Read Faces of the Gone: A Mystery Online

Authors: Brad Parks

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Faces of the Gone: A Mystery (8 page)

BOOK: Faces of the Gone: A Mystery
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W

ithin an hour, the pot made us instant friends. They taught me everything there was to know about the production of bootleg movies. I somehow ended up giving them a geology lecture, most of which I probably invented, because I don’t think I know a thing about geology. They offered me honorary membership in the Brick City Browns, saying they could use a token white man for diversity purposes. I asked if honorary membership involved initiation in the form of participating in illegal activities. They informed me that, in my case, they could waive that requirement.

As Cody Risien drifted off into a contented slumber, Bernie Kosar informed me I was allowed to come and go as I wished, provided I swore to uphold the secrecy of Brown Town’s location. I consented, allowing me to stumble out of the Browns’ secret hideout without my blindfold.

It turned out the house was right in front of where I had parked. I was still stoned, but deemed myself sufficiently sober to drive, which was only the first of several bad decisions that night.

It was, by this point, completely dark. I wasn’t sure how much more I was going to be able to get accomplished on the story given my condition. And I was getting a killer case of the munchies.

All of these were perfectly good reasons to call it quits and head back to my Nutley bungalow and dim-witted cat. But somehow, in my mentally diminished state, I convinced myself I should make an appearance at the office. All I had to do was keep a low profile and avoid Szanto.

Right. Low profile. I was invisible. Like Wonder Woman’s airplane. The only way the viewers at home could see me was because of the pencil-thin outline drawn for their benefit.

I crept back to the office, going five miles under the speed limit the whole way. I parked (crookedly) in the far corner of the company garage. I moseyed my invisible self toward the front entrance, kept my head down . . .

. . . And damn near barreled over Harold Brodie.

Luckily, it was enough of a glancing blow that it only knocked the old man to the side. The
Eagle-Examiner
’s executive editor looked appropriately startled. I guess it wasn’t every day one of his reporters hip-checked him. But as my mind started racing
—how did Wonder Woman get the invisible plane to work if she couldn’t see the controls?
— Brodie, to my horror, had recovered and seemed to want to stop and chat.

“Good evening, Carter,” he said. Brodie’s voice was this pleasant, grandfatherly falsetto. “In a hurry?” he asked.
Words started pouring out of my mouth without stopping to check in at my brain.
“Yes, sir. Time is money, you know. And money makes the world go round. And the world wasn’t built in a day. And you’ve got to take it one day at a time. Which brings us back to time being money. So I guess you could say I’m trying not to waste money, time, or the day.”
Oh, God,
I began to think,
I’m going to get myself fired.
“I thought it was ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ ” Brodie said, still pleasant, still grandpa.
“Well, that’s true, too, but Rome
is
part of the world. And I don’t want to single out Italians as being slow builders. I mean, frankly, who would even
want
to live in a city that had been built in a day? It’s like those suburban tract houses that get tossed together in a week and a half—they’re always crap.”
Okay, not fired. Worse than fired. The high school sports agate desk.
“I suppose that’s true,” Brodie said, as if I had just offered some piercing philosophical insight. “So how’s that bar story going?”
Oh, crap. Oh, crap. Oh, crap.
I was certain things couldn’t get any worse for me, but then they did. Because instead of answering him, I started laughing.
Actually, not laughing. Laughing merely would have been awful. I was acting like a twelve-year-old girl reading the sex column in
Cosmo.
I was
giggling.
“What’s so funny?” Brodie said, looking confused. He had been the paper’s executive editor for the last quarter century. I’m pretty sure no one had giggled in his presence before.
“Oh, nothing, sir,” I said, and only giggled harder. “Well, gotta go!” I said, and tried to make for the front door.
“Wait a second,” Brodie said, grabbing my arm and sniffing loudly. “Why do you smell like you’ve just been at a Grateful Dead concert?”
“Uh, I’m working on this Jerry Garcia retrospective . . .”
“Son, don’t give me that poppycock. I was born at night, but not last night. Have you been smoking marijuana?”
“Carter Ross, 31, of Nutley, committed career suicide yesterday . . .
“Yes, but I can explain,” I said.
Brodie stood there with fists stuck into his hips. Grandpa was pissed. “I’m listening,” he said, his helium- sucker voice managing to take on an ominous tone.
“Oh, you want the explanation
now
?” I asked.

