The Third Brother

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The Third Brother Page 8

by Andrew Welsh-Huggins

  Over the years Derwent had run-ins with local sheriff’s deputies sent to evict him from various farmers’ and timber companies’ properties east and southeast of Columbus. Things got ugly a couple of times. So ugly that on one occasion Derwent ended up in the county jail on charges of assaulting a peace officer. Sitting behind bars for a month, he found himself at the mercy of a bunch of black gang members from Columbus being housed by the feds ahead of a racketeering trial. When those guys weren’t picking on Derwent, he took it from the good ol’ boy white jail deputies, who might not have liked black gangbangers much but liked long-haired semicerebral nature lovers who cold-cocked one of their own even less. Derwent ultimately pleaded to a reduced disorderly conduct charge, paid a fine, and got sent packing with time served. But if that was the end of his time in jail, it was the beginning of a deep and abiding hatred for cops, judges, jailers, prosecutors, people with brown skin, and pretty much everyone in between.

  It was around that time, the abstract went on, that Derwent started cooking up his whole Third Brother origin story. Eventually he met a drug addict named Gloria as pissed off at the cops as him, with an equally thin grasp of biblical history, got her sober, married her, and had the two sons. His main source of income in those days may or may not have involved gold bars lifted during a never-solved Brink’s truck robbery on the east side of Columbus. Over the years, he inculcated his boys with the same fire for civil disobedience in the name of Seth, and together they spread the word in little towns up and down the eastern half of the state, where some of their ideological descendants might very well include the two numb-nuts who ruined my perfectly good afternoon of stalking the wild adulterer. As McQuillen had already explained, Derwent père died in the garage explosion two days after the car bombing, and his sons were enjoying extended stays in secure public housing. The report concluded with the speculation of out-of-wedlock heirs, including the unknown girl who died in labor in the woods with her baby.

  It made for good reading, even if I was getting a little far afield from the more important task at hand: finding Abdi Mohamed. I was reminded of this fact when my Tom Petty ringtone sounded again. I didn’t recognize the number. The brusque tone was more familiar.

  “You went to see Barbara Mendoza. After I specifically asked you not to.”

  Helene Paulus. And she wasn’t using her indoors voice.

  “Hang on. You said you would ask her, and she declined, through you. Fair enough. I decided to follow up on my own, as I suggested I might. I’m not working for either of you.”

  “I told you how upset she was—”

  “And I believed you. And I saw it firsthand once I got there. Which is why I left after a minute or two.”

  “But why go against my wishes?”

  I tried to keep the frustration out of my voice. “My job isn’t to placate one of your employees, Ms. Paulus. It’s to find Abdi Mohamed. Find him and help him, if he’s in danger, or find out where he is in hopes of stopping him if he means harm to others.”

  “But still—”

  “But still nothing. I’m not apologizing for doing my job. And here’s the thing. I left when she asked me to. I can promise you the feds didn’t offer her the same courtesy. And won’t in the future, when they presumably circle back to her again. And again.”

  “Maybe if you’d told me you were going to do that, I could have—”

  “Could have warned her?”

  “No! I don’t know what, but . . . It’s just that she’s so upset again.”

  “I’m sorry about that. I really am. But I’m not in the habit of telling someone I talk to what I plan to do next.”

  “That’s obvious.”

  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

  “You have a history of doing what you please, no matter how it affects people. Don’t you?”

  I thought of what Cohen said. Like a three-legged bull in a china shop with narrow aisles. “Maybe. But most of the time they’ve invited me into their lives. And most of the time they’re better off afterward than when I started.”

  “Better? Like that reporter you got killed?”

  That stopped me for a second. I took a breath to compose myself. I said, “Is that what this is about? If you knew anything about that case, you’d see—”

  “See what? That you fell down on the job?”

  The death of investigative journalist Lee Hershey, murdered in the Ohio Statehouse when I was supposed to be protecting him, was a low point in my professional life, to be sure. My whole life, when it came down to it. I wasn’t proud of the circumstances that led to that awful event. But it was useless to explain to Helene Paulus—or anyone else, as I’d learned over the years—that it wasn’t entirely my fault.

