A Novel

Chapter 29: The Half Life of Chemicals

Eight days earlier » Sunday, September 13, 1987 » after receiving Fernando's message, Delaney sent his best clocker, Buzz Larkin, to watch the house where, according to Blondie, Floyd Hotchkiss was holed up.

Delaney's mind was splitting apart like salted pavement roads. These goddamned roads. Even when they led someplace peaceful, they posed a threat; the plain fact that they led anywhere made them threatening.

A road was a dangerous thing.

Now go down a different road. Go down it backwards:

→Three years ago→Samuel West: Delaney's longest serving strong-arm, and by far the most reliable. West executed every order, as if with a vengeance against the world. Delaney secretly considered him a friend. We were friends in college. But then he went to work for me.

Three years ago West requested a meeting. Delaney assumed he possessed information that could only be conveyed in person. Whatever the reason, the request was unusal. They rarely met. The more Delaney wanted to meet with West, the more strongly he resisted.

But West entreatied; West pressured.

Delaney granted the interview. "Okay, okay. Meet me at the Palmer House. Ask for me at the reception desk; arrive no earlier than eight o'clock."

On the appointed evening, at eight o'clock, Delaney waited nervously in the hotel room, drinking J&B, and admiring his new shoes. He heard a knock at the door. He opened the door. He was startled to find West accompanied by a young woman—a girl, really, with light blonde hair and a soft, youthful complexion. She wore a pink, knee-length skirt and a white, sleeveless blouse. He wondered if she was West's girlfriend, or maybe even a prostitute.

West wore a grey suit. He looked good: healthy and handsome. His left hand, with its wedding-banded ring finger, clutched the handle of a black attaché case.

Unable to conceal his surprise, Delaney said nothing but, "West."

West smiled and said, "Delaney. You look surprised to see me?" After a strained pause, he explained, "This is my daughter, Ellen. Ellen, this is my boss."

The girl, almost as if she had been coached, said "It's a pleasure to meet you sir."

"But West, this was supposed—"

"I know, I know," West interrupted. "Surely you don't mind if I bring my own daughter on a trip into the city. She's eighteen, don't worry—old enough to see the big, bad city. Take-your-daughter-to-work day, eh? I hope you don't mind."

Taken aback, because he did in fact mind a great deal, Delaney temporized, "Well, maybe she'd feel more comfortable waiting in the lobby—I can give her some money to buy a Coke or something. There's probably—"

"She'll be fine with us." Then almost as if challenging him, West said, "When have I ever given you cause to doubt me, Delaney?"

Delaney reluctantly agreed, without realizing he had done so. He wished he didn't like West so much; he felt foolish, as if he had relented in an adolescent quarrel. Delaney feared that West understood only too well just how he felt, had even anticipated it, had known it would make him vulnerable.

The girl seated herself next to her father on the sofa, and Delaney sat facing them across a coffee table. Delaney asked, "West, can I get you something to drink?" He felt like a cad addressing himself only to West, but he could not disguise his displeasure.

"No, I'm fine, thank you though."

"What's this all about?"

West set his briefcase on the coffee table and snapped it open. "Gosh Delaney, there was a time when you used to be glad to see me. I know you're a busy guy—you always were—so I'll get right to the point. I've been a good employeee, I think, and I want to ask that you consider an investment opportunity." He removed a stack of folders from his briefcase, and set them beside the briefcase on the coffee table. "I know it's not my place. I know I don't know nothing but nothing about these things. I hired somebody to compile the information. Don't worry, there's nothing ever to connect you, or even me for that matter, with any of it. You know I know how to be careful—Christ, I probably taught you half your own tricks. Now, I never asked a favor before, and I'll never ask one again, not even if you say 'no'. All I'm asking is that you consider what I'm asking."

Delaney nodded.

"Now, there's a company called Harper-Wyman. It's in a small town called Elmville, about two hours southwest of here. Dearborn could buy it; you could do the miracles you do with companies like this and make a mint."

"Companies like what?"

"Companies that used to be profitable, but have been mismanaged to three steps from receivership. You could buy it for chicken feed, do what you do, and sell at a handsome profit."

Delaney was silent, not knowing how to respond to so inappropriate a request. Somehow, the correct, obvious response never even presented itself as an option; he gazed at West's confident, handsome face. He couldn't think straight.