. . .
He left behind no note. Police said there was no sign of foul play . . .
“That’s the general idea,” Brodie said.
“Well,” I said, trying to wrest the story from my racing mind. “It started when Tee said there wasn’t a UPS truck at Dee- Dub’s shrine—you know, the whole ‘What can brown do for you’ thing? And then he told me to stand on the corner, where gangbangers blindfolded me and took me for a ride around the block and around the block and around the block. We were in this van.”
. . .
He is survived by the world’s dumbest cat. A funeral service for his dead career will be held every day between now and his retirement from some sad-sack PR firm 25 years from now.”
“And then,” I plowed ahead, “and then they took me into this room where I had to toke up with the Cleveland Browns so they knew I wasn’t a cop. And then they were cool with me and we talked. And then I knocked over the boxes of the Adam Sandler movie? And then I decided to come back to the office like I was in Wonder Woman’s plane, except apparently I’m not in it anymore, because you can see me.”
I stopped there, because somewhere in my head there was this tiny voice telling me I had said enough. Brodie fixed me with a hard stare from underneath his overgrown, Mr. Potato Head eyebrows.
“So, what I think you’re saying is, you smoked marijuana with some sources to get them to trust you?” Brodie asked.
“Well, actually, so they wouldn’t shoot me. But yes.”
Brodie lifted his hand, and for a second, I thought he was going to smack me right across the face. I flinched, except he was . . . patting my shoulder?
“That’s fantastic!” Brodie shouted with a high- pitched hoot, his eyebrows waving at me from above his delighted eyes. “Well done, Carter! Very well done, my boy! You did what you had to do to get the story. That’s the kind of dedication I want to see in all my reporters. I’m proud of you. Keep up the good work, son!”
Brodie charged down the steps, still cackling.
“Smokin’ pot to get the story!” he exclaimed as he walked away.
“Reports of the demise of Carter Ross’s career were greatly exaggerated . . .”

H

 

aving gained the endorsement of the executive editor, I felt emboldened as I entered the newsroom and flopped noisily into my chair.

