Best. Teacher. Ever.

The first time I heard of Mr. Vincent was through my brother, Stewart.  I was in the seventh grade at Malibu Park Junior High.  My brother was two grades ahead of me.  Being a typical teenager, Stew wasn’t particularly jazzed about school.  Stew loved learning about new subjects, but school mostly turned him off during this period of his young life.  Unlike me, Stew was a cool kid, he played football and surfed.  When it came to school, he never had anything particularly nice to say about any of his teachers or Malibu Park Junior High.  It made sense.  Being into school was for nerds like me – Stew was smart, but he wasn’t a member of geek squad.   So, it was a real shock to both myself and my parents to hear Stew raving about how wonderful his new 9th grade history teacher was. 

“The dude is so freaking awesome,” Stew explained at our family dinner the first week of the fall semester.  “He doesn’t waste our time on any of that boring bullshit like those other loser teachers, making us memorize useless dates and shit – Mr. Vincent makes history interesting.”

“How does he do that?” our mother asked.

“He tells it to us like it’s a story.  He gives us interesting details, like how the Romans used these huge planks with giant nails to trap the Carthaginian ships so their infantry could rush aboard the enemy ship.  That’s how they defeated the best navy in the world to win the first Punic War.  The way he explained it makes it sound like you were watching a movie.  Plus, he’s like the nicest guy.  I’ve only been in his class a week and already I can tell he’s like the best teacher I’ve ever had.”

“Wow.”  My mother asked. “He sounds like quite a guy.”

“He is.  Everyone digs Mr. V.  He’s the best.  In fact, I’d go far so say he’s the best.  Teacher.  Ever.”  

That was my first introduction to Mr. Vincent.  Over time, I’d learn that, indeed, every kid at Malibu Park Junior High adored him just as much as my brother did.   In fact, my brother was so excited by Mr. Vincent that he started recounting his lectures on a regular basis at dinner almost every night.   Unlike his other classes, Stew studied hard for Mr. Vincent’s tests.  He was actually excited about learning history and ended up earning a solid “A” in his class.  

I’m sure countless other kids went had a similar experience with Mr. Vincent.  To this day, he remains one of the most fondly remembered teachers to ever grace the halls of Malibu Park Junior High.   What made Mr. Vincent so great was that he an amazing storyteller, as my brother said, who knew how to present history like it was an epic tale unfolding before our eyes.  He had a keen sense of humor too and knew just when to punctuate a lecture with a well-placed, groan inducing pun.  He was also well organized and knew how to present his course material in a manner that challenged the brightest students without leaving behind the slower kids.  His class wasn’t that hard, especially if you paid attention, but he also wasn’t afraid to challenge kids to understand history from a more mature perspective. 

Perhaps most importantly, however, Mr. Vincent was an incredibly kind and thoughtful man who genuinely cared about you as a student.   Mr. Vincent, never talked down to anyone.  He treated us all like we were capable of understanding the complex details of human history.  He presented it as an epic tales of choices, good and bad. He didn’t pull any punches, he wanted to make sure we got the big picture, it was important to him. Mr. Vincent wanted us to make the connection that history had been no picnic, but that the future was in our hands.

I recall him recounting in moving detail the Holocaust and giving us a very sophisticated breakdown of Adolf Hitler’s mental health issues and how he was able to create a fascist state.   Having TA’d in his class one semester in the 8th grade, I knew that Mr. V taught his lessons verbatim, class after class, year after year.  Yet, somehow, his lessons always felt completely spontaneous and fresh because of the infectious enthusiasm that he displayed whenever he taught his lessons. 

Unlike Mr. Tucker, our bombastic science teacher, who would regularly call me a “dullard” and scream at me whenever I did anything wrong in his lab, Mr. Vincent was soft spoken and patient. He made it a point to always build up the self esteem of his students. He praised me often, complimenting me on how smart I was. Once, when I got in serious trouble for tagging the school, he pulled me aside and told me the incident didn’t reflect on my true character.

“You’re better than this. You screwed up, but most kids do, I still believe in you, Scott,” he said. Those words meant a lot to me at the time. I resolved to never get in that kind of trouble and disappoint Mr. Vincent again.

I think most students who went to Malibu Park Junior High would agree.  Mr. V was the Best. Teacher.  Ever.  Period.

                                                            ************************

I thought about Mr. Vincent often when I worked as a substitute teacher for LAUSD.  This was during a slow time in my film career, when I had to scramble for cash to pay my bills.  However, working as a sub, wasn’t just a job for me.  I wanted to do more than just pay my bills.  I took teaching seriously.   I wanted desperately to make a difference – especially for kids of color.   To this end, I volunteered to work at the worse schools in the district, with the most dysfunctional kids in all of LAUSD.   The school district was more than happy to oblige a gullible, idealist like me.  So, they assigned me to work the absolute worst schools in South Central LA.

I had practically no training of any kind when I started, but my optimism (arrogance?) told me it was fine.  I thought I was a cool, smart guy, I could just “wing it” and be a great teacher – just like Mr. Vincent. 

How wrong I was.   

My first semester teaching was an absolute disaster.  With virtually no training I was given a long term assigned to take over a social studies course at one of the roughest Middle Schools in South LA where the regular teacher had a heart attack the first week of school.  I was given practically no materials of any kind, or lesson plans to follow.  No one in authority ever checked in with me to see how things were going.   I was simply told by the clerk in the main office to go to the class every day and “try not to let them burn the room down.”  All the administration cared about was that there was a warm body in the room.  Still, I was up for the challenge.  I wrote up lesson plans based on my considerable (but amateur) knowledge of history.  Inspired by the example of Mr. Vincent, I tried to be a story-teller.  I gave inspiring lectures that I practiced at home every night, I tried to make learning US History as entertaining as possible.  I tried to be kind, gentle and make every student fell like they were special and appreciated by me, just like Mr. V used to do.  I even spiced up my lectures with well-timed, groan inducing puns. 

The was only one problem:  I was no Mr. Vincent. 

To be fair, the kids did really like me.  Which is shocking.  We were the same color, but were from totally different worlds.  I’d grown up in relative affluence in Malibu.  I was educated at a school were doing your work everyday and sitting in your seat quietly was the norm.  My students came from family that were very poor, most were first generation immigrants. They had attended dysfunctional “ghetto schools” all their lives. Some hadn’t done any class work, let alone homework, in years.  Their academic skills were all far, far below grade level – which made teaching even the most basic concept an enormous challenge.  Gangs ran rampant at the school.  Fights were constantly breaking out.  Students would tear pages out of text books and tag the room the moment I turned my head.  The fire alarm got pulled practically every five minutes.  The culture of the school was one of chaos and violence.  It was a war zone more than a place of education.

However, even though I was a huge fish out of water, I was still somehow very popular with the kids.  My students always gave me endless props.  They dapped me coming in the door and told me constantly how my class was “chill”.    I was the cool guy on campus, “Mr. Diablo”, the guy kids could relate to, who, like Mr. V, made history fun – or so I thought.   It took me awhile to figure out what was really going on.  Sure, I was popular, but the sad truth was, although the students liked me, they really didn’t respect me at all.   They thought my class was chill because they could goof of in it.

The students had quickly figured out that I had never taught a class before and took full advantage of my naïveté.  I had no idea how to control a room full of teenagers.  Although, the kids mostly stayed in their seats while I lectured them with unbridled passion on the American Revolution – they really weren’t learning much of anything.  They were entertained by my performance, but they weren’t retaining any knowledge I was attempting to impart.   I didn’t know enough to reenforce my lessons with assignments.  When I tried to give them handouts and quizzes, they would just blow off my work and I was too soft hearted to punish them for it.  Gradually, my class got more more wild and unruly.   It turned into a teenage club house.  I didn’t know how to get anyone to do work.  I didn’t want to call security and get anyone in trouble because I felt sorry for them, and also, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to be a snitch and lose my status as the “coolest teacher on campus.”

Then, one day, as I was opening the classroom in the morning, a group of Latino boys who had my class first period called me over, claiming they wanted to talk to me about something important.  I really liked this particular group of boys.  They were troublemakers, but they were funny and liked to talk to me about skateboarding, sports and Mexican Ska.  They were considered “bad apples” of the school by the administration since they were suspected of doing a lot of the tagging – but this fact only made me relate to them more.   After all, I was also a “bad apple” who had once tagged Malibu Park Junior High when I was in the 9th grade. 

I thought that by accepting them and being their “friend” I could gain their trust and “reach” them.  I figured that my comradery with them would eventually pay dividends, but my strategy was misguided.  They took my friendly, laid-back attitude towards them as a sign of weakness.   Like a pack of predators, they saw this as an opportunity to pounce. 

As soon as I walked over to them, one of them distracted me while another crept up behind me and threw a trash can over my head – so much for being the second coming of Mr. V.   At that moment, I don’t know what happened, but something snapped inside me.   White hot rage exploded in my brain.  I threw the trash can off my head and grabbed the ring leader, a young wannabe gangster named Dennis Martinez.   Grabbing him firmly by the arm, I dragged him, kicking and screaming to the main office.  All the others stood in shock with their mouth hanging wide open. They’d never seen me mad before, it was a rude wake-up call for them.

“What are you doing with Dennis, Mr. Diablo?” one of the bystanders protested.

“Shut the fuck up! Or I’m taking your ass to the dean too!” I snapped. The dude immediately waved his hands in the air, gesturing “its cool, dude.”

Meanwhile, Dennis had turned completely pale. He knew he was in real trouble and panic had set in.  I didn’t say another word to him as I dragged him into the Vice Principal’s office, where the VP, a grim looking elderly African American woman name Claurice Beaumont, (whom the students called “The Crypt Keeper”), immediately got on the phone and started calling the police to report an assault. 

“You’re going straight to Juvie, Martinez.”  She growled at Dennis.  At the sound of these words, Dennis’ tough-kid demeanor evaporated.  He started to cry like a baby and begged me not to press charges against him. 

“Please, Mr. Diablo… it was just a stupid joke.  I wasn’t trying to hurt you!  My mom will kill me if I pick up a case and get kicked out of school.  I’m begging you, just give me another chance!  Please.  I’ll do all your work, I swear.”

I looked over at Ms. Beaumont.  She pause in her call to the police.

“It’s your call, Mr. Marcano.”  She said, “But if you want my two cents, I’d send him to juvie.”  I thought about it for a few moments, then turned to Dennis.

“I’ll let it go if you write a ten-page essay on respecting authority.  Then write another ten-page essay on the causes of the American Revolution.”  Dennis nodded enthusiastically.

“I will, I will!  Thank you, Mr. D!  Thank you!”  He blurted out.  After Dennis left the office, Ms. Beaumont looked at me with distain and shook her head.

“You’re too soft, that little asshole ain’t gonna do shit for you.” 

Well, it turns out that Ms. Beaumont was wrong.   Dennis did write both essays for me.  Not only that, but he also never caused another problem in class.  In fact, he was one of the few students who did any work for me.  Yes, sadly, in spite of all my attempts to charm, plead and cajole them – I was no Mr. Vincent.  I couldn’t make these kids love history or learn much of anything that first semester.  I simply didn’t know how to teach.   When almost all of them failed my final exam, I had to face the ugly truth.  I felt utterly ashamed of myself…  

                                                  **********************

“Does anyone remember this guy?” The post at the Malibu Junior High Facebook page said.  I recognized man in the picture immediately, it was Mr. Newcomb, my 8th grade Algebra teacher.  I had always like Mr. Newcomb, granted he was no Mr. Vincent, he was very eccentric, irreverent and given to wild outbursts of anger when students got out of line.  Still, I learned a lot of Algebra from him and earned an “A” in his class.  I wrote a positive comment under the post, expressing my gratitude for Mr. Newcomb.  

Many positive comments followed mine, but I was surprised that several people wrote very  negative things about him, like “He was a jerk… dude taught me nothing….  He just sat at his desk and twiddled his thumbs.”  One person wrote something along the lines of; “Like most teachers, he probably started out ok, then just got burned out until he completely sucked.”  I found this last comment objectionable.  Sure, Mr. Newson wasn’t always the best, but he tried his darndest to do a good job.  Whatever his failings, I went on from his class to learn trig and pre-calculus.  The comment hit home with me, particularly since I’d just finished my first disastrous semester trying to teach.  I wondered to myself, is that going to be me one day, just a “jerk” that students remember as a failure? 

                                           ***********************

It took me many semester of trial and error for me to finally find my sea legs as a teacher.  Gradually, I got control of classrooms I was assigned to.  After that first horrible semester I discovered a trick which served me well for the rest of my substitute teaching career.   I recalled how Mr. Vincent would turn history into a story.  I wasn’t nearly as good at it, but I was definitely a good storyteller.  The problem was since I wasn’t teaching any one subject, I had to improvise and tell stories that would work in any given situation.   I’d always had a fondness for scary stories, so I focused on those, making up ghost stories and retelling classics like the true story of The Exorcist.   So, I began making up horror stories to tell the kids as a reward if they finished their work.  It was an unorthodox approach, but to my surprise, it actually worked.  In exchange for telling one of my tales of terror at the end of the period, students would quietly work for me.  It was amazing. 

Over time my stories became so popular at the various schools I subbed at that I became one of the most popular substitute teachers in South Central.  Predictably, the administration at the various schools couldn’t leave well enough alone.  They wouldn’t give me textbooks or lesson plans, but they harassed me constantly for using ghost stories as a method for maintaining classroom control and productivity.   Many, like Ms. Beaumont, thought my technique was just too fucking weird to be condoned.  I was constantly being threatened with being written up for spreading “supernatural lies.”  I gave zero fucks.  I needed to keep those kids in their seats and working.   I got tougher too.  Like Mr. Newcomb, I’d occasionally go into a rage filled tirade if I needed a class to settle down.   The kids never took my anger personally, however.  Mostly, they’d say I was tough, but fair.   I wouldn’t say I was a great teacher, like Mr. Vincent, but eventually I became a good one.  

The whole adventure taught me to truly appreciate the profession and how difficult it is. 

Teaching is, without a doubt, the hardest job I’ve ever done.  Working in South Central as a sub gave me a whole new appreciation of Mr. Vincent.  Although, he had a distinct advantage over me, teaching to classrooms of mostly affluent kids – Mr. Vincent was definitely a rare breed.  He was a master teacher who could breakdown the most abstract and complicated lesson and make you not only understand it, but want to know more about it

The other teachers I had at Malibu Park Junior High were all very good too, even the ones I thought at the time were pretty mediocre or total jerks.   Like Mr. Newcomb they all tried their best and for the most part succeeded.  It’s no small feat to get up every day and face a hostile crowd of hundreds of kids and try to give them an education against their will.  It takes enormous fortitude, skill and dedication.  

The great thing about the best of them is that they make you, the student, feel appreciated and special – even if that’s not entirely the case.   Back when I was in college, I returned to Malibu Park Junior High and went by Mr. Vincent’s old classroom to say hello to him.  I wanted to thank him for all he had done for me.  I managed to catch him chilling in his room as he was grading papers.  When I walked into his room, Mr. Vincent’s face lit up.  I thought he recognized me, but to my surprise, when we started talking, he didn’t remember my name.  I was a bit crestfallen, I must admit.  After all, I’d been his TA and gotten an A in his class.  I thought he’d remember me as fondly as I remembered him.  But alas, I was just another student to him, one of countless faces that had come and gone over the years. 

It was only later when I’d taught thousands of students myself that I realize how hard it was to remember all their faces and names.   Mr. Vincent was warm and friendly throughout my visit, even if he didn’t recognize me.  He asked me where I was going to college and wished me well. 

It was great to see him.  A few years later, when I found out he had passed, I cried as if a member of my own family had died.  I’m sure many of us who had the honor and privilege to have him as a teacher felt the same way.   Mr. V truly was the best teacher ever.

But when I think about things more deeply, I have to give a shout out to all my teachers, so many of them stand out in my mind; Ms. Honey, Mr. Newcomb, Mr. Jones, Mr. Degamo, Mr. Poole, of course, to name just a few of the most outstanding ones.  I don’t speak to any of them, except for Ms. Carines who interacts with me on Facebook from time to time.  Still, I’ll never forgot any of them.  All of them, in their own special way, taught me something important and made a huge impact on my development and character.  I was raised by a village of teachers who made me the person I am today. 

                                            *********************

Many years have passed since I subbed for LAUSD.  Many of the stories I told my students later became best-selling comic books for my company Diablo Comics.   Since I left teaching, I lost touch with my former students… that is until I start my Youtube channel.  Somehow, many of them started finding my videos online where I tell the ghost stories I used to make up for them.  Many of them leave comments, like “he was the best sub I ever had.”  “Loved his stories!”  some remember things a little differently than I do, however, commenting “we never did any work in his class, we just goofed off while he told stories” – which isn’t true at all except for the first semester I taught.  I always made them work after that, but if that’s how some of them remember me, that’s ok. 

One day I was going through the comments and one in particular stood out to me.  It was from Dennis Martinez, the one I spared form Juvie.  In his comment he wrote:

“Mr. Diablo, I’m not sure if you remember me, but this is Dennis, the kid who threw a trash can over your head.  I’m really sorry about that.  You were such a cool guy.  I loved the way you taught history, telling stories.   I shouldn’t have done that to you.  I admit it, I was a punk back then.  Anyhow, I somehow found myself watching one of your videos here and I just wanted to give you a shout and say thank you.  Just so you know, I graduated from King Drew Medical Magnet High School with honors, I’m now studying medicine at Stanford.  I’ve had a lot of teachers over the years, but I wanted to let you know, I think of you more than anyone else.  You were the best teacher ever.”

To all the teachers from MPJH and especially to Mr. Vincent – from the bottom of my heart, thank you all, every one of you was the best teacher ever. 

Best. Teacher. Ever.

The Grand Inquisitor

Ironically, it was Russian novelist Dostoevsky who, in his masterpiece The Brother’s Karamozov, made perhaps the greatest analogy of the dilemma of the modern political state and the tragedy of the human condition.   It comes in the singularly brilliant passage commonly known as “The Grand Inquisitor.”  If you’re not familiar with this great work, or this particular section of it, I’ll briefly summarize it for you.  

Without getting too deep into the sprawling details of the epic novel, in the Grand Inquisitor section, Dostoevsky describes a disturbing encounter between the infamous Grand Inquisitor of the Spanish Inquisition and the savior, Jesus Christ.  In his account, the Grand Inquisitor is taking a break from condemning and torturing “religious heretics” and takes a trip through his medieval city in Spain.  While being carried aloft my his minions, the GI sees a crowd gathered around a man preaching in the streets. The Grand Inquisitor takes a good look at the street preacher and knows immediately that its none other than Jesus Christ preaching to an adoring crowd.  

