The Third Brother

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The Third Brother Page 4

by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

  “In case of what?”

  “Inclement weather. Come on.”

  He was out of the car before I could respond. I followed, walking behind him down the gravel berm. At the house, a rusty gate opening into the yard squeaked in protest. Mulligan signaled for me to cut left. I tiptoed past several piles of dogshit I was hoping were not as fresh as they looked and crept around to the back. Concrete steps ran up to the rear entrance. There was a screen door without its screen. The backyard lawn ornaments consisted of crumpled-up Taco Bell and White Castle bags.

  I positioned myself a few feet away from the stairs and waited. I heard a knocking on the front door, followed by an explosion of barking. So the shit was fresh. I tried not to think of my Louisville Slugger collecting dust in my van back in German Village. More knocking, more barking, then voices. At first the tenor of the conversation sounded reasonable enough, as if Mulligan were pitching an alternative natural gas supply. Then I heard a shout and still more barking and what sounded like a crash. A rapid thudding inside indicated someone running, and getting close. I bent my knees and adopted my best pro wrestling stance, minus the makeup and green spandex. A moment later the rear door burst open and a man hurtled out. A small man, no more than five five and maybe 120 pounds in the shower. Definitely shrimpy. But his eyes were glazed, and for a moment I thought he might be high, which would have complicated things. Instead, I saw he was terrified, as if he’d just seen a ghost while in the shower. He ran straight into me.

  “Easy now,” I said, grabbing him by the arms and turning him around. He didn’t struggle. Maneuvering him was like putting a coat rack back in the corner where it belonged.

  “Otto!” I yelled. “Back here.” When Mulligan didn’t reply I started marching my prisoner around to the front.

  “Please,” the man whined.

  “Talk to Otto. I’m just the hired help.”

  “Please. Save me.”

  “Save you? From what?”

  “From her.”

  “Her who?”

  The answer came a second later. I heard a sound behind us, turned, and saw a two-headed monster rounding the corner and barreling towards us. I stared in disbelief. The bottom half of the monster was a woman the size and approximate shape of an extra-long chest freezer turned on end, snorting like a bull and yelling something that sounded like Blobby Baby. She was wearing too-tight black yoga pants and a black CD101 Radio T-shirt, her brown hair pulled back in a ponytail with a frilly white scrunchie. The top of the monster was Mulligan, clinging to her back and trying to restrain her as she charged in our direction. Tangled up in the woman’s feet was a corgi, ears raised and fangs bared as it barked its little head off.

  “Get him out of here, Woody!” Mulligan yelled.

  I pushed the bail skip forward and started to run. But it was too late. The woman’s forward momentum overtook me, even with Mulligan trying to hold her back, and we went down in a tangle of limbs and arms and barking canine. I pulled myself free, started to stand up, looked around for the little guy, and had just enough time to back up slightly before the woman’s right fist connected with my left eye. I staggered, caught my balance, staggered again, and fell over. The corgi pounced and clamped its jaws onto my right sneaker, jerking my foot this way and that like a rat it had dug out of a hole. I rolled to my left, reached for something to pull myself up by, and found a fleshy, sockless ankle instead. I grabbed it with both hands and held on tight. For nearly twenty seconds I was back on my uncle’s pig farm being dragged through the mud by a surly sow as the woman fought her way forward hollering “Blobby Baby, Blobby Baby!” and I bumped and scraped my way across the dug-up yard. I’m pretty sure I ran over an expired woodchuck. Finally, just when I thought there was no way sweet potato fries were ever going to cut it, the woman said, in a surprisingly high, girlish voice, “God damn you motherfuckers to hell.” I stopped moving and she fell over with Mulligan splayed across her back like a rodeo rider at the county fair prelims. I took a breath, got to my knees, got all the way up, and rubbed my eye. I was seeing not just stars but entire constellations.

  “Let’s get out of here,” Mulligan said. He ran up to the object of his pursuit and took him roughly by the left arm. The man was shaking like a leaf in a November breeze. He didn’t resist. “Thank you,” he whispered.

