Eileen stood up as Andrew walked toward her: it seemed like the polite thing to do. “Holy shit,” she said, louder than she should have. “You look awesome.” And he did.
He sat right down, without even an attempt at a kiss or even a hug. “Thanks.” He reached for a water glass and drank. “It’s been a hell of a struggle. Still is; only this time, the struggle is to appreciate where I am and the work I’ve done, instead of thinking I don’t deserve it and then destroying it all.”
She noticed she was still standing up. She sat, awkwardly. She reached for the bottle. “Well, let’s toast your success.”
An upraised palm. “No can do. Three years sober, now.”
“But wine was never the–”
“I had to swear off all mood-altering substances. Only way to make it work. Alcohol was easy; but do you have any idea how much coffee they go through in my office?” He looked up at the shadow of the waitress behind him. “Soda water with a slice of lemon, please.” He looked up at Eileen. “Have you ordered?”
If you didn’t already know, you’d never guess about the injury. “No.”
“Know what you want?”
“I think so.” She fumbled for the menu.
He showed the waitress his perfect teeth in a smile. “Easier to ask than read. What have you got that’s vegan-friendly?”
Eileen was looking at the entrées, but could hear the girl’s discomfort. “Well, sir, there’s braised garden vegetables and… salad.”
“Don’t feel bad; this happens all the time. Dinner salad, vinaigrette on the side. Eileen?”
“I’ll have the New York strip, bloody rare.”
“Um, ma’am, by Georgia law, we have to–”
“I know what the law says. But I want it bloody. Thank you.”
After she was gone, Andrew said, “And I need to thank you.”
“It was what anyone would have done. It was the least I could do.” She fervently wished she had done less.
“No, you threw me a line when you could have let me sink. But you helped, and I got back on my feet, and here I am.”
And undeniably looking great. The age gap showed more now, not less. So unfair that the years made him distinguished, and her invisible. “And here you are. So, are you seeing anyone?”
“Not sure how much I’m ready for a relationship. I’ve had some… issues, there. I date, some, but you know how it is when you meet random strangers over the Internet. You never know what they’re really going to be like.”
She felt her blood run cold; she kept a careful hand on her wine glass. “Sure. Yeah. You wouldn’t believe the kind of men who message me on–”
“You’re right; I wouldn’t,” he said with a real friendly smile. The waitress set his soda water in front of him. “Thank you.” To Eileen, he said, “But all this small talk about dating is really beside the point. The point here is Lucy. I’m a functioning grown-up now, and I have been for more than three years. And I have a solid, profitable business now, with clients who like and trust me.”
She poured some more wine. “I’m not going to argue. But if you’re thinking that means we’re going to reopen the settlement–”
“Any file can be reopened, Eileen. Any file. You see, one of my clients is the headmaster of Cambridge Academy, and I told him about Lucy, and how on the one day a month I get to see her, she’s always talking about how she’s bored in school. He can open a place for Lucy. With a discount. Not a huge one, but all in all, it’s a drop in the bucket when you consider our combined income. It’s the kind of academic challenge Lucy deserves. And needs.”
She knew there was a trap here, somewhere. “She stays with me.”
He sat up straight, then looked her straight in the eyes. “You were Frank, weren’t you? I mean, there was never actually a Frank, was there? You had an extra laptop or something, and you made him up.”
She couldn’t stop herself from smiling. “Well, that’s all in the past.”
“I think that was a yes.”
“I’m not going to engage with you on this.”
A big smile. “I think you are.” He picked up his fork and in one smooth motion jabbed it into his right eye. Even Eileen, who knew what the result would be, flinched. But all she heard was the clink of the metal striking the glass.
When she looked up, he was smiling, still holding the fork on the surface of the eye. “It’s not just a big marble.” He tapped one tine on the glass, three quick strikes. “It was, but I fixed that. You ever hear of Google Glass? Well I’ve got me a Google Eye now. Say hello to my cloud storage. Files can be reopened.”
“Yes, me. You know what the best thing about Cambridge Academy is? It’s right near my place. Lucy and I will be able to have lunch together, just like the old days.”
Eileen knocked twice, waited, knocked harder. Waited. Nothing. She sighed with relief; knowing that she could say she had made the effort was worth the risk of having to follow through. She turned to walk back to the Mercedes, but caught something out of the corner of her eye and whipped her head back out of reflex. The living room window was half-open with a small square fan stuck in it. She was poking her head in the room before she had finished justifying it to herself. “Hello?” she said for form’s sake before pulling herself the rest of the way in.
