Editor’s note: Cadaver Blues is a serialized novel exclusive to TNB.  Check out weekly additions of one or two chapters from the Fiction home page.  This page features the novel’s progress up to the previous week.

 

1.

 

Three rules to live by.  Never owe.  Never sweat.  Never apologize.

My clients, when I have any, share certain characteristics.  Optimism caused them to borrow.  Expectations are making them sweat.  And nobody but nobody wants to hear their apologies.  Unless, of course, those apologies appear in the memo section of a check made out to King Cash.

And even then, my friend, what good saying you’re sorry?

I hang up the phone, seething, frustration a foul taste in the back of my throat.  On my desk lies a handful of folders.  Make that two — one just went inactive and slithered into the round file.

A fourth rule: if you want to work with me, then spell my name right and learn to pronounce it.  Easy to oblige if you’re called George Washington, I admit, and not so easy when it’s Phuoc Goldberg.  But, then again, I’m not the guy who stood with his torch in the air beseeching the globe’s huddled masses, am I?

So I blew my top and lost a client today, an exceedingly white woman who presumed to ask about my name, as if I’m a guide working the afternoon shift in the Asian pavilion at Epcot Center.

“What’s it mean, that name?” was how she put it.

Needing the business, I slid open my right-hand desk drawer and removed the shiny blue squeeze ball, proceeding to torture it.

“Gold mountain,” I said.

“Not that one.  The first—”

Goodbye.

I’m a student of the art of persuasion.  Therefore, should I have apologized for taking offense?  Should I have explained that I was hatched at the base of a bitter tea tree in the middle of a war zone?  That my adoptive parents, Myron and Phyllis Goldberg, gave me an obscenely un-American first name so I wouldn’t lose my identity?  That they were socialists at the time and lived among delusions?  Not a chance.

The squeeze ball settles into a shallow depression on my desk and quivers.  Like the squeeze ball, I have trouble containing my misbegotten energy.  My anger isn’t new, only newly stoked.  It flowed into me over time, like blood filling a vial, and it smolders still, a low-grade fever that stirs me to my feet.

I work in a second-floor two-room office on the north side of Wilmington, Delaware, nowhere near downtown.  It’s a cheap addition to a small house that was overtaken by strip malls a decade ago and went commercial, and the insulation is uneven, leaving drafts in unexpected places.  There’s a window in each room, in both cases situated too high on the wall to present any kind of view, so all you can see is the clouds skittering through, when they bother to skitter.  Today there’s mostly blue sky, not worth a second look.

I pull on my coat and take the stairs down in quick succession, the angle of descent a controlled crash landing, rubber soles thrumming the nosing.  At the bottom is a vestibule not big enough for any furniture, with a slanted arrow on the wall, directing my victims to the lair, where I will improve their balance sheet — maybe their credit score, too, if they’re lucky — but only while separating them from the last of their funds on hand.

Smart people in my profession don’t rent space high up in office towers.  Their clients might jump.

In the parking lot my yellow Mini Cooper glistens under winter sunshine, black racing stripes down the hood game for any adventure, white roof as seductive as a little chapeau.  The Mini is one of my few pleasures in life — maybe my only one at the moment.  But the lunch place is only two blocks away and I need to walk off some steam.

It’s January, cold air well established.  The cracked sidewalk and the narrow brown grass strip have the lonely feeling of manmade tundra.  I walk briskly with my hands in my pockets and my head down, crossing the street without breaking stride, thinking that turning cars can kiss my ass.

Somewhere over my brow, two shapes approach, hogging the sidewalk in proprietary fashion.  As we close in on each other I move to one side, but my feet don’t leave the concrete.  The shapes press forward, unyielding.  They’re black teenagers, and I view their stubbornness as a form of aggression.  I am slightly built, not tall, barely 120 pounds after a big dinner.  You could fit three of me inside the bigger kid with room to dance.  The other one is a little taller and broader than me, though his open parka probably creates the illusion of more heft than he really carries.

As we meet, the smaller kid leans in to invade my personal space, jostling me.  Ready for him, I give no ground, and my elbow catches his ribs, backing him into his friend.  His arms flail forward, but he misses me.  He stops and strikes a confrontational posture.  “What the fuck, man.  What the FUCK!”

I pause on the sidewalk, not three feet away.

The kid carries his hands chest high, ready to rumble.  “What’s wrong with you, fresh-off-the-boat motherfucker!  That how they walk in Chinatown?”

For the record, Wilmington has no Chinatown.

They step toward me in unison and take up positions off each shoulder, so I can’t look squarely at one without losing sight of the other.  They smell young and feral, like fresh sweat.  Both wear red Nike Air Max sneakers with black laces, baggy jeans bunched at the ankles, and printed T-shirts hanging loose below their puffy open parkas.  I don’t risk pausing to read what the T-shirts say, but I see the rest.

The smaller kid is light-skinned and freckled with a Phillies baseball cap nearly covering his eyes.  The bigger kid goes bare-headed.  He has much darker skin with a sheen to it, broad nose, full lips framing a wide mouth.  He’s easily a foot taller than me, so my angle is poor.  Still, it’s important to establish a strategy and stick with it.

You always go after the big guy first.

I ball a fist and nail him with a left hook, catching his lower lip and feeling his teeth cut into my knuckles.  He goes down in a heap and the smaller kid forgets me quicker than the fifth race at Delaware Park.  He drops to a knee to tend his friend, muttering, “Damn.  Damn.”

 

2.

 

The lunch place sells nothing but hotdogs and sides.  There’s a narrow space by the counter with a plastic chain strung between white stanchions for crowd control, but you can’t help rubbing up against the others in line — AstraZeneca employees with I.D. badges, hospital workers in scrubs, ordinary people from all walks of life in full-throated hunger for their nitrite and sodium fix.  I’m in here at least once a day, sometimes twice.  I know every face behind the counter, but no one has ever acknowledged my loyalty or bothered to ask my name.  Maybe when you only have twelve things on the menu everything in life starts to feel equally familiar.

Today I order two Boston Back Bay Beanie Weanies, large chili fries and a large vanilla shake.  I lay my iPhone on the table and set it to stopwatch mode.  The first dog disappears in just under a minute, the second in 37 seconds.  I don’t time myself every day, just on a lark.  If I put my mind to it, I’m convinced that I could suck down as many sausages as Joey Chestnut or Takeru Kobayashi, the dudes who always run neck and neck in that great patriotic stuff-face known officially as Nathan’s International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest.  But I couldn’t come close to scarfing as many in the time they make.  Kobayashi has a good ten pounds on me.  Chestnut is a giant by comparison and, by percentage of one’s own weight consumed, he doesn’t touch Kobayashi.  As Franklin said to Harry, watch out for a Japanese with something to prove.

The skin on two of my left knuckles has peeled away where they caught the big kid’s teeth.  The cuts sting a little under the dab of a napkin, but they’re not bleeding much.

I set the napkin down and bide my time with the fries, eating them with one hand while I play cell-phone hangman, waiting for the too-cold milkshake to melt.  I never intermingle dishes.  I don’t believe in food miscegenation — the hangman word I nail after acquiring two stick arms and a leg.

I admit to having something of a racial obsession.  Or, to be more polite to myself, a high level of racial awareness.  It’s not that I believe in assigning particular characteristics to a given race of humans.  Just the opposite, in fact.  I have my radar finely tuned to the racial distinctions that all people make, and I’m rarely disappointed in my cynicism about the intentions of others.

During my early years of high school — before my father wandered into the woods and hung himself from a tree — a certain group of tough kids alternated between throwing pennies at me in the hall to see if I’d pick them up and asking me for help with their math homework.  At first, I walked right by those flying pennies, but then an idea formed.  After a couple weeks of humiliation, I began to pick up the coins, but only those thrown by Nick Deluca, the biggest brute in a tough crowd.  When others dropped a penny at my feet, I’d pause, look at it, and walk right by.

A couple weeks after I started this, I heard Nick say, “Little half-Jew don’t do it for anyone.  He just picks up my pennies.  Heh.”  He’d seized on my strange behavior as a point of personal pride, and his worldview wouldn’t let him see it any other way.

For the better part of a semester, I didn’t just stoop to pick up Nick’s pennies.  If he rolled one down the hall I took off through the crowds on period break like Walter Payton going for a loose football, bobbing and weaving, falling to my knees and pocketing the little copper with a satisfied grin.

But as finals neared, he stopped slinging pennies my way.  In fact, he seemed overcome with contrition.  “How you doin’, little man,” he’d call to me.  “Everything all right, little man?”

Nick had his reasons.  Not long before the end of the term, he approached me with a different agenda, leaning against a locker and looking down my way.  “Hey, Goldberg, no hard feeling about the pennies.  You know it was a joke, right?”

“You’re almost a week early.  Exams don’t start till next Thursday.”

“I’m planning ahead this year.”  He looked at me and cocked his head — a quizzical great ape.  “If I flunk this math final I can’t wrestle for the rest of the year.  I don’t suppose you’d be up for helping me.”

“Sure, Nick.”

“You would?”

“You’re the jock and I’m the math geek.  Isn’t this the way it’s supposed to work?”

We agreed to meet the next day in the library during free period.  Nick showed up first, so desperate he actually had his textbook open on the table.

I reached into my knapsack and pulled out a roll, fifty pennies wrapped tight with red paper and carefully sealed on each end so it wouldn’t come undone.

“Yo, Nick, check it out.”

“It’s a roll of coins.”  He absorbed my stare.  “Oh, I get it.  The pennies I threw at you.”

“I can’t keep them.  Religious reasons.  Before the semester’s out, I wanted to return them.”

He watched as I daintily picked up the roll with my fingertips and placed it into the palm of my right hand.  He continued to watch, bemused, as I wrapped my fist around the cylinder of pennies.

The first two blows caught him so quick he didn’t have a chance to defend himself.  Then I kept going, pummeling his face and head.  I broke his nose, his jaw, his left thumb and two of my own fingers.

Consequences?  The assault charges would get buried as a juvenile offense, and my long suspension from school gave my hand time to heal.  More important, Nick Deluca never wrestled another match.  Forget the fact that he had his jaw wired shut for a month.  He couldn’t face his old friends after Phu Goldberg kicked his ass, and he moved schools the next year.  Much later, he tracked me down and wrote a letter thanking me for knocking him in the right direction.  Turns out he became a corporate lawyer, no doubt now picking on old ladies who dare to ask for refunds on their broken toasters.

The bigger point is, I’d planned for that moment of confrontation, but I hadn’t trained for it.  The element of surprise helped and pure anger served as the multiplier.  That’s how a bantamweight brings a heavyweight to his knees.

Walking back to work, half sated, I come to the teenagers again.  There’s a black uniformed cop there now, middle aged and balding with sergeant stripes on the shoulders.  He’s wearing a thousand-yard stare, but I’m sure he’s not looking past me.  As I close in on his position, his right hand rises with great subtlety and poises near his gun holster.

I draw to a stop on the sidewalk about ten feet in front of him.  The noise of lunch-hour traffic on Route 202 has risen to a dull roar, and passing cars and semis stir up gusts of cold wind.  The black-and-white has come to rest with one tire on the curb.  The lights are flashing and the driver’s side door remains open.  This scene strikes me as a bit melodramatic.

The big kid’s on his feet now but half bent over, one hand resting on the hood of the cruiser, lower lip hanging slack, young white teeth stained red.  He groans and issues a long belch, then spits a stream of blood into the dead grass.

 

3.

 

The sergeant frisks me and finds nothing sharper than my iPhone.

He returns it to me gingerly.  “Don’t suppose you’ll do much damage with that.”

“You’d be surprised.  I get you on another line, I could chew your ear off.”

His name is Buxton, according to the brass plate on his uniform.  Sergeant Buxton steps between me and the big teen, looking back and forth.  He extends both hands, palms up, and seesaws them up and down like an old-fashioned scale, weighing us against one another.  Then he points.

“You did this?”

“Yes, officer.”

Buxton’s mouth drops open and he laughs heartily, without regard to whether he’s shaming me or the big teen.  He almost doubles over, looks away, catches himself, guffaws again until he’s milked the moment to its full enjoyment.

“They called you?” I ask, suppressing a smile.

Buxton shakes his head, more serious now.  “I was just happening by and they waved in distress.  Wanna explain to me what all this was about?”

“Sure thing.  It was about dignity.”

“Yours or the boy’s?”

“Take your pick.  No matter how this shook out, only one of us was going to walk away with his dignity intact.”

“I see that.”  He still has my wallet.  He holds it open at arm’s length, scanning my driver’s license.  “You got a car?”

“Sure.”

“Where were you walking to?”

“Lunch.”  I point to the hotdog joint.

“From?”

“There.”  Indicating the office.

“Who do you work for, Mr. Goldberg, when you’re not nailing people in the teeth?”

“I’m a sole proprietor, debt relief negotiation.”

He nods in a way that makes me wonder whether he has more than a passing knowledge of the subject.  “Helping people pay their bills, that sort of thing?”

“More like helping them avoid paying.”

“Above board?”

I snatch a breath.  “Cast your eyes down the road here, Sergeant Buxton.  You walk into that mattress store across the street looking for something basic and they sell you the deluxe model with financing, no interest payments for fourteen months.  What they don’t say is that the interest payments you aren’t making are an accruing debt.  You end up owing interest on top of the interest, and you’re still paying for the damned mattress when it’s turned gray and the springs are popping out.”

“How I figure it, too.”  He frowns and adjusts the thick leather belt on his hips.

“Less than a mile from here there’s a phone store happy to give you unlimited services you don’t need while charging you in the fine print for all those services you really do require.  Next door is a payday loan place that’ll skim more vigorish than Shylock for a two-day advance.”

Sergeant Buxton flashes me the heel of his hand, but I’m in flow.  “On your way there, you can stop into the car-title company that cheerfully claims three hundred percent annualized interest while taking legal possession of your wheels.  When you’re ready to pray for your car’s return, on the right is a church that asks its parishioners to tithe ten percent of their income, people scraping by in tiny little houses, renting apartments.  The minister lives tax free in a mansion in Greenville on the other side of the tracks.”

He scratches at something on his uniform shirt, maybe the big kid’s blood.  “I know the church.  My sister attends.  I keep trying to tell her…”  His voice trails off.

“It’s the pattern of life,” I conclude.  “Screw or be screwed.  I can’t turn my clients into studs — they’re too far gone for that.  But I can lend them a strap-on.  That’s what I do.“

This is a canned speech that I’ve given a thousand times.  Like all canned speeches, it has its effect.  Buxton nods knowingly, but he doesn’t know.  Not really.  The truth is simpler.  The truth is that I’m a blood-sucking parasite, just like the rest, all my activities perfectly legal, of course, as is the mattress store’s game and the title loan company’s and the church’s.  But legal doesn’t make it fair, not for a second.

The teens are huddled together in a state of shared amazement at my conversation with the sergeant.  He goes to the trunk of his cruiser, pops it open, and finds a big metal First Aid kit in the mess back there.  He snaps that open and fusses around inside, then tosses a clean white cold pack to the big teen.

“Hold that on your mouth for a while, son.  You may need some medical attention, but you’ll be all right.”

The kid does as he’s told.  Buxton turns to the shorter one.  “I heard your story and I heard what you left out.  Did you fail to yield to this man on the sidewalk?”

“Motherfucker failed to yield to us!”

“Hey, hey.  That’s no way to talk.  Mr. Goldberg here is a solid citizen and you just sound like another punk.  No wonder he felt threatened and overreacted.”

He walks over to the big kid and pulls the hand with the cold pack away, angling his head for a better look.  The cold pack has red on it already.

“You may need a stitch or two,” Buxton says, gently returning the kid’s hand with the cold pack to his mouth.  “You can file assault charges, if you want, but any judge looking at you three in a room — well, his sympathy’s not gonna be with the smart-ass gang banger whose mouth is full of four-letter words.”

“Ain’t no gang banger,” the smaller kid mumbles, more uncertain than before.

Buxton quiets him further with a frown.  He looks into his palm and seems surprised to find my wallet still there.  “Debt relief,” he says, handing it back to me while returning his attention to the teens.  “You or your families might need this man one day, and now you know where to find him.”

The same occurred to me a minute ago, though I’m not as sanguine as Sergeant Buxton about the benefits.

“Mr. Goldberg,” he winks, “if you’ll give each of these boys one of your business cards for future reference, I think I can persuade them to drop the whole thing.”

Well, I already pointed to the damn office, and opening myself up to crank calls seems preferable to a free taxi ride to the station house, so I comply with Sergeant Buxton’s request.  The smaller teen looks stunned by the injustice of it all, like he’s finally on the right side of the law and a guy who could be his father is letting the perp off the hook without cause.  The big kid just looks on with wide eyes, cold pack pressed into his mouth, the burning sensation of the lip still his top priority.

I leave them all standing there.

But I harbor no illusions about the deeper reason Sergeant Buxton so readily lets me go.  In the sight of my straight black hair, my narrow eyes, my bow lips, he finds a portrait of harmlessness.  In other words, I walk scot-free because no one in America fears the little Asian man.

 

4.

 

Downstairs from my office is a chocolate maker and retail store, where they collect the mail and rent.  I don’t eat chocolate myself — my tastes run more toward sour — but I maintain a stash in a bowl on my desk for visitors to savor.  Positive oral associations help seal transactions.

The store calls itself Creamy Dreamy.  The people who own it, along with the building, are a married couple who fled California’s high taxes, not to mention the wildfire smoke, the earthquakes, the mudslides, and all the rest.  They’d have moved to Texas or Florida, but heat is hell on their product.  Which is why, they tell me, though cacao is tropical, the meccas of modern chocolate — Switzerland, Belgium, Hershey, PA — all reside north of forty degrees latitude.  They also learned early on that there’s about an inch of difference for most people between a fine chocolate and a wet dream, and they know how to play that approximation to maximum advantage.  Fed by brown gold, they drive matching Mercedes and knock around in a six-bedroom house.  But they pull this off without appearing to manipulate their customers.  In fact, earnestness seeps from their pores.

Too-Tall Tabitha is working the counter when I enter.  She’s six feet off the ground if she’s an inch, and she carries her height with pride — upright posture, string bean figure, and a bob of short straight hair on top that matches her steely eyes.  Brad, always wearing the chef’s toque, waves to me through the open kitchen door.

The place is empty of customers: two o’clock, mid-afternoon lull.

I inhale deep and loud.  “Mmm.  Smell that!  If fatness was in my future, I could pork up just breathing the air in here.”

“Aren’t you cute.  Try one of these crispy things.  It’s on me.”

“What does Brad call them?”

“They’re new.  They don’t have a name yet.”

“Chocolate Scrunch!” Brad shouts from the kitchen.

Tabitha shakes her head and holds out the tray.  “He’s kidding.  Go on.”

“You know I can’t.  Doctor’s orders.”

“Oh, bull.  It wouldn’t hurt you to sweeten up, Phu.”

“Yes it would.  Haven’t you seen any werewolf movies or the Incredible Hulk where his face turns purple and he looks like he’ll bust a gut?  Transformation is painful.”

Tabitha sets the tray down, giving up hope.  “You could talk circles around Dennis Miller,” she says.  “I’ll get your mail.”  She disappears into their small office.

I browse while I wait.  The place is spotless, well polished pink travertine marble tiles on the floor and walls, curved glass cases so free of streaks that Tabitha had to place a row of gold dots across the center to keep people from bumping their noses.  And the contents of those cases are equally perfect, chocolate candies and desserts with such clean edges you’d think Brad cut them with a laser.  Then again, maybe he did.  He has more equipment back in that kitchen than the Northrop Grumman factory in Philadelphia.

Tabitha emerges from the office with my mail in a rubber band.  I take a quick flip through and find nothing worth the wait — two bills, no checks, and a whole lot of junk.

She holds a Chocolate Scrunch — or whatever they’re called — between two well-manicured fingernails and nibbles one corner.  “You keep screwing up your face that way and it’ll get stuck in that position, Too-Phu.  Didn’t your mother ever tell you?”

“My mother is a sore subject.”

“Lord, what a stiff you are!  If there’s anyone in this world who should eat chocolate, it’s you.”  She tosses the partially gnawed candy in the trash and rests her elbow atop the display case.

I tap the mail impatiently on my thigh.  “I’m in no mood to be converted.  Honest to God, I clocked a guy today.”

“Sweet!” Brad calls from the kitchen.

“No doubt he approves.”  Tabitha raises her voice and jabs her thumb in that direction.  “He’d come straight away to hear the details, but he’s got a confection in there that requires monitoring.”

“You know she’s right!”  Brad calls again.

“What’s with you men and violence, anyway?”  Tabitha pokes me.  “Bet you feel bad about it now, don’t you?”

“No.”

“You’re just being contrary.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Guess what today is.”

“I don’t want to.”

“The fourth of the month.  You know what that means?”

“Lemme think: you’re past due.”

“No.  But you are.”  She extends a long bony arm and makes a grasping motion with her long bony fingers. “That would be the rent we’re talking about.”

“Who says granola crunchers from Lotus Land are pushovers?  If you’re gonna go all technical on me, my lawyer would tell you I’m within the grace period.”

“We don’t sic lawyers on people.  We have other means.”

“For sure.  You’ll just treacle me to death.”

“Wouldn’t it be ironic if the debt workout man got a notice of failure to pay?”

Yuk yuk.  I grind the toe of my shoe into the fancy marble, like I’m putting out a cigarette.  “You know I’m good for it, Too-Tall.  I’m just one client away from temporary solvency.”

Temporary solvency?”  She taps her teeth with her fingernails.

“That’s right.  Temporary.”

No one is solid forever.  Solvency, experience has taught me, is not a permanent condition.

“So what do you have that’s not fresh?” I ask.

This is part of our routine.  Brad and Tabitha keep the chocolates they’re least proud of in a bin around back and sell them to me discount.  Even stale candy from Creamy Dreamy brings smiles to my clients’ faces, and these are not people who generally get to smile much.

Tabitha reaches around the corner and places a small paper bag on the counter in front of me.  I peer inside as if I cared: two dozen things like miniature Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

“Monkey Style,” Tabitha explains.

“They’re not rancid, are they?”

“You really know how to charm a person.  I’m barely charging our cost of the paper they’re wrapped in and you’re insulting the chef.”

The wrapping is a relevant point because they started doing it just for me.  I once had a client who worked in the Department of Health.  This guy earned $47,500 salary and in one single year ran up credit card debts of $63,000 for nothing of importance.  It often happens that dramatically when a person is funding a small business or falls suddenly ill or loses a job or some combination of those things.  But this guy only got happily divorced, no kids to support, no alimony in the settlement, just woke up one morning and decided to shuck off the self-restraint.  In the end, all he had to show for it was a lightly used Boston Whaler on a trailer in the driveway, three video arcade machines lined up in the garage, and a brand-new thirty-pound spare tire around his waistline to remind himself of all the dinners he’d thrown on the Discover card.

In those days I kept a bowl of strong licorice bites on my desk, Lick-a-Bitch in Creamy Dreamy lingo (you can see why they don’t get many kids in this candy store).  Licorice suppresses the sex drive, and at the time I had few prospects, so I was munching these things throughout the day.  Not daintily, either, just jamming fistfuls down my maw.  This guy went for the guest chair while I was digging out a handful.  Once he was settled, I picked up the bowl and offered.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Go ahead.  Take one.  They’re good and tangy.”  I popped a few more in my mouth to demonstrate.

He looked like I’d just eaten a worm.  When he regained some composure, he said, “You can’t offer candy unwrapped!”

“But they’re not for sale — they’re free.”

“So’s avian flu.”

I ended up referring him to a shrink for his spending addiction, consolidating his balances from eight credit cards to four, and working out a debt management plan – a DMP, in the creative lingo of the credit business.  I even found a buyer for his boat.

Today, I still don’t have any romantic prospects, but I ditched the bitch of a licorice bill.  And now I offer my clients chocolates and they’re individually wrapped.

Tabitha knows this whole story.  It led to a successful new business line for Creamy Dreamy, and I know she’s only busting my chops about the wrapping because she wants me to lighten up.  It’s not working, though, and I couldn’t tell you why.  Maybe learning to like chocolate would help.  Or maybe I need another line of work.

“Get in here, Phu!” Brad calls from the kitchen.  “You gotta tell me about the fight you had!”

“That meringue is more important,” Tabitha says.  “And Phu has to go.”

I claim the candy bag from her.  “Put it on my tab?”

“I thought you didn’t believe in credit.”

I get into Hulk position and issue a roar.  “Let the transformation begin!”

I’m halfway to the door when she says, “Speaking of individually wrapped, have you seen the item in your office?”

No, I haven’t.

“You’d better step lively.  She’s been up there awhile and you don’t want her to melt.”

 

 

5.

When I get upstairs there is indeed a woman sitting in a chair, a stunning thirty-something brunette with peekaboo nipples showing through a white ribbed tank-top and a smile that could blind an Eskimo in Oakleys.

I am unmoved; she’s eaten nearly the entire contents of my candy bowl.

Before saying a word, I lean over and refill from the bag I just bought.  The bowl was a gift from my mother, Irish cut crystal in a blue Tiffany box, but the store at the King of Prussia Mall wouldn’t accept the return.  I suspect Mom found it on eBay.

“Thanks,” the woman says, as if I exist to serve free candy.  “I’ll try a new kind.”  She giggles and reaches out.  “The others were soo good.”

I settle into the seat of authority and introduce myself.

She extends a hand, soft and a little sticky.  “My name is Melissa Eider.  I go by Mindy.”

“Have you been waiting long?”

She smirks and opens her opposite hand, revealing a mound of balled candy wrappers, silently expanding.  She’s still chewing, too.  I start to say, “you might want to lighten up on those before you make yourself sick,” but then I remember the rent.  One of the great human motivators is reciprocation.  You give someone a freebie and they feel obligated, almost compelled, to offer you something in return.  This is why shrewd homeless men hold the door for you at the cash machine lobby and you have to fight yourself to keep from making a donation.  So for a few bucks worth of candy, if I play it right, I might be able to gather enough scratch to carry me through the month.

“How’d you hear about us?”

Mindy swallows the last of her chocolate and takes a swig from a water bottle in her purse, dabbing the corners of her mouth with a tissue.  I half expect a compact and lipstick to emerge next, but she’s a natural beauty, apparently wearing no makeup whatsoever.  She digs further around inside her purse far longer than I’d expect, finally re-stows the bottle and tissue, and rebalances the purse on her knees.  It’s a large off-white item with zippered pockets all over and frills hanging in every direction.  She rests her hands atop it and offers a polite smile.  “Thanks for the candy.  I didn’t get lunch today.”

I nod.  “You were going to tell me how you heard of us.”

“I was?  Well, I was passing by and saw the sign.  I’m not from around here.  I drove all the way from Minneapolis this morning.”

“Minnesota?  You must have a lead foot.”

“No, silly, didn’t leave home this morning.  I stopped overnight in Cleveland, then Pittsburgh.  I’ve been in Pennsylvania all day, driving around, looking for help.”

I explain that she’s in Delaware now, not PA.  She may have missed the sign, only five miles up the road.  “Must be cold in Minnesota these days.”

She nods.  “Two degrees when I left.”

It appears that the chill followed her, too.  I’m trying not to let my eyes drop, but her tits are unusually assertive and the outfit does little to restrain them.

“You own a coat?”  I lean back in my chair.

“Of course, silly.  But who needs one in Delaware?”

“Sure.  It’s like perpetual summer.”

By the look on her face, she fails to register the snide tone.

“You understand what it is that we do here, Ms. Eider?”

“I’m hoping from the sign that you help people clear up problems when they owe money.  CPR – is that someone’s initials?”

“Not someone’s.  It stands for cardiopulmonary resuscitation.”

“Like bringing people back from the dead?”

I smile.  “We have these little miniature paddles.  We apply them to someone’s wallet: buzz buzz.  The monetary circulation gets going again.”

She blinks.

“I’m kidding, Ms. Eider.  All you have to know, really, is that we assist people who have more debts than they can handle.  You have a problem, Phu’s here to help.”

“It’s not so much—”

I stop her.  “There are a few procedures.  We’ll discuss your situation once we’ve gotten some paperwork out of the way.”

This is an important step, and I always initiate it as soon as possible, because it promotes a sense of commitment on the part of the potential client.  Statistics show that filling out a form and signing it – even if the form contains no legal obligation – inclines a person to move toward firmer commitment.  Most people have been raised to be consistent, and they’ll seek to maintain the relationship that the form makes them think they’ve already begun, even if they’re free to walk.  So I hurry to pull a sheet of paper from a pile behind me and slide it across the desk with a pen.  “Now, Ms. Eider—”

“Mindy.”

“Ms. Eider, this is a form that requests certain information about your financial status, bank accounts, credit card balances, assets and liabilities.  Please sit down in the next room there and fill it out to the best of your knowledge.”

“The thing is—”

“Make sure to sign it, which indicates that you are providing me with this information voluntarily and that I will only share it with third parties in an effort to help you.  Okay?”

She hesitates but then nods and steps to the next room, and I look around for something to do.  I can’t use the phone in these circumstances.  It’s humiliating for prospective clients to overhear the things I must say to extract other clients from the boulders that crush them.  Plus, if they pay careful attention to these conversations they may realize how little they need me.  It requires no special skills to beg for mercy.

So while she’s filling out the form, I use the opportunity to straighten up my desk and put away some files.  I’m depressingly short of business lately, a bit of bad luck which my hair-trigger temper alone doesn’t explain, considering that half the nation’s in hock.  I reach for the squeeze ball and work it under my desk, resisting the temptation to start bouncing it off the wall.

Finally, Mindy returns.  She’s filled out the form in perfect script, everything legible, the numbers written with some florid flourishes, her commas especially curvaceous.  There’s scarcely a field she’s left blank, though under Employer she simply entered the abbreviation “N/A.”  Unlike for most adults, every letter in her signature is eminently legible, tiny little perfectly drawn hearts replacing the dots over her i’s.

“An A for penmanship,” I say, running my eyes across the paper.  “Let’s have a look.”

I rub my chin as I go through the details.  The form says Mindy has a 30-year fixed mortgage on her house with 26 years to go, meaning she’s paid little more than interest so far.  She possesses a small retirement fund, account unspecified, owns her car outright, carries very small balances on a handful of credit cards, has nearly finished paying off a student loan, and has no life insurance.

If this info shows the whole picture, Mindy needs me like a fish needs ballet shoes.  In fact, the sharks at Visa should be filing their teeth by her mailbox.

I set the paper down and tent my fingers over my nose.  Then I throw my shoulders back casually, so as not to appear intimidating.

“This is a common problem, Ms. Eider—”

“Mindy.”

“Mindy.”  I grin.  “It’s nothing to be ashamed of, and honesty is the first step toward self-healing.  You need to be more forthcoming about your debts.  Now, what have you left out?”

She looks shocked, and I notice for the first time that she collects lovely freckles and stores them across her nose.

“I haven’t left anything out, Mr. Goldberg.”

“Phuoc.  Call me Phu.”

She sits forward slightly and puts her hands together.  I do the same, mirroring her to build rapport — a trick from Neuro-Linguistic Programming that would make Anthony Robbins proud.

“Please continue.”

“I have nothing else to say.  I’ve been completely honest.  Well, now you mention it, I do owe my friend Sarah for the microwave she sold me.  Thirty-five dollars and I meant to pay her before I left.”  She rotates the paper and picks up the pen.  “I can put that, let’s see—”

I gently pull the paper away.  “Thirty-five bucks isn’t consequential.  You’re sure this is the full picture, then?”

“I can’t be certain.  But I don’t think I left anything else out.”

She sits back and crosses her legs.  I sit back and do the same.

She lifts her eyes toward the ceiling, searching her own memory.  I lift my eyes to the ceiling, wondering what the hell is going on in her head.  And then — damn — it hits me.

“You’re telling the truth, aren’t you?”

“Why, of course!”

“You don’t have a credit problem.”  I let out a long sigh.  “With all due respect, Mindy, what did you think I could do for you?”

She lowers her voice as if someone might overhear.  “It’s not for me.  It’s my uncle.  His name’s Gunnar Karlson and he has a bad problem, I think.”

I look at my watch rather ostentatiously to see that an hour has passed, and I feed her form into the paper shredder with a flourish.

The machine is loud.  Mindy startles when it barks into action, and as the shredder ticks toward silence I imagine I can hear Brad and Tabitha through the floor making wagers in their California singsong about my ability to pay the rent.  Monthly obligations are a kind of tyranny, and if the woman sitting in front of me turns out to be a waste of time, then I’m already another stripe behind the eight ball.

“The first step is that Phu needs to know who’s in need of assistance.  Make sense?  Why didn’t you say up front that it wasn’t you with the problem?”

“I tried to.  You kept interrupting.  Procedure, you—”

“Never mind.  Phu’s here to help, right?”

“For Uncle Gunnar’s sake, I hope so.”

“Let’s start again.”  I pull a second questionnaire from the top of the pile, this time taking up a pen and resolved to fill it out myself.  A few minutes later, it ends up something like this:

Name: Gunnar Karlson.

Birth Date: August 18, 1925, Mindy thinks.

Address: Somewhere in Pennsylvania.  She has it in the car.

Social Security Number: Unknown.

Last Year’s Estimated Income: Unknown.

Bank Account Balances: Unknown and unknown.

Liabilities: Unknown.

“Sort of,” Mindy adds, a tigress for accuracy.

I set down the pen.  “With all due respect, this is getting us nowhere.  If all you wanted to do was eat candy, you’d have been better off downstairs in Creamy Dreamy.  Of course, they do charge for the privilege there.”

“Very funny.”  Mindy purses her lips.  “If you want to know something useful, then stop asking me questions I don’t have the answer to.”

I can’t hear the clock on my wall ticking, but I can feel it.  “Okay.” The chair squeals as I lean back, and Mindy flinches.  “Why don’t you tell me why you think Mr. Karlson requires my services.”

“We’re getting somewhere.”  She takes a deep breath.  “Every year after first frost, which is kind of late around here, Uncle Gunnar goes off to the mountains for a few months.”

“Every year?”

Mindy gnaws the inside of her lower lip.  “The past few, anyway, maybe the past four or five.”

It immediately crosses my mind that anyone who goes away for so long doesn’t lack for resources.  Then again, if she got the birthday right, he’s had a lifetime to save.

“He forwards his mail to me.”

“Doesn’t he have anyone closer?”

“We’re very close.”  She looks offended.

“I meant, geographically speaking.”

“Oh.  No.  He doesn’t have immediate family.  The mail all comes to me in Minnesota and I hold it for him.”

“What about the bills?”

“He prepays those, I guess.  I never asked.  He gets things from the phone company and what have you, but there’s never been any kind of warning on the envelope, like anyone was going to turn off his utilities or anything.  I don’t open the mail.  I just collect it and sort out the junk.”

“What happens to the junk?”

“I toss it into my wood-burning stove.”

“Even the plastic stuff?”

She shakes her head.  “That’s bad for the environment.  So there’s this pile — the stuff I don’t burn — that I keep in a basket until he returns.  And I never had a problem.”  She pauses, looking at her hands, then lifts her gaze to me again.  “Until last month when he got a notice from the bank.  It was a foreclosure notice.”

She half whispers the word foreclosure.

“You opened that one?”

“It had some words of warning on the outside.  Something pretty urgent.  From time to time you get these things from people trying to sell you something, very official sounding and all that, and you tear open the envelope and they’re just nonsense.  This wasn’t that kind of item.  It came registered mail and I had to sign for it.  It said they were going to seize his house if he doesn’t pay right away.”

“How many notices has he gotten like that?”

Mindy counts on her fingers.  “Three.”

“Three?!  You’re sure?”

“Yes.  I can count to three.  I’m not an idiot.”

I say nothing to reassure her on that score.  “Over what period of time?”

“Six weeks, I’d say, all registered mail.”

“Oy.”

“Excuse me?”

“That’s Jewish for ‘shit,’ sort of.”

“Can you help him, Phu?”

“If he wants to be helped, yes.  I suppose you’ve spoken to him.”

She shakes her head gravely.

“You’ve tried?”

She shakes her head again.  “He’s unreachable.  It’s what he does on these trips.  Kind of like a retreat from the world.  So this is my thing to deal with.”

“Presuming you want to.”

“I’m here, aren’t I?  Besides, how could you not?”

“Of course.”

So I give her the bad news, though I make it sound like a blessing, as I’ve trained myself to do.  Five hundred cash before I pick up the phone, plus another $1500 in good funds by the end of the week, to cover fees and pay-downs and such.

Now she’s lost something of her glow.  “I don’t have five hundred dollars on me.  I’ll have to think about that.”

“Sure.  Take a ride.  There’s an ATM located in the next shopping center over.  There’s one in the grocery store, too, or the convenience store past that.”

Despite my best intentions, she appears a little startled by this information.

“The banks are still open,” I add.  “I’m partial to portraits of the presidents myself, but a cashier’s check is just as good.  I don’t process credit cards.  Not a great idea in my line of work, you understand.”

She nods, but we still seem to be operating on different wavelengths, and I find myself wondering about the commitment thing, whether it counts that she filled out the form for someone else, which is a first in my experience.  Either way, some distance has grown between us now, which was bound to happen.  Like in the emergency room, everyone wants help RIGHT NOW, but how to pay comes as an afterthought.  Certain banking executives have become very wealthy exploiting this propensity among consumers.

Mindy gathers up her purse and stands to go.

I stand, too, no purse, but otherwise mirroring her.  The parting is awkward, though, and I’m sadly figuring it’s the last I’ll see of this prospect.  But just in case, I offer up the candy bowl.

Mindy snatches two more Monkey Styles and heads for the stairs.

6.

An hour later I’m on the phone trying to cut someone’s MasterCard bill in half when a white woman the size of a manatee lumbers in.

“Phuoc Goldberg?” she asks, pronouncing it perfectly.  She’s a woman to be reckoned with, despite the mustache and the bolt of cloth she’s using for a dress.

I hang up the phone and wave her to a seat and point to the candy bowl with an open hand.  She shakes her head dismissively, possibly self-conscious about her hungers.

“I’m Terrance’s aunt, Penelope Jones.  People call me Penny.”

“Terrance?”  The name doesn’t compute.

“You’ve met him.  He lives a mile or so from here.”

“Don’t know anyone of that name.  You sure you have the right guy?”

She looks at me like I’m ducking her.  “Are people named Phuoc Goldberg as common as stink bugs in these parts and someone forgot to tell me?”  She pulls my card from her knitted purse and presses it into the desk.

I like her pluck, I have to admit.  But I don’t know this person she’s speaking of.  My mind’s a blank and my face must be, too.  She narrows her brow — not an attractive look, but effectively intimidating.  “I’m sure you do know him, a sixteen-year-old African-American, tall and pleasant looking, very dark skin.  Terrance Smuthers is his name.  Some of the kids call him Terry, but I never do.”

“Whatever you call him…” I shake my head.  Maybe I need a milkshake to excite the neurons.  “It’s been a long week.  No bells are going off.”

“You’d recognize him if I brought him by.  No more than a few hours ago you punched him in the mouth and split open his lip.”

Recognition dawns and there’s no point denying it.  “You’re that kid’s aunt?”

She nods once as I peer at her, telling myself: some family — you can have any color you want, but they only come extra extra large.  Her skin is yellowish white, splotchy and dimpled with fat.  It’s hard to discern how she could have roots on the same continent Terrance’s ancestors came from, let alone be related.  But that’s not my business.

“He’s the one who gave me your card.  Most unusual, but there it is.  I’m here to engage your services, Mr. Goldberg.”

She speaks with a haughtiness that I recognize as an attempt to gather together the final shreds of her social standing.  It’s a familiar tone, if not entirely common in my office, because by the time they come to me it takes a certain moral fiber just to utter their home address with any certainty.  Nobody arrives at my door at the beginning of their tether.

I give her my usual spiel and present the information sheet to her, but she pushes it back at me.

“I can’t do another form, Mr. Goldberg, can’t bear another form, don’t want to see another form.  I’ll talk.  You can scribble notes if you wish.”

“Okay.” So the commitment thing is once again out the window but, yearning for new clients, I take up the pen for the second time that day.  “Be as complete as possible, please, Penny.  The more thorough you are, the better to help you.”

“There’s a fee?”

“Naturally.  We’ll talk about that after you give me your information.  What you’re providing is confidential, but if you hire me you’ll have to release me to share it with others.”

“Others?”

“Your creditors and the like.”

“They have to know already.  They’re all in cahoots.”

“You could put it that way.  Most big creditors report to agencies that aggregate the information.  Then, in turn, they use that same data to make decisions.”

She furrows her brow again, as if she’s screwing up the determination to launch herself over a brick wall.  “I know all about credit scores and universal defaults, Mr. Goldberg.  I’m flat broke with few immediate prospects for making it better.  I’m on disability with limited income and I have mouths to feed.  What I used to count in dollars I now figure in nickels and dimes, and it’s been that way longer than I care to admit.  The rent-to-own place took our only television this morning.  They say they’re coming for the couch next week.”

“The couch?”

A crack forms in the armor.  “It’s a foldaway.  Two of the girls sleep on it.”

Medical bills, it turns out, have gradually eroded her financial cushion, which is a common story.  Typically, too, there’s no suggestion on Penny’s part that eating herself obese has anything to do with her problems.  It’s all, like, an act of God.  The people who want their money back, they must be working for the Other Guy.

In phony sympathy I pick up the candy bowl and offer her a mouthful of relief, but she refuses again.  So noted.  I set it back down.

“Here’s the deal, Penny.  Five hundred up front, cash or bank check.  Another fifteen hundred within five business days, which will be applied to fees and the like.”

The crack begins to fissure.  “What kinds of fees?”

“Anyone who gave you credit will charge a penalty to change the terms, presuming I can get them to do so.”

“On top of what I owe?”

I shrug.  “You could say that.  It might cost a little up front to reduce what you owe over the long run.  It’s sort of like prepaid insurance, the way they look at it.  Maybe we can get your TV back in the bargain.”

“If I had the money for fees, I wouldn’t have missed the payments.  I paid three times over for that television already, but it’s the couch that’s more important.  The furniture starts disappearing and I can’t give those kids anything that resembles a normal life.”

“How many kids?”

“Four or so.”

“You don’t know?”

“It makes no difference to men like you.  And I don’t have the five hundred, either, by the way.  I can get it if you can’t manage otherwise.”

I spread my hands wide, indicating that I’m as subject to the laws of the jungle as the next person.

“In that case, Terrance can have your money by the end of the week.”

Drugs, I’m thinking.  “I’m licensed.  I won’t accept funds from illegal sources.”

Her mustache wiggles, like she’s trying to control an impulse.  “He’s an A student, Mr. Goldberg, and he has a job.  I’ll grant that he might have looked threatening to you, but if you won’t assist me voluntarily his transcripts would help persuade a lawyer that there’s a case here.  A case against you, sir.”

“You don’t want to do that,” I respond, feigning nonchalance.  “A lawsuit’s a long expensive slog.”

But she’s not done.  She looks at me hard.  “Two hundred dollars cash the hospital required to sew up that lip, and we owe them another two forty-five.”

I direct my attention to the middle space.  This feels more than a little like blackmail, which would normally raise my hackles.  And, as for lawsuits, right or wrong, I don’t like her chances there.  But the woman has gravitas, something a little witchy that makes me think I may have brought bad karma onto myself by slugging the wrong kid.

She’s digging in her purse, and I half expect a small handgun to emerge, but it’s just another business card, Bucky’s Rent-to-Own, biggest in the area, and I know a guy there.  I squeeze the edges of the card, bowing it, and look briefly into the cartoon representation of Bucky, who smiles toothily from the midst of the logo.  He’s all twinkle and smarm, a face you trust only with your eyes closed or your options few.  If you squint, his bow tie resembles a dollar sign turned on end.

As I set the card down, I become suddenly self-conscious about the scabs on the knuckles of my left hand and hide it beneath the desk.

“Tell you what, Penny.  I’ll call Bucky’s as a courtesy, on account of the trouble, no fee right now, see what I can do.”  I’m waiting for a smile, but she only lifts an eyebrow, then thanks me unkindly.

 

 

7.

As the hands of the clock pass six, I locate a sheet of leads that I purchased from Salesgenie.com and make a few phone calls, trying to rope in a client to pay the rent.  The names all fall within a thirty-mile radius and are sorted by credit score, and I concentrate on the middle of the list, where the best prospects lie.  Those with merely poor credit still think they can save themselves the honorable way.  The ones with disastrous credit are usually so far gone they’ve split town with no working phone and no forwarding address.  The mid-range deadbeats are another story.  They’re living with a queasy feeling, the kind you get moments after having done something really stupid, like dropping your cell phone in the toilet or pulling out into traffic without looking and having to watch the woman you cut off go careening into the bushes.  It’s the feeling that you’re not getting past this moment without outside intervention, that forces bigger than you have taken over some aspect of your life and will not be ignored.  It’s a feeling of hopelessness, and Phuoc Goldberg, debt workout specialist, sells hope.

In this round of fishing I get many voicemail greetings and a slew of hang-ups and leave a lot of messages.  Most people at the early-crisis stage of their financial implosion are just learning to ignore every caller the I.D. doesn’t identify as mother.  The guy at the deli who hasn’t seen you for a while, maybe you “forgot” to return the twenty he spotted you.  Close cousins are suspect — you may owe them for the dinner you were supposed to chip in for.  Businesses that sell things don’t desperately solicit your patronage anymore; they’re calling for more ominous reasons.  Credit card companies are beyond offering to consolidate your balance on a new card — now they read from another script.  In short, the loving phone has morphed into a weapon turned against you.

When I do reach a living person my delivery is smooth yet prodding.  Years ago, when I was starting out, I worked in a bucket shop, foisting penny stocks on suckers looking to make a quick killing.  You got a lot of hang-ups, of course, but of those who asked specific questions, you’d sink your talons into eight out of ten.  Once you became seasoned, you recognized that the questions were usually a front, intended by the sucker to make himself seem sophisticated before he saw his practiced skepticism obliterated under verbal assault.  And I say “him” because most of the suckers were men.  A mark is someone who expects to get something for nothing, but life or genetics teaches most women to know better.  Maybe that’s because men don’t have to live with the deposits they leave in the nearest uterus or maybe there’s another reason.  I don’t know, I just live here.

This evening I reach two people and slip without effort into the round-vowel Delaware accent I’ve been perfecting since I moved to the area.  Folks like to do business with people like themselves, so it helps to sound like them for starters.  If I sweep them in on a cold call, they may be wearing a perplexed look when they visit for the first time.  “Oh, excuse me, I’m looking for Phil Goldberg,” they’ll tell the “Chinese” guy sitting in my chair.  But then I greet them with the same familiar voice they heard on the phone – super-local, like their friend Rich from the auto-parts store – and they drop their guard a bit.

The two people I reach this evening are innocuous enough, one a little hangdog and the other less contrite, both heading downhill quicker than a Jamaican bobsled team on waxed runners.  But the best I can do is to extract promises that they’ll think about using my service.  I pull on my coat to go.  When the next big notice comes in the mail, I tell myself, one of them might feel compelled to dig my number from the kitchen drawer and commit.

I climb into my Mini and spend an hour running errands at the Concord Mall, then head for dinner to a biker bar I heard about out on Route 1.  I like going where I’m unwanted.  Sometimes, if I’m in a real foul mood, I can pick a fight and record a small entry for my kind on the credit side of the world’s big ledger.

Outside, the bikes are lined up in the parking lot like chariots.  I pull around the side of the building and tuck my Mini in front of the dumpster, nose facing for home, in case I require a quick escape later.  The place is dark and smells of stale beer.  There’s a pool table toward the back, but no one playing.  Men and women with sleeveless shirts and tattoos press shoulder to shoulder at the bar, standing tall in their black touring boots, mostly facing away from me, though I do get a few glares.

I walk across the room and slide into a booth, resting my iPhone on the table, its top edge pointing out.  I must have left its phaser setting on stun, though, because the long-haired waitress in jeans and a small black apron gazes at me with an open mouth.  She waits just long enough to communicate that I’m not welcome, but she has no way to suspect that I find this promising.  She comes over eventually, and half an hour later I’m downing Budweiser pints and tucking into several frankfurters, good and dry from the rotisserie behind the bar.

I play with my phone awhile, checking emails and browsing a book I’ve downloaded about reverse mortgages.  These products involve transferring ownership of your home equity to a bank that is then kind enough to pay you back over the course of your life.  The author writes about them like they were invented by Midas and he’s Adam Smith, but in most deployments that I see they’re the equivalent of tossing a pot of molten gold to a drowning man.

When I look up there’s a guy with a ZZ Top beard staring at me.  Next to him stands a drunken friend with a three-day growth who looks like he didn’t shave because he forgot which end of the razor provides personal hygiene.  I decide right there, if it comes to it, that my first move will be to nail ZZ in the solar plexus.  Even without a fistful of coins, I hit hard, my small hands penetrating like spear tips.  The other guy, I decide, I’ll just knee in the groin.

In the background, the crowd seems to go quiet as ZZ directs a snarl at me, as if to say, “This ain’t no place for small-boned accountants.”  But his teeth are too perfect, and it occurs to me that he’s probably a guy with a desk job himself, here playing Hell’s Angels while waiting to learn whether he got that promotion to vice president of the I.T. department.

Still, I rest my knuckles on the table and press myself into a standing position,

“Nice beard, tough guy,” I say.  “Aren’t you due back at the North Pole any day now?”

Violence, or at least an elf comment, would be a deserving response to this provocation, but ZZ just laughs with menace.  Almost as a reflex his friend tightens his fists, but rather than coming right at me they go into sidebar, talking to one another under their breath, ZZ’s friend making karate chop motions.  After a minute of this, ZZ appears to assess the prospects and conclude that attempting to kick my ass carries nothing but downside.  “Ah, shit,” he says finally, walking away.  “You ain’t worth it.”

Just my luck, another guy who can’t live up to his own image.

Ten minutes later, the two of them are grunting their way through a game of Eight Ball and looking considerably less threatening to everyone in the room.

To be honest, I rarely manage to find fights in biker bars.  Their patrons have all the wrong prejudices.  They presume that if I have the guts to be in their presence, I must be some kind of tae kwon do master, but that’s far from the case.  I was twelve years old when The Karate Kid premiered, and that was a rough time.  Back then a team of naked runway models couldn’t have dragged me to see a movie about a wise old Asian counseling a little white boy.  And to this day, in fact, I’d rather be dead than set foot in a dojo.

8.

Next morning, bright and early, I call over to Bucky’s Rent-to-Buy and ask for the guy I know there.

“Who wants him?” spits an old timer on the other end.

“Nobody, last I checked.”

“That’s not the half of it.”

“Tell him Phu Goldberg has a deal for him.”

“Better not be any jokers in that deck.”

I hear the phone set down like a slab of meat, then snatches of conversation.  “Get Ralph.”  “Sure, if the couch is genuine leather, the ottoman is too.”  The rustling of paper.  “Discontinued.”  “Floor model.”  “It’s on page four eleven.”  Computer keys tapping.  “On the phone.”  “Mr. Robinson has that.”  “Sleeps two comfortably.”  “The interest rate is the interest rate, ma’am.”  “The remote is always included.”  “For Ralph, yeah, Ralph line two.”

The phone groans and kicks off, as the original electronic systems used to do, then it clicks and Ralph comes on.  We reacquaint ourselves and I mention Penelope Jones.

“Penny, sure.  I remember Penny.  Heavyset lady.”

“She’s in financial difficulties brought on by a medical situation and she’s hired me to clear up with her creditors.”

“Yeah?  Real problem, though, is that her heart’s too big, taking in all the stray family members and such.  We worked out something a while ago.  Hold on.”

He looks her up, reads the file or whatever he has there in silence, though I can sense his lips moving and I hear the crinkling of paper.

Ralph clears his throat.  “Even with the restructuring, she’s eight months past due on a sofa and her credit rating’s shit.”

“Of course her credit is shit.  Otherwise she wouldn’t be paying six times the cost of the damn couch in tiny little increments.  She’d have gone to Macy’s and put it on plastic like any normal person who can’t afford it.”

He grunts as he shifts his weight.  “Well, she’s not paying anything now.  Nada.”

“Don’t speak Spanish, Ralph, you know it confuses us simple folk.”

“We had to repo the television.  Nice set, too.  Sharp thirty-seven-inch LCD.  Lucky if I get ten cents on the dollar for it now.”

“No no.  The sob story is my shtick.  That TV probably paid your kid’s college tuition already.”

“He’s got three years to go, plus grad school.  She wants the unit back it’s still here.”

“It’s the couch she’s most concerned about.  She says you’re threatening to repossess that, too.”

“C’mon!  We never threaten, you know that.  Let’s see…we informed her, yes, that the couch is in jeopardy.  You can’t go half a year living with a sofa you don’t own and just thumb your nose at Bucky.  He doesn’t like that.”

“There is no Bucky.  Never was, according to my research.”

“Research!” he chortles.  “I was speaking figuratively.”

“You’re owned by Luciano Minetti of Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.”

“This is starting to sound like a shakedown.  What, you got his wife and kids tied up there or something?”

“Just give it to me straight, Ralph.  What’s the lady gotta do to keep her couch?”

“Pay the back interest plus fifty bucks on the principal.  Total comes to, let’s see…two hundred thirty-six and forty-seven cents.”

“And how much does that leave her with?”

“Twenty-three months at forty-eight ninety-eight a month.”

I do the calculation in my head: $1,126.54.  “She’ll pay you two hundred now and call it even.”

Ralph laughs and there’s no mirth in it.  “Nobody put a gun to her head and forced her to buy this sofa.  She walked through Bucky’s door a free person.”

“And she walked out in chains.”

“What is this, a political discussion now?  Let’s stick to business.”

I hold the phone to the mechanical part of my chair and lean back and let him hear it shriek.  It won’t help much, but it gives me a moment of pleasure.  In addition, part of my strategy is to keep Ralph on the phone longer than he’d like.  At this point, I know, he’s written off the couch.  If his time is worth anything to him, every second he spends with me represents good money thrown after a bad debt.

“What the hell was that noise?  You strangling a ferret?”

“Need to oil this chair.  Or maybe you can sell me a new one.”

“Sure.  Come on down, we’ll talk turkey.”

“I pay cash.”

“Son of a gun!  We just went out of stock on chairs.”

“That’s what I figured.  About the couch, Ralph, here’s my client’s perspective.  I don’t know what she looked like when she walked into Bucky’s and signed that usurious agreement, but I’d bet she’s no easier on a piece of furniture than she used to be.  In addition, she’s got kids climbing all over it, big kids, rough kids. Teenagers getting hand jobs late at night.  Go into a creative trance and envision the condition of the couch at this point.  You won’t get seven bucks for it and you’ll be down for gas money and the truck driver’s time to pick it up.”

“So what are you proposing?”

“I told you, two hundred to settle the whole thing.”

“No, sir.  Four hundred fifty maybe I could take seriously.”

“Three hundred net and — to be clear — you’re forgiving the interest.”

“Can’t do it.”

“Come and get it then, goddammit.  She’s not paying another nickel.  Send the truck and drag it out of the house and see what you can get for it in the tattered furniture column of Craigslist.”

He pauses.  “You really won’t do four?”

“Won’t.  Can’t.”

“Gimme a sec.”

I catch the blue squeeze ball in mid air, unaware until that moment that I’ve been bouncing it against the wall.  I place it back in the desk drawer.

A rustle comes over the phone.  “Agreed.  Three hundred cash by a week from tomorrow.”

“You got it.  Nice talking to you, Ralph.”

“The pleasure was all mine.”

It’s a good settlement, presuming Penny can scare up the cash, and the irony of that is never lost on me.  If only rich doctors could swap liabilities with down-and-out common folk, everyone would win.  In the debt workout game, the worst payers always draw the best deals.

 

 

9.

 

As I’m hanging up the phone, Mindy traipses in.  She’s wearing some kind of black spandex thing that may as well have been applied with a paintbrush.  But, like last time, she seems oblivious to the suggestiveness of her own appearance.

I say hey.

She says, “I thought about this.  Those little paddles you talked about are probably a good idea.”

“The little paddles?”

“CPR.”  She nods.  “For Uncle Gunnar’s wallet.  I know you were lightening the mood when you said it, but this isn’t a joke, not for me or my uncle.  The case needs an expert, and, well, I don’t know anyone better than you around here.”

How’s that for a ringing endorsement?  It has me wondering: could the tenth piece of Creamy Dreamy chocolate that Mindy consumed have tipped the scales in my favor?

“I thought about going it alone,” she continues, “but in one or two steps I’d be out ahead of my skis.  That’s happened to me more than once.”

“In life?”

She shakes her head.  “On the slopes.  Nearly became one with a tree.”

“Uh huh.”

She holds out a neatly sealed bank envelope.  Judging by the thickness, I conclude that there are twenty-five twenties inside, probably spit out of a cash machine.

Trust but verify.  I sloppily tear it open and count out the five hundred.  That’s exactly my monthly rent, which is no accident.

We sit down and Mindy digs through her off-white handbag and produces an envelope with the green strip of a certified mail postcard still attached.  She hands it over: Gunnar Karlson’s foreclosure notice from a bank I never heard of in Essington, Pennsylvania.  There’s a phone number.

“Great, this’ll do.”  I stand up and set the paper atop the small pile that passes for my in-box.

She stands, too, but she lingers like she’s got something else on her mind.  I’m accustomed to clients expecting to watch me pick up the phone and solve their problems in the next five minutes, but life doesn’t work that way.

“Is there something else?”

She shakes her head, but her feet don’t move.

“You want a receipt for the five hundred — is that it?”

“Why would I need a receipt?”

“You’re not afraid I’ll walk with your dough?”

“Why would you walk with my dough?”  Mindy zips her purse.

“So we’re square for now?”

She raises her chin.  “On behalf of Uncle Gunnar, consider yourself hired.”

I scratch my jaw.  “Listen, about that.  This is an unusual circumstance, so I should be especially clear.  I can talk my way through a lot of things, but this obscure bank might not give me change for a dollar without the express written consent of the client, who technically is your uncle, not you.  Normally there’d be a paper with his signature, if not a power of attorney then at least something that authorizes the bank to discuss his affairs with me.  Your autograph might not have meaning for them.”

“I see.”  She frowns.  “Well, I can’t very well get him to sign if I can’t find him.”

“I know.  I’m not blaming you.”

Although I’m looking right at her, she touches my arm as if to call my attention back from another place.  “You can do it, Phu.  Just put your shoulder into it.”

I feel a scowl forming and struggle to reverse it.

Mindy clarifies.  “That was my father’s favorite piece of advice.”

“Sounds like a tough guy.”

“The toughest football coach in the Midwest.  He liked to call himself that, anyway.  Whenever I had a hard job to do – whether it was a math problem or a boy I needed to cut loose – Daddy would say,  ‘Lower your shoulder into it, Min.’  And I would, and it usually turned out all right – except the math problems.”

This is harder than it should be.  Again I make sure to meet her eyes, which sparkle with the color that a cornflower possesses in early sunrise.  “What I’m saying, Mindy, shoulder or no shoulder it might not work out for that reason alone — the reason I explained.  And my time would have been committed and you’ll be out the deposit.  No guarantees, no refunds.”

It’s not like me to soft-pedal, but there’s little harm.  Her certainty only waivers for a second, then she narrows her brow.  “Uncle Gunnar’s counting on me, and I won’t allow him to lose his house on my watch.  Plus, something brought me here to you, something bigger than both of us.”

“Yes, that would be the mortgage company.”

“Oh, posh!  You know what I mean.  There are forces at work in the world.”

“You can’t really believe in that mystical crap.”

“Of course I do!  When I was a little girl I wrote a poem:

Love is my parents.

Love is inside your heart.

Love is when my Daddy cheers.

Love is birds chirping.

Love is the Earth tinkling with magic that made us.

“I stand by that today.”

“Well,” I shrug, “it’s a nice sentiment, but the love of the world tinkling isn’t gonna rescue Mr. Karlson’s house.  Rules are rules, and your average bank will insist on enforcing them to the letter more than fifty percent of the time.  There is another option, though.  You can keep your money and wait for Uncle Gunnar to return.  Maybe he comes back this afternoon, maybe the next day or shortly after that.”

“I don’t understand.  They’re taking his house away.  They’re doing it soon.”

“There’s a process.  Soon isn’t tomorrow.”

“He won’t be back for weeks, though.  I couldn’t live with myself if we didn’t act and he came home to nothing. ”

“I understand.  Just so you do, too.”

She touches my arm again.  Her fingers are warm through my shirtsleeve.  “Lower that shoulder, Phu.  Believe in yourself – I have faith in you.”

It’s the faith part that scares me, but Mindy doesn’t sense it and I’m done talking myself out of her money.

“We’re good to go, then,” I concede.

She puckers her face like she’s reluctant to bother me further.  “Can I ask when you’ll be calling the bank?”

It’s a natural question, but on this occasion I feel a strong urge to lower expectations.  “Sometime today,” I promise.

She chews the inside of her lip and searches my face.

“May take awhile,” I explain.  “It can be hard to get through to these places.”

Little do I know.

 

 

10.

 

When Mindy leaves I go down to Creamy Dreamy and walk past the line of drooling housewives and scoot into the kitchen.

This back room is more spacious than the public section of the store, at least partly because it supports a substantial wholesale business, the goods delivered by Tabitha in the Creamy Dreamy van before store hours begin.  Wheeled racks of perfect chocolate truffles, set out to cool, line two walls.  There are giant mixing machines on another side with brushed aluminum drums and controls so elaborate they’d make Dr. Frankenstein blush.  Pots of ingredients bubble on the gas range, bricks of butter and rows of eggs show through the clear refrigerator doors, and vast vented hoods hum softly on the ceiling.  All of it is spotless.  On one section of the expansive marble counter rise diminutive mountains of cocoa powder.  On another section, a pristine dusting of flour mutes the marble’s gray veins.

