Did I mention that Mikey is my brother?
That puts another hue on the palate, doesn’t it? My family is more screwed up than you imagined. I know it. Hey, I’m not ashamed. We are what we are. If you think your family’s a little slice of Leave it to Beaver, fine. But I suggest you start rummaging through your memory and figure out what Wally was doing in the bathroom. Maybe you’ll wise up to the deeper Freudian meaning of June’s pearl necklace. Don’t be too quick to judge me and mine. I’m trying not to condemn anyone or anything here. I’m just telling the story. Take it for what it’s worth. When I’m finished, think whatever you want to think.
After the boys hauled Mikey out of Abe’s, I gave my statement to Vandy’s cohort Emilio. Just the facts, ma’am.
I left Abe’s and walked north towards it-didn’t-matter. I had the buzz and a throbbing headache. But the buzz is like morphine. You keep the pain, but you lose the caring. I just walked. I was right at the point where I could think about things I didn’t want to think about. I drink for these perfect moments. Some people have them sober. So they say. I have difficulty believing them.
That particular moment, I started thinking about Torey. It was a family moment. You see, Mikey had been married to Kim. Torey was the kid in the mix. He was the cutest little tyke, too. At age five, he shoplifted thirty dollars worth of gum from Woolworth’s. By the time he was seven he was boosting bikes from the private Prep school up by Further Creek Country Club. It was a long walk up there. He was showing initiative and the right touch of disdain for the rich. When he was nine, I taught him Three Card Monty. You know, where you put down three cards, one is the Queen of Hearts, you shuffle them around, and you bet the mark he can’t find the lady. The kid was a natural. I taught him other stuff, too, like six ways to open a locked sliding glass patio door, the ins and outs of gambling on football…don’t, and Canadian rules chess. I was trying to be a good “Uncle.” Mikey wasn’t much of a family man.
Mikey tried, but he’s the wrong kind of canvas for that sail. I made an attempt to help Mikey be a good “dad.” I set up times for the three of us to go out together. I even stole a camcorder and made a tape of the two of them at Fairyland Park. I shot them riding a roller coaster. There was a fun scene of them sliding down the big slide. The Tilt-a-Whirl sequence was great until Mikey threw up. There was all sorts of father-son stuff like that. That was the only time they really had fun together. I gave Torey the tape, and he treasured it. He never went anywhere without that damned video. He carried it in his backpack with his baseball glove year ‘round. One time I went to see him and he was feeling down, I guess. When I went up to his room and peeked in, he was watching the tape. His eyes were so big. He might have been crying. I just snuck out of the house. I’m good at sneaking out.
I was the one Torey turned to when things went kaboom. I remember him riding a stolen Razor scooter up James Street looking for me. He was about eleven then.
“Torey, what’re you doing here? Shouldn’t you be harassing a phys-ed teacher about now?” I was concerned about the kid’s education.
“Don’t call me that.” I cuffed his ear. “Why aren’t you learnin’ stuff?”
“Got kicked out for a week.”
“What did you do?”
“Borrowed some money.”
“Well, I was going to give it back.”
“Torey, I’ve told you a million times. Never borrow money.”
“O.K. I stole it.”
“That’s better.” I was trying to teach the kid to be honest. A thief should always be up front about what he’s doing. Rationalizing always gets you into trouble.
“Anyway, I was looking for you.” Torey had that weak little smile of his going. The one that he used when he was upset. I was pretty tuned into his moods.
“What’s going on?”
“I caught Mikey…”
“You mean dad?”
“Yeah, I guess. I caught dad humping’ Terri the Head.” The smile got a little wider. He was embarrassed.
“Oh, shit. You caught ‘em?”
“Yeah, Mikey’s…er, dad’s bare butt was sticking up in the air, and Terri was under him and…”
“Spare me the details. You didn’t tell…”
“I told mom.”
“…mom. Oh, shit.” Then we both started laughing. Men — and boys — do that when they ought to cry.
