This little jaunt was a departure from Jack's SOP of meeting prospective customers in a place of his choosing, but he didn't expect any problems this go-round. Beekman Place was hardly a Manhattan trouble zone.
The day was so nice he'd decided to walk. No big deal. Only a couple of miles from his apartment, but a big jump in rental price. A cab ride would deprive him of this beautiful day.
Autumn was strengthening its grip on the city: cooler temperatures, gustier winds...sweater weather. Jack's was a cranberry V-neck, worn over a blue-and-white plaid shirt and tan slacks. The preppy look. Never out of place in Midtown. Medium-length brown hair, medium brown eyes, medium height, medium build. Nothing special about him. Just the way he liked it. Practically invisible.
The summer haze had fled south, leaving the midday sky a piercing blue; red and yellow leaves whirligigged from branches, and all the Duane Reades sported ghosts and goblins and spiderwebs in their windows. The official Halloween countdown had dwindled to less than twelve hours.
Just last night Vicky had put on her Wicked Witch of the West costume--green skin, warty nose, the whole deal--and modeled it for Jack. She fairly vibrated with anticipation. Nine years old going on forty, she loved dressing up, and loved candy. Halloween was the one day of the year--well, maybe Christmas too--that Gia let her daughter's sweettooth call the shots. Come November 1 it would be back to reality: Boca Burgers, kasha and beans, and one--just one--piece of candy for dessert.
And for me, Jack thought, one Whopper with cheese to go, please.
He'd come down Central ParkWest, past a large, cheering rally of some sort on one of the park greens, walked east over to First Avenue, then turned downtown. The Trump World Tower was looming large in his vision when he hung a left onto East Fifty-first. A block later he stepped onto Beekman Place. It ran between Fifty-first and Forty-ninth. Right. A whole two blocks long.
Felt like he'd stepped from a wrestling match into a library. The bare-bones bustle of First Avenue was gone, replaced by party-colored trees lining quiet pavements. He'd Googled the area before coming over. Interesting history. Nathan Hale had been held prisoner in one of these mansions before his execution. Billy Rose used to live here, so had Irving Berlin, although his old place now housed the Luxembourg mission to the UN.
Jack walked past canopied front entrances attended by liveried doormen until he came to the brick and granite front of 37 Beekman Place. He nodded to the Hispanic-looking doorman in the gray uniform with black piping.
"Can I help you, sir?" His English carried only a hint of a Spanish accent. The nameplate over his left breast read Esteban.
"I'm here to see Mrs. Roselli. She's expecting me."
Esteban led the way into an echoey lobby: white marble floor, white marble walls, white marble ceiling. He lifted the receiver attached to an intercom in the left lobby wall. "And who shall I say is calling?"
"May I have your last name, sir?"
"Just Jack. Like I said, she's expecting me."
He looked dubious but pressed two numbers on the pad. "Ms. Roselli? There is a 'Jack' here to see you."
Esteban listened a few seconds, then hung up. "Apartment one A, sir." He pointed to a hallway leading off the lobby. "First door on your right." He stared at Jack. "Are you related?"
"No. We've never met. Why do you ask?"
"Just curious. I've been working here two years and you're the first company she's had. You'll like her. Nice lady. The best."
Glad to hear it, Jack thought. Nice ladies were always easier to work for than the not so nice. Later this afternoon he'd be meeting another nice lady customer.
But so far Maria Roselli was a mystery. She'd e-mailed him from his Web site, leaving a phone number, saying it was important. When Jack had called her back she was evasive about who had referred her, saying over and over how she was so worried about her son and how she needed Jack's help.
She was the second customer in two days who'd refused to say who'd referred her. Jack liked to know how his customers managed to find him. His services weren't exactly the kind he could advertise in the Times' classified section. He'd made some enemies along the way, so he tended to be wary of customers who popped up with no identifiable references.
But Beekman Place...the class of people who had a beef with him didn't live in seven-figure East Side co-ops.
So he'd agreed to meet Maria Roselli without knowing who'd referred her. He'd also agreed to meet at her place. She'd said she was physically handicapped and it would put a burden on her to meet him elsewhere.
Hadn't liked that either, but something in her voice...
Anyway, here he was. He knocked on 1A and a dog started barking.
A woman's voice on the other side said, "Hush up, Benno. It's all right."
Oh, hell, Jack thought. Another woman with a dog.
Maybe he should turn and go.
The voice rose in volume. "Come in. It's open."
He took a breath and reached for the knob. Might as well see what was up. He hadn't committed to anything. Nothing said he couldn't walk away if he didn't like the setup.
Copyright © 2006 by F. Paul Wilson