I went to the little boy’s funeral. But I didn’t join the crowd. I saw his young mother, standing there, hunched and broken, and I couldn’t bear to face her. It wasn’t just that I’d told her we’d fix it. That I’d told her I’d fix it. She reminded me too much of my own mother, in similar circumstances, when we buried Bug. This boy, at least, had mourners, mostly older women in blacks and deep purples who glanced at the trembling girl, unsure whether to hug her or give her space. I still wanted to talk to her, to say something, whatever I could, but I wanted to do it away from all those shifting eyes. I was a coward, I guess. I didn’t want to admit before anyone other than her that I had failed. Maybe it wasn’t cowardice. Maybe it was pride again.
A small crowd gathered as I watched from behind a towering monument to some dead businessman nobody knew. Words were spoken and more tears shed. The breeze was as still as the bodies in the ground, and I could hear the sniffles from across the lawn. About halfway through the service, a car pulled to a stop on the drive, a car I recognized. Ollie stepped out, dark overcoat over a stiff formal suit. He clutched a string of beads in his hand from which hung a cross. I watched him join the crowd and bow his head in sadness as the tiny casket was lowered into the earth. It was sleek and shiny, like the occupant was riding a toy limousine to the other side. A prayer was read, and Ollie’s thumb moved the beads one at a time. For all his gruff talk, he was as human as the rest of us.
Then it was over, and I felt a small panic. I’d taken a rideshare to the cemetery. I hadn’t planned on being a coward and needing an escape to the street. I turned about, looking for any retreat through the wide-open gravestones that wouldn’t leave me exposed, when I heard a familiar rumble, like the purr of a big cat. Behind me, past the tidy rows of the dead, the black Jaguar pulled to a stop. Milan was behind the wheel. She waited for me. She was alone.
I wove through the headstones as nonchalantly as I could and got in without a word. I didn’t look to see if I was spotted. She, at least, seemed to understand my predicament and pulled away in silence. Once again, we hit nothing but green lights and made the freeway in record time. Not that I noticed it then. My mind wandered to the little casket and the similar one my brother lay in and to my daughter and to the conversation with my wife the day before. I wondered how much extra was “extra money” and how many hours a week was “a few.”
My left hand was on my knee, which shook up and down nervously. I only noticed when I caught Milan glancing at me glancing at my wedding band. Our eyes met.
“Nervous?” she asked.
“About what? You haven’t even told me where we’re going.”
She nodded weakly, like she knew there was more behind my agitation but didn’t want to argue.
“Just say it,” I said.
“I don’t want to pry.”
“I’m a big boy. I can say no.”
“You wear a wedding ring.”
“You don’t appear to be in possession of a wife.”
“She’s at home. In Atlanta. Watching our daughter.”
“Why didn’t they come?”
“It’s a temporary appointment.”
“Ah. And you didn’t want to take your daughter out of school.”
I shook my head. “She’s not in school yet.”
Milan turned from the road for a moment to look at my face.
“Marlene thought it would be better for her,” I explained. “Our daughter does better with a routine.”
“Don’t we all,” she added softly.
“And you?” I asked.
“What about me?”
“What’s the deal with you two? Not that I want to pry.” I used her words. “You’re not his girlfriend, obviously. You’re not his family either. You seem a little overqualified to be his personal assistant.”
“Yeah. So . . . ?”
“It’s complicated,” she said, without sarcasm.
“So you do mind me asking.”
“Not any more than you.”
I nodded once. “Fair enough.”
“Perhaps we would both be more comfortable saving the personal affairs for another time,” she suggested.
“Will there be another time?”
She didn’t say, and I turned to the window. We were heading out toward Long Island. Rows of town homes and apartment blocks gradually gave way to drive-thru restaurants and neighborhoods with narrow yards.
“My wife and I decided to use the appointment as a trial separation,” I said finally.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” She sounded like she meant it.
I glanced to her slender, manicured fingers lightly turning the steering wheel. No rings.
She saw me looking.
“You ever married?” I asked.
She nodded. “Once.” Then she bobbled her head like she was hedging. “Basically.”
“Common law,” she explained, glancing to me politely. “Not in the States.”
“Oh? Where are you from?”
“A town in Poland.”
“A town in Poland?” I asked incredulously. “That’s an unusual way to put it.”
“I’m sorry. English isn’t my first language.”
“Your English is better than mine,” I said. “Damn near flawless actually. But okay. A town in Poland.”
We were quiet for a moment.
“What makes you think there’s any significance to it?” she asked.
I motioned to her hands on the wheel. “Your nails are perfect. Your hair is perfect. Your skin is perfect. Every time I’ve seen you, your shoes have matched your blouse and your hair has matched your pants or whatever the rules are. But when I ask you where you’re from, you don’t say Poland, which is what a Polish person would say. I get ‘a town in Poland.’ And that’s it.” I turned to look at her as she drove. “But maybe I’m wrong.”
“You’re not wrong,” she said without taking her eyes from the road.
“So you’re from a town in Poland but you’re not Polish?”
I waited for an explanation. When there was none, I turned back in my seat. “Okay.”
It was a few minutes, maybe longer, before I understood. “The town is in Poland now, but it didn’t used to be Poland. It used to be a different country.”
“Something like that.”
“I wasn’t aware the Polish borders had changed in our lifetime.”
