Terry Falcone cared about two things. One was money, the other was the man dying in the back seat of his customized Coupe Deville. Camille Falcone had astronomically high blood pressure, a hundred pounds too much fat, and a propensity for Olympian temper tantrums, one of which had set off a coronary attack and left him face down in a plate of Tony Roma's barbequed ribs.
Everyone in the joint yelled "dial 911!" But Terry wasn’t buying it; and after loading the old man into his car like a giant sandbag, he lit out of the restaurant’s parking lot like Mario Andretti. Alas, with traffic at a complete standstill, the road flanked by impermeable hedges and orange barricade drums, he was stuck with the old man wheezing and frothing like a sick elephant seal.
"What the hell's taking so long?" Croaked Papa Camille.
"Fucking roadwork." Terry shifted in his seat, turned to look at the old man who’d pissed himself; Terry could smell it. On top of all his other problems, Papa was a diabetic and his piss had a distinctly sweet, slightly fermented odor. Terry leaned on the horn, backed up, pulled forward trying to angle around the car in front of him but it was no use. There were hundreds, nay thousands of cars packed together like canned fish filling every inch of space, the other motorists faces’ reflecting boredom, frustration, but worst of all, resignation-- like cows in a slaughter chute.
"Move it, you fucks!" Terry leaned on his horn again, stuck his head out the window. A guy in the Mercedes gave him the finger and, turning around to return it, Terry noticed a distinct change in Papa Camille’s comportment. He was dead.
Terry gazed through the window at the faltering late winter light, at the sea of parked cars and the enormous ditch-- the reason the road had been closed to one lane-- above which dangled a length of PVC pipe big enough to pass a horse. Terry didn't understand it, didn't understand anything beyond his usual paranoia that God was out to get him. Workmen in orange vests, oblivious to his sorrow, tried to wave him ahead, but were no more significant than video game characters. He sat, staring at the ditch in the roadway, yawning back at him like an enormous mass grave.
Now the problem with something like this happening is, who to blame? Terry's brain worked like Mexican auto insurance laws: everything is somebody's fault. But the problem with modern life, no one took fucking responsibility for anything. Like the time he bit into a piece of gravel while eating his breakfast cereal, broke a crown right in half. He complained to the woman in the checkout line at the store, she said don't blame me-- talk to the manager. When he talked to the manager he said, don't blame me-- it's the cereal company’s fault. When he called the cereal company they said, don't blame us-- it's the outfit we get the grain from, etc, etc, etc until he wished he could firebomb the entire state of Michigan. The hell with that.
So when the traffic started moving along and he saw the girl, he didn't think any further. She held a sign on a pole in one hand, the other held a radio she was gabbing on with a crane driver, making kissy lips in her direction. She responded, flipping her hardhat-covered hair over her shoulder and casually reaching for a hair-brush jammed into the pocket of her dirty jeans. Terry followed her gaze. She was oblivious to both his pain and anger.
Well, she wouldn’t be oblivious to this.
A space opened up and he stomped on the gas, wheels spinning on wet asphalt, as the Caddy bolted on all eight cylinders. The girl assumed a defensive stance, held the sign in front of her like a shield, then, apparently re-thinking things-- and he couldn't fucking believe it-- vaulted out of the path of his oncoming car and onto the hood of an unsuspecting Ford. Terry stared open-mouthed watching her, panting, glaring like a hound having lost a treed cat.
He wanted, shit needed, to go back and try again, but he could already hear police sirens; and had a clear path to the main road. Speeding into the twilight with his dead Papa-- the face of the roadwork girl indelibly stamped on his brain-- he resolved that he would catch up to her; and she would regret the day she was ever born.
Max had come up with his scheme for the specific purpose of ruining his low-down, no-good brother-in-law, the one who made him take the job in the first place. He did not want to be a city planning official; and the fact that he had a wife and three kids he could not support did not enter into it. Max was meant for greater things. If his wife had to support the five of them on a teacher's salary while he spent his time dragging his ten inch Dobsonian telescope up local mountains, that was her problem. She had proposed to him, not the other way round.
