/ Language: English / Genre:thriller

Bitter Truth

W Lashner

A stained legal career spent defending mob enforcers, two-bit hoods, and other dregs of humanity has left Philadelphia lawyer Victor Carl jaded and resentful – until a new client appears to offer him an escape and a big payday. Caroline Shaw, the desperate scion of a prominent Main Line dynasty, wants him to prove that her sister Jacqueline’s recent suicide was, in fact, murder before Caroline suffers a similar fate. It is a case that propels Carl out of his courtroom element and into a murky world of fabulous wealth, bloody family legacies, and dark secrets. Victor Carl would love nothing more than to collect his substantial fee and get out alive. But a bitter truth is dragging him in dangerously over his head, and ever closer to the shattering revelation that the most terrifying darkness of all lies not in the heart of a Central American jungle… but in the twisted soul of man.


William Lashner

Bitter Truth

Originally published as Veritas

The second book in the Victor Carl series, 1997

In memory of my father and partner,

Melvin Lashner,

who knew right from wrong

and lived each day as if it mattered.

A taste for truth at any cost

is a passion which spares nothing.

– ALBERT CAMUS

Part 1. Ailurophobia

I know of nothing more despicable and pathetic than a man who devotes all the hours of the waking day to the making of money for money’s sake.

– JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER

1

En Route to Belize City, Belize

I SUPPOSE EVERY HUNDRED million dollars has its own sordid story and the hundred million I am chasing is no exception.

I am on a TACA International flight to Belize in search of my fortune. Underneath the seat in front of me lies my briefcase and in my briefcase lies all I need, officially, to pick my fortune up and take it home with me. I lift the briefcase onto my lap and open it, carefully pulling out the file folder, and from that folder, with even more care, pulling out the document inside. I like the feel of the smooth copy paper in my hands. I read it covetously, holding it so the nun sitting next to me can’t steal a peek. Its text is as short and as evocative as the purest haiku. “Default judgment is awarded in favor of the plaintiff in the amount of one hundred million dollars.” The document is signed by the judge and stamped in red ink and certified by the Prothonotary of the Court of Common Pleas of the City of Philadelphia and legal in every state of the union and those countries with the appropriate treaties with the United States, a group in which, fortunately, Belize is included. One hundred million dollars, the price of two lives plus punitive damages. I bring the paper to my nose and smell it. I can detect the sweet scent of mint, no, not peppermint, government. One hundred million dollars, of which my fee, as the attorney, is a third.

Think hard on that for a moment; I do, constantly. If I find what I’m hunting it would be like winning the lotto every month for a year. It would be like Ed McMahon coming to my door with his grand prize check not once, not twice, but three times, and I would get it all at once instead of over thirty years. It would be enough money to run for president if I were ever so deranged. Well, maybe not that much, but it is still a hell of a lot of money. And I want it, desperately, passionately, with all my heart and soul. Those who whine that there is no meaning left in American life are blind, for there is fame and there is fortune and, frankly, you can take fame and cram it down your throats. Me, I’ll take the money.

For almost a year I’ve been in search of the assets against which my default judgment will be collected. I’ve traced them through the Cayman Islands to a bank in Luxembourg to a bank in Switzerland, through Liberia and Beirut and back through the Cayman Islands, from where payments had been wired, repeatedly, to an account at the Belize Bank. From the Belize Bank the funds were immediately withdrawn, in cash. Unlike all the other transfers of funds, the transfers to Belize were neither hidden within the entwining vines of larger transactions nor mathematically encrypted. The owner of the money has grown complacent in his overconfidence or he is sending me an invitation and either way I am heading to Belize, flying down to follow the money until it leads me directly to him. He is a vicious man, violent, deceptive, greedy beyond belief. He has killed without the least hesitation, killed for the basest of reasons. His hands drip with blood and I have no grounds to believe he will not kill again. When I think on his crimes I find it amazing how the possibility of so much money can twist one to act beyond all rationality. I am flying down to Belize to find this man in his tropical asylum so I can serve the judgment personally and start the collection proceedings that will at long last make me rich.

In a voice equally apathetic in Spanish and English we are told that we are beginning our approach to Belize City. I return the document to the briefcase, twist the case’s lock, stow it back beneath the seat in front of me. Outside the window I see the teal blue of the Caribbean and then a ragged line of scabrous slicks of land, spread atop the water like foul oil, and then the jungle, green and thick and foreign. Clots of treetops are spotted dark by clouds. For not the first time I feel a doubt rise about my mission. If I were going to Pittsburgh or Bern or Luxembourg City I’d feel more confident, but Belize is a wild, untamed place, a country of hurricanes and rain forests and great Mayan ruins. Anything can happen in Belize.

The nun sitting next to me, habited in white with a black veil and canvas sneakers, puts down her Danielle Steel and smiles reassuringly.

“Have you been to our country before?” she asks with a British accent.

“No,” I say.

“It is quite beautiful,” she says. “The people are wonderful.” She winks. “Keep a hand on your wallet in Belize City, yes? But you will love it, I’m sure. Business or pleasure?”

“Business.”

“Of course, I could tell by your suit. It’s a bit hot for that. You’ll be visiting the barrier reef too, I suppose, they all do, but there’s more to Belize than fish. While you are here you must see our rain forests. They are glorious. And the rivers too. You brought insect repellent, I expect.”

“I didn’t, actually. The bugs are bad?”

“Oh my, yes. The mosquito, well, you know, I’m sure, of the mosquito. The malaria pills they have now work wonders. And the welts from the botlass fly last for days but are not really harmful. Ticks of course and scorpions, but the worst is the beefworm. It is the larva of the botfly and it is carried by the mosquito. It comes in with the bite and lives within your flesh while it grows, grabbing hold of your skin with pincers and burrowing in. Nasty little parasite, that. The whole area blows up and is quite painful, there is a burning sensation, but you mustn’t pull it, oh no. Then you will definitely get an infection. Instead you must cover the area with glue and tape and suffocate it. The worm squirms underneath for awhile before it dies and that is considered painful by some, but the next morning you can just squeeze the carcass out like toothpaste from a tube.”

I am lost in the possibilities when the plane tilts up, passes low over a wide jungle river, and slams into the runway. “Welcome to the Philip Goldson International Airport,” says the voice over the intercom. “The airport temperature is ninety-three and humidity is eighty-five percent. Enjoy your stay in Belize.”

We depart onto the tarmac. It is oppressively hot, the Central American sun is brutal. I feel its pressure all over my body. The air is tropically thick and in its humidity my suit jacket immediately weighs down with sweat. There is something on my face. I am confused for a moment before I realize it is an insect and frantically swipe it away. We are herded in a line toward customs. To our left is the terminal building, brown as rust, a relic from the fifties, to our right is a camouflaged military transport, being loaded with something large I can’t identify. A black helicopter circles overhead. Soldiers rush by in a jeep. Sweat drips from my temples and down my neck. I shuck off my jacket, but already my shirt is soaked. I brush a mosquito from my wrist but not before it bites me. I can almost feel something wiggling beneath the skin.

After we hand our passports over for inspection and pick up our bags we are sent in lines to wait for the dog. I sit on my suitcase and pick at the amoebic blob swelling on my wrist. A German shepherd appears, mangy and fierce. He is straining at his leash. He sniffs first one suitcase, then another, then a backpack. The dog comes up to me and shoves his nose into my crotch. Two policemen laugh.

Even inside the terminal it is hot and the sunlight rushing through the windows is fierce and I feel something dangerous beyond the mosquitoes in the swelter about me. I wonder what the hell I am doing in Belize but then I feel the weight of my briefcase in my hand and remember about the hundred million dollars and its story, a story of betrayal and revenge, of intrigue and sex and revelation, a story of murder and a story of redemption and a story of money most of all. Suddenly I know exactly what I am doing here and why.

2

IT STARTED FOR ME with a routine job in the saddest little room in all of Philadelphia. Crowded with cops and shirt-sleeved lawyers and court clerks and boxes of files, a dusty clothes rack, a computer monitor with plastic wood trim and vacuum tubes like something out of Popular Mechanics circa 1954, it was a room heavy with the air of an exhausted bureaucracy. I was sitting alone on the lawyers’ bench inside that room, waiting for them to drag my client from the holding cells in the basement. My job that morning was to get him out on a reasonable bail and, considering what he was being charged with, that wasn’t going to be easy.

I was in the Roundhouse, Philadelphia Police Headquarters, a circular building constructed in the sixties, all flowing lines, every office a corner office, an architectural marvel bright with egalitarian promise. But the Roundhouse had turned old before its time, worn down by too much misery, too much crime. At the grand entrance on Race Street there was a statue of a cop holding a young boy aloft in his arms, a promise of all the good works envisioned to flow through those doors, except that the entrance on Race Street was now barred and visitors were required to enter through the rear. In through that back entrance, to the right, past the gun permit window, past the bail clerk, through the battered brown doors and up the steps to the benches where a weary public could watch, through a wall of thick Plexiglas, the goings on in the Roundhouse’s very own Municipal Court.

“Sit down, ma’am,” shouted the bailiff to a young woman who had walked through those doors and was now standing among the benches behind the Plexiglas wall. She was young, thin, a waif with short hair bleached yellow and a black leather jacket. She was either family or friend of one of the defendants, or maybe just whiling away her day, looking for a morning’s entertainment. If so, it was bound to be a bit wan. “You can’t stand in the back,” shouted the bailiff, “you have to sit down,” and so she sat.

The defendants were brought into the room in batches of twenty, linked wrist to wrist by steel, and placed in a holding cell, with its own Plexiglas view. You could see them in there, through the Plexiglas, waiting with sullen expectation for their brief time before the bar.

“Sit down, sir,” called out the bailiff in what was a steady refrain. “You can’t stand back there,” and another onlooker dropped onto one of the benches.

“Hakeem Trell,” announced the clerk and a young man sauntered a few steps to the large table before the bench that dominated the room.

“Hakeem Trell,” said Bail Commissioner Pauling, reading from his file, “also known as Roger Pettibone, also known as Skip Dong.” At this last alias Commissioner Pauling looked over the frames of his half-glasses at the young man standing arrogantly before him. There was about Hakeem Trell a.k.a. Roger Pettibone a.k.a. Skip Dong the defiant annoyance of a high school student facing nothing more serious than an afternoon’s detention. Where was the anxiety as he faced imprisonment, the trembling fear at the rent in his future? What had we done to these children? My client wasn’t in the batch they had just brought up and so I was forced to sit impatiently as Commissioner Pauling preliminarily arraigned Hakeem Trell and then Luis Rodriguez and then Anthony O’Neill and then Jason Lawton and then and then and then, one after another, young kids almost all, mainly minority, primarily poor, or at least dressing that way, all taking it in with a practiced air of hostility. Spend enough time in the Roundhouse’s Municipal Court and you begin to feel what it is to be an occupying power.

“Sirs, please sit down, you can’t stand back there,” shouted the bailiff and two men in the gallery arranged themselves on one of the forward benches, sitting right in front of the young blonde woman, who shifted to a different bench to maintain her view of the proceedings.

I recognized both of the men. I had been expecting them to show, or at least some men like them. One was huge, wearing a shiny warm-up suit, his face permanently cast with the heavy lidded expression of a weightlifter contemplating a difficult squat thrust. I had seen him around, he had grunted at me once. The other was short, thin, looking like a talent scout for a cemetery. He had the face and oily gray hair of a mortician, wearing the same black suit a mortician might wear, clutching a neat little briefcase in his lap. This slick’s name was Earl Dante, a minor mob figure I had met a time or two before. His base of operations was a pawnshop, neatly named the Seventh Circle Pawn, on Two Street, south of Washington, just beyond the Mummers Museum, where he made his piranha loans at three points a week and sent out his gap-toothed collectors to muscle in his payments. Dante nodded at me and I contracted the sides of my mouth into an imitation of a smile, hoping no one noticed, before turning back to the goings on in the court.

Commissioner Pauling was staring at me. His gaze drifted up to alight on the mortiferous face of Earl Dante before returning back to my own. I gave a little shrug. The clerk called the next name on his sheet.

In the break between batches, Commissioner Pauling strolled off to what constituted his chambers in the Roundhouse, no desk of course, or bookshelves filled with West reporters, but a hook for his robe and a sink and an industrial-sized roll of paper to keep his chamberpot clean. I stepped up to the impeccably dressed clerk still at the bench.

“Nice tie, Henry,” I said.

“I can’t say the same for yours, Mr. Carl,” said Henry, shuffling through his files, not deigning to even check out my outfit. “But then I guess you don’t got much selection when you buying ties at Woolworth’s.”

“You’d be surprised,” I said. “I’m here for Cressi. Peter Cressi. Some sort of gun problem.”

Henry looked through his papers and started nodding. “Yeah, I’d guess trying to buy a hundred and seventy-nine illegally modified automatic assault weapons, three grenade launchers, and a flamethrower from an undercover cop would constitute some sort of gun problem.”

“He’s a collector.”

“Uh huh,” said Henry, drawing out his disbelief.

“No, really.”

“You don’t gots to lie to me, Mr. Carl. You don’t see me wearing robes, do you? Your Cressi will be in the next batch. I know what you want, uh huh. I’ll get you out of here soon as I can.”

“You’re a good man, Henry.”

“Don’t be telling me, be telling my wife.”

They brought up the next batch of prisoners, twenty cuffed wrist to wrist, led into the little holding cell behind the bench upon which I uneasily sat. In the middle of the group was Peter Cressi, tall, curly hair flowing long and black behind his ears, broad shoulders, unbelievably handsome. His blue silk shirt, black pants, pointed shiny boots were in stark contrast to the baggy shin-high jeans and hightop sneakers of his new compatriots. As he shuffled through the room he smiled casually at me, as casually as if seeing a neighbor across the street, and I smiled back. Cressi’s gaze drifted up to the benches in the gallery, behind the Plexiglas. When it fell onto Dante’s stern face Cressi’s features twisted into some sort of fearful reverence.

I didn’t like Cressi, actually. There was something ugly and arrogant about him, something uneasy. He was one of those guys who sort of danced while he spoke, as if his bladder was always full to bursting, but you sensed it wasn’t his bladder acting up, it was a little organ of evil urging him to go forth and do bad. I didn’t like Cressi, but getting the likes of Peter Cressi out of the troubles their little organs of evil got them into was how I now made my living.

I never planned to be a criminal defense attorney, I never planned a lot of things that had happened to my life, like the Soviets never planned for Chernobyl to glow through the long Ukrainian night, but criminal law was what I practiced now. I represented in the American legal system a group of men whose allegiance was not to God and country but to family, not to their natural-born families but to a family with ties that bound so tightly they cut into the flesh. It was a family grown fat and wealthy through selling drugs, pimping women, infiltrating trade unions, and extorting great sums from legitimate industry, from scamming what could be scammed, from loan sharking, from outright thievery, from violence and mayhem and murder. It was the criminal family headed by Enrico Raffaello. I didn’t like the work and I didn’t like the clients and I didn’t like myself while I did the work for the clients. I wanted out, but Enrico Raffaello had once done me the favor of saving my life and so I didn’t have much choice anymore.

“All right,” said Pauling, back on the bench from his visit to his chambers. “Let’s get started.”

There were three prisoners in the column of seats beside where I sat, ready to be called to the bar, and the Commissioner was already looking at the first, a young boy with a smirk on his face, when Henry called out Peter Cressi’s name.

“Come on up, son,” said Pauling to the boy. Henry whispered in the Commissioner’s ear. Pauling closed his eyes with exasperation. “Bring out Mr. Cressi,” he said.

I stood and slid to the table.

“I assume you’re here to represent this miscreant, Mr. Carl,” said Pauling as they brought Cressi out from the holding cell.

“This alleged miscreant, yes sir.”

When Cressi stood by my side I gave him a stern look of reprobation. He snickered back and did his little dance.

“Mr. Cressi,” said Commissioner Pauling, interrupting our charming little moment, “you are hereby charged with one hundred and eighty-three counts of the illegal purchase of firearms in violation of the Pennsylvania Penal Code. You are also charged with conspiracy to commit those offenses. Now I’m going to read you the factual basis for those charges, so you listen up.” The commissioner took hold of the police report and started reading. I knew what had happened, I had heard all of it that morning when I was woken by a call to my apartment informing me of Cressi’s arrest. The arrest must have been something, Cressi with a Ryder truck, driving out to a warehouse in the Northeast to find waiting for him not the crates of rifles and weapons he had expected but instead a squadron of SWAT cops, guns pointed straight at Peter’s handsome face. The cops had been expecting an army, I guess, not just some wiseguy with a rented truck.

“Your Honor, with regard to bail,” I said, “Mr. Cressi is a lifelong resident of the city, living at home with his elderly mother, who is dependent on his care.” This was one of those lawyer lies. I knew Cressi’s mother, she was a spry fifty-year-old bingo fiend, but Peter did make sure she took her hypertension medication every morning. “Mr. Cressi has no intention of fleeing and, as this is not in any way a violent crime, poses no threat to the community. We ask that he be allowed to sign his own bail.”

“What was he going to do with those guns, counselor? Aerate his lawn?”

“Mr. Cressi is a collector,” I said. I saw Henry shaking in his seat as he fought to stifle his laughter.

“What about the flame-thrower?”

“Would you believe Mr. Cressi was having a problem with roaches?”

The commissioner didn’t so much as crack a smile, which was a bad sign. “These weapons are illegal contraband, not allowed to be owned by anyone, even so-called collectors.”

“We have a constitutional argument on that, your honor.”

“Spare me the Second Amendment, counselor, please. Your client was buying enough guns to wage a war. Three hundred and sixty-six thousand, ten percent cash,” said the Commissioner with a quick pound of his gavel.

“Your Honor, I believe that’s terribly excessive.”

“Two thousand per weapon seems fair to me. I think Mr. Cressi should spend some time in jail. That’s all, next case.”

“Thank you, Your Honor,” I said, fighting to keep all sarcasm out of my voice. I turned to Earl Dante, sitting patiently on the gallery bench behind the Plexiglas, and nodded at him.

Dante gave a look of resigned exasperation, like he would give to a mechanic who has just explained that his car needed an expensive new water pump. Then the loan shark, followed by the hulk in his workout suit, stood and headed out the gallery’s doors, taking his briefcase to the waiting bail clerk. As my gaze followed them out I noticed the thin blonde woman in the leather jacket staring at Cressi and me with something more than idle curiosity.

I turned and gave Cressi a complicated series of instructions. “Keep your mouth shut till you’re bailed out, Peter. You got that?”

“What you think, I’m an idiot here?”

“I’m not the one buying guns from cops. Just do as I say and then meet me at my office tomorrow morning so we can figure out where to go from here. And be sure to bring my usual retainer.”

“I always do.”

“I’ll give you that, Peter.” I looked back up to the blonde woman who was still watching us. “You know her?” I asked with a flick of my head to the gallery.

He looked up. “Nah, she’s not my type, a scrag like that.”

“Then if you don’t know her and I don’t know her, why’s she staring?”

He smiled. “When you look and dress like I do, you know, you get used to it.”

“That must be it,” I said. “I bet you’ll look even more dashing in your orange jumpsuit.”

Just then a bailiff grabbed Cressi’s arm and started leading him back to the holding cell.

“See if you can stay out of trouble until tomorrow morning,” I said to him as the Commissioner read out another in his endless list of names.

But Cressi was wrong about in whom the blonde was interested. She was waiting outside the Roundhouse for me. “Mr. Carl?”

“That’s right.”

“Your office said I could find you here.”

“And here I am,” I said with a tight smile. It was not a moment poised with promise, her standing before me just then. She was in her mid-twenties, small, her bleached hair hacked to ear’s length, as if with a cleaver. Black lipstick, black nail polish, mascara globbed around her eyes like a cry for help. Under her black leather was a blue work shirt, originally the property of some stiff named Lenny, and a thrift-shop-quality pleated skirt. She had five earrings in her right ear and her left nostril was pierced and she looked like one of those impoverished art students who hang outside the Chinese buy-it-by-the-pound buffet on Chestnut Street. A small black handbag hung low from her shoulder. On the bare ankle above one of her black platform shoes was the tattoo of a rose, and that I noticed it there meant I was checking her out, like men invariably check out every woman they ever meet. Not bad, actually. Cressi was right, she was scrawny, and her face was pinched with apprehension, but there was something there, maybe just youth, but something.

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

She looked around. “Can we, like, talk somewhere?”

“You can walk me to the subway,” I said as I headed south to Market Street. I wasn’t all that interested in what she had to say. From the look of her I had her figured. She had fished my name out of the Yellow Pages and found I was a criminal attorney and wanted me now to help get her boyfriend out of the stir. Of course he was innocent and wrongfully convicted and of course the trial had been a sham and of course she couldn’t pay me right off but if I could only help out from the goodness of my heart she would promise to pay me later. About once a week I got just such a call from a desperate relative or girlfriend trolling for lawyers through the phone book. And what I told each of them I would end up telling her: that nobody does anything from the goodness of his heart and I was no different.

She watched me go and then ran to catch up, doing a hop skip in her platform shoes to keep pace with my stride. “I need your help, Mr. Carl.”

“My docket’s full right now.”

“I’m in serious trouble.”

“All my clients are in serious trouble.”

“But I’m not like all your clients.”

“That’s right, my clients have all paid me a retainer for my services. They have bought my loyalty and attention with their cash. Will you be able to pay me a retainer, Ms…?”

“Shaw. Caroline Shaw. How much?”

“Five thousand for a routine criminal matter.”

“This is not routine, I am certain.”

“Well in that case it might be more.”

“I can pay,” she said. “That’s not a problem.”

I stopped at that. I was expecting an excuse, a promise, a plea, I was not expecting to hear that payment was not a problem. I stopped and turned and took a closer look. Even though she dressed like a waif she held herself regally, her shoulders back, her head high, which was a trick, really, in those ridiculous platform shoes. The eyes within those raccoon bands of mascara were blue and sharply in focus, the eyes of a law student or an accomplished liar. And she spoke better then I would have expected from the outfit. “What do you want me to do for you, Ms. Shaw?”

“I want you to find out who killed my sister.”

That was new. I tilted my head. “I thought you said you were in trouble?”

“I think I might be next.”

“Well that is a problem, and I wish you well. But you should be going to the police. It’s their job to investigate murders and protect citizens, my job is to get the murderers off. Good day, Ms. Shaw,” I said as I turned and started again to walk south to the subway.

“I told you I’d be willing to pay,” she said as she skipped and hopped again to stay with me, her shoes clopping on the cement walk. “Doesn’t that matter?”

“That matters a heap,” I said as I kept walking, “but signing a check is one thing, having the check clear is entirely another.”

“But it will,” she said. “And I need your help. I’m scared.”

“Go to the police.”

“So you’re not going to help me?” Her voice had turned pathetic and after it came out she stopped walking beside me. It wasn’t tough to keep going, no tougher than passing a homeless beggar without dropping a quarter in her cup. We learn to just walk on in the city, but even as I walked on I could still hear her. “I don’t know what I’m going to do if you don’t help me. I think whoever killed her is going to kill me next. I’m desperate, Mr. Carl. I carry this but I’m still scared all the time.”

I stopped again and, with a feeling of dread, I turned around. She was holding an automatic pistol pointed at my heart.

“Won’t you help me, Mr. Carl? Please? You don’t know how desperate I am.”

The gun had a black dull finish, rakish lines, it was small-bore, sure, but its bore was still large enough to kill a generation’s best hope in a hotel ballroom, not to mention a small-time criminal attorney who was nobody’s best hope for anything.

I’ll say this for her, she knew how to grab my attention.

3

“PUT THE GUN AWAY,” I said in my sharpest voice.

“I didn’t mean, oh God no, I…” Her hand wavered and the barrel drooped as if the gun had gone limp.

“Put the gun away,” I said again, and it wasn’t as brave as it sounds because the only other options were to run, exposing my back to the.22 slug, or pissing my pants, which no matter how intense the immediate relief makes really an awful mess. And after I told her to put the gun away, told her twice for emphasis, she did just as I said, stuck it right back in her handbag, all of which was unbelievably gratifying for me in a superhero sort of way.

Until she started crying.

“Oh no, now don’t do that,” I said, “no no don’t no.”

I stepped toward her as she collapsed in a sitting position to the sidewalk, crying, the thick mascara around her eyes running in lines down her cheek, her nose reddening. She wiped her face with a black leather sleeve, smearing everything.

“Don’t cry, please please, it will be all right. We’ll go somewhere, we’ll talk, just please please stop crying, please.”

I couldn’t leave her there after that, sitting on the ground like she was, crying black tears that splattered on the cement. In a different era I would have offered to buy her a good stiff drink, but this wasn’t a different era, so what I offered to buy her instead was a cappuccino. She let me drag her to a coffee shop a few blocks east. It was a beat little place with old stuffed couches and chairs, a few rickety tables, its back walls filled with shelves of musty used paperbacks. I was drinking a black coffee, decaf actually, since the sight of her gun aimed at my heart had given me enough of a start for the morning. Caroline was sitting across from me at one of the tables, her arms crossed, in front of her the cappuccino, pale, frothy, sprinkled with cinnamon, and completely untouched. Her eyes now were red and smeared and sad. There were a few others in the joint, young and mangy in their slacker outfits, greasy hair and flannel shirts, sandals. Caroline looked right at home. In my blue suit I felt like a narc.

“Do you have a license for that gun?” I asked.

“I suppose I need one, don’t I?”

I nodded and took a sip from my mug. “Take some sound legal advice and throw the gun away. I should turn you in, actually, for your own good, though I won’t. It goes against my…”

“You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?” she said, interrupting me mid-sentence, and before I could answer she was already rummaging again in that little black handbag. I must admit I didn’t like seeing her hand back inside that bag, but all she brought out this time was a pack of Camel Lights. She managed to light her cigarette with her arms still crossed.

I looked her over again and guessed to myself that she was a clerk in a video store, or a part-time student at Philadelphia Community College, or maybe both. “What is it you do, Caroline?”

“I’m between things at the moment,” she said, leaning forward, looking for something on the table. Finding nothing, she tossed her spent match atop the brown sprinkled foam of her cappuccino. I had just spent $2.50 for her liquid ashtray. I assumed she would have preferred the drink. “Last month I was a photographer. Next month maybe I’ll take up tap dancing.”

“An unwavering commitment to caprice, I see.”

She laughed a laugh so full of rue I felt like I was watching Betty Davis tilt her head back, stretch her white neck. “Exactly. I aspire to live my life like a character in a sitcom, every week a new and perky adventure.”

“What’s the title of this episode?”

Into the Maw, or maybe Into the Mall, because after this I need to go to the Gallery and buy some tampons. Why were you in that stupid little courtroom this morning?”

I took another sip of coffee. “One of my clients attempted to buy one hundred and seventy-nine automatic rifles, three grenade launchers, and a flamethrower from an undercover cop.”

“Is he in the mob, this client of yours?”

“There is no mob. It is a figment of the press’s imagination.”

“Then what was he going to do with all those guns?”

“That’s the question, isn’t it?”

“I had heard you were a mob lawyer. It’s true, isn’t it?”

I made an effort to stare at her without blinking as I let the comment slide off me like a glob of phlegm.

Yes, a majority of my clients just happened to be junior associates of Mr. Raffaello, like I said, but I was no house counsel, no mob lawyer. At least not technically. I merely handled their cases after they allegedly committed their alleged crimes, nothing more. And though my clients never flipped, never ratted out the organization that fed them since they were pups, that sustained them, that took care of their families and their futures, though my clients never informed on the family, the decision not to inform was made well before they ever stepped into my office. And was I really representing these men, or was I instead enforcing the promises made to all citizens in the Constitution of the United States? Wasn’t I among the noblest defenders of those sacred rights for which our forefathers fought and died? Who among us was doing more to protect liberty, to ensure justice? Who among us was doing more to safeguard the American way of life?

Do I sound defensive?

I was about to explain it all to her but it bored even me by then so all I said was, “I do criminal law. I don’t get involved in…”

“What’s that?” she shouted as she leaped to kneeling on her seat. “What is it? What?”

I stared for a moment into her anxious face, filled with a true terror, before I looked under the table at where her legs had been only an instant before. A cat, brown and ruffled, was rubbing its back on the legs of her chair. It looked quite contented as it rubbed.

“It’s just a cat,” I said.

“Get rid of it.”

“It’s just a cat,” I repeated.

“I hate them, miserable ungrateful little manipulators, with their claws and their teeth and their fur-licking tongues. They eat human flesh, do you know that? It’s one of their favorite things. Faint near a cat and it’ll chew your face off.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Get rid of it, please please please.”

I reached under the table and the cat scurried away from my grasp. I stood up and went after it, herding it to the back of the coffee shop where, behind the bookshelves, was an open bathroom door. When the cat slipped into the bathroom I closed the door behind it.

“What was that all about?” I asked Caroline when I returned to the table.

“I don’t like cats,” she said as she fiddled with her cigarette.

“I don’t especially like cats either, but I don’t jump on my seat and go ballistic when I see one.”

“I have a little problem with them, that’s all.”

“With cats?”

“I’m afraid of cats. I’m not the only one. It has a name. Ailurophobia. So what? We’re all afraid of something.”

I thought on that a bit. She was right of course, we were all afraid of something, and in the scheme of things being afraid of cats was not the worst of fears. My great fear in this life didn’t have a name that I knew of. I was afraid of remaining exactly who I was, and that phobia instilled a shiver of fear into every one of my days. Something as simple as a fear of cats would have been a blessing.

“All right, Caroline,” I said. “Tell me about your sister.”

She took a drag from her cigarette and exhaled in a long white stream. “Well, for one thing, she was murdered.”

“Have the police found the killer?”

She reached for her pack of Camel Lights even though the cigarette she had was still lit. “Jackie was hanging from the end of a rope in her apartment. They’ve concluded that she hung herself.”

“The police said that?”

“That’s right. The coroner and some troglodyte detective named McDeiss. They closed the case, said it was a suicide. But she didn’t.”

“Hang herself?”

“She wouldn’t.”

“Detective McDeiss ruled it a suicide?”

She sighed. “You don’t believe me either.”

“No, actually,” I said. “I’ve had a few run-ins with McDeiss but he’s a pretty good cop. If he said it was a suicide, it’s a fair bet your sister killed herself. You may not have thought she was suicidal, that’s perfectly natural, but…”

“Of course she was suicidal,” she said, interrupting me once again. “Jackie read Sylvia Plath as if her poetry were some sort of a road map through adolescence. One of her favorite lines was from a poem called ‘Lady Lazarus.’ ‘Dying is an art, like everything else. I do it exceptionally well.’ ”

“Then I don’t understand your problem.”

“Jackie talked of suicide as naturally as others talked of the weather, but she said she’d never hang herself. She was disgusted by the idea of dangling there, aware of the pain, turning as the rope tightened and creaked, the pressure on your neck, on your backbone, hanging there until they cut you down.”

“What would have been her way?”

“Pills. Darvon. Two thousand milligrams is fatal. She always had six thousand on hand. Jackie used to joke that she wanted to be prepared if ever a really terrific suicidal urge came along. Besides, in her last couple years she almost seemed happy. It was like she was actually finding the peacefulness she once thought was only for her in death through this New Age church she had joined, finding it through meditation. She had even gotten herself engaged, to an idiot, yes, but still engaged.”

“So let’s say she was murdered. What do you want me to do about it?”

“Find out who did it.”

“I’m just a lawyer,” I said. “What you’re looking for is a private investigator. Now I have one that I use who is terrific. His name is Morris Kapustin and he’s a bit unorthodox, but if anyone can help he can. I can set…”

“I don’t want him, I want you.”

“Why me?”

“What exactly do mob lawyers do, anyway, eat in Italian restaurants and plot?”

“Why me, Caroline?” I stared at her and waited.

She lit her new cigarette from the still-glowing butt of her old one and then crushed the old against the edge of the mug. “Do you think I smoke too much? Everybody thinks I smoke too much. I used to be cool, now it’s like I’m a leper. Old ladies stop me in the street and lecture.”

I just stared at her and waited some more and after all the waiting she took a deep drag from her cigarette, exhaled, and said:

“I think a bookie named Jimmy Vigs killed her.”

So that was it, why she had chased me, insignificant me, down the street and pulled a gun and collapsed to the cement in black tears, all of which was perfectly designed to gain my attention, if not my sympathy. I knew Jimmy Vigs Dubinsky, sure I did. I had represented him on his last bookmaking charge and gotten him an acquittal too, when I denied he was a gambler, denied it was his ledger that the cops had found, denied it was his handwriting in the ledger despite what the experts said because wink-wink what do experts know, denied the notes in the ledger referred to bets on football games, denied the units mentioned in the ledger notes referred to dollar amounts, and then, after all those sweet denials, I had opened my arms and said with my best boys-will-be-boys voice, “And where’s the harm?” It helped that the jury was all men, after I had booted all the women, and that the trial was held in the spring, smack in the middle of March madness, when every one of those men had money in an NCAA pool. So, yes, I knew Jimmy Vigs Dubinsky.

“He’s a sometime client, as you obviously know,” I said, “so I really don’t want to hear anymore. But what I can tell you about Jim Dubinsky is that he’s not a killer. I’ve known him for…”

“Then you can clear him.”

“Will you stop interrupting me? It’s rude and annoying.”

She tilted her head at me and smiled, as if provoking me was her intent.

“I don’t need to clear Jimmy,” I said. “He’s not a suspect since the cops ruled your sister’s death a suicide.”

“I suspect him and I have a gun.”

I pursed my lips. “And you’ll kill him if I don’t take the case, is that it?”

“I’m a desperate woman, Mr. Carl,” she said, and there was just the right touch of husky fear in her voice, as if she had prepared the line in advance, repeated it to the mirror over and over until she got it just right.

“Let me guess, just a wild hunch of mine, but before you started playing around with f-stops and film speeds, did you happen to take a stab at acting?”

She smiled. “For a few years, yes. I was actually starring in a film until the financing was pulled.”

“And that point the gun, ‘Oh-my-God,’ collapse into a sobbing heap on the sidewalk thing, that was just part of an act?”

Her smile broadened and there was something sly and inviting in it. “I need your help.”

“You made the right decision giving up on the dramatics.” I thought for a moment that it might be entertaining to see her go up against Jimmy Vigs with her pop gun, but then thought better of it. And I did like that smile of hers, at least enough to listen. “All right, Caroline, tell me why you think my friend Jimmy killed your sister.”

She sighed and inhaled and sprayed a cloud of smoke into the air above my face. “It’s my brother Eddie,” she said. “He has a gambling problem. He bets too much and he loses too often. From what I understand, he is into this Jimmy Vigs person for a lot of money, too much money. There were threatening calls, there were late-night visits, Eddie’s car was vandalized. One of Eddie’s arms was broken, in a fall, he said, but no one believed him. Then Jackie died, in what seemed like a suicide but which I know wasn’t, and suddenly the threats stopped, the visits were finished, and Eddie’s repaired and repainted car maintained its pristine condition. The bookie must have been paid off. If this Jimmy Vigs person had killed Eddie he would have lost everything, but he killed Jackie and that must have scared Eddie into digging up the money and paying. But I heard he’s betting again, raising his debt even farther. And if your Jimmy Vigs needs to scare Eddie again I’m the one he’ll go after next.”

I listened to her, nodding all the while, not believing a word of it. If Jimmy was stiffed he’d threaten, sure, who wouldn’t, and maybe break a leg or two, which could be quite painful when done correctly, but that was as far as it would go. Unless, maybe, we were talking big big bucks, but it didn’t seem likely that Jim would let it get that high with someone like this girl’s brother.

“So what I want,” she said, “is for you to find out who killed her and get them to stay away from me. I thought with your connections to this Jimmy Vigs and the mob it would be easy for you.”

“I bet you did,” I said. “But what if it wasn’t Jimmy Vigs?”

“He did it.”

“Most victims are killed by someone they know. If she was murdered, maybe it was by a lover or a family member?”

“My family had nothing to do with it,” she said sharply.

“Jimmy Dubinsky is not a murderer. The mere fact that your brother owed him money is…”

“Then what about this?” she said while she reached into her handbag.

“You did it again, dammit. And I wish you wouldn’t keep putting your hand in there.”

“Frightened?” She smiled as she pulled out a plastic sandwich bag and dangled it before me.

I took the bag from her and examined it. Inside was a piece of cellophane, a candy wrapper, one end twisted, the other opened and the word “Tosca’s” printed on one side. When I saw the printing my throat closed on me.

“I found this lying on her bathroom floor, behind the toilet, when I was cleaning out her apartment,” she said.

“So she had been to Tosca’s. So what?”

“Jackie was an obsessive cleaner. She wouldn’t have just left this lying about. The cops missed it, I guess they don’t do toilets, but Jackie surely wouldn’t have left it there. And tomato sauce was too acidic for her stomach. She never ate Italian food.”

“Then someone else, maybe.”

“Exactly. I asked around and Tosca’s seems to be some sort of mob hangout.”

“So they say.”

“I think she was murdered, Mr. Carl, and that the murderer had been to Tosca’s and left this and I think you’re the one who can find out for me.”

I looked at the wrapper and then at Caroline and then back at the wrapper. Maybe I had underestimated the viciousness of Jimmy Vigs Dubinsky, and maybe one of my clients, in collecting for my other client, had left this little calling card from Tosca’s at the murder scene.

“And if I find out who did it,” I said, “then what?”

“I just want them to leave me alone. If you find out who did it, could you get them to leave me alone?”

“Maybe,” I said. “What about the cops?”

“That will be up to you,” she said.

I didn’t like the idea of this waif rummaging through Tosca’s looking for trouble and I figured Enrico Raffaello wouldn’t like it much either. If I took the retainer and proved to her, somehow, that her sister actually killed herself, I could save everyone, especially Caroline, a lot of trouble. I took another look at the wrapper in that plastic bag, wondered whose fingerprints might still be found there, and then stuffed it into my jacket pocket where it could do no harm.

“I’ll need a retainer of ten thousand dollars,” I said.

She smiled, not with gratitude but with victory, as if she knew all along I’d take the case. “I thought it was five thousand.”

“I charge one eighty-five an hour plus expenses.”

“That seems very high.”

“That’s my price. And you have to promise to throw that gun away.”

She pressed her lips together and thought about it for a moment. “But I want to keep the gun,” she said, with a slight pout in her voice. “It keeps me warm.”

“Buy a dog.”

She thought some more and then reached into her handbag once again and this time what she pulled out was a checkbook, opening it with the practiced air you see in well-dressed women at grocery stores. “Who should I make it out to?”

“Derringer and Carl,” I said. “Ten thousand dollars.”

“I remember the amount,” she said with a laugh as she wrote.

“Is this going to clear?”

She ripped the check from her book and handed it to me. “I hope so.”

“Hopes have never paid my rent. When it clears I’ll start to work.” I looked the check over. It was drawn on the First Mercantile Bank of the Main Line. “Nice bank,” I said.

“They gave me a toaster.”

“And you’ll get rid of the gun?”

“I’ll get rid of the gun.”

So that was that. I took her number and stuffed the check into my pocket and left her there with a cigarette smoldering between her fingers. I had been retained, sort of, assuming the check cleared, to investigate the mysterious death of Jacqueline Shaw. I had expected it would be a simple case of checking the files and finding a suicide. I didn’t know then, couldn’t possibly have known, all the crimes and all the hells through which that investigation would lead. But just then, with that check in my hand, I wasn’t thinking so much about poor Jacqueline Shaw hanging by her neck from a rope, but instead about Caroline, her sister, and the slyness of her smile.

I took the subway back to Sixteenth Street and walked the rest of the way to my office on Twenty-first. Up the stairs, past the lists of names, through the hallway with all the other offices with which we shared our space, to the three doorways in the rear.

“Any messages, Ellie?” I asked my secretary. She was a young blonde woman with freckles, our most loyal employee as she was our only employee.

She handed me a pile of slips. “Nothing exciting.”

“Is there ever?” I said as I nodded sadly and went into my scuff of an office. Marked white walls, files piled in lilting towers, dead flowers drooping like desiccated corpses from a glass vase atop my big brown filing cabinet. Through the single window was a sad view of the decrepit alleyway below. I unlocked the file cabinet and dropped the plastic bag with the Tosca’s candy wrapper inside into a file marked “Recent Court Decisions.” I closed the drawer and pushed in the cabinet lock and sat at my desk, staring at all the work I needed to do, transcripts to review, briefs to write, discovery to discover. Instead of getting down to work I took the check out of my pocket. Ten thousand dollars. Caroline Shaw. First Mercantile Bank of the Main Line. That was a pretty fancy banking address for a punkette with a post in her nose. I stood and strolled into my partner’s office.

She was at her desk, chewing, a pen in one hand and a carrot in the other. Gray-and-white-streaked copies of case opinions, paragraphs highlighted in fluorescent pink, were scattered across her desktop and she stared up at me as if I were a rude interruption.

“What’s up, doc?” Beth Derringer said.

“Want to go for a ride?”

“Sure,” she said as she snapped a chunk of carrot with her teeth. “What for?”

“Credit check.”

4

“WHERE ARE WE OFF TO?” asked Beth, sitting in the passenger seat of my little Mazda as I negotiated the wilds of the Schuylkill Expressway.

Short and sharp-faced, with glossy black hair ct even and fierce, Elizabeth Derringer had been my partner since we both fell out of law school, all except for one short period a few years back when I lost my way in a case, choosing money over honor, and she felt compelled to resign. That was very much like Beth, to pretend that integrity counted for more than cash, and of all the people I ever met in my life who pretended just that same thing, and there have been far too many, she was the best at pulling it off. Beth was smarter than me, wiser than me, a better lawyer all around, but she had an annoying tendency to pursue causes rather then currency, representing cripples thrown off SSI disability rolls, secretaries whose nipples had been tweaked by Neanderthal superiors, deadbeats looking to stave off foreclosure of the family homestead. It was my criminal work that kept us solvent, but I liked to think that Beth’s unprofitable good deeds justified my profitable descent into the mire with my bad boy clients. In today’s predatory legal world I would have been well advised to jettison her income drag, except I never would. I knew I could trust Beth more deeply than I could trust anyone else in this world, which was not a bad recipe, actually, for a partner and which explained why I hitched my shingle to hers but not why she hitched hers to mine. That I still hadn’t figured out.

“I found us a new client,” I said. “I want to see if the retainer check clears.”

“You smell like a chimney.”

“This new client is a bit nervous.”

“Why don’t you just have Morris do a background check for you?” she said, referring to Morris Kapustin, our usual private detective.

“This isn’t big enough yet to bring in Morris.”

A brown Chevette cut in front of me on the expressway and I slammed my horn. The guy in the Chevette swung around into a different lane and slowed to give me the finger. I gestured back. He shouted something and I shouted something and we jawed at each other for a few moments, neither hearing a word of what the other was yelling, before he sped away.

“So tell me about the new client. Who is he?”

She is Caroline Shaw. Her sister, one Jacqueline Shaw, killed herself, apparently. Caroline doesn’t believe it was a suicide. She suspects one of my clients and wants me to investigate. I’m certain it’s nothing more than what it looks like but I figure I can keep her out of trouble if I can convince her. My clients don’t like being accused of murder.”

“That’s rather noble of you.”

“She gave us a ten-thousand-dollar retainer.”

“I should have figured.”

“Even nobility has a price. You know what knight-hoods go for these days?”

A maroon van started sliding out of its lane, inching closer and closer to the side of my car. I pressed my horn and accelerated away from the van, braking just in time to avoid a Cadillac, before veering into the center lane.

“It’s not the sort of thing you usually take up, Victor. I didn’t know you had an investigator’s license.”

“She paid us a ten-thousand-dollar retainer, Beth. If the check clears, I’ll buy a belted raincoat and turn into Philip Marlowe.”

The First Mercantile Bank of the Main Line was a surprising choice for Caroline Shaw’s checking account. It was a stately white-shoe bank with three discreet offices and a huge estates department to handle the peculiar bequests of the wealthy dead. The bank’s jumbo mortgage rates were surprisingly low, the rich watched every penny with a rapaciousness that would stun, but the bank’s credit checks were vicious, kicking out all but those with the littlest need for the institution’s money. It catered to the very wealthy suburban crowd who didn’t want to deal with the hoi polloi when they dug their paws into their piles of gold and laughed. The bank didn’t discriminate against the not very rich, of course, but keep just a few hundred dollars in a checking account at the First Mercantile Bank of the Main Line and the fees would wipe out your principal in a breathtakingly short time. Keep a few hundred thousand and your Yves St. Laurent designer checks were complimentary. Wood-paneled offices, tellers in Brooks Brothers suits, personal banking, ads in The Wall Street Journal proclaiming the soundness of their investment advice for portfolios of two million dollars or more. Sorry, no, they didn’t cash welfare checks at the First Mercantile Bank of the Main Line and the glass door was always locked so that they could bar your entry until they gave you the once-over, as if they were selling diamond tiaras.

Even though I was in a suit, and Beth was in a nice print dress, we had to knock twice and smile gamely before we heard the buzz.

“Yes, can I help you?” said a somberly dressed young man with a thin smile who greeted us as soon as we stepped inside. I guessed he was some sort of a concierge, there to take the rich old ladies’ coats and escort them to the tapestry chairs arranged before willing and obsequious personal bankers.

“We need to cash a check,” I said.

“Do either of you have an account here?”

I looked around at the portraits of old bankers tacked onto the dark walnut of the walls, gray-haired men in their frock coats staring solemnly down at me with disapproval. Even if I was a Rothschild I don’t think I would have felt comfortable in that bank and, believe me, I was no Rothschild.

“No,” I said. “No account.”

“I’m sorry, sir, but we don’t cash checks for those without accounts here.” He whispered so as not to embarrass us, which was very considerate of him, considering. “There is a Core States Bank branch down the road a bit, I’m sure they could be of assistance.”

“We’re being sloughed off,” said Beth.

“It’s policy, ma’am,” said the concierge. “I’m sorry.”

“I’ve been sloughed off by worse places than this,” I said. “But still…”

The concierge stepped to the side and opened the door graciously for us to leave. “I hope we can be of service another time.”

“But the check I wanted to cash,” I said in a loud voice, “was drawn on this very bank.” And then I raised my voice even louder, not in anger, my tone still kindly, but the voice high enough and the syllables distinct enough so that I could have been heard in the rear of the balcony, had there been one. “You don’t mean to say that you won’t honor a check drawn on this bank?”

Heads reared, a personal banker stood, an old lady turned slowly to look at me and grabbed tightly to her purse. The concierge put a hand on my forearm, his face registering as much shock as if I had started babbling in Yiddish right there in that gilded tomb of a bank building.

Before he could say anything else a wonderfully dressed older man with nervous hands and razored gray hair was at his side.

“Thank you, James,” the older man said, his pale blue eyes fixed on my brown ones. “I’ll take it from here.” The young concierge bowed and backed away. “Follow me, please.”

We walked in a column to a desk in the middle of the bank’s dark-carpeted main room and were seated on the tapestry seats of claw-and-ball chairs. Atop the desk was a bronze name plate that read: “Mr. Jeffries.” “Now,” said the impeccably dressed Jeffries with an impeccably false smile, “you said you wished to cash a check drawn on an account at this bank?”

I reached into my jacket pocket and Jeffries flinched ever so slightly. Not the main man in this bank, I figured, if he was flinching from so minimally an imagined threat. From my jacket I pulled out Caroline Shaw’s check, unfolded it, read it once again, and handed it over.

Jeffries’s eyes rose in surprise when he examined the check. “And you’re Mr. Carl?”

“The very same. Is the check any good?”

There was a computer on his desk and I expected him to make a quick review of the account balance, of which I hoped to grab a peek, but that’s not what he did. What he did instead was to simply say, “I’ll need identification.”

I dug for my wallet and pulled out my driver’s license.

“And a credit card.”

I pulled that out, too. “So the check is good?”

He examined my license and MasterCard. “If you’ll just endorse the check, Mr. Carl.”

I signed the back. He compared my signature to the license and the credit card, making some notations beneath my signature on the check.

“And how would you like this paid, Mr. Carl, cash or cashier’s check?”

“Cash.”

“Are hundreds satisfactory?”

“Perfectly.”

“One moment, please,” and then with my license and credit card and check he stood and turned and walked out of the room to somewhere in the rear of the building.

“Your Miss Shaw seems to be known in this bank,” said Beth.

“Yes, either she has a substantial account or she is a known forger and the police will be out presently.”

“Which do you expect?”

“Oh the police,” I said. “I have found it is always safest to expect the worst. Anything else is mere accident.”

It took a good long time, far too long a time. I waited, first patiently, then impatiently, and then angrily. I was about to stand and make another scene when Jeffries finally returned. Behind him came another man, about my age, handsome enough and tall enough and blond enough so that he seemed as much a part of the bank as the paneling on the walls and the portraits in their gilded frames. I wondered to which eating club at Princeton he had belonged.

As Jeffries sat back down at the desk and fiddled with the paperwork, the blond man stood behind him looking over his shoulder. Jeffries took out an envelope and extracted a thick wad of bills, hundred-dollar bills. Slowly he began to count.

“I didn’t know cashing a check was such a production,” I said.

The blond man lifted his head and smiled at me. It was a warm, generous smile and completely ungenuine. “We’ll have this for you in just a moment, Mr. Carl,” he said. “By the way, what kind of business are you in?”

“This and that,” I said. “Why do you ask?”

“Our loan department is always on the lookout for clients. We handle the accounts for many lawyers. I was just hoping our business loan department could be of help to your firm.”

So that was why they spent so much time in the back, they were checking me out, and he wanted me to know it, too. “I believe our line of credit is presently sufficient,” I said. “Miss Derringer is the partner in charge of finances. How are we doing with our loans, Beth?”

“I’m still under my MasterCard limit,” said Beth.

“Now you’re bragging,” I said.

“It helps if you pay more than the minimum each month, Victor.”

“Well then, with Beth under her limit, we’re sitting pretty for the next month at least.”

“How good for you,” said the blond man.

Jeffries finished counting the bills. He neatened the pile, tapping it gently first on one side, then another, and proceeded to count it again. There was about Jeffries, as he counted the bills with the blond man behind him, the tense air of a blackjack dealer with the pit boss looking over his shoulder. They were taking quite a bit of care, the two of them, for ten thousand dollars, a pittance to a bank that considered anything under a million small change.

“What type of law is it that you two practice?” asked the blond man.

“Oh this and that,” I said.

“No specialty?”

“Not really. We take pretty much whatever comes in the door.”

“Do you do any banking work? Sometimes we have work our primary counsel can’t handle due to conflicts.”

“Is that a fact? And who exactly is your primary counsel?”

“Talbott, Kittredge & Chase.”

“Of course it is,” I said. Talbott, Kittredge & Chase was the richest, most prestigious, most powerful firm in the city.

“Oh, so they would know of you?”

“Yes,” I said. “Very well.”

“Then maybe we can do some business after all.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. They had checked me out all right, and it was interesting as hell that they were so interested, but their scouting report was old. I might have gone for the bait one time or another, given much to garner the business of an old and revered client like the First Mercantile Bank of the Main Line, but not anymore. “You see, we once sued Talbott, Kittredge & Chase and won a large settlement. They hate me there, in fact a memo has been circulated to have their lawyers harass me at every turn, so I don’t think they’d agree to your giving me any work.”

“Well of course,” said the blond man, “it’s our choice really.”

“Thank you for the offer,” I said, “but no. We don’t really represent banks.”

“It’s sort of a moral quirk of ours,” said Beth. “They’re so big and rich and unkind.”

“We sue them, of course,” I said. “That’s always good for a laugh or two, but we don’t represent them. We sometimes represent murderers and tax cheats and crack mothers who have deserted their babies, but we will only sink so low. Are you finished counting, Jeffries, or do you think Ben Franklin will start to smile if you keep tickling him like that?”

“Give Mr. Carl his money,” said the blond man.

Jeffries put the bills back in the envelope and handed it to me. “Thank you for banking with us, sir.”

“My pleasure,” I said as I tapped the envelope to my forehead in a salute. “I’m a little surprised though at how much interest you both seem to take in Miss Shaw’s affairs. She must be someone very special.”

“We take a keen interest in all of our clients’ affairs,” said the blond man.

“How wonderfully Orwellian. Is there anything about Miss Shaw’s situation we should know?”

The blond man stared at me for a moment. “No. Nothing at all. I hope we can be of further service sometime, Mr. Carl.”

“I’m sure you do,” I said, certain he never wanted to hear from me again.

James, the young concierge, was waiting at the door for us after we left the desk. As soon as we came near he swung the glass door open. “Good day,” he said with a nod and a smile.

Beth was already through when I stopped in the door frame. Without turning around, I said, “Thank you, James. By the way, that man standing behind Mr. Jeffries, staring at me with a peculiar distaste right now. Who is he?”

“Oh, that’s Mr. Harrington. He is in the trust and estates department,” said James.

“With a face like that I bet he’s got a load of old lady clients.”

“No sir, just the one keeps him busy enough.”

“One?” I turned around in surprise. As I had expected, Harrington was still staring bullets at me.

“The Reddmans, sir. He manages the entire Reddman estate.”

“Of the Reddman Pickle Reddmans?”

“Exactly, sir,” said James as he urged me out the entranceway.

“The Reddmans,” I said. “Imagine that.”

“Thank you for banking at First Mercantile,” said James, just before I heard the click of the glass door’s lock behind me.

5

DRIVING BACK INTO TOWN on the Schuylkill Expressway I wasn’t fighting my way through the left lanes. I stayed, instead, in the safe slow right and let the buzz of the aggressive traffic slide by. When a white convertible elbowed into my lane, inches from my bumper, as it sped to pass a truck in the center, I didn’t so much as tap my horn. I was too busy thinking. One woman was dead, from suicide or murder, I wasn’t sure yet which, another was paying me ten thousand dollars to find out, and now, most surprisingly, they both seemed to be Reddmans.

