--- 1 ---
So Whit's End is slow, I mean slow, on Thursday mornings. What did you expect? The kids just went back to school for the fall, and the adults are into the swing of things by this time of the week, so they're less likely to need coffee or conversation to get them started. So what's there for a guy like me to do at a time like this? There's nobody in the shop to talk to except that weird guy in the corner. He's come in every morning for a week, which happens to be my shift, but all attempts to engage him in conversation end up with me feeling like an idiot ‘cause he'll only just sort of smile knowingly over his coffee and sundae. Whatever, dude. I'm glad he's all the way in the far corner and facing the back of the shop, not looking at me.
I'm amusing myself by polishing a glass with a dishrag and pretending I'm like a bartender or something, when another guy enters. He's sort of plain looking, I mean so plain that I probably wouldn't even comment on his plainness if I wasn't so bored I was paying extra close attention today. He strolls on up real smoothly, like he's practiced his smooth stroll to perfection, and I get the feeling that maybe his plainness is just as practiced, like he's a guy who spends a lot of time trying to blend in, like if he let himself loose he'd attract all sorts of unwanted attention. I don't know, maybe I'm just making things up.
"What can I get you, sir?" I ask him.
"Nothing, thanks. Is Whit around?"
"Not yet; he should be here in a few if you don't mind waiting."
"I guess not."
"Wait, are you the guy he's meeting today?" What was the name Whit gave me, again? Maxwell something?
"In that case, he said you could go up to—"
Now, I'm used to customers overstepping the boundaries a little bit. I mean, working around kids, you can't let yourself be sensitive about these things. We get kids wandering into the kitchen, answering our phone, decorating the booths with toilet paper, you name it. But when Maxwell or whatever leapt behind the counter and pressed himself against it like he was in a spy movie, I have to admit it caught me off guard. I nearly dropped my glass.
"What are—" He motions me to shut up, so I do.
Mister Coffee-and-a-Sundae moseys on up from his corner, heading to the door. He's youngish, but he moves slowly, a guy who has the rest of his life to leave this building and wants to enjoy every minute of it.
"See you tomorrow," he calls to me. The bell dings when he opens the door and leaves.
Maxwell lets out the breath he was holding and crouches up to peer over the counter. Then he whirls to face me. "How long has Jellyfish been in town?"
I fumble the glass again at the intensity of his stare. "He—I—that guy? I don't know, he started coming in here last week."
"Does Whit know? Does Connie? Does anyone else?"
"What am I, pre-sliced pastrami?"
He ignores my carefully thought-out food reference, just strides to the table where the guy was sitting and stares down at the sundae dish and coffee mug.
"Not that Whit would know him if he sees him," he murmurs. "Not that . . . many people would know. That was a long time ago."
I join him by the table. "He's been here every morning for awhile now. I'm the only one who's been working here then. He always orders some combination of sundaes and cups of coffee."
Maxwell points to the cup and dish. "Look at that. He always did that."
"Did what?" They don't look unusual to me.
"Leaves a little left."
True enough. A sip of coffee and a melted spoonful of ice cream. "So?"
"Contingency planner. It's his nature to leave things left over, just in case . . . just in case he needs them."
"You think he's going to come back to claim his leftovers?" Maxwell is kind of getting on my nerves. I mean, there's nothing wrong with a little vagueness, but this is uncalled for, you know?
"Listen, Nick, if Whit comes in, could you tell him I'll be back soon?"
How the heck does he know my name? "Sure, I'll tell him."
"Thanks." And he's out the door like he was never there.
I don't have anything else to do, but for some reason I leave the coffee cup and sundae dish on the table, maybe until Maxwell comes back. He made them seem important, like evidence or something.
Floating—no, rocking—no, trembling. No, I realize, cracking my crusted eyes open. Tied down in a moving vehicle. Smell of grease from old fast food, crunch of bags under my feet. Voices on the radio, too low to hear words, but Bryan Dern's cadence. Rant, whine, rant. Beside me, a laugh.
Vision darkens, but no fighting back. Too in pain and too ashamed. Sharp pain in my shoulders, dull pain in my head, numb pain in my hands. Shame in my soul. Fell into his trap. Idiot. Deserve this.
"You'll notice I took your expert advice this time. The doors are locked. Not like you could get anywhere with those cuffs on." Sneering. Starts to whistle. Darkness. Shurr. Wind in my face. "Wake up already. I didn't hurt you that bad. You always were a wimp."
I raise my head, the faint twilight bright enough to make me flinch. I want to sit tall and quip something smart back at him, but a combination of the stale french fry smell, his mile-a-minute driving, and what's no doubt a concussion has me too sick to think.
Here, he will pause. Hunched over bruised ribs, unfocused gaze resting on the tape deck, he'll fall silent. She'll set her notebook down.
"If this is too soon . . ." she'll begin. "I know you already had to tell the police everything."
He may smile crookedly. "The cops were easy on me. They didn't ask me to remember how it felt."
