Lay Me Out, Motherfucker
I don’t know how long we wait in the stale little room. Flowers on the wallpaper. Furniture whose cushions feel like burlap wrapped around cardboard. A coffee dispenser that makes the Torké back at Judson PD taste like quality espresso. And everywhere crucifixes, stained glass, intimations of Christ. We are in what the sign by the doorway designates a “Family Room” in the trauma ward at Columbia St. Mary’s, waiting for Herschel Gimbe to be able to say the alphabet.
Rousseau scrolls through her phone, taking advantage of the hiatus to manage work correspondence. I play with my wristwatch, trying not to count the seconds, trying to quell the growing certainty that this is a waste of time. Herschel might ride around with a bunch of Confederate-clad bikers, sure, but he’s nowhere near the level of suspicion as Devon, or even Hawaii. That’s who we should be out looking for, channeling FBI resources while we still have the opportunity.
Anyway, all of Rousseau’s thumb pecking is making me anxious, that and the woebegone young couple across the room. They have to be in their twenties pushing thirty. The man has been in tears most of the time, not bawling but weeping as stoically as he can, while the woman rests her head on his shoulder, massaging his arm, her own eyes glistening. Rousseau gets up presently and says she’s going to ask again about Gimbe’s condition. Only fifteen minutes have passed since her last inquiry.
Somehow, with Rousseau gone, I feel like an intruder. I get up and walk to the window, giving the young couple some semblance of privacy, watching the ant people scurry around the parking lot. I can’t stop replaying the mad, pathetic scene we witnessed at the Holiday Inn. The men like baked lobsters, their old flesh awkwardly distended, their bowlegged struts and groin-enhancing tights. Waxed, plucked, oiled, bronzed. I remember the standby EMT in his yellow shirt hopping into the ring with ten times more agility than any of the so-called star attractions. He performed tests on Herschel’s hapless mass, holding up how-many-fingers, actually spraying him in the face with a squirt bottle as if scolding some testy chihuahua. Meanwhile he delivered prompt commands into his walkie-talkie. An ambulance, probably also on standby, arrived within minutes. More paramedics barged through the fire exit wielding a stretcher. Herschel was stirring by then, blinking his eyes, but I heard the EMT advise him not to move. What must have been going through his head, poor Cronus the Cannibal. At that moment, I hoped for his sake he was wholly incoherent.
“Mickey. They say he can talk to us now.”
I whip around to find Rousseau in the doorway, her phone still clutched in one hand like a Go-Go-Gadget appendage. On my way out I throw the young couple a parting glance, inwardly wishing them better luck to come.
“He has a concussion. A minor one, the doctor says, but a concussion all the same. They think his neck might also be sprained. They have him scheduled for a CAT scan in thirty minutes, so we don’t have all that much time.”
More important than time, what we need is the man’s memory.
I follow in the clipped, staccato wake of Rousseau’s wedges down one of the wings. We dodge around scrubbed nurses and medical carts. The air smells like we’re swimming through the blue water of a toilet bowl. When we come to the room with Herschel’s chart hung outside, my first hopeful impression is that he looks like a man who has checked himself in under a bunk claim for the free Jell-O and to get out of work. He is still in his lime green tights, but they’ve given him a hospital gown since he came in shirtless. His feet are clad in white tube socks. A pair of black combat boots are tucked away in the corner. His complexion is a little wan compared to when blood and adrenaline were surging through his veins, but then it’s hard not to come off as meek while strangled by a neck brace. His eyes appear focused when we enter the room. I note a flash of recognition directed at me.
Rousseau knocks lightly on the open door out of courtesy. He is sitting upright with his legs swung over the side of the bed, probably against the doctor’s advice.
“Who are you?” he asks.
“Hello, Herschel. I’m Agent Rousseau with the FBI, this is Detective Fontanel. We’re sorry to disturb your convalescence, but we initially wanted to speak with you at the hotel. We saw your match.”
He doesn’t say anything, only grunts and massages a hand over his bald, bludgeoned head. Even through the hospital gown his powerful chassis is apparent.
“Your guy at the lumberyard told us where we could find you,” I explain. “Liam.”
