Being deaf to the sounds that are issuing from the place I had placed it prior to my understanding of the matter in full (as it were), I proceeded to list, in longhand, the reasons I had to go on the way I was accustomed to. None of the points pointed in any direction, but it was nonetheless the very motion of the pencil that showed me what I was missing – volition. I stood up and grabbed the handle, angrily flushing the toilet, and pulled my pants up as I reached my writing desk where my list, now crumpled from being forgotten in my left hand during my wiping, fell to the table and lay there until I swept it aside to make room for the comic book.
It had arrived that morning in the mail, wrapped in a plain brown package which did nothing to improve my standing with my neighbors who are, no doubt, convinced of my having pedophiliac tendencies. I assure you these errant rumors and misguided daydreams of people with more time on their hands than intelligent thoughts, are completely unfounded. It is true that I did once “encounter” a bulldog name Treat, who lived across the street from me. But that is another story entirely.
In any case, the comic book fell open to the center, where the bright steel staples meet, on a page that advertised, on one side, a school where one may obtain a certificate of theology from some organization located in Key Biscayne (or so its PO box indicated). On the other side was a photo of a missing child, the genus lactosus cartinus, and it was here that all of my current problems took root and produced, in good time, the not inglorious flower of my eventual apotheosis and beatification at the hands of the Methodists. But I am getting slightly ahead of myself.
First of all, let me say that I didn’t even order the comic book subscription myself. My dear, departed mother, in her senile capriciousness (what deranged fancies took her head at that precise moment – by “precise” I mean, of course, the remaining twelve years of her life – I have no idea the exact nature of) decided that a comic book I had once mentioned to her in passing a shop that advertised a t-shirt bearing the insignia of the comic book hero’s sidekick (it was the t-shirt I really wanted) when I was nine years old, should be ordered at once and immediately, in the form of a subscription. It should be noted that I am forty-one. The only reason I go into this much detail at all, though, is only to make clear and plain the fact that I never asked for nor even knew what the hell the goddamn book was doing in my mail in the first place, until I remembered, by way I suppose of the odd, almost savant manner I have of making the subtle ideograms of knowledge formed by my Saturday morning shits, not unlike the I-Ching, I suppose, into messages sent to me by Fate itself, what associations that comic could have possibly held for me. The previous day was the inquest, as it happened, so I suppose that my premonition of terrible things to come (of the previous (restless) night’s dreams) could have fueled this sudden burst of sixth sense.
The reading of the will was an informal matter, held at the house of the sister of the golf pro, Ted, whose son had once dated the hairdresser whose husband once worked as a bookie in Chicago during the days when my father was still gambling heavily. The bookie and my mother were, no doubt, holding secretive meetings in some van somewhere outside of Calumet City, and it was due to this association, I suppose, that the inquest was held at his trailer in said city. Present were my mother’s sister, Mild, my brother Edwin, and a couple of transients that were keeping camp underneath the overpass located about fifty yards from the trailer park and who had, seeking the warmth and light of the trailer in the half-dark of the fog and wet of a typical Friday evening, come upon the trailer just as Edwin was calling for quiet.
Things settled down fairly quickly, and the will was read. Without much fanfare, I should add. My mother was a simple woman who lived only within her means. The barren and rocky landscape comprising the intellectual crevasse which was her brain had all the features one might expect from a person of her advanced years, only without the smell. To her sister she left her fine china; to my brother Edwin her People magazine collection, and to me the comic books. The only other possessions of note were her Bentley, an autographed Honus Wagner baseball card, and eight hundred thousand dollars worth of Apple stock, which she willed to the planetarium. Edwin and I exchanged small talk – neither of us wished to talk to Mild at all. For one thing, she had an annoying habit of producing numbered and tagged crawfish from her purse (her son, Donald, was a marine biologist living in Death Valley) and thrusting them in our face, while she tried to convince us of the importance of her son’s position.. Also, Mild was a complete kleptomaniac, and was given to screeching and pointing to the nearest available exit, claiming that Ernest Borgnine wanted his silverware back, and stealing whatever knickknack, ashtray, or stray coin was nearby.
I left somewhat rattled, as I hadn’t seen or heard from any of my relatives in over ten years. When I got home, I opened the refrigerator and took out a beer. I plopped down on the couch, pounded my beer, and turned on the television. The news was on –
“Good evening, and welcome to Channel Nine News, live at five. I’m Chad Hendricks. Tonight’s top story, local murderer escapes from Fulsom Prison earlier today. Standing by live in the bog surrounding the prison is Channel Nine’s very own Lisa Miller. Lisa?”
