"Always Crashing In The Same Car" - by Will Shetterly
"Half Angel Half Eagle" © Jane Siberry & Sheeba Records, used with permission.
J. Edgar Hoover Building, Washington D.C., July 28, 2009
Dear Mr. Reyes,
You clearly have us mistaken for some other Tom and Betty Johnson. My husband and I are ordinary, honest Americans. We live modestly on the rent from our Minneapolis fourplex. Most of the year, we're not even in Minnesota, so if you're looking for someone who did something there, it can't be us. We're usually in California, at what Tom calls our little love nest in the Morongo Valley. But I'm sure your people know about that by now.
If you've seen our desert hideaway, you know we live too simply to be doing anything dishonest. You surely saw our basement apartment in Minneapolis. Our California home is like that, small and pretty but not at all fancy. There's our trailer house and the pergola that Tom built when he was into carpentry one year, and his workshop from our first years there, and not much else except the stars and desert and all of God's amazing creatures. When you have love, you don't need much. Tom and I like to go for drives and see the countryside and watch our shows and listen to the radio to keep informed. We hardly ever go into town. People will look at you funny sometimes, and Tom always adores my cooking.
We only come back to Minneapolis for the month of July. We love our home in the desert, but it gets pretty warm in summer! The Twin Cities is a special place for us for so many reasons--the Aquatennial Parade, all the wonderful events around the lakes, everyone smiling and dressed in their summer clothes, so bright and gay. Not "gay" in the way people mean now (which is certainly fine by me because I always loved Liberace and Tiny Tim and Elton John), but cheerful, the way everyone should be. Tom and I would come to Minneapolis in the summer even if it wasn't convenient to do the books for our rental property then.
That's all there is to us. You must think we're awfully dull, and I suppose we are. But Tom and I are happy, and that's what counts. I wish you would visit me. I could easily convince you this is all a mistake.
Mrs. Tom Johnson
Dear Mr. FBI,
Of course I'll answer your questions, but if you think we're Muslim terrorists or Russian sleeper agents or Cuban spies, you've got another think coming. I can't believe you don't have real threats to America to investigate. However, I know you're trying to protect us. Since Tom and I have nothing to hide, I'll answer your questions as fully as I can.
My father was Fred Lund. His grandfather came over from the old country, Sweden. My mother was Mary Meyer. Her people were farmers who left Germany before the Revolutionary War. If I was at all hoity toity, I could be in the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Daddy owned Lund Feed and Grain in New Gothenburg. He worked hard to give us everything we needed. He and Momma had a traditional marriage: he ran the business, and she ran the home. Some people said Daddy put in long hours so he wouldn't have to go home and face Momma and the girls, but as Momma said, Daddy understood the value of hard work. A woman simply has to remind a man of what's expected of him sometimes. My sisters and I had a lovely childhood. We always knew we were very blessed, right up to the night of the fire.
Tom doesn't talk about his family. I think that's why Momma never understood him. Tom's father was very strict, a spare the rod and spoil the child man, and Tom surely loved a good time then. If you could've heard him laugh when I first met him, you would know why our love is forever. Some years since then, he laughs a little like he used to, and some years he doesn't, but I'll never forget the sound of his happiness, even if he never laughs quite like that again.
I read somewhere that the measure of a man is his ability to laugh in the face of adversity. It was sure true of Tom. His father died in a haying accident when he was fifteen, and three years later, his mother and little brother drowned on a fishing trip when their boat capsized. Tom didn't let that set him back a bit. He tried to keep the family farm going. When it failed, he did odd jobs. You would think Momma would've respected his work ethic, but she simply never liked him.
Tom says he loved me as soon as he laid eyes on me. I still can't believe how lucky I am to have him. My sister Nan was the pretty one, and Leigh was the clever one. I was just Boring Betty, but Tom called me Cinderella when he was feeling romantic and the Ugly Duckling when he was being funny. He said I would shine someday, and he was lucky enough to see that first.
We met when I was working at the Feed and Grain. I was seventeen, and you know how shy girls are. I thought I would be an old maid for sure. But Tom watched me at the cash register, and then he said, "You're doing such a fine job, I bet you'll be running this place soon." Tom wasn't much for talking. When he complimented you, you knew he meant it.
