She answered her phone on the second ring, then even more surprisingly, she didn’t hang up.
Maybe because I asked her if she was going to go back to her maiden name after the divorce.
Back to the name Steiner.
She went silent, one of those strangled pauses that say more than words can. Then she agreed to meet me on Lincoln and Ninth.
The first day I’d met her, she’d told me about her father.
My pop was a mechanic, she’d said, after I thanked her for fixing my coil wire. He basically lived under the hood.
Just like someone else I’d heard about.
He took auto-mechanic classes in jail-that’s what he ended up doing when he got out… The boy-wonder engineer, fixing cars for a living.
There was more.
At our second dinner, after she happened to mention that she’d known Wren.
That’s where we’d met, she said. At the home… to try to scare up some memories.
And what was Anna doing at the home?
My pop. He’s got Alzheimer’s, she’d said.
And when I’d asked Wren-not really Wren, but whoever was on the phone with me that day-if Lloyd Steiner was still alive?
Did you try to speak with him?
Uh-huh. Let’s just say he’s not talking.
It was possible.
Maybe even plausible.
So you think Lloyd Steiner went to jail for ten years to appease the public and kept his mouth shut all that time?
Maybe he had kept his mouth shut.
Just not forever.
I called the home. I introduced myself as a concerned relative. I asked a sympathetic-sounding attendant how Mr. Steiner was doing today. “Lloyd Steiner? Is he okay?”
“No change. We’re pretty much down to force-feeding him now.”
It’s what you do for someone you love, she’d said. He’s my dad. I’d do anything for him.
In the end, maybe that’s what she’d needed to do.
That picture she showed me.
Cody on the push-and-pedal. The kid pumping his legs like nobody’s business-striking out on his own. Going wherever he wanted to-exploring the great wide world.
Except he wasn’t.
Mom was right behind him holding on to that pole and steering him where she wanted him to go. It was an illusion.
Dirty trick, huh?
Yes, Anna, it was.
IT’S FUNNY HOW SHE STILL STIRRED SOMETHING IN ME.
Maybe it’s our nature to let the body forgive what the mind can’t.
Or else we’d all be at one another’s throats. And we’d never let go.
“Someone paid you a visit three years ago,” I said. “A creepy-looking man with a voice like a girl’s.”
We were standing on the corner on Lincoln. Early evening, lots of foot traffic heading toward the promenade.
“Your dad was in the early stage of Alzheimer’s by then. It was probably his last chance to get something out. Before he vanished-the part of him that could actually communicate with the world. That could still form words.”
She turned away, rubbed something out of her eye.
“This man paid you a visit. He said something like this-I’ll paraphrase. Your daddy made a deal. A long time ago. He’s got to honor it. Even if he’s gone off the deep end of the ocean-even if he’s begun muttering things to local reporters. A secret’s a secret. A deal’s a deal.”
There was something in her eyes.
“He’d begun talking about the past,” she said softly.
I nodded. “Sure.”
“That’s pretty much all he talked about. It’s what happens when you start going… That’s what the doctor said… Like counting backward when someone’s putting you under. And then you’re asleep. You’re gone. Sometimes he was actually there, back in the 1950s…”
“ 1954,” I said. “I bet he spent a lot of time in 1954. The year Wren was interested in hearing about. The year of the flood. By the way, what’s your real name? I feel silly calling you Anna.”
“Does it matter?” she said.
“No. Guess not. The deal your father made. Maybe it was the best deal he could get. Under the circumstances. I think they would’ve gotten him one way or another-he had a history. He spent ten years in jail, but he did something for his family. He got something out of it. You must’ve come later. After he got out.”
She nodded. “They’d had a ten-year coitus interruptus.” She forced a smile. “I guess they were making up for lost time.”
“You met Wren at the home. Maybe the creepy-looking man told you to do that-your dad’s blabbing about things he has no business talking about, and he’s talking about them to a reporter-get over here and keep an eye on him. Or maybe you met Wren first-when you were visiting your dad. And he sought you out and asked if he could speak to him. About a flood. And a town. It doesn’t matter. Either way, you became Wren’s friend-a kind of confidante?”
“He was excited. Just like you said. He’d discovered something that happened just twenty-three miles down the road. Something awful. Something huge. Your father must’ve confirmed it. Did he give Wren something? Did he hand him more than his memories?”
