Envy the Night: Excerpt
Frank Temple III walked out of the county jail at ten in the morning with a headache, a citation for public intox, and a notion that it was time to leave town.
It wasn’t the arrest that convinced him. That had been merely a nightcap to an evening of farewells—Frank hanging from the streetlamp outside of Nick’s on Kirkwood Avenue, looking down into the face of a bored cop who’d seen too many drunks and saying, “Officer, I’d like to report a missing pair of pants.”
It hadn’t been the hours in the detox cell, either. Frank was one of six in the cell, and one of just two who managed not to vomit. Sitting with his back against the cold concrete block wall listening to some poor son of a bitch retch in the corner, Frank considered the jail, the people who checked in and didn’t check out the next morning, the way he would. He considered the harsh fluorescent lights reflecting off gray and beige paint, the dead quality of the air, the hard looks the men inside developed to hide the hopelessness. It would be the same when the sun rose as when it set, except you wouldn’t be sure when that happened, couldn’t even use the sun to gauge the lack of change. He considered all of that, and knew that if he could understand only one thing about his father, it was the decision he’d made to avoid this place.
This was the second time Frank had been in a jail. The first was for a drunk driving charge in a small North Carolina town two years earlier. He had failed the Breathalyzer but requested field sobriety testing anyhow, his booze- addled brain sure that he could pass. After watching Frank stumble and stagger through the first exercise, the cop put an end to it, said, “Doesn’t look like your balance is too good, kid.” Frank, leaning against the car for support, had waved him closer, as if about to impart a secret of the highest magnitude. The cop leaned down, and when he was close enough, Frank whispered, “Inner ear infection.”
He had the cuffs on and was in the back of the car before he was finished explaining the connection between one’s sinuses and one’s balance. His was not a receptive audience.
So this was the second trip to a jail, and even if his father hadn’t found a coward’s way to avoid a life sentence, the number would be the same. Frank wouldn’t have visited. But he also couldn’t hide the thought, listening to those drunks mumble and belch and vomit beside him, that maybe the reason he put himself in situations like this was because he wanted a taste. Just a taste, that was all, something he could walk back into the free world with and think—that’s what it would’ve been like for him.
He’d been chased into the night of drinking by one disturbing phone message and one pretentious professor. The message had come first, left by a voice he hadn’t heard in many years.
Frank, it’s Ezra. Ezra Ballard. Been a long time, hasn’t it? You sound older on your message. Anyhow, I’m calling because, well . . . he’s coming back, Frank. I just got a call from Florida telling me to open up the cabin. Now, I’m not telling you to do anything, don’t even care if you call me back. I’m just keeping my word, right? Just keeping my word, son. He’s coming back, and now I’ve told you.
Frank hadn’t returned the call. He intended to let it go. Knew that he should, at least. By the end of the day, though, he was done in Bloomington. A single semester of school—his fifth college in seven years, no degree achieved or even threatened—and Frank was done again. He’d come here to work with a writer named Walter Thorp (Walt to my friends, and I hate all of them for it), whose work Frank had admired for years. Bloomington was closer to home than Frank had allowed himself to come in years, but Thorp was a visiting professor, there for only one semester, and he couldn’t pass up that chance. It had gone well, too. Thorp was good, better even than Frank had expected, and Frank had worked his ass off for a few months. Read like crazy, wrote like crazy, saw good things happening on the page. The last week of the semester brought an e-mail from Thorp, requesting a meeting, and Frank used that as encouragement to push Ezra Ballard’s call out of his mind. Focus on the future, don’t drown in the past.
That was his mantra when he went to the cramped office on the third floor of Sycamore Hall, sat there and listened as Thorp, glancing occasionally at that gold watch he always wore on the inside of his wrist, complimented Frank’s writing, told him that he’d seen “great strides” during the semester, that Frank clearly had “powerful stories to tell.” Frank nodded and thanked his way through it, feeling good, validated in his decision to come here, to ignore that phone call.
“I’ve never done this for a student before,” Thorp said, arching an eyebrow, “but I’d like to introduce you to my agent.”
