She brought me down with a two by four across the back of the knees. My head hit the doorjamb as I fell. Hard headed or not, I think I was a little dazed.
I was lying then on a black and white tile floor in the half dark of that vestibule and looking up at the mouth of a model 17, 9mm Glock semi-automatic, when I first heard that voice.
This is a single word, in common use, but has problematic spelling. When I write stories now I often just resort to familiar forms, like ‘What do you want?’ Rather than be accused of stereotyping or pandering. I was actually thinking about this while I was lying there only half conscious. I had spent the morning at my one room apartment over in Cambridge, writing and dealing with the grammatics—that’s my word for dramatic speech patterns–when Connie McGuire showed up and asked me to do him a favor. That meant he was going to screw with my regular schedule and put me on a job right away. He’s been doing that less lately so I didn’t complain. Just part of the job description. Besides, he’s short on cash because of the economy and I’m on salary anyway, so it doesn’t cost him extra to dump on me. I ran through a few more ‘grammatics’ in my head on the way over to the South End. I had to decide the way to go with the piece I was working on. It made a difference.
So there I was then, lying on my back with that little old lady staring down at me like a wrinkled kid in her pajamas. She was dressed in a loose grey sweatsuit and purple slippers. The half dark caught in the lines of her face and gave her eyes a fierce cast. My mind started to clear pretty fast.
“Your son sent me over. I’m from McGuire Security. He was supposed to call.”
Mrs. Vento has a very steady hand. The mouth of that Glock, maybe three feet from my head, didn’t waver a quarter inch the entire time I was studying the small black hole at the end.
Her eyes rolled. She has enormous eyes for such a small lady. She leaned the two by four against the wall by the door.
“Jesus. He would forget his head if he could. And just the kind of oaf Michael would hire. Big and stupid.”
I said, “Thank you.” Never argue with a gun, even if it’s in the hand of a skinny little old lady who could not be more than five feet tall.
She says, “You look like a thug.”
I say, “I’ve been told I look like a cop.”
She shrugs, “Same difference.” I was still lying on the floor at that point. I hadn’t slept well the night before and I was about to get comfortable but she added, “You can get up now.”
I say, “Thank you,” again.
Standing up, the height difference was more considerable. I’m six feet four, but I think it’s my over-all size that exaggerated the difference. I’m only hitting 230 these days. I’ve lost a little. Mrs. Vento could be a hundred pounds if she were wet. But still, she turned her head side to side to make a statement out of it.
“You can stand to lose a little weight, don’t you think?”
I answer, “Probably.”
She frowns, “How old are you?”
“53. How old are you?”
Mrs. Vento goes straight-face, like I had no class for asking. That was true, but I was feeling a little sore just then and didn’t feel restrained enough not to ask. She said, “Old enough to be your mother and then some. You need to lose about twenty pounds. Do you exercise?”
I admit, “As little as I can.”
She gives me a mother’s sigh, “It shows. I was down in my gym in the basement when you rang the bell. Follow me.”
The vestibule of the building had an ornate mahogany stairwell going up on the right, a small brass appointed elevator and a narrow hallway at the backside, and another unlit stairwell down on the left. I figure that was where she must have been when I used the keys Connie had given me and came in the door. She had not answered the bell and I had been warned she was elderly. I was looking up the stairs for an answer to my shout when she hit me. Now she disappeared into the dark on the left and I felt my way a bit more slowly behind her.
Her ‘gym’ was well appointed. Not counting the pipes and vents, the basement ceiling was over nine feet, and she’d installed a thick rubber mat, several benches, and an assortment of rigs on the wall. That kind of ceiling height in a basement is unusual for any building in that part of town and it gave me a clue as to the quality of the architecture and why she might be having problems, but I was going to let her explain all that. There was no sense in saying something just so she could correct me and tell me I was stupid again a second time.
She’d put her pistol away someplace I didn’t see and pointed with an empty hand to a door in a back wall.
“There’s a closet in there. You’ll find some clean sweats. Michael comes over sometimes to keep me company. He’s shorter than you are but he’s wider. Get dressed. I want to see what you can lift. I don’t want a bodyguard who’s weaker than I am.”
I said, “No thanks. You’ll have to take my word for it. You weigh a hundred pounds? I can lift you and carry you a couple of miles if I have to. But I hope it’s not necessary.”
She dismissed this with a flick of the wrist and says, “Do you have a gun? I don’t see a gun.”
I told her, “I don’t carry a gun. But I have one in the car. I can use it if I have to. But I–”
She interrupted me, “You hope you don’t have to. I got that. But you better carry a gun if you’re going to be around me.”
I was now aware of one of her primary characteristics. She is impatient. Her mind works faster than almost everyone else’s and that has probably gotten worse through the years. Putting up with the human race when they’re running at half-speed must be frustrating. Less than ten minutes after I’d met her I was hoping my brain would be as well greased as that when I was her age—so long as it did not require me to eat yogurt or bean sprouts and avoid caffeine, red meat, and ice cream. Or pasta.
