A COLD SATURDAY NIGHT IN NOVEMBER.
Neal Maven stood on the edge of the parking lot, looking up at the buildings of downtown Boston. He was wondering about the lights left shining in the windows of the top-floor offices—who does that, and why—when a thumping bass line made him turn.
A silver limousine eased around the corner. Its long side windows were mirrored so that the less fortunate could see themselves watching the American dream pass them by. Maven stuffed his hands deep inside the pouch pockets of his blanket-thick hoodie, stamping his boots on the blacktop to keep warm.
Nine months now. Nine months he’d been back. Nine months since demobilization and discharge, like nine months of gestation, waiting to be reborn back into the peacetime world. Nine months of transition and nothing going right.
He had already pissed through most of his duty pay. The things you tell the other guys you’re going to do once you get back home—grow a beard, drink all night, sleep all day—those things he had done. Those goals he had achieved. The things the army recommends doing before discharge, to ease your transition—preparing a résumé, lining up housing, securing employment—those things he had let slide.
A lot of businesses still stuck yellow SUPPORT OUR TROOPS ribbons in their front windows, but when you actually showed up fresh from Iraq, looking for work, scratching your name and address on an application pad, they saw not a battle-tested hero but a potential Travis Bickle. Hiring a guy with more confirmed kills than college credits was a tough sell. Maven could feel civilians’ discomfort around him, their unease. As if they heard a tick, tick, tick going inside his head. Probably the same one he heard.
Barroom conversations took on subtext.
“Let me buy you a drink, soldier” meant If you wig out and decide to start shooting up the room, spare me, I’m one of the good guys.
“You know, I came close to enlisting myself” meant Yeah, September eleventh made me piss my pants, but I somehow pulled myself together and haven’t missed an episode of American Idol since.
“I supported you boys one hundred percent” meant Just because I have a ribbon magnet on my car doesn’t mean you can look at my daughter.
“Great to have you back” meant Now please go away again.
He finally did drop by the VA for some career guidance, and a short-armed woman with a shrub of salt-and-pepper hair and everyday compassion sat down and banged out that magical résumé, omitting any reference to combat experience. What he considered to be his proudest accomplishment in life, aside from not getting maimed or killed in action—namely, passing the six-phase Qualification Course at Fort Bragg, earning his Special Forces tab in the run-up to the Iraq invasion—was shrunken to a bullet point on the “Skill Sets” section of his résumé. “Proficient at team-building and leadership skills.” Not “Mud-hungry, man-killing son of a bitch.” So much of his life since coming back had been about writing off what had happened.
The resulting document was a skimpy little thing that whim pered, “Please hire me.” He had fifty of them printed on twenty-four-pound paper at Kinko’s and seeded another seventy-five around the city via e-mail, to a great and profound silence.
The parking-lot-guard job—6 p.m. to 2 a.m., three nights a week—came via a posting on craigslist. The owner of the parking lot was a builder looking to jab another diamond pin in the cushion of downtown Boston. The property manager who hired Maven, a square-shouldered navy vet of two Vietnam tours, clapped him on the back fraternally and then explained that he would break Maven’s thumbs if he stole so much as a penny.
After a week or two of long hours stamping his feet out in the bitterly cold night, warding street people away from soft-top Benzes and Lexus SUVs, this threat took the form of a challenge. Every shift now, Maven showed up thinking he wouldn’t steal, only to soften after long hours soaking in the lonesome marinade of night. $36.75 FLAT FEE, ENTER AFTER 6 P.M., NO BLOCKING, EASY-IN/EASY-OUT. He kept it to one or two cars a shift, nothing serious. Latecomers always, inebriates pulling in after midnight, addressing Maven as “my man” or “dude,” and never requesting a receipt, never even noticing him lifting the gate by hand. All they cared about was tucking their silver Saab in near the downtown action, wanting nothing to disrupt the momentum of their weekend night.