Well, Torey may have been grossed out and eventually laughing, and I may have been laughing, but little mom, Kim, sure wasn’t. To her, it was the ultimate sin. Mikey and Terri were getting it on in the family room — Kim’s family room. Bad move, Mikey. Torey told mom. Kim had taken three extra Ativan. She talked to her latest boyfriend about the situation. Then she took another Ativan and decided to kick the creep out even before the last pill kicked in.
Kim wanted out of the neighborhood anyway. So she got a good job up north. She moved to the “nice” part of town. Torey started going to a ritzy Catholic school, Infant of Prague or something. I didn’t see him as much after he moved. That’s the way Kim wanted it, and I didn’t put up any argument. That’s my sin. But like on his last birthday, I did send him a Nintendo that I picked up near the K-mart. I did miss the kid. Meanwhile, Mikey just got slimier.
Why Mikey and I are so different is one of those puzzles that the giants have wrestled with for eons. All the thinkers, the philosophers, the theologians, psychologists, scientists, educators, girlfriends, have tried to figure it out. They’ve come up with theories, religions, novels, and the Home Shopping Network in their vain attempts to explain it. I used to ponder it too. Then one day, after four or five Margaritas on a Costa Rican beach, I had an epiphany. I figured it out.
I can’t remember now, though. It’s there in my head. I just can’t pull it up. It’s right next to where I boiled all of human philosophy down to four words, Plato to Kant to B.F. Skinner; “I want my mommy.” It’s close to that thought, “Mommy.” I left home when I was thirteen. Mikey left home when she died. He was exposed to the radiation longer than I was. Maybe that’s it.
Mikey and Kim were history. That’s about the time Terri straightened out. After treatment, she moved to the Lysistrata Halfway House. She stayed clean — even after they kicked her out for failing to remain chaste. She kept herself straight. She’d even gotten a real job — at some church, no less. That’s what I heard, anyway. All this was about seven months back. So why was she talking to Mikey again at the Palomino last night?
Whatever, she was crying. Why was she crying? Mikey looked upset, scared, or angry. They left the Palomino together around ten. They found her just after midnight. So Mikey had broken her neck, raped her and…. wait…. raped her, then broken her neck… and then dumped her body up on the Albino Farm. That made sense, because everybody knew he had a thing with Terri in the past. Everybody knew he was a sleaze. About a hundred people saw them at the strip club last night. It was the most imperfect murder in history.
That’s when I realized, Mikey didn’t do it.
The sun hit the horizon on the way down. No, that’s not a symbol. If you find any hidden meanings in this, they’re all yours. I hope you do better than the sun going down coincidence. The sun set, that’s all. I looked up at darkening sky. It looked too clean for Vaporville, but there it was. That’s when Valerie almost ran me over.
I had stepped out into the street like an idiot while I stared slack-jawed at the sunset. I was in a trance. My brother didn’t kill my friend — a little break for the family karma. I brushed up against my favorite state-of-mind, self-pity. Reality intruded before I could dish up a full helping. A car door handle brushed my wrinkled khakis. The passenger window slid down.
“Get in the car before they arrest you for vagrancy.” Valerie loved me again.
I maneuvered my way in carefully. When it comes to Valerie’s car, size does matter. My size did not match its size. She drove a Neon, Dodge’s revenge on me for all the K-cars I had broken into over the years. Easiest locks ever, until keyless entry came along. I’ll get to that, too. My knees were right up against my chin. My body was so compressed that if we hit anything, my internal organs would pop like bubble wrap at a slumber party. The way Val drove, internal hemorrhaging was a very clear and present danger.
“Hey, Valerie. Thanks for the ride.”
“Stuff it. You weren’t going anywhere. You drunk?”
She sighed, but let it go. “You all right? Sorry I was a bitch this morning.”
“That’s O.K., Val. I understand.” As usual, the wrong thing to say.
“Fuck you. Don’t you dare understand me. I wasn’t that big a bitch.” Val has a problem with empathy sometimes. When it comes from other people it feels like sympathy to her, and Val hates sympathy.
