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I try not to judge, but from the get-go, I didn't like Albert's friend. Kirk Atlas, not his real name, was twenty-seven years old. He was already rich but that wasn't enough. He wanted to be famous. It was 9 P.M., January, a cold winter. I was sitting under red lights in the overheated cabin of a luxury yacht called La Pinta, docked at City Island, not far from what used to be Tito Puente's Restaurant. The music of 50 Cent banged out from overhead speakers, filling every corner of the room. Atlas sat, bopped his head and waved his arms in time to the music.
"I aim straight for your head!" sang Atlas. Then he whispered in Albert's ear.
Kirk Atlas was of indeterminate ethnicity, with a shaved head that glistened like a dull gold. His torso was the size of a mini fridge, packed tight into a five-foot-six-inch frame. He was bare-chested under a white gym suit with maroon stripes. He wore Puma sneakers on his feet and dark Versace sunglasses, a tattoo of a black panther etched above the word "Gangsta" on his forearm. On the long glass coffee table was an empty bottle of Havana Club, dirty ashtrays, a can of Coca-Cola, and a .45.
Like I said, I didn't like the guy.
Atlas was a phony. Not a gangsta, a wangsta: wannabe angster. Phony shouldn't bother me. I've chased all kinds of folks, from Queens to Brighton Beach, from Brooklyn to Southern Boulevard, from the South Bronx to St. Marks, from Manhattan to West Brighton.
A lot of people are phony and wicked and cruel. It shouldn't bother me. But it does.
Atlas finished whispering in Albert's ear and sat back smugly on the plump leather sofa, smoking a Cuban and drinking rum from a crystal glass. He beamed at me like I was a camera ready to snap his picture.
I put my Coca-Cola down on the long glass table. Albert, still in a red waiter's jacket and black bow tie, puffed nervously on his fat cigar and slapped my knee. "Chico here can be trusted. He was one of my best friends at St. Mary's."
"When was the last time you and Albert saw each other?" Atlas asked, turning down the hi-fi system by remote.
"New Year's Eve with you on Fordham Road," I said. "At your restaurant."
"I mean, before that?" said Atlas.
I looked at Albert. "Over twenty years ago."
"Still live in the Bronx, right?" said Atlas.
"I was raised on Brook Avenue," I said. "But I live in Pelham Bay now."
"What were you doing on Fordham?"
"I go on a walkabout around the Bronx every New Year," I said. "Been doing it since I was a kid. Clears my head."
Atlas took another puff of his hand-rolled cigar. He studied my face. "What're you, Dominican?"
Atlas laughed and looked at Albert. "A Puerto Rican from the Bronx. That's rare, huh?"
"Yeah," I said, glancing at Albert. "Like unicorns or Bigfoots."
"I like you, Chico," said Atlas. "I think we can do business."
"What kind of business?"
"I need you to find a girl for me."
"Who doesn't?" I said.
"Sense of humor," said Atlas, leaning forward. "I like that, too."
Atlas examined my face again. "So you're pure Puerto Rican?"
"No such animal," I said.
"Well," said Atlas and put his feet up on the long glass coffee table, "when you walked into my restaurant, you looked kinda like a black guy to me."
"Sometimes a spade is a spade," I said. "What's your story?"
He smiled. "I'm a lot of things."
Kirk Atlas removed his dark sunglasses and stared at me with cold green eyes. He looked like a blanco, a white man, maybe northern Italian or Russian, or maybe some kinda Spanish. There was an almost imperceptible accent in his voice.
"What's the accent?" I asked. "What accent?" He looked as if he was going to jump out of his skin.
"I hear an accent. It's slight, but it's there."
"I don't have an accent!"
Atlas looked at me like he wanted to kick my teeth in and gave Albert an annoyed glance. Albert tapped my knee and said, "Chico, relax."
"I thought we was all friends here," I said.
Atlas got up violently and stomped across the cabin to the rectangular window.
