I was talking faster and faster. I bit back my next sentence, made myself calm down. Got to focus. Freaking ADD.
I said, “That psychologist back in school, she gave me the PCL-R, that’s a test where they rate you from zero to forty based on personality traits of sociopaths. Glibness, inflated ego, violence, juvenile delinquency, all that serial killer shit. Anything above a score of thirty gets you a diagnosis of sociopathy. I got a twenty-nine. And the irony is that I had to steal the file from the cabinet to find out that score. Do you think that’s worth the extra point?”
He shook his head slowly. “I’m not following you.”
“Which would prove I’m a monster, Arnie? Sacrificing the people I love for the fight? Or walking away from the fight to save the people I love?”
Arnie didn’t want to get sucked into a debate on that subject and instead said, “Just hear me out. Say we just go public with it, with your story. My story, too.”
“Why, Arnie? What good is that gonna do?”
“You get other people to come forward, other people like us who sense what’s goin’ on. Strength in numbers. Hell, people believe in angels and UFOs and every other thing. They’ll listen. The bad guys can’t make us all disappear, can they? They got to have limits to what they can do. They got to.”
Arnie again threw out his hands, like an NBA player acting baffled by a referee’s call.
“This is all I got, Wong. I have no faith to speak of and no skill but what you see. The truth, the power of knowledge in the hands of the people, all that journalism school song and dance, that’s what I believe in. It’s all I believe in. I got nothin’ else. I got nothin’ else to fight with. But I know this, too. You took my calls for a reason. So that makes me think you had the same idea.”
I said, “It was Amy’s idea. Meeting you.”
Arnie asked, “She’s still in Utah?”
“Just checking. Yeah, she’s still there with the lesbians. There’s been some incidents since she left. A big monstrous guy came after me and I killed him. Twice. Had to cut off his head. I found a big slug thing in my kitchen. We fought a monster made of meat. They take their shots. I didn’t want Amy to be a part of that, I wanted something better for her. I tried to sort of cut her off, get her to start a new life. Her own life. But she calls me. All the time. Ever since she left, she calls and calls. I wound up with a four-hundred-dollar phone bill one month. I told her about you wantin’ to meet me and she told me I should do it, that she had a feeling.”
“See? She knows. She knows, and you know, that we got to shine light on these cockroaches. The shadows hate the light, let’s shine my light on these bastards. Let people know what’s happening to their world.”
I said, “Just telling our stories, that won’t do shit. Testimony of two nutjobs, that’ll just get us lumped in with the Roswell guys, a minority of nerds pleading a ridiculous case, supported by e-mails from equally crazy and lonely people.”
“Then what do you want to—”
“We show them this.”
I pulled the silver canister from my pocket.
“This is real, Arnie. A physical piece of evidence. That’s what Amy thought, that if you could get this in the hands of somebody, a lab or something. I don’t know. And there’s gotta be more soy sauce out there. We already got two canisters. Or maybe it’ll come back in this bottle, the way it did before. Maybe the bottle manufactures it. But you got to know people, at a university, somebody with an electron microscope. Because I’m thinkin’ that whoever takes the first close look at the soy sauce is gonna have a brown stain down the bottom of his lab coat a second later.” I thought for a moment and said, “Just make sure they keep it cold.”
Arnie nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. Make that the story. Hell, let ’em see the effects themselves, feed the shit to a lab rat and watch the fun begin, see the thing start levitating and speaking French.”
And just like that, I felt an intoxicating rush of hope. I tried to crush it, to push it down, to expose it to reality and kill it off. But I couldn’t. It was a sunrise, a kid’s sight of snowfall on a school morning. Hope. That all this can turn out okay, that somehow a tide this big and black can be turned back. Hope like a wildfire, thoughts of presents under a Christmas tree and a smell of cookies coming from a kitchen and a certain look in a girl’s eyes that lights you up inside. That beautiful border between nightmare and morning when you realize that all of the monsters menacing you have evaporated like smoke, leaving behind only the warm blankets and the pale sunlight of a Saturday dawn.
Amy Sullivan. Her name is Amy Sullivan. Her plane landed in Salt Lake City and she called me just two days ago and we talked for four hours and she had bought a new album and made me listen to the whole thing over the phone. Amy Sullivan. She’s still there. Amy—
I said, “And you’re willing to risk everything? Your life, your family? I mean, best-case scenario, your career as a journalist is gonna be over because from now on this is all you’re gonna be known for. And don’t forget that there may be people, real people, who don’t want this out. The people who ransacked my apartment, the people from the factory or the CIA or NSA or Men in Black, whoever it was—they don’t want this stuff known. Are you ready for all that, Arnie?”
