The only witness to the arson was a one-armed marble statue of a naked man with ivy growing where his fig leaf should have been.
Julius Hyde, the sixty-something heir to a massive Pittsburgh steel fortune, had been pouring oysters down the throat of his twenty-year-old manicurist when his wife came home unexpectedly from an Arizona spa. Seeing her husband attend to his pubescent mistress while blowing cigar smoke all over the silk Scalamandré draperies pushed Mrs. Hyde to the brink of insanity. So said the newspapers.
But it was the sight of the couple’s Great Dane, Samson, wantonly sprawled beneath the table so the manicurist could rub his belly with her bare toes that truly pushed Mrs. Hyde over the edge.
She set fire to the house using a Bic lighter and an airline bottle of cognac.
The house and contents were insured for eighty-five million dollars.
Weeks later, when the police and insurance company gave up their investigation and the Channel 4 helicopter quit hovering over the estate, the neighbors began to complain that the burned-out house was a safety hazard.
That’s when the scavengers showed up.
On the evening of October 13, Roxy Abruzzo drove the Monster Truck between the stone gates of the Hyde estate, downshifting and roaring up the cobblestone driveway to the remains of the Norman-style mansion.
What had once looked like a grand French castle was now little more than a ruined hulk. Tattered streams of yellow caution tape left by the fire department fluttered from the shell like the forgotten decorations of a frat party busted by the cops. A blackened swag of wisteria hung from the portico’s crumbled stone arch.
In a city full of grand houses built by millionaire industrialists, this one had been spectacular in its day. Now, it was sad to see it looking so forlorn.
“On the other hand,” Roxy said aloud, “somebody ought to make a buck out of this.”
Happily, she drove under the portico to the back of the house.
Beside the garage, sitting on the dented remains of an overturned washing machine, was her right-hand man, “Nooch” Santonucci. On his lap, he protectively clutched the Dunkin’ Donuts box she’d given him that morning. The box was empty. He was licking the last memory of frosting from his thumb.
Nooch had weighed three hundred pounds back when he played defensive tackle in high school, and he’d gained another fifty since then—all muscle, no additional brain cells. Now he could bench-press a beer truck although he likely couldn’t read the words painted on it—both qualities that made Nooch the ideal employee for Roxy. All by himself he could carry a marble mantelpiece out of an old house, but ten minutes later he’d forget where he’d put it.
Which was useful.
“Where you been?” he asked before she shut off the engine. “I been waiting an hour.”
“Easy, big guy. I stopped to pick up some dinner.”
Nooch sat up like a hungry bear catching wind of a picnic basket. “From the restaurant?”
Roxy waved a foil packet out the truck window. “Flynn put out rigs and pigs for the staff meal. He sent some just for you. Look, I even brought you a fork.”
Truth be told, Roxy was so broke she had resorted to pilfering a hearty portion of rigatoni and sausage from the steam table where the kitchen staff at Rizza’s ate before their evening shift. Flynn, the upscale restaurant’s chef, had appeared out of nowhere and caught her slipping out the back door.
“Are you stealing food again?” he had demanded, grabbing the hood of her sweatshirt like he was pulling a troublesome puppy out of mischief. “Damn it, Roxy, you’ve been busting my balls since high school. What am I going to have to do? Beat your butt?”
“Kinky,” she’d said, knowing leftovers would be going to the homeless shelter in a couple hours, anyway. “But I don’t have that kind of time right now, sorry.” She wriggled out of her top layer of sweatshirts and escaped.
Nooch noticed her wardrobe change. “Where’s your shirt? Were you doing something with Flynn you shouldn’t be?” His big ears turned pink at the possibilities. “I wish you two’d just get married,” he said, “now that he’s back in town.”
“You gotta be kidding. Patrick Flynn is the last— Oh, the hell with it. Why am I arguing with you?”
“And you said you’d stop cussing,” Nooch said. “So stop.”
Beside her in the truck, Roxy’s brindle pit bull, Rooney, perched on the passenger seat with his forepaws braced on the dashboard. Rendered blind in one eye long before Roxy rescued him from the pound, Rooney often missed easy targets. But he must have caught a note of Nooch’s voice, because the dog suddenly gave a strangled howl before launching into hysterical barks. His slaver spattered the windshield.
