It had been a quiet day at the office but then, it was a Monday. I’d just faxed some paperwork over to Bob Leone’s insurance agency, and filed two paid invoices from Repos R Us for a couple of cars I’d helped repossess a week ago. The clock on my desk read 3:29. I was contemplating closing early when the door flew open and Ma stepped in. For a stranger who was getting his first glimpse of Ma, she was quite a sight. She stood less than five feet tall and had a helmet of Loving Care raven black hair that perched on top of her skull. Although she had washed away the gray, her face was still a careworn map that told the story of a woman whose son-of-a-bitch husband left her to raise six children alone.
A large black patent leather purse, a remnant of the sixties, hung on her frail-looking arm. I fondly called her purse the “Black Hole” because it held everything anyone could possibly need. There had been times she pulled things out of that purse that I’d had no idea I would need. For instance, when we went to Easter service last year, she pulled a Beanie Baby out of the “Black Hole” when one of her grandchildren got fidgety. After service, the plastic frames of Carla’s glasses broke and Ma pulled superglue out of her Black Hole to mend them. When someone sneezed and blamed it on allergies, she groped around and brought out some allergy medication.
I am often told I look like Ma, but I’m taller and my shoulder-length hair is a natural golden brown. Okay, the golden highlights are from a bottle, but it looks more natural than Ma’s Grecian Formula hair. Did I mention how fond I am of Ma? Even in the face of her bitter disappointment that I hadn’t yet married and had children—a fact of which she reminds me at least once a day—she still loved me.
It occurred to me that she hadn’t called me today—usually, we talk on the phone about once or twice a day. So it was a surprise that she had come to my office. In fact, it was surprising that she’d actually gotten out of Malden. Ma didn’t drive, hadn’t driven for over twenty years. Malden’s transportation system was difficult to understand, at best. If Ma wanted to go someplace, she either caught a ride from a neighbor, or browbeat one of her children into picking her up.
“Hi, Ma,” I said with a big grin. “This is a surprise. You must have gotten a ride with a neighbor. Want to grab an early dinner or something? I can drive you home afterward.” The prospect of taking Ma out to eat began to take on a golden glow—there were so many good restaurants, I would have a hard time choosing where to take Ma to eat.
Ma shook her head distractedly. It was then that I first noticed Ma was almost in tears. She hadn’t looked this upset since her sixty-year-old brother Sonny married a twenty-seven-year-old Nordic Lutheran girl from the Midwest by the name of Tricia Tronsgaard, who was an obvious golddigger. The fact that Sonny didn’t have two nickels to rub together until the third of every month when his pension check came in seemed to sail past Ma and the rest of the relatives.
I steered Ma to my pink and green sofa, a partial payment from a former client. “Ma, you okay? You weren’t mugged or anything, were you? You feeling all right?” She couldn’t be feeling all right, because she hadn’t commented on how the violent lilac walls clashed with the green and pink sofa. Until a few months ago, my office had been a soothing shade of dull beige. But in a fit of domesticity, my sister Sophia had painted the new apartment she and David shared with her two children, Stephanie and Michael. Stephanie had her bedroom painted lavender and there was enough left over to paint a sixteen-by-sixteen room. I nixed the idea of painting anything in my apartment lavender, and Sophia, with my sister Rosa in tow, had turned to my office to use up the paint. I often felt as if I was entering a Barbie-doll office and I keep looking for the Mattel stamp on my desk or my phone.
Ma hadn’t seen it until now, and she wasn’t commenting. So she must be feeling pretty bad.
Ma took a hankie out of the Black Hole, which now perched on her lap like a vulture. “I’m all right, Angela. Just upset, worried.” She dabbed at her eyes.
“Okay, Ma. What’s the problem?”
“Angela, have you heard from your brother?”
I had three brothers. She expected me to know which one she was referring to? “Uh, I heard from Carla this morning. Vinnie’s fine, according to her.” Carla was Vinnie’s second wife. She’d called to ask what she thought she should bring to Ma’s seventieth birthday party. We were having a big blow-out party for Ma, inviting all the relatives, renting a church hall, and everyone was bringing potluck. I was in charge of videotaping the event—I’d recently purchased a new camcorder, courtesy of my uncle Sol, who worked at a discount electronic store in Boston proper.
