Clement found the drive-in—a faded but still functioning A&W—about half a mile from where he had thought it would be and parked across the street. The smell of the onion rings made his mouth water but also set the few bites of sloppy Joe he’d eaten churning in his stomach. “Maybe get a Sprite and use the bathroom just to get a feel for the place.”
“Brad! You’re not supposed to be squirting the milkshake mix into your mouth! Hey! Restrooms are for customers only.”
“I am a customer.”
“Nope. A customer buys something.”
“I’m going to buy something but I don’t want to take it into the bathroom with me and I don’t want to leave it on the table. Seeing as how I didn’t bring somebody with me to baby-sit my food and since you ladies and Brad are so busy I’m going to go use the bathroom first.”
“Be sure you wash your hands,” she called. Clement went into the restroom. It backed against the kitchen and only the flushing of the toilet blocked out her voice. He was able to follow her story while seated on the toilet, washing his hands, drying them, and walking up the hall to the front counter.
“I’d like a Sprite, please.”
“Hang on a minute. I’m telling Vicky something.”
“But I’m attempting to become a customer.”
She rolled her eyes. “Brad, get this guy a Sprite, huh? You want large?”
“Yes, please.”
“No, thank you.”
“Brad, get him a Sprite and ring him up, huh? Geez, the people we get in here. So this lady comes in and she’s got a brand new Escalade. She tells me they came over right from the dealership; they picked it up and this is the first place they went. She comes in and she wants four Coney’s and four floats.” She paused to ensure Brad wasn’t putting in too little ice or too much soda. “I told her you gotta be careful when you put the straw in the float. If you just jam it down in there then the whole things gonna overflow. She says to me, ‘I don’t need you to tell me how to eat and ice cream float. I have been eating ice cream floats for forty years.” Another pause while Brad rang up the Sprite, handed Clement his change and gestured him to a table. “So she goes out with a bag and a drink carrier. Five minutes later, she’s back. ‘You owe me for having my car detailed!’ I said, ‘How do you figure that?’ What happened is she gives the floats to the kids and right away they jam the straws in and now there’s ice cream and root beer all over the seats of this new car. She says, ‘Those things made a mess and you’re going to pay for it.’ I said, ‘I’m not going to pay for anything and you can sue A&W but I don’t think they should pay you either. I tried to give you instructions.’ She said, ‘Oh, I don’t have to listen to you. You’re an idiot.’ I said, ‘Yeah, well, who’s the one who gave kids root beer floats and Coney’s in a brand new car?’”
“An Escalade.” Brad whistled and Vicky looked at him critically.
“If you’re leaning, you should be cleaning.”
“Yeah, right. Suck-up.”
Clement tossed the rest of his Sprite in the trash-can outside the restaurant door. Jeff wasn’t at his desk when Clement got back to the office and he sat down and began flipping through his Rolodex file. The phone rang.
“Clement? Is Jeff there?”
“Good because I need to talk to you.”
“No, again.”
“Clement, look. I’m sorry about last night. I shouldn’t have called you. I know that. Sometimes when I drink I do stupid things.”
“Kind of the point, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but I didn’t mean to get you involved in all this.”
“I’m not involved in anything, Mari. You’re Jeff’s girlfriend and you got drunk and you called me and said a lot of things you didn’t mean and today you’re sober and not feeling as stupid or maybe you’re feeling stupid for a different reason. That’s it. The end.”
“That’s not it. I really need to talk to you.”
“No. I’m not getting lured. Whatever you need to work out with Jeff you need to do talking to Jeff.”
“This doesn’t have anything to do with Jeff. It has to do with Aaron.”
“Who’s Aaron?”~
“He’s my boyfriend. He’s my ex-boyfriend.”
“’She’s my daughter. She’s my sister. She’s my sister and my daughter.’ I’ve watched this scene before, Mari.”
“Clement, please. Aaron was my boyfriend before Jeff.”
“I’m surprised you dumped him. He was a good-looking guy. A little gaunt and colorless but not bad.”
“You saw him? Where?”