We all know Reddman Foods, we’ve been consuming its pressure-flavored pickles since we were kids – sweet pickles, sour pickles, kosher dill pickles, fine pickled gherkins. The green and red pickle jar with the founder’s stern picture above the name is an icon and the Reddman Pickle has taken its place in the pantheon of American products, alongside Heinz Ketchup and Kellogg’s cereal and the Ford motor car and Campbell ’s soup. The brand names become trademarks, so we forget that there are families behind the names, families whose wealth grows ever more obscene whenever we throw ketchup on the burger, shake out a bowl of cereal, buy ourselves a fragrant new automobile. Or snap a garlic pickle between our teeth. And like Henry Ford and Henry John Heinz and Andrew Carnegie, Claudius Reddman was one of the great men of America ’s industrial past, earning his fortune in business and his reputation in philanthropy. The Reddman Library at the University of Pennsylvania. The Reddman Wing of the Philadelphia Art Museum. The Reddman Foundation with its prestigious and lucrative Claudius Reddman grants for the most accomplished artists and writers and scholars.

So, it was a Reddman who had pointed a gun at me and then begged me for help, an heir to the great pickle fortune. Why hadn’t she told me? Why had she wanted me to think her only a poverty-struck little liar? Well, maybe she was a little liar, but a liar with money was something else again. And I did like that smile.

“What would you do if you were suddenly stinkingly rich?” I asked Beth.

“I don’t know, it never crossed my mind.”

“Liar,” I said. “Of course it crossed your mind. It crosses every American mind. It is our joint national fantasy, the communal American wishing for a fortune that is the very engine of our economic growth.”

“Well, when the lottery was at sixty-six million I admit I bought a ticket.”

“Only one?”

“All right, ten.”

“And what would you have done with all that money?”

“I sort of fantasized about starting a foundation to help public interest law organizations.”

“That’s noble and pathetic, both.”

“And I thought a Porsche would be nice.”

“Better,” I said. “You’d look good in a Porsche.”

“I think so, yes. What about you, Victor? You’ve thought about this, I suppose.”

“Some.” A radical understatement. Whole afternoons had been plundered in my fervent imaginings of great wealth acquired and spent.

“So what would you do?”

“The first thing I’d do,” I said, “is quit.”

“You’d leave the firm?”

“I’d leave the law, I’d leave the city, I’d leave my life. I’d cocoon somewhere hot and thick with coconuts and return as something else completely. I always thought I’d like to paint.”

“I didn’t know you had any talent.”

“I have none whatsoever,” I said cheerfully. “But isn’t that the point? If I had talent I’d be a slave to it, concerned about producing my oh so important work. Thankfully, I am completely talentless. Maybe I’d go to Long Island and wear Gap khakis and throw paint on canvas like Jackson Pollock and drink like a fish every afternoon.”

“You don’t drink well.”

“You’re right, and I’ve never been to Long Island, but the image is nice. And did I mention the Ferrari? I’d like an F355 Spider in candy-apple red. I hear the babes, they love the Ferrari. Oh hell, who knows, I’d probably be miserable even so, but at least I wouldn’t be a lawyer.”

“Do you really hate it that much?”

“You see the law as a noble pursuit, as a way to right wrongs. I see it as a somewhat distasteful job that I’m shackled to by my monthly credit card bills. And if I don’t get out, and soon,” I said, without a hint of humor in my voice, “it’s going to kill me.”

The car in front of me flashed its rear red lights and the car beside me slowed and I braked to a stop and soon we were just sitting there, all of us, hundreds and hundreds of us, parked in the largest parking lot in the city. The Schuylkill did this every now and then, just stopped, for no apparent reason, as if the King of Commuting, in his headquarters in King of Prussia, simply flicked a switch and turned the highway off. We sat quietly for a few minutes before the horns began. Is there anything so futile in a traffic jam as a horn? Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were in such a hurry, in that case maybe I’ll just ram the car in front of me.

“I’d like to travel,” said Beth. “That’s what I would do if I suddenly had too much money.”

She had been thinking about it the whole time we had been stuck and that surprised me. For me to mull over all I would do with all the money I wanted was as natural as breathing, but it was not so natural for Beth. Generally she evinced great satisfaction with her life as it was. This was my first indication ever that her satisfaction was waning.

“I never saw the point of traveling,” I said. “There’s only so many museums you can rush through, so many old churches, until you’re sick of it all.”

“I’m not talking for just a week to see some museums,” said Beth. “I’m talking about taking a few years off and seeing the world.” I turned and looked at her. She was staring forward, as if from the prow of a swift ocean liner instead of through the windshield of a car stalled in traffic. “I always thought, as a girl, that there was something out there waiting for me and my purpose in life was to go out and find it. If there is a disappointment in my life it’s that I haven’t even really searched. I feel like I’ve been tromping around looking for it in Philadelphia only because the light is better here, when all along I know it’s someplace else.”

“Where?”

“I don’t know.”

“What?”

“I don’t know. It’s stupid, but it’s what I’d like to do. And even if it’s here in Philadelphia after all, maybe I need to spend time away, shucking off all my old habits and old ways of seeing and learn to look at everything new again, so I can find it. A couple of years in a foreign land is supposed to sharpen your vision.”

“At LensCrafters they’ll do it for you in less than an hour.”

“A safari in Africa. A jungle cruise up the Amazon. A month on a houseboat in India. Nepal. Sometimes I look at a map of Nepal and get chills. Katmandu.”

“What kind of toilets do they have in Katmandu? I won’t do any of that squatting stuff.”

“So if we were suddenly rich, Victor, I think what I’d do is go to Katmandu.”

The traffic started to crawl forward. First a foot at a time, then a few feet, then we began a twenty-mile-per-hour jog into the heart of the city. Beth was thinking about Katmandu, I suppose, while I thought about my Gap khakis and my Ferrari. And about Caroline Shaw.

Back in the office I sat at the quiet of my desk and ignored the message slips handed me by Ellie. I thought of things, thought of my neediness and my deprivations and how much I wanted out. I wanted out so desperately it hurt as bad as a lost love. I had to get out, for reasons that haunted half the lawyers in the country and for darker, more sinister reasons that Beth could never know. Everything was against my ever leaving, sure, except for how fiercely I wanted out. I sat and daydreamed about winning the lottery and dripping paint on canvases in the Hamptons with a gin and tonic in my hand and then I stopped daydreaming and thought about the Reddmans.

Guys like me, we don’t often brush shoulders with that much money and to accidentally rub up against it, like I did in that bank, does something ugly to us. It’s like seeing the most beautiful woman in the world walk by, a woman who makes you ache just to look at her, and knowing that she’ll never even glance in your direction, which slips the ache in even deeper. I thought about the Reddmans and all they were born to and I ached. More than anything in this world, I wish I had been born rich. It would have made up for everything. I’d still be ugly, sure, but I’d be rich and ugly. I’d still be weak and dim and tongue-tied with women, but I’d be rich enough for them not to care. I’d no longer be a social misfit, I’d be eccentric. And most of all, I’d no longer be what I was, I’d be something different. I thought about it all and let the pain of my impoverishment wash over me and then I started making calls.

“I don’t have time to chitchat,” said Detective McDeiss over the phone, after I had tracked him down to the Criminal Justice Building. “You need something from me, you can go through the D.A.”

“It’s not about an active prosecution,” I said. “The case I want to talk about is old and closed. Jacqueline Shaw.”

There was a pause and a deep breath. “The heiress.”

“I like that word, don’t you?”

“Yeah, well, this one hung herself. What could there possibly be left to talk about?”

“I don’t know. I just want to get some background. I’m representing the sister.”

“Good for you, Carl. It’s a step up I guess from your usual low-class grease-bucket clientele. How did you ever hook onto her?”

“She chased me down the street with a gun.”

“Tell me about it, you slimeball.”

“You free for lunch tomorrow?”

“To talk about Jacqueline Shaw?”

“Exactly. My treat.”

“Your treat, huh?” There was a pause while McDeiss reprioritized his day. “You eat Chinese, Carl?”

“I’m Jewish, aren’t I?” I said.

“All right then, one o’clock,” and he tossed out an address before hanging up. I knew that McDeiss wanted nothing to do with me, disdain dripped thick as oil from his voice, but in the last few years I had learned something about cops and one of the things I had learned was that there was not a cop on the force who would turn down a free lunch, even if it was just a $4.25 luncheon special at some Chinatown dive with fried rice and an egg roll soggy with grease.

Except the address he tossed out was not to some Chinatown dive, it was to Susanna Foo, the fanciest, priciest Chinese restaurant in the city.

6

PETER CRESSI HAD A DARK, Elvisine look that just sort of melted women. He told me so in his own modest way, but he was right. Take the way our secretary, Ellie, reacted after he walked by whenever he walked by. She stared at him as he strutted past, her eyes popping, her mouth agape, and then, when the door was closed, she let out a sort of helpless giggle. He was a tomato for sure, Cressi, Big Boy or beefsteak, one of them, and from my dealings with him I knew him to be just about as smart. He was actually a little brighter than he looked, but then again he’d have to be.

“How’s it hanging wit’ you, Vic?” he said to me as he sat indolently in the chair across from my desk. “Low?” His dark eyes were partly brooding, partly blank, as if he were angry at something he couldn’t quite remember. His lemon tie, delicious and bright against his black shirt, was tied with entirely too much care.

“It’s not hanging so terrifically, Pete,” I said, shaking my head at him. “Next time you buy an arsenal, try not to purchase it from an undercover cop.”

Peter gave me a wink and looked off to the side, bobbing his head up and down as he chuckled at some private little joke. Cressi chuckled a lot, little he-he-he’s coming through his Elvis lips. “Who knew?”

“Good answer. That’s exactly what we’ll tell the jury.”

That chuckle again. “Just say I’m a collector.”

I opened the file and scanned the police report. “One hundred and seventy-nine Ruger Mini-14 semiautomatics with folding fiberglass stocks and two hundred kits for illegally modifying said firearms for fully automatic performance.”

“That’s what you should tell them I was collecting.”

“Also three grenade launchers and a flamethrower. A flamethrower, Peter. Jesus. What the hell did you need a flamethrower for?”

“A weenie roast?”

“That’s what your trial is going to be unless you sharpen up and get serious. You were also trying to buy twenty thousand rounds of ammunition.”

“Me and the guys, like we sometimes target shoot out in the woods.”

“What woods are we talking about here, Peter? They got any woods in South Philly I don’t know about? Like there’s a block just south of Washington they forgot to put a row of crappy houses on, it just slipped their minds?”

“Now you being funny, Vic.” His head bobbing, the he-he-he’s coming like an underpowered lawn mower. “Upstate, I’m talking. You know, bottles and cans. Maybe next time you want I should ask you along? It’s good to keep in training, if you know what I mean. And every now and then a stray bird it lands like a douche bag on the target and then, what do you think, bam, it’s just feathers floating.”

“Seriously, Pete. Why the guns?”

His eyes darkened. “I’m being serious as a fucking heart attack.”

He looked at me and I looked at him and I knew his look was fiercer than mine so I dropped my gaze back to the file. The guys I represented were nice guys generally, respectful, funny, guys to hang around and drink beer with, nice guys except that by and large they were killers. I must admit it didn’t take much to be fiercer than me, but still my clients scared me. Which made my current position even more tenuous and doubtful. But still I had a job to do.

“It says here,” I said, looking through the file, “that the undercover cop you were buying the weapons from, this Detective Scarpatti, made tapes of certain of your conversations.” I looked back up at Cressi, hoping to see something. “Anything we should be worried about?”

“What, you shitting me? Of course we should be worried. They probably got me on tape making the whole deal with that scum-sucking slob.”

“I assumed that. What I mean is any surprises, any talk about what you were going to do with the weapons? Any plots against a government building in Oklahoma or specific crimes planned which might cause us any problems? We’re not looking at additional conspiracy charges, are we?”

“No, no way. Just the deal.”

“How much money are we talking about?”

“In general or specific terms do you want?”

“Always be specific, Pete.”

“Ninety-five thou, eight hundred and ten. Scarpatti figured it out with a calculator, the fat bastard. I had more than that when they busted me, you know, for incidentals. He told me cash only.”

“No Visa card I guess.”

“I’m already over my limit.”

“Guys like you and me, Pete, it’s congenital.”

He chuckled and bobbed and said, “What’s that, dirty or something?”

I picked up another piece of paper from the file. It was just a copy of a subpoena, but I wanted to have something to look at so the question would seem offhand. “Where’d you get the cash?”

“You know, just lying around.” He-he-he.

I dropped the subpoena and looked up and put on my most annoyed look. I kind of squinted and twisted my lips and pretended I had just eaten a lemon. Then I waited a bit for his chuckling to die down, which, surprisingly, it did. “Maybe you are confused,” I said. “Maybe you are color blind. The guy in the blue suit, black shoes, red tie, that’s the prosecutor. He wants to put your butt in jail for a decade. My suit is blue and my shoes are black, sure, but look at my tie. It’s green.”

“Where’d you get that tie anyway, Woolworth’s?”

“Why not?”

“You know, Vic, your whole sense of style is in the toilet. Who shines your suits, anyway? And then you got them shoes. You should let me set you up with something new. I know a guy what got some flash suits might change your whole look. You might even get laid, do you some good. They’s a little warm is all, but you being a lawyer, what do you care, right?”

“Something wrong with my shoes?”

His sneer lengthened.

“What I’m trying to say is that I’m not the prosecutor here, I’m your lawyer. I’m here to help you. Everything we say in this room is confidential, you know that, it’s privileged, and no subpoena on earth can drag it out of me. But I can’t defend you properly unless I know the truth.”

“I’m not sure what you want I should tell you here, Vic. I thought you lawyers didn’t want to know the truth, that it limited what you could do, stopped you from bobbing here and weaving there, turned you from a Muhammad Ali, who was always dancing and sliding, to a Chuckie Wepner, from up there in Bayonne, getting hit like a speed bag, bam-bam-bam, and whose face was a bloody slice of sausage after round two. I thought the gig was that you would get the truth from me once you, like, knew what the best truth it was to tell.”

He was right, of course, which made everything a little more difficult. Cressi was an idiot, actually, except in the three things in which he had the most experience, screwing, shooting, and the criminal justice system. “It’s different,” I told him, “when there’s an undercover cop with tapes. When there’s an undercover cop with tapes I need to know everything or we’re liable to get blasted at trial. So I’m asking you again, and I want you to tell me. Where did you get the money?”

Cressi looked at me for a while, head tilted like a dog that was trying to figure out exactly what he was looking at. Then he shrugged. “I boosted six Mercedes off a lot. Just came in with a carrier I borrowed from a buddy what knew nothing about it, waived around some paperwork, and just took them. Drove them right to Delaware. Some Arab sheik and his sons right now they’re probably riding around in circles in the desert, smiling like retards.”

“You touch base with Raffaello on that deal?”

“You working for him or you working for me?”

“I’m working for you,” I said quickly, “but if you’re crossing him I have to know. I’m not going to create a defense for you that gets you out of trouble with the law but gets you dead when you hit the street. I’m trying to watch your back and your front, but you’ve got to level with me.”

Cressi turned his head and started bobbing, but there was no chuckle now. “We gave Raffaello his fifteen percent, sure, soon as the deal was done. It went through Dante, his new number two.”

“I thought Calvi was number two?”

“No, no more. There was a shake-up. Calvi’s in Florida. For good. Things change. Now it’s Dante.”

“Dante? I didn’t even know he was made.”

“Sure he was, under Little Nicky,” said Cressi, referring to the boss before the boss before Enrico Raffaello.

“Dante,” I repeated, shaking my head. Dante was the loan shark who bailed out Cressi yesterday morning. I had thought him strictly small time, just another street hood paying into the mob because he couldn’t count on the police to protect his illegal sharking operation, nothing more. He had moved up fast, Dante. Well, moving and lasting were two different things. I had liked Calvi, an irascible old buzzard with a sense of humor, a vicious smile, and a taste for thick, foul cigars that smelled of burning tires and rancid rum. I had liked Calvi, but he apparently hadn’t lasted and I didn’t expect Dante to last either.

“What about the guns?” I asked. “Did you touch base there too?”

“Nah, it was just kind of a hustle for a while. I didn’t think the guy could deliver, so I was going to play it out and see. I had a buyer, but I wasn’t sure of the seller.”

“Who was the buyer?”

“This group of wackos up in Allentown. Aryan bullshit, shaved heads and ratty trailers and target practice getting ready for the holy race war.”

“Who set it up?”

“I did.”

“Who else?”

“It was my gig, like, completely. Met this broad who took me to one of the meetings. Tits like cantaloupes, you know ripe ones like you get on Ninth Street. She talked about a retreat and I thought it was going to be hot. I thought an orgy or something. Turned out to be this militia-Nazi-bullshit-crap. I drilled her anyway. Then this tall, weird-looking geek started talking about guns and we set it up.”

“Just you? You were solo on this?”

“That’s what I said.”

He looked away and bobbed and his Adam’s apple bobbed too.

“All right,” I said. “That’s all for now. We have your preliminary hearing next week. We’re scheduled for ten, you get here nine-thirty and we’ll walk over together.”

“You don’t want to prepare me or nothing?”

“You’re going to sit next to me and not say a word and when I am done you’re going to leave with me. You think we need more preparation?”

“I think I can handle that.”

“I think maybe you can too. Tell me one thing more, Pete. You know Jimmy Vigs Dubinsky?”

“The bookie, sure. I done some favors for him.”

“You ever known him to whack someone who stiffs him?”

“Who, Jimmy? Nah, he’s a sweetheart. He cuts them off is all. Besides, you know, you can’t clip nobody without the boss’s approval. That’s like bottom line.”

“And he doesn’t approve much.”

“Are you kidding, you got to go to New York nowadays to get any kind of good experience. Up there it still rocks.”

“Thanks, that’s what I figured,” I said as I walked him out of my office into the hallway. Beth just happened to be at Ellie’s desk, talking about something oh-so-important as Peter walked by. They were both polite enough to hold their giggles until he was out of earshot.

“You too, huh, Beth?” I said, looking through a stack of mail on Ellie’s desk. “Well forget it, ladies. He likes women with cantaloupe breasts and empty minds.”

“Don’t you all?” said Beth.

“Come to think of it,” I said. “I’m going to step out for a cup of coffee. I’ll be right back. Anyone want anything?”

“Diet Coke,” said Beth. I nodded.

Down the hallway, past the accountant’s office and the architect’s office and the design firm that shared our office space, out the door, down the stairs, out to Twenty-first Street. I walked a few blocks to the Wawa convenience store and bought a cup of coffee in blue cardboard and a Diet Coke, which I stuck in my pocket. Out on the street, with my coffee in my hand, I looked both ways. Nothing. I walked a few more blocks and turned around. Nothing. Then I found a phone booth and put the coffee on the aluminum shelf. I dropped in a quarter and dialed and waited for the ringing to end.

“Tosca’s,” said a voice.

“Let me talk to table nine,” I said.

“One’a moment. I see if it available.”

About a minute later I heard a familiar voice, older and softer, peppered with an Old World accent. “Table nine,” it said.

“He says he got the money by stealing six cars off a Mercedes-Benz lot. He said he got you your share through Dante.”

“Go on.”

“He says he was going to resell the guns to some white supremacist group out in Allentown for a big profit.”

“You believe him?”

“He says he was on his own. I don’t think he whacks off on his own.”

“I don’t think so neither. He ever had a bright idea it’d be beginner’s luck. You find out who he was with.”

“And then we’re even and I’m through, right?”

“It’s so hard to quantify human relationships, don’t you think?”

“I hate this.”

“Life is hard.”

There was a firm click. I stood in the phone booth and tried to take a sip of the coffee but my hand was shaking so much it spilled on my pants. I cursed loudly and shook my pants leg and wondered at how I had made such a mess of everything.

7

“IT’S THE ASIAN RADISH that makes this dish truly memorable,” said Detective McDeiss as he skillfully manipulated the bamboo chopsticks with his thick fingers. On the little plate before him, tastefully garnished, were two tiny cakes, lightly fried. Hundred Corner Crab Cakes with Daikon Radish and Tomato Pineapple Salsa ($10.00). “The Asian radish is subtler than your basic American radish, with a sweet and mild flavor when cooked, like a delicate turnip. The pineapple salsa is a nice touch, though a little harsh for my preference, but it’s the radish that adds that touch of excitement to the fresh crab. I detect a hint of ginger too, which is entirely appropriate.”

“I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself,” I said.

“Oh, I am. It’s not too often I get to eat at so fine an establishment. More wine?”

“No thank you,” I said. “But please, help yourself.” The last was a bit gratuitous, as the detective was already pouring himself another glass from the bottle. Pouilly Fuissé 1983 ($48.00).

“Normally, of course, I wouldn’t drink at lunch, but being as the trial was recessed for the day and I’m off shift, I figure, why not?”

“Why not indeed?”

McDeiss was a big man, tall and broad, with the stomach of a football lineman ten years gone from the game. He dressed rather badly, a garish jacket over a short-sleeve shirt, a wide tie with indifferent stripes choking his thick neck. His bulbous face held a closed arrogant expression that seemed to refute any possibility of an inner life but the thick lines in his forehead rose with a cultured joy as he tasted his crab, his lips tightened, his shoulders seemed to sway with a swooning delight. Just my luck, I figured, offering to buy lunch for the only five star gourmand on the force. Susanna Foo was elegantly decorated with fresh flowers and mirrors and gold-flocked wallpaper; no Formica tables, no cheap plastic chopsticks, everything first class, including the prices, which made me flinch as I saw the wine drain down his substantial gullet. Even though I fully intended to bill Caroline for expenses, I was still fronting our lunch money.

“We were talking about Jacqueline Shaw,” I said. “Your investigation.”

He finished the last of his crab cakes, closed his eyes in appreciation, and reached again for his wineglass. “Very good. Very very good. Next time, maybe we’ll try Le Bec-Fin together. They have an excellent price-fixed lunch. Do you like opera, Carl?”

“Does Tommy count?”

“Sorry, no. Too bad that. We could have such a nice evening, just you and me. Dinner at the Striped Bass and then orchestra seats to Rigoletto.”

“You’re pushing it, McDeiss.”

“Am I? Jacqueline Shaw. Hung herself in the living room of her apartment at the south end of Rittenhouse Square. Quite a place, if a bit overly baroque in decoration for my palate. Everything seemed to be in order. It was very neat, no clothes lying around, as if she was expecting guests to show up at her hanging. She had been depressed, she had tried it before.”

“How?”

“Too many pills once. Slit her wrists in the bathtub when she was a teen. She was a statistic waiting to be rung up, that’s all. Ahh, here’s my salad.” Fresh Water Chestnut and Baby Arugula Salad with Dry Shrimp Vinaigrette ($8.00). “Oh my goodness, Carl, this dressing is delicious. Want a taste?”

He thrust at me a forkful of greens thick with the vinaigrette.

I shook my head. “Do you think the mother arugula gets upset when the farmer takes her babies?”

McDeiss didn’t answer, he simply turned the fork on himself. As he chewed, the lines in his forehead rose again.

“Who found her?” I asked.

“The boyfriend,” said McDeiss. “They were living together, apparently engaged. Came home from work and found her hanging from the chandelier. He left her up there and called us. A lot of times they cut them down before they call. He just let her hang.”

“Was there a doorman? A guest register?”

“We checked out all the names in and out that day. Everything routine. Her neighbor, a strange player named Peckworth, said he saw a UPS guy in her hallway that day, which got us wondering, because no one had signed in, but then he came back and said he was confused about the day. We checked it out. She had received a package two days before. Not that this Peckworth could have been any kind of a witness anyway. He’s a real treat. Once that was cleared up there was nothing out of the ordinary, nothing suspicious.”

“Did she leave a note?”

He shook his head. “Often they don’t.”

“Find anything suspicious in the apartment?”

“Not a thing.”

“Candy wrappers or trash that didn’t belong?”

“Not a thing. Why? You got something?”

“No.”

“Didn’t think so. The lady had a history of depression, history of drug abuse and alcohol abuse, years of failed therapies, and she was getting involved in some hippie dippy New Age chanting thing out in Mount Airy.”

“That’s the place for it,” I said.

“It all fits.”

“What about the motive?” I softened my voice. “She’s a Reddman, right?”

“Absolutely,” said McDeiss. “A direct heir as a matter of fact. Her great-grandfather was the pickle king, what was his name, Claudius Reddman? The guy on all the jars. Well, the daughter of this Reddman, she married a Shaw, from the Shaw Brothers department stores, and their son is the sole heir for the entire fortune. This Jacqueline was his daughter. There are three other siblings. The whole thing is going to be divided among them.”

I leaned forward. I tried to sound insouciant, but I couldn’t pull it off. “How much is the estate worth?”

“I couldn’t get an exact figure, only estimates,” said McDeiss. “Not much after all these years. Only about half a billion dollars.”

Three heirs left, half a billion dollars. That put Caroline Shaw’s expected worth at something like one hundred and sixty-six million dollars. I reached for my water glass and tried to take a drink, but my hand shook so badly water started slopping over the glass’s edge and I was forced to put it back down.

“So if it wasn’t a suicide,” I suggested, “money could have been a motive.”

“With that much money it’s the first thing we think about.”

“Who benefited from her death?”

“I can’t talk about it.”

“Oh come on, McDeiss.”

“It’s privileged. I can’t talk about it, that’s been made very clear to me. There was a hefty insurance policy and her inheritance was all tied up in a trust. Both were controlled by some bank out in the burbs.”

“First Mercantile of the Main Line, I’ll bet.”

“You got it.”

“By some snot name of Harrington, right?”

“You got it. But the information he gave me about the insurance and the trust was privileged, so you’ll have to go to him.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Look, let me warn you, there was political heat on this investigation. Heat to clean it up quickly. I’ve always been one to clean up my cases, check them off and go onto the next. It’s not like there’s not enough work. But still I was getting the push from the guys downtown. So when the coroner came back calling it a suicide that was enough for me. Case closed.”

“But even with all the heat, you’re talking to me.”

“A good meal, Carl, is worth any indignity,” but after he made his little joke he kept looking at me and something sharp emerged from the fleshy bulbs of his face.

“And you think something stinks, don’t you?” I said. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Not for the baby arugula. Where’d the heat come from? Who called you off?”

He shrugged and finished his salad, poured another glass of wine, drank from it, holding the stem of the glass daintily in his sausage fingers. “The word on the Reddmans,” he said rather mysteriously, “is that it is a family dark with secrets.”

“Society types?”

“Not at all. Best I could tell they’ve been shunned completely, like lepers. All that money and not even in the Social Register. From what I could figure, you and I, we’d be more welcome in certain social circles than the Reddmans.”

“A Jew and an African-American?”

“Well maybe not you.” He laughed broadly at that and then leaned forward and twisted his voice down to a whisper. “The Reddman house is one strange place, Carl, more a huge stone tomb than anything else, with tilting spires and wild, overrun gardens. Veritas, it’s called. Don’t you love it when they name their houses?”

“Veritas? A bit presumptuous, wouldn’t you say?”

“And they pronounce it wrong.”

“You speak Latin?”

His broad shoulders shrugged. “My mother had this thing about a classical education.”

“My mother thinks classical means an olive in her gin.”

“Well, this Veritas was cold as an Eskimo’s hell,” said McDeiss. “As soon as I got there and started asking questions I could feel the freeze descend. The dead girl’s father, the grandson of the pickle king, the word on him is he’s demented. They lock him up in some upstairs room in that mansion. I had some questions for him but they wouldn’t let me up to see him, they physically barred me from going up the stairs, can you believe that? Then, just when I was about to force my way through to get to his room, a call came in from the Roundhouse. The family, through our friend Harrington, had let it be known that they wanted the case closed and suddenly the heat came down from City Hall. See, Carl, money like that, it is its own power, you understand? Money like that, it wants something, it gets it. I never got a chance to see the old man. My lieutenant told me to check off the case and move on.”

“And so you checked.”

“It was a classic suicide. We’d seen it all before a hundred times. There wasn’t much I could do.”

“No matter how much it stunk. I need you to get me the file.”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“I’ll subpoena it.”

“I can’t control what you do.”

“How about the building register for the day of the death?”

He looked down at his salad and speared a lone water chestnut. “There’s nothing there, but okay. And be sure to talk to the boyfriend, Grimes.”

“You think maybe he…”

“All I think is you’ll find him interesting. He lives in that luxury high-rise on Walnut, west of Rittenhouse. You know it?”

I nodded. “By the way, you find any Darvon in her medicine cabinet?”

He looked up from his salad. “Enough to keep a football team mellow.”

“Ever wonder why she didn’t just take the pills?”

Before McDeiss could answer the waiter came and whisked away his plate, with only the remnants of the dry shrimp vinaigrette staining the porcelain. In front of me the waiter placed the restaurant’s cheapest entree, Kung Pao Chicken-Very Spicy ($10.00), thick with roasted peanuts. In front of McDeiss he placed one of the specialties of the house, Sweeter Than Honey Venison with Caramelized Pear, Sun-Dried Tomato and Hot Pepper ($20.00). McDeiss picked off a chunk of venison with his chopsticks, swilled it in the garnish, and popped it into his mouth. He chewed slowly, carefully, mashing the meat with Pritikin determination, his shoulders shaking with joy.

While McDeiss chewed and shook, I considered. Through his patina of certainty as to the suicide I had detected something totally unexpected: doubt. For the first time I wondered seriously whether Caroline Shaw might have been right about her sister’s death and it wasn’t just that McDeiss had doubts that got me to wondering. There was money at stake here, huge pots of money, enough to twist the soul of anyone who got too close. Money has its own gravitational pull, stronger than anything Newton imagined, and what it drew, along with fast cars and slim-hipped women, was the worst of anyone who fell within its orbit. Just the amount of money involved was enough to get me thinking, and what I was thinking, suddenly, was of Caroline Shaw and that manipulative little smile of hers. And there was something else too, something that cut its way through the heat of the Kung Pao and slid into the lower depths of my consciousness. Just at that moment I couldn’t shake the strange suspicion that somehow a part of all that Reddman money could rightfully belong to me.

McDeiss had told me I should talk to the boyfriend, this Grimes fellow, and so I would. I could picture him now, handsome, suave, a fortune-hunting rogue in the grandest tradition, who had plucked Jacqueline out of a crowd and was ready to grab his piece of her inheritance. He must be a bitter boy, this Grimes, bitter at the chance for wealth that had been snatched right out of his pocket. I liked the bitter boys, I knew what made them tick, admired their drive, their passions. I had been a bitter boy once myself, before my own calamitous failures transformed my bitterness into something weaker and more pathetic, into deep-seated cynicism and a desperate desire to flee. But though I was no longer bitter, I still knew its language and could still play the part. I figured I’d have no trouble getting Grimes to spill his guts to me, bitter boy to bitter boy.

8

I SAT DOWN AT THE BAR of the Irish Pub with a weary sigh and ordered a beer. As the bartender drew a pint from the keg I reached into my wallet and dropped two twenties onto the bar. I drank the beer while the bartender was still at the register making my change, drank it like I was suffering a profound thirst. I slapped the glass onto the bar and waved to the bartender for another. Generally I didn’t drink much anymore because of my drinking problem. The problem was that when I drank too much I threw up. But that night I had already spent hours searching and asking questions and looking here and there, and now that I had found what I was looking for I was determined to do some drinking.

“You ever feel like the whole world is fixed against you?” I said to the bartender when he brought my second beer.

It was a busy night at the Irish Pub and the bartender didn’t have time to listen. He gave a little laugh and moved on.

“You don’t need to tell me,” said the fellow sitting next to me, the remnants of a scotch in his hand.

“Every time I get close,” I said, “the bastards yank it away like it was one of those joke dollar bills tied to a string.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” said the man. With a quick tilt of his wrist he drank the last of his scotch.

The Irish Pub was a young bar, women dressed in jeans and high heels, men in Polo shirts, boys and girls together, meeting one another, shouting lies in each other’s ears. On weekends there was a line outside, but this wasn’t a weekend and I wasn’t there to find a date and neither, I could tell, was the man next to me. He was tall and dark, in a gaudily bright short-sleeve shirt and tan pants. His features were all of movie-star strength and quality, his nose was straight and thin, his chin jutting, his eyes deep and black, but the package went together with a peculiar weakness. He should have been the handsomest man in the world, but he wasn’t. And the bartender refilled his glass without even asking.

“What’s your line?” I asked, while still looking straight ahead, the way strangers at a bar talk to one another.

“I’m a dentist,” he said.

I turned my head, looked him up and down, and turned it back again. “I thought you had to have more hair on your forearms to be a dentist.”

He didn’t laugh, he just took a sip from his scotch and swirled it around his mouth.

“I was that close today, dammit,” I said. “And then it happened like it always happens. It was a car accident, right? A pretty ugly one, too, some old lady in her Beemer just runs the red and bam, slams into my guy’s van. Lacerations from the flying glass, multiple contusions, a neck thing, you know, the works. I send him to my doctor and it’s all set, he can’t work, can’t walk or exercise, he’s stuck in a chair on his porch, wracked with pain, his life tragically ruined. Beautiful, no?”

“You’re a lawyer,” said the man as flatly as if he were telling me my fly was unzipped.

“And it set up so sweet,” I said. “Workman’s comp from the employer and then, wham, big bucks compensatory from the old lady and her insurance company. The insurance was maxed out at three hundred thou but we were going for more, much more, punitives because the old lady was half blind and should never have been out on the road, was a collision waiting to happen. She’s a widow, some Wayne witch, rich as sin, so collection’s a breeze. And I got a thirty-three-and-a-third percent contingency fee agreement in my bank vault, if you know what I mean. I had picked out my Mercedes already, maroon with tan leather seats. SL class.”

“The convertible,” said the man, nodding.

“Absolutely. Oh, so beautiful that car, just thinking about it gives me a hard-on.”

I finished my beer and pushed the mug to the edge of the bar and let my head drop. When the bartender came I asked for a shot to go with my refill. I waited till the drinks came and then sucked the top off my beer and waited some more.

“So what happened?” said the man, finally.

I sat there quietly for a moment and then with a quick snatch downed the shot and chased it. “We show up at mandatory arbitration and I give our case, right? Fault’s not even at issue. And my guy’s sitting there, shaking with palsy in a wheelchair, his neck chafed to bleeding from the brace, most pathetic thing you ever saw. I figured they’d offer at least a mil before we even got to telling our story. Then the old lady’s fancy lawyer brings out the videotape.”

I took another swallow of beer and shook my head.

“My guy playing golf over at Valley Forge, neck brace and all. Schmuck couldn’t keep off the links. He gave up work, sex with the wife, playing with the kids, everything, but he couldn’t keep off the links. They brought in his scorecard too. Broke ninety, neck brace and all. I took forty thou and ran. So close to the big score and then, as quick as a two-foot putt, it’s gone.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” said the man next to me.

“Don’t even try. What do you know about it, a dentist. You got it made. Everyone’s got teeth.”

He took a long swallow from his scotch and then another, draining it. “You’re such a loser, you don’t even know.”

“Tell me about it.”

“You want to hear something? You want to hear the saddest story in the world?”

“Not really,” I said. “I got my own problems.”

“Shut up and buy me a drink and I’ll tell you something that will make your skin crawl.”

I turned to look at him and he was staring at me with a ferocity that was frightening. I shrugged and waved for the bartender and ordered two scotch on the rocks for him and two beers for me. Then I let Grimes tell me his story.

9

HE FIRST SAW HER AT A PLACE on Sixteenth Street, a dark, aggressively hip bar with a depressed jukebox and serious drinkers. She was sitting alone, dressed in black, not like an artiste, more like a mourner. She was sort of pretty, but not really thin enough, not really young enough, and he wouldn’t have given her a second look except that there was about this woman in black an aura of sadness that bespoke need. Need was about right, he figured, since he was looking for an effortless piece and need often translated into willing cession. He sat down beside her and bought her a drink. Her name, she said, was Jacqueline Shaw.

“She was drinking Martinis,” said Grimes, “which I thought was sexy in a dissolute sort of way.”

“Is this going to be just another lost girl story?” I asked. “Because if that’s all…”

“Shut up and listen,” said Grimes. “You might just learn something.”

After the second drink she started talking about her spiritual quest, how she was seeking a wider understanding of life than that allowed by the five basic senses. He smiled at her revelations, not out of any true interest, but only because he knew that spiritual yearning and sexual freedom were often deliciously entwined. She talked about the voices of the soul and the spirits that speak within each of us and how we need to learn to hear like a child once again to discern what the voices are whispering to us about the ineffable. She spoke of the connectedness of all things and how each of us, in our myriad of guises, was merely a manifestation of the whole. She said she had found her spiritual guide, a woman named Oleanna. Two more drinks and she and Grimes were walking side by side west, toward Rittenhouse Square. She had a place in one of those old apartment buildings on the south side of the park and was taking him there to show him her collection of spiritual artifacts, in which he had feigned interest.

“Ba-da-boom, ba-da-bing,” I said.

“And it was something, too,” said Grimes, “but that’s not what really grabbed my interest.”

“No?”

“It was that place, man, that place.”

Her apartment was unbelievably spacious, baronial in size and furnishings, with everything outsized and thick, huge couches, huge wing chairs, a grand piano. There were tapestries everywhere, on the walls, draped over tables, and chandeliers dripping glass, and carpets thick as fairway rough piled one atop the other. Plants in sculpted pots were everywhere, plants with wide veined leaves and plants with bright tiny flowers and hairy phallic plants thick with thorns. It was otherworldly, that place. She put on this music which drifted out from behind the furnishings, a magical white mix of wind harps and fish flutes, drone tubes and moon lutes and water bells. And then in the center of the main room, atop hand-woven Persian rugs in deep blue, beside a fire, she showed him her crystals and sacred beads and fetishes imported from Africa, a man with a lion’s head, a pregnant woman with hooves and beard, a child with a hyena’s grin. She lit a stick of incense and a candle and then another candle and then twenty candles more and with the fire and totems surrounding them they made love and it was as though the power of those tiny statues and the beads and the crystals were funneled by the music, the incense, the flame, right through her body and she collapsed again and again beneath him on the carpet. And he felt the power too, but the power he felt was not of the fire or of the stones or of the fetishes, it was the power of all the wealth in that magical room, the utter power of money.

“Suddenly,” said Grimes, “I developed a deep belief in the healing power of crystals.”

He went with her the next week to a meeting of her spiritual group. They met in what they called the Haven, which was really the basement of some rat trap in Mount Airy. Everybody was dressed in robes, orange or green, and sat on the floor. There was enough potpourri scattered to make Martha Stewart choke and they chanted and meditated and told each other of painful moments in their lives and their efforts to transcend their physical selves. He noticed that the church members bustled about Jackie like she was a source of some sort. Extra time was devoted to her, extra efforts taken to make her comfortable. “Do you need a pad, Jackie?” “Can we get you something to drink, Jackie?” “Would you like an extra dose of aroma therapy, Jackie?” A woman came out at the end of the meeting and sat on a high-backed regal chair, a beautiful woman in flowing white robes. Jacqueline was taken to sit directly at her feet. This woman was Oleanna, and as she sat on that chair she fell into a trance and strange noises emerged from her throat, noises which bent Jackie double with rapture. Grimes didn’t understand it, thought it part con, part insane, but he couldn’t help noticing how the members all buzzed about Jacqueline like bees about the queen. The next morning he hired an investigator to check her out discreetly.

Three months later, in a private ceremony in her apartment, with the music and the fetishes and the candles, with a pile of crystals between their kneeling, naked bodies, he asked her to marry him and she said yes. By that time the investigator had told him who her great-grandfather was and the approximate amount of the fortune she was scheduled to inherit.

“I’m not going to tell you what corporation they started or anything,” said Grimes.

“Would I know it?” I asked.

“Of course you would, everyone does. You’ve been eating its stuff forever. And her share of the fortune alone was over a hundred million. Do you know how many zeros that is? Eight zeros. That’s enough to buy a baseball team, that’s enough to buy the Eagles. And she said yes.”

“Jesus, you hit the big time.”

“Bigger than you’ll ever see, Mack, that’s for sure.”

With their future settled, Jackie took him one afternoon to meet her family in the ancestral mansion deep in the Main Line, a place they called Veritas. The house was a strange gothic castle, high on a grassy hill, surrounded by acres of woods and strange, desolate gardens. Inside it was a dank mausoleum, cold and humid, decorated much like Jacqueline’s apartment only on a larger, more decrepit scale. One brother never rose from his chair, wearing a creepy smoking jacket, almost too drunk to talk. His wife flitted about him like a hyperactive moth, refreshing his drink, fluffing his pillow. Another brother, thin and nervous, was in a den glued to his computer screen, watching the prices of the family’s vast holdings rise and fall and rise again on the nation’s stock exchanges. The sister was a sarcastic little bitch in black leather who laughed in his face when he told her he was a dentist and who cut Grimes with a series of scathing comments. The mother was overseas somewhere, vacationing alone, and the father stayed in his private upstairs chamber, never stepping down to meet his daughter’s fiancé.

“It felt like I was visiting the Munsters,” said Grimes. “And that was before Jacqueline took me to meet her Grammy, the daughter of the man who had founded the family fortune.”

Grandmother Shaw was hunched over in a chair, her wrinkled face tilted as if one half were made of wax and had been pressed too close to a flame. Her hands were bony and long, the rasp of her breathing sliced the silence in the room. The eye on the melted half of her face was closed; from the other a pale, cataractal blue peered out. She stared at him like he was a disease as Jacqueline made the introductions. Then, with a withering smile, the grandmother insisted on taking Grimes for a little walk around the gardens.

They were alone, the two of them, except for the old gardener who held onto her arm as she walked. It was the height of the summer now and the gardens were a riot of colors and scents. She showed him her rhododendron, her hyacinths, with spikes of red flowers, her blood-red chrysanthemums. Thick yellow bees burrowed for pollen, rubbing their setaceous bodies over the open blooms in a silent ecstasy. She led him through an arch cut into a high wall of spinous hedges. Here the hedgerows were trimmed into some sort of a maze, flowers fronting tall walls of barberry bristling with thorns, barberry hiding paths of primrose and blue lobelia that spun around in circles, leading to still more barberry. She asked him about himself as they walked, listening without comment. Her cane was gnarled. The old gardener, holding her arm as he walked beside her, was silent beneath his wide straw hat. They wove slowly past bunches of phlox and violet sage, past peals of bellshaped digitalis, alongside spiny rows of purple globe thistle.

“You some sort of gardener?” I asked Grimes.

“Everyone needs a hobby, what of it?”

“Just asking is all.”

They walked in a seemingly directionless path in that maze until they found themselves in the center of a very formal space scribed by tall circular hedges, edged with astilbe and gay-feather and gaudy red hollyhock on tall, reedy spires. In the center of the space was an oval of rich, dark earth, out of which bloomed bunches of gorgeous violet irises above a sea of pale yellow jewelweed. At one end of the oval was a statue of a naked woman reaching up to the heavens, her delicate bare feet resting on a huge marble base, studded with pillars, encrusted with brass medallions, the word “SHAW” engraved deep into the stone. Across the oval garden from the statue was a marble bench, situated under a white wooden arch infested with giant orange trumpet flowers, their stamens red as tongues. The gardener deposited the old woman on the bench and she bade Grimes to sit beside her with two pats of the marble. As they sat together the gardener took out a pair of shears and began to trim the foliage behind them with shivery little clips of the blades.

“This is our favorite place in all the world,” rasped Grandmother Shaw.

“It is beautiful,” said Grimes.

“We come here every day, no matter the weather. We feel all the power of the land in this place. We used to come here as children, too, but it has developed more meaning for us as we’ve grown older and more doddering. Mr. Shaw’s ashes are in an urn beneath the statue of Aphrodite. More treasures are buried in this earth, keepsakes, mementos of a better time. Everything of value we place here. We come every day and think of him and them and replenish ourselves with all the power in this dark, rich earth.”

“Your husband must have been quite a man,” he said.

“He was, yes,” she said. “In the last days of his life he had become intensely spiritual in a way open only to the scathed. You intend to marry our Jacqueline.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“We take our marriage vows very seriously in this family. When we promise to marry it is for forever.”

“I love Jacqueline very much. Forever is too short a time to be with her.”

“We are sure you felt that for your present wife too,” she said.

She was referring, of course, to Grimes’s wife of seven years, mother of his two children, keeper of his house, rememberer of his family’s birthdays and anniversaries, planner of the family vacations, his wife, about whom he hadn’t yet gotten around to telling Jacqueline. They had been childhood sweethearts, he and his wife, had dated all through high school, her parents had put him through dental school by mortgaging their house. It had been the shock of her life when he moved out to live with Jacqueline Shaw.

“That marriage was a mistake. I didn’t know what love was until I met your granddaughter.”

“Yes, great wealth has that effect on people. Your private investigator did tell you the value of our family’s holdings, didn’t he?”

“I love Jacqueline,” he said, rising from the bench with evident indignation. “And if you’re implying that my intentions are…”

“Sit down, Mr. Grimes,” she said, staring up at him with that opaque blue eye. “We need no histrionics between us. We were very impressed with the hiring of your investigator. It shows an initiative all too rare in this family. Sit down and don’t presume to understand our intentions here.”

He stared at her for a moment, but half her face smiled at him as she patted the bench once again, and so he sat. The gardener grunted and kneeled behind them, searching on his hands and knees for the tiniest weeds poking through the rich black mulch.

“Those purple spikes over there are from our favorite plant in this garden. Dictamnus albus. The gas plant. On windless summer evenings, if you put a match to its blossoms, the vapor of the flowers will burn ever so faintly, as if the spirits buried in this earth are igniting through its fragrant blooms. Jacqueline has always been a morose little girl, she had the melancholia from the start. Whether you marry her for her sadness or her money is no concern of ours.”

He began to object but she raised her hand and silenced him.

“We are simply grateful she has found someone to care for her no matter what tragedies will inevitably befall her. But we want you to understand what it means to be a member of our family before it is too late for you.”

“I can imagine,” he said.

“No, I don’t think so. It is beyond your imagining.”

The gardener grunted as he stood once more and began again with the shears.

“Our blood is bad, Mr. Grimes, weak, it has been defiled. Where there was strength in my father there is only decay now. My sister died of bad blood, my son has been ruined by it. The result is the weakness evident in my grandchildren. If you marry Jacqueline you must never have children. To do so would be to court disaster. You must join us in refusing to allow the weaknesses in our family’s gene pool to survive. Let it die, let it fade away. We are different from those pathetic others who try so futilely to keep alive a malignant genetic line at all costs. All that’s left of our physical bodies is rot. Everything of value has already been transferred to the wealth.”

The old lady sighed and turned her head away.

“Our wealth has been hard earned, Mr. Grimes, earned with blood and bone, more pain than you could ever know. But whatever remains of my father and his progeny, and of my husband too, still lives in the corpus of our family’s holdings, their hearts still beat, their souls still flourish through the tentacles of our wealth. Everything we have done in what was left to us of our lives was to honor their sacrifice and to maintain the body of their existence towards three divine purposes. Conciliation, expiation, redemption.”

Each of the last three words was spoken with the strength and clarity of a great iron bell. Grimes was too frightened to respond. The chiming of the gardener’s shears grew louder, the pace of his cuts increased.

“Our three divine purposes have almost completely been achieved and we will never allow an outsider to undo what it has taken generations of our family to accomplish. You won’t be squandering our money, Mr. Grimes. You won’t gamble it away like Edward or invest it foolishly like Robert. Your sole duty will be to preserve the family fortune, to tend it and make it grow, to treat it with all the care required by the frailest orchid to satisfy its purpose. And we want to be absolutely clear on one thing. You will never leave poor Jacqueline and take a piece of her money with you. That will not be allowed. Our wealth was hard won by blood and has been defended by blood. Don’t doubt it for a moment. Our father was a great and powerful man and he taught us well.”

The silvery clips of the gardener’s shears came closer and closer until the hairs on the tips of Grimes’s ears pricked up. With each scissoring of the clippers a cold slid down the back of his neck. The old lady looked at him with her one good eye almost as if she were casting a spell.

“Well, enough family business,” she said, and instantly the gardener’s shears fell silent. “Tell us about your ideas for the wedding, Mr. Grimes. We are all so excited, so certain that you will make our Jacqueline terribly happy.”

As he stammered a few words about their plans, how they wanted to be married as soon as possible, the old lady started to rise and the gardener was quickly at her side, helping her to stand. She left her cane resting on the bench and with her free hand grabbed tightly onto Grimes’s arm. Her grip was cold and fierce as she walked with him and the gardener back to the house.

“There is no need to blindly dash into something as deadly serious as marriage, is there?” she asked as they walked. “Take your time, Mr. Grimes, wait, be certain. That is our advice,” she said and then she chatted almost gaily about the flowers, and the grass, and of how the high level of humidity in the air exacerbated her asthma.

Shortly after that visit, Grandmother Shaw died in her ninety-ninth year. She had given explicit instructions that she was to be cremated and her ashes intermingled with the ashes of her husband and placed again beneath the feet of the statue of Aphrodite. The funeral was a bleak and sparsely attended affair. It was shortly after the funeral that Jacqueline first started fearing for her life.

She claimed there were men following her, she claimed to see dark visions in her meditations. When they walked along the city streets she was forever turning around, searching for something. Grimes never spotted anything behind them but he humored her fears. When he asked her what it was that frightened her so, she admitted that she feared one of her brothers was trying to kill her. She said that murder ran in her family, something about her grandfather and her father. She wouldn’t have been surprised if her grandmother died not from an asthma attack but was smothered with a pillow by one of her brothers. The only family members she ever talked about with kindness were her sister and her dear sweet Grammy. Grimes never told her of his brutal conversation with Grandmother Shaw. They would have married immediately but for a delay in Grimes’s divorce proceedings. He offered his wife everything, he didn’t care, because everything he had was nothing compared to all he would have, but still the case dragged on. And still Jacqueline’s fears increased.

Then, one winter evening, he returned to the apartment from his dental office. She had been at the Haven all morning, meditating, but was supposed to be home when he arrived. He called out to her and heard nothing. He looked in the bedroom, the bathroom, he called her name again. He was looking so intently he almost passed right by her as she hung from the gaudy crystal chandelier in her orange robe, a heavy tasseled rope twisted round her neck. The windows were darkened by thick velvet drapes and the only light in the room came from the chandelier, dappling her with the spectrum of colors sheared free by the crystal. Beneath her thick legs a Chippendale chair lay upon its side. Her feet were bare, her eyes open and seemingly filled with relief. Looking at her hanging there Grimes would almost have imagined her happy, at peace, except for the gray tongue that rested thick and swollen over the pale skin of her chin like a stain. He took one look and knew just how much was gone. He turned right around and took the elevator down and used the doorman’s phone to call the police.

Along with the police came a man, tall and blond. He obtained a hotel room for Grimes that night at the Four Seasons, an apartment in a modern high-rise on Walnut Street for him the very next day. Without having to do anything, Grimes’s possessions were in the new apartment, along with a brand new set of contemporary furniture. The lease was prepaid for two years. On his new big screen television set was a envelope with twenty thousand dollars in cash. That was the last he saw of Jackie or her family. The last he saw of his hundred million.

“You’re right,” I told him as we sat side by side at the Irish Pub, across from his new and fully paid luxury apartment at 2020 Walnut. “That’s an absolute tragedy.”

“So when you talk about almost getting a piddling little share of some crappy little lawsuit,” said Grimes, “I don’t want to hear it.”

“Why’d she kill herself?”

“Who knows? There was no note. She was always so sad, maybe it just got to be too much. Or maybe her paranoia was justified and someone in that gruesome family of hers killed her. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t that punkette of a sister, either. But it doesn’t make a difference to me, does it?”

“Guess not. Who was that blond guy who paid you off in the end?”

“Family banker.”

I nodded. “You ever been to a place called Tosca’s?”

“No. Why?”

“Just asking.”

“What’s that, a restaurant?”

“It’s an Italian place up on Wolf Street. Great food is all. I was thinking you can take your wife sometime, make it all up to her.

“Fat chance, that. I tried to go back but she divorced me anyway. I don’t blame her, really. She’s remarried, some urologist, raking it in even with the HMO’s. He’s got this racket where he sticks his finger up some geezer’s butt, feels around, and pulls out a five-hundred-dollar bill. She says she’s happier than she’s ever been. Tells me the sex is ten times better with the urologist, can you believe that?”

“It’s the educated finger.”

“And, you know, I’m glad. She deserves a little happiness. You want to know something else?”

“Sure.”

“I sort of liked her. Jackie, I mean. She was a kook, really, and too sad for words, but I liked her. Even with all her money she was an innocent. We would have been all right together. With her, and a hundred million dollars, I think I finally might have been a little happy.”

He turned back to his drink and swilled the scotch and I watched him, thinking that with a hundred million I might be a little happy too. I took another sip of my beer and started to feel a thin line of nausea unspool in my stomach. And along with the nausea it came upon me again, the same suspicion I had felt before, that somewhere in this unfolding story was my own way into the Reddman fortune. I couldn’t quite figure the route yet, but the sensation this time was clear and thrilling; it was there for me, my road to someone else’s riches, waiting patiently, and all I had to do was discover where the path began and take that first step.

“What now?” I asked myself and I wasn’t even aware I had said it out loud until Grimes answered my question for me.

“Now?” he said. “Now I spend the rest of my life sticking fingers in other people’s mouths.”

10

I SLIPPED MY MAZDA into a spot on the side street that fronted the brick-faced complex. I snapped on the Club, which was ludicrous, actually, since my car was over ten years old and as desirable to a chop shop as an East German Trabant, but still it was that type of neighborhood. At thirty minutes per quarter I figured three in the meter would be more than enough. I pulled my briefcase out and locked the car and headed up the steps to the Albert Einstein Medical Center.

In the lobby I walked guiltily past the rows of portraits, dead physicians and rich guys staring sternly down from the walls, and without stopping at the front desk, took my briefcase into the elevator and up to the fifth floor, cardiac care. The hospital smelled of overcooked lima beans and spilled apple juice and I could tell from just one whiff that Jimmy Vigs Dubinsky in Room 5036 was not a happy man.

“I’m nauseous all the time,” said Jimmy Vigs in a weak, kindly voice as I stepped into the room. He wasn’t talking to me. “I retched this morning already. Should that be happening?”

“I’ll tell the doctor,” said a nurse in a Hawaiian shirt, stooping down as she emptied his urine sack. “You’re on Atenolol, which sometimes causes nausea.”

“How am I peeing?”

“Like a horse.”