The Grand Inquisitor knows he’s looking at the Savior, the very messiah in who’s name his religion is based upon, in who’s name he’s been torturing and killing people – yet, in spite of this, he orders his henchman to immediately arrest the Savior and hustle him out of sight.  Once he has the Messiah chained up in the bowels of his favorite dungeon, the Grand Inquisitor sends all the guards and torturers out so he can speak to Jesus alone. 

The two have a sobering conversation, although it’s the Grand Inquisitor who does most of the talking.  He informs the Savior that he indeed knows he’s God’s son, but he really doesn’t care.  He tells the Savior he plans to keep him locked up in his dungeon until he dies in obscurity and is forgotten.  The Grand Inquisitor admits that in spite of his outward appearance of being a “disciple of Christ,” – the horrifying reality is that he’s not at all interested in doing anything remotely associated with spreading love or continuing God’s work. No, the Grand Inquisitor’s true ambition is not “peace on Earth,” but rather to maintain power and control over society.   Humanity is chattel, he maintains, that must be subdued through violence, greed, and fear.  Religion and the church is just a means to accomplish his goal.  

As awful as this admission is, when the Savior tries to argue that the Grand Inquisitor is morally bankrupt and leading humanity astray, the Inquisitor just laughs at Jesus, telling him that he really doesn’t really understand human nature.   People don’t want salvation, the Grand Inquisitor insists – in truth, all people really want is bread – and as long as the Grand Inquisitor and those in power give them their daily “bread,” they’ll be satisfied and forget all about the Savior.  

Dostoevsky wrote this seminal passage in the 1800s while all of Russia was living under the absolute rule of the Tsar, but it still rings as true today as we see the horrors of Vladimir Putin and the invasion of the Ukraine unfold before our eyes.   Pretty much every authoritarian dictator, from Hitler too Papa Doc, has used this brutal logic to maintain control and power over their subjugated people.  The logic is always the same; so long as people are fed, and have a semblance of security, order and predictability in their lives, they’ll tolerate whatever sins their strongman (or government) foists upon them.   

The underlying truth of this cynical assessment is hard to escape. While some may argue that the average Russian citizen is completely brainwashed by Putin’s propaganda machine, I, for one, am skeptical. IMHO, I think the Russian people know damn well that Putin is a brutal, corrupt son-of-a-bitch, that the war in the Ukraine is a lie, that their soldiers are probably committing war crimes. The problem isn’t that they’re naive or misinformed; the problem is they don’t care about any of of these sins because Putin’s giving them their bread.

That’s why no one should be holding their breath, waiting for a popular uprising against Putin. It’s not going to happen, folks. Period. At least not until most of bloody machinations have played out for a long, long time. Unfortunately for them (and the world at large), the greatness of the Russian people has always hamstrung by their inherent cynicism and appetite for authoritarian government. The need for a “strongman” is nothing new in Russia, many who study Russian history have consistently pointed out that it’s an instinct that runs deep in the Russian culture and collective consciousness.  

Indeed, the Russian people’s entire history is one of being brutally suppressed and exploited by powerful rulers.  This tragic chain of events goes back centuries to the insanely violent conquest by the Mongols.  After Russian was savagely conquered by Genghis Kahn, the Mongols pitted the Russian aristocracy against itself and used it to enslave the Russian peasantry.  Only the most ruthless Russian nobles survived this blood- soaked era of foreign domination and it set the tone for all that followed.  To serve the Mongol Rulers meant a Russian Prince had to be willing to back-stab other nobles in a real life game of “survivor”. Additionally it meant that one had to be willing to slaughter whole villages on command in order to wring every last drop of gold and blood out of the peasantry.  

After the terrible yoke of the Golden Horde finally passed, the Tsars took their place. But instead of freeing their own people, the Russian nobility who survived the Mongols had been so throughly perverted that they’d become as ruthless as a pack of wild, rabid dogs. They had no ambition to reform the horrors of the past, or to build a great nation, but rather they reverted to the one thing they knew best: how to enrich themselves at the expense of the common folk.

Hence the Tsars, right from the start, adopted the same repressive policies towards the lowly serfs as their former Mongol masters.  This is the period when Tsars with charming nicknames like “Ivan, The Terrible” arrived on the scene to make life even more miserable for the average Russian.  That’s when Vodka became an exclusive state-run enterprise to keep the serfs drunk and weak (which is a whole other topic worth exploring in another essay).  When revolution finally came along and toppled the Russian monarchy, it changed nothing.  If anything, the plight of the average Russian only became worse.  Murdering Tsar Nicolas and his family in a basement didn’t improve the lives of anyone in Russia.  The Tsar was merely replaced with the “Red Tsar” in the form of Joseph Stalin who built an industrial grade, political killing machine that murdered tens of millions more innocent people.  

What’s happened to the Russian people is truly one of the greatest tragedies of human history.  They have suffered like no other, not just from their own horrible rulers, but from the impact of almost constant invasion.  First it was the Vikings, then the Mongols, then the Teutonic German knights, then the Swedes, then Napoleon, then the German’s again, and then the Germans again, again.  

I don’t mean to make light of it, what the Nazi did to the Russian people them is without equal in the history of warfare.  It was total war on such a mass scale that our minds can barely grasp the level of carnage and misery associated with it. With this in mind, one can understand why the Russians are a bit defensive about their border situation.  It doesn’t excuse Putin’s actions in the Ukraine, but it does explain the appeal of his argument to the average Russian.   The Russian people must have collective PTSD by now from all the brutality they’ve endured since the seventh century. They are arguably in the top three of the most attacked and traumatized people in the history of the world.      

Sadly, having suffered all this, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for most Russians as Putin’s rule isn’t much worse (or better) than anything that came before it – it’s just the same bloody Tsar, different day – so why complain? This mentality is somewhat understandable, as before Putin took over, Russia was incredibly weak and corrupt as a democracy under the rule of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.  Former Soviet era republics were all breaking away from Mother Russia, the economy was in freefall, the country’s infrastructure was collapsing, their sports teams were getting trounced at the Olympics, etc.  Now Russia is just as corrupt, but no one would dare say the country is weak anymore.    

While our efforts to contain Russia on a geopolitical level are vital and important, we should recognize the limits of what we can do.   The US and its NATO allies have the military capacity to  stop Russia from going beyond the Ukraine and economic sanctions will eventually have a great impact on the Russian bottom line, however, we must also recognize that we have little sway over the hearts and minds of the average Russian citizen.  As immoral and aggressive as Putin is, he is giving Russia it’s “bread”.

One must understand that, until recently, Putin’s one-dimensional, fossil fuel-based economy was producing decent growth and well-being for its long-suffering citizens.  Small business and entrepreneurship (the bedrock of our economy) isn’t a thing in Russia, where most people rely on the government and huge oligarchy-run companies for employment.   By the Russian way of thinking, the Grand Inquisitor put a stop to the security threats and international humiliation of former Soviet republics demanding their independence.  Who cares if he slaughtered countless of Chechnya’s, Georgians and Ukrainians?  Putin even gave his nation Olympic gold medals again – never mind the fact that he instituted the greatest doping scandal in the post-cold war world in order to achieve it. Russia is strong, intimidating and safe again – and to a Russian population which has endured so many invasions and upheavals, that’s all that matters.   

Just to make sure no one objected to any of this, the Grand Inquisitor shut down the free press, murdered, beat and jailed anyone who spoke out against him.  His only real opponent in Russa, Alexander Navalny, is currently rotting in a prison (just like the Savior from The Brother’s Karamoazov)  and the Grand Inquisitor (Putin) just laughs and says “Who cares?!” – because in the echo-chamber of Russia run by Putin, the truth doesn’t matter anymore. MRGA is his slogan – Make Russia Great Again – and it rings true for the majority of the people eating his bread.   

Sadly, the Grand Inquisitor will remain in power for the immediate future.  Eventually, the economic sanctions and isolation from the rest of the world might start to erode his power, but so far, there’s no indication any of efforts of the West will lead to a palace coup that topples Putin.

Equally disturbing is the fact that there are many Inquisitors passing out bread around the world right now.  Indeed, democracy and rule of law are under assault everywhere – not just in Russia the Ukraine.   Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Duda, El Salvador’s Bukele, China’s Xi, France’s Le Pen, and yes, our own wannbe dictator Donald Trump, are all hard at work, convincing their deluded followers to take the bread and stop thinking so much about truth and decency. 

And tragically, in many cases, it’s working.  

Indeed, one might view the 40 plus year attempt by conservatives to overturn Roe vs Wade through the same lens. In exchange for the “bread” of stopping legal abortion, conservatives made a devil’s bargain with the Grand Inquisitor’s stand in, the turtle-pope, Mitch McConnell, to ignore proper senate rules and deny Obama his rightful judicial appointment. Then, they turned a blind eye and deaf ears to the pleas of Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault victim to let him sail through confirmation. Finally, they put a cherry on top of the dumpster fire by going back on their own words about “no nominations close to an election” and in order to ram Amy Coney Barrett ‘s nomination through a week before the last election. The whole spectacle was as shameless and dishonest as anything ever seen in US government history (which is saying a lot!). However, it was all justifiable to most conservatives, so long as they got they bread out of it.

That’s why we need to be just as vigilant here at home as abroad.  In truth, Donald Trump poses a greater threat to us than Putin.  Putin won’t invade the US and topple our government.  Donald Trump can.  He came damn close to pulling it off on January 6th and he will certainly try again if given the opportunity.  That’s why I say, if you’re conservative, fine – stick to your beliefs, but if you support Trump and his election lies and can’t wait to see Trump in the White House again – then, you’re a card-carrying member of the Grand Inquisitor Club.  

Yes, inflation sucks, but you know what sucks worse than high gas prices?  An authoritarian dictator in the White House, or worse yet, a bloody civil war that tears the country apart.  

So please, my friends, I urge you, do everything you can to stop Trump and wannbe Trumps from getting into power.  Go hungry before you give in.  Fight for what’s right.  It starts with standing up for democracy and rule of law.   But whatever you do, and however you do it, don’t delude yourself into believing the Grand Inquisitor’s lies… 

Don’t take the bread. 

The Grand Inquisitor

Chapter Eleven: The Final Hand

“Hiya, Granny.”  I said as she opened her door.  “Wanna play some cards?”

“Of course, my dear.  Come in.”  My grandmother replied, swinging open the door of her little guest house that my mother and step-father had built for her.  As I stepped into her living room, I saw she had columns of cards neatly laid out on her coffee table.  She’d already started playing a game of solitaire. 

“How’s your day going?”  I asked, taking a seat on the sofa. 

“It goes.”  Granny replied stoically.  Even though the game was solitaire, my grandmother had her usual, impenetrable “poker face” on.   I glanced over at the TV, Granny had turned on the soap opera General Hospital to keep her company.   We began drawing cards and finishing the game together, but Granny was being very quiet for some reason – more than she normally was – so, I tried to break the silence by making casual conversation.   

“You think Luke will marry Laura?”  I said, glancing at the TV. 

“Yes,” my grandmother said flatly, “Scotty is no good for her.”

“Really?”  I said.  “I don’t know, Granny.  I kinda like Scotty.  It seemed to me that he and Laura were really into each other before Luke got between them.”  Granny shook her head and waved her hand in the air, dismissing my opinion.

“Scotty’s… weak.  She’s better off with Luke, he’s a strong man.  In life you should always pick the strong horse when it comes to marriage and business.” 

“How do you know Scotty’s weak?” 

“I have a secret skill.”

“What’s that, Granny?”

“I’m good at seeing flaws in people,” she replied, “That’s why I always win at this game of solitaire.  I’m very observant.  Remember that, my dear.  Always keep your eyes open.  Look for opportunities…  Ah, here we go.”

Just then, Granny put down a card, completing a column.  This started a big run that allowed us to “win” the game against the deck.  As she put the final card into place, Granny winked at me.

                                        *******************************

That game of solitaire was a lifetime ago, and yet, somehow, I could distinctly remember all the details of that conversation when it popped into my head this morning.  It’s funny how certain random moments, out of hundreds of interactions, stand out in one’s mind.  Perhaps, I remembered this particular one because I’m more like my grandmother than I’d like to admit. 

Like her, I’m very observant, I guess.

It was around ten o’ clock.  I was sitting at my customary surveillance spot on the hillside overlooking my grandmother’s apartment. The day before, we’d made arrangements for me to come down for lunch and play a few games of solitaire.   At least, that was the plan ostensibly.   However, I suspected that Granny’s real aim was something entirely different. 

With that in mind, I decided to arrive early and stake out her apartment.  Deep down, I knew I shouldn’t be here.   If I was thinking logically, like a detective, I would have confronted her about all her lies from the safety of my apartment.   But some part of me just couldn’t let things go that easy.  It was stupid, I know, but I thought maybe if I spoke to her in person, I could somehow convince Granny to tell me the truth and chose us over the dangerous cohorts she’d fallen in with.  It was a long shot, but despite all my misgivings, I wanted to at least give it a shot.    She was family, after all…

When I arrived at the hillside that morning, I knew my grandmother wasn’t home.   The blinds on her balcony window were closed and there didn’t seem to be any lights on inside her apartment.  She was probably over at Sven’s condo, I concluded.  If that was the case, they’d probably be dropping her off soon. 

An hour or so later, my hypothesis was confirmed.  At approximately 11:30, I spotted Sven’s car pulling into the parking lot of my grandmother’s apartment complex.  Through my binoculars, I watched as the car pulled into a designated visitor parking space in front of her unit.  I could three people inside the vehicle: Sven was driving, Borjn sat beside him in the passenger seat, my grandmother was riding in the back.

After they parked, Sven and Borjn ambled out and stood outside the car for a moment, carefully scanning the area.  Satisfied that Chip wasn’t going to suddenly jump out of the bushes, Sven finally turned around and opened up the rear door of his car.   He held his hand out and helped my grandmother rise slowly out of her seat. 

The three of them spoke briefly, then Granny and Sven headed inside.  Seeing that Borjn wasn’t joining them at first, hope sprang up in my heart that they were just dropping Granny off and they’d soon be leaving.  As I continued watching, I quickly realized that Borjn wasn’t waiting around for Sven to return.  Instead, he went to the back of Sven’s car, opened up the trunk and removed a black backpack.  What it contained was anyone’s guess, but it looked like something important, judging by the way Borjn was clutching it against his body as he scurried upstairs into Granny’s apartment, closing the door behind himself.   If I had to put money on it, I’d say the backpack contained either a weapon, or a “special” ingredient to add to my food…

I waited until noon, still hoping Sven and Borjn would remerge, but when they didn’t, it was obvious that my worst fears were true.   This wasn’t a lunch date to play solitaire – it was an ambush.  I looked down at my side.  Lying next to me on the ground was the 380 Barretta and my phone.   I reached down and picked up my phone, then took a deep breath and called my grandmother’s number.

As I waited for her to pick up, a flood of memories flashed through my mind; trips to Solvang, dinners with the family, opening presents with Granny on Christmas morning…

“Hello, darling.”  My grandmother said merrily as she answered the phone.

“Hi, Granny.” 

“How are you, daring?  I’m waiting for you.  I have everything ready for our lunch date. I can’t wait to see you.  Will you be here soon?”

“No.  I won’t.”  I said. 

“I don’t understand” my grandmother said in surprise, “You’re not coming?” 

“I can’t, Granny.”

“Why not?”

“Because… I know you’re not alone.”  I let that statement hang in the air for a moment.  I could tell it caught my grandmother completely off-guard.

“W-what are you talking about?”  she finally said, “I’m just sitting here at my apartment by myself.  No one here, but me.”

“You’re lying.  Sven and Borjn are both there with you right now.  I saw them go inside with you.  Look, I’m going to cut to the chase: I know about everything, Granny.   I know about the house you used to own in Spring Valley, I know Chip has been trying to extort money from you.  That stuff I might be able to forgive you for, but I can’t forgive you for putting me in danger…. I know about the life insurance policy – the one with my name on it.”

“I can’t follow what you say…. I’m confused… Speak slowly.”

“Your friends took out a secret life insurance policy in my name.”

“This is not possible. You’re….”

My grandmother started to say something, but then she abruptly stopped speaking English and began ranting in Danish. I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, but her voice was full of emotion.  I could hear the voices of Sven and Borjn whispering in hushed tones in the background.  Then, suddenly, Granny stopped rambling and started addressing me in English again. 

“You’re crazy. Why are you saying this to me? Have you lost your mind?”

“Granny, stop it.  You can’t pretend anymore.  I just have one question to ask you; did you know about the life insurance policy?”

“I told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.” 

“Ok… If it’s true that you had no idea, I’ll try to help you. I can get you medical care, I’ll take of you, but you can’t have these people in your life anymore, all your Danish friends have to go.” 

“Do you want money from me? Is that what this is about?”

“No, I don’t want anything from you.  I just want to help, but I can’t continue to see you if you’re lying to me.”

There was a long pause on the line. Granny put her hand over the phone. I could hear muffled voices talking, Granny was conferring with Sven and Borjn. Finally, my grandmother can back on the line.

“You think you’re very smart, don’t you?  Well, I’ll tell you something, cleaver boy… You want the truth, well, the truth is, I don’t need your help.  You’re a loser who fails at everything. You have no film career. No money. You’re just… pathetic. My friends will take care of me.”

“No, they won’t, Granny.  They’re not your friends, they’re crooks.” 

“Don’t call me again. Ever. And please, Des… don’t have ten kids, there’s too many of you freeloading niggers and spics in this country already.”   With that, my grandmother hung up on me. 

I sat there for a few moments, stunned, listening to the dial tone before putting my phone away.  After sitting there for a while, I picked up my gun and walked slowly back to my car.  Although her words stung me to my core,

At least, in the end, she had finally been honest with me… 

                                                 ************************

Instead of going straight home, I drove up along the coast to a location along the coast that I had not visited in a very long time.  It was on the bluffs overlooking the ocean in Malibu.  This particular spot held a very special meaning for me as it was the spot where I’d released my portion of mother’s ashes. 

It was late afternoon when I arrived.  The sun was setting along the horizon in the distance.  As I stood there, staring out at the golden sea, I spoke aloud to my mother, saying goodbye and apologizing for not being able to do more to save my grandmother.  I told her that it wasn’t a lack of will on my part, but that doing anything further would put my life at risk and I just couldn’t do it. 

If my mother heard me or not, only heaven knows for sure.  No voice answered me back.  The only sound that met my ears was the thundering crash of the surf against the rocks and the whisper of the wind whistling through the trees along the bluff.   

