A Novel

Chapter 24: This is Ultraglis

Saturday, September 12, 1987 » Delaney sent Fernando back to Bureau County: "Leave immediately." This time Delaney permitted him to stay in Elmville, at the Wagon Wheel, where Kathy was staying. But Delaney also made him drive a 1986 Toyota Corolla. Fucking Corolla, rice burner, tin can on wheels, cheap piece of shit. Delaney said Fernando's BMW was too flashy, would attract too much attention.

"Too much attention? Out there, a Puerto Rican will attract more attention than a goddamned BMW."

Delaney, shrill-almost-hysterical: "No, you won't. There are lots of Hispanics down there. Look at the census data; look at De Pue. Do you even bother to read the reports from our research department? Take the Toyota or you don't work for me anymore."

Delaney had become increasingly agitated over the past few weeks. At first his agitation seemed almost endearing: this man who had always acted so cold, so robot-like, suddenly revealing a human side—the side of humans that is emotion and weaknesses. Recently, however, the agitation had developed a sharper edge, one that portended more troubling developments. Not that it mattered → Delaney remained the boss one way or the other → nothing short of his death could change that fact → Delaney could derail the train if he wanted, unless somebody higher up decided to have him removed. And removed = killed. Fernando had no idea who could order such a hit, had no idea who was above Delaney. He'd never even met any of the other so-called "partners".

Fernando's thoughts always wondered when he drove on highways.

Now, he had been given two assignments. Think about those.

First: deliver half Blondie's pay-off, and obtain the location of Floyd's hideout in return.

Second: deliver an envelope to Kathy.

Pretty simple; not much to think about there...

Driving the Toyota, Fernando felt like a low rent courier service. He had never driven a Toyota before, and he was embarrassed now to be seen in one, even if only by strangers—especially by strangers. They would all be thinking, there goes a silly pachuco in his silly little piñata car.

Once out of Chicago, Fernando took Interstate-80 west, straight into rural wasteland, endless fields of corn, where the damned and the few toiled to grow the corn that fed the livestock that supplied the meat for the privileged and the millions. Supply lines long and stretched, but functioning smoothly. Twenty-four hours ago, he had been enjoying a steak at Morton's. He had said, to his dining companion, "Think of all the work, that goes into producing a single steak. It almost takes your breath away."

Down the strip of highway, he saw storm clouds approaching from the west; night chased him from the east. The sun became a tiny glow on the horizon, like a single lump of coal burning on the floor of a giant furnace. Fernando was inside the furnace too, though far away from the piece of burning coal: the furnace was that big; the world, out here, was that small.

An hour and something later: La Salle County. Then Bureau County. Exits became progressively fewer and farther between: Joliet, Ottawa, Utica, La Salle, Ladd...there: his exit, Exit 61, to Interstate-180.

Exit to nowhere—almost literally to nowhere.

Interstate-180 goes south. Interstate-180 = as much of a mystery as any road can be:

A grand, abandoned, four-lane, divided freeway. Built to connect Interstate-80 with a proposed steel mill at Hennepin, population 640, an unlikely site for anything, nevermind a steel mill. As a factory site, Hennepin's supposed advantage was "its trifold proximity to the Illinois River, to the railroad hub at Bureau Junction, and to the coal mines of Bureau County. The river would bring the raw materials that the mill, fueled by the coal furnished by the mines, would transform into steel, which could then be shipped by river, rail, or road. The steel company made a few demands before agreeing to build, and one of those demands was a four-lane, divided freeway connecting the proposed steel mill with the nearest Interstate highway. The federal government built Interstate-180 to create that connection. An Interstate in name only, 180's full length was contained almost entirely within a single county."

Short/long/short supply lines. Just slip a "1" into Inerstate-80, right there—right here.

Fernando learned all these details from Dearborn Capital's exhaustive research reports, which Kathy required him to read before beginning work with Harper-Wyman in Elmville. This particular report: "Blueprint for a Failure: Laughlin Steel and Pork Barrel Enterprise". Whoever wrote it had a real bump for history, because the report contained a long chapter arguing that Interstate-180 was really a second, failed attempt at turning Hennepin into a great manufacturing town—the first attempt being the very expensive Illinois and Mississippi Canal, more commonly called the Hennepin Canal, after its eastern terminus. The canal's promoters believed it would funnel all the commerce and wealth of the upper Mississippi Valley through Illinois.

