“You know, I wouldn’t mind seeing the symphony once.”
Rhonda, seated on the bed, bouncing Bruno on her knee, watched me tie a double Windsor in the mirror above our dresser. “Then we’ll go,” I smiled. “But tonight I only have two tickets, and I told you they were given to me and Gavin as a gift.”
“I don’t remember the last time you got this dressed up to go anywhere with me. My Tio Marcelino’s funeral maybe.”
“Maybe. I didn’t think this highbrow shit was your cup of tea.”
“Gee, thanks a lot.”
“I meant that as a compliment.” I perfected the dimple, aligned it with the buttons on my shirt, tried not to be obvious about admiring myself. I grabbed my jacket, which was draped on the bed beside her legs.
“It didn’t come across that way,” she sulked. “It sounded like you think I’m unsophisticated and can’t appreciate any art form that doesn’t have fart jokes.”
I leaned in and kissed her forehead. “If anything, I’m the one who enjoys a good fart joke. Gavin and I are only going to be polite. How about this, though? I’ll check what’s playing later on in the season. If any of it sounds good, I’ll pick us up a couple of tickets at the box office. Alright?”
She signaled her capitulation by kissing me back on the lips, but her face remained set in a grudging frown until the moment I stepped out the door.
Gavin was parked at the curb, waiting for me. The tickets had been mailed to the police department three weeks ago, c/o Officer Mickey Fontanel. I had arrived at work to find the envelope lying there on my desk. Enclosed with them was a letter. Valerie had not been harassed since the night of the Prokofiev concert, nearly a full two months beforehand. “When the world and everyone in it seems to be losing their minds, it’s good to know there are people with your integrity out there protecting us.” And a few lines later: “I would be honored if you and your wife could attend. Hopefully, you will find it a restful experience that helps you forget the woes of the world for two hours.” It was signed, “Yours gratefully, Valerie Ognavic.”
The car smelled strongly of Gavin’s cologne. As we drove downtown, he expressed surprise that I hadn’t given the other ticket to Rhonda. I was doing a last-minute check of my hair in the visor mirror. “Nah. This highbrow shit isn’t really her cup of tea.”
I need a place to drink where no one knows me. I’ll still turn up at work, but not with my head on backwards. Just a drink or two to fortify my wits and assuage the great churning maelstrom that is my headspace right now.
Absorbing the rumble of the two-up seat between my legs, I ride out into the countryside, screening alternate scenarios in my head of what would’ve happened had Emory Detrow accepted my invitation out to the parking lot. There is something else too, after the anger lifts (that bitch, that sniveling crafty dog of a cunt). Something unexpected. A great groaning weight, to which I’d become so accustomed as not to notice anymore, topples off my shoulders somewhere behind me on the county road. My head stands a foot taller above the ground. My lungs can expand to their full capacity. My actions are fine-tuned again, precise, every joint greased inside of me, every blockage cleared.
Free, Valerie. We are finally free.
A hazy, saturated morning lifts over the hoof-packed plains of animal dirt and thriving green crops. Farmhouses, self-assured of their importance even in this technocratic epoch. A family’s underwear flapping side by side on the line without embarrassment.
The Spearhead Saloon is the desolate, empty place I’d been counting on. It hunkers like a postage stamp at its lonely intersection. The graveyard shift must have cleared out already to go home and sleep. Music floats through the open windows, then is lost on the wind. When I enter, there is one man at the end of the horseshoe bar, a beer bottle in front of him. He wears a calfskin jacket with fringe and a battered white cowboy hat. His cheeks are painted with rouge, his deep-set eyes blacker than mud. As I watch, he takes one arm, raises it, sets it back down, raises it, sets it back down, missing the beer bottle each time. When I move so the light is just right, I can see a fishing line tied to his wrist. It trails up through a couple of grommets screwed into the rafters and then descends again, finally wound around a makeshift handle gripped by the bartender. She laughs at me. Her eyes, in contrast to the mannequin’s, are bright and diffident. She is young, Khadija’s age, face painted for the Red Carpet in a way that mismatches her Remington T-shirt and cut-off jean shorts.