  “Bobby baby,” the woman wailed, lying prone in the yard as she squeezed mud and God knows what else between her fingers. “Bobby baby.”

  “I’M TELLING YOU, YOU’RE a natural, Woody,” Mulligan said an hour later, as I sat at the bar at Jury of Your Pours, an uneaten burger and a double helping of sweet potato fries before me. The lovebirds had departed, but the scent of their pheromones still lingered.

  I adjusted the ice pack on my eye and took another drink of beer.

  “You could have told me about her,” I said, not for the first time.

  “I didn’t know.”

  “But I bet you guessed?”

  “Life’s too short to speculate, don’t you think? Anyway, you did great.”

  “Tell it to Big Dog.”

  “Dig it,” Mulligan said with a grin.


  I DIDN’T LOOK MUCH WORSE THE NEXT morning than a guy whose left eye and socket have been replaced by an overripe eggplant. How I felt was another matter. I pulled myself together with a second cup of coffee before setting off for a romp in the park with Hopalong. After breakfast, a shower, and more breakfast, I got in my Honda Odyssey and headed to the northeast side of town.

  Maple Ridge High was a 1970s special: flat roof, brick exterior the color of fish sticks, a bank of recessed glass doors at an entrance guarded by poured concrete pillars that brought to mind abandoned Olympic villages. I had to wait to be buzzed in. Once I was inside, a custodian reluctantly pointed me down a gleaming hall toward the office. I could feel the resentment in his eyes like little death rays in my back as I tracked molecular-sized grains of dust onto the newly waxed floor.

  I explained to the woman sitting at a desk why I was there. She didn’t reply, but instead stared hard at me, which was a puzzle until I remembered my eye.

  “I’m not sure Ms. Paulus has time today,” she said at last. “We’re trying to wrap up the school year.”

  “Ms. Paulus?”

  “The principal?”

  “Right. It won’t take but a minute, promise. Or I can wait.” I leaned forward, folded my hands on the counter and smiled.

  She didn’t return the smile. She had a full, brown face and a streak of red in her straightened black hair that nicely matched her lipstick. Her dark eyes were the sort you could fall into if you had a thing for school secretaries who brooked very little crap. She glanced at an open office door behind her and to her right. A poster of a female swimmer doing the butterfly filled the upper half of the door.

  “I’ll have to see.” She studied her desk phone for a moment. I couldn’t tell if she was hoping it would ring or deciding whether to call 9-1-1. At last she stood with a frown and click-clacked on red summer heels back to the principal’s office. I looked around the room and caught the custodian glaring at me through the office windows. Like the secretary, he didn’t appear to feel I was conducive to the school’s educational mission. I waved. He stalked off. A moment later the secretary click-clacked back to her desk, followed by a woman with a pen in her hand and impatience on her face.

  “I’m Helene Paulus. How can I help you?”

  I got the same puzzled look at my eye. I smiled and handed her my card and told her my name and reason for my presence. She took the card and studied it like a copy machine invoice she hadn’t been expecting. When she was done she turned the card over and seemed disappointed the back was blank. I get that a lot. It always makes me think I should buy a set printed with a cartoon of a hound wearing a Sherlock Holmes hat and sucking on a churchwarden pipe, to show I’m a real investigator and all.

  She said, “But I thought . . .” She paused. She lowered her voice a notch. “I tho
ught Abdi was overseas.”

  “Not as far as anyone knows. We think he’s here.”


  “The family. And the government, too, for that matter.”

  “And you’re a private investigator?”

  “Yes, ma’am,” I said, which I could tell she didn’t like since she couldn’t have been that much older than me. I pulled out my license and presented it.

  “Just a couple of questions. In hopes of finding the boy.”

  “We can talk in my office,” she said doubtfully, and gestured for me to come around the counter and follow her back. I smiled at the secretary as I passed her desk. She shot me some of the custodian’s death rays. As we entered the principal’s office I looked at the poster on the door. “Dream Bigger,” it said, beneath a photo of the swimmer taken from an underwater angle.

