“The benefits of being a parent include not needing a reason other than I’m your father,” Bob says, slamming the cupboard door after retrieving his favorite coffee mug; the one that is supposed to bring him good luck, but instead brought the news that his only daughter is considering a date with the worst possible candidate in the state of Illinois. He stares at the steady stream of coffee pouring from the carafe to his not-so-lucky mug. What a way to ruin an otherwise lovely morning.
“I’m almost eighteen,” Katelyn pleads. “In six months, I can legally date whoever I want. I could marry whoever I want. I could go off to war!”
Bob can’t help but bark out a condescending laugh.
“Go off to war? Sweetheart, you begged me for months to frame in a bedroom for you in the basement and then refused to sleep in it a single night after seeing one harmless spider. Your mother still cuts your steak for you. You won’t drink a cup of coffee unless you’ve got organic oat milk and a frother on hand. Please, tell me more about how you’d survive battle overseas. I’d love to hear it.”
Katelyn has the unmistakable look of rage in her eyes; the rage that can only come from existing as a teenage girl who must carry the burden of being all-knowing, while cursed with parents who don’t have a clue.
“You’re impossible!” she shouts, stomping up the stairs to the bedroom she swore she couldn’t live another day in, because of its proximity to her younger brother. A brother who now resides in the newly erected private basement room, filled with Star Wars posters, Xbox games, and a permanently unmade twin sized bed.
“What was that about?” asks Jennifer, exiting from the master bedroom with a bathrobe on and a towel in her hand, gently drying her curly, wet hair. “Typical teenage angst?”
“Typical teenage angst, amplified by the news that I won’t be allowing her to date Ty.”
Jennifer’s eyes grow large, and she pauses her hand midair, nearly dropping the bath towel. “Ty, as in your assistant, Ty?”
“That would be the one.”
“Is that why she’s been volunteering around the shop lately?”
Bob can’t believe he didn’t connect the dots until this moment. A teenage girl shows interest in her father’s taxidermy business after seventeen years of disgust over his profession; obviously a boy is involved. Not a boy; a man, Bob reminds himself. Ty is twenty-one years old. He is perpetually late for work, drives on bald tires, forgets to file his taxes, and will not be dating Bob’s only daughter anytime soon.
“I suppose it is,” he responds, pouring the coffee from his lucky Chicago Cubs mug into a plain white one, which has not swayed his luck in either direction for the ten years it’s been in their cabinet. A day like today doesn’t deserve his favorite mug. He mumbles a few curse words as the hot liquid splashes his hand in his attempt to transfer the coffee. “I’d love to stay and discuss this more, but I’ve got to go into the shop.”
“It’s Saturday,” Jennifer reminds him.
“Yeah, and the lodge just ordered five more expedited pieces, so I’m working overtime to get them done in time for the grand opening.”
“Five more? That must be forty animals by now. How deep are this guy’s pockets?”
“He’s paid in cash for every single one so far. I’m not asking questions.”
Landry’s Lodge has been under construction for months in a small town near the Illinois/Wisconsin state line. Lincoln Landry, a multi-millionaire from Texas, dreams of creating a luxury retreat for the wealthy elite of cities like Milwaukee and Chicago who need a weekend away from their stressful lives. Bob landed the job of providing mounted antlers for the suites, assorted birds for the hallway, and even a grizzly bear full body mount for the lobby. It’s the biggest account he's worked with since the Wisconsin Wildlife Museum commissioned twenty pieces from him over a decade ago. He’s not sure where Mr. Landry is getting the animals to be worked on, but they arrive by courier each time Bob accepts another project. For all the things Bob hates about his assistant, Ty, he has him to thank for this account. Ty apparently went to high school with the construction foreman on the Landry Lodge project and could secure Bob’s Taxidermy as an official vendor for the lodge, without so much as a typed bid proposal for the job. It’s the sole reason he’s allowing Ty to exist another minute in this world after finding out he’s pursuing Katelyn behind Bob’s back. If that isn’t the ultimate betrayal, he’s not sure what is.
“Fair enough. But eventually, we’re going to have to talk about…us,” Jennifer says, considering reaching out to hold one of Bob’s rugged hands before thinking better of it.
