Road to Nowhere

For years the drifter haunted the background of American life, roaming the side streets and highways that crisscross this vast country.  Cool and handsome, with a single teardrop scar and a knack for silence that keeps the world at bay, he is a man alone.

That all changes on a rainy night in Chicago, when he witnesses a brutal assault on a young woman.  By the time he reaches her, the assailant is gone, leaving a trail that’s all too easy to follow.  Soon, caught between duty and the anonymity of life on the road, his moment of conscience hurls him into a shadowy world of violence, intrigue and deception.  When his estranged teenage daughter is threatened, he will make his choice.  By turns violent and insightful, this suspenseful novel introduces an unforgettable hero to the ranks of contemporary American fiction.

Two hours sleep.  He showered again and shaved.  He put on a blue blazer and walked off wearing the same brand of black jeans, the same white oxford, the shirt coming from the Chinese laundry with a paper strip across the chest.

To Staropolska’s.  Mushroom pierogi, potato cutlets with brown gravy, a cold brew.  He used their payphone.  As he doubled back to the L, he was thinking it might’ve worked better with a suit, heading, as he was, to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to see Taylor McHugh, whose card he found in Mary Louise’s briefcase.

Or maybe not.  Either way, one sentence would tell if he’d played it right.

The Blue Line to West Jackson.  The Chicago Merc’s Art Deco building, once the tallest in town.  People were exiting, their day done.  Swimming against the tide, he went to the desk and asked for McHugh.  Security wanted his I.D.  He showed them an Indiana driver’s license.  John Bleak of Lebanon.  He’d never been there and couldn’t remember the last time he was in Indiana, but he knew the city was pronounced differently than the country between Israel and Syria.  That alone usually got him through.  As it did today.

He reached reception on the floor that housed the Business Development group.

Taylor McHugh, please, he said, as glass doors sealed behind him.

The receptionist had 100 teeth, and each one of them sparkled like they’d been buffed by machine.

“Who shall I say—”

The badge stuck to his lapel told her the name he was using.  But he said Mary Louise Szarsynski sent him.

The sentence.

McHugh appeared.

She wore a dark suit with gold buttons, a black scoop-neck blouse, and her gold choker matched her earrings and bracelets.  Once a brunette, she was blond with streaks in various subtle shades.  She carried a leather folio and the latest iPhone.  Everything about her exuded speed and efficiency, like a guillotine’s blade.

They shook hands.

She directed him to a woody conference room and gestured to a seat facing a wall of windows.

She settled on the other side of the long table, the city spread behind her.

“Mary Louise Szarsynski told you to see me,” she said as she opened the folio and unclipped a thin gold pen.  The top page of the legal pad was blank.

He said nothing as he stood and moved to the seat by the door.

McHugh turned.  “And?”

He said, “She has a mild concussion, contusions, a sprained ankle.  She was lucky.”

“A concussion?  What happened?”



“You were the last person she spoke to.”

“Are you with the police?”

He said no.  “You were the last person—”

“Is that relevant?”

He shrugged.

“And how can you possibly know if it’s true?”

He didn’t need much more than he had.  According to her cell, Mary Louise called McHugh yesterday at 5:26 p.m.  The business card she’d had in her briefcase was new.  A press release on its website said McHugh had joined the CME a couple of years ago after its takeover of the New York Merc.  Judy asked if her daughter had trouble in New York.

“She was your administrative assistant at the New York Mercantile Exchange,” he said.  “She came here to see you after hours.  Then…”  He punched his palm.

McHugh sat back toward the skyline.  “Is she all right?”

“I am telling you a man tried to knock the face off her head.”

He stood.

“Mr. Bleak, excuse me,” McHugh said.  “What exactly is your purpose?”

He waited by the door, unable to resist the spectacular view.  He could see the Hancock Observatory and all the way to Lincoln Park.  Lake Michigan shimmered in the early evening sun.

She was steady.  He hadn’t sent her off stride.  He couldn’t tell if she already knew her former secretary had been damaged and had run from the hospital.  McHugh gave him nothing.

“It failed,” he said, “and now you’ve got CPD.”

She stepped toward him, leaving the folio and iPhone on the table.  “Mr. Bleak, I’m going to assure you there’s been a misunderstanding,” she said calmly.  “You’re going to tell me exactly what happened.  And then we’ll figure out where you’ve gone wrong.”

“Ask the police to show you the photos.  Her cheek, her eye.  The back of her head.”

He opened the door and made his way back to reception.  He waited for the elevator to arrive.  Three things might happen next, each with its own meaning.  McHugh would catch up and ask him back inside.  Security would appear.  Or he’d turn in his name badge, sign out and blend into the crowd on La Salle.

On La Salle, he headed west, the L stop over on Quincy.