A Novel

Chapter 8: The Night Auditor in Evening [Clean Version]

About an hour later » down in Tiskilwa » Ora Thomas sitting on a stool in the sacristy of the American Baptist & United Methodist Yoked Parish Church.

The sacristy smelled like damp wool blankets. Like damp wool.

» A man wearing a De Kalb Seed Corn baseball cap pouring vodka into communion wine cups set in a circular, brass communion service tray.

Ora knew the man only by his first name, Bruce, but thought of him as "the Man in the De Kalb Seed Corn Cap," because: long before learning the man's name (first name), Ora had seen him hanging around Shady Rest and he was always wearing a De Kalb Seed Corn baseball cap.

One day, Ora was at Shady Rest, sitting at the bar with with the county clerk. Ora was drinking a club soda. The county clerk was drinking Hamm's. They were talking about elections. The man in the De Kalb Seed Corn cap walked into the bar with Art Newman. Ora nudged the county clerk, and pointed to the pair, "Who's the guy with Art? In the De Kalb Seed Corn baseball cap? I've seen him around here a lot lately."

"Don't know, but he's awfully chummy with Durney. I heard someone call him 'Bruce'; more often I've heard people call him the Night Auditor. I guess because he's night auditor at the Galena Trail grain elevator, down on the river."

Whenever Ora asked somebody about "Bruce", he always got some version of the same answer:

"Bruce? Oh, you mean the Night Auditor."

"The Night Auditor? Oh yeah, you must mean the guy in the De Kalb Seed Corn cap."

"The man in the De Kalb Seed Corn baseball hat? Oh, that's Bruce."

A man with three names, and not a one of them a last name. One man, three different names, if a name is something that people call you by.

Then, the man began to get this reputation:



Slick skate,



Double-five hurricane hotshot,

Flash boy,

Gold brick,

Bully-boy Bruce: the Night Auditor, the Man in the De Kalb Seed Corn Cap.

Everyone seemed to know Bruce, but no one really seemed to know him. Everyone seemed to admire Bruce, Ora included, but Ora had this hunch: if you asked people why they admired Bruce—Ora had this hunch that nobody would be able to say for sure.

Ora himself couldn't say why he admired Bruce. Ora had never seem him do anything that could justify such admiration. Had never seen Bruce in a fight, had never seen him parry a blow, had never even seen him in a card game. And yet Ora, just like everybody else, held Bruce in this completely unjustified but certain awe.

Like Ora, the Night Auditor worked for Durney. Well, as Night Auditor, of course, Bruce worked for the Galena Trail Farmer's Co-Op, at their elevator on the river. But Bruce also worked for Durney.

Three names, two jobs, one man, universally admired.

Ora never really knew what kind of work Bruce did for Durney. You had to admit, there was quite a lot about Bruce that nobody seemed to know. Still, Durney had told Ora that Bruce worked for him, had even said, "Ora, the only man I trust more than Bruce is you." Which was as good as saying: no more questions about Bruce.

So Ora and Bruce were in the sacristy, and Ora was telling Bruce what shit just went down up at Shady Rest.

As Bruce poured the vodka, Ora asked him, "Do you do things like that just to be shocking?"

Not even looking up, Bruce said, "Stuff like what?"

"Stuff like serving vodka out of communion cups."

"They're the perfect size. Only a Methodist would be naïve enough to design communion cups the size of shot glasses. Besides, I didn't think you were capable of being shocked, Ora. And there's no one else here."

Ora looked around, as if to confirm Bruce's assertion that they were in fact alone—as if he didn't entirely trust Bruce, even though he did, because Durney had said he could and should. Ora said, "Well, maybe there isn't anybody else here, but I don't understand doing things just to be shocking. I just don't see the point of it."

Bruce finished filling the glasses, and he passed the tray to Ora; the glass communion wine cups rattled in their burgundy-velvet-lined brass wells.

Brass and glass, trespass, kick-ass.

(Snake in the grass.)

Bruce said, "What they have here isn't real communion anyway: Welch's grape juice and pieces of cubed Wonder Bread. There's nothing sacreligious about adding a little vodka, if that's what's worrying you. But if it is, just remember that one of the soldiers with a spear pierced Christ's side and forthwith came there out blood and water. Blood and water, Ora."

"This is your water?"

"Why not? Oh foolish people, which have eyes and see not. What do you see, Ora?"

He'll think I'm milktoast if I don't. He'll think I'm square. DO IT:

Ora, reluctantly, went along with the joke, lifted a glass from the tray and put it to his lips, trying not to grimace—he detested liquor—down the hatch: rug-burn/throat-burn changed to warmth inside his belly; he could feel the warming glow spread to his face. He gingerly placed the cup back into its well—a little too nicely, precisely (call it: daintily/effiminately)—then passed the tray to Bruce, who said:

"The true substance of water concealed beneath the accidents of vodka."

Annoyed, but trying not to reveal it, Ora continued his story, "Anyway, Riley and I carried the kid to Riley's car, and drove down to the barbecue stand. We laid him on the ground behind the barbecue stand and Riley drove around to the front and parked his car. We both went inside and I called nine-one-one from the payphone. Then Riley ordered a beer and we waited. Rado Millich was the only other customer."

"Who's he?"

"Just a regular at the barbecue stand, but never at Shady Rest. He works on the river boats. He was in New Orleans, then Saint Louis, and then Peoria. Now he's here. Before long, I suppose, he'll be in Chicago, and maybe then he'll emigrate to Canada. Anyway, when Riley and I entered the barbecue stand, Rado spun around on his stool, like a circus monkey, and greeted us. He asked if we had come down for some barbecue. I shoved my gun into his side and said, 'No Rado, we drove up for some barbecue; up from Tiskilwa. You were in the bathroom so goddamned long I had to walk around back to take a leak. Get it?' I don't really have to worry about Rado talking out of school, but the gun makes it easier for him to remember. Sort of a mnemonic device for him. He's not too bright. But I don't think Rado would care if you told him martians had landed up in Elmville, as long as no one took his barbecue.

