The sixth book in the Victor Carl series, 2006
For my boy Jack,
hardball pitcher, blues guitarist,
King of the DDR
It must have been a hell of a night. One of those long, dangerous nights where the world shifts and doors open and you give yourself over to your more perilous instincts. A night of bad judgment and wrong turns, of weariness and hilarity and a hard sexual charge that both frightens and compels. A night where your life changes irrevocably, for better or for worse, but who the hell cares, so long as it changes. Batten down the hatches, boys, we’re going deep.
It must have been a night just like that, yeah, if only I could remember it.
It started inauspiciously enough. The preceding few days I had been in the center of a media storm. The New York Times on line one, Live at Five on line two, Action News at six, details at eleven. Now, I am never one to shy from free publicity – the one thing, I always say, that money can’t buy – but still, the exposure and the hubbub, the constant vigilance to make sure my name was spelled correctly, the crank calls and dire threats and importunings to my venality, all of it was taking a toll. So that night, after work, I took a detour over to Chaucer’s, my usual dive, for a drink.
I sat at the bar, I ordered a Sea Breeze, I let the tang of alcohol, with its blithe promise of sweet ease, slide down my throat. There was an old man perched on the stool next to me who started talking. I nodded at his words, yeah yeah yeah, even as I looked around to see if there was anyone else of interest in the bar. A woman in the corner gave me the eye. I tossed it back. I finished my drink and ordered another.
My memory here sounds almost coherent, but don’t be fooled. Even at the moment of which I write, it is starting to break apart. The old man, for example, I can’t remember what he looked like. And in my memory I can’t feel my feet.
John Lennon is singing from the jukebox, imagine that. The old man is talking about life and loss in the way old men in cheap bars always talk about life and loss. I finish my drink and order another.
The door opens and I turn to it with the great false hope one holds in bars that the next person to step inside will be the person to change your life. And what I see then is a beautiful face, broad and strong with a blond ponytail bobbing behind it. The face still lives in my memory, the one thing I remember clear. She looks like she has just climbed off her motorcycle, black leather jacket, jeans, a cowpuncher’s bowlegged walk. The very sight of her gives me the urge to up and buy a Harley. She stops when she sees me, as if she had seen me before. And why wouldn’t she have? I am famous, in the way you get famous for a minute and a half when they plaster your face on local TV. I give her a creepy smile, she walks past me and sits at the bar on the other side of the old man.
I finish my drink and order another. I order one for the woman. And, to be polite, I order one for the old man, too.
“I loved my wife, yes I did,” the old man says. “Like a fat kid loves cake. We had all sorts of plans, enough plans to make a cherub weep. That was my first mistake.”
I lean forward and look beyond him to the blonde. “Hi,” I say.
“Thanks for the beer,” she says as she taps her bottle of Rolling Rock.
I raise my glass. “Cheers.”
“What’s that you’re drinking?”
“A Sea Breeze.”
“I don’t doubt it.”
“I detect a note of scorn. I’m man enough to drink a prissy drink. Want to arm-wrestle?”
“I’d pop your elbow flat out of the socket.”
“Oh, I bet you would.”
“Let me try it,” she says.
I smack my elbow onto the bar, twist my palm into a wrestling grip.
“Your drink,” she says.
“See, you can’t make plans,” says the old man as I slide the drink past him to the woman. “Life don’t let you. Wasn’t long afore I found out she was sleeping outside our marriage bed. With my brother, Curt.”
“You don’t say,” I say.
“I just did,” says the old man. “But I could deal with that. Leastways she kept it in the family. No need to upset the apple cart and spill the milk.”
“What do you think?” I say to the woman, whose pretty face is twisted sour after a sip of my drink.
“It tastes like hummingbird vomit,” she says as she passes it back.
“My name’s Victor. Victor Carl.”
“What, they run out of last names when you were born?” she says. “Had to give you two first names instead?”
“Exactly that. So what do they call you?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
“I’m just trying to be friendly here.”
“I know what you’re trying,” she says, but a smile starts breaking out anyway.
“It was the cancer, finally did in all them plans,” says the old man. “It tore up the throat. Curt’s throat. When he died, she up and ran off with the night nurse. Happiest day of my life when she left. Now I miss her every minute of every hour. I loved her true, like a Hank Williams song, but what does that matter?”
I snatch down the rest of my drink, and that is apparently the moment my mental recorder decides to go seriously on the fritz. I remember Jim Morrison intoning sweet mystical nothings from the jukebox. I remember my drink tasting funny and me laughing at the joke. I remember the old man getting up for a moment and me slipping onto his warm stool so I could sit next to the woman. I remember ordering us another round.
She smelled of beer and gasoline and a clean sweat, that I remember, and I thought as I sat next to her that if I could bottle her scent right there, I could make a fortune in the perfume racket. At least I hope I only thought it, because if I said it that would be a truly lame line, which might explain what I seem to remember next, her giving me a strange, piteous look before pushing herself off her stool and starting out the door.
I don’t remember if I followed her or not, though I assume I did. I assume I did because, in my memory, it is as if right then a door opens and I step through it and find myself inside a strange, muffled darkness.
This is the sum of what I remember of the night, and after that, nothing.
I AWOKE with a full-body cramp on a hard tile floor. My head was leaning awkwardly against a wall, my legs were sprawled at uncomfortable angles, one of my arms was missing.
An instant after I realized the arm was gone, I found it, dead to the world, pinned beneath my side. I rolled over to free it, sat up in a panic, flopped the appendage onto my chest. I slapped it, pinched it, let relief slide through me as, slowly, painfully, the nerves in my sleeping arm tingled to life.
I was now sitting, I realized, in the front vestibule of my building. The night I had passed through was gone. The gray light of dawn slipped softly in from the street, revealing the sorry state of my corporeal condition.
My suit was in tatters, my shirt untucked and torn, my tie untied but still looped within the buttons of my collar. My heavy black shoes were on, but my socks were missing. And I smelled like a mangy dog who had rolled in something. Physically, my neck was stiff, my hip was aching, my mouth was a cesspool, someone was chopping wood in my head, and there was a sharp, stinging pain in my chest, as if I had fallen smack into the middle of a heart attack.
Damn, I thought as I tried to rise on shaky legs and failed, plopping down again on the sore hip, it must have been a hell of a night. I tried to remember it all, but nothing came through, except for the image of a blonde in a leather jacket.
On my second try I staggered to my feet, fell with a clatter against the mailboxes, pushed myself back to standing. The small room stretched and contracted, the tiles in the floor spun. I sucked my teeth, they felt furry.
I tried the door into the building but it was locked. I patted my jacket, and then my pants, and was shocked to find my keys and wallet still in their rightful places. Okay, good, things were not totally out of control. I was home, I hadn’t been mugged, this could all be handled. I unlocked the door, pushed it open, fell forward through the doorway.
My apartment, two flights up, was in as disastrous shape as was I. The cushions of the couch were slashed, the walls defaced, the shade of each lamp distended and torn. Atop a large television, with its screen smashed, sat another television, a small portable, with one of its rabbit-ear antennae bent like a defective straw. You might surmise that this was all fallout from my wild night, but you would be wrong. It had been like this for months, the by-product of a rage expressed toward me by an overzealous dental hygienist. The less said about her the better, yet the telling point is not that it happened but that, in the time since it happened, I hadn’t done anything about it other than applying a few rolls of duct tape to the slashed fabric. What it said about the state of my life could fill volumes, but it wasn’t volumes I was interested just then in filling as I burst through my door and staggered to the bathroom.
In front of the mirror, as the back of my hand wiped my dripping mouth, I recoiled from a ghastly sight. Lon Chaney was starring in the story of my life, and it was definitely a B movie. Turning my attention to my costume, I quickly realized that the only thing salvageable was my tie, an indestructible piece of red synthetic fabric that was a miracle of modern science. You want to know where all the money thrown at the space program went? It went into my tie.
As quickly as I could, I pulled off the tie, then my suit jacket, my shoes and my pants. But when I unbuttoned my shirt, something stopped me.
Taped to my left breast was a wide piece of gauze. The pain in my chest was apparently not just metaphysical. And, to my horror, I noticed that leaking through the gauze was blood.
I ripped off the tape and slowly peeled away the gauze bandage. There was blood and an oily ointment, as if I had suffered through some sort of medical operation, and, beneath that, something strange seemingly pasted onto a patch of my skin just above the nipple.
I started wiping away the ooze, but it hurt too much, my skin was for some reason too raw. With a little bit of water and soap, I gently washed away the ointment and blood. Gradually, bit by bit, the thing underneath became clear.
A heart, bright red, with two small flowers peeking out from behind either side and a fluttering banner across it all, a banner with a name inscribed that I had to read backward in the mirror: Chantal Adair.
I just stared at it for a moment, unable to process what it was. When it came to me, I started rubbing at it, I started scrubbing it, as hard as the pain would allow. But nothing happened. It wasn’t pasted on at all. There it was, and there it would stay. For the rest of my life.
Damn. I had gotten myself tattooed.
AFTER I showered and shaved, I put on a pair of jeans but no shirt. I sat on my ruined couch, with a lamp on and a mirror in my hand. Through the mirror I stared at the tattoo on my chest.
I struggled to remember who she was and why I thought her important enough to inscribe her name atop my left breast for all eternity. I struggled to remember her and I failed. The entire night, after I stumbled out the door of Chaucer’s, was a total blank. Anything could have happened. Was she the motorcycle blonde who had started my engine to running that evening? Most likely. But maybe she was someone else, some mysterious woman I met in the course of a long, bleary tour through the darkness. And was my attempt to immortalize her on the skin above my heart a terrible drunken mistake, or was it something else?
The name tripped sweetly off my tongue. A pair of iambs bracketing a mystery.
The tattoo itself was peculiar. There was something outdated about it. The heart was boldly red, the flowers yellow and blue, the banner carefully shaded about the slope of its curves. It was not the type of tattoo you would see on the young students showing off their skin art in the parks on summer afternoons. It belonged instead on the forearm of an old sailor man called “Pappy,” with the name of a prostitute in Shanghai scrawled across the banner. It was, to put a word on it, romantic.
As I stared at the tattoo and said the name out loud, as I tried to dredge her image from the rubble of my memory, all I found was a sharp spurt of emotion that I was unable to identify. But the whole thing made me wonder. Sure, tattooing a stranger’s name on my breast was most likely the product of an inebriated whimsy I regretted even as the buzzing needle slid the ink between the layers of my skin. But I couldn’t stop thinking, couldn’t stop hoping, that maybe it was something else.
Maybe, in the course of the long night, I had slipped through my weariness and drunkenness into something approaching a state of grace. Maybe only then, with my defenses down and my craven heart open to the full beauty of the world, had I been able to find a connection with a woman untainted by irony or calculation. And maybe I had chosen to scar my breast with her name so I wouldn’t forget.
Sure, she was most likely nothing more than a drunken folly, but maybe she was something else. Maybe, just maybe, she was the love of my life.
There I sat, in the wreckage of my apartment, in the wreckage of my life – no love, no prospects, a gnawing sense of existential futility along with the certainty that a better life was being lived by everyone else – there I sat, staring at a name writ in ink within the skin of my chest and thinking the name might save me. The human capacity for self-delusion is beyond measure.
And yet there was no question but that with her name on my chest I was going to find her. The case that had me in the papers and on the news was a case of grand theft, of high stakes and lost souls, of an overbearing Greek matriarch, of a strange little man who smelled of flowers and spice, and of a Hollywood producer selling all the wrong fantasies. It was a case of failed dreams and great successes and murder, yes murder, more than one. And in the middle of that case, as it all swirled about me, there I sat, thinking that a name on my chest, thinking that Chantal Adair, could somehow save my life.
It might have been a pathetic fantasy of the lowest order, but in her own strange way she did.
The tattoo appeared on my chest at a rather inopportune time. I was just then in the middle of a delicate negotiation that had exploded in my face, hence the media storm and dire threats. But I should have known that trouble was brewing, what with the ominous way the whole thing started, a deathbed visit to an old Greek widow with gnarled hands and breath like pestilence itself.
“Come closer, Mr. Carl,” said Zanita Kalakos, a withered stalk of a woman, propped up by the pillows on her bed, whose every raspy exhale held the real threat of being her last. Her skin was parchment thin, her accent thick as the stubble on her jaw.
“Call me Victor,” I said.
“Victor, then. I can’t see you. Come closer.”
She couldn’t see me because the lights were off in her small bedroom, the shades pulled, the curtains drawn. Only a candle flickering by her bedside and a glowing stick of incense provided illumination.
“Don’t be afraid,” she said. “Come to me.”
Standing at the edge of the room, I took a step toward her.
“Closer,” she said.
“Closer still. Bring over chair. Let me touch your face, let me feel what is in your heart.”
I brought a chair to the side of her bed, sat down, leaned forward. She pressed her fingers over my nose, my chin, my eyes. Her skin was rough and oily both. It was like being gummed by an eel.
“You have a strong face, Victor,” she said. “A Greek face.”
“Is that good?”
“Of course, what you think? I have secret to tell you.” She glommed her hand over the side of my head and, with surprising strength, pulled me close so she could whisper. “I’m dying.”
And I believed it, yes I did, what with the way her breath smelled of rot and decay, of little creatures burrowing into the heart of the earth, of desolation and death.
“I’m dying,” she said as she pulled me closer, “and I need your help.”
It was my father who had gotten me into this. He had asked me to pay a visit to Zanita Kalakos as a favor, which was curious in and of itself. My father didn’t ask for favors. He was an old-school kind of guy, he didn’t ask anyone for anything, not for directions if he was lost, not for a loan if he was short, not for help as he struggled still to recover from the lung operation that had saved his life. The last time my father asked me for a favor was during an Eagles game when I made a brilliant comment about the efficacy of the West Coast offense against a cover-two defense. “Do me a favor,” he had said, “and shut up.”
But there he was, on the phone to my office. “I need you to see someone. An old lady.”
“What does she want?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Why does she want to see me?”
“I don’t know.”
“Just do it, all right? For me.” Pause. “As a favor.”
“Think you can handle that?”
“Sure, Dad,” I said.
“As a favor.”
“Are you busting my chops?”
“Nah, it’s just this is almost like a real father-and-son thing. Calls on the phone. Favors and stuff. Next thing you know, we’ll be having a catch in the yard.”
“Last time we had a catch I threw a high pop that hit you in the face. You ran off crying.”
“I was eight.”
“You want to try it again?”
“Good. Now that that’s settled, go see the old lady.”
The address he gave me was a small row house on the southern edge of the Northeast section of the city, my father’s old neighborhood. A gray woman, round and slumped with age, cautiously opened the door and gave me the eye as I stood on the stoop and announced my presence. I assumed this was the old lady my father wanted me to see, but I was wrong. This was the old lady’s daughter. She shook her head when she learned who I was, shook her head the whole time she led me up the creaky stairs that smelled of boiled vinegar and crushed cumin. Whatever the mother wanted with me, the daughter didn’t approve.
“I knew your father when he was boy,” said Zanita Kalakos in that crypt of a room. “He was good boy. Strong. And he remembers. When I called him, he said you would come.”
“I’ll do what I can, Mrs. Kalakos. So how can I help?”
“I am dying.”
“I’m not a doctor.”
“I know, Victor.” She reached up and patted my cheek. “But it is too late for doctors. I’ve been poked, prodded, sliced like roasted pig. There is nothing more to be done.”
She coughed, and her body heaved and contracted with a startling ferocity.
“Can I get you something?” I said. “Water?”
“No, but thank you, dear one,” she said, her eyes closed to the pain. “It is too late for water, too late for everything. I am dying. Which is why I need you.”
“Do you have an estate you want to settle? Do you want me to write you up a will?”
“No, please. I have nothing but a few bangles and this house, which is for Thalassa. Poor little girl. She wasted her life caring for me.”
“Who is Thalassa?”
“She who brought you to my room.”
Ah, I thought, the poor little girl of seventy.
“Are you married, Victor?”
One of her closed eyes opened and focused on my face. “Thalassa, she available, and she comes with house. You like house?”
“It’s a very nice house.”
“Maybe you are interested? Maybe we can arrange things?”
“No, really, Mrs. Kalakos. I’m fine.”
“Yes of course. A man with such a good Greek face, you find someone with bigger house. So we are back to problem. I am dying.”
“So you said.”
“In my village, when death it walked into your house on tiptoes and tapped you on shoulder, they rang church bell so everyone would know. Your neighbors, your friends, family, they all came to gather around. It was tradition. A final time to laugh and cry, to hug, to settle scores, to wipe off curses” – she rubbed her lips with two fingers and spat through them – “a final time to say good-bye before the blessed journey. For my grandparents it was like that, and for my mother, too. I went over on boat to say good-bye when it was her time. It wasn’t choice, it was necessity. You understand?”
“I think so, ma’am.”
“So now the bell it is chiming for me. All I have left in my life is to say good-bye. But time, it is running fast, like wind.”
“I’m sure you have more time than you-”
Another wrenching, full-body cough silenced me like a shout. Her hands rose and shook in pain as her body contracted in on itself.
“How can I help?” I said.
“You are lawyer.”
“You represent fools.”
“I represent people accused of crimes.”
“Some are, yes.”
“Good. Then you are just man I need.” She raised a finger and gestured me close, closer. “I have son,” she said softly. “Charles. I love him very much, but he is great fool.”
“Ah, yes,” I said. “Now I see. Has Charles been accused of a crime?”
“Has been accused of everything.”
“Is he in jail now?”
“No, Victor. He not in jail. Fifteen years ago he was arrested for things, too many things to even remember. Mostly stealing, but also threatening and extinction.”
“Maybe that, too. And talking with others about doing it all.”
“He was going to trial. He needed money to stay out of jail.”
“Yes. So, like idiot, I put up house. The day after he left prison, he disappeared. My Charles, he ran away. It took me ten years to get back house for Thalassa. Ten years of breaking my back. And since he ran, I haven’t once seen his face.”
“What can I do to help him?”
“Bring him home. Bring him to his mother. Let him say good-bye.”
“I’m sure he could come and say good-bye. It’s been a long time. He’s way off the authorities’ radar.”
“You think? Go to window, Victor. Look onto street.”
I did as she told, gently opened the curtain, pulled the shade aside. Light streamed in as I peered outside.
“Do you see it, a van?”
“Yes.” It was battered and white, with a raw brown streak of rust on its side. “I see it.”
“It looks empty to me, Mrs. Kalakos.”
“FBI, Victor. They are still hunting for my son.”
“After all these years?”
“They know I am sick, they are expecting him to come. My phone, it is tapped. My mail, it is read. And the van, it is there every day.”
“Let me check it out,” I said.
Still standing by the window, I reached for my phone and dialed 911. Without giving my name, I reported a suspicious van parked on Mrs. Kalakos’s street. I mentioned that there had been reports of a child molester using the same type of van and I asked if the police could investigate because I was afraid to let my children go outside to play. When Mrs. Kalakos tried to say something, I just stopped her and waited by the window. I expected the van to be empty, parked there by some neighbor, nothing more than an innocent vehicle left to inspire the wild paranoia of an old, ill woman.
We waited in quiet, the two of us, accompanied by the rasp of her breath. A few minutes later, one police car pulled up behind the van and then another arrived to block the van’s escape. As the uniforms approached the car, a large man in horn-rimmed glasses, a flat-top chop, and a boxy suit came around from the other side. He showed a credential. While one cop examined it and another cop engaged him in a conversation, the man looked up at the window where I stood.
I watched all this as it played out, watched as the man in the boxy suit retreated back into his van and the two police cars pulled away. I closed the curtains and turned to the old woman, still propped up by the pillows, whose eyes, glistening with the light of the candle, were staring straight at me.
“What did your son do, Mrs. Kalakos?” I said.
“Only what I said.”
“You haven’t told me everything.”
“They are hounding him for spite.”
“He was a thief, that is all.”
“The FBI doesn’t spend fifteen years searching for a common thief out of spite.”
“Will you help me, Victor? Will you help my Charlie?”
“Mrs. Kalakos, I don’t think I should get anywhere near this case. You’re not telling me everything.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“Not after seeing that van.”
“You sure you not Greek?”
“Pretty sure, ma’am.”
“Okay, there may be something else. Charlie had four close friends from childhood. And maybe, long time ago, these friends, they pulled a little prank.”
“What kind of prank?”
“Just meet him, meet my Charlie. He can’t come into city no more, but he can be nearby. We set up meeting point for you already.”
“A bit presumptuous, don’t you think?”
“New Jersey. Ocean City boardwalk, Seventh Street. He be there tonight at nine.”
“I don’t know.”
“At nine. Do for me, Victor. As favor.”
“As favor, huh?”
“You do for me, Victor. Work it out, make deal, do something so my boy, he come home and say good-bye. To say good-bye, yes. And to fix his life, yes. You can work that?”
“I think that’s beyond a lawyer’s brief, Mrs. Kalakos.”
“Bring him home, and you tell your father after this we’re even.”
I thought about why the FBI might be so interested still in Charlie Kalakos fifteen years after he fled his trial. Charlie was a thief, had said his mother. And long ago Charlie and his friends had pulled a little prank. That van outside told me it must have been a hell of a little prank. Maybe there was an angle in Charlie’s long-ago prank and the FBI’s strangely keen interest in it for me to find a profit.
“You know, Mrs. Kalakos,” I said after I did all that thinking, “in cases like this, even when I take it on as a favor, I still require a retainer.”
“What is this retainer?”
“Money up front.”
“I see. It is like that, is it?”
“Yes, ma’am, it is.”
“Not only a Greek face but a Greek heart.”
“Thank you, I think.”
“I have no money, Victor, none at all.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“But I might have something to interest you.”
Slowly, she rose from the bed, as if a corpse rising from her grave, and made her way creakily, painfully, to a bureau at the edge of the room. With all her strength, she opened a drawer. She tossed out a few oversized unmentionables and slid open what appeared to be a false bottom. She reached both hands in and pulled out two fistfuls of golden chains glinting in the candlelight, silver pendants, broaches filled with rubies, strings of pearls, two fistfuls of pirate’s treasure.
“Where did you get that?” I said.
“It is from Charles,” she said as she stumbled toward me with the jewelry dripping from her hands, falling from her hands. “What he gave me long ago. He said he found in street.”
“I can’t take that, Mrs. Kalakos.”
“Here,” she said, thrusting it at me. “You take. I have saved for years for Charlie, never touched. But now he needs me. So you take. Don’t spend until he is back, that is all I ask, but take.”
I let her drop it all into my hands. The jewelry was heavy and cold. It felt as if it held the weight of the past, yet I could feel its opulence. Like foie gras on thin pieces of buttered toast, like champagne sipped from black high heels, like tawdry nights and sunsets over the Pacific.
“Bring my son home to me,” she said, grabbing hold of my lapels with her hands and pulling me close so her foul, pestilential breath washed over me. “Bring my son home so he can kiss my old parched face and tell his mother good-bye.”
I walked to my office that afternoon with a light step, despite the pockets of my suit jacket being weighed down with plunder.
The offices of Derringer and Carl were on Twenty-first Street, just south of Chestnut, above the great shoe sign that hung over a first-floor repair shop. We were in a nondescript suite in a nondescript building with no décor to speak of and a support staff of one, our secretary, Ellie, who answered our phones and typed our briefs and kept our books. I trusted Ellie with our financials because she was a trustworthy woman with an honest face, the fine product of a strict Catholic upbringing, and because embezzling from our firm would sort of be like trying to cadge drinks at a Mormon meeting.
“Oh, Mr. Carl, you have a message,” Ellie said as I passed by her desk. “Mr. Slocum called.”
I stopped quickly, put a hand on one of my bulging jacket pockets, turned my head, and searched behind me as if I had been caught at something. “Did he say what he wanted?”
“Only that he needed to talk to you right away.”
I thought about the FBI in the van outside the old woman’s house and the inevitable phone call once they found out who I was. “That didn’t take long,” I said.
“He emphasized the right away part, Mr. Carl.”
“Oh, I bet he did.”
When I reached my own office, I closed the door behind me, sat at my desk, and carefully pulled out the chains and the broaches, the heavy mass of jewelry, letting it all slip deliciously through my fingers into a small, rich pile upon my desk. In the bright light of the fluorescents, it all seemed a little less brilliant, tarnished, even. I supposed the old lady wasn’t into polishing her son’s ill-gotten gains. Just then I had no idea how much it all was worth, and I wasn’t intending to swiftly find out either. The last thing I needed to do was draw attention to the jewelry, being that my legal title to what was undoubtedly stolen property could only be considered dubious. No, I wasn’t going to let anyone, not anyone, know about what the old lady had given me.
There was a light tap on my door. I quickly shoveled the swag into a desk drawer, closed the drawer with a thwack.
“Come in,” I said.
It was my partner, Beth Derringer.
“What’s up?” she said.
She looked at me as if she could see right through my lie. She tilted her head. “Where were you this morning?”
“Doing a favor for my father.”
“A favor for your father? That’s a first.”
“It surprised me, too. An old lady wants me to negotiate a plea deal for her son.”
“Do you need any help?”
“Nah, it should be easy enough, or would be if the FBI wasn’t suspiciously interested in the guy.”
“Did we get a retainer?”
“And you took it without a retainer? That’s not like you.”
“I’m doing a favor for my father.”
“That’s not like you either. What’s in the drawer?”
“The one you slammed shut before I came in.”
She stared at me for a moment to figure out if it was worth pursuing, decided that it wasn’t, which was a relief, and dropped down into one of the chairs in front of my desk.
Beth Derringer was my best friend and my partner and, as my partner, was rightfully entitled to one half of the retainer given me by Zanita Kalakos. I wasn’t pulling a Fred C. Dobbs here, I had not been driven mad by the sight of gold and was intending to stiff Beth of her fair share. But Beth’s ethics were less flexible than mine. If she knew what Mrs. Kalakos had given me, and the likelihood of from where it had come, she would have felt obligated to turn it all over to the rightful authorities. She was that kind of woman. I, on the other hand, figured the jewelry had been stolen long ago from the rich, who had already been reimbursed by their insurance companies, and so saw no reason to fight against my Robin Hood tendencies. Isn’t that how he did it, take from the insurance companies and give to the lawyers? So the jewels and chains would stay safely and secretly in my desk drawer until I found a way to turn them into cash, and I already had an idea of just how to do that.
“I have a client coming in this afternoon that I’d like you to meet,” she said.
“A paying client?”
“She paid what she could.”
“Why don’t I like the sound of that?”
“Should we maybe discuss the retainer we didn’t get from your old lady?”
“No. Okay, go ahead. What’s her story?”
“Her name is Theresa Wellman. She hit a bad patch and lost her daughter.”
“Misplaced her, like under the bed or something?”
“Lost custody to the father.”
“And this little bad patch that caused such an overreaction?”
“Ah, the daily double.”
“But she’s changed. She cleaned herself up and got a new job, a new house. I find her inspiring, actually. And now she wants at least partial custody of her daughter.”
“What does the daughter want?”
“I don’t know. The father won’t let anyone talk to her.”
“And we’re involved why?”
“Because she is a woman who has changed her life and is now fighting for her daughter against a man with power and money. She needs someone on her side.”
“And that someone has to be us?”
“Isn’t this why we went to law school?”
I glanced down at my desk drawer. “No, actually.”
“Victor, I told her I would do what I could to get her daughter back. I’d like your help.”
I thought about it for a moment. I didn’t like this case, didn’t like it one bit. I mean, who the hell can tell which is the best parent for a kid? Let someone else take the responsibility. But Beth hadn’t been happy in our practice for a while. She hadn’t said anything directly to me, but I could see the discontent in her. I was increasingly worried that she would end the partnership, find something more fulfilling, leave me in the lurch. I didn’t think I could keep the firm going all on my own, and, truthfully, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. The only thing that would keep me trying was the utter lack of anyplace else to go. So if helping out in one of her pity cases was a way to keep my partner on board, then I didn’t have much choice.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll meet her.”
“Thank you, Victor. You’ll like her. I know it.” She paused for a moment. “There’s something else.”
“That sounds ominous.”
“It is.” She looked away with embarrassment. “I’m being evicted.”
“That is ominous. Playing your rock and roll too loud?”
“Yes, but that’s not it.”
“I’m sure we can scrape up a partnership distribution to get any back rent paid.”
“It’s nothing like that. I’m actually up-to-date in my rent, believe it or not. It’s just that the real-estate market has picked up. The landlord wants to gut the building, redo each floor into luxury lofts, and sell them off at obscene prices. I’m in the way.”
“What about your lease?”
“It’s up in a month. He mailed me an eviction notice.”
“I got it a month or so ago.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about it then?”
“I don’t know, I guess I hoped if I ignored the letter the whole thing would go away. Except it didn’t go away, and the date’s getting close.”
“What about the other tenants?”
“They’re all getting ready to leave. But I don’t want to leave. I like my apartment, and I couldn’t bear to move. Is there something I can do?”
“We can fight it. There are all kinds of screwy landlord-tenant laws on the books. We’ll tie them up for months, bollix the whole condo deal, make their lives an utter misery. Making the lives of corporate types an utter misery is half the fun of being a lawyer.”
“What’s the other half?”
“I haven’t found it yet. Give me the eviction letter and I’ll file something.”
“Thank you, Victor,” she said as she stood. “I feel better already.”
“Don’t worry, Beth. It will be fine.”
At the doorway she turned and gave me a wan smile. “I knew I could count on you.”
Poor thing, I thought as she stood there with a hopeful expression on her face. She was going to have to find herself a new place.
When she closed the door behind her, I opened my desk drawer again, just to get another peek. Then I screwed up my courage and called Slocum.
“You have stepped in it now, Carl,” said K. Lawrence Slocum, the chief of the Homicide Division at the district attorney’s office.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied.
“The FBI called our office in a panic, trying to find out who you are. According to the FBI, you apparently visited a Mrs. Kalakos this morning.”
“Don’t be cute, it’s unbecoming.”
“How are they so certain it was me?”
“How are they certain? Let me count the ways. First, they took a picture of you from the surveillance van. Then, while you were inside, they found your car and ran your license plate. Then they traced a cell-phone call that had sent a team of uniforms to check on their stakeout.”
“What are you up to, Carl?”
“Nothing, really. I’m as innocent as a lamb.”
“Why do I suspect that you are lying?”
“You had a difficult childhood, you never learned to trust.”
“What did you and the old lady talk about?”
“Attorney-client privilege prohibits me from disclosing the details of my conversation with Mrs. Kalakos.”
Pause. “That’s what I was afraid of.”
“But I would be interested in hearing what you know about her son.”
“Charlie the Greek?”
“No need to start throwing around derogatory ethnic labels, Larry.”
“That’s his name in the gang. Charlie the Greek.”
“The Warrick Brothers Gang. You ever hear of it?”
“A local crew, named for its leaders, two psychopathic icemen.”
“Jewel thieves. They were quite sophisticated, responsible for a plague of robberies and burglaries, including a series of spectacular jewelry heists from upscale mansions running from Newport, Rhode Island, to Miami Beach. They were stationed here and in Camden, which is why they were on our radar.”
“They still around?”
“The brothers are out of commission, one is dead, the other in prison in Camden. But there are still some members floating around that are active in all kinds of criminal activities in the Northeast part of the city. We can’t seem to put them away.”
“But why is the file on homicide’s desk?”
“It seems every time a witness shows up who might have something to say, the witness ends up floating in the river or dead in his car. One guy opened his trunk and got a faceful of steel from a rigged shotgun.”
“The whole investigation, including the murders, is still open.”
“What was Charles Kalakos’s connection?”
“He was one of the original gang members. He was arrested on a host of charges fifteen years ago, but he somehow made bail and disappeared before trial. We haven’t heard a peep from him since.”
“That doesn’t explain why the FBI is so hot on his trail.”
“There’s a federal prosecutor name of Jenna Hathaway who is apparently out to clean up the Warrick gang once and for all and who believes Charlie the Greek is the key. But my sense is that this Hathaway, for some reason, is hot to get a hard charge on Charlie to squeeze something else out of him, something not related to the Warrick case at all.”
“That’s peculiar.” The little prank? “Any idea what?”
“None, but she gives me an uneasy feeling. There’s too much interest here for it to be small-time. Anyone caught between Charlie and this Jenna Hathaway is going to get crushed, trust me. You might want to think twice about taking up this loser’s cause.”
I thought about what he was saying. Then I opened the drawer and peeked in.
“To tell you the truth, Larry,” I said, “I don’t have much choice.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“I’m only doing this as a favor.”
“To my dad.”
He laughed. “Now I know you’re lying.”
When he hung up, I took another look at the plunder in the drawer. Yowza. This must be how Trump feels when he stands at the window in his penthouse apartment, with his model wife by his side, and surveys all the buildings he owns. Maybe not, but to me it still felt pretty damn good. I now had a better idea of where the jewelry had come from: the mansions of Newport, seaside getaways in Miami Beach. Yeah, I knew where it had come from, and I knew where it was going, too. I searched my key chain for the desk key, found it, and locked the drawer tight.
Now all I had to do was figure out how to bring sweet Charlie home. Nothing I couldn’t handle, I figured, which was not the last time in that case I would be very, very wrong.
“I’ve changed, Mr. Carl,” said Theresa Wellman. “You have to believe that.”
But why? Why did I have to believe that? Because she was pretty and well dressed and her print dress fit tight around her hips? Because her trim hands were wringing one another with sincerity? Because her eyes and voice were pleading with me to believe every last word out of her delicate little mouth? All very compelling, I must admit, but not enough to assuage my qualms.
I had grave doubts, just then, about the possibility of anyone past adolescence truly changing in this world. We were, all of us, prisoners of our character, unable to alter our true inner natures. When we said we had changed, what had only really changed was our luck. Put us in the same circumstances as our previous folly and suddenly we’d revert, all of us, to what we were. That’s what I believed, which meant I didn’t quite believe Theresa Wellman.
“I made mistakes in the past, I admit,” she said. “But I have changed, and I am my child’s mother, and she belongs with me.”
We were in our rather ratty conference room. Beth was sitting beside Theresa Wellman at the table, leaning forward, offering support. I was standing in the corner with my arms unhappily folded. I suppose you could say we were playing good lawyer-bad lawyer, except we weren’t really playing.
“Why don’t we start at the beginning, Theresa,” I said. “Tell us about your daughter’s father.”
“His name is Bradley Hewitt. I met him when I was twenty and I was working in a Toyota dealership. He came in looking for a Lexus, chatted with me while he waited for the salesman, and called me up that afternoon. I wasn’t supposed to go out with a customer, but I couldn’t say no. He was tall, handsome, he had money and liked to spend it. It was thrilling just to be with him.”
“So it was his inner beauty that attracted you.”
“I was young, Mr. Carl, and I had never before dated anyone like him. The way he spoke, the way he dressed, the way he touched me, both gentle and firm. He was older, he knew things, he wore suits as expensive as a car. At the time I was living at home, sheltered by my parents and fighting them tooth and nail. Bradley seemed like a way out. He set me up in a nice place, helped with the rent, and things were wonderful for a while, until they weren’t anymore.”
“That’s usually how it goes,” I said.
“We partied almost every night with his friends, drinking, dancing. We took fabulous vacations with his old college buddy. His crowd were all big spenders. Champagne and lobster and, yes, drugs, but not crazy drugs, nothing in excess. Just fun. Bradley was fun and charming, except when he was angry and violent. I didn’t see much of that side of him at first, but after a while it became more and more apparent. Occasionally, angry at something, he would lash out, sometimes verbally in front of everybody and sometimes, when we were alone, with the back of his hand.”
“Did anyone ever see him hit you?”
“No, Bradley was too careful for that. And he was always sorry afterward. He was quite charming when he apologized.”
“What kind of business is he in?”
“He’s in construction, but not like a construction worker. He wears suits and makes deals with the help of his college friend and gets projects off the floor. He earns a piece of the entire project for putting things together.”
“Nice job if you can get it.”
“It had its ups and downs. Whenever he had a business problem, I learned to stay away from him, or I’d be putting makeup over the bruises for a month. I was still having fun, living like I had never thought I could live, with a man I thought I loved even though he wasn’t always good to me. And that’s the way it was with us, calm and settled and a little dangerous, until I got pregnant.”
“How did Bradley react?” said Beth.
“He didn’t really react much at all. He just expected me to get an abortion. He set up the appointment, took care of the money. But I didn’t want an abortion. I wanted the baby.”
“Why?” I said.
“I don’t know.”
“To keep Bradley around? To keep his money flowing? Why did you want the baby, Theresa?”
“I don’t know. It was a baby. I had always wanted a baby and wasn’t willing to get rid of this one, like an old sweater or something.”
“Okay,” said Beth. “I understand.”
I looked at my partner. Did she really understand that kind of longing? Was that the reason she looked despondent these days, or was I just being a jerk to think the explanation was that easy?
“Go ahead, Theresa,” said Beth.
“He tried to convince me, he yelled and even hit me some, but I was determined, and there was nothing he could say. When he finally realized it, he just stopped.”
“Stopped trying to convince you?”
“Yes, and stopped seeing me, too. He stepped out of my life. I was good, I quit drinking, I took care of myself, and with my family’s help I had a beautiful baby girl, Belle. And for a while we were happy.”
“Did Bradley pay child support?” I said.
“He used to give me some money for Belle now and then, when I called and complained, but it wasn’t enough. I was still in my place, which was more than I could afford, and I had a hard time showing up at work while taking care of the baby. When they decided to let me go at the dealership, things got tougher. I didn’t really have many skills. So I did the most desperate thing I could think to do.”
“And what was that, Theresa?”
“I hired a lawyer.”
I involuntarily winced. “And how did that work out for you?”
“Not so good. We sued for child support. Bradley countersued for custody, which made me furious, because he never showed any interest in Belle before that. And then things took a bad turn.”
“How?” I said.
“The fix was in. Yes, I had been having problems, drinking too much, a holdover from my time with Bradley, and I was using some recreational drugs with a fast crowd that Bradley had introduced me to. And yes, there were a few times when I left her alone for short periods where maybe I shouldn’t have, but those weren’t serious enough for them to take my baby.”
“But they did,” I said.
“They were going to. Before the hearing, my lawyer told me that things were looking bad, that criminal charges were being contemplated, that powerful forces were working against me. He urged me to work out a settlement.”
“Bradley has influential friends.”
“So you agreed to give up custody?”
“Outside the courtroom I went right up to Bradley and begged him to stop. In front of everyone, all of Bradley’s crowd, I pleaded with him. But Bradley just stood there, stone-faced with anger. The possibility that my daughter, my Belle, would end up with such an angry, violent man seemed impossible. But the lawyer told me had I had no choice. The fix was in.”
“With a family-court judge? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yes. I’m certain. It was his college friend who applied the pressure.”
“So without a hearing you gave away your daughter.”
“I was weak. I was ill.”
“Did you get any money?”
“There was a financial settlement.”
“And now, after selling your baby, you want to get her back.”
“That’s not what it was. And I’ve been in treatment, Mr. Carl. I’ve got a new job. I’ve worked hard to turn my life around. She should be with me.”
“I filed a petition to alter the custody agreement,” said Beth. “The hearing is scheduled for late next week.”
“What exactly are you looking for, Theresa?”
“I just want to see my baby, have time with her.”
“We’re asking for some sort of joint custody,” said Beth.
“Bradley hasn’t been a bad father,” said Theresa, “but a girl needs her mother, don’t you think?”
“Who’s Bradley’s lawyer?”
“Remember Arthur Gullicksen from the Dubé case?” said Beth. “He’s representing the father, and he’s been adamant that Bradley won’t share custody and won’t let Theresa even see the child.”
“What evidence do we have to present?”
“Theresa will testify,” said Beth. “Theresa’s new employer. Her drug tests from the treatment center have all come up clean. We can prove that she’s changed.”
“You can,” said Beth.
“Theresa, why did you come to Beth?” I asked.
“The woman’s group I was seeing recommended her. They said Beth would come through for me.”
“I bet they did.” Once a sucker always a sucker, I thought. “But I’m sure there are plenty of attorneys with more experience in family court than Beth who would take your case.”
“I tried. No one would accept it. They said I didn’t have enough money. They said I didn’t have a leg to stand on. But really, all the lawyers were simply afraid to go up against Bradley.”
“Because of his friends.”
“Especially his old college buddy.”