“I am
so high,
” I said, and laughed when I realized I was talking to myself.
I tried to look at my e-mail, but the words kept floating off the screen and freaking me out. So I decided to relax and savor the feeling of being utterly baked at the office. I’m sure that was by no means a first in the
Eagle-Examiner’
s illustrious history. But it was a first for me.
Still, for as much as I was enjoying myself, there didn’t seem to be any point in being stoned alone, with no one to play with. I gathered my things, and went to the elevator, where I was joined at the last moment by Tina Thompson.
“How come you’re grinning like the cat who ate the canary?” she asked.
“To be honest, I’m a little stoned,” I said. “Actually, I think I’m
a lot
stoned.”
“Really?” she said. “You mean, for real?”
“I kind of had to pass the peace pipe with the boys from the Brick City Browns to convince them I wasn’t a member of the law enforcement community,” I said.
“No.”
I nodded, feeling like a life- sized bobble-head doll, my skull wobbling on top of my shoulders. Tina clapped her hands together and laughed. It was a delightful laugh. We boarded the elevator together.
“Well, then you must be hungry by now,” she said.
“I’m favished.”
“What the hell is ‘favished’?”
“I don’t know. I think it’s a combination of ‘famished’ and ‘ravenous’.”
“Then you’re definitely not driving. I’m taking you to dinner.”
She quickly slid her arm through mine and pressed against me, allowing me to feel the firmness of her breast against my triceps. Before I knew it, I was being escorted through the parking lot, to her car, which would take us . . . on a date? How exactly had this happened again? The executive editor had congratulated me for getting stoned on company time and now I was going out on a date with the city editor.
We hopped in her new Volvo—the perfect car for a safety- conscious mother-to- be—and I was soon being treated to the spectacular natural beauty of one of New Jersey’s most scenic roadways, the Pulaski Skyway. That was the way to Hoboken, which is where Tina lived. It was not especially near Nutley. I was starting to get that feeling this might turn into a sleepover.
Tina was quiet. Which meant I wasn’t the only one contemplating the very adult act that might be taking place by the end of the eve ning.
“So how did this happen to you?” I asked as we made a left turn away from the Holland Tunnel traffic, toward Hoboken.
“How did what happen?” Tina said.
“This whole biological clock thing. You used to take your birth control pills in the break room. Now you wear a watch on your wrist that tells you the exact hour when you’re ovulating.”
“Oh, you noticed that, huh?”
“Hey, I have to know when to keep my guard up,” I said.
She laughed and playfully patted my thigh. My upper thigh.
“Well, first of all, the whole biological clock thing is a load of crap.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “You turn thirty-eight and you start picking up brochures for birthing centers just like that?”
“Well, yeah, but I don’t think it’s an age thing. I think I just reached the point where I was tired of being the most important person in my life. I’ve been so selfish for so long. I’m sick of focusing on myself. I want to put someone else’s needs first.”
It was as good a reason as I’ve heard for wanting to have a child. It was also about as far from my own experience as I could imagine. I had enough problems just taking care of myself.
At the same time, I had this vague feeling that Tina’s life was heading in a more meaningful direction than mine. And the truth was, this career-minded, hard-running, yoga-disciplined woman was going to make a great mother—the kind of mother I’d want my own kid to have. I could suddenly imagine a tiny little Tina: the curly brown hair, the twinkling eyes, the mischievous laugh. And in that moment I resigned myself to allow whatever was about to happen between us.
It’s not that I had suddenly given myself over to believing in fate or destiny or any of that malarkey. Because that quickly leads you to a place where free will doesn’t exist, and that’s no fun whatsoever. I did, however, feel that previous decisions had put me in a circumstance where my next action had become a foregone conclusion. So I might as well stop fighting it.
Or maybe that was the pot talking.
Either way, when Tina got us a romantic table in the back corner, I didn’t protest. And when she ordered a bottle of red wine, I nodded in approval. And when her leg brushed against mine under the table, I enjoyed the sensation. And when a second bottle of red wine appeared, I didn’t let it go to waste. And when Tina announced at the end of the meal she was in no shape to drive me back to Nutley—so I had to come over to her place—I complied.
We walked arm in arm back to her condo, a one- bedroom with a view of Manhattan, leaning on each other the whole way. It was closing in on midnight and I had been buzzing constantly since about five in the afternoon, with the red wine taking over where the pot left off. I was ready for love.
As we rode up the elevator, she nestled against me. I enjoyed the smell of her hair and the faint note of her perfume. I had half a mind to pin that lithe body of hers against the wall as soon as we walked in her front door.
But no. This was her seduction scene. I was going to let it unfold her way. She unlocked the door and pointed me toward the couch.
“I’ll be right back,” she whispered.
“I’m looking forward to it,” I said in a deep, lusty growl.
I did a quick survey of the landscape. Tina’s pad was filled with sturdy, sensible furnishings—and no shortage of potential landings for two adventurous lovers. The chair. The sofa. The coffee table. They’d all hold just fine. I was beginning to toy with the possible combinations when Tina returned, still dressed in the same clothes, carrying a blanket.
She immediately interpreted my confused look.
“We’re both far too drunk,” she said, handing me the blanket and pushing me down on the couch. “It’s not right.” She bent over and kissed me on the cheek.
“Besides,” she whispered in my ear, “I don’t reach peak fertility until Friday.”

M

y only wish that next morning was that I be allowed to file a motion for clemency in the Court of Hangover Appeals. Hangovers are supposed to be punishment for wicked behavior. My argument, therefore, was that I didn’t
deserve
this hangover—especially not a red wine hangover, known to be among the most vicious in nature.

After all, I had merely been acting in self-defense. In their infinite wisdom, the judges would surely see the logic: the reason I drank wine was because I had smoked pot; I had smoked pot because I didn’t want to get shot by gang members; therefore, I drank wine because I didn’t want to get shot by gang members. Self-defense.

Alas, there was no court in the land with the benevolence to hold such proceedings nor the power to commute my sentence. So I awoke with a skull full of broken glass, a stomach full of bile, and a mouth full of squirrel excrement.