“Yeah, sorry.” I was mumbling. My head hurt. “Why are you picking me up?”
“I went into work. Everybody’s talking about Terri at the courthouse. I thought maybe you could use a friend.” Now she was being empathic. Or was it sympathy? I am easily confused after a few dozen beers.
“A friend, yeah.” I really didn’t want Val as a friend.
“Everybody was talking about the murder. I started thinking about it and…” She broke the news gently. “They arrested Mikey.”
“I know.” I did my best Shake n’Bake impression. “…and I hepped.” I was joking but I wasn’t smiling.
“What do you mean, helped? Do I want to know?” She was asking a lot of questions again. What a day, nothing but questions.
“He came to Abe’s. Wanted me to get him in touch with you. Vandy showed up with the Flying Squad. I was forced to put the finger on my dear brother. He was hiding behind a case of toilet paper.”
“They use toilet paper at Abe’s now?”
That’s why I loved Valerie.
“He didn’t do it.” I braced myself for some of Val’s mutant feminist anger. She hates Mikey. See, she’s a feminist. She thinks women get a raw deal in our patriarchical society. Young girls get pigeon-holed and discouraged by a sexist educational system. Adolescent females become sexualized too soon by the secret Humbert Humbert-Lolita agenda at the core of our mass media. She would occasionally rail on about the psycho-sexual violence in the deep dark diseased heart of our culture, the organized mass marketing of pathological body images and so on. I never said a word when she was on one of those rants. I’d just keep reading my SI swimsuit issue.
Mikey is like the poster boy for all of those male sins. I would never defend him on those charges. I just knew he hadn’t killed Theresa, and I knew Valerie would violently disagree. Underline violently.
“He didn’t do it.” Please don’t hit me.
She gave me the you’re-a-typical-male stare. “Of course he didn’t. He’s a sleazy genetic dead-end, no offense to your bloodline, but he didn’t kill her. I know that.”
See how smart I am… except when it comes to women. As usual, I’d misread which way Val was going. Males are morons when females are involved. Even Einstein had an ex-wife.
“Yeah, everyone knew he used her. Everybody knew she quit him. Too many people saw them quarrel or whatever last night. Mikey ain’t that stupid,” I said.
“Oh my sweet little deluded man, yes he is. Your brother is a certifiable cretin. When he was fifteen, didn’t he sell marijuana to a cop sitting in a patrol car?”
“Yeah, but it was kind of dark.”
“Did he, or did he not, try to steal a semi-load of cigarettes while the driver, the very big driver, was bunked out in the berth?”
“And how about the time he tried to hold-up that bar…”
“Our uncle’s place?”
“He didn’t even wear a mask. Then there was the time he stole the FBI agent’s cell phone.”
“Hey, free long distance for three months…”
“With the Feds listening to every word, and all those phone numbers so neatly organized on the bill they received from Verizon.”
She was building a pretty good case. If Valerie had replaced Marcia Clark, O.J. would’ve worn the Brunos to court and confessed to Judge Ito before the court cartoonist finished coloring in the red on F. Lee Bailey’s nose.
“And what about his ear piece and the sure-fire way to rip off the casino blackjack table?
“He never got caught.”
“Caught? He lost over twenty thousand dollars. Why on earth would they want to catch him?”
Val ran a red light. A Hardware Hank van almost T-boned us. Squealing tires, tortured asphalt — oh, the inhumanity! Suddenly my spleen hurt.
She cranked the wheel right and continued without losing a beat. “The point is, Einstein, Mikey is stupid enough to do it. He’s also amoral enough to do it, and sociopathic enough not to feel bad about it. He’s sleazy. He’s an asshole. He’s an absolute candidate to murder someone…eventually. I just don’t think…”
“God, Val!” She almost took the side mirror off a parked Lexus. Her unpredictable way of using her hands, her ability to wait to the last millisecond before stopping, her penchant for swerving towards poles, the way she completely shut out the world around her until she arrived at her destination, the friction free environment she created; yes, the things that made her a great lover made her the most dangerous driver in the world.
