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God has his thumbprint on us all, no matter if we breathe through spiracles or gills or lungs, no matter if we have two legs or four or six or eight. That's what I was thinking as I watched the courtly insect rumba of a pair of giant incandescent grasshoppers on my windowsill. Festively decked out in warning coloration, they might have been a couple of Thai dancers or mariachi players, and their stiff love ballad seemed a parody of the fantasy unfolding on my monitor. Truth was, I was more interested in their antics than the ones on my desk. I was so burned out on the low-brow porn tapes I'd been assigned to go through that I'd taken to listening to jazz or sometimes Gershwin on my lunch hour and viewing them with the fast-forward button depressed so as to force the playerstoday a delighted patient and his nurse, clad only in Cuban heel stockings, a white cap and stiletto shoesinto a comic scherzo of thrusts and bends.
The preposterous scenario broke off in the middle, leaving me with only the haunting tones of "Summertime" for entertainment. I figured the tape had snapped, but before I could eject it the blank screen was filled with the image of a candlelit restaurant; a classy joint with white tablecloths, heavy curtains, rococo chairs of scrollwork and gold leaf. The jerky, amateurish camera work was unusual, so I shed my headphones and slowed the tape. The camera panned to just inside the entrance, where a head-waiter in coat and tails greeted an opulently dressed family of three. He escorted mother, father and daughter to a four-top in the corner, and handed them menus. Then, utterly without ceremony, and in the most matter-of-fact fashion, the little girl, brown-skinned and blue-eyed, climbed up onto the table.
The waiter came back, a violin tucked under his neck, and ran his bow slowly over the strings as the child removed her clothes. First came the pinafore and then the precious blue dress. Wearing only tiny lace undies, too much lipstick, eye-liner and rouge, the little girl began a terrible, seductive dance. As the camera zoomed in, she gyrated and pirouetted on her little high heels, arms held high like a cabaret pro.
I stopped the VCR and went to the window. My shadow frightened the grasshoppers, and they leapt bravely into the sky. I let the bright Florida sunshine rinse me like a hose, and when I felt clean enough, I went back to the tape. I watched the man remove his jacket and his shirt and draw the little girl to him, kissing her lasciviously while she gazed vacantly into the distance.
The camera moved to the woman. No more than eighteen, she played to the camera, making promises with her tongue. She unbuttoned her blouse, dropped her skirt, bent backwards over the table, rubbed herself down low. The man came to her, slid between her legs and caressed her breasts. The musical waiter picked up the tempo and the little blue-eyed girl danced faster on the tabletop. Then, just as casually as if he were buttering a piece of toast, the man reached over to a silver champagne bucket, pulled out a dripping wet Colt Gold Cup .45, put the muzzle into the woman's mouth, and pulled the trigger.
Then he took a drink.
I leapt out of my chair, my breath coming in gasps. The screen went dark again, and I could hear the whir of the VCR and the high-pitched hum that TVs make. I opened the door and stepped out into the light of the hallway, bumping into my boss, Miscellaneous Team Leader Wacona Smith.
"Are you all right?" she asked, frowning at my expression. Wacona is five feet three and wears frameless glasses and her dark, straight hair in bangs. Her librarian looks are deceiving. She's a barracuda.
She glanced over my shoulder and saw the VCR on my desk. "Watching tapes?"
"There is nothing worse."
By way of answer, I backed up the tape, turned up the volume, and started it again for her. The waiter played his violin. The blue-eyed girl danced. The murderer grunted over his victim. The sound of the shot came as a deafening roar. Wacona reached to turn off the set. I saw her hand was shaking. "It's not real," she said.
"Could have fooled me."
"Trust me, it's phony. Where did you get it?"
I pointed across the room to several cartons full of tapes. "They've been there for weeks. One of Greg's cases. I've been working my way through them."
Two months earlier, Greg Hunter, the fourth inspector at the Palm Beach domicile, had been shotgunned in the face during a controlled delivery of five kilos of heroin. He had been a good man to work with. He had different sensibilities than I did, but a good man nonetheless. Everyone in the office missed him.
"Well, it's a fake."
"What makes you so sure?"
"The Colt Gold Cup is an enthusiast's gun. Expensive, finicky, prone to feed failure. It's not the kind of weapon you'd use for a snuff." Her cool tone burned me.
