EXTENDED PATRIOT SALE! ALL PRICES SLASHED!
Devon stares out the window at the metallic pennants rippling over a Chevy dealership on Highway 23. Beyond that, the painted husk of a trailer, which has been rotting there since the mid-80s, advertising burgers and shakes at Point Drive-In. Take the next exit and a left at the roundabout. Watch for yellow-clad rollergirls being cat-called by Sunday school teachers.
Through how many lenses can you view the same surroundings in the course of a lifetime? Can you have the same range of emotional experience never setting foot outside your hometown as you can traveling the world? Or is it the leaving and returning that casts everything in a fresh light? The sight of a painted milkshake might have inspired hope once upon a time. It might have even been the catalyst in a pivotal chain of reasoning: That which I covet (a delicious milkshake) I must earn or barter for. To be able to earn or barter I must have work ethic. To obtain work ethic I must be employed. To be employed I must be educated or have proven myself worthy of employment. To prove myself worthy I must commodify myself for the greater good in some way, e.g. enlist in the military.
Now what does he see? He sees a rust-bucket trailer promoting a drive-in. A drive-in which, for all he knows, has closed down and been bulldozed or reinvented. What once connoted hope tells a different story of neglect and the errant shifting of values.
“How did you find out?” I ask through the grate, meeting his eyes in the rearview mirror. Strange to have him back there again. What are the odds that all roads lead back to a man who is wholly uninvolved? “About Katie and Hawaii, who told you?”
He doesn’t bother answering. I have to wonder, would I answer in his shoes? Would I waste my breath on the cop lugging me off to jail?
“This looks bad for you, Devon,” I persist. “We’re out here working to clear your name. If you’ve got nothing to do with her disappearance, then we’re on the same team. If you do have something to do with it, then by all means, keep your mouth shut. And I’d advise lawyering up at the first opportunity.”
One would think he hasn’t spoken for years, the way his voice creaks like an attic trapdoor. “She told me.”
“In one of her letters to you?”
“No, in her journal. The name kept coming up over and over again.” He sets his jaw as if to keep from biting his tongue. “Hawaii. First I was hurt, then pissed off, then hurt again. In the end I guess I’m a hypocrite. I messed around on her before I even knew, so that’s no excuse. It took some bullshit like this for me to realize I’ve still got feelings for her.”
“Slow down, Devon.” But he has already lapsed into silence. His speech is disjointed, hard to monitor, like he’s talking in a stream of consciousness. “What journal are you talking about?”
“It’s an e-journal she keeps on Google Docs. Been keeping it for years.” He sounds amused that I don’t know this, in a tired and scornful way.
“And you know how to access this journal?”
Rousseau never once mentioned an e-journal, but it’s incredible to think her team of hackers aren’t aware of its existence. How many other classified leads have they been working on while I do laps around town like a clown on a unicycle? What happened to cooperation? Why is everything a dick-measuring contest to these federal agencies? I’ve heard Reggie Heidenreiter express the theory that 9/11 was permitted to happen because the FBI and CIA were too possessive over their discrete intel to ever share with each other. “They each had half of the pieces to the puzzle!” At the time, I thought it sounded wild and conspiratorial, but now that I’ve caught a glimpse of how the sausages are made . . .
“I figured it out pretty easily,” Devon says. “She uses the same login and password as her school account.” He can’t help but speak down to me now that he knows he’s holding some of the cards I need. “There wasn’t anything too suspicious until I got to this Hawaii kid. According to her, they were always hanging out together. Alone. Under overpasses and on railroad tracks and in weird fucking hobo places like that. If you ask me, she gave him plenty of opportunities to do what he wanted with her.” His voice is superficially cool, but having seen Hawaii’s face, I can pick up on the scarcely contained rage. I wonder—can he pick up on mine? The rage directed at my so-called collaborators in the Bureau? Have we become kindred spirits by some perverse turn of events, each feeling like our hand has been forced by the powers-that-be toward vigilantism?
“We have witnesses who say their relationship was platonic.” I’m thinking back to Jeff and Nancy’s testimony.
“Well, they haven’t been reading what I’ve been reading.” He sounds like he’s tempted to go on but curtails himself at the last second, cracking his knuckles, and utters, “Fuck it.” We’ve passed Sheboygan city limits and will be at the jail in a number of minutes. There are only so many more detours I can take.
