Rough, Grooved Surface

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Chapter 33

33

Dark clouds gather ’round me,
Due northwest, the soul is bound.
And I will go, on ahead free.
There’s a light yet to be found.”

—Ben Nichols, ‘The Last Pale Light in the West,’ The Last Pale Light in the West (2009)

I spent the next few days watching carefully over my shoulder and reading the tea leaves in my every interaction with Whistler. By all indications, he had no idea that I was with Bonnie at the junkyard, but Whistler was smart. He could easily just be lulling me to sleep.

It was clear that I needed to leave, but I was also worried about the timing. If Karl and Whistler were testing me, trying to find out what I know, then leaving now would only confirm their suspicions. Besides, I had no idea how far they would go, and running to Caroline might only put her in danger.

I thought about the look in Whistler’s eye the night he found out about the Walking Oxymoron. You don’t ever let anyone cross you. I had no idea then how far he was really willing to go.

Caroline had tried to warn me, but I wouldn’t listen. In my few decades on this planet, I had established a long-running and nasty habit of forgoing good advice until it was too late. They say great athletes have perfect timing—a quarterback two steps ahead of the coverage, a hitter staying a split second ahead of the pitch. If that’s true, then it’s clear to see why I was never all that great at sports. My timing is for shit.

I studied the paper for the next several days, as Bonnie’s accident was fairly big news, for a few cycles anyway. By Monday, though, the police had determined the death to be accidental, drug or alcohol-related, of course. The working theory was that he had gotten drunk or stoned and passed out on the tracks. Of course, there wasn’t much left in terms of remains to prove the theory. The papers did say that the car was in park, which was a detail that everyone seemed to accept at face value. I nearly exploded when I read it. Drunk or not, how could he drive UP to the ridge of those tracks, and put his car in park, on THAT EXACT spot? It didn’t make any sense.

Of course, Brisby’s death didn’t make any sense either, but no one seemed overly concerned with that.

That Wednesday morning, we all took an hour-long drive south to attend the funeral. Luckily, I wound up securing a spot with UB and Mule for the ride down. I couldn’t stand the thought of an hour alone in a car with Whistler or Karl, and I still had no idea how much they knew.

The sky was overcast, but the air was still thick with August humidity. It would still be a few weeks, maybe months before the stifling heat would break. Bonnie’s father stared at us with a heated, steady gaze through the whole ceremony. Like everyone else, he seemed to accept the official story, but that didn’t mean that he saw us as blameless. He might not have known that Whistler killed his son, but he knew that we were all an instrument of his death, the means to his end on those tracks.

I had some sense of what he was feeling. I remember standing at my mother’s grave staring daggers at my father. Though it was just an accident, a random tragedy without fault or blame, I hated him for it, anyway. In that moment, after the loss of Tommy and everything else that happened, I needed someone to accuse, a villain to indict for the wrongs of the world.

Blaming him didn’t help of course, but in the moment it was all that I knew, and Bonnie’s father was clearly blaming us.

We stopped by the church afterwards for a dinner. I had the sense that the foundation might crack or a bolt of lightning might shoot from the sky as soon as our motley group crossed the threshold, but that was silly, of course. Most of the people took us at face value, nothing more than concerned and loving friends.

I watched Whistler stuffing his face with ham, laughing quietly with Flatrock and Zevon at the end of a long table. Somewhere long ago, someone must have decreed that ham is the perfect comfort food, to be served at every funeral dinner in perpetuity. By the time my mother had died, I couldn’t stand the taste of it anymore. We had eaten it for weeks after Tommy’s death.

Even a slight whiff of ham made me think of mourning.

Whistler chewed his ham without another thought, even sucking down one of the pineapple slices that had been baked on top. His back was only a few feet from a row of family. Aunts and Uncles and cousins who were grieving their loved-one’s senseless loss, completely unware that they were breaking bread a few inches away from the man who had orchestrated his death.