Ma waved a hand dismissively. “No, no, not Vinnie.”
I searched my memory. “Ray was at dinner last night,” I ventured.
She looked at me as if I was her idiot child. “Of course Ray was there. I saw him, too. You two were whispering in my den about that surprise party you’re throwing me.” Ma wasn’t supposed to know about the party, but she was one of those people you couldn’t keep a secret from.
Still, I tried. “What party?” I asked as innocently as possible.
She tilted her chin down and looked fiercely up at me from under her black (dyed) eyebrows. If she hadn’t been my mother, I would have said that she looked a little like Groucho Marx at that moment.
That left Albert. He hadn’t been at dinner last night. I sighed. “No, I haven’t heard from Albert lately. But you know that’s not so unusual.”
Ma blinked fast, her expression returning to the softer, more vulnerable look she had originally when she came into my office. I thought she was going to cry right then and there. I reached for the tissue box. Ma shook her head and I took my hand away as fast as I’d reached for it.
“Ma, tell me. What’s going on?” It wasn’t uncommon for me to go without hearing from Albert for weeks at a time. It wasn’t the first time he hadn’t made it to the Sunday dinner. He knew about Ma’s party, and he was good about showing up to important events, although he’d been known to make a late entrance.
Ma looked down, hesitant all of a sudden. I waited patiently. No use trying to rush Ma when she didn’t want to be rushed—which was most of the time. “He didn’t call me like he always does on Friday night,” she said.
I blinked. This was news to me: I had always assumed that Albert didn’t keep in touch with anyone in the family on a regular basis—including Ma. Ma had never mentioned it to me. Albert had always been in and out of our lives at his own leisure, and I had assumed that it wasn’t any different with Ma. How I could have assumed that, I don’t know. Now I was at a loss for words. But that didn’t stop me. I didn’t want Ma to know what I had taken for granted. “Okay, so he didn’t call, Ma. That’s not a crime.”
Ma winced at my words, and inwardly, so did I.
The Matelli clan had always believed, in a collectively unspoken manner, that Albert was involved with something illegal, something we didn’t want to know about.
“He always calls me on Friday night, just to touch base. And if he wasn’t coming to Sunday dinner, he definitely would have called to let me know.”
When I couldn’t make Sunday dinner, which was rare, I always called. All of us children had been brought up to show respect for our elders, and to always RSVP, even if it was a standing invitation. Albert would have called unless he couldn’t.
“Angela, I want to hire you to find out where he is. Make sure he’s all right.” She opened the Black Hole and took out her checkbook.
“No, Ma,” I said, meaning for her to put away her money. She fixed her dark brown eyes on me. Her stare could have cut me in half if it was a razor. “No? Are you saying no to me, Angela Agnes? You won’t put my worry to rest by taking this case?”
I smiled, despite the fact that she used my hated middle name. “I mean, no, Ma, you don’t have to hire me. You’re family. Albert’s family. I’ll look for him for free.”
I figured this was a piece of cake. My little brother was probably on a business trip or on a long weekend with a new love or doing something I didn’t even want to think about. Albert is Ma’s youngest son and she worries about him more than she does the rest of us. He had pneumonia when he was four and almost died, and since then, she’s been under the impression that Albert is delicate. I happen to know that Albert works out every day, either running five miles or spending an hour at his local gym, sparring with a punching bag.
We don’t talk about it much, but Albert works for the Mob in Rhode Island. Yeah, it’s kind of hard to believe that I could be working for one side and Albert has been working for the other side. But as far as anyone knew, Albert was no soldier or enforcer. I cornered Uncle Iggy once at a family get-together-actually, it was Aunt Rose’s funeral. Uncle Iggy is about the most “connected” Matelli we have in our family and he assured me that Albert’s hands were still fairly clean—no blood on them, anyway. He’d started as a bagman, then ran numbers, delivered packages, and now he ran front operations for the Mob.
