To Know a Veil
or, To Noah Vale
Ryan Everett Felton
“I’m sorry, ladies.”
I managed to get this out, bow my head and tip my trilby at the two cotton-haired bitties on either side of me before ducking my head into the open Samsonite briefcase on my lap. The hat fell off as the bus hit a nasty bump and I unleashed holy hell into the suede-lined leather case. The noises I made, the sounds bubbling up and out with the rest of my guts, I don’t even think I’ve ever heard another human make. The poor old poodle-headed ladies on either side of me couldn’t hop away fast enough to find more suitable accommodations on the double-decker. Suddenly those spooky kids with the piercings and the spiky hair didn’t seem like such terrible seating companions.
By the time they situated themselves a few rows back, I’d retched three or four more times, yielding diminishing returns with each cycle until I came up empty.
These volcanic vomits had been a problem for me the past few weeks. Just the day before the doctor had told me it was a kidney stone – as he put it, “the size of a clementine –” bouncing around in my guts. My wife Idora calls me her little shlimazel, that I got this black cloud over my head wherever I go, and I’ve never disagreed, especially when I thought about the fact that one day that clementine would have to pass through me.
I wiped my mouth with the back of a spotted hand writhing with wormy blue veins and spat one last time into the attaché. I put my trilby back on just as the bus slowed down at my stop, stood up to the sound of my own crackling spine, and hobbled down and out into the city I’d so far done a pretty good job avoiding since my retirement. I found the nearest garbage bin and tossed my newly-ruined briefcase in after taking out my notary seal. None of the papers inside could be salvaged.
The thing about the city is it’s got this smell – this rotten-eggs-on-pigshit stink that hits you like a brick wall the moment you cross the county line. You don’t notice it so much when you’re up there every day, like I used to be, but spend a few months away and let me tell you, it’s atrocious. And the wind. The wind there isn’t like the chilly breezes in the suburbs where Idora and me hang our hats. This wind is mean. It’ll cut you.
It took me a little longer than it used to, thanks to my no-goodnik hip, but I managed to walk the six blocks to the stoop of this hideous brownstone. I had an appointment here, God help me. The stench felt stronger on the stairwell of this mossy, graffitied eyesore. I cupped my nose and rang the buzzer next to a mailbox that swung from one rusty screw. I thought, They’ve got a screw loose, so when the young lady answered me on the intercom I was chuckling. She probably thought I was a lunatic.
“Yes, who’s there?” she said. I could barely make her out over the cheap speaker system’s feedback.
“Prentiss Holm,” I said. I watched the mailbox rock back and forth in the bitchy breeze. “Noah Vale is expecting me.”
She didn’t answer. Instead, the door latch just clicked open, and I figure I was just supposed to know to come on in. These kids. Oy, vey.
So I went inside. I felt my stone take another little stab at the wall of my kidney and clenched my fists. Just a few minutes and I’d be back on the bus, home in time for supper with Idora.
I checked out the receptionist’s rack as she told me where Noah’s suite was and allowed myself one loud, burbling belch on the elevator before I realized there was a young lady stuck in there with me. I smiled at her. She looked at her shoes.
The first thing that struck me when I entered my idiot nephew’s office was that it was lousy with monkeys. I mean it: the reception area of suite 400 was crawling with half a dozen full-grown chimpanzees – occupying desk chairs, standing on the table, one of them even flipping through an upside-down copy of Cosmo.
And in the middle of all of this, a seventh, infant chimp riding shotgun on his shoulders, was Noah. At my entry, he swiveled his chubby, rosatia-ridden punim toward me and smiled.
“Uncle Prentiss,” he said, peeling a banana. “Thanks for stopping by.”
I couldn’t move. Every simian set of eyeballs in the room – and I include Noah’s here – was on me. It was very disconcerting.
“Noah?” I said, taking a step back. “What – what the hell is going on?”
“What do you mean?” he said. He took a bite of banana; Noah was never one for sharing.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have been more specific.” In the far corner, one of the apes cackled, making him one of a very select few to get my sense of humor. “The menagerie, Noah. Who died and made you Jane Goodall all of a sudden?” My one-monkey fan club blew a raspberry. We were a regular Laurel and Hardy.
Noah shrugged, and the baby chimp on his back swung around to come face-to-face with him. As he talked, the little creature sucked banana crumbs from his chin. “I told you in my letter,” he said, “that I’d started a chimpanzee talent agency.”