We left as a group, and Bonnie’s mother and father rose to shake our hands as we left. She was distraught, but so very happy that we came. “He would have wanted you guys here,” she said, wiping away tears, and giving us each a firm hug and a face-full of permed hair.

His father, though, said nothing. He just limply shook our hands and stared each of us in the eye, searching for a truth that he would likely never know.

When we returned, everyone tried their best to get back to some sense of normalcy. We had our own wake that evening at the bar, drinking cocktails and somberly sharing old stories. After that, everyone tried to move on, content to bury Bonnie and keep trudging forward. No one seemed to have any reservations about the circumstances of his death. A tragic accident and nothing more.

Though Whistler had made a habit of disappearing into the back room over the last few months, for the next two weeks he maintained a constant vigil over the Hall, hovering around and listening intently to everyone’s conversations. To everyone else, it was a welcome sight, a sign that Whistler was waking up out of his funk.

But I knew different. He wasn’t reconnecting. He was lurking, testing the waters, sampling the ranks for signs of dissention. Of course, Karl was assisting in the study, breaking his self-imposed banishment from the Hall, and helping Whistler keep an eye on the troops.

On a Saturday night, nearly two weeks after Bonnie’s death, Karl came up to me near closing time and put his arm around my shoulder. “All of this shit happening really makes you think,” he said. “I know I told you sorry for the fight, but I didn’t really mean it at the time.” His mock sincerity was surprisingly convincing, but I knew he was full of shit. This was nothing more than a fishing trip, and just looking at his smug face made me want to vomit. “I mean it now, though, man. I know I fucked up.”

I shook my head and did my best to sound genuine, though the words felt like little daggers passing my lips. “I know, man. I’m sorry, too. I should have asked you before…”

“Naw,” he said, reaching across me to grab a bottle of Patron. Okie, who had come back for a few weeks for the funeral, was standing down near the taps. “Pour us a couple of Coke backs,” he said, pointing down at the tequila shots.

I’d never cared much for tequila, but I drank Karl’s peace offering, and chased it down with the splash of Coke that Okie sat in front of us. “It doesn’t matter, anyway,” I said. “She’s gone.”

He looked at me for a moment with a strange, wild gaze, then nodded his head. “California?”

I nodded and took another sip of the beer that I had been nursing before Karl walked over. “Did you call her and tell her about Bonnie?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “I don’t think she wants to hear from me, anyway.”

He nodded again, slapped me on the back and walked away, seemingly content with our short conversation. As I watched him walk away, I wondered again what he and Whistler were truly capable of. How far are they really willing to go?

An hour later, the bar was empty except for UB and Okie, who were cleaning up after close. I snuck back into the back room and opened the bottom drawer of the desk. I fished through the drawer and then looked through the rest of the desk, but I found nothing. The keys were gone.

I hadn’t ventured back out to the junkyard, but I’d be willing to bet that the car was gone, too.

I was suddenly filled with an absolute and consuming rage, a fireball that erupted and rolled within my chest. How could they do that to him? Snuff him out so completely? Was he dead before the train hit, or just unconscious? How did it all go down?

In addition to the rage, I felt something else, a deep and profound sense of gratitude. Somehow Bonnie had recognized the danger, and he had kept my name out of it. One of his last acts on this earth had been to protect me.

An unopened bottle of Four Roses was sitting on the desk. I grabbed it, and walked out the front door towards Bonnie’s house. When I arrived at the wrastle castle, I was struck by the awful serenity. This place had always been so alive, and now sat completely quiet, all the inhabitants moved away or dead.

I sat in his living room in the dark, drinking the bottle of Four Roses straight, tasting the burn of each and every sip, the Eagles’ ’Hotel California was running through my head as I sat in the darkness.

...Some dance to remember, Some dance to forget…

I’m not sure what I was doing on that night. Was I trying to remember, or to forget? Either way, it didn’t really matter. There was only me, and the darkness, and that bottle. That’s all that was left.

I drank until the sun cracked through the windows and three-quarters of the bottle was gone, then I slipped back on the couch and fell into a deep sleep.