Max Hodgson’s problem was that he was under-appreciated. He, who had been voted president of the San Mas Viejo Amateur Astronomer’s Club three years in a row, he who had single handedly invented the Haephastian mount, and nearly discovered Comet Hernandez/Injiko back in his college days, positively trussed at this point in life by abject mediocrity. There were some days, when after sitting all day, awash in the tedium and minutiae of things he cared not at all for, that he lacked the energy to go up the mountain at all.
Bob had a lot to answer for: this office, this window, this look-of-real-oak desk; and the fucking friendly conversation he made every morning.
"How's it going today, Max?" Bob, chipper as always-- and Max hated chipper, an attitude possessed only by those who didn't know any better. He also hated Nordstrom suits, red silk ties and butch haircuts no matter how trendy they were. He preferred the distracted scientist look and made no secret about it. His entire appearance, right down to his acrylic turtlenecks, was fashioned after Carl Sagan during his Cosmos period.
"Great," said Max meaning anything but, and hoping to get rid of Mr. Sunshine as quickly as possible.
"Terrific news huh? Carol's finally off the medication! After all these years." Bob's sister had battled depression for years, ever since she had married Max.
"I don't know what my wife's pharmaceutical inclinations have to do with anything," said Max.
"Well, it just seems like good news that's all. Things picking up at home a little since you started taking up some of the slack in the 'ol bank account?"
"Yeah, sure," said Max trying to hide a cardboard star-locator wheel under the blueprints for the Entrenchment Project. If his calculations were right, the comet he predicted would show up right in the curve of the scorpion's tail, and soon. Comet Max? Nah-- too ordinary. Comet Maximillian, even though his own name was really Maxwell. Maximillian, that was grand, that fit.
"And I hear they've re-thought Max Junior's diagnosis of autism? Hey, now that's some great news if I ever heard it. A couple hundred milligrams of Ritalin and the little guy will be back with all the other second graders!" Little Max had always been a problem. The school psychologist complained of excessive acting-out, whatever that meant.
"And Juanita? (One of the housekeepers had named their first child. His wife hadn't had time left on her maternity leave and a supernova had been discovered in the Orion constellation all that same week.) "Carol says she caught her going out of the house in a black jock strap, LA Lakers jersey and nothing else. Kids these days!"
Whenever it occurred to Max he couldn't loathe Bob any more, the guy proved him wrong. If the baboon possessed any intellectual scope or inclination at all he kept it well hidden. If anyone had harangued Galileo, Newton, or Kepler about depressed wives or hyperactive children, they would have produced scientifically exactly what Max had, which was squat. Max couldn't even be bothered to argue with his brother-in-law. He knew with his impeccably simian logic, the man would conclude something like, people should come before science.
This kind of Cro-Magnon reasoning had plagued humankind for millennia, and Max sighed, resigned to accepting the fact that it always would.
But personally, Max did not plan to labor under the yoke of mediocrity much longer. The Entrenchment Project had been underway for nearly a year now and when it blew it would blow big. Brother-in-law Bob would get fired, his replacement would bring on his own people, and--engineering degree or no-- Max Hodgson would once again be blessedly unemployed.
This cheered him somewhat. "Well, you know teenagers, Bob. They think with their hormones."
"Ain't it the truth," said Bob smiling-- he had a couple of teenagers of his own. He sashayed out, no doubt to harass some cubicle dweller down the hall.
Putting aside his star wheel, Max perused the plans. It had all started when Mrs. Ezra Greenway, one of the neighborhood's wealthiest, most influential, and dumbest residents had complained that there was too much run-off water coming into her yard, causing her roses to mold. She was a close personal friend of the mayor and supposed that many of her neighbors had the same problem. Their recently incorporated little burgh, appreciatively named for her, was in dire need of a drainage project all its own. And while Mrs. Greenway understood it would cause some minor, admittedly annoying traffic snarls in the short run, she was positively certain it would be good for the community in the long run. And it wasn't just her roses she was worried about. The entire community was desperately in need of beautification and of a vision beyond suburban sprawl. A drainage project would turn two hundred acres of marshland (on which wintered three varieties of endangered birds, and two varieties of nearly extinct turtle) into virgin lakefront real estate. And think of the jobs! Any community would be willing to endure a little inconvenience for the sake of employment! ( Though strictly speaking, road and construction workers were not the kind of people who lived in Lake Greenway). This didn’t change the fact that in Mrs. Ezra Greenway's mind, the Entrenchment Project was a fine and noble one.
