ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 31

            Life is complex, but the rules are simple.

            You find things, and you lose things.

            Sally had lost Valerie.  She blamed me.  It wasn’t me.  It was just the way life worked, the inevitable ebb and flow, the yin and yang, the ups and downs.  She didn’t see it that way.  I am constantly dealing with unenlightened people.

            When Torey and I came into the kitchen, I could tell it was a delicate situation.  Sally stood there like she was in “Lord of the Rings.”  Her body language was clear.  “You shall not pass.”  This could take some skillful negotiating.

            “Sal, honey, good to see you.  Valerie and I have been meaning to have you over.  You’ve been such a help.  Take Torey into the living room, will you?  He’s got a brand new Playstation and, well, you know I’m all thumbs, Sally.  You’re so good with kids and their kind of stuff.  I’m sure you could set it up so much faster than I could.”  I had one arm around Torey and then one around Sally.  Before she knew what hit her, she was in the living room.

            “Oh, and he’ll need some blankets and a pillow.  Make up the couch for him. Have him brush his teeth, too.  God, I don’t know how we’d get along without you.”  Torey ripped open the box and unfurled the connectors.  Ms. Rosemond stood there open-mouthed.  She had something to say, but it would be an hour or so before it would reach fresh air.

            “Thank you so much, Sal, old girl.”  As I said the last, I closed the bedroom door behind me and went to Valerie.

            “Valerie,”  I whispered.  I didn’t know if she was asleep.  I know, that doesn’t make any sense.  If she’s asleep and I want to wake her, why whisper?  If she’s not asleep and I want to talk to her, why whisper?  I don’t know.  Perhaps I thought it was a form of respect.  Why do you whisper in church when some blue-blazer clad madman is about to out-volume ZZ Top with a Bach tocatta on the giant pipe organ?

            “Is that you, Marty?”  Of course it was me.  Of course she knew it was me.  It was a rhetorical question, posed for dramatic effect.

            “Yes, it’s me.”  Don’t start again.

            She grabbed my hand and pulled me down next to her.  She snuggled up under my shoulder while I wrapped my arms around her.

            My dad used to hug my mom and say, “Put your beautiful head on my manly chest and let my heart beat your brains out.” My mom didn’t get it.  She never got it.  I did.  I thought of it now because, as weird as my mom was, my dad loved her.  All the way up to the day he left her.  Love is strange, indeed.

            “Are you all right?  What happened?”  That’s when she noticed I looked a little worse for wear.  My throat had a big bruise, and I winced when she leaned up against my ribs.

            “I’m O.K. now.  Are you hurt?” Val cared.  Heavenly.

            “Only because Sally doesn’t seem to like me,” I said.

            Val slapped my chest in fun.  That really did hurt.

            “What happened?  Redlands showed up, didn’t he?”

            The fun was over.  I thought she would cry.  But like I said, the fun was over.  She had cried all she was going to cry.  Now she was pissed.

            “That son-of-a-blue-titted-bitch!  Yes, he brought his reeking ass over here.  I saw him coming up the steps right after you left.  I thought I was going to piss my pants.  I didn’t know what to do.”  She was hitting me on the chest now.  I was in agony, but I didn’t let on.  It was her pain, center stage, right now.

            “I couldn’t think.  I felt like a kid being chased by the fucking bogey man.  I ran back into the bedroom and I…motherfucker!”  She broke two more of my ribs.  I swear.

            “What did you do?”  I urged her on.  It would be bad if her memory needle got stuck in that groove.

            She almost laughed suddenly, but her eyes were serious as it replayed in her head.  “I hid.  All I could think to do was hide.”

            “You could have gone out the window.”  It might not be the best time for constructive criticism.  But I had already said it by the time I realized that.

            She slapped me across the face, hard.

            “I didn’t think.  I opened the window, but I realized I didn’t have a blouse on. Remember?  I was wearing jeans and my white lace fucking Victoria’s Secret lift and point bra, you moron!  I couldn’t go outside, in public!”

            That made sense.  It was stupid, but I’d give her a pass on this one.

            “I started to go out the window.  But then I had a better idea.  I hid under the bed.”

            I was amazed.  Here she was with a murderous armed psychopath forcing his way into her apartment, intent on God only knew what kind of sadistic mayhem, and she had the presence of mind, the cool head, the savvy instincts, to hide under the cocksucking Sealy box spring?  She was demented in the true sense of the word, i.e. deprived of reason, insane. (Britannica Dictionary.)

            “Fuck me running.”  It was all I could think to say.  I frequently used the expression when a meaningless obscenity was required.

            She hit me again.  “I got all the way under just as I heard him open the door.  He called my name, and it sounded like he was cursing.  I wanted to hold my breath but I couldn’t.”  That was good.  It’s bad to hold your breath when you’re hiding.  I know from experience.  Eventually you have to breathe, and you tend to take too big a blow.  Slow, even, continuous breathing is the way to go.

            “I heard him rip out the phone.  He sounded like a Nazi stomping through the kitchen into the living room.”  Have I mentioned that Valerie is Jewish?  When she says Nazi she uses the term properly.  She must have been way past frightened.  We’ve turned Nazis into props in an Indiana Jones flick, or buffoons on “Hogan’s Heroes,” or just background noise constantly on the History Channel.  They were and are none of those things.  They are primal evil.  That word should be treated with care.

            “He went into the bathroom, and it sounded like he was rummaging through my medicine cabinet.  He threw my birth control pills in the toilet bowl.  I heard the splash.  He came in here….”

            It was getting very real for her again.

            “I could see his black shoes.  The bastard broke my princess phone!”  Val’s voice shook with anger.  “He went to the window.  Then he said, ‘Fuck!’  and ran back through the kitchen.  I heard the door slam.  I stayed under the bed.  I don’t know how long I waited there.”

            I just held her then, trying to comfort her.

            “I was still under the bed, I don’t know how long, when I heard the knock at the door.  I couldn’t move.  What if he was back?  What if it was a trick?  I just didn’t move.  I was so very very quiet.  I heard the door open again.  God, when it opened again, I peed myself.”  Now she did laugh.

            She sat up and shook me giggling, “I peed myself, Marty.  I couldn’t help it.  We’d had that coffee.  I’d had some wine.  I don’t know how long I lay there, and I didn’t even realize how badly I had to go.”  She threw herself back on the bed and laughed.  “I peed myself!”

            “Did he come back?  Was it him?”

            Still laughing, “When I looked out under the bed I saw those stupid New Balance shoes with ‘Sally R.’ written in Magic Marker on the backs — and her stupid little dingily anklet sock balls.  It was Sally!”

            So just as I suspected — Sally did have balls.

            “I screamed and crawled out from under the bed.  Sally helped me, and I just hugged her and hugged her.  I was all covered with pee and I got it on her, and I cried and she cried, and she held me and…”

            Great, I thought.  Sally and Valerie hugging.  I should have been happy she was safe, but jealousy had stopped by.  Jealousy is a curious thing.  You love somebody so much that you would rather see them dead than covering someone else with pee.  I like to think I’m beyond such a petty sin but I’m not.  When the cute nurse in the home changes my roommate’s colostomy bag, the green-eyed monster will be there.

            “Did you call the police?”  I didn’t want for them to have been alone for too long.

            “You are nuts!  A cop holds a gun to my head one night, stalks me, and then breaks into my apartment with God knows what on his fevered little brain, and you think I’ll call the police over to investigate?  He is the fucking police.”

            “Good point.”  It was a good point.

            “He took the video tapes.”  She was very serious now.

“I know.”  Between little jolts of pain, I told her how I had spotted them during my own episode with the industrious policeman.  Officer Redlands had been a busy boy.  I wondered if he got that much overtime everyday.  He was probably saving up for the new nursery.  I remembered something.  “Did he take that book?  The leather book on top of the refrigerator, did he take that, too?”

            “I don’t know.  I never noticed it.  What book is it?”

            “Just some poetry.”  I thought of Doug again.

“You’re all right?”  She checked my face for any other injuries. 

“Yeah, and I got these.”  I pulled out the videotape — with the good Monsignor’s hammy hand and damning ruby ring on it.  “Torey had this.”  I tossed it on the bed in front of Val.  “I know who he is.”

“Who?”

“The Chancellor.”

“Monsignor Shuldik?  Well, that was obvious.”

            “What do you mean, obvious?”

            “My dear boy, you forget.  I may have had a rich and maladjusted goy father.  I may have passed for Christian at my Stanford sorority.  But I also had a great aunt from the old country.  My Great Aunt Sophie taught me some Yiddish.  Shuldik, Marty.  Shuldik means…”

            “Valerie, don’t lay your Jewish wisdom on me right now, I don’t have time.  And chicken soup won’t help, either.”  I was being an asshole.

            “You’re such an asshole.”

            “You were saying?”

            “Shuldik is a Yiddish word that means ‘guilty one.’  Isn’t that perfect.”

            I wasn’t amused.  I was thinking about what the Monsignor had done.  “Fucking perfect.”  Val pulled away from me. 

            “I’m sorry.”

            “No, I’m sorry.  I am sorry.  It’s just…  I look at Torey… I remember Doug… the tape…  I’m spinning here, Val.  Then I find out you went through hell and…  I’m sorry.”  I was an idiot and I was sorry.

            Val teetered on the edge of either kissing me or slapping me again.  “It’s just ironic, that’s all.”

            “I’ve had enough irony today.”  I was feeling very tired again.

            I cuddled there with Val for about an hour and told her about the rest of my time at work.  It’s so important for couples to relate the events of their day, don’t you agree?  For instance…

            “So what did you do at work today, dear?”

            “Ah, it was kind of boring.  I fooled around with the smallpox culture all afternoon.”

            “Any progress?”

            “Well, we’ve got a strain that thrives in Lunchables.  Even the pepperoni won’t kill it.  Did you buy those new drapes?”

            Even the most banal lives are livable if they are shared. 

            I’m joking about things now.  At the time I was close to crying, like nearly everyone else had that day.  But like I’ve said, if I’m going to be sharp, I have to keep the noggin set on smart-ass.  I knew I had to keep the edge.  My trauma-wired brain was working in the background – figuring out a plan.  I wouldn’t fail like Terri had. 

The trick was too many people had to be figuring that I was getting ready to squeeze out a plot.  If one of them saw me coming, they’d all see me coming.  No, I couldn’t be crying.  I had to control my attitude.  I had to hide the shit.  I couldn’t even trust my friends.  If you trust people, they’re involved.  And I wasn’t about to involve Val – not in what I knew I had to do.

            We could hear crashes and sirens from the other room.  The sirens made Valerie tense up until I explained about the video game.  She hit me again. I told Val all about the reunion with Torey.  I told her my reasoning for stealing the Playstation.  She said she understood, and then she hit me yet again.  I decided not to tell her about the Sebring at the curb outside.  I was sore enough.

            We got up.  It was a slow, laborious process, but we got up and went into the living room.  Torey was enraptured by the game.  He was apparently in the process of driving some hookers to a big party downtown.  He got points or something for every girl he delivered.  He was mowing down pedestrians as he went on his frantic rounds.  Sally was not amused.

            “Why the hell are you giving this little boy a game like this?  Can’t you see the sexist lessons it’s teaching?”  When she was right, she was right. That didn’t mean I agreed.

            “Can’t you see he’s having some fun?  He needs some fun tonight.  Now lay off!”  I was not very nice.

            “Children…” Val came between us before I got hurt.  “Settle down.  Sally, can you make some coffee?”

            “Sure, Valerie.”  She headed for the kitchen.

            I took a shot. “Anything but French Vanilla.  I hate French Vanilla,”  I called after her.  Reverse psychology — nobody falls for that anymore, but what the hell.

            “We better call Kim.”  There Val went, being logical again.  Of course, she was right.

            I reached over and grabbed the phone.  I handed it to Val.  She started to protest, but then she remembered how Kim and I had some small difficulty communicating.  She stepped into the bedroom to make the call.  It was almost midnight, almost Friday.

            Torey was driving a Ferrari Testarosa now.  He was good with the stick.  He swerved right and ran over an old woman.  She left a bloody smear.  He swerved left and took out two street punks.  I started to think this might be therapeutic after all.

            “Torey?”

            “Huh?”  We were communicating now.

            “What’s the point of the game?”  I wanted to understand his world.  I wanted to connect.

            “Well…” He looked at me for a quick second to see if I really wanted to know.  “You can do stuff for this one bad guy, or you can steal ambulances and stuff, or beat up people.  Watch.”

            The Testarosa skidded to a stop, and a guy with a club got out.  That was Torey’s electronic proxy.  He walked over to a man who was standing at a bus stop and started beating him.  I felt sorry for the poor mope.  Torey clubbed him to the ground.  Blood pooled on the street.  He hopped back in the car and peeled out through an urban landscape that looked like Miami Beach on steroids.

            I wasn’t sure I got it.  “So, what’s the point?”

            Another quick look and he rolled his eyes.  “There is no point, I guess.  You just do stuff.  Anything you want to do you can do.”

            “Can you go over there?”  There was a beautiful park, barely visible in the distance.  “Can you go up to that park, into the trees, and commune with mother nature?  Can you swim out to sea until you reach Europe, and then tour the ruins of Rome?”

            No look this time.  “That’s out of bounds.  The game won’t let you go there.”

            It was quite a metaphor.

            “Why would you wanna do that anyway?”  Torey was laughing at me.  I was a little concerned about his future.  As I sat and watched the game progress, I grew more concerned each pimp-killing moment.  Torey had become a punk named Tommy Vercetti who sounded just like Ray Liotta.  He whacked a guy while riding a moped.  Then he rifled the corpse’s pockets.  All to the music of Wang Chung.  I was getting sucked in just watching.

            “Is it fun?”

            “Yeah.”  Torey was totally into electronic autism.  “Damn.”  A quick flash of emotion.

            “What?”

            “Shit — the color’s off on this TV.  I just noticed.  See that car.  It’s not supposed to be lavender.  And the water is too blue.”  He set the controller down and went to the TV set.  “Great, this one has some hue and tint controls.”  He fiddled with them.  Then satisfied, he jumped back on the couch and locked in on running over a crowd of Japanese tourists.

            I just watched him play.  I did try to talk to him a couple times.  Like, draw him out, as a therapist might say.  All I got was grunts and whines.  So I just watched, sitting next to him.

            Sitting there, I got an idea for a video game.  I would call it “Empty World.”  It would be a beautifully-rendered 3-D landscape.  It would be huge — a giant digital file.  You could travel in any direction for miles and miles across grasslands, through woods, up hills, you could swim rivers, climb mountains, you could never get to the end of it.  But — and here’s the trick — you are totally alone.  There is no one else and nothing happens.  Is it heaven or hell?  That would be life in my fantasy world.

            Val came back in the room.  Sally entered from the other direction.  In Sally’s head, it would be bad if Val and I were without her for more than a moment.  I could see how things were going to be.  On the bright side, I could smell French Vanilla coffee.  I’d specifically asked Sally not to make French Vanilla.  Reverse psychology, draw the lane marker line in a curve into the brick wall.  Toons — they fall for it every time.

            Sally had a couple mugs full.  One for Valerie and one for herself.  This was going to be fun.

            “When does that vacation of yours start, Sal?”  I was in the mood for slapping some sharp knifes.

            “Cancelled it.  Valerie needs me.”  Sally handed Val her coffee. 

            Val had finished the good news phone call.  “Kim was so relieved to hear that you found Torey, Marty.  Hey, Torey?”

            “Huh?”

            “Your mom’s on her way to get you.”

            “Yeah, O.K.”  He wasn’t enthused.

            “Father Corleone was with Kim.  He’s coming, too.  They’ll be here in twenty minutes.”  Val seemed relieved.  Let me see.  She had a boyfriend who was a thief, an alcoholic, a womanizer, a liar, with a meth dealing brother and a traumatized kid.  She was, forgive her, glad to think Torey would be gone soon.  So when was Sally leaving?

            “Damn!”  I didn’t mean to, but I said it out loud.  If Kim was coming here to get Torey, that meant the media, aka, Liz Nice knew.  If Liz Nice knew, then the story would be on TV by now.  I couldn’t interrupt Torey’s game to find out for sure, but that meant everybody knew, including Redlands.  He’d taken the tapes from Val’s place.  He had been sent to get the tapes.  God, was I just paranoid?   I hoped Father Corleone had been able to keep the cop out of this news loop.

            As Charlie Manson once said, “Paranoia is the path to true knowledge.”  The Monsignor’s boys had been to Saint Phil’s pretty quick after Doug’s suicide.  It was almost like someone downtown had tipped them off.  Was Kensington that eager to be Governor?   What would he do for politics?  And the Diocese?  They didn’t want Vandy snooping around.  I’d found Torey before they had.  I had the tape.  They had to know or suspect that I had the tape.  My God, Redlands was on the way.  I knew it.  Coreleone would have tried.  I figured he would have done his best.  I’d asked him to do the impossible.

