Memory Man, Page 2David Baldacci
But I’m not normal. I haven’t been normal since I stepped on that field and took that hit.
The hit was the only thing he had never remembered. Ironic, since it was the catalyst for his never forgetting anything else. But it had been played relentlessly on the sports shows at the time. And even the national news felt the need to document the violence done to him to their countrywide audience. Someone told him the snippet had even been uploaded to YouTube a few years ago and had over eight million views. And yet he had never seen it. He didn’t have to. He’d been there. He’d felt it. That was enough.
And all he had done to deserve the folderol of attention was to die on a football field, not once, but twice.
He ran a furtive, mostly embarrassed glance down at his jeans. His gut hung over the waistband because he’d been far thinner back then. He had washed them, but the bloodstains had not come out. Why should they be different from his brain? The pants could have, should have been evidence. Let the cops take them, but they hadn’t, and he hadn’t offered. He kept them, wore them still. Stupid way of remembering. Asinine, really. Horribly macabre way of keeping Cassie with him. Like toting her ashes in a Scooby-Doo lunchbox. But then again, he wasn’t really okay. Even though he had a place to live, held a job, and was functioning, for the most part. He really wasn’t okay. He would never be okay in any way.
He technically had been a suspect in the case, because husbands always were. But not for long. The timing of the deaths cleared him. He had an alibi. He didn’t care about alibis. He knew he hadn’t touched one hair on their heads, and didn’t give a damn if no one else thought the same.
The real issue was that no one had ever been arrested for the murders. There hadn’t even been any suspects, not a lead to come by. Nothing.
The working-class neighborhood they had lived in was quiet and the folks friendly, always offering a helping hand to others because nobody had much and everybody needed some assistance from time to time. Fixing a car or a furnace, or hammering a nail into a board, or cooking a meal because a mom was sick, or shepherding kids in a communal transportation system based on trust and need.
There were some tough nuts who lived there, for sure, but he hadn’t spotted a homicidal one in the bunch. Mostly bikers and potheads. He had looked. He had done nothing else except investigate the crimes, even though officially they had told him to stay away from it all. But no clues presented themselves, even with his obsessively running everything down.
There were opportunities and obstacles for a crime such as this. Doors were left unlocked; folks came and went. So access was clearly there. But the houses were close together, so something should have been heard. But no sounds were ever heard from 4305 Boston Avenue that night. How could three people have died so quietly? Didn’t violent death provoke outrage? Screams? A struggle? Something? Apparently not. The gunshot? Like a ghost whispering. Or else the whole neighborhood had gone deaf that night. And blind. And mute.
And months later there was still nothing, long after the trail had grown cold and the odds of solving the case and catching the killer had dropped to near zero. He had left the police force then because he could no longer push paper and run down other cases and bother with precinct drama. The upper management said they were sorry to see him go, but no one asked him to stay either. The truth was, he was becoming disruptive, unmanageable. And he was all of those things. Because he no longer cared about anything.
Well, except for one thing.
He had visited their graves all the time. They were buried in plots he had hastily purchased, because who would buy a plot for a man and a woman in their early forties and a grave for a ten-year-old? But then he had stopped going because he could not face them lying there in the dirt. He had not avenged them. He had done nothing except identify their bodies. A pitiful penance for letting his family die. God would hardly be impressed.
Their deaths had to be connected with what he did. He had put lots of people away over the years. Some were out now. Others had friends. Just before the murders at 4305 Boston Avenue, he had helped break up a local meth ring that was doing its best to make everybody in the metro area an addict and thus a good customer, young, old, and every demographic in between. These dudes were bad, evil, kill you to look at you. They could’ve found out where he lived. Easy enough. He wasn’t undercover. And they might’ve taken out their revenge on his wife and child, and her brother who had picked the wrong time to visit from out of town. But there was not a scrap of evidence against this group. And without that, no arrests. No trial. No judgment. No execution.
His fault. His guilt. Maybe led them right to his family, and now he had no family.
The community had held a fund-raiser for him. Collected a few thousand bucks. It was all sitting in a bank account untouched. Taking the money would have seemed to him to be an act of betrayal for those he had lost, so the money sat, though he certainly could have used it. He was getting by, barely. But barely was all he needed. Because barely was all he was now.
He settled back against the wood of the bench and shrugged his coat closer around him. He was not here by accident.
He was here on a job.
And as he looked to his left, he saw that it was time to get to work.
He rose and headed after the two people he’d been waiting for.
THE BAR WAS much like every other bar Decker had ever been in.
