In Flagrante Delicto

In Flagrante Delicto

by Olivier FitzGerald

In Flagrante Delicto
Chapter One

Police finally pin Silas a year after the fact, catching him daydreaming about a hazy childhood morning when Papa flew them to Buenos Aires without permission. And yet before the men in blue descend, while spelunking the depths of a storage unit in the outskirts of Indianapolis, Silas stumbles upon two old journals. One is red embossed, the other green and unmarked, protective cover stripped of its dog-nosed plastic by force of detrition. There, beside the fricative whoosh of interstate traffic, he puts down his handgun to inspect the container from which they came: Madame Madison LeFait, 17 rue Saxon, 10483 Tisdale, New York. The label is in his father’s cursive. No one but Papa would reference his late-wife in French, and while everything here was surely packed away well after her passing, Silas suspects the address was written in equal parts arrogance and spite. If she chose to haunt him, he would have her suffer one final rebuke.

Despite being sick, Silas’s mother was bent furious at the time of the Argentina trip, kicking wainscot panels, spewing invective with no one to hear but for the corbels and crown molding (and the housekeeper Adèle, who spoke enough English to know when to steer clear). He remembers her in flashes, his mother: demure dresses to sylphlike ankles, bronze eyes aimed to observe disobedience, coiled fingers, frigid smiles – and a moral omniscience when it came to her son: if Silas cursed in a dream, she would know. So the departure to Ezeiza Airport, though surprising, evoked little else but that joyous sense of wonder Silas associated only with his father, not least because she would not be there to siphon it. After her funeral Silas asked if they could go back. He wanted, as all nine-year-olds do, to fill the tumult of unfamiliar feelings with fun; yet Papa said no, said that between them, the youth coaches south of the meridian don’t give American boys a fair shake, and even less so French ones. During the wake, he kicked a ball against the pool house generator alone.

A highway billboard advertises the storage unit as Infinity Shelf! emblazoned in red boldface. There are construction trucks and a bulldozer parked as though abandoned. Barrier planks and piping and concrete slabs are organized in bundles. Nearby, new ground is broken for an expanded lot, the sheer openness of the space serving as a constant reminder to Silas that he is in the Midwest: far from home, far from the ruined life he left behind. But still, for the moment, free. He shudders. Something about infinity and expansion making common cause prompts a bad tic.

Maybe someday I can go home, Silas says to one of the journals. The last time he was in Tisdale seems so long ago, he wonders if it is still there. Is it possible places, like people, up and vanish?

Silas is tall for seventeen, with gazelle-like limbs, a rangy neck and pronounced Adam’s apple inherited from his father. His shock of brown hair flips in the wind, grows with the rapidity of bamboo in good water. He bends knees both bony and bruised, and while not underfed, his ribs poke ever so slightly out before breakfast, a trait apparently shared by all LeFaits. He is handsome in Europe, but in the U.S. – even in the lesser-brawny northeast from which he hails – Silas cuts a figure too rakish and wiry to attract attention (at least from those who do not recognize him from magazines). He is pale as computer paper, without a single freckle or birthmark, though his skin is no stranger to scars, and is undergoing the process of converting peach fuzz to scruff.

It is early. The lot is poorly lit, its automatic lamps deciding daylight will suffice despite Indiana’s pink sun not having broken the skyline. A sense of eschaton clenches and torques under his chest like construction workers spinning wrenches. Panic attacks, though not altogether unusual, have visited less frequently of late, though this morning’s arrives as expected; practically phoned in its reservation the moment he hoisted the unit’s roll-up door. And so he practices the exercise1: Five Four Three Two One. This old fear of flying trick is the only thing that works – forget the Valium, Klonopin (the chalk of pills nauseating). He was not always like this. There was a time when Silas’s mind was a safe place for retreat, but what remains is no more than a cliffside bent by powerful waves. All that is left are the fractures.

Looking around, he spots a dead bulb. He focuses on it while listing five other objects he sees, five he hears, and five he feels. Notwithstanding any lapse in concentration, a Houdiniesque escape from the strangle-belt of anxiety should be in the cards.

But there is nothing around except serrated concrete and boxes. Opening another is out of the question – look what happened after just the one. Tension builds in his shoulders. He searches frantically: spots a double-decker shelving rack with a soccer shirt hanging loose, five; a dolly redder than Fourth of July fireworks, four; Édith Piaf’s Ses Plus Belles Chansons album, its carmine spine poking from a collapsed crate, three. An empty bookshelf and the gun on top of it, two, one.

He can breathe.

The roiling aftermath of disrupted air from speeding cars. The gum outsoles on his Nike’s tapping arrhythmically like a bad heartbeat. The easy suburban wind. The shudder from a stationary fan. His breathing.