“At least something’s working right.” Jim was a huge round man, wildly heavy, with thick legs and a belly that danced when he laughed, only he wasn’t laughing. His face was shaped like a pear, with big cheeks, a large nose, a thin, fussy little mustache. He lay in bed with his sheet off and his stomach barely covered by his hospital gown. In his arm was an intravenous line and beside his bed was a post on which three plastic bags hung, filling him with fluids and medicines. The blips on the monitor were strangely uneven; his pulse was eighty-six, then eighty-three, then eighty-seven, then ninety. I wondered if Jimmy would book a bet on which pulse rate would show up next and then I figured he already had.

“Hello, Victor,” he said when he noticed me in the room. His voice had a light New York accent, but none of the New York edge, as if he had moved from Queens to Des Moines a long time ago. “It’s kind of you to visit.”

“How are you feeling, Jim?”

“Not so well. Nauseous.” He closed his eyes as if the strain of staying awake was too much for him. “Helen, this is Victor Carl, my lawyer. When a lawyer visits you in the hospital it’s bad news for someone. I guess we’re going to need some privacy.”

She smiled at me as she fiddled with his urine. “I’ll just be a minute.”

“With what he’s charging, this is going to be the most expensive pee in history.”

“Okay, okay,” she said as she finished emptying the catheter bag, but still smiling. “Just another moment.”

“She’s been terrific. They’ve all been terrific. They’re treating me like a prince.”

“When are they cleaning out your arteries?” I asked. For the past few years Jim had worn a nitro patch and kept the medicine by his side all the time, often popping pills like Tic-Tacs when things got tense. He had had a bypass about ten years back, before I met him, but I had never known him to be without pain and finally, when the angina had grown unbearable, he had consented to going under the knife, or under the wire at least, to clear his arteries by drilling through the calcium deposits that were starving his heart.

“Tomorrow morning,” he said. “By tomorrow evening I’ll be a new man.”

The nurse fiddled with the drips and took some notations and then left the room, closing the door behind her. As soon as it was closed, Jim said in a voice with the New York edge suddenly returned, “You bring it?”

“I don’t feel right about this,” I said. “I feel downright queasy.”

“Let me have it,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“Let me have it,” he said.

I was reaching into my briefcase when an orderly came in with a tray. I snapped the case closed before he could see inside.

“Here’s your lunch, Mr. Dubinsky,” said the orderly, a big man in a blue jumpsuit. “Just what the dietitian prescribed.”

“I’m too nauseous to eat, Kelvin,” said Jimmy, weak and kindly again. “But thank you.”

“You’ll want to eat your lunch, Mr. Dubinsky. Your DCA’s tomorrow morning, so you won’t be getting dinner.”

“I’ll try. Maybe a carrot stick. Thank you, Kelvin.”

“That’s right, you try, Mr. Dubinsky. You try real hard.”

When the orderly left, Jimmy ordered me to close the door and then said, “Let me have it.”

I stepped over to the tray the orderly had just brought and lifted the cover. Carrot sticks and celery and sliced radishes. Two pieces of romaine lettuce. An apple. A plastic glass of grape juice. An orange slice for garnish. “Looks tasty.”

“Let me have it,” he said.

“I don’t feel right about this,” I said as I again opened my briefcase and pulled out the bag. White Castle. A grease mark shaped like a rabbit on the bottom and inside four cheese sliders and two boxes of fries.

He looked inside. “Only four? I usually buy a sack of ten.”

“You need a note from your cardiologist to get ten.”

He took one of the hamburgers and, while still lying flat on his back, popped it into his mouth as easy as a mint. He breathed deeply through his nose as he chewed and smiled the smile of the righteous.

“What about your nausea?”

“Too many damn carrots,” he said in between sliders. “Carotene poisoning. That’s why rabbits puke all the time.”

“I’ve never seen a rabbit puke.”

“You’ve never looked.”

While he was shoving the third hamburger into his mouth, keeping all the while a careful eye on the door, the phone rang. He nodded with his head to the phone and I answered it. “What’s Atlanta?” asked the whispery voice on the phone.

I relayed the question to Jimmy and he stopped swallowing long enough to say, “Six and eight over Houston.”

“Six and eight over Houston,” I said into the phone.

“This is Rocketman,” said the voice. “Thirty units on Houston.”

I told Jim and he nodded. “Tell him it’s down,” said Jimmy Vigs and I did.

“That’s the problem with this business,” said Jim. “It never stops. I’m scheduled for surgery tomorrow and they’re still calling. I need a vacation. Want a fry?”

“No thank you.”

“Good,” he said as he stuck a fistful in his mouth. “They’re not crisp enough anyway, you need to get them right out of the fryer.” He stuck in another fistful.

“You know, Victor,” he said when he was finished with everything and the bag and empty boxes were safely back in my briefcase and the only remnant of his surreptitious meal was the stink of grease that hung over the room like a sallow cloud of ill health, “that was the first decent bite I’ve had since I was admitted. Starting tomorrow I’m going to change everything, I swear. I’m going to Slim-Fast my way to skinny, I swear. But I just needed a final taste before the drought. You’re a pal.”

“I felt like I was giving you poison.”

“Aw hell, they’re scraping everything out tomorrow anyway, what’s the harm? But you’re a real pal. I owe you.”

“So then do me a favor,” I said, “and tell me about one of your clients, a fellow named Edward Shaw.”

Jimmy sat still for a while, as if he hadn’t heard me, but then his wide cheeks widened and underneath his tiny mustache a smile grew. “What do you want to know from Eddie Shaw for?”

“I just want to know.”

“Lawyer-client?”

“Lawyer-client.”

“Well, buddy, you know what Eddie Shaw is? The worst gambler in God’s good earth.”

“Not very astute, I guess.”

“That’s not what I tell him. He’s the smartest, most informed, most knowledgeable I ever booked is what I tell him. And he’s such an uppity little son-of-a-bitch he believes every word of it. But between you and me, and only between you and me, he is the absolute biggest mark I’ve ever seen. It’s uncanny. He’s such a degenerate he couldn’t lose more money if he was trying. He’s the only guy in the world who when he bets a game, the line changes in his favor, he’s that bad. He bets a horse, it’s sure to come in so late the jockey’s wearing pajamas. I could retire on that guy, go to Brazil, lie on the beach all day and eat fried plantains, suck down coladas, never worry about a thing, just bake in the sun and book his losers.”

“Why don’t you?”

“Well, you know how it is sometimes. Collection can be a problem.”

“Isn’t he good for it?” I asked, wondering how much Jimmy knew about the family.

Jimmy let out an explosion of breath. “You know Reddman Pickles? Well this loser’s a Reddman, and there aren’t too many, either. The guy’s worth as much as some small countries, let me tell you, but it’s all tied up in some sort of a trust. He lays the bets based on his net worth but he can only pay up based on his income, which is less than you would figure with a guy like that. When his old man dies, then he can buy the moon, but until then he only gets a share of a percentage of what the trust throws out in income.”

“Ever have any real trouble getting him to pay?”

Jimmy shifted in bed a bit and the line on his monitor flat-lined for a moment, his pulse number dropping to zilch, before the line snapped back into rhythm and the pulse registered ninety-three, ninety-six, ninety, eighty-eight. “What’s up, Victor? Why so much interest in Shaw?”

“I’m just asking.”

“Lawyers don’t just ask.”

“I heard that he got pretty far behind and you started getting tough, a little too tough.”

He turned his head away from me. “Yeah, well it’s a tough business.”

“How much did he owe?”

“Aw, you know me, Victor, I wouldn’t hurt a pussy cat.”

“How much?”

“Lawyer-client, right?”

“Sure.”

“Over half a mil. Normally I cut it off before it gets that high, just cut them off and work out a payment plan, but he has so much money coming and he loses so regularly, I just couldn’t bear some other book taking my money. I let it get too high, and I was willing to be patient, with the interest I was charging it was going to be my retirement when his old man died. But January a year back I took more action than I should have on the game and laid off too much to the wrong guys. The refs don’t call the interference on Sanders, and it was clear, so clear, but they don’t call it and I’m way short. Next thing I know those bastards started squeezing. I was in hock to them, Shaw was in hock to me, so I had to apply some pressure. It was just business is all, Victor, nothing…”

The phone interrupted him. I picked it up. “What’s the spread on the Knicks tomorrow night?” said a voice.

“Hello, Al?” I said into the phone, rapping the handset as if the connection was bad. “Al? Are you there, Al? I think the tap shorted out the wires. Al? Al? Can you get on that, Al?”

“Aw cut it out,” said Jimmy, reaching for the phone.

“I don’t understand it,” I said. “He hung up.”

“You’re killing me here.”

“You said you needed a vacation. Tell me what you did about Shaw.”

“I went to Calvi.”

“Calvi, huh?” I said. “I heard he’s gone to Florida. Any idea why the sudden visit South?”

“I don’t know, maybe the boss got sick of the smell of those damned cigars.”

“I wouldn’t blame him for that.”

“I also heard some rumors about him getting impatient with his share, stuff I never believed. But I got sources say that Earl Dante was behind the rumors and his ouster.”

“Dante’s rising fast.”

“Dante is a scary man, Victor, and that is all I want to say about that.”

Just then the door opened and a thin young man in a black leather coat and a black fedora stepped into the room. On some guys the leather coat and the hat would have made them look hard, like Rocky, but not this guy, with his long face and beak nose and wide child-taunted ears. He wore thick round glasses and between his pursed lips I could see a set of crumbling teeth. When he saw me he stopped and stared.

“Hey, Victor,” said Jimmy, “you know Anton Schmidt here?”

I shook my head.

“Next to you, Victor, he’s the smartest guy I know.”

“That’s not saying much for you,” I said.

“No, really. Anton’s the real deal, got a mind for numbers like a computer. And don’t ever bet him in chess, he’s a prodigy or something. He’s got a ranking. I didn’t know they gave rankings, but he’s got one.”

“How high?” I asked.

“Nineteen fifty as of my last tournament,” he said through his twisted set of teeth.

“Impressive,” I said, and from the way he said it I guess it was, though I had no idea what it meant.

“He’s almost a master,” said Jimmy. “Imagine that, and he works for me.”

“Anything going?” asked Anton.

“Rocketman bet thirty units on Houston.”

“He would,” said Anton.

“Other than that, Victor put on the kibosh so I think it’s going to be quiet. You got that match to study for, go on home. I’ll see you tomorrow after the procedure.”

Anton looked at Jimmy like he wanted to say something, his eyes behind the glasses widened, then he looked away.

“It’s nothing,” said Jimmy. “Just a procedure is all. Get the hell out of here and study. In two days I’ll let you start me on that exercise program you been ramming me about.”

Anton smiled. “They’re waiting for you at Gold’s.”

“I’ll bet they are, those bastards. I’ll show them something. I can bench a horse.”

“You can eat a horse maybe,” I said, “but that’s about it.”

“Get out of here,” said Jim. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Anton nodded for a moment, looked at me and nodded, stared some more at Jim, and then left.

“He worries about me too much, but he’s a good kid,” said Jimmy. “Keeps everything in his head now so there won’t be no more ledgers should the cops come looking again.”

“You trust him with that much information?”

“Like a son.”

“Good,” I said, “Because I’d hate to have to cross-examine a chess master at your next criminal trial. All right then, so you went to Calvi to collect what Eddie Shaw owed you.”

“Met him at Tosca’s,” said Jimmy. “He was smoking a cigar and I almost gagged as I sat across from him. I have craps smell better than his cigars. I told him my problem and he said he’d apply some pressure. Strong-arm stuff, but nothing too radical. Raffaello doesn’t go for that. He sent some boys up, sent the message, talked to the family, talked to the staff, made sure everyone knew the situation. I heard they got a little rough. Next thing I know Shaw paid off. Half of what he owed, which is all I needed to get myself clear. Had to increase my payout to Raffaello, you know, a collection charge, but it was worth it, got me off the hook. And you want to know something, that crazy loser is betting again. Just last night he took the Lakers and seven for a thousand.”

“What happened?”

“Bulls blew them out by twenty-five.”

“And what about the sister?” I asked.

“What about who?”

“Shaw’s sister.”

Jimmy shrugged, a wholly unconcerned shrug, as loose as a 275-pound man lying on his back in a hospital before surgery can shrug. “What about her?”

“She died just before her brother started paying you back. Some in her family think she was murdered.”

“Who? By me? That’s a laugh.”

“Not so funny if it’s true.”

“Why would I care about the sister?”

“You don’t think Calvi might have hurt the sister as a warning for Eddie?”

“What, are you crazy? His boys broke Shaw’s arm in two places with the blunt end of an ax, threatening to use the blade side if he didn’t pay up. Now that’s a warning. Hey, we got to get tough sometimes, but we’re not animals. What do you think?”

What I thought was that he was telling me the truth, which was a relief because I liked Jimmy Dubinsky and I’d hate to think that someone I liked was a murderer. So Jimmy had gone to Calvi and Calvi had broken Eddie Shaw’s arm in two places and suddenly Eddie had found the money to pay back Jimmy. Where? That seemed to be the crucial question.

“All right, Jimmy,” I said. “Thanks for your help. This thing tomorrow, it’s not dangerous, is it?”

“A piece of cake,” he said. “Roto-Rooter, that’s the name and away go troubles down the drain. I’ll be here for three more days. You’ll visit again?”

“Sure.”

“You’ll bring me another little gift?”

“I thought you were Slim-Fasting.”

“You’re allowed one reasonable meal a day. It says it right there on the can.”

“Sure, I’ll bring a gift if you want,” I said.

“And next time, Victor, be a sport and buy them by the sack.”

My car was still at the meter, when I stepped outside the hospital, still with its tires, still with its radio, still with its battery firmly in place, all of which was a pleasant surprise. It was back in my office where the unpleasant surprise awaited.

11

“THEY JUST WENT IN,” said Ellie, her hands fluttering about her neck. “I tried to stop them.”

“That’s all right, Ellie. Where’s Beth?”

“At a settlement conference. I was the only one here.”

“You did fine,” I said. “I’ll take care of it now.” Ever since I began representing criminals I had made a practice of locking up my most sensitive files, but still I didn’t like visitors free to roam about my office alone, didn’t fancy utter strangers rifling the papers on my desk, the files in my drawers, eyeing which case opinions I was studying in preparation for my court appearances.

“I didn’t know if I should call the police,” said Ellie. “They said it was about business.”

“No, you did the right thing. I don’t want the police in my office either.”

“The little one’s creepy looking, like a troll.”

“It’s fine, Ellie,” I said, staring at the closed door, screwing up my courage to enter my own office. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

“An evil troll.”

I put a hand on her shoulder and gave her a falsely confident smile. “In that case, you better hold my calls.”

I took three steps forward and opened the door.

Two guys. One was tall, dark, and squinty, dressed all in black, with one of those faux-cool ponytails that tries to say, “Hey, I’m hip,” but which really only says, “Hey, I’m a geek trying oh so hard to be hip.” He was concentrating on my tall file cabinet with the vase of dead flowers still perched on top. The cabinet was brown with fake wood grain, fireproof, batterproof, burglarproof, made of heavy-gauge steel for the most security-minded file keepers, and the ponytailed guy was fiddling noisily with the lock. The other guy, short and bearded, with the nasty eyes of a psychiatrist, was sitting at my desk, reading a document he had found there. The sheer brazenness of their actions was comforting, in a way. The most serious dangers, I have learned painfully through my ransacked life, come disguised as gifts.

I cleared my throat like a schoolteacher in an unruly class. The two men stopped what they were doing, looked up at me, and then immediately went back to work.

“Finding anything of interest?” I asked.

“Not really, no,” said the little man. His voice was a natural falsetto. I guess if I was five foot three with a voice like that I’d grow a beard too. “Your desk is a mess. Is all your life this disorganized?”

“Cluttered desk, uncluttered mind.”

“Somehow I don’t think so.”

“We have a problem, Mr. Carl,” said the man in black, in a pretentious husky whisper that went all too well with that ponytail. He was still standing by the file cabinet but apparently had given up his attempt to pick the Chicago Lock Company lock and peek inside. His face was deeply lined and though I had first thought him to be somewhere in his twenties, on closer inspection I believed him to be somewhere in his forties, which made his cry-for-hip outfit all the more pathetic. “We think you can help.”

“Well, I’m a lawyer. Helping is my business.”

That brought a yelp of mirth from the little man.

“Why don’t you gentlemen sit down where the clients are supposed to sit and I’ll sit behind the desk, where the lawyer is supposed to sit, and maybe then we can discuss your situation.”

The tall man looked at the short man. The short man stared at me for a moment before giving the tall man the nod. Then we all do-si-doed one around the other like a set at a square dance. When we were in our proper positions, I appraised the two men sitting across from me and found myself very unafraid, which I didn’t think was their intention.

I guess it was the dealing with all those murderous mob hoodlums in the last few years that did it. It wasn’t that I had turned brave from my association with them. I had been born a coward, raised a coward, and faithfully remained a coward. It was part and parcel of being my father’s son and I would have taken great pride in my cowardice if I didn’t realize it only meant that in my thirty sorry years I hadn’t yet found a cause or a love worth dying for. No, I wasn’t frightened by these two men who had barged into my office in what they had hoped was an intimidating style because my experience with the more vicious elements of the city’s underworld had given me the capacity to judge the truly sadistically vicious from the bad-boy wannabees. The geezer in black, he was a wannabee. The truly sadistically vicious don’t have to go around dressing like Steven Seagal to stoke fear. One look in their eyes and you know to step aside. And as for the little guy, well, would he have frightened you?

“So, gentlemen,” I said. “What is this problem you were telling me about?”

“Harassment,” said the man in black.

“Well, actually, that’s a specialty of our firm. My partner, Elizabeth Derringer, is one of the top sexual harassment lawyers in the city. The surreptitious pat on the butt, the sexual double entendre, the sly brush of protruding body parts as your boss passes you in the hall, the inappropriate suggestion of an after-hours liaison. It’s a terrible problem, yes, but there are laws now under which we can bring suits. Even the stolen kiss in the supply closet, once the province of harmless office fun, has now become actionable. And quite profitable too for the plaintiff and the lawyer. So,” I said with a wide smile. “Which one of you was sexually harassed?”

“That’s not what we’re talking about,” said the man in black.

“No? So what is it? An old girlfriend calling every night? Being stalked by a secret admirer? I want to help.” I roughed my voice a bit. “I just need to know what your problem is.”

“You’re pretty clever, Mr. Carl, aren’t you?” said the man in black.

“With enough rewrites, sure,” I said.

“Well quit the cleverness and shut up.”

“A child has died,” skirled the short man with the beard. “She was a sweet and much-loved child. I find tragedies bring out the best and the worst in us, don’t you, Victor? My name is Gaylord. This is Nicholas. The tragedy of this child’s death has raised a problem for us that you are going to resolve.”

“Well, as you must know, I take a keen professional interest in other people’s tragedy.”

“That’s exactly the problem,” said Gaylord.

“We don’t want you interested in the tragedy of this child’s death,” said Nicholas in his husky whisper.

“All right, gentlemen, let’s stop the playacting,” I said, more curious than anything else. “Who are we talking about and what do you want?”

“You’ve been asking questions about Jacqueline Shaw’s death,” said Gaylord, shaking his head and closing his psychiatrist eyes as if with sadness. “Her death has caused us all much pain and we are trying to put the grief of her loss behind us. Your running around the city like a fool, badgering the police, bothering her friends, is only making it more difficult for our wounds to heal. You are to stop immediately.”

I waited a moment and looked at them, the little squeak of a man and the fraud hard guy in a ponytail, and my only emotion was a sort of indignation that the likes of these two thought they could intimidate me. Didn’t they check me out in Martindale-Hubbell, didn’t they ask around, didn’t they know that with one call to certain of my clients I could have their knees pounded into mash? I leaned forward and clasped my hands together like a choirboy and said what I had to say slowly.

“Listen, you little weenies, don’t you ever again frighten my secretary by ignoring her requests and marching into my office uninvited. Don’t you ever again try to play the hard guy with me when neither of you have the stones to pull it off. And don’t either of you ever again, for an instant, think that I will listen to any orders that come out of pathetic losers such as yourselves. Whatever work I’m doing for my clients I will do no matter what you or anyone else says to me and whether I am or am not looking into the death of this friend of yours, whatever her name is, I will continue to do whatever I was doing before your pathetic attempt to scare me off. Now that we are finished here, get the hell out of my office.”

They both remained seated, staring at me with not quite the shocked and wary eyes I had hoped for. Gaylord started shaking his head and as he did so Nicholas rose. He pushed back his chair, swooped his arms before him and lifted his left knee. He stayed motionless for a moment, his left leg raised, his left arm before him like a shield, his right arm at his side, his stance as ludicrous and as far from threatening as if he froze smack in the middle of a power walk. I think I snickered.

“I believe you underestimate our sincerity,” said Gaylord. “It happens.”

In that instant Nicholas hopped into his left leg as he swung his right around, cracking the heavy vase atop the filing cabinet in two with his kick before it shattered against the wall. The shards of glass hadn’t hit the floor before, with a grunt and another spin, Nicholas pivoted off his right foot and buried his left heel into the side of my fireproof, batterproof, burglarproof, heavy-gauge steel filing cabinet. The concaving of the cabinet was punctuated with the slam bang of his heel against the side and the groan of bending metal, not unlike, I expect, the sound of the cracking of bones. From the force of his blow the lock popped and one of the drawers slid open.

By the time Ellie had rushed in to see what had happened, Nicholas was back in his seat, hands folded before him, and I was suddenly suitably frightened.

“It’s all right, Ellie,” I said, without looking at her so she wouldn’t notice my watering eyes. “Just a small accident with the cabinet. Everything’s fine.” I smiled thinly and she left, leaving the door open.

“Sometimes you walk down the street,” said Gaylord, “without realizing, until it is too late, that the fellow approaching you has the ability to reach into your chest and rip out your lungs.”

“I trained in Chiang Mai,” whispered Nicholas.

“You know, Victor, I think I killed you in a prior life,” said Gaylord. “Were you by any chance in Jerusalem at the end of the eleventh century when Godfrey of Bouillon stormed the city? Because your aura is very familiar.”

I still hadn’t recovered enough from the shot into the solar plexus of my filing cabinet, wondering at what a shot like that would do to my rib cage and the oh so delicate organs encased within, to start exploring my past lives with Gaylord. The image of my heart compressing to the flatness of a plate, my lungs exhaling first air, then blood, then bronchioles, alveoli snapping, my colon popping like a pea, such images tended to wipe out all thoughts of the hereafter with obsessions of the dangers in the here and now. I was breathing hard when I said, “What is it exactly that you want?”

Nicholas, for the first time, smiled. I couldn’t help but notice that his smile was excellent and he still had all his teeth. “No more questions about Jacqueline Shaw. That’s what we want.”

“I seem to remember that I sliced off your head with my broadsword,” said Gaylord. “Does that ring a bell?”

“Being beheaded by a midget in Jerusalem? Not really.”

“You scoff. Did you ever think there may be more to life than you imagine, more than eating and screwing and dying?” asked Gaylord. “Did that ever cross your mind?”

“Well, I do watch a lot of TV.”

“I’m talking existence, Victor. Have you ever wondered if your existence embodies more than you could ever imagine? Or maybe even, more profoundly, less?”

“Metaphysics in the afternoon?”

“I hate that word, metaphysics,” said Gaylord, “as if the truths in our souls are less real than the forces at work on pool balls clacking against one another. Let’s say we’re talking about a higher level of cognition. Any ideas?”

“Meaning. You’re asking me about meaning.” I was vamping for time, trying to figure out where this high-pitched little man was going. “Let’s say I’m still searching for an answer to that one.”

“Did you hear that, Nicholas? Victor here is searching. He is at least a one. There is hope for him yet.”

“If he ever wants to become a two then he’ll cooperate,” said Nicholas. “This was just a warning but…”

“This supposed meaning of life you are searching for, Vic,” said Gaylord, his high voice piercing Nicholas’s husky whisper like a dart, “any idea of where you’re going to find it?”

“I read some, talk to people, watch Woody Allen movies. In the past few years my private investigator has sort of been a spiritual adviser.”

“Your private investigator, how clever. You’ve hired him to investigate the meaning of life, I presume.”

“Something like that.”

“You ever wonder, Victor, if the answer is right out there for you to see? Ever have a coincidence happen that seemed too perfect for coincidence? Ever have a déjà vu and be certain that it wasn’t just a trick of the mind? Ever feel almost connected to the secret of the universe, feel that the answer to everything is just out of reach, or just out of sight? Ever think everything is so close except you are deaf to it for some strange reason?”

“Yes, actually,” I said, because I had actually experienced all that.

“Wonder of wonders,” said Gaylord. “You’re a two.”

“Gaylord is a nine,” said Nicholas. “I’m a five.”

“Nicholas is a five and I’m only a two?”

“Well, keep out of trouble,” said Gaylord, “and maybe you’ll rise. We can teach you how to see it, if that’s what you really want. There are novice meetings in our temporary headquarters every Wednesday night at eight.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a card, tossing it into the clutter of my desk. “That’s all, I guess,” he said, slapping his chair armrests and standing. Nicholas stood too. “Be a good boy, Victor, and maybe I won’t have to use the sword once again. It is so wasteful when we are forced to relive the calamities of our past lives over and over again. We’ll be in touch.”

With a nod from Gaylord they turned and walked out of my office. I sat and watched them go. Then I picked up the card. “THE CHURCH OF THE NEW LIFE,” it read and underneath it “OLEANNA, GUIDING LIGHT.” There was a Mount Airy address and a phone number and fax number and an e-mail address. The Church of the New Life.

I had always been a little leery of churches, being Jewish and all, but what really gave me the creeps was Church Lite. I could fathom the power in the somber Romanesque visions of the Catholic Church, the stained glass and incense, the passionate story of sacrifice and redemption. But there was something creepy about those pseudomodern, calorie-reduced, image-cleansed, whitewashed churches that were springing up left and right. Glass cathedrals selling salvation and tee shirts. Betty Crocker as Madonna, Opie as child. And then there were those super-cleansed New Age halls, so scrubbed and shined that God had been washed right out of them, leaving crystals and pyramids and channeled entities from the fourteenth century to take His place. That was where I figured the Church of the New Life belonged. My new pals Gaylord and Nicholas were even creepier than I had thought. And none too bright either.

I mean, why would anyone bother to threaten someone off a case? Why not just put up a neon sign that flashed, “LOOK HERE FOR GOLD?” If I had still had doubts that there was something of interest to be found in Jacqueline Shaw’s death before my run-in with the apostles of the Church of the New Life, I had none anymore. And as I thought about the meeting and about my two new friends, the suspicion that had been hounding me, the suspicion that there was my very own way into the Reddman fortune, suddenly burst into the open and snatched my attention out of the air in its teeth and wrestled it to the ground. The route had been so obvious, so clear, that I hadn’t seen it. And now that I did I felt something ethereal flow through me. I grew light, almost light enough to float. I could barely remain seated in the chair as I felt myself suffused until bursting with the giddy sensation of pure pure possibility.

12

WHEN I HAD TOLD GAYLORD I took a keen professional interest in other people’s tragedy, it hadn’t been just banter. I am a lawyer and so tragedy is my business. Riches lurk for me in the least likely of places, in that dropped package of explosives at the railway depot, in that cup of drive-through coffee that scalds the thighs, in the airplane engine that bursts into a ball of flame mid-flight. Think of your worst nightmare, your most dreaded calamity, think of injury and anguish and death and know that for me it represents only so much profit, for I am your lawyer, the alchemist of your tragedy.

I had seemingly forgotten this, forgotten that one case can make a lawyer wealthy, one client, one fact pattern, one complaint. In delving into the death of Jacqueline Shaw I had belted myself too tightly inside the trench coat of Philip Marlowe and had forgotten that I was a lawyer first and foremost and that a lawyer, first and foremost, looks after the bottom line. You can make money charging $185 an hour, as long as you work like a dog and keep your expenses low, good money, but that’s not how lawyers get stinkingly rich. Lawyers get stinkingly rich by taking a percentage of a huge lawsuit based on somebody else’s tragedy, and that’s exactly what I meant to do.

Caroline Shaw thought someone had murdered her sister, Jacqueline, and had hired me to find out who. After looking it over it seemed to me that she might just be right, and if Jacqueline was murdered I could figure out the motive right off – money, and lots of it. Why ever would you kill an heiress if it wasn’t for the money? Caroline Shaw had only hired me to find the murderer, but I had other ideas. A wrongful death action against the killer would take back whatever had been gained by the killing and whatever else the killer owned, with a third going to the lawyers. All I needed was for Jacqueline Shaw to have been murdered for her money and for me to find the killer and for me to get Caroline to sign a fee agreement and for me to dig up enough evidence to win my case and take my third of the killer’s fortune, which in itself would be a fortune. Long shots all, to be sure, but that never stopped me from returning my Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes entry twice a year.

I was on my knees picking up tiny shards of glass and placing them on a piece of cardboard, thinking it all through, when Beth showed up.

“Redecorating?” she asked.

“Just some friendly visitors from the Twilight Zone trying to scare me off the Jacqueline Shaw case.”

“Are you scared off?”

“Hardly.”

I stood up and dumped the glass fragments into the trash can where they tinkled against the sides like fairy dust.

“Think on this, Beth. Eddie Shaw’s money situation seems to have eased right after his sister’s death. And Jacqueline herself told her fiancé that she was afraid one of her brothers was trying to kill her. And somewhere there was a load of insurance money, so said Detective McDeiss. And when I had suggested to Caroline that maybe a family member had killed her sister she had snapped that her family had nothing to do with the death, protesting far too much. I’m not sure how the two losers who threatened me are involved, but what if Eddie killed his sister to increase his income and his ultimate inheritance? And what if we could bring a wrongful death action against the bastard and prove it all?”

“A lot of ifs.”

“Well, what if all those ifs?”

“You’d wipe him out with compensatory and punitive damages,” she said.

“With a third for us. McDeiss estimated the total Reddman fortune at about half a billion dollars. The brother’s share would be well over a hundred million. Let’s say we prove it and win our case and get everything in damages. We’d earn ourselves a third of over a hundred million. That would be about twenty for you and twenty for me.”

“You’re dreaming.”

“Yes I am. I’m dreaming the American dream.”

“It probably was a suicide.”

“Of course it was.”

“And if it was a murder, it probably wasn’t the brother who did it.”

“Of course not.”

“It was probably some judgment-proof derelict.”

“You’re absolutely right.”

“There’s nothing there. You’re just chasing a fool’s dream.”

“And yet when the pot was sixty-six million you bought ten lottery tickets.”

“So I did,” she said, nodding her head. “Twenty million. It’s too gaudy a number to even consider.”

“I’ve dreamed bigger,” I said, and I had. That was one of the curses of wanting so much, whatever you get can never top your dreams. “How are you on the meaning of life?”

“Pretty weak.”

“Are you willing to learn?”

“Like you have the answers,” she snorted. “Don’t you think karmic questions about life and meaning are a little beyond your depth?”

“You’re calling me shallow?”

“Aren’t you?”

“Well, sure, yes, but there’s no need to rub it in.”

“Oh, Victor, one thing I always admired about you was your cheerful shallowness. Nothing’s more boring than Mr. Sincere droning on about his life’s search for spiritual meaning in that ashram in Connecticut. Just shut up and get me a beer.”

“Well, maybe I don’t have any answers, but the Church of the New Life says it does. Novice meetings are held every Wednesday night in the basement of some house in Mount Airy. From what her fiancé told me, this was the same place where Jacqueline Shaw meditated the day she died. Somehow, it seems, their connection to her didn’t end with her death. They wanted me to come, but I think I’ll stay away for obvious health reasons. Maybe you can learn something.”

“Why don’t you just have Morris give them a look?”

“I don’t think this is quite right for Morris, do you?” I said, handing her the card.

She studied it. “Maybe not. Who’s Oleanna?”

I shrugged my ignorance.

“Sounds like a margarine. Maybe that’s the secret, low cholesterol as the way to spiritual salvation.”

“You never know, Beth. That something you’ve been looking for your whole life, maybe it’s been hiding out all this time in a rat-infested basement in Mount Airy.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, and then she looked at the card some more. She flicked it twice on her chin before saying, “Sure. Anything for a few laughs.”

Good, that was taken care of, and now I had something even more important to do. What I had was a hope and plan and the sweet lift of pure possibility. What I still needed was Caroline Shaw’s signature on a contingency fee agreement before I could begin the delicate process of spinning the tragedy of Jacqueline Shaw’s death into gold.

13

I CLEARED OFF MY DESK before she came, threw out the trash, filed the loose papers whose files I could find, shoved the rest into an already too full desk drawer. Only one manila folder sat neatly upon the desktop. I straightened the photographs on my office wall, arranged the client chairs at perfect obtuse angles one to another, took a plant from Beth’s office and placed it atop my crippled filing cabinet. I had on my finest suit, a little blue worsted wool number from Today’s Man, and a non-Woolworth real silk tie. I had spent a few moments that morning in my apartment, globbing polish onto my shoes and then buffing them to a sharp pasty black. I buttoned my jacket and stood formally at the door and then unbuttoned it and sat on the edge of my desk and then buttoned it again and stood behind my desk, leaning over with one hand outstretched, saying out loud, in rounded oval tones, “Pleased to see you again, Ms. Shaw.”

It was so important to get this right, to make the exactly correct impression. There is a moment in every grand venture when the enterprise teeters on the brink, and I was at that moment. I needed Caroline’s signature, and I needed it today, I believed. With it I had a chance, without it I held as much hope as a lottery ticket flushed down the toilet. That was why I was practicing my greeting like a high school freshman gearing himself to ask the pretty new girl from California to the hop.

“Thank you for coming, Ms. Shaw.”

“I hope this wasn’t too inconvenient, Ms. Shaw.”

“Have a seat, Ms. Shaw.”

“I’m glad you could make it this morning, Ms. Shaw.”

“God, I need a cigarette,” she said, giving me a wry look as she sat, no doubt commenting on my tone of voice, which sounded artificial even to me. She drew a pack from her bag and tapped out a cigarette and lit up without asking if I minded, but I didn’t mind. Anything she wanted. From out of my drawer I pulled an ashtray I had picked up from a bric-a-brac shop on Pine Street specifically for the occasion. Welcome to Kentucky, it read. She flicked a line of ashes atop the red of the state bird.

She was wearing her leather jacket and tight black pants and combat boots. On the side of her neck was the tattoo of a butterfly I hadn’t noticed before. She looked more formidable than I remembered from that morning outside the Roundhouse when she pulled her gun on me and then collapsed to the ground. Even the stud piercing her nose seemed no longer a mark of desperation but instead an insignia of power and brutal self-possession. I felt, despite my finest suit and newly polished shoes, at a distinct disadvantage. It was interesting how things between us had changed. When she first came to me she was the one begging for help, but I guess a hundred million dollars or so can shift the power in any conversation.

“Couldn’t we have done this over the phone?” she asked, exhaling her words in stream of white smoke. “It’s a little early for me.”

“Well then, I appreciate your punctuality. I thought it best we meet in person.” I didn’t explain that it was impossible to get a signature over the phone. “You’ve disposed of your gun, I hope.”

She gave me her sly smile. “I flushed it down the toilet. Some alligator’s probably shooting rats in the sewers as we speak.” She took a long drag and looked around nervously.

“That butterfly on your neck,” I said. “Is that new? I didn’t notice it before.”

“Yes, it is,” she said, suddenly brightening. “It’s from a designer collection, available only at the finest parlors. DK Tattoo. Do you like it?”

I nodded and looked at her more carefully. She said in our prior meeting that she was in fear of her life and so the first thing she did after hiring me was to go out and get herself tattooed. If not exactly an appropriate response it was certainly telling, though I couldn’t quite figure telling of what. As I was looking at her she took out another cigarette.

“Do you always smoke like this?” I asked.

“Like what?”

“Like a New Jersey refinery.”

“Just in the morning. By the afternoon I’m hacking too much. So what have you learned about my sister’s death, Mr. Carl?”

“I learned that you haven’t been entirely candid with me.”

“Oh, haven’t I?”

I stared at her for a moment, waiting for her to squirm a bit under the power of my gaze, but it didn’t seem to affect her. She stared back calmly. So what I did then was reach into my desk drawer and pull out a thick wad of hundred-dollar bills and slap them onto the desktop with a most satisfying thwack. Caroline flinched at the sound. Ben Franklin stared up at me with surprise on his face.

“Ten thousand dollars,” I said. “The full amount of your retainer check. Take it.”

“What are you talking about?” she said, flustered and suddenly devoid of her slyness.

“I’m returning your money.”

She stood up. “But you can’t do that. I bought you. I wrote the check and you cashed it.”

“And now I’m giving it all back,” I said calmly. “You’re going to have to find someone else to play your games. I don’t represent clients who lie to me.” This itself was a lie, actually. All my clients lie to me, it is part of the natural order of the legal profession: clients lie, lawyers overcharge, judges get it wrong.

“But I didn’t lie,” she said, her voice rich with whine. “I didn’t. What I told you about my sister was true. Every word of it. She didn’t kill herself, I know it.” There were tears of shock in her eyes as she pleaded with me. It was going rather well, I thought.

“I believe you’re right, Caroline. I believe your sister was murdered.”

“You do?” she said. “Really?” She fell back into her chair, crossing her legs and hugging herself tightly. “Then what’s the problem?”

“Didn’t you think it significant that I know your sister was a Reddman? Didn’t you think that would have impacted my investigation?”

“My family had nothing to do with her death.”

“That’s what you hired me to determine.”

She looked at me, her eyes still wet. “I hired you to find out which mob bastard killed my sister and to convince him not to kill me too. That’s all. I don’t need anyone digging up my family graveyard.”

“If I’m going to find a murderer I have to know everything. I have to know about your family, about the family fortune, about this Church of the New Life that sent its goons into my office threatening me off the case.”

Her head lifted at that and she smiled. “So that’s it. The chant-heads frightened you.”

“Why would they threaten me?”

“You want to have a blast? Throw a brown paper bag in the middle of one of their meditation sessions and yell, ‘Meat!’ ”

“Why would they threaten me, Caroline?”

Pause, and then in the most matter-of-fact voice: “Maybe because their church was the beneficiary of Jackie’s insurance policy.”

I looked at her and waited. The room was already dense with smoke, but she took out another Camel Light.

“We all have insurance policies, to help pay our estate taxes should we die. The trust covers the premiums and the family members are named beneficiaries, unless we decide otherwise. Jacqueline decided to name the church.”

“How much?”

“God, not much, I don’t think, not enough to cover even half the tax. Five.”

“Thousand?”

She laughed, a short burst of laughter.

“Million,” I said flatly.

She stared at me for a bit and then her mouth wiggled at the corners. “Are you married, Mr. Carl?”

“No.”

“Engaged or engaged to be engaged or gay?”

“I was once.”

“Gay?”

“Engaged.”

“So what happened?”

“It didn’t work out.”

“They never do, Vic. Can I call you Vic?”

“Call me Victor,” I said. “Vic makes me sound like a lounge singer.”

“All right, Victor.” She leaned forward and gave me a smile saucy and innocent all at once. The effect of this smile was so disarming that I had to shake my head to get my mind back to the vital business at hand.

“Didn’t you think, Caroline, that a five-million-dollar life insurance policy was important enough to tell me about? I can’t work in the dark.”

“Well, now you know everything, so take your money back.”

“No.”

“Take it.”

“I won’t.”

It was almost ludicrous, arguing like that over a stack of hundred-dollar bills. Any other situation I would have knocked her to the floor while grabbing for it, but this wasn’t any other situation. She stared at me and I stared at her and we were locked in a contest of wills I would win because I wanted something ever so much more than she. It was time to lay it out for her. I fought to keep my nerves from snapping.

“I’m not willing to continue under the old arrangement,” I said, “not with the way you withheld crucial information from me. If we’re to go forward together it will have to be different.”

“What are you talking about?”

“There is a type of legal action that is perfectly designed to cover this situation. It is a civil proceeding and it is called wrongful death. If I’m going to continue to work on your behalf I will only do it as your partner in the prosecution of such a suit on a contingency fee basis.”

“Ahh,” she said, crossing her arms, leaning back, taking a long inhale from her cigarette. “Now I understand,” she said and I could tell that she did. I suppose the very rich see the look I had just then more often than is seemly, the baleful gleam of want in the eyes of those they do business with. I wonder if it wearies them with its inevitability or thrills them with reassurance of their power and privilege.

“One third for our firm if it settles before trial,” I explained. “Forty percent if I have to try it, which goes into effect once we impanel a jury. But money’s not the issue,” I lied. “Finding the truth is the issue. If you level with me, I’ll do my best to get to the bottom of your sister’s death.”

“I’m sure you will,” she said with an edge in her voice, as if she were talking to a somewhat unpleasant servant. “You already have.”

It was an awkward moment, but that is inevitable, really, when one’s business is tragedy. She was looking for help, I was looking for a gross profit, how could it be otherwise?

“I have the appropriate documents right here,” I said, indicating the manila folder on my desktop. “If you’ll just read them carefully and sign, we can continue our relationship as I’ve outlined.”

I pushed the file toward her and watched as she opened it and read the fee agreements. I had already signed where I was required to sign; all that was wanting was her signature. As she read, nodding here and there, I barely stifled a desire to get down on my knees and polish her boots. I was certain it was all taken care of when she suddenly closed the folder and dropped it back onto my desk.

“No,” she said.

My stomach fell like a gold bar sinking in the sea.

“Sorry, Victor,” she said. “No.”

“But why not? It’s a standard agreement. Why not? Why not?”

She stood and slipped me that sly smile of hers. “Because you want it too much.”

Out of watering eyes I stared at her with horror as she picked the wad of hundred-dollar bills off my desk and shoved it into a pocket of her leather jacket. The lottery ticket swirled round the toilet bowl to the drain.

“All I wanted you to do,” she said, “was to prove that Jimmy Vigs killed my sister. Was that too hard?”

“But Jimmy didn’t do it.”

“How do you know?”

“I asked him.”

“Nice work, Victor,” she said as she turned to leave.

Panic. Say something, Victor, anything.

“But what if I’m right and it wasn’t the mob? What if it was something much closer? I’ve been asking around, Caroline. The Reddmans, I’ve been told, are a family dark with secrets.”

She stopped, her back still to me, and said, “My family had nothing to do with it.”

“So you’ve said. Every time I mention the possibility that your family is involved in your sister’s death you simply deny it and try to change the topic of conversation. Why is that, Caroline?”

She turned and looked at me. “I get enough of that question from my therapist. I don’t need it from my lawyer, too.”

Her lawyer. There was still hope. “But what if one of those dark family secrets is behind your sister’s death?”

As she stared at me something at once both ugly and wistful slipped onto her face, a mix of emotions far beyond her range as an actress. Then she walked right up to my desk and started unbuttoning her shirt.

I was taken aback until she reached inside her shirt and pulled out some sort of a medallion hanging on a chain from her neck. She slipped the chain over her head and threw the medallion on my blotter. It was a cross, ancient-looking, green and encrusted, disfigured by time and the elements. In the upper corners of the cross, sharp-pointed wings jutted out, as if a bird had been crucified there.

“That is the Distinguished Service Cross,” she said. “It was awarded to my grandfather, Christian Shaw, for gallantry in World War I. He led an attack over the trenches in the first American battle of the war and routed the Germans almost single-handedly. My grandmother dredged it from the pond on our family estate after his death. She gave this medal to me one afternoon as we sat together in her garden and said she wanted me to have it.”

“I’m not sure I follow,” I said.

“My grandmother told me that this medal symbolized more than mere heroism. Whatever crimes in our family’s past, she said, whatever hurts inflicted or sins committed, whatever, this medal was evidence, she said, that the past was dead and the future full of promise. Conciliation, she said, expiation, redemption, they were all in that medal.”

Those were the same three words the old lady had used with Grimes. I couldn’t help but wonder: conciliation to whom, expiation for what, redemption how?

“So all those rumors and dark secrets and gossip, I don’t care,” she continued. “They have nothing to do with Jacqueline and nothing to do with me. The past is dead.”

“If you believe that, then why do you still wear this medal around your neck?”

“A memento?” she said, her voice suddenly filled with uncertainty.

I shook my head.

She sat down and took her grandfather’s Distinguished Service Cross back from me. She stared at it for a while, examining it as if for the first time. “My therapist says my ailurophobia comes from deep-seated fears about my family. She says my family is cold and manipulative and uncaring and until I am able to face the truth I will continue to sublimate my true feelings into irrational fears.”

“What do you think?”

“I think I just hate cats.”

“Your therapist might be on to something.”

“Why is it that everyone wants to dig up my family’s past in order to save me? My therapist, you.”

“The police also tried to look into any familial connection with your sister’s death but were cut off by Mr. Harrington at the bank.”

She looked up at me when I mentioned Harrington’s name.

“And, deep down, Caroline, you want to look into it too.”

“You’re being ludicrous.”

“Why else would you pay my retainer with a check drawn on the family bank? It was as clear as an advertisement.”

Her voice slowed and softened. “Do you really think Jacqueline was murdered?”

“It’s possible. I can’t be certain yet, but I am certain I’m the only one still willing to look into it.”

“And you think with the answer you can save me?”

“Do you need saving?”

She closed her eyes and then opened them again a few seconds later. “What do you want me to do, Victor?”

“Sign the contract.”

“I won’t. I can’t. Not until I know everything.”

“Why not?”

“Because then I’ll have given up all control and I can’t ever do that.”

She said it flatly, as if it were as obvious as the sun, and there was something so transparent in the way she said it that I knew it to be true and that pushing her any further would be useless.

“How about this, Caroline?” I said. “I’ll agree to continue investigating any connection between the mob and your sister’s death so long as you agree to start telling me the truth, all the truth, and help me look at any possible family involvement too. I’ll pursue the case without a contract and without a retainer, providing you promise me that if I find a murderer, and you decide to sue, then you’ll let me handle the case on my terms.”

She stared some more at the medal and thought about what I had proposed. I didn’t like this arrangement, I liked things signed, and sealed, but it was my only hope, I figured, to keep on the trail of my fortune, so I watched oh so carefully as her hand played with the medal and her face worked over the possibilities.

When I saw a doubt slip its way into her features I said, “Did you ever wonder, Caroline, how the medal got into the pond in the first place?”

She looked up at me and then back at the medal, hefting it in her hand before she grasped the chain and hung her grandfather’s Distinguished Service Cross back around her neck. “You find that out, Victor, and I’ll sign your damn contract.”

“Is that a promise?”

“There’s a dinner at the family estate, Veritas, on Thursday night,” she said. “The whole family will be there. You can be my date.”

“They shouldn’t know we’re looking into your sister’s death.”

“No,” she said. “You’re right, they shouldn’t.”

“Anything I should know before I meet them all?”

“Not really,” she said, with an uncomfortably knowing smile. “Just don’t come hungry.”

14

“ABOUT HOW MANY CONVERSATIONS did you have with the defendant in the course of your dealings, Detective Scarpatti?”

“I don’t know, lots. I taped five and we had others. It took awhile for him to get it all straight. Your boy, he’s not the swiftest deal maker out there, no Monty Hall.”

“So you were forced to lead him through the deal, is that right?”

“Just in the details, but there was no entrapment here, Counselor, if that’s what you’re getting at. Cressi came to me looking to buy the weapons. He wanted to buy as many as I could sell. I told him one-seventy-nine was all I could come up with and he was disappointed with that number. But he brightened when I added the grenade launchers and the flamethrower. To be truthful, I was more surprised than anyone when he showed up. We were targeting a Jamaican drug outfit with the operation. But your guy could never make up his mind on the spot. He always said he had to think about it.”

“Like there was someone he had to run the details by, is that it?”

Scarpatti creased his brow and looked at me like he was straining to actually dredge up a thought and then said, “Yeah, just like that.”

Detective Scarpatti was a round, red-faced man who smiled all the while he testified. Jolly was the word he brought to mind as he sat and smiled on the stand, his hands calmly clasped over his round hard belly. His was a look that inspired trust, which is why he was such an effective undercover cop, I figured, and an effective witness. All cops have an immediate advantage as they step into the witness box in front of a jury; they are, after all, men and women who devote their lives to law enforcement and competent, truthful testimony is only what is to be expected. Of course they usually get into trouble as soon as they open their mouths, but Scarpatti wasn’t getting in trouble at this preliminary hearing and I sensed he wouldn’t get into any trouble at the trial either. I had never met the guy before but one look at him on the stand and I knew he would bury Peter Cressi. What jury wouldn’t convict on the cogent testimony of Santa Claus?

“Now in any of those myriad discussions, did Mr. Cressi ever specifically mention he had to run the details of the deal by someone else?”

“No.”

“Did he ever mention that he had a partner?”

“No, he didn’t. In fact I even asked once and he said he was flying strictly solo.”

“In any of your phone conversations did you ever sense there was someone else on the line?”

“No, not really. But come to think of it, now that you asked, there was one conversation where he stopped in the middle of a comment, as if he was listening to someone.”

“Did you hear a voice in the background?”

“Not that I remember.”

“All right, Detective. Now in the course of your conversations, did you ask Mr. Cressi what he planned to do with the guns?”

“Sure. Part of my job is to draw out as much information as possible, especially in a deal of this magnitude.”

“And how did he respond?”

“Can I refer to my notes?”

“Of course.”

Preliminary hearings are dry affairs, generally, where the defense tries to find out as much as possible about the case without tipping any stratagems that might be used at trial. I was putting on no testimony, presenting no evidence, Cressi was remaining blissfully silent. What I was doing was sitting at the counsel desk, sitting because that’s the way we do it in Philadelphia, the lazy man’s bar, asking my simple little questions, learning exactly how high was the mountain of evidence the state had against my client and whatever else I could glean about his attempted purchase of the guns. I was in a tricky position, stuck between a bad place and two hard guys, defending my client while also trying to find out for my patron, Mr. Raffaello, what Cressi was planning to do with his arsenal. Tricky, hell, it was flat-out unethical, as defined by the Bar Association, but when your client is a gleeful felon buying up an armory and a mob war is brewing and lives are at stake, especially your own, I think the ethical rules of the Bar Association become somewhat quaint. I think when you are that far over the edge it is up to you to figure out your way in the world and if they decide you stepped over a line and pull your ticket then maybe in the end they’re doing you a favor.

While Scarpatti was flipping through his little spiral-bound notebook, I turned to scan the courtroom. It was full, of course, but not to witness my scintillating cross-examination. Once I was finished there was another case set to go and then another and then another, as many hearings as defendants who needed to be held over for trial, and the defendants and lawyers and witnesses and families in the courtroom for those hearings that were to follow Cressi’s were waiting and watching, their faces slack with boredom. Except one face was not slack with boredom, one face was watching our proceedings with a keen, almost frightening interest. Thin sharp face, oily gray hair, dapper black suit, with a crimson handkerchief peeking from his suit pocket. What the hell was he doing here?

“All right, yeah. I got it right here,” said Scarpatti.

I turned around and faced the witness, whom I had forgotten about in the instant I noticed the mortician’s face of Earl Dante staring at me from the gallery of the courtroom. “All right, Detective, what did the defendant say to you when you asked him what he planned to do with the guns?”

“He said, and I’m quoting now, he said, ‘None of your fucking business.’ ”

Scarpatti laughed and the slack crowd, suddenly brought to life by the obscenity, laughed with him. Even Cressi laughed. You know you’re in trouble when your own client laughs at you.

“Thank you for that, Detective,” I said.

“Anytime, Counselor.”

When I was finished handling Scarpatti, denting his story not a whit, the prosecution rested and I stood and made my motion to dismiss all charges against my client. The judge smiled solicitously as she denied my motion and scheduled Cressi’s trial. I made a motion to reduce my client’s bail. The judge smiled solicitously as she denied my motion and, instead, raised his bail by a hundred thousand dollars, ordering Cressi to be taken into custody immediately by the sheriff until the additional funds could be posted. I objected strenuously to the increase, requesting she reconsider her addition, and she smiled solicitously, reconsidered, and added another fifty thousand to the amount. I made an oral motion for discovery, the judge smiled once again as she denied my motion and told me to seek informal discovery from the prosecution before coming to her with my requests.

“Anything else, Mr. Carl?” she said sweetly.

“Please, in heaven’s name, do me a favor here, Vic, and just say no,” said Cressi, loud enough for the whole courtroom to laugh again at my expense. Maybe I should have given up the law right there and hit the comedy circuit.

“I don’t think so, Your Honor,” I said.

“That’s probably a wise move.” The slam of her gavel. “Next case.”

Dante was waiting for me outside the courtroom, in one of the columnar white hallways of the new Criminal Justice Building. He leaned against a wall and held tight to his briefcase. Behind him, his head turning back and forth with an overstudied guardedness, was the weightlifter I had seen with Dante at the Roundhouse’s Municipal Court. Dante had one of those officious faces that was never out of place, a face full of condolence and efficiency. A dark face, close-shaven, with small very white teeth. His back stayed straight as he leaned and his cologne was strong. He could have been a maître d’ at the finest French restaurant in hell. Table for two? But of course. Would that be smoking or would you prefer to burn outright with your dinner? The only comforting thing about being face to face with Earl Dante was that he couldn’t then be behind my back.

“Find out anything yet, Victor?” Dante said to me in a calm resonant voice that held a slight lisp, as if his tongue was too long for his mouth and forked.

I felt a chill even though it was hot in that corridor. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.

“Those questions about possible partners and anything Cressi might have said about his intentions for those guns, very clever.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Of course you do. You keep searching, you’ll find something.” He stared at me for a long moment, the significance of which I couldn’t gauge, and then turned his head away. “You might not have heard, Victor, but Calvi’s out.”

“I heard.”

“You liked Calvi, didn’t you? You were friends.”

“We shared a few meals.”

He turned his head to stare at me again. “You were friends.”

“Calvi doesn’t have friends. He despises everybody equally. But there were those who could stand his cigars, and those who couldn’t. I could, that was all, so we had lunch now and then and chatted about the Eagles.”

“He took a shine to you, all right. But he’s out. The organizational chart has been changed. You should be reporting to me from now on.”

“I don’t report,” I said. “That’s not what I do. I represent my clients to the best of my ability, that is all.”

“That’s never all.”

“With me, that is all.”

“You find out anything you’ll be smart and report to me, see?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dante started sucking his teeth. His mouth opened with a slick leeching sound. “Want to hear a story?”

“Not particularly.”