I chewed on that a second. “Your letter,” I said, “asked me to come down here and notarize the articles of existence for your new monkey business.”
Noah held out his hands and bugged his eyes.
“I thought it was a figure of speech,” I croaked. My stomach gave a single jolt of protest. Instinct forced me to scan the premises until I spotted the restroom.
The thing about my shmendrik nephew is that, as far as I’ve ever been concerned, every one of his occupational endeavors has been nothing but monkey business, a crock of baloney. He once invested in a fleet of snowplows – when he lived in Miami. Just last year, he took out a loan to open a puppet theater, whatever the hell that is. You want a puppet theater, I’ll give you a shoebox and an old sock.
“My staff and I train the chimps to be actors,” said Noah, setting down the fuzzy youngster on the desk. “You know, for commercials and movies and stuff.” The little simian tyke grabbed onto his pinky; they looked like father and son. “Lot of money to be made in this business,” he said to me, very serious.
“All right, fine,” I said, sidestepping a pair of chimps picking bugs off of one another to reach the desk. “I wish you all the best on your new entrepreneurial venture. Now where’s this paperwork so I can stamp my seal on it and go home?”
He produced a single sheet of county letterhead. I pressed an emblem into it and pocketed my embosser. “Will that be all?” I asked. Idora was waiting, probably setting the table by now.
Noah licked his stumpy fingers and threw his banana peel into a wastebasket. “Actually,” he said, “there is something else.”
He sat down and placed the little simian on the desk, where it crawled until it reached the edge and just stared at the floor in awe, as if it were a mile below. Noah cleared his throat and looked at me now, all traces of a smile gone. I tried to remember the last time I’d seen this kid wear a serious expression and came up empty. I figured I knew where this was going.
“No,” I said. “Don’t even ask. I’m not loaning you anything. No handouts, remember this discussion?”
But he just shook his head. When it stilled, I noticed how much redder those cheeks of his were. “Uncle Prentiss,” he said, “do you like me?”
I swear every monkey in the damn office took a deep breath and held it right then.
“Noah,” I said, taking a seat, eyeballing and trying to get a read on him. “You’re mishpocheh. We’re blood. Y’know I love you.” I leaned over the desk a little, but not enough to make him think I’d wanna hug or anything.
“No,” he said, sinking in his chair, his face lost in his palms, “that’s not what I mean. Sure you love me, but do you like me?”
“No handouts,” I said.
He only shook his head again and sighed. The desk drawer on his side made an awful, wailing screech as he pried it open and pulled a manila folder from it. He slapped it down in front of me. His eyes flickered between the overstuffed folder and me. I grabbed it, flipped it open.
The first page was a full-color photograph of a girl, probably in her twenties. What a knockout she was. She wore a wedding gown, and the picture was snapped as she spun in circles, making the frilly white train billow around her. Yellow hair, one jade-colored eye peeking out from the fluttering corner of her wedding veil. An angel.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“Her name is Anna Lockrem,” Noah answered. “Runaway bride.”
I sucked on my lips. “Pretty woman,” I said.
Noah sniffed. “Right,” he said. “Now if we’re done naming off Julia Roberts movies, I’d like to make my offer. Anna’s run off, all but disappeared. Her friends, family, co-workers – none of ’em have a clue where she’s gone. Uncle Prentiss, I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars to find her.”
I snorted. “Noah,” I said, “what is this, really? Do you even have ten thousand dollars? Because your mother tells me—”
“Never mind what Mom says!” he said and banged his fist on the desk, knocking his fuzzy little companion on its back. “We’re talking now.”
“Who is this girl?” I asked. I flipped the page over so it faced him. “Who is she that she’s worth my time and your money?”
Noah scooped the screeching, still-startled baby chimp into his arms and locked eyes with me, becoming a surreal portrait of the Lady Madonna. “She’s my fiancée,” he said.
That explained a lot – everything, in fact, except for why I hadn’t been invited to the wedding, but I let that go for the time being.
So instead of asking where the hell my invite was, I asked the second-most pressing question on my mind. “Why me?” I said. “You can’t call the cops? Hire a real private investigator? Both options seem a lot more economically sound.” But then, Noah liked waving his money around, on the rare occasion he had any.
“That folder in your hands,” he said, pointing. “Take a look inside.”
I did. Aside from the photo, there were about four other pages. Bulleted lists, mostly, of generic Anna Lockrem factoids: former and current addresses, past employers, a few names with a parenthetical relationship (mother, friend) next to them. In other words, slim pickings.
