[Dive into the unbelievable previous chapter! In which our hero wanders through a parking lot.]
That voice. I recognized that voice. Only it seemed impossible. “Angelique?” I asked, the word coming out in something like a croak.
She stepped out of the car and walked toward me, her form silhouetted in the glare of the headlights. “I saw you walking,” she said. “This is a bad area. You shouldn’t be here.”
“I know,” I said. “Believe me it wasn’t a planned visit.”
“I think there were some guys after you.”
“Yeah. They ran off when you showed up.” It occurred to me then that I had fantasized about almost this exact situation, only with the roles reversed. I was supposed to be the hero riding in at the last possible moment to scare off the bad guys. But instead I was the loser, the one who needed saving. Business as usual.
“There’s something wrong with the back of your head,” she said.
I reached back with my hand and touched the spot on my skull that had connected with the bed frame and found that my hair was matted with dried blood.
“What happened?” Angelique asked in shock when she saw the extent of the damage.
“There was this guy,” I mumbled trying to think of a way to explain the story that made some kind of sense. “He was looking for Frog and…” I motioned at the back of my head.
“You need to sit down. You could have a concussion. Any dizziness, or jumbled thoughts?”
“Maybe?” I said. “It’s been kind of a weird night, so I’m not sure how weird is really weird, you know?” I realized I was rambling.
“You need to sit down,” she repeated.
“I’ll be fine,” I said, trying to salvage some vestige of masculinity from the situation.
“At least let me give you a ride. I’m not sure how long we can stand here before those guys decide to come back.
I nodded and stumbled unsteadily toward her car. I felt slightly detached, as if my head was floating several inches above my neck. I got the passenger door open just as my knees started to give out and I collapsed into the car.
The next few minutes passed in a blur. I was aware of Angelique talking to me, but I wasn’t fully awake. The words didn’t line up in any kind of way that made any sense. Then we were stopped, and Angelique was bending over me, asking if I could move. I tried to mumble that I was fine, but the words got jumbled in my head and came out like alphabet soup. I started to stand, despite her protests and she led me through a door into an unfamiliar space. I managed to murmur, “Where?” as I sank into an easy chair.
“Relax,” she said. “You need to rest.”
I passed the next few hours in a fog of confusion. I kept feeling myself falling asleep, only to have Angelique shake me back awake, telling me she needed me to stay awake in case I had brain damage.
“Probably way too late for that,” I slurred.
She laughed then and something inside me felt buoyed upward by the sound.
Eventually the night passed, and I started to feel a little better as the rays of sunlight streamed in through the window to my left.
“Where are we?” I asked again.
“My apartment,” she said.
“Am I gonna be okay?”
“I think so. How do you feel?”
“What happened to you?”
In the best way I knew how I told he the story of the man in the suit and what he had done.
“Shouldn’t we call the police? See that he’s brought to justice?”
“He hit me in the head, I hit him in the head. That sounds like justice to me.”
Angie raised an eyebrow at me. (She said I could call her Angie because I kept tripping over the sounds in her full name, and Angie was what her friends called her anyway. Which I guess meant I was one her friends now? Hey, I’ll take what I can get.)
I couldn’t admit the real reason I didn’t want to call the police. I couldn’t tell her that I suffered from an irrational distrust of policemen because my father was one. That would have led to more questions, a conversation I didn’t want to have. So instead I said, “It wouldn’t do any good anyway. Even if they picked the guy up, he said he worked for someone else. The kind of people that hire his kind of people aren’t going to be so careless as to let something like this lead back to them.”
“That’s assuming there is any such clandestine organization,” Angie replied. “The guy sounds like a deranged maniac to me.”
“He had the email,” I pointed out. “I don’t guess it’d be too hard to hack my account, but why? It wouldn’t make any sense for some random crazy guy to go to all that effort. Somehow or other he’s involved with what happened to Frog.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“I don’t know.” But then I felt an old familiar ache in my stomach and I knew that wasn’t true. “Actually,” I said, “Right now, I’m going to get something to eat.”
Angie offered to drive me somewhere, but I wasn’t in the mood for food cooked by someone else. Cooking has always helped me think. Something about making my own food, from scratch mind you, not some trash thrown in a microwave has always had a slightly hypnotic quality for me.
“Do you have any flour?” I asked.
“What? Sure. But I’m not sure you’re in any condition to be cooking.”
“Tell you what,” I said, pulling open her cupboard, “if I pass out you can catch me.”
That actually made her laugh, and then she put her hand over her mouth and said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. Please. I yam what I yam. No need to sugarcoat it.”
With a bit of convincing Angie finally decided it was probably safe enough for me to be on my feet, though she did put a chair by the stove, insisting I sit down if I started to feel light-headed. With her blessing I dug a pan out of the cupboard that looked like it hadn’t been used in a long time. I held up the pan and wiped a finger across the dusty surface. “Not much of a cook I take it?”
She shook her head.
“Nothing to be embarrassed about. Though if I’m honest, I’d prefer to be using cast iron over this Teflon junk anyway. My mother always said…well never mind about that. This will do.”
She stood behind me, looking nervous as I dug through her cupboards looking for oil, sugar and baking soda.
“I used to cook more,” she said suddenly after a long moment of silence.
“Yeah? What stopped you?”
“I guess…I mean it’s a little depressing cooking for just one. When my father was alive I used to make all kinds of things. Baking was my specialty, but I got so I could cook nearly anything if I had a recipe.”
“You’re father’s dead?” I asked, beating an egg into a bowl while the pan on the stove got hot.
“Yeah. It was very sudden. Brain aneurysm they said.”
“I’m sorry. How old were you?”
“I was fifteen when my mother died,” I said. “She was the only person in the world who cared about me.”
“Did you go into foster care?”
