The sun was inching its way into the sky, dusting the blue-green waves with sparkles. It was dawn in the Caribbean and a light breeze had set the mahogany trees dancing. In that quiet time, alone and listening as the day awoke, the thought of death never entered my mind.
I remember the cool, salty aroma of the sea and the steady rhythm of the waves. I was leaning back against the trunk of an old palm tree, digging my toes into the sand and sipping hot tea, feeling warm and safe, like a kid nestled on his mother’s lap. When I think about it now, I tell myself that it was just a dream, that it was never meant to last, which is almost true. Within a few short hours, the warm, fuzzy picture warped into something stark and distorted, and my world turned inside out.
Dr. Boris Koulomzin, my partner, says I’ve developed an unhealthy preoccupation with death, and maybe he’s right. On the other hand, that’s coming from a man so afraid of skin cancer that he wears long-sleeved shirts and gloves in the summer. Believe me, I know you can’t put things back the way they were. But late at night, alone in the dark, I can still see Johnny’s eyes. Coal-black eyes that didn’t reflect light.
Just before sunrise, I’d fallen out of bed and stumbled down to the beach. There had been a wee party in our shack the night before and I needed fresh air and cool water. Before leaving the bedroom, I brewed some hot tea and watched my beautiful Kathleen, the sensible one. She slept peacefully, the hint of a smile on her lips as she nuzzled a goose-down pillow. I really wanted to pat myself on the back for that little wrinkle, but far too many brain cells had been sacrificed in the name of fun to be sure I could take the credit.
Walking down the path to the beach, I was flanked on either side by brilliant red and white bougainvillea spilling off the rock walls in a tangle of color. The ground was still damp from an early morning rain, and the path was cool against the soles of my bare feet. Pretty soon, the fog inside my head began to lift. In fact, after a few sips of tea, I felt so much better, I decided I really was responsible for the contented expression on Kate’s face.
I sat on the beach and happily sipped my tea as the sun rose, banishing the shadows. Before long, there was nothing but a clear blue sky and warm sunlight all the way to the horizon. As the wind picked up, blowing the hair out of my eyes, I noticed white sails and brightly colored spinnakers weaving and bobbing out beyond the barrier reef.
Another day had dawned in paradise and I decided to celebrate the event by taking a nap. I dragged a couple of lounge chairs farther down the beach, into the shade, then lay down and quickly fell asleep.
“Mr. Donovan?” she whispered.
James Joseph Donovan to you, kid, I thought without opening my eyes. The woman had a deep, silky voice. Instead of opening my eyes, I lay there like a dope, listening to my heart pick up speed as I pictured someone tall and tan, in a string bikini.
Then I heard the ice cubes rattling. It wasn’t much of a warning; like hearing the hammer cock on a pistol just before you get shot. There was perhaps a moment’s pause before I felt the ice water and bolted upright, my eyes wide open at last. The first thing I saw was the smirk on Kate’s face; then I noticed the empty glass in her right hand.
That voice again. I turned to my left and found a very small, very wrinkled old woman in a faded hotel uniform. She smiled pleasantly.
“Yes, for God’s sake, yes, I’m Donovan. Now, could you please wait a minute?”
I didn’t wait for an answer; a tumbler of ice cubes was melting in my swim shorts. I ran down to the water and flushed them out. When I came stomping back to the lounge chairs, Kate was reclining with the newspaper as if nothing had happened. The little old lady with the lounge singer’s voice had disappeared.
“Good morning, darling,” Kate said sweetly.
“What’s with the ice cubes?” I demanded. I felt like a kid who’d been caught looking at dirty pictures.
“Don’t bother, Jamie. I know you too well.”
I tried to look shocked, but she ignored me, returning to the paper.
Kathleen Mary Byrne is a beautiful, obviously ruthless woman. Her large hazel eyes were hidden behind dark sunglasses, and even though her light-brown hair was pulled back into a tight braid, the natural blond highlights still sparkled. Seeing her in the morning light, her skin glistening with tanning oil, I forgot all about the ice cubes.
“Actually,” she said, lowering her voice, “I’m surprised you had the energy to even contemplate such a fantasy. After last night, I thought you’d be needing a physical therapist.”
“Really? Well, maybe you don’t know me as well as you think.”
I smiled and tried to squeeze next to her on the chair, but she knocked me off the edge with a swift kick.
“Don’t go getting yourself all puffed up again,” she teased. “Which reminds me, how’s your head this morning? You drank an awful lot of punch last night.”
I got up, dusted the sand off my shorts and moved to the other lounge chair. The question about the rum punch sounded an awful lot like “I told you so.” I ignored her, and shading my eyes with the palms of my hands, made a thorough survey up and down the beach.
“What happened to that old lady?” I asked finally.
“That sweet old lady has a name,” Kate said, peering at me over the rim of her sunglasses. “It’s ‘Magda,’ and she came all the way down from the main house just to tell you about a telephone call.”