“What have you been reading, Devon?” I urge. “What do you know?”
His voice splits down the middle. “She talked some shit about missing her period. That’s all.”
At the Sheboygan County Detention Center, I drop Devon off in the staging area. Plastic chairs connected by metal frames are bolted to concrete floors. I fill out my end of the paperwork, attaching a memo that insists the VA be contacted to prescribe a drug regimen for Maguire. Antidepressants. Anxiolytics. He asks me what he can expect; he’s never been to jail before. I tell him processing can take up to a couple of hours if things are backed up. He’ll get a mugshot, his clothes and personal property will be taken into custody, and he’ll receive a uniform. They will also take fingerprints and conduct a personal search.
“Like, up the ass?”
“I don’t think they’re that thorough here. It’s not prison. But I’m sure they reserve the right… After that, they’ll check a nationwide database for past warrants and do a health screening. They may ask you about gang affiliations.”
“The US Army count?” he sneers.
He more or less clams up in the staging area, as most of them do. It’s instinctual. There are a dozen or so pending inmates seated there in cuffs, some with their arresting officers present like Devon, some without. No one wants to be seen having an open discussion, as appearing overly friendly or cooperative. It could be misinterpreted as spilling their guts. First impressions are everything.
Before we part ways—each to our respective labyrinths, his bureaucratic, mine investigative—I am able, merely by reestablishing our mutual interest in the matter, to extract a final key piece of data from him.
Someone texts me as I’m pissing in the courthouse urinal. They are conjoined, the courthouse and the jail, by a subterranean walkway of pink terrazzo. I wash my hands and check the screen. When I see Bruno’s name, I assume he is reminding me, at his mother’s behest, about the check I promised to endorse. Instead what I read is an apology, or something that resembles one in style and tone, over how things went last night, followed by a desire to try the whole reunion over again. As I read this, standing before the mirror’s reflection and a bank of leaky sinks, a second text appears. It suggests we grab breakfast at the truck stop tomorrow, if I can squeeze in time before work. Tomorrow is technically my day off, though of course I plan on coming in anyway. I agree to meet bright and early, say at seven, chicken-pecking on my phone as I exit the bathroom, when a familiar voice addresses me.
I glance up, standing in a sort of basement concourse with whitewashed cinder block walls. Seated on a bench beside his Sheriff’s Department chaperone is none other than Alister Padula. His red hair is as shaggy and inflamed-looking as ever, his tan jumpsuit baggy in spots, awkward on his sharp-angled body, and his brittle wrists (which once wagged a gourd at me) are cuffed together. The sheriff pages through a glossy edition of ESPN, barely looking up.
“Alister,” I nod, thinking it’s just another testament to this boy’s strangeness that he would greet his arresting officer like an old neighbor.
Moreover, he is all gregarious personality, as though glutted with his own regimen of antidepressants. “I’ve got a court date today. We’re waiting on my lawyer.”
Just for something to say, I ask who will be representing him. He replies, Kimberly Kautzer.
“I’ve heard good things about Ms. Kautzer.”
“She’s alright. She thinks she can probably get the judge to sympathize with me because I come from a broken home.” The sheriff raises an eyebrow at his young ward, then turns back to his magazine.
“Right, well, good luck.” Though I mean for it to sound conclusive, Alister launches into further exposition.
“I’ll still have to do a lot of counseling, she says, but that beats the hell out of jail. You know what I decided though? In a lot of ways jail is better than high-school. I do a lot more critical thinking here than I ever did in class. I was too busy studying to actually think about anything. You’re supposed to be training for the real world, right? But the real world almost never entered my mind. Not like here. I’ve got a few solid ideas on what I want to do with my life.”
“That’s great to hear, Alister. I should really—”
He pretends not to notice me inching toward the staircase. A few days in jail has truly had a verbose effect on this boy who, for the longest time, declined to tell me his name. Even knowing what I know, and seeing what I’ve seen, I can’t help feeling a pang of warmth. Bruno’s text must play a role. Because of their closeness in age, Alister becomes like a surrogate. We are currently engaged in a more civil conversation than I managed to have with my own son. Why hadn’t I simply asked—without pressure, without prompting, and certainly without mockery—“What is it you want to do with yourself?” Like I ask Alister right now.
