F. Paul Wilson weaves spells with words.
The Tomb (Repairman Jack Series #1/ Adversary Cycle Series #2)by F. Paul Wilson
Much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Gia, Repairman Jack doesn't deal with electronic appliances--he fixes "situations" for people, often putting himself in deadly danger. His latest project is recovering a stolen necklace, which carries with it an ancient curse that may unleash a horde of Bengali demons. Jack is used to danger, but this time Gia's daughter Vicky is… See more details below
Much to the chagrin of his girlfriend, Gia, Repairman Jack doesn't deal with electronic appliances--he fixes "situations" for people, often putting himself in deadly danger. His latest project is recovering a stolen necklace, which carries with it an ancient curse that may unleash a horde of Bengali demons. Jack is used to danger, but this time Gia's daughter Vicky is threatened. Can Jack overcome the curse of the yellow necklace and bring Vicky safely back home? Optioned by Beacon Films.
F. Paul Wilson weaves spells with words.
—Stephen King (President of the Repairman Jack fan club)
“Jack is righteous!”
Read an Excerpt
Repairman Jack awoke with light in his eyes, white noise in his ears, and an ache in his back.
He’d fallen asleep on the couch in the spare bedroom where he kept his DVD player and projection TV. He turned his head toward the set. A nervous tweed pattern buzzed around on the six-foot screen while the air conditioner in the right half of the double window beside it worked full blast to keep the room at seventy.
He got to his feet with a groan and shut off the TV. The hiss of white noise stopped. He leaned over and touched his toes, then straightened and rotated his lower spine. His back was killing him. That couch was made for sitting, not sleeping.
He stepped to the player and ejected the disc. He’d fallen asleep during the closing credits of the 1931 Frankenstein, part one of Repairman Jack’s unofficial James Whale Festival.
Poor Henry Frankenstein, he thought, slipping the disc into its box. Despite all evidence to the contrary, despite what everyone around him thought, Henry had been sure he was sane.
Jack located the proper slot in the rack on the wall, shoved Frankenstein in, and pulled out its neighbor. Bride of Frankenstein, part two of his private James Whale Festival.
A glance out the window revealed the usual vista of sandy shore, calm blue ocean, and supine sunbathers. He was tired of the view. Especially since some of the bricks had started showing through. Three years since he’d had the scene painted on the blank wall facing the windows of this and the other bedroom. Long enough. The beach scene no longer interested him. Perhaps a rain forest mural would be better. With lots of birds and reptiles and animals hiding in the foliage. Yes … a rain forest. He filed the thought away. He’d have to keep an eye out for someone who could do the job justice.
The phone began ringing in the front room. Who could that be? He’d changed his number a couple of months ago. Only a few people had it. He didn’t bother to lift the receiver. The answering machine would take care of that. He heard a click, heard his own voice start his standard salutation:
“Pinocchio Productions … I’m not in right now, but if you’ll—”
A woman’s voice broke in over his own, her tone impatient. “Pick up if you’re there, Jack. Otherwise I’ll call back later.”
Jack nearly tripped over his own feet in his rush to the phone.
“Gia? That you?”
“Yes, it’s me.” Her voice sounded flat, almost resentful.
“God! It’s been a long time!” Two months. Forever. He had to sit down. “I’m so glad you called.”
“It’s not what you think, Jack.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not calling for myself. If it were up to me I wouldn’t be calling at all. But Nellie asked me to.”
His jubilation faded, but he kept talking. “Who’s Nellie?” He drew a blank on the name.
“Nellie Paton. You must remember Nellie and Grace, the two English ladies?”
“Oh, yeah. How could I forget? They introduced us.”
“I’ve managed to forgive them.”
Jack let that go by without comment. “What’s the problem?”
“Grace has disappeared. She hasn’t been seen since she went to bed Monday night.”
He remembered Grace Westphalen: a very prim and proper Englishwoman pushing seventy. Not the eloping sort.
“Have the police—?”
“Of course. But Nellie wanted me to call you to see if you’d help. So I’m calling.”
“Does she want me to come over?”
“Yes. If you will.”
“Will you be there?”
She gave an exasperated sigh. “Yes. Are you coming or not?”
“I’m on my way.”
“Better wait. The patrolmen who were here said a detective from the department would be coming by this morning.”
“Oh.” That wasn’t good.
“I thought that might slow you up.”
She didn’t have to sound so smug about it.
“I’ll be there after lunch.”
“You know the address?”
“I know it’s a yellow townhouse on Sutton Square. There’s only one.”
“I’ll tell her to expect you.”
And then she hung up.
Jack tossed the receiver in his hand and cradled it on the base.
He was going to see Gia today. She’d called him. She hadn’t been friendly, and she’d said she was calling for someone else—but she’d called. That was more than she’d done since she’d walked out. He couldn’t help feeling good.
He strolled through the third-floor apartment’s front room that served as living room and dining room. He found the room immensely comfortable, but few visitors shared his enthusiasm. His best friend, Abe Grossman, had, in one of his more generous moods, described the room as “claustrophobic.” When Abe was feeling grumpy he said it made the Addams Family house look like it had been decorated in Bauhaus.
Old movie posters covered the walls along with bric-a-brac shelves loaded with the neat stuff Jack picked up in forgotten junk stores during his wanderings through the city. He wound his way through a collection of old Victorian golden oak furniture that left little room for anything else: a seven-foot hutch, intricately carved, a fold-out secretary, a sagging, high-backed sofa, a massive claw-foot dining table, two end tables whose legs each ended in a bird’s foot clasping a crystal sphere, and his favorite, a big, wing-back chair.
He reached the bathroom and started the hated morning ritual of shaving. As he ran the razor over his cheeks and throat he again considered the idea of a beard. He didn’t have a bad face. Brown eyes, dark brown hair growing perhaps a little too low on his forehead. A nose neither too big nor too small. He smiled at himself in the mirror. Not an altogether hideous grimace—what they used to call a shit-eating grin. The teeth could have been whiter and straighter, and the lips were on the thin side, but not a bad smile. An inoffensive face. As an added bonus, a wiry, well-muscled, five-eleven frame went along with the face at no extra charge.
So what’s not to like?
His smile faltered.
Ask Gia. She seems to think she knows what’s not to like.
But all that was going to change starting today.
After a quick shower, he dressed and downed a couple of bowls of Cocoa Puffs, then strapped on his ankle holster and slipped the world’s smallest .45, a Semmerling skeleton model LM4, into it. He knew the holster was going to be hot against his leg, but he never went out unarmed. His peace of mind would compensate for any physical discomfort.
He checked the peephole in the front door, then twisted the central knob, retracting the four bolts at the top, bottom, and both sides. The heat in the third floor hall slammed against him at the threshold. He was wearing Levi’s and a lightweight short-sleeve shirt. He was glad he’d skipped the undershirt. The humidity in the hall wormed its way into his clothes and oozed over his skin as he headed down to the street.
Jack stood on the front steps for a moment. Sunlight glared sullenly through the haze over the roof of the Museum of Natural History far down the street to his right. The wet air hung motionless above the pavement. He could see it, smell it, taste it—and it looked, smelled, and tasted dirty. Dust, soot, and lint laced with carbon monoxide, with perhaps a hint of rancid butter from the garbage can around the corner in the alley.
Ah! The Upper West Side in August.
He ambled down to the sidewalk and walked west along the row of brownstones that lined his street. Along the way he pulled out his Tracfone and dialed his office number, then a four-digit code. A recorded voice—not Jack’s—came over the wire with the familiar message:
“This is Repairman Jack. I’m out on a call now, but when you hear the tone, leave your name and number and give me a brief idea of the nature of your problem. I’ll get back to you as soon as possible.”
After the tone a woman’s voice started talking about a problem with the timer on her dryer. Another beep and a man was looking for some free information on how to fix a blender. Jack ignored the numbers they gave; he had no intention of calling them back. But how did they get his number? He’d restricted his name to the white pages—with an incorrect street address, naturally—to cut down on appliance repair calls, but people managed to find him anyway.
The third and last voice was unique: smooth in tone, the words clipped, rapid, tinged with Britain, but definitely not British. Jack knew a couple of Pakistanis who sounded like that. The man was obviously upset, and stumbled over his words.
“Mr. Jack … my grandmother—was beaten terribly last night. I must speak to you immediately. It is terribly important.”
He gave his name and a number where he could be reached.
That was one call Jack would return, even though he was going to have to turn the man down. He intended to devote all his time to Gia’s problem. And to Gia. This might be his last chance with her.
He punched in the number. The clipped voice answered in the middle of the second ring.
“Mr. Bahkti? This is Jack. You called my office during the night and—”
Mr. Bahkti was suddenly very guarded. “This is not the same voice on the answering machine.”
Sharp, Jack thought. The voice on the machine belonged to Abe Grossman. Jack never used his own voice on the office phone. But most people didn’t spot that.
“An old tape,” Jack told him.
“Ahhh. Well, then. I must see you immediately, Mr. Jack. It is a matter of the utmost importance. A matter of life and death.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Bahkti, I—”
“You must! There can be no refusal!”
A new note had crept in. This was not a man used to hearing no. The tone had never set well with Jack.
“You don’t understand. My time is already taken up with other—”
“Mr. Jack! Are the other matters crucial to a woman’s life? Can they not be put aside for even a short while? My grandmother was mercilessly beaten on the streets of your city. She needs help that I cannot give her. So I’ve come to you.”
Jack knew what Mr. Bahkti was up to. He thought he was pushing Jack’s buttons. Jack mildly resented it, but he was used to it and decided to hear him out anyway.
Bahkti had already launched into his narrative.
“Her car—an American car, I might add—broke down last night. And when she—”
“Save it for later,” Jack told him, happy to be the one doing the cutting-off for a change.
“You will meet me at the hospital? She is in St. Clare’s—”
“No. Our first meeting will be where I say. I meet all customers on my home turf. No exceptions.”
“Very well,” Bahkti said with a minimum of grace. “But we must meet very soon. There is so little time.”
Jack gave him the address of Julio’s bar a few blocks uptown from where he stood. He checked his watch.
“It’s just shy of ten now. Be there at ten-thirty sharp.”
“Half an hour? I do not know if I can be there by then!”
Fine! Jack liked to give customers as little time as possible to prepare for their first meeting. “Ten-thirty. You’ve got ten minutes grace. Any later and I’ll be gone.”
“Ten-thirty,” Mr. Bahkti said, and hung up.
That annoyed Jack. He’d wanted to hang up first.
He walked north on Columbus Avenue, keeping to the shade on the right. Some shops were just opening, but most had been going strong for hours.
Julio’s was open. But then, Julio’s rarely closed. Jack knew the first customers wandered in minutes after Julio unlocked at six in the morning. Some were just getting off their shift and stopped by for a beer, a hard-boiled egg, and a soft seat; others stood at the bar and downed a quick bracer before starting the day’s work. And still others spent the better part of every day in the cool darkness.
“Jacko!” Julio cried from behind the bar. He was standing but only his head and the top half of his chest were visible.
They didn’t shake hands. They knew each other too well and saw each other too often for that. They’d been friends for many years, ever since the time Julio began to suspect that his sister Rosa was getting punched around by her husband. It had been a delicate matter. Jack had fixed it for him. Since then the little man had screened Jack’s customers. For Julio possessed a talent, a nose, a sixth sense of sorts for spotting members of officialdom. Much of Jack’s energy was devoted to avoiding such people; his way of life depended on it. Also, in Jack’s line of work he often found it necessary to make other people angry in the course of serving a customer’s interests. So Julio kept an eye out for angry people.
So far, Julio had never failed him.
“Beer or business?”
“Before noon? What do you think?”
The remark earned Jack a brief dirty look from a sweaty old codger nursing a boilermaker.
Julio came out from behind the bar and followed Jack to a rear booth, drying his hands on a towel as he swaggered along. A daily regime with free weights and gymnastics had earned him thickly muscled arms and shoulders. His hair was wavy and heavily oiled, his skin swarthy, his mustache a pencil line along his upper lip.
“How many and when?”
“One. Ten-thirty.” Jack slipped into the last booth and sat with a clear view of the door. The rear exit was two steps away. “Name’s Bahkti. Sounds like he’s from Pakistan or someplace around there.”
“A man of color.”
“More color than you, no doubt.”
Jack thought about seeing Gia later today. A nice thought. They’d meet, they’d touch, and Gia would remember what they’d had, and maybe … just maybe … she’d realize that he wasn’t such a bad guy after all. He began whistling through his teeth.
Julio gave him a strange look as he returned with a coffeepot, a cup, and the morning’s Daily News.
“How come you’re in such a good mood?”
“You been a grouch for months now, meng.”
Jack hadn’t realized it had been so obvious. “Personal.”
Julio shrugged and poured him a cup of coffee. Jack sipped it black while he waited. He never liked first meetings with a customer. There was always a chance he wasn’t a customer but somebody with a score to settle. He got up and checked the exit door to make sure it was unlocked.
Two Con Ed workers came in for a coffee break. They took their coffee clear and golden with a foamy cap, poured into pilsner glasses as they watched the TV over the bar. Some guy was interviewing three transvestite grammar school teachers; everyone on the screen had greenish hair and pumpkin-colored complexions. Julio served the Con Ed men a second round, then came out from behind the bar and took a seat by the door.
Jack glanced at the paper. “Where Are the Winos?” was the headline. The press was getting lots of mileage out of the rapid and mysterious dwindling of the city’s derelict population during the past few months.
At ten-thirty-two, Mr. Bahkti came in. No doubt it was him. He wore a navy blue Nehru-type tunic. His dark skin seemed to blend into his clothes. For an instant after the door swung shut behind him, all Jack could see was a pair of eyes floating in the air at the other end of the dim tavern.
Julio approached him immediately. Words were exchanged and Jack noted the newcomer flinched away as Julio leaned against him. He seemed angry as Julio walked toward Jack with an elaborate shrug.
“He’s clean,” he said as he came back to Jack’s booth. “Clean but weird.”
“How do you read him?”
“That’s jus’ it—I don’t read him. He’s bottled up real tight. Nothing at all out of that guy. Nothing but creeps.”
“Sonthin’ ’bout him gimme the creeps, man. Wouldn’t want to get on his wrong side. You better be sure you can make him happy before you take him on.”
Jack drummed his fingers on the table. Julio’s reaction made him uneasy. The little man was all macho and braggadocio. He must have sensed something pretty unsettling about Mr. Bahkti to have even mentioned it.
“What’d you do to get him riled up?” Jack asked.
“Nothin’ special. He jus’ got real ticked off when I give him my ‘accidental’ frisk. Didn’t like that one bit. You wanna take off?”
Jack hesitated, toying with the idea of getting out now. After all, he probably was going to have to turn the man down anyway. But he had agreed to meet him, and the guy had arrived on time.
“Send him back and let’s get this over with.”
Julio waved Bahkti toward the booth and headed back to his place behind the bar.
Bahkti strolled toward Jack with a smooth, gliding gait that reeked of confidence and self-assurance. He was halfway down the aisle when Jack realized with a start that his left arm was missing at the shoulder. But there was no pinned-up left sleeve—the jacket had been tailored without one. He was a tall man—six-three, Jack guessed—lean but sturdy. Well into his forties, maybe fifty. The nose was long; he wore a sculptured beard, neatly trimmed to a point at the chin. What could be seen of his mouth was wide and thin-lipped. The whites of his deep walnut eyes almost glowed in the darkness of his face, reminding Jack of John Barrymore in Svengali.
