I stop the boat seven or eight miles out into Lake Erie, hoist him off the deck, toss him over the side and watch him sink by the moon’s light . His face stares at me from behind my eyes.
I shove my hand into my pocket and bring out the watch. The engraving on the back is impossible to see, but I trace it with my thumb, feel it in my blood, and know what it says.
Lieutenant Bradley James Michaelson.
My cellphone rang. I looked at the caller ID. It was Gina, and I knew it was bad news but didn’t know just how bad. “Hello?”
“It’s your father. He’s…” She didn’t finish. She didn’t need to.
I swallowed through the knot in my throat. “What happened?”
“Someone broke into his house and shot him. His neighbor, a Mr. Hungerford found him.”
A vision came to me of Earl Hungerford’s jowly face. The man always looked old, even when I was young. Like my father, he was a strong man, born in the 40s and put together different than the men that came after.
“He saw the backdoor to your dad’s place had been kicked in. He went in, and he… found him in the living room.”
I stood on the patio and watched my son and his friends splash in the pool. Strung up on the privacy fence along the rear side of our property at the other end of the pool was the bright red and silver banner, HAPPY 12TH BIRTHDAY, STEVEN!
“Bill? You still there?”
“Yeah, I’ll…” I looked at my watch. It was five pm. The party just started. Parents of my son’s friends milled about, sipped beer, ate hot dogs. Dad told me—not but a day ago, for Christ’s sake—he’d be there between five and six. I looked at my wife on the other side of the pool, standing at the grill cooking hot dogs and hamburgers, sipping a Pepsi. “I’ll head over,” I told Gina. “You still at the house?”
“Yes,” she said. “I’ll wait for you.”
“Give me twenty minutes.” HAPPY 12TH BIRTHDAY, STEVEN!
“Take as long as you need,” she said.
I hung up and carried myself over to Darlene. It was more of a reflex than anything. She pulled the Pepsi away from her lips. “What?”
I changed into a pair of dress slacks and a polo. I was at Dad’s house in less than ten minutes.
Gina stood on the porch. I passed her and went inside. Two faceless deputies stood in the foyer and offered condolences I don’t remember.
I entered the living room. You’re a cop. Not a son. This isn’t your dad’s house —it’s a scene. This is work. Do your job.
He was in his chair with the Detroit Free Press open in his lap to the sports section. The TV was on and playing at full volume, and his hearing aids were on the side table next to him. I looked at the entry wound at the side of his head, just above his temple. Small. Not much bigger than the width of my pinky. Low caliber. A .22, probably. A small rivulet of brownish-red ran down the other side of his face. It wasn’t gory. It wasn’t sickening. It was just… simple. Ordinary, I guess. Sad, even. It was—
The watch his parents gave him when he graduated basic back in ‘61.
It was gone.
“Bill?” Gina called over the wail of the TV. “You okay?”
I grabbed the remote from the table and turned off the TV. I set the remote back beside the hearing aids and looked at her, her brown eyes, full lips, smooth features. “You check upstairs?” I asked.
“The dresser drawers were turned out, and the medicine cabinet’s been picked through,” she said.
Junkies. “They wouldn’t find any cash,” I said. “Dad never kept cash in the house. Wouldn’t have found anything in the medicine cabinet either. Unless someone’s figured out a way to get high on Lipitor.” I looked back at the wrist. “The watch was all they got. We should maybe start…” I stopped. I was doing her job for her, but she was good enough to let it happen. “Is Hungerford next door?” I asked.
“He is,” she said.
“You interview him?”
“I did, but I told him you’d probably want to talk to him.” The sympathy in her eyes was a scalpel, and I felt like something you dissect in a biology class. I cleared my throat. “Talk to anyone else in the neighborhood?”
“I spoke to the couple across the street and the woman next to them. They didn’t see anything,” she said. “I called Ramirez and Morrison to help with interviews. They should be out here within the hour.”
I walked past her for the second time that day.
Earl Hungerford dabbed his eyes with a tissue. It was a cold, he said. He always caught a cold during the summer with all the pollen and cottonwood floating in the air. The shitty thing about summer colds is they linger around longer than a normal one, he said. “Can’t believe something like this happened on this block. I hope to hell you catch the son of a bitch that did it,” he told me. “And I hope they don’t go quietly, if you know what I mean.”
His living room looked like my dad’s, old furniture, old carpet. Earl’s Purple Heart hung in a hand-crafted shadow box on the wall next to his cuckoo clock. He got it in Vietnam. My dad never had one. He saw action, of course, right off the coast of the Quang Tri Provence, but he was never wounded.
