CHAPTER 21

My father never said much to me about women. He had opinions about baseball, and hockey, and every other sport he had ever seen. He had opinions about how to take care of an automobile, about how to fix a piece of furniture. God knows, he had opinions about how to build a log cabin. He had opinions about all these things because he believed that there are many wrong ways to do something, and only one right way. With women, there is no right way. At least that’s what he told me. “Just try to find the one woman who’ll always tell you the truth,” he once said, maybe the only time in his life he tried to give me some advice about the opposite sex. “It’s hard enough to figure out a woman, even if they’re straight with you. If they start lying, you don’t have a prayer.”

It seemed like some pretty outdated advice the first time I heard it. Now I’m not so sure.

Maria had lied to me about recognizing Randy, about remembering him after all these years. She had lied to me about her past, and about her family. It all made sense now. Her mother did “cold readings,” as they call them in the business. It’s not so hard. You create the right atmosphere, you suspend belief as much as you can, and then you start looking for weaknesses. Everybody has them. Your parents don’t understand you. You have big dreams, but something is holding you back. You’re afraid of something. If you don’t get a nibble, you quickly move on to something else. When you finally get a hit, it’s as obvious as a neon sign over the sucker’s head. Yes! That’s it! That’s my problem! How did you know?

And then you reel them in. If it’s a young man on the hook and you need to use your daughter to pull them into the net, so be it. That’s how the game works.

The Harwood business was still a little confusing. I didn’t know how much of that was a lie. Clearly, they hated each other. But now I didn’t know who the victim was, or even if there was a victim. Suddenly, it didn’t seem to matter anymore. Not to me.

As I thought about it I was pretty sure I knew when the hook had been set, the exact moment when she must have decided I could be very useful to her. When I walked into that bar and sat down next to her, and spoke to her for the first time. Hello, I’m the guy who was with Randy Wilkins. Yeah, the con artist. Although I didn’t know it at the time. He asked me to help him find you just because he wanted to see you again after all these years. And I believed him.

She must have had me marked for the ultimate sucker right then. Was she right? Maybe she was. Although she didn’t get what she wanted, not in the end. Harwood was still alive. And I was backing my truck down her driveway.

When my truck was aimed in the right direction, I punched it. If I could have squealed my tires, I would have. All I did was kick up a little gravel. Good night, Maria. And good luck.

A half mile down the road, my night got even worse. Chief Rudiger’s squad car was parked at the boat launch, and the man himself was standing next to Whitley’s white Cadillac, looking in through what used to be the window on the passenger’s side. When he saw my truck coming, he stepped out into the middle of the road. Running him over would have felt pretty good right about then. I resisted the temptation. He stood motionless until I stopped in front of him, and then he came around to my window. I rolled it down.

“Evening, Mr. McKnight,” he said.

“What can I do for you, Chief?”

“Do you know anything about this car?” he said.

“Looks like he needs a new window,” I said.

“Do you happen to know where the owner is right now?”

“No,” I said. Technically, it was the truth.

“I think we need to discuss this matter,” he said.

“Chief,” I said. “Please. I have to tell you, I’m no longer working for Ms. Zambelli. I no longer have any interest in anything that ever happened in this town. Or anything that ever will happen. In fact, I’m on my way out of here right now. As soon as you let me go, I’m going to leave and never come back. Ever. I should think that would make your night.”

“I can’t let you leave here,” he said. He put both his hands on the top of my truck. “Not without buying you a drink.”

“Excuse me?”

“Follow me to Rocky’s,” he said. “I’m buying.”

“Chief, if you don’t mind, it’s been a long night…”

“You got two choices,” he said. “Either we go to my office and talk about what happened to that car over there or we go to Rocky’s and I buy you a drink. What’s it gonna be, McKnight?”

“Lead the way,” I said.

He got into his car and drove back to the main road, then down a block to Rocky’s place. It was just after 2:00 A.M., but the place was still doing a good business. I parked the truck and met Rudiger at the door.

“I never thought I’d be welcome here,” I said.

“After you,” he said, holding the door open.

I walked in, ready for anything. Surely this was a trap. Rocky and Harry would be waiting to jump me. They’d beat the living hell out of me, and if I was lucky, they’d dump me at the city limits instead of killing me.

Nobody jumped me. Nobody hit me over the head with anything. There were maybe thirty people in the place, mostly men, the late-night crew. The television was off now, the place transformed from a family restaurant to a bar for serious drinkers. Rudiger led me to a place at the horseshoe bar, on Maria’s side-in fact, just a few stools down from where she had been sitting when I first saw her. Rocky looked at me, then at Rudiger. If he was surprised to see us there together, he did a good job of hiding it.