“I was thinking something along the lines of physical therapy. I want to help people get their strength back.”
I try to sound encouraging. I tell him PT will always be a prevalent industry, for as long as there are athletes and people misusing their bodies.
“I was thinking more along the lines of a nursing home.”
It feels like an obvious set-up for a degraded punchline, but I watch his face and there is nothing to suggest disingenuousness. He continues, “Almost everyone tucked away in those places is in pain, wanting some kind of relief, some kind of therapeutic contact, you know?” By this time my hand is on the staircase banister and I’m kicking myself for ever engaging him, for ever putting him on the same level as a sane person, much less Bruno. I brush him off by wishing him good luck at his court date.
“Thanks!” he beams, starting to wave, then realizing his handcuffs hamper the motion. “Hey, good luck with that missing girl.”
The courthouse is built, like so many others, with a Greek symmetry venerating the forebears of democracy. At its entrance lay an expansive courtyard centered by a tall gleaming flagpole. Across the street stands a bloc of houses bought outright by various law firms for convenience sake. The attorneys shuttle back and forth, briefcases in hand, sometimes consulting their dejected clients en route. This past Friday morning, the Sheboygan Honor Guard held a ceremony in the courtyard. It was punctuated by a 21 gun salute in tribute to the slain Dallas police officers. Two days later, the flag is still at half-mast, unless another national tragedy has occurred since that I’m unaware of. I remember Wojcik once wisecracking that with all the shootings and repetitive calamity these days, they ought to just make shorter flagpoles.
Beads of sweat drip drown the brown glass beer bottle. For the sake of my liver, I’ve decided to cut back on Tullamore Dew. I sit at my computer, ignoring the media headlines that pop up on my web browser (Syrian refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, the immutable presidential campaign). Then I sign into Google Docs using the login and password given to me by Devon.
There are half a dozen files. Most of them appear to be school projects or essays, but one is helpfully titled “diary.” I double-click, reticent to do so. It seems likely that the Feds will be able to tell who else is logging in under Khadija’s name and from what computer. There is probably an alarm sounding down in that hellish basement right now. In ten minutes there could very well be a tyrannical knock at my door, a tear gas canister crashing through my window. Either way, I definitely don’t have time to sit here and read all 832 single-spaced pages.
The diary starts, from what I can tell, in the middle of her freshman year. The final entry is dated the eve of her disappearance. 07/06/16.
I’ve been scrolling back through my diary lately, plugging Ismael’s name into the word find tool, reviewing everything I’ve ever written about him. With 20/20 hindsight my past entries seem like they were written by a total self-obsessed idiot. It’s like one of those horror movies where the viewer can see omens of danger everywhere, but the character stays oblivious until it’s too late. Unforgivable. I spent so much time dwelling on things that don’t matter, like whether Devon still loves me, whether I deserve his love, whether I’ll make the right decisions after high-school. I never stopped to think about anyone’s problems but my own. Usually when someone starts making prayer the main aspect of their day it means they’re desperate for something. It means they are crying out for help, for guidance, and they think only Allah cares or will hear them. Why did Ismael suddenly feel he was all alone? I’ve been convinced over the years that he was the one pushing me away. Was it actually vice versa? People change, that’s just part of life. And when you love someone you have to adapt to those changes (thinking of Devon again, GET OUT GET OUT GET OUT). Instead I kept waiting for the old Ismael to emerge, not realizing the more I passively waited, the more he was being consumed by another Ismael. Little bits of his soul picked off and carried away, as if by birds.
07/05/16. Things are frightening around here. It doesn’t even feel like our house anymore but like we’re being confined in some military compound dressed up to look like a real home. The agents file in and out endlessly, either to retrieve equipment from their vehicles, or to smoke cigarettes we can smell plainly through the windows, or to make phone calls they don’t want us hearing. Ismael is not a missing person. He is a wanted proto-terrorist. Some of the interrogators try to make me forget that distinction. They talk about Ismael as I choose to think of him: frightened, exploited, ostracized, vulnerable. Others make it clear he is the scum of the Earth, and I should feel like scum for being his sister. I’ve been doing my own investigation, trying to get inside of Ismael’s head.
