Hearts of Sand

A Gregor Demarkian Novel

Gregor Demarkian Novels (Volume 28 of 29)

Jane Haddam

Minotaur Books

ONE
 

1
On the day that Bennis found the cat, it rained.
It rained in a way Gregor Demarkian hadn’t experienced for years—not only heavily but wildly, with thunder that rattled the stained glass windows on the main staircase landing and lightning that cracked across the sky like something out of the old Boris Karloff Frankenstein movie. It was only six o’clock in the morning, and it felt like the middle of the night.
It also felt, as Gregor thought of it, impossible. It wasn’t the weather that was the problem, but the house. What he agreed to all those months ago, when Bennis had wanted to buy the place, was that they would buy it and fix it up. Then, when it had been renovated, they would move in and put their own knocked-together apartments up for sale. The apartments were just up Cavanaugh Street, and Gregor felt nostalgic for them every waking moment of his life.
Part of the problem, he thought, as he stopped on the landing to listen to the rain, was that the house had not really been renovated. It was in the process of being renovated. All the upstairs halls had wood floors that felt oddly sandy when you walked on them. According to Bennis, this was because they had been “stripped,” which was something you did to them before you put shiny stuff on them and called them done. All the bathrooms but one had tiles missing from their walls and floors and fixtures that might or might not be fixed. The kitchen ceiling was mostly gone. The living room looked like the back office of a carpet and tile store, where all the samples were kept in a jumble in case anybody needed them right away.
He came down the rest of the stairs and into the front hall. There were little stacks of material swatches lined up against the moldings near the front door and a bigger stack of Bennis’s papier-mâché models for her last Zed and Zedalia book lying under the staircase newel. None of this debris was new, but for some reason it felt oddly more intrusive here than it had back at the apartment.
It was a very large house, owned for decades by an elderly woman who had had neither the resources nor the interest in keeping it up. Everything was wrong with the place. They had had to replace the furnace with something brand new. What was left of the old one wasn’t even salvagable. They had had to rip out all the old wiring and put in new. It was a miracle that old Sophie Mgrdchian hadn’t burned to death in her sleep. It was after they’d replaced the wiring that Bennis decided it was time to move in.
“I’ll be right there where I can stay on top of things,” she’d said.
Gregor thought that the reality was that they were right here where things could stay on top of them.
He went into the kitchen and opened the small, square “mini fridge” Bennis had bought to do for them until all the new appliances were delivered. The new appliances could not be delivered. The appliances could not be delivered until the kitchen was renovated. The kitchen would not be renovated until it was thoroughly gutted and then refloored. They also needed to find a new stamped tin ceiling and restore it over their heads.
Gregor sometimes had the feeling that a war zone would be less logistically problematic than this place.
He got out a small carton of cream and put it on the round table they used for everything. There were no kitchen counters left. He took a coffee bag out of a box on the table. He found his clean cup in the drainer next to the sink. The sink didn’t look entirely bad. It was porcelain, and very old. It had stains and nicks all across its surface. Still, it looked like a sink.
He got the plug-in kettle from the same round table where he’d found almost everything else. He popped the lid open and held it under the high, curved faucet that reminded him of his elementary school. He turned on the cold water tap and watched as the entire fixture started to shake. A second later, the cap at the top between the two knobs flew off, followed by a geyser of water that reached up almost as high as the twenty-foot ceiling.
Gregor turned the water off and stared at the faucet. The metal cap had fallen to a clanking halt in another part of the room.
“I forgot to tell you,” Bennis said from behind him. “We’re having some plumbing done. The guy was here yesterday. Anyway, you have to hold the cap when you turn on the water or it, you know, does that.”
“This was something we had done yesterday?”
“You were out doing whatever. Talking to the people at the Philadelphia FBI office? Something like that.”
“Something like that.”
“I should have told you,” she said again. “I thought this would be a perfect time to do it. You know what I mean. You’re going off tomorrow. You’ll be away a week, you almost always are. Or longer. I thought it would be a good time to get some of the serious work done.”