Bob stares at her for a beat and then gazes down at the kitchen counter before giving a solemn nod. They’ve been having problems in their marriage for months; it’s certainly not going to be resolved by one Saturday night conversation.
“As soon as this project is done, we’ll go somewhere for the weekend and talk. The kids will love the freedom,” he says, before a vision of Katelyn sneaking Ty into the house derails his plans. “Or maybe we’ll stay here and just find a quiet place to talk.”
The twenty-two-minute drive to Bob’s Taxidermy is spent alternating thoughts between wanting to squeeze the life out of Ty and wanting to continue Katelyn’s short-lived taxidermy education because he could certainly use the help and she could use the lesson in hard work. He’s had to keep several fish in the freezer for long-term customers who normally take priority. An extra set of hands while he finishes Landry’s pieces would help catch him up on projects so he can take a vacation before hunting season rolls back around. Speaking of hunting season; he’s not sure where Landry’s men are getting these fresh deer carcasses in the off season, but it’s not his job to ask questions. Legally, he doesn’t have to refuse a job unless the animal is endangered, which deer are certainly not.
Most of his regulars are such avid hunters, they skin the carcasses themselves before bringing them to Bob to tan and stretch the hides before mounting. Landry’s henchmen simply drop off fresh bodies for Ty to prep and skin. In that regard, he can’t complain about Ty’s work. He takes the animals to the back warehouse and returns the skin and antlers to Bob in record time so he can work his magic. Ty may be an irresponsible kid, but he seems to understand the importance of an account this big. The profit from Landry’s alone will fund Bob’s dream of taking the family up the coast of New England this fall. That is, if there’s still a solid family unit to travel with after he and Jennifer attempt to save their twenty-year marriage.
Bob is annoyed with Ty before he even exits his SUV; that’s a new record. Ty’s truck is backed up to the warehouse with two deer strapped into the bed. First, Bob told Ty explicitly not to accept any more jobs until Landry’s is done. The additional orders from Mr. Landry didn’t include any deer, so these aren’t his. Second, it may only be March, but leaving these animals under the sun in the back of his truck is breaking rule number one. All animals are to be skinned or frozen as soon as possible to preserve the hide. Ty knows this. Bob’s Taxidermy is known for its attention to detail and remarkable craftsmanship. He’ll be damned if he’s going to let some punk ruin his good name in this town.
Bob slams his door and marches straight to the main building of his business, cussing under his breath for the duration of the ten-foot journey. When he swings open the front door, he inhales in preparation for the verbal attack he’s about to lay on Ty when his breath catches in his throat. Ty isn’t alone. There is a rather large man wearing a less-than-friendly scowl, standing directly behind him.
“Shut the door, lock it, and flip the open sign over to closed,” he speaks slowly. Bob’s eyes travel down to the man’s right hand, which is tightly gripping a large bowie knife. Bob raises both hands in the air, his car keychain dangling from his left forefinger, and slowly steps back toward the door to follow the man’s instructions.
“Whatever you want, you can have it,” Bob tells him.
The man slowly shakes his head and turns his gaze toward the side door, which leads into the warehouse. As if on cue, the door opens, and a man walks in. He’s wearing dress pants with a shirt and tie and appears to be about twenty years older than Bob. Although he is certain there will be nothing positive about this interaction, he can’t help but notice that the man has kind eyes. He nods a greeting to Bob and then signals for the large man to drop his weapon. He obeys by setting it on the table in front of him and scooting it out of Ty’s reach.
“Robert Polanski, Tyler DeVos, my name is John Dickson and I’m with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I trust you already know my associate, Brad,” the nicely dressed man says, gesturing to the man who was just brandishing a knife.
Ty nods, his eyes cast down at the floor beneath him. Bob’s head snaps back in surprise. He squints at the man beside Ty. He’s never seen him before in his life.
“Excuse me? What do you mean we already know this man?” Bob asks.
John raises his eyebrows from his place in the doorway and turns his gaze to Ty, who reluctantly begins to speak.
“Yes, sir. Brad and I have met a few times at the lodge.”