            I went into the kitchen to get my coffee.  My stolen book was still on top of the fridge; “Poetical Works of John Milton,” bound in leather with golden gilt on the page edges.  In the harsh fluorescent light, it was beautiful, something to be treasured.  I’d sell it next week. 

Sally came in to get a refill on the coffee.  “What’s that?”

            “Just a book.”  I turned away quickly, and shoved the book into the big pocket on my Cubs jacket, like I didn’t want Sally to touch it.

            “You don’t have to worry.  I won’t steal it.”

            “Really, Sal.  That’s great.  I guess I can trust you then.  I pulled the book back out of my jacket along with some big balls of pocket-lint and stuff.  I set the book back on the top of the refrigerator.  “Men — we are so predictable,”  I said.  It was a private joke between me and Doug Hunter’s ghost about our gender’s skill at hiding things.

            “You’re nuts.”  Sally spun on her heel and headed back to be with Val.

            “You have no idea,” I called after her.  I stroked the leather cover wrapped like an old man’s skin around all of Milton’s beautiful words.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  That’s what they say.  But for the pictures of naked Torey, there was only one word.

            Evil.

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ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 30

            Couch potatoes are among the most dangerous of vegetables.

            One second they’re listlessly lounging on the worn cushions of the Scotch Guard-coated divan, then the cable goes out in the middle of the big game, and they jump to their feet bellowing.  They click the remote five, ten, a hundred times.  It’s no use — the signal is gone.  They bellow like a wounded Cape Buffalo.  An unsuspecting mate wanders into the rec-room from the kitchen to investigate.  The poor woman is bludgeoned with a bowling trophy before the words, “What is it, dear?” can escape her mouth.

            At first there was a murmur.  I was standing in front of the display row, blocking anyone’s view of the TV’s where I was making my dub of that horrible tape.  At first I just figured that there had been a bad referee’s call on the game that everyone was watching.  Football fans can take those kinds of things personally.

            After another fifteen seconds the murmurring got louder.  In fact, it turned into kind of a low grade growling, punctuated by an ocassional gasp.  Within thirty seconds, there were angry shouts coming from the crowd.  A woman three rows away from the video display looked up and looked at the fifty yard-long bank of screens.  I watched as her face turned from suburban to primitive.  She pointed and screamed.  It was one of the most frightening screams I had ever heard.  One part shock and disbelief and one part bloodlust and fury.

            I turned around and almost fell over.  Somehow I had plugged something in wrong.  Or else the series of connections that put the same picture on all the televisions was in some kind of curcuit that I was unfamiliar with.  I couldn’t think.  On every picture tube, flat plasma, and monitor was the sickening image of Torey’s humiliation.  Two hundred identical images in every size, 19 inch to 78 inch, in every resolution, on a billion pixels – a hand reached out, a ring flashed its bright color.  Brilliant, horrifyingly true colors arched across the store and into my eye.

            I was in shock — so was every customer in the back, middle, and soon even the front of the store.  The buzz spread.  There was anger and near panic.  I felt both emotions as well.  Employees started running towards the back of the store.  A pimply-faced kid with a name tag labeled “Buster” stood frozen, staring up at the perverted images.  A woman in a red smock, probably an assitant manager, rushed up behind him and yelled, “Turn it off!  Turn off the display!”

            Buster started button after button on a remote that he tugged out of his pocket.  Half the screens went blank with one punch.  Then another button and the other half of the pictures blinked black, but the half that had been off snapped back on.  Buster just kept pushing buttons.  The horror flashed on and off, left, right, top row, bottom row, on and off. 

            I finally got in a good breath.  I spun around and ripped out the tapes.  All the screens finally lost the signal.  But the angry shouts only intensified.  The cassettes ejected with maddening slowness.  I quickly stuffed them into my jacket and took off towards the front of the store.

            Everyone was in shock.  I kept looking in their faces, afraid someone would realize that I was the one who had brought the evil into the Christmas shopping holy place.  No one looked at me.  People were still staring towards the huge bank of blank video screens.  Like Lot’s wife, I looked back.  There was a flicker, then all two hundred screens were covered with Purple Wildcats and Red Cornhuskers colliding, tackling, and grunting in stereo wide-screen sanctioned violence.

            Employees were still racing here and there.  It was chaos.  I started to run, then remembered the security cameras and slowed down.  I had to blend in.  I looked over by the video game machines – no Torey.  I went back to the shelves full of “Grand Theft Auto” – no Torey.  I even tried household appliances and computers – no Torey.

            I sat down on a vibrating recliner.  I was having trouble breathing.  I’d found Torey, and now I had lost him again.  I was angry at myself, and to tell the truth, I was angry at Torey.  I shouldn’t have trusted him.

            I know that sounds like a strange thing to say, but it was true at that moment.  I was putting all my failure on him.  I was a bad father.  Hell, I’d been no father at all.  I actually had another thought pop into my head:  “How could Torey have let all this happen.”  It’s the cruelest of impulses.  The seemingly natural way it appears in our minds when something like the sexual abuse of kids happens is the most frightening damage that form of raw evil can inflict. 

            “How could he have let it happen?”  That thought overcame me, and with only an inch of mutation, my own rape memories resurfaced, and I was thinking – without thinking – “How could I have let it happen to me?”

            I should have been Torey’s father.  No matter what Kim wanted, or the mortal sin of betraying my own brother, or the consequences of my selfish indulgences, I should have demanded that the kid know.  I should have stepped up and been the best kind of dad I could be, even if I’d been a disaster at it.  The truth is always better than the rationalization.  “It’s all my fault.”  I kept thinking that.  It wasn’t self pity.  It was the truth.

            I looked everywhere in the store.  Torey was nowhere to be found.  I considered asking the manager to page him, but even though I was not thinking clearly, I had enough sense left to realize that would be crazy.  Finally I just left.  I walked out into the night and stood there sucking in the cold air and trying to exhale all the guilt.  Of course, I couldn’t just exhale the tumor of self-blame inside my gut.  That’s not how life works.

            It took me a few minutes to remember where I had parked the car.  When I finally found the right row in the lot, I couldn’t remember what kind of car I’d stolen.

            “Shit.”  I shouted it as loud as I could.  “Shit.”

            “Took you long enough.”  Torey was sitting in the Sebring not twenty feet to my right.

            “Torey.”  I almost started crying.

            “Dad.”  He had a grown-up chunk of sarcasm in that word.

            “Where?”  I had to half bend over.  I actually felt faint.

            “Nice distraction, Dad.  Thanks.”

            I kind of sleepwalked over to the driver’s side door and got into the car.  “Distraction?’

            “Yeah.  Pretty ballsy throwing that tape up on all those screens.  Sure made it easy for me to walk out of there.”  Torey had a PS2 box on his lap.  The videogame cartridge he’d lifted was sitting on top.  “It was pretty funny.”

            I almost hit him — I wanted to.  Torey was a fucked-up kid.  His own filthy assault up on two hundred screens in public, and it was funny to him.  He was damaged goods.  What could I say?  I’m damaged goods myself.

            “Yeah, Torey.  Funny.”  I was angry.  I was worried, too.  I’d seen the colors.

            I twisted the key, revved the engine, and got back onto the road.  I drove pretty fast.  Being alone with Torey was beyond my tolerance at that point.  We headed back to Val’s.  We didn’t speak a word the whole trip.

I bounced the tires off the curb when we got there, turned off the car and took a deep breath.  I walked arround to the sidewalk and opened the passenger door.  Torey got out of the car slowly.  He was holding the PS2 box like a life preserver.  I led him up the steps and opened the door.

            Sally Rosemond stood in the kitchen with her hands on her hips.  This had all the makings of a Greek epic.  Ulysses was home, but the place was overrun with suitors for his wife, Penelope.  Where was my bow?

            There’s something else you need to know.  When I met Valerie, she was involved in a committed relationship, a very deep and meaningful affair of two souls joined by fate.  But I broke that spell.

            It’s another sin on my ledger.  I was a home wrecker.

            And there in front of me stood my old rival,  Ms. Sally Rebecca Rosemond.

            I told you, my life is complicated.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 29

            My life is a little complicated.

            Some people skate through.  Some even throw in a couple double axles and a spin.  I do it on one foot, carrying an anvil on pond ice during a thaw.  I’m a mess.

            Sometimes I think with my head.  Sometimes I think with my heart.  Sometimes I think with my dick.  The success rate of those three modes of decision making are all about fifty-fifty.  The ancient Greeks believed that the liver was the seat of the soul.  Maybe I’d let my liver do the thinking for awhile.

            There’s the old story about the dog who chased every car that drove by his yard.  One day he caught one.  Now what was he going to do with it?  That’s the situation I found myself in.  I’d been chasing around trying to find Torey.  Now I had him.  Now what?

            I got Torey to pull himself together.  Actually, I think he was just plain cried out.  He splashed a little water on his face in the basement bathroom, took a piss, and chugged the last of a Mountain Dew.  That’s a very male ritual for facing the world.  I grabbed the video, gingerly, like it was poison.  We went upstairs.

            Mrs. Peres and Pies were sitting at the kitchen table.  They were eating some Chinese takeout that she’d brought home.  She didn’t look real pleased to see us, maybe a little hopeful we would be gone soon. Pies reached out and shook Plunker’s hand.  They were communicating on another level.

            “Thank you for taking care of Torey.”  I was genuinely grateful.

            “I did not know he was here until yesterday.”  She didn’t want any trouble.  She had seen Liz Nice’s endless live shots from the woods as the searchers slowly lost hope — and lost two volunteer Cub Scouts.  The Scouts, at least, were relocated, and the cameras got that “tearful reunion” they were looking for.  Hell, they got two for the price of one.  The Channel Six news director was so happy, he got a DUI that evening.

            “I won’t tell anyone where he was,”  I said.

            She relaxed a little.  “He is a good friend to my son.  Not all the children are so good to him.”

            Pies was different.  That can be a capital offense among children.  People say children can be cruel.  They’re not cruel, they’re primitive.  If someone is lame, or too near-sighted, or socially inept they will not be a help when the bison herd comes within range.  Kids, especially boys, instinctively gauge another’s potential hunting skills.  Girls?  I take back some of what I said.  Girls are cruel.

            “I thank you, and I thank Pies for your help.”

            She was offended.  “His name is Ramon.” 

            As usual, if there was a faux pas to be found, I found the whole pas.  I hoped he wouldn’t grow up to hit people with pipes in prison.  I pulled my money out.  I had about five hundred left from my foray at the Golden Calf.  I handed it to her.  Whenever I feel awkward, I reach for money.

            “Here.”

            “Oh, I cannot…”

            “I insist.  You have been a great help.”  I put my arm on Torey’s shoulder and led him towards the front door.  I hate the social game of “wrestling over the check.” 

            “But I cannot…”  She held the money out towards me, but not too far towards me.

            “Yes, you can.  Muchos Gracias, Senora.  Muchos muchos gracias.”  That was the end of my Spanish.

            She slipped the money into her uniform.  She was an LPN, after all.  She closed the door behind us as we stepped out into the clear, windless night.  It was about nine P.M.  I checked the time on the nice watch I’d picked up on my way out of jail such a long time ago.  I’d been there longer than I thought.

            Streets are empty after dark in Vaporville.  Honest people don’t go out.  Between the cops and robbers you weren’t safe, either way.  Torey and I headed up to a service station three blocks up.  I wanted to be in a well-lit area.

            I gave Torey the last three bucks I had, and he went inside to get some grub.  The edible stuff they sell at those places are the end of the over-processed food chain.  If you were to unwrap it all and scatter it on a vacant field, you could come back in six months and it would all look the same.  The colors are fixed, the shelf life is infinite, and the sheer durability would make any pyramid builder proud.

            After he went inside, I tried Valerie’s number again on the cell phone.  This time somebody answered.

            “Zebnerwincwki residence.”  It was a woman.  She could pronounce Valerie’s last name.  It worried me.

            “Who’s this?”

            “Pardon me, sir.  You called me.  It is generally accepted that the proper etiquette is for you to introduce yourself first, and then inquire as to whom you are speaking.”

            My head hurt.  “Who’s this?”

            “As I explained, you should say, ‘Hello, this is — Your Name Here.  To whom do I have the pleasure of speaking?’  Is that simple enough?”

            It was Sally Rosemond.  Shit, shouldn’t she be in the Bahamas by now? “Sally, put the fucking phone down and get Valerie.  I need to talk to Valerie now!”

            She hissed through her nose.  Don’t ask me how, it’s just something Sally does.  The phone clunked down — on the table, probably.  I heard some voices in the background.  Sally has a loud voice.  I could make out what was being said.

            “You don’t have to talk to him, sweetie.  Don’t talk to him.”

            I could hear Val, but it was harder.  “Give me the phone, Sally.”

            “It’s only going to mean more trouble.”

            “I want to talk to him.”  It was very worrisome.  Valerie was almost passive.  I had a horrible feeling she was going into one of her depressions.  The last time the black dog got her… well, let’s just say I didn’t enjoy going to that place to visit her.  And I had to work way too hard to pay the bill.  The Public Defender’s health care plan only covers wounds that actually bleed.  Val’s a scrapper, but sometimes she hits the psychic brick wall.  She’s just doing the running-away-from-childhood marathon with the rest of us.

            “But Valerie, it always ends up the same way.  Let him go.  We could…”

            “Give me the fucking phone, Sally!”  That was the Val I knew and loved.

            Some more clunking — then,  “Marty?”

            “Yes, Val, it’s me.  Are you all right?”

            I always chose the wrong opening line.  She burst into tears.  It was a day for tears.  Did I get a turn?

            “Valerie… Valerie?”  But the tears went on — and the sobs.

            “Valerie, I’ll be right there…”  The low battery signal beeped.

            “I’m… I’m… I’m doing better now.  It was…”  The line crackled.  Then it was Sally’s voice.

            “Don’t come… Haven’t you… asshole… damn mess…”  The battery gave up.  The phone went dead.  I shouted into it anyway.

            “I’ll be right there!”  I pegged the phone out across the street into the darkness.  It made me feel a little better.  Futile gestures can be good for you.  Never discount misdirected anger.

            Torey came out working the last four inches of the reddest wiener I’d ever seen.  Didn’t they outlaw Red Dye #9?

            His mouth was full, but he spoke, “Dadth.”

            He called me “Dadth.”  My heart was all warm and tingly.

            “Dadth, where areth you going thnow?”

            “We are going, we are going to Valerie’s.  We’ll stay there while I figure some things out.”  What was I going to figure out?  I didn’t know the answer or the question.

            “Does she have a Playstation?  Does she have a good color TV?”  He was done with the dog and as crazy as any thirteen-year-old normal boy.  A Playstation?  That was the top of his priorities?

            “No, Torey, no Playstation.  And she’s only got an old color TV.”

            “Can we go to my house first and get my PS2?”  He was serious.

            “Torey, some things have happened.  I don’t think…”  Then something he had said clicked.  I grabbed his hand and tugged him to his feet.  “C’mon, lets go.”

            “I need my Playstation.”  Like most kids, he was relentless

“Just c’mon, Torey.  Trust me.”

“Yeah, right.”

            When things get tough in a child’s world, they each have a certain specific method for coping.  Some want their blankies, some their pacifiers.  Some kids want food.  It comforts them.  I used to vegetate in front of a T.V. when I was young. When we get older, those comforts mutate into sex, liquor, drugs, or the food thing continues.  None of them really make any difference in our situations.  But they seem to help at the time.  Maybe that’s enough.

            I tugged Torey behind me across the parking lot.

            “Ow.  You’re hurting me.  Where are we going?”  Torey had that whining sound that kids can turn on at will. 

I was trying to love him.  I guess I did – in my own way.  But I have to confess that, up to then, if I  liked children it was only so long as they were other people’s children.  Maybe that’s why I hadn’t protested when Kim cut me out of the daddy role with Torey.  It was cooler being the uncle – free to leave whenever things got real.  I’m ashamed of that now.

“Where are we going?”

“Best Buy.  We’re going to Best Buy to get you a Playstation.”

He stopped resisting.  “Cool.”

            The problem was, it was at least three miles to the slightly ratty South Hills Mall, the nearest Best Buy location.  I needed a car.  I know, I said I didn’t drive because I’d lost my license.  I did respect that one law at least.  It was my one last grip on social responsibility.  I let go.

            There was a Chrysler Sebring in the lot.  It was almost brand new, a very attractive, almost bronze color.  It had all the bells and whistles including a Commando 501-S security system.  The owner also had one of those Club things to lock on the steering column.  In twenty seconds, we were heading east towards the 460.