Mrs. Vento says, “I should know your name, don’t you think.”
She smiles for the first time, “I won’t call you Huckleberry then.”
I say, “Good. I’ll make the time pass a little faster if you don’t.”
She answers, “What? You in a hurry? What do you have to do? Is Oprah on? The Price is Right?”
I figured this was her trying to irritate me as some sort of test. I smiled back.
She shrugged and sat down on a bench and put one slippered foot into a stirrup and started to work her right knee.
I decided it was my turn to ask questions.
“Are you here alone?”
She didn’t look up. “No.”
“Who else is here?”
“You are, stupid.”
I caught the look in her eye then. I was going to remember that. All those lines in that face made an easy map if I just kept track of the changes.
“No other tenants?”
“Not a one.”
I asked why.
She raises both eyebrows so that the wrinkles all go up double rainbow fashion. “Somebody wants me to put my property on the market. They want to buy it. I don’t want to sell.”
Some of this I knew from Connie, who had gotten the call from her son. He was a teacher at the high school in Newton where Connie’s kids used to go, but I wanted it from her.
I asked, “They’re trying to force the issue?”
She rested back. “My husband, Frank, died three years ago. Charlie Norris was at my door the day after the funeral with an offer. If you know him you know he’s a crass bastard. He offered me half what they were worth. I own the four buildings on this side all the way to the corner. My husband bought them way back in the 1950’s, for a song, during the Eisenhower recession. Norris offered me twelve million dollars. They’re worth at least twenty. I don’t know what he was thinking. I told him he was a dog and he should go sniff himself. Well,” She shrugged as if it was just the way life tended to be, “since then he’s chased out every one of my tenants with strange phone calls and flat tires and a few dead rats thrown up the stairwells. That kind of prank. And this last year he’s had another piece of excrement from his real estate company come by every month or so with a lower offer. He thinks I’m going to panic. He’s that stupid.”
I knew Charlie Norris. Of him, in any case. I had only met one of his middlemen. All that was not the matter though. The matter was Charlie Norris could get most anything he wanted. It was curious why he’d let something like this drag on.
Norris’ dad was an Irish punk who died in one of the Winter Hill gang wars back in the sixties. But his mother was Sicilian. I wondered if he had a soft spot for elderly Sicilian women.
Just for punctuation, I said, “Not a very nice fellow.”
She looked up to check out my own reaction and then added, “Now I think it’s him that’s going to panic. The state wants to build a new off-ramp from route 90. I can sell the property to the state for twelve million and walk away. Norris just wanted the place so he could move his prostitution and gambling business from around the corner. Property over there by the theatres is getting pricier. He thought he could sell out there and buy over here and still have change in his pocket. Now he sees a new opportunity. He has connections at the State House. He could get them to pay twice as much to him. For three years I’ve been telling him to stick his nose up his ass and now I think he’s the one about to panic. I’ve had Barton Security in here for most of that time, but now they’ve cancelled. The issue about the off ramp just hit committee up on Beacon Hill.” She smiled. “Mr. Norris is going crazy, I think.”
I say, “It won’t be a long trip then.”
She laughed out loud. All those wrinkles gathered at two neatly rounded and reddened cheeks and I could see right away she had all her own teeth. I was very impressed.
Then she says, “So you aren’t stupid. I’ll take that one back. But I’ll bet you’re an oaf. Can you dance?”
I wasn’t going to let her off on this one.
“Dancing is for little people who don’t have a lot of distance between themselves and the floor.”
That got her to laugh again, and then she adds, “But you are an oaf.”
All I knew in addition was that her only son was a math teacher in Newton who has a stomach, but not one for standing up to someone like Norris. She has one daughter. I knew nothing about the daughter.
She put her other foot in a stirrup and worked the left knee.
I ask, “So why don’t you transfer the property to a holding company—some kind of a real estate trust. At least separate yourself from the whole issue. Probably save you on taxes when the time comes anyway.”
“Does the financial advice cost extra?”
“Yes. You have to be more polite and stop hitting me.”
No smile. Just a straight stare with those enormous eyes.
She asks, “How’d you get to be so smart?”
I answer, “I listened to my mother.”
That broke the smile out again.
She tells me, “The trust part’s done. We started that process a few years before Frank died. But the real matter is the sale. When that should be done. Who should we sell it to? The State could take years even if Norris’ friends didn’t hold the measure up. In the meantime I’m paying over ten thousand dollars a month in taxes, the building next door needs a new roof, and I’ve got no income.”
Somehow, these were problems I would rather have than some others—Charlie Norris aside. When people already have money, their difficulties seem exaggerated, at least to themselves. Personally I was more used to pinching pennies to cover the monthly child support. And I had just discovered that I had a new landlord over at my place in Porter Square and they wanted to raise the rent. I was trying to write my great American novel every morning like I promised myself I would, instead of putting in extra hours with Connie to keep up with the bills, and it sort of skewered my take on anything else. If Charlie Norris got his way, Mrs. Vento would still have more money than I would ever see in a lifetime. But that’s none of my business, is it?