Roxy grabbed his collar and hauled the dog off the dashboard. “Save your energy, fella. By now you know Nooch doesn’t taste so good.”
Rooney swung his big head around to lap her hand lovingly.
Giving Rooney a final pat, Roxy rolled up her window to about four inches and climbed out of the truck. She grabbed a pry bar from under the seat and slammed the door shut before the dog could scramble out. She put the takeout container on the hood of the truck.
“Can’t I have it now?” Nooch asked, crestfallen.
“After,” she said. “We’ve got work to do.”
“It’s all done! See?”
“You’re not finished till I say you’re finished.”
“All right, all right.” Nooch got to his feet. “Look,” he said, continuing the conversation they’d broken off many hours ago. “I been thinking about what you said. About how I should get some character witnesses for my probation hearing.”
“You can’t ask your grandmothers. They don’t count.”
“I don’t think either one’d have anything nice to say anyways. But Father Mike might.”
Nooch didn’t often get ideas all by himself. But she said, “Father Mike’s not a good choice. He’s not a priest anymore, for one thing.” Roxy hated to dislodge Nooch’s good opinion of his former boxing coach. “Besides, he’s your cousin somehow, right? You need somebody who’s not related to you. Also who isn’t a felon, doesn’t carry a gun, and doesn’t work for my uncle Carmine.”
Nooch frowned. “That’s just about everybody I know.”
“Present company excepted.”
“Huh?” His favorite word.
“Never mind. We just have to expand your circle of friends.”
He scrunched his meaty face in confusion. “How we gonna expand in a week?”
Getting Nooch off probation was one of Roxy’s priorities at the moment. For ten years, since the day he’d beaten Eugene Poskovich to a bloody pulp, Nooch had stuck to the letter of the law—including no associating with known criminals, which was harder in their neighborhood than others. And Nooch had kept a steady job, because Roxy hired him to keep the big oaf out of trouble. She’d pretty much stayed out of trouble herself on his behalf, too. But life was complicated and temptations popped up every day. Getting Nooch off probation would make a hell of lot of things easier for both of them.
Roxy pointed the pry bar at his misshapen nose. “You been behaving yourself for ten years now, right?”
“I guess so.” He must have thought of another small incident they’d managed to keep quiet, because he added, “Nobody really needs a spleen.”
“Right. Well, what matters is you’ve done what the judge told you to do. So now you’re due. Lemme take care of this hearing, okay?”
“But what about character witnesses?”
Sometimes there was no arguing with Nooch. He was an adult in most respects, except maybe his IQ, which was part of the reason the judge had ordered the long probation. But he could recite every word of the Lord of the Rings movies, so Roxy knew he was smart enough to get along in the world. He collected Spiderman comics the way other men kept porn, so he was harmless. No real threat to society. Though he could be relentlessly exasperating.
Roxy said, “I’ll take care of the character witnesses.”
Nooch’s expression went from misery to relief in a heartbeat. “Thanks, Rox.”
Roxy took a quick inventory of the day’s haul. Lined up in front of the garage leaned a pewter chandelier and the two halves of a soapstone fireplace decorated with twin griffins. About a hundred spindles from the main staircase sat in tidy piles, tied with twine.
“See? I got it all done,” Nooch said.
The trick to successfully scavenging architectural remnants was to let Nooch do the heavy lifting while she stayed on the move. Roxy best spent her time poking into decrepit houses, befriending little old ladies and lonely old men. She had a list of demolition guys she called every week and a network of antique pickers who kept her in the loop. Over the years, she’d learned to drop her pride around know-it-all yuppies who wanted to get rid of the junk that cluttered up the homes they planned to renovate into Architectural Digest splendor. Acquiring the good stuff and selling it off before somebody with better judgment stepped in to screw up the deal—that was Roxy’s gift. Lately, though, she’d been a little down on her luck.
“Ready to go now?” Nooch asked. “I’m hungry.”
She’d been looking up at the ruined house speculatively. “Let’s take one last look around.”
“Why not? Tomorrow they’re going to blow this place up. Let’s see if somebody forgot anything.”