            Yes, I am good at what I do.  But in this case, the car was idling unattended, and the Club had been in the back seat.  Whatever, we were at the store in five minutes.  It was open until eleven.  The Christmas shopping season was officially on.  I think it started on November eleventh, 1952.

            The light inside the store was intense, especially after the relative darkness of the store dumpster.  Torey was racing ahead of me down the electronic game aisle.  He was my son all right.  I watched as he pocketed a “Grand Theft Auto, San Andreas” without even  the slightest disruption in his stride — a real piece of slight-of-hand.

            “Torey, you get the PS2.”

            “Whatta’ you going to do?”  Torey was checking the overhead security cameras without looking like he was checking the overhead security cameras.  I was more than a little proud.

            “I’ve gotta get something in the back.”  I pointed across the store to the TV section.

            “Cool.”  He was off towards his prey.

            These modern “box stores” like Best Buy are enormous, big enough for indoor track meets.  With holiday shopping underway, the place was crowded.  All that space and all those people, I was figuring on those factors helping my little plan.

            On the back wall of the space was a triple-decked row of small TV’s, medium size TV’s, big TV’s, plasma screens, projection units large enough to use in a theater – basically every kind, type and dimension made in Taiwan, Korea, the Marshall Islands, or wherever the congressional leadership had made the last, best deal for their contributing CEO’s.

            Every screen was showing the same picture.  There was some big football game on.  The bright purple K-State Wildcat jerseys were colliding with the vivid red pants of the Nebraska Cornhuskers on a bright green astro-turf field – Purple Pride versus Big Red.  The colors were true and intense.  Everything the modern video consumer looks for.  About a hundred men, bored while their wives shopped elsewhere, were staring slack-jawed at the broadcast.  I remember thinking that it was a great distraction.  I should be able to work without notice.

            Like Torey, I didn’t even skip a step going by the connector cable display.  I had grabbed a good double-pronged mini-plug set with no one being the wiser.  And I snagged a blank tape and shed the wrapper under my coat without a single suspicious gesture.  I headed over to the far end where they had some of the smaller sets – the ones with the TV/VCR combo.  I spun one around and popped in the cables, then repeated the move with the unit next in line.

            I pulled Torey’s tape out of my Cubs jacket and slid it home in one set while the blank tape went into the other.  I hit rewind, waited a second, and then hit play on the first unit and record on the second. Then I turned, and with my back to the screens, I puffed out my jacket and leaned back.  The televisions were small, and I could cover the two displays easy.  I leaned back and tried to act casual.  It would only take about three minutes to make the dub.  I only needed a copy of the early part of the tape, the part with the hand and the ring.

            That’s when things went wrong.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 28

            I ran away once.

            I was ten years old.

            I was fed up with mom and whatever.  Weird that a ten-year-old could be so fed up, but I was.  I grabbed one of mom’s old purses from the closet in the upstairs hall. I packed it with underwear, some shirts and jeans, a few unmatched socks, and my Cubs hat.  I put in my little magnetic chess set and my Yahtzee game.

            I went to my pal Cutter’s house.  He met me at the door.

            “What’s the deal, Pater?”  They called me Pater then.  It’s Latin for “Father.”  Everybody knew I was destined for the priesthood.

            “I need a place to stay, Cutter.”

            He didn’t blink.  Of course I needed a place to stay.  He’d been around my place.  He understood.  He took me down to the basement.  That’s where his room was.

            Now I was only three doors down from my house, but they didn’t find me for two days.  And that’s from when they started the search.  Mom didn’t notice me missing for almost a full day – that’s a fifth and a half in “mom time.”

            That was my experience with running away.  The prison psychologist told me I used booze to run away.  Then she put her hand on my knee.  I didn’t really trust her.

            Redlands had worked me over pretty good, but I was able to keep my eyes on the cockeyed kid.  There was no doubt in my mind.  When a kid runs away, he runs to a friend.

            I had seen Pies head into the third house down.  I knew in my gut Torey was in there.  I sat in the storefront doorway healing from my one-sided interaction with Redlands for awhile.  I pulled Vandy’s cell phone from my pocket.  I punched in Valerie’s number and hit send. 

            Redlands had been there.  He had seen me leave earlier that afternoon.  He had the video tapes from St. Phil’s.  Was Valerie O.K.?  I had too many important things to do at once.  How can you be in two places at once, when you’re nowhere at all?

            It rang…  It rang again…  It rang again… Six rings… Seven… Ten… Fifteen… Shit!  Why didn’t she pick up?  Why didn’t the answering machine pick up?  I disconnected.  I didn’t know what to think.  I did know what to think.  But I couldn’t.  I couldn’t think it.

            I had a task ahead of her on my list.  God, forgive me.  I had a task ahead of her.  Blood is thicker than water.  It’s a family affair, like Wyclef Jean says on the “Soprano’s” soundtrack.  I walked across the street.  Each step hurt.  Each step hurt less.  I was at the door.  I hesitated.  Do I knock?  If I shake this bush, will the bird fly away?

            It was a school day, so I wasn’t surprised that Pies was home.  I’d seen him in the street  after he’d no doubt gone outside to see what the ruckus was — my bloody self being the ruckus.  As a bad boy myself it seemed obvious.  Mother Pies was at work.  Probably pulling a double shift wiping rich people’s asses at the home, something like that.  I opened the door.  It wasn’t locked.  That didn’t surprise me.

            It was a poor person’s house, but there was no poverty here.  There was a little shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe just inside; a little statue and some plastic flowers and a few votive candles.  The front room was small, with a recliner covered by an Afghan to hide the rips, I was sure.  A worn couch was under the window.  It was worn but clean.  The drapes and carpet were K-Mart, but respectable.  The kitchen was clean.  The dish rack full of the breakfast dishes sat by the sink.  The refrigerator was small and old and covered in magnets, holding kids’ school papers and drawings.  To the left of the back door was another.  It had to be the basement.  It was partially open, and I could hear TV gunfire coming up the steps.  I could hear the boys talking.

            “What was up outside?”  It was Torey.  I wanted to run down there and …  I made myself take it slow – always a good idea in a strange house.

            “Nothing.  A cop beating the shit out of a crackhead.”

            “This monitor sucks.”

            “Look out.  Get the one on the left.  Up in the tower.”

            “Got him.  Look, the blood is the wrong color.”

            “It’s bug blood.  Whatta’ you expect.”

            “Bug blood shouldn’t be red.”

            “Shut up.”

            I went down very slowly.  The gunfire was sporadic.  At the bottom was a big cellar room with wooden columns.  A washer and dryer were against the far wall.  Light flickered out of a door.  I stepped to it and bent my head around the corner.

            Pies and Torey were side-by-side on a bench covered with brightly colored pillows.  Their faces glowed, intently focused on a screen to my left.  Their fingers were madly clicking away on the controllers they clutched close to their chests.  Torey’s tongue stuck out like Michael Jordan putting a nail in the Lakers.  Pies was looking straight at me.  No, he wasn’t.  I stepped into the room.  Neither of the boys even looked up.

            “Torey.”  I had to control my voice.

            They played on.  There were several explosions.  The screen was full of monsters.  Two heavily armed figures with yellowish skin were dashing back and forth.  Bug-eyed aliens with purple eyes were attacking.  Giant snakes were writhing everywhere.  One of the figures was suddenly swallowed by a nightmarishly distorted Freudian-toothed worm.

            “I’m dead,”  said Pies, dropping his controller.  “Shit!”

            “I got him,” said Torey.  His tongue stuck out further. “I got him.”  The worm’s teeth flew in a million directions as it disintegrated.  Crimson bug-blood splattered on the screen.

            “Torey.”  I suddenly thought of how frightening I might look to them.  Redlands had worked me over good.  I’m sure I smelled unpleasant.  They didn’t seem to notice me.  They didn’t react at all.  Then another big explosion and a run of dramatic music.  Torey stood up and did a victory dance.

            “You got him, Plunker!  You got him!”  Pies was slapping Torey’s hands.  So Torey was “Plunker.”  I wondered what it meant.  He had a nickname.  He had a friend.  He looked at me.

            “Uncle Marty.  What are you doing here?”

            Should I hug him or wring his neck?  It’s a dilemma all parents face every five minutes or so.  The thought was more evidence that my paternal feelings were starting to kick in big time.

            “What are you doing here?”  Torey asked a question I couldn’t answer easily. 

            I returned the favor.  “What are you doing here?”

            “I’m sick of school.  I’m just hanging out.”  He didn’t answer me, either.

            I looked down at the table in front of the bench.  There was a black video tape sitting next to the PS2 video game console.  The vibe it put out was identical to the tapes hidden in St. Phil’s Rectory – just one of those things I can feel when my hyper-vigilence switch is thrown.  It was the video Torey had grabbed as he ran for his life.   Doug’s “mistake” video.  The kid took it that Sunday night when Doug Hunter’s “Saviour” had killed Terri.  I looked down at it sitting there like an obscene plastic stain.  He looked down.  We both looked up.

            I thought I’d cut to the chase.  “Want to tell me about it?”  He knew what I meant.

            “Talk about what?”  He slumped back down on the pillows.  Pies laid back, too.  He was ready to cover Plunker’s back.  That’s what friends are for.  “What?”  Torey was putting on the innocent face.  He looked just like me.

            “I know what’s on the tape, Torey.  I know what happened at St. Philomena’s.”

            “Nothing happened.  Are you drunk?”  Torey knew how to hit below the belt.

            “Pies…”  I turned to his friend.  “Pies…”

            “Yeah.”  He was trying to read this stranger’s voice.  The man he had just seen down on all fours on the corner was talking to him.  He was trying to read me quickly.  That’s an important skill down in this part of town.

            “Run upstairs and make us a snack.”  I wasn’t looking at Pies now, I was locked on Torey.

            “What?”

            “Make us a little snack.  Some microwave popcorn, whatever, just take your time.  Plunker and I have to talk.”

            Pies read me.  He got up and headed up.  Just like that.  He read me right.  Torey settled back.  He picked up the controller and cancelled the pause button.  The music started up again.  I reached down and flipped the Playstation’s power.

            “Shit, Marty, I didn’t save.  Damn!”

            “Listen to me, Torey.  I know.”  I was good with locks, but this one had me baffled.

            “You don’t know anything.”  Torey might have been right, but…

            “Your dad was charged with murdering Terri.  You knew Terri.”

            “Mikey’s not my dad.”  God, how did Torey know?

            “Whatta’ you mean?”  He couldn’t know.

            “You know my mom.”  He said a lot with an economy of words.  He had seen all the new guys come and go.

            “Mikey’s been charged with murder, Torey.”

            “Like I should give a shit.  I know he’s not my father.  He was always a prick.  Fuck him.”  So hard, so young, so familiar.

            “You know he didn’t do it.  You know who did.  You going to let this happen?”  Great, now I was making him responsible.

            Torey took a deep breath.  His gaze turned back to the blank screen.

            “It’s not your fault, Torey.  It’s not your fault.”  He shouldn’t be on this hook.  I had to pull him off.  I hate big steel hooks, especially this kind.

            He looked into space.  He almost looked like Doug Hunter for a second.  It made me shudder.

            “Torey… Torey… I’m your father.”  Jesus, did I sound like Darth Vader?  How do you say something like that gently?  Was I torturing him like…  I was lost, then something in the room changed.

            Torey started to cry.  He cried like a baby.  That’s the only way to describe it.  He came unglued.  He fell back and covered his face with a pillow and bawled.  Even muffled, it tore me apart.  I went to him and did something I had rarely done to Torey.  I touched him.

            I touched him.  I laid my hand on his jerking chest.  He just cried.  Then almost imperceptibly he moved closer to where I sat.  I moved closer to him, and then I held him.  My chest replaced the pillow, and he sobbed into me.  I felt his pain cross into me physically.  I didn’t know what to say.  I just held him.  I heard noise upstairs, but I ignored it.  It might have been Spanish.  The basement was getting darker.  Evening was coming on, and Torey cried.

            “I’m so sorry, Torey.  I’m your dad, and I’m sorry.  I’m your father.”

            He caught himself and looked at me.  He moved slightly back and rubbed at his eyes with one hand.  The other held one of mine.  Then with the hand that had been at his eyes, he slapped me.  It stung.  He slapped me again.  My eyes burned.  I could have stopped him.  I didn’t.  He slapped me again.  Then he put his face back into my chest and cried again.  I held him.

            When he stopped, it was abrupt.

            “Now things are supposed to be O.K.?”  He was looking at the screen again, away from me.  He sat up and put some distance between us.

            “I don’t know.  But I found you.  Everybody’s been looking for you.  You’ve got to tell what you know.  You’ve got to go back home.”

            Torey just looked at me blankly.  The momentary bond he’d felt for me had been suppressed.  “I’m not going home.  I don’t know anything.”

            “I’m your dad, Torey.”  I said it automatically.  “I’m your dad.”  Like that was the reason he should listen to me.

            “You’re my dad.”  Torey’s voice was flat.  He looked down at his empty hands.  “But you told me, everybody told me Mikey was my dad.  Him and me were at the park — on the rides.  I watched it over and over.  Mom told me.  You told me.  He was my dad.  I watched it a million times.  I just wanted a dad.  You lied.”

            “I’m your dad.”  I was in an emotional echo chamber.

            “He wasn’t my dad.”  Torey looked at me.  “And you weren’t my dad.  Funny thing is, I used to wish that you were.  You lied to me.”

            “Let’s go home, Torey.  You can’t stay here.  You’re in danger.”  It was all I could say.  I felt a lot of guilt and remorse and all that twelve-step bullshit.  But all I could say was,  “We’ve got to go.”

            “I can take care of myself.”  Torey tried to believe that.

            “You saw Terri get killed.”

            “Maybe I saw her get hurt, that’s all.”  I knew the look.  He was figuring out which truth he could get away with.  It was just what I would do.

            I repeated myself.  “I know what happened, Torey.”  But then I stopped telling the truth that I could get away with.  I told every bit of it.  “Father Hunter told me everything.  He said you grabbed that tape.”  I pointed at the table.  “He said you saw Terri fall.  She saved you, and you ran away.”

            “Maybe…”

            “Terri saved you, Torey.  She saved you.  Who killed her?”  I was going too fast.

            “What did she save me from, Dad?”  Torey used the word “Dad” like a fist.  Every time he used it was like another punch.  “Tell me, Dad, what did she save me from…Daddy?”  I was defenseless.  “Tell me, Dad.  Tell me what she saved me from.”

            I had to go on, anyway.  “I know what’s on the tape, Torey.”

            “There’s nothing on the tape.”  His tone was flat.  He reached over and flipped the game machine back on.  It beeped as it booted up.  I turned it off and grabbed the tape off the table.  There was a VCR under the TV.  I shoved in the tape and hit play.  The screen blinked, then hissed, and there was Torey.  He lunged at the controls.  I grabbed him and held him as the images ran. 

            Torey saw himself – bluish-tinged skin — naked.  He saw other things. Images of Torey all alone and naked and…the tape ran.  “That’s not me.”  Torey sounded far away.

            “That’s you, son.  That’s you.”  I didn’t know if I was damaging him more than he had already been damaged.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  But I had to reach him.  I’d found him, but I hadn’t reached him.  It seemed very important.  I still wonder if it was the right thing to do.  Maybe I regret what I did.  But that’s what happened.  I won’t deny what I did.  I played the tape for Torey because I couldn’t bring myself to slap him.  I know that doesn’t make sense.  Most of my mistakes don’t.  “That’s you, Torey.”

            “That’s not…”  He was almost hypnotized by the picture tube as it played out that little sick solo scene.  “That’s not…”

            “Torey!  I know.  I was raped when I was twelve!  I got raped, too.  Do you hear me.  I know what it does to you.  He almost killed me.  I know!  I know!  I know!  I know!”  Was I shaking him?

            “That’s…”

            “Please, Torey.  It’s not your fault!  It’s not your fault!”

            He took a quick, spasmodic breath – then another.  “That’s me.  That’s me.”  He wept again.  The only light in the room was the screen and its obscene glow.  The horrible images on the old screen were wrapped in a rainbow border.  Torey was back in my arms.  “That’s me!”

            “Who did it, Torey?”  This was all so familiar.

            “I can’t tell you.  It was nobody.  I did it myself.”  The image was only naked Torey.  It was pathetic.  “I did it myself.”

            “Did Father Hunter make this tape?”

            “No.”  He was emphatic.  “No, Father Hunter was never there.  He just let me in the door.  He was scared, too.”

            “Who was it, Torey?”

            “I can’t tell you.  He’ll hurt Father Hunter.  They’ll hurt me.”

            All of it now, no holding back.  “Father Hunter is dead, Torey.”