Now my next thought was all very premature on my part. I had no business mixing things up. But the fact is, whatever would likely happen with this place, it was going to take a year or two. That’s just the way things work in this city. An idea just hit me and I didn’t see why not. At least, not just then. In any case, I was tired of Cambridge.
So I said, “I can’t pay South End prices. I live over near Porter Square now. But if you give me a good rate, I’ll move over here. And I’ll bet I can find a couple others. It’s a nice location if the rent isn’t too high. But then at least you’d have some money coming back in. It’ll be easier to rent if there are others already here. And the people I know are the kind who’ll toss the rat back.”
Mrs. Vento stopped working that knee and leaned on the backrest again.
She said, “You don’t know me.”
I said, “Yeah, I do.”
How much better do you know anyone than the first time you meet them? That thought was rhetorical because I already knew my answer in this case.
She acted like she was thinking about all this, but I knew she was going to take me up on it from the first.
Then she said, “So, I’m supposed to give my boy Michael a gold star? We’ll have to wait and see.”
‘Bay Village’ is not really a part of the South End anymore, since they cut it off with the trench they dug for the Turnpike back in the 1960’s. In fact though, it is one of the oldest precincts, and the narrow streets date from the time when the ‘Back Bay’ was a swamp and Washington Street was the single high road out of town. Since the Turnpike was built, it has become a little too precious. This isolated nest of closely built brick townhouses and small apartment buildings is now a convenient neighborhood at the threshold of downtown Boston.
Mrs. Vento showed me around and I picked out a nice apartment at the back on the first floor, just behind the elevator of the same building she was living in. She was right above me on the second. With that done, I called up Connie and told him I needed a truck and then I called Burley.
Burley works out at a gym three times a week. He’s fifteen years younger than I am, and he never smoked. I let him do the heavy lifting. He’s been working for Connie in between acting gigs, which means mostly all the time, for months. He looks like a movie actor, but so far he’s only gotten local theater parts. There are a lot fewer prime parts for black guys than you might think. Then again you might not. In any case, I can’t keep up with him anymore. Besides that, his girlfriend has moved on again to New York with the production company she’s with. This means he has a lot of nervous energy to work out. I asked him to do me a favor. I got him to help me move all my crap.
He was on duty with Connie that night, but he was free until then. So by dark I had most everything piled at the center of the floor of my new apartment. It wasn’t much. Just one room again, but twice as big as my place in Cambridge, with an actual kitchenette. I could pull the curtain on my dirty dishes. Burley required pizza and beer and we were occupying my only two chairs when Mrs. Vento poked her head in. Burley got up. His gentlemanly instincts are better than mine. Given a slice and a bottle, my hands were full.
She sat right down. Her wrinkles seemed less composed.
“My son Michael called when you were out. He was upset. His wife Marcia called him at the school, in hysterics. Someone keyed his car and slashed one of the tires. Right in his own driveway. In broad daylight. Marcia saw them. She was home. They smiled at her. Of course they were gone by the time the police came.”
There were a number of thoughts that went through my head. But the first one was to keep a lid on all this for as long as possible. Panic would get nothing. Waiting was harder, but had the most potential.
After a moment, Burley said, “I’ll move in tomorrow.”
Mrs. Vento looked back at me. Like I might have a better answer.
I said, “Connie has some sweet equipment. Digital cameras. That kind of thing. He can put a few around. Here and at your son’s house. We could use some pictures of Norris’ guys. It could help, just so I know when one of them is coming up on me if nothing else. And the cops might be able to use them.”
Her face did not change.
I said, “There’s something else….What else?”
Mrs. Vento looked away as she spoke. “And my daughter called.”
I’m pretty sure Mrs. Vento was trying not to cry. That was something I did not expect.
I said, “I thought you hadn’t spoken to her since your husband died. But she called today? That couldn’t be coincidental.”
Mrs. Vento shook her head. “No….No. There are three names on the trust. Mine. My son’s. And Carlotta’s. Carlotta called Michael. He told her he’d spoken with Mr. McGuire about you coming in here to keep an eye on things. She told him he was stupid for siding with me and putting his family in danger.” Mrs. Vento looked up at me with an expression that was at least sympathetic with that assessment. “If she gets Michael to give in, they’ll be able to control the trust. And I think he’s having second thoughts.”
I asked, “Did your daughter call you?”
Mrs. Vento shook her head.
I was just getting mentally prepared to live in the South End for a while, close to everything worth being close to. I could eat dinner a couple times a week over at Jacob Wirth’s. I like their beer. I could probably cover half the jobs Connie threw at me just by walking, or a quick trolley from Arlington Street station. Suddenly having all that taken away again made me just a little grumpy.
I asked Burley to finish the pizza for me and I drove out to Newton to speak with Michael Vento.
