Sitting on a park bench with one manila folder tucked under my arm, I bet I had worse cottonmouth than even Patrick Lysey, what with the layer of Tums chalk coating my tongue and cheeks. Still, the area right under my belt felt no better, and I’d gotten nowhere with me and the detective’s little kibbitz. The only thing I’d taken with me out of that office was a smell on my clothes I’d have a hard time explaining to Idora and – I hate to say a “gut feeling,” under my particular circumstances, but a certain nagging unease.
I opened the folder and spread its few pages across my lap, looking at Anna Lockrem’s half-covered face and her levitating wedding gown train in the picture. The longer I stared, the warmer my cheeks got. When Mr. Lysey’s kvetching about Noah’s bounced check began to echo in my head, my ears started burning, too.
It should have been no surprise to learn that Noah had no money, or at least nothing close to the ten thousand dollars I was promised. In fact, it wasn’t. What shocked and unsettled me, frankly, was that I’d found myself disappointed in the confirmation of this. Having my selfishness, my disregard for blood relation (because even Noah, moron that he was, was still mishpocheh) brought to my attention like that killed me. I was ashamed of myself, and I thought, as her one exposed eye peeked back up at me out of the photo, Anna Lockrem would be, too.
I didn’t know her, but I could tell she was a good girl. Even if she spent all her time with those disgusting apes – the chimpanzee movie stars and my nephew.
Guilt is a powerful thing. I hear a lot about Catholic guilt, but my mother – who was about as Yiddish as they come – sure could lay it on thick, too. So it wasn’t necessary to ask myself why I was doing this even if there was no actual reward, or if the girl most likely didn’t want to be found. Plain and simple, I felt bad over the things I’d said about Noah, which were more or less mean, and the things I’d thought about him, which were outright evil. If I could pull this off, or at least appear to make a grand effort to do so, then I’d never again have to feel bad about mocking the boy behind his back at family functions. You couldn’t buy ethical leeway like that.
A few minutes poring over Lysey’s skimpy notes told me where I ought to head next: 8246 Oak Court, or in other words, Ms. Lockrem’s apartment complex.
My arrival brought with it a sinking frustration, as I approached the door and saw that damn “We’re Out Leasing Another Great Apartment – Sorry You Missed Us!” sign, complete with a smug smiley face grinning back at me. Who, I ask, has the time to view an apartment at ten o’clock in the morning? Don’t these shmendriks have jobs? No, more likely, the staffer on duty was out for a cigarette break or a coffee run, indifferent to the concept that a tenant might need to pick up a package that hadn’t fit in their mail slot or drop off their rent.
I waited in my car until a youngster with a crew cut and a sweater vest showed up with a hefty set of keys and slid inside, flipping the closed sign over, and went in after him. It made me cringe slightly to think that it was now en vogue for twenty-somethings to dress just like me, while I’d worked so hard to stockpile my closet with clothing that was scrutinized and vetted to ensure it was the very antithesis of “chic.”
“Well, hi there!” the kid said as he signed in on a clipboard hanging from a nail in the wall. “What can I do you for, sir?”
“What can I do you for?” That shit wasn’t funny when I was his age. I imagined the poor schmuck didn’t have many friends.
While sitting in my car, I’d come up with a story so airtight and convincing that I’d even impressed myself. I smiled now as it flowed from my chapped lips, thinking it rivaled even the most elaborate stings of my process-serving salad days.
“Son,” I said, forcing a handshake out of him, “I’m wondering if you could help an old-timer out here. My client didn’t show up for her court hearing today, and I’d like to check up on her to see if she’s all right.”
“Well, you’re welcome to knock on her door,” the kid said.
I shook my head. “Tried that,” I said. “No answer. I was hoping you could let me into her apartment. It’s not like her to just not show up to these things.”
He frowned, rubbing his argyle-covered chest with a palm. “Who’s your client?” he asked.
“Anna Lockrem,” I said. “You know her?”
“Yeah,” he said, and I recognized a lustful glint in his pervy adolescent eyes. “Yeah, I know Anna.” The kid had a crush; that much was clear. Whether it made my job easier or harder was the thing now.
The next few seconds of silence got us nowhere, so I said, “Well?”
He chewed the inside of his lips. “You’re a lawyer?”
My answer was to yank the notary seal from my jacket pocket and brandish it with meaning, which of course was ridiculous.
“Um,” he said, looking around as if somebody might be listening, “well, I guess it’s okay if you’re making sure she’s all right.”