                                              *******************************

The next day, I contacted the police and told them everything I knew about my grandmother her Danish “friends” regarding the fraudulent life insurance policy.  A detective from the fraud division called me a couple of weeks later.  He didn’t have good news.  The officer said they couldn’t charge anyone with a crime since they couldn’t firmly establish who bought the life insurance policy.   The detective did tell me that he called my grandmother and Sven to confront them about the policy, but they’d fervently denied they knew anything about it.

The detective told me candidly that he didn’t believe them, but unfortunately, there was nothing his department could do – other than give Sven and Granny a firm warning that if another suspicious policy turned up with them as the beneficiaries, he would personally see to it that they were charged with fraud.  It wasn’t absolute protection, but I figured that the detective’s call would be sufficient to deter Granny and her friends from trying another scheme involving me.  However, just to make sure, I continued to have Tiger Lily periodically check on life insurance policies in my name for several years afterwards. 

A month later another detective from the San Diego homicide division called me.  He’d been looking into all the evidence I’d given him about my mother’s death. 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Marino,” the detective told me over the phone, “but unless a new piece of evidence or a witness emerges, we just don’t have a viable reason to officially change your mother’s death from accident to homicide.  Off the record, I think you have good reason to suspect something is amiss, but without further evidence our hands are tied.   As far as the department is concerned, your mother’s death is a closed case.”

“I understand.” I said.  “Thank you.”

“Keep my number handy though, Mr. Marino.  You never know when something might turn up.”  I told him I would, but I knew, frustratingly, that I’d never speak to him again. 

                                                   *****************************

A few days after my final confrontation with my grandmother, Billy Rose asked me to accompany him to court as a potential “expert witness” for a case I’d recently worked on.  I really didn’t want to go with him, in fact, I was dreading it, but since Slick Rick had flown the coup, I was the only one left who could give eye-witness testimony if needed.  

The case was being tried in family court.  It was a custody battle pitting our well-heeled client, Sam Avagyan, against his ex, Amanda Torres.  If her name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, she was the woman who Billy and his colleague, Joe Pesce, tried to bribe me into getting drunk, but instead, I’d warned her that she was being set up.  Now, Billy wanted me to testify against her. I was freaking out as there was no telling how Ms. Torres would react to seeing me again. 

I showed up at court wearing a suit and a pair of large, extra-dark sunglasses that I bought at a liquor store on the way over.  It was kinda lame, but I was hoping, they’d hide my face from Torres. Pesce scowled at me as I walked into the court and took a seat quietly beside him.

“Take those stupid things off,” Pesce said, eyeing my shades, “You look like a fucking idiot.” 

Reluctantly, I removed my cheap sunglasses, but I tried to keep a low-profile by angling my face downward to the floor.  I was seated with Billy and Joe behind Mr. Avagyan and his high-end suit.  Amanda was sitting at table across the aisle from him with her not-so-rich attorney.   

Amanda had her back turned to us – fortunately. She didn’t seem to notice me.  However, her son, Jake, was sitting a few rows behind us with an older Latina whom I assumed was Amanda’s mother.   To my chagrin, Amanda kept glancing over her shoulder to make sure he was alright.   A few minutes into the hearing, I looked up and caught Amanda staring right at me with a look of shock and recognition. 

I held my breath in terror, waiting for Amanda to point an accusatory finger at me and make a horrible screeching sound like Donald Sutherland at the end of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”  But when I peeked up at her again, Amanda had turned around again. She didn’t look in my direction for the remainder of the hearing.  

As it turned out, the hearing only lasted about thirty minutes.   Most of it was spent reviewing motions brought by Mr. Avagyan to regain full custody of his son.  His strategy to reach this goal was to smear his ex, claiming she was an alcoholic and a prostitute.  Amanda’s attorney vehemently objected to these claims and actually had Amanda’s AA sponsor take the stand to testify on her behalf that she was regularly going to meetings and had maintained her sobriety for more than three years. 

At this point, Joe Pesce nudged me in the ribs with his sharp elbow and whispered in my ear. 

“How comfortable are you with lying under oath?” 

“I’m not. Sorry, Joe, I’m a Christian.”

“No.  You’re fucking pussy is what you are.”  Joe hissed.  

“There’s no God, Des – we’re all just accidents.”  Billy added, hoping I guess, that he could coax me into becoming an atheist with a few simple words.  I didn’t response to this assertion. 

When it came time for Mr. Avagyan to call his witnesses, his attorney turned to us.  Billy and Joe looked over at me again, but I just shook my head.  Billy sighed.  Pesce made a face like he’d just bitten into a shit sandwich. He shook his head to Avagyan’s attorney.

“We have no witnesses, your honor.”  Avagyan’s attorney finally said.  “But that in no way should diminish the veracity of my client’s assertions.”  The Judge looked like he wanted to burst out laughing. 

“Well,” the Judge said, “since you’ve have brought absolutely nothing to support your accusation against Ms. Torres, I’m going to dismiss your motion for reassignment of custody.”  

After reviewing some legal citations for the court recorder, the Judge officially ruled against Mr. Avagyan and awarded joint custody to Amanda.  Jake would stay with her.   Amanda wept tears of joy as the Judge read his decision.   

For his part, Avagyan was furious.  After the Judge dismissed us from court, he pulled Pesce aside for a tongue lashing in the hallway, calling him an “incompetent idiot.”   As Avagyan tore Pesce a new asshole, Billy tugged on my shirt sleeve, pulling me away from the scene.

“Come on, Des,” he said quietly, “Let’s get the fuck out of here before someone starts yelling at us too.  C’mon, I’ll buy you lunch.  You feel like a French dip at Phillip’s?”

“Sure.” I said. 

As we headed for the exit, we strode past Amanda and her attorney conferring in the hallway.  I tried not to look at them as I passed by, but I caught a glimpse of Amanda glancing over at me.  Our eyes met briefly.  I saw Amanda’s lips move, but she didn’t say anything.  Instead, she subtly mouthed two words only I was intended to see…

“Thank you.” 

I looked away and continued on my way out the door – never to see her again.  I needed that, I thought to myself as I exited the courthouse.  After failing everyone I loved, at least I’d been able to do one good deed – even if it was for a stranger. 

“What are you smiling about?”  Billy asked me as we walked away from the courthouse.

“It’s nothing,” I said.  “I’m just thinking about how good those French dip sandwiches are gonna taste.”

                                              **********************************

As I said, I did not speak to my grandmother again after I confronted her about the life insurance policy. Two years later, however, my father told me that he’d received an odd, disturbing call from lawyer who claimed to be representing Sven.  The attorney said he was calling my father to inform him that my grandmother had recently died. 

By his account, my grandmother had passed away from natural causes at a “five-star” nursing home in San Diego.  Now, he was demanding money from my father, claiming that Sven had put out a considerable amount of money paying for her care in her final years.  The lawyer then accused my brother and I of “abandoning” Granny and said he’d sue us “to the moon and back” if my father didn’t settle with Sven immediately and fork over 50 grand.  My father told the attorney to “go fuck himself” and hung up.  The lawyer never called again. 

No lawsuit was ever filed.  It was just another pathetic scam.   When my father told me about the incident, I did an internet search and discovered my grandmother’s death certificate.  The document didn’t provide much information about Granny’s demise.  All the death certificate indicated was that she had died of natural causes and the location where the coroner came to collect her remains.   I looked up the address on Google maps and even drove down to Escondido to see it with my own eyes. 

The address wasn’t a “five-star” nursing facility as Sven’s so-called lawyer claimed.  It was a vacant lot behind a liquor store four miles from her apartment.  After doing a deeper dive into public records, I found a police report on the incident.   A trash collector had reported discovering her body lying there one morning while making his rounds.  There were no obvious signs of foul play, so the police concluded that my grandmother had probably wandered out of her apartment during the evening, gotten lost, then died of a heart attack.   That might have been the case, but it’s worth considering the possibility that she might have died somewhere else and her body was merely dumped there.  Only God knows for sure what became of her in her final hours.

After learning of Granny’s death, I made some subtle inquires to see if Sven, Borjn, Jorge and his wife, Freja, were still living in San Diego, but they had all disappeared from the area.  The property manager of Sven’s condo complex told me he sold his unit around the time of my grandmother’s passing and didn’t leave any forwarding information.  I had a friend go over and knock on the door of Jorge and Freja’s apartment, but they discovered that a young family was now living there now.  

I did a more intensive search several years later, trying to track them all down.  After an exhaustive search, I stumbled upon a small news article in a Mexican newspaper that revealed what became of Sven.  After he left San Diego, he apparently moved to Acapulco.  A couple months later, his water-logged body washed up on the beach.  The Mexican police ruled his death a suicide.   According to people who they interviewed, Sven had lost a lot of money gambling and had recently been evicted from a high-end apartment he was renting. 

I eventually discovered that Jorge and Freja had divorced.  Jorge moved to a small town in Washington state where he worked a number of small, menial jobs before dying of prostate cancer.  Freja returned to Denmark and seems to have found work as a dental hygienist.  I tried to track down Borjn too, but all my inquiries came back empty.  He wasn’t mentioned in any of the reports of Sven’s death in Mexico.  He had vanished completely.  I could have put Tiger Lily on the job to find him, but I figured since he wasn’t bothering me anymore, it was best just to let sleeping dogs lie.  

As for Chip, he took his own life too, more or less.  After our encounter near Sven’s condo, he turned up dead six months later from a Fentanyl overdose.  He died in the basement of his parents’ home back in Alabama.  In retrospect, it was the best decision of my life to not seek revenge with him – his karma played out without any help from me. 

                                              **************************

After my grandmother passed, my brother and I didn’t speak about her or my mother at length for many years.  Neither did my father.  With respect to my mother, it was because the unresolved issues regarding her death were simply too raw and painful for us to deal with.  When it came to my grandmother, her astonishing turn to the “dark side” was so unfathomable and disturbing that we couldn’t begin to wrap our heads around it.

Eventually, when we did get around to discussing her, it quickly became apparent that we’d never really know what led my grandmother down the path of evil.   Was it a choice as Rabbi Horowitz had suggested in his sermon, dementia, or was she merely the victim of all the trauma she’d suffered from? 

I do have a strong opinion on the matter, but I’ll leave it up to you, gentle reader, to decide for yourself.  In case you were wondering, I did make a few attempts to see if I could trace my uncle “Karl,” but I had practically no information to go by and the search quickly fizzled out.  To this day, I have no idea if I have an uncle floating around Europe somewhere.  Perhaps, a relation will show up as part of an Ancestry Dot Com genetic match. 

When it came to Luc, no one on the Trini side of my family spoke of him for many years following his murder.  Like my own mother’s death, it was a topic too difficult for anyone to address – particularly since race was such a prominent factor in his demise.  Luc was always on our minds though. He became a ghost that haunted our collective family memory. 

My aunt Steelbeth, understandably, became terribly depressed after his death.  Eventually, after grieving in France for many months, Steely returned to Trinidad and moved into a small apartment near her childhood home on Flament Street.   She stayed there alone and isolated for several years, refusing to socialize or see anyone.   At the height of her depression, many of us were worried that she’d never recover, and/or possibly even take her own life.   

Aunt Steely didn’t succumb to her sorrows, however.  As always, she surprised everyone by discovering an inner strength that no one expected.  After several difficult years, she emerged from her self-imposed isolation and began attending a small Catholic church down the road from her apartment.    

Eventually, Steelbeth went back to school and earned a teaching degree.   She found a job at a small school in Port of Spain where she continues to work to this day.  Although Steely never married again, she does date from time to time.  Some see my aunt as a victim and her life a tragedy, but I view her differently.  To me, she is a tower of strength and determination who survived unspeakable hardships that would have broken a lesser soul.  She deserves our admiration, not our pity and I will always admire her for not giving up on life.

A year after these strange events, I finally moved out of the apartment I was living in.  Interestingly enough, after my last encounter with my grandmother, the weird noises stopped happening late at night.  The ghost it seems had served out its purpose and moved on, or maybe it was just the rusty pipes finally settling…

In any event, I moved out to go live with an old friend.  I decided to not bring my mother’s things with me as I needed a break from it all.  So, I put the puzzle box, the tin soldiers from Solvang and other sentimental items in a big, plastic storage bin and tucked it away in the attic of my father’s house.  I taped the bin’s lid firmly shut so that I wouldn’t be tempted to look at it again for a long, long time. 

Now that it’s been awhile… I’m finally able to talk about it in depth. My main purpose in recounting this dark period of my life was partly to unburden myself of weight of it all, partly to address those who thought me crazy at the time, but most importantly I did it to honor the memory of my mother and my cousin Luc; two members of my family whose lives were stolen from them before their time was due.  Although I am at peace with their passing now, I miss them both terribly.   

As time has gone on, I’ve gained more perspective on things than I once possessed.  I’ve come to realize that, perhaps, the point of my investigation wasn’t to get justice for my mom, but rather to discover another, more crucial truth.  Through my efforts I managed to uncover the insurance scheme involving my grandmother and her “friends.”   Undoubtably, I saved my own life in the process.  I am alive today because I loved my mother and wouldn’t let the mystery of her death go without a fight. But part of being a fighter is knowing when you’re in a match you can’t win.  That’s when you have to discover the deepest strength inside yourself – and find the courage to put your gloves down and walk away…    

After I disengaged from my grandmother, I spent another a few months working on cases for Billy Rose, (some of which were off the chain, but I’ll save tales of those adventures for another time.).  However, I realized after awhile that working for the Billy Rose Investigations probably wasn’t my destiny.  So, I told Billy I was leaving to work as a substitute teacher.  Billy panicked at first when I told him the news, but finally he accepted reality and told me he just wanted me to finish up my last cases before leaving.   

When I turned in my last sentencing report, he shook my hand firmly and said:

“Don’t forget us humble “dicks” back here on skid row when you make it big in Hollywood, Des.” 

“How could I ever?” I replied. 

                                     *********************************

It’s many years later now.  I don’t live in LA anymore.  I’m happily married with a beautiful wife and couple of crazy, wonderful kids.  Our house is a home, filled with several dogs and cats and plenty of love.    My film career is back on track.  Although I don’t write many big Hollywood movies these days, I rebuilt my career writing smaller independent ones.  The jobs pay less than the big studio gigs I used to get, but they are far more satisfying to be involved in.   Life is good.  I have few complaints.  The darkness of the past seems like a distant nightmare to me now. 

Several years ago, I finally shed the last souvenir of those dark days: I sold Big D’s gat at a pawn shop.  I don’t miss it.   The gun was a necessity, but it wasn’t something I wanted to keep around, especially with kids in the house.    

Not long after starting to write the first chapter of this story, I stumbled upon an interesting documentary on Netflixs one afternoon.  It was multi-part series that featured interviews with people who claimed they’d had supernatural encounters with relatives who’d recently passed away.  One particular interview caught my attention.  It was with a young woman who’s mother had died a few years prior to cancer.  In her interview, the woman talked about how her deceased mother was really into red Cardinals.  They were her favorite animal.

In the doc, the deceased woman’s daughter told the interviewer that the night her mother died, she prayed for her mom to send her a sign that she was ok in heaven.  Then, the next day, out of nowhere, a bright red cardinal suddenly landed on her shoulder and stayed there, refusing to fly away.  Even though it had been a few years, the cardinal was still hanging around the daughter.  The bird was actually sitting on her shoulder during the interview. 

“That’s freaking crazy.” I said aloud as I watched the interview.  My wife was standing nearby, making lunch, and my comment caught her attention. 

“What is?” she asked.  

“Oh, it’ s nothing, baby.  Just this lady in the doc I’m watching.  She asked her mother, who had just passed away, to send her a sign that she was ok.   I guess her mother was really into cardinals and the next morning, that bird on her shoulder showed up out of the blue.  Kinda weird, huh?”

My wife nodded thoughtfully.   Then, I blurted out.

 “If it was my mother, I know exactly what animal she’d send me.”

“Really?  What animal is that?”

“Let’s just say, it’s something that only she and I would know was from her – right mom.” I said with a chuckle.

The next morning, as is my routine, I woke up before everyone else to feed our numerous cats and dogs.  After all the animals were happily chowing down, I took out my phone and checked the video footage on our security app.  (We have motion-sensitive cameras mounted around the house, but since we live in a low-crime suburb, the only thing that triggers the camera are random cars driving by the house late at night.) However, just to be safe, I always check the security footage in the morning anyway.

This particular morning, the camera had been tripped a couple of times.  I watched the first few clips, they were, unsurprisingly, footage of the usual passing cars, until I came to a clip recorded at around 5 AM.  My eyes went wide as I watched the footage…

In the video clip, out of the darkness, two small figures saunter up to our front door.  They move with purpose and direction – like they know exactly where they’re going.  

It was a pair of raccoons. 

I couldn’t believe my eyes.  The two critters walked right up to the front door of the house and stood there a moment.   Then, one of them lifted up their little paw and flexed their fingers – it almost looked they were making a hand gesture, like a wave.

After standing at the door for a while, the two raccoons looked at each other and scampered off again into the night.  I sat there stunned for several moments, then let out an amused laugh. 

“I’m glad you’re doing ok, mom.”  I said softly “Favel...” 

The End

Chapter Eleven: The Final Hand

Chapter Ten: Echoes of The Past

“No, I think you should definitely stay…”   Borjn said as he stepped in my way, blocking my path to the stairs.  His voice was soft, yet firm, like he was giving an order rather than making a causal suggestion. 

“Sorry, I think I’d really like to go.”  I repeated.  Borjn didn’t offer a reply, nor did he move.  Suddenly, Jorge appeared behind Borjn.  Now, the two of them were jamming the narrow hallway, impeding our escape.

“Borjn’s right,” Jorge said, his voice sounding somewhat terse. “You boys should stay. There’s no reason to be rushing off at this late hour is there?”

“Exactly.”  My grandmother chimed in, squeezing Derrick’s arm.  “You must stay, my darlings.”

“Yes, listen to your grandmother.”  Sven added, giving me a scolding look.  “Stop being such a stick in the mud, Des, look at your poor brother here, he’s so tired that he’s about to pass out.”

I glanced at Derrick.  His eyes were bloodshot.  His eyelids were sagging.  He looked like he might indeed pass out.  However, there was something else I saw in Derrick’s expression too; an air of unease.  For a moment I wondered if the sight of the two beds might have reminded him of what happened to Luc too…   

Derrick turned back to me and looked me dead in the eye, searching my expression for a confirmation of what his gut was telling him.   I gave him a hard look that read: we need to go – now.  Derrick responded with a subtle nod.

“Des is right,” he said with a sigh. “We should go.  I have to get up early in the morning.”  He turned to our grandmother.  “Sorry, Granny.  We’ll have to take a rain check.”  A cloud immediately passed over her face. 

