I came to slowly, rocked in the passenger seat of a slow-moving car. Night had fallen; the windows were rolled up and the heat was on. It was cozy. I knew that I was in danger, but for now, this car was cradling me, and whoever was driving it—probably the dentist, but assuming things was getting me into trouble lately—had taken care of me. I’d done nothing but stumble into dangers since heading out here from the city, and if there was any way to predict where the next one would come from, my thick melon wasn’t going to give me the answer. Danger would come when it would, and the way things had been going, it would probably come soon. But for now, right now, I was alive and warm in my coat. And that was enough.
I started to stretch my neck, out of instinct, and heard a rustling of fabric beside me. The driver was paying close attention to me. Now I knew two things: I was comfortable, and I was being watched. Eyes still closed, I smacked my lips a couple of times and slumped back down into the nook between my seat and the window, pretending to sleep, lying doggo.
No radio, so this was not a cop car. Behind me, in the back seat, no talking, no noise, no nothing. I was alone with the driver.
Who was probably the dentist. If he was here, and Carol wasn’t, then either she’d escaped, or he’d killed her, or he still held her someplace. Too many possibilties there, too many ways for things to go wrong if I’d picked a theory and tried to muscle the truth out of him. Tell the truth, I wasn’t sure even now that I’d be able to get the drop on him. In a fair fight, sure. But the doc didn’t fight fair.
After a few minutes, I eased my right eye just barely open. We were in a residential neighborhood full of small two-story houses. Something told me that we hadn’t left Iowa City, but a smarter something told me not to jump to any conclusions. I’d been out for a while; this could’ve been Berwyn, this could’ve been Clearing, for all I knew.
We couldn’t have been going more than 30, and when we slowed to a stop, I had a chance to scan the license plates of a few parked cars. A pickup, an old Toyota, a Prius, all Iowa plates; the pickup was plastered with the Hawkeye bumper stickers I’d seen all over Iowa City, and the Prius had one of those fancy University of Iowa stickers in the back window. If we’d left town, we hadn’t gone far.
The streets went by, as we crawled through town, the buildings grew and shrank. Streetlights and no streetlights. A mansion, a cluster of familiar little houses, an apartment building, more houses. I knew my immediate situation, and I had a solid idea that we hadn’t left town. But I wasn’t learning anything else this way.
My head angled downward and one eye barely open, I wasn’t able to read any street signs. So I tried marking buildings. The half-painted old wooden house, the mansion with Greek letters, the one with the beer cans falling off the porch…this did not help. We might as well have been driving in circles.
Which, it struck me, was a huge piece of information right there.
If we hadn’t left this tiny town, and if we hadn’t driven through anything but quiet residential streets, we had to be in some sort of holding pattern.
The driver was buying time. Waiting for something to happen, or thinking about what to do with me. Or both.
I tensed my legs; my keys and wallet were still there. My right hand was tucked under my coat, hugging my belt line, and by slowly stretching my fingers—it might have taken hours—I found the voice recorder. Nothing had been taken from me. I was not considered a threat. Which was a very bad thing.
With nothing to lose, I blinked and sat up, easing back into my seat and looking straight ahead at exactly the sort of neighborhood scene I’d imagined. Edward the dentist was driving.
“Evening, Doc,” I said. Nothing to lose, right?
“Good evening,” he answered. “I hope you enjoyed your rest. It’s rude of me, I know, always saying hello by putting you to sleep, but at my age, I’m not one for taking unnecessary risks.”
“It’s all right,” I heard myself say. Strip away all the stuff I didn’t know, all the stuff I would’ve guessed wrong about, and I was driving at night through a nice little town in a warm car with someone I met a few days ago. Somehow that made small talk easier.
“Your friends,” Edward began, and then stopped. “Should I speak of your friends? Have you any? Oh, Leonard—Lenny, my apologies—Lenny, it’s a puzzlement to me.”
I knew that I’d been insulted, but wasn’t sure exactly how.
“Lenny, do you know what it’s like not to matter?”
“To who? Not to matter at all? To anyone?”
“Hmmm. I misspoke. Do you know what it’s like not to have control over a single thing in your life?”
I huffed, down payment on a laugh. “Yeah, I’m getting a lesson in that.”
“Just these last few days? Or- Looking back, does it seem like you’ve never really had a basic sense of mastery over your life? Like you’ve been toyed with? Played?”
And that whole conversation with myself on the way to the police station came back. The haves and have-nots, the world as a Ponzi scheme. I sank back into that old bitterness, and all the careful planning I’d done just a few minutes ago—observe, observe, don’t assume—felt like nothing. If the doc was trying to make a point, I’d help him finish the thought, now that we were talking man-to-man: we’re all dupes.
“Yeah. You put it that way, I can’t argue. Way of the world, I guess. How do you handle it?”