“Out of high school I enlisted,” said Dante, ignoring my protest. “Want to know why? My father was an animal, that’s why. I was willing to shave my head and take orders like a dog for two years because my father was an animal. But I was also patriotic, see? Still am. I hear the anthem at a ball game and tears spring. I still love my country, even after they sent me to that shithole. See, there was nothing out there that was tougher than my father. I love my goddamn country, but over there I learned there is something beyond patriotism. Do you know what that is?”

“No.”

“It’s called survival. I didn’t survive by volunteering for every crappy mission some promotion-happy lieutenant dreamed up before we could frag him. And I didn’t survive by taking one step beyond the step I had to take. I survived by remembering that I couldn’t love my country if I was dead, see? Loyalty, it only goes so far. After that it doesn’t go no more. Things are changing fast, Victor. Calvi’s not the only one that’s going, there are others. You make the right choice and you come to me first, understand?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I heard you visited our friend Jimmy Dubinsky yesterday, so I thought you might like to know. He died this morning. Right there on the operating table.”

“Oh my God.”

“They had that wire up his heart and he had himself a massive. That’s the funny thing about Jimmy, everything about him was massive, even his death. Just thought you might like to know. Funeral’s Friday. Your people, Victor, they don’t mess around when it comes to burying their dead. A guy doesn’t even have time to cool before he’s in the ground.”

“But I just saw him yesterday. He can’t…”

“Some kids they showed up in our unit, we didn’t even want to know their names. You could see it in their eyes they wouldn’t last. I’m seeing that look right now, Victor.” He sucked his teeth again and chucked me on the shoulder. “See you at the funeral.” Then he turned and started walking away, holding his briefcase, walking off to bail out Cressi once again.

The weightlifter gave me a nasty wink and followed him down the corridor.

I watched them go and then fell to the wall, my back against the porous white stone, and covered my eyes with a hand while I shook. Jimmy dead. I had a hard time fathoming it. I actually liked the guy. But the news was worse than that. That tooth-sucking Earl Dante wanted me to pick a side without a scorecard, without a rule book, without even knowing what game we were playing. The way I looked at it, if I picked wrong I would be as dead as Jimmy and if I picked right I would be as dead as Jimmy. All I knew for sure was that I was on the wrong playing field and needed desperately to get out. When I had told Beth I had to flee the law or it would kill me, she didn’t know I was being literal as hell.

And I couldn’t help but think, as I shook against the corridor wall, that my fate in the coming mob apocalypse and my investigation of the dark secrets of the Reddmans would somehow become entwined. I was right, of course, but in a way I could never then have even vaguely imagined.

Part 2. Frogs

In a rich man’s house there is no place to spit

but in his face.

– DIOGENES THE CYNIC

15

Belize City, Belize

LAST NIGHT I DREAMT I went to Veritas again. I woke up sweating and shouting from the dream in my room at the guest house in Belize City. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t force myself back to sleep. It is morning now and I have sat up all night in my underwear examining the contents of my briefcase, reviewing my mission. There are documents relating to bank accounts and bank records and the flow of great sums of money. There are documents from the State Department in Washington to present to the embassy here. There are pages from the diaries of a dead woman and a letter from a dead man and last night, when I read them together, I felt the same shiver roll through me as rolls through me whenever I read them together, which is often. They are the plainest clues I have as to what curse it was that actually afflicted the Reddmans, those and a carton of ancient ledgers that are still in my office in Philadelphia. The full truth will never be learned, but the man I seek in Belize has much of it, along with my share of the Reddman fortune.

Belize City is a pit, and that is being kind. Antiquated clapboard buildings, unpainted, weathered, streaked with age, line the warrens of narrow streets that stumble off both banks of the rank Belize River. Laundry hangs from lines on listing porches, huge rotting barrels collect rain-water for drinking, the tin roofs citywide are rusted brown. The city is crowded with the poor, it smells of fish and sewage and grease, the drivers are maniacs, the heat is oppressive, the beggars are as relentless as the mosquitoes. It is absolutely Third World and the food is bad. My guest house is right on the Caribbean but there is no beach, only a grubby strip of unpaved road called Marine Parade and then a cement barrier and then the ragged rocks that break the water’s final rush. It is dangerous, I am told, to walk in certain sections at night and those sections seem to change with whomever I talk until the map of danger has encompassed the whole of Belize City. Still, last night I put on my suit and took hold of a map of the town and a photograph from my briefcase and walked west, away from the Caribbean, into the dark heart of the city to see if anyone had seen anything of the man I am stalking.

The night was hot, the air thick, the streets as unenlightened as poverty. Cars cruised past, slowly, like predators. Pickup trucks veered by, teenagers jammed into the beds, shouting at one another in Creole. Guards stared somberly from behind chained gates. A rat scurried toward me from an open sewer, halted and sniffed, scurried back. I stopped at two nightspots, three hotel bars, a wooden shack of a club that overlooked the Caribbean, black as fear in the night except for the relentless lines of iridescent froth dying on the rocks. I had been told the shack club was habituated by lobstermen and sailors and I had wanted especially to visit it, wondering if my prey was sailing on a luxury yacht somewhere off the Belizean cayes. In each joint I bought for myself and whoever was nearby a bottled beer with a Mayan temple on the label, a Belikin, and made what conversation I could. When I showed the picture I tried to see if I could detect anything beneath the denials and the shaking heads, but there was nothing, a whole night of nothing, though I had known from the start that I was trawling bait more than anything else.

Back in my room, I took off my clothes and turned the fan to high and lay on my back, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for the moving air to cool my sweat. I closed my eyes and fell into a deep sleep only to awake with a shout a few hours later when I dreamt of Veritas.

Now the dawn is just starting to ignite. I lie down again and try to sleep but it is impossible. I watch the sun rise yellow and hot out of the ocean and feel its burgeoning heat. I shower in cold water and think of cool Alaskan glaciers but am already in a sweat by the time I tighten my tie.

When I reach the Belize Bank on Regent Street I am exhausted from the heat and my lack of sleep. I have already visited the quaint white clapboard American Embassy, like a Southern manse dropped in the middle of the Third World, and had a long talk with a junior official named Jeremy Bartlett about my problem. He was freshly scrubbed and amiable enough as he listened to my story and examined my documents but there is something about State Department personnel that leaves my teeth hurting. There must be hundreds of English majors hidden in the basements of embassies all over the world, toiling away at ingenious, long-winded ways of saying, “There’s nothing I can do.” I took his card and asked for one tiny favor and he looked at me awhile and I left before he could find a new way to say no.

After the embassy, I crossed the swing bridge to the southern part of the city and visited a Belizean lawyer with whom I had been in contact. His office was across the street from the Supreme Court building and above a tee shirt shop. He gave me a long explanation of Belize ’s robust asset protection laws, which left me feeling doubtful, but then he told me of his uncle, who was a clerk of the Supreme Court and who could manage anything with proper incentive. I wrote out a check and signed certain documents and paid certain fees and picked up certain other documents. Then it was on to the bank.

The Belize Bank building on Regent and Orange streets is almost modern, with a bright jade-green sign. It presides at the head of a rather ragged business district, its white cement and dark marble facade standing out like a shiny penny against the general disrepair of the rest of the city. In the bank I ask to speak to the assistant manager and am taken to a desk on the second floor. The man I talk to is older and distinguished, with gray hair and a proper British accent. His suit is pale beige and perfectly pressed. His face is powder dry; mine glistens, I am sure, with my sweat.

“I need information about a bank account,” I say.

He smiles officiously as I explain my situation and show him the judgment and the documents I have evidencing the flow of money. He reminds me of a State Department employee as he spends five minutes explaining to me that there is nothing he can do. “We must respect the privacy of our customers,” he explains rather patiently. “Our country’s asset protection laws give us no other choice.”

“So I have heard,” I say, “but the man I’m seeking is a murderer.”

“Well, I suppose murderers have their rights, too,” he says.

“There is a warrant for his arrest in America.”

“But this isn’t America, sir. I am truly sorry but our hands are tied.”

I look at him and his bland smile and I sigh. “My government is very interested in finding this man,” I say. “We know you are cooperating on a number of money-laundering issues with our people and we would be very grateful, and it would go a long way to easing the pressure you must now be feeling, if you’ll cooperate on this matter too.”

He nods, his polite smile intact. “We are always willing to cooperate with legitimate requests from your government’s law enforcement agencies.” His emphasis on the word legitimate is very precise.

“Not every request can go through official channels,” I say. “Not all officials can be trusted. Discretion here is of the utmost importance.”

“If I could review your credentials.”

“Credentials can be dangerous,” I say.

“But you can understand, sir, how certain we must be that all requests are legitimate.”

“Yes,” I say. “I understand completely.” I reach into my jacket and pull out Jeremy Bartlett’s card. “Why don’t you phone Mr. Bartlett at the American Embassy and ask him discreetly about whether or not cooperation with my request might be advantageous to your situation?”

He takes the card and looks at it for a moment and then excuses himself and leaves for a private office, closing the door behind him. That morning I had asked Bartlett that if anyone called hinting about my status not to dissuade him of his misconceptions. Bartlett in all likelihood will tell the assistant manager he has no idea who the hell I am and I will be sent packing, as I would have been sent packing anyway, but there is always the chance.

The assistant manager returns and gives me a tight smile. He leans over the desk and says softly, “I have talked to Mr. Bartlett at the embassy.”

I stare up at him impassively.

“You understand that disclosure to us of the beneficial owner of any account is not required under Belizean law, so the information is most probably of no use.”

I purse my lips and nod, while continuing to stare.

He turns his head to the side for a moment and then back to me. His voice now is even softer. “The account in which you are interested is in the name of a Mr. Wergeld. The listed address is a post office box in Switzerland. The money was withdrawn last month from our branch in San Ignacio, on Burns Avenue. That’s all I can tell from our records.”

I nod and pull the photograph from my jacket pocket. He looks at it for a moment and then shakes his head.

I stand and thank him for his service.

“We hope this will take care of the Carlos Santera matter your people have been giving us so much difficulty about.”

“I’m sure it will,” I say, before turning and walking out of the bank. I shouldn’t really have doubted Bartlett. I had merely asked a State Department employee to obfuscate with innuendo, which is sort of like dropping a bloody leg of mutton in front of a shark and asking it to chew.

On my way back to the guest house I walk past Battlefield Park, where a mess of locals sit on benches and spit. A droopy-eyed man leaves the park and jogs to catch up with me. He hectors me about how I should get to know the Belizean people. I stop and look at him. He gives me a yellow-eyed smile and offers me drugs. I shake my head and ignore his shouts and curses as I continue up Regent Street to the swing bridge that will take me over the Belize River and into the north side. I loosen my tie, I take off my jacket and trail it over my shoulder. Men on bikes too small for them circle around me. I feel slow and tired in the heat. On the bridge, the sun reflects off the water in an oppressive strip of light. The heat has a presence, it feels dangerous. Sweat drips into my eye and burns. I wipe it away but it keeps flowing. I turn right at the ramshackle yellow post office, pass a Texaco, and take a turn to where I think lies the sea. I am not sure exactly where I am but once I reach the sea I can follow the water’s edge back to my guest house. I find myself in a narrow alleyway behind a row of warehouses fronting the river. I walk alongside a low wall of red-washed rusted tin, with a sign that reads “QUEENS BONDED WAREHOUSE NO. 1.” I think I am alone in the alley when a man suddenly steps in front of me. He is wearing filthy loose pants and a flowered shirt.

“You want some coke, amigo?” he says, his voice thick with accent.

I shake my head. “Thank you but I’m not thirsty.” I move to my left to step around him. He steps to his right and blocks my way.

“You make joke.”

“Oh. I didn’t mean to, I’m sorry. No thank you.”

“Maybe you want some ganj?” He puts two fingers to his lips and pretends to inhale deeply. “Finest ganj in Belize. Or girls even, we got girls. I have sweeter than you’ll find at Raoul’s.”

“No, no thank you.” I step to my right and he steps to his left, blocking me again.

“Then maybe you just give me some money, amigo? Just that? For an American that is nothing.”

I step back and swing my jacket under my arm holding the briefcase. I reach into my rear pocket for my wallet when I feel another hand grabbing for it. I spin around and find a second man there, in cutoff shorts and a Michael Jackson tee shirt, grinning at me. “Drugs?” he says, his accent thicker than the first. “You American, no? You must want drugs.”

“I don’t want anything,” I say loudly as I back away from both men. I feel confused in the heat. My mind has slowed beneath the press of the sun. The second man grasps my arm and yanks me back. My jacket spills to the ground. The man holding onto me starts grabbing again for my wallet.

“How much you want to give us, amigo?” asks the first man. “How generous are you today?”

I try to shrug my arm loose but it stays in the second man’s grip. He reaches for my wallet and I spin, avoiding his grasp. My briefcase slams into him. I spin the other way and my briefcase hits him solidly on the opposite side. I had not intended to hit him with my briefcase but I’m glad that I did. I begin to spin once again, to hit him with my briefcase once again, when I see something flash shiny in the first man’s hand and I stop. The second man reaches into my rear pocket and slips out my wallet and I let him, stilled into paralysis by the heat and the sight of that shining in the first man’s hand. The second man lets go of me and begins to go through my wallet and I wish for him to take what he wants, to take it and leave and leave me alone, that’s what I am wishing for when I hear a voice from behind.

It is loud and in Spanish and I don’t understand it but the two men attacking me do and they immediately halt. The three of us turn to see who is speaking.

It is a young man with dark blue pants and a red Chicago Bulls cap. His tee shirt is printed with the words “ LAS VEGAS.” He has short black hair and a silver earring and a round dark face, a peasant’s face, his cheekbones broad and sharp. He says something again in Spanish and the first man replies harshly.

The young man in the Las Vegas shirt says something else, says it calmly, this time in Creole, and there is a wild silence for a moment. The young man cocks his head to the left and suddenly the two men run, past the young man, back up the alley, the way I had come, and are gone. The young man walks right up to me, reaches down, picks my jacket and wallet off the street, and hands them to me.

“I am sorry for how they behaved,” says the young man in slightly accented English. “Some in this city are too lazy to find honest work.”

“Thank you,” I say. I’m still shaking from the sight of that blade in the first man’s hand, shivering and sweating at the same time. With trembling fingers I rifle through my wallet and pull out a twenty and hand it to the man.

He looks up at me and for an instant there is something hard and disappointed in his face. “Don’t do that. I am not a beggar.”

“I am just grateful,” I stammer. “I didn’t mean…”

“I work for my money.” He is stern and noble for a moment more and then he smiles. The smile is wide and seems to come from somewhere deep in his chest. When he quickly turns serious again I want to see the smile once more. “Where are you staying?” he asks.

“At a guest house by the sea.”

“I’ll walk you back.”

“You don’t have to,” I say, but I’m glad that he does.

He walks through the alleyway slowly, his back straight, his gait even, and I struggle to slow down enough to stay by his side. As I quiet my step, I find myself calming. “I’m Victor Carl. From the United States.”

“Pleased to meet you, Victor,” he says. “I’m Canek Panti.” He says his name so that the accents are on the second syllable of each word.

“I’m very pleased to meet you, Canek. I didn’t mean to insult you. I am extremely grateful. What kind of work is it that you do?”

He shrugs as he walks. “I run errands, paint houses, whatever there is. I have access to a car so I also do some taxi work and guide travelers around Belize.”

“Interesting,” I say. “Do you know a place call San Ignacio?”

“Of course,” says Canek. “It is in the west, near the border.”

“The Guatemalan border?”

“Yes.”

I think on that a moment. I have read enough news reports of the CIA’s activities in Guatemala, and the missing Americans, and the never-ending civil war, to be nervous about that country. “It just so happens, Canek, that I need to go to San Ignacio on business. Can you take me there?”

“Of course.”

“How much would that cost me?” I ask.

He thinks for a moment. “One hundred and twenty dollars American for the day.”

“That will be fine,” I say.

He doesn’t smile at that, he just looks seriously down at the ground as we walk, as if he is somehow disappointed. I figure he figures he should have asked for more and he is right. He could charge whatever he wants and I would pay it gladly in gratitude for what he did for me. At the end of the alleyway the pavement turns and opens up to the sea. Sailing boats are moored by ragged docks, others are moored bow to stern in the middle of the river; boats speed out of the river’s mouth toward the Belizean cayes. We walk together along the water’s edge and stop at a small park next to a red and white lighthouse. A pelican, brown and fat and haughty, floats by, its wings extended against a gentle current of sea air. From the lighthouse there is a view across the sea to the southern part of the city. The white buildings lining the far shore gleam in the sun and suddenly the city doesn’t seem such a pit. I spin around slowly and look. There is something about Belize City I hadn’t noticed before. It is old and rickety and full of poverty, yes, but it is beautiful too, in a non-Disney way, a gateway to true adventure, as if a last haven for swaggering buccaneers remained alive in the Caribbean. Canek, already acting as the guide, waits patiently as I take it all in and then we continue on together, around the ocean’s edge and up Marine Parade.

“You must bargain,” says Canek, finally, as we walk along the unpaved road that fronts the sea. “I say a hundred and twenty, you say seventy, and from there we find a fair price.”

“I thought your price was pretty fair as it was.”

“It is high,” says Canek. “Most taxis will charge eighty-five to San Ignacio. The bus is only two dollars. Let’s agree on a hundred dollars American.”

I walk without saying anything for a bit, pondering everything carefully, and then say, “Ninety.”

He gives me his brilliant smile again. “Ninety-five,” says Canek Panti, “and I will allow that to include a guided visit to Xunantunich, the ancient ruins beyond San Ignacio.”

“Done,” I say. “We have a deal.” By now we are at the end of Marine Parade, standing in front of the tidy white porch of my guest house. “Tomorrow morning?”

“I’ll be here at nine,” he says.

“That will be perfect. I’m suddenly very thirsty,” I say, wiping sweat again from my brow. “Can I buy you a drink, Canek?”

He glances up at the guest house for an instant and then shakes his head. “No, I’m sorry, Victor, I have now to get the car ready for our trip. It needs first some work, but I will be here tomorrow at nine, on the spot.”

We shake hands, solemnly, as if we had just agreed on the next day’s headline in The Wall Street Journal, and Canek walks off, hurrying more now. I wonder in just what shape his car is in that it needs so much work but, surprisingly, I am not worried. The Caribbean shines like an emerald in the late sun. The guest house, on its stilts, seems more quaint than I remember it to be, prettier and whiter. I have met an honest and honorable man. Inside, I know, I can get a bottle of cold water and a bottle of cold Belikin and sit at a table on the veranda and rehydrate beneath a spinning fan. All of it is almost enough to make me forget what it was that led me to Belize City, almost but not quite. I think on the man I am hunting and I think on all he has committed and on the secrets he is hiding and think again on last night’s dream of Veritas and even in the midst of the heat I shudder.

16

LAST NIGHT I DREAMT I went to Veritas again. I was at the base of the long grassy hill just inside the great wrought-iron gates with the forged design of vines and cucumbers that barred the entrance to the drive. The moon was bright and cold, the grass devoid of all color in the darkness. Behind, a stream swept past, its black water swirling around heavy, sharp-faced rocks. Two massive sycamores stood side by side, sentries at the base of that hill, and I stood between them, looking up the long sweep of grass to the stone portico that guarded the formal front of the great Reddman house. The wind was fragrant with the soft scent of spring flowers, with lilacs, with the thick grassy smell of a perfectly manicured lawn. Rolling down from the top of the hill, stumbling uneasily down like a drunken messenger, came the sound of music, of violins and trumpets and snappy snare drums. There were lights shining high over my head, there was the sound of gaiety, of laughter, of a world drinking deep drafts of promise. Veritas, on the crest of that hill, was alive once again.

I began to walk up the hill toward the party. The music, the laughter, the light in that dark night, I wanted to see it, to be a part of it all. I was in jeans and a tee shirt and as I got closer and began to hug my bare arms from the cold I wondered where was my tuxedo. I owned one, I knew that, and mother-of-pearl studs and a cummerbund, but why wasn’t I wearing it? I patted my pants. No wallet, no keys, no invitation. Where was my invitation? Where were my pearls? I felt the sense I feel often of being left out of the best in this world. I thought of turning back but then the music swept down for me. I heard a car engine start, coughing and sputtering like something ancient, I heard the neighing of a horse, I heard voices that sounded like guards. I dropped to my knees and began crawling, hand over hand, up the steep hill.

My knees slid over grotesque fingers of roots that jutted from the soil. Pebbles embedded themselves into the flesh of my palms. I heard the faint buzz of beetle swarms infesting the lawn. I thought about stopping, about letting myself go and rolling down the hill, but the music grew louder and swept down once more for me. The violins drowned out the buzzing of the insects and the laughter turned manic. My jeans ripped on a stone, my palms bled black in the moonlight, but I kept moving toward the joy, reaching, finally, the encircling arms of the front portico’s stairwell that would take me to it. On the wide swooping steps that led up to the house I crouched and slowly climbed, steadying myself with a hand on the step above my feet, my blood smearing black on the stone. I could hear distinctions in the voices now, hearty men, laughing women. Snatches of conversation flew over my head as I rose to the top of the stairs. A group, standing outside on the drive that circled the surface of the portico, seemed not to notice me as I slipped across. I was certain the guests would see me but they didn’t; even as they turned to me they looked right through me. They were handsome, pretty, they laughed carelessly, they were sure of their places in the world and I realized that for them, of course, I would not exist. I stood, slapped the dirt off my ripped pants, walked past the group to one of the large bay windows to the right that studded the grand ballroom wing of the house.

It was a party like every party I had never been invited to. Fabulously dressed women, men in white tie and tails, champagne and butlers with tiny foods and dancing. The women wore gloves, they had dance cards, the men waltzed as though they actually knew how to waltz. The celebrants stood straight and showed white teeth when they laughed. I pressed my nose to the glass. I watched their revelries and felt again what I had felt in high school and college and through my career as a lawyer, the sheer desperate pain of wanting to be inside. But where was my tuxedo, where was my invitation? I was no longer in tee shirt and jeans. I was now wearing a navy blue suit, black wing tips, a tie from Woolworth’s, but still it was not enough. A pretty girl in a white dress walked by without noticing me stare at her with great longing through the window. And then I recognized him, standing tall and grand in the middle of his ballroom, recognized him from the pictures and the histories, from the portrait on the billions and billions of pickle jars. Claudius Reddman.

He was an imposing figure, with a deep chest and arrogant stance and perfectly trimmed white beard. His eyes bulged with power, his pinprick nostrils flared, his mouth stretched lipless and wide, and he was alive and in his certain glory in that room. His three young daughters, on the threshold of their womanhood, stood with him for a moment before breaking away as if on cue to their separate fates. The eldest was small and frail, her pale hair tight to her skull. She coughed delicately into a handkerchief and sat on a chair by her father’s side and watched the party with a wrenching sadness. The youngest, tall and buxom, slipped from the room with a man far older than she and stood with him on the portico, talking intimately, smoking. She was the only woman in the whole of that party who was free enough to smoke. The middle child, with flowers twined in her hair, was now dancing with a strong young man, dancing beautifully, gracefully, her head lying back, pointing her raised toe. There was a drama to her movements as she swooped around the dance floor, greedily carving space for herself and her partner among the other dancers until the floor was cleared of all revelers but the two. As she spun in his arms she turned her head and stared at me and for the first time in the whole of that night I was noticed. Her mouth twisted into an arrogant smile. Her pale blue eyes glinted. Her head whipped back from the force of her ever more ferocious spins; her mouth opened with abandon; the lights of that great room bounced off the whites of her teeth with a maniac’s glee.

“My grandmother was one of three children, all girls,” said Caroline as we drove slowly through a crashing rain toward Veritas. “The fabulous Reddman girls.” Caroline laughed out loud at the thought of it. “The Saturday Evening Post did a spread about them when my great-grandfather’s pickles were becoming all the rage. Three debutantes and their fabulously wealthy father. Men came from all over the East Coast to court them. My great-grandfather threw lavish balls, sent invitations to every young man in Ivy at Princeton, in Fly at Harvard, in Scroll and Key at Yale. They should have had the most wonderful of lives. Hope, Faith, and Charity. I suppose my grandfather named them after the virtues to guard them from tragedy but, if so, he failed miserably.”

A bolt of lightning ripped open the black of the sky; the lashing rain raised welts on its own puddles. My Mazda hit a pool of black water, slowing as the undercarriage was assaulted by a malicious spray. I had picked up Caroline outside her Market Street building with the rain just as thick. She had been a dark smudge waving at me before she opened the door and ducked inside the car. She dripped as she sat next to me, but there was something ruddy and scrubbed about her. Even her lipstick was red. She seemed almost as nervous at seeing her family as I was.

“The first daughter, Hope, died just before my father was born,” continued Caroline. “Consumption we think, it was the glamorous way to expire then. Grammy always told us how wonderfully talented she was on the piano. She would play for hours, beautiful torrents of music, for as long as she had the strength. But as she grew older she grew more sickly and then, before she turned thirty, she faded completely away. Grammy cared for her until the end. Apparently, my great-grandfather was devastated.”

“The death of Hope.”

“Faith, the middle girl, was my grandmother. She married, of course, to a Shaw, with much charm and fading fortunes. He was of the Shaw Brothers Department Store, the old cast-iron building at Eighth and Market, but the store was doing badly and he married my grandmother for her money, so they say, in an attempt to save the business. From everything I’ve heard he was a scoundrel until the war, when his heroism came as a shock to everyone. Through it all, my grandmother loved him dearly. She was widowed young and spent the rest of her life caring for her son and grandchildren, mourning her husband.”

“How did your grandfather die?”

“It was an accident.”

“A car accident?”

“No,” said Caroline. “My grandmother never remarried, never even dated. She stayed at the house and tended the gardens with Nat and took care of the house and the estate.”

“Nat?”

“Old Nat, the gardener. He’s been with the house forever. He’s really the family caretaker, he supervises everything. My mother’s interests lay outside the house and my father cares even less, so it is all left to Nat. He’s probably busy tonight.”

“Why?”

“Sometimes, when it rains, the lower portion of the property floods. There’s a stream that flows all around the house, leading to the pond.”

“Like a moat?”

“Just a stream, but during heavy rains it overflows the road into the gate.”

“What happened to Charity?”

“Aunt Charity. She ran away.”

“It’s hard to imagine running away from all that money.”

“No it isn’t,” she said. “That’s the only thing that makes any sense.”

She pressed my car’s lighter and reached into her purse for a cigarette. As she lit it, I glanced sideways at her, her face glowing in the dim red light of the lighter. What was it like to grow up weighed down by such wealth? How did the sheer pressure of it all misshape the soul? I would have loved to have found out firsthand, yes I would have, but looking at Caroline, as she inhaled deeply and mused wistfully about the grandaunt who escaped it all, for the first time I wondered if all I had wished to have been born to might not have been such a blessing after all.

“Charity was sort of a fast girl,” said Caroline.

“I haven’t heard that expression in a while.”

“These are all my Grammy’s stories. Grammy said that after her sister disappeared she had guessed that Charity had gotten pregnant and would return in half a year or so, saying she had been abroad, or something like that. That’s the way it was done. But there was apparently a bitter fight between Charity and my great-grandfather, that’s what Grammy remembered, and then Charity was gone. Grammy used to sit on our beds at night and tell us strange and fascinating tales of a traveler in foreign lands, overcoming hardships and obstacles in search of adventure. Grammy was a natural raconteur. She would weave these beautiful, brilliantly exciting stories, and the heroic traveler was always named Charity. It was her way, I think, of praying that her sister was well and living the life she had hoped for when she left. Of all of us, really, only Charity has been able to rid herself of the burden of being a Reddman.”

“And, unfortunately for her, the Reddman money. Any word ever about the child?”

“None. I’ve wondered about that myself.”

“Anyone ever make a claim to her share of the estate?”

“No, the only known heir is my father. Turn here.”

I braked and turned off the road into a paved lane so narrow two cars could pass each other only with scratches. Foliage grew wild on the sides of the road and the trees, boughs heavy with rain, bent low into my headlights as if in reverence to Caroline as we passed. The rain thickened on the windshield so that I could barely see, even with the wipers, and there was a steady splash of water on the undercarriage of the car. I slowed to a crawl. I hoped there were no hills to go down because I figured the brakes were too soaked to stop much of anything.

“Tell me about your childhood,” I said.

“What’s to tell? I was a kid. I ran around and fell a lot and skinned my knees.”

“Was it happy?”

“Sure. Why not? I mean, adolescence was hell, but that’s true even in the best-adjusted families, though no one ever accused us of being one of those. We’re all in tonight, which is a rare and oh-so-delicious treat, so you can judge for yourself. My brother Bobby, my brother Eddie and his wife, Kendall, and my mother. There may be others, too. My mother has a need to entertain and though most refuse her invitations now, there are always a few parasites who can be counted on to grab a free meal.”

“We should figure out what to tell everyone about me.”

“We should. I’ll say you were a friend of Jacqueline’s and that she introduced me to you. But you shouldn’t be a lawyer – too obvious.”

“I’ve always wanted to be a painter,” I said.

I was waiting for Caroline to dub me a painter when instead she screamed.

A huge figure, shiny and black, lumbered out of the woods and stood in the rain before my oncoming car.

I slammed on the brakes. The car shuddered and slid sideways to the left as it kept humming toward the figure. It looked like a tall thin demon waving its arms slowly as my car slipped and skidded right for it.

“Stop!” said Caroline.

“I’m trying,” I shouted back. I had the thought that I never really knew what it meant to turn into the skid, as I had been forever advised in driver’s ed, and that if a clearer instruction had been implanted in my brain I wouldn’t be at a loss at that very instant. As a row of thick trees swelled in the headlights, I twisted the wheel in what I hoped was the proper direction. The car popped back to straight on the road and then veered too far to the left. I fought the wheel again and locked my knee as I stood on the pedal. With a lurch the brakes finally took hold. The car jerked to a sudden stop and stalled.

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus,” said Caroline.

I said nothing, just sat and felt my sweat bloom. With the wipers now dead, the rain totally obscured the view through the windshield.

When I started the car again and the wipers revived I could see that my front bumper was less than a foot from the shiny black figure. It was a man, clothed in a black rubber rain slicker and cowl.

“Oh my God, it’s Nat,” said Caroline. “You almost hit Nat.”

The man in black stepped around the car to the driver’s side. I unrolled the window and he bent his body so that his dripping cowl and face loomed shadowy through the frame until Caroline reached up and turned on the roof light. Nat’s face was long and gaunt, creased with deep weather lines. His eyelids sagged to cover half his bright blue eyes. Circling his left eye was a crimson stigma, swollen and irregularly shaped. There was no fear on his face and I realized there was no fear in the way he had held his body as my car headed right for him, just a curious interest, as if he had been waving his arms not to ward me off but to increase the visibility of my target.

“You need to pump those brakes, young man,” said Nat in a dry friendly cackle.

“I wanted to turn into the skid but I couldn’t figure what that meant,” I admitted.

“Can’t say as I’m sure myself, but that’s what they say, all right. How are you, Miss Caroline?”

“Fine, thank you, Nat. This is a friend of mine, Victor Carl.”

“Welcome to Veritas, Mr. Carl.”

“Isn’t this a marvelous rain, Nat?” she said.

“From where you’re sitting, maybe. Stream’s rising.”

“Can we make it up?”

“For a little while, still. But you won’t make it down again, not tonight. Not without a boat.”

“Maybe we should turn around,” I said.

“Your mother’s been expecting your visit, Miss Caroline,” said Nat.

“What about her cats?” asked Caroline.

“They’re in the cage in the garden room for the evening.”

“Vicious little things, her cats. And they pee everywhere. She knows I hate them, why can’t they just stay in Europe?”

“Your mother’s quite attached to them,” said Nat. “It’s good to see her attached to something. I left the front gate open for you.”

“Well, I suppose it will be all right once the rain lightens,” said Caroline. “And we could always stay over.”

“Plenty of room,” he said. “But if you’re going up you should be going before the stream rises any further. Already there’s a puddle where the bridge should be. Master Franklin was going to be late so I told him not to bother.”

“I need to go to a funeral tomorrow,” I said.

“Rain’s supposed to stop tonight,” said Nat. “There won’t be any trouble leaving in the morning.”

“Let’s go, Victor,” she said.

I smiled at Nat and did as I was told. In my rearview mirror I could see him watching us leave, glowing red, dimming as he fell farther away from my rear lights into the misty depths of the rain.

I followed the road onward, leaning forward so I could see more clearly through the wet darkness. After a turn left and a bend right we came in sight of two towering black gates, opened enough to let a single car through. Studding both gates were gnarled, spidery vines sprouting great iron cucumbers. On the left gate, wrought massively in iron, were the words MAGNA EST, and on the right the word VERITAS. Before the gate was a black puddle that spread ten yards across the road, its surface pocked by rain, its depth impossible to determine. I stopped the car.

“It’s just the stream,” she said. “It’s not too deep yet.”

“Are you sure? This isn’t four-wheel drive. My drive’s only about a wheel and a half.”

“Go ahead, Victor.”

Slowly I drove forward, the road sloping down, sending my car deeper and deeper into the water. I kept looking down at the floor, wondering when the water would start seeping through, kept listening to the engine, waiting for the sputter and choke as the motor drowned. The water looked impossibly deep outside my window, the car so low I felt I was in a rowboat, but then the front tilted up and the car pulled higher and soon we were out of the overflowed stream, through the gates, past two huge sycamores, driving up the long driveway to the house.

The trees and overgrowth had given way to a wide flat hillside that seemed to spread forever in the darkness. The drive pulled higher and the hillside lengthened and I realized I was driving through what must have been a vast piece of property, stunning, I was sure, in its size and depth even though I could see only the narrow strip illuminated by my headlights. And then a crack of lightning confirmed my suspicions and my eyes couldn’t take in its entire breadth before darkness once again clasped shut its jaws and the sky growled and my vision was reduced to the thin strip lighted by my car. Atop the hillside was a glow, yellow and dim, a glow that strangely grew no brighter as we approached. The driveway curved away from the light and then back again and suddenly Veritas came into view. I drove around the drive as it circled tightly across the top of a wide stone portico, whose steps led down the hill which our car had just climbed, and parked in front of the house

“Charming,” I said.

“We call it home.”

What they called home was a massive Gothic revival stone structure with dark eaves and predatory buttresses and strangely shaped bay windows with intricate stained glass. Wings and dark additions had been slapped on with abandon. Dull yellow lamps lit the great front door, giving the carved wood a sickly look, and thin strips of light leaked weakly out some of the windows on the first floor, though a whole huge wing of windows to the right was dark as if in blackout. The second floor appeared deserted except for a window under one of the eaves at the far left end, where I saw a light stream for a moment before heavy curtains were dropped to block its exit. I gaped with amazement at the monstrosity before me, and that’s what it was, truly. Misshapen and cold, I could imagine it as one of those demented boarding schools for the blood spawn of the insanely rich. I had always wanted my fine home on a hill in the Main Line, sure, but not that home.

“Come on in,” she said, as she opened the car door.

“Is it haunted?” I asked.

“Of course it is.” She jumped out of the car, dashing through the rain, until she was protected by an archway over the front door. I joined her. Before she could reach the knob that worked the buzzer the heavy wooden door opened with a long creak. A tiny maid with a tightly wrinkled face stared at us both for a moment, as if we were intruders, before guiding us into the center hall.

It was a poorly lit space, cavernous, two stories high, leading to a dark hanging stairwell at the rear. There were huge arched beams overhead, like ribs, and dark maroon wallpaper on the walls, the seams peeling back. A piece of furniture sat squat in front of the stairs, round like a tumor, its four seats facing hostilely away from one another. A chandelier lit the space with an uneven, dingy light; three of the bulbs were out. I felt, with those arched ribs above and the tumor of a circular couch, that I was in the belly of a some huge malignant beast.

Hola, Consuelo. Como estas?” asked Caroline.

The maid, without smiling, said in a lightly accented voice, “Fine, thank you, Miss Shaw.”

Caroline gave Consuelo her raincoat and I did the same. I hadn’t noticed before, but underneath Caroline’s raincoat had been a tight black cocktail dress that was obviously not thrift-shop quality. She was wearing stockings with black lines down the back and her black heels were high and glossy and sharp and the stud in her nose held a diamond. Caroline had dressed for the family; her spirit of rebellion only went so far.

Donde está ma familia?” she asked.

“They’re all in the great room,” said Consuelo. “With the guests. They held dinner for you.” She let her impassive gaze take me in and added, “I’ll set another place.”

“Road’s out, so expect some overnights this evening.”

“I’ve already taken care of it. I’ll set up another room for your friend.”

Gracias, Consuelo,” said Caroline as she grabbed my arm and led me deeper into the beast’s belly.

“Pretty good Spanish,” I said.

“That’s all I know. Hola and Como estás and Gracias. The fruits of four years of high school Spanish. Pathetic.” She gripped my arm ever more tightly as we approached a double doorway at the end of the hall. “Are you ready?” she asked gravely, as if I were about to enter a wax museum of horror.

“I guess so,” and before I had even finished saying it she had swept me through the doors.

It was a huge formal room, ornate plaster ceiling, walls covered with wood and studded with portraits of the wealthy dead, furniture with thin legs, a huge pale blue oriental rug. I could tell right off it was a fancy room because the fabrics on the differing pieces of furniture didn’t match one another and there wasn’t a plastic slipcover in the place. From the ornamental facing of the fireplace a gloomy plaster head stared out with blank eyes and above the mantelshelf was a portrait of an angry man in a bright red coat, a hunting coat. He had a brisk white beard and great goggling eyes and a familiar face and it didn’t take me long to recognize him. Claudius Reddman. A clot of people held drinks in the center of the room, leaning back and chatting. Others were standing by a huge blue vase from some ancient Chinese dynasty that had prospered for thousands of years for the sole purpose of providing the great houses on the Main Line with huge blue vases. Before I could take it all in Caroline, still clutching my arm, said in a voice loud enough to silence their conversations:

“Sorry we’re late everybody. This is Victor Carl. He was a dear friend of Jacqueline’s. He’s a painter.”

All eyes turned to gaze at me in my very painterly black wing tips and blue suit and green tie. And just as they were all giving me the up and down Caroline pulled me close and leaned her head against my shoulder and added:

“And in case you’re interested, yes, we’re lovers.”

17

Serenata Notturna in D minor

1. Adagio

I WAS LYING IN BED in a dark cell of a room on the third floor of Veritas, lying in my tee shirt and boxers, staring up. The ceiling, illuminated by a dim lamp beside my bed, was made of thick beams, painted with fragile flowers, arrayed in a complicated warren of water-stained squares, all imported, I’d been told, from a famous Italian villa outside of Florence. It had once been a pretty fancy room, that room, with that ceiling. Once. As I lay staring at the ceiling and thinking of the strange evening I had just spent in the Reddman house, an uneven patter of water dropped from that wondrous imported ceiling into a porcelain chamber pot by the foot of my bed. Splat. Splat splat. Splat. And then, behind the patter of those drops, I heard a faint knock at my door.

I bolted to a sitting position and wondered if I had imagined the sound, but then it came again, just a light tap tapping, soft, hesitant. I rose from the bed and grappled on my pants and slowly, carefully, walked barefooted across the mildewed threadbare oriental rug to the door.

“Yes?” I said through the wood, hoping for some reason it was Caroline. Well that’s not really true, I was hoping for very specific reasons that it was Caroline, hoping because of that dress, the shape of her legs in those sharp glossy heels, because of the way she looked feral and dangerous in her cocktail wear. I was hoping it was she because I could still feel the warmth of her and smell the scent of her from when she leaned into me and surprised the assembled throng with her announcement of our sexual engagement. The whole horrid evening I had been watching her out of the corner of my eye, watching her move, watching her laugh, watching the butterfly on her pale neck flutter as she drank her Manhattans, one after the other after the other, a veritable stream of vermouth and whiskey and bitters, and as I watched her I found myself wishing that what she had announced with great ceremony and mirth was actually true. So I said, “Yes,” through the door, and I hoped it was she, but when I opened it whom I saw instead was her brother Bobby.

“Mr. C-C-C-Carl?” said Bobby. “D-d-d-do you have a moment?”

“Sure,” I said, “so long as you don’t mind my informal dress.”

“I don’t mind,” he said, and his gaze dropped from my face, down past my tee shirt, to my pants and lingered there long enough for me to assume I was unzipped.

“Come on in, then,” I said, “and call me Victor.” When he was past me in the room I quickly checked my zipper. It was closed.

He sat on the edge of my bed. There was an overstuffed reading chair in the corner and I switched on the lamp beside it before sitting. I could feel each spring distinctly beneath me and the cloth underneath my forearms was damp. The light coming through the faded lampshade cast a jaundiced yellow upon the walls and Bobby’s face. He was a tall thin man, shy and stuttering, who slouched his chin into the shoulder of his gray suit as if he were a boxer hiding a glass jaw. His hair was red and unruly and his lips were pursed in an astonished aristocratic sort of way. He kept mashing his hands together as if he were kneading dough. We had talked some at the cocktail gathering before dinner, each of us with a bitter glass of champagne in one hand and a stick of some sort of roasted gristly meat in the other. He had asked me about my art and I had described for him my imaginary oeuvre.

“I wanted to t-t-t-talk to you about Jackie,” Bobby said as he sat on the edge of my bed. He avoided looking at me as he spoke, his gaze resting over my shoulder, then to the side, then again quickly on my crotch before moving up to the ceiling. “Caroline said you knew her.”

“That’s right,” I lied. “I met her at the Haven, where we used to meditate together.”

“Poor Jackie was always searching for some m-m-m-measure of meaning. I expect that place wasn’t any better than the others. She tried to get me to go with her once.”

“Did you?”

“No, of c-c-c-course not. Jackie was always looking outward, away, certain wherever she would find the answers was someplace she had never been. I think it’s really sad that she was looking so d-d-d-desperately for something, when all along the answer was right under her nose.”

“Where?”

“Here. In this house, in our history. I think m-m-m-meaning is in devoting yourself to something larger than yourself, don’t you? That’s what our Grammy taught us.”

“And what do you devote yourself to, Bobby?”

“To our investments, our money. I go downt-t-t-town and watch the family positions on the monitors at the stock exchange building every day. And I have a hookup here, also. While most of the family money, of course, is in the company stock, we have other investments that I watch and trade.”

“That must be exciting.”

“Oh, it is, really,” he said as he looked me straight in the eye. As he spoke of money and finance an assurance rose in his voice and his gestures grew animated. “But it’s more than just exciting. See the thing, Mr. Carl, is that we’re all going to die, we’re all so small. But the money, it just goes on and on and on. It’s immortal, as long as we care for it and tend to it. It’s the only thing in the world that’s immortal. Governments will fall, buildings will crumble, but the money will always be there. My role in life is caring for it, keeping it alive. Every moment as I watch it percolate on the screen, watch the net value go up and down by millions at a stroke, I feel a flush of fulfillment. That’s what was so sad about Jackie, she was looking for something else when she should have been looking right here.” He paused, his eyes dropped to my chest and then my crotch, and then he began to clutch his hands once more. “But w-w-w-what I wondered, Mr. Carl…”

“Victor.”

“All right, V-V-V-V-V…” His face closed in on itself as he tried to get the word out and I struggled with him. I was about to spurt out my name again, to get him through it, when he stopped, breathed deep, and smiled unselfconsciously. “Some letters are harder than others.”

“That’s fine, Bobby,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“W-w-w-what I wondered was why do you think she k-k-k-killed herself, if you have any idea. She almost seemed happy for the first time. She was engaged to be married, she said the meditation was helping her. Why do you think she k-k-k-killed herself?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I thought she was doing well too. So well, in fact, that I’m not certain that she did kill herself.”

“N-n-n-no?”

I looked at him carefully as I spoke, looking for anything that would clue me that he knew something he shouldn’t have known. “No,” I said. “There are some things that seem suspicious about her death, little things, like even the way she died. In a group meeting at the Haven she once admitted to having a cache of pills in her apartment. They were there, in her bathroom, at the end. I don’t see why she hung herself if she had the drugs.”

“That is strange. But Jackie was always m-m-m-most dramatic in her despondency, m-m-m-m-maybe she wanted to m-m-m-make a statement.”

I shrugged, noticing that he had seemed more nervous as he talked about her death. “I don’t know. It’s sort of comforting to think that maybe she was happy and was murdered rather than her being so depressed at the end as to hang herself.”

“That w-w-w-would be nice, yes, but who w-w-w-w-w-w…”

“Would want to kill her? You tell me.”

He shook his head. “No, Jackie was always unhappy. Even as a b-b-b-baby she was c-c-c-colicky. If she was going to die she would do it herself. Grammy used to say the c-c-c-curse got hold of her from the start.”

“Excuse me,” I said.

“The c-c-c-curse. Didn’t Jackie tell you about it?”

“About a curse? No.”

“We have a family c-c-c-curse. Doesn’t every family have one?”

“Probably. Ours was my mother. Tell me about your family curse, Bobby.”

He stood up and started pacing as he spoke, his hands working on each other as if out of control. “It’s from the c-c-c-company. The c-c-c-company wasn’t always named Reddman Foods. That name came in only when our great-grandfather gained control. Before that it was called the E. J. P-P-P-Poole Preserve Company. That was before Great-grandfather’s special method of pressure pickling took the country by storm, when they mainly canned tomatoes and carrots and other produce. Apparently Elisha P-P-P-Poole was a drunk and the company wasn’t profitable before he sold out to Great-grandfather, but as soon as the company started selling the new pickles and turning a profit P-P-P-Poole turned bitter and accused Great-grandfather of stealing the company from him. He made a couple of drunken scenes, wrote letters to the police and the newspapers, threatened the family, and made a general n-n-n-nuisance of himself. But it never got him any stock back or affected the company’s profits. Eventually he killed himself. Great-grandfather did the charitable thing and took care of his family, giving the widow an annuity and her and her daughter a place to live, but he always denied stealing the company. Said P-P-P-Poole was drunk and deluded, that the lost opportunity drove him mad.” Bobby shrugged. “Supposedly, before he died, he c-c-c-cursed Great-grandfather and all his generations.”

“How did Poole kill himself?” I asked.

“He hanged himself from the rafters of his tenement,” he said. He looked at me with his eyes widening. “M-m-m-maybe it really was the curse that got her.” And then he laughed, a scary sniveling little laugh, and as he laughed his eyes dropped down from my face to my crotch again before he turned his head away. I looked down at my fly. Still zipped.

“Is there a problem with my trousers?” I said. “Because you keep on looking down there as if there was a problem.”

With his head turned away and his hands still kneading one another he said, “I j-j-j-just thought you might be l-l-l-lonely up here on the th-th-th-third floor. I th-th-th-think Caroline’s asleep already d-d-d-downstairs. One too many M-M-M-Manhattans. So if you want I c-c-c-could keep you c-c-c-company.”

“Ahh,” I said, suddenly getting the whole idea of his visit. I wondered how he had gotten the wrong idea about me. Was it my suit, my haircut? It must have been my haircut; the barber this time was a little too enthusiastic with the electric clippers. “I’m just fine, actually, and a little tired, so if you’ll excuse me.” I slapped my legs and stood up.

“I didn’t m-m-m-mean, I’m s-s-s-sorry, I-I-I-I…”

“It’s all right, Bobby,” I said, as I held the door open for him. “Don’t worry about it. I’m glad we had this chance to talk.”

He stepped through the door and then turned around. “I like g-g-g-girls too.”

“All right.”

“I d-d-d-do. Really.”

“It’s all right, Bobby.”

“It’s j-j-j-just they don’t come over much.”

“I understand, Bobby. Really. And you don’t have to worry, I won’t tell a soul.”

2. Molto Vivace

I shut off the floor lamp and stripped off my pants and crawled back into the slightly sodden bed, staring once again at the decrepit ceiling. I thought of the drunken Elisha Poole, railing at his missed opportunity for a fortune, blaming Claudius Reddman, blaming the alcohol that deadened his predatory instincts, blaming capitalism itself. I wondered where his heirs were, how they were faring. They had probably grown to be pathetic money-maddened lawyers, searching the byways of America for a case, just one case, to make them as rich as they were meant to be. Even so, they were probably in better shape than Claudius’s heirs. Jacqueline, hanging dead just as Elisha Poole himself had ended by hanging dead. Or Bobby, his tongue twisted by the pressures of his family history, sexually confused, finding his meaning in the blinking numbers of a computer monitor. Or Caroline, irrationally terrified of cats, seeking solace in a perpetual state of arrested rebellion. Or Eddie, gambling away his fortune with a fat, mob-invested, now sadly dead and soon to be buried bookie.

Edward Shaw had turned out to be a short man, heavy not of the bone but of the flesh, with a cigarette constantly in his sneering lips. His eyes were round and sort of foolish, filled with the false bravado of a loser who thinks he’s ready for a comeback even though the final bell has rung. His left arm was bent stiffly at his side and I smiled when I saw it, thinking it unexpectedly wise of Calvi’s men to have left Eddie’s check-signing arm whole. Through the entirety of that evening, through the insipid cocktail conversation, through the nauseating dinner, through the smell of those moldy cigars the men smoked in the mite-ridden library, a rancid smell of old towels burning we endured as we talked of investments and Walker Cup golf and how the Wister yacht ran aground in the sandbars off Mount Desert Island in 1938, through it all I kept my eye on Eddie, and he seemed to keep his eye on me. I tried to talk with him more than once, but I never got the chance. He successfully avoided me, as if he knew my mission there was to smoke him out. Whenever I approached to say hello he smiled tightly and slipped away. I had that effect on people, yes, but Eddie’s reticence was more sinister than mere distaste at being bored by a man in a suit. It seemed to denote a wild sense of guilt, or at least so I hoped.

I was thinking of it all when I heard another knock at my door, this one less hesitant, quicker, full of some unnatural energy at that late hour. Again I grappled on my pants. In my doorway, clutching a painted canvas, I found Kendall Shaw, Eddie Shaw’s wife.

Kendall was a thin pretty woman with straight honey hair cut in an outdoorsy style you often see on women who think the great outdoors is the space between their front doors and their Volvos. She wore a red wool dress that hugged her tight around aerobically trimmed hips. As soon as I opened the door she started speaking. She spoke breathlessly and fast.

“I hope I’m not bothering you, and I know it’s late, but I had something I just had to show you. It’s so exciting that you’re an artist and a friend of Jackie’s. I guess Jackie introduced you to Caroline. Caroline is just wild, but so much fun too, don’t you think? We were all so disappointed about her movie. First she was raving with excitement and then, poof, she pulled the plug. That is so like her. She collapsed tonight in her old room. Too much to drink, poor dear. It always seems to happen when she comes home. Do you meditate? Jackie always used to talk about meditation. I tried to meditate but I kept on thinking of all the things I needed to buy. Maybe it was because my mantra was MasterCard. So have you met Frank yet? Frank Harrington, he’s also a friend of Caroline’s, an old friend. What a handsome man, clever too. You two should meet. So tell me about your painting. Where have you shown? I paint some too. Mostly landscapes. I’m not very good, heavens, but I find it so soothing. I brought one to show you. Tell me what you think, and be honest, but please not too honest.”

It didn’t take me long to figure out how it was that Kendall stayed so thin. The painting she had handed me was a landscape all right, an imaginary view painted right from the instructions on the PBS painting shows, with spindly trees and moss-covered rocks and majestic peaks in the background. It was actually pretty good for what it was and it could have proudly held its own on any Holiday Inn wall. “I like it,” I lied.

“Do you, really?” she shrieked. “That is marvelous, simply marvelous. It’s a gift, from me. I insist. I have others if you want to see them. You must. Believe it or not this isn’t even a real place. I dredged the landscape out of my imagination. It’s so much more psychologically authentic that way, don’t you think?”

Something she had said in that first torrent of words interested me. “You mentioned a Franklin Harrington. Who is he?”

“Oh, Franklin. An old family friend, the family banker now. He was supposed to come tonight but had to cancel. I thought you knew. I was sure you did. He’s Caroline’s fiancé. Oh my, I hope I haven’t spilled anything I shouldn’t have.”

“No,” I said. “I’m sure you didn’t.” I turned my attention back to the painting, holding it before me as if I were studying it with great seriousness. “You know what this work reminds me of? That special place that Jackie used to talk about, where she would go in her most peaceful meditations.”

“How extraordinary.” Her eyes opened wide. “Maybe Jackie and I were linked in some mystical way.”

“Maybe you were,” I said. “That would be so cool. You know, sometimes people who are connected in mystical ways can feel each other’s emotions. On the night she died, did you feel anything?”

“To tell you the absolute truth, Victor, I did have a premonition. I was in North Carolina, vacationing, when I felt a sense of dread come over me. Actually I thought it was Edward’s plane. He flew back that morning, for business, and on the beach I had this horrible sense that his plane had gone down. I was so relieved to hear from him, you couldn’t imagine. But that was the day that Jackie died. You think I was getting those horrible images of death from her?”

“I don’t doubt it,” I said.

“How marvelously strange.”

“Tell me, Kendall. What was the business your husband flew north for that day?”

“Oh, some real estate thing. Edward dabbles more than anything else. He’s waiting for the inheritance so that he can buy a football team. He’s just a boy like that. And do you want to know something else very interesting about my husband, Victor? But I have to whisper it.”

“Okay, sure,” I said, anxious to hear whatever other incriminating facts she wanted to tell me about Eddie Shaw.

Kendall looked left down the hallway, then right, then she leaned forward until I could smell the Chanel. “My husband,” she whispered, “is fast asleep.”

And then she bit my ear.

3. Marcia Funebre

When I was alone in my room again, I laid the painting on a tottering old dresser, having successfully avoided laying Kendall Shaw, and once more took my pants off and fell into bed. She had been particularly ardent, Kendall had, which would have been flattering had she not been so obviously hopped up with her diet pills and suffering from some sort of amphetamine psychosis. Upon biting my ear, she performed a talented lunge, kicking the door closed with a practiced side swipe at the same time she threw her arms round my neck, but I fought her off. It wasn’t that I wasn’t attracted – I was actually, I have a thing for women just like Kendall, hyperactive and thin with sharp Waspish features and outdoorsy hair – it was just that it was all so sudden and wrong that I didn’t have time to let my baser instincts kick in before I pulled her off and sent her on her way. I sort of regretted it too, afterward, as I lay in bed alone and waited for my erection to subside. It had been a profitable visit in any event. I had learned Eddie’s whereabouts the night of Jackie’s death, I had gotten a motel-quality painting, and I finally knew exactly who that Harrington was whom I had run into at the First Mercantile Bank of the Main Line. He was Caroline’s fiancé and knowing that made Caroline even more attractive to me in the deep envious reaches of my petty mind, which meant it took longer for me to relax enough to even try once more to sleep. So I lay in the bed, staring at the ceiling, letting the blood flow back to my brain and trying to sort it all out in my mind, when I heard still another knock on the door.

