Elizabeth II

By Randy Fowler

ouisville, on the day of my arrival, was enjoying a respite from a treacherous and unyielding summer and from where I stood in the doorway of the bus station, winter was nowhere in sight. Leaves on nearby trees were swaying to a tune I couldn’t hear against a sky bluer than I remembered. The city that sought absolution for its past failings seemed to have achieved some kind of internal peace for the moment, ready to settle for what it had grown into, and the weather pled for clemency on its behalf.

I never intended to return. I grew up on the west side, in an area next to the Ohio River, officially labeled a toxic-waste site responsible for almost half of the county’s pollution. Nothing could have brought me back short of the news that my only son was missing. I had neglected him when he most needed a father, and now, in spite of my parole status in California, I couldn’t turn my back on him in a crunch.

I cased the area. Two patrol cars, one state and one metro, were parked at the curb. For a parolee, the slightest misgivings can give even a brain-dead Johnny Law probable cause, and my gut said they were looking for me.

To my left, a loud noise caught my attention. A fat man had dropped two of his bags with a thud. He wore a plaid shirt, two sizes too small, and Levi’s drawn tight below a belly that I feared might pop the buttons from his shirt, a sight I hoped to avoid. I hurried to help gather his things and returned his bag to its upright position.

“Why, thank you so much!” he said. “I don’t see a baggage handler around, do you?” He raised his eyebrows as he spoke, making it seem like a question.

I suggested he carry my lighter satchel along with his smallest bag, and I would help him get his other two over to the cab stand. He said his name was Ralph. “Just a short trip to visit my aging sister,” he said. “Only be here for three days. I live just outside Cincinnati, you know. I’m heading downtown to a reasonably priced Holiday Inn, willing to share a cab with you to split the expense. You interested?”

Luckily, I had found me a talker. A natural camouflage.

“My, my! This satchel feels like it’s empty,” he said.

I wasn’t about to tell him that a hundred fifty grand in hundred-dollar bills only weighs a little more than three pounds. Instead, I said, “A small gift for a relative.”

With my son missing, I had pulled together all my liquid assets in case of a ransom demand, and under the circumstances, it felt better having someone else carry all that cash as we walked past the police. Plausible deniability can sometimes create favorable confusion.

As soon as possible after hearing about my son, I jumped on a plane to Cincinnati. You can’t get to Louisville non-stop from the west coast unless you travel in a UPS box, but four hours from LA and you’re landing in Cincinnati, only ninety minutes from Louisville by bus. Besides, I thought the bus would let me sneak in without detection.

As we walked by, I dismissed the two local cops as rookies as they eyeballed the crowd from inside their car. I relaxed a bit as one of them stepped from his car and leaned against it to light a cigarette. He was eyeing a young woman in tight denims and a tank top. Humans are so fucking predictable.

One State Trooper, in summer-issue uniform of French gray trousers with a one-inch stripe, chukka high top shoes and short-sleeved shirt, his badge on the left side of his shirt spelling out Johnathon L. Clark, stood alertly next to the passenger side of his Ford Crown Victoria. He was looking over my head at the crowd of people shuffling along. I noticed badge number 635 as I walked past, smiling my usual, decoy smile, which caused him to look away rather than be bothered by some overly fawning civilian. He fiddled with his trooper hat as he gazed at his female partner who was fast approaching the car with two steaming cups in her hands.

At the taxi stand, I insisted my new friend take the first one in line, saying no to his offer to share a cab.

“Opportunity only knocks once,” he said.

And misfortune just barges right in. “Well, maybe I’ll ride with you as far as the Brown Hotel,” I said. It had suddenly occurred to me that it might be wise to get out of the area as quickly as possible.

The cab we approached had a typical Jefferson County taxi license plate, with the number 1843. I took my satchel from Ralph and placed it inside the cab, on the back-seat floor, and returned to the trunk to deal with his luggage. He didn’t offer to help. I fumbled with rearranging some miscellaneous crap the driver had stored in the trunk—like it never occurred to him that his next fare might have luggage—and began cramming Ralph’s bags inside. I finally got the damn lid closed, and when I looked up, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The back door—which I was sure I had closed—was open. I saw a man in a hoodie running down the street. He jumped into a waiting, nondescript black Chevy and was off.

“So, do you still want to go to the Brown?” the driver asked.

I said. “Yes, and could you please go slow; I’d like to see if we can spot that getaway car or the hooded guy.

“What hooded guy?” Ralph asked.

“You want me to what?” The driver was looking in the rearview mirror.

It was too much trouble to explain. Something I felt I wouldn’t have had to do in LA. Processing new information seems easier and faster on the west coast. Another reason I never wanted to return to my dear old home town.  I looked for the hooded little thief and his getaway Chevy as we drove but saw nothing. At the hotel, I handed Ralph twenty-five bucks, even though the meter said twelve.

I walked slowly through the entrance of the hotel and rode the escalator up to the lobby. I needed help, and there was only one person I still knew in town.

“This is Eddie Mayer,” I said to the woman who answered the phone. “Is Michael Barzini there?”

Michael’s greeting was a familiar welcome. “Hello,” he said. “I thought it might be you.”

“Sorry, Michael, but this is not the call you expected. I’ve run into even more trouble, and I need your help sooner than I thought.”

“When you called from Cincinnati, I put out some feelers on your son. Nothing yet, if that is what is on your mind,” he said.

“Nothing…you heard nothing?” I asked.

“No. These things are sometimes hard to ferret out,” he said. “Maybe we get word soon.”

“Well, I’ve got another problem that I don’t want to discuss over the phone. Can we get together?” I asked. “Do you still live downtown in that great place over on Third?”

“Yes, I am pleased to say,” he said. “Where are you presently?”

“I’m on Fourth. Only a few blocks away. It would only take a few minutes for me to get there, if you’re up for it.”

“I will come to you. Where will I find you?”

“There’s a café on Fourth, a half block from Broadway, close to the Brown Hotel.”

I took a table on the sidewalk at the café—trying to imagine where my satchel might be, and whether the snatcher had yet discovered what was in it—and ordered a coffee.

When we first met, Michael was a curly-haired, nerdy kid. He was often doing something technical, like building a radar detector for measuring the speed of passing cars just for the hell of it, and I was constantly in trouble with the authorities. I was fifteen; he was thirteen, almost fourteen. We immediately disliked each other, but over time that changed, and we began running together, off and on.

When he developed a gambling problem, we somehow grew closer. Overnight, he discovered hard times, and getting in trouble was an affliction I knew something about. I guess I’m drawn to people with flaws, having firsthand knowledge with personality defects. We were more often in trouble than not, and on a couple of occasions, we found ourselves cellmates in the county jail. When I left Kentucky for California, he was in a medium-security correctional institute in eastern Kentucky for running an illegal (and crooked) casino.

Michael arrived as the waiter poured my third cup. I told him about my ordeal at the bus station.

“That doesn’t sound like you. How much were you carrying?” he asked.

“A hundred fifty large,” I said.

“That’s a sizable amount. Was it yours?” he asked.

“Unfortunately, yes,” I said. “I should tell you I jumped parole to get here.”

“Ah ha, ah ha. So what is the plan now?”

“Well, I guess I’ll register at the Brown and then get started. I have to find William, but I admit I don’t know where to start. Don’t have a clue how to go about getting my money back. I was hoping you could help with that. I don’t have your connections.”

