Acquainted with the Night
Introducing Matt Herrick, P.I.

by David White


....“Uncle Matt, I think I need your help.”

....Herrick cringed. His nephew was twenty-one and still called him “Uncle Matt.”

.... The bar they sat in -- Black Bear -- was located on Washington Ave. in Hoboken. It was empty in the mid-afternoon. This was Herrick's first visit, but he guessed that in a few hours the place would fill with college kids looking to get laid. Every other bar in Hoboken was that way, why not this one?

.... “I can’t hack into Montclair State’s computer files and raise your GPA.” He smiled, trying for more warmth than there was between them.

.... “No. It’s not that.” Michael didn’t smile.

.... The bartender brought a Coke and the Molson. Michael downed half the beer in one gulp.

.... “Easy,” Herrick said, pulling the straw from his glass. He hated straws. “What’s the matter?”

.... “Heather’s missing.”

.... “What do you mean, missing?” Heather was Michael’s girlfriend, and had been for a couple of years now. If Herrick remembered correctly, they started dating when Michael was a freshman at MSU, and she was a senior at Milburn High.

.... “I mean the past three days I called her, she hasn’t picked up her phone. I send her messages, emails. Nothing. I went over to her dorm the other day, no answer.”

.... “She have a roommate?”

.... “No. She lives in a single.”

.... “What college does she go to, again?”

.... “William Paterson. She’s majoring in Elementary Ed.”

.... “She’s in the dorms, right?”

.... “Yeah.”

.... Herrick nodded. “You guys been fighting?”

.... His nephew finished off the beer and signaled the bartender for another. Herrick grabbed his arm, said, “Mike, I said go easy. You are not getting drunk this afternoon. Now, have you guys been fighting?”

.... “We argued the last time we talked.” Michael wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

.... “What about?”

.... “I went out for a few drinks with some friend to watch the Duke game at a bar Sunday night. I promised to call her. I forgot. When I called her, it was three in the morning. I think I woke her up. She was pissed.”

.... “I’ll bet.” Herrick remembered the last time he’d talked to Heather, the last time he’d seen either of them.

.... “Listen, Uncle Matt, if this is going to be a pain in the ass, I can pay you,” his nephew said, picking up on the tone of voice.

.... “Don’t worry about that. Tell me more.”

.... The bartender brought another beer. Michael stared at it, but didn’t pick it up.

.... Herrick said, “Do you do that a lot?”

.... “Do what?”

.... “Go out and forget to call her.” Knowing the answer ahead of time.

.... “No,” he said. “Well, maybe once or twice.”

.... Herrick covered his frown by taking a sip of Coke. “You think she dumped you?”

.... “No. We’ve fought before. We’ve been together almost four years. She always calls back. Or I call her. She wouldn’t just end it this way.” Michael took a sip of the beer.

.... “She’s probably just mad, Mike. Give her another day or two to cool off.”

.... Michael finished off the beer way too quickly. Herrick didn’t comment but took another sip of Coke.

.... “She’s not like that, Uncle Matt. I’m serious. I’m worried about her. Please, just take a look for me?”

.... Herrick thought it over. Two days before his next appointment. And Michael was family. Why not swing by William Paterson? Ease the kid’s mind.

.... “Okay,” he said.

.... Michael smiled. “Thanks.”

.... “Heather lived alone, but does she have neighbors? Friends? Can you give me some names?”

.... “Her best friend Sharon lives in the room next door. And there’s Kathleen down the hall. I don’t know the room number, but Sharon will.” He told Herrick the dorm name and both Heather and Sharon’s room numbers.

.... Herrick made a note of it on a napkin. “You going to be around tonight?”

.... “I’ll be in my dorm. Just hanging with a few buddies. Watch a game, couple of drinks.”

.... Herrick nodded. “Keep your cell phone with you.”

.... “Okay.”

.... “You talk to your dad?”

.... “Not for a couple of weeks. You?”

.... “I’m going to call him when I get back to my office.”

.... Michael’s face dropped. “Don’t tell him about this. He’ll think the same thing as you.”

.... “What are we thinking?”

.... “That I fucked up. That she left me.”

.... “I won’t tell him. But I am going to call him.”