Frank couldn’t even feel the elation yet; this was that much of a surprise. Just looked back at Thorp and didn’t speak, waited to see what else would be said.
“In fact,” Thorp added, tracing the edge of his desk with a fingertip, eyes away from Frank’s, “I’ve already mentioned you to him a few times. He’s interested. Very interested. But he was wondering—we both were, really—have you ever given thought to writing nonfiction? Maybe a memoir?”
Frank got it then. He felt his jaw tighten and his eyes go flat and he stared at the old- fashioned window behind Thorp’s head and wondered what the great writer would look like flying through it, landing on the terrace three floors below.
“I only ask because your story, and the way it intersects with your father’s story, well, it could be quite compelling. To have that in addition to your own narrative gifts, Frank, is quite a package. Nate—he’s my agent—he thinks the market would be fantastic. You might even be able to get a deal on just a synop and a few sample chapters. Nate thinks an auction would be possible, and that’s the sort of circumstance where the dollar figures can go through the—”
He had the good sense not to follow Frank out the door and down the steps.
Ten hours later, Frank was in the jail, all the amusement left in his drunken mind vanishing when the booking officer looked up from the paperwork and said, “No middle name?”
Nope, no middle name. Too bad, because going by your middle name was an easy thing—provided you had one. But he didn’t. Just that Roman numeral tacked on the end, Frank Temple III, the next step in the legacy, a follow- up act to two war heroes and one murderer.
They’d put him into the detox cell then, left him there to wait for sobriety, left him with swirling thoughts of his father and Thorp and the message. Oh, yes, the message. He’d deleted it, but there would be no need to play it again anyhow. It was trapped in his brain, cycled through a dozen times as he sat awake waiting for morning.
He’s coming back.
He was not allowed to come back. Frank and Ezra had promised one another that, agreed that they’d let him live out his days down there in Miami so long as he never tried to return, but now there was this phone call from Ezra saying that after seven years the son of a bitch had decided to test their will, call that old bluff.
All right, then. If he would return, then so would Frank.
* * *
He was northbound by noon, the Jeep loaded with his possessions. Except loaded wasn’t the right word, because Frank always traveled light so he could pack fast. The quicker he packed, the easier it was to ignore his father’s guns. He didn’t want them, never had. Through nineteen states and who knew how many towns in the last seven years, though, they’d traveled with him. Other than the guns, he had a laptop computer, two suitcases full of clothes, and a pile of books and CDs thrown into a cardboard box. Twenty- five years of life, it seemed like he should have more than that, but Frank had stopped accumulating things a long time ago. It was better to be able to move on without being burdened by a lot of objects that reminded you only of where you’d just been.
West through Illinois before heading north, to avoid the gridlock and construction that always blanketed Chicago, then across the state line and into Wisconsin as the sun disappeared, the destination still hours ahead. Tomahawk, a name Frank would’ve dismissed as cliché if he’d written it for a North Woods lake town. The town was real enough, though, and so were his memories of it.
His father wouldn’t be there. Devin Matteson would be. If Ezra’s call was legitimate, then Devin was returning for the first time in seven years. And if Frank had an ounce of sense, he’d be driving in the opposite direction. What lay ahead, a confrontation with Devin, was the sort of possibility that Grady Morgan had warned him he had to avoid. Grady was one of the FBI agents who’d brought down Frank’s father. Grady was also a damn good man.
Frank had been close to him for a while, as close as he had been to anyone for a few months during the worst of it, but then the media sniffed that relationship out and Frank left Chicago and Grady behind. They hadn’t talked much since.
He drove past Madison in the dark and pushed on. He hadn’t eaten all day, just drank Gatorade and swallowed ibuprofen and drove, hoping to do it all in one stretch, with just a few stops for gas and to exercise sore muscles. Before he reached Stevens Point, though, he knew he wasn’t going to make it. The hangover had killed his appetite, but he’d needed food if he was going to stay awake, and now the fatigue was beginning to overpower him. There was a rest stop ahead, maybe the last one he’d see for a while, and he pulled off and parked. Lowered the driver’s seat as far as it would go, enough to let his legs stretch a bit, and then he slept.