Albert laughed and said, "Chico, relax. Marco—"
Albert stopped himself. Atlas turned and glared at him, because Albert had slipped up and started to say Atlas's real name—Marco something. Real cloak and dagger stuff.
"I need your name, Atlas," I said. "Your real name or I hit the yellow bricks."
Albert looked at me, sweating like a man who had stolen something. "Kirk here is one of my oldest friends, after you, Chico. Kirk's got his reasons fer bein' so stingy with information. He's got a career to think about."
I had bumped into Atlas and Albert on Fordham Road at the Chinatown Angel, a restaurant owned by Atlas. Albert, a waiter there and a wannabe filmmaker, announced that his old buddy and current boss Kirk Atlas was on his way to fame. Atlas had just appeared in a commercial for salad dressing, and was now producing and starring as the action hero in a low-budget science fiction flick. Albert was directing. It was called Doomsday.
I'm not sure what being an action star has to do with salad dressing, but I'm not in show business. I'm a private investigator. Or, I was. Before my wife, Ramona, kicked me out. I quit my job at the private investigator's agency St. James and Company and buried myself in a basement apartment for six months. The good news? I quit smoking and drinking. I had only just come up for air on New Year's Eve. That's when I bumped into Kirk Atlas and Albert Garcia.
It seemed to me that Albert was acting strange. He looked anxious and irritated. If you were a lightning bug on the wall of that yacht, you'd see that Albert Garcia didn't match the ritzy surroundings at all. Albert was short, like Atlas, but older. He had crooked teeth and a scraggly beard. His oily hair stood up on his head like porcupine quills.
I knew Albert from back in the day at St. Mary's—he was a moody street kid, a fearless little South Bronx Napoleon with a bad temper who wasn't ashamed to scratch, bite, and deliver a nut-shot in a fight with a bigger kid if he had to. Also, he was one of the few boys at St. Mary's who knew comic books and movies as well as I did.
"I'd like to keep my real name private," Atlas said. "It's not personal, dude. I gotta watch the ol' publicity machine. My agent wants me to be an enigma."
I thought maybe being an enigma had something to do with being a liar. I didn't say that, though. "Name."
"Marcos Rivera," said Atlas, grinning tough. "I'm Cuban. Well, my folks are Cuban. I'm American. Kirk Atlas is my Hollywood thing."
Atlas turned to check his shaved head in a giant mirror hung between two framed movie posters: Harrison Ford's Blade Runner and Vin Diesel's Pitch Black. A collection of Kirk Atlas's Hollywood dreams and fantasies, which included himself at the center.
Albert went into his jacket and came up holding something. He handed it to me. It was a photograph.
I studied it. It was a publicity shot of a stunning young girl playing a violin. She was Asian with dyed blond hair and green eyes. She looked a bit like that movie star of another era, Veronica Lake.
"She's Asian?" I said, holding up the photo.
"Yeah," said Atlas and turned from the mirror, eyes narrowed. "Chinese. What? Are you prejudiced?"
"Only between the hours of nine and five on Monday mornings. I'm workin' on it."
"She's only half Chinese," said Albert.
"Half Cuban," said Atlas. "Her name is Tiffany."
"A half-Chinese half-Cuban girl with dyed blond hair and green eyes called Tiffany," I said. "I thought I had issues."
I looked at the photograph again and then at Kirk Atlas.
"What do you want with her?"
Atlas's mood changed. He got a depressed look on his face and took a slug of his rum. He paused.
"Tiffany is my cousin," said Atlas.
"She's my girlfriend's little sister," said Albert.
"I'm looking for your girlfriend's little sister?" I asked Albert. Albert got a tense look on his face, and then he relaxed. He winked at me.
"Tiffany's sister Olga is at Columbia University. Pre-law. Brainy and high strung. I don't want her involved in this."
"Never mind about Olga," said Atlas. "Tiffany and I are very close. More than blood, more than just family. At least, I thought so. Before she quit school and ran off. I just want to know that she's okay."