  “I don’t mean to be rude,” Paulus said, as she sat behind her desk. “Your eye—”

  “Cue ball,” I said, sitting down across from her. “Took a bad hop. About Abdi . . .”

  She frowned. “The FBI was already here. I’m not sure what more I can tell you. Or should.” She had short, white hair in a boyish cut and the tan of someone who’s outdoors a lot. Given the profusion of house plants in the office I was guessing gardening over triathlons, though she had a nice enough figure. She was dressed professionally, even with school out, in a sleeveless patterned blouse and white slacks. No wedding ring. Her tone was cool and guarded, as if I were an errant teacher begging to be rehired despite a file full of student grievances.

  “Whatever you’re able to answer,” I said, trying to decide where to start. My eyes strayed across her desk. Beside a pile of manila folders sat a copy of Dreamland. She followed my gaze.

  “It’s a book about the opiate epidemic,” she said, taking her time pronouncing ‘opiate.’ “There’s several chapters about Ohio.”

  “Yes. I’m reading it myself.”

  “You are?”

  “That’s right.”

  “Is it for a class, or, or something?”

  “Actually, I’m just reading it. You know, for pleasure, so to speak. It’s good, don’t you think? But quite disturbing.” I waited a moment, but she didn’t respond.

  I said, “Don’t worry. I have a friend who helps me sound out the really big words.”

  “I’m sorry. I just didn’t think—”

  I waited, watching her blush. I felt bad, but it was worth seeing. It made my embarrassment at owing Bonnie money literally pale in comparison. Plus, the color didn’t do any harm to her features.

  “I meant—”

  “Don’t worry about it. Sounds like a topic we’re both interested in. I imagine it’s a big concern in a school. Maybe we could talk about it sometime over tea and crumpets. But right now I’m here about Abdi Mohamed. I guess I’m wondering if anyone here has any idea where he might have gone. And if these accusations are a surprise in any way.”

  “Yes,” she said, recovering. “Yes, I mean they are a surprise. A huge surprise. You think you know the students, and then something like this. It’s hard not to wonder now, with his brother and all. But Abdi was a good kid. We didn’t suspect anything like this. None of his teachers did.”

  “And no idea where he is?”

  “Of course not. We would have told the authorities.”

  “His family says he was on the way to work. After school got out?”

  “That’s right. He always had a job of some kind. Very hardworking. Not like—”

  “Not like Hassan?”

  “Yes,” she admitted. “They were very different young men, despite the fact they were brothers. Hassan was a real troublemaker, to tell you the truth. We have a gang problem here, and he was headed in that direction. That’s what made his turnaround so surprising.” She paused. “And frankly, a little hard to swallow.”

  “What do you mean?”

  “He just traded one set of problems for another, in my opinion. Instead of just, I don’t know, doing the right thing in the first place.”

  “In my experience, doing the right thing is a high bar for a lot of people.”

  “Is that so?”

  “Present company excepted, of course.” The expression on her face told me I hadn’t won any favors with the remark. I smiled, hoping to tone it down a little. The smile wasn’t returned. I forged ahead anyway. “So was there anything about Abdi that might have signaled a change?”

  “Like what?”

  “I’m not sure. A difference in his mood, maybe. Something suggesting he was subject to, I don’t know, some kind of outside influence. Going down his brother’s path.”

  “Not at all. His grades were fine. He wasn’t an ‘A’ student or anything like that, but he was no slouch. There were no signs of a senior slump.” She sighed. “Not like a lot of the kids in his class. He was upset after his brother left town, of course. I talked to him briefly a few times. Barbara would know more of the details, but I can’t really say I noticed a big change.”


  “Barbara Mendoza. One of our counselors. She worked closely with Abdi. She helped him apply to Ohio State, and look for scholarships. She has—”


  “She has a different opinion, I guess. I believe she told the FBI it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that Abdi could have, well, turned.”

