Soap and Water - 013
Download an audio version at (www.joshuamalbin.com/soap-and-water).
A truck carrying whatever those South Americans were selling had shot its way through a checkpoint not too far south, and apparently its owners were worried that the roads the rest of the way would be too closely watched for a bulk shipment to go on. All the Acadians in the area were making deals to carry small packages as far as Chicago.
’Tit Jean, for one, had an appointment with a South American in a loft downtown, in what had been a trendy neighborhood before Occupation. ’Tit Jean had the boys drop him around the corner and told them to park about a mile away, on the far side of the convention center. He didn’t want any drug dealer even knowing he had sons, let alone getting to see what they looked like. He didn’t like working with drugs at all, in fact, but the drive east of Nebraska was comparatively safe, and in a week he’d earn what otherwise he did in two months.
A flunky stopped him in the downstairs lobby and showed him a chair, then disappeared upstairs. An enormous amount of time passed. He estimated how many tiles there were on the floor by counting them the width and breadth of the lobby. Then he estimated the area of the lobby by measuring one of them with his hand—it was one-and-a-half palmwidths—and multiplying. It was like a problem Guerin had gotten wrong on the entry test to the gifted school: “How can you estimate the volume of this room using only a basketball, a pencil, and a sheet of paper?”
A few people came in, a few others left. Some he ignored, others he stared down to see if they’d look away.
When finally he was allowed upstairs everything went so quickly and smoothly as to be almost dull. He arranged to meet a courier at a certain location the following night, agreed to a fee, and that was all.
It was clear when he left, like every day in Denver, and warm. He hurried down 16th Street, once the main tourist drag, its cask-sized concrete plantersfull of bare dirt now. All the shops that had once sold souvenirs were empty and the others, selling high-priced clothes and jewelry, had variations on the same sign out front to announce that they only opened their doors to customers they knew personally. He didn’t want the boys in the truck once drugs were there—he wouldn’t risk them that jail time—and it was a sixteen-hour round trip to Omaha, not counting pit stops and roadblocks. If he was to get them home and meet someone back here tomorrow night, they had to get moving right away.
In ten minutes he reached the truck and opened the driver’s door. No one there. He circled to the rear, saw the latch was off the rollup door, and slid it open. Bertrand sat up halfway, leaning on his elbows and blinking off sleep. He’d dozedover his biology textbook, which lay open beside him.
“Where is Guerin?” ’Tit Jean asked.
“He’s not here?” Bertrand said in English. “He went to get a burrito—” he wriggled his cell phone from his pocket to check the clock “—damn, two hours ago. I don’t know. No missed calls.”
’Tit Jean returned to the cab, took his own cell from the glove compartment. Guerin hadn’t called him either. He dialed the boy’s number. It rang once and went to voicemail; he’d turned it off.
“Bertrand!” he called.
Some clomping from the box, the clatter of the rollup door closing, and Bertrand mounted the passenger seat. ’Tit Jean started the engine.
Guerin liked a lunch cart by City Hall, a few blocks away. He might have just stayed in the neighboring City Center park afterwards. Wherever he was, ’Tit Jean didn’t have time to wait for him to wander back. Honestly, the boy could be irritating.
He left the truck at the City Hall end of the park. Bertrand went to look in the grove of trees near the park’s midline, and ’Tit Jean climbed the Hall steps for a longer view. Guerin wasn’t among the people circulating at the Hall’s foot, nor did ’Tit Jean see him as he scanned the plaza’s open spaces and crisscrossing paths. Of course he couldn’t see faces as far away as the state capitol, where the food-distribution line coiled, but Guerin had no reason to be over there.
He worked his eyes over those paths again with the unpleasant, almost ominous feeling he often got when trying to find someone in a crowd. His mind struggled to produce the sharpest picture of Guerin it could, and because it struggled it did a bad job. He couldn’t picture Guerin as he looked now—he dredged up too much of Guerin at eight, clumsy in snowpants; at twelve, eyes slit in preteen fury; at thirteen, in the absurd black raincoat he’d worn everywhere. The same face, muddied with small differences. ’Tit Jean blew a long sigh through his lips and descended the steps.
The lunch cart man said Guerin had never been there. ’Tit Jean tried the boy’s phone again. No luck. He walked in the direction he’d sent Bertrand, asking anyone who’d pause if he or she had seen a thin, brown-haired boy of sixteen, wearing those pants that ended mid-shin. No one had. In the park’s middle, where a wide promenade linked monuments to the north and south, he even asked a bicycle cop, thinking maybe Guerin had gotten himself arrested.
Bertrand emerged from the grove alone. They walked back to the truck, and then ’Tit Jean drove up and down the nearby streets, sending Bertrand to check in every diner, coffee shop, and newsstand they passed. ’Tit Jean’s irritation grew sharper and sharper, until at last he focused on it and realized that of course he was angry at Guerin mainly for making him worry. After that he just worried, and that was worse because the longer they searched, the harder it was to keep worry from shading into panic. He didn’t want to panic in front of Bertrand. He speed-dialed Guerin’s phone every time Bertrand left the cab to try another place, and stopped meeting Bertrand’s eyes when he came back alone.
At last they returned to the convention center to see if Guerin had finally shown up on his own. He hadn’t. That left only a few possibilities:
He could have been hurt in an accident or mugging and taken to the hospital.
He could have been arrested by the Feds. (If he’d been arrested by the City, the bicycle cop would have found out when he radioed in to check. Probably.)
He could have been kidnapped by a professional ransom gang.
He could have run off with a girl and lost track of time.
’Tit Jean rejected the last one. Guerin would have left him a voicemail, a text message—something to keep ’Tit Jean from worrying, even if it was a lie. And if it was any of the first three, ’Tit Jean needed help. He called Abel Elliott.
