by Linda Sillitoe
[p.262]Caitlin dumped her scarf, notebook, and thermos on the computer table in the corner of the front office. These days she found herself more involved in meetings and office gossip than planning cover stories. The magazine seemed in a state of suspended animation, at least until the financial results of the March issue. Advertising sales had risen somewhat—but would counter sales rise enough to make a difference? In the meantime she did what needed to be done, shopped when work dragged, caught up on lunches with friends, left early to see the twins’ volleyball games, and in general distanced herself as far as possible from anything she considered spooky.
Her office was under repair. Finally, after several reports to the contrary, a carpenter had found where water had seeped slowly through the shingles and accumulated above her ceiling. Apparently the storm had widened the leak and eventually proven too much for the damp surface. “The guy had never seen anything like it,” Hal said.
This morning, however, she had barely hung up her coat when the telephone rang. Kim held up a finger for line one. “I wanted to ask you a question about your wrap-up on the [p.263]Hubbard case,” the caller said. “I hope you don’t mind me calling you up out of the blue.”
“Do I know you?” she asked. His voice sounded familiar.
“No, but a friend of mine called once and you answered her questions. Do you mind?”
It sounded as if he were calling from the airport, there was so much background noise. “Go ahead,” she said, willing to be of public service but only if he was neither too persistent nor too crazy.
“Toward the top of the article,” he said crisply now, all business, “you mention an alleged victim whom you say existed sometime in the past. Follow me?”
Automatically her hand reached for the pen and pad on the desk next to the computer table. She jotted that comment, then started backtracking, getting down everything he had said. “Mmm?” she murmured, trying to buy a little time. Her right hand moved stiffly, as it had never taken notes. “Now where are you looking?” she asked, checking.
“You mention an investigation at the prison,” he said a bit sardonically, “into a crime that might have been committed but nobody really knows.”
“Right,” Caitlin said. Her mind clicked into focus even though her hand stayed leaden. Hook, line, and sinker, she thought.
“Well, what I wondered about is that peculiar pseudonym you assign to the alleged victim. Why not just use Mr. X. or Mr. Smith or Jones. Isn’t Mr. Greentree a bit exotic?”
“You’re questioning my choice of words?”
“I guess you could say that,” he said sounding impatient. “Why choose something so incongruous?” Caitlin took an enormous breath, then let it go. “How are you, [p.264]James?” she asked, gripping her pen tightly. “Do you really want to talk about this?”
There followed a long silence.
“Funny. You’re the only one who’s noticed that,” Caitlin said, letting her voice gather the hint of a taunt. Hooked! Henry’s face flashed before her mind. “Listen,” she added hurriedly, “I don’t even have those files handy now. I’m on to other articles. The media moves fast, you know.”
He said nothing. Had she assured him she wasn’t after him?—wasn’t pursuing information any more? She had him now, could turn him over to Nick who’d been waiting for this break. But then, so had she.
“Why would you need files to explain a pseudonym?” he asked, his voice metallic.
This time Caitlin let the silence stretch. “Okay, James,” she said, “here’s the deal. You want to know how I know, right?”
He said nothing.
“I don’t care much any more, but if I care at all it’s to know why. Not if, but why. If there were an if, you wouldn’t have called, right?”
Silence. She felt hate bum across the wires. He felt the tug of the hook, too.
“So do you want to set up a trade?”
“I only have ten more minutes,” he said a bit nervously.
“I can’t talk now either.” She wished frantically for Nick. Or Henry. Or both. “As I said, this is not fresh in my memory and I don’t have my files.”
“I could call back.”
“I think trading is easier in person,” she said, mentally apologizing to Henry. “Here are the conditions: we trade chip for chip, fact for fact. Arrange for me to visit—when’s visiting day?”
[p.265]“I can submit your name for Thursday evening. If it doesn’t clear this week, come next week.”
It will clear, Caitlin thought tensely. “Right,” she said and hung up. She punched Nick’s number. “Be in,” she whispered. “This one time, be there.” He was. She read him her notes. He was exultant, or at least as exultant as she’d ever heard him. “I’ll arrange it and get back to you,” he said.
Next she called Henry, trying to formulate an explanation he might accept since need-to-know was not sufficient. “You can only go in there wearing red paint in certain places,” he had told her. “If you go in at all, you go in protected.”
