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LIKE EVERY MAN WHO has ever been part of an American police force during the month of October, Gregor Demarkian was ambivalent about Halloween. In principle, he tended to like the idea: a holiday for children, stripped of its religious baggage decades ago, dedicated absolutely to silliness and sweets. On Cavanaugh Street, both the silliness and the sweets were particularly in evidence, because the adults insisted on getting in on the act—not cynically, as the adults had in so many of the cities Gregor had lived in over the course of his career, but with a childlike lack of psychological complication Gregor found astounding. There was Howard Kashinian, the perennial juvenile delinquent of Gregor's grammar-school class and now President and Chief Executive Officer of one of the largest stock brokerages in Philadelphia, standing out on the corner of Cavanaugh and Muswell streets, dressed as a clown. Howard had a brand-new, never used, industrial-size plastic garbage can beside him, filled with Halloween candy that he passed out to anyone who asked. Lots of people asked, too. It was Wednesday, October 30, and the children were out of school in favor of a teachers' meeting. Some of them had put on paper masks and gone to stand around Howard. Some of them had come barefaced, in their inevitable jeans and sweaters. All of them seemed to have brought their mothers. The mothers stood on the fringes of the crowd and munched away on sugar pumpkins and candy corn. Then there was Lida Kazanjian Arkmanian, the Most Beautiful Armenian Girl of Gregor's adolescence, now grandmother to a dozen small children and mistress of an enormous town house at number 48. What Lida was doing was what Lida was always doing these days, cooking. So was Lida's best friend from high school and best friend still on Cavanaugh Street, Hannah Oumoudian Krekorian. There was supposed to be a party in the basement of the church for the smallest children on Halloween night, and Lida and Hannah intended to be ready. Finally, there was old George Tekemanian, aged eighty-six, occupant of the ground-floor floor-through apartment in Gregor's building. The party in the church basement might be for small children, but old George was getting ready for it, too. He was teaching himself to bob for apples. In principle, there was no reason for Gregor to be uneasy about Halloween on Cavanaugh Street. In principle, Cavanaugh Street was an Eden where the serpent had been headed off at the pass.
In practice, standing at the check-out counter in Ohanian's Middle Eastern Food Store while young Mary Ohanian rang up package after package of honey cakes, what Gregor felt was a sense of impending doom. It was a state of mind so melodramatic, it made him uncomfortable all by itself. Surely there was nothing doomlike about Ohanian's. There was a handkerchief ghost hanging from the back of the cash register, but it had a sheepish grin on its cloth face, as if it was embarrassed to be a spook. There was a jack-o'-lantern on the counter, but it was smiling sappily, a harbinger of gushing sentimentality, not of violence and death. It was the same with all the decorations the Ohanians—and everybody else on Cavanaugh Street—had put up. The skeletons looked ashamed to be naked. The witches had the faces of fairy godmothers. The bats were so cuddly cute they might as well have been puppies. There was a vast array of Halloween gear for sale in card shops and drugstores across America, some of it so realistically bloody and meticulously evil it made Gregor, a twenty-year veteran of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, cringe. The people of Cavanaugh Street had chosen only those things that could have fit just as comfortably in a Christmas display.
On her side of the counter, Mary Ohanian was counting up the honey cakes for the second time, a frown crease wrinkled into her forehead, the tip of a front tooth biting into her bottom lip. Mary was a small girl, not yet sixteen and not particularly pretty, but compactly built and congenially pleasant. Gregor had gone all through grammar and high school with her father, her mother, and all three of her uncles.
"When Miss Hannaford called, she said you were to get two dozen of these, Mr. Demarkian. You only have twenty-two."
"I know. That's all there were on the shelf."
"We've got some more in the back. I'll get them. I don't think you ought to give Miss Hannaford anything less than she was asking for."
"More would be all right?"
"For Miss Hannaford?" Mary smiled slightly. "Yes, I think more would be all right. Let me get the other two, anyway. It won't take me a minute."
Mary disappeared through the curtain into the back, and Gregor found himself biting back a smile. "Miss Hannaford" was Bennis Day Hannaford, a woman he had met during the conduct of the case he still thought of as his first extracurricular murder. Through a complicated series of made friendships and personal dislocations, she had started to spend a lot of time on Cavanaugh Street, and now spent almost all her time here. To the people who knew her well, she was just Bennis, Bennis the Menace as Father Tibor Kasparian sometimes put it, a young woman with enormous energy, monumental enthusiasm, outrageous generosity, and a limitless capacity for work—but a crazy person, definitely, whose safety had to be guarded as carefully as an idiot child's. To the people who did not know her, and especially to adolescent girls like Mary Ohanian, Bennis was a kind of goddess: not only WASP and Protestant, but rich, beautiful, and connected to every famous old money name on the Philadelphia Main Line. Gregor sometimes wondered what people like Mary Ohanian would think if they knew that Bennis woke up every morning of her life, looked in her mirror, and told herself she was getting fat.
