A Gob Of Establishment Slime
“Are you Detective Michael Fontanel?”
The black woman who steps out of the Escalade is taller than me (not by much), of average weight, sports a charcoal suit, and wears her hair in the expedient pixy cut of someone with places to be. Because of the tinted windows I can’t confirm whether she is alone.
“Mickey’s fine,” I answer, aware of how cautious I sound.
She puts out her hand, while the other extracts her FBI credentials. “I’m Agent Rousseau, with the Milwaukee division.”
“How are you guys holding up in the basement?”
“Sufficiently.” Despite her terseness, her eyes contain an element of humor. “I was led to understand you’re the one who apprehended Devon Maguire yesterday.”
“He came quite willingly, believe it or not.”
“I believe it. His alibis all check out. We were able to track down Elise Van Driest. She more or less corroborated everything he had to say.”
“Sorry for still having my doubts.” I have to shout, as the approaching train at last comes squealing into the depot fifty yards away. “If Devon is uninvolved, then he’s the victim of very poor timing!”
“Agreed!” she yells back. “It’s still too early to absolve him with certainty, but there’s not enough to go on holding him! He was released into his father’s custody an hour ago! We also unearthed an Army mandate that he undergo psychiatric treatment!”
“No kidding! He about went to pieces in the back of my cruiser!” I point farther up the service road. “Right over there! I feel bad for the guy, don’t get me wrong, but he makes me very uneasy! Tell me you’re tailing him at least!”
“Of course! And he’s under a strict injunction not to leave town until the investigation closes!”
She wants to know what new leads I’m following out here, so I give her a rundown of the connection between Khadija and the homeless. What else can I do? The Feds have obviously assigned me a babysitter. She squints when she wants to make clear that she’s listening intently, giving small nods, never breaking eye contact. I can already assume she must be an effective interrogator. How long did they grill Devon and the Plymouth girl, Elise, down in that dungeon? Whom else have they spoken to? Has word circulated yet that the FBI is trawling around little Judson Bottom?
“Very fine police work,” Rousseau commends me. I try not to hear the condescension. “Where does your hunch point you next?”
I have to improvise an answer on the spot, because frankly, with Devon out of the picture, I’m feeling a little without a paddle, a little thrown off course. “Naomi Epstein is my best resource now. She was the last one to see Khadija as far as we know. She’s also her best friend, so plausibly the one who knows the most about her.”
Rousseau rifles through her mental notes. “This is the young woman who reported Khadija missing?”
“Right. I haven’t spoken to her since. I’m not sure anyone has.”
“Well, I happen to pride myself on knowing how to speak with teenage girls.” She smiles, and it’s a holistic smile that changes her entire face. “It’s a delicate art form, you’ll agree. Maybe you would be open to me tagging along?”
“I’m open to all the help I can get.” Of course, we both sense this is a half-truth.
I radio in for an address to the Epstein residence. Rousseau agrees to follow me there. When I look through my windshield at the willow tree, I see that our loitering has made Jeff and Nancy nervous. They’ve packed up their blanket and vanished, twenty dollars between them burning a hole in their pocket.
The Epsteins live in another elegantly named subdivision, Valhalla Springs. This time, though, unlike Juniper Heights, it has the wealth and class to back up its appellation. The manors are spaced far apart on large rolling lots. Landscaping vans abound, parked in semi-circle driveways. White-clad crews maintain the many gardens and ponds.
Naomi’s father, Clifford Epstein, is one half of the Dowell & Epstein law firm. Her mother, Marguerite, owns an interior decorating business in Sheboygan with a small working staff. Rousseau’s Escalade follows me into the driveway, paved around a lush topiary at its heart. The house is a two-story “cottage” in style, but to give some idea of the size, there are five dormer windows and two chimneys jutting from the mansard. Skeins of ivy cling to a stone façade. The yard, flawless like a Scottish putting green, lies punctuated here and there by abstract sculptures and bulbous, ornamental trees.
As we approach the honey-stained door, inlaid with a cut-glass mosaic, we exchange tacit looks of amazement. I assume the Bureau doesn’t pay pittance, however, so she could be playacting humility for my benefit, with a house just like this waiting for her somewhere. Butterflies and hummingbirds congregate, as if they too, like the landscapers, are being bankrolled by Clifford Epstein. A babbling Koi pond off to the side creates a noise-canceling ambiance. Piebald fish, orange and ivory, flick their tails in the blue-dyed water.
