The events of today’s action-packed installment of The Grover Cleveland Detective Agency are imagined to occur at and around the very real intersection of Chicago Avenue and Sheridan Road in Evanston, Illinois.
“I talked to Ethan.”
“Who?” Candace asked.
The name meant nothing to her.
“My roommate. The stoner who lives on our floor.”
“She’s on the other end of the hall, and E-Money only emerges once a day to shazz and meet the pizza guy in the lobby. For everyone but you, seeing Ethan is as rare a site as a unicorn or the march of the Ents,” Julian said.
I ignored the reference, knowing Julian had baited me by implying Ents didn’t exist, and continued with more pressing matters: “He also, once every two weeks, meets his dealer in a park near campus.”
“I’d think growing his own would be more economical,” Candace said. “Has he considered that?”
“He said he did in high school but committing a felony in the dorms is about the only thing his mom’s position at Hanscom couldn’t shield him from,” I said. “Anyway, it’s beside the point. Ethan agreed to arrange an introduction, so I could talk to his dealer—who goes by the name Snag—about Jason Baxter and his missing, uh, merchandise.”
I told Julian and Candace we were to meet that evening and asked Candace if she could go with me.
“If you must know: Julian is out because a skinny black dude says ‘I think I need a bodyguard but don’t know anyone who really knows how to kick ass and hope a black person will be intimidating.’ It won’t. Anyway, four guys meeting in a park looks kind of suspicious…”
“ …and totally gay,” Julian added, helpfully.
“I think this interview requires the finesse only a girl dressed as an Asian ho-bag who works at a nail salon can provide.”
“No, I’m not at all offended the first person you thought of was me.”
“What makes you think you were the first person he asked?”
She was, but Julian was on a roll today and wasn’t going to let anyone think too much of themselves.
“Julian’s right, I talked to some actual hot, Asian ho-bags, but they were all busy tonight. So I figured you could borrow some of your roommate’s clothes and act the part.”
Candace’s roommate, Christina (who preferred to be called “C”), was from Miami and completely disinterested in modifying her wardrobe for academia, nor even the bitter cold of fall in the upper Midwest.
“Although I relish every opportunity to dress f.o.b.,” Candace said, abbreviating ‘fresh off the boat,’ the term she used for first-generation immigrants who acted like they were still in China, “my parents are arriving tonight and staying all weekend.”
“I look forward to the pictures,” Julian said, making a peace sign with his right hand and placing the tips of his fingers near his right eye and smiling.
“Can’t you do it before they arrive? What time are they getting in?”
“Really early this afternoon,” Candace said, looking as though she wanted to say more.
Julian and I waited.
“They will arrive at precisely 3:35 p.m. My mom insisted they leave so that they cross from Michigan into central time at 11:25 a.m.”
“At that point it will be only 10:25 a.m. in Indiana. They will then take the first exit for McDonald’s breakfast. My mom considers this some sort of accomplishment. She will be able to call her friends and say she is eating big cakes an hour after their locations started serving Big Macs.”
“Savvy,” Julian said, stifling a laugh.
“China has only one time zone. Everyone is on Beijing time. She’s really proud of herself for putting it together that she could use the time change to her advantage to get her favorite breakfast for lunch and impress her Chinese friends with her acumen.”
“So you’re busy then?”
“Yeah.” She stood, picked up her tray, and left.
Julian looked at me.
“I’m thinking her disdain for the old country may be more personal than its position on capital punishment,” he said.
“The world may never know Candace Luo,” I said, poking my oatmeal with a fork.
After a minute, Julian asked what I was going to do about my meeting with the dealer.
“I can’t wait for the next one,” I said. “PimpFlyG has visited me twice already to ask about his case.”
And then Allison Shaler walked into the nearly empty cafeteria and stopped short.
Holding a tray that held only half a grapefruit, a large mug of coffee, and a bowl of Froot Loops, she looked around the room for a table of students she recognized.
Julian motioned for her to come over and hastily cleaned up his place as she approached.
“Hey, Allison,” he said. “I have to get to class, but Grove, you know Grover from our dorm, has an interesting problem. I think you could help him out.”
I glared at his back as he sprinted, tray in hand, from the table.
Turning to Allison, I smiled awkwardly and then launched into the details of The Grover Cleveland Detective Agency, Jason Baxter’s suicide, my client, the, uh, merchandise, and Candace’s parents’ visit. I probably spoke without stopping for ten minutes, during which time Allison cringed, rolled her eyes, and then smiled.
“So you want me to be your side-piece at this drug thing?”
“If you wouldn’t mind. I know it’s a lot to ask of someone you barely know, but, well, you’re hot and might be just what I need to get Snag to answer a few questions about Jason’s Baxter’s drug operation.”
She didn’t move a muscle as she considered my proposition and then, quite suddenly, began to laugh.
“Sure,” Allison said. “I should study tonight, but I probably wasn’t going to anyway. What time should I meet you? And how should I dress?”
“Meet me at 9 p.m. in the lobby of Anderson, looking like you know what’s up.”