“I used to bust your old man’s balls all the time, you know that?” Earl told me from his couch. “Said, ‘You Navy boys were real nice to give us Army fellas a lift over there so we could do the fightin’ for you.’ Ha! He’d always tell me to go screw myself. ‘If I wanted, I coulda launched a missile at your fat ass while you’d try to hit me with that peashooter of yours,’ he’d say.” He smiled. “He didn’t take any shit. He was a good man. One of the best.”
“You see anyone go over there today?”
“Not today. Like I told the girl—what’s it, Troyer?”
“Moyer. Gina Moyer.”
“Like I said to her, I didn’t see nothing.”
“What about yesterday, any time throughout the week?”
“No one,” he said. “Did the sons of bitches lift anything from your old man?”
He dabbed his eyes again and coughed into the tissue. “Aw, goddamn it. Bad enough to shoot the man, but to take his watch? Christ, you better find them, Billy. I mean it.”
Gina, Ramirez, Morrison, and I interviewed people up and down the block. No one saw anything. I drove over to Kelley’s Bar, my dad’s usual hangout. I walked in, waited for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. An old woman with a shock of white hair and a face that looked like a thousand miles of bad road sat at the end of the bar with a glass of beer in her trembling hands.
Mick Bryant came out of the back with a case of Bud Light. He smiled when he saw me. “Bill!” He set the case on the bar. “What brings you by?”
“My dad, Mick.”
He must’ve seen it in my face. “What happened?”
“Someone broke into his place, shot him.”
He was as pale as an Irish Michigander could get. The only color about him was the yellowish tint in the whites of his eyes and a headful of black hair courtesy of Just For Men. When I told him the news, what little blood he had in his face vanished. “Jeez, that’s awful news. I’m sorry, bud. Anything you need, you let me know.”
“Did you see or talk to him recently?”
“Day… Let me think. Day before yesterday. He came in around noon, watched the Tigers game.”
“Anyone with him?”
“He didn’t have any company, but you know him, he talked to everybody that’d listen.”
True. He never met a stranger. Sounded like a perfect line for an obituary.
“You see him hang around anyone out of the ordinary?”
“There was… Well, I mean, it’s…Well, shit, Bill. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
“Ah, hell. He told me a couple months back that he… met a woman. Online.”
He might as well had said the old man took a trip to Mars. “Like a dating site?”
“No,” he said. “Not dating.”
I started to ask, but then… “Oh.”
“He say the woman’s name, what site it was?”
“He didn’t tell me her name, but the website was”—he leaned over the bar and whispered the site name to me.
“You got a pen?”
He fished one out of his shirt pocket and handed it to me. I grabbed it and a cocktail napkin off the bar and wrote it down. “You sure that’s the website?”
“Yeah, I’m the one who…” He cast a glance at the haggard woman sipping her drink, then back to me. “Look, I know that stuff ain’t exactly legal.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’re not in trouble.” I almost said a man has urges but didn’t. “You sure he never said the woman’s name?”
“No. He just described her. Young, blonde, stacked. Guy had a type.”
He did. I remembered the blonde in the Black Velvet poster that hung in our garage for years. Eventually, the sun faded the picture, and Dad swapped it out with a poster of Jayne Mansfield. I’m not sure when, but Jayne was eventually traded in for Kate Upton. At least Kate stayed with him until his death unlike my mother who divorced him in the mid-80s and passed away herself in the late-90s. But Mom was a redhead, so their time together was probably doomed from the start anyway.
The weird thing was my father wasn’t a technical person. He used the laptop I bought him three years back to check baseball scores, email the VFW hall, and that was about it. He wouldn’t shop on Amazon or get groceries delivered because it was all “a bunch of gobbledygook technical bullshit” that he couldn’t figure out, so I asked Mick, “You help him set up his profile on this site?”
“I did,” he said and gave me his username and password. I wrote them down and handed the pen back to him. My cellphone buzzed in my pocket. “Thanks for everything, Mick. I’ll call if I need anything else.” I headed for the door and pulled the phone out of my pocket. It was Darlene. “Hello?”
“Are you okay?”
“I just wanted to check.”
I opened my car door. “The party still going on?”
“Yeah, people are still here. We’re going to open the presents and have cake soon.”
“I don’t know when I’ll be home.” And here’s where an argument would normally begin.
“I figured,” she said. “I’ll put some hot dogs in the fridge for you. I’ll set some cake aside too.” It was the nicest she’d been to me in two years. I guess a murder can bring out the best in some people.
