Mary

Gary, as I said, was on his way to a safe house. He had that very night made the call to Bluthe: “You’re right — I’ve got to get rid of this thing. But you have to promise me, it can’t just be destroyed. We’ve got to put it some place safe.”

“Why,” said Bluthe simply, his head booming with a hangover from a two-day stimulant binge to get an article done for a looming publication deadline.

“Because — ” Gary wanted to tell him the truth, because that tended to disarm the endless prevaricator in Bluthe, but he also knew this particular truth would raise the ire of this strange friend. “I just want to know it’s still around, that’s all. I’d like to come visit sometime.”

“And we know it’ll be safe to keep it — how?”

Gary looked up into the overlit evening sky, where just a few stars shone through. There was no good answer. “I don’t think they can find it the same way they found Alice’s apartment. I’m sure they would have been here otherwise.”

“Maybe they’re just looking for all the conspirators before they strike.” Bluthe sounded remarkably resigned to that fate.

“Maybe,” Gary replied.

“Why don’t you just keep it then?”

“Because — they know who I am. I’m too close to Alice. It’s too easy to follow me to the thing — “

“And back to your precious Alice. I know. The woman’s probably on the phone to the FBI right now and you’re still imagining you’re her knight in slithering armor.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Okay, Gary, I’ll ask someone. The kind of person who has nothing to lose. One of my lost souls. And we’ll see if she wants to become your partner in martyrdom. Okay? Okay? Now can I get back to my screaming headache?”

———-

Gary had very specific instructions. He drove into the multi-floor parking garage next to the largest mall in ________________. He parked his car next to Bluthe’s, and got out. Bluthe popped his trunk as a sign that the coast was clear, and Gary opened his and moved the bagged antenna and the bowl in a Styrofoam cooler to Bluthe’s. He slammed them both closed and walked away. He walked to the mall — the entrance to a Sears or Macy’s or Penny’s or Target — and wandered through the store, down the necessary number of floors and then out onto the street. He stood there for a while, and noticed Bluthe drive by on the other side of the road. His role was to observe the area, and, if he was at all suspicious, he was to ignore Bluthe when he stopped, and they would meet later that evening at a pre-arranged adult cabaret.

Gary was half-hoping, but he knew this arrangement to be so much self- massaging poppycock. He would notice a stakeout? A government tail would be fooled? A satellite couldn’t reacquire its target? But the theater made Bluthe feel better and he owed him that much self-absorption.

Bluthe jerked the car forward when Gary approached the door, as if to say, “you didn’t even bother to look.” But Gary got the door open — it scraped on the too- high sidewalk — and jumped in.

The small, recent, Japanese-designed but American-built car smelled of aftershave, funk and leather. The engine had a small, tinny roar as Bluthe accelerated away from the curb. “Holy sainted Mother of God, man,” Bluthe said, half under his breath but dramatically, “could you be any more the head- scratching criminal screaming to be caught?”

“What?” Gary said, saving up his incriminations for later, after much drink.

“What, what, what — child, how did you become the Christopher Columbus of the information age? Oh yeah — it was I who guided you… Yes, that explains much…”

Gary guffawed and looked out the window. “Oh yeah — right.”

They were silent for a while — small talk didn’t seem to fit, at least until they were done with the business and ready to go carousing. Once they had been driving for a while, Gary asked, “So who is it? What’s his story?”

“Her story,” said Bluthe, glancing over to Gary. The tone said, don’t think you can make too light of my research subjects — that’s my privilege. “She’s a successful executive at a clothes wholesaler, since a number of years. But twenty years ago she was driving on a country highway, leaned down to pull out a few cassettes from her bag, and looked up to see one, two, three, four bicyclists thud on her hood, bounce against the windshield and fly up and away. She crashed the car into a ditch, and sat there listening to music until the police arrived and pulled her out. All four of her victims died on the pavement. She spent four years in a women’s correctional institution for involuntary manslaughter and eight years on probation.”

“You’ve talked about her before,” said Gary, but not sure what Bluthe’s point had been.

“No doubt. She’s a classic, as you’ll see. A very agreeable hostess to boot.”

They drove for an hour or so, more or less in silence, some indie radio station pouring crackly notes into the car. Then Bluthe said, “All right, we’re here.” They entered a small townhouse community off a main thoroughfare.

“Does she drive?” Gary asked.

“Indeed she does. Whenever she can — to prove a point. Unfortunately one that doesn’t exist in our time-space continuum.”