“Alright, good for Liam,” he croaks, clearing his throat. The particular tension in his posture belongs to a man craving a cigarette but trapped beyond the reach of one. “What’s this about?”
“We understand that on the date of June 20th you did some work on a young woman’s car,” Rousseau states. “Do you remember that?”
“She got a name? I help a lot of people out with their cars.”
“Oh, the ISIS kid’s sister.” He offers a pained, jaunty smile that gives him the mien of some wicked pirate. “Why didn’t you just say so? You better believe I remember her. I guess I should’ve been expecting the FBI. No, I didn’t find any pipe bombs in the trunk, if that’s what you want to know.”
“What do you remember about the incident?” she asks. “Anything out of the ordinary?”
“Unfortunately, no. It’s happened once or twice before. My idiot daughter doesn’t watch where the hell she’s going, clips someone’s bumper, takes off a mirror, and daddy’s got to clean up the mess because her rap sheet, pardon my French, is a mile and a half fucking long. Guess you’re gonna cite me for not filing a police report, huh?”
“That would’ve been the correct thing to do,” I say, “but it’s not our top priority. If you can tell us anything valuable about Khadija, that would more than make up for it.”
Herschel shrugs as best he can with that giant marshmallow strapped around his throat. “What’s valuable? I’m no snoop. There was nothing that really stood out. Typical teenage girl’s car. Smelled like fruity perfume, bad music playing on the radio, a couple of soda bottles rolling around on the floor, otherwise pretty clean. I took care of the damage in a few hours, was able to smooth out that dent with the sledge and the come-along. Then I just left it in the garage with the keys in the cup holder. I didn’t even see her when she came to pick it up. Never heard from her again so I assumed she was satisfied. End of story.”
“What did she do while you were working on the car?” Rousseau asks. “Did she stick around? Did she go somewhere?”
“She rode off with someone who’d followed her there. Sorry, I didn’t get a look.”
“That’s alright,” I say. “Was anyone else there when Khadija arrived? Can you remember her talking to anyone? Customers? Employees?”
“No.” Herschel is getting irritated and bored now. I wish I could shut the door and smuggle him a cigarette. “We talked for five minutes. I gave her a time estimate, told her more or less what needed to be done. She seemed very easygoing. Polite. Never once talked shit about my daughter, even though she would’ve been well within her rights. Liam handled the desk that day so I could mess around with the car. No one else came in the garage . . .”
Then he pauses. His voice takes on a defensive edge. “But I mean, the overhead was open the entire time. The whole street could see us. I was never alone or isolated with her, if that’s what you’re getting at. Why, did she say something?” He narrows his eyes at us. Only the mind of someone who has been accused, falsely or otherwise, of impropriety in the past would take a turn down this road.
“We haven’t had a chance to speak with Khadija about the incident,” Rousseau says. “As of the night before last, she’s been missing and incommunicado with everyone close to her.”
Herschel’s posture relaxes a bit. He says with what appears to be sincere gravitas, “Well, I’m sorry. Like I said, I ain’t heard from her since. Wish there was more I could tell you.”
“We appreciate you talking to us at all under the circumstances.”
“One more follow-up question,” I say. “I’m afraid it’s protocol. Do you happen to remember where you were the night before last?”
His brown eyes train on me like rifle beads for a moment, not in an overtly malevolent way, but I find it odd. Most people look away when they’re trying to recollect something, not straight into the depths of your soul. “I guess after work I went home, showered, made myself some fried chicken for dinner, then rode out to The Fort to throw darts. Left there around midnight, maybe a little later.”
“Did you take a cab?” I ask with a straight face.
He doesn’t miss a beat. “No, I’m not a real heavy drinker. Mostly I just go to socialize. You know how it is, Mickey. Real friendly crowd.”
I’m aware in my periphery of Rousseau turning to look at me. This is the first reference Herschel or I have made that we know each other, even if it is only through mutual acquaintances (“New-burg! New-burg! New-burg!”). Supposing he does have something to hide, The Fort is the perfect place for him to have been that night. Anyone there would vouch for him without batting an eye, be it to the cops or the Feds or the Attorney fucking General.