He spent so much time in his room, surfing the web. Five times a day he would stop to pray. Early mornings he would go to the school and workout. Usually he was back before I was even awake. Some days he tutored there, assisted the summer school kids. It was the only fragment of a normal social life he observed. I watched him fade away before my eyes and turn into this, always blaming it on puberty, always making excuses that demeaned him. I even hated him at times.
Why, Ismael? You used to love life and everyone in it. You were such a happy boy. You liked to take the mattresses off our beds and cover the staircase with them when Mom and Dad weren’t home. You called it the bed slide. You would even play dolls with me, dressing them up in grass skirts you made yourself. Remember the little pulley systems we would build in the tree out back? Jungle Barbies we called it. You were always the one organizing kids together from the neighborhood to play grand games of hide-and-seek or ghost in the graveyard. Those summer nights were the happiest, I wish they had never ended. Kids giggling in the bushes, the smell of bonfire smoke, the excitement on your face when the fireflies came out. You liked to disgust me by catching them and smearing them on your face so the guts glowed for a little while in bright yellow streaks. Granted, I thought it was cruel, but the only cruel thing you would ever be capable of. You and Bruno, you were always getting in trouble. It was only because life excited you too much and drove you to do rash things.
When did something else start driving you, Ismael? How differently will Bruno and the other neighborhood kids remember you when they hear of the terrible things you’ve done? Treating people like fireflies.
07/04/16. Happy birthday, America. A family tradition has been put on hold. We did not go to Wade Park to watch the fireworks show and I am secretly disappointed. I plan on laying into Ismael the second he gets back from wherever the fuck he ran off to. He is notorious for not answering his phone, like I’ve complained about before, but this is the longest he’s ever been out of contact. Mom and Dad even called a cop over: Bruno’s dad, the hot one who can’t keep it in his pants. Even while he was here it was so obvious he was creeping on me instead of listening to a word my parents said. Fuck you, Ismael, you little crap, you freak, you ruined my Fourth of July. He better get his ass home soon, or I’ll hire a bounty hunter.
Wincing with red-hot embarrassment, I read on.
06/29/16. Grounded. One of the most humiliating days of my life. First off, I went through with it. I got the tattoo I’ve been going back and forth on. Honestly, I regretted it even before it was done. At least it’s not that big and it’s out of sight unless I’m wearing a tank top or swimsuit. Besides, I think Devon will really be touched when he sees it. That’s all that matters to me, not my car, which has a huge ugly dent in it btw!! Some bitch T-boned me in the parking lot. I broke down, told Mom and Dad everything—I mean about the tattoo. Not about the other thing. Speaking of which, still SO relieved I got my period the other day. Holy shit have I mentioned that I am 100% crazy?? I need to find a way to forgive myself. I only fucked up so bad because the stress of not hearing back from Devon is driving me insane. Literally. If he’s dead or MIA (and I don’t even like writing that but if he is) then the Army is taking a long-ass time to notify anyone. I feel like I’ve had a constant gut ache for the past two months. Anyway, I’ve never been so happy to start bleeding. That’s one less thing to worry about, otherwise I’d probably want to throw myself in front of a train right now. Hawaii too. Murder/suicide. Lol too dark?
She jumps around so much in this last entry that I go back and reread it, sharing in her relief at the end. I browse a few more entries wherein she’s paranoid that she might be pregnant with Hawaii’s child: the result of a single slip-up one stormy night. My memory jogged, I remember the storm well. Trees and power lines were felled all over town.
06/07/16. Dear diary, I am a stupid stupid girl.
I feel sick just typing it out because doing so makes it too real. No one can ever know. Tonight I jeopardized my whole future with Devon just on the basis of a stupid crush. I would give anything, fucking ANYTHING, to be able to take it back. (I actually threw up, that’s how shitty I feel. Mom heard me through the bathroom door and I just told her I ate something that wasn’t sitting right. Then I came in here, locked the door, and proceeded to bawl into my pillow and feel sorry for myself for two straight hours.)
I only offered to get him out of the rain. I was driving back from Naomi’s house and saw him at the bus stop, just as the storm was getting really bad. Of course he wasn’t waiting for a bus, it was just the only public shelter around. There were flashes of lightning, thunder that made me jump like a ditz. The wind had picked up so much the rain was coming at him sideways. Even under the shelter he was clearly getting drenched, so I pulled over and told him to get in.