I looked for a response. No reaction to being categorized as to being connected would mean he still was. I had picked the right guy.

“I have lost track of many of the people we used to know. Things change and memory plays tricks when you have been away so long, but I will do what I can” he said. “However. you will not be checking into any hotel. You will stay with me, at least until we get the lay of the land. We will try to figure out what we’re dealing with and go from there.”

***

I met Meredith when I was twenty-three and she was twenty. I had just been recently released from county jail where I had been held awaiting trial for larceny. She married me for the danger she sensed when we first met and divorced me for the same reason. Skirting the edge and defying the establishment was fun at first. We were both wild and unsettled, filled with boundless energy and iconoclastic views.

Then the baby came, and Meredith wouldn’t leave the house. She was obsessed with taking care of our son. She nagged me constantly about my lack of responsibility. A real man would be out looking for a job that paid a salary. She resented me and my activities more and more; I had lost my partner and began to resent the boy for the imposition. Her attorney telling the divorce court we had grown apart was like calling WWII a disagreement.

Meredith married her attorney two years after I left Kentucky. They moved to the outskirts of Louisville, on the east side, near St. Matthews, the other side of town from where I grew up in every aspect of the word. Her new husband changed jobs three years later to become an assistant commonwealth attorney—what everyone except Kentuckians call a DA—working somewhere in the bowels of state bureaucracy. Just the type Meredith and I had both spent our lives trying to avoid when we first were married.

I went to southern California. Working alone and realizing all the advantages of specialization, I found a niche that took advantage of my athleticism and limited the competition at the same time. My new job evolved organically, one step at a time. I became known as one of the best high-story men in the business, rising in a business that was declining. Others felt the work was dangerous and too hard. With my new work notoriety came, and with-it ego, I guess you would say.

At first I tried to keep in touch with William, our son, who worshiped me without reservation. His mother’s anger made me reluctant to keep it up, and as I called more infrequently, her tone softened a bit, and his interest faded. Her married name was now Young, but my son still used my last name—even today—which is the one thing I held on to as I phoned her.

“Meredith. It’s Eddie. Have you heard anything, like a ransom demand—or worse?”

“Who’s this, again?”

“C’mon, Meredith. Goddamnit, don’t fuck with me. This is serious.”

“You think I don’t know?”

“I take it you haven’t heard anything then,” I said.

“No, Shirley,” she said. “It’s not today. Tomorrow, at Mike Linning’s, out on Cane Run Road. You know, by the river, for lunch, around one. Remember?”

“I take it your dear beloved came into the room just now and you can’t talk, right?”

“Okay, I’ll see you there at lunch time then.”

I have always been so impressed with how instinctively and automatically she could pull off a common ruse. Except when it was on me, of course.

***

Staying in Michael’s house seemed natural at first; getting used to his habits was another matter. He amused himself with still-life oil painting for short periods of time, which drove me nuts. I wanted some action. When he went out with some of his buddies without saying a word, I was looking for news about my son or my money when he returned, but he said nothing.

“Any news, Michael?” I asked.

“Nothing yet,” he replied.

“Michael, I’m going crazy here. We’re not doing anything; nothing is happening. I can’t just sit around doing nothing. I have to take some action. My son is still missing, not to mention my money?”

“Nothing can be done at this point. Just relax,” Michael said. “I have a game with some influential friends tonight. Maybe I hear something. People brag, drink too much, maybe drop a hint about your son or that dough you lost—it was a big haul after all. You never know.”

“A poker game?” I asked. “What time will it be over?”

“Game starts tonight. Sometimes lasts a day or two, maybe less, maybe more.”

Idleness for the rest of the day almost sucked me under. Fortunately, Elizabeth, Michael’s girlfriend, came home early from her work at the main public library on Third. I found her knowledge on a wide range of topics interesting and her smile calming. All the while, I was trying to think of something I could do without waiting for Michael.

The next morning, the house was empty, and I had no way of getting in touch with Michael. I walked to the library hoping to find Elizabeth, but she wasn’t there. I scanned some of the magazines hoping some article would suggest a useful person or helpful action, but nothing came. I began to feel a little uncentered. I tried thinking about everyone I’d ever known in the area but came up empty.

Embarrassed, I returned to the house thinking Michael might return sooner than I thought. At noon, a knock on the door brought a man I didn’t know with a note from Michael. It read: Go back to the café on Fourth at four p.m.. Wear a white shirt, no jacket, order a coffee, and wait.

I don’t do the patience thing very well. Elizabeth came home for a late lunch at one, and I felt an unexpected excitement. Not just for the promise of action later, but because she was there. I didn’t understand my interest. In LA, I tended to be drawn to what I would call a hint of urgent lust, a great figure with a degree of dangerous looseness, a sexiness as obvious as the need to be discovered. A woman in tight jeans and high-heel shoes with a kind of aloof confidence that bordered on arrogance was what got my attention.

But Elizabeth was different; she wouldn’t generally be considered pretty if not for her kind smile and glowing aura. Today she wore a charcoal blazer over a knee-length yellow shirt with a navy-blue and white polka-dot skirt and beige medium-high heels. She looked elegant, with her scarf draped casually around her neck picking up some of the outfit colors. Not the type I generally went for, but I very much found myself drawn to her. I could feel the vibe of kindness, gentleness, what people describe as a good heart.

“You’re all dressed up,” I said. “Very stylish, very nice.”

“Some VIPs, big donors, were at the library today, and we were trying to make a good impression. They wanted a tour of the place. The remodeling’s going to cost a bundle.”

“When do you think Michael will return from his game?” I asked.

“No telling. I’m thinking sometime tomorrow.”

At four, I did as the note suggested. Halfway through my second cup at the café, a man walked by my table without even a glance in my direction. I looked closely at the satchel he was carrying—my satchel—and when he passed me, still without looking, he dropped it at my feet. I finished my coffee, picked up the satchel nonchalantly, tucked it under my arm, and walked back to Michael’s house. I immediately dumped the contents on the floor and began to count it. When I looked up, Michael was smiling.

“There’s fifteen Gs missing,” I said.

“You expected to get away without paying the vig?” he asked. “I told the little weaselly twerp to take his cut. Thank God nothing in life is free. Otherwise, guys like you and me would get no leverage. It was small juice to pay for justice or —if you prefer—ninety percent justice. Beats the shit out of no justice at all, does it not?”

I was glad to have the bulk of my life savings back. “Here, I want you to have this. Thanks for helping,” I said, handing him another fifteen grand. “You deserve it.”

“You are my friend. I didn’t do it for money,” he said.

“Still, I need to thank you.”

I learned long ago: kicking up is as important as taking care of people below. Eating alone is the problem, it strains friendship and loses points.

***

I had ordered my fish sandwich and fries before she arrived and went to an outside table. She joined me.

“So, I take it your wonderful husband was home when I called yesterday,” I said.

“Ever thought about taking up police work?” Meredith responded.

“What do you want from me?”

“My son.”

“He’s not just your son, he’s also my son. Do you remember how much time I spent with him before we parted?”

“Well, your so-called career gave you a lot of time to spend with him during the day, didn’t it?”

“I think about those times constantly. We did everything together, spent most every day doing something together until he was—what? —ten or so. Emulating my every gesture in those days haunts me even now, and I can’t stand the idea that I’m too incompetent to help him when he needs me most. I have to apologize to him for being so unavailable these last few years.”

“It’s a little late, don’t you think? He’s missed you so much. He’s just like you in every way I can think of. That’s probably why he and Alan have always been at odds with each other.”

