A detective’s search for a missing friend “careens ahead with the speed and promise of danger of the Indy 500” (The Washington Post Book World).
With a genius IQ, a past career as a circus acrobat, and a black belt in karate, criminology professor Dr. Robert Frederickson—better known as “Mongo the Magnificent”—has a decidedly unusual background for a private investigator. He also just so happens to be a dwarf.
Mongo’s friend and sensei, Veil Kendry, is pretty magnificent himself. A devoted martial arts instructor and extremely successful abstract artist, Veil single-handedly transformed his shady neighborhood in New York City’s Lower East Side into a safe haven from crime and corruption. But when Mongo enters Veil’s abandoned apartment and finds a bullet hole, a cryptic oil painting, and an envelope addressed to him containing $10,000, he starts to worry that Veil’s reputation as a vigilante has gotten him into the worst sort of trouble.
Determined to find his friend, Mongo attempts to rule out any enemies from Veil’s past—details of which Veil has never shared with him. But as he uncovers the shocking truth of Veil’s time in the Vietnam War—participating in dangerous CIA missions under the call sign “Archangel”—Mongo soon finds enemies aplenty, ones that will do anything to make sure the past remains a secret . . .
In addition to creating “the most engaging detective in decades,” author George C. Chesbro introduces the character of Veil Kendry, who would go on to have his own series (Library Journal).
Two Songs This Archangel Sings is the 5th book in the Mongo Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
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The man I was on my way to see had the odd but curiously appropriate first name of Veil. For the past six years he'd been one of the hottest painters on the fickle and volatile New York art scene and could presumably afford much better quarters than the loft he rented in a rotting, otherwise empty factory building in one of the roughest sections on the city's Lower East Side, but apparently simply preferred not to.
I'd known Veil Kendry for slightly more than eleven years, since a summer Sunday in 1977 when I'd been the first person to purchase one of his paintings from a sidewalk display at a Greenwich Village art fair; he'd looked exhausted and hungry, and had accepted my invitation to celebrate his first sale and the launching of his career as a professional artist with dinner later in the day. He'd come a long way since then, and I assumed that the painting I'd bought, now hanging on a wall in the living room of my apartment, had become quite valuable; I certainly couldn't afford anything he did now.
In addition to his career as an artist, Veil was also a kind of benign warlord and protector of his neighborhood, a roughly eight-square-block area he had transformed into an island of relative calm and safety within a surrounding polluted sea of street crime and violence. He spent a good deal of time walking night streets, and a few years before, during the course of a particularly hot and ugly summer, a grand total of nineteen unfortunates armed with assorted chains, knives, steel pipes, and guns had attempted to mug the solitary walker. Score: Veil Kendry — armed only with the fastest hands and feet I'd ever seen and awesome talents in the martial arts — nineteen, muggers zip. He'd pretty thoroughly maimed eighteen of the unfortunates, and the nineteenth had died when, running in a blind panic to escape Veil, he had collided with an equally unforgiving lamppost and crushed his skull.
Veil had the habit of unexpectedly emerging from the night when others, as well, were being mugged, or when a drug deal was being made, or when an abandoned building was being set up as a shooting gallery. Score, according to NYPD statistics: Veil Kendry twenty-seven; drug dealers, junkies, and muggers zip. Word gets around. Veil was a hero to his neighbors, not so beloved by the police, including my detective brother, who considered Veil a kind of pesky, unlicensed "street detective" and vigilante who'd managed to stay just beyond the reach of the law because his victims kept displaying the poor judgment to come at him with weapons, while he had never been known to use anything but his hands and feet. But then, Veil was utterly indifferent to what anyone thought of him; it showed in his style of painting, and in the way he lived his life. He was a man who sang his own songs, and I liked him very much.
In addition to being my friend, Veil was also my informal martial arts instructor — the best I had ever had — and workout partner. I held a black belt in karate — the result of excellent reflexes and coordination, countless hours of practice, and what Garth, with a malicious grin, always insisted was an insufferable tendency to overcompensate in virtually every area of my life. He was probably right. I'd enjoyed a full and most satisfying career as a circus headliner, and was now a criminology professor and private investigator. I liked to think that I had a few ditties of my own to sing.
Veil Kendry, to my knowledge, held no belts in any of the martial arts disciplines in which he was a consummate master. He never competed, and I had no idea where, or by whom, he had been trained. Indeed, by mutual agreement his life before he came to New York City was closed to me — and, I assumed, to anyone else who had not been a part of it. While Veil was a sensitive and gifted artist with a soft-spoken and gentle manner, he was also the most potentially lethal human being I had ever met, or heard of. The people who steered clear of his neighborhood agreed.
Still, even the toughest kid on a block doesn't leave the door to his building open when he lives in that part of New York, and I was filled with a vague sense of foreboding when I found it that way. Veil Kendry might be fearless, but he was neither stupid nor careless.
