Read an Excerpt
A Repairman Jack Novel
By F. Paul Wilson
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2004 F. Paul Wilson
All rights reserved.
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 sweet tooth 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 Park West, 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 barebones 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.CHAPTER 2
An angular, dark-haired woman, maybe mid- to late-fifties, sat on the thin cushion of a straight-backed chair. Both gnarled hands rested on the silver handle of a wooden walking stick. Dark eyes and a long nose with a slightly bulbous tip were set in a smooth, round, puffy face that didn't go with her wizened body.
Close at her side sat a Rottweiler the size and consistency of a fireplug. He barked once, then settled into fixing Jack with a relentless basilisk stare.
"You're not quite what one would expect," the woman said as Jack closed the door behind him.
The collar of her white turtleneck hung loose around her wrinkled neck. She wore gold-beige slacks and brown shoes. Jack didn't know much about fashion, but her clothes, though simple and straightforward, shouted money.
So did the apartment. The decor revealed that she or her husband suffered from a severe case of sinophilia — the front room was festooned with oriental screens, statues, carved stone heads, stone rubbings, temple paintings, inlaid tables of teak and ebony, all immaculate and spit shined.
... not quite what one would expect ...
Jack heard that a lot. People with problems called a guy named Repairman Jack and expected to see a Bo Dietl clone. Sorry.
"And what would one expect?"
"I'm not sure. You look quite ... ordinary."
"Thank you." He put a lot of effort into ordinariness. Ordinary was invisible. "You are Maria Roselli, I take it?"
She nodded. "I'd offer you lunch but the maid's not well and didn't show up today. Please have a seat."
He walked to the Cinerama picture window. The East River ran below, Queens lay beyond. He needed to know something about this lady before he got involved with her, but wasn't sure how to broach the subject. He looked down and saw a park with a dog run.
"Nice little park."
"Peter Detmold Park. Benno loves it down there."
Jack turned and looked at her frail frame. "You walk him often?"
She frowned and shook her head. "No. Esteban takes him out before and after his shift. They're fond of each other."
"I'm sure." Might as well get down to it: "Do you know an older woman named Anya?"
Maria Roselli's brow furrowed. "I don't think I do. What's her last name?"
She shook her head. "No, I do not know anyone by that name."
"Of course. Why do you ask?"
But it wasn't nothing. Over the past four or five months three women with dogs had passed through his life — a Russian lady, a younger Indian woman, and a Long Island yenta. Each had known more about Jack's life and situation in the cosmos than they should have. He couldn't help wondering if he might now be dealing with a fourth.
But New York does have a huge population of women with dogs. They couldn't all be mysterious witchy types with preternatural knowledge. A woman with a dog could be just a woman with a dog.
"One more question: Where did you get my name and number?"
"From someone who would prefer not to be identified."
"I need to know this before we go any further."
She looked away. "I need your help. Can we make a deal? I'll tell you when you find my son?"
Oh, jeez. A missing person job. That wasn't Jack's thing.
"Mrs. Roselli, I —"
"Okay. Maria. Missing people are better found by the police. You need access to computers, databases, networks, all stuff that I don't have, so —"
"I don't want the police involved. At least not yet. I have a good idea where he is, but I can't contact him. If he's fine, and he very well may be, I don't want to cause him any embarrassment."
No cops ... a good start. Jack dropped into the chair she had offered. He'd give a little listen.
"Okay, Maria. Where do you think he is?"
"First, can I offer you a drink?"
He realized he was not yet properly caffeinated
"Well, I wouldn't mind some coffee if you've got it."
"I've got green tea and that's what you'll have. It's much better for you than coffee. Loaded with antioxidants."
The only times Jack drank green tea was in Chinese restaurants, but what the hell? Be wild.
"Okay. Tea it is."
"Good. You can make me some too while you're at it." She pointed to his left. "The kettle's in the kitchen."
Jack had an urge to tell her what she could do with her kettle, but another look at those gnarled, twisted fingers changed his mind.
"Sure. Why not?"
As he moved toward the kitchen, she struggled to her feet and hobbled after him on her cane. Benno followed her.
"Let me tell you about Johnny first."
"Johnny? How old is Johnny?"
"Thirty-three. He's a good boy. Really, I know all mothers say that, but Johnny really is, despite his privileged life. I made my money the old-fashioned way." She gave him a tight smile. "I inherited it. Before his death, Johnny's father created a generous trust fund for him, contingent on Johnny's graduation from college. When he did graduate— cum laude, I'll have you know — he became an instant millionaire."
Swell, Jack thought. Find a thirty-something trust fund brat. Only one way this could go from here: downhill. He felt like heading for the door, but he'd already promised her a cup of tea. So he'd let her ramble.