He stopped at the edge of the facing banquette and looked down at Jack, taking his measure just as Jack was taking his.
Kusum Bahkti did not like this place called Julio’s, stinking as it did of liquor and grilled beef, and peopled with the lower castes. Certainly one of the foulest locations he’d had the misfortune to visit in this foul city. He was no doubt polluting his karma merely by standing here.
And surely this very average-looking man sitting before him was not the one he was looking for. He looked like any American’s brother, anyone’s son, someone you would pass anywhere in this city and never notice. He looked too normal, too ordinary, too everyday to supply the services Kusum had been told about.
If I were home …
Yes. If he were home in Bengal, in Calcutta, he would have everything under control. A thousand men would be combing the city for the transgressor. He would be found, and he would wail and curse the hour of his birth before being sent on to another life.
But here in America Kusum was reduced to an impotent supplicant standing before this stranger, asking for help. It made him sick.
“Are you the one?” he asked.
“Depends on who you’re looking for,” the man said.
Kusum noted the difficulty the American was having trying to keep his eyes off his truncated left shoulder.
“He calls himself Repairman Jack.”
“The name wasn’t my idea.” The man spread his hands. “But, here I am.”
This couldn’t be him. “Perhaps I have made a mistake.”
“Perhaps so,” said the American.
He seemed preoccupied, not the least bit interested in Kusum or what problem he might have.
Kusum started to turn away, deciding he was constitutionally incapable of asking the help of a stranger, especially this stranger, then changed his mind.
By Kali, he had no choice.
He seated himself across the table from Repairman Jack.
“I am Kusum Bahkti.”
“Jack Nelson.” The American proffered his right hand.
Kusum could not bring himself to grasp it, yet he did not want to insult this man. He needed him.
“Very well … Jack.” He was uncomfortable with such informality upon meeting. “Your pardon. I dislike to be touched. An Eastern prejudice.”
Jack glanced at his hand, as if inspecting it for dirt.
“I do not wish to offend—”
“Forget it. Who gave you my number?”
“Time is short … Jack”—it took conscious effort to use that first name—“and I must insist—”
“I always insist on knowing where the customer came from. Who?”
“Very well: Mr. Burkes at the UK Mission to the United Nations.”
Burkes had answered Kusum’s frantic call this morning and had told him how well this Jack fellow had handled a delicate problem for the UK Mission a few years ago.
Jack nodded. “I know Burkes. You with the UN?”
Kusum knotted his fist and managed to tolerate the interrogation.
“I suppose you Pakistani delegates are pretty tight with the British.”
Kusum felt as if he’d been slapped in the face. He half started from his seat.
“Do you insult me? I am not one of those Moslem—!” He caught himself. Probably an innocent error. Americans were ignorant of the most basic information. “I am from Bengal, a member of the Indian Delegation. I am a Hindu. Pakistan, which used to be the Punjab region of India, is a Moslem country.”
The distinction appeared to be completely lost on Jack.
“Whatever. Most of what I know about India I learned from watching Gunga Din a hundred times. So tell me about your grandmother.”
Kusum was momentarily baffled. Wasn’t “Gunga Din” a poem? How did one watch a poem? He set his confusion aside.
“Understand,” he said, absently brushing at a fly that had taken a liking to his face, “that if this were my own country I would resolve the matter in my own fashion.”
“So you told me on the phone. Where is she now?”
“In St. Clare’s hospital on West Fif—”
“I know where it is. What happened to her?”
“Her car broke down in the early hours of this morning. While her driver went to find a taxicab for her, she foolishly got out of the car. She was assaulted and beaten. If a police car hadn’t come by, she would have been killed.”
“Happens all the time, I’m afraid.”
A callous remark, ostensibly that of a city-dweller saving his pity for personal friends who became victims. But in Jack’s eyes Kusum detected a flash of emotion that told him perhaps this man could be reached.
“Yes, much to the shame of your city.”
“No one ever gets mugged on the streets of Bombay or Calcutta?”
Kusum shrugged and brushed again at the fly. “What takes place between members of the lower castes is of no importance. In my homeland even the most desperate street hoodlum would think many times before daring to lay a finger upon one of my grandmother’s caste.”
Something in this remark seemed to annoy Jack.
“Ain’t democracy wonderful,” the American said with a sour expression.
Kusum frowned, concealing his desperation. This was not going to work. He felt an instinctive antagonism between him and this Repairman Jack.
“I believe I have made a mistake. Mr. Burkes recommended you very highly, but I do not think you are capable of handling this particular task. Your attitude is most disrespectful—”
“What can you expect from a guy who grew up watching Bugs Bunny cartoons?”
“—and you do not appear to have the physical resources to accomplish what I have in mind.”
Jack smiled, as if used to this reaction. His elbows were on the table, his hands folded in front of him. Without the slightest hint of warning, his right hand blurred across the table towards Kusum’s face. Kusum steeled himself for the blow and prepared to lash out with his feet.
The blow never landed. Jack’s hand passed within a millimeter of Kusum’s face and snatched the fly out of the air in front of his nose. Jack went to a nearby door and released the insect into the fetid air of a back alley.
Fast, Kusum thought. Extremely fast. And what was even more important: He didn’t kill the fly.
Perhaps this was the man after all.
Jack returned to his seat and studied the Indian. To his credit, Kusum hadn’t flinched. Either his reflexes were extremely slow, or he had something like copper wire for nerves. Jack figured Kusum’s reflexes to be pretty good.
Score one for each of us, he thought. He wondered how Kusum had lost that arm.
“The point is probably moot,” Jack said. “Finding a particular mugger in this city is like poking at a hornets’ nest to find the one that bit you. If she saw enough of him to identify a mug shot, she should go to the police and—”
“No police!” Kusum said quickly.
Those were the very two words Jack was waiting to hear. If the police were involved, Jack would not be.
“They may well be successful eventually,” Kusum went on, “but they take much too long. This is a matter of the utmost urgency. My grandmother is dying. That is why I’ve gone outside official channels.”
“I don’t understand this whole thing.”
“Her necklace was stolen. It’s a priceless heirloom. She must have it back.”
“But you said she’s dying—”
“Before she dies! She must have it back before she dies!”
“Impossible. I can’t…”
UN diplomat or not, the guy was obviously a nut. No use trying to explain how hard it would be just to find the mugger. After that, to learn the name of his fence, find that fence, and then hope that he hadn’t already removed whatever precious stones were in the necklace and melted down the settings were beyond the wildest possibility.
He shook his head. “It can’t be done.”
“You must do it! The man must be found. She scratched him across the eyes. There must be a way he can be traced!”
“That’s police work.”
“The police will take too long! It must be returned tonight!”
“The chances against finding that necklace are—”
Kusum’s voice cracked on that last word, as if he’d dragged it kicking and screaming from an unused part of his soul. Jack sensed how much it cost the Indian to say it. Here was an inordinately proud man begging him for help.
“All right. I’ll do this: Let me talk to your grandmother. Let me see what I’ve got to work with.”
“That will not be necessary.”
“Of course it will be necessary. She’s the only one who knows what he looks like.”
Was he trying to keep him away from his grandmother?
Kusum looked uncomfortable. “She’s quite distraught. Incoherent. She raves. I do not wish to expose her to a stranger.”
Jack said nothing. He merely stared at Kusum and waited. Finally the Indian relented.
“I shall take you there immediately.”
Jack allowed Kusum to lead him out the front door. As he left, he waved to Julio, who was setting up his infamous sign, Free Lunch: $5.00. Right under the Free Beer … Tomorrow sign.
They caught a taxi on Columbus Avenue and headed downtown.
“About my fee,” Jack said once they’d settled into the back of the cab.
A small, superior smile curled Kusum’s thin lips.
“Money? Are you not a defender of the downtrodden, a crusader for justice?”
“Justice doesn’t pay the bills. My landlord prefers cash. So do I.”
“Ah! A Capitalist!”
If that was supposed to rile Jack, it did not.
“Plain old ‘Capitalist’ has so little color. If you don’t mind, I prefer to be called a Capitalist Swine or, at the very least, a Capitalist Running Dog. I hope Burkes didn’t let you think I do this out of the goodness of my heart.”
“No. He mentioned your fee for the UK Mission. A rather steep one. And in cash.”
“I don’t take checks or charges, and I don’t take physical danger lightly, especially when I could be on the receiving end.”
“Then here is my offer … Jack: Just for trying, I will pay you in advance half of what the British paid you. If you return the necklace to my grandmother before she dies, I will pay you the other half.”
This was going to be hard to turn down. The job for the UK Mission had involved terrorist threats. It had been complex, time-consuming, and very dicey at times. Normally he would have asked Kusum for only a fraction of that amount. But Kusum seemed quite willing and able to pay the full fee. And if Jack managed to bring back that necklace, it would be a bona fide miracle and he would deserve every penny of it.
“Sounds fair to me,” he said without missing a beat. “If I take the job.”
Jack followed Kusum through the halls of St. Clare’s until they came to a private room where a private-duty nurse hovered near the bed. The room was dark—curtains pulled, only a small lamp in a far corner throwing dim light across the bed. The lady under the covers was old. White hair framed a dark face that was a mass of wrinkles; gnarled hands clutched the sheet across her chest. Fear filled her eyes. Her ragged breathing and the hum of the blower by the window were the only sounds in the room.
Jack stood at the foot of the bed and felt the familiar tingle of rage spreading through his chest and limbs. With all he’d seen, all he’d done, he’d yet to learn how to keep from taking something like this personally. An old woman, helpless, beaten up. It made him want to break something.
“Ask her what he looked like.”
Kusum rattled off something in Indian from beside the head of the bed. The woman replied in kind, slowly, painfully, in a hoarse, raspy voice.
“She says he looked like you, but younger,” Kusum said, “and with lighter hair.”
“Short or long?”
Another exchange, then: “Short. Very short.”
As the woman replied, she raked the air with clawed fingers.
“His eyes,” Kusum said. “She scratched him across his left eye before she was knocked unconscious.”
Good for you, Granny.
Jack smiled reassuringly at the old lady, then turned to Kusum.
“I’ll see you out in the hall.”
He didn’t want to talk in front of the private nurse.
As he stood outside the door, Jack glanced at the nurses’ station and thought he saw a familiar face. He walked over for a closer look at the Junoesque blonde—every man’s fantasy nurse—writing in a chart. Yes—it was Marta. They’d had a thing a few years back in the days before Gia.
She greeted him with a friendly kiss and a hug. They talked about old times for a while, then Jack asked her about Mrs. Bahkti.
“Fading fast,” Marta said. “She’s gotten visibly worse since I came on. She’ll probably last out this shift, but I’ll be surprised if she’s here tomorrow. You know her?”
“I’ll be doing some work for her grandson.”
As with most people Jack knew socially—and there weren’t many—Marta was under the impression that he was a “security consultant.”
He saw Kusum step out of the room.
“There he is now. See you later.”
Jack led Kusum to a window at the end of the hall where they were out of earshot of patients and hospital personnel.
“All right,” he told him. “I’ll give it a try. But I make no promises other than to do my best.”
Jack wanted to catch up with this creep.
Kusum exhaled and muttered what sounded like a small prayer.
“No more can be asked of any man. But if you cannot find the necklace by tomorrow morning, it will be too late. After that, the necklace will be of secondary importance. But I still want you to keep looking for the assailant. And when you find him, I want you to kill him.”
Jack tightened inside but smiled and shook his head. This guy thought he was some sort of hit man.
“I don’t do that.”
Kusum’s eyes said he didn’t believe him.
“Very well. Instead, you will bring him to me and I will—”
“I will work for you until tomorrow morning,” Jack said. “I’ll give you my best shot till then. After that, you’re on your own.”
Anger flitted across Kusum’s face.
Definitely not used to having someone say no to you, are you?
“When will you start?”
Kusum reached inside his tunic and brought out a thick envelope. “Here is half the payment. I will wait here with the other half should you return with the necklace.”
Feeling more than a twinge of guilt at taking so much money on such a hopeless venture, Jack nevertheless folded the envelope and stuffed it in his left rear pocket.
“I will pay you ten thousand extra if you kill him,” Kusum added.
Jack laughed to keep the mood light but shook his head again. “Uh-uh. But one more thing: Don’t you think it would help if I knew what the necklace looked like?”
“Of course!” Kusum opened the collar of his tunic to reveal a heavy chain perhaps fifteen inches long. Its links were crescent-shaped, each embossed with strange-looking script. Centered side by side on the necklace were two elliptical, bright yellow, topazlike stones with black centers.
Jack held his hand out but Kusum shook his head.
“Every member of my family wears a necklace like this—it is never removed. And so it is very important that my grandmother’s be returned to her.”
Jack studied the necklace. It disturbed him. He could not say why, but deep in his bowels and along the middle of his back a primitive sensation raised warning. The two stones looked like eyes. The metal was silvery, but not silver.
“What’s it made of?”
Jack looked closer. Yes, there was a hint of rust along the edges of a couple of the links.
“Who’d want an iron necklace?”
“A fool who thought it was silver.”
Jack nodded. For the first time since talking to Kusum this morning, he felt there might be a slim—very slim—chance of recovering the necklace. A piece of silver jewelry would be fenced by now and either hidden away or melted down into a neat little ingot. But an heirloom like this, with no intrinsic value …
“Here is a picture,” Kusum said, handing over a Polaroid of the necklace. “I have a few friends searching the pawnshops of your city looking for it.”
“How long has she got?” he asked.
Kusum slowly closed his collar. His expression was grim. “Twelve hours, the doctors say. Perhaps fifteen.”
Great. Maybe I can find Judge Crater by then too.
“Where can I reach you?”
“Here. You will look for it, won’t you?”
Kusum’s dark brown eyes bored into his. He seemed to be staring at the rear wall of Jack’s brain.
“I said I would.”
“And I believe you. Bring the necklace to me as soon as you find it.”
“Sure. As soon as I find it.”
Sure. He walked away wondering why he’d agreed to help a stranger when Gia’s aunt needed him.
Same old story—Jack the sucker.
Once back in the darkened hospital room, Kusum returned immediately to the bedside and pulled up a chair. He grasped the withered hand that lay atop the covers and studied it. The skin was cool, dry, papery; there seemed to be no tissue other than bone beneath. And no strength at all.
A great sadness filled him.
Kusum looked up and saw the plea in her eyes. And the fear. He did his best to hide his own fear.
“Kusum,” she said in Bengali, her voice painfully weak. “I am dying.”
He knew that. And it was tearing him up inside.
“The American will get it back for you,” he said softly. “I’ve been told he’s very good.”
Burkes had said he was “incredibly good.” Kusum hated all Britishers on principle, but had to admit Burkes was no fool. But did it matter what Burkes had said? It was an impossible task. Jack had been honest enough to say so. But Kusum had to try something! Even with the foreknowledge of certain failure, he had to try.
He balled his only hand into a fist. Why did this have to happen? And now, of all times? How he despised this country and its empty people! But this Jack seemed different. He was not a mass of jumbled fragments like his fellow Americans. Kusum had sensed a oneness within him. Repairman Jack did not come cheaply, but the money meant nothing. The knowledge that someone was out there searching gave him solace.
He patted the limp hand. “He’ll get it back for you.”
She seemed not to have heard.