“No. I don’t think so. Why?”
“Because they got scared enough to do something. Because your father’s memory wouldn’t be considered exactly rock solid. Not anymore. Because…”
“Look, I can’t talk about this.”
She still looked sad-something else now. Frightened. Even here, in the middle of a breezy Santa Monica evening, scared stiff.
“What did he threaten you with?” I asked softly. “Your dad, sure-but he’s half-dead already. You have a son. Your mom-she’s still alive. Did he force you to make the same choice your father did? Protect your family? Or don’t.”
She didn’t answer. She didn’t have to.
“You became their spy. You kept tabs. They needed to know how much your father told Wren. What. If he’d given him something tangible. That was your job-be Wren’s friend but their eyes and ears. Help put the water back in the bottle.”
A car slowly turned the corner; she took a step back as if she were about to break into a run.
“Did you tell him? That you’re meeting me here?”
She shook her head. “No.”
“You’re sure? You’re not lying to me?”
“Good, then you can stop peeking behind your back. Your father. He talked about the past. 1954. He spilled the beans. The dam that really wasn’t. The little explosion the history books don’t tell us about. He didn’t give Wren anything? Nothing?”
“No.” She looked up. “Why do you keep asking me that?”
“I told you. They got spooked enough to do something.”
“They weren’t the only ones who got spooked.”
She nodded. “He knew. That he was being followed. He thought his phone was being bugged. He didn’t know whom to trust anymore.”
“He trusted you, though, didn’t he?”
“Yes,” she nodded. “He trusted me. He started to worry that something bad was going to happen to him.”
“He was right,” I said. “They killed him.”
She turned pale, went deathly quiet like she had over the phone.
“No,” she whispered. “No. He e-mailed me.…”
“Not Wren. He was buried out in the woods. I found his body.”
“They said no one would be hurt if I went along… I swear to God… you have to believe me… They promised me…”
“I believe you. You were told what you needed to be told. Be Wren’s pal. No one will get hurt. Ask him things. Tell us what he says. They lied.”
A car rolled by, playing the latest from Eminem: yoh… yoh.
“So what did Wren say?” I asked her. “Aside from being worried that something was about to fall on his head?”
“He didn’t tell me the details,” she said. “He said it was safer that way. He was doing a story on the flood. He said they’d covered up something-the government-a big accident that happened in the fifties. The flood was the least of it. He said you can keep a secret for only so long and then you can’t. He said my father helped make everything clear to him. That I should be proud of him. That he was going to break the story wide open. Even if something happened to him. Even then the story was protected.”
“Protected? What did he mean?”
“He wouldn’t tell me. He said the story was someplace they couldn’t get to it. That’s all. That it was protected. That sooner or later, someone would bring it into the light.”
“Into the light? That’s what he said?”
“Did he mention an army vet who’d wandered into town? Eddie Bronson?”
“Because he was the trigger. Because he set everything in motion. Because he was someone who should’ve died in the flood, but there he was-still alive. That’s when Wren started to dig into the history of Littleton Flats. Just like I did. Three years later.”
She looked genuinely perplexed. She was telling the truth; they’d told her only what they wanted her to know.
“When did they inform you that your services were needed again?” I asked her.
“The day before I ran into you.”
“But you didn’t just run into me.”
I tried to calculate. My mind wasn’t what it used to be. The drugs had dulled the edges, loosened the coil wires.
Benjy had flown the coop. They knew he was headed here. They got scared. He’d seen his mom-he’d called the fucking sheriff’s office? Who else had he talked to?
“They gave you that stupid name. Do you know why?”
She shook her head.
“Come on, any idiot could see it. Any idiot except this one. Anna Graham. Anagram. They opened that AOL account for you. You really don’t know why?”
“No. I really don’t know why. Why did they want to make my name an anagram?”
“Because a doctor had fed me anagrams in a story two years ago. A story I made up. My reservoir of creativity might’ve been running a little dry at that point. I was down to borrowing the conventions of a thriller.”
She shook her head. “I don’t get it.”
“That’s two of us. I think I’m beginning to, though. I am. You loosened my coil wire. You fixed my coil wire. You went out on two dates with me. But you didn’t know who I was? Tom Valle? My sordid past?”