“The one who gets Bradley all those contracts, the one who had arranged to fix the custody case, the one who is intimidating half the bar. You mind telling me who it is, or am I just going to have to guess.”
“Are you going to be intimidated, too, Mr. Carl?”
“Theresa, in the face of intimidation, I am like a herd of elephants: I can be stampeded by a mouse. And Bradley’s old college buddy, I’m sure, is bigger than a mouse.”
“It’s the mayor,” said Beth.
“Of course it is,” I said. “Can I speak with you for a moment outside, Beth?”
In the hallway, with the door to the conference room closed, I gave Beth the look. You know the look, the one your mother gave you when you let the water in the tub run until it overflowed through the living room ceiling, warping the coffee table, staining the rug, that look.
“What are you doing?” I said.
“She needs someone.”
“Of course she needs someone, she’s in way over her head, but why does she need us?”
“Because no one else is foolish enough to take her case.”
“So you’re appealing to my innate stupidity, as opposed to my greed or low moral fiber.”
“This is going to be a hornet’s nest, you know that, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, with a sly smile.
“And it has nothing to do with your identification with a young girl torn from her parent?”
“I don’t know, maybe I’m just a sucker for lost kids.”
“She’s with her father.”
“He sounds like a jerk.”
“He does, yes, if you can trust what our client says.”
“I believe Theresa deserves another chance,” said Beth. “We all deserve another chance, Victor. And she’s changed.”
“I think so.”
“I guess we’ll find out. Okay, tell her we’ll do what we can” – I glanced at my watch – “but right now I have to run.”
“Sure,” I said, “with a seagull.”
Charlie the Greek found me.
I was leaning on the railing of the boardwalk in Ocean City, New Jersey, across from the Kohr Bros. frozen-custard stand at the Seventh Street ramp. The air was wet and salty, shot through with honky-tonk lights, the Ferris wheel spun, seagulls hovered. Little kids squealed as they pulled their parents to the amusement pier, boys bought skimmer boards at the surf shop. Taters Famous Fresh Cut Fries, Johnson’s popcorn, Tee Time Golf, free live crabs with kit. Ah, summer at the shore, it can’t help but stir sweet memories of an idyllic childhood, except not my memories and not my childhood.
“You Carl?” came a voice ragged and dry, with the flat accent of Northeast Philadelphia.
I turned to spot a short, old man with stubby arms who had sidled up beside me. His forehead came to my elbow. He looked to be in his sixties, and from the evidence they had been sixty hard years. His head was big and round and bald, his eyes were squinty, his plaid shorts were belted high on his waist. And then there were the white socks and sandals.
“I’m Carl,” I said.
“You couldn’t maybe have dressed to blend?”
“Would you have recognized me if I wasn’t in my suit?”
“Maybe not, but jeez.” The man’s head swiveled, his eyes shifted. “Every mug on the boardwalk has you marked.”
“Let me say this, Charlie. Even on the boardwalk, my suit is less conspicuous than those shorts.”
“Bermudas,” he said, hitching up his belt. “On sale at Kohl’s.”
“I bet they were.”
“Was you followed? Did you check to make sure you wasn’t followed?”
“Who would be following me?”
His head swiveled again. “Stop with the attitude and bark.”
“I checked before I left the city and again when I pulled in to the rest stop on the expressway and surveyed the ramps. All clear.”
“Good.” Pause. “How’s my mother?”
“The old bat’s been dying for years.”
“She looked pretty bad.”
“Ever seen her look good? Trust me, she’ll end up spitting into my grave afore it’s over.”
He hiked up his shorts until they were just beneath his breasts, scanned the boards. “Want to know why I ran all them years ago? They wasn’t going to send me away hard, it wasn’t the time what had me worried. But she would have come in every visiting day to sit across from me and let me have it through the Plexiglas. I would have killed myself halfway through.”
“She wants you to come home.”
“I knows she does.”
“She tell you what I got facing me?”
“She told me some. From the D.A. I learned some more.”
“Coming home for me, it ain’t no luxury cruise. And not just because of the time they’re going to pound on my head. It would be a miracle I survive it.”
“You’re talking about the Warrick Brothers Gang?”
“Quiet, all right? Jeez, you want to get me capped right here?”
“It’s funny, Charlie, but I don’t see you as the gangster type.”
“Hey, it ain’t all rough stuff. I ain’t so big, sure, but neither was that Meyer Lansky.”
“Even Meyer Lansky was bigger than you.”
“I was making a point, is all. I got some skills, don’t think I don’t.”
“So why are the Warrick guys so mad at you?”
“I maybe said some things to some people. Hey, I could go for some soft-serve. You want to get me some soft-serve?”
I pressed my lips together for a moment and then said, “Sure. What flavor?”
“Vanilla. And don’t forget the jimmies. I like all them different colors. It makes it festive. Like a party in your mouth.”
“You got it.”
“And make it a big one,” he said.
I pushed away from the railing and got in line at the Kohr Bros. stand. I needed just then some time away from whiny little Charlie. Not that Charlie didn’t have anything to whine about, what with the mother he had waiting for him. But if he decided to stay on the lam, I’d have to give back the pile of plunder sitting in my drawer. On the other hand, considering the FBI’s keen interest, and what Charlie was intimating about his former running mates, it might be best for everybody if Charlie stayed out in the cold.
“You don’t like custard?” said Charlie after I brought him a cone nearly half his size.
“Whenever I get soft-serve it ends up dripping on my shoes.”
“You should buy a pair of sandals, that way it slips right through.”
“Look, Charlie,” I said. “What am I doing here? You sound like the last thing you want to do is to come home.”
“Yeah, I knows, but you know.”
“I know what?”
“It’s my mother. She says she wants me to say good-bye. She says it would make up for everything, she could see me one last time.”
“And what do you think?”
“I think I’m sick of running. And I ain’t living the life of Riley, you know?”
“Who the heck is Riley anyway?”
“Some guy who ain’t living in crappy week-to-week walk-ups and sweeping floors, who’s actually looking forward to retirement because he’s got Social Security coming, who ain’t waiting for a knock that ain’t about the rent or the rats, but about something worse.”
A father took his three sons over to a bench by the rail to eat their cones. The kids’ faces were smeared with chocolate, the youngest was crying about something, the middle was hitting the eldest, the father was ignoring them all and staring slack-jawed at the underage girls who strolled on by. Ah, fatherhood.
“Are you going to be able to take care of me?” said Charlie.
“I don’t know.”
“My mother said you could.” He took a wet lick of his cone. “She said you would work it out.”
“I don’t know if I can. It’s a little more complicated than she might have thought.” I glanced at the family. “Let’s take a walk on the beach,” I said.
“I don’t want to go to the beach,” said Charlie. “I hate getting sand in the socks. It chafes my toes.”
“A bit more privacy might be the ticket, don’t you think?”
Charlie did his swivel-head thing, checked out the father and three boys on one side of us, a young couple on the other. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “Sure.”
We took the wooden stairs to the beach. On the way down, Charlie tripped and lurched forward. As he grabbed hold of the metal rail, the mound of vanilla atop his cone tumbled over and splattered onto the step.
“Ah, jeez,” he said. “My ice cream. I hate when that happens.”
He stood there, staring forlornly down at his now-empty cone and the white Rorschach blob at his feet. He looked right then, with the light streaming from the boardwalk behind and leaving him a round, bald, silhouette, like an overgrown toddler, about to break into tears.
“Want me to get you another one?”
“Would you? Really? Really?”
“I’ll meet you at the water’s edge.”
Charlie was waiting for me just above the reach of the tide, in front of the stone jetty. The sea was black, with lines of phosphorescent foam rising and falling in the darkness. Behind us the sounds of the boardwalk turned tinny, as if being played from an old transistor radio.
“Why is the FBI still chasing you, Charlie?” I said after I gave him the cone and he sucked down half of it while staring at the ocean.
“Maybe something I done a long time ago.”
“Something with the Warrick gang?”
“No,” he said. “Something from before. When I was still legit and trying to prove myself to my mother. Something what I done with four of my pals I grew up with. Just something that we pulled.”
“A little prank?”
“I guess yous could call it that.”
“Almost thirty years ago. It’s a long story.”
“I have time.”
“I can’t talk about it.”
“Because whatever I do, I won’t rat out the old crew. The Warrick guys, they can rot in hell. But the old gang, they’s more family than family, if you understand.”
“Tell me about them.”
“What’s to tell? The five of us, we grew up together.”
“Sure we was. One of them was Ralphie Meat, what lived just a few streets down from me. Bigger than anyone you ever saw, hard as tacks. And that rumor what gave him his name, it wasn’t a rumor. He was the terror of his gym class. All those kids with their little weenies taking showers with this huge hairy thing waving in their faces. It was enough to put the whole class of them in therapy for years. Ralphie Meat.”
“Is he still around?”
“Who knows? Who knows about any of them? There was also Hugo from Ralph’s same street, a real troublemaker, one of those guys who was always scheming a way to slip a fiver out of the other guy’s pocket. And Joey Pride, who lived in the border area between our neighborhood and Frankford. Joey was car crazy and certifiable – I guess you needed to be back then as a black kid hanging with a white crew. But it was Teddy Pravitz, the Jewish kid from across the alley, what made us more than we had any right to be. The thing that we done, it was him what convinced us we could.”
“Pull it off.”
“Pull off what?”
“I can’t talk about it,” said Charlie.
“Come on, Charlie. What the hell did you pull?”
“Listen, it ain’t important. I’m not spilling about any of this. I got loyalties, you know. And secrets, too, dark ones, if you catch the drift. Whatever they want, they don’t get that.”
“I talked with the D.A. They’d give you something for flipping on what’s left of the Warrick gang, but the feds are apparently looking for something else.”
“I bet they are. And let’s just say whatever it is they’re looking for, I can get my hands on it.”
“Does the what matter? I knows where it is, the thing they’s still looking for.”
“If that’s true, I might be able to work something out.”
“Would it let me come home and say good-bye to my mother without getting my ass blown off or me dying in jail?”
“I could try to get you a deal and protection, if that’s what you want. Maybe even set you up someplace in Arizona with a new life.”
“It’s nice there.”
“But it’s a dry heat.”
“Clear up my sinuses.”
“That it will.”
“I miss her.”
He turned to me, and it was strange, the way this old man could appear, in the shadows, like the youngest of children. The lights from the boardwalk collected in his eyes and then began to roll down one cheek.
“What do you think?” he said. “She’s my mother.”
“Okay,” I said.
“She’s dying. I’m too old to keep running. I’m tired. And I’ve changed.”
“I’m not the hood that I was. Can you do it? Can you make that deal? Can you get me home again?”
That’s when I felt it, that little spurt of emotion that trembled my jaw and left me helpless in the face of his want. If there’s any part of being a lawyer that I can claim to be a natural at, it is the empathic connection to my clients. Yes, I had a retainer of riches that kept my imagination warm at night, and yes, I kept my billable hours with a banker’s care, but it wasn’t the money that drove me, at least not anymore. Frankly, the way my business was tanking, I could make more as a salesclerk in the tie department at Macy’s. Polyester is the new silk, trust me, and that red is just fabulous with your eyes. But a client in desperate need, that was what really got my juices going, and that’s what Charlie Kalakos surely was. A marked man, on the run, hunted by both sides of the law, desperate to make his peace with the dying mother who had tortured him all his life. And now he was asking me to bring him home.
“I can try,” I said.
“Okay,” he said, “then try.”
“How do I get in touch with you?”
“You want to talk to me, talk to my mother. She’s the only one I trust with a number.”
“Okay. But I have to know more. You have to tell me what the FBI is looking for.”
“Do I got a choice?”
“Not if you want me to have any leverage,” I said.
“It was just a small job.”
“Not so small if the FBI is still looking.”
“Maybe it wasn’t so small at that. Was a blonde I used to hump when I still had some meat on my bones. Her name was Erma.”
“The name alone gives me chills.”
“She was big and beautiful, Erma was.” The hint of a smile, a blush of pride, like one bright memory in a life of infantile failure. “And so was what we pulled.”
I stared at his silhouette in the dim light of the dark beach, the excitement starting to build. “Tell me, Charlie. What the hell is it that you can get your hands on?”
“You ever hear,” said Charlie, “of a guy named Rembrandt?”
The Randolph Trust sits on a leafy suburban street in the heart of the Main Line. You’d expect to find a mansion or two on that street, sure, a few swimming pools and a tennis court, a purebred Dalmatian patrolling a front yard as big as a football field, and closets full of shoes you couldn’t afford. You wouldn’t expect to find one of the finest art galleries in the entire world. But there it sat, in a great granite building set down in that incongruous location by the iconoclastic real-estate magnate Wilfred Randolph. In a series of small galleries in that granite building were hung some of the finest paintings ever wrought by human hand, the fruit of Wilfred Randolph’s maniacal passion for art, his entire collection except for two masterworks that went missing long ago.
I knocked on the great red doors of the granite building and waited. A few minutes later, one of the doors opened a crack and an old guard with a bulbous nose stuck out his head.
“No visitors today,” he said. “The galleries are closed on Tuesdays. We allow visitors only on the second Monday of every month and alternating Wednesdays.”
“We have classes on Thursdays.”
“What about Fridays?”
“We’re open on Good Friday only.”
“Quite a schedule.”
“It’s all according to Mr. Randolph’s will.”
“Quite a will. But I’m not here to tour the galleries. I have an appointment with Mr. Spurlock.”
He looked me over before examining a clipboard in his hand. “Are you Victor Carl?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Why didn’t you say so? Come on in, we’re expecting you.”
When I stepped inside, he closed the great door behind me with a gloomy thunk and locked it shut. Then he led me through a narrow foyer and into a large room with benches in the middle and paintings on the walls. It all sounds a little pedestrian, paintings on the walls, like nothing we haven’t all seen hundreds of times before, but trust me when I tell you this was nothing like I had ever seen before. The artwork on the walls left me speechless.
“Mrs. LeComte wanted to personally escort you to Mr. Spurlock. She’ll be with you shortly,” the guard said before leaving me standing there alone, eyes wide with amazement.
Wilfred Randolph made his fortune the old-fashioned way, by buying up swampland and selling dreams. The Randolph Estates was the most exclusive residential development in Florida: What with the mangrove and mosquitoes, nobody lived there. But even so, plenty bought the dream and the sales made Wilfred Randolph a rich man. Newly wealthy and anxious to rise in the world, Randolph spied opportunity within the thorny thatches of high culture, and in that unlikely landscape he found his purpose in life. He would buy art. His brokers and his bankers descended like a plague of locusts on a Europe economically devastated in the aftermath of the First World War, and whole swaths of the Continent were denuded. He bought old masters and overlooked masterpieces at bargain rates and snatched up new works by struggling unknowns still fighting for recognition in their native countries. He had too much money and too many advisers not to make a hash of it, but he also had something else that made his collection different from anyone else’s. Wilfred Randolph happened to have a golden eye, and those unknown artists whose paintings he bought for pennies turned out to be the giants of twentieth-century art, painters like Matisse and Renoir, Picasso and Degas, Monet. And there was the very fruit of their genius, hanging on the walls around me.
“It’s quite astonishing, isn’t it?” said a woman’s voice from behind me.
“Is that a Seurat?” I said gesturing toward a huge pointillist piece raised above a door on the far wall.
“Very good, Mr. Carl.”
“How come I’ve never seen that one before in any art books?”
The woman behind me sniffed. “We don’t license photographs of our art. Mr. Randolph believed the only way to experience a work of art was to view it in the flesh.”
I turned around and faced the woman. She was tall and straight and elegantly gray, a well-dressed and well-aged woman in her seventies. She had once been quite pretty, you could tell, with a narrow face and dark features, but with time everything had pinched together.
“I am Mrs. LeComte,” she said. “I’m to accompany you to Mr. Spurlock.”
“Could you tell me first the purpose of your meeting with Mr. Spurlock?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but I can’t.”
“You’re a criminal lawyer, Mr. Carl, aren’t you?”
“You make it sound like I’m more criminal than lawyer.”
“I am just curious to know why a criminal lawyer is meeting with Mr. Spurlock here at the trust. It is quite unusual.”
“I’m sure it’s not that unusual. But as I’ve said, I can’t talk about our meeting. It’s a matter of privilege, you see.”
Her eyes narrowed. “I am the chief administrator of the trust, have been for over forty years. I was appointed by Mr. Randolph himself to this post.”
“Really? What was he like?”
“He was an extraordinary man, very fierce and very loyal. He gave me complete authority over all matters pertaining to the trust and its educational mission during his lifetime, and I’ve held that authority since. I’m sure I could help you with any inquiry.”
“Maybe it’s my mistake,” I said. “I thought Mr. Spurlock was the president of the Randolph Trust.”
“That is his title, yes. But, you see, I run things.”
“I’d just as soon talk to the title. Is he waiting for me? I don’t want to be late.”
She fought to control the anger that was twisting her mouth into a thin, wriggly worm. “This way, please,” she said.
Mrs. LeComte led me out of the ground-floor gallery, up a wide staircase, and through an upstairs gallery filled with giant canvas bouquets of wild color.
“Matisse,” I said.
“Yes. We have five of his works in this room.”
I stopped and spun around. “These are amazing.”
“If you want to see the artwork, Mr. Carl, buy a ticket. We are open to the public the second Monday of each month and alternate Wednesdays.”
“Let’s not forget Good Friday.”
“Mr. Spurlock is waiting in the boardroom,” she said, her voice shivering with cold. There is nothing more bracing than a frigid blast of anger, though I couldn’t help wondering where it was coming from and why it was directed at me.
“We should have coffee sometime, you and me,” I said to her.
She stepped back, tilted her head, and gave me the once-over, not like I was a vile specimen in a jar, more like she was determining whether I was a man worth another slice of her time. Whatever she was now, Mrs. LeComte had surely been something once.
“Maybe we will,” she said, “if you behave. Now, come along. It doesn’t do to keep Mr. Spurlock waiting.”
At the end of the hallway, Mrs. LeComte knocked lightly before pushing open one of the double wooden doors and leading me into the boardroom.
Two men waited for us at a great mahogany table in the dark, wood-paneled room. One I recognized as a fixture of the local bar association, Stanford Quick, tall and distinguished, with his gray suit and club tie. Quick was the managing partner of Talbott, Kittredge and Chase, one of the city’s most respected law firms, as well as the trust’s main counsel. He was the kind of old-school lawyer who had inherited his place at the table and seemed most concerned with his table manners. I had grown comfortable dealing with the type, their gentle condescension kept my inbred resentment at a peak. It was Quick whom I had called after my meeting with Charlie Kalakos and who had set up this appointment. The other man was shorter and younger and considerably better dressed, Jabari Spurlock, president and CEO of the Randolph Trust.
“Thank you, Mrs. LeComte,” said Spurlock after she had introduced me.
“I thought I could be of assistance to the discussion,” said Mrs. LeComte, her manner suddenly less imperious.
“Good-bye, Mrs. LeComte,” said Spurlock. He stared at her until she backed out the door and closed it behind her. “Difficult woman, that, but she has been a fixture here from before I was born. Take a seat, Mr. Carl. We have much to discuss.”
“Thank you,” I said as I sat across from them at the long table. “Quite a place you got here.”
“Have you never been to the trust before?”
“No,” I said. “And it’s no wonder, what with your screwy scheduling.”
“Our visiting hours were all specified in Mr. Randolph’s will,” said Quick. He sat at ease at the table, long and languorous, leaning back, seemingly bored. “It is not up to us to change those terms, much as we would like to.”
“We are merely the custodians of Mr. Randolph’s passions and intentions,” said Spurlock. “He believed his art was for the benefit of the working classes, not just the wealthy patrons who had time to tour museums at their leisure. To that end, the times for visitors to stroll the galleries are limited. Instead much of the calendar at the trust is reserved for teaching art appreciation to the less advantaged and the keenly interested, all based on Mr. Randolph’s startling methods.”
“It sounds so very noble.”
“It is, Mr. Carl, and yet, even so, our methods and practices are constantly under attack by the privileged few.”
“You’ve read, of course, Victor,” said Stanford Quick, “of the trust’s battles with its neighbors. And you’ve also read that there is a movement afoot to use the trust’s current economic crisis to move the entire collection into the city and turn its control over to the art museum.”
“It’s been front-page news.”
“Yes, Mr. Carl,” said Spurlock, “unfortunately it has. Which brings us to your visit.”
“I simply mentioned to Stanford that I might have information concerning a missing painting.”
“No, Victor,” said Quick. “You were more specific. You mentioned a missing Rembrandt. The only Rembrandt ever purchased by Mr. Randolph was a self-portrait painted in 1630 that was stolen from the trust twenty-eight years ago. Is that the painting you were referring to?”
“Was it a picture of some guy with a hat?”
“Do you have the painting in your possession, Mr. Carl?” said Spurlock.
“No,” I said. “In fact, I’ve never seen it.”
“But you know where it is,” said Spurlock.
“No, I don’t. I don’t know anything about the whereabouts of the painting, about how it was stolen, or by whom.”
“Then what are we doing here?” said Quick.
“The thing is, I have this client who claims he does.”
“A client, you say,” said Quick. “Who?”
“I need to find out some things first, like how the painting went missing in the first place.”
“It was stolen,” said Spurlock. “There was a robbery.”
“A professional job by a crack group of the highest caliber,” said Quick. “Most likely from out of town. Impeccably planned, flawlessly executed. Taken was Mr. Randolph’s collection of religious icons, made of gold or silver, that he had purchased from all over the world, including Russia and Japan. None of those icons have been recovered, and it is assumed that they have been melted down for their precious metals. Also taken was an amount of currency and a large quantity of jewelry owned by Mr. Randolph’s wife and kept at the trust because of its supposed tight security.”
Thinking of the haul of jewels in my desk drawer, I tried to stop my eyes from widening with interest at that little nugget.
“Any idea of who was behind it?” I said.
“Not really. There appeared to be an inside contact, which was puzzling, because most employees of the trust had been hired by Mr. Randolph and were insanely loyal. A young curator was suspected of being involved, but there was never enough evidence collected to prosecute her. Still, of course, she was let go.”
“What was her name?”
“Chicos, I think,” said Quick. “Serena Chicos. But as for the Rembrandt, its inclusion in the robbery was always puzzling. It is a signal piece, not easily sold, and, in fact, from what we can gather, it has never appeared in the black markets that deal with stolen art. It simply vanished, along with a small Monet landscape taken at the same time. Both paintings disappeared without a trace.”
“Until now,” said Spurlock, “when you come to us claiming to have a client who can return the Rembrandt to us. For a fee, I assume. This is a shakedown, I assume.”
“Why do you assume that?”
“Another part of your reputation precedes you, Mr. Carl.”
“Whatever the circumstances,” said Quick, “we cannot be involved in a shakedown.”
“I would be appalled at the very suggestion,” said Spurlock, “simply appalled. Except that the specific work in question is a very valuable piece to the trust, in more ways than you can imagine. One of the claims they are using in trying to wrest control of the trust is a supposed laxity in our security over the years, and the missing Rembrandt is Exhibit A. It would be very valuable to our cause to recover that painting. Unfortunately, Mr. Carl, our finances are at a difficult stage. To be frank, we are worse than broke, we are tragically in debt. We would not be able to pay near to what the painting is worth.”
“How much is it worth?” I asked.
“It is priceless,” said Quick.
“Everything is priceless until a price is placed upon it,” I said.
“At auction,” said Spurlock, “similar Rembrandts have fetched upwards of ten million dollars.”
“Yowza,” I said.
“But of course those paintings weren’t stolen,” said Quick. “The trust is the rightful owner of that painting. As such, the painting could not be sold at auction, it could not be sold to a legitimate collector, it could not be shown. It is ours. If we find it, we can simply take it.”
“If you find it.”
“How do we know your client isn’t taking us for a ride?” said Quick. “The details of the robbery have been in all the papers. You wouldn’t be the first person to come to us with supposed information about one or the other of the missing paintings. The other claims have proven to be fraudulent. Somehow I expect that this claim is fraudulent, too.”
“There’s an L,” I said.
“Excuse me?” said Spurlock.
“On the back of the canvas. Apparently the work was damaged at one point. You can’t tell from the front, but my client informed me there has been a restoration. From the back of the canvas it is clear. There is an L-shaped repair.”
Spurlock looked at Quick, who opened a file. Slowly, he paged through the documents until he found what he was looking for. An old photograph of a browned piece of canvas. He fought to contain his excitement as he passed the photograph to Spurlock.
“Who is your client, Victor?” said Quick, leaning forward now. “And what does he want?”
“He simply wants to come home,” I said.
“Go ahead, Mr. Carl,” said Spurlock. “Explain what we can do?”
“My client is currently under indictment for crimes he committed long ago. He is actively being sought by both the district attorney’s office and the FBI, as well as by his former gang, who would like to silence him. What he wants is a deal with the government that will give him protection and allow him to avoid any jail time. It all seems fair enough to me. But the feds have let it be known that the deal is not acceptable to them. I was hoping someone with influence would ask them nicely to change their minds. Isn’t there a congressman on your board? Isn’t one of your benefactors also a large contributor to the Republican Party?”
“You’ve done your homework, Mr. Carl. And you are telling me there is to be no money involved?”
“This is America,” I said. “There’s always money involved. My client would like to start a new life with a nice stake, but his needs aren’t excessive and the amount won’t be anything you’ll have trouble meeting, even with your financial troubles. I’m sure we can work that out later.”
“I’m sure we can,” said Spurlock. “Yes, yes, I am sure.”
“Whom in the public sector should we talk to?” asked Quick.
“Do you know K. Lawrence Slocum in the D.A.’s office?”
“Larry? Sure. Head of homicide now, isn’t he?”
“That he is. He’s handling it for the D.A. On the federal side, there’s a prosecutor named Jenna Hathaway who has taken charge of the case.”
“Hathaway, you say?” said Quick.
“That’s right. Apparently she’s looking for a glory ride. You want to apply pressure, you apply it to her.”
“Good. So now, Victor,” said Quick, “for us to do what we need to do, you have to tell us: Who is your client?”
“His name is Kalakos. Charles Kalakos. Slocum will know him as Charlie the Greek.”
There was something in Stanford Quick’s eyes just then, a slight flinch that indicated he had heard the name before. Interesting. Maybe Quick had done his homework, too.
“But I have to emphasize,” I said, “that this all must be done with the utmost of discretion. There are dangerous people who will be very unhappy if Charlie comes home. Any leak of what we are trying to do here will destroy the possibility of a deal, put my client’s life at risk, and end your chance at recovering the painting.”
“We understand,” said Spurlock.
“If it goes public, the deal is off.”
“You can rest assured, Mr. Carl,” said Jabari Spurlock, his hands clasped before him and his head nodding sagely, “that we will be the very souls of discretion.”
Discretion lasted about twenty-four hours, and then all hell broke loose.
It had seemed a simple enough plan. I had one agenda for my client and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jenna Hathaway had another. The easiest way to get us all on the same page was to have someone else involved, hence my visit to the Randolph Trust. A few discreet phone calls from the powerful members of the board about a missing Rembrandt would have the FBI eating out of my hand.
I was so sure it would all work as planned, I hadn’t even thought much about the strange questions raised by the visit, like why had Mrs. LeComte been so concerned about my meeting with Spurlock? Or why did Stanford Quick seem to recognize Charlie’s name? Or even the strangest of all: How had a loser like Charles Kalakos and his ragtag neighborhood gang been able to pull an impeccably planned, brilliantly executed professional heist? Still, why should I care about any of that? I was a man out to make a deal, and it looked like a deal was at hand.
Until somebody let loose our laundry and hung my client’s life on the line. And not just my client’s life.
“I know you,” said a man with a harsh strain of Philly in his accent. “You’re that Victor Carl.”
He had stopped me right after I left my office. I had been working late, it was after seven, and Twenty-first Street was pretty much deserted, the shoe-repair shop closed, the Korean grocery closing. There was plenty of traffic on Chestnut, but I was heading away from Chestnut, just past the alley at the edge of my building, when the man had stepped in my way.
“That’s right,” I said. “And you are?”
He raised a small digital camera and took a snap, the flash momentarily blinding me.
“Whoa,” I said, blinking away the afterimage. “What are you, a reporter?”
“Not exactly,” he said, and he wasn’t exactly dressed as a reporter either, no ratty sport coat, no wrinkled shirt, no mustard stains on his tie, no air of bored disappointment with his life. Instead he was wearing shiny white sneakers, pressed jeans, a retro 76ers jersey over a white T-shirt, silver chains hanging down, and a white baseball cap with the Sixers logo embossed in cream. It was a strange look, stranger still on a guy with gray hair who was shaped like a pear.
“You mind turning your head a bit to the side, Victor, so’s I can catch your profile?”
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Hey, pal, I’m just trying to snap some pictures here. No need to get hostile. Now, be a Joe and turn to the side.”
“Go to hell,” I said, and as soon as I said it, something hard clamped down on the back of my head, holding it stiffly in place.
I reached back and found a gnarled hand attached to an absurdly thick wrist. The hand turned my head to the side. From that angle I could see what had hold of me, a younger man in the very same outfit, except his retro jersey was green, for the Bucks, and his chains were gold. This second man was a foot shorter than me, but with the girth of a bull.
Camera guy took another photograph, checked the outcome on the camera’s small screen.
“Jesus, I hope that isn’t your good side,” he said. “Turn him around, Louie.”
Louie twisted his wrist and spun me around 180 degrees, like we were partners at a square dance.
Camera guy took another photograph.
“I think we’ve got enough here,” he said. “I want to thank you, Victor, for your generous cooperation.”
Louie let go of my head. I shook my neck, straightened my jacket, tried to restore some level of dignity.
“What the hell is going on?” I said.
“Louie and myself, we’ve come here to deliver a message.”
“From who, the mayor?”
“The mayor? Now, why would the mayor be sending someone like you a message?”
“For his buddy Bradley. To threaten us off the Theresa Wellman case.”
The guy in the Sixers jersey raised his eyebrows in sadness as he shook his head.
“Isn’t that what this is about?” I said.
“Unfortunately for you, no,” he said. “We didn’t get dispatched from City Hall. But let me tell you something, Victor. If the mayor’s irritated at you, too, maybe you ought to rethink your life. No, we’re here with a message for your buddy Charlie.”
“Yeah, Charlie. Your boy Charlie the Greek. And this is the message. You tell that bald piece of dick we haven’t forgotten that he spilled last time he was in the stir. Fifteen years is but a snap of the fingers to us. You tell him painting or no painting, if he shows his face in this town, I’m going to personally rip it off his skull.”
That’s when Louie piped in. “Off his skull, boysy,” he said, his voice soft and gravelly, like the crush of bones underfoot.
“We’ve picked a bog for him already. He’ll understand. Tell him he’ll be crapping cranberries into eternity.”
“Cranberries,” said Louie.
“And you tell Charlie, wherever he is right now, he ought to be running, because we’ve called in our friend from Allentown.”
“Your friend from Allentown?” I said.
“Allentown, boysy,” said Louie.
“Charlie will know who we’re talking about,” said the man with the camera. “He’ll know enough to take it seriously.”
“Who the hell are you guys?”
“The name’s Fred. Charlie will remember me because I’m the very guy he was running from fifteen years ago. And you, Victor, let this be clear. If Charlie shows up, it won’t be so good for your health neither.”
“What makes you think I’m representing this Charlie?”
“Are you saying you don’t?”
“I’m just saying-”
Fred pushed me. I started going backward and then flipped over some huge solid thing, which turned out to be Louie, bending at his waist. I hadn’t fallen for that since grade school.
“You stupid little pisspot,” said Fred, now standing above my prostrated body. “This thing with you and Charlie and that painting, it’s all over the freaking news.”
I was still on the ground when, side by side, they started walking away from me, south, toward Walnut. I sat up on the sidewalk, my legs spread before me, my arms behind, propping up my torso.
“Hey, guys,” I said.
Fred and Louie turned together. In their twin outfits, they looked like part of a sanitized hip-hop dance troupe. Up with Hoods.
“What was with the photographs?” I said.
Fred took a couple steps forward until he was leaning over me. “Our friend from Allentown,” he said. “After what happened one time in West Philly, he let it be known from here on in we should take photographs. It cuts down on the mistakes. Very meticulous, our friend from Allentown.”
“Why don’t I find that comforting?” I said.
So much for dire threats. And I have to give him this, as far as I could tell, Fred hadn’t been lying, because yes, I was a stupid little pisspot, and yes, Charlie’s story was all over the freaking news.
I had missed the early wave of evening broadcasts, but I caught the eleven o’clock news, and there it was, on all three channels, narrated by each station’s organized-crime reporter, the whole story of the missing painting. They broadcast shots of the Randolph Trust building, pictures of the painting itself – Rembrandt as a young man with his bulbous nose and sharp eyes and goofy hat – they had mug shots of a younger Charlie Kalakos squinting for the police camera, and they had file footage of me talking exuberantly to the press about one of my prior cases.
All in all a good night for a publicity hound, which I shamelessly admit to being, but a lousy night for a lawyer trying to keep his sensitive negotiations on the QT. Which was proved with the very next phone call.
“Carl, you make me so very weary,” said Slocum.
“It wasn’t me.”
“First, this morning I get a call from some high-toned lawyer representing the Randolph Trust, barking in my ear about some missing Rembrandt. Then A.U.S.A. Hathaway calls up, irate as can be, complaining about sudden pressure from higher-ups concerning that selfsame painting. And, funny how it works, both conversations seemed to include your name.”
“That I had something to do with.”
“It was no small thing to calm Hathaway. Watch out for her, Victor, she’s a hard case. But I worked it, yes I did, and just as I’m about to get a meeting set up, you leak the whole thing to the press to apply even more pressure.”
“That’s the part that wasn’t me.”
“You didn’t talk to the press?”
“No, I did not.”
“But you love talking to the press.”
“Like Hoffa loves cement, true, but this time I refrained. And everyone I talked to understood that keeping the whole thing quiet was in everybody’s interest.”
“Obviously not everyone.”
“So do we still have a meeting to work out a deal?”
“Not now, not after this. Hathaway called back and said if they deal now, it will look like stolen art was being used to buy off the righteous arm of justice.”
“Which of course would be true.”
“Of course. Except that when it’s done behind closed doors it is one thing, and when it is headline news it is another. You should have kept it quiet.”
“So who spilled?”
“I don’t know. That Randolph Trust is a hornet’s nest, with everyone holding their own agendas. There was an old lady there who wasn’t included in the discussions, but I don’t doubt that she knows every nook and cranny in the place and the best locations to eavesdrop. And then, of course, our friend in the U.S. Attorney’s office could have leaked the information herself to give her an excuse to torpedo the deal.”
“Are you accusing a federal law-enforcement official of using the press to further her own ends?”
“It’s happened before.”
“Yes, it has. Why didn’t you just let me know about the painting right off?”
“I thought a little outside pressure would get the lard out of the FBI’s ass.”
“Well, you were right about that. The search for Charlie the Greek has been accelerated. All the field offices in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland are in on the hunt.”
“I knew you had stepped into it, yes I did.”
“Hey, Larry, you ever hear anything about some hit man from Allentown?”
Pause. “Where’d you get that?”
“Just something I heard in the street.”
“Oh, I bet you did. Remember all those murders through the years we’re trying to link up to the Warrick Brothers Gang?”
“Word is the finger man was some old pro from Allentown.”
“This isn’t so good, is it?”
“No, it isn’t. Sleep well, Victor, ’cause you’ll be needing it.”
It took me a while to figure it out, what I could do to salvage my client’s chances to make it home, to give his dying mother his heartfelt good-byes, to let me cash in my pile of jewels and chains, and for both of us to survive it all without prison time or serious bodily harm. It had to be something that would push the feds to deal and something that would work fast enough to kick in before their revived manhunt pulled in Charlie, or the friend from Allentown mooted the issue. It took me a while to figure it out, because usually when a solution to a difficult problem congeals in your consciousness it ends up requiring sacrifice and daring, it ends up requiring you to transcend your baser instincts and rise to the occasion. But not this time. This time my baser instincts were spot-on.
I hadn’t courted the wave of press attention that flowed like sewage into Charlie’s messy life story, but now that it was here, I was going to ride it for all it was worth. Time for A.U.S.A. Jenna Hathaway to learn how low I could go.
The next morning at my office, the phone didn’t stop ringing and I didn’t stop answering. The television crews were lined up like rush-hour aircraft on the runway, waiting for their exclusive interviews.
“Channel Six, come on in, it’s your turn. Channel Twenty-nine, we’ll be with you next, and then Channel Three. But I might have to take a moment when the New York Times calls – don’t want to keep the old gray lady waiting. And then I have a photo shoot with the Inquirer scheduled for two. Will that give us all enough time?”
And in each discussion about the painting and its whereabouts, because that’s what the press all asked about, I talked about my client Charlie, who was simply trying to come home to say so long to his dying mother but was being stymied by the heartless autocrats at the FBI.
“My client wants to return this painting, not for his own benefit, or even for the benefit of Randolph Trust, but for the people of this great country and for all the generations to follow. He wants to return it for all the children who will someday find their lives enriched by this preeminent work of art. If only the FBI would show a little flexibility. If only the Bureau could stop thinking of its own selfish ends and consider the children. The children are what really matter.”
And, of course, there was one key statement I made in all my interviews, the most important point I drove home that day and in the days to follow.
“The name is Carl,” I said to the reporter who sat across from me with her notepad out and her pencil sharpened. “Carl with a C.”
“You said that already,” she said. “Twice. Tell me about your client.”
“He’s a nice old guy,” I said. “Harmless, really. My gosh, he’s over sixty and not even five feet tall.” I forced out a chuckle. “I’d hardly call him a threat to the community.”
“Where is he now?”
“Still in hiding. It’s a shame, really, with his mother deathly ill and praying to see her son one more time before she dies. I think the government is being quite unreasonable.”
“So it appears.”
“Can I get you something to drink? Water?”
“No, I’m fine, thank you.”
The interview was being conducted in my office. My jacket was on, my tie tight, my feet were off my desktop. I was feigning a thoughtful, concerned manner, listening to the questions as if I hadn’t heard them before, phrasing my answers as if I really cared. There were no cameras to explain my faultless etiquette, which could only mean that the reporter sitting on the other side of my desk was remarkably good-looking, which she was. Hair like scrubbed copper, green eyes, pale freckly skin, no longer young but far from too old. Her name was Rhonda Harris, and she was wearing a tight blue sweater and a green scarf. Occasionally, as she concentrated on her notebook, the pink tip of her tongue showed at the corner of her mouth.
“Could I possibly talk to Charlie?” she said.
“No, I’m sorry. That’s not feasible.”
“But it would really help me set the right tone. I’m trying to focus this article on whether it is possible to come home again, despite what Thomas Wolfe wrote.”
“Ah, a literary twist. Good for you. Do you like Wolfe?”
“I adore him.”
“Too many words for my taste.”
“But that’s what I love about him. All that ripe excess, the sensual pleasures of his long and twisting sentences. My God, sometimes his prose leaves me feeling ravished.”
“People say I talk too much.”
“But, see, if I could just speak to Charlie, even on the phone, it would help so. I think his sense of exile is at the heart of this story. Charlie Kalakos, like George Webber, trying to come home to a hostile city.”
“That sounds very interesting, Rhonda. Can I call you Rhonda?”
“Of course.” Nice smile, that, the way her eyes crinkled with warmth, the way the corners of her mouth curved down like a kitten’s even as she showed her very white and very even teeth.
“And call me Victor, please. As I’m sure you understand, Rhonda, there are many people searching for Charlie, some more dangerous than others. His location must be kept a secret. I don’t even know where he is or how to reach him.”
“You have met with him, though, haven’t you?”
“Now, now, Rhonda, really. I can’t disclose that.”
“How often do you meet him?”
“Who did you say you wrote for again?”
“And you’re their crime reporter?”
“I cover the art scene for them on a nonstaff basis.”
“Ah, the Rembrandt.”
“Yes, the famous Rembrandt.” She leaned forward, tapped her pencil to her lip, opened wide her lovely eyes. “Have you seen it?”
“Just the photographs on television.”
“Such a fabulous piece of work. It would be thrilling to behold it after all these years. I’d give anything to examine it up close.”
“We’re hoping you get that chance very soon.” Pause. “At the Randolph.”
