To Know a Veil (or: To Noah Vale), Part Three

11

Idora didn’t understand why we should have to go to the funeral. She hadn’t seen Noah in years, nor did she have any idea that I had been working for him or that I’d developed any sort of connection to his late fiancée, so I could understand why she was upset over having to miss her book club.

When we got to the parlor, I found Noah, to no surprise, in the kitchen snacking on hors d’oeuvres. He crammed bite-sized sandwiches, one after the other, into his open mouth and downed them without chewing, without thinking.

I said, “It’s a beautiful service,” although I hadn’t been in the chapel yet, where Idora held my seat.

He gulped a bite and mumbled his thanks. “They took our chimps away,” he said, staring at the silver platter and grabbing another treat. “The police determined she was mauled by one of them, and there’s no telling which, so they’re all going to be put down next week. God knows I won’t miss a one of them, stupid animals.” His head wiggled like he was trying to spook a fly off his nose. “But that doesn’t make it right.”

I put a hand on his shoulder for just a second and removed it. It felt unnatural. It was the touch of a loving uncle, and even now that couldn’t be me. I didn’t think I could leave my hand there for long without succumbing to the desire to shake him.

“You don’t think it was one of them,” I said.

“No, I do,” he said. “Her wounds were the exact same as a hundred other chimp attack victims’ I’ve read about. But I know it had to be Hanky. He never left her side. And he’s still missing. Animal Control is scouring the city as we speak, but no sign yet.”

“So they all get the needle,” I said. It never ceased to amaze me what the world considered justice. “Meanwhile, whoever really did this goes free.”

Another sandwich worked its way past his puffy lips. “You think a person did that? You think a human being could… could actually…” He pushed the tray away. “Don’t say that! They had to identify her by her teeth, Uncle Prentiss! Don’t tell me a person did that to my fiancée!”

“I just find it troubling,” I said, “that the authorities are all primed and ready to execute a fleet of chimpanzees, and meanwhile not a soul has questioned the obvious holes in this story. Okay, let’s assume Hanky attacked your fiancée. Did he drag her into that pipe afterward? Did he dress her up in her bridal gown? Somebody did all that. She wasn’t killed on your wedding day. She’d been leaving you handwritten notes for two weeks.”

Noah touched the breast pocket of his suit jacket; inside, I knew, was one of Anna’s cursive messages.

I spoke with caution because not only was I on dangerous ground, but my dentures had come loose and threatened to come toppling out. “Anna made a lot of people angry. Kendra the UFF girl, Feasel the realtor.” I paused for a second but forced it out: “You. She ran out on you, humiliated you in front of your friends and family.”

Noah stood up, that same crazy glint in his eye as he’d had when he fired his gun outside the plaza. “I don’t know why I talk to you!” he said. “You’re just a bitter, old crank! You were never family to me or Mom! You son-of-a-bitch, just let this go! If I can let this go, why can’t you?”

I couldn’t let it go because it felt wrong. Maybe it was another difference between his and my generations. When something stunk, in my day, you found it and cleaned it up until you could inhale again. Noah, Anna, and the rest of them – they could just shrug anything off. Whether it was a dream, a personal goal like the Vale Acting Ape-gency or a puppet theater, or even the life of a lover, it was too easy for them to dismiss it and move on. That, when I think back on it, was why I couldn’t stomach Noah Vale. Never could.

“I want you to leave,” he said.

So I found Idora and we went home, much to her delight. But before we did, I waited in line at the closed casket until I could lay my open palm on it. To my left was a blown-up portrait of Anna Lockrem on an easel. I realized it was the first time I’d actually seen her entire face. The photo still sitting in my glove compartment had depicted her with a veil exposing only one eye, a bit of forehead. The same veil concealing, until that awful moment when Noah had lifted it, the maimed and pulpy remains of a once-gorgeous visage.

My stomach did a weak somersault.

The girl in the picture was as beautiful as my photo had hinted at: green, piercing eyes, curly blonde hair, even a little mole under her nose like Marilyn or some other onscreen starlet. I could buy that she had been an actress.

“Sorry for your luck, sweetheart,” I said.

Then we left, grateful to have avoided running into my lunatic sister.

12

During the ride home, my worst fear was realized. It started with another spasm of discomfort in my gut and grew, a spark inside me that flared up into an explosion of agony. It caught me so off guard that I cried out, winced, and grabbed my crotch.