“Oh, Mr. Carl,” said Selma Shaw, Caroline’s mother, through the wooden door. “I have something for you.”

I bet you do, I thought, as I slipped out of bed and grappled again with my pants. I opened the door a crack and saw her standing there with a covered plate in her hand.

“I noticed you didn’t eat much of the dinner,” she said, her voice slipping raw and thick out of a throat scarred by too much of something. “I thought you might still be hungry.”

I looked at her smile and then at the plate and then back at her smile and realized that I actually was hungry so I let her in. Selma Shaw was a tall, falsely blonde woman, so thin her joints bulged. Her face was as smooth and as stretched as if she were perpetually in one of those G-force centrifuges they use to train astronauts, and her smile was a strange and wondrous thing, a tight, surgically sharp rictus. She stepped to the bureau to put down the plate and noticed the painting there.

“So Kendall’s been here already,” said Selma, her smile gone.

“She wanted to show me one of her paintings.”

“I assume that was not all. I wish Kendall would be more concerned with taking care of her husband than rushing to the third floor to show visiting artists her trashy little pictures. But,” she said, her voice suddenly brightening, “enough of that dervish.” She spun around almost gaily and smiled once more. “I assumed you were being too polite to eat, worried about the strange surroundings, so I had Consuelo make you up a sandwich.”

“Thank you,” I said, truly grateful. I hadn’t eaten much at dinner, Selma was right about that, but it wasn’t out of politeness. We had eaten in the dark, cavernous dining room of Veritas, stared at by stern brown portraits on the walls, the only bit of color the blue-and-white marble of the fireplace that looked to be carved from blue cheese aged too long. The food that Consuelo had served in the dark room had fallen to the far side of vile. A spiky artichoke, a bitter greasy salad, overcooked asparagus, undercooked potatoes, fatty knuckles of mutton with thick stringy veins snapping through the meat like rubber bands. There had been pickles of course, a platter of pickles fresh from the factory, and Dr. Graves, on my right, had advised me that pickles were always served at Veritas. The only light in the dining room had come from candelabras on the table, which, blessedly, were dim enough to make it difficult to see what the muck it was we were eating, but I saw enough to turn my appetite. I tried to look at least interested in the food, pushing it around on my plate, actually swallowing a small spoonful here and there, but when something in the bread pudding crunched between my teeth like a sharp piece of bone I figured I had had enough, spitting my mouthful into my napkin and dropping the napkin over my silver dessert plate in resignation.

“I hope you don’t mind me putting you all the way up here on the third floor,” said Selma Shaw, “but we weren’t expecting so many people to be forced to stay over because of the flood. There are not so many rooms available to visitors anymore. We’ve closed down the east wing to guests because my husband is a troubled sleeper and he finds it difficult to rest with anybody in close proximity to him during the night. Me included.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t get to meet him.”

“Don’t be. I love him dearly, of course, he’s my husband, but he can be a very difficult man. Childhood trauma will do that.”

“What kind of trauma?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s a terribly sad story,” said Selma. “Too depressing for a rainy night like this. Do you really want to hear it?”

“Yes, actually.”

“Well, make yourself comfortable at least,” she said, almost pushing me onto the bed and sitting right beside me. The bed creaked beneath us.

She crossed her legs and put her left arm behind her so that her upper body was turned toward me. She was wearing a clinging black dress that sparkled in the dim light and the sharp points of her breasts gently wiggled at me from beneath the fabric.

“I won’t bore you with the details, but in a horrible mistake Kingsley, my husband, shot his father to death on the back patio of this very house on a dark, rainy night much like this one.”

Her brown eyes were looking straight into mine, as if in warning. I blinked twice, thinking that what Caroline had successfully avoided talking of during the ride to Veritas her mother had blurted to me with nary an excuse, and then I shifted away from her as politely as I could.

“Needless to say,” she continued, “it has scarred my husband terribly. This house used to be so grand a place, I am told, a marvelous place for parties. But that was when Mr. Reddman was still alive. He knew how to run a house. My husband has let the house go. I’ve done what I could to maintain it but it is so difficult, almost as if it has become what it was always meant to be, as if its essential character is becoming exposed with all the leaks and warped floors and the browning wallpaper. Is it any wonder, then, that I spend much of my time away? Would you spend all your life here if you had a choice, Mr. Carl?”

“No,” I said, shifting away from her a little more.

“Of course not, and still they carp. But enough talk of Kendall and my husband’s sad past, both subjects are entirely too morbid. Tell me about you and Caroline. She said you are lovers.”

“So she did.”

“You know of course that she is engaged,” said Selma and on the final syllable her right hand, which had been floating in the air as if held high by a marionette’s string, dropped lightly onto my knee.

“Yes, I do, Mrs. Shaw,” I said, looking at her hand. While her face was stretched taut and young, her hand had the look of a turkey foot about it, bone-thin, covered with hard red wrinkles, tipped by claws. I tried to deftly brush her hand off as if it had fallen there by mistake, but as I performed my gentle brush her fingers tightened on my knee and stayed put.

“Caroline has known Franklin Harrington for years and years,” said Selma Shaw, not in any way acknowledging the ongoing battle over my bended knee, “ever since Mother Shaw brought him to this house as a boy. They took to each other so quickly we had always assumed their marriage. Caroline, of course, has dallied and so, I am told, has Franklin in his way, but they will be married despite what any of us would prefer. You should be aware of that as an unalterable fact. Destiny, in this family at least, must always have its way with us. Even love must yield. No one knows better than I.”

“Could you move your hand off my knee, Mrs. Shaw?”

“Of course,” she said, loosening her grip and sliding her hand up my thigh.

“That’s not what I meant,” I said, standing up.

Before I could get cleanly away, Caroline’s mother goosed me.

“What is going on here?” I said, perhaps too loudly, but I believe my pique was understandable. “Are you all crazy?”

“It’s just Caroline,” she said, laughing. “She is so prone to exaggeration. Come sit down, Mr. Carl,” she said, patting the bed beside her. “I’ll be good.”

“I’ll stand, thank you.”

“You must think me a pathetic old witch.” She lifted her face to me and paused, waiting for me to inject my protestations. When I didn’t say a word she laughed once more. “You do, don’t you. Such an honest young man. Caroline always knows how to find them. But before you judge me too harshly, Mr. Carl, consider how noxious I must appear to myself. I wasn’t always like this, no, not at all, but the same forces that have rotted out this house have turned me into the wondrous creature you see before you. You’re better off without any of us, Mr. Carl.”

“I just came for dinner,” I said.

“Oh, I know the attraction, heavens yes. Just as Mother Shaw, may she rot in peace, brought Franklin here for Caroline, she brought me here for Kingsley. She had that way about her, of taking destiny by the hand and turning it to do her will. I had no intention of staying. It was a part-time job, to read to her son in the evenings, that was all. He was forty already and had difficulty reading for himself. I was only twenty and still in school, but already I believed I knew what I wanted. You want to know how pathetic I really am, Mr. Carl, know that this was what I wanted, this house, this name, this life, from which now I run to France to escape whenever I am able. The French say that a man who is born to be hanged will never be drowned. I was born to be rich, I always thought, in the deepest of my secret hearts. And see, I was right, but I suppose I was born to drown too.” She stood, and without looking at me, walked to the door. “Do yourself a favor, Mr. Carl, leave tomorrow morning as soon as the road clears and don’t look back. Leave tomorrow morning and forget all about what you think you want from Caroline.”

She closed the door behind her. I stared at it for a moment and then my stomach growled. I stepped to the bureau and whisked off the cover of the plate. It was a sandwich all right, but beneath the stale bun the slices of tongue were so thick I could still see the whole of the muscle lolling between the slabs of teeth in the mouth of its cow, brawny, hairy, working the cud from one side of the mouth to the other. I went to sleep hungry.

4. Allegro con Fuoco

I had thought about keeping the bedside lamp on the whole of the night to discourage any other unwelcome visitors, but I found it hard enough to sleep in the must and damp of that room, with the splat, splat splat, splat of leaking water dropping into the chamberpot and the groans of that ancient house collapsing ever so slowly into itself, so I turned out the light and, while lying in the darkness, I thought about Claudius Reddman, grand progenitor of Reddman Foods. His legacy seemed a dark and bitter one just then, except for the wealth. One daughter dead, another run off, the third widowed by her own son’s hand, and all the while Elisha Poole railing drunkenly at his ill fortune before silencing his wails at the end of a rope. Then there was the grandson, Kingsley Shaw, shooting his father on the portico of the house on a rain-swept night. Then there was the ruin that was Selma Shaw, brought to the house by Grandmother Faith to be Kingsley’s wife and doomed to become the living embodiment of all her false expectations. And, of course, there was the house itself, reverting to a wild and untamed place filled with decay, like some misanthrope’s heart. It was almost enough to have me swear off my desperate search for untold amounts of money. Almost. For I was sure if I was ever to be given the gift of glorious wealth I would do a better job of handling it than the Reddmans. A bright airy house, filled with light, maybe a converted barn with a tennis court, clay because I was never the swiftest, and a pool, and a gardener to mow the acres of lawn and care for the flowers. And there would be parties, and women in white dresses, and a green light beckoning from across the sound.

I lay in the bed and shivered from the damp and thought about it all, not even realizing I was slipping into somebody else’s reverie, until I fell, eventually, into a dark, empty sleep. That it was dreamless was merciful, what with all I had been through and learned that night. I slept curled in a ball and stayed like that until I felt the scrape of teeth at the back of my neck.

I sprung awake and spun in the darkness, first this way, then that way, searching desperately for the rat. But it wasn’t a rat. I could only make out the outlines of a figure in my bed and I pulled myself away before I heard a throaty laugh and the soft silvery rustle of metal on metal and smelled the sweet smell of vermouth.

“Jesus dammit,” I said. “I thought you were passed out.”

“I revived,” said Caroline, in a glazed voice. “I didn’t know you’d be so jumpy.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I thought we should maintain our cover with a late-night rendezvous. There are always eyes open in this house.”

“We could have let our cover slide, I think. They’ll know soon enough, as soon as they talk to your fiancé. You didn’t tell me about you and Harrington. Another lie?”

“The love of my life,” she said. “And you’re right, they will tell him, of course, and he will tell them exactly who you are. I guess the jig is up.”

“Are you still drunk?” I asked.

“Maybe.”

“You were pounding them down like an Australian frat boy.”

“I have a small problem sometimes. My therapist says I’m a situational alcoholic. It’s one of the many things we’re working on.”

“What situations specifically?”

“Family situations, like tonight.”

“I really can’t blame you, Caroline. This family of yours is the screwiest I’ve ever seen. It makes mine look like the Cleavers, and believe me, no one ever confused my mother and father with June and Ward. And besides their general weirdness, it seems each and every one of them has the damnedest desire to have sex with me.”

She gave a hearty laugh. “You said you wanted to meet them all, so I arranged it.”

“You arranged it?”

“I told them you were a polymorphously perverse sexual addict and hung like a horse.”

I let out a burst of embarrassed angst just as I heard the rustle of covers. I felt her palm land on my stomach and rub and then slip south, reaching under my boxers.

“Well maybe I overstated it a bit,” she said, “but it is mighty perky for this late at night.”

“Cut it out,” I said. I reached down to grab her wrist and brushed her breast accidentally, feeling something hard and cold against the back of my hand, something round, metallic. “You’re drunk and you’re a client. The ethical rules say I can’t get involved with a client.”

I tried to pull Caroline’s hand away but it stayed right where it was. She kissed my nose and cheek and then bit my upper lip. She didn’t bite it hard, not at all like Kendall turtle-snapping my ear, she bit it softly, tenderly, teasing it out from between her teeth as she pulled away.

“Am I?” she whispered in my ear.

“Are you what?”

“A client?”

I thought on it, how she took back her retainer and hadn’t yet signed the contingency fee contract and how our strange business relationship was not so easily described and as I thought on it she bit my lip, my lower lip this time, bit it the same way and teased it from between her teeth the same way and suddenly I didn’t want her hand to leave, just to move, which it did.

“I really don’t think this is such a good idea,” I said.

“Then don’t think.”

“Caroline, stop. Don’t I have any say in this?”

“Not until I sign your contract,” she breathed into my ear. “Until then I’m in control.”

She kissed me lightly and then scooted toward me on the bed, slipped close until our bellies rubbed and her grandfather’s Distinguished Service Cross dug into my chest. The springs beneath us creaked loudly.

“They’ll hear.”

“Then be sure to be loud,” she said. “I don’t want them to miss a single groan.”

She kissed me again and dragged her tongue across my gums. I tasted her breath and whatever control had stubbornly remained suddenly shifted out from beneath me and I fell.

“You are going to save me, aren’t you?” she said.

It was phrased rhetorically, which was good, because I couldn’t have answered just then, still falling as I was, falling. I tasted her breath and it tasted sweet from the vermouth of her Manhattans and fresh, like a warm wind off a meadow, and full of mint.

No, not peppermint. Government.

18

BREAKFAST WAS WAITING in tarnished silver chafing dishes arrayed on a black marble sideboard in the Garden Room. Consuelo had met me at the base of the stairs and asked, without inflection, how my night had been before directing me to the morning’s regalement. I had been the last to rise that night and I was evidently the first to rise that morning and I had awakened alone.

The Garden Room was an exotic monstrosity, warm, humid, circular, with a grand Victorian glass dome, the panes of which were sallow and sooty and edged dark with fungus. Huge jungle plants, sporting leaves as big as torsos, stood among weedy stalks topped by tiny face-shaped blooms. Behind the jungle plants stooped pale-barked trees, gnarled and stunted. Meat-red flowers drooped from clumps of green sprouting from the crooks of tree trunks, the flowers’ dark mouths yawning in hunger. The place smelled as if fertilizer had been freshly laid in the huge granite pots. I wouldn’t have been surprised if General Sternwood had been there to greet me in his wheelchair, but he wasn’t, nobody was, except for two black cats locked in a large wrought-iron cage. When I approached, one cooed invitingly while another snarled before hurling itself right at me, slamming its face into the iron bars. I guessed they were playing good cat bad cat.

Sunlight glared through the dirty windows. The storm had passed that night just as Nat had predicted. In my suit and day-old shirt and socks and underwear I stepped to the food-laden sideboard. I was ravenous and all too ready to set to, despite the Garden Room’s offal smell. I took a plate and lifted the silver cover off the first of the warming trays.

Eggs, runny and wet like snot, with chips of black mixed in, either chunks of pepper or something else I didn’t want to guess at. In the next were potatoes, wet and hard, swimming in some sort of green-colored oil. In the next, French toast slices with the consistency of cardboard and a reservoir of syrup, slick with the prismatic surface of motor oil. In the last, white slabs of uncooked fat surrounding shivery pink slivers of trichinosis. I put my plate back and looked around for something to drink.

I examined six china cups before I found one crackfree and clean, released a splash of coffee from the urn, and found my way outside to the rear patio and a perfect spring morning. The sun was risen, the damp of the night before was lifting in sheets of fog, the air was filled with the fresh scent of newly soaked loam. A bird heckled. To my right, a large stone wing stretched perpendicular to the rest of the house, its windows covered with white sheets to keep out the sun. An old ballroom, I figured. A few of the windowpanes were cracked and it looked as if it hadn’t been balled in decades. As I examined it I took a sip of the coffee; it spilled into my empty stomach with an acidic hiss. I looked around and found a rusting white cast-iron chair and placed my cup and saucer onto its seat. Then I walked off into the rising fog to explore the grounds.

Behind the house, halfway down the backside of the hill, was a long rectangular pool, surrounded by what looked like a swamp. The water in the pool was a dark algae green and it appeared to be spring-fed because the water had risen in the storm to flow over the top of the pool, flooding the ground beside it. There was no cement or wooden platform around the pool for sunbathing or relaxing with a tall drink of lemonade, just the swamped grass.

I walked around the pool and headed still farther down, to a small pond almost at the base of the hill. This was the pond, I assumed, where Caroline’s grandfather had thrown his Distinguished Service Cross. Why had he ditched it? I wondered. Caroline had offhandedly promised that if I found out she’d sign my fee agreement and I intended to hold her to the promise. The pond was murky, overgrown with weeds and lily pads. As I approached, the ground grew quaggy beneath my shoes and a swarm of gnats flew into my face and hovered. I heard a sucking sound as I lifted my foot and I stopped walking and searched the water for any sign of life beneath its surface. Other than some water boatmen skimming over the top on their long legs, I saw nothing.

I moved around the pond until I reached a tree that had died and fallen into the edge of the water directly opposite the house, and it was by the tree that I noticed, with a small shock, a thousand eyes.

Frogs. The water around the branches of that tree teemed with them, hundreds and hundreds of them. They climbed one atop the other, forming layers of frogs, feet resting on heads, heads beneath bellies, all breathing their dangerous quiet breaths, their eyes open and staring, hundreds and hundreds of them, layers of them, piles of them, a plague of frogs. Slick green, the color lightening about their lower jaws, they were not large frogs, some still had tails and each of their bodies was no bigger than a thumb, but the eyes that stared at me were a malevolent yellow and they climbed one atop the other to get a better look at me, hundreds and hundreds of them, piles of them, slick green silent thumbs with eyes.

Above them, atop the hill, stood Veritas, broad-shouldered and arrogant even in its decrepitude, the mist still rising about it. I had the fanciful notion that each of the frogs was spawned by a sin transgressed by those who had once occupied that house. A thumb on the scale to cheat a customer, a thumb licked as money is counted falsely, a thumb in a competitor’s eye, a thumb atop a secretary’s breast, a thumb to cap a handshake to seal an agreement to cheat a partner of his fair share, a thumb jerked to the door to fire the sole support of a family of seven, a thumb rubbed gently across the subject’s lip at the end game of a seduction, a thumb that cocks the hammer of a shotgun or grasps the last nail to be driven through the lid of a coffin. Which of those frogs, I wondered, was sired by Claudius Reddman’s buyout of Elisha Poole before he introduced the pressure-flavored pickle that was to make him a rich and much-honored man? Which of those frogs was fathered by whichever sin it was that caused Caroline’s grandfather to toss away his decoration for exceptional gallantry? Which of those frogs was begot by Kingsley Shaw’s patricide? Which of those frogs was engendered by the murder of Jacqueline Shaw?

And which of those frogs, I also wondered, sprang to life as a result of my midnight fornication with a situationally drunken Caroline Shaw, youngest heir to the Reddman fortune? I had been fantasizing about screwing her all that night, admittedly, but sexual fantasies are the natural segues between my more practical thoughts, delirium over that secretary or that lawyer or that middle-aged judge wearing whatever she is wearing beneath that hot black robe, no more meaningful than the sluice of chemicals and flash of electricity in the brain that generated the imaginary idyll in the first place. There is no harm in fantasizing, no awkward moments after, no fluids to deal with, no vicious little microbes to wonder incessantly about, no ethical rules to consider. But what had started as a run-of-the-mill fantasy had twisted its way into reality and though I had not actively sought it, I had participated with a canine eagerness that seemed free and vibrant in the darkness of that bed but seemed now like nothing more than a crass exploitation of a young drunken women in a fragile emotional state for purposes of my own pleasure and enrichment. And it hadn’t even been any good.

I swung my leg at the pile of frogs and a handful jumped off to the right. I followed them with my gaze as they dived into the water and then lifted my eyes to see, in a secluded grove of trees, the ruin of a house. It was Victorian and gray, not the clean gray of a rehabbed bed and breakfast but the tired gray of weathered wood long neglected. The foundation had shifted and the building sagged with the sad weariness of a tragedy whose story no one remains alive to tell. Some of the windowpanes were shattered, others were boarded with plywood, itself weathered to gray, and the lower part of half the house was charred on the outside by some sort of brushfire. It must have been an old caretaker’s cottage, I figured, situated as it was so far down the hill from the main house.

While climbing back up to the main house my attention was drawn to a large bosky grove to the right of the pool. It looked to be untended and its setup completely haphazard but as I approached, I noticed a definite shapeliness about it. While each of the individual plants had a disordered look, the general shape had corners and lines, as if those bushes were once part of a wall of hedges that had long gone untrimmed. The plants were wild vicious things, the leaves spiked, the branches studded with a profusion of pale thorns, some more than an inch long. I walked around the grove until I saw a spot in the wall of green that was less dense than the rest and appeared to have been closed off only by the most recent growth. I looked left and right, spotted no one watching, glanced up at the porch, saw that still it was empty, and reached my hand into the opening. I pulled my hand back again, inspected it, and then stepped right on through.

I found myself on a pathway bright with sunlight and wildflowers. The grass was high and the pathway was narrow, with thorny branches thrusting like spears across the gap, but still there was plenty of room for me to walk after brushing away the errant stalks. I followed the pathway around a corner until I found an archway of green that led to another pathway. The flowers were random, full of lovely yellows and violets and a few lurid reds. Two birds serenaded one another in the morning light. A cardinal hopped from one bush to another. It smelled like a different world, all fresh and ecstatically fragrant, full of life, the very opposite of the must-ridden house or the mucky pond below.

I knew where I had sneaked myself into, of course. This was the maze of hedges and flowers that had been described to me by Grimes, the dentist, in his mournful soliloquy at the Irish Pub. He had described it as immaculately tended, but it had apparently not been touched in many many months, not since, I would guess, the death of Caroline’s sweet widowed grandmother, Faith Reddman Shaw, Grammy, who seemed to have a hand in many of the goings-on in that house. I followed the maze like a rat looking for cheese, ducking into almost completely covered entrances, under archways of branches, moving ever toward the middle, until I stepped, as cautiously as a heathen in a church, into the clearing Grimes had described so vividly.

The sun was brightest here and the plants had seemed to mutate into wild stalks of color. Flies fell upon my neck. The statue of Aphrodite was there, on her tiptoes, reaching up to the heavens, but now it appeared she was being held down by a thick hairy vine that cloaked the base of the statue and wrapped itself like an arm around her rear leg. The bench across from the statue was also covered with a vine, but this one sported bright orange flowers. Between the two was an oval covered with high grasses and stalks of weedy green not yet brought to flower. I stepped around the oval toward the statue, feeling some dark presence beneath my feet as I walked, and pushed away the handsized vine leaves covering the base until I could see the stone in which was deeply engraved the word “SHAW.”

I felt something on my foot and jerked it away suddenly, seeing a frog hop into the surrounding bushes. Another frog leaped by. I turned and saw two more come bounding like little flashes of light from the entrance arch and then a boot.

I backed away, almost ducking behind the statue, but before I could hide the boot’s owner came into view and smiled at me in an unsettling way from beneath a wide straw hat. “A little sightseeing, Mr. Carl?” cackled Nat.

“I didn’t mean to,” I stammered, backing away. “I wasn’t…”

“You’re allowed,” he said, and his smile warmed to genuine. The spot around his left eye glowed a lurid red. “It’s just a garden.”

“It’s beautiful,” I said, trying to recover my breath.

“You should have seen it when it was tended. I spent half of each of my days maintaining it to Mrs. Shaw’s specifications. She was a demon for pruning. The elder Mrs. Shaw, I’m talking of now. Not a bloom out of place, not a weed. ‘Take off every shoot whose value is doubtful,’ she taught me, ‘and all you have left is beauty.’ It was a masterpiece. Yep. Some magazine wanted to do a spread, but she wouldn’t have strangers stomping through it with tripods and cameras.”

I looked around at the weeds and the vines pulling at the statue. “Why’d you let it go?”

“This is the way the elder Mrs. Shaw, she wanted it. ‘Just let it go when I die, Nat,’ she told me.” His voice took on a strange power as he imitated hers. “ ‘Let the earth take it back,’ she told me. So that’s what I’ve done.”

“It seems a shame.”

“That it does, yep. Every once in a while I come with my shears and get the urge to straighten it up, some. To prune. But the elder Mrs. Shaw, she was one who liked her orders carried out to the letter. It was the least I could do for her to honor her wishes. It was her place, you know. She’d been coming here ever since she was a girl. Built it up herself.”

“What was she like, Nat?”

“The elder Mrs. Shaw? Quite a woman, she was. Like a mother to me. Brought me here when I was still a boy and made sure I was taken care of ever since, almost like I was one of her own. She’s done more for me and mine then you’d ever imagine, Mr. Carl. Can’t say as she was the gentlest soul I’ve ever met.” He squatted down and pulled at a long piece of grass, wrapping it about his hand. “Nope, I could never say that. But deep in her heart she wanted to do good. N’aren’t too many like that.”

He stood and strolled over to the statue and kicked roughly at the base.

“She’s laying right there,” he said. “In some special urn of hers. Her ashes mixed up with her husband’s. I’ll tell you one thing, Mr. Carl. She loved him more than she loved anything else on this good earth. That kind of love coming from a woman for a man, she’s got to have more than a little good in her.”

“How did he die, her husband?” I asked.

Nat’s blue eyes looked into mine and he smiled as if he knew that I knew the answer, though how he could I couldn’t know. “It was before my time. But I’ll say this, the elder Mrs. Shaw, she was probably right to let this place go. Sometimes what’s buried should remain buried. No good can come from digging up the dead. Come along, Mr. Carl, I’ll show you out. The way it is now, it sometimes gets tricky and you might end up here longer than you’d expect.”

He winked at me before turning and starting back. I followed him, through the arched entranceway of the clearing, along passageways, through the narrow opening, thorns grabbing at my suit jacket, until we had returned to the wide lawn. The sun was bright now and there was no mist left. Nat took off his hat and wiped his head with his forearm. “Getting hot. You had best go on up and get your eggs.”

I heard something from the patio. Some of the others were there now, Kendall, waving at me energetically, Caroline, in sunglasses, with a drink in her hand. I turned away and looked down the hill, beyond the pond to the wooded area in which sat that old weathered and burned Victorian house. From here I couldn’t see any of it, blocked as it was by the foliage, but I could feel it there, listing in its sad way.

“There is a house down there beyond the pond, in those trees,” I said. “Who lived there?”

“You did get around, didn’t you, Mr. Carl?” said Nat. “Feeling a bit frisky this morning, I suppose.” He turned toward the relic. “That was the caretaker’s house. Mrs. Shaw’s father, he deeded it for the whole of her life to the widow Poole. She lived there with her daughter until the widow Poole, she died. Then it reverted back to the estate.”

“What happened to the daughter?”

Nat, still looking down the hill, his back to me, shrugged. “She up and left. Rumor was she died in an asylum New England way. She was supposed to be demented. Caught the pox, or some such fever, and gave up the ghost. The whole family Poole sort of just withered away. I guess that’s the way of it. The good Lord’s always pruning, trying to get it right at last.”

Before I could respond he started walking away from me, down the hill, toward the pond with all those frogs.

“You remember what I said about leaving the buried be, Mr. Carl,” he said without turning. “Some patches of this earth are better left unturned.”

19

IT WAS A TOUCHING LITTLE SERVICE for Jimmy Vigs at the funeral parlor on North Broad Street. The rabbi spoke of the joy that Jimmy Dubinsky had given to his family and his friends, of the sage advice and prompt service he had given his clients, of his generous spirit in running the charity bingo events at the synagogue. A tall straw of a man with flighty hands stood up and spoke of how Jimmy was always there for him in his times of deepest need, when the fates conspired against him and OTB was closed. He was a giver, said the man, and he gave without complaint, so long as the call was laid in time. Anton Schmidt, a tie beneath his leather jacket, looking almost like a yeshiva student in his wide fedora and evident sadness, talked in soft halting sentences of Jimmy’s fairness and kindness and his facility with numbers. And then the son spoke, a young heavy man, just in from the Coast, the spitting image of poor dead Jimmy, talking of how his dad was the greatest dad in the whole wide world, always taking him to the ball game, watching sports with him on television. The son spoke of the joy they had in traveling together, father and son, to Vegas, to watch a Mike Tyson fight, and here the son choked up a bit and grabbed tightly onto the lectern before continuing. His father had taught him how to play craps, he said through a blubber of sobs, how to handicap the horses. He would remember his father, he said, for the rest of his life.

Jimmy would have liked it. And with the over and under at seventy-five and the higher than expected turnout in the chapel, Jimmy would also have liked that the over pulled through. But even with the turnout, when I arrived a little late and went to sign the guest book I wasn’t surprised to see it totally devoid of names. I was the only mourner willing to be identified.

The rabbi started reading the Twenty-third Psalm and, right at the part about walking through the valley of the shadow of death, Earl Dante slid into my pew, jamming his hip into mine. With the yarmulke neatly on his head and the white rose pinned to his lapel he could have been mistaken for the owner of the joint. Like I said before, he had that kind of face.

“Glad you could make it, Victor,” he said in his slurry voice. “We were counting on you to show.”

“Just paying my respects.”

“There was a rumor that the feds were tapping Jimmy’s phones at the end. Any truth to it?”

“How would I know? I’m just the lawyer.”

“Always the last to know, right, Victor?”

“That’s right.”

He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a piece of paper. “I have you down as a pallbearer. When they turn the bier around we need you to go on up and grab a handle.”

“I can’t believe there aren’t six men who were closer to Jimmy than me.”

“There are,” said Dante, leaning forward in preparation to stand. “But it will take more than six to carry Jimmy off to his final reward. There’s a limo for the pallbearers that will ferry you to the cemetery. They’ll need you there too.”

“I wasn’t planning to go to the cemetery,” I said.

He looked at me and sucked his teeth. “Take the limo.”

When it was time to wheel the coffin out, there were ten of us jockeying for position at the handles. From the other side of the coffin I caught Cressi grinning at me. “Yo, Vic,” he mouthed, bobbing his head up and down. Anton Schmidt was also there, red-eyed beneath his thick glasses. Then, with the rabbi silent and the mourners standing, we walked beside the coffin on its journey out of the chapel. At the side door, with the hearse waiting, its back door swung wide, we all tightened our grip on the handles and heaved. The coffin didn’t budge.

“Put your backs into it,” said the guy from the funeral home. “Ready, one, two, and three.”

We were able, with much grimacing, to lift the coffin and, each of us taking tiny steps, carry it, amid groans and curses, to the hearse, where it slid through on rollers to the rear of the cold black car.

Our limo was long and gray and just as cold as the hearse, though we didn’t have as much room to stretch out as did Jimmy. I sat shotgun, with the window to the back open so I could hear the conversations of the other men jammed shoulder to shoulder inside the rear benches.

“That was a very moving service,” said one of the men in the back.

“I thought the son was touching, just touching,” said a second. “When he talked about Tyson it almost brought tears.”

“If you see a McDonald’s or something,” said a third man to the driver, “why don’t you pull over. I could use a little lunch.”

“What kind of slob are you, Nicky, we’re burying a man here.”

“He’d a understood.”

“We can do drive-through,” said a different man.

“I have to follow the hearse,” said the driver.

“So tell the hearse to go too. Get an extra value meal for Jimmy. Like a gesture of respect, you know. One last stop at them golden arches.”

“Too many stops at the golden arches,” said Anton Schmidt softly, “that’s why he’s dead.”

“What, he got wacked at a McDonald’s?”

We drove up Broad Street to the Roosevelt Extension of Route 1 and then hit the Schuylkill Expressway, west, to get us to the cemetery. Buzzing past us were a horde of speeding cars and vans, swiping by each other as they changed lanes with a frenzy. I turned around and over the heads of the pallbearers I saw the long procession of cars, their headlights lit, following us slowly, and I imagined them all lined up at the McDonald’s drive-through, each putting in its order for fries and Big Macs.

“Maybe there’s a party or something after,” said Cressi. “Hey, Victor, your people, they throw wakes after they bury their dead?”

“We sit shivah,” I said. “That’s where we visit the families and say Kaddish each evening.”

Kaddish, all right,” said Cressi. “I used to date a Jewish broad. You’re talking booze, right?”

“That’s Kiddush, which is different,” I explained. “Kaddish is the prayer for the dead.”

“I thought I’d see Calvi at the ceremony,” said someone else.

“Probably has gotten too fat to leave the pool down there.”

“Last I heard, the fuck had prickly heat.”

“You dated a Jewish girl, Cressi? Who?”

“That Sylvia, what lived in the neighborhood, remember her?”

“Stuck up, with the hats and the tits?”

“That’s the one.”

“You dated her?”

“Sure.”

“How far you get?”

“You think I dated her for the conversation? I want conversation I’ll turn on the television.”

“Why’d she go out with a bum like you?”

“What do you think, hey? I got charm.”

“You got crabs is all you got.”

“You ever tell your mother you were dating some Jewish girl?”

“What are you, a douchebag?” said Cressi. “My mother would have fried my balls for supper I’d had told her that.”

“With a little garlic, some gravy and mozzarella, they’d probably taste all right.”

“Yeah but such small portions.”

General laughter.

“Hey, Victor, about this shiver?” said Cressi.

Shivah.”

“They have food?”

“Usually.”

“Well then, after the burial, I say we do some shivering.”

“But if you pass a McDonald’s before that…”

At the cemetery, we strained our backs lugging the heavy metal coffin from a hearse to the cart and then pushing it over the uneven turf to the hole in the ground. As we shoved our way into places around the hole, like a crowd at a street show, a man from the funeral parlor handed out yarmulkes and little cards with prayers and then the rabbi began. The rabbi spoke a little about one-way journeys and the son sobbed and the rabbi spoke some more about ashes and dust and they lowered the casket into the hole with thick gray straps and the son sobbed and then a few of us who pretended to know what we were doing said Kaddish for James Dubinsky. I read the transliteration of the Hebrew on the little cards they handed out so I don’t know if my words counted, but as I read yis-gad-dal v’yis-kaddash sh’meh rab-bo, as I struggled through the faintly familiar pronunciation, I thought of my grandfathers, whom I had helped bury, and my grandmothers, whom I had helped bury, and my father, who was coughing out the blood in his lungs as he got ever closer to that hole in the ground, and I hoped with a strange fervor that my words were doing some good after all.

The rabbi tossed a shovelful of dirt onto the wide wooden lid of the coffin, some pebbles bouncing, and then the son, and then the rest of us, one by one, tossing shovelfuls of dirt, one by one, and afterward we walked slowly, one by one, back to the road where our cars waited for us.

“It’s a sad day, Victor.” A thick, nasal voice coming from right next to me. “Jimmy, he was a hell of a guy. Hell of a guy.”

“Hello, Lenny,” I said. “Yes, Jimmy was something.”

The nasal voice belonged to Lenny Abromowitz, a tall barrel-chested man of about sixty, with plaid pants and the nose of a boxer who led with his face. He had been a prize-fighter in his past, and a professional bruiser, so I’m told, who did whatever was required with that brawn of his, but now he was only a driver. He wore a lime-green jacket and white patent leather shoes and, in deference to the somber occasion, his porkpie hat was black. And as he walked beside me he draped one of his thick arms over my shoulder.

“Haven’t seen much of yas, Victor. You don’t come to the restaurant no more?”

“I’ve been really busy.”

“Ever since the Daily News put those pictures on the front page, people they don’t come around so much as before.”

“Oh, were there pictures?” Of course there were pictures. The Daily News had rented a room across the street from Tosca’s and stationed a photographer there to capture exactly who was going in and going out of the notorious mob hangout, plastering the pictures on a series of front pages. Politicians and movie stars and sports heroes and famous disc jockeys were captured in crisp blacks and whites paying court to the boss. Each morning everyone in the city wondered who would be the next cover boy and each evening the television news broadcasts started with pointed denials of any wrongdoing by that day’s featured face. The only ones who weren’t impressed were the feds, who had rented the room next to the Daily News’s room and were busy taking pictures of their own. As would be expected, since the front-page series, Tosca’s business had been cut precipitously.

“Yeah, sure there was pictures. Front page. Surprised you missed it.”

“I read the Inquirer.”

“Hey, Victor, let me give you a ride back to the city.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “I’ll go back with the limo.”

“Take a ride with me, Victor.”

“No really, it’s taken care of.”

His hand slid across my shoulder onto my neck and squeezed, lightly sure, but still hard enough for me to know how hard he could squeeze if ever he wanted, and with his other hand he reached over and gave my head a few light knocks with his knuckle.

“Hello, anybody home? Are you listening? I think maybe you should come and take a ride with me, Victor. I’m parked over there.”

We crossed the road with the hearse and the limousine and the other cars and kept going, across a field of tombstones with Jewish stars and menorahs and torah scrolls carved into the stone, with names like Cantor and Shure and Goodrich and Kimmelman, until we reached another road, where, down a ways, was parked a long white Cadillac.

We approached the passenger side and Lenny opened the rear door for me. “Hop on in, Victor.”

I gave him a tight smile and then ducked into the car. It must have slipped my mind for a moment, what with all the wiseguys at the funeral and the sadness of the pebbles scudding across the top of the coffin and the words of the Kaddish still echoing, but Lenny was not just any driver, and his invitation of a ride was less an invitation than a summons. When I entered the cool darkness of the car’s interior my eyes took a second to dilate open and I smelled him before I saw him. The atmosphere of the car was rich with his scent: the spice of cologne, the creamy sweetness of Brylcreem, the acrid saltpeter tang of brutal power waiting to be exercised.

Slowly, the car drove off along the cemetery road.

20

“I THOUGHT IT BEST IF I PAID my respects from a distance,” said Enrico Raffaello, sitting next to me on the black bench seat in the rear of his Cadillac. He was a short, neat man in a black suit and flowered tie. His hair was gray and greased back, his face cratered like a demented moon. His voice was softly accented with a Sicilian rhythm and a genuine sadness that seemed to arise not from the surface mourning of a funeral but from a deep understanding of the merciless progression of life. Between his knees was a cane tipped with a silver cast of a leopard, and his thick hands rested easily atop the crouching cat. “Jimmy was a loyal friend and I didn’t want to ruin his day.”

“I think that was wise,” I said.

“Did you like the service?”

“It was touching. The son especially.”

“Yes, so I’ve heard. I arranged for it to happen like that.”

“Flying him in from L.A. was very generous.”

“That is not quite how I arranged it. You see, Jimmy was not a diligent family man. He hadn’t seen his son in years and the son refused to come after what Jimmy had done to his mother. Jimmy was wrong in how he handled his wife, granted, but that was no reason for a son to show such disrespect for his father.”

“So how did you get him here?”

“I didn’t. Such rifts can be wide and deep and I am not a psychologist. I hired an actor instead.”

“That was an actor?”

“I told him I wanted some emotion. This actor, he said that crying was extra. I could have wrung his fat neck, but I am a sentimentalist, so I paid.”

“I never knew you were such a soft touch.”

“I’m getting too old, I think. It is one thing when my colleagues die, that is the natural order of things. But when the new generation start dying from natural causes and I’m still around, there’s nothing but a weary sadness. Maybe they are right. Maybe it is time to loosen my grip on the trophy.”

He sighed, a great sad sigh, and turned away from me to look out the window. We were just heading out the gates of the cemetery, turning into traffic. Lenny was breathing through his mouth as he drove. Though it had become a warm sunny day outside, with the darkened windows and the cool of the air conditioning it felt like fall.

“Have you found out anything from Pietro?” he asked still looking away.

“I wish you would let someone else do this.”

“Tell me what you know,” he snapped.

“Cressi wasn’t working alone,” I said. “He had to check the details of the arrangement with someone else before agreeing to the purchase of the guns. I’ve made some inquiries to area Mercedes dealers, no one reported stolen cars. I also talked with the ATF about the group to whom Peter says he was going to sell the guns. White supremacists, skinheads. Those brothers who butchered their parents up in Allentown were members. ATF has been watching them for years and says they do buy guns, but not in quantity. They’re too strapped for cash to even mail their newsletters out. I don’t believe he was going to resell them.”

“Then what were they for?”

“I don’t know yet.”

He sighed again and lifted a hand so he could examine his fingernails. “I believe I can trust you, Victor, and that is good. You are my scout. Like in the old cavalry movies, every general needs a scout to find the savages.”

“I hope I’m not the only one.”

“I’m being betrayed from within. I’m ready to step down, to retire to New Jersey and paint flowers, like Churchill, but I won’t be pushed out by a Judas.”

“Who do you think it is?”

Raffaello shrugged, his shoulder rising and falling as gently as a breath.

“Dante wanted me to report directly to him,” I said. “That is not our arrangement.”

“He is overeager perhaps, but a good man.”

“How did he rise so fast?”

“He is the eye in back of my head.”

“Maybe he needs glasses.”

“Do you have any reason to doubt him?”

“No, but I don’t trust him. What happened to Calvi? I thought I could trust Calvi.”

“We had a disagreement.”

“Over what?”

“What do you think this is about, Victor, the cars, the secrets, the deals, the threats? It’s all about money, rivers of money. We drive around in our Cadillacs and people give us money. When they don’t, we get a little rough and then they do. I keep the peace because that way we make more money. I distribute what we get fairly so everyone will stay in line and we’ll make even more money. It’s fun, sure, and we eat well, but we’re not in it for the pasta or the fun, we’re in it for the money. Now the animals who are against us, they want more than their share and to get it they’ll do whatever they need to, commit whatever crime they have to. It would be no different if we were selling cars, or canned goods, or cannoli, we’d still have the same fight. Just the tactics would be different and there would be more survivors. They want me gone so they can control the city and decide who gets what and once they control the city they’re going to milk it dry. And then it will grow too ugly to even imagine.”

We were on the Schuylkill Expressway again, going east, toward the city. We were in the center lane and all about us cars were surging and changing lanes and halting abruptly as another car got too close. Lenny was driving remarkably steady, never rising above fifty-five, acting as if we were being followed by a cop car at all times, which we very well might have been. A red convertible pulled even with us to the right, the driver’s blond hair flying behind her like a dashing scarf, before she rammed her way ahead.

“What about Calvi?” I asked.

“Calvi became unreliable. He hated everybody, trusted no one, and everyone hated him back. He had risen beyond his abilities and he knew it, but he wouldn’t step down. And then we discovered he was taking more than his share, so I was forced to step him down.”

“How did you find out?”

“Like I said, I have an eye in the back of my head.”

“Have you ever wondered why if you got rid of Calvi you still have trouble? Have you thought maybe that Calvi wasn’t the problem? That maybe it’s that damn eye in the back of your head that is the problem?”

“Be my scout, Victor. Find out who is behind Pietro and I’ll call in the cavalry to take care of the betrayer.”

“And then I’m out. Completely. No one so much as even walks in my door or calls my number.”

An old white van, its side rusted out with holes, slid up on the left of us, passing the Cadillac, before slowing down again. The van fell back behind us as a station wagon slowed in the left lane before cutting sharply in front of our car and then in front of a bus before exiting.

“That’s the deal, yes,” said Raffaello. “But before that can happen you must find out what I need to know. I try to govern with reason, Victor. I’m a peaceable man at heart. But I know for certain when reason battles strength it is strength that will win. You tell me who the traitor is and I will show you strength. Tell me who the traitor is and I will cut out his tongue and mail it to his wife.”

Outside, on our left, the white van again pulled up to our side and this time from one of the rusted holes stuck a black metal tube. There was a puff of smoke and a fierce whine and the window next to Enrico Raffaello’s face suddenly sprouted crystal blooms of glass.

21

THE CRY OF METAL being torn apart. A shriek of brakes. A shout. The white van shooting ahead of us and then coming back as if on a string. A twist of the wheel. A force slamming me into the door and then down off the seat. The scream of twisting steel. A shout. A shattering of glass. A splash of cool crystals on my neck. A shout. A hand in my face and a voice telling me to shut up. An explosion beneath us and a wild series of bumps. A jerk forward. The shriek of breaks. The grind of the engine and a force pushing me further into the floor. A shout. A shout.

“Shut up already, Victor,” said Raffaello. “Just please shut up.”

“What? What?”

“Just shut up and calm down. We’re getting off the highway.”

A loud acceleration. A flash of a green hillside and then a jerk upward and to the right.

“Superb, Lenny. Absolutely superb. Did you see anything?”

“The window was blacked,” said Lenny with an utter calm. “Couldn’t see a thing, Mr. Raffaello.”

“That’s fine. We’ll find out soon enough. You were superb.”

“I slammed the hell out of them,” said Lenny, “but I couldn’t see who they was.”

“What? What happened?”

“What do you think happened?” said Raffaello. “The bastards they tried to whack me. You can sit up if you want. They’ve gone past.”

I sat up cautiously. The rear windows were all cracked and pitted with holes. Through the cracks I could see we were speeding off the highway, not bothering to stop at the stop sign before swerving violently to the left and onto a city street. The ride was terribly rough, even for a Philadelphia street, so I figured a tire must have blown. Lenny was searching the rearview mirror as he sped along. The car door on Raffaello’s side was fluffed with spurts of coffee-colored foam.

“We need to let Victor off now, Lenny.”

“Yes sir, Mr. Raffaello. I’ll slow us down under the bridge.”

“I don’t want to get out.”

“It has started, Victor. It doesn’t do either of us any good for you to be with me right now, you understand? When Lenny slows you will jump out of the car.”

“But no. No. I can’t.”

The Cadillac eased slower just a bit and edged to the side as it slipped under a cement bridge.

Raffaello leaned over to open my door. As he leaned I saw him wince. The left side of his suit was wet with blood.

“You’ve been hit. You’re bleeding.”

“Get ready to fall,” he said as he clicked down the lever.

“I can’t do this. They’re probably following us. They’ll run right over me.”

“Then be sure to roll,” he said as the door yawned and I saw a primitive mural of cars in traffic pass and beneath that the rush of black asphalt.

“Wait!”

“We’ll be in touch,” said Enrico Raffaello before he shoved me out of the car.

A sledgehammer bashed into my shoulder, a pile of rocks fell all at once along my side, claws scraped at my face as my head was pummeled. A line of pain edged into my back and then I was up, over the curb, lying splayed on a narrow cement walkway just beyond the cover of the cement bridge. I picked my head up as a set of tires sped inches from my left hand, which lay in the street, pale and still like a dead fish.

I pulled it back and scooted to my knees and tried to figure out where I was. It all looked vaguely familiar. The stone tunnel to my left, the traffic lights, the banners on the poles. A ludicrous bouquet of balloons. Wait a second, balloons and banners? Over there, by that parking lot, gingerbread kiosks and barred entranceways and a great green statue of a lion pride at rest. Suddenly I knew. Lenny had pulled off the expressway at the Girard Street exit and left me just outside the front entrance to the Philadelphia Zoo.

When I figured out where I was I also realized that the murderous white van must also have known the Cadillac’s escape route. It would give chase, along with any other vehicles that were tagging along to finish the job. No doubt they’d come right up this road, looking for whatever they could to kill off and what they’d find, if I stayed there, on my knees, like a scared penitent, would be me.

I stood and did a quick inspection. My jacket was ripped at the shoulder and blood was leaking through the white of my shirt. I wiped thin lines of blood from the scratches on the left side of my face. The right knee of my pants was slashed and through the opening I could see jagged gashes from which bright red oozed. Move, I told myself. Where? Anywhere, you fool, just move.

I cantered past the balloon guy and across a narrow road that encircled the zoo and then, with a stiff side step, I passed the lion statue and headed for the open gate between the kiosks.

“That will be eight-fifty,” said the young woman in the ticket window after she eyed my tattered jacket and the blood that had seeped through the shoulder of my shirt. She had a wide mole on her cheek that creased when she smiled. “But if you want to buy a membership now, you can apply today’s admission charge to the forty-dollar total.”

“I don’t think so.”

“It’s a tremendous deal. You get free parking anytime you come and free admission all year long. If you just want to fill out this form.”

“Really, no thank you,” I said, handing her a twenty. As she counted out my change I looked behind me. Nothing suspicious, nothing at all, until I spotted the nose of a long black Lincoln sniff its way slowly down the same road Lenny had taken the Cadillac. I rushed through the gate and into the zoological gardens before the woman could give me back my change.

I galloped across the wide stone plaza with the fountain in the grand iron gazebo, past the statue of the elephants, into the rare animal house, a long semicircular corridor flanked by cages. Fruit bats, to my right, scurried across their caged ceiling like a puppy motorcycle gang in black leather. Naked mole rats, pale pink and toothsome, huddled together in a warren of tunnels to my left. I glanced quickly behind me as I walked through the interior. Owl-faced guenons, marmosets, colobus monkeys with fancy black-and-white furs. It was mostly empty of viewers, the rare animal house at that time of the day, a few kids in strollers with their mothers. I stopped for a second to listen. The screech of a monkey, the rustle of the bats. The place smelled of dung and the musk of simian sweat. Two tobacco-colored tree kangaroos humped on a branch high in their cage. I was about to start moving again when I heard a door swing open and the tap of running feet.

I couldn’t see who was coming because of the curve of the wide corridor, but I knew enough not to want them to see me. There was an exit to the left marked EMPLOYEES ONLY and I darted to it, but the handle wouldn’t turn, as if the door knew exactly who I wasn’t. I looked back down the corridor, still saw nothing, and started running, past the mongoose lemurs from Madagascar, running to the far door, the sound of the footsteps gaining. Just as I hit the first of the double doors a herd of schoolchildren stampeded in, followed by their teachers. They pushed me back, drowning out the sound of the following steps with their excited baying. I found myself unable to wade through the waist-high gaggle and as the kids streamed by, I stopped and turned to face whatever fate it was that was chasing me.

The woman from the ticket window.

“Sir,” she said, her mole creasing with a smile, holding up two bills in her fist. “You forgot your change.”

I forced myself to take a deep breath. Even as I trembled, I stretched my lips into a smile. “Thank you,” I said softly, “that was very kind.”

“Here you go.”

In her outstretched hand was a ten, a one, and two quarters. I took the one and the quarters and said, “Thank you, you can keep the rest.”

“I can’t do that sir. Really, I can’t.”

“Think of it as a tip,” I said, “for restoring my faith in human nature.”

She blushed and her mole creased considerably and she tried to protest but I raised a hand.

“Thanks a lot,” she said. “Really, that’s great,” and finally she spun around to leave. Then I, with my faith in human nature restored, stepped slowly from the building, searching about me all the while for the men who were trying to kill me.

There was nothing suspicious on the wide brick walkways. Huge Galápagos turtles, safe in their shells, stared passively as I hurried by. Emus strutted and hippos wallowed and a black-and-white tapir lumbered about, looking suspiciously like a girl I used to date. At the rhino pen I leaned on the fence and watched a mother rhino and her calf. I was jealous of their great slabs of body armor. A girl in a purple dress stood on the tips of her Mary Janes and slipped her golden elephant key into the story box. A voice poured out.

Throughout Africa and Asia the rhinoceros is being hunted almost to extinction. For centuries certain cultures have believed the rhinoceros horn, blood, and urine possess magical and medicinal power.

While leaning on the bars and listening to the lecture, I slyly looked back along the path. As I did I spotted a figure at the top of a rise and my breath stopped. A beefy man in a maroon suit, looking around with a fierce concentration.

Scientists estimate there are only fourteen hundred greater one-horned Asian rhinos remaining in India and Nepal .

I didn’t know him, and I wouldn’t have recognized him except for the suit. Maroon suits are rare enough, but that shade was simply radiant in its repulsiveness, and not easily forgotten. I had seen it just that morning, at Jimmy Vig’s funeral. Its owner was one of the downtown boys for sure and not, I was sure, here to commune with nature. I froze and let my breath return in tiny spurts.

To help preserve this endangered species the Philadelphia Zoo cooperates with other zoos in a program called a species survival plan.

I waited, watching the man in maroon from the corner of my eye, and when he turned around to wave at something behind him I ran for the nearest building and rushed inside the doors.

I was in a wide, modern corridor, with huge plate glass windows fronting scenes of natural glory. Massive tortoises stared; a gray anaconda slept. A monitor, half submerged in a jungle pool, observed me with carnivorous eyes. At the end of the wide hallway were two huge windows with the superstars of the Reptile House, the alligator, squat and fierce, and the crocodile, pale and patient and hungry. Where the corridor made a sharp turn to the left I stepped away from the great predators so that while I was hidden, a view of the doors I had come in was reflected for me in the alligator’s window. Just be calm, I tried to tell myself, wait patiently and let him pass the building by as he searches the rest of the zoo. Better waiting and hiding then darting around the zoo’s maze of walkways like a zebra on the loose. Slow and patient, like my friend the crocodile, I told myself, while the bruiser lumbered past and disappeared. I evened out my breathing and the lump in my throat had almost dissolved when off the windowed front of the alligator’s cage I saw the door open and a flash of maroon.

I backed away until I hit a large wooden cube in the middle of the corridor. I slipped around it into the desert alcove. The windows here were smaller, like terrariums studded into the wall. Rattlesnakes, coachwhips, skinks, lots of skinks. I passed the Gila monster and then, using the wooden cube as a shield, I made my way into the older section of the building, toward a second set of doors. The atmosphere turned slippery and green. I backed my way to the far exit, past ropy snakes and tiny poisonous dart frogs and a North American bullfrog, staring at me with passive eyes that seemed to discount my fear. Your legs look mighty tasty, you bastard, I thought as the bullfrog sat comfortably on a synthetic log and watched me sweat. With the wooden cube still acting as a screen, I turned and made fast for the far doors, trotting then running then sprinting, sprinting too fast to stop when the doors opened and a figure, blackened by the light streaming in from behind, stepped through.

I ran right into it, bounced off as if hitting a wall, sprawled backwards onto the floor. The figure took one step toward me. When I recognized Peter Cressi looking down at me I quailed.

“Yo, Vic,” he said. “How’s it hanging?”

Behind me I heard steps.

“Geez, what happened wit’ you?” said Cressi as he eyed my tattered condition. “You crawl into one of the cages? Did some gorilla take a shine to you?”

I staggered up and immediately felt a hand fall onto my shoulder. I spun around. The beefy boy in maroon was grinning at me. He was missing a tooth. “Dante said we’d find someone here and he was right.”

I spun around again and stared at Cressi.

“Quite a thing what happened with that van,” said Cressi. “Quite a thing. To think such a thing like that could happen in this day and age.”

I tilted my head in thought while still staring at Cressi. “How’d you find out about the attack, Peter?”

“Dante, he told us and sent us on over.”