            The kid acted like I had slapped him.  “No…no…no…”

            “He’s dead.  Who did this to you?”  I pointed at the screen.  Torey turned his head.  I  shouted.  “Who did this to you!?!”  I forced his head back towards the screen.  “Who did this!?!”

            “I can’t tell you, I can’t.”  He was whimpering.  Then he caught his breath.

            I looked up at the TV.  The camera was zooming in on my naked son.  There was a blur like something was waving.  Yes, a hand was waving a direction to the boy.

            “Madre Dios!”  Mrs. Pies had come home.  I hadn’t noticed her coming downstairs.  She had heard us talking.  She was concerned, but Pies had told her to leave us alone.  When she heard me shouting, her maternal instinct took over.  She had come down in time to see the naked boy on the screen.  “Madre Dios.”   She fumbled with the VCR remote.  “Stop this.”  Mrs. Pies hit pause, the image froze.  Naked Torey with a sick look on his face and a hand from the left side of the screen.  A finger pointing.

            “What is this?  What is this?”  Mrs. Pies was frantic.  I grabbed the remote out of her hand before she could hit another button.  “Oh, Madre Dios.”  Her eyes were locked on the screen.  She backed away. She crossed herself.

            The hand with the pointing finger.  What it was pointing at was unimportant.  What directions the man was trying to give was of no interest.  It wasn’t the pointing finger that stopped everything in the basement room. Another thick finger on that hand stood out.  The ring finger.  The color was bright red.  A big red ruby ring wrapped around thick, short, obscene fingers.

            I recognized it.  And Mrs. Pies knew that ring, too.  “The bishop’s ring?  It is the Monsignor Shuldik?  But he is a holy man.”  She seemed confused by what she had seen.

            Torey buried his face in my chest.  I had known, almost.  Now, as I saw the final proof, I could barely catch my breath.  I was as frozen as the image of that naked boy and that holy ring.  Mrs. Pies — her name was Rosalita Peres — took the remote back from my numb hand.  She turned off the VCR.  She acted as if she were touching a hot burner.  Her finger hit the button and withdrew in a blur.  She turned on the light in the room.

            “I will leave you two for awhile.  But you must leave soon and take that,” she nodded her head towards the player, “with you.”  She was not hostile, but she was firm.  She had a boy to protect, too.  “I never saw anything.  I want no part of this.  As far as I am concerned, you were never here.”

            “But you did see it!  How can you…?”

            She turned her back and made an irrevocable proclamation,  binding in this world, and beyond.  “You were never here.  I have seen nothing.  That is the way it must be.  I do not know you.  I do not want to know you.  I will leave you and the boy now.  Gather his things, take that sinful tape, and leave my house.”

            Her words were formal and final.  I knew there was to be no argument.  She had helped all she could.  She would help no more.  “We won’t be long.”

            She went back up the stairs, and soon I could hear Spanish from the kitchen.

            I turned to Torey.  “It was the Monsignor?  Shuldik?  Is she right?”

            “I want to go home.”

            I pulled out the cell phone and dialed up Valerie again.  It rang twice, and then it was answered.  Thank God! “Valerie!” Then another ring.  There had been no answer, only a random click.  The phone rang on unanswered.  I imagined the ring echoing through Val’s kitchen, across the dinette table into the little hallway and into the bed room.  The rings continued in my ear.  I listened to them go on and on until I couldn’t listen anymore.  I slapped the cell phone closed.

            It felt cold in that basement.

            In my addled mind, memories are always shifting.  Glycerine-coated synapses finally fired off an overdue signal.  I remembered the young advisor to some of the high school senior seminarians at Assumption.  He’d only come across campus once a month or so to counsel some of the more devoted boys.  He’d spent most of his time with the college guys.  An athletic priest that some of the boys really liked, and some avoided for unknown reasons.  And I remembered his name.  The boys had called him Father Lee.  I’d never met Father Lee myself —  except one morning in my junior year at Assumption when I’d served as his altarboy.  I remembered his thick fingers as he gave me holy communion, and I remembered the heavy aroma of ginger.  Father Lee.  Father Leo.  Father Leo Shuldik.

            I had the proof.  I’d suspected Shuldik.  At that moment I was sure.

            He was the same guy.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 27

            If you catch a chameleon on a plaid blanket, he’s history.

            I’ve always been pretty good at blending in.  I can change the way I walk so that I don’t look out of place in a nice neighborhood where I don’t really belong.  I can adjust my posture so it looks like it’s my car I’m standing next to.  I always dress for success in the particular zip code I’m working.   I can use a nasal tone of voice when it fits.  If I’m surrounded by hummingbirds, I can flap my wings very fast.  Sometimes I can be so ordinary I disappear.

            When I was thirteen, I started learning about hiding in plain sight.  I used to mix my mom’s martinis.  Then one day, I made an amazing discovery.  I rank it right up there with the accidental discovery of penicillin on an old bread crust and vulcanizing rubber.

            Gin on ice looks just like water on ice.  Mom couldn’t tell the difference.  I could mix up a drink for her and dispense one for me simultaneously, a martini for her, a clear glass tumbler full of straight gin for me.  It was perfectly camouflaged, because it wasn’t camouflaged at all.  It replaced Tom Collins Mix as my favorite beverage.

            I had two tumblers that night and discovered something wonderful.  Alcohol transported me to heaven.  The next morning I woke up in a bed full of vomit.  I cleaned everything up myself.  It wasn’t unusual for me to do the laundry, and Mom and Dad slept late like they always did.  I eventually learned it was best to throw up before you went to bed.

            At first I’d put my finger down my throat, but that was unpleasant.  So I just learned how to throw up.  Simple.  I could do it anytime I wanted.  Call it “Male Pattern Bulima,” whatever, I don’t care.  Sometimes I did it at school to avoid unpleasant situations.  No one will hit you if you’re in the middle of a good up-chuck.

            So as I cowered in the sewing machine shop doorway with Officer James Redlands’ crewcut eyes drilling a hole through me,  I summoned my mystical powers.  I slumped like a homeless drunk.  I let my face sag and my skeleton shrink.  I wanted to look like I belonged where I was, on Eighth and Younger in beautiful Vaporville.

            Redlands stopped the car.  He was no more than fifteen feet from me, looking across the seat and through the passenger side window.  That’s when I threw up.

            It was pathetic as it could be.  I hadn’t eaten since lunch with Mattie on Tuesday.  I was low on every vitamin known to man.  Starved like a coyote in an empty desert.

            A pathetic little regurgitation, I had hoped for more.  Cops don’t like to hassle people who are throwing up.  It will cost them valuable time cleaning out the backseat.

            Cabbies are the same way.  Well, obviously, sometimes they won’t pick you up at all.  But try this.  If you’re in a big city and you’ve given the hack your destination, and you know he has a reputation for taking the most circuitous of routes in order to max out the meter, simply say, “Can you hurry, I’m a little nauseous.”  You’ll be at your hotel in record time.  Just don’t say it until you’re in the taxi and preferably it’s moving.  That’s just a friendly tip, no charge.

            Like I said, it was not my best performance.  I hoped it would work.  It didn’t.  Redlands was getting out of the car.  I threw up again.

            I would’ve given my left nut for some cherry vodka.  We used to buy it at the roadhouse when I was in Optimism.  It made for a lovely puddle of spit-up.  It tasted like cough syrup and packed a lovely punch, and when I willed myself to throw up, it looked like a fountain of blood.  Very effective.  As it was, I couldn’t even produce a two-day-old escargot to discourage him.

            He adjusted his night stick and approached me.  I just hunkered down trying to look miserable.  I was.

            “Well, what have we here.”  With my head down by the tiny dollop of puke, his shiny black shoes were inches from my face.  I could smell the polish – and the spit.

            I moaned.  What did you expect me to say?

            He poked at me with his toe.  He put it under my chin and lifted my face.  “I thought so.”

            He gave me a poke with his steel toed shoe.  I rolled over on my back, submitting like a puppy begging for mercy.  Bravado was unlikely to help me here. 

            “I know who you are.”  He sounded dangerous.  I remembered Valerie’s description of her ride.  She had said he used that same phrase to her.  “I know who you are.”

            It was time to give up my act.  The situation had become more than a little roust.  He looked very big standing over me from my angle.  He was very big.  He pulled the stick from his belt.

            “I saw you coming out of her apartment.”  My mouth went dry.  Of course.  He had Val’s address from last night’s arrest sheet.  My God, he wasn’t finished with her.  I jumped to my feet.

            “You leave her..”  The club caught me in the Adam’s apple.  It wasn’t a full strength swing.  It was short and compact.  It was hard enough.  My hands went to my throat involuntarily, and I gasped for air as I dropped back on my knees, hard.

            “I would advise you to be very still.”  His voice was quiet, but I heard every word, even over my rasping breath.  “It’s time to come to Jesus.”

            He hit me on the right side and then the left before I could even flinch.  I think he cracked a rib or two.  The pain was very sharp.

            “So you must be her stud service.  Do you kill babies?”  Shit, I was fucked.  “Did she tell you what I told her?”

            I nodded.  Non-violence seemed the only way I might survive.  Steven Segal might have figured out an alternative, but he’s fat now.  I was skinny like Ghandi.  That’s the tactic I tried.  I thought passive thoughts.

            Redlands was busy being aggressive.  “Why don’t you tell her you saw me?  Tell her I meant what I said to her last night.  Tell her I’ll come back.  But she knows that, doesn’t she?”

            He kicked me in the balls.  I was doubling over when he picked me up by my jacket neck.  He was strong.  I slammed up against the patrol car.  I remembered my dad’s joke about when an insect hit the windshield of his car.

            “What’s the last thing that goes through a bug’s mind when he hits the glass, son?”

            “What, dad?”

            “His ass.”  Hah hah!  He had a great laugh.

            That’s how I felt as I hit Redland’s unit.  I didn’t laugh.  He had a hold of me from behind, and he pushed my face against the back door window.

            “You tell her…you tell her…”  That’s when God and Ulysses S. Grant saved me.

            I’ve always been a heavy tipper.  People who work for tips are always on the short end, so I try to show them a little appreciation.  Sometimes it gets me a drink quicker, or some extra onion rings, maybe a more sincere lap dance.  This time a tip saved my life.

            My little gate keeper friend from Baldie’s showed up with some friends.  He was a lookout, after all, and he never missed a thing — especially when a cop car hit his street.  So he saw the whole deal go down.  He could see his new friend was having a small problem.  He could have just ducked inside, and he did.  But he didn’t have to come back out trailing a small crowd of dazed crack heads down the block in the direction of the ongoing massacre.

            He was young, but the rock fiends knew he ran the small den on the first floor, and when he called on them to tag along, they did as they were told.  There might be something in it for them, they thought, and besides, not going along could get them kicked out.  Crack addicts are well-trained.  Desired behaviors were constantly reinforced.  It was Mrs. Aquino’s people power all over again.  The scale was slightly smaller, but the effect was the same.  Marcos would have to flee in face of popular scrutiny.

            “You tell her to stop helping them…”  Redlands looked up.

            About twenty or twenty-five people were gathering  a few steps away.  Some other residents had heard or seen the commotion and were coming out of some other houses, trickling towards the shop doorway.  Now they didn’t look dangerous, or even particularly angry.  Most just looked stoned.  Nobody was going to take on the Bastille that day, but it was a crowd — a crowd of witnesses.

            Criminals don’t like witnesses.  Of course, Redlands wasn’t a criminal per se.  But for all his hostility and sense of righteousness, he knew that what he was doing was, strictly speaking, beyond the pale.  He was pressing me against the car.  His nightstick was poised to strike again, but it hesitated.

            “Back off folks!  Back off!  I don’t want any trouble here.”  Neither did I at that point.

             Nobody said anything.  More people arrived.  “Cops” was a very popular show around here, though this demographic often rooted for the outlaws.  Just like, years ago, their predecessors had pulled for Jesse.  This was even better than T.V.  Besides, this way they could be on the police video.  A lot of people purposefully jammed up against the front of Redlands car.  If they stood there the camera could get them on the tape.  They were very media savvy.

            “O.K., folks…step away from the car.”  He let go of me and I discovered his hand had been the only thing holding me up.  I dropped to the sidewalk like a sack of Jolly Ranchers.

            “Stop hitting him!  He ain’t doing nothin’!” somebody yelled.

            “Back off folks! He’s all right.  Back off!”  Redlands had forgotten me for now.  He never seemed to do well when things got complicated.  He considered calling for back up, but…  He worked his way around to the driver’s side door.  The crowd gave him plenty of room.  Nobody was drunk enough at this early hour to be crazy enough to do anything else.  They just backed away and let him get in. 

            Redlands had delivered his message.  He was pissed, but he knew when things were out of control.  He started up the car and drove away.  Slowly at first, the car crept through the little mob — then clear, it accelerated down the block, around the corner, and away.

            Then the folks rushed to my aid?  No, most wandered off, disappointed things hadn’t exploded and provided some cheap entertainment.  A few stood there and looked at me like I was a sick animal at the zoo.  A few more left when it was apparent I wasn’t going to die.  My buddy from Baldie’s made eye contact, shook his head in pity, and followed the glass pipe squad back to normality at the crack house.

            “Thanks,”  I thought.  I really meant it, too.  I couldn’t talk at that moment, though.  I was trying to catch my breath.  I was testing my muscles.  I threw up again, this time involuntarily.  It was a dry heave.  I was on all fours now.  I looked up, and three or four kids were staring at me.  I mean there were four kids, but only three-and-a-half of them were looking at me with pity.  The kid on the end — a skinny little Hispanic kid — had one eye on me.  The other was looking off down the block pie-eyed.

            “Pies…”  I was trying to say his name.  He walked away.  I couldn’t speak above a whisper.  I couldn’t stand to stop him.  But I strained to hold my head up, and I was able to track him all the way across the street and watch him go into the third green house down.

            I fell back onto my face.  This was going to take awhile.

            I knew where Pies lived.

            I knew Redlands was insane.  I was very frightened.  I had to get up.  I had to get to Torey.  I had to get back to Valerie.  I wanted to throw up again.  This time it wasn’t because of the beating.  This time it was raw fear.  I had to get up.  The anger and the sour dread got me to my feet.  I was like Bambi on the ice, but I was up.

            I put my hands on my knees and sucked in air.  It hurt like hell.  The pain cleared my head.  At least, it cleared it as much as it could after what I had seen.

            While the crowd gathered and Redlands held me up against the back of the car, I had seen the unthinkable.  They were scattered on the back seat.

            Six black videotapes — the tapes I had left at Valerie’s — six black videotapes were in Officer James Redland’s police car.

            I didn’t mean to, but I threw up again.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 26

            Sometimes when you make love, sex has nothing to do with it.

            When I tossed the cell phone into the corner in disgust, Val had scootched up, taken my face between her hands, and kissed me like she had never kissed me before.  Her mouth was so warm on mine.  Her tongue was so moist. 

            I don’t remember our clothes coming off.  Maybe I was in a movie.  Maybe I was still dreaming.  She was on top of me and I was inside her, and I was alive.  Her chest and neck above her breasts were flushed.  Blood was pumping under her white skin.  I think she came.  She was very quiet.  I know I came.  That wasn’t important, but that was where it ended.  We held each other.  It was better than sleep.  We were quiet together.

            Do you think it was an inappropriate time to make love?  Then you and I are very different, because I can’t think of a better time.  In fact, I can’t think of a time when it is ever inappropriate to make love like we did that early afternoon.

            I asked her if she had recovered from the events at the cottonwood tree last night.  She cried.  For some stupid reason I thought it would help her to talk about it. 

            She related the events in a very flat, detached way.  Redlands’ threats, his smell, the gun against her head; it was as if she were reciting a shopping list.  Pepper, milk, bread, my God, he’s going to shoot me.  She gave me details but no real truth.  That’s how Val can be sometimes.  She’s hard to understand.  There’s a moment of connection and then the line goes dead again.  I think it all goes back to her dad, but that’s only a guess.  I’ve only ever gotten snippets of info about her childhood.  None of the bits are good.  But I can say that, the way she talked about being a little girl was exactly how she related her side of the near-death experience Redlands had put her through.  Talking about it, she was just as calm as a dead bird.  It scared me.

            I was angry.  I was a male who wanted to protect his mate.  I uttered a few graphic threats.  I would disembowel Redlands.  She told me to be quiet again.  She said I’d handled it as well as I could.  I don’t know if even she belived that, but she said it, and I let it go.  We lay there together for awhile longer.  Then she kissed me very lightly and looked into my eyes from five inches away.  She stayed like that for about a minute, then she kissed me again and jumped up, heading for the bathroom.  I loved her naked ass.

            I heard the shower kick in, and I counted the cracks above me, waiting for a new plan to emerge.  Mikey had pled guilty.

