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Caught

Chapter 28

   


PHIL SAT in a relatively quiet spot in the back of a sports bar-relatively, of course, because sports bars are not designed for privacy, conversations, or contemplation. There were no guys at the bar with ruddy noses or slumped shoulders, no beaten men drowning sorrows on a stool. No one chose to stare at their emptying glass when there were a seemingly infinite number of wide-screen televisions broadcasting a potpourri of sports and quasi-sports craving their attention.
The bar was called Love the Zebra. It smelled more of barbecue wings and salsa than beer. The place was loud. Company softball teams were enjoying an after-game celebration. The Yankees were playing. Several young women wore Jeter jerseys, whooping it up with a little too much enthusiasm, their dates noticeably cringing at the spectacle.
Wendy slid into the booth. Phil wore a lime green golf shirt with both buttons undone. Tufts of gray chest hair peeked out. He sported a half smile and a thousand-yard stare. "We had a company softball team," he said. "Years ago. When I first started. We'd come to a bar like this after the game. Sherry would come too. She would wear one of those sexy softball shirts, you know the tight white ones with dark three-quarter sleeves?"
Wendy nodded. There was a slur in his speech.
"God, she looked so beautiful."
She waited for him to say more. Most people did. The secret in any interview was the ability to not fill the silence. A few seconds passed. Then a few more. Okay, so much for silence. Sometimes you need to goose your subject too.
"Sherry is still beautiful," Wendy said.
"Oh yes." The half smile remained frozen on Phil's face. His beer was empty. His eyes were glossy, his face red from drink. "But she doesn't look at me the same anymore. Don't get me wrong. She's supportive. She loves me. She says and does all the right things. But I can see it in her eyes. I'm less of a man to her now."
Wendy wondered what to say here, what wouldn't sound patronizing, but "I'm sure that's not true" or "I'm sorry" didn't make the cut. She again opted for silence.
"Do you want a drink?" he asked.
"Sure."
"I've been pounding down Bud Lights."
"Sounds good," she said. "But let me just have a plain Budweiser."
"How about some nachos?"
"Have you eaten?"
"No."
She nodded, thinking he could use something in his stomach. "Nachos sounds like a good idea."
Phil waved over a waitress. She was dressed in a low-cut referee shirt, ergo the bar name Love the Zebra. Her name tag informed them that her name was Ariel. There was a whistle around her neck and, to complete the look, black greasepaint under her eyes. Of course, Wendy had never seen a referee with the black greasepaint, only players, but the mixed metaphor in the outfit seemed to be a mild issue at best.
They placed the order.
"You know something?" Phil said, watching the waitress leave.
Again she waited.
"I worked in a bar like this. Well, not exactly like this. It was one of those chain restaurants with a bar in the middle. You know the ones. They always have green trim and wall decorations that are supposed to reflect a more innocent time."
Wendy nodded. She knew.
"It's where I met Sherry. I worked as a bartender. She was that bubbly waitress who introduced herself right away and asked if you wanted to start with whatever appetizer corporate was pushing."
"I thought you were a rich kid."
Phil gave a half chuckle, tilted back the already-empty Bud Light to drain out the last sip. She half expected him to hit the side of the bottle. "My parents believed we should work, I guess. Where were you tonight?"
"My kid's high school."
"Why?"
"A graduation orientation," she said.
"Did your kid get accepted to college yet?"
"Yes."
"Where?"
She shifted in her seat. "Why did you want to see me, Phil?"
"Was that too personal? I'm sorry."
"I'd just like to get to the point. It's late."
"I was just being contemplative, I guess. I see these kids today, and they're sold the same stupid dream we were. Study hard. Get good grades. Prepare for the SATs. Play a sport, if you can. Colleges love that. Make sure you have enough extracurricular activities. Do all these things so you can matriculate at the most prestigious school possible. It's like the first seventeen years of your life are just an audition for the Ivy Leagues."
It was true, Wendy knew. You live in any of the suburbs around here and during the high school years, the world becomes a ticker-tape parade of collegiate acceptance and rejection letters.
"And look at my old roomies," Phil went on, the slur more prominent now. "Princeton University. The creme de la creme. Kelvin was a black kid. Dan was an orphan. Steve was dirt-poor. Farley was one of eight kids-big Catholic blue-collar family. All of us made it-and all of us were insecure and unhappy. The happiest guy I knew in high school went down the road to Montclair State and dropped out his sophomore year. He still bartends. Still the most content son of a bitch I know."