“Are you sure?”  She asked in a feeble-sounding voice. 

“Yeah, sorry, Granny.”  I said.  I turned back to Borjn.  “Can you move, please?”   

But Borjn didn’t budge.  Instead, he just stared at us with an icy look chiseled on his face.  Derrick and I looked at each other, shocked by his defiance.   Derrick straightened up, flexing his broad, muscular chest.  He took a step forward and got in Borjn’s face. 

“My brother asked you to move.”  Derrick said firmly.  “Do you have a problem with that?”  Borjn narrowed his eyes and glared back my brother.

“You should really reconsider.”  He muttered.  

For a moment, everyone just stood there, frozen.  Standing behind Borjn, Jorge’s beady eyes darted about nervously.  He looked like a cornered rat trying desperately to find a hole to crawl into.  Suddenly, Sven let out a soft cough behind us.  Borjn and Jorge’s eyes shot over to him. 

“Of course, you can go.” Sven said with an easy chuckle as if nothing was wrong, “You’re not prisoners. We just thought that it’d be nice for us all to share some more quality time together.  Sorry, if we overstepped our hospitality.” 

Sven gestured at Borjn and Jorge with his hand.  The two men slowly retreated backwards down the narrow hallway, so we could finally pass by them and reach the stairs.  I glanced at the men as I went by them.  Jorge looked greatly relieved the confrontation had come to an end, but Borjn’s expression struck me as conveying contempt and disappointment.   

As we gathered our things and made our way to the front door, Sven made bubbly comments about how much he enjoyed our visit, while our grandmother continued to complain that we shouldn’t be leaving. However, once we all gathered at the front door to say goodnight, she dropped her protests and gave us both long, warm hugs.    

“It was so wonderful to see you both.”  She said as she took my hand and rubbed it affectionately.  “Next time you come, Des… we must play solitaire again, just like we used to.”

“I’d love that.”  I said softly.  Granny smiled at me, but then, suddenly, grin faded away.  Her whole demeanor went through an abrupt transformation.  She stared at me with a confused expression and furrowed her brows as if she was deeply troubled by something. 

“Are you alright, Granny?”  I said, but my grandmother ignored my question.  She turned away from us and scanned the inside to Sven’s condo. 

“Where is he?” She mumbled.

“Who?”  Derrick said.

“Karl.”  Everyone looked at each other, no one had any idea what she was talking about. 

“Who’s Karl?”  I said.  Granny acted like she didn’t hear me at all as she continued to look around the entryway of Sven’s condo.   I looked over at Sven, but he appeared to be as baffled as I was by her strange behavior.  Freja suddenly let out a nervous laugh.

“Poor Inga’s had a little too much wine, I think.” 

Sven took Granny by the hand, trying to pull her back inside the condo as he whispered something to her in Danish.  However, Granny shook her head and pulled away from him.   She said something terse to him in a language that wasn’t Danish, it sounded like German. 

Everyone looked taken aback, unsure what to do.  I leaned in close to Granny.

“Granny… I’ll help you find Karl.”  My grandmother looked up at me with a befuddled expression on her face.  

“Do I know you?”  She said.

“I’m your grandson – Des.”  Granny squinted at me for a moment, mystified, then something seemed to click in her mind.   A smile slowly crept back across her wrinkled features.  She patted me on the shoulder.

“Of course, I know who you are, silly boy…. Why are you all looking at me like that?” she said, noticing the looks of concern hanging on everyone’s faces.  Before I had time to respond, Sven answered her. 

“It’s nothing, darling.  You were a little confused for a moment there.”

“I was?”  Granny said, turning red.

“Don’t worry, it’s nothing – just the wine talking.”  Sven said, merrily.  “Come we should get you to bed, you’re tired.”  Sven took my grandmother gently by the arm and began leading her back inside the house.   Granny nodded and gave us a last look.   

“It was so lovely to see you,” she said. “I’ll call you soon, Des.  We’ll set up a date to play cards.” 

“Drive safe.” Sven called out as he led my grandmother back into the condo.  Freja suddenly threw her arms around us, hugging us both like we were family. 

“Have a safe drive.”  She blurted out.  Standing beside her, Jorge rolled his eyes.

“Yeah, safe travels.”  He muttered.   “C’mon, Freja.”  Freja untangled herself from us and headed inside, followed by her husband.   Standing at the door, Borjn broke into a slight smile once again. 

“Well, I guess that’s it, then.   See you soon.”  He said in a sugary-sounding voice before shutting the door.  

“Let’s get the fuck out of here.” Derrick whispered to me, “We’ll talk in the car.”

************************************

“You were right, bro,” Derrick said as we drove out of Sven’s condo complex.  “There’s something definitely off about those fuckers.  For a moment there I thought that Borjn dude was going to get physical with us.” 

“I thought so too.”

“Thing is, I just don’t get why it was so important to them that we spend the night.”

“I don’t know either.” I said.  Derrick looked off, thinking for a moment. 

“I think they were doing it on purpose.”

“Why?” 

“To scare us off.  Look, we’re the only family Granny has left.  After seeing her lose it like that when we were leaving… it breaks my heart to say it, but it’s obvious she’s slipping into dementia, bro.”

“I agree.”  I said with a sigh.

“If she does have some money stashed away, then it could be these assholes are hovering around her like a pack of jackals, waiting until the time is right… so they can pounce and empty her bank account.”  Derrick let out a big yawn. “T-That’s why we need to stay engaged… we have to protect our grandmother.  She’s family.” 

Derrick spent the next few minutes trying to convince me, that in spite of all their creepy behavior, I needed to continue to see Granny.  After a little while, however, he stopped talking and fell fast asleep.  When we got back to his apartment, Derrick was so out of it that I could barely rouse him.  In fact, I had to practically carry him to his front door, unlock it for him and guide him to his bedroom.  After I laid him down on his bed, Derrick immediately closed his eyes and started snoring again. I’d never seen my brother that drunk before. 

Derrick told me later that he didn’t wake up until the afternoon of the following day and even then, he felt “out of it” for the next 24 hours.

It made me wonder…

*************************************

“Your father’s in his study.” My stepmother, Rachel, said as she gave me a warm hug and ushered me into their house.  

It was the day after our strange dinner with Granny.  At my father’s request, I’d traveled to his house to discuss an important piece of information about my grandmother that he refused to share over the phone.  I had no idea what it could possibly be, but my father’s behavior was very unusual, so it had to be something significant.  

I hadn’t sleep much the night before as I was still trying to process everything that was going on with my grandmother.  After turning things over and over again in my mind, I felt more confused than ever.  The Danes were obviously up to something – of that, I had no doubt.  The question was, of course, what?  And of perhaps more importance, was my grandmother a co-conspirator or a victim of their schemes. 

My brother, Derrick, was convinced it was the latter.  It was a theory worth considering.  After all, Sven and his crew were intimately involved in every aspect of her life, including her finances.  They had even taken control over her storage locker where all her (and my mother’s) property was being kept.  It was also telling that I had not seen Granny outside of Sven’s presence since my first meeting with her.  

However, dementia didn’t account for all Granny’s odd behavior.  She’d clearly lied about going to Denmark and made a concerted effort to cover it up, not to mention the subtle hand signals I’d observed between her and Sven during dinner.  All of this pointed to Granny being something less than a dupe, but it wasn’t definitive evidence that she was going along with things either. 

The only thing I was sure of was that none of this shit made any sense…

The door to my father’s study was closed when I strolled up to it, but I could hear a Dodger game playing on the TV inside.  

“Hey, Dad, it’s me.”  I called out.   

“Come in,” my father replied in his deep, melodious voice.  I opened the study door and found Dad sitting at his desk, going over medical reports.  He gave me the once over and made a face.

“You look tired.” He said.

“Yeah, I’ve been working pretty late nights lately.”  I replied, trying to sound nonchalant so as not to worry him.  My father stared at me for a moment, then gestured to a nearby chair. 

“Have a seat.”  He said, turning off the TV.  I took a seat across from him.

“So… What’s on your mind, dad?”   

My father took a moment to gather his thoughts.  His normally easy-going demeanor was grim for some reason.   I could tell he was deeply troubled by something. 

“Derrick told me the other day you two were planning on having dinner with your grandmother last night.”

“Yeah, we did that.”

“How’d it go?”

“Okay, I guess.”  I said. 

“Listen, you’re a grown man, Des, so I can’t tell you what to do, but as your father, I can’t keep quiet about this situation anymore.  There’re some things I have to tell you about your grandmother… secrets I promised your mother I’d keep to myself.  I’ve kept my word until now, but frankly, I’m extremely worried about you and your brother dealing with her.  I know you love your grandmother feel like you have a duty to take care of her.  I understand that sentiment, but your feelings for her are being used to manipulate you, in my opinion.  That’s why I need to tell you the truth…” 

My father took a deep breath and leaned in close to me. “You need to know that your grandmother is not the person you think she is.  There are some events that happened during the second world war, decisions she made, that say a lot about her character.”

“Like what?”

“You know your grandfather Erik was a terrible bigot, right?   I’m sure your mother told you how much he hated me.  In fact, when he found out that your mom and me were getting married, he tried to stop the marriage, violently.”

“I know what happened, dad, he tried to shoot mom.” 

“Your mother told you that?” Dad said, surprised.

“Yes, she wrote me a letter about it.” 

“Huh.”  He said, rubbing his chin.  “Tell me, in this letter, did she say anything about your grandmother and what she did during the war?”  I shook my head.

“No, she alluded to something, but she didn’t explain anything.”

“I’m sure it was extremely hard for her to talk about it.  Anyway, I’m sure you know then that your grandfather was in the Danish resistance and fought against the Nazis…  I’ll tell you something, in spite of his racism, your grandfather did do some good things in his life.  I didn’t care for him, for obvious reasons, but I do respect him for what he did during the war.  Those men who fought in the resistance were incredibly brave.  If the Nazi found out who they were, sometimes they’d kill their whole families.  Secrecy was vital.   When your grandfather joined the resistance, he went completely underground.  He basically abandoned your grandmother and your mother and disappeared.  They didn’t know where he was, or even if he was alive or dead until he returned years later after the war.  The German occupation of Denmark was better than other countries because Hitler had a “thing” for the Danes, but it was still brutal.  There was hardly any work, the Germans forced many civilians to perform hard labor, food was scarce, it wasn’t easy by any means.   Now, some people, like your grandfather, acted courageously during this period.  But not everyone did the right thing … your grandmother was one of them.” 

My father paused and looked me dead in the eye.  

“I’m sorry to say this to you, but according to your mother… your grandmother made herself available to a group of German officers at a nearby army base.  She was a prostitute.”  It took a moment for that to sink in.     

“Are you sure…” I finally said.  My father nodded gravely. 

“But I’m sorry to say, that’s not the whole story.  Your mother told me that one of these officers fell in love with her and became her lover.  Your mother admitted to me that they had a child together during the war.  He was mother’s half-brother.” 

“Are you sure, dad?  I know that’s what mom might have said, but are you convinced it was the truth.  You know, the war traumatized mom.  She had PTSD from it.  Maybe she mixed up some of the horrible things she saw.”

“No, she was certain about it.  She insisted that she had a half-German brother.  Your mother even remembered his name, it was Karl.”  I stared at my father, speechless. 

“Anyway,” my father continued. “As the war was ending, the Germans pulled out. Your mother told me she didn’t know what happened to the German Officer, most likely he was killed.  Your mother told me he was “just gone” one day, leaving his child behind with your grandmother.   After the occupation ended, your grandfather, Erik, finally returned home.  When he saw your mother’s half-brother, he totally lost it.  He beat the shit out of your grandmother.  She was going to leave him after that and take your mother with her, but after mulling it over, your mother said that her and you grandfather agreed to work things out for your mother’s sake.  Your grandfather did have one condition that he insisted your Grandmother agree to; he demanded that she had to put her half-German child up for adoption.  Your Grandmother, apparently.   After that, no one spoke of the boy ever again.  Your mother told me that she would ask about him when she was still young, but her parents would just pretend they didn’t know what she was talking about.”

“They gaslighted her.” I said softly.  My Father nodded.

“That’s my understanding of it…. I hope you understand, I’m not telling you this out of any malice for your grandmother.  In many ways, I feel sorry for her.  The reason I’m bringing up this ugly story is because I think it’s important for you to know who you’re dealing with.  These actions show her true character.  Deep down, your grandmother is either a Nazi sympathizer or, more likely, the kind of person who will do anything to survive – even if that means hurting you and your brother.  She sided with Chip when she thought it would benefit her, going against her two grandsons.  Now she’s hooking up with these weird Danish people she just met.   You and your brother need to be extremely careful.  She has zero loyalty to you, the only person your grandmother really cares about is herself. You need to walk away from her.”  I said nothing for several moments, then I looked up at my father.

“I’ll have to think about it, dad.  There’s just a lot to take in with what you told me.  I can’t make a decision right now.”

“I understand,” my father said.  He gave me a small, supportive smile, but try as he might, he couldn’t hide the feelings of worry and disappoint in his eyes.   I reached out and squeezed his shoulder.

“I know it was very difficult for you to break your word to mom and I appreciate that you’d only do that if you were really concerned about me.”   My Father pulled me into a hug.  It surprised me, he hadn’t done that since the day I left for college. 

“Be careful…” He whispered in my ear.   

************************************

There wasn’t much more I felt saying to my father after that.  His revelation had left me reeling, I felt like my head was about to explode.  I needed to go someplace quiet and think.  I left without telling my father about my last encounter with Granny – it would just freak him out.  Neither did I want to open up another can of worms by explaining how she’d call out for her lost son during her senior moments. 

When I returned to my apartment, however, I discovered that I’d accidentally left the ringer off on my phone.  Checking the recent callers, I saw that my grandmother had left a message for me. 

“What timing,” I muttered to myself, then hit play.

“Hello Darling!”  Her voicemail began, “This is Granny.  I just called to say how much I enjoyed having dinner with you and Derrick.  It was so wonderful to see you both!  It meant “very” much to me.  I wanted to invite you to come down and have lunch with me.  It will be just the two of us.  I’m looking forward to seeing you, dear. Give me a call when you get a chance.  Goodbye.” 

After the message ended, I set the phone down on my coffee table and shook my head.  I flopped down on the coach and began debating whether to call Granny back or not.  Just then, Rude Boy leapt into my lap, purring loudly.  As I softly stroked his fur, I considered my options.  

In deciding whether or not to take my father’s advice and cut my grandmother off, I had to mull over the fact that I’d only heard one side of the tragic story.  Was it fair for me to assume I knew her motivations and circumstances?  The story was damning, but short on details.  My grandmother might have been starving to death, for all I knew.  She could have turned to prostitution because she was desperate to keep herself and my mother alive.  It was also possible that the Germans forced her into it.  Without knowing more, it was impossible to reach any firm conclusion about her.

I thought about my grandfather too.  What must have it been like for him to return from the war and discover what his wife had betrayed him in his absence?  It didn’t excuse him beating her, or his racism, or his attempt to kill my mother, but it did make me understand the complex circumstances of his life that contributed his violent behavior. He too was a victim, a tortured soul who ‘s heart was ripped out by war and his own demons.  I felt sorry for him too…

After a while, I got up and went over to my desk.  I retrieved a photo out of the top drawer.  It was a picture of my grandmother and me at Christmas. My mom had taken the photo when I was seventeen years old.  In the picture, the two of us are sitting in front of the Christmas tree together, arm and arm, smiling.  There was genuine joy and love on our faces.  It was the one decent photo I had of us together.  It was my favorite.     

Staring at Granny’s smiling face in the photo, I suddenly found myself saying the words that had been echoing through my mind for so long now…

“Who are you?”

****************************************

It was deep into the night when I was awakened by a loud banging sound.  As my eyes fluttered open, I discovered Rude Boy sitting on the pillow, staring at me with an anxious expression on his little whiskered face. 

“What’s the matter, buddy?”  I groggily mumbled to him.  Rudie responded by rubbing his face affectionately against mine.  He was purring loudly.   I glanced over at the alarm clock beside my bed, it was just past 3 AM. 

Bang!  The sound rang out again.   Rude boy let out a hiss and arched his back.  His fur went straight up.

“Oh no, not this stupid shit again.”  I groaned.  It had been a couple of weeks since I last heard strange sounds in my apartment. I was grateful that the ghost or whatever it was had moved on, but to my chagrin, it was back now.  To be clear, I wasn’t entirely convinced there was a spirt haunting my apartment.  Most of what had happened (boxes falling over, Rude Boy avoiding the hall closet, creaking sounds, etc.) might have a perfectly reasonable, non-supernatural explanation.   Boxes do fall over on their own, after all, old building do sometimes creak.  But this sound was different.  It was loud.   

Bang!

As I climbed out of my bed, I suddenly became aware of another sound, it was the howl of gusting wind.  Through my bedroom window, I could see trees outside whipping back and forth.  The Santa Anna winds had kicked up overnight.  I crept quietly over to my bedroom door and put my ear to the wood.   Another loud bang came and went.  It sounded like it was coming from inside the apartment, from somewhere just beyond the door. 

I’d left Big D’s gun in a shoebox underneath my bed.   I quickly retrieved it and slowly opened the door.  Peering into the dark hallway I saw that it was empty.  I flipped on the hallway lights and sidled out of my bedroom.  Rude boy followed me, hissing warily while puffing up his tail. 

As we reached the living room another bang sounded.  I raised my .38 Baretta in front of me and slinked into the dark space.  Just then, I felt a hot gust of wind sweep over me.  I reached out blindly and found the light switch on the wall.  I quickly flipped them on and whipped my weapons around the living room.  There was no one there, but I was taken aback by the sight that met my eyes; it looked like a hurricane had blown through the room.  Loose papers, leaves from the trees outside and other debris were scattered everywhere.  My eyes quickly found the source of the unsettling banging sound.

Next to my desk was a pair of bay windows on hinges that opened into my apartment.   One of these windows was wide open.  It was swinging back and forth, driven by the huge gusts of wind, striking the nearby wall.   I looked down at Rude Boy. 

“It’s just the window, buddy.”  Rude Boy stopped arching his back and rubbed up against my leg.  I lowered my weapon and strolled over to close the window, but as I neared my desk, I suddenly felt wetness underfoot.  I looked down and saw that I’d stepped into a small puddle of water on the floor.  Water was dripping off my desk.  A large plastic cup that I’d left full of water on my desk was rolling back and forth on the ground. 