I could hear the sidewalls of the driver side tires rubbing up against the curb on the median strip. By the way, it was the same median strip adopted by the Ku Klux Klan in the “Adopt a Median Strip Clean-up Campaign.” You may have heard about the court case. The Klan won the right to clean up the strip in Federal Court about a year back. That was the last publicity the thing got. That was the last time they appeared to tidy up.
Terrell Johnson — he owns the BBQ place on 11th called “Let-me-rip-out-yer Ribs” — and I got together. He does big business. We’d take all the garbage from his place — rib bones, chicken bones, saucy napkins — down to that median strip and dump it off in the middle of the night. Musta’ worn the Klan out. The sign’s still up and most of the bones are still there, too. It’s an appropriate shrine to the legacy of the Klan.
“Valerie, stay close to the middle…”
A green rib bone bounced off the trunk lid. She continued her thought. “I just don’t think he did it. Remember when he was arrested with the eighteen cases of stolen Arrow Vodka? How did they catch him?”
“He left it in his driveway.”
“Right, because he was too lazy to carry it into the garage, all of six feet away. And when they busted him when he was packaging the coke…”
“Didn’t shut the blinds.”
“He didn’t do it because he’s lazy. When I was down at the courthouse earlier, while you were living the high life at Abe’s, I talked to Kensington, the D.A. Nothing’s formal yet, but word is, with all the rain Saturday, the Albino Farm was empty Saturday night. Only one pair of unidentified tracks going up and tearin’ ass out. Those obviously belong to the theorized Sunday night teen patrons. Kensington was a bit concerned, but he said the cops weren’t worried about how your lovely brother got her up there. I’m going to try to get more out of Kensington later.”
“Later. They’ve got something else on him. But all that said, I know Mikey would’ve had to carry Terri’s body up there — up the big, tall, nasty hill. Ergo: he’s guilty, all right, just not of this crime.”
“Yeah, you can’t drive up there after a soaker. The road gets muddy, and you can’t get up enough speed, so the albinos’ll catch you. Pretty scary.”
“Who started calling that place the Albino Farm anyway?” Like I said, Valerie’s a Stanford girl. She ain’t from these parts.
“I don’t know, counselor. Probably some horny proto-con-man teenager back in the twenties. He made that great discovery that so many men have made.”
“Scared girls put-out.”
Val shook her head. “What kind of stupid-ass girl would believe that albinos were going to pour out of the woods and…and…what exactly would they do?”
“Terrible things, horrible things, their pink eyes glowing in the dark. The albino boys would creep up on the parked car with its steamed up windows, rip the car door open and pin the poor teenage make-out artist down while grabbing the poor innocent object of his affection.”
“Hey, I was a teenage girl once,” said Val, as she took a corner in a powerslide. I could smell the burning rubber — an appropriate odor for the moment. “Don’t give me innocent.”
“Well, you gals like to play innocent. That’s most of the fun. Anyway, the albino boys would give the girl a choice. Either have sex with the whole pale gang and be free, or refuse and die a terrible death while her boyfriend has the color sucked out of him and is condemned to wander the Albino Farm as a colorless zombie.”
“You went up there when you were a kid, didn’t you?”
“How could you tell?”
“It’s that pasty complexion of yours.” Val swerved around a wino, just clipping his brown paper bag. It was a waste of Mad Dog.
“There was a catch.”
“With men and sex there always is,” she said.
“If the girl gave in and let the albinos have their way…” I was doing my best spooky campfire voice. I paused for effect.
Val stole the punchline. “If she gave in, the pimply-faced boyfriend goes free, and the woman ends up with a bleached white fetus growing in her blood red womb.”
“You know the Albino Farm legend?”