Newton is pretty much all residential. Nice houses. Nice shrubs. Big trees. There is no overnight parking on the streets in Newton. Not a lot of cars on the street. Lots in driveways. Michael did not want me to come over but I insisted.
When I arrived, there was a car parked on the opposite side from his house, just past the corner. Not just a car. Someone was sitting inside.
I rang the doorbell and got the wide-eyed face of a kid in the side window within seconds. A dog barked at me from behind the door.
Michael Vento did not look as soft as his mother had portrayed him. He had a good comfortable gut. He seemed like a regular guy right from the start. His twelve year old boy was right on everything. His wife Marcia and his younger boy were off to her mother’s house for a convenient overnight visit.
The dog was a full sized black poodle. After we were introduced properly he turned out to be more of a pussy cat.
Pretty quick, Michael hit the only theme I was going to work on myself. Maybe he was not as quick as his mother, but I didn’t notice the difference.
He said “I don’t think I can be a hero on this. Whatever happens, the Commonwealth is going to take a big chunk of it anyway. I don’t want to just give in. But if it keeps escalating, I might have to. I don’t want Mom to get herself hurt. She has a temper, you know.” I had nothing to say to that. Then his voice took an edge, “They woke my sister Carlotta up this morning. Called her. I don’t even have her number, for Christ sake! I don’t know how they got it. Whoever it was wouldn’t say their name. They just said, ‘there was a lot of misery in holding out.’ She repeated that to me twice. She wanted to know what that meant. I couldn’t imagine. Then, when she went outside to go to work, all four tires on her car were flat. And her windshield was cracked.”
“Where does she live?”
“Up on the North Shore. In Ipswich…I didn’t even know that until she called! She cut all the strings when dad died. It’s a long story.”
“What does she do? She married?”
“No. Divorced. That’s part of all this. Mom hated her husband. He was a jerk. He likes to gamble. Now Carlotta’s selling real estate for a living. In this market. I can imagine she’s having lean times. And here comes an opportunity to get a real big fix if we sell that property.”
His boy, Robert, sat through most of our conversation without a word. That, in itself, was extraordinary. But the whole time I could feel his eyes on me and it was like having his grandmother there in the room.
Robert suddenly spoke up after his father had finished describing the situation with his aunt Carlotta.
“She’s not so bad. She’s just alone.”
This was a wise observation, under the circumstances. I thought there might be another angle on this. I asked the boy, “What do you think about your aunt? You like her?”
Robert shrugged. “Yeah. She just married the wrong guy, I guess. Her husband has problems.”
Michael interrupted, “They’re divorced now. That’s all over. She just seems to have gotten way too focused on money since the divorce.”
Follow the money. That was the rule. At least in most cases.
I told them both, “I don’t think Norris is insane. More than just vandalism right now is pretty unlikely. He has to see if he can get his own way at the lowest possible cost first, before he gets really mean. And for the time being, I think we can keep an eye on things and let them know we’re doing just that, so they get a little more careful about what they do.” I looked at Robert. “You wouldn’t go near someone in a car you didn’t know, would you?”
The kid smiles at me. He says, “Not unless they had some candy.”
I’m not good with sarcasm from twelve year olds. I’ve had my share of raising three girls and they all have wicked tongues for that kind of thing but I’ve never gotten used to it.
The dog had taken the spot on the couch next to me and had his muzzle in my lap.
I said, “Do you take the dog out for a walk at night?”
Michael nodded. “Usually.”
I said, “Don’t do that anymore. Not for now. At least not at night.”
The main point of my going over there was to see if Michael Vento was badly shaken. The answer was no. He was angry. I liked that. His wife’s worry was for the kids. That was fine too.
Before I left, I asked him about the car on the corner. He hadn’t noticed it. But he suggested it might be the cops. They had shown up immediately after Norris’s guys did their work and told him they would try to keep an eye on things themselves.
On the way out I stopped my car in the middle of the street to get a look at the fellow behind the wheel. I rolled down my window and said some gibberish to him. He rolled down his window and said, “What?”
It was not a cop. I took a picture of him with my cell phone. He let out a profanity that questioned my biological origins. Then I called the Newton Police and let them know about it and sent them a copy of the picture.
First thing in the morning I took a nice ride up to Ipswich. It was dark when I went out the door of my new apartment and I was a little tired. My mattress was still on the floor, but it was comfortable. I just wasn’t used to the night noises yet, and that would only come with time. I’m a light sleeper.
Not wanting to have my tires flattened, I had taken the precaution of parking my car in a garage over near the Boston Herald building and was still exhaling the fumes of urine from the bums who use the place as a toilet as I went over the Charlestown Bridge. I had not eaten and my stomach roiled. It was not a good start to the day. Traffic on Route One at that time of the morning is not a pleasure either. I got to Ipswich in a foul mood before eight and stopped in a café there. And suddenly everything changed.
Mist was rising up off the estuary. A pearl pink sky was opening up to a French blue. The smell of salt water is a fine clean thing in late spring. The cafe there had eggs and ham and homemade bread for toast. Life was good again.