I quickly realized what had happened: the swinging window must have struck the cup and knocked it over.  Looking down at the puddle, I noticed that several felt tip pens from my desk were lying in it, leaking ink into the water.  There was something else too… the photograph of my grandmother and me at Christmas.  I reached down and snatched it out of the muck.

Black ink was smeared across the surface.  I shook the water off the photo tried to wipe it clean with a paper towel, but the dye had been absorbed into it. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t remove it.  An ugly black stain was covering half of my grandmother’s smiling face now, like a dark cloud swallowing up her features. 

I stared at the photo for a few moments before setting it down and closing the unlatched window.    Perhaps my sleepy mind was reading too much into the random event, but the ruined photo gave me pause for some reason.   I knew it was just the wind blowing through the window that had caused the picture to be ruined, but still… it was strange the way the ink had stained Granny’s face.  My eyes drifted over to the hall closet.  I couldn’t help but wonder – was it just a coincidence, the photo being stained and the puzzle box falling over. 

Or was someone trying to send me a message?

**************************************

“Aren’t you going to count it?”  I asked Tiger Lily as she snatched an envelope filled with cash out of my hand.  We were standing in the stairwell of Billy Rose’s office building.  The money was the final payment for the “info job” she did for me looking up my mother’s credits card records.

Tiger Lily shook her head and quickly stuffed the envelope into her purse.

“No time.  I’m in a hurry,” Tiger Lily said. “Besides, I know you’re not stupid enough to fuck with me.”  Lily turned to leave, but there was something else I needed to ask her about, so I held up my hand.

“Wait… I might need you to do another job for me.”  Tiger Lily stopped and turned back to me.

“What is it?” She said, sounding annoyed.

“Can you find out if there’s life insurance policy out on someone?”  Lily looked at me like I was idiot.

“Easy-peasy.  It’ll cost you $500.  What name is the policy under?”  I paused a moment. Lily snapped her fingers impatiently. “Come on, spit it out.  I’m late.”

“Me.”  I said.   Lily stared at me without revealing any reaction. 

“It’ll take me a day or two.  I’ll call you.” 

“Wait, don’t you need my information first?”  Lily just shook her head.

“I have it already, from Billy.”  With that, Tiger Lily abruptly hustled out of the stairwell.   I let out a deep sigh, then headed back to Billy’s office.

The idea to have Lily do this had been floating around the back of my head ever since the strange scene at the storage locker.   I’d resisted following through on it, however, as I didn’t want to give in to my paranoia.  To give credit where credit was due, it was Big D who had originally given me the notion of looking into the possibility when he’d speculated that insurance fraud might have been Chip’s motivation for murdering my mother.  

I had dismissed Big D’s theory after concluding that Chip wasn’t benefitting financially from mom’s death – as evidenced by his need to stalk my grandmother.  After the last two unsettling encounters with Granny’s friends though, I began to consider the possibility that it was me, not my mother, who might be the object of such a scheme.  It seemed like a remote possibility, but I figured it would be prudent to do my due diligence after what my father had told me about her activities during the war.

Later that day, I called my grandmother and told her I’d come down that coming weekend to have lunch and play cards with her.  Granny sounded elated.

“It will be just the two of us… like the old days, darling!” she said.  “I’m looking forward so much to seeing you.”

“Me too.”  I said.  The rest of the week went by without any incident.  In spite of her declaration that she’d call me back in a day or two, I hadn’t heard from Tiger Lily.  When I tried calling her, she didn’t pick up, so I figured I should just leave her alone.  No news was good news, I guess.

**********************************

It was around 10 PM the following Friday night when my phones suddenly rang.  I was lying on the coach, channel surfing.   I reached over and checked the screen.  It said the caller ID was blocked.  I didn’t recognize the number.

“Hello?”  I said apprehensively. 

“Hello, Des.” an Asian-accent female voice replied.  “It’s me.”

“Who’s me?”   

“Tiger Lily.” She snapped. 

“Oh, right!  Sorry, I didn’t recognize the number.”

“I use a lot of different phones.  Anyway, I wanted to get back to you about that thing you asked me to look into for you. Normally, I don’t give out information until I’m paid, but I thought… I don’t know, I figured you should know this sooner rather than later.  So, I looked into things for you, I didn’t find anything regarding a life Insurance policy connected to you at first.”

“Ok,” I said, “well, that’s good.”

“Hold on, I’m not finished.  Originally, I was searching under the name that Billy gave me, but that one’s different from the one on your birth certificate isn’t it?

“Yes, it is.   I go by “Des” but that’s actually my middle name.  On my birth certificate my full name is Anthony Desmond Marino.”

“Why the fuck didn’t you tell me that?”

“I didn’t think I needed to, you said you had all my information.”  Tiger Lily made a noise that sounded like a growl. 

“Never listen to me.  You should have made sure I had your full name, it would have saved me a lot of fucking time.  Because of that, I almost didn’t find it.”   At the sound of these words, I sat up in my seat.

“You found something?”  I asked apprehensively.  

“Uh-huh.  There is life insurance a policy connected to you.  It’s under your full name Anthony Desmond Marino.  Lucky for you I went back and double checked, doing a search with your social and birthdate just to be thorough… that’s when it turned up.  It was submitted five weeks ago with the Penn Harbor Life, Home, Health and Auto Company.  They’re located in Providence, Rhode Island.   You know about this?”

“No…”  I said softly. “I’ve never taken out a policy with that company.”

“Well, someone did.  I’m looking at a copy of it right now.  I can fax it over to you. It has your signature on it, but to be honest, it looks like someone just copied your “sig” from another document and photoshopped it onto the document.  There’s no difference in the signature in the three places where you were supposed to sign – dead giveaway.  In the event of your death this policy pays out $800,000.  Whoever applied for it already made the first payment, so this policy is technically legal now.  But you can contest it by contacting the insurer.” 

I said nothing for a moment I was so stunned. 

“You still there?”  Tiger Lily finally said.

“Yes, sorry, I’m just taking that in.  Can you tell me who took out the policy?” 

“There’s no way to know who applied.  They arranged it through a third-party insurance agent.  It was probably done online. I’m sure they’re paying through a money order to hide their identity.  If you want my unsolicited advice, you should watch your back and be very fucking careful until you sort this out.  Someone’s trying to set you up.  It’s definitely someone connected to the beneficiary… I can tell you who that person is-”

“I think I know already.”  I said, “It’s my grandmother, isn’t it?”  Tiger Lily paused and let out a sigh. 

“Yes, that’s correct…”    

Chapter Ten: Echoes of The Past

Chapter Nine: The Crossroads

After leaving the storage facility, I made my way over to my grandmother’s apartment in Escondido.  My plan was to do a little surveillance in order to figure out if Granny was telling the truth about her trip to Denmark.  Although I really didn’t want to do another stakeout, I felt a sense of urgency after my odd encounter with Borjn. 

To be perfectly honest, I still didn’t know what to make of it.  Was Borjn really acting in a subtly threatening manner, or was I simply overreacting?  It was impossible to tell either way, but for the sake of my own safety (and mental health), I needed to get to the truth.   I figured that Granny spent most of her time over at Sven’s place (to avoid Chip), but she probably visited her own apartment regularly in order to maintain it.  My plan was to start there before moving on to Sven’s condo. 

It was mid-afternoon when I arrived in Escondido. Since it was still too early to start my stakeout, I went to a local library to work on a new case Billy Rose had given me.  In retrospect, I wish I hadn’t as the disturbing assignment did nothing to improve my already dismal mood.  The client was a wealthy, middle-aged man named Franklyn Desimone who’d been arrested for trying to elicit sex from a thirteen-year-old girl by “catfishing” her.

To be honest, I had zero interest in helping Desimone.  He had an extensive criminal history of sexual assaults involving minors that went back several decades.  There was no question he was a sick fuck who deserved to be locked up for a long, long time.  The only reason he wasn’t already behind bars was because he was fabulously wealthy.   Through aggressive legal maneuvering by his elite lawyers, Desimone had managed to beat the system for years.  When I complained to Billy that I really didn’t want to take on the case, he pleaded with me to change my mind.  Billy confided in me that he’d been stiffed by several clients and he was in danger of not being able to pay his rent if he didn’t book this job. 

“You know, Des,” Billy said, trying to rationalize things, “What Desimone did this time was more along the lines of attempted prostitution than pedophilia.”  Billy was basing this ridiculous claim on the fact that Desimone had tried to lure his young victim into his car by offering her money.  When I responded to this dubious assertion by hanging up the phone, Billy called me back apologizing, profusely. 

“I’m sorry… I’m sorry…”  He said, “Please, I know this case is a freaking shitshow, Des, but criminal defense isn’t pretty sometimes.  Hell, not even most of the time.  Not every case is going to saving someone from a miscarriage of justice, most of our clients are criminals who are guilty as sin.  But that’s the way the system works, right?  Everyone deserves an adequate defense.” 

He had a point.   After much cajoling, I finally agreed to take the case. 

Now, I deeply regretted that decision.  Reading through the sordid details of Desimone’s criminal records, how his lawyers had finagled him out of trouble over and over again, only served to remind me of the fact that Chip would probably never be charged for killing my mother.  It was only in Hollywood movies where the hero stumbles upon a key piece of evidence in the third act and catches the killer.  In the real world, homicide cases are solved less than half the time, evil mostly goes unpunished, the bad guy usually wins.   

As I contemplated these dark thoughts, my phone suddenly began vibrating.  I took it out and checked the touchscreen: it was my father calling. 

“What’s up, dad?”  I said, trying to sound casual. 

 “I need to talk to you.”  My father said.  His deep, melodious voice sounded thoughtful and concerned.

“Sure, dad.  Go ahead.” 

“It’s not something I want to get into over the phone… it involves your grandmother.  It’s best if we discuss this face to face. Can you come up to the house and meet with me?”

“Sure, dad, I think I can swing by next week.”

“Good, let’s plan for that.” 

I tried to get my father to tell me more, but he insisted that I’d have to wait. Dad ended the call abruptly after that, leaving me with another mystery to ponder. 

                                                      **************************

I waited until the sun finally went down before driving over to my grandmother’s apartment.  Once there, I took up my usual position on the hillside overlooking the complex, crouching behind some bushes.   I had Big D’s gun tucked in my pants – after what happened at the storage facility, I wasn’t taking any chances. 

Surveying Granny’s unit with my binoculars, I observed that the apartment was completely dark and there was no sign of movement inside.  I half expected Chip’s Impala to be parked behind the bushes again, but there was no sign of him either.  I waited around for a couple of hours until it became obvious that she wasn’t coming home, before finally heading over to Sven’s condo. 

It was after midnight when I arrived.  Although it was late, I determined that if Sven or Granny was laying low inside, there was a decent chance I might catch a glimpse of them through the large balcony windows either tonight or the next morning. 

There was one, small hitch in the plan.  Sven’s condo was part of a sprawling, terraced complex that was built right into a steep hillside.  There was almost no way to see directly into his unit from the street because it faced the ocean.  The side views were obscured by high security walls.  However, on my previous visit, I’d noticed that a short distance away was another hill that jutted out in front of Sven’s complex.  The top of this knoll was dominated by huge apartment complex that was still under construction.   There was a dirt road running along the top of the construction site that was elevated enough to afford a decent view of Sven’s balcony windows.  I figured that was my best shot. 

I drove past the entrance to Sven’s condo complex and cruised up the adjacent hillside until I reached the half-finished development at the top.  Once there, I turned off my car’s headlights and cruised slowly down the dirt road, looking for a discreet place to park.   Construction vehicles and several large, rectangular trash dumpsters lined the shoulder of the unpaved road.  Not wanting to venture too far down the street, I slid my car into the first open space I saw, a small space tucked between two dump trucks. 

I stepped out of my car and quietly shut the door behind me.  Just as I had done previously at my grandmother’s apartment, I tucked Big D’s gat into the front of my blue jeans.  I walked into the middle of the dirt road, then stopped and looked around, just to make doubly sure no one was around… that’s when I saw it.  About twenty yards away, parked on the side of the road was Chip’s black Impala.

I instantly froze in my tracks.  A jolt of adrenaline raced through my nervous system. Instinctually, I yanked my gun out of my pants and flipped off the safety.  I aimed the gun at the middle of the Impala’s windshield, but my hands were shaking, making it impossible for me to steady the gun.  It was hard to see in the gloom, but as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I slowly began to make out a dark figure sitting behind the steering wheel of the car… 

It was Chip. 

There was no doubt, he could see me standing there, pointing my gun at him.  I stood there for several tense moments, waiting for him to do something, but strangely… nothing happened. 

Not knowing how to resolve the standoff, I decided to move closer and confront him.   Keeping my gun trained on the windshield, I walked slowly forward.  At any moment, I expected Chip to turn on his headlights to blind me, or to leap out of the car banishing a weapon of his own, but instead, he just sat there, not moving. 

As I inched closer to the vehicle, I was able to see Chip more clearly.  That’s when I suddenly realized; his eyes were closed.  His head was slumped to one side, leaning up against the doorframe.   His mouth was hanging wide open.  A steam of droll was running down his jaw.

Chip was fast asleep.

The side window of the Impala was rolled down, Chip’s arm was dangling down the side of the door.  I crept closer until I could peer inside.  Empty beers cans littered the passenger seat beside Chip.  I quickly deduced that Chip had come up here, just as I had, to spy on Sven and Granny, but the idiot had gotten too drunk and passed out. 

I stared at Chip as a wave of disgust and relief swept over me.  If the situation wasn’t so incredibly tense, I might have even laughed at the irony of it all.  I’d finally come face to face with the monster I believed killed my mother, but instead being attacked by a ruthless criminal, I found myself staring at a pathetic, snoring drunk. 

I raised my gun and aimed the barrel at Chip’s head.  All it would take was a tiny bit of pressure on the trigger and mom would finally get her justice… 

At that terrible moment, a flood of bitter memories washed over me…  I vividly recalled the time I’d overheard him calling blacks “stupid niggers.”  How he’d gotten my mom hooked on prescription drugs and manipulated her into believing I was a “worthless son.”  I remembered how he had started working my grandmother the very night my mom’s body was found, how he’d gotten drunk and threated to beat me up if I didn’t leave the house.  I recalled how he’d even said to my grandmother “Your daughter is turning over in her grave right now, Inga, knowing your piece of shit grandson is trying to rob you blind…”  

“Fuck you.” I whispered to the sleeping Chip under my breath, “Time to pay up mother-fucker, for all of your sins.”

My finger started to squeeze down on the trigger… 

But then, I hesitated.   Something didn’t feel right about it.  There was a nagging voice in the back of my head that told me to stop and think.   It reminded me that I didn’t have absolute proof he’d killed mom, only circumstantial evidence.  

But there was another voice in my head too.  It was competing against the one holding me back.  This voice told me that it didn’t matter if I had “absolute proof” – one way or another, Chip had killed mom.  Even if he hadn’t personally beaten her to death and shoved her car off that cliff – he’d destroyed her life so thoroughly that she did it to herself.   Not only that, but the villain was trying to intimidate my grandmother now.  After Chip got done with her, he’d find another victim to prey upon.  Chip was a parasite, was I not justified in putting an end to his sick games before someone else got hurt?

My finger started to squeeze the trigger again.  Then, stopped.  The nagging voice was begging me not to do it.  It told me no matter how justified I felt in the moment, if I pulled that trigger, I’d regret it.  Maybe not now, maybe not tomorrow, but one day. 

I stood there for a long time, considering my fateful choice.  Finally, I took a deep breath and made my decision…

I reached inside the car and shook Chip’s shoulder. 

“Wake up, shithead.” 

Chip’s eyes fluttered slowly open as he came out of his stupor.  He looked around disoriented for a moment, before focusing in on me and the gun aimed at his forehead. 

“W-What the fuck, man… ?” He said with a start.  “Get that fucking gun out of my face before I shove it up your ass.” 

“Shut the fuck up.  I know about Leslie.  I know about the fight you had with my mother.  I know you followed her out of the bar.  I’m going to ask you one question, and you better tell me the truth.  What happened after that?” 

“H-hold up… I-I can’t even follow what you’re staying.”  Chip stammered. “I need a cigarette.”  He glanced over to his passenger seat.  A pack of Camels was lying there among the clutter of empty beer cans.  Chip lurched over to clumsily grab it, but at the same time his other hand slithered out, reaching for his glovebox. 

Before his fingers reached it, I thrust my gun forward, shoving the barrel against his temple. 

“You open that glovebox and I’ll shoot you dead, mother fucker, so help me God.”  Chip froze and looked me in the eye. 

“Alright, calm down, Des, fuck.”  

“Put your hands on the steering wheel.”  Chip slowly drew back his hands and took hold of the wheel.

“Happy?” 

“I asked you a question.  What happened after you left the bar?”

“Nothing.  Your mom drove off and I couldn’t catch up with her.  I went to another bar and got hammered.   That’s all that happened, I swear.”   Chip took a deep breath and looked me dead in the eye.  “Look, I’ve done a lot of bad shit in my life, man, I won’t lie to you… but murdering your mom isn’t one of them.  I didn’t kill her, Des.”

I stared at Chip, trying to decide whether I believed him or not… 

“Anything else you want to know?” Chip finally said, “Or are we just gonna sit here having a staring contest?”

“There is one more thing I need you to do.” 

“Yeah, what’s that?”

“Stop bothering my grandmother.  If I catch you stalking her again, I will shoot you.”  A bitter smirk spread across Chip’s lips.  

“You’re a real tough guy with a gun in your hand, aren’t you?  I must admit, you surprise me, brother… I had you pegged as a nerdy college kid, but you got way more balls than I gave you credit for…. Not that I give two shits about you, but I’ll give you a piece of advice anyway… it’s not me you should be worried about… Can I go now?” 

I nodded and took a step back.  Chip started his car.   He stomped on the gar and peeled out, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake. 

After Chip left, I went over to the side of the road and surveyed the condo complex across the way with my binoculars.   I found Sven’s unit… he had his curtains drawn, but I could see all the lights were out.  I could have stayed until dawn, but I was utterly spent.  It had been a long day to say the least. 

As I drove back home, a Buddy Holly song “Everyday” came on the radio.  It was one of my mom’s favorites.  I started to cry like a baby. 

Chip was wrong… Maybe I wasn’t such a tough guy after all. 

                                              *******************************

I sobbed most of the way home.  It wasn’t just because of the song.  I wept because I knew by sparing Chip’s life – I had decided to let go.  My only option now was to hand over everything I’d found to the police.  Maybe they’d take the case seriously, but most likely they wouldn’t care.  Either way, it was over… the circumstances of my mother’s passing would remain unresolved and haunt me forever.

That was the hard, cold reality of the situation.  I had to find a way to make peace with it.  