“What’ll you have, McKnight?” Rudiger said.

“Beer will do,” I said.

“Two beers, Rock,” he said. “Put a shot next to mine.”

Rocky set us up without saying a word, then went back to his business.

“I didn’t think you could serve alcohol in this state after two o’clock,” I said.

“I think you’re right,” he said. “Let’s call the police.”

“Never mind,” I said.

He downed his shot and then put the glass down. He didn’t slam it. He placed it so gently, you couldn’t even hear it touch the bar.

“Are you gonna tell me why I’m here?” I said.

“Why do you think you’re here?”

“I can’t even imagine,” I said. “I was under the impression you didn’t care for me too much. I would have put the odds against you buying me a drink around ten thousand to one.”

“That’s quite a long shot,” he said. “What about the odds against me apologizing to you?”

“That would be off the board,” I said.

“You were a cop once yourself. You never heard a police chief apologize to somebody?”

“Not that I can recall.”

He raised a finger to Rocky. The shot glass got refilled.

“Can I ask you a question, McKnight?”

“Go ahead.”

“You ever been in love with somebody?”

I drank my beer. “Chief, why are you asking me that?”

“Just answer it.”

“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I have.”

“You ever do anything stupid because you were in love with somebody?”

I thought about that one. Not so much about the answer but about why the hell he would ask me that. “I’ll say yes to that.”

“How stupid was it?” he said. “What’s the worst thing you ever did just because you were in love with somebody?”

“I’d have to think about that one.”

He nodded and then drained his second shot.

“I knew that that private eye was watching her,” he said. “I could have stopped him anytime.”

“You had no proof he broke into her house,” I said. “You couldn’t have arrested him for anything.”

“I could have made his life a little miserable.”

“Like you did to me.”

“Exactly,” he said. “Did I actually apologize for that yet, or did I just talk about apologizing? I forget.” He raised his finger again. Another shot.

“We’ll say you did,” I said. “So why did you leave Whitley alone? Is that the stupid thing you did because you’re in love?”

He laughed. “Hell, that doesn’t even make the top twenty.”

“How long have you been in love with her?” I said.

He drank his third shot. This one went down even faster than the first two. He put the shot glass down again, as gently as possible. He kept looking at it.

“A long time,” he said finally. “I met her when I was a state trooper. God, when was it? Nineteen seventy-two? I stopped this big convertible on the expressway, guy was doing eighty-five miles an hour. She was in the car with him. Turns out this man was named Harwood, the same son of a bitch that’s been after her all these years. But this was back then, before she married this other guy, Zambelli.”

He raised his finger again. I was hoping Rocky would start acting like a friend and cut him off, but he didn’t. Rudiger drained his fourth shot and continued.

“I ran his driver’s license,” he said. “And then I ran Maria’s, too. Her name was Valenescu back then. I got a hit on her name. She was wanted for questioning, some case down in Detroit. I found out later there were accusations her whole family was involved in a some kind of ongoing con game. Her mother would read fortunes, find out if the customer had any money. If they did, they’d find some way to get their hooks into them. If it was a woman and if she’d fall for it, they’d tell her her children would suffer bad fortune unless she paid for guidance. Or spells to ward off evil spirits. People believe that shit. If it was a man…”

He stopped. He was staring at the empty glass.

“Then they’d find some other way,” he said. “There’s always a way, especially when you have a beautiful daughter. I didn’t know all this at the time, though. I just had this little red flag on Maria Valenescu, to bring her in for questioning. The guy tried to stop me. This Harwood guy. I ended up writing him every ticket I could think of. Then I put Maria in the back of my car and took her in. On the way, she started crying, told me that her family had made her do all this, said she was trying to get away from them. She wanted me to stop so she could explain it all to me. She was afraid of what would happen if I took her to the station.”

He stopped again.

“You never took her in,” I said.

“I was a married man,” he said. “I had three kids. I never thought something like that could happen to me. She was just too…”

He didn’t finish the thought. He just shook his head.

“I kept seeing her,” he said. “Even after she got married. This Zambelli guy, he had to be the most oblivious man who ever lived. Or else he knew and didn’t do anything about it. I suppose that’s possible. Every once in awhile, she’d call me, tell me her family was in a jam, needed some help. A couple times I went and got her brother, Leopold, out of jail, convinced whoever it was that put him there to drop the charges, just forget it ever happened. The one time it was another state trooper, that one was easy. The other time, it was a deputy in Oakland County. Right after Zambelli died, Leopold went after Harwood, threw him down some stairs, I think. That one, I had to be real persuasive with. I can be a persuasive man, McKnight.”

