Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 31

31

“We woke under a blanket,

All tangled up in skin.

Not knowing in that moment,

We’d never speak again.”

—Lady Antebellum, ‘We Owned the Night,’ Own the Night (2011)

As spring faded into summer, the mood at the Hall seemed to go back to normal, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that the cloud was only getting darker. Though Karl and I exchanged cursory and obligatory apologies, we kept a safe distance from one another most of the time, and while our ongoing spat didn’t help relationships within the building, there was more to it than that.

Everyone was putting their best face forward, but there was no denying the strange tension in the air, like a balloon stretched too tight, and I seemed to be the only one waiting for the inevitable burst.

While I had no doubt that my perceptions were based in reality, the secret that I shared with Bonnie certainly played into it. We found ourselves meeting every few weeks to compare notes and theories, but we weren’t getting very far, and our lack of progress only fed my ever-growing sense of paranoia.

Of course, my ongoing relationship with Caroline added more fuel to the fire. She was convinced that both Whistler and Karl had something to do with Brisby’s death, and she needled me about the topic nearly every time I saw her. I found myself fending off questions that were getting harder and harder to defend, and she would beg me to just walk away.

“I think they’re dangerous,” she said. “And it’s not just Karl. They’re the kind of people that would hide a body and never tell a soul.” I felt a hard lump rise in my throat. She had no idea but this was, in fact, the very reason that I could never fully turn my back on them. They had been there for me, and whether my actions were justified or not, they all put themselves in danger for me, without a second thought. “We can leave,” she said. “My cousin is settled in out in California now, you can start school again. There’s nothing holding us here.”

I thought hard about what she was saying. She was right, of course. I had already severed ties with an old life once. It had been over a year since I had spoken with anyone from back home. I still got the occasional bits of news, Aimee had even sent me an invitation to the wedding, but I had ignored it. Whatever path was lying in my future, a return to Callhan County seemed completely out of the question.

“I can’t,” I said. “I just can’t right now.”

I felt divided against myself, Caroline versus the brothers at the Hall—the competing alliances shifting back in forth on a minute by minute basis. “Maybe next semester,” I said. “I’ll spend the summer saving money, and we can go.”

She smiled and bit her lip, giving me a hopeful nod. “We can do it,” she said. “We can.”

At the end of the term, she decided to go out and spend the summer with her cousin, working and applying to schools out in Los Angeles. I filled out a few applications as well, but the whole thing seemed like a distant, impossible dream. Like we were two children playing “what-if” scenario games.

The morning she left, I drove her into Chicago to catch a flight. When I dropped her off, I could feel the longing in her embrace, as if she could physically pull me closer and drag me out to LA right then and there.

I kissed her lips and she turned to walk into the terminal, looking back over her shoulder with a final smile and a wave. I thought about our first evening together during the rainstorm, and I thought about all the other days we’d spent intertwined with one another since. I could see all the days and all the moments together, like I was looking at a single mosaic, and staring at such a picture made it nearly impossible to let her go.

Finally, I let her go, and watched her walk away towards the departures terminal. Though I told myself that we’d be together again, I could not shake the inescapable fear that I was seeing her for the last time.

By mid-summer, things at the Hall were beginning to fall apart. Flatrock and Farley had moved into the city, and Okie had abruptly decided to move home. The foundation of the group was crumbling, and you could see the wear on Whistler’s face every time he entered the Hall.

Sometime around the end of July, I made up my mind to leave, head out to LA and see if Caroline and I could make a go of things. I decided to follow through on the plan, using the summer to save up some cash before I met up with her in the fall.

With the attrition to the group, we all found ourselves working at the Hall more and more. Though I was fine with the extra shifts, the others were growing impatient. UB cornered Whistler one evening after we’d worked together for two weeks straight. “We need some fresh blood,” he said. “We’re running ourselves ragged.”

“Not now,” Whistler snapped. “It’s not a good time, I…” He slammed his hand down on the bar and stormed off, sequestering himself, as usual, in the back room. “This isn’t good,” UB said. “Something’s going to have to change.”

By the middle of August, I was starting to feel ready to make my break for California, but one thing kept pulling me back. I kept thinking about that picture of Brisby’s body—her broken, swollen face, her milky white skin. The picture haunted me because I knew, in the end, it was all somehow my fault. I was the one who brought her in. I was the one who introduced her to Whistler.

In some deep and cosmic way, whatever happened to her was on me, and I knew it. Bonnie and I were the only two who even seemed to remember, much less give a shit. I owed it to her to at least try and figure it out before I left.