After the song finished, I turned off the radio and drove in silence for a while.  Rabbi Horowitz’s sermon came to mind as I drove through the dark night with tears running down my face.  I thought about Abe’s interpretation of it: life is about choices.  Tonight, I’d chosen life over death.  Not just for Chip, but for myself. 

No matter how tempting it would be to take revenge on Chip, justice was not mine to claim.  For better or worse, it belonged to the law… and the universe.  Even if I knew for certain Chip was guilty, killing him as he sat there helpless would have been a cowardly, criminal act.  My mother was a woman of principal who had always taught me to abhor violence.   She would never want me to seek revenge on her behalf – especially since she wasn’t entirely blameless in her fate.  

As hard as it was to admit, I had to accept the fact that mom made her choices in life too.  Some of her decisions were incredibly courageous, others tragic.  She had decided to be with Chip even though everyone who truly loved her tried to stop her. Mom was stubborn, she lived her life the way she wanted.  She never let anyone tell her what to do, for better or worse. 

I’d done as much as I could for her, I’d followed her trail for the last two years, trying to uncover the dark truth of her final moments.  The journey had led me to the crossroads, where one direction led to the light, the other, to the shadows.  I’d made the most impactful decision there of my life there, chosen my path – but to follow it, I had let go of mom and walk my own road…

By the time I pulled into my driveway, I’d finally stopped crying.  I felt strangely at peace with everything, as if an enormous weight had finally been lifted off my shoulders.  All that was left was to do now was to decide what to do about Granny.  I was certain I’d chased Chip off, at least for the time being.  Chip was scumbag, but he wasn’t stupid.  After tonight, he knew that trying to intimidate my grandmother would only lead to him getting shot or arrested.   Most likely, he’d go back to Alabama and try to lay low for a while – and pray I didn’t uncover anything further that implicated him in my mother’s death. 

His last words stuck in my head, though.  What was it he said? 

“It’s not me that you have to worry about.”

I realized that Chip was probably just talking shit to mess with my head, but still, I had to wonder… for as an old preacher once told me in church:

“Just cause the Devil’s a liar, doesn’t mean he never tells the truth.” 

                                          ********************************

After that night, I decided not to go back and spy on Granny so I still had no idea if had gone to Denmark when she called me a week later to invite me to dinner.  She wanted to tell me all about her “amazing” trip.  During our conversation, Granny asked several times if I’d reach out to my brother Derrick and see if he wanted to come too.  I told her I would try, but privately I had my doubts he’d go actually through with it. 

Derrick’s reasons for avoiding Granny were complicated.  Partly it was due to the fact that they’d never been particularly close.  Unlike me, Derrick had never made much of an effort to reach out to her when we were growing up.  He and Granny had very different temperaments.   She was quiet, serious and aloof, Derrick was loud, funny and rambunctious. 

It also didn’t help that Derrick had a very up and down relationship with our mother.  They both had big personalities and volatile tempers and when they go into fights, things usually went batshit crazy. 

Granny would often jump into the fray to defend her daughter, frequently calling Derrick an “asshole” and other things in Danish that mom refused to translate.   Although, Derrick, mom and Granny inevitably made up after these big spats, there always seemed to be a lingering grudge between them.  Derrick told me on several occasions that he thought Granny secretly hated him.  After she sided with Chip following mom’s death, I don’t think he ever really forgave her. 

Still, despite their differences, I knew Derrick genuinely cared about Granny. He wanted to make sure she was ok, even if he was too conflicted to be personally engaged.

I had decided that it would be best not to tell Derrick, or my father, about what had happened with Chip.  Maybe I should have been more honest, but I didn’t want to freak them out.  I did, however, tell Derrick about the weird scene at the storage unit, but as I expected, he immediately dismissed my concerns.

“I’m not saying you’re trippin’, bro,” Derrick said, “but dude… your “Spidey Sense” was tingling?  Seriously?”

Derrick was, however, keenly interested in coming out to the storage unit to recover some of his childhood items.  He also wanted to see mom’s old things for sentimental reasons.  I agreed to set up a tour for him under one condition; He would have come with me to this dinner with Granny.  He said nothing for several moments, then sighed:

“Fine… fuck it.” 

                                               ******************************

“Have you spoken to dad lately?” Derrick asked as we drove us down the five freeway, heading for Sven’s condo. 

“Yeah, he called me a week ago.” I said.  “Why is something up?”

“No, it’s nothing.”  Derrick said. But I could tell he was bothered by something. 

“You sure?”

“I dunno.”  Derrick said. “He was just acting kinda weird when I told him about us going to dinner with Granny.” 

“Weird how?”

“It sounded bummed… like he really wasn’t into it.” 

“Did he say why?”

“Nope.  But you know dad.  He never explains anything… he and Granny have always hated each others guts, it’s probably just that.”  Derrick looked off for a moment, thinking.  “Just between you and me though, bro, I think dad’s kinda depressed.  I think what happened to Luc really hit him pretty hard.”

“It hit all of us hard, I think.”  I said.

“Yeah…”  Derrick said. “It did.”

                                       **********************************

“Hello, my darlings!” Granny said as Derrick and I entered Sven’s condo.   She pulled the two of us into an awkward hug and kissed us both on the cheek. Sven trotted forward with a huge grin on his face and introduced himself to Derrick.  He then ushered us into the living where the rest of the Granny’s ex-pat crew were waiting. 

Borjn, Jorge and his wife Freja were arrayed around the living room, chatting amicably, sipping wine.  To my surprise, Jorge and Freja were even sitting together, literally holding hands.   I could hardly believe they were the same couple who’d been ranting at one another like George and Martha from “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf” the last time I saw them.  After a few moments of friendly get-to-know-you chit-chat, Sven turned to my brother. 

“You look like a man who appreciates fine wine,” Sven said with a twinkle in his eye.

“I am indeed.”  Derrick replied. 

“Well, I have just the thing for you then,” Sven said, “We just opened an exquisite French Cabernet that I bought on our trip to Europe.  Would you like a glass?” 

“Absolutely.”  Derrick said.  Sven patted him on the back, then headed towards the kitchen where he had a bottle of expensive French wine already opened. 

“I’m good, Sven.”  I called out.  “Just water for me.”   Sven made a face.

“Oh, don’t be such a bore.  We need to toast your grandmother’s wonderful trip.”  Without waiting for me to protest, Sven began filling up two empty glasses he had waiting beside the bottle. 

“Yes, we must have a Viking toast, then I will tell you boys all about my trip!”  Granny said, squeezing my hand affectionately.  Sven came over to me and pressed a wine glass into my hand.  He’d filled it almost to the rim.     

“Here’s to Vikings!”  Borjn cried, raising his glass.  Everyone followed suit, including me.

“To Vikings!” We all said in unison.  Everyone laughed, then we clinked our glasses together.  As everyone took long sips, I casually set my glass down on the dining table.  Derrick took a long swig, savoring it like a connoisseur.  A euphoric glow spread across his face.

“Wow, that’s outstanding.”

“I knew you’d enjoy it.” Sven said, grinning, “Here, have some more.”  He began refilling Derrick’s glass, but then he spotted my abandoned glass sitting on the table.  Sven furrowed his brows. 

“Des, what’s wrong?  Isn’t my wine good enough for you?”

“It’s not that.  I’m driving.” Sven shook his head dismissively. 

“Nonsense.  If you get too drunk, you can spend the night in my spare room.”  Granny nodded in agreement. 

“Yes, Sven has two nice beds made up for you and Derrick.” 

“There you go, problem solved.”  Borjn chimed in.   Sven snatched my glass off the table and tried to hand it to me again, but I shook my head.   

 “That’s really sweet of you to offer,” I said.  “But really, I’m good.  Thank you.”   An awkward silence hung in the air for a moment. Standing beside me, Jorge let out a sigh and shook his head.       

“It’s all my fault, I’m afraid” he said, dryly, “poor Des is probably worried that I’ll get shit-faced again.” 

“Oh God no!”  Freja said, chuckling.  “Let us never repeat that night again!”  Everyone laughed.

****************************

The dinner that evening was Frikadeller a traditional Danish dish consisting of pork meatballsWhatever Borjn’s other sins were, being a bad cook wasn’t one of them, the meal was delicious.  As before, Sven played the charming host; regaling everyone with jokes and entertaining stories. For her part, Granny seemed to be having the time of her life.  She was fully engaged in the conversation and very animated in recounting all the places they went to in Denmark.  According to her (and Sven), they’d traveled all over the country, going to museums, the royal palace, eating at the finest restaurants, relaxing at spas, seeing all the major attractions, etc. etc.  They even visited Granny’s old childhood home in Copenhagen.  Granny got very sentimental as she described this part of the experience. 

“We stepped out of the taxi and there it was… my old home,” she said.  Granny stared off as if she was seeing it again, “Nothing had changed… it was the same quaint home I remembered.   But it was strange seeing it again after so many years… I thought I was walking into a dream…”  Granny paused as her eyes watered up.  

“I’m sorry… It’s just… seeing my parent’s house brought back so many memories.” 

“You don’t have to apologize, dear.” Sven said.  “You’re with family.”  Granny flashed a warm smile at Derrick and me. 

“Yes, it’s so good to have my grandkids with me again.” She said, wiping her eyes with a napkin.  Derrick reached out and rubbed her shoulder.

“It’s good to be with you too, Granny.”  Derrick’s voice was filled with emotion.  Everyone let out a collective “ahh”.   It was a very touching moment to be sure, the reunion of Granny and Derrick could not have gone any better.  However, I still had some small, nagging doubts about the veracity of their account. 

Perhaps, I was over-analyzing things, but I couldn’t help feeling that there was something slightly off about the way Granny and Sven recounted the story of their trip.  It was a subtle, but Granny’s narration didn’t conform to her usual speech pattern.  English was normally hard for my grandmother, she spoke haltingly, pausing often to recall the right word or phrase.  But in her retelling of her trip, her delivery was smooth and precise, like she was saying lines from a script she’d carefully memorized rather than speaking spontaneously.   

Furthermore, Sven and the others seemed to be prompting her as she went along, saying things like; “remember the beautiful painting you saw at the museum,” “tell the boys about the tour you took of Hans Christian Anderson’s house,” “talk about the nice restaurants you visited in Copenhagen,”  Maybe they were just trying to help Granny by jogging her memory – she was getting forgetful – but still, it seemed weird.  Especially since Jorge and Freja told me at the start of dinner that they hadn’t heard the story of the trip yet, yet somehow they knew enough of the details to help Granny retell it.

After Borjn cleared the table following the desert, Derrick finished his third glass of wine and let out a big yawn.

“Wow, that wine is really starting to hit me.”  He turned to Sven, “Can I use your bathroom?”

“Of course.” Sven said, “It’s right down the hall to the left.”  As Derrick sauntered off, I stared at the table, thinking about something that had been on my mind since I’d decided to give up on surveilling my grandmother – a small bit of evidence that would alleviate any remaining doubts I had that they were lying about their trip to Denmark.

“You okay, my dear?”  Granny asked. 

“Yes, I’m fine.  But I was wondering; can I see your pictures, Granny?”  My grandmother stared at me, dumbfounded for a moment, as if the question had caught her completely off guard.

“Pictures?  What pictures?”  She asked.

“The ones you took on your trip.  I bet you got some great shots.   Remember I asked you to take a picture of the statue of the Little Mermaid for me?” An almost panicked expression spread across Granny’s face.  She looked over at Sven for help.

“I’m afraid, there are no pictures, Des.”  Sven said, glumly.  “I embarrassed to admit it, but I left the door open at our hotel and my camera was stolen on the last day of the trip. We lost all our photos.”

“Oh no, that’s awful.”  I said.

“Tell me about it.”  Sven said.  “I took so many beautiful photographs. Both Inga and I were looking forward so much to sharing them with you.  As you can imagine, we’re both completely devastated.” Granny let out a sigh and made a long, sad face.

“Petty crime is getting so out of control these days.”  Jorge observed.  The others all nodded in agreement. 

“What about your phone?” I said, gesturing to Sven’s expensive new smart phone which was sitting on the table in front of him.  “You must have taken at least a few shots with that.”  But Sven quickly shook his head.

“No, I never take any pictures with that silly thing.  The quality simply doesn’t compare with my high-end digital camera.”

“What kind of camera was it?” I asked.  Instead of responding, Sven took a long, slow sip of wine.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say it looked like he was stalling because he didn’t know the answer. 

“It was a Kodak.”  Granny suddenly blurted out.

“A Kodak?”  I said.  “Wow, Granny.  That’s surprising. I didn’t think they made digital cameras, at least not any good ones.”

Across the table, Sven let out a small, soft cough.  Granny’s eyes darted over to him.  I pretended not to notice, but out of the corner of my eye, I caught Sven subtly brushing the side of his nose with his index finger.  In response, Granny also brushed the side of her nose.  He was signaling her to be quiet.

“Your grandmother’s confused,” Borjn piped in, “It was a Nikon.” 

“Ah, that makes more sense,” I said.  “What model?”  Borjn and Sven looked at each other – but neither one of them had a clue.

“You really are obsessed with my damn camera, aren’t you?”  Sven finally said, sounding a bit annoyed.

“It’s not a big deal, I’m just curious.”  Sven stared at me for a moment, then a mischievous grin spread across his thin lips.

“You know something, I think I might have one photo of Denmark that I can show you.  Would you like to see it?”

“Sure.”

Sven got up from the table and went over to a nearby desk.  He reached inside and removed a small photograph.  He strolled back to the table and tossed the picture down in front of me. 

“There she is, Denmark, in all her glory!” He said with a laugh.  

I looked down at the photo.  It was a color photograph of a young woman with blonde hair and huge breasts.  She was riding on the back of a horse, naked.  As soon as my grandmother and the others saw the picture, they burst into hysterical laughter, cackling like a pact of hyenas.   Sven gestured at me and said something in Danish that made everyone roar even harder.  He picked up the photo and dangled it in my face, chuckling.

“How do you like Denmark, boy, isn’t she gorgeous?”   

I didn’t reply.  Instead, I just sat there with a serious expression on my face, unamused by their antics, for it was obvious to me now – Granny and Sven had never left San Diego.  My Spidey Sense started tingling again…

“Oh, don’t be so serious, darling.”  Granny said, wiping tears of laughter from her eyes, “Sven’s just making a little joke.”

“Yes, I’m just having a bit of fun with you.” Sven said, patting me on the back.  “You Americans are too damn serious all the time.  You need to loosen up.  No more of your sour face.  Here, have some wine!” 

Sven snatched my untouched glass of wine off the table and practically shoved it up to my mouth.   I took it from him and set it back down.  Just then, Derrick returned from the bathroom.  

“What’s going on?  Derrick said.  “Did I miss something?”

“It’s nothing,“ I said, “these guys are trying to turn me on to Danish porn.”  Everyone laughed.    

“Good one, Des!”  Jorge cried.  Derrick chuckled, then let out another big yawn. 

“You look like you about to fall asleep.”  Borjn observed. 

“Look, his eyes are drooping.”  Freja said. “Poor baby looks like he’s about to pass out.  This is your fault Sven for giving him all that fancy wine.”  

“Guilty as charged, so sorry.” Sven replied.

“Yeah, I’m really fading.” Derrick said.  “I’m sorry, Granny, I’ve been staying up late all week, working.  I think I’m going to have to call it a night.” 

“It’s alright.”  Granny sighed, “But you shouldn’t drive if you’re tired.”

“I’m driving,” I reminded her, “Don’t worry, I’m wide awake.  I’ll drop him off on my way back to LA.”

“That’s crazy.”  Sven said.  “There’s no reason to grind out a long drive like that.  Just stay here. Have some more wine.  Relax.  We’re all having fun.   The road will still be there in the morning.  I have a nice guest room downstairs where you both can sleep. Come, have a look.” 

Sven walked over to a small staircase, motioning for me and Derrick to follow him.   Granny rose from her chair and beckoned me to come along.  Reluctantly, I joined them.  As we descended the stairs to the condo’s lower floor, my grandmother took my arm, saying how she’d made up the beds especially for us.

“Please… Don’t hurt an old woman’s feelings by leaving so soon.”  She pleaded, “I haven’t seen the two of you together for so long.” 

“That’s a really tempting offer.” Derrick said.  I couldn’t tell if he was just being polite or really wanted to stay.  As we arrived at the guest room, Sven swung the door open and flicked on the light switch.  Before us was a large bedroom.  It was tastefully decorated with Danish modern furniture.  In the center of the room was a king-sized bed.  A cot had been set up beside it.  Both were fixed up with nice, comfy beddings. 

“This is Borjn’s room.” Sven said, smiling, “He’ll sleep on the couch tonight.   You’ll have to flip a coin to see who gets the cot, but they’re both very nice.  You’ll sleep as sound as babies.  Trust me.” 

I stared at the bed for a moment.  Just then, a disturbing image suddenly flashed through my mind.  In my vision, I saw my cousin, Luc, lying on a bed just like this one… his eyes were closed, he looked like he was sleeping except that the bedsheets around him were drenched in blood, there was a bullet wound in his chest…

“Whatcha think, bro?”  Derrick said.  I looked him dead in the eye, trying my hardest to subtly convey urgency in my expression.   

“I think we should go.” I said softly.  Without waiting for Darrick to respond, I turned around to leave, but as I did so, I came face to face with Borjn. He was standing right behind me, blocking my way.

“No, I think you should definitely stay…”     

 

                                          

Chapter Nine: The Crossroads

Chapter Eight: The Chess Match

Darkness…  

It was high noon, but no light entered my gloomy apartment.  My curtains were drawn shut.  Several days had passed since I got the news from my father that Luc had been murdered.  I hadn’t been able to cry about it at first because it didn’t seem real.  I was numb with shock.  But after the initial bewilderment had finally worn off, I wept bitter tears, then fell into a state of deep depression.  

My father told me Aunt Steely was devastated beyond words, but somehow she was coherent enough to make arrangements to have Luc’s body flown back to Trinidad so he could be laid to rest in the same cemetery as the other members of our family.  She was determined to bring her son home, in death if not in life.   

In some ways, Luc’s passing was almost more traumatic for me than my own mother’s.  At least with mom, I had some inkling that the tragedy was about to unfold, but Luc’s murder was a sudden, devastating jolt to the system.  Luc was only in his late twenties.  He was still so young.  He was finally about to break free from his gilded cage and start a new life.  

It was so unfair.  His long, circuitous journey wasn’t supposed to end like this, but real life isn’t a Disney movie –  there are no guarantees of a happy ending.  Instead, Luc’s life played out like a Greek tragedy.  His was a story filled with pathos and suffering, where every small victory was followed by a bitter defeat, until the main character was finally brought low to his doom by the Fates just as the chorus had predicted all along.  Unlike the classic theater, however, there would be no applause at the end of this long, sad tale, just tears.  

