Don’t you hate it when people drop by unexpectedly?
You never have enough of the good coffee. You don’t have any fresh sponge cake. You know, the place is a mess. Why don’t they call first? People always show up at the worst possible time, too, right in the middle of a fourth quarter come-from-behind drive, just as the high-fiber cereal kicks in, during the best parts of an HBO documentary about cheerleader camp, or just as the cops and a well-meaning mob are engaged in a glorious futile clusterfuck, and you’ve got an open field to find a lost kid.
My strategic plan to keep everyone out of my way was ticking like clockwork. The cops were going to be doing crowd control up north, Val was safe. Nobody messed with Jazz Moore’s prisoners. It just wasn’t done.
I was free to have some quality time with Father Doug Hunter. The whole thing seemed like another “great” idea. I hoped it would stay this side of “idiotic.” And I was busy convincing myself that it would, right up to the moment I walked into my apartment and saw Detective Carl Vandy on my aforementioned laundry.
“Carl, you should have called first.”
He threw his cell phone at me. It hit me right in the sternum. That really hurt. Maybe I shouldn’t have given out his number. The phone bounced into a pile of socks in the corner. It started ringing. Those things are sturdier now-a-days.
“Yeah, I shoulda’ called. The problem is, my friend, ever since I stepped out of the Chancellery I can’t call out because my friggin’ phone won’t stop ringing!” He was not happy.
You really have to respect the power of the media. I had been on around six o’clock, and now five hours or so later, people were still dialing up the good detective’s number. The ringing, actually a musical trilling, continued from the direction of the socks.
“Sorry, Carl. I guess I wasn’t thinking.”
“Oh, you were thinking. You’re always thinking. What the fuck are you up to?”
“This isn’t a social visit, then?” My smartass kicked in. It was natural, I couldn’t help myself.
“You poor son-of-a-bitch. I should put you out of your misery.”
Whew! I was O.K. When Vandy verbally threatened you, nothing was going to happen. If Vandy decided to hurt you, he did it without warning. I think he actually enjoyed this kind of witty give and take. I was hoping, anyway. There’s a first time for everything.
“I am pretty miserable, Vandy. What can I do for you?”
“You can explain what that charade on the tube was all about…” The phone in the socks trilled again. I went over and shut it off. There was no reason to keep waving that red flag.
“I was helping out an old friend. You know I’m close to the family.”
Vandy snorted. It actually sounded like a bull. I hoped I didn’t look Hispanic. “My achin’ butt!” He was colorful in his own charming way.
“Do you really want to know?” I was stalling. You don’t lie to Vandy. There’s no upside. He’s got one of those built-in bullshit detectors, or so I once heard someone say about him at one of those AA type meetings. I needed time to figure out my angle here. I had to tell him at least some of the truth. I needed a little time. I took off my jacket, tossed it on the jacket pile. I started unbuttoning my shirt.
“Yes, I really want to… What the fuck are you doing?!”
The shirt went on the shirt pile. I unbuckled my belt and moved on to the zipper.
“Now wait a fucking’ minute!” Men, even men like Vandy, are really thrown by another man inexplicably shedding his clothes in their immediate presence. It does not compute.
The pants went on the pants pile. Boxers come off easy and quick. My manliness filled the room.
“Got a little skid mark there, partner.” Vandy was looking down at the newest addition to the underwear pile at his feet.
Men always speak comfortably about some classifications of bodily functions. We talk about taking a piss or taking a dump. We spit and belch around each other. It’s natural to us. Women just say they’re going to powder their noses, and if we even burp quietly they look at us like we work for Atilla the Hun. On the other hand, women talk about menstruating or worse, childbirth, like they’re chatting about their last round of golf at Augusta. It’s disgusting.
I looked down at the stain on my shorts. The whole thing with Lonnie had been close indeed. So standing there naked, I told Vandy about my adventure on James Street.
He just laughed, but he shook his head like he was sad. He was feeling a little more comfortable now. My apartment was taking on the feel of a men’s locker room. Inequality of clothing is acceptable there, even among manly men.
“Poor Lonnie. I put his dad in the chair, you know.” He was neither proud nor regretful about it.