Naomi herself answers the door, wearing a light cotton dress that ties at the neck over her swimsuit. We greet each other. I introduce Agent Rousseau and ask Naomi whether she is home alone. Her father is working, she says, and her mother is upstairs taking a nap. She invites us out back by the pool, where she can reclaim the mesh recliner from which we roused her, a magazine and beverage within arm’s reach. I remain standing. Rousseau perches sideways on a hot pink recliner, facing Naomi. She doesn’t waste time extolling the perfect grounds or attempting to make pleasantries. She more or less digs right in, asking how long Naomi has known Khadija.
“Oh, gosh. Since grade school. Probably since kindergarten. We became friends in second or third grade, before any of us knew what a Muslim was. Her parents never made her wear that hijab thing because they were worried about her getting picked on. That was a constant worry for them, I think.”
Beyond the enormous oblong pool, complete with diving board, the yard extends to a tree-shaded area. Between the trunks I catch glimpses of sparkling water, a boat shed nearby. We are right on the river. This is the sort of friend every kid dreams of having: the Richie Rich with the pool and the boat and the parents who are almost never in the picture.
“Can you recall any instances where Khadija was teased or victimized about her faith?” As I suspected, tagging along has turned into hijacking the interrogation.
Naomi answers, “I remember during Ramadan people always thought she’d developed an eating disorder because she wouldn’t eat her lunches. It got to where she would just avoid the cafeteria rather than explain the holiday.” She snaps on a pair of zebra-print sunglasses. Inside her right forearm, I notice a tattoo. It depicts Thumper, the cartoon rabbit from the Disney film, Bambi. “Katie went through a phase where she chose to wear the hijab. I think she would’ve worn the full burka, or whatever you call it, if she could’ve got her hands on one.”
“Was that owed to growing confidence?”
“More like defiance. There was a lot of Muslim-bashing going on. Combine that with teenage angst? Yeah, it was a political statement, even though Katie has never been a political person.”
“How did your peers respond to this?”
“People wouldn’t say much to her face, but you could see it in their eyes. You could hear the whispers. I remember someone’s parent actually complained to the principal, so he got on the phone with the Mubaraks and very carefully reminded them that it was a secular public school where everyone was made to feel comfortable. Javaria asked him if the kids were prohibited from wearing crosses and crucifixes and all that. I think he pretty much dropped the issue. Principal Marlow is a very image-conscious guy. So no, to answer your question, there was nothing too vicious she had to put up with. Ismael got it loads worse than her.”
“Yeah, because he would pray. He would pray twice during the school day.”
“In public? Where other kids could see him?”
“At first he prayed in the hallway, or on the floor of the cafeteria, off in the corner alone. But he paid a penalty for that. A few assholes threw food at him, I remember, so eventually one of the teachers let him use an empty classroom. That was the school’s way of sweeping that hot-button issue under the rug.” She makes a sweeping gesture in the air with both hands, as if shooing away a mangy dog.
“Would Khadija stand up for her brother? Did she ever pick a fight defending him? Maybe create an enemy or two?”
“A couple arguments, now that you mention it. Yeah, she felt very protective over him, but that changed as they grew apart, as he got older and started lifting weights. He could handle himself.”
“Of course.” Rousseau clears her throat in a way that signals her next question will be considerably more invasive. “Naomi, you only have to help us inasmuch as you’re comfortable, but it’s important for us to get an honest understanding of Khadija’s life. To your knowledge, was she sexually active?”
Watching Naomi grimace, I find that all of a sudden I begrudgingly appreciate Rousseau’s presence. It’s hard to imagine myself out here alone with Ms. Epstein, summoning the temerity to ask the same question. “Her parents would go ballistic if they knew,” she prefaces. “I mean ballistic, that’s not even an exaggeration.”
“This is all in confidence,” Rousseau assures tenderly. “Not a word of this goes beyond me, a few select members of my team, and Detective Fontanel here.”
Naomi examines me up and down behind her sunglasses, probably surmising from all the town hearsay that I’m no freshman at keeping secrets, carnal or otherwise. “Devon was her first,” she says.