Kids! I hate that I love ’em. Anyone under thirty has a pedigree of Grade-A Moron: show them something with an embossed logo and they’ll drop to their knees in total reverence. Doubt goes out the window – you’ve flashed them something “official.” I was like God to the boy, and after no more than a minute of haggling, I had a key to Anna’s apartment and he had my promise to bring it right back. I told him he was a mensch and shook his hand again, careful to wait to wipe his sweat off my palm until I was out of his line of vision.
Maybe Noah was right. None of these helpless, computer-addicted rookies would have thought of a move like that. If they’d Asked Jeeves and he’d pled the Fifth, they’d’ve gone home with their tail between their legs and written off the case.
Lysey couldn’t have gotten a look around this sty. If he had, the manila folder I carried around would have been about an inch thick with material. Fruit flies and gnats, a plague of them, swarmed the kitchen, their ranks thinning throughout the further reaches of the place but present throughout. The evident cause of this infestation were the dozens of rotting, black banana bundles topping the counters and shelf space of the kitchen. Magnet-bound to the fridge were countless “Past Due” notices, parking tickets, and – irony of ironies – a court order. Like she was proud of them. Perhaps my sweet little Anna wasn’t such a good girl, after all.
Adding to the abandoned feel of the place was the absence of what I call the College Kid Trifecta – television, computer, and toaster oven. The girl had a clear aversion to electronics, a detail that nudged her back a bit into my favor. Where the TV would have been, there hung a large framed photograph of Anna, her back turned to the camera, her blonde hair golden in the light of day. Facing her, and me, was an adult chimp in a diaper. The pair of them held onto each other’s hands, the barrel-chested simian in utter awe of her. His lips pursed, his eyes wide, he stared up at the girl in the photo.
It took a certain level of weirdo to blow up a picture like this and frame it.
Waving the bugs away, I rounded back into the kitchen and opened the fridge. More rotten bananas. Other than that, all I saw was a half-drunk bottle of V-8 and an unopened box of “Pad Thai,” whatever the hell that is. I shut the fridge and inspected the official notices littering the door. The court order was a summons for a hearing over a month ago, one I doubted Anna ever made it to. “Greentech Business Plaza Board of Directors vs. Anna Lockrem,” it said at the top. I pressed my bifocals up closer to the page, unable to help myself from checking out the notary seal. Henry Clarkson, a (thankfully) former co-worker of mine, had made the document official with his cheap, self-inking rubber stamp. What a yutz.
Unable to bear the swarm of insects circling my head any longer, I yanked everything off the fridge door, coupons and all, and stuffed it all into the manila.
In her bedroom was a desk with three narrow drawers. I looked inside each for a little black book or some sort of correspondence, but to no avail. Among the endless supply of pens and scrapbooking tools was only one item of potential interest: a Post-It note with a hand-scribbled, bulleted list running down its square length. It read:
The first three were marked out with a thin red line; “Boston” was circled in red. I stuck the note in with the rest of my findings and considered browsing her closest and clothing drawers for more. At the last second I got too nervous I’d find a thong or otherwise some feminine hygiene product and left the room, blushing.
A quick rummage through her medicine cabinet yielded only a hairbrush and a small pair of scissors. She’d not even left any makeup or toiletries of any kind.
I stepped out of the apartment with a pretty clear picture of a girl who’d wanted to get the hell out of Dodge, and that wasn’t all. There was enough material in my folder to run off of for a while, I thought. I’d found a lot of nudniks on much less.
When I returned the apartment key to Mr. Prim ‘N Proper at the front office, he asked me, “So was she home?”
“No,” I said. “She’s gone.”
“What’d she do?” he said, accepting the key from my open hand. “I mean, that she needs a lawyer? Is she in trouble?”
I breathed in deep and said, “God, kid. I sure hope not.”
A mezzanine full of insincere piss-ants waved and shouted at me, smacked my back and shook my hand, the moment I set foot in the county courthouse. I hadn’t seen a single one of these mooks since the day they’d presented me with a retirement cake that had my name spelled wrong on it. “Prentice Holm,” whoever that was, must have liked Angel Food. I’d rather eat an actual kitchen sponge, but I’m sure Prentice would have appreciated it.
In all, this dishonest and over-the-top welcome delayed me a full ten minutes on my mission to speak with Judge Gaddis. Gaddis was never my favorite of the judges my job had forced me to rub elbows with; in fact, I never could muster up even a sliver of respect for the cow-eyed old shit stain, but he was also a pushover, and he had to remember that he still owed me a favor for a sandwich I once picked up for him at the deli. “I’ll get the next one,” my foot.