But upon viewing a detailed topographical map of the area, Max had realized the enormous improbability of a drainage project doing any good at all. Studious at heart, bone, and marrow, he spent several evenings a week on the overtime clock studying the geography of the Lake Greenway area. Mrs. Greenway's house was located on a two-hundred year landslide zone, part of the globe's surface that had been sliding into the lake regularly since the last ice age, and upon which some cheeky bastard in the nineteen-forties had built houses, very expensive houses. The city could put any kind of pipes it wanted under the ground, above the ground or up its ass for that matter, and those houses would still begin to slide down the escarpment within ten years.
Mrs. Greenway didn’t realize it, but her moldy roses were the least of her problems.
Of course Max didn't tell Bob this, didn't tell anyone; just let Mrs. Greenway and the mayor ramrod the Entrenchment Project through the city council with Max's own stamp of approval emblazoned with all the malice and resentment of his twisted soul.
Terry woke up on the floor of the family crypt hungover, damp, and dirty. He was still thirty but felt fifty, still six-foot three inches of muscle, sinew, and Halstan cologne, but dwarfed by the gravitas of the stiffs surrounding him, and stifled by the smell of rotting organic debris.
He shook his head. remembering the party that had been; and though Italian families were not generally given to wakes, the vast amount of wine and the fact that his dope-dealing cousin had spiked the gravy with ecstasy had sent everyone into a sort of quasi-psychedelic frenzy of keening, culminating in a pilgrimage by everyone under eighty to the cemetery for a last farewell to the old man. Terry remembered dancing, feeling up his cousin Rosalie. Not much after that.
He got up slowly on all fours-- but not slowly enough-- and the blood rushed from his head as he fought back the urge to puke in the family burial chamber. He finally got to his feet, brushed the cigarette butts and soggy paper napkins from his tuxedo and wracked his brain trying to remember the obligations of the day. He waited awhile until he got steady on his feet, but was still unable to come up with a goddaman thing. His head was pounding and a creeping nausea overwhelmed his thinking. Finally something came to him.
Today he was going to kill that roadworks girl.
He had followed her home two nights ago, learned all the particulars: what time she left work, where she lived. Some crummy apartment complex called Maison de Henri that looked like a prison block constructed of yellowing concrete, surrounded by battered chain-link. Hers was a second floor apartment on the east side of the building with a lock he’d had no trouble opening with an unbent paper clip.
Inside, it was obvious she hadn't lived away from home for very long. Graduated from high school-- her diploma displayed proudly on the living room wall, got a job at Burger King-- an employee of the month plaque from 2003 right next to it-- then gone to work full time for the state. In her bedroom he pawed through discarded jeans-- six pairs, discarded blouses--eight, various underclothes including thong underpants, and two well padded Wonderbras. No mystery where the money from her paycheck went. Guess Jeans were what, hundred twenty bucks a pair? And the blouses: all labels-- Calvin Klein, Pierre Cardin. No wonder she lived in a dump. It was the only way she could afford this wardrobe.
He picked up some thong panties, absent-mindedly giving them a sniff, and a disturbing thought occurred to him. What if she didn't come home after work? There was a reason she'd flung all these clothes around, probably in a hurry, late on her way out. Suppose she didn't return until two or three? Or at all? He wanted to do this tonight, had a business trip tomorrow and probably wouldn't have the energy afterwards. Fucking-A. But as his dear old granny used to say, he'd cross that bridge when and if he had to.
Dishes stacked high in the kitchen sink with days worth of hardened food, a half full glass of wine sat on the counter, dead gnats floating on the surface. There was a turd-filled cat box on dirty green linoleum next to the sticky-handled refrigerator which, upon examination, contained a rotten hunk of Swiss cheese, a jar of non-fat mayonnaise and a six-pack of Colt 45. Terry found some Old Crow in the cupboard and settled down to watch TV, keeping the volume low. Monty Python and the Holy Grail was on the Comedy Channel.