“Of course,” she said, leaning back again, tapping her notebook in disappointment. “Can I ask one thing more, Victor?”
“I’m just on the art beat, so I might be missing something here, but is this whole thing fair? Do you really think that Charlie deserves a sweetheart deal simply because he somehow has possession of a valuable piece of stolen property? Isn’t that just as bad as a rich man buying his way out of an indictment?”
I glanced at my watch. “Oh, I’m sorry, Rhonda, I have to cut this short. Maybe some other time we could talk in depth about fairness and the law. I have some very interesting theories about that.” Smarmy smile. “Over drinks, perhaps.”
“I’d like that, Victor. Very much.”
I tastefully refrained from punching the air and letting out a whoop.
As I was escorting Rhonda through the hallway and toward the stairs, I caught a whiff of something precious in the air.
“Are you wearing a new fragrance, Ellie?” I said to my secretary as we stopped at her desk and I sniffed deeply. “Because I must say, whatever it is, it’s lovely.”
She didn’t respond, she didn’t even smile at the compliment. Instead she just let her eyes shift to her left. I followed her gaze.
He stood there, short and slight in a purple suit with lace shirt cuffs and very shiny, very small black shoes. “Mr. Carl, is it?” he said in a Southern drawl so thick it seemed to drip with kudzu.
“I wonder, sir, if I could have a smidgen of your time.”
I glanced at Ellie, who was fighting to keep the smile off her face.
“I’m a little busy right now,” I said. “Are you press?”
“Oh dear, no. Do I look reptilian to you? And if you see me in brown corduroy, please shoot me. This won’t take but a moment, and I can assure you that our meeting will be very much worth your while. Oh so very, very much.”
I stared at him for a moment, tried to figure out what he was all about and failed. I turned to Rhonda Harris, who, surprisingly, wasn’t smiling. I suppose some people just have no sense of humor about their profession.
“Thank you for coming, Rhonda,” I said. “I hope we meet again sometime.”
“Count on it, Victor,” she said.
As Rhonda Harris passed the little man, she stared down at him and he stared back and I felt something spark between them, like the tension between two dogs circling a dead squirrel. I almost thought I heard a guttural growl. Then Rhonda was off, heading for the door, and both the man and I stared at her as she walked away. Her skirt was as tight as her sweater, and her pumps were sturdy.
“Do you know her?” I asked the little man as she swung open the door and disappeared.
“Never saw her before in my life.”
“You seemed to know her.”
“I know the type.”
“And what type is that?”
I turned my head to stare once more at the man, then I checked my watch. “I’m sorry, I really don’t have much-”
“Just a pinch of time is all I need,” he said, his voice flying high like a startled sparrow at the last word, “just the tiniest pinch.”
“What exactly is this about?”
“Oh, let’s just say I’m here to discuss the fine arts, one patron to another.”
“I’m not really a patron of the arts.”
“Oh, Mr. Carl, Mr. Carl. Don’t slight yourself.”
I thought about it for a bit. “All right, Mr…”
“Hill,” he said. “Lavender Hill.”
“Of course it is. Why don’t we go to my office?”
“Splendid,” he said. “Simply splendid.”
I gestured him down the hall and watched as he minced his way toward my office door. His walk wasn’t so different from Rhonda’s. I leaned over to Ellie.
“Any idea who he is?” I whispered.
“Not a pinch,” she said.
“He give you a card?”
She took a card off her desk, passed it under her nose, and then handed it to me. It smelled as if he had dipped it in his perfume. I gave it a quick read. His name in a florid script, a phone number with an area code I didn’t recognize, and the words “Procurer of the Sublime.”
“What’s a ‘Procurer of the Sublime’?”
“I don’t know, Mr. Carl,” said Ellie. “Do you need me to stick around?”
“No, you can knock off for the day. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Thanks. But can you do me a favor?”
“Can you find out what scent he uses?” she said. “Whatever it is, I like his better than mine.”
“Such a charming office, Mr. Carl,” mewed Lavender Hill as he settled into the chair across from my desk.
Not a promising start to our interview: one sentence, one lie. My office was officially a dump, scuffed walls, dented brown filing cabinet, a desk covered with useless papers that should have been tossed out weeks ago. It was utilitarian, maybe, it had an unsentimental personality, maybe, it suited me like a cheap, ill-fitting suit, maybe, but it was not charming.
“Thank you,” I said. “I try.”
His brown eyes filled with amusement at my counterlie. My God, they almost sparkled. He was quite a sight, I had to admit, with his legs daintily crossed, his paisley silk scarf around his neck, his black hair parted to the right and cut round, as if it had been styled in 1978. And he had the face of a jockey, anorexic, sharp, and corrupt. Lavender Hill.
“You are such a dear to see me on short notice,” he said. “Normally I wouldn’t barge in like a barbarian, but I felt our conversation just couldn’t wait for the usual pleasantries. I’m sure the subject will be close to your heart.”
“What exactly is the subject?”
“So we’re going to discuss aesthetics, is that it?”
“And money,” he said as one small hand fussed with a purple lapel.
“Yes, now I see, Mr. Hill.”
“Oh, call me Lav, everyone does. Do you know the Spencers of Society Hill? Simply the best people. They’ve called me Lav for years.”
“No, I don’t know the Spencers. We probably run in different circles.”
“Oh, I suppose so, yes. They are horse people.”
“The things they do with genes nowadays.”
“One look at her, Victor, and you wouldn’t doubt it. I can call you Victor, can’t I?”
“You can call me anything you want, Lav, when we’re talking about money.”
“Oh, very good. You have a pleasing sort of directness I find quite… exhilarating. So let’s get down to it, shall we? You have a client, Charles Kalakos.”
“And he has access to a certain painting, from what I’ve been told.”
“That seems to be the word on the street. What about it?”
“I represent, Victor, a collector, a man with impeccable tastes and a private collection of the most exquisite objets d’art.”
“Oh, you’re right. Good for you, Victor. Why put on all kinds of pretensions and airs when we’re talking about stuff? He collects stuff, quite valuable stuff, but stuff all the same. What you buy when you already have everything. Still, his hunger for collecting can be quite lucrative for those of us in the position to feed it. Which is where we both now find ourselves.”
“He wants the painting.”
“Of course he does, you clever boy. A Rembrandt self-portrait would mark the pinnacle of his efforts. He is quite adamant about adding it to his collection.”
“I’m sorry, Lav, but selling a stolen painting would be illegal. I couldn’t possibly be part of such a transaction.”
“Oh, Victor, I wouldn’t suggest such a thing. You are a lawyer, bound by the boundless morality of your profession. Of course your selling the painting would be wrong, wrong, wrong. And yet” – a sly smile – “you are bargaining for the painting right now in a very public way, are you not? Trying to use it to get the best deal for your client.”
“It’s very different.”
“Is it so different? Maybe the best deal for your client is not to turn himself into a gymnast for the prosecutors or return to Philadelphia and put his life at the mercy of his former gangland companions.”
“How do you know about that?”
“Oh, Victor, you are a charmer, aren’t you? Maybe the best deal for your client is something else. A new home, a new identity, a new fat bank account to keep him smelling clover for the rest of his days. These things could be arranged.”
“In return for the painting.”
“I must say, Victor, all the negative things I’ve heard about your intellect have been completely overstated. You are quite sharp for a lawyer. I approve. And rest assured those of us in the middle would be amply rewarded. You might even be able to afford a can of paint for your office. Ralph Lauren has some marvelous colors that would do wonders. Maybe a teal.”
“You don’t like beige?”
“The color of cheap coffins. So there we have it, Victor. The offer has been made. Your interest is apparent. All that is left is the details.”
“Like how much money we’re talking about.”
“Yes, for one.”
“How much money are we talking about?”
“Are we negotiating now?”
“No. I can’t be part of the selling of stolen art.”
“As I suspected you would say. But why talk money if we’re not negotiating? This was only a preliminary meeting. Let me tell you how I believe things might proceed from here. You will tell your client about this meeting, keeping him informed of all developments in his case, as you are required by the bar association. He’ll be interested, because he is a man with a healthy lust for money. You will give him my phone number. He will call. I will mention amounts in the six figures. And if there is a deal, we will take care of the transaction without your input. You, however, will still receive a healthy commission of, say, fifteen percent. It is so simple, really.”
“I can’t accept a commission.”
“Of course not, that would be improper. But a retainer, from a new client, for a case that might never come to trial, maybe renewed for a couple of years, a substantial retainer, that you could accept. All the best law firms do. You have my card?”
“Yes, I have your card.”
“Splendid. So our work here is done.”
“Not quite, Lav. Before I do anything, I’ll need to know who you represent.”
“I represent a man with money who lives far away. You need know nothing more. An art collection of his sort, where provenance is not a concern, can be maintained only in absolute secrecy.”
“Everything you tell me will be held in the strictest confidence.”
“Your confidence doesn’t impress him. All negotiations will go through me.”
“I need a name.”
“You need nothing of the sort,” he said, the sparkle in his eye replaced with a flash of anger. “You have a job to do and you will do it and you will be paid for it. That is all that must concern you. And I have every faith that you will make the call.”
“How are you so sure?”
“Because you are not representing Charles Kalakos only as a lawyer. He is a friend of the family. There is history that must be honored. You owe him the opportunity.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“Ask your father.”
“This has been so pleasant,” said Lavender Hill as he stood from the chair. “We should do this again. Maybe over a cocktail. I do adore a stiff cocktail.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
“I can see myself out, Victor. Thank you for your hospitality.”
Just as he stepped out my door, I said, “Six figures won’t be enough.”
He stopped, swiveled his hips to face me, put an expression of amusement on his face. “Are we negotiating now?”
“No,” I said. “I can’t negotiate such a deal. But, knowing the value of the painting, I couldn’t advise my client to take anything less than seven.”
“So we’ve both done our research. Very, very good. I’ll discuss it with my client.”
“And lawyers generally get a third.”
“Yes, and auctioneers generally only get a tenth. Somewhere in the middle seems more than fair. But this is all so promising. I’ve made an offer, you’ve made a counteroffer, we’re haggling over percentages. I know you can’t be part of this, Victor, but already it feels like a negotiation to me. Ciao, dear one. I’ll be waiting for a call. But don’t keep me waiting long.”
When he vanished from the doorway, I was left with his lingering scent and the throb of my pulse that always accompanies the flash of big money. He hadn’t even blinked when I told him six figures wasn’t enough. Hadn’t even blinked.
I sat at my desk, rubbing my hands together and thinking it through. To sell the painting would be illegal, and a lawyer really can’t be involved in anything illegal. Really. And yet Lav might have been right when he said his offer would be the best for Charlie and maybe for Charlie’s mother, too. I could imagine the tearful reunion on a lovely cay off the coast of Venezuela, mother and son, together again, under a bright Caribbean sky. And passing on a mere phone number surely wouldn’t violate any of my legal oaths. Surely. And what about the law of either/or? If I wasn’t going to be able to bank the retainer, I should at least get something out of this whole mess, don’t you think? Either/or.
This favor for my father was getting more interesting by the moment, and more troubling, too. Who did this Lavender Hill represent, and how did he know so much about Charlie Kalakos and his situation? And what the hell did my father have to do with any of it? I needed some answers, and I knew who could get them for me. So I made a call and set up a meeting with Phil Skink, my private investigator, for the very next morning and then walked out of my office.
Beth was gone, Ellie was gone, the place was sadly deserted as dusk crept in. I was already dog tired, but I had no great desire to head to my ruined home. A drink, I decided, would be the perfect thing. Only one, maybe two, nothing much, just enough. And off I went, toward Chaucer’s, my usual tavern, and toward what must have been a hell of a night, if only I could remember it.
“You look like a beaten dog,” said Phil Skink, staring down on me as I lay on the old leather couch in his dusty outer office.
“I feel worse,” I said.
“Impossible, mate. If you felt worse than you look, you’d be dead. I’ve eaten mutton what looked more alive than you. What the devil were you up to last night?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sounds like trouble, it does. A dame involved?”
“Sounds like more than trouble. Next time you give me a call before it gets out of hand.”
“And you’ll pull me out?”
“Don’t be daft,” said Skink. “I’ll be joining in. No reason you should be having all the fun.”
Go to your butcher, ask for all the gristle and bone he can scrape off his floor. Pile it onto a roasting pan, dress it up in a natty brown suit with thick pinstripes, a brown fedora, a bright tie. Give it high cholesterol and pearly teeth. Add the brains of a mathematician, an irrational fear of canines, a weakness for wine-soaked women. Throw in a squeeze of violence and a dash of charm, season with sea salt, bake to hardboiled, and right there you’d pretty much have cooked yourself Phil Skink, private eye.
I had set up a meeting in his office after my interview with Lavender Hill, and now I had arrived, late and limping from the night before, with my eyes still red and my jaw still slack.
“Your head hurt?” he asked.
“Is there a thunderstorm roiling through your office?”
“Then it hurts.”
“You take anything?”
“Two Advil. Like shooting a woolly mammoth with a BB gun.”
“Wait a minute,” he said. “I’ll take care of you.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, and when I opened them again, there he stood, in one hand a glass with some thick brown sludge that was bubbling and belching, in the other a long green pickle.
“Sit up,” he said. “Doctor’s orders.”
I did as he said and felt my consciousness slip as the blood drained from my swollen head.
“Drink this and eat this,” said Skink. “A sip, a bite, a sip, a bite. You get the idea.”
“I don’t think so, Phil.”
“Do as I say and you’ll be good as new.”
“Really, I’m okay.”
“Look, mate, it hurts me just to look at you. Do it or I’ll pour the drink down your throat and then stuff the pickle in after.”
“Hell of a bedside manner,” I said even as I grabbed hold of the drink and the pickle. With my eyes closed, I took a sip. Not terrible, actually, spicy and sour all at once, and with a bite of the pickle to chase it down, it was almost palatable. “What is it, hair of the dog?”
“The only thing you lose by chasing alcohol with alcohol is sobriety, and you lost enough of that already. Finish it up.”
“All of it?”
“Well, hell, I don’t want none of it.”
“And if I throw it all up on the rug?”
“Be sure to miss my shoes.”
I finished it all, closed my eyes, belched loudly, tasted it all again, and gagged twice. But strangely, when I opened my eyes, I did feel better, almost renewed.
“What’s in that?” I said.
“A secret recipe taught me by a hostess name of Carlotta I was seeing in Salinas.”
“She had tricks, she did.”
“Oh, I bet.”
“Hey, strictly management, she was. I still gots all my choppers. So what did you want to meet me about? This thing what’s got you all over the news, this Charlie the Greek with the painting?”
“That’s right,” I said.
I handed him the card Lavender Hill had left with my secretary. He looked at it for a moment, brought it to his nose and took a sniff, raised his eyebrows.
“He came to me with an offer to buy the painting. But he knew enough about what was going on to leave me uncomfortable. Find out who he is and who he’s working for.”
“His friends call him Lav.”
Skink took another sniff of the card. “Sweet guy?”
“Apparently, if a purple suit says anything anymore, although I got a sense not to take him lightly.”
“He’s got a Savannah area code.” Skink took a notepad from a pocket, a pen from another, clicked the pen, started writing. “Anything else on him?”
“That’s all I got.”
“All right, mate,” he said as he tapped the point of his pen on the pad. “Usual rates. It might necessitate a quick jaunt to Georgia to track down his story.”
“Whatever you need to do. Oh, and Phil. He should know we’re looking. Don’t be too discreet. Let’s rattle his chain a bit and see how he reacts.”
“I’ll be a regular bull in his china shop, I will. That it?”
“Something else,” I said. “I want you to look into a guy name of Bradley Hewitt, a fixer of sorts. He has an in with the mayor and uses it for all sorts of business affairs. Find out what you can about him.”
Skink again started scribbling on his pad. “Any details. Addresses? Phone numbers?”
“No, but it shouldn’t be much of a trick to track him down. And also track down what you can about the life and history of a woman named Theresa Wellman. She and this Hewitt used to be an item. They have a kid together.”
“Which one does you represent?”
“She have any money?”
“How’d you end up on the wrong side of that one?”
“Beth,” I said with a shrug.
“Ah, that explains it.” He tapped his pad with the point of his pen, clicked it shut. “That it?”
I sat there for a moment. Was that it, really, or did I have one more thing to ask my private eye? The brown gloop and the pickle had eased the pain in my head, but they hadn’t done a thing for the burning on my chest. That morning I had made a quick check before I hobbled over to Skink’s. Plenty of names in the Philadelphia phone book, but not the right name. I could have called each and every Adair and asked if there was a Chantal in the family, but that seemed fishy, especially when they started asking why? Why indeed? Because I might be in love if I could remember who she was? And what if they said yes, they had a Chantal Adair, and I met her, and she had six teeth and looked like Moe from the Three Stooges, what then? I thought about it some more and decided. Skink was my PI, a hired hand, but he was also my friend and loyal as a Labrador.
“There’s something else,” I said. “Something personal.”
“Billed to my home, not the office.”
“Okay,” said Skink, “I understands. Usual fees?”
“I don’t get an insider discount?”
“My mother don’t get an insider discount. Go ahead.”
“Something happened last night.”
“I don’t remember.”
Skink cocked his head.
“But something happened, and I need you to find someone for me. Discreetly, you understand?”
“It’s a woman, is it?”
“Isn’t it always? But I don’t want her to know I’m looking. Once you find her, let me know where she is and a little bit about her. Maybe take a picture. I’ll decide what to do from there.”
“You know, mate, it’s a bad idea to get a private eye messed up in your personal affairs. It can’t come to no good. In the end you never like what you find.”
“Just do it, Phil.”
“All right, then. What do you know about her?”
“I think she’s blond and sturdy and rides a motorcycle.”
“You think? You don’t know?”
“If I knew, I wouldn’t need you.”
“Where’d you meet her?”
“I think at Chaucer’s, but a lot of last night is a blank.”
“How much is a blank?”
“Most all of it.”
“You been drinking much lately, mate?”
“How much is too much?”
“The question is its own answer, innit? So’s if you don’t remember nothing, how do you knows something happened? How do you knows she wasn’t just a girl what you eyed in a bar and who turned you down?”
“Because I know, damn it.”
“All right, don’t get all huffy on me. I’ll do what I can. You got a name?”
“Yeah, I got a name.”
I stood up, shucked off my jacket, undid my tie. Skink stared at me with a growing horror on his face, as if I intended on doing a striptease with grinding music and pom-poms right there in the middle of his office. Gad, the very idea would fill me with horror, too. But it ended at the shirt. I unbuttoned it down to my belly, pushed the fabric aside to reveal my left breast.
Skink eyed my chest, raised his gaze to look into my eyes, eyed my chest again. “You get it last night?”
“I didn’t have it yesterday.”
“Nows I understand,” he said as he stood to get a closer look. “Nice job, classic look.”
“I don’t want a critique, Phil, just find her.”
He clicked his pen open. “Chantal Adair,” he said as he wrote, and then he tapped his pad with the pen’s point. “Piece of cake.”
You can tell a lot about a lawyer by how she tries a case. If you saw Jenna Hathaway in the street, you’d think she was quite wholesome and sweet, with a round angelic face and haunting blue eyes. Long legs, honey brown hair, a nervous mouth, a figure not quite willowy but willowy enough, she seemed the kind of tall, good-natured woman you could imagine sharing an ice cream cone with while taking a long walk in a fine summer’s mist. That was Jenna Hathaway in the street, or at a restaurant, or sitting on the porch swing drinking a tall glass of lemonade. But in court sweet Jenna Hathaway was an assassin.
I was sitting in the back of a federal courtroom watching as Jenna Hathaway cross-examined an accountant in a money-laundering prosecution. The accountant was impeccably dressed, what hair he had left was impeccably trimmed. He was obviously an important man with important clients who found refuge in the numbers that he used to define the world, but under the relentless assault of Jenna Hathaway’s questioning he was turning into another creature before our very eyes. It was like a carnival freak show. An accusatory question from Hathaway, a feeble objection from the overmatched defense attorney, a sneering response from Hathaway, an admonition from the cowed judge compelling the witness to answer, and then we all watched in horror as the accountant devolved ever further into a pale, quivering, fishlike creature that gasped for oxygen and flopped like a beached carp on the stand.
“My God,” I said to Slocum, who sat beside me on the bench as we both watched Hathaway work. “She should have been a gastrointestinal surgeon, the way she’s giving that guy a second asshole.”
“And he’s not even the defendant,” said Slocum.
“What’s her story?”
“A born prosecutor, never even flirted with defense work. Her father was a cop.”
“One of Philadelphia’s finest. Homicide, retired now. His daughter’s taken up the sword.”
“I wouldn’t want to be on her wrong side.”
“You already are,” said Slocum.
We must have been talking louder than we thought, because Hathaway stopped smack in the middle of a question and turned to stare at us. Her blue eyes focused on me, and I felt myself shrink beneath her gaze as if I had been dunked in an icy pond. She didn’t quickly turn back either. She kept staring so that everyone else in the courtroom, judge, bailiff, defendant, jury, the whole kit and caboodle turned and stared at me, too. It was all quite intolerable enough on its own, and then Slocum started laughing.
K. Lawrence Slocum was a solid, starchy man with thick glasses and a deep laugh who took inordinate pleasure in my humiliations. We were not quite friends, not quite enemies, we were simply professionals who worked the opposite sides of the same street. But I could trust Larry to hew to the highest standards of his profession, and he could trust that I wouldn’t even pretend to do the same, and with that understanding between us we got along surprisingly well. He had arranged a meeting between me and the intimidating Jenna Hathaway, the federal prosecutor with the strange, abiding interest in Charlie Kalakos. Hathaway, in the middle of a trial, had asked us to meet her in court, and so we had.
After the judge called a recess, Hathaway packed up her oversize briefcase and started down the aisle toward the doorway. Without saying a word, she motioned with her head that we were to follow. Her heels clicked on the linoleum as she led us down the hallway and into one of the lawyer-client rooms, a dreary space with no windows, metal chairs, and a brown Formica table.
When she turned around and trained again her blue eyes on me, I put on my smarmiest smile and reached out a hand. “Victor Carl,” I said.
Jenna Hathaway ignored the proffer and, while barely moving her tensed lips, said, “I know who you are.”
“Good,” I said. “I’m really glad we have this opportunity to get together and work out something on poor Charlie’s behalf. I’m sure we’re all looking for the same thing here, an outcome that will promote both the goal of justice and allow a wonderful work of art to regain its place in-”
“Could you just do us all a favor, Victor,” she said, interrupting me in midsentence, “and shut up. Not just here, in this room, where your voice is grating beyond measure, but on the evening news and in the papers, too. You’re in love with the sound of your own voice, and let me tell you, in your own best interest, you’re no Caruso. So please, please, please, just shut up.”
A little stunned, I looked over at Larry, who was fighting unsuccessfully to stifle his laughter, and then back at Jenna Hathaway. “Is that nice?” I said to her.
“I’m not trying to be nice.”
“And good for you, you’re succeeding. But whatever else all that talking did, it got your attention.”
“What will it take to shut you up?”
“Cutting to the chase, are you? I admire that. Right to the bone of it. So often lawyers spend so much time talking around things that are essentially meaningless. They can go on and on, and it can get so-”
“You’re doing it again,” she said.
“Talking too much. Are you doing this on purpose, just to piss me off?”
“Actually, yes,” I said.
She turned to Larry. “Is he a blathering idiot normally, or just a total jerk?”
“Oh, Victor can be a bit of both, but today he’s being the latter.”
She eyed me again, down and up, taking in the scuffs in my shoes, the railroad pleats in my pants, the wrinkled shirt, the weirdly glistening red tie. She rolled her eyes, sighed loudly, and dropped into one of the chairs. I sat across from her. “What can I do,” she said, “to get you out of my life?”
“Make a deal.”
“We return the painting to its rightful place at the Randolph Trust and you drop all charges.”
“We won’t drop all charges,” she said. “That’s a nonstarter. And what about his testimony? He’d have to talk.”
“How long have you been going after the Warrick Brothers Gang, Larry?” I said.
“Years,” he said.
“How you guys doing?”
“Not so well.”
“And what’s the life expectancy of those who agree to testify against them?”
“We’ve already received a dire threat against my client’s life and my own. The first is par for the course, but the second I take very seriously. Still, Charlie will talk about his time with the Warricks if you give him immunity and you agree to protect him. He’d be amenable to witness protection.”
“Of course he would,” said Hathaway. “Living his days off some golf course in a condo paid for by the government.”
“And he mentioned something about a plasma TV.”
“Is this clown for real?” she asked Slocum.
“Unfortunately, yes,” he said.
“Then we have nothing more to talk about,” said Hathaway. “The FBI tells me they’re on the edge of finding your client anyway. As we speak, they are chasing down reliable leads.”
“Even if true, it doesn’t mean they’ll find the painting,” I said. “Did I mention the painting gets returned? Isn’t that why you’ve been after him all this time? Isn’t that why you had the FBI stationed outside his mother’s house, so you could get back that painting?”
She looked at me coldly. “I don’t give a good damn about the picture of some dead Dutch guy who painted himself.”
I stared at her for a moment. None of this made any sense. If it wasn’t the painting she was searching for, then what was it? I looked at Larry for help. He just shrugged.
“So what are you after?”
“I want to know how he got the painting.”
“It was stolen,” I said. “Thirty years ago. What more do you care about? There’s nothing you can do to any of them now. The statute of limitations has run. They got away with it. Sometimes bad triumphs. Let’s move on.”
“I’m not moving on,” she said. “If he comes in, he’s going to have to talk not just about his old gang but about the Randolph heist, too. Everything. And he’s going to have to name names.”
“He won’t. He’s already said.”
“Then that is that, isn’t it? You want to make a deal, make it with Larry.”
“But he can only talk about the state charges. There’s still a federal indictment against my client.”
“Yes, there is.”
“What are you really after?”
“Your client knows.”
“Sure he does. That’s it, those are the terms. If he comes back and talks truthfully about everything, and I mean everything, then we might be able to work something out.”
“I’ll talk to him.”
“Good.” She stood, hoisted her huge briefcase off the floor so that it thunked on the table. “Now I have to get back. There’s still some flesh I haven’t filleted off that accountant’s back. But, Victor, hear this. If I see your face on the television again, or one of your obnoxious quips quoted in the newspaper, the next dire threat you’ll be getting will be coming from me.”
“Can I ask you something more personal?”
She tilted her head, tightened her lips.
“Do you like long walks in the misting summer rain?”
“With my dog,” she said.
After she stalked out, her briefcase banging the doorjamb for emphasis, I remained seated at the table with Slocum.
“Do you have any idea what she’s looking for?” I said.
“Don’t you think you should find out? Maybe climb the chain of command to discover what’s really going on?”
“You want to hear something puzzling, Carl? The attorney general of the United States doesn’t return my calls.”
“A shocking breach of decorum.”
“Yes, it is. I would complain, but the vice president doesn’t return my calls either.”
“She’s after something.”
“Did you notice that when she talks, she doesn’t really move her lips? Like she’s a ventriloquist.”
“It’s a little frightening,” I said.
“She’s a frightening young lady.”
“And, you know, from a distance she looks so sweet.”
Rhonda Harris and her little notebook were waiting for me outside the courthouse. How she knew I was at the courthouse was a bit problematic, but the sight of her in her dark pants and white blouse, her green scarf, her long legs and red hair pulled back, brushed that niggling question aside. She looked oh, so Katharine Hepburn I half expected her to break into a quavering Yankee accent as she called me her knight in shining armor.
“Mr. Carl, I hope I’m not disturbing you.”
“Not at all,” I said. “It’s gratifying to see the working press working. But unfortunately, right now, and for the foreseeable future, I have no further comment on anything.”
“Really? That’s so out of character.”
“We all must change with the times. I know it’s a grave disappointment.”
“Not really. Your comments didn’t quite grind the presses to a halt.”
I checked my watch. “I have to get a move on. I’m due in landlord-tenant court.”
“Can I walk with you a bit?”
“Only if what we say is off the record.”
She put away her notebook, lifted her hands like a magician to show there was nothing here, nothing there, nothing up her sleeve.
“Come along, then,” I said. “How’s the story going?”
“Fine, sort of. My editor says he needs more detail and more human interest.”
“I’m not an interesting enough human for your editor?”
“He told me I need to interview Charlie.”
“That’s a shame, isn’t it? I really liked your Thomas Wolfe angle.”
“How can we arrange an interview?”
“Oh, everything can be arranged somehow, can’t it?”
“Give me a chance, Victor. I’ll only write the most complimentary things. And I’ll give you approval over your client’s quotes if you want. I’m sure the public will find Charlie’s story fascinating.”
“It is, I assure you. But as of today the Victor Carl-Charlie Kalakos media machine has been shut down. And I wouldn’t have let you interview Charlie in any event.”
“But doesn’t he have the right to have his say?”
“At the appropriate time, sure. This isn’t it.”
“You know, Victor, if I could have an exclusive interview with Charlie, I could get this thing splashed on the front page of Newsday. Newsday’s feature articles are picked up by papers all over the country. The publicity would be out of bounds. The morning shows would be calling. You could become the next Johnnie Cochran.”
“I always admired Johnnie. Hardly anyone looks good in a black knit cap, but he pulled it off with style.”
“Maybe after the article you could charge as much as he did.”
“So now you’re appealing to both my pathetic hunger for fame and my venality.”
“Is it working?”
“Can I ask you a question? The man you saw in my office. Did you know him?”
“That little gnome? No, thank God.”
“Why ‘thank God’?”
“Didn’t you sense it, the violence in him? I did. I’ve seen enough of that sort in my life. What did he want?”
“He was appealing to my venality, too. It seems to be a disturbing pattern.”
“Then maybe there is something else I can appeal to.”
“Rhonda, are you propositioning me?”
“Oh, Victor. Don’t be silly. It’s just a story.”
“What I meant is that maybe I could appeal to your sense of charity. I’ve been fighting to break through at my newspaper for a while. I fell into this business late, and it’s hard being a stringer, but my editor said if I can make this story happen, he’d push to hire me full-time. All I need to make it happen is an interview with Charlie. In person if I can, by phone if I have to. You would be giving a huge break to a struggling reporter.”
“We all have our jobs to do, Rhonda.”
She gently took hold of my biceps, gave me a tug. “Please, Victor. I really need this.”
I stopped, turned toward her, saw her green eyes swell with hope, and I felt an ache. It frightened me what I felt, an ache of wanting. She was a reporter – a life-form lower than a ferret, lower even than a lawyer – and I had no doubt but that she was trying to manipulate me for her own ends, anything for a story, but still I felt the ache. And yes, she was pretty, and yes, I liked her offhand manner, and yes, she treated me with an appealing lack of respect, but no, even then I could discern that my feelings had little to do with the truth of her inner being and everything to do with some pathetic need of my own.
I had felt the same ache for a bicyclist with long blond hair and pretty pink riding shoes who had asked for directions on the parkway. And before that I had felt it for a woman in a short black skirt whom I had spied across the street and who, without bending her legs, had leaned down to tighten the laces on her bulky black shoe. I could walk along the street during my lunch hour and fall in love a dozen times and feel the ache as each woman strode on through her life without me. And it was undoubtedly the same ache that had driven me, insensible with drink, to tattoo a stranger’s name upon my chest in a declaration of love.
Either I was a wildly warm and openhearted person or my life was in serious trouble. And, unfortunately, I am not that warm and openhearted a guy.
Yet still, even if all those other supposed emotional connections were the result of some existential psychosis of the soul, who was to say that this emotion, the one I was feeling right now toward this woman with the blazing red hair and freckled face, might not be the real deal?
“Rhonda,” I said with a slight stutter, “maybe we can go out sometime and get a drink.”
She slipped on a sly smile. “Does that mean…?”
“We’ll talk about it over a drink. And maybe, if everything feels right and the circumstances allow it, maybe I’ll talk to my client about you and your article.”
“That would be just so great, Victor,” she said. “Thank you, thank you so much. When?”
“I’ll get back to you,” I said. I glanced again at my watch. “But right now I have an eviction to fight.”
There are about fifty cases on the list each day in Courtroom 500 on South Eleventh Street, the city’s housing court, yet only about three of those cases ever get tried. Instead most business is conducted, as in all courthouses, in the hallways, which is where Beth and I stood before our hearing when we were approached by a man with blond hair and a snappy green suit. About my age, but you could tell he had climbed higher on the legal ladder, which meant that I disliked him right off.
“Victor Carl?” he said.
“I thought so. Funny, you look younger on TV.”
“And heavier, too, I suppose.”
“No,” he said. “Not really. Just younger and better dressed. Wait, please, I have something for you.”
He balanced his briefcase on his palm as he unsnapped it open and pulled out an envelope, which he handed to me.
“A notice of eviction for your client, ordering her to depart her premises at the expiration of her lease,” he said with a smile. “Personally delivered. Give it to Ms. Derringer for us, will you?”
I nodded and handed it over to Beth. “Here you go.”
“Ah, so you are the recalcitrant Ms. Derringer,” said the man. “My name is Eugene Franks, of the law firm of Talbott, Kittredge and Chase, and I represent your landlord.”
“Charmed, I’m sure,” she said, her voice sounding neither charmed nor sure.
“I’m so sorry that your notice of eviction was only sent by mail and not personally delivered or nailed onto your door pursuant to the letter of the law, as your lawyer here pointed out in his rather voluminous brief. Actually, many of our tenants find mail delivery less embarrassing, not to mention less harsh on the front door, but from now on everything will be taken care of exactly by the book. We still expect you out when your lease expires.”
“I don’t think so, Eugene,” I said. “Her original lease was in excess of one year, so your notice has to give her at least ninety days. From the date of notice. Which, based on this, is today.”
“Aren’t you being a little technical, Victor?”
“We’re technicians, Eugene, you and I. Being nontechnical is akin to malpractice. When is construction scheduled to start at the building?”
“Ooh,” I said as I winced dramatically. “That might be hard, with a tenant living in the building. Does your building permit allow knocking down walls and ripping up floors with a tenant still in residence? And the building is quite old. I wonder if there’s any asbestos in the walls and ceilings. That would mess up the schedule even more than you already have, don’t you think?”
He leaned toward me, lowered his voice. “Can we talk for a minute?”
“Sure,” I said. I waved Beth over to one of the benches and then stepped with Eugene Franks to the far side of the hallway.
“Nice brief,” he said.
“We all had quite the laugh at the firm. Do you really think that the Fourteenth and Sixteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution really have any relevance here in housing court?”
“Maybe you should keep laughing in front of the judge. I’m sure she finds the badges and incidents of slavery hilarious.”
“But your client isn’t even black.”
“Wait till you hear the argument.”
“I’m on pins and needles.” Eugene pursed his lips at me. “Weren’t you the one who took down William Prescott a couple years ago?”
“I might have been.”
“Prescott was the first lawyer at the firm I ever worked with. He was my mentor, he gave me my first big case, and you ruined his career.”
“Prescott ruined his own career,” I said. “I just pointed it out to the proper authorities.”
Eugene Franks looked hard at me for a long moment and then turned away. “I never liked the son of a bitch. What can we do to make this disappear, Victor?”
“She doesn’t want to move.”
“It’s just a move. She’ll find a better place. It’s no big deal.”
“Not to her.”
“We only want to spruce the place up, sell the new units, make some money. We’re not bad guys here.”
“How much money are we talking about to get her out within the month?”
“Money’s not the point. It never is with her.”
“I find that distressing.”
“Don’t get me started.”
“You know, Victor, it sounds a little Zen, but change happens. The building is going condo. Can you talk to her, please? Can you see what we can work out before we have to start arguing about the Sixteenth Amendment in front of the judge?”
“I’ll try,” I said.
Beth was sitting on a bench in a strangely passive position, hands on knees, head lolling slightly to the side. Normally before court she was a bundle of energy, sitting on the edge of her chair, her body in constant motion as she worked out the arguments in her head. But not today, not here, in the unusual position of litigant in the case of Triad Investments, LP. v. Derringer.
I sat down next to her. “I bought you some more time,” I said.
“I can try to string it out a little longer. I have some arguments for the judge.”
“I read the brief. Your arguments are hopeless.”
“I know, but I liked the way Franks there must have sputtered when he read them. And the judge can always take longer than expected to make a ruling. I could talk to the clerk. I think I know his brother.”
“Okay. That might work.”
“But you know, Beth, this Eugene Franks, he’s not such a bad guy after all.”
“In that suit he looks like a frog.”
“And the people he represents are not evil. They’re just businesspeople.”
“They’re kicking me out of my home.”
“They’re allowed. By law. You’re eventually going to have to move.”
“So they say.”
“And fighting it isn’t really the answer.”
“But it sure feels good.”
“Beth, what’s going on, really?”
“I don’t know, Victor. I feel… paralyzed. It’s not that I even like my place so much. It’s just that I can’t face the idea of packing everything up, looking for a new apartment, moving, unpacking everything again, and it all being the same, the same bed, the same table, the same existence. Ever since that thing with François and the dredging up of the memories of my father, my life has taken on this weird momentum, just rolling along of its own accord toward nowhere. I don’t find it particularly satisfying, and I don’t seem to have the courage to direct it in any particular direction. But maybe, I think, if I can just stay in my stinking apartment for a few more stinking years, everything would be perfect.”
“Your logic is impressive. But things aren’t as bad as you make them out to be. Look at the firm. Business is better every day.”
“We’re getting by, and it seems like that’s all we’ve been doing for years now. Getting by.”
“We’re fighting the good fight. What about Theresa Wellman? We’re going to win her back her kid.”
“You’re going to win her back her kid. I feel like I’m just along for the ride. I need to do something, but I don’t know what.”
“What do you want to have happen here, today? How about getting some money?”
“Sure. Money’s good. It would be fun to have a yacht, don’t you think? Blue blazers, white pants.”
“It’s a good look for you.”
“I should have been born a Pierpont.”
“It won’t be much, but I can get you something. Though you’ll have to move out by the end of the month.”
“Really? I’m surprised. It’s not like you to give in to the lure of easy cash.”
“I’m sorry, Victor. This whole thing is stupid. I should never have dragged you into it, especially with Theresa’s case coming to trial and you running around making a deal for Charlie Kalakos. I should have looked for a new place as soon as I got the notice. I guess I’m a little lost.”
“We’re lost together.”
“I don’t know, you’ve looked happier lately.”
“It’s because I’m in love. With a reporter.”
“At least today. Yesterday it was a girl on a bike.”
“I guess you’re looking for something, too.”
“Guess so. And remember when that dental hygienist tore up my apartment?”
“I haven’t fixed it up yet.”
“It’s still trashed.”
“Victor.” She laughed darkly. “That’s pretty bad.”
“All it would take is one visit to IKEA.”
“But I hate IKEA, all that blond wood and Swedish cheer. My name’s not Sven, I’m not still in college, I don’t even know what a loganberry is. An IKEA apartment would be the death of me.”
“My God, Victor, you’re in worse shape than I am.”
I pressed my chest, felt the sting of the new tattoo still on my flesh. “And you don’t know the half of it. Always remember, Beth, however much trouble you’re in, I’m in more. Why don’t I go now and see what kind of money I can get for you?”
I stood up and turned toward Eugene Franks, who was staring at us with hope on his face.
“How much are you looking for?” I said to her quietly.
“I think that can be arranged.”
I shook my head as I made my way over to Franks. He raised his eyebrows.
“No deal,” I said. “Sorry. She absolutely, positively could not be bought. She intends to stay in her apartment until the very last hour. It’s the principle of the thing, she said.”
“I hate principles,” said Franks. “They have no place in the practice of law.”
“Tell me about it,” I said. “But that’s the kind of woman she is.”
“There’s nothing you can say?”
“I tried,” I said. “I tried everything. Let’s go in and stand in line, tell the judge we’re going to trial. We’re somewhere at the end of the list, so we should get called by midafternoon.”
He looked at his watch. “I can’t be here all day waiting for this stupid case. I have a meeting with the managing partner and a new client.”
“Stanford Quick, right? The guy who represents the Randolph Trust.”
“That’s his pro bono client. The rest are all corporate giants.”
“What’s his story?”
“Typical bastard. Doesn’t like to be kept waiting by mere associates.”
“Sorry, Eugene, but she’s adamant. If you want a continuance, I’d have no objection-”
“Do you have any idea how much we’ll lose every day construction is delayed? I have to handle this today.”