“In the photo in his office. I was in there. Remember? The famous nude photos I was supposed to be getting for you?”
“Yes yes. I just forgot for a second. This is bigger than the pictures.”
“Bigger than being blackmailed or having your body rated on ‘Hot or Not’?”
“Yes. I’m worried about Aaron.”
“That’s touching.”
“You don’t understand. Jeff can be kind of possessive and I don’t know why but he’s always hated Aaron.”
“I could explain it to you but I don’t think you wanna do that now.”
“He was acting really weird this morning, kind of secretive. I think he thinks I was with Aaron last night.”
“Not that it’s any of my business but were you?”
“You know I wasn’t.”
“I don’t know anything about what you did last night.”
“Yes, you do. I talked to you on the phone and then Lisa sort of walked/dragged me into her guest room, slid my top half onto the bed, dropped my feet on there too, threw a coat over me and that was it until this morning. I never saw Aaron. We never went out and no guys came over to Allison’s house.”
“Why are you telling me all this?”
“Maybe you can ask him. Ask him if he’s mad at me and he thinks I saw Aaron.”
“Why would he think so?”
“This morning, when I came home, I put my earrings from last night on the dresser. There was a piece of paper beside them. I felt bad about the house being a mess so I came home for lunch to clean up a little bit. I found my earrings in my jewelry box and the paper was gone.”
Clement took both pieces of paper from his pocket and smoothed them onto the desk in front of him. “Why would that mean you’d seen Aaron?”
“There were some things written on the paper. Things you’d have to be a smart person to understand. I don’t think Jeff believes I’m that smart.”
“Are you?”
“Am I what?”
“Are you smart enough to understand what’s written on the paper? Do you know what makes a number weird, for example?”
“Omigod, how do you know about that?”
“I know about it and a couple of kids named Nick and Jack know about it. Is it Aaron’s or are you keeping secrets from Jeff?”
“It’s not Aaron’s, it’s mine.”
“And the beehive?”
“It’s not a beehive. It’s an hexagonal pyramid.”
“You’ve been busy.”
“Does Jeff know?”
“Do you mean does Jeff know you’re lying about how smart you are or does Jeff know you’ve been working on something worth a million dollars and you’re not gonna let him in on it?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what? I don’t wanna know either way. It’s not my relationship, it’s not my problem, and I got enough to do figuring out why the chicken strips taste so nasty.”
“Please, just tell me if Jeff thinks I was with Aaron.”
“Of course he does. You said it yourself he doesn’t think you’re that smart. We found the paper with the cat on it in Aaron’s office and then he found that thing this morning. He knows you didn’t get it from me. None of your girlfriends are that smart so it had to come from Aaron which means you’re seeing him.”
“Oh my god! But I’m not. I swear I’m not.”
“Mari, it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other.”
“He has to know that! Talk to him.”
“If you want him to know something from you then you tell him.”
“He won’t listen to me. He’ll think I’m lying.”
“Why won’t you talk to him? Why won’t you help me? Did I do something to you?”
“No, it wasn’t you. It was someone a lot like you and you’re getting the credit for it.”
“Maybe I can talk to Aaron. Maybe he’ll tell Jeff we’re not seeing each other. Maybe he’ll tell him we haven’t been together since I met him.”
“That’s a smart idea, Mari. Now you’re thinking.”
“Clement, I am so scared. If Jeff gets to him first, Aaron will just laugh at him. He might even tell him we were together last night and it’s not true.”
“Yeah, well, I gotta talk to a man about a chicken.”
“Goodbye, Clement.” Her voice finally broke.
“Yeah. Stay cool, Mari.”

Jeff took the mug from his desk, placed it in front of the coffee-pot, pulled the spigot and looked at the still-empty mug. Clement was just coming out of the bathroom. “So did you make coffee and then act like a selfish jerk and drink it all or did you just never make any?”
“I never made any; I had a Red Bull. Besides, why would I make any for you? You’ve been gone for hours. Where the hell did you go?”
“Where I said I was gonna go. I drove around and tried to forget about my problems.”
“Did it work?”