"But he didn't squander it. He had a flair for business so he joined a brokerage house — Merrill Lynch, Paine Webber, Morgan Stanley, one of those multiname firms. I don't pay much attention to such things. Doesn't matter anyway. What is important is that he was an astounding success. He handled my money along with his and by the end of the nineties he had increased my net worth to an amount that I can only describe as obscene." Another tight little smile. "Well, almost obscene. God only knows what Johnny himself was worth."
Even better, Jack thought sourly. She wants me to find a Gordon Gekko wannabe.
The kitchen was small but equipped with a glass-door Sub Zero refridge and a Dacor range. She pointed to a corner cabinet. "The tea is on the first shelf."
Jack found a box with Green Tea in red letters; those were the only English words, the rest was Chinese. As he pulled it out he noticed a dozen or so pill bottles lined against the wall on the counter. Maria must have followed his gaze.
She raised one of her twisted hands. "Rheumatoid arthritis. No fun. The medicines that don't make me sick give me this moon face."
Close up now Jack could see a lacework of red splotches across her nose and cheeks. He felt a twinge of guilt about his annoyance at having to make her tea. Maria's hands didn't look useful for much. Good thing she had money.
"What do you do for food when the maid's not around?"
"What anybody does: I have it delivered."
As he filled the kettle Jack said, "Back to your son: I'd think that if someone that high powered disappeared there'd be a ton of people looking for him. Especially his clients."
"He didn't disappear. He quit. Despite all the money he was making, he became disillusioned. He told me he was sick of being lied to — by the companies, even by the research teams in his own brokerage. He didn't feel he could trust anyone in the business."
So maybe Johnny wasn't a Gekko. Sounded like he had something resembling a conscience.
"This is pre-Enron, I take it."
She nodded. "After hearing about all the double-dealing from Johnny, the Enron scandal came as no surprise to me."
Jack found two gold-rimmed china cups — with the emphasis on China — and dropped a tea bag in each.
"So he quit and did what?"
"I think he ... I believe 'snapped' is the term. He gave a lot of his money to charities, worked in soup kitchens, became a Buddhist for a while, but he couldn't seem to find whatever it was he was looking for. Then he joined the Dormentalists and everything changed."
The Dormentalists ... everyone had heard of them. Couldn't read a paper or ride a subway without seeing their ads. Every so often some movie star or singer or famous scientist would announce his or her membership in the Dormentalist Church. And the exploits and pronouncements of its flamboyant founder Cooper Blascoe had been gossip-column fodder for years. But Jack hadn't heard much from him for a while.
"You think they've done something to your son?"
Every so often the papers would report sinister goings-on in the cult — mind control and extortion seemed to be two favorites — but nothing ever seemed to come of the accusations.
"I don't know. I don't want to believe that anyone has done anything to Johnny, especially not the Dormentalists."
"Why? What's so special about them?"
"Because being a Dormentalist transformed him. I'd never seen him so happy, so content with life or himself."
The kettle whistled as the water started to boil. Jack filled the cups.
"I've heard that some cults can do that."
"I quickly learned not to call it a cult in front of Johnny. It made him very upset. He went on and on about it being a church, not a cult, saying that even the United States government had recognized it as a church. I still thought it was a cult, but I didn't care. If Johnny was happy, so was I."
"Was? I take that to mean things changed."
"Not things — Johnny changed. He used to stay in touch. He'd call me two or three times a week to see how I was doing and to give me a sales pitch on Dormentalism. He was always trying to get me to join. I must have told him a thousand times that I wasn't the least bit interested, but he kept after me until he ..." Her lips tightened as moisture gathered in her eyes. "Until he stopped."
"Just like that? Three calls one week and nothing the next?"
"No. They tapered off as he started to change."
"Over the past few months he's grown increasingly remote and strange. He started insisting that I call him 'Oroont.' Can you imagine? He's been Johnny Roselli all his life and now he'll answer only to Oroont. Two weeks ago he didn't call at all, so last Sunday I began calling him. I've left at least a dozen messages but he doesn't call back. I have a key to Johnny's apartment, so on Wednesday I sent Esteban to have a look — you know, in case Johnny was sick or, God forbid, dead. But he found it empty — no furniture, nothing. He'd moved out and hadn't even told me. I know it's got something to do with the Dormentalists."
"How do you know he didn't just quit them and head for California or Mexico or Machu Picchu?"
Maria shook her head. "He was too involved, too much of a true believer." She nodded to the teacups. "They've steeped enough. Bring them into the living room, if you would."
With a cup and saucer in each hand, Jack followed Benno who was following Maria. As she settled into her straight-backed chair, Jack set the cups on the intricately inlaid top of a bow-legged oriental coffee table.
Excerpted from Crisscross by F. Paul Wilson. Copyright © 2004 F. Paul Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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