Mary Ohanian emerged from the back with two more packages of honey cakes in her hand and put them on the counter.
"There," she said. "I think you have everything. I wrote it all down."
"So did Bennis," Gregor said, holding up the list she had sent him out with. "Bennis thinks I'd forget to tie my shoelaces if somebody didn't remind me."
"Well," Mary said seriously, "maybe you would, Mr. Demarkian. You do get a little—um— distracted."
"I never get that distracted."
"My father says that when you and he were in high school you came in one day with no shoes on at all. And it was February. He said you were studying for some kind of test and you forgot."
It was true. It had been his senior year, in those days before SATs and routinely rationalized college admissions procedures, and he had been working overtime to get an A in Latin. Without that A in Latin, he had been absolutely sure the University of Pennsylvania would not have him.
Maybe it wasn't only Bennis whose safety had to be guarded as carefully as an idiot child's.
Mary Ohanian had put his honey cakes in a bag, along with the other things Bennis had sent him out to get: three big round loaves of bread; four jars of apple preserves; six small bottles of ground spices; two lemons; a thick brick of halvah. She had used a separate bag for the non-Armenian food, as if she were taking pains to incarnate a not-very-subtle cultural difference. In that bag were Lay's potato chips, Cheese Waffles, barbecue-flavored Pringles, pizza-flavored Combos, Chicken-in-a-Bisket crackers, and God only knew what else. Gregor wondered what it was Bennis thought they needed all this stuff for. Back in his apartment, where she was doing the last of the packing up before they left for Independence College, there were already seven oversize picnic baskets stuffed with food.
Mary rang the last of the mess up on the cash register and said, "It comes to a hundred and two ninety-five. If you don't have that much, you could come back with it after Halloween. Daddy and Mother wouldn't mind."
"I have it," Gregor said. "I stopped at the bank machine on my way up. I knew it was going to be expensive."
"Do you think Father Tibor eats this kind of food because he was deprived in the Soviet Union? I mean, it's not very healthy."
"I don't think Father Tibor is worried about being healthy."
"I don't, either. It's strange, isn't it, Mr. Demarkian. It's like a whole different way of looking at the world. It's like Father Tibor thinks getting old is something you can't do anything about, and dying is going to happen to you no matter what."
"You don't think dying is going to happen to you no matter what?"
Mary Ohanian looked confused. "Well," she said, "I don't think you ought to think about it that way. I don't think that's healthy."
Gregor had a sudden urge to tell her there was nothing healthier in the world than thinking about "it" that way, that there was no other way on earth to make a life for yourself that made any sense—but he didn't. She was very young, and he knew where the urge was coming from. He was still riding the wave of his ambivalence, and nothing—not even the ludicrousness of Father Tibor Kasparian's taste in food—was going to talk him into a more salutary frame of mind. He got his right arm around the heavy bag, the one full of Armenian food, and his left around the light one.
"If you see Mrs. Arkmanian," he said, "tell her we're leaving at ten o'clock. If she comes in after ten, tell her we'll be up at Independence by eleven thirty."
"Do you want to leave a number she can reach you at?"
"She has Father Tibor's number. Have a good Halloween, Mary."
"Oh, I will," Mary said. "I'm going to dress up as Cinderella, in my sister Evelyn's prom dress from two years ago. I love that dress. It makes me feel pretty enough to have Michael Keaton fall in love with me."
It makes me feel pretty enough to have Michael Keaton fall in love with me.
There was a fine curtain of gossamer spiderwebs across the top of the store's door. Gregor ducked his head going under it, holding the bags close to his chest, and went out onto Cavanaugh Street, to the carnival that was just a vaguely ethnic version of a state fair. Down on the corner of Cavanaugh and Muswell, Howard Kashinian was doing a handstand, wobbly, threatening to fall over. Two blocks north of that, the Ararat restaurant had replaced its customary sidewalk display—a phalanx of Armenian national flags—with a huge jack-o'-lantern leaf bag stuffed solid. Even his own building was decorated for the season, although in such an incongruous way that the sight of his own front door had begun to make Gregor a little dizzy. Donna Moradanyan, his upstairs neighbor, had covered that door with orange-and-black crepe paper—tied into bows.
The bag full of junk food began to slip. Gregor jostled around until he got it positioned solidly into the curve of his arm again. Then he turned south and made himself walk briskly and purposively in the direction of home.