“Okay, and when did the two of them start dating?” Rousseau wants to know.
After thinking for a moment, she answers, “The summer between ninth and tenth grade. He had a summer job with a construction company. They were doing some work on her block tearing up the sidewalk. She just stared out her window for two whole days, I swear. Finally she went over and offered them something to drink. After that, they would talk to each other in the hallways. Found out they had stuff in common.”
“Was he a good boyfriend, by your estimation?” Rousseau asks.
“I think so. He had a lot of girls trailing after him, but it seemed like he couldn’t care less. He’s an athlete. Football, basketball, soccer. Not the sort of dude Katie had ever expressed interest in. But she claims he has a sweet side, an artsy side. It’s hard, because they can’t go on normal dates. They had to really scheme to see each other outside of school. Romeo and Juliet, I called them.”
“Because of . . ?”
“Yeah, because of her upbringing. Her parents don’t want her dating.” Naomi puts her following statement in air quotes. “They forbid it.”
“I assume Katie resents them for this.” Rousseau adjusts her center of gravity on the tipsy recliner. “Has she mentioned whether they ever fought over the matter?”
“Katie respects her parents. She doesn’t like to talk back to them. But there was this one time when Devon asked her to a school dance—I mean really pressured her. He just wanted to be in a normal relationship. So she went without telling them. I was normally the excuse, the alibi, whenever she and Devon wanted to hang out. Unfortunately, one of the parent chaperones snapped a picture of her kid dancing and posted it on Facebook. She just happened to be friends with Javaria, and guess who else happened to be dancing in the background? I’ll never forget it. Personally, if that had been me, I’d be scarred for life. I was so embarrassed for her.”
“What happened?” Rousseau adopts the role of a gossip-starved valley girl, leaning in for the full juicy rundown before the bell announces them tardy. Naomi seems to buy this transformation, at least on a subliminal level. Her speech becomes more animated. She appears to let down her guard and gesticulate with her hands, using more informal verbiage. Having accepted my ancillary role, I remain on the outskirts, an inanimate and unassuming shrub with a badge.
“Nadeem stormed in there. It was straight out of Romeo and Juliet, I swear to God. He walked onto the dance floor and ripped them apart, started screaming in Devon’s face, saying not to touch his daughter again or he’d file a restraining order and shit like that. I mean, dude just went completely off the handle. Every time Katie tried to interrupt, he would yell at her to be quiet. Devon didn’t like that. He stood his ground. That just made things all the more intense. Everyone was waiting for Nadeem to throw a punch. Instead he more or less dragged her out of there and grounded her for about a month. Took away her phone, her computer. Outside of school it was like she had died.”
Rousseau goes on soliciting details, but I’m personally dumbfounded by what I’m hearing, envisioning Nadeem in such a rage. It seems at total odds with the man I know, the man of staid emotions, conservative self-control. Everyone has a sore spot, and for him it was someone dating his gorgeous daughter. For him it was the inevitable. Parents are always investigated when their offspring goes missing, that’s protocol. But I had never thought to prioritize Nadeem and Javaria until now. Could there have been an argument? Over Devon? Maybe she knew of his impending army discharge. Maybe she confronted her father, told him something he didn’t want to hear, that they were in love, that they were going to get married and move away together. I don’t know. All I can do is book another session with Devon and Nadeem, respectively.
“Speaking of that,” Naomi says. “I don’t know what her parents told you, but Katie was grounded when she and I snuck off to that party at Chad’s.”
“This is not uncommon then, for her to be in hot water at home?”
“Well, pretty uncommon actually. Like I said, she legit cares about her parents’ wishes or whatever, but not when it comes to Devon.” Naomi slurps from her mystery beverage on hand. It might explain her sedate ability to talk through the crisis. Ice rattles in the cup, advertising some Wisconsin Dells attraction. She draws the pink bendy straw from her plum-glossed lips and continues, “In this case, she came clean about something that, in my opinion, she should’ve kept secret.”
Rousseau nods expectantly.
“A couple of weeks ago, we went out and got tattoos.”
“Tattoos,” the Agent echoes. “I’m sure that went over well.”
Naomi gives a deadpan laugh. “Especially considering what she got.” She demonstrates by reaching across her chest to touch her own left shoulder blade. “Devon’s name inked here.”