“Yeah, I heard about that.” I remembered the story. Lonnie had found his mom with a steak knife in her neck on the kitchen floor. The nearest breathing body was his dad, just sitting at the table working on some hash browns. Vandy had arrested him.
“Now, what are you up to?”
“A shower, want to join me?” I headed past the dirty socks for the bathroom.
“You know damn well there isn’t room in that phone booth for the both of us.” He had to raise his volume at the end to be heard over the water. The steamy spray felt awfully good. I started looking for the sliver of Irish Spring. He shouted something.
“Hang on, Vandy, I can’t hear you over the water. I’ll be done in a sec.” I was really pushing my luck. Why was Vandy being so patient? It wasn’t like him. I found the soap and lathered up good, especially in some delicate places. It felt good to be clean. After the cleaning chores were done I just let the hot water pelt my skin. I cranked it to “boiling” and turned the tiny bathroom into a sauna. The steam was like a tranquilizer. After ten minutes, I shut off the water and grabbed a towel off the bottom of the towel pile. They were drier on the bottom. I wrapped it around me. It was a Barbie beach towel. I went back into the living area to look for some clothes.
Vandy was asleep. The poor dear was having a tough week. I quietly found some moderately clean blue jeans, a burgundy T-shirt, a dark flannel shirt, and a black sweater. It was chilly out. I retrieved a waterproof windbreaker, navy blue I think. The light’s not good in my place — it was hard to tell, it might have been black. I was getting a headache trying to discern the exact color, when Vandy snorted again and sat up suddenly.
“So, where you heading, cowboy?”
“I have to talk to somebody, Vandy. Please don’t try and stop me.”
“Or what? Listen, if I want to stop you, you’re stopped. You know that.”
I knew that.
“Why don’t you cool your jets and tell me all about it?”
It was time to tell the truth. Or at least the version I could get away with. I settled down on the Lay-Z-Boy after I cleared off the pile of tennis shoes. I wasn’t going anywhere until Vandy said so.
“Mikey didn’t kill Terri, Vandy.”
“I thought so…you’re out to clear your brother. Touching.”
“He didn’t molest Torey. Mikey’s innocent.”
“Usually your jokes are funny, Tools. You on a bender?” He only called me Tools when he was in a friendly mood. I still had a chance.
“He didn’t do it.”
“You know I’ve got him cold. I’ve got witnesses to his threats at the Palomino. Hell, I’ve even got your statement. I’ve got his kum, twice. I’ve got the videotape, which gives me motive. I’ve got his skinny ass. He is the lawn and I am the lawn mower.” Now that was the old Vandy I knew and loved.
“You said you’ve got his kum twice? What’s that mean?”
“The blood type matches the semen on the blouse and from the rape kit vaginal swab.”
“You know what a vagina is, you asshole. He got sperm everywhere. He must have one of those high pressure cocks. You got one, dear boy? Just like your slimy brother?” I told you, Vandy takes these things personally. It’s hard on him, but he does.
Mikey’s sperm in her vagina? Had he lied to me? He’d been up front about the friendly blow-job. But Mikey hadn’t said anything about an old-fashioned fuck. What was the world coming to if I couldn’t even trust my meth-dealing slimeball brother? The whole house of “Mikey’s innocent” cards I had built was teetering again. If one part of his story was a lie, then… Did he do that shit to Torey? What was what? What was the plan now? I needed a drink. I needed to fire up Bobby Blue Bland on the CD player and have a big fucking drink. And I would have done just that except that Carl Vandy was still sitting there in my apartment, brimming with bad vibes.
“He did it and you know it. You’ve always known it. I’m going to sit his speedy little butt down and feed him some juice from Consolidated Power. You know that’s the deal. You know it,” Carl insisted.
He was making a strong case. Vandy never did that. No, when Vandy was right, he knew he was right. He never sold anything…unless …unless he wasn’t sure… Hold that drink.
“Why aren’t you sure, Carl?”
“Whatta you mean? I’m sure.” He was too quiet by half for Detective Carl Vandy.
“What’s bothering you about this thing?” I was going to press him.
“The video tape…fuck… it’s awful shit. It makes me want to kill somebody.” He was turning red. He was getting louder. Vandy did want to kill somebody.
