Chapter Twenty-One: The Missing Items
Even paranoids have real enemies.
Kyle was heavy and the trip to the car was difficult. I strained to keep him upright, getting my shoulder up into his armpit and holding that arm over my neck. Sari did something similar on the other side. The stiffness in his arm gave way twice. I didn’t know if it was bones breaking or tendons tearing, but his load shifted noticeably. The back alley was as dark as I hoped for so anybody up at that hour wouldn’t be able to see more than a couple of figures shuffling to their car. They’d never see details like his feet dragging, his weird death smile, his open eyes.
When we got to the Honda, Sari had to run ahead and open the passenger-side door. She had been supporting his weight more than I guessed and when she wasn’t on his other side I lost control of him and dropped him. His knees didn’t bend, but he swiveled forward at the waist, arms up and dangling for a moment like a marionette, and fell into his car. There was a slight bang. I laughed, partially because there was something darkly comical at his flailing about, but also to support the role of helping my friend who’s so drunk he can’t stand up. I added in a loud whisper, “Dude, are you alright?”
I lifted him like we had in the house and heaved him around the car to the open door. Sari had turned off the interior light so it was in nearly complete darkness I manhandled him into the seat by getting in first myself and pulling him behind me. I got poked in the ass by the emergency brake, had to surmount the center console where an old soda can crinkled. His lack of flexibility made it difficult getting him in the seat properly. I had to recline the seat back and yank him up by his belt to get his legs in. Finally I shut the door and started up the car. With his seatbelt on he mostly passed for the drunk we’d planned on—except for the open eyes and the startled expression: a face like one caught on camera getting surprised at a fun house. I reached over and rolled down his window because he stunk of shit. He must have evacuated his bowels.
I pulled away and went half way down the alley before turning on my headlights. Sari was in her car waiting to follow me at the end of the alley. Kyle’s head slid my way at my first right turn so at the next stop sign I pulled the seatbelt out all the way until the child safety feature tightened it around him. The only time I’d ever done that before was to secure a beer growler in the seat.
We drove south, the same way we had earlier chasing that very Honda. I called Sari’s cell.
“I’m going to pull off somewhere. When I do, you keep going. Park somewhere, drive around in circles, whatever. I’ll call you when I need you to come get me.”
There were no other cars out on the roads. I watched the map on my phone to see when I was in the thick of the preserve then turned off on the first side road I saw. The road was small enough that it had no lines painted on it, barely looked like two cars could squeeze by one another. On the left were trees, on the right a ditch with water and weeds. On the map another unnamed road was coming up on the left and it went toward a blue splotch, a roadkill-shaped body of water with a dozen smaller creeks snaking away from it. It must have been Turkey Pond from which the Refuge got its name. The road wasn’t even paved and at its entrance it had a yellow barrier bar swung open that was probably normally shut and locked. I turned down it and turned off my headlights to test visibility. The night was clear and the moon was bright. I could see the ghost of the road ahead, more so as my eyes adapted and I moved into a clearing with no tree coverage. The map showed I was nearly there. The starry sky expanded, filled the windshield, until it almost reached the horizon in front of me. I could feel space open around me. I had come to the water.
The area over which I drove felt like a beach or a parking area. There was a sign or two posted. I stopped the car and tried to make out what was in front of me. Something linear cut into the blackness of the water. I rolled forward, trying to not activate the brake lights as much as possible. Finally I stopped, got out and walked forward. It was a dock. Its boardwalk entranceway went from the gravelly parking area out about thirty feet where it teed off left and right. It wasn’t your classic dock with those poles, the ones like truncated telephone poles where seabirds perch and around which thick ropes are tied. No, this one had no edges, just a T-shaped deck extending out over the water. It could work well for the plan.
I went back to the car and moved it forward to just before the dock. Then I spent five minutes wrestling Kyle into the driver’s seat. His weight felt more like dead weight which I guessed meant he was loosening up. His legs were more easily arranged near the pedals. That’s when I noticed his shoe was missing. Shit. I used my phone light to search the passenger side floor and didn’t find it. I got out of the car and ran my fingers through my sweaty hair. Where the fuck was his shoe? It must be in the alley back at the house. Mental note: find Kyle’s missing shoe.
