Like most people, I quit smoking in phases.
My first serious attempt came when Rhonda got pregnant, and for the most part I was successful. I averaged two cigarettes a day for awhile, one on the way to and from work. Eventually I caught myself sneaking in more, making up justifications. Then a month later I would quit altogether. It ebbed and flowed like this for several years. On the day leading up to the Prokofiev performance, I must have gone through an entire pack.
The Marcus Center for the Performing Arts is located right downtown, overshadowed by commercial skyscrapers. Across the street sits Red Arrow Park. It contains a big cement rink, which, during wintertime, is frozen over and turned into a hub for ice skaters. This was mid September, however. People wore light spring jackets, or else were dressed to the nines for a dinner date at one of the many posh restaurants around.
Doors opened at 7:15 for an 8:00 performance. I flashed my badge to get in at 7. After some deliberating, I posted myself on the mezzanine, where I would be able to lord over the main entrance of the glass-façade lobby but also be stationed beside the elevators coming off the parking garage. As far as I knew, these were the only two ports of access into the building. Both routes were obstructed by ticket rippers, who, for their part, abetted me by slowing the tide of concertgoers.
I was happy to find myself dressed like the majority of those in attendance: slacks and a collar shirt. Some were in suits or fancy gowns, others wore jeans and T-shirts. Ages varied from college undergrads to senior citizens, and there were more than a few families. I decided then and there, in a period of broken focus, that Rhonda and I would take a page out of these parents’ handbooks, raising their kids to have mature attention spans, to equate music with more than just cartoon theme songs and Top 40 garbage. Now that I knew somebody on the inside, maybe securing premium tickets ahead of the general masses would be workable. It probably all banked on what here transpired tonight.
I had thought about recruiting another set of eyes, namely Gavin, but I had too many reservations. When it came to his job, he was a stickler for stipulations and procedure. He might reprimand me for not logging the operation, not getting it personally cleared by Captain Dreiser. He might not understand that my goal wasn’t to land Leibowitz behind bars, that I wasn’t engaging in “police work,” but merely doing a favor. Besides that, being off the clock entitled me to a Red Label on the rocks while I conducted my sweep. I thought of it as a prop that lent itself nicely to my camouflage.
So there I stood, tallying heads, sweeping the lobby, then elevators, lobby, then elevators, with the mechanical oscillation of a sprinkler. Half an hour passed in the blink of an eye. I couldn’t believe it when a dulcet voice announced over the intercom that the show would begin in fifteen minutes. Sometimes monotony can suck you in like that. I was sipping nothing but melted ice from my plastic cup. I expected the crowds to thin out, but they grew denser and denser the closer it wound down to the show.
What drew my attention was the beanie. I knew he probably thought it would have the opposite effect, help him to blend in with the other twenty-something hipsters in thick-framed glasses, plaid shirts, corduroy jackets, and skinny jeans. But somehow it was an incongruous look on him, a contrived look, and I honed in on Kenneth Anthony Leibowitz the second he stepped off that elevator, holding the doors for whoever else had been crammed in the same car with him. A normal young man, studious, cultured, fashionable in an unpretentious way. Once I had him, I never looked away. And he was so self-engrossed, so embroiled in his own fantasy of what tonight meant, that he was oblivious to my gaze, even when I sidled up beside him during the last-minute scurry to trickle into assigned seating. One of my immediate observations: around his neck hung a pair of compact binoculars.
Leibowitz and I went up one more flight of stairs. He had nose-bleed seats in the balcony section, hence the need for binoculars. A smiling attendant handed us programs on our way in. She observed Kenneth’s ticket, told him where to sit. I hurried to mention I knew right where my seat was. I didn’t want her pointing out in front of everyone that I should be downstairs in the seventh row. (Valerie had really come through in terms of quality.) I was herded along behind the man in the beanie.
The Marcus Center contained four theater venues, the largest being Uihlein Hall. I estimated it could seat somewhere between two and three thousand people. Below us was the center lodge with its wings extending along each wall, below that the box seats, and below that the orchestra level. I swore I could feel the barometric pressure plummeting. A great chandelier suspended from steel cables dominated the ceiling. The seats were a cascade of reddish burnt-orange, less than ten percent of them vacant. Onstage, below the staggered soundboards, the orchestra was going through the motions of tuning their instruments. A regal cacophony filled the air.