He kissed me first. Not that I’m placing the blame on him. I could have stopped it anytime. I think he was just grateful and wanted to express it. He doesn’t love me. Don’t worry, I haven’t gone crazy enough to think that. Things just got out of hand. He was wet and smelly and it was uncomfortable. His breath wasn’t the greatest either. Cigarettes and malt liquor. Yeah, I could tell he was a little drunk. But I didn’t want to embarrass him. I didn’t want to be just another person who brushed him off and made him feel like less of a person. I know it sounds like I’m trying to make myself out as a martyr or some shit, but I wanted him to feel loved for once. Plus, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want him just a little bit, but you already know that. He was gentle at first, passionate, I thought. But he got rougher and at one point it sounded like he was crying. I think I have a bruise on my hip from where it dug into the seat belt. Afterward, we sat there in silence for a little while and then he climbed back out into the rain, muttering that he was sorry. I’m worried he’ll be scared to go near me now. I think it was obvious I was fighting back tears. I cannot BELIEVE I let this happen. What the fuck is wrong with you, Katie? Are you trying to ruin everything? What I need now is a long, hot shower, the longest hottest shower of my life. Maybe I’ll text Naomi. Maybe. #patheticdoormat
Several pages later, another entry, less dramatic in content, affects me nonetheless.
05/18/16. Tried having a one-on-one with Ismael today. Went pretty predictably. I cornered him in the basement, brought down my laundry basket just as he was taking his load out of the dryer. He barely acknowledged me when I walked in, except to warn that we were low on detergent. I asked him about his upcoming graduation, tried to feel out a reason why he had finally decided to enroll at UW-Sheboygan, instead of somewhere new and distant like upstate New York or Washington State. That had always been his original plan, to get far away from JB, to be somewhere with mountains and wilderness. He told me it just seemed more practical to live at home. I told him he’d become a very practical person. He didn’t say much of anything. He tipped the detergent bottle upside down on its shelf and carried his laundry upstairs.
I wish I knew why people changed. I wish I could look at myself objectively and see how I’ve changed. Maybe I have, drastically, and don’t even realize it. Maybe I’m just less adaptable than everyone around me. I used to look up to Ismael for inspiration. I’m only now fully realizing this, now that he has set me adrift, or set adrift from himself. I figured if he could make it on his own so far from home then so could I, especially with Devon at my side. I made what is probably the most amateur mistake anyone can make: expecting things to stay stable. How do I take back control? The world is writing my life for me, and I don’t like the way things are headed.
Morning light creeps into the living room. I feel it on my skin with a mixture of bliss and confused panic, like waking up to an excellent massage from a masked intruder.
When I make the connection that I fell asleep on my couch at some point during the night, I jerk up a little, regretting the abrupt motion as a twinge enters my back. I lie there, wincing, squinting in the blue-gold light, fumbling around for my phone. It’s not in my pockets, so I plunge one arm into the couch cushions. My fingers make contact with the rubber edge of its protective case and I’m able to fish it out. The time reads 6:52.
I blink down at my shorts, the lump of a morning hardon. The signal light on my computer flashes that it has gone into hibernation mode. I don’t remember how long I stayed up reading Khadija Mubarak’s diary—well into the morning, I guess. Then the irritation of the monitor started getting to me, so I laid down, just for a moment, just to rest my eyes.
I know from past experience that it will be days before my back fully forgives this transgression. My couch is twenty percent cushion, eighty percent flat iron bar. I manage to peel myself upright, stagger into the bathroom, rinse cold water on my face, throw on some fresh clothes, and run a wet comb through my hair. I guess I should be grateful that I haven’t woken up groggy from a sedative, about to be waterboarded by Blackwater contractors. Compared to that outcome, I’m able to live with the throb of a mild hangover.
By 7:15 I am out the door and on my bike, cutting a trail through the cool, dewy morning. I pass Stoffregen at the tail end of her shift writing out a speeding ticket to a senior citizen. Houses give way to trees. Clocking in at twenty-six minutes late, I arrive at the truck stop. The place is pretty busy at this hour—farmers, construction workers, retirees, and of course truckers—but I don’t spot Bruno’s Jeep anywhere. It’s possible he overslept too, and that I did all this rushing around for nothing.