I caught him on his way to file storage, and like the rest of them he switched on the nicey-nice autopilot.
“Mr. Holm!” he said, and grabbed my bony mitt with his callused, soggy one. “Did you miss us?”
“Actually,” I said, “I’m here on business of a sort.” I walked with him, limping off a bum hip and a popping ankle. “I’m doing a…” I bought myself a second or two by clearing my throat. What was I doing here again?
“I’m doing a consultation,” I said, “for a friend. She’s run into some legal trouble and I said I’d give her some advice.”
“Ha!” Gaddis, never one to remove his robe, sashayed like a drag queen into the corridor that led to the file room. “You remember you’re not a lawyer, right?”
I’d lagged a couple steps behind. “Never said I was.”
“Implied it enough in your day,” said Gaddis, swiping his key card in front of the little black box next to the storage room door. A green light lit up and the device beeped, allowing him to pull the door open and enter. “Well,” he said, “c’mon.” I entered with him, finding myself – serendipitously – right where I wanted to be.
“Yep,” he said in that god-awful Southern drawl of his, “I remember looking at you and thinking, ‘Now there’s a fella’ who failed the Bar a time or two.'” Laughing, he leaned against a file cabinet and dabbed his forehead with the sleeve of his robe. “So, Prentiss,” he said, “my dear, old friend. How can I be of help?”
Here I came to a crossroads. I could either punch this pug-face goy square in the jaw, or I could salvage this fact-finding mission and leave with some integrity intact. I went with the latter, pulling the Lockrem file out of my jacket lining. The court order that had adorned Anna’s fridge now dangled from two of my fingers, flapping in the A/C breeze before Gaddis’s eyes.
“This ring any bells?” I said.
“I believe,” he said, his eyes narrowing to resemble an opossum’s, “that I was to be presiding on that one.”
“Small world,” I said. I’d already figured that much. Gaddis usually handled petty cases: coffee-scalded crotches and monies owed in amounts less than a thousand bucks. Logic told me my niece-to-be wasn’t involved in any big-time murder or racketeering case, or else Noah would have had no choice but to involve the police in the search for her.
He took the document from my hands and studied it, creating vomitous smacking sounds with his lips and tongue as he read over it. “Yep, yep, yep,” he said. “The no-show. You know this Lockrem girl?”
“Family connection,” I said.
“Well,” he said, and pressed the page into my chest until I grabbed it, “your family certainly keeps mixed company. This girl, this hipster, New Age chick, she takes care of these monkeys, right? Keeps them all cooped up in this business suite downtown. Says she training them to be actors, if you can believe that.”
“You don’t say.”
“So the other business owners in the building file this formal complaint on her. The noise these chimps make is bad, but evidently it’s the smell they can’t stand. Finally the building’s board of directors have a petition signed by almost everyone renting space there. There’s nothing in her lease about not being allowed to keep chimps – why should there be? Long story short, they cite her on sound ordinances and drub up the paperwork to sue her and her dingleberry boyfriend’s ass out of there.”
“Only she never shows up for the hearing.” I tried to say it like everything he’d just told me was old news.
“Right-o,” Gaddis said. He tried to be sly about picking a wedgie out from under his black judge’s gown, but I knew what he was up to. “Now, okay, you’re consulting this girl,” he said. “What is it you want from me, exactly?”
To be frank, he had just given me everything I needed from him.
Only, that wasn’t quite true.
I put the paper back into the cream-colored binding of the folder and looked into his eye. “I want a sandwich,” I said. “Or don’t you remember you owe me one?”
After lunch (courtesy of the honorable Judge Gaddis) I found the nearest gas station and bought a bottled water to wash down the fruity calcium tablets stuck in my teeth. I also purchased every local newspaper I could find there. I grabbed a Herald, a Daily Shopper, one of those catalogs listing sex offenders and missing persons – hell, I even bought the Conservative birdcage liner.
What I was looking for were any mentions of Anna Lockrem’s disappearance. Scouring those rags, my highly-trained vision honing in on key words (“missing,” “disappearance,” “vanished,” “runaway,” etc.), I came up dry. So far Noah had been successful in keeping this embarrassing snafu out of the public eye. I wondered how much longer he’d be willing to wait before he phoned in someone who knew what the hell he was doing.
I had these papers spread out on a four-seater table in the station’s lounge area, where two other men my age sat sipping coffee and scratching off lotto tickets. I wondered about those guys: did they have wives at home, and if so, what was so wrong with spending the day with them instead of here? Of course, that begged the same question of myself. I could have slept in that day. I could have done whatever I wanted, yet here I was.