“I am dying.”
The money was a nagging pressure against his left buttock as Jack walked the half block west to Tenth Avenue and turned downtown. His hand kept straying back to the pocket; he repeatedly hooked a thumb in and out of it to make sure the envelope was still there. The problem now was what to do with the money. It was times like this that almost made him wish he had a bank account. But the bank folks insisted on a Social Security number from anyone who opened an account.
He sighed to himself. That was one of the major drawbacks of living between the lines. If you didn’t have an SSN, you were barred from countless things. You couldn’t hold a regular job, couldn’t buy or sell stock, couldn’t take out a loan, couldn’t own a home, couldn’t even complete a Blue Shield form. The list went on and on.
With his thumb casually hooked in his left rear pocket, Jack stopped in front of a rundown office building. He rented a ten-by-twelve cubicle here—the smallest he could find. He’d never met the agent, nor anyone else connected with the office. He liked it that way.
He took the creaking Otis with the penny-studded floor up to 4 and stepped off. The hall was empty. Jack’s office was 412. He walked past the door twice before pulling out the key and quickly letting himself in.
It always smelled the same: dry and dusty. The floors and windowsills were layered with dust. Dust bunnies clogged the corners. An abandoned spiderweb spanned an upper corner of the only window—out of business.
No furniture. The dull expanse of floor was broken only by the half dozen or so envelopes that had been shoved through the mail slot, and by an old vinyl IBM-typewriter cover and the wires that ran from it to the telephone and electrical outlets in the wall on the right.
Jack picked up the mail: Three were bills, all addressed to Jack Finch in care of this office. The rest belonged to Occupant. He stepped to the typewriter cover and lifted it. The answering machine beneath appeared to be in good shape. Even as he squatted over it, the machine clicked on and he heard Abe’s voice give the familiar salutation in the name of Repairman Jack, followed by a man complaining of an electric dryer that wasn’t drying.
He replaced the cover and went back to the door. A quick peek showed two secretaries from the shoe-importing firm at the other end of the hall standing by the elevator. Jack waited until the door slid shut after them. He locked his office, then ducked for the stairway. His cheeks puffed with relief as he started down the worn steps. He hated coming here and made a point of doing so at random intervals at odd times of the day. He did not want his face in any way connected with Repairman Jack; but there were bills to be paid, bills that he didn’t want delivered to his apartment. And popping into the office at random hours of the day or night seemed safer than having a post office box.
Most likely none of it was necessary. Most likely no one was looking to get even with Repairman Jack. He was always careful to stay far in the background when he fixed things. Only his customers ever saw him.
But there was always a chance. And as long as that chance existed, he made certain he was very hard to find.
Thumb hooked again into that important pocket, Jack moved into the growing lunch hour crush, luxuriating in the anonymity of the crowd. He turned east on Forty-second and strolled up to the brick-front post office between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There he purchased three money orders—two in negligible amounts for the phone and electric bills, and the third for a figure he considered preposterous considering the square footage of office space he was renting. He signed all three Jack Finch and mailed them off. As he was leaving, it occurred to him to use the cash to pay the rent on his apartment too. He went back and purchased a fourth money order, which he made out to his landlord. This one he signed Jack Berger.
A short walk past an art deco building to the side of the Port Authority Building, then across Eighth Avenue, and he was in Disney World North. He remembered when Times Square and environs were Sleazeville, USA, a never-ending freak show that would have put Tod Browning to shame. Jack had never passed up an opportunity to stroll through the area. He was a people-watcher and nowhere had there been such a unique variety of Homo sapiens lowlificus as in Times Square.
The block ahead had once been Exploitation Row, an almost continuous canopy of grind house marquees touting either triple-X sex, kung-fu imports, or psycho-with-a-knife splatter films from the Emeril Lagasse slice-and-dice school of moviemaking. You could walk along here in the rain and hardly get wet. Stuck in between had been hole-in-the-wall porn shops, stairways to “modeling studios” and dance halls, the ubiquitous Nedicks and Orange Julius stands, and sundry stores perpetually on the verge of bankruptcy—or so their window signs claimed. Mingling among the patrons of these venerable establishments had been hookers and derelicts of both sexes plus a startling array of epicene creatures who’d probably looked like boys when they were little.
All gone now, replaced by new legit theaters and outlets of the franchise factories. Donald would have no qualms about bringing Huey, Dewey, and Louie here.
Jack crossed Broadway behind the building that had given the Square its name, then turned uptown on Seventh Avenue. Set up on tables along the curb were chess and backgammon boards where a couple of guys would play anyone for a few bucks. Farther along were three-card monte setups on cardboard boxes. Pushcarts sold shish kebab, Sabrett hot dogs, dried fruits and nuts, giant pretzels, and freshly squeezed orange juice. The odors mingled in the air with the sounds and sights. All the record stores along Seventh were pushing the latest group du jour, Polio, playing cuts from their debut album onto the sidewalk. Jack stood waiting for the green at Forty-sixth next to a Puerto Rican with a giant boom box on his shoulder blasting salsa at a volume that would probably cause sterility in most small mammals, while girls wearing tube tops that left their midriffs bare and satin gym shorts that left a smooth pink crescent of buttock protruding from each leg hole rollerbladed through the traffic with tiny headphones on their ears and iPods belted to their waistbands.
Standing directly in the middle of the flow was a big blind Black with a sign on his chest, a dog at his feet, and a cup in his hand. Jack threw some loose change into the cup as he slipped by.
Something about New York got to Jack. He loved its sleaze, its color, the glory and crassness of its architecture. He couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Upon reaching the Fifties, he turned east until he came to Municipal Coins. He stopped in front and glanced briefly at the low-priced junk under the red and white We Buy Gold sign in the window—proof sets, Confederate paper, and the like—then went in.
Monte spotted him right away.
“Mr. O’Neil! How are you!”
“Fine. Just call me Jack, remember?”
“Of course!” Monte said, grinning. “Always with the informality.” He was short, slight, balding, with scrawny arms and a big nose. A mosquito of a man. “Good to see you again!”
Of course it was good to see him again. Jack knew he was probably Monte’s best customer. Their relationship had begun years ago, after Abe had told him to buy gold. Krugerrands, specifically.
“It’s completely anonymous!” Abe had said, saving his most persuasive argument for last. “As anonymous as buying a loaf of bread!”
So he’d bought some coins for cash, and sold them for more cash. He was supposed to report his profits to the IRS, but the IRS didn’t know he existed and he didn’t want to burden them with the information.
Jack had been in and out of gold since, and was buying it now. He figured the numismatic market was depressed, so he was investing in choice rare coins, too. They might not go up for many years, but he was buying for the long run. For his retirement—if he survived to enjoy it.
“I think I have something you’ll really like,” Monte was saying. “One of the finest Barber Halves I’ve seen.”
“It’s a 1901S.”
There followed the obligatory haggling over the quality of the strike, bag marks, and the like. When Jack left the store he had the Barber Half and a 1909-proof Barber Quarter carefully wrapped and tucked in his left front pocket with a cylinder of Krugerrands. A hundred or so in cash was in the other front pocket. He felt far more relaxed heading back uptown than he’d been coming down.
Now he could turn his mind to Gia. He wondered if she’d have Vicky with her. Most likely. He didn’t want to arrive empty-handed. He stopped at a card shop and found what he was looking for: a pile of furry little spheres, somewhat smaller than golf balls, each with two slender antennae, flat little feet and big rolling eyes: Rascals. Vicky loved Rascals almost as much as she loved oranges. He loved the look on her face when she reached into a pocket and found a present.
He picked out an orange Rascal and headed for home.
Lunch was a can of Red Hook Lager and a cylinder of Country Style Pringles in the cool of his apartment. He knew he should be on the roof doing his daily exercises, but he also knew what the temperature would be like up there.
Jack loathed his exercise routine and embraced any excuse to postpone it. He never missed a day, but never passed up an opportunity to put it off.
While nursing a second Red Hook, he went to the cedar closet next to the bathroom to stash his new acquisitions. The air within was heavy with the scent of the wood. He pulled a piece of molding loose from the base of a sidewall, then slipped free one of the cedar planks above it. Behind the plank lay the bathroom water pipes, each wrapped in insulation. Taped to the insulation like ornaments on a Christmas tree were dozens of rare coins. Jack found empty spots for the latest.
He tapped the board and molding back into place, then stepped back to survey the work. A good hidey-hole. More accessible than a safe deposit box. Better than a wall safe. With burglars using metal detectors these days, they could find a safe in minutes and either crack it or carry it off. But a metal detector here would only confirm that there were pipes behind the bathroom wall.
The only thing Jack had to worry about was fire.
He realized a psychiatrist would have a field day with him, labeling him a paranoid of one sort or another. But Jack had worked out a better explanation: When you lived in a city with a high robbery rate and you worked in a field that tended to get people violently angry with you, and you had no FDIC to protect your savings, extreme caution as a daily routine was not a symptom of mental illness; it was necessary for survival.
He was polishing off the second beer when the phone rang. Gia again? He listened to the Pinocchio Productions intro, then heard his father’s voice begin to leave a message. He picked up and cut in.
“Don’t you ever turn that thing off, Jack?”
“The answering machine? I just got in. What’s up?”
“Just wanted to remind you about Sunday.”
Sunday? What the hell was—
“You mean about the tennis match? How could I forget?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time.”
Jack winced. “I told you, Dad. I got tied up with something and couldn’t get away.”
“Well, I hope it won’t happen again.” Dad’s tone said he couldn’t imagine what could be so important in the appliance repair business that could tie up a man for a whole day. “I’ve got us down for the father-and-son match.”
“I’ll be there bright and early Sunday morning.”
“Good. See you then.”
“Looking forward to it.”
What a lie, he thought as he hung up.
Jack dreaded seeing his father, even for something so simple as a father-and-son tennis match. Yet he still accepted an occasional invitation to go back to New Jersey and bask in parental disapproval. It wasn’t masochism that kept him coming back; it was duty. And love—love that had lain unexpressed for years. After all, it wasn’t Dad’s fault that he thought his directionless son had squandered an education and was going nowhere. Dad didn’t know what his son really did.
Jack reset the answering machine and changed into a pair of lightweight tan slacks. He wouldn’t feel right wearing Levi’s on Sutton Square.
He decided to walk. He took Columbus Avenue down to the Circle, then walked along Central Park South past the St. Moritz and under the ornate iron awning of the Plaza’s park-side entrance, amusing himself by counting Arabs and watching the rich tourists stroll in and out of the status hotels. He continued due east along Fifty-ninth toward the stratospheric rent district.
He was working up a sweat but barely noticed. The prospect of seeing Gia again made him almost giddy.
Images, pieces of the past, flashed through his brain as he walked. Gia’s big smile, her azure eyes, the way her whole face crinkled up when she laughed, the sound of her voice, the feel of her skin … all denied him for the past two months.
He remembered his first feelings for her …
With almost all the other women in his life the most significant part of the relationship for both parties had been explored in bed. It was different with Gia. He wanted to know her. He’d thought about the others only when there had been nothing better to think about. Gia, on the other hand, had a nasty habit of popping into his thoughts at the most inopportune times. He’d wanted to cook with her, eat with her, see movies with her, listen to music with her, be with her. He’d found himself wanting to get in his car and drive past her apartment house just to make sure it was still there. He hated to talk on the phone but had found himself calling her at the slightest excuse. He was hooked and he’d loved it.
For nearly a year it had been a treat to wake up every morning knowing he was probably going to see her at some time during the day. So good …
Other images crept unbidden to the fore. Her face when she learned the truth about him, the hurt, and something worse—fear. The knowledge that Gia could even for an instant think that he would ever harm her, or ever allow harm to come to her, was the deepest hurt of all. Nothing he’d said or tried to say had worked to change her mind.
Now he had another chance. He wasn’t going to blow it.
“He’s late, isn’t he, Mom?”
Gia DiLauro kept both hands on her daughter’s shoulders as they stood at the window in the front parlor and watched the street. Vicky was fairly trembling with excitement.
“Not quite. Almost, but not quite.”
“I hope he doesn’t forget.”
“He won’t. I’m sure he won’t.” Although I wish he would.
Two months ago she’d walked out on Jack. She was adjusting. Sometimes she could go through a whole day without thinking about him. She’d picked up where she’d left off. There was even someone new creeping into her life.
Why couldn’t the past ever stay out of sight where it belonged? Take her ex-husband, for instance. After their divorce she’d wanted to cut all ties with the Westphalen family, even going so far as to change her name back to the one she’d been born with. But Richard’s aunts had made that impossible. They adored Vicky and used every imaginable pretext to lure Gia and their niece over to Sutton Square. Gia had resisted at first, but their genuine affection for Vicky, their insistent pleas, and the fact that they had no illusions about their nephew—“a bounder and a cad!” as Nellie was wont to describe him after her third glass of sherry—finally changed her mind. Eight Sutton Square had become a second home of sorts. The aunts had even gone so far as to have a swing set and a wooden playhouse installed in the tiny backyard just for Vicky.
So when Nellie had called in a panic after she’d discovered Grace missing on Tuesday morning, Gia had come right over. And had been here ever since.
Grace Westphalen. Such a sweet old lady. Gia couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to harm her, and no ransom demand had been made. So where was she? Gia was frightened and mystified by the disappearance, and she ached for Nellie, who she knew was suffering terribly behind her stoical front. It had been only out of love for Nellie and her deep concern for Grace that she’d agreed to call Jack this morning. Not that Jack would be much help. From what she’d learned of him, she could safely say that this was not his sort of job. But Nellie was desperate and it was the least Gia could do to ease her mind.
Gia told herself she was standing here at the window to keep Vicky company—the poor child had been watching for an hour already—yet there was an undeniable sense of anticipation rising inside her. It wasn’t love. It couldn’t be love.
What was it, then?
Probably just a residue of feeling, like a smear on a window that hadn’t been properly wiped after spring cleaning. What else could she expect? It had been only two months since the breakup and her feelings for Jack until then had been intense, as if compensating for all that had been missing from her aborted marriage.
Jack is the one, she’d told herself. The forever one.
She didn’t want to think about that awful afternoon. She’d held the memory off all day, but now, with Jack due any minute, it all rushed back at her …
* * *
She was cleaning his apartment. A friendly gesture. He refused to hire a cleaning lady and usually did it himself. But to Gia’s mind, Jack’s household methods left much to be desired, so she decided to surprise him by giving the place a thorough going-over. She wanted to do something for him. He was always doing little things for her, yet he was so self-contained that she found it difficult to reciprocate. So she “borrowed” an extra key to his apartment and sneaked in one day when he was out.
She knew Jack as a gentle eccentric who worked at odd intervals and odd hours as a security consultant—whatever that was—and lived in a three-room apartment stuffed with such an odd assortment of junk that she had attacks of vertigo the first few times she visited him. His latest “neat stuff”—an original red and green Little Orphan Annie Ovaltine shake-up mug and an official Tom Corbett Space Cadet badge—lay on the round oak table. That was another thing about the apartment: the hideous old furniture. And he was crazy about movies—old movies, new movies, good movies, awful movies. He was the only man she’d ever known who did not have a bank or credit card. He had such an aversion to signing his name that he didn’t even have a checking account. He paid cash for everything.
The cleaning chores went smoothly until she found the loose panel at the rear of the base of the old oak secretary. She’d been polishing it with lemon oil to bring up the grain and make the wood glow. Jack loved oak and she was learning to love it, too—it had such character. The panel swung out as she touched it.