The door chimes. A waitress greets me brightly, asking how many, shouting the question with a pasted-on smile. She cranes her head over a bevy of suntanned men in cut-off sleeves, their shirts promoting local businesses or fireman’s picnics of years past. Amid the bustle, one petite latina rises to her feet, waving me over. She is sharing her side of the booth with a nondescript white man. The other side is left open, left open for me.
“How many?” the waitress repeats, her hand poised over a stack of menus. I point to my ex-wife’s booth and walk over, thinking, what fresh hell is this?
The man, her breakfast date, resembles a mail clerk, wearing a tie and button-down with short sleeves. He dumps a packet of Stevia into his coffee (there is no Stevia on the table so he must have brought his own), taking a tiny test slurp. The steam immediately fogs his glasses.
“What’s this?” I ask.
“Good morning, Mickey,” Rhonda says. “Please sit down. Don’t be rude.”
“Is Bruno coming?”
She is fidgeting, visibly perturbed. Alarm bells sound in my head. I have seen her plagued by every variant of anxiety. She never exhibits it this way, in the usual way. No, Rhonda is a born combatant, emboldened under pressure. I take a seat. Her companion grins at me, sticks out his hand, smacking his lips once before saying, “Emory Detrow. I’m a friend of Rhonda’s.”
Just to be civil, I shake Mr. Detrow’s hand. “Is this a double date? Should I have brought someone?” I try wrestling an explanation from Rhonda’s eyes, and she, I believe, tries feeding me one.
Emory speaks for her. “We understand Mrs. Fontanel is a busy woman. It’s difficult to get you two together in the same place for very long.”
My body knows what is transpiring before my brain does. My palms break out in a sweat, even as my eyes dart between the two, thinking he has just cracked some inside joke at my expense. Then I recognize the font of contempt in Rhonda’s gaze, the kind she spares only for bigots and child abusers and the lowest dregs of humanity.
“How could you,” she says under her breath. I want to ask her what the hell she’s talking about but I’m afraid my voice might crack. “Your own brother.”
Our waitress approaches, slapping three menus on the table. She asks if she can start me off with something to drink. No, I’m fine.
“Give us about ten minutes please,” Emory requests.
As she agreeably twirls away, I am struck with an image of Rhonda at eighteen, caked in the obligatory cosmetics of her waitressing gig, calves lifted and toned by apple-red pumps, flirtatious yet guarded, heartache-inducing.
“Who are you?” I demand to know from the overly informed man across from me.
He answers with more cheer than is necessary. “I’m a private investigator, based out of Sheboygan. Ms. Hinojosa contacted me to say she was in somewhat of a bind. She had been laid off from her job, was living in a trailer, and received no financial assistance from the husband who had effectively ruined her life.”
“I offered to write a check,” I admonish her directly, refusing to speak through any middle man without a law degree. “When you sent our son over last night to coax one out of me.” Kind of like how you used him to lure me to this restaurant, I think, though the epiphany is still too painful to voice out loud.
“Believe it or not, that was his idea.” Rhonda chokes on her own fury. “Not mine. I didn’t want you involved at all. Apparently it bothers him to see what his mother’s been reduced to.”
“What you’ve been reduced to,” I say. “So melodramatic.”
“That’s right,” Rhonda smiles through gritted teeth. “One thing you need to understand about my ex-husband, Mr. Detrow, is that if you show any humanity whatsoever, you’re being melodramatic.”
Emory looks at me as if expecting I’ll corroborate this charge.
“What’s the point of my being here?” I ask.
He again intervenes as mediator, though I would prefer to hear it from the horse’s mouth, or rather, that the horse hears it from her own mouth. I’m sure she’s convinced herself this is something more dignified than blackmail or extortion, something more karmic, instead of just a sad, broken woman playing what flimsy cards she’s been dealt. As for Emory, he has clearly been relishing the promise of this moment, the big payoff when he gets to boast over his investigative techniques. And to a police detective, for that matter, which must make it all the more gratifying. His methods are grouped and collated into a verbal diagram. On such and such date (five months ago) Ms. Hinojosa contacted him with a business matter. At such and such time he would organize surveillance of my off-duty activities. Apparently, he had a sizable crew of interns, who I’m guessing were motivated by the promise of scandal and intrigue but probably spent most of their time peeing into bottles and browsing social media behind tinted windshields.