It was funny money, the $73.50 he skimmed. He wasted it accordingly, opening the gate at quarter to two and walking a few blocks south to Centerfold’s in the old Combat Zone, dropping his dollars on a couple of quick beers and a table dance before lights-up at two. He was in a bad way. Any money he had left over, he would take two blocks over to Chinatown, ordering a pot of “cold tea” along with the club zombies and the Leather District poseurs and the college seniors too cool for Boston’s puritanical 2 a.m. closing time. Maven sat alone at a cloth-covered table, the piped-in Asian music trickling into his beer buzz like sweet rain as he drank the teapot of draft Bud, throwing back pork dumplings like soft, greasy aspirins. Then he overtipped the rest, tightened up his boot laces, and strapped on his shoulder pack for the long run home.
Home was Quincy, 8.2 miles away.
Running was a purge and a meditation. His thick boots clumped over the cracked streets of rough neighborhoods, along dormant Conrail tracks, and under expressway bridges. Past dark playgrounds and suspicious cars idling at corners, traffic lights blinking yellow overhead, people calling out from porches and stoops, “Who’s chasin’ you, man?”
Quincy is home to beautiful ocean-view properties, seven-figure marina condos, and is the original homestead of this country’s first father-son presidents, the Adamses.
Maven’s converted attic apartment was nowhere near any of these. It had sloped ceilings in every room, a stand-up shower with almost zero water pressure, and stood directly under the approach path into Logan.
This was where he lived now. This was who he was.
Sometimes, during his run, he remembered the dancers and the way they eyed themselves in the strip club’s mirrored walls as they worked the stage: so unashamed and even bored by their public nudity, as though they considered themselves just part of the spectacle, and not in fact its focus.
This was Maven’s attitude toward himself and his own life now. He felt as though he were watching a man slowly slipping over the edge of a deep chasm, not at all concerned that this man was him.
SIX NIGHTS BEFORE, HE HAD NEARLY KILLED A MAN.
The rain had been coming down hard that shift, hard enough to wash away the usual symphony of the downtown weekend: no laughter from passing couples; no Emerson students gloating in packs; no snatches of discussion from scarf-wearing theatergoers; no club-hoppers tripping over sidewalk cracks and laughing off their ass.
The gate had a small booth, but with the rain banging on the tin roof like gunshots, it was easier just to stand outside, letting the rain rap his poncho hood and shoulders, blowing down in sheets from the high security lamps like the rippling sails of a storm-battered ship. He imagined himself a rock beneath a waterfall, and the sensation, as such, was not unpleasant; this was the kind of mind game he had taught himself in the Arabian desert.
People think it never rains over there, but it does: rarely and suddenly, as out of place as applause inside a church. Desert rain tastes silty and runs in dirty black tears down your face. Boston rain, on the other hand, thanks to recycled industrial emissions, tastes and smells as sweet as a soft drink.
Since returning to the States, Maven had battled reimmersion issues common among discharged Iraq veterans. A heightened startle reflex; avoidance of crowded places; sudden, overwhelming anxiety attacks. Discarded food containers, dead animals on the roadside, a man walking alone into traffic: in Iraq, the appearance of these things portended death. Any of them had the potential to detonate fatally without notice. His time over there had been one of unremitting suspense, which he had met with unrelenting vigilance, one of many habits he was still having trouble unlearning.
Two things conspired to distract him from his usual psychotic vigilance that night. The insulating rain was one of them. The other was a gleaming black Cadillac Escalade that pulled in around ten.
The Escalade was a big SUV, the driver sitting at about Maven’s eye level. Nothing about him jumped out at Maven: black hair, a no-nonsense face, perfectly shaped shirt collar, jutting chin. The dash was loaded with electronics, more sophisticated than anything in Maven’s entire apartment.
As the driver went poking into the sun visor for cash, a woman leaned forward in the passenger seat. She threw a brief glance Maven’s way—nothing more than a peek around a blind corner—just curious to put a face to the dark figure working in the rain. The liquid crystal display of the navigation screen lit her green and blue like some beau tiful android. Maven glimpsed a flawless neck, a delicately pointed chin, and a tantalizingly thick line of cleavage.