“I feel bad enough—you don’t have to rub it in. I get the insult,” I said.

“I’m sure you’ll eventually turn it into a compliment.” Her brow was furrowed, eyes lowered. “How’s the fish?”

“What has your husband, his stepfather, done to help find William?”

“He refuses to talk about it.”

“What! Are you kidding? Why? He knows a lot of people, people in high places: police, detectives, DAs, probably most everybody in town. You’ve been married for twelve years, for God’s sake, and he’s been a prosecutor most of that time. And he’s done nothing? What the fuck is his problem?”

“He says Bill is a disappointment. He thinks he has just run away, he’ll be back. ‘Just give it time,’ he says. In the meantime, I’ve heard nothing—nothing—not a word. I’m worried sick. And nobody is doing anything about it. No ransom, no information, no nothing? What the fuck are you doing, for that matter, except criticizing others?”

“I’m trying. Don’t have a lead yet, can’t find a handle, but I am trying—have feelers out, but so far, nothing. By the way, I guess your legal-beagle husband came into the room while we were talking. Is that why you called me Shirley?”

She only stared and shrugged. Uncomfortable, I turned away to watch the river flow for a moment. The current was hypnotic enough to ease my discomfort.

“So how is the marriage anyway?” I asked, still staring at the river.

“Complicated.”

“Is…was William happy…before—?”

“Yes, well, he was reasonably happy until recently. But he and Alan always had a strained relationship, I guess.”

“Why?”

“I think Bill—he prefers Bill to William—has always missed you, and Alan, I think, is jealous, although he won’t admit it.”

I couldn’t think of anything to say. Her words tore my heart out. How could I have left my flesh and blood and been in contact so seldom? I felt guilt like I had never felt it before. When my eyes teared up, something that almost never happens, I didn’t know what to say. “What was going on with Bill…before he, you know…?” I turned away.

“Bill has always been troublesome, headstrong, if you know what I mean—of course you do—but something happened recently… He stopped speaking to Alan altogether… I asked Alan about it, and he blew me off. Said something about how Bill needed to learn to mind his own business.”

“What the hell did he mean by that?” I asked. “What a strange thing to say unless—”

“Don’t really know. Not sure,” she interrupted. “He’s been acting strange though, recently.”

“Bill, you mean?”

“No, Alan,” she said.

“What’s that about?”

“Don’t know,” she said.

“Then, take a guess. Your intuition has always been spot-on.”

“Well, I only know there was an investment banker that’s been coming to see Alan a lot. The last few times he showed up, Bill left the house, slamming the door.”

“Who was it? I mean, do you know him and why he was there?”

“Don’t know, really. I assumed he was advising Alan on investments. He’s been talking about retirement…he would like to take an early one…talks about how difficult it is for a government employee.”

“And his name was…?” I asked, prompting.

“Not sure. I think his last name was Walter, or Walker, or something like that.

“Do you have any reason to think this investment guy did anything to Bill to make him want to leave the house? Did he have any interaction with Bill at all?”

“I don’t think so. The visits seemed like normal business to me. I don’t know what Bill was thinking, but he and Alan spoke even less than usual.”

Confused, I wanted to leave before I said something I would regret. I thanked her for agreeing to meet with me, and for the ancient memory of the tasty fish sandwich. When I tried to give her a peck on the cheek in parting, she moved away.

***

The odds against winning the lottery are the same for the loser as for the winner before the draw. Despite my inability to calculate the probability, I took a long shot on locating the only cop I respected, the last one to arrest me before I left the area. Not only did I discover he was still in town, but I discovered he was still on the force and was back walking a beat in old Butchertown.

That area was shear hell when I was a kid. You took your life in your hands when you entered. Now, instead of cattle carcasses, its brick buildings contained upscale boutiques and gift shops.

I didn’t ask about his being back on the beat; I had picked up on a rumor of a disciplinarian problem, which confirmed my choice. Instead, an introductory question seemed best.

“They still call you Whitey?” I asked.

“Yeah. What do they call you?” he responded.

“Eddie Meyer. You locked me up for burglary long ago. You probably don’t remember, do you?”

“Vaguely. No, as a matter of fact, I do remember you. I remember you as someone who was in touch with himself, in an odd sort of way. What do you want?”

“Just wanted to thank you. For getting me to go straight. Now I need help with a problem—when you’re off duty, of course. Maybe buy you a coffee and talk? I could use some sound advice. What could it hurt?”

He was skeptical, reluctant to get suckered in. He repeatedly turned down meeting me at all. I began to think he didn’t want anything to do with me, and the odds for my long shot were getting slimmer by the minute, until I suggested White Castle on Broadway. He agreed to meet me there for a quick bite before his evening shift the next day.

I discussed the Whitey meeting with Michael, who warned me to be careful. Although he didn’t know Whitey, nor had he ever done business with him, he had heard a rumor of a gambling problem. I knew I was asking fate to cover her ears as I listened to a rumor of a gambling problem told by someone with a gambling problem who heard it from a third person with a gambling problem, but what the hell was I to do?

I chose to not show up at my scheduled meeting with Whitey in favor of easing in the gate before stepping into the lion’s den. That very day Michael was able to determine that Whitey was down twelve thousand to a fellow gambler by the name of Vernon “the Roach” Jackson (whose nickname derived from the fact that a number of attempts on his life failed—it was generally believed he could survive the apocalypse). I gave Michael twenty thousand for him to pass on to his friend the Roach to cover Whitey’s debt and for an additional eight-thousand marker.

The next day I found Whitey on the job.

“I don’t like being stood up,” he said, walking by slowly as I pretended to stare at a shop display.

“Sorry, I had some business to conduct,” I replied.

“Apparently. It would seem your business is more than just your business,” he said. “Same time, same place, tomorrow. But don’t stand me up.” His mumble was barely audible.

I accepted with a single quick nod. He turned quickly and stopped abruptly to ask the proprietor of the boutique a question, smiling, nodding. He slapped the shop owner on the back, then shuffled off down the middle of the common courtyard.

The next day, I arrived at the White Castle before he did and ordered a half dozen with mustard. He held up ten fingers to the woman at the counter before acknowledging me. Suddenly the informality of the situation hit me as preposterous. We’re ordering stupid little hamburgers while my son is still missing and might possibly be injured or even dead. I’m helpless and at the mercy of a cop I barely know. Michael hasn’t come up with anything. Am I being a fool? My stomach knotted; the tension, combined with the smell of onions, caused me to gasp for breath. I was going to be sick. I took two deep breaths and hoped for mercy.

“You don’t have White Castles in California?” Whitey asked.

“You’ve been doing your homework,” I said, relaxing a bit.

“I know you are still on parole. I know you jumped when your son went missing. I know I can arrest you anytime I choose but have elected, under the circumstances, to let it go for now.” Whitey raised his eyebrows, as any cop with over twenty years on the force might do.

“What do you know about my son?” I asked. “What have you heard?”

“I don’t know where he is, if that’s what you’re asking,” Whitey said.

“His stepfather is a commonwealth attorney. You ever hear of a guy named Young? ACA Alan Young?”

“Yeah, I know him,” Whitey said as he stepped away to fetch his lunch from the counter.

“And?” I asked.

“I don’t know him that well,” Whitey said. Don’t much like him, seems full of himself, doesn’t speak to anyone below his level, if you know what I mean.”