* * *
It was a Big Brother kind of thing, no doubt about it, but Grady Morgan had kept an active monitor on Frank Temple III for seven years. It wasn’t proper, or even really legal, because Frank had no role whatsoever in anything that could still be considered an active investigation for Grady. But nobody had noticed or cared or commented yet, and as long as they didn’t, he’d keep watching. Without a touch of remorse. He owed the kid at least this much.
The feelers Grady had out there in the world, computers that ran daily checks on Frank’s fingerprints and Social Security number, had been quiet for a long time. As had the phone lines and the e-mails and the mailbox. No word from Frank in quite a while, and there were times when Grady ached to speak to him, check in, but he didn’t. He just went to work every day and eyed the calendar that showed retirement was not far away and hoped that Frank would continue to stay off the radar screen. Grady didn’t want to see a blip.
Here was one. The wrong kind of blip, too, an arrest in Indiana, and when it first came through to his computer Grady felt an immediate sick swirl go through his stomach, and he actually looked away from the screen for a moment, not wanting to read the details.
“Shit, Frank,” he muttered. “Don’t do this to me.”
Then he sighed and rubbed a forehead that was always growing, chasing the gray hair right off his skull, and he turned back to the computer screen and read the details of the arrest. When he got through, he let out a breath of relief. Public intoxication. That was it. The second arrest in seven years, the second time Grady had felt this chill of sorrow, and the second time he could roll his eyes and chalk it up as No Big Deal, Kids Being Kids.
As he pushed back from his desk and walked to the window and looked out at the Chicago skyline, he sent a silent request to Frank Temple III somewhere out there across the miles.
Tell me it was just fun. Tell me, Frank, that you were out with some buddies having beers and chasing girls and laughing like idiots, like happy, happy idiots. Tell me that there was no fight involved, no temper, no violence, not even a closed fist. You’ve made it a long way.
A long, long way.
Frank III had been eighteen years old when Grady met him. A slender, good- looking kid with dark features contrasted by bright blue eyes, and a maturity that Grady hadn’t seen in a boy of that age before, so utterly cool that Grady actually asked a psychologist for advice on talking to him. He’s showing nothing, Grady had said. Every report we’ve got says he was closer to his father than anyone, and he is showing nothing.
He showed something in the third interview. It had been just him and Grady sitting in the Temple living room, and Grady, desperate for some way to get the kid talking, had pointed at a framed photograph of father and son on a basketball court and said, Did he teach you how to play?
The kid had sat there and looked at him and seemed almost amused. Then he’d said, You want to know what he taught me? Stand up.
So Grady stood up. When the kid said, Take that pen and try it to touch to my heart. Hell, try to touch it anywhere. Pretend it’s a knife, Grady hadn’t wanted to. All of a sudden this was seeming like a real bad idea, but the kid’s eyes were intense, and so Grady said what the hell and made one quick thrust, thinking he’d lay the pen against the kid’s chest and be done with it.
The speed. Oh, man, the speed. The kid’s hands had moved faster than anybody’s Grady had ever seen, trapped his wrist and rolled it back and the pen was pointing at Grady’s throat in a heartbeat’s time.
Half- assed effort, Frank Temple III had said. Try again. For real this time. So he’d tried again. And again, and again, and by the end he was working into a sweat and no longer fooling around, was beginning to feel the flush of shame because this was a child, damn it, and Grady had done eight years in the Army and another fifteen in the Bureau and he ran twenty miles a week and lifted weights and he could beat this kid . . .
But he couldn’t. When he finally gave up, the kid had smiled at him, this horribly genuine smile, and said, Want to see me shoot?
Yes, Grady said.
What he saw at the range later that afternoon—a tight and perfect cluster of bullets—no longer surprised him.
Seven years later, he was thinking about that day while he stared out of the window and told himself that it was nothing but a public intox charge, a silly misdemeanor, and that there was nothing to worry about with Frank. Frank was a good kid, always had been, and he’d be absolutely fine as long as he stayed away from a certain kind of trouble.
That was all he needed to do. Stay away from that kind of trouble.