“I hate it when you get this way.”
“You want a paycheck this week or not?” Roxy could barely afford gasoline for the Monster Truck, let alone Nooch’s pathetic take-home pay. They needed one more score. “C’mon.”
Grumbling, he followed her around the house, past a parking area that was jammed with expensive cars.
Roxy took a look at the lineup. “What is this? The Mercedes dealership needs some extra storage?”
“Must be a convention,” Nooch said, coming up with a line he’d heard before.
One car sported a vanity plate that read, BOOM. Probably the property of the demolition team, Roxy decided. And the demo business must be good if the owner could buy himself a new Mercedes.
She jogged up the back steps of the burned-out house. Nooch tagged along like an obedient dog. Inside the kitchen, they greeted a pair of surly dimwits who paused in their labor to remove a six-burner Aga stove. The Delaney brothers, who sometimes did a little dirty work for Roxy’s uncle Carmine. If Roxy’s moral compass occasionally pointed slightly in the wrong direction, these two had broken the needle. The aroma of marijuana clung to them in an almost visible smog.
The younger Delaney had his hair cut in a mullet and a herpes sore on his lip. He took one look at Roxy and joked, “Didn’t I see you wrapped around a pole at the Pink Pony on Friday night?”
“Hey,” Nooch said. “Don’t talk like that.”
“Yeah, very funny,” Roxy added. “I should knock your teeth out, but you don’t have any to spare.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Zip it, Jimmy.” Vincent, the more sourpuss Delaney—and the one who didn’t wear his glasses—must have decided Roxy was a security employee, because he pulled his salvage authorization paper from a hip pocket and handed it over to her.
She took a look—it never hurt to let people think she was someone to fear. The paper looked like the same one she had in her own pocket—signed by the honcho handling the disbursement of anything salvageable from the house. Handing it back, Roxy said, “What else have you lifted out of this place, Vincent? Besides what’s on your list?”
“Nuthin’, I swear.”
Roxy cocked an eyebrow. “You sure? I’ve got a sick grandmother who says otherwise.”
He understood the sick-grandmother code and dug a twenty out of his pocket. “That’s all I got on me. We got some of the copper last week—a few downspouts, that’s all. Somebody else got the rest of it, though. You know how sneaky the druggies can be.”
The younger Delaney had chosen that moment to light up the remains of a smelly joint, but he dropped it and tried to snatch back the twenty. “Hey, that’s Roxy Abruzzo, dude, not the city code guy. What the hell are you doing?”
With a smile for both of them, Roxy pocketed the bribe. “I won’t tell a soul about the pipes. They’re yours as far as I’m concerned.”
“You’re a discerning judge of character, Jimmy. Look, if you two losers want to get out of here alive, you better hurry up with that stove. The demolition guys are supposed to blow this place up tomorrow. They’re planting charges right now.”
Jimmy responded to Roxy’s show of concern for her fellow man with a one-fingered salute.
She laughed and left the Delaneys to their herbal refreshment. With their twenty bucks in her pocket for some gasoline and maybe a pitcher of beer later, she climbed over the rubble in the doorway and headed into the formal rooms of the ruined house.
In the foyer, the wooden floors were warped from a zillion gallons of water pumped in by the fire department. Likewise, the horsehair plaster had cracked and crashed down from the walls. Crunching it underfoot, Roxy led Nooch past the skeleton of the main staircase. Once the grand stairs had wound upward to the upper floors with a handsome chandelier lighting the woodwork, but now, evening sunlight slanted down from the open sky above. A blue jay swooped through the foyer.
Upstairs, they could hear voices calling back and forth—probably the demolition team figuring where to plant their charges. One of them revved up a power saw. Roxy decided to skip meeting them. Guys with dynamite always had a weird sense of humor.
The billiards room was a disaster site—nothing left except the cracked remains of the slate of the pool table.
The long dining room had two pairs of French doors at one end. Both hung off their hinges, not worth saving. The parquet floor was in bad shape—also from the fire hoses. Somebody had ripped out the coffered ceiling before Roxy had a chance to bid on the job, which was too bad. She’d been lucky to get the soapstone fireplace, though. Chances were she could sell it for a tidy sum to a developer building McMansions in the suburbs.