“Apparently, my son doesn’t like him either. Have you ever heard of an investment banker named Walter or Walker, something like that?” I asked.

“No. Who is he?”

“Someone my ex-wife mentioned,” I said. “Maybe not important. She said she thought he had been coming around to help with investments. My son refuses to be there when he’s there. Don’t know if it means anything or not.”

“I’ll ask around,” Whitey volunteered.

“My ex-wife got a ransom call last night,” I said.

“Jesus Christ! I would think you’d have mentioned that before now,” Whitey said. “That changes everything.”

“I was trying to take it one step at a time, carefully,” I said. “For all I knew, you might have been good friends with my son’s stepfather. But a ransom demand makes it all so real. Thinking of what has to happen now scares the shit out of me.”

“What’d they say?”

“Half a mil. She told them—or rather it, since it sounded like a computerized voice—we don’t have that kind of money. They threatened something bad would happen if we didn’t get it by midday Saturday.”

“That’s an odd time,” he said.

“I don’t know what drives it, but now what do I do? I can’t just sit on my ass and do nothing.”

“Hang on a second,” he said. He left the table and walked outside.

He was on his cell for a good ten minutes. I got another Coke and waited patiently until he finally returned.

“That name you gave me: you said Walter or Walker, something like that. Could it be Waters?” Whitey asked.

“Yes, maybe, I guess so; it sounds right. Waters. Why?” I asked.

“Charles Waters is a big-deal financier, and I found out he knows your buddy, ACA Young.”

“So, he’s legit?”

“I didn’t say that. I asked some of my friends, and one, Bob, a detective, said he’s been investigating Mr. Waters for possible fraud, money laundering and other crimes. Bob suspected as far back as eight months ago that Waters was pulling off some kind of financial scam. It’s still an open investigation.”

“What’s he doing with Young?”

“Don’t know yet. I’ll find out,” Whitey said. “What are you doing about the half-mil?”

“I’ve got it covered,” I said. “But thanks for asking.”

***

Michael had offered up the ransom. I asked Meredith to call me as soon as she had any further instructions. She did, but when I suggested to Whitey that I act as courier, he pooh-poohed the idea. “They haven’t contacted you, only your ex-wife. Let’s not change anything. Let her do it. That leaves the two of us for backup.”

I thought Meredith should not do it. I should instead; after all, I’m the adrenalin junkie, it’s an integral part of my work so to speak. But this was different. This was serious, way beyond a threat to reputation or loss of freedom. This was too dangerous: somebody could get killed. But there was no way I could talk Meredith out of it.

They wanted delivery the next day. She was to board the Belle of Louisville for the one-o’clock, after-lunch voyage. The money had to be in an otherwise empty tote bag, not a hard case. She was to board close to launch time and stand at the top of the gangplank, then wait.

Whitey suggested I board first and stand back in the crowd to watch the drop, in case Meredith needed me. He would wander around outside, on the street.

“You never know how these things will go down,” he said. “There is often a problem, a wrinkle of some kind that can’t be anticipated. We have to be ready for anything and everything.”

Everyone was in place by five to one. At close to one o’clock, two boat staffers approached the gangplank to prepare for launch. At that exact moment, a young woman approached Meredith and reached for the bag. I saw Meredith resist at first. She had only heard a deep voice on the phone, and I surmised that the woman threw her off. I caught her eye and shook my head discreetly from side to side. She caught on and released the tote. Just as the gangplank removal began, the young woman sprang into action, jumped on the ramp, knocking it out of the hands of the startled sailors. I heard the woman say, “Sorry, I have to get off before I get sick.” She ran pell-mell down the gangplank into a small crowd, across a parking lot and up toward the downtown area.

My first thought as I saw the woman run down the plank was that it was already too late for William. When I approached Meredith, she cursed at me and hissed that we were fools to not have assured his safety before giving up the money.

“If he’s hurt, it’s all your fault and I’ll never forgive you.” Both Meredith and I were stuck on a three-hour cruise neither of us wanted to take. It was the worst riverboat ride imaginable. I could only hope Whitey was on that woman’s trail.

Meredith was furious. Scared for William, she doubted aloud that Whitey and I knew what we were doing and suspected the bag didn’t even have five hundred Gs in it. Everything I said to reassure her failed. Probably because I didn’t believe what I was saying myself.

Low on options, we weren’t even speaking by the time we disembarked. I went by cab to Whitey’s beat. When I finally spotted him, I stopped in front of a shop and waited for him to approach. I saw him do a double take, look around, then approach.

“Meet me in an hour in the Brown bar,” he whispered.

I got there early. Pacing, I imagined the worst: we had failed. I had allowed us to be snookered. I was already seated when he entered and sat down.

“I followed the woman into the Galt House, where she went up in the elevator with the bag,” Whitey said. “I thought there was a good chance I’d never see her or the bag again.”

I quickly wrote the rest of the scene in my head. Whitey loses track of the money, finds the bag is in some trash can, and no one knows where William is.

“But just in case,” he said, “I sat in the lobby watching the elevator traffic. Within five minutes, a man emerged carrying the bag under his arm like he was ashamed of it. He rushed through the exit to the parking garage so fast I damned near missed him.”

“Could you tell who it was?”

“No. But I followed him to an apartment building in St. Matthews. The man had to wait a while to be buzzed into the building, so I guessed he didn’t live there. I sat in a bus shelter across the street alongside a woman who said she lived there and took the bus to town every day. I struck up a conversation, figuring I’d give him the fifteen minutes before her bus arrived. He came out in eight. The nice lady said she didn’t recognize him. I watched him walk away down the street empty-handed.”

“Damn it. Damn it!” I hit the table with my fist so hard the waiter came to see if we needed something. For cover, I ordered a bourbon, and Whitey followed suit.

“You give up on me too soon,” he said, with a wink. “I’m a cop, remember? A very good cop, regardless of what you might think. I tapped into our database and discovered that a Charles Waters lives in that building.”

“I may kiss you,” I said. “After I find William.”

***

Over the next couple of days I gathered information about Mr. Waters from every available source. Charlie Waters was indeed a registered investment banker, whose primary activity was real-estate development. As General Partner in his many syndicated deals, he distributed enough income and tax deductions to keep the limited partners on the hook while he formulated arguable reasons to not pay his vendors, holding them at bay by sometimes suing them for nonperformance and saying the most outlandish things imaginable to hurt their reputation, always presenting himself as the eventual savior in press releases. The projects were often kept afloat until—at the moment before disaster, sometimes four years later—an out-of-court settlement favorable to his syndicate was reached. In the interim, he used borrowings against projected cash flow to start other developments and repeated the cycle time after time.

I asked Whitey to check with the officers who had been investigating Waters for the latest status of their case. He reported back that there had been no additional progress on the fraud case but that his limo driver, Tommy “the Snake” Piccolo, had been recently arrested for assault of a detective who had been tailing Waters, and was awaiting trial. As a well-known gangster for hire, he’d only recently landed the job as driver for Waters.

Michael gave me the name of the restaurant and bar Tommy the Snake frequented. I went there for the next four nights, stopping by during the day several times just in case. No luck.

I asked the bartender. He said, “I ain’t seen Tommy around lately. Come to think of it, I don’t remember the last time I seen him. You never know: he may slither in anytime, you know what I mean?” he said. His laugh was so loud it made me wonder if I missed something.