"Not the kind of weapon who would use? If we have a profile on video killers, I sure haven't seen it."
"I'm telling you it's bogus," she said impatiently. "Disgusting, but bogus."
"Yeah, well, I think it's the real thing and I want to work it up."
"We'll see. Right now, I need you for backup."
Still numb, I followed her out. She walked like she was a foot taller than she was, legs and hips all going at once, eyes in the back of her head watching for stares. When we got to the parking lot she pulled out the keys to what we call a "soft" cara chocolate-colored Porsche seized after an arrest and attached by the service in lieu of fines due. The paint glinted in the sunshine, and I touched it with my finger.
"Hands off my car," Wacona commanded.
"Wanna tell me where we're going?"
"To play Good Cop/Bad Cop."
"Some asshole mouth off to his carrier again?"
"You got it."
Wacona worked the electric door lock, but I just stood outside the car.
"Today," she said.
I got in.
"It wasn't a murder. Now put it out of your mind," she said, roaring out of the lot, keeping the transmission in first gear too long.
"See that gauge to the right of the speedometer?" I asked casually. "That's your engine speed. When the needle goes into the red, you're munching the valves."
She did a four-wheel drifting slide around the corner, skillfully staying just shy of a spin by judicious use of the throttle and clutch.
"Max?" she smiled faintly. "Don't tell me how to drive."
• • •
The United States Postal Service, despite being a branch of the federal government, is run like a corporation. The Postal Inspection Service, the oldest and least-known federal law enforcement agency in the land, is part of the postal service, and operates along similar lines. The number of postal employees is vast, and one function of the U.S.P.I.S. is to keep those employees honest. It also investigates mail fraud, letter bombs, scams, and the occasional high-profile case, like the Unabomber. Sometimes these so-called "internal" and "external" crimes intersect. This morning was one of those times.
We pulled into a West Palm Beach neighborhood of tract homesivory, gray, and salmon, roofs done in shake shingles, lawns immaculate, curbs numbered in white. A passing cloud dropped a few raindrops on the windshield. Wacona clucked, but resisted the temptation to smear the glass by turning on the wipers. A postal delivery van was waiting half a block up on the other side. We got out and so did the van's driver, the grin on his face saying he was glad his personal bulldogs had arrived.
"What we have here," Wacona said under her breath, "is a genuine morale-boosting mission."
It made me feel good to hear it. Postal inspectors don't wear uniforms and swagger about in the public view, and since they are rarely portrayed on either the small or big screen, the general public is barely aware we exist. Postal employees, however, know us all too well, and generally view us as river trolls with guns.
I rang the doorbell, and we stood there for a few minutes. The sun began to burn my bald scalp. I shave the stubble every three days: more frequently than that, I get razor burn.
"Who's there?" a gruff voice finally demanded from behind the door.
"Postal inspector," I replied sternly.
"Go fuck yourself."
Like Rodney Dangerfield, we rarely get any respect. At best, most people think we are little men who examine letters to make sure the address is spelled right. Wacona reached around me and banged on the door hard enough to dent the pressboard.
"Federal agents," she bellowed.
The door swung open slowly. A middle-aged citizen with three chins shaded his gaze with his hand and took in my baggy pants and shirt.
"You're Feds like I'm the King of Siam," he smirked.
I wasn't about to explain that I didn't dress to impress, that years of t'ai chi ch'uan practice had given me a taste for loose-fitting clothing. Instead, I showed him my I.D. Wacona did the same.
"Inspectors Wacona Smith and Maximillian Diamond," she said brusquely. "Did you brandish a weapon and threaten to drop this postal carrier like a quail?"
"I don't know what you're talking about!"
"The hell you don't!" the carrier cried.
I peered inside the doorway and spied a 12-gauge Remington pump leaning against the wall. I brought it around gingerly, which was all it took for Wacona to throw the guy against the front of his house, and spread his legs with her foot.
"That's it, you're going in," Wacona enthused, pulling out her cuffs.
The citizen deflated slightly. "That's for home defense," he growled.
"Threatening a postal employee is a federal crime," I growled back.
"My social security checks keep showing up too late for my alimony payment! I'm getting hassled by my ex-wife."
"You think I control when the treasury cuts funds?" the carrier interrupted.