The time had come. At long last, my little calcium friend was ready to come out and play.

“Dear?” Idora said, from the driver’s seat. Idora always drove, as a means to prevent carsickness (for her) and insufferable annoyance with her backseat driving (for me). “What’s the matter? You look peaked.”

“I need a bathroom,” I said.

“Well, we’ll be home in twenty minutes,” she said.

I shook my head and didn’t stop. “No,” I said. “No. Now. I need a bathroom now.”

She clucked her tongue and glanced at the dash to check the time. She had a very strict schedule, which was odd for someone with no professional or social life, but if we didn’t get home in the next half hour she’d have to skip her daily walk to the park and back. “Well,” she said, “there’s a gas station just up the road. I guess we could—”

“No!” I shouted. The exertion of my outburst rocked my insides. My genitals recoiled, as if stabbed with a hot poker, into the recesses of my lower abdomen. “No,” I repeated at a lower tone, “I’m not going in a gas station bathroom. What do you take me for, a vagrant?”

“I don’t see what the big deal is!” she said, eyes ever on the road. One point of contention, back when I still attempted to drive now and then, was that I took my eyes off the road too much. “You just get in, do your business, and get out! C’mon, there’s a BP right here.”

“No gas stations,” I said, and squeezed both knees. My eyes began to water. I felt as though my intestines were being blown up like a balloon, apt to burst at any moment. “Find something else.”

“How about this Hardee’s?” she said. I shook my head. Of all fast food establishments, I had found over a lifetime of bathroom experience that Hardee’s, as a general rule, was home to among the most derelict restrooms in the country. I couldn’t and wouldn’t attempt such a momentous bodily function in a Hardee’s.

Idora went a bit hysterical. Her head rocked backward. Her shoulders swallowed her neck. “Well, where do you want me to take you?!”

I surveyed the street through blurring vision. Recognizing our location, I pointed at an office building one block ahead. “There,” I said. “There’s a spot right out front. There.”

“There? Why there?”

“Damn it, Idora! Will you pull the car over or do I have to jump out?!”

My right side slammed against the passenger window as she swung the car into a spot in front of the complex where Patrick Lysey, Licensed Private Investigator, hung his hat. I tumbled out of the car, struggling to find my footing, and hobbled inside. Had I been blindfolded, I could have been convinced that a sword had been pushed through my belly and out the other side.

One eon-long elevator ride later, I was headed for Lysey’s office door, and just like the last time I’d been there, I walked right in without knocking. His secretary, Michelle, was at her desk. She jumped up when I barged in, sending her chair rolling into the wall where it chipped off a strip of blue paint.

“Mr. Holm!” she said. “Wh-what are you doing here?”

Bathroom.” The word fell out of my throat, a guttural and animalistic snarl.

Lysey, at his own desk, gave a delayed start at the sight of me. He stubbed a smoking joint out on a pile of papers and stood up, too.

“Mr. Holm, you can’t just barge in here,” he said. I brushed past him and to a thin, wood-paneled door. He said, “Hey, wait!” But that was not an option. Unable to remove my hands from my lower stomach, I kicked it open and knocked it shut behind me with my heel.

This was it.

I grabbed a small wastebasket covered in a floral design and turned it over, spilling its contents to the floor before setting it on top of the toilet tank. I leaned forward, hovering my mouth in position over the trashcan in anticipation of the monumental yakking sure to come. I unzipped my fly and prepared for the worst, one hand on the wall above the toilet, praying.

There was a loud, repetitive banging on the door. Lysey called out from the other side. “Mr. Holm, you gotta go! You can’t just walk in here and treat this like your own personal port-a-potty. I can’t have you doing that!”

I tried to tell him to go to hell but had no voice.

He continued to pound the door. “C’mon, man. Don’t make me call security.”

Panting, drooling into the bucket, legs parted over the toilet bowl, I started to hum a tuneless chant. Anything to drown out the racket. I couldn’t go with all the noise he was making.

“Shut up,” I said, too low for anyone to hear.

The knocking continued. I thought, this is where I’m going to die. And I would have welcomed it now, considered it a mitzvah. I knew I was never going to leave this bathroom, that eventually my innards would just blow up and I’d keel over.

Then it happened.

Death surely would have been preferable. I passed the stone and, seeing double, screamed until it was over. I felt no better when it was. I grabbed the trashcan and lowered myself into a fetal position on the floor. I puked, three times before I lost count, my eyesight riddled with black spots, as if looking through a pinhole.

