Chapter 49: Cataract
"What do you think happened, Julius?" Desmond snapped with a grumpy scowl that seemed foreign on his either-calm-or-sad face. I knew he was trying to get me to drop it, but I decided not to.
"C'mon, Des," I groaned, sitting down next to him on the couch. "You've been doing so well."
He stared at the muted television, pretending to ignore me.
I kept pushing, grabbing his mutilated arm to get his attention. "Desmond."
He shoved me off. "Just shut up, okay? I'm fine now."
I was about to keep trying to get him to talk to me, but my phone rang from across the room and I flinched. I ignored the look my brother gave me and went over to answer it. Ever since the connections between three of my four murders had been made, I'd been on-edge. I'd calmed down a bit because no news on the story had been discussed lately – but I knew that meant next to nothing. There was a chain of people who could easily shut the press up while they investigated quietly.
"Hello?" I said into the phone.
Bridget sniffled and said in a nasally voice, "Hey. Sorry, I'm still too sick to leave my goddamn bed, so you guys will have to go without me. If I drink and gamble in the state I'm in, you'll be taking me home in an ambulance."
"Is Mikey still coming?"
She said that he was, but he was running late.
I sighed. "Okay. Feel better, then," I said before hanging up.
Desmond guessed: "Bridget's not coming?"
I shook my head. "Still sick."
"That sucks." After a moment he said, "Does this mean we don't have to go at all now? She's the only one that really wanted to."
I scoffed. "I don't know, I think it could be... fun."
Desmond rolled his eyes and stood up to start cleaning up the painting stuff he'd left out all day. He'd claimed that he was "going to finish later" but had predictably never gotten around to it. "I hate casinos. I suck at card games."
"There's slots and roulette and other stuff too." I chuckled and added, "And how do you know you hate casinos? You've never been to one."
He gave me a look. "It's the idea I don't like. I'm already in debt as it is, why make it worse?"
"Because if you know what you're doing, you can get out of some of that debt. Plus Mikey's gotta make some money for the wedding still."
Desmond just shook his head and screwed the caps back onto his tubes of paint. "But I don't know what I'm doing."
I laughed. "Don't let the dealer hear you say that."
He suddenly stopped short, letting a handful of paintbrushes fall to the floor with a clatter. His eyes met mine and a mixture of embarrassment and guilt poured out of them.
"What's wrong?" I said warily.
Des let out a dead laugh and bent down to pick up the brushes. "Nothing, just... déjà-vu."
I raised an eyebrow and went to retrieve one of the brushes that had rolled under the couch. "What do you mean?"
He stood back up. "What you said. 'Don't let the dealer hear you say that'."
I was still confused, so he sighed and explained what he meant in a casual tone.
"Remember when I was, uh, y'know," he swallowed and blushed. "Into meth?"
"Yeah," I said with a hint of fear in my voice, wondering very intensely where this was going and not liking it in the slightest.
He shook his head to himself. "The first time I went to buy – Seth, from work, he was setting me up with his dealer – I was y'know, really afraid." I was surprised at how calm he was, talking about this for the first time in years. "We were waiting for him to show up and I said to Seth, 'How do I know if he's screwing me over? I don't know how these things are supposed to work' – or something like that. And he told me to shut up and said, 'Don't let the dealer hear you say that'."
I didn't know what to say.
"It just reminded me of that, that's all."
I nodded. We stood there in a pensive silence before I finally said, "Maybe we shouldn't go after all."
Desmond laughed. "I'm fine, I think I can handle it."
I wasn't so sure, but he insisted that we should go if Mikey and I wanted to. "Alright," I said eventually.
Mikey showed up a half hour later and we all left for the night, loading our bags into the car and preparing to gamble and spend the night in a hotel for the first time ever, and to have fun without Bridget for the first time in what felt like forever. Since she and Mikey had gotten engaged it was like the rest of us couldn't hang out without it feeling like something was missing. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing – or a foreign thing, as I'd always felt the same in being apart from Desmond – but it was intriguing to see how our group dynamic had changed while staying the same all at once.
The night was interesting. Despite Mikey's previous insistence that he'd learned to count cards in order to get the money for the wedding's deposit (which he was growing more and more desperately worried about paying as the due date came closer), he lost everything within the first two hours at the table. Desmond broke even at poker and won a couple hundred dollars at twenty-one. To my absolute surprise, I won nearly two grand over the course of the night – but ended up giving half to Mikey to partially make up for his losses. He was depressed all the way back to the hotel just the same.
