CHAPTER 20

My right hand was useless. Just a little pressure with the right thumb on the steering wheel, goddamn it all to hell, that hurt. I knew it was swelling and would be every color in the rainbow come morning. I knew this because it had happened before, at least half a dozen times. As a catcher, you try to keep your right hand protected, either behind your back like I used to do or tucked under your right leg. But sooner or later, you’re going to get hit in the hand with a foul tip. Or with the bat itself. If you’re lucky, you can still pick up a baseball the next day.

I kept driving. I needed ice, a tight bandage, and a drink. And I needed to get out of this filthy, stinking homeless shelter of a car, take a shower, and maybe burn my clothes. Then, with my hand wrapped up, a shot and a beer, four Advil, I’d be a new man.

Come to think of it, my back didn’t feel so hot, either. Whitley’s second swing had put a nice little knot in my muscles. A back rub would be the only other thing I would need out of life. I imagined Maria doing just that. This time, I didn’t tell myself to stop thinking about her that way. I let the movie run in my head, imagining what would happen next. And then after that.

When I got back to Orcus Beach, I dropped the Cadillac off at the boat ramp. I grabbed his UHF receiver and his cell phone. Then I threw the keys out into the sand as far as I could, and instantly regretted it. There was nothing wrong with the idea, but I should have thrown the keys with my other hand.

I fired up my truck and drove up the road to Maria’s house. The clock read 11:15. It was hard to believe so much had happened that night, and it wasn’t even midnight yet.

I went to the door and knocked. This is where Randy was standing when she accidentally shot him, I thought. “Maria, it’s Alex!” I said. I didn’t want her to make the same mistake. “Let me in! Everything’s okay!”

I heard the scrape of the dead bolt and then the door opened slowly. She looked out at me. She didn’t say anything.

“Are you okay?” I said.

“Yes.”

“They tried to kill me.”

“I’m sorry, Alex.”

“Don’t be sorry,” I said. I went past her into the house, into the kitchen. I emptied out a tray of ice cubes into a dish towel and then wrapped it around my hand. Then I started looking around the place, first by the phone, then on the kitchen counter, looking for a pen, or an outlet converter, or whatever the hell else there was in the house that was actually a bug. I didn’t need to find it. Not at that moment. But I wanted to be doing something. I wanted to be moving. For some reason, I was suddenly a little nervous about what might happen if I stopped.

“Say something,” I said, putting the earphones on. I kept one ear free. “I can run this on battery power, find out where the bug is.”

“What happened?” she said.

“He’s up by Traverse City,” I said. “On the land.”

“There’s nothing there.”

“He has an RV,” I said. “He sort of camping out up there.” There was a jarful of pens on a little table in the hallway. I started going through them. “Do any of these pens look strange to you? Or is this all the chief’s stuff? If it is, you’re not going to know if something’s out of place, are you?”

“What did he look like?” she said.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, I have nothing to compare him to. Except, well, you know he’s in a wheelchair.”

“Yes.”

“How long has he been in that?”

“Ever since Leopold threw him down the stairs.”

I stopped going through the pens. “Leopold has a thing about stairs, doesn’t he.”

She came closer to me.

“He wasn’t what I expected,” I said. “I’ve seen killers before, believe me.”

“But then he tried to kill you,” she said. “You said so yourself.”

“You have a point there.”

“Where is he now?” she asked. “Is he on his way here? He knows where to find me.”

“I don’t know if he will,” I said. “Don’t worry, I’m not going anywhere. We’ll get you out of here tomorrow.”

“Can you find the place again? Where he’s staying?”

“I’m sure he’s moved the RV by now,” I said. “I didn’t think to get the plate number.”

She closed her eyes. “This will never end.”

“Hold on,” I said. “I have Whitley’s cell phone.”

“What good will that do?”

I pulled out the phone and turned it on. “It’s gotta have a call history on it.” I turned the dial on the side. A number came up. It was Maria’s. “No, wait,” I said. “That was me. When I called you from his car.” I turned the dial again. Another number came up. I recognized it. “This is his office number,” I said. “He must have called to get his messages.”

One more turn. Another number, with a 313 area code. Detroit. “This could be it,” I said. “One way to find out.”

I pushed the send button. The signal went out into the air, to a tower somewhere, miles away. Then down the regular phone lines to Detroit, where it was received by the cellular service, sent back out on different lines, to a different tower, searching for the matching signal from one particular cell phone. Somewhere to the north of us, in an RV either sitting in the woods or already out on the road, that phone rang five times. Then somebody picked it up.

Silence. Then finally, “Who is this?”

“It’s him,” I said.

Maria’s face went white, as if I had summoned the man himself into her kitchen.

“Who is this?” the voice said.

“I just wanted to say good night,” I said. “You know, it doesn’t seem right to beat the hell out of a man in a wheelchair. It’s just not fair, you know? But next time, I’ll get over it.”

He hung up.

“Maybe we should get you out of here now,” I said. “Not even wait until morning.”

“No,” she said. “I told you, I’m not running anymore.”

I didn’t feel like fighting over it. “I’m dripping all over Rudiger’s carpet here,” I said, wrapping the ice tighter around my wrist.

“What did you do to your hand?”

“It’s just a bruise.”

“Like hell it is. Let me see.”

I put the ice down on the table and showed her my hand. “This must hurt,” she said.

“A little bit.”

She took my other hand and looked at it. Then back to my right hand.

“Your mother did that, too,” I said.

“She tried to teach me,” she said. She was close to me. There was a delicate scent of something in her hair, something exotic and wise and Gypsy-like. All she had to do was look up at me and I’d be a goner.

She looked up at me. “Did my mother do this?” she said. She kissed my hand.

“No,” I said. “I don’t recall her doing that.”