THE PROBLEM, HE DECIDED later, as he climbed the marble steps to that crazily covered door, was in his history. It was nice to pretend that Halloween was nothing but a holiday for children, that nothing went on under the cover of it but the benign fantasies of little boys who wanted to grow up to be superheroes. It was even nice when grown-up people, who ought to know better, worked overtime to make sure their children got a cozy, unthreatening picture of the dead of night. It was not so nice when the grown-up people began to believe their own propaganda. Gregor Demarkian had not only spent twenty years of his life in the FBI. He had spent ten of those twenty years—the whole second half of his career, from the day the states of Washington and Oregon had requested federal help in catching a killer called "Ted" to the day his wife Elizabeth, ill with cancer, had entered her final crisis—chasing serial murderers. He knew far too much about the things people did to each other and more than far too much about Halloween. Halloween was, as a colleague of his had once said, the night of the werewolf. For 364 days out of every year, things went along more or less as they could be expected to go along. Even the Green River Killers, the Ted Bundys, the Sons of Sam, had their routines. On the 365th day, all hell broke loose. The rabbity serial killer you had been tracing for six months suddenly took his knife and cut fifteen people in half an hour. The teenage boy who had always seemed only to want to look like James Dean suddenly decided to ram himself and six of his friends off the edge of lovers' lane. The nicest little old lady in the neighborhood suddenly made up her mind to put cyanide into the caramel apples she passed out to the children who came to her door. Suddenly was definitely the best word for Halloween. Unexpectedly was the second-best one.
Gregor managed to find the keyhole under all the crepe paper, tried his key, and found it wouldn't work: the door was already unlocked. He let himself into the vestibule in a rising state of exasperation. None of the doors on Cavanaugh Street were locked these days. Lida and Hannah and all the rest of those silly women were much too concerned that the small children who came to their doors wouldn't be able to reach the doorknobs. They intended to keep their doors not only unlocked, but open, all Halloween night. What kind of a world did they think they were living in? Cavanaugh Street was a prosperous neighborhood, ten blocks of miraculous self-styled urban renewal—but it was surrounded by nastiness. Even if all they did was pass through the neighborhoods on their periphery while safely ensconced in the backseats of cabs, they ought to know that.
He got to the third floor, saw that his own door was standing open, and barged in.
"Bennis?" he said. "Bennis, come out here for a minute. I want to talk to you."
"Bennis is in the bathroom," Donna Moradanyan said, emerging from the kitchen in a cloud of fair wispy hair and flour. Donna Moradanyan looked less Armenian-American than anyone Gregor had ever met, but she was definitely Armenian-American. Not only both her parents, but all four of her grandparents, all eight of her great-grandparents, and all umpteen-thousand of her other ancestors were of Armenian extraction. Exactly how she had come out looking like a virginal Swedish exercise nut, Gregor didn't know.
"We're almost all packed," she said now, taking the heavier of the two bags out of Gregor's right arm, "so if you want to add something we haven't counted on, I don't know what we'll do. And the kitchen's a mess. Tommy got into the flour when I wasn't looking, and it's all over the place."
So that was what the flour was about, Gregor thought. Tommy was Donna Moradanyan's infant son, just now going on six months old and threatening to become seriously mobile.
"I don't want to add anything to what you're packing," Gregor said. "I'm not crazy. I just want—"
"—to ream us out about the doors," Bennis finished for him.
Gregor turned around to see her emerging from the living room, which led to a little hall at the back with the bedroom and bathroom off it. She had her great cloud of trademark Hannaford black hair pinned haphazardly to the top of her head, the tails of her flannel shirt hanging out, and nothing but knee socks on her feet. She looked impossibly beautiful and impossibly disorganized. She was, in reality, both.
"I have," Gregor said, "a perfect right to ream you out about the doors. I know I seem to be talking to thin air on this subject, but whether it has dawned on either of you or not—and on Lida, and on Hannah, and on Sheila Kashinian and all the rest of them—this is not a Hollywood movie set in the thirties. This is Philadelphia in the nineties. Not three blocks from this apartment there's a crack house that operates twenty-four hours a day and gets raided once a week. You leave the doors on this street standing open and unlocked all Halloween night, and somebody is going to get killed."
"Well," Bennis said, "I hope you're wrong, because there's nothing I can do about it. Every time I try to tell Lida what you tell me, she pats me on the head and says, 'Yes, dear, and now, that boy who took you out last week, is he responsible?'"
Donna smiled. "Lida wants to fix Bennis up with Hannah Krekorian's son Johnny. He just got divorced."
Excerpted from Quoth the Raven by Jane Haddam. Copyright © 1991 Jane Haddam. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted July 18, 2014
I enjoyed reading my first Gregor Demarkian mystery. I was really surprised by the ending, its storyline was well thought out and written, the characters were realistic and could really be found on a camus at a small town college. Father Tibor was enchanting as was Bennis. I hope to get the rest of the books in this series. I would recommend this to one and all.
***I received this book in exchange for an honest review***