“Mr. Holm!” A man’s throaty voice called out to me. I tilted my head up, just enough to see where such an enthusiastic greeting could’ve come from.
Patrick G. Lysey, Licensed Private Investigator, was just coming off the checkout line with a packet of tobacco papers. I wadded my assortment of newspapers together as he approached the table, grinning. His jacket was unzipped and fluttering like a superhero cape. He had a plastic bag in hand from the grocery next-door.
“Hard at work, I see,” he said.
I laid my arms over the papers. What I read was none of his business. “You, too,” I said.
“Well, just a quick break,” he said. “I’m actually in the middle of something big.” His eyebrows drifted up like renegade balloons. He stood there, waiting.
To make it stop, I said, “What might that be, Mr. Lysey?”
“Oh,” he said, and he pulled open his grocery bag to let the cigarette papers fall in. “That. Well, I can’t really talk about that. It’s sensitive.”
I waved him off. “Whatever suits you.”
“But since you ask,” he said, and to my utter chagrin he took a seat opposite me, “I’m on retainer for this big case. Cops’re workin’ it, but the family’s loaded and they want people comin’ in on this from all angles. You hear about this Fiona Jacobs girl?”
I tapped one of the newspapers under my sleeve with meaning. There, on the front page, was a picture of the girl he’d mentioned. The Fiona Jacobs situation was common knowledge to anyone with eyes, ears, or both. It was a high profile case; the Jacobses, a family or philanthropist yacht enthusiasts, had lost their college student daughter. It was a tragic thing, to be sure, and no one could blame the family for trying anything and everything to get her back. But what Lysey was insinuating was ridiculous.
“The Jacobses hired you to find their missing daughter?” I said.
“Detective Lysey’s on the case,” he said, tossing his bag onto the table. “But don’t tell anyone. All right?” Averting my eyes from his stupid smile, I glanced at the plastic grocery bag he’d carried in. Through a gap in the opening I could see several packages of denture cream.
I thought of the adult diapers under the secretary’s desk in his office, and without thinking, I blurted out: “You taking care of a parent, or something?”
His eyes melted into a squint. “No-o-o,” he said. He snatched the bag and tied a knot with the handles. “Why?” A frock of stringy hair fell over his eyes, though he did nothing about it. I wished he would.
“Hey, listen,” he said, going taut and energized. “I’ve been thinking about your thing. Anna Lockrem. And I did have one idea for you, if you wanted it.”
I rubbed my mouth and chin. “Go on,” I said.
“Kendra Harris,” he said.
“Friend of Lockrem’s,” said Lysey. He planted his feet on firm tile and spun ninety degrees in his chair so I faced his profile. “Or ex-friend, to be precise. Never got around to questioning her, myself. But she’s an odd character, if you’re into gross understatements. Talk to her. Might know something.” He stood up and nodded down at me. “Might even be involved. Just a thought.”
The grocery bag jumped off the table with a jerk of his clasped hand. He left without another word, presumably to resume his search for the missing media darling Fiona Jacobs. I thought he was just as apt to go back to the office and work on his awful movie script.
Although the thought of accepting even one piece of advice from Lysey was painful, I had to face the fact that aside from his Kendra Harris, I had nothing to keep things moving. The insult piled onto this particular injury, though, was even worse than getting a hand from that idiot.
I only knew one person who might be able to give me the scoop on this friend of Anna’s.
I had to talk to Noah again.
He wasn’t in the office – “Out To Lunch,” as the sign dangling from his doorknob put it – but the pristine, white room next door was occupied by a middle-aged woman in khaki shorts and a ponytail. One of the chimps was in there with her. I tapped on the glass door with a knuckle, and she waved me in, smiling.
“You must be Prentiss,” she said, pressing a small metal clicker she held to the side. In response, the young chimp took a seat on a stool and folded its hands in its lap. “I’m Gracie.”
I gave her a nod and ignored her extended hand, which was likely rife with monkey germs.
“Noah’s out,” she said, “but you’re welcome to hang around ’till he gets back. Do you want to sit in on a coaching session? I’m just working with Rambo here, getting some of our cues down.” She tossed Rambo what looked like a piece of kibble and said, “Isn’t that right, Ram’?”
“So these monkeys really get acting roles,” I said. I watched little Rambo crunch on his treat and tried to hide my shock. Unfair it may have been, but I had assumed this so-called “business” of Noah’s was as much a joke as anything else he’d ever set out to do. That is to say, I never anticipated that anybody was really calling in with job offers for these animals.