“What did you intend to do if I didn’t go off somewhere?” Gregor asked. “I don’t always go out of town to work. Are you going to be able to live in this place on your own if there isn’t any plumbing?”
“There will be plumbing,” Bennis said. “It just won’t be elegant plumbing. I know this seems like a lot of work, and a monumental inconvenience, but it really will be wonderful when it’s done. It’s hard to find places like this right in the middle of the city. There are only a couple of them right here on Cavanaugh Street. It’s just a matter of putting up with a little inconvenience now so that we have something better later. Deferred gratification. You’re always talking about deferred gratification.”
“It helps to know how long you’re deferring it for,” Gregor said. “The last I heard, this was going to take a couple of months. I think we may be past that by now.”
Bennis ignored this, and took the kettle out of his hand. She put it down on the table and looked around, squinting her eyes in the dim light cast by the floor lamp she’d picked up at IKEA to make do until real lights could be restored. Then she said, “Aha,” crossed to the other side of the room, and picked something up.
“Here it is,” she said, coming back with the cap. “It would be a really good idea not to lose this if we could possibly manage it.” She put the cap back into the center of the faucet fixture, held it down, and then started the water running. “Hand me the kettle,” she said.
Gregor handed her the kettle. Bennis stuck it under the flow of water, waited until it was as filled as it was allowed to get, and then handed the kettle back to Gregor. Then she turned off the faucet with her finally free hand.
“There,” she said. “It’s not all that difficult once you get used to it.”
“Ten years at hard labor isn’t all that difficult once you get used to it,” Gregor said. “But I wouldn’t want to try it.”
“Oh, Gregor. It isn’t going to take ten years. It isn’t going to take ten months, not the difficult parts of it, anyway. I know it looks like a mess, but it always does until it’s over. And besides. I thought you had work to do. I thought this was a big, important case you were working on. At least, that’s the way you made it sound when you got that call about it.”
“I don’t know that I’d say it was important, exactly,” Gregor said. “Not anymore. It’s an historical oddity, though. It’s important to the Bureau, because the original case was important. It wasn’t something I worked on when I was there.”
“Still, you’re interested in it,” Bennis said. “I don’t mean to be vague or flippant about it. It’s just that I have my mind on other things. It would be a good idea if you had your mind on other things, too. That way, we wouldn’t get in each other’s hair. Or something.”
Bennis had been putting coffee bags into cups and then water on top of them. She handed a cup to Gregor and went to the kitchen door. The thunder and lightning were still going on full blast. The day outside looked darker than it should have for this time of year.
Bennis opened the kitchen door and looked out. Wind blew rain into the house and into her face.
“What are you doing?” Gregor asked. “It’s a mess out there.”
Bennis was still standing with the door open. “I don’t know,” she said. “I heard something odd a minute ago. When I was in the bathroom.”
“Of course you heard something odd out there. It’s an absolute mess.”
Bennis closed the door. “It wasn’t that kind of something odd,” she said. “I don’t know what it was. It just sounded wrong.”
“That’s the kind of thing you say that I never know how to respond to,” Gregor said. “Are you coming to the Ararat? I told Tibor we’d meet him.”
“I’ll come in a bit. Donna’s supposed to be here any minute to help me with some things about the wallpaper. I really do hate wallpaper, but sometimes it seems to be the only answer. You can’t take apart plaster walls the way you do Sheetrock. I never thought I’d say it, but I’m beginning to feel kindly about Sheetrock.”
“I’m not a hundred percent certain I know what Sheetrock is,” Gregor said. “I’m going to go on over. Tibor and I will keep you a place.”
Bennis went back to the kitchen door, and opened it, and looked out. The wind was making a high-pitched whine.
Bennis closed the door again. “I really wish I knew what that noise was,” she said.
Gregor hadn’t heard anything to wonder about, so he finished off his coffee and headed back to the stairs to find a Windbreaker and an umbrella.