I went about wiping the car of my fingerprints using wads of tissues wet with some soda from that can in the console. Smelled like Dr Pepper. I tried to not miss a spot. I got the steering wheel, the edges of both doors, the door handles front and back, the back and edges of the rear-view mirror, the key in the ignition, the gearshift, the emergency brake. I got the radio buttons. I got the fucking seat belts, their release buttons. I didn’t miss a thing. The last thing I touched with a palmed tissue was the gearshift as I put it in Drive. I had reached in among Kyle’s legs with my foot and depressed the break. When I lifted my foot from the brake and the car jolted forward in gear, I floored the gas. The car lurched forward and the door shut by itself. The idea was it would go as far as possible on the dock before going off the edge one way or another like a poorly rolled bowling ball.
I saw the back of Kyle’s head as the car rolled clumsily toward the dock. It veered right more than I guessed it would, its left tire just making the dock, the rest of it splashing into the water. It had enough momentum though and the whole thing tipped upside-down into the water with a huge splash, engine sounds and spinning tires making a fuss from the undercarriage. It came to rest with the front submerged and only some of the rear above water—enough to trap and drown the despondent murderer of Catherine whatever-her-name-was.
I turned and ran the way I had come and was running at a decent pace down the unpaved road when I heard a car, the sound of tires crunching on the road surface. Then saw its headlights blinking through the trees. I scampered off to the side, stepped through some water in a ditch, hands waving before me like a blind man, a recoiling mime fearing I’d get poked in the eye by a branch. I found coverage crouched low behind an evergreen. I glanced into the woods behind me, a darkness so absolute it seemed to have its own malevolent substance. It totally creeped me out.
The car had come the way I had driven and it was stopping at the entrance to that road. It must have been a cop or a ranger whose job it was to lock up these roads. Kind of late, I supposed, but better than never. The figure got out, left the car running, passed in front of the headlights. They pulled the squeaky bar closed and chained it up. Then they got back in and made a three-point turn. Its headlights passed where I hid, sweeping the woods behind me with a wave of jagged light and shadows and not a few sets of silver creature eyes were looking my way. They drove back the way they came, this time driving faster as if they too wanted only to be out of the malignant woods.
The night vision to which I had adapted was ruined from watching that car. I couldn’t see anything. I staggered out of the trees, clawed at the air before me. The crickets or frogs or whatever the hell made all that racket at night would go mute in a consistent radius around me and that somehow added to my disorientation. Then I fell, landing on my left side in whatever puddled muck festered in those roadside ditches. When I finally got onto the road it was a relieving openness, felt like surfacing after a breathless dive.
I ran with squishing sneakers down the road. After a few minutes I stopped and caught my breath and texted Sari to meet me where I had turned off. While on my phone I saw I had gotten a text from Rayne, but I didn’t look at it, got back to running. I got to the rendezvous soon after and saw her car coming far down the road. I remained out of sight until she slowed and I knew it was she. I got in her car.
She recoiled at my sight, “Oh Cliff, you’re filthy.”
I told her about the ditch, then about Kyle’s car, the cop, the darkened wood.
When she didn’t say anything I took it to mean everything was satisfactory. I watched her profile as she drove. She maintained that photogenic, unreadable mask of a face, lit ever so slightly by the instrument panel. Her lips were so finely formed you couldn’t imagine them ever ugly or otherwise contorted by anything negative.
“I want to kiss you.”
A smile so slight it might have not happened, “You let me drive and stay over there. I know you’ve been wrestling with Kyle and I don’t know what gook is all over you and my seats.”
We were silent again.
Finally we turned north toward Fowl’s Point so I asked, “Where are we going?”
“Your place probably isn’t safe. We could either stay at a motel or drive the two and half hours to Baydacious.”
It takes that long to drive there because you have to go all the way up to Wilmington for the first bridge over the water, then all the way down Jersey. All the ferries—both legal and not—were closed until the morning. By the time we would get there by car we could have just waited for the first ferry.
“Well, we have to go back to my place.”