Something gleamed in the darkness within. Curious, she reached in and touched cool, oiled metal. She pulled the object out and started in surprise at its weight and malignant blue color. A pistol.
Well, lots of people in the city had guns. For protection. Nothing unusual about that.
She glanced back into the opening. There were other gleaming things within. She began to pull them out. As each gun was delivered from the hiding place, she fought the growing pang in the pit of her stomach, telling herself that Jack was probably just a collector. After all, no two of the dozen or so guns were alike. But what about the rest of the contents: the boxes of bullets, the daggers, brass knuckles, and other deadly-looking things she’d never seen before? Among the weapons were three driver’s licenses, and sundry other forms of identification, all with different names.
Her insides knotted as she sat and stared at the collection. She tried to tell herself they were things he needed for his work as a security consultant, but deep inside she knew that much of what lay before her was illegal. Even if he had permits for all the guns, there was no way the licenses could be legal.
Gia was still sitting there when he came back in from one of his mysterious errands. A shocked, guilty look ran over his face when he saw what she had found.
“Who are you?” she said, leaning away as he knelt beside her.
“I’m Jack. You know me.”
“Do I? I’m not even sure your name’s Jack anymore.” She could feel the terror growing within her. Her voice rose an octave. “Who are you and what do you do with all this?”
He gave her some garbled story about being a repairman of sorts who “fixes things.” For a fee he finds stolen property or evens scores for people when the police and the courts and all the various proper channels for redress have failed them.
“But all these guns and knives and things … they’re for hurting people!”
He nodded. “Sometimes it comes down to that.”
She had visions of him shooting someone, stabbing him, clubbing him to death. If someone else had told her this about the man she loved, she would have laughed and walked away. But the weapons lay in front of her. And Jack was telling her himself!
“Then you’re nothing but a hired thug!”
He reddened. “I work on my own terms—exclusively. And I don’t do anything to anybody that they haven’t already done to someone else. I was going to tell you when I thought—”
“But you hurt people!”
This was becoming a nightmare! “What kind of thing is that to spend your life doing?”
“It’s my job.”
“Do you enjoy it when you hurt people?”
He looked away. And that was answer enough. She felt as if he’d shoved one of his knives into her heart.
“Are the police after you?”
“No,” he said with a certain amount of pride. “They don’t even know I exist. Neither does the state of New York nor the IRS nor the rest of the US government.”
Gia rose to her feet and hugged herself. She suddenly felt cold. She didn’t want to ask this question, but she had to.
“What about killing? Have you ever killed someone?”
“Gia…” He rose and stepped toward her but she backed away.
“Answer me, Jack! Have you ever killed someone?”
“It’s happened. But that doesn’t mean I make my living at it.”
She thought she was going to be sick. The man she loved was a murderer!
“But you’ve killed!”
“Only when there was no other way. Only when I had to.”
“You mean, only when they were going to kill you? Kill or be killed?”
Please say yes. Please!
He looked away again. “Sort of.”
The world seemed to come apart at the seams. With hysteria clutching at her, Gia began running. She ran for the door, ran down the stairs, ran for a cab that took her home where she huddled in a corner of her apartment listening to the phone ring and ring and ring. She took it off the hook when Vicky came home from school and had barely spoken to Jack since.
* * *
“Come away from the window now. I’ll tell you when he arrives.”
“No, Mommy! I want to see him!”
“All right, but when he gets here, I don’t want you running around and making a fuss. Just say hello to him nice and politely, then go out back to the playhouse. Understand?”
“Is that him?” Vicky started bouncing on her toes. “Is that him?”
Gia looked, then laughed and pulled on her daughter’s pigtails. “Not even close.”
Gia walked away from the window, then came back, resigned to standing and watching behind Vicky. Jack appeared to occupy a blind spot in Vicky’s unusually incisive assessment of people. But then, Jack had fooled Gia, too.
Jack fooled everyone, it seemed.
If Jack had his choice of any locale in Manhattan to live, he’d choose Sutton Square, the half block of ultra-high-priced real estate standing at the eastern tip of Fifty-eighth Street off Sutton Place, deadending at a low stone wall overlooking a sunken brick terrace with an unobstructed view of the East River. No high-rises, condos, or office buildings there, just neat four-story townhouses standing flush to the sidewalk, all brick-fronted, some with the brick bare, others painted pastel colors. Wooden shutters flanked the windows and the recessed front doors. Some of them even had backyards. A neighborhood of Bentleys and Rolls Royces, liveried chauffeurs and white-uniformed nannies. And one block to the north, looming over it all like some towering guardian, stood the graceful, surprisingly delicate-looking span of the Queensboro Bridge.
He remembered the place well. He’d been here before. He’d met Gia’s aunts while on that job for the UK Mission. They’d invited him to a small gathering at their home. He hadn’t wanted to go but Burkes had talked him into it. The evening had changed his life. He’d met Gia.
He heard a child’s voice shouting as he crossed Sutton Place.
Dark braids flying and arms outstretched, a little slip of a girl with wide blue eyes and a missing front tooth came dashing out the front door and down the sidewalk. She leaped into the air with the reckless abandon of a seven-year-old who had not the slightest doubt she would be caught and lifted and swung around.
Which is exactly what Jack did. Then he hugged her against his chest as she clamped her spindly arms around his neck.
“Where you been, Jack?” she said into his ear. “Where you been all this time?”
Jack’s answer was blocked by a lump in his throat the size of an apple. Shocked by the intensity of feeling welling up in him, he could only squeeze her tighter.
All the time he’d spent missing Gia, never realizing how much he’d missed the little one. For the better part of a year he and Gia had been together, Jack had seen Vicky almost every day, becoming a prime focus of her boundless store of affection. Losing Vicky had contributed much more than he ever could have imagined to the emptiness inside him these past two months.
Love you, little girl.
He hadn’t truly known how much until this very instant. Over Vicky’s shoulder he could see Gia standing in the doorway of the house, her face grim. He spun away to hide the tears that had sprung into his eyes.
“You’re squeezing me awful tight, Jack.”
He put her down. “Yeah. Sorry, Vicks.”
He cleared his throat, pulled himself together, then grasped her hand and walked up to the front door and Gia.
She looked good. Hell, she looked great in that light blue T-shirt and jeans. Short blond hair—to call it blond was to say the sun was sort of bright: It gleamed, it glowed. Blue eyes like winter sky after all the snow clouds have blown east. A strong, full mouth capable of a wide, dazzling smile. High shoulders, high breasts, fair skin with high coloring along the cheeks. He still found it almost impossible to believe she was Italian.
Gia controlled her anger. She’d told Vicky not to make a fuss, but at the first sight of Jack crossing the street she’d been out the door and on her way before Gia could stop her. She wanted to punish Vicky for disobeying her, yet knew she wouldn’t. Vicky loved Jack.
He looked the same as ever. His brown hair was a little longer and he looked as if he’d lost a few pounds since she last saw him, but no major differences. Still the same vitality, making the very air around him seem to throb with life, the same feline grace to his movements, the same warm brown eyes, the same lopsided smile. The smile looked forced at the moment, and his face was flushed. He looked hot.
“Hello,” Jack said as he reached the top step. His voice was husky.
He leaned his face toward her. She wanted to pull away but affected sublime indifference instead. She would be cool. She would be detached. He no longer meant anything to her. She accepted a peck on the cheek.
“Come in,” she said, doing her best to sound businesslike. She felt she succeeded. But the brush of his lips against her cheek stirred old unwanted feelings and she knew her face was coloring. Damn him. She turned away. “Aunt Nellie’s waiting.”
“You’re looking well,” he said, staring at her. Vicky’s hand was still clasped in his own.
“Thank you. So are you.” She’d never felt this way before, but now that she knew the truth about Jack, the sight of him holding hands with her little girl made her skin crawl. She had to get Vicky away from him. “Honey, why don’t you go outside and play in your playhouse while Jack and I and Aunt Nellie talk about grown-up things.”
“I want to stay with Jack!”
Gia started to speak, but Jack raised a hand.
“First thing we do,” he said to Vicky as he guided her into the foyer, “is close the door behind us. This may be a ritzy neighborhood, but they still haven’t got around to air conditioning the street.” He shut the door, then squatted in front of her. “Listen, Vicks. Your mother’s right. We’ve got some grown-up stuff to discuss and we’ve got to get down to business. But I’ll let you know as soon as we’re through.”
“Can I show you the playhouse?”
“Neat! And Ms. Jelliroll wants to meet you. I told her all about you.”
“Great. I want to meet her, too. But first”—he pointed to the breast pocket of his shirt—“see what’s in there.”
Vicky reached in and pulled out an orange ball of fur. “A Rascal!” she screeched. “Oh, neat!”
She kissed him and ran toward the back.
“Who or what is Ms. Jelliroll?” he asked Gia as he rose to his feet.
“A new doll,” Gia said as brusquely as she could manage. “Jack, I … I want you to stay away from her.”
Gia saw his eyes then and knew that she’d cut him deeply. But his mouth smiled.
“I haven’t molested a child all week.”
“That’s not what I mean—”
“I’m a bad influence, right?”
“We’ve been through this before and I don’t want to get going on it again. Vicky was very attached to you. She’s just getting used to not having you around anymore, and now you come back and I don’t want her to think things are going back to the way they were.”
“I’m not the one who walked out.”
“Doesn’t matter. The result was the same. She was hurt.”
“So was I.”
“Jack,” she sighed, feeling very tired, “this is a pointless conversation.”
“Not to me. Gia, I’m crazy about that kid. There was a time when I had hopes of being her father.”
The sound of her own laugh was harsh and bitter in her ears. “Her real father hasn’t been heard from in a year and you wouldn’t be much of an improvement. Vicky needs a real person for a father. Someone who lives in the real world. Someone with a last name—do you even remember your last name? The one you were christened with? Jack, you … you don’t exist.”
He reached out and touched her arm. She felt her skin tingle.
“As real as you.”
“You know what I mean!” Gia said, pulling away. The words poured out of her. “What kind of a father could you be to anybody? And what kind of a husband?”
She was being hard on him, she knew, but he deserved it.
Jack’s face tightened. “Very well, Ms. DiLauro. Shall we get down to business? After all, I didn’t invite myself over.”
“Neither did I. It was Nellie’s idea. I was just the messenger. ‘Get that friend of yours, that Jack fellow, to help.’ I tried to tell her you were no longer a friend but she insisted. She remembered that you worked with Mr. Burkes.”
“That’s when we met.”
“And the long string of deceptions began. Mr. Burkes called you a ‘consultant’, a ‘troubleshooter.’”
Jack made a sour face. “But you came up with a better job description, didn’t you: ‘thug.’”
It jolted Gia to hear the pain in Jack’s voice as he said the word. Yes, she’d called him that the last time she’d seen him. She’d hurt him then and had been glad of it. But she wasn’t glad now to know he was still bleeding from it.
She turned away. “Nellie is waiting.”
With a mixture of pain and frustration roiling through him, Jack followed Gia down the hallway. For months he’d nurtured a faint hope that someday soon he would make her understand. As of now he knew with leaden certainty that it would never happen. She’d been a warm, passionate woman who’d loved him, and unwittingly he’d turned her to ice.
He studied the walnut paneling, the portraits on the walls, anything to keep from watching her as she walked ahead of him. Then they were through a pair of sliding doors and into the library. The dark paneling continued in from the hall, encircling lots of dark furniture, overstuffed velvet chairs with antimacassars on the arms, Persian rugs on the floor, impressionist paintings on the walls, a Sony Trinitron in the corner.
He’d met Gia in this room.
Aunt Nellie sat lost in a recliner by the cold fireplace. A chubby, white-haired woman in her late sixties in a long dark dress adorned with a small diamond brooch and a short string of pearls. A woman used to wealth and comfortable with it. At first glance she appeared depressed and shrunken, as if she were in mourning, or preparing for it. But as they entered she pumped herself up and arranged her face into a pleasant expression, putting on a smile that wiped away a good many of her years.
“Mr. Jeffers,” she said, rising. Her accent was thickly British. Not Hugh Grant British; more like a reedy Alfred Hitchcock. “So good of you to come.”
“Good to see you again, Mrs. Paton. But just call me Jack.”
“Only if you call me Nellie. Would you care for some tea?”
“Iced, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all.” She rang a little bell on the end table next to her and a uniformed maid appeared. “Three iced teas, Eunice.”
The maid nodded and left. An uncomfortable silence followed in which Nellie seemed to be lost in thought.
“How can I help you, Nellie?”
“What?” She looked startled. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry. I was just thinking about my sister, Grace. As I’m sure Gia told you, she’s been gone for three days now … disappeared between Monday night and Tuesday”—she pronounced it Chewsday—“morning. The police have come and gone and found no evidence of foul play, and there’s been no demand for ransom. She is merely listed as a missing person, but I’m quite certain something has happened to her. I shan’t rest until I find her.”
Jack’s heart went out to her, and he wanted to help, but …
“I don’t do missing-persons work as a rule.”
“Yes, Gia did say something about this not being in your line”—Jack glanced at Gia but she avoided his gaze—“but I’m at my wits’ end. The police are no help. I’m sure that if we were back home we’d have more cooperation from Scotland Yard than we’ve had from the New York Police. They simply aren’t taking Grace’s disappearance seriously. I knew you and Gia were close and remembered Eddie Burkes mentioning that your assistance had proven invaluable at the Mission. Never would tell me what he needed you for, but he certainly seemed enthusiastic.”
Jack was seriously considering placing a call to “Eddie”—hard as it was to imagine someone calling the UK Mission’s security chief “Eddie”—and telling him to button his lip. Jack always appreciated referrals, and it was nice to know he’d made such an impression on the man, but Burkes was getting just a little bit too free with his name.
“I’m flattered by your confidence, but—”
“Whatever your usual fee is, I daresay I’ll gladly pay it.”
“It’s a question of expertise rather than money. I just don’t think I’m the right man for the job.”
“You’re a detective, aren’t you?”
“Sort of.” That was a lie. He wasn’t any sort of detective; he was a repairman. He could feel Gia staring at him. “The problem is, I’m not licensed as a detective, so I can’t have any contact with the police. They mustn’t know I’m involved in any way. They wouldn’t approve.”
Nellie’s face brightened. “Then you’ll help?”
The hope in her expression pushed the words to his lips.
“I’ll do what I can. And as far as payment goes, let’s make it contingent on success. If I don’t get anywhere, there’ll be no fee.”
“But your time is surely worth something, dear fellow!”
“I agree, but looking for Vicky’s Aunt Grace is a special case.”
Nellie nodded. “Then you may consider yourself hired on your terms.”
Jack forced a smile. He didn’t expect much success in finding Grace, but he’d give it his best shot. If nothing else, the job would keep him in contact with Gia. He wasn’t quitting yet.
The iced tea arrived and Jack sipped it appreciatively. Not a Lipton or Nestea mix, but freshly brewed from an English blend.
“Tell me about your sister,” he said when the maid had left.