“Yeah, till I came in here and found out there wasn’t any coffee. Then they all came flooding back.” He put his mug back on the desk, opened the refrigerator and the milk carton, swirled the milk in the carton and smelled it. “Geez, we need to get a new cow.”
“There’s another Red Bull in there. Go for it.”
“What did you do while I was gone?”
“I have been working. I talked to fifteen of our guys who ate lunch at a school today. Nobody ate the chicken strips and everyone they talked with about them cast their mark on the ‘nasty’ side of the ledger.”
“I don’t understand how that’s possible. We’ve been selling these things for two years. I guess I should say that I’ve been selling them two years. You’ve been selling them even longer. You must be really surprised.”
“Yes and no. I’ve been selling them but it’s not like I’ve been eating them. We didn’t eat them today and now that I think about it I can’t remember the last time I did eat any.”
“Yeah, but at trade shows-“
“We don’t eat them at trade shows. No one ever eats their own food at trade shows. I don’t even eat other people’s chicken strips at trade shows. I eat the white-chocolate and raspberry scones. I eat the chicken sausages. I eat the new kinds of apples.”
“Last time they had those Pink Lady apples. Wow!”
“My point is that we don’t eat our product on a regular basis so we have no idea how it tastes. Maybe they’ve been nasty for the last two years and we just didn’t know about it.”
“If they taste so bad, why do so many people buy them?”
“Because they’re cheap. The cooks at Chandler Elementary said they love the chicken strips because they get the kids to eat more vegetables.”
“Geez, I had the peas and they were like gravel.”
“You should have had the corn. At least, we could chew it.”
“Well, nobody told me to get the corn. That would have been a friendly thing to do, by the way. The little girls were too busy telling me about all the life-changing events their pets had experienced to have time to tell me what I should and shouldn’t get. If I hadn’t been trying not to listen to a dog’s hysterectomy, I wouldn’t have known about the sloppy Joes either.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
“ So what are we going to do?”
“About what?”
“About the chicken strips? Are we going to keep selling them?”
“I suppose. Why wouldn’t we?”
“Hello? Because everyone thinks they’re nasty. Because little kids would rather eat peas that are like rocks than eat the chicken strips.”
“Maybe they’re not that way everywhere. Maybe some cooks know how to do them right.”
“And maybe I’m Santa Claus. How many guys did you talk to?”
“Is that fifteen schools then?”
“No, it’s probably about ten schools.”
“They were bad everywhere?”
“We don’t really know. Everybody else was like us. Some kid warned them off the chicken strips and they figured the kids would know. Maybe the chicken strips were fine at those schools and maybe they weren’t. Nobody wanted to push their luck so we don’t know.”
“I don’t think I can sell them if they’re that bad.”
“I don’t want to sell something that’s going to make a bunch of people sick.”
“Nobody said anything about making people sick. All anybody is claiming is that they don’t taste good. Maybe they just don’t taste good to kids”
“I don’t wanna do it anyway.”
“You’re the company’s conscience now? The guy who wanted me to break into a stranger’s office.”
“Yeah, don’t worry about that any more either.”
“It’s over.”
“How what?”
“How did it get to be over?”
“It’s really simple. It’s over because I killed him.”
“You killed him? How?”
“Geez, Clement.” Jeff pushed his chair back, pulled out the bottom left drawer, shoved the files to the back and rested his feet on top of the rack. “I followed your advice and beat him to death with a shoe. I guess it was actually a boot. Is one of those Doc Marten’s considered a boot or a shoe? Anyway that’s what I used.”
Clement walked around the desk and shoved Jeff’s chair further back. Jeff’s feet thudded to the floor. Clement stuck his finger in Jeff’s face. “You lousy son of a gun! Why?”
“It’s just like you said. I couldn’t stand the idea that somebody else had been with Mari before I was. I went over there and confronted him about last night and he laughed in my face. I wrenched one of his boots off and beat him to death with it. Or is it a shoe?”