“Five months,” I whistle at Rhonda. “That must have set you back some.”
“Not that it’s any of your business,” Emory frowns, “but we were able to set up a very flexible deferred payment plan.”
“I’d say it is my business, since ultimately I’m supposed to be the one footing the bill, right?”
Visibly annoyed that I’ve skipped ahead to the climax, he delves back into his chronicle. “At the very least, let me commend what a cautious man you are. I couldn’t very well tap your phone or read your emails, so what I needed was a public display of affection. You and your brother’s wife never gave me that. After five months, I finally settled. I decided I had enough time-stamped photographs of you two leaving an agreed-upon location within minutes of each other. All total, my team and I were able to capture nine such instances, more than you could hope to explain away as coincidence or misrepresentation.”
He relates all of this squarely and with a pretense of moral objectivity, as though reading from a crime report. The tell that he is gloating, that he is stroking his ego to the point of orgasm, manifests in a recurring twinkle of the eye. He clasps his coffee mug below his chin and stares primarily out the window when speaking to me. Eye contact seems to thwart his judicious composure, which I accept as some small victory. “And of course,” he concludes, “we were spared the trouble of having to determine this mystery woman’s identity. Ms. Hinojosa was able to name her immediately.”
I get the feeling he is calling her that for my benefit and otherwise they are on a first-name basis, which doesn’t matter in the slightest, but I’m certain of it nonetheless. Beneath the table my fists are clenched, little half-moons bit into my palms, endorphins of panic and revolt charging through me. I recognize how many men, and women too, have stood before me on this brink, how many have taken the leap and killed to protect their anonymity. I’ve seen it before, haven’t I? With my own eyes?
But even that violent impulse is dulled, not magnified, by the grief introduced anytime I picture Bruno seated on my couch the night before last, a party to this whole scheme. Shaming me into writing a small check, a down payment, before the time came to write the big one. Might as well squeeze every possible drop. I picture his mother standing by, dictating over his shoulder the text he sent yesterday like some power-hungry adviser. Whatever self-pity I feel has less to do with this elaborate entrapment and more to do with my awareness that, for all intents and purposes, I’ve lost a son.
“If it’s any consolation,” Rhonda speaks up in a small voice, “most of the money is going toward putting Bruno through seminary. I’ll use what I need to get back on my feet.”
It’s a curious truth. If I don’t leave soon, I will inevitably slap her across the face. Though I’ve never once struck her in the past, I can imagine the impact under my palm, concurrent with a delicious catharsis. “Is that all?” I say. “I have to be going.”
“Mr. Fontanel,” Emory protests, watching me slide out of the booth and rise to my feet. I feel more at ease with my legs extended. “We’re not quite through here.”
“We are.” I have the ability to loom now, loom over the woman who knows me well enough to guess the gist of what I’m going to say. “If you’d asked me for almost any amount, you would’ve got it. The only reason Bruno didn’t come back with a check last night is because he stormed out before I could write one.” She opens her mouth, but I allow no space for interruption. “I don’t know what he told you, but that’s how it happened. I know full well you deserve this money. I know it’s owed to you, along with so much more. Years of your life back for instance. But you know you’re not getting a cent.” Now it’s Emory’s turn to open his fishy mouth, gaping, swallowing, not by any means a confrontational man, but rather a hedge croucher, someone who has figured out how to put his natural invisibility to lucrative use. I persist, jabbing a finger at his face. “I don’t have it in me to pay this man. You’ll have to do it. This was your plan. You must have seen this as a possible outcome.”
“Mr. Fontanel,” Emory raises his voice, since most of the diner is already looking this way. “Let me promise you this is not a bluff. I have a large envelope made out and addressed to reach your brother at his workplace—”
“You’re threatening me? Maybe you want to threaten me outside.”
“Flexing your muscles won’t help,” Rhonda says. “Anyone can see you’re scared.” Her voice bristles. She sits perfectly still, teardrops rimming her eyes, afraid to move lest they spill out.
Of course I’m scared. I can’t dispute her on that point. I open my wallet and throw an unknown amount of cash on the table before leaving. “Here. Breakfast is on me.”