Authors: Dave Lowry
Copyright Â© 2014 by Dave Lowry
All rights reserved
For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows:
Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves / Dave Lowry.
1. Cooking, ChineseâFiction. 2. GangstersâMissouriâSaint LouisâFiction. 3. Suspense fiction. 4. Humorous fiction. I. Title.
For Christopher Bates: colleague, friend,
Rule #10: Keep focused on the broad perspective and don't get distracted by minor stuffâlike, say, graduating from college.
“Da-da-da-dadadada-da-da-da / three's company too.”
I'd been going over it for at least the last hour. The last cold, dark hour. And over it. The stupid theme song was gunning its tinny engine in my head, revving up and grinding around and around and not going anywhere. That was bad enough. What was even worse, much worse, was that no matter how many times I repeated it, no matter how many times it kept replaying in my brain, again and again, I couldn't pull up that line. It was maddening. If I'd had a gun handy .Â .Â . I'm not saying I would have killed myself. I might have clicked the cylinder around a few times just to stare at the business end of the bullets, though.
Part of it was that I was still, as my grandmother would have put it, a “touch feverish.” For a couple of weeks now, I'd been pretending a case of flu was just a bad cold. I'd been pretending so long, I was getting fairly good at it. I was past the “I'd really like to roll over, but if I move I may just die” stage of the flu that I was pretending was a cold. I was going to live. Probably. A week ago, concrete had been shoveled into my nose and had seeped up into my sinuses and hardened. By now, it had loosened up. Some. I no longer felt like my eyeballs were slowly frying their way out of my head. I was improving. I wasn't going to jump up and qualify for the Olympic track trials any time soon. I wasn't getting exhausted by those seven long steps I had to take from the bed to the bathroom, though. I was just feeling a little shaky and a little hot still. I'd self-diagnosed my condition. My medical expertise wasn't entirely reliable, but it did have the advantages of being cheap. And not requiring me to sit in a doctor's waiting room. I had prescribed for myself some cough syrup and went on the assumption that if a single dosage of the little plastic jigger that fit over the cap was good, a couple of them would be even better. So maybe that was making me a little squirrelly too.
Feverish or squirrelly, I didn't have a good excuse for not remembering the stupid third line. I'd heard it sung five times a week, every week, all last semester. Toby Ingersoll, my roommate at Beddingfield College, had gone on this weird kick, watching a cable channel in our room that played TV shows from the seventies. Every afternoon when I got back to the dorm after sitting through another ninety minutes of American Literature: A Postmodern Perspective, Toby's butt, along with the rest of him, would be plopped in his beanbag chair. He'd gotten itâthe chair, not his buttâfrom a senior last year who didn't want to drag it home. The TV would be tuned to a channel where it was still the seventies and where comedies and dramas from that decade played twenty-four hours a day. Toby never missed an episode of a show about a guy who had to pretend to be gay so he could share an apartment with a couple of attractive girls. I think that was it. I wasn't as involved in the particulars of the show as Toby was. I should have paid more attention. I wouldn't be in the mess I was in right now, sleepless at 2:30 in the morning and fixated on that idiotic third line and unable to get my mind out of neutral over it. Tucker's Rule #12: The more trivial the problem, the more it will be distracting.
To be honest, though, that was not my biggest problem.
Two days before, I'd said my goodbyes to Toby and to all those kooky, zany TV hits from the years of the Carter administration. Aloha to that divorced woman who worked at a diner somewhere out in TV land, the one with the uproariously funny customers. Adios to the cop show that took place in a gritty TV urban jungle. And now that I thought about it, arrivederci to Beddingfield College, a comprehensive, very exclusive, but accommodating first-class liberal arts institute dedicated to secondary learning since its founding by Philander Beddingfield in 1857; to its gracious, tree-lined campus located in Lancaster, New Hampshire, right between the banks of the scenic Connecticut River and the even scenic-er Great North Woods of the aforementioned Great State of New Hampshire.
I said to myself,
I was just going to skip some of the assorted festivities andâuh, accoutrements. Like a cap and gown. And a diploma.
I don't usually talk too much to myself. Usually I get out most everything I need to say to me fairly quickly. And lucidly. But there was that lingering touch of fever. And the fact that I was sleepingâor trying toâon a futon at Chris Langley's place that smelled like his Irish setter, and it smelled that way because that's usually where Langley's Irish setter
sleep. I had asserted evolutionary privilege and staked out my claim, at least for that evening. The dog was curled up beside me on a ratty old quilt of Chris's. So mostly I just lay there in New Hampshire's winter dark, kicking off the heavy sleeping bag over me, then groping to tug it back up a while later as I went from sweating to shivering and let that theme songâthe first two lines of it, anywayârun through my head. And in between the Quest for the Lost Stanza, I thought about what my parents were going to say when they found out I had parted ways with Beddingfield College in what was supposed to have been the triumphant and rewarding semester of my senior year.
There was some stuff I didn't think about that night. Understandable, since it hadn't happened yet. But also because, to be uncharacteristically honest, I really didn't have the imagination to think that some of it
have happened to a guy like me. Like, for instance, what happened after the cops in St. Louis found that body.