2
It was June. Gregor was sure it could not be really cold in late June, and that the rain could not be half sleet hitting his face like tiny needles—but that’s what it felt like, and the world was so dark, it almost seemed plausible. He kept his head down and his eyes on the sidewalk. He knew his way to the Ararat by instinct, even from this direction. He wished the day were less than terminally depressing, as if it mattered what the weather was.
Through the Ararat’s broad front plate glass window, Gregor could see Father Tibor Kasparian sitting in their usual booth, little stacks of papers spread out across the long, wide surface. The wind started picking up again. Gregor pulled the hood of his Windbreaker farther up over his head and went inside.
As soon as he stepped through the door, a dozen heads looked up from half as many tables, noted who had come in, and went back to whatever they had been doing. Linda Melajian rushed out from the swinging door at the back with a coffeepot in one hand.
“There you are,” she said. “Father Tibor keeps asking if I’ve seen you, which makes absolutely no sense, because with where he’s sitting, he’d see you before I did.”
She went to the booth and unearthed a cup and saucer from under Father Tibor’s papers. She filled the cup and looked around for the little metal basket of sugar packets. She didn’t find it, and went hurrying off to get another one from the kitchen.
Gregor sat down and pushed the papers around a bit. The little metal basket turned out to be on the stack between Tibor and the window. Tibor picked it up and put it back.
“I needed the space, Krekor,” he said, waving at the stacks of papers.
“What is all this?” Gregor asked.
“It’s the Problem,” Tibor said. “For a while there, I was beginning to think no papers really existed. I thought they’d made up the entire issue of the papers. It would make perfect sense, considering everything.”
Gregor picked up one of the papers and looked at it. Long ago—so long ago, he almost never remembered it anymore—he had trained to be an accountant. That was in the days when special agents of the FBI had had to be either accountants or lawyers, which said a lot about what old J. Edgar had thought his Bureau would be doing. It had been a long time, though. His skills were out of date. He had no idea if he had any skills left at all.
“Bennis isn’t here?” Tibor said.
“She’s back at the house, waiting for Donna to bring something,” Gregor said. “I’m not entirely sure what.”
“Does the house look like it might be finished soon?”
“The house looks like it might be finished in the twenty-second century. Last night, I found paint samples in bed. And there’s something about wallpaper, which Bennis hates, but she thinks we have to have.”
“You’ll be going away for a while,” Tibor said. “Maybe she’ll get a lot done and you’ll come back to perfection. What is it they say when they work out? No pain, no gain.”
“Today, I tried to turn on the faucet in the kitchen sink, and I blew off this little cap thing and water went spurting all over the ceilings. And you know those ceilings. They’re twenty feet high.”
“Yes,” Tibor said. “Well.”
Linda Melajian came back to the table. “Do you want a breakfast menu, or shall I just get you your usual cholesterol bomb? Bennis isn’t here, so I assume we’re going for the whole bacon, sausage, hash browns, three scrambled eggs extravaganza.”
“At least I come here,” Gregor said. “I could go to Denny’s or IHOP and get bacon ice cream sundaes, whatever those are.”
“There isn’t either of those close enough for you to get to unless you start driving, and I’m not expecting that anytime soon. I’ll be back in a bit.”
Linda took off, and Gregor watched her go. She was the youngest of the Melajian girls, but that didn’t mean she was very young anymore. And she ran the entire restaurant for breakfast.
Gregor looked back at the papers. “So?” he said.
Tibor nodded. “We’re up to six now. The Arkanian family out in Wynne. I remember when they came from Armenia. That was maybe five years ago.”
“Speak English?”
“Yes and no, Krekor, you know how it is. They spoke English well enough to get by. And we told them when we came that we would be there to help them if there were things they wanted to do. Things like buying a house. I don’t understand why these people don’t come to us and ask for help. Russ Donahue would have looked over the loan papers for them. I would have looked over the loan papers. I know nothing about the law, and I could see what was wrong with these.”
Tibor pointed his finger at one of the little stacks, and Gregor picked it up. He read the entire page through, stopped, and then read it again.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” he said.