Tom and I were an item after that. On Saturday nights when he wasn't off hunting or fishing, I knew what I'd be doing: California burgers at the Starlite Drive-in, followed by a double-feature at the Rex, and home by eleven. Tom was the perfect gentleman. But he didn't look like the boys who took out Nan and Leigh. He liked jeans and T-shirts, and he drove a blue Mustang. When he proposed, Momma said I was too young, though I had turned eighteen, and too young for him, though he wasn't but five years older than me.
You might've heard there was crazy talk about us being cut out of the will if we married. We knew that wasn't going to happen. Parents just get protective of their children. If not for the fire, my family would've come to love Tom as much as I do.
Afterward, it was too painful to stay in New Gothenburg. We married, because life must go on, and sold the Feed and Grain to buy the fourplex in Minneapolis. It was fun being in the Twin Cities, but we weren't city people even then. Tom started to get cabin fever in our basement apartment. Even his occasional hunting trip wasn't enough to cheer him up. He came back from one and suggested we take Route 66 to California to escape the snow.
I loved that trip. If you ever get the chance, it's still wonderful to drive. People who talk about flyover county don't know what they're missing.
When we reached the West Coast, we loved being in a land where some people don't know what a snow shovel looks like. California was already expensive, but we found 100 acres in the Morongo Valley that was perfect. Tom could go off hunting or fishing whenever he liked. If he was gone for a few nights, I was never afraid. Our neighbors were cottonwoods and willows, quail and roadrunners, mule deer and coyotes.
After twenty-two wonderful years of marriage, I finally became pregnant. Tom was the kindest father-to-be you could imagine.
I was in my sixth month when we returned to Minneapolis. Everything was perfect, with Tom and I driving to the A&W for root beer floats on those hot July evenings, walking the sidewalks under the elms (what a shame about the Dutch elm disease--so many of them are gone now!).
Then I made a mistake because I loved Tom so. It was obvious he needed some time by himself. I went to visit my cousin in the Iron Range for a week so he could batch it while I was gone.
As soon as I started north, I knew I had made a mistake. Call it intuition. I could just tell something would go wrong. I was afraid for our baby, and I hated the idea that if anything happened, Tom wouldn't be there. I stopped at a gas station and called, and when he didn't answer, I decided to go home. If he was away hunting, I would be waiting for him when he returned.
But he was with someone when I got back.
No man is without weakness. I knew that, but I believed Tom and I had a perfect understanding. I'd been so trusting, so sure that our love was enough. I was so upset I threw up. Then I felt the most awful pain, and I knew I was losing the baby.
Tom took me straight to the hospital and left me there. The doctors could do nothing. First they said our girl was with God. Then they said I would never have another child because I had V.D.
Only Tom could have given it to me. I never wanted to see him again. I thought, after what had happened, he would stay away.
But he came to visit. He said he couldn't bear to lose me. I was the only person who understood him. The others never meant anything. He said he had cleaned up the apartment, and we could go home, and it would never happen again, and I didn't have to tell anyone, because it would be as if it had never happened.
But all I could think about was my dead darling daughter and that girl Tom had been with. All I could wonder was how many others there were. Had there been a girl on every one of his hunting trips?
I told him to just go away and kill himself. Without a word, he left.
As angry as he made me, I'm still ashamed of losing my temper with him. The next three weeks were the hardest of my life, so I suppose that ought to teach me a lesson.
But after what Tom did, how could I not forgive him? Isn't that the Christian thing to do? There's good in every religion, because they all teach us to forgive. On our anniversary, we renewed our vows. He's never gone hunting again. You couldn't imagine a better husband. Every year since then, he pays for what he did. What good would punishing him now do?
I beg you, please let Tom and me have our happiness again.
I would never sue the police or you for false arrest, though I must say I have a better idea how the prisoners at Guantanamo feel. All I want is what every American enjoys, the pursuit of happiness.
As for our involvement with the police, there were two earlier times when officers came by. I didn't keep a diary. One was around our twenty-eighth anniversary. The other was maybe ten years ago. Neither was important. I just remember that the nice young men were sympathetic to my loss.
I expected Detective Zingermann to be just like them, silly me.
Since you asked for as much detail as I can remember, here goes. (Tom will tell you that's a mistake! I can go on sometimes! LOL!)
It was early this month. You might think that's a pleasant time for me, but you would be as wrong about that as you are about everything else. I sometimes find myself crying without knowing if it's from sadness for my loss or joy for what's to come. If you've loved and lost, you know emotions don't edge each other out. They pile on like dogs that don't know if they're clean or filthy.