I let him have that one. I finished my beer.

“She disappeared right after that. Before the baby was born. I was back to being a regular married man with three kids. Two of them were out of the house by then, the other one getting ready to go to college. I used to look at my wife and say to myself, This is what you’ve got for the rest of your life. I forgot all about Maria. Didn’t think I’d ever hear from her again. I retired from the state police and took this job. My wife died. I was all by myself here in this town, the town I grew up in. Figured I’d just spend my last twenty years here and that would be it. Then she showed up. Out of nowhere. ‘Hello Howard,’ she says. ‘Remember me?’ I just about died right there on the spot. She was older, of course, but my God, McKnight. I mean, you’ve seen her. It’s not like she doesn’t look like she’s forty-seven years old, you know what I mean? It’s like she’s forty-seven years old and this is what it’s supposed to look like. It’s even better than twenty, better than thirty. Hell, I bet she’ll look even better when she’s sixty. Is that crazy?”

“No,” I said. “Not at all.”

“You wouldn’t be saying that if you hadn’t seen her,” he said. “Anyway, she tells me she’s been thinking about me this whole time. And that she’s been running from this man Harwood, the same man I had stopped all those years ago. She wanted me to help her. So I put her up in my house.”

She lied about that, too, I thought. All this history with Rudiger. What a surprise.

“I didn’t try to take advantage of the situation,” he said. “Although I was thinking about what it’d be like to have her in the house every day, see her in the morning, make breakfast for her. I remembered she always had this thing about having breakfast made for her. She didn’t seem too hot on that idea, though. It was too much all at once, she said. I told her she’d stay in my house and I’d find a place in town for a while. She liked that idea. But she said she’d be calling me one night. One night she’d call me and ask me to come over. That’s what she said. I waited. And waited. When this private eye started watching her, I figured something would happen. Maybe I’d get to be the knight in shining armor.”

He looked at me, like he had forgotten I was sitting there next to him. His eyes seemed to have a little trouble focusing on me. “And then something did happen,” he said.

“What happened?” I said.

He stood up, holding on to the stool for support. “I’ll show you.”

“What do you mean?”

“Come with me,” he said. “I want to show you something.”

“Chief, it’s getting late here.”

“McKnight, either you come with me or I’ll arrest you. I swear to God, I’ll make something up and arrest you. We’re having a good man-to-man conversation here. Don’t screw it up.”

I followed him outside. He got in his squad car, motioned me to the other side. “Get in,” he said.

“Where are we going?”

“Just get in,” he said.

I got in the front seat. He started the car and backed it up, right into a lamppost.

“Chief, I don’t think you should be driving,” I said.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Who’s gonna pull me over?”

“That’s not what I’m worried about.”

“It’s not far,” he said. “We’ll be there in one minute.”

He pulled out of the parking lot, drove north on the main road, past the little motel with the cannon on the sign. “I told you the story about the cannon,” he said.

“You told me.”

“I told you. That’s good. I told you the story.”

It was a dead-straight road, so he managed to keep at least two wheels on it at all times. Those four shots at the bar, they couldn’t have been his first of the night. When I noticed the empty bottle rattling around under my feet, it started to make sense. “Chief,” I said, “I really don’t think you should be driving right now.”

“Almost there,” he said. He took a hard right turn onto a side street. He didn’t hit the stop sign head-on, but the pole scraped the passenger’s side of his car with a loud metallic screech. I grabbed the dashboard and held on.

“Ouch,” he said. “That one hurt. There goes the police budget.”

“Chief, please,” I said. “Stop the car.”

“We’re here,” he said. “Home away from home.”

He pulled up to a small cottage, slamming on the brakes as he hit the mailbox. When I got out of the car, I saw the long scrape on the side of the car, and in the headlights, the mailbox post bent over at a forty-five-degree angle. Aside from that, no problems.

“Come on in,” he said, walking to the front door. I reached into the car and turned off the lights and the ignition, took the keys with me. I figured I’d just see him inside, make him lie down, and then leave. I could walk back to my truck.

“How do you like it?” he said as he turned on the light. It wasn’t much of a place, just one tiny living room with a patched-up couch and a coffee table. A small television sat on one of those metal caddies with the plastic wheels, the kind you used to see back in the sixties. There was a table for two in the dining room, with metal chairs covered in vinyl. Also from the sixties. He turned on the dining room light and pushed a pile of papers onto the floor. “Sit down,” he said.

I hesitated a moment, then sat. Humor the man, see this through, then get the hell out of this town and never come back.