“Okay, then. I guess we have no choice but to take this to the judge.”
We stepped together toward the courtroom doors, swung them open. The noise and smell hit us all at once. Housing court that day was like the Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty come alive: the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, the wretched refuse, homeless and tempest-tossed.
Franks sniffed and took one step back. “What about, Victor, if we come up with a figure that just out-and-out wows her?”
“Well, Eugene,” I said, shaking my head with a sad certainty, “I doubt that will do it, but we could always try.”
The candle and incense, the darkness and thick, plague-infested air, the piled pillows at the head of the bed, the racking cough, the specter of death crouching like a gargoyle on the thin, aged chest.
“You want cup coffee, Victor?”
“No thank you, Mrs. Kalakos.”
“I’ll shout down to Thalassa, she brew pot. Insipid what she brews, more like spit than coffee, what with her using the grounds over and over, but still you can have.”
“Really, I am fine.”
“Come close, then. Sit. We need talk.”
I came close, I sat. She reached her hand to my cheek. I tried not to flinch at the feel of her oily skin, the waft of her breath.
“You been on TV. My Charlie, he’s become a celebrity because of painting. Which is funny, since my Charlie, he couldn’t draw a dog.”
“Someone else went to the press about the painting.”
“Not you, Victor? You seem to enjoy it so. Then who?”
“I don’t know, but once it was out, I thought giving the interviews was the best thing for Charlie. But it might not have worked out that way.”
“What’s matter, Victor? You have problem?”
“Charlie does, yes,” I said. “I need you to get him in touch with me.”
“Of course. But tell me first, what is trouble?”
“I really need to talk to Charlie about it,” I said. “He’s the client.”
“But he’s my son, Victor. I know what he needs. It always was such, and is no different now. None of us ever change, and Charlie, he changes less. You tell me his problem, I tell you how to solve.”
“I’m not sure I can do that, ma’am.”
She made some sort of hacking sound, and then the coughing began, great heaping coughs that brought her body into spasm. In the middle of it all, she raised her right hand, let it hover in the air for a moment, and then slapped my ear, hard.
Her coughing subsided as quickly as it began. “Don’t tell me ‘can’t,’” she said. “You have obligation.”
As I rubbed the side of my head, I said softly, “What obligation?”
“Whether you know or not, it wraps round your neck like snake and it is alive. So don’t say ‘can’t’ to me, Victor. You have good Greek face, but you not Greek enough down there to say ‘can’t’ to me.”
“What favor did you do for my father?”
“Why you ask me? Ask him. Or are you afraid of him, too?”
“Not afraid, exactly.”
She barked out a laugh, bitter and understanding all at once. “I wouldn’t want to have to call your father again. It upsets him so to hear from me.”
“I bet it does.”
“So now that this nonsense is finished with, tell me about my Charlie.”
“There are a couple things. A reporter wants to interview Charlie. I thought it might help prod the government.”
“No. What else?”
“This reporter seems sincere, and I’m not sure how it can hurt.”
“It is reporter. They can always hurt. And remember what I tell you about my son? He’s fool. You think anything he say can help, maybe you fool, too. What else you got?”
“It’s not going to be as easy as we thought getting him home.”
“First, it appears, even after fifteen years, Charlie is still in danger. I received a visit from Charlie’s old gang. The visitors roughed me up a little and then said worse would come Charlie’s way if he came home.”
“Okay, no problem. Lean close. This is what we do. We don’t tell Charlie nothing about this.”
“I can’t do that, Mrs. Kalakos.”
“You can and you will. Charlie is coward. He was afraid of bath, he was afraid of girls, he shakes in terror from his own shadow. It is why he ran so long ago. We tell him this, he disappear for good. You no tell him. Better we protect him when he comes.”
“They’re going to kill him if he comes home, Mrs. Kalakos.”
“Pooh, Victor. They just talking. Big talkers, all of them. They want to come, they come to me, right? I’m reason for my Charlie to come home. And when they come, I show them something.”
She sat up, reached over to a table by her bed, opened a drawer, pulled out an obscenely huge gun that glittered gaily in the candlelight.
“Gad, Mrs. Kalakos. That’s a cannon.”
“Let them come. I blow holes in them size of grapefruits. You hungry, Victor? You want grapefruit? I’ll call down to Thalassa to bring you grapefruit.”
“No thank you, ma’am, no grapefruit. Do you have a license for that?”
“I’m eighty-nine years old, what I need piece paper for?”
“You should get a license for the gun.”
“Be like that, Victor, and I won’t tell you what else I have for those skatofatses.”
“Believe me, I don’t want to know. I’m going to have to tell your son about the threats, Mrs. Kalakos.”
She waved the gun a bit before shoving it back into the drawer. “Do what you must. But you tell him, too, that I take care of it for him, I protect him if police won’t. What next?”
“There’s a federal prosecutor who is causing problems. She’s the key in allowing Charlie to come home without being thrown in jail, but she is refusing to do anything unless Charlie gives her what she wants.”
“And what is it she wants?”
“She wants him to talk. To tell her everything.”
“No problem. I make him talk.”
“But she doesn’t want him to just talk about the Warrick Brothers Gang. She wants him to talk about before that, about what went down when that painting was stolen thirty years ago.”
She looked at me for a long moment, her moist eyes glittering in the sputtering candlelight. “Ah, yes,” she said finally. “That might be problem. You have friends, Victor? Old friends, from when you were child, friends that are closer than brothers, closer than blood?”
“No, ma’am,” I said.
“Too bad for you. I had friends like that in old country, and Charlie, despite himself, he found such friends here. When they was just toddlers, they ran around with each other in the blow-up pools. Five closest friends in all the world. My Charlie, and Hugo, always running around like a crazy boy, all legs, he was, and Ralph Ciulla, big like man already at twelve, and little Joey Pride. And then, of course, Teddy, Teddy Pravitz, who was leader. Five neighborhood boys, always together, always. Once – and I tell you this so you know what it was – once a group from the Oxford Circle – you know this place?”
“Yes, exactly. Once a group boys came into our neighborhood looking for trouble. This was when my son Charles was in high school. The Oxford boys found little Joey Pride. Joey was a nice boy, but black and with a mouth on him, and they beat him bloody. Just for the sport of it, Victor. Animals. The police threw up their hands. What was to do? But Teddy, he knew what to do.”
“What was that, Mrs. Kalakos?”
“You want tea? I call down to Thalassa.”
“No thank you, ma’am. Really, I’m fine.”
“No, we need tea.” She opened her mouth wide and shrieked, “Thalassa. Come now.”
There was the sound of something dropping onto the floor below, a rustle, a sigh, weary footfalls rising up the stairs. The door creaked open, a withered face appeared.
“Victor, he wants tea,” said Mrs. Kalakos.
Thalassa turned her head to me, stared with unalloyed hatred.
“He likes sugar with his tea,” said Mrs. Kalakos. “And those round cookies.”
“Really, I’m fine,” I said.
The face slipped away, the door creaked closed.
“She good girl. Alas, her tea, it is thin like her blood. She saves her tea bags from cup to cup, as if tea were gold. We still have tea from when Clinton was president. Ah, Clinton, he was part Greek, he didn’t know it, but I could tell.”
“What did Teddy do after the beating?”
“Teddy, he was such a beautiful boy. So clever. He came to me, asked for keys to my car. I knew what he wanted, and so I gave to him. That boy was Greek where it counted. Off they went into the night, even Joey with his arm in sling, the five of them with their blood hot and their baseball bats, off they went. And they took care of it, Victor. It didn’t even matter that he was wrong boy. Those animals from Oxford Circle, they not come round no more. The boys protected each other, you understand? Such bond survives the years.”
“And these were the guys who pulled off the theft?”
She patted my cheek. “You smart boy. You sure you don’t want to date my Thalassa?”
“No, ma’am. But this is what I don’t understand, Mrs. Kalakos. I heard it was a crack team of professional thieves that robbed the Randolph Trust, not five schmoes from the neighborhood. So how did they do it?”
“They were not simply five schmoes from neighborhood, Victor. They were four schmoes and Teddy. That is difference.”
Just then the door creaked open, and Thalassa, with gray body hunched and gray head bowed, brought in a tray. Mrs. Kalakos was right, the tea was weak, and musty, it tasted as old as Thalassa looked, but the cookies were surprisingly delicious. I was on my fourth cookie when my cell phone rang.
I stood up, slipped into the dark corner of the dark room, flipped it open. “Carl,” I said.
“You free tonight, mate?” said the unmistakable voice of Phil Skink.
I looked at Mrs. Kalakos, sitting up now, her pale face bowed toward a porcelain teacup, steam rising around her sunken eyes. “Sure,” I said. “I’m in a meeting, but it won’t last much longer. What’s up?”
“I gots someone I wants you to meet.”
My heart skipped a beat. I could feel myself blushing in the darkness. “Did you find her?” I said. “Did you find Chantal Adair?”
“That’s what I wants you to tell me.”
“Where are we going, Phil?” I said as I drove us down Spring Garden Street toward the eastern edge of the city.
“I just wants you to check someone out,” he said.
“Is it her?”
“Don’t know, does I? I put out the word, quietly like you asked, and this came back my way as a possibility. Things, they are not exactly as you’d expect in one way, and then” – he laughed – “in another way they’s exactly as you’d expect.”
“Did you take a picture? I might not want her to be the one, if you get my drift. Did I tell you I have a thing about mustaches? Big, thick mustaches? I don’t like them on women. I don’t like them on men either, actually, but on women they give me the creeps.”
“Look, mate, if she’s the one whose name you got scrawled on your chest, you’ll like the looks of her, don’t be worrying about that. But I gots some other pictures, too. You want to see them first?”
“All righty,” he said. “Pull over there.”
I edged the car to the side of the road, stopped behind a parked van, put it in neutral and left the engine running. Skink turned on the overhead light and took an envelope out of his suit pocket.
“There was no Chantal Adairs listed for Philly, South Jersey, or Delaware,” he said, “but I found us a few C. Adairs, with no first name given. Usually an initial instead of a first name is a lady trying not to look like a lady in the book in case a predator is stalking, you got me? So I checked out thems that I could. Found one in Absecon, one in Horsham. Take a peek and see if a face rings a bell.”
He passed me over the first of the photographs. A color shot, a little grainy and taken from pretty far away. It wasn’t the clearest photograph, but right off I could tell that the woman in the picture was not whom I was looking for. She was older, much older, with steel gray hair that matched her walker.
“Is this a joke?” I said.
“Don’t know what you are into these days, mate, now, do I?”
The next photograph was of a younger woman, hugely pregnant, holding a young child on her ample hip. She had a pretty face, though, despite her evident maternity, and I squinted to see if it was familiar.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t think I ever saw her before.”
“Don’t think so neither, since her name is Catherine.”
“Then what was the point of showing me the photograph?”
“I just wanted you to know they ain’t too many of these Chantal Adairs out there. So you won’t be sniffing up your nose at who we’re seeing tonight.” He switched off the light. “Let’s get a move on.”
I popped the car in gear, pulled out from behind the van, and continued heading east.
“What do you mean,” I said, “that things aren’t exactly like I would expect?”
“Well, her name ain’t exactly what you got printed there on your chest.”
“Then exactly why are we checking her out?”
“Because it’s close enough.”
“Close enough for what?”
“For you to tell me if she’s the one. Turn there.”
I turned. “What if I don’t remember her?”
“Then maybe she’ll remember you. Okay, take a right and then go under that bridge.”
“What’s that there?” I said, nodding toward a bright neon sign.
“Where we’re headed, mate. Pull in to the lot.”
The parking lot surrounded a one-story building wedged beneath a highway bridge. The lot held pickups and high-priced sedans, the building was painted black, the purple neon in the sign was blinking, alternately spelling out the name of the place in script and then showing a figure, a female figure, like the kind of thing you see on the mud flaps of a sixteen-wheeler. I stopped the car in the middle of the lot, felt my expectations deflate and my heart sicken. But I should never have been surprised. Whenever men head off into the limitless American night in search of true love, they more often than not end up at a strip joint.
“Club Lola?” I said, a tone of defeat in my voice.
“’At’s it, all right.”
“Isn’t this the place where that guy met the stripper he killed his wife for?”
“’At’s the one.”
“And I suppose this Chantal Adair is one of the dancers here.”
“’At’s what we’re here to find out.”
“What’s the point?” I said. “Of all the things I could have imagined for the tattoo on my chest, this is the absolute worst. What kind of loser gets drunk, ends up at a strip bar, falls in love with a stripper, and is determined to show her his undying devotion by tattooing her name on his chest?”
“We’ll find out tonight, won’t we?”
“Forget it. It’s no mystery how this story turns out.”
“You don’t want to know for sure?”
“I’ve seen enough already to know the whole thing is a crushing mistake.”
“If you give up now, mate, whenever you look in the mirror, you’ll always think the worst,” said Skink. “Not about the bird but about yourself. Park the car. Let’s find out what’s what.”
“You just want an evening’s entertainment.”
“That, too, yes, and on your dime, which makes it all the sweeter.”
I could feel the bass of the music even before I reached the entrance. My general rule is to never go into a place where the bouncer is dressed entirely in black and sports a ponytail, which conveniently keeps me out of all the places that don’t want me inside, but I suppose this was an exception.
“You ever see me before?” I said to the bouncer as I paid the cover for the two of us.
Without looking up, he said, “I got a bad memory for faces.”
“But this was just a few nights ago.”
He lifted his head, sniffed like a Doberman. “If I didn’t kick you out, I didn’t know you was in. That’s the way it is. Keeps me out of the courtroom, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “But was I in?”
“Like I said. And I’ll tell the wife the same thing.”
“Well,” I said, taking my change, “that is a relief.”
And off we went, into the fleshpot.
Club Lola was a wide, spotlit room, smoke-filled, dark-walled, with scores of tables and a long bar across the far side. There was a grand stage in the middle, on which a woman with a G-string and pasties and white high heels was hanging upside down. Her legs were hooked around a shiny pole, her hands were hooked around her breasts. The music was loud, the tables were small, the chairs were plush, the dancer was licking her own breast with a long, narrow tongue. Nice family entertainment.
The joint was half full, customers sitting with strange sated looks on their faces as a pack of she-wolves in high heels and sheer bikinis, their surgically enhanced bodies adorned with bracelets and tattoos, swarmed and socialized. What is it about high heels and bikinis that sings seductive songs straight to the masculine gut? And all it took was one look at the bikini tops to know that the air conditioner was definitely on.
Skink thumbed his fedora back on his head, took a cigar out of his jacket pocket, spread his arms wide, breathed deep the foul air. “My kind of place,” he said.
“I bet,” I said.
“Classy is what I mean. It’s got ambience.”
“It’s got something, all right.”
“Oh, quit your bellyaching. Let me buys you a drink.”
“On the expense account you’ll be charging back to me?”
“Victor, mate, what do you take me for?”
“That means yes.”
“I’ll see what kind of action we can rustle up. Now, take a seat, pop a smile, and enjoy yourself.”
I sat, I smiled, but I didn’t enjoy myself. And it wasn’t just the mark of loserhood on my chest that was dampening my mood.
I know, I know, every woman believes that every man, in his secret heart, loves a strip club. But I, for one, don’t. They give me the skives, and I think I know why. Every time I enter a joint like Club Lola, I feel squirrelly about the roles available to men in the little strip-club drama.
Am I the arrogant he-man who just assumes it is his due to have beautiful women wind their naked bodies into knots for my amusement? Am I the pitiable misfit who has to pay to get this close to a woman’s bare flesh? Am I the bored husband who spends my nights getting angry at my life as I stare at the type of woman I should have married? Or, worst of all, am I the romantic sap who thinks that the dancer, there, that one, with the sweet eyes and full rack, really really likes me? No, really, she does. Really.
While I was having my existential strip-club crisis, Skink was having none of it. He knew exactly who he was and what he was doing there as he leaned back in his chair, a beer in one hand, his cigar in the other, and a dancer’s wriggling J.Lo smack in his face.
“Oh, that’s nice,” said Skink, his gap-toothed grin broad and gleaming. “Just like that. Yes. Oh, that’s just terrific.”
“Anything else you want?” said the dancer, who had introduced herself as Scarlet.
“Why don’t you turn around, sweetheart, and I’ll slip in a little something just for you.”
Scarlet did a spin, leaned forward with her back arched dramatically, pulled down the bikini top with her thumbs, and shimmied. It was all so festive, even her pasties glistened brightly, like twin disco balls.
“Is Chantal in tonight?” said Skink as he slipped a bill into the side of her G-string.
“She’s in back,” said Scarlet. While she talked, she worked her shimmy as efficiently as a bank clerk counting bills.
“Can you send her over?”
“What, this isn’t good enough for you?”
“Too good,” said Skink. “You stick around much longer, my head is going to burst into flame.” He slipped in another bill. “Be a honey and send over Chantal.”
As Scarlet gathered up the cash and sauntered off toward the curtain beside the bar, Skink turned to me, his grin still in place. “This is why I became a PI.”
“It’s nice for you that you found your calling.”
“You recognize anyone?”
I looked around at the women wandering the floor, talking to strange men or dancing on the stages in shifts, some good-looking, some great, all nearly naked, the sight of their bodies as available as the channels on a television set.
“Not a one,” I said.
“How about her?” said Skink, gesturing toward a tall brunette who was walking toward us.
“I don’t think so.”
“Her, I’d have remembered.”
And I would have, too. She was like Fantasy Woman Version 2.0, new and improved, now with even longer legs and less clothing than before. What with her red heels, her thin hips, her high firm breasts, pale skin, green G-string, blue eyes, a mouth just irregular enough to trap your eye and get you thinking, it actually hurt to gaze upon her. It was as if she embodied in the flesh all the possibilities of your life that had never come true. No matter what doubts I might have had before about my role in that club, her very beauty defined it with utter definitiveness: She was what I could never have, I was the pathetic loser who had paid to stare.
“Hello, boys,” she said in a silvery voice as she placed her right high heel on the little round table between our chairs. A red rose was tattooed on her ankle. “My name’s Chantal.”
She bent forward at the waist and then back in some twisty ballet move. The line in her calf tensed. I leaned close to smell the flower. I could see a scuff within the gleam of her high heel, and I had the strange urge to polish it with my tongue. Her black hair was straight and glossy, and when it whipped close to my nose I smelled lilac, in a field, with bees buzzing. Or was that just my blood?
It doesn’t take much to break down my defenses, does it?
“Did you boys ask to see me?” she said.
“Uh, yes,” said Skink in a suddenly weak voice. “Yes, we did.”
She kept to her slow twisting, leaning her upper body over Skink as she said, “And what’s your name?”
“Phil,” he said. “The name’s, uh, Phil.”
“Just like that cute little groundhog,” she said. “And you look like him, too, with that gap in your teeth. So what can I do for you, uh, Phil?” Her voice dripped with a promise more languid than lascivious. “What do you like?”
“Oh, I like everything,” said Skink, “yes, I do.” He shook his head, gathered himself. “But we’re not here for me. We’re here for my friend,” he said, jabbing his thumb toward me.
“Oh,” she said, “is this a bachelor party?”
“Of a sort,” said Skink, “seeing as we’re both bachelors.”
With her foot still on the table, she faced away from me, showing off a tattooed shepherd’s crook on her lower back, and then leaned backward, farther and farther, until her spine bent like a bow and her hands reached the far armrest of my chair. There was a white dove tattooed on her right shoulder. Her face was inches from mine.
“Hi,” she said in that Tiffany voice as her body bent and surged to the rhythm of the music. “I’m Chantal.”
The place suddenly grew hot, as if a furnace had sprung on.
“Hi, Chantal,” I said.
“Do you like pinball? I like pinball, how the shiny little balls bounce around crazily. Just the way your eyes are bouncing around right now.”
“Oh, yes. Be careful not to tilt.” She laughed, a sweet little girl’s laugh. “And what’s your name, honey?”
“Don’t you recognize me?” I said.
A blankness washed across her face as she examined me before she forced a professional smile onto that gorgeous mouth. “Of course,” she said. “How are you? It’s so good to see you again. Thanks for coming back.”
“You’ve never seen me before, have you?”
“No, I have, really. You’re so sweet, and so good-looking, how could I not remember?”
“Then what’s my name?” I said.
She pushed herself off my chair and slowly straightened her long torso. She took her lovely shoe off the table, stepped back, stared at me for a moment like I was crazy, looked at Skink, then again at me.
“Is it Bob?” she said.
The humiliation of it all brought me back to my senses. I straightened my pants, stood up, closed my jacket as best I could. “Let’s go, Phil.”
“Wait just a second,” said Skink. “No need to rush away when things is just getting interesting. Do us a favor, sweetheart, and tell us your name?”
“I told you already,” she said, her voice suddenly not so silvery.
“But you only told us half. Chantal what?”
“Just Chantal,” she said. “We only have first names here. Like Cher. And Beyoncé.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Just like. And I suppose Chantal’s your real name.”
“Sure,” she said with a light laugh. “Just like Desirée is Desirée’s real name and Scarlet is Scarlet’s real name. And don’t even get me started on Lola herself.”
“Lola, huh?” said Skink. “Who is she really?”
Chantal leaned forward toward Skink, lowered her voice to a conspirator’s whisper. “Sid,” she said.
Skink burst out in appreciative laughter.
“What’s this all about?” she said. “Why are you asking so many questions? Are you guys cops?”
“Do we look like cops?” I said.
“He does,” she said, indicating Skink. “You look more like a high school guidance counselor.”
“We’re looking for someone,” said Skink, “and we thought you might be her.”
“No,” I said. “You’re not. We’re sorry to take up your time.”
“So who is it you guys are looking for?”
“A girl name of Chantal,” said Skink. “Just like you.”
She stared at us for a long moment, stared at us like we were specters from another world who were shimmering in and out of her reality. “Are you kidding me?”
“Why?” said Skink. “You know her?”
“Look,” she said, backing away and crossing her arms over her chest. “I have to dance, okay. It’s my turn on the stage.”
“Are you her?” I said.
“The farthest thing,” she said.
“But you do know her.”
I took a step forward, gently put a hand on her wrist. She looked down at my hand, then up at my face.
“What’s your game?” she said.
“We’re just looking for a dame, is all,” said Skink.
“Well, if you’re looking for her, you’ll be looking for a long time,” she said. “Chantal Adair was my sister. But she disappeared two years before I was born.”
She smiled tightly, put her hand on my chest and pushed me away before she turned around and walked toward the bar. She leaned over it, arms still crossed, looking as if she had stomach cramps. She began talking to the bartender, talking about us, we could tell, because he was glancing our way. He gave her a drink, she downed it quickly.
“I guess she’s not the one,” I said.
“Worth a tattoo if she is, mate. Got to give her that.”
“Yeah, but the name isn’t hers.”
“Her real name’s Monica, Monica Adair,” said Skink. “But it seemed worth a shot, what with the fake dance name and the real last name both matching the tattoo.”
“Yeah, I suppose. It’s a little weird, though, don’t you think, using her missing sister’s name to dance to?”
“She’s a stripper, which explains a lot. I knew a girl out in Tucson-”
“I bet you did,” I said, “but I don’t really want to hear about it right now. I’m going home.”
“I think I’ll stay around a bit longer.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“Your enthusiasm for the job is heartwarming.”
“I got a second possibility on the tattoo front. Since this didn’t pan out, I’ll set up that one.”
“Another strip joint?”
“Nah, something a little more technical. I got me a guy what-”
Skink stopped in midsentence, which was a rare and wondrous feat. I followed his gaze, to see what had interrupted his chain of thought. It was Monica Adair, coming back our way, a strange smile on her face. She walked right up to me and put her hand on my arm.
“You never told me your name,” she said to me.
“Victor,” I said.
“Are you leaving, Victor? So soon?”
“I have to get home. Big day tomorrow. Big day.”
“I’m up next on the stage, but then I can get out a little early. Sid owes me. Are you hungry?”
“It’s kind of late, don’t you think?”
“Oh, Victor, it’s never too late to eat. And if you want, while we eat, we can talk about my sister.”
It’s not every day you sit in a diner with a stripper while she talks about a saint.
“Did you ever learn about St. Solange?” said Monica, her voice still silvery and childlike. Inside the confines of Club Lola, where every woman was there solely to satisfy a man’s most puerile urges – long limbs to wrap you tight, abundant breasts to suckle – the voice fit in perfectly. But here, in the Melrose Diner on Passyunk Avenue in the hard heart of South Philly, it was more than passing strange.
“No, never,” I said. “My people weren’t much for saints.”
“That’s too bad. Nothing is as comforting as a saint in times of stress.”
“I prefer beer,” I said.
She had taken the night off after her stint on the stage – a stint full of enough tricks and stunts to make even a politician blush – so she could talk about her sister. And I must say she cleaned up nice, did Monica Adair. Usually that expression refers to someone all dolled up for a change, but it was the opposite with her. In a pair of jeans and a T-shirt, sneakers, her makeup wiped off and her glossy hair pulled into a ponytail, she looked like the prettiest, most wholesome college kid you’d ever want to meet. But all it took was for her to open her mouth for you to realize she was also a total wack job.
“My mother is crazy for them,” said Monica. “Saints, I mean. Saints and plates with paintings of clowns. My sister and I were each named after the saint on whose feast day we were born. Chantal was named for St. Jeanne de Chantal, the patron saint of parents separated from their children, which I suppose is a little sad, considering how things turned out.”
“What about you?”
“August twenty-seventh, the feast day for St. Monica of Hippo. The patron saint of disappointing children. Are you going to eat that pickle?”
“No,” I said. “Help yourself.”
She reached over and plucked the long green sliver from my plate, snapped it between her teeth.
“It could be worse, though,” she said. “We could have been named after the clowns. Could you do me a favor and straighten your tie?”
“Yeah, it’s a little off to the side. The other way, right. Stuff like that drives me crazy. Or untied shoelaces, or specks of dust on a lapel. And I wash my hands a lot. Is that weird?”
“If I worked where you worked, I’d wash my hands a lot, too.”
“I’m just saying-”
“I think they keep it quite clean.”
“I was just-”
“But St. Solange was always my favorite saint,” said Monica. “She was this shepherdess in France who took a vow of chastity when she was, like, eight. Then, when she was twelve, the son of the count on whose land she grazed her sheep put the moves on her. She refused him, so he pulled her off her horse and chopped off her head.”
“Nasty,” I said.
“But then, and this is what I like, apparently she rose up after she was killed, picked her head off the ground, and carried it into the nearby town and started preaching. It was like nothing could stop her from getting out her message. She would have been perfect on the Today show. Could you imagine Katie Couric doing the interview?”
“Talking head to talking head.”
“But the way St. Solange kept preaching even when she was gone, that’s what I feel about my sister.”
“I don’t understand.”
“She disappeared before I was born, but it’s like she still talks to me. It’s like she’s been talking to me every day of my life.”
I leaned closer, searched for a sign of insanity on her pretty face. “What does she say?”
“Are you going to eat the rest of that sandwich?”
“Probably not,” I said.
“Can I have it?”
“Knock yourself out,” I said, but even before I said it, she was reaching for the half of the corned beef special that was still on my plate.
“Mmm, that’s good,” she said after she took a bite. A shred of coleslaw hung from the corner of her mouth before she wiped it away with her finger. “I get so hungry after I work.”
“Tell me about your sister?” I said.
“Oh, Chantal, she was like a saint herself. The darling of the neighborhood. She was only six when she disappeared, but she was already special. She loved church, loved animals, took in a bird with a broken wing, a stray dog. I have a dog. Luke. He’s a shar-pei. The one with all the wrinkled skin?”
“I don’t know it.”
“From China. Not Luke, I picked him up in Scranton. The breed, I mean. Quite an aggressive sort. Don’t mess with a shar-pei. Don’t play accordion either. That’s about the sum total of my advice on life.”
“I’ll remember that.”
“What about them?”
“I don’t know, I’m still up in the air about anchovies. A little too salty, don’t you think? But they’re not bad on pizza. Chantal liked pizza, and french fries. But especially she liked to dance. She was, like, great. My parents still have old movies of her in her outfit, doing her routines. They watch them all the time. She was on that Al Alberts Showcase. Do you know the one on TV on Sunday mornings? With all the local talent?”
“Yeah, I remember it.”
“She did a dance solo on it once. The Amazing Chantal Adair. Tap, with little red shoes. I still have those shoes, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers.”
“What happened to her?”
“No one knows. One day she went out into the neighborhood to play, like she did every day, and never came back. It was in the papers for months. The police were all over it, but they never found anything. Not her body, not a ransom note, nothing. It’s like she clicked her ruby tap shoes and disappeared.”
“Yeah, it is.” She reached over to my plate and swiped a potato chip. I pushed the plate toward her, and she took another. “It destroyed my parents. They had me to try to make up for it, but I wasn’t quite enough, so their disappointment was doubled. They’ve never recovered.”
“What do they think happened?”
“Everyone just assumed she was murdered somehow. There was an old rummy in the neighborhood that was acting weird, but they could never pin anything definite on him. And then a rumor had it that some guy in a white van had been trawling the neighborhood for kids.”
“It’s always a white van, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, why is that? I have to remind myself that next time I rob a bank I should use the brown van. That’s the second time you looked at your watch. Do you have someplace you need to be?”
“It’s just late,” I said. “And I have to be in court tomorrow.”
“No, just a custody thing.”
“It sounds important to me. Who do you represent?”
“That’s nice. I’m all for mothers. Do you know who the patron saint of mothers is?”
“St. Gerard. He was accused of getting a woman pregnant and refused to speak until he was cleared.”
“He must have had a good lawyer.”
“You ever shoot a gun, Victor?”
“I have one. I’ve never used it, but one day someone’s going to break into the wrong apartment and bam.”
“What with the dog and the gun, Monica, I think I’ll stay out of your neighborhood.”
“Oh, Luke. Luke wouldn’t hurt anyone. And that one guy in the park, well, he was smoking, and Luke has this thing about cigarettes. But I don’t think she was murdered. My sister, I mean. I don’t think she’s dead at all. Remember the girl that was supposed to have been burned to ashes in a fire, but it turned out she was stolen and living somewhere in New Jersey?”
“I think that’s what happened. I think Chantal was taken someplace, taken because she was so perfect, and given a perfect life.”
“By someone who loved her very much.”
“It’s nice to think it, I guess.”
“I feel her presence all the time, like she’s close, looking over my shoulder, looking out for me. That’s what I meant when I said she’s my St. Solange. Gone but still preaching. Chantal guides my life. Because of her my life has a purpose. I was conceived to fill a gap. That it hasn’t worked out so well is a little sad, but still, it’s more than most people have. That’s why I use her name at the club. As a tribute.”
“I’m sure she’d be touched.”
“Really?” she said, her smile blinding, as if I had complimented her on her hair. “I hope so, though I expect she’ll let me know sooner or later.”
“You think after all these years she’ll just up and call?”
“Oh, Victor, I don’t just think it. I’m certain of it. How about some pie? I could go for some pie. Do you think they make pie here?”
“I’m sure they do,” I said.
It wasn’t lost on me that she didn’t ask anything about how I had come up with her sister’s name. She had waited all her life for the word, I suppose she figured she could wait for it to come out on its own. And in any event I wasn’t about to tell her of my tattoo. It was both too embarrassing and too bizarre to share that with her, especially as I observed her slightly deranged discussion of her sister. Her sister, Chantal, was a strange fire burning within her, she didn’t need me to toss on a bucket of gasoline.
So we ordered pie. I had the peach, she had the blueberry, with a dollop of ice cream on top. Even with the blue streaks on her teeth, she was beautiful. And sad, too. Usually I can spot it right off, that streak of sadness that speaks to some primal part of my personality, but with her I didn’t. It was only as she spoke that it became clear, how her life had been so sadly influenced by the missing girl who was the warp and woof of her existence.
But about one thing I was certain. All of it, the whole sad story of her missing sister, had nothing to do with me. The Chantal Adair she had been waiting her whole life to hear from was not the Chantal Adair whose name I had foolhardily tattooed onto my chest.
Sometimes my head is as dense as a solid block of ebony.
I have a big red file folder that I keep for special occasions. Sometimes it’s full of documents, sometimes it’s empty, but either way what’s inside is not as essential as the file folder itself. I clutch it close to my breast as if it contained nuclear launch codes, or the phone number of a decent Chinese restaurant, or anything else important enough to belong in a big red file folder.
“What’s in the file?” said Beth as we waited in the hallway of family court for Theresa Wellman.
“Just some information Phil Skink unearthed.”
“Did he get anything on Bradley Hewitt?”
“He’s working on it.”
“Then what’s in the file?”
“Oh, look,” I said. “Here comes our client.”
Theresa Wellman, with her hair done and her dress subdued, approached us warily.
“Are we going on with it today?” she said.
“Of course we are,” said Beth. “Now you’ve got the firm of Derringer and Carl on your side. Bucking the odds is what we do. You’re the first witness. Are you ready?”
“Oh, I’m ready. I love my daughter more than anything in the world. I just want to see her and hug her and take her home.”
“I’m going to be asking you the questions, Theresa,” I said. “There might be some things you don’t expect.”
“Like what?” she said.
“Stuff about your past and how things are going now.”
“It’s best if we do it all in court. You don’t want to seem rehearsed. But whatever happens, Theresa, you have to trust that I’m doing what I can to help you.”
She eyed the big red file folder I held at my chest, bit the bottom corner of her lip. “Why should I trust you?”
“Who else do you have?”
“It will be fine, Theresa,” said Beth. “As long as you can convince the judge that you’ve really changed, we have a great shot for some sort of joint custody.”
“Can we trust the judge?”
“Judge Sistine is impeccably fair and absolutely fearless,” I said. “She might be wrong, but never for the wrong reasons.”
“Just tell the truth,” said Beth. “If the judge thinks you’re hiding anything, it can really hurt your cause.”
“Okay. I’ll try.”
“Trying isn’t good enough,” I said. “Whatever happens in there, it’s okay to show your anger, it’s okay to show your sadness, it’s okay to show the whole gamut of your emotions, but tell the truth.”
“And you think the truth will get me back my daughter?”
“It’s the only thing that can,” I said.
There was a bustle in the hallway as a small crowd came our way. It was led by a tall gray man in an expensive suit. He was accompanied by a lovely younger woman who held on to his arm, three men with dark suits and briefcases, and a perfectly coiffed man swathed in sharkskin. This last I had dealt with before. His name was Arthur Gullicksen, and the material of his suit was entirely appropriate.
“Victor?” he said as he approached. “I’m surprised to see you here. I thought Beth was handling this case.”
“She’s my partner,” I said, “which means we work together on everything. She asked me to help, and so here I am.”
“That’s just fine,” said Gullicksen, letting his gaze stray from my eyes to the big red file folder. “Have you met Bradley Hewitt?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said.
After Gullicksen made the introductions, the tall gray man said, “I’ve heard about you, Mr. Carl.” His voice was incredibly deep and rich, almost as rich as his suit.
“Nothing bad, I hope.”
“So many of us, I suppose, hope in vain,” he said. He didn’t smile as he said it, and yet his expression wasn’t unkind. It was as if all of us were together in an unpleasant situation that was not of our own making, all of us but one. When he turned his gaze upon Theresa, something shifted in his expression. Theresa seemed to wilt under his attention, until she turned and fled into the courtroom.
“She just wants to be able to spend time with Belle,” said Beth.
“You think that’s best for my daughter?” said Hewitt.
“A girl needs her mother,” said Beth.
“But not that mother,” said Bradley Hewitt.
“Do you have a second, Victor?” said Gullicksen.
I glanced at Beth, who nodded me on, and so Gullicksen and I huddled at the far end of the hallway, out of earshot of the rest of the crowd.
“You know, of course, that this is a mistake,” he said. “I could understand a motion like this coming from Beth. She has a reputation for not worrying about political realities, but I’m surprised to see you involved.”
“We are representing a woman who simply wants to live with her daughter again. What political reality am I missing?”
“Mr. Hewitt is an intriguing man, with connections to the highest levels of government.”
“And he used that power to force a mother to give up her child.”
“He used that power to protect his daughter from a woman who didn’t know how to care for her. All your client wants now is the money that comes with custody. Be aware that my client will continue to protect his daughter by any means necessary.”
“Is that a threat? Because I’ve been expecting one, Arthur, from the moment I got involved.”
“Not a threat at all, Victor,” said Gullicksen. “Just a friendly piece of advice. Mr. Hewitt is willing to allow supervised visitations for your client.”
“She already turned that down. We want joint custody, fifty-fifty.”
“Too bad. I hate to keep a mother from at least seeing her child. What’s in the file you so carefully clutch to your chest?”
“Oh, odds and ends,” I said.
“I have a red file folder of my own. It’s a neat trick. I couldn’t help noticing that you’re involved in a highly sensitive case involving a fugitive and a painting. I hope nothing that happens here will in any way interfere with your efforts on behalf of your other client.”
“Now, that does sound like a threat.”
“As I said, Mr. Hewitt has much influence and many friends. Including Mr. Spurlock of the Randolph Trust.”
“Let’s keep our focus on a mother trying to regain her daughter.”
“Okay, Victor, then I must ask. What do you really know about Theresa Wellman?”
“She had a rough patch,” I said, “but she says she’s changed.”
“Is that what she says?” Gullicksen smiled at me like I had just told an amusing little anecdote. “Tell me, Victor, when did you start believing in the Easter Bunny?”
Judge Sistine was a large, humorless woman with the forearms of a bear. She sat stone-faced on the bench, taking notes, as I questioned Theresa Wellman. I sneaked glances up at her every now and then to see how Theresa’s story was playing, but Judge Sistine was too good a jurist to show her hand. Still, I had little doubt that the testimony was having an effect.
It was Theresa doing the telling, that’s the way it is in direct examination, but it was my questions that created the setting, that decided where was the beginning, that maintained the pace, that ensured the telling details made it into the record, that slowed everything down at the most emotionally painful parts, giving Theresa the space she needed to break into tears. Nothing lubricates the wheels of justice like a few tears.
It was the classic story of a girl, sheltered and innocent, who is swept off her feet and into a fast and thrilling lifestyle by an older, wealthy man. Gullicksen objected from the start, claiming that none of this was relevant to the matter at hand, but I stated that the background was crucially important, and the judge agreed with me. So I put it all out there and on the record, the parties, the travel, the fine clothes, the luxury apartment, the important people who were suddenly paying attention. It was glamorous, it was exotic, it was simply too fabulous for a young girl from West Philly to turn down. A fantasy come true, with a darkness at the center, because at the center of it all was the unequal relationship between the young woman and the powerful, older man, Bradley Hewitt.
“Let’s go into some details about these parties you mentioned, Theresa,” I said. “Was there drinking?”
“Oh, yes. Wine at dinner, of course, Bradley liked his wine. Often champagne. Liqueurs after dinner and then more champagne or maybe really fine Scotch.”
“Did you drink much before meeting Mr. Hewitt?”
“My parents weren’t drinkers.”
“But you drank with Mr. Hewitt.”
“He developed my taste.”
“Were there any other intoxicants at these parties?”
“Marihuana,” she said. “Cocaine often. Pills.”
“Did you have much experience with drugs before meeting Mr. Hewitt?”
“No, not really.”
“You grew up in West Philly, isn’t that right?”
“I went to a parochial school, Mr. Carl. The nuns were very strict.”
“Did Bradley partake of drugs at these parties?”
“Not so much, but he encouraged the others. And he encouraged me. Strongly. He said he liked having sex when I was stoned.”
“And you acquiesced to his requests.”
Slowly, we went through the hints of violence, the cheating, the humiliations, the verbal abuse. I didn’t have her go into the physical abuse, since there were no witnesses to it, Bradley Hewitt would just deny it, and I wasn’t quite sure if I believed it anyway. Instead we focused on the pregnancy, Bradley Hewitt’s demand that Theresa have an abortion, her refusal, the bitter end of the fantasy as the relationship died. The birth, the sporadic support from the new child’s father, his complete lack of interest in the baby, her need for more child support, the petition, the response, the fear, the decision to give up her custodial rights in exchange for a financial settlement.
“Why would you do such a thing, Theresa? Why would you agree to give up custody?”
“I thought I had no choice.”
“There’s always a choice, isn’t there?”