“Not tough to see where that was going. Typical male propaganda. Either way, no matter what the girl decides, she’s on the short end, dead or pregnant with a bleached baby. Meanwhile, the guy wins. He’s either set free or turned into an albino sex machine, a win-win situation for your typical male adolescent. It’s bullshit.”
“Girls went for it all the time. It’s the adventure. Otherwise, you might as well just park behind the grain elevator.”
She looked at me like I was a fly on her PBJ. “Even a stupid, simple-minded, drug-addled, emotionally troubled teenage girl would see through that bullshit in a heartbeat.”
“Sure, and you of all people should know. Women, even young women always know. Fear and lust always hold hands, Val.”
“God, that was profound. Bottom line, Marty, there are no albinos and there is no farm, but they call it the Albino Farm?”
“That’s right.” I should have said left. Val ran a red light and missed a Budweiser truck by inches. There would have been a riot in Vaporville if she’d hit him.
“The Albino Farm is one of those magic places. Haunted spots that exist in every city, every town. Like your old girlfriend Sally and all of her crystal new age shit. The Albino Farm is an energy locus. A place where fate touches the earth and powers are unleashed and…”
“And bras are unfastened.” Val laughed.
“Precisely.” I had to give her that point. Suddenly, I was turned on. No, I was terrified. The Neon hit a two-foot deep pot hole, angled towards a safety railing, and at the last second, locked up the brakes and stopped. Riding with Valerie was damn near pornographic.
“So that’s a no on the whole making out thing?”
“Just get out of the car.”
“Listen, Val, I’m sorry…”
“I know you are.” She sighed. “Relax, I’m getting out, too. I want to show you something.”
“Oh, O.K.” I was almost sober. When I’m sober, all I’m usually interested in is getting not sober. Val wanted to show me something. I’d try to be interested. It was in my best interest.
She’d parked, and I use the term incorrectly, right in front of St. Philomena’s Catholic Church. I could barely open the door, she was so close to a line of untrimmed bushes. I unfolded out the door, scratched my face on some branches, and joined her in the middle of the street where it was safe.
Up a little embankment was the stained gray granite sanctuary. Built back in the Twenties, before Vaporville was Vaporville, before the area was called Dogtown, before the neighborhood was known as the Southside, when this was the heart of town, the church was small scale gothic. Square and heavy, the nave was crowned with an ornate tall steeple that didn’t fit the style. Some robber baron had bought salvation with a big donation and demanded the rococo appendage, architecture be damned. I don’t really know that for sure. But it sounds right. I’m just trying to give you a sense here. Trust me.
A matching squat house to the left; that’s the rectory. A cemetery to the right, the buildings surrounded by a five-foot-high stone wall, were on a shelf that ran about forty yards back to a steep wooded bluff The elevation took about an eighty degree shot up about two hundred feet to a little gap at the crest. That was the lookout — and the Albino Farm.
“See that hill?” She pointed at the hill.
“That hill?” I pointed at the hill. Just two people in the middle of the street pointing at a hill.
She gave me the “stop being a smartass” look. I stopped pointing.
“So, with no tracks leading away on the old muddy road out of there except for Romeo’s and Juliet’s, the kids who discovered the body, there’s only one way up. And from this side it ain’t easy. The perpetrator had to schlep the body up a couple hundred yards of overgrown bluff. And first he’d have to toss it over two walls. The front and back church gates are locked at night. Apparently, there are a lot of thieves in the neighborhood.” She gave me one of her quick, “you poor S.O.B.” looks. Apparently Val disapproved of my profession.
“Let’s take a peek.” As soon as I spoke, I regretted it. I was willing to believe Mikey was, here’s a laugh, innocent. But if I took the first step towards that church, I would be committed to help. I had a small problem or two with commitment. He was my brother. He was a low life. I didn’t even like him. Shit, he was family. I took a step.
By now it was pretty dark. Whenever I went to Abe’s, the day dissolved. The front gate, with a stone arch, led to a wide walkway up to the church steps. There was a big rusty lock on the wrought iron bars. It looked like something out of “Fall of the House of Usher” starring Vincent Price. I don’t even need tools for those. I fiddled and, with a little scrape, the lock popped open.
