I watched Emily leave. Not in a like a leering way. More in a “feeling the impossible yearnings of the heart” kind of way. And then I became aware all at once of Byron’s eyes on me from behind the door that separated front-of-house from back-of-house.
I knew that if I went back there, bad things were going to happen. I feinted toward the door and then rolled off for the bathroom which was on this side of the front-of-house line. But even in my scramble Byron had only to nudge the door open and speak my name.
“Yes,” I said, already completely motionless, as if Byron’s speech altered the process of inertia itself.
“Come back here.”
And I did.
“Who was that?” Byron said.
“I have no idea,” I said.
Houseman, over by the mixer, put his hand to his temples and rubbed.
“Oh, yeah? That looked pretty familiar. A pretty girl like that, leaning in all close. Leaning.”
He leaned in toward me.
“And I gotta say, I hate to say it, but hearing someone yelling about right and wrong, hearing someone yell about the law . . . Pal, I hate to say it, but that language like that makes me nervous. It makes me feel like it’s about time for a Klonopin. Get me a Xanax, you know.”
I leaned back from Byron slightly and smiled.
“I wasn’t talking about right and wrong, or the law,” I said. “I was talking about love.”
“Love,” Byron nodded and smiled at this. “Love doesn’t make me nervous. It’s easy to talk big with love. Easiest thing in the world. Just to talk about it and not mean it. And they don’t mean it. People don’t mean it. It’s just lips and larynx and air, vapor, nothing. Listen, I’ve seen lots of love. I used to do a little work on the New York Stock Exchange, ever heard of it? They called me Lord Byron there. I’ve told you that before. I saw how people who talk about love make decisions. Love doesn’t play a part in the decision-making process.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Thank you, sir. Helpful advice.”
Byron cocked his head and regarded me.
“Here’s the thing. I’m going to let you in on something. Something I need your help with.”
“I thought you were muttering things about me and a hammer earlier.”
“Ah, it helps me relax,” Byron said, waving it off. He pointed towards Houseman and the mixer.
“You see all that chocolate there? I’ve invested in all of this chocolate. All of this chocolate that no one has used. Pristine, beautiful, virgin chocolate. And I’ll tell you why. I bought out this Brazillian chocolate factory, completely bought up their stock. For two reasons. One was, I got word that the IRS was about to freeze all my assets, and I needed to offload an enormous amount of cash quickly. But I chose to buy that factory because my ex-wife loved this chocolate. And I found out that she didn’t really love me. She said she did.”
Byron walked across the room to the mixer and chocolate bearing shelf. He continued.
“So now, what I’m doing is I’ve got a monopoly on this stuff. Anyone wants Gilberto chocolate, they gotta come through me. And I ain’t selling a pin-head of chocolate to my ex-wife.
What I need you guys to do is to keep a nose out for the feds. They could be watching me. I need you to keep a nose out and let me know if anyone’s hanging around, acting funny, asking questions, anyone that don’t belong. Can you do that?”
Houseman was quick with a “Yes”, but I was faster.
“So,” Byron said, looking at me and then turning away, towards the chocolate. “Who were you talking to?”
I did a lot of work in a very short amount of time, contemplating how to answer. But I didn’t have to answer, because Byron stopped and went up on tip-toes to look at the chocolate. His body stiffened.
“What’s this? What the hell is this? One of these bricks of my spite chocolate’s been opened. What the hell is this?”
“Someone got into that spite chocolate?” I said, shaking my head and imagining what it looks like when someone shakes their head and means it and trying to approximate that.
“If I find out who did this, and I’m going to find out who did this, I’m going to hurt them. I’m going to do bad things. As in things that are morally wrong.”
Byron glared at Houseman. Then he glared at me. Then he glared at Houseman. And I’d be lying if I said that this pattern didn’t repeat for quite some time. It was a little bit like those cats watching ping-pong or whatever it is. Then he sort of shook himself and stomped off downstairs.
Houseman looked at me with eyes that did strong impressions of straight razors. I did a quick calculation and then made my move.
“You’ve been stealing that chocolate,” I said.
“Yeah, exactly,” he said.
“After all your loyal service.”
“I’m going to tell Byron what you’ve been doing.”
“What have I been doing?” I believed in my path of denial. I clung to it the way a president clings to his airplane when attacked by terrorists, if that president is Harrison Ford in Air Force One.
“It’s really frustrating that you went behind my back for so long, stealing. It’s one of the commandments.”