All in an instant. She eased back again—no spark in her eyes, no recognition, nothing.
“Messy night, huh?”
The guy was talking to him, a neatly creased fifty clipped between his fingers. The windshield wipers flicked rain into Maven’s face.
“Yeah,” said Maven, slow to recover, his hands disappearing inside his pants pockets within the poncho, making change.
The guy accepted the damp bills and coins and spilled them into his cupholder. “Stay dry, man.”
He pulled in and parked, exiting with a wide black umbrella, and Maven watched them walk away arm in arm, focusing on the woman’s bare shins beneath the cut of her dress, her heels picking at the sidewalk, the sound fading into the rain.
Maven knew her. Knew of her, anyway. A girl from his high school. Older than him by three years, a senior when he was a freshman, but as clear and as fixed in his memory as the bikini model who used to smile down at him from the poster on his bedroom wall. Smiled knowingly, with one crooked thumb hooked in the side string of her pink bikini bottom, drawing it an inch away from her cocked hip. That kind of memory.
Her name came back to him with the slap and sting of a snowball to the face: Danielle Vetti.
He said it aloud a few times in the rain. “Danielle Vetti, Danielle Vetti, Danielle Vetti.” Watching it steam and disappear. He was amazed to have seen her again, marveling at the gyrations the paths of their lives had to have taken in order to intersect once again, momentarily, that rainy night. The mere memory of her, and this one-second encounter—even the taste of her name in his mouth, after all those years—all put a charge into him the likes of which he hadn’t felt in a long, long time.
Danielle Vetti had been the girl in high school. Passing her in the hall was the highlight of your day, something you’d brag about to your seatmate in the next class. Guys at their lockers—guys in the bathroom you didn’t even know—would spread the word: Check out Danielle Vetti today. They just didn’t make people like that in Gridley, Massachusetts.
“Hey, man, you see a little, wet dog come through here?”
A guy coming off the street. The Latino accent didn’t jibe with what Maven glimpsed of his face beneath the hood of an oily anorak. But this detail didn’t jump out at Maven—not until the second guy did.
The blow came from behind, Maven going down and rolling in a puddle. They pulled him up, his head throbbing, and a thick strap was fitted around his chest like the kind used to cinch down loads in a flatbed truck. It was ratcheted fast from behind, pinning Maven’s arms against him inside the poncho.
The first guy showed a knife, low and silver, turning it so that it caught the overhead light. A fat, three-inch blade. Maven’s focus went in and out.
The guy behind him tugged Maven back between two cars, out of sight from the street.
“The money, man,” said the first one, the one holding the knife. “I might just cut you anyway, so give it up fast.”
Steam from the mouth of the guy behind Maven smelled sour and chemical. Maven couldn’t clear his mind, couldn’t get any thoughts started. A cold automobile engine that wouldn’t turn over.
They pulled him toward the booth. The knife guy backed inside, Maven getting a better look at his face, his smile sharp and hungry, breath squeezing through widely spaced teeth like fog through a broken fence. He pecked at the register keys, hitting the big button, the drawer shooting open.
The knife guy’s smile faded. He came back outside, the knife low at his waist. He was set on using it; Maven could see that much. This guy wasn’t going away until his blade was bloodied.
Maven set his teeth hard, his tongue pressing against his gums—feeling the notch in the right front quadrant. This recognition relaxed him. A kind of deadness crept in, which was the prelude to combat readiness, a feeling he had once known so well.
EVERYONE WHO COMES BACK HAS HIS ONE STORY.
Even if you come back with a lot of stories, there’s still always that one.
Maven’s was about a girl. Young, maybe fourteen, her head wrapped in a kaffiyeh of caramel-gold cotton. Maven was working a sneak-and-peek at a house in Samarra with his fire team. Young Iraqi girls often detoured past American soldiers, looking to draw a reaction they could ignore. The concept of America and the freedoms it represented frightened and attracted them, and so to be fancied by a Westerner was like having your forbidden dream beckon to you.