She smirked. “He was right about you.”
“You’re the clever man.
She emphasized the word ‘clever’ slightly—not enough to suggest it was a joke, just enough to imply there was something more. But whatever that was, she didn’t explain. All I got was “I hope it’s enough.”
“Enough for what?” I asked.
“Whatever we’re about to face.”
“You don’t know either?” I studied her face. “Why’d he ask me about my daughter?”
“I don’t know,” she said finally. “You’d have to ask him.”
“You don’t have a guess?”
“I’ve learnt it’s usually better not to guess.” She glanced to me from the road again. “With him, things are rarely as they appear.”
I nodded once more and added under my breath, “I’d buy that.” I spoke louder a moment later. “I have another question and I’d like a straight answer please.”
“How much of yesterday was a recruitment interview?”
“What do you mean?”
“You showing up like that. It’s like what the military does with inner city kids—send a sharp-looking recruiter to the schools and playgrounds, see who’s got the moves, approach them and see how desperate they are. Then make a pitch.”
“They approach you?”
“But you didn’t say yes.”
“I was lucky. I had an alternative. Seems to me yesterday was all about seeing if I could keep up. Whether I would take no for an answer. That kind of thing. Am I right?”
She turned and smiled. “You’ll never know.”
“That’s your straight answer?”
She nodded out the window. “We’re here.”
I read the brick sign next to the street. John D. Bailey Palliative Care Center.
“A nursing home? Is this a joke?”
She pulled around the corner to a burger joint, rather than into the center’s parking lot, and stopped.
“You want to know who’s responsible for everything that’s happened,” she said in the quiet car. It was half statement, half question.
“So do we.” She nodded toward the big block of a nursing home.
The architecture was modern of course, but it was every bit as dour as an old English mansion. It was shaped vaguely like a typewriter. The residential block at the back was only two stories tall. The entryway poked out from the wider main floor. Doors marked “Exit” and “Enter” were separated by ten feet of wall and surrounded by sidewalk and shrubbery. The whole complex was covered in tan striated brick, the kind popular for government and university buildings in the ’60s and ’70s, and there were too few windows. AC units on the ground floor were covered in metal cages, apparently to keep them from being stolen. Box-shaped sodium lamps jutted from the exterior in pairs, like watchful eyes. All in all, it was oppressive—a utilitarian fortress designed, above all else, to prevent lawsuits.
“You think our smuggler is here?”
“I didn’t say smuggler.”
“So why don’t you talk to this person?”
“You can go places we cannot, remember? She knows us. She doesn’t know you.”
There was a short pause.
“Granny Tuesday,” she said.
“He left you instructions,” she added quickly.
I felt like the child of a wayward parent, coming home to an empty house and a note that said dinner was in the oven. “And where is he again?”
“Busy.” She handed me a piece of plain white paper folded in quarters. “Preparing.”
“Preparing for what?”
I opened it. It was a five-item list composed in simple, neat handwriting.
I read the first item out loud. “Take nothing that could identify you. No wallet. No telephone. No watch or jewelry.”
Easy enough. I took out my phone and wallet and slipped them into the pocket of the car door.
I read the second item. “Let nothing pass your lips. Accept neither food nor drink.”
I looked at Milan as if to confirm the directive’s authenticity. She nodded.
I read the third item. “Don’t let her touch you, even in greeting. Keep your hands to yourself at all times. Seriously?”
I looked again.
“Fine.” I read the fourth item. “Present her the coin, but do not let her touch it, even to verify its authenticity. Under no circumstances must you let her have it. What coin?”
She held up a tarnished gray silver dollar, or at least that’s what it looked like. I took it.
“What is it?”
I couldn’t tell the country of origin or the denomination. There was a head in profile stamped on one side, along with some words, but both had faded to mere bumps on the metal, as if whoever had owned it had been rubbing it for luck.
She nodded to the paper.
I read the fifth item. “Offer to sell it. But accept no bargain. This point I cannot stress enough.” And under that: “Make no terms with her, for you will lose more than you know—all that is dear.”
I read the list again to myself. I held up the tarnished silver.
“Where am I supposed to say I got this?”
“You aren’t. The less you tell her, the better, which means the less you know, the better.”
“I don’t know anything.”
“Exactly. She’ll know if you’re lying.”
“That seems backwards to me. But whatever.” I looked at the list again. “So, wait. If I can’t tell the truth, and I can’t lie, what the hell am I supposed to say?”
“I’m sure you’ll think of something. You’re the clever man.”
“Right.” I folded the instructions again and slipped them into my pocket. “So, I have to act natural, but I can’t shake her hand or otherwise let her touch me. I can’t accept anything she offers me. I have to tease her with the coin without actually offering it in the hopes she’ll reveal something I don’t know. Got it.” I reached for my bag in the back seat.
“Leave it,” she said.
“Right,” I repeated. I let go of the strap.
“The ring, too,” she urged.
I looked down at my wedding band.
She held out her hand. I looked at her bare palm, at her perfectly manicured nails. I slipped off the ring and put it in her palm.
“Please don’t lose it,” I said. “I’m not done with that yet.”
I got out and was halfway across the street before I heard her door open.
“Doctor,” she called.
“Please. Be careful.”
rough cut from my forthcoming hard-boiled epic occult mystery, FEAST OF SHADOWS.