The room was dark, dank, and smelled of stale cigarettes and medication. “Andrew?” Next to her was a huge, cheap, particleboard armoire that held only a small flatscreen computer monitor, its blue screen providing more light than what little could make it through the heavy blinds that fell back into place behind her. A coffee table covered with ashtrays and weeks-old bottles and takeaway cartons took up most of what space was left between the armoire and a blanket-covered thrift store couch. Nothing like a file cabinet here.
Through a kitchen she’d never be able to describe, into a bedless bedroom crammed full with a weight set covered with dust and spider webs, and the boxes of and boxes of vinyl records, just as she remembered them, the masking tape with labels for genre and period looking the worse for wear. Computer on a desk in the corner was shut down. Nothing useful there: on television, she’d be able to type Lucy2002 in the password box and it would open, but Andrew wasn’t nearly that stupid.
Second bedroom had an empty canvas cot and bingo! A two-drawer cabinet with ranks of files. She went through them deliberately enough to make sure she didn’t miss anything. Bills, bills, bills, doctor’s reports, mostly from the VA. There was the divorce decree, in its original envelope. At the bottom of the cabinet under the hanging files was a Polaroid of her from before Lucy, when her tummy was still perfect. And another she didn’t remember, from that rave thing, of her naked but for hiking boots, stroking Andrew’s cock with a mountain lake in the background. Nice. She still looked like gravity didn’t apply then. She took it: she could crop him out. But there was nothing else she could see that might help her. Back to the kitchen: her work here was done.
But as she walked into the living room, she heard a dry click, and froze in place. On the couch was a mummy holding a lighter to the cigarette between its lips. “Eileen?” it said. In the cloud of smoke, she couldn’t see details, but what she saw looked like death. Gaunt, dried out, one side of his face looking misshapen. She was pretty sure one of the lower incisors was missing.
She turned slowly to face him. “The counselor from the VA called, said you hadn’t checked in. Jesus, look at you: no wonder.”
“So… you broke in?”
She shrugged. “Thought you were out. But you don’t go out, do you?”
He braced his arm to stand, decided better of it. “You here to rescue? Or to gloat?”
It would be easy to pour him a drink. Let him relax, then hold the pillow over his face and drop it in a dumpster somewhere not on the way back to her place. “You want to be rescued?”
A hint of the old smile. “Do I look like I want that?”
It would be the right thing to do, too. Even for Lucy: who needs to see their father reduced to this? But then came Dr. Kramer’s voice in her head, droning about the human family. She bit her lip. All she really needed to do was drive him up Claremont to the VA hospital.
“I don’t think that matters. Can you walk to the car?” She stepped around the coffee table and helped him to his feet. Even stooped and swaying, he was so tall.
She circled all the way around the courtyard with its rows of tables so she could catch him from his blind side. But he looked up just as she got within a few feet of him. “Thanks for coming,” he said.
“Why are we here?” she snapped, as she put her Styrofoam clamshell on the table. The Peachtree Center food court’s ceiling was mostly skylit, letting in natural light and a view of the towers above them. But it was still a food court, full of office drones eating out of the same clamshells—eating more than they probably should for an afternoon in a chair in front of a screen. “It’s miles from both our offices.”
“Neutral ground,” he said, then used a chopstick to flip open her clamshell. “Oh, you got the teriyaki?”
She felt her jaw clench, saw him smile, knew he’d won, clenched harder. “I just pointed. Wasn’t even hungry, but started smelling all the food.” She yanked out a chair, sat, scooted it up. “Neutral ground? What is this bullshit?”
He shrugged. “You learn a lot, over there. You want people to listen, negotiate, without causing trouble, you put them in front of a bunch of strangers.” He took a bite of what look like curried shrimp, chewed thoughtfully. “Part of it is therapy, too.”
Interested in spite of herself, “Yeah? How’s that?”
“Crowds. You never knew over there. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they were just people buying groceries. And then the hundredth time, a car would blow up and kill a few dozen people. Or someone would pop out of nowhere and start shooting. There was this light colonel, in the Green Zone? Great guy. Picked up the language, made a lot of local friends? A real asset. Went out for kebabs one day, outside the zone. One minute, he’s laughing it up with the owners of the restaurant; next minute everyone inside is hamburger.”
The chicken she found herself chewing was actually pretty tasty. “Nobody here is a terrorist.”
“I know that, but–”
“And nobody here is worth taking out. The executives don’t eat here: these people are cattle.”
“Try saying that a little louder. And it’s not the point. Over there, the point was to make no place a safe place. Here, it’s for me to walk through a crowd and not be thinking a car is going to explode any second.” Another bite for him; she took another. “But that’s what it’s come down to for both of us: negotiations.”