“Well,” Gracie said, tucking her hands into her pockets, “the phones aren’t exactly ringing off the hook, but stuff trickles in. We’re an upstart, so we’re just getting our name out there. It’s not easy. And it’s not going to be any easier without Hanky.”
She sighed. “Our little star,” she said. Rambo, on his stool, gave a small grunt. Gracie said, “You’ve probably seen him in that beer commercial?”
My face went blank. “I’m not much for television.”
“Well,” she said, “Hanky was a dream. He just got it. Not like the others. I mean, look.”
She turned to Rambo and pointed at him, her hand held in the shape of a pantomime pistol. “Bang!” she yelped.
Rambo grinned at her, exposing a terrifying row of jagged teeth, and stuck his tongue out.
“He’s supposed to fall over,” she said. “That’s the part. ‘Bang’ means he’s dead.”
“I’d gathered that much,” I said. “What happened to Hanky? Did he go ‘Hollywood’?” I held in the chuckle my own joke conjured.
“He went wherever Anna Lockrem went, I expect,” she said, swatting away Rambo’s hand. He held it out for another treat, one which he had not earned. “That’s how it’s been, anyway. Wherever Anna goes, her buddy Hanky follows. She loves that chimpanzee.”
“You know, some folks might find that weird.”
Gracie clicked the metal tab in her fingers again. Rambo once more settled down. “Your nephew sure did,” she said, and there was no doubt I heard disdain in her voice. “I don’t know if he even really likes animals, to tell you the truth.”
“Well, he opened a monkey house,” I said, waving around the room as proof.
“For Anna,” she said. “Now that she’s gone, and our only real talent with her, how long you think this’ll last? How long you think I’ll have a job?”
With her particular skillset, I was amazed she’d found one at all, anywhere, but I didn’t say so. What I did say was, “So this whole thing wasn’t Noah’s idea.”
“No way,” said Gracie. Rambo got a bit fidgety in his seat around then, so once more she pressed the clicker. He straightened up right away. It brought to mind the sudden obedience of a pooch at the blow of a dog whistle, or of myself at the sight of Idora’s stink-eye.
“You know them,” I said, spreading my hands. “What is it you think they even see in one another?”
She fed another brown pebble to Rambo and said, “There’s a reason I went into chimpanzee behavior and not human psychology. God knows what the attraction is there. Honestly, Mr. Holm, I wasn’t surprised the wedding was a flop.”
I looked away from Rambo, back to her.
“What surprised me,” she said, “was that it wasn’t Noah who hit the door running.”
My tongue snaked around my palette. “You really think he was that miserable?” I said.
“Why don’t you ask him?” she said, her eyes narrowing into slits of dislike. I followed her gaze, craned my neck. Through the glass door we watched Noah enter the office suite, slurping from an enormous McDonald’s cup.
Catching my eye, he beamed and twiddled his fingers.
“Hello, Noah,” I muttered.
Five minutes later I found myself standing on the fenced-in veranda behind the Greentech Business Plaza, where Noah let his chimps out to play and answer nature’s call. The creatures looked somewhat less absurd here, in the outdoors, but still I felt bad for them, confined to the care of a man Judge Gaddis had accurately referred to as a “dingleberry.” They swung from low-hanging trees, chasing each other and hooting, while Noah and I leaned against a birdbath and watched.
“I’ll just ask,” he said, swirling a finger in the pooled filthy water of the concrete cistern. “Have you made any progress?”
“A bit,” I said. The folder hung heavy, tucked into my belt. I wore my pants high, so the top of the paper stack dug into the crevasse created by my droopy man breasts. “I have a lot of questions, Noah. You left out a few important details when you hired me on. I’m not happy.”
“What kind of details?” He gave a start as one of the apes leapt an impressive sprawl overhead between two trees.
“To wit,” I said, “your fiancée was being sued by the owners of this building. She emptied out her apartment. Skipped out on a laundry list of public debts. And I think she was keeping one of your monkeys in her apartment, which can’t be legal.”
“What makes you say that?”
“More bananas in that kitchen than the green grocer’s,” I said. I pushed myself off the statue, relieving the pressure it held against my queasy stomach. “And Gracie back there all but spelled it out.”
“Yeah, well,” Noah said, and gave a sigh. “Look, I might’ve neglected to tell you a few things, but if I had divulged everything right out the gate, would you have agreed to help me?”
I told him I wouldn’t have.