“Dick got him to give the place more character,” she says.
I perch myself on a stool. “It certainly does that.”
“Bought him off a real traveling salesman. This guy pulled up in his RV yesterday, came in wearing a cheap wrinkled suit, offered to sell Dick a mannequin for $300. Said his whole RV was packed with mannequins and he could dress them up in almost any kind of costume you could think of.”
“Well—that’s more than a little creepy.”
“For reals.” She flashes me a crooked smile. She is in the habit of licking her teeth, like a dog when it’s finished eating. “What are you drinking?”
She bends down to get me one from the cooler and I take in the view. From this angle, it’s not hard to see what allure she could have held for Devon Maguire, presuming this girl is who I believe her to be.
She sets my beer down in front of me. “You from around here?”
It’s refreshing not to be known. “No, just passing through.” The statement tastes as ridiculous as it does honest.
“Sure you’re not lost?”
“Thought I’d drop in and see if anyone wants to buy a mannequin,” I shrug, “Guess I’m too late.”
She has enough dignity not to laugh at my joke, but she smiles all the same, leaned back against the cash register, elbows propped on the counter. Her meager chest is pushed out. Our heads turn like a couple of terriers’ at the sound of tires crunching into the parking lot. Then she asks me where I’m from and where I’m headed. I tell her I hail from Milwaukee, just taking the scenic route up to Green Bay to visit my brother.
“All the scenery is west of here,” she says. “Nothing but bars and churches this side of the Kettle.” There is an emerald-violet hummingbird tattooed on her right shoulder and the name Scotty tattooed on her left, conjuring up thoughts of Khadija. I think about asking in my offhand, nomadic way about “that girl who went missing ’round these parts.” Over my shoulder, I hear footsteps shuffle inside. I swivel around just far enough in my stool to have a look.
Another face I’ve never seen. This one, unlike Elise’s, is well worth missing, attached to a slim man with stringy gray hair and clothes that look like they’ve been slept in for seven or more consecutive nights. A worn-out hand towel is draped around his neck like a scarf. He is tall, notwithstanding his profoundly stooped back, and cannot seem to lift his feet to walk, hence the shuffling. He makes some reference to the weather in a garbled, wheezy voice I can barely understand, his eyes fixed on the wood floors rather than ahead at the two of us.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a hot one today,” Elise answers, scooping some ice into a pint glass, filling it halfway with rail bourbon and then some fizzy white soda. The man pulls up a stool at the opposite end of the bar from the mannequin. They cannot see each other through the island of liquor shelves. Elise places his drink before him. I realize I’m studying the newcomer with an inexplicable fascination, as if he were a walking cautionary tale, or his advent had been prophesied to me beforehand. He sets his hands, which are shaking wildly, palms-down on the bar.
At that moment I feel my pocket vibrate. When I check my phone, it’s an incoming call from a local number I do not recognize. I let it go to voicemail. If it’s not Wojcik or Valerie, then it’s nobody I’m in a state of mind to speak to just yet. Even the idea of Valerie calling, for once, makes me queasy, a comparable feeling to when I have to break the news that somebody’s loved one is dead, dispatched by a car crash or an overdose or . . . the list goes on forever, I suppose.
“Avoiding someone?” Elise has been giving me the same amount of scrutiny as I’ve been giving the old man. When you’re cute enough, you don’t have to worry about coming off as nosy. Men are only too happy to let you pry.
“Some ass called Emory,” I confess, enjoying the power of dropping his name like a profanity. “Looking for a handout.”
“I’d like to drop out of contact for awhile too,” she commiserates. “It’s been a hell of a week.”
“Oh?” My ears prick up. My fingers meanwhile fire off a peremptory text to Val. WE NEED TO TALK. CALL ME.
“Let’s just say it’s the first time the FBI ever showed up at my door.” She arches her eyebrows, giving that anomaly a moment to sink in. “Long story short, I’ll never pick up a guy on the bus again. Guess I got what I deserved.”