She kissed my hand again, right where it hurt the most. Then she took my hand in her own and led me up the stairs to her bedroom. She sat me down on her bed and undressed in front of me. The slightest moonlight came through her window, but it was enough to see her. She took my shirt off and laid me on my back. She unbuttoned my pants. When she pulled them off, I twisted my sore back in just the wrong way and let out a little yell.

“You’re just a wreck, aren’t you,” she said. “You’re a great big wounded bear.”

I watched her climb on top of me. She kissed me and then she put her hand on my chest. “You have something inside here,” she said.

“It’s a bullet,” I said.

“No, that’s not what I mean. Although I can see the scars.” She ran her fingers down the seams on my chest. “I mean in your heart. You are a good man. Maybe too good.”

She kissed me. “You’re too good, Alex,” she said. “You’re too good.”

“Kiss me again,” I said. “We’ll see how good I am.

She did. She kissed me and started moving on top of me, with her hair falling down in my face and the smell of her filling me up until I couldn’t help myself. I slid my hands down along her body, along every inch of her skin as she kept kissing me and punishing me, until her legs were spread open wide and I was about to enter her.

She stopped.

“Alex,” she said.

“What is it?”

“Tell me.”

“Tell you what, Maria?”

“Tell me he won’t kill me.”

“He won’t,” I said. She slid down over me. I was inside her.

“Tell me again,” she said.

“He won’t,” I said. “I won’t let him.”

She moved again.

“How are you going to stop him?”

“Maria…”

‘Tell me, Alex.”

“I won’t let him kill you, I promise.”

She slid down on me, and then again, and then again.

“Tell me,” she said. “Tell me that you’ll kill him.”

“Maria…”

She stopped. “Say it,” she said.

I looked into her eyes.

“Tell me,” she said. “Tell me you’ll find him and you’ll kill him.”

I kept looking at her. I didn’t say anything.

She slid off me and sat on the edge of the bed. I watched her for a long time, waiting for her to say something.

She didn’t.

I finally got up and put my clothes back on. I looked at her as I left the room. She hadn’t moved. She sat there naked and silent, looking at the floor.

I went downstairs and picked up the towel. The ice was mostly gone, melted into a puddle on the table. I got some more ice from the freezer and wrapped up my hand. I went to the big window and looked out at the lake for a while. Then I went to the back door and opened it. The cold air hit me in the face, but it was just what I wanted right then.

I stepped outside and walked down to the shoreline. Lake Michigan was calm on this April night. Lake Superior would have looked different. It would have looked wilder, more violent. It would have sounded different. But this was another kind of night, on another shore, a long way from home.

I stood there by the water for a while, until I started to shiver. I went back to the house, opened the door into the kitchen.

Maria was there. She had put on a long black robe. She stood with her back to me. I could see cigarette smoke curling around her head.

“How does it feel?” she said. But she wasn’t talking to me. She had Whitley’s cell phone pressed to her ear. “You tried to kill him, and you failed. Again. Like always. And then he came right back down here to me, and you wanna know what I did to him, Charles? You wanna hear what I did? I took my clothes off in front of him and then I climbed onto his body, his whole, perfect, hard body, Charles, and I fucked him so hard, he won’t be able to walk straight for two days. Oh, pardon me, Charles. How insensitive of me, seeing as how you never get to walk anymore. You wanna hear how good it feels to be fucked by a real man who isn’t propped up in a wheelchair like some pathetic little worm? God, my nipples are so sore right now. And my legs are still trembling. I came so hard, Charles. Even when you were a whole person, Charles, even on the very best day of your life, you could have never fucked me half as good as Alex just did. How does that make you feel? How does it feel to know that you will never even touch a woman again, Charles? For the rest of your miserable little life, you’ll just be a broken little gimp stuck in a wheelchair and you will never, ever, ever feel a woman touching your body, because even if she did, Charles, even if she did, you wouldn’t even be able to feel it. I don’t know why you don’t just kill yourself. You’ve got nothing to live for. Nothing at all. Unless you think getting back at me is gonna somehow make you feel better. You’re welcome to try, Charles. Maybe I’ll send Alex back up there so you can try killing him again. And then when he makes you look like a pathetic little dog, I’ll fuck him all over again. Would you like that, Charles? Would you like that?

… Yeah, that’s right, go ahead and tell me what you’re gonna do to me, I’m really scared. Just keep talking, Charles. You know where to find me. Why don’t you come here yourself next time? Are you afraid to face me in person?… Yeah, that’s right. You’re all talk. You’ve got nothing. I’m gonna hang up now, you little worm. Have a nice night. Try not to dream about me.”

She hung up. She took another drag on her cigarette. Then she turned around.

“What are you doing?” I said.

“Just talking to an old friend.”

I looked at her. If there was a single word I could have thought of saying, I would have said it.

“Who are you?” she finally said.

“You know who I am.”

“No, really,” she said. “Why did you come here? You were gonna help Wilkins put the touch on me, right? You were in on his little scam.”

“I thought he was looking for you,” I said. “For other reasons.”

“You wanna know something?” she said. “Randy Wilkins? I barely even remember him. You know how many men we were setting up back then?”

“What do you mean, setting up?”

“God, how dumb are you, Alex? I mean, really? That was our scam back then. My whole family. Wilkins was the pitcher, right? Came from a rich family?”

I stood there for a while, going over the whole thing from beginning to end. I watched her standing there, and she watched me back.

“Everything you told me,” I finally said, “since the moment I met you, was a lie.”

“Yeah, no kidding,” she said. “I was playing you. I wanted to see what your angle was.”

“I didn’t have an angle, Maria.”

“Everybody has an angle,” she said. “And if you really don’t, well”-she took a drag on her cigarette, blew smoke to the ceiling-”then I was right. You are too good.”

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