To make up for all the money he lost, Mikey begged me to give him some overtime the following Monday. I agreed, but made him the deal that, when I left two hours before him, I got to take the car.
"See you tomorrow," I said to Mikey and Akeem, who tended to stay late with us just to keep us company.
Akeem said, "I'm actually planning on calling in sick tomorrow, boss."
I rolled my eyes. "Goodbye."
"Oh, and I need the next five Fridays in a row off for a religious thing!"
I just gave him a tired, half-amused smile and headed for the elevator. I was uncharacteristically exhausted, mostly because I was in and out of stressful Payroll meetings all day. So I guess I didn't notice when a car near mine in the parking lot started at the exact moment that mine did.
It took me until I was a block away from the apartment building. I looked in my rear-view mirror and saw the car – a plain, black mid-size vehicle – and its driver. He locked eyes with me for a second and I didn't know what it was, but I was suddenly very nervous.
It passed a second later, and I pulled into my apartment's parking garage and went upstairs.
I only started seriously freaking out when I noticed the same car with the same driver on the way over to Desmond's work to pick him up later in the week.
"I don't know how he can keep taking these double shifts every day," Mikey said, barely able to keep his own eyes open after working late himself. "I'm dead tired from working two hours' overtime and he's been up since five!"
I agreed, checked my mirror and turned into the parking lot to wait for him. I had to do a double-take when I could've sworn I saw the same black car from the other day pull right in behind me and park a few spaces away from me. I nearly jumped out of the car in apprehensive frustration, but with Mikey right there, I had to choke it down.
Who the hell was this guy? Was he really following me, or was I just paranoid? It definitely wasn't a hallucination, I told myself when I checked the licence plate number. Same as last time. Maybe it was just a coincidence.
I snapped back to reality. I hadn't even noticed when my brother had gotten in the backseat.
"S-sorry," I said, starting up the car. "How was work, Desmond?"
He groaned. "Endless."
"You need to tell your boss to go fuck himself next time he wants you to work all day like that," Mikey advised. They started arguing about it, but I was too busy trying to remember how to drive. It was hard enough backing out of a parking spot without trying to do so while staring at someone halfway across the lot.
My heart only started pounding harder when I parked outside of Mikey's apartment building to let him out and saw the car again. The driver definitely hadn't anticipated me stopping – so he stopped a few car lengths in front of me, trying to look inconspicuous about it. I absently said goodbye to Mikey as he got out and didn't take my eye off of my follower.
I was numb the entire drive home, so noticeably that Des commented on it: "Are you okay? You don't seem like yourself."
I just nodded.
"Are you high?" he asked without a hint of sarcasm.
I snorted. "I just got off work too, Des, I'm not high."
He just put up his hands in defense. "I just think you're acting weird."
I managed to ignore this truth all the way home, just watching the black car follow me, letting a few cars between the two of us. I hoped beyond hope that this wasn't an indicator that they'd made progress in the murder investigation. But I knew I had to make sure. I had to figure out who this guy is or I would drive myself insane.
I didn't have a lot of time to think about it over the next few days, though. Life suddenly got very hectic when, the next morning before work, Desmond informed me that he'd just been given the green light from the directors of the art gallery on Ninth Avenue to host his very own art show in the city. And he was terrified.
"How in the hell can I possibly put this together?" he wondered desperately over breakfast, staring wide-eyed into his coffee. "This is going to be a train wreck."
I reassured him that all of us would help him however we could, but he didn't seem to believe that this could work out.
We spent the weekend making preparations for the show the following Tuesday – renting the space, hiring a caterer (which we actually deferred to Bridget because we had no idea what we were doing, followed by her accusing us of being sexist but accepting the job nonetheless) and sending out snobby, too-fancy invitations to everyone in the art community that Desmond had ever heard of.
"Haven't you been looking forward to this forever?" Mikey said to my nearly-hyperventilating brother as we crunched numbers late Sunday night over a beer.
Desmond swallowed and stared at the offending computer screen. "Yeah, but... Jesus, this is going to make me so poor." Mikey shut the laptop and glared at him.
"We'll make it work."
He just nodded and rubbed his tired eyes with his hands.
I was glad that the show was only a few days away, because if it had dragged on any longer, Desmond would've broken down from the sudden stress and pressure.