            “You are charged with homicide in the first degree.  How do you plead, Mr. Hutchence?”  It must have echoed in the marble courtroom.

            “Guilty, Your Honor.”

            “Has your counsel explained the consequences of your plea?”

            “Yes, Your Honor, he has.”

            Mikey probably looked at his feet the whole time.  Thad Cuddigan most likely stood beside him and looked grim.  You’d be grim too, if you needed a drink as bad as fat boy Thad probably did.  He had convinced Mikey that he was going to fry unless he took the deal.  Mikey was a coward.  He’d get life with no rich Duncan Hines brownies or parole.

            You think only guilty people plead guilty.  You pick up the newspaper, and after you finish the sports section or look up a movie time, you notice an article about a speed dealer who admits he raped and killed a prostitute somewhere down in Vaporville.  You think, “Good, that’ll save us taxpayers a buck or two.”  You figure another crime has been solved.  Maybe you say to yourself, “Pity they ain’t gonna kill him.”  I don’t blame you.  You really believe that’s the way things should be.

            Valerie came back in the bedroom drying her hair with a white towel.  She dressed right in front of me.  That was unusual.  She would undress in front of me or let me undress her.  But she had never put her clothes on with me watching.  I liked it.  It was the sexiest thing I had ever seen.

            “Mikey plead guilty.”  Salt, mushroom soup, the idiot copped a plea.

            “I know.  I could hear Vandy on the phone.”

            “He didn’t kill Terri,” I said.

            “We’ve had this conversation.”  She was right.

            “Father Hunter blew his head off.”  I tried to be as matter-of-fact as Val.  Margarine, Jell-O, bananas, he fucking decapitated himself.

            “Did he tell you anything?”  She had her shoes and socks and jeans on.  She was wearing a white lace bra.  She held my hand.  It was so intimate.

            I told her everything.  Doug and Terri, their plan, Torey running out, Terri dying, all of it.

            “The same guy?”

            “That’s what Doug said.”

            “Do you know what he meant?”

            “The man on the fourth floor, Val.”

            “Yeah, I get it.  The same guy.”  Val squeezed my hand.

            “The same guy.”   I squeezed back.  I told her about the last moments of Doug’s life.  I told her about the tapes on the table.

            I told her about the naked boy on the screen.  How much like Torey he was.  I told her how Terri had been counting on some mysterious friend, how Mikey didn’t help, how Terri’s naive plan to be like Tools had collapsed in some kind of betrayal.  I told her again how Terri had died, and Torey had run away with the most important of the tapes.

            “What’s on this tape Torey has?” she asked.

            “I’m not sure.  Doug blathered about some pointing finger, I don’t know.  He talked about a mistake that the camera picked up, some giveaway.”

            “And this ‘same guy’ has got some policeman looking for Torey.  Shit, it has to be…”

            “Don’t say the name, Val.”

            “Why not?”  She looked at me like I wasn’t making sense, and she was probably right.

            “I just don’t want you saying the name.  Any of the names.  If this leads where I think it leads, then I’m going to have to do some things that you shouldn’t be involved in.  You’re a lawyer.  Go ahead and think what you want to think. You can’t be asked to testify about what you think.  Be careful what you say.”

            “O.K., Marty.”

            Then I told her how the fake video got dubbed off.  That way Mikey was in the crosshairs, and if Torey did surface, and started telling tales, they could discount him as a child traumatized by his own father.  I told her about Torey’s friend, Pies.  I think I told her all that.  I was just barely holding it together.

            “So how can we find this Pies kid?”

            “He’s a neighborhood boy.  I can find him.”  I really thought I could.  I knew this place.  I knew Torey, if he was anything like me, anyway.  I could track him down.  Corleone gave me a small bit of a lead.”

“Where’d you see him?”

“At the Golden Calf.”

“You went to the casino?”

“I saw him there.”

“That’s all?”

“I stole some money.”

Val thought for a second.  “O.K. then.”  As long as I wasn’t gambling it was fine.  Val hated gamblers.  “What did Kenny tell you?”

“He said Pies might live down by the lead refinery.”

“That does narrow things down a little.  But, Marty, that’s a pretty rough neighborhood.”

I almost laughed.  “And we live in Beverly Hills.  I forgot.  Listen, Val, the point, is I have an idea on who might know something about this Pies kid.  I’ve got to find Torey quick.  I’m sure these people would just as soon not deal with him in court.”

“Shit, Marty, they’ll kill him.  What if they’ve already…”

“Forget that, Val.  I’m going to find him.”  It was God’s own truth.  I felt it deep in my bloody guts.  The only question was, how long would it take? “I’m going to find him.  And, Valerie, I need to ask you to do something.” 

            “What?”  She wasn’t saying yes too quickly.  I’d called her Valerie.  Trouble.

            “The videotapes I brought.  I need you to watch them.  I can’t.  I just can’t.  I want you to look for a face, the perpetrator’s face, the bastard’s face might be on there somewhere, or this finger that Doug kept talking about.  Whatever….  Anything… It’s not going to be easy, I know.  But I need you to watch them.  I can’t.  I already saw part of one and…  Thank God I didn’t see Torey.  I saw another boy.  But I know Torey’s on there somewhere.  I don’t think I could…”  I was babbling.  I was feeling sick and so fucking tired.  “Can you?…”

            She stood up, opened the refrigerator, and pulled out an opened bottle of wine.  She grabbed the protruding cork with her teeth, yanked it out, and spit it on the floor.  “O.K. I’ll watch them.”  Then she put the bottle to her lips and chugged half of it down.  She wiped her mouth and caught her breath.  “I’ll look at them.”

            “Thanks, Val.  I just can’t.”

            “I know… I know.”  It was going to be terrible and she knew it.

            “Thanks.”  What else could I say?

            She took another swig. “After that, if I’m sober enough, I’m going to go down to the courthouse and see what’s up.  Maybe I can corner…”  Val paused, thought about it and then continued, “Maybe I’ll talk to our dear friend Kensington, make him sweat.”  Anger flashed in her eyes.  It was getting very personal for her.  Hell, she’d already made Kensington pay big time.  Now the bill had gotten bigger, and it was way overdue.  This was for pawns like Redlands,  and all the big pieces on the board.  Valerie was in crusade mode now.

            “Stay away from Kensington.”  I tried to sound casual.  I didn’t succeed.

            Val’s eyes widened.  “Kensington is…  Of course, Kensington’s the fixer… Terri knew him, right?  Shit.  That fucker.  Marty…”

            “Just stay away from him, Val.  Stay here and watch the tapes.” 

            “All right.”

            “Promise.”

            Val’s eyes flashed.  “Do not talk to me in that paternal tone, Marty.  I swear I’ll…”

            “I’m sorry, Val.  I am.  But just stay here, please?”

            “All right.”  She let me off that little barbed hook.

            I jumped in the shower.  Hot water is the reason an ordered society and civilization is so worthwhile.  I used some of Valerie’s lilac soap.  I wanted to smell like her.  Lilac — it reminded me of a bush on a hill.  I felt guilty.  I was thinking about Terri all of a sudden.  The water ran down my back, and I wrenched my mind back to Torey and Pies.  I wondered, did my kid have a nickname?  I’d never given him one.  My dad had called me “Fella.”  He was the only one who did.  Fathers, good fathers, should always give their kids nicknames.

            I dried off and found some clean Levi’s in Val’s closet.  I had snuck a few personal items into her place over time.  My toothbrush, a couple pairs of jeans, some shirts, and an Ozark Outhouse were here.  They announced my intentions.  The Ozark Outhouse was cool.  It was plastic, and when you opened the half moon door a little boy inside slowly turned and squirted you using his little plastic penis.  I used to put it next to Valerie’s ashtray and try to extinguish her Marlboro Ultra Lights.  She hated it.

            I tossed on my old T-shirt.  It didn’t smell too bad.  I buttoned up a blue shirt, tucked it in, and pulled on some tennies over my old socks.  They didn’t smell too good.  With a Cubs jacket and one of Val’s Oakland Raider baseball caps, I almost looked urban.

            We sat down at the kitchen table.  The French Vanilla coffee was heavenly as usual.

            “He’s not dead, Marty.”  Val knew what was in the back of my mind.

            “I know.”  I did know.  I hoped I did.  I was rested now.  I was starting to think clearly. I had a plan.  I had to get back into wise-ass mode.  That’s when I do my best work.

            “You’re not going to Abe’s?”  She should have known better, but she knew better.  The question made sense.

            “No.  I’m going to go buy some meth.”  I gave her my cutest little boy look.

            “Not really.”

            “No, really, but not really.  If Torey is in smelter-town, he’ll be hanging out with the wrong crowd.  That’s what I would do.  Especially since he thinks he’s the one in trouble.”

            “Where will you start?”  She almost trusted me.

            “Younger Street.”  (Cole) Younger was, obviously, a block over from (Jesse) James.  Check a Western folklore book.  Younger was a veritable Board of trade for drugs, sex, and pirated rock and roll.  They knew me there.

            I gave her a kiss.

            “I called Sally while you were in the shower.”  That would be Sally Rosemond, Val’s pal from the defender’s office who didn’t approve of me.  “She’s got a line on those sealed records about Kensington.  She might be able to get a hold of them, but she’s not sure.  She’s going to the Bahamas on vacation.”  The image of Sally Rosemond on a beach in a bikini made me want an extra umbrella in my coconut.  “She’s gonna let me use her car until mine is fixed.”  It was insane.  Lending a car to Valerie.

            “Great..  What’s she drive?”

            “I don’t know, some kind of Mercedes.  An E class?  Does that sound right?”

            “It sounds about fifty thousand dollars worth of car, all right.”  It was worse than insane.  It was a symptom of organic dementia to lend that kind of car to Valerie.

            I kissed her again, and then she kissed me.  “Don’t go anywhere, please.”  I hit the street.

            “I’ll meet you here later,” she shouted after me. 

            It took me about twenty minutes to shoe leather it over to Younger.  I like walking.  The day had turned into a sunny November surprise.  It was in the low fifties, and it would have smelled like autumn if I hadn’t been in the heart of Vaporville.  Walking gave me time to think.  I was able to come up with a name in my keen thinking machine.  Baldie, that was his name.  He sold all sorts of interesting drugs, and he used kids to do it.  He would know every troubled kid in that part of town.  Dickens would be proud.

            When I walked up in front of Baldie’s house, the music didn’t sound anything like “Oliver.”  The melodic stylings of the late Old Dirty Bastard were slappin’ out o’ da house and bouncin’ back from the brick wall of the day old bread store across the narrow street.  Hip Hop insanity.  You either like it or you don’t.  It fit the setting.  I liked it.  I think the song was “Ghostface Killah.”  I’m no expert.

            I was met at the chain link gate by a thirteen-year-old.  His eyes were older, and, I believed, so was the gun in his waistband. 

            I nodded.  I wanted to look cool.

            He just stared at me.  He didn’t think I was cool.

            “Baldie.”  If I said the name, maybe it would act as a password.  He didn’t move.  The kid didn’t even blink.  Maybe I should have said, “Sesame.”  It was getting a little uncomfortable.  The song thumped on.  I had an inspiration.

            “The Wu is the way…”  I hoped it was the right group.

            He blinked and replied, “The Tang is the Slang.”

            Now what was it? Oh yeah, “The Clan is the Fam.”  It was the Wu Tang Clan, famous gansta rappers.  It was amazing the flotsam and jetsam I heard once and stored away.  I seemed to have broken through my young friend’s reserve.

            “Whatta’ you want?” He wasn’t exactly my friend yet.  But the hostility had been turned down half a crack vial.

            “Baldie.  I want to see Baldie.”

            He looked me up and down.  I opened my coat without him asking.  He could see there was nothing in my belt.  I pulled out the pockets.  I’d gone through softer security at an airport.

            “A lot of folks want to see Baldie.”  He relaxed even more.

            “Tell him Tools is outside.”

            “You want some crack?”

            “Not today.  I’m trying to cut down.”

            He looked disappointed.  After all, he was working on commission.  He’d tried to make the sale.  There are so many untapped resources around the hood.  Prudential Insurance could turn this kid into a big producer if they’d get down here and recruit.

            He hopped up the front steps and disappeared inside.  It was a four story square frame house.  There were big bay windows in front on the first two floors, and tall double hungs on the top two narrow floors.  I was sure there were one or two pairs of eyes on me.  In this neighborhood, the total number of eyeballs watching me could have been an odd number.  My pal reappeared and opened the gate.

            “Second floor to the left at the top of the stairs.”  He didn’t turn to watch me go in.  His eyes were back on the street looking for customers.  He hadn’t stayed home from school to lay around all day.

            Normally, you’d expect me to talk about the degradation and stench I found inside.  The fact is, it wasn’t bad for a crack house.  There was a bank of scented candles burning on an old occasional table in the entryway.  I’m sure that was an OSHA violation.  I’d point it out to the proprietor later.  A few people were milling around in the front room to my right.  They didn’t talk to me, and I thought it wise not to talk to them.  There were some animal sounds coming from down the hall past the stairs.  Somebody was getting a blow job, or a St. Bernard was talking in his sleep, one or the other.

            I took the steps two at a time.  They curved back towards the front of the house.  I took a left at the top.  I was in the room with the big bay window.  So was Baldie. 

            He looked up from his desk.  My back was to the window.  In the land of drive-bys, that’s the way he wanted it.  Baldie motioned for me to sit down.  I did.  He was typing away madly on a computer keyboard.  It was a Gateway.  Guess he didn’t have as much class as I thought.  He sure made enough money to buy something good like an Mac-G5.  Well, none of my business if he wanted to crash and burn.

            I waited while he finished his keyboarding.  I will say this, the cat could type.  Me, I’m strictly two fingers and a delete button.

            “What can I do for you, Tools?  Long time no see.”  He was magnanimous.  His gestures were big and disconnected to his words.  His hands flew around like the room was full of flies.  His toupee was straight out of Monty Python, the color of a dead Norwegian Blue.

            “ Hi, Baldie.  I need to find somebody.”

            “Don’t we all?”  What was he trying to kill with his hands?   Were there bugs on the keyboard?  Maybe in Baldie’s chemically saturated eyeballs there were.  It was distracting.  His hands stopped, and one motioned for me to hold it.  He started in on the keyboard again.  His fingers were going to catch fire if he moved them any faster.

            “What are you working on, Baldie?”  I was curious, aren’t you?

            “A novel.  A novel of the demi-monde.”  He had taken French in high school, too.  It meant, I hoped, a book about his work, the world he lived in.

            “No kidding.”  I was skeptical.

            “I already have an agent, and we’re close to a deal at Random House.  It’s titled, ‘Confessions of a Crack Artist.’ I’m reaching the penultimate point in the conflict now.”  He was using too much of his own product.  That’s an occupational hazard.  Anyone who’s seen “Scarface” knows that.  “Don’t sample the wares” is the moral message of the film. A quality movie.  I still think that “Scarface” is the best remake of “Citizen Kane” ever made. 

            It was obvious that Baldie’s sampling had impaired some of his communication skills.  When dealing with a crazy person, sometimes you go along with their fantasies, sometimes you ignore them and clutch tightly to your own sense of reality.  I stuck with my plan, not his.

            “You know a kid named Pies?”

            He stopped typing.  His hands flew around his head like insects.  One would land on his chin, then take off again as the other landed momentarily on the top of his dead parrot.

            “Pies?  Pies?  Yes,  I might know a kid named Pies.  I might.”  His hands fluttered on.

            Now some would think that if I’d just flip him a C-note he’d tell me.  Don’t be absurd.  Baldie had plenty of C-notes.  He only told people stuff when he wanted to.  I decided to slip into his delusion – cheaper, easier, and more likely to produce results.

            “It’ll really make your main character look good, Baldie.”  Baldie’s book had to be about himself.  That seemed obvious.  Writers should always write about what they know.  “You could put it in your book.  The Crack Artist helps out a friend.  It’ll show his inner nobility.  He helps a worried father find his missing kid.  A bit of pathos in the story.”  I let that sink in.  Then, in case he missed it, I said, “I’m a worried father with a missing son, Baldie.”

            His eyes finally settled on me.  His hands typed a quick line and stopped.  He read what he had written.  “Yes, yes… The hand that has written on the wall moves on and writes no more.  Our hero has noble blood.  He shows mercy to the lost boy and the frantic father.”  Baldie looked at me.  I happen to know that he has at least fifteen kids.  As a father himself, he understood.  And no matter how morally reprehensible some would judge him to be, Baldie had a heart.  Jesus, it was  a Damon Runyon moment. 

            “Pies lives just down the block on Eighth, a green house, usually.  He’s in the book.  He used to run for me.  His eyes are wrong.  He’s pie-eyed.  His eyes look in opposite directions.  He was a great lookout, I’ll tell you.”  His hands started twitching, and he went back to the keyboard.  I was already on the way down the stairs by the time he hit the first key.