Nellie leaned back and spoke in a low voice, rambling now and again, but keeping fairly close to hard facts. A picture slowly emerged. Unlike Nellie, the missing Grace Westphalen had never married. After Nellie’s husband was killed by an IRA bomb in London, the two sisters, each with one-third of the Westphalen fortune, moved to the States. Except for brief trips back home, both had lived on Manhattan’s East Side ever since. And both were still loyal to the Queen. Never in all those years had the thought of becoming US citizens ever crossed their minds. They very naturally fell in with the small British community in Manhattan consisting mostly of well-heeled expatriates and people connected with the British Consulate and the United Kingdom’s Mission to the United Nations—“a colony within the Colonies,” as they liked to call themselves—and enjoyed an active social life. They rarely saw Americans. It was almost like living in London.
Grace Westphalen was sixty-nine—two years older than Nellie. A woman of many acquaintances but few real friends. Her sister had always been her best friend. No eccentricities. Certainly no enemies.
“When did you last see Grace?” Jack asked.
“Monday night. I finished watching The Tonight Show and when I looked in to say good night, she was propped up in bed reading. That was the last time I saw her.” Nellie’s lower lip trembled for an instant, then she got control of it. “Perhaps the last time I shall ever see her.”
Jack looked to Gia. “No signs of foul play?”
“I didn’t get here until late Tuesday,” Gia said with a shrug. “But I do know the police couldn’t figure out how Grace got out without tripping the alarm.”
“You’ve got the place wired?” he asked Nellie.
“Wired? Oh, you mean the burglar system. Yes. And it was set—at least for downstairs. We’ve had so many false alarms over the years, however, that we had the upper floors disconnected.”
“What kind of false alarms?”
“Well, sometimes we’d forget and get up at night to open a window. The racket is terrifying. So now when we set the system, only the downstairs doors and windows are activated.”
“Which means Grace couldn’t have left by the downstairs doors or windows without tripping an alarm…” A thought struck him. “Wait—all these systems have delays so you can arm it and get out the door without setting it off. That must have been what she did. She just walked out.”
“But her key to the system is still upstairs on her dresser. And all her clothes are in her closets.”
“May I see?”
“By all means, do come and look,” Nellie said, rising.
They all trooped upstairs.
Jack found the small, frilly-feminine bedroom cloying. Everything seemed to be pink or have a lace ruffle, or both.
The pair of French doors at the far end of the room claimed his attention immediately. He opened them and found himself on a card-table-sized balcony rimmed with a waist-high wrought iron railing, overlooking the backyard. A good dozen feet below was a rose garden. In a shady corner sat the playhouse Vicky had mentioned; it looked far too heavy to have been dragged under the window, and would have flattened all the rose bushes if it had. Anyone wanting to climb up here had to bring a ladder with him or be one hell of a jumper.
“The police find any marks in the dirt down there?”
Nellie shook her head. “They thought someone might have used a ladder, but there was no sign. The ground is so hard and dry with no rain—”
Eunice the maid appeared at the door. “Telephone, mum.”
Nellie excused herself and left Jack and Gia alone in the room.
“A locked-room mystery,” he said. “I feel like Sherlock Holmes.”
He got down on his knees and examined the carpet for specks of dirt, but found none. He looked under the bed; only a pair of slippers there.
“What are you doing?”
“Looking for clues. I’m supposed to be a detective, remember?”
“I don’t think a woman’s disappearance is anything to joke about,” Gia said, the frost returning to her words now that Nellie was out of earshot.
“I’m not joking, nor am I taking it lightly. But you’ve got to admit the whole thing has the air of a British drawing-room mystery about it. I mean, either Aunt Grace had an extra alarm key made and ran off into the night in her nightie—a pink and frilly one, I’ll bet—or she jumped off her little balcony here in that same nightie, or someone climbed up the wall, knocked her out, and carried her off without a sound. None of them seem too plausible.”
Gia appeared to be listening. That was something at least.
He went over to the dressing table and glanced at the dozens of perfume bottles there; some names were familiar, most not. He wandered into the private bathroom and was there confronted by another array of bottles: Metamucil, Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia, Haley’s M-O, Pericolace, Surfak, Ex-Lax, and more. One bottle stood off to the side. Jack picked it up. It was clear glass, with a thick green fluid inside. The cap was the metal twist-off type, enameled white. All it needed was a Smirnoff label and it could have been an airline vodka bottle.
“Know what this is?”
Jack screwed off the cap and sniffed. At least he was sure of one thing: It wasn’t perfume. The smell was heavily herbal, and not particularly pleasant.
As Nellie returned, she appeared to be finding it increasingly difficult to hide her anxiety. “That was the police. I rang up the detective in charge a while ago and he just told me that they have nothing new on Grace.”
Jack handed her the bottle.
Nellie looked it over, momentarily puzzled, then her face brightened.
“Oh, yes. Grace picked this up Monday. I’m not sure where, but she said it was a new product being test-marketed, and this was a free sample.”
“But what’s it for?”
“It’s a physic.”
“A physic. A cathartic. A laxative. Grace was very concerned—obsessed, you might say—with regulating her bowels. She’s had that sort of problem all her life.”
Jack took back the bottle. Something about an unlabeled bottle amid all the brand names intrigued him.
“May I keep this?”
He looked around awhile longer, for appearances more than anything else. He didn’t have the faintest idea how he was going to begin looking for Grace Westphalen.
“Please remember to do two things,” he told Nellie as he started downstairs. “Keep me informed of any leads the police turn up, and don’t breathe a word of my involvement.”
“Very well. But where are you going to start?”
He smiled—reassuringly, he hoped. “I’ve already started. I’ll have to do some thinking and then start looking.”
He fingered the bottle in his pocket. Something about it …
They left Nellie on the second floor, standing and gazing into her sister’s empty room. Vicky came running in from the kitchen as Jack reached the bottom step. She held an orange section in her outstretched hand.
“Do the orange mouth! Do the orange mouth!”
He laughed, delighted that she remembered. “Sure!”
He shoved the section into his mouth and clamped his teeth behind the skin. Then he gave Vicky a big orange grin. She clapped and laughed.
“Isn’t Jack funny, Mom? Isn’t he the funniest?”
“He’s a riot, Vicky.”
Jack pulled the orange slice from his mouth. “Where’s that doll you wanted to introduce me to?”
Vicky slapped the side of her head dramatically. “Ms. Jelliroll! She’s out back. I’ll go—”
“Jack doesn’t have time, honey,” Gia said from behind him.
He winked at her. “Maybe next trip, okay?”
Vicky smiled and Jack noticed that a second tooth was starting to fill the gap left by her missing milk tooth.
“Okay. You coming back soon, Jack?”
“Real soon, Vicks.”
He hoisted her onto his hip and carried her to the front door where he put her down and kissed her.
“See ya.” He glanced up at Gia. “You, too.”
She pulled Vicky back against the front of her jeans. “Yeah.”
As Jack went down the front steps, he thought the door slammed with unnecessary force.
Vicky pulled Gia to the window and together they watched Jack stroll out of sight.
“He’s going to find Aunt Grace, isn’t he?”
“He says he’s going to try.”
“He’ll do it.”
“Please don’t get your hopes up, honey.” She knelt behind Vicky and enfolded her in her arms. “We may never find her.”
She felt Vicky stiffen and wished she hadn’t said it, wished she hadn’t thought it. Grace had to be alive and well.
“Jack’ll find her. Jack can do anything.”
“No, Vicky. He can’t. He really can’t.” Gia was torn between wanting Jack to fail, and wanting Grace returned to her home, between wanting to see Jack humbled in Vicky’s eyes, and the urge to protect her daughter from the pain of disillusionment.
“Why don’t you love him anymore, Mommy?”
The question took Gia by surprise. “Who said I ever did?”
“You did,” Vicky said, turning and facing her mother. Her guileless blue eyes looked straight into Gia’s. “Don’t you remember?”
“Well, maybe I did a little, but not anymore.”
It’s true. I don’t love him anymore. Never did. Not really.
“Sometimes things don’t work out.”
“Like with you and Daddy?”
During the two and a half years she and Richard had been divorced, Gia had read every magazine article she could find on explaining the breakup of a marriage to a small child. There were all sorts of pat answers to give, answers that were satisfying when the father was still around for birthdays and holidays and weekends. But what to say to a child whose father had not only skipped town, but left the continent before she was five? How to tell a child that her daddy doesn’t give a damn about her? Maybe Vicky knew. Maybe that’s why she was so infatuated with Jack, who never passed up an opportunity to give her a hug or slip her a little present, who talked to her and treated her like a real person.
“Do you love Carl?” Vicky said with a sour face. Apparently she’d given up on an answer to her previous question and was trying a new one.
“No. We haven’t known each other that long.”
“He’s really very nice. You just have to get to know him.”
“Yucks, Mom. Yuck-o.”
Gia laughed and tugged on Vicky’s pigtails. Carl acted like any man unfamiliar with children. He was uncomfortable with Vicky; when he wasn’t stiff, he was condescending. He’d been unable to break the ice, but he was trying.
Carl was an account exec at TBWA\Chiat\Day. Bright, witty, sophisticated. A civilized man. Not like Jack. Not at all like Jack. They’d met at the agency when she’d delivered some art for one of his accounts. Phone calls, flowers, dinners had followed. Something was developing. Certainly not love yet, but a nice relationship. Carl was what they called a “good catch.” Gia didn’t like to think of a man that way; it made her feel predatory, and she wasn’t hunting. Both Richard and Jack, the only two men in the last ten years of her life, had deeply disappointed her. So she was keeping Carl at arm’s length for now.
Yet … there were certain things to be considered. With Richard out of touch for over a year now, money was a constant problem. Gia didn’t want alimony, but some child support now and then would help. Richard had sent a few checks after running back to England—drawn in British pounds just to make things more difficult for her. Not that he had any financial problems—he controlled one-third of the Westphalen fortune. He was most definitely what those who evaluated such things would consider a “good catch.” But as she’d found out soon after their marriage, Richard had a long history of impulsive and irresponsible behavior. He’d disappeared late last year. No one knew where he’d gone, but no one was worried. It wasn’t the first time he’d decided on a whim to take off without a word to anyone.
And so Gia did the best she could. Good freelance work for a commercial artist was hard to find on a steady basis, but she managed. Carl was seeing to it that she got assignments from his accounts, and she appreciated that, though it worried her. She didn’t want any of her decisions about their relationship to be influenced by economics.
But she needed those jobs. Freelance work was the only way she could be a breadwinner and a mother and father to Vicky—and do it right. She wanted to be home when Vicky got in from school. She wanted Vicky to know that even if her father had deserted her, her mother would always be there. But it wasn’t easy.
It always came down to money. She couldn’t think of anything in particular she wanted desperately to buy, nothing she really needed. She simply wanted enough so she could stop worrying about it all the time. Her day-to-day life would be enormously simplified by hitting the state lottery or having some rich uncle pass on and leave her fifty thousand or so. But there were no rich uncles waiting in the wings, and Gia didn’t have enough left over at the end of the week for lottery tickets. She was going to have to make it on her own.
She was not so naive as to think that every problem could be solved by money—look at Nellie, lonely and miserable now, unable to buy back her sister despite all her riches—but a windfall would certainly let Gia sleep better at night.
All of which reminded Gia that her rent was due. The bill had been waiting for her when she’d stopped back at the apartment yesterday. Staying here and keeping Nellie company was a pleasant change of scenery; it was posh, cool, comfortable. But it was keeping her from her work. Two assignments had deadlines coming up, and she needed those checks. Paying the rent now was going to drop her account to the danger level, but it had to be done.
Might as well find the checkbook and get it over with.
“Why don’t you go out to the playhouse,” she told Vicky.
“It’s dull out there, Mom.”
“I know. But they bought it especially for you, so why don’t you give it another try today. I’ll come out and play with you in a few minutes. Got to take care of some business first.”
Vicky brightened. “Okay! We’ll play Ms. Jelliroll. You can be Mr. Grape-grabber.”
“Sure.” Whatever would Vicky do without her Ms. Jelliroll doll?
Gia watched her race toward the rear of the house. Vicky loved to visit her aunts’ place, but she got lonely after a while. No one her age around here; all her friends were back at the apartment house.
She went upstairs to the guest bedroom on the third floor where she and Vicky had spent the last two nights. Maybe she could get some work done. She missed her art setup back in her apartment, but she’d brought a large sketchpad and had to get going on the Burger-Meister place mat.
Burger-Meister was a McDonald’s clone and a new client for Carl. The company had been regional in the south but was preparing to go national in a big way. They had the usual assortment of burgers, including their own answer to the Big Mac: the vaguely fascist-sounding Meister Burger. But what set them apart were their desserts. They put a lot of effort into offering a wide array of pastries—eclairs, napoleons, cream puffs, and the like.
Gia’s assignment was to come up with the art for a paper place mat to line the trays patrons used to carry food to the tables. The copywriter had decided the sheet should extol and catalog all the quick and wonderful services Burger-Meister offered. The art director had blocked it out: Around the edges would be scenes of children laughing, running, swinging and sliding in the mini-playground, cars full of happy people threading the drive-thru, children celebrating birthdays in the special party room, all revolving around that jolly, official-looking fellow, Mr. Burger-Meister.
Something about this approach struck Gia as wrong. There were missed opportunities here. This was a place mat. That meant the person looking at it was already in the Burger-Meister and had already ordered a meal. She saw no further need for a come-on. Why not tempt them with some of the goodies on the dessert list? Show them pictures of sundaes and cookies and eclairs and cream puffs. Get the kids howling for dessert. It was a good idea, and it excited her.
You’re a rat, Gia. Ten years ago this never would have crossed your mind. And if it had you’d have been horrified.
But she was not that same girl from Ottumwa who had arrived in the Big City fresh out of art school and looking for work. Since then she’d been married to a crumb and in love with a killer.
She began sketching desserts.
After an hour of work, she took a break. Now that she was rolling on the Burger-Meister job, she didn’t feel too bad about paying the rent. She pulled the checkbook out of her purse but could not find the bill. It had been on the dresser this morning and now it was gone.
Gia went to the top of the stairs and called down.
“Eunice! Did you see an envelope on my dresser this morning?”
“No, Mum,” came the faint reply.
That left only one possibility.
Nellie overheard the exchange between Gia and Eunice.
Here it comes, she thought, knowing that Gia would explode when she learned what Nellie had done with the rent bill.
A lovely girl, that Gia, but so hot-tempered. And so proud, unwilling to accept any financial aid, no matter how often it was offered. A most impractical attitude. And yet … if Gia had welcomed handouts, Nellie knew she would not be so anxious to offer them. Gia’s resistance to charity was like a red flag waving in Nellie’s face, making her all the more determined to find ways of helping.
Preparing herself for the storm, Nellie stepped out onto the landing below Gia.
“I saw it.”
“What happened to it?”
“I paid it.”
Gia’s jaw dropped. “You what?”
Nellie twisted her hands in a show of anxiety. “Don’t think I was snooping, dearie. I simply went in to make sure that Eunice was taking proper care of you, and I saw it sitting on the bureau. I was paying a few of my own bills this morning and so I just paid yours, too.”
Gia hurried down the stairs, pounding her hand on the banister as she approached.
“Nellie, you had no right!”
Nellie stood her ground. “Rubbish! I can spend my money any way I please.”
“The least you could have done was ask me first!”
“True,” Nellie said, trying her best to look contrite, “but as you know, I’m an old woman and frightfully forgetful.”
The statement had the desired effect: Gia’s frown wavered, fighting against a smile, then she broke into a laugh. “You’re about as forgetful as a computer!”