The knocking stopped. Perhaps Lysey went to call security after all. I told myself I didn’t care, that it was worth it, and at least I wasn’t on the floor of a gas station bathroom, where I was certain to catch any number of diseases.

My vision returned in increments, like fog dissipating. It became evident that my head rested in the garbage I’d dumped onto the floor. Refuse surrounded me: wadded up toilet paper, q-tips, an empty box of Clairol black hair dye. A banana peel. And strewn among these sundry items, a dozen or more small, narrow strips of paper – all of them the headers of office stationery, apparently torn from a full letter-size page. The heading on each of these bore Lysey’s name, occupation (“Licensed Private Investigator & Screenwriter”), and address.

I imagined one of these fitting like a puzzle piece atop Noah’s tattered letter from Anna.

A fresh wave of queasiness overtook my body, every nerve ending tingling in anxiety. There, trembling on the floor, a light bulb went off in my brain, casting light on something horrible that had hitherto been shrouded in the dark.

But people ate bananas, I told myself. People bought hair dye. This proved nothing.

As if in answer to my self-assurance, the utility closet door creaked open, slow and uncertain. A tan, wrinkled set of fingers gripped it from inside, slipping over the handle to reveal hairy knuckles. The closet’s occupant took a nervous step out into the bathroom to investigate the man curled up on the tile floor.

I looked up at a diaper-wearing, inquisitive adult chimpanzee. We locked eyes; we had a moment, he and I. Everything – everything­ – made perfect and awful sense in that instant.

Hanky the chimp and I both yelped at the jarring crash of the bathroom door caving in. Splintered and loosened on one hinge, it fell fully just inches from my face after one more earsplitting, forceful ram of a desk chair.

Lysey stepped in, clasping a small pistol like the kind you see femmes fatale carrying around in old Bogart movies. He took a good look, eyes darting from me, to Hanky, to the trash on the floor, then the unsightly mess in his toilet, and back to me.

“God damn it,” he said. He clicked off the safety of his gun and made sure that when I looked up, I was looking straight into its narrow barrel.

13

At least, I thought, the stockpile of diapers under the secretary’s desk made sense now. Hanky, after all, had never been potty-trained.

I rolled onto my back, saying nothing, scraps of garbage clung to my cheek. I closed my eyes and waited.

“Put the gun down, Pat,” I heard a woman say. Michelle. Secretary Michelle. Peeking through half-open eyelids, I watched in upside-down perspective as she of the jet-black locks and tight-fitting dress skirt ran a hand down Lysey’s arm – a loving caress, almost – and gripped the pistol. She took it and tucked it into her thin, non-functional belt. Lysey made no protest.

“Mr. Holm here’s not going to run his mouth to anybody,” she said. She crouched, her dangling hair and makeup-free face inching over me. “Are you?”

I accepted her outstretched hand and helped her help me up. Standing again, albeit with the sink as crucial support, I coughed and glared at the pair of them, saying nothing.

Michelle, stooped over, held out her hands. Hanky grinned, flashing big white teeth, and leapt into her arms, hugging her. He hung there on her hip like a toddler.

Lysey punched the paneling where a door used to be. “Shit!” he said. “Everything’s ruined.”

Scratching Hanky’s head, resolute and calm, the secretary said, “Nothing’s ruined, baby.” She met my gaze. “Mr. Holm. Prentiss. Tell Pat that nothing’s ruined.”

A disgusting and loud gurgle bubbled up out of my gut while I soaked in her image. Smelled her sweat, her lack of perfume and conditioner. Noted the mole on her upper lip. “I think,” I said, “that this whole fakakta debacle is one big ball of ‘ruined,’ Ms. Lockrem.”

She smiled. It was a patient smile. “You’ve known all along, haven’t you? From the day you walked in here.” Hanky nuzzled her shoulder, making her giggle. “Thank you for not telling Noah.”

I nodded because I couldn’t muster a verbal lie. I had only just figured it out, not even five minutes before. If she wanted to think I’d had the upper hand all along, I wasn’t going to try and convince her otherwise – not when she had the gun. Anna Lockrem, I’d been told, was quite the little actress, and now I believed it. Michelle the Secretary must’ve been the role of a lifetime.

Lysey grabbed the hair on both sides of his head. “Man,” he said. “Oh, man.” He wandered out of the bathroom, his business shoes clomping on the hardwood floor outside. There was a loud crash that I assumed meant he had knocked or kicked something over.

