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“Rough night? You look like you slept out here with us.”
Matt studied the chessboard, ignoring the weathered black man sitting across from him at the battered table in Washington Square Park.
“Ain’t you cold? Where’s your coat?”
“Shush, Reggie,” Matt said, waving the questions away with a hand. “I’m trying to concentrate.” He continued to plot his move on the board. A cool morning breeze pushed through the park, and Matt rubbed his hands together from the chill. It was way too cold for April.
Reggie made a sound of amusement in his throat. “Take all day. Ain’t gonna matter.”
In two years Matt hadn’t won a single game against the West Village’s homeless Bobby Fischer. Matt wondered sometimes what had brought the highly intelligent man to the streets, but he never asked. He moved his bishop, capturing the pawn on g7.
Reggie shook his head, as if disappointed in him. Eyes on the board, Reggie said, “What, you just getting back from a party or something?”
“Yeah, over at Goddard.” Matt directed his head to Goddard Hall, a washed-brown brick tower just off the park.
“Goddard? Hangin’ with the freshman girls,” Reggie said with a gravelly laugh. He knew more about NYU than most grad students. Maybe that was it; maybe he’d once attended the university.
It was odd because people usually confided in Matt, told them their life stories, their secrets, their problems. He guessed he just had that kind of face. Or maybe it was because he preferred listening, observing, over talking. And boy, could Reggie talk. Yet despite his incessant chatter, Reggie offered no clues about his life before the park. Matt had looked for signs of the backstory. The man kept a green military-looking bag; maybe he’d been a soldier. His hands and nails were always impeccably clean; maybe he’d worked in the medical field. His street talk at times seemed genuine, at times forced. Maybe he was hiding his real identity, on the run, a criminal. Or maybe he was just a guy who’d hit hard times, loved to play chess, and didn’t feel the need to justify his life to an annoying college kid.
“My man. Out all night with the coeds.” Reggie chuckled again. “How’s that pretty redhead of yours feel about that?”
A fair question. But that pretty redhead had broken up with Matt yesterday. Hence too many drinks at Purple Haze. Hence the after-party at Goddard and the frolic upstairs with Deena (or was it Dana?). Hence 7:00 A.M. in the park with bed head and no way to get back into the dorm—his security card, room key, and phone in the pocket of his missing coat.
Reggie moved his rook to g8, then gave a satisfied yellow smile. “I’m startin’ to wonder how you got admitted into that fine institution.” Reggie gazed at the admissions building, the purple NYU flag flapping in the wind.
“Now you’re starting to sound like my father,” Matt said, moving his own rook to e1. His eyes lifted to Reggie’s. “Check.”
Reggie moved his king to d8, but it was too late.
Queen to g3. Checkmate was inevitable.
“Mother…” Reggie said. He called out to a player at one of the other tables. “Yo, Elijah, check this out. Affleck gone and beat me.” Reggie always called Matt “Ben Affleck”—his derogatory shorthand for “white boy.”
“Beware the quiet man,” Reggie said, in a tone like a preacher, quoting from something Matt didn’t recognize. “For while others speak, he watches. And while others act, he plans. And when they finally rest, he strikes.”
Reggie dropped a wadded bill onto the table.
“I’m not taking your money.” Matt stood, cracked his back.
“Hell you ain’t,” Reggie said, flicking the bill toward Matt. “You’re a film student—you’re gonna need it.” He cackled.
Matt reluctantly scooped up the money. He looked up at the dark clouds rolling into the city. He loved the smell of an imminent rain. “At least let me get you breakfast at the dining hall. I’ve got some meal swipes left.”
“Nah,” Reggie said. “They didn’t seem so happy last time.…”
Reggie was right. Limousine liberalism had its limits, as Matt had learned from his time with the privileged student body of New York University. He was an oddity to most of his classmates, an apolitical Midwesterner.
“Fuck ’em,” Matt said, gesturing for Reggie to join him, when he heard a familiar voice from behind.
“There you are. We’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
Matt turned and saw the resident assistant from his dorm. Why would the RA be looking for him? Phillip usually appeared only if the music was too loud or the halls smelled like weed.
“There are federal agents at the dorm,” Phillip said, concern in his voice. “They want to talk with you.”
“Yeah, the FBI showed up at six this morning. They said you’re not answering your phone.”