"Anyway, an ambulance arrived from Elmville. God, those tilt-a-whirling, red-and-blue lights; the darker it gets, the more dizzying they are. I went outside to meet the ambulance, and led the paramedics to the kid, behind the barbecue stand. The paramedics moved him to the ambulance, and left. I went back into the barbecue stand and Riley had ordered another beer.

"Five minutes later, a sheriff's deputy arrived. The deputy entered the barbecue stand, and asked, 'Who found the body?' I had never seen this deputy before. He must be new. I said that I found the kid. The deputy asked where I found the him, so we went out back to the place where I claimed to have found the kid.

"The deputy, he says, 'You found the body here?' And I said, 'Yes, this is where I found the body.' He says, 'What were you doing back here?' And I said, 'I came back here to take a leak. The bathroom inside was occupied'—just like I told Rado it was.

"The deputy, I don't know what he's getting at, but he asks, 'Did you make the nine-one-one call too?' I told him I did. Then he asks for my name and address and all that garbage.

"The deputy then asks if I knew that this was the second aggravated assault in less than a week, and that both times the attacks occurred outside road houses. I placed my index finger on his brass badge, and said, 'This isn't a road house; it's a barbecue stand.' And the smart ass says, 'Okay, sure, it's a barbecue stand. Either way, did you know that this is the second aggravated assault in less than a week?' I said, 'No, I didn't know that. I don't read the newspaper.' So then he asks why I don't read the newspaper, and I said because I don't like what's in it. Then he wants to know if I knew the victim, and I say, 'Which victim?' And he says, 'What do you mean, which victim?' And I reminded him, 'You said there had been two assaults. I assume there were also two victims.'"

Bruce laughed.

Looking at Bruce, Ora once again thought: a single person with three names, and none sufficient to identify him: Bruce, the Man in the De Kalb Seed Corn Cap, the Night Auditor. That's a good trick.

He continued, "So the deputy says, a little impatiently, 'Did you know this victim, who you found back here behind the barbecue stand?' Before I could answer, I suddenly hear Durney behind me saying that he knows the victim. He must have walked down from Shady Rest, because I didn't see his car, or hear it either. The deputy, he acknowledged Durney by tipping his hat, and then said, 'Mr. McKusker—sorry, I didn't see you there.' The deputy obviously knew who Durney was, and, suddenly a lot more polite, he says to Durney, 'You say you can identify this person?' Durney says—and I can't fucking believe my ears—'Yes. He's a friend of the family. The son of a friend of the family. His name is Floyd Hopkins.' I knew he was lying to the deputy, but I don't know why.

"The deputy asks Durney how they could contact the kid's parents, and Durney says, 'You can't; they're both dead.'

"The deputy doesn't seem able to take a hint, so he keeps digging away with his questions, as if this was a real live investigation and he had better do his best to solve it, even more so now he knows the victim's a friend of Durney's. He says, 'Mr. McKusker, when did you last see the victim?' Durney says, 'A couple years ago.' The deputy says, 'And you haven't seen him since?' Durney says, making it all up as he goes along I guess, 'No, I haven't seen him since. I knew he was coming to Tiskilwa for a visit. But I hadn't seen him yet. He must've somehow gotten out here to the barbecue stand, figuring on surprising me.'

"Just then, Sheriff Spaulding arrived. The deputy left Durney and me, and consulted with the sheriff for about five minutes. Spaulding then walked over to where Durney and I were standing, and the deputy left in his car. Like the ambulance before him, he drove back north.

"Spaulding asked Durney what happened. Durney says, 'Don't know. It's like Ora said—he came out here, and there was this body, that ended up being a friend of the family.' Spaulding walked back to his car, and spoke on his radio for a couple minutes. When he returned, he said, 'Hospital says the kid doesn't have any identification on him. The assailants must've taken his wallet.' Durney just stared blankly at Spaulding and said 'Must've', which was a load of garbage because the kid had his wallet when Riley and I brought him up here from the Ranch House. Durney must've taken the wallet while Riley and I were out of the room. Spaulding asks Durney, 'What do you want me to do?' And Durney said, 'I want you to do nothing. I'll pay all the hospital bills; just make sure the kid gets left alone.' Spaulding says 'That might not be so easy—' but Durney interrupted him, saying, 'I don't care if it's easy. I wouldn't pay you what I pay you if everything was always gonna be easy for you. Just make it happen.' Spaulding he left in a bit of a state, but he knew better'n to cross Durney. Durney just walked back up towards Shady Rest. All he said to me was my name; he just said 'Ora,' and then turned and walked back up the drive to Shady Rest."

Bruce drank two shots of vodka, and then asked, "So who was the kid?"

"Don't know. Never seen him before. I know Durney never saw him before either. All I know is he tried to rape Connie; Durney beats the living daylights outta him; and then suddenly wants to save him and claims he's an old family friend."

Ora had taken three more shots since the first, and was dizzy-diving drunk by this point. He ordinarily never drank. In fact, he disapproved of people who drank intoxicating beverages, but he felt incapable of saying "no" to Bruce.

Bruce, the Man in the De Kalb Seed Corn Cap, stared at Ora and said, "Well, what do you want to do now?"

Ora looked away, toward a stack of hymnals and an open wardrobe of choir robes. The silence made him feel awkward. He wondered why he could never say "no" to Bruce. He said, "I don't know. What do you want to do?"