West shut his briefcase, and said, "Now, if you don't mind, I think I would like that drink after all, just a quick one, before driving back home, but I need to run to a pharmacy to get—"

"I could have room service—"

"I'd rather go myself. Would you two excuse me—I'll be right back."

Before Delaney could say anything else, West was gone, leaving Delaney alone in the room with the daughter.

She looked aside, and said, "Hi." She crossed her arms at the elbows. Then, after a moment, she said, "I guess my dad thought you'd like me better than you do—"

Ashamed of his ungracious behavior, Delaney said "No, no, that's not it at all."

She looked him in the eye, hopefully, "You do like me then?"

"Of course I do. Who wouldn't?"

She pulled off her blouse. She was wearing nothing underneath. "My father wanted you to have me. He idolizes you."

Her words, not her body, created a maelstrom of confusion in his mind: He idolizes you...he wanted you to have me. Her words made him want to do what she claimed West wanted him to do. Staring at her breasts, he asked, "What do you mean, he wants me to have you?"

"Don't worry," she said playfully. "He doesn't want you to marry me; he's not trying to trap you. He wants my first time to be with a gentleman. He says you're a gentleman, the real thing, not like the country boys I know back home. But I think he also hoped you would find me attractive. I know I'm probably not pretty like the city girls you go with, but I guess he just hoped, that's all."

No normal man could fail to find her attractive. No normal man. A sexual degenerate, on the other hand... It might not have been West's intention to trap Delaney, but Delaney felt trapped all-the-same.

The girl approached him; he felt paralyzed with fear. He did not want to fuck her, but he wanted even less to disappoint West. Delaney believed, because he so badly wanted to believe, that West really was offering the girl to him, as a gift, as a token of affection: West's own daughter, West's own flesh-and-blood.

Ellen sat on Delaney's lap and kissed him. He was able to reciprocate the kiss, to open his mouth and accept her tongue as it pressed against his own. He put his hand on her breast, and it did feel good; it was large and soft; its fullness in his hand felt calming. He put his mouth over her nipple, kissed it, licked it, and then, taking as much of it into his mouth as he could, he sucked on it.

She moaned like a slut in a porno flick. She slid off his lap, onto the floor, between his legs, onto her knees. Like a slut in a porno flick.

He did not stop her; he felt unable to do so, possibly because he wanted to fuck her, or because he wished he wanted to fuck her; he wanted to show West that he could fuck her, and to do it for West. He looked down as she unbuckled his belt, unbuttoned the outer button on his pants, unhooked the clasp, and then unbottoned the inner button; she unzipped his flies. He could not stop her. She slipped her hand into his boxer shorts, and she discovered that he was not hard.

She appeared shocked as she looked into his face. She seemed to see something there—confirmation of a truth her young mind had only slowly been able to apprehend? No, not possible: she was like a slut in a porno flick. She suddenly stood, and said, "Oh my god I'm so sorry."

He placed his hands on her waist, to prevent her from stepping backwards and tripping over the coffee table.

Delaney wondered what she would do, if she would play innocent: would this porno flick slut play innocent? No, not a porno flick slut, but West's flesh-and-blood. No, not West's flesh-and-blood, but West's treachery, West's porno flick slut.

She asked, "What is it?" Then, quickly, she said, "Nevermind that's none of my business. My dad won't know about this, I promise you sir. He's from a different generation; he wouldn't understand; it would only crush him."

"No, no—it's not what you think."

"It doesn't matter what I think. You don't have to explain anything. I'm the one who should be embarrassed. You must think I'm such a slut."

"No, no. You're beautiful; you're everything desirable."

She quickly put her blouse back on. "When my dad comes back, can we just pretend everything happened the way he wanted it to? We don't have to say anything. Just let him think what he wants?"

Delaney nodded his consent, because he desperately wanted West to believe he had fucked Ellen, just as West had hoped he would, in whatever way West had hoped.

She sat back down on the couch.

Understanding now why West had left, Delaney knew it would be a while before he returned. "Would you like something to drink?"

"Yes, thank you, that would be a good idea."

"What would you like?"

"I don't know—what do they have, those little liquor bottles?"

"No, but—," He gestured toward the wet bar.

She said, "Oh, I never was in a place this nice before. Can I have a vodka tonic?"

He went to the bar, glad for the chance to be away from her. When he returned with her drink, she already seemed a little more relaxed; he wished he could feel the same.