“How was I last night?” I said as I wandered into Tina’s kitchen, squinting at the brilliance of her track lighting.
“Since I didn’t have to fake anything before I fell asleep? I’d say you were just fine.”
Tina was wearing Lycra leggings, a windbreaker, and running shoes.
“Don’t tell me you’ve already been jogging,” I said.
“It’s the best way to get over a hangover. Blows the whole thing right out of your system.”
“I’ll stick with water and aspirin, thanks.”
“Suit yourself. Want some eggs?” she asked, pointing to a fry pan full of them. I have a general rule about eggs: I will eat a chicken’s leg, wing, or breast, but I draw the line at eating its embryonic fluid.
“Thanks, no,” I said. “But a toothbrush might be nice.”
“There’s a new one in the medicine cabinet. I had been hoping the baby’s father would use it the morning after we conceived. But I suppose you can have it.”
I laughed. “So, let me get it straight: in exchange for some random guy’s sperm, you’re planning to give him a toothbrush?”
“Hey, I’m going to feed him breakfast, too,” Tina said.
I wandered into Tina’s bathroom, and instantly wished it hadn’t been mirrored. I know most folks don’t think thirty-one is old. But thirty- one never looks more decrepit than when it’s been smoking weed, drinking wine, eating salty food, and sleeping in its clothes. It was like I went to bed as Carter Ross and woke up as Yoda.
I brushed, rinsed, brushed again, rinsed again, and still felt like I hadn’t rid my mouth of the squirrel turds. Only time, and the proper amount of penitence in the Church of the Throbbing Headache, would do that.
I returned to find Tina removing a bagel from the toaster.
“Well, if you won’t eat eggs, you will most certainly take a bagel. You can’t start a day on an empty stomach.”
She stopped herself and looked surprised. “Wow, I really sounded like a mother, didn’t I?”
“Right down to the shrill inflection. Are you sure I didn’t get you knocked up last night?”
“I’m hoping you’ll be a little more memorable than that,” she said.
The use of the future tense was a little worrisome. Alas, it was probably accurate. On the Easy Lay Scale—where 1 is a nymphomaniac crack whore and 10 is a fair maiden whose chastity belt key is guarded by a fierce army of eunuchs—my performance the night before rated about a 1.3.
I sat down with the bagel and was soon joined by Tina and her omelet.
“So, not to overtax your tender mind,” she asked. “But what do you think your plan of attack is with Ludlow Street this morning?”
“I was thinking of eating this bagel, bumming a ride back to my car, then sleeping off this yucky feeling until mid-afternoon while Tommy does all my work for me.”
“What’s your backup plan? Your first plan sucks.”
I bit off a large chunk of bagel, chewed and swallowed—not an easy task, being as my mouth was still a little low on saliva. But it gave me the necessary moment to regroup my thoughts.
“First order of business is to chat up Wanda Bass’s family,” I said. “I’ve gotten in good with her former best friend.”
“Is that the, uh, prostitute you visited the other night?”
“One and the same.”
“By the way, you didn’t, uh . . .”
“Jesus, Tina, no!” I said, and tried my best to appear injured by her impudence.
“Sorry,” she said quickly. “I just had to check. Can never be too careful.”
This was getting uncomfortable, having my city editor taking a personal interest in whether I was dipping my pen in dirty inkwells. I made a mental note to never start another flirtatious, potentially sexual relationship with a city editor for as long as I lived. Then again, since most city editors were rumpled, balding, middle-aged men, that probably wasn’t going to be a real tough covenant to keep.
“As I was saying,” I said, shooting her one last wounded glance, “I think I can manage to get a little closer with Wanda Bass’s mother. Maybe she’ll know something.”
“Great. Anything I can do to help?”
“Well, for one, stop asking me if I’m banging hookers,” I said, and she actually blushed. “Two, if you can keep Szanto off my ass, I’d sure appreciate it.”
“No problem,” Tina said. “I’ll just mention at the morning story meeting that I spoke with you and that you’re making excellent progress. I just won’t say on what.”
Tina showered then spent the next twenty minutes walking around her apartment in a towel as she got ready, seemingly going out of her way to let me see that, yes, her collarbones were every bit as wonderful as I thought. And her legs were even better. The evil temptress was back on the job, getting me primed for when her wristwatch told her the moment was right.

BOOK: Faces of the Gone: A Mystery
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