Brad is there in his toque and white chef’s coat, spreading icing on some pastries with his good hand.  He’s a tall man in his fifties, clean shaven and trim.  He has a buzz cut, so only a strip of fuzzy hair in back and the ends of his sideburns poke down from the hatband.  The short-sleeve uniform doesn’t carry a mark, though the hair on his good arm glistens with fine powder.  The other arm is deformed from thalidomide.  Sometimes Brad puts a sock puppet over it and introduces the character as Stubby, but today it’s undressed.  A kind of arm-hand barely pokes out, not long enough to feature a discernible elbow and, on the working end, only containing a thumb-like protrusion and two deformed fingers.  The thing contributes, though — Brad has even constructed special tools for it.  Regardless of that, he’s a wonder with the good arm alone.

I’ve folded Mindy’s cash in half to form a nice thick wad, and I flash it at him.

“Sweet!” Brad says.  That’s his response to most good news.  He points the tip of his pastry bag at me.  “Don’t put that filthy lucre down anywhere in here!”

“Should I wrap it in a condom and shove it in Bubba’s Banana Bread?”

“I need a better name for that product, something that suggests chocolate chips — and don’t say the unappetizing thing that just came to your mind.”

“Jeesh.”

He returns to icing a line of tarts, laying a perfectly swirled mocha ribbon around the edge of each one.  Watch any show on baking, and you’ll conclude that this shouldn’t be possible with one hand.

Brad doesn’t look up, an entranced craftsman.  “Give the money to Tabitha when she gets a break out there.  No sudden moves.”

“She was frisky yesterday.”

“It’s her natural state.  She’s cocoa cuckoo.”  He looks up.  “How’s the financial world?”

“I wouldn’t know.  My clients are un-financial, non-financial, de-financial.  They’re sucking me dry with their negative energy.”

“You were a bundle of positive before?”

“Point well taken.  It’s not the negative energy; it’s the negative circumstances.  I had a client last month who hasn’t ponied up a single child-support payment in half a year and the judge is threatening to throw him in jail.  I worked my magic and got him the refund of a downpayment the developer had escrowed on a condo the guy never closed on.  Stupid attorney sends the check directly to my client, instead of through me, as we’d arranged so I could collect my fee.  The client tries to give me some b.s. about how he’ll pay me next month.  Like he’s ever paid anyone ‘next month’ in his life.”

“What’d you say?”

“I reminded him that I’m privy to some stuff his ex-wife would love to know.  He says, ‘Hey, you signed a confidentiality agreement.’  I tell him I also signed an agreement that specifies the refunds I obtain come through my office.”

“He caved?”

“Like a South Florida sinkhole.  Except he sends his boy up to my office with the check, ten-year-old shit cute as a button — a con man in training — making cow eyes at me like the little girl in that Ryan O’Neal movie.”

“What?  Paper Moon?” Brad nods to himself.  “I hated that flick.”  He sets down the now empty pastry bag.  “So, what happened with the kid?  Did you trip over the guilt trip?”

“What do you think?  I took the damn check and sent the little actor on his way.  But my point is it’s aggravating having to deal with these deadbeats.  It’s one hard luck story after another and nobody in the equation wants to pay.”

“I’ve asked you before, Phu: come work for us.  It’s getting to be too much for me and Tabitha alone.  And you’re the one guy I know who wouldn’t eat the profits.”

Nothing has less power to move people than a standing offer frequently repeated.  I let it hang out there while I watch Brad tuck the cloth pastry bag under his stub and use a wooden spoon to refill the wide end from a big metal bowl.  Anyway, deep down he knows I can’t be around the scent of this place all day, and I’m not cut out for sustained manual labor, either, even with two functional hands.  Quick, short bursts and fast-talking are more my thing.  They get me into trouble, but then they get me out of it.

Usually.

I slap the cash wad into my palm.  It feels good.  “Signed a new client.”

“Sweet!”

“She is, too.  It’s a danger.  When I explain things, I’m not sure she’s following me.”

“Ignores your advice?”

“You might say that, or you might say we’re operating on different wavelengths.”

“What do you mean?  She’s not an Asian-American Jew with a grudge against the world?  What a surprise!”

“Another good point, Brad.”

“How’d she get into trouble?”

“She didn’t get into it.  It found her, if trouble it be.  Probably just one of those misunderstandings.”

“Her misunderstanding or yours?”

“Guess I’m about to find out.”

I thrum a thumbnail through the edge of the cash wad.  There’s a crease across Andrew Jackson’s forehead, making him look skeptical.

 

 

11.


Tabitha has a line out the door, mostly women looking at their watches, playing with their cell phones, tapping their feet.  She moves deliberately behind the counter, though, handling everything with great care and pausing to make sure the presentation looks just right.  Every aspect of her manner suggests, You may be in a hurry, but I’m not — so chill. She’s daring them to say something, and they never do.  I love her for this.

“Can’t you help me?” a woman pleads upon seeing me.

I utter a marginally coherent apology in a heavy Vietnamese accent.  No, I’m not above cynically exploiting my national origin if it suits me.

When Tabitha heads toward the display case to fetch an order of chocolate bark, I get behind the cash register, open the drawer and lift the tray, sliding the rent underneath, glad to be square again.

Upstairs in my office, I pick up the notice that Mindy’s uncle received in the mail.  Printed with no great flair — even the logo black and white — it came  from an outfit calling itself Triple Fidelity Mortgage Company, and it’s the opposite of all the slick four-color marketing materials that bankers throw out into the world when they’re trying to rope you in.  The brochures that banks foist upon you when they want “your business” are like flashy magicians in bow ties and tails, sharply snapping elaborate face cards and pampering the audience.  But once you’ve defaulted, all you’ll ever see again is the magician’s backstage persona: chain smoking in his torn sleeveless T-shirt, cleaning his ear with a dirty pinky and breaking wind in his dressing room.

I dial the number they’ve buried in the fourth paragraph, just north of the obligatory explanation of defaulter’s rights.  Naturally, the first thing I reach is an automated menu requesting a social security number.  I punch in all zeroes, wait on hold for five minutes to the music of Dire Straits (subtle message or coincidence — I don’t know), then get a living person who immediately asks me to hold.  She returns in a minute.

“Can I help you?”

“This is Phuoc Goldberg from CPR Debt Relief.  I represent a man named Gunnar Karlson of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania who is in receipt of a notice from your company with regard to a mortgage that you hold.”

“What kind of notification was it?”

“A default notice.”

“If you have it in front of you, I’ll take the account number.”

“Of course.”  I read it off.  “May I ask your name?”

“Mrs. Wilson.”

I write that down in Karlson’s newly created file.  “You have a first name?”

“Em.”

“Em?”

“The initial M.”

“That must’ve been tough when your mother was calling you in for dinner.  Do you have any other letters to go with it?”

She waits a bit to indicate she has no desire to be perceived as a fellow human being.  “How can I help you, Mr. Goldberg?”

“There’s been a misunderstanding.  My client — your customer — is out of town and can’t return immediately to deal with this matter.  I’d like to discuss with you postponing any action the bank plans to take.”

“I can look into that.  Please fax me a release from Mr. Karlson with his permission for us to discuss this with you.  I’ll give you the number.”

This is what I feared, of course.  With few weapons in my arsenal, I attempt cheap flattery.  “You have a lovely voice, Mrs. Wilson.”

“Really?”

“Very Celine Dion.  Do you sing, by any chance?”

There follows a cold silence.  “The number for faxing the release…”  She recites it with a complete absence of emotion, like she’s talking to a dead perch at the fishmonger’s.

“The problem, ma’am, is that Mr. Karlson is out of town and can’t be reached right now.”

“Well, he hired you, didn’t he?”

“Yes, sure,” I say as smoothly as possible.

“So he can sign a release wherever in the world he is and he can fax it to me.”

“This is awkward.  I forgot to get the release and now he’s incommunicado for a few weeks.”

“Where is he?”

“The Po—  The Himalayas.”

“That’s hardly my problem, Mr. Goldberg.”

“It’s Mr. Karlson’s problem — your customer, my client.”  Do I hear the sound of this woman filing her nails?  “His niece can sign.  Would that work?”

Another strategic pause, then: “You know it won’t, not unless she has Mr. Karlson’s power of attorney.  You’ll have to prove that just the same.  I refer you once again to the fax number.”

“Yeah.  I got that.”

She sighs.  “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?”

Yes, there is.  But articulating it would be unprofessional.

At times like these I take a special interest in my office wall, which was white once and now has a series of faint blue crescents from the stress ball that I extract from my desk drawer without looking.  I’m working it as I call Mindy.

“Hey, it’s Phu.”

“That was quick.”

“The news is disappointing.  They won’t talk to me.”

“You called them?”

“I spoke with a Mrs. Wilson, but she won’t give me even Gunnar Karlson’s shoe size without a signed release.  I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do until your uncle returns.  Hopefully it won’t be too late by then.”

She sucks a deep breath and exhales evenly.  “Well, thanks for trying.”

I wish her luck and tell her I stand ready to act when I can be properly authorized to do so.  “Sure,” she says, taking it in stride, not another word about the $500.

It feels a bit wrong, even by my loose standards, but the lights are on, the phone still works, and Brad and Tabitha can’t look at me cross-eyed for another 25 days.

I kill the rest of the morning negotiating credit card settlements and making cold calls — mostly the latter, shaking trees and hoping some green leaves will float down into my greedy hands — but the only thing colder than the calls is my luck.  When I’ve had enough, I walk down the road to the hot dog joint and order a pair of Texas Tommies, chili fries and a large vanilla shake.

Vanilla shakes are the only truly sweet things I allow to pass my lips.  I’m listening to the whir of the blender, forcing pleasant thoughts on myself, when who do I see but Mindy Eider, wearing the same outfit as this morning, but her black spandex clinging tighter, if that’s possible.  As I take my tray and head over, I see that she’s about to tuck into a New York Style Classic and a small Coke.  Winter sun pours through the plate-glass windows, throwing all details into high relief: the unnaturally green relish atop her dog, the sweat forming on her styrofoam soda cup, and every subtle hue that the pores of the spandex reveal.

Five goggle-eyed men swarm about her like yellow jackets in September.  A pair of them have twisted themselves around in their chairs, suddenly eager to have the salt passed, as if half the Dead Sea beach isn’t already lying atop their fries.  Two more sit on either side, bracketing her position like fire dogs.  Another guy stands dumbly by the empty seat across her table, seemingly prepared to chuck his lunch over his shoulder and use Mindy’s left breast for a pillow.  The corner of his tray almost catches me in the eye as I glide in.

“Hi, baby, good news.”  Raising my voice.  “I got the test results back and it’s just herpes.”

All of a sudden every man’s hot dog looks a lot more interesting to him than Mindy.  I settle into the chair facing her.

“Phu!  What luck!  I was about to call you.”  She waves the phone for proof.  “What was that you said about tests?”

“Only an attempt to create some breathing room.  Making friends?”

“People are so nice here.  That guy who just left offered to help me get a better signal.”  She waves the phone again.

I roll my eyes.  “How was he gonna do that?”

“He knows a spot outside, apparently.”

On a mattress in the woods behind the building, I’m guessing.  “Gosh, Delaware is chock full of good samaritans.”

“I was just thinking that!”

I nod toward the trays of food, myself feeling starved.  “Get it while it’s hot dog.”

Her lips form a perfect O around the blanketed frankfurter, and I take this as my cue to dive into lunch.  The guy next to me, who finished eating hours ago, takes it as his cue to adjust the glasses on his nose and ogle Mindy.

I fumble my milkshake and almost drop it into his lap without apology, making no effort to disguise my intent.  He lingers just long enough to preserve his manhood and heads for the door.

“What were you planning to phone me about?”

“It’s my uncle again.”  Mindy picks at the crust of her hot dog bun.  “I tried calling his house, on the off chance he’d come home, and the number’s been disconnected.”

“Disconnected?”

“I never got any notice about that in his mail, and he usually pays it way ahead before he leaves, along with the electric and gas.”

“You told me that yesterday.  You’re sure you dialed right?”

She nods and leans back in her chair.  “I tried twice.  We need to go to the house.”

“And what good would that do?”

“I don’t know, but it’s not like him.  First the mortgage, now the phone — and I promised to take care of his affairs.”

“No no no,” I wag a finger.  “You promised to collect his mail.  That’s what you said.”

She balls her napkin and places it next to the half-eaten dog.  On my side there’s not a crumb left.

“You’re done with that?”

“I can’t eat,” she pouts, pushing her tray toward me.  “I’m worried.”

It takes me ten seconds to make the balance of her hot dog disappear.  With my tongue I’m still clearing some remnants of the roll from between my teeth when she stands to go.

“Are you coming with me to Uncle Gunnar’s?”

I point to my watch and shake my head.  “Work to do.”

“How can you?”  Mindy clutches her giant purse to her chest under folded arms.

“Me?  I sit down at my desk and pick up the phone, that sort of thing.  I’m no use to you as a mascot, dropping in on uncle.  When you need someone to interface with his creditors, you reach out for me and I’ll make the wired world tinkle with that magic you were writing poetry about.  But house calls — that’s not my bag.”

We’re outside in the parking lot now.

I wink at Mindy, so as not to part on a sour note.  “Next time, let me know you’re in the neighborhood.  I’ll bring those chocolates you like and lunch is on me.”

She turns to go.

“Best of luck!” I call, as she heads toward her heavily scuffed, navy blue Volvo.

Walking with little sense of urgency, I’m half a block from the restaurant — one and a half blocks from my office — when I see a police cruiser pull to a stop by Creamy Dreamy.  A tall black man in uniform emerges and heads for my door.  Sergeant Buxton.  What could he want?  Then I remember that I never called Penny.

I turn around and step off the curb and wave my arms just as Mindy’s car is gaining speed up Route 202.  She comes to a screeching halt and a Dodge Caravan swerves and almost clips her rear bumper.  When I climb into the passenger seat, she says, “I knew you’d come.  You’re a good egg.”

“Nah,” I mutter.  “If I’m a breakfast item it’s more like burnt toast.”

“Oh, hush.”

Behind us, cars are honking.  Up ahead, Sergeant Buxton spins around and looks our way.

I turn back to Mindy.  “You might want to step on it.  Maybe we can get to your uncle’s before they turn off the electricity.”

The well-worn Volvo pulls into traffic, and I avert my face as we pass the sergeant, then settle in for the ride.

Mindy’s car has a bone-white leather interior that nearly matches her purse.  It has two hundred thousand miles showing on the odometer, a loose door panel on my side, and light blue shag carpeting covering the floor.  A pink velour pig in a fancy hat occupies half the back seat.  I do a double take.  There’s a grin under its snout.

 

 

12.


It’s a twenty-minute ride to Uncle Gunnar’s place, involving no highways, so we proceed at a leisurely pace.  I’ve strapped myself tight and checked my seatbelt twice, expecting a wild ride on Space Mountain, but Mindy drives with surprising care, no jerkiness, no two-wheel turns, eyes conscientiously scanning the road.  Her thoughts, however, appear to be elsewhere.

She lowers one hand from the steering wheel to her midriff and rubs.  “That hot dog isn’t sitting too well.”

“You only ate half of it.  Probably hunger pangs.”

“Hmm.”  We pass through a small Eighteenth-Century enclave called Centreville, followed by some fenced open fields the color of lager.  She bites her lip approvingly.  “It’s pretty around here…the rolling hills.  There are so many fieldstone buildings.”  Then, as an afterthought:  “What do you think of them?”

“I think the stones probably miss their natural habitat.”

“It must be nice here when the trees leaf out.”

“Soon after that it gets muggy.”

She cocks her head and scowls.  “Does anything at all please you?”

“I had a cat once.  She was all right.”

In the closed quarters of the car, I notice for the first time that Mindy emits the vague scent of lemons, which I find much better than the cloying floral smell that most perfumes possess.  She has the heat set low, but I press a button to open the window a crack and let in fresh air.

“Mind?”

“Go ahead.  I like it chilly.”

We come to a light.  She pauses, watching the traffic cross.  “You know, this thing with Uncle Gunnar has me so puzzled.  I can’t think of the answer, but there has to be a simple explanation.”

“Well, does he have Alzheimer’s or dementia or anything like that?”

She shakes her head.  “He’s a bright man, handsome and articulate.”

“Many people start out that way…”

She thinks it over.  “He can be a little dotty, I guess, like any person pushing ninety, but it’s nothing clinical, unless he took a bad turn recently.”

“Any reason he’d just split?”

“Not that I know of.”  She accelerates smoothly out of the light.

“Anything that would force him to run, maybe?  Or something that would tempt him, something worth running toward?”

“Un uh.  You’re talking like he’s gone.”

“Well, it looks like he stopped paying his bills.  That’s what a person might do if they took off for Mexico or something.  Less likely if they planned to come back.”  I don’t want to say that he could be dead, but I’m thinking it.

Mindy hangs her hands over the steering wheel and twists one of her opal rings.  “I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t pay his bills.  Maybe something got confused.”

I’m beginning to feel like the little Hispanic detective on Cold Case.  Then again, he’s only there to make the blonde look more beautiful.  “No immediate family, you said…”

“No.  He was married once, a long time ago, but she’s gone and they never had children.”

“Ah.  How’s he related to your family exactly?”

“He isn’t, not technically.  My mother and he were close friends.  They came from the same town, and Uncle Gunnar was always around when we were growing up.”

“So you drove all the way from Minnesota to help out a guy who isn’t even related to you?”

“You sound disapproving.  Why wouldn’t I?”

“He’s not really your uncle, that’s why.”

“Sometimes a person does something out of the goodness of their heart, that’s how I look at it.  He’s an old man and he needs help.”

“Half the world needs help.”

“Wouldn’t you help half the world if you could?”

“No.  Not even a quarter or an eighth.”

“You would so.”

“You grossly overestimate me, Mindy.”

We pull to a stop sign at the edge of Kennett Square.  There’s no one behind us.  Mindy puts the car into park and twists around in the seat, facing me.

“My father always told me I was a terrible judge of character.”

“Football Coach Eider?  There you go.  A wise man.”

“Actually?  He was an asshole.”

 

13.


Kennett Square is an old-fashioned small town of workaday shops and parallel main streets, State running one-way west from Route 1 and Cypress running one-way east.  A plug of neatly kept housing stock occupies about ten square blocks, fending off the occasional low-slung office building, and at the heart of the retail district stores and restaurants intended for locals jostle with more upscale efforts.  There’s no telling which of these will ultimately get elbowed aside, but one senses continual change in the air.  A generation ago, old-world craftsmen and their descendants filled the town.  Now you’re more likely to find a great soft taco than a spicy sausage, and Spanish signs hang over the community center and the local church.

The weakened orb of a late afternoon sun floats low in the sky when we pull to the curb on Meredith Street in front of Uncle Gunnar’s house, near the edge of town.  It’s a small brick cottage with pea-green trim and a pillared front porch.  Along the sidewalks, day-labor types and housekeepers are trudging home, but there’s also evidence that other residents have managed to clamber their way into small-time entrepreneurship.  In fact, we park behind a red plumbing van on which the name Torres is painted with no great flair.  The license plate is from Delaware, though.

A narrow concrete walkway bisects Uncle Gunnar’s lawn.  Bleached by winter, the grass appears thickly knitted, trim and lifeless.  If it were spring, I can’t help wondering, we’d know immediately whether the man has also skipped out on his lawn service bill.  But the weeds have retreated fully by this time of year.

I turn to Mindy.  “You’ve been here before?”

“Yep.  But not for a while.”

We study the house from halfway up the walk, its windows in shadow under the porch overhang.  No lights appear to be on and the structure has an expectant feel, as if its owner will return from work at any minute or come straightaway to the window, aroused from an afternoon nap.  Uncle Gunnar should be out of town, of course, but so should the mortgage and phone bills be paid.  Therefore, something isn’t right.  Perhaps, if there’s an innocent explanation, Mindy just got some dates wrong with regard to her uncle’s whereabouts, but the foreclosure notice seemed legit to me, and the fact of it doesn’t fit with the way she described him.  Right now, in the miasma of free-floating uncertainty, Mindy looks like I feel: half afraid to go inside, half afraid to be embarrassed by our growing suspicions when Uncle Gunnar shows himself and wonders what the fuss was about.  We take a few tentative steps together, and my foot is on the verge of the first porch step when someone pokes out from behind the corner of the building.

Both of us catch a breath (I can hear Mindy gasp softly), and the man stops in his tracks, a Latino wearing Timberland work boots, soiled jeans, a heavy Carhartt jacket, and a look on his face like we just caught him with a hand in the empanada jar.  He’s clearly coming from the back of the house.  A surge of adrenaline rises in my chest and I tamp it down, not wishing to appear confrontational, and stride right over.  He takes a reluctant half step in my direction, so that we end up converging in the midst of the postage-stamp lawn.

“Hey, is Mr. Karlson home, do you know?”

He shakes his head, not meeting my eye.

“You work for Mr. Karlson?”

“Yes.  Plumber fixing.”  He has a heavy accent and his hair is mussed, stuck down with sweat at the temples.  He’s of medium build, thick hands, dark shifty eyes.  Maybe I could take him, I think, but it would be a tough fight.  Nevertheless, he shows no sign of seeking anything but escape.

Mindy comes forward.  “You’re frightening him, Phu.”

He’s not a pet kitten, I think.  He’s a grown person — a shifty-eyed person. When I turn back to her he starts moving again toward the truck.

Mindy calls after him.  “Have you seen my uncle?”

He twitches his head and reaches for the door handle.

I take a few quick strides to catch up.  “Hey!  The lady asked you a question.”

Mindy says, “We don’t mean you any harm.  We’re looking for my uncle, Gunnar Karlson.  Have you seen him this week at all?”

The man shakes his head with averted eyes and pops open the door of the plumbing van.

I step up and grab the forearm of his thick jacket as his right foot finds purchase inside.  My action twists him back slightly, forcing him to face me, but before I look into his eyes I scan his jacket for blood.  It’s soiled but not red.  He shrugs me off, more powerful than I expected, and pulls the van door closed from inside.  His window is open a crack, and he lowers it another couple inches as he cranks the ignition.

“No see.  No see.”

I’m already more involved than I planned to be, but I’m also familiar with the no-speaky-English play-dumb technique, and this guy’s intransigence doesn’t sit too well.  It’s a sign of disrespect that I can’t abide.

“Listen,” I say, reaching for the handle with one hand and into my pocket with the other.

He pushes down the door lock before I can get it open.

“Listen, roll down the window a bit more for a sec.”

He shakes his head.  “Have to go.”

“Well, if you happen to see him—”  I pull a business card quickly from my pocket and attempt to slot it through the top of the window, but it sticks less than halfway as he zips closed the window with the push of a button.  He makes no effort to deal with it, just looks from me to Mindy.  Then he pulls away from the curb, not in a screech of tires but purposefully, no tap on the breaks until he reaches the corner.

Mindy stares after him.  “That was plenty strange.”

We return to Uncle Gunnar’s porch, clanging the knocker that’s shaped like a pineapple and listening to its eerie echo off the wainscot ceiling.  We wait five minutes, looking from one another to the quiet neighborhood where occasionally a car passes, drivers paying no attention to us.

I try the doorknob and find it locked.  Mindy steps forward and raps with her knuckles on the nearest window, calling, “Uncle Gunnar!  Uncle Gunnar!  You in there?!”

He may be, I think to myself, picturing him with his skull bashed in by a cast iron plumbing pipe.  But when I shade my eyes and peer through a window into the dark house I see nothing but plain solid furniture and shadows.  In fact, the place appears to be entirely undisturbed.

Mindy stands in her leotard in uncomfortable silence, looking like a girl who’s left her coat in the school locker and just returned from dance class to find her parents away.  She screws up her face with uncertainty and worry, and it seems clear to me that her plan never went beyond a knock on Uncle Gunnar’s front door.

“You don’t have a key?”

“What good would it have done?” she snaps.  “He expected me to be in Minnesota and he’s closer to home from the Poconos than I am, isn’t he?”  She folds her arms across her chest, I assume because the cold has finally gotten through, but maybe it’s some other feeling creeping into her.

I cup one of her elbows with a hand and angle my face so our eyes meet.  Something’s come over me; I’m feeling chivalrous.

“There’s no point us both standing out here, Mindy.  You want to wait in the car while I look for a way in?”

She shakes her head.  “I’m all right.  Go.”

So I shove my hands into the pockets of my brown leather coat and walk around the outside of the house — counterclockwise and with deliberate steps.

Uncle Gunnar’s neighbors on either side and in back have fences, but he doesn’t.  I like the prudence of this: why pay money for a benefit that you’re already receiving for free?  The outdoors of his small property consists mostly of closely cropped lawn and a few bushes allowed to achieve their natural shapes, though there’s evidence of judicious pruning.  Near the northeast corner, a trellised wooden box encloses two clean plastic trash bins.  I open the slanted top and lift the lids off the bins one at a time, but find them empty.

In back, there’s a small poured concrete patio with a red Smokey Joe grill and some black wrought iron furniture under canvas covers.  Though it hasn’t rained for a week, puddles weigh on the depressions.  The water splatters as I tilt each of the chairs to examine them without having to fuss with the covers.  I find nothing but cobwebs and the remains of some kind of critter nest — the anonymous little creatures smart enough to seek better shelter as winter tightened its grip, no doubt.  The Smokey Joe shows signs of prior use and has a patina of rust inside, but someone has taken the trouble to remove the used charcoal ashes.  There’s a sliding door from the dining room to the patio, and it budges just enough to let me know that it’s locked.  On the shady side of the house, the steel Bilco door is also closed and padlocked, a firm tug doing nothing but jar my chilled joints from wrist to elbow.

When I return to the front of the house, Mindy is pushing back and forth gently on the porch glider.    She turns to me.  “What’d you find?”

“No sign of anything.  The doors are locked tight.”

“You tried the windows?”

This detective stuff is harder than it looks.  “I didn’t think of that.  Be right back.”

Mindy smiles and I start out again the same way, pausing at each ground-level window, forcing the screens aside and pushing up and down on the sashes to no effect.  On the south side of the house, the setting sun fights through nearby obstructions to throw yellow rhomboids across the brick and trim, like shapes in a geometric puzzle.  The afternoon is waning and I’m losing patience.

I spot a garden hose wound around a spindle.  It’s disconnected from the spigot, but an aluminum sprayer remains attached to the working end.  I mangle one screen and unravel about six feet of hose and swing the sprayer like a lasso at the window, shattering a couple of panes.  Elevating with the help of a nearby air conditioning compressor, I use my elbow to punch out the remains of the broken glass, reach through to unlock the window from the inside, and attempt to throw open the sash, but it’s painted shut.  So I balance between the compressor and the windowsill and splinter the mullions with the heel of my shoe and then go headfirst through the opening, flopping onto a kitchen counter and from there onto the floor.

Broken glass crunches underfoot and I observe that I tore a nice gash in my leather coat sleeve, but I’m in.  Through the front hall window, I see Mindy still on the porch, gliding back and forth with her hands sandwiched between her knees.  She jumps up when I pull open the door.

“Madam, I’m Adam.”

“You did it!”

“Not without a certain amount of violence.”  I pull at the tear in my sleeve as she steps inside.

The air is musty and fusty, permeated by essence of geriatric, and every step of mine feels like a violation of someone’s privacy, probably because it is.

We get to the kitchen and Mindy’s hand goes to her mouth and she says, “Who made this mess!”

I furrow my brow.  “What’d you think, I went down the chimney?”

We undertake a cursory appraisal of each room in silence, the backs of our necks gone to goose pimples and it isn’t the draft — we’re expecting a body.  But the rooms are neat and clean, no gaseous corpses or blood-splattered walls.  It’s a small two-bedroom house and this review doesn’t take long.  We end up back in the kitchen, gaping at one another in puzzlement, palms upturned.

“Now what?” Mindy says.

“As if I know.”

She’s in silhouette, the low-angled sun sketching her outline so finely that in a photo you might think she’s nude.  I look between her legs and say, “Don’t move!”  Her thighs and calves are like brackets, and I don’t want to lose the glimpse of what I’ve seen in between.  I approach cautiously, crouching as I go, then working around her left hip, staring at that area of the hardwood floor in the dining room behind her.

“What, Phu?  What?”

“There’s something about the pattern of dust on the floor.”  The dying sun illuminates it.  “Step around.  See here?”

You can only discern it from a certain angle, where the sun’s rays hit the settled dust motes just right — a pattern of disturbance that didn’t get there by chance.

As Mindy steps gingerly aside, I flatten my chin, struggling to analyze it.  There’s a swirl in the dust, then a pair of tracks leading in parallel to the sliding door.

“Somebody’s been here,” I observe, thinking of Torres.  “And he removed something on a hand truck or by some other means that would leave a track like that.  See?”

Mindy nods and her eyebrows narrow.

I fold my arms across my chest, feeling greatly satisfied to have my powers of deduction on such glorious display.

The confidence that I project only encourages Mindy, who looks at me now as if I’ll next produce her uncle from behind a hidden door in the adjoining room.  In reality, I don’t have an inkling of where to go from here.  I’m still only the same guy I was a minute ago, a debt negotiator who knows better how to work a phone than a case.

Mindy and I lock eyes, and I feel something that resembles a tug in my chest.  It’s the kind of force, I suspect, that promulgates both great discoveries and great fiascos.  But, before it does either of those things, that force must first drive an unsuspecting man from the comfort of his cave to that mysterious place you don’t find on any map: the Point of No Return.

I’m not going to that Point, I tell myself.  I’m not going there.  I’m not going there. But I’m not ready to leave Gunnar Karlson’s house just yet, either.

 

 

14.

 

 

“Think.  What might your uncle own that would require a hand cart to get out of here?”

Mindy shakes her head and throws up her hands.

“Something heavy,” I persist.  “A piece of furniture, a safe, a collection in a box, a large urn or sculpture perhaps?”  I’m grasping at straws.

“You’re grasping at straws,” Mindy says.

“I was just thinking that.”

“He’s an old man of modest means, not wealthy.  Look at this place!”

You can practically see the whole house from the kitchen doorway.  The furniture is mostly pine with a honey finish, unfussy but well kept and arranged without clutter, though a thin layer of dust clings to everything.  A variety of framed pictures fills the walls, but nothing downstairs that grabs my attention.  The upholstery in the living room is understated and well broken in, not shoddy.

Mindy lifts the portable phone from its cradle on the kitchen wall and presses a button.  “Dead.”  She shrugs.

“Isn’t that what brought us here?”

“Sure, but you never know.”

I look out at the patio and lawn for signs of hand-truck tracks, but don’t see any.  The sun is now disappearing rapidly behind nearby trees, casting the yard in deep shadow.

Mindy, for lack of a better thing to do, pulls open a pair of kitchen cabinet doors, revealing a modest collection of spices.  She pries the plastic top off a coffee can and sniffs like a connoisseur, then puts it away.  “I can’t tell how fresh that is.  We should examine things more carefully.  Maybe we’ll find a clue.”

It’s getting gloomy inside.  She goes to throw a switch and I stop her.  “We’re trespassing, remember?”  I look at the shattered window, paranoia creeping in.  “Someone on the street might see the light.”

We follow one another from room to room in the growing dimness.

“I don’t suppose you have a flashlight in the car.”

She shakes her head, but I find one in a drawer in the front hall.  Its battery is almost dead, the beam diffuse and nearly amber.

The main floor of the house consists of a small living room and study at the front (each with brick fireplace), in addition to the kitchen, dining room and front entrance hall.  Upstairs are two bedrooms with separate baths.  I open a closet in the room where Uncle Gunnar appears to sleep.  It smells vaguely of camphor, and it’s well stocked and neat, sensible shoes lined up like soldiers, sports jackets facing all in the same direction, left shoulder out.  On the floor, oddly, he also has a collection of four or five unbranded stainless steel canisters, presumably thermoses for coffee or tea.

“I guess the man likes his cup of mud,” I say.

I don’t touch anything.  Add up the dim flashlight beam in the growing dark, the draft you can feel even upstairs from the broken window, and the circumstance of a person who’s starting to seem not just gone but missing — and the place begins to feel even more creepy than it did at first.  In addition, we’re amateurs — so the search is less than thorough.

I do get a sense of Uncle Gunnar from some of the items in his bedroom: a bottle of absinthe on a tray on the dresser with slotted silver spoon and small Venetian-style glasses, detailed paintings of flowers, a few beautiful abstract photos that appear to have been hand colored, a couple of plaques on the walls from his army days and with appreciation from a drug company where it seems he once worked.  I peer into one of the complex and strangely beautiful photographs, trying to make out the details in poor light.

“What did your uncle do before he retired?”

“He was a pharmacologist, hardly likely to leave treasure lying around.”

We shuffle into the guest room, which feels equally abandoned but yet recently lived in.  Mindy opens the closet and we both stare unfruitfully.  The clothes seem younger.  There’s a pair of sneakers on the floor that remind me of the ones Terrance and his friend wore, though not quite the same color scheme.  I think of Penny and the repo men.

“There are no televisions.  Maybe they took those — whoever they is.”

Mindy shakes her head.  “Uncle Gunnar doesn’t watch T.V.  He reads and throws the books and magazines away when he’s done.  He’s not a hoarder like so many old folks.”

Indeed, there are only a few volumes scattered about the house.

“What does he do for hobbies?”

“I don’t know.  Art.  Photography.  A little gardening.  He likes to travel.”

“Maybe they stole his camera, but you wouldn’t need a hand truck to get that out of here.”

Mindy shrugs for the umpteenth time.  “I’m out of ideas.”  As if she’d contributed any.  “I have to use the loo.”

She ducks into the bathroom and I go downstairs and pull the curtains back on a couple of covered terrariums that stand in one interior corner of the living room.  While I wait, I pass the time shining the flashlight into the murky corners.  Pulverized straw coats much of the bottoms.  Also wood chips, what appears to be leaf litter, and some unidentifiable organic matter.  Atop all that stuff, in various shapes and sizes, grow gaggles of mushrooms.

Bent over, immersed, I’ve almost lost myself in this diminutive Tolkien-like environment when I see something else in there — the carcass of what looks like a half-buried mouse, a profusion of mushrooms sprouting from its rotting flesh.  It’s like a miniature monument to the cruelty of the world, I think.  The poor little fellow must’ve died of starvation waiting for Uncle Gunnar to return, and now he’s food for something else.

Mindy appears just then, disrupting my reverie, but I’m still carrying that notion as we walk out the front door and let it click closed behind us.  Without a key, we can’t do anything about the dead bolt, but the knob is locked.

We’re halfway down the steps when the headlights of a passing car sweep by, illuminating a stark-white item tucked into a crack of the porch railing.

“You see that?”

Mindy shakes her head as I backtrack.

The item in the railing is a small piece of stiff white paper poking up at an angle.  It’s a business card, and I lift it to eye level.  The car headlights have passed and there’s no light shining on Uncle Gunnar’s porch, but even in the dark I recognize the thing immediately.  It advertises the services of a certain debt negotiator – Phuoc Goldberg of Wilmington, Delaware, to be precise – his luck gone so cold that even a business card stuck in a van window finds its way back to him with little promise.

 

15.

 

Half an hour later, Mindy drops me at my office.  On my desk I find Sergeant Rufus Buxton’s card, city police seal and all the rest, the bottom edge of it lined up perfectly with the edge of the desk and square to my chair.  It’s that kind of week, I guess, business cards papering the town — a portent, I hope, of some revenue for CPR Debt Relief, but more likely presage to an escalating series of pains in my derriere.

Buxton left no note, but his message seems clear to me.  I tend to resist authority, however, so I resolve not to call Penny until day after tomorrow at the earliest.  Instead, I futz around for a few hours with meaningless paperwork, surf the Internet, and finally close up for the night and head to a bar downtown that I understand goes lesbian after nine.

It’s 9:30 when I arrive, and I’m not disappointed.  The lesbians are streaming in, groups of three or four women at a time, some looking very feminine and others, well, less so.  The bar has tables along one paneled wall, posters of buff chicks in action films clipped over whatever normally hangs there, and soft indirect lighting that prisms from hot pink to deep mauve and back without achieving other colors.  There’s a deliciously weird vibe from the growing crowd, and I’m lucky to claim the last open stool at the bar.

The bartender, who falls somewhere on the sexual continuum between Melissa Etheridge and Ellen DeGeneres, is a clean-cut brunette in black jeans and a sleeveless T-shirt that shows off her relative lack of breasts.  She has eight piercings in each ear and invites my aggression by throwing me the hairy eyeball, smirking and casting her gaze around for support, as if to say, “Which one of you losers ordered the Vietnamese pork?”  I’m sure I could take her in a test of fisticuffs, if she wants to prove her manhood, though she’s probably a hair-puller and I’d have to watch out for those two spiky rings on her left hand.

After the initial look of contempt, she does her best to ignore me for a good ten minutes, and the lack of a beer-bottle crutch leaves me nothing to do with my hands when I’m done playing busy with my iPhone.  So when she finishes serving the standing women who squeezed in behind me, I firmly tap her forearm before she can execute a full retreat.

“Miss!”

“Please don’t touch the bartender.”

“There’s a bartender here?  Great.  All I saw was barmaids.”

She wipes the area in front of me like she’s trying to get the paint to peel.  “You sure you’re in the right place?”

“Why are you saying that — because I’m an Asian American?”

“Ho ho ho.  You know why I’m saying it.”

“I’ll take a Dogfish Head pint, please.”

She pours me one and sets it down on a cardboard coaster that has a two-color picture of Angelina Jolie armed with a machine gun, sweat flying strategically.  In action movies, of course, you can spray all the bullets you want and never incur collateral damage.  But in the real world, it seems to me, every misstep creates a cascade of victims.

Chin tucked against my sternum, I stare hard into the speckled foam of my pint, watching the bubbles die.   And a question wafts up: was that dead mouse in the terrarium a pet of Gunnar Karlson’s or did it fall into the tank and fail to claw its way out?  It makes a difference because in the second instance one might dismiss the death as an accident of fate, but in the first it’s more like neglect, and not of the benign variety either.  A third possibility occurs to me.  What if Torres took the mouse from its nest in the patio chair and tossed it into the terrarium, leaving it to die days before we saw him?  But why would a person do a thing like that?

I take a long swig from my glass, leaving a foam stain on the rim.  In the car on the way home, I’d started to tell Mindy about the mouse but stopped myself.  Torres…the swirl in the dust…my card mysteriously returned to me…it seemed like more than enough for the poor woman to process about her wayward so-called uncle.  We ended up talking about nothing that we’d seen at the Karlson house, as if we were both too afraid to contemplate the possibilities.  Or maybe we’d just tired of having our suspicions consume us.

After the second beer, I request a menu.  The bartender practically throws it at me, and I begin to believe a chance may soon arrive to vent some steam, the chance that I never found in that biker bar the other night.  Not that I expect to perpetrate violence on a woman, mind you, but I figure maybe there’s a good heated argument in the offing.

When the bartender returns, I slide the menu over the maraschino cherry receptacle and say, “I’ll have the hotdog, grilled onions on the side.”

“Did you see a hotdog on the menu?”

“Now that you mention it, no.  Corn on the cob, then.”

“What the hell is your problem?”

“Large sausage for the main course with a larger zucchini as appetizer.”

“Phalluses, I get it.  You’re baiting me.”  She smiles for the first time.  “Don’t you feel a little out of place?”

“You asked already.  I feel as well placed as a tree in the desert, to tell you the truth, but that statement probably applies when I’m anywhere within a thousand-mile radius of this place.”

She spreads her hands on the bar.  “So why not strike out for other parts, go somewhere you fit in?”

“Let me know when you find it.”

She humphs in sympathy, which encourages me more than it ought to.  “Besides,” I add, “I can’t let them win.”

“Them?  Oh, them.”  A light comes into her eyes and she leans toward me with a conspiratorial air.  “Y’know, you remind me of my brother.”

I nod with recognition.  “Half-brother?  Pissed-off Asian dude, by any chance?”

“No.”  She clears the hair from her eyes with a jerk of the head.  “Tough little guy with a big heart, actually.  He eats cheeseburgers.  That’s what I’m bringing you.  And the next beer’s on the house.”

Killing me with kindness, the bitch.

There’s a website called angryasianman.com.  Last time I looked, if you click on the About page the founder begins with the statement, “I’m not as angry as you think.”  Honest to God, someone needs to give that boy lessons in anger mismanagement.  Yet here am I, knuckles almost healed on my left hand and the edge I carried taken off by nothing more than a free beer and a few smiles from a militant lesbian.  Or have I allowed thoughts of Mindy and Uncle Gunnar and dead mice to distract me from older habits of mind?  I’m thinking about that when the cheeseburger arrives, thick cheddar on top and burnt around the edges, just as I like it.

The bartender swings back.  “So?”

“As good as a hotdog, damn you.  I go in peace.”

 

 

16.

 


Mindy’s Volvo is parked in the small lot when I pull into a spot with my Mini the next morning.  By the time I’ve yanked the handbrake into place, she’s out of the car, looking anxious and voluptuous in a brown loungewear outfit that could make Larry Flynt rise and walk.  She follows me up to my office and takes one of two pieces of candy left in the bowl.

“Who ate all of these?”

“You did.”  I set my coat down.

She savors every smack of her tongue and swallows as she settles into the guest chair.

“So here’s the thing.  I went this morning to the Kennett Square police station to file a missing persons report.  I did the whole form until I got to a section called PLS — place last seen — filled that in, and then they had a follow-up question, which was whether there were any signs of forced entry at the PLS.”  She sucks her teeth a little, probably still tasting the candy, but not concentrating on it.  “Well, I couldn’t do that part without being dishonest, so I crumpled it up and left the building.”

I sit up.  “I don’t understand.  What was the location you last saw him?”

“Uncle Gunnar’s house, last year some time.”

“You could put that.”

She shakes her head slowly, lip trembling, jaw thrust forward.  “We broke into the place, Phu.  That’s illegal.”

“But it wasn’t the day he disappeared.”

“And how are we going to prove that?”

I choose to contemplate that one in silence.

Mindy says, “We need to figure out our next move.”

“We?  What do you mean — we?”

“Do you know any cops we could trust, who would understand that we only broke in because we were so desperate to find Uncle Gunnar?”

You were desperate.”  I look at her.  “I was helping.”

“Well, I’m not the one who busted the window, climbed through and opened the front door from the inside, calling himself Adam.”

“It was a joke in the form of a palindrome.”

“The police won’t be laughing.  Do you know anyone or not?”

The only cop who comes to mind is Sergeant Rufus Buxton.  “There’s one guy.”  I hesitate.  “Met him the other day, but there’s a complication.”

“How come with you there’s always a complication?”

“I dunno.  Because life is complicated.  He’s in the wrong jurisdiction, for one thing, and I can’t call him right now because I owe him a favor, not the other way around.”

“What kind of favor?”  She cocks an ear.

So I tell her about Terrance and Penny and how I made the call to the rent-to-buy but failed to follow up with Penny.

“That’s simple,” Mindy says, standing up.  “We’ll pay off the couch.”

I shake my head.  “It’s not our obligation.  It’s Penny’s.”

Mindy tightens her lips.  “If you don’t want to do it, Phu, then I will.”

“Listen,” I begin, “I’m an authority on this subject…”  I don’t make this claim by accident.  Authority is one of the great human motivators, which is why testament from a real doctor trumps testament from an actor who plays one on TV.  I point to the framed calligraphy on my wall for emphasis.  “I’m a certified financial planner and a graduate of the Financial Counseling Certification Program.  I know what’s best for people in debt up to their eyeballs, and having a friend pay for their couch is not on the list.”

Mindy picks up her purse and slings the strap over her shoulder.  “I’m not her friend.  She doesn’t even know me.  And you’re not her friend, either.  That seems pretty obvious.”

My chair creaks.  “I don’t like the implications of that tone of voice.  I can’t very well pay off every client’s debts.  I’d go bankrupt myself.”

“She’s got kids, you said, nephews!”

So naive, I’m thinking.  I don’t want to talk down to her, but the bile is rising in my throat.  “You’re not hearing what I’m telling you, Mindy.  I.  Know. These.  People.”

Ignoring me: “Who does she owe?”

“She owes everyone!”

“Who does she owe for the couch?”

Penny’s file rests between us on the desk.  It has a duplicate sheet of the form I filled out for her — on which I’ve taken some additional notes — stapled to the top of the folder.

“The couch doesn’t mean anything.”  I pick up the folder and gesture with my free hand for emphasis, pretending to read.  “Yesterday it was the television, today it’s the couch, tomorrow maybe the oil company, then the electric bill and the car and the house, in an endless cascade.  That’s how all these characters work.  They’re not behind the curve — they’re flatlined!”

We lock eyes and I see in that instant that I’m not going to prevail upon her.  My argument would have to include the whole universe, it would have to incorporate the Cenozoic Era, retrace mammalian history, cite every contributor to the literature of personal responsibility from Plato to Charles Darwin to Suze Orman, and that would take more time than either of us has left on earth.

Mindy sets her teeth and narrows her eyes at me.  She reaches out, and I presume she’s going for the last piece of candy, but she has a sweeter exclamation point in mind.  She snatches the top sheet from Penny’s file, tearing it at the staple, turns without saying another word, and storms from my office.

This is the part where Professor Henry Higgins utters some epithet along the lines of, “Infernal woman!”  But I am stymied.

A moment later I hear the car door slam outside.

In frustration, I throw Penny’s thin file into the wall across the room.  It’s so light that it opens like a bird’s wings before it hits, fluttering without harm to the floor, denying me the satisfying sound effect.  I kick the arm of my chair and then walk over and pick up the few pieces of paper.  I smack the file back down on the desktop, feeling the breeze it creates sweep through my hair.  I bury my face in my hands, stand up, pace to the corner and back, stare at the file, then sit down again.

Next, of course, I call Penny Jones.

It rings three times and a deep voice answers with some kind of one-syllable version of “hello,” as if the greeting doesn’t rate a second vowel.  Or, as is more likely the case, the person answering is a teenager who simply can’t be bothered to open his mouth all the way.

“Is Ms. Jones home, please?”

“She in the bathroom.”

The kid spoke four words and already he’s giving up too much information.  “Will she be long?”

“Nah.”

“Who’s this?” I ask.

“Terrance.  Who you?”

I run my tongue across my front teeth.  “Terrance, how you doing?  This is Phu Goldberg.”

“Oh.”

“How’s that lip feeling?”

“Not as good as before I met you.”

“Hey, shouldn’t you be in school?”

“Home sick.  On account of—”

“Yeah.”  An awkward silence follows, Terrance probably carrying a jones for the apology he isn’t going to get, me wondering whether he’ll learn the lesson of choosing his friends more wisely.  “Well, it was good you gave your aunt my card.  I’ve managed to help her.”

“You got the TV back?”

“Not exactly.”

“Oh.”  He’s unable to disguise his disappointment — or maybe he prefers to lay it on me thick.  A voice in the background fades in.  “She here now.”

They exchange a few words.

“This is Penelope Jones.”  Once again, the formal tone used as a shield from further harm.

“Hi, it’s Phu Goldberg.  I’m calling with some good news.”  I picture Mindy driving around Wilmington — no navigation system in the car — stopping every five minutes in gas stations for directions to Penny’s place.  “And, in addition, I have some really good news.”

“Is that right?”

I relate my conversation with the guy at Bucky’s Rent-to-Own, leaving out the banter and the fact that I let more than twenty-four hours pass before informing her.  “That’s the plain vanilla good news.”

She releases an audible sigh.

“The really good news is that a friend of mine, Mindy Eider, has agreed to pay the three-hundred-dollar settlement for the couch out of her own pocket.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I don’t kid about things of this nature.  She’s on her way over there right now with the money.”

“Lord have mercy.”

“It may take her a while.  She’s not from around here.”

Penny pauses, gathering her thoughts.  “I don’t know how to thank you, Mr. Goldberg.  Honestly, I left your place with the feeling you wouldn’t come through, certainly not this level of generosity.  You don’t know how much this means to me and the children.  I — I’m overcome.”

“Yeah, well, look out for Mindy.  She should be there any minute — brunette in a brown outfit of some kind.  Not from around here.”

I’m stumbling and repeating myself because, to my great embarrassment, Penny Jones has begun to blubber with gratitude.

 

17.

 

Penny’s response to my apparent generosity continues to unsettle me, and I spend a long time staring into the cut-crystal bowl on my desk, where a single piece of candy and some chocolate crumbs remain.  After a while, though, I rouse myself from this unproductive funk.  Over the course of the next hour, I conclude the few items of business that remain from earlier clients, but that only serves to make me more aware of the fact that I’m down to my last two: a charity case and one where I’ve no authorization to take any action.

Sometimes the cold-call list looks like a sheer ice face with no toe-holds, and this is one of those days.  I pick up the paper three times and set it back down again without dialing a single number.  And I think:Where the hell could Mindy be, anyway? I envision her dead by the side of the road, victim of a mugging gone postal when she started giggling at the perpetrator or couldn’t locate her wallet in that giant purse of hers.

On the presumption that that’s a paranoid delusion, I head downstairs to replenish the candy stock of my only paying customer, who’s clearly a heavy user and may be hungry if she returns alive.

Tabitha is giving change to a woman when I enter, the computerized cash register doing electronic ding-dong noises.

“Ah,” I say as the woman leaves, “the sound of money being made.  Music to my ears.”

Tabitha looks down upon me, unsmiling.  “I don’t see why.  It’s not your money.”

“It’s an inspiration, that’s all.  What’s with the fret?”

She steps back into her office and emerges with my mail, Sergeant Buxton’s card pressed into the top of the pile with a bony thumb.  “The Law is after you.”

I turn it over: no writing on the back.  “Did he attach a note?”

“Do you see one?”

“A verbal message?”

Too-Tall shakes her head.

“Jesus!” I cry.  “Why can’t this guy leave a voicemail like a normal person?”

Tabitha puts a hand on her hip.  “Are you in trouble, Phu?”

“Nah.”  I flip through the mail, finding nothing of importance.  “I owed him a favor yesterday, but today it’s resolved.  With a bonus, even.  We’re more than square.”

The phone rings and Tabitha takes out an order book.  She pages through it and removes a slip, scribbling some notes as a quick conversation ensues.  She returns her attention to me almost apologetically.  “You know, Phu, Brad and I still have a thing about the establishment.  It may sound crazy with the lives we lead, all the stuff we have, but deep down we still imagine ourselves a couple of hippies, smoking grass in the Haight.  You find yourself in any serious trouble, I hope you’ll let us know before it gets out of hand.”

“Me?  Trouble?  I told you what happened.  I had to defend myself in the street and made Sergeant Buxton’s acquaintance.  He let me go, but called in the favor right away.  This card’s just a reminder, and I dealt with it already.  The way you’re talking, someone might think Brad is cooking up hash brownies for the Girl Scouts.  You have your own secrets to share?”

“Not on your life.  We’re mainstream these days and plan to stay that way.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry.  Whether Buxton drops in again or not, he now has me confused with one of the good guys.”

Tabitha reaches under the counter and walks around me with a spray bottle in one hand and a pink dust rag in the other.  She peers at the glass case with a frown, spritzes the fingerprints and wipes.

With her body folded in half, I have the rare opportunity to talk over her shoulder.  “Did the sergeant buy anything when he was in here?”

“Not really.”  The rag squeaks against the glass.  “I comped him some broken macaroon cookies.  Mocha cream filling.”

I lift an eyebrow.  “Graft, huh?  I like it.  What do you have in your brown bag of sugary tricks today?”

Tabitha turns around and straightens up.  “Out of your stash already?  Are you breaking into good habits behind my back, Too-Phu?”

“No, ma’am.  A new client of mine has a sweet tooth is all.”

“New client?”  She opens her mouth wide and pushes me in the chest.  “Don’t tell me it’s Pollyanna from Peoria!”

“Minneapolis, actually.”

Tabitha stows her cleaning supplies.  “She stopped in and bought some stuff recently, your friend.  Wiped me out of the free samples, too, while she was at it.  She mentioned you.”

“What’d she say?”

“Oh, no you don’t.  That’s between us girls.”

“I thought you wished to be known as women.”

“We’re girls when we wanna be.”

“How convenient.”  I roll my eyes.  “Are you gonna fork over the chocolates, or what?”

Tabitha washes her hands in a small utility sink behind the counter and turns back to me, shaking her head.  “We’re plumb out of remainders.  Come back tomorrow.”

Affecting nonchalance, I look into the case and point to some luscious bonbons.  “The Papa Cherries look good.  Can you individually wrap those?”

Tabitha closes her eyes and smiles like a person in the act of having her palate tickled.  “Whipped cherry ganache covered in six wafer-thin layers of light and dark chocolate, coated with a succulent sprinkling of cocoa nibs.”  She drops the smile.  “They’re out of your price range.”

“Can you loan me one or two?”

“Brad got the recipe from a chef in Bruges, Belgium.  We don’t do deals for those.  They’re not candy — they’re a sacred trust.”

“You sold me.  Just this once, I’ll take, say, half a dozen.”

She freezes in feigned shock, then rushes to the kitchen door.  “Brad, come quick!  I think our tenant’s running a fever!”

When they finish mocking me, I head upstairs and toss the mail away.  I’m standing in the doorway, turning Buxton’s card over in my hand, when Mindy floats up the stairs.

She looks at the card and her eyes go enthusiastic.  “So your cop friend’s gonna help us?”

“I didn’t say that.”  I shake the bonbons into the bowl and Mindy pounces before they settle.  I hold up a hand.  “Careful there.  They bruise easily.”

She nibbles one delicately at first and then shoves the whole thing into her cake hole.  “Mmm.  Wrorw.”

“Take your time, would ya!  They’re premium.”

“For these, I’d pay extra.  Did you call your cop friend already?”

“I — I was about to.”

I dial, but it rings to the station house and he’s not there.  I set the phone down.  “They said he’d call back.  Buy you a hotdog while we wait?”

Mindy shakes her head.  “Are you crazy?  I can’t eat hotdogs every day, I’ll blow up like a balloon.”

“But the chocolate…”

“That’s always worth it.  Now I do need some real lunch.  Protein.  And not the kind that comes from a feedlot.”

There’s a diner up the road.  We take a short ride with me driving the Mini, then settle into a booth at the Golden Castle.  I order a hotdog, split and grilled, french fries with gravy, and a large vanilla milkshake.  Mindy gets tuna salad on lettuce with a lemon iced tea.

“Penny Jones is a real sad story,” she says, extending her lower lip.

“Is that right?  Let me tune up my violin.”

“Have you been to her house?”

“No.”

“She’s really down on her luck.”

“All my clients are.  It’s amazing.  Warren Buffett never calls me.”

Mindy picks at her tuna.  “This is serious, Phu.  She’s got all kinds of health problems, wouldn’t tell me exactly, but she’ll need an operation soon and she says Medicaid may not cover it.  She—  Why are you smiling?”

“I knew this would happen.  The woman saw you coming.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to take your fish and pretty soon he wants the whole damn boat.”

She looks off into space, then back at me.  “Fish is expensive.  I’d bet they’re not eating enough of it in that household.”

“Oh-kay…”  My hotdog long gone, I sop up the last of the gravy with a soggy fry.  “Lemme ask you something, how do you think Penny got that big?”

“You mean her weight?”

I pop the fry into my mouth and nod.  “Her obesity.  That’s exactly what I mean.  You think you can eat like a normal person and maintain that girth?”

“What does a normal person eat?  Do you eat like a normal person?”

“Probably not.”

“So you can’t judge from appearances.  She could be starving for all you know.”

“If she’s starving, someone forgot to tell her thighs.”

“That’s cruel!”

“The point, Mindy, is that we don’t know what came first, being fat or stuffing herself fat.  In the same way, we don’t know whether she’s down on her luck financially or she made her bad luck all by herself.”

She weaves an empty yellow Splenda packet among the tines of her fork and watches it curl.  “In the back of Penny’s house, there’s a hole in the plaster where a wicked draft comes in.  They have a blanket over it, no real insulation, can you imagine?  A blanket like you’d use for a baby.”

“She needs lessons from you on how to handle the cold, then, until she gets herself a job, at least.  She hasn’t worked in three years, if I recall.”  I look from my crumbs to her salad.  The lettuce is wilting in sympathy.  “Say, while we’re on the subject, you never mentioned what you’re having a sabbatical from.”

“Me?”

“Your day job.”  I slurp up the dregs of my milkshake with the tip of a striped straw, lifting my eyes back to Mindy as I do so.

The corners of her mouth have risen, a smile of pleasant recollection.  “I love my job.  I’m an elementary school teacher.”

“Elementary?”

She nods.  “First and second grade.  Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.”  I wave for the check.  “But now that I know, it explains a lot.”

18.

The cell phone didn’t ring over lunch, so when we return to my office I check messages, but the sergeant hasn’t called that number either.  Mindy extracts an instrument from her purse and buffs a nail with nervous energy.

I take out my blue stress ball and begin bouncing it off the wall, aiming for a spot I’ve chosen right in the middle, a pimple in the paint.  Mindy bites the edge of a fingernail, stares at it, resumes buffing.  I miss the pimple by a good inch, catch the ball and turn to her.

“How did it come to this thing,” I wonder aloud, “this arrangement whereby you’re responsible and all, but don’t have the means to get in touch with your uncle in an emergency?”

She pauses in her buffing and looks at me.  “I didn’t think to ask for a number to the place in the Poconos, and I guess Uncle Gunnar discouraged it, not wanting to be disturbed.  He doesn’t have a cell phone, as far as I know.  It’s just a quick trip — I mean, I understand that five or six weeks isn’t a short vacation for most people, but he’s an old man, not much happening in the dead of winter, and the days always flew by so fast in the past…”

“It’s going on eight weeks now, isn’t it?”

“He’s never been a stickler for time.”

I respond with silence.

Mindy adds as an afterthought, “He’s a long-time bachelor.”

“Even bachelors have connections.  This thing he’s done, it’s not a normal way to do things.”

She narrows her eyes.  “First you’re all over Penny about how normal her diet is or isn’t.  Now it’s Uncle Gunnar.  You’re obsessed with normality.  Define normal.”

“Normal.  Responsible.”

“Is it responsible for a grown man to punch a boy in the mouth out on the street?”

“Look, you don’t just fall off the planet, even an old bachelor.  You don’t leave behind a niece — or whatever you are — who might worry about you if she feels she needs to get in touch.  I mean, even these people who sail solo around the world have a radio where loved ones can reach them.”

“Do they?  They’re in the middle of the Pacific and they’re chatting on the phone?  I hadn’t thought of that.  But Uncle Gunnar’s not that way.  He’s the quiet type.  I don’t think he expected I’d have cause to worry.  He just went on vacation.  What was going to happen?”

“Oh, I don’t know.”  Still looking at her, I rest my wrist on the desk and dribble the ball in the cage of my fingertips.  Tum-tum-tum-tum. “The house burns down, say, or the pipes burst.  High winds.  Flooding.  Nuclear holocaust.”  Tum-tum-tum-tum. “Here’s one that would be a pisser: he forgets to pay the mortgage and the bank forecloses while he’s away!”

Tum-tum. I press my fingers into the ball.

Mindy gathers her thoughts.  She scrunches up her nose and puts the buffing tool back in her purse.  “Next year,” she says, “I’ll get him to give me the name of the hotel, at least.  Does that make you happy?”

Whether she’s fooling me or fooling herself, Mindy seems reluctant to acknowledge that there may be no need for future plans with regard to Uncle Gunnar – that maybe he’s gone for good.  Who am I to tell her otherwise?

“Well,” I conclude, “at least the county sheriff will have as much trouble running him down as we will.”

“The sheriff?  What’s he got to do with anything?”

“I don’t know what the law is in Minnesota, but in Pennsylvania foreclosures follow a highly regulated procedure.  If the bank goes forward with a foreclosure, as they’re threatening to do, they’ll ask the sheriff to serve a complaint against Uncle Gunnar.  But they have to do it in person.”

“What if they don’t find him?”

“It certainly complicates matters.  I’m not sure how they’d follow up.  In my experience, the person who’s losing his house has always been living in it still.  The guy from the sheriff’s office knocks on the door.  The door gets answered, an envelope is placed in the poor schmo’s hand.  Bingo!  He’s been served.  If he’s not home, the guy from the sheriff’s office comes back later.  But Uncle Gunnar’s been gone a really long time.”

We search each other’s faces.  Even if Mindy won’t concede the worst, there hovers between us an unspoken sense, the sense that the legal calendar isn’t as relevant to Uncle Gunnar’s case as we’d like to believe, that time isn’t his ally right now and may never be so again.  He’s two weeks overdue, according to Mindy’s most liberal calculations.  And, though she hasn’t said as much, a certain staleness has crept into his absence.

We sit uneasily for an hour longer in my office, staring at the phone as if a call from Sergeant Buxton will somehow rescue the situation.  As if a guy on the Wilmington police force has any reason to care about an old man who wandered off in a neighboring state, leaving behind no ticking time bomb and no sign of foul play, save for a window I broke and a few swirls in the dust.  But for Mindy the moment has taken on an air of vigil, and she looks as if she’s prepared to sit here all day, with little appreciation for the fact that I may have other things to do.

I stow my overworked stress ball in the desk drawer and open Gunnar Karlson’s file and peer at the foreclosure notice.

“This thing’s a month old.”

“I got it last week,” Mindy admits.  “I didn’t come right away.”

“So it took two weeks for a piece of forwarded mail to travel a thousand miles.  God bless the U.S. Postal Service!  This delay puts the sheriff’s notice that much closer.”  I pause.  “Tell you what, Mindy.  What do you say we take a ride to that bank?”

“Bank?”

“The one that’s looking for its house back.”

“That’s a great idea!”

As she brightens I cell-phone Google the driving directions.  A few minutes later we climb into my yellow Mini and zip away.

Mindy leans back on the headrest and gazes around the black interior.  “I noticed last time that there’s more room in here than I thought there would be.”

“Maybe if I had broader shoulders, you wouldn’t think so.  Guys like me make everything look giant.”

“You’re self-conscious about that.”

“Not really,” I lie.  “I can’t change it.”

“But you’d like to.”

“Well, it would be a little ridiculous if I emerged from a Hummer.  That would be an overcompensation.  Small guy, no family to haul around.  These wheels are all I need.”

“What kind of gas mileage does it get?”