When I heard the doorbell, I patted my eyes with a Kleenex and went to the front door. During those weeks, I always half-expect to see a neighbor with a hamburger hot dish or a plate of Rice Krispie bars, like it was the first time. People bring food when they learn of someone's hard times. Since I don't tell anyone about my troubles, I know that's a silly expectation, but I still have it every year.
I thought my visitor was a salesman until he showed his ID and said, "Mrs. Johnson? I'm Saul Zingermann with the Minneapolis Police Department."
That didn't surprise me. He looked like a detective, a dark-haired man in a suit, a bit funny-looking in a handsome way, a little like Columbo and a little like Monk. I liked him most because of his smile. It was kind but still cocky, like Tom's when we met.
Putting his badge away, he said, "I'm looking into the death of Tom Johnson."
That surprised me. I said, "Oh, I think you must have the wrong Johnsons."
"I'm sorry." I could tell right away that he was a sensitive man, and that he knew I was sorrowing. Police are like doctors, morticians, and me. So long as you can love, being familiar with loss doesn't hurt your ability to feel someone else's pain. It may make it greater. "I'm investigating the death of a Tom Johnson who previously lived in Fargo." He held out a picture of that Tom. "I wanted to ask a few questions about the accident."
Was there a pause before he said "accident"? I didn't want to leap to conclusions. "Oh, my," I said. "What happened?"
"He was forty-one and divorced when he bought a '65 Mustang on eBay almost exactly a year ago. None of his family knew where he was until yesterday, when he crashed into a tree off Highway 55 doing eighty miles an hour." Detective Zingermann watched me as if he thought what he'd said would make me say or do something. How hard it must be to have to give people such terrible news day after day.
I said, "Please come in," and led him down to the apartment. "Would you like a drink? Coffee? Tea? A beer? A man likes a beer, so there's some in the fridge. My husband does."
His face got even kinder. I knew I was right to like him. "Nothing for me, thank you, ma'am." He glanced at my shelves of china dogs and Barbies. I wanted to give him my best advice about dusting: Leave a can of Pledge on the counter. When company comes, say you were just about to clean. The hard part is remembering to dust the Pledge.
His eyes narrowed. I said, "What're you thinking?"
"You've given the place a homey touch." He frowned as if he might be starting on a headache. I meant to offer him some Excedrin, but I believe I forgot.
"Now, Detective. It's all right, you can tell me."
"I was thinking this doesn't look like a place where a man would live." Then he squeezed his brown eyes shut, as if they were tired and blurry.
I looked around my little living room and saw he was right. Tom doesn't like frills, and never did. If he had his way, I would never have been able to buy the Victorian living room set. Tom would've wanted black leather and chrome and automobile pictures.
I said. "Everything's just the way it should be."
He nodded, then glanced at me with a smidge of confusion I could see him trying to hide. He said, "Did you know this Tom Johnson?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Because under the passenger seat of the car, there was a Lunds grocery discount card. This is the address on the account."
"There weren't any skid marks."
When he squinted again, I said quickly, "It's all right. Go on."
"Stuff like that makes a guy wonder."
"Is that all?"
He nodded. "The autopsy came up clean. The car wasn't tinkered with. There wasn't an insurance policy on him."
"I must've left my card at Lunds and he picked it up by mistake." As his frown returned, I said, "Stranger things have happened, you know."
He nodded. "Yes, ma'am. I guess so."
"This Tom Johnson must've lost control. Such a terrible thing for his family, to have him die in an accident."
Detective Zingermann squinted several times, like men do when they're struggling to understand something they need to know, then nodded. "Yes, ma'am. It looked funny. But the world's full of funny-looking stuff."
He wanted to go, but it was nice having a man in the apartment again, even if he wasn't Tom. I insisted he have tea, and we talked about the Minnesota Twins and the Dodgers and the weather. Detective Zingermann was excellent company. When he left, I was sorry I wouldn't see him again, but it's best to keep life simple.
The next day, I went looking for Tom. Besides Minnesota, I've found him in the Dakotas, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Illinois. I even found him up near Winnipeg once, but I don't like to drive far these days. The internet has been an enormous help. This year, I was sure he was up near Bemidji.