Both the Hennepin Canal and Intestate-180 shared a common goal: to connect Hennepin with the Mississippi River at Rock Island; and both projects became de facto failures within fifteen years. The reasons for failure, however, were completely different. Interstate-180 failed because the steel mill failed, and the steel mill failed because of the impossible demands made upon it by its unionized employees, and the labor union had been key in securing the federal government's support for the project. The author of "Blueprint for a Failure" wrote that "Laughlin Steel remains a textbook example of why public-private partnerships fail, because of the intolerable restraints they place on capital. In the case of Laughlin Steel, the Interstate project was secured only with the backing of the labor union lobby in Washington. In return for building the Interstate, the Federal Government demanded that Laughlin Steel enter into unsustainable agreements with the labor unions." Or at least that was the conclusion of the report's author. Whatever the reason, the steel mill did indeed close not long after opening, and Interstate-180 became the least traveled Interstate in the entire nation.

Exit 61. It was, like, the final nexus between the frontier of civilization and whatever was the opposite of civilization, whatever was not civilization. How should I know what that's called? Fernando did not encounter any other vehicles. In the dark, there was something almost post-apocalyptic about the highway. Cracks in the concrete through which weeds had grown bespoke a failure to attempt even basic repairs. When ye therefore shall see the abomination of the desolation, then let them which be in the city flee into the hills; let him which is on the house top not come down to take any thing out of his house: neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes, but pray ye that your flight be not in the winter.

The road began its slow descent into the river valley. Fernando spotted three deer, their eyes glinted fearfully in his headlights. As if fleeing a menacing enemy, they galloped across the two south-bound lanes, disappeared briefly in the median, reappeared on the north-bound lanes, and then disappeared entirely into the timber that bordered the highway.

The wind kicked up, and the atmosphere began to feel charged with the approaching storm. Fernando wondered where deer went for shelter during thunderstorms.

He finally reached his exit ramp, which dipped precipitously from the highway to a stop sign below.

He sat in his car, facing a dark, two-lane road, which to the left passed beneath the highway, and to the right curved out of view.

The storm announced its approach with heavier gusts of wind, like light infantry, intended not so much to warn as to harry. There were no signs pointing the way to Bureau Junction, and he couldn't remember which direction he was supposed to turn. He had misplaced his map.

He turned right because, well, right seemed right.

He realized he had chosen the wrong direction when the road began a steep ascent back toward the upland plain. Towards Elmville. He needed to turn around, but the road was shouldered by ditches, and too narrow for a clean U-y. Even a three-point turn would be risky, since any vehicle coming off the upland would be traveling at too great a speed to stop before hitting him.

He spotted a gravel road that joined the highway about halfway up the incline. He turned right onto this road.

His wheels rumbled over the metal bars of a cattle guard, then crunched back onto gravel. The wind was still blowing hard, but no longer in gusts. Despite the strong wind, the atmosphere was eerily silent, troubled only by intermittment and distant rumble of thunder. When the lamb broke the seventh seal, there was silence. Fernando soon realized that the gravel road was actually a driveway. He had entered a small, valley terrace. He drove slowly, seeking a place to turn. The driveway split into two separate roads, both still shouldered by ditch. To the left, the road led to a beige, gabled warehouse. This building had not been visible from the road. The side that faced away from the road was illuminated at the ground level by a large, open garage door. Large enough for tractors. Above the garage door was a sign: "Galena Trail Co-Op". A concrete driveway and parking-lot fronted the building. Despite the darkness and the approaching storm, three men were playing basketball. A deep orange glow emanated from the top of a black Weber grill. The three men seemed to be having a cookout.

Three white men.

Playing basketball and having a cookout.

Just before a storm.

It didn't square. Something funny about it. But if a storm broke, they could move into the warehouse. That big garage door. They could move their grill there too. And stand by the big open door watching the downpour, feeling the air pressure drop and the cold front move through.