“Life is full of surprises. Did you ever meet anyone else? Besides the man with no face?”
“No. He found me three years ago. In Santa Monica. Rang my bell and said he needed to talk to me about my dad. Okay, I said, sure, come in. I made him coffee. This was before he threatened my kid. My mom. As calmly as someone discussing the weather. When I picked myself up off the floor, I told him to get out and go screw himself. I was going to go to the police, the FBI. He held the phone out for me. ‘Remember to spell my name right,’ he said. You understand, he was very clear about this-that he was unofficially official. That I was fucked. I did what I needed to. I didn’t know about Wren. Honest to God I didn’t.”
It was odd. Having someone beg me to believe them. If it wasn’t the definition of irony, it should’ve been.
“I believe you,” I said for the second time. “Did they tell you what to say to me? Fed you stuff to feed me? You didn’t just happen to mention that you lived on Fifth, near the promenade, did you?”
“No. Why was that was important?”
“They were hoping I’d take a stroll there. That I’d pursue you.” I felt myself blushing-the awkward 13-year-old picking someone for Seven Minutes in Heaven who didn’t want to be picked. Not by me. “I did pursue you-stupid me. Have you been to the theater lately? Maybe you saw that hysterical sex comedy that takes place on the Santa Monica Pier?”
“Forget it. It doesn’t matter.”
The foot traffic had thinned a bit. A slight breeze was swirling, lifting the mimosa petals on the sidewalk flowerpots, fluttering the edges of her thick, lovely hair.
It would’ve been nice, I thought. If she had really liked me. If she hadn’t been told to smile at me across the rec room of the nursing home. If she’d listened to my pathetic story and said I understand; I forgive you. I will love you anyway.
Now she looked up, those big brown eyes.
“I still don’t get it,” she said. “Why would they want me to tell you anything?”
I still had a key to the Littleton Journal office.
I drove back into Littleton in the dead of night.
I parked in the strip mall and sat in my car until I was sure no one was around. No kids chugging beer out of paper bags, no Mr. Yang cooking up some Peking duck for tomorrow’s lunch crowd.
I let myself in and headed to the back.
That’s where the paper was paginated. It was all done by computer now, of course. Each page spit out as a separate unit, then brought over to the printing press on Yarrow Street where it was made whole.
The older issues were stored on microfilm, but everything from ten years ago and forward was hard-drived.
Once an issue was deemed finished-by Hinch, of course-you had to save it in a separate file, where it was organized by date. I’d done it myself; at the Littleton Journal we multitasked.
I logged in and scrolled back to three years ago. To the issue with the story about Eddie Bronson. The last issue Wren worked on before he disappeared.
Not to read it again; I pretty much knew it by heart.
I was looking for something.
When I found it, I’d know what it was.
I went back and forth and back-scroll, click, scroll, click. That issue, then on to the next, then back.
I skimmed the stories. “Who’s Eddie Bronson?” A review of a newly released DVD, four stars. The weather forecast-hot and dry, followed by hot and dry, then more hot and dry. A two-for-one deal at the DQ.
Call it peripheral vision. The thing you don’t really see, but it’s okay, your brain does. It’s paginated there for future reference.
The little number on the right-hand corner of page 1.
Every issue of the Littleton Journal has one-the computer automatically places it there. Every issue since its inception-an issue number. It marks time; it says we might not be a venerable paper, but we have a venerable history.
We have roots. We go back.
The issue with “Who’s Eddie Bronson?” was number 7,512.
I went forward to the next one.
Then back one more time to be sure.
“Okay,” I said out loud.
I WAS BACK IN MY LITTLETON HOUSE.
I’d let myself in through the back door, just in case.
Someone had been there first.
I could’ve been in the cabin by the lake. The clutter was indistinguishable. One mess looks pretty much like another.
I went upstairs and stood under the shower spray for twenty solid minutes, trying to wash off the stultifying stink of incarceration. Trying to get my head straight. I wondered if craziness was catching. I’d noticed sudden tremors in my hands, fingers clenching and unclenching, as if they had something they urgently needed to pick up.
When I walked naked into my bedroom and opened up my underwear drawer, I said: “There’s the gun.”