“Pretty good.  More important, it holds its value better than any other car on the road.  It’s like a crazy club.  People in other Minis flash their lights when they see me or toot the horn, just because I made the same car choice.  I’ve never gotten a lot of that in my life.”

“A lot of what?”

“What would you call it — fellowship.  It was an unfamiliar feeling at first.  Kind of stupid.”

“It sounds like fun.”

“Until you consider that they’d pass me on the sidewalk without a second look — unless, that is, I wandered into the wrong neighborhood.  Then they might be even less friendly.”

We merge onto I95 North and I open up the throttle.  “It’s been a while since I had this thing on the highway,” I say, cracking the moonroof.  “Nice to get it into sixth gear.  Nice to get out of the office for a change.”

Mindy twists her opal ring and watches the colors dance in the sunlight.  “You don’t make trips like this often?”

“No.”  I shake my head.  “Usually, with the big creditors — banks and credit card companies — the call center can help.  They’ve got their instructions and their scripts, and I just need to guide them to the page that says, ‘Give this guy a break.’  What we’re doing now, though, is an end-run around that, because of the special circumstances.”

“You mean the foreclosure warning.”

“That’s the normal part.  I see those all the time.  What I mean is that I’m trying to solve a problem that I don’t know the extent of for a guy I don’t represent and whose whereabouts I can’t ascertain.  So, I’m hoping to go in there and throw myself on the mercy of the court, as it were.  Let someone whose skin isn’t so thick, maybe someone who doesn’t spend his life saying ‘No,’ someone at the administrative level rather than the call center — let them see that the advocate looking for mercy is a human being like them, not a number and not an operator.  It’s bullshit, but it might work.”

“But, why is it bullshit?  You are a fellow human being.”

“No.  Whatever the species, I am an operator, and this attempted end-run is a form of manipulation.”

“No way!  You’re fighting for the poor.”

“In my special way.  You know, most of the credit counselors are non-profit.  That’s why I call myself a debt negotiator.  My agenda’s more complex.  I’m a guy trying to make a living, and right now I happen to do it by helping some people who’ve gotten themselves into unfortunate positions financially.”

“There’s nothing wrong with making a living.  Everyone has to eat.”

“For a long time I was on the other side of the customer equation, selling time shares for a while, later working the phone in a bucket shop.”

“A bucket shop?”

“Foisting nearly worthless stocks on investors who wanted a wave to ride during the Internet boom, but didn’t really have a clue.  The managers taught us how to sell but not how to make money for our clients.  We executed the kinds of trades where the investor has a one-in-a-hundred shot at hitting a home run, but the house scores its nut on every transaction regardless.”

“That’s legal?”

“If you’re big enough, it is.  The smaller guys, like where I worked, have to hide in the shadows a little.  I should have learned that the only way you really beat the system in this world is to be the system, but here I am, tilting at windmills.”

“But what you do now isn’t that bucket shop thing.”  She looks out the window, then turns again to me.  “You act all tough but you’re on the side of the angels, Phu.  People like my uncle, people like Penny…you give them a lifeline.”

“A lifeline, absolutely.  But by the time they grasp it they don’t usually have the strength to pull themselves up — and I make sure to charge them for the rope before it breaks and they sink into the abyss.”

As I move for the right lane, preparing to exit, I wonder why I’m being so hard on myself and so nice to Mindy, lifting my own kimono like this.  But then I remember the rent and that “liking” is one of the great motivators.  Mindy being my only paying client, I should get her to like me more.

We hit a car-rattling pothole, and I look at my passenger to make sure nothing got shook loose.  Her hand’s gone to her throat, but she’s giggling like a second-grader.  And when our eyes meet, I almost see affection there.

To reach Melissa Eider’s liking, it seems, one needs only to clear a low bar.

19.

 


The Triple Fidelity Mortgage office skulks on an Essington service road in the industrial wasteland between Harrah’s Racetrack-Casino in Chester and the bland sprawl of Philadelphia International Airport — the airport a public work so bleak that no politician, living or dead, has yet agreed to put his name on it.  In that spirit, Uncle Gunnar’s mortgage company occupies a low-slung building with a flat roof, exterior walls wrapped in dented aluminum siding, and a parking lot that looks like it was installed by the contractors who rebuilt Iraq.  The sign out front features the name of the company in smaller letters than the street number, as if the enterprise suffers from low self-esteem.  At a minimum, it seems obvious that management doesn’t encourage walk-in traffic, but I suspect there may be something else going on here.

I yank the parking brake tight, kill the motor, and turn to Mindy.  “What could’ve brought your uncle to the middle of nowhere for a loan?”

“I don’t know.  Best rates on the east coast?”

“No doubt any bank would like you to believe that from their advertising and marketing.  But, even if it’s true, an old guy, you’d think, would take the path of least resistance and do business with the most competitive local branch.”

“Maybe he’s the exception.  Maybe he shopped around.”  She pauses.  “Don’t look at me that way, Phu.  It’s not like Uncle Gunnar consulted with me beforehand.  These notices were the first I heard of any of this.”

“Right, I forgot.  You’re just the mail collector.”  We watch an empty paper bag cartwheel in the wind across the potholed macadam.  Four white guys are leaning against a pair of shiny black Lincolns, taking in the midday sun.  As the bag approaches, one of them lifts a foot and stomps it, forcing the air out, then kicks it under the car anyway.

The vibe is no good here.  I frown toward Mindy.  “This isn’t an actual bank, from the look of it.  I’d guess it’s a third-rate mortgage company, and these types of outfits can be sneaky.  Are you sure you didn’t more than junk mail into that stove of yours?  Maybe missed a couple of notices that they failed to mark with proper urgency — failed to mark, you know, accidentally on purpose?”

“Why would they do that?”

“Lots of reasons.  Jack up the penalties, for one, or seize the house and sell it for more than the loan balance.”

Her gaze goes blank, like I’m speaking an unknown language.  “I tried to do my best.  It didn’t seem there was much to worry about in Uncle Gunnar’s mail until I got the envelope that I had to sign for.”

The way I parked, we’re twenty feet from the building, facing it through the windshield.  “This place looks just like the woman on the phone sounded,” I say, “stingier than Mariano Rivera in the bottom of the ninth.  Look at that seedy little entrance there.  Not very inviting.”

Still, I snap the disc-shaped key fob from the ignition and grasp the car door handle.  As I do so, the four guys by the Lincolns turn their attention toward us without moving.  They carry that New Jersey Italian-tough look.  The two in turtle necks with open leather jackets and slick hair are sitting on the hood of an MKS featuring tricked-out wheels, their boot heels resting lightly on the shiny fender.  A third guy wears black slacks and a patterned shirt, daring the chill with no jacket, his gold chains and thick gold watch glinting in the sunlight.  He has a sharp jaw and blond Jheri curls, like he just walked off the set of a Seventies show.  The one who stomped the bag is tall and lanky in bluejeans and a bad sports coat, his weight resting on the passenger door of a Town Car.

I drop my lids briefly and picture Mindy with the eyes that first saw her a couple of days ago — okay, the eyes that undressed her a couple of days ago, but it’s not like that required a big leap of imagination, and it still doesn’t.  She’s still wearing no coat and she’s going for the passenger door handle.  Without thinking, I reach across quickly and intercept her wrist, at the same time hitting the lock button on the key fob.  When she turns to me, startled, my mind catches up with my actions: I can’t parade her past those wolves out there.

“Wait in the car, Mindy, okay?”

“But what about that whole human being thing you were saying earlier?  Won’t it help to have a pair of us explaining things?”

“That’s not the pair I’m worried about.”

“I don’t understand…”

“I have to do this myself, Mindy.  Please please wait here.  I’m giving you the key.  You can play the radio.  Just don’t get out of the car for anything.”

She nods agreement, but in half-hearted fashion.  To make her more fully understand my concern, however, would require approaching a level of intimacy that seems inappropriate.

“Keep the doors locked.  Hit that button when I’m out.”  I press the fob into her palm and she closes her fingers around it.  Her hands are beautiful, delicate.  I try to ignore the dryness forming in my mouth as I exit the car, tap the window to remind her and listen for the click of the locks.

The men across the parking lot eye my every step toward the plate-glass door.  I tilt my forehead to them once and refuse them the satisfaction of a second look.  They project a virility that concerns me more than the black teenagers and the threatening bikers put together.  Whether they’re mobsters or hairdressers or something else entirely, I know in my gut that they’re experienced rumblers and I wouldn’t stand a chance outnumbered.  One-on-one might even be a challenge.

The door shows scratched old-fashioned silver alarm tape in a pair of rectangles.  It leads directly to a staircase with black rubber treads, at the top of which a sign with press-on letters announces Triple Fidelity, leaving off the word “Mortgage.”

“Fidelity to what?” I mutter, stretching to take the stairs two at a time.

Upstairs, the small lobby has stained taupe carpet, bubbling in places and worn down to threads in front of the reception desk, where a middle-aged bottle-blonde hunches over a telephone.  She extends a hand toward the floor palm down, splays her fingers and examines her elaborate red fingernails, which have miniature flowers painted on them.  She doesn’t acknowledge me, so I take in the rest of the windowless room: two closed doors and one ajar, walls covered in papery paneling, and a few utilitarian chairs cast to the margins.

The receptionist must feel my presence.  She says into the phone, “Yeah, yeah.  I gotta go.  Business to do.  Love you, too.  Smooch, smooch, smooch.”

She hangs up and considers the receiver for a minute, as if expecting something more from it.  Disappointed, she lifts her eyes to me.  They’re big and hazel and tired behind a thick hedge of mascara, and they bear the same glaze of disappointment they had when she was staring at the phone.

“He’s not in,” she says.

“Who?”

“Mister—”  She catches herself.  “Whoever you’re looking for.”

On first impression, I’m liking my chances here.

“So there’s no mister on the premises, you’re saying.  I can dig.  Can you produce a miss or missus or ms. — a person of the distaff persuasion who might offer assistance?”

“You’re looking at one.  As for assistance, give some thought to this.”

She extends an index finger over the front edge of the desk to indicate an etched plastic sign, chipped at the corners.

“No solicitors,” I read aloud.  “That’s fine.  I’m not selling.  I’m here on behalf of a mutual client.”

“Who would that be?”

“Given the confidential nature of our business, I’ll share that with the appropriate party, if it’s okay with you.”

“Sure, it’s okay.  But if you don’t tell me, I can’t help you.”  She adjusts her weight in the chair and brushes something off the broad lapel of her tight silk shirt — body language that it doesn’t require an expert to read.

I hesitate, wondering how to play things.  This woman is already harder to crack than I expected, difficult to mirror without mocking, sharper than her appearance suggests.  Having to concede something, I hand her a business card.  “My client’s name is Gunnar Karlson.  Who would you be?”

“Mrs. Smith.”

“Mrs. Smith…  You have a first name?”

“Not for you.”

“Another state secret.”  I have to laugh.  “A Mrs. Em Wilson didn’t train you, by any chance…”

“Never heard of her.  What can I do for you or this Karlson guy?”

“He’s in receipt of a foreclosure notice from Triple Fidelity.  I’d like to discuss that with a decision maker.”

She rolls her eyes as if she hears this request twenty times a day and I’m the nineteenth.    She jots an 800 number on a scratch pad and shoves it toward me.  “This isn’t a banking office, er, Fuck.”

“Excuse me?”

“This isn’t—”

“I heard you.  You can call me Mr. Goldberg or you can call me Phuoc — pronounced Fook — got it?”

She hesitates.  “Sure.  My bad.  Listen, there are procedures for these things and they all start with the phone number on the notice.  The people who answer are the ones who deal with situations like yours.  I hate to see you disappointed, but nobody in this office can help you.”

This seems a good time to shift my weight.  I settle into my shoes, claiming ownership of the spot like a statue on a pedestal.  “I’m sure you’re right, Mrs. Smith, and I understand that it’s your job to be as cooperative as a brick wall, but I’m not leaving here until I talk to someone with the authority to discuss this mortgage.  So why don’t you take those precious nails of yours and punch a few buttons on that phone and see if you can’t scare up someone in the back room.”

Naturally, her next move is to glare at me, but then she does pick up the receiver.  While she’s waiting for a response, I picture in my mind’s eye a kettle brought to boil and imagine turning down the flame.  Without the aid of this visualization, I’m afraid I’ll upend the woman’s desk and shred whatever spills from the drawers.

I listen surreptitiously, hoping to hear her speak a name into the phone — a name I can employ later, if all else fails — but she goes directly to the heart of the matter, saying there’s a man standing here who claims to represent a gentleman named Gunnar Karlson, etc.  It surprises me that she recalls his full name, so I peer around the empty file sorter on her desk to see whether she wrote it down while I wasn’t paying attention.  That’s when I see that there are no lights aglow on the phone.  She’s talking, but there’s no one on the other end to listen.

“That’s what I told him,” the big faker says into the receiver.  “Yes, ma’am, I’ll inform him of that.”  She hangs up.  “See what I mean?  There’s no one here who can help you.  Here’s your best bet.”  She holds up the paper with the number again, but I leave it dangling for a few seconds.

My eyes dart to the door to my left, to the one to my right, to the one ajar next to it.  Makes sense, I reason, to go for the one I know is open.  I snatch the paper from Mrs. Smith’s hand and bolt for it, throwing the door wide, but I’m brought to my heels in an instant.  It turns out to be the smallest room in the building.  Tile floor.  Sink.  Towel dispenser.  I’m standing in a bathroom, damn it!  I grab for the bridge of my nose and suppress a cry of frustration.  My impulses used to serve me better.  Now that I’m here, though, I flick on the light and close the door as if the toilet were my goal all along.  Screw it, I think, let Mrs. Smith presume I have the runs.

But, after allowing for a decent interval, I emerge to find the reception area empty, no sign that a person ever sat there at all.  I test the other two doors and they’re locked.  I knock hard and long on each and receive no answer.  The reception desk has nothing inside but a few generic office supplies, not even a business card or a piece of stationery.  I pick up the phone and tap in a bunch of combinations, trying for an inside line, getting nothing but dead air.  After a few more resets I press nine and obtain an outside dial tone and stand there like a moron until a mechanized woman’s voice comes on.

“If you’d like to make a call, please hang up and…”

20.

 

Downstairs, I pause on the threshold and let the closing door bump me in the ass.  Mindy is standing by the Mini with a most cheerful look on her face, chatting away with three of the four wolves who I saw on the way in.  The one with blond Jheri curls keeps touching her lightly on the forearm, a timeworn technique for establishing rapport.  Nothing in Mindy’s manner suggests that she notices the contact or is processing his intentions.

Flushed with heat at the back of my neck, wary of my aggravated state, I resolve not to say a word to these men.  I storm past them and climb into the driver’s seat, slamming the door.  Mindy left the key fob in the ignition, and the radio’s playing.  I press the starter and rev the engine aggressively, but she doesn’t take the hint.  Jheri curls has a hand resting on my roof, and his nose is a foot from Mindy’s, like he’s poised to steal first base with a dive.  The other two guys aren’t much farther away.

I lower the passenger-side window, struggling to contain myself.  “Ready when you are!”  A roughness has crept into my voice.

The conversation outside continues unabated.  I tap the horn once and no one even flinches, so I yank on the parking break and lean across the passenger seat and pop open the door, bumping Mindy in the hip.  She jumps a little and Jheri curls removes his hand from the roof and takes a step back in one motion.

“My ride’s leaving,” Mindy says.  “See ya around.”

The wolves say, “Right.”  “Later.”  “Keep in touch.”

Mindy climbs in and I’m so eager to get out of there that I almost forget to remove the handbrake.

“You gave them your number?”

“No.”

“You took one of theirs, then?”

“No.  What makes you say that?”

“He said, ‘Keep in touch.’”

“He’s just being silly.”

“You called me your ride.”

“It’s only an expression.”

We’re almost out of sight of Triple Fidelity Mortgage, but I glance in the rearview mirror in time to see the fourth guy emerging from the building with a manila envelope under his arm.  This inspires me to step hard on the brake pedal and pull a U-turn and duck the car behind some sorry-looking scrub by the railroad tracks.

“What’s going on?” Mindy asks.

“Beats me.  See that guy there?  Suspicious.”

“He’s a man with an envelope.”

“Coming from a building I thought had been left vacant.  That’s how the receptionist was acting, anyway.”

“So you met with them?”

“I talked to the receptionist.  She was as helpful as a vegan at a butcher convention.”

“You couldn’t win her over?”

“She was only the receptionist.  She gave me a phone number, same as the one I already have.  She pretended that there was no one there to help.  I used the men’s room and when I came out she’d split and whoever was inside pretended not to be.  Get it?  But here’s this guy who leaves the building with an envelope.  So, you see.”

“No, I don’t.  I’m confused.”

“So am I.”

“You think there’s something in the envelope that has to do with Uncle Gunnar’s mortgage?”

“Not exactly.  But from the second I walked into that building the whole response to my presence was an act.  Meanwhile, that envelope’s going somewhere for real.  I mean, it has to be, right?  Look, he’s getting into the Town Car.”

We watch the guy in jeans and a bad sports jacket climb behind the wheel.  Jheri curls takes the passenger seat.  The turtle necks both get into the MKS.  Then the Lincolns roll to the curb-cut in parallel.  They hesitate and the men exchange a few words through open windows.  In a moment the MKS goes left and the Town Car goes right.  I pull out slowly and follow the Town Car.

Mindy turns to me.  “What are you doing?”

“I believe they call this instituting a tail.”

“They split up.  How’d you pick the big car?”

“He’s got the envelope.  The envelope is our target.”

“The envelope that doesn’t have anything to do with Uncle Gunnar.”

“I didn’t say that.”  I pull at my lip.  “Playing detective wasn’t my idea, you’ll recall.  Don’t make me sound absurd.”

We follow the Lincoln to an office building in the Philly suburbs, to a Starbucks where the men purchase venti somethings and then to a bank branch in a shopping center near Media, Pennsylvania.  It appears to be one of those micro-size credit unions, but it looks a hundred times more legitimate than the mortgage company did.  This bank has a drive-thru teller, glass walls and a bright sign out front.

The men are inside the building for a long time.  We watch ordinary people come and go, mostly blue-haired old ladies.

I point to the umpteenth of these.  “Look at them, coming in to count their money.  I’ve seen my share of old men in the office but rarely old ladies.  On average, they’re probably in debt less than any other demographic group.  For all we know they might own half the damn country, these old ladies.”

“If they do, they’re hiding it well.”

“Exactly.  They’re not blowing it on clothes or big houses.  You know why?  They‘re satisfied.  They have no one they need to impress anymore.  They’re above showing off to the neighbors and they’re beyond going out and trying to get laid.”

“Pshaw!  My mother was sexually active till the day she died at seventy four.”

“But men of all ages are blowing fortunes on romance.  I bet your mother, if she was anything like you, didn’t have to lift a finger for a man.  When she was younger she must have been beating them off with sticks.”

“She beat them off all right.  She didn’t use sticks.”

A few more people come and go from the bank.  I keep my eyes fixed on the Lincoln.  “Still no sign of the men with the envelope.”  I scratch my jaw.  “Was it like that for your mother — the way those guys at the mortgage company were raking their eyes over you?”

“Oh, stop!  They had nothing better to do.  They were just being friendly.”

“I don’t know if they had anything better to do, but they were hitting on you like nobody’s business.  Didn’t you see that?  The guy with the hair kept touching you on the arm.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.”

“In another minute he’d have been rubbing up against you.”

“You’re being silly.  I don’t see why he’d do a thing like that.”

I rest my hands atop the steering wheel and shake my head.  “Don’t take this the wrong way, Mindy, but you were leading on those guys the way you lead on all guys.  You have this provocative way about you, the ingenuousness, the clothes you wear.  I mean, look at you!”

She does drop her eyes, then tugs her sleeve.  “It’s just a shirt.”

“It’s not.  It’s — never mind.  None of my business.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’re jealous of those guys.”

“Jealous!  Me?  What for?”

“They’re tall and strong and not so grumpy, for one thing.  Tabitha told me—”

“Tabitha!  She doesn’t know me.  You don’t know me, either.”

“She said you were like one of those Cadbury eggs, hard on the outside but soft and sweat and creamy on the inside.”

“Oh, Jesus!  Tabitha wants every conversation to be about me, but she doesn’t have a clue.  Wait.  Here come those guys.”

The manila envelope is gone.  We duck down a little and I put the Mini into first and pull out after a decent interval.  We ride in silence for a while, me puzzling over how a conversation that was supposed to be about a woman who’s teasing every man who crosses her path could somehow end up being about the altruist who’s trying to protect her from herself.  I’d like to bring this up, set the record straight about my intentions, but the Lincoln pulls off Route 1 and onto quieter back roads.  This requires hanging farther back so as not to be seen, and every curve stirs anxiety and tests our concentration.

Mindy, like a good scout, maintains an impressive degree of vigilance, scanning from the hump of our hood to the horizon.  I keep the Town Car steadily about half a mile ahead of us, and it cruises at an unhurried pace, up and down gentle hills, past stone barns and rural open spaces.

Mindy brushes the hair from her eyes.  “It’s pretty here.  Where are we?”

“Doe Run Road, Unionville.  Horse country.  We’ve swung all the way around Wilmington and aren’t far from your uncle’s place, as the crow flies, though from a wealth perspective it’s darkness and light.”

“Oh.  Which side’s the light?”

Suddenly, I wish I knew.

The Lincoln pulls into the top of a driveway protected by an automatic black gate.    The gate swings open silently and the car soon disappears into a cluster of trees.

The property, hedged and cattle fenced and horse fenced, is as enormous as they come, seemingly one unified sweep of sod going on for miles.  Pristine woods form in the creases of the rolling hills, thick ancient trees stand guard in the fields, and a narrow stream meanders through, bordered by tufted grasses.  We see some barns and outbuildings and such, but we can’t spot the main house or any discernible residence from the road.

We wait quite awhile, but no one comes or goes.  There’s a number stenciled on the big maroon mailbox.  I take a ballpoint pen from the glove compartment and write down the address before we spin around and head for home.

21.

 

 

Mindy and I climb the stairs to my office at a crawl.  I feel for the slip of paper with the address in my coat pocket, thinking that we screwed up in not also getting the license plate of the Lincoln.  We must have stared at that car for half an hour in the bank parking lot, waiting for those guys to return, and I could have easily memorized the number, but I never let my eyes settle on the plate.

I’m so lost in silent self-recrimination that I don’t perceive the two people sitting in my office until I nearly trip over one gargantuan sprawled leg.  It’s attached to the big teen, Terrance, who occupies the small couch like it’s an inner tube on a river.  His friend sits in the chair catty-corner, red Air Max sneakers propped on my coffee table.  I indicate my disapproval with a scowl that doesn’t move him an inch.

“Your laces are untied.”

“That the look, man.”

Mindy comes up behind me.  She spots the friend first.  “Hey, Kyle.”

“You know this kid?”

“I met him at Penny’s.  How’s the lip, Terrence?”

He holds it out, the black threads of the stitches visible, knitted over a thin red line, still inflamed.  There appears to be a little pus, but no sign of blood.

“Good,” Mindy says.  “The swelling’s gone down a lot.  Better in no time.”

Kyle lifts an eyebrow to her.  “You ain’t a doctor, is you?”

I make a dopey face with my mouth.  “Does she look like a doctor?”

“Could be,” he pouts.  “Anyone could be.”

“Yeah, except people who spend their spare time cruising the sidewalks, looking for trouble.”

“Aw, shit.  Can’t we get over that?  Terrance is over it.”

For the first time, I notice that Terrance has a large paper shopping bag on the floor under his leg.  He sits forward and bends over and reaches in with a rustling noise, producing a bouquet of flowers, which he holds up like a trophy.

What’s his game, I’m wondering.  “What the hell is that?”

“Asters and tulips and shit.  Flowers.  What you think?”

“Whose idea was that?”

“Aunt Penny suggested it.”

I remove my coat and sling it through the doorway onto my desk chair.  “Your aunt doesn’t have a pot to piss in.  She has no call to send me flowers.”

Kyle guffaws and puts his feet on the floor.  “Ain’t for you, Charlie Chan.”

“For her,” Terrance says, tossing his chin in Mindy’s direction.  He stands, nearly filling the whole room, and hands the bouquet to Mindy.

“Oh, Terrence, they’re divine,” she mewls.  “Thank you!”

“Plus,” Terrence adds, “Aunt Penny didn’t pay for them anyway — I did.”

“Is that so?”  I step backwards through the office doorway in an attempt to create some space.  No room in my office was designed to hold more than two average people at a time, let alone this giant and three others.

Terrence shrugs to indicate he’s told the truth.

I rest against the edge of my desk, looking at him with penetration.  “If you have spare cash lying around, you should pay your aunt’s heating bill before you start bestowing gifts on strangers.”

“He might do that too,” Kyle says.  “Don’t put it past him.”

I go around my desk and pull Penelope Jones’s folder.  “There’s a big balance on that oil bill.  I can’t share the exact figure without your aunt’s permission, but I can give you the contact information and I bet if you call them yourself you might find a way to chip off a chunk of it, pay what you’re able to pay.”

“Got nothing to do with the flowers, though.  They hers.”

“It’s got everything to do with the flowers, Mr. A student.  What you spent on the flowers might keep the house heated for a week.  Money you waste on one thing you can’t spend on another.”

“Isn’t a waste, neither.  She deserves them.”

I shake my head.  “The heating bill—”

Mindy steps toward me and takes a firm hold of my triceps and squeezes hard.

“The heating bill has a zero balance,” she whispers.

“No, it doesn’t.”

She leans into me.  “It does now.  Your paperwork’s out of date.”

“Oh, for Christ sake!  You paid that, too?  Didn’t you hear what I said the other day, Min?  Paying her bills might make you feel good, but it doesn’t work.”

“I don’t know.”  She bites the inside of her cheek.  “Their house is warmer than it would’ve been, for sure.  Those kids freezing to death wasn’t going to accomplish anything.”

I scowl again, but it has as much effect on Mindy as it did on Kyle a minute ago.

“You have a vase for these?” Mindy asks.

“Sure.  It’s over between the silver chest and the candelabra.”

“I’ll go downstairs and ask Tabitha.”

Mindy picked up my sarcasm.  I consider that progress.

When she steps out, a feeling comes over me, not exactly contrition, but I lift the candy bowl and offer it to the teens.  They’re not as shy about their sweet tooths as Penny was.  They each take two and they’re eyeing one another over the single piece that’s left when I yank the bowl away.

“Yeah, leave one for the man,” Terrence says.

“Look, I’m not The Man, kid.  And I don’t like chocolate.  It’s for clients usually, not guests who drop in when they feel inspired.”

“We’re clients, too,” Terrance says.

“That’s funny.  All my other clients pay me, not the other way around.”

He lowers himself back onto the couch, preparing to stay awhile.  “How bad’s my aunt’s financial situation?”

“Worse than you can imagine, probably.”

He feels the thread of his stitches with his top front teeth and frowns.  “She’s got bad diabetes, Type Two.  Doctors say the only thing for it is to get her weight down, but it’s hard for her.  She could lose a foot or a whole leg if she don’t turn it around.”

“That’s truly sad.  I’m sorry to hear it.”

“Her only chance, really, is this crazy operation.  Gastric bypass surgery, they call it.  They’s two kinds, but she needs the big one — biliopancreatic diversion — where they remove part of her stomach.”

I nod, impressed that Terrence knows the terminology so well.

“Al Roker had it, the T.V. guy.  Crazy shit,” he repeats.  “Really expensive — like more than a nice car.  How’s she gonna do that?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you help her?”

“I specialize in bills that have already been incurred.  My guess is that your aunt doesn’t have the resources for anything an insurance company won’t reimburse.”

“They say it’s elective — means it’s a choice.  It ain’t a choice.”

“Shit,” Kyle grunts helpfully.

I crane my neck in sympathy.  “I have to give it to you straight, Terrance.  She doesn’t have a chance of paying for elective surgery on her own.  She’s deep in the hole just with the monthly bills.”

Kyle stares into his untied laces.

Terrance opens his eyes wide, like he’s just seen a ghost, and starts blinking, working himself into a state.  His mouth droops into the arc of an enormous frown, his lower lip suddenly threatening to burst the stitches.  And then he breaks into sobs, his chest heaving, his arms flopping loose in his lap.

“Who’s gonna help her!” he weeps, covering his eyes with a palm the size of a pingpong paddle.  “Oh.  Oh.  Oh.”

I spring to the balls of my feet and take a step forward.  “What the fuck is this?!”

He’s getting his breath in snatches now, like a little child coming off a tantrum.

Anger stirs in my viscera.  “Listen, you fucking punk — you think I don’t know a con job when I see it?!  A man your size crying like a baby?  Get the fuck up!”

Kyle has already risen, looking amazed that I’ve sussed them out so easily.  Terrance, suddenly a picture of obedience, pushes himself to his feet, crocodile tears streaming down his mahogany brown cheeks.

“It’s not enough that I send that nice woman to pay your aunt’s bills, huh?” I say.  “Now no good deed goes unpunished, just like I figured, and you’re in here working me for more.  Do I look like a fucking ATM?  Do you see twenty-dollar bills spitting from my mouth?”

“No,” Terrance says.

“Get out!  Just get the hell out!”

They’ve already been exposed once to my anger, and they know how that concluded.  I watch them straight down the stairs, and neither boy turns around to look at me again.

I return to my desk, shaking my head, and I’m still shaking it a few minutes later when Mindy comes back upstairs with the flowers in a plain glass vase.  She buries her nose in the anthers before placing the arrangement in the middle of my coffee table.  “Mmm.”

She also has a brown bag in hand with the Creamy Dreamy logo on the side.  She goes to the desk and pours the cut-crystal bowl full, folds the bag around what remains inside and stuffs that into her purse.

“Nice lady,” she says.  “These were on the house.”

“You serious?”  I throw up my hands.  “Brad’s my best friend and Tabitha never gave me so much as a flake for free.”

“Maybe that’s because you claim not to like chocolate.”

“Claim?  You don’t believe me?  What do I have to do, take a bite and gag for you?”

“Not really.  I don’t care that much.  What happened to the boys?”

“They were late for their appointment to rob a liquor store.  I’m out of here myself.”

“But what about Uncle Gunnar’s case?  We were just getting somewhere.”

I pull on my coat and point to the sky through the too-high window.  It’s nearly black.  Night has fallen.  “I’ll do some computer work back at the ranch, see what else I can learn about this mortgage company.”

We go the parking lot and climb into our respective cars.  Usually, I’d just back right out.  I don’t know what possesses me, but this time I wait for Mindy to pull away first, watching her expectantly through the side window.  Her car starter’s cranking in futility, not turning over.  She waits a minute, tries again, still nothing.

I get out of my car and walk around.

Mindy opens her door, keys in hand, and stands beside the Volvo.  “Oh, darn it!”

“Would you like me to try?”

She shakes her head.  “It’s happened before.  Something with the alternator.  Guess I’ll have to call Triple A.”

“We can wait upstairs, out of the cold.”

“Oh, darn it all!  I really don’t feel like dealing with this right now, after this crappy week.”

“Sure.”  I take a deep breath.  “I can lend you my car.”

“Then what would you drive?”

“Or I can give you a lift to your hotel.”

Mindy nods.  “It’s a motel, just a mile or two from here.  Stand-alone, no restaurant on site.  I can eat dinner from the vending machine, I guess.”

I look up into her eyes.  They’re glassy.

“You can’t score dinner from a vending machine.  After growing accustomed to Creamy Dreamy, a Nestle Crunch bar tastes like dirt.”

She offers a wan smile.  “How would you know?”

“I’m a keen observer of people, haven’t you noticed?  How about dinner?”

“A home-cooked meal would sure be good.”

“Well, I don’t do those, not unless you want hotdogs under the broiler.”

“I’m a good cook, Phu.  We can leave my car for the night and I can make dinner for both of us, if that’s all right.”

She appears so damned sad all of a sudden.

“Of course it’s all right.  You need anything out of your car?”

She shakes her head, opens the rear door and pats the smiling pink pig in the back seat before grabbing her purse.  We step away and she uses the remote to click her car doors locked behind us without a glance back.

Ten seconds later, I’m squeezing the Mini into line behind taillights on Route 202 with Mindy in the passenger seat.

So sue me.  I fell hard for the damsel-in-distress routine.

22.

 


We ease up to the driveway of my small stucco house and with Mindy peering out the passenger window I experience a flashback from college.  Summer break after junior year, and I’d scored a second date with a stunning sophomore, all legs and angles, the product of a Chinese father and Caucasian mother.  The father seemed pleasant enough, on parting offering just a gentle reminder to his daughter about curfew.

The girl’s name was Janet.  From ten to four daily she worked as an art gallery hostess that summer, and on weekdays I was having my own initiation into dialing for dollars.  At night, of course, other activities came to mind.

Our first encounter had been an impromptu romp on the beach, where, screened by a sand dune, I slipped my hand up her polo shirt with little resistance.  The bra was no worry, either.  After a respectful interval, my next move was to come between Janet and her Calvin Kleins, but just then her legs clamped shut.  An old-fashioned girl, she indicated that if I wanted more there was a price to pay, so I blew half my savings on a white-tablecloth place in the old Long Island neighborhood, mood lighting and waiters with napkins over their arms and all the rest.  Problem was that Janet and I had nothing in common beyond the hue of our skin and a certain hooding of the eyes, and so far as I was concerned we’d exhausted all possible conversation by the time the main course arrived.  She insisted on the soufflé, however, and as we worked our spoons we studied each other’s faces in near silence across the ramekin.

All I could think at that point was return on investment.  What she was contemplating, I don’t know.  She was an art history major.

After dinner, we went to a nearby park and in one remote spot found a bench under a malfunctioning lamppost.  She wanted to talk and I wanted to get the bad taste of that soufflé out of my mouth.  I had some ideas about how to accomplish that, but she wasn’t as creative as her resume suggested.  I left the park unsatisfied and, worse, almost convinced that the night was a total write-off.

But when you’re in college nothing seems impossible — maybe she just needed something softer than a bench underneath her.  We drove back to her house with the car windows down and the wind blowing fresh hope into our hair.  So as my headlights clarified on her garage door at half past one, I resolved to play the gentleman and walk her to the door, see what developed.  I was reaching to turn off the ignition when an ominous shadow filled the screen door and a voice boomed, “Janet!  Why home so late and you didn’t call?!”

The mouth of the mandarin.  He might have chosen to wait for his daughter to hit the front hall before communicating his feelings about the blown curfew, so it dawned on me right away that he spoke as much for my benefit as Janet’s.  She closed her car door and I closed mine almost at the same exact moment.  The only difference was that she stood in the driveway and I remained in the driver’s seat.  There was no percentage in my leaving that car; no one was getting what he wanted that night, and my hopes for the relationship’s future had sunk to zero.  I lurched into reverse and zoomed away.

Now, sitting beside Mindy on what suddenly feels like a first date, here I am, ostensibly a grown man in the presence of a world-class stunner, with parental voices at best a distant echo.  Yet an unspecified discomfort gnaws at me.

“It’s cute,” Mindy says, breaking my reverie.

“What is?”

“Your house.”

“Yeah, thanks.  It was the gatehouse to a minor Du Pont estate years ago.  But when I bought it the mansion was already gone and the property subdivided.  I got it for a song, on account of the poor condition.  Its roof was caved in.”

“You’re kidding.  That doesn’t sound like you.  I wouldn’t think a cynic would fix up an old house.”

“I paid next to nothing.  That was the key.”

“You took out a mortgage?”

“Not on your life.  I renovated a little bit at a time.  It took me five and a half years.”

The place is lit only by neighboring porch lights.  She looks hard at the pale yellow facade, as if to see my reflection there.  “You did the work yourself?”

“Some of it.  The interior painting.”

“Impressive.”

“You haven’t seen the smudges on the molding yet.”

She rests her fingers on the door handle.  “Should we go inside and figure out what can be for dinner?”

“If you want, but I can tell you.  Salt, pepper, sugar, a carton of milk, a box of Mini Wheats and the lesser half of a six-pack of Sam Adams.  What can you make with that?”

“Reservations?”

“We could in fact eat out,” I laugh, “like I suggested earlier.”

“So you can have another hotdog?  I don’t think so.  Get out of the car and let me head to the supermarket.”

“You know how to drive a stick?”

“Sure, sort of.”

I’m trusting Mindy against all my instincts, and I can’t bear to watch.  As I’m slipping my key into the front door, she peels away with the clutch screeching for mercy and I bury my face in the doorjamb.

Inside, I clean up the house as best I can in a quarter hour, running the vacuum, mopping, dusting.  The place isn’t a wreck, but it’s dirtier than it should be.  I think of my mother, to whom I haven’t spoken in weeks.  She’s a neat-freak who lives in Florida, and I owe her a positive sign of life.  But instead of phoning I sit down at the computer in my living room and start poking around on the Internet, searching for the owner of the property where we last saw the Triple Fidelity goons.  The Chester County recorder of deeds has a helpful website for this, so it takes just a few minutes to learn a whole bunch of information about the property.  It appears mostly to be several giant parcels knitted together, all titles held in the name of a limited liability partnership declaring its main business activity as “real estate holding company.”  Nothing too promising there for my purposes.

I go to the fridge in my small kitchen and turn to Mr. Adams for inspiration.  It’s seven o’clock, Mindy’s been gone forty-five minutes and I’d like to show some progress by the time she returns.  I set my beer bottle down next to the computer keyboard and try a more direct assault, seeking a listing of the executive leadership of the company.  Triple Fidelity, it turns out, is a single peripheral strand in a web of corporate entities that it takes me hours to unravel.

One name keeps cropping up: Albert Hubsher.  I Google and Bing and learn that he’s a flamboyant billionaire who founded a health insurer, owns a polo string, an art collection, several houses, fancy cars, fancier ex-wives and on and on.  He’s a major contributor to the Catholic Archdiocese, listed Number 296 on the Forbes 400, has his fingers in a dozen enterprises at least, and rarely plays small ball.  Triple Fidelity looks like the least impressive piece of his empire by far.  Though owning the bank would make a normal person wealthy, for Hubsher it’s the equivalent of my declaring a really nice stereo as part of my net worth.  Not that I have a nice stereo — more like a boom box with iPod dock.

Aside from the bank and the publicly traded insurer that seems initially to have made him rich, Hubsher owns or controls a biotech firm, a regional grocery chain, a generic vitamin manufacturer, and the biggest mushroom grower in the United States.

Gee whiz.  The man is practically his own country.

Very pleased with my efforts, I finally lift my eyes from the computer screen only to realize that it’s nearing ten o’clock and Mindy still hasn’t returned.  This fact makes me feel small.  A man like Albert Hubsher, no doubt, wouldn’t have allowed her out of his sight without a paid escort.  For a person of Phu Goldberg’s means, though, that was never an option.  In compensation, I admit, I could have been nicer to her along the way, but I was too busy — well, too busy being me.

I go to the front window and scan the dark empty street.  One neighbor’s miniature schnauzer yaps in the yard, but there’s no sign of human life.

23.


An urgent knock rattles the side door.  I open it and there’s Mindy cradling a sack of groceries in her arms.  She looks harassed.

“You could turn on a light out there.”

“Sorry.  It didn’t occur to me.”

“Of course not.  There’s more out in the car.”

“I’ll get it.”  My ten seconds of domesticity is already wearing thin and I’m starved.  But next to the second sack of groceries there’s a six-pack of Sam Adams in the Mini trunk, the sight of which reinforces the relief I feel about having the car back safe, let alone my unpredictable client.  I lock the door behind me and set the sack down on the kitchen counter.  I put the six-pack in the fridge, claiming one bottle for myself and holding up another to Mindy.

“Beer for you?”

She shakes her head.  “There’s wine in that bag.  I wouldn’t mind if you poured me a glass.”

“My pleasure.”  I withdraw the bottle.  “This isn’t twist-off.”

“You have a corkscrew, don’t you?”

“Surely.”

It takes me quite a while not to find it, but Mindy stays in motion the whole time, unpacking groceries and organizing her scene.

“I know it’s here somewhere.”  I search every inch of the kitchen, flinging open drawers and cabinet doors, and even staring into the broom closet.  No luck.  I head for the bedroom, looking under the bed and in the drawer of my nightstand and in the medicine cabinet.  Nothing.

When I’ve exhausted the possibilities, I emerge from the bedroom doing my best to appear sheepish.  The grocery bags are gone and in their place on the counter rests a bag of lemons, a box of linguini, fresh garlic, eggs, a bottle of olive oil, a bowl of flour, a can of vegetable stock, and a leafy mass that isn’t a head of lettuce but isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever seen either.  Mindy pounds a skinless chicken breast with the underside of a frying pan.

I take a swig of my beer.  “You bought a cutting board for this?”

“I found it in that cabinet, behind the pots.”

“Good work.  I wondered what happened to that thing.”

“You don’t need it to broil wieners.”

“True.  Okay.  I didn’t wonder.  I can’t find the corkscrew, either.”

She pounds the chicken for a minute longer, perhaps a little harder than before.

I say, “I think it’s dead by now.”

She doesn’t smile.

“I’m sorry about the wine.  Can I get you that beer, after all, Min?”

She shakes her head.  “Do you have a phonebook?”

“Sure.”  I do locate that item rather quickly.

Mindy removes the lead wrapper from the top of the wine bottle and hands me the bottle and flattens the closed phonebook against the wall.

“Hit the bottom of the bottle with all your might, but keep it flush.”

I do as I’m told.

“More,” Mindy urges.  “Faster.  My oil will burn.”

I give it a series of good shots and the cork starts emerging.  Another couple of hits and it’s protruding far enough to afford me the opportunity for a good grip with my hand.

Mindy drops the phone book on my kitchen table and returns to her chicken.

I twist the cork the rest of the way out and pour her chardonnay into a juice glass.  She knocks half of it back and I refill.

“Anything else I can do?”

“Stay out of the way.  I can see you’re one of those.”

“One of what?”

“Men who think the kitchen’s beneath them.”

“No, I’m not.  It just isn’t an interest of mine.  But I do go to the grocery store now and then.  It never takes me three hours to buy two bags of stuff.”

Mindy pours the vegetable stock into a pan and turns up the flame.  She sets two pieces of raw chicken — now flat as pancakes — on a plate and washes the cutting board with steaming hot water, then takes the green thing and cuts off its butt and chops what’s left in half.

She turns to me.  “I did more than the supermarket, wise guy.  I went back to the motel for a shower and a change.”

I see for the first time that she’s out of the spandex thing, into a looser, softer sweater and jeans.  A tad less revealing, but no one would mistake her for a nun.

She looks at me looking.  “Thanks for noticing.”

“Unlike those guys in the parking lot, I try to keep my eyes on your face whenever I can.  It’s more gentlemanly.”

She peels a few cloves of garlic, smashes them with the side of a big knife, chops them a few times, and sweeps them into the pan of broth.

“After that I went to see Terrence’s aunt, where I dropped off some groceries.”

I shake my head.  “You’re like a one-woman Peace Corps.  Did you know that a huge percentage of all western aid to the Developing World gets wasted?”

“Really?  This is America, not the developing whatever, and it wasn’t wasted on Penny.  You should have seen the look of joy on her face.”

“I hear Dillinger had that same look whenever he stepped into a bank vault.”

The broth is boiling.  She tosses the greens into the pan and gets a drop of water from the sink and flicks it into the olive oil she has going in a shallower frying pan.  It pops and dances and she seizes the chicken cutlets, coats them with flour, dips them into a bowl of beaten eggs and places them in the oil.  They sizzle.  She uses a wooden spoon to stir the greens.

“What is that?”

“It’s escarole — a kind of endive.  Don’t you know anything?”  She looks angrier than I’ve ever seen her.  “You know, Phu, if you don’t believe in free groceries, then you can pay me back the hundred dollars I just spent stocking your pantry.”

“Fine.  That’s fine.”  I set down the beer bottle and sink a hand into my pocket and fish out my money, counting it aloud until I come to seventy-two dollars.  “Hold it a minute.  Hold it!”  I go to my desk in the living room and open the drawer where I keep my emergency stash.  There’s three bucks in there.

Mindy looks satisfied.  “See?  It can happen to anyone.”

“It’s too much pro bono work that’s killing me.  And notwithstanding all the — all the niceness — you owe me another fifteen hundred for Gunnar’s case at the end of the week.  Which is tomorrow, by the way.”

“I thought that would be applied to his debts.”

“It will be, mostly, and we’re getting closer.  While you were off feeding the poor, I discovered some tidbits about your uncle’s banker.”

“Like what?”

I reveal a few things and she smiles genuinely for the first time that night and we high five.  She calls out, “Ohh, yeah!” and pirouettes once and I admire how balanced she seems, how comfortable in her own body.

With a grabber in hand she looks at the stove.  “It’s ready!  Oh no!  I forgot to put the pasta on!”

So we talk and drink for a while longer and at 11:30 we sit down to cold chicken Francese, luke-warm escarole and hot linguine.  By midnight the beer and wine are finished, my stomach is full, the buzz has worn off, and Mindy knows everything I do about Albert Hubsher.  I tell her I’d better get her home.  She yawns agreement.

In the car she dozes while I think of some of the dates I’ve had: the dinners, the conversation, the hand-to-hand combat.  There’s something special about this one, and I didn’t lay a finger on the woman.

As we pull into the motel parking lot, Mindy stirs.  And just then her cell phone rings.

She presses the button as she climbs from the car, then signals me with a palm to wait.  In a minute, she’s leaned over and talking to me through the open car door.

“That was my friend Sarah, who’s collecting Uncle Gunnar’s mail while I’m away.”

She stuffs the phone into her purse like she wants it out of her sight.  In the pink lights from the parking lot, she looks suddenly ashen and unsteady, and for a minute I think it’s the wine she drank.  But then she collapses into the passenger seat and turns to me in agony.

“Sarah says another notice came.  It’s a default something or other.”

“A default judgment.”

“What’s that?”

“If you don’t respond to the sheriff’s complaint after a certain period of time, the court can offer a default judgment.  It’s a ruling in favor of the bank.  It means they can move toward a sheriff’s sale of the property.”

It means, I don’t add aloud, that — wherever Uncle Gunnar is — he’s now only two small steps away from losing his house.

24.


I’m awake before dawn the next morning, though it’s light by the time I pull into Dunkin’ Donuts for fuel.  By 8:00 a.m. I’m at my desk, and through the doorway, from that vantage point, the vase of flowers on the coffee table catches my eye.  They may need more water by tomorrow, I think, but if I follow through then I’ll somehow be complicit in the further corruption of the Jones family.

When I’ve finished my processed egg sandwich and drained the coffee, I pick up Sergeant Buxton’s card, resolved to reach out to him in earnest.   The look on Mindy’s face last night was a heartbreaker, but it’s not sentimentality that drives me now, it’s a feeling of growing suspicion that someone or something truly has it out for Uncle Gunnar.  Or, at least, for his house.  And therefore Mindy — whether by instinct or the hand of fate — didn’t come to Delaware on a completely misguided lark.

The woman who answers the line at the station house asks just enough questions to establish my bona fides and patches me through.

“Buxton here.”  He sounds harassed.

“This is Phuoc Goldberg.”

No reply.

“CPR Debt Relief?”

“I know who you are.”

“I figured as much.  You keep leaving cards for me.  I thought I’d better be in touch before the taxpayers get tired of paying the printer.”

“My guess is that you have motives beyond those, Mr. Goldberg.  You’re not calling, by chance, with a tip on the current situation…”

“What situation would that be?  More wayward youth?”

“I wish.  Don’t you read the papers?”

“Not often.  What’s up?”

“Body snatchers is what.  Some person or persons with an interest in corpses has been making them disappear from freshly dug graves around the Brandywine Valley, including Wilmington.”

Grave robbers?  One doesn’t hear news like that every day.  I let out a whistle.  “Man-o-man-i-schewitz!”

“You got that right.  Real Frankenstein shit.  I’m not telling you anything here that isn’t public knowledge, you understand — public knowledge for those who bother to pay attention, at least.  Starting yesterday the administration has officers doing double time, sitting overnight in their cruisers by cemeteries all about town.  Operation Eyes in the Night, they call it.”

“You too?”

“Not sitting in one place myself.  Just run ragged supervising a dozen or so officers in the field.”

“And this was all happening while you were dropping by my office?”

“Not quite.  It didn’t reach crisis stage until the third body went missing yesterday morning.  Now I’m a little pressed.  But I already received word about what you did to help Penelope Jones and her family.”

“You get around.”

“The teen, Terrance, paid me a visit.”

“No kidding.  Did he bring you flowers, too?”

“Why would he?”

“He turns out to have a romantic streak.”

“Don’t sound so surprised.  Maybe we both misjudged those boys.”  He pauses to shuffle some papers.  “But I’ll say this, Mr. Goldberg: when it comes to the services you offer, you do more than talk a good game.”

“Thanks, Sergeant.  To be honest, I was calling for something beyond an update and a pat on the back.”

“Oh?”

“This little virtuous circle we’ve got going…I was hoping it could provide someone else a good turn.  Do you have another minute?”

“I suppose I could.”

He listens in silence as I narrate the story of Mindy Eider and Uncle Gunnar, what little I know and, of that, the short version.  Naturally, I fudge the part where Mindy took the initiative with regard to providing monetary relief to Penny.  But if I don’t admit the role of heel I’m also careful not to make myself out exactly as the hero.  Just a guy offering overdue amends for an impulsive left hook, that sort of thing.  It’s a careful balancing act, because I didn’t call Buxton for reasons of mere courtesy.  I need something from him, and I’d like to have the power of reciprocation weighing in my favor.

As I’m speaking, though, I’m not so sure the approach is working.  It doesn’t sound as if Sergeant Buxton has his own office, and there’s constant bullpen chatter in the background.  A  piece of me wonders whether the sergeant is paying my story any mind at all.  He grunts occasionally, but he may be monitoring the room while only humoring Citizen Goldberg.  Then again, that doesn’t seem like the style of a guy who pulls off the road for a kid with a split lip and takes the trouble to follow up days later.

“You with me, Sergeant?”

“As well as I can be.  I’m doing six things at once.”

Maybe it was just a slow crime week before this grave robbery business arose.  I’m thinking that I need to give him a little slack before setting the hook.

“I understand.  I for one plan to lock the doors tonight, though the nearest cemetery is miles from my house.  Meanwhile Gunnar Karlson’s domicile isn’t even in the state, let alone your precinct.  Maybe I should call back another day.”

“With all due respect, I’ll decide what’s worth my time, sir.  This Mindy Eider, she still about town?”

“Very much so.  We plan to go over to her uncle’s house later today.”

“What for?”

“See if we missed anything.”

He hesitates, and I now sense him feeling the pull of the quid pro quo.  “You’re not breaking in again, now that I know.  Wait for me.  I get off duty this afternoon and my wife’s away.  I wrote down the address while you were talking.  What say I meet you at the man’s place around two?”

Bingo.  “This afternoon?  Perfect.  You’re a prince.”

“Don’t push your luck by blowing smoke up my ass, Mr. Goldberg.  I don’t have time for that.”

“Bad habit.  There’s one other thing, then.”

“Be quick.”

“Mindy and I caught someone lurking about Uncle Gunnar’s house.  A plumber named Torres.  I don’t have a first name.  Delaware plates on his van.”

“I don’t suppose you jotted down the plumbing license number…”

“Un uh.  I’m still adjusting.  Amateur detective wasn’t my hobby until recently.  There’s also no listing in the phone book or on the Internet for a plumber with the last name of Torres in this area.  Maybe you can track down the contact info through law enforcement channels and the like.”

“Okay.  Gotta go.  I’ll see what I can do.”

He doesn’t wait for me to say goodbye.

On the subject of further research, I decide to call an old New York friend who now works as an analyst on Wall Street.  Morally, he made a horizontal move from the bucket shop where we met, but the pay is worlds better.  Now he shows up on MSNBC’s Squawk Box every month and splits his time among houses in Connecticut and the Hamptons and other places he’s too ashamed to tell me about.  All this for a math nerd I used to beat in chess every day over lunch.

His voicemail picks up and I leave a message.

“Hey, Dirk.  Phu Goldberg here.  Thanks for that tip on shorting AIG last year.  It paid for a new living room with dough to spare.  Listen, pal, I’m working for a client who has a relationship with a dude named Albert Hubsher.  The name meant nothing to me until last night, when I learned he’s big medicine on the Big Board, founder of Triple Health Inc. and so on.  If you can break away for five minutes, it would help me a lot to get the inside poop about him and his companies.  Thanks.”

I disconnect and say to the dead receiver: “And while you’re at it, Dirk, how about donate a million dollars for chocolate candy and heating oil and biliopancreatic diversion and whatever else my poor clients desire.  Beep.”

Then I start fretting about whether my message sounded manly enough.  You talk to these Wall Street guys and if you don’t have rivulets of blood running down your jowls from tearing raw meat you feel like a wimp.  More important, they consider you one.  And make no mistake about those famous outsize bonuses.  They’re pay pornography — more real than the real thing — every 100K a thick addition to the old manhood.  Next to that, my $500 fee doesn’t even constitute walking-around money.

I pick up the phone again and call Mindy on her cell, but there’s no answer.  I dial the motel, where nobody would mistake the male operator for an employee of the Ritz Carlton.

“Nope.  No guest here by that name.”

“Yes you do.  Should I spell it for you?”

“Nobody close to that name, friend.”

“I dropped her there just last night.”

“What was the room number?”

“I don’t know.  I didn’t walk her in.”

“She’s not here under that name, friend.”

“Try Karlson.  Mindy or Melissa or Gunnar.”

“Nope.”

“She was wearing a sweater and jeans last night.  Around midnight.  Did anyone at all catch a glimpse of her?”

“I’m not at the front desk, but we respect our guests’ privacy.  I wouldn’t tell you if I had seen her.”

“Gee, that’s helpful.  Thanks so much.”

“You got it.”

I got what?  Nothing but wonder.  I think: so she finds out the bad deal with the uncle’s house is for real — and then what?  She goes Splitsville?  What’s that about?  Or maybe I somehow got conned — but how? At the same time, visions of Torres and the swirls in the dust at Uncle Gunnar’s house cartwheel through my mind.  Did she check out without telling me because something spooked her so bad that she lost trust in everything and fled? I’m worrying this over while I rush downstairs and burst out the door.

The scene in the parking lot is a surprise that I see in freeze-frame: same old curb and light posts and eternal traffic whizzing by.  And there’s Mindy’s dented blue Volvo, right where she left it.

 

25.


Consider the hotdog, an unpretentious concoction formed by jamming ground animal products into a sheath formed from the stomach lining of a cow.  How does this humble item come to be synonymous with displays of unwarranted bravado?  I’m wondering this as I stand in line at the usual place, Johnnie’s Dog House.  I order two State Fair corn dogs and two South Phillies, chili fries and a large vanilla shake, and all of it goes down easier than a one-armed boxer with a glass jaw.  As I take my feast it occurs to me that the explanation for Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi’s success might be that they’re the world’s saddest guys, drowning their sorrows the all-beef way.

Mindy doesn’t answer her phone when I try again, and I’m not sure whether to feel angry or worried.  I linger in the shiny plastic chair, my usual confidence a little shaken.  As I’m rising to go, the cell phone rings, and I answer without checking the Caller I.D.  It turns out to be a guy I cold called weeks ago, Chuck Kendall, a garrulous middle-aged sort with a thick down-state accent.

“This a good time?”

“If I’m here, I’m here for you.  That’s my motto.”

“Damn right.  Here goes.”

He explains that his father unloaded the family chicken farm to Tyson twenty-six years ago and invested the proceeds in a building supply business.  “I’m not talking about barn supplies, either,” Chuck says.  “He sold to contractors high-end and low, developers, anyone with a trade.  He had a knack for it, too.  They came up to the big window for a mud set and he sold them the whole damn bathroom and the wall board and the cart to drag it home in.”

I sense the pride in his voice, but there’s sadness behind it, too.  I dump my lunch tray and sit back down at the table, playing with the saltshaker.  Chuck may have a cheerful demeanor, but if he’s coming to me you can bet his narrative will turn into another sob story before long.

“Man, I get out of business school fifteen years ago and Dad’s operating three locations and doesn’t know which end is up.  He’s running from one store to another, budgeting on the fly.  Dig this — you’re a businessman, right? — inventory was kept on green ledger paper while computers rotted in the back room.  Not too easy to crunch numbers with that setup, get what I’m saying?  What he did know: he was doing six million in business but his cash flow sucked.  That meant nothing to him for a long time because he was used to that from the chicken farm, but the problem was like a snake swallowing its own tail, and the snake was nearing the meaty part.  He needed to professionalize the operation or he was going to go nuts pretty soon, so he brings me in with my fresh MBA.  You following?”

“Sure.”

“First thing, I sell a slug of receivables older than Moses for pennies on the dollar just to keep the lights on and to pay myself.  Then I go into a local bank and take out a million-dollar line.  You need to invest in order to turn revenue into profits, ain’t that true?  It takes me two years just to get the inventory straight.  Come to learn we got a warehouse in Dover that’s picking the wrong stuff off the shelf thirty percent of the time.  I fire the manager and hire new but it doesn’t end.  I’m on the phone with the new guy all the time: ‘What the hell happened this week?’  ‘So and so put three-quarter inch on the truck when the customer ordered five-eighths.’  ‘Why?’  ‘You wanna know why,’ he finally says, ‘come down here and see for yourself.’  So I go and he says, ‘Humor me.’  He hands me an order sheet and sends me to the picking line and I can’t see — can’t see!  Not enough lights overhead!  I’m losing half a million a year in this location for want of a forty-thousand-dollar investment in lighting.  My pickers are going blind trying to read the orders.  Can you believe this?”

“So you need a business work-out.”

“No, I need personal.  I’m getting to that.”

“Would you like to come in, discuss it face to face?”

“I will, when you’re sure you can help me.  I’m a busy man.”

“Okay.”

He takes a deep breath.  “Comes the real estate boom…  You been to the shore lately, Phu?”

“I try to stay out of the sun.”

“But you know what was happening.  For four years developers throwing up townhouses and condos as fast as they could sink the footings into the sand.  They need plywood, mortar, siding, hardware, copper.  They need everything and they need it yesterday, time being money and all.  And that’s just local.  I’m up and down the coast by now, especially strong in the middle states.  Eighteen locations.  Sixty-three million a year in business.”

“Wow.  You grew.”

“Like gangbusters.  Some people will tell you I rode the wave, but they’re spectators.  A player knows you need a surfboard to ride a wave, right?  And you power that surfboard yourself.  You swim your ass out there, avoiding sharks and hidden rocks and white water, looking for your own funnel.  Nobody hands it to you and you don’t get rich sitting on the damn beach.  You got to be in the game!”

“I don’t surf myself, but I hear you.”

“This conversation is confidential, I presume.”

“Of course.  We can do an NDA if you’d like.”

“That crap ain’t worth the paper it’s written on.  A man’s word is his bond, that’s how I’ve been taught.”

“By your father?”

“May he rest in peace.  He didn’t see this bust coming any better than I did.  And the other thing we failed to do — we were so busy and he seemed healthy and we never got the estate strategy completely executed.  I ended up with a hell of a tax bill.”

“When was that?”

“Five years ago, but we got through it.  Two years later I put the finishing touches on my dream house.  Fourteen thousand square feet in Greenville.”

“Built from scratch?”

“Definitely.  Why buy one of those drafty old places when you can have everything new?  Also, I knew guys, you understand, guys in every phase of the business.  I figure I saved twenty-five percent on the typical cost of building.  I was just under ten million all in.”

“Ten million dollars?  You had a mortgage?”

“Eight million, pegged to LIBOR and further securitized with my stock portfolio.  It’s costing me forty-five grand a month to carry this puppy — sixty-five grand if you count maintenance.”

“Holy Christ.”

“Yeah.”  He lets it sink in.  “I’ll be all right, though.  I just need time to heal.  My business is down forty-three percent, but we stopped the hemorrhage.  Now I need someone to play hardball.  With the private bank, for starters.”

“I presume you have an attorney.”

“You kidding?  I have three.  But it’s a small community.  These guys, they’re all members of my country club.  So’s the banker.  I’d rather an outsider do the spade work on this project.  No need to advertise it.”

“You’re not in default?”

“Not yet, but I expect any number of uncomfortable conversations over the next few months.  I checked around.  People say you’re a terrier.”

“Who says that?”

“Never mind.  Take the compliment.  You’ll go to the guys I owe and drag them out of their rat holes.  That’s what you do, right?”

“I suppose so, metaphorically speaking.”

“Of course metaphorically.  I’m not looking for a guy with a baseball bat.  I’m a straight shooter.  Speaking of which, how much?”

“You have cash?”

“Naturally.  Just because my liabilities exceed my assets doesn’t mean I lost my mind.  I’m broke, technically speaking, but I’m not to the point where they’re picking over the pieces.”

I look around the restaurant.  People are milling around with trays, unable to find seats.  I stand to go.  “It sounds like a complicated case.  I’ll need a retainer of five thousand up front.”

“You got it.  I’ll bring it in.”

Behold the miracle of cold calling: you spread enough seed and eventually something worth harvesting shoots from the ground.  Chuck Kendall sounds like my kind of guy — probably a hotdog lover, too — and we book an appointment.  In fifteen minutes he has me feeling my oats again, and I’m ready for any kind of news about Mindy.

On the way back to my office, I pause in the parking lot and — shielding my eyes from the glare — peer into her Volvo.  Something’s different, but I can’t figure out what.  I start to walk away, but then I double back and look inside again.  That’s it: the plush pig is gone.

I walk straight into Creamy Dreamy, where a line goes to the door and both Brad and Tabitha work the counter.  Never mind their unhurried air, I know from experience that neither of my pals will give me the time of day while there are customers to serve, so I make like I’m queued up while the two of them throw me furtive glances.  Or maybe I’m being presumptuous.  Maybe they’re just surveying the room.

In any case, when my turn finally comes, the crowd has waned.  Tabitha says, “Hi, Phu.”

Brad says, “What’s up, big boy?”

I slide my hands into my pants pockets.  “I don’t suppose you guys have seen any sign of my client, Mindy Eider, recently.”