Fernando preferred to avoid contact with the men. Again he turned right. Ahead was nothing but darkness and trees. And, hopefully, a place to turn the car around. Slowly creeping his car forward, looking for a place to turn, he found himself in a kind of tractor graveyard: front loaders, skid steelers, backhoes, motor graders, soil compactors, bulldozers, hydraulic excavators, wheel loaders, telehandlers—every kind of tractor and earth mover imaginable, scattered about a weed-filled field, in various stages of rusting and disrepair, visible only by what little moonlight remained against the advancing storm clouds.

Eventually he reached a farmhouse—completely dark, possibly abandoned. He entered its driveway, shifting the transmission into park, so that he could get his bearings.

That eerie silence. Then the sound of somebody running on gravel. Running in his direction. The car door opened. A hand grasped him by the neck, and pulled him out of the vehicle.

Fernando looked at the man, and noticed nothing about him but that he was white and he wore a De Kalb Seed Corn baseball cap.

The man said, "Private property, pal. What d'you think you're doin'?"

"Just trying to turn around. I got off the Interstate and turned the wrong direction."

"I'll say. Didn't you see the sign, 'Private Drive, No Trespassing'?"

"I didn't see the sign. It was too dark—"

The man punched Fernando in the gut, and Fernando fell back against his car, clutching his abdomen. The man said, "It can get even darker."

Fernando raised himself. He returned the punch: a left hook and then a rapid right cross to the man's face, knocking the man onto the ground. Fernando then kicked him in the back of the head, exclaiming, "You lousy mother-fucking-son-of-a-cock-sucking-shit-eating-bitch. Who the fuck do you think you are?" Fernando drew his gun from his shoulder holster, and said "Stay where you are; don't even think about getting up unless you want a bullet in your head."

And he meant it, too. Delaney had given Fernando permission to kill when necessary. Delaney had explained how to know when killing is necessary.

Fernando imagined shoving the muzzle into the man's mouth and pulling the trigger. The thought pleased him. Delaney had said, "If you take pleasure from the thought of killing, then it probably is not necessary."

From the ground, the man groaned, "One of these days, you're gonna want something, and you aren't gonna be the one to get it."

Holding his gun steady, Fernando felt an irrational terror of this man. He wanted to escape, and for some reason sensed that this man, though writhing on the ground in pain, still posed a threat. Or maybe this racist-redneck-on-a-power-trip needed to be taught a lesson. Fernando said, "Take your junkyard private property and shove it up your gaping, cock-fucked ass." He then fired a bullet into the man's right leg. "I guess you'll stay put now."

Fernando returned to his vehicle. He slammed the transmission into reverse, curving left onto the gravel road. He shifted back into drive, and pounded the gas pedal with his foot. The car accelerated slowly, as it skidded for traction on the loose-gravel.

He reached the road. He slowed his vehicle, crossed the cattle guard, and blasted left back onto the road just as the storm finally broke, and rain and thunder and lightning blanketed the whole valley.

Like many summer storms, this one was brief. By the time Fernando reached Bureau Junction, it had subsided to a drizzle. The highway pavement steamed. As he came out of a long curve in the road, he saw the Ranch House's neon sign smouldering in the steam: it looked like smeared red and green and yellow make-up, like a whore after a long night wiping cum off her painted face.

There, right before the railroad tracks: Rock Island Street. Turn left onto Rock Island Street. Curves southeast with the railroad tracks cleaving right. Ahead, surrounding the railroad tracks: a dozen-or-so red semaphore lights hanging in the air like glowing/blurring/burning cinnamon drops suspended in every direction: above, beside, along; backward, forward, up and down: signal bridge and all lights displaying red.

Rock Island Street curves away from the railroad tracks, into a shadowy residential neighborhood. Through the neighborhood, to a stop sign at Main Street. Now turn right onto Main: post office, tavern, tavern, VFW. So quiet. Alcohol powered peacefulness.

Over the railroad tracks, surrounded by cinnamon drops.

Main Street fizzles. Left onto Peoria Street. Second house on the right: Blondie's house.

She answered the door with a revolver in her right hand, and a cigarette between her lips. She removed the cigarette from her mouth, and said, "Ah, Fernando. I wasn't expecting you. If Fernando really is your name. You people seem to have a thing against using your real ones."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"The man who broke into my home, the kid you're looking for, the man who died in the coal hopper, your boss: I know him as Delaney, you probably know him by another."