I stood at the front aisle, leaned over the balustrade, tossing casual looks over my shoulder to watch Kenneth progress toward his seat. In the meantime, it was easy to locate Valerie. She was the only slender violinist with flowing blond hair, but beyond that her features were indistinguishable. She was dressed in a uniform black midi dress. I wondered how much of her mind was on the music, how much she was able to compartmentalize. I would come to learn later that compartmentalization was her strong suit.
The instant Kenneth settled into his seat the binoculars were at his eyes. I was able to watch him for a full minute before the lights dimmed, the audience roiled with applause, and I turned to leave the same way I had entered. The greeter who’d handed me my program informed me that no one would be admitted after the performance began until intermission. I replied I was not feeling well and would have to wait until then.
Returning downstairs to the lobby, I contemplated my next move. I didn’t know the make or model of Kenneth’s car. Valerie had said that at the time they were dating he drove an old Buick Century with the trunk bungee-corded shut, but then that had died and he’d never bothered to replace it, not while they were still together, i.e. not while she’d been there to drive him around on the rare occasion he had anywhere important to be. Part of me had hoped he would take public transportation to the venue. Then I could simply tail him on the bus. Stalk him, if you like.
And after that? What? Make a few brazen threats?
No, I had decided against direct confrontation for the time being. It’s not that I didn’t long to be the mysterious stranger who cornered him on a darkened street, but should the time ever come when I needed to testify against Kenneth in a court of law, and he recognized me, it could put me in a judicial bind to say the least. Just knowing where he leased in Milwaukee would be a massive weight off my shoulders. If his behavior escalated—which, realistically, it would—then at least it wouldn’t come down to hunting for a needle in a haystack. Sad as it sounds, this was the best I could hope to manage, given my statutory limitations.
The lobby was abandoned, except for the bartender, who recognized me and asked with a smile, “Another scotch?”
“Why the hell not.”
A drink would help me to think, organize, get practical. The bartender seemed to sense something was on my mind and did not attempt conversation. Anyway, there was nowhere to sit, so instead I roamed, admired the art, or pantomimed doing so. There were austere portraits of patrons: Ben and Cecil Marcus, who donated $25 million dollars back in ’94 and thereby got the whole complex named after them; the Uihlein family, owners and operators of Schlitz Brewing. I reflected that a Schlitz was the first beer I’d ever tasted. My father kept some on hand in the always-cool basement, tucked behind the water heater where he thought Gavin and I would never find them. Obviously, we had, and he must have known we had, but the infraction never came up. There were bigger things on his mind. Flights of fancy. Pulitzer prizes.
As I stared into the oily eyes of each Anglo-Saxon benefactor, an idea started to take shape. Not practical by any means, but doable. The catch was, I would not be able to pull it off alone.
At the time, I had one of those old Nokia phones on me, the bulky, durable kind with a short antenna that doubled as a walkie-talkie. Without giving myself time to back out of the nascent scheme, I began dialing a number by memory, something I haven’t been able to do in a long time. The line rang three times, then I was greeted by the noise of a muddled television.
“Yallo?” came Gavin’s voice.
“It’s me,” I said. “How’s it going?”
“Good. Listen, how drunk are you?”
“Can you meet me downtown, like ASAP?”
“Uggh,” he groaned, “can you be more specific?”
“Starbucks,” I blurted. “The one in Red Arrow Park.”
“You want to get a fucking coffee?”
“I want to talk to you. In person.” I glanced around the lobby at the bartender reading a paperback, at one security guard pacing the carpet with his hands behind his back. “I wouldn’t call if it wasn’t important, would I?”
“That’s true. You never call.”
I heard him sigh, pictured him eyeballing his watch. “Give me twenty minutes.”
“That’s perfect,” I said. “Oh, and Woody, there is one more thing . . .”
“What’s that?” Gavin asked.
WELCOME HOME DEVON.
A streamer of bubble letters is strung across the open garage door. Red, white, and blue balloons hover above tables that are spread with an assorted potluck. Even the tablecloths are American flags. I’ve parked in the right lane with my turret lights flashing, directly behind PB08’s cruiser. The curbside is jam-packed with vehicles. License plates span from Kentucky to Illinois to South Carolina. I make my way up the driveway. Despite all the partygoers, a cramped silence commands the garage. An oldies station plays on the radio. Smokey Robinson. Everyone is holding plates but no one is eating. Some are muttering to each other. All eyes, narrowed and suspicious, wash over me as I approach.
