Memories and Ghosts
Wolf opened the door and walked into the apartment he was renting in the Richmond District. Not a bad place, but it was tiny. It was much smaller than the place he and Maria had had in the Mission District. It suited him for now, he reflected; he owned hardly anything to put in it. He had a bed in the bedroom, and a blanket and a sheet. He had bought seven changes of clothes, mainly just so he didn’t have to do laundry more than once a week.
He’d bought a table and a kitchen chair, and in the living room he had another chair, and a cheap radio and a cheap television. He was two years out of touch with the news; they’d never watched news in the common room in J wing, because it hardly seems relevant when you’re in for life. He was forcing himself to watch an hour of news a night, even though he hated it.
It seemed like America had gone stale or spoiled somehow while he’d been locked away; the news was like the news from some horrible dictatorship of the sort that America had opposed once upon a time.
There was a Department of Homeland Defense that sounded like something out of the old Soviet Union, and daily postings of terrorism threat levels with no explanation of who the terrorists were or what they wanted or what they’d threatened. The advertisements seemed more brazenly manipulative than they’d ever been, or maybe that was just because he wasn’t used to it anymore.
He remembered that there had once been commercial-free radio on NPR, but when he found NPR again, it sounded almost like the commercial channels. He wasn’t sure he wanted to immerse himself in what it sounded like America had become, but he’d need to understand it and work with it if he was to make any sense of what had happened to Maria.
He’d stopped at a thrift store and gotten a plate, a pitcher, three pieces of silverware, a glass, two pans, and an ice tray. It had been enough so far, but his kitchen looked awfully bare. He’d gotten an un-carpeted place, so not owning a vacuum cleaner hadn’t been a problem.
The place was actually very easy to keep clean, and seemed spacious despite its size. Wolf sat down to eat at his table, and reflected that maybe this was actually all the stuff he needed. Maybe more stuff wouldn’t make things better. There’d be times he’d want it, sure — different clothes for different places, more kitchen stuff for having people over. Maybe even curtains. But, all of the times when you’re not actually using it, more stuff just gets in your way.
Was that some kind of crap thinking, he wondered? Was he just so unused to owning stuff that he didn’t want to deal with it yet? Was there anything wrong with just stopping here and not getting more stuff? He decided it didn’t matter. As long as he felt this way, he’d just stay with this stuff. When he actually wanted more, he’d get more.
Maria, he knew, would have filled the place with stuff. Kitschy chairs and the pinatas she’d collected and family photos from her folks in Mexico and paintings of big-eyed kittens had been her favorite things. She’d have put up gaily colored curtains and filled the kitchen with bric-a-brac and decorations and wonderful cooking smells. She’d have found a radio station that broadcast news in Spanish and played Mexican pop and mariachi bands.
One of the reasons Wolf hadn’t gotten another chair, he realized, was so he wouldn’t have to sit across from the empty chair and see Maria not sitting in it. It wasn’t working. Everywhere he went, Maria wasn’t there. Everyplace he looked, he didn’t see her smile. Every time anyone spoke, he didn’t hear Maria’s voice. There was no one to talk to about it. It was weird how it had hit him like a ton of bricks once he was out of jail, but had been kind of in the background, somehow suspended in time, as long as he’d been in.
So he sat in his tiny apartment, and he shared a meal with Maria’s ghost. He was eating some hamburgers instead of the burritos or fajitas she hadn’t fixed, and he wasn’t discussing with her how America had changed or what the news said. She wasn’t nodding and smiling and teasing him for being a stupid gringo who barely spoke any Spanish, and when the meal was over, they wouldn’t grin at each other and head for the bedroom before it was time for him to wash the dishes. Life wasn’t good.
Funny thing about being sad for somebody, Wolf thought. If you let the sadness own you, that was crap thinking. But if you pretended you didn’t feel it, that was crap thinking too. Either way, you could wind up convincing yourself of lies. He fished his wallet out of his hip pocket and looked at Maria’s photograph. Tomorrow he’d get a little frame for it and put it up on the wall. But for tonight, he just tucked it back in his pocket and sat down at the table, across from the place where Maria wasn’t sitting. He raised his glass of iced tea in a silent toast to her memory. And Maria didn’t lift her glass with his and share the toast, and she didn’t remind him how she’d always preferred wine.