Before we leave the wrestler to recoup, Rousseau takes down the address of his daughter, Alexis, for future questioning. We wish him a speedy recovery. He wishes us good luck on our case, though by now he seems detached, like his lines are all delivered and the audience is throwing roses.
Race is a tricky fucking thing. Not much of a newsflash, I know. I would say race is right on par with religion, and what they have in common is that politics is usually hidden under the guise of one of the two.
What triggers this whole line of thinking is little more than a news blurb, when Rousseau switches the Sirius station over from R&B to CNN. One African-American male, chased through a park in Indianapolis, shot dead by police owing to a case of mistaken identity. The man was unarmed, facing petty drug charges, explaining why he so foolishly fled. We are obliged not to comment on the bulletin, pretending like we haven’t heard.
How much importance do we ascribe to race, not ideally but actually? Is “post-racial” an unwieldy aspiration, like “post-time” or “post-government”? Does recognizing race better us in some way, or only divert us? And will there ever be a time when I can sit here beside a black woman, moving through rural Wisconsin, and voice these questions out loud without the two of us cringing? Though in fairness, having just met this morning does heighten the cringe factor.
Then an audio clip of the victim’s sister comes on, hysterical. Even through tears and gasping breath, she projects every word clearly. In sum, they are not kind to the police. Black Lives Matter is invoked like a monsoon of social justice coming to cleanse the streets of cowboy cops, trigger-happy fiends abusing their authority. She declares a brotherhood and sisterhood with the families of other African-Americans executed, left to die in the gutter, beaten in dark prison corridors, lynched in their jail cells like the mysterious case of Sandra Bland which occurred last summer.
I promise we’re not all bad, I want to say as a kind of grim half-joke, just to test the waters and see how she responds. I wisely back out. In truth, I have nothing to add to the contemporary race debate, no clever axioms that aren’t already littering discussion boards between the more prolific and anonymous slurs.
“I think it’s a mistake,” Rousseau says, adjusting her grip on the wheel, which must qualify as fidgeting by FBI standards. “A well-intentioned mistake, this tying up a cry for police accountability with a cry for racial equality. They ought to be treated as separate issues.”
I tell her that accountability, I’d like to think, is something most cops can get behind. “Body cams and all that.”
“Sure. It covers your ass as much as anyone else’s. But when you base an entire movement on the premise of racist cops, it’s hard to start a dialogue. You ostracize a huge chunk of people who would otherwise, most of them anyway, be rallying alongside you. Racism gave us ghettos, and the ghettos gave us not just dead civilians but a lot of dead cops.”
“Everyone’s vying for the same thing,” I concur. “It’s just—the way things stand.”
“Right,” she picks up my tangled thread. “It’s messy. We’re standing on the shoulders of some very backwards policy. And it’s so ingrained that the surgery we need to perform as a country can seem damn near impossible.”
“Have you ever been to Germany?” I ask.
“Once in high-school and once with the Bureau. Why, have you?”
“Never. What I’m getting at is, they don’t still have Jewish ghettos over there, do they?”
“You’re not the first to go there,” she says.
“I know it’s easy to oversimplify these things. But look at this way. The whole world held Germany accountable for what it did. No one ever held us accountable. Plenty have tried. Nation of Islam, NAACP, Black Panthers. Now you have Black Lives Matter. They’ve all tried, but they tried from within. What if the pressure had to come from outside for America to take it seriously?”
“You’re saying we never had a Nuremberg.”
“Right.” I decide that’s exactly what I’m saying. I start to feel unknotted, even a little elated, that the conversation has made it this far without overtones of hostility. The butterflies cycling around my stomach drop out one by one.
“Which isn’t all that surprising,” Rousseau goes on, “when you realize that most of what you’d call ‘the West’ has had slavery or imperialism at some point. Calling us out would mean calling themselves out. Where we differ is the Civil War. Our whole country was actually ripped in two because of race, plain and simple. Nowhere else can say that.”
“We have to live with that for as long as we’re a country,” I agree. “Just like the Germans have to live with their bullshit. It’s still an open wound.”
