Sometimes you don’t know who your real friends are.

            After Vandy left my place, I was having one of those moments.  I was thinking about what a good friend he was.  He’d arrested me four times.  He’d punched my ear bloody once.  He’d scared me to death a hundred other times.  I was going to have to steal him something nice for Christmas.  Just so long as he he didn’t stop me doing what I knew I had to do.

            I picked up his cell phone from the designated dirty sock depository.  It was under an argyle.  I clicked it on.  It searched for service and then trilled; another call.

            “Hello….Yes, seven a.m. at the country club….Well, we appreciate your help…. Yes, bring the whole church group….O.K., goodbye.  I hit end.  It chirped once.  I waited.  Maybe it was done.  I reprogrammed the ring to play “Love Me Do” for incoming.  I also slapped in a code that would block all incoming calls from helpful citizens.  I’m good with electronics.  Ask the guys at the alarm companies around town.  Then I punched in Ahmed’s number.  He’d be awake.  It was his busy time of the day. 

            “Wha zup?”  He answered on the first ring.

            “Hey bro, it’s Tools.  I need another ride.”

            “Dere’s a party gone down right now, bro.”  Something in the back room probably.

            “It’s important.”  Ahmed didn’t like long stories on the phone.  I never told him something was important unless it was..

            “Solid.”  It was just like talking to the ghost of Curtis Mayfield.  “I’ll sen’ Crew.  Be out front yo crib.”  He disconnected.  Good old Yablonski.

            I slipped the cell in my pocket, zipped up the black windbreaker, and closed my apartment door behind me.  Despite Vandy’s “warning”  I didn’t lock it.  Locking things only protects you if there’s a mob of lawless toddlers loose.  Preteens and up will get in.  It might be messy, they tend to break things, but they’ll get in.  If you lock up your house or your car, whatever, you might as well hang a sign that says “Break this please.”  Leave stuff unlocked and the thief can take it without having to destroy anything.  You get to file a claim, and you don’t have to waste time sweeping up. 

            There are some smart people I know who even leave a note on the dashboards of their cars.  “It’s unlocked.  The stereo is a pile of factory shit.  Don’t smoke while you’re shopping!”  That’s the mark of a knowledgeable customer.  We foot-pads will return such courtesy in kind.  Consider that a friendly tip from a pro.

            Crew showed up in ten minutes.  He was driving a rusty ‘90 Buick Park Avenue.  I can’t tell you what color it was.  Besides the middle of the night dark and the rain, the car was filthy.  I jumped in.  The interior was spotless.  It smelled like a new baseball glove, all leather.  Crew was no dummy.  Being as black as he was, driving a beat up Buick was the perfect camouflage.  Put Crew in a Mercedes and he’d have more flashing lights around him than Kid Rock on tour.  The Buick was perfect.

            I have to say I liked his taste in music, too.  Early Simon and Garfunkle played softly but clearly.

            “You got a Blaupunkt in here, Crew?”

            “Yes, sir, I do.”  I loved his English with the Sudanese lilt.  Even arcane technical terms had a certain musicality.  “As a matter of fact, it’s a Blaupunkt CD player, Blauplunkt 6X9’s and a 4, with a two hundred amp Fosgate, MTX subs, and a Bazooka bass tube.  I do believe you brought this in eleven months ago, on a rainy evening just like this.”  His memory was encyclopedic.

            That was excessive power for the pseudo-folk drivel that S&G produced early on.  “I robbed a liquor store…” they harmonized.  It was vapid, fake teenage angst, sung by middle class Dylan wannabes.  But I loved it, because when I first heard it, back when I fell in with a dangerous folk gang, I was just as vapid.  The music had a luke-warm, pee-in-the-pool emotional resonance.  It was the first CD I ever stole from a car.  I still get misty whenever I see an old Toyota with a “Save the Whales” bumper sticker.  Memories.

            We didn’t talk much.  I think Crew had seen some things in the Sudan that had taught him to maintain a certain distance from other human beings.  He knew what people were capable of when the thin veneer of civilization peeled away.  Even here in the U.S.A. where things seemed safe, he always remembered that veneers are, by definition, very thin.