She finished half the drink very quickly, then set it down on the coffee table, "Thank you so much." She took a rubber band from her purse, put it in her mouth while she gathered her hair into a pony tail, and then tied it up with the rubber band. Pointing to the stack of folders, she said, "I don't know if you ever will buy that company, if you'll ever be down in that part of the state. But if you are, I know a place you might like." She dug through her purse again, and produced a business card. Handing it to him, she said, "I work there, at the Marina. They run excursions on the river. I've seen some of the guys they get for those excursions, really hot guys—"

"I think you have the wrong idea. I'm not what you think."

She coltishly ran over to him and kissed his cheek. "It's alright. That's fine. You can just throw it away then. You think you can't trust me? I'll tell you a secret then. When someone tells you a secret, it's a sign that you can trust them." And then, she whispered in his ear, "I'm not really a virgin. I lost my viriginity to the owner of that Marina when I was sixteen. To get the job there." She giggled, slutty giggle. No, not slutty, but nice and kind. "I wanted that job so much. It's an exciting place to work, at least it is when you come from a town like I come from. If my father knew what I just told you, he'd kill me. So now you have my secret. Don't worry about me."

She put the card into his hand, and for some reason he believed her, that he didn't need to worry.

"If you ever call that number, ask for Todd."

West returned about an hour later. He said, "Well Delaney, I guess I won't have time for that drink after all." He tossed a bottle of aspirin into the air and then caught it with a sideways sweep of his hand. Then he removed a stack of books from his briefcase. "One more thing, I almost forgot: plat books for the county. It probably doesn't seem directly related to Harper-Wyman, but they might be useful. Give them to your research department. I think they will be able to use them." He then turned to Ellen, and said, "Okay sweetheart, are you ready?"

Delaney wished he could know what West was really thinking at that moment, whether West believed that Delaney had fucked Ellen, or if West knew all along that Delaney could never go through with it.

After West and his daughter left, the fear set in almost immediately. Delaney made himself another drink and took a Valium. He didn't understand what had really just happened, whether it had all been a set-up, why he had lost control of the situation, and what West had really hoped to gain by it all.

In an attempt to reorient his thoughts, he began reading the Harper-Wyman portfolio. He wondered why West wanted Dearborn to acquire this company. It actually looked like a good investment, if all the facts checked out. Maybe Ellen had been telling the truth; maybe West really did simply want him to have her. And now West wanted him to have Harper-Wyman.

But he now felt coerced. He didn't really know the score. Would the girl tell her father what had happened? Was West using her to pressure Delaney into purchasing the company? Delaney felt angry at the thought, but he also felt powerless to retaliate.

A month later, Dearborn acquired Harper-Wyman. Delaney pushed the acqusition through, despite the objections of his partners. He sent Kathy Trimble to oversee the restructuring.

Three years later, Delaney decided that he should personally visit Harper-Wyman, to review Kathy's progress. He still had the card that Ellen gave him, and out of curiosity, no lust, he called the Marina and reserved a spot on an excursion. The only excursion that would coincide with his visit was for the night he planned to arrive. He made the reservation, deciding that he could always just skip if he had second thoughts. On the night he arrived in Bureau County, however, he did board the excursion boat. What happened on that excursion he could not bear to remember. But he did not need to remember, because he had written it all down in his journal, and his journal remembered for him.

The past is a slut, a rut slut / smut cut / gut fuck.

Buzz Larkin, he posed as a telephone company repairman. He climbed the telephone pole directly opposite the house where Floyd was bunked up. He installed a small video camera. Military-grade surveillance equipment. American-made. The kind of gear you buy from Honduran drug traffickers who also handle moonlight requisition. Stolen from American-backed, American-armed, Central American insurgents. In the middle of a mother fucking shit storm. Ambushed kick out. Across the ratline. In a pontoon powered by purring outboard motors. Midnight rendezvous with a twin engine prop plane on an island off who-the-fuck-knows-where, and from there to a black market in the Cayman Islands. And from there, eventually, to Tiskilwa Illinois.

Don't act so surprised; don't be so goddamned incredulous. Invisible networks cover the globe. A dense web of them. Networks for moving contraband, people, information, money... Buzz was plugged into one; Buzz was a node it. Delaney was also a node. All the nodes compartmentalized. Need-to-know-basis only.

Buzz monitored the video stream from a room at the closest motel: the Ranch House, in Bureau Junction. He plugged his surveillance kit into the room's phone jack. The surveillance kit recorded the video stream in 4 hour loops. Buzz printed stills of anybody who entered or left the house, and then faxed the prints, along with his reports, to Delaney in Chicago.

