle deliberately over the top of each glass. When he was finished, we passed out the shots and stood staring at Zevon. He held his glass high with a look of razor-sharp determination. “To Brisby,” he said firmly. That was Zevon’s style—simple and direct. Yet somehow, the simplicity of the epithet seemed to fit the moment.

After the meeting dispersed, I walked out towards the door. For once, the idea of having more drinks at the Hall seemed empty and futile, and I couldn’t get the image of Brisby’s blood-stained, pale skin out of my mind.

As I walked towards the street, I found Bonnie leaning up against the side of my truck. As I walked up, he spoke in hushed tones without even looking over in my direction. “It doesn’t make sense,” he hissed. “Any of it.”

Though I wasn’t exactly sure what he was hinting at, the implications certainly weren’t good. “Do you think…” I said slowly, enunciating each syllable, “…that Whistler is lying.”

“I don’t know,” Bonnie said. “I just don’t know.”

He stood up abruptly and walked off down the street without another word. I watched him disappear underneath the orange glow of a halogen street lamp. While we were in the meeting, it had started to snow. Though they were tiny flakes, they seemed to sparkle brightly in the last cast by the streetlamp, flickering around Bonnie’s silhouette like tiny sparks of flame cast off a lively fire. Within a few seconds, he had stepped past the oval boundary of light created by the lamp—disappearing into the darkness beyond.

I stood there alone on the street, shivering in the cold wind as the light snow fell on my back, wondering what would come next.

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