“If you go to the police, they’re going to tell you three hours don’t mean anything,” Elliott said. “You know that, right?”
“I can’t sit and do nothing until they decide he’s been missing long enough,” ’Tit Jean said.
“Let me see what I can find out,” Elliott said. “Meet me at my usual place.”
Elliott’s usual place was a bar near his office that had once been an Elks Lodge. It had a small bartop, too many Formica tables, a plastic-tiled floor, a warped pool table with a collection of chipped and tipless cues, and no windows. It also had a stunning series of amateurish pastel murals, Rocky Mountain scenes populated by Indians who looked very much like white men in bad costumes. The other three customers were eating sandwiches, but at 11:30 in the morning Abel sat alone at one of the rearmost tableswith a beer.
“Well, he’s not in a hospital, a jail cell, or a morgue,” he said when ’Tit Jean took his seat.
An electric pulse arced from ’Tit Jean’s mid-spine to the back of his palate at the word “morgue,” making him shudder.
“No ransom demands on the usual message boards, either,” Elliott continued. “The bad news is two people saw the Soap Patrol bus this morning. Have you heard of it?”
’Tit Jean shook his head.
“It’s not what they call themselves,” Elliott said. “No one knows what they call themselves. Every few months people see this white bus, and that same day a few young people get dumped in front of hospitals and a few others disappear. The kids who show up at the hospitals have liver problems, sometimes total liver failure. They’ve been missing from home for months, up to a year, from all over the West. About half of them die.”
“What happened to them?”
Elliott shrugged. “There are Feds all over the wards. I can never get in to ask. And if the nurses know more than what I just said, they won’t tell me. Anyway, so far I count three came into hospitals around here last night. That means other kids were picked up.”
’Tit Jean rubbed his face. He had not shaved this morning and his skin stuck to his fingertips; he pushed his cheek around, making a little ache in the muscles that was related in a way to this horror. It was the only thing at this moment he seemed able to feel. “I need a drink too. Non. Coffee, I need coffee.”
Elliott beckoned to the bartender and got ’Tit Jean served a cup, thin and smelling of dishwater.
“What do I do, Abel?”
Elliott put a piece of paper on the table. There was a name on it: Jimmy Castoreau.
“That’s one of the kids. At Presbyterian St. Luke’s,” he said. “If you get lucky, with that French name maybe they’ll buy you’re a relative and maybe he’s not too sick to talk.”
’Tit Jean folded and pocketed it. “Do you want anything for this?”
“Tell me what you learn,” Elliott said.
James Castoreau was awake. His skin and the sclera of his eyes were yellow. One tube ran down his throat and two more spanned the distance from his left arm to a squat green box on casters. They’d given him a private room, generous for what must be an uninsured charity case. He stared at ’Tit Jean. ’Tit Jean couldn’t tell if it was in fear, hatred, or something else entirely.
’Tit Jean sat on the chair by the bed and thought about how much he should tell this oafish, cancer-patient-bald, decidedly non-Acadian boy of maybe eighteen. The doctor had been bleak: “There are some chemicals that if you’re exposed to them repeatedly, it causes an inflammation of the liver, a kind of acute immune reaction,” he’d said. “Some herbal supplements do it, some old gas anesthetics we don’t use much anymore. It wouldn’t matter if we did know what it was, though. He needs a liver transplant.”
He’d taken a vial of ’Tit Jean’s blood to test for a match. ’Tit Jean assumed he wouldn’t be one.
“There is a chance they took my son where you were,” ’Tit Jean said. “Understand?”
James Castoreau nodded as much as his tube allowed. Usually people in hospitals had an odor of sweat and antiseptic, but Castoreau smelled like nothing.
“Can you write?”
Castoreau nodded again.
’Tit Jean took a pen from his pocket and looked around for paper. Only the accordion-folded brown paper towels from a dispenser over the sink. He arranged a stack on the wheeled feeding tray standing there empty, swung it in front of Castoreau’s face, and gave him the pen. The boy’s hands trembled.
“The place you were, could you find it on a map?” ’Tit Jean said. “Can you tell me how to get there?”
Castoreau shook his head and did not write.
“Do you know far away it was, at least?”
Castoreau wrote a few words, laboriously:
We were on buses and stopped a lot. 2 Days?
“What did they do to you there?”
The boy lifted his shoulders and dropped them.
They made us give blood a lot.
“Do you know why they took you? Do you know how long you were there? Do you know why they let you go?”
Castoreau shook his head just a little and wrote:
and then he wrote:
What’s wrong with me? Will I die?
He shivered. At first ’Tit Jean thought he was starting a seizure, but then he saw he was about to weep.
What’s wrong with me, he’d asked.The doctors hadn’t told him. And if he felt as sick as he looked he must know that something was very wrong, and be terrified. If Guerin ended up like this—’Tit Jean’s mind recoiled, for a moment went white.
He wouldn’t want Guerin to be afraid.
He collected himself. “Your liver has damage, but there is a good chance for you,” he said. “Write down your parents’ telephone. They should know where you are.” ’Tit Jean thought he saw gratitude in Castoreau’s eyes, but it was impossible to read his expressions with any confidence. Essentially he looked the same as before. The boy wrote a string of numbers.
’Tit Jean went to the hallway. First he dialed Guerin’s phone again and got nothing, then Castoreau’s parents—the prefix was unfamiliar—and got a recorded message saying the line was no longer in service. He couldn’t stay to relay that news. Castoreau would go to pieces and he would have to comfort him. On another day, he liked to believe, he would have tried more to help, but today he couldn’t. He had to find his own son.