Brad shakes his head and I feel something unhappy settle in my stomach.  But Tabitha says, “Sure have.  She came in half an hour ago and left with a cake.”

“A cake?”

“Yup.  Fourteen-inch black forest.”

“But her car’s still out there.  Where did she go?  How’d she transport it?”

The two of them look helpless.  Brad winks at me, which must mean something, but then I see he’s only trying to get me to step aside for the paying customers who crept up behind me.  So I retreat to my office, feeling discouraged.  I dial Mindy’s cell phone once or twice without luck, leaving no messages, thinking of the dead mouse at Gunnar Karlson’s house, for some reason.  Collateral damage — which of us does that concept apply to? After a while, I dial her again.  She picks up.

“Hey, Phu.”

“I’ve been calling all day.  Where the heck have you been?”

“Out and about.  I had to get the last of my things from the car and pack my bags — plus a couple of other errands.”

“Pack your bags…  You’re leaving?”

“Not entirely.  Just—”

“You didn’t check your cell phone messages this morning?”

“It might’ve been off.  Lot’s to do here.  I’ve moved in with Penny Jones.”

“You what?!”

“Uh huh.  This visit looks like it’ll take longer than I thought, and the motel was skeevy so I checked out.  Couldn’t stay there forever, anyway.”

“But, Penny’s place?  You were just saying what a pit that is.”

“Well, I can help her deal with some of the issues.  I already started.  And where was I to go?  It’s not like you offered me a room.”

Offered her a room? “I couldn’t do that.  You’re a client.”

“I’m not a client — Uncle Gunnar is.”

I allow my eyes to lose focus, staring into the middle space, trying not to let my imagination run wild.  “But I only have one bathroom.”

“So…  What’s that got to do with anything?”

“Not to sound like a prude, but you’re not exactly my sister.  Unrelated people shouldn’t share a bathroom in a small house.  It could lead to complications.”

“There you go again.  What kinds of complications?”

My mind slows.  The conversation feels like it’s racing ahead of me, but I know that I have to speak.  I catch a breath.

“Well, like, they could see each other naked, for instance.”

“Oh, brother.”

“People shouldn’t — there’s a risk about where that may lead and — you know.”  Not only has my imagination scampered off without me, but I’m articulating everything it sees.  Okay — more like in-articulating.

“Well, we’re grown ups,” Mindy says matter-of-factly.  “If something did happen, what would be the big deal in that?”

Could it be that my imagination didn’t run fast enough?  “You kidding?” I choke.  “Well, if that happened it would — it could—”

In the end it comes to this.  Fast-talking Phu Goldberg — he with the gift of gab — can’t win an argument with an elementary school teacher.  When Mindy hangs up, I stand from my desk chair and slam down the phone.  Something else is wrong.  It takes me only a second to realize that a raging woody is testing the seam of my fly.

 

 

26.

 


Penelope Jones and family live in a tightly packed neighborhood just beyond North Wilmington, a part of New Castle County known broadly as Brandywine Hundred.  The neighborhoods of this area run the gamut of middle incomes, from upper-middle-class to those just scraping by, but Penny’s enclave constitutes one of the poorest.  I’ve had more than a few clients from around here.  Most recently, a couple of years ago, one guy’s wife talked him into installing a deck with hot tub out in the backyard.  They went whole hog from there, inviting all the neighbors, lighting the way every night with flaming tiki torches, stocking the bar by the liter, and making frequent trips to Sam’s Warehouse Club for industrial packages of meat.  Naturally, by the end of that summer they were flat busted and desperate for a debt management plan.

I’m familiar with the feel of the streets here: cracked sidewalks, most yards showing neglect, ambitious family projects left half undone for all to see.  Rusty cars and 4×4’s plastered with decals clutter narrow streets and short driveways.  A pair of black sneakers hangs from a telephone wire.

When I pull up in front of Penny’s little cape that afternoon, I’m munching a giant bag of licorice, courtesy of Brad.  It’s not candy, exactly.  Rather, it’s the concentrated sticks that he uses for cooking, so powerful that they taste to me like gasoline, burning the back of my throat with spicy sweetness.  I’ve gone the route of herbal anaphrodisiacs because you can’t take a cold shower in an automobile.  Ever since I last spoke to Mindy, I haven’t been able to banish a vision that’s swimming through my mind: the image of Mindy in various stages of undress, towel-clad or peeking at herself topless in the mirror or bathing with the door open, soaped and slick and — in every permutation — uninhibited.  I’ve asked myself a thousand times an hour: Was Mindy coming onto me or was Mindy just being Mindy? In any case, I like the possibility so much that I don’t like it at all, the idea of losing control to this woman — a piece of business that I shouldn’t be viewing as a piece of ass.  Not that all of my ethical standards have always been so exemplary, but in all these years I’ve never stooped to sleep with a client — or a client’s relative, for that matter.  So I’m sucking the licorice down, but it’s not working much as intended.  And it doesn’t help that Mindy now emerges from Penny’s house, traverses the crumbling walk, and opens the car door wearing a loose flannel shirt with a couple of buttons missing.  From the waist down she has on a well-worn pair of jeans, torn at one knee.  From the waist up, there isn’t much undergarment support; she’s perpetual motion in plaid.

I dig a plug of licorice from a molar with my tongue.  To distract myself further, I look through the windshield at Penny’s house.  It has an aura of slovenly neglect: an empty plastic bag caught up in the bushes, misshapen soccer balls lying where they deflated, shingles missing from the roof, and paint peeling off the trim.

“This house seems familiar.  How long have the Joneses been here?”

“I don’t know.”

“It looks like a house a client sold some years ago just before the bank would’ve taken it over.  I think the man walked away with three hundred bucks.”

“You could go far with that if you play your cards right.”

“Not this guy.  He marched right down to the nearest bar.  A year later he was dead, I heard.  Stepped in front of a train.”

“That’s terrible.”

“He had a life insurance policy that we’d twisted ourselves into contortions to keep current.  The proceeds sent his kid to college.”

“Really?  From this house?”

“Could be — or it’s on the next block.  It looks familiar, but many of them do.  Did Penny’s crew snarf down that cake that you bought at Creamy Dreamy?”

Mindy doesn’t ask how I know.  She nods.  “The kids just got home from school.  They were licking the platter clean.”

“A disciplined lot.”

“They don’t have many chances for pleasure these days.”

“Is that why you brought it?”

At first she swallows an answer and we fall into an awkward silence.  Fifteen minutes later we’re passing through Centreville.  She looks out at the now familiar stone buildings.  “My parents taught me that you don’t go to a person’s house empty-handed.”

“But you just bought them the couch and the groceries and a tank of fuel oil.  Isn’t that enough?”

“That was charity.  This is something else.”

“Yeah?  What?”

“Hospitality.”

“Hospitality is when you host someone.”

“They are hosting me.”

“But we’re talking about the cake you brought.”

“It’s the opposite of hospitality, then, whatever that is.  Basic politeness.  Can we drop it?”

“Okay.”

“It’s the opposite of stingy.”

“Okay.  Okay.”

There’s a police cruiser parked in front of Uncle Gunnar’s house.  We pull past it and find a spot, and Mindy’s out of the car before I turn off the engine.  The day has grown warm, a late January thaw with hazy sunshine pushing the mercury near 50.  Compared to the recent weather, it feels downright steamy.  I cast my gaze around the front lawn, but see no sign of Sergeant Buxton.

Mindy rushes to the cop, who’s leaning against his cruiser, looking nonchalant.  “What happened?  Is he all right?”

“Is who all right?  Who are you worried about?”

“My uncle, Gunnar Karlson.”

“He isn’t here.”

“Then what’s going on?”

The cop is of medium height with curly red hair cropped short, slate-blue eyes and a cleft chin.  On his right hip he carries a black service pistol.  On his left hip hangs one of those electric tasers, which looks capable of cooking a squirrel.  He points to a red pickup truck parked in front of his cruiser and nods toward the house.

“Someone punched out the kitchen window.  One of the neighbors noticed and phoned it in.  I’m here to do a report.  There’s a worker inside making the repair.”

“Who would have hired him?” I ask, confused.  “Gunnar Karlson is the sole owner of this house, and he’s not around right now.”

He frowns at me.  “Mr. Karlson’s not in control of this property any longer, as I understand it.  It’s a mortgagee in possession situation.”

“I see.”  The front door is ajar and we hear the sounds of construction.  “This is Mr. Karlson’s niece.  Would you mind if we looked around inside?”

“Suit yourself.”

I return my attention to Mindy.  Her jaw has dropped open and she’s staring wide-eyed at the house.  “They took the curtains!”

She starts to move forward without volition, like a metal shaving drawn by a magnet.  I take her elbow to steady her as we climb the steps and push open the front door.

A high-pitched whizzing echoes through the rooms.

“They swiped more than the curtains,” I say, half to myself.

Mindy’s face carries the disbelieving horrified look of a person who’s presiding over her own rape.  The front parlor stands completely empty of furnishings, even the fireplace screen gone.  No wonder the cop let us in.  There’s nothing left to steal.

We walk like zombies from one room to the next.  Shadows in the paint and hooks knocked askew are the only evidence that pictures covered the walls just a few days ago.  The floor appears well scrubbed, and every stick of furniture is gone.  We go into the kitchen, where a worker with a tool belt is using a power drill to put the final touches on a plywood barrier.  He senses our presence and looks over his shoulder.

“We’re just here to check it out,” I explain.

He nods and goes back to work.

On the counter glints a single sliver of glass that the cleaners missed.  I pick it up and pocket it.  Mindy opens a cabinet and finds the inside bare.  I look out the sliding door; the patio furniture and Smokey Joe grill are also gone.

Upstairs it’s the same — empty and emptier and freshly mopped, even to the corners of the closets.  In Uncle Gunnar’s room Mindy leans her back against the wall and sinks to the floor.

“What was that the cop said about mortgagees and possessions?”

“It’s a technical thing.  It means the bank claims that Uncle Gunnar has abandoned the house.  They have an interest in maintaining the property, in order to get their money back.  So they petitioned the court to allow them to take care of the place, and the court said okay.”

“They don’t trust him?”

I throw up my hands.  “It’s more a matter of low expectations.  They don’t want their asset deteriorating further.”

“So Triple Fidelity owns it now?”

“No.  That’s the thing.  Legally it’s still Uncle Gunnar’s house, but they’re presuming it’ll be theirs or someone else’s any day now.  If he doesn’t show up soon and settle this problem there’ll be a sheriff’s sale — an auction.  Whoever has the highest bid will then own the house.”

“And his stuff?”

“I don’t know.”

The drilling has stopped.  I crouch beside Mindy and touch her forearm.  “We should go.”

She puts her hand in mine and I help her up.  Although a comatose man would see her breasts dancing as I lift her to her feet, I’ve no room left for desire.  The little fantasy in which I’ve allowed myself to be encouraged is all wrong now, probably always was.  With my hormones better balanced than an hour ago, I have no further call for cold showers or licorice.

Together we walk like mourners into the second bedroom.

There isn’t a clue that Uncle Gunnar once lived here.  Nothing.

 

 

27.

 


Stepping out onto the front porch, we nearly bowl over a tall, solid man in a thin wool jacket and tweed cap.

“I looked for you up and down the block,” he says.

It’s Sergeant Buxton in civvies.  I meet his walnut-brown eyes and toss my head in Mindy’s direction.  “The cop out front said it was okay.  We couldn’t wait to go inside the house.  Then we couldn’t wait to leave.”

“We haven’t met.”  He holds out a hand to Mindy and I make the introductions.  He removes his hat like a gentleman when they shake.  Buxton watches the color return to Mindy’s cheeks.  He restores his cap to the top of his head.

“What did you two see inside that spooked you so?”

“Sergeant Buxton—” Mindy begins.

“Please call me Rufus.”

“I had a responsibility to my uncle, and it’s all working out pretty badly.”

“They wasted no time sweeping away the man’s personal possessions,” I say.  “Two days ago the place was chock full of his stuff.  It’s all gone.”

“Two days ago, I take it, no rulings had yet come down.”  Buxton issues a big yawn, which he covers with a dry-knuckled fist.  “No offense, ma’am.  I’ve been sleep-deprived lately.  Mr. Goldberg told you?”

“Phu,” I say.  “We may as well all be on familiar terms, and we appreciate that you’re here out of friendship, not obligation.  With regard to our conversation this morning, I thought it best not to share.  We don’t want to scare away the tourists.”

“Ah.  I gotcha.”

“What are you two talking about?” Mindy asks.

“An unrelated case,” Buxton says, “that’s keeping me up at night.”  He points toward the curb, where the uniformed cop stands with his arms akimbo.  “That there’s the local law.  We should check in, don’t you think?”

“Already have,” I start to say, but Buxton doesn’t wait for a response from us, just marches over.  Mindy follows like a supplicant.

Feeling suddenly outclassed, I puff out my chest and saunter over in my own good time.  When I arrive, I attempt to build rapport by resting my hands on my hips, mirroring the man in uniform.  Though we met just minutes ago, we didn’t exchange vitals.  We now learn from Buxton that he’s the police chief of Kennett Square, name of Sean Grogan.  He and Buxton talk shop for a while, as if we aren’t there.  Then our turn comes.

“This is the niece of the former owner,” Buxton explains.

“So I’m told.”

“Not legally his niece,” Mindy says.  “We’re close family friends.  I call him Uncle.”

“Mr. Karlson, that would be?”

“You know him?”

“Not well.”

“She was looking after his affairs while he was away,” I explain.

“Phu Goldberg, here, is something of an advisor to Ms. Eider,” Sergeant Buxton says.

“Something of…” says Chief Grogan.

“That’s right.”  I scowl at Sergeant Buxton for reducing me, in one phrase, to a walking depository of low expectations.

Chief Grogan has bushy straw-colored eyebrows with a prominent crease between them, which seems to predispose all of his facial expressions toward the projection of distrust.  So far he wears the most skeptical look I ever saw, impervious to my subtle effort to manipulate a silent connection and move the interaction to a better place.

“The important thing,” I say, trying to put the emphasis where it belongs, “is that this foreclosure seems to be happening on a fast track and we’re working on getting to the bottom of it before the bank sells the house out from under Uncle Gunnar.”

Chief Grogan lifts a bushy eyebrow.  “It seems a little late for that.  Has the debtor made any effort at all to rectify this situation on his own behalf?”

“He’s not a debtor,” Mindy says, emphasizing the word that suddenly does sound harshly Nineteenth Century, even to me.  “If he could speak for himself, I’m sure we’d clear up the whole thing right away.”

“As I understand it,” Sergeant Buxton says, “they’re having trouble locating the gentleman.”

“The mortgagee in possession deal came as a surprise to us,” I say.  “On what basis was that made?”

“You’ll have to ask the bank or the judge.  I’m only out here keeping the peace.”

“We tried to get the bank to hold off,” Mindy says, “but they insist on plowing ahead, won’t even talk to us.  I know Uncle Gunnar had an obligation and all, but it seems pretty unfair.”

“Well, if he made his payments, I presume—”

“That’s just it.  It isn’t like him not to make his payments.  He put me in charge of his mail while he was on vacation and these notices started coming and the next thing you know…”  She points with her whole hand from Chief Grogan to the empty house.

The police officer nods.  “This nation, it’s a nation of rules, miss.  It’s not enough for your friends to want you to keep your house.  If the old man desired to maintain ownership, he might have stayed current with the payments.”

“We don’t know that he didn’t,” I interject.  “There may be some kind of fraud involved.”

“Fraud?  What makes you say that?”

I shrug, knowing I’m on shaky ground.

“You need to have some evidence before you start making accusations of that nature, Mr. Phu.”

“Goldberg,” Sergeant Buxton corrects, before I can.  “We don’t have any reason to believe, so far, that fraud plays any part in this.”

I throw him a frown that translates, “Thanks for the support.”

“Well,” Grogan says, “has anyone asked Mr. Karlson whether he made the payments or not?”

Mindy reiterates, “We can’t get in touch with him right now.  We don’t know where to find him.”

“Hmm,” Grogan says.  “Run off, has he?”

“A long-planned vacation,” says Mindy, “but he’s a little overdue.  He’s coming back any day.  I’m just not sure when exactly.”

“Well, there’s other possibilities, miss.  For example, maybe the old man doesn’t wish to return.”

“He’s lived here for decades.  Why wouldn’t he want to come back?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe he fell in love or got a case of wanderlust.  Or maybe he’s ashamed of his financial travails.  Shame is a powerful force.  I’ve seen it drive people underground before.”

Mindy shakes her head.

Grogan looks off to the house and we instinctively follow his gaze.  But it’s only the carpenter coming through the waning afternoon light.  He lovingly places some tools in a rack behind the front seat of his truck.

“I’m almost done here,” he says, lighting a cigarette and relishing the first mouthful of smoke.

“All right, then,” says Grogan, ready to leave.

I step in front of him.  “Wherever he is, Mindy doesn’t believe Uncle Gunnar abandoned this property intentionally.  He needs to be found.  We’d like to file a missing person’s report.”

“How long’s the old man been gone?”

“We’re not sure,” Mindy says.  “I haven’t spoken to him since the beginning of December, but he—”

“Long enough by statute,” says Sergeant Buxton.

“All right.  What were his last known whereabouts?”

“We’re not sure specifically,” Mindy says.  “He went to the mountains.”

“You have an address?”

Mindy bites the inside of her cheek.

Chief Grogan folds his arms across his chest.  “You were in the station the other day, weren’t you?”

“Yes, but—”

“How do you know?” I say.

“It’s a small department — a dozen and a half officers.  Not much escapes my view.”

“You saw her?”

He ignores my follow-up, fixated on Mindy.  “What came of that visit?”

“I took a form,” Mindy says.  “I — I couldn’t bear it.”

“So you didn’t file.  You’ll have to get over that if you’re serious.”

Mindy nods and frowns.

“With all due respect to Sergeant Buxton and you, miss, I don’t suppose you need directions to the Kennett Square police station at this point.  I assume, if you want to file a report, that you know where to go, having been there before.”

“Yes.”

“Okay.  Good afternoon.”  He takes a long lazy step away from us, but I sidle in front of him again.

“One other thing, Chief.  Just a question.  Does the name Albert Hubsher mean anything to you?”

He pauses to take my measure.  “You bet.  Richest man between Lancaster and the Main Line.  Why?”

“He owns the bank that’s foreclosing on this house.  We’d like to have a talk with him.”

“Ha-ha!  He might also own the company that made the stick of gum you’re chewing.  It doesn’t mean he has time for you or Gunnar Karlson — or for any of us.  Albert Hubsher is a powerful guy.”

“Still, do you have any idea how we might contact him?”

“You can try the phonebook, same as anyone else,” he laughs.  “It’s not my place to give directions to the homes of VIPs.”

Done with me, Grogan veers toward Mindy, pauses and takes a deep breath through his nostrils, like he’s trying to get a firm lock on her pheromones.  “Go fill out that missing persons form, miss.  The desk clerk can help.  That’s my advice to you.”  He looks at each of us, as if committing our faces to memory.  “Afternoon, Sergeant.  Afternoon.  Afternoon.”

He walks to a police cruiser, climbs in and picks up the radio.

Sergeant Buxton keeps his own counsel, but I can guess he’s wondering whether his presence spurred more resentment than cooperation.  He narrows one eye and slips a plain piece of paper into my hand.  I unfold it to find the home address of Juan Torres, thinking immediately, I’ll be damned.

“He lives right around the corner from Penny’s house,” I say aloud.

“That seems like a big coincidence,” says Mindy.

“Not as much as you’d think.”  I pocket the address.  “Wilmington’s motto is, ‘A Place to Be Somebody,’ but that’s only true because there are so few anybodies that most of them live within a five-mile radius of everybody.”

“You didn’t get that address from me,” Buxton says, pointing to my pocket.  “And, if you pay him a visit, I trust you’ll exercise more self-control than you did when we first met.”

“Thanks for the advice, Sergeant, but I’m not making any up-front commitments about how that conversation’s gonna unfold.  You could accompany me if it worries you.”

“We’ve no evidence a crime of any kind has taken place.  You find probable cause between now and then, and I might.”

“Let me ask you something else.  What do you suppose would have happened to all of Uncle Gunnar’s stuff?  Seized to help satisfy his debts?”

“Could be.  But, as you know, that would have required a court order of some kind.  While we’re here, I’ll take a gander inside, see the situation for myself.  I don’t suppose…”

“Thanks, Rufus.  We’ll wait out here,” Mindy says.

Cigarette tucked into one corner of his mouth, the carpenter carries the last bits of plywood scrap to his pickup and tosses them into the bay.  Buxton flashes his badge and tells him he needs five minutes to look around.

“Hurry it up,” the carpenter says.  “I was about to lock up.”

Chief Grogan pulls his transmission into drive, but I step to his open window and stand over him.  “Maybe just one more question, Chief.”

He thrusts out his lower lip and flips the cruiser back into park.

“You wouldn’t know, by any chance, the — ah — disposition of Uncle Gunnar’s possessions.  They were all here as recently as a couple of days ago.”

“Hmm.  Maybe they went through the window.  I’ll put it in my report.  What’re we looking for?”

Mindy approaches.  “Clothing.  A couch.  A dinette set.  Two beds.”

“Hall table,” I add.  “Bedroom dresser.  Pictures.  A couple of fish tanks.  The place was stuffed full.  Do you have a theory on who might have absconded with these things?”

He shakes his head.  “This house isn’t under twenty-four-hour surveillance, and I’m sure not here babysitting it.  I’ll put it in my report about the window, but someone with the authority to do so might have taken those items, for all I know.  Or the owner might have come home — under cover of darkness or even in broad daylight — and scooped them up himself.”

“I doubt that.  He and Mindy were very close.  Even if he were walking away from the mortgage, I think he’d be in touch before he emptied out the place.  She has some concern not just for the man but for his personal items.  She’s a little emotional about them.”  I give him a half-hearted wink.

“Lots of times the personal stuff gets lost in the shuffle of a foreclosure.  When that happens it’s more a property dispute than a crime.  In any event, there doesn’t tend to be much left by the time the sheriff’s sale arrives.”

“There was a houseful of furniture just the other day, though.  Does this procession of events feel a little hurried to you?”

“I couldn’t say.  It isn’t my business.  All the legal proceedings, that’d be the county.”

“They wouldn’t notify you before allowing someone to come into your jurisdiction and seize a man’s property?”

He angles up his head and peers at me from under those eyebrows.  “A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing, Mr. Goldberg.  You seem like the type who jumps to conclusions without doing the hard thinking in between.  If I’m wrong, forgive me.  But here’s another thing.”  He looks at the tear in the sleeve of my open jacket.  “That kitchen window, we think, got broke two days ago, which is about when you last inventoried Mr. Karlson’s possessions, you say.  Would you know anything about that?”

“We did it!” Mindy blurts, rocking to the balls of her feet.  “We were trying—  Ow!”

I grab her upper arm and pinch, pulling her behind me and interrupting.  “It’s true.  I was standing on the air conditioning compressor and trying to look inside for a sign of life when I slipped and put my elbow through the window.”

Grogan squints and nods his head.  “That must have been quite an accident, all the mullions broken and everything.”  He stares daggers.  “A man of your build, if he had bad intentions, might just fit through a break like that.”

“We didn’t steal the furniture,” I say, not sounding as convincing as I’d like.

“Even if it did go down as you say,” Grogan says, “you just left it for someone else to clean up?  A law-abiding person might have thought to call someone.”

“I’m sorry.  You’re right.  We should have.”

“Vandalism of this nature is a second or third degree misdemeanor, Mr. Goldberg, depending on the damage value.  In either event, we take it seriously in Kennett Square.  Keep that in mind.”

Mindy has her face screwed up, about to say something, but I close a vise-grip on her arm and she pauses.

Then, simpering a thank-you to the chief, I pull her away from his car before she confesses to trespassing.

 

28.


The afternoon has reached that moment when cool breezes slip from shadows like knives from a sheath.  I close my coat a quarter way as Chief Grogan rolls from the curb, Buxton emerges from the house and the carpenter locks up, paying no further attention to us, toggling through his cell phone.

Buxton gives me one of those are-you-thinking-what-I’m-thinking looks and we sidle over.  The carpenter is middle aged with blondish gray hair, crows feet around mournful green eyes and the demeanor of a cornered dog.  He looks up from his cell phone, and one can sense him struggling to piece together the meaning of the triumvirate doing the cornering: the sizzling brunette, the clean-cut African-American and the wiry little Asian.

“Thanks for letting me in,” Buxton says.

“No problem.”

“Can you answer a couple of questions?”

“That badge…you ain’t Kennett police.”

“No.”  Buxton shows it to him once more.

“Gee,” says the carpenter, “I must’ve made a wrong turn somewheres.  I thought I was in Pennsylvania all this while.”

“I have friends in Pennsylvania,” Buxton says, “if it comes to that.  Who hired you?”

“That’s my business and it’s totally legit.  You saw the cop there a minute ago.  He didn’t have any problem with me.”

“Why’d they send a police chief to chase down a broken window?”

“How the hell would I know.  I’m only the hired help.”

“By whom?”

“Look, pal.  I’m just here doing a job.”

“You wouldn’t know,” I say, “what might have come of the furnishings in that house.”

“Sure don’t.”  He shakes his head.

Mindy is shaking her head, too, but not in answer to the same question.  The news of the day has been a bitter pill for her to swallow.  I see tears welling and her face has gone red.  “They can’t do this,” she says.  “Albert Hubsher can’t do this.”

The carpenter opens his eyes wide.  “What do you mean?  What’s Hubsher got to do with anything?”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know,” Mindy says.  “He’s behind all this.”

The carpenter looks at Buxton and me like he’s ready to make the loco sign with his finger.  “I’m a simple workingman who came here to board up a window, ma’am.  You can bet I ain’t got nothing to do with Mr. Hubsher.  He’s too fancy for me.”

“He owns the mortgage company that’s foreclosing on Mr. Karlson’s house,” I explain.

“Really?  I wasn’t aware of that.”

“Do you know him?”

“By reputation.  He’s one of the valley’s top dogs.  I don’t see what he’d want with that dump.  And me?  He wouldn’t know me if he stepped over my frozen body in the street.”

Mindy scowls.  “Never mind that.  This is my uncle’s house, Gunnar Karlson.  He’s lived here for most of his adult life.  He’s an old man.”

“Yeah.  Well, I’m sorry it didn’t work out for him.”

“What kind of person are you?!”

“A guy with a job to do.  That’s all.”

The tears are streaming from Mindy now.  “They can’t do this!”

Sergeant Buxton lifts his arm, as if to wrap it around her shoulders, but then thinks better of it.

Mindy has never struck me as a violent sort, but I see resentment and contempt playing over her face.  I’ve received looks like that from time to time, anger with the system directed at the nearest messenger.  Nothing good comes of that.

“Calm down, Mindy,” I say.  “Calm down.”

She turns to me with clouding eyes.  “There must be a law against this sort of thing.”

“I hate to tell you, there sure isn’t.  It’s the opposite.  The law is on the side of the bank.  You don’t pay your mortgage and eventually you lose your house, no different here than anywhere.”

“What Phu says is true.”  Sergeant Buxton thins his lips and nods.  “Isn’t fair always, but as the judges say, sometimes the law is an ass.”

A deep sigh escapes Mindy and she crumples.

The carpenter shows no sympathy.  He cups his ear and sneers.  “Hear that?  It’s the quitting time whistle.  Better luck next time, lady.”

He climbs into the pickup and we watch him pull away.

“A little rough around the edges,” Buxton says, “but he’s probably what he claims.  I think you should go down to the local station house and file that missing persons report.  Just in case Mr. Karlson doesn’t return, you know?  Not saying he won’t, Mindy.  But, either way, you want it on record that you worried about him.  Meanwhile, let me know if I can do anything else for you, but don’t call today unless it’s an emergency.  I gotta catch some z’s before I fall over.”

“It’s sound advice,” I tell Mindy as Buxton disappears toward his car, yawning.  “Grogan knows we broke in.  We’re not giving anything up by filing the report, and maybe it’ll at least force the police to keep an eye out for your uncle.  You wouldn’t want him to come back and find himself all disoriented and with the authorities not having an official version of the story.”

She agrees with some reluctance, sniffling, and we head up the street, walking against traffic.  We’re a few feet from the Mini when I hear a car door slam not far off and a motor grind to ignition.  Just as we’re climbing in, a red plumbing van turns onto Meredith Street and I make eye contact with Juan Torres.  He taps the brakes but the van doesn’t slow down much.  For a moment, I consider chasing it.  But feet and fists are no match for automobiles.  Mindy seems fragile right now.  And, anyway, I have the man’s home address in my pocket.

I imagine the conversation I might pursue with Sergeant Buxton.  I’d tell him my suspicions were further aroused and he’d say, “Driving your van down the street in the vicinity of a house that may or may not be a crime scene hardly constitutes probable cause.”  Bury me in technicalities, whydontcha.

We climb into the Mini and I’m brooding as it idles.

“What are you thinking about?” Mindy asks.  She must have been too lost in her own thoughts to notice Torres’s van, and I didn’t see any reason to call her attention to it.

“Nothing.  Just how surreal this all is.  You ever get the feeling that you’re a passenger on a train, watching through the window, witnessing things that you’re unable to control?  Stuff happens out there.  Maybe you see a farmer selling peaches and you’d like to have one, but the train rolls on.  Maybe you see a kid fall off his bike and you’d like to assist him, but the train rolls on.  You connect with someone for an instant.  The train doesn’t care.  The train rolls on.  Life.”

“Is that supposed to cheer me up?”

“We’ve had a rocky start.  I wasn’t sure where we stood at first.”

“You’re only a debt guy.  I get that now.  You’ve already done more than I should have expected.”

“But we haven’t accomplished anything.  I want you to know that I’m not indifferent to that fact.”

“Uncle Gunnar’s house…it makes me sad but it’s just a building.  People are more important than things.”

“You think your uncle is all right, wherever he is?”

“I’m hopeful.  I have to be.  You?”

“Well—”

“Tell the truth.”

“I have a bad feeling, but I can’t put my finger on it.  I sense that a transgression has been committed, but I don’t know if it’s a property crime or something else, and my instincts aren’t well honed for this stuff.  A petty deadbeat I can spot from three miles away.  What’s going on here isn’t within my immediate experience — if anything’s going on, that is, beyond a normal foreclosure that we happened to get wind of late.”

We pull up in front of the Kennett Square police station, a one-story sand-colored utilitarian structure set back from North Broad Street by a parking lot that accommodates only a single row of cars.  A sign by a space on the left says, Police vehicles only.

“Whatever’s going on,” I conclude, “I’d like to help you get to the bottom of it.”

Mindy nods, sucks a deep breath, and closes her eyes for a long second with a hand on the police station door.

Inside, we receive a sympathetic greeting from a young woman in uniform named Officer Bray.  Upon hearing our purpose, she ushers us to a desk and takes up a pen and begins asking questions.  But, as when I first met her, Mindy doesn’t have many sure answers.  She doesn’t know Uncle Gunnar’s last place of employment (“it was so long ago”), whether he has a love interest (“not that I know of — but I can’t be sure”), the make of his car (“white something, American or Japanese; I don’t pay much attention to these things”), or if he’s had a recent argument with anyone (she throws up her hands).  Officer Bray says they can look up the make of his car, not to worry.  The rest of it, well, it’s not uncommon with old folks for distant relatives not to know much about their daily lives.  “Seniors living alone, they pass through the community like—”  She wisely catches herself, but I think she was going to say “like ghosts.”

However it fits into the broader social picture, it seems pretty clear to me that Mindy doesn’t know squat about her uncle.  And — notwithstanding my pledge to help her — this seems odd because she claims to be close to him, collects his mail while he’s away, and travelled a thousand miles for the sole purpose of salvaging his house.

When she turns to me, I lift an eyebrow.

“He doesn’t like if I ask too many questions,” she says in self-defense.

“Well, what did you talk about when you saw him?”

“We just enjoyed each other’s company.  We didn’t play Twenty Questions.”

“You sat there staring at one another.”

“Something like that.”

“There were other people around?”

“Sometimes, but no one worth mentioning.  No one who would cause him to go missing.”

“Uh huh.”  I bite a cuticle.

“That’s all for now,” Officer Bray says.  “We’ll call your cell phone if we find him, Ms. Eider.”

Chief Grogan walks up just then.  I try catching his attention, but I may as well be a piece of old furniture.  His eyes seem to leap out of his head, rip off Mindy’s clothes and pin her against the desk.

To change the unspoken subject, I say, “Tell me, Chief Grogan.  Now that we’ve filed the report, what will be your strategy for locating Uncle Gunnar?”

He turns to me.  “Strategy?  This isn’t the invasion of Afghanistan, Mr. Goldberg.  In a typical missing person’s case with no sign of foul play, we might canvas the immediate vicinity of the individual’s home, the place of last employment, and the place last seen.”  He takes the report from Officer Bray and scans it.  “As I suspected, in this instance the second option is moot and the third is unknown.”

Mindy bites her lip, the guilt written on her face, as if she’s been a bad daughter.

Grogan hands the paper back to Bray without removing his eyes from Mindy.  “We’ll ask around in the neighborhood as soon as I can spare a man,” he says, “but I wouldn’t worry over it too hard, miss.  These missing old folks, they usually turn up sooner or later.”

 

29.

 


From the police station we head to the Justice Center on West Market Street in West Chester, the seat of county government, which lies about thirty minutes from Uncle Gunnar’s house.  The Center has an odd design.  The brunt of it is modern and unremarkable with a facade made of flat stone and tight brick, like something you’d find in a suburban office complex.  But in the center stands an incongruous Greek sandstone portico, as if the gods of architecture, unsatisfied with the results of the original project, dropped an improvement from the sky.  We park on the first level of the nearly empty municipal garage and walk across the street, but the doors to the sheriff’s offices are locked.

Mindy can’t look any more frustrated than she did an hour ago, but she’s sure giving it the old college try.

“We’ll come back another time,” I tell her, and she nods like a woman in shock.

The setting sun hounds us all the way south before finally dropping below the tree line.  It’s almost fully dark when we pull into Penny’s neighborhood.  We drive past the address that Sergeant Buxton gave me for Torres but see no sign of the plumbing van.  His house is simple white clapboard, neat and tidy with a few well-trimmed foundation plantings.  All the lights are off.

“I’ve been thinking,” Mindy says, as we round the block.  “We need to call this Hubsher guy and ask him to postpone the sale of Uncle Gunnar’s house.  At least until he returns.”

I’m starting to believe it was a bad idea to reveal Hubsher’s name to Mindy.  He’s taking on this mythic quality for her, like the Wizard of Oz for Dorothy, and at this rate she’s bound to be similarly disappointed if he ever reveals himself.

We pull to the curb in front of Penny’s place.

“Look, Min, with all due respect, I’d bet Hubsher’s not gonna give a crap for your uncle.  He’s only a rich guy who owns a whole bunch of stuff.  If it’s not Uncle Gunnar’s mortgage, it’s someone else’s — just pieces of paper with metes and bounds on them.  He probably doesn’t even know your uncle’s name.”

“But they’re neighbors, practically.  They’re fellow citizens.”

“Darkness and light,” I remind her.

She nods.  “I’m beginning to understand which one’s the darkness.  But isn’t it like you said when we were going to visit the mortgage company, Phu?  Isn’t our only chance to let them know there’s a real person here, not just bricks and mortar and a piece of paper?”

“It’s a shot,” I concede, “if a long shot.”

I have several numbers from my online research.  With Mindy still sitting next to me in the Mini, I begin to dial.

“It’s after hours,” I observe, “but sometimes that’s the best time to get an executive to pick up, when all the assistants have gone home.”

But after a few minutes I’ve reached no living persons.  All the messages that I leave say roughly the same thing: “This is Phuoc Goldberg of CPR Debt Relief.  I must speak with Mr. Albert Hubsher regarding an urgent matter.  Please call immediately.”

Despite my lack of success, after the fourth message Mindy feels better.  “Penny’s working on a big juicy pot roast,” she says.  “Why don’t you come in and join us.”

“That’s tempting.  Mashed potatoes?”

“Loads.”

“Can I chip in for beer?”

She shakes her head.  “It’s taken care of.”

I follow her inside.  The house is modest and worn and cluttered, yet neater than I expected.  In the living area a greenish corduroy couch faces an unfinished shelving unit, atop which sits a large Sharp T.V.

“You didn’t,” I say, staring at the glistening dark flat panel.

“I did so.  They brought it back and re-hooked the wires and everything.”

“You should’ve told me.  I might have negotiated a better price.”

Mindy smiles in a manner that calls into question my credibility.

There’s a girl on the couch, legs folded beneath her, writing in a notebook.  Her skin is cafe au lait and she’s gathered her bronze hair into a bun.

“Letitia,” says Mindy, “say hello to Mr. Goldberg.”

Letitia stands and we shake hands.  She looks to be about twelve.

Another girl comes in, a little older with pale white skin and Goth-dark hair.  She’s holding a book in one hand and an MP3 player in the other.  She rocks her head to whatever’s piping through her earbuds, removing only the left one when Mindy introduces her as Brittany.  Brittany climbs into a soft chair and throws her legs over one arm, cracking the book.  As she does so a white boy of about seven runs past without pausing and clatters down the hall.

“That was Brandon,” Mindy explains.  “He’s staying here for a while, it seems.  Brittany’s from next door — her parents aren’t home a lot.  Letitia is Penny’s biological daughter.”

We go to the kitchen, where Penny stands over a series of pots, stirring and tasting.

“Hello, Phu.  Welcome to our home,” she beams.  She never showed her teeth in my office — too busy gritting them, which was understandable.  Now a glint of the eyes accompanies her smile.

“I was dropping off Mindy,” I begin, “and—”

“Won’t you stay for dinner?”

“I will if you don’t mind.”

“I already asked him,” Mindy says.  She opens the chock-full refrigerator and puts a bottle of Michelob Light into my hand.

The kitchen smells of sauteed onions and seems comfortably cluttered.  The pine table has a bowl of speckled bananas on top of it, and a backpack hangs from one of the painted wooden chairs.  Well-used canisters and spices cover the counters.  The steam of cooking has fogged the windows, and I note shadows of old smiley faces on several lower panes.

I use an opener that’s hanging from the refrigerator door handle to pry the top off my beer, tossing the cap in the trash and taking a long pull.  It’s well chilled and goes well with the tropical air of the kitchen.

Terrance comes in through the outside door.  He slips off his puffy coat and hangs it on a wall hook in one motion.  It appears that he’s returning from work, and he looks like an oozing bag of grease in his McDonald’s uniform.

“What’s for dinner?” he says.

“Is that any way to talk,” says Penny.  “Tell Mr. Goldberg how pleased you are to see him.”

“Yeah,” he grunts. “ All that.”

“Mega dittoes, kid.”

He leaves and I wander back out to the living area, where another boy has materialized, a skinny African-American who looks to be about ten.  He’s playing with a Gameboy and doesn’t lift an eye to me.

A few minutes later, Terrance returns.  He’s changed into jeans and a hooded sweatshirt and carries a basketball.

“Where you going with that?” I ask.

“Out there,” he says, as if that explains everything.  When he sees I’m looking for more, he adds, “Driveway.”

I reflect for a moment.  “You want a partner?”

“You play?”

“Used to.”

He shrugs.  “It isn’t an ideal situation.”

“We don’t have to be best friends to shoot hoops together.”

“That ain’t it.  There’s a car sort of in the way.”

He flicks a switch by the back door.  I follow him out and we assess the problem under the single floodlight.  In front of Penny’s navy Dodge Caravan sits an old Chevy Impala sedan, gold with tinted windows, a dented hubcap clinging to the front left wheel, and dull red paint by the fuel door where someone did half-assed body repairs.  Terrence executes a lazy layup and catches the ball and bounces it high and, when it tips in over the front rim, catches it again, this time just before it smacks the hood of the Impala.  He flicks his wrist and the ball swishes through the net again.  It’s apparent that he can do this maneuver in his sleep.

I get my coat from the Mini and zip it and sink my hands into the pockets.

Terrence dribbles twice around both cars and finger-rolls a reverse layup.

“Whose is it?” I ask.

“Was Uncle Larry’s, Penny’s husband.  Now it’s nobody’s.”

Divorce.  Deadbeat dad, I’m thinking.

Terrance reads my mind.  “Aneurysm,” he says.  “Four years ago.”

“That sucks.  So it just sits here?”

“The registration’s expired and the battery’s dead.”

I walk around it.  “The tires look a little flat, too.  That’ll make it harder.”

“What’re you planning, man?”

I go inside and get the keys to Penny’s car and park it in the street.  Mindy has followed me out with the key to the Impala.  She hands it to me and I climb in and turn the ignition.  Sure enough, the starter doesn’t even click, but I get the steering wheel unlocked.

“Maybe we can jump it,” I say.  We pop the hood and peer inside, but the battery isn’t just dead — it’s gone.

“See what I’m saying,” Terrance says, holding the basketball against his hip.  “It’s hopeless.”

He sounds like a man struggling against a great weight.

I look to Mindy.  “You think Brittany or that other girl can steer this thing to the end of the driveway if we push?”

“I don’t see why not.”

I reach for Terrance’s basketball and he instinctively yanks it away.

“Hey, stupid,” I say.  “I’m trying to help you.”

He holds the ball out to me and I reach to take it, but he withdraws it again and laughs.  His lip is nearly back to normal.  Young people heal fast.

Mindy comes out, Brittany trailing.  The girl gets behind the wheel as I slam the trunk closed.

Having created a minor distraction, I turn rapidly on Terrance and slap the ball.  It caroms off his knee and rolls into the bushes.  He makes no effort to retrieve it and suppresses a grin.

“You’re in the middle,” I say, “by the grille.  Mindy, take that corner and I’ll take this one.  Brittany!  Put it in neutral.  Foot over the brake, but don’t step down unless you feel it getting away from you.  Keep the car on the driveway.”

She nods through the windshield and we push with all our might.  The car rocks but doesn’t roll.

“Shoot,” Mindy says.

“See what I’m saying,” Terrance says.  “It needs a tow truck or something.”  He leans against the fender, breathing heavily.

“I’m not quitting,” I say.

Just then, his friend Kyle walks up.

“Yo!” Terrance says.  “Give us a hand.”

Kyle nods without a word.  He steps between Mindy and Terrance and I call, “One.  Two.  Three!”  And the damned car rolls about a foot.

“No brake!  No brake!” I call to Brittany.

We readjust our weight and I count out again and we push and the Chevy rolls again.  In a few more minutes, we have it out of the way.  The women go back inside.  Terrance picks up the ball and throws a bounce-pass to Kyle, who springs into a fadeaway jumper.  The ball clangs off the front rim and I rebound it uncontested.

“Ain’t you too small for b-ball?” Kyle says.

“You wish,” I say, running around him and thudding a bank shot that has no right to go in but does.  “High school point guard,” I lie.

Kyle turns to Terrance.  “Hey, fat man, reason I came by…you wanna go to the Y, shoot some pool?”

Terrance looks from Kyle to me and back.  “Nah.”  He shakes his head.  “We hanging.”  He takes a hook shot and it goes around the rim and out.  He gets his own rebound and taps it in.

“Who’s we?” Kyle says.

Terrance ignores him.  He does a spin move and swishes a jumper.

“Nice!” I say.

Terrance passes me the ball and I move straight to a jump shot but miss badly.  I go into a defensive posture, my face barely in the small of Terrance’s back, my arms waving uselessly.  He seizes the rebound and spins and hits again.

“Shit, Terrance, you fat fuck,” Kyle says.  “You ain’t in no shape for the full driveway.  Don’t give yourself a heart attack.”

Terrance continues to ignore him and we play a couple of points with Kyle razzing both of us.  When my turn comes again I take a step back and, against all odds, nail a shot over Terrance, nothing but net.

“Point guard,” Kyle spits.  “That ball was spinning sideways.  You learn that cheese in China?”

“Lay off him,” Terrance says.

“What, now you’re all friendly and shit?  What’d this guy do for us ever but call us criminals and punch you out?”

Terrance turns the question over in his mind.  “His girlfriend’s helping Aunt Penny,” he says.  “Something to that.”

“Not my girlfriend,” I gasp, out of breath now.  “We — ah — she’s a client.”

“Course she’s not his girlfriend,” Kyle says.  “What’s a piece of pussy like that need with this little chink!”

I take a step toward Kyle, who has his hands raised for combat, as he did when I first encountered him on the sidewalk.  “Ain’t nobody getting cold cocked this time,” he says, rubbing his nose with a thumb knuckle like an old-time boxer.

“C’mon!” Terrance says.  He hits me in the gut with a bounce-pass and I fling the basketball up without looking, just to get it out of my way.  It banks and I hear it swish in.

Terrance breaks into hysterics and Kyle grimaces and a strange thing happens.  Even though Kyle is standing within arm’s length, I decide not to pop him.  Terrance passes me the ball and I dribble it around as Kyle walks away, disgusted.

I peel off my coat, placing it on the hood of the Impala, and Terrance and I give each other the once-over.

“Hey, does your Aunt Penny ever let you drink beer?”

He studies me, wondering about a catch.  “Sometimes,” he concedes.

I go inside and bring out a couple more Mich Lights, handing him one.

“Yo, thanks, man.  You all right.”

Maybe.  But I don’t sink another shot all night.  Still, we play hoops and drink beers in the freezing cold until my fingers throb at the joints.  Then Penny calls through the door for dinner and we go back inside and fall winded into a couple of kitchen chairs.

 

30.

 


“The kitchen table is for the little kids,” Penny says, making shooing motions.  “You know better, Terrance.”

She hands each of us a plate.

The house has sprung to life like an aroused beehive.  Brandon, the seven year old I saw earlier, rumbles through the room like a hotrod on a Le Mans course, and two other kids his size trail in pursuit.  Terrance grabs the first by the collar and I get the last.  The one in the middle stops short.

“Dinner time.”  Terrance says.

Penny has full plates at the table for them already, steam rising from gravy-soaked mashed potatoes.  Letitia and Brittany and the skinny boy join them.  A couple of older kids take their food and follow Terrance into the living area, where the teens are drinking soda pop and eating off their laps with threadbare cloth napkins.

Mindy walks in and pats my shoulder.  “How’d the game go?”

“I almost died from exposure, and Terrance rejected, like, six of my shots.  But I scored a few times, which was probably more than I could’ve expected.”

Fingers still tingling, I fish another beer from the refrigerator and Mindy piles my plate high.  I follow her into the dining room, where a redwood picnic table with attached benches stands on the bare wood floor.  There’s a long-faced Indian woman in a sari seated in a chair at one end.  On the bench opposite us sits an elderly black couple, perhaps in their sixties but looking worn down beyond their years.

The place has the atmosphere of a rooming house, only more chaotic.  People jump up and leave the room and return and sit down again, plate first, unmatched silverware clutched in their fists.  Kids move through space as if on monorails.  Teenagers in the living area erupt into laughter and hooting at regular intervals.  And in the corner of the nearby vestibule, a calico cat licks her paws.  It’s like everyone discovered free food on the street and there was plenty to go around.  No one bothers to make introductions.

Penny settles herself heavily into the open chair at my end.  She has two slices of brisket on her plate, no potatoes, and a heap of steamed green beans.  She drinks red wine from a tumbler.

I’d like to feel the camaraderie, but I can’t help myself.  I’m wondering what all this costs and who’s paying the bill.

“My mother used to make a dish like this,” I say, starting my intelligence gathering by establishing common ground.  “It’s delicious.”

“Thank you.”

“The aroma has a richness that you don’t smell often.  And the flavor is nice and tomatoey — and how do you get the brisket so tender?  Is it the quality of the meat?”

“It’s not filet mignon,” Penny says, shaking her head.  “The whole point of a stew is that you can cook the bejesus out of a tough cut, and the liquid keeps it moist.”

“Oh.  That explains it.”

“He doesn’t know much about food,” Mindy says.  “His default order is hotdogs and french fries.”

“It’s economical,” I rationalize.

“Until you figure the medical bills,” the old man interjects.

Penny folds her sweater closed.

“Never mind that,” the old man says.  “Best dog I ever had was in the service.  Don’t let anyone tell you them people can’t cook in the armed forces.  Four squares a day we had when we was at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds.  Of course, when you got away from the mess tent, that was a different story.  MCI’s they called ‘em — for Meal, Combat, Individual.  Or, MCI — My Colon’s Inflamed.  That’s what a buddy of mine used to call ‘em.”

“Don’t, Cal,” says the wife.  “You’ll spoil everyone’s appetite.”

“Today they call them MRE’s — Meals Ready to Eat.  They got to tell you they’re ready to eat because you wouldn’t know otherwise.  You squeeze ‘em out of a plastic thing, I heard, like I don’t know what — brown toothpaste or something.”

“Like the astronauts eat,” Mindy says.

Cal looks at her suspiciously.  “Something like that.”

“You should be grateful to have meat,” the Indian woman says, pushing back from the table.

“Meat?  Is that what’s in that tube?  It may be protein, but I ain’t sure anyone can rightly call it meat.”

“A person can live easily off vegetables,” the woman says.  “My whole family were almost vegetarians until they came to America.  They ate chicken and fish, but that was all, and they did so infrequently.”  She stands and brushes her hair behind one ear.  “Thank you, Penny.  I must to the classes now.”

She leaves with her plate, and Cal doesn’t miss a beat.  “Worst thing we ever had out of the mess hall,” he continues, “was what they called ‘shit on a shingle.’  Even that wasn’t so bad.  Next to a MCI, I’d take it any day.”

He stabs the last bit of brisket with his fork, scrapes mashed potatoes onto it, and places it into his mouth, chewing deliberately.  He peers at me and lifts an eyebrow.

“Do I know you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You look like a guy I saw in Saigon.”

“Cal.”  His wife places a hand over his on the table and interlaces their fingers.  She smiles at me.  “My husband’s not himself anymore.  To tell you the truth, he’s getting a little senile.”

“Nobody wants to hear that,” the old man says, “least of all yours truly.”  He turns back to me.  “You sure you wasn’t in Saigon when I was there?”

“No, sir.”  I shake my head.  “I’ve never set foot in Saigon.”

“You from the north, then?  Hanoi?”

Mindy rests a hand on my forearm and pinches me gently, as my father used to do when he sensed me getting hot.  But after the day’s events, I’m feeling on an even keel.

“I’ve never been to Vietnam,” I say.

“You coulda fooled me.”

“Well, I spent my first month in the world there.  Then I was adopted by a white couple as an infant.  I grew up on Long Island, New York.”

“That’s amazing.  People go halfway around the world to find some orphan when we got our own unfortunate kids right here, starving for love.”

“Now, Cal,” Mrs. Cal warns.

It seems like a good time to clear the table.  I stand with my plate and take Mindy’s, too.

“There’s pie warm in the oven,” Penny says.  “Ice cream in the freezer.  Don’t serve the kids unless their plates are clean.”

I locate a pot holder on the counter and pull the apple pies out — there are two — and find a small spatula poking from a decorative pitcher.  In the freezer sits a large tub of Breyer’s french vanilla ice cream.  There’s a scooper in a drawer.  I wave it in the air.  “Who wants dessert?  Only if you’re finished.”

“I don’t like the green beans,” Brandon says.

“Me neither.  That’s why I didn’t take any.”

“No one gave me a choice.”

“Good point.”  We sweep them into the trash and I cover them with a paper towel, delighting in our shared subversiveness.  I serve the boy his pie.  “Next!”

As I’m finishing with the smaller kids, the teenagers file in and step up.  I serve them, too.  By the time I’m done, there’s a single sliver of pie left.  I bring it in to Mindy and return to the kitchen to eat the dregs of the ice cream from the container.

“You didn’t get any yourself.”  Letitia pouts in sympathy.

“That’s okay.  I don’t like sweets much anyway, except vanilla.”

She’s finished her pie already.  She tilts the plate and uses her spoon to scoop up the melted ice cream.  “Who are you?” she says.

“My name’s Phu.”

“Huh.  Like, if the Phu shits, wear it?”

“Hardy-har-har.  Is your name Letitia — like, give me Letitia to blow my nose?”

“I never heard that one before!”  She laughs.

“Of course not.  I just made it up.”

“Are you someone’s daddy?”

“No.”  I shake my head in slow motion.

“You should be.”

“It doesn’t seem to be my fate.”

“Mom says it doesn’t matter what faith a person is.”

“Fate, I said.  Like, meant to be.”  I turn on the faucet and pick up a scrubber.

“Oh,” says Letitia.  “We’re supposed to do that.”

“Of course.”  I shrug.  “I wouldn’t want to scar you for life by breaking the routine.”

“You’re funny,” she says.

I allow her to elbow me aside and I return to the dining room with a beer and a bottle of wine, refilling both Penny and Mindy’s glasses.  The old couple has gone.

“My apologies for Cal,” Penny says.

“That’s all right.”

“No, it isn’t, but you can’t have benevolence in your heart and then use it as a bludgeon.  I won’t, at least.”

“No worries.  I can look out for myself, if it comes to that.”

“Thank you for resisting the urge to do so.  This time.”

“He’s getting better,” Mindy says, rising.  “He hasn’t punched out anyone all week.”

“That kid Kyle still has one coming,” I say.

Mindy gathers up the remaining dirty dishes and goes to the kitchen.

“A remarkable woman that is,” Penny says after her.

I nod.  “The couch thing — and the T.V.…  After I talked to the guy at Bucky’s, the rest was one hundred percent Mindy.”

“So I figured.  She’s kind to do it all on a teacher’s salary.”

“If I can speak out of turn, Penny…Mindy’s conservative with regard to spending at home in Minnesota, so far as I can tell, and she has her finances in good order.  But I’m sure you know she doesn’t have the wherewithal to go much beyond what she’s done.  And, as for me, I’m not in a position to mix business with, er—”

“Charity.  I get it, Phu.”

“I’ve been thinking that you might be better off with one of those non-profit credit counselors.  A lot of them don’t know what they’re doing, but I can help you find a competent one.”

Penny stares for a long beat at a stray spoon on the table.  She rests a hand on her chest and looks up.  “This isn’t me, you know.”

For a moment, I think she’s talking about her weight.  It reminds me of my conversation with Mindy in the diner.  I can’t relate, but I can imagine how you get to have the rolls of flesh that hang from Penny.  You eat an extra forkful one day and look in the mirror and nothing’s changed, so you do it again the next day and the next.  On the fourth day you feel a tad lethargic.  Maybe on the fifth day you park your car a little closer to the front door for a shorter walk.  A month later, you lift your eyes to the mirror and you don’t look that much different from yesterday.  And so it goes until the time comes when you’re morbidly obese, and it may as well have happened overnight, because the prospect of clawing your way back to equilibrium is just as daunting either way.  People go broke in the same fashion.

“What I mean,” Penny says, “is that I was always the generous one.  Now I find myself relying on the generosity of others.”

“I don’t know about that.”  I spread my hands.  “It looks like you still got the touch.”

“There was always a volunteer component, if one can use that phrase, a desire to be charitable to my neighbors.  But I also once had a genuine career in public service.”

“Yeah?  What’d you do?”

“For years I worked as a social worker in a public high school.”

I gaze at her, and she sees me noticing.

“Yes,” she blinks, “I looked like this then.  I’ve been heavy most of my life.”

“That can’t have been easy in that setting.  High school, for me, was a torture chamber lined with good intentions.”

She nods again, knowingly.  “I was part of the good intentions brigade.  I helped a lot of troubled kids.  But even the stable and big-hearted ones are so insecure at that age.  They have these new tools — their bodies, their athleticism, their relationships, their vocabularies — and they’re learning how to use them to make a way in the world, to distinguish themselves from others.”

“They were mean to you, weren’t they?”

“Meaner than you can imagine, some of them.  The put-downs weren’t even clever, just—” she shakes her head.  “You couldn’t ignore them.  You tell yourself you will, that they’re just kids who are too naive to accept differences.  But what you tell yourself doesn’t make it any better.   And deep down you know they’re articulating what adults have only learned not to say aloud.”

I think of Nick Deluca and the roll of pennies.  If nothing else, it’s a wonderful irony — the penny-Penny connection — but I can’t figure out how to tell it right now.

“The cruelest cuts,” Penny says, “didn’t come from teenagers, either.  They came from above.  I worked for an outside agency that contracted me out to the school.  When I began to have health problems, after twenty years of service, my absences weren’t tolerated.  When I took more than a few sick days, it cost the agency double, because they had to pay me and my substitute both.  They didn’t like that, claimed not to have the budget, though the director was making two hundred thousand a year.  It’s a long ugly story.  They found a way to force me onto disability.”

“That’s unfair.  I’ve thought for a while that the assumptions people make about Asians constitute the last acceptable prejudice in America, if you don’t count hating lawyers and Yankees fans.  But that’s probably too narrow a view.”

“Anti-fat’s another one.  You can say whatever you want, it seems, about the large set.  People presume we brought it all on ourselves.”

I swallow with difficulty, wondering what Mindy told her.  But she isn’t going there.

“People have different metabolisms,” she continues, “just as they have different shaped eyes and different colors of skin.  I’m not going to change my body type to satisfy someone else’s view of the world.  Are you?”

I snort.  “It would be hard for me.  How many sessions on the rack would it take to make me taller?  But, at the risk of sounding like a jerk, Penny, there must have been something more that you could’ve done all these years.”

“You’re right.  You do sound like a jerk.”

Her change of tone raises my defenses.  “Well, I’m not apologizing.  I surpassed my quota for the day before I got here.”

Penny forces a smile as she fusses with a button of her sweater.  “I’m happy with my body type but not with my body.  It’s letting me down.  The stomach surgery, if I can figure out how to pay for it, scares the hell out of me.  But I have to do something to get myself back into the workforce.”

“You’ve been looking?”

“I never stopped.  The interview for me is a killer.  I walk into the room and I can almost feel the breeze as they deflate.  After that we spend an hour going through the motions.  It’s a lonely feeling.”

No wonder she surrounds herself with people — the children — who accept her so willingly.

“Was Larry’s death a surprise?”

She nods.  “From the blue.  So was the fact that he was screwing Letitia’s best friend’s mother.  The girls were in the playground down the street the day I found out.  They heard a scream.  He died in her bed.”

She gives me the hard look that I got from her in my office.  “What is it with you men?”

Before I can craft an answer, one of the small kids comes in, changed into pajamas.  “Ready for bed, Aunt Penny,” he says.  Penny’s face lights up.

“Phu’s ready for bed, too,” I say, thanking her for dinner.

“Thank you, too,” she replies.  “Thank you for bringing me Mindy.”

31.


Chuck Kendall drives the biggest whitest BMW I’ve ever seen.  It’s parked in proprietary fashion four feet from my door, nowhere near a designated spot, and I know it’s his because the Pennsylvania vanity license plate says build and there’s a miniature semi-trailer hanging from the rearview mirror with kendall supply painted on the sides.  Plus, he’s standing at my desk when I enter my office this morning.

“Door was open,” he says.

I usually lock it.  With all the disruption that Mindy’s caused to my routine, however, I might have forgotten.

“I just got here,” he says, which is about as close to an apology for the intrusion as I’m led to expect.

He’s tall with a pot belly, reddish skin, a veined bulbous nose, and a shock of white hair.  He doesn’t look too fit, but his handshake could crack Brazil nuts.

As if he’s a prospective tenant, Kendall runs a circuit around the perimeter of the office in his tan slacks and tasseled loafers.  He rubs the back of his neck.  “This the whole shooting match?”

I shrug.

“Gotta admit I expected something a bit more substantial.”

“Our new office complex won’t be ready until May.  The indoor pool, they say, is going to be killer.”  I set down a tray of coffee and a box of Dunkin’ Munchkins.  I bought extra, knowing I’d be entertaining.  “Breakfast for you?”

Kendall shakes his head.  “Just coffee.  I ate already.”  He pries the top from a styrofoam cup and pours in two containers of cream and three packets of sugar.  He draws deeply without testing for hotness, then hands me a folder, which I open, sipping my own unsweetened coffee and beginning to read.

The document he’s handed me is a personal balance sheet.  Thick as a fashion magazine, it calls to mind your average federal budget, soaked with red ink.  Chuck Kendall’s liabilities exceed his assets by about $6 million.  And that’s accepting the liberal valuation he’s assigned to the equity in his house — $14 million on paper but likely closer to a fraction of that at this juncture in the economy of the real world.  All anything’s worth, I’ve learned, is what someone is willing to pay today, and the market for lavish mansions in these parts fell through the floor months ago.

I take another sip of coffee and lick my lips.  I open the donuts and push the box toward Kendall.

“Man, I can’t resist cinnamon,” he says, stuffing three Munchkins into his large mouth in quick succession.  I grab one just to mirror him and take a bite, but the thing is so sweet that I nearly choke on it.  Go to hell, Anthony Robbins. I drop the remains in the trash beneath my desk.

“I’ll need a few days to study this,” I say, setting down the folder.

“But it doesn’t look good, does it?”

“I think you knew that already.  I’ll have to run an analysis, put some schedules together.  With a situation of this magnitude it’ll take several weeks to plot out a plan of attack.  Until then, any creditor who calls you should get the cold shoulder.  They call more than once, tell them you’re in the midst of a personal workout and give them my number.”

“You’re jumping the gun, Phu.”  He takes another long chug of his coffee.  “I haven’t hired you yet.”

“The sooner your take control of this process, the better, my friend.  But if you need more of time to get comfortable, that’s up to you.”  He may be a rich deadbeat, but a deadbeat he is, nonetheless.  The longer he waits…the more the phone rings…the more he’ll start sweating.  My name will float back to him when that happens.

Kendall crosses his legs and shakes a foot nervously, the tassels flicking back and forth.  “What I’m thinking is that this is the biggest job that ever crossed your desk.  You can try to prove me wrong, but I’m looking at a one-man show, no support staff.  I can’t have you running around for other clients at the same time.  I want you exclusively on my case.”

It’s tempting.

He reaches for the inside pocket of his blue blazer and extracts an envelope, which he presses into the top of my desk with the tips of his fingers.

“There’s ten thousand there.  Twice what we agreed.”