And there’s the argument, I’m forced to acknowledge. The red flags are enough to incite a herd of bulls. There’s the ingredient that could’ve mechanized Nadeem into a rash, illogical fury. Still, I hesitate to use the word “motive.” We are talking about a tattoo, after all.
“I tried talking her out of it,” Naomi goes on. “I was actually the voice of reason for once. I mean, I thought she should get a tat if she wanted one, but personally I would never get a guy’s name put on me, not even if we were married. I think she was starting to feel a little insecure about their relationship. He hadn’t written her in awhile. She never complained about it, but I knew, because the letters went through me and I hand-delivered them. Just another weird precaution. So I think she had to prove to herself they were still . . . she uses the term ‘soul mates’ a lot. She’s smart as a whip, Katie, but she can be a little too passionate for her own good. I can’t picture Devon ever saying ‘soul mates.’ Anyway, she went through with it. She couldn’t be sidetracked. And she seemed really pleased with the result. I know the artist, Ted. He always does really good work. So we go back out to the car—her car—and pull out. Next thing we know, this fucking Buick comes out of nowhere and smashes her tail light.”
Rousseau interjects. “Can you recall the exact date all of this transpired?”
Naomi thinks for a moment. “I’d have to look back in my calendar.”
“Okay, we’ll do that later. So what happened with this Buick?” Rousseau throws me a fleeting look, as if to say we’ve really hit the jackpot coming here. Even if none of this intel, in the end, connects to Khadija’s disappearance, at the very least we’re being treated to an intimate and articulate profile.
“What happened is Katie about had a panic attack. She read divine intervention into the whole thing. She thought it was karma. She thought she was being punished for desecrating herself, for dishonoring her parents. I tried explaining it was just some junky in a rush to get her methadone fix. There’s a clinic on the other side of the parking lot. The woman who hit us, she had a toddler strapped in the backseat. She was a wreck, a real piece of work, begging us not to call the cops. She swore her dad could fix the damage. She even sent him a picture of Katie’s fender and got him on the phone. In the end, that’s what happened.” Naomi takes a deep breath to replenish the flow of oxygen to her brain. Beads of sweat have begun percolating on her forehead. “Once again I was trying to talk some sense. I had my phone out, I was ready to get the cops, but Khadija decided the damage wasn’t too bad. She let the chick’s dad fix it up. No cops involved. No insurance swapped. I guess he did an alright job.”
“Do you have names for these people? Either the girl or her father?”
“The girl’s name was Alexis, as in Alexis Gimbe.” An odd smile plays at her lips. “I had to laugh when I heard.”
“Because her dad is The Cannibal, of all people.”
Rousseau frowns, exhibiting impatience for the first time.
“Cronus the Cannibal,” I explain, serving some purpose at last. Naomi nods in affirmation. “—He’s something of a hometown celebrity.”
I have one source for my dirt on Herschel Gimbe. That source is Gian D’Amato, co-founder of the Riotville motorcycle club, so not exactly an iron-clad informant. I could look up Gimbe’s record on my own anytime I wanted but I’ve never been altogether curious. He had a rambunctious adolescence, like most of us. I know he was picked up in his teens for cultivating a sizable marijuana patch alongside a handful of illegal aliens. The whole operation was directed by gangsters who were freighting it to Chicago. According to Gian (and local lore backs him up on this), the judge said young Herschel showed charisma and had merely fallen in with a bad crowd. It couldn’t have hurt that Josiah Gimbe, his father, was the Judson Bottom postmaster and cavorted with his share of aldermen and city board members on the fairway.
The illegals were all routinely deported.
Back when I first came to Judson, people would point out Herschel like a Hollywood starlet. He was usually cruising around town on his Fat Boy. I have never met the man personally, as in shook his hand and struck up a conversation, but we have enough mutual acquaintances that we are well aware of each other. I’m fairly certain of that. He and Gian started riding together shortly after I left Riotville.
It’s true that Gavin and I would follow his matches religiously back in junior high—Cronus versus the Iron Sheik, or King Kong Bundy—so it’s funny that I’ve never been tempted to introduce myself or ask for an autograph. Neither has Gavin urged me to obtain one. Some people refuse to shed those interests, retaining a little piece of their impressionable youth. Others, like Gavin and me, try to laugh about them from the smug bastion called adulthood. But then—I’m shitting myself, aren’t I?
