She kept her eyes on them from afar like a good spy.

More chapters from Doing Max Vinyl

A VG Serial: Doing Max Vinyl

Chapter 10 – 2

Something about the two men she was following took her back to another place, another time. The way they had treated Alison, the way they looked.

Michael had joined the army to get out of prison. He had spent less than a year in jail, but he had told her lots of stories, and he had made friends with other soldiers who had done time.

“What did you do?” she had asked, not sure she really wanted to know.

“Stealing cars. Nothing else to do in Buffalo. Siphoned a little gas, got caught doing that, too.”

“Cars? Multiple cars?”

“Hell, Annie, kind of dull just stealing one. Generally we had classy models on our list, you know? Lexus, Cadillac, Audi, BMW. They would be shipped out to some other place within like minutes of us bringing them in. Resold in California or Texas or somewhere, I don’t know.”

“Like a car ring.”

“Pretty speedy, aren’t you?”

“Leave me alone. I never slept with a car thief.”

“Would you still have joined the army if you had known they were going to hook you up with riff-raff like me?”

“Why, is it contagious?”

Michael was serious again. “My friend Oliver stole cars. I learned from him.”

“Where is he now?”

“Where do you think? He’s in jail. Probably made a smarter choice than me, too.”

“Why do you say that?”

“They say you come out of here with skills, leadership and all that. But that’s if you come out. Alive, I mean.”

She saw his dark eyes again now. Michael’s eyes so dark, such a rich dark brown they were almost liquid black, his hair cropped almost to a shave like everyone else’s, his high Latino cheekbones, that beautiful big monument of a nose. It hurt to have that full-screen image on again in her brain. She shut it out, staring at the sparkling water off to her right, the sailboat half a mile offshore.

Joliet, Illinois. Back from her second tour. Suited up in desert camouflage to get her nerve up. She, Annie Ogden, low on courage … but yes, for once, yes.

Here to see Oliver Greenwood, please.

The bag of sugar cookies, x-rayed but not opened. Sure ma’am, no problem. Then he was there, sitting across from her. Bulletproof glass between them, thick as steel plate. And Oliver Greenwood about as different from Michael as two men could be:  the dirty-blond hair, the cold eyes, the scars around the eyes and the bridge of his nose, the nose that had been broken badly, the scars on the fingers laced together on the table on front of him. She pictured those fingers twisting the arms or slapping the faces or pulling the hair of innocent people – girls, old folks – for small amounts of money. Those eyes must have seen people cringing in fear at what he was about to do to them. And then he had done it. Otherwise why would he be in prison?

“So you knew Michael?” Oliver said.

She nodded. “He talked about you. Talked a lot about you.”

Oliver Greenwood’s face loosened. You couldn’t call it a smile. “We did a lot of shit.”

“He considered you his best friend. He would’ve wanted me to tell you that.”

The man on the other side of the glass sat mute. He didn’t blink. She held his gaze. Finally he said, “How did my friend die?”

She told him what they had told her. A firefight in some village, snipers shooting when they went in to pick up the pieces after a roadside bombing. He had been shot while evacuating a wounded soldier. Shoot the helpers.

“One fucked-up war,” Oliver Greenwood said. “At least he had you. Guess he was happy when he bought it.”

“I wanted to give you the news in person,” she said. “For Michael. In a way he loved you, too.”

Oliver Greenwood stared much too long. Well, what else did he have to look at? She supposed time itself had a different meaning for people in prison. Maybe it was normal for them to let a minute go by between each question and each answer. A minute that felt like an hour.

Time was the one thing people in jail had too much of. The inmates would do anything to make time pass more quickly. Everyone on the outside moaned about wanting to slow things down. You were a slave to the clock, each person caught in her own personal ratrace, sleeping too little every night for years, stressing to the point of a breakdown. Not to mention dying young. Time was the thing Michael had run out of, much too soon.

At last, just when she thought he wasn’t ever going to answer, Oliver Greenwood said, “Thank you for that.”

The meeting had ended after ten minutes.