Most of my weight still on the sink, finding my breath, I stared at her, unblinking, as if she might disappear again between the short flaps of my eyelids. “That girl,” I said. “Her face.”

She shook her head and gave Hanky a peck on the cheek, skritching behind his ears. There was something on her face, something like shame, unhidden by lipstick or eye shadow. “I want you to tell me what you think happened,” she said, “and I’ll tell you if you’re right.”

I grumbled. Idora was waiting for me. But I couldn’t let it go. I had to know.

“You got cold feet before the wedding. You could tell Noah wasn’t really that thrilled with your monkey business, and you knew – like I know – that it was only a matter of time before he lost interest entirely. So you ran.”

She touched her nose with her fingertip. Right.

“When Noah hired that shmendrik out there to find you, he did. Fast. And…” I mulled it over. “And you think you fell in love, is that it?”

She shook her head. I gripped the sink counter tighter, fearing my knees would give out before we got through this. Something else occurred to me, something Noah and Lysey had both told me.

“No,” I said. “You were already having an affair. You made a cuckold of Noah a long time ago, I’m guessing sometime shortly after Lysey left his calling card outside your office. Did you take a meeting with him about his lousy movie idea? Is that when this started?”

She nodded. Right again.

The bloody image of the girl in the wedding gown, wrapped in Noah’s trembling arms, came back to me as it had so many times since that day. No face. Just a veil and nothing underneath.

“Tell me something,” I said.

Anna’s head tilted. “You tell me,” she said again, “and I’ll tell you if you’re right.”

Oy, vey. I took a deep breath and thought back on the past week or so, every stupid and trivial detail, trying to make sense of it. Make it all fit. I was as much of a detective as I was a lawyer – that is to say, not at all. “Who was the girl?” I said. “Was she…” I belched. “Was she the Jacobs girl? The one Lysey was supposed to be looking for?”

Anna’s finger once again found the tip of her nose. Spot on, Mr. Holm.

I nodded. “But Lysey, skunk that he is, he didn’t kill her, did he?”

Finger. Nose.

“No,” I said, “he wouldn’t.” My hip popped and I moaned, releasing the countertop and taking a seat on the toilet. There were white creases on my palms, quickly filling up with bright pink. “He did his job and he found her, only she was dead. But she couldn’t be dead, not if he wanted the Jacobses to keep dumping cash on his table. So off with the face.”

I leaned toward, just a bit, for a better look at her – in particular, at her mouth. “And out with your teeth,” I said. “Your pearly whites sprinkled around a body in your own wedding dress. Anna Lockrem could be dead to the world, a victim of her own compassion for the animal kingdom. And Fiona Jacobs could still be out there somewhere, at least until you and Lysey felt like you’d cashed in enough of their paychecks to afford a place in Boston.”

At this, she tilted her head, pushed her brows together. “Boston?” she said. “What’s in Boston?”

“You tell me,” I said. “You’re the one who had it circled on a list of cities.”

Her face leveled out in understanding. “Oh,” she said. “Oh!” And the little shiksa actually laughed. Laughed! It started off as a giggle and ended with her face buried in the chimp’s shoulder, her chest heaving. She took a deep breath when she finished and said, “Pat didn’t know where to set his movie. I gave him some notes. I suggested Boston. Wouldn’t that be funny? All those funny accents?”

One of the slivers of Lysey’s stationery that had been stuck to my cheek for who-knew-how-long now came fluttering to my chest. I left it there. “Young lady,” I said, “I do not see the humor in any of this.”

“No, you’re right,” Anna said, shifting Hanky on her hip. Her smile vanished. “You’re right about everything. No wonder Noah always spoke so highly of you, Uncle Prentiss.”

“He spoke highly of you, too,” I said, “so I’m not so sure what that’s really worth.”

Leaving one arm around the chimp’s torso, she dug a set of fingernails into her hair, no doubt scratching the abrasion of a hacky dye-job. “I really did love him,” she said. “At first, I mean. But he was full of shit. He didn’t care about the chimps, about Hanky. I have my priorities, okay?” She was really getting into that scalp now. “Pat says we’ll put the others up in a zoo or something somewhere, just as soon as we make enough money off of these Jacobs people. If it were up to Noah, they’d all rot in some circus caboose or starve to death.”

I shook my head, keeping the rest of my body stiff. To shift any part of me below the neck, in even the slightest way, would have hurt. “You certainly have a type, young lady,” I said.