Bob is shaking his head rapidly. What in the hell has this kid gotten himself into that would warrant a visit from the FBI?
“And Tyler, until today, you’ve been led to believe that Brad was a member of Lincoln Landry’s inner circle?” the agent asks.
“And what was his position in the organization?”
Ty’s eyes grow wide before he hesitantly steals a glance at Brad and then snaps his head back in John’s direction.
“It’s okay, son. I’m here to help you. What was Brad’s position in the Landry organization?”
Ty clears his throat. “The enforcer, sir.”
“The enforcer of what?” Bob cuts in.
John motions for Ty to continue.
“When someone doesn’t fulfill their duties or betrays Mr. Landry, sir. Brad is sent to deal with them.”
Bob’s head is spinning. Why would a rich hotelier need an enforcer? This isn’t the mob. It’s northern Illinois backwoods lodging. What activities could possibly require armed muscle in that line of work?
“Well, Brad’s real name is Conrad, and he works with us at the bureau. He’s the only reason you two aren’t being handcuffed and booked right now. He seems to think your testimony would be a real asset in our case against Landry … a case we’ve been building for nearly a year now.”
“You two? What the hell do you mean, you two? Whatever this kid has gotten mixed up with, I’ve got nothing to do with it. I can assure you of that,” Bob barks out. He begins pacing before Agent John’s hand flies toward the gun in his holster and Bob holds his hands up in apology. “Sorry, I’m a little worked up here.”
“Conrad, would you kindly repeat what Tyler said to you when you asked if his boss was aware of the drugs and money laundering transpiring at Bob’s Taxidermy?” John asks, and before the last words are out of his mouth, Bob has grabbed the table in front of him to steady his balance. Surely, he thinks, this is one of those hidden camera prank shows. There’s no way this is real life.
“He said his boss was fine with it. He said Bob was happy about the extra income during slow season,” Conrad replies without emotion.
Without warning or thought, Bob leaps over the table in Ty’s direction. When his shaking hands are within a foot of wrapping around Ty’s neck, both Conrad and John have him contained. Conrad’s arms are wrapped around Bob’s neck in a chokehold and John’s service weapon is raised in Bob’s direction.
“I will kill you,” Bob mumbles as Conrad slowly releases his grip.
“Did I not just tell you I’m a Federal Agent?” John asks. “You can’t threaten someone’s life in front of me, Mr. Polanski.”
“Right now, I think it would be worth the time I’d get,” Bob responds, not breaking eye contact with Ty.
None of it makes sense. Ty has been so busy with the Landry pieces; how in the world would he have time to be doing all these illegal activities, particularly with Bob in the next warehouse over? The animals. The fucking animals. For the first time in Ty’s short-lived career at Bob’s Taxidermy, he has taken complete responsibility for every animal that has arrived from Landry. He has the carcasses unloaded and processed before Bob has time to ask for an ETA. Bob, the damn fool, has been so impressed with the kid’s ambition, he considered giving him a hefty bonus when the project was over.
“The animals…that’s how you’re doing it. The drugs, the money, both? I bet you think you’re Pablo fucking Escobar, don’t you?”
Ty briefly meets Bob’s eyes but doesn’t respond. The jig is up. There’s no use in trying to explain himself now.
“We’re going to separate you two for a little while. Bob, follow me,” John says, placing his gun back in the holster on his hip and motioning toward the warehouse door.
“Can I at least see your badge?” Bob asks, knowing that the man has had the upper hand in this situation since he came through the door, but he might as well ask.
John inhales deeply before opening a small wallet to display his badge. He pulls out a business card and hands it to Bob, who nods in response.
“Look, I know you have nothing to do with this mess,” John says a few seconds after the door closes behind them. They are sitting at a small picnic table in the corner of the warehouse. Bob purchased it after he hired Ty, foolishly thinking they’d be taking lunch breaks together. In the decades Bob has been in business, the only help he’s had has been the occasional buddy who would pop in during hunting season to help him process the rush in orders. They were always paid in cash and occasional bonuses were paid in cases of Milwaukee’s Best if they got the job done quickly. Last year, Bob finally bit the bullet and hired a full-time assistant. Until this morning, he considered it a great investment.
