About the Author
Jeremiah Healy (1948–2014) was the creator of the John Cuddy mystery series and the author of several legal thrillers. A graduate of Rutgers College and Harvard Law School, Healy taught at the New England School of Law before becoming a novelist. He published his first novel, Blunt Darts, in 1984, introducing John Francis Cuddy, the Boston private eye who would become Healy’s best-known character.
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Act of God
By Jeremiah Healy
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Jeremiah Healy
All rights reserved.
Usually they call first. Clients, I mean. Seventy, maybe eighty percent of a private investigator's work comes in through law firms, and attorneys rarely do anything without an appointment. On top of that, almost always you're the one who has to visit their offices.
That Tuesday afternoon, though, the knock came before the telephone rang. I looked up from my desk, which had on it what I'd been able to gather about a teenaged runaway from Vermont. The pebbled-glass part of my door was still shaking against the wooden frame, the stenciled JOHN FRANCIS CUDDY, CONFIDENTIAL INVESTIGATIONS dancing a little. That was odd, too, because most folks will rap on the wood, not the glass.
When I said come in, they did.
A woman and a man, she entering as he held the door open for her. The man nearly had to nudge the woman across the threshold so he could come in, too, and close the door behind him. People are uncomfortable bringing their troubles to a stranger, but from the awkwardly polite way the two of them moved around each other, I got the impression they weren't used to being together, either.
The man said, "Mr. Cuddy?"
I stood up. "Yes?"
He cupped his right hand gently around the left elbow of the woman. "This is Pearl Rivkind, and I'm William Proft."
The woman said, "Mrs. Abraham Rivkind," as though she were both correcting him and reassuring herself.
To Rivkind, Proft said, "Sorry," in a voice more formal than sincere. Then he looked to me. "I wonder if we could have a few minutes of your time?"
It's a good idea to be wary of off-the-street business, but a bad idea to turn it away automatically.
I closed the file on the runaway and eased back down. "Please, take a seat."
My office has two client chairs that face my desk and two windows that overlook the Park Street subway station at the northeast corner of the Boston Common. Rivkind and Proft sat so that each was in line with one of the windows behind me.
Pearl Rivkind was barely five feet tall, even with high heels. Into her mid-fifties, she wore heavy makeup that did little to hide her age and nothing to hide a lantern jaw that would make Jay Leno wince. Her hair was tinted a few shades redder than brown and chopped stylishly short. The silk dress was stylish, too, and went with the warm, late June weather outside, but the clinging silk only accentuated a body that would have seemed dumpy in a bulky bathrobe. It was her eyes that caught you up close, though. Big and brown and deep, the whites were bloodshot and bulged with the irritation of someone who'd lately spent a lot of time crying.
William Proft was tall and lanky, taking a while to lower himself into the other chair. Thirtyish, his hair was sandy but balding front to back over a long face, hollow cheeks, and prominent lips that curled a little, a perpetual grin that you could grow tired of very quickly. He wore a seersucker jacket over a buttoned-down shirt and solid black tie. The jacket rode up on him as he finally got settled, as though he didn't usually wear one or didn't get to sit in it much. Up close, Proft's eyes caught you, too, but more like the guy at the next table in a restaurant who's constantly staring at the food on your plate to be sure he's ordered the best item on the menu.
I said, "How did you find me?"
Rivkind said, "My lawyer, he called around, got a recommendation on you."
"Is there some reason he didn't contact me himself?"
"Yeah," she said, leaning forward in her chair. "He doesn't think it's such a hot idea, my coming to see a private investigator. Neither does my son or anybody else, for that matter."
I was beginning to like Rivkind. She'd corrected Proft on the introductions, and she wasn't afraid to be direct with me.
Proft said, "Perhaps if I summarized our situation, you could get a sense of what's involved here."
I was beginning not to like Proft much, but I said, "Go ahead."
He crossed his right leg over the left, showing Hush Puppy shoes I hadn't noticed before. "Two weeks ago—that Thursday, actually, so almost three weeks now—Mrs. Rivkind's husband was brutally murdered during an attempted robbery at his furniture store. This past Saturday—three days ago—my sister, Darbra, who worked as a secretary at the store, came back from vacation and seems to have disappeared."
At his mention of the husband, I looked to Rivkind and nodded in sympathy. Her jaw came out a little more, but she nodded back.
To Proft, I said, "You have reason to think the two are related?"
"Frankly, no. But Mrs. Rivkind came to my pharmacy yesterday to have a prescription filled—"
"Sedative. My doctor, he said, 'Pearl, no matter what, you've got to sleep.'"
Proft took the interruption in stride. "She and I began talking about the, well, odd coincidence at best, and we thought it might make sense to consult someone like you."
"There a reason you didn't call first?"
They exchanged glances. Rivkind came back to me. "It seemed kind of hard to talk about over the phone." Her eyes drifted toward the window. "Kind of hard to talk about, period."
