Gingerly I felt the lump on the side of my head, which Whittle had raised with his flashlight earlier in the night.
The chief watched me rub the lump, but he said nothing.
Whoever mugged me and gave me amnesia, he must have taken my wallet.
When were you mugged? Tonight on the beach?
On the beach? Tonight? I frowned. No, sir. I think it must have been a lot earlier in the day.
People don’t get mugged in my town in broad daylight.
Clearly, he did not like the shrug. I couldn’t take it back.
So you’re saying you were mugged before you jumped off the pier this afternoon?
Yes, sir. In fact the first thing I remember is walking along the boardwalk toward the pier, wondering who I am and where I am and whether I had lunch or not.
Why did you jump off the pier?
Since being mugged unconscious, sir, my behavior hasn’t been entirely rational.
Why did you tell Utgard that a thirty-foot tsunami was coming?
Is that a person, sir?
You’ll remember him. A walking mountain with a chin beard.
Oh, yes. He seemed nice. Excellent taste in Hawaiian shirts. I don’t remember telling him about a tsunami, though. I must have been delirious from the mugging.
Utgard put a hand on your shoulder—and saw the very thing I just saw when I touched your hand. He described it to me.
Yes, sir. You and him. It happened twice now. It’s the dream I had while I was mugged unconscious, before I found myself on the boardwalk, heading toward the pier.
Tell me about your dream.
There’s not much to tell, sir. You saw it. The red sky, the sea full of light, the sand so bright, very scary.
The pupils of his eyes grew wider, as if he intended to switch off the lights and hunt me down like a serpent chasing a mouse.
Very scary, I repeated.
What do you think it means?
Means? The dream, sir? I’ve never had a dream mean anything. That’s for those old movies with Gypsies.
Finally he looked away from me. He stared so long at the third chair in the corner that I turned my head to look at it.
Mr. Sinatra sat there. I don’t know how long he had been in the room. He pointed at me as if to say Looking good, kid.
Hoss Shackett did not see the Chairman of the Board. He was staring into space, perhaps envisioning my evisceration.
The chief bent his fingers and studied his well-manicured nails as though checking to be sure that no dried blood remained under them from his most recent interrogation session.
He gazed at the massive door for a while, and I suppose he was recalling how effectively it had contained the screams of those who had been in this room before my visit.
When he shifted his attention to the oppressively low ceiling, he smiled. He had the kind of smile that, if he turned it on the sky, would cause birds to fall dead in flight.
He looked down at the steel top of the table. He leaned forward to consider his blurry image in the surface, which had been burnished by years of wear and by a multitude of sweaty hands.
His reflection was not recognizable as his face or as a face at all. It was a series of smears, dark whorls, lumpy and distorted.
He seemed to like himself that way, however, because he smiled once more.
Chief Hoss was making me so crazy that I wished he would look at me again.
My wish was answered. He met my eyes.
He said, Kid, what do you say—let’s you and me be friends?
I said, That would be swell, sir.
CHIEF HOSS SHACKETT UNDERWENT A CHANGE worthy of one of those intelligent alien machines in that toy-based movie, Transformers, that can morph from an ordinary period Dodge into a giant robot with a hundred times the mass of the vehicle from which it unfolded.
I do not mean that the chief suddenly filled the cell and left me without elbow room. He metamorphosed from Mr. Hyde, if Mr. Hyde had been a sadistic warden in a Soviet gulag, into the benign Dr. Jekyll, if Dr. Jekyll had been a folksy sheriff from a small town where the biggest crime in twenty years had been when Lulamay copied Bobbijune’s rhubarb-jam recipe and passed it off as her own in the county-fair competition.
The eat-your-liver-with-fava-beans grin melted into the smile of any grandfather in any TV commercial featuring cute little kids frolicking with puppies.
The knotted muscles in his face relaxed. The tension went out of his body. As if he were a chameleon moving from gray stone to a rose, a touch of pink appeared in his skin.
Amazingly, the venomous green shade of his eyes changed, and they were now Irish eyes, happy and full of delight. Even his eyes were smiling, his lips and his eyes, his entire face, every line and plain and dimple of his countenance marshaling into a spectacle of sublime good will.
