After a couple of hours the phone began ringing in Sykora’s trailer. It rang four times within a half hour, but there was no one home to answer it. It rang twice more and then didn’t ring for nearly an hour. At about 9:00 P.M. it rang again as Pen and Sykora were entering their trailer. Sykora said, “I’ll get it.”
The woman on the other end spoke in the flat, monotonous tone of a telemarketer who wasn’t having much luck selling aluminum siding. She identified herself as the assistant to the special agent in charge of the Minneapolis field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She addressed Sykora as “Mister,” not “Agent.” She told Sykora that the AIC would be out of the office Monday morning but that Sykora was scheduled to meet with him at 1:15 P.M. or when the AIC arrived, whichever came first.
I would have liked to see Sykora’s face. Pen did and said, “What’s wrong?” the moment he hung up the phone.
“Don’t tell me that, Steve. What’s wrong? Who was on the phone?”
“That was the assistant to the AIC. I think I’m in serious trouble.”
Pen asked him what he was talking about. Sykora danced around the answer as best he could, giving her a glimpse of his predicament without revealing the grisly details. As for me, I was so happy I drank my last James Page.
By this time tomorrow, I’ll be off the hook, I told myself.
My only regret was Pen.
By this time tomorrow, her whole world will be changed.
I wondered briefly what that might mean. Would Pen leave her husband? If she did, was it possible for me to become part of her new life? How would she react if I revealed myself to her? Would she forgive me for destroying her husband’s career? Would she understand?
The phone rang again.
“Hello,” said Sykora.
“Frank? What do you want?”
“Nine tomorrow morning.”
“In Elk River, like I told you before.”
“Are you sure?”
“How many times do I have to say it? It’ll happen at nine tomorrow at the quarry. They’ll be driving one of those rental trucks.”
“I’m gambling a lot on this.”
“Yeah. Me, too. What about McKenzie?”
Sykora hung up the phone.
“Now what?” asked Pen.
“What are you talking about? Where are you going?”
“Back to the office. I need to set up an operation.”
“I don’t understand. I thought you were in trouble.”
“I am, but … You give them a solid, high-profile bust, something big with a lot of PR value, the FBI will forgive almost anything.”
The door to the trailer opened and closed.
Pen said, “Damn.”
My reaction was considerably more colorful.
Later that night, I lay on my back in the dark, watching surprisingly crisp images floating around me. Mr. Mosley, Susan Tillman, Danny—what I had done to Danny. And others. Jamie Carlson. Two black kids named Young and Benjamn. A man I had killed with a shotgun. Still another man I had killed with a hand grenade. Jeezus, a hand grenade. Even now I shuddered at the thought of it.
We all have loops of videotape that rerun themselves on our bedroom ceilings late at night, movies we wish we would never see again. Maybe I owned a bigger archive than most. Maybe the films were more violent. The result of living an NC-17 life. At least it used to be NC-17. The way ratings are being deflated these days, what with crashing towers and a never-ending war against terrorism, it was probably only an R now.
The thing was, the only sure way to escape them was to stop going to the movies altogether. And that was what I did best, going to movies for people, a kind of freelance critic trying to help my friends avoid the bombs. It was pretentious as hell, of course. Like most films, the life I chose didn’t stand up to serious scrutiny. Best not to think too much about it, I decided and rolled on my side. Best to just sit back and see what happens next.
I followed Highway 169 north into Elk River. Traffic flowed smoothly, even during the early morning rush hour. Of course, most of the traffic was heading into the Cities and I was driving out.
People who don’t live here tend to think of the Twin Cities as only St. Paul and Minneapolis. But according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Greater Twin Cities Metropolitan Area actually consists of 191 cities and towns, some of them with even smaller populations than Hilltop. Elk River, population 16,447, was located about forty minutes north of Minneapolis. Like most third-, fourth-, and fifth-ring suburbs, its businesses—mostly retail—were built along the freeways and highways, while its homes, schools, and churches were tucked more or less out of sight behind them.