In other words, if he were ever arrested in any of those situations, he would probably be set free for lack of evidence. “I was holding it for a friend” or “I thought I was running a take-out chicken place, I didn’t know I was fronting for the Mob,” would get Albert out on bail, maybe get him a finger-shaking from some judge if it ever went to court. But so far, Albert hadn’t been arrested or caught in a raid. He led a charmed life. Maybe that was why the Mob kept him around.
“Look, let me take you out to dinner, and we can talk about this, okay?” I slipped my arm around her.
She patted my hand and nodded. “You’re a good girl, Angela.”
I took Ma to an early dinner at an Italian deli down the street and, while we were waiting for our orders, she told me all the latest dope on the family.
“Aunt Sarah just had hip replacement surgery. She’s going through physical therapy and Uncle Martin tells me that every time she takes a step, he can hear the squeak,” Ma said after swallowing a mouthful of chicken salad. She was using her fork like a maestro uses his baton to direct an orchestra. “He asked the therapist about it and she told him the squeak would go away in time.”
“If it doesn’t go away, maybe they could go in and oil it every once in a while,” I replied. I was being facetious. I had skipped lunch to get all my paperwork done today, so I ate heartily.
Ma nodded solemnly. “I’ll ask if that can be done.”
I started to tell her I was kidding, but thought better of it. That would lead to a lecture on how important family was and how I shouldn’t make fun of old people and their hip replacements because “someday, mark my words, you will be under the knife and you’ll be praying to God that everything goes smoothly.” So I just smiled and chewed another mouthful of pastrami, sauteed onions, and provolone on rye.
“Speaking of Sarah and Martin, you know his sister, Beatrice?” I didn’t even have time to nod before Ma continued. Beyond my sisters and brothers and their immediate families, family relationships turn a little muddy for me and I find it easier to just feign knowledge where there was none. “Well, she wrote a letter to her son, John, telling him that she was divorcing him.”
I frowned. “Beatrice was married to Sarah and Martin’s son?”
Ma snorted impatiently. “Beatrice is divorcing John, her son.”
“Beatrice was married to her own son? Isn’t that illegal?” I was beginning to take a trip to fuzzy-town with all the soap opera goings-on.
Ma rolled her eyes. “She’s not divorcing him in the conjugal sense, Angela. It’s a symbolic divorce. Sarah confided in me that there’s been a lot of abuse between the two of them.”
“Sarah and John or Sarah and Beatrice?” I couldn’t believe I’d allowed Ma to pull me into her gossip mill. I barely knew these people. I’d probably seen John and Beatrice a total of three times in my whole life. Why should I care? But now, I wanted to straighten this whole thing out for my sanity, then instruct Ma to never mention these people again.
“For heaven’s sake, Angela, if you opened your ears, you might learn something. I was talking about Beatrice,” Ma said through clenched teeth. I could see she was beginning to regret having brought up this subject. “There has been abuse between John and Beatrice.”
“John’s been hitting his mom?” I asked. I didn’t know Cousin John very well, but I had just seen him that third time in my life, just last Christmas, and he’d struck me as a fairly mellow guy for a stockbroker.
Ma shook her head, her gold earrings dangling from beneath her short black hair sprayed into the likeness of a motorcycle helmet. “No, Sarah told me that Beatrice feels that John doesn’t pay enough attention to her.”
I recalled that John had taken his mom on an all-expenses paid three-week European holiday last year, just because he loved her. For Christmas, we had all been witness to the recliner and big screen TV that he’d given her. I remembered that Ma had mentioned in a big fat hint to all of us that John had taken his mother to New York City for a four-day weekend and wined and dined her on her birthday. I reminded Ma, and felt proud of myself for being able to dredge all this up in an instant.
She dismissed all my handiwork with a wave of her hand. “That’s just things,” Ma said loftily. “He doesn’t talk to her. When he calls her on the phone, he listens to what she has to say, then says, ‘Uh-huh. That’s nice, Ma. Well, I’ve got to turn in early tonight. Big meeting in the morning. Love you. Bye.’”