I will always love the sight of pine and spruce and birch and poplar against the blue summer sky. I saw fishing boats on the lakes and joggers and families picnicking by the roadsides until I couldn't help but sing about summertime and easy living. Summer really doesn't last long enough. A perfect day was made more perfect by the anticipation of finding Tom. I stopped for blueberry pancakes and coffee at a couple of Denny's and enjoyed picturing how I would come back to them the next day and get tables for two. The nicest thing about a long drive is you can stop to eat often and no one wonders about your appetite.
I arrived in Bemidji around 5:30. I can never be sure when the best time to catch Tom will be, but that window between work and supper is usually good. I was imagining we might go somewhere for a walleye dinner, then drive through the night singing together--I never cared what his voice was like.
I found the apartment without any trouble at all, thank you, Google! You can't imagine what hunting for Tom was like in the beginning. I rang the bell, and a blond man in a plaid work shirt and jeans answered. I liked his eyes in his Facebook photo, and I thought it was almost certainly him, but I always ask. "Are you Tom Johnson?"
He worked his jaw a little, then said, "Yes."
"Do you have any diseases?"
"Tom," I said a little louder, because sometimes you have to make sure men know what you need, "Do you have any diseases of any kind?"
"Just answer, Tom. Is anyone else here?"
"Toni. My girlfriend."
"Isn't your Facebook status single?" You hear about men who do that on the internet, pretend to be single to flirt with women, maybe take advantage of them.
I heard someone coming toward the door. A Native American girl appeared behind him, smiling and showing the ring on her finger. "He'll be updating that." She looked at Tom, but he was quiet. Toni said, "Tom? Who--"
I said quickly, "I was looking for a Tom Johnson I used to know, but clearly I've got the wrong one. Tom? Treat her well."
I hurried away. I wasn't as disappointed as you might think. I don't always find Tom on the first try. A Tom Johnson near Mankato seemed likely. There is never a shortage of possibilities for my Tom.
At least Bemidji has a Chinese buffet and a supper club where they know how to fry a walleye. I spent the night at the Holiday Inn, then started back the next day.
After a lovely breakfast of buttermilk pancakes at Perkins, I was on my way south when my cell phone rang. I pulled over to answer. (I never, never talk on the phone while driving.) A woman said, "Mrs. Johnson? I'm Supervisory Special Agent Esther Falkner with the FBI. I believe Detective Zingermann visited you the other day."
"The FBI? Oh, my. There was some misunderstanding that the detective cleared up. Is he all right?"
"Yes, ma'am. Will you be returning to your Minneapolis apartment soon? You may be able to help us with a case."
Life was more pleasant when all phones had wires. Then a drive was a drive, and you could be alone in a car with a friend or your thoughts. I said, "I'll be glad to do anything I can to help. I'm on a little vacation trip right now, though. Shall I call you when I get home?"
"I'm afraid this is urgent, Mrs. Johnson. If you tell me where you are, I can send agents to meet you."
I respect the law and the police, but I don't think they have the right to tell people what to do for no good reason. "Miss Falkner, I'm not going to ruin my trip. I'll be home tomorrow. You can call me then." To prove I meant it, I turned my phone off. I only have it for emergencies, anyway.
But my drive had been spoiled. Instead of admiring the forest, I kept wondering why Detective Zingermann hadn't understood that Tom and I weren't the people he was looking for. Something seemed wrong.
My worry was confirmed after my second breakfast in Little Falls. Shortly after Clear Lake, a police car raced up behind me with its lights flashing. I can be so stupid sometimes. I thought I hadn't seen a speed limit sign or a tail light was out. I put my hands on the steering wheel like Tom taught me and watched in the mirror as two policemen got out.
Then a dark sedan that I hadn't noticed pulled over in front of me. The passenger was a big, blond, handsome man. The driver would be very pretty if she lost twenty pounds and put a little more effort into her make-up, and her suit really did not flatter her. You should tell her to wear greens and blues. Brown is not her color.
They looked like business executives until they drew their guns. I checked the mirror. The two policemen had theirs out, too.
I'm so stupid. I thought someone must be hiding in my back seat. My heart began to race, and I thought, "Thank God the police are here!"
The driver held up a wallet with a badge. "FBI. Mrs. Johnson, I'm Special Agent Daphne Worth and this is Special Agent Daniel Brady. Please step out of the car and make no sudden moves."
