It was a Dark ‘N’ Stormy night. This was Victor’s third. The ice cubes did not clink against the side of the glass. He appreciated that. Sometimes you have to expand the search for good news. Plus, the taste of the nicotine gum was almost gone.
Victor missed the inquisitor gulls, the ones that came and sat on the harborside railing posts and gave you that sideways, one-eyed, unblinking, all-knowing, pitying gaze. They were never there at night, when their presence might be more meaningful, like after the third Dark ‘N’ Stormy when the suspect might feel more inclined to confess. He checked the time on his phone. It was an hour past when the Wentworths had agreed to meet. He’d been stood up again. This was getting old, but it was just as well. He had nothing more he could tell them. They’d already gotten more than their money’s worth. He left.
This was the best time of year on the island. All the rich asshole kids were back wherever else they didn’t belong, and the September breeze off the finally warm bay was kick-back perfect. Also, the roads were relatively free of drunks. There had been a time when Victor hadn’t been a paranoid driver, but that was before the accident. Now, he preferred deserted streets. Sylvie liked big words and called it thanatophobia. He called it physical risk avoidance. After all, wasn’t that his profession—risk-avoidance consultant?
The secret of his specialty—only it wasn’t a secret, he just couldn’t explain it—was field sense. Most people instinctively focused on the up-close personal details and missed everything else, everything important. They put themselves at the center and tried to figure out was happening from that disadvantaged perspective. Everything was about them, when really very little of what was coming down had zip to do with them. They were blind to the big picture—the forest for the trees thing. Paranoia. The eye of the bullseye is the worst place to avoid risk.
The Wentworths were a perfect example. As far as they were concerned, Tuckerson was their sworn nemesis. But Tuckerson wasn’t even sure who they were. The fact of the matter always—unless your supposed opponent is an obsessive psychopath—is that he or she or the corporate them doesn’t give a shit who you are, know nothing about you, and would like to know even less. They were your enemy only in your eyes.
Victor liked what he had learned about how Davy Crockett and those other old guys with their flintlock long guns used to bark squirrels. If you hit a squirrel with one of those fifty-caliber slugs, all you would get was a red splosh on a tree limb and an explosion of fur and guts. So, you aimed instead beside it, so that just the tree’s bark, like organic shrapnel, would bring the critter down. Victor had never eaten squirrel. There were risk-free ways around Tuckerson.
Victor had discovered his calling back in college, counseling draft dodgers. The ones who followed his advice never ended up drafted or in Canada or in jail. He was semi-retired now—the accident—and just took local clients, divorces and estate stuff mainly, and that drawn-out patent case in Providence. There was just the one stretch on the highway over the canal, then he could get back onto side streets again to home. His cataracts turned oncoming headlights into kaleidoscopes, and he did not need another DUI. Fuck the Wentworths. He’d send them a final bill. Wasn’t his first piece of advice to them to pay their bills?
Procrastination was another big mistake—a variety of magical thinking. Real risks don’t go away, they just got bigger. Ignored fuck-ups are breeders. If you bury dead things quick, they don’t stink. Things in closets don’t stay hidden. Etc. People never wanted to hear that.
He was listening to the news. Victor always listened to the all-news-all-the-time stations when he drove. Well, he wasn’t really listening as in paying attention. He had it on. It was an old habit. The stories just rolled over anyway. If you always listen to the news, nothing is ever really new. Sylvie only listened to recorded books, sometimes the same ones over again. Same thing.
Close to home, Victor stopped for a nightcap at his pub. Matt was there, asked for Sylvie. “Fine,” Victor said, “fine.” He had no reason to think otherwise, even though it had been a week—no, ten days, if this was Thursday—since she’d left. Victor was a record keeper, a numbers man. He knew exactly how many drinks he’d had each day, how many cigarettes he’d sneaked. He could tell you unerringly how much cash he had in his billfold. He knew to the added monthly interest how much he owed. He found comfort in counting things. There was order there, if little elsewhere. But recently, freelancing, he sometimes lost track of what day of the week it was. Seven was a funny number to group things by. And such strange names. Fifty-two times a year everyone paid homage to some Norse god named Thor, while Christ had only one day a year named after him. Not that Victor gave a shit about it.
His name wasn’t Matt. It was Gregg. Matt was the other bartender, the one whose wife had just died. Or was that Gregg’s wife? None of it really mattered. Sylvie was fine. Sylvie would always be fine, a little strange maybe but fine. It was actually a relief not having her around.
Sylvie’s cat was still around, though, and Victor had to feed it. Victor didn’t understand about pets, especially cats. What was there to understand? They were a pointless, expensive, shit-making, frivolous complication. It was like growing things you couldn’t eat. There was something almost immoral about it, keeping something living captive. Nowhere was it mentioned that Buddha or Mohamad or Jesus had pets. When he opened the door to his house, what did he smell? Cat stink. It wasn’t strong, but it was there, the odiferous equivalent of white noise.