Despite his anxiety about the planning of the show, he seemed completely at ease about the art side of it, and this surprised me. When I asked him about it, he said that he knew he was good enough to have a show, but not organized enough to get it all together. I was speechless at this strikingly rare instance of semi-self-confidence.
We'd all booked Tuesday off of work to help him set everything up and to calm him down throughout the course of the very busy day. I had to dip out for an important meeting after lunch, but when I came back, it seemed that everything was fine. Des was wearing a suit for the first time since Mr. Lincoln's funeral. Even in the most formal of settings, he would insist on wearing chinos and t-shirts. But not today.
With ten minutes until the show began, the five of us stood in front of Desmond's "centerpiece". It was a massive canvas that occupied the entirety of the wall it was hung on. It wasn't the best thing I'd seen of his, in my opinion, but it was definitely the piece that had taken him the longest. It was a rushing waterfall, crashing into a sea of sharply blue water. White, misty foam surrounded the bottom of the chute, drifting mysteriously across the entire canvas as if the viewer were right in the middle of the scene.
"Is this oil?" Bridget asked, running her fingers gracefully across the painting.
Desmond said that it was. I remembered this fact distinctly because he'd never liked painting with oils before but had wanted to give it a try. After many frustrated hours of trying to manipulate the difficult medium and two weeks of pretending the painting had never existed and working on other things, he'd come around to the idea of finishing it up. It had taken him absolutely forever to figure out a method that worked for him, and it was unlike anything I'd ever seen. It was something of a classical painting – it looked almost photorealistic. But there was something that made it different, something that made it more than just a painting.
I shook it off, but I found myself lingering around the waterfall painting all night.
"How much is that one going for?" Akeem asked me a few hours into the evening. He put on his most mocking face, held his flute of champagne with an arrogantly limp wrist and stuck his nose in the air.
I laughed and checked the small plate next to the painting. "Four grand. Wow."
"It would look magnificent in my living room, right between the van Gogh and the Renoir."
I was about to say something, but two women in cocktail dresses had come over to look at the painting, so we shut up for a moment.
One of them, with long, blonde hair and an obnoxious voice, turned to the other. "This is remarkable." I couldn't tell what her credentials were or why she was here, but she started talking about it in a way that made me believe that she knew what she was talking about. I just watched.
The other, a short, black woman agreed and spewed art-talk as well. "What's it called?" she suddenly asked me, somehow sensing that I wasn't a buyer.
I almost laughed, having no idea what it was called. I probably should have, I realized.
Luckily, Akeem knew. "Cataract," he told them.
The women thanked him and left to go look at something else. He said, "Who gives a shit what it's called? Does it make it any better? Any worse?"
I shrugged and said that I didn't know.
I walked around a little, thoroughly pitying Desmond at some of the comments I overheard people making. Some of them, I could tell, came from people who had never so much as taken an art class in school, and it didn't bother me that they thought that "the mountains look a little weird". It was the criticisms, the truly justified responses by the scholars in the room that disturbed me the most, because, once I looked at the piece again, I realized that they were right. The colours weren't harmonious enough; the reds stood out too much to be realistic.
Many people, on the other hand, were very impressed by Des' work. A very old man with glasses sauntered around the gallery with a few other elderly men, discussing the paintings with them as though they were analysing a long-lost Shakespeare tragedy. The man with the glasses seemed to be a very important, very highly-respected artist, and had some encouraging things to say about nearly every painting.
When I finally met up with my brother in front of the table of deviled eggs and mini sandwiches, he had a bright grin on his face, and it wasn't from the champagne.
"It sold!" he announced.
My eyes widened. "Cataract?"
"That's awesome!" I said, patting him on the back. "Four thousand. That'll finish off the rest of the hospital bills from last year."
Mikey and Bridget came over, holding hands and smiling. "Guess what?"
"What?" said Desmond.
"Three more paintings just sold. The forest ones over by the entrance," Mikey said. He gave Des a high-five.
My brother didn't stop smiling the whole evening, and when the art dealer got back to Desmond with the numbers at the end of the night, I thought he might have a heart attack and die of cheerfulness. I'd never seen him so happy.
We'd all fallen asleep in the car while we waited for the caterers to leave and for the art dealer to lock up the gallery for the night. I jumped awake when the car door closed and Desmond said loudly, "Eleven thousand, four-hundred and fifty dollars."
When the other three stirred he repeated the figure and everyone cheered and congratulated him, everyone bubbling and glowing. He pulled out the transaction receipts and showed them off. "Only five paintings didn't sell. Out of twenty, that's not bad."