It’s Gian who deters me from approaching the Cannibal, or the knowledge of their association and the way Herschel’s opinion of me must be poisonously skewed. I actually forbade Bruno from watching wrestling, not because I worried about his being desensitized, but because I wanted to shield him from all allusions to the Cannibal’s legacy. What if Bruno should want to meet him? What if Herschel turned him down, telling him it was all my fault, that his daddy was a turncoat, a gob of establishment slime, and started hurling insults at me right in front of my son? Then I would be obliged by well-founded masculine tenets to go toe-to-toe with a former pro wrestler. Even if the whole sport is fake, an undertaking like that doesn’t make my bucket list.
Therefore I have stayed away from Gimbe’s lumberyard, settling for Menards in the next town over.
Therefore I have deprived Bruno of a childhood enriched by thematic violence.
In the early Riotville days, it was a ritual thing for me to get piss drunk at our little socials, too drunk to ride home. Nobody else had much scruples about it, but then they weren’t officers of the law. My job came first, so I wasn’t above calling Rhonda for a lift. Only once did Gian get so tanked that he agreed to leave his Harley locked up at The Fort overnight and accept a ride home. Rhonda arrived in her little Toyota. Gian pitched himself into the backseat head-on, both of us stinking like cigarettes and beer, the yellow-windowed bar still throbbing with party sounds in the heat of the dark wood.
“Let’s ride out to Newburg and meet Poggs for the Oil Can Harry show,” Gian managed to slur, once he had hoisted himself upright. “Rhonda, lemme buy you a drink.”
She was always polite to the crew, and I commanded enough respect as co-founder and Vice President that nobody said within earshot what they really thought of my hot little Mexican wife. Instead I would get lots of lecherously coded “you’re a lucky man” comments, accompanied by devious eyebrow acrobatics. “A very lucky man.”
“Bruno’s at home all alone,” Rhonda smiled into the rearview mirror, as though touched by his invitation. “I didn’t want to wake him.”
“He’s what, almost ten? That’s a man in my book.” Gian laughed in his peculiar way that could at once feel belligerent and good-natured. People always wondered what he really thought of them, he was so dichotomous, so bipolar in a sense. I would tell them, if you’re the sort of person who worries what Gian thinks of you, he probably doesn’t like you.
“Still, it makes me nervous.” Rhonda put her hand on the shifter. She was dressed like a woman who had rushed out in the middle of the night, the way women are dressed in ER waiting rooms at one in the morning.
“Absolutely nothing to be fucking nervous about!” Gian bellowed, but he kept smiling. You know those people who smile when they’re pissed so they can refute any allegations of being pissed. “If you’re nervous, you need a drink. That’s my motto.”
“Thanks for that, Confucius,” I pitched in, shrugging at Rhonda in a what-a-guy sort of way. “You just worry about not puking on the seat.”
He was rummaging around back there, searching his pockets for something, bobbing and lurching the whole car. “I never fucking puke. Tell you what, I’ll call Poggs and tell him we’re coming.”
“But we’re not coming,” I said. “Don’t lie to the man.”
“Come on, Fonty, don’t be a fag. One beer!”
“Newburg is twenty fucking miles out of the way!”
Gian’s head appeared between the front seats like a cuckoo clock. He breathed in Rhonda’s face, “If you floor it, honey, we can make it in ten minutes flat.” His lip curled whenever he’d had too much to drink. That was his own strange tell. And in the green glare of the dashboard light he resembled an ogre.
Rhonda kept her cool. “I doubt there’s still a band playing this late.”
“You know the quickest way to get there, don’t you?” He lugged his arm forward, pointing unsteadily out the windshield. “I usually take LL past that Millersville gas station, then hook it right on County C. The sheriffs never bother prowling out that way.”
“Gian, give it a rest,” I moaned into the window, enjoying its cool conchy smoothness against my forehead, like a shell buffed by the sea, watching my breath cloud the pane and muddle the lights beyond. “Meet up with that asshole some other night.”
“You’re torched, son.” He punched me hard in the shoulder with that dumb fucking signet ring he always wore. It hurt like hell, but I pretended not to notice, which was a mistake, because then he just did it twice. “Look at you. It’s too early to be like that. You’re torched. And I’ll tell you what, you’re fucking whipped too.”