His jaw unclenches.

Feeling is the hardest of the three. Thinking about what he feels is an exercise in aiming attention at the very thing Silas is trying to calm. As with most who live with Tourette’s, a tic is like a blink in terms of its inevitability, so when the right side of his face flinches, the idea of introspection draws a smirk – how do I feel? he asks himself. I feel annoyed. Annoyed. Annoyed. Annoyed. Annoyed. Annoyed.

He limps to the back of the locker. There he flips open the first of the two old journals discovered in his mother’s box. Inside is scribbled “if found, please return to Ms. Madison Darling.” This is his mother’s diary. On the front cover of the second, tucked away in the top right-hand corner like a child trying not to be noticed, is the name Jean-Marc printed in lowercase: the logbook of his father. There is a swastika at the bottom of every page.

Two journals. Two parents. Silas hesitates, unsure of which to open. He has come so far to retrieve these. Risked so much. Life has taught him to expected the unexpected, and yet he never imagined the possibility that the moment – this moment – would cause him to freeze. The image of his father gliding into the unit rains cold fear down his body. He needs to go but cannot.

An urge strikes to call Papa. There is something about getting the last word, a sort of toxic pull for closure. But the weightlessness in his pocket indicates he has lost his phone, leaving him feeling adrift, as though untethered from the world beneath his feet. His father always said without him, Silas would be lost.

Lost.

The word has taken on a new meaning. Once, a lifetime ago, it had meant failure or defeat. Those were his greatest fears back then, the act of losing unimaginable because he was the best; there was no one who could do what he did on the soccer field: Silas LeFait was a prodigy. But like people, words often carry multiple identities, and lost serves as no exception. Lost: meaning something that has been taken away or cannot be recovered. Lost: meaning someone unable to find their way, not knowing their whereabouts. He lost. He has lost. He is lost.

The screech of sirens play outside. Blue and red lights strobe around the room.

“Silas LeFait?”

Silas turns to the unit’s entrance. He sees a policeman. Behind, several more.

“Show me your hands!”

i.

Their arrival in Belgrano was less eventful than anticipated. At ten years old, Silas remembers preparing for summer heat (it was in the mid-nineties back in New York) but being met by temperate conditions instead, cords of rain driving goosebumps down his sleeveless forearms. Between plane and taxi they spoke to no one, their itinerary arranged in that procedurally sterile way deep pockets tend to prefer. When they pulled up outside the stadium, nobody greeted them. According to the AP, minors involved with River Plate were being prostituted for bus rides home from the boarding houses, so in the feverish media blitz2 that followed, two nobodies such as themselves attracted little attention. La Escuela de Fútbol River Plate was the Academy’s name in full: he can still see the faded black lettering inside its locker room, which upon his inaugural visit sat empty but for el entrenador, an adipose gnome who smelled like Silas’s father after returning home late.

As his father attempted to discuss matters in fragmented Spanish – the relationship among Romance languages proving tenuous – Silas spotted a soccer ball in an open locker. About fifteen yards across, a small garbage can resided next to a cheap bathroom vanity. He started to bounce the ball with his hand. The coach shot him looks between irritated responses of no sé señor, clearly losing patience with Jean-Marc’s attempts at communicating via hand gestures and French verbs tagged with adscititious “iendos.” Bored, Silas took the ball on the inside of his foot, dribbled it over his head, caught it behind the back, then back over his head, before lobbing it just below the ceiling directly into the tin can. The coach gaped.

Within ten minutes, Silas was on the field in cleats and the same tank he flew in wearing. Three River Plate youth coaches watched like thieves looming over an unlocked vault, arms crossed, mustaches bristling as Silas chipped the stand-in keeper from outside the box time and time over. By the end of the trial the original entrenador was struck by a miracle, being suddenly capable of speaking English at near native-level fluency. Papa told him they would be in touch, and Silas, who was still enamored with his father at that stage, his close-eyed smile and constant gift-giving impossible to deny, made the mistake of believing him. They never came back. It became clear later what his father wanted: affirmation of his son’s talent. Silas was no more than jewelry brought in for appraisal. To an outsider this may have seemed crazy, but making sense of Jean-Marc’s mind was an impossible task; he could not be predicted, his actions and intentions known only to him. But one thing was certain: relinquishing control was never on the table.