I wanted to laugh. I said, "Dear, I'm sixty-two years old. There's nothing to be afraid of. I got a call from a Miss Falkner, who said there's some sort of mix-up."
Miss Worth nodded. "That's why we're here. Get out of the car immediately, and we'll straighten everything out."
Mr. Brady said, "Do you need any help, ma'am?" His accent made him sound as charming as he looked.
"Yes," I told him. "I'd like you to start counting. You and these other officers, please shoot Miss Worth if she doesn't drop her gun by the time you reach thirty."
Mr. Brady and the two officers swung their guns toward Miss Worth, and Mr. Brady began counting. You should be very proud of that girl. Her gun stayed on me the whole time while she said, "Brady! Danny! She's a gamma. This is what she does--she gets in your head. Pushes you around. Come on, Danny, push back. You're a stubborn sonofabitch, you don't let people do this to you. Fight her!"
I said, "Dear, they'll shoot. Drop your gun."
Mr. Brady reached twenty-five, his forehead shiny with sweat. I said, "Miss Worth, please!"
As Mr. Brady said, "Twenty-eight," she dropped her pistol.
I got out of my car and told the men, "Now, don't you let her move one step."
Miss Worth said, "Mrs. Johnson, we can help you."
"You want to stop me from finding Tom again. What kind of help is that?" As she frowned, I told the men, "Don't let her say anything. Even if you have to shoot her. Mr. Brady, are other FBI agents on their way?"
He said, "If we don't call to say we're bringing you in."
"Oh. Can you convince them you're doing that? That everything is going perfectly?"
"Then please go ahead."
Miss Worth was staring at him as he took out his phone. I told her, "If you say anything, they'll have to shoot. What good would that do?"
Mr. Brady said into his phone, "Ma'am? She's co-operating. We're bringing her in."
As he hung up, I said, "Mr. Brady, please help me get away."
He had to think about it a little--Momma always said a man needs to believe what you want him to do is his own idea. Once I asked him again, he pointed at Miss Worth. "If I kill her, my boss will call in everything he's got, including the National Guard and maybe some nukes. If I don't, she'll say what car we're in and which way we headed."
"Then you should make sure she doesn't know," I said. Really, I didn't want anyone to hurt Miss Worth if it wasn't absolutely necessary.
Mr. Brady took his time, but at last he said, "The cops could put her in the cruiser and drive the back roads until they run out of gas. That'd buy a few hours."
I told the officers, "Do that. And don't answer your phone or radio. And don't shoot Miss Worth, but don't let her escape, either." I looked at Mr. Brady. "Will that do?"
When he nodded, I felt like Modesty Blaise with Willie Garvin. Tom had never been as handsome as Daniel Brady.
As soon as the officers drove off with Miss Worth in the back seat, Mr. Brady used his badge to flag down the first man who drove by. In the car, I asked the driver, a Mr. Norder, if he knew of a man living alone where no one would find us. A farm near Sobieski belonged to a widower named Ericsson. Everything Mr. Norder said about Mr. Ericsson's place sounded perfect to Mr. Brady.
As we traveled, I told Mr. Brady, "You and your partner would make a lovely couple. Dan and Daphne."
He frowned. "She's married."
I suppose I hadn't seen her ring because her gun was in the way. "Is there anyone in your life?"
He pinched his lips together. I almost asked him again, but he said softly, "Not now."
"Everyone should grow old with someone they love."
"I've been thinking about that."
"What does the FBI want? I haven't done anything."
He was struggling, so I patted his thigh. I hope I don't shock you by saying it's a very nice thigh. "It's fine, Dan. You can tell me."
"Zingermann said he knew you had nothing to do with the death, but when he was typing his report, he couldn't think of a reason why. Wanting some details for the report, he Googled 'Tom Johnson Ford Mustang July 8' to see if anyone mentioned seeing it online. And...."
"He found four Tom Johnsons who died in Ford Mustang crashes on July 8th of four different years. Which set him going through police records. A Tom Johnson died in a Ford Mustang within four hundred miles of the Twin Cities on July 8 every year for the last twenty-two years. Different states or counties, but it's always a Mustang and always a Tom Johnson."
I could feel the tears building. I bit my lower lip to distract me, because I don't believe in self-pity. I know I'm very fortunate.
Dan said, with kindness that I appreciated, "The first was your husband. Who was a person of interest in the disappearances of several young women during the years preceding his death."