“It doesn’t matter if it’s a boot or a shoe. What matters is that you killed another human being. You went over there and deliberately took the life of someone else.” He walked back to his own side of the desk and dropped into the chair. “You know what else doesn’t matter? Whether or not you want to keep selling chicken strips. That doesn’t matter because even if you don’t go to jail I can’t work with you any more.” He picked up the Red Bull can and rolled it between his palms. “You really did it? You really beat him to death?”
“Of course I did. You’ve known me for two years. Do you think I would come in here and lie and tell you I killed someone if I didn’t.”
Clement had dropped the can back onto the desk and was now rocking in his chair. “I don’t know. I don’t think so but then I never thought you’d kill someone either.”
Jeff sipped his energy drink and watched his friend. He counted under his breath. When he reached one-hundred-twenty, he said, “Clement, it’s all right.”
“Clement, it’s really all right.”
“How can it be?”
“I didn’t kill him.”
“You just told me you killed him.”
“I told you that but it wasn’t true. I just wanted you to lay off me. I didn’t know you’d take it so hard. Then when you did I figured I’d better tell you the truth.”
“You didn’t know I’d take it so hard? Jeff, he’s a person.”
“Yeah, but you don’t know him.”
“It doesn’t matter if I know him or not. What? Are you thinking if you beat someone to death and I don’t know them or I’ve never seen a picture of them then it’s fine.”
“I don’t know if I think you’re crazier now or you were crazier when I believed you’d killed him. I’ve gotta get out of here for a while.”
“Clement, can’t you see it’s okay?”
“How is this okay?”
“I didn’t really kill him. Nobody’s dead. We can go on selling chicken strips or whatever together.”
“How will we do that, Jeff?”
“Same way as always. Trade show booths, cold-calling, leads from the boss or from people we meet- the usual.”
“But we did those things as a team. Don’t you get it? How are we going to be a team now? How can I trust you?”
“You trust the people that make the chicken strips.”
“That’s different.”
“How is that different? For years we’ve been telling people the chicken strips were good and now it turns out that’s not true. For two years you’ve been thinking I was an okay guy and then for two minutes you thought I killed somebody and now you know that’s not true either. Yeah, I lied to you. For two minutes and then I told the truth. The ^Rockin’ Rooster^ people have been lying to us for two years.”
“Jeff, shut up! I have to get out of here and think.”
“Are you coming back?”
“Probably not today. I’ve had some pretty big shocks today.”
“It’s gonna be okay. We’ll find something else to sell. We’ll find something that’s really good, something kids like. Yeah, you wanna find a different job. That only makes sense. We can still be friends though. That doesn’t have to change, right?”
“Jeff, let go of my arm. I said I’d be back but you’re not helping.”
“Call me tonight. Will you call me?”
“Okay. Later. Probably. Okay, for sure. I just gotta get out.” Clement heard the heel of Jeff’s shoe scrape as it left the floor and returned to the desk drawer. When he looked back, both shoes were back in place and Jeff was reading the Business section of the morning’s paper.

Mari was waiting by Clement’s car. “You don’t understand how scared I am.”
“No, you don’t understand how scared you should be. You need to get out of town and you need to do it fast.”
“Why? I wanted you to talk to Jeff about Aaron.”
“Yeah well, it’s too late for that. Get in.” Clement walked around to the passenger’s side and unlocked the door. He looked back at the building. Mari reached across to unlock the driver’s door and he climbed in and pressed the switch re-locking both doors. Mari had removed a pencil from her purse and she was tapping the eraser end rhythmically against her teeth. “I might as well tell you that there’s no point in my talking to Jeff about Aaron when Jeff has already talked to Aaron.”
Mari dropped the pencil and covered her mouth with her hands. “I can’t believe he’d do that.”
“I wouldn’t go believing everything just yet. He told me that he confronted him about last night and that Aaron laughed at him.”
“I told you he would.”
“He said he lost his temper after that and beat him to death.”
“Then he said he didn’t kill him. That’s why you’ve got to get out of here. If anyone figures out what you were working on and thinks Aaron might have been working with you and you decided not to share or they think he was holding something over you, you’ll be the first suspect. That’s if he’s dead. If he’s not dead and Jeff believes there really is something still going on between the two of you, he’ll have a lot of questions for you. Just a tip: he doesn’t seem to be in the mood for a long conversation that requires a lot of patience.”