Henry, she learned eventually, from someone at the Red Mesa chapter house, was in Albuquerque attending an inter-tribal meeting. She set down the telephone and tried to decide what to do. The telephone rang and it was Nick.
“We’re clear,” he said. “I’ll pick you up about three and we’ll do a little briefing. How does that sound?”
“Terrific,” she said, beginning to shake. “See you then.”
Thursday, on the way to the prison, Caitlin told Nick about the polygamy code book. “I suspect that’s why I never had any reaction to the first name he dropped,” she said, “not even after I found it decoded on the medical examiner’s list. That guy lived several blocks from James’s neighborhood, but he was Mormon and was in the same stake as James’s family. There might have been mention of his death at home, and maybe James chose him as—a schill, to jump from polygamy into Yiddish. So there was no chance of anyone finding the real victim.”
“Except you did,” Nick said. “How are you going to explain that to James?”
“I’m not,” Caitlin said. “I’m going to trade as much specific [p.266]information as I can to get him to talk about the past. I don’t want him in my head.”
They rehashed strategy the rest of the way. Nick had arranged for James to talk with her in a small visitor’s room with a pane of glass between them. A microphone had been set up under the table that would broadcast into the adjoining room. “Relax,” Nick said, “stay cool; think.”
Henry has given me protection, Caitlin tried to tell herself, though she knew Henry wouldn’t approve of this field trip. She clutched her crystal.
Hubbard entered the room looking thinner than Caitlin remembered. He walked oddly, both arms held stiffly at his sides. He didn’t look at her until after he sat down across from her behind the thick glass with the little porthole, and then snidely, briefly.
“Hello,” Caitlin said.
“I looked up the files that seemed relevant to your question,” she added, hoping to sound calm and professional. He looked at her. “I guess the first thing to decide is whether we’re talking about the same thing—the same incident.”
“Where did it happen?” he asked so calmly he almost sounded bored.
His eyebrows rose a degree. “Town?”
“Your turn. Town?”
“No, not this victim anyway. Try again?”
“Honeydew, then,” he said, sounding impatient. “The two hick towns merge.”
She half nodded to indicate agreement. “Any particular landmark?”
[p.267]“Mountains,” he said. “Which ones?”
She drew an outline with her finger on the table. “They loom above the house.”
“House number?” she asked.
He was quiet a minute. “I forget.”
“Color of house?”
“White. A dark roof Gray, I think. Green maybe. House number?”
“One-three-five,” she said, and watched his skin blanch even more although he’d won the point. “You didn’t forget,” she said softly, mentally chalking her own point. She added, “You knew the family when they lived in Phoenix?”
He nodded. “First name?”
His lips tightened. “There is absolutely no way you could find out all this,” he said tightly, his voice so flat it sounded robotic. “No way at all. You can’t possibly have any proof”
“Then how did I find out?” His eyes were keen now, the bored shield fallen. They never left her face. She shifted uncomfortably. “It’s my turn,” she reminded him. He hardly seemed to hear, but she asked a question anyway.
“He has sons about your age?”
He nodded with a shrug. “I knew them.”
“Were you friends?”
“Their parents visited with my parents.”
Caitlin switched tacks, still aiming for motive. “What kind of guy was he? What was the connection?”
“He and my dad argued the European politics and the Big War. As a kid, I sat in the corner and listened.” She tried to look no more than politely interested. As he talked, [p.268]he seemed to relax a bit. “Were his sons as interested in the discussion as you were?”
“Naw. They always wanted me to go out and play football with them.”
“So would you?”
“Sometimes. Depended on how the conversation was going.”
She tried to sound only casually interested. “How did your father feel? Did he want a son playing football, or in on the discussion?”
He searched her face suspiciously, then shrugged. “He never said.”
“What did Mr. Greentree want?”
“Time for a trade,” he said stiffly, “or a cash-in. You’re asking all the questions.”
“Oh, sorry. I lost track.”
He would have to get even now. A silence. Then, “I want to know how you got his name,” he said intently.
She matched his look and his dramatic pause.”I want to know why you did it.”
Suddenly they were down to the core. His eyes met Caitlin’s impassively. “You owe me. You first.”