Sometimes you cannot imagine the way people are going to look before you meet them. All the evidence is insufficient. When I went in the door to Argilla Real Estate I knew I was looking at Mrs. Vento’s daughter even though they had only one thing in common. The woman had short black hair tailored to the shape of her head like a cap. Very stylish. She was wearing a skirt that hugged actual curves. She was at least five and a half feet tall if I discounted the high heels–about as tall as her brother–but she had boobs, and she was very pretty. And it was all in the eyes.
She looked at me like I was going to attack her. The eyes widened. She took a firm grasp on a three-hole paper-punch at the edge of her desk.
I introduced myself and got a sneer in return.
“What a waste of money. If we sold out, we could all walk away with enough to live well for the rest of our lives. Who cares if Charlie Norris makes a killing? It’s his business. Not ours. What is she trying to prove?”
I was in a great mood now and not likely to be disturbed by someone who wanted to sell their soul to the devil for a buck. It was their soul, after all.
I said, “You know your mother far better than I ever will, Carlotta. It’s really her property. The Trust was just something to keep the State from taking it all in inheritances taxes. Without it you’d have gotten a lot less in any case. Whatever her reasons, why don’t you just let her do things her way?”
She sneered again. There was no color in her eyes but black. “You can call me Miss Vento. I go by my maiden name again, thank you. And all of that is none of your business.”
I kept a bit of my smile on. For some reason I was not ready to give up on this lady. I think I wanted to believe that Mrs. Vento had not totally failed to raise a daughter worthy of her.
“Miss Vento. I’m not interested in your business. But your mother has hired me to protect hers. That’s all I’m doing. Nothing more. And whatever your differences, I don’t think you want to see her suddenly dead. Which is exactly what she will be if all this plays out badly.”
Carlotta Vento straightened her backbone enough to project everything else forward.
“All she has to do is agree to sell the property. Then it’s done. Over. We can all go our own ways.”
I shrugged. “She won’t do that. She doesn’t want to be told what to do. I think you understand that much. But there’s more, isn’t there? Is there something about your father in all this?”
She gave me a flat-faced cold stare for stepping into territory that was not a public space.
I said, “I can’t. I’m just trying to do my job. You may not want my help, but you’re in some danger now as well. Or haven’t you noticed.”
She clinched a jaw. The jaw was something she had probably gotten from her father.
“Like I told Michael. It would all be over if she would just agree.”
“If it were just a matter of money, I am pretty sure your mother would give you enough to get by until this thing is resolved.”
I turned to leave.
A thought occurred to me. There was nothing to lose on the speculating. It just made sense.
I turned back. “It’s your husband, isn’t it? Your ex. He’s in debt to Norris, isn’t he?”
There was a time stop. One of those moments. Then she sat down. Her eyes were turned away.
I said, “You still love the guy, right? And he’s in over his head. Gambling? Right. That’s all this is. This is all about Norris taking advantage of your husband’s gambling habit. Right. And Norris probably let him run up a big tab for exactly this reason.” I gave that a second thought. She was just sitting now, looking out the window toward a field of new green salt hay. I raised the speculation. “You only divorced him because you wanted to separate him from the estate. That’s what this is all about. And your mother never liked him anyway. She wasn’t going to pay off his debts.”
I turned to go again, and then turned back a second time.
“You know, your husband is a bigger fool than just being sick with the gambling disease. He’s given you up in the bargain. How stupid can a guy be?”
I left on that note. I figured it would give her something to think about.
That afternoon I helped Burley move into the building next door. He was happy to be out of his parent’s house again. We brainstormed in the cab of the truck as we weeded through the traffic from Dorchester. We needed two more fools to take a spot in the other buildings. One I had in mind already, but I couldn’t tell Connie his number was up until the right moment. The fourth was still a mystery.
Connie has been living in the family beach house in Hull since the separation. He hates the commute. The house isn’t properly insulated for winter use and he’s forced to turn off the water whenever a deep freeze is coming. The stove sometimes backs up on him if a stiff sea breeze hits the flu and he’ll come into the office stinking of the wood pellets he uses to heat the place. Besides, he could rent the whole thing out in the summer months and make his money back and then some.
That afternoon Connie had Jim Lunz and one of his other technicians in, putting up camera’s and setting up equipment, so I figured it was the right time to go wandering. Mostly I just wanted to do some more brainstorming and that always seems to come easier when I’m moving around. I rounded up Burley and we walked over to Stuart Street and then around to Tremont through the theatre district. On the way we looked over Mr. Norris’s real estate holdings.
I asked Burley, “What happens when one of these theatre companies come into town with a show. Where do the actors stay?”
He was ahead of me before I finished the sentence, but he played with it. “Wherever they can. Anything that’s cheap. They room with friends. They do Craigslist. But it’s always a problem. Mostly a problem because they can never be sure of the length of the stay. Will the show be held over? Will it close early? It’s a pain in the ass. So you’ve got an idea, I take it.”