“So what do I do?”
“Do you have relatives in a different part of the country? Not like your parents but somebody you’ve never really talked about. Do you have anybody living somewhere Jeff can’t imagine you’d want to go?”
“I’ve got an uncle who-“
“No. I don’t wanna know. Take as little as you can stand to and get the hell out of town. Wherever you’re going there are stores and you can buy things. The more you leave behind the less suspicious it will look when Jeff gets home tonight.”
“How do you know this stuff?”
“I read. It’s what some of us do instead of going to parties and drinking too much.”
“I said I was sorry.” Mari picked up the pencil and put it back into her purse.
“Yeah, you did. Maybe I should be sorry too.” Clement took the two pieces of paper from his pocket and handed them to her. “Take these with you too.” She opened a zippered compartment, tucked the papers into it, and zipped it again. She reached for the door handle and Clement took her elbow. “Were you still seeing Aaron?”
“Sometimes. But not last night and not in the way you mean. A couple of times a week, he’d come by work and we’d have lunch in the food court. Two old friends eating and talking in a public place in full view of mothers and fathers and aunties and grandmothers.”
“Jeff likes me because I’m cute. He likes me because I’m goofy and he doesn’t have to pay too much attention to what I’m saying because it was probably on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or the cover of ‘People’ and, if he misses my saying it, he can watch the show tomorrow night or read the magazine and it’s all good. He doesn’t expect a lot from me and sometimes that’s nice because I don’t have to work at it.”
“But you still saw Aaron. Why?”
“Because Aaron is smart.” She sighed. “Was smart. He knew I was smart and he liked that about me. I’m not just a girl who likes shoes and acts like a klutz around lots of glass bottles. Aaron understood that.”
“So why Jeff?”
“Aaron wanted me to be smart all the time. That takes a lot of energy and sometimes it took more energy than I had.”
“You’re wrong about Aaron.”
“He didn’t want you to be smart all the time. If he had, you two would have stopped seeing each other when you hooked up with Jeff.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” She sighed again and made a second attempt at the door handle. He pressed the switch to unlock her door.
“Mari, be smart this time.”
“Get the hell out of here.” He went to her side and opened the door. She ran to her car, stopping halfway between the two cars to blow him a kiss, and Clement was glad the only window in the office faced the brick wall.

“Why do you work here?” Clement placed a bottle of Diet Coke and a can of Red Bull on the counter. The Bi-Lo Market was the quietest he had seen it. There were no cars outside and besides himself and the cashier there was only the young man drinking a Liquid Charge against the ice-cream case. Clement had been asking the cashier, wearing a faded “Barkley” jersey over a black hoodie, but it was his friend with the drink who answered.
“Why you wanna know? You looking for a job?”
“Maybe I am. Is this a good one? Why do people work here?” He selected a candle with a painting of Saint Jude on it and put it on the counter beside his own drinks.
“What you gonna do with the votary, man?”
“I’m going to light it for someone who needs it.”
“Are you Catholic?”
“That’s kind of personal, isn’t it?”
“Because if you’re not Catholic then you should put that back. You can’t just walk in and buy stuff and start pretending.”
“God doesn’t listen if you’re not Catholic?”
“No, because he knows if you’re not Catholic then you got other stuff you should be doing. You can’t just take our way of doing something and do it too.”
“Why are you here?”
“This is where my friend is.”
“Right. He works here. Why are you here? Why are you drinking that in the middle of the day?”
“What? Are you my mother? How come you’re not at work?”
“Because I was at work and now I’m out looking for a different job. Do you have a job? Maybe I’d like the one you have.”
“Yeah, man, I got a job.”
“It looks pretty good. I think I’d like to stand around drinking caffeinated beer all day. What do you do at this job?”
“I do whatever needs to be done, man. I help people out. Why you jamming me up about the beer? You see a car out there? No, you don’t. Because I didn’t drive here. I walked here and I’m going to walk home.”