Having lost the ransom and making no progress, I became lonely and depressed. It had been too long since William’s disappearance, and I was worried—worried that I wasn’t doing my share. I had to find the Snake. The weather had turned; it was dark and cold. Winter had arrived with a vengeance. I went out for a walk, and out of habit I headed toward the Snake’s hangout.

The wind had skeletonized the street, blown away all activity. I was as cold as I’d ever been. No real traffic; an occasional car crept along the snow-covered streets, going slowly, seemingly searching for something rather than going someplace. People were indoors; I walked alone on sidewalks wide enough for four. Snow fell. The wind blew flakes into my face. I pulled my collar tight around my neck like a hangman’s noose, reducing my sense of exposure as a parolee with no civil rights. The pub’s glowing lights helped my mood somewhat.

As I approached, I noticed a prostitute standing outside, smoking and looking innocent enough. I asked if I could bum a cigarette, even though I don’t smoke, just to have someone to talk to. She struck up an engaging conversation and generously offered the pack. I said no, I didn’t smoke that much and offered to buy drinks inside.

I asked if she knew Tommy Piccolo.

“Sure, everybody knows the Snake,” she said. “Why?”

“I haven’t seen him in a while,” I lied.

“Oh, he comes in mostly on the weekends but just happens to be here right now—over there, in the corner,” she said, nodding in his direction.

I thanked her and asked what she generally charged for her time. She said she didn’t charge anything for talking.

“Oh, come on. I’ve taken a lot of your time—time when you could have been on the clock. Tell me what you would have charged if I was a customer.”

“Three hundred is the going price.”

I gave her three bills. “You’ve been very helpful,” I said. “I’ll hand over another one for you not mentioning anything about me or that I was looking for him.”

“How could I tell anything about you? I don’t even know your name,” she said. “Not passing on information I don’t have is free: keep your money.”

Tommy Piccolo reminded me of a man I’d spent several months in jail with long ago. He was unsure of himself and unsure if he wanted to change. He seemed permanently hooked on negative thinking, supposing it was the only way to keep one step ahead of disaster. He was drinking Jack Daniels on the rocks, and I asked the bartender to keep them coming. I had locally bottled beer.

After two drinks, I concluded he would do most anything for money. Telling him my story wouldn’t sway him one way or the other; he was only interested in what was in it for him. I asked questions about Mr. Waters, prodding in a way that might lead to some of his habits and issues regarding his schedule.

“Aw, I do not know if it is in my best interest to talk about my boss,” he said, under his breath. “Are you planning something?”

“What do you care?”

“I care to not get caught in any resulting crossfire.”

“I promise you that whatever I do will not involve you or your limo. You will be in no way involved,” I said, with as much sincerity as I could muster. “And I’ll give you ten Gs for information on his activities.”

“I don’t think so,” he said, frowning. “Sounds too risky.”

I could see the drinks were sneaking up on him.

“I have reason to believe he has a half mil in his condo,” I said, to bait him with the money he took from me.

“Oh, he’s got lots more than that, I can tell you that for sure,” he said, shaking his head. Laughing, he continued, “Oh yeah, he’s got lots more than that.”

“Tell you what,” I said, leaning in. “You meet me tomorrow for lunch at Dolci Italiano in Butchertown. I’ll have the ten big ones for you if you answer my questions, and if it turns out that he has more than the five hundred as you say, I’ll meet you back here with another fifteen. Deal?”

“I will go so far as agree to meet you for lunch tomorrow. Then we’ll see.”

As we walked out together, his legs wouldn’t hold him. I grabbed ahold as he lost his balance and almost fell. I had encouraged him to keep drinking, but now I was sure that if I hadn’t stayed with him he would have broken God knows how many bones. Somehow he was able to make it to a cab, and I watched him fall into the back seat.

Over the next several days, I learned more than I’d expected. I gave him the original ten and another five. Now I was getting somewhere, finally making progress, even though I was down to eighty-five thousand, less miscellaneous expenses.

At some point, he began talking freely about how Waters financed other criminal activities while staying clear of getting involved directly himself, how Tommy, as personal driver, was often sent to pick up bags of cash and bring them to Waters’ condo.

Getting close was never my problem; knowing what was too close required a talent I’d never developed. Like a moderately competent horseback rider, I questioned whether I could keep my saddle at racetrack speeds.

“One night I personally picked up four bags containing over three million and left them inside his empty condo,” he volunteered. “It stayed in his wall safe for a day or so, then it mysteriously went someplace two days later.”

I wanted to say: So, his condo is the rinse cycle for funds left soaking overnight. But I restrained myself.

***

It was six o’clock by the time I arrived back at Michael’s house after the spending a long lunch with Tommy the Snake. I told Michael all I had learned about Waters from Tommy.

“What is going on inside that head of yours?” he asked.

“I hope to get your half mil back and then some,” I responded. “What would you do in my place?”

“I would be very careful,” he said. His eyes flashing about as though something might be sneaking up on us.

“I always try,” I said. “Maybe you could verify some of my info with your friends—when you can, of course.”

“I will try,” he said. “I have to go, but I will do what I can.”

By the time I showered and shaved, Elizabeth was there. Our dinners together had become old hat when Michael was at poker. I had convinced her to try an upscale restaurant three blocks from Butchertown which Whitey had put me on to. Elizabeth had softened, seemed to enjoy our times together more and more. She was free in spirit, easy to talk to, and her eyes sparkled as I spoke. I was excited and flattered. She reminded me of the early days with Meredith. It felt warm, like admiration.

I don’t normally drink wine or have desert, but I took both because she wanted them. We lingered after-dinner, telling stories of our childhood and laughing at the idiocy of things we considered important as kids.

Leaving, we couldn’t remember where she had parked. We searched for a moment or two before I spotted her car. I had driven to the restaurant at her request, but now I thought better of it. I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.

“I think I had too much to drive home.” I said. She slipped her arm around my waist as we walked the twenty yards in silence.

The silence lasted longer than I intended; it seemed to take on a life of its own.

“I just now realized the high point of my day is when you come home,” I said. “You are most fascinating.”

“If I hadn’t gotten to know you so well, I might think you believed what you were saying,” she said. “But I know you’ve been around, seen a lot. I’ve never really been anywhere, or seen much, not like you have. I can’t believe you’re serious, but thanks.”

“I am serious.”

She looked down, bashfully, and I kissed the side of her neck.

“Are you okay to drive?” I asked.

“Didn’t you notice I had only a few sips of wine tonight?”

“I didn’t. I knew you hadn’t had much, but not that little. Are you not feeling well?”

“I feel fine, but guilty for drinking. I’m trying to stop, but it’s been very difficult. I think I may have a problem with alcohol. But I’m determined.”

“Why?”

“I’m pregnant,” she whispered.

“My God! You’re pregnant?” I whispered back.

“Start of third trimester. I’ve been reckless, but I’m going to stop. No more.”

“Is the father someone you work with?”

“No. There is no father.”

“All the more reason you need to take care. No more alcohol, my dear. Fatherless births are special, you know. We still honor the last one.”

She touched my cheek. She held her hand there until I thought my heart would burst. She fondled my earlobe for a second, gazing into my eyes. She slid her hand slowly down my cheek, touched my chest, and let it rest there. She looked away. I wanted to speak but nothing came out. We stood for several minutes in silence before getting into the car; the grace of the moment was too extraordinary to tamper with.