“Not consciously it isn’t. Most white people today don’t feel guilty about slavery, and I don’t blame them. In fact, I don’t trust anyone in their forties who claims to be feeling white guilt. Smells like pandering to me, or stunted development. Guilt alone never helped anyone; that’s old religious thinking. If anything, white guilt should be like puberty. You go through it young, it’s painful, but it’s a learning experience, and you’re all the wiser when you come out of it.”
“You’re equipped,” I say. “Equipped to do something.”
“Or at the very least, acknowledge that something needs to be done. Which is as far as most of us get.”
There is a lull in the conversation. I exhale deeply, not meaning to sound like I just survived a BASE jump. She laughs in an explosive way brought about by nerves—“Good Lord”—and toggles the radio back to R&B.
About twenty minutes outside of Judson Bottom, we meet the bull.
It manages to sneak up on us. The countryside is not exactly flat but rolling. As we crest a shallow hill, one of many, Rousseau plowing ahead with her lead foot, the bull materializes. She lets out a candid “oh shit,” pivoting from gas to brake, while I tense up and brace myself, the sequence entirely out of my hands. My hand wrenches onto the grab handle, the Escalade’s brakes get to squealing, and we jerk forward in our seat belts. The smell of burnt rubber rises from the road.
I can’t even comprehend the sheer mass of the bull from this proximity. He seems like he would be visible from space. Stony slabs of muscle ripple under a black velveteen hide. His Doric legs are fastened to the road. His belly straddles the yellow line, dominating both lanes, and he swishes his tail like a lazy whip at importunate horseflies. Rousseau and I, besides our intense breathing, fall silent with wonder.
“I’ve got to say,” she finally utters, “I’ve had a lot of strange firsts at the Bureau. Obstruction by monster cow is one more for the list.”
“Don’t worry, I think this fella’s a steer. Without their man parts they’re easier to manage.” I pop open my door and climb out of the SUV. Rousseau makes no move to follow. She watches the steer with awe and distrust. A fun bit of trivia I don’t share at this time is that in Australia, uncastrated male cattle are referred to as mickys.
The creature stands there without purpose, but with resolution all the same. In that respect he seems human. His long shadow may as well be branded onto the road. He has found a patch and he intends to occupy it, to make it his own until the need to graze moves him along. “Come on! Get!” I start yelling, clapping my hands, putting on a good piece of theater for Agent Rousseau from the city. The fact is, if this thing doesn’t want to move, I don’t see how I’m supposed to persuade it. A red tag is hooked in its left ear, embossed with a four-digit number that means nothing to me. I come right up beside one meaty flank, thinking what a prime cut of beef this boy is, thinking about the Polsters and how if I had a trailer handy I could deliver the vagabond steer like an early Christmas present. “Come on now,” I say, giving him a slap on the ass. “Get going now!”
The longer he disregards me, the more this whole venture turns into a farce, and I’m talking everything from driving up to Brookfield in the first place to watch an old man sprain his neck. The bull’s eyes roll around with guarded interest, bulging and bloodshot. “Come on now.” I take him under the jaw bone. He pulls away and snorts, his enlarged nostrils glazed with mucus, his ears not unlike hippo ears, they way they twitch neurotically.
“Should we call the County?” Rousseau has dared to open her door and lean from the Escalade.
“Yeah, someone might’ve reported him missing,” I yell back. “Let me try just one more thing.”
I take a few cautionary steps back, unsnap my holster, and draw my gun. The silence around us gelifies, the way it does when nature can sense that a gunshot is about to shatter the prevailing peace. If this proves ineffective, then I don’t know . . . what started out as kind of whimsical is starting to sit uneasily with me. There is something too foreboding about this strong-willed steer. If I were more superstitious, I might think he had been put here to block our path, to interfere with the investigation in the same incidental way as Herschel’s neck injury. God doesn’t want her to be found. God is punishing the Mubaraks. My response to that—an ancestral flash of fatalism—is to point my gun at God’s province and put a bullet in the clear blue sky.
The shudder that runs down my arm is mirrored in the steer’s body. It is something to behold, and I do so in slow-motion, every panel of meat stirring autonomously from head to flank. The tail gives a final whip crack—then ejects a few soggy bales of shit onto the blacktop.