Our appointment had been for seven thirty, and I'd been ten minutes early. I'd rung the bell, waited. The intercom beside the bell had remained silent, and there had been no loud electronic buzz signaling that I should push open the door and go up. I'd rung again, keeping my finger on the button for a good ten seconds, then stepped back on the sidewalk and looked up. In the windows of the loft on the fourth floor of the otherwise gutted building the bright mix of fluorescent and mercury vapor lamps Veil used to light his huge loft when he was working burned like a blue-white luminescent banner of defiance in this dark, wounded block of abandoned and boarded-up storefronts and warehouses. Thinking that the bell might not be working, I'd shouted his name a couple of times, but the only response had been a slight, hollow echo of my voice in the long metal and stone canyon that was the street. Finally, in a casual gesture of frustration, I'd stepped forward and slapped the heel of my hand against the steel plate of the door. It had swung open on its well-oiled hinges. Not good.
The door opened into a small vestibule at the bottom of an elevator shaft. Here, too, the lights were on, and the large, rickety freight elevator was on the ground floor, its wooden gate raised. Four floors above, clearly visible through the steel and wood latticework that comprised the elevator shaft, the sliding steel door at the entrance to Veil's loft was wide open, bleeding heat into the winter that filled the rest of the building. The mercury vapor glow from inside the loft mixed with the paler light in the elevator shaft to create a kind of eerie aura similar to the ghostly white on white shadings that had become the signature effects in Veil's latest paintings.
"Veil?! It's Mongo! You up there?!"
There was no answer. I closed the door behind me, stepped into the elevator, and pulled down the gate. I pushed the UP button, rode the elevator to the open door of Veil's loft, and stepped in.
"Veil? You here?"
A quick check of his living quarters, behind a partition to the right of the entrance, showed me he wasn't there, and I went back out to the much larger work area. There was no sign of disturbance; the loft looked the way it always did, except for the fact that there was nobody in it.
The entire wall at the far end of the loft consisted of windows, approximately two feet square, rising to merge with a great skylight. Heavy drapes that Veil had installed and that were usually closed at night were open, and the light pushed back the night outside far enough for me to see the pitted bricks of the wall of the abandoned warehouse fifteen yards away, across a weed and refuse-choked alley.
To the left of the panel of windows was an area covered with mats where Veil and I worked out together. In addition, there were two punching and kicking bags suspended from the ceiling, a wooden box filled with martial arts weapons, and a target board used for practicing with throwing knives and the small razor-sharp, star-shaped blades called shuriken.
The rest of the loft was given over to the business of painting, and it looked like a scarred battlefield strewn with the multihued blood of alien creatures on some distant planet. A paint-spackled telephone was mounted on one of the three support columns rising from a turbulent sea of covered or coagulated paint pots, assorted palettes scattered over paint-encrusted tarpaulins, brushes of every size and shape soaking in jars of turpentine, hundreds of mauled tubes of oil paint, dozens of palette knives of various sizes. This tortured mess covered every square inch of space in the loft outside the workout and living quarters, and one wandered through it all carefully stepping — or jumping — from one dry area to what appeared to be another dry area, and hoping one guessed correctly.
What arose from this chaos was neatly arranged on one wall running the length of the loft, a sight that reminded me of nothing so much as tranquil clouds of mist floating out of, and over, the mouth of a live volcano. Like many artists in the eighties, Veil Kendry worked on a large scale; however, only a handful of people appreciated just how large a scale that was. I had never read nor heard of any other painter who worked the way Veil did, and only a privileged few who had been invited up to his loft had ever seen a "mother work," the overall conception of one of Veil's ideas, before the individual canvases that comprised it, sometimes as many as fifty, were removed at random from the wall, like pieces from a jigsaw puzzle, and sold individually, often over an extended period of time, by Viktor Raskolnikov, Veil's dealer.
The work-in-progress, an eerie seascape, was almost finished. Made up of thirty-six separate canvases, arranged nine across and four down, I found it hauntingly beautiful but also frightening, with suggestions of strange, toothy shapes lurking just beneath the surface of a too-calm sea. Thunderheads gathered on the horizon.
The art world considered Veil an abstract painter, and it was not surprising; while each canvas, each piece of the puzzle, was beautiful and seemed complete in itself, it gave no clue to the overall nature of the larger work. I found Veil's method fascinating.
Sliding the door closed behind me, I walked across the loft, set my gym bag down on the floor, and sat down on the mat to wait. My sense of unease, the conviction that something was wrong, was steadily increasing. It was, of course, possible that my friend had stepped out for a few minutes to get a quart of milk or something; the problem was that the nearest store open at this hour was six blocks away. I'd passed that store on my way, had not seen Veil in it, and had not passed him on my way. For six years, except when Veil or I was out of town, we had always met at seven thirty on Wednesday evening to work out together. I'd spoken to him on the phone the day before, and he had not indicated there had been any change in his plans. In any case, he would not have gone away and left his loft open with all the lights on.
Those burning lights were another problem. The complex system of mercury vapor and regular lighting in the loft was controlled by six different rheostats, and was varied depending upon what area of the loft Veil was working in at any particular time; I had never known him to have all the lights on at one time, since it would be inefficient and prohibitively expensive.