The Python movie had long since ended when he heard her in the hallway and as he switched it off, a man on the screen was selling washboard abs. Terry snatched his whisky glass deposited it on top of the mess in the sink, and slipped into the bedroom closet.
There was somebody with her, discussing whether he'd come in. Terry nearly chanted, “no no.” He wasn't sure he had the energy to go after two people, and though he was sure he could dispatch whoever she might drag home, the thought made him weary. It was a profound relief when they finally said goodnight.
She slammed the door, threw her bag down on the sofa, unzipped it extracting filthy work clothes, and tossed the orange vest over the back of a chair. The pants were caked with black dirt and so was the once blue shirt. She took her tan work boots out on the balcony, if you could call it that-- it was more of a two-foot square concrete slab outside the sliding glass door, banged them over the rail trying to dislodge the mud. Gave up finally without much success. When she wandered into the kitchen she saw the whisky glass, moistened and shiny, at the very same instant she felt the gun barrel in her ear.
To say Max Hodgson was pissed-off was an understatement. He was beyond pissed, beyond livid, beyond even furious. But he could do nothing except sit at the table and seethe. His astronomy club was off without him, on the top of Mt. Banyon viewing the closest conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in more than a decade and he was still at fucking work! He’d figured out a way to rig his archaic but functioning Olympus OM-1 to his telescope, and left ten messages in anticipation of exquisite shots on the answering machine of the photo editor of Sky and Telescope Magazine. (Who was, at that moment, seeking a restraining order against Max, convinced he was stalking him.)
Yet here were these pencil pushers, after a year and a half, voicing doubts about the Entrenchment Project.
"Commuters are objecting to continuing traffic delays," said Schuster, a frail, balding man in his early fifties whose desk, as community relations man on the project, was covered with hundred of letters, an increasing number of which cast aspersions on the sexual habits of his mother.
"And the budget committee has brought it to my attention that the project is, let's see," Brother-in-law Bob, chipper as always riffled the stack of papers in front of him "fifty-two percent over budget." This did not upset Bob much, most city projects went over budget, the result of contractors pitching ridiculously low bids. Still, this needed watching.
"And the time table bothers me," said Holoway, an affirmative action hire with a degree in theatre arts whose claim to fame was a non-speaking walk-on as a waiter on General Hospital.
"Let's see." He flipped some pages over a staple. "The project was scheduled for completion August 1999 and it's now, ah, October 2006."
All eyes were on Max whose impatience they misunderstood as evidence their concerns were trivial. He looked at his watch repeatedly. If he didn't get out soon, the conjunction would be over. "Look, look." He fussed with his pencil, nearly breaking it in half. "I've dealt with all your questions in this week's report which you’ll find on your desks Monday. I don't know how many of you have actually spoken with Mrs. Greenway, but the project is, in actual fact, going extremely well.
His colleagues eyeballed him incredulously. No one in their right mind could believe the Entrenchment Project was going “extremely well.”
“She has increased her endowment to the Arts Council by twenty-five thousand dollars." Max expected this to settle everything, and moved his chair to go.
But Julian Holoway wouldn’t look away. He had to commute every day via Lake Greenway.
"And to the library by thirty-thousand." Max tried to stare Holoway down, but the man wouldn’t budge.
"That's all great," said Holoway. "But I don't see what the Arts Council and the library have to do with the Entrenchment Project." He was no great thinker, but that didn't alter the fact that just the other day a roadworker had vaulted onto the hood of his car to avoid a commuter who'd snapped and tried to run her down.
"Holoway," said Max, pained. "How many roadwork’s projects have you been involved in?" Max glared at him, showed the whites of his eyes, big. If Holoway was going to question him, he'd hit him where he lived-- his professional insecurity and lack of previous job experience.
"This is my first," said Holoway.
"Well," Max rolled his eyes exaggeratedly for his comrades, seasoned veterans all, to see. "These kinds of timelines are not unheard of as I'm sure you'll come to appreciate."
"But I still don't see..."