Rousseau snorts into her hand behind me. I turn around and give her a nonplussed look, one that reads this is unbelievable. More out of frustration than actual intent, I point my Glock at the steer’s head and pantomime plugging four bullets in his skull. The animal drops. Khadija is standing there on the other side, beaming with joy, gratitude. She is healthy and unmarred. She climbs over the bleeding carcass and runs up to me, chest to chest, throwing her arms around my neck.
The steer evacuates more shit, ropes of it piling up in one muddy hillock on the road. I can hear Rousseau addressing the County now on her phone. “Hi, we’re somewhere on 57. We just passed SS a while back . . . Yes, well there’s a big black steer wandering out here on the loose. He’s blocking the road . . . Yes, he has a tag, but I’m not about to go up and read it. Sorry. Could you send someone to retrieve him please? We’ve tried everything but he won’t budge—”
At those words, at that admission of defeat, the steer shuffles his hooves and moves on. The flies abandon him to swarm his more-coveted fecal matter. With a snort that too closely parrots Rousseau’s laughter from before, he clears off the road, ambling down into the grassy ditch, trotting with a sort of drunken grace on his knobbed, stocky legs. I still clench the gun, but now it’s lowered at the road, the grip pattern stamped into my palm.
I had it coming. In no uncertain terms, I invited it upon myself. That’s why I never pressed charges. Besides, the Riotville ethos was so ingrained in me that even the thought of pressing charges made me lose respect for myself, self-respect already being a precious commodity. Why I thought I could hold my own against Gian D’Amato, I don’t know. Liquid courage was one indispensable factor, and another was Gian being such a sinewy guy, keeping his brawn well concealed beneath loose, baggy clothing, almost like he was baiting people to underestimate his physical prowess. That night, I took the bait.
The whole thing is a dull, aching blur, but there are certain fragments that crystallize. Such as, I remember Gian insisting we take our shirts off. He said you can’t have a proper fist fight with shirts on. I had such trouble working my head through the neck hole that some responsible onlooker should have pointed out I was in no condition to even undress myself, much less engage in hand-to-hand combat. But a responsible onlooker was too much to hope for. I vaguely noticed that a ring of Riotville clansmen had enveloped us, there in the pool of light thrown by a parking lot halogen. Some part of me, sobered by the touch of cool air on my torso, was saying, “You have a son at home. You’re too old for this shit. And you’re a police officer, have you forgotten? Bite the bullet, for Christ’s sake. You don’t have to impress these people anymore. Take the insults, take the ridicule, and get the hell out of here.”
But I stayed, and I let the underdog romanticism build me up as David in my own mind. The leather-clad mob fed their leader unneeded encouragement, while I received the same degree of shit-talk I’d felt compelled to dish out earlier, thereby instigating this whole Greek ceremony. I don’t remember word for word what I said, just that I felt good saying it, and somehow it seemed plausible that I could stride out of The Fort leaving everyone agog, never putting my money where my mouth was.
The shadows cast on Gian’s torso, which was matted like a panther’s in fine black hair, accented the cylinder of every ab, his stratified lats, his rough-hewn pecs that never wobbled, his arms embodying two lithe anacondas. His jeans were slumped low enough that a meniscus of pubic hair jutted from his V-crease. I tried to imagine myself hard, jacked like him, tried to believe the light was just as flattering to my own musculature.
The match had a few false starts. We would lunge, become entangled, break apart. At first he unwittingly scratched me across my back, trying to spin me around into some kind of chokehold. As I remember it (and maybe these are creative liberties I’m taking) I got a few good blows in before bits of gravel were embedded in my cheek, a whirlwind of fists seemed to be flying from every direction, and I was sure that other bikers had jumped in to help him. But no. Gian went at me like a speed bag. After I crumpled to the ground, he went at me some more. I smelled beer and tequila and testosterone-laced sweat.
He let me get back on my feet. “Come on, you fuckin’ little bitch, you’re supposed to be running this town. You’re supposed to be the one we call, ain’t ya? So lay me out, motherfucker. Lay me out.”
