August, one year later
“If his word were a bridge, I’d be afraid to cross.” Or as my bubbe, my mother’s mother might have said, in Yiddish rather than English, “Oyb zayn vort volt gedint als brik volt men moyre gehat aribertsugeyn.”
Trust me; it’s runnier in Yiddish. I know. I also know that Yiddish is the voice of exile, the tongue of ghettos, but, believe me, I’ll shed a tear when it joins ancient Greek and dead Latin. For gossip and insult, you can’t beat Yiddish.
I imagined that shaky bridge the entire time I was talking on the phone. Caught a glimpse of it later that evening, while interviewing my client. But that’s getting ahead of the story, something my bubbe would never do. “A gute haskhole iz shoyn a halbe arbet,” she’d say: “A good beginning is the job half done.”
The lawyer’s voice oozed condescension over a longdistance connection so choppy it made me wonder if Fidel Castro were personally eavesdropping.
“Excuse me,” he said firmly, the words a polite substitution for “shut up.” Enunciating as though attempting communication with a dull-witted four-year-old, he said, “I believe this conversation would be better suited to a pay phone. I’ll ring you in, say, half an hour.”
I’ve never met Thurman W. Vandenburg, Esq. My mind snapped an imaginary photo: the tanned, lined face of a man fighting middle age, a smile that displayed perfectly capped teeth, pointed like a barracuda’s.
“The same phone we used before. I have the number, if you can remember the location—” he continued.
I stopped him with, “I’m sitting in that very booth, mister. And you’re eating my dwindling change pile. I don’t want trouble. I want the shipments to stop. ¿M’entiendes?”
There: I’d managed five sentences without interruption. I’d included the key words: Trouble, shipments, stop. I hadn’t said “money.” He’d understand I meant money.
“I’ll call back in ten minutes,” he replied tersely.
“Wait! No! I have a client, an appointment—”
I white-knuckled the receiver. I hate it when sleazy lawyers hang up on me. Hell, I hate it when genteel lawyers hang up on me, not that I have much occasion to chat with any. Classy lawyers with plush offices and desks the size of skating rinks are not exactly a dying breed. It’s just that I don’t come into contact with the cream of the crop in the normal run of my business.
I compared my Timex with the wall-mounted model over the pharmacist’s counter. If he actually called within ten minutes, and if my after-hours client ran on the late side, I might barely squeak in the door with minutes to spare.
I wish drugstores still had soda fountains. I could have relaxed on a red vinyl stool, spinning a salute to my childhood, sipping a cherry Coke while reviewing my potential client’s hastily phone-sketched plight, a situation distinguished more by his breathless, excited voice than the unique nature of his problem. I sighed at the thought of disappointing him face-to-face. Missing persons are a dime a dozen. Amazing the number of people in this anonymous big-city world who think they can make a fresh start elsewhere, wipe their blotted slates clean.
There was no soda fountain, so I lurked the aisles, for all the world a shoplifter, or a woman too chicken-shit to buy a box of Trojans from a pimple-faced teen-aged clerk. The newsrack provided momentary diversion. The Star trumpeted DEATH ROW INMATE GIVES BIRTH TO ALIEN TRIPLETS! in uppercase twenty-four-point bold.
The Herald led with a heavily hyped local story: WILL VOTERS GO FOR DIVORCED MAN WED TO WOMAN 19 YEARS YOUNGER? Boston magazine handled the same sludge more tastefully, focusing on the upcoming gubernatorial race with a simple, CAMERON: THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING.
By the time the phone rang nine minutes and forty-five seconds later, I’d guiltily spent eighty-nine cents on a pack of spearmint Tic Tacs. Thurman W. Vanden-burg, aka Miami Sleaze, might not be my idea of an upstanding member of the bar, but he was prompt.
“Nothing I can do,” he said, not waiting for me to speak.
“Well, I can do plenty,” I replied quickly. “Expect a large package of cash in the mail. I’ll bet you know dodges the IRS hasn’t heard more than a million times.”
“The situation is somewhat delicate.”
“Sure it is, buddy, but I’m out. I’ve managed to invest Paolina’s cash so far. Legit. It ends here. No más.”
“There’s no evidence that she’s his daughter,” the lawyer snapped.
“Except he sends money,” I replied dryly. “For her, through me. What’s your problem? Afraid he can’t pay your fees?”
“He’s missing,” Vandenburg said softly.
It took a minute for the words to sink in.
“No names,” Vandenburg insisted.
“Jesus Christ,” I murmured slowly. “Ooops, that’s a name. Sorry.”
Total silence followed by a muffled eruption. Could have been Vandenburg chuckling. Could have been Castro swallowing his cigar.
“No names,” I repeated.
“I’ve been out of touch with our mutual friend,” Vandenburg said, “for a certain number of days. That sets off a chain of events, financial and otherwise. I don’t think you’ll be bothered.”
