Excerpt from Milk of Amnesia, a novel
Untangling the story of what happened to his friend Terry, Chris Bickerstaff and his inamorata, Marie Marcovic, a Croatian refugee turned FBI Special Agent, interview her former boss about circumstances surrounding the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.
“You have a recording device?” Marie asks.
“In one hour’s time we have appointment with retired Special Agent, FBI. Apartment is 215 East 68th Street. Ring me and we will walk there together. Jerry Botter was friend to me when I am first in New York office. Many years before this he is SAC in Oklahoma City, during period of OKC95.”
“Why do I need to record him?”
“When I see you,” she says.
Looking fresh in sandals and a sand-colored summer dress, Marie meets Chris downstairs in her lobby. In a liquor store, she asks for Maker’s Mark, which he pays for before she can. “You should let me pay,” she says, crossly.
He shows her his iPhone. “I’m supposed to be a reporter?”
“Jerry Botter, please do not ask why, is playing prank on wife. He has told her interview for article about him is reason we are there. So you must pretend.”
“What about you?”
She sighs. “I am to be from Press Office, FBI.”
“On our way,” says Chris, “please tell me how to handle what I’m about to tell you.” As cogently as he can, he lays out the linkage between Dewey Wells, his cabin, the two dead Eloites and John Doe #2. Much to his surprise, Marie takes his idea seriously. “Listen to me. Do not hit him over his head with this. Slowly, slowly, you understand? At first, general questions, so he will ramble.”
Chris nods at the Maker’s Mark Marie is clutching. “Exactly,” she says, clinking her rings against the bottle.
The building is a white brick postwar, immaculately kept up. With its picture windows and clean lines, the lobby has an open feel. Young Caribbean and Filipino nannies are rocking strollers back and forth as they chat sidesaddle on the window seats. Outside, a ferocious humidity has turned the day overcast.
Admitted to apartment 9C by Eve Botter, Jerry’s wife, Chris and Marie are ushered into the living room.
One more Chinese screen, Egyptian bibelot or Russian tschottcke, one more English round-topped table crowded with silver picture frames, one more wall sconce or standing lamp, and this living room would need guide ropes for navigation. Eve Botter’s short gray hair sits cap-like on her head. Her turtleneck is a concession to the winter temperatures achieved in summer by a window-unit air-conditioner. In her late 60’s, she has retained her figure and the panther-like step of a ballroom dancer.
“For crying out loud,” grunts Jerry Botter, impatient at his difficulty disengaging from his Barcalounger. Marie attempts to forestall this by bending over and kissing him on the cheek. Jerry, however, by suddenly lurching to his full height, nearly knocks her chin through the roof of her mouth.
“For God’s, sake, hon,” says Eve, amused, “just let her come to you.”
“It is good of you, Jerry, to receive us,” Marie says.
Capsizing back in his chair, Jerry jerks his head at Chris. “Who are you?”
“Chris Bickerstaff,” says Eve. “What’s the name of your magazine again?”
“Mine? Uh, my magazine? I’m mainly freelance. For magazines, yes.”
“Does that mean you write it and then sell it?”
“It does,” he says, bleakly.
“Really?” Eve glances at Marie, who nods in confirmation, although not as conclusively as Chris might have wished.
“Sit over there,” says Jerry. “That enough room for you, Chris? Yeah, you and your cell phone. Sure that’s enough room?”
“I’m fine,” says Chris.
As Marie frees a chair from the furniture clutch, Eve swivels in beside Chris on the couch. “Would you like to see some snapshots?” she says.
“Seems appropriate,” Chris says. Eve undecks a photo album from the stack on the coffee table.
“You still working JTTF?” Jerry asks Marie.
“Counter, yes. But there are changes.”
“Who’s your A.I.C.?”
Is now Geohagen.”
“Look at that sweet face,” says Eve, tapping a lustrous fingernail on a snapshot of a fat-faced little ruffian. “The future G-man, can you believe?”