He brought back a bottle of Wild Turkey and two glasses. “Set us up,” he said. “I’ll go get exhibit A.”

“I don’t think either of us needs any more to drink tonight,” I said.

“Just pour,” he said. He left the room, going into what had to be the bedroom. I just sat there in the cheap glare of the overhead light, waiting to see what he was talking about.

He came back into the room with a shotgun. Just what I needed to see at that point. Another shotgun.

“You know what this is?” he said, sitting in the chair across from me.

I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t breathe.

“For God’s sake, McKnight, I’m not going to shoot you. Relax.”

He laid the gun on the table. It was pointed away from me. I tried to breathe again.

“I bet you don’t know what this is,” he said.

I shook my head.

“This is the gun Maria shot Wilkins with.”

I just looked at it.

“I bet you’re wondering why I have it.”

I nodded my head.

“After she shot him, she called me. It was about nine o’clock at night. I figured, This is it. This is the call. She wants me to go over there.”

“I thought I told you to pour us a drink,” he said. He took the bottle and poured himself three fingers, then poured the same for me and put it down in front of me. I didn’t touch it.

“She wanted me to come over all right,” he said. “Because she had just shot a man on her front porch, and she didn’t know what to do. I went over there and saw what had happened, told her to get in her car and get on over to Rocky’s place, quick. Act like nothing had happened. I took the gun, looked around outside a little, made sure nobody was around. Then I left. When I got back to the station, the phone was ringing, somebody calling in about the gunshot. I let Rocky go down first. Then I was right behind him, after I stopped in here to hide the gun.”

He drank half the glass and looked at me. “You ever do something that stupid?” he said.

“Chief, you made a mistake,” I said. “I can understand how it happened. Why don’t you put the glass down and go to bed.”

He shook his head. “It gets worse,” he said. “Once you do something stupid, you gotta do something else. And then something else. It kinda just builds on you, you know? Until you don’t have any control over it anymore.”

“What else did you do?”

“Oh, not that much,” he said. “Besides compromising a crime scene, hiding evidence… What else did I do?” He drained the rest of his glass, leaned forward to pour another. He missed the glass with some of it, dribbling whiskey onto the barrel of the shotgun.

“I almost killed you, for one thing,” he said. “When I dragged you in for no reason. Took the cuffs off you. I was thinking maybe I could shoot you right then, tell everybody you tried to jump me. Then you wouldn’t be trying to find out what’d happened to Wilkins, and wouldn’t be…” He looked to his right, as if he could see all the way across town. “You wouldn’t be in that house. With Maria.”

“You didn’t do it,” I said. “It didn’t happen.”

“Rocky showed up,” he said. “If he hadn’t, I think I would have done it. I really do, McKnight. I would have killed you. That’s how far it’s gone. One mistake, then another. Until you don’t even recognize yourself anymore.”

“Chief…”

“You know what else?” he said. “Your man Wilkins there. The con artist. I’ve been talking to the doctor. I know they took that piece of buckshot out of him. He could wake up any minute, you know? I’m sitting here thinking, If he remembers what happened, all hell is gonna break loose. Maybe it would be better for everybody if he didn’t wake up. That county man who’s watching him, I’m thinking maybe I could go tell him to go home. I’ll watch him myself. Nobody’s looking, I’ll pull the plug on the respirator thing. I’m actually thinking this, McKnight. This is what I’ve come to.”

I sat there and listened to him. He was staring down at the gun.

“I know I’d kill that Harwood in a second,” he said. “That much, I’m sure of. I even told Maria that. I told her I’d kill Harwood for her, if that’s what it took. She didn’t believe me. She said she knew I’d never be able to do that.”

“Chief…”

“It gets even better,” he said. “There’s more to the story. I bet you’re wondering why I’m letting her lead me around by the dick this whole time. Aren’t you? Doesn’t it seem a little strange to you that I’m doing all this?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Delilah.”

“What about her?”

“What about her?” he said. “You want to know what about her? Maria told me she was my daughter.”

I didn’t have anything to say to that one.

“She told me it wasn’t her husband. They’d been trying for years. It was me, she said. I’m Delilah’s father.”

“When did she tell you that?”

“When she showed up here in Orcus Beach,” he said. “Eighteen years later, she tells me I’m her father. That was all part of the package, McKnight. When everything settled down, it was gonna be me and Maria together for the rest of our lives. With a daughter to come visit us.”

I let out a long breath, then sneaked a look at my watch. It was almost three in the morning. My hand was throbbing. I needed more ice.

“I bought it,” he said. “I totally bought it.”

“You don’t think it’s true?”