"I'm sorry about Mr. Esquire-Man—"

She threw her gun on the sofa. "I like you Fernando. And for some reason I trust you. But if you're supposed to kill me and take the address; there it is," and she pointed to an envelope on her coffee table. "I stole the housekey and had a copy made for you. It's in the envelope."

"I'm not going to kill you."

"Good, then would you like a drink?"

He thought about his recent experience, and still felt shaken. "I'd like one, but my boss is expecting this information immediately." He pulled an envelope out of his coat pocket, and laid it on the lamp table. "Here's your first twenty-five hundred."

As she poured Bourbon into a tumbler of ice, she said, "You'll see from the address, he's hiding in Tiskilwa. Here's a free tip for you: in one week there's going to be a big event in Tiskilwa: Pow-Wow Days. But it's going to be bigger than an ordinary town festival, because they're going to open an Indian grave that the State Archaological Survey has been excavating for over a year now. There'll be a big ceremony, and also battle reenactments, between Illinois Rangers and Pottawatomi tribes. There should be lots of people in town. Lots of strangers." She turned around with her drink and faced him. "It would be a good time for somebody not from town to move about without attracting notice." She stared at him meaningfully. "Battle reenactments, lots of fake gunfire."

"If we wait that long, how can we be sure that he'll still be at this address?"

"He will be. He's afraid to leave the house. He thinks you guys are looking for him. Besides, how else can I collect my second twenty-five hundred? I'll make sure he is. It just depends on your boss stalling for another week."

Fernando took the envelope from the coffee table and opened it. As she promised, it had an address and a key and detailed directions. He thanked her.

As he was turning to leave, she said, "When you get to your car, wait five minutes."

He looked back at her skeptically.

She said, "Or don't if you don't trust me."

"It's just a strange request."

She said, "Unless I'm very much mistaken, You'll receive stranger requests in time. It's a test. Don't take it if you don't want to."

"A test of what?"

"I wasn't expecting Delaney to send you. I want to do something for you. If you trust me, wait in your car, five minutes and no more. If you don't trust me, then head on your merry way."

He walked out onto her porch, returned to his car, and decided to wait. Maybe he'd end up dead. Hell, he'd end up dead one way or another, sooner or later. Just under five minutes later, her front door opened, and she emerged carrying a backpack. She approached the passenger-side window and threw the backpack into the passenger seat. She said, "Don't worry, it's not a bomb. Or not the kind that goes 'bang', anyway."

"What is it?"

"Everything your boss has been trying to get his hands on; everything except Floyd himself." He looked skeptically at the bag, and she sarcastically added, "You bring that bag to your boss, whatever his name is, and you'll win employee of the year." She reentered her house, shut the door behind her, and turned out the porch light.

Fernando drove back toward Elmville.

He passed the driveway, where earlier he had turned off road. He still could not see the warehouse, or anything else but the lip of a gravel drive. He wondered about the men he had seen, and about the man he had shot. He wondered if it had been real. Driving past now, he almost wondered if something like that could be imagined, by an overactive mind.

Fernando arrived Elmville. He stopped at the first gas station and called Delaney from a payphone. He got Delaney's voicemail, on which he left the information Blondie had given him. He then drove on to the Wagon Wheel, where he had a reservation. He looked forward to surprising Kathy with his return.

The Wagon Wheel was rustic, but not rustic like the Ranch House. It was bright and clean and rustic. As if the rustic wood had been scrubbed nice and clean, and then covered in a heavy coat of varnish.

The bar off the lobby was honky tonk hopping. Saturday night in a small town? Check out those tight dungarees, on dudes, not ladies. What guy wheres blue jeans that tight? And check out the cowboy hats. Who wears cowboy hats in Illinois? Who listens to country music? And check the three or four Mex couples—they wore western attire too, but they wore it flashy.

Check this, check that, check it all out.

Fernando checked in at the front desk. He then asked for Kathy's room number.

The desk clerk appeared suspicious, and excused himself, returning a moment later with the chief clerk.

The chief clerk copped insolence. The chief clerk asked, "Is there something I can help you with?" As if the sub-clerk hadn't already told him. A white servant never knew his place. That was the problem with whites. That was the whole race problem in a nutshell.

Fernando restated his request. Fernando showed the chief clerk his Harper-Wyman business card. Fernando said "Call her if you want—she's expecting me," which was untrue, but she would understand immediately what was going on.