“Okay,” she said, but her eyes said she was uncertain what I meant.
I didn’t explain because I didn’t know what I meant either. I stood to leave and said “Oh, and Ethan will be coming too.”
* * * * *
I met Allison in the lobby, and we both looked ridiculous. Although she was closer to the mark, we both looked more like characters from Jersey Shore than Scarface. Still, if we weren’t intimidating, at least we were disguised, which was part of the point.
From the lobby we walked to the park Ethan said was where he met his dealer. He met us at the corner, took one look at us, and laughed.
“You two look ridiculous.”
He stopped to catch his breath, laughed a bit more, and got serious.
“It’s just drugs, not a theme party. All kinds of people do all kinds of drugs everyday. Drugs, and especially pot, are not something you get dressed up for.”
Ethan shook his head.
Allison looked like she was about to cry. I was pissed.
“What the Hell, man? I don’t know anything about this kind of thing!”
“Alright, sorry,” Ethan said. “I appreciate your effort. Maybe I’m just a little offended that this is what you think of when you think ‘drugs.’ ”
“Sorry, my Jonas Salk costume was at the cleaners.”
Allison laughed. I was a little surprised that she understood the reference.
“That’s why I like you, Grover,” Ethan said, smiling. “Tell you what: I’ll meet Snag and find out what he knows.”
“Thanks,” I said as Ethan stalked off.
I turned to Allison, “Well, that was a gigantic waste of time. Sorry.”
“No, it was fun. I liked being someone else for a while. Anyway, we learned tonight that druggies, like Baby, don’t like to be put in a corner.”
Walking back to our dorm, I had an idea.
“So our costumes aren’t appropriate for a drug deal,” I said, “but they are perfect for a frat.”
Allison wasn’t following.
“In a week this plan won’t work, but right now no one frat brother knows who all the new pledges are. I look like a Den member, and you look like someone I’d like to impress by showing around the house.”
She got it.
“So we can do some ‘poking’ around the house?”
Allison used air quotes. I didn’t love that but smiled anyway.
* * * * *
We walked slowly to The Den, Allison talking about not wanting to be a doctor but being a legacy to Harvard medical school and me saying I would trust her with my heart surgery, even though I had watched those hands clumsily dissect a fruit for weeks.
As we waited for someone to answer the doorbell, an “I’m Rick James, bitch!” that screamed throughout the house referencing a dated skit of a deceased musician from a cancelled cable television show, Allison leaned her head on my shoulder and began slowly stroking my arm. Her eyes seemed to glaze over, and her mouth flopped open.
I couldn’t exactly tell if she was playing drunk or retarded and was a little offended she thought she’d have to pretend to be roofied to make our story about me trying to close the deal believable.
Regardless, it worked. I stammered through my lines about wanting to show “my girl” where “the magic happens,” but I think the guy just wanted to get out of there when Allison turned to face me, began to rub my crotch, and yelled sweet nothings into my ear.
She dropped the act as soon as we were alone in the lobby. I was relieved, but my crotch felt frustrated and a little used.
We soon found Jason’s Baxter’s room. Besides being marked with a sign that said “Den President,” there were piles of flowers and cards outside the door.
“Kind of a sentimental bunch,” I said.
Allison shrugged and tried the doorknob. The door opened.
“That was lucky.”
Allison shushed me.
“Weird no one’s been here to claim his stuff,” she whispered as we walked into the room.
Everything looked almost exactly as I imagined it would have were Jason alive. The room felt “lived in” and did not give me the sense it belonged to someone who had put his own affairs in order: There was a pile of dirty whites on the floor and, while the monitor had shut down in the time since his death, his computer was still on.
“Do suicidal people think about doing their laundry?” Allison had noticed the same thing. “Were I having an existential crisis, I might do laundry, but doing separate loads would seem a bit trivial.”
I moved to his desk and began rummaging through its drawers. I found his day planner and slipped it into my pocket. What was strange, though, was that I couldn’t find his cell phone or keys.
“Maybe he had them on him when he died,” Allison said. “I can ask my dad if he knows anyone in the medical examiner’s office.”
“We should probably check the bathroom while we’re here,” I said.
“Good idea,” Allison said, “I’m not sure what else we can learn here.”
She walked through the door and stepped carefully over the ad hoc memorial.
I followed and was closing the door when the guy who let us in exited from the stairwell at the end of the hall.
“Hey, what are you doing up here?! You’re not really a pledge, are you?!”
I grabbed Allison’s hand and ran in the opposite direction.
He followed us down the stairwell at the other end of the hall and into the dark of the yard shared by the fraternity houses.
We crossed it in seconds and hid among the kegs stacked in the alley behind another house.
Allison and I hunched over and breathed heavily. The stench of stale beer, sweat, and men’s body spray was almost not worth catching my breath.
We waited a few minutes, but it seemed we’d outrun him.
Allison and I walked toward the streetlights of busy Rebecca Road. She grabbed and held my hand as we approached Anderson Complex-South. Home.