“Kyle’s shoe was missing. It must have fallen off when we were dragging him out.”
The rest of the ride was weird. Neither of us said anything, just enjoyed the air-conditioned comfort of her car. I thought: we’re in the Twilight Zone where the drug has winded down, but still exerted its effects subtly. It wasn’t a bad feeling; it was the kind of mellow chilling sense one got hours after a major stoning. I thought of Rayne and me having our first and only fight when she called out my Twilight Zone platitudes and I got pissy about it.
Then Sari said, “Know what I just thought of? You mentioned his shoe being lost. Where’s his phone? I checked his pockets to see if he had anything on him that might incriminate us. They were empty.”
“Rayne was using it when he died.”
“I know. So she either put it somewhere or still has it. Text her and find out.”
I texted Rayne, but got no reply. “She’s probably asleep.”
“I don’t think she’s sleeping. I think she’s using. I think she got into the mix. Look at this text I got.”
It was a few hours old: “Remember those Stylites who lived on pillars as an act of prayer? I have a pillar inside me.”
I remembered she had sent me a text so I checked my phone. That text was older than Sari’s text. She had said, “I’m jealous, you guys having fun and I’m stuck here.”
“So why isn’t she answering her texts?”
“She might be partying with Francesco and his boy?”
I thought of that night at the club and the sexually charged dancing, the loss of inhibitions. “I thought you said she would be safe there.”
Sari laughed out loud at my concern, “Yes, she’s safe, but that doesn’t mean she can’t have fun.”
Was that a pang of jealousy I felt way back there behind the ghostly remains of the mix?
“What’s she saying about having a pillar in her?”
Sari laughed even harder, “Christian mystics. You know how she’s into all that medieval stuff. She commonly falls into that kind of imagery when on the mix. That’s how I know. It might be what she needs after what happened.”
I reread her texts several times as if I could somehow read between the lines and get more information out of them.
We finally rolled up to my house and it looked pretty much unchanged. The front door was still locked and undamaged. The back door was secure as well. Sari had locked it when she went through the house to get her car earlier. I went out it and used my phone’s light to look for Kyle’s shoe. It was right there on my rear sidewalk just about where we had started dragging him. I brought it inside and showed it to Sari, then put it in the trash can. I took out its bag and tied it. I would still have time to take out my trash after all.
I could sense no intruder was in the house but we did a room by room search anyway with the gun leveled before us like a talisman or quivering divining rod. While upstairs we each used the bathroom and I changed my clothes. Then we went downstairs and stood at the spot where Kyle had lain. We looked at two stains: the one was blood where his head had been and the other a spot of something else—shit presumably—where his ass would have been.
I elected myself as carpet cleaner, then asked from the kitchen as I got out the cleanser, “So now where?”
“I think we can stay here until the first ferry.”
“You think it’s safe?”
She was looking out the front window like one worried about what might be out there, “Yeah, I think they’ll change tack. They know you have that gun. Can’t imagine them breaking down the door.”
“What do you think they’ll do?”
“Don’t know, but I intend to be far away from here tomorrow.”
I scrubbed the stains with an old brush and when I was done, I shoved it too in the garbage bag. I went to the door with the bag. “I’m going to take this out.”
She kind of shrugged as if to save me unnecessary work, but I think she was actually a little scared, “Why don’t you wait until the sun comes up. Won’t be long.” Then she smiled, “Let’s lay on the couch.”
I went to the couch but she went into the kitchen and got a chair. I watched as she took it to the back door.
She said, “Tricks single girls learn when they live alone.” She balanced the chair on two legs, the other two against the door so if it was opened it would fall acting as an alarm.
Now to the couch. The first tingles of The Craving were upon us. I didn’t have that overwhelming horniness yet, but physical contact was more pleasurable than normal. The cerebral was giving way to the tactile. Sari lay back on the couch, her head haloed in a sunburst of yellow hair. I sat on the edge leaning over her. She locked my eyes with hers, put her fingers through my hair. I put a hand on her hip, finally kissed those lips, a dizzying pleasure beyond words. We kissed for a while and soon the clothes started coming off.