Sometime late morning, I woke on the couch with a pounding headache, the mostly empty bottle on the floor next to a sizable pile of vomit. It wasn’t the first time I’d thrown up at the wrastle castle, but it was quite possibly the worst I’d felt.

I stumbled into the bathroom, and cleaned the mess off my face. It was hard looking into the reflection. I was no stranger to guilt or loss, but the closet seemed to be filling with more skeletons that I could bare. First Brisby, then Bonnie—two deaths that landed squarely on my shoulders. I hadn’t pulled the trigger, but I had helped set the events in motion, and I was the only one who knew. The only one who even seemed to suspect the truth.

A dangerous thought occurred to me, and I pulled my wallet from my back pocket. After a few moments of searching, I found it.

Detective Reed Thorn, Homicide Investigator.

I’m not really sure why I kept the card. Maybe even then I knew—some tiny, quiet voice in the back of my mind that suspected Whistler or Karl all along.

I looked at the card intently, took a deep a breath, and dialed the number.

I had to leave a message, but Detective Ratso called me back within the hour. “Yes,” he said. “I’m very interested to hear what you have to say.”

I couldn’t believe the change in his voice. The subtle air of condescension and arrogance slipped out of his voice immediately when I said that I wanted to talk, as if he had flipped the switch on the asshole cop power unit. I couldn’t tell if that made me feel more or less secure. If he could put the mask on and off with such ease, then which was the real face?

We set a meeting time for that afternoon, which left me with several anxious hours to second-guess my decision. If sleeping with Caroline on the night that she had broken up with Karl was disloyal, this was an outright betrayal. I had no doubts, logically at least, that I was doing the right thing, but that didn’t make me feel any less shitty. Even if you are breaking an oath with liars and killers, you’re still left with the certain and unassailable notion that you have broken a bond. That is a bitter pill to swallow no matter what the circumstances.

At roughly 3:15, a full forty-five minutes after I was scheduled to meet with Ratso, the same female uniformed officer led me back to the same exact conference room that I had sat in before. The room still smelled of stale coffee and body odor, a smell that reminded me of a lounge area at an all-night truck stop.

I waited for another half-hour before the door finally opened. Though I was expecting to see Ratso and his high-pitched friend, a man that I had never seen before walked into the room and sat in the chair on the other side of the table.

For a full two minutes, the man stared at me and said nothing. His appearance was fierce and unsettling, with sharp, vaguely Puerto Rican features and a dark, black goatee, offset by dull, blue-green eyes. The man was a peculiar amalgam of physical traits.

The jarring effect of his appearance was only heightened by his strange, tight-lipped smile. The forced, seemingly permanent grin left me with the impression that I was looking at a puppet or some kind of ventriloquist dummy.

“Where is Ra…I mean detective Thorn?” I asked.

“Detective Thorn has been reassigned,” the man said.

“But I just spoke to him this morning…”

He kept staring at me with his dull eyes and forced smile.

“What about his partner…Radison or Radke or whatever?”

“Radwine,” he said. “Also reassigned.”

A horrible feeling of nausea lurched up in my belly. I wasn’t thrilled about confiding in Ratso, but there was no way I was going to put my faith in this strange-looking man that I just met.

“But I spoke with Detective Thorn this afternoon, he said you had urgent news about an ongoing investigation? The death of a misses Angela…um, excuse me…” he shuffled through a stack of papers in front of him. “Yes, a Miss Angela Frinke?”

I shook my head slowly, returning the gaze of the mysterious detective. “No,” I said. “I think I was…I mean, I think this was a mistake.”

The detective tried to soften his smile a bit more, somehow making his appearance even more grotesque and cartoonish. He reached out and grabbed my wrist, dropping his voice an octave lower and adopting a smooth, soothing tone.

“It’s ok,” he said. “I’m here to help.”

He continued to stare at me with his funhouse grin for several minutes before I finally pulled my hand away abruptly. “No,” I said, “I’d like to go.”