"I think you control when you deliver them," the citizen snapped.
"Were you inebriated when you made the threat?" I demanded.
"Of course not!"
"Because if you were, it might help explain your felonious behavior," I finished.
Holding him in a wristlock, Wacona jangled the cuffs and pulled up hard enough to bend him at the waist.
"Okay, so maybe I had one too many," he licked his lips.
"I say we take him away," Wacona groused, enjoying the part.
"My partner wants to arrest you. A little apology might help."
The man craned his head around and looked venomously at the carrier, who grinned like a schoolboy.
"I'm sorry," said the carrier. "Did you say something?"
"I'm sorry I threatened to shoot you like a quail," the citizen grumbled.
The carrier cocked his hand to his ear.
"I'm sorry I threatened to shoot your sorry ass!" the man shouted.
"My what?" the carrier quipped. Wacona yanked again.
"You. I'm sorry I threatened to shoot you!" the man bellowed.
"How sorry?" I gave the guy a hard look.
"We all need to feel confident that you will never threaten a postal employee again," I said. "Can we do that? Can we feel confident?"
Wacona jerked the cuffs again. I could almost hear the guy's shoulder tearing. "Definitely!" he gushed. "It was the booze, that's all. And I've sworn off."
"Does Your Majesty still doubt we're federal agents?" I inquired.
"No no. Federal agents. That's you!" he cried.
I unloaded the shotgun and bowled the shells down the hall, then put the gun back where I'd found it. Wacona led the way back to the Porsche. Together we watched the carrier swagger off, smiling smugly, on top of the world.
River trolls indeed.
• • •
The last rays of sunlight fled as Seagrave Chunny stared over my shoulder at the ghastly restaurant tableau. The snuff film didn't seem to ruffle him.
"Waco is right. It's probably bogus," he said, as his big gold Rolex slid down his slender wrist.
"It's not a fake, Sea. Jesus, look at the brain soup on the kid's leg."
"You see the alien autopsy on TV a few years back? They can do that, they can fake brains."
"This isn't Hollywood. It's small-time."
"You don't know who made the tape," Sea countered mildly. "Could be it's just made to look that way just to convince hard cases like you. People pay fifty dollars a pop for the legal stuff, ten times that for kiddie porn, maybe one thousand dollars or more for a snuff. You don't have to sell many copies to make it worth going to a little extra trouble."
"The girl was murdered," I said stubbornly. "And the kid saw it all."
"If you're right, she's history, plain and simple, and she could be ancient history for all you know. You're never going to find anyone connected with that film, understand?"
"Don't say that." I put my head in my hands.
Spare, elegant, thin to the point of gaunt, Inspector Seagrave Chunny came around my desk and perched close to me.
"Leave me be."
"What did I tell you when you took this job?"
I shook my head.
"Hide like a rhinoceros, that's what I told you. You asked me about being a postal inspector, I told you all you needed was a hide like a rhinoceros."
My previous job had convinced me I had one. Driving around Los Angeles, breathing smoggy air and pitching the benefits of outdated arthritis pills and prescription rectal wipes will do that for anybody. Every day I'd lugged cases full of drug samples and visual aids to medical offices and talked docs into prescribing my products. Sometimes I was told that the pills were outdated and that cheap over-the-counter wipes were just as good. More often I lost sales to competing reps, as my earnestness and hard work were no match for nice lipstick and a push-up bra.
Then, suddenly, my sixty-eight-year-old paternal grandmother living in South Florida had lost her nest egg of $412,000.07 to a fraud scam and called me, desperate and crying. I'd taken the next plane east and gotten the cops involved, and the cops had brought in Seagrave Chunny, who promptly fell for Sara Diamond, even though she was ten years his senior. Working the case harder than anyone had a right to expect, he discovered that the perpetrators had fled to Brazil after gambling away nearly $4 million in a Nassau casino spree. He said he thought there was still some money left, and he was hellbent on recovering it. It was in that crazy, magical week after he flew off to extradite the bad boys in Brazil that Chunny made up his mind to become my grandfather, and 1 made up my mind to become a postal inspector.
"A tough hide is one thing, Sea. Accepting that tape, that's another."
"Surrender," he advised. "The case is an orphan. You've got plenty of your own work to do. Waco shouldn't have even asked you to watch them, understand?"