It’s more than tempting; it’s manna from capitalist pig heaven.

The fourth finger of Kendall’s right hand has a solid gold signet ring with some kind of crest stamped into the flat surface.  It’s hard not to notice — like the rest of him — and a message attaches to it.  I think of Terrance and his friend calling me The Man.  I think of Uncle Gunnar’s prim house swept clean and of Sergeant Buxton, trudging over to help on his rare time off.  I think of the little dead mouse, sprouting mushrooms.

When Kendall takes his hand away I push the envelope back toward him.  “I can’t do an exclusive.  I have other clients.”

“You can too,” he laughs.  “The contents of that envelope is what makes the world go round, ain’t it?  Refer your other clients to someone else.  I’m a reasonable man.  I understand that might take a day or two.  But after that I need you on my case and nothing but my case.  And the ten thousand is a downpayment.  There’s the same where that came from when you hit your first milestone.  Say, delivery of that workout plan…”

Twenty grand for three weeks effort.  Goddamn.

“I assure you, Chuck, I can keep my old clients and give you the attention you deserve.  But I can’t cut anyone loose just now.  It’d be a major setback for them.  They’re too far along on the road to financial redemption.”

He frowns and stands, taking up the envelope.  He opens it and with care counts 100 hundred-dollar bills, as if any had the chance to go missing while they sat between us.  The envelope itself?  He leaves that empty on the desk, curling like a used candy wrapper, and with about the same future.

“You think about my proposition,” he says, folding the cash and slipping it into the pocket of his slacks.  “I’d like to hire you, but it has to be exclusive.  You think about it.”

When he leaves I spill his coffee down the bathroom sink and toss the remaining donuts into the trash.  The other side of the cold-call miracle is that the prospective client has no prior connection to solidify the relationship.  It makes it easier to walk away — at least until he’s sunk the deposit.  I had it that close, literally could smell the ink of the fresh bills across my desk.  Damn damn goddamn.

Pushing the missed opportunity to the back of my mind, I return to Penny’s neighborhood for a drive-by of my No. 1 suspect in the disappearance of Uncle Gunnar.  The red plumbing van stands at the curb in front of his house.  I pull into the driveway, then think better of it and park in the street.

The walk and the front steps are plain poured concrete with few blemishes, the kind of job someone took pride in, and in this case not long ago.  Along the eaves of the house hangs icicle lighting left over from Christmas.  I press the doorbell twice and can hear a faint ding-dong.  The door has crackled glass along the top, made to look old-fashioned with lead between the panes.  It swings open and Torres is standing there wide-eyed with his hand on the knob.  I step past him into the small foyer before he can react further, hand him one of my business cards and grit my teeth.  “You dropped this.”

He accepts the card unthinkingly and let’s the front door swing closed of its own accord.

The foyer has a linoleum floor, a small wooden hall table and stippled yellow paint on the walls.  Over the table hangs a garish portrait of a man with thick lips, a pug nose and a thorny crown.  Blood drips from his forehead and his eyes have rolled back into their sockets in agony or ecstasy — or, if that’s who I think it is, both.

In the bedroom, rather than the front hall, I might accept the presence of this portrait more readily.  But public displays of things best kept private arouse deep suspicions in me.  They feel to me like demagoguery and make me wonder whether there’s a hidden agenda behind them.  My adrenaline rising, I look from Jesus Cristo to Juan Torres, resisting the urge to shove Torres in the chest.  Direct interrogation, projected with an air of authority, seems like the best approach.  But my throat is tight, my voice pitched high.  It all spews forth at once.

“What do you want with Gunnar Karlson?  What did you do with Gunnar Karlson?  Did you kill Gunnar Karlson?”

He grows agitated, as anyone might when confronted this way.  “Keel?” he says, in his heavy accent.  “I no keel nobody.  Keel?  Why keel?  Why I do this?”

“Who do you think you’re fooling?  You stole something valuable from him.  You took it out of there in a hand cart.  Then you made him disappear to cover your tracks.”

“No.”  He shakes his head.  “No.  Not this way.  No.”

His vowels are round and Latin, but he chokes this out, not breathing well.  It’s making his face red.

“Why you come here?” he says, gaping down in puzzlement at my business card, turning it over and over as if trying to distinguish heads from tails.  “Why you make this?”

His English is atrocious.  He stutters futilely, eyes darting back and forth, seeking to capture words in the ether, words that keep slipping through his net.

My eyes penetrate him, looking for revelation or, at least, a thread of enlightenment.  He’s shaking his head vigorously, saying, “No Gunnar.  No I?”

“What business do you have with him?” I press.  “We saw you at his house.  What were you fixing?”

“Nothing,” he says.  “I plumber.  Pipes.”

“You said you were fixing something there.”

“I no say that.”

“You said it.”

“Not.”

We’re getting nowhere.  I look for clues on his person, the way I did when I first saw him, taking in the steel toes that penetrate through the torn leather of his work boots, his soiled jeans, an oversize belt buckle of the Philadelphia Eagles logo.  What of that?  Even the lowest criminal in America must have sports teams of which he’s fond.

When I look up again, a short, round woman is stepping into the foyer from what appears to be the kitchen.  A nauseating waft of coriander accompanies her.  She doesn’t acknowledge me, but I have the sense that she overheard our conversation.  Agitated, she flails her hands and starts upbraiding Torres in rapid-fire Spanish.

I don’t understand the language, but I pick up names all right.  He’s calling her Clara and she’s talking about someone named Ernesto.

“What about Ernesto?” I ask.

Nothing.

“Ernesto?”  I touch Clara’s sweaty arm.  “Who’s Ernesto?”

She withdraws from me, shakes her head, turns back to Torres, and goes off again like a chittering monkey.

“Hey,” I say.  “Hey!  Who’s Ernesto?  Tell me who’s Ernesto!”  They fall silent.  “Never mind, dammit.  Has either of you heard of a guy named Albert Hubsher?”

The mention of Hubsher’s name blanches them whiter than split radishes.  Clara pauses, mutters something in Spanish, and retreats back to the kitchen.

“Hubsher?” I ask Torres again.  “Do you work for Hubsher?”

“Mister Phu, half Kennett Square work for Hubsher.  So what?”

“And you?”

“So?  So what?”

I’m getting somewhere but I’m getting nowhere.  Between trying to shimmy past his broken English and trying to snatch meaning from the Spanish, I’m suddenly feeling exhausted.  I need to regroup, return when I see how a few of the pieces fit.

“A card,” I say, pointing.  “You have a card?”

He nods his head eagerly and hands me back mine.

“No, no.  You keep that this time.  You have one that says Juan Torres?”

“Yes.  I have.”  But he doesn’t make a move.

“What kind of plumbing?  You repair things or you install things?”

“Install and fix, both.  No house.  Granjas. How you say, commercial.”

“Commercial buildings.”

“Yes.  No.  Granjas. Agricultural.  Greenhouses, like that.”

“For Hubsher?”

He shrugs.  “Todos.  Todos.”

All.  All. I can’t figure out whether he means he works for everyone or everyone works for Hubsher.

He nods eagerly.  “But you need, you call me.  I come.”

“I don’t have a greenhouse.  You can repair a toilet?”

“No.  Not usual.  But for you.”  Torres thrusts out a lower lip, as if he’s decided something important in my favor.

He’s making nice.  I know that game well enough.  But I also know that I’ve failed to crack him an inch.

 

32.

 


Dirk, my analyst pal, calls me at the office.  “You rang, master?”

“Cut the crap.  Only Master around here has two overlapping circles and resides in my wallet.”

He chuckles.  “Greatest scam ever invented.  Double-digit interest, not counting the late fees.  I’m surprised a man of your caliber would allow himself to be so easily played.”

“You need the damn things to get assigned a good credit rating.  It’s like first having to have cancer in order to get a clean bill of health at the doctor’s office.  Anyway, I carry no balances.  I use it for emergencies only.”

“Me — I’m a point collector.  American Express Centurion.  Carbon.”

“It’s made of aluminum, actually.”

“Yeah?  Whatever the hell it is, it’s thick and stiff and I’m signed up for the jet leasing program.  Ever fly private, Phu?”

“It’s safer to go commercial.”

“That’s your problem, see.  You’re too hung up on the mechanics.  Me, I’m into the fun.  You can bet that guy you called me about is the same, the difference being that he doesn’t have to go sharesies like I do, has his own wings and only invites his closest friends.  Come to think of it, he probably doesn’t share much of anything.  Probably he’s got one flaming hot woman exclusively to suck the right testicle and a whole other set of luscious lips to suck on the left.”

That isn’t a subject I cotton to right now.  I reflexively pull the last of my licorice from a coat pocket and begin gnawing.  “So you looked up Hubsher for me?”

“For the ten-thousand-foot view I don’t have to.  He’s a legend.  They say when he came to ring the bell on the exchange, there was more money in the balcony than any time since Sam Walton visited.  Of course, that was a while ago.  Now, I hear, he keeps a lower profile.”

“How do you mean?”

“He’s not seen much in the corridors of power.  He has his minions.”

“So he’s retired — resting on his laurels?”

“I didn’t say that.  He’s just more secretive about how he goes about things.  You have to remember, these guys get to a certain size and every belch they make can move the markets.  They want to buy low but everyone’s buying alongside them, running up the price, queering the deal.  If they’re still as greedy as when they started, they get to a point where they have to use more stealth.  I think that’s where your friend Hubsher is at.  He’s been operating under the radar the past couple of years.”

“Maybe he’s just enjoying himself.  Does Forbes have his net worth right?”

“Who can say?  They only list what they can count, I believe.  A big slug of his fortune’s public, for sure, so they must have that part correct.  His Triple Fidelity Health business made him a billionaire, the stock trades near it’s all-time high despite the Great Recession, and he still controls forty percent of the shares outstanding.  The dividend payouts alone could provide him a black card every three days.”

You have to spend a quarter million dollars a year to carry a black Amex, I’m told.  Every three days means he’s taking in $30 million per year just in payouts from the health company.  “Makes you look like a pauper, eh, Dirk?”

“Man, if I had his money I’d throw mine away.  He’s said to be an actuarial genius, a real numbers guy, and ruthless, which is a helluva combination.  His company pays fewer claims than smaller outfits half the size.  Guess who pockets the difference?  And it doesn’t stop there.  He takes positions in low-margin industries and turns his plays into high-margin businesses through the law of large numbers.  In other words, he grows his efficiencies twice as fast as he drops his prices.”

“What’s his latest deal?”

“He’s in the process of rolling a bunch of funeral homes into a national chain.”

Funeral homes? This news makes me snicker.  “Kill ‘em with denied claims, then charge for the burial.  That’s what I call vertical integration.”

“You got that right.”

“What’s he doing for an encore, syndicating heaven?”

“Yeah, the Saint Peter Company.  Time shares.  Seriously, I told you he had a pair of balls.  You want me to email the research on him?”

“Not unless it includes a home phone number.”

“You’re dreaming if you think that’s readily available.”

“I get the picture well enough, then.”

“Come out to visit me in the Hamptons this summer.  Alberta sleeps late.  The kids spend mornings with tennis and golf lessons.  You and me, we’ll play chess on the beach, watch the babes go by.”

I lean back in my squeaky chair and put my feet up.  “I’ll think about it when the weather warms.  I’m up to my ears in work lately.”

“Tough being a small businessman, huh?”

Did he put the emphasis on “small”?

“Thanks for the info, Dirk.”

“I’ll be in Hong Kong the rest of the week.  You need anything else, reach out on my Blackberry.”

“Aces, pal.  Aces.”

Well, Dirk’s an asshole, but he’s my asshole.  He didn’t add anything I wouldn’t have suspected, but he confirmed my sense that, if Hubsher has chosen to pull strings on the Uncle Gunnar deal, he certainly can buy all the friends he needs to play the marionettes.  But motive — why would the guy bother?

There’s another possibility, of course, the possibility that I’ve tried several times to impress upon Mindy, the possibility that Albert Hubsher has no idea that one of his companies is muscling old man Gunnar out of his house.  But no matter, Mindy would argue.  Even if Hubsher isn’t exercising that muscle directly, he’s certainly the source of its power.

When lunchtime arrives, I take a ride for a few blocks and saunter into the McDonald’s where Terrance works in North Wilmington.  While we were playing hoops he let slip his schedule, so I know that he gets off school early today and catches a full afternoon-evening shift, noon to eight.

I step into line and order two Quarter Pounders, large fries and a large vanilla shake.  It mystifies me why McDonald’s doesn’t sell hot dogs.

Terrance is in the food preparation area, puttering about in his paper cap.  I try to catch his eye, but if he’s spotted me he isn’t letting on.

I sit down at a table for two, set the stopwatch on my iPhone and lay it down on the plastic tray.  It takes me 2:56 to consume the first hamburger — nearly twice what it requires to down a hot dog.  You call that fast food?  No wonder McDonald’s only sells sausages shaped like disks.  They must want their customers to linger longer than they let on.  I guess it increases the odds that people will get that hankering for dessert and go for the add-on purchase.

Terrance has come out into the dining area to process the discarded trays and check on the trash bins.  He’s concentrating so hard on his work that he has to be ignoring me.  Sure enough, when his head swings around in my direction I give a wave and he turns away.  Typical teenage shit.

“Yo, Terrance!” I call, so he can no longer play dumb.  “Over here!”

If he weren’t so big, he’d crawl under a table.  Instead, he takes the dirty trays and retreats through a service door.

I finish my lunch, toss my tray, and sit back down, catching glimpses of him by the by.  Finally — probably on instructions from the manager — he comes out with a rag in his hand and begins wiping tabletops.  It takes him a dog’s age to work his way to mine.

“Man, what choo doing here, Phu?”

“What people do in restaurants.  Eating.”

“You got nothing in front of you.”

“I finished an hour ago.”

“Then go.  You loitering.  You embarrassing me.”

“Okay.  I didn’t mean to.”  But really I don’t care about that.  Like any adult on this subject, I’m more amused than sympathetic.  Nobody at all seems to have noticed us talking, anyway, not even Terrance’s friends behind the counter, who are busy filling orders.

I stand to go as Terrance begins spraying and wiping my table.  When he has it dry, I drop a five-dollar bill in the middle and make like I’m beginning to walk away.

He taps me on the shoulder.  “What’s that, man?  You don’t tip at McDonald’s.”  He picks up the bill and extends it to me.

I push it back at him.  “Listen, it’s not for nothing.  I need a favor.”

Terrance eyes me suspiciously.  “What kind of favor?  I’m working.”

“There’s a guy who may know something about Mindy’s uncle’s disappearance.  His name’s Juan Torres, a plumber who drives a red van.  You ever heard of him?”

“Un uh.”

“He lives around the corner from you, as it happens.  Maybe you and your friend Kyle can keep an eye on his house for me, let me know if you see anything suspicious going down.”

Terrance’s hand is still extended with the five-dollar bill dangling from it.  “You shitting me?”

“I couldn’t be more serious.”

“I’m gonna go stand out in the cold in my spare time, freezing my ass off — for this?”  He shakes the bill, stiffens it over his middle finger, and points with the other hand to Abraham Lincoln.  “Maybe you ain’t heard.  This dude with the portrait on here, he freed the slaves!”

I look from side to side.  Still no one watching.  “Hell, Terrance.  This isn’t about the dough.  The money’s a token.”

“A token of what — exploitation?”

“Gee, I thought you’d do this for Mindy, your good pal who you’re inclined to buy flowers for and all.”

“Maybe I would, but she ain’t asking.  Plus, I gotta hire Kyle to help and he’s not as altruistic as your average loser.”

“How much then?”

“A hundred a week.”

“A hundred!  I thought we were friends.”

“We is friends, but this is business.”

“I only have sixty on me.”

“I’ll take it as a downpayment.”

I dig three crumpled twenties from my pocket — my last twenties — with appropriate reluctance.  Terrance accepts them, along with the Torres address.

“It’s a white house,” I say, “and comes with a wife, maybe kids, too, for all I know.  Don’t mess with him or any of them.  Just call me if you see anything suspicious.”  I pause.  “What about my five?”

Terrance looks at me.

“C’mon, kid.  Gimme back my five.”

“Naw.”  He shakes his head.  “Service charge.”

 

33.


This time, Mindy and I hit West Chester during normal business hours, when parking spots prove hard to find.  We wend our way nearly to the top of the municipal garage in my Mini and ride down to the street in a stainless steel elevator.  Mindy wears an off-white low-cut silk blouse and snug wool slacks — yet another outfit I haven’t seen.  It’s no wonder she didn’t leave Minneapolis right after opening Uncle Gunnar’s foreclosure notice.  She must have been packing for days.

We enter the Justice Center through the front door and find our way along wide corridors to the sheriff’s office, where a man in shirtsleeves and a bad tie stands behind the high institutional counter.

“Help you?” he asks, but with calculated standoffishness.

“We’re interested in a house in Kennett Square that’s undergoing foreclosure proceedings.”

“Block and lot number?”  He eyes Mindy.

I shake my head without speaking, to force his attention on me, and he looks disappointed — by the news or the change in scenery, I don’t know.

“An address will do,” he concedes.  “I can look up the rest.”

We provide the information and he goes back to a desk and settles into a chair before a computer screen that’s facing away from us.  He taps some keys and stares, tap-tap-taps, stares, tap-taps.  Waits.  Stares.  It’s either the slowest computer in America or he’s allowing his mind to wander.

I take a look around.  Along one wall there’s a big bulletin board with notices and advertisements posted on it, some with tear-off stubs.  The more colorful ones you can read at ten paces, information about federal regulations and employee rights and how this work site has gone 287 days without an accident.  No surprise there.  At the rate this clerk’s moving he’ll take a hundred days just to give himself a paper cut.

Most of the bulletin board, however, is covered in broadsheets printed with columns of agate type.  I saunter over.  The heading reads:

Chester County, Pennsylvania

Sheriff Sale of Real Estate

CONDITIONS OF SALE

There’s a block of text below that, which reads, in part: “Conditions of sale of all the estate, right, title and interest of the above named defendant in and to the following described real estate, viz.: be the same, more or less, with the appurtenances, exposed to public sale…”  Viz.? When was the last time you heard someone say “viz.”?  There’s more like that, much more, but at that point my eyes glaze over.  I blink twice and refocus.

Below the prefatory information falls an index, listing by borough, city or township the location of said real estate, and beside that the name of the poor sods who are losing their homes or investments.  Farther down still, they appear in detail, listed with a complex sale number, then the words “Writ of Execution” with another complex number, then the amount of debt in dollars, and finally the description of the property in more mumbo-jumbo.  To wit: “ALL THAT CERTAIN tract of ground, situate in East Nottingham Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, bounded and described according to a survey…”  Etc.  Also: “ALL THAT CERTAIN lot of land, hereditaments and appurtenances, on which is located the north house of a block of two brick dwelling houses, designated as No. 163 South First Avenue…”  Etc., etc.  And also: “ALL THAT CERTAIN lot or piece of ground, with the buildings and improvements thereon erected, situate in Tredyffrin Township, Chester County…”  Etc., etc., etc.    And is it any wonder that the words “legal” and “thicket” so often appear in the same sentence?

The clerk clears his throat and begins reading a number aloud.

“Excuse me,” Mindy says.  “How am I supposed to memorize that?”

“You could write it down,” he suggests.

“You didn’t give me a chance to get a pen.”

He begins again.

“Hold on,” says Mindy, digging through her giant off-white purse.

I tear a piece of paper from one of the ads on the bulletin board and hand it to Mindy just as she finds her pen.

The clerk sighs and reads the block and lot number aloud for a third time, more slowly, and Mindy gets it down.

“What do we do with that?” she says.

“Read it back to me and I’ll look it up, see what the status is.”

She reads it and he taps the keys, neither of us daring to ask why he didn’t write it down himself if it was for his own use.

I take the paper from Mindy and slip it into my pocket.  “For safe keeping,” I say.

The clerk peers at his screen.  “Hmm.  Yes.  The sheriff has served a writ of execution.”

“What does that mean?” Mindy says.

“It means,” I explain, “that the sheriff will be listing the property for sale.”  I turn to the clerk, who has risen from his chair and faces us again across the high counter.  “But how could the writ be served?  We happen to know that the owner has been unreachable for weeks.”

“There was a default judgment.”  He fingers his tie.  “Notice was served by constructive notice, published in a newspaper of general circulation and in the county legal publication, as per statute.”

“Shit,” I say.  “Constructive notice.  I hadn’t thought of that.  When’s the sale?”

“Third Thursday of every month,” the clerk says.  “Downstairs in one of the courtrooms.”

“So it’s, like, in two weeks?”

“Third Thursday of every month.”

“This particular parcel is slated for sale?”

“Third Thursday of every month.”

I go to the bulletin board and check the index.  There it is: “Borough of Kennett Square.”  The defendant is Gunnar Karlson.  Referenced to Page 23.

“Page twenty-three,” I say aloud, running my finger from one broad sheet to another, searching it out.

“That page isn’t up there,” the clerk says.  “There are so many listings these days we can’t get them all on the bulletin board.  Here’s the booklet.  House copy.  You can’t remove it.”  He slides it to me across the counter.  While I’m looking it up, he ogles Mindy with a thinly disguised smirk.

I flip through the well-worn pages.  “It’s there all right.  Plaintiff: Triple Fidelity Mortgage Company.  Thursday after next.”  I note to myself the loan balance: $74,893.37.

“We have to stop it,” Mindy says.

“You know the defendant?” the clerk asks.

“He’s my uncle.  There’s also the matter of his things.”

“His things?”

“His furniture and whatnot.  Where would we find that?”

“How would I know?”

“Is the sheriff in?”

“No, she isn’t.”

She? Mindy and I react the way most outsiders must.  A glint comes into the clerk’s eyes as he watches us adjusting our expectations.

“The sheriff doesn’t wear a white ten-gallon hat or carry a six-shooter, either, and she cannot help you with matters regarding personal property.  It says here that the mortgagee is in possession of the property.  Have you checked with them?”

“They’re stonewalling us,” I say as tears of frustration brim Mindy’s eyelids.  She dabs them with a tissue.

“Aw, that’s a pity,” the clerk says.  But he appears to be unmoved.

“But—” Mindy begins.

I pull her away, not bothering to argue.  Some things you can talk your way around, I’ve learned, but not county bureaucrats in bad ties.

As soon as we’re out on the sidewalk, I turn to Mindy, who’s already stopped sniffling.  “That turned out to be an insightful visit.  Next stop, Iron Man Storage.”

“What’s that?”

I fish the slip of paper from my pocket and hold it up.  “On one side: Uncle Gunnar’s lot and block number, courtesy of the douche bag behind the counter.  On the other side: the address for Iron Man Storage, courtesy of the bulletin board.  I’m laying better than fifty-fifty odds that they have your uncle’s stuff.”

“How do you figure?”

“They’re working the sheriff’s office, which means they’re probably soliciting business from all the lenders doing foreclosures in Chester County.  And in my experience, when there’s local contracts to be let, they tend to go to a few companies or even a single one that specializes.  It’s easier for everyone that way.”

“So you think they’re working for Triple Fidelity just because they posted a flyer?”

“Not just because.  But while you were busy distracting the clerk with your cleavage, I noticed that Triple Fidelity is plaintiff on maybe fifteen percent of the claims in there.  They’re not flipping through the phone book when they need to empty out a house.  I bet they’re using the same vendor over and over, the one that’s readily at hand.”

“Sounds good, but—”  Mindy pouts.  “I wasn’t distracting the clerk with my cleavage.”

I pause with my hands on my hips.

“I wasn’t,” Mindy says.  “Not on purpose, anyway.”

“Whatever.”

“You have a one-track mind.”

“Forget it.  I’m out of line.”

“It’s cute in its way.”

“I’m glad I could flatter you.”

“It’s better than your attitude when we first met.  I guess that’s what I mean.”

“Again: I was out of line.  I’m—”

I clamp my mouth shut as we step into the elevator.  Two minutes later, we’re in the car, winding down the garage ramp.  Fifteen minutes later, we’re pulling into the parking lot of Iron Man Storage on Route 3.  We climb out of the car and I stop.

“I’m going to have to say something misleading in there, you know.”

Mindy bites her lower lip.

“The only chance we have here is to use deception.  Can you go along?”

She blinks twice and nods.  God help me.

“Okay.  Pay careful attention to everything I say.  The less said, the better.  Don’t contradict me, whatever you do.”

“Got it.”

There’s a young man behind the counter, rangy and red haired with pimples on his cheeks and forehead.  He’s wearing a name tag that says, “Adam, Asst. Manager.”

As we approach him I take out my iPhone and thumb the screen, as if I’m searching for something.  “Yeah,” I say without lifting my eyes, before he has a chance to greet us.  “I’m looking for the assistant manager.  A guy named Adam.”

“That’s me,” he says, amazed by the coincidence.

“You’re Adam?”

“You bet.”

“Can I see some I.D.?”

It doesn’t take much effort to find it.  He’s wearing a badge on his belt.  He gives it to me and I study it like it’s the Rosetta Stone.

“Is there a problem?” he asks.

I hand the I.D. back to him.  “We’re from the Triple Fidelity Mortgage Company office.  I’m Joseph Major and this is Rachel, my secretary.  She made a massive clerical error and she’s going to lose her job if we don’t straighten it out in the next, like, five minutes.”

“Yes,” Mindy says.  “I feel terrible about everything.  It’s that man from the house in Kennett Square.  I failed to retrieve some papers and it could cost Mr. Hubsher thousands of dollars.”

“Mr. Hubsher?”

“Do you know him?  He’s very serious.”

“I never heard of him,” the young man says.  He seems sincere to me.

“Hubsher’s the owner of our company,” I explain.  “You could look it up, but we don’t have the time.    Rachel, what number’s the storage unit?”

“I— I don’t know.”

“You didn’t bring it?”

“I forgot.”

“For crying out loud!”  I turn to Adam.  “You see what I’m dealing with?  Do you think she deserves to keep her job after this bullshit?”

“I don’t know.  Everyone makes mistakes.”

“Sure, but this is, like, the fifth time this week for her.  How much more can I put up with?”

“A little more,” Mindy says.  “Please, Mr. Major.”

I roll my eyes at Adam.  “I don’t have time.  I gotta get back to the office.  Listen, our guys delivered a houseful of stuff to storage a couple of days ago.  You know what shipment I’m talking about?  Belongings of a Mr. Gunnar Karlson.”

“I don’t know.  We don’t do personal names on corporate accounts.”

“Of course not.  That was my way of testing you.  I’m sorry.  As we like to say at Triple Fidelity: fidelity…but verify.  How many lockers do we have here at present?”

“I can look it up.”

“Just tell me which lockers you loaded with our stuff this week.  I’m told you’ll have a record of that.”

“Sure.  I got a record of everyone who comes and goes.  Let’s see…”  He taps through the computer.  Where would we be without the tapping of computer keyboards today?

He looks up.  “Only one load in the past two weeks.  It’s room 329.  Third floor.”

“Oh, goody!” Mindy exclaims.

“Her job may be saved,” I tell the young man.  “But only if I find what I’m looking for.”

“Please, Mr. Major.  I got kids.”

“You shoulda thought about that before you fucked up, Rachel.  I presume, after all this, you remembered the key, at least.”

Before Mindy’s head is half shook, Adam’s sympathies have overwhelmed him.

“We have a spare,” he says, opening a shallow cabinet hanging behind the desk.

“Thank God,” Mindy says.

“You’ll have to sign in, though,” says Adam.

“Sure, no problem.”  We eagerly take up the pen, and the kid’s so flustered now that he fails to ask for identification.  Or maybe he’s always this credulous.

“You need a cart, Mr. Major?”

“No, thanks.”  I press the elevator button.

Mindy steps in and I stand silently as the doors slide closed.  Then she turns to me, grinning.  “Golly.  You fooled him so easily.”

“That was nothing.”  But the truth is, I’m feeling back in practice with my verbal skills, and proud of it.  “You were no slouch yourself.”

“Mr. Major!” Mindy exclaims.

“I always wanted a military rank,” I whisper, “so long as I could have one without having to serve.”

“I like it,” she giggles.

“Shh.  We should keep our voices down.”

It’s a modern storage facility, clean and climate-controlled.  We step out onto the third floor and follow signs to the locker, motion detectors throwing on fluorescent lights ahead of our path, like something out of Star Trek.

“See the cameras?” I say.  “They’re on every corner.  If Adam comes to his senses and calls someone we’re in big trouble.  We’ll have to move fast.  Look for what clues we can find in, say, five minutes and get the hell out.”

We draw to a stop at Locker 329.  Mindy brushes the hair from her eyes and frowns as I slide the key with little effort into the heavy padlock.

 

34.


The door to the storage room was made of some kind of cheap tinny metal, once painted a pristine milky white but now scuffed and dented.  It creaks wickedly when we open it, and overhead lights tick on, revealing a forest of Uncle Gunnar’s possessions, piled nearly to the drop ceiling, creating deep shadows in places.  I had expected a big mess, everything strewn about willy-nilly and maybe even some of it broken, but in fact his things seem to have been treated with great care.  The furniture is piled with the heaviest pieces on bottom, and smaller items now reside in cardboard boxes bearing the Iron Man Storage logo but otherwise unmarked.  Still, the small room is chock full, with barely space to walk.

“Oh, gosh.”  Mindy hesitates at the threshold and sucks a deep breath.

“We’d better get started.”

I enter ahead of her, clambering over couches and around stacked chairs to access towers of boxes in the back.  By the time I can twist myself around to look, Mindy has a throw pillow tucked under one arm and has removed the lid to a cardboard box.  She’s digging through, relocating random tchotchkes to see what’s beneath.

“What exactly do you suppose we’re looking for, Phu?”

“Exactly?  I don’t know.  Any sign of foul play.  Or anything that might indicate where Uncle Gunnar has gotten himself to.”

We dig around for a few minutes, sort of aimlessly.  It’s hard to get one’s bearings with things having been arranged to minimize storage space rather than by room of the house.  So the bedroom and living room things are intermingled, for example, boxes of bathroom toiletries interspersed among boxes of clothing and boxes of dining utensils, and so on.  At a glance, however, all of the man’s things seem present and accounted for, down to a carton of kitchen spices wrapped in aluminum foil and the set of Venetian glasses from the bureau in his bedroom, floating in a crateful of packing peanuts.  After more careful observation, though, a couple of exceptions become apparent.  Mainly, one of the matching terrariums seems to be missing.  Up against a side wall, atop a desk, rests the one that remains.  I peer inside, looking for the dead mouse, but this is the other tank, filled with nothing but fungus and growth medium.  Perhaps, I theorize, someone noticed the rotting mouse and didn’t want it to stink up the place.

Mindy must see me puzzling this out.  She sets down her pillow.  “What did you find?”

“Nothing.  Only a little weird.  A tankful of mushrooms…”  It would seem stranger, I’ll admit, if I hadn’t already familiarized myself with this item at Uncle Gunnar’s house.

Mindy looks intrigued rather than surprised.  She squeezes in next to me and bends over as best she can in the tight space.  “I think…”  She trails off.

The mushrooms, I notice, have begun to shrivel from lack of water.  Mindy lifts off the glass top and slides it aside.  An odor rises from the tank, earthy and fetid.

“They’re psilocybin,” she says.  “Magic mushrooms.”

“What makes you think so?”

She reaches in and firmly pokes a cap and the bruise she leaves behind almost instantly turns an eerie blue.  “See that?  That proves it.”

I’d like to ask how she knows this, but instead I look at my watch.  We’ve already gone over time and discovered nothing of value.  I turn to the nearest box and resume digging, finding nothing of use to us, just some shoes and one of those thermoses from the floor of Uncle Gunnar’s closet.  I open another box and another, sorting through more useless stuff, the detritus of a life.

“Aha,” Mindy says.

“What?”

“Looks like a box of his records.”

“Let me see.”

Uncle Gunnar is well organized.  He’s labeled all the file folders in block type: electric, insurance, taxes, vacation.  “What have we here.”  I open the file.  The first thing on top is the receipt for a thousand-dollar deposit received three months ago.  The name of the hotel is Mt. Bergemont Lodge in the Poconos.  “Got it!” I cry.

“Yes!” Mindy erupts.

It occurs to me, of course, that if we’d searched the house better the first time we’d have saved ourselves a heap of trouble over the past week.  But the important thing is that we now have an address and a phone number.

Mindy turns and begins cleaning up the mess we’ve made of Uncle Gunnar’s things.

“We’ve no time for that,” I say.  “We gotta get going.”

But I pause over the box of shoes, looking at the stainless steel thermos again.  There were five or six of these, I’m sure, on the floor of Uncle Gunnar’s closet.  You’d think they’d all end up in the same box, so I’m assuming someone lifted the others.  But why?  A bunch of coffee thermoses seems like an odd thing to steal, I think.  On the other hand, people are sleaze.  It’s a wonder more stuff isn’t missing.

The top to the thermos appears to be loose.  With Mindy still blocking my path from the storage room, I stuff the hotel receipt into my back pocket and absent-mindedly pick up the thermos and pull off the cap.  That’s when I discover it isn’t a thermos at all.  It’s an atomizer.  I point it toward the wall and depress the button.

Pfft. The last bit of gas goes in a fraction of a second.  I crinkle my nose and inhale cautiously: eau de mushroom.  Gross! I drop the atomizer back into the box.

“Let’s get out of here, Mindy.”

We lock up and ride the elevator down in anxious silence, eager to explode over our breakthrough.  Adam’s still sitting alone at the front counter, talking on the phone.  I place the key in front of him and give him a wave in stride and we hit the parking lot.

When we’re a mile up the road, I pull over.

“Wow!” Mindy says.  “That was cool.”  She reaches out her arms and embraces me.

“Wow,” I concur, the squeeze lingering for a second longer than I might expect.

I slip the paper from my pocket and dial the hotel on my cell phone.  It rings and rings.  My hand drops to my thigh.

“What happened?”  Mindy tilts her head.

“No one picked up.  I’ll try again.”

But the phone just rattles off the hook.

I bite a thumb cuticle, feeling a headache coming on.

“We’ll have to go there,” Mindy says.

“Absolutely,” I reply with mixed conviction.  Just then I experience a moment of dizziness — not characteristic for me.  I close my eyes and grip the corners of my bucket seat.  The vertigo passes, but my head has begun pounding at the temples.  The stress of this little adventure is catching up with me.

We ride to Penny’s without speaking much, and I watch Mindy to the front door.  She’s looking a little wobbly herself, for some reason.  Once she’s inside, I take out the phone and try the lodge a third time.  Twenty-eight rings — I count — and no answer.  The tops of my eyeballs are pounding.  I massage my temples and brow ridge, then shift into gear and head for home.

By the time I’m done packing an overnight knapsack, the headache has begun to wear off.  Half an hour later, I’m back in front of Penny’s house, tooting the horn.  Mindy comes out carrying an embroidered satchel reminiscent of Mary Poppins.  She’s changed into a ribbed white cotton turtleneck with a serious cling quotient.

At long last I’d like to ask whether she owns a bra.  I mean, c’mon already!  If I did ask, her nipples could practically etch the answer on a tin plate.  Instead I say, “That’s what you’re wearing?”

She tosses her carpet bag onto the back seat.  “What’s it to you?”

“The Poconos isn’t Delaware, that’s what.  You’ll catch your death of cold in that getup.”  Even as I’m saying this, I’m aware that I sound too much like my mother.  “I don’t wanna have to take you to the hospital for frostbite.”

Mindy pulls the door closed and raises her chin in defiance.  “For your information, I did bring a jacket.”  From the back seat she produces some garment that’s best described as a windbreaker.

I point to my own coat, a parka worthy of Ernest Shackleton.

“We’re not the same,” Mindy proclaims.  “My family is one hundred percent Scandinavian.  You — I’m guessing tropical genes.”

“No one can resist a generalization.”

“You can’t deny your genes, Phu.  Some of us are just built different from others.”

“I’ll say.”

“There’s nothing wrong with it.”

I depress the clutch and shift into first gear to end the conversation.  Before I head for the highway, though, we cruise over to Creamy Dreamy.  The store is empty of customers when we enter, Tabitha leafing through paperwork behind the counter.  I realize, by the bemused look on her face, that it’s the first time she’s seen me and my client together in the same room.

“Hey, Brad!  Look who the cat dragged in.”

“There’s no call for levity,” I warn, before she goes further.  “We found an address for Uncle Gunnar in the mountains.”

“Sweet,” Brad says, wiping his good hand on an apron as he comes in.

“I presume you two know each other,” I say, looking from him to Mindy.

“Sure,” Brad says.  “Saw her the other day.  How’d that cake go over?”

“They loved it,” Mindy says.

“What’d you expect?”  I rest an elbow on the counter.  “They’re kids.  They’ll eat anything with sugar.”

“So what’re you gonna do — now that you’ve got an address?” Tabitha asks.

“We’re going to run up there, check it out.”

“You taking the cop with you?”

I shake my head.  “He’s tied up on a case and it’s the wrong state.  Besides, there are still too many open questions.  The old man could be fine, for all we know, and we hope he is, of course.”

Mindy fights to mask the worry on her face.  I quickly add, “Maybe he just got held up and plans to leave any day now.”

“Sure,” Brad says under his breath.

“He’s a little bit of an odd duck,” Mindy allows.  “We’ll drop in, make sure he’s all right, then explain the situation with his house and how we can straighten it out.”

Tabitha nods as if she wants to believe.  She clears her throat.  “You’ll need sustenance for the journey.  Chocolate.  A few cookies.  Maybe a small tart.”  She’s in motion behind the counter as she says this, dropping treats randomly into a brown bag.

“Thanks,” Mindy says, producing a wallet from her purse in record time.  “How much?”

“Forget it,” Tabitha says.  “We’ll put it on Phu’s tab.”

I feel helpless to resist that suggestion, given the circumstances.  With an inkling of foul play hovering in the background, I take a blank from Tabitha’s pile of scratch paper and copy down the information for the Bergemont Lodge.

“Listen, not that we’re expecting any trouble, but if you don’t hear from us in twelve hours or so, contact Sergeant Buxton and let him know where we went.  Okay?”

Tabitha agrees almost too readily.  I wish I hadn’t noticed that, but at least, unlike Uncle Gunnar, we’re leaving behind more than a forwarding address.

 

35.


We depart Wilmington in the late afternoon under an ominous overcast.  The trip should take three hours, but at dusk snowflakes start whirling in my headlights.  By the time we reach Allentown, the road is white but for two gray stripes down the right lane, and I hear the Mini’s engine groaning, “I think I can…I think I can.”  At least, that’s what I hope it’s saying.  The defroster is blowing hot air in our faces, creating a cold draft by our feet, and chunks of compacted snow have built up where the windshield wipers don’t reach.  Mindy seems oblivious to the fact that the car is either sliding to and fro like a kid in stockinged feet or straining to clamber through the ruts made by larger vehicles.

At the risk of sounding whiney, I say, “Maybe we should pull off at the next sign of a rest stop.”

“It’ll only get worse if we wait.”  Mindy shakes her head with vigor.  “You want me to drive?”

I consider.  “Nah.  We’ll press on.  Help me watch out for trouble, though.”

Truth be told, we don’t get much snow in Wilmington, and when we do I usually work from home.  My tires are “all weather,” which I believe is car-guy code for, “don’t leave the garage during inclement conditions before May.”  Here it is, early February, and as the fallen snow thickens, I sense the wheels laboring below the undercarriage.

Fortunately, after twenty minutes of this torture, we see flashing amber lights, and three giant plows pull in front of us, staggered.  Glued to the right lane, I ride the tail of the trailing plow, his sand and salt spitting into my wheel wells, producing something like the sound of sleet falling, but far more encouraging.  I let out a breath.

Mindy says, “Long trips always remind me of my father.”

“Coach Put Your Shoulder Into It?”

“Yes.  That one.  Almost every summer we’d hit the road.  To California, the Pacific Northwest, the Grand Canyon, New York City, the Ozark mountains.  We planned to trace the course of the Mississippi one summer.  He and Mom were fighting, though.  We never got farther than Dubuque.”

“Iowa?  I think of the Mississippi as a southern river.”

“Don’t be silly.  It starts not far from where I grew up in Minnesota.  The headwaters are at Lake Itasca.  You didn’t know that?”

“I’m more of a coastal guy.  I’ve never set foot in the Midwest.”

“You’ll come visit me one day.  I’ll show you around the land of a thousand lakes.  We’ll take a nice hike, saddle up some black flies.”

“What?”

“My father used to say that the black flies in Minnesota are so big you can put a saddle on them.”

“Gee, that’s appealing.  Did he suggest that as a slogan for the tourist board?”

“He wasn’t slick like—”  She stops herself.

“Like what?  Slick like me, you were going to say.”

“Yes.  But I meant it in a good way.  My dad didn’t have any polish or finesse.  He just bulled his way through life.  I guess it works on the football field or when you need to pitch a tent in the rain.  Not such a great trait if you’re raising a houseful of girls.”

“You hated him, didn’t you?”

“No.  I’m not a hater.”

“You had only sisters?  How many?”

“Two.  Bernice lives in Chicago.  Lorisa moved a couple of years ago to Dutch Harbor, Alaska.”

“The Aleutians?  Man, that’s remote.  You girls don’t mind the cold, I see.”

“Watch out!”

A pickup swerves onto the highway from the right and I slam the brakes and downshift.  I can feel and hear the anti-locks snapping rapid-fire under the pedal, but there’s nothing for the tires to grab and we spin and glide nearly sideways for maybe fifty yards.  The moment feels like infinity, like the only thing that’ll stop us is the pickup now a foot from my left headlight or, worse, the plow in front of him.  I see us being decapitated by the salt spreader bin, but then our tires catch and we’re back in line.

“Jesus fuck all!  That guy almost killed us.”

“Oh,” Mindy says blithely.  “That wasn’t so bad.”

I’d stare her down, but driving under these conditions requires all my concentration.

The pickup leaves the highway at the next exit.  I consider laying the horn on him, but I’m afraid to remove my hands from the wheel.  I’m in first position behind the plow again, however, and the snow seems to be backing off some.

“Phew!  That’s better.”

“You’re too uptight,” Mindy says.  “You need to lighten up.”

“Lighten up how?  We almost went into a death spiral back there.”

“You’re strangling the wheel so hard your knuckles are white.  You’ll oversteer that way.  And quit tapping the brake all the time.”

With the white stuff all around, she’s morphed from an ingenue into a know-it-all.  Maybe she feels more at home or maybe she’s flush with optimism over closing in on Uncle Gunnar.  Either way, I’m not sure I like it.

“Here’s something I’m wondering, Min.  Those magic mushrooms in Uncle Gunnar’s terrarium…how did you know how to identify them?”

“I told you.  They bruise blue.”

“Yeah.  But, I mean, how did you know a fact like that?”

“It’s common knowledge.”

“No.  It’s not like something you learn in elementary school or from your grandmother.  ‘Here’s how you bake a batch of cookies, dear.  And, by the way, if you see a mushroom in the grocery store and it bruises blue, don’t eat it until you get home.  It’ll blow your mind.’  Get serious!”

“If you must know, it wasn’t Grandma, but close.  Uncle Gunnar taught me.”

“Hmm.”  I pull my lower lip.  “So the fungus in the fish tank was no accident?  Psychedelic mushrooms are one of his interests?”

“He turned me on now and then.”

“Turned you on?  As in, provided you with psychedelic trips?”

“You might put it that way.  Sometimes he’d explain what he knew, too, the chemistry and such.  Most of it went over my head, but the bruises — how could you forget that blue.”

“It’s a spooky color.”

“Uncle Gunnar had a name for it.  He called it cadaver blue.”

“Did he introduce them to you?”

“I tried them once in high school, another time in college.  But Uncle Gunnar showed me that consuming psilocybin can be like an art form.”

“So you did ‘shrooms with him regularly?”

“Now and then.  Have a little magic trip, smoke a little pot.”

“And you still do?”

“Sure, why not?”

“The guy’s pushing ninety.”

“He’s entitled to his good time as much as the next person.  Is there a law against that?”

“Actually, not to sound like a prude, but there’s a law against both magic mushrooms and pot.”

“A law of man, maybe, not a law of nature.”  She turns away from me and stares at the flakes scuttering by the side window.  They’ve gotten big and bold, like gawky teenage boys on a rave.  I watch dozens flatten clumsily into the windshield and achieve a moment of clarity before melting or disappearing under a sweep of the wipers.

So Mindy didn’t tell me the whole story, I think.  It’s not like she owed me an explanation of how they spent their recreational time. I picture Uncle Gunnar — best I can — mentoring her on the fine points of tripping, smoking marijuana, possibly doing other drugs, Lord knows what else.  Did he also give her a sexual initiation?  Is that why she was so coy about how they passed their time together?

None of this makes me feel great.  But it also occurs to me that if I allow any resentment to show it may expose me as something less than the cynic that I claim to be.  So I let the subject drop and we ride along in pregnant silence for the next hour.

By the time we pull off the highway, a more vicious snowstorm wails around us, lacy flakes chained together in curtains that reflect my headlights back at us with blinding glare.  I’m fishtailing up the hills and sledding down, pressing forward now only because stopping or turning back seem like the worst of bad options.

“There,” Mindy says, breaking the quiet.  “The sign says two miles on the right.”

I gut it out the rest of the way without complaint, soon navigating esses up the hill to the lodge parking lot, which glows under pinkish overhead lights and has only been partially plowed.  At this point, the weather presents a complete whiteout, snow falling by the shovelful.  Despite that, as we’re coming to a stop headlight beams rake across our sightline.  We watch as a big dark Lincoln sweeps by, making for the exit.

“Look at that,” I say.  “They’re crazy to be heading out on the road in this weather and at this hour.”

“I don’t know.  In Minnesota, if you don’t drive in the dark and snow, you never get anywheres.”

We fight a bitter wind across the parking lot and arrive at the front desk with a glaze of snow clinging to our hair and shoulders.  The clerk is a woman in her twenties, a chipper bronze-skinned brunette.

“Welcome to Bergemont Lodge.  It’s my pleasure to serve you.  Do you need any assistance with your luggage?”

“No, thanks.  We’re traveling light.”

“Two of you, then?  Do you have reservations?”

“Plenty, but not here.  We tried calling but the phone rang off the hook.”

“Oh, we’re having trouble with it.  They were doing some emergency digging up the road and they cut the cable.  We’re down to one line and it’s not rolling over right.”

“That’s a helluva a way to run a business.”

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience, sir.  We do have plenty of space for you.”

“Great, but we’re not sure if we’ll stay.  May I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“We’re looking for an elderly gentleman, this lady’s uncle.  We think he’s been ensconced here for some time.  The name is Gunnar Karlson.”

“Sure.  Mr. Karlson.”

“You know him?”  Mindy jumps forward, unable to contain herself.

“He spent a good part of the winter here as a long-term guest, but I haven’t seen him or his friend in at least a couple of weeks.”

“His friend?” Mindy wonders.

“Friend, boyfriend, roommate, husband, significant other — whatever.  Hispanic gentleman.”

“But they checked out?”

“Not personally.  His sons stopped in a little while ago.  They picked up his things and settled his bill.  They said he was too busy to come back himself.”

“Uh huh.”  I turn to Mindy, wondering what other gaps in the record need to be filled.  “You have cousins?”

“No.  He’s not my real uncle, remember?”

“But if he were?”

She shakes her head.  “Uncle Gunnar has no children.  I swear.”

We return our attention to the clerk.  “How many sons?” I ask.

“Two.”

“What did they look like?”

“I don’t know.  Tall with dark hair — one of them.  The other — oh, yeah — had this do that was hard to miss, blond and with sort of locks hanging down.”

“Jheri curls?”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“Like a wavy perm of some kind?”

“That’s right.”

They sound uncannily like the men with the envelope, the goons we followed to Hubsher’s estate.  I remember the Lincoln that we saw minutes ago in the parking lot.

“Crap.  We just missed them.”

“That’s what I told you,” says the clerk.

I take a step toward the door but hesitate.  We’ll never catch them in this weather.

 

36.


“So would you two like a room?”

Mindy and I peer through the lobby window at the wind-whipped snow, banking against the trees.  Our eyes meet and agree.  We’re not going back out there.  Not tonight.  The clerk sees this.

“Your accommodation options…room with a king-size bed, with two twins, or with two queens.”

“No,” I say.  “We need separate rooms.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.  I thought you were together.”

Mindy says, “We’re together but we’re not, you know, together.”  She turns to me.  “Who’s paying for this?”

“Well, directly or indirectly, that would be the client.”

“It’s one night and we’ll get up early.  We can share.  We’ll take the room with the two twins, please, that should work.”

Mindy hands over a credit card and fills out the registration form.

The clerk says, “Room Ten Eleven is down the hall this way.  A left past the elevator and a left and a right.”  She runs down the hotel’s amenities, continental breakfast in the Orangery (whatever that is) starting at 6 a.m., full breakfast offered at eight, ice maker by the elevator (as if we’d need that tonight), all-you-can-eat buffet lunch tomorrow in the Alpine Room, whatnot and so on.

We head down the hall with a certain tentativeness, each carrying our own bag.  The decor has no particular theme.  Striped wallpaper and brass sconces line the halls, where patterned carpet has worn flat in the center.  Furniture upholstered in damask occupies niches here and there.  Brochures advertising local attractions are splayed in arcs across high-gloss tables: miniature golf, steam railroads, antique shops, whitewater rafting, that kind of thing.

The rooms use electronic keys.  Mindy gives three tries but can’t get anything but a red light from the gizmo.  I take the card from her and hit the jackpot on my second insertion.  I hold the door open to allow her to enter first.  There’s a small vestibule with mirrored closet, a shabby bathroom next to that.  The room itself is modest with two small beds, but there’s a balcony — the hotel, apparently, having been built over a gorge, which in the nighttime overcast one can only sense by the dark absence of hillside in the near distance.  Snow has drifted up against the sliding glass doors, frosting them in a mountainous pattern, and the outside furniture is pillowed in white fluff.

“Which bed would you like?” Mindy asks.

I shrug.  “Your choice.”

She sets her carpetbag down on the bed nearest the window.  I drop my knapsack to the floor.  There’s a large clock on the nightstand, and it reads 9:27.

“Well, the Plaza it ain’t.”  I let a nervous yawn escape.  “Should we go get a bite to eat?”

“Sure.  Maybe explore on the way.”

There’s a hotel plan on the desk, along with a map of the grounds.  Though the Bergemont claims to offer skiing, the downhill facilities are not on the premises.  “Eighteen-hole championship golf course,” I observe.  “Too bad I forgot my clubs.”

“The receptionist said they have three restaurants, but the only one open tonight is The Pub.  Can you find that?”

“Give me a minute.  It’s here — way on the other side of the building.”  Once I’ve worked out a path in my head, we take turns in the bathroom and leave the room behind, wending our way through the halls.

The Bergemont Lodge is vast, with perhaps several hundred rooms just on the ground floor.  Judging from the map, however, it seems like a place with more summer than winter appeal.  In addition to golf, they offer on premises horseback riding, tennis, rock climbing, lawn bowling, trail hiking, and croquet.  The kids’ club is open only “in season,” the map said.  The lot where we parked was sparsely populated and we now see few people in the halls.  Also, the elevator won’t go up, and there are polite ropes strung across the stairs, indicating that the second floor has been deactivated for winter.

We arrive at the entrance to a cheesy indoor pool, and Mindy insists on going inside.  Dampness clings to everything, fogging the glass walls and making the tile floor slippery, and the air smells strongly of chlorine.  Though it’s an odd hour for it, a couple of teenage girls lounge on chairs in bathing suits with cover-ups, and an elderly man with a paunch sits at a wrought iron table, reading USA Today.  A gray-haired man in a bathing cap — maybe the other guy’s partner — swims laps at a measured pace.  Despite what the receptionist told us, when we spot him a surge of expectation emanates from Mindy.  But the man soon comes to rest at the coping and pulls off his cap.  It isn’t Uncle Gunnar.

We leave that place, and I walk beside Mindy, whose eyes are downcast.  We pass a conference area: wide empty lobbies, darkened meeting rooms named after trees, a grand ballroom draped in tawdry shadow and sagging curtains.  Not a soul walks by.

Beyond that are halls to one shuttered restaurant and a business center, locked up as well.  Farther on still, we come to the entrance to a wing that’s blocked off for construction, half the exposed concrete floor covered in plywood, which in turn carries a coating of plaster dust with cat tracks in the dust.  I pause here; it reminds me of something.  What?  The dusty floor of Uncle Gunnar’s house, that’s what.  Something about that nags at me, but I can’t wrap my mind around it, so I don’t mention anything to Mindy.

Our little tour has depressed the mood.  At ten o’clock mid-week, on a cold winter’s night with the wind howling outside, it’s hard to picture what might have appealed to Uncle Gunnar about this joint — other than the solitude, possibly, and maybe that alone was enough for a broody old drug-addled queen.

We settle into dark wooden chairs in The Pub, where a bartender watches American Idol with the sound off and the waitress wears one of those black mini-aprons with straws and pencils poking from the pockets.  She’s a middle-aged redhead with freckles and smile lines — a can-do broad on the graveyard shift, the type who calls everyone “dear,” whether or not they deserve it.

“How about a cocktail,” she suggests, and we’re powerless to resist.  Mindy orders a Cosmopolitan and I go for Knob Creek bourbon on the rocks.  We sip as we study the menu, which contains a lot of game but otherwise leans heavily toward standard American fare, with one glaring exception.

“Look at that.”  I flick the menu.  “No hot dogs.”

“What is it with you and hot dogs, Phu?”

“You want to know the truth?  Sexual repression.”

“They repress your sexuality?”

“Does it look that way?”  The bourbon’s gone already, and it’s working on an empty stomach.  For laughs I do my best Brad Pitt face.  “My sexuality is irrepressible — so the girls tell me.  What I’m saying is that a Freudian might analyze the hot dog eating as an expression of my sexual repression.  You might call it repression expression.”

“Seriously?”   Mindy titters.

“Of course not seriously.  The real truth is that I like hot dogs because I know I can count on them, unlike most things in life.”

“They have wild game sausage on the menu.  It’s shaped like a hot dog.  Maybe  you can branch out a little.”

I frown, mulling it over.  “No.  I guess I’ll have the burger.”

“You can’t.  I insist!  I want to see you go out on a limb for once.”

“Maybe you haven’t noticed, I’ve been out on a limb since the day I took your case.  I’m clinging to the tiny little branches at the end of my comfort zone.”

“We’re not talking about that, Phu.  We’re talking about dinner — about life.  We could have died out there a couple of hours ago when that pickup cut us off.”

“You didn’t seem to think so at the time.”

“Of course I did.  I just didn’t see the point in making a big deal of something I couldn’t control.  A person can give herself an ulcer that way.”

The waitress returns.  I order my Knob Creek straight up this time, with a Budweiser chaser.  Mindy re-ups on the Cosmo.

“Are you eating, dear?” the waitress asks.

“Absolutely,” Mindy says.  “You first, Phu.”

I take a final pass across the menu and firm my chin.  “I’ll have the elk.”

“It’s a little gamey, you know.”

“Yes, the elk.”  I hand her back the menu before I change my mind.

“And you, dear?”

“The mushroom burger,” Mindy says.

“Ha!  Do as I say, not as I do.”

“I’m not the one with the food obsession.  Besides, the burger goes better with vodka than a salad does.”

“Not just a burger.  A mushroom burger!”  I knock back my bourbon and study her, nearly overwhelmed by all the new information I’ve gathered today.  “There’s a mushroom festival every September in Kennett Square.  Did your uncle ever take you to that?”

“I don’t visit in September.  It’s a busy time for me back home, when I’m not on sabbatical.”

“They used to call Kennett Square the mushroom capital of America.  It’s not true anymore, apparently, but the locals aren’t giving up the title without a fight.  Maybe you were just too stoned to remember seeing the festival.”

“I think I’d recall that.  Look, Phu, I’m not a drug addict or anything.  Are you telling me you never did any of this stuff?”

“Sure, I did, but not with anyone who’s old enough to be my grandparent.  I guess that’s the part I’m having trouble getting past.”

“Tell me.”

“Tell you what?”

“Tell me your best stoner story.”

“I don’t have any.”  I take a gulp of Bud.  “Okay.  I was going to the movies with a friend of mine in college and we decided to get high before the show.  There were a lot of people around the parking lot, so we drove around to the back of the building.  We’re leaning up against the bricks, thinking we’re all alone, sucking on a marble hash pipe, when all these doors open at once and we’re surrounded by a sea of people.  My friend’s got the hash pipe in his hand, standing there in shock with a cloud around him as all of them file by.  Nobody notices!”

“Where’d they come from?”

“The movie had just let out and we were too wasted to anticipate it.  What do you make of that?”

“Not bad.”

“Now it’s your turn — or do I want to know?”

“Of course you do.  You’re dying to know.”

But the waitress comes with the food just then.  Mindy sips from her martini glass to buy time.  I saw off a piece of the elk, which is tough and drowning in gravy.  Mindy opens her eyes wide and I make a face to concede that it’s not half bad, which is a lie — it’s terrible.

She dresses her burger in salad and pickles and ketchup, wrestles it closed, takes a huge bite and dabs the corners of her mouth after swallowing.  “One time when I came to stay with Uncle Gunnar,” she says, “we drank some magic tea and went over to the conservatory at Longwood Gardens.  Have you been there?”

“Once or twice.”

“They have this room filled with orchids.”

“I’ve seen it.”

“You haven’t seen it the way I have.  The magic mushroom trip hit full force just as we arrived.  We stood there clinging to one another, watching the petals transform into fireworks.  There’s a doorway on each wall, but we were too freaked out to find any of them.  Closing time came and a guard had to escort us from the premises.  He must have thought something was wrong with us.  We’d been standing there for four hours!”

I grind some elk into submission with my back teeth, contemplating.  “Did you know about your uncle’s, quote unquote, friend?”

“Un uh.  I’ve suspected he was gay, but he’s very discreet about it.  Never did I see a boyfriend hanging around when I was there.  Some of his friends are a little effeminate, and there’s that guest room with all those clothes that clearly don’t belong to him…  But he never came out and told me, never introduced me to someone he said was special.”

“Do you think his troubles, whatever’s going on here, are related to the psilocybin?”

She frowns.  “Well, you can draw your own conclusions about that.”

“But I couldn’t have done so until today.  You kept that from me.”

“I’m not going to argue, Phu.  I made the choice not to tell you because you struck me as the judgmental type from the start.  What was the point in arousing your prejudices?  Bringing it up earlier wasn’t going to help me gain your trust.”

“My trust?”  I chug my draft beer until I need to catch a breath, set down the glass and cock an eye at Mindy.  An idea flashes before me, the concept of the femme fatale.  I thought it was confined to books and movies, but now I wonder whether I’ve been hanging out with a representative of the species.  “Melissa Eider,” I say.  “Did you kill your uncle?”

She holds me in her gaze for a second, then laughs so long and hard that mushrooms almost spit out her nose.

 

37.


It’s nearly midnight and we have a nice buzz going by the time Mindy and I begin working our way back to the room.  At this late hour, and in my state, the light of the halls presents a grainy texture, like a pebbled photograph.  We pass no more than a few people — guests stumbling back from an event somewhere on the other side of the hotel, chambermaids with plastic bags hanging from their trolleys like barnacles, a couple of teens who fall into conspiratorial silence when they spot us.  In a few twists of the wall, we’re alone again, back by the entrance to the closed-off construction zone that we passed on the way to dinner.

Mindy is ready to stride right past, but I stop her.

“Hey, wait, Min.  Lemme show you something.”  I duck under the yellow tape that’s stretched across the opening and crouch by the plywood, rolling the plaster dust between my fingers like an animal tracker examining spoor.

“Cat tracks,” Mindy giggles, pointing.

“More than that.”  I rise.  “Come over to this side.  Indulge me for a second.”

She, too, ducks under the tape.  We stand beside one another, our shadows sprawling toward the gloom of the darkened hall.

“Wait here on the carpet.”

I lift my foot and extend it over the plywood, stretching into the longest stride of my life, then hop so my feet land next to one another two-thirds down the length of the wood surface.

“Notice,” I say over my shoulder, “that, other than the cat tracks, the dust is pretty pure here on this board.”

“Okay.”  Mindy nods.  “So what?”

“We’re going to do an experiment.  Try not to make any extra tracks in the dust.  Step behind me, almost as close as you can get, but not right on top of me.  Maybe, like, a foot behind.”

She does it, just as I said, teeters a little but catches herself before she drags a foot.

“Great.”  I look down past my right ankle.  “Now pretend you hit me over the head.  Then, when I collapse, catch me and drag me away.”

“This is silly, Phu.  Is this some kind of a joke?  I’m in no mood—”

“It’s not a joke!  Far from it.  Is whatever’s going on with your uncle a joke?”

She considers that for a minute, her senses dulled by alcohol, fatigue and stress.  Gradually, she lifts her right fist and brings it down in slow motion across the back of my head.  I let my neck go loose and swoon into her, and she catches me under the arms, bearing my weight.  At that moment, although it wasn’t my intention, I feel the heaviness of her breasts over my shoulders, jostling my cheeks, cradling my head with their firm flesh.  In spite of myself, a tingle rushes into my groin in response, but I drive the thought from my mind with all the power in my possession.

“Drag me off the wood,” I instruct.

As I become rubbery dead weight, lying in her arms like Raggedy Andy, she does drag me, breaching the yellow tape with her butt in the process.  The tape flutters to the ground and, with my feet now back on the carpeting, I stand and catch one strand before it hits the plywood, ball it up and toss it away.  I bend from the waist, seeking an angle to best analyze the dust, and Mindy, still slightly behind me, does likewise.

Swirls in the dust, that’s what we see.  Very distinct swirls, but not quite unique, and when the implications settle upon us, Mindy gasps and reaches for her mouth.  Our feet and my heels have left nearly an exact replica of the pattern that we saw in the dust at Uncle Gunnar’s house.  Without the playacting, it would be no more than a hieroglyphic without significance, open to the misinterpretation that we’d applied to it more than a week ago.  Now, having demonstrated to ourselves how those swirls came to be, the meaning comes clear: it wasn’t a handcart track that left that pattern.  It was a pair of heels no longer under the control of their owner.  Someone dragged a body from Uncle Gunnar’s premises.