She frowned and dropped her hand. “Huh?”

“All your chimps, save Hanky here, are gonna be put down, thanks to your new boyfriend’s master plan,” I said.

She betrayed her surprise with the smallest of gasps. “I-I didn’t know that,” she said, and hugged Hanky tighter.

“I hope you can live with that,” I said.

Her new false teeth clamped down on a row of fingertips.

After a time, she stepped over the felled bathroom door and stood in the doorway, pointing at the exit. “I want you to go,” she said. “Please just leave.”

I told her I wouldn’t. That this wasn’t over, and I wasn’t done with the pair of them.

So Patrick Lysey called the cops, and that was the day that Prentiss Holm – at the age of sixty-five – was handcuffed and loaded into the back of a police car while his wife watched from across the street.

14

 

            My evening withered away to the off-key tune of my drunken cellmate caterwauling the Italian song from that cartoon about the dogs eating a plate of spaghetti. The aftershocks of my innards’ trauma still resounding, I hunched over on the metal bench and clung for dear life onto the back of my neck. A fresh swelling of pain erupted within me following each breath I took. I made no complaint, uttered not a single moan of aggravation. A water would have been nice, but the effort required to ask for it would may have done me in.

So there I sat.

It was during Sinatra Incarnate’s fiftieth or so rendition of the Disney song that the guard, in an act of infinite mercy, told him to shut his yapper – and announced that I had a visitor.

He wrenched the metal door open from its rusted hinges and I heard, with my head still in my lap, the light clatter of soft-soled slippers on the concrete floor.

“I’m not impressed, Prentiss.”

With some struggle, I managed to straighten up, filling the cell with the bubble-wrap sounds of my spine’s protest. There she was, a set of narrow bars separating us: Idora, her arms crossed, her glasses swinging from her neck like a hangman’s noose.

I said nothing, still couldn’t.

She said, “Well?”

An involuntary croak escaped my throat.

Her arms wrapped tighter around her chest. The flesh around her pursed lips went white. “Noah called. I know what you two have been up to. And I tell you, Prentiss, you’re out of your mind if you think you’ve been brave, or manly, or – or noble.”

I swallowed. The spit wad became an A-bomb in my weakened guts. The putz behind me started back up again with his song.

This is the night…

“You’re no fledgling detective,” Idora said. “Or some upholder of the law. You’re not Humphrey Bogart. You’re a notary public and an old man.”

It’s a bee-yoo-tee-ful night…

“You’re my notary public. My old man. My little shlimazel. I never asked anything more of you. What else could you possibly need?”

…And we call it bella notte!

            She scraped her rubber heels across the floor, wrapped her fingers on one of the bars. In the dank lighting of the holding cell, I couldn’t see the wrinkles that had formed on that hand over the decades. There, they were smooth and porcelain, spotless.

I didn’t even need to consider her remarks to know her analysis was spot on. No matter how much I convinced myself I’d been snooping around, up to my armpits in backstabbing and nonsense, because I felt bad for Noah, it was plain now that wasn’t the case at all. Feel bad for Noah? No.

I felt sorry for myself. How humiliating.

My feet splayed out, ready to lift me up, to carry me over to her, when I froze at her next words.

“You’ve passed that kidney stone, I see,” she said.

I wheezed out something that sounded like, “Didn’t tell Noah about that.”

The first hint of a smile tickled Idora’s lips. “Oh, Prentiss,” she said, and her hand fell off the bar and back to her cotton-draped hip. “What do you think of me? I knew about the damn kidney stone.”

My mouth fell open.

“Up all hours, tossing and turning. Running to the bathroom, not cleaning your plate most nights, not hopping up for seconds in all the years I’ve known you. I waited for you to say something, dear. Watched your face go red, your eyes go glassy, every night. And not a word out of you about it. You think I’m this maven, don’t you? This bossy know-it-all. Well, here’s what I know.”

Look at the skies, they have stars in their eyes…

Idora took two pairs of forefingers and thumbs and pulled her glasses up the bridge of her nose. “You’re a fool, Prentiss Holm. And you’re the only fool I’ve ever wanted. You never did wrong by me before. Don’t start now, all right?”

On this lovely bella notte!

She turned ­– not with a dainty spin as in the old days, but with an unsure twist of her ankles. The guard stood at attention.