            I told him where I needed to go.  We listened to the boys “…run down the alleyway…”  We were there.  I thanked him and he was gone.

            The rain was letting up.  Now it was just an occasional spit.  St. Philomena’s stained brown stone was almost invisible against a hillside of bare trees.  I went in through the old gate.  The ancient lock I had popped a couple days ago remained open.  That was a courteous gesture.

            The church was supposed to be bathed in light from some spots set in the haggard landscaping, but the bulbs were covered with leaves, and only the slightest glow, oddly patterned, illuminated the facade.  I passed it like a cat…scratch that, like a dog with big padded paws.  I wear size thirteen if you’re shopping for me.

            I went to the side door of the rectory.  It was very dark there.  My eyes do very well in what some people consider inky blackness.  Most people are never really in the dark.  In this modern age, folks live with nightlights, glowing clock radios, radioactive blue watches, streetlight seeping through blinds, illuminated microwaves, cable boxes, and security spots with motion detectors.  Their eyes have forgotten the dark.  Mine haven’t.  I’ve grown to love total dark.  I’m safe there.  I see very clearly there.  It’s my element.

            The door was old.  That pissed me off.  New storm doors are so much easier.  I’ve already said that they call me “Tools” because I don’t need any.  I’ll make a small admission; that’s not quite true.  Now this is a secret, so keep it between us.  I never go anywhere without some nail clippers and an old nut pick that used to be my grandma’s.  I was inside in thirty seconds.

            Most old doors don’t squeak if you lean some pressure into the hinges as you close them.  I stood with my back to the door.  There was a kitchen in front of me, bathed by the tiny red light on a cordless phone set.  There were some bowls in the sink with dark flecks stuck on the edges.  Doug was living on Wheaties, and like most men, didn’t rinse his dishes well.  A normal person would have been banging their way around, bouncing shins and knees off chairs and counters.  To me, it was noon.

            A swinging door opened into a parlor.  Only priests have parlors these days.  The ceiling was high — about sixteen feet.  Illumination was supplied by a stereo left on in the corner, yellowish light.  The furniture was formal but threadbare.  The overstuffed chair and ottoman were rumpled.  A book was pages down, spine up, open on the end table; “God Bless You Mr. Rosewater.”

            An open arch, all oak as hard as marble, led me to the next room — a large reception area.  There were three couches against the far wall.   French high back chairs and low tables lined up around the open space in the middle of the chamber — anyway, it felt like a chamber.  Old houses are so much more interesting than the new cracker boxes, even when the cracker box costs a couple million.  The front door was to the left through an eleven-foot-tall, etched glass door that opened from the foyer.  It was all dark wood, and the indicator pin lights on two smoke detectors were all I needed to see it was dusty in here.   Bright light actually hides some things.  Intense light can overwhelm fine dust, but in a dim room sometimes it glows like radon powder.  I could see the tables hadn’t been used for a while.  They looked like they had been sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar.  Terri hadn’t been much of a housekeeper.

            But one table was different.  It was right past the open, carved staircase to the second floor.  It was right in front of a double paneled door.  That table was clean.  It had been dusted, waxed, wiped, and the carpet nearby seemed freshly vacuumed, all so neat and clean.  Too clean.  Something had happened there.  I’m not a member of CSI so the “what, how, and who” were beyond my expertise, but I knew it.  I could feel it through my shoes.

            I opened the double door.  There was the welcoming blue glow of an LCD display on a counter on the far side.  The LCD said, “SLP 0:00:00.”  A Sony VCR — I could almost give you the model number, I know Sonys so well.  They used to be very popular in my marketplace.  Now DVDs were all the rage.  I don’t steal the VCRs anymore; nobody wants them.

            I let my eyes adjust.  This was an awful lot of light.  It took a second or two.  The room, like the rest of the house, was oak.  The walls were papered with a European flocked design.  On one wall was a large hideous painting.  Like something from “Night Gallery,” only worse.  Mishapen heads of children morphed into twisted adults, all cringing in the shadow of a bloody crucifix.  The disembodied eye of God shot rays of damnation across the multitude.  There was a small engraved brass plate at the bottom on the frame:  “Man’s Separation from the Divine, ‘03, J.F. Kensington.”  It made my eyes hurt.