My watch read eight o'clock. Increasingly nervous, I rose from the mat, went to the central control box on the opposite wall, and shut off all the mercury vapor lamps. I forced myself to wait another half hour, then went to the telephone and the city directory hanging on a nail beside it. It took me fifteen minutes to call all the hospital emergency rooms in New York's five boroughs; Veil was not in any of them. Next I called Garth's apartment, but got no answer. Finally I called his precinct station house. I'd expected to get one of his colleagues and was surprised when Garth answered the phone himself.
"Hi, Mongo. What's up?" He sounded tired and out of sorts, as he had for some time. Things didn't seem to be right with Garth, either, and I was beginning to worry about him.
"How are you feeling, Garth?"
"How come you're working? I thought you were off for a couple of days."
"Big political doings, which means lots of forced overtime."
"What big political doings?"
"Where have you been for the past two days? Don't you read or listen to the news?"
"Uh-uh — at least not for the past week. With exam papers to grade and this lecture tomorrow to prepare for, I haven't had time to keep up with the outside world. What's cooking?"
"Shannon held a surprise press conference yesterday to announce that he's introducing the choices for his cabinet at a dinner at the Waldorf tonight. Coming to New York to do it, he says, is his way of showing his concern for the cities." Garth paused, laughed harshly. "Some concern. I wonder if the idiot realizes that his showing up here costs the city millions for police overtime and extra security precautions, not to mention traffic jams that take hours to unsnarl. I got called in to work the switchboard."
"I like Shannon," I said. "He's tough and realistic, and I think his head and heart are in the right place. He's not your average liberal, and I'll be interested in seeing what he does as president. I think he'll be the best we've had since Roosevelt, and I think he has the potential to be great."
"All politicians are worthless pricks," Garth said with unexpected vehemence and bitterness that surprised me and made me uncomfortable. "They're worse than useless, and you know it. They're eventually going to kill us all, and it doesn't make any difference whether it's the president of the United States or that new KGB creep in the Kremlin who starts the ball rolling for the last time. If Kevin Shannon, or any other politician, gives you a happy heart, it means you have a short memory."
"I don't have a short memory, Garth," I said quietly. "No matter what, you have to keep going."
"As if Valhalla had never happened? As if we didn't know what we know?"
"Yes. You have to have hope. Kevin Shannon gives me hope."
Another harsh laugh. "You'd have a different opinion of the man if you were trapped in a car anywhere in midtown Manhattan right now. Traffic's a nightmare."
"I didn't notice; I was on the subway. Who's in his cabinet?"
"Turn on the television at nine tonight and you'll find out the same time as everybody else in the nation. You know how Shannon likes his little dramas and surprises; he's worse than Johnson." Garth grunted, and then his voice became more mellow. "So much for my problems. What's your problem, Mongo?"
"I need a favor."
"That doesn't surprise me at all," Garth said dryly.
"I'm at Veil Kendry's place." I paused to allow Garth his obligatory, hostile grunt that came whenever I mentioned Veil, then continued: "I was supposed to meet him here at seven thirty for a karate workout; we do it every Wednesday night. He's not here."
Garth laughed without humor. "So? What do you want to do, file a complaint? He probably forgot."
"No. There's something wrong, Garth. When I got here, I found the loft open and all the lights on."
"Maybe he stepped out for a minute to get something."
"It's almost nine. I've been here an hour and a half, and I don't know how long he was gone before that. Besides, there's nothing around here to step out to."
"Kendry's a very spooky man, Mongo. What can I tell you?" "You can tell me if his name's on any of the arrest sheets. I've checked with the hospital emergency rooms, but he's not in any of those. I thought maybe he got into some law trouble."
"It wouldn't be the first time, and it wouldn't surprise me."
"It also wouldn't be the first time you guys rousted him."
"'Roust' is a pretty strong word, Mongo. Your buddy has a nasty habit of taking the law into his own hands."
"Only when the cop's hands are busy elsewhere, which is most of the time in this neighborhood. Just check it for me, will you, Garth? I know you're busy. I'll wait here, and you get back to me whenever you can."
"It's all right," Garth said grudgingly. "I've got a computer terminal here, and it won't take me that long. Hang on." Garth put me on hold, came back on the line a couple of minutes later. "Nothing, Mongo. Wherever Kendry is, it's not with cops."
"What about the other boroughs?"
"I checked the other boroughs."
"Yeah. Now go home and polish your lecture. I wouldn't want you to embarrass me tomorrow."
I hung up the receiver, then walked back to the windows. I pulled the drapes shut over the huge expanse of glass, then once again went back to the phone and called my answering service. There were no messages. There was a pad and pencil hanging next to the directory, and I wrote Veil a brief note explaining that it was me who had shut off the lights and pulled the drapes, and asking him to call me whenever he got in. Then I picked up my gym bag and walked to the exit. I pulled open the sliding door, started to step into the elevator — and stopped. I knew that even if I went home, it was doubtful whether I would sleep; I would be up all night worrying about Veil, waiting for the phone to ring, searching for answers to the questions that filled the loft.
Excerpted from "Two Songs This Archangel Sings"
Copyright © 2017 George C. Chesbro.
Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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