I keep a civil smile on my face as I press through the wall of bodies. I say wall because for the most part they stand stock-still, not actively obstructing justice but flirting with the idea, staying just within the bounds of legality. Excuse me, pardon me, stand aside please, police coming through. A door opens onto the backyard, sealed off by spectators. Over their heads I can hear shouting. A woman hollers, “What the hell did you go and do that for?” I picture a boisterous aunt chastising Devon as he confesses to the first respondent that yes, he assaulted Hawaii.
Then I break through the human barrier.
What I witness instead is Flipse straddling a man on the ground in a similar way to how I neutralized Hawaii. The same woman yells, “He wasn’t resisting you or nothing!” She is in a floral-print dress, fanning her face with a paper plate. Harry Maguire, Devon’s father, kneels three feet from the body of his son, offering him encouragement. Devon himself is face down on the grass, having his arms wrenched behind his back and his wrists handcuffed. Then Flipse wrestles him to his feet without giving him any real chance to comply. They turn around and we lock eyes.
“I could’ve used you two minutes ago,” my co-worker snaps, out of breath. “It’s all under control now. He tried to intimidate me.”
This indictment is met with mild hysteria by the peanut gallery. Several camera phones have been trained on Flipse the whole time, so he can be certain that Devon’s alleged intimidation is well documented. The veteran’s crisp oxford shirt and pleated slacks are now mottled with grass stains, his necktie is askew, his expression … apathetic. I remember his breakdown in the back of my cruiser all too well. Some wild pangs of anxiety tell me we should get him out of here fast. If he tries that shit on Flipse’s watch, there’s no telling what could happen.
“Just get those people out of the way!” Flipse points into the garage, shouting over his disputers. The only ones who stay silent are Harry and his son.
I become the spearhead, clearing a path through the garage assembly, ordering the more obstinate ones aside in a stern voice, feeling their hot, collective breath on my face. They are less inhibited this time, watching the party’s focal point being led out in cuffs. Refrains of “bullshit” and “typical” and “ought to be ashamed” cut at me like daggers. I am relieved to be out in open air. The entire subdivision, it seems, has congregated on the sidewalks, trading theories and speculation as to why their only black neighbor is being humiliated in this way. It is a tense tableau to be a part of, to be the one wearing the badge in—opening the back door of Flipse’s cruiser, pushing Devon’s head down, then retreating to my own car.
As I do, an enraged voice cries out, “You a hero in my book, Devon! Don’t forget it! You still a hero and they can’t touch that!” For all the neighborhood to hear, the garage erupts into cheers and whistles, flesh-smacking applause, supplemented by a triumphant chant of the suspect’s name.
By 10:20 PM, the cars started pulling out of the parking garage.
I had remained inside just long enough to point out where Gavin should stand and to give him an exacting description of Leibowitz. I even made him take notes. It was a good thing we had badges on us to placate the security and staff with all this peculiar behavior—particularly Gavin, who had walked into Starbucks wearing black sweatpants and a denim jacket. I hadn’t thought to mention that he should dress like a symphony lover, whatever that entailed. At least he didn’t stand out as a cop.
Watching one set of headlights after another peel from the exit ramp onto Water Street, it was easy to doubt my plan’s reason, easy to doubt whether it qualified as a plan at all. What was the time limit distinguishing a plan from a whim?
My phone sat on the dashboard. Everything that could possibly go wrong teemed and taunted me. What if Gavin missed him? What if, despite the corduroy and the beanie and the glasses and the scar, despite every subtlety of the man’s structure being relayed and recorded in Gavin’s tiny notebook, Kenneth still somehow slipped past? Or maybe he’d got up and left during intermission? What if Gavin wasn’t able to get close enough to hop on the same elevator car? What if he lost track of him in the labyrinthine garage? I realized most of my second-guessing hinged on Gavin’s competency as a cop, and that was unfair. Gavin was as fine a cop as I’d ever known. I forced myself to lean back, take a few purging breaths.
The Nokia’s screen lit up green. It began to ring.
I snatched it to my mouth. “Yeah.”