Maven, posted outside the house, didn’t see her until she was maybe twenty meters away. She wore a smile, but even at that distance Maven could tell that something was behind it. Her breathing was quick and shallow, and she walked with her arms raised from her sides.
His first thought was that she was in trouble, looking for help, and Maven actually took a step or two toward her, moving into her kill range. She reached inside the loose sleeve of her robe and yanked down, shivering, expecting to die.
Her hand came out holding a broken wire.
She looked at Maven with sweaty panic, then reached back inside her sleeve fast.
Maven brought up his M16. He could have cut her down right there, a chest-pattern, three-round burst. Brr-rrr-rrp.
She bent over, working hard, reaching up into her armpit. Maven spun behind a parked Humvee just as she exploded. Shat tering car windows sprayed his armor-plated vest, and he was thrown through a thin wooden fence. His fire team found him on all fours, spitting blood, and thought he’d been hit. A warmth spread over his gums, pooling in the right pocket of his cheek. He choked on something wedged in his throat, swallowing it down.
He had bitten off a chunk of his own tongue.
He saw many things during his tours there—many worse things—but it was always this girl who appeared in his dreams. Ended them usually, waking him up. Why she came at him, why she chose him, was a question for which there was no answer. Insurrectionists had been hiring head cases to do pay-and-sprays on American troops, even locking IEDs to noncoms against their will. He wondered if the near-death experience of the first misfire had made her change her mind. Maybe, in those last frantic moments, she was actually trying to get the device off her.
But in the end, what did it matter? The brutality of war, the random nature of man’s existence: she represented none of those things to him. All Maven got out of it was a few weeks of speech therapy, and a reminder of something he already knew: trouble had a way of finding him. Always had, always would.
AS THE STRAP CREAKED TIGHTER BEHIND HIM, THE NOW SMOOTH tongue notch pushed against the inside of Maven’s bite. The second guy’s free hand came around to pat Maven’s chest and gut through the wet poncho. He felt each side of Maven’s waist, pausing at his pants pockets, gripping a mobile phone, then continuing, the guy stooping now, his hand at the cargo pocket along the lower left thigh of Maven’s camo fatigues.
The guy’s molesting hand squeezed excitedly, closing around the wad of bills inside, his grip on the strap easing just a bit.
Maven shoved backward, driving the guy off-balance. He kicked back with the heel of his left boot and got lucky—catching the guy’s nose, a crunch and a dull pop, like the bursting of the glass tube inside an old-fashioned fire alarm.
The knife came thrusting at him, Maven seeing only the blade, pivoting away from it and kicking out, catching the first guy’s front left knee. His leg wouldn’t bend that way, the guy going down face-first onto the slick pavement.
The guy behind Maven had released the strap, doubled over now, holding his gushing face with both hands.
Maven watched the first guy up on all fours, looking at his knife, the blade edge tipped in blood. He had landed on it when he fell. Maven gave him no time to find the wound, punting him in the ribs, the knife skittering loose.
Maven dropped and rolled over the knife, feeling for the handle with his hands still trapped against his sides, beneath the poncho. He grasped it and sawed at the strap, cutting his arms free—just as a blow from the side knocked the knife from his grip, sending Maven tumbling.
He sprang up fast into a fighter’s crouch. He faced the second guy, who still had both hands up protecting his busted nose and bleeding face. Maven threw two low jabs, quick-quick, cracking ribs on either side of the guy’s midsection. He tried to go down but Maven shoved him backward, up against the rear of an SUV, driving the heel of his boot into the guy’s crotch as if he were squashing a tarantula there. The guy’s hands sprang open off his bloody face, a wail escaping his mouth like that of a drunk thrown through saloon doors.