  “At least I don’t spend my life hanging inspirational posters on my office door,” I said. “Some of us actually go out and get shit done, even if it isn’t always pretty. What’s that old saying? Those who can, do, those who can’t—”

  “How dare you. Here I am trying to help, and the best you can do is insult me and my profession?”

  “Help would involve giving me something I can use. Like the cooperation of Barbara Mendoza. Not calling me up with holier-than-thou speeches.”

  “You won’t have to worry about that in the future. I can assure you.”

  “About what?”

  “About me calling you,” she said as she disconnected.


  I SET THE PHONE FACE DOWN ON THE table, stood up, and walked up and down the restaurant. I sat back down, rubbed my face with my hands, and groaned the way I do when I’m hung over or paying Hopalong’s vet bill. I stared at Mc-Quillen’s PDF. That conversation had been low, even by my standards. Paulus was right—insulting educators? I lowered my head in shame. I thought of my mother, a high school math teacher for nearly thirty years. What was I thinking?

  I didn’t have time to answer that question. My phone rang again. It was Crystal, ex-wife no. 2. Joe’s mom. I sighed. I glanced outside to see if storm clouds were gathering.

  “I’m sorry to ask this,” she said. “I know it’s last minute. And it’s not your night. But any chance you could pick up Joe, bring him home? We’re in a bit of a bind. One of the cars is in the garage.”

  “Can’t Bob do it?”

  “His practice is on the other end of town. You know that. It’ll be another couple hours before he can get there. Listen, never mind. Forget I asked—”

  “It’s fine.” Pushing this kind of favor onto my ex’s husband, who I didn’t like that much anyway, was the last thing I wanted to do. This was my son we were talking about. “Where is he?”

  “You’re sure?”

  “I said yes.”

  “OK. I really appreciate it. Anyway, he’s at Anne’s. He and Amelia were doing something.”


  “That’s right. Is that a problem? I thought you two were still friends.”

  “Sure. Best buddies. And it’s not a problem. I’ll be right there.”

  “Great. Thanks again.”

  Problem, I thought, hanging up.

  TWENTY MINUTES LATER I knocked on the door of Anne’s half-a-duplex on Crestview in Clintonville north of campus. It was a nice neighborhood filled with trees, the houses a collection of brightly colored cottages and side-by-side rentals and Dutch colonials, porches full of plants and flowers and wind chimes. Once upon a time I’d imagined living there. In this very apartment, in fact. Right around the time I’d cut a deal with Anne’s landlord, who happened to be Bonnie Deckard’s father, to trim the rent Anne would pay in exchange for a job I did for him. The deal didn’t include me, initially, but I’d harbored fantasies—

  “Help you?”

  A man I didn’t recognize was standing in the doorway.

  “I’m here for Joe. Is, ah, Anne around?”

  “Oh,” he said, puzzled. “Sure. Hang on.” He retreated into the house and called Anne’s name. After a minute or so she appeared.

p; “What are you doing here?”

  “Didn’t Crystal tell you? She asked me to get Joe. She said he was over here. Playing with Amelia?”

  “No. I mean, yes, he’s here. But no, she didn’t say anything. Last I knew she or Bob was going to pick him up.”

  “Well, sorry about that. How does it feel?”

  “How does what feel?”

  “You’ve been Crystal-ed. First time, I take it?”

  “That’s not a very nice thing to say.”

  “It wasn’t a very nice thing of her to do. Not to put you on the spot or anything, but any chance you mentioned to her that, ah”—I hesitated, stumbling for words—“that your boyfriend was here today?”

  “I don’t think that’s any of your business. I . . . Let me get Joe.” She turned and headed back inside. A moment later she stopped in the front hall. “Come in,” she said impatiently. To my relief, she didn’t ask about my eye. Probably because she’d seen worse when we were dating.

