The Devil's Punchbowl (8 page)

BOOK: The Devil's Punchbowl
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Stop,
says a voice in my head.
Stop
blaming the messenger. Just because you don’t want to hear what he said doesn’t mean it’s not true. Remember the pictures.

 

A mangled dog. A half-naked teenager serving beer. A middle-aged man screwing the young girl on a board floor while four other men drink and watch. I saw those three images for only seconds, but I’ll never forget them. When I close my eyes and recall them in detail, I feel nauseated. And that nausea is the reason I promised Tim that I’d help him.

 

As I walk down the hall to check on my daughter, a different sensation chills me. Fear. Raw fear. After twelve years in the Houston DA’s office, it’s a familiar feeling. As I told Tim, I’ve run investigations using confidential informants, and more than one ended badly for the person wearing the wire. Highly trained FBI agents trip up under the pressure of living double lives, and even the best undercover agents can be burned by a random event. The reality of tonight’s meeting with Tim cannot be pushed aside: by encouraging him to proceed with his plan, I could be sending an impassioned amateur to his death.

 

I pause beside Annie’s door and peek through the crack. A pale green night-light limns her form, bunched beneath the covers. That she can sleep alone in her own room brings me an abiding sense of peace. After Sarah died, Annie not only had to sleep in my bed, but also had to be in direct physical contact with me. If her hand fell from my arm or hip, she’d jerk awake with night terrors. The peace she now enjoys is a testament to the soundness of my decision to bring her back here. Living near my father and mother brought Annie the gift once enjoyed by all societies that revered the extended family: a profound sense of security. That decision cost me my future with Caitlin, but Annie’s recovery has given me the strength to deal with that loss. And yet…tonight a nagging voice echoes endlessly beneath my conscious thoughts:
We’ve stayed too long…

 

After I undress and brush my teeth, I walk to my bedroom window and gaze across sixty feet of space to the second floor of Caitlin’s house. Is she there? Did she fall asleep with the light on? Or is she down at the
Examiner
offices, badgering the editor about the layout of tomorrow’s paper? This thought brings a smile, but then I realize Caitlin could just as easily be dancing at one of the bars on Main Street, or exercising her gift for irony at the expense of some
pompous, nouveau-riche redneck who threw a balloon-race party. I feel a compulsion to walk down and check her garage for a rental car. Has eighteen months of separation from her turned me into a stalker? The reality is that she could pull up to her house right now with a man and disappear inside for a night of recreational sex behind that familiar curtain.

 

Christ.
As selfish as it sounds, this image has a more violent effect on my adrenal glands than the photos I viewed in the cemetery. If I’m this jealous, can I possibly be over her? One thing is sure: I’ll be damned—truly damned—if I stand here mooning at her light like a latter-day Gatsby, until the very scene I fear transpires before me. Caitlin left me because I believed the path to my future lay through the past. So what the hell is she doing back here, where the past is never past?

 

As I drift toward sleep, the images from Tim’s cell phone snapshots rise again, but they seem remote, like evidence dropped on my desk by cops I dealt with in Houston. Can young girls be raped and dogs be slaughtered within sight of the town I love so dearly? In the foggy frontier between sleep and wakefulness the idea seems farfetched, yet one burden of my legal experience is the knowledge that savage crimes occur in the most benign settings, that screams go unheard, that pleas for mercy are ignored, even relished.

 

When thoughts like these trouble my passage into sleep, I use a trick taught me by a sixties-era rock musician I saved from going to jail in Houston. Whenever drug withdrawal sent him into paroxysms of pain and need, whenever the demons came for him, he would picture a virgin field of ice, blue-white and impossibly clean, so remote that no footprint had ever marred its surface. He would focus on that scene until he felt himself inside it, and sometimes peace would come. To my surprise, I found this sometimes works for me as well. But tonight, as I carefully construct my Zen-like sanctuary, I cannot keep the demons out. Dark shapes move beneath the ice like predators prowling a vast sea, ever alert for the shadows of prey on the white sheet above.