“Then why am I here?” Bob asks.
“I had to see your face when you heard the news. It’s all the confirmation that I needed; my suspicions were correct. You aren’t involved in this nonsense.”
“You’re damn right I’m not involved. This is my livelihood here.”
John nods slowly before continuing.
“It’s not your livelihood the bureau is concerned with…it’s your life.”
Bob’s eyes grow wide. “My life?”
“Lincoln Landry is under the impression that you’ve been on board with the illegal activities Tyler has been involved in. He was also just informed that Tyler has shorted him on the last two deliveries. He contacted Conrad, Brad to him, to give you both a message this morning. That’s when the bureau decided it was time to insert ourselves in the situation and get you two out.”
“So I’m being pulled out of a situation by the FBI that I didn’t even realize I was in. This is unreal. I could kill Ty…sorry, but I could.”
“Robert…Bob. I work for the bureau, so it should go without saying that I’m familiar with your criminal background,” John tells him, a slight concern flashing briefly in his blue eyes.
“With all due respect, sir, I was eighteen years old and running with a bad crowd in a small town in southern Missouri. I’m not that kid anymore.”
John considers this for a moment before continuing.
“I understand that, I just don’t think it will bode well for you if you continue to threaten a man’s life in my presence. He won’t be placed near you, and I’ll make sure your paths don’t cross during testimony.”
“Placed near me? Testimony? I’m in the twilight zone. Please tell me what you need of me before I get the hell out of here and call it a day.”
“Bob, I’d like you to be placed in WITSEC immediately. I believe you that you don’t have inside knowledge to testify against Landry, but we will need your statements regarding the cash jobs you’ve accepted during his trial. Your location will have to remain under wraps until we identify the scope of Landry’s reach.”
Bob rubs his chin while he considers the magnitude of what this near stranger is telling him.
“WITSEC – witness protection? Isn’t that forever? You’re telling me I can’t see my family anymore because this idiot kid decided to run illegal activities in my warehouse?”
John shakes his head briefly before raising his hands in defense.
“Look, I get it, the movies make WITSEC seem like a one-size-fits-all program where we hide innocent witnesses in a two-horse town in Montana until the end of time. The truth is different witnesses require different protection and there’s a good chance this won’t be a long-term placement. Our investigation thus far tells us that Landry is relatively new to this life of crime and isn’t very good at it. Once we wiretap his inner circle to confirm that, I can give you a better idea of a timeline.”
“And what if I refuse?” Bob asks.
“You can refuse, but law enforcement will offer you no protection against retaliation from Mr. Landry or his crew. Witness protection is a voluntary program. You can leave any time you like. As long as you’re in the program and following the guidelines, the agency provides you with housing and a pretty respectable stipend.”
“But I can’t talk to my family?”
“If you and Tyler enter WITSEC, we’d have to do it today to go along with the narrative that Conrad made you disappear for your disloyalty to Landry. I’ll meet with your families to explain, but I’d need to confiscate your cell phones immediately. All direct communications would cease.”
Bob shifts his focus to a splinter of wood peeling from the top of the picnic table before him. He’s been meaning to sand it down, but now he may not be around to do that any time soon.
“And you honestly believe that if I don’t go along with this, my family could be in danger?”
“The agency wouldn’t approve the expense of you entering WITSEC if we weren’t convinced there was a credible threat to your family if Landry believes you’re alive.”
His beautiful family. Jennifer, who he met at a dive bar shortly after relocating to Illinois. He is adamant it was love at first sight; she, on the other hand, took a few weeks to warm up to the idea. She’s given him two beautiful children, and despite the current teenage angst phase, are the two best things that have ever happened to him. Now, because of some kid’s reckless actions, all their lives may be in danger.
“Okay. Let’s do it.”
John places one hand on Bob’s shoulder and smiles, exposing deep lines around his eyes.
“I’ve already got your place ready for you; I think you’re going to enjoy it.”
