Head Games

A Novel

A Mike Garrity Mystery (Volume 1 of 2)

Thomas B. Cavanagh

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One
I have a tumor in my head. I call it Bob.
Bob is the boss. He controls everything I do. He is the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning and the last thing I think of before I finally drift off at night.
If I drift off. Too many things to ponder in the dark, wee hours, when there’s nothing to do but think. See, Bob isn’t much of a sleeper. Although, the doc tells me that’ll change. Evidently, Bob will eventually become a quite relaxed son of a bitch, sleeping for much of the day, resting me up for my big, inevitable nap.
Bob’s generous to a fault. Shares everything with me. Take these nuclear headaches. Bob gave me those. Doc says that they’re from the increased intracranial pressure—less and less room for a constant amount of cerebrospinal fluid. Seems Bob is doing some remodeling inside my skull, adding on to his digs, maybe a game room or a den. The ever-expanding Bob needs his space, squeezing my brain juice till it can’t squeeze no more. The big question is, how far down into my gray matter does his basement go?
Don’t tell him I said this, but Bob is kind of a prima donna. Always has to be the center of attention. See, he’s stretching out his tendrils into my brain like tree roots, short-circuiting my synapses, forcing himself into my consciousness even when I try to keep him out. I can’t go five minutes without thinking about him. Putting on my socks. Taking a leak. Eating my Cheerios. I can feel him in there, a strawberry-sized lump of malignant cells, scrunching down in my cerebrum, getting comfy, putting his feet up on the coffee table. I can even feel it when I nod, not too heavy, about the same weight as a golf ball.
The doc says I can’t actually feel the tumor. I’m imagining it. He said it’s all in my head. I told him, “No shit.”
Without a doubt, Bob is the most significant relationship in my life right now. He may be the most significant relationship I’ve ever had, which probably says more about me than I’d like to admit. But he’s not happy just with me. He’s reaching out. My former coworkers. My ex-wives. My daughter. My friends. He’s become a presence in their lives, too.
Hey, Bob’s a regular social animal. He wants to get to know everyone, even complete strangers. I was in the grocery store the other day buying six boxes of Twinkies—after all, at this point, what the hell do I care about fat grams and calories? Anyway, the cashier kind of looked funny at all the Twinkies and then up at me. I said:
“Hi. I have a brain tumor. How are you?”
I regretted it, of course, as soon as I saw the look on her face. She was maybe eighteen. Maybe nineteen. She didn’t know what to say. Grown men I’ve known twenty years—toughest cops you’ll ever meet, who’ve seen more up-close tragedy than ten average lifetimes—even they don’t know what to say. What did I expect some stranger, a kid, to say? She probably went home and cried. I felt like crap.
Other times, I look around and see people going about their days, running errands, shopping for shoes, eating lunch, whatever, and I realize like an epiphany that they don’t have brain tumors. I can’t even remember what that was like. They all look like freaks to me now. And, what’s worse, they don’t even know Bob’s there. Oblivious to Bob! How can that be? Bob is a palpable force that radiates from my head, lying like a blanket on everything I see, everything I think about, everyone around me. It consumes me. My friends feel it. My family feels it. I can’t believe that everyone doesn’t feel it.
Not long after I was diagnosed, when the shock of it was still seared into my consciousness like a brand, I was at a red light, looking at the drivers around me, amazed at their ignorance. Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. Next to me was a skinny white kid, bleached hair, in a torso-hugging tank top, sitting in a tricked-out Honda CRX. He was nodding his head, lips pursed, to a rap bass beat that poured out his open window and pounded my ribs all the way in the next lane. I cranked down my window.
“Hey!” I shouted.
No response.
“Hey!” This time louder. The kid rolled his head back and tilted it toward me, giving me the insolent look that can only be found on seventeen-year-olds and ex-wives.
“I have a brain tumor!” I shouted over the bass. No reaction from the kid. I’m not sure what I expected or why I even felt compelled to talk to him. The light turned green and before he lurched down the street, he flipped me a lackadaisical middle finger.