“Blue Ford Contour. License plate Bravo-Echo-3 9-0-Tango.”
“I love you.”
“Just be careful, goddamnit. I mean, he looks like a tool, but so did Dahmer.”
“I’ll swing by your place when it’s done. We’ll celebrate.”
“You owe me on this, you know.”
We hung up. Simple as that. Blue Ford Contour. BE3-90T. I had a fluttering sensation in my torso that could only be compared to the moment I found out Rhonda was pregnant. I felt capable of anything: electrical discharge from my fingertips, hovering above the city, unleashing lasers from my eyes. Anything.
I started the car. I was parked illegally, in a slot reserved for tenants of an apartment complex stacked above Brew City Bistro. It afforded an unobstructed view of the parking garage. I could scan every license plate under the street lamps without much straining involved. Any dark sedan got extra scrutiny. I knew it wouldn’t be long. I pictured the winding slog down from whatever level he was parked on, stopping for pedestrians, stopping for cars who wanted to back out and join the procession. I pictured an animal glaze over his eyes, the swampy garage lights reflected in his glasses, the sweat on his pale fingers gripping the wheel in ecstasy, much the way mine were doing. I thought of Valerie, how youthful she would look without the burden of paranoia dragging her down, sleeping peacefully, forever indebted to the one proactive cop who took a stand. It never occurred to me, not once, that this wasn’t worth bending the rules over. It was worth that and so much more.
I coasted up to the mouth of the parking lot. As soon as Kenneth’s car came into view and turned south, I pulled in front of oncoming traffic, eliciting a honk that would go unnoticed in the hodgepodge of downtown Milwaukee. He lived not far away, on a dingy street in Walker’s Point. There was night life, but there was also dereliction. He pulled his car over in a more derelict area. I assumed one of the drab and refurbished warehouses overshadowing us was his apartment building. He didn’t even have the luxury of a reserved parking space. I parked three or four slots behind him, the closest I could get, and wasted no time in engaging.
The streets in that part of town, at that time of night, were more or less empty. I preferred they stay that way until Kenneth and I were through. He was in the midst of unbuckling his seat belt when I approached and rapped two knuckles on the window. His head shot up, surprised, worried, none of that altering much when I showed him my badge.
He rolled down the window partway. “Evening, Officer.” Phrasing it as a question.
“Sorry to startle you. My name’s Sergeant Blake, I’m out here investigating an armed robbery that just took place at the Citgo over on Indiana.”
“Yeah, we had a few witnesses describe a dark-colored sedan, blue or green, fleeing the scene. I hate to impose on you, sir, but would you mind if I took a look around your car.”
“I just came from downtown,” he stammered.
“It’s just a formality, sir. There’s been a string of these kinds of heists, and there’s a lot of pressure on us cops right now. You understand.” I said it as an implicit command: you do understand.
There is a socially ingrained pressure to comply with police. Honestly, I’ve never quite understood it. Even people whose cars are littered with contraband, three times out of five they well accede to a search. Kenneth nodded, patted his pockets, glanced around the car, and opened the door. I thanked him, apologizing again for the inconvenience, asking him to please stand over by the fence. There was a chain-link fence demarcating the sidewalk from a large, deteriorated brick building. All of its windows were black. If my memory served me right, it had been a toy factory in some past life.
Kenneth went and stood where directed with his hands in his pockets, trying his best to look at ease. I think if I wanted to I could have got him to hop around on one foot, all because I possessed a hunk of glinting brass. There wasn’t even a cruiser parked in sight. Then again, I was undercover, wasn’t I. Sergeant Blake. Arch Foe of the Citgo Bandit.
I leaned inside his Contour, switched on the dome light. It was a mess of fast food wrappers, stray pages of sheet music covered in pen jottings, empty or half-filled soda bottles, a Star Wars paperback, a textbook on music theory. Not the car of a stalker or a serial killer but of a basement dweller, an idiot savant. I had hoped for—but not really expected—something incriminating to be lying in plain sight. A green marker. A crowbar bearing traces of paint from Valerie’s door. I opened the glove compartment, the armrest console, peeked under and behind all the seats, even folded the back ones down to look inside the trunk, which was empty except for some jumper cables and a jug of wiper fluid. All the while, I kept an eye on his silhouette, fidgeting, doubting his decision to let me pry around. There was no more reason to stall. Either I had to act now or send him on his way.