"Maybe you should have accepted Sara's bad luck," I said. "Maybe you should have surrendered to that. I'm not going to stick that tape in a storage room somewhere. I can't do it. I see the kid's face in my dreams. I see that girl's body twitch. I see the guy pick up his glass and take a drink. He took a drink, Sea. You hear me?"
He looked at me sadly. 1 could see he was fighting it inside, judgment versus compassion, experience versus wisdom.
"Help me out here," I begged. "Where should I start?"
Chunny ejected the cassette into his hand and stared at it thoughtfully for a long moment. I'd learned not to push him. The guy had been a postal inspector forever. There was nothing he didn't know.
"Send it up to Dulles," he said, referring to the inspection service's central crime lab. "Personally I don't think the snuff's genuine, but ask them to do tight close-ups on the blood and guts and on the muzzle of the Colt, just to be sure a bullet came out. Vid-caps of the actors would also be worth something. Get them to analyze the background to see where it was shot, and let them run match-ups on the tape and casing just in case they can figure out who distributed the blanks. It might take a few weeks, but if there's anything there, those guys'11 find it."
Having given me those precise instructions, Seagrave Chunny ambled out. Wacona passed him on her way in. She exuded sweet chocolate, and I made a show of sniffing.
"Go ahead," she challenged. "Ask me about my love life. Give me an excuse to shoot you where you stand."
"Chunny told me to send the tape to Dulles. I'm going to scan another bunch of them tonight."
"You're on your own time then. And don't stay up all night working on it and then come crawling in at noon either. I've got audits I need your help on, and there are five fraud cases being eaten by moths in your in-box."
"You're so kind. What are you wearing, anyway? Angel?"
She narrowed her black eyes for emphasis and lowered her glasses to her nose. For months now I had suspected that she wore the frames only for effect, that she thought they made her look stern and powerful, and that they held nothing but clear, non-prescription glass. I was dying to pick them up and peek, but she never let them out of her grasp.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Your perfume. It's 'Angel,' by Thierry Mugler, isn't it? Smells terrific."
"As a matter of fact it is, Max, and you know, some women might be impressed or even flattered that you recognized it. Me, I can't help thinking you missed your calling as a department store fragrance clerk."
She pushed her glasses back up and departed, leaving me with seventy-six tapes to scan. I borrowed two other VCRs and monitors from the other offices and set them up so I had three tapes going at once. By 9:30 that night I had still seen nothing more than what were known around the office as BSFbasic sucking and fuckingfilms, and I still had a stack to go.
Worse, I had no more taste for Gershwin.
• • •
I own a one-bedroom condo in an old, mustard-colored building, in the Spanish River Land section of Boca Raton. The building isn't fancy, but it's located on a narrow barrier island sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway. The mortgage is a stretch, but I love being surrounded by water and so close to my grandmother. What's more, the residents of Boca Raton, who worship Ferraris and plastic surgeons the way most people worship gods, provide endless entertainment.
I climbed the stairs to the second floor. There was a foul-smelling stain on the walkway carpet, and roaches were feeding on it already. Roaches and grasshoppers all in one day. Sometimes I wonder if I wasn't accidentally placed in the middle of some entomological horror show, wherein the whole of South Florida, really just a thin carpet of asphalt and dreams laid over a roiling swamp, explodes in enough centipedes, snakes, sliders, crocs and skeeters to make the plagues of Exodus feel like a night at a five-star resort.
I went inside and poured myself a glass of Hurricane Reef pale ale, rejected the impulse to pop some gourmet corn, and turned on the patio light to check on Picard, my pet Galapagos tortoise. He was huddled in the corner by the railing, and I took some broccoli out to him. I had to put my back into spinning him around to face it, as five years of loving portions of fruits and vegetables had brought him to nearly a hundred and fifty pounds. He opened his eyes and stared at me, then rose up on columnar limbs and stuck his head way out.
"Exciting day on the terrace, big fella?" I asked, scratching his leathery neck.
He yawned in response, showing me pink gums, then settled back down with a hiss.