“I wanted to know for sure,” he said. “I knew she was born down in Florida, after Maria ran away. I called the vital records office down there, asked them to help me find Delilah’s birth certificate. They found it in two minutes, read it to me right over the phone. You know how hard it is to get a birth certificate in Michigan, McKnight? Things are different down there, I guess. Anyway, it said the father was Arthur Zambelli, deceased, but that was no surprise. Who else was she gonna say? But it also had the hospital where she was born, in Tampa. I called over there and got the medical records. This time, I had to tell them I was a police officer, but they didn’t even make me fax a letterhead or anything. They just gave me the information.”

“What did they tell you?”

“It said that baby Delilah’s blood type was B, and mommy Maria’s was O.”

“And yours is…”

“I’m an O,” he said. “An O and an O don’t make a B.”

“Okay, so she lied to you.”

“You know what else I did? Just for the hell of it?”

“What’s that?”

“I got the forensics report on Arthur Zambelli. From when he fell down that ditch and broke his neck. They did an autopsy. You wanna know what his blood type was?”

“Go ahead.”

“He was an A,” he said. “An O and an A don’t make a B, either.”

“Okay,” I said. “So what? What does it matter?”

“I think I know who Delilah’s real father is,” he said.

“Who?”

He just looked at me. He didn’t say anything.

“No,” I said. “No way.”

“They were together,” he said. “All that time when she was married to Zambelli. I know it.”

“You gotta be kidding me.”

“They’ve always had this sick thing between them,” he said. “I can see it now. I can see the whole-”

“For God’s sake,” I said.

“The whole sick thing,” he said.

He looked at his drink. He put it down, picked up the shotgun with one hand. With the other, he fumbled around in his shirt pockets, finally pulled out a piece of paper folded in half. “You want to know what I was seriously thinking about doing this afternoon?” he said. “Here, read this.”

I took it from him and unfolded it. It was a piece of official Orcus Beach stationery, with the little cannon insignia on the top. It read, “For Maria, and everything I wanted to believe.” That was it.

When I looked up, he had the shotgun barrel in his mouth. I dove over the table and knocked the gun away from him. He grabbed at it. For one horrifying instant, it was pointed right at my face. I knocked it away again, flipping the table right over into his lap. He fell backward in his chair, with the table and me and the gun all flying in different directions. Somehow, the gun landed without firing, without blowing either of us into pieces. He lay there on his back, his knees up in the air over the edge of his chair. I crawled over to him and looked at his face.

“Was that necessary, McKnight?” he said. “I was just seeing if I could reach the trigger. In case I work up the nerve someday.”

“Why are you doing this to me, Chief? Why did you bring me here?”

“Are you Catholic?”

“No,” I said. “I’m not Catholic.”

“So you’ve never been to confession.”

“No.”

“Father, forgive me for I have sinned,” he said. “It has been forty-five years since my last confession.”

“I’m leaving,” I said. “You need to sleep this one off.”

“I thought you’d understand, McKnight. I thought you’d be the one person in the world who I could tell this to. To whom, I mean. To whom I could tell. All of it.”

I got to my feet, turned the table back upright. I was going to leave the gun lying there in the corner, then thought better of it. I broke the gun open and put the shells in my pocket. Then I put the gun, still breached, on the table. I put his car keys next to the gun. I picked up the suicide note and put that next to the gun, too.

“McKnight,” he said. He was still on his back. His eyes were still closed.

“Good night, Chief,” I said.

“Give me the phone,” he said.

“Good night.”

“I want to call her,” he said. “Give me the phone. I want to call Maria.”

“Don’t call her,” I said. “Go to bed.”

“I’ll get it myself,” he said, not moving. “I’m going to call her. I’m going to wake her up and tell her that I know. She’s not my daughter.”

“Good night, Chief.”

“Don’t go,” he said. “You can’t go. You have to be my witness. I want somebody else to hear this.”

“Good night, Chief.”

“You can’t go,” he said. “You’re under arrest. I order you to stay here and be my witness.”

“Good night, Chief,” I said. And then I left. I walked out into the cold air, past the chief’s car and the leaning mailbox. I walked back down to the main road, all the way back to Rocky’s place. It still looked open, even after three o’clock in the morning.

This is what you do in Orcus Beach, it would seem. You sit around and you drink, and you think about all the mistakes you’ve made.

I fired up the truck and got myself out of there. At the edge of town, I saw the sign in the rearview mirror, WELCOME TO ORCUS BEACH, the letters backward, and under that the cannon in the sand.

I rolled down my window and threw out the two shotgun shells. And then I just kept driving.

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