I never did lay him out. I put up my hands, but this time my fists were wide open. He wouldn’t accept it at first. He went on shoving me, saying I couldn’t back out that easily, I had to finish what I started, I had to answer for all the game I was talking back inside. What finally convinced him to relent was me losing my lunch there at his feet. Laughter abounded. Outcries of revulsion. The girlfriends were the most shrill, the most vocal about it. Biker bitches. They all seemed to be in attendance that night. When they got bored lavishing insults, kicking gravel in my eyes while I heaved on my hands and knees, they gravitated back inside. A few minutes later, or so it seemed, I glanced up to see a yellow taxi pull in and pause a few feet away. Someone, most likely the bartender, had called me a driver. He insisted I ride the whole way home with my head hung out the window. To top things off, I forgot my shirt back in the lot.
Rhonda was not amused when I walked through the door.
I’m told I took my injury out on her, my wounded ego, and I guess I believe it, given what other buffoonery I proved myself capable of that night. All I know is I took a long, hot, stinging shower, and when I came to bed, she was sobbing, refusing to speak with me. I fell asleep within minutes all the same, unable to recollect what I’d said, what I’d called her, certain only of one thing, which was a blanket disgust for this life I had built.
I point out the turn-off to The Fort. I don’t especially want to, but I have to put the case ahead of my own insecurities, especially if God is working against us. All stops must be pulled, every bull hurdled, every hobo bribed, every old foe humanized. Farther back down the road, Rousseau asked if I minded fresh air as opposed to pumping AC. Now the heat rushes in at us, the static of wind in the trees underlined by buzzing cicadas. It is already half past four.
The orange sandwich board appears. BEER SERVED HERE. Rousseau turns into the gravel lot. A gleaming line of Harleys, the very rank-and-file I could envision three miles back, is parked out front, tires kissing the guardrail.
She parks beside the last one on the right, a Night Train with a black powder-coated Twin Cam 88B and a fat 200mm tire under the rear bobtail fender. The thing looks like a low, angry pig decorated in chrome accolades. I happen to have been in that exact same Badlander seat before. I happen to have experienced the aggression of throttling that drag-style bar with a weightless, hovering suspension beneath me, counterbalancing every move I could wish to make. It is the pride and soul of Gian D’Amato, and it speaks volumes of the bond we must have felt once that he let me take the Night Train on a forty-mile tour. Up and down coastal backroads. Just me and Lake Michigan. The stars, the beach, the belch of the engine. As satisfying a night as any spent with Valerie, if I’m being perfectly honest.
“A few years back,” I tell Rousseau, “they had a bike stolen from right out front here. The guy didn’t make it far. He was piss drunk and drove off the road about ten miles north. After that, the bikers rallied for some kind of security system. They actually took up a collection so Betsy, the owner, didn’t have to pay for it out of pocket.”
“So there’s surveillance on the bikes,” she infers. “If we can find out what Herschel rides, we can watch for it on the footage, see if he was really here all night.”
“I know what he rides.”
We climb out. Rousseau follows me to the screen door. Men cackle beyond it in the shadows. Willie Nelson plays on the jukebox. We walk in. It takes several seconds for our eyes to adjust. Old Reggie Heidenreiter, he of the Mexican thyroid doctor, is not in attendance. I wait for that awkward silence to descend as all heads turn toward us, but it never comes. The laughter just dips into a lower, more sinister register. Sinister, yes, altogether villainous. Every stereotype anyone has ever promulgated about bikers is gospel fucking truth, at least when it comes to these Riotville jackals. They’re probably doing lines off the table right now, and when they realize we’re the law (federal, local, it’s all pigs to them) they’ll simultaneously draw from their holsters and gun us down without batting an eye. “Hey Betsy, get a shovel, would ya? And a wheelbarrow too, if you got one lyin’ around.”
Betsy herself walks to our end of the bar wearing an airbrushed T-shirt depicting a wolf and an eagle. “Looks like you ain’t here to down a few, Mickey.” She conveys her mistrust of Rousseau by ignoring the agent’s existence altogether.
Embarrassed at the informal greeting, I say in a low but hopefully authoritative voice, “Betsy, we need to take a look at your surveillance footage from the night before last. You were bartending, weren’t you?”