“Calling the cops was out of the question,” said Noah, wrapping his fingers in the curls of his own hair. “It’d be bad publicity for the company.”
My teeth pressed into my cheeks, holding them in place. “For the monkey actor company.”
“That’s right,” said Noah, unfazed and stroking the hairy baby simian in his arms. “We did hire a private eye. Fired him after only a week. Useless bastard. But I guess that’s what I get for hiring him based on a business card tucked under my windshield wiper.” He rolled his eyes and nodded at the folder in my hands. “What you’re holding there is the fruit of his labor. Everything he could get on her.”
“This?” I said, making it flap around with my wrist. Somewhere behind me, one of the apes hooted. “A week’s work, this?”
Noah’s forefinger and thumb pinched the bridge of his nose. “She’s a bit of, um, a naturalist? Into the environment and that. Anna doesn’t believe in cell phones or Facebook, or, um, any of that mainstream Big Brother bullshit. It’s one of the things I love about her.”
“So you’re saying, since this girl doesn’t Tweeter—”
“Whatever. You’re saying since she doesn’t log onto the Internet every five minutes, like the rest of the world, your private eye couldn’t get a lock on her.”
“That’s about the size of it.”
The legs of Noah’s desk chair creaked under his shifting tuchas. “And,” he said, “you were a process server for the county for thirty years. Mom says you never failed to find whatever poor schmuck you were looking for and serve him his court papers.”
“I thought we weren’t going by what your mom says,” I said.
“Your heyday,” he continued, “was before the days of iPhones and social media. Far as I know, you and Aunt Idora still don’t own a computer or have cable. I think you can do what these private eyes can’t. I think you can find Anna without leaning on technology. That’s why you.” In case he was being too complimentary, he added, “You cranky old Luddite.”
I looked at Anna’s photograph again, tried to imagine her with one of Noah’s beefy arms wrapped around her. I couldn’t. To my mind, they paired about as well as toothpaste and orange juice. Anna Lockrem having second thoughts on the day of her wedding didn’t seem so outlandish a concept.
“What if the girl doesn’t wanna be found?” I asked.
Noah shrugged. “Find her anyway. It’s ten thousand dollars, Uncle Prentiss.”
“That you earned by training monkeys.” My eyebrows went up against my will.
Another shrug from Noah.
Taking a deep breath, I straightened the few pages in the folder by smacking them on the desk. “I’ll do it,” I said, standing up, “or I’ll try, anyway. But there are conditions.”
Noah nodded, his mouth twitching. “Sure,” he said.
“First, I get to go home and have dinner with your aunt before I start work. I’m hungry, and she’s making gelfite fish tonight.” The fact that I hate gelfite fish, I left off. “Second,” I said, “if one of these chimps touches me, even for a second, I walk.” The chipper ape that had laughed at my jokes pounded his chest when I scowled in his direction. “I’ve gone sixty-five years without contracting fleas or rabies, and I’d like to continue the trend, understand?”
To show my admirer who was boss, I pounded my own chest. This angered my kidney stone, which pounded back – and hard. I grabbed my stomach.
“And last,” I said, pointing at the metal bucket by Noah’s foot, “I need you to hand me that trashcan.”
“What?” Noah said, looking down. “This? Why?”
“Oy,” I said. “Never mind.”
And I yakked right on his carpet. It couldn’t be avoided.
“You’re not eating, dear.”
Idora pointed this out, as if I should be surprised by it, at the dinner table while I slid a flake of lukewarm fish around my plate. Rather than tell her I didn’t appreciate her gelfite (something I’ve kept hidden from her since we were in our twenties) or fess up to the ticking time bomb plotting its attack on my urethra (which she didn’t know about, and wouldn’t, if I had anything to say about it), I shifted gears.
“Did you know Noah’s getting married?”
“Noah?” she said. The overhead light caught a lens of her cat-eye glasses and shined like a headlight right in my face. I looked down. “Our nephew, Noah? Kathy’s boy?”
“Yes,” I said. “Engaged.”
“Hmm,” Idora said, reaching for another dinner roll, taking up her butter knife. “Poor girl.”
“We weren’t invited,” I said.
“So?” Idora arched an eyebrow, the thin chains on her glasses swaying.
“It just seems dismissive,” I said.
“So let ’em dismiss us,” she said. “What do we care? We’ve been perfectly happy without getting caught up in the affairs of the Vales for the past decade.”