“So you know about Hanky,” he said, watching his hairy acting troupe jab at each other with loose sticks. “You’ve probably seen him in that beer commercial.”
I brought my eyebrows together and grunted. “I saw the picture of him hanging in her apartment,” I said.
“Hanky was our first success story,” he said. “He’s her favorite. They’re inseparable. He came home with us at night, slept in our bed, got in the shower with her. It was creepy.” His hand karate-chopped the water in the birdbath, spraying both of us with a water-and-algae cocktail. “Uncle Prentiss, it was downright disgusting. The little bastard wasn’t even potty-trained. Unless Hanky had on a diaper, you were guaranteed a face full of tossed monkey dung.”
Oh, yes. My nephew, the entrepreneur. Every endeavor a wise investment.
“But she loved him. Loved him. Like a son.” Now he looked at me, those empty eyes of his filling up for once, only with sadness.
“And he’s missing now, too,” I said.
“Think they eloped?”
“It’s not funny!” Noah kicked a nearby rock past my shins.
I allowed him ten seconds to throw his tantrum, which I ended by asking, “What’s in Boston?”
I fished the sticky note from Anna’s desk out of my waistline and showed him. “Does this mean anything to you? Potential honeymoon sites? Banana farm locations you were gonna order from? Could she have run off to Boston?”
“No,” he said. “I mean, I know she’s still here somewhere.”
“She’s been leaving me notes,” he said. “Look.”
Now it was his turn to pull a slip of paper from the recesses of his pant legs. From his pocket he withdrew a square of pulpy folded stationery, upon which had been written – in the same feminine script as on my list of locales – “To Noah Vale.”
He handed it over, and I unfolded it, revealing a tattered upper edge, where a strip along the top had been torn off.
“What was here?” I said, tapping at the fray.
Noah’s shoulder jerked. “‘Dunno,” he said. “They’re all like that, ripped at the top.”
I grumbled and read:
I’m so sorry. Things aren’t making sense, babe. I never dreamed this would play out like it has. But here we are. If you never saw me again, would you remember the good times, or be stuck stewing over these past few days? Knowing you, probably the latter. And that, my love, is the problem.
Don’t come looking for me. When I’m ready, if that day ever comes, I’ll find you, if only to come clean. I have a lot to answer for. But whether or not I do is up to no one but me.
“Gevalt!” I smacked the boy on the back of the head. “You kept this from me? Do you even want me to find her?”
“I’m sorry. It just felt so personal.”
I crumpled the note back up along its preordained creases and held it out to him. “Most girls woulda’ just sent an e-mail,” I said.
“Anna’s not like most girls,” he said, tucking the letter back into his khakis.
“Sleeps with a monkey. You don’t gotta tell me,” I said. “What is it with you kids? Why’s everyone gotta be something special? Why’s everyone in your generation so hell-bent on standing out? I mean, a chimpanzee talent agency? What’s wrong with a real job?”
“It was her dream,” he said. One of the smaller chimps hopped from a nearby perch onto his shoulder. This time he gave no sign of surprise and just let the filthy beast sit there, bare-bottomed, legs swung around his neck. If I had to ascribe a word to the sight of him, I’d’ve gone with “defeated.”
“Anna’s an actress herself,” he said, “and I’m not just saying so when I tell you she’s good. She’s an environmentalist and a vegan. Used to be a member of the United Fauna Front. Y’know, those wackos who throw blood on ladies in fur coats and chuck rocks at steakhouse diners? Make PETA look Zen?”
I nodded. No, I’d never heard of the UFF, and I didn’t care to hear more. I got the picture.
Noah smirked, although there was no mirth to it. “So,” he said, “she married those two passions, and…” he stopped. The word “married” had gotten caught in his throat.
“And now her dream is your problem,” I said.
He lowered his head. “I hate these goddamn monkeys,” he said.
He lifted the one that rode him like the braying ass he was and set it down. It loped, on knees and fists, in my direction, surveying me like a piece of meat. I saw my own footprints form in the dirt before I realized I was backing away. Noah shooed it off, and it swung around and made a beeline to join the others frolicking in the trees.
Once certain I wasn’t about to be mauled to death by the ensemble cast of Planet of the Apes, I pointed a gnarled finger in my nephew’s pudgy face. “No more secrets,” I said. “Anything else crucial to my finding her, you tell me right now.”
Shoulders angled, he shifted around a little before saying, “There is one more thing. When word came down that we were being sued out of our office space here, Anna kind of lost it. She sorta started a fight with one of our more outspoken critics here, the guy that runs the realty on level three. Some things were said. Rough things, by both of them. We were considering getting a restraining order. So was he, actually. He swore Hanky almost attacked him, threatened to have him put down.”
