It started with the growl of a jungle cat on the first turn of the key. I took a baseball cap from under the seat, slipped off my jacket, adjusted my sunglasses, and left the garage.
Angie was still double-parked in front of the Plaza, which meant Blue Cap was present and accounted for. I waved and pulled out onto Cambridge, heading toward the river. She was still behind me when I reached Storrow Drive, but by the time I got to I-93, I’d left her in the dust, simply because I could. Or maybe, simply because I’m so immature. One of the two.
The drive to Wickham is not a fun one. You have to switch interchanges every third mile or so, and one wrong turn dumps you in New Hampshire, trying to talk directions with eastern rednecks who don’t speak the language. To top it off, there’s nothing to look at but the occasional industrial park, or as you get closer to the belt of towns that lie along the Merrimack River, the Merrimack River. Not a pleasant sight. Usually you have to look down a sewer grate to find water as brown and sluggish as the Merrimack’s a casualty of the textile business that built a lot of New Hampshire and Massachusetts. The next thing you see as you drive through this region are the mills themselves, and the sky turns to soot.
I had Exile on Main St. pumping through my speakers the whole way so I didn’t mind it that much, and by the time I found Merrimack Avenue, the only thing I was worried about was leaving the car unattended.
Wickham is not an upwardly mobile community. It’s dingy and gray as only a mill town can be. The streets are the color of a shoe bottom, and the only way to tell the difference between the bars and the homes is to look for the neon signs in the windows. The roads and sidewalks are uneven, the tar cracked and pale. Many of the people, especially the workers as they trudge home from the mills in the dying light, have the look of those who’ve long ago gotten used to the fact that no one remembers them. It’s a place where the people are grateful for the seasons, because at least they confirm that time is actually moving on.
Merrimack Avenue is the main strip. Simone Angeline’s address was a good ways past the center of town the bars, gas stations, mills, and clothing factories were five miles behind me before I reached the twelve hundred block. Angie was back in my rearview mirror by then, and she passed me when I pulled onto a side street and parked the car. I set the Chapman lock and disengaged the radio, taking it with me as I got out. I took one last look back at the car and hoped that we would find Jenna soon. Real soon.
I didn’t win my car in a card game or have it bequeathed to me by an overly generous client. I banked my money and waited, banked some more money and waited. Finally I saw it advertised and I went to the bank for a loan. I sat through an excruciating interview with a condescending loan officer who reminded me of every bitter, high-school geek who sees his adult life as a mission to avenge adolescence by being a total prick to anyone he assumes would have treated him badly in homeroom. Luckily, my practice grew and my fees rose and I soon had that monkey off my back. But I still pay the price of being constantly anxious about the only material possession I’ve ever given a damn about.
I slid into the passenger seat of Angie’s car and she took my hand. “Don’t wowwy, baby, nothing will happen to your pride and joy. I promise.”
She’s funny enough to shoot sometimes.
I said, “Well, least in this neighborhood, nobody will be suspicious of this thing.”
She said, “Oh, good one. You ever think of going into stand-up?”
It went like that. We sat in the car and passed around a can of Pepsi and waited for our meal ticket to make a guest appearance.
By six o’clock we were cramped and sick of each other and even sicker of looking at 1254 Merrimack Avenue. It was a faded A-frame that might have been pink once. A Puerto Rican family had entered it an hour ago, and we’d watched a light go on in the second-floor apartment a minute or so later. Short of our second can of Pepsi exploding all over the dashboard when I opened it, that was the closest we’d come to excitement in four hours.
I was looking through the tape collection on Angie’s floor, trying to find a group I’d heard of, when she said, “Heads up.”
A black woman rope thin, with a stiff, almost regal bearing was stepping from an ‘81 Honda Civic, her right arm around a bag of groceries, resting them on her hip. She looked like the picture of Jenna, but younger by a good seven or eight years. She also seemed to have too much energy for the tired woman in the photograph. She slammed the car door with her free hip, a hard, swift move that would have left Gretzky on the ice with a wet ass. She marched to the front door of the house, slid her key into the lock, and disappeared inside. A few minutes later, she appeared in silhouette by the window, a telephone receiver to her ear.
Angie said, “How do you want to play it?”
“Wait,” I said.
She shifted in her seat. “I was afraid you were going to say that.” She held her chin with her fingers, moved it around in a semicircle for a moment. “You don’t think Jenna’s in there?”
“No. Since she disappeared, she’s played it relatively careful. She has to know her apartment’s been trashed. And the beating the guy in the schoolyard gave me tells me she’s probably into more than the petty theft we’re after her for. With people like that after her maybe this Roland guy too I don’t think she’s going to set herself up in her sister’s place.”
Angie half shrugged, half nodded in that way she has, and lit a cigarette. She hung her arm out the window and the gray smoke pooled by the rearview mirror, then separated into equal strands and floated out the windows. She said, “If we’re smart enough to figure out where she is, wouldn’t someone else be? We can’t be the only ones who know about the sister.”
I thought about it. It made sense. If whoever “they” were had put a tail on me in the hopes of following me to Jenna, then they must have put a tail on Simone. “Shit.”
“Now, what do you want to do?”
“Wait,” I repeated, and she groaned. I said, “We follow Simone when she goes somewhere ”
“If she goes somewhere.”
“Positive energy, please. When she goes somewhere, we follow, but we hang back first, see if we have company.”
“And if our company is already on to us? If they’re watching us right now as we speak, thinking the same thing? What then?”
I resisted the urge to turn around and look for other cars with two immobile occupants, staring in our direction. “We deal with it,” I said.