Track Two: Apron Strings

 

Indianapolis, Indiana. 2 September 2001.

 

Theresa Gerig says she already told the cops everything. Anyway, the Cinnabon will be busy soon. The dinner crowd hits City Center Mall in half an hour.

The masked man thanks her, promises that his questions are few. He’ll be out of her hair in ten minutes, probably less.

“I don’t know,” she says, biting her lip. 

He says he needs her help. He’s read the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department’s report. He calls it a “shoddy” piece of police work. “Something’s missing, some detail glossed over by witnesses or neglected entirely by the IMPD.”

He’s tanned and unshaven. She fixates on a faded red tattoo, the number 38, on his neck.

“Murder investigations deserve more effort,” he says. “Hade’s flames, murders deserve an opportunity to be solved.” A hand balls into a fist. He looks straight into her eyes. “And you just might be the key.”

She’s nodding. OMG. He. Is. So. Intense. Her face goes flush. “Um, okay, I’ll try to help.” After all, how many people can claim to have been interviewed by a gladiator?

He corrects her. “Centurion.”

She doesn’t know there’s a difference, apologizes. “A centurion.”

“No. The Centurion.” His voice is like gravel. “And I can’t quantify that. My guess: probably not very many.”

He’s angst-y and older, a loner, probably a bad boy. He smells a little of stale beer. He’d drive her mother crazy. She leans in. “Okay, Mr. Centurion,” she says, popping her gum, “So what do you want to know?”

His eyes narrow. “Everything.”

“Everything?” she asks.

“Yes. Everything you know about John Hooper and the night of August 6th, the night he died.”

“I don’t know much about John personally.” She tells him that Hooper went to school with her brother. He never mentioned him much. She doesn’t think Hooper had many friends. She can’t think of any enemies.

“But we know there was at least one,” the armored man says. John Hooper was garroted in the elevator thirty feet from the food court four weeks ago. He was just 17. “Please, continue.”

Her account mirrors her police statement. At around 6 p.m. Hooper ordered a pretzel. He grabbed a table near the Pizza Hut. He sat alone. He was still there at about 9 p.m. when her shift ended.

When she finishes telling her story, the man tells her he wants to “shake the needle from the groove.” He asks her if she knows the story of Perseus.

She doesn’t.

“He’s a hero from mythology,” the man begins.

A week from now, she’ll recall Centurion’s story over cosmos with her friend Marisol between episodes of Sex and the City. “So Perseus was this dude from olden times who wore a toga and trainers with wings on them. He wanted to kill this monster, some woman with snakes for hair, to save his squeeze. But there was a problem: this monster was so ugly she could turn you to stone if you looked at her. Yes, uglier than Carrie Bradshaw. Don’t be mean. My mom likes Carrie. Wait, I forgot a part. It’s important. He also carries around a mirror in his shield, which is weird because they didn’t have cameras back then, did they? No, I’m pretty sure they didn’t. I think they did have all of those artists and sculptors named after ninja turtles, though. So he probably carried it in case someone wanted to paint him, and who wants to be immortalized with hair out of place? So he’s checking his look when all of the sudden Medusa—wait, that’s the monster’s name—comes and tries to turn him into stone. But because he sees her in the mirror, he doesn’t get frozen. So guess what he does? He lops off her head with his sword. Chop. And do you know what the lesson is? No, it’s not about pretty people being better than ugly people. No, you’re not better than me. Funny, bitch. No, it’s about…shit, now you made me forget. Anyway, I deserved better than a C in ancient history last semester, don’t you think?”

What he really says is that the direct approach may not always be the best. “Sometimes problems can be solved just by looking at them differently, like Perseus using the reflection in his shield.”

“Okay,” she says.

With that, he pulls a satchel from his side. He sets it gently on the countertop and flips open the leather top so she can see the contents.

“Oh, my God,” she exclaims looking upon the broken body of a sparrow. “It’s Mr. Piccolo.”

Her story is about to change…and dramatically so.

Gerig named the bird after the sound of his song, after the flute her niece plays in marching band. She forgot about the bird until this moment. She last saw it the night Hooper was murdered.

He says something about memory errors being typical, that memories are inherently unreliable. Memories are more of a reconstruction than a recording. “We can only perceive so much of our world, and our brains fill in the blanks. Our brains take a lot of shortcuts. We borrow from what we’ve learned or from other memories entirely. Sometimes we need a trigger to get things right.”

“A trigger?” she asks, before answering her own question. “Like Mr. Piccolo.”

He nods. “Right.”

Gerig says it’s not unusual for animals to get into the mall. It’s rare, but not unusual. Once in a blue moon, a critter follows an unaware shopper through a revolving door or disability entrance. Squirrels and rats are easily captured with traps and destroyed. Birds, however, are another matter. Catching them is a spectacle.