“Thanks Chad. That’s right. I’m standing in about two and a half feet of swampy, fetid, tumorous waste. The very same fetid, tumorous waste that Johnson McCullers waded through in his daring escape from Fulsom prison in the early hours of Thursday morning. According to reports, McCullers made his way through the swamp, across the tarmac at Dire Airforce Base, and onto the wing of a B-52 bomber, bound for Norfolk. The speculation at this point seems to point to a prearranged rendezvous at Norfolk with his estranged wife and accomplice, Sheryl Ann Potter. Prison officials we spoke to have assured us that McCullers could not get very far, as he is presumed to have been barely clothed, had very little food with him, and was hanging on for dear life to the fuel intake door as the bomber reached its maximum speed of 795 miles an hour. By all accounts McCullers was a model prisoner, who worked out in the prison yard every day, and kept up several lengthy correspondences with other prisoners across the state, most notably the Cud Brothers, Phil and Dino, who were arrested in 1979 for the kidnapping and murder of Texas ball-point pen magnate, Tynan Chalkbiter. Late word is that the letters are being subpoenaed by the district attorney’s office in Carson City. Why the D.A. in Carson City is involved in the case is anyone’s guess. Chad?”
“Lisa Miller. Thank you. In a related story, the Arizona Wildcats seemed destined for the state volleyball championships until their coach, Eddie Campbell, was found impaled on a chicken burrito outside his home in suburban Tempe earlier today. For that story, we go to Burl Wensom, who is standing by in our newsroom with details. Burl?”
“Thanks Chad. I’m here in Tempe, Arizona, outside of the Campbell home where Eddie’s wife, Trish, is about to hold a press conference. Let’s hear her comments.”
“I am very sad, of course. There isn’t a whole lot to say. I guess the whole thing kind of speaks for itself. My family and I want to thank everyone for all of the flowers and cards we have received. I also want to say that whatever sick individuals are responsible for the box of hot sauce packets I found on my stoop this morning should be ashamed of themselves. Go Wildcats. Thank you.”
“A sad story indeed. Back to you in the newsroom Chad.”
I turned that goddamn television off. I couldn’t concentrate on anything. My mind was still wrapped around that comic book. Was it the product of a warped and degenerated mind, or did it hold a higher meaning for me? I couldn’t decide. I went over to the drafting table and picked it up. It was still open to the page advertising the missing child. Maybe advertising is the wrong word. The photo was of a little girl of seven, with curly dirty blond hair. She wore a faded polo jersey, and a necklace of costume pearls. Jeanie Putterson. Jesus Jeanie, what the hell were you doing? Last seen in the main terminal at LAX at midnight. What the hell were your parents doing?
As I sat and stared, I slowly became transfixed (maybe fell in love is more accurate) with the photo. Jeanie was lost, probably dead at this point. And now she was on page 17 of this comic book, breaking up a battle between the forces of good and evil. The fate of the universe is at stake, and intruding into the fight is little Jeanie Putterson, with her faded polo jersey and blond hair in curls. What would the Incredible Hulk do in this situation? For that matter, what about Ant-Man? Of course I am not a superhero. My mind reeled. What would I do if I were Spiderman? The question might have been moot, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t suggest a way out of the dilemma.
I sat back in the chair, and it slowly dawned on me – the beginnings of a plan. I was hatching a plan. The fact that I was hatching anything was so exciting to me (and even now, I must confess, urges nodes of electrochemical excitement throughout my lower body as I dictate these words) that I could hardly keep hold of the original thought. Somehow the thought had become mapped onto the excited feeling, and thence into meta-triplicate as it twisted through the paranoia of why I was so excited that the eventual structure of the plan turned out to be quite different that the first thought (whatever that was – though I do recall it had something to do with eggs) was in the first place.
The plan was that Jeanie Putterson had to be found – at any and (hopefully not all) cost. Upon reflection, this wasn’t really a plan so much as a realization or even imperative. But I realized that a plan was needed. Jeanie Putterson was the incarnation of something precious to the survival of mankind. This is the first time I can remember feeling responsibility (as onerous as it felt then and feels now) for serving a set of dictums I myself had never been aware of, ever. The Putterson family was, no doubt, completely unconvinced of the spark of divinity in their family. Indeed, they had probably spent the previous years trying to convince their daughter not to date until she was thirty. Jeanie Putterson was either an agent of some larger force in the universe (why else would she be in a comic book?) or else she was an unwitting pawn in some larger and more significant game, a game which was wrought with peril for yours truly. It didn’t much matter. I had something to do with myself. Finally.
. . . . .
I must have dozed off the previous evening in the chair, because I woke up on the floor next to the table. I felt the lines from the hardwood floors impressed on my right cheek, and (though perhaps it was afterward) noticed a barely perceptible struggle to remove my face from the floor, tethered as it was by a tiny strand of nightspittle. First things first. What do we know? Jeanie Putterson was abducted. The parents were of sufficient means to seek help through Marvel Comics. My next step was to put these clues together. Nothing. What else? I tried putting together anagrams of her name – is it not possible that this whole campaign is part of some larger effort on the part of Marvel’s parent company, Warner Bros., to drum up interest in some future movie or book deal about a psychotic killer, who after kidnapping and torturing young girls, is finally brought to justice by Michael Caine? I have no mind for anagrams, though, and even the momentary effort of dipping one’s psychic toe into the wading pool of cognition, so to speak, proved too great a strain on my delicate instrument(s).