I backed out of the car and closed the doors. “Would you mind if I gave you a quick pat and frisk?”
“Five seconds, sir. That’s all I ask. Just to set my mind at ease. Just to know that I covered all my bases. Your cooperation would make you a valued exception.”
Valued exception. I was flattering the man into letting me violate his rights. That could only work on a tried and true narcissist. He struck a ridiculous snow angel pose, knowing it was ridiculous, looking both ways to make sure no one was around to witness the degrading episode. “Like this?” he said. “Is this alright?”
“That’s fine. Just turn around, sir. Place your hands on the fence.”
As soon as he obeyed, my own hand slid into my back pocket.
I stepped over the curb and came directly behind him, catching a whiff of his briney aftershave. I snapped a steel cuff onto his right wrist, watching my hand do so as if it were detached from me, belonging to some avatar for whom the term “miscarriage of justice” bore no meaning. I snapped the other cuff around a link in the fence. He of course began tugging and rattling, sputtering in confusion, creating a greater commotion than I could abide. I grabbed the collar of his jacket, shoving his face against the chain links, and ordered him to cut the noise.
“Take my wallet,” he said. “It’s in my back pocket. Just take it and let me go.”
“I don’t want your money, Kenneth.”
Naturally, I let my usage of his name sink in for a drawn-out, blood-freezing moment. And naturally, it remains to date one of the sweetest, most fulfilling experiences of my life. Well worth losing my badge over, should it have come to that.
“Look, who are you? I don’t want any trouble. We’re good,” he kept saying, “we’re good, we’re good.” As if it might manifest into truth.
“No one wants trouble, Kenneth. That includes a good friend of mine. You know how you wish I’d uncuff you right now, so you could go about your life without hassle? That’s the same way she feels every day.” I gave him room to be the bigger man here, to come clean and apologize, to meet me halfway.
He replied in a series of short gasps, “Look, I really don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you want?” He stood there with his knees wobbling on the unlit pavement outside an abandoned toy factory. What further encouragement could a man need to start questioning his past decisions?
I retreated to my unmarked car and opened the back seat.
Molly was a 70 lb. German Shepherd assigned to my brother on the force. They were also roommates. The department advocated that all K-9 unit officers live with their four-legged partners to establish a greater bond of fidelity. Since I was at Gavin’s place so often, Molly knew and trusted me, though not with the same fierce loyalty she bestowed Gavin.
I tugged on the leash. She hopped out gamely. Kenneth heard the rattle of her dog tags and something primal set in. I watched him stiffen, watched his head rotate slowly. “Gib Laut!” I said. She barked once, snapping her long black snout, baring her pink gums and ivory teeth. When she saw Kenneth, her hackles stood on end. She applied pressure on the leash, instinctively striking out to perform an olfactory pat-down. I brought her closer, one step at a time. Kenneth, meanwhile, was digging his toes into the fence combs, trying to scale it in his demented panic even though he knew full well he was trapped. I almost sympathized. Trapped was never a good feeling. Feeling trapped was like being reduced to an insect or a lab rat. He was the equivalent of my lab rat just then, for I was conducting an experiment in fear. I would not have been surprised if he’d started gnawing at his own wrist.
I fired off another German training command once we were closer, “Hopp!”
Molly reared on her hind legs and batted at Kenneth with her front paws. He tripped over himself and fell backward, suspended only by his wrist. I ordered Molly to search him: “Voran.” She nuzzled her snout into every crease and cranny of his body, huffing, snorting, growling in the back of her throat whenever he made too sudden of a movement. He caught on quickly and simply hung there, quaking, his wrist no doubt in excruciating pain. I noticed Molly was paying particular attention to his crotch. I wondered if he hadn’t pissed himself. His face had gone so pale as to be alarming. Even in the dark I could notice.
“Kenneth, I want you to try and focus. Focus on my voice. Are you hearing me?”
He clawed at the fence with his other hand, tried to hoist himself up to ease the biting pressure, but he was not strong enough in his state. I knelt down, feeling the excited, hot breath of Molly panting in our faces. “If you ever set eyes on Valerie again, if you don’t pack up your shit and leave Milwaukee by next week, I’ll personally end your life. Not by killing you,” I rushed to qualify. “Child pornography, enough cocaine to kill an elephant, whatever I want to pin on you I can. I have it in my power to ruin you, Kenneth, and it won’t cost me any sleep, or even all that much effort. Look at me.” Our eyes met. “Am I being in any way unclear?”