She goes on to tell what, from a nonpartisan perspective, is admittedly a great anecdote. It doesn’t hurt that she is an emotionally invested storyteller, becoming more animated as the account takes twists and turns which I’d probably assume were fallacious if I didn’t know better. “He was a soldier, but he’d been discharged by the Army and had some real serious issues with it, like I guess anyone would. Didn’t want to tell his old man. Didn’t want to talk to anybody in fact, so I didn’t ask too many questions. I suggested he could hide out at my place till he got his head straight, come party with me and some friends that night. I know that sounds super predatory of me, but this guy was literally the hottest thing for miles. Sue me, right?” She gives me a nudging smile, as if she can already sense we are alike in some respect.
“Anyway, I come to find out soldier boy’s ex-girlfriend is wanted by the FBI. They suspect him of, I don’t know, being complicit or knowing where she is, even though he’s been out of the country for a whole year. I swear to God when I told my brother he said, ‘This could only happen to you, Elise.’ ”
She shakes her head with renewed bewilderment, waiting for me to join in her disbelief, which I think I manage to pantomime rather well. The reason may be that I am genuinely stunned, stunned that her voluntary deposition, given to what as far as she knows is a neutral party, corresponds on every level with Devon’s own farfetched account. If Devon is truly uninvolved, then I am a lost sheep bleating in the dark.
Rather than accept that the entire case may need to be retooled from square one, I begin to harbor suspicions against my bartender. What if this is all theatrics? What if she knows me, recognized me the minute I walked in—had in fact been waiting for me? I do register the odd sensation that I’m the dupe in a hidden camera show. Perhaps it’s the stagey, vaudevillian layout of this bar, with its hermaphroditic mannequin and the bit role of this strange old man . . .
In his right hand he now clutches one end of the towel draped around his neck. In his left he clutches both his drink and the opposite end of the towel. Manipulating his own body into a sort of pulley system, he pulls down with his right hand, raising the drink to his lips with minimal turbulence. After a few vacillations, his jitters withdraw, and he is able to forgo the aid of the towel. While I stare with open and morbid fascination, I keep waiting for something so outlandish to happen as to reveal that this whole morning has been the longest, most visceral, and realistic dream of my life.
The bar vibrates under my elbows. Elise winks down at my mobile, which is receiving another call from the exact same local number.
“Goddamnit.” I snatch up the phone and answer, “Yeah. Who’s this?”
A man’s voice. Not Emory Detrow’s, I’m fairly certain. “Detective Fontanel? Is this him speaking?” When I confirm that it is, he goes on to identify himself as the Imam from the Mubaraks’ mosque over in Oostburg, the one I met yesterday whose moralizing left such a sour taste in my mouth. Surprised that he is reaching out to me at all, much less on my private cell, I ask what I can do for him.
“I believe I may have stumbled on some information that could be of interest. It concerns Khadija.”
I wait for him to elaborate. When he doesn’t I ask, “Where can I find you?”
“I’m at the mosque now. The door is open. I’ll watch for you, but I’ll most likely be upstairs in my office.”
I check my watch. “Alright, I’ll be by shortly. Do you mind if I ask how you got this number?”
“Why, Nadeem,” he answers. “Nadeem thought I should have it. I think . . . I don’t know what he thought. Maybe that Ismael might try and contact me.”
Satisfied with that response, I hang up. Elise, who has begun pecking on her own phone, glances up and watches me slam the remainder of my beer. I throw her a tip and on my way out steal a last look at the mannequin’s alcoholic counterpart, deciding the three of them would make for one demented episode of Cheers.
Out in the parking lot, Wojcik answers my call. He immediately wants to know where the hell I am, whether I’m coming in today. I cut to the chase about Imam Ahmed’s call, conveniently breezing over all that happened beforehand. “I’ll notify the Feds,” he says. “They’ll probably want to send someone out to join you. You know, just in case the old fart manages to radicalize you.” I know he means it as a joke, but it comes out as hostile and paranoid. We hang up and I straddle my bike, negotiating the short tour over to Oostburg.
No reply yet from Valerie.