She was dead by the time they landed. Flying into Westchester Airport, a tearful contingent of business suits and distant family awaited. Silas was too shocked to cry. How could she be gone? She had taken ill before their departure, but only briefly; was not even admitted to the hospital. Whether his father knew prior to takeoff was unclear, but he certainly acted surprised upon arrival. Silas, on the other hand, was unsure how to behave: while the rest exchanged prayers and hugs and head shakes – “she’s in a better place now” – he approached a TSA agent halfway through her meatball sandwich and asked to kick the ball around. At first she grunted, but after informing her of his mother’s death, pointing to the noisy lamenters under the flight display system, the woman gave Silas a sympathetic nod. She refused to leave her seat, but when the ball rolled her way, she kicked it back.

ii.

Silas lifts his hand level with his head. In it, a Browning Hi-Power with a rosewood checkered grip. The muzzle combs cowlicks, stray flyaways fluttering. It is pointed at him. He is pointing it at himself.

“He’s got a gun!”

As an assortment of officers back away from the storage unit, Silas considers the weight of the journals against the weapon’s. He thumbs the spine of one in his left, cocks the hammer back in the other. Over the shouting and threats of imminent demise, he assures all parties involved that the weapon isn’t loaded. He promises no one is going to get hurt. Emphasizes this point.

The police grant a semicircular berth outside. There is a wide-eyed reluctance in their eyes: no one wants to approach; no one wants to make him pull the trigger. Shoulders square, Silas steps out slowly into the early-morning gray. His tics are acting up worse than usual, and though the likelihood of an accidental squeeze is low, he takes special care to keep his index around the grip. Gun barrels train on him. A cacophony of commands tear into his eardrum: shouts to stop, shouts to drop it, drop the gun.

Ten yards away, the car he stole hums. He is lucky they haven’t noticed it left running around the corner, though squeezed among four others – a van and some flatbed trucks with Infinity Shelf! on their sides – his vehicle gives little reason to arouse suspicion. Luck, he thinks, is something he has never had much of. Fortune? Yes. But never luck.

“Put it down, son!”

“Don’t make us shoot you!”

“Think about your family!”

In an effort to keep a boy of seventeen from lodging a bullet in his brain, the officers give him too much leeway; he is trailed, but otherwise unimpeded, their mistake realized far too late. Silas reaches the driver’s side door and quickly pulls it open. He puts the car in reverse and backs up, exiting with a line of flashing lights in tow. The highway’s onramp is barricaded, squad cars stacked one after the other, police holding position with guns drawn behind the hoods of their cars. Having been mocked relentlessly – as all young French boys are by their American counterparts – when his AP World History Class covered France’s Maginot Line, he employs Germany’s infamous military tactic and simply speeds around. History class and Tisdale High seem a world away, part of a different life that took place before his own fell apart.

A pall of heat rinses over him. Windows down, radio up, the car seems to drive itself out of the lot. He zips down a series of smaller roads. Bucolic churches and forgotten barns are separated by acres, the landscape stratified into expanses stretched like rolled out clay. Sirens sing. Lights continue to flash. Merging onto the highway, there are no signs of commuter mayhem. The hour is too early for a Sunday.

The voice of an elderly woman sounds off. For a moment Silas is startled, but then he realizes the radio is tuned to a phone-in segment. The woman has a cigarette croak distinctive of the elderly, glottal tongue sticking to vowels as though reluctant to part ways. The host greets her with charm, asks where she’s from, how old she is: Ten Sleep Wyoming, “24 and I’ll thank you kindly.” The host starts to ask what she thinks about “all this” but is cut off before he can get there. She is no-holds-barred raring, keener than a politician at the podium.

“Well now I’ll just say this on the whole – Lord knows our country’s been on a downward spiral. Ain’t that a right? But this has to be some new low. That’s the coward’s way out, if you ask me. No person in the world done burned their house black unless they sinned. It stinks. Terrible.”

“You believe the allegations were true?”

“Honey, of course I do. How can anyone not? The man was a monster.”

“Allegedly.”

“And I’m allegedly wrinkled like a prune in the sun.”

Silas turns the radio off, fingers trembling. If only people knew the truth. But it is life’s ultimate twist of irony that even in his father’s absence, Silas remains under his thumb, and so the truth, like all things redemptive, continues to elude him. Sinking his foot on the accelerator, the engine revs. Five Four Three Two One: The silver snake of a traffic barrier, five. Yellow bollards blocking a maintenance road like punji sticks, four. The shift from old asphalt to new, three. An aluminum foil pouch of Big League Chew crumpled in the cup holder, two.

An IMPD cruiser roars next to him. It keeps pace, but only just. He grips the steering wheel, twisting it like the rusty spigot of a garden hose. The front-right end of his bumper slams into the squad car: they both begin to spin. Silas’s wallet jumps off the dash, flipping open to reveal a crinkled picture of himself smiling alongside Jean-Marc LeFait. His father. Papa.

The gun flying off his lap as he swerves. One.