“Ma’am,” he said, removing a pen from his shirt pocket. “If you want to step into the lobby with me, we can get the paperwork started for Mr. Holm’s bail.”

And Idora shook her head.

“My husband needs a night to clear his head.” She did not look back at me. “And a glass of water, for God’s sake.”

Then she left.

The vagrant on the cot took another great breath and began to belt out the next verse of his serenade. The guard, befuddled by my wife’s abrupt exit, jerked his head back at us and pointed into the cell.

“That’s enough of that!” he said.

“That’s amore,” said the drunkard.

15

Idora never did show up the following morning. It was Noah Vale who bought my way out of the clink.

When the guard led me out of the cell block and into the office, where my nephew stood in his discount suit, hands crossed and eyebrows raised, I considered asking to be let back into the cell.

“Feh!” I said. “You. This is your fault.”

“I know it is,” Noah said, handing me the plastic bag that contained my wallet, keys, watch, and Tums. “I know. I’m sorry.”

The watch pulled out a few hairs when I snapped it back into place on my arm. I said nothing to Noah and instead filled my mouth with Tums, crunching on them on our way out the door. Once inside his Prius, rolling down the highway, he spoke up again.

“Did you hear me back there?” he said. “I said I was sorry.”

I grunted.

“You old bastard,” he said and reached for the radio dial.

I grabbed his hand, stopping him from cranking up whatever God-awful noise he might consider good music. “I found her,” I said. “Anna’s alive.”

Noah nodded. “I know,” he said. “Aunt Idora called me. She was vague, pretty clueless about what’s going on, but when she told me you got busted for assaulting a detective and a secretary holding a monkey, I filled in the blanks myself.”

“So did you file a report back there?” I asked. I licked my thumb and began to scratch at a flaky spot of dried blood on my pants.

“No,” he said.

“Then turn the car around. They’re not getting away with this.”

Instead he accelerated. “I’m taking you home,” he said. “That’s it.”

“I’m calling it in soon as I walk in that door.”

“Damn it, Uncle Prentiss!” Noah said. He pulled the car over and put it in park, freeing his hands to gesticulate in all directions as he berated me. “I buried my fiancée today! I don’t care who that really was in that coffin. Anna’s gone no matter what, and as far as I’m concerned we put her in the ground this morning. I’m done with this. It’s over!”

He bopped his head against the steering wheel, causing a terse honk to sound. I clutched my thighs with both hands and straightened up, stretching my sore torso. The sight of him – the hunched shoulders, the defeated stance, the way his eye never quite met mine, ever – punctuated what I had decided during my brief stay in jail. I never wanted to see Noah Vale again. Did I wish him ill? Hell, no. But whatever the future held for the boy, I didn’t want any part of it.

I agreed to keep mum, though the words tasted worse coming out than the bile I’d hacked up in Lysey’s bathroom. It was the only way to bring this circus to an end, the only way I could go back home and take a bath.

And of course I didn’t mean it.

He gave me his sincere thanks and told me he was ready to move on, too.

“I’m excited about my next business prospect,” he said, putting the car back into drive. “I’m investing in an upstart energy drink company. Did you know there’s still no energy milk? We’re gonna set the marketplace on fire.”

One positive thing about the mentality of Noah and his ilk: with that outlook, you never stayed sad for long.

Or, at least, not that anybody could tell.

16

I still read the paper.

Maybe I’m the only one anymore, but I pay for an annual subscription and I hike my saggy tuchas to the curb every morning, a steaming mug in hand, and grab the morning edition – which, these days, is the only edition.

It was on a morning about a month after all the business with Noah and Anna, Hanky and Lysey, that I found – tucked into my newspaper – a folded-up note with familiar cursive writing along the outside. “To Prentiss Holm,” it said.

Idora was inside fixing breakfast. I stayed on the stoop, peeling the page back along the folds, and read the inside:

Uncle Prentiss,

I hope you don’t mind my calling you ‘Uncle.’ That’s just how I think of you now – how I’ll probably always think of you.

                        I just wanted to take the time to thank you. When I said in Pat’s bathroom that you were right about everything, I meant it. You were right about Noah, right about Pat. I guess I don’t ‘get’ people the way others do. I don’t see the obvious. I fall into bad patterns.

                        But no more of that! I left Pat. I’m leaving town. You’ll forgive me if I don’t divulge my destination, but I just wanted you to know that.