.... Herrick finished off the Coke, dropped a couple of dollars on the bar. “Drive safe, Mike. I’ll call you when I find something out.”

****

.... Walking along Washington, toward his office, Herrick pulled out his cellphone. It was February and still cold, the wind coming off the Hudson River and catching itself in the buildings, making the street a wind tunnel. Herrick hunched as he walked into it. Car horns sounded as people tried to cut across the street and other cars made illegal lefts.

.... Herrick dialed his brother’s work number.

.... After two rings, Frank picked up.

.... “Hey, little brother, it's Matt.”

.... “Hey, Matt how are you?”

.... “Pretty good.”

.... “Still chasing down cheating wives?”

.... “On occasion. How are you doing?”

.... “Getting better. Work helps.” Frank laughed. “What’s up?”

.... “I just had a drink with your son.”

.... “Oh yeah?”

.... “Yeah.”

.... Herrick guessed his brother said “What for?” He couldn’t be sure because a car stopped short at a red light. He debated telling Frank the real reason Michael talked to him.

.... “I’m a little worried about him, brother. In fifteen minutes he downed two beers. All his stories started with ‘Some buddies and I were having a couple of drinks.’”

.... “He just turned twenty-one.”

.... “Yeah, that’s no excuse. You know it runs in his blood. The way Suzy used to drink.”

.... Frank and Suzy split a year earlier. “She still drinks.”

.... Herrick closed his eyes. “Yeah, well give him a call. Ask what he's up to.”

.... “Thanks for calling, Matt. I’ll call this weekend.”

.... This weekend? “When was the last time you called him?”

.... “I don’t know. We’re both busy. He’s trying to graduate on time. I have my work.”

.... “Yeah, well, somehow I don’t think your work is as important as he is. Or should be.” He hung up before Frank could protest.

.... Reaching his building, he unlocked the main door and went up to his office.

****

.... A couple of Christmases ago, after Michael and Heather had been together for nearly a year, she came by to celebrate her first holiday with the Herrick family. Matt Herrick hunkered in the TV room, watching Shaq dominate the Knicks in the paint. He drank the first of two gin and tonics he usually allowed himself on the holiday. The second he’d have with dinner.

.... In the kitchen Suzy swigged a Jack and Coke as she tried not to burn the roast. Frank was trying to help cook and at the same time get the drink out his wife’s hand. Neither was going very well, and their voices were getting louder. Matt tried to focus on Marv Albert.

.... Michael and Heather sat across the room together on a love seat. Michael had his right arm around her, whispering in her ear. Trying to downplay his parents' fighting, from what Matt could hear. There was a beer in his left hand. They let him drink on holidays, even though he was underage.

.... My family, Herrick thought.

.... As Frank and Suzy’s voices got angrier—“Honey, just put the glass down and come into the living room!”—“Fuck you, Frank. This is my Christmas dinner.”—Michael stood and went into the kitchen, shutting the door behind him.

.... Heather sat alone, rubbing her hands together, glancing at the TV, then at Herrick, quickly back the TV.

.... “Mr. Herrick?”

.... He turned toward her. “Matt,” he said.

.... She smiled and he returned it. “Um, I hope you don’t mind me being so . . . forward, but are they always like this? Michael’s parents?”

.... “I don’t mind, Heather.” Herrick put his drink down, leaned toward her. “For ten years, I've been coming to Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners here. On those days, yeah, they’re like this.”

.... She pushed a curl of her red hair behind her ear. “Mike’s not like them.”

.... “No. He’s in there telling them to shut the hell up. And he’s not yelling about it.”

.... She nodded, smiling.

.... “I’m impressed,” Herrick said. “I didn’t think anyone in this family could stay so calm.”

****

.... William Paterson University was nicknamed “Willy on the Hill” because of its perch on top of Pompton Road, overlooking Paterson. Like most campuses that became popular in the sixties, the buildings were made of bland brick and not very tall. The parking lots seemed to be paved around the campus's natural beauty, not over it. Near the buildings were twisted metal statuettes Herrick assumed were a form of modern art.

.... He found Heather’s dorm, the Towers, at the top of a stone stairway. He walked through the front door. The kid at the reception desk stopped him.