The shapely young waitress dropped off the beers. "The nachos will be a few more minutes."
"No problem, dear," Phil said with a smile. It was a nice smile. A few years ago, it might have been returned, but nope, not today. Phil kept his eyes on her for maybe a second too long, though Wendy didn't think the girl noticed. Once the waitress was out of sight, Phil lifted his bottle toward Wendy. She picked up hers and clinked bottles and decided to stop this dance.
"Phil, what's the term 'scar face' mean to you?"
He tried very hard not to show anything. He frowned to buy time, even went so far as to say, "Huh?"
"Scar face."
"What about it?"
"What does it mean to you?"
"Nothing."
"You're lying."
"Scar face?" He scrunched up his face. "Wasn't that a movie? With Al Pacino, right?" He threw on a horrible accent and did a terrible impression: " ' Say hello to my little friend.' "
He tried to laugh it off.
"How about going on a hunt?"
"Where are you getting this from, Wendy?"
"Kelvin."
Silence.
"I saw him today."
What Phil said next surprised her. "Yeah, I know."
"How?"
He leaned forward. Behind them came a happy whoop. Someone shouted, "Go! Go!" Two Yankee runners sprinted for home off a hit to shallow center. The first made it easy. There was a throw to the plate for the second, but he slid safely under the tag. Another whoop from the partisan crowd.
"I don't understand," Phil said, "what you're trying to do."
"What do you mean?"
"That poor girl is dead. Dan is dead."
"So?"
"So it's done. It's over, right?"
She said nothing.
"What are you still after?"
"Phil, did you embezzle money?"
"What difference does that make?"
"Did you?"
"Is that what you're trying to do-prove I'm innocent?"
"In part."
"Don't help me, okay? For my sake. For your sake. For everyone's sake. Please drop this."
He looked away. His hands found the bottle, brought it up to his lips quickly; he took a deep, hard gulp. Wendy looked at him. For a moment she saw maybe what Sherry saw. He was something of a shell. Something inside of him-a light, a flicker, whatever you want to come up with-had dimmed. She remembered what Pops said, about men losing their jobs and how it affected them. There was a line in a play she saw once, about how a man who has no job can't hold his head up, can't look his kids in the eye.
His voice was an urgent hush. "Please. I need you to let this go."
"You don't want the truth?"
He started peeling the label off the beer bottle. His eyes studied his handiwork as though he were an artist working with marble. "You think they've hurt us," he said, his voice low. "They haven't. This stuff so far-it's just a slap down. If we let it go, it will all stop. If we keep pushing-if you keep pushing-it will get much, much worse."
The label came all the way off and slid toward the floor. Phil watched it fall.
"Phil?"
His eyes rose toward her.
"I don't understand what you are talking about."
"Please listen to me, okay? Listen closely. It will get worse."
"Who's going to make it worse?"
"It doesn't matter."
"Like hell it doesn't."
The young waitress appeared with nachos piled so high it looked like she was carrying a small child. She dropped it on the table and said, "Can I get you guys anything else?" They both declined. She spun and left them alone. Wendy leaned across the table.
"Who is doing this, Phil?"
"It's not like that."
"Not like what? They may have killed a girl."
He shook his head. "Dan did that."
"Are you sure?"
"Positive." He raised his eyes to hers. "You need to trust me on this. It is over if you let it be."
She said nothing.
"Wendy?"
"Tell me what's up," she said. "I won't tell a soul. I promise. It will be just between you and me."
"Leave it alone."
"At least tell me who is behind it."
He shook his head. "I don't know."
That made her sit up. "How can you not know?"
He threw two twenties on the table and started to rise.
"Where are you going?"
"Home."
"You can't drive."
"I'm fine."
"No, Phil, you're not."
"Now?" he shouted, startling her. "Now you're interested in my well-being?"
He started to sob. In a normal bar, this might have drawn a few curious glances, but what with the blaring televisions and the focus on the games, it barely made a blip.
"What the hell is going on?" she asked.
"Drop this. Do you hear me? I'm telling you this not just for our sake-but yours too."
"Mine?"
"You're putting yourself in harm's way. Your son too."
She gripped his arm hard. "Phil?"
He tried to stand, but the drinks had weakened him.
"You just sort of threatened my kid."
"You got it backward," he said. "You're putting mine in danger."
She let go of him. "How?"
He shook his head. "You just need to leave this alone, okay? All of us do. Stop trying to reach Farley and Steve-they won't talk to you anyway. Leave Kelvin alone. There is nothing to gain here. It's over. Dan is dead. And if you keep pressing, more people will die."