"He’s whipped?” Rhonda laughed before I could muster my own defense. “I’m the one who dragged myself out of the house at this crazy hour.”
He responded by beating a tempo on her headrest, hard enough to make her head rattle with each blow, and meanwhile (you can’t make this shit up) chanting like an impudent child: “New-burg! New-burg! New-burg!”
“Gian—” I swallowed an excess of saliva. “Get out and take your fucking bike home. Crash into a ditch for all I care.”
He collapsed backward, mercifully ending his percussive protest. “Ah, shit on both of yous.” It sounded like the sort of thing someone says right before they get out of the car, but he just went on sitting there, quiet at last. Rhonda exhaled through her nostrils, shifted into drive. We were moving. I rolled down my window. What I should have done was turn up the radio. Over the wind in the trees, and our tires crunching across gravel, Gian muttered at the perfect decibel level to break through the white noise, “—marry a spic.”
The beginning of the statement was unintelligible, but those three words leapt out. In my periphery, I saw Rhonda stiffen. Her arms went rigid like a second steering column. I watched myself not reacting, first for one second (building up my rage), then another (there’s still time), then another (better make it good), until the deadline passed and there was no hope of a rebuttal that did not echo absurd. I was not in the mindset for a fight, clearly, otherwise it would have been reflexive, impetuous. All I wanted was to sleep and for everyone to stop talking. So later on that night, I claimed I hadn’t heard.
Rhonda knew better of course. She called me a slew of emasculating terms that women keep locked up behind glass like a fire alarm. IN CASE OF EMERGENCY. MAY NOT BE UNSAID. At the time it seemed like a hiccup, a moment of spinelessness on my part. In retrospect I see it as the instant where two of my life lines chafed together and started to fray: the one attached to Riotville and the one attached to Rhonda. I ultimately made the right choice and ditched Riotville, but like all reparations, almost by definition, it amounted to too little too late.
I park across the street from Herschel’s business. Rousseau’s vehicle sidles in close behind mine. This is what it must feel like to be paranoid on acid, seeing the FBI every time you check your rearview mirror.
We are in the heart of Judson Bottom’s downtown, a downtown like so many others, with an aura of painstakingly preserved history. A painted advertisement for Tide detergent is so faded that it looks like a weak slideshow projection on the brick exterior of a pizza parlor. Across the street from the Eustace Rutherford Library sits a vacant lot churned apart by bulldozers, circumscribed by orange plastic fencing. Once a dwindling strip mall stood here. Now it will host the very latest in a slew of new condos meant to house Judson’s growing population. Beyond that lay Herberger’s department store, employer of Meredith Strauss and—once upon a time—Alister Padula.
A flagpole clamors outside Wells Fargo and a rural-smelling wind cannonballs down the avenue, upsetting pedestrians, adding a slant to their walk, pulling at their shopping bags from the various niche boutiques that have cropped up around town, urbane and impermanent. The bars along the strip are open as well, and it’s clear who has been patronizing them: the ones most shoddily dressed, with no shopping bags to speak of, the ones with an unfocused squint in their eyes from being jettisoned into the sun-drenched streets.
Rousseau and I cross the road. We enter Gimbe’s Handcrafted Cabinetry and Lumberyard. It entails a two-story office building attached to a large garage, the overhead door of which is open, serving as a workshop where the goods are assembled in full view of curious passersby. An electronic chime (bee-boo) signals our arrival into the office, which in itself is more of a functional workspace than an inviting lobby. Blueprints, order forms, mislaid tools crowd every inch of free space. Sawdust seems to pepper every surface, cycling through the air like ash during a wildfire. A radio buried somewhere in the morass plays Rush Limbaugh. Out back, through an open screen door, I can hear a large diesel machine guttering.
We call hello a few times and get no reception, so Rousseau and I head for the screen door. Out back, Herschel’s lot extends clear to the next street. It is a veritable mausoleum of lumber, organized on free-standing iron shelving units, categorized by wood type and cut size. A young man seated in the cage of a forklift is in the middle of using his hydraulic blades to lower a pallet of 4x4s from an uppermost shelf. Expertly, with no more than an inch to spare, he then eases the pallet into an open space beneath the shelves, well within reach for future use. From a safe distance, we wave to get his attention. Rousseau already has her badge out.