The last Monday in August, Bonnie switched shifts with Okie so that we would be closing together. In the stillness of the darkened bar, he excitedly shared his latest news. “A fucking junkyard,” he said. “It could be there!”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

He was so excited, he could barely contain himself. “So, you know I’ve been doing some checking, right?”

“Yeah, I know, but you still won’t tell me what you’ve been doing.”

He took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. “I’ve been breaking into Whistler’s house,” he said. He flashed a devious smile, evidently relieved to have shared his secret.

“You what?” I shouted.

“Calm down,” he said. “It’s just that Whistler keeps information on everything and everyone at his house.”

“What do you mean, information?”

He tapped excited on the bar. “I mean fucking information of all kinds. He’s got files on everything.”

I rubbed my temples trying to absorb the information. Whistler’s paranoia was a recurring and legendary topic of conversation, but I couldn’t imagine him actually keeping personnel files on each of us.

“Your file talks a lot about your dad,” he continued, “and some guy named Gil Grady.”

It was shocking to hear a name from my past thrown out into the air at the Hall. Everything back home felt so buried and complete, and for some reason, it seemed vaguely sacrilegious to mention Gil Grady’s name at the Hall, even though he probably would have felt right at home.

“Ok..” I sad slowly, still trying to process everything.

“Yeah,” he continued, “I don’t know who his source is, or where he gets his information, but he knows a lot about all of us.”

Before Caroline had left, she had said those words again. They’re dangerous…We have to get away. The longer Bonnie talked, the more right she seemed.

“Anyway,” he said, “I found something interesting in Karl’s file.”

“What, that he’s a fucking psychopath?”

“Well, yeah,” he said, “but we already knew that.” He grabbed hold of my arm and shook me to get my attention. “His uncle lives twenty miles from here, and he’s got a junkyard.”

“Ok…” I said.

“Don’t you get it? Her car is the only real piece of evidence we’re going to find.” He tapped on the bar, rolling through a theory he had indulged over and over again. “The only way to really get rid of it would be to sink it out at the reservoir, but that’s risky. The whole place is surrounded by houses.” He slammed his palm down on the table. “The junk yard would have been an easy place to hide the car, and that piece of shit wouldn’t have exactly stuck out.”

“Don’t you think the detectives would have checked those places already?”

“Maybe,” he said, “but you said yourself that someone put a stop to the interviews. How do we know they didn’t put a stop to the whole goddamn investigation?” He suddenly lowered his voice to a whisper, as if spies might be sitting outside the window. “If we can find the car, we can prove that it was Karl.”

“What then?” I asked. “Go to the cops?”

“Fuck that,” he said. “We go to Whistler.” He reached out and grabbed my shoulder. “Look, Whistler is fucked up, but he’s not a bad guy. If Karl has done something like this, then he’ll make it right. Well, he’ll probably have Zevon make it right.”

“Ok, but Whistler was the one that was with Brisby the night she died, not Karl.”

“I know that, but do you really think Whistler could have done that? You saw the pictures.”

I hoped that he was right. I had seen, first hand, the damage that Karl was capable of inflicting, and I couldn’t stand the thought of Whistler being capable of the same thing. “But why? Why would Karl want to kill her?”

“Who knows, man. You said it yourself, he’s a psycho. Besides,” he leaned across the bar and looked deeper into my face, “You saw how he acted when Brisby and Caroline were together. He hated that they were close.”

I remembered the look of anger on his face when they used to march around the Hall together, watching their every move. “That’s true…”

“You’re damn right it’s true.” Bonnie was getting worked up as he talked through his theory, so I reached out and put a calming hand on his shoulder.

“So, I’m guessing you want to go look at this junkyard,” I said.

“Tomorrow night,” he said. “Switch shifts with UB.”

“Oh, he’ll be thrilled about that.”

“Tell him you’ll work on Saturday, he said. “He hates working Saturday.”

“So do I.” Bonnie threw his arms up in protest, and I reluctantly agreed. “Alright, I’ll take care of it.”

The junkyard was a nerve-wracking thirty minute drive away. I sat in the front seat of his Pontiac Grand Am, a small playmate cooler sitting in the backseat. “Did you bring some beers?” I asked, pointing at the back seat.

“No,” he said. “It’s meat. In case the junkyard has dogs. I loaded up a couple of skirt steaks with enough Temazepam to knock out a horse.”

“Temazepam?”

“The sleeping pills that Okie has been shilling to those old bitches.”

Our newest venue for sales came through a side job that Toke had secured at the country club. Three weeks working as a bartender at the clubhouse, and he was supplying a good chunck of the local elite with their pills of choice—Oxycontin, Vicodin, Lomotil—the rich and respectable were every bit as fucked up as the poor, and we didn’t need to worry about late payments from them.