“Shit. I been around, Wong. My first year out of journalism school I got knocked cold at a segregation protest. That was 1964. I wake up with my camera busted on the pavement and blood runnin’ down my shirt. This fat guy steps over me and says, ‘Stay down, nigger.’ I think back then I knew what I was doin’ this job for. But in the years since—”
Arnie saw the look on my face and stopped talking.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t answer.
“They—they called you ‘nigger’? Even though you’re white?”
“Is that some kind of joke? What are you . . . hey! What are you laughing at?”
I couldn’t answer. This time it was because laughter was choking off my air. Arnie was infuriated.
“What? Asshole, answer me!”
I couldn’t. It was the kind of laughter that’s so hard it doesn’t make sound, a spasm in the lungs. And the brain. I was bent with it. Arnie stomped over and grabbed my shirt, pushing me against the wall.
I choked out, “Describe yourself to me, Arnie. Physically, tell me what you look like.”
Arnie stepped back. Horror blew all expression off his face. He knew exactly what I was asking.
He muttered, “No, no . . . You’re fucking with me.”
“Come on, Arnie. I got places to be.”
“No . . .”
“Because to me you’re not black, Arnie. To me you’re a chubby white guy with a gray mustache. A big, fat necktie tied in a huge Windsor knot.”
Arnie’s eyes went wide, then narrowed in disgust. He threw me against the wall one last time, then backed away.
“My first thought when I saw you, Arnie, was that you looked just like I imagined you. I actually said that to myself. I should have known. And now I’ve wasted my whole day.”
He sprayed something nasty under his breath, turned on his heels and stormed from the room. I sat there, seizures of suppressed laughter trembling through my gut. Gotta cut that out. Inappropriate laughter is the universal first sign of madness. I took a series of long breaths. My whole afternoon. Wasted. Slowly the ridiculousness of the situation suddenly stopped being funny and started pissing me off. If Arnie left in his car, I didn’t have a ride back. I climbed to my feet and followed the echoes of his footsteps through the mall.
I caught up to Arnie in the dark of the parking lot. He had his keys in his hand and was walking toward the rental car, then stopped. He was staring at the car, at a spot toward the rear. The trunk.
I walked up slowly, not sure what he would do next. You never know how people will react in this situation. The way he was looking at the trunk, he knew something. What would he do when he figured out the truth? What would you do in his shoes?
I stepped up, about ten feet behind him. I said, “You think there’s somethin’ in there, Arnie?”
He didn’t answer. He was studying his car keys.
“Come on Arnie. Open it. The sooner you do, the sooner we can move on.”
With shaking fingers, Arnie twisted the keys in the lock. He lifted the trunk lid, stared wordlessly at what was below him for probably a full minute. His keys fell from his hand and hit the gravel with a chink and for a moment, I was sure Arnie would faint. Was that even possible for somebody who was already dead? An interesting question.
I strode up behind Arnie. In the trunk was a thin, black man, probably in his early sixties. A graying afro that grew in a pattern-baldness horseshoe around a head that was splattered with blood.
The head was not attached to the body. It had been neatly sliced off, a job so quick and efficient that the bloodstained bow tie around the severed neck was still tied and straight. The man in the trunk could not have looked more different than the Arnie Blondestone I had known. But he was undoubtedly the real one.
I said, “I’m sorry, Arnie. I really am. I think I’m one of the few people in the world who can truly sympathize with you.”
Arnie wheeled on me like I was the Devil. He pointed a finger gun at me and said, “You did this! You killed me, you son of a bitch!”
“Look at your body, Arnie. The one in the trunk, I mean. Look at the dried blood. You’ve been dead for days. No, I think somebody got wind that you had contacted me and so they took you out. I’m really sorry about that. It’s sorta my fault, I guess.”
“I’m not a fuckin’ ghost! This is bullshit! Bullshit! I drove you all around town! I can touch you!”
He reached out and grabbed my shirt to demonstrate. “What kind of trick are you playing, asshole? Is this some game you play, the way you made me see that thing in your truck? Did you drug me?”