“What if you get a call and somebody needs you to work?”
“You know what, man?” He set down the can and moved toward Clement. “Maybe you own this country but you don’t own this store. You’re not the manager here. This isn’t your business. You’re a customer just like me.” He jerked his head at the counter. “Only sometimes he lets his friends be here, too. You don’t seem like a friend.” The silent cashier put Clement’s items into a brown paper bag and held out his hand. Clement gave him the money, dropped a quarter into the Humane Society jar, and put the rest of the change into his pants pocket.
“You’re right; it’s none of my business. You gentlemen have a nice afternoon.” He unlocked his car and set the bag on the passenger seat. He placed the can and bottle on their sides on either side of the candle to keep it from falling over.

The clock tower downtown was striking eight and Clement should have heard it. If he had been downtown, he would not have been opening the door of the third floor center office that belonged to Aaron Whittaker. The lights were off, the room was silent, and he knew from Dolores that Aaron would be gone at least one more day.
“Come in, close the door very quietly, and sit in the chair to the right of the door. If you turn on the lights or make any sudden or noisy moves, I will shoot you through the heart even though it would probably kill me too.”
Clement did as he was told. The voice, deep and melodious despite its violent warning, seemed to come from the floor behind the desk. “I thought you were gone.”
“You thought wrong or you were given incorrect information.”
“You’re Aaron?”
“This is Aaron’s office and I am lying on its floor. From this we can surmise that either I am the owner of this office or I am another wandering soul who broke in before you did and was knocked unconscious and am just coming to or I arrived early, found nothing of value and decided to steal forty winks instead.”
“I didn’t break in here.”
“No, that’s right. You have a key. Maybe you’re Aaron Whittaker and this is your office and I broke in. In which case, I should probably apologize.”
“Do you really have a gun? Would you really shoot me through the heart? Shall we turn on the lights and find out?”
“You’re much crueler than I was led to believe.” The location of the voice had moved as if the speaker was now sitting up. “Geez, that was a bad idea. I hope that if I have to break off our conversation to vomit, you will take advantage of my absence to remove yourself and whatever it was you came in here to get.”
“Why are you here?”
“I heard from Dolores- among others- that someone was keeping an eye on my office and I decided to find out why. You didn’t really expect her to buy that story about checking with the tenants to see how they liked the cleaning service?”
“Somebody told me I shouldn’t just come in here and I needed to have a shtick.”
“That somebody would probably be Jeff. I’m not saying it was bad in theory and it might have worked with someone less zealous about protecting minority rights than Dolores.”
“She’s a real terrier about it.”
“Yes, she is. Mr. Gomez should be glad to have her on his side. His team’s work is competent but not spectacular which is a good thing as we’ll never have anyone better for the job so long as Dolores has a space in this building.” Clement heard sounds of stretching then a thump. “Oh god. This is better and worse than I thought.”
“What is?”
“I know you’re probably going to kill me although I’m not sure why you haven’t done it already. It’s probably part of that cruel streak I’m discovering. I know I’m seriously inconveniencing you by being here when I wasn’t supposed to be. That’s probably a cruel streak of mine. But seeing as how we’re both here and both still alive, could you do me a favor and by that I mean do exactly as I ask you to?”
“Why not?”
“Stand up and take three large steps to the right. Take care not to mistake your left for your right or you will knock over my father’s coal-mining shovel and we’ll be back to the bullet through the heart scenario. Walk forward until you reach the wall. You can see the merest amount of light around the edge of the blinds and that should help. On the left-hand side of the blinds is a hard plastic rod hanging vertically. Grasp the rod, turn it smoothly but quickly to the left so that the slats pass through the evenly horizontal position and are tilted upwards. That will give you enough light, without rendering me prostrate with pain again, to locate a thermos on the desk. Please pass the thermos to me and return to your seat by the door.”
“Why would I do this?”