“It doesn’t mean he’s dead,” Mindy says, trying to convince herself as much as me.

“Of course not,” I force myself to agree.

We stand staring at the dust for a long time, until I think to capture a picture of it with my iPhone, a picture that I hope to share with Sergeant Buxton in the morning.  A few minutes later, we fall into our room, shocked stone sober by the realization that our amateur investigation may have taken an alarming, if not entirely unanticipated, turn.

Mindy sinks to the edge of the first bed, running her fingers up and down her cheeks to get the blood flowing again.  After a minute of this, she picks up the phone.  “I need a drink.  You want anything?”

“Double whatever you’re getting.”

But they don’t offer room service off-season.

“I’ll go,” I say, heading for the door, not allowing her a moment to protest.  It’s her uncle, after all, who’s likely the guy who got hit over the head.

But by the time I arrive at The Pub, it’s closed, too — dark but for a few pools of amber light, left on for security.  Screw that, I think, looking both ways.

No one’s about.  I try the door and find it open.

Ducking behind the bar, I soon locate two full bottles of Grey Goose vodka.  There’s an order pad by the computer terminal.  I tear off the top sheet and write, “Charge to Room 1011.  Two bottles Grey Goose.”  I add the date and sign it.

Out in the hall again, I unscrew the cap of one bottle and take a swig, pausing to concentrate on the burning aftermath.  I take two more swigs on the way back to the room, where I find upon opening the door that Mindy has gone out to the snow-covered deck and settled into one of the chairs.  Amazing.  It’s stopped snowing, but the furniture must have eight inches of accumulation.  She barely swept off the snow, it appears, and she hasn’t even bothered to put on her windbreaker.

She didn’t seem to hear me enter the room, and she doesn’t seem to sense my presence as I step to the sliding glass door for a closer look.  The clouds overhead have pulled away.  From this angle I have her half in profile, staring without movement at a field of moonlit snow.  Like a statue.  An exquisite statue.

I set one vodka bottle down on the desk and, clutching the other by the neck, open the slider by about a foot.  Mindy’s shoulders tighten at the shushing sound, then relax again.

“You all right out here?”

She half nods, still looking out at the glowing snow, and wipes a tear from her cheek.

I take another swig of the vodka and let the heat sweep through my chest.  At that moment, the thought of putting on my parka seems like the most ungenerous thing I could do in the world.  I step out into powder and cold, the air smelling of spring water and agitated pine, and use the vodka bottle to sweep another chair clear, best I can.  I set the vodka in the snow of the small table between our chairs, its neck breaching the white froth like a rocket in the smoke before liftoff.

Mindy drops her chin to her chest and begins working something on her lap.  It’s a small baggie filled with dried mushrooms.  She offers me one.  I place it in my mouth and try chewing, but it tastes like noxious rubber.  I open the vodka and wash it down, along with two more pieces that Mindy passes to me.  She pops some more in her own mouth and I hand her the bottle and watch her take a few gulps.

Half an hour later, something moves in the cloudless sky.  It’s a bird of some kind, barely a crease in the blackness.  The bird hits the full moon, creating a silhouette that I see with perfect edges, like a paper cutout freed from its two-dimensionality by the sharpest blade in the universe.  The bird freezes when it comes fully in front of the silvery moon, freezes in mid flight, and the craters of the moon twist into pulsating liquidity.  Then the silhouette starts across the shining disc again, now flashing with each beat of its wings like an image on a zoetrope.  It takes just about forever to cross the moon, and my eyes follows it back into the expanse of black sky, watch it gobble up stars, which disappear, I think, even after it has passed, like a swath wiped from the glitter of the cosmos.  When I think to look back at the moon, it’s gone.  I panic, casting my gaze everywhere, but find it again right in front of me, hanging low.  And then, astoundingly, the moon shatters into a million paisley swirls, chasing the bird.  I hear Mindy giggle beside me and wonder whether she saw the same thing, wonder whether the world came to an end just at the moment of my most profound psychedelia.  But just then the moon gathers itself back together.  We’re still here on earth and, although the moon is dancing, it’s a single orb again, the edges vibrating like a top wobbling toward collapse.

Sensing that I haven’t breathed in a long time, I inhale deeply, and with the air comes a rush of icy coldness that sends a deep shiver through my chest, like a shirt peeling off.  I’m going to freeze to death out here, I think.  I want to turn toward Mindy, see whether she’s all right, but my neck is creaky stiff, like a rusted hinge.  It takes forever just to get her into my peripheral vision, and that’s all I can do.  I stand to go and take a step toward the door, but Mindy catches me by the arm, her hand slipping into the dry slickness of my palm.  She pulls me back down into the chair and — I’ll never know who initiates — our mouths melt together like runny ice cream rushing to the edges of a deep bowl.

It’s wet and freezing all around us.  Cloaked in the damp and cold, we move as if being tugged by a force beyond our own volition.  At least, I do.

Mindy pulls away and lifts the vodka bottle and drinks sloppily.  She passes me the bottle, and the heat of the spirits rakes the insides of my cheeks.  The moon still wriggles in the sky, throwing its light upon us in bent waves — the course of the photons somehow made visible.  In the miracle of this experience, we begin to pull at each other’s clothes, pausing now and then to drink, then to kiss, then to pull and kiss and drink and kiss.  My body, nearly bare, is an icicle with a micron-thin layer of dampness clinging to the surface.  I’m tingling at the extremities, shivering through my core, and Mindy’s mouth, when it engages my flesh, is the source of all warmth.

Then she eases me down to the chaise beside us, sinks me on my back into the snow.  My pants and boxers are bunched around my ankles.  My arms and chest are submerged in icy crystals, which bite my nipples raw.

Mindy is nude but for her shoes.  How much I had to do with that, I’ll never know, but the sight is something beyond spectacular, something otherworldly, a goddess brought to earthly substance with such power that my eyes lose focus in the expanse of her flesh.  I’m lying on my back and the snow is up the crack of my ass and my dick is a rigid icicle throbbing with pain in the gelid air and my balls are burning frozen in the snow.  And then Mindy lowers herself over me — closer, closer, her few fine pubes sending the head of my cock into tingles.  And when I enter her, the sensation is a sheath of liquid flame, an explosion of celestial fire.

 

38.

 

After breakfast, we borrow a pair of snowbrushes from the concierge and sweep the Mini clean and check out.  The sun shines brightly and the car feels more solid beneath us.  But, other than that, everything is the same.  The same, but different.  Same knapsack and carpetbag in the back seat, same windbreaker and parka, same sporty black vinyl interior.  There’s unusual energy in the air, though.  I’m man enough to admit that it’s not love, not at all.  Yet a different aura fills the spaces around us, even if we don’t exchange a single word about what happened last night on that chaise.  Not a word or a wink or a nod.  It’s this great unspoken thing, something we experienced together and can perhaps talk about one day in the future, but not in the immediate aftermath.  Like ground zero after a nuclear explosion, it’s a no-go zone draped in uneasy silence.

With the roads clearing rapidly under sunshine and salt, the ride home goes quicker than the ride out did.  We listen to music for a long time, Mindy working the tuner to maintain strong radio signals.  When we reach the outskirts of Wilmington, she says, “Do you think we should tell Sergeant Buxton about the dust thing?”

“We can try him.  Now that I’m sober, though, it seems kind of thin as evidence.”

“You don’t think it means my uncle was hit over the head and dragged off?”

“Sad to say, I do think so.  The question is whether our thinking so is enough to make a cop care — or, even if he does care, to put him in a position to act.”

“I gotcha.”  She looks dejected.

“One of the things he’ll want to know is the motive.  Even if you consider the magic mushrooms — Uncle Gunnar possibly being a dealer — why would someone clock him?”

“I never saw anything like drug dealing, but let’s just say he was doing that behind my back.  Someone might kill him over that, wouldn’t they?  Get into an argument that becomes violent?  Isn’t that what drug dealers are kind of famous for?”

“Yeah, but druggies and petty criminals aren’t known for their neatness.  The deal goes bad, maybe the buyer doesn’t want to pay or thinks he scored some bad ‘shrooms…  What does he do?  He hits the guy over the head in a fit of rage.  I’ll give you that, but then what?  He’d flee the scene and leave him there, most likely, not taking the trouble — or even having the skills — to thoroughly remove the body.”

“Ugh.  I hate thinking of Uncle Gunnar coming to such a horrible end.”

“Another possible scenario — just thinking aloud here — if it’s a territorial thing, for argument’s sake a dealer in competition who felt that Uncle Gunnar had stepped on his toes or he just wanted to rub him out to take over his business…  What does that guy do?  Not to be gross, but he makes a mess of his rival, that’s what.  Leaves him there dead to send a message.  Again, he doesn’t clean it all up, stage it to look like there’s no crime been committed.  He wants the world to know not to fuck with him.”

“You have experience with this?”

“Not a lick.  It’s all theory.  If you wanted a detective, you should’ve, well, hired a detective.”

“Don’t get uppity.  I’m just asking.  And none of it means Uncle Gunnar’s dead.”

“Of course not.”  I steer around a bus.  “And what’s with the guy who holds the mortgage?  I figure that a guy with a billion dollars earns Uncle Gunnar’s entire mortgage balance in a single day’s worth of bank interest.  And besides, Uncle Gunnar’s been gone at most a couple of months.  He’d have had to miss more payments than that for them to foreclose.”

“There must be something we’re not seeing.  Maybe there’s buried treasure under the house or something.”

“What, like Robert Louis Stevenson?”  I must admit, my tone of voice here drips with sarcasm.

Mindy folds her arms across her chest and pouts.  “Someone makes a ninety-year-old man disappear, there has to be a good reason.”

“I didn’t mean to sound harsh.  There’s definitely an explanation out there somewhere.  But whether the reasons for his disappearance are good, I don’t know.  None of it adds up, but nearly running into Hubhser’s goons again last night can’t be a coincidence.  You may have been right all along.  Hubsher’s somehow at the bottom of it.”

Mindy drums her fingers on the armrest.  She screws up her face.  “I bet those people are acting without Hubsher’s authorization.  The young man at the storage facility never heard of Albert Hubsher.”

“Of course not.  If he’s behind it, he’d be shrewd enough to cover his tracks.  Those goons are acting at his behest.”

I pause.  I can’t help noticing how Mindy and my roles have reversed.  At first, I was the one calling Hubsher by phone almost to humor Mindy.  Now she’s coming around to my view – sort of – and I’m flipping.  But the stakes are higher now – murder, possibly, not real estate – and I see myself as following the evidence while Mindy is resisting it.  Furthermore, she’s doing so partly, I think, to avoid confronting the distinct possibility that Uncle Gunnar is stone cold wherever he is, whatever they did with him.

“I find it hard to believe a billionaire would commit physical violence,” Mindy says.  “The mortgage thing, too.  A man on Albert Hubsher’s level wouldn’t get involved in something as unfair as that.”

“Don’t be naive, Mindy.  There probably aren’t three straight-shooting billionaires on the planet.  You think you get to be that rich by treating people with fairness?”

“You’re biased against rich people is what I think.  He’s a society chap.  Despite what’s happening, my intuition tells me he must be an honorable man.  It could be those bad characters are doing things in his name, things he’d be appalled about if he knew.  We just need to get to him personally somehow, appeal to his better instincts.  We may not find out what happened to Uncle Gunnar that way, but at least we’ll save his house.”

“Well, Hubsher hasn’t returned my phone calls.  Either way, we won’t save Uncle Gunnar’s house by appealing to his rich banker.  You know why?  Because – whether he’s orchestrating these events personally or oblivious to them – the guy’s bound not to give a shit for Uncle Gunnar and his little mortgage.”

“If he doesn’t care, why’s he foreclosing?”

“Because it’s what his company does.  Did you see that board at the Justice Center?  There must have been thirty writs there with Triple Fidelity as plaintiff.  And this bank is a small corner of Hubsher’s empire.”

“It may be a small corner, but it’s a corner that’s very close to Hubsher’s home.  He and Uncle Gunnar are neighbors.”

I pull the car to the curb in front of Penny’s house and slip into neutral.  “Just because you’re in the same neighborhood, that doesn’t make you neighbors.”

“Sure it does,” she huffs.  “That’s the definition of neighbors.”

“Then the billionaire in the penthouse and the super in the basement apartment are neighbors,” I say, equally exasperated.

“Exactly.”

“The bird pecking at the lawn and the worm slithering through the dirt underneath are neighbors.”

“You’re comparing my uncle to a worm, now?”

My sarcasm has crept back, but I can’t help myself.  “The Indian rajah on the sidewalk and the untouchable in the gutter are neighbors.  The big ape in the zoo and the little turd he leaves behind are neighbors!”

“He’s not a turd.  Why are you mocking me?”

“Because your argument is ridiculous, Mindy.  Albert Hubsher’s life couldn’t be further removed from Gunnar Karlson’s if he lived on the moon.  We’re going to the guy on bended knee and his response, if he bothers to respond, will be to kick sand in my face.”

She sits forward.  “So that’s what this is about — Phu Goldberg’s pride!”

“What I’m saying is, begging Hubsher for mercy isn’t the right strategy.  Human nature being what it is, that path’s a dead end.”

“You make it sound like people are limited.  I believe human nature allows for infinite possibilities.”

“Yeah?  Not any humans I ever met.”

“You make me so angry!  If you don’t believe in people then you shouldn’t be in a helping business.  You’re in the wrong line of work!”

She snaps her seatbelt open and catches me in the temple with her elbow, knocking my head sideways as she reaches for her things on the back seat.  She’s out of the car so quickly that I barely have time to get out myself before she’s nearly reached Penny’s front door.

“Wait, Mindy,” I call over the car’s roof.  “We just need to find another angle.  That’s all I’m saying!”

But her back is to me and she doesn’t turn around.

The screen door swings shut with a clatter that sounds definitive.

She’s right about one thing, I think.  I don’t play the role of supplicant well.  I’m not begging some rich fuck to take pity on Uncle Gunnar or any client.  That’s not how I operate.

Furthermore, I think, climbing back into the car, if Mindy expects me to crawl back to her for forgiveness, apologizing for my worldview, then she has another thing coming. In fact, in this moment I see things with a kind of clarity that I haven’t felt for a long time.  I’m wondering what I ever got from Mindy Eider, other than the best orgasm of my life.  The memory’s still fresh — and, okay, the orgasm was a double — but, let’s face it, we’re very different people and there’s nowhere for this relationship to go.  She was supposed to be my meal ticket.  Instead, she set me into all this wishy-washy philanthropic crap and I’m poorer than ever, practically a candidate for charity myself.  Which reminds me: I never got the $1500 she owed me, either.

That’s the focus of my thinking on Monday, anyway.  When Wednesday arrives without another word from the woman, I’m feeling a little less certain.  But by the afternoon, I’ve hardened my resolve again, thinking, how could it get any better than it did at that moment on the chaise, that ecstatic hour of cold-hot sex?  The lodge didn’t offer skiing, but this relationship had nowhere to go but downhill from there.

I’m putting away my blue stress ball, about to leave the office in search of my old routine, when Chuck Kendall materializes at the top of the steps.  He’s wearing a green blazer with an orangish shirt that exaggerates the redness of his nose, tan slacks and the same tasseled loafers as the other day, polished to a deep cordovan.  When he spots me he removes a cordless earpiece with a small blinking red light.  He squints at it to find the off button and presses it with a thumbnail.

“My good friend Phu.”  He extends a hand, which I shake.  “Can we sit?”

I offer him the couch and take the upholstered chair for myself.  As opposed to sitting across my desk, this setting better suits his air of casual authority.  He crosses his legs and I mirror him.  He fidgets with the earpiece in the palm of his hand, and I wish I hadn’t already stowed my stress ball.

“Did you think any more about my proposition?” he asks.

“I’ve been pretty tied up.  But I appreciate your persistence.”

“I’m relentless as the midday sun in August.  You’ll learn that if you haven’t already.”

“It’s the secret to your success, I’m guessing.”

“I don’t have a philosophy.  I am who I am.  Or did you mean that facetiously?”

I shrug and smooth out my slacks.  “There’s no shame in falling from a great height.  Most people never even make the climb.”

“Damn straight.  And with your help I’ll be back there before most people know what hit them, too.  Which brings me to the matter at hand.  I got another proposition for you.”

“I’m all ears.”

“You sure?  What changed from the last time?”

“It’s a long story, but to be honest, I’m down a client since then.”

“You’re hungry.”

“Like a bear on the first day of spring.”

“Hungry enough to reinvent yourself?”

“Possibly.”

“Because I’m thinking that your talents are wasted with these small fry.  Now, now!”  He holds up a hand.  “I know what you’re thinking.  A guy whose liabilities exceed his assets by a factor of six ain’t in any position to call anyone small fry.  A deadbeat’s a deadbeat.”

“I wasn’t thinking that.  I was thinking of the old saw.  If you owe me a hundred dollars, you have a problem.  If you owe me a million dollars, I’m the one who has the problem.”

“Hah!  You got it.  Plus, I’m still sitting on a pile of cash.  A fool goes broke with no cash in the till.  I’m not that stupid.”

“I used to think everyone who got into financial straits did something stupid along the way.  Lately I believe a man can be as easily blindsided by bad luck as he can land in shit stepping off the curb.”

Kendall locks his jaw.  “It’s what you do afterwards that defines you.  That’s how I reason it.  Though I’m lying on the canvas, I’m far from out cold.  In fact, the ref has barely reached the count of three.  When he gets to ten, I won’t be lying there anymore.”

“Consider me your cut man.”

“So here’s the plan.  You straighten out my situation, full-on fee, and when that’s over I’ll set you up as a collector of all the debts my company’s owed.  In the best of times we have bad receivables of a million or two.  These days, it’s more like five or six — fifteen percent of my business.”

“How do you handle it now?”

“I’ve had it in-house all these years.  We were doing so well that it wasn’t a priority.  But I know an outside agency can get better results.  We’ll arrange it the traditional way, stepping up your share as the receivables age.  It’s no one-man job.  You’ll have to hire employees.”

“You’d do all that for me?”  I feign a degree of shock, but Kendall doesn’t bite.

“Shoot.  You know who I’m doing it for,” he says.  “I need to settle this problem of mine before the grass stops getting mowed and folks start chatting discretely about me at the club.”

He leans toward me, reaches into the inside pocket of his jacket, and lowers his voice.  “There’s a pile of earnest money here.  Thirty grand.”  He hands it to me.  Another plain white envelope.

This time I take it.  I close my greedy fingers around it and feel for the thickness.  It’s hundred-dollar bills, I figure, three hundred, to be exact.  Not a trifling amount by anyone’s standards.

“You can wait to decide on the back-end deal, the collections business.  For my workout, though, the terms are the same.  I need you exclusive.”

After two days, Mindy is good as gone, I conclude.  Irreconcilable differences, and I still have bills to pay.  Probably Uncle Mushroom will turn up any day, like I originally suspected, and she can go on thinking the best of people, find the old man a new place, if need be, to host his hallucinations.  As for Penny, she always needed a non-profit service anyway.

I fold the envelope in half, indicating that I’m taking possession of the cash and the proposition both.

Kendall smiles broadly, shaking the earpiece in his palm.  He explains that he’ll send over the boxes of files posthaste, so I can start digging him out of his hole right away.

“You don’t have the records electronically?”

“I do that for business,” he says.  “For personal, I never got around to it.”

 

39.

 

The following morning, a truck pulls up with Chuck Kendall’s files, hauled four boxes at a time by two sweaty guys in filthy T-shirts.

“No elevator?” one snarls.

I shake my head.  The reason Brad and Tabitha will never undertake a major renovation of my office is that they don’t want to trigger the Americans with Disabilities Act.  That’s fine with me.  An elevator, I estimate, would double my rent.

It takes more than an hour for the movers to push most of my furniture to one side and load the office with file boxes.  Feeling flush, I peel off a hundred-dollar bill and tell them to split it.  Business expense. The majority of Kendall’s thirty grand has already gone into my money market account.  The hundreds I have left in cash are beautiful, but as the movers leave I remind myself that the bills aren’t play money.  It may turn out — as I read somewhere — that the frog losing its life to gradually boiling water is a myth, but I know from experience that people block out stimuli they don’t want to believe.  In reality, the path to hell is paved green and signed with the words, “In God We Trust.”

My first day working for Chuck Kendall passes in a paper sea, absent many bearings.  His files go back seven years and lack proper organization, even by date.  So I’m into the scutwork from Hour One, organizing what should have been organized long ago, creating folders upon folders for relevant documents, building spreadsheets that will one day hold the data I need to keep Kendall’s lawn mowed, as he’d put it.  Along the way, I develop some understanding of the lifestyle of my new client and his family.  There are private schools and lavish parties, country club bills and chartered yachts, art purchases and enough cases of wine to float Lincoln Financial Field.  These folks live well; they live large; and, lately, they live beyond their means.

By the end of the day — with only a break for a hotdog — my eyes have turned goggly.  It doesn’t help that Kendall’s boxes are blocking out all sources of natural light.  Life can be cruel this way.  One day I’m calling myself a hungry bear, the next day I’m working in a cave.  In desperate need of a break, I saunter down to Creamy Dreamy.  It’s dark and cold outside and I find the door locked, but lights shine inside and I can see the proprietors working on their end-of-day cleanup.  I tap on the glass and Tabitha comes.

“Long time no see.”  She re-locks the door behind me.

Brad gives a wave with a sponge in his good hand.

“Your special friend finally ran through her chocolate stash?” Tabitha asks.

“She’s not my special friend.  We had a falling out.  I don’t expect she’ll be coming around anymore.”

“That’s why you look so glum.”

I shake my head.  “I have a new big-spending client, and he’s buried me in paperwork.  Eye strain and brain cramp.  I’m not used to it.”

“I don’t want to talk about that.  I want to talk about Mindy.  What happened?”

“The deal with her uncle doesn’t look too good.  When we figured that out, it raised the stakes, I guess, in the whole relationship.  We realized that we had conflicting strategies for trying to get to the bottom of it.”

“That’s a shame.  You parted in a civil fashion?”

“I wouldn’t call it that, no.  We had a knock-down-drag-out.  It might’ve gone on longer, but I was just dropping her off at her new digs.”

“When was that?”

“Three days ago.”

“Why’s her car still out there in the parking lot?”

“It’s dead, needs a boost.  I don’t know why she hasn’t dealt with it.”

“You’re an idiot.”

“Says who?”

“She was good for you.  Get her car started.  Return it to her.”

“Nah.  There’s more clients where she came from.”

“That right?  You’re cold-calling Minnesota now?”

“You know what I mean, Too-Tall.”

She folds her arms across her chest.  “I don’t believe you’d just let her walk away like that.  There was something special between you two.  I read it on your face the moment you met her and I see it on your face now.  You don’t let someone like that walk out of your life over a single argument.”

“Well, it goes deeper than that.  Anyway, for your information, it was getting to the point where I couldn’t hold onto Mindy and deliver the rent.”

“That so?”

“It most certainly is.”

“Forget her, then,” Brad says, and Tabitha doesn’t argue.

I blink twice and frown.  “I thought you guys would see it my way.”

But I can’t forget her.  Friday, Saturday, Sunday come and go.  For six days I haven’t heard from Mindy.  I consider distracting myself the way I used to, visiting bars and hoping for a good argument or worse.  There’s a place on the wrong side of town where I know they won’t cotton to Asians.  But I never get there.  When I’m not in the office I sit in my house, night after night, drinking Sam Adams and Dogfish Head and thinking of the bottle of wine she knew how to open without a corkscrew, of the lukewarm escarole, of how she caught me when I pretended to swoon.

Goddammit.

On Monday, I pull into the office parking lot and see that her car is gone.  She must have gotten a boost finally.  Rather than proceeding upstairs, this news inspires me to cruise by Penny’s house, but there’s no sign of the Volvo there and I can’t bring myself to go inside.

Oh, what the hell, I try telling myself for the fifteenth time.  She was taking me out of my game, anyway. I can’t even pick an argument anymore.  And every time I eat a hotdog, the tough elk with gravy drifts back to me along with Mindy’s exhortation to go out on a limb.

I return to the office, convinced that the time has come to shake it off.  Memories of the chaise will always be good for a shiver, but where was that going, anyway?  I bury myself in Kendall’s files, not even breaking for lunch.  The dunning letters alone now run more than an inch deep, and some of them come from none other than my good friends at Triple Fidelity.  At least, I think, I’ll get paid real money this time for facing the stone wall.  There’s also something fascinating about the complexity of this guy’s case, the way a big-shot with access to funds can keep the plates spinning atop the sticks long after a normal person would be sitting on the ground, crying over the shards.

The clock on my computer shows that another evening has crept upon me with little notice and even less natural light.  The office seems unusually quiet and I feel a kind of exhausted peace creeping over me.  That’s why the sound of a car door slamming outside jars me to my innards.

 

40.

 

Next thing I know, Brad’s standing in my doorway with the toque crumpled to his chest and a look of horror on his face.  “Phu!” he gasps.

“What?  What is it?”

He’s not himself.  There’s a smudge of something brown on his usually spotless chef’s jacket, and I have the sense it isn’t chocolate.  His face has gone pale and he bites a trembling lip, choking back emotion.

I rise from my desk.  “What the hell is it, man?”

“Creamy Dreamy!  Come quick!”  He turns and flies down the stairs.

A surge of adrenaline rushes through my chest as I follow close behind him, nearly clipping his heels.  Brad’s not a great runner, due to the poor balance of his bum arm.  I pass him in the parking lot.  As I round the corner of the building, I’m sniffing the air, wondering whether the place is on fire, but I don’t smell anything.  Then I’m thinking that maybe something has happened to Tabitha.

The store glows from within, but it’s electric lights, not flames, and there’s no sign of Too-Tall as I hit the front door with Brad pulling up close behind me.

“The kitchen!” he barks.

I jog behind the counter and through the doorway and come up short on the linoleum.  Tabitha is standing in the middle of the room.  Mindy sits on a hard chair and Tabitha has an arm around her shoulder, massaging her neck.  They’re clasping hands, too, but Mindy’s arm hangs limp, Tabitha holding it up.  The shock of the scene sucks the air from my lungs — Mindy beat up bad, her clothes torn, blood-stained.  Black blood seeps from a nasty gash on her left cheek, the bruise around it mottled blue and gold, and above that a fat black eye has swollen shut.  She’s filthy and scraped up and something clings in clumps to her thick hair.  A foul odor fills the room.

Mindy lays eyes on me and her face goes slack.  She says, “They, they, they…”  Not another word.  Tears cut tracks in the dirt on her cheeks.

I run over and fall to a knee at her feet.  Tabitha drops the hand she’s holding and I take both of Mindy’s hands into mine.  “What happened, Min?  What the hell happened?”

She descends into sobs, her mouth working but no words coming out.

“She won’t tell me,” Tabitha says.  “Won’t or can’t.”  Tabitha, too, starts to cry, a sight I’ve never seen before.  She paces back and forth, pinching the bridge of her nose.

Brad says, “Should we call 911?”

“She can walk,” Tabitha says, not precisely in answer to his question.  “Somehow she drove herself here and got out of the car.”

My breathing is shallow, like Mindy’s.  She’s collapsed into a crumpled thing, allowing gravity to fold her into a ball on the chair.  I squeeze her hands and she doesn’t respond.  Her fingers are limp noodles.

“By the time they come…” I say, my voice trailing off.  I turn over the options in my head, the best I can.  An ambulance might easily take 25 minutes, for all I know, but I can get her downtown in ten.

I press Mindy’s delicate hands into my cheek and kiss them.  Her palms look raw and her fingernails are broken and bloody.  “Oh, Jesus.  I’ll drive her straight to the hospital.”  I stand and look from Brad to Tabitha, seeking approval of this plan.

“Well, hurry,” they say together at once, and I run for the car in a bubble of disbelief, telling myself not to lose focus, not yet to worry about who did this or how, to breathe, to understand the main purpose, which is first to find help for Mindy, to make sure she’s all right, to get her medical attention.  In my mind’s eye I see the rips in her slacks and shirt as I run, her scraped flesh poking through, and I swallow hard and tell myself not to think about that now, to think only of help, a bee line for the emergency room.

Two minutes later, Tabitha has lowered Mindy gingerly into the passenger seat of my Mini and buckled her in.

“Wilmington Hospital,” I say.

“We’ll follow you.  Be careful!” Tabitha calls as I peel out.

Mindy doesn’t speak as I drive.  Her arms have fallen unnaturally into her lap, and she jostles like an inanimate puppet at every bump and turn.

I talk incessantly at her, saying, “It’s gonna be all right, baby.  We’ll get you to the hospital and they’ll fix you up.  You just hang in there. They’ll get you well.  Put your shoulder into it.”  And like that on and on.

We enter the emergency room with Mindy’s arm draped around my neck.  I’m holding her elbow with my right hand and have my left arm wrapped around her waist, supporting her.  I can feel her ribs, and she’s trembling.  She shuffles forward, hanging her weight on me, and we must look like a walking disaster together because despite the bustle all about us a male nurse meets us halfway to the counter and transfers Mindy to a gurney, where she settles on her back like a china doll, her eyes vacant.

They begin to wheel her away.

“Where are you taking her?”

“Just to an exam room.  Did you do this?”

“Are you crazy?”

As those words are leaving my lips, it occurs to me that the guy in the scrubs has probably heard them spoken a thousand times before from every wife beater who follows his spouse to the emergency room in an attempt to guard his shameful secret.  And it also occurs to me to ask myself, Did I do this?  Do I bear responsibility?

“Check her in at the desk,” says the nurse, pointing.

By the time I cross the room, Mindy is out of sight and Brad and Tabitha have materialized behind me.  Tabitha clasps Mindy’s giant white purse to her chest like a life jacket.  She digs through, locates the wallet, and pulls out an insurance card and a driver’s license.

Brad drags me over to a seat in the waiting area.  “What do you know about this?”

“I’m wondering that myself.”  I bury my face in my hands and massage around my eyes.

“She looks like death warmed over.  Tabitha — she hasn’t been this upset since we left San Fran.  What have you gotten into, Phu?  What haven’t you told us?”

“A lot.  The uncle…he was heavily into the magic mushroom scene, maybe even dealing.  Somehow, we suspect, he got himself murdered over it.  But we have no hard evidence of that.”

I take out my iPhone and show Brad the picture of the swirls in the dust.

“That.  What’s that mean?”

“We playacted to make these marks.  They’re identical to what we saw in the dust at Uncle Gunnar’s house, before they carted off all his stuff and swept the place clean.  They suggest that someone hit him over the head or something and dragged the body away.”

Brad nods slowly, processing.  “I see.  You called the cops?”

I shake my head, and as I do so it dawns on me what an idiot I’ve been.  “We couldn’t figure out the motive,” I say weakly.  “Then we had a big fight about who the suspect might be, and that was the last I heard from her.  Until—”

“You’re telling me you didn’t call the cops because you had a fight—”

“It’s worse.  Up in that lodge, we ate some ‘shrooms and screwed around.”

He sits up.  “What do you mean?  Screwed around how?”

“Well, I’m not going into details.”

“You banged her?”

I nod my head.

“Man, Phu.  I’d be impressed if this whole thing weren’t so crazy scary.  You’re involved with a drug dealer’s beautiful niece and you think someone offed the guy and you were too busy getting wasted and humping to call the cops?  Then you had a lover’s spat and you still didn’t call the cops — why?  Out of spite?”

“You got it all wrong, Brad.  I hardly know the woman.”

Tabitha comes over and falls into a seat next to him.

I frown at the two of them.  “Whoever’s behind this is gonna pay.  What do you think they did to her?”

No one shares an answer.  A few minutes later, a door opens and a nurse steps into the room, calling, “Friends of Mindy Eider!”

We jump up and she leads us into a bullpen lined with hospital beds, some hidden behind curtains.  Mindy sits in a vinyl chair the color of putty, wearing a light blue hospital gown, her torn clothes stuffed into a plastic bag by her side.  Bandages cover her left cheekbone and eye.  An intravenous line runs into the back of her hand.

“How do you feel?” Tabitha asks.

Mindy nods and whispers, “Okay.”

The doctor comes in.  He’s young, bespectacled, probably an intern.  He keys on me.  “You the boyfriend?”

“No.”  Behind the next curtain, a monitor beeps.  “Yes.  Why do you want to know?”

“She’s been asking after a guy named Phu.  I’m sorry if I guessed wrong.”

“That is me.  You guessed right.”

“The cops should be here any minute.”

I think of those strapping guys in the Triple Fidelity parking lot flirting with Mindy, the way they took possession of her with their eyes.  See ya around, they said.  Later, they said.  I face the doctor.  “Did you do a rape kit?”

“A rape kit?”

Mindy chews the inside of her cheek.  “No, Phu.  It wasn’t like that.”

“I can get a nurse,” the doctor says.  “If you have reason to believe, I can get a female nurse who specializes.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Mindy says.  “Phu, it wasn’t like that.”

“Oh, honey,” Tabitha says, pulling up the one guest chair and looking into Mindy’s eyes.  “Did anyone touch you down there?”

“No, un uh.”

Mindy’s left breast is practically falling out of the hospital gown.  She clutches the bag with her torn clothes.  I say again, “They should do a rape kit.  Look at her.”

“She says no,” Tabitha says, turning to me.

“They should—”

“It wasn’t like that!” Mindy shouts.

The doctor runs his eyes over all of us.  “The cops can sort it out.”  He points to Mindy.  “The intravenous — that’s just electrolytes.    She’s had a bit of a shock, but there’s no broken bones or anything.  We stitched up the cheek and I’ll write a prescription for painkiller.  There’s no sign of concussion — she’s lucky about that.  The cops will come back here.  She can stay until the drip’s empty.  Then call a nurse to remove the needle.”

“That’s all?” Tabitha asks.

“She should get a good night’s sleep, rest for a couple of days.  Contact the hospital immediately if she has persistent headaches or unusual body pain — though she’s likely to be pretty sore.  The stitches stay in ten days.  Meanwhile, keep her away from whoever did this.”

Despite knowing better, the way he says this makes me feel like the accused.

The cop shows up as the doctor’s leaving, a white guy in uniform, name of Moynihan.  He eyes us with appropriate coldness and asks us to wait outside.

“I have a friend on the force,” I tell him.

“That so?”  He takes out his notepad.

“Sergeant Rufus Buxton.  You know him?”

“Yep.  Please wait outside, sir.”

“A good guy.  Friend of mine.”

“Friend or no friend, this interview happens alone, sir.”

“We’ll be in the waiting room, officer.”  Brad takes me by the arm.  “Let’s get a cup of coffee.”

An hour later Officer Moynihan comes over to us.

“What’d she tell you?” I ask.

“She’s had a helluva day.  I won’t repeat what she said, but I’ll say that some crucial details remain sketchy.  Do the three of you have any idea who might have beat her up like this?”

I shake my head.  “Sure don’t.”  I have my thoughts, of course, but I’d rather share them with Sergeant Buxton.  When Brad looks at me, I refuse to meet his eye.

Moynihan takes our names and contact information.  He walks away without saying goodbye.

Tabitha turns to me.  “What are you going to do with the woman?”

“I’ll take her to Penny’s.”

“You want us to come?”

“You’ve done enough.  I’ll keep you posted.”

Dressed back in her soiled clothes, Mindy signs herself out.  In the car, she says, “God, I hurt all over.”

“You took the painkillers?”

“Yes.”

“They don’t have you feeling looped?”

“Not in the slightest.  Just dog tired.”

The car reeks like hell.  I dare not ask specifically about that, but I lower the windows.  A cold front came in over the weekend.  The air is bracing, but it beats the stench.

“What did they do to you, Mindy?”

She shakes her head and stares at her lap.  “I can’t talk about it now.”

Another thought jumps into my head.  “Was it Torres who did this?”

The blank stare persists.

“You’re killing me, Mindy.  I have to know.”

“This isn’t about you,” she says, in a way that somehow makes me feel it’s very much about me.  If we hadn’t argued, I think, if I’d kept in touch, maybe I could have protected her.

We pull up at the Jones place around ten o’clock.  The street is quiet, but the house emits a warm glow.  I called Penny from the car, so she’s standing nervously behind the screen door when we arrive.  She and Terrance burst out.  They help me get Mindy inside.

The younger kids are milling about the living room with their jaws slack.

Mindy collapses into me and Terrance, unable to hold herself up.

“Go to your rooms,” Penny tells the younger kids, but they don’t move.  “I said,” she screeches, “get to your rooms!  Now!”

They break for it and we lower Mindy onto the couch.  The door claps in the front hall and Kyle comes in.  Terrance must have called him.

They all ask Mindy the same questions that I did: Who did this?  How did this happen?  She won’t tell them any more than she told me.

Terrance is overwrought.  He pounds a fist into his palm.  “That fucking spic.  It has to be!”

Kyle says, “We got to avenge this shit.  We going over there.”

“Burn his fucking house down,” Terrance says.

Mindy is shaking her head in silence, her eyes closed, half asleep.

“That smell,” Terrance says, under his breath.  “What is that?”

Kyle begins pacing, his mind working.  “Been watching that spic slink around for days.  Who does he think he is?  We’ll show him.”

“Drag him over here,” Terrance says.  “Kick his ass.”

Penny, who’s been concentrating on Mindy, has finally heard enough from the teens.  She turns to them and begins slapping at them in a frenzy.  “How dare you!  How dare you speak that way in my home!”  Some of the slaps miss, others are landing with little effect on Terrance’s arms and Kyle’s back.  “Do you think that’s what a person like Mindy wants?  For you two to act like bigots and do terrible things in her name?  Get out of my house, Kyle!”  She gives him a good shot, driving him back.  His hands are raised in self-defense, but he makes no effort to respond.  Penny turns to her nephew.  “You, Terrance, get to your room and don’t come out!”

They don’t quite obey.  They retreat to the kitchen, where neither Penny nor I has the will to chase them.

Penny fondles Mindy’s arm.  “She can’t sleep now, like this.  You can’t sleep, sweetheart.  We need to clean you up.”  She turns to me and whispers urgently.  “God, Phu, what have they done?”

“You saw.  She won’t say.  You have to get it out of her.”

“We have to clean her up.  Get her to bed.  Help me.”

We lift Mindy from the chair and she walks in a trance to the room she’s sharing with Penny.  We strip off her clothes and Penny preserves Mindy’s dignity by wrapping a towel around her for the short walk to the bathroom.  We pass the plush pig, which sits on the bureau in mockery with the mischievous smile fixed to its face.

In the bathroom, Mindy’s towel drops to the floor and I avert my eyes.

“I got her,” Penny says.  For all her ailments, in this moment of crisis Penny shows superhuman strength.

“Try not to get the bandage wet.”

Penny has somehow managed to prop up Mindy in the shower, hold a bar of soap in her hand and get the water running at the same time.

I go out and gather up the stinking clothes.  They’re a total loss.  I stuff them into the trash bin outside.

The circuits of my mind have tripped into overload.  Kyle has left the kitchen.  Terrance says, “Phu, we tried to keep an eye on him, just like we promised.  The thing is, we didn’t see nothing.”

“Nothing at all?”

“Nothing that looked suspicious.  Just coming and going.  Him, his wife, two or three young kids.”

“You did all right.  The cops have to figure it out from here.”

He reaches into his jeans pocket and shoves a fistful of dollars at me.

“What’s that?”

“The sixty-five you paid me.  We can’t take it.”

“Put it away.”

“We can’t take it, man.  We didn’t get the job done.”  Tears in his eyes, he drops it to the floor as my hand withdraws.   And as he retreats to his room, I see him completely for what he is: half formed, an innocent man-child struggling to make his way in an unforgiving world.

I pick up the money and put it on the counter under one leg of the toaster oven.  I take the last Michelob Light from the fridge, twist off the top and settle, stunned, at the kitchen table.

A few minutes later, Penny pads up behind me and pulls up a chair.

“She’s in bed,” she says.  “She talked.”

 

41.

 

While I wait anxiously, Penny puts on a pot of coffee.  She doesn’t say so, but I have the sense this is a ritual among the Jones women, that every family crisis since the discovery of fire has been sorted out over boiling liquid.  As the grinder whines, she considers the accumulation of brown powder with gravity.  She hits a button and the machine falls silent.  She begins speaking while she fusses with the rest of it.

“I don’t have to tell you, Phu, that Mindy is a deeply trusting soul.  She reminds me of an old friend I have — a friend who never locks the doors to her house or car, no matter the hour, who wades into a crowd with her purse open, who can’t imagine that any harm will ever come to her.”

“That’s Mindy all over.  But it’s a helluva a thing, now, isn’t it?”

She fills a pitcher and pours the water into the automatic coffee machine, slides the pot into place and takes two mugs down from the cabinet.

I watch her do this with growing impatience.  I know she means well, but I can’t wait for the coffee to finish dripping.  I’m about to tell her that time is of the essence when she turns and rests the small of her back against the counter.

“For days after you fought—”  She sees me flinch.  “Oh, yes, I know about that.”

“If I had any idea—”

“No one is blaming you.  For days, she dialed the numbers you’d given her for this Hubsher fellow, never getting a live voice, leaving messages but never receiving a call back.  So this morning, unbeknownst to me, she woke up with another thought.  Around eleven, I gave her a lift to her car.  She only told me she had some errands to run.”

“But the car’s not working.  Did she call for a jump start or something?”

“Beats me.  She got it going.  Turns out her plan was to head over to the office of that bank that holds her uncle’s mortgage, the place in Essington.”

“Triple Fidelity.”  I nod.

“That’s right.  I gather she didn’t get any further than you did, but she spotted this woman in high heels, coming from the building there.”

“Mrs. Smith.  Bottle blonde?”

“That I don’t know.  Mindy followed the woman in her car on what sounds like a wild goose chase, pausing in all these places from the urban to the rural, then moving on again.  She got so turned around she couldn’t even tell you what state she was in, let alone what town.  Finally, the woman she’s following ends up at a cinderblock building.”

“What did it look like?”

“Back from the road.  Generic.  No sign.  Well maintained in an industrial sort of way, she says.  The only distinguishing feature was a series of giant aluminum vents on the outer walls.  The woman she’s following gets out of her car and disappears around the other side of the building.  Mindy climbs from her Volvo and tiptoes around the corner, following her, but still trying to remain hidden.  There are sounds of heavy machinery.  She edges nearer to the corner, listening for voices.  She can’t hear anyone, but she’s concentrating so hard that by the time she senses a presence behind her it’s too late.  She turns and it’s a giant machine — from her description must be a backhoe or an excavator, something like that.  It’s on top of her before she knows what’s happening, the bucket poised six feet over her head.  She freezes in terror.  Then it does occur to her to run, but before she can take her first step the contents of the bucket flood down on her, a heavy rain of manure, knocking her to her knees.”

“The odor.”

“Of course.  The backhoe doesn’t wait.  While she’s struggling to get up it swings around and scoops another load, which hits her like a ton, knocking her back down.  There were more, I guess.  She lost count.”

“I get the picture.  It doesn’t explain everything.”

“I’m not finished.  They buried her alive, the sons of bitches, trapped her beneath all that manure on the concrete ground.  Under the avalanche, muffled, she heard the sound of the equipment grinding as they piled it on ruthlessly.”

The coffee is ready.  Penny takes out a container of skim milk.  I wave off her offer of sugar and we sit at the kitchen table.  She closes her eyes as she takes the first sip, comfortable enough now to let me witness her reaction to a tickle of the palate.  I sip too.  The coffee is so robust that the flavor fights through our emotional upset, if only fleetingly.  And in this of all moments a window opens for me, a glimpse into the tug of the hearth.

“She’s a fighter.”  Penny sets her mug back on the table.  “She thrashed around enough down there to make an air pocket for herself, and then conserved her strength, waiting for the threat to subside.  And when the sound of the equipment faded, she clawed her way out.  She cut herself up pretty badly on the rough ground in the process, and in her desperation to get free when her head popped up she hit her face on a tooth of the backhoe.  They’d left the bucket resting atop the pile, I suppose.”

“A shot like that.  The poor thing had to be in an outright panic when she crested the surface.”

“She’s lucky those jerks weren’t around.  She said it practically knocked her unconscious.”

“They left her car there?”

“I suppose they presumed her dead.  That had to be their intention.”

Penny opens a cake tin and offers me some small butter cookies.  I shake my head.  She eats one herself and closes the tin.  I take another sip of coffee.

“Did she see who was driving the backhoe when all this was going down?”

“Apparently not.”

I drum my fingers on the table, contemplating.  “You know what kind of facility that had to be.”

“I can guess.”

Windowless cinderblock building.  Large air vents.  Piles of manure.  Anyone who lives in the Brandywine Valley would recognize that description immediately.  It’s a mushroom farm.

“Can I stay awhile longer?”

“You can sleep on the floor, if you want.  I can dig up a sleeping bag.”

“Thanks.  I’ll think about that.  I have to call the sergeant.”

“I’ll leave you.  Holler if you need me.”

She presses a hand into my shoulder as she limps past, the unnatural adrenaline-fed strength now dissipated, the evening finally having taken its toll.

“I’m plumb out of patience for the meanness of this world,” she says.  “I’ve seen a lot of stuff in my day.  What they did to that woman, though, is almost unbearable.  Make it right if you can, Phu, damn the consequences.”

“I’m out of my league, Penny.”

By the time she’s left the room, Buxton’s line is ringing and I’m thinking, Pick up, man, pick up.  This one time, pick up.

“Buxton here.  Hello.  Hello!”

I catch a breath and identify myself.

“Phu,” he says, “I’m kinda busy.  Is this more about that empty house?”

“It may be.”

I begin at the beginning, telling him of our trip to the Poconos, the goons having checked Uncle Gunnar from the hotel, the marks we made on the plywood and their resemblance to what we saw at the house in Kennett Square.

“I have pictures.”

“Dust!” he grunts, in a way that I think isn’t very CSI of him.

There’s more to the tale after the dust, of course, but the business on the chaise that night seems irrelevant.  I skip to our argument in the car, how Mindy went off in a huff.

“Women!” he exclaims.  “You got a further point to this?”

I come to today’s events and the story that Mindy told Penny.

“For real?” Buxton says.  “They buried her in shit?  Man, the world’s gone mad.  Someone stole a body yesterday from a Muslim cemetery — fourth one this month — and now here’s this nice woman…”

“Can you help us, Sergeant?”

“Well, I’m sorry for your trouble.  Hold on.”

He comes back a few minutes later.

“From what I can gather on this end, the cop in the hospital took a report.  Moynihan.  He’s a straight shooter and pretty conscientious.  He didn’t get all that far with regard to concrete evidence.  What else do you know?”

“What else?  It isn’t enough that they nearly killed her?”

“Listen, Phu.  From what you told me so far, it’s a tough case.  Mindy told Moynihan she can’t recall where the farm was or how she got home, and from what you say no details have floated back to her since.  Plus, no corroborating party has yet reported witnessing an assault with a backhoe, so far as we know — though, if it happened in a Pennsylvania jurisdiction it’s not exactly the kind of thing that would generate an all points bulletin.”

“That farm.  I’d bet my car it’s owned by Albert Hubsher.”

“You don’t know that.”

“He’s the biggest grower in the east.”

“That hardly qualifies as evidence.  There must be two hundred farms of that kind in the vicinity of Kennett Square that he doesn’t have a thing to do with.  You’re not giving me much to go on here.”

“Yeah, you’re a mushroom,” I say mirthlessly.  “Kept in the dark and fed shit.”

“Look, Phu, I’ve bent over backwards for you, and this is a busy time.  I’m sorry for you and your friend, but there’s just so much I can do with what you’re giving me.  I’ll file a report to get this conversation on the record, maybe poke around with Chief Grogan as soon as I get a chance, but I don’t want to create any false hopes.”

“False hopes?  That’s the best you can do?”

“I’m not saying it’s not real, what she’s going through.  Maybe one day, even, it’ll rise to a case that requires police action.  But if I presented this to a detective right now, he’d laugh at me.”

“So your advice?”

“Just this.  Do us all a favor, Phu.  Make sure the woman keeps her head down.”

 

42.

 

A light rain is falling when I pull up to the office late next morning.  Passing up a berth on Penny’s floor, I went home last night to catch some shut eye, showered and whatnot this a.m., returned to check on Mindy’s condition, and now have headed over to my main thinking place.  But the CPR Debt Relief sign offers nothing but discouragement.  I can’t face the towers of Chuck Kendall’s files upstairs and I need a sounding board for more important matters.

Going around back, I see that the kitchen door to Creamy Dreamy has been wedged open and Brad and Tabitha are standing in the slick parking lot, parting with a group of young school children.  As they go, Tabitha waves like the Queen of England, mechanically, wearing a cheerless frozen smile that’s equally worthy of the house of Windsor.  She’s not much for kids, which is probably why she makes so few accommodations for them in the store.  But she and Brad do host the occasional group with organized kitchen tours.  Too-Tall calls this, “Keeping the restless from going native.”

I watch the little ones flock back to the bus, which takes forever to pull away.  Although it’s not an unprecedented sight, to me the scene seems surreal after last night’s events.  Nearly everything ordinary does.  And as I close in on Brad and Tabitha, I can see that they look as haggard as I feel.

“How is she?” Tabitha asks, though I gave her the latest news by phone not two hours ago.

I shake my head.  “Still sleeping.”

“Come in out of the rain,” Brad says.  He carries the sock puppet in his good hand.  Stubby.  It’s made of wide-wale ribbed wool with a head of bright yellow cotton-yarn hair, a felt fuchsia mouth and a red pompom nose.  Crushed against the heel of Brad’s hand, Stubby looks distorted and pathetic.  He kneads the nose between thumb and forefinger.

Tabitha zones in on me.  “So…  You told me three times how she is but you didn’t tell us what happened.  Out with it!”

At this point, I can’t see any reason to hold back a morsel of information.  I spill everything Penny told me, then relate my conversation with Rufus Buxton.

“That’s all the sergeant could say,” Brad barks, “keep her head down?  Useless fucking fuzz!”

If the situation hadn’t become so serious, I’d laugh at his terminology.  Instead I say, “The cop at the hospital collected a sample of manure for the lab, apparently, but Buxton didn’t think it would lead to any breakthroughs.  Other than that and her bruises, we’re pretty short on evidence of any crime involving Mindy or Uncle Gunnar.”

“Amazing how these cops think,” Brad says.  “If the bastards had raped or killed her, I imagine they’d take it more seriously.  Just beat the crap out of her and they send a uniform and forget all about it.”

“Could be.  I think Buxton does care, but apparently he has bigger fish to fry at the moment.  Maybe I should be more pissed off by that, but I feel too numb.  Meanwhile, I’m in this deal scary deep and you two are my main confidantes.  You have any thoughts on how we proceed from here?”

Tabitha looks nonplussed.

Brad says, “It sounds like things are getting dangerous and the cops have gone AWOL.  When that happens, first order of business: you have to protect your ass.”

“You should know by now, Brad, I can stick up for myself.”

“We’re not talking about knuckles, champ.”  He slips the sock puppet over his bad hand and the thing comes alive.  “Hey, kids!” he says, affecting a high-pitched voice.  “It’s me, your harmless friend Stubby.  Did you hear the one about the comedian at the amputee convention?  No one would give him a hand!”

“Oh, brother!” Tabitha exclaims.

Feeling uncomfortable, I hold my facial expression in neutral, not sure where this is going.

Brad walks over and puts the kitchen island between us.  Maintaining the high voice, he says, “No one, you see, takes the little man seriously.  But — aha!” He snaps open a drawer and in one fluid motion jams a handgun into Stubby’s mouth.  “All of a sudden,” he notes, dropping his tone two octaves, “people aren’t laughing so hard at the cripple, are they?!”

He turns his head at an angle and, looking lasers at the wall from the corner of his eye, seizes the gun in his good hand and levels it toward his imaginary enemy.  I’m pretty sure the iron is real, and he looks genuinely angry.  Borderline insane, in fact.  It’s creepy.

“You made your point,” Tabitha says.  “Put the gun away.”

Brad holds his position just long enough to affirm his own personhood, then lowers his arm and lifts an eyebrow, giving me half a grin.

I brush the hair from my eyes.  “Heck.  I thought all you libs from California were into gun control.”

“Shit,” Brad says.  “I was visiting L.A. when the O.J. Simpson verdict came down and I’ve never seen more firepower on the street than that night in so-called liberal Beverly Hills.  The artistic types were manning the barricades on every corner, armed to the nines and extremely dangerous.  When civilization starts fraying at the seams, even ex-hippies find their inner Posse Comitatus quick enough.”

Tabitha stands there with her arms folded.  I can’t read her.  She turns and leaves the room.

“She doesn’t like talk like this,” Brad shrugs.  “But she knows it’s true.”

“I heard that!” she calls from the store.

Brad puts his gun away and pulls off the sock puppet.  The bad hand, suddenly revealed again, looks like a knobby pink creature from outer space.  He lowers his voice.

“I don’t know what your next move is with regard to solving the crime or whatever, Phu.  But if you want to be prepared for what you’re up against, you’d better get yourself some ordnance.  I’d give you this piece, but I’m in retail and it’s my very own security blanket.”

“Well…”  I shift my weight back and forth.  “It’s short notice.  You can’t just walk into a store and purchase a handgun, can you?”

“Sure can.  They require a background check, which takes twenty or thirty minutes, and that’s it.  But if you really want to make a statement, get yourself to a gun show and find a pistol you can take pride in.”

I consider the possibilities.  Whoever did this to Mindy probably has access to a weapon of some kind, and no doubt the will to use it if things get hairy enough.  On the other hand, I’ve always thought a pair of balls was more important than a six-shooter.

“If you’d like company,” Brad says, “we can take a ride this weekend to a gun show that’s happening over on Route 7.”

“Jesus.  You know that just off the top of your head?”

“There’s more on the top of my head than this funny chef’s hat.  I’ve been thinking of upgrading, so I was checking the schedule on the Internet just the other day.”

“I dunno, Brad.  To tell you the truth, I wonder about marrying my short temper to a weapon with a trigger.  And my karma’s, like, in divergence or something.  I mean, you mention guns to me and — poof! —  there’s the gun show on Route 7.  A coincidence like that seems a little too…too—”

“What, like someone’s calling you to the dark side?  What the hell’s gotten into you, pal?  I have news for you: it’s no great convergence of forces.  There’s a gun show almost every weekend within driving distance of home.”

“And you can shoot that thing you were just waving around?”

“If the opportunity arises.  I practice at the range once every few months.”

“I see.  Wow.  Mister tough guy.  Guess I underestimated you.”

“Don’t sweat it.  Everyone does.  It’s the disability.  Look, you came to me for advice, Phu, and my advice is to take matters into your own hands.  It’s what you used to do.  I don’t know why I have to build you a new spine, all of a sudden.”

“My instincts haven’t worked out so well lately, that’s why.  If you’ll recall, I slugged the wrong kid just a few weeks ago.”

“And look where that led.  Some genuine good came from it.”

“Like what?”

“For one thing, a place to direct your anger.  And a steaming hot place, at that.”

“You sound a little too pleased.  I’m beginning to think you’re living vicariously through me.”

“Only the past twelve hours.  Look, you’re into some crazy shit here.  One day you’re getting wasted and doing the beast with two backs with this stunning nymph and the next thing you know someone’s buried her in cow shit via backhoe.  I mean, are you kidding me!  These people — whoever they are — they’re animals! Violence may be the only language they understand.  You think a guy who does that to a woman is going to listen to reason?”

Just what I needed, another challenge to my manhood.

But by the next evening a bit of the urgency seems to have worn off.  I visit Penny’s house and Mindy isn’t looking so bad, all things considered.  Her fingernails are clean and shorter — cut and filed by Penny.  She has a few scabs, of course, and the ugly black eye, but even that appears to be improving.  I’m ashamed to say, in fact, that the shiner highlights the blue of her irises in a rather fetching way.  She’s sitting at the kitchen table, eating chocolate graham crackers, and every time she lifts her gaze to me something tingles deep inside.

There’s nothing of the flirt left in her anymore, though.  She’s all business.

“I may not be the brightest bulb on the tree,” she says, “but I’m no quitter.  If my father taught me one thing, it’s perseverance.  That’s what wins championships.”

“Yeah, but this isn’t a game, Mindy.  I like a good brawl as well as the next guy, but this is beginning to look like a fight to the death.  And we’re missing a crucial ally.  Buxton says he can’t help us.”

“Penny told me that.  It sucks big time.  What about you, Phu?  Be honest.  Are you backing out, too?”

“Not a chance.  I told you I was committed to helping and I still am.  Our next move—”

“I have some ideas about that.”

I smile.  “Of course.”

“Don’t patronize me.  This is for real.  I’m finished with the credit process.  I know you did your best, but every move we’ve made so far has pretty much been along the lines of figuring out what the bank was thinking, trying to get through to them.  Well, we can still work inside the system, but in a different way.  You want to know how?”

“You’re about to tell me.”

“Sure as shootin’.  We’re going to that sheriff’s auction, and we’re gonna buy back Uncle Gunnar’s house.”

“No, we’re not.  Not unless you’ve got a hundred and fifty grand lying around.”

“One fifty?  I thought the debt was only seventy-five.”

“It is, but the mortgage isn’t under water in this case, which is just part of the craziness.  On the open market, the house is probably worth twice the debt owed.  If Uncle Gunnar weren’t missing and he couldn’t pay the mortgage, he’d have sold the house, paid it off, and pocketed the difference.”

“And now what?  The bank gets that money?”

“No.  After expenses and the payoff to Triple Fidelity, the sheriff will distribute to Uncle Gunnar or his heirs.  By just waiting, Uncle Gunnar will get a plug of money back.”

“But lose his house.  And how do we know they’ll play fair?  They haven’t so far.”

“That’s something the paper shufflers will deal with.  When the sale happens I can refer you to a lawyer who’ll make sure they do everything on the up and up, but as far as wading into that process?  I’d advise against it.”

She screws up her nose, creasing the bandage on her cheek.  “I don’t know, Phu…”

“There are people who specialize in scooping up houses from these sheriff’s auctions.  They’re professional investors.  You’ll be a minnow among sharks.  Worse, a minnow with an emotional interest in the outcome.  Under those circumstances they’re likely to get the best of you.”

“Well, we tried it your way, and I don’t like the idea of Uncle Gunnar losing his home, even if he receives some money back.  Besides, allowing the auction to go on without doing anything is just what they’re hoping for.  But if we buy that house it’ll be in my possession if we do find Uncle Gunnar alive.”

She folds the chocolate graham package and places it back in Penny’s cookie tin, sliding that firmly to the wall, almost as an exclamation point.  “I’m attending that auction on Thursday come hell or high water, Phu.  I’d have a better chance to win with your help.”

I shake my head slowly.  “Absolutely not.  It’s madness.”

“Tell me this, at least.  You think it’ll sell for one-fifty?”

“Look, Min.  I’m not an expert on the real estate market in Kennett Square.  It could be more.  Could be one-seventy-five.”

“Okay.  Between my savings and my IRA I have, let’s see, a hundred fifteen, I think, give or take.  I’ll need a mortgage for the rest, is all.”

I shake my head again.  “The auction’s in forty-eight hours.  You need a ten percent downpayment, cash, the rest in three weeks, if memory serves.  But you’ll never get a mortgage on such short notice, not as an out-of-state resident with no formal ties to the area.  Not these days.  Can you borrow from a friend?”

“I don’t know.  Can I?”

“Don’t look at me that way.”

Of course, at this juncture I’d like to ask whether Mindy has connections in Minnesota who might be more appropriate donors to her cause.  This started out as a business relationship, after all, a relationship that was supposed to benefit me financially, not an opportunity to pile risk onto my personal balance sheet.  But the beat-up hands…the scab on her elbow…the twinkling blue eyes.  I reach up and touch the edge of the bandage on her cheek.

“Does it hurt much?”

“Not so bad.”

“When you were down there in the dark…  What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking about an amazing couple of hours I spent on a balcony in the snow.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Yes, I am.”  She smiles.  “All I was trying to do was breathe.  I was clawing like a cornered cat.  Survival mode.  You know something about that.”

Gee. “Sixty or seventy grand you need, I guess.  Let me think.”

Measured solely in dollars, it’s not really a close call.  My cost of living is low and I still have most of the thirty thousand that Kendall gave me, plus an untapped business line of credit, not to mention some savings and the value of my house.  That’s more than enough, by most normal calculations, to help buy Uncle Gunnar’s cottage.  But who said I was normal?  The decision tortures me.

Mindy’s showing impatience.  “Never mind.”  She says, rising from her chair.  “I’m still starved.  Can I interest you in a grilled cheese?”

She opens the fridge and takes out the bread and Swiss, then turns to the toaster, beside which Terrance’s sixty-five dollars still rests.

“Take this.”  I walk over and pick up the cash, pressing it into Mindy’s palm.  “Use it for groceries.”

“Thanks.  Where’d it come from?”

“Never mind.”  Our eyes lock.  “As for Uncle Gunnar’s house, Min.  If it’s what you really want, I’l help you buy it.”

“Help me how?”

I clear my throat.  “With c-cash.”

“You’ll contribute?”  She claps her hands and hugs me, but I gently push her away, holding her shoulders.

“There’s one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“We’re partners.  I’ll set the maximum price and we don’t bid past it, no matter what.  Deal?”

 

42.

 

A light rain is falling when I pull up to the office late next morning.  Passing up a berth on Penny’s floor, I went home last night to catch some shut eye, showered and whatnot this a.m., returned to check on Mindy’s condition, and now have headed over to my main thinking place.  But the CPR Debt Relief sign offers nothing but discouragement.  I can’t face the towers of Chuck Kendall’s files upstairs and I need a sounding board for more important matters.

Going around back, I see that the kitchen door to Creamy Dreamy has been wedged open and Brad and Tabitha are standing in the slick parking lot, parting with a group of young school children.  As they go, Tabitha waves like the Queen of England, mechanically, wearing a cheerless frozen smile that’s equally worthy of the house of Windsor.  She’s not much for kids, which is probably why she makes so few accommodations for them in the store.  But she and Brad do host the occasional group with organized kitchen tours.  Too-Tall calls this, “Keeping the restless from going native.”