.... “Can I help you, sir?” he asked.

.... “Matt Herrick. I’m here to see Heather Kraft.”

.... The kid looked over a clipboard. “Not on the list.”

.... “What are you, the bouncer?”

.... “I work dorm security, sir.”

.... Herrick took a twenty from his wallet. “How about you look the other way?”

.... The kid took the twenty. “I could lose my job.”

.... He passed him another twenty. Bribing some campus security kid. How low can you go?

.... The kid looked the other way, and Herrick found the elevator. He took it to the third floor.

.... Heather’s room was number 308. The hallway smelled of marijuana. Someone was playing rap music loudly. A couple of women walked down the hall and looked at him suspiciously. Herrick rapped on the door. Waited.

.... No answer.

.... He tried one more time. Again, no answer.

.... He knocked on 309, Sharon’s room, and the door opened.

.... “Hello,” a thin girl said. She had green eyes and very little makeup, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. Her pink shirt looked tight and was tucked into just-as-tight blue jeans. “Can I help you?”

.... He tried his best smile. “Sharon?”

.... She nodded.

.... “I’m looking for Heather Kraft.”

.... She looked him up and down, returned the smile. “Are you the new guy?”

.... “New guy?”

.... “Yeah. I guess not. You don't look like a frat guy,” she babbled. “Um, who are you?”

.... He introduced himself and showed his private investigator’s license.

.... “Herrick?” she asked. “Like Mike Herrick.”

.... “He's my nephew. Michael’s worried about Heather. He hasn’t heard from her in three days. She isn't answering her phone. Can I come in?”

.... “Okay,” Sharon said, “but the door stays open.”

.... “Fine.”

.... She stepped aside and Herrick stepped in.

.... The room was a single, one bed covered with a green comforter and large pink pillows. A desk with pictures and a computer on it. Some movie posters and Blink 182 on the wall. The window shades were open and overlooked the campus. The room smelled of incense.

.... “You may as well sit,” Sharon said, gesturing toward the desk. She sat on the bed and hugged one of the huge pillows.

.... “You like pink,” Herrick said.

.... She blushed and tried to cover up the pillow, holding it tighter to her chest.

.... “When was the last time you saw Heather?”

.... Sharon looked at the Blink poster. “Um. Monday afternoon?”

.... “You usually go two days without seeing her?”

.... “Not during the school year. Even when she went to see Mike, she always came back the next day sometime.”

.... “She didn’t come home?”

.... “We have Teaching for Learning every Tuesday at noon. She loves that class and she’s always there. But she didn’t show up this week.”

.... “The last time you saw her, did she say where she was going?”

.... “She was going out with Kathleen, from down the hall? They were going out to Laser, the 18-and-over club in Hawthorne.”

.... “They were going out on a Monday night?”

.... Sharon hugged the pillow a little tighter. Squinted her eyes. “I guess. Heather was mad that Mike didn't call on Sunday, I think. Something like that. So she didn't call him all day. And to get him more pissed, she went dancing. Kathleen went along because she didn’t have class until Tuesday afternoon. I had to get up for an eight a.m., so I couldn’t go.”

.... “And you haven’t seen Heather since.”

.... “No.”

.... Someone in one of the other rooms switched the rap music to a band Herrick didn’t recognize. But at least it had a melody.

.... “How about Kathleen?”

.... “Yeah, I saw her just this morning. She was going to the shower as I was running out to class. I was late.” Sharon paused. “She’s probably down the hall right now. Do you want me to call her?”

.... “Sure. Thanks.” Herrick looked out the open door. The waft of marijuana was still strong, overwhelming Sharon’s incense. She didn’t seem to notice.

.... The call lasted all of two minutes. Sharon told Kathleen who was in her room and to come down. When she hung up she said that Kathleen had two more pages to finish reading and would be down shortly.

.... “When you saw me at the door, you asked if I was the new guy. What did you mean?” Herrick asked.

.... Sharon stared at the door, as if she was willing someone to walk through and interrupt them. “Kathleen was telling me that Heather went home with some other guy that night. Some frat boy or something.”

.... “From the club?”

.... “Yeah.”

