24

He could have been recruited ages ago. The cops might have pulled Simon in on a drug charge, then realized that he was part of the same scene as local activists, old enough for the job, and easily jammed up because he paid his rent by selling weed to his friends. Given a choice between jail and helping them stage some security theatre, I knew which one Simon would choose. Whoever was in that black SUV who had picked him up in the afternoon might been coaching him for this meeting.

Danny stared at Simon for a moment, then gave him a slight nod, as if they had just made a private agreement. “Tweak, you got any of that weed left?”

I pretended to drink some beer. Somebody started talking about a new arts space some friends were opening. Others got into an argument about some movie I’d never heard of. Danny said he was going out for a smoke and left through the front door. Nobody seemed to notice what a stupid excuse it was, given that every dish in the place was overflowing with squashed butts. A moment later, Simon followed, holding a pack of cigarettes like a prop.

“Is there anything to eat in the kitchen?” I asked the room. Nobody paid attention when I got up and slipped out the back door. I circled around the side of the house, where there was a crust on top of the snow, making my feet crunch. The snow under the tangle of bushes growing along the foundation was softer, so I bent down and crept forward under the bushes as silently as possible, spilling snow down my neck from the branches. I got to the front porch and heard a mumble of voices.

I had to get closer, so crawled between two clumps of spiky evergreen shrubs, then straightened up beside the porch cautiously until my head was even with the flooring. It was like turning up the volume.

“You trust these guys?” Something moved a few inches from my face and I realized it was the toe of Danny’s boot, kicking snow off the porch.

“They’re solid.”

Something stung my arm. I thought at first it was just a clump of ice melting, but then a glowing ember drifted past my face and I realized some cigarette ash had landed on my sleeve. Not my sleeve, Jason’s expensive spy-shirt sleeve. I brushed it off quickly, hoping it hadn’t left a hole.

“You hear that?”

I froze. The shoe beside my head moved and the wooden banister creaked as someone leaned over it. More snow sifted off the evergreens and down my neck.

“What?”

Seconds ticked by. “Must have been a squirrel.”

“Tell me what you need. I’ll set it up,” Simon wheedled. Danny grunted. Seriously, we need to get something real going.”

“What do you mean, we? You said you weren’t even going to be there.”

“Hey, you don’t need me. They have the stuff, you have the skills. Boom.” Simon giggled. “No pun intended.” Danny didn’t laugh. “I’m just happy if I can make connections. I’ll talk to them, okay?”

Danny grunted. “Yeah, whatever. It’s freezing out here. I’m going in.”

I heard Simon’s footsteps creaking as he paced alone on the porch, muttering. When the creaking came closer I realized he was whispering to someone on his phone. “He’s definitely ready.” The words faded as he walked away, but the tone of his muttering sounded like an argument. “No way! I’m not going to risk my reputation. You can do this without me.” As he wandered back my way his words got clearer. “Exactly. All you got to do is meet with him, do your thing, boom. Get it? Boom.” He laughed, then sighed dramatically. “No, I’m not stoned. Look, I’ll call you.”

I waited until I heard the front door open and close, then crawled out of the bushes and crunched my way to the back door, thinking about what to do. As important as it was to free my brother, I also wanted to be sure Simon’s reputation was ruined for good. I was worried the film I had made so far wasn’t damning enough, that people wouldn’t believe good old Simon was working for the feds unless they saw him high-fiving an FBI agent as the bust went down. I stomped the snow off my boots and went into the kitchen.

“What were you doing out there?” Tweak was standing at the refrigerator.

“Somebody said there was more beer on the back porch, getting cold,” I improvised. “There wasn’t.”

“Just you getting cold.” He laughed at me as I rubbed my arms and shivered, then he handed me a beer. Just what I needed, a cold beverage. I carried it out to the front room and handed it to someone else.  I checked my phone. “Crap!” I blurted without thinking.

“What’s the matter?” Simon was acting friendly again, all concerned.

“Almost curfew. I gotta go.” Getting stopped by cops now would really mess things up.