On Wednesday, Delaney received Buzz's first report, a picture of a middle-aged woman and a note, "Woman #1. The only visitor to the house so far. She comes 3 times a day: 8:00 a.m., noon, and 5:00 p.m., on the dot. She stays about half an hour each visit. She either lives within walking distance, or else she doesn't park her car in the driveway."

Thursday and Friday, "Nothing new."

On Saturday, the day that Floyd was to be killed, a report arrived shortly before 2:00 p.m.: a picture of Kathy, "Woman #2", entering the house, and a picture of her leaving it.

Delaney studied the second picture carefully, trying to interpret the expression on Kathy's face. What had it meant to her, to kill somebody? She appeared distraught, shaken. He had often wondered how far she would be willing to go for money. Now he knew that she would go all the way, but that she had failed to master her conscience. Although he liked Kathy, he couldn't help despising her a little, for being so easily manipulated. Was it out of panic, or out of loyalty, that she had acquiesced, without protest, to his extraordinary demand? He felt a little guilty, but she had become too ambitious. In his experience, overly-ambitious women invariably caused trouble if they weren't at some point brought to heel. Now, guilty of murder, never knowing when or if she might be apprehended, she was safely neutralized.

He left the office and drove back to Glenview.

On Sunday morning, he expected to receive news that a dead body had been discovered inside the house, but there was no news. He waited. Lunchtime passed, and still nothing. It was late afternoon before a fax finally arrived: "Saturday evening, Woman #1 came and left as usual, but has not returned. No activity since then."

The woman must have found the body; why hadn't she called the police?

Delaney tried to imagine what was going on down there. Maybe Floyd's co-conspirators, whoever they were, hoped to conceal his death so that they could continue their shakedown game. And yet surely they must realize it was Delaney who had ordered the hit? Whatever the reason, they couldn't keep the body inside that house much longer.

Monday passed with no news of a dead body. Delaney waited anxiously for some sign that Kathy had killed Floyd, but no sign was given to him. Eight o'clock that night, he received a single fax: "Still no activity since Woman #1 left the house Saturday evening."

On Tuesday morning, when Delaney entered his office, there were 4 sheets of paper in the fax machine tray. The first sheet, marked "11:03 p.m.", was a photograph of a pickup truck in the driveway. The second, marked "11:15", was also a photograph: two people walking away from the pickup truck, toward the house. The front door brightly illuminated by a carriage lamp. Delaney eagerly turned to the third sheet, another photograph: the couple stood kissing on the concrete stoop at the front door. The camera's parforcal lens caught the couple clearly, and Delaney could clearly see their faces. And he recognized both. Clearly. As in: clear the fucking decks because we're about to get hit. Hard. As in: the shakedown was catalytic. A catalytic attack all along. As in: you are fucked.

The young man in the photograph = the young man Fernando tailed his first night in Bureau Junction, the young man Fernando himself photographed at the Marina, the young man Fernando had thought might be Floyd. No mistaking now.

One two three Floyd Floyd Floyd Floyd Floyd Hotchkiss. The boy is Floyd Hotchkiss. Kathy had double-crossed him. The duplicitous cunt never killed anyone—how could she have, when there was clearly no dead body inside the house, and Floyd was alive? Floyd was a laughing third.

Invisible networks. Trap you, fake you, fuck you.

It wasn't Floyd, however, who left Delaney gasping to breathe. It was the girl. The girl in the photograph. Her. Her, her...her involvement with Floyd made Delaney realize that he had lost all control, that at some point he had become a plaything in somebody else's hands. Whose hands, and why? He had been compartmentalized. He had been rendered powerless.

Invisible networks.

The girl in the picture was West's daughter. Samuel West's daughter. Her presence at the house, with Floyd...the network tilted; Delaney felt dizzy. A dizzying disaster approached. Dizzying and absolute. Dizzying because incomprehensible from his position within the network. Because he had been compartmentalized. If only he could see. If only there was a place within the network from which he could see. But he had been compartmentalized. How had she become involved with Floyd? Delaney had been compartmentalized. And what was in it for her? He had been compartmentalized. Dizzying and absolute, like a dead-drunk motherfucker who can feel himself falling, and see the room spinning, but who is powerless to stop himself from hitting the floor. Head first and hard.

Delaney rehearsed the known facts in his mind:

He sent Joe and Floyd to Bureau Junction. To help stoke the Harper-Wyman deal. Neither had ever been there before, far as he knew.