"God look at the time. I'm sure you can all understand-- being family men." Again a stab at Holoway, a single, lonely homosexual. "Max Junior's starring in the school play tonight." Max Junior, who had taken to chewing large holes in his clothing, was no more capable of starring in the school play than he was of flying to Pluto, but no one at work but Bob knew that, and he wasn’t talking. "I've really got to go. You'll all have my reports Monday."
Max flew out the door, dropping a page of his copious notes on the way out. Holoway leaned over and, making grunting noises like an old man, picked it up. The page was covered with doodles of extra-terrestrial chicks with breasts the size of watermelons.
The girl said "Oh fuck," then walked ahead, objecting not at all. Terry hustled her over to a Pier One cane chair, tied her tight, wrists and feet. He'd doused the lights and she could not see him but as a vague silhouette backlit by the sodium vapor lamp shining through the kitchen window.
"My purse is in my backpack, there’s cash at the back of the jewelry box in the bedroom." Her voice was tentative, like she knew he wanted something else.
Terry emptied his pocket on the particle board coffee table, money-clip pinching a wad of hundreds. "I got money." He whispered in her ear, close enough for her to feel his breath.
She sighed. "Sex then."
"Got that too." He let the folder of his wallet drop, three beautiful women, and of course his cousin Rosalie.
His face was in shadow, the rest of him clad in black, the yellow light reflecting off the surface of his highly polished semi-automatic, the brightest thing in the room. He pointed it at her moistened forehead. "You think you never seen me before, huh?"
"Uh huh." She nodded up and down.
"You confused, right?"
She dry-throat whispered, warbled. "Yes."
"I can understand that. Standing in the street all day, not exactly a brainy person's job."
He could see it, her mind working like a hungry dog at a piece of gristle. "It will be a week ago Wednesday. Come on, think."
"I am. Give me a minute."
"Too long." He raised the weapon.
"You should have been in the Olympics, way you jumped up onto that car hood." He lowered the barrel to her chest.
Her heart pounded so loud she could barely hear her own voice. "You tried to run me over."
Terry raised the gun and fired half an inch high. "But I missed," he said.
She looked for blood, didn’t see any, then vomited on the carpet. When she’d spat her last and cleared her throat she pleaded. "What did I do to you?”
He laughed, shook his head at the absurdity of it all. “Think.”
“I don’t know! How could I know?” She spat on the carpet again. “I have this fucking job, it pays twelve dollars an hour. I stand where they tell me, do what they say." She raised her chin, trying to wipe it on the shoulder of her blouse.
Terry stared at a fixed point on the kitchen wall, eyes blank as a monitor lizard. "Ain't my fucking problem."
"You don't look like you have any problems." She indicated his money clip.
"Not compared to you."
More staring, more time, the refrigerator humming, ancient icemaker periodically clunking, strained cubes, like a constipated geriatric.
"You know how much I take home after taxes?" She cleared her throat.
Terry hadn't paid taxes since nineteen eighty-nine so he had no idea. "I don't give a fuck."
"Seven dollars an hour." She started to blubber.
"I have to go to the bathroom." Her voice was thick again.
"The bathroom. I have to go to the bathroom."
Shit. If he shot her now, he could go home and go to bed, but he wasn’t ready. The evening was not going the way he'd planned. When he'd gotten up this morning he'd envisioned an whole night of sadism and terror, but suddenly he just didn’t seem to have the energy. He hadn’t felt the same about anything, not even mayhem, since losing Papa Camille.
“How come women always got to go to the bathroom?” Terry was from a family of women. Between his three sisters and his mother, it seemed like someone was always interrupting whatever to run off and have a pee.
“I don’t know about other women, but I drank three beers tonight,” said the girl.
Just shoot her and go, that was the easiest thing. But he wasn’t in an easy mood, so instead he sighed and shook his head, un-tucked his black silk shirt-tail to wipe a smudge from the barrel of his 9mm, and leaned back again.
“Why should I do anything for you?”
“I don’t understand why you’re even here. I don’t know what I did to you.”
“Kept me from getting my grandfather to the hospital.”
“How was that my fault?”
He shook his head. “Gotta be somebody’s fucking fault.”
She began to squirm back and forth. “Come on, I haven’t peed myself since I was five.”