.... “Know anything about the guy?”

.... “You’d have to ask Kathleen.”

.... “So, you haven’t seen one of your best friends in two days and this didn’t worry you?”

.... “I’ve been studying for exams. I don’t know, I just sort of zoned out.” Sharon’s eyes opened wide, as if just realizing something. “Do you think she’s okay?”

.... Herrick thought about it. “I hope so.”

.... A girl, taller than Sharon, came through the door. She had shoulder-length brown hair, wide shoulders, and a bit of a beer belly. She wore a blue top,much too tight for her build, and sweatpants. She leaned over and gave Sharon a peck on the cheek.

.... “Hey, hon, what’s up?”

.... “Not much. What were you reading?”

....The Bluest Eye. For that stupid English class I put off. It sucks.”

.... “Kathleen, this is Mr. Herrick—Mike’s uncle. He’s looking for Heather.”

.... Herrick put out his hand. “Matt,” he said.

.... She smiled. “What do you do?”

.... “She always asks that,” Sharon said.

.... “I’m a private investigator.”

.... “Really? That’s cool. I’m a Criminal Justice major.”

.... “Good for you.”

.... “Hey,” she said, putting her finger to the corner of her mouth. “You think I could interview you sometime for a paper I have to do? Were you ever a cop?”

.... “For twenty years. Maybe we can set something up after I find Heather.”

.... “How come you left the force?” she asked, not getting the hint.

.... All he gave her was a shrug.

.... “How long have you been a PI?”

.... “Three years.”

.... “Cool.”

.... “When was the last time you saw Heather?”

.... “Monday night at the club. She met this guy”—Her head turned to Sharon—“I told you how cute he was, right?”

.... Sharon nodded.

.... “Anyway,” Kathleen continued, “his name was Conrad, I think she said.”

.... “Did she say where they were going?”

.... “His place in Hawthorne. He lived above a bar.”

.... “The club was in Hawthorne too, right?”

.... “Yeah, I think the guy walked to the club, actually. He was saying that night he didn’t have to be a designated driver.”

.... “Did she leave a number?”

.... “I have her cell, but she always found a way home before.”

.... Herrick shook his head. “We’re not talking about a dog here, Kathleen. How could you not check on her for three days?”

.... Kathleen spun as if he'd slapped her. Her voice wavered as she spoke, “I don’t know. I don’t see her all the time. I just assumed—What about Sharon?” She turned to her. “Haven’t you seen her?”

.... Herrick looked at Sharon, glared at her.

.... “Jesus Christ,” Sharon said. “We have lives, so does Heather. She would have called if she needed us.”

.... “Not if she couldn't call,” Herrick said. Kids could be so dense sometimes.

.... “Do you think she’s okay?” Kathleen asked.

.... “I don’t know.” He felt the weight of the gun under his jacket. “Sharon, would you try Heather’s cellphone, please?”

.... Sharon picked up her own phone and dialed. He watched her face and she listened. Finally, she put the phone down. “No answer.”

.... Herrick turned back to Kathleen. “Can you remember what Conrad looked like?”

.... The girl dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. “Typical frat guy. Khakis, backwards baseball cap, t-shirt with a button down open over it. Big, like he worked out. Cute, but dressed a little dated. That open shirt look isn’t in anymore.”

.... “Hair color, eyes?”

.... “Um, brown hair, blue eyes. Scruffy.”

.... Herrick nodded. “Where’s the club? Laser?”

.... “On Goffle Road,” Sharon and Kathleen said together.

****

.... Laser was on the corner of Goffle and Layfayette Road. Herrick had to circle the block and find a spot. The place was one story, and looked like a converted restaurant. Set off from apartment buildings and a strip mall, parking was only available on the street. It was still early, Herrick was lucky it was even open for business.

.... He pulled open a glass door only to be stopped by a guy who looked like he’d been inflated by an air pump. Shaved head, baseball sized biceps and a huge chest wearing a STAFF t-shirt. Herrick assumed this was the bouncer.

.... “Help you?” he said.

.... Herrick introduced himself and showed his license.

.... “What do you want?”