Nooch stopped in the doorway of the dining room and blinked up at the remaining plaster squares of the ceiling. Painted cherubs floated there, trailing garlands of flowers.
Nooch sighed. “It sure is pretty.”
There was no sense agonizing over the painting—done by Joseph Laurencia at the turn of the century, if Roxy was any judge. Lots of these old mansions were decorated with fancy murals that would crumble when the house fell down, so she considered them a waste of paint.
She hefted her pry bar, itchy to find one last thing of value. “Very nice. But we can’t scrape it off the ceiling, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Let’s have a look outside.”
“Just come on, will you?”
Roxy headed across the dining room floor, then pushed through the broken French doors to the terrace.
A broken patio table with a set of wrought-iron chairs stood on the flagstones. The scorched remains of the garden curved away from the house, and a line of tree skeletons framed the swimming pool. The water in the pool was green already, and some blackened leaves floated on the surface in a skim of greasy soot.
Pissing into the pool was Julius Hyde himself, the man of the ruined house. At Roxy’s approach, the billionaire turned his head and grinned around the stub of a cigar.
She said, “You’ve still got a pretty good arc, Julius. Impressive for a man your age.”
“Roxy Abruzzo. Still a wiseass.” He took his time tucking himself back into his trousers. “Who are you trying to hoodwink today?”
“Not you, that’s for sure.”
“Don’t lie to me, girl. I know a con artist when I see one.” He zipped up. “Still shooting pool for lunch money? And reading all those library books?”
Roxy shrugged. “Now and then.”
“I hope you return a few of them. The books, that is. I don’t mind losing the lunch money. You played with admirable finesse. Either that or you cheated. And if I didn’t notice at the time, you deserved your winnings.”
Roxy had met Julius last spring when he wanted to modernize the old carriage house into a garage. The house had been beautiful back then. She’d taken a few pieces of the carriage house, and he’d offered her a drink on his patio while he wrote her a check. They’d shared a couple of laughs after that and played a few games in which Roxy showed no mercy. She cleaned his pool table and his wallet, but Roxy had liked the guy. Admired his tendency to make up rules as he went along. She appreciated that he didn’t treat her like some kind of French housemaid when he’d made a pass at her. And he’d taken her rejection graciously.
Too bad his pool table had burned up. She could have won a few more extra bucks from him.
He said, “I see you’re still babysitting that moron.”
She should have hidden her tightened fists behind her back. “At least he knows when to keep his pants zipped.”
Julius shrugged. “An underrated virtue.”
Without his clothes, Julius Hyde might look like one of those half-animal men that played the flute at orgies—heavy in the thighs and hairy-chested. Even now, curly white hair bristled at the open collar of his crisp pink shirt. Roxy wondered if his legs were all woolly under his trousers—although she wasn’t curious enough to find out. He wore his white hair long, combed back from his forehead and waved over his shirt collar. He looked like a rich man who enjoyed his pleasures.
“Damn shame, isn’t it?” He cast a glance up at the burned remains of the house. “I’m sorry the old place ended up like this.”
“The insurance company will make you feel better.”
“My mother may feel better,” he corrected. “Depending on what the insurance company decides. Funny, isn’t it? A man like me still living in my mama’s house?”
The question sounded like one of those rhetorical things men consider when they’re feeling blue. But Roxy knew Julius had plenty of consolation prizes. He’d grown up in a filthy rich family, and when his father died he’d inherited enough dough to run a small country. When his old lady finally kicked, he’d inherit even more. He had dabbled in business, but gave it up to a younger brother when he’d lost interest in empire building and started making lousy friends and a few fierce enemies instead. He’d married a few times, but eventually stopped caring what anybody thought and did as he pleased. Roxy figured he was rich enough to get away with anything. His latest girlfriend made him a laughingstock in the city, but Julius hadn’t cared.
Until now, maybe.
Julius took a slim silver flask from the pocket of his trousers and unscrewed the cap. He had a nostalgic look in his eye as he glanced around the grounds. “I grew up here, you know. Before they sent me off to school. There’s a bomb shelter under that piece of lawn over there. A real bunker. I could have kept a girlfriend down there and nobody would have known. My wife Monica would never have fired up her curtains.”