“He was too powerful. My lawyer said he would win. I made a mistake. What can I say, Mr. Carl? I think about it every day. I guess I was afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Afraid of what Bradley would do to me if I kept fighting.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t fear of what would come out at the hearing?”
“I admitted I was having some problems at the time.”
“It was more than just a few problems, though, wasn’t it?” I said as I picked up the big red file folder, opened it, looked inside.
“I was going through things,” she said.
“What kind of things?”
“I was drinking.”
“Every day, right? Day and night, even while you were caring for your daughter.”
“I always cared for my daughter.”
“Were you using drugs, too?”
“Theresa?” I said, waving the big red file folder.
“What are you doing, Mr. Carl?”
“I’m trying to understand a crucial decision in your life. Not every mother agrees to give up the custody to her daughter. Were you addicted to drugs at the time you made that agreement?”
“I don’t think I was addicted.”
“What were you using?”
“Mr. Carl, stop this. What are you doing? I just want my daughter back.”
“Were you using crack cocaine at the time you sued for child support?”
“I tried it.”
“How often did you use it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do, Theresa. You were addicted to it, weren’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
“But you do know, don’t you? How much was a chunk of crack? Five bucks? And how often did you smoke it? How many times a day, Theresa?”
“I was having a hard time.”
“Constantly, right? As much as you could, right?”
“It’s a disease.”
“So how did you pay for it all, the drinking and the drugs, the rent on your apartment?”
“I lost the apartment.”
“Not right off. For a while you kept up with the rent. How did you pay for everything?”
“I had my job.”
“Until you were fired, right? For coming in late too many times.”
“I was a single mother.”
“How did you pay for everything, Theresa?”
“I found a way.”
I looked inside the file folder. “Do you know a man named Herbert Spenser?”
“Do you know a man named Rudolph Wayne? Do you know a man named Sal Pullata? Do you know a man-”
“Stop it. What are you doing?” This is when the tears started. “You’re my attorney,” she said. “What are you doing? Did they buy you off, too?”
“You sold yourself to those men, didn’t you?”
“Mr. Carl, please stop.”
“You sold yourself to those men and to others. Countless others.”
“You sold yourself while you were still caring for your daughter. She was in the next room sometimes, wasn’t she? When you drank with your clients and used drugs and sold yourself, she was right there.”
“Please stop. I’m begging you.”
“How could you do such a thing, Theresa?”
“I was out of control. There wasn’t enough money. He left me with nothing.”
“You knew you were endangering your daughter?”
“I was doing the best I could. I was sick.”
“And when you signed away your custody, you didn’t do it because the system was against you, or because your lawyer was bought off, or even for the money.”
“You did it because you were scared.”
“I needed help.”
“You did it because at the time you couldn’t take care of your daughter like she deserved.”
“Mr. Carl, I love my Belle. More than anything.”
“And you gave up your custody to Bradley Hewitt because, quite simply, it was the best thing for your daughter.”
“I was lost.”
“Of course you were.”
“But that was before.”
“And now you want her back.”
“Because I love her.”
“But why now?”
“Because she needs me.”
“But why now?”
“Because now I know I can take care of her.”
I looked up at the judge, who was staring down with something close to pity on her face as Theresa Wellman sobbed on the stand.
“What’s next, Counselor?” said the judge.
“We’re going to talk about the treatment Ms. Wellman has undertaken, about her new job, and how she has changed her life so that she can once again properly take care of her daughter.”
“Would you like a moment to compose yourself before we go on, Ms. Wellman?” said the judge.
Theresa Wellman nodded.
“Fifteen minutes,” said the judge.
When I sat down next to Beth, Theresa was still crying on the stand.
“You were a little tough on her,” said Beth softly.
“How much of that did you know?”
“None of it is a surprise.”
“Best thing she ever did was give up her daughter. It makes her look almost noble. It’s going to be hard to prove she deserves her back, but that’s what we’ll try to do after the break.”
“You think we still have a chance?”
“If I didn’t bring out all that crap, Gullicksen would have, and he would have been ten times as tough. Now what’s he going to do? Point his finger and call her a bad girl?”
Just then Gullicksen walked by on his way out to the hall. He nodded at me as he gestured at my red folder. “So it wasn’t empty after all,” he said.
“And if you think this one is thick,” I said, with as broad a smile as I could muster, “wait until you see the one I’ve got on your client.”
After Gullicksen had left the courtroom, shaken but not stirred, Beth looked at me with great hope on her face. “Do you have something on Bradley Hewitt?”
“Not yet,” I said. “But give me time.”
I had been putting it off, but I could put it off no longer. It was time to face the darkest of all my demons and to find some answers to questions that had been plaguing me from the start of the Charlie Kalakos case. It was time to visit my dad.
I didn’t call ahead, there was no need. It was a Sunday afternoon, which meant my father would be home, alone, sitting in his La-Z-Boy watching the game, with a can of Iron City in one hand and a remote control in the other. It didn’t much matter in what month the Sunday fell. In the fall and winter, he watched the Eagles. In the spring and summer, he watched the Phillies. And in the dead months of February and March, when baseball and football were both on hiatus, he watched whatever: beach volleyball, alpine skiing, Battle of the Network Stars. Just so long as he could sit and wince, drink his beer, grumble at the television. That’s what Sundays were made for.
When I arrived at the little Spanish-style house in the little suburb of Hollywood, Pennsylvania, things didn’t seem quite right. First, there was a beat-up old yellow taxicab parked right out front. Then, the front door was slightly ajar. It was not like my father to keep the front door slightly ajar. He kept his house like he kept his emotional life, buttoned up and locked tight, all to hold the world at bay. But even stranger was that I heard voices coming from his shabby little living room. It had to be the television, I figured, but it didn’t sound like a couple of announcers discussing the offensive futility of the Phillies’ lineup. It sounded almost like a friendly conversation. Between real people. In my father’s house.
“Dad,” I said. I opened the screen door, knocked on the slightly ajar front door. “Dad, are you there?”
“Who’s that?” came my father’s growl, which would have been a marginally acceptable response if I weren’t an only child.
“Dad, it’s me.”
“What do you want?”
“I just came to say hello.”
“Why didn’t you call first?” said my father. “I’m busy.”
“Can I come in?”
“Oh, don’t be unsociable like, Jesse,” came another voice, high and jaunty. “Even a crocodile don’t turn away his own young. Invite the boy inside. This is a fortuitous treat, it is. Might liven up the conversation.”
“I’m coming in,” I said, suddenly apprehensive.
“Boy knows his mind,” said the other voice. “I like that.”
I pushed open the door, stepped into the living room, and there he was, my father, on his La-Z-Boy, beer in hand like every other Sunday, except the television wasn’t on and he wasn’t alone and there was a peculiar worry on his face. Two men sat side by side on the sofa, beers in their hands, both older even than my dad. One was huge, with big hands, a wide jaw, a mop of gray hair cut badly. The other was thin and dark, with a blue captain’s hat cocked on his head. And somehow, in the geometry and atmosphere of the room, I tasted the acrid scent of latent danger.
“Let me guess,” said the thin man with the captain’s hat. “You the tiger cub, right? You that Victor, the one we all been seeing on the television.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And who are you?”
“Old friends of your father,” said the big man in a slow, deep voice.
“I didn’t know my father had old friends,” I said.
“Well, he do,” said the thin man, before he took a swig of his beer. “And we is it.”
“That’s pleasant,” I said, looking once again at my father’s worried face. “Old friends getting together, drinking beer, talking old times. And the cab outside?”
“Mine,” said the thin man.
“It’s quite yellow.”
“It’s a Yellow Cab, fool.”
“You fellows mind if I grab a beer, sit down and join you?”
“If you’re going to the fridge,” said the thin man, raising up his can, “fetch me another. All this reminiscing, it builds up a thirst.”
I stole a look at my father once more before stepping into the kitchen and pulling two beers out of the refrigerator. I wasn’t just then in the mood to drink, but I figured I’d join in. My father didn’t seem so happy to see his old friends, and less happy that I had stopped by at the same time. And I had a strong sense of why. I had never seen the two men before in the entirety of my life, never in the flesh and never in a photograph, but I recognized them all the same.
“So how do you guys all know each other?” I said when I returned with the beers.
“From the old neighborhood,” said the big man.
“Your daddy was younger than we was,” said the thin man. “But we still remember when he went into the army. All spit and polish, with his feathers preened. From the snappy side of town, he was.”
“That’s enough of that,” said my father. “We don’t need no more old stories.”
“Sure we do,” I said. “I love old stories.”
“He wore his hair all swept up and back, shiny black, it was, and a little wavy. That was the Jewish in him. And he always had a tube of grease and comb with him. Always getting that hair just right.”
“And good with the girls,” said the big man.
“Course he was,” said the thin man. “Take a lesson, boy. Never underestimate the power of a good head of hair.”
We all laughed at that, all but my father, whose hair wasn’t anymore black and shiny.
“So what brings you here this afternoon?” I said.
The two men on the couch glanced at each other. “Just visiting,” said the big man.
“Really? Just visiting, out of the blue?”
“Well, Joey did have some business to talk about.”
“We was talking with your father,” said the thin man, “about a moneymaking proposition. Ralph and me was discussing it together, this opportunity, and we thought we’d give our old friend Jesse here a taste.”
“Why, that is so nice of you,” I said. “Isn’t that nice, Dad?”
“I already told them to keep me the hell out of it,” he said.
“Oh, Jesse’s just not seeing the possibilities,” said Joey. “He’s always been like that, so busy looking down at the sidewalk so he won’t trip over those feets of his that he can’t see what’s up there to be grabbed.”
“I see it all right,” he said. “I just don’t want anything to do with it. And neither does Victor.”
“My dad’s a little shortsighted when it comes to money,” I said, which was something I believed all my life but knew now to be untrue. “Though I myself might be interested.”
“What do you say there, Ralph,” said the thin man. “Think we ought to let the kid in?”
“I guess we don’t have a choice, do we?” said Ralph.
“Not no more,” said the thin man. “Being as you showed up when you did, smack in the middle of our discussions.”
“Good for me, huh?” I said, my grin so wide it hurt my cheeks.
Joey took a long drink of his beer, nodded his head. “So this is it, Victor. We have received an offer, a very generous offer. Something that could change all our lives, and let me tell you, speaking for Ralph and myself, our lives could use some changing.”
“Mine, too,” I said.
“It’s an opportunity to take advantage of, don’t you think?”
“He don’t want nothing to do with it,” said my father.
“Let the boy decide for himself,” said thin Joey, tilting back his cap, leaning forward. “We have an offer from a certain party to purchase an object that belongs to us. It’s simple enough, and the terms couldn’t be more generous.”
“Oh, terms could always be more generous. Getting them more generous is my specialty. Tell me who it is you’re talking with, and I’ll give him a ring.”
“We don’t need you negotiating for us, fool,” said Joey. “I didn’t spend thirty years driving a cab without learning how to negotiate the fare.”
“But if you like the deal as it is, then sell the damn thing by yourselves and be done with it. You don’t need me or my dad. That’s capitalism.”
“Yes, yes it is. Precisely put.”
“But there’s a problem,” said the big man.
“There always is, isn’t there, Ralph? Let me guess.” I closed my eyes, rubbed my hands over my face as if trying to pull an idea out of the air. “Something makes me think you don’t know where this object is.”
“Jesse, why didn’t you tell us your boy here was an Einstein?” said Joey. “Why didn’t you brag on him? I had a boy like that, I’d tell the world.”
“He’s not as smart as he thinks,” grumbled my father.
“Actually, Joey, since my father isn’t really interested, we don’t need to involve him in these discussions any further, do we?”
“This is the deal of a lifetime, and you want to cut out your own dear dad?” said Joey. “I admire the hell out of that.”
“My father and I have learned never to mix business with blood. Why don’t we go someplace to talk?”
“How about a bar?” said Joey, smacking his lips. “All this talk about money builds up a thirst.”
“I bet a lot of things build up a thirst for you, Joey.”
“Don’t never trust a man who don’t drink or don’t laugh,” said Joey. “That’s what my daddy taught me. That and not to trust nobody named Earl.” He swallowed the rest of his beer. “Which was, unfortunately, my daddy’s name.”
“Then let’s go,” I said. “The drinks are on me when we get where we’re going.”
“Why, that is most generous of you, squire. Most generous. Let’s be on our way, then. I’m sure your dad’s got better things to do than waste his time talking to old friends.”
“I’m sure he does. Just give me a minute with him, won’t you, for some family stuff?”
As soon as they left to wait for me outside in the taxicab, I sidled over to my father, still in his chair. He roughly grabbed my sleeve. “Do you know who they are?” he said.
“Yeah, I know. They’re two of the guys who used to hang out with Charlie the Greek thirty years ago.”
“Then why are you getting involved with them?”
“To remove them from your house, for one thing. They only came to you to get to me, and you didn’t seem so happy to have them here.”
“It’s Sunday. The Phils are on.”
“And you wouldn’t want to miss that.”
“What are you doing here anyways?”
“I wanted to see how you are. And maybe also to ask a few questions. Like why you owe that old witch Kalakos a favor.”
He turned away. “None of your business.”
“It is now, since she’s using it to rope me deeper into her son’s cesspool. You’re going to have to tell me sometime before I get submerged. But not now. Now I have to share a pitcher with Big Ralph and Little Joey.”
“Oh, I think I can handle a pair of sweet old guys like that.”
“They’re not that old, and they’re not that sweet.”
I looked at the still-open front door and the Yellow Cab waiting outside for me.
“When they were boys, they roamed the neighborhood like wolves,” said my father. “They beat some kid to near death with a baseball bat.”
“You got me into this.”
“I made a mistake.”
“I don’t think they’d let me ditch them now, do you? Besides, I have a question they might be able to answer.”
“Like who the hell knew enough to make those two old crooks an offer.”
“So we saw on the TV you’re representing that Charlie Kalakos,” said Joey Pride, the froth of a beer on his upper lip.
We were sitting in the back booth in the Hollywood Tavern, just down the road from my father’s house. There was a half-filled pitcher of beer between us, rough-hewn glass mugs, a bowl of little pretzels. I took a handful of pretzels from the basket on the table, shook them like dice, popped one into my mouth. “Yes, I do.”
“And there was something about some painting by some dead guy that was stolen from some museum,” said Joey.
“Yes, there was.”
“So we was just wondering” – he glanced at Ralph – “the way guys, they wonder about things, what this Charlie was planning to do with the painting?”
“Give it back,” I said.
“Give it back, huh?” said Joey. “Aw, that’s nice. Isn’t that nice, Ralph?”
Ralph nodded, his huge face devoid of any appreciation of Charlie’s selfless gesture. “Nice,” said Ralph.
“It’s an underrated virtue, don’t you think?” said Joey Pride. “Everyone wants to be tough or ruthless, everyone wants to be king of the world, don’t they? But nice is, well, nice. And that Charlie is a hell of a nice guy.”
“You guys know Charlie?” I said with unbridled disingenuousness.
“Who, Charlie Kalakos?” said Joey. “Sure we know Charlie. We grew up with the boy. Little Charlie, nice Charlie, dumb-ass Charlie Kalakos, trying to rip off his oldest and dearest friends.”
“What do you mean by rip off?”
“Well, that painting, it don’t just belong to Charlie, now, does it?”
“You’re right. Legally, it still belongs to the museum.”
“But we’re not talking legally here, are we, Victor? Legally is only for when lawyers and cops gather around to sniff each other’s butts, like dogs at the hydrant. We’re talking now about what’s right. And what’s right is that those that did the job with Charlie all those years ago, they should get their fair share.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But that’s going to be hard to work out, because Charlie refuses to talk about the heist and who was involved in it with him.”
“See what I told you, Ralph? The boy wants to keep it all to himself.”
“So it appears,” said Ralph.
“It’s not that simple,” I said. “There’s a federal prosecutor very keen on finding out who else was involved with Charlie in that robbery thirty years ago. She wants Charlie to spill to her all the details, and he’s refusing.”
“There’s a fed still hunting them what pulled that job?” said Ralph. “That don’t make no sense.”
“You’re right, it doesn’t, since the statute of limitations has already run. But still, she’s hunting. I thought she was simply looking for the painting, but it’s not that. She’s got some other reason to be looking hard into that robbery.”
The two men glanced at each other as if they knew exactly what Jenna Hathaway was looking for. Interesting.
“I want you boys to understand that Charlie, by keeping his mouth shut, is not trying to stiff his fellow thieves, he’s trying to protect them.”
“Protect them out of their money,” said Ralph morosely.
I leaned forward, looked first at one and then the other. “Let’s cut to the chase. Them is you, right?”
Joey gave the bar a quick scan before leaning forward and lowering his voice. “Them is us.”
“Damn, I knew it,” I said. “It must have been a hell of a thing to be in on that.”
“Greatest thing we ever done,” said Joey, and from the self-satisfied smirks that slipped onto his and Ralph’s faces, I knew they were bursting to talk about it.
“But I’m confused, guys. I heard it was pulled by a bunch of professionals.”
“That’s what we wanted them to think,” said Joey.
“But it was just us,” said Ralph.
“So how did five guys from the neighborhood fall into the biggest heist in the city’s history?”
Joey picked up his beer, downed it, poured himself another mugful from the pitcher. He glanced at Ralph, Ralph nodded back.
“You can’t tell nobody.”
“I’m a lawyer, Joey. If you can’t trust a lawyer, who can you trust?”
“Like everything else in the city,” said Joey, “it started in a bar.”
THERE THEY were the four of them, sitting in a bar, Joey Pride told me, not this bar but one just like it. Ralph, with his hands still black from the metal at the shop. And Hugo Farr, splatters of concrete on the legs of his jeans and work boots, something haunted and thirsty in his eyes. And Charlie Kalakos, whining away about his mother. And Joey Pride, on his second pitcher already when the others came in, just starting to feel the sweetness of oblivion that he fled to every evening after running his shift in the cab. They were no longer youths, they were at that stage in life when things should be happening. But things for them had stalled.
There’s a line that you pass, Joey told me, it’s hard to see, a bit blurry, but there for sure. On one side of the line, all the dreams in your life are still possible. On the other side they’ve become fantasies you only pretend to believe, because having nothing to believe is too close to death. Fool’s dreams, Joey called them, sad little lies. There’s that line, and the four of them, they had blown past that line years before, never looking back.
Ralph was then bending metal for Karlov, that Russian son of a bitch. What he wanted was his own shop, nothing much, not Standard Press Steel or anything, just something of his own. But Ralph was a fool for love, there was always a pair of tits to throw his money at, and the dream of his own shop, being his own boss, was now as empty as his bank account.
Same with Hugo, who was always talking about college and business school. Wanted to be a mogul. He had started at Temple but took a semester off when his dad got sick. Thought he’d earn some cash to help his mother before getting back to it, but for some reason he never got back to it. He ended up working construction, laying cement, taking the up-front payoff and drinking beer late into the night to forget where he wasn’t headed.
All Charlie wanted was to get away from that mother of his, to find a girl and buy a house and live a life on his own. That was his fool’s dream, a pallid little thing, but to Charlie it was such a grand idea it was painful for him to even imagine it. So at nights he sat with the rest of them and drank and watched the years tick, tick away.
Truth was, Joey was the sanest of them all, and he was the one officially certified as crazy. He was sent away twice. Once for stealing a car and then a few years later when they found him wandering the streets in a daze with a gun and a huge wooden cross, spouting off about Jimi Hendrix being crucified for our sins. He had always loved cars, wanted to build hot rods and race along the boulevards, but when they finally released him from the state mental hospital high up on that suburban hill, the only work he could find was driving a cab. A short-term job to get him back on his feet, but the term was already longer than the one he had served in prison, and the time felt just as dead.
So there they were, the four of them, in that bar, cursing their luck and settling into failure like it was their most comfortable pair of ratty jeans, watching the pathetic embers of their fool’s dreams grow dimmer each day, when they got the word. Teddy Pravitz was back in town.
Teddy was the slick one who got out from under it all, who left Philly for the far coast and was making his life happen. He had become something of a legend among them, less flesh and blood, more avatar of the success that had eluded them. They never had gone west to find him, never were certain exactly what he was up to, but they all were sure he had done better than had they. And now he was back. They figured he had come home to toss off a quick hello, for old times’ sake, had only returned for a shot and a beer and a howdy doody, glad we knew you. But they were wrong.
He strode into the bar like a foreign potentate. There were heys and hurrahs, slapped backs and spilt beer. Teddy Pravitz was back in town. He bought them a round and then another, he flashed that smile, flashed a wad, he preened. There was something shaggy about him, something California, like the Philly had been burned out of him by the West Coast sun. You half expected he’d be surfing down Broad Street, what with the smile and the colorful hippie vest. He had come through a portal from another place entirely, a place with lights and banners, with a mystique he brought back with him. He was blinding.
They slid together into a booth in the rear, the five of them, together again. And the four that had gotten stuck in the city of their birth, well, they had their questions, but he was short with his answers.
Where you been, Teddy? Around. You married? Nah. Working? Hardly. Getting any? More than I can handle. You back for good? Just for a while. Any reason? Sure. Another round, Teddy, my man? On me. So come on, tell us. Why are you back?
“Boys,” he said, finally, his eyes shining. “Boys, I’m back for one reason and one reason only. To give you all one last chance to save your lives, one last chance at redemption.”
“FUNNY,” I SAID, “you guys don’t look redeemed.”
“That’s the point,” said Joey. “Thirty years later we’re still here, busted like a fat lip, still trying to make it happen.”
“But the painting was only a part of the haul taken from the Randolph Trust. There was plenty of other stuff taken, jewels and gold and even some cash. You guys must have done pretty damn well.”
They didn’t answer, Little Joey and Big Ralph, instead they stared mournfully at their beer mugs. With a quick snatch, Joey downed the rest of his beer and emptied the pitcher into his mug and snatched that down, too.
“What happened to it all?” I said.
“We got some,” said Joey. “Our piece of the cash.”
“And the rest?”
“Disappeared,” said Ralph.
“Does it matter?”
“What we’re here to talk about now,” said Joey, “is making it back. Fish comes up to us. He knows we know Charlie from way back. He knows we might have some influence on him, being we are old friends and all of us were once thick as weasels.”
“Who made the offer?” I said.
“Does it matter?” said Ralph.
“Yeah, it does.”
“Fish wants it confidential. But the offer is enough to get us interested. And let me say it’s enough to get us a little pissed if it don’t come off like the fish, he says.”
“A little pissed, huh?”
“Yeah. So that’s the story. Tell Charlie we got ourselves a fish on the line and we all want a share of the eating. Tell him fair is fair. Tell him that the baseball bats are out.”
“Is that a threat, Joey?” I said.
“No, no, you got me all wrong,” said Joey. “I’m just like Charlie: nice. Aren’t I nice, Ralph?”
“It’s just that we haven’t played ball in a while and we want to get us up another game. Like old times. You tell Charlie about the baseball bats, and he’ll understand.”
“Okay, I got the message,” I said. “You hear again from your fish, you give me a call.” I handed each of them one of my cards. “Did you tell anyone else about the offer?”
“Just a few interested parties.”
“Okay. From here on in, you keep him out of it. Anyone else?”
I closed my eyes, shook my head. “You guys are more stupid than you let on.”
“We’re covering our bases here, Victor.”
“More like you’re covering your graves. Now, before I do anything, I need to know this fish you have on the line is the real thing and not just blowing little bubbles out his butt.”
“Oh, he’s the real thing,” said Joey.
“How do you know?”
“He gave us a taste. A clean pair of Bens to each of us just for talking.”
“You mind if I take a look?”
“Mine, unfortunately, are already gone. Expenses and such. I had a tab, you see.”
“Oh, I bet you did. How about you, Ralph? You got any of those bills left?”
Ralph reached into this pants pocket, pulled out a gold money clip with some sort of a medallion on it, drew out the wad, unfolded it.
“Aw, man,” said Joey, “you been holding out on me. Didn’t I just ask you for a tenner?”
“I didn’t say I didn’t have it,” said Ralph as he plucked from the wad two hundred-dollar bills.
The bills he handed me were new and crisp, like they had been dealt from a thick stack fresh from the mint. I waved them below my nose, taking in the newly printed scent of the inks. And something else. I sniffed them again, more deeply this time. Something flowery, something precious. Son of a bitch.
“Victor Carl here.”
“Hello, Victor. How pleasant to hear your sweet voice. You left a message on my cell?”
“Lav, dude, you’re killing me.”
“Oh, Victor, let’s be clear about a few things. First of all, I am not and never have been a dude. Put the skateboard away and remember that you are on the far side of sixteen. As for the second part of your execrable sentence, the part about my killing you, rest assured it could be arranged.”
“How gratifying, because it is not my goal in life to amuse you. Those we find amusing are not taken seriously, and let me caution you, Victor, I may twitter and chirp, but you need to take me, my offer, and my concerns, very seriously. There have been inquiries about my person in the city of my current residence. I find that quite distasteful.”
“You didn’t think I’d check you out?”
“I had hoped you’d show a bit more discretion. But it was almost as if your man doing the inquiries wanted word to get out that I was being looked at. Victor, there is an element of public humiliation in such an inquiry that sets my teeth to grinding. Tell your investigator to cut it out, boy, or I’ll find something else to cut.”
“You know, Lav, you’re a lot less genial over the phone.”
“I am not happy with you, and it is too much of strain to be genial when one is not happy. Bad for the skin.”
“Well, color me unhappy, too, Lav, dude. Because I met up with Joey and Ralph today. Remember them? The two old guys you collared one night and gave a couple hundred each, in hard cash that smells suspiciously of your precious scent?”
“How impolitic of them to show you the bills, and how clever of you to notice. I suppose I’ll have to do something about that.”
“The two old men left me with the impression that you were trying to bypass my client and buy the painting from them.”
“What did you expect, Victor? I’ve been pining for you, and yet there was no word, no message, nothing. I have been feeling ever so unrequited.”
“I haven’t been able to talk to my client since our meeting. He’s on the run, he’s not easily accessible.”
“You’re making everything more difficult.”
“Making life harder on lawyers is nothing I trouble myself about. As for your client, I’m merely giving him options. He can decide to take the money himself or to share it with his friends. And if those old comrades put pressure on him to make the right decision, so much the better.”
“What you’ve done is made it more difficult for him to return the painting to the museum.”
“Exactly, dear boy.”
“Making you the more attractive landing place for Mr. Rembrandt.”
“Yes, yes, you have seen through me like a ghost.”
“You negotiate like a shark.”
“I negotiate like a hyena, Victor, with a modicum of hilarity. But I close like a shark.”
“I bet you do, Lav. How did you find those guys anyway?”
“Are you underestimating me, Victor? I hope so. It makes everything easier. Now, be advised that I have many virtues, a certain compassion for small animals and a talent for the rumba among them, but patience, I’m afraid, is not included. I am not a patient man, and neither is the man I represent. Move quickly, Victor, or I’ll be forced to move myself.”
“No, to Plan B.”
“What’s Plan B?”
“VICTOR CARL HERE.”
“Hi, Victor, it’s me.”
“Yes, me. And I was just sitting here thinking about you.”
“Of course you, silly, and I thought I’d give you a call.”
“That’s nice, I suppose.”
“So how are you doing?”
“Fine, I guess.”
“Did you see the game? The Phillies lost today. I’m always a little depressed when the Phils lose.”
“I don’t think they make enough Prozac.”
“I used to date a Phillie. A middle reliever.”
“With the state of the bullpen the last couple of years, that must have been hard.”
“God, yes. Every time he blew a lead, I’d hear about it from everyone at the club. ‘Yo, your boyfriend sucks.’ Like it was my fault his slider didn’t slide. But then they traded him to Seattle, so that was that.”
“Well, he really wasn’t very good. On the other hand, he signed a two-year, $4.7 million contract, so he had that going for him.”
“Can I ask you something?”
“Who are you?”
“Monica. Monica Adair. Remember?”
“Oh, yes, of course. Monica. Yes. Right. Monica. From Lola’s whatever. The one with the missing sister. Okay, now I get it. How’s it going?”
“Well, the Phils lost.”
“And why did you call?”
“Most guys, when they take me out on a date and it goes well, the next night they show up at the club. At least to get another look. So I expected to see you sometime soon, but you haven’t been back.”
“We didn’t have a date, Monica.”
“We ate together.”
“You did most of the eating.”
“At a restaurant.”
“And you paid.”
“I was being mannerly.”
“That wasn’t a date?”
“Wow. I kind of missed those signals, didn’t I?”
“Sorry about that. We were just discussing your sister. You seemed to want to talk about her, so I agreed to listen.”
“You brought her up.”
“No, just the name. It was obvious pretty early on that we were talking about two different people. The Chantal Adair I’m looking for is not your sister.”
“Why are you looking for her anyway? You never told me.”
“It’s not important.”
“You want to keep it private, I understand.”
“It’s no big deal. But, Monica, really, though it’s nice to talk to you and all, I have to go.”
“Is your girlfriend calling for you?”
“I don’t have a girlfriend.”
“So you’re married?”
“Oh.” Pause. “I see. It’s like that, is it?”
“You don’t date strippers.”
“Well, I haven’t as of yet.”
“Don’t worry, we get that a lot. You’d be surprised how many men go to the club to let us rub their bald little heads with our breasts but wouldn’t think of dating one of us.”
“I’m not one of those guys.”
“Like you’d have no problem taking a stripper home to Mommy.”
“With my mother, actually, no. Pump enough vodka into her and she’d join you on the pole. But that’s not what I meant. I meant I don’t go to those kinds of clubs.”
“But you went to Club Lola that night.”
“To see you, to ask about the name, that’s all.”
“Why again did you ask about the name?”
“Really, Monica, I have to go.”
“So you don’t want to have drinks one night?”
“No, not really.”
“Men always say they want a woman who is willing to take the initiative, but then when we do, they think we’re pushy and desperate. Do you think I’m pushy and desperate?”
“Not desperate, no.”
“Then what is it? Are my breasts too small?”
“You don’t like brunettes?”
“I like brunettes fine. Listen, Monica, this is too odd for words. I’m about to self-immolate from awkwardness. Really, I have to go.”
“Then just tell me.”
“Your breasts are fine. Better than fine.”
“No. Tell me why you’re looking for Chantal.”
“If I tell you, will you hang up and not call again?”
“Okay. It’s weird and embarrassing. One night, not too long ago, I must have gotten so drunk that I don’t remember anything about what happened. But when I woke up, I had a tattoo on my chest. And on the tattoo was a name.”
“What name, Victor?”
“Chantal Adair. I don’t know how it got there, or why, but I was just trying to find her.”
“That is weird.”
“And with the juxtaposition of your stage name and last name, we thought you might be a possibility. But seeing as you’ve never seen me before and I never saw you before, then it’s pretty certain that my tattoo has absolutely nothing to do with you or your sister who went missing decades ago.”
“No, it doesn’t. Unless…”
“Thanks for calling, Monica, but I’m going to hang up now.”
“Hey, Victor, can I ask one more thing?”
“Do you want to meet my parents?”
“They’d really like you. I’m going to set it up. I’ll let you know when.”
“Monica? Are you there? Monica? Monica? Crap.”
“VICTOR CARL HERE.”
“Hi, Victor, it’s me.”
“Beth, hi. Gad, it’s been a bad night. The phone is ringing off the hook, and every call is worse than the last.”
“And here I am, right on cue. What’s going on?”
“Just stuff. The Kalakos case is getting a bit hairy. Still, I must say it’s nice for once having a case without any dead bodies floating around, you know what I mean?”
“Yes, I do. This whole murder business you fell into is creepy. Not what I signed up for in law school.”
“Theresa Wellman is what you signed up for, I suppose.”
“Did she recover from the ordeal of my direct examination?”
“Quite well, actually. And the part after the break, when you had her discuss her treatment and her new job and the new house her parents bought for her, that was fabulous.”
“See, Beth, we work well together.”
“We do, but that’s never been the problem, has it? Are you busy tomorrow at about noon?”
“Can you meet me?”
“At the office?”
“No, someplace else.”
“I’ve been doing some thinking.”
“Oh, Beth, don’t.”
“About my life.”
“Gad, Beth, whatever you do, don’t do that. Wouldn’t you just rather change the channel and see what else is on?”
“I’m taking stock, Victor.”
“Why am I suddenly terrified? This whole thinking thing, Beth, can only lead to disaster.”
“So we’ll leave together from the office, say eleven-thirty, is that okay?”
“You never said where we are going?”
“I know. See you tomorrow.”
“VICTOR CARL HERE.”
“Carl, you slimy son of a bitch. You busy?”
“Too busy to take a drive out to meet me?”
“I guess it depends.”
“On who the hell you are.”
“You don’t recognize the voice?”
“Oh, it’s a game, is it? Let me guess. You sound like some sort of rutting rhino. Is it Barry White?”
“Close enough. It’s McDeiss.”
There are hosts of people you don’t want to hear from late on a Sunday night. Your oncologist, maybe, or the girl you had sex with six months ago and haven’t called back since, definitely, or the highway patrol, or the marines, or your mother… well, my mother. But a homicide detective might just be tops on the list.
Detective McDeiss of the Philadelphia Police Department Homicide Unit had directed me to a street on the south edge of the Great Northeast, not far from the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge and just a few blocks east of the Kalakos house. The location itself offered a clue as to what it was all about, which was more than McDeiss had given me. McDeiss was a big man with a small capacity for trust when it came to me, which made some sense, since his job was to bang away my clients and my job was to frustrate him at every turn. He hadn’t given me any details, just the address, but once I found the street, it wasn’t hard to pick out the right house, what with the crowd, the cops, the flashing lights and yellow tape, the satellite trucks parked with the reporters waiting for their close-ups. I was surprised they weren’t selling T-shirts.
I parked two blocks down the street from the carnival. I had slipped on a suit – nothing more faceless than a guy in a plain blue suit – and slowly made my way toward the center of all the activity, a nondescript brick row house with an open cement porch and a small plot of scraggly grass. In front of the house, I spotted the coroner’s van, the back doors open, something dark and shapeless on a gurney inside. As I approached, the doors slammed shut. I let out a sigh of relief as the van drove off. I’d been to enough crime scenes by now to know that my stomach much prefers I show up after the corpse is taken away to the morgue.
At the edge of the yellow tape, I subtly gestured one of the uniforms over. I leaned toward him when he arrived and pitched my voice as low as I could while still being heard. “McDeiss asked me to come on by.”
“Are you the lawyer we were told to look out for?” he said a little too loudly.
“Can we keep this quiet? No need for the press to find out I’m here.”
“Sure, I understand,” he said softly, with a wink.
“I’m the lawyer, yes. Victor Carl.”
“Go on in.”
I ducked under the tape as unobtrusively as I could. Just as I reached the second step of the stoop, I heard something harsh and loud from behind me.
“Yo, Joe,” hollered the uniform. “Tell McDeiss that creep Victor Carl, you know, the scumbucket lawyer what we were told to look out for? Tell McDeiss he finally showed.”
Instinctively I turned toward the crowd of press. Flashbulbs popped. My name was called out, questions were shouted, questions about Charlie and Rembrandt and whether the murder here was somehow connected to the sudden emergence of the painting. So much for slipping in unnoticed.
I turned to the uniform. “Thanks, pal.”
“We aim to serve,” he said with a grin.
I turned again toward the pack of press and spotted a flash of red hair surrounding a pale freckled face before I ignored the shouting and headed into the house.
It was a crime scene, all right. Cops were wandering around with notepads out, technicians were testing, walls and doorknobs were being dusted, photographs were being snapped, jokes were being laughed at, hoagies were being eaten.
I started into the living room and was stopped by a uniform and told to wait while he found McDeiss.
The house was one of those places that had been decorated decades before and then left to age. I suppose if you lived there day by day you didn’t notice it so much, but coming in fresh you could see the unalloyed weight of time on the décor and the lives inside. The walls were dark where they had once been bright, the furniture was greasy, the rug was worn, and everything had a tinge of brown to it and smelled as if it had been marinating in nicotine for an untold number of years. And there was another smell, something repulsive yet faintly familiar, like rot and decay and death, like pestilence itself. It took me a moment to make the connection. It smelled like Mrs. Kalakos’s breath. And with good reason. Littered across the rug were little placards with numbers on them, next to circles drawn in chalk. And there, on the edge of the rug, in front of a fully stocked liquor cart, was the taped outline of a sprawled figure and an ugly dark stain.
Across the living room and through the dining room, I could see the doorway to the bright lights of the kitchen. McDeiss, large and round, with his brown suit and black hat, was in the kitchen talking with K. Lawrence Slocum. As the uniform approached the two of them, their heads swiveled at the same moment to stare. McDeiss shook his head at me in that way he had, in the manner of the parent of a problem child, as if my ending up in the middle of a god-awful mess was a disappointment but not a surprise. Slocum stared for just a moment before looking away in disgust.
“Who is it?” I said, when the three of us were cliqued together.
“A man by the name of Ciulla,” said McDeiss.
“Do I know him?”
“I expect you do,” he said, “seeing as your card was in his wallet.”
“Oh.” I suddenly remembered now where I’d heard that name before. Old Mrs. Kalakos had given it to me. “Is the victim perhaps a Ralph Ciulla?”
“There you go, Carl,” said McDeiss. “I knew you’d come up with it.”
“How did he get it?”
“One in the knee, two in the head.”
“A few hours ago.”
“Who did it?”
“If we knew that, we wouldn’t need you, now, would we?”
“He was big, all right.”
“Can I have a minute, guys?”
“I didn’t think it was possible for you to get any paler,” said McDeiss, “but once again I am proven wrong.”
“Just a minute,” I said as I heaved myself over to a big old easy chair and plopped down into it, put my head in my hands. It took me a while to catch my breath, a longer while to settle the fear that rippled through my stomach like a bout of gastrointestinal distress. Big Ralph, murdered, just a few hours after we had a beer together at the Hollywood Tavern. Whatever was really going on in the Charlie Kalakos case, it had just taken a turn. I peered through my fingers onto the darkened carpet. Between my shoes was a placard with the number seven on it, and a circle of chalk, and in the middle of the circle a dark black stain. Somehow that didn’t help.
I glanced up at McDeiss and Slocum. The two were ignoring me as they tried to piece together what had happened. They would have questions, and they’d want some answers. Some things I was forbidden by law to disclose, and some things could get in the way of what I had once thought to be an easy payday. As I considered my options, the pile of jewels and gold ensconced in my desk drawer dissolved in my mind’s eye. But along with that fading image was another, the shapeless sack of flesh and bones I had glimpsed in the coroner’s van. A man was dead, murdered in the coldest of blood, and something needed to be done.
I started thinking about who might have killed Ralph Ciulla. There were probably a lot of guys over the years who had wanted to pop Big Ralph, not that old and not that sweet, had said my father, but the timing was pretty damn definitive. It couldn’t be a coincidence that Ralph and Joey had thrust themselves into the middle of Charlie’s case and immediately thereafter Ralph had ended up dead. But who would have known about Ralph’s interest? Lavender Hill, who had made him a fartoo-generous offer for the painting? Joey Pride, who was his partner in the endeavor? Mrs. Kalakos with her big gun, whom the two men had gone to first before approaching my dad? Or even Charlie Kalakos, clued about his old friend’s intentions by his witch of a mother. All of them yes, and so all of them were possibilities, but not possibilities that made much sense.
From the chair I said, “So how do you fellows figure it happened?”
“You ready to talk?” said McDeiss.
“I’m ready to listen,” I said. “And then I’ll talk.”
McDeiss shook his head in exasperation, but Slocum gave him a nod.
“This Ralph Ciulla had been married twice, divorced twice,” said McDeiss. “His mother died five years ago, and after that he lived here alone. He apparently let the shooter inside, closed the door behind him. Best we could tell, there was no struggle. The shooter was standing there, the victim was here. The victim turned toward the liquor cart, maybe to fix some drinks. First shot went into the knee from behind, shattered it. A lot of bleeding. None of the neighbors heard the shot, so it was probably an automatic with a silencer, though no shells were found. Ballistics will tell us the caliber, but it looked medium-sized, like a thirty-eight. After he was on the ground, the shooter put two in the right side of the skull.”
“That would be my guess.”
“How long between the knee shot and the head shots?” I said.
“Impossible to tell. Maybe the coroner can give an estimate. But the knee was wrapped with a towel from the kitchen, which was a little strange.”
“Was there a trail of blood into the kitchen?” I asked.