Floyd arrived without Joe, but with Joe's Western Union directory.

Blondie took the directory from Floyd.

Blondie sold the directory to Delaney—via Fernando—for $5,000.

According to Fernando, Floyd intended to blackmail Delaney with the information Joe had recorded in the directory. It was probably for the directory that Floyd had murdered Joe, whose body was later found, south of Pekin, crushed into the bottom of a coal car.

But neither West nor West's daughter could have known that Floyd was coming to Bureau Junction; they couldn't even have known who Floyd was.

Think back. What had I known? What had I told that double-crossing cunt? "Outside of Chicago, there are three powers: the chambers of commerce, the labor unions, and the farm bureaus. The farm bureau especially, but don't expect to see it—not in all its power, anyway. It will look silly and homespun and about twenty years behind the times. But it isn't. There are three powers, and each power has two hands, a hidden hand and a black hand, united to one body. Now which do you think is the more dangerous?"

Think, goddammit. Think this out. The farm bureaus. The farm bureaus. Why should they be so powerful? For the same reason any organization is powerful: money, the money it can command. And where does the money come from? West left me a stack of farm bureau plat books. Published annually. Where did I put those plat books? What do they show? What do they show? What do they show? Think, think, think...

They show land. They show land ownership. They show membership. They show land. They show land ownership. They show land changing owners. They show large tracts owned by land trusts. Land trusts. Getting bigger. Then smaller, and then bigger again. Land trusts. Land trusts. What the fuck does it mean? Where is the money coming from?

Farm commodities. They could be the easiest form of assessable wealth to hide. Compare to securities. Compare to...compare to anything. There is almost no paper trail. Commodities are not only the easiest form of assessable wealth to hide. More importantly: they are the easiest form of assessable wealth to fake. There is almost no paper trail. The farmer buys seed, but he can buy it from a farm bureau owned cooperative. The farmer buys labor. Cash for services. A cash economy. "I'll take payment in cash." And all of it can be faked to look like whatever the they want it to look like, because not all the seed in the world and not all the labor in the world can guarantee a bumper crop. Farm bureau owned insurance companies. Farm bureau owned banks. Farm bureau owned grain elevators. Christ, the grain elevators: of course. The farm bureaus own the grain elevators too, in the form of cooperatives. Oh Christ, of course! The motherfucking grain elevators: money laundering machines. And the occasional grain elevator fire, or grain elevator robbery: a completely-plausible way to destroy all the dirty paperwork. An easy way to launder dirty money. The cooperatively owned grain elevator can buy nothing from its members, and sell that nothing in foreign markets. The grain elevator can launder dirty money from just about anywhere. But where the hell is that dirty money coming from, and where is it going?

An invisible network. A closed network: farm bureaus, farm cooperatives, farm workers. Land owners and land trusts. Moving money around, inside a closed network. An invisible, closed network. Laundering the money. And then putting it back into circulation. A closed network.

West's daughter, of course. Her, the girl; the girl and the riverboat pimp she works for. Jesus Christ how could I have been so stupid?

Delaney should have seen the betrayal coming, the day West brought his daughter to Chicago. It was West who had drawn Delaney into Bureau County. It was West who had persuaded him to buy Harper-Wyman, an investment the partners never really liked, but which Delaney had made anyway, against their objections.

Still, Delaney could not understand how West had made contact with Floyd. Whatever West had planned, how did Floyd fit into it? Why Floyd and not Joe? Why Kathy and Fernando? Why any of it? When had Delaney ever refused West anything?

It no longer mattered whether Delaney understood; West and his daughter and Kathy and Floyd and probably Fernando too—they had him up against a wall, and there wasn't a goddamned thing he could do about it. His mind sizzled and split: paranoia and fear, like a baby squirrel he once saw frying-to-death on hot asphalt. He trusted nobody. Trust, it was a fucking command to a dog. You could trust a dog, but not a human. Delaney didn't even know what it felt like to trust another person. He lived in secret; he lived deep. Now he must go deeper.

He unlocked a desk drawer and removed his journal, which he placed into a padded envelope. He addressed the envelope, and then summoned his secretary. "Vicki, could you bring me two bottles of Evian and then mail this package?" She brought the Evian, and left his office with the package. He locked the door behind her, consumed half a jar of Demerol, a jar of Xanax, and half a jar of Valium; and then he died.