The next, forced bite of fish tasted like seawater. Swallowing it was made harder by my weakened constitution, but Idora means enough to me that I kept it down.
“What brought this up?” she asked through a mouthful of bread. “Did Kathy call you to gloat?”
I shook my head. Idora didn’t know about my meeting with Noah, only that I’d ventured into the city for “an appointment.” My wife has a tendency to dote. Some things are better left unspoken in our house.
“Well, did you meet this girl?”
Again, my noggin went side to side. No, I hadn’t. But I thought, without telling Idora so, that whether she liked it or not we would be meeting very soon.
The next morning I kissed Idora goodbye, stopped off for an industrial-sized vat of Tums, and took the bus once more into the Heart of Darkness. The first leg of my journey, I’d decided over the restless night, would be the office of Patrick G. Lysey, Licensed Private Investigator. His scant notes, scribbled down during his own ill-fated investigation into the whereabouts of Anna Lockrem, were all I had to go on. I was hoping the man himself could provide a little elaboration.
The address, I’d gotten off his business card – the very one Noah had found tucked under his windshield wiper. It looked and felt cheap, rendered on a household printer, and said PATRICK G. LYSEY: LICENSED PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR & SCREENWRITER. Reading that, I fought the urge to chuck the card out the window of the moving bus. It’s a recent thing, I’ve noticed, that it isn’t enough for people to just be what they are anymore. They’ve all got to also be a screenwriter, an actor, a novelist. Enough already! For thirty years, I told everyone I met I was a process server downtown, and never once did anyone ask me, “What else?”
Lysey’s office was on the top floor of a business complex, this tiny room I think might’ve been a refurbished supply closet. The sign on his door said “By Appointment Only,” but I walked right in and the secretary didn’t seem to mind. I could tell she would have rather I didn’t interrupt her nail filing and magazine reading, but either way she waved me in without question.
I remember what marijuana smells like. I was young once. Not that I’ve ever sampled even a morsel of the fakakta stuff myself – no one ever offered to share that I can recall. This investigator’s office was lousy with the skunky stink of weed. I thought I’d wandered into a Neil Young concert.
Patrick Lysey was asleep in his chair, his head buried in the wadded-up sport coat on his desk. For his part, when my entrance startled him awake, his transition from resting to working was seamless. An exhausted yawn evolved into the word “Hello,” and at its heels, “How can I help you?”
I would not have taken a seat in there under any circumstance, but I still resented the choice being taken from me by the absence of a chair. I said, “Hello, sir. My name is Prentiss Holm. I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time.”
“I’m not takin’ any cases right now,” he said, smoothing out the wrinkles of his coat with a palm. He slid it on, still seated. Though the man was about ten years too young to fit the bill of “grizzled detective,” his rumpled sport coat and patchy stubble helped sell the role. Both hands bent and massaged his eyes at the wrist. “Too much on the docket. Apologies.” His head jerked up and to the left, toward the young woman at reception. “Michelle!” he barked. “Breakfast!”
The young woman squeaked and hopped up, digging around in cabinets while I spoke. “Actually, Mr. Lysey,” I said, rubbing my palms on my pant legs, “I was hoping you’d have a minute to talk to me about Anna Lockrem.”
There was a crash behind me as Secretary Michelle dropped a glass from an overhead shelf.
All of a sudden Lysey seemed very tired again. “Did you say ‘Lockrem?'” he said. His body sunk like his chair was sitting on quicksand.
“Yes,” I said, ignoring the pain in my belly, rubbing the clump of Tums in my pocket like lucky coins. “My nephew says he had you look into her disappearance. Now Unkie Prentiss is to the rescue, I’m loath to say, and I was hoping to pick your brain. Maybe over a coffee? I’ll buy.” God knew the guy needed it.
It wasn’t easy to hear him mumbling over his klutzy assistant’s clanging around behind us. “Your nephew is a real dirtbag, Mr. Holm,” he said. He scooted his chair back in what I assume was a pointless effort to hide the stink of booze and pot on his breath. “I worked around the clock on that missing girl of his, and he just fires me on the spot, without so much as a ‘fuck-you-very-much.'”
“I see.” It had to be obvious, just from looking at me, how little I cared.
He tapped a button on the keyboard before him, and the computer screen on his desk flickered to life, illuminating his face with artificial light. “It’s funny,” he said. “I left my card outside his office a couple months ago, way before this business with his fiancée. I’d wanted an in with this chimpanzee racket he’s got goin’. See, I’m writing this screenplay…”
“Here we go.”