Kate picked up the newspaper again. I waited a minute or two, but she didn’t say anything else.
Kate lowered the paper just enough to look at me.
“And I told her to forget about it.”
“Did you bother to ask who the caller was?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I see. And why was that?”
“Because we have a deal. Remember? No outside intrusions, no phone calls, no business. We’re on vacation.”
“Except in the case of an emergency?”
“Well, how do you know this wasn’t an emergency call?”
“I don’t,” she said patiently, as if I was really stupid. “If it is an emergency, they’ll call again.”
That was more than my tired brain could handle, so I settled back on the lounge chair with a section of the paper. While I was leafing through the pages, Kate decided to inspect the polish on her toenails. She’d already read the paper—the crossword puzzle was done.
When I got to the obituaries, I stopped. Reading the death notices is like sitting in the seat that faced backward in those old Country Squire station wagons—you get a chance to take a longer look at the things that have already passed you by. I usually start by calculating the average age of the deceased. In this case, the average turned out to be more than eighty, which was encouraging.
“Did you read the obits?”
“Oh, no, I didn’t,” Kate said, hopefully.
We connect in some very strange ways.
“Okay, let’s see,” I began, scanning the notices. “Hey, wait a minute, these notices are a month old!”
“I know, the plane from the mainland was late again this morning. I found that paper in the closet. But go ahead, read them anyway. I mean, it’s not like these are developing stories.”
She had a point. I started scanning again.
“Looks like we have a pretty boring group.”
“Well, at least read me the headlines and captions. There might be a hidden jewel.”
“‘Dr. Alfred P. Johnson, Eighty-five; Trained Physicians in Surgery.’ Any interest?”
“‘Martin A. Devine; History Professor and College Dean, was Fifty-five.’”
I stopped to check the cause of death, which was leukemia, then looked over at Kate. She shook her head.
“‘James Shulty,’” I continued. “‘Philanthropist and Manufacturing Chief, Hundred and two.’”
Mr. Shulty’s company made rolling overhead doors. That earned a yawn.
I looked up from the page.
“They all have pictures.”
“Aren’t there any smaller announcements?” Kate asked, hopefully. “You know, for someone who’ll probably get overlooked if we don’t take the time.”
“Just one,” I reported, double-checking. “A guy named Michael Adams. It’s very small.”
“Okay, read me that one.”
Kate dug a bottle of polish out of her purse and began to touch up her toenails.
“‘Michael Adams Memorial: A memorial service for Michael Adams, an interior designer who also painted cityscapes, was held last evening at the Fashion Institute of Technology, Seventh Avenue at Twenty-seventh Street. Mr. Adams died on March nine, from an AIDS-related illness. In lieu of flowers, friends are asked to send donations to the Gay Men’s Health Crisis.’”
“How old do you suppose he was?” Kate wondered.
I didn’t say anything. Reading about ninety-year-old generals and famous statesmen was interesting. Bearing witness as AIDS erased the lives of talented young people was not. For Kate, it was personal. She published a big fashion magazine and had lost quite a few close friends and business associates to the epidemic. She just sat there, an open bottle of nail polish in her hand, and stared out across the water.
“I think I’ll move on to the Sports Section,” I sighed, turning the page on Michael Adams and the others.
By two o’clock that afternoon, the sun had risen high enough to melt a hole in the sky. There was still a stiff breeze coming across the bay, but the beach had gradually heated up and we were both covered with tiny droplets of perspiration. The day had started badly and gotten worse: we’d let the newspaper invade our sanctuary, and it had pulled us dangerously close to the world we were trying to avoid. I got up and dragged Kate down to the water. I hadn’t dunked her in at least twenty-four hours and we both needed it.
She pretended to resist, but once we reached the surf, she dove right in and started swimming around cheerfully. I did not. I never do. I like to take my time entering the water. As usual, Kate couldn’t resist the temptation to splash me, and that made a dunking inevitable. I swam out beyond the reef, then leisurely paddled back in, sizing up my prey. When I was pretty close, I slipped below the surface and made my final advance underwater.
It is usually a very effective tactic. This time, however, the victim gave in too easily. I hesitated for a second, wondering if something was wrong. As soon as my grip relaxed, Kate rolled over, grabbed my swimsuit and pulled it down around my ankles. She was back on shore before I knew what had happened. I quickly pulled my trunks up, then chased her down the beach and would have caught her, too, if I hadn’t run into that old lounge lizard Magda.
She was waiting for us by the beach chairs, holding a piece of paper in her hand. Kate had been right—if it was an emergency, they’d call back.
The same old question.
“Yes, I’m Mr. Donovan,” I said sweetly. “Is there a message for me?”
She just grinned and carefully handed me the envelope.