Flipping through the phonebook. Movers, Mufflers, Murals, Museums. No Murderers. Escrow, Estate Planners, Etiquette Training – no Evil, either. I also tried Psychotics, Conspiracy, and Cannibal. Nothing. I called information, and turned up nary a lead. Rather than dissuade me, though, these initial setbacks only served to further excite my interest in the case. The occasional (and often ill-timed) erection proved a rather primitive early metaphor for my quest, and a good barometer of my progress. I decided to shelve the case until nightfall (I’d noticed how most detectives tend to do their best work at night) when rain was expected. I was about to check the forecast (fog played some important part in all this) when I happened on the Spanish Channel. It was a show about embalming. This gave me an idea. If Jeanie Putterson was already dead, didn’t it make sense to embalm her? If this was the killer’s psychotic plan, then he had made his fatal error. I snatched up the phone book and called all of the embalmers in the immediate area. Had they sold any embalming equipment to a man or woman with a corpse? I was suddenly struck by several problems. First of all, Putterson might not be dead yet. Then it occurred to me that if the sick bastards responsible were psychotic enough to shanghai some innocent teenager in the middle of LAX, why not try to embalm her while she was still alive? In the dark recesses of some basement or tool shed somewhere. In some cornfield or something. This brought me to the next problem. Location. Marvel Comics published nationally, and Putterson disappeared at LAX. The embalmer could have bought his/her equipment anywhere. Also, even if I could locate the embalmer responsible, what if the killer paid with cash? There had to have been a paper trail of some kind. Some way to work up a name, an address, anything. I rented Paper Chase with John Houseman, and laid out a complete set of Agatha Christie paperbacks in front of me. Several new wrinkles occurred to me. First of all, the abduction could have been relocated to a foreign city. I noticed that many murders have taken place in Europe, some even in Asia Minor and Africa. Putterson could be anywhere right now. I stopped in my tracks and took a deep breath. She was taken (or at least last seen) in Los Angeles, so that was clearly my first destination. I also noticed two other very interesting facts. First of all, Paper Chase proved to be a real career boost for Houseman. Secondly, death seemed to follow Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple around like indictments at a Senate Hearing. If death was riding shotgun on this little cross-country trip, I would do well to arm myself. Sensibly though. In the morning I would pack up, go to Target and buy a gun, and begin my quest.
. . . . .
Target. Playground for the misbegotten. Junkyard of the senses. I made my way to the back of the store, trying to ignore the glaring florescent lights and the blaring voice coming from the loudspeakers; a call to action figures and outdoor grills. The gun section. Four glass cases, each one more lethal than the last. Greasy handprints obscured the view of the items, and I was forced to lean over the glass so closely that I nearly keeled over, tumbling over the countertop glass. Actually, there wasn’t a very good selection of guns. The good people of Target had decided to concentrate their energies on building a really fine “Sporting Goods” department, and hence had stocked the glass cases with compasses, water-proof Casio watches, crossbows, fishing lures, waterproof matches, and assorted filet knives. The intended effect of all this clutter was, I suppose, to normalize the items. The actual effect was that I began accessorizing for violence – score one for the feminists. Then two things dawned on me. First, nearly anything could be waterproofed. The second was that maybe it wasn’t a gun I needed. I asked Chad to show me the bow.
Camouflaged frame with steel rotors. A pretty imposing weapon, actually. I pulled on the string (a ninety-five pound test strength is not bad) and let it twang, imagining myself face to face with Jeanie’s abductors. After Chad helped me over to Cosmetics to bandage my lacerations from the bowstring, I thanked him by helping myself to the bow, three arrows (no need for overkill), a stainless steel compass, GPS device, a half-dozen signal flares, inflatable raft, buoy lightbulbs, and a nylon-mesh parka with an orange neon logo over the top front right zippered compartment that read, “Death-Dealer”. It was time to go to work.
Back at home, I packed everything securely into an overnight bag. I had to unstring the bow and unscrew it at the hinges to fit it in, but after four hours of struggling, I was ready. I turned off the television set, and put the lights on timers. A couple of calls to the paperboy and the hot-tub service representative, and it would be time to go.
Suddenly there was a knock at the door. Two paramedics standing there in the blowing wind and snow. I had no idea why they had come to my home – surely there was no way Marvel could have figured out where I lived so quickly (or, for that matter, sent their big guns over with such great dispatch). My first thought was, what will they make of the bow and arrows? This fear turned out to be unfounded, though, as the rather heavy-set man who broke the door in, Vereen, who, in a lightening flash, grabbed me off the couch where I had fallen asleep in the fetal position, and proceeded to repeatedly administer a form of Tai-Chi that bore very little resemblance to classical CPR as I understood it, ignored my weapon completely.
A quick glance around the room was all I could get, what with my head between another man’s legs. But on the face of it, it seemed that my boys were definitely in for a nice bonus at the end of the month. The two brutes left the way they had entered, albeit with less flare. As I lay twisted and broken on the floor, I had a sudden flash of intuition.
END CHAPTER ONE