The other one was back on his feet behind Maven, retrieving the knife. Maven saw him reflected in the SUV’s rear window, and when Maven turned hard, the knife guy seized up, thinking Maven’s powers of perception were beyond human. He reset himself, holding the bloody slash in his side, and led with the blade, Maven sidestepping the clumsy thrust almost before it started.
Behind him, Maven heard the scuffing of the other guy’s footsteps as he hobbled off the lot, making his escape.
The knife guy came in with a wild, diagonal slashing move, its tip catching the nylon of Maven’s poncho beneath his raised arms, slicing it as Maven pulled away. The knife guy’s face sharpened as though he had drawn blood, and not just ruined a $7 surplus poncho.
This sneer of victory made Maven snap.
The knife came at him again and Maven stepped into it this time, catching the guy’s hand and twisting, rotating the entire arm. He peeled two fingers back off the knife handle, all the way down, fracturing both. He wrenched the man’s wrist like the cap on a stubborn jar, cracking bones. The guy was screaming and trying to fall but Maven would not let him go. Maven gripped the knife in the guy’s own broken hand and stabbed down into his leg just above the knee, slicing upward, opening the guy’s thigh. Then Maven bent the guy’s arm back upward, ignoring his cries as he forced the trembling knife toward the strained muscles of his screaming throat.
Another arm hooked Maven’s. Not the guy who had run away; this was a good pro grip locking his arm, keeping him from slicing the guy’s throat. Maven’s legs were pushed out from behind, putting him off-balance, taking away his leverage.
Maven never saw the third man’s face. Only the woman a few cars down, a man’s black jacket draped over her shoulders, her silver dress shimmering like rain within the rain.
It was Danielle Vetti, watching him, her hand covering her mouth.
Maven released the knife guy, who had already fainted. The man behind him released Maven, and Maven backed away from Danielle Vetti’s eyes, walking, then running full out, so hard that even the rain couldn’t catch him.
SEE, ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE WAS THIS KID.
A lonely kid from a wrecked family, no father, barely a mother. A kid who didn’t know how to be liked, never mind loved. Grow ing up, this kid never guessed hundreds, if not thousands, of other kids out there were just like him: teenagers spurned by their parents and peers, outwardly quiet but inwardly raging.
It turned out he was one of an entire subset generation of would-be terrorists, adolescent time bombs sitting alone at the foots of unmade beds, managing their misery by drawing up scenarios of violence, vengeance, and immortality.
But he didn’t know this at the time. No one did.
These were kids for whom simple self-destruction wasn’t enough. Suicide would only have confirmed other people’s view of them as a nothing, a no one, a defeated outcast.
So why go out as a question mark when you can go out as an exclamation point instead?
But for this kid, as for most, the flip-switching bully’s punch or crushing social slight or failing grade never quite came to pass, at least not with the annihilative force he had imagined. Fantasy, in the form of death lists, detailed school maps, and first-person-shooter visualizations, appeased his teenage longing for mayhem in the same way that masturbation alleviated his longing for sex.
When the Columbine school shooting occurred in the spring of his graduating year, he was more appalled than fascinated. He saw his own dark shadow there, in the cafeteria video of the two trench-coat-clad shooters, and knew then, more than ever, that he needed to get the hell out of Gridley, Massachusetts.
So he visited his local army recruiter before graduation, stayed off pot all summer to pass the drug screen, and returned on his eighteenth birthday to sign on the dotted line and swear to uphold the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic.
That was two Septembers before 9/11.
Many speak of the fog of war, but for this kid, war brought clarity. It gave him a mission, clearly defined. Rules of Engagement. A six-article Code of Conduct. He experienced the fellowship of men in combat and learned to give and to earn respect. He was commended, awarded, promoted. Honor, Discipline, Integrity: all those formerly bullshit, silver-plated words came to mean something to him. He was recommended for the six-month Q Course training and even learned passable Korean to earn his Special Forces tab.
He wore the Green Beret. He was accepted, even esteemed, if never totally understood. For the first time in his life, Neal Maven belonged.