Dark, cool, musty, smoky, where light fell funny and everyone looked like someone you knew or wanted to know. Or, more likely, wanted to forget. Where everyone was your friend until he was your enemy and cracked a pool stick over your skull. Where things were quiet until they weren’t. Where you could drink away anything that life threw at you. Where a thousand Billy Joel wannabes would serenade you into the wee hours.
Only I could drink a thousand drinks and never forget a damn thing. I would just remember every detail of the thousand drinks down to the shapes of the ice cubes.
Decker took a seat at the bar where he could see himself in the reflection of the big mirror behind the stacked rows of Beam and Beef, Glen and Sapphire.
He ordered a dollar draft, clutched the mug between his hammy hands, and studied the mirror. Back corner and to the right. They had sat down there, the couple he’d followed into the place.
The gent was late fortyish, the girl half that. The man was dressed in the best he had. A pinstripe wool three-piece, yellow tie dotted with blue flecks in the shape of what looked to be sperms on their way to fertilize an egg, and a dandy pocket handkerchief to match. Hair swept back revealed a lined, mature brow—attractive on a man, less so on a woman, but then life had always been unfair that way. Impressive diamond rings on the manicured fingers. Probably stolen. Or fakes. Like he was. His toenails were probably clipped too. His shoes were polished, but he’d missed the backs. They were scuffed, which came much closer to the man’s actual nature. He was scuffed too. And he only wanted to impress on the way in, not on the way out. After the way out, you’d never see the prick again.
She was doe-eyed and dough-brained. Pretty in a vacuous, seen-it-a-thousand-times sort of way. Like watching a 3-D movie without the requisite glasses; something was just off. The lady was so blindly faithful and oblivious that part of you just wanted to walk away and leave her to her fate.
But Decker was being paid not to do that. In fact, he was being paid to do the opposite.
She was dressed in a skirt and jacket and blouse that probably cost more than Decker’s car. Or the car he’d once had. The bank had gotten that too, as banks often did.
She came from old money. She was so used to the privileged life that was attached to such status that it made her incapable of understanding why someone would work so hard to snatch from her things she simply took for granted. That made her a potential victim every minute of every day of her life.
Such was the current moment: the shark and the dummy. Decker saw him as a six, a dirty number in his mind. She was a four, innocuous and uninteresting.
They touched hands and then lips. They shared drinks—he a whiskey sour, she a pink martini.
Decker nursed his beer and bided his time. He looked at them without seeming to. In addition to the number tag, to him she was outlined in orange, the guy in purple, the same color he associated with zero, an unwelcome digit. So the guy really represented two numbers to him—six and zero. It seemed complicated, he knew, but he had no difficulty keeping it straight because it was just there in his head as clear as an image in a mirror.
And it wasn’t that he saw them exactly in those colors. It was the perception of those colors. That was the best and only way he could explain the sensation. It wasn’t like they taught a class on this. And he had come to it relatively late in the game. He was just doing the best he could. After all, he thought he’d left the world of Crayola back in kindergarten.
They continued with their lovey-dovey, hand-holding, foot-rubbing, heavy-petting afternoon fun and games. She obviously wanted more. He was unwilling to give it, because you teased a mark. Rushing could only mean bad things. And this guy was good. Not the best Decker had seen, but serviceable. He probably made a decent living.
For a purple zero.
Decker knew the guy was waiting to make an ask. A loan for a business prospect that couldn’t miss. Some tragedy in his extended family that needed financial remedy. He wouldn’t want to do it. Hated himself for it. But this was his last resort. She was his last chance. And he didn’t expect her to understand. Or say yes. The debate framed that way, what other answer could she give? Except, “Yes, my darling. Take double. Triple even. Daddy will never miss it. It’s only money, after all. His money.”
An hour and two more pink martinis later, she left him there. Her parting kiss was tender and moving, and he reacted in just the right way, until she turned away and his expression changed. From one of reciprocal tenderness and love to one of triumph and some might even say cruelty. At least that’s what Decker would say.
Decker did not like interacting with people. He preferred his own company. He hated idle conversation because he no longer understood its point. But this was part of what he did. This was how he paid the bills. So he told himself to get over it. At least for now.
Because it was time to punch the clock.
He carried his beer over to the table in time to put a massive hand on the man’s shoulder and push him back into the seat he was just about to vacate.
Decker sat across from him, eyed the man’s untouched whiskey sour—predators didn’t drink on the job—and then raised his own beer in praise.
“Nice work. I like to see a real pro on the job.”
The man said nothing at first. He eyed Decker, sizing up his unkempt appearance and looking unfavorably impressed.
“Do I know you?” he said at last, his tone snarky. “Because I don’t see how that’s possible.”
Decker sighed. He had expected something a bit original. It was apparently not to be. “No, and you don’t have to know me. All you have to do is look at these.”