“And that’s it?” I said, making a mental note to jot all this down soon, when it was still fresh in my mind.
“That’s it,” said Noah.
That was when the first tomato struck my face. It wasn’t until I tasted the pulpy juice dribbling down my lip that I realized I’d been pelted with fruit, like a Vaudeville actor the audience had turned against. Noah yelped just before taking an egg to the chin, and we both turned to face the source of the onslaught.
On the other side of the fence, on the curb adjacent to Polk Street, stood a mob – ten or twelve strong – of cardboard sign-waving, bullhorn-brandishing protesters in t-shirts that said United Fauna Front.
“Death to the oppressors of our simian ancestors!” one of them shouted.
Another piped in. “Go to hell, Noah Vale! Fascist!”
“Oh,” said Noah, yellow yolk dangling like a snot rocket from the tip of his nose. “There is one more thing.”
More expired fruits and eggs were launched over the wire fence, and the majority of them made impact with one of us. Noah was already at a trotting gait, headed for the back entrance to the brownstone, but having never been the object of public scrutiny and violence, I was frozen in shock. It wasn’t until the first rock was thrown, whizzing just past my ear, that I snapped out of it and followed him.
Electronically amplified voices continued their ranting. “Free these creatures!” one guy shouted. “These animals are not your slaves!” a girl screeched. Under the duress of her awful shriek, her bullhorn emitted wailing feedback.
Now the chimps were getting nervous, retreating to the highest branches of the trees, some of them huddled together like a family during a storm.
“These UFF freaks have been out for our blood for weeks!” Noah shouted back to me, his head tucked under one arm as we approached the entrance. “Taping threats to our door, mailing dead birds to us, even busted my car window last Wednesday!”
I wheezed, every loping step over those sticks and dirt clods a struggle. “I thought you said Anna was in the UFF,” I said.
Ten paces ahead of me, Noah reached the door and grabbed the handle. “She was until we started the Vale Acting Ape-gency. They gave her the boot the day we cut the ribbon on the place. Said she was worse than a slave-owner.”
Once again, I wanted to strangle the boy, both for leaving this weighty information out from the beginning, and for naming his company an “Ape-gency.”
“Shit!” he said, yanking on the door handle with such force it almost tore clean off. “Who locked this?” Another egg went crack against the back of his neck, and he yowled.
On tip-toes, he peered into the sliver of a window set into the door. Pounding, he shouted, “Hey! Hey, Feasel! Let us in!”
From my vantage point, I saw a pair of gray eyes appear in the rectangular glass panel, staring out at us with disinterest.
“C’mon, Feasel! Let us in! We’re under attack out here!” Noah smacked on the door with an open hand.
The disembodied eyes swept away from the limited view of the window, but the door did not open.
“Damn it,” Noah said. “Fucking Feasel.”
He crouched and took off, taking wide steps while hunched over, running like a chimpanzee himself. A sudden burst of fresh pain exploded in my gut, tingling all the way down to the tip of my privates. My vision blurred. The sound of shouting protestors and squalling chimps faded. Moaning, I grabbed my stomach and trailed Noah, upright and much slower, taking another egg to the shoulder and missing a hefty rock to the skull by less than an inch.
Noah led us to a drainage ditch at the furthest end of the veranda, lousy with sludge and murky water seeping from a wide concrete sewage pipe. Squatting near the edge of it, he waved me over. “Uncle Prentiss, over here,” he said. “C’mon!”
I reached him and stooped as low as my hip and my pulsating kidney would allow. Through clenched teeth I asked, “Who was that asshole at the door?”
“Tony Feasel,” Noah said. “The realtor who got into it with Anna.”
“Not a fan of you, either, I take it.”
“Nah,” he said, and pointed in the direction of the edible artillery. “That there’s my fan club. Now wait here while I take care of this.”
While he shielded his eyes and marched, impressing me with his first-ever apparent display of bravery, I slunk back closer to the bank of the ditch. I watched Noah and massaged my abdomen. Judge Gaddis’s sandwich was clawing its way back up.
“Hey, Kendra!” Noah shouted.
Kendra. Kendra Harris. She’d completely slipped my mind.
Noah shouted her name once more, then only the chirping of birds could be heard for a long pause, during which the barrage of produce and rocks ceased.
Finally, I heard a woman’s voice respond. “Yeah?”