            The armed toddler stepped back as I bounded his way.  I high-fived him, which was weird because nobody high-fives anymore, not even in the NBA.  I hopped over the front gate.  The little sentry called after me, “Sure you don’t want no crack?”  I was running towards Eighth.  “Did you buy some crack?  You God damn…”  Then he noticed I’d slipped him a fifty during my white man hand slap on the way past him.  “Hey, thanks man!…What a motherfucker…”  It was a term of endearment the way he said it.  But I wasn’t listening.

            I was to Eighth in a minute flat.  My heart sank. 

            I saw the green house.  It was three stories and narrow.  There was a battered white door up three steps from the walk.  And there it was again, and again, and again, and again… There were a dozen identical green houses on that block of Eighth Street.

            I looked a block up.  No green houses, only a burnt out Safeway.  One block further down was the Amalgamated Lead Refinery.  It took up three city blocks.  This had to be the place.  One of those houses was Pies’.  It looked like I was going on stake-out duty.

            That’s what I was thinking when a patrol unit turned onto the block.  I don’t like patrol cars.  I told you that.  I ducked into the doorway of an old sewing machine shop on the corner of Younger and Eighth.  I slumped down and tried to look homeless.

            The black and white cruised by slowly.  The cop was looking for something or someone.  He turned his head in the direction of my doorway.  Son-of-a-bitch!

            Officer James Redlands looked straight at me.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 25

            If I don’t get enough sleep, I make some really stupid decisions.

            If I’m lucky, someone intervenes and stops me.  If I’m luckier, I doze off before I can do anything.

            “Love, Love me do…”  Vandy’s cell phone rang again.

            There were a hundred or more rings I could have programmed into it.  I had almost punched in “Hell’s Bells,” but AC/DC doesn’t translate well into wimpy little electronic beeps — not enough balls.  I considered ABBA; they would fit, but the only cut on the menu was “Fernando” and I hate that one.  I wanted “Dancing Queen.”  I settled on the Beatles because they were my dad’s favorite.  We played them at his funeral.

            “…You know I love you.”

            “Hello.”  It was hard to get the first word out.  I’d been sitting immobile on the curb as the sky gradually brightened.  The rain had dwindled away, and I was soaked.  Did I mention my butt was wet?  It was all I could do just to croak that single word.

            “Good morning, my friend.”  It was Vandy.

            “Carl.”  I managed one more word.

            “Did you lock your door?”  There were a lot of people speaking all at once behind him.  Was he at a party?  That would be strange.  I wasn’t thinking very straight.

            “Where are you?”  I did three words…amazing.

            “I’m in the parking lot of the Further Creek Country Club with about a thousand concerned citizens, Liz Nice, a shit load of TV cameras, another hundred wannabe cop nuts with scanners, a van full of militia types, and about fifty really pissed off blue hair bridge fanatics.”  He didn’t sound all that happy.

            “God bless you.”  Three more words got out.

            “Listen, I just called to tell you we got some preliminary DNA back.”

            “And?”  That was easy.

            “It’s Mikey on the blouse, but Terri had somebody else inside.”

            I didn’t really like the way he put it.  But how else could you say it?  For Vandy, it was as delicate as he ever got.  I couldn’t think quick enough, so I just told him the truth.  “It was Hunter.”

            “The good Father, huh?  Same blood type as Mikey?  That’s why the preliminary test would…  Shit!”

            “Problem?”

            “I already got an angry message on my voice mail this a.m. from the D.A. warning me about, quote: ‘badgering any of the Bishop’s people,’ unquote.”

            “You only talked to Doug twice, right?”

            “Yeah, and not since Tuesday.  Well, fuck ‘em.  I’m going to badger him, anyway.”

            “No, you’re not.”

            “Oh, yes, I am.  I don’t care if I go to hell.  I hear retirement pay stretches further there, anyway.”

            “He’s dead, Carl.  He’s dead.”

            “…Fuck!  You didn’t kill him, did you?  Please tell me you didn’t kill him.”

            “He shot himself.”

            “Tell me you didn’t help.”

            “Maybe I did.  I pushed him…maybe I did.”  Maybe if I’d changed the subject.  Maybe if I’d helped him pray, or…

            “Where is he?”

            “That’s a pretty deep question, Carl.  Where is Doug Hunter now?”

            “You on drugs?”  Vandy meant it.

            “No…not yet.”  I stood up.  Where was that meth dealer’s house?  Oh, yeah, three blocks east.

            “Where is he?”

            “The body is in the rectory.  In the library, or should I say the video room?”

            “Oh, Christ!  Was it him on the tape?”

            “No.”  It was hard to even think about those images.

            There was a pause.  I could hear the crowd behind Vandy trying to get organized.  Somebody had a bullhorn.  A golf cart was beeping as someone put it in reverse.  People were shouting, “Look out, look out for her foot!”  It sounded like chaos.  I like chaos.

            Vandy let out a big barrel-chested sigh.  “Get away from the church.  I’m sending some people down there.  I’ll head down, too. You all right?”

            “Yeah… No… Yeah.”

            “Go home.”

            All I could say to that was a weird little giggle.

            “They’re going to charge Mikey today.  One count of first degree homicide.  They’re waiting on the sex charge and the… the kid.”

            “Torey.”

            “You know he’s dead, Tools.  It’s been four days almost.  He’s most likely dead.”

            “I gotta go.”  I didn’t want to hear this.  Had the man in Doug’s nightmare sent out the policeman to find him?  Redlands.  Fuck.

            “One more thing… Valerie’s getting out this morning.  She might already be out if her friends made bail.  I heard she was acting a little strange…if you want I…”

            I cut him off.  “Thanks Carl, I gotta go.”  I disconnected.

            I hailed a cab.  It splashed me with muddy water as it pulled over.  What the hell, it went with my mood.

            Since you don’t live here, you don’t know how odd it was to have a cab for hire so immediately available.  This is a medium-size city of the heartland.  We don’t have a lot of taxis.  The ones we do have sit at the Big Muddy International Aerodrome — that’s the airport by the river.  The drivers read our shitty newspaper and wait for business travelers stupid enough not to rent a car.  A few idle away at the Greyhound station where they recruit runaway girls for some big city occupations.  If you stand on the street downtown, you might see four cabs go by in an hour.  We don’t trust cabs here on the edge of the plains.  We drive ourselves.  It was a miracle when the hack drove by.  I needed a miracle.

            “Where to?”  He was wearing a turban.  Big city, small city, some stereotypes are true.  That’s how they get to be stereotypes.

            “Take me to…no…take me to an ATM.”  I needed money.  I’d given almost all of mine to Kenny Corleone.

            “Where to?”  Oh no.

            “An ATM.”  I spoke very slowly.

            “Ann ate eeee yem?”  Shit!  This was some miracle.

            “A money machine.”  I spoke louder, like that would help.  I made a vague, charade-like movement with my hands to indicate moolah.  It was useless and I knew it.

            “Ah…monee…moneee!  O.K., O.K.”  Did he get it?

            He sped down the street, turned, screeching, onto the viaduct and floored it.  My back was pressed against the seat like Sally Ride during blast off.  I was trying to think of a magic phrase when he whipped it left, then right again.  I was looking for a cup holder to crawl into.  I was in a Happy Cab, and I wasn’t very happy at all.

            “We go bank,” the cabbie shouted over the Bollywood soundtrack blaring out of the taxi’s speakers.

            “Sure.”  I was fighting too many G-forces to engage in a long conversation.  That’s when I saw Father Corleone’s black Lincoln Town Car up ahead.  It was making a right hand turn into a parking lot.  Not just any parking lot, either.  It was pulling up to the casino.  Corleone had a lot of strange hangouts for a priest.

            “Turn in here.”  I shouted at the cabbie.  He didn’t blink.  The brakes locked up, all the tires spewed gray smoke.  A quick crank of the wheel, and we were in a powerslide.  I hit my head on the back of the front seat.  By the time I cleared my head, we were stopped at the front entrance of the Golden Calf Casino.  Corleone’s Lincoln was nowhere in sight.

            “Wait here,”  I yelled back at the cabbie, as I scrambled onto terra firma.  I hadn’t paid any fare yet, so he was likely to stick around – for a while.

            The Golden Calf Casino, like all gambling dens, is not subtle in its architectural style.  The cab had slid to a stop under a big curving portico, topped with a thirty-five-foot tall, vaguely Babylonian, gilded bovine idol.  It was supposed to be the calf that had seduced the Israelites while Moses was up the mountain in a meeting.  Remember, when he came down, Moses was all pissed off.  Typical.  The working class blows off a little steam, and middle management shows up in the break room with an angry ten point memo from the CEO.

            The casino proper was built like a ziggurat.  A multi-stepped fake mud brick pyramid draped with bright green plastic plants ala the Hanging Gardens Galleria.  Now I know that’s got nothing to do with the calf story, but don’t expect historical accuracy at casinos, theme parks, cathedrals, or universities.  You’ll be disappointed.

            I’d done some grazing at the casino before, so I knew there was a parking garage around back, and that’s where I figured Father Kenny had headed.  He’d park and head inside.  I went through the front doors and figured I’d catch him somewhere on the gambling floor.

I don’t gamble…with money, anyway.  Gambling is for suckers.  They weren’t able to build this huge monstrosity because people won.  One time there was a picture of a local personality being ushered into an old paddy wagon on the front page.  He was trying to cover his face, but that was silly because everyone in town knew him.  He ran a few games of chance in a notorious nightclub that had stood not too far from where I was now.  The headline said, “Local Gambler Arrested.”  My dad laughed and shared some fatherly wisdom with me.

            “Son,” he said.  “You see this man?”

            “Yes, Dad.”  God I loved him.

            “This man is not, as the newspaper alleges, a gambler.”

            “He’s not?”

            “No, son.  He is a mathematician.  His customers are gamblers.”

            My dad was, as usual, right on.  All casino games are mathematical formulas.  If so many hands are dealt, so many wheels are spun, so many slot handles pulled, the percentage the house keeps will be such and such.  You can count on it.  There is no chance involved if you own the place.  Just look at the giant gold thing out front.  You might be lucky once or twice.  Keep coming back, they will build a bigger gilded cow.

            It was about seven forty-five.  Hard to tell.  They never have clocks in these places.  They don’t want you to really know what time it is.  Does anybody really care?  I did a quick scan — there was no sign of Corleone.

            I still needed some money – for the cab fare, for Val’s bond if she hadn’t got sprung yet, and for a few other contingencies I suspected were about to arise.  I headed strait for the roulette table.

            That’s right.  I had no money, zero, zilch, and I headed for the roulette table.  Roulette has the worst odds of any of the casino games.  Only idiots play roulette.  At 7:45 in the morning only the most brain damaged of the idiot sub-set play Roulette.  Exactly the kind of mopes I was looking for.  There were three completely tanked cretins sitting there with moderate-size piles of chips.  They were totally hypnotized by the spinning wheel.  I sat down.  Two minutes later, I stood up.  I had made all their neat little stacks just a bit littler.  They never suspected a thing.  That’s the price of mixing Roulette, stupidity, and free drinks.

            I spotted Father Corleone over by the slot machines, and I headed towards him at a near run.  He saw me coming and turned with his arms outstretched like he was going to hug me.  I remember thinking that he was a real piece of work – wanting to hug me.  That’s when I realized that I was stumbling badly.  I was so tired that I couldn’t pick my feet up like a normal person.  I’d thought I was running towards him, but with my shoes catching the plush casino carpeting, I was actually executing a long, clumsy fall in his direction.  Only my forward momentum kept me close to vertical.  Just as gravity was about to put a punctuation mark on my comic sprint, I ran into his chest, and he caught me before I hit the floor.

            “Mr. Hutchence, you all right?”

            “Fuck.”

            “Easy.”  Corleone steadied me as I regained my balance and stepped back a decent, socially acceptable distance.

            “What are you doing here, Father?”

            “Well I…”

            I repeated what I had been thinking when I saw his car pull up to the casino.  “Kind of a strange place for a clergyman.” 

            “I’m picking up my mother.”

            “Your mother?  I’m fucking sure.”  I know I’d actually almost liked him after meeting him at Kim’s the night before.  I’d even believed he was telling me the truth.  It’s just that I was in a very cranky mood that morning.  I was kind of in a hurry, and I was sick of priests.  “You know a kid named ‘Pies’?”

            “Pies?  No.  I don’t think…”

            “Don’t fuck with me now, Kenny.  I’m not in the mood.  Doug Hunter is dead.”

            “Dead?  Father Hunter is dead?  Did you kill him?”  Everybody was making me the prime suspect.

            “No.  He killed himself.”

            “Oh, my God.”  Corleone sagged back against a Beverly Hillbillies slot machine.  Elly May’s tits were sitting on his head.  “He was molesting Torey.  I’m sorry.  We all knew Doug was troubled but… I never suspected…”

            “He didn’t do it.”

            “The Monsignor was running his parish.  Oh.  Marty, it’s the Monsignor.  Shuldik is…”

            “An asshole.  But I don’t know for sure yet if he’s the guy.”

            “He has to be.”

            “Maybe.  What I do know is I have to be sure before I…”  I decided that Vandy’s advice still applied.  I kept the rage down inside me.  I didn’t want to say too much.  “Just answer me, Father.  Think.  Did Torey ever mention a kid named Pies?”

            “I can’t…  Wait.  Torey did say he had a good friend down in Vaporville that he liked hanging out with.  But the boy’s name wasn’t Pies.  It was a Hispanic name.  I can’t remember.”

            “You’ve got to remember.”

            “I… I… No, Marty.  I’m sorry.  That’s all I can remember.  Except that the kid lived down by the old lead refinery.”

That was the worst part of Vaporville.  Would Torey be hanging out there?  He was my son.  That’s exactly where he’d go.  It was a start.  “That’s all you can remember?”

            “That’s the best I can do.”  Ken Corleone rubbed his face.  “If I could help, I would.  Believe me, I’d do anything to help Torey.”

            I tried to get my fatigued brain to work.  I was trying to come up with the next step.  I was so tired.

            “You look terrible, Marty.”

            “Yeah.  Listen.  I could use your help.”

            “What do you need me to do?”  Corleone sounded sincere.  That usually makes me suspicious, but I was too out of it to react normally.

            “Go to Kim’s house.  Stay there.  Help her.”  I was making stuff up as I went along.  But I did have an idea of how things might go, and if they did…

            “I can do that.”

            “Be careful.  My guess is that Officer Redlands will eventually make an appearance there.”

            “Why?”

            “He’s looking for Torey, too.”

            “Well, of course he is.  The police…”

            “Listen, Ken, forget the police.  And whatever the fuck you do, don’t tell Redlands anything.  Don’t let Kim tell him anything either.  Not until I tell you different.  Torey’s life is in danger.”

            “From Redlands?’

            “Not only Redlands.  Just keep an eye on things at Kim’s.  And then later I might ask you another favor.”

            A silver-haired, short, chubby, Sicilian woman interupted, “So now you’re doing dialog from the Godfather with your friend, Kenny?  You know I don’t like that movie.”

            “Mama.”  Corleone was embarrassed.  “Marty, this is my mother, Mrs. Delizia Corleone.”

            “Ma’am.”

            “So nice to meet you.  Are you drunk?  You look drunk.”

            “Mama!”

            “He looks drunk.”  She was right.

“I’m just tired.”  Italian mothers have a way of putting you on the defensive.

“Mama, we have to go home.  I can’t belive you came here in the middle of the night.”

“I couldn’t sleep.  I didn’t want to disturb you.  What’s the problem?  I left a note.”

“Let’s go home, Mama.”

As they turned to leave, Father Corleone said, “I’ll go to Kim’s, Marty.  I’ll do whatever you need me to do.”

“Thank you, Father.”

            I headed over to the cashier.  I was hoping they weren’t watching the security cameras very closely.  They usually weren’t this early in the day. I cashed in eight hundred and seventy-five dollars from my little trip to the Roulette table.

            I rushed back to the portico.  I couldn’t have been gone more than twenty minutes.  Sikh man was still there in his turban.  At least I thought he was a Sikh. It’s a cool religion.  Mix in a little Sufi with some Hindu, reject the caste system, and encourage purity and toleration.  That’s why it pissed me off after 9-11 when some bigoted assholes, seeking revenge for the medieval horror inflicted on us by some twisted Saudis, shot some Sikhs.  They are as far from Islamic fundamentalists as you can get.  The idiots might as well have plugged some Southern Baptists.  I hate it when racists don’t do their research.

            I gave him Valerie’s address.  He seemed to understand numbers fine.