I said, "But why me? You don't think I had anything to do with those girls?"
He shook his head.
"Theory is, your husband killed them, you learned of it, and you killed him."
"I couldn't! How could I kill him?" I said, but I remembered telling him in the hospital, "Just go away and die!"
"Maybe you tampered with his car. Maybe you tampered with him."
"That doesn't make sense." When he didn't answer, I added, "What do you mean?"
"Some folks are... They're unusual."
"That's silly," I said. "I'm as ordinary as they come. As common as dirt."
"You make people do what you want."
"I just know how to talk to men." The idea that I might have had something to do with Tom's accident made me sick. I said, "I don't want to talk about it," and we didn't.
Dan had been in theatre, and Mr. Norder is in his church's choir, so we sang hymns as we took country roads to the farm where Mr. Ericsson lived. Isn't it strange how people can know the same hymn, but with different words? I had to teach them the right ones. Then I asked Mr. Norder to forget he had ever seen us and go home.
I can't say much about that night. The house was small, but there was a fan in the garage, so Mr. Ericsson made a bed out there and didn't bother us at all. Dan fixed dinner, and while I was eating the best steak I've ever tasted, I knew I was looking for Tom in all the wrong places. I told Dan, "You're Tom Johnson, and you love me with all your heart." It seems funny that we hadn't both known it all along.
My Tom came back to me in perfect innocence. I'm not talking about sex. I'm talking about two people holding each other. He listened while I told him everything I knew about him, and how hard it is to have him die every year, but how wonderful it is to know he'll always be there for me.
I don't want to write the rest. Give me my Tom and let me go.
Dear Mr. Demanding,
You know the rest. The next morning, as we drove toward the church to begin our new life, you people were planning how to ruin it. I will never forgive myself for thinking that keeping Mrs. Worth from speaking would silence her. I know young people text. You should give her a raise.
The church in New Gothenburg looks much as it did when Tom and I were first married there, but there are changes each year--good changes at first, like the new wing for the Sunday School. And then there were sad ones as the congregation grew smaller, the chairs and carpet wore out and weren't replaced, and Pastor Bob grew old. Pastor Jack took his place, and began aging in turn. Pastor Bob renewed our vows for the first four years, but I never really liked him because I could tell when Tom and I first married, Pastor Bob thought it was too soon after my family's death. I never felt bad when Pastor Bob forgot about the service afterward.
But I liked Pastor Jack. The slow death of the church was not his fault. Last year, Pastor Jack looked so very tired. I went in with Tom hoping to see Pastor Jack with a big smile on his face.
The church was empty, which was no surprise on a weekday. In the office, a Chinese woman was typing on an old computer. I didn't like her looks--a church office is no place to fuss over being stylish. I wondered if she was married to one of Bill Lo's boys, and I made a mental note to dine at the Golden Dragon Cafe after the wedding. When she looked over the top of her computer at us, her face seemed guarded, but sometimes that's just how people see Tom and me. Envy is everywhere. I said, "Hello. We're looking for Pastor Jack."
As the Chinese woman stood, a middle-aged dark-haired woman in a suit stepped out of the pastor's office. She wore small gold earrings and a gold wedding band. She put her hand out to me and said, "I'm sorry. Pastor Jack died last year. May I help you?"
As I shook her hand, I read the name plate on the office door. Sure enough, it said, "Rev. Alice Creagan."
I'm afraid I panicked. Tom and I should have just turned around and walked out. Heaven knows there are plenty of other churches in that part of Minnesota, and plenty of ministers. But that was Tom's and my church. If you've never been deeply in love, you can't know how much these things mean. Everything was perfect, until now. Now it would all be ruined.
You see how it was, don't you? You say you know how people think. So you'll understand why I felt so angry and helpless, and why I did what I did.
"Tom," I said, "shoot them."
And my Tom drew his pistol.
He did it for love. Once I'd reminded him of our years together, how could he not fight when our happiness was threatened? A man protects and treasures what he loves. But I felt dizzy, and everything seemed slow all of a sudden, and I thought, instead of Modesty Blaise and Willy Garvin, we'd become Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and I didn't like that so much.
Everything moved slowly except the dark-haired woman. She was almost a blur. She had Tom's wrist in both hands, and shoved his arm down to point the gun at the floor, and Tom made a noise, a little grunt, as if she'd hurt him.