On the table between them will sit her first article, recording the arrests--names and dates, times and crimes. Now she will be ready for the real story, getting to the heart of the matter. She is good at heart.
"We can stop," she'll suggest. "I mean, if you don't want to—"
"No, no, no. For you, my dear, anything."
No doubt an awkward silence will follow. He will lean back, accustomed to awkward silences. She will try to distract herself—she'll fiddle with the volume on the tape recorder, or pick up her notebook and stare down at it. Interviews do by their nature involve prying, yet she's always kept them distant affairs, she on one side of the table, someone else across from her, tape deck between them, tea or coffee sipped, while she eases stories from their mouths to her notebook with such skill that they hardly notice what she's done. This time will be different—because of him. She will blame instead their strange surroundings—a room full of books in the place of excitement, imagination and discovery. She'll wonder—is she excited, or just imagining the things she hopes to discover?
"Should I continue?" His voice will be gentle, of course.
"Could you . . . go back to when you first left Whit's End?"
"Sure. I caught up to him pretty quickly. I wanted to find out what he was doing in town."
"Where did you follow him?"
"Through McCallister Park."
And a sigh; he'll become evasive. "And then . . . to the barn in Gower's Field."
"He went inside?"
"No, behind it. I didn't want him to see me, so I crept up to the side wall and waited. I didn't hear anything, so I turned the corner, and . . . took a baseball bat to the shoulder. He was aiming for my head, so I guess that's something." Here a smile—he'll be embarrassed he was caught.
She'll write something down, hoping to vent her anger through words. She does not like his attacker, but a reporter is supposed to stay objective. "Then what?"
Waving a hand at the paper between them. "You listed my injuries in your first article. I mean, I tried to get away, but he hit my knee next, and then I tried to fight back—I tripped him, for what that's worth, but I couldn't get the bat away from him. To his credit, there was some strategy involved. He didn't knock me out until he was done pummeling me everywhere else."
He will shrug, or wave his hand, or ignore her statement entirely. His bruises will be yellowing by this time, but she will still find them painful to look at.
"All right, what else happened when you woke up?"
"Myron said, ‘I didn't break anything, did I? I was real careful with you. I know how delicate you are.' Followed by his trademark snicker." She will sit back and let her tape record his words. She's never before interviewed anyone who could quote conversations verbatim. "I pulled myself together. I sat up as straight as I could with my arms cuffed to the seatbelt behind me. Everything hurt, but nothing was broken. I told him, ‘Not up to your usual destructive standards.' I was practically whispering—so thirsty. He said, ‘Don't worry, I'll get there.' I said, ‘Why not now?' He said, ‘No reason.'" He will stop his story to laugh, recalling earlier laughter. "Yeah—I just laughed at him. Because Myron always has a reason."
--- 2 ---
A story from home.
Easy, I'd thought. Easy-peasy, even. What could be easier than writing a story about the place where I first started writing? I'd squeezed a zillion stories out of Odyssey while I lived there. There were sure to be more waiting for me when I returned.
But I've been here for three days and I've found none. Odyssey is so slow compared to Chicago. Visiting my parents after summer term has been great. But now I'm supposed to return to fall with a news story from home, and nothing in Odyssey seems as interesting as the stories I've been covering at school, like the search for the serial convenience-store-hold-up guy. I'm afraid I've lost my old focus, the ability I had to see stories in everyday life. I've changed, and so has Odyssey, in a few small ways. It's a little like losing a friend.
Whit can help me. No doubt about that. He'll teach me how to recapture that ability. But he's not here now.
"When will he be back?" I ask the boy in the Whit's End apron.
"No telling." The boy slides my milkshake down the counter at me. He has style. Maybe I should write about him. Oh, my, I'm getting desperate.
"Oh." I guess I could explore Whit's End while I wait. It seems . . . smaller . . . but if any place can remind me of things I learned as a kid, it's Whit's End. "What's your name?" I ask the boy. I consider pulling out my notebook, but I guess that would look a little weird.
"Nice to meet you, Nick. I'm Lucy Cunningham-Schultz."
"Do you know of anything newsworthy going on around town?" I ask, not optimistically.
"Actually," Nick rests his forearms on the counter and leans forward. "A CCCC student disappeared yesterday."
"Disappeared?" My notebook is out in a flash.
"Yep. And I was one of the last people to see him." Nick watches my pen. "That's Mulligan, M-U-L-L-I-G-A-N."
"Okay. So tell me what happened."
"The guy came in to meet with Whit, but I told him Whit wasn't in. He acted real suspicious and scared as soon as he noticed another guy in the shop, he like hid from him and then followed him out of Whit's End and didn't come back like he said he would." Nick narrows his eyes. "Say, you're here to see Whit, too. If you go tearing out of the place like he did, I'm going to close the shop to escort you where you're going. It's creepy that somebody can just disappear like that. Whit told the police right away—says the guy would never just no show on him."
"Hmm. Tell me about the person this student was following."
"Prime suspect—you should ask the police about him. All I know is, he's been here every day for the past week and didn't show up today. At least . . . not yet."