“You want to kill Mikey?”
“That’s just it. I watch the video. I get pissed. Beyond pissed. I get Mikey in the interview room and I cover the one-way mirror… I turn off the cassette recorder… and I can’t… I don’t want to kill him…I can’t even…” his voice drifted.
“Because you know, Vandy. That’s it! You don’t think it’s Mikey’s hand on the tape. Do you?! You don’t think it’s Mikey!” I was reaching for some driftwood. I couldn’t drown now.
“It’s the videotape… I can’t shake it… It’s a terrible thing to watch but…”
“I watch the scenes of Mikey and the kid on the roller coaster. They’re kinda’ fuzzed up. They’ve tracked through a VCR quite a few times.”
“Torey watched that tape of Mikey and him a thousand times.” I remembered catching the kid watching that day at the amusement park over and over. Like if he played the video enough he could make Mikey a real dad. “I shot the part with him and Mikey, you know.”
“Really.” Vandy considered that. “All that stuff is kind of typical dysfunctional family fun and all. It’s what comes after.”
“It isn’t Mikey’s hand, Vandy.”
“Shut up and let me finish.” Vandy rubbed his face in his hands. Then the kid and the sex shit… that footage is fresh, different quality altogether, but because it’s laid on top of this old beat up tape it breaks up and distorts on the edges, top and bottom… You see the hand touching the poor spaced-out kid… but you can’t really see the hand clearly. But what I can see…” He looked at me almost like he was begging me, of all people, to help him. “What I can see is a hand with thick fingers. What I can see anyway. It could be the distortion… I’m not sure. But my gut doesn’t feel right. I don’t know.”
“You don’t know.” I was alive again. “It’s not Mikey’s hand, is it?”
“I don’t know. But I look at his hands and they’re like a skeleton’s. And if…”
“If the hand is somebody else. The video is just…”
“Too fucking convenient.” Vandy liked neatness, but he knew things were never this neat in real life or real murder.
“They’re setting him up, Vandy. The body was staged. The tape is a plant. They’re setting him up.”
Vandy picked a piece of something awful out of his teeth. “Holy dog dicks, Tools is a detective.” He flicked something brown and chewed off his finger onto my designer carpet. “It’s a butt fuckin’ frame.” Vandy sniffed hard and cleared his nose on the arm of the couch. “And just who is in the evil conspiracy, Tools? Where’s the proof. It better be tighter than a nun’s pussy. You’re dealing with the top of the heap here, Tools. Tell old Uncle Carl who to arrest.”
“You know who…”
“Fuck that. I’m a detective, Tools. My dad was a bus driver. Nobody cares what the fuck I know. I gotta’ prove shit. Welcome to the real world.”
“God damn it, Vandy. I don’t have to prove anything. All I have to do is know. And when I do know for sure, Vandy, I’m going to…”
“Stop right there, dumb fuck.”
“You know what they did to Torey. You know what they did to Terri. Motherfuckers. If they killed Torey…”
“Don’t tell me, Tools. Don’t tell me. Because if I know what you’re going to do. I’ll know what you did. And I’ll have to prove it, my friend. I will prove it.”
“I know. I know. These people are untouchable.”
“I’ll touch them.”
“Shut the fuck up.” Vandy sat back and closed his eyes.
I shut the fuck up and tried to get a hold of that cool center of mine. There was a long silence – maybe a whole minute. I concentrated on my breathing.
Vandy sat up a little, stirring up the microscopic skin mites in my laundry. “You got anything to drink?”
“I might have a can of Sunny D in the fridge. I’ll look.” I started to get up.
“I mean a real drink.” Vandy meant it.
“Carl, Carl, Carl, you can’t drink, you’re an alcoholic.” As I finished standing up, I dislodged a half-full pint bottle of J&B from under a wrinkled pair of cargo pants. It’s terrible swill that most winos, like me, only hit as a last resort. That bottle was from last week’s last resort. It tumbled onto a stack of old Sports Illustrated swimsuit issues. I save them all. I never know when Valerie’s going to cut me off.
Vandy’s eyes followed the bottle all the way to the floor. There was a pause in the conversation. He looked up at me. I understood perfectly.