The previous Hoss Shackett could never have become the chief of police of Magic Beach, which was an elected position. Before me now was Hoss Shackett, the politician.
I was dismayed that he wasn’t up for election this year, because I wanted to go out right this minute and work in his campaign, put up some signs, canvass a few neighborhoods, help paint his portrait on the side of a four-story building.
Mr. Sinatra came to the table to stare more closely at the chief. He looked at me, shook his head in amazement, and returned to the corner.
Slumped in his chair, so relaxed that he seemed to be in danger of sliding onto the floor, Chief Hoss said, Kid, what do you want?
Out of life. What do you want out of life?
Well, sir, I’m not sure I can answer that question accurately since at the present time I don’t know who I am.
Let’s suppose you don’t have amnesia.
But I do, sir. I look in the mirror, and I don’t know my face.
It’s your face, he assured me.
I look in the mirror, and I see that actor, Matt Damon.
You don’t look anything like Matt Damon.
Then why do I see him in the mirror?
Let me hazard a guess.
I’d be grateful if you would, sir.
You saw those movies where he has amnesia.
Was Matt Damon in movies where he had amnesia?
Of course, you wouldn’t remember them.
Gone, I agreed. It’s all gone.
The Bourne Identity. That was one of them.
I considered it. Then: Nope. Nothing.
Kid, you’re genuinely funny.
Well, I’d like to think I might be. But there’s as good a chance that when I find out who I am, I’ll discover I’m humorless.
What I’m saying is, I’m willing to stipulate that you have amnesia.
I sure wish I didn’t, sir. But there you are.
For the purpose of facilitating our discussion, I accept your amnesia, and I will not try to trip you up. Is that fair?
It’s fair, sure, but it’s also the way it is.
All right. Let’s suppose you don’t have amnesia. I know you do have it, I know, but so you can answer questions with more than gone-it’s-all-gone, let’s just suppose.
You’re asking me to use my imagination.
There you go.
I think I might’ve been a guy with a good imagination.
Is that what you think, huh?
It’s just a hunch. But I’ll try.
This new Chief Hoss Shackett radiated affability so brightly that being in his company too long might involve a risk of melanoma.
He said, So…what do you want out of life, son?
Well, sir, I imagine a life in tire sales might be nice.
Putting people back on good rubber, getting them rolling again, after life threw a blow-out at them. That would be satisfying.
I can see your point. But since we’re just imagining here, why don’t we imagine big?
Big. All right.
If you had a big dream in life, what would it be?
I guess maybe…having my own ice-cream store.
Is that as big as you can go, son?
My best girl at my side and an ice-cream shop we could work in together all our lives. Yes, sir. That would be terrific.
I was serious. That would have been some life, me and Stormy and an ice-cream shop. I would have loved that life.
He regarded me pleasantly. Then: Yes, I see, with a little one coming along, it would be nice to have a business you could rely on.
Little one? I asked.
The baby. Your girl is pregnant.
Bewilderment is, for me, a natural expression. Girlfriend? You know my girlfriend? Then you must know who I am. You mean…I’m going to be a father?
You were talking to her this afternoon. Utgard saw you. Before you jumped off the pier.
I looked disappointed, shook my head. That was crazy—jumping off the pier, talking tsunamis. But the girl, sir, I don’t know her.
Maybe you just don’t remember knowing her.
No, sir. When I came on the pier after being mugged, and I had amnesia, I saw her and thought, well, maybe I often went to the pier and she would know who I was.
But she didn’t know you.
Not a clue.
Her name’s Annamaria, he said.
That’s a pretty name.
Nobody knows her last name. Not even the people letting her live above their garage rent-free.
Rent-free? What lovely people they must be.
They’re do-gooder morons, he said in the nicest way, with his warmest smile yet.
The poor girl, I sympathized. She didn’t tell me that she had amnesia, too. What’re the odds of that, huh?
I wouldn’t take the bet. The thing of it is—the same day, here you are with no first name or last, and here she is with no last name.
Magic Beach isn’t a big city, sir. You’ll help us find out who we are. I’m confident of that.
I don’t believe either of you is from around here.
Oh, I hope you’re wrong. If I’m not from around here, how will I find out where I’m from? And if I can’t find out where I’m from, how will I find anyone who knows who I am?