After finishing my milkshake, I leave for the police station. Nick makes a big show of wanting to make sure I'm okay, so I let him walk me safely to my Equinox. I'm not terribly concerned—missing persons cases are common in Chicago, after all. But while I'm driving, I realize—that's not how it should be. I shouldn't get used to crime. I shouldn't think it's okay. It bothers me that along with my ability to find stories in simple things, even the big things seem like no big deal to me now. Well, I'll make this big. This story will go in the University of Chicago's paper. No matter how hum-drum they want to think a missing person is, I'll show them that it isn't. I'll interview his family, his friends, get the personal angle behind the faceless crime.
At the police station, Chief Quinn welcomes me into his office. It smells like dust and coffee. Through glass windows into the station behind me, officers pore over papers, make phone calls, confer with one another—but there's no urgency to their movements, and they appear more relaxed than anxious.
"It's nice to see you again, Lucy." Chief Quinn takes a seat behind his desk. "Still a reporter, I see."
"Always, Chief Quinn."
"You're interested in writing about Odyssey, huh? Not a lot going on here, but you're welcome to ask about what is."
"Not a lot? I heard there was a missing student."
"Missing for one day—that's not at all unusual. You know that."
"But you must admit the circumstances are a little suspicious."
Chief Quinn raises an eyebrow. "They are, are they?"
"Well, he was going to meet with Mister Whittaker later that day."
"And a school advisor, and a gal from the admissions office, and his mother. So he missed a few appointments. There's no evidence of a crime here."
I give him my best skeptical look. "Nick Mulligan claims the student followed another man out of Whit's End just before he disappeared."
"All right, all right," Chief Quinn says. "Just don't go blowing this out of proportion like you reporters always do. Someone else did witness Maxwell following—"
"Wait, wait." The room spins and then rights itself. I carefully turn a page in my notebook, getting my bearings. "Maxwell?"
"Richard Maxwell," Quinn says with a nod.
"Not . . . not the Richard Maxwell?"
"Oh, so you remember him? Yes, the Richard Maxwell. Which is another reason there's no need to go thinking he's the victim of a crime. With his history, well . . ."
"What are you saying?" I stare at my notebook, at the words "R. Maxwell" in a shaky hand up top.
"There's no evidence of a crime," Quinn repeats. "But Nick Mulligan said that Maxwell named the man he followed out of Whit's End as ‘Jellyfish'."
"You know about him, too? So you understand, these are two men with criminal histories."
"But both of them are missing."
"Maybe they went on a road trip."
"Together? No way."
"You speak with some conviction about this, Lucy."
"They're . . . they're not friends."
"I know that." Chief Quinn leans back and runs his hand over his face. "But as I said—no evidence of foul play. And even if there was, Maxwell could have been the perpetrator—he was following Jellyfish, after all."
"No—no, he wouldn't have done anything to Jellyfish. But Jellyfish tried to kill him once!"
"So Whit tells me, but we have no record of that. Frankly, Lucy, there's nothing we can do until some more evidence turns up."
By the time I'm out of the police station, tears have welled up in my eyes. Tears of frustration—but frustration about what? A story I can't follow? Yes, that's it—that's all. No leads. No nothing. So what do I do now?
I look down at my notebook. Splat. A tear mars his name. Jellyfish was going to kill him once—and Jellyfish is out of jail now, and both of them have disappeared. He saved me from Jellyfish one time, and I never got a chance to tell him . . .
He saved me from Jellyfish.
What do I do now?
He saved me.
"What was Jellyfish trying to do?" she'll ask—she will always have trouble calling Jellyfish by his given name.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean . . . if he'd really wanted to kill you, why didn't he just do it?"
Now he will speak hesitantly, chasing pencils around in their cup with one finger. "Maybe he didn't really want to. Maybe—but I couldn't afford to think that at the time. He'd known I was back in Odyssey, he was just waiting for the day someone at Whit's End would tell me he'd been going there, just waiting for our confrontation. I'd let myself hope it was over, that he'd leave me alone, but on the other hand . . . I understand about revenge."
She may flip a page in her notebook, for something to do. She won't understand revenge. She won't want to.
He knows this about her—so will he try to explain? No—he likes that she is so different from him; he admires her differences. Instead, he will answer her question. "Why didn't he kill me? I think he would have, if I'd given him what he wanted."
"What did he want?"
"An answer. He kept asking me why I didn't testify that he'd tried to kill me back when—well, you know when. He likes to have all the facts, and I could tell this had been bothering him throughout his second stint in prison."
"Well, why didn't you testify?"
He will look at her, now, a sad expression at the best of times, and worse with the bruises. "That's a whole separate article," he'll tell her.
She'll be needing to finish this one before school resumes, so she will drop that line of questioning, instead asking, "Where was he taking you?"
"He didn't say. Rural roads toward Chicago, I think. He kept me covered up in the backseat during the day. He didn't sleep, just stopped at fast food joints for sustenance and coffee. Nothing for me."