“You didn’t tell Stephen, did you?”
“Of course not.”
“Dumb question. I shouldn’t have—”
“With everything going on…”
“I didn’t tell him.”
“He doesn’t need to know about it. Not now anyway… Let him have his day.”
And that was it. That’s what did it; thinking of my son at his birthday party, him oblivious to everything, having no clue what happened, brought out the tears. I guess I’d been flying on autopilot since Gina’s phone call, and I guess I finally crashed. Everything that’d built up over the past two hours (years?) boiled over.
Darlene and I agreed we wouldn’t split up until a month or two after the party. We’d play it cool and bide our time until the divorce. My son’s life was about to change, even if his grandfather wasn’t dead. The guilt ate at me, but I deserved it. It was my fault. I was the one who chose to upend everything.
I swallowed. “I gotta go,” I told Darlene. “I gotta get back to it.”
I ended the call and threw the phone down onto the center console. I turned up the AC, fumbled with the radio, and tried to find a tolerable song that wasn’t rap or top 40, but couldn’t find anything. I switched it off and swiped my palm over my face. I looked at myself in the rearview mirror. I told myself to knock it off.
I peered through the windshield and out the passenger and driver’s side windows, saw no one, pulled out of the parking lot, and headed back across town to my dad’s house.
MistyDDD was her name. There were six pictures total, each showcasing Misty in various states of undress. There was Misty on her knees atop a bed, naked save for a pair of lace stockings. Misty in the bathtub, Misty at a beach, Misty bent over, bent forward, bent sideways. I guess you have to showcase the goods from all possible angles if you want to make a sale. No different than a car or pair of shoes.
I looked through Dad’s messaging history and found more than a few emails between them. There were thirty-six, in fact. About a third of the messages were receipt confirmations for “Services Rendered.” They totaled just under ten grand. The messages from Misty were from a woman laying it on thick. oh baby i had such a wonderful time!!! love you sweetie!!! youre the best!!!
The messages sent to her from my father’s end were like preparations for a business meeting. Would Monday at seven pm work? Let me know by five today, otherwise I’ll have to reschedule.
of course baby!!! seven works 4 me!!! xoxoxox
It seemed as if the Holiday Inn near I-75 was their usual meeting place over the past year or so. The last time he and Ms. Triple D corresponded was two weeks prior. There was nothing recent.
I hit the Compose Message button.
I’d like to meet up ASAP at the usual place. When can we make that happen?
I hit Send and closed the laptop. I sat on the couch and spied the rest of the living room, the old Quasar TV, the grandfather clock that had been in the same spot since 1972, the same end table, and the same carpet. The laptop seemed out of place. Then again, so did the splotches of blood on the recliner.
An oil painting of General MacArthur’s return hung in the spot above the fireplace where the family portrait used to be. He bought that not long after my mother—
Somebody came in through the backdoor.
I shot off the couch and walked to the kitchen.
A haggard figure stood there. A long beard hung down over a gray flannel. His filthy jeans were held up by what looked like a piece of rope. His face looked like a mixture of grease and liver spots. It was hard to tell where a liver spot ended and a smatter of grease began. I didn’t know who he was, but I’d seen him around town over the past couple years. He was just some bum I’d seen rooting through various trashcans throughout the city.
“What’s your business?” I demanded.
“I’m with the Sheriff’s Department, and this is a crime scene. What are you doing here?”
He looked like a pile of rock dust in shoddy clothes, nothing more than a collection of grays, with his gray beard, grayish skin, dark gray flannel, and jeans so faded they looked like slate.
But there was one bit of color on him, the one thing that drew my eyes away from his gravel face.
The gold watch on his wrist.
He stammered. “I wuh-was just…”
I pulled my sidearm and closed the distance between us in a little over a second. “Get your hands up! Now! Get them up!”
His hands went up and he backed up to the wall like a frightened puppy, his face chiseled with fear.
I pressed the gun barrel against his forehead and grabbed his arm with my free hand. I brought his wrist within inches of my face and saw the Navy logo beneath the hands of the watch. “Where did you get that?” I screamed.
He didn’t answer.
“What were you doing here, huh? Trying to pick through more of my old man’s shit?”
“I just needed some money.”
I couldn’t breathe. It felt like a hot coal burned in the center of my chest.
“I just came here cuz I need some money.”
I heard Earl Hungerford’s voice in my head.
“That’s all, just some money. Just a little bit. Not much. Just a little bit.”
I heard my blood. I heard it speak to me in tongues.