Fernando's business card—the job title worked wonders—visibly impressed the chief clerk. The chief clerk said, with absurd, obsequious magnanimity, "She's in room three sixteen, sir."

Fernando gave his luggage to a bellhop, tipped heavily, and went directly to Kathy's room.

She answered her door beaming smiles. "Fernando! What a delicious surprise. The reception desk just called and said you were here. I don't think I'd've believed them if they hadn't described you as a Mexican who claims he works with me," and she laughed.

He loved her laughter. He loved her smile.

Once inside her room, with the door closed behind him, she threw her arms around his neck, and pulled his head down for a kiss, pushing him back against the door as she leaned all her weight against his body.

He raised his head and asked, "What did you tell them?"

"Tell who?"

"The assholes at the reception desk."

"Oh! That I was expecting you of course."

"You know, it was supposed to be a surprise. I was looking forward to surprising you."

"Oh, but it was a surprise," and she kissed him again, as if to reassure. "I should never have said anything about it. Now I've ruined everything. I guess I've just been here too long—you get used to the small-mindedness, the provincialism of these people. The bigotry. It stops bothering you after a while. Or at least you learn to just go along to get along."

"I never get used to it, to racism."

Hugging him again, she exclaimed, "Fernando! Let's just forget about it okay? Here you are, with me. I couldn't be happier."

He sat down on her bed, and said, "I'm happy too."

"But what are you doing here? Delaney didn't say anything about your coming."

"Typical Delaney, eh? Everything has to be such a mystery with him, these days. Well, officially, I'm here to deliver something to you. Unofficially, I'm here to see the woman I love."

Whenever he mentioned love, she seemed to become awkward, thwarted, as if love would somehow sabotage whatever plans she had for herself. Maybe she wouldn't permit herself the luxury of thinking about love. She began tidying the room a little, asking, "What did Delaney want you to deliver?"

Fernando decided not to let her redirection bother him. He lay back on her bed, and said, "I don't know, actually." He removed from his coat pocket a small, padded envelope, holding it up for her to come and retrieve.

She said, "I have no idea what it could be. How perplexing." When she reached for the envelope, he grabbed her arm and pulled her into the bed, rolling over and kissing her.

Soon she extricated herself from his embraces, and took the envelope from him, walking it to her desk where she cut it open with a pair of scissors. Inside the envelope was a single key, from which dangled a string and a small paper tag.

Fernando said, "Whatever it is, Delaney said you'd know what to do with it."

"That man is behaving more and more strangely all the time."

"So do you know what to do with it?"

She walked back toward the bed without answering, then knelt beside the bed, and from under the bed she pulled an aluminum box, over a foot long, and maybe half a foot deep. The box had a bright red, plastic handle, and on its top, a large sticker: "The Hub Giant Roller Rink: Year Around Roller Skating: 4510 N. Harlem: Chicago 31, Ill.: Free Parking." The sticker and the aluminum were worn and scratched, the steel corner guards rusted.

Curious, Fernando sat up, staring at the box, "What is that?"

"Something Delaney sent me in the mail. It's locked. He said I'd know how to unlock it when I needed to unlock it."

"What a strange thing to send you. Roller skates?”

"No, that's what I thought at first too, but it's too light for roller skates, and obviously he wouldn't be sending me roller skates anyway, unless he really has finally lost his mind."

She inserted the key into a keyhole beneath the red plastic handle, and it scraped inside the rusty lock. She turned the key, and the case came unlocked with a double pop. She opened the lid.

Inside: a nickel-plated, Smith and Wesson 38 automatic pistol sandwiched between thick layers of gray, egg crate foam. Beneath the gun was an envelope.

She backed away from the case, almost as if it had given her an elecctric shock. "Jesus! What the hell is this supposed to be for? He really has lost his mind."

But Fernando immediately knew its purpose, and he felt a little sick in his stomach. His mind scrambled to imagine some other purpose, but there was no other.

She asked him, "Do you know what this is all about? Some kind of sick joke?"

He denied any knowledge.

She slid the envelope out from under the gun, opened it, and unfolded a letter. The fear that spread across her face confirmed what he himself had been afraid to admit.