  “Sounds like you disagree.”

  “I wouldn’t say that. She knew him much better. I’m not in a position to second-guess her. She’s a veteran counselor.”

  “Is she around?”

  “She’s off for the summer.”

  “Is it possible to speak with her?”

  “I’m not sure. I suppose I could ask. She was very upset when this happened. Still is. I think she—”

  I waited while she gathered her thoughts. She said, “It’s almost as if she took it personally. After all the time she spent with him.”

  “She feels betrayed?”

  “Something like that.”

  “I think she’d be good to talk to. If you could reach out to her, maybe, let her know my interest. That I’m trying to help. Maybe explain I’m an OK guy. That I read books from time to time.”

  “There’s no need to be rude, Mr.”—she put her index finger on my card and raised a pair of readers onto her eyes—“Mr. Hayes.”

  “My apologies. I was aiming for impertinent. And call me Andy.”

  Her face reddened again, but not from embarrassment this time. “Maybe you’re accustomed to this kind of thing, Mr. Hayes. In your line of work.” Her tone implying septic tank cleaning might be a step up in the world. “But this has been utterly traumatic for us. Especially now, after Hassan, and happening right at the end of the school year.”

  “I can imagine.”

  “I doubt it.”

  “I’m sorry you feel that way. So. The counselor?”

  “I’ll see what I can do.”

  “Thank you.”

  When I didn’t go on, she said, “Was there anything else?”

  “Could you ask her now? The sooner I can get some answers, the better.”


  “No time like the present.”

  “And if I say no?”

  “That’s your prerogative. I’ll probably find her anyway. But I was hoping we could, you know, collaborate.”

  “Is that so?”

  I realized I was folding my arms against my chest like a kid challenging detention. I unfolded them and put my hands in my lap instead. “It is, as a matter of fact.”

  She looked at me for a long moment before standing up from her desk and marching into the outer office. I heard her conferring with the no-nonsense secretary. I looked around Paulus’s office. Where one might expect framed diplomas hung a couple of George Bellows prints I recognized from the art museum. A nice touch. Interspersed with the plants on the office bookshelves were plaques and photographs and several representations of people on rearing horses, from plast
ic statuettes to yellow-and-white pennants. It came to me after a second: I was sitting in the home of the Maple Ridge Riders. Some framed photos of grown-up looking kids I took to be hers sat next to the mascot displays—no husband in the pictures, I noticed. I’m observant that way.

  “I left a voicemail,” Paulus said, reentering the office. “I explained it was important. I can let you know when she gets back to me.”

  “Thank you. One other thing.”

  A sigh. “Yes?”

  “Did Abdi have a lot of friends?”

  “What do you mean?”

  “Just that. Was he popular?”

  “Very, as a matter of fact. It was part of his charm. A joker, but not obnoxious. He had an easygoing way about him that naturally attracted people.”

  Like Islamic State recruiters? I thought. “Any particular students I should talk to?”

  “There might be a couple.” She sighed again. “I could get you some names.”

  “And numbers?”

  “I’m not sure I can do that.”

  “I’m thinking you can do anything you want. You’re the principal, right? We’re not talking missed homework here, Helene. It’s life or death.”

  “It’s Ms. Paulus, and thank you for that insight. It hadn’t occurred to me. Is there anything else you want from us, as long as you’ve barged in here like this? Or is that just how private detectives operate?”

  “I’m a private investigator,” I corrected her. “And under normal circumstances I would have waited for you under a streetlamp while the mist curled around my iron jaw and the dark night fell like a blanket over a grave. I figured I’d mix it up a bit.”

  “I think we’re done here,” she said, rising again. This time she waited for me to do the same. I walked into the main office and bided my time examining the other inspirational posters on the walls while she gave the secretary instructions in a curt voice to pull the files of a couple students. The secretary handed me the names on a piece of Maple Ridge stationery, glaring as if I was the one who’d personally talked Abdi into joining a terrorist front.


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