Someone came through the door behind him, and I just had time to recognize Mrs. Worth as she used a Taser on my Tom.
He went stiff in a horrible way, as if his muscles were pulled tight and might break his bones. He couldn't even put out his hands to break his fall. I heard his forehead hit the wooden floor, and I screamed.
Mrs. Worth didn't turn that terrible thing off until she was right beside him. Then she and the dark-haired woman got Tom's arms behind him, and Mrs. Worth put handcuffs on him. He struggled and groaned, but the dark-haired woman said, "It's over. For Mrs. Johnson's sake, don't fight us."
The Chinese woman had a gun pointed at me. "I will kill you if you move, Mrs. Johnson. I don't know how many cold-hearted bitches you've met in your life, but this one has a gun with a full magazine and is very pissed about what you did to her best friend. Do you understand me?"
I'm not a young woman, and I've got brittle bones, even though I always drank plenty of milk. I couldn't run from them. That's when I began to cry.
Now I know the dark-haired woman was Mrs. Falkner. She said, "It's all right, Mrs. Johnson. We're going to take you someplace where you'll be very well cared for. You'll have your own room, and garden privileges if you cooperate. And the meals are better than where I work. It's not a punishment. It's a place to heal."
She handed me a tissue. It wasn't as soft as Kleenex. After a moment, I said, "What about Tom?"
He still lay face-down on the floor, working his lips as if struggling to speak. You can't imagine what that did to my heart.
Mrs. Worth was examining him. She looked up at me, and her expression made me a little scared. "Does it wear off?"
"What do you mean?"
She said, "What you did to him."
"Oh!" I said to Mrs. Falkner, "This place you're taking me. Will my Tom be with me?"
She and Mrs. Worth exchanged looks, the kind Tom and I have seen all our married lives, when people think we don't notice. "I can't promise that."
"Please. I need to see him every day."
"So he'll always know we love each other forever."
There's no point writing about the rest of it. I suspect you had a tape recorder in there, and I'm sure Mrs. Falkner gave you a full report.
Tell Mr. Brady that if he cares to visit, I promise I won't ask to have Tom back.
P.S. When we came out of the church, three men stood across the street wearing big earphones like people at airports have. You couldn't have been the tall Mexican boy whose clothes looked too big for him. Were you the small white man with the receding hair and the rifle? Or the beautifully-dressed black man next to him? Either way, I thought you looked very nice. You could be my Tom.
Black widow, Brady thought. Killer cougar. Neither phrase got the taste of bile out of his mouth. He shoved the pages of Betty Johnson's letters back in order, jabbed them into their folder, and slapped it closed.
That was about as useful as any symbolic gesture: in other words, like tits on a bull.
Inside, she was still a fragile eighteen-year-old, a wounded woman of forty. Her version of her life story was all shell and hollow inside like a chocolate Easter rabbit. Perfect, shiny, sweet. Anything else would have been too much like real life, where the ugly duckling never changed, and Prince Charming was the wolf.
Brady hadn't become Tom Johnson. He hadn't had Tom Johnson's memories--any Tom Johnson; those had fallen out of the shattered skulls of twenty-two men dead behind the wheels of wrecked Mustangs. Any competent director would have given him more to work with. The character he'd played was as hollow as the play itself. And how sad was that: Betty Johnson's delusion orbiting tightly around an empty man-shaped space? Nothing she'd done to Brady was as bad as what life had done to her. Love the sinner, hate the sin.
He'd been the dream boyfriend in a teen romance. He'd been a Ken doll. When he'd returned to himself, what he wanted more than anything was to crush Betty Johnson's throat between his two hands.
Someone had stopped beside his desk, so he looked up. Falkner, of course, because who the hell else had that radar?
He sighed. "I know, I know. Walk away."
She nodded, and hitched one charcoal-trousered hip onto the edge of his desk. "Or let Reyes have his debriefing. Though I understand why you wouldn't want to talk about how it worked, and for the record, so does he. He's just hoping you'll overcome your..." She turned up one corner of her mouth, which told Brady she really did understand. "...natural reticence."
Brady snorted. And Falkner didn't move away, which meant either she or he still had something to say. He was surprised to realize after a moment of silence that it was him.
"There was no sex," he said.
Falkner tucked her chin a bit, acknowledgment more than agreement.