Noah’s back faced me, and before him, beyond the netted wiring of the fence, stood the mini-throng of lunatics who found this to be a productive way to spend their day. The young lady who had answered Noah was front and center of this small army, an egg carton tucked under one arm and a bullhorn in the other, dangling at her hip. She was hideous, even from afar. Her ugliness wasn’t so much in her bone structure or her hairdo (neither of which were in great condition, mind you), but it came across in her defensive stance, her hateful expression.
Noah took a step closer. “Where’s my fiancée?” he said.
Another long break in the dialogue before Kendra said, “How the hell should I know?”
My nephew was not one for mulling over his answers. His immediate retort was, “She asked you to be her bridesmaid, and you sent us death threats in the mail! I want you all gone. You’ve done enough, okay?”
A man’s static-laden voice called out: “Not until you’ve set these innocent creatures free!”
Now Noah reached into his windbreaker, his hand empty as it tucked inside the shiny fabric, only to emerge brandishing a handgun. My hand went to my forehead and I stopped breathing; even my stomach pains gave a brief reprieve as all my attention turned to the drama unfolding before me.
“One!” Noah shouted.
“You can’t silence us!” said Kendra.
“We speak for those who can’t speak for themselves!”
Noah’s arm shot straight up and he fired into the sky. The outcry was unanimous. I gasped, the protestors screamed, the chimps squawked in fright. My sister’s son had come unhinged, and with one bullet created a scene of utter chaos. The group on the other side of the fence did not recoil or withdraw; instead, they escalated the situation from surprising to scary by throwing themselves against the wired partition and rattling it, some of them even attempting to climb it.
“Back off!” Noah shouted. “I’m not kidding!”
His arm lowered and leveled the gun in their general direction. All I could think of was Idora, how she would feel if I was killed in a riot or – worse – wrapped up in all this meshegas and brought in by the police as an accessory to the whole thing. How could I explain that?
My stomach roared, erupted in fiery disagreement. I fell to the sludgy ground and crawled, babbling and terrified, down into the ditch. Filthy water soaked into my pants as I splashed and shuffled on hands and knees, out of sight and into the gaping drainage pipe to hide.
The cacophony of squabbling and rage outside bounced around, muffled, within the cylindrical concrete enclosing me. Unable to hold back any longer, I retched, tears and snot gushing from every other orifice. The stream was endless, or seemed so, but finally I ended up with nothing by dry heaves and so edged back, away from the mess I’d made.
My heel made contact with something behind me, something soft and with some give that shifted on impact. I whirled around, and through the diminishing daylight that flowed in from my entry point into the cement tube, I was able to make out that someone was in there with me. A pair of legs bent at odd angles, draped with something white and fluffy.
“H-hello?” The duress of the past five minutes had all but taken my voice away. “Who’s there?” I poked at a leg with my toe. It wobbled and fell back into place.
My eyes adjusted to the darkness at more or less the same rate the synapses in my brain were able to signal each other and discern the obvious. That white, fluffy thing? That was a wedding dress. And the person inside of it was not moving.
“Noah!” I shouted. “Noah!” I scrambled my way out of the pipe, not caring what mess my hands and knees landed in. Falling out of the concrete mouth, I flailed and fumbled my way upright and tossed myself up the incline overlooking the ditch. “Noah! She’s in here!”
Everyone fell silent. Noah turned slowly in my direction, lowering his firearm, cocking his head to one side.
“Anna is in the drainage pipe!”
The rioters made an instant role change to rubberneckers, observing with hungry curiosity as Noah sprinted over and nudged me aside, going shoulder-deep into the pipe.
“Oh, God!” he said. The acoustics of the drain amplified his dismay. “Oh, God! Anna?”
I lowered myself and sat in the grass above, watching as Noah submerged into the dark circle and returned a minute later, dragging Anna Lockrem’s lifeless, wedding gown-draped body with him. He flung himself out, landing on his back in the muck with the dead body on top of him. Situating his position, he sat up and cradled her in his arms.
“No, no, no,” he said, hugging her to his chest. “Anna.”
The mob, so full of piss and vinegar just moments ago, began to disperse, muttering to themselves and consoling one another.
Anna’s face was covered with a white veil. That small touch, amongst everything else happening in front of me, disturbed me more than anything.
Noah lifted the veil, gingerly, with two fingers, and screamed. There was nothing underneath. Nothing but sinew and blood. Her face – her entire face – had been removed, ripped right off.
Somehow, my stomach drudged up enough material for me to vomit again.
TO BE CONCLUDED.