“And how’d he find out about it?” I asked.

“How do you think?”

“You tell me, Peter, dammit.”

My anger and fear all balled together and went directly to the muscles in my arms and in a tremendous shot of energy I slammed my hands into his chest, pushing him back against the doors.

“How’d he know, Peter?” I said. “Tell me that, you bastard.”

Again I pushed him back, this time so hard he hit his head on the glass.

“How’d he know unless he set it up? And you set it up with him. You bastard. Why the hell are you trying to kill me?”

I meant to slam him again but before I could two arms slithered fast as cobras around my shoulders and behind my neck and suddenly I was lifted off the ground.

“You bastard!” I shouted.

“Whoa, Vic,” said Cressi, giving me a strange look. “You’re going ballistic on us. Quiet yourself down or Andy Bandy here is going to have to quiet you for me. We don’t want no scenes in such a public place.”

Still struggling while held aloft, I said, “How’d you find out?”

Cressi gave me a look and then reached into his jacket and I stopped kicking as I waited for what I knew was coming. But what he pulled out of his jacket was a cellular phone.

“Lenny called Dante from the cell phone in the car once they dumped you. Dante sent me over to check out you was okay. We was only trying to take care of you is all.”

With that, Andy Bandy loosed the iron snakes around my shoulders and neck. Once again I dropped in a sprawl onto the ground.

“Pull yourself together, Vic,” said Cressi. “I’m not used to seeing you squirm like a slug such as you’re doing here. It’s enough to get me thinking, you know. It’s not a good thing to get me thinking, pal. It ruins my whole day.”

He reached into his pants pocket and jiggled what was in there for a moment before pulling out a small peppermint swirl wrapped in cellophane. He lifted his hand and with a quick squeeze he squirted the candy into his mouth before tossing the wrapper to the side.

“I can understand you being all shook up and all, but I hate to see you down there afraid of me.” The peppermint candy clicked in his teeth as he spoke. “What do you think I am, an idiot? You’re my lawyer. What kind of idiot would hurt his own lawyer?”

He leaned over me, but I found myself unable to look him in the face. Instead I was staring at something else, something I couldn’t yet understand the significance of, cringing and sniveling on the floor as I was, numb with fear of the two men standing over me. I couldn’t yet understand the significance but still I couldn’t stop staring, as if somewhere within me I knew the truth, that what I was staring at from the floor of the Philadelphia Zoo’s reptile house was the first loose thread in the eventual unraveling of the darkest secrets of the Reddman demise.

22

CRESSI AND ANDY BANDY drove me home and waited for me to enter the vestibule before they drove away, waited as if I were a schoolboy dropped off in the middle of the dark. “You want I should stay around some and keep an eye out for you, Vic?” had asked Peter from the front seat of the Lincoln. “No,” I had answered. The problem with Peter guarding my back was that I would have had to turn it to him and I didn’t trust him far enough for that. So I went into my apartment alone and stripped off my ragged suit and took a shower and put on a new white shirt and a relatively fresh suit and tightened my tie and looked at myself in the mirror. Then I loosened the tie and took off the suit and took off the shirt and the shoes and the socks and went to bed. It was now early afternoon and there was much work to be done at the office but still I went to bed.

I get this way, I guess, after I stare death in the face and she laughs at me. The fierce whine that had slid by my head in that car was death’s chortle, there was no doubt about that, and I had all but accepted her embrace when Andy Bandy held me aloft and Cressi reached into his jacket for what I was certain was a gun. But then death had slipped away for the moment, satiated, so it would seem, by the acrid scent of fear secreted by my endocrine system, satisfied with having reminded me once again of exactly what I truly was. I know people who look at the stars and say the night sky makes them feel insignificant, but I don’t believe them when they say it. When I look at the stars I don’t shrink but grow, filled with the perverse certainty that the whole of the universe has been put here solely for my amusement and enlightenment. But face to face with the grinning mask of death I know the truth. I am a randomly formed strand of DNA no more significant than random strands of DNA that define the leaf of grass upon which I tread or the cow whose charred muscle I gnaw. I eat Chinese food and crap corn and sweat through my socks and stink and the same DNA that gave me this nose and this chin and my ten fingers and ten toes has also sentenced me to oblivion. It directs my arteries to clog themselves with calcified fat, it directs my liver to wither, my kidneys to weaken, my lungs to spew bits of itself with every cough. And in the face of this utter randomness and planned obsolescence I can’t even imagine mustering enough energy to get out of bed and to walk the streets, to dry clean my suits, to return my library books, to vote for judges whose names I can’t pronounce, to act my part as if any of it really matters.

So for the whole of that afternoon I lay with my head beneath the covers, shivering, though I wasn’t cold, smelling the dried sweat of the fifty nights it had been since I last had laundered my sheets, trying and failing to come up with a reason to get out of bed. As if the smell of fifty nights of my dried sweat was not reason enough. Trying and failing until the phone rang.

Should I answer it? Why? Who could it possibly be that would matter at all? The answer was that it could be no one. I let it ring almost long enough for my machine to answer it, but maybe four hours of smelling old sweat was enough, because I peeked my head out of the covers, picked up the phone, and, with a little high-pitched squeak of a voice, said into the receiver, “Yes?”

“Did you hear what happened on the Schuylkill Expressway today?” said Beth in a gush. “A van with a hole bored into its side slid up to Raffaello’s Cadillac and shot it all to hell. It’s all over the news. Somehow the Cadillac got away. Raffaello is recuperating in some unnamed hospital, they won’t say, but can you imagine? Everyone’s talking about it. On the Schuylkill Expressway. Everyone wants to know who was driving the Cadillac. Apparently it got away even with one of its tires blown to pieces. The driver’s an absolute hero. I want him driving for me. Amazing. I think, Victor, it’s time to find ourselves another class of clientele, don’t you? Where have you been anyway?”

“I’m feeling a little under the cosmic weather, so to speak,” I said. Beth didn’t need to know I was part of it all. No one needed to know, no one ever needed to know, which was exactly why Raffaello had pushed me from the careening Cadillac.

“Are you all right?” said Beth. “Is there anything I can do?”

“No. Did they say on the news who did the shooting?”

“They have no idea. Just that there is apparently an internal dispute of some sort. The authorities are all mystified. You sound terrible. Do you need some soup or anything? Have you eaten?”

I had to think about that for a moment. It had been a day and a half, really. I had a quick lunch yesterday afternoon, but then there had been the repulsive offerings at Veritas and I hadn’t had time for an edible breakfast before Jimmy Dubinsky’s funeral. I wondered if my deep existential soul searching was less a result of my brush with the grinning mask of death than mere sugar depletion. Maybe there did exist a surefire solution to all our deep metaphysical dilemmas-a Snickers bar. “No,” I said. “Not for a while.”

“Let’s do dinner.”

“You sound obscenely cheery.”

“I’ve been going to that place in Mount Airy you wanted me to look into. The Church of the New Life. We should talk about it.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Interesting as hell,” she said.

We met at a restaurant on a deserted corner in Olde City. Beth had suggested a retro diner off Rittenhouse Square but all I could think of was its wide plate glass windows. I didn’t want to be behind wide plate glass windows just then, so I suggested this place well off the beaten track, and on the other side of the city from my apartment, and she had agreed. Café Fermi was a pretentious little restaurant with a pickup bar and bad art and an ingenious menu one step above the chef’s ability to deliver. I took a cab to the funeral parlor and picked up my car and still got there ahead of her. I ordered a Sea Breeze and drank it quickly to give myself a brave front. I went through a basket of bread while waiting. Beth arrived with a strangely serene smile on her face. A guy on his way out bumped her slightly and she just turned that smile on him.

She sat down and looked at me closely and put a hand on my cheek. “What happened to your face?”

“I cut myself shaving.”

She squinted. “That must have been some blade. How was James’s funeral?”

“Touching.”

“They said Raffaello was coming back from the cemetery when they shot up his car.”

“Oh yeah? I didn’t see him there. You hungry? Let’s order something. How does the veal look?”

She rubbed her thumb along the cuts on my cheek. “They didn’t say exactly who was in the car with him.”

I just shrugged and was surprised to feel tears well behind my eyes. I was about to lose it, but I didn’t. I held it in and looked away. I blinked twice and twice more. I raised my hand for the waitress and by the time she came it was all back inside where it belonged and I was once again as dry-eyed as a corpse.

Our waitress was a tall leggy woman, wearing all black, with heavy earrings and some demented metal objet d’art on her blouse to make it clear how au courant she was and we weren’t. “Yeah?” she said, and I didn’t like the way she said it, like we were disturbing her evening.

“We’re ready to order.”

“Sure,” she said, “I’ll be right back,” and then she shuffled off to serve someone more important.

“Is it just me,” I said, “or was she rude?”

“She has a tough job,” said Beth, which was very unlike her. Beth had the marvelous ability to take umbrage at even the mildest slights in our slighting culture. It derived directly, I think, from her natural optimism. She was a generous tipper, generally, but when a waiter was rude or a bartender nasty it was fun to sit back and watch the sparks fly. She was not the type to say, “She has a tough job,” not the type at all.

“What are you,” I asked, “in love?”

“No,” she laughed.

“All right. Tell me about the kooks in Mount Airy.”

“They’re not kooks,” she said quickly and quietly.

“Aaah,” I said slowly. “I begin to see.”

“Begin to see what?”

“Tell me about Mount Airy.”

Her head tilted as she stared at me and I could see something working its way in her eyes and I flinched from the expected tongue lashing but then that strange smile arose and all was once again serene.

“Well they’re not a cult, or anything like that,” she said, fiddling with her silverware. “They’re just a lot of nice people trying to find some answers. They believe that the voices of the spirit and of the soul are always there to tell us the secret truths of our existence, but we need to learn how to hear them. We need to somehow cut through the murk of our omnipresent reality and learn to listen and see in a spiritual way. The purpose of the Haven is to teach us how.”

“Okay,” said the waitress with a roll of her eyes. She had slinked upon us as silently as a predatory cat. “You said you were ready.”

“We’ve been ready,” I said. “I’ll have the Caesar salad and the veal in the apple cream sauce. Is the veal any good?”

“I haven’t gotten any complaints,” said the waitress.

“A ringing endorsement. And another Sea Breeze.”

“I’ll just have the bean chili,” said Beth.

“They have that Texas ribeye I thought you’d like,” I suggested.

Beth made a face, an I-don’t-eat-red-meat kind of face. I had seen that face on many women before but never before on Beth.

“Aaah,” I said slowly once again. “I do see.”

“You see what?”

“Go on about your new friends.”

“What they’re trying to gain is a way to see into the spirit world, what they call initiation into the temple of higher cognition, where they drink from the twin potions of oblivion and memory.”

“The twin potions of oblivion and memory,” I said, nodding. “And this is not a cult.”

“Not really. They teach a series of practical exercises that will help you climb up the twelve-step path to initiation. You can do it with them or on your own, with proper knowledge. There’s some chanting and incense, sure, but no magic. And no Kool-Aid. Just a natural way to a higher wisdom. Twelve steps with explicit instructions for each step. There’s actually nothing so unique about it. They’ve been doing it for centuries in the East. This is just a way for the Western mind to train itself.”

“And I assume you’re in training.”

“As part of my cover, of course.” She fiddled with a packet of Sweet’n Low. “But I will admit it seems to speak to a certain void I have been feeling. Maybe even what we talked about before, the something I had been missing.”

“Wouldn’t a few dates be more practical?”

“Shut up, Victor, you’re being an asshole.”

I was, actually. I didn’t know if it was the vodka talking or an outgrowth of my false brave front or the feeling I had that the last bastion had fallen, but I didn’t like to hear about Beth’s voids or her search for spiritual meaning. I could always count on Beth to stay rooted in the real world. Her idealism had nothing to do with any mystical esoterica, just the realization that we had a job to do and let’s get to it. And if her job was helping the disadvantaged it was no big thing. I never thought I’d see her groping for meaning in the spirit world. That was for mixed-up losers who couldn’t make it on their own and wanted an excuse. That was for hipsters too cool to accept the Western way in which their minds moved. That was for phony shamans in orange robes, not for Beth.

When my drink came, plopped in front of me without ceremony, I took a deep gulp and felt the bitter sweetness of the juice and the cut of the vodka. “All right,” I said. “I’m sorry,” and I was. Beth was the last person who took me seriously, I think, and for me not to take her seriously was a crime. “Tell me about the twelve steps.”

“I don’t know them all yet, but I’m trying to learn. The first step is just wanting to find meaning. It’s walking in the door. The second is understanding that the answers are all around us, both internal and external, but in the spiritual, not physical world. To access that world we are required to develop new ways of seeing, to develop our spiritual eyes.”

“The creep who came into our office and threatened me said I was a two.”

“Gaylord. He’s one of the teachers. A sweet man, really.”

“Sweet enough to remember cutting my head off with a broadsword.”

She raised her eyebrows. “You must have deserved it in your past life,” she said, “and as far as I can tell not much has changed.” It was good to see her laugh.

“Well, at least I’ve been consistent through the ages.”

“That’s nothing to be so proud of. Your level refers to the steps you have mastered on your way up the ladder. Practically anyone who enters the Haven has satisfied the first two steps or they wouldn’t be there, so it’s no great honor to be a two. It is on the third step that the exercises begin. You have to prepare your mind for the journey and you do that by learning devotion. You take the critical out of your thinking, you clear your mind of the negative, you fight to see the good in everyone and everything you come in contact with.”

“That rules me out. My one true talent is seeing the negative in everyone and everything.”

“You should try it, Victor. It’s rather refreshing. One result of being completely uncritical, I’ve found, is that I stop surrendering myself to the outside world, stop chasing one sense impression after another. Instead I try to take each sense impression as a unique gift and orient myself by my response to its singular beauty. I don’t rush to see a hundred flowers, hoping to find the prettiest, but examine one completely, uncritically, and feel my inner self responding to it. It is that response which is most enlightening. Respecting our own responses to sense impressions is the first step to developing an inner life.”

“I can’t manage my outer life, what am I going to do with an inner life?”

“Why so defensive, Victor?” she said with a condescending smile. “No one’s saying you shouldn’t keep eating animal flesh and watching Matlock reruns and chasing all the money you want to chase. You should do as you like and be happy. I, on the other hand, am practicing devotion.”

“And that’s why you’re so sweet to our rude waitress.”

“I can’t let my inner life be disoriented by minor annoyances in the physical realm. Only benevolence will lead to spiritual seeing.”

“I’d rather chase the money.”

“And do you think being rich will make you a complete and satisfied person?”

“Maybe not, but at least I’d be able to dress better.”

“You’re no different than the rest of us, Victor. We all see ourselves as this dissatisfied thing, this ego, looking outside ourselves for just that one other thing that will make us complete. That job, that lover, that pot of money. Even enlightenment, as if that too is a thing we can grab hold of to complete what needs completing. There is always something, we believe, that will make us whole. But if you take a finite thing, like body and mind, and look for something outside it to make it complete, something like money or love or faith, what you are seeking is also just a finite thing. So you have a finite thing reaching for the infinite by grabbing for some other finite thing and you end up with nothing more than a deeper sense of dissatisfaction.”

“So what’s the answer?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t trained myself to see it yet, but it’s out there, it has to be. I think it starts with changing our conception of ourselves.”

It all made more than a little sense and I had to admit that some of what Beth was saying resonated with what I had been feeling that very afternoon while hiding beneath my sheets. I thought for a moment about pursuing it further with her, to see if maybe there might be some answers there for me, thought about it and discarded it. Maybe I was succumbing to the same impulse that made it so hard for me to ask directions when I was temporarily misplaced on the road, or to ask for help from my father, but I figured I’d rather suffer in existential limbo than give myself over to a bunch of chant-heads, as Caroline had so finely described them.

“In the course of your spiritual search, Beth,” I said, “did you happen to find out why, maybe, your sweet teacher Gaylord and his muscle threatened me?”

“The group is building a spiritual center in the suburbs,” she said softly. “In Gladwyne.”

“Funny, isn’t it, how even in the spiritual realm it all comes down to real estate. Henry George would be much gratified.”

“They collect dues and hold fund-raising events, but there is also talk about a benevolent soul who left a great deal of money to Oleanna.”

“Jacqueline Shaw, and the five-million-dollar death benefit on her life insurance policy.”

“I think we can assume that. It appears when that money from the policy arrives it will finance the new building. Until then the group seems nervous to discuss it.”

“What’s the story on this Oleanna?”

“A very powerful woman, apparently. I haven’t had the honor of meeting her yet, but she is the only true seer in the group.”

“A twelve, I suppose.”

“She’s beyond twelve, so they say, which means her powers are beyond the noninitiate’s capacities to understand.”

“So this Oleanna exercised her powers to kill Jacqueline in order to finance her spiritual palace in Gladwyne.”

“It’s possible, of course, and it’s what I figured you’d figure,” she said. “But it doesn’t really jibe. These people truly seem to be after something nonphysical. They seriously believe in karma being passed along through recurrent lives. I can’t imagine them killing for money.”

“That’s the difference between us,” I said. “You can’t imagine them killing for money and I have a hard time imagining anyone not being able to kill for money, so long as there’s enough of it at stake.”

“Your cynicism will be a definite handicap as you climb the ladder of spiritual seeking.”

“Well at least it has some use. So you’re rising?”

“Step by step. I’m now a three.”

“A three already? Once again you outpace me. What’s the next rung?”

“Level four,” she said. “Finding an inner peace through meditation.”

23

THE SHRIEK OF SKIDDING TIRES sliced through the dark stillness of my room and I jerked to a sitting position, a cold sweat beading on my neck. It was the middle of the night but I wasn’t sleeping. Maybe it was being in a Cadillac riddled with bullets just that afternoon, maybe it was the vision of Beth climbing her mystical ladder step by step and leaving me behind, maybe it was the coffee I had taken with my dessert. “Decaf is for wimps,” I had said, and not being a wimp I had taken a second cup, but whatever it was I was lying awake, under the covers, shivering, letting a raw fear slide cold through my body, when the sound of the skidding car skived the night quiet.

I leaped out of bed and searched Spruce Street from my window.

Nothing.

I spun around and paced and bit and threw myself on the couch, remote control in hand. I spent twenty minutes watching an Asian man explain how I could become as lavishly rich as he by sending him money for a pack of cassettes that would teach me to purchase real estate cheap and put cash in my pocket at the settlement table. I knew how he was getting rich, by suckering desperate insomniacs like me into sending him money, but I severely doubted that I would profit too. Except there were testimonials, all of them convincing as hell, from people I imagined to be stupider than me, and I was seriously debating whether to pick up the phone and make the call that would change my life when I decided instead to masturbate. I tried that for a while but it wasn’t quite working, so I looked in the refrigerator for something to eat. There was nothing to eat but there was a beer, so I drank that, but it was old and not any good and left a bad taste in my mouth. I opened a Newsweek and then tossed it aside. I picked up an old Thomas Hardy paperback I had bought for a dime off the street and had been meaning to read, but who was I kidding? Thomas Hardy. I flicked on the television again and watched babes in tights hump the HealthRider and tried to masturbate again but again it didn’t work. I turned off the television and paced around some more. Then I decided I would follow Beth up her ladder and try to find some inner peace through meditation.

I had of course tried meditation in college, in an undergraduate sort of way, with an exotic redhead, a senior yet, braless, in tight jeans and a low-cut orange crepe peasant shirt. She had explained to me the whole transcendental thing while I had stared transfixed at her breasts. We were kneeling on the floor. We were probably high. David Bowie was probably playing in the background. I remember the soft warmth of her breath on my ear when she leaned close, one breast brushing my arm, and whispered to me my mantra. It was “Ooma” or “Looma” or something like that. When I crossed my legs and made O’s with my fingers and repeated “Ooma” or “Looma” over and over again, I tried, as she had instructed, to force all thoughts from my mind. I generally succeeded, except for thoughts of her breasts, which I thought about obsessively the whole of the time my eyes were closed. “Ooma, Ooma, Ooma,” or “Looma, Looma, Looma.” I imagined her breasts from beneath my closed eyes, all thick and ripe and mysteriously scented. I ran my tongue across my lips as if I could taste them. Sweet, like vanilla wafers in milk.

I don’t think I had quite the right attitude for proper meditation in college and it hadn’t worked for me: I neither fell into a meditative trance that night nor got closer to those marvelous breasts than my feverish imaginings. But I was not closed to the idea of meditation and could see no other nonpharmacological solution to my restlessness. So I sat on the floor in front of my couch and crossed my legs and checked the digital clock and closed my eyes and did as Beth had instructed me over dinner that evening. It was two twenty-three in the morning.

I concentrated on my breathing, in, out, in, out, and tried to keep my mind blank of any thoughts other than of my breathing, in, out, in, out. A vision of the white van slid into my consciousness and I slid it out again. I thought about the decrepit remains of Veritas and the venous piece of mutton I had been served and how disgusting all the food had been and I wondered how anybody could have eaten anything in that place and then I realized I was thinking about that when I should have been thinking about nothing and I pushed the thoughts away and went back to my breathing, in, out, in, out. The darkness beneath my lids looked very dark, out, in, out, in, and I remembered how Caroline had felt in bed, how her muscles had slackened and her eyes had glazed even as she was telling me to go on and how kissing her was like kissing a mealy, flavorless peach. I opened my eyes and looked at the clock. It was two twenty-five. I closed my eyes, in, out, in, out. A thought about a woman hanging from a tapestry rope started to form and shape itself until I banished it and kept concentrating on my breathing, in, out, in, out, and the darkness darkened and a calm flitted down over my brain. I opened my eyes and saw that the clock now read two forty-six. I closed my eyes again, in, out, in, out, in, out, and slowly I directed my consciousness to pull free from my body, stretching the connection between the two, stretching it, stretching it, until the spiritual tendon snapped back and my consciousness was loose, free to float about the room on its own power.

“The point of the early stages of meditation,” Beth had said, “is to view yourself with the dispassion of a stranger in order to gain perspective on your life. Only with the perspective you gain by placing yourself in a position to observe your life from afar can you dissolve the niggling concerns of the here and now that keep you from hearing the true voices of your spirit.” That was why I had directed my consciousness to escape from my corporeal self, so I could dispassionately see what I was up to. Of course it was all self-directed, and most certainly delusional, but with my eyes closed I imagined my consciousness moving about the room and examining the contents with its own vision.

The seedy orange couch. The framed Springsteen poster. The empty Rolling Rock bottle on the coffee table beside the television remote control. The little washer-dryer unit, the dryer door open and half filled with pinkish-hued tee shirts and socks and boxer shorts. Three-day-old takeout Chinese food cartons on the red Formica dining table. I tried to send my consciousness out of the room, to take a Peter-Pannish tour of the city, but I couldn’t lift it through the ceiling. It could gaze out the window at the desolately lit scene on Spruce Street, but it couldn’t go through the glass. I tried again and again to hurl my consciousness through the ceiling, trying to gain the faraway perspective Beth had told me I needed, but my consciousness simply would not go. And then, almost of its own volition, it turned around and looped low until it was face to face with my body.

Crow’s feet, deeper than I ever thought possible, gouged out from the corners of the eyes. The scabs on the cheek were like the scrapes of hungry fingernails. The brown hair short and spiky, the neck too long, the shoulders too narrow. A white tee shirt hung from the shoulders as loose as if from a hanger. Where was the chest? The boxers were striped and only a shade paler than the bony knees. I was trying to view my body with the tranquility of an observer, as Beth had advised, but it was hard to keep down the dismay. Didn’t that stack of bones ever exercise? I went back to the face and tried to find some thought or emotion playing out on its features, but it was as inanimate as wax. I couldn’t even tell if the body was breathing, it looked more like a corpse than corpses I had seen.

I wondered what would happen if I opened my eyes just then. Would I see my consciousness staring back at me or would I have a clearer vision of the body I was now inspecting? Or would my consciousness, caught outside my awakened body, simply flee, leaving the body there as still and as lifeless as a salami? I started to back up again, to gain more perspective. The body seemed to shrink in both size and significance. I flew back until I was hovering over the dining table, as far from the body as I could get in that room. The whole scene, the sad, nondescript apartment, the mess, the stiff waxy body with its pale legs crossed on the floor, the detritus of loneliness scattered all about, the whole scene was pathetic. And then I noticed something in the body’s right hand.

I flew around the room, just zipped around for the sheer pleasure of it, before drawing close to get a better look. The hand was open, as if presenting an offering. Lying on the palm was a cellophane candy wrapper, one end twisted, one end open, and printed on the wrapper’s side in red and green were the words: MAGNA EST VERITAS.

I opened my eyes.

The light in the room forced me to blink away the hurt as I stared down at my right hand. It was open, just as I had seen it with my eyes closed, but now it was empty. My ankles hurt, I realized, from sitting cross-legged for too long. The cool blue numbers of the digital clock now read three thirty-one. I pushed myself to standing and walked around a bit, let the stiffness of my legs dissipate. I thought of that wrapper I had imagined my consciousness seeing in my opened hand and I started shaking. When I had calmed myself enough to sit and dial I called up Caroline Shaw.

With a voice drowsy with the remnants of a deep and most likely disturbing sleep, she said, “Victor, what?”

“I need to see you.”

“What time is it? What? Victor? Okay. Okay. Wait.” I heard her grope for a cigarette, the click of a lighter, the steady soft breath of an inhale. “All right, yes. You can come on over, I guess. I’ve been thinking about you too. It was nice, wasn’t it?”

“No, not now,” I said. “Tonight. Let’s have dinner tonight.”

“I wanted to talk to you this morning but you just ran away. I saw you on the lawn with Nat but then you were gone.”

“I had to be somewhere.”

“But it was nice, wasn’t it? Tell me it was nice.”

“Sure, it was nice.”

Another inhale. “Your talent for romance is overwhelming.”

“We’ll have dinner tonight, all right?”

“I’ll make a reservation someplace wildly expensive.”

“That’s fine. But make it for three.”

She laughed a dreamy laugh. “Victor. I wouldn’t have imagined.”

“I want your Franklin Harrington to join us,” I said, and her laughter stopped.

“I don’t think so.”

“I need to talk to him.”

“I think that’s a terrible idea, Victor.”

“Listen to me, Caroline. I believe I know who killed your sister. Now I need your fiancé to help me figure out why.”

24

I SPENT MUCH OF THE NEXT MORNING inside my office, door closed, reading the news reports in the Inquirer and the Daily News about the shootout on the Schuylkill Expressway. The information was sketchy. The white van had been found deserted in Fairmount Park. Police were still searching for clues as to the identity of the hit men but there were still no suspects. Authorities had confirmed that Raffaello was inside the Cadillac when it was attacked and was now in a hospital in serious condition, but no one, for obvious reasons, would say where. The police would state only that Raffaello and the unidentified driver of the car were both cooperating. There were reports, though, of another occupant, a white male, tall, thin, in a blue suit, who may have fallen from the car near the zoo. My skin crawled as I read about the mysterious figure stumbling his way across the street. The sighting was made by a balloon vendor outside the zoo entrance but the police apparently were discounting the story. Still, it worried me, and I pored over the reports nervously looking for any other information.

After I had read the papers, twice, I began playing catch-up at the office, returning phone messages, responding to letters, filing motions to continue those matters that I didn’t have time to deal with just then, freeing up my afternoon and the many days to follow. I was, in effect, putting off the whole of my practice while I pursued my ill-starred quest for a chunk of the Reddman fortune. When I cleared my calendar for the next week, I took a deep breath, grabbed a file, stuffed it in my briefcase, and sneaked out of the office, heading for Rittenhouse Square. Before my dinner meeting with Caroline Shaw and Franklin Harrington I had some things I needed to check on.

Rittenhouse Square is a swell place to live, which is why so many swells live there. It is the elegant city park. There are trees and wide walkways and a sculpture fountain in the middle. Society ladies, plastic poop bags in hand, walk their poodles there; art students, clad all in black to declare their individuality, huddle; college dropouts looking like Maynard G. Krebs walk by spouting Kierkegaard and Mr. Ed in the same breath; hungry homeless men sit on benches with handfuls of crumbs, luring pigeons closer, ever closer. It is a small urban pasture, designed by William Penn himself, now imprisoned by a wall of stately high-rises jammed with high-priced condominiums: The Rittenhouse, the Dorchester, the Barclay. It was the Cambium I was headed for now, a less imposing building on the south side of the park, hand-wrought iron gates, carved granite facings, million-dollar duplexes two to a floor. A very fashionable place to die, as Jacqueline Shaw had discovered.

“Mr. Peckworth, please,” I said to the doorman, who gave me a not so subtle look that I didn’t like. I was dressed in a suit, reasonably well groomed, my shoes may have been scuffed, sure, but not enough to earn a look like that.

“Who then can I say is visiting this time?” he asked me.

“Victor Carl,” I said. “I don’t have an appointment but I expect he’ll see me.”

“Oh yes, I’m sure he will,” said the doorman.

“Do we have a problem here?”

“No problem at all.”

“I don’t think I said anything funny. Do you think what I said was funny or is it just the way I said it?”

“I did not mean in any way to…”

“Then maybe you should stop smirking and get on the phone and let Mr. Peckworth know I’m here.”

“Yes sir,” he said without a smile and without a look.

He called up and made sure the visit was all right. While he called I looked over the top of his desk. The stub of a cigar smoldered in an ashtray, a cloth-bound ledger lay open, the page half filled with signatures. When the doorman received approval for my visit over the phone he made me sign the ledger. A few signatures above mine was a man from UPS. “All UPS guys sign in?”

“All guests and visitors must sign in,” he said.

“I would have thought they’d just leave their packages here.”

“Not if the tenant is at home. If the tenant is at home we have them sign in and deliver it themselves.”

“That way stuff doesn’t get lost at the front desk, I suppose.”

The doorman’s face tightened but he didn’t respond.

While I waited beside the elevator, I noticed the door to the stairs, just to the left of the elevator doors. I turned back to the doorman. “Can you go floor to floor by these stairs?”

“No sir,” he said, eyeing me with a deep suspicion. “Once inside the stairwell you can only get out down here or on the roof.”

I nodded and thanked him and then waited at the elevator.

Peckworth was the fellow who had seen a UPS guy outside Jacqueline Shaw’s apartment when no UPS guy should have been there. He had later recanted, saying he had confused the dates, but it seemed strange to me that anyone would not remember the day his neighbor hanged herself. That day, I figured, should stick in the mind. On the elevator I told the operator I was headed for the eighth floor. It was an elegant, wooden elevator with a push-button panel that any idiot could work, but still the operator sat on his stool and pushed the buttons for me. That’s one of the advantages of being rich, I guess, having someone to push the buttons.

“Going up to visit them Hirsches, I suppose,” said the operator.

“Are the Hirsches new here?”

“Yes sir. Moved in but just a few months ago. Nicest folk you’d want to meet.”

“I thought there was a young woman living in that apartment.”

“Not no more, sir,” said the operator, and then he looked up at the ceiling. “She done moved out.”

“Where to, do you know?”

“Just out,” he said. “So you going up to visit them Hirsches?”

“No, actually.”

“Aaah,” he said, as if by not going to visit the Hirsches I had defined myself completely.

“Is there something happening here that I’m not aware of? Both you and the doorman are acting mightily peculiar.”

“Have you ever met Mr. Peckworth before, sir?” asked the operator.

“I don’t think so.”

“Well then that there explains it,” said the operator.

“I guess I’m in for a treat.”

“Depends on your tastes is all,” said the operator as the elevator door slid open onto a short hallway. “Step to your right.”

I nodded, heading out and to the right, past the emergency exit, to where there was one door, mahogany, with a gargoyle knocker. A round buzzer button, framed with ornate brass, glowed, but I liked the looks of that knocker, smiling grotesquely at me, and so I let it drop loudly. After a short wait the door opened a crack, revealing a thin stooped man, his face shiny and smooth but his orange shirt opened at the collar, showing off an absurdly wrinkled throat. “Yes?” said the man in a high scratchy voice.

“Mr. Peckworth?”

“No, no, no, my goodness, no,” said the man, eyeing me up and down. “Not in the least. You’re a surprise, I must say. We don’t get many suits up here. But that’s fine, there’s a look of desperation about you I like. My name is Burford and I will be handling today’s transaction. In these situations I often act as Mr. Peckworth’s banker.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Well come in, please,” said the man as he swung the door open and stepped aside, “and we’ll begin the bargaining process. I do so enjoy the bargaining process.”

I entered a center hallway lined with gold-flocked paper and then followed Burford into another, larger room that had traveled intact from the nineteenth century. The room was papered in a dark maroon covered with large green flowers, ferocious blooms snaking their way across the walls. There was a dark old grandfather clock and a desk with spindly animal legs and an overstuffed couch and thick carpets and dark Gothic paintings of judges in wigs with a lust for the hangman in their eyes. Thick velvet drapes framed two closed windows, the drapes held to the wall with iron arrows painted gold. The place smelled of not enough ventilation and too much expensive perfume. On one wall was a huge mirror, oval, sitting like a giant cat’s eye in a magnificent gold-leaf frame.

Burford led me to the center of the room and then, as I stood there, he circled me, like a gallery patron inspecting a sculpture he was interested in purchasing.

“My name is Victor Carl,” I said as Burford continued his inspection. “I’m here to see Mr. Peckworth.”

“Let’s start with the tie,” said Burford. “How much for the tie? Is it silk, Mr. Carl?”

“Polyester, one hundred percent,” I said. It was a stiff black-and-red-striped number, from which stains seemed to slide right off, which is why I liked it. Wipe and wear. “But it’s not for sale.”

“Come now, Mr. Carl,” said Burford. “We are both men of the world. Everything is for sale, is it not?”

“Yes, actually, that’s been my experience.”

“Well then, fine, we are speaking the same language. Give me a price for your one hundred percent polyester tie, such a rarity in a world lousy with silk.”

“You want to buy this tie?”

“Isn’t that why we’re here?”

“One hundred dollars,” I said.

“A tie like that? You can buy it in Woolworth’s for seven dollars, new. I’ll give you a profit on it, though, seeing that you’ve aged it for us. Let’s say fifteen dollars? Who could refuse that?”

“Is Mr. Peckworth in?”

“Twenty dollars then.”

“I didn’t come here to haggle.”

“Thirty dollars,” said Burford.

“Let me just talk to Mr. Peckworth.”

“Well, forget the tie for the moment. Let’s discuss your socks. Tasty little things, socks, don’t you think? So sheer, so aromatic.”

“One hundred dollars,” I said.

“The thing about socks,” said Burford, “is you take them off, sell them, and all of a sudden you look more stylish than you did before. See?” He hitched up one of his pants legs. A bare foot was stuffed into a tan loafer. “Stylishness at a profit.”

“One hundred dollars.”

“That’s quite high.”

“Each.”

“Did you shower today, Mr. Carl?”

“Every day.”

“Then they wouldn’t quite be ripe enough for the price you are asking. But that tie, that is special. We don’t see enough man-made fibers these days. You don’t happen to have a leisure suit somewhere in the recesses of your closet, do you?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“Fifty dollars for the tie, but no more. That is the absolute limit.”

“Seventy-five dollars.”

Burford turned his face slightly and stared at me sideways. Then he took a thick roll of bills out of his pants pocket, licked his thumb with pleasure, and flicked out three twenties. He fanned the bills in his hand. “Sixty dollars. Take it or leave it,” he said, smiling smartly.

I took the bills and stuffed them in my pocket.

“Come now, come now,” said Burford. “Let’s have it. Don’t balk now, the deal’s been done, money’s been passed. Time to pay the piper, Mr. Carl.”

At the same time he was demanding my tie he stepped aside, a smooth glide slide to the left which I found peculiar. What that smooth step did, I realized, was clear my view of the large oval mirror so that I would be able to watch myself take off my tie. There was something so neat about that glide slide, something so practiced.

I turned toward the mirror and gripped the knot of my tie with my forefinger and started slipping it down, slowly, inch by inch. “Now that you’ve bought my tie, Mr. Peckworth,” I said to the mirror, “I have a few questions I’d like to ask.”

For a moment I felt like an idiot for having spoken to a mirror but then, over an intercom, I heard a sharp voice say, “Take the tie and bring him here, Burford,” and I knew I had been right.

Burford stepped up to me and held open a clear plastic bag. “You’re such a clever young boy, aren’t you,” he said with a sneer.

I dropped the tie in the bag. “I try.”

Burford moved to the desk, where a little black machine was sitting. I heard a slight slishing sound and a thin waft of melting plastic reached me. “Yes, well, I would have paid you the seventy-five. I’ll take you to Mr. Peckworth.”

Peckworth was in a large garish room, red wallpaper, gold trimmings, the ceiling made of mirrored blocks. He was ensconced on a pile of pillows, leaning against steps that ringed the floor of what we would have called a passion pit twenty years ago. There were mounds of pillows and a huge television and a stereo and the scent of perfume and the faint scent of something beneath the perfume that I didn’t want to identify. On one wall was a giant oval window looking into the room in which I had taken off my tie, a two-way mirror.

“Sit down, Mr. Carl. Make yourself comfortable.” Peckworth was a slack-jawed bald man with the unsmiling face of a tax auditor, looking incongruous as hell in his pink metallic warmup suit.

I looked around for a chair, but this was a passion pit, no chairs, no tables, just pillows. I sat stiffly on one of the steps and leaned back, pretending to be at ease.

“I hope you’ll excuse the entertainment with the tie,” said Peckworth in a sharp, efficient voice. “Burford sometimes can’t help himself.”

“I hated to part with it for sentimental reasons,” I said, “but he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

Peckworth didn’t so much as fake a smile. “It is nice to be able to mix business and pleasure. Unfortunately, we’ll lose money on the tie, but you’d be surprised how much profit we can earn from our little auctions. The market is underground but shockingly large.”

“Socks and things, is that it?”

“And things, yes.”

I imagined some room in that spacious luxury duplex dedicated to the storage of varied pieces of clothing in their plastic bags, organized impeccably by the ever-vigilant Burford, their scent and soil preserved by the heat-sealed plastic. The reheating directions would be ever so simple: (1) place bag in microwave; (2) heat on medium setting for one minute; (3) remove bag from microwave with care; (4) slit open bag with long knife; (5) place garment over head; (6) breathe deep. Follow the directions precisely and the treasured artifact would be as fresh and as fragrant as the day it was purchased. That’s one of the things I loved about Philadelphia, you could learn about some foul new pleasure every day of the week.

“What can I do for you, Mr. Carl?”

“I’m a lawyer,” I said.

“Oh, a lawyer. Had Burford only known he would have negotiated a better deal. I think he mistook you for a man of principle.”

“I’m representing the sister of your former neighbor, Jacqueline Shaw.” That was technically a lie, but it wouldn’t matter to Peckworth. “I wanted to ask you some questions about what you saw the day of her death.”

“Nothing,” he said, turning his slack face away from me. “I already told the police that.”

“What you originally told the police was that you saw a UPS man in the hallway the day of her death. Which was interesting since no UPS guy had signed in that day. But later you changed your story and said you saw the guy two or three days before. The change conveniently matched the guest register at the front desk, so the police bought it. But the change of memory sounded peculiar to me and I wanted to ask you about it.”

“It happens,” he said. “I’m older than I was, my memory has slipped.”

“This man you saw, can you describe him?”

“I already told that to the police.”

“So you shouldn’t mind telling it to me.”

“Tall and handsome, broad shoulders, dark curly hair. His brown shirt and slacks, I remember, were impeccably pressed.”

“As if they had just come out of the box.”

“Yes, that’s right.”

I opened my briefcase and took out a file. Inside was a folder with eight small black-and-white photos arranged in two rows and glued to the cardboard. The photos were head shots, all of men between twenty-five and thirty-five, all with dark hair, all facing forward, all aiming blank stares at the camera. It was a photo spread, often used in lieu of a lineup in police investigations. I stepped down onto the base of the passion pit with the photo spread. The ground tumbled when I stepped on it and then pushed back. It was a giant water mattress. I fought to remain upright while I stumbled over to where Peckworth reclined. Standing before him, maintaining my balance steady as she goes, I handed the spread to him.

“Do you recognize the UPS man you saw in these photos?”

While he examined the photos I examined his eyes. I could see their gaze pass over the photos one after another and then stop at the picture in the bottom left-hand corner. He stared at it for a while and then moved his eyes around, as if to cover the tracks of his stare, but he had recognized the face in the bottom left-hand corner, just as I suspected he would. I had received the spread in discovery in one of my prior cases and that figure on the bottom left had a face you wouldn’t forget, dark, sculpted, Elvesine. A guy like Peckworth would never forget the likes of Peter Cressi or his freshly pressed brown uniform. I wondered if he had made him an offer for the uniform instantly upon seeing it on him.

Peckworth handed me back the spread. “I don’t recognize anyone.”

“You’re sure?”

“Perfectly. I’m sorry that you wasted so much of your time.” He reached for the phone console beside him and pressed a button. “Burford, Mr. Carl is ready to leave.”

“Who told you to change your story, Mr. Peckworth? That’s what I’m really interested in.”

“Burford will show you out.”

“Someone with power, I bet. You don’t seem the type to scare easy.”

“Have a good day, Mr. Carl.”

Just then the door behind me opened and Burford came in, smiling his smile, and behind Burford was some gnomelike creature in a blue, double-breasted suit. He was short and flat-faced and impossibly young, but with the shoulders of a bull. I must have been a foot and a half taller than he but he outweighed me by fifty pounds. Look in the dictionary under gunsel.

“Come, come, Mr. Carl,” said Burford. “It’s time to leave. I’m sure you have such important things to do today.”

I nodded and turned and made my careful unbalanced way across the great water mattress. When I reached the wraparound steps leading to the door I turned around again. “An operation like this, as strange as it would appear to authorities, must pay a hefty street tax. Probably cuts deeply into your profits.”

“Let’s go, Mr. Carl,” said Burford. “No time for nonsense. Time to leave. Everett, give Mr. Carl a hand.”

The gunsel skipped by Burford with an amazing grace and grabbed hold of my arm before I could grab it away. His grip was crushing.

“I might be able to do something about the tax,” I said. “I have certain contacts in the taxing authority that might be very grateful for your information.”

Everett gave a tug that nearly separated my arm from its socket and I was letting him pull me up and out of that room when Peckworth said, “Give us a minute.”

After Burford and Everett closed the door behind them, Peckworth asked me, “What could you do about it?”

“How much are you paying?”

“Too much.”

“If the information proves as valuable as I expect, I might be able to convince my contacts to reduce your tax substantially.”

“Is that so? And do we even know who is in charge after yesterday’s dance macabre on the expressway?”

“I’m betting the old bull holds his ground.”

“And if he does, and you get me the break you say you can get me, what do you get out of it?”

I was about to say nothing, but then realized that nothing wouldn’t satisfy the suspicions of a man like Peckworth. There had to be an angle to it for him to buy in. “I get twenty percent of the reduction.”

“That seems steep.”

“My normal contingency fee is a third, but I’m giving you a break out of the goodness of my heart.”

Peckworth nodded and said, “I understand.” They always know you have an angle when you say you’re doing something out of the goodness of your heart. “You must understand something, Mr. Carl. We don’t choose the things that give us pleasure in this life, we only choose whether or not to pursue them. I have chosen to pursue my pleasures and with the money I earn in my side enterprise I am able to do just that. But the life is more precarious than you can imagine and those thugs are killing my cash flow.”

“Well, that’s the deal,” I said. “Take it or leave it.”

He thought about it for a moment, I could tell, because his brow knitted.

“I had some visitors,” he said, finally. “Two men, one very well dressed, short and dapper. The other a stooge in an impossible maroon suit. They suggested that I was mistaken as to the date I saw the UPS man outside Miss Shaw’s door. After they explained it all to me I realized that I must have been.”

“Did they give you their names?”

“No, but they did give me the names of a few of my suppliers.”

“You mean from the auctions.”

“Yes.”

“And that troubled you.”

“Yes.”

“Let me guess,” I said. “Were these suppliers maybe under a certain legal age?”

“Never underestimate the delicate piquancy of the young, Mr. Carl.”

“So suddenly the entirety of your pleasure quotient was at risk.”

“Exactly, Mr. Carl. You’re very quick for a lawyer.”

“Any idea who these men were, or who they represented?”

“None, but I knew enough to step away. There is an aroma that follows particularly dangerous men.”

“And the stooge smelled bad, huh?”

“Not the stooge, Mr. Carl. They are a dime a dozen. Beside being monstrously strong, Everett is very loyal and can handle those that come my way with relative ease. It was the well-dressed man, extremely handsome, with even white teeth and groomed gray hair. There was something frightfully languorous about him, but even that languor couldn’t hide the scent of danger he carried.”

“What did he look like, an accountant?”

“Oh no, Mr. Carl. If he was anything he was a funeral director, but one who never had to worry about supply.” He leaned forward and said, “If your friends can lower my tax and take care of these men for me, Mr. Carl, you can take your full one third.”

“That’s very generous of you,” I said. I reached for the door and then stopped reaching and turned around. “Bottom left picture was your UPS guy, wasn’t it?”

“There was a brutality to his native good looks that I found unforgettable.”

“Mr. Peckworth, I hope you don’t mind my saying so, but for someone who has chosen to pursue his pleasures with such devotion, you don’t seem so very happy.”

“Mr. Carl,” he said, with a straight, stolid face, “I’m so happy I could burst.”

25

EVERETT LUGGED ME THROUGH the apartment and spun me into the hallway. Burford blew me a kiss before he closed the door. A fond farewell, I’m sure, but I was glad to be left alone in the hallway. I didn’t take the elevator down, instead I went into the emergency exit. The stairwell was ill lit and smelled furry. The door hissed slowly shut on me. When I tried to open it again I discovered, as I had expected, that it was locked.

I started climbing up the stairwell, twisting around the landings as I rose. I tried each door on my ascent and discovered each to be locked, until the last. This one I opened, slowly, and found myself on the roof. It was flat and tarred, with assorted risers here and there, and a three-foot ledge all the way around. Scattered about were plastic lounge chairs, which I imagined were used by bare-chested sunbathers on hot summer afternoons. The knob on the outside of the door wouldn’t turn, but all those melanoma seekers would need a way to get back inside once the sun dimmed. I searched the floor and found a wooden wedge, well worn, which I jammed into the crack. With the door stuck open I stepped onto the roof.

I wasn’t really concerned with the roof of the Cambium. What I wanted to see were the surrounding roofs. The building fronted on the park and one side bordered on Nineteenth Street, as the road continued its way south after being interrupted by Rittenhouse Square. Behind the Cambium was a building three flights shorter, so that was probably out. But to the side opposite Nineteenth Street was another fancy-pantsed doorman building, whose roof was roughly the same level, separated only by a six-foot gap. The drop between the two was deadly enough, but six feet was not too long a jump for an athlete with a brave heart. Too long for me, of course, as I was no athlete, which I learned painfully enough in junior high gym class, and my heart was more timorous than brave, but not too long for a committed gunman out to kill an heiress, for my client Peter Cressi.

It was the cellophane candy wrapper Cressi had tossed out in the Reptile House of the zoo that clued me, of course, one end open, one end still twisted, just like the wrapper Caroline had found behind her sister’s toilet. It took a dose of meditation for my unconscious to show it to me because to my conscious mind it didn’t make any sense, Cressi killing Jacqueline Shaw. He had nothing to gain. But others did, others who may have been hunting for a fortune. Maybe Eddie, maybe Oleanna, maybe some other legatee in line for a great deal of money with one or more of the heirs to the Reddman fortune dead. There was someone, I figured, who had enough to gain from Jacqueline’s death to pay for it. And that someone paid enough to allow the killer to purchase a hundred and seventy-nine fully automatic assault rifles, three grenade launchers, and a flamethrower from an undercover cop. This was where Cressi’s money had come from, I now was sure. He had probably run into whoever wanted to do the killing while shaking down Eddie Shaw for the half-million Eddie owed Jimmy Vigs. He had been nosing around, harassing Eddie, harassing his relatives, making his presence known, when an offer was made. And then, after the offer and an acceptance and a meeting of the minds, Peter Cressi had dressed in a UPS outfit and gone to the roof of that building over there and jumped the six-foot gap and rushed down the stairs of the Cambium to knock casually on Jacqueline’s door with the words, “UPS, ma’am.” And after the door was opened and Peter had entered and done his lucrative wet work, he had gone into the bathroom to straighten up, to smooth back his hair, to tuck in his shirt, all the while with Jacqueline hanging there, twisting from the chandelier, probably still moaning out loud. And to freshen his breath, of course, Cressi would pop into his mouth one of the mints he had boosted from Tosca’s and, from force of habit, toss aside the wrapper, just as he had tossed aside the wrapper at the zoo. Sweet Peter.

Dante was in it with him, that was clear too. It was Earl Dante who went to cover Cressi’s tracks after Peckworth had spotted Cressi outside Jacqueline’s door. It was Earl Dante who had convinced Peckworth to change his story and so it must have been Earl fucking Dante who was directing Cressi as Cressi hired himself out as a hit man to get the bucks to purchase the guns that would allow Dante to win his war against the boss. What a little scab, that Dante. He had picked me as a pallbearer and probably advised Raffaello to have a chat with me, all the while knowing there was a white van with a hole in the side waiting to slide up to the Cadillac and blast away. What a murderous pus-encrusted little scab.

I only had one question left now, as I backed away from the edge of the roof and stepped toward the open door. Who, I wondered, had left the little wedge of wood in the door crack for Peter Cressi before Cressi made his leap?

I went back down the stairs, checking each door all the way down. On the third floor the door opened, even though the knob wouldn’t turn. The latch was taped down, as at the Watergate the evening Nixon’s hoods were discovered by the night watchman. Someone moving surreptitiously between floors, I guessed, a little hanky-panky that the elevator operator had no business knowing. It wasn’t much of a tape job, but it was all that was needed and I was sure that whoever had left the wooden wedge had done the same type of tape job to let Peter into the eighth floor. I ripped the tape off the lock with a quick jerk, just as Cressi must have done on his way back up from Jackie’s apartment.

When I came out of the emergency exit in the lobby, the doorman gave me a look. I guess he was wondering what I was doing in the stairwell. I guess he was wondering where I had left my tie.

“Nice building,” I said.

He nodded and said nothing.

“I hope you’re not still sore about how I spoke to you earlier. I had never met Mr. Peckworth before so I didn’t understand.”

“Everything, it is fine, sir,” he said with a formality that let me know everything, it was not fine. I would need to build some bridges with the doorman.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

His eyes slitted. “Roberto,” he said.

“You like cigars, Roberto?”

He tilted his head at me. “A good cigar, sure, yes.”

“You like them thick or thin?”

“You can tell much about a man, I’ve found, by the cigar he smokes.”

“Thick then, I take it. I’ll be back in a minute.”

I walked across Rittenhouse Square and then east to Sixteenth Street and down to Sansom. A few steps east on Sansom Street I walked into the Black Cat Cigar Company. It was like walking into a humidor, warm and dry and redolent of fall leaves. “I need to buy an impressive box of thick cigars,” I told the stooped gray man with an unlit stogie in his teeth.

“How impressive?” he barked.

“Oh, about a hundred dollars impressive,” I said. “And I’ll need a receipt.”

Roberto took a bowie knife out of his pocket and slit open the seal on the box. He held up one of the thick and absurdly long cigars and rolled it in his fingers, feeling the texture of the tobacco. He smelled it carefully, from one end to the other and back again. With the knife he cut off a piece of cellophane and licked the end of the cigar as if it were a nipple and then licked it again. He finally smiled and put the cigar back into the box.

“I have a few questions I’d like you to answer,” I said.

“Surprise, surprise,” said Roberto.

“Jacqueline Shaw, your former tenant. I represent her sister.”

“And you think you can buy me with a box of cigars. You think my honor can be bought so cheaply?”

“Of course not. They’re yours, whether you help or not. And I wouldn’t call them cheap. I just felt bad about how I snapped at you before and wanted to make amends.”

He pursed his lips at me.

“Now, in addition to that, I do just happen to have some questions about Jacqueline Shaw.”

“I’ve already told the police everything.”

“I’m sure you did, Roberto. And Detective McDeiss has even provided me with a copy of your guest register for the day of her death. What I’d like to know is whether anybody ever went up to her place without signing in?”

“All guests and visitors must to sign in.”

“Yes, so you’ve already told me, Roberto. But I noticed Mr. Grimes didn’t sign in that day.”

He stared at me stiffly. “He was living there.”

“Yes, but I figure he wasn’t a listed owner of the co-op so, technically, he was a guest. What I want to know, Roberto, is who else could pop up to her apartment without signing in.”

He hesitated a moment, stroking the smooth top of the box with his fingers. “These are Prince of Wales, fancy cigars just to make up for a harsh word.”

“I have an overactive conscience. And like I said, they’re yours whether you help or not. All I’m trying to do is figure out exactly what happened the day of her death.”

I smiled. He examined my smile carefully, searching not for the insincerity that was surely there but for the glint of disrespect that was not. “Well, Mr. Grimes could just walk in,” he said finally, his right hand on the box of Macanudos as if it were a Bible. “And since it was a family place, her brothers, Mr. Edward, Mr. Robert, and her sister, were allowed up whenever they wanted. Mrs. Shaw of course went up often.”

“The mother, you mean.”

“Yes, and the grandmother, too, before she died. She used to come visit the old lady who lived there before, years and years ago. Mr. Harrington, too, came frequently. He paid the maintenance fees each month to me personally, gave out the Christmas tips. And the gardener would come up to take care of her plants. She had many plants but she wasn’t very good with them.”

“Nat, you’re talking about.”

“That’s right. With the red eye. A quiet man, but he always smiled at me and said hello.”

“You told all this to the cops?”

“They did not ask.”

“All right, the day of Jacqueline’s death, who came up and didn’t sign in?”

“I didn’t start work until twelve that day. The only one I remember coming in was Mr. Edward. He seemed to be in a hurry, but he left before Miss Jacqueline arrived.”

“You sure of that?”

“Oh yes, I remember. He rushed in very harried, like he was being chased. I told him Miss Shaw was not home but he insisted on checking for himself. I opened the door for him on the way out and he didn’t even nod at me.”

“Did you tell that to the cops?”

“They did not ask.”

“You said it was an old family place?”

“Yes, the Shaws had it for as long as I’ve worked here. The old cripple lady was in it and then it was empty for a while before Miss Jacqueline moved in. The family only recently sold it, after the unfortunate accident.”