“Then the shooter wrapped the wound,” I said.
“That’s what we figure,” said McDeiss. “Maybe he was looking for something and hoped the victim would tell him where it was. That’s why we were so intrigued when we found your card. We hoped you could tell us what might have been going on with the victim.”
“Who called the murder in?”
“A 911 call from a pay phone not far from here. Panicky voice, didn’t identify himself, but he knew the victim’s name.”
“Whoever did this doesn’t seem the panicky type. In any event we dusted the handset and the change in the box for prints.”
“Anybody see anything?”
“We have a squad going door-to-door. Nothing yet.”
“Doesn’t look like it. A valuable ring still on his finger, a watch, and his wallet was still in his pocket, with your card inside and a credit card, but no cash.”
“What about his money clip?”
“A money clip?”
I lifted up my head, looked out a window onto the street, thought I saw a flash of yellow slipping by. “That’s what he had on him today,” I said. “Gold, with some sort of a medallion on it, clipped around a pretty thick wad.”
McDeiss looked at Slocum, who shrugged.
“You were with this Ralph Ciulla today?” said McDeiss.
“What were you boys talking about?”
I stood up from the chair, closed my eyes for a moment, fought to regain my stomach.
“Go ahead, Victor,” said Slocum.
“Ralph Ciulla was an old friend of Charlie Kalakos,” I said.
Slocum didn’t even blink, he already knew.
“Ralph was trying to inject himself in the negotiations for the missing Rembrandt. He and another old friend, Joey Pride, believed they could sell the painting to some high roller, and they met with me in an attempt to get Charlie to go along.”
“How’d they get in touch with you?” said Slocum.
“Where did you meet?”
“That’s near where your father lives, isn’t it?”
“When did you meet?”
“Just Ralph and Joey Pride and myself.”
“You know where this Joey Pride lives?”
“What he looks like?”
“Same age as Ralph. Thin, nervous, talks a lot. African-American. Drives a Yellow Cab. That’s it.”
“If he gets in touch with you, you’ll get in touch with us?”
“Count on it.”
“They say who the high roller is who wants to buy the painting?”
“No, but Ralph showed me a couple hundred-dollar bills he received up front. That’s how I knew about the money clip.”
“And now they’re gone. What did you tell them?”
“I told them the painting legally belonged to the museum.”
“And I wasn’t going to be involved in anything illegal.”
Slocum looked at me impassively, withholding judgment as to whether I was being only partially insincere or was flat-out lying.
“Spare us the act,” said McDeiss, not withholding anything. “We’ve both known you too long.”
“How’d they take your rejection of their deal?” said Slocum.
“Not so well.”
“But you gave him your card,” said McDeiss.
“I’m a businessman,” I said. “I give my card out to panhandlers and delivery boys, to babies in strollers.”
“Why did this Ralph Ciulla fellow and that Joey Pride think they had the right to get a piece of that painting?” said McDeiss.
“From what they told me, it was because they were in on the theft.”
Slocum and McDeiss turned toward each other, as if the theory had already been discussed.
“What does your client say about it?” said Slocum.
“Whatever he says is privileged,” I said.
“But as far as you know, the only people who knew about the hundreds were you, the guy who gave them to Ciulla, and this Joey Pride.”
“Do you really think Ralph was killed for a couple hundred bucks?”
“You been in this job as long as I have, Carl, you’d be amazed at how cheap a life can be measured by a guy on the trigger side of a gun.”
“We’d like to talk to your client,” said Slocum.
“You want to talk to my client, you get Hathaway to get off of her high white horse. It’s getting dangerous here, and she’s not helping.”
“I’ll talk to her.”
“What are you going to tell Charlie?” said Slocum.
“When I get hold of him finally,” I said, “I’m going to tell him the truth. That things have escalated in a very bad way, that murder is afoot, and maybe his best bet is to bury the damn painting and stay the hell out of Dodge.”
She was waiting for us by the front door, long and lean, pretty and hard, blond hair, black roots, hoop earrings dangling, bracelets jangling, lips painted bright red, the darting, vicious eyes of a middle linebacker. Her portfolio was brown leather, her heels were black and high, her silver Escalade was parked out front. When she saw us approach, she glanced at her watch and tapped her toe, and she terrified the hell out of me, just standing there. But of course she did.
She was a Realtor.
“I think you’ll adore this one, Beth,” she said in a tight, energized voice as we climbed the cement steps in front of the narrow row house. “I know it was a little sudden, but I wanted to get a jump on some other buyers who are coming to look this afternoon. The interest in this house is through the roof. It won’t be available much longer.”
“Thanks, Sheila,” said Beth.
“And is this your boyfriend?”
“Just my partner, Victor,” said Beth.
“Just,” I said.
“Nice to meet you, Victor. Are you life partners or something like that? It’s so hard to keep the nomenclature straight.”
“Legal partners,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, placing a hand lightly on my forearm. She smelled edgy and dangerous, like she had doused herself in a new perfume from Revlon called Barracuda. “It’s nice of you to come and provide support. So are we ready?”
“I think,” said Beth.
“Now, use your imagination, Beth,” said Sheila as she fiddled with her keys. “The buyers haven’t prepped it for sale, so it will look a little dingy, but that’s to our advantage, because it will keep the price down. You have to envision it with fresh paint, sanded floors, new fixtures throughout, especially the sconces.”
“The sconces?” I said.
“Oh, the things they have now are simply beastly. But with something a little art deco and bright, maybe some frosted glass, the walls will look fabulous.” She found a key that fit, twisted it, shouldered open the door. “Let’s take a look.”
A blast of must hit us from the open door, as if the place hadn’t been inhabited in years. I was ready to duck in case a bat flew out.
Sheila the Realtor walked in with authority, switched on the lights, opened a window. Beth and I followed warily, stepping directly into a living room. There was a ridge running across the dirty wooden floor, the walls were scuffed, the fixtures hung by frayed wires, the windowsills were rotting, the ceiling had a great crack tearing through it.
“Isn’t it wonderful?” said Sheila. “Isn’t it thrilling? Varnished floors, maybe some flocked wallpaper. A leather couch, something bright on the wall. The potential here is outrageous. And you should see the kitchen – it’s bigger than some condos I sell.”
There was an archway to a small grimy dining area devoid of windows and then another arch leading to the kitchen, which was big but sparse, too, with just a few counters, a stove collapsing on itself, and a refrigerator with rounded edges that belonged in a museum. The linoleum floor, a filthy brown, was coming apart at the seams.
“Lovely, just lovely,” said Sheila, admiring the wreck of a kitchen. “It gets morning light, which is really a fabulous feature. You have enough room for an island and a breakfast nook. This is the house’s single best feature.”
“This?” I said.
“Oh, yes, Victor,” said Sheila. “I have clients in half-million-dollar homes who would kill for a kitchen like this. The possibilities are endless. And whatever you put into a kitchen, you will get out twice when you sell, especially a kitchen as big as this.”
“It does have potential,” said Beth.
“You see, Victor, Beth has vision. Beth can see beyond the current condition to what this kitchen can be. State of the art. A Viking stove, a glass-fronted refrigerator, granite countertops, walnut cabinets.”
“I like walnut,” said Beth.
“You could do the whole thing in walnut, with pin lighting from the ceiling. I could see this kitchen in Philadelphia magazine.”
“Absolutely. Now, there are two floors above us. Three bedrooms on the second and a bedroom and an attic space on the third. Plus a full basement,” she said, gesturing to a door in the kitchen.
“Finished?” said Beth.
“You could,” said Sheila. “Why don’t we take a look upstairs first? I thought, for you, the third-floor bedroom could be a home office. It gets a tremendous amount of light, and there’s a view of City Hall. Oh, Beth, I think this place is perfect for you, just perfect. And I know there’s some leeway on the price.”
“You want to come up with me, Victor?” said Beth.
“In a minute.”
I stood with Sheila as Beth wandered back through the dining area and toward the stairs in the living room. As she climbed them, the stairs creaked like an arthritic old man trying to straighten his back.
“It’s a little run-down,” I said to Sheila the Realtor.
“It admittedly needs some work,” she said, the manic edge gone from her voice.
“It’s a pit.”
“Her price range was limited.”
“Are there really people coming to look at it this afternoon?”
“There are always people coming to look in the afternoon. What’s your situation, Victor?”
“Single,” I said.
She laughed, leaned back, flicked her hair. “I meant housing,” she said.
“Oh, right. I rent.”
“You could just throw your money out the window, it would be more efficient. Do you ever think of buying?”
“No, not really.”
“It’s a good time, Victor, while interest rates are still low.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“I have some places that would be perfect for you.” She whipped a card out of her portfolio, offered it to me. “If you’re interested, give me a call.”
“I don’t think I really want to buy something right now.”
“Still, give me a call. I’m sure we could work out something. Now, why don’t you go up and see how your partner’s getting along.”
I found Beth leaning on a sill, peering out a window in a small, closetlike room with a sloped ceiling on the third floor. There was enough room for a chair or a desk, maybe, but not enough room for both.
“Nice home office,” I said.
“Look at the view,” she said.
“If you lean forward and look left and bend your neck just so, you can see the tip of Billy Penn’s hat.”
“Oh, that view.”
“What do you think?”
“I think I don’t have the imagination for this place.”
“I like it.”
“You always had a thing for reclamation projects. That’s why you’re with me.”
“This would be quite a cozy office,” she said.
“Cozy being the operative word.”
“And did you see the rooms on the second floor? A nice master bedroom, a guest room, and then the small room that could be a nursery.”
“Paint it pale blue, put in a cradle, a nice rocking chair.”
“Doesn’t a nursery need a baby first?”
“And the kitchen is marvelous, isn’t it? You heard what Sheila said. Philadelphia magazine.”
“Yeah, I heard.”
“I love walnut.”
“There’s not a stick of walnut in this entire house.”
“With the settlement you wheedled out of Eugene Franks and some help from my dad, I bet I can swing this.”
“Beth, do you really think this is the answer to whatever existential disquiet you’re feeling, to buy a house and saddle yourself with a thirty-year mortgage and a limitless future of home repair?”
She turned from the window and stared right at me, her lips flat with seriousness, her eyes impassive. “What would you suggest?” she said in a calm, soft voice.
I thought about it, but not for long, because the very calm of her voice let me know that she didn’t really want an answer.
“I represented a home inspector in a DUI once,” I said.
“Is he an incompetent drunk?”
“Only when he drives.”
“Perfect. Thanks, Victor,” she said, looking up to the sloped ceiling. “I think I’m going to be really happy here.”
“Can I make one piece of decorating advice?”
“For the home office, get a laptop.”
I wasn’t long back from our visit with Sheila the Realtor when I was summoned from on high.
Talbott, Kittredge and Chase was one of the firms that had rejected me out of law school. There were many firms that had rejected me out of law school, a glorious fellowship of discretion and good taste. Yet Talbott was the bluest of the blue chips, and its rejection, all these years later, still irked. Whenever I spied a Talbott lawyer, the bitter strands of resentment and envy rose like bile in my throat. By now I had realized that my big-firm dreams were a chimera, I was congenitally unfit for working for anyone except myself, but if there was a spot I still secretly pined for, it was among the brilliant successes at Talbott, Kittredge and Chase, one of whom was Stanford Quick.
“Can I get you something to drink, Mr. Carl?” said the very attractive paralegal who had escorted me into the conference room of Talbott, Kittredge and Chase on the fifty-fourth floor of One Liberty Place. The paralegal’s name was Jennifer, the conference table was marble, the chairs were upholstered in real leather. The conference room’s windows stretched from the ceiling to the floor, and the view of the city as it rolled to the Delaware River was breathtaking.
I sat in one of the leather chairs and sank in as if sitting on a cloud. “Water would be fine,” I said.
“Sparkling or mineral?” said Jennifer. “We have San Pellegrino and Perrier, we have Evian, we have Fiji, and we have a wonderful artesian water from Norway called Voss.”
“That sounds refreshing,” I said.
“Do you do general paralegal work here, Jennifer?”
“Oh, no, Mr. Carl. I work exclusively for Mr. Quick.”
“How nice for him.”
I was sipping the Voss, admiring the view, remembering an old joke – How do you get laid on Capitol Hill? Step out of your office and call, “Oh, Jennifer.” – when Jabari Spurlock and the tall, elegant Stanford Quick entered the room. They didn’t seem so happy to see me. They seemed, in fact, quite peeved.
“Thank you for coming, Victor,” said Stanford Quick as the two men sat themselves across from me at the table with somber expressions and parched eyes.
“You didn’t give me much choice,” I said. “I’ve heard more temperate demands from the IRS.”
“Well, as you can imagine,” said Spurlock, his hands clasped on the table, his head leaning forward aggressively, “we are quite concerned about the events of the last few days and their effect on the reputation of the Randolph Trust. That is why I insisted on this meeting and why I insisted it not be at the trust but in this office. It was alarming enough when our supposedly secret negotiations were splashed across the newspapers and television screens, but it is totally appalling for the trust to be in any way connected to a murder.”
“I didn’t make any such connection,” I said.
“You were spotted entering the scene of the crime,” said Spurlock. “Questions were asked and broadcast over the air. The connection was made.”
“Let’s be clear about something from the start,” I said. “It wasn’t I who leaked our original discussions to the press. I told no one about it, not even my partner, and next thing I know, it’s on the television, so look to yourselves for that.”
Spurlock glanced inquiringly at Quick, who simply shrugged. “We didn’t leak it,” said Spurlock.
“Well, somebody did, and the disclosure put my client and my own health at risk. Why don’t you guys find out who spilled the beans and get back to me.”
“Nobody forced you to appear like a publicity hound on every news show for a week,” said Quick.
“I simply continued the story’s play in the media in an effort to bring the situation to a head more quickly. As for the murder, I showed up at the scene at the request of the homicide detective in charge of the case. It was the media itself that drew the connection.”
“Is there a connection?” said Stanford Quick. “Is there any link between our painting and this victim, whom the papers identified as one” – he opened a file, examined some papers for the name – “Ralph Ciulla?”
“I’m not certain yet. There is certainly a connection between the victim and my client. They are old friends. That’s as much as I can be definite about. But it also appears the victim may have been involved with my client in stealing the painting many years ago.”
“That hardly seems possible,” said Quick, rather quickly. “There was nothing to indicate that the dead man, or even your client, had the wherewithal to be involved in a crime of that sophistication. From all accounts, the robbery was pulled off by a team of experts from out of town.”
“Why do you keep saying they were from out of town?”
“No city has looser lips than Philadelphia, but there was never even a whisper about the crime from the city’s underworld. No thief ever crowed about stealing the works, no fence ever owned up to selling the metal and jewels.”
“Neither of us was with the trust at the time of the robbery,” said Spurlock, “and so we know little more than was disclosed in the papers. Mrs. LeComte would know more of the details.”
“Would you mind if I spoke to her?”
“Not at all. I’ll tell her to expect your call. But even if, as you say, this Ralph Ciulla was involved in the theft, why would he be killed now?”
“My best guess,” I said, “is that the murder was a warning to Charles to stay away.”
“Is he going to heed the warning?” said Quick.
“I’ll have to ask him that, won’t I? Much will depend, I’m sure, on you.”
“What are you talking about?” said Spurlock. “How are we involved in the decision?”
I poured myself more of the sparkling water, took a drink to keep them waiting. The meeting was about to shift from their purpose, to upbraid me for the media frenzy, to my own purposes, and I was using the pause to make the point.
“I’m afraid to say, gentlemen, that you are not the only ones interested in the painting. Because of the unwanted publicity, our Rembrandt self-portrait is suddenly in play.”
“An offer has been made, a very generous offer.”
“But it is legally ours,” sputtered Spurlock. “It cannot be legally sold.”
“This is all true, and I will so inform my client. But he has not been much concerned with legal niceties in the past and I don’t expect the legal situation will have a great deal of impact on him now.”
“What are you suggesting we do?” said Spurlock.
“Two things. First, increase the pressure on the government to come up with a deal that will bring Charlie home. The federal prosecutor I mentioned before, Jenna Hathaway, is for some unknown reason standing in the way of what I believe would be a fair resolution of Charlie’s criminal matters. Someone needs to strip her of the case and take responsibility, someone perhaps more amenable to negotiation. Second, you had mentioned that a cash payment might be arranged. It might be a provident time to come up with a specific figure that I can relay to my client.”
“We will not bid against a criminal element for what rightfully belongs to the trust,” said Quick in his usual languid manner.
“Don’t consider it a bid. Consider it a conciliatory gesture to a man who desperately wants a reason to come home and happens to have control over a valuable piece of your property.”
“It is out of the question,” said Quick.
Spurlock turned to Quick and said, sharply, “All avenues remain open until the board closes them off, Stanford. We will decide what to do; your job is to bend the law to make sure our decision stays within its bounds.” He focused his eyes on me, clasped his hands together. “How much is he seeking?”
“He hasn’t given me a number,” I said. “But it appears to be in your interest to wow him.”
“We understand. I will take this to the board, and we will be in touch with you when we have a more definite response.”
“Don’t wait too long. Now, Mr. Spurlock, I have a question on a not entirely unrelated matter. I believe you’re acquainted with a Bradley Hewitt?”
“I know Bradley.”
“I am involved in a domestic matter in which he is on the other side. His attorney used your name to threaten me.”
“He intimated that if I continued to press my client’s claim against him, you might scotch any deal with Charles.”
“That’s preposterous,” said Spurlock. “Bradley is a personal acquaintance, that is all. To think I would abridge my responsibilities to the Randolph Trust on his behalf in some sort of domestic dispute is insulting. And with the ongoing federal investigation, you can be sure I want nothing more to do with that foul-mouthed liar.”
“Mr. Spurlock has perhaps said too much,” said Stanford Quick.
“Our discussion of Mr. Hewitt is at an end,” said Quick curtly. “Now, Victor, I want you to listen closely.” Quick leaned forward, sharpened his gaze until it nearly pierced my forehead. “You say that the murder of Mr. Ciulla was possibly a warning to your client. Have you considered that the warning might not have been meant for Charlie but instead meant for you?”
His stare was so pointed, and his voice suddenly so cutting, that I jerked back as if indeed I had been stabbed in the head. Where did that come from? I wondered. And when I looked at Jabari Spurlock, it seemed as if he were wondering the very same thing.
“I don’t know what you’re going on about so much,” said Skink. “It ain’t like you’re the only one what ever got hisself inked.”
“But I might be the only one who didn’t remember getting it,” I said.
“Oh, don’t give yourself so much credit, mate. If it weren’t for the mind-numbing effects of alcohol, half these joints would be out of business.”
By these joints, he meant tattoo parlors, because that’s where we were, in a tattoo parlor, or, to be more precise, a tattoo emporium, Beppo’s Tattoo Emporium. Tacked onto the walls of the cramped and dark waiting room were Beppo’s original designs: dragons and griffins, swords and daggers, religious icons, movie stars, insects and guns, dancing spark plugs, frogs and scorpions, skeletons and clowns, geisha dancers, samurai warriors, naked women in all manner of lascivious pose. Scattered about the waiting room were a few plastic chairs, a ragged coffee table with loose-leaf notebooks filled with art. The place smelled of ammonia and rubbing alcohol, of cigarettes smoked to the filter. From behind the curtain that covered the doorway came a steady buzz punctuated here and there by a whimper of pain.
“You find anything on that Lavender Hill yet?”
“I’ve been asking around.”
“And making noise about it, too. He is not happy.”
“It’s how you wanted it, mate. Apparently he has a hand in many pots and just as many names.”
“No surprise there.”
“Those what know him some think of him as a harmless fop with impeccable taste. But those what know him better are too scared to talk.”
“That’s troubling.” I thought of the outline of Ralph’s body on the carpet of his house. “Any reputation for heartless violence?”
“Heartless and otherwise.”
A yelp erupted from the back room. The buzz stopped for a moment. There was a loud slap, and then the buzzing started again.
“I had a friend once,” said Skink, “what got a tattoo of a rooster on his shin. The rooster had a noose round its neck. He said that way he could always tell the dolls he had a cock what hung below his knee.”
“He sounds like quite the ladies’ man. Anything yet on the federal investigation involving Bradley Hewitt?”
“I’m working on it,” said Skink. “We might have an errand to run in a few days that you’ll enjoy.”
There was another yelp and a falsetto curse, followed by a harsh “Calm your tools, we almost done,” before the buzzing started up again.
“You think this Beppo can help?”
“Oh, Beppo’s a pro, he is. The other artists in the city, they call him the dean. We’ve had no luck tracing the name, so we might as well trace the tattoo. He’s our best bet to pick who did the what on your chest. We find him that did it, we might find us some answers.”
“What’s there to find? I stumbled in drunk as a skunk and immortalized on my chest the name of a woman I hardly knew and can’t remember.”
“Well, mate, all that might be true. But the needle boy might remember who you was with and might be able to tell us how he was paid. Interesting, isn’t it, that your money was intact and nothing came up on your credit card?”
“Maybe she paid,” I said.
“Maybe she did, unusual as that might sound, and if she did, and paid with something other than cash, we might be able to trace her that way.”
“It’s worth a try, I guess.”
The buzzing stopped, replaced by a quiet, pathetic whimpering.
“How do you know this guy?” I said.
“I did him a favor once. While you’re in the chair, you want I tell Beppo to put a rooster on your shin?”
“No thanks, Phil.”
“It might help your social life.”
“My social life’s fine.”
“Oh, is it, now? You go out with that girl again?”
“The one from the club, the one with the sister.”
“Monica? No, please. I didn’t go out with her in the first place.”
“You bought her dinner.”
“I paid the check at a diner. It didn’t mean we were dating.”
“What, you too good to date a stripper?”
“It’s not that.”
“I dated a stripper once. In Fresno. Nice girl, name of Shawna. Pious.”
“For a stripper.”
Just then the curtain across the doorway swung open and a young kid in a T-shirt came out, his left arm hanging limply, a long white gauze patch covering his entire upper arm. His face was red and swollen, but it held a wide, helpless smile, like he was stepping out of his first whorehouse.
As the kid passed us by, a stocky older man came through the doorway, pulling rubber gloves off his hands. He had dark hair and big ears, a jutting jaw, the short, bow-shaped legs of a longshoreman. His thick arms were covered in tattoos from his wrists until they disappeared under his T-shirt. A cigarette dangled out of his mouth. He smiled when he saw Skink.
“You been waiting all this time?” he said. His voice had been burned rough by life and tobacco, and as he spoke, his cigarette stayed miraculously in place, as if glued to his lower lip. “I’da kicked it into third, I knew you was here.”
“Didn’t want to disturb the artist at work,” said Skink. “How’s business, Beppo?”
“I’m grinding them out.”
“What’s up with Tommy?”
“After you bailed out his ass, he up and joined the marines.”
“How’s he doing?”
“His second tour in Iraq. Maybe you should have left him where he was. So you the guy?”
“I’m the guy.”
“This is Victor,” said Skink.
“Where’s the piece, Victor?” said Beppo.
“On my chest.”
“All right, then,” he said as he held aside the curtain. “Strip to the waist and hop in the chair so I can get a look-see.”
The room behind the curtain was small and bright, with an overhead light and a chair in the middle that looked suspiciously like a dentist’s chair. I took off my jacket, my tie and shirt, and as I did, I had the uncomfortable sensation that I was exposing more than mere flesh, I was exposing a part of my inner life.
“Don’t be shy, Victor,” said Beppo. “I seen it all before, good art and bad art, the vile and the sublime.”
“You think you can identify the ink slinger?” said Skink.
“If he’s from around here, I can make an educated guess,” said Beppo. “I’ve seen the work of pretty much every shop in town. A big piece of my day is fixing up the mistakes of everyone else. If it’s an original, I’ll be able to ID it. Up in the chair you go.”
My shirt off, I slid into the dentist’s chair and leaned back. My jaw instinctively lowered.
“Close your mouth, I ain’t pulling molars,” he said as he slipped on a pair of thick glasses and leaned his head close to my chest. “Let’s take a look.” The ash of his cigarette teetered, he rubbed his fingers over my breast. His touch was strangely gentle. He made a sound like a failing carburetor as he looked over the work.
“No skin scratcher here,” he said. “This is nice work, made with a first-class iron. Classic design. Solid fill, the colors bright and even. Keep it clean, use the goo, and stay out of the sun. The sun fades everything. You look after that piece, Victor, it’ll stay sharp for years.”
“This Chantal lady, she must be very special to you.”
“Oh, she’s special, all right.”
“Any ideas?” said Skink.
“Not right off. The quality is high, and I think I seen the design before, but I don’t recognize it as from one of the local artists. Haven’t seen one exactly like this in years.” He leaned closer, peered through his glasses, pawed at the skin. “Wait a second. Wait a freaking second. I’ll be right back.”
He skittered through a bead curtain at the back of the room. We could hear him climbing a set of stairs, then footsteps and voices above us.
“He lives up top,” said Skink.
“That’s his girlfriend he’s talking with,” said Skink. “She’s sixty-eight. The girl he cheats on her with is fifty-four. And then there’s a piece what he keeps on the side.”
When Beppo came back down, he had a fresh cigarette dangling from a victorious smile and he carried a big black book cracked open.
“I know the puncher what created the design on your chest,” he said.
“Who’s our boy?” said Skink, rubbing his hands.
“A fellow name of Les Skuse.”
“Yeah, with a k. Skuse. I knew I had seen that exact tat before. I been keeping a record of all the designs I seen since I started in this business. And I have a couple of pages of original Les Skuse designs. Let me show you. Right here.”
I sat up in the chair as he dropped his book on my lap. The pages were encased in vinyl covers. One page held a dozen designs of coiled snakes and dripping swords, of spiders and birds and skulls. The other page had hearts, all kinds of hearts, hearts with daggers through them, hearts being held aloft by fresh-cheeked cherubs, hearts with flowers, with arrows, with kissing figures above a banner reading TRUE LOVE. And then, in the corner, a familiar design, my design, a heart with flowers peeking out of either side and a flowing banner with the words ANY NAME.
“There it is,” I said.
“That’s the one,” said Beppo. “See how even the colors on the flowers match? Yellow and red on the one, blue and yellow on the other.”
“So Les Skuse is our guy,” said Skink. “Give me a where, Beppo.”
“Nope. The other Bristol.”
“England?” I said.
“Exactly so. Les Skuse was the self-labeled champion tattoo artist of all Britain. I met the man once. Quite a brute.” Beppo rolled up his sleeve, pointed to an eagle spreading its wings amidst a veritable zoo on his arm. “He did this. He’s a legend, all right. But even if you go out that way, you’d have a hard time finding him. He up and died a good long while ago.”
“I don’t understand how that’s possible,” I said.
“Well, he was getting up there in years. He was already old when he did my eagle, and being by the sea, he spent a lot of time in the sun.”
“No, what I’m asking is how-”
“I knows what you’re asking, Victor,” said Beppo, letting out a raspy laugh. “You should get out more, lighten up. You got a girl?”
“Walk around without your shirt, you’ll find one. Nothing draws the girls like a tattoo.”
“But how did this design end up on my chest?”
“Somebody swiped the design, is how. It’s no crime. I done it myself.”
“Any idea why he’d pick that one?” said Skink.
“Sure,” said Beppo. “You see, every artist got his own style. It can’t help but come out, even on something as simple as a heart. Little telltale things like shading and shape, the way the barbed wire winds around it. As identifiable as a fingerprint.”
“Unless you copy someone else’s heart,” said Skink.
“There you go, Phil. The slinger who inked your tattoo, Victor, he picked this design because it’s the kind of thing you ink if you don’t want anyone to know who it was that done the inking.”
“He didn’t want me to find him,” I said.
“That’s right, and I suppose that means he knew you’d be looking, too.”
“Why would he want to hide?” I said.
“How the hell would I know?” said Beppo. “Ask Chantal.”
I don’t normally take a taxi to work, being that my office is only a few blocks from my apartment and that I am so tight with a buck, my wallet squeaks when I walk. So on the morning after my disturbing visit to Beppo’s Tattoo Emporium, I didn’t take much notice of the battered old taxi passing down my street. When the taxi stopped and backed up toward me, I figured the cabbie needed some directions. I stepped off the curb, leaned into the window, and felt a shiver of fear when I saw Joey Pride, his right hand on the wheel, his blue captain’s hat pulled low over his brow.
“Get in,” he said.
“That’s sweet of you, Joey, really, and I appreciate the offer, but my office is only a few blocks-”
“Shut up and get in.”
I took a step back. “I don’t think so,” I said.
“You’re right to be scared, Victor,” he said as he turned his face in my direction, “but however scared you are, you not half as scared as me.”
His eyes, peering out from beneath the brim of his cap, were moist and red. Fear, like pain pure, rippled the flesh between his eyes. He was right, he was more scared than I, at least he was until he showed me the gun, held unsteadily in his left hand. A revolver, small and shiny, aimed through the open taxi window smack at my forehead.
“Get in the back. I got something to show you, something that will get you scared good and proper.”
“Is that the gun you killed Ralph with?”
“Don’t be a donkey. I didn’t kill Ralph. I loved the man. That’s what we need to talk about. Now, get the hell in the cab. I got something to show you. Something it’s worth your boy Charlie’s life to see.”
I thought about it a moment, considered running to get the hell out of there. In a split second, I imagined it all – my briefcase flying, the soles of my shoes hammering the pavement, my suit jacket fluttering behind me like a cape – the whole scene came clear. But something was missing. And I suddenly knew what it was and why. Joey Pride wasn’t shooting at me in my imagining because Joey Pride wasn’t out to kill me in real life. The gun, too small and of the wrong caliber to have killed Ralph Ciulla, was just another element of his fear, not of mine.
“All right,” I said. “Put the gun away and I’ll get in.”
The gun disappeared. I looked around before slipping into the rear of the taxi. The cab slowly drove off and turned left.
“I’m the other way,” I said.
“Then where are we going?”
“Around,” he said, as he snatched a small silver flask to his lips.
“Shouldn’t there be a Plexiglas barrier between the passenger and the driver?” I said. “I’d feel more comfortable with a Plexiglas barrier.”
However beat the cab was on the outside, on the inside it was worse. The vinyl of my seat was mended with silver duct tape, the walls of the doors were stained with the sweat and grime of thousands of indifferent passengers. The cab smelled of gasoline and grease, of smoke and bleach and boredom. It had the pinched feel of a soul that had been waiting too long for not nearly enough.
“The cops called you out to Ralph’s house the night he got hit,” said Joey.
“What they want with you?”
“They found my card in Ralph’s wallet. They wanted to know what I knew.”
“What’d you tell them?”
“Just that the three of us had met that afternoon.”
“You gave them my name?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Thank you for that, you little snake. What they say about me?”
“They want to talk to you, to ask some questions. A detective named McDeiss. He’ll give you a square deal.”
“He’ll get me killed, is what he’ll do.”
“Who’s after you, Joey?”
“I told Ralph to be careful, that we were stepping back into it all. But he always thought he couldn’t be touched.” He snatched another drink from the flask. “You should have seen him play football for good old Northeast High. He played huge.”
“I’m sorry about your friend.”
“Yeah. We’re all sorry, but that’s not helping Ralph none, is it? Who’d them cops think done it?”
“They don’t know. But it looks like Ralph knew who killed him.”
“Of course he did. The ghosts have come back, boy. Avenging ghosts from Nightmare Alley.”
“And you think a bullet from that little gun will stop a ghost?”
“Don’t know, never shot one before.”
He took a drink from his flask, wiped his mouth with his sleeve. The car swerved before righting itself. The drinking didn’t seem to be helping his fear or his driving.
“You spend all of Ralph’s cash yet?” I said.
“How you know that was me?”
“Nothing else was stolen but the money clip. No ring, no watch. You were the only one who had seen the cash in the money clip.”
“I took the money ’cause I knew I’d be running and I’d need it. Ralph would have understood. But I didn’t shoot him.”
“Of course you didn’t. You were old, easy friends. You finished each other’s sentences. You couldn’t have hurt him.”
“He was more a brother than my own brothers.”
“You came to his house after the murder, saw him dead on the floor, panicked, took the money and ran. A few minutes later, you stopped at a pay phone and called it in to the police. But what I don’t understand, Joey, is why you ran. Why not call from the house, wait for the cops, tell them what you knew, save yourself from being on the run?”
“You just don’t get it. I ain’t running from the cops, fool. That’s what I wanted to tell you. There’s something after me.”
“Laugh all you want, but they’re after me, they are. And it ain’t just me that needs to be running. When I took the money, I took this, too.”
He reached a hand back and handed me a piece of notebook paper, folded in half, badly creased and spotted with blood. Carefully, using only my fingertips, I unfolded it, read what was scrawled in a thick black marker.
“Where did you get this?” I said when I had started breathing again.
“It was right on top of Ralph when I found him.”
“Left by the guy who killed him,” I said.
“You catching on,” said Joey.
I looked again at the sheet and the rough printing on its face, among the creases and spatters of blood:
“Can I take this to the police so they can get it processed for prints?” I said.
“Do what you want, boy. I done my duty to Charlie by giving you the warning. Rest is up to you. But the killing won’t stop with Ralph. We’re cursed, all of us.”
“All of who?”
“You know, the five of us. That’s who the message is for. Ralph and me, Charlie, too, and the others.”
“Hugo and Teddy?”
He didn’t answer, he just took another swig.
“What did you guys do that’s got you so spooked? What happened thirty years ago? Do you think the painting is cursed?”
“Not the painting, just us. Teddy was giving us a way to save our lives, that’s what we thought. That’s what he said.”
“In the bar, when he came back into town?”
“What happened in the bar that night, Joey?”
“He rubbed our faces in our own damn crap, that’s what happened,” said Joey. “He told us he was ashamed of us. That we had let life happen to us in the worst possible way. Right there, in that back booth, he told us we was a bunch of losers going nowhere but to the corner tap in hopes of drinking enough to forget all we hadn’t done with our lives.”
“That was pretty harsh,” I said.
“But it was the truth. We were failures, all of us. We told him we had our reasons for the way things had turned out, but he didn’t want to hear it. Told us that nothing consumed a man’s soul more than the easy excuse. And then he put the lie to them excuses, Teddy did, starting with Charlie.”
“What about Charlie?”
“He said Charlie let his mother rule his life like a dictator because it was easier than stepping out and making decisions on his own. He told Ralph he threw his money away on women so that he wouldn’t have to see if he could really make it on his own. And that Hugo quit school not to take care of his family but because no matter how hard it was hauling those sacks of cement, it was easier than matching his brain up against the suburban kids who thought a college education was a birthright.”
“What about you, Joey?”
“Said that me going crazy and getting myself hauled up to Haverford State was a ready-made excuse for not even trying. Called me crazy as a coward.”
“What did you guys do?” I said.
“We went after him, we all did. I even tried to slug him, but not because the son of a bitch was insulting my integrity. I wanted to slug him because he was right. We were, the four of us, drowning in our excuses, even as we drowned our sorrows in our beer. When it all calmed down, he said he had learned something out there in California. He had learned that we had to do anything necessary to take hold of our dreams, and sometimes that meant taking hold of our lives and becoming something new.”
“That’s what he said, and then he started talking crazy talk. About ropes and apes and supermen. He said we were hovering over some great hole – an abyss, he called it – and we could either go back to the failures we was or go forward and become something new. He said the only answer was to cross that abyss with a rope. But not any rope. He said we was the rope. He said we had to climb over the losers we had become in order to get to the other side. I didn’t understand a word of it, but it felt true, you know what I mean? It was like a part of the Bible I never heard before.”
“And what was there on the other side?”
“Our fool’s dreams, made real.”
“Someplace over the rainbow.”
“Sure, but then he described them to us in a way that made us believe it all could happen. Hugo was a business school graduate, running some huge company, flying about in the corporate jets, letting the congressmen and senators wait for him in his outer office while some lackey shined his shoes. And Ralph had his own shop, taking orders from all over the country, never touching the metal himself. And his secretary was way hot, and Ralph was banging her on his desktop every lunch hour. And Charlie was running free like a feral cat, doing whatever the hell he wanted, and his mother was happy about it, because he had finally become a man.”
“What about you, Joey? What were you doing on the other side?”
“I was driving the fastest rod on the East Coast, going town to town, racing and winning on makeshift tracks, with my own garage and a staff of forty mechanics to keep my baby humming. And, you know, the way he was telling it, he made it come alive. I could see it there, my future, shimmering in the distance. It was dazzling. I could see it clear, just there, beyond the horizon. I still can.”
“And all you needed was a way to get there.”
“That’s right. And then Teddy, he gave us the way. He said we needed something that purified and burned at the same time, an opportunity clean enough and hard enough to transform our lives. And he said he might have the right opportunity in mind.” Joey took a long drink from his flask. “And he did, didn’t he?”
“The Randolph Trust job.”
“Had it all worked out from the start. And when he was through preaching to us, we was converts, all of us. It didn’t take too much convincing after that to get us on board.”
“The power of Nietzsche.”
“Who?” said Joey.
“Some German philosopher. All that stuff about the abyss and the rope, it came from him. Friedrich Nietzsche, the patron saint of disaffected adolescents who want to cast off their chains and become supermen.”
“How’d it work out for that Nietzsche fellow?”
“Not too well. He declared God dead, had sex with his sister, went insane.”
“Was she hot, at least, his sister?”
“She looked like a turnip. How did Teddy light on the Randolph Trust as the means to perfection?”
“Never knew. This your spot here?”
I looked up. We were on Twenty-first Street now, my street, pulling up to the front of my building. And there was someone waiting by the door. Someone familiar. I squinted at her for a moment before I recognized her.
“Damn,” I said.
“That’s the word for it.”
I shook my head, tried to move from the next crisis back to the current one. “Joey,” I said, “I have to go. Thanks for the ride.”
I opened the door, slid out of the taxi, leaned in the cab window. “You never said why you were cursed?”
“And I never will neither.”
“You see them around, Hugo and Teddy?”
“Hugo left the city a long time ago, I haven’t seen him in the flesh since. And Teddy, that sweet-talking son of a bitch disappeared right after the robbery.”
Joey let out a soft whistle, like the wind flying across a plain.
“You should turn yourself in, Joey, answer their questions.”
“No, sir. I’ll end up just like Ralph, I do that.”
“When I give them the note you found with Ralph’s body, I’m going to tell them how you showed up, took the money, made the 911 call. They’ll still be looking for you, but you won’t be a suspect.”
“Do what you gotta do.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Drive around, pick up fares, support myself like I always done, and sleep in the cab until it blows over.”
“Get rid of the gun.”
“Right,” he said as he took another swig.
“And that’s not helping either. Listen, how can I get in touch with you?”
“Call your father.”
“I’ll check in with him now and again. We could always trust your father.”
“You, too, Victor.”
“Joey, one thing more. What was Teddy’s dream? Did he ever say?”
“He was heading for the other side of the world, he was. Said there was a girl he was going to chase. And about that note. Tell the cops they won’t find nothing of interest on it.”
“Why is that?”
“Because ghosts don’t leave no prints.”
Ghosts. I was surrounded by ghosts, or at least those plagued by them, because when the haunted man in the cab drove away, I turned to face the haunted woman waiting for me in front of my office. She was wearing the classic Philly combo: red high heels, blue jeans, tight black shirt. My first thought was how damn pretty she was, so pretty it was hard to tear my gaze away. My second thought was how the hell I was going to get rid of her.
“You promised,” I said.
“I promised I wouldn’t call,” said Monica Adair.
“This is worse. Monica, it wasn’t a date. Really. It wasn’t.”
“Okay, I buy that now. It wasn’t a date.”
“I didn’t mean to lead you on.”
“Good, I’m glad that’s clear. Then what are you doing here?”
“Can we talk, like, privately?”
I looked around. Pedestrians were sparse. “This isn’t private enough?”
“Not really. I have a legal question.”
“Monica, this is crazy. Stop it now. I feel like I’m being stalked.”
“Maybe I’m a little confused. You are a lawyer, right?”
“Yes, I’m a lawyer.”
“Then why won’t you talk to me about an important legal matter?”
I closed my eyes. “What kind of matter?”
“Do you always talk about important legal matters on the street?”
“With people who aren’t clients, sure.”
“How do I become a client?”
“Pay a retainer.”
“Depends on the case.”
She opened her bag and reached in, and as she searched, she said, “Do you take small bills?”
“What kind of legal matter is this, Monica?”