“That’s creepy, Julius. Bad enough you have a girlfriend young enough to be your grandkid, but locking her in a bunker? Too freaky for me, and that’s saying a lot.”
He laughed shortly and removed his cigar to sip from the flask. “Do you have family, Roxy?”
“Well, someday she might drive you to socially inappropriate behavior.”
“It doesn’t take my kid to do that.”
Another laugh. “No regrets?”
“Good for you.” There was something else glimmering in his eyes, though. Sadness? Or maybe he’s nipping at the flask for courage, Roxy thought. To her, Julius suddenly looked a little spooked.
“You feeling some regrets, Julius?”
“It’s too late for that.” He caught her looking curious and grinned. “What are you doing here, though, young lady? Picking at the bones like the rest of the vultures? Why aren’t you out for dinner with a nice young man?”
“I’m still doing an honest day’s work, that’s why.”
“Not so honest sometimes,” he observed, then checked his watch as if he had an appointment. “I suppose that’s why I like you. There’s larceny in your soul. I’ll leave you to your job. Time for me to toddle off.”
With more sincerity than she usually felt, Roxy said, “Take care of yourself, Julius.”
“That’s what I do best.” He straightened his shoulders, summoned his self-respect, and departed.
Roxy watched him swagger around the house, but shook herself of the notion that maybe she should go after him.
“He okay?” Nooch asked.
“He’ll be fine. Amazing how a billion dollars can brighten your day. C’mon, let’s take a look around. I need to pay my kid’s school fees by next week or the nuns kick her out.”
She led Nooch the opposite way—around the terrace and past a row of burned hydrangeas.
On a previous visit, Roxy had found a shopping cart and some ragged blankets in the remains of the pergola at the end of the pool—evidence that homeless people had moved in after the fire. But today the shopping cart was gone. Left behind was a black barrel full of ashes. The scavengers had probably burned the plastic coating off copper wire here. They’d left nothing of value.
Roxy pushed past the bushes.
A marble statue stood in the flower bed behind the pool, half hidden by the collapsed pergola. A naked man, maybe a gladiator, judging by his stance. Forgotten, he stared nobly into the distance, as if watching his troops march off to victory. A tangle of ivy swarmed up his muscular leg, evidence that he wasn’t marching anywhere anytime soon.
“Whoa.” Nooch stopped short behind her. “Who’s the dude?”
“Some hero, I guess.”
He must have been holding a sword or a javelin at one time, but now his whole right arm was gone. The back of his head and most of his helmet were missing, too, but that didn’t matter much. Judging by the way he jutted his jaw and curled his lip, he had an ego bigger than his dick.
But Roxy could see he was special. A kind of energy coiled beneath the surface of his marble skin. He was very old, she guessed. And the owners of the house had forgotten about him. Otherwise, why was he still standing here? The night before demolition? A final ray of sunlight slipped through the tree branches overhead and danced along the curve of his magnificent shoulder.
With her pry bar, Roxy tore away some of the ivy.
“What are you doing?” Nooch asked. “You don’t want that, do you?”
“I sure do.”
“Why? It’s broken. You always say condition, condition, condition.”
“Not in this case.”
She slipped the blade of the bar beneath the base of the statue. Crusty with decay, the pedestal flaked a few crumbs, and then a splinter of marble broke loose and skittered down into the weeds. The statue rocked gently above her.
Roxy steadied him with a hand on his knee. “Easy, big boy.”
“Are we supposed to be here?” Nooch glanced over his shoulder in the direction Julius had gone. “Aren’t we just supposed to take the stuff we already got?”
“How am I supposed to pay my kid’s tuition bills if I don’t show a little creativity? Besides, they’re blowing up the house tomorrow, right? So whatever’s left behind is going to get destroyed. It’s free for the picking.”
“What if Mr. Hyde comes back?”
“Just go get the handcart.”
With a sigh, Nooch lumbered off to do as he was told, and Roxy patted the statue’s bare butt. “No worries, fella. I’m going to find you a nice new home.”
Copyright © 2010 by Nancy Martin