I watch the little ones flock back to the bus, which takes forever to pull away.  Although it’s not an unprecedented sight, to me the scene seems surreal after last night’s events.  Nearly everything ordinary does.  And as I close in on Brad and Tabitha, I can see that they look as haggard as I feel.

“How is she?” Tabitha asks, though I gave her the latest news by phone not two hours ago.

I shake my head.  “Still sleeping.”

“Come in out of the rain,” Brad says.  He carries the sock puppet in his good hand.  Stubby.  It’s made of wide-wale ribbed wool with a head of bright yellow cotton-yarn hair, a felt fuchsia mouth and a red pompom nose.  Crushed against the heel of Brad’s hand, Stubby looks distorted and pathetic.  He kneads the nose between thumb and forefinger.

Tabitha zones in on me.  “So…  You told me three times how she is but you didn’t tell us what happened.  Out with it!”

At this point, I can’t see any reason to hold back a morsel of information.  I spill everything Penny told me, then relate my conversation with Rufus Buxton.

“That’s all the sergeant could say,” Brad barks, “keep her head down?  Useless fucking fuzz!”

If the situation hadn’t become so serious, I’d laugh at his terminology.  Instead I say, “The cop at the hospital collected a sample of manure for the lab, apparently, but Buxton didn’t think it would lead to any breakthroughs.  Other than that and her bruises, we’re pretty short on evidence of any crime involving Mindy or Uncle Gunnar.”

“Amazing how these cops think,” Brad says.  “If the bastards had raped or killed her, I imagine they’d take it more seriously.  Just beat the crap out of her and they send a uniform and forget all about it.”

“Could be.  I think Buxton does care, but apparently he has bigger fish to fry at the moment.  Maybe I should be more pissed off by that, but I feel too numb.  Meanwhile, I’m in this deal scary deep and you two are my main confidantes.  You have any thoughts on how we proceed from here?”

Tabitha looks nonplussed.

Brad says, “It sounds like things are getting dangerous and the cops have gone AWOL.  When that happens, first order of business: you have to protect your ass.”

“You should know by now, Brad, I can stick up for myself.”

“We’re not talking about knuckles, champ.”  He slips the sock puppet over his bad hand and the thing comes alive.  “Hey, kids!” he says, affecting a high-pitched voice.  “It’s me, your harmless friend Stubby.  Did you hear the one about the comedian at the amputee convention?  No one would give him a hand!”

“Oh, brother!” Tabitha exclaims.

Feeling uncomfortable, I hold my facial expression in neutral, not sure where this is going.

Brad walks over and puts the kitchen island between us.  Maintaining the high voice, he says, “No one, you see, takes the little man seriously.  But — aha!” He snaps open a drawer and in one fluid motion jams a handgun into Stubby’s mouth.  “All of a sudden,” he notes, dropping his tone two octaves, “people aren’t laughing so hard at the cripple, are they?!”

He turns his head at an angle and, looking lasers at the wall from the corner of his eye, seizes the gun in his good hand and levels it toward his imaginary enemy.  I’m pretty sure the iron is real, and he looks genuinely angry.  Borderline insane, in fact.  It’s creepy.

“You made your point,” Tabitha says.  “Put the gun away.”

Brad holds his position just long enough to affirm his own personhood, then lowers his arm and lifts an eyebrow, giving me half a grin.

I brush the hair from my eyes.  “Heck.  I thought all you libs from California were into gun control.”

“Shit,” Brad says.  “I was visiting L.A. when the O.J. Simpson verdict came down and I’ve never seen more firepower on the street than that night in so-called liberal Beverly Hills.  The artistic types were manning the barricades on every corner, armed to the nines and extremely dangerous.  When civilization starts fraying at the seams, even ex-hippies find their inner Posse Comitatus quick enough.”

Tabitha stands there with her arms folded.  I can’t read her.  She turns and leaves the room.

“She doesn’t like talk like this,” Brad shrugs.  “But she knows it’s true.”

“I heard that!” she calls from the store.

Brad puts his gun away and pulls off the sock puppet.  The bad hand, suddenly revealed again, looks like a knobby pink creature from outer space.  He lowers his voice.

“I don’t know what your next move is with regard to solving the crime or whatever, Phu.  But if you want to be prepared for what you’re up against, you’d better get yourself some ordnance.  I’d give you this piece, but I’m in retail and it’s my very own security blanket.”

“Well…”  I shift my weight back and forth.  “It’s short notice.  You can’t just walk into a store and purchase a handgun, can you?”

“Sure can.  They require a background check, which takes twenty or thirty minutes, and that’s it.  But if you really want to make a statement, get yourself to a gun show and find a pistol you can take pride in.”

I consider the possibilities.  Whoever did this to Mindy probably has access to a weapon of some kind, and no doubt the will to use it if things get hairy enough.  On the other hand, I’ve always thought a pair of balls was more important than a six-shooter.

“If you’d like company,” Brad says, “we can take a ride this weekend to a gun show that’s happening over on Route 7.”

“Jesus.  You know that just off the top of your head?”

“There’s more on the top of my head than this funny chef’s hat.  I’ve been thinking of upgrading, so I was checking the schedule on the Internet just the other day.”

“I dunno, Brad.  To tell you the truth, I wonder about marrying my short temper to a weapon with a trigger.  And my karma’s, like, in divergence or something.  I mean, you mention guns to me and — poof! —  there’s the gun show on Route 7.  A coincidence like that seems a little too…too—”

“What, like someone’s calling you to the dark side?  What the hell’s gotten into you, pal?  I have news for you: it’s no great convergence of forces.  There’s a gun show almost every weekend within driving distance of home.”

“And you can shoot that thing you were just waving around?”

“If the opportunity arises.  I practice at the range once every few months.”

“I see.  Wow.  Mister tough guy.  Guess I underestimated you.”

“Don’t sweat it.  Everyone does.  It’s the disability.  Look, you came to me for advice, Phu, and my advice is to take matters into your own hands.  It’s what you used to do.  I don’t know why I have to build you a new spine, all of a sudden.”

“My instincts haven’t worked out so well lately, that’s why.  If you’ll recall, I slugged the wrong kid just a few weeks ago.”

“And look where that led.  Some genuine good came from it.”

“Like what?”

“For one thing, a place to direct your anger.  And a steaming hot place, at that.”

“You sound a little too pleased.  I’m beginning to think you’re living vicariously through me.”

“Only the past twelve hours.  Look, you’re into some crazy shit here.  One day you’re getting wasted and doing the beast with two backs with this stunning nymph and the next thing you know someone’s buried her in cow shit via backhoe.  I mean, are you kidding me!  These people — whoever they are — they’re animals! Violence may be the only language they understand.  You think a guy who does that to a woman is going to listen to reason?”

Just what I needed, another challenge to my manhood.

But by the next evening a bit of the urgency seems to have worn off.  I visit Penny’s house and Mindy isn’t looking so bad, all things considered.  Her fingernails are clean and shorter — cut and filed by Penny.  She has a few scabs, of course, and the ugly black eye, but even that appears to be improving.  I’m ashamed to say, in fact, that the shiner highlights the blue of her irises in a rather fetching way.  She’s sitting at the kitchen table, eating chocolate graham crackers, and every time she lifts her gaze to me something tingles deep inside.

There’s nothing of the flirt left in her anymore, though.  She’s all business.

“I may not be the brightest bulb on the tree,” she says, “but I’m no quitter.  If my father taught me one thing, it’s perseverance.  That’s what wins championships.”

“Yeah, but this isn’t a game, Mindy.  I like a good brawl as well as the next guy, but this is beginning to look like a fight to the death.  And we’re missing a crucial ally.  Buxton says he can’t help us.”

“Penny told me that.  It sucks big time.  What about you, Phu?  Be honest.  Are you backing out, too?”

“Not a chance.  I told you I was committed to helping and I still am.  Our next move—”

“I have some ideas about that.”

I smile.  “Of course.”

“Don’t patronize me.  This is for real.  I’m finished with the credit process.  I know you did your best, but every move we’ve made so far has pretty much been along the lines of figuring out what the bank was thinking, trying to get through to them.  Well, we can still work inside the system, but in a different way.  You want to know how?”

“You’re about to tell me.”

“Sure as shootin’.  We’re going to that sheriff’s auction, and we’re gonna buy back Uncle Gunnar’s house.”

“No, we’re not.  Not unless you’ve got a hundred and fifty grand lying around.”

“One fifty?  I thought the debt was only seventy-five.”

“It is, but the mortgage isn’t under water in this case, which is just part of the craziness.  On the open market, the house is probably worth twice the debt owed.  If Uncle Gunnar weren’t missing and he couldn’t pay the mortgage, he’d have sold the house, paid it off, and pocketed the difference.”

“And now what?  The bank gets that money?”

“No.  After expenses and the payoff to Triple Fidelity, the sheriff will distribute to Uncle Gunnar or his heirs.  By just waiting, Uncle Gunnar will get a plug of money back.”

“But lose his house.  And how do we know they’ll play fair?  They haven’t so far.”

“That’s something the paper shufflers will deal with.  When the sale happens I can refer you to a lawyer who’ll make sure they do everything on the up and up, but as far as wading into that process?  I’d advise against it.”

She screws up her nose, creasing the bandage on her cheek.  “I don’t know, Phu…”

“There are people who specialize in scooping up houses from these sheriff’s auctions.  They’re professional investors.  You’ll be a minnow among sharks.  Worse, a minnow with an emotional interest in the outcome.  Under those circumstances they’re likely to get the best of you.”

“Well, we tried it your way, and I don’t like the idea of Uncle Gunnar losing his home, even if he receives some money back.  Besides, allowing the auction to go on without doing anything is just what they’re hoping for.  But if we buy that house it’ll be in my possession if we do find Uncle Gunnar alive.”

She folds the chocolate graham package and places it back in Penny’s cookie tin, sliding that firmly to the wall, almost as an exclamation point.  “I’m attending that auction on Thursday come hell or high water, Phu.  I’d have a better chance to win with your help.”

I shake my head slowly.  “Absolutely not.  It’s madness.”

“Tell me this, at least.  You think it’ll sell for one-fifty?”

“Look, Min.  I’m not an expert on the real estate market in Kennett Square.  It could be more.  Could be one-seventy-five.”

“Okay.  Between my savings and my IRA I have, let’s see, a hundred fifteen, I think, give or take.  I’ll need a mortgage for the rest, is all.”

I shake my head again.  “The auction’s in forty-eight hours.  You need a ten percent downpayment, cash, the rest in three weeks, if memory serves.  But you’ll never get a mortgage on such short notice, not as an out-of-state resident with no formal ties to the area.  Not these days.  Can you borrow from a friend?”

“I don’t know.  Can I?”

“Don’t look at me that way.”

Of course, at this juncture I’d like to ask whether Mindy has connections in Minnesota who might be more appropriate donors to her cause.  This started out as a business relationship, after all, a relationship that was supposed to benefit me financially, not an opportunity to pile risk onto my personal balance sheet.  But the beat-up hands…the scab on her elbow…the twinkling blue eyes.  I reach up and touch the edge of the bandage on her cheek.

“Does it hurt much?”

“Not so bad.”

“When you were down there in the dark…  What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking about an amazing couple of hours I spent on a balcony in the snow.”

“You’re kidding!”

“Yes, I am.”  She smiles.  “All I was trying to do was breathe.  I was clawing like a cornered cat.  Survival mode.  You know something about that.”

Gee. “Sixty or seventy grand you need, I guess.  Let me think.”

Measured solely in dollars, it’s not really a close call.  My cost of living is low and I still have most of the thirty thousand that Kendall gave me, plus an untapped business line of credit, not to mention some savings and the value of my house.  That’s more than enough, by most normal calculations, to help buy Uncle Gunnar’s cottage.  But who said I was normal?  The decision tortures me.

Mindy’s showing impatience.  “Never mind.”  She says, rising from her chair.  “I’m still starved.  Can I interest you in a grilled cheese?”

She opens the fridge and takes out the bread and Swiss, then turns to the toaster, beside which Terrance’s sixty-five dollars still rests.

“Take this.”  I walk over and pick up the cash, pressing it into Mindy’s palm.  “Use it for groceries.”

“Thanks.  Where’d it come from?”

“Never mind.”  Our eyes lock.  “As for Uncle Gunnar’s house, Min.  If it’s what you really want, I’l help you buy it.”

“Help me how?”

I clear my throat.  “With c-cash.”

“You’ll contribute?”  She claps her hands and hugs me, but I gently push her away, holding her shoulders.

“There’s one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“We’re partners.  I’ll set the maximum price and we don’t bid past it, no matter what.  Deal?”

 

43.

 

Near the South King Street entrance of the not-so-grand main hall of Wilmington Train Station, there’s a modest shoeshine stand that looks as battered as a piece of flotsam from the nearby Christina River.  Less than a day after pledging half my life savings to Melissa Eider, I climb into the middle chair wearing the only business suit I own and rest my scuffed black brogues uncomfortably on the metal stirrups.

The shoeshine man is a wiry black guy with receding gray hair and very bad teeth.  He rubs his chin.  “When was the last time you got them shoes shined?”

“Uh.  It’s been awhile.”

“I’ll say.  They’ll need three coats.”

“I got caught in the rain with them.”

“I’ll say.”

He charges me extra for the heavy work, but I tip generously anyway, a cheap bid to please the gods.  After checking my tie in the station’s dirty bathroom mirror, I climb into my car and head for an address in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.

Forty minutes later, I’m touring the full parking lot and squinting into the winter sun, which reflects off the building’s silver-green skin.  Security is shockingly light, and it helps further that I’ve dressed to belong.  I slip into a spot near the door that says, RESERVED FOR VISITORS OF TRIPLE FIDELITY HOLDINGS, INC.

Two middle-aged guards, seated behind a round desk in the lobby, ask who I’m there to see, and I give them the name of the Chief Financial Officer, Noah Pembrinsky.

One of the guards picks up the phone.  “You are?”

“Phuoc Goldberg.”  No need to mislead.

“Can I see some I.D.?”

I hand it to him.

He cradles the receiver between ear and shoulder, listening.

“You shouldn’t do that,” I say.  “Bad for the neck.  C-four vertebra.”

“Yeah?”  He takes the receiver in hand.  “How do you know?”

“I was trained as a medical doctor, though I don’t practice.  I have a Ph.D. In neuroendocrinology.”

This is my second lie of the afternoon.  I tell him this because people have been inculcated since infancy to trust the authority of doctors, and I need a little of this man’s trust.  Two or three more lies, I figure, and I’ll arrive where I want to go.

The guard shakes his head.  “His secretary isn’t picking up.”

“No?”  I pretend to reflect, then pretend to be thinking aloud.  “Could it be that she’s in on the presentation?  That the conference call started already?”

Pembrinsky’s secretary isn’t sitting in on the presentation or the conference call, of course.  I know for a fact that she isn’t in the building at all, because I’ve done something heartless.  Ten minutes ago, acting on the research I undertook this morning, I used a disposable cell phone to impersonate a police officer, saying something cryptic about a bus accident involving the secretary’s nine-year-old son at the Episcopal School.  The good news, she’ll soon learn, is that her son is totally fine.  The bad news is that I’ll probably go to hell anyway, though I hope that won’t be for a few years.  Maybe in Purgatory I can plead my case: that it couldn’t be helped — that Mindy’s life may have hung in the balance, her bruises standing as stark evidence.

“Can you try again?” I ask, looking at my watch in distress.  “I was supposed to be up there seven minutes ago, and Noah said not to be late.”

The guard dials a second time.  He goes instinctively to cradle the phone in his neck but catches himself.

“Better.  You ever have a pain that runs down into the left trapezius?”

“The trapezius?”

“At the gym they sometimes call it the trap.”

“My trap.  Yeah.”

“Well, next time you remember what Dr. Goldberg said, and in three weeks, maybe sooner, the neck thing will be a distant memory.”

“Can’t hurt.  I’ll try it.”  He pauses, listening.  “Still getting the voicemail.”

“Hmm.  I’m really late now.  Can you possibly ring Noah directly?”

He makes a show of great reluctance.  Noah Pembrinsky is a big shot and probably doesn’t interact much with the guards.  But it doesn’t matter, because his lines will all be busy when they call.  I know this because Brad and Tabitha are dialing them serially as I stand here, doing their damnedest to make Mr. Pembrinsky unreachable.  The CFO, if he’s there and bothers to pick up at all, must either think he’s being victimized by crank calls or that the phone system has gone kablooey.

Sure enough the guard shakes his head.  “No answer.”

I look at my watch, feigning grave concern.  “It’s because he’s in conference.  The conference where I should be.  On the third floor.  He’ll be very annoyed that I’m not there already.”

The guards look at one another.  The one with the neck says, “I’ll show the doctor up.”

We ride the elevator together, and the concern on my face is real this time, because I didn’t plan on an escort.  The doors open and the guard steps out.  We walk up to a glass door and he holds his card to the electronic pad.

“Thank you,” I say.

“Don’t mention it, doc.”

“I’ve only met Mr. Pembrinsky off site.  His office is to the—”

“Left.  You want me to show you?”

“No, that won’t be necessary.  Thanks so much.”

I proceed through the door and to my relief the guard returns to the elevator.

I’ve been in plenty of big offices before.  To find the most senior executives, one must only follow the hush.  Their space is like a dark pool of silence behind the roiling eddy of middle management.  Triple Fidelity proves no exception, and I proceed almost directly to Mr. Pembrinsky’s office and past that, since I’m not really here to see him at all.

Two assistants flank another door, at the end of the hall.  There’s no name displayed, but I know who has to be back there.  I could make a dash for it, but then they’d just call security and the guards won’t be as accommodating as they were a minute ago.  It’s much more effective to cock a limp wrist, elevate my briefcase to my chest, and point as if I have the crown jewels inside.

Is there any man in the world less threatening than a small-boned gay Vietnamese?  Putting on my most effeminate voice, I say, “Is Mr. Hubsher available?”

“Who might you be?”

“Roberto’s my name, Albert’s new decorator.  He’s not expecting me, but he’ll be delighted.”  I lean in to whisper with barely contained excitement.  “I have the swatches!”

“I’ll have to ring him.”

“Don’t bother.  I’ll just go right in.”

“You can’t—”

I march straight past her, seemingly oblivious to the fact that her mouth has been shocked wide open.  Fortunately, Hubsher’s door is unlocked.  And — as good — he’s in there alone.  I close it behind me.

Albert Hubsher sits in a leather wing chair with his legs crossed, reading a report in his lap.  He appears to be an ordinary man with a full head of gray hair, lively eyes and a deep tan.  As he looks up at me, the cordless phone rings.  He picks it up, continuing to eye me.

“Yes, I see that,” he says coolly into the receiver.  “No, he isn’t, but it’ll be all right.”  Pause.  “Thank you, Shirley, but I’m sure it will be all right.”

He sets the phone down and drinks me in.  He smiles.  “Would you like a beverage?”

I shake my head, not willing to accept any favors, avoiding the tug of reciprocation.

“Mind if I do?”  He uses the phone to order iced water.  “Please sit.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Of course.  Better to stand.  Better to stoke your sense of outrage.”

A young woman enters with a small carafe on a highly polished tray.  She sets it down with two glasses on the burled-wood coffee table.  The coasters are cork and the napkins are cloth, embroidered with the Triple Fidelity logo.

So here I am finally in the big man’s presence, thinking, My God, to command all these people with your fat wallet.  What kind of ego that must inflate.

“If you won’t sit, set down the briefcase, at least.  You’re making me nervous with it.”

“Afraid I have something dangerous in there?”

“No.  There are detectors in the lobby.  They’re unobtrusive but quite thorough.”

I place my briefcase on the floor and watch as Hubsher calmly pours himself a glass of water and drinks.

I decide to take a seat after all, sinking awkwardly into the couch opposite him.  “What was that crack about my outrage?  You know who I am?”

“Not at all.  I receive perhaps seven or eight unannounced visitors per year in this office.  Half of them are friends who’ve decided to surprise me.  The other half have a grievance of some kind.  As I don’t recognize you as a friend, I assume you’re in the latter camp, so dissatisfied that thirty-five hundred employees couldn’t solve your problem.”

“We’ve called you a dozen times on the phone.  My name is Phuoc Goldberg and my client is Melissa Eider.  You made no attempt to call us back, let alone to solve our problem.  It’s about a mortgage that originated in your banking division in Essington.”

“That’s an administrative office, not a banking office.”

“Be that as it may, you haven’t returned a single phone call, so of course you’re right about my intentions.  Add in an incident that I’ll come to in a minute – a criminal incident – and I’m coming here with steam under the collar.”

Hubsher sets his report upside down on the coffee table, nothing but legal disclaimers printed on the back cover.

“Whatever the reason for your emotionalism, it’s wasted energy.  We have certain systems in place.  As you might imagine, an enterprise of this scale requires management of many people and countless transactions.  We have more operations than might seem apparent even with a close look from the outside.  As such, I accept phone calls only from people I know.  I’m sure you understand; they’re carefully screened.  Now that you’re here, however, I’ll give you four minutes to explain what’s eating you.  Then they’ll patch through my four-thirty conference call and we’ll be finished.”

“Does the name Gunnar Karlson mean anything to you?”

“If it did, I wouldn’t tell you.  I haven’t made myself available to you in order to have my brains picked.”

“He’s a ninety-year-old man and your company holds his mortgage.  We can’t find him right now — he’s missing — and we need time to sort it out.  But, despite our best efforts to make your company hear reason and give us more time — which is all we’re asking — you have it scheduled for a sheriff’s auction day after tomorrow.”

“It’s a shame when they default.  I thought you said a woman was your client.”

“Technically, it’s the uncle.”

“And you represent him?”

I hand him my card.

“CPR,” he smiles.  “You might have picked a better metaphor, maybe Heimlich or Caesarian or something like that.  You know, after the heart stops, cardiopulmonary resuscitation promises only a five percent survival rate, more or less.  Survival after the Heimlich Maneuver is much higher.”

“Thanks for the branding advice.”  I hesitate.  I’d like to make a crack here, something equally cutting and condescending, maybe about all those claims that his health insurance company fails to pay.  Or I’d like to make him feel as vulnerable as I do right now, maybe mention that I know about the funeral home roll-up or the mushroom farms or the estate in Unionville.  Or I’d like even to go caveman on his ass, to pick up a piece of furniture and break it over his well groomed head.  I’d like to do a lot of things, but I’m sitting in his office, on his couch, emasculated in a business suit.

I lean forward, hands between my knees.  “With all due respect, Mr. Hubsher, I didn’t come here to hear your opinions.  I came because there’s an old man in trouble, an old man who’s having his modest house taken away by one of your companies because he’s a few months overdue on a loan.  The furniture we’re sitting on is probably worth more than you’re owed by him in total, and I’m not saying you won’t get all of that back eventually, either.  But he’s an old man with a long history of staying current with his payments.  Person to person, I’m appealing to your sense of decency, sir.”

A twinkle comes into his eyes.  “Mr. Goldberg, you’re quite eloquent.  I’m so impressed by you that I’ll extend this chat by another minute or two, let the conference call wait.”  He indicates the tray.  “Have a sip.  Catch your breath.”

He pours water into the second glass and slides it toward me and I do drink.  It’s about as fresh and cool as any liquid I’ve ever had, no doubt distilled and then stored at a perfect fifty-five degrees for Mr. Albert Hubsher’s sole refreshment.  I set down the glass, relishing the relief at the back of my throat.

“You look like a numbers guy,” Hubsher says, “and therefore I’m sure you know that numbers rule business, not sentiments.  This man of whom you speak, Mr.—”

“Karlson.”

“—Karlson, yes.  Missing or un-missing, I’m sure he’s worthy of angels and archangels, who will sing his praises in heaven one day and on into eternity.  But we’re not carried on feathers, you and I.  We’re businessmen, numbers guys.  Weeks and months and quarters and fiscal years, that’s what rules our decisions, not the earnest heartfelt considerations of priests and social workers.”

The intercom interrupts.  Hubsher doesn’t turn his head.  “Tell them a minute.”

“Okay, Albert.”

He stands and adjusts his shirt cuffs each in turn.

“In our mortgage division, we have at this very moment thirty-four million dollars of arrears in Chester County alone, people who have failed to pay what they promised to pay.  They had their obligations to us and we have our obligations to the shareholders.  Business, Mr. Goldberg.  Just business.”

He makes it sound simple, rational.  I’d like to bring the conversation to the criminal conspiracy that I think he’s used somehow to get a hold of Uncle Gunnar’s house and harm Mindy, but the absurdity of this accusation, now that I’m here, blankets me in frustrated silence.

“I have thirty seconds,” Hubsher says, extending a hand.  “Is there anything sensible I can do for you in that time?”

I frown and shake my head, shamefully unable to mention Mindy’s attempted murder.

His phone rings and the door opens and it’s the guard with the neck.  “Okay, doc.  Time’s up.”

Only downstairs, walking out the front door, does it occur to me how casually and instinctively Hubsher identified me as a numbers guy.  If so inclined — as I am — one might interpret that as an Asian slur.

 

44.

 

On Wednesday, our last chance before the auction, Mindy and I decide to pay a visit to the subject real estate, aka Uncle Gunnar’s house.  The day is clear and Mindy has recovered appreciably from her trauma.  The scabs look mature and the large bandage on her cheek has been replaced with a simple butterfly, covering the stitches.  The eye that had nearly swollen shut is now fully open, its white part only a little bloodshot, and the big bruise on her cheek contains more yellow than black in its mottling.  She’s a sight that might warm the cockles of one’s heart — or warm something else — if it weren’t for a major distraction out on the street.

“Son of a bitch!” I say, spotting the red Torres plumbing van as we pull up.  “Tell me it was him on that backhoe that buried you and I’ll take care of him right this second!”

“Don’t be rash.  I said I didn’t see who it was and that’s a fact.”

“Okay.  Still, this guy keeps showing up like a bad penny, and there’s more than coincidence behind it!”

I jump out of the Mini and sprint up the stairs to the front door of the house, which remains locked.  I jog clockwise around the house and pause in the rear, testing the sliding door, which also won’t open.  A loud metallic slam comes from close by.  I round the corner just in time to see a person disappearing around the front, and I run hellbent for the street only to see Juan Torres pulling away as I arrive.

Mindy’s standing on the walkway.

“Shit,” I puff.  “What did you see?”

“Just Torres going straight to his van.  He had something that looked like loppers.”

“Did he spot you, recognize you?”

“Sure did.  He ran right past me.  He didn’t pause, but he seemed kind of surprised to see me — or maybe it was my appearance.”

“Surprised to see you alive, more like.”

“I honestly don’t know.  It was a split second.”

I look at the lawn, which bears my footprints and those of Torres in the frost.  We follow his tracks back to the Bilco door.  The padlock’s been cut.  I turn to Mindy, who lifts an eyebrow.

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” I say.

She’s noncommittal.

The Bilco door clatters when I drop it open.  I descend the steps and there’s another door down there, with a windowpane broken and the deadbolt thrown open.  I find a pull string, which illuminates a bare bulb.  The small basement has a sparsely finished area at the bottom of the interior stairs, where the washer and dryer once stood.  The rest is broom clean with a poured concrete floor.  But Torres left a short shovel behind with a clump of soil on the blade.  Near that is an elevated cinderblock crawlspace with a dirt floor.  I clamber up and examine it, finding that the dirt’s been recently disturbed.  I run my fingers through it carefully, telling myself not to freak out if I find something macabre, but the soil’s well sifted — containing no more than harmless pebbles and some dried-up dead beetles.

When I hop down, Mindy is there, looking worried.  “Find anything?”

“No.”

She lets out a breath.  “Can we look upstairs again?”

“Why not?  The camel’s nose is already under the tent.”

But the upstairs is just as we last saw it, picked clean, a plywood board covering the broken window.

I wash my hands in the kitchen sink and dry them on my pants.

We leave through the basement, as Torres did, and I drop Mindy back at Penny’s house.  A few minutes later, I’m walking across the Creamy Dreamy parking lot, wondering whether this new bit of mischief is Buxton-worthy or if I should call Chief Grogan or neither, when I notice a big white BMW taking up two spots.  Kendall.

He’s upstairs cooling his heels — or not cooling them, as the case may be.  He’s lying on the couch with his shoes off, one arm covering his forehead, but he’s wide awake.  He jumps up as I enter and slips into his loafers.

“Phu, where the hell have you been?”

“Out and about.”

“Working on my affairs?”

“Sure.”

“Bullshit.  You’re supposed to be on my case twenty-four seven, but I’m here two hours and no sign of you.  We had an agreement.  What gives?”

“Look, Chuck, I don’t have to justify every minute of my time to you.”

“Wrong there.  I got thirty large committed and it means I own you, baby.  It was a good-faith payment and if you don’t plan to hold up your end of that bargain you can give it back right now.  With interest.”

It’s hard to argue with that logic, and normally I wouldn’t try; I’d just throw the money back in his face.  I still have most of it in the bank, and after only a week or so the interest is a rounding error.  But of course I’ve pledged that thirty thousand (and then some) to Mindy for buying Uncle Gunnar’s house.  Never owe.  That was my own damn rule and here I am.  It makes me wonder about Torres and the basement I just came from, for some reason.  Maybe the guy was there digging his own grave.  More than one way to do that.

But bitterness and resentment aren’t my friends right now, if they ever were.  Cool is the way to go here, so quite consciously I close my eyes for a moment and force myself to picture a raging sandstorm yielding to calmer winds.

I touch Kendall on the shoulder.  “Chuck.  I’m your man, you know that.  You said I could spend a few days wrapping up remaining business, and that’s what I’ve been doing, letting the older clients down gently.  It’s taken a little longer than anticipated, that’s all.  Meanwhile, I’m on your case.  Look here.”

I lead him to my desk, where I’m fortunate to have left an early draft of his spreadsheet, though I haven’t touched it for days.  I pick it up and snap it straight.

“See this?  Step One of the Chuck Kendall solution.  This, this, this,” I point to the other papers all over the desk.  “All Charles W. Kendall.  See for yourself if you don’t believe me.”

Presenting this evidence, I’m also lucky that Uncle Gunnar’s strange case hasn’t generated a shred of paperwork for a long time.  Kendall casts his eyes over the desk, and most of what’s there must look somewhat familiar to him.  He nods, less agitated now.

“The boxes…” I extend my arms.  “I’m a quarter of the way through them.  I’d be done by now, but they came to me disorganized.  How’s it going on the home front?  You getting nasty phone calls?”

“All the time.  My assistant keeps a list.”

“Have her pass them along.  I’ll be working double-time any day now.”

“Exclusive.”

“Just a few more hours cleaning up the old clients.  Then I’m yours one hundred percent.”

I walk him to the top of the steps.  He pauses there.  “Exclusive, Phu.  Exclusive.  I’ll hold you to it.”

“I know you will.”

 

45.

 

To that small matter of “cleaning up” for my “old” client.

Next morning, Mindy and I park in the garage across from the West Chester Justice Center.  After Mindy exits the car, I open the glove compartment and extract my new Walther P99.  I tuck it under the driver’s seat, then think better of it and return it to the glove compartment, which I’d like to lock with a key, but the Mini doesn’t offer that feature.  The handgun has me nervous for several reasons.  For one thing, while I purchased it legally I don’t have a concealed carry permit, not that the Walther P99 is an easy thing to conceal — it’s a beast.  Second, so far as I know it’s illegal to transport a loaded firearm in a motor vehicle in Pennsylvania, and this bad boy has a full magazine.  Finally, in so short a time I was only able to work in one shooting lesson as Brad’s guest at the Delaware Rifle and Pistol Club on Belmont Avenue, where I barely managed to damage a paper target at twenty-five feet.

On the way to the courtroom where the auction will be held, we pass through the metal detector and I half expect the guilt written on my face to set off alarms all by itself.

The courtroom is nearly full.  I’m glad to spot Sergeant Buxton standing against a side wall, having responded to my heads-up.  He’s in uniform but bearing no official capacity, out of his jurisdiction as usual when it comes to Uncle Gunnar.  I return his cool nod, the suggestion being that it’s best not to be too palsy-walsy in this venue.  There are some more familiar faces scattered about the crowded room.  One of them belongs to Albert Hubsher and several others are the goons we last saw at the office in Essington, seemingly ages ago.

Mindy and I take a seat toward the back in an attempt to go unnoticed, better to have the element of surprise when the bidding starts.  Up front, the court personnel operate with grim efficiency, calling out lots and shuffling papers under the eye of a woman — the judge?  the sheriff?  — who appears to preside.  As I’d predicted, aside from those running the show, many people in the audience seem to know one another and have a comfort with the procedures that could only arise from regular attendance.  They hold up their paddles with a degree of insouciance that almost suggests they’re operating with play money.  Meanwhile, as I contemplate what we’re about to do, I’m sweating every wrinkled dollar.

We sit for forty-five minutes, watching the lots go by.  A few have no takers at all.  Most sell with a negligible number of bids, though it does get hot and heavy now and then.  When this happens, I have a sense that the most aggressive bidders are privy to information that is not available to the general public, though it’s hard to be specific about what that information might be.  There’s also a second layer of activity in the room among average people looking on nervously, chatting in hushed voices.  Occasionally, as the bidding wraps up for one property or another, some of them rise and dourly leave the room.  I figure them for the original owners.

Things move so quickly and people file in and out so frequently that I really have to concentrate to follow the proceedings, constantly looking down at the schedule of lots, so as not to miss our number.  Finally, I turn a page in the program and place my thumbnail on the relevant item.

I lean toward Mindy.  “Uncle Gunnar’s next.”

A short time later they call the lot.  There’s a long moment of inactivity, then the guy with the Jheri curls raises his paddle for an opening bid of $10,000 and Uncle Gunnar’s house is off to the races.  The auctioneer says he’s looking for $15,000.

“Ooh,” Mindy squeaks.  She begins to raise her paddle and I grab her forearm, pressing it back into her lap.

She looks at me in distress.

“Just wait,” I whisper.  “See how it plays.”

Early on there are several bidders, including Jheri curls, who’s bidding, I presume, for the bank.  He answers every bid with another five grand step-up, and the price soon runs up to $70,000.

“We’re getting close,” I tell Mindy, still holding down her arm.  “The bank should drop out when it reaches just shy of the mortgage amount, knowing they’ll be made whole.  Then we’ll jump in and be competing with civilians.”

But within seconds Jheri curls turns me into a liar.  The price surpasses $100,000 and he’s still throwing up his paddle, facing off with some dark-haired guy in the third row.  I shift in my seat to see who it is.

“What the—  That’s Juan Torres!”

There’s no time to contemplate the implications of this observation.  To my amazement they go back and forth in five-thousand-dollar increments, and it’s also astonishing how quickly the dollars pile up.  In less than a minute the price has reached $165,000, last bid belonging to the gentleman with the Jheri curls.  Torres hesitates.

“I have one sixty-five,” the auctioneer says.  “Do I have one seventy?  One seventy?”

“Now!” I say, releasing Mindy’s arm.  Her paddle shoots up like it’s on a spring.

“One seventy,” the auctioneer says.

Torres whips his head around.  He bids $175,000 and Jheri curls bids $180,000 and I reluctantly nod to Mindy and she bids $185,000.  Torres and Jheri curls go two more rounds at smaller increments with me firmly gripping Mindy’s wrist, locking it to her thigh.  Our worst-case-scenario budget was $185,000.  In eight seconds the bidding hits $197,500 and Mindy pleads with her eyes.  I let go and her paddle shoots up.  Two hundred grand.  Damn.

“Two hundred thousand,” the auctioneer calls.  “Do I have two oh two five hundred?”

No bid.

The auctioneer calls again, “Two oh two five hundred?”

Torres looks agitated, but he isn’t done.  He bids and Jehri curls bids and they’re flat-out sprinting again.  It makes no sense.  In another moment, the bidding has hit $235,000 and Torres drops his chin to his chest, exhausted.

Mindy begins to lift her paddle.

“No!” I say, holding her fast.  “They’ve blown past our budget.”

“Going once,” the auctioneer calls.

Mindy fights me, trying to raise her paddle again.  “No!” I say, loud enough for others to hear.  “Think!”  I drop my voice again.  “Your uncle will get most of that money.”

“Going twice,” the auctioneer calls.

Mindy stares daggers at me and, wrestling to pry my fingers from her wrist, struggles to lift the paddle again.  But I raise my free hand and grab the top of the paddle from her, driving it to the space between our chairs.

“Sold!” the auctioneer calls.  In a more subdued tone he tells the clerk the number that Jheri curls holds.

Mindy lets her fingers open and the paddle falls to the floor.  She turns and punches me in the arm.  Hard.

I get a feeling of eyes upon me and pivot around in time to catch a bemused look crossing Hubsher’s face.

Meanwhile, Torres jumps from his seat and storms toward Jheri curls over by the side wall.  They exchange words and a commotion ensues.  We try to reach there but the aisle is crowded and the bailiffs have stepped in.  This all occurs in less than a minute, but by the time we’ve put it together and the aisle has cleared both men are gone.

Mindy boils with fury.  She doesn’t speak, doesn’t have to.  As we ride home in heavy silence, I recall something in a distant English Lit class about hell and fury and a woman scorned.

Back at Penny’s house, it’s not a good scene.

“How’d it go?” Penny asks as we walk in, though I’m sure she can get her answer by sniffing the air that enters alongside us.

Mindy launches into a narrative that ends with the man from CPR Debt Relief cast as a wimp who retreated in the face of evil.  An unaccustomed role for me, I’d like to think, but untrue in any event.

I plead my case.  “I let her go more than eight percent over our budget, but they blew us away.”

“Eight percent!” Mindy scoffs.

“That’s fifteen thousand dollars.  Not exactly chump change.  And it was a losing battle no matter what, facing off against a billionaire.  You saw what happened, Min.  We didn’t have a chance in there.  Neither did Torres.”

“We might have inflicted more pain on them.”

“We might have ended up bankrupt, too, which wasn’t going to help anything.  Or were we supposed to beg Triple Fidelity for a loan to make up the difference?  This was a harebrained scheme!”  I throw up my hands.

“Un uh, Mr. Math Whiz.  Don’t you see?  No matter what we paid, Uncle Gunnar would have reimbursed us.  All together, we’d only lose the amount of the mortgage, according to what you told me.”

I blanch.  What she’s saying is accurate, strictly speaking, but only under two scenarios: if Uncle Gunnar’s alive and willing to buy the house back for what we paid or if he’s deceased and has willed the place to Mindy already.  On the other hand, if he’s no longer among the living and Mindy’s not an heir, her good intentions would have set us down the road to hell.  But I hesitate to tell her this, lest I find myself accused of speaking ill about the possibly dead.

“Listen,” I say through clenched teeth, “the bottom line is that we had an agreement about how far we’d go.  Like all good financial planning, the budget I laid down saved us from ourselves.”

Mindy meets this statement with a withering glare.  Despite that, I’m secretly relieved.  Kendall’s thirty thousand is uncommitted again, freeing me to restore that relationship to equilibrium — goodbye indentured servitude.

“Even if you saved us from ourselves,” Mindy says, “what did we do for Uncle Gunnar?”

“Uncle Gunnar.  Uncle Gunnar,” I mock.  “Hell, Mindy, no offense, but what did Uncle Gunnar ever do for us?”

A stupid thing to say on a couple of levels.  For one thing, if I’m working for Mindy, as I claim to be, then helping Uncle Gunnar is my J.O.B.  For another, when our eyes meet I can tell we’re both thinking of that glorious night on the chaise, which Uncle Gunnar delivered in more ways than one.

We squirm for a minute, Penny looking on.  Then Kyle bursts through the kitchen door, breathless.

“Hey!  Come quick!  Terrance got a bead on that guy Torres.  He’s on the move!”

 

46.

 

“Not just Torres,” Kyle says as we head out the door.  “Him and his wife.  We saw them wrestling a body bag into the back of his van.”

“A body bag?  What did it look like?”

“Bulky vinyl thing, five or six feet long.”

Kyle’s description hits me in the pit of my stomach.  I was hoping for something that sounded less definitive when I asked.

He runs with us to the car, but I hold him back with a rigid arm.  Mindy and I climb in and I burn rubber in the Mini and arrive just in time to see a red van disappearing around the next corner.  We follow Torres through light traffic for ten or fifteen miles, culminating at the back of a warehouse in the industrial section of New Castle, where he pulls up next to a white van with a different plumber’s name on it.

The late afternoon light is fading rapidly — short days of February — but I still can’t risk getting too close.  From a hundred yards away we watch a man exit the white van.  He’s built like Torres and also appears to be Hispanic, though it’s difficult to tell for sure in the growing dimness.  Even at a distance, though, I can see that his van is more professionally painted than Torres’s and the name of the company is more generic: A.A.H. Plumbing and Heating.

Each of them opens his own rear doors and the other man helps Torres wrestle the body bag into the back of the white van.

“Oh my God,” Mindy gasps.

Could that be Uncle Gunnar in there?  I have no words to reassure her.

Torres cuts his engine and locks his doors, then climbs into the passenger seat of the white van, next to his friend.  They take off at a nice clip, not speeding but with a sense of purpose to their motion.  The van proceeds onto the highway, weaving with determination through streaming traffic, then onto local roads, then back roads, finally to Doe Run Road in Unionville.  Yep, Hubsher’s place.

Hanging back, I pull to the side of the road and we watch.  The driver talks into the security panel, the gate opens, and they proceed through.

“What happens now?” Mindy asks.

“We lie low.”  The second I say those words they feel like an ominous pun.  But we’ve come this far.  I pull the car up along the shoulder, farther from the centerline and closer to the entrance.  “When Torres comes out, we’ll corner him and confront him.”

It’s fully dark now, early evening.  I crack the windows and turn off the engine.  The air smells fresh.  Outside, an owl hoots.

Mindy says, “I’m sorry for being a shrew earlier.  You were right about the bidding thing.”

“Never mind.”  I shake my head.  “I shouldn’t’ve said that about your uncle and what he’d ever done for us.  There was no call for that kind of talk.  It was callous.  I know you were close to him.”

The headlights of a passing car briefly rake across Mindy’s face.  Even in sadness, she’s as beautiful as ever.

Hours go by, many hours.  To distract ourselves from the subject nearest us, we chat about things that don’t matter: movie stars and football teams and books we’ve read and the amusing innocence of elementary school kids.  But as it nears midnight this conversation feels increasingly forced and there’s still no sign of Torres or the white van.  We fall silent for a while, fidgeting.

“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” Mindy says.  “What could he be doing in there?”

I pause, imagining what tools Torres might have and how they could be employed disposing of a body.

“Maybe we should call the police,” Mindy says.

“They’d just tell us they need something more for probable cause.  And I’m not sure I’d blame them.”  I watch a truck pass us, heading the other way, then turn toward Mindy.  “Fuck it.  I’m going in.”

“You are not.”

“After all you’ve been through, we have to get to the bottom of this thing.”

“It’s not safe!  They’re bad men!  I’ve already lost my uncle!”

For the first time since we met, Mindy’s not looking on the bright side of anything.

I reach into the glove compartment and pull out the gun.  “Don’t worry.  With the help of Mr. Walther, I can take care of myself.”

“Who’s Mr. Walther?”

“This.”  I wave it in the dark.  “It’s a nine millimeter and the magazine’s full.”

“The debt guy has a weapon?  I underestimated you.”

“Don’t fret it.  Everyone does.”  (In the back of my mind, I thank Brad for that line.)  “Get behind the wheel, keep the key in the ignition and lock the door.  Don’t open it for anybody but me.  And if I’m not back in an hour, take off, find a safe place, and call Buxton.”

We part awkwardly and I hear the car doors lock.

An unbroken overcast hides the moon.  I circumvent the gate and walk parallel to the driveway, remaining under the subtle shadows of the bare trees that line it.  It’s more of a road than a driveway, a long walk to the heart of the estate.  Crunching through fields of frozen grass and woods of frozen leaves in the pitch darkness, I don’t see or hear anyone.

Near the center of the property — or what I presume to be the center — I approach a massive house with a few lights on.  There’s someone on the raised back patio, fifty yards from my position.  He fires up a cigarette, and I see that it’s a security guard in uniform.  But he doesn’t appear to notice me in the pitch dark.

Moving like a cat, I walk a wide circle around the house, but find no sign of the white van.  Then I think of the smell these mushroom houses put out, fed by piles of reeking manure.  Of course, I think, Hubsher wouldn’t locate the world’s biggest mushroom farm too near his mansion.

I backtrack and trace the drive to a split that I missed on the way in.  Sure enough, there’s a dirt road coming off of it that disappears through the woods.  I trudge right up the middle of the road, which passes up and over a pair of hills.  In the third hollow, a compound of buildings looms.  In the farmyard formed by their grouping, a handful of floodlights casts packed dirt and gravel in glowing silver pools.  As I draw nearer, I begin to discern farm vehicles and pickup trucks parked in the shadows.  The buildings are made of cinderblock painted chrome green with corrugated tin roofs.  I swing in a wide arc along the ridge of the hill, taking it in from a different angle.

That’s when the white van reveals itself.

In the cold, my nose is running and I choke down the product of a postnasal drip.  I peer at my glowing watch, which tells me I’ve been gone for an hour already.  Shit, I think. Mindy may be calling Buxton right now.  Maybe I should report back.  But I’m reluctant to violate the utter silence all around me with a phone call or even to disrupt my concentration by sending a text message.

I take a few tentative steps in the direction of the van, then crouch behind a boulder on the edge of the hill, poking my head out from behind it.  The van’s lights are off and the tailpipe emits no exhaust.  From this distance, no one appears to be inside.

 

47.

 

While I was walking, the temperature dropped rapidly.  Now the long pause after the exertion makes my back feel clammy.  I work my way surreptitiously down the hill and toward the van.  In a strange way, the compound feels emptier than the adjoining woods and fields.  My own breath, encircling my face in clouds, is the only animate thing I can see.

The van stands under the floodlights.  Stepping from the shadows, I feel intensely vulnerable, as if I’m being watched through a rifle scope positioned in the distance — just a trigger pull away from harm.  I squint unsuccessfully through the glare of the windshield, uncertain about whether the van is occupied.  But seeing no motion inside I tiptoe up to it and peer through the passenger window.  No one there.  I duck around to the back, but the side and rear windows have been painted over and I dare not violate the silence of the night by pulling open one of its doors.

I return to the shadows and skulk around the buildings, avoiding the pools of light cast on the frozen ground.  Something rustles behind me and I catch my breath and drop to my knees, but it’s only a possum passing through.  He tucks his tail and disappears behind a rock, and I reorient.  From the perspective of my crouch, I assess the surroundings again, for the first time noticing vague footprints heading from the van to a door in the side of one building.  They immediately bring to mind the tracks in the grass at Uncle Gunnar’s house after we spotted Torres there, and my thoughts leap from there to the swirls in the dust of the dining room floor.  Now that I’m creeping around someone else’s property at midnight with a gun in my pocket, all these signs, so commonplace in a different context, have begun to freak me out.  I’m picturing the dust in detail on Uncle Gunnar’s floor and our re-creation of events at the hotel in the Poconos when a roar erupts over my right shoulder.

The backhoe that buried Mindy?!  Jumping nearly out of my shoes, I spin while yanking the Walther with great effort from my coat pocket.  Later there will be time for thanking the inventor of this gun’s safety features, because without them I’d have likely shot myself.  But the noise I heard turns out only to be a giant ventilator on the nearby mushroom house, exploding to life.  I lower the gun and recompose myself as the blower spits stinking steamy air into the night.

The door where the footprints lead is across the farmyard.  I sprint through the pools of light, clutching the gun within my coat as I run.  The door is solid steel but unlocked.  I open it just wide enough to enter and pull it closed behind me.

Inside the building, darkness cloaks everything.  With my back to the door, I wait for my eyes to adjust and concentrate on settling my racing heart, as if I have any ability to do that on command.  But after an eternal minute the room remains utterly black.  I power up my iPhone, which only glows bright enough to illuminate the space a foot or two in front of me, and even that not well.  The air is heavy, humid, putrid, but I also have a sensation of massive things in the room, piles of great weight.

I concentrate on the floor — poured concrete but misted with fine organic matter — and follow what seem to be footprints.  They pass through damp aisles, fleshy masses of mushrooms congregating on either side of me — Uncle Gunnar’s terrarium writ large and I am not even the scale of the mouse.  The odor gags me, but I do a full circle following these spectral tracks in the floor, cell phone extended, senses fully alert, until I return to the same spot where I began.  No one there.  I’m about to depart when I notice an interior door in the murk, also solid steel.  I pull it open and the blackness is just as thick, but it’s colder inside.

No vents blow in this structure, but there’s subtle motion in the air of the room where I stand, something drifting in front of me like a balloon unsupported from below.  The door closes softly behind me.  I take a step forward and raise my cell phone and it’s all I can do to stay upright.  There is Torres — next to him the other guy — and I practically stepped right between them.  They’re dead — gruesomely dead — faces purple-orange and contorted, bodies hanging from hooks.

Anyone who can suppress a scream when confronted in the dark by the carcasses of men who were alive six hours ago — well, is a better person than I am.  Not even thinking to grab for my gun, I yelp like a cut dog and find the door behind me with such clumsiness that it’s a wonder I don’t drop the iPhone at my feet.  With no concern for stealth, I flee back the way I came, across the lit farmyard, between the buildings, and up the hill.  Then, at the first opportunity, I dive into the woods.

Somebody saw me, I’m sure, a stooped figure in the shadows, a pale apparition and seemingly unmoved by my presence, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he materialized right beside me now.  I wouldn’t be surprised but I’d sure be plenty scared.  I try to picture his face as I run, but it was dark and I had other things to worry about, like getting out of there in one piece and with blood still coursing through my veins.

Years ago, I returned from high school one day to find what looked like a sack swinging from a tree in the woods behind our house.  It turned out to be my father, and that image confronts me now as I run, Torres and my father melded together in flashes of blue memory — one fresh, the other repressed but even more powerful.  It magnifies the horror.

In what might be fifteen minutes, I pop out of the woods and smash into a wire fence, which I scamper over, falling to all fours with a thud on the other side.  A moment later I’m running through a field of sleeping cows, wading through a muddy stream and clearing another fence.  I weave through a stand of pines and emerge onto the road.

Headlights appear.  I’m about to wave the car down but the beams fall on a yellow object by the apron of the road, my Mini, right where I left it.  Mindy’s still inside, too.  She’s seen me and I must look like I launched from the gates of hell because she doesn’t hesitate.  She hits the ignition button and the car starts rolling toward me.  She leans across and opens the passenger door and I fall inside as she screeches it into second and I don’t even care that she’s stripping the gears.  I just want out of there.

“You all right?” she asks.  “Where to?”

“Just drive straight, drive like your life depends on it.  I’ll tell you where to go.”

“Okay.”

“You called Buxton?  It’s been, like, two hours.”

She shakes her head, shifting into fourth.  “I knew you’d come back.  What happened?”

“We pushed our luck, that’s what.  Turn here.  Don’t slow down.”

48.

 

Sunrise hovers blood-red over the crests of nearby hills when our convoy pulls to a stop at Hubsher’s gate a few hours later.

It took a while for me to tell the story at the police station and for a judge to issue the search warrant.  Mindy and I now sit in the back of a Kennett police cruiser, Chief Grogan at the wheel and one of his deputies riding shotgun.  Our car has taken the lead, but we’re not alone.  Behind us are a state police cruiser, a second town police cruiser, two unmarked police cars and an ambulance.  If Torres and his friend need an ambulance, I’m the next incarnation of the Dalai Lama, but never mind.  The important thing is that we finally got the cops’ attention.

Grogan lowers the window and says something official sounding into the intercom and the front gate swings open.

We’re halfway up the drive when my phone rings.  “Mind if I take this, Chief?”

“It’s your phone, Mr. Goldberg.”

I’m so bleary-eyed that I can barely see by the screen that it’s Buxton.  He’s clearing his throat when I pick up.  “You alone?”

“No.”

“On your way to the site?”

“That’s right.”

“Listen.  Don’t let on that it’s me calling.”

“Okay.”

“We found the Torres van.”

“Where I said?”

“No, sir.  In the man’s driveway.”

“The man?”

“Torres.  In his driveway in Brandywine Hundred.  Parked.  Out of courtesy I’m calling you before I call Grogan, which is very much not kosher.  Don’t blow it by letting on.  But I thought you should know.”

“Hmm.”  I shift in my seat.

“The reason I thought you should know,” Buxton continues, “is that there’s one thing here working in your favor.  According to one of my guys, the wife says Torres didn’t come home last night.  We’ll have a formal sit-down with her shortly, and I don’t know where Grogan fits into all this, so mum’s the word on that piece of information.”

“Gotcha.”

The convoy stops in front of Hubsher’s mansion as I hang up.

“Who was that?”  Mindy searches my face.  She must see the distraction written there.

“No one.”  I shake my head with my eyes closed, wishing away the Torres van, away to somewhere it can no longer torment me.

Grogan and his deputy hop out and go to the front door of the house, where they engage in a lengthy discussion with whomever answers.

“What were you doing?” Mindy asks when they return.

“Serving the warrant,” Grogan says.

“To Mr. Hubsher?”

“He’s not home, said to be traveling.  We don’t need him to be present for this.”  He looks at me in the rearview mirror.  “Where are we going, Mr. Goldberg?”

He’s annoying me with this “Mr. Goldberg” act.  From his lips the name sounds condescending, like it must have when some Austro-Hungarian functionary wryly assigned it to a poverty-stricken Jew in the Eighteenth Century.  Or maybe my fatigue is making me paranoid.  I give him directions, mulling what it means that the Torres van didn’t show up where promised.  I might have gotten the address a little wrong, but I sure didn’t confuse a warehouse in New Castle with the Torres residence in Wilmington.  And, presuming I’m not having mushroom flashbacks, Torres wasn’t in any position to drive that thing home by himself.  Something’s rotten in all this, I think.  But nothing that a pair of corpses, soon revealed to the police chief, can’t overcome.

We pull to a stop in the mushroom house farmyard, which looks much less ominous in daylight — downright ordinary, in fact.

“Is this the place?” Grogan asks.

“You know it.”  I jump from the car, but Mindy stays put.

“I don’t need to see this,” she says behind me.

Grogan and a few cops form a semi-circle.  Others fan out, nosing around.  There are some farm workers about, and the cops interact with them quietly.  More important, in the center of the farmyard stands the black Lincoln Town Car, with Jheri curls and a couple of his fellow strapping goons leaning against it like they own the place.

I stride right up to him.  “Where’s the white plumbing van that was here last night?”

“Who might you be?”

Is it possible he hasn’t put me together with the person who ran into him in the Triple Fidelity parking lot weeks ago?  He saw me walk in and out of the door, but most of his attention went to Mindy that day, and since then I’ve been the one following him, not vice versa.  Also, I suppose there’s a chance that Hubsher didn’t mention me for his own reasons, and in the auction I had no more impact upon him than a gnat does to a thoroughbred.

But, even if I’m just background noise, this hardly seems like the time to concede that possibility by introducing myself.  I begin to say something snide until Grogan interrupts.  “You two…I’ll ask the questions here.  What’d the van look like, Mr. Goldberg?”

“Delaware plates.  It said, ‘A.A.H. Plumbing and Heating’ on the side.”

“Aah,” Jheri curls says.  “That’s funny.”

“Juan Torres didn’t think so.”

Grogan looks at both of us through his bushy eyebrows.  His deputy, a large man with a barrel chest, steps between me and Jheri curls, as if to break up a fight.

The state trooper goes from person to person, speaking softly and writing in his notebook.  He comes over and says to Grogan, “The van belongs to a company that does plumbing here sometimes, but no one saw it in the past twenty four hours.”

Grogan peers at me.

“Well,” I say, “it’s possible that none of these people spotted it.  There was no one around here at midnight — no one I can identify in this group, anyway.  But whoever killed Torres and his friend probably saw the van.  And whoever drove it away from here sure saw it, too.”

“Where do you place it, Mr. Goldberg?”

I think of the news from Buxton.  “How would I know what they did with it?”

“I mean,” Grogan clarifies, “where was it last night in this farmyard?”

“Right about there.”  I point.  “It was facing in that direction.”

“Tape that off,” Grogan tells one of the other cops.  A few of them crouch in the compacted dirt, which has no shortage of tire marks.  Some of them could be from the van, but there are also tracks leading to the Lincoln and from farm vehicles, not all of which are parked where I last saw them.

Grogan carries a skeptical mien, as usual.  “Please tell us again what happened last night.”

“Get him out of here first.”  I throw my chin toward Jheri curls.  “Him and his friends.”

“They work for the owner,” Grogan says.

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“We’ll walk over here.”

He takes a few steps away from them — not enough to reassure me, but I don’t see a lot of options, and I’m sure one look at the bodies will wipe that look off of Grogan’s face.  So we huddle and with visual aids I repeat the tale I told in the station house, how we followed Torres, first in his red van and then in his friend’s white van.  How Mindy and I waited by the gate until we lost patience.  How I accessed the property, coming upon the farm buildings this way.

“Trespassing,” Jheri curls says, leaning against the side of the Lincoln, ten yards away.

“Shut up, Bobby,” Grogan says.

So he knows him, I think.

Never fully taking my eyes from the door to the mushroom house, I walk Grogan and his deputy around the farmyard, showing them where the possum and the big blower startled me and how I saw the footsteps in the frost.  We go to the door and before it closes behind us the deputy reaches over and flicks a switch, throwing on overhead fluorescents, which hang in long tin canisters.  There’s a box of surgical-type masks by the door.  The deputy passes them around and we don them, but it hardly mitigates the stench.  Mushrooms are everywhere, sprouting from trays of straw and manure, in racks that look harmless with the space now lit.

I explain how I used my cell phone for scant illumination.

“You didn’t turn on the lights?” Grogan says.

“It didn’t occur to me.  If it had, I’d have thought it might give me away.”

“Because you were trespassing.”

“Because I was monitoring suspicious activity.”

Grogan scowls.  “Where are the bodies?”

“I thought you’d never ask.  Last night I did a circuit around — it’s hard to tell now — but probably around there, following the footprints.  I ended up right back here and saw this door.”

We study it for a second, a steel door painted green to match the exterior of the building.  The room it accesses is about twenty feet long, a solid cinderblock box dwarfed by the bigger structure that surrounds it.

Despite the overhead lighting, the deputy pulls a large flashlight from his belt and shines its beam at the door.  I open it and the light dies into darkness.  The deputy reaches in and flicks another light switch.

“I’ll be,” he says, stepping fully inside.

“You sure this is the place?” Grogan says as I stand uneasily in the doorway.

A series of rusty old grappling hooks hangs from the low ceiling, but they’re all bare.  Grogan drops to a knee beneath them and touches some dirt on the concrete floor, like he’s looking for clues.

I bite my lip.  “The men were hanging right there earlier this morning.  I swear.”

“Wait outside, please, Mr. Goldberg.  In the car, please.”

I drop my mask in a wastebasket, leave the structure and slide into the cruiser next to Mindy.

“So?”

“I’m not looking too good here.”

“What do you mean?  Isn’t it Torres?”

“It’s not Torres.  It’s not anybody.  The room’s completely empty, only some old tools thrown in a corner.  The hooks are there.  Just the hooks.”

“How can that be?”

“Grogan was too slow, all this bullshit with the warrant.  Just like Uncle Gunnar’s house, they cleaned it up before we got here.”

“Who did?”

“How should I know?”

I follow Mindy’s gaze out the window.  Grogan and the deputy exit the mushroom house and cross the farmyard.  They chat with the other cops and with the farmhands and with Jheri curls.

“You believe me, don’t you, Min?”

“It all seemed so simple when we started, but now I don’t have any idea what’s going on.  Does what you saw last night have anything to do with the house in Kennett Square?”

“You tell me.  He was your uncle.”

“Dead on a mushroom farm.”  She shakes her head.

“But you do believe that I saw what I saw.”

“Of course I do.  Why would you make up a thing like that?”

“Grogan thinks we’re nuts.  Either that, or he’s in with them.”

“The police chief?”

I drop my voice to a whisper.  “That was Buxton on the phone before.  Someone returned Torres’s van to his house, but his wife said he never came home.  Grogan doesn’t know yet.”

“Shh.  Here he comes.”

He’s shaking his head as he settles into the driver’s seat.

“I know what I saw,” I say, before he has a chance to speak.  “Why are the cops getting back into their cars?  You need to search the rest of the farm.”

“We’re not doing that.”

“What do you mean you’re not doing that?  A murder’s been committed.”

“We don’t know that.”

“Chief Grogan, I’ve reported a double homicide!”

“I know what you’ve reported and I just heard from your friend Buxton, too.  There’s no sign of a crime anywhere, except that Juan Torres apparently slept out last night, as if that means anything.”

“He didn’t sleep out.  He’s never waking up.”

“We also called A.A.H. Plumbing.  All of their vehicles are present and accounted for.”

“So whoever did this crime returned that van, too.  They’re nothing if not well organized.”

“Who?”

“I’m not sure.  Hubsher’s crew, I guess.”

“Of course that’s where you’d point, wouldn’t you, Mr. Goldberg?  You’ve had it out for Mr. Hubsher for some time now.  You barged into his office the other day, you tried to disrupt his auction, then you came onto his property unauthorized.”

“We didn’t disrupt anything.  We had as much right to be at that auction as anyone.  You know who the under-bidder was, Chief?  It was Torres.  Doesn’t that sound a bit suspicious to you?”

“On one man’s testimony and with no evidence of any crime, I’m not tearing Mr. Hubsher’s place apart.  I’ll remind you also, Mr. Goldberg, that you can get up to two years in prison for falsely reporting a crime to law enforcement authorities.  Worse if it’s an attempt to intimidate other individuals.  Look at all the resources we just squandered on your behalf.  If I’m searching for suspects, I already have them.  In the back seat.”

 

49.

 

Despite Grogan’s threats, he drops us at the station house to pick up our car.  “You can go,” he says.  “But I don’t want to hear from you two again without good reason.”