No, I’m not going to tell you how. I’m not doing a manual for young burglars here. Kids go on the internet and learn how to make bombs, how to make drugs, how to be snipers. I’m not going to be part of that kind of thing. Like I told you, I’m a really smart guy. There isn’t a lock I can’t open. Locks are easy. I can do other stuff, too, as you’ll see, but I’m not going to explain how. If you want your own atomic bomb, do a Google search.
If you walk around past the steps, there’s a fork in the walkway. Pick it up. Look for the spoon. Sorry, my jokes are better when I’ve had a few. Anyway, to the left is the rectory. There were some lights on the backside. The priest was probably eating alone in the kitchen. Father Douglas Hunter was an odd bird. I knew, because I’d been in the seminary with him.
Turned out he wasn’t alone. Val and I ducked back into the shadow of a ten foot juniper as two men came out of the rectory’s back door. A thin shadow of a man stood on the lit threshold letting them out. The yellow beam from the priest’s kitchen fanned out and filled in a wedge of illumination. The two men looked like a couple of heavies in a Raymond Chandler movie heading down the path. Heading right for us.
The shorter man turned his head as he walked and looked back at the silhouette in the Rectory door. “Just stay calm. And don’t talk to anyone!” His tone was cultured and reassuring in a slimy way.
“Yes. Yes. All right. Thank you, sir.” Doug Hunter, answering from his doorway, didn’t sound reassured. He sounded tired.
The men came closer. The tall guy was wearing a hat. Mister culture left a wave of cologne in his wake. I salivated – fresh cookies in the oven. He smelled fattening. It triggered a small déjà vu episode. There was some memory trying to get out of my nose.
They walked right by us. I wiped away the drool. The rectory door shut, and the shadow we were standing in spread out to cover the walkway again.
Val made a noise and bit my finger. I’d put my hand over her mouth without thinking. “Your technique with women is a bit primitive.” She was Lauren Bacall all of a sudden.
“Sorry, Val.” My Bogart was below average.
“Did you i.d. the cop?’ Val was in fine film noir mode now.
“The cop?” I hadn’t noticed.
“You didn’t see the hat? Dead give away, lover. A cop hat usually sits on a cop’s head.”
“The tall guy was a cop? Son-of-a-bitch.” A tall cop, no doubt Mr. Piss Puddle himself, Redlands, was half the couple — the TV star from the news bulletin of Terri’s murder. But what was he doing at the church at that late an hour? Getting a new rosary?
“The short guy was the D.A., Kensington, Joseph Francis Kensington — my dinner date.” Val said the name like there was a dead cockroach on her tongue.
“Dinner date? Slow Joe Kensington? Sure are a lot of Assumption alumni around.”
“Yeah. You know, my alma mater.”
“The seminary? The big dumb cop went to the seminary? You’re not making sense, Marty.”
“No, not the cop. I went to Assumption. Knew Doug Hunter there. And “Slow Joe” got his nickname there.”
“Kensington was a seminarian?”
“Not all the students were on the priesthood track. Some were just regular students. Kensington was a few years ahead of me. He was at Assumption College when I was there at Assumption High School– same campus. I didn’t really know him. I never hung out with the jocks. He was in some kind of trouble in Tirawa so his parents shipped him there. “Slow Joe” played football for the Assumption Friars. A real bully.”
“Sure isn’t in football shape anymore,” Val said.
“Yeah. Chubby fat-fingered guy now. What do you suppose the D.A. is doing here?”
Val shook her head. “And I’m figuring you’re going to clear your brother?” She didn’t have much confidence in me as a sleuth. Neither did I. “Kensington is more than a D.A.”
“More than a breath mint?”
“Hold the clever quips, Marty. Kensington hardly ever actually prosecutes people. He’s rich as hell and has a lot of political clout. That’s why he’s in the D.A.’s office. He’s a fixer.”
“Two mints in one,” I said.