“It’s funny how many hangings are accidental. Is it a nice place?”

“Very.”

“Well lucky for the Hirsches, then. One last thing. Any of your tenants besides Jacqueline belong to some New Age religious group out in Mount Airy?”

“How the tenants pray is none of my business. I’m just the doorman.”

“Fair enough.” I winked. “Enjoy the smokes, Roberto.”

“Yes, I will. You come some afternoon, we can savor one together,” he said, as he stepped from behind his desk and opened the door for me.

“I’d like that,” I said.

I walked again through Rittenhouse Square and down to Walnut. I headed east for a bit and then quickly turned on my heels and headed west. I saw no one behind me similarly turn. I darted into a bookstore on Walnut, just east of Eighteenth. As I browsed through the magazines I checked the plate window and saw nothing suspicious. Then I took the escalator to the second floor and went to an area in the rear, by the mysteries, and found the phone. With the receiver in my hand I swung around and saw no one paying the least bit of attention to me, which is just the way I liked it. I dialed.

“Tosca’s,” said a voice.

“Let me talk to table nine,” I said, roughing up my throat like I was Tom Waits to confuse the guys at the other end of the tap.

“I’m’a sorry. There’s no one at’a table nine right now.”

“Well when you see the man at table nine again tell him the scout needs to talk to him.”

“I don’t’a know when it will be occupato again.”

“Tell him the scout knows where the money came from and who’s behind it all,” I said. “Tell him I need to talk to him and that it’s urgent,” and before he could ask for anything more I hung up the phone.

It was as I was walking out of the bookstore that I spotted the late edition of the Daily News, whose front-page photograph instantly set my teeth to clattering.

26

I PAID THE FOUR BITS, folded the tabloid in half to hide the front, and took the paper straight to my apartment. I locked the door behind me. I pulled the shades down low. I flicked on a lamp by the couch and unfolded the paper beneath the artificial arc of light. Staring up at me was the picture that had shaken me so when I first glimpsed it in the bookstore. It was a picture of a man, stretched out on his back like an exhausted runner, a dark shadow slipping from beneath his head. The man’s mouth appeared to be laughing and at a glance it might have seemed a cheery picture except I knew the man and he was not much drawn to laughter. What seemed to be laughter was really a twisted grimace and the shadow was not a shadow and the man was no longer a man but now a corpse.

Dominic Volare, an old-time mob enforcer with strong ties to the boss. They had clipped him when he left his favorite diner in South Philly, waited as he leaned down to stick his key in the door of his Cadillac, rushed at him from behind, blasted him in the back and the neck, leaving only his face nicely unmarred for the picture. I had played poker with Dominic Volare, lost to him, been frightened by him, but he had never hurt me and had actually done a few favors for me along the way. I had thought him retired and now, I guess, he was.

There was a story inside linking the Schuylkill Expressway attack on Raffaello to Dominic’s murder and to another hit, just as deadly, if less photogenic. Jimmy Bones Turcotte, massacred in his car, a Caprice, the windows blown to hell by the fusillade that took with it his face. I didn’t know Jimmy Bones, had never had the privilege of standing in court beside him and saying “Not Guilty,” but I knew of him, for sure. He was another longtime associate of the boss. It was getting dangerous just then, I figured, to be a longtime associate of the boss, especially in or around your car.

The headline above Dominic’s death mask on the front page said it all: WAR!

It was on, yes it was. Dante’s battle for the underworld had begun in earnest and no one was safe, especially not a nickel-and-dime defense lawyer who had been roped into scouting for one side or the other. I turned off the light and thought about fleeing, maybe to Fresno, where mobsters in the movies always seemed to flee, Fresno. Or I could just cower in my apartment until it passed. I’d be all right, I had a television and a freezer for my frozen dinners and there was that Thomas Hardy book I had been meaning to read. I could hide out until it all blew over, lose myself on the bleak heaths of Hardy’s Wessex, I could, yes. But I wouldn’t. I had things to do, a fortune to hunt, and no slick-haired tooth-sucking loan shark like Earl Dante was going to push me off my path. What I needed was advice, serious advice, and there was only one man I trusted who knew enough of the ins and outs of the family business to give it to me.

With trembling fingers I dialed the 407 area code and then information. It was a shock to actually find his number there, as if all he was was another retiree, waiting by the phone for calls from his grandchildren. “Be there,” I whispered to myself as his phone rang. “Please to hell be there.”

“Yes?” said a woman’s voice, squeezed dry by massive quantities of cigarettes.

“Hello,” I said. “I’m looking for Walter Calvi.”

“He no here now.”

“I need to speak to him, it’s very important.”

“He’s gone two, three days, fishing.”

“Fishing? I didn’t know Calvi fished.”

“Big fish,” she said. “From a boat.”

“When will he be back?”

“Two, three days.”

“Can you give him a message for me?”

“He’s fishing,” she said.

“Can you give him a message for me? Can you tell him Victor Carl called and that things are going on up here and that he should get in touch with me?”

“Okay,” she said. “Victor Carl.”

I gave her my number and she repeated it to me.

“Could you tell him it’s important?”

“Nothing more important down here than big fish,” she said. “Except maybe cleaning the air conditioner and feeding the cat. But I tell him, okay?”

I hung up the phone and waited in the dark of my apartment for a while, waited for the light outside to grow dim, waited for Calvi to get his butt off his boat and tell me what to do. At least it had turned out all right for him, I guess. He was sitting on some boat off the Florida Keys, snapping marlins from the cool Atlantic waters, while the rest of us were stuck up here ducking Dante’s bullets. Of all the deals that were handed out Calvi got the best, for sure. I just hoped he would get his butt off that boat in time to tell me how to get one for myself.

When it was time I quietly left the quiet of my apartment, stepped down the stairs, looked both ways along the now dark street. Cautiously I slipped out onto the sidewalk. I passed my car and left it there. After what had happened in Raffaello’s Cadillac, and seeing what I had seen in the paper, I wanted nothing to do with cars for a while. I walked along Spruce, then down through the park at Nineteenth, and over to Walnut, to restaurant row. It was time, I figured, for me to do some fishing of my own.

27

“HOW’S THAT GROUPER, CAROLINE?” asked Franklin Harrington, with a surfeit of politeness.

Caroline was leaning back in her chair, arms crossed, moodily separating the pale flakes of fish with her fork. She wore her leather jacket and black jeans and combat boots and would have looked terribly out of place among the well heeled and well coifed except that Harrington, in his perfectly pressed Ralph Lauren, covered for her. “Succulent,” she said, her voice dry and devoid of enthusiasm.

“Terrific,” said Harrington, who had instinctively taken on the role of the host, either through the dictates of good breeding or his unbridled arrogance, I couldn’t yet figure. “And your crab cakes, Victor?”

Trayf,” I said.

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s the Jewish word for succulent.”

“And I thought that was shiksa,” said Caroline, with a sly smile, as she reached for her wineglass.

Trayf is broader than that.” I explained. “Not all trayf are shiksas, though shiksas are surely the most succulent trayf.”

“Well then why don’t you just go right ahead and order the shiksa,” said Harrington.

Caroline spit out her mouthful of Chardonnay.

Welcome to the lifestyles of the rich and the Yiddish.

We were in the Striped Bass, a gaudy new restaurant on Walnut Street, more stage set than anything else, with palm tress and rattan chairs, with marble pillars three stories tall, with the kitchen open so the diners can see their fish’s firm flesh being pan-seared. It’s not enough to just eat anymore, restaurants are now theme parks. Ride the gingered seafood fritto misto. Thrill to the bite of clam fritters with Asian slaw. Test your courage with the raw Malpeque oysters and your manhood with the hunk of burning blackened sea bass. The Striped Bass served only seafood, that was the hook, but it was more show biz than anything else, no different than the Hard Rock Café and Planet Hollywood, though many steps up in class and price. Instead of hamburgers, mahimahi with arugula pesto. Instead of fajitas, sautéed Maine lobster with somen noodles. Instead of gawking teenagers, gawking adults, wondering who was rich enough or famous enough to be at the chef’s table that night. And despite this burden of atmosphere the food was actually brilliant. Reservations at the Striped Bass were taken months in advance, but guys like Harrington had their ways, I figured, and so there we were, Caroline sulking, Harrington as gratingly pleasant as a cruise director, and me, who had convened this awkward congregation, waiting for the appropriate moment to unload my questions.

I hadn’t liked Harrington when we first met at the bank and I still didn’t like him. There was an air of false importance about him, a sense that what he said actually mattered. He had been somebody’s blue-eyed boy for too long. He needed to be stepped down a peg and I was just the guy, I figured, to do the stepping. I wanted to be sure, by the end of the night, after all was said and done, that he knew I had screwed his fiancée, and even though I hadn’t liked it much, he didn’t need to know that. Class divisions as clear as those between Harrington and myself always bring out my best, or at least my most petty.

I took a forkful of crab, swirled it in the mustard sauce, and swallowed. It was too good. Harrington was working on his swordfish. Caroline was still flaking her grouper with the tines of her fork, showing no inclination to eat despite the thirty bucks her fish cost. It was almost getting beyond awkward, so I thought I’d lob in the first of my little bombs and liven things up.

“Who,” I asked nonchalantly as I picked at my crab, “was Elisha Poole?”

Harrington looked up from his plate with a sharp surprise on his face. He glanced at Caroline, who rolled her eyes with boredom, and then back at me. “What do you know about Poole?”

“Bobby told me a little when I was at the house the other night.”

“Yes,” said Harrington, his pale cheeks darkening, “I heard you were there.”

I smiled a competitive little smile. One of the evening’s goals, at least, had been scored. “Bobby told me that his great-grandfather had bought the company from Poole just before he started pushing his pressure-packed pickles and that, later, Poole claimed he was swindled. Bobby said that Poole had cursed the whole family for it.”

“So that explains everything,” said Caroline. “I rather like the idea that we are cursed. It’s more comforting than knowing we screwed it up ourselves.”

“Everything Bobby told you is correct,” said Harrington. “It was Poole ’s company before Claudius Reddman bought it, one of a score on the docks canning produce. Poole was a tinsmith and started the company by tinning tomatoes and corn brought over from New Jersey. Claudius was first hired as an apprentice tinsmith but soon took on other responsibilities.”

“When did you learn all this, Franklin?” asked Caroline.

“I find it prudent to study the history of any family whose wealth I administer.”

“How did Reddman end up buying the company if he was just an apprentice tinsmith?” I asked.

“We’re not sure,” said Harrington, “but it appears that Poole liked his drink and as Claudius was able to handle more and more of the business side of things, Poole spent more time with a bottle. Poole ’s father was a notorious drunk, apparently, and so it was only a matter of time before it caught up with the son.”

“Can you get us more wine, Frankie,” said Caroline. “I’m suddenly thirsty.”

I gave Caroline a glance as Harrington snapped for a waiter and ordered another bottle.

“As Poole ’s drinking grew worse,” said Harrington, “Reddman started taking control of the company. Bit by bit he purchased Poole ’s stock, paying cash for the shares. The company wasn’t earning much in those days and Poole was finding himself falling into debt and so he took the money eagerly.”

“Where did the cash come from?” I asked.

Harrington shrugged. “There’s the mystery. But just before the company expanded production of its soon to be famous pickles, Reddman took out a loan to buy the rest of Poole ’s shares. By that time the company was in the red and Poole was apparently only too ready to sell out. It was quite the gamble for Claudius Reddman, taking a loan to buy a profitless company.”

“But it paid off, didn’t it?” I said. “Reddman became a wealthy man, an American industrial giant, and Poole was left to hang himself.”

“That’s right,” said Harrington, turning his attention back to his fish. “ Poole ended as an embittered old drunk who had pissed away his chance for a fortune, that’s one way to view him. Or, if you take his side, he was an honest, trusting man, swindled by an avaricious swine who built his own fortune off the carcass of Poole ’s life work.”

“Who is left to take his side now?” I asked.

“Pardon?”

“Who is around who still thinks Poole was swindled?”

“I don’t know,” said Harrington. “The Pooles, I suppose.”

“Are there any?”

The sommelier came with another bottle of wine, red this time, and poured a sip’s worth into Harrington’s glass. Harrington tasted it and nodded at the waiter and then said offhandedly, “I would think there are.”

“Where?” I asked.

“How should I know?”

“What about the daughter,” I said, “who lived in that house by the pond at Veritas with her widowed mother? You know the place, right?”

Caroline and Harrington glanced at each other and then away.

“Can you imagine her,” I continued, “living in that sagging little hovel, all the time looking up at the great manor house that her father had told her should have been hers? Do you ever wonder what she was feeling?”

“Probably gratitude that great-grandfather had given her a place to live,” said Caroline, who proceeded to empty her wineglass in three quick gulps before reaching for the bottle.

“Did you know Caroline was a Republican?” asked Harrington with an ironic smile I wouldn’t have expected from a banker.

“Somehow I don’t think Poole ’s daughter was gratified at all,” I said. “Have you ever seen that Andrew Wyeth painting Christina’s World? That’s what it must have been like for her, staring up with longing at the large house on the hill. Can you imagine it? She lived there until her mother died, in the shadow of that huge stone house. How twisted must her tender little psyche have become? That she ended up in an asylum is no wonder.”

“Who told you she ended up in an asylum?” asked Harrington with a curious puzzlement.

“The gardener, Nat. I asked about the old cottage on the other side of the pond and he told me.”

“How the hell would Nat know anything about her?” asked Caroline. “This is all ancient history. Jesus, has it gotten cold or something?” She swallowed a gulp of wine. “Can’t we talk about a cheerier subject than the Pooles, for God’s sake. Victor, you’re the mob lawyer, tell us about the mob war that’s in all the papers. It even made the Times. What about that attack on the expressway?”

“Amazing,” said Harrington.

“What happened to your face anyway, Victor?” said Caroline. “It looks like you were in a fight with a cat and lost.”

“I wonder if she had any children?” I said.

“Who?” asked Harrington.

“The Poole daughter.”

“Jesus, Victor,” said Caroline. “Why are you so interested in the goddamned Pooles? It’s enough to drive a girl to drink. Pass the wine.” I couldn’t help but notice that she was now completely ignoring her grouper and had begun to drink like, well, like a fish. I guess our conversation about her family had turned this into what her therapist would have called a situation.

“I’m intrigued by the whole of your family history, Caroline. You asked me to find out if Jacqueline was murdered. Well, after looking into it, now I’m sure that she was.”

“Is Victor acting as your lawyer?” asked Harrington, bemusement creasing his face. I found it interesting that he was more surprised that I might be lawyering for Caroline than that I believed Jacqueline was murdered.

She gave a half smile rather then attempt to describe our peculiar legal relationship.

“So that explains the check and the visit to Veritas.”

“You thought what?” said Caroline. “That he was a gigolo, maybe? Victor?”

“You also wanted me to find out who killed her,” I continued, ignoring Harrington’s laughter. “I think I now know who.”

“What?” said Harrington, his laughter dying quick as a scruple in a bank. “Who, then?”

“That’s not important right now,” I said.

“Of course it is,” said Harrington. “Have you told the police?”

“The evidence I have is either inadmissible or would disappear before a trial at this point. I’ll need more before I go to the police, and I’ll get it, too. But the guy who killed her was hired to do it, I believe, paid. Just like you would pay a servant or a bricklayer or a gardener. And so the question I still have is who paid him.”

“And you suspect the answer is in our family’s history?” asked Caroline.

“I’m curious about everything.”

Harrington was staring at me for a moment, trying, I suppose, to guess at exactly what I was doing there. “You know, Caroline,” said Harrington, still looking at me, “I knew Victor was a lawyer, but law was not the game I thought we were playing here. Silly me, I thought you brought me here just to show off another of your lads.”

“I announced him as my lover at the house just to get mother’s goat,” said Caroline.

“And you succeeded. She was apoplectic.”

“Thank God something worked out right.”

“Well, then, let’s have it out,” said Harrington. “Are you, Victor?”

“Am I what?”

“Caroline’s lover.”

I glanced at Caroline and she reached for her wine and there was an awkward silence.

Harrington laughed, a loud gay laugh. “That was clear enough an answer. Now, I suppose, I must defend my honor.” He patted his jacket. “Damn, you can never find a glove when you need one to toss into a rival’s face.”

“Shut up, Franklin.”

“I’m sorry. You’re right, Caroline. I’m being rude. Don’t worry, Victor, what you and Caroline do after school is fine by me. All I want is for Caroline to be happy. Truly. Are you happy with Victor, Caroline?”

“Ecstatic.”

“Terrific then. Keep up the good work, Victor.” He turned back to his swordfish and lopped off a thick gray square. “Any help you need keeping her happy, you let me know.”

Caroline emptied her glass and let it drop to the table. “You’re a bastard, you know that.”

“Maybe I’ll order some champagne to celebrate.”

“A goddamn bastard. And you want to know something, Franklin. Victor’s amazing in bed. An absolute acrobat.”

I couldn’t stop my jaw from dropping at that.

“Well then, instead of the champagne I’ll call for the check, get you both back to your trapeze.”

“You’re too heartless,” said Caroline, her arms now crossed tightly against her chest, her chin tilted low.

“I wasn’t the one who invited us all out to dinner together.” Harrington picked up the bottle and said nonchalantly, “More wine, Victor?”

“Am I missing something?” I asked. “It sounds like I’m in the middle of an Albee play.”

“Yes, well, the curtain has dropped,” said Harrington, putting down the bottle. He looked at Caroline and the arrogance in his face was replaced by something tender and vulnerable. It was as if a tribal mask had suddenly been discarded. The way he looked at her made me feel small. “You have to understand, Victor, that I don’t care for anyone in this world as much as I care for Caroline. I couldn’t love a sister any more than I do her. She caught a bad break, getting born a Reddman. Any normal family and she’d have been a homecoming queen, happy and blithe, and she deserves just such blind happiness, more than anyone else I know. I’d die to give it to her if I could. I’d rip out my heart, bleeding and raw, and present it to her on a white satin cushion if it would turn her sadness even for a moment.”

Caroline’s sobs broke over the last few words of Harrington’s speech like waves over rock. I hadn’t even known she was crying until I heard them, so entranced I was by this new Harrington and his proffer of love. Caroline was hunched in her chair, thick mascara tears streaking her cheeks, and there was about this jag nothing of the rehearsed dramatist I had seen when she collapsed in the street with her gun that first day I met her. Whatever strange thing was between Caroline and Harrington, it cut deep. She was about to say something more, but she caught her lip with her teeth, tossed her napkin onto her plate, stood, and walked quickly away, toward the ladies’ room.

“She’s an amazing woman,” said Harrington after she had gone.

“Yes.”

“You’re very lucky.”

“I suppose.”

“Don’t hurt her,” he said, picking up his knife and slicing into a dinner roll.

“I may be wrong,” I said, “but I don’t think she’s in the bathroom crying over me.”

He sighed. “No.”

“What are you, gay?”

Harrington’s face startled, and then he laughed, a warm guttural laugh, charismatic and comforting. I watched him laugh and I couldn’t help but start laughing too. “No,” he said when he finally calmed and had wiped the tears from his eyes. “But that would have been so much easier.”

While we were waiting for Caroline’s return, Harrington, now under the assumption that I was Caroline’s lawyer as well as her lover, explained to me the intricacies of the Reddman demise. The family’s entire share of Reddman stock was in one trust, controlled by Kingsley, Caroline’s father. While the bulk of the dividends remained with the trust, a portion was designated for division to Kingsley’ heirs, the four children. When an heir died, each survivor’s share of the designated division increased proportionally. Upon Kingsley’s death, the shares in the trust were to be divided equally among the surviving heirs.

“How much?” I asked. I knew the general numbers, but I still liked hearing them.

“Right now, with three heirs, each share is worth about one hundred and forty-five million dollars, before taxes, but the share price has been rising so it may be more.”

“Uncle Sam will be happy with his cut.”

“Both Eddie and Bobby are considering moving to Ireland permanently to defray taxes.”

“And they say patriotism is dead. It’s funny though, talking about so much money, but I thought it would be more.”

“Yes, well, over the years many of the shares have been sold, to pay the expenses in maintaining the house and other properties, and a large stake has been put into a different trust, pursuant to the direction of a former trustee.”

“Which trustee?”

“Caroline’s grandmother.”

“And who are the beneficiaries of that trust?”

“I don’t know. It is not being run by our bank and the documents are sealed.”

“Any ideas?”

“Not a one.”

“I heard a rumor that Charity Reddman, Caroline’s grandaunt, ran away after she became pregnant. Any possibility that the trust could be for the benefit of the child or the child’s heirs?”

“Possible, I guess. But you can’t honestly suspect some mysterious heir of Charity Reddman of being responsible for Jacqueline’s death.”

I shrugged. “Tell me about the life insurance policies.”

He raised his eyebrows. “Five million, term, on each heir, premiums paid by the trust. The beneficiary of the policies was designated by the trust as the surviving heirs.”

“So if one killed off another,” I said, “that one would get a third of five million?”

“That’s right.”

“Nice motive,” I said, thinking of Edward Shaw and his gambling debts. “Except I was under the impression the money from Jacqueline’s insurance went to her church.”

“Yes. Jacqueline changed the beneficiary just before her death.”

“Did her brothers and sister know?”

“She wanted me to keep it quiet, so I did.”

“And so when she died her brothers and sister were in for a nasty surprise.”

“Some were none too pleased,” admitted Harrington. “And neither, of course, was the insurance company. It was ready to pay the death benefit but now it’s holding off payment until all questions of Jacqueline’s death are answered.”

I was surprised at that, wondering who had raised the questions with the insurance company, but before I could follow up, Caroline returned. Her eyes were clean of mascara and red, her face was scrubbed. She looked almost wholesome, about as wholesome as you can look with a diamond in your nose. She didn’t sit, instead she placed a hand on my shoulder.

“Take me home, Victor.”

Harrington stood immediately. “Don’t worry about the check,” he said.

Out on Walnut Street, as I raised my hand for a cab, I couldn’t help but ask, “What is going on between you two?”

“Have you ever been in love, Victor?”

I thought about this for a little bit. “Yes.”

“It wasn’t any fun, was it?”

“No, not really.”

“Just take me home and fuck me, Victor, and please please please please please don’t say another word until you do.”

28

HER PLACE WAS ABOVE an abandoned hardware store on Market Street, just a few blocks west of the Delaware River. It was a huge cavernous space supported by rows of fluted cast-iron pillars, easily more than three thousand square feet. It had been a sweatshop of some sort in its more productive days and must have been a brutal one at that. Plaster scaled from the walls leaving them mottled and psoriatic. The ceiling, warped and darkened by leaks, was a confused configuration of wires and old fluorescent light fixtures and air conduits. Here and there patches of the ceiling’s metal lath showed through where huge chunks of the plaster had fallen to the floor of roughened wood, unfinished, dark, splattered with paint. The windows were yellowed and bare of adornment, staring forlornly out onto the street or the deserted lot next door. The bathroom was doorless, the shower a cast-iron tub with clawed feet, the kitchen one of those stainless steel kitchenettes that looked to have been swiped from a motor home. Piled in one of the corners on the Market Street end were scraps of metal, old bed frames, chairs, evidence of a failed rehab. The loft smelled of wet plaster and dust and sorrow.

There was a couch in the middle, lit by a ceramic lamp on an end table, and there was a love seat that matched the couch and a coffee table to prop up feet and place drinks when entertaining. It looked to have been bought at a place like Seaman’s, the whole setup, and it would have been at home in any suburban split level, but here, in the midst of this desolation, it seemed so out of place it was almost like a work of art, commenting wryly on the easy comfort bought at places like Seaman’s. And then, beneath an industrial light fixture that hovered over it like a spy, there was the bed, a king-sized sleigh bed, massive as a battleship, carved of dark mahogany. Red silk sheets covered the mattress. The comforter, a masculine gold and green paisley, was twisted and mussed atop the silk. Four long pillows, covered in a golden print, were tossed here and there across the bed. And tossed among the pillows and the twists of the comforter were Caroline and I, on our backs, staring up at that spy of a light fixture and the ragged ceiling beyond, following with our gazes the rise of her cigarette smoke, naked, our bodies at right angles one to the other, not touching except for our legs, which were still intertwined.

“Tell me about her,” said Caroline.

I immediately knew which woman she was asking about. “There isn’t much to tell, least not anymore.”

“Was she pretty?”

I knew which woman she was talking about and I knew why she was asking and the reasons were so sad I couldn’t help but answer her. “She was very pretty and very decadent and very vulnerable. When I met her she was with someone else, someone very powerful, which made her wildly attractive to me and so far out of reach she wasn’t even worth fantasizing about.”

“What was her name?’

“Veronica.”

“How did you two get together?”

It was a funny-sounding question, like you would ask about high school sweethearts or an innocent pair of newly-weds, not two depraved lovers like Veronica and me. “I don’t know, exactly. It was a time of my life when I was full of desires. I wanted money and success, I wanted to be accepted and admired by my betters. I wanted to be the guy I saw in the GQ ads, the smiling man-about-town in those society photos. I wanted to be everything I could never be. And for a while, most of all, I wanted Veronica. Then, like a dream, I had a chance for everything, the success, the wealth, the entree into a world that had kept me out just for the sheer joy of it. And I had a chance at her too. In the blink of an eye we were sleeping together and she had become more than a desire, she had become an obsession.”

“Was it as marvelous as you had imagined?”

It was, actually, the sex was beyond glorious, overwhelming all my better intentions, and soon nothing had seemed to matter but the sex, except I didn’t want to tell Caroline that, so I answered her question with another question. “Is anything ever as marvelous as we imagined?”

“Never,” she said, “never, never, never.”

I couldn’t help but wince a bit at that.

“And then it all turned bad,” I said. “Everything I thought I was being offered was a lie, everything I thought I wanted was a fraud. Everything I knew for certain was absolutely wrong. And finally, when I put myself on the line, she betrayed me. That was the end. I thought I was in love, and part of it was that, I think, but it was also that for the times I was with her I felt I was on the verge of becoming something else, and that was what I had been most desperately seeking all along. I still am, I guess. I’ve thought about it a lot since she disappeared from my life and it doesn’t make a whole bunch of sense, but then I guess obsessions never do.”

“You want her back?”

“Nope. Well, maybe, yes. I don’t know. Yes. Even still. But all that other stuff I wanted, they can blow it out their asses. I don’t want their success, I don’t want their admiration or their acceptance. Last thing I ever want is to slip on my tux and make nice with high society.”

She reached out her arm and slid a finger up my side, from my hip to my armpit. “So what is it that you want now, Victor?”

“Just the money,” I said, rather cruelly, and then it was her turn to wince.

But I was troubled enough about my whole burgeoning extracurricular relationship with Caroline Shaw that I wanted to keep certain things clear, and they were. Absolutely. The reason she was asking about the time I was in love, I was sure, was because while there we were, naked in bed, our legs intertwined, my condom, pendulous with fluid, already tied off and disposed of, the sweat still drying on our overheated bodies, fresh from making whatever it was we had been making, the one thing missing had been love. Its absence was as chillingly palpable as a winter’s fog.

I had brought her home as she had requested, and escorted her upstairs, as propriety required, but I had decided not to take her up on her belligerent invitation to screw. It wasn’t just that I wanted her as a client more than anything else and as a client any coital relationship would be highly suspect in the eyes of the bar, not the corner bar, where my reticence would have been laughed at, but the legal bar. And it wasn’t that it had not gone so well that night at Veritas, because I knew that the first time is often disappointing and no indication of the wonderful fruits to be reaped from regular and intense practice. And it wasn’t that I didn’t want to get caught in the middle of whatever tortured mess lay between her and Harrington because, well, I have to admit that only served to make her all the more attractive. No, the problem here was that there was something venal about my interest in Caroline Shaw and while I didn’t mind that in the usual lawyer-client relationship, where venality properly belonged, having it manifest itself in command performances in the sack, as part of my effort to get her signature on a contingency fee agreement, gave me the unwelcome, though not wholly unfamiliar, sense of being a whore. I had enough of that in my day job, I didn’t need it at night too.

So I had intended to pull away, but she had insisted on pouring me a drink, single malt whisky she had said it was and whatever it was it was pretty damn good and thank you, ma’am, I’ll have another. And as she drew closer to me on the Seaman’s couch I had intended to pull away, but then she took off her boots and tucked her pointed stockinged feet beneath her and curled next to me on the couch in that feline way she had. And I had intended to pull away but she leaned close to me and tilted her face to me and her eyes glistened and her mouth quivered with a sadness so damnably appealing that I couldn’t help but bend close enough to her that our lips almost brushed. Oh I had intended to pull away all right, I had intended intended intended to pull away, and then in the middle of all those good intentions what I found myself pulling was my tie off and my shirt off and her jeans off and my shoes off and her stockings off and my pants off and my socks off, hopping ludicrously around as first one fell and then the other, and the next thing I knew, as if just thinking it had made it so, she was spread-eagled and naked beneath me and I was sucking on a golden ring while I rolled her right nipple between my teeth.

Beside the multiple hoops in her ears and the stud in her nose there were rings on each nipple, there was a ring in her belly button, there was the rose tattoo on her ankle and the butterfly tattoo on her neck and a tattoo of a snake crawling dangerously up her hip. On each shoulder blade were rows of tattooed gashes, as if some giant cat had pounced upon her back with its claws extended. For a moment, as I worked on her breasts, first one nipple, then the other, letting my tongue lick each and caress each and then pull at its ring with a languorous tug, first one then the other and then back again, I could feel a slight tremble rise through the softness of her skin. I pushed her grandfather’s medal to the side and buried my face between her breasts before dragging my lips down, over the belly ring and down, until she arched her back and the magnificent musk of her shortened my breath with involuntary want. And then with the swiftness of a light being clicked off it happened again as it had happened before and I lost her.

“It was strange,” I said to her afterward, when we were lying face up on the bed. “Your friend Harrington. First time I met him I thought he was the biggest prick in the world. But tonight, I sort of liked him.”

She turned away from me, onto her stomach. Her butt was as round and as fresh as a melon. “ Franklin ’s a charmer.”

“You two have a peculiar engagement,” I said, reaching instinctively out to touch that butt and then thinking better of it and pulling my hand back before I actually did. “He finds out we’re sleeping together and asks, with all sincerity, if he can help. It was the strangest…”

“He’s a real charmer, all right,” she said, reaching over to the night table, smashing out her cigarette, pulling another out of the pack, fiddling with the lighter, holding up a flame.

I waited a beat before I asked, “What is it with you two?”

“Old wounds.”

I stared up at the ceiling and waited as she took a couple drags on her new cigarette. She took a few drags more and I waited still. She didn’t want to tell me, I could feel it, but I lay quietly on my back, certain that eventually she would. And then she did.

She had known Franklin pretty near all her life, she told me. Grandmother Shaw had found him at an orphanage, one of her special charities, and decided to take responsibility for the young foundling and give him a chance in the world. She was very special that way, her grandmother was, said Caroline. Very giving. She couldn’t give enough, especially to Franklin. She gave him clothes, toys, he had his own room in the servants’ section. It was always clear that he was different from the rest of the family, of course. How could that be avoided? He was expected to help Nat in the gardens while the Shaw children and their guests played freely in the house and he always had chores, but he often ate with the family and went on vacations with the family when the family, all but Caroline’s father, left Veritas for the Reddman house by the sea. In almost every way possible, Grandmother Shaw treated him like a member of the clan.

“So long as he helped Nat in the garden,” I said.

“Yes, well everything has its price, doesn’t it? It was a pretty good deal for Franklin, considering Grammy paid his way through Episcopal Academy and then Princeton.”

“He looks like a Princeton man.”

“He’s grown into the part.”

As a boy, she said, he was wild, hyperactive. He seemed to always be angry, charging here and there for no apparent reason, a handsome little towhead bursting with energy. He was the only real friend she had at the house. Her father was never there for her, hiding from the world and his family in his upstairs bedroom; her mother was so preoccupied with being a Reddman she had nothing left to give to her youngest daughter. Brother Edward was too busy looking for trouble to be interested in his little sister. Brother Bobby was shy and bookish and sister Jacqueline moped about melodramatically, wearing long flowing gowns, carrying her dog-eared copy of The Bell Jar everywhere. But Franklin was wild and full of some exciting anger that drew her to him. Whenever he wasn’t working they were running off together like wolves, the best of friends.

“How did Grammy feel about that?”

“You don’t understand my grandmother. She wasn’t a snob at all. If anything, she encouraged Franklin and me to play together, at least when we were young.”

They liked the same sports, hated the same people, read the same comic books. They watched The Love Boat on television every Saturday night, religiously. They both thought the Beatles were overrated, that Springsteen was the boss. They agreed that Annie Hall was the most important movie ever made. They were almost a perfect match, which is why it seemed so natural, so inevitable, when they first started having sex.

“Out there on the ancestral moors. How old were you the first time?”

“Fifteen.”

“Fifteen? That’s statutory.”

“He’s only two years older than me.”

“When I was fifteen I hadn’t even slow-danced with a girl.”

“It was absolutely innocent. We were absolutely in love. We decided we were going to be married, so why not, though we swore not to tell anyone.”

“Grammy wouldn’t have approved you messing with a servant, I guess.”

“She never knew, no one ever knew. It was Franklin who insisted it be an absolute secret, and I understood. He was never quite sure of his place among all us Reddmans.”

They’d hide out together in the old Poole house down by the Pond. They brought in a mattress, sheets and blankets, a radio. They turned that ruin of a house into a love nest and whenever they could get away that’s where they’d run. They read books, poetry, reciting the lines to each other. They listened to the newest songs on WMMR. They made love in cool summer evenings to a cricket serenade. They experimented with each other’s bodies.

“When I was fifteen,” I said in amazed envy, “I wasn’t even experimenting with my own body.”

“Cut it out,” she said. “It’s not a joke. I shouldn’t be telling you.”

We lay in the bed for a while, quietly. Our legs were no longer touching.

“So what happened to you two?” I asked finally.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I still don’t know,” she said.

Somehow their secret was discovered. They never knew by whom or how, but they had no doubt. Someone had sneaked into the old Poole house and rummaged through their things. They could feel a chill when they were together, as if they were being watched. And then one night, when he was eighteen, Franklin disappeared. No one knew what had happened or where he had gone, he had simply vanished. A letter came for him from Princeton. Caroline opened it anxiously, recklessly; he had been accepted, but there was no one to tell. She searched for him, called all their friends, checked out all their places, found not a trace. And when he reappeared, finally, after months and months, reappeared without explanation, he was somehow different. Whatever had been wild about him was gone. The anger in him that she had loved so much had disappeared. And when she finally got him back to the Poole house and demanded he tell her where he had been, he sat her down and told her it was over. Forever. That though he loved her with everything in his soul they would spend the rest of their lives apart. She clutched hold of him and cried and begged to know what she had done but he wouldn’t answer. He just stood and left and never went back into the house and never slept with her again.

“And there was no explanation?”

“None.”

“Any ideas?”

“None. At first I thought he might have a disease that he didn’t want to spread to me, or that he might be gay. I announced our engagement publicly, a childish attempt to force him to change his mind, and he didn’t disabuse anyone of the notion, so the expectation remains in the family that we will be married, but he hasn’t touched me since. He can barely stand to look at me now. Franklin has other women, I know that. What I don’t know is why he’d rather be with them than with me. But desertion seems to be the pattern, doesn’t it? My father hides from me in his room, my one true love flees from me.”

“Do you regret anything now?”

“I regret everything now, but not that. It was the finest, purest time of my life. The last innocent period where I still believed in the myth that life was a thrilling adventure and everything was possible and there was true happiness to be found in this world.”

“What do you believe in now?”

She inhaled from her cigarette and let it out slowly.

“Nothing,” she said finally. And I believed her. It was in the dead look in her eyes, in the body piercing, as if to gore a great emptiness, in the tattoos, as if to scrawl onto her body some evidence of faith. It was in the way she drank in her situations, intently, the way she smoked, with the incessant dedication of a suicide, the way she held herself, like an actress searching in the wings for a line because she had none of her own. And most of all, it was in the way she screwed.

After she had clicked off into passivity I didn’t give up trying to bring her back. I kissed the flesh behind her ear and rubbed her crotch with my thigh and took hold of her hair. Though at Veritas I had been expecting something more, I wasn’t surprised this time when she left me alone in her bed with her body. But despite how I tried to revive her, she was gone, to someplace calm and innocent, to someplace full of youth and love, to someplace I could never follow, leaving me with only her flesh and my heightened desire. So what else was there to do? I caressed her pale flanks, indelibly marked in the green ink of her tattoos, sucked at her neck, dragged my tongue across the rough skin beneath her arms. Her mouth, newly rinsed with Scope, tasted as minty and new as a newly minted hundred-dollar bill and I grew ever more excited despite myself. To have sex with Caroline Shaw, I realized whilst astride her, was to peer into Rockefeller’s soul.

She lay there quietly for me, eyes open, saying not a word as I did what I willed with her. Her very passivity spurred me, her eyes staring at me, rich and blue, challenging. I straddled her and turned her around so those rich eyes were away from me and I entered her, pumping hard, pumping furiously, filled with anger at her stark passivity. And in the moment that I came, my teeth clenched in release, it was as if Mammon itself opened up its secrets to me and I started to grasp its dark power. It is utter emptiness, a vessel formed of nothing, filled with nothing, believing in nothing, an emptiness into which we are urged to pour our most essential truths. And what spurted out of me was not love nor compassion nor charity nor even need, what spurted out was all my wanting and my coveting, all my deep yearning for anything that anyone else might ever have, all my darkest ambitions for prestige and power and glory and ultimately what? Godhood? God help me. That was the next-to-worst part of screwing Caroline Shaw, the part that brought to light the ugliest shadows of my crippled soul.

The worst part was that I liked it.

“Do you think all that crap about Elisha Poole and my great-grandfather might have something to do with Jacqueline’s death?” asked Caroline.

“I don’t know. Maybe. Harrington seemed interested enough.”

“He did, didn’t he?” She took a drag from her cigarette. “I had a strange feeling in the restaurant when you and he were discussing this thing about Poole. It was more like a déjà vu than anything else, but I felt it. It was like there weren’t only three of us at the table anymore, there was someone else, sitting with us, casting a coldness over everything.”

“A ghost?”

“No, a presence, maybe just a memory. But it made me shiver.”

“Who? Your grandmother?”

“Someone else, someone strange to me. It was almost like my great-grandfather was there, listening to us talk about him. Is that weird?”

“I don’t know. Maybe it was just a draft.”

“Whatever it was, it was really cold.” She took another drag and then stubbed out her cigarette right on the table’s surface. “I think it’s time I learned the truth about my family’s history. I think I want to know everything that happened, from the very beginning to what is left of us now. I want to know if it was always rotten or if there was a moment of brightness before it turned.”

“Conciliation, expiation, redemption,” I said.

“Yes, I want to know about that too. Especially the redemption.”

“You might not like what you find.”

“I don’t care. What could I ever learn that could make things worse for me?”

“Are you sure?”

“Positive, as long as you’ll do it with me.”

“If that’s what you want.”

“That’s what I want. You’ll see it through to the end, won’t you, Victor? You won’t desert me like every other man in my life, will you?”

Perhaps it was all part of the masculine ego rush that comes after hard sex, accentuated by the glimpse I had caught of the dark truths in my soul, but just then I didn’t feel like every other man. Just then I felt within me a strange and unique power, not only to do financial good for myself but to do good for Caroline, too. She had said before that she wanted to be saved; maybe the truths I would unearth in her family’s past could provide the first crucial steps toward her salvation. It was a maybe, only a maybe, but a maybe could warrant a hell of a lot. As a lawyer I had gotten pretty damn good at self-justification.

“I won’t desert you,” I said. “I’ll see it through.”

“So where do we start?”

“I have an idea, but you’ll think it crazy.”

“No I won’t.”

“Forget it,” I said. “It’s too wild.”

She turned over on her stomach and drew her fingers lightly across my chest. “What is it, Victor? Whatever it is, no matter how insane, we’ll do it, I promise.”

“Anything?”

“I promise.”

“Well, what I think we should do next,” I said, sitting up and looking straight into those rich, blue eyes, “is dig up your grandmother’s garden.”

29

THE VAST STRETCH OF LAWN within the iron gates of Veritas was a sea of blackness, the windows of the mansion were dark. I parked the car on the upsweep of the driveway so as not to wake anyone who might have been in the house. It was a pitchy night, the moon was new, and in the expanse of sky that spread over the estate the stars peered forth like a million frog eyes. Caroline led with the flashlight as we made our way quietly around the house and to the rear gardens. In my right hand was a shovel we had just purchased from Home Depot for $9.99, a long-handled discount jobber with a sharp blade of flawed steel ready to chip at the first pebble. In my left hand was a kerosene lantern I had dug out of my closet from among my camping gear. We had stopped at a gas station to fill it with unleaded but I had misjudged the process and had drenched my pants with gasoline. Along with the fear of self-combustion was the dry sour smell that followed me wherever I moved.

As we sneaked around the ballroom side of the house, I tripped over a stone and cracked my shin. I let out a short sharp cry. Caroline turned the beam of her light into my face.

“Shut up,” she whispered fiercely, a shadow behind the blob of light. “If you can’t be quiet we’ll just forget it.”

“I’ll be quiet,” I said quietly. I rubbed my shin. “I just fell. Get that light out of my face.” I pushed myself back to standing. “Let’s go.”

“This was a bad idea,” she said, her inquisitor’s light still blaring in my face. “We should forget it.”

“You said you wanted to dig into your family history,” I said. “That’s just what we’re doing. It’s your house. I don’t know why you’re so jittery.”

“You don’t understand my grandmother. She wanted her garden left alone and she was not one to be defied.”

“She’s dead, Caroline.”

“If there’s anyone with the power to control this world from her grave, it’s my grandmother.”

I was surprised to see how nervous Caroline had become. When I first mentioned the idea a few nights before she seemed amused by it, as if it were a prank as harmless as toilet-papering a house or leaving a burning bag of manure on a doorstep. But as I explained my reasons she grew more and more apprehensive. She was afraid Nat would find out, or her father, or her mother, or Consuelo. It was clear that for a woman who claimed she believed in nothing, she found much in the Reddman family to fear, including her dead grandmother. She had insisted she would only go along if we were silent and did our best to replace the torn-up garden, all of which I had agreed to.

“I’ll be quiet,” I said. “Just stay close, I don’t know the property as well as you do.”

Side by side now, we followed the distorted oval of light on the ground. It led us across a side porch, around the swampy pool, to the giant square of untrimmed hedges looming large and mysterious in the night.

“Are you sure?” she said.

“I’m sure,” I said, though in the presence of those living walls I was not so positive as I sounded. Maybe I was just catching some of Caroline’s fear, or maybe there was something inside those thorny walls that resonated at the low pitch of horror, but whatever it was, as I approached the secret garden I felt more and more uneasy about what we were about to do.

We moved around those great walls until we arrived at where the entrance to the maze should have been. In the flattening beam of the flashlight it was hard to see any gaps. There was an irregular dark line of an opening at one spot. I put down the lantern and stepped up to the uneven line. When I reached through I felt something bite my hand. I snatched it back and found a thorn embedded between my forefinger and thumb.

“Damn it,” I said as I yanked it out with my teeth. “These thorns are lethal. That’s not it.”

“Maybe over there,” she said.

She was pointing the light now at a ragged vertical line that looked just like the last ragged vertical line in which my hand had been attacked. I reached in again and this time felt nothing impeding my hand once I got past the first layer of scraping branches. I pulled out my hand and turned around to look at her. She was almost cringing. Behind us, like a huge black bird extending its wings, crouched Veritas. Not a light was on inside. I picked up the lantern, whispered vague encouragements to Caroline, and slipped through the narrow opening, feeling the scrape of the spiny leaves on my arms and neck. Caroline squeezed through right behind me.

In the darkness, the pathways seemed narrow and malevolent. I remembered how bright and fresh they had been when I entered in the daylight, how the birds had sung and the butterflies had danced, how the smell of wildflowers had suffused the atmosphere with a sweet freshness, but we were no longer in the daylight. The air was thick with moisture and smelled of rot, as if whatever had been infecting that dinosaur of a mansion seeped out from the stones and mortar and wood, under cover of darkness, to taint everything within its reach. We followed the pathways from one entrance to another, searching for our way through the maze. I wondered if this was how rats felt. I slashed the shovel into the ground as I walked, using it like a walking staff. Finally, after a few wrong turns and a few dead ends and a few moments of blind panic when there appeared to be no way out, we entered upon the very heart of Grandmother Shaw’s private garden.

Caroline didn’t go beyond the arched entranceway, halting there as if kept out by the type of invisible fence used to restrain dogs. From the entranceway she flicked the flashlight’s circle of light around the area. The statue of Aphrodite, struggling against hairy arms of vine, was to our right; the bench, its orange blossoms closed in the darkness, was to our left. The oval plot at the center that had been populated with violet lilies and pale yellow jewelweed when Grimes had visited was now overgrown with thick grasses that were strangling the few perennials that had survived.

I placed the lantern on the ground and kneeled before it. “Put the light here,” I said.

The circle of light jerked around the little garden and landed on the kerosene lantern. There was a tiny button on the side which, when I pulled, extended itself into a pump. I jacked the pump back and forth, priming the lantern. Then, when the pressure made the pumping difficult, I lit a match and turned a knob to the highest level and heard the sweet hiss of the pressurized fuel escaping. As I slipped the match under the glass windshield the inside of the lantern exploded into fire, which, after a few seconds, centered with a fury on the mantle. The white-hot flame blanched the scene for a moment before our eyes adjusted to the harsh light and long shadows.

I took the lantern and hung it from one of the arms of Aphrodite. Then I took the shovel, stepped through the weeds in the garden’s central, oval plot, and, right in the middle of the oval, jabbed the shovel deep into the earth. As I levered the shovel’s blade upward the roots of the weeds and flowers snapped and groaned until the shovel’s load of dirt and weed pulled free, revealing bare black earth beneath. I tossed what I had dug to the side and jabbed the shovel into the groaning earth once more.

It was not as crazy an idea as it sounds, digging up that garden. When Grimes, Jacqueline Shaw’s fiancé, had told me in the Irish Pub of his audience with Grandmother Shaw in that very same place, I had been left with the distinct impression that there was something hidden in the ground there. “Treasures are buried in this earth,” Grammy Shaw had said, “keepsakes, mementos of a better time. Everything of value we place here.” It had sounded figurative at best, but it had left me with an uneasy feeling, accentuated by her explanation of how, when the vapors of her gas plant burned, it was as if the spirits buried in that earth were igniting. On my first visit to that garden I had almost felt it beneath my feet, a presence of some sort, something dark and alive. And then Nat, the gardener, who seemed to know more than anyone else of the Reddman family’s secrets, Nat, trailing frogs like a twisted Pied Piper, Nat had come upon me in that overrun oval and told me that Grandmother Shaw was right to order that this place should remain untended and allowed to turn wild. “Sometimes what’s buried should remain buried,” he had said. “No good can come from digging up the dead.”

There were no shortage of suspects for Jacqueline Shaw’s murder. Peter Cressi had killed her, sure, and somehow I would make sure he paid the price, but, financially speaking, pinning the death only on Peter did nothing for me. There had to be someone who paid him to do it, who arranged for the roof and stairwell doors to be open as he slipped down and performed his UPS impersonation, someone with assets on which I could collect once I filed and won my civil suit. Was it the Church of the New Life, that bogus cult of rehashed New Age excretion that was scheduled to reap a cool five mil from Jacqueline’s death and tried to threaten me off the case? Or was it Eddie Shaw, pressured by the mob to pay up his debt, his arm shattered, his life threatened? He had been at the Cambium that afternoon, having flown in just for that purpose from North Carolina, looking for Jacqueline, so he had said, in perfect position to wedge the roof door open, to tape back the automatic lock on the stair shaft door, setting up Cressi’s murderous visit. How he must have howled when he found out there was no insurance money coming to him. Or maybe it was Bobby Shaw, the diffident sexually confused stutterer, whose life was devoted to increasing the value of his fortune, or Harrington, who also had access to Jacqueline’s building and was refusing marriage to a Reddman for some unknown reason.

There were enough suspects in the present to keep me busy, sure, but I wasn’t digging up Grandma Shaw’s garden just to find for Caroline the truths buried in her family’s history. Something strange was at work here, something old, something hidden deep within the story of the Reddmans. Everything seemed to center around that crazed relic, Grammy Shaw, with her twisted face and one good eye, controlling the destiny of her entire dysfunctional family. Grammy had brought Nat and Selma and Harrington into the clutches of the Reddman family; Grammy had diverted great sums of money into a secret trust for some unknown purpose; Grammy had decreed that the garden was to grow wild and be left untouched. I couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever secret Grammy had been trying to hide she had buried in this garden. I could have respected her wishes, sure, the rich old hag with half a face, but protecting her secrets wasn’t going to get me any closer to my hard-earned share of her fortune. “No good can come from digging up the dead,” had said Nat, the gardener. But it wasn’t my dead.

I was three feet down when I heard the clang of my shovel against something hard and metallic. Behind me was a heap of dirt and ripped-out plants. The air was filled with the smell of old earth being turned. I had been digging out the heart of the little oval garden for almost an hour now, digging an area about eight feet long and four feet wide, trying to keep the floor of the pit level, like an archaeologist searching for pottery shards through strata of time. It was hard going, all except for one patch. I had stripped down to my tee shirt in the warm night. My hands slipped along the shiny surface of the new shovel’s handle and had started to blister, forcing me to grip the wooden shaft awkwardly, so as to keep the tender portions from continuing to rub. My muscles ached and my back was only a few strains from spasm. In my few breaks, Caroline had dug a bit, but without much enthusiasm or progress, so it was mainly up to me. Without a pickax, I was forced to chop at the dirt with the shovel to loosen the packed earth before I could scoop it up, all except for the one patch I mentioned before. It was a small area roughly in the middle of the garden where the dirt was softer. I thought about just digging there, but I didn’t want to miss anything, so I kept at the whole of the pit. Still, it was no surprise that, when I heard the clang of metal against metal, it came from the loosely packed center.

When I first heard the clang I wasn’t sure what it was, my blade had already sparked against a few rocks, but then I clanged again and Caroline let out a small gasp, and then another, one for each time I wracked my shovel against the metal. It didn’t take me long to figure out the rough rectangular dimensions of the object and to dig around it until my shovel could slip beneath and then to leverage it up out of the earth.

It was a box, a metal strongbox, dark, with rusted edges. There was a handle on the top, which I pulled, but it broke away quickly, weakened by rust and decay. I grabbed the box from beneath the sides and lifted. It was heavy and it smelled richly of old iron. When I gave it a tender shake I could feel its insides shift. The primary weight was the box itself, I could tell, for what had shifted inside had been relatively light. There was a lock integrated into the body of the metal and then another lock, an old rusted padlock, holding together two bars welded onto the top and the bottom. With the box in my arms, I stepped out of the pit and brought it to Caroline.

“You ever see this before?” I asked.

“No,” she said, backing away from it as if it were a cat. “Never.”

“I can’t believe there was something actually here.”

Staring, as if transfixed by the sight of that box, she said, “My grandmother put that there.”

“Looks like it.”

“Open it,” she said.

“I don’t think I can.”

“Knock it open,” she said. “Now.”

As I carefully laid the box on the ground I glanced up at her. She stared down at the box as if it were something alive that needed killing. I took a breath, raised the shovel, and slammed the edge into the lock. It held. I raised the shovel again and slammed it again, and then again, and each time the padlock jumped in its frame and then sat back again, whole and tightly shut. I went at it a few times more, waiting for the padlock to explode, but they don’t make things like they used to because they used to make them pretty damn well. The padlock held.

I swore as I swung futilely, the clangs of the shovel against the metal rising above the night calls of the crickets.

“You’re making too much noise,” she said.

I stopped, leaned over to gasp for air, turned my face to her. “You wanted me to open it. I don’t think asking it nicely to unlock itself is going to work.”

“You don’t have to be nasty.”

“We’ll take it with us,” I said. “You want me to fill in the hole?”

“Not yet,” she said. “There might be something else down there.”

“What else would be down there?”

“I don’t know, but we’ve gone this far.”

She took the shovel from me and hopped into the hole. She was trying harder now than before, as if some weakness of resolve had been strengthened by the sight of that box, by the knowledge that there were indeed secrets to be unearthed, but even so she was still making little progress. This far down the earth was hard-packed. I didn’t expect she’d find anything else, but it was boring just to watch.

“Let me try,” I said.

I stepped in the hole and took the shovel and ignored the pain in my hands as I went at it. A half an hour later my hair was wet with sweat, my tee shirt was soaked through, my hands were bleeding where the blisters had rubbed off. I was just about to give up when I jabbed the shovel into the earth and the ringing of the metal blade was strangely muffled. I tried it again and again heard the same soft sound.

“What’s that?” I said.

I cleared as much dirt as I could and saw a piece of something rising from the packed earth, something folded and soft. I looked up at her as she stood over me and I shrugged.

“It’s a piece of canvas or something,” she said. “It almost looks like a sail.”

“What’s it doing there?”

“Who knows,” she said.

I scraped some more around it and cleared the dirt away. A long ridge of a darkened fabric was rising from the floor of the pit.

“I’m going to pull it to see what it is,” I said.

The fabric was thick and still strong within my fingers. Pulling at it was like pulling at time itself. Nothing moved, nothing budged. I jerked and pulled and made no progress. I moved around to get a better grip and started yanking again. Nothing, no shift, no budge, nothing. Caroline jumped down and took hold and helped me pull, but there was still no movement, still nothing – and then something. The ridge of cloth lengthened, dirt started shifting. A dark smell, ancient and foul, slipped from the ground.

“It’s coming,” I said. We pulled hard and yanked again and more of the cloth started coming free.

“On the count of three,” I said as we both tightened our grips. “One, two, three.”

I put my weight into it and yanked back, pressing with my legs against the dirt, and Caroline did the same and suddenly the cloth gave and there was a cracking sound and we both fell flat onto our backs and that ancient ugly scent covered us like a noisome blanket.

Caroline was the first to scamper up and so I was still on my back when I heard her breath stop as if blocked by a chunk of half-chewed meat. I looked up at her. Her hands were pressed against her face and her eyes were screaming even though her throat was making not a sound.