I recognize the Imam’s black station wagon from outside the Mubarak home. It is currently the only vehicle in the mosque’s parking lot. Like the saloon I just departed, the unassuming structure, which for a hot minute used to be a New Age apothecary, stands on a rural crossroads with only grain mills, barns, and silos breaking up the horizon. While I have never set foot inside the mosque, I can recall clearly the time of its inception. It was shortly after we moved to Judson Bottom. A town assembly was happening, which the local officials worried could potentially get out of hand. Oostburg is too small to warrant its own police force, so two officers were dispatched from the neighboring villages of Cedar Grove and Judson Bottom. I was there at the behest of the latter.
What transpired was a glimpse into the protectionist climate I would encounter years later. Outraged mothers and fathers invoking 9/11, the systematic slaughter of Christians, the stoning of free-minded women, the beheading of Western soldiers and journalists. How could an Islamic enclave ever integrate into such an overtly WASPish environment? Tensions would break out. Even the majority of WASP women thought teenage girls dressed too scantily these days. What wrath would it awaken in the obsessive fundamentalism of the Muslims?
Then the years elapsed without incident, and most people managed to forget that the outlying structure wasn’t still an apothecary. The exterior doesn’t call much attention to itself, and the interior, I find, is quite stark as well, at least compared to the rich mosaics and pillared halls of larger mosques I’ve seen in magazines. The drywall is hung with posters containing Quranic verse both in Arabic and English. There is little furniture to be found. Daylight streams in through the many windows. I climb a red-carpeted staircase off to the right, moving past framed photographs of congregants attending the hajj in Saudi Arabia—similar to the one hanging in Ismael’s bedroom. Overall, the place casts a very functional and austere impression, as if happy enough merely to exist.
There are a few closed doors at the top of the staircase and one that is ajar. From inside, I can hear what sounds like recorded voices, as though the Imam is watching footage of a military drill. A man’s voice barks unintelligible commands. When I rap my knuckles on the door, I find a small, well-lit office with a desk in the corner where the Imam sits hunched, so hunched that his head is invisible behind the display of his computer.
Something born of instinct and experience, some whiff of endorphins in the air, makes me happy for the snug feel of my Glock against my hip. “Imam Ahmed? You wanted to speak with me?”
I approach the desk. When he does not lift his head, panic sets in that whatever he dug up on Khadija was startling enough to induce a heart attack. Over the ongoing audio I can hear that the Imam is actually weeping. He looks up, telling me or telling himself that he is sorry, profoundly sorry. At the same time I take note of the ill-fitting vest over his body, adorned with steel cylinders and intricate wiring. He throws his fist in the air, gripping a small unseen object. When we lock eyes, his are bloodshot, ready to burst, face slathered in mucus and tears. He trembles so much his teeth are chattering. Understanding dawns. It fights its way through a gridlock of disbelief, ripping me back my collar, throwing me on the floor, where I tuck into a ball and cover my head. There is a pop—and a flash too, or do I imagine it? The stink of gas.
I peek through my fingers to find a weak bubble of smoke hovering above the Imam’s desk. He cries out in despair. Nothing short of abject madness strangles his voice. “No! No! No! No! No!” I clamber back on my feet, intending to sprint out of the room. Instead I find myself headed in the wrong direction, diving behind the Imam’s desk and restraining his arms, for he has begun punching stupidly at the defunct vest, equipped with Allah knows how much destructive power. My body remains tensed for detonation. He wrestles and pleads for me to release him.
On the computer monitor, what do I see…a female, completely nude, hands bound behind her back, kneeling on a stone floor before a wall draped with a vertical American flag. Her head, shaved unevenly in short clumps or clean down to the scalp, is bowed too low for me to identify her face. On either side of her stands a man in full camo wearing a balaclava. One wields a shotgun, the other a machete. The one with the machete is pretending to slash his own throat. Then I realize, as the window goes black, that he is signaling at the camera operator to cut the feed.
“They’ll kill her now,” the Imam weeps, too exhausted to fight me anymore. “It’s not my fault.” His voice is drowned out by blood slamming in my ears, painful knocks of my heart trying to escape my chest. “It failed,” he says again and again. “It failed but it’s not my fault…”