“Ah, dearie,” Nellie said, drawing to Gia’s side and putting an arm around her waist, “I know I’ve taken you away from your work by asking you to stay with me, and that puts a strain on your finances. But I so love having you and Victoria here.”
And I need you here, she thought. I couldn’t bear to stay alone with only Eunice for company. I would surely go mad with grief and worry.
“Especially Victoria—I daresay she’s the only decent thing that nephew of mine has ever done in his entire life. She’s such a dear; I can’t quite believe Richard had anything to do with her.”
“Well, he doesn’t have much to do with her anymore. And if I have my way, he’ll never have anything to do with her again.”
Too much talk of her nephew Richard made Nellie uncomfortable. The man was a lout, a blot on the Westphalen name.
“Just as well. By the way, I never told you, but last year I had my will changed to leave Victoria most of my holdings when I go.”
Nellie had expected objections and was ready for them:
“She’s a Westphalen—the last of the Westphalens unless Richard remarries and fathers another child, which I gravely doubt—and I want her to have a part of the Westphalen fortune, curse and all.”
How did that slip out? She hadn’t wanted to mention that.
“Only joking, love.”
Gia seemed to have a sudden weak spell. She leaned against Nellie.
“Nellie, I don’t know what to say except I hope it’s a long, long time before we see any of it.”
“So do I! But until then, please don’t begrudge me the pleasure of helping out once in a while. I have so much money and so few pleasures left in life. You and Victoria are two of them. Anything I can do to lighten your load—”
“I’m not a charity case, Nellie.”
“I heartily agree. You’re family”—she directed a stern expression at Gia—“even if you did go back to your maiden name. And as your aunt by marriage I claim the right to help out once in a while. Now that’s the last I want to hear of it!”
So saying, she kissed Gia on the cheek and marched back into her bedroom. But as soon as the door closed behind her, she felt her brave front crack. She stumbled across the room and sank onto the bed. She found it so much easier to bear the pain of Grace’s disappearance in the company of others—pretending to be composed and in control actually made her feel so. But when she had no one around to play-act for, she fell apart.
Oh, Grace, Grace, Grace. Where can you be? And how long can I live without you?
Her sister had been Nellie’s best friend ever since they had arrived in America. Her purse-lipped smile, her tittering laugh, the pleasure she took in their daily sherry before dinner, even her infuriating obsession with the regularity of her bowels; Nellie missed them all.
Despite all her foibles and uppity ways, she’s a dear soul and I need her back.
The thought of living on without Grace suddenly overwhelmed Nellie and she began to cry, quiet sobs that no one else would hear. She couldn’t let any of them—especially dear little Victoria—see her cry.
Jack didn’t feel like walking back across town, so he took a cab. The dark-skinned driver made a couple of heavily accented tries at small talk about the Mets but the terse, grunted replies from the back seat soon shut him up. Jack could not remember another time in his life when he had felt so low—not even after his mother’s death. He needed to talk to someone, and it wasn’t a cabby.
He had the hack drop him off at a little mom-and-pop on the corner west of his apartment: Nick’s Nook, an unappetizing place with New York City’s grime permanently embedded in the plate glass windows. Some of that grime seemed to have filtered through the glass and onto the grocery display items behind it. Faded dummy boxes of Tide, Cheerios, Gaines Burgers, and such had been there for years and probably would remain there for many more. Both Nick and his store needed a good scrubbing. His prices would shame an Exxon executive, but the Nook was handy, and baked goods were delivered fresh daily—at least he said they were.
Jack picked up an Entenmann’s crumb cake that didn’t look too dusty, checked the fresh date on the side and found it was good till next week.
“Going over to Abe’s, eh?” Nick said. He had three chins, one little one supported by two big ones, all in need of a shave.
“Yeah. Thought I’d bring the junky his fix.”
“Tell him I said ’lo.”
He walked over to Amsterdam Avenue and then down to the Isher Sports Shop. Here he knew he’d find Abe Grossman, friend and confidant for almost as long as he’d been Repairman Jack. In fact, Abe was one of the reasons Jack had moved into this neighborhood. Abe was the ultimate pessimist. No matter how dark things looked, Abe’s outlook was darker. He could make a drowning man feel lucky.
Jack glanced through the window. A balding, overweight man in his late fifties was alone inside, sitting on a stool behind the cash register, reading a paperback.
The store was too small for its stock. Bicycles hung from the ceiling; fishing rods, tennis racquets, and basketball hoops littered the walls while narrow aisles wound between pressing benches, hockey nets, scuba masks, soccer balls, and countless other weekend-making items hidden under or behind each other. Inventory was an annual nightmare.
“No customers?” Jack asked to the accompaniment of the bell that chimed when the door opened.
Abe peered over the half moons of his reading glasses. “None. And the census won’t be changed by your arrival, I’m sure.”
“Au contraire. I come with goodies in hand and money in pocket.”
“Did you—?” Abe peered over the counter at the white box with the blue lettering. “You did! Crumb?” His fingers did a come-hither waggle. “Come to Papa.”
Abe Grossman defined the concept of rotund. He carried way too much weight for a frame that fell short of five-eight. His graying hair had receded to the top of his head. His clothes never varied: black pants, short-sleeve white shirt, shiny black tie. The tie and shirt were a sort of scratch-and-sniff catalog of the food he’d eaten that day. As Jack neared the counter he spotted scrambled egg, mustard, and what could be either ketchup or spaghetti sauce.
Just then the door dinged as a big burly fellow in a dirty sleeveless undershirt came through.
“You got softballs? I need three, quick like.”
“Softballs we don’t have,” Abe said without looking up. His eyes never left the Entenmann’s box. “Hardballs neither.”
The guy made a face. “No softballs? What kinda sports store is that?”
“The kind that doesn’t have softballs.” Abe removed his glasses and gave the man a withering stare. “I should explain my inventory?”
The guy left, slamming the door behind him.
Jack pointed at a softball-laden shelf to his right. “You’ve got at least a dozen right there.”
He shrugged. “I know, but then this cake would be lonely while I dealt with him. An Entenmann’s crumb cake should never be lonely.”
Jack handed him the box. “You want me to leave you two alone?”
“Feh!” he said as he lifted the lid. “You really know how to hurt a guy.” He broke off a piece of cake and bit in heartily. “You know I’m on a diet.” Powdered sugar speckled his tie as he spoke.
“Yeah. I noticed.”
“I should lie? I’m on low carb—except for Entenmann’s. That’s a free food. All other carbs have to be counted, but Entenmann’s is ad lib.” He took another big bite and spoke around it. Crumb cake always made him manic. “Did I tell you I added a codicil to my will? I’ve decided that after I’m cremated my ashes should be buried in an Entenmann’s box. Or if I’m not cremated, it should be a white, glass-topped coffin with blue lettering on the side.” He held up the cake box. “Just like this. Either way, I should be interred on a grassy slope overlooking the Entenmann’s plant in Bay Shore.”
Jack tried to smile but it must have been a poor attempt. Abe stopped in mid-chew.
“What’s eating up your guderim?”
“Saw Gia today.”
“It’s over. Really over.”
“You didn’t know that?”
“I knew it but I didn’t believe it.” Jack forced himself to ask a question he wasn’t sure he wanted answered. “Am I crazy, Abe? Is there something wrong in my head for wanting to live this way? Is my pilot light flickering and I don’t know it?”
Without taking his eyes from Jack’s face, Abe put down his piece of cake and made a halfhearted attempt to brush off his front. He succeeded only in smearing the sugar specks on his tie into large white blotches.
“What did she do to you?”
“Opened my eyes, maybe. Sometimes it takes an outsider to make you see yourself as you really are.”
“And you see what?”
Jack took a deep breath. “A crazy man.”
“That’s what her eyes see. But what does she know? Does she know about Mr. Canelli? Does she know about your mother? Does she know how you came to where you are?”
“Nope. Didn’t wait to hear.”
“There! You see? She knows nothing! She understands nothing! And she’s closed her mind to you. Someone like that you don’t need.”
Abe rubbed a hand across his forehead, leaving a white smear.
“Nu? You’ve never been ditched?”
“Abe … I can’t remember ever feeling about anyone the way I feel about Gia. And she’s afraid of me!”
“Fear of the unknown. She doesn’t know you, so she’s afraid of you. I know all about you. Am I afraid?”
“Aren’t you? Ever?”
“Never!” He trotted back behind the counter and picked up a copy of the New York Post. Riffling through the pages he said, “Look—a five-year old beaten to death by his mother’s boyfriend! A guy with a straight razor slashed eight people in Times Square last night and then disappears into a subway! A headless, handless torso is found in a West Side hotel room! As a hit-and-run victim lies bleeding in the street, people run up to him, rob him, and then leave him there. I should be afraid of you?”
Jack shrugged, unconvinced. None of this would bring Gia back; it was what he was that had driven her away. He decided he wanted to do his business here and go home.
“I need something.”
“A slapper. Lead and leather.”
Abe nodded. “Ten ounces do?”
Abe locked the front door and hung the Back in a Few Minutes sign facing out through the glass. He passed Jack and led him toward the back where they stepped into a closet and closed the door after them. A push swung the rear wall of the closet away from them. Abe hit a light switch and they started down a worn stone stairway. As they moved, a neon sign flickered to life:
The Right to Buy Weapons Is the
Right to Be Free
Jack had often asked Abe why he’d placed a neon sign where advertising would do no good; Abe unfailingly replied that every good weapons shop should have such a sign.
“When you get right down to it, Jack,” Abe was saying, “what I think of you or what Gia thinks of you—will that matter much in the long run? No. Because a long run there won’t be.Everything’s falling apart. You know that. Not much time left before civilization collapses completely. Meshugge Islamics are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s going to start soon. The banks’ll start to go any day now. These people who think their savings are insured by the FDIC? Feh! Such a rude awakening they’ve got coming! Just wait till the first couple of banks go under and they find out the FDIC only has enough to cover a pupik’s worth of the deposits it’s supposed to be insuring. Panic you’ll see. And that’s when the government will crank up the printing presses to full speed to cover those deposits. Then runaway inflation just like Weimar Germany. Bushel baskets of—”
Jack cut him off. He knew the routine by heart.
“You’ve been telling me this for ten years, Abe. Economic ruin has been around the corner for a decade now. Where is it?”
“Coming, Jack. Coming. I’m glad my daughter’s full-grown and disinclined toward marriage and a family. I shudder at the thought that a child or a grandchild of mine should be growing up in the coming time.”
Jack thought of Vicky. “Full of good cheer as usual, aren’t you? The only man I know who lights up a room when he leaves.”
“A comedian he’s become. I’m only trying to open your eyes so you can take steps to protect yourself.”
“And what about you? You’ve got a bomb shelter somewhere in the sticks full of freeze-dried food?”
Abe shook his head. “I have a place, but built for a post-holocaust lifestyle I’m not. And I’m too old to learn.”
He flipped another wall switch at the bottom of the steps, bringing the ceiling lights to life.
The basement was as crowded as the upstairs, only there was no sporting equipment down here. The walls and floors were covered with every one-man weapon imaginable: switchblades, clubs, swords, brass knuckles, and a full array of firearms from derringers to bazookas.
Abe went over to a cardboard box and rummaged through it.
“You want a slapper or the braided kind?”
Abe tossed him something in a Ziploc bag. Jack removed it and hefted it in his hand. The sap, sometimes called a blackjack, was made of thin strips of leather woven around a lead weight; the weave tightened and tapered down to a firm handle that ended in a looped thong for the wrist. Jack fitted it on and tried a few short swings. The flexibility allowed him to get his wrist into the motion, a feature that might come in handy at close quarters.
He stood looking at the sap.
This was the sort of thing that had frightened Gia off. He swung it once more, harder, striking the edge of a wooden shipping crate: a loud crack; splinters flew.
“This’ll do fine. How much?”
Jack reached into his pocket. “Used to be fifteen.”
“That was years ago. A lifetime one of these should last.”
“I lose things.” He handed over a twenty-dollar bill and put the sap into his pocket.
“Need anything else while we’re down here?”
Jack ran a mental inventory of his weapons and ammunition. “No. I’m pretty well set.”
“Good. Then let’s go upstairs and we’ll have some cake and talk. You look like you need some talk.”
“Thanks, Abe,” Jack said, leading the way upstairs, “but I’ve got some errands to run before dark, so I’ll take a rain check.”
“You hold things in too much. I’ve told you that before. We’re supposed to be friends. So talk it out. You don’t trust me anymore?”
“I trust you like crazy. It’s just…”
“See you, Abe.”
It was after six when Jack got back to the apartment. With all the shades pulled, the dark front room matched his mood.
He had checked in with his office; no calls of any importance waiting for him. The answering machine here had no messages waiting.
He had a two-wheel, wire shopping cart with him, and in it a paper bag full of old clothing—woman’s clothing. He leaned the cart in a corner, then stripped down and got into a T-shirt and shorts. Time for his workout. He didn’t want to—he felt emotionally and physically spent—but this was the only thing in his daily routine he’d promised himself he would never let slide. His life depended on it.
He locked his apartment and jogged up the stairs.
The sun had done its worst and was on its way down the sky, but the roof remained an inferno. Its black surface would hold the day’s heat long into the night. Jack looked west into the haze that reddened the lowering sun. On a clear day you could see New Jersey over there. If you wanted to. Abe had once told him that if you died in sin your soul went to New Jersey.
The roof was crowded. Not with people, with things. Appleton’s tomato patch sat in the southeast corner; he had carried the topsoil up bag by fifty-pound bag. Harry Bok had a huge CB antenna in the northeast corner. Centrally located was the diesel generator everybody had pitched in to buy after the 2003 blackout; clustered along its north side like suckling piglets against their mama were a dozen two-gallon cans of number-one oil. And above it all, waving proudly from its slim two-inch pole, was Neil the Anarchist’s black flag.
Jack went over to the small wooden platform he’d built for himself and did some stretching exercises, then went into his routine. He did his push-ups and sit-ups, jumped rope, practiced his tae kwon do kicks and chops, always moving, never stopping, until his body was slick with sweat and his hair hung in limp wet strands about his face and neck.
He spun at footsteps behind him.
“Oh, Neil. Hi. Must be about that time.”
“Right you are.”
Neil went over to the pole and reverently lowered his black flag. He folded it neatly, tucked it under his arm, and headed for the steps, waving as he went. Jack leaned against the generator and shook his head. Odd for a man who despised all rules to be so punctual, yet you could set your watch by the comings and goings of Neil the Anarchist.
Back in the apartment, Jack stuck six frozen egg rolls in the microwave while he took a quick shower. With his hair still wet, he opened a jar of duck sauce and a can of Diet Pepsi, then sat down in the kitchen.
The apartment felt empty. It hadn’t seemed that way this morning, but it was too quiet now. He moved everything into the TV room. The big screen lit up in the middle of a comfy domestic scene with a husband, a wife, two kids and a dog. It reminded him of Sunday afternoons when Gia would bring Vicky over and he would hook up the Play-Station and teach the little girl how to shoot monsters or hunt for treasure. He remembered watching Gia putter about the apartment; he’d liked the way she moved, so efficient and bustling, like a person who got things done. He found that immensely appealing.
He couldn’t say the same about the homey show that now filled the screen. He quickly flipped around the dial and across the cable, finding everything from news to reruns to a bunch of couples two-stepping around hip-to-hip like a parade of Changs and Engs dancing to a country fiddler.