I mentioned this to Cam—a mistake, I know—and her reaction was that it says a lot about me that I won’t talk to my family or go to the support group recommended by the neurologist, but I’ll talk to some strange delinquent on the street.
I’ll say this. I respect that kid. He gave me no bullshit about what he thought. He taught me an important lesson, too, although I’m still deciding exactly what it was. Maybe not to feel so damn sorry for myself. Maybe to understand that the whole world doesn’t revolve around me. Maybe that nobody gives the proverbial rat’s ass about my terminal cancer except me. All valuable lessons, sure. But most of all, he stood up to Bob. He told Bob to fuck off and drove right out of Bob’s life forever. I envied that kid. He’s my new hero.
When I got my diagnosis, I transformed instantly into “the guy with the tumor in his head.” Gradually, though, I’m slowly morphing into “the tumor with the guy around him.” It’s true. When people who know about the cancer look at me, they don’t see me first. They see Bob. I can tell by their pained and uncomfortable faces, their awkward attempts at small talk (someone actually said to me recently, “Is it hot enough for you?”), their feeble efforts to be supportive. They mean well and I don’t blame them for being awkward and uncomfortable. But don’t tell me that I’m the one making them uncomfortable. It’s all Bob, baby, and I’m just along for the ride.
When the phone rang, I was in my apartment, eating the last of the Twinkies, sitting on my couch in the dark, eyes closed. It sounds pathetic, I know. Sitting alone in the dark, no music, no TV, eating Twinkies, just me and Bob. But I haven’t had any desire to listen to music for a while, and I think that, given my limited time left here on earth, watching Fear Factor would be a waste of it. Of course, sitting in the dark eating Twinkies isn’t exactly carpe diem. What can I say? I’m full of contradictions. It’s what makes me complex.
I let the phone ring until the machine answered.
“Michael. Mikey. It’s George Neuheisel. Listen, I want to talk to you about something. It’s kinda urgent. Call me back as soon as you get this.” He left his number. I didn’t recognize it.
I hadn’t heard from George in a long time. Since before I left the job. Actually, not since before he left the job. There was really only one reason why he could be calling me. He’d heard from someone about the new roommate in my skull and felt compelled to call. I got a lot of those calls recently, and they all went about the same. Hang in there, Mikey. You’re a fighter. You can beat it. We’ll keep you in our prayers. Does it hurt? Let me know if there’s anything I can do. Blah blah blah.
Again, I know they mean well and I appreciate that they actually had the courage to call—more than a few hadn’t called, like they might catch cancer from me through the phone—but, I was over it by now. None of them knew how to end the call. More than one got emotional and started crying. It just wasn’t doing anything for me, so I stopped answering.
But, still . . . George’s call was a little different. It almost sounded like he wanted to discuss something specific. Maybe I owed him money. And what was with saying it was urgent? Was he afraid I was gonna die before I decided to return his call?
The more I thought about the message, the more I got the itch to call him back. I picked up the receiver and placed it back in the cradle twice before I dialed the number. George answered on the third ring.
And nothing was ever the same again.
“Seriously, Mikey, it’s good to see you.”
I opened my eyes. George’s hulking six-foot-six frame stood over me.
“Christ, George,” I said. “This is most comfortable goddamn chair I ever sat in.”
George smiled. “Calfskin leather. Imported from Italy.”
I was in the reception area of Global Talent Inc., melting into a buttery soft leather waiting chair. I wasn’t kidding. This was the most comfortable chair I had ever rested my plebeian ass in. It was like a womb.
“See why I left the job?” George said with a smile, offering a hand and hoisting me up.
I saw, all right. Besides the chair, the floors were marble—also probably imported—the walls were trimmed in a rich cherry, and, sitting behind a massive chrome receptionist desk, was a young blonde who was so beautiful it hurt my eyes to look directly at her. George led me down a hallway lined with framed photographs of celebrities. Singers mostly, but a few actors, too. I recognized them all, even if I didn’t know all their names. Each was posing with a short, goateed man in a black baseball cap.
