Rickie Hewitt jerked the steering wheel and headed for the freeway exit. He didn’t use his turn signal and grumbled at the blast of a horn from the driver he cut off as he raced up the exit ramp. Pausing at the stop sign just long enough to make sure there was no oncoming traffic, he gunned the engine and veered into the parking lot of a truck stop and parked in a far corner.
He turned off the lights but left the engine running as he closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead while he tried to think of what he was going to say. He ran his hand down his face and picked up the prepaid cell phone sitting next to its ripped open packaging in the passenger seat. He dialed the number and let out a sigh as the other end rang.
The phone clicked and he heard a voice on the other end. “Los Rojos.”
“It’s me. I need to talk to Jefe.”
“Watch yourself, gringo. He’s in a mood.”
“I’m sure he is.”
Rickie took several deep breaths and held it when he heard Jefe’s voice. He could almost hear him sharpening the blade that was destined for his own throat. Jefe’s voice was reserved and solemn, as if a decision had already been made and all that was left was the formality of making it happen.
“You know what I don’t need right now?” Jefe asked, the barest hint of a Mexican accent lacing his words.
“What I don’t need right now is more bad news. I hate bad news. It makes me do stupid things that I’ll regret in the morning. Or maybe I won’t. It’s hard to say how bad news affects me.”
“You’ve heard then?”
“Yes. I heard. My carrier is in the hospital and your little girl is out of control.”
“If you hadn’t killed her father -“
“Are you saying this is my fault?”
Rickie grimaced, squeezing his eyes shut. Ramón Montoya didn’t like being blamed for anything, especially if it was his fault. He squinted at the traffic on the freeway and imagined himself pulling back out on the road and heading to the nearest state border. He was good at disappearing and now might have been a good time.
“See, this is why I don’t like to go to Beverly Hills for my Teresitas. You don’t have these problems when you pick them off the street.”
“You came to me when your carrier couldn’t figure it out, remember?”
Jefe’s voice was smooth and mocking, clearly laced with dissatisfaction at being reminded of the truth. “Oh.”
Rickie counted the beats of his heart as the man smothered him with several seconds of silence.
“Yes, I did call you,” Jefe said. Rickie tried to control his breathing as he waited for the man to finish. “Maybe that was a mistake.”
“Jefe, this could still work out for the best.”
“How does my carrier in the hospital work out for the best?”
“They won’t know where to start looking.” He waited through several more seconds of silence, not knowing if the man was considering his words or simply toying with him and had already condemned him to death.
“They always look,” Jefe said.
“True, but where? With Tony in a coma, they don’t have anywhere to look.”
“And what about you?”
“I’ll be long gone before they even think of looking at me.”
Rickie counted cars as they sped under the overpass, once again considering his option to disappear – now, while he still could.
“Alright, gringo. If you bring her in, then we’re square. But remember one thing. There is nowhere you can hide that I won’t find you. You understand this?”
The line went dead.
Rickie turned the lights back on and pulled out of the parking lot. As he drove across the overpass, he tossed the phone onto the freeway below where it would be run over and ground to oblivion. Entering the ramp to the freeway, he ran over his plan one more time. After that, he worked out at least ten different ways to escape in case it didn’t work.
His contract with Ramón was lucrative, but the man was dangerous. He was unpredictable and didn’t understand what it meant to be flexible when things didn’t go as planned – which they rarely did. He would gladly forego the balance of his payment if it meant never seeing Ramón again. But then, he would have to track down the mutual friend who had introduced them and kill him just for getting Rickie mixed up with the guy in the first place.
He laughed out loud at his own musings. He was a professional and sometimes that meant working with men like Ramón. It was just a contract and, like all contracts, this one would end when he had completed his assignment.
Squinting at the headlights snaking towards him on the other side of the interstate, he wondered – did Ramón understand that?
Two days later, her mother was still in her housecoat, drifting between her bedroom and the kitchen in a constant drunken stupor. Bess stood in the living room, gazing through the entryway to the kitchen as her mother poured another glass of Jack Daniels in the dark. She left the bottle on the counter with the top off and drifted back to the entryway. Bess leaned forward, trying to let her mother know that she wanted to talk. Her mother stopped in the entryway and stared past her with eyes drooping from inebriation. Her face was slack, devoid of all emotion.