“I’m heading out, too.” Simon grabbed his coat, bumped fists with people, pointed a finger gun at Danny and said “We’ll talk.” Then he caught up with me as I went out on the porch. “How are you getting home?”

“I have my bike.” It was dark, but the lights of the highway not far away cast a purple glow in the sky. If I rode fast, I might make it to Francis Bernadette McSweeney’s house before curfew – barely.

“Where do you live?” he asked, pulling on a wool cap.

“I, um . . . actually, I’m not going home. Family drama.”

“Bummer.” He put an arm around me and gave me a sympathetic squeeze. He was good at seeming genuinely sympathetic, but being hemmed in by his arm made my skin crawl. “ Do you need a place to stay?”

“Well, I . . .” My words trailed away as I looked at the phone he was holding and realized it wasn’t his iPhone. As I watched, it vibrated in his hand. He read a message and typed a short reply. Maybe it was official government equipment on loan from the FBI.

“You’re welcome to my couch,” he said, slipping the phone back into his pocket.

“I was going to stay with a friend, but . . .”

“Whatever. But seriously, I don’t mind, and my place isn’t far from here.”

I wanted to see that phone. I wanted to search his apartment. I had a plan.

A totally insane plan that made me feel excited and daring.

Also, terrified.

~ ~ ~

At first it played out the way I expected. As I walked my bike beside him, he told me he had just picked up a new album from this great local band, and I had to hear it. Vinyl produced a much better sound than digital. Exactly the same pitch he’d used on “Charlie,” the Secret Avenger’s client. I was still weighing my options, trying to figure out if the plan that had come to me would work or if I should make an excuse and bail. After a few blocks we stopped in front of a decrepit house. “That’s me, up there.” He pointed up a flight of wooden stairs on the side of the two-story rental. “Let’s listen to the album, and then I’ll make up the couch for you.”

“I don’t want to be any trouble.”

“People crash at my place all the time.” He took my free hand and acted concerned. “Don’t you worry about getting frostbite, biking in this weather?”

I could see myself indoors, playing along. We’d listen to the music and when he wasn’t looking, I’d swap our wine glasses. Once he passed out, I would take a good look at both of his phones. I’d find his computer and copy his hard drive.

I was brave. I was the Secret Avenger. I could do this.

“You talked me into it,” I said, and locked my bike to the fence beside the staircase before following him up the steps, shivering but not from the cold. Inside, his apartment smelled like an ashtray that hadn’t been washed in about ten years. There was a ratty couch, a desk piled with papers and unopened junk mail, a bed in one corner, shelves that held a fancy turntable and a lot of records. He scooped some junk off the couch and threw it in a corner. “Make yourself at home.”

I took off my coat but left my boots on in case I needed to make a run for it. Besides, the carpet was disgusting. I pretended to browse through the albums as he disappeared into the kitchen, reappearing suddenly to hand me a glass of wine. “You’ll like this. It’s a little on the sweet side, but it has a spicy nip to it. Very sophisticated.” He tapped a beer bottle against my glass. “Cheers.”

Crap. “You’re not having wine?”

“Nah, I’ll save it all for you.”

So much for my plan. I knelt down to examine one of the albums and set the glass on the floor before accidentally knocking it over. “Oh, darn. Sorry.”

When I turned to apologize, his mouth was a tight, angry line, but he instantly turned it into a smile. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll get you a refill.”

After counting to five, I followed him into the little kitchen. “Do you have some paper towels?”

He dropped something into a drawer and nudged it shut with his hip. “By the sink.”

I ripped some paper towels off the roll and went back out to mop up the wine, feeling his eyes on my back. A minute later, he came back with another glass of wine, giving it to me with a big smile. Good old Simon. I wandered around the room, pretending to be interested in the view from the front windows. With my back turned toward him I poured half the glass out into one of the dead plants on his windowsill, saying as I did it, “What  you were saying before. You actually have a connection? I mean, for explosives?”