Suddenly, the man’s grin twisted into a snarl. He kept gazing at me with those blue-green eyes as he chuckled slowly to himself. “So you don’t want to talk about Francis Patterson?” he asked. “Or, wait, that’s not what you call him…Whistler, right? You don’t want to talk about Whistler?”

I shook my head slowly back and forth, which only made the snarl grow deeper, revealing a set of dull, yellow teeth. Whoever this man was, he did not seem interested in helping me at all. The fact that I had never mentioned Whistler’s name was unsettling, but what was worse was the way he said the name. It was almost reverent.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Would you feel more comfortable outside? Maybe take a drive? I’ll bet we could find a really nice place to park and chat. We could finish the conversation there?”

I immediately felt as though the tiny room were shrinking, the walls closing in from all sides. I shoved my palms down on the table and began to push myself up to walk out, when the puppet-man stood abruptly.

In a flash of movement, the detective reached out, grabbed me by the collar, and slammed my face into the table. I felt a rush of pain burst through my temple, and my eyes grew blurry with tears.

“Oh, come on now,” he said, slapping me sharply in the face. “You don’t need to pass out. That was just a little attention getter.” He snapped his fingers in front of my eyes. “Come on. That’s it, stay with me now.”

I leaned back in the chair and tried to clear the cobwebs from my skull. I should have known to expect something unexpected. How could I be this stupid?

The man leaned back and straightened out his black suit with the palms of his hands. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I don’t really like the unpleasantness, but I needed to make sure that I have your attention,” he said.

I looked blearily up at the corner of the room, near the ceiling. A small, boxy security camera stuck out from the wall.

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” he said, playfully tapping my hand. “Those are turned off for our privacy. It’s just you and me.” He leaned back in his chair and yawned in a dramatic, exaggerated movement. “Now,” he continued, “what we have here is a little breakdown in communication.” He leaned forward to look deep into my eyes. When he was sure that I was paying attention, he leaned back again. “You might think of me as an interpreter of some kind.”

He looked at me again and then shook his head slightly.

“You’re not following,” he said. “Let me try to put this another way.” I got the feeling that the whole speech was pre-rehearsed. Maybe this wasn’t even the first time he’d given it. “I’m here to deliver a message. Is that clearer?”

I shook my head slowly, wary of him striking out again.

“Ok, great,” he said, with almost chipper sincerity. “You will say nothing about Angela Frinke,” he continued, leveling his gaze. “Nor will you speak about any other suspicions you may or may not have.”

If the parked car comment earlier wasn’t clear enough, the man was making it absolutely obvious that he was also aware of my questions surrounding Bonnie’s death.

He leaned forward and grabbed my hand again, this time gripping my wrist in a painful, biting pinch. “You can’t prove anything anyway,” he said in a whisper. “The evidence you think you found is gone, but…” he suddenly threw a finger into the air, as if he had been struck by abrupt inspiration. “There’s always a chance we could find other evidence, right? I mean, you never know what we might dig up, right?” He leaned across the desk, his face close enough that I could smell a burst of rotten garlic on his breath. “We could start on the Audubon Society grounds. I hear they’re lovely this time of year.”

He leaned back and straightened his suit again.

Whistler had always talked of contacts, and Bonnie had mentioned the accuracy and detail of Whistler’s little files. Still, staring at the drastic face of the man in front of me, it was hard to put it all into perspective. Was he even a detective? He had to be if he was interviewing me here. Even more disturbing, this man, or someone else, had managed to pull Ratso and his partner completely off the case.

“Ok,” he said finally. “I think we’re done here. Let me show you out, Mr. Kauffman.”

The mysterious detective led me out to a side door, which opened out to the parking lot. The clouds in the sky had cleared, and I was struck by the vibrant beauty of the day, which seemed an odd juxtaposition to the dreary conference room. As we hit the door, he gave me a final little shove.

“Don’t forget what we talked about, you hear?”

The door slammed shut with a resounding metal clank, and I found myself standing alone in the parking lot. I looked around, dazed for a moment, then I reached into my pocket, turned off my cell phone, and sprinted towards my truck.

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