The mall gave up on capturing them about a year ago. Some upset kindergarteners on a fieldtrip witnessed some “bad men trying to hurt the birds.” That, at least, is what the barrage of letters that they mailed to the Mayor said. The letters featured rough crayon drawings of keystone custodians running about with ladders, swinging away at the sky with mops, tripping over shoppers and each other. They begged the Mayor to save their “feathered friends.” The Mayor’s staff immediately met with the building’s management company. After a brief conversation about permit issues and potential fines, the practice was halted and the mall declared an avian sanctuary. The Mayor introduced a resolution recognizing the children as “heroes,” and they received a standing ovation at a City-County Council hearing.

Gerig didn’t have to tell Centurion all of this. He knew the story. He tells her he read it on microfiche at the library when researching the mall, an article in the Indianapolis Business Journal. “The title was ‘Crying Fowl,’” he says. “Icarus’ feathers. Only Comus”—the Greek God of mirth—“would find amusement in a homonym like that. Journalists.”

She nods. She has no idea what he just said.

“I’ve seen a lot of birds here.”

She says a dozen or more make the mall their home. They soar among the rafters of the Artsgarden, a seven-story glass enclosure that links the mall to the hotels. Food is plentiful, predators absent, and their heads always protected from the elements. “They’ve got it pretty good,” Gerig says. Then she frowns. “So what happened to Mr. Piccolo?”

“I’m not sure,” he says, and he isn’t, although he’s certain he’s somehow connected to the events of August 6th. He carefully closes the bag and lets it hang at his side. “Did Mr. Hooper know this bird?”

“Sure. Jonathon used to stop by and feed the birds a couple times a week,” she says. “Mr. Piccolo was his favorite. He always made time for a conversation with Mr. Piccolo.”

Centurion raises a brow. “He talked to the bird?”

Gerig laughs. “No, they conversed. They talked to each other.”

“Birds of a feather,” he says with a sniff. “Anyone else ever join their…discussions?”

She shakes her head.

He asks again. “You sure?”

“No one.”

He asks her once more for good measure.

“No…just his girlfriend.”

“Girlfriend?” He leans in. He tells her he didn’t read about a girlfriend in the police report. It’s another fact never before offered, solicited, or recorded.

She says she didn’t think it was important.

“That’s the problem with investigations.” He says that witnesses focus too much on what they think has importance, what they think the interviewer wants to hear. They ignore the value of minutia. The path to solving a crime, he continues, is usually meandering. “Hades hides and bides his time in the thicket of details.”

“Okay,” she says slowly, her face a blank.

“So please continue.” His invitation comes off more like a demand.

“Well, at least I think it was his girlfriend,” she says, back-peddling. “She used to come in and feed the birds with him. She’d talk to Mr. Piccolo too, but Jonathan would have to translate.” She hesitates.

“Tell me more.”

There’s a pang of pain in Gerig’s expression, a hint of jealousy. “Well, she wasn’t just any girl. She was exotic. She looked like a supermodel, and walked like one too. I mean this girl prowled.” She notices a change in Centurion’s countenance, something close to a nod of recognition. “Do you know her?”

“Maybe,” he says. He tells Gerig that he can’t provide a description though. Doing so would risk implanting thoughts and could contaminate her memory of events. He’s come so far, too far, to undermine his investigation by taking shortcuts now.

She finally understands just how serious he is about the murder. “Honestly, I’ve never seen a girl so pretty, at least not in person. And never in Indianapolis.”

“Pretty,” Centurion repeats. He goes silent. He waits for her to fill the vacuum.

“She was a black girl. Really skinny, really tall. Kind of like Naomi Campbell, but with a smile.”

He pulls a piece of paper from beneath his tunic and unfolds it. It’s a series of pictures, yearbook photos, and one of them is circled. “Is this her?”

Gerig nods. “Hey, that’s her.”

“How long were they together?” he asks in a burst, his nonchalance giving way to a rare giddiness.

“A month or two, I guess…”

He inhales deep, collecting himself. “Do you know where she is now?” he asks, his voice even and measured. 

She shakes her head. “No, I haven’t seen her since that night.”

He doesn’t immediately respond. He looks lost in thought. He’s working out a puzzle. She imagines the border sections as complete, but she can tell he’s frustrated by a handful of missing jigsaw pieces in the middle.

“Was I able to help?” she asks.

“Do you know where the security office is?” Centurion asks abruptly. He’s fidgeting, like he has somewhere else to be.

“Sure,” she says with a slight confused tilt of the head. She gestures beyond him. “It’s over by the Nieman Marcus.” 

“Excellent,” he says. “Thank you for everything.”

She expects he’ll ask for her phone number.

He doesn’t.

Her jaw drops as he walks away. Her crush turns to annoyance. “Weirdo.”

He crosses the mall. Signs indicate there are restrooms down the hallway to his left. He ducks into the corridor. He leans against the cinder block wall, makes as if he’s waiting for someone in the bathroom. He’s as inconspicuous as a man wearing white body armor in a public place can be. When he’s certain no one is looking, he pulls the fire alarm at his side.

He makes one more stop in the shopping center: the security booth, where he’ll find a copy of the security tape from the night of August 6, 2001. It’s the final task before he buries Mr. Piccolo, the bird that tried, and failed, to save John Hooper. Heroes and friends of Mars deserve a proper burial.

Then he’ll drink heavily. Again.