Last Flight of the Cougar

“How did you find me?” he asks.

I wipe my eyes with a tissue and wrap my blanket tighter. I don’t even remember him leading me to the living room couch—a worn out thing with loud springs and a gaudy brown-orange floral pattern—or him wrapping the blanket around me. I guess I was in shock. He’s probably used to dealing with people in shock.

“Who killed him?” I ask.

He frowns, lights a cigarette and leans back in his rocking chair. The ashtray on the cracked coffee table between us is overflowing. He doesn’t say anything.

I take a sip of tea—I don’t even remember him making it—and look around the room.

It’s a living room, but…

The couch, chair, and table are the only furniture. There’s a stack of cardboard boxes in one corner—most heavily duct-taped—and dozens of newspapers littering the rough carpet before the bay window. The walls are white or stained yellow, and with the exception of a crack that runs from ceiling to floor, bare. There are some nails too, but not a single picture or photo.

And everything smells like ash, mildew, and aftershave.

“I can’t tell you,” he says finally.

“Why not?”

“It’s an ongoing investigation for one—but I doubt you give much of a shit about that, Val. If I tell you who, you’re going to run off and try to gun him down, like Dirty fucking Harry or something.”

“No—”

“—Like you tried to gun me down.”

I close my mouth.

“Jesus fuck,” he says, shakes his head. He grinds his cigarette into the tray—spilling ash all over the table—and grabs the pack for another one. It’s empty though. He swears, throws it across the room.

He puts his head in his hands. “And then,” he says, muttering at the ground, “you’ll get your dumb bitch ass killed too. And you’ll probably fuck this whole investigation up.”

I wrap the blanket tighter around me. I see he’s breathing heavily. I’ve seen this before. My husband does it too. When he gets upset, he’ll yell and then get all quiet, just breathing. Bottling it up.

I was going to kill Dave—Sam. I was going to kill him tonight. I feel cold.

“I just want to know what happened to him,” I say. “I promise, I won’t do anything. Please, Mr. Backner. He was my son.”

He looks up at me, then scans the ceiling as he lets out a big breath. He licks his lips and leans back in his rocker.

“Yeah, he was, wasn’t he. And let me guess, Val. He was a good boy, right? Just a good fucking kid, got all mixed up with the wrong crowd, but gosh darn it he had a heart of fucking gold.

“Let me tell you something, Val. Your boy was a worthless piece of shit.”

I clench my jaw.

“He was a fucking crackhead and a dealer, and the reason he’s dead is cause he was a goddamn thief too. Yeah, that’s fucking right, Val. Your precious fucking little dickhead stole from the wrong people and got his head blown off.”

I blink back my tears, my teeth grinding. My hands grip the blanket so tight my fingers begin hurting.

“Sorry,” he says, voice controlled.

I let out a ragged breath. “No, Mr. Backner. I know Jerry wasn’t… I know he was troubled. Believe me, I know. I have no… um… illusions about my son.”

But now my voice cracks. “He was still my son, goddamn it!” I sob again.

He lets me cry for a while, then holds the tissue box. I take a couple, dab my eyes. I breathe deep to calm down but my lip still trembles.

“How did you find me?” he says. His voice is calm now, and he looks tired. Maybe sad too.

“What?”

“How,” he drags it out, “did you find me? How did you even hear about… about your son?”

I swallow, shift in my blanket.

“Valerie, this is important. His—his murder—isn’t public knowledge. I… Jesus, sorry, um… I don’t even know what they did with his body. Look, these guys… it’s why I can’t tell you anything. They’re organized, and when they want someone to disappear… well.

“So, I need to know how you know. How you know about him, how you know about me.”

I lick my lips.

“Patty told me.”

“Who’s Patty?”

“She is—she was—Jerry’s girlfriend.”

Sam leans back in his chair, frowns. “Patty,” he repeats to himself, rubs his hands together. “Patty.”

He looks at me, an eyebrow raised. He opens his mouth but doesn’t say anything, instead shaking his head.

Patty. You… you don’t mean Patricia Wallace, do you?”

I nod.

“But she’s dead,” Sam says. “Did she call you? When? Why the fuck would she call you? You weren’t… were you close?”

“She’s not dead,” I say.

“She is,” Sam says. “Sorry. Fuck. Sorry you have to find out like this, but she’s one of the—um. The whores. One of the whores that keep disappearing, only we know they’re getting murdered.”

I’m shaking my head. “No, Mr. Backner, she’s alive. I saw her just yesterday.”

Yesterday?

His mouth drops open, his frown deepens. He raises his hands, looks at his palms, and then suddenly stares at me.

“Are you telling me that Patty fucking Wallace is alive, and you’ve seen her yesterday?

I nod. He laughs, raises his hands over his head.

“Oh, this is un-fucking-believable! She’s alive! That’s… that means she must have gotten away.” He runs his hand over his mouth, frowns again. His eyes dart left and right.

“Why me?” he asks. “Why did she tell you I killed… Hell, just tell me what she told you. All of it.”

“She…” I begin, but a lump rises in my throat. I remember Patty, I remember how bad she looked when she showed up at our doorstep. Someone had beaten her. But then she told us, told us about Jerry.

“It’s okay. Take your time. But please, this is important.”

I nod, swallowing.

“She told me she saw it. She saw my… she saw Jerry die. She said…”

I swallow again, blink a couple times.

“She said it was like in the movies. Like he was kneeling, and one of the gang members—she said it was a gang thing—stood behind him and shot him. Like an execution.

“She said his name was Dave.”

I look at Sam and I see he’s leaning forward, hands on knees. All his attention’s on me, but it’s not the way a man looks at a woman. It’s intense, impersonal. Maybe the way a detective looks at a lead.

“She said that she ran, after that. She knew they were going to kill her too.”

Sam nods, sits back in the rocking chair.

“Dave’s a pretty common name. That’s probably Big Dave then. So, then she came to you.”

“Yes,” I say.

“Patty Wallace saw it happen. She’s a witness.” He smiles. “This is the best news I’ve heard in a very long time. Valerie—this is critically important—you have to take me to her.”

I shake my head slowly and his smile falters.

“She’s in bad shape. I promised her.”

“Valerie, I get that. I do. But you’re not doing her or yourself any favours, all right? If she’s a witness—if she’s willing to testify—we can finally close this damned case and bring those assholes to justice. Justice for Jerry. Justice for all the girls they killed.”

My lips draw tight.

“It’s not really an option, Valerie. I told you these guys are organized, and they don’t like leaving loose ends. It’s just a matter of time before they track her down, and they won’t give two shits about taking you and your family out too.

“Fuck, let me do my job and keep anyone else from dying, all right?”

I think of home, of all this ugliness being brought there.

“All right,” I say.

He nods, smiles, and stands up. “Let’s not waste any time then. Where do you live?”

I get up too. “Bangor.”

“Bangor? Wait, Maine? Shit, no wonder they haven’t found her yet. All right, we’ve got a long drive ahead of us. Let’s go.”

I hesitate.

“What?” he asks. “Look, time’s kind of important here.”

“Can I have my gun back?”

He looks at me blankly. “Your gun?”

I bite my lip. “Yes. It actually belongs to my father.”

He continues staring at me, doesn’t even blink. “Of course,” he says finally, forcing a smile. He hands the Ruger back to me, watches me slip it into my purse.

“Let’s go,” he says.

We get in his car and start the long drive home.