"If she's missing," I said, "why don't you call the police?"
"Not that kind of missing," said Albert.
"She's eighteen," said Atlas. She took an official leave of absence from Julliard. She packed one bag and a violin. She left a note. Doesn't wanna see or talk to anybody. No family. Not even her closest friends. She writes postcards to say she's fine. But there's no return address."
"Smart?" Atlas bragged. "This girl can ski, snowboard, ride a horse, shoot a gun, and play a violin like an angel."
"An angel that shoots guns?" I said. "Bro, obviously, we grew up in different churches."
Atlas pulled out a wad of cash. He placed it on the glass table. I picked it up. Five grand to start. Not too shabby. Once upon a time I had the luxury of turning down investigative work, but now I was behind on the rent, the light, the cable, the cell phone, the car repair bills, and gas was going up to twenty dollars a gallon. I had quit my job, and I counted only eight hundred dollars in the sock I kept under my bed. I still had a choice, you always have a choice, but the wiggle room was tight.
Albert handed me a small passport photo of a man in a dark business suit along with a card.
Samuel Rivera, President
43rd Street, 5th Avenue
"Samuel Rivera," said Albert. "Tiffany's father. Kirk's uncle. Ever hear of him?"
"No," I said. "But I travel in small circles and low places."
"Tiffany is Samuel's favorite," said Atlas. "I don't believe he doesn't know where she is."
"You follow Tiffany's father," Albert said. "I think you'll find her."
"All I want from you is an address," Atlas said and pushed a red button on the wall. "I'll do the rest."
A pretty black girl wearing a snug tuxedo that accentuated her ample curves entered. She was holding a second bottle of Havana Club. She smiled flirtatiously at me, and Atlas gave her an irritated look. She appeared so quickly that I knew she must have been standing outside the door, listening.
"Allo, Albert," she said, with a sweet giggle. "Tudo bem?"
Albert didn't say anything. He just nodded his head politely.
Tudo bem. I recognized it. Brazilian. My wife, Ramona, and I used to go to Little Brazil or Rua 46 in Midtown for black bean stew and caipirinha.
"Everything's fine," said Atlas, glaring at Brazil, as he held out his empty glass: "Pour!"
She looked at me with a lingering and confident eye. I checked out her hips as she passed and poured Atlas some more rum.
As I grabbed and sipped my Coca-Cola, Atlas threw Albert a second wad of money. Everybody was getting a taste. But I noticed that Albert was scowling as he pocketed the cash.
He looked agitated as he talked excitedly about some of the films that had been shot on City Island. Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor, Awakenings with Robin Williams, A Bronx Tale with Robert De Niro. Brazil pretended to just be clearing the glass table. But I could tell she was eavesdropping. She came over and tried to fill my glass.
I shook my head. "I don't drink anymore."
"Don't smoke anymore, either. Thank you."
"What your name is?" she whispered.
"Pilar," she whispered and winked at me with very dark brown eyes. "I go off soon."
"In that case," I said, "I'll wait for you outside."
She smiled and nodded.
I looked over at Atlas, who was flexing his muscles for Albert. Oh, yeah, Kirk Atlas was a real prize.
Atlas, grinning, suddenly hopped over and slapped Pilar's bottom with a hard thwack!
Pilar didn't even flinch. She just kept smiling. Albert opened his mouth as if he was going to say something in protest. But he didn't. Albert wasn't saying a lot of things.
As Pilar left with the first empty bottle of rum and a dirty ashtray, she bowed to Atlas. She actually bowed—bent at the waist, head down, eyes to the floor, walking backward, behind up in the air, primed for kicking. But hell, the things I've done for money. Who knew what her story was? Uno nunca sabe, one never knows, as my mom used to say.
Albert and Atlas raised their glasses to me. I raised mine back. I try not to judge.
But sometimes it gets real hard.
Excerpted from CHINATOWN ANGEL by A.E. ROMAN
Copyright © 2009 by A.E. ROMAN
Published in March 2009 by St Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.