Speaking it out loud, as if I were casually pointing this out to another person in the room.
He’d put it back nicely and neatly.
The gun that shot Nate the Skate. That put a bullet through Mr. Patjy’s head.
Guns don’t kill people. People do.
I pulled on some sweats and stuck the gun in the waistband, like a gangbanger might.
I was in a hurry.
If they’d planted the gun, it was so someone could find it. Preferably with me holding it.
That’s what I was doing as I held my breath and flicked on the downstairs light-holding the gun with my arm straight out like I’d seen in TV police procedurals, not putting it back into the waistband of my pants until I’d visually reconnoitered the room.
I sat on the bottom step and stared, the class dullard desperately trying not to fail again. I rode herd on what little intelligence I had left. I was back in the Acropolis Diner; I was almost done. The check was due. We needed to leave.
You’re it, he’d said to me. You’re it… you’re it… you’re it.…
Yes, I know.
And now, finally, I understood why.
“HEY, MAN, WHERE THE FUCK YOU BEEN?”
The first words out of Seth’s mouth when I rung him up, still sitting on that basement step.
He seemed personally aggrieved that I’d taken off without telling him. People had been asking his take on things. The shooting. The missing gun. The sudden notoriety these things had pulled kicking and screaming into the light of day. In Littleton, the day could be long, hot, and brutal.
He’d had to lie a little. Act like he knew more than he actually did. As if he’d been in my confidence all along. I’d robbed him of the full pleasure of basking in infamy by association.
“Working on a obituary. Like I told you.”
“Yeah? You might want to start on yours while you’re at it.”
“Why’s that, Seth?”
“The sheriff came by and interviewed me.”
“Oh? That’s all you’re gonna say? Oh? Shit, if I knew you were a desperado, I would’ve hung out with you more often.”
“What did you tell him?”
“That you can’t bowl for shit. And the next pussy you get will be your first. How’s that?”
“Pretty accurate. Did the sheriff seem pleased with that?”
“I don’t think he has a sense of humor.”
“So, you going to tell me what’s going on? Or do I have to wait to read it in the fucking Littleton Journal?”
“That all depends.”
“Oh yeah? On what?”
“If you can help me or not.”
“If I can help you do what?”
“Know what’s going on.”
“Huh? I’m a little buzzed right now, okay? You’re not making it any fucking easier.”
“You did some Sheetrock work for Wren a few years ago.”
“I saw the bill.”
“You saw the bill. Okay. Doesn’t mean I did the work.”
“Where did he want the work done?”
“Where? His basement.”
“Why? What was in the basement? Did he have damage down there?”
“As a matter of fact, yeah. There was a fucking hole in the wall. He wanted me to fix it.”
“For five hundred dollars?”
“Hey, that was my starting price-I would’ve negotiated down, man. Besides, he wanted the whole fucker fortified.”
“Why did he want the basement wall fortified?”
“I don’t know. He said the insulation was shitty. He said he needed protection against flooding.”
“Against flooding? In Littleton?”
“Hey, what’s with that tone? It’s my job to tell him he’s nuts? Didn’t he lock himself in your office one night or something?”
“Or something. That’s what he said to you. His words? ‘I need protection against flooding’?”
“You never did the work?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? What’s that mean?”
“I mean I don’t know. It means I forget.”
“When did he ask you to do this work? Was it around the time he locked himself in the office-around then?”
“So when were you supposed to start?”
Seth sighed. “He said he might be taking off. If I didn’t hear from him in two weeks, I should just go ahead and do it.”
“So he paid you? In advance?”
Believe it or not, it’s possible to hear someone squirm over the phone.
“And you didn’t hear from him for more than two weeks? You didn’t hear from him again, ever?”
“No, guess not.”
“But you didn’t do the work? Why’s that?”
“I must’ve forgot.”
“Sure. You forgot. You were already spending the money-so why do the work? He was nuts; who was to know.”
“Sue me. I’m human.”
“Hey, ever hear about throwing stones, amigo?”
IT WAS HERE ALL ALONG.
I’d stared right at it.
That day I came down here and retraced the plumber’s steps.
I’d moved a book aside and seen that hole in the wall.
The book with plaster dust on its jacket.