 

Tonight I’m
on
the ice, I realize, one more shadow to be hunted. A penumbra the size of a small car flashes beneath me, and I run. Though I lie supine in bed, my heart thumps in my chest, and the blood rushes through my veins. Far ahead, I see a blue mark on the
ice. A hole. Beside it Tim Jessup stands shirtless and blue from the cold. As I crunch toward him, he removes his pants and looks down into the hole. I shout for him to wait, but he doesn’t hear. He sits down, dangles his legs in the water, then, with a gentle shove like a boy edging himself off a roof, drops through the blue-black opening. I start to scream, but a new vision stops me. Stark against the horizon, a wolf stands watching me. His fur is bone white, and his eyes gleam with unsettling intelligence. I try to stop running, but I slide forward, hopelessly out of control. As I come to rest, the wolf begins to move, walking at first, then loping toward me with single-minded purpose. His eyes transfix me, and as I try to force my legs to backpedal, I hear Tim’s hysterical voice crying, “You don’t know, man! You don’t
know….
”

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER
6

 

 

Julia sits at her kitchen table, staring at a Ziploc sandwich bag filled with speckled pills and white powder. She found it an hour ago, when the running toilet got on her nerves badly enough to make her remove the tank cover. The baggie was sealed inside a small Tupperware container weighted with a handful of bolts. The edge of the Tupperware lid was keeping the toilet flapper from sealing. Tim had been clean for so long that the first moments after lifting the container out of the tank filled Julia with confusion. But after removing the lid, she’d felt her universe imploding as surely as if a black hole had swept into it.

 

She’d set the baggie on the kitchen table and simply stared at it for a while, shivering with anger and her sense of betrayal. But mostly she felt fear, because she hadn’t seen any sign that Tim was using again. To stop her hands from shaking, she got out her crocheting needle and tried to crochet the way her grandmother had taught her, but her mind was unable to direct her fingers. So she waited, her gaze moving from the dope on the table to the clock on the stove, an endless motion of eyes that offered no solace.

 

Julia tenses now, listening for sound from the baby’s room. It’s 3:45 a.m., almost time for a feeding. She has preternatural hearing when it comes to her baby; Tim is constantly amazed by the things she picks up. It’s like she’s bound to the child by an invisible thread,
a silken strand like a spider’s web, and if little Timmy moves, it pulls something down in Julia’s belly. She knows what that something is.

 

When you lose a child and God grants you another, you take no chances. She feels the same way about Tim, but on that score there isn’t a lot she can do. Someone has to stay with the baby. She’s been worried recently, but not about drugs—not for a long time. It infuriates her to think that she was afraid for Tim tonight. Before she found that baggie, she’d believed he was doing something about whatever he’d seen at work, and trying to protect her by not telling her details. But he’d been almost three hours late even then. She feels so stupid that she wants to tear out her hair or whip herself.

 

As if Penn Cage would stay out this late with Tim! Penn is home in bed with Libby Jensen, or somebody like her. Someone smart who can still laugh with innocence in her eyes, someone who has her shit together. Julia wonders briefly why Penn left Libby. Maybe Libby doesn’t have her shit quite as together as she seems to. Maybe she doesn’t really understand what’s important in life. Or maybe Penn just grew bored with her, the way men do.

 

Julia hadn’t thought Tim was bored with her, but there’s the dope, right there on the table. What else could it mean? That he can’t cope? With
what?
With happiness? With a loving wife and a beautiful son? This thought terrifies her. Julia once thought Tim was smarter than she, and he is, in book smartness. But what good is that when the issue is survival, as it has been for them? Julia’s common sense and fortitude have gotten them through some tough times. To sit facing the prospect of reliving the hell she thought long behind them is almost more than she can bear. She has gone from fury to terror and back a thousand times. The pills make her wonder about other women. A woman might push Tim back to using, if she was an addict, a woman from the boat, maybe—

 

An unfamiliar scraping sound brings Julia to full alertness, the yarn stretched taut between her fingers and the hook. That noise didn’t come from the baby’s room—she’s sure of that. It sounded like someone raising the window in the guest room at the back of the house.

