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“No, thank you. I have other business to do. I need to keep this phone line free.”
“Okay, okay. Tell me what toe you want. I’ll give you a toe. Right foot or left foot?”
“Not so fast, please. It isn’t your toe I want.”
Charlie felt a terror rise from deep inside him. “What do you mean?”
“Precisely what I said. I don’t want your toe. I prefer something a little more delicate and less — how shall I say it? — hirsute. I would very much like to have your daughter’s toe in my collection.”
“Mr. Vitek, please, you can’t — ”
“Yes. Her name is Joelle. I want the one next to the smallest, on her right foot — it has a silver and turquoise ring. The nail is painted dark blue.”
“Mr. Vitek, please be reasonable. I can’t do that. Please, Mr. Vitek.”
“That’s the toe for me. Bring it to the phone booth. It must be the correct one. I know what it looks like. She has lovely feet, when she’s not wearing those ridiculous military boots.” There was a quiet click, followed by a dial tone.
Milero looked at the notes Charlie’s mother had written. “It’s another world,” he said.
“The penmanship. Look at the curlicues in the caps. Look at the s’s, and how straight the lines are, without benefit of lined paper. And the signature is a little work of art. That’s old school, well-heeled, classy. An elegant woman, that’s what I would surmise. They don’t make them like that any more. You’re a lucky man.”
“She’s been kidnapped. She’s been brutalized. These notes are for real, they’re not lies. The situation isn’t imaginary.”
“I would still say give her some time. Some folks can’t be rushed. She’ll come back to you in her own time. From all I can see, she’s a prideful woman and can’t be ordered around.”
“I spoke to Vitek. He really exists. She didn’t make him up.”
“I told you that last week,” Milero said.
“I thought she was alone. I thought she was just trying to get attention.”
“An old person needs attention like anybody else. They need somebody to dote on them. And there’s the unknown quantity — we don’t know what this Vitek guy is like.”
“He’s bad news.”
“He might know some kind of European love-making tricks. He might be hung like a bull moose. She could be moaning with ecstasy the likes of which you’ve never dreamed.”
“The man is a monster. He’s brutalizing her.”
“He’s an unknown quantity. But these things happen. We see it all the time in police work.”
“He’s capable of doing terrible things to her. I think her life is in danger.” Charlie looked in Milero’s eyes to see if any of his desperation was registering on the detective. He had been holding back the most obvious evidence that a serious crime had been committed, out of some vague fear that the detective would misinterpret it. But now he took out the cranberry-colored scarf, untied it, and laid it out on the desktop — then surveyed Milero’s face again. No change.
“They’re her teeth,” Charlie said. Milero looked them over but didn’t respond. “My mother’s teeth. And now he’s asking for toes.” Milero nodded, and Charlie felt his voice become shrill. “So what do you think now?”
“I think you better find yourself a good lawyer.”
Charlie called Eileen, his ex-wife, and told her to keep a close watch on Joelle. “I’m worried about her safety,” he said. “Somebody might hurt her.”
“Who? What are you talking about?”
“Just watch out for her. Don’t let her go out alone.”
“She’s nineteen. I’m lucky to see her at breakfast.”
“There are bad characters out there.”
“I smell guilt.”
“You know what I mean. You neglect your kid for weeks at a time, months — and then you get all choked up with remorse and call me up all worried about her. You’re over-compensating for your own inadequacies and fear. You’re projecting.” Eileen was a therapist.
“I think she’s in danger.”
“Any particular reason?”
“There’s a lot of real evil out there.”
“Now there’s a hot tip.”
“People who would hurt a young girl. I worry.”
“I worry too. Every day. She lives in a meaner world than we ever did, and she’s not a tough kid, in spite of the front she puts up.”
“There have been threats.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Just keep an eye out for her.”
“Threats? What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Don’t let her go out alone anymore. Protect her. Warn her every day.”
“Have you been drinking, Charlie?”
He hung up and slumped back on the living room couch. It was his mother, not Joelle, who was truly in danger, and he knew he was helpless to do anything about it. He thought of Elsa’s painful, disfigured mouth, and felt an urge to knock out his own teeth; he began fiddling with one, an incisor that was cracked and a little loose. He cursed himself and the aimless, self-absorbed mindset that had somehow led him into this cul-de-sac. He drank.
The TV was on, and he occasionally looked in its direction, but without taking in much of what was happening onscreen. The images that flashed before him seemed to be from another culture and in another language, although, in those moments when he managed to focus, he saw familiar faces and heard English. Mostly he called up memories of his mother when she was vital and undiminished, as recently as ten years ago — flirting with the mailman, singing Patsy Cline songs while she puttered around her apartment.
The TV showed the image of a local billionaire, Leroy Sutter. He had disappeared after leaving his office two nights ago. His wife, a handsome woman with a long thin nose and dark eyes, was offering ten thousand dollars for information of his whereabouts. Charlie flipped the channel.
The sound of the tapping was so light — like a small shy animal knocking at the door — that it took a while for it to snag his awareness. He approached the door timidly, drew in a deep breath, and pulled it open. Nobody there; no bloody bundle on the mat. He heard a noise down the hall, the clang of metal on metal, near the staircase with its old bronze railing. He walked to the end of the hall and looked around and then down the stairs, where he saw a shadowy form, then heard his name, spoken quietly with what sounded like a southern drawl. He descended the stairs, noting with some surprise that he felt no fear. But by the time he arrived at the bottom, the figure had vanished. He heard footsteps and voices coming from the street, the closing of a car door, then saw tail lights receding down the block. He went back to his apartment.
At four-thirty he woke up to the sound of white noise coming from the TV. He turned off the set and stumbled into the bedroom, took off his clothes, and climbed into bed. He felt a small, slightly oily object in the bed. Switching on his reading light, he threw back the covers and found himself screaming even before he fully comprehended what lay in front of him: a scattered clutch of severed toes. He put his hand over his mouth to muffle his own shrieks, then grabbed a pillow and plunged his face into it, shouting and wailing and swearing and, finally, repeating his mother’s name — Elsa, Elsa — over and over until his breathing slowed to calmness. He continued to hold the pillow against his face.
But something like a question formed in his head, or was it just curiosity? He hadn’t really looked all that carefully at the grisly objects on his bed sheet, and for some reason that he couldn’t quite pinpoint he felt that something was amiss. He opened his eyes and stared: there they were, seven pale, oddly shaped lumps, with little brown flecks of what must have been dried blood on their surfaces. But they didn’t quite look like toes. He sat on the bed and examined closely what should have been the big toe. It was rounded at one end and had been cleanly cut at the other, so that it resembled a severed toe. But it was narrow, and small for a big toe. He touched it — the surface was hard and waxy. He picked it up and smelled it. It was food — some sort of large shelled nut. He took a bite, chewed: a Brazil nut.