“Oh, I’ve never felt that way myself. I control what I can, and that’s quite enough for me. When it isn’t enough, I reach for more, and I get it. That comes naturally to me, and I understand it in others.
“But you…I was curious as to how you make your way, Lenny. Because for the life of me, you don’t seem to have a role in all this. You don’t belong here. You’re an extra. You’re surplus.”
“Look,” I half-shouted, “I came here to do a job. And too bad for Stan and too bad for me, but I got a reason for being here.”
“Had. You had a reason for being here, and that reason is now moot.”
“And now I got other reasons.”
“The police? You can’t be serious, Lenny. Think about it, please: you’re not exactly a credible witness to…anything. You skipped out halfway through an interview with a detective, maybe with the FBI. If anything, they may want to bring you in for wasting their time earlier today. Your face is known to the police force in this town, and it is not trusted.
“I’ll give you this, Lenny: you know your place. You have no role in this drama, and yet you’re inventing a part. That’s not lost on me. I appreciate it.
“For example, you haven’t sought to move things forward by making some clumsy gesture like seizing the wheel from me or attacking me physically. Those ideas must have occurred to you, and you rejected them. I admire that.”
“Only because of Carol.”
Edward laughed. “You’re a loyal chump, Lenny. I admire that, too. Carol? I’m not so sure.”
“You should talk to your girlfriend. If. You see her again.”
“You hurt Carol, you kill her, and you’re gonna force my hand, Doc.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. I’m not a killer, Lenny. John killed your partner, you guessed that.”
“And the other guys who-“
“The police reports suggested that they killed each other, no?”
“The reports told the truth this time, Lenny.”
“Like hell. Those were loyal soldiers. Those were stand-up guys, you fucking-“
“Language! I didn’t kill those men, Lenny. I disarmed them, as I disarmed Stanley and then yourself. Then I talked to them. And when I gave them back their weapons, nature took its course.”
We drove in silence for a while. Edward seemed to be avoiding traffic lights, turning off onto small streets just before busy intersections.
“I’m not a killer. But you should know that I’m willing to learn. Stanley’s gun is with me, and I’ll get to it before you do.”
I’d been watched all along. Even when I ditched Stan’s piece.
“Don’t be so surprised, Lenny. Remember your first episode? Heavy-handed of me, and for the record, while you ought to exercise more, you didn’t have an infarction. I just needed to work on you a bit, and Stanley agreed to help me do that.
“They microchip dogs these days, they give children positioning devices. I needed to manage you, and when I noticed that you were approaching the police station, I did keep my eye on you.”
For some reason, I blushed. “So where-“
“Filling.” He sounded bored. “Third molar. I’m a dentist, Leonard.”
We finally pulled in to a driveway flanked by heavy pine trees.
“You don’t hold many cards, Lenny,” Edward said after parking. “So you’re not much of a threat to me. I think you’d find it hard to become one, given all you don’t know. You’re aware of that, aware that what you perceive as the right move will almost inevitably prove to be the wrong one.
“So let’s see Carol.”
I’d expected something creepy, dark, sinister, but Edward’s house was tidy, airy, well-lit. Not much furniture, very little on the walls, not much of anything to mark the man who lived there. Almost like one of those corporate hotels Stan and I did so much business in.
We removed our shoes, and Edward offered to take my coat; I grunted something about being cold, and he arched an eyebrow before leading me through a stiff-looking living room. He’d seen me enter the police station, and he’d seen me leave: he knew I wasn’t armed.
We entered an enormous kitchen, real Food Network stuff, and Edward apologized for the mess. I didn’t notice anything but a few dishes in the sink.
“Big Thanksgiving, I guess,” I observed.
“No. But it will be. Can I offer you a drink? White or red? Or beer—are you a beer man, Lenny?”
Sure, it was a little jab, and sure, the Doc was reminding me of my place. But it’s also true. He handed me a Rolling Rock, as if confirming that no, he wasn’t a beer guy himself.
He poured himself a glass of red wine and ushered me back out of the kitchen, down some stairs, and through an unlocked door into a barroom.
At least, that’s what it looked like. Against one wall spread a huge wooden bar: brass rails, inlaid details on the bartop, and behind it all, beveled mirrors framed by fluted columns topped with ornate carvings of birds. The bar was stocked, the bottles fullish to full.
The rest of the room was as cozy as the main floor had been cold. Deep red carpet—old, but well cared-for—large leather chairs, and two plush red couches, one of which, behind me as I entered the room, contained Carol.
She’d been smiling at me out of the corner of her mouth when I’d walked into the room, and now she grinned, threw out her arms, and jumped up to meet me. “Oh, Lenny,” she said, almost apologetically, then whispered something in my ear as we hugged. When I started to ask her what she’d said, she bit my earlobe. Hard.
“Just happy to see you, lover,” and she stepped back to arm’s length, looking me dead in the face. Something hard had fixed in her eyes, all pupils, and something was churning. She was high, had to be, but for once the high was good. For once, Carol was actually as spry and magnetic as the coke let her imagine herself to be.