“Sure I was.” This time she does give Rousseau a skeptical once-over. “What do you need to see that for?”
“We need to verify an individual’s alibi, that’s all. He claims he was here all night.”
Betsy messes up her face like I’ve been speaking Mandarin. “This was when? Last night?”
“No, the night before,” I repeat patiently. “July 7th. Remember? That shooting happened down in Dallas?”
“Oh, I misunderstood,” she says. “I was off that night. Took my sister out to Chili’s.”
My patience is rapidly thinning. I feel eyes on me from the corner, eyes that manage to pinch and burn like tiny crabs covering my neck and cheeks. “Fine. We’ll just take a look at the footage then, if it’s no inconvenience. It’s kind of important, Betsy.”
“Then I’m real sorry to have to tell you the camera is broken.”
“—Broken?” My mouth hangs open.
“Yeah, I sent it back to where I bought it from. Some company out of Boulder. They’re gonna see what they can do. Maybe send me a new one, I don’t know.” She shrugs as though nothing has ever weighed less on her mind.
“So there’s no camera out there right now.” I point to the screen door, where unmistakably I saw a camera on the way in.
“Sure there is, but it’s a dud. I don’t need the whole world knowing.”
You’re lying, The conviction piles into my head, catching me off guard with its ruthless intransigence. Lying to the police and the FBI and you’re so damn cool about it because you think you’ve got more guys in your corner. You think this is the Wild West. All you fuckers think you’re goddamn Billy the Kid robbing stagecoaches, that your lungs and liver won’t ever give out. You think never compromising, never changing your ways, never opening your minds to new information, that it makes you resilient, that it means you’re your own person, immune to so-called progress and all the complicated ideas of a world out there that doesn’t seem totally real to you. I know all this because I am you. I’m each and every one of you apes put together, but at least I can see it’s unsustainable. Our kids are gonna wind up fucking hopeless, jobless, unprepared, angst-ridden at the world for running its natural course toward something we don’t get to have a say in. All we can do is react. All I can do is react. And that’s eventually got to mean more than just being pissed off.
Rousseau steps in, flashing her badge to introduce herself. This does give Betsy pause, but she maintains her story about the dud camera. She is a woman of false honor. She will go on lying until she is convinced it’s the truth, and when we prove that it’s not, she will legitimately feel like a victim of circumstance. “You realize,” Rousseau says, “that it’s a felony to obstruct federal law.”
And who else should overhear this as he slouches up to the bar. I’ve been watching him, keeping him on my radar, but refusing to make eye contact until now. Gian is bedraggled in sweat and dust from riding all day. He wears a blue checked shirt over an old wife beater. A few days worth of growth peppers his jaw. From where I stand I can smell menthol and grease on him, maybe a vestige of the cheap cologne he applied last night. He slams his empty mug on the bar, suds oozing down the inside. With a dumb grinning glint in his eyes he starts to sing—bellow, really—along with Willie on the jukebox.
“All the Federali say, we could’ve had him any day!”
As Betsy breaks away from us to fill his mug, Gian turns to his peers seated in the corner and starts orchestrating them with his arms. I recognize three of the four men but can’t attach a name to any of their faces. Their green scorpion patches are too distracting, too homogenizing, as if they are all exclaves of the same shaggy amoeba sliming around Sheboygan County.
“We only let him slip away, out of kindness, I suppose . . .”
The track fades out. Within seconds, another one erupts in a cascade of guitar trills, some mid 90′s grunge imitator I can’t place. I’m divided on how to conduct myself. It would be easier without Rousseau here. She leans over the bar to exhort Betsy, “Is there any way we can get this music turned down?”
Betsy flays her with a look. Nonetheless, she swipes a remote from beside the cash register and points it at the mounted stereo system through which the jukebox is wired. Gian watches her do it, miming a baffled expression, drumming his fingers in the foam puddle left by his overflowing beer. “What’s the deal, honeylove? You don’t like our singing? Not a fan of the Riotville men’s choir?”
Betsy jerks her head derisively at us.