“No, Carl, I give you the bottle. You get drunk. You give back your fifteen-year chip, and then you track me down and feed me to a car crusher. No, thank you.”
Vandy laughed and stood up. He looked me up and down.
I waited for him to speak.
“O.K., you want us out of your way. We’re out of your way. Like I could do anything about it now, anyway. I’ll go join the search party, Jesus Christ.” He was acting almost human. I hoped there was an opening for one more question.
“Did you talk to Father Hunter?”
“You know I did.”
“How’d you read him?” I asked.
“What you think, I’m going to give you inside stuff? You think I’m going to make a drunk kleptomaniac part of the investigation?” Vandy was smiling, sort of.
“Yes, I do.” It was my boyish charm.
“When I told him about the girl’s death, he almost cried.”
“Like he was nervous, or guilty, or both?”
“Like he was sad, really sad. Everyone gets nervous when big beefy cops show up at their door. He was mostly just sad.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think he was sad?”
“I don’t think you’re beefy, Carl.” I lied. “How’d he act when you asked him about Torey?”
“Everyone gets sad when you ask them about a missing kid. He was mostly just nervous.” Vandy’s eyebrow, the left one, raised slightly. Vandy was letting me know. Hunter knew something.
“Are you going to talk to him again?”
Vandy started for the door. He was buttoning his coat with his back to me. “Probably not.”
“You’re not?” This was hard to swallow.
“Oh, I want to. I really want to. You know the story. Terri worked for Hunter. Somehow, when she got out of detox, she landed a job as housekeeper at St. Philomena. Sorry, Marty, but from druggie to parish employee is a bit abrupt. How’d she get that job?”
I knew how she got the job. I kept it to myself.
“And dear Father Hunter seems really sad she’s dead — too sad. Why did he fire her? If he did fire her. We find her body practically in Hunter’s backyard. All laid out like a rape with Mikey’s sperm all over and a video of Mikey’s kid Torey spliced onto a scene of Torey being sexually assaulted. All of it like a big neon sign saying, ‘Go get Mikey.’ Then, when Father Corleone, the unpopular priest, tells me Torey was probably hangin’ out down at St. Phil’s, and he gives me a different scent, what happens? Suddenly, I get a bunch of fag files about Corleone from a Diocese that won’t even give me a zip code the day before.”
“They close ranks fast, don’t they?”
“Yeah. You were at the Chancellery. You saw.” He turned to look back at me. “It’s all Mikey. Then when I ask a couple easy questions… You were there. You heard them all in serious cover-their-ass mode. Hell, I guess I mussed the Monsignor’s flat top a bit.”
“The Chief talk to you?”
“He called me within five minutes of my little visit with the Monsignor. The D.A., the Chief, what I wouldn’t give for a Baptist in charge of something around here. Seems the Bishop’s office is sensitive about who talks to his priests. There are a lot of rumors going around about some sexual abuse. All I get is a stone wall. If I hear the word ‘confidential’ one more time I’ll puke. As for Father Hunter, if I talk to him I’ve got to do it at the Chancellery with the Diocesan Attorney in attendance. But they act like they’d give me Corleone in less time than it takes to microwave some Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. It’s like they’re daring me to do my job.”
“Like pissing in the Texas A&M bonfire.”
“Precisely, my friend. My dick doesn’t like getting that warm.”
He opened the door and stepped into the hallway. The only bulb burning was one landing up. His face was shadowed like a character in “The Big Sleep.” He glanced at his hands, then up at me. As his face came up, the light hit his brows, his nose, and finally his chin.
“You know, Tools, I noticed that you don’t lock your apartment door. That’s risky. I hear there are lots of burglars around this part of town. What with all the action up north, there won’t be many cops around to serve and protect. You might want to lock up. Thieves will have a free hand tonight. Try to be safe, will you?” He didn’t close the door. He just left. He looked tired.
I turned on the fluorescent in the kitchen.
A voice welled up from the bottom of the apartment stairwell. “Keep the fucking phone!”
Good night, Carl. Thanks for the green light.
The light flickered on. Yeah, now I could see.
jacket was black. It was perfect.