Chapter One

 

 

“DON’T worry,” I assured the client. “We’ll take care of it for you.”

The voice on the other end of the phone line still sounded uncertain.

“It’s really not a problem, Jake.” I made a few notes on some papers sitting on my desk, multitasking as I explained the procedures. “Just pop out the hard drive with all the data on it and keep that locked up so there’s no security risk. I’ve already ordered a new model to be sent to you, and it will work with your current hard drive.” Unlike the previous model, which was the biggest piece of crap our hardware group ever designed. “But we’d appreciate your returning the old one so we can determine what went wrong.” Besides upper management giving the go-ahead to produce it in the first place, that is.

I swung around to my monitor and answered an e-mail. “Just send it to my attention at our physical address. Mark Johansen. We’re at 18 Corporate Drive….” I answered another e-mail while Jake repeated the information back. “Why Yell, Iowa….”

The telephone squawked in a tone of mingled apology and bewilderment.

Damn. I gave Jake my full attention. “I didn’t say you were yelling. It’s the name of the town. Capital W-H-Y… space… capital Y-E-L-L. Yes, that’s the name. Why Yell. Oh, why Why Yell? No one seems to know why.”

I scrubbed my face with one hand. No wonder we don’t celebrate Founders’ Day in our corner of Iowa. Why would a town be grateful to a bunch of people who guaranteed that every conversation its occupants had about it degenerated into an Abbott and Costello routine?

Like most locals, I normally referred to the town as Old Yeller or pronounced the name something like “While,” but neither of those would pass muster with the postal service.

“That’s right, Why Yell,” I repeated. “Look, just make sure the zip code is correct.”

While I tried once again to explain my hometown’s stupid name to my valued if somewhat dense customer, an instant message popped up on my computer monitor: Your mother is on the phone.

It was from the administrative assistant I shared with three other managers. AGAIN, she IM’d.

I checked my cell. There were eight missed calls and five voice mails, all from the same source. Mom had obviously given up on that route to my attention and started calling the office numbers.

I finished the conversation with Jake as quickly as I could. My mother’s “emergencies” usually aren’t any such thing, but I always worry that the latest crisis will be the exception to the rule. I hit her number on speed dial without taking the time to listen to the voice mails. She picked up on the third ring.

“Mom, what’s wrong?”

“Oh, Mark, it’s your sister!”

My annoyance was immediately replaced by terror. “What happened? Did that asshole hurt her?”

“No, although, I suppose… not exactly, and it was really her who… Mark, it is so unlike you to use language like that. I was afraid of this when you stopped coming to Sunday services or attending Bible Study….”

My heartbeat slowed again. I still didn’t know what was going on, but not even my mother would fuss about cursing if my sister were injured or worse. “Mom, I’m sorry. What’s happened to Rachel?”

“She’s left Brian!”

“Good. He’s a jerk.” I worried that Brian was worse than just a jerk, but I didn’t want to get scolded for cursing or even mention my suspicions again. The last time I’d brought them up, Rachel had insisted Brian never hit her or the kids. Then she’d dragged Mom into the argument to defend the overgrown bully who was her current husband.

“She’s been having an affair! Daddy and I talked to her, and Pastor Steve came even though I know he had a Bible class, and she said she’d tried to do her wifely duty but Brian was gone so much, and she’s in love with this Josh person. She won’t go back home.”

I didn’t follow all that, but anything that got Rachel out of Brian’s house was good news to me. “Where is she staying?”

“Here.” Mom sounded less than enthusiastic about that. She babysat for the kids most afternoons already, and she’d told me that was more than enough to tire her out.

“I’m sure that won’t be permanent.” I mentally checked my bank balances to calculate if I’d need to sell some stocks to loan Rachel a cleaning deposit and first and last month’s rent.

“No… she wants to move in with this Josh person.”

Of course she did. I added checking out the Josh person to my to-do list.

“He’s only got a one-room apartment now, but Rachel says they’re getting a double-wide at Harvest Meadows, or is it Heavenly Meadows? You know, that place down past the Hy-Vee? I’m having nothing to do with it. She’s a married woman, and I won’t have anything to do with adultery.”