She looked at me with that hungry flush, “I don’t usually prefer Twilight Zone sex, but I want to. I’m feeling sexy at that level beyond the hormones. What about you?”
I nodded and kissed her.
“And I want to do it before we have your girlfriend back.” By girlfriend she meant of course her sister Rayne.
Sari got down to her underwear, but I kept my clothes on for the most part, fearing literally being caught with my pants down and Rudi crashing through my door. We did it there on the couch with the gun ready on the coffee table and the nose-burning cleanser in the air from Kyle’s scrubbed stains.
I couldn’t believe I could kiss those perfect lips she had, that she was mine, everything I ever wanted or dreamed I could have. I wanted only Sari and didn’t want to have to worry about Rayne or about Rudi trying to kill us. I wanted to blurt out all that, tell her I loved her and that we should leave right then, get in her car and drive away, but it would have killed the mood.
Afterwards she fell asleep. I wanted to remain vigilant so after sitting there watching her, I got up and looked out the window when I saw the sun had risen. Everything outside looked normal. I picked up the trash bag, unlocked the door as quietly as possible and went outside. I put my single bag in my trash bin and wheeled it down the sidewalk and put it out at the curb. Nothing suspicious out on the street. Some floating seagulls circled at the water’s edge looking at me and my trash.
A man’s voice behind me: “You’re up early.”
I spun around to find my neighbor John walking down his sidewalk. He had his fingers awkwardly shoved in the front pockets of his jeans, a man so unaccustomed to going outside he doesn’t know what to do with his body.
He started up the small talk about people he assumed I knew in the neighborhood that I didn’t, about noise from the Hairpin, about another trash company he’s been looking into because they have a better rate. He started talking about parking problems on the street when Sari opened the door and came out wearing fresh clothes and carrying her bag, the one we kept the gun in. She walked down my sidewalk toward us and John watched her in silence. She looked at me from behind her sunglasses. “I’m going to run up to Graham’s for some breakfast.” She asked John if he wanted anything and he said no thanks.
I said, “Let me come with you.”
“No, you need to take a shower. I’ll be right back, then we’ll leave.”
She walked across the street to her car and drove away.
John smiled, “What happened to the brunette?”
“Oh she’s staying at a friend’s.”
John smiled more widely, nodded. “I saw somebody else came over.”
“Some guy, parked out back.”
“Right, that was a friend of hers.” I gestured in the direction Sari had gone.
“He must have stayed late.”
“Yeah he was here drinking.” I laughed, “Probably had a bit too much.” It was probably best to keep to the vague storyline of our lie.
John just nodded and kept nodding too long as if to assure me he believed me when he really didn’t. He blinked too much. Did he suspect something was amiss?
“You know,” he said, “I wanted to ask you something.”
“Your water pressure.”
“What about it?”
“Mine seems to have gone down.”
“Mine seems fine.”
“Is there any way,” he pointed to my house, “I could…”
He wanted to come in. Where was the gun? What else might he see? How many years have I know him and he wants to come in now?
He saw my hesitation, “I mean, just let me feel the water in your kitchen sink. While she’s out. I don’t want be a nuisance, but there’s nobody else I can really ask.”
It would seem more suspicious to say no. “Sure, we can run in.”
I walked him to the front door and led him in. I checked the table for the gun and it wasn’t there. Everything seemed kosher aside from the smell of the caustic cleaners.
He said, “Guess you were cleaning the kitchen?”
“Yeah, her sister’s a real clean freak.” I went to the window and opened it.
He was standing at the threshold of the kitchen checking it out. Then he pointed low below the kitchen sink. “Somebody lose their glasses?”
I came up behind him and saw what he was talking about. Kyle’s glasses, the ones that had flown off his head when Rayne hit him, had settled under the edge of the cabinet. We had missed them.
“Ah, my reading glasses. I was looking for them.”
I bent down and got them just as my phone rang. It was Sari’s number. Did she not know what kind of bagel I got? I answered it, “Hi.”
It was a man’s voice.
“Hiya Cliff. This is Alan. You’ll recall we had enjoyed a beer together? I’m here with Sari and Rudi. Now Rudi, be gentle with her, she’s a delicate thing.”