“My name isn’t Jacob Greene. I’m not with the U.S. Treasury Department. I am not working undercover. Do we understand each other?”

“Yes, sir.”


“You and the maid will not tell a soul that I am here, right?”

“Yes, sir.”

I patted Victor on the back. “Good man.”

Victor smiled like I had just made him a co-conspirator. I turned to leave.

“Agent … Excuse me. Mr. Greene?”

“Yes, Victor?”

“Who are you after? Someone in Hilltop?”

“We’re not allowed to tell.”

“No, of course not.”

-- Advertisement --

“It could be you.”

Victor went from pleased to terrified just that fast.

“Mr. Greene,” he said, drawing out the words. “Anything you need, you let me know.”

I heard odd noises over the receiver that didn’t amount to much as I settled in with my sandwich, noises I could only guess at.

The sandwich wasn’t bad, even though the store advertised that it was healthy for me. Healthy or not, it made me long for the submarine sandwiches that Clark’s used to make. The first time I drove my dad’s car alone after getting my license, I drove to Clark’s Submarine on University and Dale, next to Steichen’s Sporting Goods, where I bought all my hockey equipment.

“Why don’t you pick up a couple of Atomics,” my dad had said to me.

Ahh, an Atomic, with absolutely everything on it. Now, that was a submarine sandwich. Unfortunately, Clark’s had disappeared years ago—along with my youth.

I had just finished eating when I heard the notes of a piano. I remembered the invoice I had stolen along with the rest of Pen’s recyclables, the one that said she had leased an electronic piano.

Pen began playing, stopped, and started again, repeating the same few bars over and over, the notes changing slightly each time she played them.

“No, no, no,” she said. Followed by, “Think about it.”

She sounded out a melody a single note at a time. I could picture her pounding the piano keys with one finger. She paused, hummed, played the notes again, paused, hummed some more. She played a half dozen notes in quick succession, added another half dozen, then scrapped them all and began anew. After a while, she began experimenting with chords and a variety of rhythm patterns. This went on for nearly an hour, and if Pen was making progress, I didn’t hear it.

I became bored listening. Then angry with her constant starting and stopping, repetitions, experiments, and incessant humming. Music is like sausages, I decided—it’s better not to see how it’s made.

Pen managed to put about twenty seconds of music together before pronouncing herself satisfied. Satisfied with what, I couldn’t say. I had taken a year of music appreciation in college, yet today I’d heard none of the musical elements I was taught to listen for. I began to ask myself, Does she really make money doing this?

“All right,” Pen told herself. “Let’s see what we have.”

She started playing, only not the notes she had been writing the past sixty minutes. She began instead with an unhurried introduction that lasted about ten seconds, lingering over a single note at the end of it that hung in the air like the call of a songbird summoning its mate.

Deftly, she slid into an upbeat tempo, and the song began to soar—a quarter note executed with the speed of an eighth, a sixteenth flashing by like a thirty-second. After the introduction, she played two verses and launched into a chorus with a catchy, hummable hook that repeated and expanded the note structure of her introduction. I found myself diagramming the song in my head. I A A B. I was expecting another verse, but she fooled me by gliding across a bridge—a middle eight—eight bars played in the same key but with a vastly different chord progression, taking the song in a different direction, adding texture. It was the same twenty seconds of music she had worked so hard on, and suddenly it made perfect sense.

The bridge brought me back to the chorus, led into another verse, then went back to the chorus again, which Pen repeated twice. C B A B B. Only she had built an extro into the final chorus so the song would end dramatically and not merely repeat itself monotonously until the studio technician faded it out.

I was actually applauding when Pen finished. Then I leapt for my tape recorder and switched it on.

“Play it again,” I said to the recorder.

Pen began with the introduction, but when she hit that wondrous note before launching into the body of the song, the telephone rang.

“It’s me,” Sykora said.

“I was expecting your call,” Pen told him.

“You were?”

Pen didn’t answer.

Sykora said, “Yeah.”

“Coming home at a decent hour two nights in a row—what are the odds?” Pen asked.

“I have a job to do.”

“I understand. Gallivanting about the countryside like the Lone Ranger battling the forces of evil. Meanwhile, I’m stuck in Hilltop in a crummy mobile home.”

“It’s all about you, isn’t it, Pen? What’s good for you.”

“No. It’s about what’s good for us.”

-- Advertisement --