When the chief was in his charming-politician mode, his good humor was as unshakeable as the Rocky Mountains. He kept smiling, though he did close his eyes for a moment, as if counting to ten.
I glanced at Mr. Sinatra to see how I was doing.
He gave me two thumbs up.
Hoss Shackett opened his warm Irish eyes. Regarding me with delight, as if I were the leprechaun he had longed all his life to encounter, he said, I want to go back to the big-dream question.
Still an ice-cream parlor for me, I assured him.
Would you like to hear my big dream, son?
You’ve accomplished so much, I’d guess your big dream already came true. But it’s good always to have new dreams.
Chief Hoss Shackett the Nice remained with me, and there was no sign of Chief Hoss Shackett the Mean, though he resorted to the silence and the direct stare with which he had regarded me when he had first entered the room.
This stare had a different quality from the previous one, which had been crocodilian. Now the chief smiled warmly, and as Frankie Valli sings in that old song, his eyes adored me, as though he were looking at me through a pet-shop window, contemplating adopting me.
Finally he said, I’m going to have to trust you, son. Trust isn’t an easy thing for me.
I nodded sympathetically. Being an officer of the law and having to deal every day with the scum of the earth…Well, sir, a little cynicism is understandable.
I’m going to trust you totally. See…my big dream is one hundred million dollars tax-free.
Whoa. That is big, sir. I didn’t know you meant big big. I feel a little silly now, saying an ice-cream parlor.
And my dream has come true. I have my money.
That’s wonderful. I’m so happy for you. Was it the lottery?
The full value of the deal, he said, was four hundred million dollars. My cut was one of the two largest, but several others here in Magic Beach have become very rich.
I can’t wait to see how you’re going to spread the good fortune around, sir. ‘Everyone a neighbor, every neighbor a friend.’
I’m adding four words to the motto—‘Every man for himself.’
That doesn’t sound like you, sir. That sounds like the other Chief Shackett.
Sitting forward on his chair, folding his arms on the table, virtually sparkling with bonhomie, he said, Happy as I am to be stinking rich, I’m not without problems, son.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Such a wounded look of disappointment came over his face that you would have wanted to hug him if you had been there.
You are my biggest problem, he said. I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you are. That dream, the vision, whatever it was that you passed to me and Utgard.
Yes, sir. I’m sorry. It’s a very disturbing little dream.
And so spot-on accurate. Clearly you know too much. I could kill you right now, bury you somewhere like Hecate’s Canyon, and nobody would find you for years.
In his Chief Hoss Shackett the Nice persona, he had brought to the moment such a spirit of camaraderie and such fine intentions that the low concrete ceiling had seemed to expand into a high vault. Now it so suddenly crashed down again that I ducked my head a little.
Once again I could detect the smell of vomit under the pine disinfectant.
If I have a vote, sir, I’m opposed to the kill-and-bury-in-Hecate’s-Canyon solution.
I don’t like it, either. Because maybe that fake-pregnant girlfriend of yours is expecting you to report in.
That’s what I suspect. Good cover. The two of you come into town like vagrants, the kind nobody looks at twice. You’re like some surf bum, she’s like a runaway. But you work for somebody.
Sounds like you have someone in mind.
Maybe Homeland Security. Some intelligence agency. They have a slew of them these days.
Sir, how old do I look to you?
Twenty. You might look younger than you are, might be twenty-three, twenty-four.
A little young to be an undercover spy, don’t you think?
Not at all. Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, the best of the best—some of them are twenty, twenty-one.
Not me. I have a gun phobia.
I had leaned on the table, as well. He reached out and patted my arm affectionately.
Suppose you don’t check in with your partner, this Annamaria, at the appointed hour, and she gets on the horn to your controllers back in Washington or wherever.
Amnesia no longer served me well. I would do better being a cool and deadly government agent. I said only, Suppose.
In a spirit of trust, which I sincerely hope you genuinely do appreciate, I’ll tell you—the job that made me rich, my part of that is done tonight. In two weeks, I’ll be living in another country, under a new identity so tightly guarded I’ll never be found. But leaving the right way, the careful way, is going to take two weeks.
During which you’re vulnerable.