***

Tommy confirmed that on the date of the ransom delivery, a bag like the one I described containing a sizable amount of cash showed up at Waters’ condo. Beyond anything I expected, he mentioned his boss was expecting between a million and two million on a night he was to receive an award at a dinner downtown. I slipped the Snake another fifteen grand for the info. True to his nickname, Tommy was able to swallow it in one gulp. Now I was down to seventy thousand.

I remember how excitement filled the air the next afternoon. This was to be the quintessential event of my entire career, the job everything else had been training me for. The past lost its meaning except as example.

The execution was perfect. The take was a little on the plus side, totaling two million three. I dallied a moment over taking more than the five hundred I felt was mine but justified taking the whole bundle as my reward for the grief they caused me. I rationalized a moral ground somewhat higher than I was used to walking, thinking no report was likely to be filed. I was taking money that was not his in the first place.

After a week it seemed I was home free. But it turned out that some of the money had been siphoned from a Federal construction job and that made it a bigger deal than I counted on. My active parole status in California was bad enough, and now the potential for even deeper trouble seemed imminent; I didn’t need the Feds looking for me as well. I learned long ago that when you’re in a hole it’s best to stop digging, and it’s important to get rid of the extra dirt. So, I gave back Michael’s half-mil and contemplated where to stash the rest. Beyond that, I decided I really should lay low for a while, but the need to find William was greater.

***

“Hello?” I answered a call I wasn’t expecting.

“This is Meredith.”

“Did you hear something? Where is he? What’s going on?”

“I’ve got two things to tell you, so just listen,” she said. “First, I’m so Goddamned frustrated I want to kick somebody’s ass, yours included, and I got word from the police that they are giving up. William is about to become a cold case. They have no leads and assume he is a runaway.”

“Can your wonderful husband do anything?”

“Stop asking that. He’s not going to do a damn thing. He says there’s nothing he can do.”

“What about the ransom demand?” I asked. “That proves he’s not a runaway.”

“Mentioning that raises more questions than I can deal with right now.”

“Smart. That’s probably smart, you’re right.”

“But thank God, I then heard from Bill. I was so relieved but still frustrated that I couldn’t tell anyone.”

“Where is he? What’s going on?”

“I don’t know; he wouldn’t say. He is going to call you, wanted your number.”

“Me? Why?”

“I don’t know, but I told him where you were. If he calls, please call me as soon as you can. I have to know what’s going on.”

It was only a few days ago that I thought he might be injured or dead. What can I say to the kid to indicate how I feel without appearing like an old fool? How can he forgive me for not calling or coming to see him?

***

Two days can seem an eternity. But he finally called.

“Hello?”

“Hey.”

“William. Where the hell are you? Are you okay? I asked.

“Stop it. There’s something you have to do. Quickly,” he said.

“Wait! Wait! First, are you okay?”

“As if you care.” His voice sounded detached and distant.

“Are you kidding? Don’t do this. I’ve been worried sick about you. Are you okay?” I repeated.

“Let’s just skip the preliminaries,” he said. “This is serious, and I called you because I don’t know who else could possibly fix it. Mom’s about to get taken to the cleaners.”

“How?”

“They’re trying to sell the house,” he said.

“Come on, William. How can that happen? What’s going on?”

“Alan’s been scheming with that Waters guy. They plan to put the house up for sale soon. Mom’s oblivious.”

“How do you know?”

“I overheard them talking, before I became the enemy. The mortgage is down to about three hundred fifty thousand, but the current value of the house is around a million, more or less. After Waters’ take—which I gather from what they said will be about a hundred thousand or so—Alan expects to net over a half million. He wants a million; the other half million comes from my ransom—”

I interrupted. “And where did they think it would come from?”

“They know Mom doesn’t have that kind of money, but they figured you did, or could raise it—at least you could finagle a way to raise it.”

“What in god’s name are they thinking?”

“Alan is trying to figure out how to run away with a woman not much older than me.

“Son of a bitch! I’ll kill the bastard.”

“Don’t give them the money. I got free.”

“How? When?”

“Couple of days ago. The guys holding me weren’t too bright. I was sure they would get lax, and I used the time to plan a getaway.”

“I have to see you. I want to see you. After this ordeal…we need to stay in contact. I’ve missed you.”

“No, stop already,” he said.

“Can’t we meet someplace? I have to see you.”

“Enough. I need to get my head straight.”

“Was it dangerous getting away?”

“No, not really. There was a ledge outside the only window in the room I was in, and I used to sit in the window to get fresh air—at least that’s what I told them. The woman living on the floor below always left her window open; she left every day around ten and never closed that window unless it was raining. At the right moment, I shinnied down a drainpipe to a small balcony one floor down. It worked.”

“How could a father not love a son like that? You’re a block off the old chip.”

“Do not pay the ransom, and I’m asking you to save Mom,” He said. “Where I am is nobody’s business. I want to be left alone right now. Just don’t pay the ransom, and fix Mom’s problem, I beg you. I figure you should at least be good for that. That’s all I called about. Goodbye.”

“Where are you? Can I come to you? Let me help you. What can I do?”

“Not to worry,” he said. “Be safe, take care of Mom.”

“Keep in touch then—often, you have my number—when and if you’re up to it.”

I knew he was going to be okay.

***

The first item of business was to call Meredith and report the essence of the conversation, and to ask her to check every checking and savings account, every loan they had, and reconcile every incoming and outgoing transaction she could think of, with an eye toward anything that stood out, any item that seemed out of order.

She called me back the next day.

“Everything seems normal, except one account,” she said. “Maybe I’m mistaken, but I could swear we had a savings account with over a hundred thousand in it. I have no idea what happened, but it now has less than three hundred dollars.”

“Go to the bank and find out the dates of the last ten transactions. And then go to a different bank and open an account in your name only. Call me back when you finish.”

The next day she called to say Alan had made a withdrawal a month ago and put the funds into an account in only his name.

“I’ll need the routing numbers and account numbers for both accounts. Then monitor the joint account, hourly. When you see a large amount deposited to the joint account, write a check to pay off the mortgage on the house. You did open an account in just your name at a different bank, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

“Then move the remainder into that account, the one that’s in your name only. Use that account to buy CDs of different denominations with staggered vesting dates. Then get an attorney to file for divorce and get him or her to immediately start working on getting the house in only your name. At least tie it up legally so it can’t be sold.”

I diverted her questions and asked her to listen to me: it is what Bill wants. That seemed to quiet her for a bit.

I then went to Tommy the Snake. I offered him twenty-five grand to get me the details on Waters’ offshore bank accounts. When he didn’t return at the agreed time, I went to his pub.

“I got the dope,” he said, “but I need more. I damned near got caught messing with his computer. He suspects I’m up to something, and I have to warn you, he’s tied you to the money he lost—he didn’t hear it from me. Can’t say for sure, but I would guess we are both   be in danger. Your offer of twenty-five is not enough.”

“What is enough?”

“I’ve already quit my job, even if I’m the only one that knows it. I have to get out of here. I got a trial coming up in three weeks. Now would be a good time, but I need more.”

“How about another twenty-five?”

“Still not enough. I’m taking a lot of risk here. I got a place all picked out.”

“I gave you a lot before.”

“Still got it. Still ain’t enough.”

“How about a hundred?”

“Make it a hundred fifty. That should last a while where I’m going. You got the cash now?”

He turned over the details of Waters’ account when I handed him the money the next day.