Definitely time for part two of Repairman Jack’s unofficial James Whale Festival. The triumph of Whale’s directorial career, Bride of Frankenstein, was ready to run.
“You think I’m mad. Perhaps I am. But listen, Henry Frankenstein. While you were digging in your graves, piecing together dead tiss-yoos, I, my dear pupil, went for my material to the source of life…”
Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Praetorius—the greatest performance of his career—was lecturing his former student. The movie was only half over, but it was time to go. He’d pick up where he left off before bedtime. Too bad. He loved this movie. Especially the score—Franz Waxman’s best ever. Who’d have thought that later on in his career the creator of such a majestic, stirring piece would wind up doing the incidental music for turkeys like Return to Peyton Place? Some people never get the recognition they deserve.
He pulled on a D12 T-shirt; next came the shoulder holster with the little Semmerling under his left arm; a loose short-sleeved shirt went over that, followed by a pair of cut-off jeans, and sneakers—no socks. By the time he had everything loaded in his mini-shopping cart and was ready to go, darkness had taken over the city.
He walked down Amsterdam Avenue to where Bahkti’s grandmother had been attacked last night, found a deserted alley, and slipped into the shadows. He hadn’t wanted to leave his apartment house in drag—his neighbors already considered him more than a little odd—and this was as good a dressing room as any place else.
First he took off his outer shirt. Then he reached into the bag and pulled out the dress—good quality but out of fashion and in need of ironing. That went over the T-shirt and shoulder holster, followed by a gray wig, then black shoes with no heels. He didn’t want to look like a shopping-bag lady; a derelict had nothing to attract the man Jack was after. He wanted a look of faded dignity. New Yorkers see women like this all the time, in their late sixties on up toward eighty. They’re all the same. They trudge along, humped over not so much from a softening of the vertebrae as from the weight of life itself, their center of gravity thrust way forward, usually looking down, or if the head is raised, never looking anyone in the eye. The key word with them isalone. They make irresistible targets.
And Jack was going to be one of them tonight. As an added inducement, he slipped a good quality paste diamond ring onto the fourth finger of his left hand. He couldn’t let anyone get a close look at him, but he was sure the type of man he was searching for would spot the gleam from that ring a good two blocks away. And as a back-up attraction: a fat roll of bills, mostly singles, tight against his skin under one of the straps of his shoulder holster.
Jack put his sneakers and the sap into the paper bag in the upper basket of the little shopping cart. He checked himself in a store window: Well, he’d never make it as a transvestite. Then he began a slow course along the sidewalk, dragging the cart behind him.
Time to go to work.
Gia found herself thinking of Jack and resented it. She sat across a tiny dinner table from Carl, a handsome, urbane, witty, intelligent man who professed to be quite taken with her. They were in an expensive little restaurant below street level on the Upper East Side. The decor was spare and clean, the wine white, dry, cold, the cuisine nouvelle. Jack should have been miles from her thoughts, and yet he was here, slouched across the table between them.
She kept remembering the sound of his voice on the answering machine this morning … “Pinocchio Productions. I’m not in right now”… triggering other memories further in the past …
Like the time she’d asked him why his answering machine always started off with “Pinocchio Productions” when there was no such company. “Sure there is,” he’d said, jumping up and spinning around. “Look: no strings.” She hadn’t understood all the implications at the time.
And then to learn that among the “neat stuff” he’d been picking up in secondhand stores was a whole collection of Vernon Grant art. She found out about that the day he gave Vicky a copy of Flibbity Gibbit. Gia had become familiar with Grant’s commercial work during her art school days—he was the creator of Kellogg’s Snap, Crackle, and Pop—and she swiped from him now and again when an assignment called for something elfin. She felt she’d found a truly kindred spirit upon discovering that Jack was a fan of Vernon Grant. And Vicky … Vicky treasuredFlibbity Gibbit and for a while her favorite expression had been “Wowie-kee-flowie!”
She straightened herself in her chair. Out, damned Jack! Out, I say! She had to start answering Carl in something more than monosyllables.
She told him her idea about changing the thrust of the Burger-Meister place mats from services to desserts. He was effusive in his praise, saying she should be a copywriter as well as an artist. That launched him onto the subject of the new campaign for his biggest client, Wee Folk Children’s Clothes. There was work in it for Gia and perhaps even a modeling gig for Vicky.
Poor Carl … he’d tried so hard to hit it off with Vicky tonight. As usual, he failed miserably. Some people never learn how to talk to kids. They turn up the volume and enunciate with extra care, as if talking to a partially deaf immigrant. They sound as if they’re reading lines somebody else wrote for them, or as if what they’re saying is really for the benefit of other adults listening and not just for the child. Kids sense that and turn off.
But Vicky hadn’t been turned off this afternoon. Jack knew how to talk to her. When he spoke it was to Vicky and to no one else. There was instant rapport between those two. Perhaps because there was a lot of little boy in Jack, a part of him that had never grown up. But if Jack was a little boy, he was a dangerous little boy. He—
Why did he keep creeping back into her thoughts? Jack is the past. Carl is the future. Concentrate on Carl!
She drained her wine and stared at Carl. Good old Carl. Gia held her glass out for more wine. She wanted lots of wine tonight.
His eye was killing him. He sat hunched in the dark recess of the doorway, glowering at the street. He’d probably have to spend the whole night here unless something came along soon.
The waiting was the worst part, man. The waiting and the hiding. Word was probably out to be on the lookout for a guy with a scratched eye. Which meant he couldn’t hit the street and go looking, and he hadn’t been in town long enough to find no one to crash with. So he had to sit here and wait for something to come to him.
All ’cause of that rotten bitch.
He fingered the gauze patch taped over his left eye and winced at the shock of pain from even the gentlest touch. Bitch! Damn near gouged his eye out last night. But he showed her. Fucking-ay right. Bounced her around good after that. And later on, in this very same doorway, when he’d gone through her wallet and found a grand total of seventeen bucks, and seen that the necklace was nothing but junk, he’d wanted to go back and do a tap dance on her head, but figured someone would’ve found her by then.
And then to top it all off, he’d had to spend most of the take on eye patches and ointment. He was worse off now than when he’d rolled the bitch.
He hoped she was hurting … hurting real good. He knew he was.
Should never have come east, man. He’d had to geese Detroit after losing it with a pry bar on that guy changing a tire out by the interstate. Easier to get lost here than someplace like, say, Saginaw. Bad part was he didn’t know nobody.
He leaned back and watched the street with his good eye. Some weird-looking old lady was hobbling by on shoes that looked too small for her, pulling a shopping basket behind her. Not much there. Ain’t worth the trouble of a closer look.
Who am I kidding? Jack thought. He’d been trudging up and down every West Side street. His back was killing him from walking hunched over. If the mugger had stayed in the neighborhood, Jack would have passed him by now.
Damn the heat and damn the dress and most of all damn the goddamn wig. I’ll never find this guy.
But it wasn’t only the futility of tonight’s quest that was getting to him. The afternoon had hit him hard.
Jack prided himself on being a man of few illusions. He believed in a balance of life and based that belief on Jack’s Law of Social Dynamics: For every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction. The reaction wasn’t necessarily automatic or inevitable; life wasn’t like thermodynamics. Sometimes the reaction had to be helped along. That was where Jack came into the picture. He was in the business of making some of those reactions happen. He liked to think of himself as a sort of catalyst.
Jack knew he was a violent man. He made no excuses for that. He’d come to terms with it. He’d hoped Gia could eventually come to understand it.
When Gia had left him he’d convinced himself that it was all a big misunderstanding, that all he needed was a chance to talk to her and everything would be straightened out, that it was just her Italian pigheadedness keeping them apart. Well, he’d had his chance this afternoon and it was obvious there was no hope of a common ground with Gia. She wanted no part of him.
He frightened her.
That was the hardest part to accept. He had scared her off. Not by wronging her or betraying her, but simply by letting her know the truth … by letting her know what Repairman Jack fixed, and how he went about his work, and what tools he used.
One of them was wrong. Until this afternoon it had been easy to believe that it was Gia. Not so easy tonight. He believed in Gia, believed in her sensitivity, her perceptiveness. And she found him repugnant.
A soul-numbing lethargy seeped through him.
What if she’s right? What if I am nothing more than a high-priced hoodlum who’s rationalized his way into believing he’s one of the good guys?
Jack shook himself. Self-doubt was a stranger to him. He wasn’t sure how to fight back. And he had to fight it. He wouldn’t change the way he lived; doubted he could if he wished to. He’d spent too long on the outside to find his way back in again—
Something about the guy sitting in the doorway he just passed … something about that face in the shadows that his unconscious had spotted in passing but had not yet sent up to his forebrain. Something …
Jack let go of the shopping basket handle. It clattered to the sidewalk. As he bent to pick it up, he glanced back at the doorway.
The guy was young with short blond hair—and had a white gauze patch over his left eye. Jack felt his heart notch up its tempo. This was almost too good to be true. Yet there he was, keeping back in the shadows, undoubtedly aware that his patch marked him. It had to be him. If not, it was one hell of a coincidence. Jack needed to be sure.
He picked up the cart and stood still for a moment, deciding his next move. Patch had noticed him, but seemed indifferent. Jack would have to change that.
With a cry of delight, he bent and pretended to pick something out from under the wheel of the cart. As he straightened, he turned his back to the street—but remained in full view of Patch, whom he pretended not to see—and dug inside the top of his dress. He removed the roll of bills, made sure Patch got a good look at its thickness, then pretended to wrap a new bill around it. He stuffed it back in his ersatz bra, and continued on his way.
About a hundred feet on, he stopped to adjust a shoe and took advantage of the moment to sneak a look behind: Patch was out of the shadows and following him down the street. Good. Now to arrange a rendezvous.
He removed the sap from the paper bag and slipped his wrist through the thong, then went on until he came to an alley. Without an apparent care in the world, he turned into it and let the darkness swallow him.
Jack had moved maybe two dozen feet down the littered path when he heard the sound he knew would come: quick, stealthy footsteps approaching from the rear. When the sound was almost upon him, he lurched to the left and flattened his back against the wall. A dark form hurtled by and fell sprawling over the cart.
Amid the clatter of metal and muttered curses, the figure scrambled to its feet and faced him. Jack felt truly alive now, reveling in the pulses of excitement crackling like bolts of lightning through his nervous system, anticipating one of the fringe benefits of his work—giving a dirtbag a taste of his own medicine.
Patch seemed hesitant. Unless he was very stupid, he must have realized that his prey had moved a bit too fast for an old lady. Jack did not want to spook him, so he made no move. He simply crouched against the alley wall and let out a high-pitched howl that would have put Una O’Connor to shame.
Patch jumped and glanced up and down the alley. “Hey! Shut up!”
Jack screamed again.
“Shut the fuck up!”
But Jack only crouched lower, gripped the handle of the sap tighter, and screamed once more.
“Awright, bitch!” Patch said through his teeth as he charged forward. “You asked for it.”
Jack heard the anticipation in his voice, could tell he liked beating up people who couldn’t fight back. As Patch loomed over him with raised fists, Jack straightened to his full height, bringing his left hand up from the floor. He caught Patch across the face with a hard, stinging, open-palmed slap that rocked him back on his heels.
Jack knew what would follow, so he’d been moving to his right even as he’d swung.
Sure enough, as soon as Patch regained his balance, he started for the street. He’d just made a big mistake and knew it. Probably thought he’d picked an undercover cop to roll. As he darted by on his way to freedom, Jack stepped in and swung the sap at Patch’s skull. Not a hard swing—a flick of the wrist, really—but it connected with a satisfying thunk. Patch’s body went slack but not before his reflexes had jerked him away from Jack. His momentum carried him head first into the far wall. He settled to the floor of the alley with a sigh.
Jack shucked off the wig and dress and got back into his sneakers, then he went over and nudged Patch with his foot. The creep groaned and rolled over. He appeared dazed, so Jack reached out with his free hand and shook him by the shoulder.
Without warning, Patch’s right arm whipped around, slashing at Jack with the four-inch blade protruding from his fist. Jack grabbed the wrist with one hand and poked at a spot behind Patch’s left ear, just below the mastoid. Patch grunted with pain. As Jack applied more and more pressure, he began flopping around like a fish on a hook. Finally he dropped the knife.
As Jack relaxed his hold, Patch made a leap to retrieve the knife. Jack had half expected this. The sap still hung from his wrist by its thong. He grabbed it and smashed it across the back of Patch’s hand, putting all of his wrist and a good deal of his forearm behind the blow. The crunch of bone was followed by a scream of pain.
“You broke it!” He rolled onto his belly and then back onto his side. “I’ll have your ass for this, pig!” He moaned and whined and swore incoherently, all the while cradling his injured hand.
“Pig?” Jack said in his softest voice. “No such luck, friend. This is personal.”
The moaning stopped. Patch peered through the darkness with his good eye, a worried look on his face. As he placed his good hand against the wall to prop himself up, Jack raised the sap for another blow.
“No fair, man!” He quickly withdrew the hand and lay down again. “No fair!”
“Fair?” Jack laughed as nastily as he could. “Were you going to be fair to the old lady you thought you’d trapped here? No rules in this alley, friend. Just you and me. And I’m here to getyou.”
He saw Patch’s eye widen; his tone echoed the fear in his face.
“Look, man. I don’t know what’s goin’ down here, but you got the wrong guy. I only came in from Michigan last week.”
“Not interested in last week, friend. Just last night … the old lady you rolled.”
“Hey, I didn’t roll no old lady! No way!” Patch flinched and whimpered as Jack raised the sap menacingly. “I swear to God, man! I swear!”
Jack had to admit the guy was good. Very convincing.
“I’ll help your memory a little: Her car broke down; she wore a heavy necklace that looked like silver and had two yellow stones in the middle; and she used her fingernails on your eye.” As he saw comprehension begin to dawn in Patch’s eye, he felt his anger climbing towards the danger point. “She wasn’t in the hospital yesterday, but she is today. And you put her there. She may kick off any time. And if she does, it’s your fault.”
“No, wait, man! Listen—”
He grabbed Patch by the hair at the top of his head and rapped his skull against the brick wall. “You listen! I want the necklace. Where’d you fence it?”
“Fence it? That piece of shit? I threw it away!”
“I don’t know!”
“Remember!” Jack rapped Patch’s head against the wall again for emphasis.
He kept seeing that frail old lady fading into the hospital bed, barely able to speak because of the beating she’d received at this creep’s hands. A dark place was opening up inside him.
He needed Patch conscious.
“Awright! Lemme think!”
Jack managed a slow, deep breath. Then another.
“Think. You’ve got thirty seconds.”
It didn’t take that long.
“I thought it was silver. But when I got it under a light I saw it wasn’t.”
“You want me to believe you didn’t even try to get a few bucks for it?”
“I … I didn’t like it.”
Jack hesitated, not sure of how to take that.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I didn’t like it, man. Something about it didn’t feel right. I just threw it in some bushes.”
“No bushes around here.”
Patch flinched. “Are too! Two blocks down!”
Jack yanked him to his feet. “Show me.”
Patch was right. Between West End and Twelfth Avenues, where Fifty-eighth Street slopes down toward the Hudson River, sat a small clump of privet hedge, the kind Jack had spent many a Saturday morning as a kid trimming in front of his parents’ home in Jersey.