 

She swallows hard, then goes to the cabinet above the stove and takes down the pistol Tim stole from his father’s safe back when he was using. He’d tried to give it back later, but his father told him to
keep it. The gun is heavy and black, but Julia grips it firmly in her flexed fist and tiptoes to the back of the house.

 

Terror hits her, gluing her bare feet to the floor. She can hear shoes moving behind the door. They creak as the intruder shifts his weight. Could it be the police? No—they would crash through the door. It might be another junkie, coming to steal Tim’s stash. When the window slides back down, Julia tightens her finger on the trigger and almost fires through the door.

 

She’s on the verge of bolting for the baby’s crib when she realizes that the intruder must be Tim, because there’s no light on in the guest room, yet the person inside is moving with assurance. She slides back three steps and aims the pistol at the door. If it opens and anyone but Tim appears, she will fire. She hears a muttered curse, and then the door opens.

 

Tim jerks as though he’s been hit with a cattle prod when he sees the gun pointed at his face. Then suddenly he is apologizing, begging her to forgive him. She’s so angry that she wants to shoot him, but her relief is even stronger.

 

“Where were you?” she cries in a squelched scream. “It’s four in the morning!”

 

“Hey, hey,” he says soothingly, throwing some balled-up clothes onto the floor. “It’s going to be all right now.”

 

“Bullshit!” she hisses. “I almost shot you! You fucking liar! Liar liar LIAR!”

 

Tim’s forehead wrinkles with puzzlement. “What are you talking about? I’ve been with Penn, honey. You don’t want to know more than that.”

 

Julia wipes her eyes with a quivering hand and looks at him the way she used to when she had to manage every moment of his life to keep him from sliding back into the abyss. She means to ask about the drugs, but what she says is “Just with Penn?”

 

Something in the quick blinking of his eyes tells her that whatever follows is going to be a lie. As she turns away, the fine cracks that have accumulated in her trust over the past weeks give way, and the true fragility of her existence is revealed. She stifles a wail, then goes to the kitchen cupboard and takes out a bottle of Isomil to heat on the stove.

 

She now knows that what she told herself after leaving her first
husband was a lie.
If a man ever cheats on me again, I’ll leave him in a second.
So easy to say, but with a baby in the nursery things get a lot more complicated.

 

“Julia?” Tim says awkwardly.

 

If he tries to approach her, she will move away to avoid smelling another woman on him. “There’s something for you on the table,” she says coldly.

 

“Huh?”

 

“The table!” She watches the gas flame glow at the edge of the pot.

 

“Oh, God,” Tim breathes. “Julia—”

 

“Mm-hm?”

 

“It’s not what you think.”

 

“It’s not? That’s not dope on the table? That’s not Vicodin and cocaine?”

 

“No. I mean…it is, yeah. You know it is.”

 

“Let me guess. It’s not yours, right? You’re just holding it for somebody.”

 

Hearing the floor creak, she holds up a hand to ward him off. He stops.

 

“Baby, I know what you think, but that stuff is part of what Penn and I are doing.”

 

Even Julia is surprised by the harshness of her laughter. “Oh, right. I understand now. You and the mayor are using a bag of dope to save the city.”

 

There’s a brief silence. Then Tim says, “Actually that’s about it. Penn doesn’t know about that part of it, but it’s the only way. That’s all I can really tell you now. Anything else would be dangerous. In a few days, though, I should be able to explain it to you.”

 

“If you’re not in jail, you mean?”

 

Tim sighs in what sounds like exhaustion. “I just wish you’d believe me. Haven’t I earned that yet?”

 

Julia grips the pot handle with her shaking hands. Part of her wants to throw the hot water on him, to scald him for lying to her. But part of her wants to believe. Tim sounded like he was telling the truth about the drugs, and she truly hasn’t seen any signs of his being high. But he’s lying about something—that she knows.

 

“Julia?”

 

“You’re home now,” she snaps, her eyes locked onto the milk bot
tle warming in the pot of water. “Whatever you’re doing, get it done, so we can get back to living.”

 

Tim keeps his distance. “Okay.”

 

“All right,” she says, cutting off further discussion. “Go get Timmy, please. You know what time it is. He’s going to start crying any second.”
BOOK: The Devil's Punchbowl
6.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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