There’s a line in Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer” that goes, “I wondered how far I should turn out faithful to that ideal conception of one's own personality every man sets up for himself secretly.” And this was on my mind, going through my head like a stuck song, the next day after work, when I went home and packed my car. Could I carry off whatever it was we were going to do—could I kidnap someone? Or pick them up to—talk? Or yank them off the street, or whatever you want to call it. In my own ideal conception—in my secret heart—I liked to think that I was capable of almost anything, if I thought about it—if I focused. This despite a lack of opportunity in my life for almost anything.
So. What do you need when you’re going to kidnap someone? Or pick them up to talk? Or whatever you want to call it?
Rope. Duct tape. Knife. Flashlights—I found four of them in my garage.
I owned two pistols, and I had to make a decision—the Ruger or the Walther. They were both small pistols, shooting a .380. I’d bought the Ruger new, and it could be traced to me. So I chose the Walther. I’d bought it in South Texas from a guy I’d worked with offshore. It was an older gun, probably made in the 1970s, and had been knocked around some over the years, but it worked fine.
I covered my car’s back seat with an old quilt and tossed in the rope and duct tape. I tossed the flashlights onto the front passenger floor. I slid the knife into my pocket. I stuck the pistol under my seat.
I drove by Sally’s house, and she was waiting for me on the front porch wearing a khaki work shirt and jeans and hiking boots. She hopped down and got into the car like we were going on a date.
“I don’t know exactly what we’re doing,” Sally said. “But—let’s do it.”
“We might be breaking a lot of laws,” I said. “We need to be ready for that.”
Lynnie was ready, too, when I pulled up into her driveway. She came down the steps all dressed in black—with a black bandanna around her throat and a black watch cap on her head—and climbed into the back seat.
“Jesus,” I said. “You look like an anarchist.”
“No,” Lynnie said. “I’m going for ninja. I don’t like anarchists, except for maybe the ones in the Spanish Civil War.”
“I always rooted for the Communists,” I said.
“You and Courtney and Stalin,” Lynnie said. “We’ll never agree.”
“So, Holt,” Sally said. “You have a plan?”
“The Strip Pit, I guess. We just wait for him to show up.”
Sally shook her head. I think she wanted to go to Ted’s house and roust him out. She was direct like that. But Ted lived in an old farmhouse northwest of town, surrounded by pastures, and there was a long open driveway, and even though the nearest neighbors were a couple of hundred yards away, they might notice a strange car going up the driveway. So, no. Sally was willing to go along with my plan, though.
I pulled out of Lynnie’s driveway and headed west, then north on the highway bypass. It was getting dark, but still light enough to see a convoy of vehicles headed south, vans and SUVs with antennas and radar dishes and satellite uplinks. Storm chasers—there was big weather coming. I’d checked the radar before I’d left my house, and there was a line of strong spring storms off to the southwest, stretching down into Oklahoma. We were under a tornado watch until the early morning.
I got off the bypass up by the Walmart and came down on the Strip Pit from the north, the way Ted would be coming if he came to the bar from his house. The Strip Pit didn’t seem to be very busy—the parking lot was only about half full. I didn’t see Ted’s green Volvo anywhere. I circled around the block and came back to the bar from a side street, and, like I had in December, parked sort of behind a dumpster—sort of behind, but with a view of the parking lot and the front door.
Not much happened. Sally and Lynnie played with their phones. A couple of cars pulled into the parking lot, and men got out and went inside. A tall girl with long stringy hair got dropped off and she skipped inside. Nice to see a happy stripper in Weirton. Nice to see anybody happy in Weirton. Other cars drove down the street, people in them doing whatever it is people do. Warm gusty winds shook the trees, the sun went down, evening came.
But we didn’t wait long. I spotted the green Volvo come around the corner and turn into the parking lot.
“The Eagle has landed,” I said.
“Okay!” Sally said. She looked up and unbuckled her seat belt. “So—I just get him over to the car, right?”
“Yep, tell him we want to talk—we want to get things settled.”
“We’ll all go to dinner,” Lynnie said.
“Right,” Sally said.
She got out of the car and walked loosely down the street. Relaxed. Just watching her made me feel good. I saw Ted and his beard get out of the Volvo. The windows in my car were up, and I saw Sally raise her arm and wave. Hey, Ted!
I pulled the Walther from under the seat and held it in my lap.
“Oh, this is going to be good,” Lynnie said. She was leaning up between the seats, watching over my shoulder.
Ted walked a few feet toward Sally. They talked. Sally pointed at me—us, my car. Sally and Ted began walking our way.
“Okay,” Lynnie said. She sank back and half-disappeared into the backseat darkness.
Sally and Ted got closer. They were talking—about what? Sally looked intense—she was half a head taller than Ted. A big strong girl. Ted’s stupid beard fluttered in the wind. I didn’t know which side of the car they were coming to, so I hit the buttons and lowered both front windows.
They were coming to my side of the car.
“Hey, Ted!” I called out. “What’s up?”