Terry got up, swearing under his breath, un-tied her feet from the chair legs and yanked her up by the arm, propelling her ahead of him.
He opened the bathroom door. There was no window, just an overhead fan that roared like jumbo jet powering-up for takeoff. He closed the door behind them and leaned against the wall across from the toilet.
“You’re going to stay in here with me?” She was already tugging at her pants, not easy since her hands were still tied.
“Why?” Getting nowhere, frantically.
“Maybe it’s been a slow evening. I’m looking for entertainment.” He stuck the gun in the back of his belt, unsnapped her pants and pulled them, along with her panties, down around her ankles. She sat down and let loose.
“Why do girls wear those?”
“What?” Relieved, like the weight of the world was off her.
Terry, though he’d performed just about every sexual act possible with women (and a couple of men), while staring at the milky-stained crotch of the roadworker’s black thong panties, and listening to the sound of her impressive stream, realized he’d never really watched a woman pee before. He found it strangely erotic, wondered if it would be the same if her hands weren’t tied behind her back.
“Those butt floss panties. Don’t look comfortable.”
“They aren’t, but when you’re wearing tight clothes you don’t get a line.”
“Turn around,” said the girl.
“What, why?” Terry eschewed Levis but black denim seemed right in this neighborhood.
He turned a little.
“You’re wearing Jockeys, bikini cut.”
“You can see the lines?”
“Just barely, but then your pants aren’t all that tight.” She was trying to look as dignified and cool as possible, which wasn’t easy sitting on the toilet. “Girls wear tighter pants.”
She was going green again. “I think I’m going to throw up again.”
“I’m making you nervous?” He was getting off on the control thing; that was a big part of it, he knew.
The roadworker cocked her head. “You a pervert?”
“I never realized it until now, but yeah.”
“Untie my hands,” she said.
“I’ve got to wipe myself.”
He leaned back against the wall, put one foot against it. She couldn’t go anywhere, there was only one door to the outside and he was between her and it, twice her size, probably twice as fast, so he could untie her. Instead, he grabbed a palmful of toilet paper, reached down and dried her off. She let her legs stay apart when he let the back of his hand rest for just a second against her.
“You going to let me up now?”
He stood, stared a little longer, watched the sweat trickle down her left temple, then let himself slide onto his haunches, leg extended for balance. They were eye to eye. “You know, I’m not an unreasonable person. What’s your name?’
“You born when, nineteen eighty-five?” She had hair in her mouth; he hooked it, put it behind her ear.
“Eighty-four, why?” She said.
“Million fucking Ashley’s from that year. What are you, Italian? You don’t look like a fucking Ashley.” She had olive skin, distinct features.
“What are Jew parents going around naming their kids Ashley for? Fucking waspy name.”
“Remember earlier you said you were confused?” Terry reached out as if to touch her, then pulled back, laced his fingers together.
“We could have this conversation better if you’d let me up,” she said.
“Better this way.”
“Better for me, I mean.”
He looked in her eyes, forgot what he was talking about for a second. “But that’s not what I want to talk about now. See, Papa always told me I don’t think, that’s my problem, so now I’m thinking. If you don’t deserve killing, who does?” He said.
“I don’t know.” It felt like she’d been sitting on the toilet, talking to this guy forever. Like the easiest thing would be to just fold up and fall in.
“Do me a favor and think about it.” Terry plopped onto the floor, wrists resting on his bent knees.
She shook her head. “I’ve only worked out there for three months. Nobody ever works the Entrenchment Project longer than three months.”
“I don’t know. I told you they don’t explain things to us, they just say show up here at seven in the morning, or whatever. Long as they sign the paychecks I don’t ask questions.”
“What about that guy you were with tonight?”
“Same thing, only he’s been on about a month and a half. He hates it, just sits there all day waiting for instructions that don’t come.”
“You like that guy?”
“I did, but he’s all hands.”
“Guys are like that.” Terry rubbed the stubble on his chin. “But you work for who, the city, the state?”
“The city. Better benefits.”
He stood. “Planning offices, huh, downtown?”