“All right. As we both know, after you’d been here a little while, you leaked the name Jack Borg. I got it about fourth hand, maybe fifth,” she exaggerated, trying to protect Nick’s source.
“Come on, James. The walls have ears. You’re a celebrity. You’re talking to an investigative reporter.” He snorted, but the combined reasons shut him up. “Anyway, I couldn’t get anywhere with that name, but after putting together enough pieces I speculated on the time.” His eyebrows rose but then relaxed. He had leaked an approximate time, too. So far she was safe. [p.269]“Then I started searching records for likely candidates who died in that time period.”
He barely seemed to breathe. “Keep going.”
“That’s half of it. I want to hear half of your answer first.”
He was silent, hating her. She was silent, too, waiting him out. Then she shifted ground, seeming to give a little more. “Then I remembered polygamy coding books and realized that this Borg guy was a stand-in, certainly the name, probably the person.” He stared at her in a silence that was becoming eerie. “Coding, right?” she pressed.
He brightened. “Gruenebaum’s father did it for the Nazis during the war,” he said softly. “Everybody codes.”
She could see he’d love to dwell on the intricacies of coding and thought she’d return to that if things became tense again. Coding, however, wasn’t what she’d come for. “So why did you want him gone?”
“Maybe he had something I wanted.”
“No go, James.”
He smiled. His tongue emerged and flickered a bit as if testing the air. “Maybe it was just an experiment.”
“So what isn’t with you?”
He shifted in his chair. As he did, it occurred to Caitlin vaguely, as her adrenaline rose, that his left arm had remained against his side, that hand in his lap throughout, almost as if he were handicapped. “Why do you think I did it, then?” he asked quietly. His eyes were not pleasant.
She had a flash of Henry’s hogan and the ceremony, the compassion she had felt for this pale, mean human. She kept her voice neutral. “Shall I speculate? He was your father’s friend. Maybe it was a way of hurting your dad.”
He snorted. “That’s ridiculous. Why would I want to hurt my dad? Besides, if you’re right, why is my dad still around?”
[p.270]In a flashback she heard her hypnotized voice saying, “He wanted to,” and she saw the image of his father’s wounded eyes.
“I’ve wondered that too.” She met his eyes honestly—I know, James.
He stared at her as if she’d gone mad, or he hoped she had. He began to talk fast, then faster. “This isn’t logical. Obviously his sons were the ones that suffered from this hypothetical man’s alleged death. Why would I want to make them suffer?”
“Did they suffer?”
“Of course. He was their father.”
“And your crimes made your dad suffer?”
He went rigid. “I’m the one who suffers,” he said through clenched teeth. “It’s always been me. He only suffers on television; then he goes home and watches himself from his easy chair. I’m the one bent double in the shower…”
Caitlin flinched and tried to keep her eyes unaware. She fought back sympathy as his voice faded into harsh breathing. She had to say something. “Like I said, he was a friend of your dad’s. Maybe the two were a lot alike.”
“Obviously,” he said, but his nostrils flared. His voice rose from its usual monotone. ‘‘I’m sick of this. What in hell do you mean?” His mouth twitched.
Everything stopped then. The air took on a peculiar stillness as if not even a dust mote wavered. Caitlin knew she should not say what she was about to say, and yet it lay between them, sickening and inevitable.
“James,” she said softly, almost helplessly, “maybe Mr. Greentree was another stand-in. A stand-in for your father.” He glowered. She added, “Maybe he did to his sons what your father did to you.”
Suddenly sweat greased his face from brow to chin. Before she could draw in breath to-what?—apologize or rephrase, scarlet [p.271]bloomed at his hairline and seared his face, then his throat. His lips vanished into a white line; his right hand reached swiftly into the open neck of his jumpsuit as if reaching for a gun under his left arm. Caitlin knew he couldn’t have a gun, yet she reflexively slid back in her chair, ready to run—if there’d been somewhere to run. Swiftly his hand emerged clutching something dark like metal, something pointed that he drove into the pane separating them.
Caitlin pushed backward with all her strength, tipping over her chair, but not before shards blasted her hands and forearms, raised instinctively as a shield. Pain leaped from a dozen cuts. Then above her wounded hands she saw James coming at her over the table. He dropped the metal object and grabbed a jagged piece of glass.