We talked about ways to get the word out. He suggested he could call his girl in New York. While we walked I called Mrs. Vento and talked it over with her. Theatre people were not her first choice for tenants–too transient–and she wanted to be charging a lot more in rent than I suggested. But then she was down to second choices. A more modest income was very much better than no income at all. The location was right. And actors are used to rats.
Our stroll was interrupted by a phone call from Becky. I had forgotten to tell her I had moved.
She says, “I was going to surprise you. You tell me I’m not spontaneous enough, and here I am standing at your door and your apartment is empty. I don’t think I’ve had such a sinking feeling in years. Where are you?”
I had about three hours before Burley needed to be at the job he was doing that night as a bodyguard for some Rocker at a club up by Fenway Park. It wasn’t really enough time, but it would have to do. I asked Burley to hang in with Mrs. Vento and I went on to Cambridge to mend fences.
Rebecca is very sensitive about time. She will murder one of her archeology students who doesn’t show up when they’re supposed to. If it’s three months in upstate New York excavating some colonial fort on the Mohawk River, that’s fine. It’s her job. If I go away for two days without telling her where I am, she’s upset. That’s the way it is. But it’s nice to be needed.
Besides, I hadn’t seen her in a week. I went almost directly to her apartment, but called in an order and picked up some Chinese food on the way to kill two birds, so to speak.
By the time I got back, Burley was at the front door of the building. I thought he was upset because I was a little late. That wasn’t the matter.
He gets very cool and casual when he wants. He said, “You missed the cops.”
“Why were they here?”
“Because of the break-in.”
“They came in through the back of the basement of the building on the corner. I think they were after some of Connie’s equipment. They get a piece of that and they can figure how to go around it. I bet they didn’t think it’d be working yet. Or if it was, that I’d be right here…Connie tried to call you first. Is your phone still turned off?”
It was. I hate to be disturbed at the wrong moment.
I switched it on and it rang in my hand. It was Mrs. Vento inviting me up for dinner. I could still taste the Chinese I had with Rebecca, but I figured it would be a good time to talk. Besides. I like Sicilian food better that Italian food and I love Italian food.
I washed my hands and went up.
Right off she says, “You missed the fun. I thought you were here to protect me.”
“I had other obligations. And Burley was here.”
“Yeah. How long did it take you to get that out of Burley?”
“Under a minute.”
Her apartment is four rooms, one at the back, one at the front, and two at the side. I came into the living room at the front and she had a table set for two over by the kitchen. Down low I could hear some old Rock and Roll, mostly Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison.
She says, “Did you eat?”
I say, “Yes.”
“Good. That’s what a little exercise will do for you.”
I did not want to discuss my recent exercise, and I was pretty sure she was working the double entendre anyway, so I just moved on.
I sat down on the side away from the kitchen. Never get in the way of food service if you can help it. I said, “This is going to get expensive if you intend to feed me as well.”
She said, “It already is. I’m the one paying for that equipment they tried to steal.”
I weighed that before saying anything more. She took some bread out of the oven. It smelled homemade.
I asked, “Are you still sure you want to hold out?”
There was no hesitation. “Positive. And don’t worry yourself about me. I just felt like cooking. It takes your mind off things. I’ll be letting your girl friend take care of your needs, food and otherwise.”
No smile. She just opened a decorative ceramic dish at the center of the table and through the steam I could see veal and some sort of green I didn’t recognize. The day had been a veritable feast from start to finish.
My cell phone rang in the dark. Because my mattress was still on the floor, I didn’t have far to reach. It was Peggy from McGuire Security. There was another break-in alarm signal. They had called the cops already.
“Where you are. Building three. On the roof.”
I use the same .38 that Connie gave me the day I agreed to go to work for him. It’s a nice little gun. Good enough for me. Since Mrs. Vento had told me to carry it with me I had taken the advice, but I usually remembered to pull it from the car when I locked up, anyway.
I got my pants on and went up the stairs barefoot.
Mrs. Vento’s door was locked. I went up to the third floor in the dark and paused to let my eyes adjust to the vague illumination from the skylight above. There was no sound at first, and then some stirring from below. I had managed to somehow awaken Mrs. Vento, even though I was trying to be quiet about it. Both doors on the apartments on the third floor were locked. I went up to the fourth. The doors there were locked as well. There is a red emergency sign on each floor that was blinding in the dark so I took it slowly as I went up the steps to the roof. That door was bolted.
At that point I looked down the stairwell and saw Mrs. Vento staring back. She was aiming her Glock right at my eye.
The cops finally came about fifteen minutes later. I had my shoes and shirt on by then. We went out the roof door together.
At one edge, there was a cement block with a rope attached. The rope was dangling toward the street below, but it was clear what had been done. It was simple harassment. The building across the alley was six floors high. Someone had gone to the roof there and swung the block over simply to see what effect it would have.