“What do you want?”
“Out. I was gone for three years; you moved on.” He held up a hand to forestall her objection, then saw she wasn’t objecting. “See? You got what you wanted: a kid, money, and at least one other lover that I know about.”
She just continued eating. He kept talking. “Probably more. And you can have all that. All I want is my share of the parenting. I’ll get an apartment somewhere in the zone for Lucy’s school, pay my share of the bills. Won’t ask you for a penny.”
She finished her bite, took another, kept chewing. Now she had an appetite. She kept staring at him while she chewed: she wanted to see him flinch, but the eyepatch still unnerved her. Finally, she said, “Let me tell you what’s going to happen. Wait; no: let me give you two different scenarios. Number one, you move out, and you disappear. Get an apartment out of Lucy’s school zone. Keep taking handfuls of pills. Clean your gun: that plus the bills ought to take care of things. Lucy is mine. You just gave me what Eddie couldn’t. Yeah, it’s real cute how Lucy climbs all over you—but she’s four, and you don’t have a job.”
“You don’t even feed her.” He put down his chopsticks.
“That’s Svetlana’s job.”
“Imagine how a judge would feel about that. I don’t want to go there, but a two-timer—a three-timer—who doesn’t know her kid’s favorite color, versus a wounded warrior? You think you’re going to shut me out completely?”
“Yes. Because scenario number two is me going back to that big ugly cop and his cute little partner, and tearfully figuring out what a bunch of things you might have said to me added up to. They were pretty skeptical about you.”
“I…” Now he flinched. “You’d do that? Jesus.”
“Don’t come between me and my kid.”
“My kid. The whole time you were deployed? I kept waiting for people from the Army to show up at the door. I’d put your picture up on the wall. On the anniversary, me and Lucy would go out for Chinese food or whatever. I’d put the survivor benefits in her college fund.” Another bite. “But now, here you are, in my house, getting in my way, filling Lucy’s head with all that peaceful conflict resolution bullshit. My kid is going to know when, how and why to curb-stomp someone.” She pointed her chopstick at him. “You get out, you stay out, and I’ll stay quiet.”
“Why are you still talking? Think about prison without pills.”
He stared at her for a moment. “This isn’t over.”
“It never started.”
He put up his hands, got up, walked away ramrod straight, never looked back.
She looked around, saw that everyone at the surrounding tables was looking at her, dully curious. “What the fuck are you people staring at? Think about what happens to you in the next round of downsizing.” Without bothering to wait for their reactions, she used a chopstick to pull Andrew’s clamshell over to her side of the table so she could polish off the shrimp.
The big, ugly detective slid the cardboard box over to Andrew. “These are from this afternoon, so they aren’t stale yet. Take one: we’re gonna be here awhile.”
“It’s self-defense,” said Andrew. He rummaged through the box until he came up with a blueberry glazed. “The guy busts into my place with a gun and waves it at me–”
“Yeah. Normally, that’ll end up with you sleeping at home, if you can deal with the mess.” The detective sat down, opened a notebook, paged through it. “But when the guy you shoot is your girlfriend’s husband, there’s maybe a couple of extra boxes we got to check.” While he wrote in the notebook with his right hand, his left shot out and grabbed a donut at random out of the box. Powdered sugar. “So, the baby: yours or his?”
“How does it matter?”
“Attitude is not going to make me any less suspicious.”
“He busted in. It was dark, he had a hoodie on, but I could see the gun. I’d just finished cleaning my own gun; it was right there on the table next to me. Reflex, nothing more. Go check on how many break-ins there have been at that dump. It wasn’t until I turned on the light that I’m like, oh shit it’s Eddie.”
The cop stared at him, eyes boring into Andrew’s, managing to chew skeptically. Andrew had a flashback, and realized that this guy twenty years ago was the big noncom who knew all the answers but wouldn’t give them unless and until a new, green lieutenant figured out which questions to ask. The staff sergeant who knew where all the bodies were buried. The only person standing between you and a grenade from your own troops. But the white in his beard wasn’t powdered sugar: this guy was Vietnam, not Gulf War. First Gulf War, now. Jesus.
As if he’d read Andrew’s mind, the guy said, “I’m guessing ROTC for college, did your four years and got out ASAP.”
“Six years. They made me a captain.”
“They call you back up again?”
“Not formally, yet. I figure that letter will show up any day. But I don’t want to go back in. Afghanistan sort of makes sense, but none of those hijackers was Iraqi. Nothing I can do about it; except maybe if you folks put enough of a cloud over my head.”