As the days went by, my emotions cycled between rage and melancholy.   I kept asking myself how could Luc’s own grandmother do that to him?   What was her motivation?  To get back at Luc for his defiance and insults?  To inflict more pain and suffering upon my poor aunt?  Those dark impulses might be elements, but the root cause was far more sinister and obvious.  It was racism, pure and simple.  Luc had made it clear to his grandmother that he was a person of color, so she killed him.  She couldn’t bare the thought of non-white person controlling her family’s estate after she was gone.   It was an act of pure evil, despicable beyond words.  

After I received the horrible news that morning, my orthodox Jewish neighbor, Abe, came by to take me to his temple.  Without getting into all the awful details, I told Abe that there’d been a sudden death in my family and I couldn’t accompany him today.  Abe could see the anguish on my face and politely asked if there was anything he could do for me.  When I said, “no,” he sighed and promised that he’d say a prayer for me.   

The next few days and nights were a grey blur.  I laid in bed mostly, overcome with grief and exhaustion.   At night, the floors creaked from disembodied footsteps and things rattled around inside the hall closet, but I hardly took notice of these odd occurrences as Luc’s death was haunting me worse than any ghost.  I had failed to save him, just as I’d failed to save my mom… everything I touched, every attempt I made to help someone I cared about turned into failure.  I had no hope anymore.  All I wanted to do was lay in bed, throw the covers over my head and go to sleep.  

Towards the end of the week, my spell of sorrow was finally broken by a loud, persistent knocking on my door.  When I finally got out of bed to answer it, I found a familiar, but unexpected visitor standing there, anxiously waiting to speak with me: Billy Rose. 

I had called into work on Monday and told his secretary that I would be out sick for a few days.  As I later found out, by mid-week, when I still failed to show, Billy started freaking out that another “Slick Rick Situation” was unfolding.  

“I’m ok.”  I told Billy when I saw him at my door. 

“You sure, Des?” He asked, looking me up and down.  “You mind if I come in?  I have some papers to give you.”  

“Sure, Billy.”  I said, stepping aside so he could enter.  “Can I get you anything?”  

“A glass of water would be great.”  Billy said as he surveyed the untidy living room. 

“Don’t worry, Billy, I’m not on drugs.  My cousin died over the weekend.  He was murdered.  I’m just trying to process my emotions.”  Billy’s jaw hung open. 

“Uh… I don’t know what to say, Des. I’m really sorry to hear that, man… wow…”  Billy paused a moment.  “Is there anything I can do to help?”  I shook my head.  

“Well, I can understand you needing some time off.  That’s horrible.  Thing is Des, I’m in a bit of a pinch right now and I need your help.  Richie quit… or rather, he’s gone missing.  It’s complicated.”

“Where’d he go?”  I asked.  

“No clue.”  Billy sighed.  “Some sketchy dudes with a lot of tattoos came by looking for him.  I’m assuming Richie owed them some money because he took off like a bat out of hell as soon as they barged in the office.  He ran out the back door and jumped off the fire escape – no one’s seen him since.  I even went by his apartment at the Hotel Cecil, but the building manager says he bailed without paying his last month’s rent.  I’m really worried about him.  He was like a second son to me… Unfortunately, the knucklehead left me holding the bag on all his work.  I’m totally screwed if I can’t get the sentencing reports he was working on filed before next Friday.”  

Billy looked up at me with an expression filled with regret, fear and torment.  “Des, I really hate to ask, since you’re going through so much pain and suffering right now, but…”

“You want me to finish his reports.” 

“Could you?  I know it’s asking a lot.  I’m probably way out of line, but I have no one else to turn to.”   I thought about it for a moment, then shrugged. 

“Yeah, what the fuck.  Sure, Billy.”  I figured I owed him one, since it was probably my fault Slick Rick was on the lam.  Billy’s face exploded with relief and joy.  

“You the man!”  Billy cried.  “Te aprecio!”  He reached into his briefcase and yanked out a folder filled with case materials and a flash drive.  “Richie started some drafts, its on the drive.  Let me know if you have any trouble figuring things out.  Oh, and there’s this…”

He reached back into his briefcase and handed me a sealed manila envelope with my name written on it.  

“The new kid, Anker, asked me to give this to you.  He said it was some research you two were working on.  Anyhow, you’re positive you can get those reports done by the end of next week, right?” 

“I won’t let you down.” Billy patted me on the back, then reached into his wallet and handed me a $25 Starbucks gift card as an advanced “bonus.”

After Billy left, I opened up the manila envelope from Anker and took a gander at what he had sent me.  Enclosed were several downloaded pages from various Danish newspapers, a press release from the Danish police and a blog about corporate corruption from a Danish financial news service.  Anker had highlighted a single name that came up in several of the articles; Sven Sorenson – aka Granny’s “boyfriend.”

Obviously, I couldn’t read the Danish, but Anker had been kind enough to write out translations which he stapled to back of item.  The articles detailed a scandal that had occurred at a small, but well-respected Danish investment firm run by Sven and several partners.  Things had been going well at the organization until a number of clients had accused Sven and his partners of mismanagement and fraud.  There had been an investigation by the Danish authorities into the matter.  From the set up, I knew it was a classic “Ponzi Scheme.”  

Apparently, Sven had hired one of the best law firms in Denmark to represent him and he managed to avoid serious jail time, but he did have to serve a year in a minimum-security prison.  As a result of the scandal, his company went bankrupt.  Sven was sued by several investors.  Sven’s wife, the one he claimed died of cancer, had apparently committed suicide around this time. 

With his professional reputation in ruins, his wife dead and the prospect of new lawsuits looming, Sven had fled Denmark ago and relocated in San Diego.  No mention was made in any of the articles of the other members of Granny’s Danish posse.  How they’d fallen in with Sven, I could only hazard to guess.  The specifics of it didn’t really matter anyway.  Anker’s research confirmed what Jorge had let slip that night when he was drunk and I drove him home – they were all “vipers.” 

Just how far their schemes went and how much my grandmother was aware of their machinations, wasn’t exactly clear, however.  Perhaps Granny was “in” on everything, or maybe, because of her advancing dementia, she had no clue what was going on and truly believed Sven was her boyfriend.  I couldn’t decide either way – which put me squarely back in a terrible quandary.  If Granny was knowingly putting me in this shitshow, I had to seriously consider whether the bonds of family warranted any further involvement with her affairs, but if it was the latter… I couldn’t just abandon my grandmother to a bunch of snakes.  The uncertainty of it all was absolutely maddening, but at least, thanks to Anker, I had a somewhat clearer picture of who I was dealing with – or so I thought.   

                                             ******************************

I spent the next several days, toiling away on Billy’s sentencing reports.  Richie had barely started anything, so the amount of work that needed to be done was pretty significant.  In some ways, the workload was good medicine for me, as it left me little time to lie around and wallow in my sorrows.  

Still, I had to pull several all-nighters to meet the deadline and didn’t get much sleep.  As the week wore on, however, I found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the tasks at hand as my thoughts were constantly drifting off to Chip, my grandmother and Luc.   It was more than mere stress, or grief, it felt like something was calling to me from the shadows of my dismal apartment, filling my mind with terrible thoughts that I just couldn’t shake off.

For the first time in my adult life, I started to have serious doubts about my faith.  I found myself asking questions like; how could a loving God allow for allow for such a constant stream of terrible things to happen to me and my family?  My mother had heroically stood up to racism and married my father, what was her reward for that brave stance?  To have her heart broken by an ugly divorce, then shattered completely due to senseless screw up at a hospital and then finally finished off by a worthless parasite who took advantage of her?  

Was there no moral justice or meaning in the universe?  Had the Shakespearian villain Macbeth summed things up perfectly when he said;

“Life is a tale… told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

In fact, the longer I thought about it, the more cynical I became, not just about race, but about everything…  

Earlier in the week, I’d called the Deep Dive bar and gotten Bev – the waitress I’d spoken to – to give me the full name of the former waitress Chip had been dating.  It was Sheila Mignola.  My plan had been to track Sheila down and see if I could get her to give me information about Chip’s whereabouts after his confrontation with my mother.  But that strategy seemed utterly ridiculous to me now.  

Sheila wasn’t going to tell me anything.   Why would she?  If she was still involved with Chip her goal would be to protect him – not help me.  Even if she wasn’t still in cahoots him, there was no way she’d start spilling her guts out to me, a total stranger, and potentially implicate herself in a crime.  I had zero leverage to compel her to talk.  The crushing truth began to dawn on me; no matter how hard I tried, I’d probably never obtain enough evidence to get to the bottom of things or put Chip behind bars.   

The realization was devastating.  All my efforts were in vain.  I’d failed my mother, just as I’d failed Luc, just as I was about to probably fail my grandmother.   There wasn’t any merciful God to help me, the cops didn’t care, the legal system was too broke to be of any use.   If I wanted to do right by my mom, I should have followed Big D’s advice to begin with and taken matters into my own hands…

                                          ******************************

“Shalom and good morning, my friend.”  Abe said as I opened the security gate that lead up to my apartment.

“Oh. Hey, Abe.”  I replied with a yawn.  It was 10 am on Saturday morning.  I was tired and disheveled, having stayed up almost all night finishing my last report. 

“I’m sorry, did I wake you?”  Abe asked.

“Kinda. What’s up?”  

“Well, I came by, hoping you’d come with me to temple.”

“I’m not sure I’m up for it, to be honest, Abe,” I replied.  “As you know, my cousin died last week, I’ve been struggling with that pretty hard.”  Abe gave me a thoughtful look. 

“It’s up to you, I just thought that maybe hearing the words of the Torah might help you, but I understand if you’re not in the mood.”  

I was about to dismiss him with a polite “thanks but no thanks,” but instead, I thought about it for a moment.  

“If you can wait, I’ll get dressed.”    

I’m not sure what promoted me to accompany Abe.  Mostly it was out of guilt, since I had turned Abe down so many times before.  However, partly it was because the relentless dark thoughts about racism and murder were literally pounding inside my head.  I was hoping that getting out of my apartment for a little while might help clear my head a little, at least for a little while. 

As we strolled through our neighborhood, passing several Jewish families on their way to services, I thought of my stepmother Ruth’s parents, Max and Mirna.  Although, they weren’t my blood relations, they had always treated me with exceptional warmth, kindness and acceptance.   I’d spent many happy hours with them not just at family events, but at Seder dinners and other Jewish high holidays.   Max, in fact, had often told me, in spite of me being their “step” grandson, that both he and Mirna considered me to be their real grandson.   I thought about them in relation to my own opaque grandmother.  I couldn’t imagine a scenario where Max and Mirna would ever lie to me, let alone use me to commit fraud.  It made wonder – was blood really thicker than water?

When we arrived at the modest looking temple, Abe apologized to me, saying that his house of worship was the “poorest one on the block.”

“But richest in spirit, no doubt,” I said.  Abe flashed a modest smile in reply.  Once inside, I immediately managed to commit a rather embarrassing faux pas by trying shake the hand of the Rabbi’s wife who greeted us as touching a woman or money on the Sabbath is strictly forbidden in Abe’s ultra-orthodox sect.   (In Abe’s temple, the woman also had to sit behind the men in sanctuary – a fact that the Rabbi’s wife grumbled bitterly about.).  I received a few hard stares when we entered the temple – which didn’t surprise me as Abe had warned me that I was one of the only people of color who’d ever attended a service there.   However, for the most part, everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming to me.   

I took a seat beside Abe with the rest of the men.  The majority of the service was entirely in Hebrew and the singing was unaccompanied by instruments – which was a big departure from my home church, Frist African American Methodist.  FAME’s choir was accompanied by a full band of professional musicians.  Our choir’s won gospel competitions all over the world.  The crowds at FAME are huge and boisterous, folks shout out “amen” and “go on now, preach!” during sermons.  At FAME we praise loudly and sing from the bottom of our hearts.  You can hear the joyous noise ten blocks around.  

The service at Abe’s temple on the other hand, was intimate, thoughtful and deeply reverent, but no less passionate in my estimation.  I was given a prayer book (called a siddur) which Abe kissed before opening.  He helped me to follow the prayers in Hebrew by whispering the translation to me.  The Rabbi, Simon Horowitz, who led the service, was a thoughtful-looking, middle-aged man with salt and pepper hair.  Abe quietly told me he was a brilliant scholar, who’d taught theology at Penn.  He gave his d’var Torah, (sermon) in English. Standing at the bimah (alter), he paused for several moments gathering his thoughts, before finally speaking. 

“A few days ago, I was re-reading my late father’s memoirs and I found myself struck by a particular passage that I thought might be interesting to share with you today.  As most of you know, prior to the shoah my father was a rabbi in a small village in Poland.  In his diaries, my father describes a certain man he was friendly with in town.  Perhaps, “friendly” is an inadequate way to describe the relationship.  They were adversaries in a way, but also quite fond of each other.  The man’s name was “Ivan,” he was a well-respected professor at a nearby college.  My father says that although Ivan was regarded as a brilliant man, he wasn’t particularly well liked in the community because he’d become a fervent atheist.  The townsfolk also considered him to be something of an “oysshteler” – which if your Yiddish is a bit rusty means, roughly, “a show off.”  My father described Ivan as being somewhat like the character of the brother “Ivan” from his favorite book “The Brothers Karamazov” by Dostoevsky.” 

 “Anyway,” Rabbi Horowitz continued, “Like the character in the book, this man Ivan was a huge skeptic, but he wasn’t satisfied keeping these anti-religious beliefs to himself, he wanted to debate people on the subject, particularly, my father – whom was one of the few people in the village, Ivan considered close to his intellectual equal.  My father says the two of them had a bit of a rivalry going on many levels, one of which was playing chess from time to time – while sharing a bottle of vodka.”  

“During these intense matches – which my father admits he usually lost – Ivan would often goad him into a debate about whether God exists or not.  My father recounts how Ivan had numerous reasons and logics for not believing in God, some of which, my father confesses were very hard to dispute.  However, Ivan’s main argument was that it would be impossible for a benevolent, loving God to allow for all the evil and misery we see in the world.”

“Now my father, being an honest man to a fault, admits in his memoirs that he didn’t have a very good counter argument to Ivan’s point.  He writes, “I did not know how to respond to Ivan’s challenge as I was struggling to reconcile that seeming contradiction myself.”  Well, flash forward a few years, the Germans invade Poland.  The shoah begins.  All the Jews in the village are rounded up and sent off first to ghettos and work camps, then finally, the death camps.  My father lost touch with everyone he knew from the village.  Eventually, he’s sent to Treblinka and separated from his first wife, Miriam, who’s sent to die.”  Rabbi Horowitz paused and took a deep breath.

“It was a dark, horrible time in not only for the Jewish people, but probably the nadir of all human history. While he was imprisoned at Treblinka, my father writes that the one day, he ran into his old friend and adversary, Ivan.  My father relates that how, Ivan hadn’t changed at all, even here in the middle of the death camp, he wants to play chess.  My father agrees to play him to take his mind off the horror they’re living through for a little while.”   

“So, they make a chessboard using pebbles they find on the ground for the pieces and drawing the board on the floor of their barracks with a piece of chalk they found.  While they’re playing, Ivan again starts in with his anti-religious views.  He says to my father, “Do you finally see now, Rabbi Horowitz?  I was right all along, there is no God, no great spirit who gave birth to creation.  We’re all accidents.  There is no hope in the world, no justice, just suffering and if we’re lucky a quick, painless death.”   My father writes that it would have been easy to give in to Ivan’s argument at that point.  To deny God, to renounce his faith, but he held firm to his beliefs, in spite of all the horror he was surrounded by, he refused to give up hope.”  

“Instead, he responded to Ivan’s challenge by saying the following: “You say that evil and suffering proves the absence of God in the universe, Ivan, but I see just the opposite in this nightmare.  The presence of evil is neither proof of nothingness nor any indication that God lacks compassion.  It is merely the bi-product of the gift of free will.  God gives us the chance to make our own decisions.  Some, like the Nazis, make horrible ones which leads to the suffering of others.  As difficult as it is for God to watch this awful spectacle, watch he must, for to stop it would deny us our very freedom.  Just as a parent suffers watching a child fail, so too must God stand aside and allow for us to make our mistakes, and grow, if we’re capable of it.”

“Nonsense,” said Ivan, “No rational being would tolerate this mad parade of death and misery.”     

“But don’t you see, Ivan.”  My father replied, “You’ve just proven my point.  We recognize this as madness and are repulsed by it. Why?  Because we understand the difference between evil and good.  Were God absent from the universe, we’d react purely like animals to this situation.  We’d feel the terror, yes, but not moral outrage at what the Nazi’s have done to us. These deep feelings come from God, they’re not accidental, they’re our souls crying out to us.”  

“My father told all this to Ivan,” Rabbi Horowitz continued, “but he says Ivan just shook his head and scoffed.  He called my father crazy.  A few days later, my father found Ivan hanging from the rafters in the barracks, he’d made a noose out of his shirt and hung himself.  My father writes “Sadly, the horrors of the death camp were simply too much for poor Ivan to bare.  They were, in fact, too much for any of us, but somehow, my faith gave me the strength to continue on, day after grueling day, surrounded by unspeakable horrors.  This is not to say that only religious people survived the shoah.  I knew other cynics, like Ivan, who came through the terror without uttering a single prayer.  I also knew people of deep faith who were so traumatized that they lost all hope and gave up their spiritual beliefs.  But for me, and many others, in our faith we found the strength to face the greatest darkness imaginable and survive – and that had made all the difference.”

Rabbi Horowitz paused and looked around the room for a moment, meeting every person’s gaze with his own.  

“I won’t comment on what I just read.  Instead, I’ll leave further interpretation of my father’s story open for you to discuss among yourselves.  Now let us read from the Torah” with that, Rabbi Horowitz stepped down from the bimah and ended his sermon.  

                                               **************************

After the service, I hung around for an extended lunch with Abe and the rest of the congregation.  Long tables were spread out across the sanctuary and a mix of traditional Hebrew dishes were served to the entire gathering.  To my surprise, bottles of whiskey, vodka and other hard liquors were laid out on the tables as well.  As the drinks flowed, people’s tongues loosened.  The other members of the congregation overcame their initial standoffishness and began asking me question after question about the cultures of other races they encountered.  It’s funny, I guess because I was mixed raced, they figured I was the official spokesperson all non-Jewish people living in LA.  They demanded to know why Rastafarians smoked pot and grew dreadlocks, why Latinos customized their cars, what was the meaning behind Indians greeting each other with “Namaste,” etc. etc.  