I’d thought the plumber was the one who’d smashed the wall in. It wasn’t the plumber.
It was Wren.
The night before he left. Before he headed off to the lake.
But not before he protected the story.
I’d peeked into that hole and saw what you usually see on the other side of Sheetrock in these parts. The same thing the plumber must’ve seen, then dismissed like I had.
Newspaper insulation. It’s abundant and cheap, and since you don’t exactly have to worry about blizzards in the middle of the California desert, it does the job.
Only this newspaper wasn’t cheap. It was ridiculously expensive.
It cost Wren his life.
I moved the books aside.
I stuck my hand inside the hole and gently, slowly, carefully pulled the crinkled newspaper out of the hole.
A front page of the Littleton Journal.
Lots and lots of front pages. The wall was stuffed with them.
The issue number still clearly legible in the right-hand corner.
The one missing in the files.
The issue with “Who’s Eddie Bronson?” was 7,512.
The next issue, featuring a movie review of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and a recap of the latest meeting of the local DAR Society, had been 7,514.
One issue number skipped.
What I’d discovered as I scrolled back and forth and back.
How does that happen?
One issue went to press the night Wren locked himself in the office. One front page. This one. That’s what he’d been doing in there that night. Not breaking down. Not howling at the moon. Howling at the injustice. Trying to get the story out. Before he disappeared into the void.
He hadn’t had time to save it. But the computer automatically gave it an issue number, and when the next one went to press, it was one number higher than it should’ve been. No one would have noticed-no one was keeping count.
America’s Unknown Nuclear Disaster
The headline of the issue that never ran.
All in red.
And something more. It came complete with illustrations.
A schematic drawing. A diagram.
A fucking blueprint.
Faded, crisscrossed with lines, even a layman able to discern the shape and function of the thing being built.
The core. The fuel rods. The shell.
A real blueprint. As opposed to fake ones they’d trotted out at Lloyd Steiner’s trial.
Yes, Anna, your father did give something to Wren.
Something he must’ve held on to all those years. Hid away-a kind of legacy. For you, maybe. So you’d know who he really was. That he might’ve gone to jail, but he was never guilty. Not really. No guiltier than anyone else who’d helped build a nuclear reactor out in the desert and kept their mouth shut after it blew sky-high.
Wren’s Rule Number One.
Back up your notes for protection.
Sooner or later, he’d told Anna, someone would bring it into the light.
Unfortunately, he’d made one mistake.
He’d anointed Seth Bishop the protector.
Seth Bishop, who, hearing neither hide nor hair of Wren for two weeks, was supposed to rip two hundred front pages of the Littleton Journal out of a wall and, even with his limited intellectual curiosity, understand that someone needed to see them. That its three-inch headlines were screaming bloody murder.
Only Seth adhered to the credo of the dedicated stoner. No need to do the work if you’ve already got the cash-no doubt already blown on some primo Panama Red and six-packs of Coors Light.
ON MY WAY OUT OF LITTLETON, I HEARD A SIREN GOING IN THE OPPOSITE direction.
The sheriff on his way to make the climactic arrest, I supposed. Perpetrator and gun, nabbed red-handed.
He’d find an empty house with an empty drawer.
I made one stop before I pulled onto Highway 45.
Mrs. Weitz opened the door, then continued to stand there-all three hundred or so pounds of her.
“Is Sam home?” I asked her.
She appeared to be on the verge of lying to me, but then Sam yelled from the kitchen, asking her where the damn Yodels were, so she had no choice but to let me in.
“It’s okay,” I told her, as she moved aside, barely, to let me through. “I won’t be staying long.”
Sam was more hospitable than his wife. Though he did surreptitiously peek through both study windows before pulling the shades, wondering, I imagine, if there was about to be a major guns-drawn bust in his front yard.
“Jesus.” Sam’s first word to me. “You have no idea what they’ve been saying about you.”
“Yeah, I do.”
“Is any of it true?”
“Okay-good enough for me. Anything for a bowling team member. You need some help?”
“Just a little.”
“Shoot.” Then he blushed and said, “Poor choice of words.” He’d noticed the gun peeking out of my waistband.
“How long have you been trying to sell me some insurance, Sam?”
“What? Wait, come on. You mean to tell me you came all the way here for insurance?”