Except, of course, that time Rachel remarried after cheating on her first husband. Mom had had a great time at that wedding. “I understand.” I didn’t, but any other response would result in a long, convoluted lecture.

“So she’ll need you to move her things from Brian’s to Josh’s new place next weekend.”

Thus keeping Mom’s hands clean of any adulterous furniture shifting but still getting the job done. I sighed. “I’ll stop by later this week to see how things are going. And I’ll help her move.”

She sighed too. “Oh, Mark. I don’t know what I’d do without you, with your brother and sister straying from the true path again and again. I hope you never behave like that, because I would just die if all of my children were to offend the Lord. I could never face Pastor Steve and the congregation again if I couldn’t point to you as my perfect boy.”

No one can turn a compliment into a threat like my mom.

 

 

WHEN Mom finally hung up, I found some ibuprofen in the back of a drawer and removed two pills from the bottle. The coffee sitting on my desk was stone cold and my office was a mile or so from the cafeteria, so I went to the bathroom to rinse the cup and get some water.

After swallowing the pills, I checked my reflection. I didn’t look frazzled, but I’ve been told I hide my emotions well. I can’t take much credit for that. I’m big, almost six and half feet tall, and broad-shouldered. My ethnic background runs the gamut from Germany all the way through several Scandinavian countries, a level of diversity not unusual in Iowa. I’ve heard myself described as “corn-fed.”

And I’ve learned to cultivate a stolid expression, if only to calm worries that any male this big must be about to suffer an episode of ’roid rage.

Also, a serious demeanor counters the effect of bright-blue eyes and hair so blond it’s nearly white, a shade so rarely seen in nature that I’ve been accused of dyeing it. When I was a kid, I kept hoping it would turn brown, but although I now have visible eyebrows and eyelashes, it’s still very light. I keep it cropped short on the theory that if there’s less of it, fewer people will notice and comment. When I was a child, strangers were always either touching my hair or wondering why I didn’t act my age. Since I always looked about three years older than I was, I soon learned to act more than my age, with the result that now, two years short of thirty, I feel about forty-five. Or fifty.

It isn’t all bad. I got promoted to a management position in spite of my youth, and getting promoted is good. Isn’t it?

 

 

I WENT back to my office, hoping that the painkiller would kick in before any other problems surfaced. I knew that hope was in vain the moment I saw Jerry Koenig and Laura Schultz sitting in the two chairs in front of my desk. They turned as one to stare at me with avid eyes.

Jerry and Laura were the Frank Burns and Margaret Houlihan of my workplace, a dynamic duo who spent their days searching for problems to bemoan and sins to report to higher authorities like me. There was no misdemeanor too small to escape their scrutiny and demands for justice. It was usually something like a violation of the dress code or a fellow employee keeping more than the regulation five personal items on his or her desk.

But today they looked like they’d really gotten ahold of a high crime, or at least a case of someone stealing a coworker’s yogurt from the communal fridge. Laura, the Ferret Face of the duo, narrowed her blue eyes to slits that emphasized the sharpness of her nose and the thinness of her pale face. She completed the stern effect by pulling her thin blond hair back in a tight ponytail.

Jerry was the more human of the two, or perhaps his earnest brown eyes and plump lips made him seem so. I may have imagined the occasional flashes of compassion I’d noticed. But right now he was twisting his fingers together as if he were suffering some internal turmoil.

Jerry and Laura were inseparable, at least in the office. I had no idea if the two of them were also fuck buddies. I would have paid money to ensure I never found out. That was one image I didn’t need in my head.

“Hi, Mark.” Jerry licked his lips. “Can you talk for a minute? There’s something going on that I thought you’d like to know.”

I thought you’d like to know is a phrase that is never, ever followed by something you actually want to hear. It may be applied to things you need to know, but by no stretch of the imagination can they ever be called glad tidings.

I sat down slowly, wishing I’d taken something a lot stronger than ibuprofen.