***

Agreements with hawala operatives are always verbal. With no paper trail, the deals depend on personal trust. I arranged for a local hawaladar to transfer eight hundred fifty thousand to his counterpart in the islands, who further transferred it into Waters’ account. Their commission was twenty percent. The hundred sixty Gs bought their mutual trust.

When the transfer was complete, I moved it from Waters’ account into ACA Alan Young’s account. That part was easy: I had the necessary information and that path was well-worn. But I ran into a snag when I tried to transfer the dough into the joint account for Alan and Meredith Young. Some newbie, eager to avoid mistakes and apply all the rules, kept asking questions and requiring proof of authorization. I adeptly supplied answers that should have worked, but he kept coming at me. Finally, in desperation, I asked to speak to his manager.

“Before you put me on hold, in case we lose the connection, would you tell me the name of the manager you are transferring me to?”

“Leon Taylor is manager of this branch. I’ll see if he’s available. Hold, please.”

As the music began, I hung up. I emailed Meredith and used my personal phone to call her.

“Meredith, there is a problem, but nothing we can’t handle,” I said. “Would you please call the bank number I just emailed to you and pull from your end? I told them I was Alan Young and that may be part of the problem—the guy I spoke to may or may not be convinced of that, and even if he believes me, remember Alan made a sizable withdrawal recently without your knowledge from this same account, and they may be trying to be very careful. You need to convince him the person he just spoke with is your husband, Alan Young, and since you and Alan are individual signatories, you can ask to talk with a manager by the name of Leon Taylor—and make him aware that you are expecting a sizable transfer. Get mad, threaten to raise hell—you know the routine—and demand to know what the fucking hang-up is.”

“Got it,” she said. “Feels like old times.”

“Don’t forget,” I added, “as soon as the transfer is complete, write a check to pay off the mortgage. Then move the rest into your account and buy CDs with varying maturing dates so you can roll them over as you need to. Also, good luck.”

It worked. By the end of the week, Meredith’s mortgage was paid off, and she had five hundred thousand tucked away in CDs.

Two of Michael’s friends, acting as intermediaries for me, each bought a Mercedes in the names of two guys in LA who had helped me out over the years and had them delivered by carrier to addresses in LA I gave them. The hundred sixty thousand paid them back handsomely and would undoubtedly come back to me in kind, all laundered and spiffy.

I offered to cover Whitey’s expense for a high-end gambler’s rehab facility, which I estimated to cost around forty grand for top-notch care or, alternatively, to refresh his marker by the same amount. He chose to renew his marker, saying that in-patient rehab would jeopardize his employment and be a waste of time, anyway.

***

Walking up the five steps from street level to the brick walkway leading to the front door of Michael’s house, I saw rapidly moving silhouettes inside the first-floor window. The Gothic architecture provided many protrusions, massive gables, lancets arches around windows and doors, each a potential hand or foothold large enough to accommodate even an amateur’s awkward step.

Climbing to the second story windows was easy. I saw Elizabeth standing behind a huge wingback chair large enough to provide a false sense of safety, but she didn’t see me at the window. I motioned; she still didn’t see me. Finally, I got her attention and motioned for her to unlock the window. I climbed through.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

Her eyes registered bewilderment: they were wide open but unseeing. She tried but couldn’t find her voice.

“Did they hurt you?”

“No. They…not up here,” she murmured.

“Is there a gun in the house?”

She shook her head no and shrugged again.

“Sit tight, stay here. I’m going down there.”

The stairway leading down had a banister on each side, the one on my right attached to the wall. I moved as far right as far as possible, knowing the steps were less likely to creak closest to their support. I turned my back to the wall, my right-hand gripping low on the banister, my left grasping at a higher level up, and I put as much of my weight as I could on my hands, somewhat relieving the load on the steps, and quietly inched my way down.

I could hear yelling. There were two men who were demanding the return of the two million three. I continued down, slowly, one step at a time, trying to survey the action, ducking my head slightly, bending at the waist to increase my view.

I felt myself spinning, my body gyrating uncontrollably, and my eyes lost focus as I tried to locate the source of the noise in my ears. The stairway began to shake and vibrate, the steps contorted as though they were made of rubber, for which I was grateful since I knew they were moving toward me and I longed for a soft landing. In all the commotion, with me rotating and the staircase circling, I found myself hitting the floor and lying there with one of the men standing over me.

Michael was tied to a chair, his chin on his chest; blood everywhere, his feet splayed, his torso slumped over. Then came a chilling scream from the top of the stairway. I was able to turn enough to see a man coming down with Elizabeth in tow. Halfway down she jerked, and he snatched; missing his grip, she kicked, and he shoved. I saw her fall.

She tumbled down the steps hitting the bottom on her back and sliding almost to where I lay on the floor. I closed my eyes and reopened them in disbelief. She obviously needed immediate medical attention. All I could say to the two men was, “Please help her.”

“Shut the fuck up,” the bald-headed one said. He was pointing a pistol at my head. “Where’s the money?”

“What money?”

“You know what money,” he said. As he spoke he lifted his hand, and I heard the explosion. Michael’s body jumped.

“Don’t…don’t…” I couldn’t make another sound.

“Shut up. It’s over.”

I heard nothing else before the piercing pressure and a sense of suffocation overcame all further feeling and thought. I sank into a black abyss.

What sounded like a woodpecker’s incessant knocking caught my attention. It stopped for a period and then resumed. It went on until the pain in my side forced me into awareness. It was dark; night had fallen, and whatever was at the door became more insistent. The door squeaked open.

I heard, “Hello? Hello, is anyone here?”

A day and a half later, with the help of a doctor friend of Whitey’s, I was able to walk around. Tight bandaging around my upper chest and a sling for my left arm slowed me down for a while, but gradually I could pretend to be almost normal. I took a cab to Jewish Hospital.

Both Elizabeth and the baby were in distress; she was in a coma. Michael was pretty beat up before they’d shot him and was in critical condition. In response to my questions, the nurse said he was in and out, and I could talk to him only when he was awake and stable. They were both in ICU, with limited visitor access.

“How are you, Michael?” I asked, when the nurses finally let me see him.

His voice was weak. “I got snake bit,” he said.

He passed out and I left.

When I returned, I walked straight toward ICU. No one was at the main desk, which was unusual, so I walked straight to her room. There was a flurry of activity, four nurses and an intern surrounded the bed. I peeked around them. I saw Elizabeth lying there, uncovered, her abdomen sliced open. Her eyes were open and staring at nothing.

I couldn’t stand it. I closed my eyes so tight it hurt. I wanted to unclose them but couldn’t. Unable to achieve the impossible task of looking, unable to distinguish what was real from what wasn’t, became unbearable.

Where is the baby? I need to see the baby! I wondered why no one was listening. I felt or heard a thud somewhere between my back and my injured arm, or maybe at the base of my neck, and I remember thinking it didn’t matter, all was lost anyway.

A nurse came and knelt by me, raised my head into her arms, and screamed “Stat!”

I whispered to her, “What happened to Elizabeth? Where’s the baby?”

The next morning, I awoke in my own room. A nurse was standing there.

“Lie still: you broke a few ribs and re-injured your wound. You’ll have some pain for a while,” she said.

She gave me a shot and I began to feel better almost immediately.

“Where’s Elizabeth, and where’s the baby?

“We did everything we could,” she said. “Elizabeth took a turn for the worse. She never woke up, and the doctor had to take the baby. He waited as long as he could. He only did it when he knew we couldn’t save her. Didn’t even have time to get to the OR. The baby’s fine. She’s in the nursery. Would you like to see your baby, Mr. Mayer?”