Ted got a little closer. “She says you want to talk.”
She—he wouldn’t even say Sally’s name.
“That’s right,” I said. “Get in the car—we’ll go for a drink.”
“We can have a drink here,” Ted said. He came closer to my car window and bent down to look inside. I think he saw Lynnie in the back seat—he seemed wary. He fucking well should have been wary. But he stepped closer. Sally was standing right behind him.
“Ted, the ladies don’t want to go to a fucking strip club,” I said. “Get in—we can go get something to eat. We can go to the Sizzler.”
“Well,” Ted said. “I’ll meet you there.”
I raised the Walther and stuck it right in his beard.
“Ted, I swear to god I’ll shoot you if you don’t get in the car.” I worked the action and stuck it deeper into his throat. Sally smartly stepped out from behind him. “I swear to god I don’t care.”
Ted’s stood looking at me, frozen.
“Just get in the back seat,” Sally said.
Lynnie kicked open the back door and scooted over to let him in, and Ted got in slowly, carefully. Sally got in after him and shut the door.
“Don’t worry,” I said. I looked in the mirror at Ted’s shape behind me. “If I really wanted to kill you, you’d be dead already.”
A line, sort of, from The Godfather. I guess I hoped that proved to Ted that I knew what I was doing. That I was serious.
I put the car in drive and drove back out through the neighborhood and headed north out of town on Front Street, past the Walmart and the Holiday Inn and the chain restaurants.
“Guess we’re not going to Sizzler,” Lynnie said.
“Where are we going?” Ted asked.
“Someplace private,” I said. I drove on north.
“How’d you know where to find me?”
“You’re at that bar every night!” Sally said. “Everybody that drives by sees your car.”
“So, tell me,” Lynnie said. “What do you do all the time in there at the Strip Pit?”
In the mirror I could see Ted’s head bobbing around like the was trying to think of something to say. He ended up sort of shrugging.
“Hey, there’s no shame in a titty bar,” I said over my shoulder. “The great Richard Feynman would go to strip clubs and work on math and physics—and he won a Nobel Prize.”
“Ted’s not doing physics,” Lynnie said. “I bet he’s writing poems.” She pronounced it pomes.
“Well, yes,” Ted said. His deep rich voice was still mostly locked down inside himself with those wired jaws. “I’m writing poems about the body—the—uh—the female body.”
“Oh, for fucks sake,” Sally said.
“Tom,” Ted said. Speaking to me—trying to ignore the women who flanked him. “You’re kidnapping me.”
“We’re abducting you,” I said. “We’re not asking for a ransom.”
“Who’d pay it?” Lynnie asked.
“Tom,” Ted said again—I couldn’t remember when he’d ever addressed me directly. “Tom—this is wrong.”
“Wrong is sending me pictures of penises!” Sally said.
“What?” He turned to face Sally. “I never did that!”
Lynnie hit Ted. I caught a dark blur in the mirror, heard a thunk.
Ted said, “Ow!”
“He’s fucking bleeding on me!” Sally said.
Which meant he was probably spaying blood around the back seat, too. But I’d have to deal with that later.
“Get his phone, please,” I said.
There was a tussle in the back seat—Ted grunted, Sally yelped. Then Lynnie said, “Oh, it’s just a cheap little flip phone.” She tossed the phone up on the seat next to me.
“Tom, you can’t do this,” Ted said.
Lynnie hit him—hard.
Ted didn’t say anything more. I drove on north through Auburn, the next little town up the road from Weirton, and then I made a right, heading for the Missouri border. Right before Kansas ended, I pulled off into a small graveled parking area at a state wildlife refuge. Wildlife refuge—it was like Forest Preserve Park, an old strip mine that had grown back with sickly stunted mutant trees. A trail wound through the area, in and out among brush-covered piles of mining waste. Devon and I went for walks there a couple of times. Now, on a warm blustery Tuesday night in April, it was deserted. I turned off the car and we sat quietly in darkness. After a moment, I took the back cover off Ted’s phone and pulled out the battery and the SIMM card. I tossed the battery and put the card in my shirt pocket for later.
“So,” I finally said over my shoulder. “Why don’t you tell us what happened to Devon the night she died?”
“How would I know?” Ted asked wetly. “I was at home.”
Lynnie hit Ted. Thunk. He grunted.
“Fuck,” Sally said. “He’s bleeding on me again.”
“Stop bleeding on her!” Lynnie grabbed Ted by his ear and his beard and started shaking him around.
“I’m getting up in the front seat,” Sally said. “I got fucking herpes blood on me!”
Sally opened the door and the light went on. I saw that Lynnie had a rope around Ted’s neck and was choking him. Then Sally shut the door and the light went out.
“Lynnie, let him breathe,” I said.
The front passenger door opened and the light went on again. Ted’s eyes were kind of bulged out but he was breathing—gasping, really. He looked scared. Good.
Sally got in and shut the door and the light went out.