Bridget scoffed. "'Not bad'? That's fucking amazing, Desmond! God, I'm so proud of you!"
He blushed. "Thanks. I couldn't have done it without you guys."
We talked a bit more and then I started the car to take everyone home. We debated going to a bar to celebrate, but it was nearly midnight and we were too exhausted already.
And when I saw the car this time – the last one in the parking lot accept ours – I nearly slammed on the brake. I wanted to jump out of the vehicle, stomp over to this fucking stalker's car and pull him out through the window by his throat.
It was too dark to catch his eye this time. But I knew something had to be done. I was done letting myself be followed.
Desmond decided to give some of his money from the art show to Mikey and Bridget for their wedding – after paying off all the debt he'd accumulated over the last few years and investing in a massive slab of some clay-like rock to do a sculpture out of. I'd originally questioned whether this was a good idea, seeing as how it was literally a seven-hundred dollar hunk of stone and he'd never done a sculpture in his life, but Des assured me that he would get more than five times what he paid for it.
Meanwhile, I knew that I had to shake whoever was shadowing me, and quickly. It wasn't even just the fact that I was clearly under suspicion for murder (though it may have been the paranoia talking, I admitted), but the fact that someone was watching me, just waiting for me to screw up. And I knew I couldn't take the chance of that happening. I was going to tail the person tailing me.
I waited until Wednesday before I couldn't stand it anymore and I quickly – maybe too quickly – came up with a plan.
I wasn't sure that he would follow me into, say, a restaurant, just to keep an eye on me, but when all of us from East Athena met up at a rather classy restaurant for dinner after work, my luck finally began to turn around.
The others chatted beside me – Tom had just gotten laid off and was looking for a job, Owen and his girlfriend had broken up and Zach's wife had just found out that she's pregnant and expecting a boy in February – but it mostly went in one ear and out the other.
I was looking at my shadow out of the corner of my eye, finally getting a good look at him for the first time.
He was middle-aged, maybe a bit on the young side. He was serious-looking, so much so that it made me question whether he really was working for the cops or for an investigator: he was too suspicious. Even someone without my level of intelligence and observational skills would notice him. He stuck out like a sore thumb.
Maybe it was just me, though. Because, really, other than his severe expression, he did look mostly normal, or at least as normal as one could look while dining in a restaurant alone. While I was positive that it was him, I would've doubted myself if I hadn't recognized his dark, piercing eyes, because he didn't seem to look at me the entire evening.
As we finished eating, I tried to keep my heart from burning as I set my plan swiftly into action. I had to be quick.
"Oh, shit, I left my wallet in the car," I said to my friends as we all got ready to leave. I didn't wait for them to respond as I added, "I'll be right back," and headed outside without looking at anyone and without thinking twice.
As soon as I stepped into the brisk night air, I nearly ran for the black car I knew all too well. I tried the driver's and passenger's doors, but they were, predictably, locked. My eyes flew to the restaurant door when it opened again, but it wasn't him. I was safe.
I thought quickly and hurried to find something, anything that could give me a clue. I'd already tried running the licence plate, but it was more difficult than it sounded.
It was dark, but I tried looking through the windows anyway. My gaze ghosted across the driver's seat, console, passenger seat...
There. A briefcase and pair of gloves sat on the seat, innocently enough. Not-so-innocently was the badge that laid on top of them. Though I couldn't make out the name, I distinctly noticed three large letters: FBI.
I couldn't breathe. I had to get away from the car before someone saw me. I had to stop him. I couldn't let him live, no matter what the cost.
Oh my God. I was so fucked. This was terrible.
I somehow managed to keep it together enough to go back into the restaurant and pay the bill with the other four and leave, but my anxiety didn't go unnoticed by Mikey.
"You okay, Julius?" he said mildly as we headed for the car. He waved goodbye to Tom once more and he got into his pickup truck across the parking lot.
I just nodded, but didn't protest when he went for the driver's seat. I didn't trust myself to drive, not when a fucking FBI agent was just a few feet behind me and nothing that a sharp slam on the brakes couldn't fix.
It took me a few hours of thinking silently in my room to decide the best way to kill this guy. It was clear that cyanide was no longer an option. And now that I was under suspicion and having a panic attack every five minutes, I could rule out anything involving getting up close and personal like I had done with Gordie.