“Don’t hold your breath, Captain. Why did Eddie Smith pick last night to try to kill you?”
“Fuck, I don’t know. We worked things out, before.”
“What, you’re taking turns on the girl? When did he find out you were banging his wife?”
“Real soon after she told everyone she was pregnant. She told me they’d been trying forever, but she couldn’t get pregnant. Endometriosis? I had to look it up. So then she does get pregnant, and I can tell I’m about to get dumped because she’s going to go be a great mom and all, which is… not cool for me, but I can live with it. She’s six years older than me, she’s married, there’s other fish in the sea, you know?”
The door opened and the blonde detective entered. “Ten years older, Mr. Harris,” she said. She pulled out a chair, put a laptop on the table, looked at the donuts, wrinkled her nose, sat. “Can’t lie to the DMV. Almost eleven years, really.”
“No shit?” Now this detective was maybe even a year or two older than that, but she was fine, classy, au naturel. The things you learn too late. At her nod, he said, “Damn.” He took another bite of his donut. “Well, so I’m getting ready for her big speech, when Eddie shows up. He corners me at work, where I can’t run and hide. Tells me he knows what’s been going on, don’t try to deny it. Turns out, he’s got a low sperm count. He didn’t know it till then: thought it was her problem, like she said. She gets pregnant, he goes to get life insurance, they give him a physical, tell him he might should be skeptical about things. Does some research, finds me.”
The woman took a plastic bag of carrot sticks from her jacket pocket. “Did he seem, at the time, that he was the sort of fellow who would come to your house and try to kill you?”
“No, ma’am. For a guy who just found out his kid might be someone else’s, he was a real gentleman. Because, you see, it never hit me until then that I might be the dad. Eileen always timed it, so when she was likely to get pregnant we’d use condoms. So he’s upset, I’m upset, I take the afternoon off and we end up at Daddy D’s barbecue.”
“Mmm,” said the woman. She took a carrot from the bag.
“Yeah. We worked it out. Lucy turns out to be his, I knock it off with Eileen and walk away. She’s mine, I step up and he cuts her out. I actually respected the man.”
The guy said, “And I take it the kid really was yours.”
“Well, she sure don’t take after Eddie. I’m not going to pretend that fatherhood was really what I was looking for, but I’ve taken to it. It’s going to kill me when I get recalled and deployed, and she’ll still be too young to remember.”
The woman said, “Tell us about the divorce negotiations.”
“Oh, man. Eileen wants money; Eddie to told her to go soak her head. They haven’t even gone to court yet–” He put down the donut. “Right. So, you’re figuring we set Eddie up. But we didn’t.” He put his head in his hands. “I’m thinking, I need to find a lawyer.”
“Well, that’s your right, Mr. Harris. Tell us, who’s Frank Gershwin?”
He blinked five or six times in a row. “Um. Who?” Now both detectives were staring at him. He had to keep moving his gaze back and forth. Finally, “Can I get a hint, here? I really don’t know.”
The blonde spun the laptop around so he could see the screen. It was an email inbox, nothing unusual, until he saw that six or seven of the messages had his name in the From box. He pulled it toward him. “Who… oh, this is Eddie’s email? Wait, that’s fucked up; I don’t think I’ve ever sent him an email.” He squinted. “And I’d remember sending this money in just a couple of days.” He tried to click a link.
“It’s just a screenshot,” said the woman. “Look at the subject lines.”
“You’ll be paying for my kid… I just came in Eileen… What the fuck?” He looked back and forth between them again. “I didn’t do this.”
The woman said, “You would have known it should have been I came on Eileen.”
The guy said, “We’re pretty sure you didn’t. Anyone can set up an email account and put whoever’s name they want in the box. Eileen ain’t just cheating on Eddie; she’s cheating on you.” He looked at his partner. “You explain it.”
“Sure. Mr. Harris, your girlfriend trolls Internet sites for sex. It’s not my business, but you might ought to get yourself tested. The baby, too, for DNA; though she does look an awful lot like you. One of the men she found was Frank Gershwin. We have their chat logs: you wish they could at least try to spell things right. Somewhere during their affair, she tells Mr. Gershwin about y’all’s situation. Mr. Gershwin makes up a new email address and poses as you, and taunts Mr. Smith.”
She crunched a carrot stick, chewed, swallowed. “And now we know the rest of the story. Mr. Smith thinks you’ve reneged on your gentlemen’s agreement, and makes the terrible mistake of breaking into an infantry captain’s apartment.” She bit into the carrot again.