“I guess. The return address on my check’s there.” She nodded toward the coffee table in the living room
“Huh,” said Terry, gears meshing in his head at last. Then he looked at Ashley like a guest he’d neglected to invite in out of the cold. “Uncomfortable?”
“You try sitting on the john with your hands tied behind your back getting pawed by a stranger, see how comfortable you are.”
He reached behind her, released the knot in the white nylon rope.
She followed as he walked down the hall, and he wondered for a second if she’d pick up a plunger, lamp or something, hit him in the head. But he knew even though he had it coming, she wasn‘t the type.
Near the front door, he stopped, wanting to say something, not to apologize exactly, but… something.
"If I were you I'd change this lock”
The girl was utterly bewildered, legs cramping at the sudden renewed blood flow with standing.
“The lock. It’s a shitty lock.”
“Seriously, a monkey with a twig could get in here." Then as quickly as he'd slipped in, Terry Falcone was gone.
The screen saver on Max Hodgson's computer monitor was Mr. Spock, but instead of the “live long and prosper” thing, he was flipping the bird. Up and down, up and down he gestured, against a background of receding stars. The rest of the room was dark except for the fluorescent light directly overhead, switched on only just then by Mickey the computer hacker. Terry was no good at computers, did not have the patience to learn their intolerably literal language and was highly suspicious of any machine that could "think" since seeing “The Terminator” years ago.
Mickey on the other hand, was having a wonderful time. Too wonderful and acted like he'd forgotten why they were in the City Planning Offices at all. He'd hacked his way into two PC's already, the director's and somebody called Holoway's and while the first yielded nothing about the Greenway Entrenchment Project, the second contained the name Max Hodgson with the words "bullshit, liar, fiend,” followed by several question marks and exclamation points.
"Some people got no fucking imagination," said Mickey as he un-taped a shred of paper from the underside of the desk.
"What are you talking about?" Terry, still entranced by Mr. Spock.
"Under the fucking desk. It's like hiding the key to the front door under the welcome mat." Mickey, lean and stealthy in is youth, was blimped-out now from rich food and an outright disdain for physical exertion. He’d been a first class burglar once upon a time, and was an unqualified expert in hiding places for front door keys. They were, in descending order, under the mat, in the potted plant, in the rain gutter drainage pipe-- unless you lived in Seattle, inside the car bumper, on a nail in the backyard shed, under a paint can in the backyard shed, on the two-by-four over the paint can in the back yard shed, on a nail in the doghouse, in the neighbor's shed, or on top of the gas meter behind the rhododendrons. He unfolded a paper the size of a business card. "Freedom," it says.
There were hundreds of files, most having nothing to do with roadworks or city planning. There were fifteen articles, submitted and subsequently rejected by magazines with names like Observer and Astronomical Digest. There was a long dissertation on the miraculous properties of something called the Hapheastean Mount and a diatribe over the naming of a comet, accusing the Pope and the University of Arizona Board of Regents of a conspiracy. Mostly, Terry could not make head or tails of any of it, but realized well enough they’d ventured into the mind of a nut. "What about the goddamned roadworks?" He said.
"Maybe this," said Mickey as he pulled up a file called "Buffoonery."
Everything was there, from the geological survey to the environmental impact report. There were loads of correspondences from a Mrs. Ezra Greenway along with records of contractors replaced and employees fired. There were inter-office memos regarding cost overrides and responses full of doublespeak and scientific gobbledygook. Mickey stared at the pile of printout. "Heh heh."
"Whaddaya mean, heh, heh?" It was late; Terry had lost whatever sense of humor he had. He had hit the security guard downstairs hard, but not hard enough to keep him down forever.
"Heh, heh." Mickey said again.
"Stop with the fucking heh, heh, will you? I wanna get out of here."
"He's blinded them with science."
"Like the song?" Said Terry.
"No, moron. The song is like the practice, which came first. He's working with a bunch of politicians and pencil pushers here. He floods them with so much paperwork they can't take the time to understand. Then, by the time they shove it back to him asking for clarification, he's buried them in five times more paperwork detailing new specifications for the project, which they can’t understand either. It's an endless loop, a snake swallowing its tail kind of thing. But as far as I can tell, basically..."