Bluthe got out of the car. When Gary hesitated about going to the trunk, Bluthe said, “Let’s talk to her first.”

“Sure,” he said. They walked up beside a nice, well cared-for yard with a gurgling pond and stone bull frog. There was even a garden gnome tucked in among the bushes leading to the front door. Bluthe scurried in front of Gary, who had a sneaking suspicion that this woman hadn’t agreed to take the antenna at all. Bluthe rang the bell and positioned himself to intercept the inhabitant’s view before Gary could be noticed.

It took another ring, then the door opened a little. It was too dark inside to see anyone. After a moment, a deep, raspy woman’s voice said: “Oh, hello, William, it’s good to see you. Please come in.” The door opened wider, and a hand extended the screen door to Bluthe’s hand and he pulled it open. He followed her in and the screen door snapped shut behind him.

Gary wasn’t sure if this was payback or just pure Bluthe, but he pulled the door open and followed them in. The house had the musty smell of a place whose owners didn’t get out much. There were a few cats lounging around on chairs and little tables, and the distinct possibility that some of that must was cat pee. Gary recognized a theme emerging, realized he’d have need to watch his tongue. There would be plenty to guffaw about later, on the far side of a bottle of whiskey.

Bluthe was asking about the king cat splayed out on the couch that seemed to be the only decent place to sit in the living room. The woman then noticed Gary and arched her neck and grimaced. “Ah, Mary,” said Bluthe, “this is Gary Corinth. He’s the gentleman I mentioned.”

“You didn’t tell me he was going to come,” she said with a slight hiss mixed into her baritone voice.

“I know,” said Bluthe looking back at Gary like a child you can’t get leave anywhere.

“Hello there,” said Gary with the voice he developed in his Dear Abby adventures.

She snipped a “hmmpph” and gestured for her guests to sit. It seemed a bit awkward, with the cat in the middle of couch. Bluthe took a seat at the cat’s head, leaving Gary to set himself beside the cat’s anus. The chairs to either side of the couch were overstuffed and looked highly uncomfortable. There was a recliner to the side, but from Mary’s standing position that seemed to be her spot. Gary took the butt side and smiled. The cat was oblivious except that it stretched its back legs out and one paw stemmed itself against Gary’s leg.

“Tea?” she said with a tepid smile.

“Please,” said Bluthe, suddenly grinning like a boy.

“Sure,” said Gary, although he didn’t want to do anything to extend this visit. Leave the connection and go.

They were on their own for a couple minutes, and Bluthe had that stupid smile stuck on his face in a way that told Gary that something unhealthy was happening here. Maybe they had slipped into a mother-son thing when Bluthe had interviewed her — that might explain a willingness to participate in this conspiracy.

When she came back, Mary had three tall tea glasses on a small serving tray. She held them out for Gary first, and he took one. One whiff, and he knew he was holding a rather heavy long island iced tea. Bluthe took his glass with a bubbly thank-you that made Gary’s back crawl. Mary smiled at her guests, put the tray aside and quaffed the tea with an authority that showed she was no stranger to the concoction.

Somewhere a clock ticked into the silence, and Gary noticed how dust danced in a nearby sunbeam, almost as if pulsed by the tock. Gary took a long hard drink and his eyes watered.

“Mary,” Bluthe said, pulling forward on his seat and petting the king cat on his flat head, “thank you for meeting with us today. My friend is in a desperate strait. I thought about how I could help him, and you came to mind immediately.”

She smiled coyly. “You know I’m always happy to help you, William.” Another long draught.

“That’s what I love about you,” he said, almost triumphantly, looking around at Gary. “Here’s to friends helping friends.” He drank. “Now, Gary, why don’t you explain what you’ve been up to.”

The story was the subset of the story rehearsed here — with Bluthe jumping in to get his digs against Alice, and Mary shaking her head sympathetically at the wiles of some women, perhaps with a hint of reprobation against the mixing of races — but none of it made much of an impression until Gary took out the Polaroids and laid them out on her coffee table.

“Shit,” she said with a heavy slur and a sudden shake of her head. She picked up the picture of the silvery device that followed Gary from side to side. “It’s fucking alive.”

“It’s more like a TV camera,” said Gary punctiliously.

“Okay, but it’s got the evil eye on you.” She threw down the picture. “I don’t want that thing in my house. No.”

Gary looked over at Bluthe, who just smiled in an inebriated state of mothered bliss. But inside there was the calculating expression in his eyes that said, “Another couple glasses of iced tea, and no one will remember anything except what I tell them.”