                        So often we’re told or led to believe that what we do doesn’t count, that we don’t count. But I’ve read today’s paper, and for those of us in the know, it’s pretty evident that your recent actions counted, Uncle Prentiss. You’re a good man, and I’m happy to have met you, however briefly and unhappy the circumstances.

            Yours,

            ‘Michelle’

 

I ripped up the page, sprinkled the remnants into the garbage can out by the mailbox, and went inside.

Idora greeted me from her operating station at the stove, spatula in hand. It had taken a while, but she did cool off and resume speaking to me after that miserable night. We never did discuss it again. I think everything she’d needed to say had been said.

When, about three weeks after my short stint in the clink, a check arrived in the mail – payable to me from the Holy Cow Energy Drink Corporation for ten thousand dollars – I convinced her it was one of those scams our bank teller always warned us about. We dropped it into the paper shredder together.

Now, while she ate her grapefruit and read her romance novel, I sipped on coffee and scoured the paper, wondering what Anna’s note had meant. As it happened, there were two articles in that edition that made my heart do a somersault: one told of the police’s official announcement that the books were to be closed on the Fiona Jacobs case. An anonymous tip had been called in weeks earlier that ultimately panned out: Jacobs was dead, her body mistaken for another missing girl’s last month. Now, her killer had been found through DNA evidence. Poor Anna Lockrem was still missing, the paper said (missing her teeth, I thought), but on the bright side, the Jacobs family had closure. Thank God for that mysterious tipster!

That tipster was me. There were some things I could just not let go.

The other article told of a new exhibit at the city zoo, a group of chimpanzees once fated to execution but given last-minute clemency thanks to a generous and anonymous (again, that word) donation. Blowing on my scalding beverage, I grinned. Anna, it seemed, had gotten hold of Lysey’s pocketbook to right at least one wrong.

I hoped she hadn’t left the bastard a penny.

It took some doing, but after breakfast I convinced Idora to get out of the house with me and go see the new chimp exhibit. It always took some doing to get her to go anywhere, but once we were out she’d remember what it was like to have fun. I could tell she was having a good time, about a half hour into it, when we were looking at the polar bears and she wrapped her arm around my waist.

When we approached the chimpanzee exhibition, she let go of me and put her hands on the rails surrounding the netted bit of imitation jungle. Like they had outside Noah’s office building, the apes swung from tree to tree, chasing one another and cackling.

Idora said, “Ugly little things, aren’t they?”

I nodded. They did not strike me as majestic, that was true. And they were filthy. Flea-bitten.

Still, it felt good to see the stupid things goofing around, alive and well, and to know that if not for my stubborn persistence, they would be long gone. In my old line of work, I was paid to be the bearer of bad news. Making a positive change for once, even if it was just for some dumb animals, felt good. For a second, I considered sharing this thought with Idora, but I decided I’d better table that one for later. It was enough to just be there, with her, to know I had something not every guy had.

“But I guess they look like little men,” said Idora. “They look and act like little men.”

Bounding from tree to tree, smacking and snarling at one another, throwing their shit around. “Yes,” I said, “they do.”

“I’m actually glad you brought me out here,” she said, and her arm found my waist again. The hand on which I wore my wedding band landed on her shoulder. The pair of us, a couple of old-timers in visors and fanny packs, stared up at the trees and shielded our eyes from the glaring sunlight.

I pulled her close. Took a step to the right and landed my loafer right into a fresh wad of Wrigley’s.

Lifting my shoe, I said, “You gotta be kidding me.”

Idora giggled. It sounded just like it always did, like it used to when we were kids. Like she did when I got mustard on my tie on our first date; like when I asked her to marry me, when I carried her over our honeymoon threshold.

“My little shlimazel,” she said.

Her mouth grazed my stubbly cheek and made the faintest scraping sound. “Don’t you go anywhere,” I said.

“What’re you talking about?” she said, turning to me and rolling her eyes. “I’m right here, Prentiss.”

She was right.

She was always right.

And I loved her for it.

THE END.

To Know a Veil (or: To Noah Vale), Part Two

4

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.

5

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:

Denver,

            Yuma,

            Toronto,

            Boston

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.”

6

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?”

He remembered.

7

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.

“Kendra Harris.”

“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.

8

 

            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.”

“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.

9

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.

He nodded.

“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?”

“Huh?”

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.”

“How?”

“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:

Dear Noah,

                        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.

            Love,

            A.

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.”

10

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.

“Two!”

“We speak for those who can’t speak for themselves!”

“Three!”

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.