“What do they want?” Matt asked. It was probably about his older brother. Ever since that fucking documentary, everything was about Danny.
“I don’t know. But if you’re doing something out of the dorm you shouldn’t, I don’t—”
“Relax, man. I’m not—” Matt paused, took a breath. “Thanks for letting me know. I’ll go see what they want.”
Phillip let out an exasperated sigh and sauntered off.
“You in some trouble?” Reggie asked.
“I guess I’d better go find out. Rain check on breakfast?”
Reggie nodded. “Be careful, Affleck. Nothing good ever came of federal agents knocking on your door at six in the mornin’.”
* * *
A half hour later Matt sat on his small dorm bed, the room spinning.
The lead FBI agent—Matt couldn’t remember her name—was talking again, but it was just a jumble of words. When Matt didn’t respond, the agent knelt in front of him, a concerned look on her face. Her partner, a lean guy in a dark suit, hovered in the background, shifting on his feet.
“I spoke with the dean,” the agent was saying, “and they’ve arranged for a grief counselor. And you don’t have to worry about your classes.”
Matt tried to stand, but his legs buckled, blood rushing to his head. The agent guided him back to the bed.
“All of them?” Matt said. She’d told him twice already, but he didn’t believe it.
“I’m so sorry.”
He stood again, said something, then tripped to the bathroom. He dropped to his knees and emptied his guts into the toilet. He hugged the dirty bowl, unsure how long he was there.
At some point he heard a soft tap on the door.
“I’ll be out in a minute,” he managed. Gripping the sink, he tugged himself up. He turned on the faucet and splashed water on his face, then glanced at his reflection in the mirror. He looked like he felt.
Back in the room, the female agent was alone, her partner having cleared out.
“How could something like this happen?” Matt asked, the sound of his voice strange to him, hoarse and distant.
“They think it’s a freak accident, a gas leak. But that’s what we’re trying to get to the bottom of. Both the Bureau and State Department are working on it. We’ve reached out to the Mexican authorities. I know this is the worst possible time, but I need to ask you a few questions.”
Matt sat down again, nodded for her to continue.
“We understand they were on vacation.”
“Uh-huh, spring break for my little sister and brother.” The words caught in his throat. “They decided to go at the last minute. My break didn’t match up, so I couldn’t…” He stopped, fighting back tears.
“When’s the last time you heard from them?”
Matt thought about this. “My mom sent a text from the airport the day they left. Maggie sent one a few days ago.” He felt a stab of guilt. He hadn’t read, much less responded to, his little sister’s text.
“How about your father?”
He shook his head, every part of him numb. They hadn’t spoken since their fight over Christmas break. His heart sank. The last thing Matt had said to him—
“For the timeline—to help us understand things—it’s important that we see those texts. If you don’t mind?”
“Yeah, sure. But my phone, it’s in my coat, which I left somewhere last night.”
“Do you know where?” the agent asked. She was sympathetic, but Matt could tell she was getting impatient.
“I think it’s at the bar.” He’d grabbed the tiny mountain of his clothes before slinking out of the girl’s dorm, so it had to be the bar.
The agent nodded. “I can take you there.”
“I don’t think they’ll be open this early.”
“What’s it called?”
“Purple Haze, on East Thirteenth.”
The agent pulled out her phone and walked to the far end of the room. She looked out the rain-speckled window, murmuring commands to someone. “I don’t care. Just tell them to get somebody there now,” she said, making her way back over to Matt.
“You up to going to the bar with me?” The agent took a few steps toward the door.
Trancelike, Matt nodded.
“You want to get a jacket or umbrella? It’s raining.”
Matt shook his head and followed her out.
A small crowd had gathered in the hallway, gawking students. Matt didn’t know if word had spread about his family or if they thought he was being arrested for something.
The agent—he still couldn’t conjure her name—pushed ahead to the elevator. Inside, Matt said, “Has the media got this yet?”
The agent gave him a knowing look. “It hit the wire, but they haven’t released your last name. They wait a little while to allow time to notify the family.”
“You know what’s gonna happen when they find out, right?” Matt shook his head in disgust. That goddamn Netflix documentary.
The agent nodded.
The elevator doors spread open and they were met by a mob of reporters and blinding camera flashes.
Copyright © 2021 by Alex Finlay.