When she finally lowered the letter, she was quiet.

"Well, what does it say?"

"Delaney says somebody's blackmailing us. Blackmailing him and me."

"Blackmailing you with what?”

"He says this person knows about the illegal trades we've made, Delaney and I—the risk arbitrages, the stock parking, everything." She looked at him fearfully, "It says the person who delivers the key to me will know how to find this person. I guess you. That you will know how to find this person." She stared at the gun and was silent. Then, noticing the paper tag dangling from the key, she removed the key from the lock and held the tag in her palm, reading the message that was written on it in tiny writing, "This is Ultraglis. Ultraglis racks so easily, even a woman can use it."

"But surely he can't expect—"

"Don't. Let's, let's just not say it."

"But he can hire somebody to do it."

Expressionless, she said, "Well, I guess, in a way, he has hired somebody."

"Kathy, come on, surely you can't be—"

She interrupted him, a little impatiently, "He has hired somebody. What do you think I am? I'm a hired hand, just like everyone else who works for him. Even you, Fernando."

"Yes," he protested, "but he has people who specialize in this kind of thing. Why make you do it?"

"Why not?" She seemed to be rationalizing Delaney's insane idea. "It's nobody else's problem. I made a mess; now I have to clean it up."

"You can't be serious?"

"I'm not going to jail."

"But there are other ways—"

"What other ways? Blackmailers can't be bought off. They always come back for more. Why should I expect somebody else to do my dirty work? What, just because I'm a woman? Well, I'm equal to any man." Then, as if a new idea had suddenly seized her mind, she turned to Fernando, "But you. Fernando. You have to get out of here."


"He said the man who delivers the key will know how to find this person—"

"Yes, you already said that, but—"

"And that the man who delivers, the key will take me to the person. Will know when and where and how. You have to get out of here. If there's one thing I won't do, it's drag you down with me. Just give me the information, and I'll find a way. I always have found other ways, and I can again."

He grabbed hold of her by both shoulders, and turned her toward him. "Kathy, look at me; listen to me. You are not going to do this. Why don't we both get out of here. Leave this place behind. Leave this country behind—you can come with me, to Puerto Rico or even Mexico. We can start over. With the money we have between us, we can live for years without working a day. We'd have to start over anyway. If you go through with this, this plan of his, you'll be in more trouble than you are now. You'd have to flee anyway—why not do it now, when at least all you have going against you is a little white collar crime?"

"I started it; I'll finish it."

A long silence. Nothing to say. Barely even anything to think.

He said, "If you really meant that, you'd turn yourself in for what you've already done. You don't fix one mistake with another—"

"It wasn't a mistake! And I'd do it again. Why shouldn't I? The whole damn system's crooked, you know that Fernando. I was sick of being the sucker who played by the rules and lost over and over again. Illegal doesn't make it wrong, or even make it a mistake. I went into this knowing it was illegal. This son-of-a-bitch, whoever he is, did too. I don't want to kill him, but I don't consider it wrong. He has to face the consequences of his actions, same as me. When you start working outside the law for a living, you do so knowing you have forfeited any right to its protection, its shelter. Lightning could strike at anytime, and it's about to strike this bastard. He isn't taking my money, and he's going to die trying. I don't care."

"Kathy, for God's sake, keep your voice down and listen to what you're saying."

"Fernando, just give me that information, and then get out. I wouldn't drag you down for anything."

"And what if I won't let you do it? If I won't give you the information?"

"Delaney will find some other way of giving it to me, and if he has to do that, then he'll know you turned on him. God help you then."

"If you're doing this, I'm in it with you. I love you dammit—why does that mean nothing to you?"

"It means everything to me. That's why I want you to get out."

"But I'm in. I'm in it with you to the end. We'll do this thing, and then we'll both get out of here. You can't come back afterwards. We can go to Mexico There's still the plant to be run in Juarez—who knows, Delaney might even still want us? Just so he knows we're never crossing that border again."

She hesitated.

"What else is there? Would you want to continue living your life like this, even if you could? Living in shit-hole towns you hate, putting up with sexist, racist, hicks? Knowing the law could catch up with you at any time? Knowing another blackmailer could turn up? For what? Money? Kathy, you're going to wake up one day and discover you have turned old alone, and then all the money in the world won't mean anything."