Authors: Gregg Hurwitz
I picked up my cordless phone to give her a call. A chill tensed the skin on my arms, and I threw the phone down on the bed. I found a screwdriver among the dumped-out tools at the bottom of the coat closet and pried the phone's casing open. I lifted out the perforated disk of the receiver. No C-4. And no bugs, but I knew from Law & Order that these days they tapped calls from outdoor junction boxes. Deciding to play it safe, I left the phone dismantled on the kitchen counter.
I headed into the bathroom, sat on the edge of the tub, and at long last wiggled the key from the sole of my shoe. Brass, like I remembered. Thicker than a house key. Stamped on the front, three uneven numbers: 229. On the back: U.S. GOV'T, UNLAWFUL TO DUPLICATE.
An office in the Secret Service Building? A government vault? A safe-deposit box?
A knock at the front door startled me. As I sprang up, a thud vibrated the floor. Jamming the key back into the air pocket of my sneaker, I scrambled out into my bedroom.
A ginger-haired young man in his early twenties stood at an uncomfortable forward tilt, peering apologetically into my apartment, his fist still
raised from knocking. He wore a white shirt, almost the shade of his skin, and a red paisley bow tie. The front door lay flat on its side just inside the threshold. We regarded each other, startled. I looked like an idiot or a schizophrenic--muscle pants, gift-shop T-shirt, eyes glassy with fatigue.
"Uh, sorry. Mr. Horrigan?"
"I'm Alan Lambrose. One of Senator Caruthers's aides. The senator got into town late last night after the debate, and he'd like to thank you in person."
"Is that really a bow tie?"
"It is. It's sort of how I'm known. Senator's aide with a bow tie." He smiled brightly and fanned a hand down the hall. "I have a car waiting for you, if that's okay."
I walked into the living room, the Aztec pattern of the muscle pants flashing with my movement, and gestured around. "Not the best time."
"Is there some way we can help?"
"Sure. I'd like my door fixed."
"We'll get that taken care of. And we'll see that you're reimbursed for the damage."
"Look," I said, "I get it. There's fifteen minutes of fame to be had. Everyone's eager for me to have them, and to get a picture shaking my hand."
"Every presidential candidate."
Alan's pale lips firmed to suppress a smile, the first break in his wonkishness. "I won't lie to you,"
he said, "and pretend we're not pleased you didn't wait around for Bilton's call."
"How do you know about that? Did Wydell tell you?"
"I don't know Wydell, but I can tell you that it became Service scuttlebutt before you left the hospital."
That struck me as odd and made me wonder at the reach of Caruthers's influence. "I'd always thought the Service was about discretion," I said carefully.
"Times are different, I suppose," Alan said. "Everything's gone to shit and politics."
"Right," I said. "Well, please thank Senator Caruthers for the offer, but tell him I'll take a pass. I need to . . . you know, figure out what to do here about my place." I hoped I didn't sound as helpless as I felt.
"I didn't mean to upset you." Alan withdrew.
I tried shoving some of the stuffing back into the couch, growing increasingly frustrated. I wanted to restore something to its former shape, even a damn couch. But the more I fussed with it, the more the fabric tore and stretched, and after a while I gave up and sat, splay-legged and discouraged.
When I looked up, Alan was in the doorway again, sliding his cell phone back into his pocket. "The senator told me I was an asshole for playing the political angle. He said he has no interest in publicizing his meeting with you. He just wants to
meet you because he was such an admirer of your stepfather."
I considered this skeptically. But I remembered how Frank had always spoken about Caruthers. "Can I take a shower?"
"I'm sorry, the senator's on a bit of a schedule today."
He turned away obligingly while I changed. I kept the IS? L.A. shirt but switched out the muscle pants for jeans.
"Watch your step there." He held the crime
scene tape up for me as I ducked through the doorway, a boxer entering a ring.
I followed him down the hall, on my way to meet the next president of the United States.
Waiting for the elevator, Alan raised a hand, touched my shoulder. "You mind my asking why you're so reluctant to be noticed?"
"Yes," I said, my thoughts yanked back seventeen years.
I minded quite a bit.
The open back door. The bloody streak across the floorboards. Frank, dead in my arms. Propped against his armchair, cradling his body, I went in and out. My arms cramped. My shirt was saturated, his blood growing cold against my skin.
Then the phone was at my face, an operator
squawking in my ear. Two buttons bore the mark of my bloody fingerprint, though I couldn't remember dialing.
There were sirens, and then cops and agents were there, though I didn't recall them arriving. At some point much later, Callie appeared, sitting on Frank's armchair, trembling. The detectives were telling her that Frank had been shot by his own gun. His watch was missing, and Callie's fake
diamond bracelet and our shitty VCR. A botched robbery, probably a junkie. The perp had come in the back and left through the side door of the garage, which they'd found unbolted and swaying. With everything he was, Frank Durant had been killed by a third-rate lowlife.
Yes he had. He'd been killed by me.
When I told the authorities why I'd snuck out, Callie gave a muffled sob and walked out of the room. It cut me to the bone, that little sob and the universe of disappointment it contained.
Night after night I sat in my room, listened to my mom crying through the thin walls. I can't describe what those sounds did to me. Some of my earliest memories of Callie were after my dad died--the only few months I'd known her to smoke-- standing outside with a long-burning cigarette after she thought I'd gone to sleep, her shoulders shaking. And I thought, This is her life again. This is her life now. And it s because of me.
I stayed home from school. I didn't show up for playoffs. Caruthers himself called Callie to express condolences. She and I didn't speak much--I could barely be in her presence, let alone meet her eye. I was completely lost, and there was no Frank to come in and figure out what not to tell me.