Bess had reeled at the tempest of her mother screaming at her when she had brought her home from the police station. As much as it had terrified her, she now longed for it. Now, all she had was a wall of inscrutable silence because her mother was buried in a deep void that shut out the world. She hadn’t said a word in two days and even Rickie had retreated to her father’s den after trying to get her mother to say something – anything. The only response was when she tugged at his sleeve and handed him the keys to go to the liquor store for more whiskey.
Her mother blinked, glanced away and then turned to traipse down the hall, sliding her hand along the wall to keep her balance. She disappeared into the master bedroom and shut the door. The latch clicked, leaving Bess alone in the living room in dead silence.
Bess hung her head and absently rubbed her index finger against her thumb. Yellow light from the lamps on the end tables flanking the couch washed anonymously over the living room. Everything in the room seemed to be looking at her, unwilling to explain the gnawing contempt she felt in everything around her. She no longer felt like she was in a home but in a waiting room with no exit and no clue as to what she was supposed to be waiting for.
She eyed the closed door of her father’s den and found herself shuffling towards it. She stood in front of the door and raised her hand. She let it float just short of touching the door for a moment, formed a fist and then let it go. She laid her palm against the door and tried to think of her father, but her mind was a void of uncertainty. Nothing more.
She curled her fingers back in and knocked. She held her breath, suddenly regretting knocking on the door. She stood still as a statue, unable to move. There was nowhere to go and nothing else to do. She dreaded the thought of him looking at her, reminding her of everything she had done to destroy her own world, but she couldn’t stand another minute without hearing somebody else’s voice. It wouldn’t matter what he said, as long as they were words spoken by another human being. She was drowning in silence.
She was surprised at what she saw when Rickie opened the door. His eyes were soft. His face was impassive. He was entirely without expression, a blank canvass of human presence that was neither threatening nor comforting. He simply reminded her that she wasn’t entirely alone.
His voice was gentle, careful, as if he were reaching out to touch a hungry animal huddled in the cold. “How’s she doing?” he asked.
Bess let her eyes settle on his, drinking in the comfort of his blank stare. “Is she ever coming back?” she asked.
Rickie opened the door the rest of the way and stepped back, giving her room to step inside. “I don’t know.”
Bess stepped through the door and stopped just inside. She let her eyes wander, taking in the thick wooden shelves lined with books. Here, she had learned about everything from the elusive mysteries of black holes to the subtle intonations of Aristotle’s Poetics and how the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides touched the human soul. She eyed the book she had put on the shelf the day of the party. It was a copy of Oedipus the King, printed in the original Greek for an advanced placement class she was taking on Greek tragedy. She would take it down again in the morning before school, but for now found a dim comfort in following her father’s rule that books must rest on their shelves overnight, so that they would always find their way home.
Her mother had grounded her with the sole exception of being allowed to attend school. After a weekend of her mother’s drunken silence, Bess longed for morning to arrive, a time that seemed a universe away as she floated from one moment to the next adrift on an endless ocean of emptiness. Sophocles spoke of such things and she began to understand what he meant by all pain and earthly strife. She looked forward to being able to explain it in the morning, even though nobody, not even the presumptuous master of literary criticism that taught the class, would understand. It was more aloneness, seen only by her own bloodied eyes.
She let her gaze settle on the desk against the far wall. The brass and green plastic lamp sitting on one corner cast a dull yellow haze over a closed laptop. She tried to imagine her father sitting there, engrossed in the academic minutia of his latest curiosity. But the image wouldn’t come. The memory of her father had withdrawn to someplace she couldn’t find.
“Why are you here?” Bess asked.
His voice was slow and gentle in a way she hadn’t heard before. “Because she asked me to stay.”
“You enjoy the company of drunken self pity?”
A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth and he kept his eyes on her, still soft and neutral. But he didn’t respond.
“You know,” she said, “it might be best if you just left.”
Rickie idly bit his lip and took a breath, then looked away. She had pushed him away. Bess silently rebuked herself for pushing back the only person who had actually spoken to her in two days.