I shook my head as I measured out milk and flour. “Nope. Went to live with my dad.”
“He and your mom were divorced?”
“Never married. He was married to someone else though.” I tossed in the sugar and oil beat the mixture hard with a whisk. “I was his bastard. Most people don’t use that word anymore, not in its true sense. If you’re dad was married to another woman besides your mom they say you’re a “love child.” But not good old dad. He reminded me I was a bastard every chance he got.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be,” I said spooning the batter into the hot pan. “It’s a cop-out and it doesn’t fix anything.” I realized the tone of my voice had turned bitter, and I turned and said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just…well sometimes things are the way they are. Feeling bad about them doesn’t change anything.”
She nodded. “I understand. And I think the pancake is ready to flip.”
And so it was.
The recipe made about ten pancakes, and I could usually eat that number by myself with sausage on the side. Angie didn’t have any sausage, but she did have real butter which is a bonus not to be sneezed at when eating pancakes. By the time we sat down at her cluttered kitchen table to eat my stomach was fairly roaring with hunger, but I waited and watched as Angie cut into her pancake with her fork and slipped the first piece into her mouth. Her eyes closed and her face relaxed, as if she had suddenly been transported to a tropical beach with waving palm tree and achingly clear water.
She swallowed, and then looked at me. “What?” she asked.
I realized I had been staring. “Nothing. It’s just…” Just that I had never cooked for anyone else before, never experience the satisfaction of actually seeing them enjoy my food. Not since mom. And that had been more than ten years.
But I didn’t say any of that, because I wasn’t sure how to, and since Angie didn’t press my to finish my thought, I dug into my own pancake and shoved the fluffy, syrupy wonderful mess into my mouth.
I can’t explain why eating is so enjoyable for me. Even when the food is bad, there’s something satisfying in the act of filling my sizable stomach. But this… I’ve heard that there are particular areas of the brain that activate when the truly devout are deep in prayer, a special cluster of neurons dedicated to the feeling of pure rapture. For me, eating truly good food, was like that. A taste of the divine.
I said all that to say this: something about this time wasn’t the same. It was as if the pleasure I had felt in watching Angie enjoy my cooking had somehow sapped my own enjoyment. I felt uncomfortable and awkward, keeping my eyes on my plate, constantly paranoid that she was watching me shove bite after bite into my mouth like a pig. By the time I got to four pancakes I couldn’t take it any more, and pushed my plate away from me.
“Something wrong?” she asked.
“No, I guess I’ve just had enough.”
“You look sick. You’re not feeling nauseous are you?”
“Nauseated,” I corrected.
“You might still be suffering from the concussion. Nausea is on of the symptoms of-”
“No, I’m not feeling nauseated. I’m just saying that’s the word. Not nauseous. Nauseous means something that makes you feel nauseated. Like a nauseous smell or a nauseous taste.” I realized I was babbling and felt my face flush with embarrassment. “Sorry,” I said, trying to cover my tracks. “I guess I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi.”
Angie nodded, but I could tell she wasn’t quite sure what to think.
“Anyway,” I said, trying to move on from my social faux pas, “Now that I’ve got some food in me, I need to think about what my next move should be.”
“I still think you should go to the police,” Angie said.
“And tell them what?”
“The truth. You don’t think they’ll believe you?”
“I don’t think it’ll matter. People get the wrong idea about policemen. Television and novels make is seem like they’re out there on the streets chasing down clues and solving mysteries. But in the real world they’re mostly just muscle paid to keep people from killing each other. Sure there’s a probably a guy with a desk somewhere trying to sift through a mountain of evidence and put the pieces together on crimes that have already been committed, but even if he does get the right evidence, and I doubt the guy who attacked me was stupid enough to leave behind any kind of trail, you’re still going to be buried under a backlog of unsolved break-ins and hit and run drivers and a whole slew of other stuff. If you need answers in a hurry, the police aren’t your best bet.”
“So what then?”
“So we try to figure it out ourselves.”
“That is so not a good idea.”
“Have you forgotten last night? The guy who kidnapped you doesn’t sound like the kind of person who give a whole lot of consideration to fair play. The best thing for you to do would be to hole up here. If anyone’s looking for you, they’d never think to look here. But if you go chasing after this, you’re just gonna end up getting yourself hurt.”
She reached out and put a hand on my shoulder and my heart did a back flip. Part of me wanted to jump up and down and do a little dance. Stay here with the woman of my dreams until all this blows over? Cook for her, and maybe have a chance to show her there’s more to me than a grossly overweight body? Ka-ching! But as good as that sounded, the small voice of conscience overrode it. “What about Frog?” It said. “He’s in trouble. What kind of friend would give up on him, for his own selfish motives?”
I knew what I had to do, but I waited a few seconds relishing the feel of her hand on my shoulder, looking back into her worried eyes with something like wonder. “I…I have to help him,” I said. “I have to try. If this email is so important to these people…maybe it’ll have the key to figuring out how to get him out of this mess.”
“Fine. But at the very least I’m not letting you go alone.”
“Now wait a minute. One minute you’re talking about how dangerous it might be, and the next you think I’m just going to drag you into all of that?”
“I can handle myself,” she replied. She walked over to the table and reached into her purse, pulling out a shiny steel revolver with a rubber handle. “.357 Magnum,” she said by way of explanation. “It was my dad’s before he died. It’s got quite a kick, but I handle it pretty good.”
“I was so not expecting that,” I said.
She gave me a wicked looking smile and replied, “I think you’ll find I’m full of surprises.”
I swallowed hard. “Right. Uh…well I guess we should be going?”
She tucked the revolver back into her purse. “There’s no way I can talk you out of this?”
“I guess you could shoot me.”
That made her laugh again. “All right then,” she said. “Yeah. Let’s go.”