After a long pause, Andrew figured out she was done. “Um. What a dick. I…”
“Trouble is,” said the guy, “being a total dick isn’t actually illegal. Good thing, too, because half of Atlanta would be in jail by now. But it gets better. We have you down here for the initial interview, Eileen shows up at your place, sees the scene, freaks out and maybe gets a crime scene tech to say more than they really should have. She sends a message to Frank saying you wouldn’t believe what just happened. And Frank? He pulls his whole identity down about twenty minutes later.”
“You can do that?”
“Captain, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re really a dog. But like my partner said, you can’t lie to the DMV. That’s why we kept you waiting: we paid Mr. Gershwin a visit. And he’s as clueless as you are. He lives there, he’s got a computer, he trolls for sex on the Internet. But Mr. Gershwin is…” he looked at his partner. “Am I still allowed to say queer as a three-dollar bill?”
She shrugged. “It’s certainly vivid.”
“And I mean it in a non-judgmental way. One of those big muscled dudes who wears leather around the house. Has a little yappy dog.”
Andrew nodded. “Not Eileen’s type. She’s not his type.”
“You got that right. Real cooperative, but a dead end. So it looks like Mr. Gershwin got played by someone not being who they said they were on the Internet; and your girlfriend got played, too. You’re going to say you saw a gun, and sure enough, there’s a gun there, even though Mr. Smith’s coworkers all say he was the only big Georgia redneck they ever met who didn’t like guns.” He caught his partner’s flinch. “I can’t say redneck anymore? Dang. Anyway, Eileen’s going to say she had no idea someone she met for sex on the Internet wasn’t who he said he was. And if we ever track down the guy who pretended to be Frank, he’s going to shut the fuck up and not say anything, if he’s smart enough to disappear off the Internet. And what do we have him for, anyway? Trolling people online? Shit.”
Andrew found himself talking. “Where did they meet? For sex, I mean? You could–”
“Track them that way? Nice thinking. No wonder they promoted you twice. An empty apartment in Mr. Gershwin’s complex. So yeah, we’re gonna track down everyone with a key. But for now, we’re gonna go through every message you and Eileen ever exchanged, and if we find anything that looks like conspiracy, you might not get sent to Iraq after all. Have another donut if you want, and sit tight. It’s going to take us a while.”
Eileen sat up when Andrew came from the kitchen with a tray of food. “Wish I had better,” he said as he put the tray on her lap. “But nobody’s delivering tonight.”
She grabbed a pizza roll off the tray, then dropped it just as quickly. “Hot!” She sucked on her finger and thumb for a minute, while using the other hand to flip channels. But every station was showing the same footage, of the plane hitting the second tower, and the giant plume of smoke across New York City. She flipped the TV off. “Nothing new. It’s over. Bush can stop hiding now.”
When she bent forward to pick up a pizza roll more carefully, it dislodged the icepack. Andrew rushed forward to drape it back over her ankle. “You sure I can’t take you to the hospital?”
“Right now? It will be full of freaks thinking the Muslims or whoever are coming for them. I’ll be fine. My own damn fault for thinking walking down fifteen flights of stairs in heels was a good idea. Why the fuck did they evacuate us? We’re the tenth-biggest building in the tenth-biggest city in the country. They’d have run out of airplanes before they got to us.”
“Military thinking. Better safe than–”
“Yeah.” She shrugged. “Of course, I should feel lucky. It got me rescued by a big strapping young hunk.”
Andrew blushed; he wasn’t used to elegant ladies talking to him at all. “Glad I could help.”
“I think you still can. You were a soldier? You seem too handsome.”
“Er, thanks. I was an officer. Pretty boring. But it paid for college.”
“So, you’re used to taking orders, then.”
“Mostly, giving them.”
She put the tray aside. “And here I am all helpless, and owing you one for rescuing me.”
“Um, well, ma’am, you’re wearing a wedding ring.”
“So I am.” She took it off and put it on the tray. “My husband? He was in a motorcycle accident. He can’t really… perform. But I try to meet my needs in a way that doesn’t expose him to it. He gets so sensitive.” She unbuttoned her shirt, then paused. “Speaking of which…” She fished in her purse, pulled out a cell phone, placed it on the tray next to the ring, then fished for a second phone, started texting. “Let me make sure he knows I’m safe.”
“You have two cell phones?”
“Business and pleasure. Sometimes I’m two different people.” She placed the phone next to its mate. “Now let’s make you stand at attention. Though I think you probably already are. Eyes forward, Sergeant.”