“That’s what I said the first time I saw one of those,” Tibor said. “It doesn’t make any sense. But of course it does make sense, you just don’t believe it. And it gets worse, the more of the document you read. This is not a matter of people taking on more mortgage debt than they could handle, getting greedy for a house bigger than they could afford. I think this amounts to deliberate fraud.”
Gregor picked up the stack of papers again, read through the page again, then turned to the next page and read about half of that one. He put the stack down again. “It certainly is something,” he said.
“And it gets worse,” Tibor said. “There is the matter of the ownership of the loan.”
Gregor picked up the papers again. “NationReady Mortgage Finance,” he said.
“Maybe,” Tibor said.
Gregor cocked an eyebrow. “Maybe?”
Tibor sighed. “For hundreds of years, Krekor, if you bought real estate in this country, you got the deed and you took it to your local assessor’s office and you filed it. With pieces of paper, you understand. But these people, these people like NationReady, they did not do that. They used instead a national digital database of deeds.”
“All right,” Gregor said. “That’s not necessarily awful. It’s a digital age. Something like that was going to happen eventually.”
“Yes, possibly, Krekor, but in this case, it does not seem to have been competently run. The mortgages were all bought and sold in packages, and they were bought and sold very quickly, sometimes several times a day. And not all the transactions were properly recorded. So in some cases, nobody knows who owns the mortgage or who owns the house or who has a right to foreclose.”
“Well, that could be good news,” Gregor said. “If they can’t figure out who owns the mortgage, then it shouldn’t be possible to foreclose on the house.”
“Shouldn’t be, but that is not the way it is working out,” Tibor said. “We have been warned by the state attorney general’s office that NationReady and some of the banks have tried to foreclose on properties they could not prove they owned. If the buyer and his lawyer are not very sophisticated about these things, they sometimes miss that. People are forced out of their homes by people who have no right to force them out because they don’t own the mortgage to begin with, and nobody knows who does. But if you get forced out, it’s almost impossible to get back in again.”
“My God,” Gregor said. “This sounds like a Monty Python sketch.”
“Yes, Krekor, I know. But without the funny. And that’s not the end of it, either.”
“What more could there be?”
“The loan officers who set up these mortgages got paid on the basis of how many mortgages they made. So sometimes, when the buyer didn’t have the right credentials for a mortgage, the loan officer would change the application so that the numbers fit. They would change the income, for instance, or say there was no credit card debt when there was.”
“You’re sure the loan officers did this? People didn’t just lie on their applications?”
“First the loan officers tried to get the people to lie on the application themselves, but if they wouldn’t, the loan officers would make the changes themselves later.”
“That’s bank fraud,” Gregor said. “You can go to Federal prison for that.”
“Yes, Krekor, I know,” Tibor said, “but nobody is going to prison for it that I know of, and I have six families in foreclosure, all of them here from Armenia less than a decade. And we helped to bring them to America, Krekor, we are responsible to them. Two of these families are out on the street already, and we’ve had to find them accommodations elsewhere. And everybody has been very good about pitching in, but this is getting to be more than we can handle. And the legal things—tcha.
Linda Melajian came back with two plates, both of them the full cholesterol extravaganza, as she put it. She looked at the papers strewn everywhere and hesitated. Gregor and Tibor hurried to push papers out of the way.
“Don’t worry about getting them out of order, Krekor,” Tibor said. “There is no such thing as ‘in order’ with these things.”
Linda put the plates down and looked into their coffee cups. “I’ll be back with the pot,” she said, “and if that’s the mortgage stuff, I still say you should just dynamate NationReady and get it over with. We’ve got a whole family staying in our back apartment, and the grandmother keeps threatening to commit suicide. Not that I think she means it, mind you, but this is ridiculous.”
“It is criminal,” Tibor said.
“Be right back,” Linda said.
Gregor watched her go and then looked back at the papers. “You’d think there would be something you could do about outright fraud,” he said. “I know half a dozen first-rate Federal fraud investigators from at least four agencies who would love to bring down a big operation like NationReady.”