“I know all kinds of people. But enough politics for one night. Come sit down, get comfortable. Let’s listen to some music.”

I plopped beside him on the couch and sent instructions to my face: smile, dammit.

“Like that wine, huh?” He nodded at the half-empty glass.

“Yeah. Gotta slow down, though. It’s going to my head.”

“You’ve been under so much stress. It’s good to relax.” He reached out as if to touch my cheek and I flinched. “Hey, sorry.” He shifted to the far end of the couch. “I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. Is this better?”

I was about to say no, it wasn’t, that I was going to go stay with a friend after all, when his phone rang. He felt one pocket, then another. I took advantage of his distraction and tipped what was left of my wine onto the couch, adjusting a cushion to cover the wet spot. He pulled out the black phone. “This isn’t a good time,” he said, giving me a wink.

I gave him a goofy grin, then yawned and closed my eyes, letting my head fall back, the empty glass tilted in my lap. “Hang on.” I sensed him leaning over me and willed myself to imitate a dead person. He nudged my shoulder and I snuffled and settled deeper into pretend sleep. “It’s okay. We can talk.” He stood and walked over to the front windows. I hoped he didn’t smell the wine I’d used to water his dead plant.

“Tomorrow morning?” he murmured after listening to someone at the other end. “Isn’t that rushing things? No, he’s ready, but . . .” He listened again, then said, forgetting to whisper, “Fine, fine. I’ll call him right now. Jeez.”

I heard him moving around. Feeling a moment of panic, I opened my eyes a crack. He was patting his jeans pockets while swearing, then rummaged through his coat and pulled out his iPhone. “Hey, Danny. How’s it going? Listen, I talked to my guys. They want to meet up. How’s tomorrow morning for you?” He picked up his beer and wandered out of my view. “I know, but like I said, they’ve been looking for an ally with the right technical skills. There aren’t too many people like you, Danny, committed to social justice and with your specialized knowledge. The thing is, it’s got to happen now, while the Minneapolis Nine are still in the news. Your place? Awesome. I’ll let them know. Right, absolutely. You can trust me, man.” One of Simon’s weird talents was that when he said things like that, they sounded true even though they were total lies.

I had the weird sensation that he was looking at me in the quiet that followed, so I fake-snored a little. It didn’t sound as authentic as his lies did, but it must have made him feel safe making one more phone call. “We’re set,” I heard him say. “Tomorrow at noon, his place.”

The next sound I heard made ice slide down my spine: the front door bolt sliding home. I heard Simon jiggle the doorknob a little, making sure it was locked tight. I sat up and rubbed my eyes. “Whoa! Guess I fell asleep!” I guessed I was overacting, too, but I was nervous. “Where’s the bathroom?”

“Through the kitchen.”

“Tell you what. You go through all that.” I flapped my hand at his vinyl collection. “Pick out your top ten albums of all time. Then you can tell me what makes them so great, okay? I don’t know much about music. You can educate me.” My voice sounded wobbly, but that was probably okay because I was supposed to be half-drugged by now.

“Sure.”

“Back in a sec.” I gave him a flirty wave. I remembered to stumble a little as I headed for the kitchen. Checking to be sure that I was out of his line of sight, I quietly opened the fridge and slipped out a beer. Then I carefully pulled open the drawer I’d seen him close. It was jammed full of prescription bottles. I grabbed as many as I could carry and took them and the beer into the bathroom. After locking myself in, I read the labels: Valium, Oxycodin, a sleeping pill I’d seen advertised on TV, and something called Seroquel. I didn’t know what that was, but it had a warning label that said it would make you too sleepy to operate heavy equipment. I spilled a bunch of pills onto the floor and crushed them to powder with my heel. I opened the beer, swept the pill-dust into my palm and funneled it into the bottle, swirling it until the powder was dissolved and none of it was clinging to the sides. Then I hid the prescription bottles behind the toilet, flushed and washed my hands. They were shaking. I took a deep breath before going back out to the kitchen, where I grabbed the wine and tottered back to front room, a bottle in each hand.