.... Over the bouncer's shoulder, strobe lights flashed. A DJ was setting up turntables. The music hadn’t started yet, but when it did it, Herrick thought, would be deafening. Not even eight o’clock and the place smelled like a thousand cigarettes. He hoped on day they’d pass the same no smoking law in New Jersey as the one in Manhattan. He ended up in dive bars on his cases all the time, and hated washing the smoke out of his clothes.

.... “Did you work Monday night?”

.... “What’s it to you?”

.... Herrick took a deep breath. “Listen, I want to leave as badly as you want me to, so let’s drop the tough guy act, okay?”

.... They sized each other up. The bouncer wasn’t tall, built as he was, but he was probably quick. “I could tear you apart.”

.... “Absolutely,” Herrick said. “I’m not much of a fighter. Say, did you work Monday?”

.... That got a smile. “Yeah. I did.”

.... Herrick pieced together the girls' description of Conrad. “Seen him at all?”

.... The bouncer laughed. “I see him all the time. You just described seventy percent of the guys who come in.”

.... “His name’s Conrad. Apparently he walks here. Lives in town?”

.... “Conrad? Fuck, half the time I see him, I know I'll be throwin' him out later. I keep telling Charlie we should ban him, but you know, anyone who pays the cover...”

.... Herrick worked to focus him. “Conrad a troublemaker?”

.... “Conrad's a jerkoff. I caught him with pills a couple times. I don’t know what kind, but the cops catch drugs in here, our license is shit. I told Charlie...”

.... “Did you see Conrad Monday night? Might have left with a girl.” Herrick described Heather.

.... The bouncer shrugged. “Maybe. If he was here, he didn’t cause a problem. For once.”

.... “Know anything else about him? Where his place is? If he walks here, it’s got to be close.”

.... The bouncer took Herrick by the shoulder, but lightly. Herrick followed him.

.... “I always see him coming this way from that bar there.” He pointed up the street, to Lost Dogs.

****

.... Last Christmas was Frank's first as a divorcee. Matt, Michael, and Heather joined him at his new apartment. Nothing fancy. In fact, it seemed like Frank forgot people were even coming. He put out some fried chicken, fries, and a case of beer.

.... Matt brought a bottle of wine he and Heather were drinking. Frank wasn’t drinking. Michael was on his eighth Michelob.

.... “Slow down, Mike.” Heather said. “We still have to visit my parents.”

.... “Ah, come on, schweetie. It’s holiday time.”

.... Matt took a bite of chicken. Nuked. The meat on the bone was cold.

.... “So, how were finals, Heather?” Frank asked.

.... “Fine.”

.... “Please,” Michael said, dropping a drumstick. “William Paterson’s like Kindergarten.”

.... Matt eyed his nephew. “Mike.”

.... “Doesn't even ask how my finals went. I’m graduating in May.” Michael turned to Frank. “Bet you forgot.” He finished off his bottle.

.... “I was just making conversation.” Frank played with the fries on his plate.

.... Michael bit into his drumstick. “Fuck! It’s cold.”

.... “Mike, please, it’s Christmas,” Heather tried.

.... “It’s Christmas and my father can't reheat fucking chicken on his own.”

.... “That's enough, Mike,” Matt said.

.... “Screw you. I see you about as often as I see him now. No hello, how you doing? Nothing.”

.... Matt grit his teeth. “Now is not the time.”

.... Frank’s face had gone pale. He was looking around for an escape route. Heather buried her face in her hands.

.... “Why not? It's the only time I'll see him for—How long, Dad?”

.... Frank said nothing.

.... “Fuck this.” Michael shot up and stormed out.

.... “He shouldn't be driving,” Frank said meekly.

.... Matt produced Michael's car keys. “He won't be. I'll drop them off and get the bus back.”

.... Frank slapped his lap, shook his head. “I'm sorry.” He left the table.

.... Heather looked close to tears.

.... “Come on, honey,” Matt said. “It'll be fine.”

.... They found Michael passed out in the stairwell. “He ain't heavy,” Matt said, carrying him to the car. He’s my brother’s kid, he muttered to himself.

.... On the road, Matt said, “It’s been rough for him.”

.... “I know. It’s just--he’s drinking a lot. Not calling anymore. I'm not sure things will work out...”