“…This comedy about a chimp detective. You know, wears the hat, carries a magnifying glass?” He chuckled at his own supposed wit. “Real funny shit.” Oscar Wilde, he wasn’t. His fingers hammered on the keyboard as he talked, almost as an entity separate of the man himself. “Thought I’d get a leg-up and mingle with the talent pool. Imagine my surprise when I finally did get a call, and all a sudden I’m hunting this Lockrem broad.”
Michelle popped up behind me, leaning over and making me jump at the unexpected brush of her long hair on my shoulder. “Your breakfast, Pat,” she said, her voice flat as a latke. She clinked a glass of red stuff on the table. A sprig of celery stuck out of it, and from where I stood the odor of tomato and vodka was enough to get me a little loopy. So Lysey wasn’t a coffee guy, after all.
“Thanks, darlin’,” he said, taking up the glass and swigging. He wiped his mouth and added, to me, “Let me ask you a question. Where should Detective Bibbo run his office?”
I stared at him. “Who?”
“Detective Bibbo. My protagonist. I can’t figure where to set the thing. New York’s so obvious, y’know? New York and L.A., every mystery story ever told.”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” I said. “Look, about the Lockrem girl. About Noah.”
Lysey ran his tongue over the red-stained celery sprig and snorted. “Right,” he said. “Your nephew. Well, look, Mr. Holm. I don’t know what to say. He hired me then he dumped me. His check didn’t even clear. I guess he’s keeping it in the family now, so the pro bono stuff is okay.” My toes curled in my shoes. He said, “You a dick, then?”
My mouth went slack, and he laughed.
“Not a dick like Noah Vale is a dick. A private eye, like me,” he said.
“Oh,” I said. I shook my head. “Process server. Retired. Semi-retired notary public.”
He laughed again. “Okay,” he said. After downing the rest of his Bloody Mary, he burped and sized me up from his seat. “Well, best of luck to you, pal, but if I couldn’t find her, I don’t think you’ve gotta snowball’s chance. Trust me. No e-mails, no instant messaging accounts or cell phone… That girl don’t wanna be found, and I don’t blame her.”
I cleared my throat. “Doesn’t matter. I gotta find her anyway.”
“Word of advice, then,” Lysey said, licking his upper lip. “Steel yourself for an ugly family affair.” His eyes, pink and puffy, went a shade darker. “That nephew of yours is rotten. Somethin’ about this whole mess don’t sit right with me. I think you’ll end up looking at a lot more bad news than good, you understand?”
I nodded. “With Noah, it usually is.”
“Well,” he said, standing up, fingertips pressed against the mahogany surface of his desk, “now that I’m up, I’d probably better get to it. Believe it or not, Mr. Holm, I do have paying clientele. I am reputable.”
My eyes drifted to the glassware pot-smoking apparatus leaning against his computer monitor. “I don’t doubt it,” I said. “Good luck with Detective Bilbo.”
He snorted again and said, “You can show yourself out, I assume.” It wasn’t a question.
“Sure.” Turning around, I now faced the hovering Michelle, another breakfast cocktail in her hand. She was good-looking, in a way, if you could get past the unkempt, raven hair and apparent disdain for cosmetics. The stains under her arms screamed of a deodorant embargo. I tried not to look at them as she held the glass out.
“One for the road?” she asked.
I grunted. “I’ve got a kidney stone,” I said. “Maybe two. Feels like a dozen.”
“You poor thing,” she said, puckering her lips. I couldn’t say for sure, but I think the girl was mocking me. Without a conscious prompt, my chin made contact with my chest, my gaze shifting away from her and to the floor. Here I noticed the latest in a series of very odd things about Patrick Lysey and his office: tucked under the secretary’s desk, in higgledy-piggledy stacks, were several packages of adult incontinence briefs. Now my head snapped back to its upright position, my inclination to not get caught looking at the diapers more pressing than the one to not get caught evaluating the secretary’s hygiene. While trying to figure out which of the two they might’ve belonged to, I reminded myself that the man who just yesterday barfed into his lap on the bus shouldn’t be making judgments about one’s mastery over his or her bodily functions.
She was gone, anyway, the hippie office clerk. Now she leaned over Lysey’s desk again, handing him the drink, cleavage no doubt on full display. I kinda hated Lysey. I kinda hated her.
Most of all, I really hated Noah Vale.
TO BE CONTINUED.