“NationReady has been bought by CountriBank.”
“They’d love to bring down that, too. You don’t know what these guys are like. Woman, in one case. They live to bring down big operations, especially if the operations are supposed to be respectable banks. They really hate banks.”
“They can hate banks all they want, Krekor, but that will not get these people back into their houses. And we are now stuck trying to make sure no more of them are forced out. It is not so simple as it sounds like it ought to be.”
“Maybe I’ll go talk to one of those people for you,” Gregor said.
“I would much appreciate it,” Tibor said. “I don’t think you will do much good, you understand, but I would appreciate it.”
“Of course it would do some good,” Gregor said positively, picking up his fork and attacking his sausage.
He always went for the sausage first, because it was the first thing Bennis wanted to take away from him when she saw he wasn’t breakfasting on fruit.
3
An hour later, with no sign of Bennis or Donna at the Ararat, Gregor walked back home to pick up his briefcase. The storm had died down. The wind was no longer violent. There was no more thunder. There was no lightning in the sky. The drizzle was still coming down, though, and it still felt cold.
Gregor went in through the front door of the house, because that was the place where the house looked most “done.” It was a beautiful entry, really, with a glass-inlaid door and a brass knob and knocker. As far as he could tell, Bennis didn’t intend to do anything at all about the building’s facade.
He let himself into the foyer, stepped over a stack of tiles, and took his Windbreaker off. There was an old-fashioned coat stand right there in the corner. Bennis had picked it up at an antique store somewhere or the other. He put his Windbreaker over that and headed for the back of the house.
“Bennis?” he said. “Are you all right? You never made it to the Ararat.”
He went past little mounds of bathroom fixtures, puddles of carpet samples, stacks of “home plan ideas” magazines that he was sure Bennis had never read. He let himself into the kitchen and heard a sudden, inhuman shriek.
Bennis was sitting on one of the chairs, holding a small, impossibly frantic animal in her lap. It looked like nothing Gregor had ever seen before. It was skeletal and matted. It was twisting around like it had no bones at all.
Bennis stood up and thrust it under a pile of blankets on the table. When Gregor looked again, he could see that the pile had actually been shaped into a little blanket cave. Shrieks came from the center of it, and the whole pile seemed to shake.
“What was that?” Gregor asked.
Bennis sat down again. “It’s a cat,” she said. “It’s a very small cat, and it’s half dead. Donna and I found it under the back porch with what was probably its mother and two litter mates. They were all dead.”
“All right,” Gregor said. “So you brought it in here. I didn’t think you liked cats.”
“I don’t mind them,” Bennis said. “And we couldn’t just leave it out there to die. We called the vet, and we’ve given it something to eat, but Donna went to get a cat carrier so that we can get it some medical attention. The vet says it sounds like it might be feral.”
“Which means?”
“Cats that have gone back to the wild, who have never lived with people. But if the mother cat had the litter under our front porch, the kittens might not have seen people but the mother cat might have, so—”
“All right, I can see that.”
“It is all right, Gregor, I promise you. I don’t intend to stick you with a cat. We’re just going to take it to the vet’s and then when it’s all right medically, we’ll feed it for a while and find somebody to adopt it. Maybe Tibor can adopt it. He likes cats. And the apartment is big enough.”
“You’ll have to ask Tibor about that,” Gregor said. “And the cat seems to be reemerging.”
Bennis got up to look. The cat was coming out on very wobbly legs. She picked it up and held it close to her chest, stroking its head. It curled up against her, and its shaking seemed to get less violent.
“Well,” Gregor said.
“Oh, I know,” Bennis said. “You think I’ve gone completely out of my mind. But it’s really not anything like that. And I promise you, the house will not take forever.”
The kitchen door rattled and Donna Moradanyan Donahue burst in, carrying three cat carriers and another pile of blankets, and being trailed by a small boy who looked as if his day had suddenly become not boring.

 
Copyright © 2013 by Jane Haddam