I also had to consider how in the hell I was going to get the guy out of his car long enough to do it – I'd decided not to try and get him in an accident because it would be too hard to do but all too easy to get caught or even killed myself.
I knew it was risky, but in the end I decided just to switch poisons. Even more risky was the one I went with, aconitine. It can cause heart attacks, but only in rather high doses. But as I soon found after looking up drugs all night, it was probably my best option.
Getting it was another story altogether. Though I'd originally gotten my cyanide on the internet, I couldn't find aconitine anywhere online. It took me nearly a week to forge a passable set of identification that would allow me to buy it, and another two days to find a scientific supply in the state of New York that wouldn't report the purchase to the government automatically.
The process dragged on impossibly longer than any other kill had. I knew it was just the stress of needing to getting this asshole off my back that made it feel more tedious, but each time I met his eyes in my rear-view mirror, I felt my heart skip a beat in fear, and I knew that this had to be done as fast as possible.
When I finally acquired the aconitine, I was more paranoid than ever due to the unforeseen amount of paperwork I'd had to fill out to get it from the supplier. Of course, everything I'd written on the forms was bullshit and my ID was so well-forged they didn't check anything too thoroughly, but I was still more worried than I'd been in a long, long time.
And the more I thought, the more I was a wreck. What if it just makes me more of a suspect? What if I get arrested? I'd be fucked, completely out of options. I didn't even have a lawyer. But I couldn't let him hang around long enough for them to find something. And if they realized that it was me who'd killed Gordie, too... No. I had to do this. Aconitine was hard to find in autopsies, and I was sure that the shadow was investigating more than one person at a time – he hadn't been following me twenty-four/seven, I'd noticed.
I'd watched for him while I'd been waiting to get the poison to figure out which days he followed other suspects, but I found no pattern, so I would just have to be prepared at all times. And that certainly didn't help my anxiety.
It ended up being months before I found the opportunity to kill him. Each day was agony for me, just knowing he was still there. And I couldn't stop wondering why it had been so long. The worst part was that everyone had begun to notice my change in personality, particularly my brother, who had taken to asking me if I was okay every ten minutes and had petitioned Mikey and Bridget to try and get it out of me, "to find out what's up". I stopped doing things outside of work because I was too afraid of freaking out in front of other people. I was growing more and more terrified of getting caught, or even worse, confessing in a moment of panic.
When the day finally came in mid-March, I was almost relieved to finally see the opportunity that had been passing me by for so many weeks. How many times had I seen my follower, on my way to work, sucking back a paper cup of coffee in the mirror? I was surprised that I hadn't thought of it before.
I woke up extremely early, disguised myself as much as possible and left quietly, poison in my pocket as usual. I brought my mom's mirror today because, honestly, I knew I would need something to calm me down after this particular murder. In fact, I was rather worried that I might completely lose it afterwards. I did my best to keep my cool, but it was becoming more and more of a useless struggle.
I closed my eyes tight for a few moments before gripping the steering wheel and starting the car. He usually parked on Block Street to wait for me on my way to the office and then follow me once I went through the stoplight at Block and Third. Based on that, I'd guessed that he stopped at the coffee shop two blocks away every morning. It was a bit of a long shot, as there were a hundred coffee shops in downtown New Amsterdam, but I didn't see any other way to do it than to pick the closest one and hope I was right. I would try another the next day if I had to. I parked in the parking lot and waited for my stalker. Luckily, my car wasn't a remarkably rare make, and I didn't think he'd bother looking at the plates.
Right away, I'd realized that I was in for a long wait. Five was definitely too early considering he usually showed up behind me at around seven-thirty.
But I wasn't bored. I was too scared to be bored.
Time dragged on and it wore me down quickly. By five-thirty, I'd started drifting into fits of terror every few minutes. And the next minute, I'd be elated, excited even. It had been more than a year since my last kill. It shocked me to realize that I needed this.
I nearly threw up as soon as I saw him. He parked a ways away from me and went inside. I took off my identifying glasses, got out and I nearly tripped over myself as I followed him, hood up to hide my face. My fingers played with the drug in my pocket and I took deep breath after deep breath to keep myself sane.
It went smoothly. I did it exactly like I'd done with Cathy, slipping the aconitine into his cup when he wasn't looking. It wasn't hard, since his eyes seemed glued to his cell phone the entire time. I couldn't believe my luck, really. I just watched in suspense as the grains of poison fell gracefully into the black liquid.