Amazingly, George hadn’t aged at all in the five years since we’d last seen each other. Hair still a sandy brown, cut short without a trace of gray. Square face. Thick neck. Wire-rimmed glasses that made him look like a biker professor. He was still a physically impressive dude. Besides his height, his build was more muscle than fat, and I was reminded why he would be so valuable as a bodyguard for Global Talent.
It was kind of a joke at the time. I mean, on the surface, why would someone leave a job as an up-and-comer in a metropolitan police department to become a bodyguard for a bunch of teenyboppers? It seemed like a step down. But after fifteen minutes in that glorious chair, I was ready to chop off a pinkie toe to get some more of that imported leather. Plus, I found out later that George had upped his salary to close to ninety grand a year when he made the jump. And now he was no longer just rank-and-file. He was the VP of security for the entire agency. I guessed his salary had jumped to $150K or more.
He escorted me into his office, which boasted a dramatic view of downtown Orlando’s Lake Eola. I could see the afternoon traffic snaking around the lake, the joggers, the dog walkers. It was another sunny June day in Central Florida, with the mercury topping ninety-seven degrees and the humidity at an arid 84 percent. We sat in front of his desk in a couple of high-priced leather-and-chrome director’s chairs. These were a far cry from the seats in the reception area, but still better than anything in my apartment.
“You want somethin’ to drink?” George said. “A Coke? Cappuccino?”
“Uh, you got a regular coffee?”
“Sure.” He pressed a button on his phone and asked some assistant named Gary to fetch me a cup of joe: cream, no sugar. He looked up at me. “So, how you feelin’?”
“Me? Oh, I’m swell,” I said. “Thanks for asking. You?”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“Would you?”
A beat. “Okay, then let’s talk business.”
I blinked at him. He didn’t invite me here to talk about Bob? It took a moment to sink in. It was a refreshing change of pace and one I wasn’t expecting. Well, if he didn’t want to talk about Bob, what did he want to talk about? Apparently, he was just getting to that.
“One of the boys is missing,” he said.
“Boys?”
Gary appeared silently through a back door with my coffee in a large Global Talent mug. I thanked him and took a sip. The coffee was as tasty as the reception chairs were comfortable. Hazelnut or something. Gary slipped out the way he came in and George pursed his lips.
“Maybe I should back up,” he said. “What do you know about Global Talent?”
“A little. The same as most folks, I suppose.” I told George what I knew. Global Talent was a talent management company. It showed up in the local papers every so often, usually when one of its clients got a Grammy nomination or something. George filled in the rest. Global’s clients were mostly kids, plucked from the ranks of the local theme-park performers and cadre of kid actors and singers working at Orlando’s Disney and Nickelodeon soundstages. The kids were packaged into groups, taught some synchronized dance moves, and marketed relentlessly to the buyers of Tiger Beat magazine. The place was owned by Mario “Eli” Elizondo and competed with the other Orlando-based teen-talent empires, Johnny Wright’s company and Lou Pearlman’s Trans Continental. Wright managed some of the hottest performers around, including Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. Pearlman was famous for creating ’N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and O-Town. I had heard of some of these artists. Some I had no clue about.
“Our hottest act right now is Boyz Klub,” George said. “Spelled with a z and a k. We broke them first in Europe, and the reaction was phenomenal. Their first album here in the States went platinum and they’ve just recorded their second. It goes on sale next month, the release timed to the start of a major concert tour. Everything’s great except for one thing: one of the Boyz is missing.”
“What do you mean ‘missing’?” I said.
“Gone. AWOL. No one’s seen him for over a week.” George leaned forward onto his massive knees. “Here’s the problem. If we don’t find him, the whole tour’s in jeopardy. That puts the album in jeopardy. That screws our marketing deal with Pepsi. And McDonald’s. We’re not just talking millions at risk here. It’s tens of millions. Maybe hundreds of millions.”