“I’m assuming he’s making some choice recordings as well?” Our utilization of the Eavesmate app was expanding. By now, Whistler probably had dirt on half of the town.

“Oh yeah. The bigger question is whether he’s ploughing any of those old bitches.”

We both agreed that he probably was. Toke wasn’t one to brag about his sexual conquests, but he also wasn’t known for exceedingly high standards, either. “I’m guessing he’s offered a creative discount to one or two.” We both laughed at the thought, then admitted that we would more than likely do the same thing. “So, what’s with the meat, again?”

“You know,” he said, “guard dogs and shit.”

“Is that even really a thing? How do you know there are going to be dogs?”

“I don’t,” he said, “but I’m fucking well going to be prepared.”

When we got there, the place looked completely deserted, with the exception of a mangy German shepherd and an overweight pitbull. Bonnie could hardly contain his smug amusement. “See,” he snipped. “Do you fucking see the dogs?”

“Yes,” I said. “I admit it, you are the best Hardy Boy that I’ve ever met, now let’s feed them the goddamn steak and get this over with.”

Either because of the dosage or because of the sorry state of the mangy old dogs, the drugs worked surprisingly quickly. “How much did you use?” I asked. “Did you fucking kill them?”

Bonnie shrugged and threw his hands up in the air as he walked around the perimeter of the fence. “Over there,” he said, pointing to a large maple tree growing up next to the fence.

Using the tree as leverage, we shimmied up the fence and hopped over. Though the top of the fence looked to have contained barbed wire at one time, we were easily able to hop cleanly over. “We should split up,” I said. “Cover more ground.” The place wasn’t huge by any stretch of the imagination, but there were several hundred old, rusting cars in various states of decay.

We commenced scouring the grounds, each of us armed with a Mag Lite. After ninety minutes, I had covered my side of the yard, convincing myself that the whole search was pointless in the process. There was a tiny, ramshackle building in the middle of the yard that likely served as the shop and office. As I walked around the front of the shop, I saw the dogs, still lying in the mud near the front gate. They were both breathing, and the obese pit was even snoring.

At least we wouldn’t have two dead dogs on our conscience, too.

I found Bonnie a few minutes later, standing on the bumper of a 1980’s Cadillac, shinning his light into a pile of twisted metal. “Did you find anything?”

“No, but I think I saw a fucking snake,” he said, shinning the light back into the pile. “Thing was enormous!”

I was cold, and tired, and annoyed. I yanked him off the bumper by his shirt. “Let’s get out of here,” I said.

“Wait, did you look in there?” He pointed his light back towards a barn that sat near the back of the lot, right next to a secondary gate that opened to a dirt road. I shook my head. “We might as well be sure,” he said.

We creeped back towards the old barn and inched open one of the rotting old double doors. The door creaked loudly, echoing across the still yard like a gunshot. Out of a sense of heightened paranoia, we both froze and listened, but we remained completely alone. Possibly the only people within a three mile radius.

The barn stunk of mold and piss. A few small animals scurried around as we entered, the quick motion jarring us both. “What was that?” I asked.

“Nothing, just a raccoon running out a hole in the back wall.”

The inside of the barn was small, and most of the dirt floor was covered with pallets containing various piles of scrap—little bits of aluminum on one pallet, various leather seats on another, one pallet filled with a huge mound of gages. Though the squeeze was tight, the center aisle was just wide enough to fit a car, and small vehicle was resting towards the back wall, covered with an old, black tarp.

“Back there,” I said, motioning with the flashlight beam.

We walked back and stood behind the car, which was roughly the shape of Brisby’s hatch back. For several minutes, neither of us moved, paralyzed by the enormity of moment. When Bonnie finally reached out and pulled on the tarp, it fell slowly, like a curtain descending on the final act of a play, a cloud of dust puffing up with a soft whiff as the old fabric tarp fell noiselessly to the ground.

I can’t tell you if I wanted to see the car under there, whether somehow quenching the gnawing curiosity was worth knowing that I was in such close kinship with a cold-blooded killer. All I know is that the few seconds it took for the tarp to fall were the longest few seconds of my life.

The first thing I saw was the Grateful Dead stickers, a few fluorescent bears on a rusted aluminum bumper. Then I noticed the color, that weird burnt orange that I had never seen on any other car. All of the details flooded in as I checked off a list in my memory, right down to the smashed front quarter panel.

I saw the details, the lurking proof of the truth we had been circling like buzzards for months.

Then, I turned, ran out of the barn, and threw up in patch of weeds.

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