            Large bookcases on three sides were full of — what else — books.  Nice ones;  I recognize class when I see it, and I always recognize saleable swag.  These were leather, and some were quite expensive, I’m sure.  When you steal books you need to be very specific.  You need to know exactly what your target is.  It’s not efficient to carry a box of books out of a job.  They’re too heavy.  Given time to browse…wait…I pulled out a slim volume.  Beautiful blue polished calf with golden gilt pages,  I recognized it — “Poetical Works of John Milton,” the 1901 edition.  It was probably worth a grand to the right person.  I knew the right person.  I slipped it in my jacket.  Listen, I’m a working guy.  I never pass up free boiled shrimp or an easy score.

            When I made it to the shelf, actually a long narrow table where the VCR glowed, I could see a tall built-in cabinet.  I pulled on the handle.  It was locked — how rude.  Half a minute later I was in a virtual Blockbuster when the lock clicked open.  There were maybe two hundred videotapes arranged like books, forty to a shelf, five shelves high.  They were perfectly arranged, with no gaps.  None were obviously missing.

            People are all the same.  They always hide things so predictably.  All the homemade tapes were labeled.  The others were commercial types —  popular movies: “Indiana Jones,” “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter,” “The Terminator,” “Star Trek,” “Batman,” “Spiderman,” and on and on.  They were exactly the kind of movies young boys love.

            The homemade tapes were on the top shelf.  That’s where I centered my attention.  The labels were printed by computer, and they included sermons, videos of psychological lectures on childhood trauma, PTSD – I knew about that — and adolescent emotional development, stuff like that.  I stood on the table.  I move lightly for a big guy.  I removed four tapes from the outside rank.  There behind the front row of boxes were some others.  They weren’t labeled.

            If you think I’m Sherlock Holmes, forget it.  Guys always hide stuff behind other stuff.  Since by nature, we can never find anything — like a can opener, hammer, our favorite shirt, or the decency not to lie about the trivial.  Without really thinking, we assume no one else can find anything, either.  Men always hide things in the most obvious places.  Women, being the opposite of men, simply hide things in the least obvious places.  Both are easy to find, especially if that’s your job.

            I brought the tapes down and put them on the table.  There were six of them.  My hands were sweaty.  That’s unusual.  In my line of work, prowling around is a mundane activity.  If it makes you nervous, you oughta’ apply for that job at Krispy Creme.  But I was nervous and I wasn’t at my best. 

Maybe that’s why I was a little clumsy when I pulled the tapes off the shelf.  I accidently knocked something loose.  It rolled off the edge and clattered onto the table below.  The plastic top popped off and about twenty bright white little, football shaped pills scattered on the table, and beyond onto the rug.  I knew Ativan when I saw it.  I froze.  The noise was a bad thing, so I didn’t move a muscle – listening.  The house stayed quiet.

Slowly, I set the tapes down.  Looking at those black cassettes just plain scared me.  I couldn’t get the thought of Torey being… it was just too hard to think about.  I wanted to know what was on these tapes.  I had to know.  But I didn’t want to know.  It’s a classic double bind situation.  I did know that I had to find out the real truth.  I had to confront Doug Hunter.  He had to know where Torey was.  He had to.  All of that desperation was coursing through me.  I had to consciously control my breathing.  I remember that.

            Off to the right, behind an accordion cabinet door, was the screen — also a very nice and unfortunately very heavy Sony.  I put the first tape in the VCR and hit play.  I was terrified of what I might see.  The screen flickered as the tape began to play.

            The nice thing about old houses like this is they are solidly built.  Sound does not travel very far when the walls are thick and the carpet is plush.  The bad thing about old houses like this?  Sound does not travel very far.  When the walls are thick and the carpet on the stairs is plush, you don’t hear people coming down them.  I didn’t.  I was clueless, pardon the expression, until he stepped into the room.

            The light snapped on.  I turned away from the screen just as an indistinct image started to form.   The sudden bright illumination hurt my eyes.  The gun he held could hurt even more.

            “Hello, Doug.  Don’t you recognize your old seminary pal?  Longtime no see.”

            I’ve always hated high school reunions.


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