“Because you’re filled with the milk of human kindness? Because you’re curious about why all this is happening? Because you want to get close enough to see if I really have a gun or if you should just knock me on the head with the thermos, ransack the place and leave? I haven’t actually seen you yet and couldn’t identify you to the police so really any of those answers is a viable one.” Clement did as he was told. Aaron opened the thermos, took several gulps, and offered it to Clement who shook his head. “Why did you do it?”
“Maybe I’m curious. Maybe I did want to see if you had a gun. I didn’t see one but it could be under the edge of the desk or in your jacket. I’m not familiar with your condition but from the noises you made when you were sitting up I can’t imagine you’d have anything you needed real far from you.”
“But the coffee was on the desk.”
“You wouldn’t want to take a chance of knocking it over. Maybe you set it on the desk and then the pain got worse and you couldn’t get up high enough to reach it. I guess you’re pretty lucky I came along.”
The two men sat in the almost darkness. Outside, the traffic swished by; Inside, the wall clock ticked and Aaron swallowed coffee from the thermos. He pulled a napkin from under the blotter and mopped at the rug where some of the coffee had run down the side of the thermos onto it. “You ever hear the story of David?”
“You mean in the Bible?”
“Yeah. There’s something I never got about that.”
“The whole David and Jonathan agape love story?”
“No, David and Saul. The story goes that Saul used to get these terrible moods. I think he had migraines. If they’d invented coffee sooner, his life would have been a whole lot better.”
“How do you figure?”
“Coffee constricts the blood vessels and prevents the pain from getting through.” He took several gulps from the thermos. “If that stupid goat had eaten those beans a little earlier then things might have been very different.”
“So, what happened?”
“The only person who could make him feel better was David. He used to do it by playing his harp and most of the time it worked pretty good. Every so often though, and this is what makes me think he had migraines, Saul would draw his arm back and try to bounce some furniture off of David’s head. He’d just throw a chair or whatever across the room and David would have to dodge it. I guess Saul could really bring it.”
“Must have gotten tedious.”
“You’d think so, huh? One night they’re out late hunting or maybe they had been hunting earlier in the day and had gotten lost. David finds his way home first then he goes out looking for Saul and he finds him. Here Saul is, the king of Israel, and he looks like a nearly drowned cat: He’s cold, he’s drenched to the skin, he’s starving. And here’s David who has been fed and is now appropriately dressed for the weather. It was just the two of them, mano a mano. Imagine David all alone with the guy who’s made his life such a hell for so long. He knew he was gonna be king after Saul.”
“He knew this how?”
“God told him. God had already told him that so he was basically just waiting till Saul got out of the way.”
“Here’s David who’s all dry and refreshed and feeling good and Saul who probably wished someone would kill him so nobody could see him plus I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d had a migraine starting by then.”
“And nothing. David didn’t kill him. I’ve never gotten that. Saul didn’t get it either. ‘Why don’t you kill me? Why don’t you kill me?’ David could have done it right then and put Saul out of his misery and been king that much sooner but he didn’t do it. Why? Because he was cruel?”
“Maybe because Saul was a human being.”
“Is that why you haven’t killed me?”
“Why would I kill you?”
“You’d make a lot of people happier. I’d be happier because my head would stop hurting and the room would stop waving. My landlord would be happier because he could charge more rent. Mari would be happier because she wouldn’t have to split the money. Your friend, Jeff, would be happier because he’d never have to worry about me and Mari getting back together. By now, who knows if even you wouldn’t be happier if I was dead.”
“If Mari, didn’t have you she’d resign herself to life as an airhead. If Jeff didn’t have you, he’d find someone else who’d been with Mari to hate. If I kill you, I wouldn’t make anyone happier but you. I think you’re tired of this whole mess.”
“So you’re going to be like David.”
“Somebody probably will kill you but it’s not going to be me. It’s none of my business. I didn’t even know you’d be here today.”
“That’s the perfect time to kill me- when everyone thinks I’m out of town. They wouldn’t even be expecting to see me for at least another day.”
“I told you it’s got nothing to do with me. I’m not looking to kill anybody; I’m just here for the pictures of Mari.”
“The pictures?”
“The naked photos you took of her while she was asleep. Somebody told me you took them and they’re afraid you’re going to post them to be rated on the Internet.”