Almost without considering any alternatives she had gone back for a third tour.

What had she been looking for, exactly, revenge? On some unknown assassin? To join Michael, wherever he was? Or for some kind of weird validation of his death? Eighteen months ago she had known what it was that made her go back. Now that it was over forever, that chapter in her life, that knowledge too was lost. She couldn’t dredge it out of her memory. She couldn’t reconstruct it.  She only knew she hadn’t found any answers. She also hadn’t found him.

Michael’s body had gone back to upstate New York. Retrieving any tangible impression of him now was about as easy as reversing the direction of time. She saw him in dreams and fantasies, but she would never again lose herself in the look of those eyes, or feel her nose touching his nose when they kissed, or feel the earth shake when they made love. The third tour in Iraq hadn’t brought her one atom closer to any of those things.

Still, it hadn’t been a mistake to go back. She knew it hadn’t.

The brown Lincoln cruised on a quarter mile ahead. To the east of the highway she saw stands of forest and wetland, on the other side of which could only lie Lake Michigan. They had been heading due north for thirty minutes. They passed a sign that said Waukegan, population 90’000. She hung back when she that up ahead, at a stop sign, the men were turning right, toward the lake.

When she turned at the same stop sign fifteen seconds later, she found herself at the top of a hill. Directly ahead stood a high traffic barrier and flashing orange arrows right and left. The road forked. Off to her left she spotted the brown Lincoln heading north a quarter mile away. No other cars were anywhere near. She slowed and surveyed the scene that opened up in front of her as she approached the flashing arrows.

Down below, at least a hundred feet down, lay a large cluttered industrial zone, and beyond it the open lake. She saw what looked like a cement works with silos, warehouses, a concrete breakwater, a small public park with a boat launch, and some railroad tracks running parallel to a north-south road. There was an island or a spit of land out in the water, on which there was another huge industrial site, with barges and boats moored alongside, and a channel running between it and the land. A sailboat motored up the channel headed for the open lake.

She watched the Lincoln through her binoculars as it drove away to the north. The left fork was a long ramp that led down into this industrial zone. If they hadn’t seen her by now they had to be pretty dim. Or they didn’t care. Well, she didn’t care, either. At the bottom of the ramp, maybe half a mile away now, the Lincoln beetled north along the train tracks another three hundred yards before turning right, toward the lake. Beyond the railroad crossing it entered a driveway that had chain link fences rising on both sides, then across a wide asphalt area where both cars and boats up on trailers were parked.

With her binoculars she studied the massive blue warehouse that loomed over the parking area. From this vantage point it appeared to be situated directly on the channel, but the Lincoln disappeared between the blue warehouse and the channel. Where in the world were they taking Todd’s phones? There must be a strip of land back there, and a road. She got back in her car and drove after them.

A minute later she was crossing the tracks and entering the fenced parking area herself. The blue warehouse looked like a boat hangar for very big boats, or maybe a place where they built boats. She found the narrow strip of road that ran between the warehouse and the channel. Two hundred yards farther on, at the other end of the blue warehouse, she found herself in a gravel parking lot. Forty or fifty cars were parked here in neat rows.

She immediately spied the brown Lincoln at one end. The two men, each carrying heavy shopping bags that she guessed had Todd’s phones in them, were just nudging open a screen door. She kept the car rolling, heading toward them, her tires chewing gravel and making a lot of noise. With ten lines of cars between her and them, they didn’t even turn to look.

The black structure they went into was a low-ceilinged annex attached to the massive blue warehouse behind it. There was a sign attached to the black siding.  She came around the phalanx of parked cars and pulled close enough to read it. Under the big block letters TSR she read Tri-State Recovery, Inc. A buzz went through her again at the sight of it, just because she had the audacity to be here, doing this. The sign made it real. A real company. They were receiving stolen property. Those two tough guys could come tearing out at any minute, demanding to know what she was up to. Only the door stayed closed and they didn’t come out.

She took her foot off the brake and headed back out. The phones were here. Call it a day.

Chapters of Doing Max Vinyl will be published on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday.

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