The young man disengages the forklift, yanks the emergency brake, and unbuckles himself with the textbook movements of an OSHA instructor. He then clambers out of the cage in blue jeans and steel-toe boots, wiping his dusty work gloves together, removing his safety goggles and letting them hang from a cord around his neck. He sports a bushy black beard not dissimilar to his employer’s, broad shoulders, musclebound arms. The beginnings of a paunch poke through his T-shirt. I wouldn’t be altogether surprised to learn this is Herschel’s long lost bastard.
“How can I help you folks?” he calls. As he nears, I realize his beard is not black and bushy but silky, the color of rich, stained mahogany, clearly maintained with a degree of TLC.
“We’re looking for Herschel,” I say. “Is he in?”
The young man shakes his head, addressing Rousseau rather than me. “Sorry, he’s at a convention right now. Will be for the next three days. I would say I can help you, but I get the impression you’re not here to place an order.”
“I’m Agent Rousseau from the FBI, this is Detective Fontanel. We’re investigating the absence of a local woman, and we just wanted to ask him a few questions. We have reason to believe he did some work on her car three weeks ago. It’s not much of a lead, but we hoped he might’ve noticed something out of the ordinary.”
“Sure, sure,” the young man nods, as if all of this sounds perfectly blasé and normal. “Do you want the address of where he’s at? It’s not far. Just down in Brookfield.”
“That would be great,” I say, perhaps a little too forcefully, just to get the kid to meet my eye for half a second, which he does. He leads us back inside the building, holding the door cordially. Rousseau asks what sort of convention Mr. Gimbe is attending.
“Wrestling of course, ma’am. He’ll never get sick of it, not even when he’s ninety. It’s in a hotel ballroom. A lot of times these things are. Holiday Inn, I think he said. He gets asked to do these public spots all the time. Sign autographs, photo ops, all that crap.”
He scours the counter space, shuffling articles left and right, peeking in drawers, paging through overstuffed three-ring binders. He even resorts to tilting a wood-base paper trimmer with a guillotine blade to peer underneath it. By then I am starting to feel pretty hopeless about the whole venture, when suddenly he snaps his fingers in revelation and strides over to a bulletin board hung beneath a mounted walleye. He untacks a Post-It from the hectic collage and hands it to me in triumph. “There you go. I can give you his cell, too, if you like.”
He recites the number from his contacts and I copy it down onto the same Post-It, using the side of a filing cabinet littered with business magnets as a flat surface.
“He might be too busy to answer his phone. He doesn’t like to detract himself from his fans. I swear, he thinks of these things like family reunions, seeing all his old rivals and tag-teamers again. I’ve been meaning to join him one of these times. Sounds like… well, it sounds like something to see.”
“I’m sure it is,” Rousseau puts out her hand. “Thanks for all your help, Mr.—?”
“I’m Liam. You can tell him Liam sent you.” Still grinning broadly, he puts up his own gloved hands. “I won’t get you all filthy, ma’am, but I really do hope this lady of yours turns up and Herschel can help in some way.”
“So do we.”
Pocketing the Post-It, I echo Rousseau’s thanks and follow her toward the front door. In passing, I receive a slap on the shoulder. I turn to see Liam give me a parting wink. “Take ’er easy, Detective.”
A noisy gaggle of geese soar in V formation across the sky. Skipping town early? Can’t say I blame them. I stand at the curb, brushing sawdust from my shoulder, squinting past the sun’s rays to study their flight pattern. Rousseau wastes no time in pulling out her cell. She gets on the line with her supervisor, Pedroza, whom I remember Wojcik describing (with guarded jealously) as a real “commando.”
“—Brookfield, right, so about an hour,” she summates into the phone, checking her wristwatch. “Alright, I’ll ask him.” Then, as an aside to me, “Are you open to taking a little drive?”
“I think that’s outside my jurisdiction.”
She gives me a reproachful look. “Not mine.”
“We’ll be around to drop off the cruiser,” Rousseau addresses both of us this time. She is quiet through Pedroza’s response, her eyes darting around the street in a perfunctory way that makes me feel like a politician with a bodyguard. “Yes. Understood.” She hangs up and is already halfway across the street before I realize we are moving out.