Stay Close

Page 9


The pills were next to the bed. Pills and booze—the perfect late-night cocktail. He wondered how many he’d already taken and when, and then decided the hell with it. He downed two more, forced himself to stand, and stumbled toward the door.
When he opened it, Fester said, “Wow.”
“You look like several large orangutans made you their love slave.”
Ah Fester. “What time is it?”
“What, in the afternoon?”
“Yes, Ray, in the afternoon. See the light outside?” Fester gestured behind him. He took on the voice of a kindergarten teacher. “At three in the afternoon, it is light out. At three A.M., it is dark. I could draw you a chart if that would help.”
Like he needed the sarcasm. Weird. He never slept past eight, and now it was three? The blackout must have been a bad one. Ray slid to the side to let Fester in. “Is there a reason for your visit?”
Fester, who was huge, ducked inside the room. He took it in, nodded, and said, “Wow, what a dump.”
“Yeah,” Ray said. “On what you pay me you’d figure I’d have a mansion in a gated community.”
“Ha!” Fester pointed at him. “Got me there!”
“Something you wanted?”
Fester reached into his bag and handed Ray a camera.
“For you to use until you can buy a new one.”
“I’m touched,” Ray said.
“Well, you do good work. You’re also the only employee I have who isn’t on drugs, just booze. That makes you my best employee.”
“We’re sharing a tender moment, aren’t we, Fester?”
“That,” Fester said with a nod. “And I couldn’t find anyone else who could work the George Queller job tonight. Whoa, what have we got here?” Fester pointed to the pills. “So much for the not on drugs.”
“They’re pain pills. I was mugged last night, remember?”
“Right. But still.”
“Does this mean I lost employee of the month?”
“Not unless I find needles in here too.”
“I’m not up for working tonight, Fester.”
“What, you going to stay in bed all day?”
“That’s the plan, yes.”
“Change plans. I need you. And I’m paying time and a half.” He looked around, frowned. “Not that you need the cash or anything.”
Fester left. Ray put the water on to boil. Instant coffee. Loud Urdu-language voices were coming from upstairs. Sounded like the kids were coming home from school. Ray made his way to the shower and stayed under the spray until the hot water was gone.
Milo’s Deli on the corner made a mean BLT. Ray wolfed it down as though he feared it might try to escape. He tried to keep his mind on the task at hand without looking forward—asking Milo how his back was holding up, reaching into his pocket for the money, smiling at another customer, buying the local newspaper. He tried to be Zen and stay in the moment and not look ahead because he didn’t want to think about the blood.
He checked the newspaper. The LOCAL MAN MISSING article featured the same photograph he had seen on the news last night. Carlton Flynn made a kissy face. Classic asswipe. He had dark hair spiked high; tattoos on gym-muscled, baby-smooth skin; and looked as though he belonged on one of those obnoxious Jersey reality shows that featured self-obsessed, arrested-development numb nuts referring to girls as “grenades.”
Carlton Flynn had a record—three assaults. He was twenty-six years old, divorced, and “worked for his father’s prominent supplies company.”
Ray folded the paper and jammed it under his arm. He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to think about that photograph of Carlton Flynn on his computer or wonder why someone had attacked him to get it. He wanted to put it behind him, move on with life, day at a time, moment at a time.
Block, survive—just as he had for the past seventeen years.
How’s that been working for you, Ray?
He closed his eyes and let himself slip into a memory of Cassie. He was back at the club, balmy from the booze, watching her give some guy a lap dance—totally, positively in love with every fiber of his being—and yet not the least bit jealous. Cassie gave him a look over the man’s shoulder, a look that could melt teeth, and he’d just smiled back, waiting to get her alone, knowing that at the end of the day (or night) she was his.
The air had always crackled around Cassie. There was fun and wildness and spontaneity, and there was warmth and kindness and intelligence. She made you want to rip off her clothes and throw her on the nearest bed, all while writing her a love sonnet. Sudden flashes, smolder, slow burn, hearth warmth—Cassie could do them all at the same time.
A woman like that, well, something had to give, right?
He thought about that photograph by those damn ruins in that park. Could that have been what the mugger was really looking for? It seemed unlikely. He ran through the scenarios and possibilities and made a decision.
He had hidden long enough. He had gone from the big-time photojournalist to that horrible rehab center to the times of joy here in Atlantic City to losing everything. He had moved to Los Angeles, worked as a real paparazzo, gotten himself into another mess, moved back here. Why? Why move back to the place where he’d lost everything unless… unless something drew him back. Unless something demanded he come back and figure out the truth.
He blinked her away, got back into his car, and drove to the park. The same spot he’d been using nearly every day was still open. Ray probably couldn’t verbalize what brought him here. So many things about him had changed, but one hadn’t—his need for the camera. Many things make a photographer, but in his case, it was more about need than want. He didn’t really see or process things unless he could photograph them. He saw the world through that lens. For most people, something doesn’t exist unless they see, hear, smell, taste it. For him it was almost the opposite—nothing was real until he captured it on his camera.
If you took the path on the right corner, you could reach the edge of a cliff that overlooked the Atlantic City skyline. At night, the ocean behind it shone like a glimmering dark curtain. The view, if you were willing to risk the trek through the underbelly, was breathtaking.
Ray snapped pictures as he started up the remote path, staying behind the camera as though it offered protection. The old ruins of the iron-ore mill were on the edge of the Pine Barrens, New Jersey’s largest track of wooded area. One time, many years ago, Ray had gone off the path and deep into the woods. He found a long-abandoned cement hut covered with graffiti, some of it appearing satanic. The Pine Barrens were still loaded with ruins from ghost towns. Rumors swirled of the deeper malfeasance within the bowels of that forest. If you’ve ever watched any cinematic Mafia portrayal, you’ve seen the part where the hit men bury a body in the Pine Barrens. Ray thought about that too often. One day, he figured, someone will invent a device that will let you know what is buried in the dirt beneath you—differentiating between bones and sticks and roots and rocks—and who knew what you would find then?