“That somebody would be Jeff again.”
“Having met you I don’t disbelieve him for a second. That seems like exactly the kind of thing you’d do, anything to keep torturing him.”
“If you came here for the pictures, you’re in for a big disappointment because there aren’t any.” Clement took a step back. “You’re not surprised. You’ve had doubts from the beginning about whether or not there were any photos. Just like you’ve had doubts about how tightly-wrapped your friend Jeff is.”
“Let’s suppose you’re right. Why would he send me over here and why would I come?”
“Why he sent you over here should be obvious. So you’d be seen in the area, so people would recognize you, so if anyone did happen to kill me and the men in blue came around with your picture the neighbors would say, ‘Oh yeah, he’s been hanging around for weeks.’ Why you came may be less obvious- to you anyway. You came because you are that biggest of saps- a friend- and you are a person who wants to believe. You want to believe that everything works for the best in this best of all possible worlds and a cord of goodness runs through humanity. You want to believe that Mari would never deliberately hurt Jeff. You want to believe that Jeff is a little high-strung but not a psychopath. You want to believe that women, including Mari, are essentially decent but confused and that children are not evil but misunderstood and unchallenged.”
“You’re wrong.”
“What you don’t want to believe that is true is some children are misunderstood and unchallenged but others are born with a tendency to do bad things just like some people are born addicted to alcohol. Mari chooses to hurt Jeff. She does it because he leaves the cap off the toothpaste, because he drops wet towels on the floor, because he lets the $25 a bottle conditioner run down the drain, or does a million other bad things; most women don’t need the box score to see who’s up and who’s down. Jeff is not only high-strung, he’s one of those kids who was born ‘bad’. He’s high-functioning but nuts and it’s that unpredictability that keeps women like Mari interested.”
“What about you? What’s your secret?”
“My secret isn’t so much about me as it is about you. See, no matter how much you deny it- even to yourself- you’d like to kill me because I make you question one of your very biggest beliefs.”
“Which is?”
“You should know. You want to believe that people are either good or bad. Maybe you think I should die for my sins and maybe you don’t but you can’t convince me or yourself that I haven’t sinned. I’ve made the people you care about unhappy and that makes me bad. But you were right before: I give Mari someone to talk with about math and science and something other than the Hollywood gossip and that makes me good. If Jeff didn’t have me to keep track of, he’d spend a lot of energy and money looking for one of Mari’s previous boyfriends to watch. He might even lose his job because he was working so hard on this side project. I’m near by and I keep in touch with Mari which gives him a close target and easily accessible information. I’m keeping his mind active- no doubt contributing to the prevention of Alzheimer’s- and helping him stay employed and that also makes me good. Probably even Saddam Hussein once helped a little old lady cross the street.”
“I won’t believe that.”
“You claim to believe that hitting people with buttered rolls is wrong and yet you gave a roll to a child with a reputation for launching them.”
“How do you know that?”
“Jeff talks to Mari and Mari talks to me. You also say you want to get the photos for Jeff and Mari so they’ll have peace of mind when the real reason is you love Mari and you’re hoping if you do this she’ll get wise about Jeff and realize you’re a much better person.”
“That’s going too far!” Clement brought his fist down on the desk.
Aaron winced but continued to look Clement in the eye. “Really? So do something about it. Why don’t you kill me and make everyone happier and make the world a better place? Dolores says that’s everybody’s job, right?”
“You may be right about Jeff and Mari. Hell, maybe you’re even right about me but you’re the one who was born bad. If I kill you then you win and whoever put in all the work to set me up wins too. I refuse to die so the two of you can win especially when I don’t care about you enough to kill you.” Clement took his keys out of his pocket and walked to the door.
“You’re not as good as you think you are. Nobody is.”
“Maybe not. But I’m not bad either and I’m not a sap.” He gave the shovel beside the chair a hard kick. The handle slid down the wall until the blade clanged dully on the carpeted floor. Aaron chuckled and as Clement was pulling the door closed he heard the warm voice say, “We’ll see.”

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