I ripped open the telegram. It was from Manny Santos, the superintendent in my apartment building on Amsterdam Avenue near 101st Street in New York City. Santos is a tiny old man, with a big gut and plenty of brass. There’s an unconfirmed rumor that he actually does some work around the building, but I doubt it. Manny generally holds court in the lobby and keeps himself busy by running the local numbers game and by placing members of his extended family in odd jobs around town. He also works part-time for my consulting business, which operates out of two apartments on the seventeenth floor. The message was simple and direct, just like Manny:
DONOVAN, WHERE YOU BEEN? DOC IN BAD ACCIDENT. QUIT FOOLING AROUND. CALL BACK. NOW. MANNY.
I stood there dripping-wet, up to my ankles in the sand, and stared at the telegram. Kate took the wire from me and read it.
“Let’s go,” she said, throwing me a towel.
As I followed Magda and Kate up to the main house, I tried to imagine what could have happened. The “Doc” Manny referred to is my business partner, Dr. Boris Mikail Koulomzin. Boris and I operate a private consulting business out of our apartments, which are connected by a hidden passageway and occupy the entire seventeenth floor of the building Santos pretends to manage. The jobs we take on vary a lot in plot and setting. They can lead us into the presence of the exalted or, just as easily and quickly, drag us down into the mire. The one central thread running through our body of work is that the cases usually involve a problem nobody else wants to fix.
Dr. Koulomzin is a brilliant, somewhat eccentric scientist. He dresses almost exclusively in black, chain-smokes dark, gold-tipped Turkish cigarettes, and avoids exposure to sunlight, even when he’s fully clothed. Boris reads voraciously, plays the cello like a professional, and is a merciless competitor when engaged in a game of chess. Except for the smoking, however, these are not high-risk activities. The man just doesn’t lead the kind of life one associates with accidents. Unless he’d fallen off the balcony, or his computer had blown up, it was difficult to picture him having an accident.
I was trying to imagine what might have gone wrong as I stood at the front desk, listening to the buzz and crackle while my call raced along the circuits to New York City. Manny Santos answered on the second ring.
“Manny? It’s Donovan.”
“Donovan, where the fuck you been, man? I been callin’ all day. You get ma telegram?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
“Yo, them people won’t take no swear words in a telegram, otha-wise, I got some shit to say to you, gringo. Where you been? The doc’s hurt bad, man.”
Manny was scared and angry.
“Listen, Santos, this isn’t the time to be ragging on me. Just tell me what happened.”
He took a deep breath.
“You shoulda called soona.”
“Fine. Point taken.”
“Okay. Lemme see.” He paused and took another deep breath. “We went to openin’ day ova at the stadium like usual. Took the leem-o, man. Rode in style.”
Just before I left on my vacation, Manny had talked my partner into a new business venture, which Manny dubbed “Fly Rides.” They purchased an old stretch limousine, a relic, and started a car service. The big car was quite a prize. At night, you could barely see the dents and scratches, even if it was parked near a streetlight. Boris supplied the start-up funds and Manny agreed to run the business. It seemed like a pretty good deal for both of them. Manny put a few more relatives to work, and Boris, who’s a menace behind the wheel of an automobile, was guaranteed a ride whenever he left the building.
“Anyways,” Manny said, warming, “afta the game, I when to call ma cousin Moses on his cell phone, ya know, so he could come an’ pick us up. An’ the doc was waitin’ out on the street. He had his umbrella, so’s everythin’ was cool wit the sun, ya know?”
I could picture Boris, dressed in a khaki-colored safari outfit, with a pith helmet and sun umbrella, standing on the street outside Yankee Stadium, like a Victorian explorer among the natives.
“When I came back, I seen a big crowd ova where the doc was standin’,” Manny said, growing more excited. “I pushed them people outta ma way and there he was, down on the ground bleedin’ bad, and a cop was callin’ for an amba-lance. I started askin’ what happened, an’ this kid tole me, man, he saw the whole fuckin’ thing.”
There was another pause.
“Motherfucka hit him wit a car, Donovan. Drove right up on the sidewalk an’ hit the doc. Used the driver’s door to lay him out.”
Manny’s voice was cracking. The tough little man was blaming himself for not being there to protect Boris, even though my partner could lift Manny Santos over his head with one hand. I covered the phone and turned to Kate.
“What’s wrong, Jamie?” She looked scared.
“As far as I can tell, Boris was hit by a car on the street in front of Yankee Stadium. Call the airport and see how soon we can get out of here.”
Kate went to find another telephone. Our vacation was over.
“Manny, we’re coming home. Okay? You still there?”
“Yeah, I’m wit you.”
The poor guy sounded like he’d gone a long time without sleep.
“Where’s Boris now, what hospital?”
“They moved him to Columbia-Presbyterian real early this mornin’.”
It was a good hospital, but it probably meant that he needed specialized care.
“Manny, tell me straight, how is he?”
There was a long interval.
“I dunno. You ask me, I say bad, man, real bad.”
THE PALE GREEN HORSE. Copyright @ 2002 by Michael I. Leahey. 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, N.Y. 10010.