Before Gian can make a wisecrack, Rousseau speaks up, addressing the whole bar. “Gentlemen. My name is Agent Rousseau from the FBI. I’m here working in collusion with the Judson Bottom Police Department on a pending investigation. I need to know: were any of you at this establishment the night before last? That would be July 7th. Anytime at all during the course of the evening?”
Some muttering from the table in the corner.
“Ma’am, we’re at this establishment most every night,” Gian says. “I’m only speaking for myself, but the night before last I believe I was in here boots up playing a round of seven-card stud.”
Rousseau thanks him for being forthcoming. She asks whether he happens to be acquainted with a man named Herschel Gimbe.
Gian chuckles, prodding at Betsy across the bar, who is trying her best to turn invisible as she dunks dirty glasses in a tub of semi-soapy water. “You hear that, Bets? She wants to know if I know Herschel.” He clears his throat and turns reverently back to Rousseau. “Ma’am, no disrespect intended, but Mr. Gimbe, you have to understand, he’s a bit like royalty around here. He’s our claim to fame. The only reason Judson’s on the map.”
“Do you recall if he was here at all during the night in question? Take your time. Think carefully.”
Gian does just that, making a spectacle out of the simple act of thinking. He folds his arms, peers up at the rafters, cocks his head one way and then the other, mutters “hmmm” out loud beneath his breath, brushes a hand through his wind-ravaged hair. “Yep. You know, it just occurred to me. I saw him. I believe he even sat and played a few hands.” The fact that he strives to act like a caricature makes him all the more difficult to read. He lies the same way he tells the truth: as if he’s lying.
“Was he here all night?” Rousseau asks.
“Damn near. I think he had trouble getting up and leaving with that woman on his lap. Remember her, boys?” Gian calls over his shoulder. The bikers, clinging onto every word, are frozen and hushed, like background extras in a play. “That hot little señorita who was pettin’ on Herschel all night?”
“Yeah, I think I know who you mean,” affirms a Riotville cadet.
“You were here, too?” Rousseau presses the man who spoke up. He pretends not to hear.
“Goddamn, what was her name?” Gian squints and chews on his bottom lip. “You remember, Bets? Was it Rita? Rhonda?” The bartender gives him a dark, quiet look. The flesh on her old throat quivers. “Anyway,” he shrugs, confronting me dead in the eye. He wants me to know I can march whatever branch of the law in here I want and it won’t be treated as more than a joke, a law-and-order sideshow passing through anarchist territory.
“Betsy,” I hear myself say calmly. “Quit playing around with those mugs and get us the footage from that night.”
She and Rousseau both ogle me in surprise.
“I told you,” Betsy protests. “The camera’s broken.”
I inform Rousseau at a normal volume that, “Everyone in here is lying through their teeth. We’ll come back with a warrant.”
“Now wait just a minute.” Betsy puts her wet, dripping hands on her hips.
“Detective,” Gian starts in. “I understand you got a grudge against me, but don’t go throwing accusations at innocent, hard-working women like Betsy here.”
“I’ve got no grudge with you,” I dispute. “Not outside of the lies you’ve been telling since we walked in here.”
He gives me a pitying look and shakes his head.
Rousseau asks him in a casual voice. “Is this true?”
Gian reacts by throwing his hands up in the air, again mimicking the hysteria of someone unjustly persecuted. “All I know is you asked me if I was here. I was. You asked me if I seen Herschel. I did. Now, it’s possible I got one or two details about his lady friend mixed up. She might not have been a señorita, maybe she just had a good base. But the rest I’ll swear to on my Bible. That is, if the Bible still carries any weight in this town.”
Rousseau breezes past him and trains her attention on Betsy. “And you, you’d swear on whatever-book about that security system.”
Betsy swallows. The whole bar watches for a paralyzed moment as moisture wells up in her eyes. Her face turns a splotchy shade of crimson. “It’s bad for business,” she chokes, barely audible. “It’s bad for business, me showing that footage around. Ain’t people entitled to a little privacy no more?”
Rousseau treats the question as rhetorical, the tears as insignificant. She makes it plain that if the footage is not in our possession by the time this song on the jukebox ends, business will indeed suffer, suffer from The Fort’s proprietor being placed under arrest.