“So you’re saying he doesn’t talk to her. And that’s abuse?” I was getting a headache from trying to figure out what Aunt Beatrice was so upset about. I was of John’s generation, so I guess I wasn’t able to see what was the big deal. As a child, teenager, and adult, John had never struck me, in the few times I’d seen him, as much of a talker. It seemed to me that if Aunt Beatrice wanted someone to gossip with, she should have had a daughter. Besides, once you did get John talking, as I had finally done at the holidays after a few mugs of Tom and Jerry, he could be downright dull when he started in about stocks and his toy train hobby. But I refrained from saying anything to Ma. I was no perfect daughter and I was afraid she might start in on my less-than-wonderful qualities.
It was time to change the subject. “So Ma, what do you know about Albert’s plans for this week?” I hadn’t wanted to take this job too seriously at first, but now I was beginning to think about it—Albert was a good son. He called Ma every week, talked to her, unlike Cousin John. Maybe there was something to Ma’s worry. Of course, this was coming from someone who got a call from Ma every time I got the sniffles: “This is the third time I’ve called, Angela, and I’m worried you’re not answering the phone. You could be lying there, sick as a dog, feverish, dead for all I know. Please call me when you get this message.”
She shrugged and looked down at the remnants of her chicken salad. “Aah. I don’t know. Albert’s good at talking to me every Friday, but he never really says anything.”
I leaned toward her. “Ma, as an investigator to her client, I have to tell you, holding out on the investigator is going to make her job much more difficult.”
She closed her eyes. “But, Angela, you’re my daughter. There are some things a mother must keep from her children.”
I leaned back in my chair. “Ma, whatever you’re holding back from me won’t shock me. Remember, I spent eight years in the marines.”
She looked up and gave me a half smile. “Yeah, you don’t have to remind me, Angela.” Her voice took on a wistful tone. “Sometimes I wish you weren’t so self-sufficient, that you relied on me more.
I suppressed a smile. “You mean, you want me to be a kid again.”
Ma rolled her eyes and shook her head. “No, but your independence scares me.”
That’s why you rely on me so much, I thought. I’d always been the dependable one, the one Ma called when something was wrong with another member of the Matelli clan. I was the fixer, just like now.
Her shoulders squared and she said, “Albert works for the Mob.”
I suppressed the urge to say, “And—?” Instead, I raised my eyebrows in mild surprise. But I could never fool Ma. She waved her hand dismissively. “Of course, you knew that. But Albert told me he was thinking about leaving the Family. Now he doesn’t call me and I can’t reach him.”
Oh,” I replied into the heavy silence that followed.”That could be a problem.”
I often found it difficult to believe that he was working for the Mob in the first place. He had earned a degree in business and was putting it to use for a crime organization. Of course, the Mafia had paid for his college education, so that probably explained why he’d gone to work for them after he’d graduated.
She gave me a sharp look, but didn’t say anything.
I asked her the questions I would normally ask a client. “When did you last talk to Albert? What did he say to you? Can you remember anything that maybe didn’t seem important at the time, something he might have said that seemed unusual? Was there anyone who wanted to do him harm? Where was the last place he was seen by anyone? Who did he hang around with?”
Ma seemed overwhelmed. I was thinking that she didn’t realize exactly what I did for a living, and it kind of impressed her. She was silent after answering my last question.
“Are you okay?” I asked as I wrote the last name of Albert’s school chum in my notebook.
“Yeah, but I was thinking—”
I sat up a little straighter and prepared to be showered with praise.
“—maybe I’d better come with you. I’m not sure you’re gonna be able to investigate this case on your own.”
“Ma—,” I started to say something, then broke off. I could hear the air deflating from my grandiose idea that Ma might be impressed with my work. “—I don’t think that’d be such a good idea.”
“Why not? I know Albert better than you do. Besides”—she dug around in her purse and produced a key—“I have a key to Albert’s apartment.” She waved it like a carrot in front of my nose before dropping it back into her purse. It would be a good place to start.
I sighed, knowing I’d been bested. “Okay, Ma, you can come along on the apartment search, but that’s where it ends.”
Ma smiled for the first time since she’d come into my office, but I didn’t like her smile much. It was too smug.
HE WHO DIES … Copyright © 2000 by Wendi Lee. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.