  I went in. The living room was filled with the same comfortable clutter of books and newspapers and magazines that I remembered from days gone by. Anne read the way other people did things like eating or breathing. I picked up a book on top of a pile on the coffee table and examined the cover.

  “That’s a good one.” The boyfriend, standing awkwardly at the far end of the room. “Have you read it?”

  “Yes.” I took a breath—there was no point in forestalling it. “I’m, ah, Andy.” I switched the book to my left hand and took a couple steps in his direction. “Andy Hayes.”

  “Ben Layton,” he said eagerly. He walked over and shook my hand. Once again I expected cold fish—strongly desired it, this time—and once again was disappointed. Not longshoreman, but hardly shy and retiring either. He was thin, thinner than me, anyway, with a runner’s physique I suspected was part of the attraction for Anne, who when she wasn’t reading was always training for one race or another. Sandy hair starting to thin, glasses, a sharp nose and friendly eyes. A guy who looked like he could save you a lot of money on your taxes and talk Kurosawa movies with you in the next breath. I already disliked him.

  “Sorry to barge in like this. Signals got crossed, I guess.”

  “Not a problem. It’s nice to meet you. Anne’s told me a lot about you.”

  “She has?”

  “Well—the things you’ve done. I mean, I’ve read stuff, too.” He trailed off. I imagined him and Helene Paulus trading notes.

  “Don’t believe everything you read.”

  “Of course not,” he said, nervously. “I only meant—”

  “Do you live nearby?”

  “Couple streets over. We, I mean, Anne and I, we go to the same, we’re in a running group together. Meets at Park of Roses every Saturday.”

  “Sounds fun.”

  An awkward silence descended. We glanced around the room, staring at anything but the other person, like guys trying to fit in at a baby shower knowing full well the big game is on.


  “Yes?” I said, too quickly.

  “I don’t know if Anne mentioned, but I invited her and Amelia downtown for Red, White & Boom. My office is right near Broad and High. We’re going to hang out there beforehand, then walk down and see the show. Everybody’s welcome back up afterward to wait out the traffic.”

  “Sounds fun,” I said, and mostly meant it.

  “The thing is, Joe’s welcome to join us. You too, if you’re interested.”

  “Thanks. That’s a kind offer.”

  The annoying thing? It really was. The city’s annual fireworks display, one of the largest in the Midwest, is an unrivaled twenty-minute spectacle on the banks of the Scioto River. The downside is you share the view with four hundred thousand other people standing elbow to elbow on the streets. After the brief window of ooh-ing and ah-ing ends, it typically takes two or more hours sitting in your car while you try to get home. One year we’d ridden bikes from my German Village house and had been back and eating ice cream in less than half an hour. I’d been meaning to suggest that the boys and I consider that again. But I realized now I’d left it too late—the holiday was just a few days away. And I was going to guess that sitting in an air-conditioned conference room beat riding bikes on crowded city streets by a Roman candle or three.

  “It would be great if you could make it. I mean it,” Layton said.

  “Thanks. It’s—”


  Anne’s daughter ran into the room. To my surprise she wrapped her arms around my waist as if I were a favorite uncle dropping by for a couple of days instead of the ex-boyfriend on the outs. Joe entered behind her but hung back a bit, his nose in a book.

  “I miss you,” Amelia said.

  “I, ah, miss you too,” I said, avoiding Layton’s eyes.

  Anne entered the room. “Are you reading that too?”

  “I’m sorry?” I said, relieved as Amelia disengaged herself and flopped onto the couch.

  “Ready Player One,” Anne said, pointing to the book I’d picked up from her coffee table.

  I explained I’d seen it as I came inside a couple minutes earlier.

  “It’s set in Columbus, you know. I’m going to teach it next year.” Anne specialized in science fiction novels and films. Her first book, on women sci-fi writers, was coming out in a couple of months.

  “Ben recommended it,” she said warmly, glancing at her boyfriend.

  “What a coincidence. So did I.”

  “You did? To whom?”

  “To you.”

  “No you didn’t.”