He pulled the manila envelope from his coat pocket and passed it across.
The man hesitated but then picked it up.
Decker took a drink of his beer and said, “Open it.”
“Why should I?”
“Fine, then don’t open it. No sweat off here.”
He went to take the envelope, but the man jerked it out of reach. He undid the binding and slid out the half dozen photos.
“First rule of a con, Slick,” said Decker. “Don’t play on the sidelines while you’re on a job. And when I said you were a pro I was being charitable.”
His hand reached out and he tapped the photo on top. “She doesn’t have enough clothes on and neither do you. And by the way, that particular act is illegal in pretty much all states south of the Mason-Dixon.”
The man glanced up, his look one of caution. “How did you get these?”
Again, Decker felt disappointed by the query. “So now it’s just a matter of negotiation. I’m authorized to give you fifty thousand bucks. In return, you write this one off and move on to someone else. In another state.”
The man smiled, slid the photos back, and said, “If you thought these were a real problem for me, why not just show them to her? Why come here and offer me a way out with cash?”
Decker sighed once more and for the third time felt disappointed. This guy was just not a challenge. He collected the photos and put them back neatly in the envelope.
“You read my mind, Slick. Exactly what I told her old man. Thanks for validating my opinion. The girl’s very religious, by the way. What you’re doing to the lady in that third picture is a deal killer, in addition to the fact that she’s your wife. Have a good one.”
He rose to leave, but the man clutched at his arm. “I can hurt you,” he said.
Decker took the man’s fingers and bent them back until he gasped, and then and only then did Decker let go.
He said, “I’m fat, but I’m two of you and a whole lot meaner. I don’t have to have a pretty face to do what I do. But you do. So if I take you out back and smash it in, what does that do for your future cash flow? You see my point?”
The man held his injured hand and paled. “I’ll take the money.”
“Great. I have the check for twenty-five grand right here.”
“You said it was fifty thousand!”
“That was only if you pulled the trigger when I asked. You didn’t. The consequences are your return goes down by half.”
“You son of a bitch.”
Decker sat back down and slipped a piece of paper from his pocket. “Plane ticket. One-way. For as far away from here as you can get without leaving the lower forty-eight. Leaves in three hours. A condition of the check clearing is you being on it. They’ll have people there to confirm, so don’t do anything stupid.”
“Where’s the check?” demanded the man.
Decker pulled out another piece of paper. “You need to sign this first.”
He handed the paper across. The man ran his gaze down it. “But this—”
“This ensures the lady will never think of you again, except in a very bad way. Which means even if you try to slink back here it’ll be a no-go.”
The man’s brain ran through what was happening, what this all really meant. “So you’re blackmailing me with the photos and the fact that I’m married to get me to sign this? And if I don’t sign you’ll show her the photos and tell her I’m married and trust that will be enough to get me off her?”
“What a genius you are.”
The man sneered. “I have a dozen more just like her. And far better-looking. She wanted me to sleep with her. I kept putting it off. You saw the photos. I have filet mignon at home. Why would I settle for hamburger, even if it does come with a trust fund? She’s a dumb shit. And she’s only fair-looking on a good day, even with all of Daddy’s money.”
“Mr. Marks saw you coming from a mile away, even if his little girl didn’t. But then again, Jenny’s been taken in before by scum like you. She deserves better.”
Decker didn’t know Jenny Marks and could not have cared less about her romantic entanglements. He had made these comments because he needed Slick to keep going. Keep talking. Get it all off his chest.
“She deserves better? Shit, I don’t know why I even bothered. I could get better ass than Jenny Marks without even trying. And I wouldn’t have to listen to her baby talk.”
“Dumb shit? Baby talk? Really? Lady has a college degree.” Decker already had more than he needed, but he was starting to enjoy this.
“Actually, she’s not a dumb shit. She’s a freaking moron.”
Okay, fun is over.
Decker took the unsigned piece of paper and slid it into the envelope with the photos. He put them all away in his coat pocket.
“What the hell are you doing?” the man said incredulously.
In answer Decker pulled out a miniature digital recorder and hit play.
“I’m sure she’ll enjoy your description of her,” said Decker. “What kind of hamburger by the way? All beef? Organic? Or just freaking moronic?”
The man sat there looking stunned.
Decker put the recorder away and pushed the one-way ticket toward the guy. “We’ll let you keep this. Be sure your butt is on the plane. The next guy they send out will be even bigger than me, and it won’t just be your fingers he cracks. It’ll be you.”
The man said pitifully, “Are you telling me I get none of the money?”
Decker stood. “Like I said, what a genius you are.”