His eyes returned to her and his face softened even more. “We all fall into the grasp of things beyond our control from time to time.” Bess narrowed her eyes as she realized he was talking about something else. He was telling the truth. For the first time since she had met him, he wasn’t calculating his words for effect. He was simply telling her something. “And I do think I can help her.” He tilted his head and inched closer. “If you’ll let me.”
“Oh, really? Like you’ve done a bang-up job so far. You gave her the one thing -“
“I know,” Rickie said, putting his hand up. He closed his eyes for a moment and nodded his head, surrendering the point. “I know I made a mistake there. I didn’t know she had a problem.”
“Which is why you should leave.” Bess felt her skin growing warm as a dull anger churned through her blood. It wasn’t what she really wanted, but anything was better than the stifling silence she had endured since coming home from the police station.
He let out a sigh and pulled back, letting his face go slack. “How are you doing these days, Bess?”
The question caught her by surprise. Nobody had asked her that in a long time. She didn’t want to talk to him about this. She just wanted him gone. But there was nobody else to talk to and now everything she had been feeling came bursting to the surface. She could either sulk in her room or she could talk to this intruder. Bess pinched her nose and scoffed at the absurdity of her choices.
“I don’t know,” she said. She gazed into his eyes as she tried to sort out her own thoughts. “It’s like no matter what I do, all I do is make things worse. There is so much wrong about what’s happening and it seems like it’s all my fault somehow.” Bess furrowed her brow as she listened to her own words, betraying a truth she had hidden from even herself.
He held his hands up, palms out, and arched a brow. “It’s more complicated than that, but if it really does seem that way to you, then maybe a few days away isn’t such a bad idea. Just so you guys can take a break from each other.” He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker. “It’s not just for her. I really think it would do you some good, too.”
Bess rubbed her forehead and bowed her head, staring at the carpet. This again?
“Look,” she said, “even if you mean well…” She looked up at him and felt a wave of tiredness wash through her. She felt heavy now, and the fight was starting to ebb away. “She may be a staggering drunk and a shrew, but she’s my mother and I can’t leave her alone right now. I can’t.”
“It’s a nice resort, Bess. Room service. Big pool. Hiking. I don’t know what you’re into, but you can get away from all this and let yourself recover a little bit while I talk to your mom. I think I can get her into a program.” He shook his head and looked to the side, as if he were hiding behind something before saying his next words. “It would be a lot easier if you weren’t here. I’m not trying to be mean.”
Bess watched his face and the wrinkles in his brow, as if he really were trying to sort out a way to start unwinding everything that had happened. And a cozy room with a respite from her mother did sound enticing in an odd way she didn’t want to think about too much.
He turned back to her with a disarming look and shrugged. “Well?”
Bess took a deep breath and winced as she conceded that he might have a point. “I’ll think about it,” she said.
He closed his eyes and took a long breath through his nose. Opening his eyes with a resigned look of disappointment, he said, “You look exhausted.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small prescription bottle. Bess knit her brow and took a step back. He held the bottle in the palm of his hand. “It’s alright. It’s just Valium. Two milligrams, the smallest dose there is. It’ll help take the edge off so you can get some sleep.” He held the bottle out to her, raising a brow in a disarming show of sympathy.
She stared at the bottle and then took it from his hand. She recognized the name of her father’s doctor on the prescription label. It made all the sense in the world, although she was sure he took more than just Valium. She unscrewed the cap and reached in with her fingertips to fetch one of the white pellets inside. She screwed the cap back on and handed the bottle back to him as she stared at the pill lying in her palm.
Looking up at him, she said, “Um. OK, I guess.” His eyes were still soft. It was up to her. She could take it or not. Resigned to the notion that it couldn’t make things any worse, she said, “Thank you.”
Rickie nodded gently and said, “Go get some rest. Things will be better in the morning.”
“How do you know?” she asked, letting a twitch of a smile flash across her face.
“They always are.”
Rickie watched her turn away and traipse across the living room and into the kitchen. When he heard the sound of water running from the tap, he eased the door closed and let out a deep sigh.
It wasn’t enough. He needed her to tell her mother that she wanted to leave so he could get her in the car with everybody agreeing to let it happen. ‘I’ll think about it’ wasn’t going to cut it.
He couldn’t wait any longer. Bess was a smart girl and she was overwhelmed with emotional exhaustion. But that wasn’t going to last. She was the kind of smart that was deadly to men like him. He knew it was a matter of days now before she figured out what he was doing. Maybe he didn’t even have that long.