Instantly Caitlin knew the guards on the other side of the mirrored wall would not have time to reach her; Nick would be too late. She braced her back against the wall, struggling to her feet in the calm, slow-motion seconds that precede a collision. She stretched out her hands, as if to ward him off. Drops of blood shook from her skin, and she noticed that she still clutched her crystal.
He was over her now, slashing the glass toward her throat. She crouched, trying to block him, then shoved her right hand, locked around the crystal, against the vulnerable cleft below his flaring nostrils. At the same instant she felt glass slice her collar bone. Blood burst from his nose as he reeled back, spraying both of them as a hot stream flooded her chest. Stunned, Caitlin felt the wall smack her back and sagged there, smelling blood, knowing he would come at her again.
[p.272]He lunged just as the door burst open, then the scene went out of focus, the room lacked air. Rage surrounded them, like something Caitlin recognized from another place and time. She saw James fall, the guards and Nick tackling him like a football pile-up.
Caitlin sank against the wall. She couldn’t tell which was her blood and which was James’s, but suddenly everything hurt. Her blouse was soaked, her skirt streaked, red pools gathered on the toes of her shoes.
I shouldn’t have asked him about his father, she thought. That was definitely the right question. Damn.
She could hear the guards’ curses as Nick extricated himself and rushed over to her. “Hi,” she smiled lamely.
Nick pressed a handkerchief against her throat. “I can hold it,” she started to say, but his arm throttled her shoulders as if taking her hostage. He pushed her out of the visiting room door and toward a low cart a few feet down the hall. Feeling oddly compliant, she staggered along.
“The infirmary doc will be here in a minute, Nick, and the paramedics right after that!” one of the guards shouted from the doorway.
“She’ll be dead before your guys get their asses in gear,” Nick yelled back. “Hang on,” he told Caitlin in a normal tone, sat her on the cart with his arm still clenched around her, and they careened down the hall.
“Fazzio, you’re not authorized to take her out of here! She’s under prison jurisdiction,” the guard insisted, his shoes pounding after them.
“So sue the city,” Nick shouted, “if we don’t sue you first.”
A steel door loomed before them and Nick grabbed her right shoulder as the wheels squealed. “Casualty, Glen, let us out!” he called, and they were flying through the doors, across the [p.273]concrete courtyard and through more doors. Bloody, undignified, and pondering mortality, Caitlin hung on, wondering idly what might happen next.
More delays. His car was locked, of course. He flashed his badge and argued his way past the checkpoints, while she carefully placed her bloody crystal in her purse. She unbuttoned her next-to-top button and bent her chin down toward the wound. Nick grabbed the cloth away and she gasped. He turned the gory thing inside out, and clamped it on again.
“Hold it down hard,” he demanded. He leaned all the way across her to flip the seat back. Lights and a siren she didn’t know he had in his unmarked car sprang to life. Freeway lights whizzed in a blurry stream overhead. She heard Nick radioing her telephone number and Jake’s name.
Caitlin remembered then that Henry was in Albuquerque. She had no idea where he was staying.
“You okay?” Nick asked calmly. He was always so calm.
“Yes.” She opened her eyes, but thoughts were flying as fast as the neon signs lining the freeway as they approached Salt Lake. Besides Nick was talking to various hospitals, it seemed. Caitlin wanted to ask where he was taking her. More, she wanted to ask whether he’d heard every incriminating word James had said and ask whether this had been worth it. In fact, she wanted to start the evening over again, even walking into that room (which had been the hardest part) and omit this development entirely. Surely she could find another way to ask James his motive. The car was speeding faster than a jet. It didn’t seem wise to distract Nick.
“Count,” Nick said then. “I want you to count for me.”
She didn’t answer. That seemed like a straight-line that wanted a witty response, but she was hard pressed to find one.
[p.274]“Caitlin, I want you to count,” he said again. “Come on, One—two—“
She realized he was worried. “Three,” she said, “four, five—”
“Good.” He sounded pleased. “Six, keep going.”
Splotches clotted her vision by the time hands yanked her out of the car and she sped on new wheels into the open emergency room doors. At least she could stop counting. Nevertheless she had no difficulty remembering why she hated hospitals, modern torture chambers. A medley of voices, one sweet, one concerned, and one abrupt, the rest indefinite, surrounded her and fingers probed, needles punched; everything they did hurt.