“I wasn’t hurtin’ nothin’,”
I felt every nerve, every inch of my skin, every hair on my head, every cell, every…
“You son of a bitch.”
“I swear… Just a little bit…”
“Son of a bitch!”
The gun went off.
His legs went out from under him. He slid down the kitchen wall, a smear of red left in his wake. I watched the hole in the center of his forehead ooze a thin red line down his face, between his eyes, over his nose, his lips, his beard, the front of his flannel, into his lap, and I felt nothing. What had just happened meant nothing more to me than watching a strong breeze carry a dry leaf down an empty road.
I breathed easy. A thin layer of frost coated my heart.
I stood overtop him looked down on him, and waited for my own body to move again, and after a moment, I bent down and slid the watch off his wrist.
I looked once more at the logo of the U.S. Navy, at the hands under that glass, that watch face I’d seen countless times throughout my life. I clutched the watch and stared at it as if I were trying to hypnotize myself with it.
My fingertip brushed against… something… on the back of the watch. It felt like scratches, gouges, scrapes.
I turned it over.
A name etched into the gold.
Lieutenant Bradley James Michaelson.
Everything collapsed in the amount of time it took for the second hand to move one tick.
The watch was not my father’s.
My legs ushered me from one end of the kitchen to the other.
Say he attacked you. Yes, you came back here to check out a lead, you heard a noise, and… No… Damn it! Gina will know. She’ll be able to tell you’re lying. And if she can’t… The department could bring someone else in to investigate it… Yeah, you know all the tricks, all the traps, you’ve interrogated hundreds of people… But you make one mistake, one little screw-up, and they’re on you like a dog. You say one wrong word… Everything is over. Think! Come on! Think! You…
I looked at the line of red, at the wall behind it, at the man, at the wrist, at the watch.
You know what you have to do. Take care of it. Man up and get it done.
I holstered my sidearm and shoved the watch into my pocket. I fetched some bleach, a rag, and some Lysol wipes from beneath the sink and went to work cleaning up all traces of him. I found some old bedsheets and blankets in the hall closet and rolled him up in them.
I went outside to see if he had a bicycle, moped, or, Christ forbid, a car. Nothing. I looked over at Earl’s property and saw his old Bonneville wasn’t parked in its usual spot in front of his garage. I got my car from out front, reversed it up the drive, and went back in the house.
I waited for night. It was eight o’clock. I opened the laptop and checked to see if Misty had responded to the message. She had not. I shut off the computer, turned on the television, grabbed a Pepsi from the fridge, and tried to act normal.
I peeked out the front window. The people across the street pulled into the driveway. They were a young couplewho looked to be in their 20s, and drove a Prius. “Oversize Matchbox car,” is what my dad called it. Earl’s Bonneville still wasn’t in his driveway. He…
It was bingo night at the Knights of Columbus hall. I’d just remembered. He never missed a Saturday.
I sat back down on the couch and watched a few minutes of some cop show. I looked at the recliner, at the blood, and smelled the faint scent of bleach in the air.
Nine o’clock. The sun was down.
I lifted him off the floor, felt a muscle pull in my back, dragged him outside, opened my trunk, and put him in. I went to the basement, grabbed a few twenty-pounders from a weight set my dad owned along with some electrical wire and rope. There was a stack of boards on the floor and a half-built work bench that dad was in the middle of putting together. I fetched a hammer, three nails, and a small 2x4 and nailed the backdoor shut. It was a piss poor job that would’ve irritated the old man, but it was enough to keep it closed until I could get the doorframe fixed.
I turned off the TV, shut off the lights, and went out front. I threw the weights, rope, and wire into the trunk, got into the driver’s seat, and headed to the harbor.
I walk in and warm up a hot dog in the microwave and eat it over the sink, no mustard, no ketchup, and wash it down with a Coke. I don’t taste anything. I look out the window at the same moon that sat above me over the lake.
I see the watch face, the eagle, and the shield, in the circle of the moon. I tossed it after its owner before returning to the harbor. I see the water splash in my mind. I see the ripples spread and fade into the darkness.
My cellphone vibrates. I look. It’s Gina again. “Hey.”
“Sorry to call you so late,” she says, “but I wanted you to know we got a hit on your dad’s watch.”
“I put a call earlier today to pawn shops in the area, told them to keep an eye out for it. The owner of Midport Pawn and Consignment called thirty minutes ago, said a guy and a young woman came in and tried to sell it.”
“He told them he was going to draw up some paperwork in the back, he called the station, and officers were there in five minutes. The couple’s here at the station right now.”