Things turn blue.

iii.

It wasn’t until his eleventh birthday that his talent became newsworthy. A county team he played for made the national finals, but Silas was only a peripheral figure in the lead up, having broken his foot after a failed attempt in clearing the width of their Hamptons pool a month prior. His father said nothing about the incident, but Silas knew he was angry. “I’m disappointed,” Papa said after being pressed, evoking the parent’s ultimate guilt trip. But following a miraculous recovery (the doctor’s own words) Silas was able to take the field on match day. All the local papers picked up the ensuing result: 11-2, with Silas bagging 9 goals and an assist to boot. Even The New York Times phoned for a quote, though the reporter’s name/voice seemed vaguely familiar on the phone; an old friend of his father’s, perhaps. Either way, the story ran. Far from being congratulatory though, Papa offered no more than a head shake when the trophy3 came in the mail – “you will learn to control yourself.” The next day it was gone.

iv.

Cicadas rattle. The burnt chemical smell of airbag propellant stings his nostrils. Silas groans, groping around in the dark, accidentally dislodging the turn-signal arm.

He was going over 100 mph before the crash, making it impossible to keep vehicle and road aligned after he rammed the IMPD squad car. The spinout defied gravity for a wholly unnatural force, like a vortex of water swirling in rings. Around and around he went until body and mind fell silent beneath the skreigh of twisted metal. When it stopped, death seemed the best explanation for his surroundings: dark and without sound.

He has wrecked in a cornfield. The car is upright, and Silas, as far as he can tell, has been spared from serious injury. His forearms are singed as if by rug burn, coated by talcum powder and the smell of sulfur. Within reach is the displaced steering wheel protruding like a jammed thumb; the cracked mirror; the center console, now wedged between crushed dash and floor mat; the serrated polyester of his seat; the caved roof. Five, four, three, two, one.

Silas has counted them and still cannot breathe.

It is impossible to unbuckle his belt. Feeling around, he determines the latch to be broken, and without anything to cut the straps with, he is stuck. He surveys the scene from the driver’s seat, watching as an offhand breeze tilts trees across the street like dandelion stems. There among a graveyard of discarded memories, there at the crossroads of iniquity and the life he might have lived if happy endings existed, Silas peruses the missing link between mother and son: a journal fit with coffee stains and bent corners bounces from page to page, the timeworn reminder of life’s elasticity. Among those pages, words. He reads for what feels like days, though the solitary clang of church bells dispute this. Forming a pressure painful, almost wicked, behind the apple of Silas’s throat, he takes in the stories of his parents under the dim courtesy light of a car crushed like a soda can, and registers for the first time in seventeen years a realization not once possible before this moment – that his mother, demon of his youth, great disciplinarian and harbinger of hostility, was no such thing at all. The truth then? The truth exposes the fabric of his father’s life as tenuous and frayed: he is a liar. Unsurprising. What else could crash so resoundingly down to earth but the fictions of a depraved lunatic? These journals serve as proof.

Suddenly, flashlight beams bind the vehicle. Dogs bark. In view is the encompassing cornfield crushed from his car – leaves and husks and corn silk invading through cracked windows, the lattermost draped wet over his face. Blue-clad bodies rustle through stalks that managed to avoid the spinout while boots crunch those already flattened. The blood tastes familiar at first, but when it bubbles, coming up like seltzer opened too quickly, Silas lets out a burst of shocked, guttural laughter. The gun is wedged between his feet – his golden feet, Papa once called them – and so too the journals, one warm, effulgent, the other pulseless. Silas lifts the Browning in the air as voices outside raise a final warning, but apropos of nothing, he finds his thoughts back in Belgrano, cursed, unable to shake the shackles of a time worth forgetting. And so he tasks a finger to turn it off, clearing way for new horizons over distant shores.

1 Dr. Sheen says it’s a sensory awareness technique for calming the amygdalae, those cerebral security guards pinging danger signals no more accurate than buggy amber alerts. What matters is regaining control.

2 It’s a point of embarrassment on Silas’s part that when they arrived, he believed all the cameras and reporters outside El Monumental (the stadium) to be there for him.

3 Impossible to forget was the lip curl on Papa’s face the first time Silas’s 1st grade team, fresh off a championship, was presented with a participation trophy. Its make identical in size and stature to all the rest, his father made a fuss to whoever would listen about the importance in rewarding superiority, which, even to Silas’s young ears, rang harsh in proximity of the losing team. And yet when presented with a new trophy a few weeks later – one special ordered by Papa himself fit with a solid gold plate beneath a lustrous cup – the sight pumped a desire hauntingly addictive. He needed more.

About the Author

Olivier FitzGerald