Val almost slapped me. “Be serious. I wonder what he’s doing here?”
“Hell, I’m not even sure what we’re doing here.”
“We’re going to the crime scene.”
I looked up at the towering bluff behind the church. Climbing that in the dark? “Aw shit.”
We turned right on the path. We walked behind the church, past the doors to the sacristy. That’s like backstage. About twenty yards farther, we were in the cemetery.
“This is a little creepy,” Val whispered, a little human hiss in the graveyard.
“Want to make out now?” My voice boomed like the announcer at Yankee Stadium.
Val jumped a foot into the air. “Knock it off.”
“Relax, Val. Nothing bad has ever happened to me in a cemetery. A few good things have like…”
“Knock it off. Where’s the back gate?”
I’d been here before, as I was about to explain, with Janice Funk. She had eyes like her last name… nevermind… and cute inverted…well I shouldn’t go into teenage sex — it’s sacred. Let’s just say, I knew the place well. It was my childhood parish. “Over this way, Val.”
“You’re a sick puppy. You know that?”
“That’s why you love me.”
The back gate had another lock from the Dark Ages. Once through that, we were up against the trees. The ground climbed quickly. The surprise was the fieldstone path. I’d forgotten about it. It snaked up, a series of switch backs, all the way to the top. Masked by cliff clinging locust trees, the path was invisible from the street in front of St. Philomena’s. The thin straight trunks of the trees also offered some protection from falling. The drop-off at the edge of the path was extreme. It came out in a little clearing about thirty-five yards north of the outlook. We parted some wild lilac bushes, and pretty soon, there was the crime scene tape. I knew Carl Vandy, and I knew our local constabulary. They hadn’t gone any farther than this. They didn’t know about the path.
Vandy was plugged in. He was locked in. Mikey was the target. He knew Mikey and Terri were connected. He found out they talked that night. He knew they argued. He found something else. He didn’t give a shit how Mikey dumped her. He’d lean a little and find that out, no problem. Mikey was now, officially, the nearest breathing body.
“How big was she?” Val was still working to get her breath after the climb. Every once in awhile, when I’d been sober for a week or two, I’d nag her about smoking. It never seemed to go over well. Addicts get so sensitive.
“You knew her, Val, Maybe five foot two, about a hundred and five pounds. Maybe less after all that meth.”
“Well, tell you one thing. Mikey the Stick, meth dealer, lazy bones, didn’t make that climb.”
“So, who did?” I was afraid of the answer.
“That’s your job. He’s your brother. She was your friend.”
“Why don’t I just tell Carl Vandy what we know?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, that’ll work. He loves you. He’s just looking for an excuse to let Mikey regain his rightful place in polite society. Get real.”
I looked at the little hassock of grass by the lilac. Terri had been right here last night. I closed my eyes. I wondered what choice she had been given on the Albino Farm. I had a cold feeling that albinos were prowling. And I swear to God, I heard them. But the sound came from down below, in the city. I turned slowly, and I saw Jesus. I might still have been a little drunk. Or maybe it was the moonlight through the clouds hitting St. Philomena’s stone tower just beyond us. Looking out over the edge of the bluff, the garish cross came alive for a moment. Jesus’ face wavered in a quick moving shadow and became Terri’s face. She smiled.
“Let’s head back.” Valerie broke the vision.
I had to remember how to breathe. After a moment, Terri’s face faded, and Jesus returned to his pain on the steeple’s crucifix. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
So we hit the fieldstone path. Lit by the moon, speckled by the shadows of half-bare trees, I walked down it like a pallbearer. I didn’t look up. I was miserable. Halfway down, one little glint in the leaves changed everything.
Valerie was in front of me, so she didn’t see me pick it up. I looked at it as we negotiated the descent. It was a simple sterling icon on a thin silver chain, a Saint Christopher Medal. The Protector of Travelers had spoiled this trip.
I slipped it into my pocket. I had another one just like it…around my neck.
It was Mikey’s.