The same disgust I felt toward him was now plainly mirrored on his face. I knew I had made the right impression. I ordered Molly to “sitz” and she plopped her bottom on the concrete. Then I took out my key to the handcuffs and freed Valerie’s stalker. He snatched his hand back too fast for Molly’s liking. She unleashed another mean growl. He lay there, paralyzed, massaging the red bracelet that scalloped his wrist. It would be there for awhile, like a calling card, a reminder.
I brought Molly back to the car and opened the back seat for her to jump in. When I slammed the door shut, the stillness of the night threw the sound back at us, caroming higher and higher like a racquetball between buildings. I thought I ought to make some parting remark, but there was no way to express myself any clearer. Instead I gave him a two-fingered Boy Scout salute and circled around to the driver’s seat. I’m happy to say that was the last I ever laid eyes on Kenneth Anthony Leibowitz.
Wojcik ushers me into his office. Through his half-closed blinds I can watch the clock-ticking torpor of the police department. It has become a sort of bland, administrative antechamber for the real crime-solving that occurs downstairs.
“They want you to book him,” he informs me, blazer draped over the back of his chair. Despite the AC, sweat saturates the armpits of his white shirt. Too much damn coffee. His body is a boiling vat of acid. “They want you to take him to County and book him on the battery charges, which he confessed to, by the way. Didn’t put up much of a fight. I guess he thinks it makes him look innocent.”
“It does make him look innocent. Maybe that’s why he did it.”
“Whatever the reason,” the Chief shrugs, “he’s got to pay the price for it now. The Feds are a little too happy. They’ve got him at their beck and call now. No more surveillance, no more worrying he’ll skip town just as randomly as he showed up.”
“What about Hawaii?”
“A couple agents are questioning him at the hospital. I assume they’ll have to be more creative in how they keep him around. Harder to put mobility restraints on a vagrant.” He massages his hand over a nick on the throat where he cut himself shaving, right near the jugular. “I’ll tell you one thing, if this case goes cold, I don’t know if my marriage will be able to withstand it. I have less patience with Joanne than ever before. I go home and pretty much scream at her until I tire myself out, then I ignore her the rest of the night. She’s threatened to leave me more than once, just since this poor girl vanished.”
Rather than saying good riddance, I offer the curt consolation, “She hasn’t vanished. Nothing’s cold yet.”
“Of course not.” He begins frisking himself. From his breast pocket he produces a tiny nail clippers—tiny in his hands anyway, about the relative size of a zipper tab. “No, of course not,” he mutters again. His trimmings collect on the blotter, little crescent moons, and I stand there wanting to leave but unable, transfixed by the ongoing manicure, wondering if one or both of us have gone a little mad. Movement catches my eye between the blinds. I watch Rousseau approach my cubicle with a slump-shouldered Devon in tow. She looks around for me, but I’m not there.
Gavin had a place on the East Side in those days. Riverwest. It was the neighborhood we gravitated to most when we were kids. With our fake IDs we would strut into Landmark Lanes, essentially a bowling alley-arcade but with three fully stocked bars. An optimal college hangout. Movies at the Oriental theater, high up in the balcony, beneath the gilded cornices and lion’s heads. Late-night people-watching at an infinite selection of diners. I saw my first transvestite, a whole flock of them actually, at Ma Fischer’s on Farwell. My friends pointed, snickered, wagered on which bathroom they would use, while the trannies ignored us entirely. Somehow I found the sight of them liberating, not that I had any aspirations to be a woman. Maybe it was my age, when the notion of “identity” can seem like an assortment of pigeon holes to pick and choose from. It was good to know even identities were tenuous, malleable abstractions. That sort of thinking makes me uneasy now. Lots more things make you uneasy when you’re older.
So maybe Gavin had moved back for nostalgia’s sake, I don’t know. I called him when I was on my way with Molly. He was there to meet us in the front yard. His street was poorly lit. About three blocks to the west, past Kilbourn Park, everything turned into a ghetto. Plenty of crime bled into Riverwest though; segregation is only so concrete. He was silhouetted against his porch light drinking a beer, holding another, and walked out to meet us by the car. Molly responded to him like a puppy dog, like the total antithesis of what Kenneth had encountered.