“You’ll have good reason,” I retort, though I have no idea what I’m talking about.

I’ve lost my bearings.  One part of me knows something’s rotten in Kennett.  But the other part has begun to wonder whether those hanging bodies were only some kind of elaborate prank.  Were those real corpses or were Hubsher’s people getting the jump on next fall’s Halloween decorations or did they set out to make me look like a fool?  Even that seems too crazy to contemplate.

Back at the office, Mindy runs downstairs and I sit alone among Chuck Kendall’s files for a minute or two.  Then Buxton walks in and settles into the guest chair across my desk.  Reverting to form, I offer him the orphaned piece left in the chocolate bowl, but he waves me off.  It’s been a while since I had any takers.  Was my last candy sale to Terrance’s friend Kyle or to Mindy?  I can’t remember.  I’m ragged from lack of sleep.  To gather myself, I straighten some papers into stacks on the desk.  I look up again.  “What do you know, Rufus?”

“We interviewed Clara Torres through a translator,” he says.  “You acquainted with her?”

“Not really.”

“She said she met you.”

“It was a brief encounter.”

“She’s worried about her husband.  She wonders whether you had something to do with his disappearance.”

“Me?”

“You confronted him in her presence.  It didn’t leave fond memories.”

“Back atcha with knobs on.  If you recall, at that point there were no cops volunteering to apply their interrogation skills here.  If there were, I wouldn’t have had to visit the Torres household at all.”  I lean back in my chair.  “So did you come here to critique my efforts to solve his case or are you going to tell me what the lady said?”

“I’ll tell you, Phu, but first I have to ask.  Did you have anything to do with the disappearance of Juan Torres?”

I give my forehead a fingertip massage.  “At this point, who knows for sure.  I might have stumbled into something that led to his disappearance, but I sure as heck didn’t harm the guy.”

“Good.  That’s what I figured you’d say.  So the wife — Clara.  She told us that Juan had an older half-brother.  Do you know anything about that?”

“What I know about Juan Torres you could fit in a jalapeno seed.”

“Well, the brother’s called Ernesto.”

“Ernesto?  That rings a bell.  I’m pretty sure his name came up when I paid them a visit.  But I didn’t get the context, couldn’t follow the Spanish.”

“She doesn’t paint him in a flattering light.  She described him as pretty effeminate, off in his own world, snobbish toward her.  Unlike Torres, he’s well educated — a mycologist.”

“A what?”

“Mushroom scientist.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“He came north a year ago to consult with the growers around here, met an old homosexual named Gunnar Karlson, and they started hanging out and acting strange.”

“Strange how?”

“That was Clara’s word, not mine.  She may have her own perspective.  She comes from a conservative culture — some small town in Mexico.  From the sound of things, Ernesto was either a kept man or somebody was paying him very well.  Clara says he could barely scrape up enough money for the plane ride to the States, but pretty soon he was swimming in cash.”

“Living large?”

“By her standards.  He didn’t own property, she says, domiciled with Mr. Karlson, but he traveled frequently and stayed in nice hotels.  He wore a fancy watch.  Ate out a lot.  And he shared some of the bounty with his brother Juan.”

“How much?”

“I didn’t ask.  If a crime’s been committed she’s a cooperating witness.  At this stage, I don’t want to spook her into believing we’re coming after her for tax evasion.”

“Are you?”

“She’s got more problems than that.  Does any of this stuff about Ernesto comport with what you’ve observed?”

I think of the clothes in Uncle Gunnar’s guest room closet.  “Yes.  It fits the description of what we saw in the house, before it got emptied.  Two people may have been living there, and one of them had younger clothes than Uncle Gunnar.  What’s this got to do with Torres’s murder?”

“All winter Mr. Karlson’s been away, but Clara says Ernesto was coming and going from Kennett Square.  Here for a few days, gone for the next few.  Then, six weeks ago, the pattern broke.  He disappeared without a trace.  This created a dilemma for Torres.  Clara says Mr. Karlson, being a proper old gentleman, had been cool to Juan and Clara, never socializing with them, never really acknowledging Juan’s existence, even though they were in-laws of a sort.  In Juan’s mind this made it awkward for him to make inquiries when his brother went incommunicado.  Not that he could find Karlson to ask, anyway.”

“I presume that’s the same partner as Uncle Gunnar had at the hotel in the Poconos.  There the relationship seemed more open.  They shared a room and the clerk we spoke to believed they were an item.”

“Clara doesn’t know the Poconos from the Sierra Madre, and Torres didn’t have an inkling of where they were staying.  But he knew where the Karlson house was, sure enough.  When he became concerned for his brother, he went over there on several occasions.  Each time he found it locked with no sign of either of these characters.”

“That’s how he ran into me and Mindy.”

“Exactly.  Clara says the first time he didn’t know what to make of you guys but when you mentioned the relationship to Karlson he felt threatened.  Rather than offering an honest explanation of his presence, he panicked and lied to you.”

“He seemed shifty.  So for sure he wasn’t there to fix the plumbing?”

“Of course not.  He was just poking around, but afraid to ask too many questions of anyone.  Clara says he thought he had to tread lightly because she and the kids are illegals.  He loves his brother — probably got used to the extra money, too — but he didn’t want to raise any suspicions that would lead to his family’s deportation.”

“That’s why she was so distressed in front of me.”

“Not so sure.  I got the sense, despite Ernesto’s coldness, that she wanted the truth to come out somehow.  She urged Juan to stick his neck out a little more in the interest of justice, but the next time he goes to the Karlson house he runs into a tough guy in a Lincoln who threatens to have him arrested for trespassing.”

“That’s Bobby, I’ll bet.  Jheri curls.  He doesn’t have a big repertoire.  I met him at Hubsher’s this morning and he tried to feed me the same line. ”

“Well, it had some effect on Torres, though Clara says when she heard about that especially she thought he should take his chances with the police.  Juan told her once again that he feared having attention called to her immigration status, but he was considering crossing that line and going to the authorities before you paid him a visit.”

“He held his own in that round, fended me off.”

“She says he wasn’t sure what to make of you.”

“Join the club.”

“Well, your suspicions kept him from the cops.  He knew you had an interest in the house, which he associated with Ernesto’s disappearance, but when you came on strong he feared you rather than trusting you.  He worried that you’d see him again at the house and punish him somehow, perhaps exposing Clara’s status, but at the same time he couldn’t stay away.  He was convinced that Karlson’s house had evidence of his brother’s murder inside—”

“Which is why I found him digging around in the basement.”

“And also why he tried to purchase the place, bidding everything he owned and then some.  When I told Clara how high it had gotten, she said there was no way Juan could have closed on that transaction.  It was sheer desperation after all these weeks of frustration.”

“Mindy can relate to that.”

“He was convinced of something else, too.  He believed that Gunnar Karlson works for Albert Hubsher, or used to, though Clara couldn’t produce any evidence of that.  Juan had a friend who did contract work at the Hubsher mushroom operation, an employee of the company with the white van.  He was on notice to call upon Juan to assist when the opportunity arose, so he could go poking around the place, looking for a connection to his brother.”

“And the opportunity arose last night.”

“Apparently.”  Buxton nods solemnly.

I rub my forehead again, feeling like someone has just reordered my universe.  Could all my assumptions about Torres have been wrong? “What about the body bag?”

“Bag, yes, but not for a body.  It’s PVC tubing for use in the mushroom houses.  We checked it out and it fits.”

“So Torres got himself into genuine trouble, but I feel like we’re back to square one with regard to Uncle Gunnar’s whereabouts.”

Buxton looks off into the middle space, uncertainty glazing his eyes.  It’s possible that he’s overmatched, sucked into sifting clues when he’s only a street cop.  I suppose there’s no detective involved because he couldn’t sell the case at the station house, but I don’t want to embarrass him by asking, as I might continue to need his help regardless.

We hear footfall on the steps, and he swings around with a skittish hand near his gun.  Mindy doesn’t register this.  She walks right in, munching something from Creamy Dreamy.

Buxton sees her and relaxes.  “Watcha got there, pretty lady?”

“Choco-gasm.  Want some?”

She holds out the bag and he reaches in.

“Mm.  Excellent.  And you — you don’t look as bad as I expected.  I’m glad.”

“Thanks.  It was a terrible scare, but mostly just bruises, except for the cheek.  Penny and Phu have been taking good care of me.”

“They should.  You’re a godsend.”

“Oh, stop.  I know it’s not flattery that brings you here, Rufus.  What about my uncle’s case?  What about poor Juan Torres?”

“Now he’s poor Juan Torres?” I ask.

“Well he’s dead,” Mindy says.  “It doesn’t get any poorer than that.  Or was last night just a misunderstanding?”

“Dead is dead,” I say, “and not easy to mistake, even in the dark.  But it turns out we had Torres figured wrong.  Maybe he does deserve some sympathy.  I can’t quite wrap my mind around it.”

Buxton summarizes for Mindy what he told me.  “Say, Mindy,” he concludes, “did you know that Gunnar Karlson was maybe working for Albert Hubsher?”

“I never heard of Hubsher until Phu told me about him.  Now he owns Uncle Gunnar’s house — or one of his henchmen does.  Even if my uncle was working for Hubsher, how do you figure it, Rufus?  What does he want with his house?”

“He’s covering up Gunnar and Ernesto’s murders,” I say, “the way he covered up the Torres deal.  Very quick, very skilled, leave no trace.  Except, in the case of Torres and his friend, I walked in before they were finished cleaning.”

“But every crime has a motive,” Buxton says.  “Why kill those four men?”

“Torres was onto them at the end.  His friend in the white van was just in the right place at the wrong time.  As for Uncle Gunnar and Ernesto, any clues about why and how have to be at Hubsher’s estate.  Someone has to comb through it.”

“Tough to get another search warrant after this morning’s fiasco,” Buxton says.  “Not without evidence of a crime.”

“Which reminds me: don’t you think Grogan was a little hasty in his departure?”

“From his perspective you’ve been a little hysterical, leaping to conclusions about Gunnar’s whereabouts, coming at things with a pretty singleminded view.”

“What, you’re taking his side now!”

“Just saying I know where he’s coming from: cover your ass.  Who do you have in your sights but one of the area’s most prominent citizens.  He crosses a billionaire with a false accusation or an illegal search and he could lose his badge by the end of it.”

“Or — not giving him the benefit of the doubt — he could be Hubsher’s cat’s paw.”

“Everyone likes a good conspiracy theory, Phu.  Usually the explanation’s far simpler.  Ernesto, for all we know, picked up and split town as fast as he came.  Gunnar Karlson, too, might have gone voluntarily, maybe back to Mexico with his lover.  After all these weeks we’ve found no evidence that’s not what happened.”

“If you’re trying to prove a negative,” I say, “evidence is hard to come by.”

“The hotel clerk told us that his sons had checked him out,” Mindy says.  “He doesn’t have any sons.  And why would they, anyway?”

“Wait a second.”  I snap my fingers and point.  “With regard to Uncle Gunnar we may still have more questions than answers, but I know for sure that I saw two men freshly dead this morning.  If nothing else, I’m gonna find Juan Torres’s corpse.  Again.”

Buxton places his hands on his knees, as if he’s ready to rise, but he doesn’t move.    With a creased brow, he looks up at me.  “How’re you going to manage that?”

“I dunno, Sergeant.  But if I call one more time, will you come running?”

 

50.

 

Late that afternoon, Brad and I find ourselves hiding in the back of the Creamy Dreamy delivery truck, where a sickly sweet aroma emanates from the racks of hand-dipped chocolate strawberries that surround us.  I’m armed with my Walther P99 and Brad has a new gun, a chrome 50-caliber Action Express Desert Eagle, manufactured in Israel for Magnum Research.  It’s a gas-operated semi-automatic with an unusual eight-inch barrel and a typical seven-round magazine.  I know all of this because Brad bought the Magnum at the gun show where I bought my Walther.  Also, we’ve been cooped up together for more than an hour, which is more time than I’ve ever spent alone with him outside the kitchen.  Given the events of the past week, his trigger finger is itchier than a day-old spider bite, and he’s talking non-stop about weapons and their potential to level any playing field.

“Unless I’m badly outnumbered,” Brad says, “I won’t need seven rounds.  One shot from this puppy could drop a rhino.”  He pats it against his thigh as our truck jolts over a pothole.

“Just point that thing away from me,” I say.

“Sorry.  I gotta check the suspension when we get back.  This rattling could split a chocolate Santa in two.”

“Yeah, well it doesn’t help that she doesn’t seem to be slowing down for turns.”

Mindy is driving, with Terrance riding shotgun and playing the role of delivery boy.  Tabitha, we know, sits back at the store, the emergency contact if we can’t reach Buxton when the icing hits the fan.  Penny is at Creamy Dreamy, too, backup to the backup, in case Tabitha faints or something.  Not that that’s likely to happen, but at this point we’ve learned to expect the unexpected.

We all know this may be our last chance to get to the bottom of the Uncle Gunnar affair, to prove that my sighting of Torres and his friend wasn’t an illusion and that something is seriously amiss about the way Uncle Gunnar lost his house and — quite possibly — his life.  But if this scheme doesn’t work out, I know we’re probably out of cracks and Mindy’s going to have to go home with a degree of uncertainty about her uncle’s disposition.  In that case, of course, I may go home with a degree of uncertainty about the underpinnings of my personal pride.  And, as we jostle along, this train of thought deposits me in the conclusion that I’ve carried this case further than any debt workout specialist had a right to carry it, that along the way I morphed from the world’s biggest cynic into a romantic who thinks he can defy the will of a billionaire, and that it probably all happened because the mushroom in my boxers took over my thinking sometime between the appearance of the black spandex number and the wild ride on the snowy chaise.

That last part, I’m willing to presume, was an accident.  But now we’re counting on Mindy’s powers of seduction for higher stakes.  Before we left, Tabitha suggested that Mindy wear her most revealing outfit, and when Pollyanna said she didn’t have anything to fit that bill, I told her just to dress like she always does.  Now the woman doesn’t disappoint.  She’s wearing tight-fitting jeans and a stretchy pink leotard top, displaying — last time I checked — a pair of nipples on eye-popping full alert.

Behind this madness lies method, of course.  Our plan is to rope in one of Hubsher’s drooling wolves — or anyone who can get us deep within the property — by pretending to require assistance with a flat tire.

About a quarter mile from the estate on Doe Run Road, we pull to the shoulder, where Terrance produces a hammer and switchblade, opens his door and climbs down to the pavement.  A moment later we hear a hissing sound, and the truck soon favors its left rear, causing Brad to shove his gun into his jeans and use his good arm to arrest an uphill chocolate rack that hadn’t been properly locked into place.

“Damn thing,” he says.  “I gotta start paying more attention to this truck — that is, when I’m done laying down covering fire to protect your yellow ass.”

“Man, Brad, if you had two arms you’d be dangerous.”

“I’m dangerous now.  What I lack in firepower I make up in novelty.”

Terrance climbs back inside, dropping the hammer and snapping the switchblade closed.  He leans back and shuts his eyes, as planned, pretending to nap while Mindy stands out by the side of the truck and looks, well, like the glistening fresh bait that she is.  In less than a minute, through the skin of the truck we hear a car pull up and offer assistance.

“No thanks,” Mindy says.  “I’m just waiting for my boss to show up.”

It’s the wrong guy — no surprise.  Three minutes later, the scene repeats.  And repeats again and again, every time with a male offering to come to the rescue, most of them middle aged and possessing more eagerness than new puppies.

When there’s a lull, I lean in to Brad.  “She’s turned down more good samaritans than they ever had in Samaria.”

“I don’t have to tell you, Phu.  She’s got the gravitational pull of a black hole.”

“Jeeze, Brad.  Aren’t you married?  Don’t ever let Tabitha hear you talk like that.”

“Hell, Tabitha’s a grown-up.  She knows that men are men.  It’s you I’m worried about.  I fear that Mindy’s permanently changed you.”

“How so?”

“You’ve wilted under the heat.”

“Say that again and I might have to shoot you.”

“Good luck.  You couldn’t hit the side of a mushroom house at five paces.  Why the hell do you think I’m here?”

He crawls to the back door and slides a small round plate aside, putting one eye to a peephole.  “Now we’re talking.  Target in sight.  Jheri curls and one of his close personal friends.”

“The boss?”

“No.  Just another oaf.  They’re pulling to a stop.”

He flicks the plate closed and we put our ears to the skin of the truck again.

“Hey, hot stuff!  Some kind of problem?”

“A flat tire.”

“Poor baby.  You got a spare?”

“No.  Can you help me?”

“After the trouble you caused?  Lemme see those tits and I’ll think about it.”

“Maybe later.  I’m not in the mood.”

“Mike here doesn’t like to wait.  He’s got a tire iron in his pants for ya.  C’mon, give us a preview.”

“I can’t.  I’m working.  Are you going to help me?  Ow!”

I go for the door, but Brad holds me back as we hear the screech of tires.  Mindy crawls into the driver’s seat like she’s entering her own mausoleum.

“What happened, Min?  You all right?”

“He pinched my breast, that pig.  Never got out of the car, though.”  She sinks into the seat, chin in her chest.  “We’re doomed.”

“Well, it was a long shot,” I say.  “Get out and I’ll drive us home.”

“The tire!”

“Right.  We got a spare, Brad?”

“No, fool.  I took it out.  Wasn’t that the plan?”

“Hold on!” Terrance says, lifting an eyebrow to the side-view mirror.  “Guy in a Jag at seven o’clock.”

Mindy scampers from the truck and I crawl to the peephole.  It’s a Jaguar XK convertible, though the top’s up in the cold.  A distinguished gray-haired man sits at the wheel, rolling to a stop.  Hubsher.

“Jackpot!” I whisper.  “You go, girl.”

Hubsher gets right out of the car.  Through the driver’s-side truck door, which Mindy left open, we hear him say, “My!  This is a curious sight.  Sorry about the auction, but doesn’t a woman of your quality have better things to do than chase down the problems of old men?  And now you’ve become a delivery girl?”

“I’m just helping out a friend.”

“If only you had any knack for that.”

“You’re right.  I don’t.  And you proved it, Mr. Hubsher.  I’ll be heading home to Minnesota tomorrow, not having helped my uncle at all, thanks to you.”

“Just business, honey.  What happened to your face?”

“An accident.  Rather not talk about it.  Is there any way you can send me help for the flat tire, kind of a consolation prize?”

“You look cold.”  (I can’t see anything, but I picture him raking his eyes across her chest at this moment.)  “I’m just up the road, as you know.  Why don’t you come inside for a cup of tea — the kid can come, too — and we’ll call someone.”

“I’d love to, Mr. Hubsher.  But I can’t leave the truck.  There’s seven thousand dollars worth of chocolate in the back.”

“Can you start it?”

“Yup.  It’s just the tire.”

“Will it go anywhere in that condition?”

“I’m sure we can cover a mile or so if we drive real slow.”

“Get in my car and the kid can take the truck.”

“He’s underage, no license.  I’ll follow you.”

She has to flash him a smile at this point, maybe give her chest a little bounce for emphasis.  False innocence.  And it pleases me no end to see Hubsher, the walking calculator, so easily manipulated.  But then it occurs to me that I’m hiding in the back of a van with a pistol that I didn’t own last week, about to break into the home of a billionaire I never heard of, in order to locate the body of an elderly queen with a fondness for mushrooms.  Who, I finally ask myself, has been playing whom all this while?

And then, as if to add an exclamation point, Mindy climbs back into the van, closes her door and starts the ignition.  We trundle up the road on our rims with Albert Hubsher in the lead.

 

51.


On our flopping flat tire it’s a rough ride down the road and up the Hubsher drive, and by the end of it the strawberries on the trays around us look very much the worse for wear.

“What a waste!” Brad mouths silently, lifting a weepy treat by its stem and dropping it crushed and untasted to the wax paper below.  I’d wonder why it matters — they’re just props — but I know that Brad’s confectionary perfectionism accepts no compromises.  To the fury of Tabitha, he once insisted on using the finest chocolate on a sculpture intended only for display at a charitable fundraiser.  For the proper sheen, he said.

Our truck lurches to a stop and we lay low in back as the front doors open and we hear Mindy and Terrance escorted to the mansion.

Brad looks out the peephole.  “Night is falling.  Perfect.”

We gave the rear doors a good greasing before we left, and when the coast is clear they open with nary a squeak and we leave them ajar.  Mindy parked the truck well outside the courtyard at the back of Hubsher’s mansion, and there’s no sign of activity in our vicinity.  Still, we move like cat burglars until we hit the main drive again.  We use the trees for cover all the way to the farm compound and pause only long enough to keep our presence concealed.

Then I lead Brad directly to the mushroom house where I saw the bodies.  We step inside and I still won’t turn on the overhead fluorescents, but this time we came prepared.  It’s as static and dark and dank as ever, and the beams of our flashlights barely penetrate, but we easily find the interior door.  I catch my breath, in spite of everything, expecting to see the bodies restored to their original place, like in a cheap horror flick, but there’s nothing present that wasn’t there this morning when I showed it to the cops.

“No surprise,” I say.

Brad scratches his head.  “You sure about this, Phu?”

“Listen, Brad.  Do you know me as the kind of person who fantasizes?  I overheard Jheri curls telling Grogan that this room was used as a wholesale butchery, back in the day.  That explains the hooks but it doesn’t explain what I saw.”

“Sometimes a hook is just a hook.”

“And sometimes it’s an accomplice to ghoulish murder.  Let’s check the other buildings.”

There are, in fact, ten giant mushroom houses, extending down the hill from the farmyard to a greater degree than I perceived in my first two visits.  Every door is unlocked, and the inside of each building stinks worse than the next, but we comb through them with all the care we can muster.

It’s the same everywhere: dark and heavy and reeking of fertilizer.

“God Almighty!” Brad exclaims as we survey the inside of the last building.  “Why would anyone want to do this when they could make chocolate instead?”

Verging on inconsolable, I refuse to consider that question.  I can’t believe the outrageous futility of the past forty-eight hours.  Maybe Grogan was right, I think.  Maybe I just bear grudges against rich guys, and the bigger the rich guy the deeper runs the grudge, facts be damned. In nearly an hour we’ve found nothing but the hay and manure that feed mushrooms, the racks that hold them, the tools that husband them.  And also, of course: mushrooms, mushrooms, mushrooms, huddled together like a million misshapen trolls.  There’s nothing at all amiss in any of these buildings, and I’m thinking that the only option we have left is to sneak off of Hubsher’s property without getting ourselves arrested — an outcome which, regardless of merit, would be more than I could bear.

We open the door of the last mushroom house and emerge into the crisp night, splurting through our nostrils to purge the rotten stink.  The sky is clear and a quarter-moon shines.  It casts enough light to improve my perspective on our surroundings, and we’re halfway up the hill when I draw to a stop, noticing something unusual about the lay of the land.  “You see that?” I whisper.

“What?”

“That building tucked into the embankment there.  When we passed it the first time, it looked only like a tiny shed, but it’s an illusion.  Look — it’s as big as the others, but built all the way into the ground.”

We stomp down to it and I try the door, but it’s locked.

“The only locked door on the place,” I observe.

Brad puts his shoulder to it, but the door stands firm.

“It’s just the knob holding it,” he says.  “No other locks.  I can shoot it off.”

He steps back and I step back farther and with no added warning the crack and ping of his Magnum splits the night.

“Shit!  I missed!  It’s the kick.  Hold my hand.”

He maneuvers me to help brace his arm against the powerful recoil and pulls the trigger again before I can vote and the doorknob explodes.  I run over and snap off the knob and reach my finger into the broken cylinder and twist it open.  We step inside, the sound of the gun’s report still ringing in my ears.

“The element of surprise is gone,” I say.  “Turn on the lights?”

“No, keep them guessing.”

We flick on our flashlights and cast the beams about.  Even at a cursory glance, this mushroom house seems different.  It’s broken into rooms filled with elevated trays, perfectly arranged, upon which crowds of luminescent mushrooms gather.  The floor and walls are spotless, and the odor isn’t so bad.  In the background, air circulators hum.

I think: It’s as much a laboratory as it is a farm.

And a moment later, as if to confirm that observation, we come to a large room filled with giant stainless steel vats, as you’d find in a winery.  They’re connected by pipes and tubes, the nature of which I can’t fathom completely, but — continuing the wine analogy — I guess they must be supporting some kind of distilling process.  There are cardboard boxes piled in one corner.  I open the flap of one to reveal a dozen stainless steel atomizers, as we found and initially mistook for thermoses among Uncle Gunnar’s possessions.

But when we move on, it’s back to the endless trays of Mushroomland, stretching on in great plateaus.  Just inside the door to the last room a thought hits me.  I home my flashlight on the nearest mushroom, reach for the cap, and squeeze.  The bruise goes neon blue.

“What’d I tell ya.  Trouble in paradise.  It’s psilocybin.”  I hit Brad on his good arm and start gloating, but he’s suddenly lost the gift of banter.  When I raise my flashlight beam to his face, I see a look of horrible stupefaction there.

“Gluh,” he says, dropping his flashlight to the ground with a clatter.

“What?”

With my own flashlight held high I follow the line of his gaze, until the beam lands on the corpse of Juan Torres, naked but for a dusting of soil and a coating of fine straw.  Next to him lies the man from the van, in the same exact condition.  And a bit farther on lies the person I take to be Ernesto, who even in gray-skinned death looks a little like Juan.

And that’s not all.  There are other bodies, too.

Mushrooms sprout in bunches from their rotting flesh.

 

52.

Brad finishes puking up his guts before I do, but then again he had a head start.  He began yacking when were were still in the mushroom house, and I had to drag him out of there by his sleeve.  Now I’m poised over a boulder behind the hill, dry heaving into the night while Brad, having regained the gift of speech, issues an unbroken stream of profanity.

We collapse to the ground, backs against the boulder, gulping cold air.

“If we get out of this, Phu,” Brad says, “do me a favor.  Don’t say you told me so.”

“Man, I am so beyond that.  I mean, I don’t even know what I just saw.  What the fuck did we just see?”

He doesn’t answer directly.  “Weapon check,” he says, producing his pistol.  When he sees that I’ve no idea what he’s talking about, he adds, “Pull the slide back to check the chamber, then pull out the magazine and count your rounds and slap the mag—  Never mind.  I’ll do it.”

He grabs my Walther with his good hand and smacks it into his bad hand, executing in seconds the maneuver he’d requested and handing me back the gun.  He does the same for his Magnum and sticks it into the waistband of his pants.  “Five shots left, plus the backup magazine, and after that scene in the mushroom house I’m not blowing any more bullets on doorknobs.”

I feel like one of those soldiers you see in newspaper pictures, ducked behind a wall in Iraq.  And, like the soldiers, my immediate sensation of fear has begun giving way to smoldering anger.

Brad dials Tabitha.  “Hey, it’s me.  Listen, Phu had it right — we got a situation here.  Call nine-one-one and report a bunch of bodies in the hidden mushroom house at Hubsher’s.  Yeah, a bunch — we didn’t stick around to count ‘em.  The cops’ll find us here next to the building, alive.”

“No, pal.”  I tap him on the arm.  “I’m not waiting to hear sirens.  Mindy and Terrance are in harm’s way.”

“Right.  Check that.  Still alive but we’re on the move.  Call everyone, Tab.  Yeah, we’re all right.  Gotta hop.”  He shakes his head and turns to me.  “Calm as a cuke.  You’d think we were out for an evening stroll.”

“Yeah, well, ignorance is bliss.  I hope she never has to see what we just saw.  I hope nobody does, except Grogan, that skeptical prick.”

We rise and walk at a brisk pace to the house.  At the perimeter of the courtyard, we surprise the uniformed guard, who isn’t packing anything but cigarettes.  Brad puts the barrel of his gun against the guard’s temple, and it looks like the man will piss himself.  I use his belt and shoelaces to tie him to an iron fence and we proceed to the house.

There’s a big white Beemer in the courtyard, parked beside Hubsher’s Jaguar.  Can’t be, I think, but my gut knows it is.  We open the front door without knocking, and a butler in livery greets us — a white guy whose fleshy neck overhangs his fancy shirt collar.  He rakes his eyes across us and frowns.  “You could wipe your feet, sir.”

“You could wipe my ass,” I say, waving my pistol with menace.  “Have you been to the mushroom house in the side of the hill?  Don’t try to deny it  You know what I’m talking about.”

“Nobody but Mr. Hubsher, Mr. Karlson and one or two others are permitted in that building.”

In my state it takes me a second to recall that the man we’ve habitually referred to as Uncle Gunnar is the Mr. Karlson of whom the butler is speaking.

Someone appears from an adjacent room and Brad split-steps and raises his pistol and shouts, “Freeze!”

“You may as well shoot me,” the man says.  “My family will get the insurance, at least.  Good evening, Phu.”

I transfer the pistol into my left hand and take two steps forward and bury my right fist into Chuck Kendall’s stomach.  He collapses to his knees, puts his forehead to the floor and brays like a donkey until his breath comes back.

“Shit, Phu.  That was uncalled for.  I’m gonna stand up now.”

“No you won’t, asshole.”  I level my pistol.  “Who the hell are you?”

“Just who I said, only thing being that the balance sheet is worse than you know.  Triple Fidelity has its claws into me deeper than your records would indicate.”

“What’s that got to do with me?”

“Hubsher was hip to you from the moment you stopped at that office in Essington.  He bought my debt — and there’s a lot of it — for pennies on the dollar, then forced me into this devil’s deal, telling me to distract you or he’d wipe me out.”

“Exclusive.”

He nods.  “It was my only chance.  I had to get you away from that other deal.  If you weren’t so damn stubborn we’d both be better off.”

“So the files?”

“They’re real, though I spent a day shuffling them in hopes of keeping you busier.”

“Do you have any idea what you’re involved with here, Chuck?  There’s a whole heap of people dead in a mushroom house down the hill — many unknown to me, but two I saw alive just yesterday, one who went missing a while ago, and possibly another old man somewhere in there, though we couldn’t bear to stick around for the full head count.  And all of it points to Hubsher.”

Kendall shrugs.  “You lay down with dogs…”

“What’s that supposed to mean, you came here to warn him?”

“I had no idea what was going on beyond my little piece of it.  I came here to take my medicine, knowing you wouldn’t quit what you were doing.  I went to your office tonight and it’s clear you haven’t done a goddamn thing for me since we last talked.”

“Selfish of me, trying to stop murder when I could be rescuing the mortgage of a spoiled redneck.”

“It’s been a long time since anyone spoiled me.  I’ve been waiting for Hubsher here over an hour.  The butler can tell you.”

“Screw the butler.”  I point my pistol at Kendall’s head.  “Your wait’s over.”  But he’s too pathetic.  I drop the gun to my side.  “Go home.”

Kendall wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and sets his loafers on the floor one at a time, heaving himself up.

“That thirty grand,” I say, “you can kiss goodbye.”

“Shit.”  He locks his jaw.  “That wasn’t mine anyway.”

As he leaves, voices waft into the foyer from nearby.

“Where are they?” Brad asks the butler.

“There, sir.  Just around the corner of the hall.”

“Lead us.”

“As you wish.  You don’t look like killers but, ah—”

“What do killers look like?!” I snap, waving the gun.

“Easy, Phu,” Brad says.  “He didn’t do it.  He’s just the butler.”

I push past him down the hall and begin throwing open doors, finding first a closet and then an elevator.  The third is the charm, a paneled library as you see in old-fashioned movies: Persian rug, heavy furniture, globe on a stand in one corner…all that and more.  Mindy and Terrance are sitting with Hubsher and the bottle-blonde from the Essington office like it’s a social call, no one looking the least bit put out.  In the shadow of one of the bookcases stands an erect old guy, his face barely discernible.  I’m pretty sure he’s the one I spotted lurking around the mushroom house the first time I saw Torres dead, but there’s something else about him.

As I step into the center of the rug they all fall silent, but I have the sense that I’ve interrupted a lively discussion and that trills of laughter are still dying in the corners.  There’s a pot of tea on a table among the seated figures, and Terrance is lifting a cup to his lips as I approach, as if he doesn’t have a care in the world.

“What the—” I say.

Mindy jumps up unsteadily.  “Phu,” she drawls, “you’ll never believe who I found.”  She begins to giggle, emitting sounds I haven’t heard from her in a while.

Terrance says, “Flew the dancing books under the skylight.  Table wipe.”

The old man steps from the shadows then.  He’s giggling, too, a deep phlegmy staccato, and in an instant I know without knowing what it is that intrigues me so about this man.  He’s Uncle Gunnar.  And it further occurs to me that, judging by their unfocused and rumpled demeanors, all four of these people have given over their consciousness to a mind-altering fungus that bruises blue.

53.


“Have a seat, gents,” Uncle Gunnar says.  “Take some tea.”

“I think not,” I reply.  “I’ll take an explanation, though.  What the hell’s going on here?”

“We partying,” Terrance says.  “Ooh.”  He points to a chandelier.

“Phu,” Mindy says, “Brad.  I’d like you to meet Uncle Gunnar.  We found him alive, thanks to you.”

“A legend in pharmacology,” Hubsher adds.  “The genius of Kennett Square.”

Uncle Gunnar steps forward, a walking wrinkled reed with a twinkle in his blue eyes, and extends a bony hand.

I wave him off.

“Take some tea,” he repeats, swallowing a belch.  “You won’t be disappointed.”  He grins.

“So this is Uncle Gunnar,” Brad says.  “Weren’t you supposed to be dead?”

“Never!” Uncle Gunnar says.  “Bite your tongue.  Not even missing, if you’d known where to find me.”

“You were aware of this?” I ask Mindy.

“Only hoped it, Phu.  Isn’t it — what’s the word? — isn’t it, isn’t it great?”

“Great.”  I shake my head.  “I don’t think so, no.  Not unless he’s a prisoner.”

“He’s here of his own free will,” Hubsher says, rising.

“Sit the fuck down.”  I show him the barrel of my gun.  “I’m not ready to hear from you.  Mindy, what gives?  You knew about this?”

“About what?”

“The bodies in the mushroom house?  Two freshly dead, and some others.”

“How many?”

“We didn’t look too carefully.  Torres and his friend.  The man presumed to be Ernesto.  Five or ten others — I dunno, what difference does it make? — we got out of there.”

Her mouth falls open.  “No!  That has to be a misunderstanding.  Uncle Gunnar’s right here.”

“Mindy, listen to me.  There are a dozen corpses buried in a field house full of psilocybin, except that they’re not quite buried at all.  Several have mushrooms growing on them.”

“Mushrooms?  Wh-who?”

“Ernesto for one,” Uncle Gunnar says.  “He’s punished.  He was a bad boy.”

“You killed him?” Mindy says.

“Not me, child.  He betrayed me.”

“A murder to party?” Mindy says, her words falling into a slurry.

“Huh?” Uncle Gunnar says.  “See the room, Mindy?  See the room dance?”

She may be toasted, but she’s having none of it.  “Murder!” she cries.  “Murderer?”  She rolls into a fetal position on the couch next to Terrance and disintegrates into tears, the most profound sadness I’ve ever seen expressed, weeping herself into a puddle.  The drugs seem to have taken her over, and it’s anyone’s guess what she’s seeing projected on the eyelids that she’s squeezing tight.

Brad takes six steps and points his pistol at Hubsher’s forehead, keeping an eye on the woman as well.

I cover Uncle Gunnar.  “What’s Mrs. Smith doing here?”

“Just a friend,” she says.

“A friend who runs interference?”

She doesn’t answer.  She’s staring at the flowers on her nails and her eyes are dilating.

“She’s had a bit of tea,” Uncle Gunnar says.  “More than her share.”

Mindy weeps on.

Brad says, “Don’t cry, Mindy.  We’ll shoot one and the other will sober up for us right quick.”

“Hold it,” Hubsher says calmly.  “There’s no need for violence.”

“What, no longer?” I say.  “Someone did violence to all those dead people out there.”

“Not all of them,” Uncle Gunnar says.  “Most of them died of natural causes.  Everything that we’ve done is for the greater good.  See here.”

He reaches into his pocket and I stiffen, casting aside my flashlight and holding the pistol with both hands.

“Nothing to worry about, young man.”  He produces, as I might have figured, a half-dried mushroom, holding it delicately between his fingertips.  He squeezes.  “Magic blue.”

“Cadaver blue.”

“Yes.  She told you?  Yes!  A three-way meaning: the color, of course; the ideal growth medium; and…if…you’re…not careful…”  He wags a finger.

“You’re telling me that Ernesto overdosed on mushrooms?”

“Not at all.  Bobby killed Ernesto.”

“Jheri curls?”

“Bobby, yes.”

“What Gunnar’s trying to tell you, in his stoned state,” Hubsher says, “is that at my behest he and Ernesto Torres created the most powerful psilocybin mushrooms known to man.  He called this variety ‘magic cadaver blue,’ not only for its color, but because it thrives on human flesh.”

“Dead people?”

“Of course dead.  They wouldn’t stay put otherwise, would they?  But we discovered this later, it wasn’t our initial plan, which was only to corner the market in magic mushrooms.  Hitches often develop when translating science to business, however.  The mushrooms, initially, were difficult to cultivate, but on human flesh at a certain point of decomposition, they have a field day.  Ernesto discovered this purely by accident, using small mammals, but there’s something about the consistency of bare flesh.  That’s what they like best.”

“It’s far more practical to use mostly hairless mammals,” Uncle Gunnar explains.  “And there aren’t many lesser mammals like that available in quantity.  But there’s this whole resource that nobody’s tapping into, just wasting away in graveyards.”

“Ernesto’s discoveries were critical to our success,” Hubsher says, “but he was new on the scene, relatively speaking.  He didn’t appreciate the concept of sunk cost.  I have millions riding on this plan, and the science has developed slowly.  We needed to start producing, but Ernesto was a choir boy once.  He insisted on looking for a fertilizer more compatible with his conscience.  He was young, didn’t understand that his partners couldn’t wait.  We’re getting on in years, no longer have the time to waste.”

“So, what, you killed him and fed him to the mushrooms?”

“Yes, but only because we had to.  He came down from the Poconos to check on things and discovered that we were moving ahead over his protests.  He threatened to go to the authorities, which of course we couldn’t tolerate.  No harm would have come to anyone if Ernesto hadn’t stepped out of line, you see.  A company of mine is undertaking a funeral home roll-up, which would have given the mushroom enterprise an endless supply of growth medium.  But if Ernesto exposed us, all was ruined.”

“You killed him to protect your franchise.”

“I didn’t.  Bobby did.”

“You killed him in Uncle Gunnar’s house.”

“Bobby did.  He was supposed to do it elsewhere, but Ernesto got suspicious and refused to leave with him.  A struggle ensued.  He bashed his head in—”

“Forswear!” Gunnar cries.

“I’m sorry, Gunnar.  I know you loved him.”  Hubsher turns back to me.  “Bobby dragged the body off.”

“I remember now,” Mindy says, lifting her face from the pillow.  “Phu figured that out eventually.  But we didn’t know the who or the why or anything.”

“It’s so unfair,” Hubsher says.  “You never really had a chance against me.  You left the puzzle two-thirds unsolved.”

“Fuck off, Hubsher,” I say.  “What was the business with that little house, then?”

“Gunnar’s cottage?  Well, now that the boyfriend had disappeared—”

“My partner.  Please!  It’s the modern age, Albert.  Don’t be a philistine.”

“In any case, Gunnar’s boyfriend — oh, all right, partner — had been eliminated in the house they shared.  We were at a critical point in the enterprise and had to protect the lead scientist from suspicion.  So we made Gunnar disappear, too, but in a far more productive way.  He’s been hiding out here, close to his work.”

“He’s a scientist, you know,” says Mrs. Smith, still fixated on her mind-blowing nails.

“Feeding corpses into the magic mushroom machine,” I say.

A thought hits Brad.  He scratches a cheek with the sight of his gun.  “Say, is this anything to do with the bodies disappearing from graveyards up and down the Brandywine Valley?”

“It is,” Uncle Gunnar admits.  “Albert’s roll-up started on the west coast.  He’s been working through some logistical kinks, but we needed bodies for the seed stock right away.”

“The stock seed!” Mindy cries into a pillow.  The tea must really be kicking in.

“But the foreclosure…”

“A fine excuse to clean the place up and give my good friend here a little windfall.”

“A way to launder his payment.”

“Some of it.  I believe in compensating my people well, and the man earned his extra walking around money, not that he does much walking around these days — mostly to the mushroom houses and back.  In any case, it would have ended there if Juan Torres hadn’t stuck his nose where it didn’t belong, and if Mindy hadn’t decided to take her duties a little too seriously.”

“Poor thing,” Uncle Gunnar says, going to her and massaging her shoulders.  “Poor, sweet thing.  It all would have come out all right if you’d left well enough alone.  Now — well, now look what you did.”

“What she did?” Brad says.

“Yes,” Hubsher sighs.  “Soon we’ll have more collateral damage.”

Collateral damage, hadn’t I used that term? I think back to the dead mouse in the tank at Uncle Gunnar’s house.  Now I know that its murder was not neglect but a willful act.

Hubsher turns to Uncle Gunnar.  “Only business, you know.  A little more mushroom food.”

“You’re awfully smug for a guy looking down the barrel of two pistols.” I say.  “No mushrooms will be growing on us.”

Hubsher reaches to the table beside him, where one of those aluminum canisters stands.  “I’ll take my chances with this.”  Before we can react, he flips the top off of the canister and sprays a small cloud of aerosol into the air.

And damned if it isn’t the mustiest odor that ever tickled my nose hairs.

 

54.


“Our raw material — the most excellent mushrooms — have two active ingredients,” Uncle Gunnar says as the odor worms its way into our sinuses.  “Psilocybin and psilocin.”  He launches into a detailed explanation of the two, involving dephosphorylation, hydroxylation, tryptamine, esters, and a whole pile of other technical terms.

When magic mushrooms are consumed orally, he explains, the body breaks the phosphate from the molecule, and the psilocin that’s left moves on into the bloodstream, where its high lipid solubility enables it to cross the blood-brain barrier and turn people into walking one-man light shows — batteries neither included or needed.  I could be getting this wrong.  The science doesn’t matter nearly as much as the intentions.

“We asked ourselves,” he continues, “that great scientific question: what if.  What if we could break off the phosphate outside of the human body instead of inside it?  Then we could eliminate the unpleasant step of having to pass the mushrooms over the tongue and down the gullet.  So we figured out how to do this — in essence to digest the psilocybin outside the body so people wouldn’t have to.  But it’s too unstable — you can’t keep it as a pill.  What then?  Eliminate the need to put it into your mouth altogether, not to mention the oh-so-disappointing wait.  What if consuming magic mushrooms could be as easy as breathing — and the effects nearly as instantaneous!”

“Cupcake!” Brad says.  “Exploding cup—”

“Ooh,” Terrance says, “man light.  Tremble.”

“Hey, I know you,” Mindy says, lifting her head from the couch and looking upon Mrs. Smith with new eyes.

“I’m a little inured after all these years,” Uncle Gunnar says as I watch his face melt into a thousand colors.  “Our final innovation, as you’ve no doubt guessed by now, was to atomize the psilocin and pressurize it into aerosol form.  It’s an express train to the planet Psychedelia!  Enjoy your last trip!”

“Our last trip?”

The books on the shelves are running like hot candle wax.  I turn and the room becomes all stripes and paisleys and polkadots.  Still, I perceive that Brad has fallen to one knee, transfixed by the pattern in the Persian rug.  Mindy remains curled up like a ball, nearly unconscious but with one arm swinging off the couch in simian fashion.  Terrance has begun to move around, reaching out his hand as if he’s attempting to capture elusive bubbles.

Then, from two doors at once, two pairs of Hubsher’s goons burst in.

“Get them!” Hubsher shouts, leaving cartoon streaks as he flips himself over the back of the couch.

The goons raise their pistols with arms that look to me like rubber bands and I jump and tackle Terrance to the floor, clambering over him and knocking down a side table.  I pounce on the aluminum canister that’s fallen to the floor and pry off the top and begin spraying like a wild man as Brad spins around with his Magnum.  Oddly, the smell of cordite hits me before the boom-boom-boom does.  I’m rolling and firing, rolling and firing, every bullet searing the air like psychedelic tracers, which disappear with great reluctance into our glutinous surroundings.  Meanwhile, beside me, the sound of Brad’s gun is like cannon fire booming through an empty tunnel.

Flashes of dazzling orange spurt from the bad guys’ guns like Chinese firecrackers.

They’re trying to kill us, I think, but the thought comes through my addled brain as more of an abstraction than a threat.  I’d like to crawl into a corner and enjoy the show, but I force myself to focus.  Jheri curls has assumed a firing position across the room from me, off my right shoulder.  His hair writhes like a ball of snakes, but his concentration seems unbroken.  He pauses, taking careful aim.  I run sideways and begin firing my Walther pell-mell, narrowing my brow and wishing the bullets to their target.

Except for Mindy — who remains flat on the couch — we’re all soon whirling around like dervishes, spinning and dodging and bobbing, and after a minute or an hour I come to realize that nothing’s happening anymore when I pull the trigger — my magazine’s empty and so is everyone else’s.  As quickly as the shooting erupted the room falls into complete silence.  From my knees, I look about, taking in the bright red blood that flowers on the side of Brad’s head, Mindy on the floor but stirring, and Terrance still wandering around, grabbing for invisible bubbles as if nothing at all just occurred.  My mind swimming, I wonder how the shooting stopped, and I realize with delight that the distortion of perception from the magic mushroom mist must have helped my aim.  All four goons and Mrs. Smith lie motionless, though in the chaos Uncle Gunnar and Albert Hubsher seem to have escaped the room.

Brad rises and grabs for his ear, which suddenly reveals itself to be the source of the blood, and it only hemorrhages to an alarming degree when I recross my eyes.  When a split second of lucidity clarifies itself in my brain, I realize that it’s no more than a nick, which explains why he’s upright and hardly seeming to notice.  On the other hand, if he’s as fucked up as I am, he’s having trouble telling illusion from reality and may have forgotten that he has ears, let alone perceives that one is bleeding.  Even as he reaches for it he seems to forget what he’s doing and drops his hand to his side, where he proceeds to tap out a silent tune on his thigh with the barrel of his Magnum.

Then he shoves the gun into his waistband and lifts the phone from a nearby desk and tries to dial without success but says something incoherent into the receiver anyway and hangs up.  He goes over to the bodies of the goons and attempts to kick their guns away, but he keeps fanning, almost falls over twice, and sinks to the floor, tittering like a lunatic.

Even as I’m tripping into my own form of obliviousness, I know that people are dead at our hands and Brad had the right idea: we need to make a phone call.  I pick up the receiver but keep hitting nine and forgetting what comes next, unable for the life of me to recall the emergency number that every four year old knows.

I pick up Hubsher’s knocked-over desk chair and I’m sitting there with the phone in my hand, still trying to conjure the right sequence, when Sergeant Buxton flies into the room, gun drawn, followed by Grogan and a bevy of their fellow officers.

“Hey, cupcake!” Brad calls.

“Over there, Rufus!” I cry, pointing to Mindy.

“Roofies?” Terrance says.  “Where roofies?”

And we all descend further into inanity.

A few minutes or hours later, when Brad’s ear has been bandaged and the bodies have gone cold and the cops have the rest of it all sorted out, Sergeant Buxton leads us outside and jams the three of us into the back of his cruiser.  We’re still hallucinating and babbling like idiots as the doors close and Phil produces Stubby from the air and slips the sock puppet onto his bad hand.

“Nobody takes the cripple or the brunette or the little Asian dude seriously,” he says, “but ah-hah!  Ah-hah!  Ah-hah!”

And we laugh like children until Buxton drives us home and puts us all to bed.

55.


In the morning, I’m sitting at Penny’s kitchen table with Mindy and Penny beside me.  Penny called school and told them Terrance wouldn’t be coming in today.  We three adults plow through a panful of bacon and eggs, a package of buttered English muffins and a pot of coffee, no one holding anything back, not even Penny.

“I felt a little nauseous last night,” I say.

“The magic mushrooms,” Mindy nods.  “It’s one of the few side-effects.”

“But now I feel great, just flat-out famished.  Is that the mushrooms, too?”

“Nope.  Just the hard work.  You were a rock star last night, Phu.”

A knock comes at the door.

“There you all are,” Buxton says, striding into the kitchen.  “Where’s Terrance?”

“Sleeping in,” Penny says, “as only a teenager can.  He earned it.  Coffee?”

“Don’t mind if I do.”  Buxton pulls up a chair.  “How you doing, killer?”

“No worse for wear.  Wish we’d got the big bad guys, though, not just their lackeys.”

“Who says we haven’t?”

“You found Uncle Gunnar?” Mindy says.

“Twice in one day.  Hubsher, too.  The Pennsylvania state troopers picked them up on the airport tarmac by Hubsher’s private plane.”

“Gonna fly the coop, huh?”

“They had a flight plan for Holland, where magic mushrooms are legal.”

“How about murder?”

“Not even the Dutch are that tolerant.  Mind if I join you in breakfast?”

Mindy makes him up a plate.  “How did you arrive so soon at the estate?  Tabitha said she didn’t get through on the phone until you were en route.”

“Purely an accident.  I was supervising a stakeout of one of the cemeteries when we discovered a couple of guys robbing a fresh grave.  It was dark, but I could see that one of the dudes had Jheri curls, and I remembered your description of him.  We followed him to Hubsher’s place.”

“What took so long for you to get to the library, then?”

“Well, we had to hang back so as not to be seen, but we were only a minute behind.”

“Longest minute of my life.”

“A man can do a lot of damage in a minute with the weapons you two were carrying.”

“Not to mention the chemicals.  We were a walking mess.”

He looks at me.  “It goes deeper than that, Phu.  Man, you weren’t yourself last night.  When I was tucking you into your beddy-bye you started talking crazy, saying all people are basically good and stuff like that.  Mindy here done got to you!”

“Un uh.  That was the drugs talking, Sergeant.”  I exaggerate a cold stare.  “And if you ever tell anyone what I said last night I’ll screw up your credit so bad you won’t be able to borrow a nickel from the bowl of a blind beggar.  You got that?”

“I got it, tough guy.”  He takes a last bite of bacon and lets out a laugh that could bring down the house.

 

56.

 

More than a week later, Saturday, there’s a small moving van in front of the Torres house when I pull my Mini to a stop and toot the horn.  Clara Torres descends the steps and heads down the front walk, and though she isn’t quite smiling I detect a spring in her step.

She opens the passenger door and climbs in.  “Estoy listo. Ready.”

“But what about the kids?”

“Miss Mindy have them.”

“Ah.  You were doing your last run through.”

She nods and smiles, but can’t find the words to reply.

In peaceful silence we drive around the corner, where Mindy’s blue Volvo sits in Penny’s driveway, the trunk open and packed full.  Terrance comes from the house with one arm wrapped around the big pink pig.

Mindy shakes her head and points to the dark-haired Torres kids, one of them looking very much like a miniature Juan.  “No room with the car seats,” she says.  “Your aunt will have to ship it.”

“Okay.”

Together they look at Penny, who stands with a hand on one hip and her daughter under the other arm.

“Never mind,” Mindy says.  “Let Letitia have it.”

“I won’t hear of it,” Penny says.  “You’ve done so much already.”

“Yeah,” Terrance says.  “Anyway it’ll just end up in a corner, forgotten.”

“Maybe that’ll wipe the shit-eating grin from its face,” I add as I step forward.

“Phu, my man!”  Terrance sets the pig down and gives me a bear hug, lifting me off the ground.

“You can put me down any time,” I grunt, but he holds me for an extra second, walking me to the lawn and depositing me by Mindy’s side.  “Group hug!” he cries then, squeezing us both.

He’s happy because Mindy told Penny this morning that we’d both chip in for her operation.  Mindy said she felt seventy-five grand richer not having to lose that money on Uncle Gunnar’s house, a conclusion that makes no sense to me logically, but I’m learning that you can’t argue with feelings.  She spent the better part of the week crying over her betrayal at the hands of Uncle Gunnar, even visiting him in jail once but never getting him to understand that she almost got killed in service to the selfishness of an old man.  And all because she trusted him like — well, like an uncle.

As for me, I agreed to kick in fifteen thousand of my Kendall windfall.  It felt a little like blood money, anyway, but not so much for me to pledge the whole thing to Penny.  And, after all, I haven’t earned a red cent in a month due to this strange business.

“We’re good to go,” Mindy says, surveying the car one last time.

Penny ushers Clara’s kids into the back seat and Clara leans in to secure them with buckles.

“You sure about this idea?” I ask Mindy.

“Minneapolis is a sanctuary city.  I think she’ll be safe from deportation there, make a new life, and meanwhile I’ll try to get her legal.”

I look at the place where the stitches were removed from her cheek and shake my head.  There’s a pink scar there, sexy as hell.  “Nothing will make you stop, will it?”

“Why should I?  Just because stupid old Uncle Gunnar put tripping ahead of his friends?  If everyone who got treated badly turned around and did the same, what kind of world would this be?  Which reminds me.”

“What?”

“I had a revelation in that library.”

“Is this like one of those things when you smoke pot and realize that Betty-Sue is a compound name or something equally obvious?”

“No.  This was real.  When I was curled up on that couch, I went into a bad trip, reliving my burial with the backhoe.  And in the process, I saw who it was sitting in that cab, running that machine.”

“Lemme guess: Jheri curls.”

“Nope.  Mrs. Smith.”

“That bitch.”

“Sergeant Buxton says she’s still alive.  I might come back and visit her in jail.”

“No!” Terrance says.  “Tell her that ain’t right, Phu.”

But how can I argue?  I turn my attention to Kyle, who also came to say goodbye and stands there looking chastened now — or maybe I’m just seeing him different than before.

Mindy says, “What about that rich guy who was trying to distract you on Mr. Hubsher’s orders?”

“I’m taking a page from your book.  I told Buxton that, even if there’s a case to be made, I’m not pressing charges.  But I’m not working for that turkey, either, and I put the word out.  Without me or someone like me he’ll be in litigation for the next five years.”

Penny steps forward.  “You’d better go,” she tells Mindy.  “You have a long drive ahead.”

We all embrace and Mindy kisses and hugs me — a long platonic smooch — and climbs into the driver’s seat of her Volvo.  She’s wearing baggy jeans and a modest sweater, for a change leaving something to the imagination, and the effect is more powerful than ever.

I catch the door before she can close it.  “There’s one thing I can’t figure out, Min.  You said you couldn’t start your car that night we had dinner together, but you managed to get it going a few days later, when you were mad at me.”

“Don’t you know?”  She grins.  “You have to pump the gas pedal first.”

She steps on it as if to demonstrate, turns the key and the engine purrs to life.  I close the door as she pulls into drive, and as I watch her roll down the street a pang develops in my gut.

A little early for lunch, I think, but you can’t deny the stomach.

This is a work of fiction.  While some of the places are real, any resemblance between characters in this story and real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.  Copyright © by J.E. Fishman

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J.E. Fishman, a former Big Six book editor and former literary agent, is author of the thriller Primacy, which Publishers Weekly called "appealing" and Kirkus called "good, boisterous fun." His mystery novel, Cadaver Blues, was serialized in 2010 on TNB and you can still find it here if you dig deep enough. It's now available in ebook and paperback. His financial thriller, The Dark Pool, was published this year, and his new series of police thrillers, Bomb Squad NYC, will be published in February 2014. He blogs here and at the Huffington Post. Please visit and follow him at his very fancy and expensive official author website.

42 responses to “Cadaver Blues: A Novel”

  1. Timmy Waldron says:

    Great opening… looking forward to the next.

  2. Beth says:

    Thanks, Joel, for another great read — looking forward to more.

  3. Chuck B says:

    Great start. Only question: is protagonist’s name prounounced with two syllables or–one?

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Sorry to repeat myself. Hit the wrong button. Want to make sure Chuck B sees this:

      This is a really good question, Chuck. The pronunciation of Phuoc is usually transliterated as “fook” — one syllable — but Vietnamese is a tonal language (like Chinese), so it’s about more than syllables. Vietnamese, for instance, has twice as many vowels as English.

      The reality is that, like most tonal languages, Vietnamese is really hard for westerners to pronounce correctly. People who were raised in the west not speaking a tonal language at home usually require years of immersion even to begin to sound like a native. Just ask any Chinese or Vietnamese natives to teach you a word and watch them laugh at your inability to come close to what they’re saying.

      Of course, Phuoc Goldberg is a westerner, having been raised from infancy in the U.S. In coming chapters you will learn that he has a nickname that is much easier for his fellow Americans to pronounce.

  4. J.E. Fishman says:

    This is a really good question, Chuck. The pronunciation of Phuoc is usually transliterated as “fook” — one syllable — but Vietnamese is a tonal language (like Chinese), so it’s about more than syllables. Vietnamese, for instance, has twice as many vowels as English.

    The reality is that, like most tonal languages, Vietnamese is really hard for westerners to pronounce correctly. People who were raised in the west not speaking a tonal language at home usually require years of immersion even to begin to sound like a native. Just ask any Chinese or Vietnamese natives to teach you a word and watch them laugh at your inability to come close to what they’re saying.

    Of course, Phuoc Goldberg is a westerner, having been raised from infancy in the U.S. In coming chapters you will learn that he has a nickname that is much easier for his fellow Americans to pronounce.

  5. Kurt F says:

    Though I love good fiction, I rarely take the time out to indulge in the simple pleasure. Usually reserved to beach vacations and such. Really enjoyed Chapter 1; your writing places the reader in the scene. As shorts, I’ll look forward to sneaking away time to read a weekly chapter.

  6. josie says:

    Very masculine intro. I could really feel the negative energy coming off the guy and that punch at the end gave us both relief.

    I like the idea of a book being posted on TNB. Once a week is perfect and thank you for keeping the length short. If the excerpts were too long I’d have to pass in order to keep up with my other reading. But I think I can handle this and I’m looking forward to the ride.

  7. Jeff says:

    Mickey Spillane has nothing on you. Great start– look forward to reading more.

  8. […] owned his own literary agency, and is a published non-fiction author. Did we mention he has a few novels and a screenplay in the […]

  9. […] owned his own literary agency, and is a published non-fiction author. Did we mention he has a few novels and a screenplay in the […]

  10. Josh says:

    Score one for the bitter little guy. Nice first chapter – grabs me and I want to see where it’s going to take me. Thanks for the clarification on pronouncing Phouc’s name – I was reading it as “Puke” – “Fook(U)” seems to fit his outlook at this point… Looking forward to the next chapter. Thanks.

  11. M. Grosswald says:

    Can’t wait for chapter 2!

  12. […] Editor’s note: This is the second installment of J.E. Fishman’s novel, Cadaver Blues, which is being published as a weekly serial here at TNB.  The first chapter can be found right here. […]

  13. peter says:

    Great reading – longing for more….

  14. […] Blues, which is being published as a weekly serial here at TNB.  The first chapter can be found right here, and the second chapter is right […]

  15. […] Blues, which is being published as a weekly serial here at TNB. The first chapter can be found right here, and the second chapter is right here. Chapter 3: […]

  16. […] Blues, which is being published as a weekly serial here at TNB. The first chapter can be found right here, and the second chapter is right here. Chapter 3: here.  Chapter 4:  […]

  17. […] Editor’s note: This is the fifth installment of J.E. Fishman’s novel, Cadaver Blues, which is being published as a weekly serial here at TNB.  The preceding installments can be found right here. […]

  18. Elizabeth Collins says:

    I love your main character’s name (I remember you would get annoyed with me at RWG for focusing on names that jarred me).

    Also the “new noir” genre–perfect. Love the story and the bending of genres.

    Good work, as always.

    • J.E. Fishman says:

      Thanks, Liz. You missed an RWG discussion a month or so ago about whether main characters need to be “likeable.” I’m of the school that believes it’s more important for a character to be interesting than likeable. So I hope readers will like Phu for being interesting!

      Now that we’re approaching critical mass, please help spread the word about CADAVER BLUES.

  19. J.E. Fishman says:

    Thanks, Liz. You missed an RWG discussion a month or so ago about whether main characters need to be “likeable.” I’m of the school that believes it’s more important for a character to be interesting than likeable. So I hope readers will like Phu for being interesting!

    Now that we’re approaching critical mass, please help spread the word about CADAVER BLUES.

  20. […] Editor’s note: This is the sixth installment of J.E. Fishman’s novel, Cadaver Blues, which is being published as a weekly serial here at TNB.  The preceding installments can be found right here. […]

  21. […] Editor’s note: This is the seventh installment of J.E. Fishman’s novel, Cadaver Blues, which is being published as a weekly serial here at TNB.  The preceding installments can be found right here. […]

  22. […] Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of J.E. Fishman’s novel, Cadaver Blues, which is being published as a weekly serial here at TNB.  The preceding installments can be found right here. […]

  23. […] Editor’s note: This is the latest installment to Cadaver Blues, a serialized novel exclusive to TNB.  If you’re behind, go to the beginning. […]

  24. […] Editor’s note: This is the latest installment to Cadaver Blues, a serialized novel exclusive to TNB. If you’re behind, go to the beginning. […]

  25. Scott says:

    An entertaining and smart story… Phuoc Goldberg does a dirty job in a dirty way, yet there seems to be an element of good in him. I eagerly await the next installments to see what might redeem Phu. Keep up the good work, Joel!

  26. […] Cadaver Blues, Chapters 1-19 – A Serialized Novel from “The Nervous Breakdown” […]

  27. […] Yet, I do owe something to Arthur and Gary Stern of Englewood Cliffs, NJ.  Through their utter obnoxiousness they led me to the idea for a novel about a debt negotiator who sticks up for the little guy.  The novel, CADAVER BLUES, can be found right here. […]

  28. […] to Mr. Fishman (who would like you to go read his novel, Cadaver Blues, which is currently being published as an exclusive weekly serial here at […]

  29. […] Read Cadaver Blues from the beginning. […]

  30. […] reality show aspirations of two retired Mafia dons; a thriller, Primacy; and the detective novel Cadaver Blues, the first serial novel to appear on these pages.  He’s also not the worst tennis player in the […]

  31. The no download model is rather slim in the online game collection although, having only one finally of the organization activities that
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