“I can, actually.”
“You are thinking Art Aguirre?” says Marie. “He has retire now.”
“A lot of turnover,” Jerry says.
Eve flips the page. “And what about this one? He always looked like himself, don’t you think? It’s how he looks now.” She snickers. “See him.” She jerks her head at her husband, who is trying to ignore her. “Exactly himself.”
“And here he is holding a rifle. Quite the little crime fighter already.”
“I think that’s a fishing rod.”
“Do you?” Eve peers at the photo again. “And that’s not a dead animal?”
“It’s a fish,” says Chris.
“It’s a very small fish then.”
“Maybe it was a joke photo.”
“He’s lucky he didn’t grow up criminal,” says Eve, with what seems to Chris an unhealthy relish. “His poor mother and father. His uncle was the one he looked up to.”
“Until I could spell Sing Sing. So how’s Geohagen?” Jerry asks Marie.
“Don’t you find that’s true, Chris? That people who go into law enforcement often have criminals in their background.”
“Probably. Let’s see some of you, Eve.”
“But isn’t your story about Jerry?’
“Background’s essential to getting the whole person.”
“So I’m background then. Did you hear that, hon? I’m ‘background’ to you.” Eve pulls another photo album out of the stack. “Jerry!” she yelps.
Chris looks up. Marie is pouring Jerry a shot of Maker’s Mark.
“Now, this one,” Eve continues, indicating to Chris a faded Kodachrome, “is from around the time we first met. I was at Hofstra. He was in law school.”
“Wow!” says Chris, sincerely, staring at a slender girl with an unruly helmet of blond curls, a retrousse nose, and under her Mexican peasant blouse, apparently no bra. Giant hoop earrings complete the time capsule.
“He thought I was a shiksa, and didn’t want to ask me out.”
“You look more like a hippie,” says Chris. “Nice earrings, by the way.”
“I rescued her,” says Jerry.
“But you don’t want to hear about all this, do you, Chris?... Jerry!”
“Sun’s over the yardarm, Eve.”
“I let you rescue me,” says Eve to Jerry. “And, no, it isn’t over the yardarm. But let’s let Chris do his story.” She picks up his iPhone, places it midway between them.
“So what did you want to ask me?” She’s good with the make-up brush, Chris notices, but what’s creating the shine in her eyes is repressed laughter.
“What should I tell him, Jerry? Lots of important cases,” she says, solemnly, “but a few fuck-ups, too. Excuse me, iPhone,” she says, leaning forward to speak directly into the device. “Isn’t that right, Jerry?”
“Whatever you can think of,” says Chris.
“It’d make your article better, but maybe I should have my own article.”
“I’ll say,” says Jerry.
“Fine with me,” says Chris.
“You’re sweet,” she says, standing, and then slide-stepping out from between coffee table and couch.
“Stick around, Eve. Kibitz a little.”
“Let me know when you’re finished, hon, so I can say goodbye to your little friends.” Kissing Jerry on the forehead, she winks at Chris, nods to Marie and exits the room. Chris leans over, taps off his phone.
Jerry is laughing. “I didn’t think she was going to clown around so much. Had you going there, didn’t she?” He holds out his glass to Marie, who pours him another shot. “Not a lot of excitement around here since I retired and she quit doing volunteer work.”
Jerry Botter has gray eyes, a thin mouth and a short rumpled chin. He slides a big sip of Maker’s Mark between his lips, and shivers.
“So what’d you two want to ask me about?”
“Trial in Tulsa, previous to McVeigh,” says Marie. “Gloria Winters.”
“But connected to McVeigh?”
“Would have been,” says Chris, “but the judge disallowed her testimony.”
“Matsch did? Testimony about what?”
“Elohim City. That she met McVeigh there before the bombing. Which makes him part of a conspiracy.”
“Sure,” says Jerry, “the Stephen Jones specialty. One more potato.”