“Just a few stitches,” she said bitchily. “No extreme measures.”
There was silence as if a ghost had spoken. “Don’t try to talk, Caitlin,” said the sweet voice.
Right, she thought nastily; just be the body, Cait; we’ll handle everything. Before she could articulate this retort, the splotches began connecting over her vision like thickening snowflakes on a window. Shit, she thought; hurry up. Someone else will get to write this story.
After an interminable time she felt hands pressing tape, then tucking a sheet firmly under her. Somewhere behind the jumble of their conversation she heard Nick’s voice.
“Just for a minute,” one of the medical voices said. Caitlin felt people moving away, heard the swinging door hiss, the squeak of rubber shoes growing fainter.
“Cait,” Nick’s voice said, “you okay?”
She opened her eyes. Nick’s face appeared, tarnished by an occasional splotch. She could feel her naked body touching the sheet and tried to pull it up a bit. Her hands didn’t seem to work. There was a tangle of ugly tubes and needles; tape bit at her skin [p.275]when she tried to move. Clear liquid flowed into her left hand, blood burned into her right. Her stomach quavered.
“You’re covered,” Nick half-smiled and pulled the sheet up an inch higher. “They’ll be taking you to your room and getting you settled in a minute.”
“I have to stay?”
“No big deal; it’s just a flesh wound.”
“Oh yeah? How many wounds have you had in your flesh?”
“Not a one,” he said cheerfully. “The buggers who’ve shot at me have all missed. Of course I missed them, too.”
Caitlin found a smile. “You feel okay?” he pressed.
She nodded. She asked her most burning question. “Have you listened to the tape?”
“Nope, not yet. But I heard every word.”
“It was pretty incriminating—but probably not enough to force Hubbard into a plea bargain. Of course we’ve always known he wouldn’t go to trial.”
Something was missing in the way he phrased that. “So?” Caitlin asked.
Nick sighed. “Cait, James is dead. He went into a coma right there in the room, and I just got buzzed ten minutes ago that he didn’t make it.”
Caitlin closed her eyes. James dead. Everything hurt. Her mind reached for him but she sensed nothing. She opened her eyes. “Did the guards…?”
“Nope. He was down—and out—by the time we jumped him. Did you see what happened? You hit him under the nose. Did you strike him anyplace else?”
“No, he was coming at me again, and I thought he had time to really get me this time. Then…everything got confused and he went down.”
[p.276]Nick nodded. “Anything else?”
Her chest throbbed fiercely as she remembered that disoriented moment. The triangle between her ribs ached as it had then, and she took a deep breath. “Well, right then it all felt the way it did when Mr. Greentree used to come, that urgency I told you about. But more like fury, rage.”
Nick looked hard at her and shook his head wonderingly. “Probably James slipped,” Caitlin said. “There was a lot of blood on the floor.”
“Yeah,” Nick said. “That’s kind of what we figured. He went down hard, I could see that. And under that linoleum is concrete.”
They looked at each other in silence. Caitlin’s wounds cried out in unison. “Anyway, Nick, thanks for—”
He lay the back of his fingers against her lips. “Save it for the media, kid. I only saved you from the prison’s medical staff. The investigators are tripping all over themselves trying to figure out how Hubbard smuggled that spike into the visitor’s room. By the way, you really smashed him one in the nose.”
“I had my crystal in hand,” Caitlin said. “I told you it works.” They laughed.
The laugh made her head pound a rhythm adverse to her wounds. The needles in both hands stung stubbornly. She wanted to go home. She wanted to curl up and sleep for days without interruption, without anything hurting. She wanted to cry but wouldn’t even be able to blow her own nose. She was a mess. “Hurts,” she muttered. Nick’s warm hand closed around her hand, careful not to press on the needle.
“Your husband’s waiting in the lobby,” he said after a minute, “playing dumb with the reporters. I’ll help him field the media for a few days. You rest.” She pulled his hand an inch closer and kept her eyes closed. She could hear voices behind the closed [p.277]door but the room was quiet. His fingers warmed her hand like a crystal and gradually she felt herself light and settle. Henry filled her inner vision now, wondering sternly what she thought she was doing.
It’s over now, she told herself I’ve done all I can.