Mrs. Vento was standing by her door as we came down. She had a look in her eye that worried me. My dad used to get a stare like that on occasion. That was the time to stay out of his way. He would disappear into his workshop in the garage and not come out until it was over. Mom was always worried he might kill someone, but he never did—not that I know of.
Bright and early the next morning I call Connie. I woke him up actually. He was covering the job last night with Burley, which he shouldn’t be doing, of course, but he’s a cheap son of a gun and money has been that short. Besides, it’s an excuse not to sit in the office out on Morrissey Boulevard.
He’s not happy about being awakened. He says, “Don’t tell me the client is dead. Not before I’ve had my coffee.”
That’s as close to humor as Connie gets.
I say, “Not yet. I’ve got an idea.”
“Another idea, you mean.”
“Exactly. Have you made any new friends in the real estate business?”
“You mean since we blew off all that regular weekly income for keeping an eye on the marble in lobbies just so we could protect forty year old rock stars while we watch them score on chicks that should be doing their home work or washing the dinner dishes and watching American Idol on television at home.”
“Yeah. Since then.”
“No. I didn’t have friends like that even when we were still keeping an eye on slabs of marble for a living. What’s your idea?”
I told him. Basically I said, “We need a bigger fish.”
He comes right back at me, “You mean a ‘boat.’ When you are dealing with a shark, you need a bigger boat.”
I say “No. Wrong metaphor. I mean we need someone bigger than Norris to keep Norris in line. We can’t handle this.”
I had to bear in mind that Connie hadn’t had his coffee yet. There was about a minute of silence where I figure the main thing on his brain is wishing he had a cigarette. Then he says, “We want Cooper, Dodge. Private banking. The old guy there’s what’s left of ‘The Vault.’ All a bunch of Yankee stiffs. They own half the financial district.”
I asked, “Can you get me an appointment? This morning?”
Connie says, “I don’t know who their real estate man is. I’ll have to check.”
I say, “No. I can’t negotiate anything. I need a quick yes. See if you can get me in to see the old guy.”
Next I wake up Burley and tell him I’m going to need him to cover for me here with Mrs. Vento.
Then I showered, shaved and ate. I was on my second cup of coffee when Connie called back with some good news. Hale Cooper could see me between 9:45 and 10:00.
I was there a 9:40 and sat in a small waiting room that wasn’t any better than the one at my dentist’s office but without the magazines. The secretary who sat across a low partition was suspicious of me for no reason I could fathom. I took the book out of my pocket and started reading. I’m reading Washington Irving for the first time. I avoided him all the way through school and never thought of him again until I read George Borrow’s The Bible in Spain a few months ago—that for some background research on something I was writing–and the introduction mentioned Irving’s Alahambra. Suddenly I had a whole new author to read and I was right at the start of it. I settled in.
At 10:00 a tall, thin, fellow in a rumpled tweed jacket and corduroy pants that had probably never seen a crease but looked very comfortable was standing directly in front of me.
He says, ”What are you reading?”
I say, “The Alahambra.”
He says, “Good. I believe a great uncle of mine published that in the first edition. I’ve always intended to read it myself. Never enough time. What can I do for you?”
I stood and shook his hand and introduced myself, but we were still standing there in the waiting room and there were two or three other people there as well. He caught my discomfort, and guided me down a short hall. His office had one small window that faced an alley. On a single desk there was a 9 x 12 professional photograph of a beautiful woman in a spring dress somewhere that was probably not on this continent. The desk was cluttered. An old rotary phone sat to the side. Several shelves of law books were held in place by odd objects—a jar of pennies, a white rock, a rather large snow globe–behind him. The fluorescent light recessed in the low ceiling above our heads bleached the color from everything. I sat across the desk in a wooden chair without cushions.
He says, “What is it you need?”
It was only later that I discovered that this particular office was actually where Cooper, Dodge conducted a charitable trust and most visitors were there looking for a handout. I suppose I looked shabby enough myself to be in some need.
I told him about Mrs. Vento, the property, and the problem with Charlie Norris. He actually seemed very interested and peppered me with short questions along the way. At the end of it he shook his head.
“Fascinating. But what can we do?”
I went with the idea, plain and simple. “Take an ‘option to buy’ on the property. You don’t have to exercise it. Unless you want to. A best offer type of thing. Put it writing. That would lock Norris out. He would have no option in the matter. He would leave her alone. She’s seventy-five. She’ll sell it all eventually.”
Mr. Cooper sat back. Behind me was a map of downtown Boston. His eyes scanned the area of Mrs. Vento’s buildings.
“That’s rather funny, you know. My father owned property along there in the 1950’s. He sold it for some reason.”
I kept my trap shut and waited.
After a minute or so he said, “I turned seventy-six last year. Odd thing. Feels about the same as sixty-six.”
When I got back to the building with my news, Mrs. Vento was gone.
I called Burley. He didn’t answer either.