She finally started taking sleeping pills and going down a little after ten o'clock at night, but I was still in such bad shape I could barely close my eyes to blink. I wandered the dark house, searching out traces of Frank. His coffee mug still in the sink, the brown ring inside. English Leather clinging to the dated sport coat over the back of the kitchen chair. His footprints in the matchbox garden. I felt his absence as broken glass in my stomach, my betrayal as the pounding of my heartbeat in my head.
Once the food in the fridge spoiled, I threw it out and went to the convenience store to pick up some Crystal Light and frozen burritos for whenever Callie started eating again. Walking home at twilight, the 7-Eleven bags swinging around my knees, I became aware of a car creeping behind me. The sideview mirror of a parked truck afforded me a glimpse. Dark sedan, tinted windows, no front plate. It moved with me, matching my pace, for about a half block. My fear mounting, I kept on, fighting to hold my gaze ahead. Finally I could no longer resist, and when I whirled, the sedan screeched into a U-turn and sped away. I stared after it until I felt the plastic grocery bags cutting
off the circulation in my fingers. The back plate had been missing, too.
That night I found Callie sitting in Frank's armchair, staring at the bleached spot on the floorboards, a white puddle to match the one Frank had left behind.
"Mom?" Just calling her that made my voice falter.
She looked up blankly.
I said, "Frank was scared of something. Someone. I think whoever did it was waiting for the opening I gave them that night."
Her anger caught me by surprise. "You don't have to do this, Nicky. It's a morbid fantasy. You heard the detectives. It was some druggie burglar."
"We live in Glendale, Mom. How many junkies have you seen around here?"
"I don't want you to be responsible for Frank's death either. But this, your scenario, it isn't real. Frank was always worried about security. It's just part of who he is. Was. It just got worse. And worse. Don't take on his paranoia."
"Whoever killed him was in the house when I was coming up the side run." I pointed past her head at the facing wall, but she only pressed her eyes closed. "They think I saw something. Or that Frank told me something. They're waiting and watching, like they did with Frank. I don't know that it's safe to be near me."
She was crying again. "Please don't make me do this with you. Not right now. Please, Nicky. It's nuts. The detectives said--and even the agents-- they said it wasn't. . ."
"There was this car today. At a stop sign. A sedan, and the windows were--"
She was on her feet. "There's nothing. It was nothing. Or ... or the PD and the Service said they'd send a car by. To keep an eye. That's what they do after a murder. Or it was just some car, and you want it to--"
"There was no license plate. They peeled out as soon as I--"
"Stop it! Just--stop. I can find a way to live with ... your mistake, and with Frank's dying, but I will not live in this house one more day with this toxic paranoia." Sobbing, she darted to the front door, threw back the dead bolts. She shoved the kitchen windows open, smashed at the alarm pad with her fist, then sagged against the counter, holding her hand. "Not one more day," she said hoarsely. "Do you understand?"
"Frank was scared of something, Callie. And we both know he didn't scare easily." I couldn't shake the flurry of images--Frank fingering aside the curtain, wanding down his truck, that grainy flash by JFK's head. "He couldn't get backup either. So either the Service is involved or this is something
too big for them."
She was yelling, now, to match my tone. "Too big for the Secret Service? Do you hear yourself?"
"You don't see them digging into this. One of their agents was murdered. And they don't want to touch it. You really think some crackhead could've wrestled Frank's gun away from him? The Service is rolling over for some bullshit story. And so are you."
She came at me, leering, her face twisted with loathing. "You fucked up, Nicky. You did. You got Frank killed so you could screw some slut on a pitcher's mound. So don't go making this about conspiracy theories and cover-ups."
I swallowed dryly. My flesh tingled, wanting to be numb. It felt anything but.
She sobbed for a while and then looked around as if she'd just realized where she was. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Right now, I just.. . I just. . ." She took a deep breath, held it, and after she let it out, she sounded wearier than I'd ever heard her. "Kathy's coming to pick me up. Italian. You oughta come eat with us."
I couldn't answer, because I was afraid if I talked, I'd start crying. So I shook my head and walked away. In my room I plugged Tetris in to the Nintendo and watched those puzzle pieces fall. I made no move to play, to align them; I just let them pile up until they reached the top of the screen and blinked defeat. All those broken shapes, all those parts of an elusive whole. I watched them tumble and tumble until I no longer felt overwhelmed, until I felt only a glazed sort of surrender. A half
hour later, I heard a honk, and she called through the door that she was leaving. The first time she'd gone out since Frank's death.
I came back out after she left and walked around, closing the windows, relocking the dead bolts. I paused by that front window I'd watched Frank stand at so many times. Mimicking his position, I slid two fingers through the gap in the curtains. I knew what would be waiting out there as I knew the next twist of a recurring nightmare. My hand shaking, I drew back the curtain.
A dark sedan was parked up the street at the curb.
My skin tightened as if against the cold. The phone rang, startling the hell out of me. Walking backward to keep an eye on the front door, I reached the phone and picked up.
A gruff voice said, "Your mother was just seated at a corner table at Giammarco's." He breathed for a moment on the car phone, letting the implications sink in. Then he said, calmly, "Come outside."
I held the phone in a sweaty hand until it bleated in my ear. Then I set it down. I waited for my mind to kick into gear, but it wouldn't. There was just terror, superimposed across the blankness that was everything else. But I already knew what I had to do. I'd placed Frank at risk. I couldn't do the same with my mom. On trembling legs I walked outside.
I wouldn't see that house or my mom again for nearly nine years.
It was my first time riding in a limousine, and I was still adjusting to how uncomfortable it was. I was seated on a curved section of leather bench, my knees wedged against an acrylic bar. Somehow Alan managed to work two cell phones without breaking the cadence of either conversation. He finally finished the calls and rubbed his eyes with boyish indulgence. "Sorry. As you can probably guess, it's a critical time."