I pulled myself to my feet and took hold of her and shook her until she started breathing once again. While she was gasping for air she pointed to the other side of the pit and I looked to where she was pointing and there I saw it, lit by the white light of the lantern, and my breath caught too.

A hand, its fingers outstretched, reaching out of the ground from among the folds of what looked now to be an old cloth coat, reaching up to the unblinking stars, a human hand but not one that had seen the softness of the sweet night sky for scores of years. It stuck out of the dirt, pointing up as if in accusation, and from the white light of the lantern came the gleam of a gold ring still riding a finger of bone, the flesh and muscle having long been devoured by the foul creeping life that prowls the loam for death.

The first thought that came to my mind upon seeing that skeleton hand with a ring on its finger was that maybe now it was time to call in my private investigator, Morris Kapustin.

Part 3. Faith

Those who set out to serve both God and Mammon soon discover there isn’t a God.

– LOGAN PEARSALL SMITH

30

Belize City to San Ignacio, Belize

WHAT HAD BEEN MERELY rumors of dark doings in the Reddman past were absolutely confirmed by our finding of the corpse with the gold ring behind Veritas. I was certain when we found it that the root of the evil from which redemption had been sought by Grammy Shaw was buried beneath the dead woman’s garden, but I was wrong. That death was an offshoot of some older, more primal crime, and only when that crime was discovered could we begin to unravel the mystery of what had murdered Jacqueline Shaw and threatened the destruction of all traces of the Reddman line. It was that discovery that led me, ultimately, to Belize, where a killer awaits.

I am sitting with my cases on the steps outside the guest house in Belize City, waiting for Canek Panti to take me to San Ignacio. Before me is a guard of low palms and then the unpaved road and then the Caribbean, turning from gray to a brilliant turquoise in the distance. It is five minutes after nine and already the sun is broiling. I look down both sides of Marine Parade but do not see my guide. Sweat is dripping down my shirt and I am thirsty, even though I drank an entire bottle of water at breakfast.

There is a grinding of gears and a hoot and the shaking sound of doubtful brakes. I look up and see Canek Panti leaping out of a battered brown Isuzu Trooper, rushing to grab hold of my bags. He is hatless today, wearing serious black shoes, a clean shirt, his work clothes, I suppose. His face is solemn. “I am sorry I am late, Victor,” says Canek.

“You’re right on time,” I say as I grab my briefcase and take it into the front seat with me. Canek hauls my suitcase into the rear and then jumps back up into the driver’s seat.

“You have a lot to see today,” he says.

“Well, let’s have at it. San Ignacio or bust.”

“Or bust what?”

“It’s an American expression. It means it’s time to go.”

“San Ignacio or we bust apart, then,” he says, nodding seriously, as he grinds the gears and the engine whines and the car shoots forward. He jerks the wheel to the left and the car takes a sharp leaning turn and we are now heading away from the Caribbean.

Canek honks the horn repeatedly on the narrow roads as he edges our way out of the city. He doesn’t talk, concentrating on his maneuvering, biting his lip as he works past the crowds, children wearing maroon or blue or white school uniforms, women with baskets of laundry on their heads, panhandlers and artisans, Rastafarians striding purposefully, thin men, in short sleeves and ties, riding to work on their too-small bicycles. Finally we reach a long narrow road lined with cemeteries. The ground around us is littered with shallow stone tombs, bleached white or dusty black, covered with crosses, guarded by little dogs staring at us impassively as we pass. Once past the cemeteries we begin to speed through the mangrove swamps that grow like a barrier around Belize City and onward along the Western Highway.

Lonely clapboard houses on stilts rise above the sodden ground. The rusted-out hulks of old American cars are half covered by the swamp. Canek leans on his horn as he passes a bus. The landscape is flat and wet and flat and smells of skunk. A ratty old sign in front of nowhere announces that we have reached the Belize Country Club, another urges us to check our animals to keep Belize screwworm free. Canek keeps his foot firmly on the pedal and soon we pass out of the swamps and onto a vast, sandy heath littered with scrub palmetto.

“This used to be a great pine forest,” shouts Canek over the engine’s uneven whine, “and mahogany too. But they cut all the trees and floated them down the river to the ships.”

We drive a long while, seeing nothing but the occasional shack rising askew out of the flat countryside, until to our left we spot the vague outlines of strange peaks, like great haystacks jutting from the flat ground. As we pass by these toothlike rises I begin to see, in the distance, the jagged outlines of the mountains to the west. At a colorful sign planted in the earth Canek slows the Trooper and turns off the highway, pulling the car into the dusty parking lot of a windowless and doorless shack-bar call JB’s Watering Hole.

The place is studded with wooden placards bearing the names and emblems of British Army squadrons that were once stationed in Belize to protect it from Guatemala: “34 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers”; “1st Battalion, No. 2 Company, Irish Guards”; “The Gloucester Regiment, QMs Platoon-25 Hours a Day.” A few men in ratty clothes are drinking already, a young girl is wiping a table. Canek says he needs some water for the car and so I sit under a spinning fan as he works outside.

After a few moments he comes in grinning and tells me everything is fine. “The car gets thirsty,” he says. “Let’s have lunch.” He orders us both stewed chicken in a brown sauce. It comes with coleslaw and rice and beans and even though it is already spicy hot he covers his with an angry red habanero sauce. As we eat we both have a Belikin and he tells me stories about the place, about the wild ex-pat who owned it and how the British soldiers turned it rowdy and how Harrison Ford drank here while filming Mosquito Coast.

“You’re a good guide, Canek. The good guides know all the best bars.”

“It is my country and there are not many bars.”

“This chicken is wonderful.”

“Outside of Belize City it is best to stick with chicken. You don’t have to store it or refrigerate it. When you are ready to eat you just go outside and twist off the head.”

I stare at the thigh I am working on for a moment and then slice off another piece. “What is San Ignacio like?”

“Small and fun. It used to be wilder when the loggers were there but the loggers have moved on and now it is not as wild.”

“Are there good bars there?”

“Yes, I will show you. And on Saturday nights they have dancing at the ruins above the city.”

“If a man was hiding out, would he hide out in San Ignacio?”

“No, not in San Ignacio. But it is the capital of the Cayo and the Cayo is wild country. There are ranches hidden from the roads and rivers that flow through the jungle and places you can only get to by horseback or by canoe.”

“Is it pretty?”

“It is very pretty. You haven’t told me what is your business there, Victor.”

“I’m looking for someone,” I say. “Someone who owes me money.”

“This is a long way for an American to come to collect on a debt.”

“It’s a hell of a debt.”

Back on the road, the highway starts kinking and slowly the landscape around the road changes to pine-covered hills and rocky pasture lands holding small villages. We pass a two-room schoolhouse, no windows or doors, old men sitting on the railing outside, listening to the lessons. Now and then we begin to pass boys on horseback. Canek shows me the turnoff to Spanish Lookout, where a Mennonite community farms the land in their straw hats and black buggies. He asks me if I want to see and I shake my head. Lancaster is only forty minutes from Philadelphia and I have never had the urge to visit the Pennsylvania Dutch there; I don’t need to see them in Belize.

The land begins to undulate more and more violently and the mountains grow closer and on the mountains we can now see the forests, a dangerous green spilling thickly down the slopes. We pass a horseback rider sitting straight in his saddle, a rifle strapped to his shoulder, the muzzle jutting forward, serving as an armrest. Finally, in the middle of a valley, on the banks of a slow river, ringed with high hills, we find San Ignacio.

We wait at the end of a long one-lane bridge for a rickety red truck to pass before Canek drives us across the Macal River. The metal surface of the bridge rattles loudly beneath us. Canek takes us through the twists and turns of the town, filled with old storefronts and narrow streets, and then we are back on the Western Highway, traveling toward the ruins of the Mayan stronghold of Xunantunich.

“The word means ‘stone maiden,’ ” says Canek as he drives us further on the paved road, alongside a wide shallow river. “The legend is that one of its discoverers saw the ghost of a woman on the ruins. It is set on a level hilltop overlooking the Mopan River and it guarded the route from the great city of Tikal, now in Guatemala, to the sea. It was a ceremonial center, along with Caracol, to the south, when this area had a greater population than the entire country of Belize has now. There was an earthquake in the year nine hundred that caused the abandonment of the city.”

“It’s amazing,” I say, “how the Maya just disappeared.”

“But that’s not right,” says Canek. “We haven’t disappeared at all.”

I turn and stare at him. He is very serious and his broad cheekbones suddenly look sharper than before.

“I didn’t know you were Mayan.”

“We have our own villages here and in Guatemala where we continue the old ways, at least some of the old ways. We don’t go in for human sacrifice anymore.” He smiles. “Except for during festival days. This is San Jose Succotz. The first language here is Mayan.”

He pulls the car off the road onto a gravel shoulder. To our left is a village built into a hillside. A pair of ragged stands flank a small drive that leads straight into the water to our right. On the far shore of the river is a wooden ferry, short and thick and heavy, big enough to hold one car only. We wait in the car for the ferry to make its way to our side of the river. Boys come to the car’s window, offering slate trinkets and carvings with Mayan designs. “You buy here when you come back,” says one of the boys to me. “Don’t believe what they say on the other side, they are escaped from the hospital, you know, the crazy house.” On the other side I see more boys waiting to sell their slate. Further down the river, women are scrubbing laundry against the rocks and children are splashing in the water.

When the ferry arrives, its leading edge of wood coming to rest on the gravel drive, Canek slowly pulls the car down the small drive and onto the ferry. An old ferryman patiently waits for Canek to situate the car in the middle before he begins to twist the crank that winches the wire that drags the ferry back across the river. The water is calm and the ferry barely ripples as the old man draws us forward with each turn of the crank. Canek and the ferryman talk in a language which is decidedly not Spanish. “We were speaking Mopan,” he says. “This village is Mopan Maya. I am Yucatec Maya but I know this dialect as well as my own.”

When the ferry reaches the far bank, Canek drives the Trooper off onto another drive, takes a sharp right, and begins the climb up the rough, rock-strewn road that will take us to the ancient fortress. Canek tells me we are only a mile and a half from the Guatemalan border. After a long uphill drive we reach a parking grove. When Canek steps down from the car he pulls from it a canteen of water and a huge machete, which he slips into a loop off his pants.

“That’s a fancy knife,” I say.

“The jungle overgrows everything in time,” he says.

As we climb the rest of the way, mosquitoes hover about my face and from all around us comes the manic squall of wildlife. The jungle rises along the edges of our path, green and dark and impenetrable. Canek, ever the perfect guide, offers me the canteen he carries and I stop to drink. Finally, out of the dark canopy of jungle we come upon the ceremonial plaza of Xunantunich.

The plaza is bright with sun, verdant with grasses and cohune palms and the encroaching jungle, as flat as a putting green. At the edges of the plaza hummingbirds hover among brilliant tropical flowers, darting from one bright color to another. Rising from the verdant earth in great piles of plant-encrusted rock are the remains of huge Mayan structures. There is something frightening in the immensity and the solidity of these ancient things, once hidden by centuries of jungle growth, like painful truths that have been unearthed. And dominating it all to our left, like the grandest truth of all, is El Castillo, a huge man-made mountain of rock.

Canek gives me the tour, as authoritative as if he had lived here when the plaza was still alive. He shows me a ceremonial stone bench in one of the temples and a frieze of a king and his spiritual midget in the little museum shack. “Midgets are sacred to the Maya,” says Canek. “They are the special ones, touched by God as children, which is why they have stopped growing. They are able to journey back and forth between this world and the underworld. Some still claim to see the sacred little ones walking along the roads.” He takes me to the residential buildings off the plaza, hacking with his machete through the jungle to get us there, and shows me the ball yard, a narrow grassy alley between the sloping sides of two of the temples. “The games were largely ceremonial,” says Canek, “and the ceremony at the end involved the sacrifice of the losers.”

“And I thought hockey was tough,” I say.

We make our way around the grounds until we face the immensity of El Castillo, which towers above us, cragged and steep, stained green with life, banded with a reconstructed frieze of beige.

“Can we climb it?” I ask.

“If you wish.”

“Let’s do it.”

I take a drink of water and we begin to ascend the long wide steps along the north side of El Castillo. The thing we are climbing is a ruin in every sense of the word, churned to crumbling by the jungle, but as we turn from the wide steps and climb off to the left and around, past the huge ornate glyphs of jaguars reconstructed on that side, the structure of the artificial mountain becomes clearer. It is a tower built upon other towers, an agglomeration of buildings perched one atop the next. From the path on the east side the vista is magnificent but Canek doesn’t stop here. He takes me around to the south side, where a set of steps leads to a wide plateau. We scoot around a narrow ledge to a balcony with steep walls on either side and a broad view east, into the jungles of Belize.

“You can go farther up,” says Canek.

“Let’s go then.”

“You should go alone, Victor. It is better alone.”

He gives me a drink of water. I look again down from the balcony and realize I am already over a hundred feet above the plaza. I take another drink and then head back, across the narrow ledge, to the south side. It appears there is no way up but then I spot a narrow set of stairs cut into the stone. I climb them, one hand brushing the wall, to a ledge where I find a similar set of narrow stairs, this set leading up to a high room, stinking incongruously of skunk. There is no way out of that room, but I follow the ledge to the west, to another room, with a set of steep stone stairs spiraling up through a hole cut into the room’s ceiling. I grab the steps above me to keep me steady and begin my climb. Slowly I rise through the ceiling and then step onto a narrow plaza with five great blocks of stone, seated one next to the other, like five jagged teeth. I am so relieved to be again on solid ground that it takes me a moment to calm myself before I look around. When I do my breath halts from the sight.

I can see so far it is as if I can see through time. I trace the indentation of the river as it flows through the jungle. In the distance to the east is San Ignacio and the rest of Belize. But for a slight haze I’m certain I could see the ocean. To the west is the absolute green of the wilds of the Petén region of Guatemala. I am being held aloft by the ruins of a temple thousands of years old and for a moment I feel informed by the ancient wisdom of those who built and worshiped in this edifice. There is more to the universe than what I can see and feel, this ancient knowledge tells me, more than the shallow limits of my own horizons, and this limitlessness, it tells me just as surely, is as much a part of me as my hand and my heart and my soul. It comes to me in an instant, this knowledge of my own infinitude, as solid as any insight I have ever held, and disappears just as quickly, leaving the unattached emotional traces of a forgotten dream.

I wipe the sweat from my neck and wonder what the hell that was all about. I figure I am suffering from dehydration and should quickly get to the hotel in San Ignacio, suck down some water, relax, take it slow for a day or two before continuing my search. But I look around and think again on what it was I thought I understood. The story of the corpse we found beneath the garden behind the great Reddman house twists and turns through love and war and ever more death, but it also contains one man’s understanding of his place in the universe that gave solace and serenity and maybe even something akin to forgiveness. For the first time since I learned of it I have an inkling of what it might have done to him to see the world and his life that way. Jacqueline Shaw, I think, was looking for the same sort of understanding during her time with the Church of the New Life, as was Beth after her. There are truths, I know with all certainty, that I will never grasp, but that doesn’t make them any less true. And some of those truths might be the only antidote to the poison that passed like a plague through the Reddman line.

And as I spin around and look once more at this grand vista I know something else with an absolute certainty. I don’t know how I know it, or why, but I know it, yes I do. What I know for certain is that the man for whom I am searching is somewhere down there, somewhere hiding in the wild green of that jungle.

And I’m going to find the bastard, I know that too.

31

MORRIS KAPUSTIN WAS SITTING at my dining room table with his head in his hands. He had a naturally large head, Morris did, and it seemed even larger due to his long peppered beard and mass of unruly hair, the wide-brimmed black hat he wore even inside my apartment, the way his small pudgy hands barely covered his face. His black suit was ragged, his thin tie was loose about his neck, he leaned forward with his elbows on the table and his tiny feet resting on the strut of his chair, listening with great concentration. Across from him sat Beth, who was explaining her most recent meditative exercises to him. On the table between Beth and Morris was the metal box Caroline and I had disinterred from the garden behind Veritas the night before. Deep ridges slashed through the surface of the metal where I had futilely chopped at the box with the shovel. It sat there, dirty and crusted, still unopened, large with mystery.

“We start with a small seed,” said Beth. “We place it before us and meditate upon it, thinking all the while of the plant that will grow from the seed. We visualize the plant inherent in the seed, make it present to us and in us, and then meditate on that visualization, allow our soul to react to it. Eventually, we begin to see the life force in the seed as a sort of flame.”

“And this flame, what does it look like?” asked Morris.

“It’s close to the color purple in the middle, with something like blue at the edges.”

“And you’ve seen this hallucination?” I said.

Beth looked up at me calmly. “Yes,” she said.

“Fascinating,” said Morris, the final “ng” sounding like a “k.” “Simply fascinating.”

“And then we concentrate on a mature plant and immerse ourselves in the thought that this plant will someday wither and decay before being reborn through its seeds. As we concentrate on the death and rebirth of this plant, banishing all thoughts other than those of the plant, we begin to see the death force inherent in the plant, and it too is like a flame, green-blue in its center and yellow-red at the periphery.”

“I can’t believe you’re buying into this crap, Beth,” I said.

“I’ve seen it,” she said. “Either that or my lentil casserole was spiked.”

“And now, after you’ve seen all this,” said Morris, “what are you supposed to do with all that you are seeing?”

“I don’t know that yet,” said Beth with a sigh. “Right now I’m struggling to develop my spiritual sight so that, when the truth does appear, I’ll be ready to perceive it.”

“When you perceive something a little more than these flamelike colors,” said Morris, “then you come back to me and we’ll talk. The spirit world, it is not unknown to Jews, but these colors, they are no more than shmei drei. Just colors I can see every day on cable.”

Morris Kapustin was my private detective. He didn’t look like a private detective or talk like a private detective or act like a private detective but he thought like the best private detective you’ve ever dreamed of. I liked him and trusted him and, after Beth, the list of those whom I actually liked and trusted was rather short. Like all good things in this life I had first had him rammed down my throat. A group of insurgent clients had thought a settlement offer I had jumped at was less than their case was worth. They ordered me to hire Morris to find a missing witness. Morris found him, which increased the value of the case tremendously, and in the process he sort of saved my life. Since then he had been my private dick, my spiritual adviser, and my friend. I had thought I would do my dance around the Reddman fortune without him but, after discovering that skeleton the night before, I realized that the mysteries were deepening beyond my minimal capacities and that I needed Morris.

“I think,” I said to Beth, “that Morris is pretty firmly entrenched in a spiritual tradition a few thousand years older than your Church of the New Life. I’m sure he’s not interested in your New Age rubbish.”

Morris picked his head up out of his hands. “On the contrary, Victor. It is just such rubbish that interests me so much. Did you ever hear, Victor, of Kabbalah?”

“I’ve heard of it,” I said, though that was about the limit of my knowledge. Kabbalah was an obscure form of Jewish mysticism, neither taught nor even mentioned in the few years I attended religious school before my father quit the synagogue. It was said to be ancient and dangerous and better left untouched.

“Your meditation, Beth, this is not a foreign idea to Jews. The Hassidim, they chant and sing and dance like wild men and they say it works. I always thought it was the way they drank, like shikkers in a desert, but maybe it is something more. And this is what I find, Miss Beth. Every morning, in shachris, when I strap on my tefillin and daven, I find often something strange it happens. Some precious mornings all the mishegaas around my life, it disappears and I find myself floating, surrounded by something bright and divine and infinite. The Kabbalists, they have a term for it, the infinite, they call it the Ein-Sof.”

“But that’s very different,” said Beth. “We’re being trained in our meditation to focus and join with a great emptiness, not a deity of some sort.”

“Yes, of course, that is a difference. But there are those who claim that any true knowledge of the infinite, it is so beyond us that we can only experience the Ein-Sof as a sort of nothingness. The Hebrew word for nothing, it is Ayin, and the similarities in the words are said to be of great significance.”

“How come I never learned any of this?” I asked.

“This is all very powerful, very dangerous. There were people, very devout people, great rabbis even, who were not ready to ascend into certain of the divine rooms and never returned. The rabbis they think maybe you should get off your tuchis and learn more about the bolts and the nuts of our religion before you start to potchkeh with the Kabbalah. Maybe learn first to keep the Shabbos and keep kosher and learn to daven every day. They have a point, Victor, no? These are not games or toys. They take intense commitment. True devotion comes from following all God’s mitzvoth. The righteous, they reach a point where every act in their daily rituals is full of meaning and devotion and life itself, it becomes like a meditation.”

“If this is all so darn terrific, how come I never saw it being hawked on an infomercial?”

“Not everything in this world can be bought, Victor,” said Beth.

“Maybe not,” I said, “but have you seen what the stuff Cher sells can do for your hair? Tell me something, Beth. If your friends are so exclusively devoted to the spirit world, why are they so anxious to get their mitts on Jacqueline’s five-million-dollar death benefit?”

Beth looked at me for a moment. “That’s a good question. I’ve been wondering about that myself.”

“Until we find an answer,” I said, “I think you should be extra careful. They might just be as dangerous as they think they are.”

“That’s exactly why I set it up so you’re the one who’s going to ask Oleanna all about it.”

“Oleanna?”

“Tomorrow night, at the Haven. I told her you had some important questions.”

“And the great seer deigned to meet with me?”

“It’s what you wanted, right?”

“Sure,” I said, suddenly and strangely nervous. “What is she like?”

“I think you’ll be impressed,” said Beth, laughing. “She is a very evolved soul.”

“Her past lives were thrilling, no doubt,” I said. “She was a queen or a great soldier or Nostradamus himself. Why is it no one ever sold insurance in their past lives?”

“You should not be scoffing so quickly,” said Morris. “Someday, when you are ready, I’ll tell you of the gilgul. As Rebbe Elazar ha-Kappar once said, ‘Those who are born are destined to die, those who are dead are destined to be brought to life again.’ Be aware, Victor, there is much to learn in this world, and not all of it can be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica.”

I stared at him. “Did you ever go to college, Morris?”

“Aacht. It’s a shandeh, really. I regret so much in this life but that I regret most of all. No. I had plans, of course, when I was a boy, the Academy of Science at Minsk, they took Jews, they even taught in Yiddish, and the whole of my family we were saving each day zloty for my fee. I was to be an intellectual, to sip slivovitz in the cafés and argue about Moses Mendelssohn and Pushkin, that was my dream. Then of course the war, it came and plans like that they flew like a frying pan out the window. Just surviving was education enough. I won’t go through the whole megillah, but no, Victor. Why do you ask such a thing?”

“Because I could just see you hanging out in the dormitories, eating pizza, drinking beer from cans, talking all night about the cosmic mysteries of life.”

“And Pushkin, we could maybe discuss Pushkin?”

“Sure, Morris. Pushkin.”

“I don’t even like the poetry so much, I must admit, but the sound of the name. Pushkin, Pushkin. I can’t resist it. Pushkin. Sign me up, boychick, I’m in.”

“He is less the skeptic than you, Victor,” said Beth. “At least he listens and takes it seriously.”

“I tried it, Beth, really I did, I sat on the floor and meditated and examined myself and my life like a detached observer, just as you suggested.”

“How did it make you feel?”

“Before or after I threw up?”

“You know, Victor,” said Morris. “A very wise man once said that nausea, it is the first sign of serious trouble in this life. Very serious. Such nausea, it should not be ignored.”

“What, now you’re quoting Sartre?”

“Sartre, Schmatre, I’m talking about my gastroenterologist, Hermie Weisenberg. Maybe what you need is a scope. I’ll set it up for you.”

“Forget the scope.” I gestured at the box. “You sure you can open it?”

“I can try.”

“I thought Sheldon was coming.” Sheldon Kapustin was Morris’s son and a trained locksmith. “I asked for Sheldon.”

“Sheldon, he was busy tonight. He’s of that age now that I want for nothing to get in the way of his social life. A man my age, he should have granddaughters, no? So don’t be disturbing my Sheldon. Besides, who do you think taught him such about locks anyway?”

“You, Morris?”

“No, don’t be silly. A master locksmith named McCardle, but this McCardle he taught me too. Victor, this girl, when is she coming, nu?”

“Any minute now,” I said, and just as I said it my buzzer rang.

Caroline, when she entered the apartment, was nervous and closed. She came right in and sat on the couch, away from the table and the box. She crossed her legs and wrapped her arms around herself. As I introduced Morris and Beth to her, she smiled tightly and lit a cigarette.

After Caroline and I had discovered the bony corpse the night before we pondered what to do with it. We discussed it in tense whispers while we stood over the skeleton hand that pointed skyward from the grave and we both agreed to cover up the pit as best as we could, shoveling back the dirt, stamping it down, replacing as many plants as might survive, leaving the body right there in the ground. It was not like the corpse was going anywhere, and any hot clues as to the perpetrator were already as cold as death. We convinced each other it was to our advantage to not let on to what we had found as we probed further into the Reddman past. So we left it there under the dirt, the bones of that poor dead soul, left it all there except for the gold ring which clung to the bone until, with force and spit, I ripped it free. We took the ring to help us identify the body and once we examined the ring there wasn’t too much doubt about who was there beneath the dirt. The ring had been engraved, in a gloriously florid script, with the initials CCR.

“What’s the word?” I said.

“I checked an old photograph with a magnifying glass,” said Caroline. “It’s her ring, all right.”

“So there’s no doubt,” I said.

“No doubt at all,” she said. “The body we found is of my grandmother’s sister, Charity Chase Reddman.”

32

WITH CAROLINE SITTING on my couch, smoking, her legs crossed, her arms crossed, sitting there like a shore house boarded up for a hurricane, I brought Morris up to speed on the mystery of the Reddmans. I told him about Elisha Poole, about the three fabulous Reddman sisters, about how Charity, the youngest, had apparently found herself pregnant and then disappeared, seeming to wrest the shackles of her oppressive family off her shoulders and be free, only to turn up eighty years later in a hole in the ground behind the Reddman mansion. Morris listened with rapt attention; it was the kind of puzzle he liked most, not of wood or of stone but of flesh and bone and blood.

I showed him the ring. “What’s this on the inside?” he asked. “My eyes such as they are, I can’t read printing so small as this.”

“ ‘You walk in beauty,’ ” I read from the inside of the band, “and then the initials C.S.”

“Any idea who this C.S. fellow is?” asked Beth.

“Could be anyone,” I tried to say, but Caroline, who had remained remarkably silent during my background report to Morris, interrupted me.

“They were my grandfather’s initials,” she said flatly. “Christian Shaw.”

“What about the inscription?” I asked. “Anyone recognize it?”

“ ‘She walks in beauty, like the night,’ ” recited Morris.

“ ‘Of cloudless climes and starry skies; and all that’s best of dark and bright meet in her aspect and her eyes.’ ”

I was taken aback a bit by such melodious words coming from Morris’s mouth, where only a jumbled brand of immigrant English normally escaped.

“Byron,” said Morris with a shrug. “You know Pushkin, he was very much influenced by this Byron, especially in his early work.”

“Pushkin again?” I said.

“Yes Pushkin. Victor, you have problem maybe with Pushkin?”

“No, Morris. None at all.”

“This girl,” asked Morris, “this Charity, how old was she again when first she disappeared?”

“Eighteen,” said Caroline.”

“Then that fits then. It is a poem, this, for a young girl. It ends talking of a heart whose love is innocent.”

No one said anything right off, as if there was a moment of silence for the dead girl whose heart was suffused with innocent love.

“Open the box,” said Caroline.

“I’m ready if you’re ready,” said Morris.

“I’m ready,” she said.

“Are you sure?” I asked her.

“I told you I want to find out everything I can about my family, all the bitter truths. I won’t stop at a corpse. Open it.”

From his seat Morris bent down and lifted onto the table a leather gym bag. He opened the bag, peered mysteriously inside, reached in, and took out a small leather packet from which he extracted two thin metal picks. I looked at Caroline on the couch, arms still crossed, her front teeth biting her lip. I smiled encouragingly at her but she ignored me, focusing entirely on Morris. Morris turned the box until the front was facing him and then began working on the padlock.

“Are you sure you can’t get hold of Sheldon?” I said, after Morris had tried for ten minutes to work the lock with the picks and failed.

“It’s a tricky, tricky lock. Very clever these old lock makers. I must to try something else.”

He put the picks back in their leather packet and the packet back into the gym bag, reached in, and pulled out a large leather envelope from which he took a jangling ring of skeleton keys. “One of these will work, I think,” he said. He began to try one after the other, one after the other after the other.

“Do you have a number for Sheldon?” I asked after all the keys had failed to fit the lock.

“Enough with the nudging already,” said Morris, anger creeping into his voice. “These locks, they are not such a problem for me, not at all. For this I don’t need Sheldon.”

“I’ve seen Sheldon work,” I said. “He is in and out in seconds.”

“On second-rate locks, yes,” said Morris as he put the skeleton keys back into the bag and rummaged around. “But this is no second-rate lock. I have one special tool in such situations that never fails, a very special tool.”

With a flourish he pulled from the bag a hacksaw.

“This lock it is very clever but the metal is not as strong as they can make now. Is this all right, miss, if I hurt the lock?”

“My grandmother’s dead,” said Caroline. “I don’t think she’ll miss it.”

It took only a few minutes until we heard the ping that signaled he had cut through the metal hoop. He opened the lock and took it off the metal guards soldered into the box. That left only the internal lock, which Morris looked at carefully. “For this again I need the picks.”

“It’s getting late, Morris,” I said.

He took out the picks and began to work the little lock. “This second is not so tricky,” he said as he twisted the picks once and twice and the lock gave way with a satisfying click. Morris beamed. “Sheldon maybe would be a bissel faster, but only a bissel.”

Caroline rose from the couch and sat beside Beth at the table. Morris turned the box to her. She looked around at us. I nodded. She reached down and, slowly, she lifted the metal lid.

Beth let out a “Wow,” as the lid first cracked open and Caroline shut it again.

“What?” I asked.

“I just thought I saw something.”

“One of your flames?” asked Morris.

“I don’t know.”

“What color was it?” asked Morris.

“Yellow-red,” said Beth.

Morris nodded. “The color of the death force.”

“Enough already,” I said. “Just open it.”

Caroline swallowed and then flipped up the top of the metal strongbox. Inside were dust and dirt and a series of old manila envelopes, weathered and faded and torn. Not very encouraging.

“Let’s see what they’re holding,” I said.

One by one Caroline lifted the envelopes out of the box.

The first envelope contained a multitude of documents on long onionskin legal paper of the type no longer used in law offices, each dated in the early fifties. The documents were all signed by Mrs. Christian Shaw, Caroline’s grandmother, and witnessed by a number of illegible signatures, all probably of lawyers now surely either dead or retired. As best as I could tell, as I plowed my way through the legal jargon of the era, replete with Latin and all types of convoluted sentences, the documents created a separate trust to which a portion of the Reddman estate was to be diverted. The trust was named Wergeld and so a person or a family named Wergeld was apparently the intended beneficiary, though nothing more specific was provided in the documents. It wasn’t clear exactly how much was to be transferred, but it appeared to be considerable, and over the past forty or so years the amount in the trust must have grown tremendously.

“This must be the trust Harrington was talking about the other night,” I said to Caroline while I examined the documents. “Ever hear of a family named Wergeld?”

“No.”

“Are you sure? Anyone at all?”

“No, no one,” she said. “Never.”

“That’s strange,” I said. “Why would she set up a trust for someone you never heard of? All right, let’s go on.”

The next envelope contained a series of bank documents, evidencing the opening of accounts all in the name of the Wergeld Trust. The signatory on each account was Mrs. Christian Shaw. The banks to which the money was to flow were in foreign countries, Switzerland, Luxembourg, the Cayman Islands. “All tax havens,” I said. “All places where money could arrive and disappear without anyone knowing, and where the banks are all governed by secrecy laws.”

“Why would my grandmother care about secrecy?” asked Caroline. “While she was alive she had control of all the money in the trust, she could have done anything she wanted and no one could have stopped her.”

“Maybe so,” I said, “but it appeared she wanted the trust hidden and this Wergeld person to remain anonymous.”

Along with the bank documents was a three-by-five card with a list of long combinations of letters and numbers. The first was X257YRZ26-098. I handed it to Morris and he examined it carefully.

“To my untrained eye these are code numbers for certain bank accounts,” he said. “Some of the banks in these places you need mention only the code numbers and a matching signature or even just a matching phrase to release the funds. This was obviously the way your Mrs. Shaw, she could access the money from that trust you were reading us about, Victor.”

“But why would she bury it?” asked Caroline.

“She knew where it was if she needed it, I suppose,” said Morris with a shrug. “But I would guess the beneficiary person of this trust, or whatever, would have these very same numbers.”

The third envelope contained a packet of old photographs. Caroline looked at them each carefully, one by one, and then went through them again, for our sakes, telling Beth and Morris and me what she could about the people in the pictures. “These are of my family,” she said, “at least most of them. I’ve seen many of them before in albums. Here’s a picture of Grandmother when she was young, with her two sisters.”

The picture was of three young women, arms linked, marching in step toward the camera, dressed as if they were young ladies on the make out of an Edith Wharton novel. The woman in the middle wore a billowing white dress and stared at the photographer with her chin up, her head cocked slightly to the side, her face full of a fresh certainty about her future. That woman, full of life and determination, Caroline said, was her grandmother, Faith Reddman Shaw. To Faith Reddman’s right was a smaller, frailer woman, her stance less sure, her smile uneasy. Her hair was pulled tightly back into a bun and her dress was a severe and prim black. This was Hope Reddman, the sister who was to die of consumption only a few years later. And to the left, broad-shouldered and big-boned, but with her head tilted shyly down, was Charity Reddman, poor dead Charity Reddman. Her dress was almost sheer enough to see her long legs beneath, she wore a hat, and even with her face cast downward you could see her beauty. She was the pretty one, Caroline had been told, the adventurous one, though that thirst for adventure was not evident in her adolescent shyness. Beautiful Charity Reddman, the belle of the ball, who was destined to disappear beneath the black earth of Veritas.

“That’s your great-grandfather,” I said, pointing to the next photograph, a picture of a fierce, bewhiskered man, his bulging eyes still burning with a strange intensity even as he leaned precariously on a cane, his knees stiff, his back bent. He was leaner than I had remembered from other pictures, his stance more decrepit, but the fierce whiskers, the burning eyes, the wide, nearly lipless mouth were still the stuff of legend. Claudius Reddman, as familiar a figure as all the other icons of great American industrial wealth, as familiar as Rockefeller in his starched collar, as Ford with his lean angularity, as Morgan staring his stare that could maim, as Gould and Carnegie and Frick.

“That was just before he died, I think,” said Caroline. “He lived to be ninety, though in his last years he suffered from palsy and emphysema.”

She flipped to the next photograph and said, “This is my grandfather.” It was a photograph of a handsome young man, tall and blond and mustached, with his nose snootily raised. His suit was dark, his hat nattily creased and cocked over his eye. He had the same arrogant expression I saw in Harrington the first time we met at the bank. There was something about the way he stood, the way his features held their pose, that made me pause and then I realized he held himself in the same careful way I often saw in drunks.

“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing at a photograph of a thin, bald man with a long thin nose and small eyes. He wore a stiff, high collar and spectacles and through the spectacles his tiny eyes were squinted in wariness. Beside him was a handsome woman with a worried mouth. There was something fragile about this couple. There was a sense in the picture that they were under siege.

“I don’t know,” said Caroline.

I turned it over, but there was no description.

The next was another picture she couldn’t identify, a photograph of an unattractive young woman with a dowdy print dress, unruly hair, and a long face with beady eyes. She looked like a young Eleanor Roosevelt with a long thin nose, which was rather sad for her since Eleanor Roosevelt was the ugliest inhabitant ever of the White House, uglier even than Richard Nixon, uglier even than Checkers. The woman in the photograph was just that ugly, and she seemed to know it, looking at the camera with a peculiar passion and intensity that was almost frightening.

“I don’t know who she is,” said Caroline. “I have no idea why my grandmother would save these pictures.”

“Who might know something about them?” I asked.

“These all seem very old, from the time before my father was born, but he might recognize them. Or Nat. They are the only ones who have been around long enough to possibly know.”

There were other photographs, more of the unattractive young woman, more of Christian Shaw, one of which showed him haggard and miserable in a mussed suit. It was taken, Caroline said, shortly before he died. She could tell, she said, because the sleeve of his jacket was loosely pinned to the side. “He lost his arm in the war,” she said. “In France, during the battle in which he won his medal.” There was also a postcard with a picture of Yankee Stadium on its grand opening, a sellout crowd, the Yankees, in pinstripes, at bat. From the distance it was impossible to tell, but maybe it was Ruth at the plate, or Jumping Joe Dugan, or Wally Pipp. There was no message written on the back.

The final picture was more modern, in faded color, a young couple with their arms around each other. The boy was tall and handsome, his hair long, his shirt tie-dyed, his jeans cut into shorts and his shoes sandals. He was laughing at the camera, giddy with life. The girl was wildly young, wearing jeans and a tee shirt, her brown hair as straight and as long as a folk singer’s. She was staring up at the boy with the glow of sated passion on her face. Caroline didn’t say anything and I blinked a bit before I realized who it was: Caroline and Harrington, just a couple of kids crazy in love.

“Who took it?” I asked.

“I don’t remember,” she said softly, “but not Grammy. I don’t remember her ever taking a picture.”

When we had finished with the photographs, Caroline reached again into the box and took out a white business envelope with the words “The Letters” written in script on the outside. The handwriting was narrow and tight, the same as the writing on the trust documents. Inside the envelope was a key, an old key, tarnished, with an ornate head and a long shank and a bit that looked like a piece from a jigsaw puzzle.

“Any idea where the lock is?” I asked Caroline.

“None,” she said.

Morris took hold of the key and examined it. “This key is a key to a Barron tumbler lock of some sort. Such a lock I could open in a minute. Maybe three.”

A thin envelope taken from the box contained only one piece of paper, a medical bill from a Dr. Wesley Karpas, dated June 9, 1966, charging, for services rendered, $638.90. The services rendered were not specified, nor was the patient. It was addressed, though, to Mrs. Christian Shaw. I asked Caroline whether she had any idea about the medical services referred to in the bill and she had none.

The final envelope was a thick bundle that felt, from the outside, not unlike a bundle of hundred-dollar bills. Caroline opened the envelope and reached in and pulled out a sheaf of papers separated by clips into four separate sections, the whole bundle bound with twine. The papers were old, each about the size of a small envelope, yellowed, covered with the tight narrow handwriting that was already familiar, the handwriting of Faith Reddman Shaw. One edge of each of the papers was slightly ragged, as if it had been cut from a book of some sort.

Caroline looked at the top page, and then the next, and then the next. “These look to be from my grandmother’s diary, but that can’t be possible.”

“Why not?”

“She burned them all shortly before she died. She kept volumes and volumes of a diary from when she was a little girl, she would scribble constantly, but she never let anyone see them and a few years back she burned them all. We begged her not to, they were such a precious piece of our history, but she said her past was better forgotten.”

“I guess there were some pages,” I said, “she couldn’t bear to incinerate.”

Caroline, who was scanning through the excerpts, said, “This first one is about meeting my grandfather.”

“Maybe there are clues in these diary pages of who these people in the photographs, they are,” said Morris, “and why your grandmother, she kept this box buried like she did. We should maybe be reading these pages, no?”

“It’s up to Caroline,” I said.

She looked up and shrugged.

We all took seats around the table. The rusted and mangled box sat between us. We leaned forward and listened carefully as Caroline read out loud the surviving sections of her grandmother’s diary, one by one, the sections torn from the bound volumes before they were burned, the sections that her grandmother could not suffer to destroy. Halfway through, Caroline’s voice grew hoarse and Beth took over the reading. It grew still in the room, except for the song of the reader’s voice, as strangely foreign to the two women who shared the reading as if channeled from the dead Faith Reddman herself. At one point, while Beth read, Caroline suppressed a sob, and then waved us away when we offered comfort and told Beth to keep reading. The last line was a fervent wish for peace and love and redemption and after it was over we sat in silence for a long time, still under the spell of that voice from long ago.

“I think,” said Morris, “I know now who are these people in the photographs, but the crucial questions I can’t yet figure out.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“Like why these pictures are in her box, or who it is that killed the woman you found in the ground,” said Morris.

“Don’t you see?” said Caroline. “Isn’t it clear?”

“No,” said Beth. “Not at all.”

Caroline took the Distinguished Service Cross from around her neck and tossed it into the box, where it clanged, steel on steel. “My grandmother only said the kindest things about him. She worshiped him as if he was the most wonderful, most gentle man in the world. A war hero, she said, and so how could we think otherwise. Even in her diary she could barely say ill of him, but it’s all there, beneath her words of love and devotion, it’s all very clear. How could we ever have known it, how could we ever have imagined that our grandfather, Christian Shaw, was an absolute monster?”

33

I

May 24, 1911

Three new young men came for tea today, bringing to only twelve the number that have called this month. It would have been more, I am certain, except for those ugly rumors that continue to plague us. Is there no way to halt the lies? I fear if it weren’t for my mother’s wondrous teas, with her sugared almonds and her famous deep-fried crullers, we wouldn’t have any visitors at all, and I don’t understand it, I don’t understand why they insist on being so mean to us, I simply don’t. Of today’s young men one was fat and one was a dwarf, but one was interesting, I must admit. He is a Shaw of the department store Shaws. Their fortunes have declined in the last decades, but what matter is that to me? Why else would my father have given so much and fought so hard to earn his money if not to allow his daughters to be free of such worries, and so I won’t judge him by his lack of wealth, but by his pleasing manner and the way his suit drapes his thick shoulders. I think him even more splendid than Mr. Wister of the other day.

We were sitting on the lawn, having tea, the two other men and Christian Shaw, that is his name, and Mother, who was knitting, and Charity, who was sitting on the grass looking up at us as we spoke. Hope was playing the piano and despite Mother’s entreaties wouldn’t join us, but her music, floating from the instrument room, added the perfect note to the afternoon. The men promised to come to our ball and seemed genuinely excited at the prospect. We talked of school and Mr. Taft’s bathtub and we all laughed and laughed. Someone mentioned that awful Mr. Dreiser and his harsh books and then Mother mentioned the poetry she had studied as a girl in Europe. Suddenly Christian Shaw started reciting something beautiful. He is obviously well read and can quote poetry at length to great effect. The poem was about a lover’s tears at parting, the best I could grasp it, but as he spoke he spoke at me, as if the others were no more than statues, and the words ceased to have meaning beyond their music. It was only the sound his voice made as he pronounced the verse and the look in his eye that mattered. I could feel the blush rising in my cheeks. It ended with clapping and Charity said that Lord Byron was her favorite too and there was much gaiety as I fought to compose myself. For the rest of the afternoon I could barely look at his sharp features and yet I could not bear to look away.

I’ve already made certain his name has been added to the list for the ball. I learned today that the Scotts are having an affair that same weekend, which is spiteful of them, but Naomi Scott is such a plain old thing and, besides, Father has more money than Mr. Scott, which would be of interest, of course, to a Shaw. So I think I have good reason to hope to share a waltz with our Mr. Shaw sometime soon and the thought of it makes my breath all fluttery.

June 16, 1911

What a simply horrible horrible day! I was told today that old Mrs. Poole was to be invited to the ball and I was horrified. I had a terrible row with Mother about it that lasted much of the afternoon. When Father came home I stamped my foot and insisted but he refused to talk about it so that I knew it was his doing that added her to the list. He has done enough for that woman and I told him so. Must she haunt us for the rest of our lives? They sit in that house, the two of them, mother and daughter, taunting us with their very silence. But it was not Father’s fault that the pinched old man drank himself to ruin, it was not Father’s fault that Father had vision where the other had only a bottle. The great cat of tragedy that smote their lives was born on their own doorstep. Father was more than kind to that man after the dissolution of their business partnership and what did Father get in return? Spite and vindictiveness and a smear campaign that has survived that man’s suicide and spoilt our standing. And still it continues. Father should have simply put them in a farmhouse in New Jersey and been done with them but, ever the humanitarian, he wanted to keep an eye on their affairs. Had they any pride they would have refused his kindness, but they have no pride, no sympathy, nothing but their cold sense of deprivation, and I won’t stand for it. It is evil enough to have them so close we can smell them from the lawn, but to have them at our affairs in addition is too much. How can we be joyous and gay when they stand, the two of them, side by side, staring at us, their mouths set sternly, their figures a constant reproach.

As if that weren’t bad enough, we received regrets today from Mr. Shaw. My heart nearly broke when the note came. Why men seem so attracted to the wan figure of Naomi Scott and her powder-white skin I can’t for the life of me figure, but I assume that is where he will be. At least Mr. Wister will be coming. Once that would have sent my heart to racing, but no longer. I can’t imagine Mr. Wister reciting a note of poetry, even though his uncle wrote that novel about cowboys. Well, maybe Mr. Wister can teach me how to throw a lariat so that I can toss it over Mr. Shaw’s broad shoulders.

June 29, 1911

My fingers tremble as I write this. I could never forget this night, never, never. I will carry it with me like a diamond buried deep within my chest for the rest of my life. The ball was a humiliation. I am certain they are laughing at us right this moment in the homes of the Peppers and the Biddles and the Scotts. They have done all they could to keep us out and now they will have more reason than ever. All the first-rank families stayed away, which was expected after Naomi Scott played her dirty trick on us, but most of the second rank abandoned us too, leaving for our party a rather undistinguished group. While disappointing, that would have been acceptable if all had gone as it seemed in the beginning.

The dress I had ordered of the finest white silk taffeta was as beautiful as a wedding dress. I cried when the seamstress brought it to the house for the final fitting. The ballroom was iridescent with flowers and light, as finely dressed as any on the Main Line. Mother had ensured that only the best buffet was set, Virginia ham, three roasted turkeys, platters of fresh fruits and berries and ripe Delaware peaches, and Mother’s famous confections, her sugared almonds, her striped peppermints, her cookies and crullers and chocolate truffles, all laid out in such lovely proportions on the dining room lace that it was a marvel. And of course there were the pickles, for what would a Reddman party be without pickles? Father had hired the most famous orchestra in the city and as the violins played their warm notes I could feel the magic in the air. Then that Mrs. Poole and her daughter arrived.

They stood alone in the corner, staring out at the dancers, making their dark presence felt, that sour old woman and the girl, not yet eight, but already the youth squeezed out of her black eyes by the cold of her mother, the two of them turning their ugly angry gazes upon anyone who had the temerity to try to have a gay time. They refused the champagne or any of the food and I couldn’t help but remember how Edmond Dantès had refused to sup in the houses of his enemies. It was uncanny how the whole party seemed to cringe from them, even the dancers kept their space from that corner as they whirled about the room. Mr. Wister came, as he had promised, and we danced, but he was clumsy and my mind could not free itself from the gloom of the Pooles in the corner, so I fear Mr. Wister was not suitably impressed with me. This was especially apparent as he started dancing with that tiny Sheila Harbaugh, whom we had invited only because the Winters had given their regrets. I caught a glimpse of the two of them slipping out together onto the rear portico, his hand on the small of her back. I had to fight to keep my smile firm for the onlookers, though sweet Hope, who sees everything, gave me a look full of sympathy. It was all horrid enough, and my stomach had turned with disappointment, when Father had the deranged notion to ask Mrs. Poole to dance.

Everyone stopped and stared as he approached their corner. It was as if a limelight were shining on him, he was that apparent. When he came close he bowed slightly and reached out his hand. She just stared at him. He spoke to her, calmly, kindly, for my father is the kindest man alive, his hand still outreached, and she just stared at him before turning away her face. The daughter, her head down, couldn’t bear to meet his gaze, even when Father, with his generous spirit, patted her on the shoulder. A hush had fallen on the party, and it stayed there as my father turned and walked back to his wife and daughters. My father had invited them with mercy in his heart and they had come, the Pooles, only to humiliate him. All semblance of gaiety was by then lost and I intended to go over there myself and toss off to them even just a small piece of my anger, but Father restrained me. And then one by one, under the hush of that woman’s rejection of Father’s mercy, the guests began to say farewell and leave. It all was too much to bear, watching them call for their coaches and motorcars, the humiliation was actually painful, I could feel it in my chest, and I would have run out in tears had I not, just at that moment, when my despair grew overpowering, spied the magnificent figure of Christian Shaw, breathtaking in his tails, walking toward me from the far end of the ballroom.

He asked me to dance and suddenly the music turned dreamy and gay. He had strong hands and a light step and never before had I waltzed so magnificently. We swept around the room as one and I could see the eyes of what was left of the party upon us, even those of the wretched Pooles, and once again the room glittered. Soon another couple joined us on the floor and then another and then another and before long the party was alive again and filled with laughter. In the middle of a sweeping turn I happened to glance at the Pooles’ corner and noticed, with a surge of joy, that they were gone, banished by the light that was Christian Shaw.

When we could we slipped out together onto the rear patio and then to the lawn, to the statue of Aphrodite which my father had just purchased for the rear grounds of the house, where we were finally, for the first time, alone. We leaned on the statue facing one another and spoke softly. “I had been to the Scotts, but the whole time there I was thinking of you,” he said. “In the middle of a dance I saw your sweet face before me and I knew I had to come. You’re not cross at me for imposing after sending my regrets, are you?” No, I told him, no no no. He spoke of the night and the fragrance of the air but as at our prior meeting I lost the thread of his words in the music of his voice. His breath was rich with the smoky sweet scent of brandy. The moon was casting its silvery glow on the statue and the two of us standing before it and then he leaned down and kissed me. Yes, like the sweetest angel sent for my own redemption he kissed me and an emotion as I had never known burst from deep within my chest and I swore then to myself, as I swear now and will swear every day for the rest of my life, that I love this man and will love him forever and I will never ever so long as I can draw sweet breath let him go.

June 30, 1911

A grand bouquet of flowers came for me at noon today, full of irises and violets and baby’s breath, a fabulous explosion of color. When it came I ran to it and ripped open the card with shaking fingers. It was from Mr. Wister, telling me how wonderful a time he had had at our ball and seeking again to call on me. My heart fell when I read his words. I wonder if Sheila Harbaugh received the same bouquet, the same note. I gave the flowers to Hope and sat sullenly inside through the afternoon, though the weather outside was perfectly lovely.

Another delivery came before evening fell, a dozen red roses and one white. It looked shy, that bouquet, next to Mr. Wister’s grand arrangement, but the card was from Christian, my dear Christian. “For a lovely evening,” the card said. “Devotedly, C. Shaw.” Those roses are beside me as I write this. I am drunk on their scent, delirious.

August 12, 1911

Christian visited again this afternoon and his goodness shines through ever more clearly. He was looking, as always, elegant in his black suit and homburg when he visited and as quickly as possible we absented ourselves from the rest of the household. On my instructions, two chairs and a table had been set upon the lawn for a private tea and I poured for him as he spoke. Like a naughty boy he took a flask from his pocket and added a rich flavor to our cups. His naughtiness served only to increase the intimacy of our moment. Our conversation, while we were sitting on the lawn, looking down upon the blue of the pond, turned to the ecstasies of nature, of which I admitted I was unaware, preferring the parlor to the wild, and he recited for me the words of a Mr. Emerson about the proud beauty of a flower. Oh, to listen to his voice is to listen to the finest, firmest of music. The afternoon was perfect until that little dark girl with her rodent eyes appeared at the pond’s edge and stared up at us.

Christian kept speaking, as if it mattered not, but having her stare at us was too intolerable and I couldn’t keep my silence. “Why does she bother you so?” he asked me. I couldn’t answer truthfully. I must assume he has heard the malicious stones of gossip thrown against us. They are lies, all lies, I know it, but they are lies that haunt our family as surely as if they were holy truths. I feel the press of those evil rumors upon me as others must feel the press of history, and pray each day that the falsehoods will someday be finally buried among the ruins of time, along with that girl’s drunkard of a father. But how could I explain all that to my pure darling Christian? “She’s a little spy,” I said simply. “Look at the way she insists on watching us.” “But she’s just a poor girl,” said Christian and then he spoke of graciousness, of generosity, of giving oneself over to the disadvantaged. He said he felt compassion for that girl, living fatherless in that house at the foot of Veritas. He had a small book about some pond in New England in his pocket and he insisted upon stepping down the hill and giving the book to her. I fear I must admit I was embarrassed at the sight and turned to see if his transgression was spotted from the house. Charity stood at the wall of the rear patio, a breeze catching her loose hair, watching as Christian loped with his long strides down the slope.

I felt a brutal anger rise as I watched him with that girl, talking to her softly, offering the book. That my Christian should be spending his attention on so tawdry an object was humiliating and I told myself that when he returned I would have to make it clear exactly what would and would not be tolerated with regard to those people. But as I watched his posture, erect and proud, and saw the girl’s shyness dissolving before him, allowing her to reach out for the book and take it to her breast, I could see in that portrait all the sweet generosity in his soul and I realized that he indeed could be our redemption. The falsehoods that have been used against us might die, as we have so fervently prayed, precisely because his goodness will transcend the evil of those lies. His goodness, I can see now, will be the instrument of our salvation and take our family to a finer place than ever we had dared to hope before.

September 3, 1911

Today we took a long and glorious walk along the stream that surrounds our property, Christian and I, our hands clasped tightly as we face our separation. I don’t know how I will survive while Christian finishes out his final year in New Haven. We have become unbearably close, our souls are united as two trees whose trunks are trained to twist around each other. He confided in me for the first time about the acute dilemmas facing his family and his future and I couldn’t help but feel joy at his sharing of the whole of his life with me.

It is not just I who have become transfixed by my love’s goodness. He listens with exquisite patience to Hope’s performances on the piano. She is generally shy in public but delights in playing her most difficult pieces for Christian and he applauds heartily whenever she concludes, even though the length of her recitals tries the most for-bearing souls. And he has taken to tutoring Charity on his favorite poets, taking long walks as he recites for her. Even Mother seems to take a special joy at his compliments on her teas. He has added a grace to this family for which we all are painfully grateful.

In two days my love will be back in Connecticut. I can’t believe he’ll be away from me for such length, but his strength and our commitment will surely see me through the loneliness of winter’s despoliation. Together, I know, we can deal with whatever the fates hurl our way and after he left I thought hard about how his family problems could affect our possible future together. Perhaps I see a way, tentative though it may be, to ensure the future happiness I believe we both deserve. I pray only that I can somewhere find the strength I need to take us there.

December 11, 1911

Father remains in New York, on business, as w