She said the last in a neutral way, like she'd had a lot of practice with the phrase over the last few weeks.
I said, "What exactly is it that you'd like me to do?"
Proft said, "Well, since Darbra's disappearance may be tied in with Mr. Rivkind's death, we thought you could investigate them together."
Rivkind said, "Kind of a package deal, right?"
I turned my chair to look out the window that shows the top of the State House over some shorter trees on the Common. The capitol dome was dedicated two hundred years ago, Paul Revere sheathing it in copper when the original wooden shingles fell off. Just after the Civil War, some gold leaf was applied. They regilded the thing every twenty years or so until 1942, when it was painted gray to protect us from German bombers or U-boats, nobody seems to be sure which. Now the most recent gold leaf from the late sixties is peeling so badly it should be replaced, but the new fiscally responsible governor who succeeded the old fiscally responsible governor doesn't think the quarter of a million needed would go over too well with state employees who haven't seen a pay raise in five years.
Proft said, "Mr. Cuddy?"
I shook my head and turned back to them. "Representing joint clients isn't a great idea."
"How come?" said Rivkind.
"First, it's tough to give equal time to each side of the problem."
She said, "You can't kind of ... use your own judgment on that?"
"Yes, but then there's the problem of conflicts."
Proft said, "What conflicts?"
"If the death and the disappearance have nothing to do with each other, then I'm wasting somebody's money looking into the other side of this. If the death and the disappearance are related, then it's possible, even likely, that I might find out something that helps one of you but hurts the other."
In the neutral voice, Rivkind said, "I don't think I can hurt worse than this. I hope not, anyway."
I didn't say anything.
Proft arched his shoulders forward in the chair. "Couldn't you work on our problems together until a conflict—what do they do, 'arise'?"
He said the last with the lips curling a little more than they had been.
Before I could answer him, Rivkind wrung her hands together, the four rings on her fingers clicking against one another. "I don't like saying this to a man I never met before, but I ... I don't know if I can go through this with another investigator."
I looked at her. The makeup was cracking over the muscles in her jaw and cheeks as she tensed them to keep from crying. The woman was doing what she thought was right, despite other people bumping her the other way.
I said, "How's this. Let me interview each of you separately. Then I'll maybe have a better take on whether it makes sense for me to go forward for both of you."
William Proft got up a good deal faster than he'd sat down. "Why don't you begin with Mrs. Rivkind, then? She's had her problem longer, and I can slip out for some coffee." At the door, he said, "Can I get either of you anything?"
I told him no, while the widow just waved a hand and bit on her lower lip.CHAPTER 2
As soon as the door closed behind Proft, Pearl Rivkind fumbled in her handbag for a tissue. She used it to dab at her eyes, once to the right one, once to the left, then again to the right before swiping it twice under her nose. Gripping the tissue in her left hand, she said, "I'm sorry."
"Don't be. There's nothing you have to apologize for."
She tried to nod. "What do you need to know from me?"
I brought a notepad to the center of my desk. "I can get the details from the police, but it would help if you could tell me a little more about what happened."
A better nod, resolute. "My Abe, he's part—he was partners in Value Furniture. It's a store down in the Leather District."
A small, commercial neighborhood lying between Chinatown and South Station. "Go ahead."
"It's a beautiful building, built a hundred years ago, back when they knew how to make them. He was working late on that Thursday—they stay open till eight, Thursdays—and somebody tried to rob him. They hit him ... they hit him over the head with the poker from the fireplace in his office. The bookkeeper found him, lying on the floor, all his blood ..."
I didn't want to push her. "What do the police say?"
A shrug and more work with the tissue. "They don't, except what I told you already. They figure somebody came in the store, hid somewhere till closing, then went to the office after the money."
"If the store was closed, how did the person get out?"
Another shrug. "Through the emergency door at the back. Beverly and the security guy heard the alarm go off."
"Beverly Swindell." Rivkind pronounced it "Swin-dell." A bleak smile. "First time I saw her name written down, I said to Abe, I said, 'Abe, you're hiring a bookkeeper with a name like 'swindle'?' He got a big kick out of that. Abe always loved my little jokes."
"Do you know the name of the security guard?"
Rivkind shook her head. "He was new. An Irish guy, big like you, only not here very long."
"In this country. He came over from Ireland, I don't know, like less than a year ago?"
"Have the police made much progress?"
"I don't know from murder, Mr. Cuddy. They tell me they're looking into things, what do I know to ask them? Nobody saw anything, and whoever it was just ran away."
I waited a minute. "What exactly is it you want me to do?"
A judicious nod this time. "After Abe ... died, I went through his bills. The charge stuff, you know? Joel offered to do it for me, but I thought I should ... get a handle on his debts, whatever."
"Joel's your son?"