"Basically what?" Terry was losing patience, fast. Not a commodity he was long on in the first place.
“What?!” Said Terry.
"Basically this Hodgson guy has had those workers plant, dig up, and replant the same section of PVC pipe for a year and a half." Mickey sat back shaking his head. It was too bad about Papa Camille but this was still fucking great.
"Son of a bitch," said Terry Falcone, “fucking son-of-a mutherfuckin’ bitch.”
Max could not understand why the photo editor of Sky and Telescope Magazine would want to meet him at the Entrenchment Project, of all places, the last one he wanted to be. But his puffed-up ego precluded suspicion, and the man said he lived near there so it was a common geographical reference point. And there was a nice little coffee house across the street where they could view Max’s photos together. He said he was sorry for not returning his thirteen phone calls, but his kids were always goofing with the answering machine.
He didn't look at all like Max expected, but then people almost never did. He expected scientists to look dignified and buttoned down like Niels Bohr, maybe disheveled like Albert Einstein, but they invariably ended up looking like over-aged hamburger flippers who got dressed in the dark.
So he supposed it was reasonable enough that the photo editor for the biggest popular astronomy magazine in the country looked like a manicured goon from a Martin Scorsese movie.
The man greeted him with a warm handshake, almost too warm, nearly breaking his little finger, and suggested they take a walk before the photo viewing. He said he had set up his Hapheastean mount just adjacent to the Entrenchment, and had two of Saturn's moons in the view-finder. He was interested, he said, in Max's photographic methods, always needed background information on his contributors. Max was elated, more than happy to go as he tucked his manila envelope securely under his arm. There would be plenty of time to look later.
But by the time they reached the edge of the trench, the place where the telescope was supposed to be, he was alone. The streetlights reflected off the bog and the trees, uprooted and grounded like cast off, mangled skeletons. For a moment, Max couldn’t remember the location of the path back. Perhaps he had misunderstood the man, or they'd unknowingly diverged at the fork by the road. He was turning to backtrack, when he heard the roar of a bulldozer engine.
Terry thought about his grandfather: the feel of his big, safe hand holding his when he was a little boy, the way he kept sweets hidden in his pockets, the way he understood Terry’s shame when his cousin Rosalie beat him up. (Until he was nineteen or twenty anyway, when Papa told him it had to stop.) He thought about the old man's laughter, his great jowls wobbling as he wolfed down his food or gently patted at spilled drops of vino rosa as they ran down his neck. He thought of all those things he would never see or feel again.
So in a sense, knocking Max Hodgson into the Greenway trench was the easiest thing he had ever done; and watching the man roar and scream as he slammed the great yellow machine into gear and covered him with enough dirt to bury an elephant, the most enjoyable. He filled the whole trench in for good measure, then drove over it with a roller, the keys of which had been left stuck in the sun visor, (the most common of all vehicular key-stashing sites.)
Terry visited the old man at the family crypt the next morning, told him he'd avenged his death, imagined him reaching out through the marble and gold plate, ruffling his hair like a thousand times before. Then he took out the broom from the caretaker's shed, swept the leaves, the trash, and the caterpillars away from the entrance, got into his Caddy and headed for home.
On the way, he drove by The Project, closed with yellow police tape and surrounded by multiple city investigation vans and police cars, though none obstructed traffic. Then something caught his eye, a lone worker standing on the island of the boulevard unsure of herself, with nothing to do. She recognized him and bolted out into traffic.
He stopped just short of running over her, got out of the car and in fleeing, she tripped, landed on her hands when she hit the pavement. Terry reached down and lifted her to her feet. "You gotta be more careful, running out into traffic like that," he said brushing her off. "Not worth it for seven dollars an hour." She looked his way like a rabbit unscathed, having been dropped by a hawk.
Terry walked back to his car-- shiny-clean, smelling of spanking new leather upholstery. He ignored the honking drivers, the distracted police, and the purposeless hardhats wandering around with nothing to do. The handle of the Caddy felt cool and solid. As he drove off he saw the roadworker girl in his rearview mirror, watching him and he waved. She lifted her hand mechanically, as if to wave back.
C. Catherine O'Sullivan