“Can we discuss this upstairs, in your office? Please?”
Beaten, finally, and wanting to get the spectacle off the street, I led her through the dirty glass door, up the wide stairs, past the accountants’ office and the graphic-design office, and into our suite.
Ellie smiled warmly at Monica. “I see you found him, Miss Adair.”
“Yes, Ellie, thank you,” said Monica.
I gave my secretary a wary look as I led Monica into my office. When I had her seated, I stepped back out.
“Ellie, do me a favor and call Detective McDeiss. I need to hand over some evidence to him as soon as possible.”
“Sure thing, Mr. Carl.”
“And ask him if he could set up a meeting with Mr. Slocum and that fed, Jenna Hathaway, for this afternoon, okay?” I paused, thought about something. “Ellie, why did you wish our Miss Adair good luck?”
“She said she’s looking for her sister. I hope she finds her.”
“Right,” I said.
“Are you going to help her, Mr. Carl?”
“I think she’s a little beyond my help, Ellie. Thank you, and let me know right away when you hear back from McDeiss.”
When I returned to the office, Monica was standing behind my desk, leaning back, arms crossed, examining the framed photograph of Ulysses S. Grant hanging crookedly on the wall. “He looks like my Uncle Rupert,” she said.
“He looks like everybody’s Uncle Rupert,” I said. “Can we get started? I have a busy day and it’s already taken a turn for the worse.”
She winced at that, slightly, nothing big, but a wince just the same. I watched her as she moved away from the photograph and sat in the client chair in front of my desk. She was twisting her lips, as if she were trying to figure out why I was being such a jerk. Good luck to her. I wasn’t quite sure why myself, though there was no doubt that I was.
“All right, Ms. Adair,” I said.
“Oh, we’re all formal now, are we?” she said with a slight smile.
“Yes, that is what we are,” I said. “So what can I do for you?”
“I want to hire you.”
“To do what?”
“To find my sister.”
I sighed for effect. “This sister who disappeared before you were born.”
“That’s right. I want you to find Chantal.”
“I’m not a private detective, Ms. Adair. I can refer you to one if you’d like.”
“I want you.”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. It’s not what I do.”
“What do you do, Victor?”
“I primarily defend people accused of crimes.”
“And that’s more important than finding a missing girl?”
“No, and it’s not more important than being a teacher or a doctor, or even dancing with my clothes off, but it is what I do.”
“Why are you so mean to me?”
“I’m not trying to be mean. I’m just trying to be honest.”
“But you’re being mean.”
“What do you want from me, Monica?”
“I want to see it.”
“Gad, no. Forget it. There is no way.”
“Absolutely not. I’m starting to get very uncomfortable here. I’m sorry I can’t help you with your sister, but right now this meeting is over.”
“Every place I go, I check the phone book,” she said. “Every day I look her up on the Internet. Just to see if there’s anything going on with a Chantal Adair. I know it’s silly, she won’t have the same name if she was taken, but I do it. There are a couple Chantal Adairs out there. I keep track of them all. They’re not the right ages, but still I feel close to them, as close as family.”
“Monica, you’re starting to weird me out.”
“Is that so weird?”
“Maybe it is. You know those guys who sit all alone in some laboratory, listening in on the static, waiting for a message from outer space?” she said. “That’s me, that’s my life. I’m all alone with my dog and my gun, waiting for a message from my sister. And there’s been nothing. Nothing.” Pause. “Until last week.”
I leaned forward, my interest suddenly piqued. “Really? What happened last week?”
“You,” she said.
It was only then that it dawned on me, with heartbreaking clarity, that I was dealing with a higher level of insanity than I had heretofore previously thought. And I sensed its root cause, too.
We all suffer, from time to time, the spiritual unease that flickers like a faint flame before being doused by a nice chardonnay or a ball game on the tube. What is our purpose? What is our destiny? Is there more to life than this bland string of continuous sensation? We try to stifle our questions with money or love, with sex or politics or God, we try to plaster over the hole as best we can until the very end, when the light dims and the plaster shatters and we’re left alone to wrestle with our doubts through to our final, painful breath. But hey, that’s half the fun of being human.
Yet here, sitting across from me, was a woman who had no existential hole to fill. She had been taught, from her earliest moments on earth, that her life contained a singular purpose. She was conceived and raised and carefully trained to fill the gap created by the loss of her sister. And she had succeeded in her own strange way. Chantal was a precocious little dancer with a pair of ruby slippers, and so Monica became a dancer herself, using her sister’s name as she strutted in red shoes of her own. Chantal loved animals, so Monica owned a maniacal guard dog with a taste for smoked flesh. Chantal had been killed or abducted, and so Monica guarded Chantal’s replacement with a dog and a gun and a series of locks, no doubt, on her door and her heart. No word had been heard from Chantal in decades, and so Monica dedicated herself to listening for a voice in the ether. If you think it’s tough being born without a purpose in your life, imagine how tragic it must be being born with one.
“Monica, you must know that I am not a message from your sister.”
“You don’t know that.”
“But I do. This is all just a sad misunderstanding. The tattoo was a mistake, and telling you about it was even worse. I’m sorry.”
“Can I see it?”
She stared at me with her big blue eyes, the simple, faithful eyes of a baby or a pilgrim. I think maybe those eyes were the reason I had been treating her so badly. They seemed to need too much of me, pleading for me to fill a want I could neither fathom nor satisfy. Her parents must really have done a job on poor Monica. And, in turn, I had been a jerk. I felt ashamed.
“If that’s what you want,” I said. “If that will end all this.”
“Yes, it is what I want.”
I stood up from my desk, walked around it, closed the door and pressed the button on the knob. I sat on the front of my desk and shucked off my jacket. I stuck my finger above the knot of my tie. When I gave it a tug, it slipped down a bit. I tugged it again.
With the tie completely undone and hanging loosely from my collar, I unbuttoned my shirt, slowly, all while she was closely watching. It must have been a strange reversal for her. Now she was in the small locked room, waiting with bated breath as someone else stripped. I had the urge to warn her against being handsy, but the seriousness of her expression stopped me. She was not a drunken frat boy urging the girls on the balcony to lift their shirts, she was the devout, waiting for a glimpse of the miraculous.
I pushed away the edge of my white shirt. She leaned forward, her eyes widened, she tilted her head. “I thought it would be bigger,” she said.
“I get that a lot,” I said.
As she leaned her head still closer to get a better look, she reached out her hand and gently traced the name with her finger.
I pulled back a bit and thought about stopping her, but it felt so strange and comforting, her soft flesh brushing my still-wounded skin, that I let it go on. And when she leaned yet more forward and drew her face closer to the tattooed heart, I found myself waiting, expectantly, for the soft kiss of devotion.
A sharp knock at the door.
She pulled back. I almost clocked her with my elbow as I hastily clutched the front of my shirt together.
I jumped off the desk and said loudly, in a voice strangely high-pitched, “Yes?”
“Mr. Carl,” said Ellie from the other side of the door. “Detective McDeiss called and said he was sending an officer over to pick up the evidence and take a statement. He also said that Mr. Slocum is in court today, and A.U.S.A. Hathaway told him – and this is a quote – ‘I never want to see his ugly face again.’”
“Ouch,” I said. “Okay, thank you, Ellie.”
“Do you need anything else?”
“No, that’s it.”
We looked at each other, Monica and I, and then we both turned our heads away in embarrassment. We had let something go a bit too far, and we both knew it. I started buttoning my shirt. She leaned back in her chair and crossed her arms.
“Well, that’s that, then,” I said as I went to sit behind my desk and started retying my tie. “You can see it’s just a silly tattoo and it has nothing to do with your sister.”
“It was actually nice meeting you, Monica, and I wish you luck in the future.”
“That means you’re not taking the case.”
“That’s right,” I said. “Finding a missing person, especially one missing for decades, is not really my thing.”
“And you won’t be coming back to the club?”
“No, it’s not my kind of thing either.”
“So no more dates.”
“It wasn’t a date.”
“Oh, right. I guess that’s it, then,” she said, standing. “By the way, the Hathaway you’re meeting with today, is that the police detective?”
“No, she’s a prosecutor. Why?”
“Because it was weird hearing the name. The police detective who was investigating Chantal’s disappearance was a Detective Hathaway.”
My hands suddenly grew clumsy and the knot I was tying disintegrated.
“My parents still speak very highly of him. Detective Hathaway spent years looking for Chantal. He and my parents became very close. It was like he was one of the family.”
“You don’t say.”
“We haven’t seen him in a while.”
“How old are you, Monica?”
“And your sister disappeared how many years before you were born?”
“Just thinking, is all.”
“Thank you for showing me the tattoo, Victor. I don’t know what it means, but I won’t annoy you anymore, I promise.”
I watched as she turned around, as she turned the knob, as the button popped and the door opened. I watched and I thought and I tried to make sense of everything.
“Monica,” I said before she was out the door. She turned around again, and she had that look of need and expectation on her face. “Maybe I ought to meet your parents. What do you think?”
My God, she had a beautiful smile.
“It wasn’t any trick to find your boy Bradley Hewitt,” said Skink. “A guy like that, he needs to let it be known that he’s a player. Lunch at the Palm, dinner at Morton’s, doing the stroll among the well-heeled and the powerful, and always accompanied by his three guys with their suits and their briefcases.”
“He’s got an entourage,” I said.
“That he does.”
“I want an entourage.”
“You couldn’t handle an entourage. And why is it the power joints all serve steak?”
“Like in the days of the dinosaur, the most feared are always carnivores.”
“You wants to know why the cemeteries are filled with indispensable men? Because they all eats steak.”
We were walking north, on Front Street, quiet and cobblestoned, with a few cars slipping back and forth looking for parking. Most of the city action was to the west, Old City and Society Hill, the bright lights, the bars. Front Street was staid and dark, close to the river and its mist, a street for the cozy rendezvous or the quiet conversation, a place to walk and talk unobserved.
“That was the public face of your Bradley Hewitt. Nothing of interest there,” said Skink. “But I don’t give up, it’s not in my nature. I keep following. And then, on a quiet Tuesday night, just like this one, I follows him down to the river, away from the crowds.”
“Entourage in tow?”
“It’s an entourage, so of course it is. Down toward the river, right here to Front Street, and then up a few blocks until he finds hisself a swanky little chew-and-choke just off Market. They all pop inside. A few minutes later, I slip close and scan the dining room. Nice, truly, red walls, marble floors, old school. And chowing down at a table is the entourage, enjoying the hell out of themselves. But no Bradley.”
“He was in the men’s room?”
“No extra plate at their table. He was somewhere else, and they weren’t invited.”
Skink slipped across to the east side of the street, and I followed. We began walking on the sidewalk behind a line of parked cars.
“So I find me a comfortable place and keep my eyes open and sees what I can see. It wasn’t long afore limos started disgorging their occupants on the curb like a string of Bowery drunks disgorging their stomachs, one after the other, splat, splat, splat.”
“That’s an image I could do without.”
“First a hot-shot developer what has been in the news, then a councilman what has been railing about developers, and then, wouldn’t you know it, His Honor hisself.”
“That’s right. I check again through the window, careful now with a cop standing outside. Not a one of them showing.”
“There’s a private dining room.”
“Of course there is. I waits until the night is over and everyone has left the joint, first the mayor and the councilman, then the developer, then Bradley and his entourage. I wait for the last of the fat cats to clear and the door to be locked. I keep waiting until the waitstaff starts slipping out, one by one. It’s no real trick to find the one I’m looking for. Someone with a hop in the step, the furtive glance, the twitchy fingers, the one that can barely wait to start spending the tips. And it’s a she, and not a bad looker.”
“I start following, but it doesn’t take long. She heads north, turns left on Market, slips into the Continental, the upscale joint in that old diner, finds herself a place at the bar. It isn’t long afore I find myself a place next to her.”
“What was she drinking?”
“Blue martinis. What is that all about? Looks like antifreeze, tastes like nothing. But they gets her in a jovial enough mood. Name is Jillian. Nice girl. She’s going through a phase. A few years she’ll be back in college where she belongs.”
“And what does sweet Jillian say?”
“She says there’s a private dining room in the wine cellar of that restaurant, a fancy room with frescoes on the ceilings and bare tatas on the frescoes. And every Tuesday night the mayor meets with his friends to conduct private business.”
“It’s the way the city works, right?” says Skink. “He’s not even shy about it. Pay to play. The mayor’s always running for something, always needs a little cash for the upcoming campaign.”
“Jillian tell you this?”
“Jillian didn’t know the details, of course she didn’t. When she was in the room, pouring the wine, they talked only about golf and the Islands.”
“But she knew the players.”
“Yes she did. And it seemed every Tuesday night Bradley was there with some other money boy looking to enter the game.”
“So Bradley Hewitt is the middleman, bringing together the mayor and the money for a nice little meal.”
“She said our Bradley was partial to the nodino di vitello all’aglio.”
“What the hell’s that, Phil?”
“Veal chop in garlic.”
“And he’s probably sawing through one right this second. Fabulous. Now all we have to do is figure how to get in, listen to what they’re saying, and get it all on tape to use it against him in court. I assume you have a plan to do just that?”
“You assume wrong.”
“You always have a plan.”
“Not tonight, mate.”
“Then what good is all this?”
“I just thought you’d be interested.”
“But I won’t be able to use any of this in the Theresa Wellman case.”
“Well, maybe not directly.”
“What are you talking about, Phil?”
“Something else Jillian let slip. This was after the fourth martini, when she was trying quite hard not to fall off her stool.”
Phil Skink stepped behind a large black SUV, and I did the same. He pointed across the street to the blue awning and quiet front entrance of an upscale, family-owned Italian joint with one of the best wine lists in the city. There was a limo parked out front and a plainclothes cop leaning against the entrance, looking at his nails.
“I happened to mention to Jillian some sort of federal investigation I had heard tale of, and she nodded. Like she knew what I was talking about. And then she put her finger up to her pretty lips, like it was a secret.”
“Like what was a secret?”
“You’re a smart cookie, you figure it out.”
I looked at Phil, looked at the restaurant and the plainclothes cop, who now was flicking a piece of lint off his lapel. I tried to put it all together, what he was getting at, and I flashed back again on pretty Jillian, her eyes lidded from drinking, leaning forward with that drunken sexiness as she puts her finger to her lips. Sssshhh, it says, that gesture. Don’t let anybody know. Know what? That someone is listening. To whom? To Jillian and Skink at the Continental? No way. The whole point of the Continental is to act so cool as to ignore everyone else.
A car was coming from the left. As it came at us, I ducked. Skink laughed. After it passed, I scanned the street, back and forth. To our left I spied a row of cars parked nose first, facing the river. I hadn’t given it much notice when I passed it before, but this time I gave it a good scan. And there I saw it. How could I have missed it?
A battered white van with a raw brown streak of rust on its side. A van I had seen before.
“Son of a bitch,” I said. “Someone is listening in for us.”
“You happen to know anyone in the Department of Justice who might give you a hand?”
“It just so happens I might at that, except she hates my guts.”
“Charm her, mate.”
“I’d have better luck with a cobra,” I said, “and probably a better time, too.”
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” I said to Rhonda Harris over drinks at a swank pickup joint on South Street.
“That’s too bad,” she said with a rather saucy smile. “It would have been sensational.”
“Oh, I bet it would.”
We were sitting across from each other in a small booth upstairs at the Monaco Living Room, among swarms of the young and the beautiful looking for the quick and the nasty. It was a dark, intimate space with small tables, a mirrored dance floor, and a balcony set back from the main room for those private moments. Not my normal type of beer joint, but she had picked it, and I must say I liked the way the flame of the candle flickered in her green eyes.
“What’s the problem?” she said. “Is there anything I can do to make it happen?”
“Not really. We just don’t think it’s quite the right time for Charlie to talk.”
“Who doesn’t think that? Charlie?”
“I haven’t been in direct contact with my client lately.”
“So it’s someone else calling the shots.”
“In a way, yes. You want another round?”
She was drinking Cosmopolitans, which was very cosmopolitan of her. I was drinking my usual Sea Breeze, which was not. I spun my finger at the beautiful black-clad waitress, asking for another round. Truth was, if I wasn’t falling in love with Rhonda Harris, I would have been falling in love with the waitress.
“Doesn’t Charlie himself have a say?” she said. “Some people are thrilled to see their names in the newspaper.”
“Really?” I said. “I hadn’t heard that.”
“I could get your picture in the article along with his.”
“My good side?”
“Is there a bad one?”
“Now I know you’ll say anything to get the interview.”
“Busted. Are you going to give Charlie a chance to make up his own mind?”
“When the time’s right, maybe.” I lifted up my drink and snatched what was left of it just as the waitress came with our next round. They were quick with the drinks at the Monaco Living Room. I smiled like a buffoon at the waitress. She ignored me.
“Do you like being a lawyer, Victor?” said Rhonda as she swirled her rose-colored drink.
“Lawyers rank in job dissatisfaction second only to proctologists.”
“Well, then,” she said. “I guess things could always be worse.”
“But the rubber gloves are so cool, don’t you think? That’s why everyone uses them now. Lunch ladies, cops. Remember the good old days when dentists stuck their hands in your mouth after just a quick wash?”
“Do we have to talk about dentists?”
“So let’s talk about another despised profession, newspaper reporters.”
“Are we despised?”
“Oh, yes. More than lawyers, even.”
“I doubt that.”
“The things I’ve heard. Do you like writing?”
“Not writing, really. That’s the chore at the end of the chase. But I’m a very goal-oriented person and my job fits right in with that. When I need to find a story or get an interview, I usually find a way. Sometimes I ambush the target, sometimes I use my charm.”
“I’m trying, although it doesn’t seem to be swaying you much.”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” She dropped her hand casually on my forearm, looked at me straight with her captivating eyes. “But either way, Victor, know that I will get it done. I’ll find Charlie, with or without you, because it is what I do.”
“Take it easy, Rhonda. It’s just a story.”
“It’s more than that, Victor. People aren’t adjectives. You can think of yourself as kind and sweet and funny, but how you think of yourself doesn’t mean a thing. People are verbs.”
“What verb are you?”
“I eliminate. Distractions, obstacles, impediments to my success. I’m someone who gets what she’s after, no matter who or what gets in the way.”
“My God, you sound ruthless.”
“Does it excite you, Victor?”
“Oddly, yes. You seem so sure of things. No doubts?”
“What’s the point of doubt? You make a decision, go down a certain road, and there you are. You can whine and dither, or you can keep going and get it done. I’m not sure how I ended up here, but I’m not backtracking. Pick a path, do your job with neither fear nor hesitation, that’s the only way I know.”
“So if you never let anything get in your way, how come you’re still just a stringer?”
“I started late, switched careers in midstream.”
“What did you do before?”
“No, I’m not. Dogs and cats. Ferrets and snakes and squirrels. Lots of squirrels. You’d be surprised how dangerous they can be.”
“After alcohol and lawyers, they’re the number one health threat in America.”
“No, but don’t ever mess with an angry squirrel.”
“I bet you looked hot in your uniform.”
“I still have it.”
“So what verb are you, Victor?”
“I question, I suppose. I trust uncertainty. I’ve found out that whenever I’m sure of something, I’m dead wrong.”
“What are you sure about right now?”
“That you talk tougher than you really are.”
She pursed her lips, sipped her drink. “Maybe you’re right.”
“You’re not so tough?”
“No, that’s not it,” she said, leaning close enough so I could smell the triple sec on her breath. “You’re right about being dead wrong.”
Later that night she lay naked beneath me, facedown on the bed. I was naked atop her, my thumbs gently kneading the taut muscles of her back and neck. She was purring like a lioness stretched out in the noonday sun, I was vibrating like a hyena over a freshly felled giraffe. But it was not mere animal lust that was driving me, though I freely admit to lusting like an animal. No, I was filled with some sharp emotion as I stroked and massaged.
I leaned down, kissed the knife’s edge of her clavicle. She reached up with her hand to rub the nape of my neck. I nuzzled her earlobe and with my tongue flicked lightly the flesh beneath it.
I have heard tell that the capacity to love is a sign of mental health, which meant, I suppose, that I was just then the healthiest man in the city, mentally wise at least, seeing as I was falling in love with every woman I laid my gaze upon. I pined for them, I felt lost without them, I was sure that each of them, the woman beneath me being no exception, could save my life.
I kissed her again. Her bracelets jangled lightly as she rubbed my neck harder than before. I wasn’t even sure who she was, really, in her soul, but the raw emotion she coaxed out of me with every purr and every touch cut like a jagged shiv through my heart.
But even in my besotted state, I knew I couldn’t be feeling true love so indiscriminately. No, what was flooding my blood that night, along with the lust, was a potent cocktail of fear and desperation, of loneliness and need, of a pathetic yearning for the merest breath of salvation. What I was searching for, in my deepest soul, was someone to pull me out of a bottomless hole whose dimensions I couldn’t fathom.
I nibbled her flesh. Her fingernails dug into my scalp with a lovely pain.
Yet even as I recognized the fallacy of my emotions, I couldn’t give up the hope that maybe, just maybe, this woman, this one, here, now, not womanhood in general but this specific woman in particular, could actually be my savior. The others might have been counterfeit totems to a false hope, but maybe this one, here, was actually the true answer to my questing heart.
Suddenly she arched her back, lifted her torso out of the bed, bent her legs back and locked them around my own, like a breaststroker doing a scissor kick. I felt myself being pulled under.
“Wait,” I said. “What are you doing? Whoa. Whoooa.”
She was laughing as we fell into a rhythm, and I started laughing, too. My God, maybe it was the real thing, maybe I had found it after all.
You are the one, no you, no no you are the one, beneath me, right now, you.
“Right there,” she said. “That feels good. Oh, yes.”
I wanted to kiss her just then, not on the shoulder or on the back of the neck but on her mouth, hard and clean, as we gazed at each other eye to eye.
I slid down and out, rose onto my knees, reached under her arm, gently spun her around until I was staring with a longing heart straight into the face of Sheila the Realtor.
I AM AS appalled writing this as you must be reading it. But there is a simple explanation. Really.
So I was drinking with Rhonda Harris upstairs at the Monaco Living Room, feeling the love, so to speak, and hoping that things might actually lead somewhere with someone this time, when she glanced at her watch and leaped out of her seat. “Got to go,” she said.
“Really?” I said, trying to keep my crest from falling.
“I was thinking maybe dinner. Maybe Italian.”
“Can’t. Not tonight at least. Will you talk to Charlie for me, please?”
“I’ll call you.”
“I’ll be waiting,” I said, like a puppy.
I was sitting forlornly, alone with my drink, when the pretty young waitress brought another round that I had optimistically ordered a few moments before.
“She coming back?” she said, indicating Rhonda’s spot.
“Not tonight,” I said.
“Too bad,” said the waitress, cleaning Rhonda’s side of the table. She was lean and athletic, with long black hair and big eyes. “I guess you won’t be needing the Cosmo, then,” she said. She had a fresh rosy complexion that said soy milk and yoga. I didn’t know about the soy milk, but I could learn yoga.
“Since the drink’s already ordered,” I said, “you want to join me?”
“Can’t. Against the rules.”
“When do you get off?”
“December,” she said.
I lifted up my new Sea Breeze. “Merry Christmas.”
By then I was a little too comfortable in my seat and couldn’t quite face going home to my ruined apartment to flop down on my ruined couch and spend another night watching the reception flicker on my cableless portable television. So I reached for the phone in my jacket pocket. I was going to call Beth, whom I hadn’t spent enough time with lately, or maybe Skink, who could cheerfully turn the evening in a more sinister direction, or anyone in the directory who could provide a little company. But with my phone I inadvertently pulled out a card that had been sitting in the same pocket. Sheila the Realtor’s card. And I remembered the way her eyes had shone when she told me to give her a call.
So I did.
And I’ll say this for her, she was all business, was Sheila the Realtor, and she knew how to close the deal.
“I’M SO glad you called,” she said after, as we lay in bed together while she smoked. She used her cupped left hand as an ashtray. “This was such an unexpected treat. Want a cigarette?”
“No thank you,” I said. “I’m nauseated enough already from the sex and the drinking.”
“I smoke to keep thin.”
“I throw up,” I said.
“I do that, too. So who is Chantal?”
“The name on your tattoo. Is she your girlfriend?”
I looked down at the heart on my chest. “Not really.”
“An old girlfriend, then?”
“Something like that.”
“Not too old, since it looks fresh enough. What do you do when you tattoo a lover’s name on your chest and then you break up?”
“Look for someone with the same name.”
“Sort of limits your options.”
“Maybe that’s why I don’t get out much.”
“They can remove tattoos with lasers now. You can lose the tattoo and have a peel all at once.”
“Convenient,” I said.
“It’s important to keep your facial skin fresh. Your partner Beth made an offer on that house.”
“Are the sellers going to accept?”
“I think so. It’s lower than they want, but the place has been vacant for a while now. She’s getting a tremendous deal.”
“Yeah, what’s up with that? Why has the house been vacant for so long?”
“Ghosts,” she said.
“I’m perfectly serious. There was a suicide there. It was about fifty years ago, but the most recent tenants complained about strange noises and creaking floorboards before they moved out in a panic. They’ve had a hard time finding a buyer since.”
“Does Beth know?”
“Not from me.”
“You didn’t tell her?”
“Beth looks lost, Victor, don’t you think?”
“She’s doing okay.”
“No she’s not. She clearly needs something in her life, and what I’ve found is that real estate fills so many gaps. I didn’t want a silly piece of nonsense to get in the way of a fabulous opportunity. She won’t find anything near as wonderful within her price range.”
“Are you always selling?”
“Oh, come on, Victor. We’re talking ghosts. And you saw the size of the kitchen.”
“With the morning light.”
“Well, some mornings. It’s there for the first few weeks of April, maybe. After that it sort of slides into the house next door.” She sat up, the sheet fell from her breasts. “This was fun, but I have a big day tomorrow, appointments lined up back-to-back, and then my fiancé is flying home from Milan.”
She turned to me, leaned close, brushed my cheek with her right hand. The smoke of her cigarette floated into my eye, and I started blinking it away.
“You’re sweet,” she said. “Are you sure you’re a lawyer?”
“I’m not very successful.”
“Call me again sometime.” She tossed off the rest of the sheets, kicked her long legs off the bed, and stood, stretched, headed to the bathroom. “Got to be going.”
“Going? Isn’t this your place?”
“Please. This is right on South Street. Why would anyone in her right mind live here? This condo is one of my listings. You can stay as long as you want, but please make the bed before you leave. I’m showing it tomorrow.”
“It’s sort of nice.”
She stopped, twisted around, stared at me with her cigarette held elegantly to the side of her face and a renewed interest in her eye. Was there a real connection between us after all? I found myself, against all reason, hoping so.
“If you’re serious, Victor,” she said, “I could get you a fabulous deal.”
I suppose that was it, right there, the moment when I fully realized how much trouble I really was in. I was lying in a bed that was not my own, blinking wildly still from the smoke, tearing, staring at a naked woman who was affianced to someone else, and feeling strangely deflated because all the time she was trying to close a deal. If I was capable of sleeping with a Realtor, was it possible to fall any lower?
I needed something, anything, to pull me out of this hole, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what, even when the answer was in front of me from the very start.
“Can you do me a small favor?” said Monica Adair as we drove north on I-95.
“Sure,” I said.
“This might sound a little weird, but my mom and dad worry about me so much, and you might be able to put their minds at ease.”
“Whatever I can do.”
“Great, then you’ll, like, tell them we’re dating, right?”
“They’re afraid I’m too often alone. They’ll be so reassured to know I have a boyfriend who’s a lawyer.”
“Monica, is that a good idea?”
“I know they might not be so happy about the lawyer part, but they’ll get over it.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“You can say you met me at work.”
“At the club?”
“No, silly. They think I’m a legal secretary. And your being a lawyer and my fake job being a legal secretary, it makes perfect sense that we would have a fake relationship.”
“Should I call you Hillary, too?”
“Why would you call me Hillary?”
“To be consistent.”
“I knew a girl named Hillary, once,” said Monica. “She wasn’t a legal secretary, but she had a very nice figure. Not too smart, though. Thought Canada was a foreign country.”
“It is a foreign country.”
“That’s good, teasing me like that, just like a boyfriend would.”
“Monica, I’m not so comfortable lying to your parents.”
“Are you sure you’re a lawyer?”
“Pretty sure, though a lot of people seem to be doubting it lately. But if you’re so ashamed of your life, don’t lie about it, change it.”
“I’m not ashamed of what I do, I just have secrets. You don’t have any secrets, Victor? You tell everything about your personal affairs to your parents?”
I thought of the escapade with Sheila the night before. “Well, no.”
“There you go. Their life has been hard enough already, they don’t need to be burdened with the truth about mine. So the story is we met at the office and we’ve been dating for only a few weeks, but things are going really well.”
“What do we do together?”
“See movies, take walks. I cook you dinner. Veal parmesan.”
“Do you really?”
“But I like veal parmesan.”
“I’ll fake-cook it.”
“Do I have a fake dog?”
“You did, but it died.”
“That’s a shame.”
“You’ll see, Victor, this is going to work out famously.”
I doubted very much that it would.
I was visiting Monica’s parents to learn what I could about the disappearance of Chantal Adair and its connection to Charlie Kalakos’s Rembrandt. That there should be a connection at all was too strange for words, but both girl and painting went missing almost thirty years ago, and each seemed to be of great concern to the family Hathaway, father and daughter. None of it made any sense, but I was not naïve enough to assume it was all a coincidence. I could no longer believe that the tattoo was evidence of a deep and abiding love found during my missing night. There was something else going on, something dark and as of yet inexplicable. But I was going to figure it out, yes I was, and when I found who the hell had induced me to tattoo the name on my chest, a price would be paid.
“And you’re sure they won’t mind talking about your sister?” I said to Monica as I parked the car in front of a small, tidy house.
“It must be difficult for them to discuss.”
“Not at all,” she said. “Chantal is their favorite topic of conversation.”
There are canyons of loss among us, chasms of pain hidden behind well-tended lawns and freshly painted exteriors. Drive by a seemingly innocuous house and you can feel the tug, like a deep, swirling ache reaching out to pull you in, and all you want to do is keep driving until you slide into shallower, more placid waters. These are churches of sadness and doom, where voices remain hushed and candles burn in sad remembrance. Lower your gaze, speak with soft reverence, hunch your shoulders, stifle your joy. Such was the Adair household on a narrow residential street not far from the western mouth of the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge, just a stone’s throw from where Ralph Ciulla had been murdered.
“Mommy, Daddy,” said Monica, suddenly hugging my arm as the door opened, not giving me the chance to step away. “This is my new boyfriend, Victor.”
“Hi,” I said, trying and failing to take back my arm.
Mr. Adair was lean and gray, stoop-shouldered, parched by life, looking like a dried-out seventy even though still in his fifties. His smile was pained, his handshake thin, his averted eyes glassy, as if he had been throttled just moments before I arrived.
“So you’re the young man Monica has told us about,” he said.
I glared at Monica. “That would be me.”
“Come in, please,” said Mrs. Adair, a wraith with black eyes and nervous hands. “I put out some Chex Mix. I hope you like Chex Mix.”
“It’s my favorite.”
“And you simply must meet Richard.”
“My brother,” said Monica.
“Of course,” I said. “Your brother, Richard. The whole family.”
“Not quite the whole family,” said Mr. Adair.
“But Richard so enjoys guests,” said Mrs. Adair, “and he’s especially looking forward to meeting you.”
“I bet,” I said.
He didn’t get up when first he spied me. Richard Adair looked like he wouldn’t get up for a tornado. His heavy hips spread out on the couch as if planted there. Sweatpants, Eagles jersey, stocking feet propped on the coffee table with the tips of his socks flopping over his toes. He was about a decade older than me, big and balding, with a round face and graying mustache. A bunch of billboards were roaring around some oval piece of asphalt on the television, and Richard kept staring at the tube as if, instead of the current running order, the secret of the universe was about to be broadcast and he was just waiting to sneer at it.
“Richard,” said Mrs. Adair as if to a spoiled child. “Monica’s brought her friend to the house.”
“I’m watching here,” said Richard. “What do you think?”
“Richard loves his television,” said Mrs. Adair. “When he’s not on the computer, you can always find him in front of the television.”
“We got a big one from Best Buy,” said Mr. Adair. “What is it, Richard, the thin-screen thing?”
“It was on sale.”
“Can you keep it down?” said Richard. “I’m watching.”
The living room had that closed-in, windows-painted-shut feel, stifling and hot. We set ourselves on the various pieces of furniture, Monica still clutching my arm, as if she were the one in foreign territory. There were pictures of saints clustered on one of the walls, and plates painted with clowns with their big sad eyes on another. Chex Mix was scattered about in various bowls. I wasn’t lying, I always liked Chex Mix, and Mrs. Adair didn’t just open the boxes and stir, she did the whole margarine and Worcestershire sauce baking thing, which filled the house with a savory scent while imparting to the Chex Mix a nice garlicky crunch.
“Lovely Chex Mix, Mrs. Adair,” I said.
“Thank you. Richard, dear, Victor is a lawyer, did you know that?”
No answer from Richard. I guess he knew.
“NASCAR is on,” said Mr. Adair in explanation. “The racing cars.”
“Yes, I know,” I said. “Who among us doesn’t love NASCAR?”
Mrs. Adair clapped her hands together and rubbed. “So how long have you two kids been an item?”
“Not too long,” I said.
“When Monica called and said she had a date with a young man she met at work, we were just so thrilled. You would think someone as pretty as our Monica wouldn’t have trouble finding a young man, but she is very particular.”
“Oh, Mommy, stop it.”
“She works all day and then just stays at home all night, poor thing. She needs to get out more. Don’t you think so, Victor?”
“Oh, you’d be surprised,” I said.
“What kind of law do you do?” asked Mr. Adair.
“All kinds, but mostly criminal law.”
“We don’t like criminals in this family.”
“Well, they’re not as popular as NASCAR, I give you that, but they still have rights.”
“What about the rights of the victims?”
“Stop it, Daddy,” said Monica. “Daddy’s been watching too much cable news. He thinks he’s O’Reilly.”
“The man makes good points. He’s a pillar.”
“So was Lot’s wife,” I said.
“I hate lawyers,” said Richard, without looking away from the television. “Greedy little buggers, all of them.”
“I suppose we are,” I said. “But it’s a capitalist country, right? Where would we be without greedy little buggers?”
“What’s it like making money off other people’s heartbreak?” said Richard, still without turning his head in my direction. “I mean, a guy breaks his leg, you make money. A guy breaks his head, you make more money. No matter how crippled the victim, you make out like a thief. It must sicken your heart.”
“But the cardiologists these days can do wonders,” I said. “What do you do, Richard?”
“Richard is between things,” said Mrs. Adair. “More Chex Mix, Victor?”
“No, ma’am, I’m fine. Thank you.”
“You bagging my sister yet?” said Richard.
“Richard, shut up,” said Monica.
“I’m just asking,” said Richard. “I’m allowed to ask.”
“Something to drink, everyone?” said Mrs. Adair. “Tea?”
“Tea would be lovely,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Monica, why don’t you help me in the kitchen? There’s another batch of Chex Mix in the oven. It’s especially nice hot out of the oven, don’t you think, Victor?”
“Oh, absolutely. What kind of margarine do you use?”
“Oh, heavens, I wouldn’t use margarine. Only real butter in my Chex Mix.”
The two women departed for the kitchen, and the three men were left with nothing but the sound of engines roaring out of the television set. The announcers got excited about something, Richard belched, Mr. Adair pushed himself out of his chair to hit the head. I swirled some Chex Mix in my fist.
“Who’s winning?” I said to be friendly.
“Some guy with a hat,” said Richard. “Do you care?”
“Neither do I. Can I be frank?”
“Sure, and I’ll be Sam.”
“We both know Monica isn’t the brightest bulb in the shed. We both know you’re not dating her for her taste in literature. So I figure you got to be bagging her. I mean, if you’re not, and I’m talking about bagging her steady, giving her the old heave-ho night and day and night and day, then really, what’s the point?”
“Nice mouth on you, Richard.”
“I’m just saying.”
“She’s your sister.”
“Yeah, sure, I know, but my God, look at her. Have you seen those legs? They go up to her chin. And her breasts are, like, perfect.”
“How do you know that?”
“Sometimes she sunbathes in the back and loosens her top. I just sit up in my room and stare out the window.”
“Richard, you’re being creepy.”
“Listen. There are girls on the Internet not half as hot as Monica making a fortune just by spreading their legs and lifting their shirts for the camera. With the package she’s carrying, she could make double, triple, but she’s wasting it all in that stupid law office.”
“She does good work in that office,” I said.
“Maybe you could talk to her for me.”
“I’ve got this idea of opening a Web site. ‘Monicaland dot com,’ we’d call it. I’ve already reserved the domain name. I’d do all the work, all the designing and maintenance, answer all the e-mails for her. I’d even pretend to be her in the Monicaland chat room. All she has to do is let me take some pictures. We could make a fortune.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’d be doing all the work, and the money we make could set her up for life. I’d give you a cut, too, if you convince her.”
“You’ll have to dress better, Richard, if you’re going to be a pimp.”
“Hey, I’m just looking out for my sister. I just want to build her up a nest egg. That’s the way my family is – we look out for each other. And let me tell you, if you want to keep bagging my sister day and night, like you’re doing now, you’ll go along.”
“Or else what?”
“I knew it was you as soon as you walked in the room. I seen you on the TV. You’re the guy representing that Charlie Kalakos guy with the painting.”
“What about it?”
“Here’s the deal. You talk to Monica about our Web site and I won’t tell my parents who you are.”
“Why would I care if you tell? What does one have to do with the other? I’m a little lost here, Richard.”
“There’s a connection, trust me.”
“Oh, is there?” I got up, stepped over the television, stood right in front of it, the vroom vroom going on behind me. Richard craned his neck to try to see around me, found it futile, looked at me for the first time and then away. His eyes were yellow, his skin flabby and white like an overworked dough.
“You want to tell me about it?” I said.
“I’m trying to watch,” he said.
“Okay, I wouldn’t want to get in the way of your NASCAR.” I moved from in front of the television, around the coffee table, and sat smack on the couch, so close our hips were rubbing.
He tried to slide away, but I slid with him. He watched the racing, I watched him, watched him wilt under my gaze. I knuckled his head, twice, and he just shrank away, like a slug shrinking away from salt.
“What’s the connection, Richard?”
“Forget about it.”
“No, I want to hear.”
“It’s not important.”
“Sure it is.”
“What are you doing here? Get the hell out of here. Leave me alone, or I’m going to tell Monica you hit me.”
“You’ll do nothing of the kind,” I said. I leaned close, so close my lips were almost touching his ear. “Here’s a lesson for you, boy. There are two types of people in the world, users and tools. You want to be a user, you want to turn your sister into a whore, but you’ll always be just a tool. And you want to know why? Because you have to be able to read people to be a user, and you are functionally illiterate. See, here’s the thing, Richard: You thought I came here because I have the hots for Monica, that I have her name tattooed on my lustful little heart, but you’re wrong. She’s not the Adair whose name I have tattooed on my heart. How do you like them apples?”
He turned and stared at me, and there was fear on his doughy face and in his yellow eyes. The couch shifted as his butt muscles clenched.
Just then the toilet flushed. Richard’s head swiveled. Mr. Adair stepped out of the downstairs powder room. Monica and Mrs. Adair appeared from the kitchen with a tray.
“I have the tea and a fresh batch of Chex Mix,” said Mrs. Adair. “Oh, look at you two, getting along so nicely. What are you boys talking about?”
“Chantal,” I said.
It was the movies that finally determined it for me. The home movies, Super 8s unspooling on a projector Mr. Adair pulled out of the closet, the images splashed upon one of the living room walls. After I brought her name up, the Adairs seemed only too willing to talk about Chantal. They reminisced about her sparkling personality, told fond stories, recounted again the great day when Chantal danced on television on the Al Alberts Showcase. It was all sweet enough to make of me a disbeliever. Is there anything more dubious than someone else’s happy childhood? But then at one point, Mrs. Adair clapped her nervous hands and said, “Let’s see the movies,” and only a moment passed before the projector was whirring and the memories were flickering.