“Where is Michael?” I asked.

When I finally opened my eyes the next morning, my brain had died. My body, in sympathy, wouldn’t respond. I couldn’t wake up. Forcing my eyes to focus, I still didn’t feel conscious; I couldn’t believe what I thought I remembered. Whenever I tried, my mind went blank. It was just too horrible to think about.

Even the following day, I was not able to imagine the event; I almost passed out struggling with it. But the day after, it helped to visit the baby; I missed Elizabeth and could sense the baby did, too. I tried to visualize the baby as being her mother, incarnate. My view of the universe had changed. I felt an anxiety of complete doom: it couldn’t possibly be worse.

Reality began to seep in after a few more days.

“Mr. Mayer,” Nurse Luanne said, “the nursery has been asking about when the father is going to sign the birth certificate, and what name you have chosen for your little girl.”

“Is Michael still in a coma?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s in a medically induced coma, and you’ll probably be able to take the baby home before he’s discharged.”

“I want to go see the baby. I haven’t seen her today.”

“You should lie there and rest for a bit.”

“I want to see the baby.”

She took me to the nursery in a wheelchair. The sweetest little girl I had ever seen opened her eyes for only a few seconds, and I fell in love all over again. I spent the next few hours there, staring in disbelief.

I looked through the window at people passing by outside. I wondered how they could go on living in view of the disaster, how they could choose to live under these circumstances. Then I thought about the baby, and I understood. Vaguely.

I didn’t take care of my only son when I had a chance, why did I so desperately want to take care of this one.

“It won’t be easy, but you’ll be just fine with your little girl,” the nurse said. “She’s so precious. I’ve gone to see her every day, and I pray for her every day. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to know her mother.”

“She was special,” I mumbled.

Nurse Luanne smiled and nodded.

***

At the last moment before leaving, I wrote ‘Elizabeth Barzini’ on the birth certificate. For the first few days at home, I had no idea what I was doing. I never left her side. I was scared to death something bad would happen. But with the formula and diapers the hospital had given me, and the constant visits of Michael’s friends and their wives bringing food and supplies, we managed.

Three weeks after Michael came home, I began to trust him to look after the baby for short periods of time. Eventually, when I could leave for an hour or two, I drove across the bridge to Indiana to meet a man Michael knew who was able to create a new human existence: an Indiana driver’s license, a new social security card, and a birth certificate for me. It cost me two hundred fifty. He did such a good job I tipped him another hundred.

I read in the paper that the police had two suspects for the attacks. The article indicated there was not enough evidence to get a search warrant; the possible charges were numerous, including murder. They had police sketches of the suspects in the paper, but it could have been anyone, as far as I could see.

Michael had told me they had taken his wallet which contained about eight hundred dollars, his Rolex, and a few other items, to make it look like a robbery, he thought. And he was sure, relatively sure, they had also taken Elizabeth’s diamond necklace.

“The cops asked me to confirm the accuracy of the sketches. I declined.” Michael said.

“But you’re reasonably sure these are the guys, right?” I asked.

“Yes, especially the one with the dragon tattoo on his neck. I won’t forget that.”

“Then, don’t identify them if they ask you again,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”

Whitey was able to get an address from his friends working the case. They lived in a run-down apartment house, and from the room designation I guessed they lived on the fifth floor. The next afternoon, I asked Michael to watch the baby for a couple of hours.

The building had iron bars on the windows, and the front door was kept locked. I was unsuccessful in moving fast enough to get to the door before it closed behind a heavily perfumed and tattooed man with the face of a bear. I’ve found that people want to trust all but the most suspicious-looking, so with well-rehearsed timing and boldness, I was able to talk a tenant with the thinnest grasp on reality into holding the door for me as she entered.

Picking the lock on the door of the apartment was a freshman’s assignment. I searched the place, looking for answers to questions I hadn’t formulated yet. There was a small stand-alone safe on the floor in a closet, an inexpensive one designed to stop the near-honest and slow down the not-so-honest. It contained a surprise: about a hundred credit cards of all types with a variety of names. There were three of Elizabeth’s, and the one and only credit card Michael owned. I took Michael’s and left Elizabeth’s there.

In a top drawer of a dresser, beneath some odd-looking T-shirts and tank tops, I found about twenty watches and some odd pieces of jewelry. I spread them out on the bed. One necklace was exactly like Elizabeth’s, so I put it in my pocket for later examination and left everything else on the bed just to let them know someone had been there.

Using several of the credit cards from the safe, I called ten stores from an old directory using their phone: electronic stores, clothing stores, and a jeweler. I bought a total of twenty items, about fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of goods. I gave the thugs’ real address and phone number, and for added measure, I asked that they be delivered to the names I had read in the paper. Even if the information was incomplete and the dates a bit out of whack, it should be enough to give the police probable cause and a search warrant.

***

The guilt and remorse I felt about Elizabeth’s death wouldn’t go away. I had always been used to operating in a background of nagging guilt, juggling conflicting feelings like a clown tosses bowling pins in the air, and like the clown, my trick was always to never look directly at any one of them. But that was not working now. I had to look things in the face. I had to let someone I trusted in on my plans, in case something happened to me. I felt responsible for little Elizabeth’s welfare and decided to tell Michael.

“I got a job,” I said. “And I’m buying a house, on the east side of town, not too far out. Would you like to come live with us? Me and little Elizabeth?”

A reflective moment followed. The house had a nice nursery for Elizabeth, and I made sure it had a separate guest house in case William ever showed up. I still hope to find a way to reconcile with my son but doubt it will come anytime soon.

Michael picked something up from the table. “Hey, I see you found Liz’s necklace. Where did you find it?”

“In a drawer,” I said. “Elizabeth told me she wanted her baby to have it. By the way, from now on please call me Edwardo Barzini, your two-years-older brother. I changed my name. You okay with that?”

“It’ll take some getting used to. Even so, I doubt it would be a good idea to cohabitate,” he said. “And you got a job, did you?”

I said nothing in response as he let the question sink in.

“How did you get a fucking job, anyway?” Michael challenged my stare. “A job? With your record? Really?”

“I got the offer today, by phone, and Edwardo Barzini doesn’t have a record. I interviewed a week ago. Supposed to start two weeks from now.”

“Where?”

“Out at the airport. Mechanic.”

“Which airline?”

“No airline. Trucks. A fleet of trucks to be exact. I passed a test, and now they’re going to train me. The pay’s…well, let’s just say the pay’s not falling from the sky in clumps like the old days, but not bad either.”

“Starting a new job, changing your name, buying a house?” He stared in disbelief. “You’re still Eddie to me. You financially okay?”

“Okay, as long as the authorities leave me alone,” I said.

The thought made my heart rate go through the roof. Jumping parole is a problem that won’t go away by itself. California won’t give up, and who would look after little Elizabeth then?

He looked longingly at the necklace in his hand, kissed it, then slowly lay it down. He turned to gaze out the window. I walked to where he stood and put my hand on his shoulder.

“You have been a better friend than I deserve,” I said.

His eyes darted around the room, looking for something he had lost.

 

 

——————–

Randy Fowler was born and raised in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the Univ. of Louisville, a Master of Science from Arizona State University, and a Doctorate in Engineering from Stanford University. He lives with his wife, Karen, in California. They have two grown children and four grandchildren. His previous work has appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader and in Chicago Quarterly Review.


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