“Is that for me?” He grinned up at me, sitting on the floor, surrounded by albums.

I gave him the beer and splashed more wine into my glass. “I should go easy on this stuff. It’s making me feel kind of . . . whoa.”

He reached for me. I giggled and stepped away, wandering the room again as he put an album on. “You’ll like this. It’s like the second coming of the Ramones. Channeling rage, you know?”

“Awesome.” It sounded like random, pounding noise. Or maybe that was just my heart slamming in my chest and my subconscious telling me to run far, far away.“Bottoms up.” I held up my glass, challenging him. He obediently tipped his beer up and chugged, downing it all in a few gulps. I twirled around, saying “Whee!” like an idiot, catching a glimpse of him frowning and licking his upper lip. Steadying myself against the windowsill, I watered another plant. “A toast!” I said, holding up my empty glass.

He grinned and held up his empty bottle. “To good music,” he said.

“To good . . . oh wait, I need a refill.” I giggled and  fell forward. He caught me and I cringed as he scrunched me close and lowered his face to mine for a kiss, his disgusting tongue flicking around my clenched teeth. I pushed him away. “Hey, we were going to toast.”

He took the glass, leering at me. “Sure thing.”

“And you,” I pointed at him, swaying a little. “You need to get another beer so we can do it right.”

“Okie doke.” I stared after him as he walked steadily into the kitchen. How long would it take? I looked over to the door, measuring the steps to throw the bolt, grab my coat, and run down the stairs. I wouldn’t have time to unlock my bike. I would just run. The music faded away between songs. I could still feel his icky wet tongue flicking around my mouth like a giant slimy slug. But before I could move he was back, He filled my glass and handed it to me, then tapped his fresh beer bottle against it.

He leaned in, but I raised my glass and pretended to drink, fending him off. “What’s your next favorite record? Can we play that one now before I get too sleepy?”

He studied me for a minute, then lifted the record off the turntable and started to fit another one over the spindle. “You’ll love this one. Taps into the blues tradition.”

“Cool.” All of the artists on the album cover he was showing me were skinny white guys, but this didn’t seem like the moment for a lecture on cultural appropriation.

He switched the record on and watched the arm plunk the needle down. Somebody wailed about first-world problems in a high voice. Simon stood and reached for me. I dodged away, laughing. “I’m kinda drunk.”

“That’s okay.”

“You have to catch up with me. Drink your beer.” I shook my finger at him like a child giving orders. He laughed and guzzled some down. I tipped my glass back and pretended to drink, letting some slosh as I wiped my mouth with my sleeve, suddenly worried that I would spill wine over the expensive spy-camera shirt. I realized the camera was still on, recording everything. I felt hot, ashamed. And scared. He grabbed me and we teetered together before collapsing onto the couch.

“Whew, I feel weird,” I said.

“You look tired.” He pushed his face close to mine. His chin wobbled a little, as if it was getting loose on the hinges of his jaw. “How about a little nap?”

“How about album number three? Just one more before I fall asleep. Pleeeese, Simon?” I eyed the door as he crouched down and shuffled through the albums he’d picked out. It took three tries before he could fit another one on the spindle.

“Best band in the Twin Cities. Now, let’s cuddle up. Time for a li’l nap. Come here.” When he stood, he lost his balance, catching himself on the arm of the couch. He laughed, then lunged and grabbed me. He wasn’t steady on his feet, but he was strong. We stumbled toward the bed. his hands gripping my arms tight. My heel caught on the edge of the bed, and we tumbled onto it, Simon’s arm knocking against the wall. “Ow,” he said, surprised.

“You need ice on that?”

He just laughed and climbed on top of me, the music pounding away. I rolled him to one side and kissed him to distract him. Ugh, that tongue. He tried to push a hand down the back of my pants. I wriggled away and straddled him.

He smiled lazily, then reached for my shirt with clumsy hands, trying to unbutton it. I pushed them away and slid toward the edge of the bed, but he grabbed my wrist, tight. “Where you going?”