We purposely avoided the topic of what had happened at first. I think he spent about five minutes sharing a colorful story about one of his neighbors, a guy who sat around in his driveway wearing nothing but a silk kimono, reading yellowed newspapers from the 1960s. “Friendly as can be. Told me all about the moon landing.”
I laughed, and I remember it struck me as so plastic, so forced, that I plugged my mouth with the cold Miller draft so I wouldn’t mistakenly do it again.
“Look,” he finally said, “I don’t want to know anything about it. My record is spotless and I aim to keep it that way. You’re safe. You brought my dog home safe. What else is there? If you think you’ll sleep easier now . . .”
A car alarm began sounding somewhere by Kilbourn Park.
“Time will tell,” I said.
“Where does Rhonda think you’re at?”
“Working. She’s not wrong.”
“Except now you’re on my front lawn drinking a beer.”
I didn’t like not being able to see his face. Did it correspond with the same judgment I heard in his voice, or was it all in my head? “I can go now if you like.”
“Are you ever going to see this woman again?”
“Not if there’s no reason.” Even at that early juncture, I was lying through my teeth. And he knew it too. I think he knew more then than he’s known since.
“She’s going to be falling all over you with gratitude.”
“You’ve got to watch that.”
“It’s part of the job,” I said.
“Not often enough.”
“You want me to tell her the whole thing was your idea?”
He laughed. “No, please don’t tell her that.”
I drained my beer too fast, giving myself brain freeze, and passed him the empty bottle.
“Look, just don’t be a reckless cop,” he said. “This isn’t the movies. Nobody likes a reckless cop. That includes me more than anyone. They get in trouble. They get dead. They get other people dead. It’s no good,” he lectured. “There’s a protocol, and it’s cumbersome but it works. It’s the best we’ve got anyway. You really think you can just scare some sense into this guy? The man is clearly sick.”
A city transit rumbled through. Drab faces framed in sepia squares. I heard what he was saying, but I didn’t really feel up to defending myself. Neither of us was going to teach the other anything new out here. At least now Kenneth knew he wasn’t invisible. At least now he knew he wasn’t immune.
“What’s her name?” Gavin asked.
I told him her full name, said I could introduce them if he liked. He couldn’t see the irony on my face, but I assumed he could hear it in my voice, so I was taken aback when he replied he wouldn’t mind. “She’s a musician, right? A little class might be nice for a change. These barfly broads, they can get awfully fucking grating. I know one of them is going to turn out to be a prostitute and blackmail me into paying her rent or some damn thing.”
I studied him in surprise, but again there was nothing to study. The bus had passed and we were swallowed up by darkness. “It’s your word against hers,” I quipped. “As for Valerie, I think she just wants to feel safe right now. Who wouldn’t feel safe dating a cop?”
I could tell he was debating whether to get two more beers, or if he wanted me to leave. “Again, let me belabor the point. I had nothing to do with tonight.”
I bent down and petted the mound of fur at my knees. “Molly, you’re the real hero. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” Her rough tongue lapped across my palm.
“Alright,” Gavin said after a moment, wherein some silent verdict seemed to have been reached. Whether it was in my favor, I’ll never know. “Get home to your wife and kid.”
“I thought I might stop somewhere, solicit a barfly prostitute.”
“Go ahead.” He slapped me upside the head, his chosen act of frustrated affection. “You’ve broken every other rule tonight.”
We said so long. I got into my car, lit a cigarette, and drove off, watching him and Molly retreat toward the house. I felt damn good, I have to say, even if Gavin was right and I hadn’t accomplished a thing in the long run. I felt the aftershocks of exhilaration coursing through me. Later, I made love to Rhonda long and slow. It caught her off guard—our screws had become a little too polite and ritualized lately—but that night I had her burying her face in the sheets to keep from waking Bruno. She was my release for what amounted to a pent-up sense of victory. I was riding the same crest, flying high until about 9:15 the next morning, when Mendoza approached me with most of the blood drained from his face. He said that two airplanes had just drilled into the World Trade Center.
I think I blinked at him like an idiot, waiting for the punchline.