There’d be no harm, he thought, in getting her a chair to not sit in. He wasn’t ready quite yet, but when the time came, there’d be no harm.
The phone rang. Wolf picked up. “Hello.”
“Uh, hi. Is this Wolf Scudder?”
“Yeah, this is Wolf.”
“This is Mitch Flanagan.”
“I guess you’re still looking for the guy who killed Maria.”
“Well, I’ll help any way I can.”
“Wolf, I got a question for you. You investigating this thing too?”
“Maybe,” said Wolf.
“I got a call today from Rose DeCourtney. She says you tracked her down this afternoon.”
“I didn’t track her down, Mitch,” Wolf said, flipping his notebook open and writing ‘DeCourtney’ at the top of a blank page. “I went into the bookstore to pay off Maria’s old account there, and she was behind the counter.”
“So why did you think she was connected to this?” Mitch wanted to know.
“I didn’t, really, until she heard my wife’s name and panicked. She knew who I was, Mitch, and she knows what happened to Maria.”
“Huh. You just happened to run into her and then you just happened to decide she’s somehow connected to this whole thing.”
“Wolf, before I answer that, I have to ask you something. Do you hate my guts?”
There was a long pause. Wolf had to think about it. “No, Detective, I guess I don’t. I probably hated you the first year I was in, but after that I guess all my hate was focused on the killer himself. The thing I finally remembered about you was that you didn’t tell a single lie on the stand. So, what the hell has that got to do with it?”
“Wolf, I’m up against a fuckin’ blank wall on this case and if you’re pulling real live clues out of thin air I want to know how. Rose is involved, but I know that because she came to me. I’m pretty sure she’s innocent, for the same reason. But I want to know how you knew Rose was involved.”
“You know, you were telling me a couple months ago you couldn’t talk about an ongoing investigation.”
“I’m getting desperate here, Wolf. And if you don’t hate my guts, I figure we’ve got something to talk about.”
“Big fuckin’ risk talking to me like that,” said Wolf. “You got to figure I had about a fifty-fifty chance of hating your guts no matter what I said.”
“Wolf, two years ago, I was wrong. I didn’t know it, but it cost you a lot and I’m sorry. You could have hated my guts and I wouldn’t have blamed you for it. But you said you don’t, and you got character references six deep back in Bald Mesa. Even people who hate your guts don’t think you’ve ever told a lie. I know ’cause I went and asked ’em.”
“Huh,” Wolf shrugged uncomfortably. “I guess I just never figured anything out there was worth lying about.” He shook his head, remembering. That was, when you got right down to it, the reason why some of the folks back home didn’t like him much.
“Look, about Rose,” Flanagan went on, “I can tell you she’s involved in this because she says she wants to talk to you about it, so you’re going to know anyhow. But she’ll only talk to you about it if I’m there.”
“Works for me.”
“Look, Wolf. Do me a big favor here. If you are looking for this killer, you need to stay the hell out of the way of the police. I’d tell you flat-out to leave it alone, but I figure there’s not a chance in hell you would.”
“You’re probably right about that, Mitch,” Wolf said tonelessly.
“You know we’re talking about somebody more dangerous than I’ve ever even imagined in twelve years on the force? You get close to this guy and mess up, he will fuckin’ kill you dead.”
“I know that, Mitch. My lawyer said this guy may have killed over a hundred people.”
“Damnit, Wolf, he wasn’t supposed to say that to you.”
“Well,” said Wolf, “then I probably shouldn’t have mentioned him saying it to you, either. But you know what? The warning you just gave me was against the rules too, and you warned me anyway because you’re a good person. The same logic applies. I figure it this way; people who aren’t crazy or evil, we can all win if we all just refuse to lie to each other.”
This is one chapter of The Hook, a novel which is being published serially on this site. This page links to all chapters so far serialized.
The complete novel is available from Amazon.