That meant it was time for plan B.
He eyed the book she had been staring at and pulled it off the shelf. It was the same one she had put there Friday afternoon after school. Flipping through the pages, he saw they were, in fact, written in Greek.
He grunted and reached into the other pocked of his windbreaker to pull out a small vial of white powder. He popped off the cap and sprinkled a small amount on one of the pages. It was enough to be noticed, but probably wouldn’t get her arrested.
He carefully closed the book and slid it back on the shelf. He thought of Ramón’s words, about how it was better to take them from the street. He nodded silently as he thought of that and found himself agreeing for reasons he never thought possible. Girls that had found their way to the street were already damaged merchandise that just needed to be cleaned up but could never be anything more. At least that’s the way he had always seen it.
Bess wasn’t there yet. The real truth was that he was starting to like Bess and that was the deadliest thing of all to a man like himself.
The next morning, Bess walked briskly across her high school’s parking lot, anxious to immerse herself in the week’s academic routine. After being trapped in the house since her arrest the previous Friday night, the mundane drone of high school felt like a release from prison.
Even though it was the last week of school for the year, she was tired of the slide towards mediocrity reflected in her declining grades. She would be excellent, even if it was for just a week. And then she would get a job. She had meted out her clumsy dose of justice and she had resigned to the reality that her mother was awash in sea of drunken despair. It was too easy to lament it all and let her life spool out in endless days that didn’t mean anything. Bess had to move away from that now, while she could still remember how.
Determined to make this her first day on the road back to her own life, Bess adjusted the backpack slung over one shoulder, jutted out her chin and took long, deliberate strides towards the glass doors of the school’s main entrance.
As she swung one of them open, she unslung her backpack and placed it on the table next to the metal detector. She suppressed her habitual urge to grumble about the state making a poor substitute for good parents and then almost laughed out loud as she thought of her mother’s behavior over the past few months.
The luring comfort of the street and the notion of carrying firearms as a member of a gang began to make sense in a vague way she hadn’t understood until that moment. With it came a new disdain for those who couldn’t resist that lure. She had seen girls just like those hanging on Tony Halk flirt with the fringes of that world. Bored more than anything else, they were drawn to the illusion of rebellion providing a surrogate for the simple act of a father explaining why they were better than that. Bess knew better. Her father had given his life explaining that she was better than that. Her shoulders slumped as she realized that she had flirted with that world for just a moment – a moment that came at a price she could never repay. No. She rolled her shoulders back. That was enough. Living a good life – living her life – that was how she would repay it.
After stepping through the metal detector, she reached for her backpack, only to find it being handed to somebody else who marched it to another table further down from the metal detector. So caught up in her reverie, Bess hadn’t noticed the dogs sitting calmly next to their handlers as they took turns sniffing the backpacks, smart phones, coffee cups and other items brought in by her fellow students. She wanted to roll her eyes and scoff as she usually did during the monthly sniff downs, but she caught herself and reminded herself that these things had actually become necessary.
A sophomore girl had been caught during the last one trying to sneak in through a side entrance opened by one of her friends. Moments later, she had been detained when the dogs found a teenth of crystal methamphetamine in her pocket. At the time, Bess had only thought of how stupid the girl must have been. But now, a sense of suffocation set in. The corrupt temptations of a world that had lost its way had taken the most important person in her life away from her. The ember flickered and she took a breath, trying to ease back her anger.
Somebody in a uniform led one of the dogs to the table and patted Bess’s bag. The dog prodded it with his nose and sniffed. He pushed his nose harder at the pack, pawed at it, and whined as he pulled it off the table and onto the floor. The dog poked again with his nose and let out a loud bark. The uniformed handler knelt down next to the dog and unzipped the pack with hands covered by thin blue Latex gloves.
Bess’s heart froze.
The dog ignored the binder the handler took out to hold in front of its muzzle and continued to paw at Bess’s bag. The handler next took out the brushed steel travel cup her father had bought for her during a sailing trip to Lake Michigan. Again, the dog turned away and whimpered as he pawed the bag. The handler pulled out Oedipus the King and the dog barked, knocking it out of the handler’s hand and scooting the book across the floor with his nose.