“Ted,” I said. “We have Courtney’s texts to Devon saying you were all coming over that night. We have your fingerprints on the fucking wineglasses.”
“One of the neighbors saw you driving up,” Sally said. She was a good liar. “They described your fucking beard!”
I said, “You were there.”
Ted took a big long sighing gasp. He said, “We just wanted to talk to Devon about some things.”
Lynnie cuffed Ted. He cringed.
“No,” Ted said. “You told me you knew everything!”
“Yeah, Devon told me a few things,” I said. “And her notebooks told me some other things. And now you’re going to tell me all the fucking things. Okay?”
“It was Courtney’s email,” Ted said. He was breathing heavily, talking fast through his wired jaws. He didn’t want to get hit again. “Courtney was sending it to Fred and she wanted to cc it to Nancy but she clicked the wrong name and it went to Devon.”
Ah, I thought. I bet I had that email on a drive somewhere.
“Bitch never has learned how to use email,” Sally said.
“The subject?” I asked.
“You know that—it was the visiting writers fund. The endowment.”
Actually, I didn’t know that.
"Wait." Sally turned half around. “You guys are skimming from the endowment?”
The endowment—some rich alum no one remembered or had even heard of left the department an absurd enormous pot of money to fund creative writing. Courtney was in charge of it. Fuck—of course she was dipping into it.
“Courtney and Nancy,” Ted said. “Fred was, too—he used to be on the visiting writers committee. But I never got anything.”
“Well,” Sally said. “Boo-fucking-hoo for you.”
I asked, “Was Tee in on it?”
Sally leaned around to hear the answer.
“She knows about it,” Ted said. “She usually doesn’t take any money. But sometimes she does when she’s short—I think she did last fall. You really didn’t know about this part?”
Sally said, “Damn.”
“How much got skimmed?” I asked.
“Maybe ten or twelve thousand a year,” Ted said. “I mean—since I got here. I don’t know before then.”
Ted had been at the Gulag 15 years. So—I tried to do the math. $160,000? $180,000? Split three or four ways over 15 years….
Sally was doing math, too. “So that’s only like four thousand a year apiece. Fuck, my drug addict husband was a better embezzler than you losers!”
Well—still, that extra money was enough to help Fred buy a farm, to help Courtney buy a big house and sponsor a moon cult….
“Yeah, and I didn’t get any of the money!” Ted said.
I thought of something. I said, “And so that’s why you tried to kill Nancy, huh? You wanted her share of the money?”
“What?” Ted yelped. “No—Courtney told me you did it!”
“I was in Texas, dumbass.”
“Really? Courtney said—”
Lynnie smacked Ted a couple of times. “Beating up on an old lady! You asshole!”
I waited until Ted caught his breath again. I asked, “So, okay—you all went over to Devon’s. What happened?”
“Courtney offered to cut her in,” Ted said.
“And?” I asked.
“Devon didn’t want to cooperate,” Ted said. “You know what she was like—she thought she was better than everybody else. She was too good for the money.”
“Fucking bastard,” Lynnie whispered. “She was better than everybody else.”
“So—Courtney spiked her wine—”
“Fentanyl,” Lynnie said.
“Yeah—right—I guess—and Devon passed out, and, you know—and then Courtney got on the computer and deleted her emails.”
“You didn’t delete shit!” Sally said. “You people don’t know anything about computers!”
I thought—All those emails are sitting on a university server somewhere. I wondered if that was a good thing or a bad thing. Would anyone ever look for them?
“You took her phone,” I said. “And all the notebooks you could find.”
Ted grunted, “Yeah.”
“And then you raped her.”
Lynnie jerked Ted over and hit him four or five times. Then she pushed him back up.
“And then you raped her,” I said again.
“No—” Ted raised his hands. “Don’t hit me! I didn’t rape her—she was already dead!”
Sally asked, “What?”
I turned on a flashlight and shined it in Ted’s face. He winced, shut his eyes. Bleeding from his nose and mouth, beard clotted and tangled scraggly. He was a mess.
I said, “She was already--dead?”
“Yes,” Ted grunted wetly. Hissed. “You can’t rape a dead woman—rape’s about consent, right?”
We were all silent, trying to figure that out. I shut off the flashlight. Over the horizon lightning flashed up into the clouds. Ted was still breathing heavily.
“Wait a minute,” Lynnie said. “A dead woman can’t consent—so it’s totally rape!”
“And you probably didn’t know she was dead until you were through,” Sally said.
“No!” Ted said. He leaned forward, trying to talk to me—me, ignoring the women. “Anybody can rape a drunk woman, right? You all know that! But a dead woman? That takes courage!”
Courage. The fuck? I remembered that stupid poem Ted wrote.
The difference between
courage and cowardice
is a mere
We were all silent for what seemed like a long time.
Finally, Lynnie asked, “So, what’re we going to do with this piece of shit?”
The car was silent again. Sally and Lynnie—and Ted—were waiting for me to decide.
I said, “We might as well kill him.”