The cat had a name, but Victor never used it. He called it cat, or fucking cat when Sylvie wasn’t around. It was there in the hall when he came in the door, rubbing against his pants leg. Sylvie said the cat didn’t like him, which was fine and meaningless. What was a pet but an object of the owner’s projection? The cat was an agent of her disesteem for him. Witches could turn into cats in superstitions. The cat didn’t mind begging him to be fed.
Ever since the accident, bending over was a form of torture. He had put off the operation because he had no insurance and couldn’t afford it just now. He had to bend over to get the fucking cat’s dish, the one with all the pretty fishes. He held onto the counter to keep from falling and gritted his teeth. He fed the cat.
Victor was soaking his back in a hot tub when the phone went off in the other room. It went through to his voice mail. The message was from Sylvie’s Uncle Vermin and Aunt Petty, both of them, taking invective turns. They’d been calling every day since the day after Sylvie vanished. They were certain Victor had done something to her. They had already reported her as a missing person. Now they were going to the police with their suspicions. The cops had already been there once, to get a photo and description of Sylvie and ask him questions.
The cops came back the next day. They had new info that Victor had threatened Sylvie. They wouldn’t say where they had gotten the tip, but Victor could guess. It was true. He had recently threatened her—with taking away her credit cards—but he didn’t tell them that. He just said no. They knew about his DUI. They knew about his concealed-carry permit. My business, he explained. They asked to see his gun, so he went to get the Glock to show it to them. Only, it wasn’t there beneath his socks in the bureau drawer.
Sylvie must have taken it, he told them. Why hadn’t he reported it stolen? Because he hadn’t known it was gone. He hadn’t touched it in months, not since the accident. The news of the missing gun brightened the detectives’ mood. Now they were getting somewhere—not only a missing, allegedly abused spouse, but a missing lethal weapon as well. Were there some soft courtroom trial testimony days in their future?
“Look, she took all her stuff with her,” Victor said. Including her credit cards, he thought. Couldn’t they track her that way? Her cellphone?
“Or you got rid of all her stuff along with her, including the gun.”
“Let me report it stolen to you now, seeing as I just discovered it. You’ve got a description of it from my permit. It must have been stolen eleven days ago by Sylvie.”
When they left, they didn’t take him with them, but Victor figured they’d be back. What was the big deal? Weren’t people allowed to leave? If Sylvie wanted to disappear and reappear somewhere else as someone else, if she thought that might make her happy, more power to her. She wasn’t breaking any laws. To be sure, she’d be happier away from him. It had come to that awhile ago. Let her max-out her credit cards. He’d been considering declaring bankruptcy anyway. Her departure dowry. He missed having the gun in the house, though. He didn’t like the thought of Sylvie having it.
He decided to call her. He hadn’t tried to reach her before. She obviously wanted no contact with him. Maybe he would threaten her with theft for taking the Glock. She had no permit for it. She could mail it back to him from wherever she had gotten to. When he called her cellphone number, it rang two times then went dead. He tried again, same results. She’d had his number blocked. Sylvie had definitely gone solo.
The doctors had cut off his oxycodone. Victor called his stepson Warren. In the neighborhood where Victor had grown up, every Irish family had to have one member, either priest or nun, in the clergy. These days, every family needed a pusher. Warren, Sylvie’s youngest, had accepted the calling. Warren said he could get him something stronger, but Victor said no, just prescription strength, well, 60 or 80 mg if he could get it. Why be kind to pain? Victor knew better than to ask Warren if he had heard from Sylvie, knew better than to even mention her name. It was a long story he didn’t know, didn’t want to know. Victor knew Warren wouldn’t come to the house. They arranged to meet in a Dairy Queen parking lot.
Most cars these days looked pretty much the same in the rearview mirror. Highways, the great international melting pot. American, Korean, German, Japanese—all akin in shape and color. Were there still any English, French, or Italian cars on the road, aside from vintage models? He had to drive through town to get to the Dairy Queen, midday traffic. Victor didn’t know for sure, but he had the feeling he was being followed. Was he just being paranoid? There was no reason why anyone would be tailing him. He took some elusive turns but couldn’t tell. The feeling wouldn’t go away.
From his line of work, Victor was familiar with the state’s divorce laws. Desertion was sufficient cause, but desertion by a missing person was a new one on him. That could be drawn out. He should have started proceedings months ago, after that scene in Costa Rica, before the accident. But he had put it off because he didn’t feel like moving and he knew that he would lose the house because he had nothing else to settle with. All life was things falling apart or threatening to fall apart. Just listen to the news.
Victor had been waiting at the Dairy Queen five minutes when Warren’s car pulled into the space beside his. Warren had said it would be around a hundred. Victor had the cash. He pulled out his billfold. When he looked up, he was surprised to see Sylvie sitting in the passenger-side seat across from him. Her window was rolled down. She didn’t speak or say hello. She just pulled up the Glock and pointed it at him.
Instinctively, Victor buzzed up his window. The first shot missed him, shattering the window, blinding him with shards of glass. He never heard the second shot.