She hugged me close again, and Edward coughed.
“Oh, hello there,” he said. “Why don’t we all get comfortable?”
Carol and I sat on her couch, and Edward took up a seat facing us. After a moment of awkward silence, he leveled his eyes on Carol and said “Perhaps there’s something you’d like to share with our guest.”
Carol took a deep breath, patted her knees, and turned slightly toward me.
She told me about the rough time following her husband’s last flight from home. About how she’d started drinking, started using. She told me this flatly, unapologetically: times were tough, and she did what she had to. Some people would’ve gotten religion or found second jobs, she took up drugs.
Edward’s phone rang. He looked at it almost tenderly, and placed it back in his pocket, still ringing, eager to hear Carol tell a story he knew by heart.
She told me about landing the job at Edward’s place, one of the bars Johnny had set up for his partner. How good she was at her job—she even nodded, minutely, to herself at this—and how easy it was to score there. How girls started working there, and the stories they told, how good it was for them and for her to share their stories, their problems, their little victories. I listened, stared at the floor. I’d barely known the half of it.
She told me, in a huskier voice now, how the girls started getting younger. How she became a sort of den mother to some of them, these hard, distant, broken girls. How Edward noticed this and rewarded her with her fix for free. How she’d taken full advantage, OD’d twice, but refused to die because these girls needed her, because they were all getting through-
Edward’s phone rang again, and Carol fell silent. I turned and saw that her eyes were watery, though she hadn’t cried. What to say at a time like that?
“Call me back in five minutes, please,” Edward said. Carol excused herself quietly and crossed the room, through a door I hadn’t noticed earlier.
“It’s all true,” Edward said plainly. “You can tie up the other ends of the story. How she came to know about John’s comings and goings, how she got to know my business. What use she made of that information. And yes, I put her up to helping the case against John, and yes, I brought her back out of the picture when I’d made my point to him.
“I wanted you to know that, Lenny, because I want you to know why Carol matters here. Why she matters to me. Carol alone knows certain things, things of great importance to John and myself.”
“She means a lot to me-“
“I don’t care. You’re immaterial, and I want you to remember that.”
I was past being offended by this sort of thing.
“And what about Kevin? You using him, too?”
“Kevin? No. And if I used him, it would be in the way that John seems to be enjoying lately.”
Carol returned before I could defend the kid’s honor. “Sorry about that. It’s past. It’s history. It is what it is.” She returned to the couch. “I’m sorry you had to hear that, Lenny. All of it, I mean.”
I took her hand, and she laid her head on my shoulder. Which seemed such a little thing, but seemed all I could do.
Edward’s phone ran again, and he was all to happy to leave us. “I’ll just take this in the other room. And I might be a while—I have a big date this evening. You two…do whatever it is you two do. Just don’t tell me about it. And don’t stain the upholstery.”
When he’d left, shutting firmly the same door Carol had used, Carol collected herself, sniffed, and sat up. Then she bent her head to mine.
“I want you to listen to me,” she whispered. “Hang on me as long as he’s here. Edward can’t stand that stuff.”
“All right,” I breathed back, “I was do-“
“No, no, no, you’re doing fine. But he’s going to leave soon, and when he does, we’ve got to be ready to roll.”
“How- what are you talking about?”
“Missing something? I was hoping you’d have a gun, but all I found was that voice recorder. It’s in the other room, turned on. I hope you didn’t have anything valuable on there.”
“Used to. Not any more.”
“Good. We’re going to learn where Edward and Rosso are meeting. Kevin will be there, and we’re getting my kid back.”
“He didn’t seem-“
“We’re getting him back, Lenny. Not present, not just close, but all the way back, and all the way safe. That means that some people have to die.”
She bit my ear again. “What, you got a problem with this? Because I-“
“Carol,” I growled, low and flat. “Some people gotta die. Some people deserve it. Some people should’a died a long time ago.” It felt good to say those things, felt like my feet were filling my shoes again, somehow.
“Good. We good?”
“I love you, Len.”
“Love you, too, C-“
Edward burst into the room. “I’m late, as it happens. Make yourselves at home, you two, and Lenny?” He waved his phone at me. “I know where you are. Eh? Enjoy yourselves, but don’t leave the grounds.” And he darted up the stairs.
Carol went to collect the recorder, her stride longer that I’d seen it, her steps lighter, her back straighter. This woman had purpose. This woman was serious. This woman meant business. This woman was mine, and I was almost too proud to be turned on. Almost.
Above all, this woman was healthy. “I gotta admit,” I called out, “I thought you were using again. Thought you were high.”
She returned smiling. “Oh, I’m pretty high, Len. Take what you can get, right? And no—I see that look—the world’s not as simple a place as you’d like it to be.”
“So let’s simplify it.”
“That’s the stuff.” And she hit play.