A thin line of red.
“Do you want to come down?”
“Would…” I clear my throat. “Would you mind taking this one?”
“No,” she says, “of course, I don’t mind. You’ve had a day.”
“Let him have his day.”
“You get some rest,” she says. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
…at the man, at the wrist, at the watch…
“Thank you, Gina. For everything. Good night.”
I hang up and pass the master bedroom on the way to the room down the hall.
The next morning, Gina calls and tells me MistyDDD, real name Lori Anne Diamond, and her boyfriend Jason Corman confessed to killing my father. Lori worked as an escort for a number of years and Corman acted as her security, the guy who’d wait outside the hotel room until her services were rendered. Corman also copped to being a heroin addict whose addiction has spiraled out of control as of late. He saw my old man as an easy hit and thought that because Dad had spent so much money on his meet-ups with Lori, there must’ve been some extra money or valuables lying around Dad’s place. Lori stated she didn’t want my dad to get hurt (of course) and said she had nothing to do with killing him (of course), and it was all Corman’s doing.
“Sorry to tell you this, Bill,” Gina says. “I know it’s heavy.”
“At least they’re caught.”
“Yeah,” she says. “Thank God.”
Three days later, there’s a memorial service at the VFW hall for my father. Earl put it together. About a hundred people are there, some I recognize, some I don’t. After an hour, bottles of Guinness are handed out. “I want to make a toast,” Earl says. “Everybody, get your drinks up.”
We raise our bottles.
“To Noland Wilson, the kind of friend everyone deserves, the kind of man we all should hope to be.”
People shake their heads or utter a soft “Amen,” and take a sip.
“And to all the departed soldiers. Let no one be forgotten. Salud!”
I take a sip and choke it down. I never liked Guinness or beer at all, but it was my dad’s favorite.
Chatter rises. People mingle. Stories are exchanged. I walk over to an easel by the entrance. On it is a piece of posterboard with photographs of my father taped to it. He’d spent many years volunteering through the VFW, and many of the pics are him helping out at events over the years. I look closely at a picture of him and some of the men he’d served with at the Vietnam memorial wall in D.C. There’s another of him at Arlington National Cemetery.
Earl shuffles over to me. “Bill.”
He nods at the board. “Jack put this together. Nice, eh?”
“Ever meet Jack Dorsey? He’s been with the VFW for years.”
“He was a friend of your dad’s. Served in ‘Nam. Infantry. Hard as nails, that son of a bitch is.”
Another photo of my dad at Arlington, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“Where’s the little lady?”
Another photo of my dad standing in front of the Capitol building.
Probably with the guy she’s been fucking for the past two years. The reason I asked for the divorce. “She had to work,” I lie. “Parent-teacher conferences at school.”
“Too bad she couldn’t make it.”
Another of him and…
Another of him standing next to the gray man.
I look closer at the photo. Both of them, outside the VFW building, shoulder to shoulder, smiling.
“That’s Bradley,” Earl tells me, obviously seeing I’m interested in the photo.
I pull myself away. I step back. I feel my blood move like wet concrete.
“Good guy, Bradley is,” he says. “Homeless, like a number of vets. Your dad helped him out over the years, paid him to do odd jobs around his place, mow the lawn things like that.”
“That’s all, just some money. Just a little bit. Not much. Just a little bit.”
“Good guy,” Earl says. “Has his problems, PTSD and all that, but a good guy. I wish I knew where he was. I would’ve invited him to come down here. I think he would’ve like to come, maybe would’ve volunteered to say a few words, or… Bill…? Are you…?”
I wipe the tears off my cheeks.
He leans close to me and whispers, “It’s okay. He was your old man.”
That face, that stone face…
“Sometimes, it’s… Well, it’s not easy, I guess…”
I can’t stop seeing his face.
“Are you going to…?”
Those eyes! God, those eyes!
I can feel everyone stare at me, feel him stare at me, and I tell myself to stop crying, to pull it together for my father, to keep it together for my son, but I think of the house, my house, and the darkness, and the oil painting above the fireplace and I can’t.
Mike McHone's work has appeared in Ellery Queen, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mystery Tribune, Mystery Weekly, Guilty, Shotgun Honey, the AV Club, the Detroit News, and is forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. You can visit him online at www.mikemchone.com
A gripping story. Well-written.ReplyDelete
Thank you, Jacqueline! I'm glad you enjoyed it.Delete
Wow, gripped me from the first line.ReplyDelete
I appreciate it the read and the kind words, Marian!Delete