  “Sure I did. I offered to buy you a copy, at the Book Loft. Signed copy, on sale.”

  “You must be mistaken, Andy. I don’t remember that at all.”

  “I remember it like it was yesterday. You said, ‘I’d love to, but I’m reading five other things and trying to finish my syllabus.’ I asked if you were sure. I said I’d heard it was pretty good and kind of a natural, since it was set here.”

  I glanced at Layton. He wore the expression of a man who would have flung himself headfirst into a quicksand pit that very second if the option magically availed itself. And not even take his glasses off first.

  “Andy,” Anne said. “I really don’t—”

  “Joe, are you ready?” I said to my son.

  “Do I have to go?”

  “Yes. Your mom needs you home.”


  “You’ll have to ask her.”

  “Why didn’t my dad come? Why are you here?”

  I could almost taste the sand as I gritted my teeth. Joe had been just young enough when Crystal and I split and she hooked up with her current husband that Bob was also “Dad” to Joe. Look who has two daddies. Though I knew it was the best outcome for Joe, the habit never ceased to bother me, especially since my older son, Mike, called his stepfather “Steve.”

  “Your mom asked and I was happy to do her a favor.”

  We said our goodbyes and walked outside. Joe climbed into the van. I was headed around to the driver’s side when I heard my name called. Anne walked down her porch steps, holding Ready Player One.

  “Why did you say you recommended this to me? To get under Ben’s skin? There’s no reason to be petty, just because I’m with someone else.”

  “I’m not being petty. I said it because it’s the truth. It’s not my problem if you don’t remember.”

  “I wouldn’t forget something like that.”

  I looked at her. She was angry, which meant the long scar on her cheek stood out against her pale skin; the Chile-shaped wound a souvenir from her murderous late husband, inflicted just before stabbing himself to death. I was sorry she was upset. But I was too.

  “He seems like a nice guy. He’s obviously got good taste in women. And good taste in books, too. But for the record, so did I. Which is why I recommended you read that.”


  “He was also kind enough to invite me to Red, White & Boom. I’ll
check with Crystal about Joe going. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

  “How about for you?”

  “How about for me what?”

  “You, coming with us to see the fireworks?”

  “Have to check my calendar,” I said, getting in the van. I shut the door and drove slowly up the street. As I signaled to turn at the next corner, I looked in my rearview mirror. Anne was still on the sidewalk, watching us go.


  EARLY THE NEXT MORNING I JOGGED UP Mohawk to Sycamore, watching my footing on the brick streets as I ran, cut over to Third, and headed north. As I passed the Book Loft I looked at my reflection in the windows, reviewing the scene at Anne’s the day before. I gave it two thumbs down. It was just six but it was summer and light out. The sidewalks were crowded with dog walkers and other joggers. At Town I went left and ran across Columbus Commons, skirting a few other early morning types wandering on the lawn and gravel paths that ran up to the edge of several city blocks of luxury apartments. Bounding up the stairs to High Street I passed a couple power walkers and a trio hunting Pokemon Go characters. Maybe I should enlist them in finding Abdi.

  At High I turned right and ran through downtown. Across the street the limestone exterior and Greek revival columns of the Statehouse glowed softly in the humid air as the shadows lightened. I tried not to think about the reporter who died there. I crossed Broad, and then turned left at Long, jogged a little farther, and came to a stop in front of the downtown Y. There was a morning aerobics class I was trying out. It was a co-ed mix of type A lawyers and bankers who might have shared three ounces of body fat between them. I ran home much more slowly.

  After twenty minutes of sit-ups, push-ups, and pull-ups, I showered, grabbed a banana and the leash, and set out for Schiller Park with Hopalong. As usual, we hung out with the other dog walkers who gathered on the lawn just down from the Shakespeare in the Park stage. It would have been a good place to meet women if I were fifteen years younger and understood Snapchat. Most of the time I talked with the two Kevins while Hopalong nosed back and forth with their pugs. After the dogs lost interest in each other I bid the Kevins a good day and walked back up the street to my house at 837 Mohawk.


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