Rule #17: Sometimes what you really need in life is nothing more complicated than a lot of cough syrup and twelve hours of sleep.
It was two nights before the night I stayed up and thought about those lines from the TV show.
“You never seemed the type,” Chris had said to me, after I slid across from him into the booth at Spencer's Grill and told him that the pedagogical institution of Beddingfield and I were going our separate academic ways. Spencer's Grill was the closest place the village of North Lancaster had to the diner like that one in the seventies TV show Toby watched. The customers weren't as funny or clever as in the TV show. Although they had their moments. Once, back during hunting season, a deer hunter came in carrying the field-dressed corpse of a buck he'd just shot. He propped the buck up in a booth, sat down opposite it, and ordered a beer for both of them. Mostly it was a place where the locals hung out. Along with the beer they served to customers, including recently deceased antlered ungulates, Spencer's put out burgers and sandwiches. Maybe the best dill pickles in the state. It was where the kids from Beddingfield went when they got sick of the food at the school's cafeteria.
“The type?” I said.
“The type to get kicked out of school,” Chris said. His plate was empty except for a tumble of lonely-looking fries.
“âKicked out' is a little strong,” I said. “Let's just say I decided to pursue the self-actualization of my educational potential in more varied directions.”
“And the dean agreed with you,” Chris said.
“And you both concluded this right after the .Â .Â .”
“Correct,” I said. I really didn't want to go into it. “Here's the thing,” I added. “I need a place to stay for a couple of days. I've cleared out of my dorm and I'm headed south.”
“Where's your stuff?” he asked.
“Back of the Toyota.”
“How far south you going?” he asked. He ate one of the fries, leaving the others looking even lonelier.
“Back to my parents' place,” I said. “Massachusetts.” I didn't add that I was forming a plan, slowly. And so far vaguely. I was only going to be in Andover, where my parents lived, long enough to drop off what I didn't need from my dorm. My plan wasn't all that detailed yet. I didn't want to sound like I was completely clueless, though. Which I mostly was.
“Think the Toyota will make it that far?” he asked.
“Are you kidding?” I said. “I'm still just getting it broken in.” I'd stood over too many pans of splattering, skin-searing oil; sweated off too many pounds in steamy, stifling restaurant kitchens; collected too many scars on my forearms from the blistering edges of woks to make enough money to buy that car. Four summers' worth. Four summers spent in sauna-hot, airless kitchens listening to singsong Cantonese, understanding only about one word in every six, and Mandarin, which after a long time I could finally manage not only to understand but use to get across my own opinions from time to time. The Toyota had a few thousand miles on it when I bought it, true. Actually a hundred and sixty thousand of them. But it was a Toyota. Had to be good for at least another K, or even two. I just had to remember to put oil in it. It was drinking oil lately like I'd been swigging cough syrup the past week.
Chris smiled and shook his head. The spring before, the University of New Hampshire had conferred upon him a degree in environmental engineering. It turned out the environment did not need nearly as many able-bodied engineers as one might have expectedâparticularly if one was among others who were listening to the ambitious predictions of teachers in that department at UNH. I didn't think Chris tried too hard, however, to find a job in the field. The summer after he graduated, he went almost directly to the environment of the Ammonoosuc River outside North Lancaster. He engineered the rehabilitationâto the degree he could actually move into itâof an old summer shack his uncle owned and never used anymore, out on Germantown Road. He moved in, along with an Irish setter named Gork and a girl named Gretchen. By the end of Chris's first winter in a place heated with a wood-burning stove and an open-air outhouse, Gork was still there. The only sign of Gretchen's tenure was a toothbrush still dangling from a hook over by the dry sink. Chris eventually took a job with the Forest Service Ski Patrol, rescuing hikers and skiers and the assorted kinds who managed to get themselves lost on a regular basis all over the North Woods that covered this part of the state. During the winter, he taught kids to ski over at Bretton Woods.
January in New Hampshire is cold. Which is like saying the surface of the sun is hot. The cold doesn't just sit there over New Hampshire during the winter. It's active; silent but livelyâand vicious in its own sneaky way. You might not be consciously thinking about the cold in a New Hampshire January. Ignore it too long, however, and it will make you pay. January in New Hampshire wasn't so much an experience of trying to find a way to stay warm; that wasn't happening. It was a matter, instead, of trying not to be too cold.
Chris had two kerosene heaters he moved around the cabin for places that were too far from the wood-burning stove's tropical spell. One was in the bedroom where I was sleeping, hissing gently, putting out a warm, orange glow from the coils near the bottom. My sleeping bag was a thick one, suitable for temperatures close to freezing. So I was holding on okay. I'd been there two nights now. This was the last. It would have been nice to have gotten a good night's sleep. I was satisfied not to be hypothermic. In fact, with something like a plan for my future forming slowly, if I could have just pulled up the third line to that song, I would have been almost perfect. I pressed the button that illuminated the dial on my watch. I thought it might have said 2:30. But before I could check again to be sure, I was sound asleep.