And that vengeful, damaged kid, the one everyone tried to piss on? He was gone forever.
Or so Maven had thought.
IT HAPPENED TOO LATE FOR ANYTHING TO BE IN THE NEXT DAY’S papers. Maven spent the morning walking around in a daze, waiting for a call from … who? The police? His boss?
He returned to work that night without any idea what he might be walking into. The rain had cleared, the night mild and almost meek in comparison. The day guy had nothing for him. Maven had stashed the previous night’s take under the counter and would make a double deposit that evening; with banks closed for the weekend, his boss would never be the wiser.
He went over to where the fight had happened, the rain having washed away any blood. Cars started pulling in, and bit by bit the tension in his chest began to go away.
The Boston police detective stopped by around eight thirty. A black guy, he pulled his unmarked Sable over onto the curb, came out with a badge and a quick handshake. Smelled of Italian food, tomato sauce and oregano. He belched softly into his fist and excused himself. He wanted to know about a guy they had found earlier that morning, unconscious and bleeding a block down the street. Two fingers broken, a fractured wrist, his right thigh sliced open like a Sunday roast. Maven told him that he hadn’t seen anything, and the detective pointed out that a guy cut like that tends to make noise. Maven shrugged, reminding him of last night’s rain.
“You a veteran?” asked the detective.
Maven looked at him, bewildered.
“It’s the boots,” said the detective.
Maven noticed the cop eyeing his hands. Looking for cuts, for bruises.
“Between you, me, and the butcher,” noted the detective, “said victim has a rap sheet this long. Not exactly the innocent-bystander type, know what I mean? The blade he got cut with was his own. I’m thinking maybe he tried to roll the wrong person last night. What do you think?”
Maven shrugged and had no idea.
The detective took down Maven’s address and his digits before thanking him and heading home for the evening.
That was it. Maven played his misshapen tongue against his lower gums, a ruminative habit. Funny how large the tongue feels inside your head. The wound was not much bigger than a nick, but inside Maven’s mouth it felt like a major deformity.
He stood like that until a passing girl caught his eye. Over an expensive top and a tight skirt, she wore a clinging wrap that detailed rather than concealed her figure. She was hugging it to herself for warmth, her hair flowing behind her like a black satin scarf. She turned at the gate, stepping onto the lot in dagger heels. She didn’t mince in them, but strode sure-footedly with the confidence of a woman used to walking on knives.
Then Maven recognized her face. Danielle Vetti. In the flesh.
“Huh,” she said, close enough to speak, looking disappointed. “I bet him a hundy you wouldn’t be here.”
Her body was like the fulfillment of her high school promise. She moved with assurance, hugging the night to herself as she did her crocheted wrap.
“Do you talk?” she said.
She kept a few yards between them, appraising him as she might an unfamiliar dog. “You were going to kill that guy, weren’t you?”
Maven tried to shake his head. It wouldn’t move.
“Is that why you ran off ?”
Maven did not have an answer for her.
“He dragged the guy away from here. So you wouldn’t get in trouble. Ruined a two-hundred-dollar shirt. I waited in the car.”
A breeze came up, cartwheeling a flattened drink cup across the pavement, stirring her hair. She hugged herself a little tighter.
“Why didn’t you just give them the money?”
Maven shrugged. “I never even thought about the money.”
She shook away the hair strands blowing across her face and opened a tiny clip purse. She stepped to Maven, presenting him with a card, blank but for a handwritten phone number.
“His number, not mine. He wants to meet you.”
“I think he wants to offer you a job.”
Maven looked at the numbers on the card again. “A job? But why would he … ?”
“Want to hire someone he stopped from killing another man in a parking lot in the middle of the night?” She shrugged. “He collects people like you. If you ask me.”
The alarm chirped on a silver BMW, and she sat inside, starting it up and pulling around to the gate. Maven raised the orange-striped arm, watching her profile for something more, anything—but she pulled out without another glance his way.
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