.... “Do you love him?”

.... “I loved the old Mike. This one, I don’t know.”

.... “Hang in there. He's sort of rebuilding his family right now. You could be a bright spot for him.”

.... She seemed to like that idea, but all she said was, “We'll see.”

****

.... Herrick tried the glass door next to Lost Dogs. At the top of the stairs he saw three doors leading to three apartments. He knocked on the first door and an old woman in a flowered house dress answered. Herrick described Conrad, told her the name, and she pointed to the third door.

.... A guy in a sleeveless T-shirt and khaki shorts answered that door. Herrick thought scruffy gym rat.

.... “Conrad?”

.... “Yeah. Who the fuck are you, man?”

.... “Matt Herrick. I’m looking for Heather Kraft.”

.... “Who are you?”

.... “I’m a private investigator hired to look into the disappearance of Heather Kraft.”

.... “Disappearance of—sorry, dude, I don’t know anyone by that name.”

.... Matt Herrick might have believed him. But his eyes had flicked away for an instant, checking something. And the kid was getting fidgety, scratching his chin, and tapping his foot. Dead giveaway.

.... “Got any coffee in there?” Herrick asked.

.... “What? Fuck you—“

.... Herrick wheeled back and hit him flat in the nose with a right. Conrad sank to his knees grabbing his face. Blood seeped in between his fingers. Herrick walked past him and checked the front room.

.... No carpet, cold tile, a couch and a flat screen TV with surround sound. There were a few shelves held up by cinderblock with a few books and a ton more CDs and DVDs on them. No sign of Heather.

.... Conrad was cursing, still woozy.

.... Herrick checked down a hallway. His police training was muscle memory. He cleared a bathroom, then kicked open the door to a bedroom.

.... No luck at first. A bed, queen sized and unmade, rested in the front of the room. There was a dresser with cologne on it and a closet with clothes hanging in it. Herrick sidestepped around the bed to a corner by the window. On the floor, on an open blanket Heather lay naked. She was curled tight, her smooth legs pulled to her stomach, her arms wrapped around them. There was a half empty glass next to her. She wasn’t moving.

.... “Jesus Christ,” he said.

.... Kneeling over her, Herrick put a hand on her shoulder, gently rolling her to face him. Her eyes were open, but they were glazed over. She was mumbling a song to herself. Herrick picked up the glass next to her and sniffed it. Scotch.

.... “Heather, it's Matt.”

.... “Who?”

.... “Mike's uncle.”

.... She smiled weakly. “I know you.” He gently stroked a curl of her red hair behind her ear.

.... He’d seen shock before, but not to this extent. It seemed she’d been given a date rape drug, but several times.

.... Regular doses, washed down with Scotch. Fucker.

.... Herrick pulled his gun and stepped out of the bedroom. Conrad flashed from the left, tackling Herrick into the wall. The gun clattered to the ground.

.... Conrad, still bleeding from the nose, pushed Herrick harder into the wall. But he was more muscular in his chest and arms, not the legs where the thrust to actually cause injury would come. Herrick kneed Conrad in the balls and pushed him back into the hallway. Another quick left and a right, and Conrad was down again, bleeding from the lip and coughing up more blood.

.... Herrick picked up the gun and aimed it. “Move another inch, I’ll put a bullet in your brain, you sick son of a bitch.”

.... Conrad looked up and saw the gun. Herrick kicked him once in the head.

****

.... He took Heather to the hospital in his car, and nearly three hours later, he sat with her in a room. He explained to the nurses what happened, that he was a private investigator searching for Heather, and found her in an empty apartment. He didn’t tell them about Conrad, and he didn’t notify the police. When he was a cop, he’d seen too many rape victims be embarrassed and wish they hadn’t pressed charges. He would let Heather decide what she wanted to do on her own. He knew where Conrad lived, he could find the last name.

.... The attendants in the hospital were still trying to track down Heather’s parents. They weren’t home and Heather couldn’t remember their cell number. Herrick couldn’t get in touch with Michael either. He left a message telling him to meet at Black Bear tomorrow around lunchtime.