It took me a moment to get my bearings as the past unreeled for me on the living room wall. That young woman with the short black hair and sexy smile, with a body lithe enough to get me to thinking, the woman clapping her hands in delight at her children, oh yes, that must be Mrs. Adair. You could see now where Monica got her beauty. And that arrogant young buck with the muscles bursting proudly from beneath his tight shirt, that was Mr. Adair, when life still was full of electric promise. And that kid there, laughing and tossing leaves into the air, towheaded and pink-cheeked. Richard? It couldn’t be, could it? Yes it could. Richard. Gad.
I looked away from the images and scanned the room, the parents staring raptly at a time when life was perfect, Richard with his arms crossed, unhappy to be there but unable to look away. And Monica, sitting next to me, leaning forward, her face suffused with some strange nostalgia for an era that ended brutally before she was born. Something had turned the past of the film into the withered present, something more vicious than the mere passage of time.
“She just never came home,” said Mrs. Adair. “Went out one day to play and never came home.”
“We went door-to-door,” said Mr. Adair. “Had the police out, put up posters, walked every inch of the parks. The whole neighborhood came out.”
“Her picture was on the news for a solid week.”
“Nothing. And it’s the not-knowing that’s the worst of it, like we’re still in the middle of it. The ache, it never leaves. It started in my chest before creeping into my bones. My doctor says it’s arthritis, because he doesn’t know.”
“Did she have friends?” I asked.
“She was very popular,” said Mrs. Adair. “Miss Personality. But none of her friends had seen her that day.”
“Who saw her last?”
“Richard saw her leave,” said Mr. Adair. “But it’s not his fault, it’s our fault. We let her go out, always. We trusted her, and we trusted everyone else.”
“Any idea where she was going, Richard?” I said.
“I told the police everything,” he said.
“Detective Hathaway,” said Mrs. Adair. “What a wonderful man, what a sweet man. He did everything he could.”
“He kept the case open for years,” said Mr. Adair. “Never gave up.”
“What did you tell him, Richard?”
“That I didn’t know where she went. Can we get back to the race?”
“Sometimes still, I get so angry,” said Mr. Adair, “angry at myself, at the world, at my own helplessness. Sometimes I still try to put my hand through the wall.”
Chantal Adair. My breath caught in my throat the first time she showed up on the screen, my chest throbbed. The name had been scrawled into my flesh and engraved deep in my consciousness, and now there, in front of me, in light and color and shadow, there she was, oblivious to the tragedy rising already behind her, moving to some jerky, otherworldly rhythm. To see her on that wall was to see a legend, a mythic hero come to life, like watching old movies of Babe Ruth or Jack Dempsey, of a young Willie Mays loping like a leopard in the outfield.
“Oh, my sweet Chantal,” said Mrs. Adair.
Whether she was sweet or not, little Chantal, you couldn’t tell from the sun-drenched images in the movies. Her dark hair, flashing eyes, the glittery dance shoes she loved, the way she laughed, hugged, mugged for the lens. Already there was something self-conscious in her pose, something of the ingenue in her movements, like she knew already at age six how to turn and twist for the camera.
There was a little blond girl in many of the shots, about the same age as Chantal, throwing snowballs and laughing as she roughhoused. She marched and ran while Chantal pranced.
“My cousin Ronnie,” said Monica. “Uncle Rupert’s daughter.”
“Uncle Rupert. He’s the guy who looks like Grant.”
“The guy with the beard in the picture in my office.”
“That’s the one. My mother’s brother.”
“Was Ronnie close to Chantal?”
“They were like sisters,” she said.
“Thick as thieves,” said Mrs. Adair. “They were nothing alike, but they were together all the time. The loss really hit Ronnie hard.”
“Did Detective Hathaway have any ideas about what happened to Chantal?” I said.
“He had ideas,” said Mr. Adair. “Nothing that amounted to nothing, but he sure had ideas. And most of them centered on something he found in Chantal’s room.”
“What was that?”
“Strangest damn thing. A lighter. How she got hold of it, none of us could figure it out, but there it was, hidden in one of her drawers.”
“Do you still have it?”
“No, he took it as evidence, but I still remember it,” he said. “A gold lighter, well worn, with the initials W.R. engraved on its case.”
“Do you have a picture of Chantal I might be able to take with me?”
“We printed up tons for the search. A head shot. We still have them somewhere.” Mr. Adair pushed himself out of his chair with a soft moan. “Wait a minute and I’ll get one for you.”
And that was what I had in my pocket, that photograph, as Monica and I drove away from her girlhood home. The lighter with Wilfred Randolph’s initials was evidence of a possible connection between the disappearance of Chantal Adair and the robbery of the Randolph Trust. And if a connection really existed, then my client, definitely involved in one, most likely knew something of the other. Next time I saw him, I’d have to give him the third degree. But something else was tugging at my sleeve.
“That was nice of you to come to my parents’ house,” said Monica. “It seems to help them to talk about it. It’s almost like when they talk about her, or watch the movies, she’s still there.”
“I liked your parents.”
“And they liked you, I could tell.”
“Your father scowled at me.”
“Only at the beginning. Later he warmed up. You’re the best fake boyfriend I’ve ever had.”
“There have been others?”
“Usually they’re gay.”
“Which must lessen the complication.”
“You would think. But my parents don’t show the movies to just anybody.”
“Are you sure? I got the sense they corral Mormon missionaries and Fuller Brush men to see the movies and hear the tale.”
“Not true. And my mother told me approvingly that you sure do know your Chex Mix.”
“You’re going to have to tell them eventually that we’re not dating.”
“No, Monica. This wasn’t a date.”
“I brought you home, you met my parents.”
“You’re kidding, right?”
“Yes, I’m kidding. Oh, my mom will ask about you for a while, and then I’ll say we broke up, and that will be the end of it. Maybe I’ll fake-date a doctor next. They always liked doctors.”
“Why don’t you date someone for real?”
“Fake dating is so much easier. You should try it, Victor.”
“Why not? I’ve faked everything else. Tell me about your brother, Richard.”
“What’s to tell? He’s a little sad, a little lonely, but he’s very smart. He’s my older brother. I used to idolize him.”
“What kind of work does he do?”
“He doesn’t. He just plays on the computer or watches TV.”
“It’s hard to find a friend when you haven’t stepped outside the house in twenty-five years.”
“He doesn’t leave the house. He can’t step through the doorway. He’s stuck, and he’s been that way since before I was born. He has that thing.”
“That’s it. First time I heard it, I thought he was afraid of sweaters. But what it really means is he can’t go outside or to public places.”
I thought then of the home movie projected onto the wall, not the parts with Chantal posing or playing with her cousin Ronnie, not the parts that held the rest of the family in thrall, and not the images of the parents either, at the start of their lives when the world held nothing but hope. No, I thought of the boy, laughing and tossing leaves into the air, towheaded and pink-cheeked and full of promise. The palpable sadness in that house had burrowed like a parasite into his heart, turning him into some grotesque creature. I had come on all hard-boiled with him, and maybe he had asked for it, but it wasn’t right, and I felt ashamed. He had deserved better from me, better out of life. Whatever evil had happened to Chantal had happened to him, too, it had happened to all of them. And my client’s involvement was enough for me not to be able to ignore it.
“I’m going to find out what happened to your sister, Monica,” I said.
“You’re taking the case?”
“No, I can’t take it on as a case. No retainer, no fees, no expenses. And believe me, it hurts to say that, more than you can imagine. But I have a conflict with another case I’m involved in, so I can’t take it on professionally. But I’m going to find out all the same.”
“Then why, Victor?”
“I don’t know. Because her name somehow got tattooed on my chest and I’ll be staring at it in the mirror for the rest of my life. Because what happened to her was dead wrong and it pisses me off. Because of your brother.”
“My brother? I didn’t think you liked him.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Maybe neither do I, but still. My apartment is trashed, my partnership is cracking up, I’m drinking too much, flirting with reporters, sleeping with Realtors. Frankly, I’m in desperate need of something hard and clean in my life, and finding what happened to Chantal is all I have.”
“That is so… Victor, that is so… so…” She leaned over in the car and kissed me on the cheek.
“We’re still not dating,” I said.
“I know. I’m just so happy. It was a message, wasn’t it? The tattoo, I mean.”
“Maybe it was.”
“From someone. Let me ask you, is anyone in your family a tattoo artist?”
“I’m still trying to figure out who gave it to me.”
“She did. You’re fighting hard not to admit the truth, but it will come to you. So when do we start?”
“You’re not going to let me help you?”
“Monica,” I said, “I work best alone.”
“But I want to help. Can’t I help? Please, Victor. I need to do this.”
“Monica, there is no way that-” And then I stopped.
My first impulse is always to be a lone wolf. One of the reasons Beth might have been dissatisfied at the firm was my penchant for pushing her away and going it by myself. And here was Monica, whose life had been as altered and bruised as anyone’s by Chantal’s disappearance, asking me if she could help find out what happened to her sister. I didn’t know what aid she could give, but maybe I was being selfish, maybe she more than anyone deserved the opportunity to be involved in the search. Or maybe I was kidding myself and simply still felt the soft touch of her finger on my chest.
“Okay,” I said. “You can help.”
“Really? You mean it?”
“Sure. We’ll start in a couple days. Maybe you and I, we’ll go together to visit an old friend of your parents’.”
“Why don’t we start right away? Oh, Victor, this is so fabulous. I’ll take a few days off from the club, buy some black leather pants, clean the gun.”
“But, Victor, I like my gun.”
“No dog, no gun, no heels sharp enough to penetrate flesh. That’s not the way I do things, at least not professionally.”
“All right, all right, don’t get your tie into a twist. What about the black leather pants, are they okay at least?”
“Why black leather pants?”
“Emma Peel, from The Avengers.”
“Sure, the black leather pants are fine.”
“But why aren’t we getting started right away?”
“Because first I have to meet someone in New Jersey, and that I have to do alone.”
This time I was dressed to blend: sneakers and jeans, red baseball cap, a garish yellow Hawaiian number hanging open over a white T-shirt. I had thought of wearing shorts, but my legs were so white they glowed, which didn’t quite fit the image of a sun-worshipping Jersey boy, so jeans it was. When I reached my perch at Seventh Street on the Ocean City boardwalk, the sun was setting and the sky over the ocean was turning Kodachrome. I did a quick peruse. No Charlie, no goons who might have followed me, just the usual crowd swarming and laughing in the thick salt air, flirting and ignoring the flirts, whining, strolling, dripping soft ice cream onto their shoes. I thought some ice cream might fit my disguise.
I was standing in line at the Kohr Bros. Frozen Custard stand when I heard a hiss from the T-shirts in the store next door. Behind a scrim of shirts, I could spy the top of a round bald head, ugly plaid shorts, sandals over socks.
“I’ll have a small vanilla,” I said to the pretty Russian woman behind the stand. “And a large vanilla with rainbow sprinkles.”
With the ice creams in hand, I sauntered over to the T-shirt store and held out the large sprinkled cone. Through a collection of shirts and sweats, a hand reached out.
“Thanks,” said Charlie. “I love the custard.”
“Who doesn’t? You want to talk here?”
“I’ll meet you at the waterline in five minutes.”
“Just don’t spill your custard on the steps this time.”
I waited on the beach, breathing deep the salt air. A wide stone jetty was just ahead of me. The evening was breezy and clear, the sea glinted orange, the surf was angry. I stood at the crest of the sand, where the shoreline started slanting toward the sea, and watched the waves swell and froth before pounding themselves into oblivion. Quite a show. They ought to sell tickets. The fate of the universe in six-second tableaux. Appearing nightly. Try the veal, and don’t forget to tip your waitresses.
The beach was open to the left, closed in by a music pier on the right. In the reddening light, I could spot a few silhouettes climbing along the jetty or strolling across the sand. I kept track of them all, checking to see if any were a little too interested in anything I was doing. As usual I was being completely ignored, which was, as usual, fine by me. Especially when I was meeting with a client who was wanted by a bunch of gangsters, a hit man from Allentown, and the FBI all at once. I turned toward the boardwalk, spotted a giant toddler with an oversized head and splayed legs coming my way.
“You alone?” said Charlie Kalakos.
“Sadly, that’s my condition in the world.”
“Were you followed?”
“How do you know?”
“Because I drove slowly with one eye on my rearview mirror. Because I stopped on the side of the highway twice, and no one else stopped. Because I parked on Seventeenth and walked the ten blocks on back streets and spotted nothing. But I’m just a lawyer, Charlie, not a spy. My training is in torts, not tails. I’m doing my best.”
“Your best might get me capped. How’s my mom?”
“She’s fine. She’s even seemed to perk up a bit.”
“So am I heading home?”
“Before we talk about the negotiations, I’ve got some news for you. Remember you told me about your friends, and one of them was a Ralph?”
“He was shot in the head a few days ago.”
“Ralphie Meat? My God. How’d it happen? He get caught with someone’s wife?”
“It looks like a professional hit. The killer got inside his house, popped him in the leg, wrapped it up and asked him some questions before shooting him in the head.”
“Questions about what?”
“The questions were probably about you, Charlie. Right after our negotiation hit the papers, I got a visit from some of your old friends in the Warrick Brothers Gang. One of them said he was chasing you fifteen years ago, a hood named Fred.”
“That fat bastard still around?”
“In the flesh,” I said. “And he’s got some homunculus helping him out. He told me to give you a warning. Apparently they put some hit man on your tail, someone from Allentown.”
Suddenly Charlie’s head swiveled and his eyes widened.
“You know this guy from Allentown?”
“I saw him once,” said Charlie slowly. “An old bull with a flattop, cold eyes, and huge, gnarled hands. He was a soldier who was trained too good and learned he liked the killing.”
“What war? Vietnam?”
“Korea, from what I heard.”
“What, that makes him well over seventy.”
“You didn’t see them eyes, Victor.”
“He left a note as a warning. It read ‘Who’s next?’”
Charlie seemed to shrink at the words. I scanned what I could of the beach. Nothing out of the ordinary, the same uninterested runoff from the boardwalk, a group of kids at the far end of the jetty, laughing.
“Charlie, do you still want to come out of hiding?”
“I don’t know. You tell this to my mother?”
“About the threat, yeah, I did. About Ralph, I didn’t need to, it was front page in all the papers.”
“What did she say?”
“She didn’t want me to tell you. She says she’ll take care of you.”
“She show you her gun?”
“Yeah, she did.”
“Crazy old bat. She used to point that thing at my head when I acted up, scared the hell out of me.”
“Charlie, I’m not supposed to tell you this, but the way things are going, I think I have no choice. There’s some guy in town offering a lot of money for that painting. I can’t make a deal for you, you’d have to make it yourself, but he says he could give you enough to get lost for a good long time.”
“Enough. High six figures at least. And you should also know that he’s approached a few other people about it, including Ralph before he was murdered and your old friend Joey Pride. They both seemed to think they deserved a piece of the price.”
“High six figures, huh? You think you can get more?”
“I know I could, but I have to advise you that the sale of stolen property is illegal.”
“You tell my mother?”
“No. I was afraid she’d point the gun at me.” I reached into my jacket, pulled out an envelope. “Here’s his card. Just so you know.”
“Are you advising that I sell to this guy and lam off?”
“I’m thinking that maybe Philadelphia isn’t the safest place for you right now.”
“What about witness protection? I thought you was going to make a deal.”
“That’s gotten a little complicated. I’m having a hard time making a deal with the government. The federal prosecutor I told you about, she’s still got a stick up her butt.”
“What the hell about?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“I ain’t no proctologist.”
“She wants you to tell her everything about how you got the painting. No immunity and no protection unless you agree. She seems to have some ulterior motive behind her demands, and I think I know what it is.”
“You ever hear of a detective named Hathaway?”
“What does that bastard have to do with anything?”
“The fed is his daughter.”
“How do you know Hathaway?”
“He was sniffing around after the robbery. Asking about some girl what went missing about the time we took the painting.”
“A girl named Chantal Adair?”
“Who the hell remembers a name?”
“I do,” I said, and there must have been something in my voice, because Charlie backed up a bit. I took a breath to calm myself, checked the beach once again. The kids were still laughing. A couple of overweight joggers in baseball caps had just made their way around the music pier. A family grouping had formed at the ocean’s edge, the youngest throwing handfuls of sand into the sea.
“I’m going to show you a picture,” I said, pulling the shot of Chantal Adair from out of my jacket pocket. “Do you recognize her?”
He glanced at it, shook his head. “It’s too dark. I can’t see.”
“Tell me about Hathaway.”
“I don’t know,” said Charlie. “Some girl went missing, and Hathaway, he thought it was all connected to the robbery. Somehow he connected the robbery to us.”
“Any idea how?”
“Who knows? But the thing was, he couldn’t finger us for either charge, no matter how hard he looked. See, we never spent nothing, we never slipped up. Our lives didn’t change one bit.”
“No mink coats, no Cadillacs? How’d you pull that off?”
“It was easier than you think, seeing as we never got our cuts in the first place.”
“I don’t understand.”
“We got stiffed,” said Charlie.
I looked at Charlie’s silhouette, looked down the shoreline, trying to figure out what I was hearing. Joey had said something about the money disappearing, and now Charlie was talking about getting stiffed. The family was heading back for the boardwalk, the joggers were getting closer. Two men, one shaped like a pear, the other short and wider than a truck. Funny shapes to see in joggers. The moonlight glinted off their chains, and my head shook with the slap of recognition. Fred and Louie. Up with Hoods.
“Crap,” I said softly. “We have company.”
“Who?” said Charlie, his head swiveling. “What?”
“Turn and walk slowly toward the boardwalk like nothing is wrong.”
“Just do it, Charlie. Now.”
Charlie’s swiveling head stopped in the direction of the two joggers. He coolly let out a yelp and then, suave as could be, ran the hell away, toward the little path between the fences that led to the boardwalk. He was sprinting as fast as he could, which was not fast at all, arms and legs akimbo, like a cartoon character running in midair and going nowhere.
I caught up to Charlie Kalakos in a flash, grabbed hold of his arm, and started lugging him toward the stairway. The hoods were shouting as they ran for us, the seagulls were squawking, Charlie was whining.
“Stop pulling me. You’re going to tear off my arm.”
“How’d you get here?”
“Where is it?”
“You’re hurting my arm.”
“Where’s your car?”
When we reached the stairs, I pushed him ahead of me. I glanced back quickly. The hoods were about thirty yards away, sprinting toward us, sand flying behind them. I leaped up the wooden steps, two at a time, pulled Charlie up the last. At the boardwalk we charged into the crowd and then stopped, looked around.
“Here,” I said, grabbing Charlie and pulling him now to the right, away from Seventh. “This way.”
“My car’s that way,” he said.
“I know, but the crowd will be thickest in here.”
I was pulling him toward the Turkish arches of a small amusement park, with its carousel and roller coaster and great Ferris wheel rising over the boards. On the way I saw an overweight kid with a huge tub of caramel popcorn.
“You might not realize it,” I told the kid as I grabbed the tub smack out of his chubby hands and threw it as hard as I could, high in the air, over the crowd, toward the stairs, “but I’m doing you and your arteries a favor.”
The kid screamed like a siren, the popcorn spun out in a cloud.
An onslaught of seagulls descended upon the flying popcorn like a ravenous army, viciously pecking pedestrians and each other in their frantic quest for each loosed kernel. The two hoods from the beach, rushing up the stairs toward us, fell back when faced with the fluttering, vulturous cloud.
Charlie and I plunged into Gillian’s Wonderland Pier.
The sound of the calliope puffing away, the smell of the popcorn popping, the crush of the crowd moving thick and slow in the narrow gap between two kiddie rides. We tried to force our way through but were swallowed whole and carried leisurely along by the viscous mass. Kids wiped their noses, grandfathers rubbed their backs. To our left was a balloon race. To our right a mini-NASCAR raceway.
“They’ll come after us in here,” said Charlie.
“It won’t be so easy to find us in the crowd.”
“Which way?” said Charlie.
“Down there,” I said, pointing to a ramp that led toward the rear of the park.
We made our way, bobbing and weaving through the family groups, grandparents and grandkids, teenagers looking flushed and bored at the same time. We didn’t even glance back until we reached a fence at the entrance to Canyon River log flume. We took a moment to survey the whole of the crowd.
“You see them?” said Charlie.
“Maybe they went the other way.”
“Sure,” I said, “and maybe cigarettes are good exercise for the lungs.” I stopped jabbering for a moment and thought. “How do you think they found us?”
“They didn’t follow me,” he said, and he was right about that. And being as this had been a two-man meeting, that left one dope to take the blame.
“I didn’t spot them,” I said.
“How long you think they been following you?”
“I don’t know,” I said, and then I thought about Ralph Ciulla and I felt a great gaping dread.
They had been following me from the start, the sons of bitches, waiting for me to lead them to their targets. And like the stupid pisspot I was, I did exactly that. When Ralph and Joey found me, they found them, and, putting it together, Fred probably took a picture and sent it to Allentown so that the killer would know exactly whom to ask his bloody questions and with whom to leave his bloody message. Son of a bitch. So first I had led them to Ralph, and now I had led them to Charlie.
“We have to get out of here,” I said.
For a second I looked at Charlie, short and heavy, sweating with effort and fear, still haunted by his mother, as threatening as a koala bear. Charlie was as unlikely a hood as ever I saw, and it got me to wondering.
“Joey Pride was telling me about that time in the bar that Teddy Pravitz first brought up the idea of hitting the Randolph Trust.”
“Yeah, I remember it. Teddy promised the whole thing would make men of us, change our lives forever.”
“Sure,” he said. “Look at me now.”
“But here’s my question. Teddy obviously had the plan to do the Randolph heist before he ever walked into that bar. So why did he need you guys?”
“He could have latched onto professional hoods if he wanted.”
“He didn’t want hoods, he wanted guys he could trust. And besides, it wasn’t like the four of us, we didn’t have skills.”
“Skills, huh? Like what?”
“Well, Joey Pride was a genius with engines and electricity. Whatever alarm system the place had, he could disarm it, and take care of the lights and the phones, too. And Ralphie Meat, besides being huge and strong, was a metal guy. Could bend anything, solder anything, melt anything.”
“Like the golden chains and statues?”
“Hugo had his own little skill. He used to sit in the back of the room and imitate all the teachers to a tee, crack us all the hell up. He did my mother better than she did. ‘Charles, I need you now. You come here this instant.’ He could become anyone he wanted.”
“And what about you, Charlie?”
“Well, you know I worked with my dad at the time.”
“And what did he do?”
“Dad was a locksmith,” said Charlie. “Wasn’t a lock made that he couldn’t open in a heartbeat. And he taught me what he knew.”
“And safes. Later, with the Warricks, safes became my specialty.”
“Must have come in handy up in Newport. Let me show you the picture of that little girl again now that the light’s better.”
“I don’t want to see the picture.”
“Sure you do.” I took the photograph of Chantal Adair out of my pocket, showed it to him again. “You recognize her?”
He glanced at it and pulled back. It was a small movement, as quick as an inhale, but there it was.
“Never seen her before,” he said.
“You’re lying to me.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“I have to represent you, Charlie, but I don’t have to trust you. Oh, crap.”
“They’re here, or at least one of them.”
Just at the edge of the arcade, with his white baseball cap and a retro Celtics jersey, chains glistening, stood Fred, the older, pear-shaped hood who had roughed me up outside my office. He had a phone to his ear. He stepped forward, peered into the crowd, scanned our direction without registering our presence.
“What do we do?”
“Let’s get to the rear exit,” I said. “But slowly. You see the little guy?”
“What little guy?”
“He’ll be in the same outfit, just a different jersey. He’s shorter than you, wider than a Buick. My guess is he’s on the phone, too.”
“You mean that guy?” said Charlie.
Louie was standing right at the exit. He was also on the phone, standing on tiptoe, trying to see over the shoulders of a pack of tweens. It didn’t look like he had spotted us yet.
“This way,” I said, pulling Charlie away from Louie toward a narrow ramp that led up and to the right. As we ascended, I glanced back at the entrance. Fred was staring right at us, talking into his phone.
There were younger kids now on the ramp, strollers, grandparents moving slowly, mothers shouting. We pushed our way past as many as we could until we reached the upper level, and then we made a beeline as far from the ramp as possible, past the tykes’ jungle gym and the Glass House, past the little roller coaster and the Safari Adventure. At the far end was a set of stairs that led right back to the lower level, where Louie waited.
I spun around in frustration. The rides on the deck were all for toddlers, there was no place for us to hide. I could see the head of Fred bobbing up the ramp. Louie was coming for us from the other direction. There was no place to go. Except maybe…
“We need three tickets,” I said.
“I don’t got no tickets,” said Charlie.
I ran up to a father with a big block of tickets. He was watching his kids on the spinning teacups. I grabbed my wallet, took out a ten. “Ten dollars for three tickets,” I said.
He looked up at me, down at the waving ten-dollar bill, back up at me. “They’re only seventy-five cents a ticket.”
“I don’t care.”
“There’s a booth right at the bottom of the ramp.”
“I don’t care. Ten bucks for three tickets. Now.”
“I could give you change.”
“No change, no nothing. Please.”
He looked at me strangely, took three tickets off his block. “Just take them,” he said.
I wasn’t going to argue. I grabbed the tickets, grabbed Charlie, headed back to the middle of the Fun Deck where stood the Glass House, a strange maze of smudged glass panels. I gave the tickets to the lady, pushed Charlie inside.
“Go to the back, turn away from the crowd, and wait,” I said.
“Just go, and keep your hands in front of you.”
Charlie swiveled his head, spotted something that spooked him, and charged inside. He banged into one of the panels, turned and banged into another, and then, with his hands in front of him, made his way through to the rear of the maze.
I ran toward the ramp until Fred spotted me. I did a little pump with my elbows and then charged away from him, past the Glass House without a glance, toward the rear stairs and down, right smack into Louie, who grabbed me by the belt and held me close.
“Hello, boysy,” he said.
I WON’T GO into a blow-by-blow description of our encounter after the two hoods dragged me outside the park. Fred asked the questions. I made snarky, nonresponsive comments. Louie drilled me in the stomach with his fists. I fell to my knees and dry-heaved. All rather unpleasant. And it might have gone far worse if a cop hadn’t turned the corner just as I was struggling back up to my feet for the second time. The cop was young, his hat was tilted low over his eyes.
“Oh, look,” I said, standing a little straighter. “A nice policeman. Why don’t you boys ask him to help you find Charlie?”
“Don’t even try,” said Fred.
Louie grabbed the collar of my shirt and pulled me down to his level. “Don’t even try, boysy.”
“Should I call the nice policeman over?”
Fred looked behind him, did a double take, then tapped Louie on the shoulder. Louie turned, went wide-eyed. Without taking his eyes off the cop, he let go of my collar and started smoothing it out with his hand.
As the cop approached, giving us a nod, Fred injected a false heartiness into his voice. “It was nice talking to you, Victor. What about your friend Charlie? We’d like to say hello to him, too.”
I thought about grabbing the cop as he passed by, but if I did, I’d have to tell him the story, and that meant telling him about Charlie, which might be as much trouble for Charlie as were these goons. So I let him pass with a nod and a smile and then said, “Really, guys, it was nice chatting, but I have to go.”
Yet even as I said it, I glanced at the giant Ferris wheel turning slowly in the middle of the park.
Fred caught my glance, followed its line to the high, spinning ride.
“We’re not finished with you yet,” he said, looking once more at the cop’s back before starting toward the Ferris wheel, nodding at Louie to follow. Fred took a few steps and then stopped, came back, leaned close so he was whispering in my ear.
“If we don’t find him, you should give Charlie this advice. Tell your pal to take the cash and run, or both of you are dead, understand?”
“What do you mean, take the cash?”
“You heard me,” he said. “Remember, our friend from Allentown has your picture too.” And then he was gone, along with Louie, headed for a ride on the Ferris wheel.
I waited a bit until they were out of my sight, and then I hurried back into the park, back to the right, and up the stairs to the Fun Deck. I expected to see a toddler-shaped figure shaking with fear in the rear of the Glass House, but there were only a couple of kids and a father comforting his daughter who had banged her head.
I looked around for Charlie: nothing. I went to the rear of the deck. There was a low fence surrounding the whole of the upper level and, on the ground below, a number of small spruce trees. One of the trees was strangely bent, its tip hanging limp. I looked at it for a moment and then turned my gaze to the street, following it south. In the distance I could see a squat figure in plaid shorts running, not moving very fast, but running, running away, running for his life.
He had been running for fifteen years. It was time for me to bring him home. But first I had to learn exactly what he was running from, and then I had to figure out why figures as disparate as the high-priced lawyer for the Randolph Trust and the two knuckleheads of Up with Hoods all seemed ever so determined to make sure that I failed.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Carl, but you’re not on the list.”
“What do you mean, I’m not on the list?” I said, my voice filled with a false indignation, false because in the whole of my life I have never been on the list. “Of course I’m on the list.”
“No, I’ve looked twice, and you’re not,” said the large, bald-headed guard at the reception desk. “As a general rule, we don’t allow visitors who are not on the list.”
And as a general rule, I thought, I don’t feel bound by general rules. “But he’s my Uncle Max. Of course he’ll want to see me. My sister’s in town for only a few days and she was always his favorite niece.”
The guard turned his stare toward Monica, standing behind me with her gas-station bouquet of flowers. His gaze swooned at the sight of her loose white shirt and tight black leather pants.
“I haven’t seen my dear Uncle Max in years,” said Monica in her little girl’s voice. “I doubt he’d even recognize me anymore.”
“But I’m sure she’d cheer him up, don’t you think?” I said.
Monica smiled, the guard’s eye twitched.
“Please,” she mouthed, without a sound coming through her lips.
“Well, seeing that there are no special restrictions on his sheet,” said the guard, “and seeing that you all are related-”
“On our mother’s side, twice removed,” I said.
“I don’t suppose there’d be any harm.”
“Oh, thank you,” said Monica. “What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Pete,” she said.
“Uh, yeah. Okay. Let me see some ID, sign in, and I’ll take you guys to him personally.”
The Sheldon Himmelfarb Convalescent Home for the Aged was a cheerful little warehouse in the northern suburbs, not far from where I went to junior high school, so I was familiar with the landscape of its despair. There was a small lawn, a big parking lot, and a host of bright, processed smiles to go along with the processed hospital smell that was pumped out of the vents. We had never before actually met Uncle Max, who wasn’t actually our uncle, but word was that Uncle Max’s visitors weren’t strictly restricted, that he didn’t quite remember as much as he used to, and that he sure would appreciate the visit.
Pete stood in the doorway watching as I entered the room and spread my arms wide. “Uncle Max,” I said in a loud voice with a great deal of enthusiasm. The unshaven old man in the bed sat upright at my entrance, a puzzled expression on his long, grizzled face. “It’s me, Victor.”
“I’m your second cousin Sandra’s son. You remember Sandra, don’t you?”
“Sandra?” he said, with a sadness that indicated there were many people now whom he was forgetting.
“Of course you remember Sandra. Big hips, small hands, and she made that great three-bean salad.”
“Oh, Mom made the best three-bean salad. It was the waxed beans. She always used fresh, boiled in salt water. It made all the difference. And then a good wine vinegar and basil from our garden. Don’t you just love a good three-bean salad?”
“I don’t think I know a Sandra,” said Max.
“And, Uncle Max, you must remember my younger sister, Monica. You were always so close. She came, too.” I yanked Monica so that she stumbled forward until she regained her balance right in front of Max. “Say hello, Monica.”
“Hello, Uncle Max,” she cooed, leaning over the old man, flowers held out before her. “These are for you.”
Max’s jaw trembled for a moment at the sight of her. “Oh, yeah,” he said finally. “That Sandra. How is she?”
“Dead,” I said.
“It happens,” said Max with a shrug of resignation. Then he patted the side of his bed. “Monica, tell me how goes life with you?”
“Fine, Uncle Max,” she said, sitting down beside him. From that position she waved her fingers at Pete, who smiled back before heading down the hall to return to his desk.
“Where are you now, Monica?” said Uncle Max.
“And you have a boyfriend?”
“Oh, yes. He’s an accountant.”
“Good for you,” said Uncle Max, growing livelier by the second, leaning toward Monica in the bed. “You know, I was an accountant, too.”
“Really?” said Monica. “I find numbers so alluring.”
“You mind if I turn up the music?” I said, indicating the small clock radio on the little table beside Max’s bed.
“Go ahead,” said Max.
A somber big-band ballad was wrenching its way out of the tiny speaker. I found a station playing good old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll, pumped up the volume, started strumming a little air guitar.
“Is that Bob Seger?” I said.
“Who?” said Max.
“No, but a good guess.”
Monica laughed. Max raised his eyebrows and opened a drawer beside his bed, pulled out a pint of rum and a small stack of plastic cups.
“You won’t tell?” said Max.
“Cheers,” said Monica.
And so we had a nice visit with Uncle Max, with the music and the rum, talking about our fake mother, our fake family, about Monica’s fake life and fake boyfriend in San Francisco. It wasn’t too hard to figure out that Monica was much happier in her fake life than in the real thing. And I must say, with the way he was laughing and patting Monica’s arm, with the way his eyes rolled when he sipped the rum, Max seemed pretty happy with his fake relatives, too.
It was small, the room Uncle Max shared with his roommate, just enough space for the two beds, a door to the bathroom, a couple bureaus and chairs, a pair of televisions bolted to the wall, and a drawn curtain that divided the space in two. We weren’t hearing a peep from the other side, just the low murmur of the television on some insipid talk show flitting over the music. Even so, while Max was telling Monica one of his more interesting accounting stories, I took the opportunity to slip around the loose white fabric and visit the man behind the curtain.
He had once been fearsome, you could tell, big jaw, big hands, his feet reached from under the blanket and over the far edge of the bed, but age takes its bitter toll on us all. Now he lay slack, his jaw shaking, his watery eyes open but unfocused. He turned his head slowly toward me as I stepped close to his bed, registered my presence, and then turned away again. I took the chair, pulled it close to him, sat down, leaned my arms on the edge of his bed.
“Detective Hathaway,” I said. “My name is Victor Carl. I’m a lawyer, and I have a few questions to ask you.”
WHEN I STEPPED out from behind the curtain, I was in for a second nasty surprise. Jenna Hathaway and Pete the guard were standing in the doorway of the room, glowering. And Pete had his hand on his gun.
“Hello, Jenna,” I said as calmly as I could. “It is so nice to see you.”
“What the hell are you doing, you son of a bitch?” she said.
“Just paying a sick call.”
“I’m going to put you in jail for this.”
“For visiting my Uncle Max?”
“For trespassing, for fraudulent misrepresentation, for harassment.” She stared angrily at me for a long moment, and then, without taking her hard gaze from me, she said, “Could you turn off the music, Mr. Myerson?”
Max shut off the radio and, without much guile, slipped the bottle of rum back into the drawer and closed it.
“I’m sorry these people have been bothering you,” said Jenna.
“These aren’t people, and there is no bother,” said Max as he patted Monica’s forearm. “They were just checking in with their old Uncle Max. They’re my cousin Sandra’s children.”
“Second cousin, twice removed,” I said.
“What does that mean, exactly?” said Jenna.
“I don’t know,” I said, “but it sounds about right.”
Jenna sighed wearily. “You don’t have a cousin Sandra, Mr. Myerson.”
“Of course I do,” said Max. “Or did. She died. Which is sad for all of us, since she made a very nice three-bean salad.”
“I need to stop you there, Max,” I said. “Mom made a fabulous three-bean salad. And who among us doesn’t love a three-bean salad?”
“I want you out of here, Victor,” said Jenna Hathaway.
“We’re still visiting.”
“Now,” she said, and there was something in her eyes, both angry and fearful, that stopped me from prevaricating further.
“I’m sorry, Uncle Max,” I said, “but I suppose we have to go.”
“It was so nice seeing you,” said Monica.
“You’ll come again?” said Max.
“When I’m in town,” said Monica.
“Good luck, then, in San Francisco and with your boyfriend. Tell him I give my regards, one numbers man to another.”
“I will,” she said, standing now.
“And next time you come,” said Max, “bring a bissel of that three-bean salad.”
When we were out in the hallway, Jenna stared at us both as she clasped and unclasped her fists. “We’ll go to the office now and call the police.”
“Are you sure that’s necessary?” I said.
“Oh, yes, I am. I’m going to pull your ticket for this.” She turned her head toward Monica. “And who the hell are you?”
“Now, where are my manners?” I said. “Let me introduce you to each other. Monica, this is Jenna Hathaway. Her father, the former Detective Hathaway, is Uncle Max’s roommate. And Jenna Hathaway, please say hello to Monica Adair.”
Jenna stared at Monica for a moment with an expression of awe mixed with disbelief, before surprising the hell out of us all by grasping hold of Monica like a long-lost sister and bursting into tears.
“It’s been like this for about a year,” said Jenna Hathaway as we stood in a sorrowful group beneath the bright sun in the parking lot outside the Sheldon Himmelfarb Convalescent Home for the Aged. She was fiddling with her keys, her head was bowed, she seemed younger somehow as she talked about her father.
“It’s been like what?” said Monica.
“My father doesn’t recognize anyone anymore. Not my mother, not his old friends. I’m just the woman who comes in every other day to say hello. It’s as if all the names in his life have slipped away from him, all but one.”
“Your sister,” I said to Monica.
Monica nodded without surprise, as if obsession with her sister Chantal were only to be expected, and, seeing the company she was in, maybe she had a point.
“Each detective has an unsolved case that haunts him,” said Jenna. “For my father it was your sister’s disappearance. He couldn’t abide the idea that a girl that young, so full of life, could simply vanish. He never put the case to sleep when he was still at the department, and when he retired, he took the file to keep working on it. That was going to be his hobby. But somewhere along the line, his mind latched onto the whole affair with something beyond obsession. Every day and every night he would stare at the file, at the pictures, the clippings, the strange lighter he found in your sister’s drawer. It was as if the rest of the world had ceased to matter and all that was left was the one thing that didn’t exist anymore – Chantal.”
I could see it right off during my brief visit behind the curtain. That was the first unpleasant surprise I mentioned before. I had come to Detective Hathaway with a series of questions, but he was the only one who did the asking. Have you seen her? Do you know what happened to her? She was just here, and then she was gone. His eyes were unfocused, his jaw trembling. Chantal. Where is Chantal?
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I have to get out of here. I have to find her. Will you help me?”
“I don’t think I can, Detective.”
“You have to, you must. I need to find her.”
“We all need to find her,” I had said.
“After a while my mother couldn’t take it anymore,” said Jenna Hathaway in that parking lot. “She grabbed the file, everything he had about Chantal, and burned it all. She hoped that would free his mind of the missing girl. But it didn’t work out that way, it only drove him deeper into himself. We wanted to believe he had willfully shut us out of his life. Somehow that was easier for us to handle than the truth, that his fixation with Chantal was an indication of something going awry in his brain. By then it was too late to do anything.”
“But you’re still trying, aren’t you?” I said.
Something changed in her just then. Her back straightened, her eyes flashed anger, she was no longer Jenna Hathaway, bereaved daughter. Instead she was now Jenna Hathaway, self-righteous federal prosecutor. It didn’t last but for a moment, before she deflated again.
“I thought maybe learning the truth might help,” she said. “Maybe if he found out what really happened to Chantal, he’d find another name to replace hers in his memory.”
Monica reached over and took hold of Jenna Hathaway’s hand. “I understand,” she said, and they looked at each other with the sad knowledge of their secret bond: They both had parents obsessed with the same missing girl.
“So how’d you light on Charlie?” I said.
“There was a task force formed to try to deal once and for all with the remnants of the Warrick gang. It wasn’t my usual turf, but they brought me in to see if there were any tax charges that could be leveled at the leaders.”
“The Al Capone strategy,” I said. Despite all his thieving and murders, it was a tax charge that finally sent old Scarface to Alcatraz.
“During one of the meetings,” said Jenna, “Charlie Kalakos’s name popped up. There were rumors that he wanted to come home. He had once before given information against the Warricks, and his testimony could be the linchpin of a RICO charge that could wipe out the gang once and for all. But I also remembered my father telling me of his suspicions about a connection between Charlie Kalakos, the Randolph Trust heist, and the missing girl. So I asked to be assigned to deal with Charlie, and I pressed the FBI to find him. That’s why they were outside Charlie’s mother’s house when you went visiting.”
“And why you’ve been such a hard-ass about giving him a deal.”
“I just want