“The neo-Nazi debutante,” says Chris.
Another long sip of Maker’s Mark, glass in hand, Jerry relaxes.
“I went all the way up there, too,” he says. “Caught a few sessions of that farce. A racist, anti-Semitic little sociopath, who should have been modeling swimwear at the country club, instead of disrupting Martin Luther King Day parades and mailing out hate mail. BATF had her on and off a string, and by mistake, we outed her in a 302 that went to Jones. Yeah, it’s coming back. Naturally, she got off.”
“But not the husband,” says Chris.
“What was it? Threats, right, and a pipebomb? I got news, she was never going to be a factor in McVeigh. So what she saw him in Elohim City? That’s like seeing someone from Jersey at a Springsteen concert. I’m still waiting for your question.”
“John Doe #2.”
Jerry glances at Marie. Shakes his head.
“Did not exist, I have told him,” she says.
“But you looked,” says Chris to Jerry, “didn’t you?”
On the table next to him, Jerry centers his drink on a pewter coaster. In the pause that follows, the smell of the shiny dark table wood, the smell of all the furniture, identifies itself to Chris as the persistent astringence of Lemon Pledge.
“Pure prophylaxis,” Jerry says. “The militias, the black helicopter crowd, the right wing press. We had to, you understand? But I’m seeing where you’re headed with this. The father. Except his name wasn’t Winters.”
“Wells. Dewey Wells.”
“Yeah, Wells. He wanted to get in on his daughter’s patriot shtick, and we didn’t turn him down.” He shifts in his chair. “Ever been to Oklahoma, Chris? All bullets and Bibles. Wells was a gun collector or something and some of the people he put us onto had the right whiff.” He stops suddenly, taps his lips.
“That’s interesting,” says Chris.
“Is it?” Jerry says, his eyes going small.
Marie clears her throat.
“So why did it happen?” says Jerry, abruptly becoming reflective again. “OKC95? You forgot, right? David Koresh, Janet Reno and those BATF fuckwads? Waco, Texas, remember? The Murrah building comes down two years later on the exact same date.”
“Dewey had a vacation cabin near Elohim City.”
“Elohim City was out of bounds for us. The minute we’d show up, it was all mother-may-I, everybody freezing in place. Or they’d armed-escort us off the property. This is despite some of them talking to us off-campus.”
“Surveillance?” asks Marie.
Jerry shrugs. “A few of them we liked. A lot. One guy and his wife we watched for months. Night trips to places we had eyes on, meetings with the right kind of wrong people. In the end, no dice. Nada.”
“Did anything happen?”
“To the couple.”
“You got to understand something.” Jerry turns to Marie. “Christ, here I’m thinking I really am talking to a reporter.
“These types I’m referring to,” he says to Chris, “they’re in lives that don’t always end up so good. I got nothing against gun ownership, nothing against Christians, but some of these folks are way too ready to step to Jesus. They’re like frequent flyers, okay, praying for the plane to crash.”
“Or the cabin to blow up.”
Jerry drains the last of the bourbon from his glass. “Says who?”
“A local newspaper out there.”
Jerry nods to himself. Stares out the window. “Not the same people.”
“But the same cabin.”
“I don’t have that information, okay?” He pauses. “I do remember something bad happening. Thank you, dear.” Marie has freshened his drink. “Different couple, not the one my team was looking at, anyway. But don’t make a meal out of this, because it won’t stick. Believe me, they all wanted to be John Doe #2 and none of them were. There wasn’t one. And we sure as hell looked.”
“The unidentified thigh,” says Chris.
“In the rubble?” Jerry laughs. “Sure, if it makes you happy.” He struggles to stand, but shrugs off help from Marie.
“Nice to meet you,” he says to Chris.
Eve does not reappear. Down the hallway, on the phone, she waves from the bedroom, as Chris exits the apartment. He waves back, and waits in the outer hall for Marie, who Jerry has briefly detained.