.... He held Heather’s hand and she lay there, focus slowly coming back to her. He had been right, and the doctors had confirmed it by finding a ton of Rohypnol in her system. Herrick spoke to her, telling her not worry, but he felt he was talking more to himself. He kept talking anyway.

.... At one point, Heather turned toward him. “Michael’s an asshole,” she said.

.... Herrick couldn’t tell if she was babbling or if she meant to say it to him.

.... He just nodded.

****

.... Back in Hoboken three days later, the wind felt like it was coming in harder off the Hudson. The skies were cloudy, dark heavy clouds that indicated snow. The streets were empty of the usual lunchtime crowd and Herrick realized he hadn’t heard a weather report over the past few hours. Maybe they were in store for a blizzard.

.... Herrick never heard back from Michael. Heather’s parents got to the hospital around midnight, rushing in, Heather’s mother crying. They thanked Herrick, hugged him, and bought him a coffee. He stayed with them until nearly four in the morning, when he gently excused himself. In all that time, Michael never called. Herrick didn’t expect to see him at Black Bear the next afternoon and when he tried, Mike wasn’t there. Finally, that Friday, there was a voice mail from Michael, asking Matt to meet him.

.... Not knowing what else to do, Matt checked a few more bars on Washington Ave. The Whiskey Bar was his third try.

.... Pulling the door open, he found Michael sitting at the bar, a half empty beer in front of him. No one else was around. Even the bartender had found somewhere else to be. The place was silent except for the Kinks on the jukebox.

.... Michael saw Herrick enter and said, “Give me good news, Unc!”

.... “Why are you here? Why aren’t you at Black Bear, like you said?”

.... His nephew didn’t look up from the pint glass. “I was nervous,” he muttered. “Afraid of what you were going to say. Came here first, just to take the edge off.”

.... Herrick took the stool next to him and said, “Where the hell have you been the past three days?”

.... “I was worried. We went out, like I said, to watch the game, and I got plastered. Can’t remember shit.”

.... “You went on a fucking bender after telling me how worried you were about your girlfriend?” Matt didn’t try to control his anger, the words seethed from him.

.... Michael took it like a slap. Matt didn't care. He laid it out for Michael, the whole story, every graphic detail of Heather on the ground naked, eyes glazed over. The guy who’d taken advantage of her.

.... Michael looked like he was going to be sick. “Is she okay?”

.... “Physically? She’ll be okay. Mentally? I don’t know.”

.... “And the guy?”

.... Herrick spread his hands. The police were still collecting evidence and building a case.

.... “Oh my God. This is all my fault.” Michael pressed his face into his hands.

.... He decided not to tell him that Heather called him an asshole. He sat and waited for Michael to let it all out. The kid impressed him. He didn’t cry, he didn’t swear, he didn’t even chug the rest of the beer. He punched the bar once and looked toward the back of the room. He was staring into a mirror.

.... He stared for a long time, then said, “Can I see her?”

.... “That’s not up to me,” Herrick said. “I don’t think it’s up to you either. Not anymore.”

.... Michael took a small sip out of the pint glass. “What can I do?”

.... Herrick thought about telling him to stop drinking so much. He thought about asking him to cool it with his buddies, to focus on studying and graduating.

.... “You can try calling her,” he said.

.... Michael shook his head, not looking at Herrick. “I just want things to be the way they were.”

.... “Sorry, kid. That's gone.”

.... “Fuck,” Michael said and polished off the beer. “Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck... I really fucked up, didn’t I?”

.... Herrick nodded.

.... “Did your dad call you? Ask if you were okay?”

.... “No.” Michael’s shoulders slumped. “Not that I remember. I didn’t have any messages or missed calls, except from you.”

.... Matt knew where Michael got it from. One day maybe it would all click. One day he’d figure it out, but he was going to do have to do that on his own.

.... Herrick stood, put a hand on Michael's shoulder. Stepping out into the cold afternoon, he saw the first snowflakes fluttering toward the ground.

Copyright © 2005 by David White.



David White is an 8th Grade teacher. His stories have been published in Thrilling Detective, HandheldCrime, Hardluck Stories, Shred of Evidence, Crime Spree and SHOTS UK.  He can be reached at his web site or via e-mail. He currently resides in New Jersey.

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