"My ...? Oh, no. Joel's ... Joel was Abe's partner. Joel Bernstein. They worked in the furniture business for other people, then got together twenty years ago and bought out the owner of Value. Anyway, I'm going through Abe's papers, and there are ..." Rivkind made another couple of passes with the tissue. "There're these receipts and things for restaurants and bars, only like too many of them."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, Abe was a great boss, he took the people for drinks, dinner at this local place, Grgo's, you know it?"
The name came out "Gur-go's." "I don't think so."
"Well, you'd have to look good for it, he don't advertise much. I've only been there a couple, three times because we live in Sharon, it's easier to head up to Dedham, but all the people from the District eat at Grgo's. The thing is, though, there were too many receipts in Abe's papers from there and some bars and other restaurants I don't remember him ever mentioning to me."
I wasn't nuts about the direction this was taking. "Mrs. Rivkind—"
"I don't mean to interrupt, but would it be okay ... Is it still professional and all if you call me 'Pearl'?"
I looked at her, the big eyes brimming a little.
She said, "The last two weeks, I've been having everybody call me 'Mrs. Rivkind this' and 'Mrs. Rivkind that,' and it'd just be kind of nice to hear my first name from a man."
I leaned back. There was no come-on in what she said, just a sincere request. "Sure. And I'm John."
The tears stood down. "Thank you, John. Now, you were going to say what?"
"I was going to ask you what you thought the extra receipts meant?"
"I don't know what to think. If Abe didn't get ... dead, I never would have seen them, and he'd know that. He took care of all the bills, always did. But—it's not that we ... that I don't have the money to take care of them. It's just ... I don't understand them."
"Pearl, are you sure you want to?"
The jaw jutted. "You think he was having an affair on me."
"I'm just saying, are you sure you want to know?"
"John, my Abe and me were together thirty-one years. You get to know a man pretty well, thirty-one years of watching him get up and go to sleep and head for the bathroom. You ever married?"
I thought of Beth and said, "Once."
"Not long enough."
Rivkind looked at me. "Oh, John. She died, too?"
"A time ago. It ... passes, mostly."
The woman became almost animated, maybe distracted from her own grief by being concerned for someone else's. "Oh my God, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ..." Then Rivkind seemed to remember why she was in my office. "Anyway, I knew my Abe pretty well. The last couple of months, it was like ..." Rivkind turned her head, as though she were concerned about the State House dome, too. "This is very embarrassing to have to say."
"You don't have to tell me anything you don't want to."
Rivkind came back to me. "Abe and me, we always had a good marriage. I mean in ... in the bedroom. The last couple of months, though, it was like he didn't have his usual ... pep, you know what I mean?"
"I think so."
"I asked him, was he worried about work, he said no. I asked him, was it me, he said no. I already went through ... the change, five years ago, so I didn't think it could be that. I even bought some magazines said they had articles about men when they're older—don't get me wrong, Abe wasn't old, he was only fifty-seven—but these articles, they talked about 'testosterone' so I thought that might be it. I even asked him once...." Rivkind looked down toward her hands, maybe at the band and diamond on her left ring finger. "I said to him, I said, 'Abe, you being unfaithful to me?' and he said 'No,' and so I figured that was that."
"You see, my Abe, he never lied to me. Never, not once. He survived the camps, John, the Nazi camps. Buchenwald. To live you had to lie, every day, every way. He never, ever lied to me once during our marriage, John. He never lied to anybody. Ask his partner, Joel, ask our son, Larry. Everybody called him 'Honest Abe.' The store didn't already have a good name when they bought it, they would have changed it to 'Honest Abe's.' Believe me."
"Then I don't see what you want me to do."
Rivkind deflated a little. "I don't know, can you find out who killed him. It's so ... random. Joel, he said to me, 'An act of God, Pearl. An act of God, who can explain these things?' But maybe you can, and if you can, I want to know. I want to know who killed my Abe."
"Pearl, the police are a lot better at that sort of thing than a private investigator. They have the resources."
"Squads of detectives, laboratories, access to other criminals who might give the killer up to cut a better deal for themselves. I'd have to get awfully lucky."
"Okay then. Like I said, I don't know from murder, except what I see on TV. This kind of thing, it never ... touched me before. So you don't find out who killed my husband, I'd understand. But it seems to me there's one thing you can find out. You can find out did my Abe lie to me. You can find out, was he having an affair on me."
"Look, I know what you told us before, about your conflict thing. And I know if I was sitting where you are, I'd be worrying, 'Is this Darbra that one client wants me to find also the woman that my other client wants to know had an affair with her Abe?' Well, I don't care who the other woman is. I mean that now, and I'll mean it all the way through. I just want to know did my Abe lie to me, and I got to tell you, John, I don't think I can go through this with somebody else if you won't help me."
Pearl Rivkind crumpled what was left of the first tissue and dipped into her bag for another. With all the practice she'd probably had recently, she still didn't do it very well, and somehow that kind of persuaded me.
I said, "How was your coffee?"
Excerpted from Act of God by Jeremiah Healy. Copyright © 1995 Jeremiah Healy. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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