In Darwin's day, and for perhaps fifty million years before, the Galapagos Islands were awash in these enormous brutes. People don't realize it now, as they see them lying around zoos, deprived of the volcanic terrain that causes them to forage and climb, but the giant tortoises are social, active, and intelligent. Like a dog, Picard knows what time of day to expect me home, watches through the glass door to see if I'm carrying grocery bags, and expresses preferences for certain foodscorn on the cob in particular, as well as watermelon and romaine. He has his moods, the big boy does. At times he ignores me, at other times he humps my shoes. I watched him make short work of the broccoli, promised him a tremendous repast on the weekend, and settled in front of the tube. I surfed the cable channels looking for the original Star Trek. It's usually showing somewhere in the high numbers, but this time I couldn't find it. What 1 came up with instead was some sort of experimental episode juxtaposing the old series with the newKirk there on Deep Space Nine, talking to Major Kira, Scotty and Worf in the background. The magic of video. Maybe Chunny was right. If they could do that, they could probably fake a snuff and get big money for it.
Taking my empty beer bottle back to the kitchen, I noticed that my answering machine was blinking. The machine has recorded an actual message maybe twice in three years. It's there for show, like the other relics of a past that no longer engages me: the black-and-white Berenice Abbott prints, the Bauhaus desk, and the expensive halogen floor lamp I've never even switched on. I live in a quiet, secret world now, and receive calls at home exceedingly rarely. In fact, the only reason I have a machine is to discourage sales solicitations. Everyone of any importance knows to reach me at the office or on my cell phone.
Life has been that way since I purposely stepped off the moving walkway of everyday life and entered the realm of law enforcement. After Chunny saved my grandmother's future and laid his hooks into me, I spent three months at the United States Postal Inspection Service's Career Development Center in Potomac, Maryland, learning all the sections of Title 18 of the United States Code: blackmail, threatening communications, postage stamps and meters, canceled stamps and envelopes, money orders, postmarks, desertion of mails, destruction of newspapers, obstruction of correspondence, misappropriation of postal funds, and the intimate details of lotteries, contests, swindles and frauds. I studied the Inspection Service Database Information System and how to use it, and took courses in controlled delivery, the ethics of law enforcement, electronic surveillance, interviews and interrogations, report writing, and public speaking.
At the same time that my head was being filled with all this specialized knowledge, my body and my adrenal glands were challenged by training in officer survival. As an adjunct to the Chinese arts I'd studied as a boy in New York's Chinatown, I learned how to apply pressure points to control unwilling arrestees, and, despite the fact that the closest I'd ever been to a real gun was standing beside one of NYPD's finest during the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, I learned a great deal about firearms. I even learned how to drive a car when people were shooting at me, how to enter a building full of armed thugs, and how to use my voice to defuse incipient violence.
Impressive and useful as these skills were, none of them had prepared me for the tape, and none of them had prepared me for what was waiting for me on my answering machine.
"M.D., this is Phayle," the message began. "I know it's been a while. God, it's been years. More than five and less than ten, right? I wish I were calling just to catch up, but the fact is, I've got bad news. Twy Boatwright is dead. Some kind of accident. I thought you'd want to know. The funeral is tomorrow at 11:00 A.M. at a place called Grace-land Memorial Park in Coral Gables. I don't know where that is, but I figure you do. I hope you're not married, M.D. Shit, I can't believe I said that. I hope you are married, and that you've got four beautiful children and are happy as hell. There. That better? Bye."
Phayle Tollard. I sat frozen on the couch for a good ten-count. I had known it was her the instant the tape started. That unmistakable voice, husky, slow, calling me 'M.D.' the way she had in college. She had been so smart in those days, so inside my head; one part sister, one part lover, one part shrink and one part demon. A case-study in chaos, she was as gloriously unpredictable as the growth of a galaxy, and I wondered if she was married, or if she'd just been teasing me.
I was saddened by news of Twy Boatwright's passing, and found it strange that he had apparently lived and died in South Florida and that I hadn't known it. We had been one half of a squad of Yale College pals, Twy and I, but the foursome had moved into dark territory and I had abandoned it after graduation. I wondered whether the other guys, Jeff Grayson and Clifton Hughes, would be at the funeral, and what I would say to them if they were. I didn't sleep for a long time, and when I did, I dreamed of Phayle's streaked, honey hair and her wide gray eyes and the way she used to be able to shut me down or fly me high as a trick kite, all with just one look.
Copyright © 2001 by Arthur Rosenfeld