The handler picked up the book and held it out to somebody else in a different uniform. Bess studied him closeLY as he put on his own blue Latex gloves. He wore a belt adorned with a variety of implements for subduing a citizen: hand cuffs, a Tazer, pepper spray and a tightly holstered semi-automatic pistol. He wore a badge on his chest with a number and his name. Bess swallowed hard when he glanced at her as he took the book from the handler.
“Miss, would you come this way please,” he said, gesturing towards the door leading to the administrative offices. Her thumping heart let her know it was a command she couldn’t refuse. Still, she felt a pang of resentment at his being so cordial about it.
The officer knocked on the principal’s door and then opened it without waiting for a response. He gestured again, waiting for Bess to walk through before walking in after her and closing the door.
Cold fluorescent light reflected off the principal’s balding head as he glanced over the rim of his glasses. He stopped shuffling papers on his desk and raised his head to look directly at her.
“Bess?” the principal asked.
Bess’s eyes flared in bewilderment and she held her hands out as she shrugged. She gently shook her head, but said nothing. Her heart sank when his eyes narrowed and then turned away from her, dismissing her as just another disappointment in a career filled with too many broken promises.
The principal tugged at the lapel of his tweed sports coat and turned his attention to the officer. “What did you find?”
The policeman held up the book by its edges, but kept it close to his body, making it clear he didn’t want the principal to touch it.
The principal glanced at Bess and stepped out from behind his desk. “So, what do you have there, a compartment cut out of the pages?” He cocked a brow, as the officer opened the book and carefully leafed through its pages, turning each one back slightly by the corner.
Looking up from the book, the officer said, “Probably just contaminated.”
“So trace amounts,” the principal said.
“I still need to take her in for questioning.”
“Later. Let me handle this for now.”
The officer glanced at Bess and sweat broke out on her forehead as she felt his gaze boring through her.
“Sir, we really need to take her in for questioning,” the officer said.
“And in cases not involving arrest, I have the option to have her parents come pick her up first.”
“Yeah,” the officer said with a sigh, “you do.”
“Show me the cover please,” the principal said.
The officer held up the book. The principal shifted his gaze to Bess, looking at her over the tops of his glasses.
“Oedipus,” he said. “For your AP class?”
“Yes sir,” Bess said.
“Well, a printing of Oedipus in the original Greek for a star student in an AP class doesn’t make a whole lot of sense as a hiding place for drugs, does it?” the principal asked.
“No sir, it does not,” Bess said.
The principal curled his mouth into a comforting smile. “Since when do you call anybody sir?”
“Since men with guns and badges take my stuff and usher me through doors.”
The principal pursed his lips and nodded at the officer. “I’ll take it from here,” he said.
The officer narrowed his eyes, waiting for something more. When the principal didn’t say anything, he let out a sigh and said, “Alright then. But if she doesn’t come in within the next 24 hours, it’s on you.”
“I understand,” the principal said.
As the officer turned to leave, Bess blurted out, “My book?”
The officer stopped mid-step and said, “I’m sorry, Miss, we need to hold this for evidence.” Bess wanted to ask him, evidence of what? But she thought better of it and kept her tongue.
After the officer left and the door closed behind him, the principal returned to his desk, sat down and leaned forward. “I know it’s been difficult for you – losing your father and all. I’d like to help if you’ll let me.”
Bess threw her hands in the air. Her eyes flaring, she yelled, “I didn’t do anything!”
His expression faded into obscurity and he leaned back, looking away. His voice went flat, as if he were talking to just one more troublesome student who had given him another administrative hassle he didn’t have time for.
“Let me call your mother so she can come pick you up,” he said. Bess stared at him, waiting for him to look at her. Instead, he casually motioned towards the door. “You can wait outside,” he said.
Bess’s shoulders slumped forward and she couldn’t find the strength to roll them back this time. She shuffled through the door and sat down in the orange plastic chair outside as the door clicked closed behind her.
Closing her eyes, she shook her head and tried to remember everywhere she had taken the book since the last sniff down. All she could see was the chaotic blur of her life since her father had died. Her mother’s drinking, Rickie coming into their lives and now her entanglement with law for her revenge on Tony Halk – it all swirled in a maelstrom she just wanted to leave behind.