I knocked on her door. I knocked on his door. Nothing seemed amiss. But of course, it was. Burley should have called me if anything was going on. I called the McGuire office to check. There had been no alarm.
Maybe she went shopping and Burley went with her.
Maybe not. Their cell phones would not be off.
I think sitting in my room and waiting for an answer is not a good option, so I take a walk.
Charlie Norris’ office is on Harrison Avenue and I moved a little faster than usual. The sky had gone stone gray and the day grew colder, and I figured it was about time for it to rain on the whole deal. I had no idea what I was going to do.
A block away and I can already see Burley hanging in a doorway a couple of buildings over from Norris’ address. He doesn’t see me. I use my thumb to text him for fun. I can see him look at his phone. I can read his lips as he talks out loud at the air. He looks up, as I cross the street.
“Damn. I was hoping this would all be resolved before you got back. I don’t know where the hell she went.”
“How long ago?”
“Half an hour. A little less.”
I said, “We might as well go visiting.”
This was a funny moment. It reminded me of when Connie and I were kids in Hingham. We used to play ice hockey on an old mill pond that had a deep end. We played there a hundred times. No problem. But there was always one stupid kid that had to try the ice out there beyond where we had our markers. A puck would go awry. Tommy Steele would be the first to say, ‘I’ll get it.’ Like he had a button in his brain. We’d all yell, ‘Forgetaboutit.’ But Tommy couldn’t resist. We had to pull him out of the water at least four or five times. I have no idea if he’s alive today. But the thing was, you had a feeling right away when you were out on the ice. The hair on your neck would come alive. You knew where not to go.
The hair on my neck was yelling at me.
Norris’ building isn’t big. It’s a brick built for some well to do family in the 1890’s. It had probably been through a dozen different uses since. Where a wide oak front door should have been, there was now a cheap glass affair with an aluminum crossbar.
The entry hall has been turned into a narrow lobby, lined with paneling and with a single chair for somebody to sit and keep an eye on things. Right off I notice it’s a little dark before I see the glass from a light bulb and part of a cheap chandelier scattered on the floor in front of the elevator. The plaster rosette where the remains of the chandelier still dangled was chipped through the layers of paint to a white gash surrounding a small black hole. The fact that there is no guard there makes me look on the floor for something worse, but there is nothing else on the tile but the glass, and a puddle of what I thought was water.
I texted Connie and told him where we were. There is a directory on the wall that has Norris’ name on the third floor. The second floor is an import export company. The first floor is mostly occupied by an escort service which appears to be closed. It’s not quite noon, so I guess lunch time isn’t big for the escort business.
Burley and I took the stairs two at a time and as quietly as we could. We didn’t get beyond the second floor. We could hear her voice on the other side of the stair door marked with the name of the export company.
Now, it’s important to note here that I did not have my gun. Burley doesn’t carry one at all. We made a few judgments with this in mind.
I could hear her words. “Give me a reason I shouldn’t shoot your balls off?”
I opened the door right up, already talking while I did. “It isn’t necessary. Everything is taken care of.”
My big worry at first was that she might shoot me. By accident. Thankfully, she was not as out of control as I worried she was.
She let out a sigh.
It was the sigh of a mother who just found out her child had come home after being out all night. I’ve heard that one before.
She had the big gun held out there with both hands and Charlie Norris, in a blue suit and silver tie, was sitting at a desk with his hands on his head like a kid in kindergarten playing one of those games. Behind him, standing backed-up against a wall was the guard from the lobby with a dark pee stain on his pants leg. It was a picture.
Norris looked at me with the surprise on his face of finding something under a rock he didn’t expect. I thought he recognized me, and this one fact was a bother to me. You don’t want to be a known character in the universe of the likes of Charles Norris. Burley went around to the back of the desk by Norris and pulled a gun from the drawer. He emptied the shells on the floor.
There was another gun on the floor at Mrs. Vento’s feet. I said, “Sorry about the inconvenience,” to Norris and picked the other gun up and emptied it as well. Mrs. Vento just stood there, all five feet of her in a yellow rain coat and a red felt hat, as if everything were just as planned.
I check Norris a little more carefully. My first real chance. He is not a big fellow. He looked worried. Tired. He had caused a lot of people I knew a lot of worry over the years. In another world there was a better justice than this. But for now, this would do. I said, “You might as well give me your cell phones too. I’ll drop them all in the mail box on the corner.”
You never know who’s going to show up in a place like that, so the best thing for us to do then was to move along.
The walk back was time enough to tell Mrs. Vento about my meeting with Hale Cooper. The idea that he wanted an option to buy back for twelve million what his daddy had sold to her husband fifty years ago for less that fifty thousand seemed to entertain her enough to put a smile on her face. Good enough. I was just a little bit worried about Norris trying to get some retribution, but that’s another story. The only thing that happened right away was more grief for Norris. The United States Post Office may be on hard times, but they still get upset when their mail boxes are broken into, and one of Norris’ guys was arrested later that night trying to do just that. We got to read about it in the newspapers.