ONE MONTH LATER
Of all the places Bob pictured the FBI placing him, Walleye Bay, Wisconsin wasn’t among them. His temporary housing is nicer than his actual home in Illinois. He’s living in a damn cul-de-sac. There are four houses perfectly placed in a semicircle: there is his, then one belonging to two gray-haired recluses, one with a younger couple who seem to work long hours and moved in just weeks ago, and one next to him that is currently vacant, after an elderly woman named Betty left in a hurry shortly after his arrival. He’s spent the past thirty days sitting on the edge of his bed, which he has moved down to the living room, staring out a crack in the curtains to make sure nobody is watching him. John has repeatedly assured him that his identity is protected, but the name they assigned him, Bob Smith, screams witness protection program to anyone who hears it. He asked John why they didn’t just call him Bob Doe and, to that, John simply shrugged.
Today, Bob is venturing out to get the mail, which is the only place he has felt relatively safe traveling to since his arrival. He’s completed one grocery trip, which was not very successful because he spent more time looking over his shoulder at every stranger in the store than paying attention to his grocery list and ended up with sandwich meat but no bread and cereal but no milk.
Just as he’s closing the mailbox with a two-inch stack of junk mail in his hand, a U-Haul rounds the corner onto Magnolia Court and pulls into the vacant house between his and the old ladies’. A sedan shortly follows, pulling tightly to the curb while the U-Haul maneuvers in reverse up the driveway. Bob realizes he’s been staring and diverts his attention back to the stack of mail in his hands as the doors to the sedan open. He turns to walk back up his drive when a male voice calls out, “Hey neighbor!”
The voice is familiar.
Bob turns to see John Dickson, his contact at the FBI. The man who relocated him to this very house. Despite wearing an American flag t-shirt and khaki shorts rather than his normal business attire, Bob would recognize his friendly blue eyes anywhere. John hurries to Bob, leaving who is presumably his wife standing outside the car.
John speaks loudly as he reaches his hand out to shake Bob’s.
“You must be our new neighbor. My name is Gary Johnson and that over there is my lovely wife, Lucille. Wave hello, Lucille!”
The sweet woman raises her right arm with a friendly smile and shouts an inaudible greeting.
“What the fuck,” Bob grumbles, barely above a whisper.
John lowers his voice.
“I’ll explain later. All you need to know now is that we are now Gary and Lucille, your new neighbors. Reclusive, curmudgeonly old man looks good on you -- keep it up,” he says with a wink, patting Bob on the shoulder.
“Are you having to move in because I’m in danger? Did those assholes find out my location?”
John shakes his head abruptly.
“No, no. Everything is going according to plan. I’m working one last case before retirement, and it just so happens to be in Walleye Bay. The bureau scooped this property up at a bargain because there was a home invasion here recently and the suburban moms think the house is cursed. Well, correction, Gary Johnson purchased the house at a discount.”
“And it just so happens to be next door to someone you just placed in WITSEC?”
“Coincidences happen all the time, Bob.”
“So, this is it.”
Bob stands in the driveway of the home that has helped him live an invisible life for nearly two years.
“For us both, it seems,” John responds, nodding toward the moving truck in his driveway. “Who would have thought my final assignment would almost get me killed in the process.”
“Are you ever going to tell me about the case that brought you here in the first place?” Bob asks, fairly confident he knows what John’s answer will be.
“If I told you, I’d have to kill you,” John says with a smile.
Exactly what Bob was expecting.
“Nah, I’m officially retired now so I don’t mind telling you about my last case; the one I just couldn’t crack. It’s Ruby’s mother, Tracy Windsor. She was working for one of the largest fentanyl dealers in Wisconsin. We had a solid tip that she was headed here to hide out and I was hoping to gain her trust and get her to flip on the guy. After getting to know Ruby, I’m confident she hasn’t heard from her mother in years. It was a dead end. Someone else in the office will take over the case and I’ll be happy to show up in court the day they finally bust the piece of shit.”
“Whoa, Gary Johnson doesn’t cuss,” Bob replies with a smile.
“As of 5pm yesterday, I’m officially John Dickson again and you bet your ass I’ve got a mouth like a sailor.”
“I’m going to miss Gary Johnson, but John is the one who has kept my family and I safe through this god forsaken trial and I’ll never forget it. If you are ever in my neck of the woods, I’d love to buy you a cold one,” Bob offers.