With Patch lying face down on the pavement by his feet, Jack reached into the bushes. A little rummaging around among the gum wrappers, used tissues, decaying leaves, and other less easily identifiable refuse produced the necklace.
Jack looked at it as it gleamed dully in the glow from a nearby streetlight.
I’ve done it! Goddamnit, I’ve done it!
He hefted it in his palm. Heavy. Had to be uncomfortable to wear. Why did Kusum want it back so badly? As he held it in his hand he began to understand what Patch had said to him about it not feeling right. It didn’t feel right. He found it hard to describe the sensation more clearly than that.
Crazy, he thought. This thing’s nothing more than sculptured iron and a couple of topaz-like stones.
Yet he could barely resist the primitive urge to hurl the necklace across the street and run the other way.
“You gonna let me go now?” Patch said, rising to his feet.
His left hand was a dusky, mottled blue now, swollen to nearly twice its normal size. He cradled it gingerly against his chest.
Jack held up the necklace. “This is what you beat up an old lady for?” he said in a low voice, feeling the rage pushing toward the surface. “She’s all busted up in a hospital bed now because you wanted to rip this off, and then you threw it away.”
“Look, man!” Patch said, pointing his good hand at Jack. “You’ve got it wrong—”
Jack saw the hand gesturing in the air two feet in front of him and the rage suddenly exploded. Without warning, he swung the sap hard against Patch’s right hand. As before, crunch and a howl of pain.
As Patch sank to his knees, moaning, Jack walked past him back toward West End Avenue.
“Let’s see you roll an old lady now, tough guy.”
The darkness within him began to retreat. Without looking back, he started toward the more populated sections of town. The necklace tingled uncomfortably against the inside of his palm.
He wasn’t far from the hospital. He broke into a run. He wanted to be rid of this thing as soon as possible.
The end was near.
Kusum had sent the private duty nurse out into the hall and now stood alone at the head of the bed holding the withered hand in his. Anger had receded, as had frustration and bitterness. Not gone, simply tucked away until they would be needed, leaving a void within him.
The futility of it all. All those years of life canceled by a moment of viciousness.
He could not dredge up a shred of hope of seeing the necklace returned before the end. No one could find it in time, not even the highly recommended Repairman Jack. If it was in her karma to die without the necklace, then Kusum would have to accept it. At least he had the satisfaction of knowing he had done everything in his power to retrieve it.
A knock at the door. The private duty nurse stuck her head in. “Mr. Bahkti?”
He repressed the urge to scream. It would feel so good to scream at someone.
“I told you I wished to be alone in here.”
“I know. But there’s a man out here. He insisted I give you this.” She held out her hand. “Said you were expecting it.”
Kusum stepped toward the door. He could not imagine …
Something dangled from her hand. It looked like—it wasn’t possible!
He snatched the necklace from her fingers.
It’s true! It’s real! He found it!
Kusum wanted to sing out his joy, to dance with the startled nurse. Instead, he pushed her out the door and rushed to the bedside. The clasp was broken, so he wrapped the necklace about the throat of the nearly lifeless form there.
“It’s all right now!” he whispered in their native tongue. “You’re going to be all right!”
He stepped into the hall and saw the private duty nurse.
“Where is he?”
She pointed down the hall. “At the nursing station. He’s not even supposed to be on the floor, but he was very insistent.”
I’m sure he was. Kusum pointed toward the room. “See to her.”
Then he hurried down the hall.
He found Jack dressed in ragged shorts and mismatched shirts—he had seen better dressed stall attendants at the Calcutta bazaar—leaning against the counter at the nursing station, arguing with a burly head nurse who turned to Kusum as he approached.
“Mr. Bahkti, you are allowed on the floor because of your grandmother’s critical condition. But that doesn’t mean you can have your friends wandering in and out at all hours of the night!”
Kusum barely looked at her. “We will be but a minute. Go on about your business.”
He turned to Jack. He looked hot and tired and sweaty. Oh, for two arms to properly embrace this man, even though he probably smells like everyone else in this country of beef eaters. Certainly an extraordinary man. Thank Kali for extraordinary men, no matter what their race or dietary habits.
“I assume I made it in time?” Jack said.
“Yes. Just in time. She will be well now.”
The American’s brow furrowed. “It’s going to patch her up?”
“No, of course not. But knowing it has been returned will help her up here.” He tapped his forefinger against his temple. “For here is where all healing resides.”
“Sure,” Jack said, his expression hiding none of his skepticism. “Anything you say.”
“I suppose you wish the rest of your fee.”
Jack nodded. “Sounds good to me.”
He pulled the thick envelope from his tunic and thrust it at Jack. Despite his prior conviction of the impossibility of his ever seeing the stolen necklace again, Kusum had kept the packet with him as a gesture of hope and of faith in the goddess he prayed to.
“I wish it were more. I don’t know how to thank you enough. Words cannot express how much—”
“It’s okay,” Jack said quickly. Kusum’s outpouring of gratitude seemed to embarrass him.
Kusum, too, was taken aback by the intensity of the emotions within him. He had given up hope. He had asked this man, a stranger, to perform an impossible task, and it had been done! He detested emotional displays, but his customary control over his feelings had slipped since the nurse placed the necklace in his hand.
“Where did you find it?”
“I found the guy who stole it and convinced him to take me to it.”
Kusum felt his fist clench and the muscles at the back of his neck bunch involuntarily. “Did you kill him as I asked?”
Jack shook his head. “Nope. Told you I wouldn’t. But he won’t be punching out old ladies for some time. Don’t worry. He’s been paid back in kind. I fixed it.”
Kusum nodded silently, hiding the storm of hatred raging across his mind. Mere pain was not enough—not nearly enough. The man responsible here must pay with his life.
“Very well, Mr. Jack. My family and I owe you a debt of gratitude. If there is ever anything you need that is in my power to secure for you, any goal that is in my power to achieve, you have merely to ask. All efforts within the realm of human possibility”—he could not repress a smile here—“and perhaps even beyond, will be expended on your behalf.”
“Thank you,” Jack said with a smile and a slight bow. “I hope that won’t be necessary. I think I’ll be heading home now.”
“Yes. You look tired.”
But as Kusum studied him, he sensed more than mere physical fatigue. There was an inner pain that hadn’t been present this morning … a spiritual exhaustion. Was something fragmenting this man? He hoped not. That would be tragic. He wished he could ask, but did not feel he had the right.
He watched until the American had been swallowed by the elevator, then he returned to the room. The private duty nurse met him at the door.
“She seems to be rallying, Mr. Bahkti! Respirations are deeper, and her blood pressure’s up!”
“Excellent!” Nearly twenty-four hours of constant tension began to unravel within him. She would live. He was sure of it now. “Have you a safety pin?”
The nurse looked at him quizzically but went to her purse on the windowsill and produced one. Kusum used it as a clasp for the necklace, then turned to the nurse.
“This necklace is not to be removed for any reason whatsoever. Is that clear?”
The nurse nodded timidly. “Yes, sir. Quite clear.”
“I will be elsewhere in the hospital for a while,” he said, starting for the door. “If you should need me, have me paged.”
Kusum took the elevator down to the first floor and followed signs to the emergency room. He had learned that this was the only hospital serving the midtown West Side. Jack had hinted that he had injured the mugger’s hands. If he should seek medical care, it would be here.
He took a seat in the crowded waiting area of the emergency department. People of all sizes and colors brushed against him on their way in and out of the examining rooms, back and forth to the receptionist counter. He found the odors and the company distasteful, but intended to wait a few hours here. He was vaguely aware of the attention he drew but was used to it. A one-armed man dressing as he did in the company of Westerners soon became immune to curious stares. He ignored them. They were not worthy of his concern.
Less than half an hour later an injured man entered and grabbed Kusum’s attention. His left eye was patched and both his hands were swollen to twice their normal size.
No doubt. This was the one! Kusum barely restrained himself from leaping up and attacking the man. He seethed as he sat and watched a secretary in the reception booth begin to help him fill out the standard questionaire his useless hands could not.
A man who broke people with his hands had had his hands broken. Kusum relished the poetry of it.
He walked over and stood next to the man. As he leaned against the counter, looking as if he wished to ask the secretary a question, he glanced down at the form. Daniels, Ronald, 359 W. 53rd St.
Kusum stared at Ronald Daniels, who was too intent on hurrying the completion of the form to notice him. Between answers to the secretary’s questions, he whined about the pain in his hands. When asked about the circumstances of the injury, he said a jack had slipped while he had been changing a tire and his car had fallen on him.
Smiling, Kusum went back to his seat and waited. He saw Daniels led into an examining room, saw him wheeled out to x-ray in a chair, and then back to the examining room. After a long wait, Daniels was wheeled out again, this time with casts from the middle of his fingers up to his elbows. Kusum listened to him whining about the pain.
Another stroll over to the reception booth and Kusum learned that Mr. Daniels was being admitted overnight for observation. Kusum hid his annoyance. That would complicate matters. He had been hoping to catch up with him outside and deal with him personally. But he knew another way to settle his score with Ronald Daniels.
He returned to the private room and received a very favorable update from the amazed nurse.
“She’s doing wonderfully—even spoke to me a moment ago! Such spirit!”
“Thank you for your help, Miss Wiles,” Kusum said. “I don’t think we’ll be requiring your services any longer.”
“Have no fear: You shall be paid for the entire eight-hour shift.” He went to the windowsill, took her purse and handed it to her. “You’ve done a wonderful job. Thank you.”
Ignoring her confused protests, he guided her out the door and into the hall. As soon as he was sure she would not be returning out of some misguided sense of duty, he went to the bedside phone and dialed hospital information.
“I’d like to know the room number of a patient,” he said when the operator picked up. “His name is Ronald Daniels. He was just admitted through the emergency room.”
There was a pause, then: “Ronald Daniels is in 547C, North Wing.”
Kusum hung up and leaned back in the chair. How to go about this? He had seen where the doctors’ lounge was located. Perhaps he could find a scrub suit there that would enable him to move more freely about the hospital.
As he considered his options, he pulled a tiny glass vial from his pocket and removed the stopper. He sniffed the familiar herbal odor of the green liquid within, then resealed it.
Mr. Ronald Daniels was in pain. He had suffered for his transgression. But not enough. No, not nearly enough.
Ron jerked awake. He’d just been drifting off into sleep.
Goddamn that old bastard!
Every time he started to fall asleep, the old fart yelled.
Just my luck to get stuck in a ward with three geezers. He elbowed the call button. Where was that fucking nurse? He needed a shot.
The pain was a living thing, grinding Ron’s hands in its teeth and gnawing his arms all the way up to the shoulders. All he wanted to do was sleep, but the pain kept him awake. The pain and the oldest of his three ancient roommates, the one over by the window, the one the nurses called Tommy. Every so often, in between his foghorn snores, he’d let out a yell that would rattle the windows.
Ron hit the call button again with his elbow. Because both his arms were resting in slings suspended from an overhead bar, the nurses had fastened the button to one of the side rails. He’d asked them over and over for another pain shot, but they kept giving him the same old shit: “Sorry, Mr. Daniels, but the doctor left orders for a shot every four hours and no more. You’ll have to wait.”
Mr. Daniels … he could almost smile at that. His real name was Ronald Daniel Symes. Ron to his friends. He’d given the receptionist a phony name, a phony address, and told them his Blue Cross/Blue Shield card was at home in his wallet. And when they’d wanted to send him home, he’d told them how he lived alone and had no one to feed him or even help him open his apartment door.
They’d bought the whole package. So now he had a place to stay, three meals a day, air conditioning, and when it was all over, he’d skip out and they could take their bill and shove it.
Everything would be great if it wasn’t for the pain.
The pain and Tommy.
He hit the button again. Four hours had to be up. He needed that shot.
The door to the room swung open and someone came in. Not a nurse. It was a guy. But he was dressed in white. Maybe a male nurse. Shit! He didn’t need no faggot trying to give him a bed bath in the middle of the night.
But the guy only leaned over the bed and held out one of those tiny plastic medicine cups. Half an inch of colored liquid swirled in the bottom.
“For the pain.” The guy was dark and had some sort of accent.
“I want a shot, clown!”
“Not time yet for a shot. This will hold you until then.”
Ron let him tip the cup up to his lips. Funny tasting stuff. As he swallowed it, he noticed the guy’s left arm was missing. He pulled his head away.
“And listen,” he said, feeling a sudden urge to throw his weight around—after all, he was a patient here. “Tell them out there I don’t want no more cripples coming in here.”
In the darkness, Ron thought he detected a smile on the face above him.
“Certainly, Mr. Daniels. I shall see to it that your next attendant is quite sound of limb.”
“Good. Now take off, geek.”
Ron decided he liked being a patient. He could give orders and people had to listen. And why not? He was sick and—
If only he could order Tommy to stop.
The junk the geek’d given him didn’t seem to be helping his pain. Only thing to do was try to sleep.
He thought about that bastard cop who’d busted up his hands tonight. Said it was private, but Ron knew a pig when he saw one. Swore he’d find that sadist bastard even if he had to hang around every precinct house in New York until winter.
And then Ron would follow him home. He wouldn’t get back at him directly—Ron had a bad feeling about that guy and didn’t want to be around if he ever got real mad.
But maybe he had a wife and kids …
Ron lay there in a half doze for a good forty-five minutes planning what he’d do to get even with the pig. He was just tipping over the edge into a deep sleep, falling … finally falling …
Ron jerked violently in the bed, pulling his right arm out of the sling and knocking it against the side rail. A fiery blast of pain shot up to his shoulder. Tears squeezed out of his eyes as breath hissed noisily through his bared teeth.
When the pain dropped to a more tolerable level, he knew what he had to do.
That old fucker had to go.
Ron pulled his left arm out of its sling, then eased himself over the side. The floor was cold. He lifted his pillow between his two casts and padded over to Tommy’s bed. All he had to do was lay it over the old guy’s face and lean on it. A few minutes of that and poof, no more snores, no more yells, no more Tommy.
He saw something move outside the window as he passed by it. He looked closer. A shadow, like somebody’s head and shoulders. A big somebody.
But this was the fifth floor.
Had to be seeing things. That stuff in the cup must have been stronger than he thought. He bent closer to the window for a better look. What he saw there held him transfixed for a long, long heartbeat.
A face out of a nightmare, worse than all his nightmares combined. And those glowing yellow eyes …
A scream started in his throat as he lurched backward. But before it could reach his lips, a taloned, three-fingered hand smashed through the double pane and clamped savagely, unerringly, around his throat. The rough flesh was cool and damp, almost slimy, with a rotten stench. He caught a glimpse of smooth dark skin stretched over a long, lean, muscular arm leading out through the shattered glass to … what?
And then Ron felt excruciating pressure against his windpipe, crushing it closed against his spine with an explosive crunch! He arched his back and clawed at the imprisoning fingers, but they were like a steel collar. As he struggled vainly for air, his vision blurred. And then, with a smooth, almost casual motion, he felt himself yanked bodily through the window, felt the rest of the glass shatter with his passage, the shards either falling away or raking savagely at his flesh. He had one soul-numbing, moon-limned glimpse of his attacker before his oxygen-starved brain mercifully extinguished his vision.
And back in the room, after that final instant of crashing noise, all was quiet again. Two of the remaining patients, deep in chemical dreams, stirred in their beds and turned over.
Tommy, the closest to the window, shouted “Help me!” and then went back to snoring.
Copyright © 1984, 2004 by F. Paul Wilson
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