“Too much wine.” I giggled like a maniac, resisting the urge to yank my wrist out of his grasp. “Got to use the john again. I’ll be right back.”

He pulled my hand close and gave my knuckles a romantic kiss, but his words sounded angry. “Don’t be long.”

“I won’t!” My giggling threatened to get out of control as I hurried through the kitchen into the little bathroom. I locked myself on in and sat on the toilet, shaking. In the other room I heard his slurring sing-song voice, “Hey, getting lonely out here.”

“Just a minute,” I called out, staring at the door. It was a flimsy little lock. I remembered how strong his hands had felt. One good pull and he would be able to yank it open. There was a window over the toilet, but it was tiny, much too small for me to climb through. I remembered to switch off the camera, finally, and looked around for a weapon. There was a can of Axe I could spray into his eyes. If I broke the spotty mirror over the sink, I might be able to pull out a shard to stab him with. I could probably find a knife in the kitchen but I was too scared to unlock the door.

“Baaaaybee . . . “ His blurry voice faded. I held the spray can so tight my hand hurt, listening, half expecting him to wrench the door open and grab me. I waited. Then I waited some more.

~ ~ ~

When the record finished playing and everything was quiet I finally opened the door. I found a knife beside the sink and held it and the spray can as I went through to the room where he was curled up on the bed. I watched him. He didn’t move. When I nudged him with the toe of my boot, it felt like I was poking a sandbag.

I started to breathe again. I stepped across the room, set down the can, unbolted the door, and grabbed my bag and coat. I was standing outside on the porch, still holding the knife, when the cold air seemed to clear away the fog in my head. I remembered why I had come to his apartment in the first place. My feet felt as if they were weighted with lead as I stepped back inside.

I walked back to the bed, moving as quietly as I could. He was curled on his side. His iPhone was sticking out of his back pocket. I took the top of it with my finger and thumb and cautiously drew it out.

Where would he charge his phone? Near the bed. I found the power cord, switched on my computer, set the knife down, plugged the USB end into it and logged in using his passcode. I browsed through recent messages. None of them made sense to me; my head was full of a shrill warning: go, go, you should go. I couldn’t figure out how to copy his message files or contacts, but I dragged all of his stored videos and photos to my desktop. While I waited for them to finish copying, I studied Simon. He wasn’t moving. I watched him closely and saw he was still breathing. But he was out so cold he didn’t move as I gritted my teeth and went through his pockets, looking for the other phone. He had slid it into the right pocket, I remembered. The side he was lying on. I pushed his shoulder and hip and rolled him over on his back. He groaned and I felt all of my muscles go tight. Then he snuffled and started to snore.

I reached for the phone, powered it on and saw I would need a password. I tried 123me. I tried simonisgr8. I tried all the lazy passwords I could think of, but nothing worked. I considered taking it with me and letting Zeke have a crack at it, but decided it wasn’t worth the risk. I wiped it down with the corner of my shirt and slid it back into his pocket. I wiped the iPhone off and then everything else I remembered touching, just in case.

I got the prescription bottles from behind the toilet and put them back into the drawer with the others, arranging them so the labels showed and taking a photo in case I needed proof. Then I wiped them all off because I couldn’t remember which ones I’d handled.

There was a Sharpie on the counter and it gave me an idea. Even though it said “permanent marker” on the side, it wouldn’t be as permanent as a tattoo, but then, I didn’t have a tattoo gun handy. I tried to remember the exact words from the book that Monica and I had both read. We’d had a good discussion about it. Was Lisbeth Salander truly feminist or was The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo just another form of gendered exploitation?

A feminist, I decided. For a moment I felt Simon’s hands, tasted his grotty mouth, felt his tongue poking around my teeth. I spat on the floor, then went over to the bed and pushed up his shirt to expose his white belly. I braced myself, waiting to see if he would rise up like a zombie. Then I wrote across his ribs and stomach in big block letters

I AM
A PIG AND
A RAPIST

It might not have been a totally accurate quote, but it was close enough.

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