            Needless to say, his chauffeuring style got me there pretty damn quick.  I paid the fare and tipped him fifty.  The way some so-called Americans looked at him these days, I figured he deserved combat pay.  I stood on the sidewalk and looked up.  I was home.

            This apartment was home to me.  My place sure wasn’t.  I hurried up the short porch steps and turned the knob.  It was locked.  I didn’t have a key because Val thought that was a bit more commitment than she was willing to risk with an alcoholic thief who had issues.  Go figure.  I opened the door and went in.  You knew I would.

            The kitchen was quiet except for the hum of the refrigerator.  Valerie wasn’t here.  I sensed it.  My senses were acute when it came to determining if a place was empty.  I dumped the videotapes I’d taken from St. Phil’s on the table. I fumbled in my waistband and pulled out the leather book of Milton.  I looked at it a second, thinking of the carnage I had witnessed among all that poetry.  I was too sober to think about it now — maybe later.  I tossed it on top of the fridge.  I went down the short hall past the bathroom to the bedroom.  The bed was empty.  I threw myself on it.  Where was Val?  She should’ve made bail by now.  Where was Torey?   Where was Pies?   I needed to think.  I needed to rest just a second while I figured out my next move.  Oh, yeah, the meth.  I needed to get some meth.  I closed my eyes.

            It’s hard to describe a dream.  A description needs some order to it or it doesn’t make sense.  But dreams don’t always have any order.  There isn’t always a chronology.  Up and down don’t exist.  The brain just fires off images, sounds, tastes, and sensation in its own indecipherable operating code.  I’m not trying to be Carl Jung here.  I’ll just relate the dream as it comes back to me now. 

            I saw brains on books.  I heard Terri reading Chaucer.

            Her voice was clear.

                                    “She was so charitable and so merciful.

                                     She would weep if she saw a mouse

                                     caught in a trap and it was dead.

                                     Some small hounds had she that she fed,

                                     with roasted flesh or milk and fine white bread.

                                     But sore wept she if one of them were dead,

                                     or if some man had struck it in the head..”

            I tasted peanut butter and jelly.  I smelled Torey’s hair.  I felt Valerie next to me.  She touched me on the head and rolled on top of me weeping.

            I woke up with her tears soaking the shirt on my chest.  I held her. I didn’t say anything. We drifted off again, together.

            My dad lay in his coffin.  I touched his hands and said goodbye with my lips brushing his ear.  He was only 54 years old.  I had disappointed him so many times.  But he was always glad to see me.  He opened his eyes, and then he winked and smiled.  We closed the lid and buried him.

            Dracula was chasing me.  I covered my neck and ran.  There was no escape.  I suddenly turned and yelled, “Wild blood!  Wild blood!”  Now he was frightened, and I chased him down a dark stony dungeon hall.

            Bugs Bunny stopped me and laid a big sucking wet kiss right on my kisser.  “Don’t be afraid of the drama, Doc.”  He hopped away.

            I think I flew over the Albino Farm and St. Philomena’s steeple.  Terri waved to me from the lookout.  I just slept after that, in darkness.  I held on to Valerie’s warm body.  I like darkness.  I love her warm body.

            It was about noon.

            “Love, Love me do.”  It was muffled.  Where was the pocket?

            “You know I love you…”  Valerie pulled the phone out from somewhere under her and handed it to me.

            “Hello.”

            “Tools?  Wake up!”  It was Vandy, of course.

            “Yeah?”

            “It’s a messy scene over here at Saint Phil’s.  Thought you should know.  Church officials kind of hurried our investigation.  They almost beat us here. The chief himself showed.  Two minutes after me, he’s there and he sez, ‘It’s a suicide, open and shut.’  The boys in black say, ‘Please get your ass out of the building.  Thank you for your concern.  Bye, bye.’  Very curious.”

            “Yeah.”

            “One other thing.  You won’t be happy.”

            “What.”  I was sticking with one word at a time.

            “Mikey just got arraigned at the courthouse.”

            “O.K.”

            “He pled guilty.”  Vandy hung up.

            Where was Bugs Bunny when I needed him?

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 24

            David Copperfield once made the Statue of Liberty vanish on live TV – BFD.

            I had just seen Doug Hunter disappear.  When you witness an event like that, there are some common human responses.  The first is primal.  You are filled with an overwhelming sense of the fragility of your own life.  You breathe.  You try to swallow.  If you’re a man, you adjust your package, as shrunken as it is.  You mentally check and, if you can still move your extremities, you are still alive.  No matter how much you care about the other person, you think about yourself first.  Don’t waste time denying it.

            The second response is horror.  You smell it.  You feel it in the pores of your skin.  You might even be a little dizzy.  I was.  This isn’t something like empathy.  It’s a simple overwhelming force.  Grendel has entered the long house and slaughtered all of Beowulf’s pals.  Reality has smashed through your comfortable illusions.  We all have them.  When they topple it takes you awhile to prop them up again.

            The third response is sorrow.  The one most humans have the biggest problem with.  This is when we feel regret.  We start to feel guilty.  Then we get pissed.  That’s the fourth response, anger.  It’s the healthiest place to be at times like that.  But I was so tired that I only had the energy to make it to Number Three.  I felt sick.

            I sat down on a curb and cried.  I might have cried — hard to tell, it was raining.  I just sat there and let my butt get wet.  I didn’t know what to do.  Torey,  I had to think of Torey.  But I couldn’t stand up.  I was so tired.  When had I slept last?  Who’d I think I was, Kiefer Sutherland in “24?”  I needed to find Torey.  I needed some sleep.  Then the thought just jumped into my head — meth.  Meth would keep me awake.  It was a great idea.

            I really didn’t know what day it was.  They found Terri Sunday night.  I got drunk at Abe’s Monday early, and Val and I went up to the Albino Farm via the churchyard Monday night.  We dined with Kensington, abused the dinette table that same night – all night — and Tuesday morning Ahmed gave me a ride to Rio Caliente.  The police gave me a ride back into town.  I talked to Mikey in jail and spent Tuesday night tossing and turning in a taxpayer provided jailhouse bed.  Wednesday morning I went to court and in the afternoon paid a visit to Kim.  That’s when I talked to Father Corleone and organized a citizen’s search of the Northland Woods.   Val hit a tree, then got arrested instead of killed – thank God.  I went home, borrowed Vandy’s cell phone and got to St. Philomena’s about two or three A.M. Thursday morning.  Then … well, then I ended up sitting there on the curb with a wet butt.

            I’ve seen a lot of movies where the heroes never sleep.  Those guys just go on and on and on.  They have wild sex, kill people, and make great deductive leaps that lead them to the villain.  After they blow up his secret mountain headquarters, or corner and dismember him in a sewer, they have more sex.  If you like non-stop action, go see one of those fantasies.

            I’d been awake for about twenty-two or three hours and I don’t think, at that moment, I could have tied my own shoes.  I needed the boost that only the psychotic inner energy of Meth could provide.  That’s when I saw Lonnie.

            He/she kind of materialized out of the shadows across the street from St. Philomena’s,  like a skeleton popping out of a corner in a carnival fun-house.  Lonnie took a few puppet-on-tangled-strings steps into the middle of the street and froze, mid-jerk, when he/she saw me sitting on the curb.

            “Tools?”  Lonnie whispered.

            “Hello, Lonnie.”

            “Damn my God Damn.”  Lonnie started to lean back, getting ready to sprint back into the tangled hedge where he/she had entered the scene.

            “Relax.  I threw your old gun away, Lonnie.”

            “What’s your ass fat doing here.”  Lonnie was trying to focus on me.  Nice to see that my twenty dollars had been well-used.

            “Got any extra meth on you, Lonnie?”  It was a stupid question.

            “I’m doing fine.  I’m doing fine.”  Lonnie was doing fine.

            “What the hell are you doing here, Lonnie?”

            Lonnie’s brows flexed, up then down.  Concentration was tricky on meth.  “What the suck dick am I doing here?”  Lonnie swayed like there was a gale force wind pushing at him/her.  I could smell his/her breath – putrid.

            “Lonnie?”  I almost got up to catch the poor bastard, but he stabilized himself.

            “I’m here for forgiveness,” Lonnie said.

            “I forgive you, Lonnie.”

            “Oh, shit eat.  Not from you.  You can’t forgive me.”  Lonnie started moving again, this time towards the church’s old iron gate.  “Only Jesus can forgive me.”

            I turned as Lonnie passed me and looked up at the steeple.  I could see the Saviour up there in the moonlight.  I was glad that my eyes couldn’t make out Jesus’ face from that distance.  I was afraid he might look like Doug.  “Jesus isn’t in there, Lonnie.”

            Lonnie stopped halfway through the bars of the old gate.  The meth-freak was so emaciated he didn’t need to unlock it.  Lonnie was skinny enough to just slip through.  “I know.  Jesus isn’t in there.”  Lonnie pointed a bony finger at the church.  “He’s up there.”  His/her finger, tipped with cracked red nail polish that glowed in the streetlight’s illumination, pointed up the bluff behind St. Philomena’s.  “Jesus is up there.”

            “Jesus is on the Albino Farm?”

            “Yeah, I talk to him up there all the time.  I tell him things.  He says he’s going to forgive me.”  Lonnie was through the gate now.  His/her face accented with florescent-smeared blue eyeshadow looked back at me through the rusted black lines of the gate.  “Jesus is on the Albino Farm.”

            “Lonnie, Jesus isn’t up there.”  I was talking to myself.  Lonnie had disolved into the darkness.  “Lonnie?”  There was no answer.

            I thought about following, but only for half a second.  It seemed important.  I didn’t know why – then.

            I did know that Torey needed me.  I couldn’t get the image of him in a cave full of monsters out of my head.  Doug Hunter wasn’t the monster.  There was someone else out there.  The same guy.  Someone from Doug’s past – the puppetmaster, who figured a little perversion on Torey’s old tape, left conveniently with Terri’s body, would point the finger at a discredited Mikey?  And there was another man involved.  I had that one. I thought.  I had a pretty good idea about the who.  My problem was that I wasn’t sure what I could do.  Vandy had already made it clear that a “solution” to the crimes was not necessarily a “solution” to the situation.  Lives were at stake now — Torey’s, if he was alive, Val’s, mine. 

I could feel the anger in my gut.  I knew then that some people were going to die.  So what was the plan?  I wondered.  I’d come up with one.  Meanwhile, Torey had to be found.  I had to keep going.  I would keep going.  I would just go on because I had to. I had to.  So I would go on.  Go on.  I came back to a more realistic answer.  Meth.

            What?  You think coffee would do the trick?  You think because coffee helped you pull that all-nighter in college so you could cram for the “Theory of Volleyball” final, that it would work for me now?  Obviously, you forgot to study for your chemistry exam, because you just failed.

            Valerie wasn’t around.  Of course, she was in jail.  Shit.  I needed to bail her out.  No, she was safer where she was.  Hell.  My meth-less brain was shortcircuited with fatigue.  I wasn’t thinking clearly.  I just knew I needed some speed, and Val was not there, so who’d ever know?  Traditional “addict thinking.”  I’d grab a little speed, and I’d be good to go.  I’d be using it the way nature intended.  You only ended up like Lonnie if you made a habit of it.  I was a special case.  I knew how to handle that galactic velocity.

The end justified the means.  I sure knew where to get some.  It couldn’t be more than three blocks from here.  God bless the American concept of convenience.  Politicians like to pretend otherwise, but the war on drugs has, in fact, been over for at least five thousand years.  Thank God we  lost.

            Since the pseudo-imaginary politically correct official Drug War was in full swing, I’d only have to walk three blocks to get some meth.  If the government legalized drugs, I’d probably have to hitch a three or four-mile ride.  This, as Martha Stewart would say, was a good thing.

            Then I thought about Lonnie, the walking your-brain-on-meth fried egg.  Maybe I should think a little more about this whole self-medicating plan of mine.

            See what happens when I’m tired? My mind wanders, and I drag you along with me. 

            My butt was wet.  Doug was dead.  Was Valerie O.K.?

            My butt was wet.  I was bone tired.  Where was Torey?

            I sat there until the sun came up, and then I sat there some more.

            My butt was wet. 

            “Love, Love me do…you know I love you…”

            Carl Vandy’s cell phone rang its new ring in my pocket.

            I liked it.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 23

Priests shouldn’t have guns.

            It’s just not right.  Priests are supposed to give you the last rites, but they’re not supposed to make them necessary.

            Cops with guns make me apprehensive.  Some of them are just doing their jobs.  Some of them grew up watching “Miami Vice.”  Experienced hold-up men make me slightly uneasy.  The good ones simply show you a gun matter-of-factly and take your wallets.  The bad ones grew up watching “Miami Vice.”  Amateurs like Lonnie or Father Douglas Hunter scare me to death.

            He didn’t look that different than the last time I’d seen him at dear old Assumption.  He was still a little guy.  He hadn’t gained a pound in twenty years, and he still had the same mousy brown hair, short and wet-looking on his head.  His glasses might have gotten thicker, and he might be slightly more slumped in the shoulders, but his posture was still perpetually tense, and his eyes never seemed to blink. I could have sworn the terry cloth bathrobe was the very same one he always wore in that other world where we had been friends.  I’d seen him wear the sad thing so many times in the dorm back in Optimism.  As Doug took a tentative step towards me, I could see that it still had the seminary emblem on a torn breast pocket.  The same old Doug.  The same old robe.  The gun, however, was new, and it was big.  It was an Arnold gun in a Pee Wee hand.

            “Doug?  Doug?  You going to shoot me or say hello?”

            He looked at me.  He looked at the open video cabinet.  He saw the scattered pills.  When he looked at the television screen behind me, his face distorted.   He fell back.  Only the door frame kept him from collapsing entirely.  I flinched.  I thought the gun would go off accidentally.  Then I turned and saw what was on the screen.  My head exploded.

            The young boy was just standing there with his hands by his sides.  He was pathetically naked.  Twelve-year-old boys like Torey are all bones and angles.  He was just like Torey.  My God, there were others.  Torey wasn’t the only boy involved.  But who was this boy?  It felt disorienting.

            The image was almost clinical, as if some doctors were examining the awkwardly posing boy for some skeletal abnormality.  But it wasn’t clinical.  The boy’s eyelids were half closed, his jaw was slack, his mouth slightly open.  The perversion of it flickered around the room.

            “Turn it off!”  Doug had two hands on the gun.  With his back pressed against the door jam, he had a steady firing position.  Judging by the size of the gun he had — it could have been a big Baretta 92 — he would put a very big hole in the wall behind me.  That would be after the bullet had put an even bigger hole in me on its way to the plaster.

            “Turn it off!”  It was not a time to argue.

            “There, it’s off.  Put down the gun, Doug.”

            He was looking straight at my chest. So was his pistol.

            “Nothing to say, Doug?”

            “What can be said?  What could I possibly say?  What do you want me to say?”  He was getting a little excited.  That was bad.

            “Say you remember me, Doug.”  I kept using his name.  People like to hear their own name.  Hell, I was just guessing at that.  I hoped I was right.  Dear God, I wanted to be right.  “Doug, look at me.  Do you remember?”

            I think he did.  But did he remember too much?  Would he remember me as the other person on the fourth floor landing?  That would be bad.

            “Doug, it’s me.  Marty Hutchence!  Look at me!” 

            Doug’s eyes left my chest, and he looked at me, finally.  “Marty?”

            “Yeah, It’s Marty.  Remember, I used to call you Spin?”  It had been funny once.

            “Martin Luther Hutchence,  an odd name for an almost Catholic priest.”  He was sounding wistful, like men do when they think too far back and recall too much in between now and then.  The gun relaxed.  It pointed at the floor, but he kept his two-hand grip.  There was only one skinny finger on the trigger, but that was enough.

            “How have you been, Doug?”  Maybe a little idle chit-chat would do the trick.

            “How have I been?  How have I been?  How have I been?”  Oh, oh.

            “It’s been a long time, Doug.”

            “I’ll tell you how I’ve been.  I’ve been a priest, Marty.  I’ve been a priest.  I’ve been a waste of God’s own breath.  You want to know how I’ve been, Martin Luther?  I’ve been buried.  I’ve prayed to myself.  I’ve prayed out loud, and I’ve sat in silence.  I’ve been followed by Satan himself.  That’s how I’ve been!  That’s how I’ve been!”

            “Why, Doug?”  I pointed at the blank screen.

            “That?”  He waved the gun at the TV.  “That….”  He hung his head.  His shoulder got even rounder.  His chest sank.

            “What is it, Doug?”

            “It’s another soul sucked in, Marty.”  This was getting scary.  There was a window to my right — an escape route.  I needed to find Torey, and Doug was my only link to my son, so I didn’t dive through it yet, but I was very ready.

            “You did this?  You did this to these kids?”  Dangerous questions.