"You see women writing in to advice columns, saying they just want to be held. Cuddled."
He couldn't get the next sentence out, but Falkner stepped in, thank God. "She associated sexual intimacy with her husband, and transferred the association to what she witnessed when she walked in on him raping and killing Valerie Pierce. Once she converted, it became part of her mythology: perfect, sexless affection. The opposite of what she saw her husband do."
Brady rocked back in his desk chair, folding his arms over his chest. "Kay Baylor's going to have a goddamn field day with me."
Falkner gave a slow blink, like a cat pretending not to watch a bird. "Do you think so?"
"No. Not really. Shit, okay, not at all. But excuse me if I'm not looking forward to explaining how it felt to be a brain-fucked hand puppet."
Falkner just nodded, as if that hadn't been the crudest, angriest thing he'd ever said to her.
He took a moment to steady his voice and his hands. Then he tapped the file folder. "The Tom Johnson she found in Bemidji. She could have made him walk out on his girlfriend. She'd kill a man over and over, but she wouldn't bust up a relationship."
"As much as she thought she was entitled to happiness, she wouldn't take it at the expense of someone else's." It almost sounded reasonable, in Falkner's warm, resonant tones.
"Even monsters deserve love," Brady said, a little ashamed of the sneer he gave it.
"No," said Falkner. It surprised him into turning his eyes up to hers. She added, "But they want it. And wanting it isn't what makes them monsters." She gathered the folder off his desk. "I'll file this with the rest of the case docs."
Brady watched her walk, firm on her low-heeled loafers, into the copy room. Between his ears her words unfolded, took on a startling new shape, and bit him.
And that's why Mom is all four goddamn Horsemen interviewing a suspect. Because she knows the thing to say that splits your brain open and lets the truth pour in.
He waited until he was in the truck with the AC running before he pulled out his phone. He'd deleted the number from the directory (and felt so fucking virtuous about doing it, too), but he could still find it, by sight, in the list of past numbers called. It seemed as if it rang for a long time, but Brady knew better than to judge by his own perceptions right now.
"Hello?" Gray's voice, careful, withholding judgment. Of course he was.
"It's Danny Brady," he said, though Gray already knew that. "Thanks for taking my call."
The pause that followed was long enough that Brady felt panic climbing his throat.
"Danny, I'm a grownup. I answer the phone."
He was right, and Brady was an idiot for assuming they were going to behave like high-school girls (Teen romance, he thought, and squirmed). But then, his noble fucking breakup scene might have been lifted straight out of one of those idiot books Lau sometimes made him do dramatic readings from, when they got together for beer and pizza. His part of the scene, anyway. Gray hadn't got the director's memo, and had been playing an adult.
Brady took a long breath, let it out, and said, "Well, that's why I'm a little stupid. When it comes to people I care about, sometimes I'm sixteen years old."
Pause, pause, and Brady could hear his heartbeat in the thump of blood in his inner ear.
"I don't want to date a sixteen-year-old," Gray said, slow and a little soft, but firm as Falkner's tread.
"Hell, neither do I. And I don't want to be one anymore, either. I want to get it through my head that the world doesn't end if I fuck up, and that I'm not allowed to make anybody else's choices, and I want to deserve--" What you want, and what you deserve, and the space between the two. "--another chance. With you." At that, Brady's throat closed up tight; he couldn't have said another word if he'd had a gun to his head.
"That's a lot to want," Gray replied.
Brady thought he heard skepticism, and hoped he was wrong. "The difference between a real sixteen-year-old and me is, I know I can't have everything." He swallowed down his hoarseness and said, "Can we have coffee sometime? Just coffee. Just to talk." Jesus at the circus, right now I don't think I could even hold hands. He shivered like a dog kicking in its dreams.
"Not even a damned muffin?" Gray said.
Brady unstuck his tongue from the roof of his mouth, got a little air in his lungs. "And a muffin."
"I'm busy this week," Gray said, and Brady felt his heart sinking in a body cavity full of sludge. "But I can try to keep next Thursday early evening free."
Apparently sludge was good for buoyancy, after all. "Works for me." Brady swallowed, and added, "Thank you."
"Oh, believe me, I'm aware I'm doing a public service. Good night, Danny."
Brady thumbed the red button and let his spine sag for the first time in weeks. It may not be far or fast, but the puppet can goddamn move by himself. That would have to be enough for now.