“Is he dead?”
“I have no idea.”
“Don’t blow me off. I need to know. Is he dead?”
Thurman W. Vandenburg terminated the call. No doubt he’d been clocking it with a stopwatch. No doubt he knew exactly how long it would take the DEA to get a lock on the pay phone.
The drugstore on Huron Avenue boasts one of the last of the true phone booths, with a tiny seat and a bifold door, a poignant reminder that once upon a time phone calls were considered private conversations. Ma Bell installed it and NYNEX obviously hasn’t found it yet. If they had, they’d have ripped it out, gone for the handy-dandy wall model.
I automatically scanned the aisles before exiting. I assumed the Drug Enforcement Agency would be all over Vandenburg’s calls, simply because word is out: If you get nailed on possession of a narcotic substance in the great state of Florida, Vandenburg’s your man.
So I wasn’t surprised to see the guy. Dismayed, yes but not surprised. He wasn’t watching me, wasn’t waiting like a total fool, artillery bristling. He was strolling the aisles and his mild-mannered browser routine might have worked if not for the incredibly hot weather, which surely wasn’t his fault. His windbreaker drew my attention like a red flag. The bulge under his armpit riveted my glance. The outline of a bolstered gun is unmistakable.
I had no desire to explain my Miami connection to the DEA. My fingertips touched 911 as I slid slowly to the floor of the booth, my T-shirt riding up in back, cool plasterboard tingling my sweaty skin.
The Cambridge emergency dispatcher answered on a single ring. That-a-girl!
I pitched my voice deliberately high, lisped, and paused in a childlike way. “Um, uh, there’s a man with a gun,” I said cheerfully.
I heard a muted thud, as though the woman had set down a coffee cup in a hurry. “Where, honey? Now, don’t you hang up, child,” she said.
“In the drugstore,” I replied in my singsong little voice. “Mark’s Drugs, I think. On Huron Avenue. I’m with Mommy and the man has a gun, just like on TV.”
“Good girl, honey. What’s your name? Can you leave the phone off the hook—”
I didn’t hear the rest of her advice because I was crawling toward the door behind the pharmacy counter. The front door sports a string of bells to signal customer entrances and exits. The back door doesn’t. I wedged my ass through the opening and slithered from air-conditioned cool into the inverted air mass that had hovered over Boston for the best part of early August, holding temperatures above eighty, redlining the pollution index. A street lamp cast a yellowish haze. The night air hung thick and noxious: recycled exhaust fumes, heavy and sticky as a steam bath.
Somebody ought to sweep the damned alley, I thought. Clear away the busted beer bottles. I inched forward. Glass, or maybe a sharp pebble, pierced my right knee. I felt for smoother pavement, glanced up.
No visible observers. Distant approaching sirens. I’d have loved to hang around, listening to the Cambridge cops dispute territorial rights with the DEA. Instead I stood, quickly brushing my kneecaps, and walked home, thankful I’d dipped into my savings for Paolina’s three-week stay at a YWCA-run camp on a perfect New Hampshire lake. No chance she’d see a newspaper in the back woods. If anything dreadful had happened to her dad, she wouldn’t run across some gruesome death-scene photo unprepared . . .
I’d never told Paolina, my little sister from the Big Sisters Association, that her biological father, the alleged drug baron Carlos Roldan Gonzales, had been in touch. It had never come up in conversation. I’d never mentioned his irregular cash shipments.
I found myself hoping Roldan Gonzales was dead, then trying to take back the thought as if it had the power to do the deed. His death would make my life easier, no doubt about that. I’d never have to explain. I could present Paolina with the money as a gift, me to her, no intermediary, no ugly stain on cash that must surely have come from the drug trade. It could be what I’d named it for the IRS’s benefit: track winnings. Simple luck, passed on with love from Big Sister to little sister. College. Travel. An apartment of her own when she turned eighteen . . .
Except it would all be a lie without Carlos Roldan Gonzales’s name attached.
Lies don’t usually bother me much, but I try not to lie to Paolina. She means too much to me. And lies have a sneaky way of tiptoeing back to haunt you.
I glanced at my watch and doubled my pace, vaulting a fence, cutting diagonally through my backyard.
I wondered if the guy had really been DEA or just a casual drugstore holdup man. The cops would go a hell of a lot tougher on him if he were DEA. I know; I used to be a cop. They hate federal poachers.
Safely in my kitchen, I downed an icy Pepsi straight from the can, standing in front of the open refrigerator to bring my temperature down from boil. I stuck my hair in a stretchy cloth band, bobby-pinning it haphazardly to the top of my head. I was dabbing my sweaty neck with a wadded paper towel when the doorbell rang.
A prompt sleazy lawyer followed by a prompt potential client. What more could a private investigator want?