I told myself that if I gave in to Houseman, the terrorists win.
“What? You were giving free hot chocolate to that girl? Was it worth it? Did you get what you wanted? Seducing her with your ill-gotten hot chocolate. Did you tell her you loved her? Did you believe it? Well, you’re wrong. Doesn’t right and wrong mean anything to you? Stealing chocolate from Lord Byron is so very wrong.”
I swung at Houseman, but he turned agile again, a swift walrus, and teleported himself to a spot in front of the walk-in freezer. I smashed my hand into the mixer.
And then I heard the voice from the front-of-house.
I scrambled for the door, kicking at Houseman as I passed, and instead drawing my own shin-blood on the sheeter.
Emily stood on the other side of the counter and her aspect shone as though through a glass darkly, a bit dimmed.
“I was wrong,” she said. “I need to come clean with you. I’m with the feds.”
She showed me a convincing badge and an even more convincing gun. I tried hard not to be impressed, but I wasn’t that surprised. I mean I had no idea that she had anything to do with any kind of law enforcement activity. But it had been a long couple of hours, and I was kind of taking things as they came at this point.
“Here’s the thing: That chocolate. I’ve been getting it analyzed. And it’s such a distinctive molecular structure, the way the theobromines bond to the lipids or something, that we think we have a case. We just have to connect Byron with that chocolate. It’s a very minor technicality, but there’s actually a law on the books that prohibits bakeries from importing chocolate from Hispanic vendors without filling out form IJ4300. It’s just how we’re getting our foot in the door. If he’s got that chocolate on the premises, we’ve got him nailed. But, because you’ve put other things in the hot chocolate, we don’t have a pure sample. We need a pure samp . . . ”
“I can get you one,” I said.
The haze around her dispelled.
I turned around and walked into the back-of-house.
Houseman stood in front of the chocolate shelf.
“My friend,” I said. “Let’s do the right thing. Let’s take that chocolate out to the Federal Agent I’m in love with, and let’s bring this sonofagun down.”
Houseman’s face did not change.
“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “Byron’s been wronged. By his wife. By you.”
“But he’s a bad guy,” I said.
“How do you know?” he said.
This was a very reasonable question.
“Well,’ I said. “Apparently, the feds wanted to freeze his assets.”
“I don’t know. I just assume that they don’t do that unless they have a good reason.”
“That’s not good enough,” Houseman said.
I went back out to the counter, to Emily.
“So what did Byron do that was so wrong?”
Her eyes flamed.
“Do you know anything about the mortgage crisis?”
“Do you listen to ‘This American Life’?” she asked.
“Sometimes,” I said.
“Did you hear the thing they did about sub-prime lending and all of that?”
“Here,” she said. She pulled out her phone and downloaded the episode. We listened to it for the next hour.
“That’s incredible,” I said. “I had no idea. And Byron was responsible for all of that?”
“No,” she said. “He had retired from Wall Street by that point. He actually owned a bakery which, through a complex series of events, got screwed over on the sub-prime thing. He lost everything. Byron was so incensed that he set out to ruin a number of the key beneficiaries of the crisis. By whatever means necessary. He gathered an elite team of mercenaries and ruthlessly murdered the fat cats responsible for the housing crisis. The chocolate is just a thread that we can pull at to unravel his whole operation and bring him to justice.”
“Hold on,” I said. “Byron killed the guys responsible for the housing crisis?”
“Yeah. It’s murder.”
“But it’s kind of a bit of a gray area, right?”
I saw her point. I went back to Houseman.
“Byron is suspected of multiple counts of murder,” I said. “Surrounding the sub-prime lending fiasco, which . . .”
Houseman nodded and looked glum. He handed me a picture.
“I found this photo while you were talking to that girl. It was under the bucket of Craisins.”
The photo showed Houseman and a bunch of total badasses, each holding the severed head of one those sub-prime jerks. I threw up. Then I looked at the picture again, because it was sort of cool. And then I threw up again.
“I’m going to grab that chocolate, and we’re going to take it to Emily, and she’s going to blow this case wide open,” I said, wiping my mouth.
“Why don’t we just take this picture?” Houseman asked. “That should be proof enough, right?”
“That’s a good point,” I said. “We’ll take the chocolate too, though.”
When we pushed through the door, we were confronted by the sight of Byron holding a gun to Emily’s head.
“Let’s all go downstairs,” he said.
He noticed the photo.
“I’ll take that,” he said.