            He made a whimpering sound, like pain.  “Was it me?  No.”  He shook his head.  “No, it wasn’t me.  But it was me, wasn’t it?” 

What did that mean?  Was he way over the edge?  Had he split up like Norman Bates in a Roman collar?  “It wasn’t you?”  I tried to give him a way out.

            “No, it wasn’t me.  It was him.  He turned me into a servant.”  He seemed sure this time.

            “Who was it, Doug?”

            “You asked me that once a long time ago.  Do you remember?”

            “I remember.”  The pathetic scene at the top of the stairs flickered inside my head.  The question I’d asked him in that empty chapel  came back to me.  This time with more urgency.  “Who was it, Doug?”  If I pushed too hard, this could go badly.  But I had to push a little.

            “The answer I gave you then is still true now.  I can’t… I can’t tell you.  I prayed so hard to Blessed Mary, but I still couldn’t tell you.  I haven’t prayed to her in a long time.  I can’t tell you now.”

            I closed my eyes and saw the figure in black again.  I could still feel his solid legs, smell the ginger scent of his neck as I tried to wring it.  I was too weak then.  Was I strong enough now?

            “Who was it?  Who is hurting these boys now?”

            “I used to love Spike Jones.  Do you ever think of the time we played those old records in the common room?”

            I didn’t know where he was going.  But it was good he was going somewhere.  He still had a very big gun, and tears were flowing down his cheeks.  Guns and tears are a dangerous cocktail.

            “Yeah, Doug.  ‘Dinner Music for People Who Aren’t Very Hungry’.”  It was the only Spike Jones record I could think of.

            “Yes, that was it.  The Stradivarius going down the garbage disposal, do you remember?”

            I did.  I almost smiled, thinking about the Maestro going down with his Strad at the punch-line.  I nodded.

            “Remember the phone call?  The phone rings….Hello?….. You don’t say! … You don’t say! … You don’t say!… Goodbye! …Who was it?… Don’t know.  He didn’t say!”  Doug was doing all the loud vaudevillian voices — it was a creepy show.  “Phone rings… Hello! … You don’t say… You don’t say! … You don’t say! …Goodbye! … Who was it? … Same Guy!”  Doug forced a laugh that trailed off quickly.

            “Doug…”  I could tell he was getting very dangerous.

            “Who was it, Marty?”  Doug laughed – a crazy little laugh.  “Who was it?  Same guy!”   

I don’t know what Doug Hunter was seeing at that moment, but I don’t think it was me. “Doug?”

“Same guy!”  There was another odd sound in his throat as he repeated, “Same guy!” 

His eyes weren’t focusing.  He was somewhere else.  You’re saying to yourself, “Now’s the time to grab the gun!”  You’ve watched too many movies.  You’ve read too much Robert Ludlum.  In my world, the real world, when you go after somebody with a real gun, you are very likely to get shot.  And in the real world when you get shot, you do not merely grab your shoulder, grunt, and then proceed to karate kick your foe to death.  What happens is the impact tears up your flesh in an ugly way.  Bones splinter, and the force knocks you to the floor.  Whereupon your fellow combatant walks over and finishes you, if you’re lucky.  On a bad day, he walks away, and you lay there going into shock in a growing puddle of your own deep red blood, losing consciousness and then at the end whispering, “Rosebud.”  Only there’s no one there to hear you.  This was not a movie.  I stayed where I was.

            “Doug, did you kill Terri?”  I needed him here.

            He snapped straight like he’d been called to attention.

            “Did you kill Terri, Doug?” 

            The tears were welling out of his eyes.  “I didn’t kill her.  I didn’t kill her!  I loved her, Marty.”

            This was something! “Tell me, Doug, tell me.”  The words came out in a rush.  I didn’t want to lose the moment.

            “I loved her.  I wanted to…I wanted to marry her.  I wanted to go away with her.  She wanted to go away with me.  I finally found someone, Marty.  When she came here.  At first, I thought that she was… When he sent her here…  But I…  She didn’t work for him.”  Doug sounded almost childish, like a toddler tattling when something gets broken.  “He hurt her.” 

            “He hurt her?”  I was losing hope that Hunter was going to be any help, and I needed help.  “Who killed Terri?  The same guy?  Doug you’re not making sense.”  As crazy as Doug was, I don’t know why I expected him to be understandable.  But he had to be.  Torey’s life depended on it.

            “No.”  Doug’s face looked like it was melting.  “I killed her.”

            That’s when I almost did do something stupid.  I considered rushing him.  The gun was pointed at the floor, and his eyes were blinded by tears.  That moment I did want him dead.  But I wanted Torey alive more, and that was enough to stop me.  “You killed her?  How?”  I tried not to let my rage leak out with the words.

            “I killed her when I fell in love with her.”  Doug’s face looked like the crucified Jesus high on the church’s steeple, ripped with pain.  His skin was bleached.  His pupils so dilated they reflected the room’s light back at me.  A glowing red echo in his eyes.

            “You loved her?”  Anger slips into pity in a single breath sometimes.

            “Yes, I loved her.  She told me about her life.  She told me everything about her life.  She was changing her life.  Escaping.  I started to think that I could escape, too.”  Doug’s body shuddered with memory.  “Making love.  Make love.  Made love.”  He was having a vision. Walking in dream time. 

            Insanity and magic are centimeters apart.  Madness can stretch your reality like the deadly gravity of a black hole eats a living star.  I was too close to the singularity that Doug had become.  All the weight of his anguish had overwhelmed him and collapsed back into itself, contracting and contracting towards a cataclysm.  Disconnected images and distorted sensations sprayed out of him in a flood of emotional particles and fragmented artifacts of his memories.

            “I don’t know why we ended up together.  He hadn’t expected that when he sent her here.  He was just trying to buy her off with a job.  I loved her.  Her skin, her skin, her skin…  She said she loved me.  She touched me.  I’d never let someone touch me.  Never let, never let, never let…  She said she saw something in me.  We just wanted to go away.”

            “Doug…”  He couldn’t hear me.

            “We would have just disappeared, but she was cleaning the big room one day, and she found the tapes.   Little boys, little boys, little boys…  I confessed to her.  I told her my sins.  I told her about what happened to me at Assumption.  Do you know what happened to me, Marty?”

            “I know, Doug.  I know what happened.”

            “You know, you know, you know…”  Dougs words were blurring together as he pushed them out of his mouth.  “Terri knew then, too.  At first she was going to leave me.  But then she looked at the boys on the tapes, and she cried.  Terri confessed to me.  The boys were drugged.  She told me her sin.  She was the one who brought the drugs to him.  She brought the drugs he used on the boys.  She cried , she cried, she cried.  I was the slave, the servant.  She knew, she knew, she knew…  Terri said she was part of it, too.  Both of us were.  She hadn’t known… but I had…  She’d still go away with me.  But we had to stop him first.  We had to stop what he was doing first, and then we could escape.  Terri said we couldn’t be free until we stopped it.  All the poor little boys.”

            “You could have gone to the police.”  I said it like an accusation.  I just blurted it out without thinking.  The cynical thief  actually said that.  “…go to the police.”

            Doug laughed again, or else he cried.  The noise in his mouth was twisted and mutated, neither one or the other.  “Terri knew the police.  There could be no police.  He knew the police.  Remember Chaucer, Marty?  ‘Do evil as a faithful hound.’  No police, no police, no police…  There was a hound loose.”

            I remembered the stanza.  I’m a really smart guy.  Chaucer had been my escape at the seminary.  I remembered “the faithful hound” and recited the passage out loud:

                                     “This child I am commanded now to take.

                                       He spoke no more, but seized that innocent

                                       Pitilessly, and did a gesture make

                                       As though he would have slain it ere he went.”

            My mind turned black.  I shuddered at the implication.  Was Torey “the innocent”?  What had happened?  Doug was a dancing Wu Li master.  One foot in now, the other in a quantum past.  Had Torey been taken?  Doug just went on dancing through time.

            “No police.  Terri said we would stop it ourselves.  Terri liked you, Marty.  She told me you had taught her things.  She said we’d do it like Tools would do it.  Tools, Tools, Tools….”

            “Like I would do it?”

            “We would manipulate them.  Terri and I had the tapes.  We would turn one against the other.  The Church would protect itself.  She was so sure that if we showed the tape he would have to act.  And she knew Torey’s father.  Mikey was going to be angry.  Angry, angry, angry…  He would be our protection.  He would be our threat against them.  The tape, the angry father, the Church – we would stop him.  I had a gun.”  Doug looked down at the pistol in his hand.  “I have a gun.  I wanted to just take it and kill all of them.  Kill them, kill them, kill them…  Terri said we’d go to prison.  Terri said we would die.  I wanted her, Marty.  I wanted her.  Forgive me, God.”  Doug was looking up at an empty heaven.

            “Where’s Torey, Doug.”  That was the most important thing to me.  Doug’s eyes were drained – the irises fading, losing all their color.  I had to ask the question while there was still time.

            “Torey was not supposed to come here.  We didn’t know he would come here.  Terri was here first.  We were standing out there.”  Doug lifted his arm and pointed the gun towards the dusted, long table outside the tall, panelled door.  “Mikey wasn’t coming.  He didn’t care about Torey.  Terri was surprised.  I wanted to use my gun on them, but she told me that she could still make it work.  Just like Tools would do it.”

            “Where’s Torey?”

            “Soon the Saviour came.  The man who would save us all.  He asked how much money we wanted.  That’s the first thing he said.  How much?  How much?  How much…?”

            “You asked for money?”  It made no sense.  Terri was trying to manipulate the situation.  She was trying to get someone to do her dirty work – Mikey, and the “Saviour” were supposed to help stop all the horrors.

            “The money was only for Mikey.  Terri said that if he got angry it might not be enough — that Mikey would help for money.  We just wanted to go away, and then the man asked, ‘How much?’  Terri didn’t even have time to answer when he came in the room.”

            “Same guy,”  I said it automatically.

            A small, almost real smile appeared on Doug’s face.  “Same Guy.”  I think that was the last time he actually made eye contact with me that night.  Then his eyes frosted over, his brow tightened, and as he spoke, his teeth were bared like a startled dog’s.  “He came into the room.  We were surprised.  Terri had planned differently.  We didn’t want to talk to him.  We didn’t want them together.  But of course, they were always together.  Should’ve known, should’ve known, should’ve known…  Terri was holding the one tape…”  Doug’s words trailed off.  His breath was ragged.

            “The one tape?  Terri had the one tape?  What do you mean, Doug.”

            He shook his head and spoke again.  “The one tape.  We had found the one tape where he made a mistake.  He waved his hand too close to the camera.  He waved his hand.  He pointed and the camera saw.  We saw, we saw, we saw…”

“He made a mistake?  What did you see?”

Doug brought the gun up and he pointed it, not at me, but at some phantom.  “The mistake was on the tape, and we saw it, the camera saw it.  Terri had the tape in her hand, and Torey grabbed it.”

“Torey?”

“He wasn’t supposed to be there that night.  He grabbed the tape right out of Terri’s hand.  Torey was angry.  Torey was angry at Terri.  And he was angry at me.  ‘We’ll get in trouble.  We’ll get in trouble.’  Torey thought we were doing something wrong.  Terri tried to explain, but the Saviour slapped Terri.  I didn’t do anything.  I just stood there, and the Saviour, our hope, slapped her.  He asked Torey for the tape and held out his hand.  Terri shouted at Torey not to give up the tape.  She looked at me.  Terri told me to tell Torey that he should keep the tape away from them.  She looked at me.  I was afraid.  I felt like Torey.  We were going to get in trouble.  I told the boy to give them the tape.  Terri screamed at Torey to take the tape and run.  The man grabbed at Torey, but Terri hit him.  She hit, she hit, she hit…  That’s when Terri died.  He twisted her head.  A broken neck.  So quick.  She fell down right next to that table.”  He pointed again out the big double doors.

“Where’s Torey?”  I don’t know if I was breathing at that moment.  “Doug, where is Torey?”

“Torey ran away.  Terri saved him and while Terri died, Torey took the tape and ran.  He was scared.  I was scared.  We were in trouble.  Torey ran so fast that he left his backpack behind.  The backpack that he always carried with him.  Torey ran, and I was alone with them.  Terri was dead, and I was alone.”

“Where did he run?  Where did Torey go?”

“Oh, they asked me that, too.  But I didn’t tell them.  They took Torey’s backpack and found the video of his day at the park with his father, and they made that dirty.  They would destroy Mikey.  They would cover all the tracks.  He called the tape Torey had taken a mistake they had to fix.  They asked me where Torey went, and I didn’t tell them.”

“Tell me, Doug.  Tell me.”  I shouted, and he raised the gun.  This time, it pointed straight at me.

“Will you hurt Torey?”

“I’m Torey’s father, Doug.  Mikey wasn’t…  I’m his father, Doug.  Tell me.”  I was pleading.

“You’re his father?”  He had heard me.  “I was supposed to be his priest… his spiritual father.”  Doug fingered his Roman collar.  “Father, father, father…  The faithful hound is looking for Torey.  He came back here the next night.  He’s always looking, but I won’t tell them.  They need the mistake tape back and…  I won‘t tell.”

“I’m Torey’s father, Doug.  Where is he?”

“I helped them carry Terri up the hill.  They wanted to put her in the mud.  But I found the soft grass.  I found the lilac bush.  I said a prayer.”

“You have to tell me, Doug.  Please, In the name of Christ.  Please.”

“Oh, Marty, it was all in the name of Christ.”

“Please.”  I felt my last chance slipping away.  “Where is my son?”

Doug looked up at that.  His eyes flickered, like a child’s in the middle of a dream.  He began to weep.  “Your son?”

            I was crying, too, at that point.  I may have been crying, I mean.  “Yes, he’s my son, Doug.  He’s my son.  Where is he?”  I was walking towards him now, very carefully.

            “Torey’s best friend here was named ‘Pies.’  That was the boy’s nickname, anyway.  I can’t remember his real name now.  Torey always went there.  I’m the only one who knows about Pies.  I have my secrets, too.”  Doug was backing into the corner as I approached.  He stopped crying, like a switch had been thrown, or a candle smothered.  He looked almost peaceful.  “I didn’t tell them.”

            “You’ve got to remember Pies’ real name!  For Terri’s sake!”

            “Did you ever hear Theresa read Chaucer?”  He laughed.  It wasn’t forced.  It was a real laugh.  I had heard Doug laughing at a Spike Jones record a long time ago.

            Doug started to recite the Friar’s Tale…

                                    “Once on a time there dwelt in my country

                                      An archdeacon, a man of high degree

                                      Who boldly executed the Church’s frown

                                      In punishment of fornication known…”

            He put the gun to his head.

            “No!”

            “The archdeacon failed me, Marty.  You didn’t.  Thank you.”  Doug said that so calmly… and then he pulled the trigger.

            Some people say that you shouldn’t try to kill yourself by putting a gun to the side of your head.  The way to do it is to put it in your mouth.  They may be right, but if a gun is big enough, it really doesn’t matter a whole lot.

            Doug’s brains splashed all over the books on the shelf behind him.  Pieces of hair and scalp and skull and globs of clotting blood slapped into the leather bindings.  Bits of flesh and gore were dripping off a collection of Edgar Allan Poe.  Smoke clung to the wood.  Gray mixed with vermilion swept in an arch across the ugly abstract painting.  A red fog had condensed on Wordsworth and Tennyson.  Byron smelled of copper.

            Doug’s body relaxed in an instant, as if he had stepped out of the costume.  It tumbled into an impossible pose in the corner.  Legs and arms pointed in troubling directions.  Blood fountained out of the crater in his head.  One … two… three… four heartbeats, then it seeped across his chest.  Old houses settle over the years.  Their floors are often not completely level.  The rectory was a very old house.  Doug’s blood flowed away from his ruins and flowed like an arrow past me to the table where I had piled the videos.

            I have seen people die before.  I do not like it. 

            That was the second time I had seen Douglas Hunter die.  I didn’t go to him this time.  I didn’t shout.  I stood there listening to my own breathing and the ringing in my ears.

            I stepped carefully to avoid that viscous stream and picked up the videos — yes, the one in the machine, too.  Torey had the tape with the proof.  But I wanted all the tapes. 

Maybe there was some other way of using them.  The tapes were important, but Torey was everything.  I was already thinking about “Pies.”  I had an idea.  I didn’t know if it was a good one.

            I was careful not to touch anything as I left.  That’s just a habit.  Maybe you know better than I.  Is this how a story like this one is supposed to go?  The hero — there’s a laugh — gets a little more information, and someone dies?  Is that the way it’s supposed to go?  Am I supposed to feel a little better now because I’m making progress?  Do you find this entertaining?

            Does he find it entertaining?

            Who?

            Same guy.

ON THE ALBINO FARM – CHAPTER 22

            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.