I nodded thoughtfully, as if I had some inkling of the high-stakes world of pop music. “You have no idea where he is?”
“TJ is . . . ah, TJ’s a free spirit. A good kid, really. Kind. Thoughtful. Never let the fame go to his head. But he’s got a different drummer, man.” George sat back and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “He did this once before, after we got back from Europe but before our first U.S. tour. Showed up at the chartered jet ten minutes before we were supposed to leave. He’d been in the desert meditating for eight days. He looked like shit.”
“So what are you worried about?” I said. “What makes you think he won’t do the same this time?”
“We don’t know. He didn’t tell anybody he was leaving, didn’t say where he was going, or when he’d be back. With so much at stake, people like to have assurances.”
“Okay, George. Let’s cut to the chase.”
He narrowed his eyes at me, a hint of a smile at one corner of his mouth. “I want you to find him.”
I figured as much. No way. “Look, Georgie—”
George held up both index fingers. “Don’t say anything yet. I can make it worth your while.”
“Money ain’t exactly my biggest concern right now.”
“Really? What are you living on? You quit before your twenty years were up. You got no retirement. I don’t remember you as the investing type. So, what? Just drawing down your savings? How long will that last?”
“Long enough.”
George pursed his lips and considered me. “What if you actually live for a while? Happens all the time. Praise Jesus, the doctors gave him six months and here he is five years later. You want to be sick and broke?”
I didn’t like where this was going. He said he didn’t want to talk about Bob, but here I was—again—talking about him. “Look, George, I appreciate the concern, but you don’t need to worry about me.”
George leaned forward again. “What about Jennifer? Don’t you want to leave anything for her?”
I wasn’t about to discuss my daughter with George Neuheisel. It pissed me off that he even dared to bring her up. “Why me, George? Hunh? I’m not even a licensed PI. I’m a retired cop with cancer in my brain. I’m probably the last guy you’d want for a job like this.”
George sat back again. Took a deep breath. “You’re the best cop I ever worked with and that’s a fact. The tightest investigator. Remember when we needed to find that kid for the Ramirez trial? Everyone said he was gone, man. Invisible. But you found him, dude. That was all you. And what about ‘Juan the Don’? Hell, that practically made you famous. Picture in the paper. CNN. They even put you on Discovery Channel.”
“That wasn’t me. That was a reenactment.”
“But it was about you. What you did. Don’t worry about the license. You can go on the Global payroll. Security consultant or something. And, yeah, there are some good PIs in town. With my budget, I could even afford the best from out of town. But we need to keep this very low profile so we don’t spook the sponsors. And I’ve got a gut instinct that tells me you’re the guy. I believe in fate, Mikey. Maybe God put that cancer in your brain so you’d quit the department and be available for this job. Who knows.”
Yeah. If that was really God’s plan, I wish He would’ve just hit me with a bus and been done with it. George had really become a myopic crackpot. Did he really just suggest that my terminal cancer had a reason, and it was to put me in a position to help him find a runaway millionaire kid who likes to meditate? I just stared at him.
“You’re nuts. Really, George. You’re over the edge.”
“Mikey. Think about it. Don’t say no yet. Think about Jennifer.”
Now I took a deep breath. “How much?”
“You find him and it’s fifty grand.”
I let out a low whistle. That was well above the going rate for any private investigation I had ever heard of.
“It gets better,” George said. “You find him before the tour starts and there’s another fifty. You find him before the tour starts and make sure he’s on the plane, you get two-fifty large, plus expenses.”
I blinked. Had I heard that right? “Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars?”
“This is very important to Eli.”
“Damn, George.”
“Think about it, Mikey. Just think about it.”
Oh, I’d think about it, all right. Whether I wanted to or not.
Copyright © 2007 by Thomas B. Cavanagh. All rights reserved.