Hands in his pockets, John rocks back on his heels and cracks a sly smile. “I appreciate that offer, but the only time I plan to leave the beach is for weddings and funerals. The wife and I are about to be living on island time.”
“A well-deserved retirement. Anything else you need from me before I head home? Believe it or not, the kids are chomping at the bit to see me, and Jennifer even sounded mildly excited.”
Gary shakes his head. “Unless you ever get that bonehead former assistant of yours to admit where he hid the money that he shorted Landry on those last few deliveries, your duties to the United States government have officially concluded and we thank you for your testimony. Without you and Tyler, it would have been a tough case on Landry and his men.”
“You’ve got it, John.”
It pains Bob to see the overgrown weeds outside and dust on the windows as he pulls into the parking lot of his shop. Bob’s Taxidermy had been the best-looking business on the street for over a decade and now it nearly looks abandoned. It’s going to take him months to get the place back to where it needs to be and even longer to regain the trust of his regular customers and earn their business back. He had to forfeit every dollar made from Landry’s Lodge and, although WITSEC has provided him with a respectable amount to live on, it was nowhere near what he was making before he went into the program. He knows he has a long road ahead of him financially, not to mention figuring out where he stands with Jennifer.
As he exits the small U-Haul truck the bureau rented for him to transfer the trivial amount of belongings he’s accumulated during his time on Magnolia Court, Bob is startled by the front door to his shop swinging open.
Katelyn is standing in the doorway, and the sight of her takes the breath right out of his lungs. Clad in overalls and wearing a messy ponytail on top of her head, she’s the spitting image of her mother at that age. Although he’s had a few secret meetings with Katelyn, he hasn’t seen his wife or younger son in nearly two years and they have no knowledge of the meetings.
“Dad,” she says with a smile.
“My baby,” he responds, slamming the car door and taking a few long strides in her direction before picking her up in the air and swinging her in an enthusiastic circle. “How’d you know I’d stop here on the way home?”
“I just had a feeling,” she responds, giving him a subtle wink. Again, she looks exactly like her mother. “I also know mom would kill you for bringing more taxidermy pieces into that house and I’ve brought you six since you’ve been gone, so we better offload them here.”
“Smart thinking,” Bob says, tapping his temple.
He walks behind the U-Haul and opens the rolling door to reveal his measly possessions. The boxes containing Katelyn’s taxidermy pieces take up nearly half of all the truck’s contents. Within a few trips, they have all the pieces inside Bob’s shop.
“It pains me to ask you this, but have you talked to Ty?” Bob asks.
“I don’t plan on ever talking to him again. He has lied to me so many times, I’ve lost count.”
“I’m sorry, Katie Girl, are you going to be okay?”
“I made sure and got even, don’t worry, dad,” she says with a wry smile.
“I don’t even want to know.” He smiles.
Katelyn reaches into one of the boxes and pulls out the pheasant she brought on her last visit with her dad, holding it in the air.
“I can’t figure out why you’re so self-conscious about your stitching; you’ve brought it up every time you bring me a piece, but they look fantastic,” Bob tells her.
“Maybe I was hoping you’d look a little closer.”
Bob furrows his brow and takes the pheasant from Katelyn’s hands, holding it up to the light. Sure enough, the stitching is left open ended and there’s a string hanging from the bottom. Why wouldn’t she just trim it when she finished the job?
“Pull it.” She nods, her lips curling slightly.
Bob’s stomach is in knots as he pulls lightly on the red stitching, unraveling it along the velvet fabric. The fabric peels back and, instead of padding, a stack of hundred-dollar bills fall to the ground. This can’t be happening. There’s only one place she could have found this kind of money. Katelyn is the reason Landry’s money went missing. The reason Bob has been in hiding for nearly two years. The reason he found himself disposing of a body to help a near-stranger because she reminded him so much of his daughter. This can’t be right.
Surely, he is misunderstanding the situation. His eyes slowly travel from the stack of money on the floor, back up to meet Katelyn’s eyes and the look on her face tells him he hasn’t misunderstood a thing.