I took no offense to the extended Q & A session as it seemed for some of the members of the cloistered orthodox community, I was the first person of color they’d ever actually met up close and personal.  

As Abe and I walked home, neither of us said much.  I was lost in thought again, thinking about Chip and what to do about my grandmother’s situation.   Abe too seemed to be mulling something over in his mind.  

“Did you enjoy the Rabbi’s sermon?”  Abe asked me.

“It gave me a lot to think about.”  

“Me too…”  Abe said as gently stroked his long, grey beard.  “You can extract a number of important truths from it… what do you think he was saying?”

“Never give up hope.” I said.    

“Yes, very true, I heard that as well,” Abe said, “but I also think he was trying to tell us something about choices.  God gave us the Torah to help guide us, but our character is built upon the decisions we make, for better or worse.  That’s why no decision should ever be taken lightly… Speaking of which, I’m glad you made the choice to accept my invitation today.  I think the congregation got something very valuable out of speaking with you.  You know, we can be a little insular as a community sometimes, it’s good for us to meet and talk with someone like you.  You bring a fresh perspective.”

“It’s good for all of us, I think.  Invite me again anytime, Abe.  I enjoyed it.”  Abe smiled and squeezed my shoulder.  

“Thank you, my friend.  Shalom.”  He turned and walked away, softly whistling one of his favorite Hebrew songs.      

                                             *******************************  

When I got back inside my apartment, the lack of sleep from the previous night combined with the shot of vodka I had with lunch suddenly hit me all at once.   I let out a big yawn and sprawled out on my living room couch.  I was just settling into for a much-needed nap, when suddenly my phone rang.   I snatched it off the nearby coffee table and took a look at the number.  I didn’t recognize it, but it was from a San Diego area code.

“Hello?”  I said apprehensively.  

“Hi, Des,” a friendly male voice replied.  “This is Borjn, Sven’s nephew.”  

“Oh…  Hi.”  I said in surprise. 

“Are you busy, do you have a moment to talk?

“Yeah.  What’s up?”

“I’m calling because I spoke with your grandmother and Sven last night.  Your grandmother is sorry she hasn’t been able to reach you.” 

“Well, I tried calling the number Sven gave me a few days ago, but no one answered.  I left a message.”

“Yes, they got your message.  Your grandmother is so sorry she hasn’t been able to call you back, but you know how vacations are.  They’ve been so busy running around that they’ve barely had time to sit down and take a breath. Anyhow, your grandmother wanted me to give you a call you because something important has come up.  In the rush to get off on their trip, my uncle totally forgot about paying the bill for your grandmother’s storage locker.  He’s been helping her out with some of these little expenses.  I was going to head over there tomorrow to drop off a check, but your grandmother wanted me to give you a call and see if you’d like to come with me.” 

“Granny has a storage unit?”

“Yes, she’s been saving a lot of things that once belonged to your mother in it.  She said there’s a few of your things in there as well that she thought you might want to have.  Don’t stress if you’re busy, I just thought I’d ask.”  

I thought it over for a moment or two.

“Ok… What’s the address?”

                                                   ****************************** 

The next day, I found myself driving down to a lonely road in the arid desert foothills East of San Diego.  The self storage facility was located just outside of Spring Valley, not far from the secret house my grandmother had neglected to tell me about.  

My grandmother’s (and Sven’s) motivation in inviting me to this odd foraging session with Borjn seemed fairly straight-forward to me.  It was the same tactic Granny had employed when I came over for lunch and she gave me the puzzle box and the other items from my childhood; she was trying to manipulate me into sticking around and helping her.  No doubt, Granny was concerned that I wouldn’t want to deal with her following the revelation that she was lying to Medicare about her income.  I guess she figured that doling out a few more trinkets to me would smooth things over.  

I didn’t see any harm in playing along.  After all, I had Big D’s gun in my glove compartment.  I was meeting Borjn in broad daylight, in a public place where there’d be lots of people around – what could go wrong?  

As I drove along, however, I took note of the fact that this particular area was actually quite undeveloped.  I didn’t see a single house or any businesses along the winding desert road I was following.  

Just as I was starting to wonder if I’d been given the wrong address by Borjn, I rounded a sharp corner and saw a sign mounted on a wooden stake that read: “Triple A Public Storage – one mile ahead.”  That was a relief – at least I was on the right road.  I continued driving for a short while until I finally saw a small facility looming ahead of me.  

“Triple A Public Storage” sat alone in the middle of nowhere.  It consisted of a couple of long barrack-like buildings surround by a tall chain-link fence topped with razor sharp concertina wire.  If I didn’t know better, I’d almost wonder if I’d stumbled upon a secret military base.  Why anyone would come all the way out here to store their crap was a mystery – either they wanted a lot of privacy, or the rent must be super-cheap.  

There was a small office near the entrance gate, but it looked unattended.  As I pulled closer, I spotted a small sign in an office window that read; “Office Closed”.  Another sign mounted on the entrance gate directed patrons to make credit card payments online, or to deposit personal checks in a drop off slot on the other side of the office, inside the gate.  

Just then, I heard the sound of car engine.  I turned around and saw a familiar high-end Mercedes approaching.  As the car pulled up to the gate, Borjn rolled down the driver’s side window and greeted me with a warm smile. 

“Right on time, as always.  That’s what a love about you, Des, you’re always so punctual.  Just follow me in, I just need to drop off the check at the office, then we’ll go to your grandmother’s unit, it’s in the back.”   

“Ok, sounds good.”  I said.   

After Borjn dropped a sealed envelope into the drop off slot, he led me to a unit located at the very end of the last building.  I scanned the facility as I tailed him, but I didn’t see any other customers around.   We were totally alone.   

Borjn parked his uncle’s car and sauntered over to me.  He was sweating profusely. 

“Boy, it’s hot as fuck out here, isn’t it?”  He said.   

“Yep.” I replied.  “Kinda an inconvenient place to pick for storage.”

“It’s really cheap, that’s why your grandmother uses it.  She’s on such a tight income these days, she has to save money wherever she can.”  I nodded affirmatively, although I had my doubts about the statement. 

Each storage unit was rather large and had a metal garage-style door.  Borjn turned to the one in front of his car.  

“This one’s your grandmother’s.  Here, I’ll open it for you, then you can have a look around.”  There were two large master locks affixed to metal pegs on either side of the roll up door. Both locks looked brand new.   Borjn took out a post-it note from his pocket (which had the combination numbers written on it).  He bent down and started unlocking the padlocks.   I noticed that his fingers were trembling slightly as he rotated through the numbers.  

“You ok, Des?”  He suddenly asked me as he flipped through the combos. 

“Yeah, why?”

“It’s just that you’re usually so chatty, you seem kinda quiet today.  Is everything all right?”

“It’s been a long week, that’s all.” 

“Gotcha,” Borjn replied.  He removed the locks and headed back towards Sven’s Mercedes.  “I gotta make a call, go ahead and take a look around, your grandmother said it was fine for you to take anything you want.”

As Borjn took out his phone and walked away, I took hold of the door handle and lifted the metal barrier out of the way.   What I saw inside the storage locker almost took my breath away… it was packed with what appeared to be everything my mother had ever owned.   

Much of it was furniture, dating all the way back to my childhood.  Stacked alongside the Danish Modern decor and furnishings she’d amassed for her home in the south, were several large pieces of top-end physical therapy equipment she’d bought for her clinic back in Alabama.  Among the wall-to-wall clutter, I spied a couple of large oil paintings given to my mom by a now famous abstract artist named Oykin that she’d bought for a song back in the 1970s.  Poking out from behind some cardboard boxes were also a couple of big flat screen TVs and mom’s expensive quad stereo system.  

“Wow, there’s a lot of really nice stuff in there, Des,” Borjn said with a grin as he dialed a number on his phone.

“Yeah…”  I said, slightly awed and disturbed by the sight I was beholding.  It immediately occurred to me that this stash was yet more proof my grandmother deceit about her situation.  If Granny really was “almost broke,” no doubt she would have sold this stuff off long ago. 

At that moment, a dark, paranoid scenario suddenly flashed through my mind… “This place is pretty isolated,” I thought to myself.  “If Borjn was to creep up and hit me over the head with a baseball bat – no one would ever know…”   

“Go ahead and take a look around.”  Borjn said as he gestured inside the dark storage space. “Your grandmother said your things are mostly in the back.  Have a look.” 

I hesitated for a moment, then followed Borjn’s invitation and ventured deeper inside the gloomy space.  A makeshift aisle had been created through the mass of junk, so I could make my way all the way to the back wall. 

For a moment or two, as I wandered along the bric-a-brac, I found myself lost in a daze of nostalgia as every item my eyes fell upon brought back a vivid memory of my mother and my youth.  I spotted a large, rolled up poster sticking out of a cardboard box.  I took it out and unrolled it, thinking it was one of my old posters from my room.  But to my pleasant surprise, I discovered that it was actually a blown-up print of a photograph of my mother sitting in her kitchen back in Alabama, hand-feeding a racoon named “Rocky.”  

My mom had found Rocky when he was just a kit.  He’d been abandoned by his mother in the woods behind her house.  Poor Rocky was almost dead when mom found him huddled inside a hollowed-out log.  

Mom, ever the nurturer, brought Rocky back home and patiently nursed him back to health. After that, he sorta became her pet for a while.   He stayed in the laundry room where my mother made him a little bed out of a shoe box.  At night, he’d go galivanting around the backyard and sometimes the woods, but no matter how far he strayed, Rocky always returned in the morning.  He was very affectionate.  He’d curl up in our laps when we watched TV and even play fetch with a little ball, I’d toss to him.  His signature move was to climb on top of someone’s head and perch there, like a living Davy Crockett hat.  

But when Rocky became full grown, his animal instincts began to take over.  He came around less and less, preferring instead to spend most of his time in the woods.  One day we saw him running around the forest with another racoon.  Rocky had found a mate, after that, he never came “home” anymore.  

Still, even though he’d become a regular racoon again, Rocky did continue to pay us visits from time to time.  We’d hear him scratching at the kitchen door some nights.  When we let him in, Rocky would immediately rub up against our legs and climb atop our heads before sauntering off to return to his own family again.  

I remembered taking this particular photo of Rocky and my mom during a visit right before my stepfather, Doc, passed away.  Mom must have had the photo blown up to poster size because she meant to frame it, but never got around to it.  

As I wiped a tear from my eye and began rolling up the poster, I caught sight of an old cassette tape laying on the bottom of the cardboard box where I found the photo.  I recognized it immediately by the distinctive cursive writing on the yellowing label that read simply; “for my grandson.”  It was the tape my grandfather, Erik, had sent me when I was a kid, the one and only time he had ever communicated with me.  

I fished the cassette out of the bottom of the box and turned it over in my hands, then put in my pocket.  I took the photo of my mother and tucked it under my arm as well.  I started looking around for more personal belongings that I could take, when suddenly my gaze fell upon something that instantly shook me to the core.   It was a couple of empty beer cans lying on the floor between some boxes.  A few cigarette butts were sitting on the rim of one of the empty cans, left by someone who had used it as an ash tray and there was a small, square piece of white paper lying nearby as well.  The paper was creased in the middle, indicating that it had once been folded up into a triangle: it was a drug bindle, used to hold either coke or meth.    

I bent down and took a close look at the butts to confirm my suspicion: they were “humps” aka Camel lights. The beer was Coors – both were Chip’s favorite brands. 

“Holy shit…” I whispered to myself, “he’s been hanging out here.”  

A jolt of panic shot up my spine.  I took a quick look around the dark storage space, to make sure that Chip wasn’t hiding behind something, waiting to jump me, but my eyes found nothing. I looked back down at the makeshift ashtray.  The Camel butts had turned slightly brown.  They weren’t fresh, probably a month old, if I had to guess.  But Chip why had been in here?  Probably either to steal stuff, or because he needed somewhere to crash.  That would certainly explain the new padlocks on the metal door.   Maybe that was real reason Granny and her crew wanted me to come out here – Borjn wanted backup just in case Chip was around. 

“Hey Des, how you doing in there?”  Borjn suddenly called out.  He was standing near his uncle’s Mercedes, holding his phone.  He looked a little agitated for some reason. 

“I’m good.”  I replied. 

“Hey, can I ask a favor?  The batteries on my stupid phone just died.  I was in the middle of an important business call.  I just need to tell the person that I’ll call them right back.  Can I barrow yours for a minute?”

“Sure.”  I said.  As I strolled out of the unit, I noticed that Borjn had opened up the trunk of his uncle’s car and set a medium-sized cardboard box from the locker down beside it.  It was probably something he was bringing back for my grandmother, but why did he put the box down instead of just loading it into the trunk, I wondered.  

“What’s that?”  Borjn asked, gesturing to the rolled-up poster of mom and Rocky I was holding in my hand. 

“Oh, it’s nothing.  Just a photo of my mom.  It’s the only thing I’m taking.”  Borjn gave me an incredulous look.  

“You’re kidding, right?”  He said, chuckling.  “Wow, you really do like to play the good Christian boy, don’t you?  That’s very sweet, but you really don’t need to.  This stuff is basically yours.  It’s your inheritance.”

“Not really, according to my mother’s will, it all belongs to my grandmother.  My mom didn’t leave me a thing.”

“Right, it’s your grandmother’s stuff,” Borjn said, “But she said you could help yourself, didn’t she?  Look, it’s not really my business, but between you and me, I think you should take a look inside that desk back there.”  Borjn pointed at a weather-beaten desk that was pushed up against the back wall of the storage space.  

“Why?”

“Your grandmother said your mother’s jewelry is inside one of the drawers.  You have every right to it, trust me, your grandmother doesn’t even want it.  It’s just sitting back there, gathering dust.  Help yourself.  I won’t say anything.”  

Borjn gave me a conspiratorial wink, then held out his hand and wiggled his fingers, coaxing me to hand over my phone.  “Oh, and can I get that phone?  My client is waiting.”

Instead of reaching into my pocket and handing Borjn my device, however, I hesitated.  I can’t explain why, but I suddenly felt very uneasy, as if my “spidey sense” was tingling.  My eyes darted over to the open trunk of his uncle’s car again.  I noticed that a tire repair kit was sitting at the bottom of it.  It had been opened.  A crowbar was lying out.    

Instead of pulling my phone out, I took a step back from Borjn.  

“What’s the matter?”  Borjn asked, furrowing his brows. 

“Ah shit.”  I said, thinking of a quick excuse.  “I think I’m getting a call.”

“Really?  I didn’t hear your phone ring.”  Borjn said.  

“It’s on vibrate.”  I replied.  I continued to retreat from Borjn, backing up towards my car as I pulled my phone out of my pocket and faked hitting a button on the touchscreen. 

“Hello, this is Des,” I said loudly.  “Oh hey, Derrick, how you doing, bro… I’m good, man… I’m here at that storage space I told you about with Granny’s friend, Borjn… what’s that?  No way, dude, for real?!   Damn, ok, I’m pretty much done here anyway… yes, I’ll leave right now.  I’ll be there in thirty minutes or so… Talk to you soon.  Bye.”

I ended my pho-call and looked back over at Borjn.  He was staring at me now with an amused expression on his face, as if he knew the call was fake.  

“I hope everything alright.”  He said.  

“That was my brother Derrick.”  I replied, “His water heater ruptured.  His place is flooded.  Water everywhere.  He needs my help.” 

“Are you a plumber?”  Borjn said. 

“No.  But he needs me.”

Borjn gave me a look that read, “I know you’re full of shit.”   He gestured back at the storage unit. 

“I’m sure your brother’s fine.  Come on, have another look inside.   You barely had a chance to look around. Who knows how long your grandmother intends to keep renting this space.  She’ll probably end up getting rid of all these things soon.   I’d hate for you overlook something valuable that you might want later on.”

I looked over at my car.  Big D’s gun was in my glove compartment, but it would be next to impossible to get my keys out and unlock the door if Borjn rushed me.  I was taller than him, but he was far more muscular…  

Just then, I thought I heard I heard faint footsteps behind me.  I quickly glanced over my shoulder; the edge of the building was directly at my back, the faint shuffling sound was coming from around the corner, getting closer.  I looked back at Borjn, he’d taken a step towards me.  

We stared at each other for a tense moment.  Then, suddenly, we both heard a faint, clanking sound, followed by the low rumble of an approaching car engine.  

“Someone’s here.” I said.  Just then, a black F-150 pick-up truck appeared at the far end of the long building.  It turned as it came into view and drove slowly towards us.  As it approached, Borjn’s broad shoulders seemed to deflate.  A look of frustration flashed briefly across his face.  I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard the footsteps behind me, walking away.   

The pick-up truck pulled up and parked a short distance away from us.  Two burly looking dudes climbed out.  As they started unlocking their storage unit, I looked back at Borjn.    

“I better get going,” I said, “my brother’s waiting for me.”

“Suit yourself.”  Borjn replied in a casual voice.   

“You still need to use my phone?” I asked.  Borjn let out a sigh and shook his head. 

“No thanks.  I’ll call my client back later.”   

I waited by my car and watched as Borjn pulled down the security gate and relocked it.  After he finished securing the storage unit again, I followed him out the entrance.  Once we were on the winding road that led back to civilization, I sped past him, waving goodbye.  He gave me a half-hearted wave in return.   

As I drove away down the lonely desert road, I have to admit that I started to wonder if I’d gone completely bonkers.  Borjn was acting weird, there was no denying that, but was he really trying to crush my skull with a tire iron?  It sounded absurd now that I thought about it.  

After all, why would Borjn do such a thing?  Didn’t my grandmother and her friends need me to ward off the threat of Chip?  Then again, Borjn wasn’t exactly a tiny guy, why would he need me to deal with Chip, he looked like he could handle himself.  And were those really footsteps I heard creeping up behind me, or was it just my mind playing tricks on me?  Fuck if I could tell, none of this made any sense.   No doubt about it, the stress of this fucked up situation was making me completely paranoid.

On the other hand, maybe being suspicious of everyone and everything was an appropriate survival instinct, given what I was dealing with.  It was harsh to say it, but if my cousin Luc had been a little more paranoid about his own grandmother, he’d probably still be alive.  I didn’t want to make the same mistake.   The only way to avoid that horrible fate was to get to the truth, one way or another.  

Once I drove out of the foothills, I got back on the main highway, then took the interchange West, heading towards Escondido, instead of returning back to LA.  It was time to get some solid answers about grandmother’s real intentions towards me.  

And the best place to start was by figuring out if she really was in Denmark…

Chapter Eight: The Chess Match

Chapter Seven: California Dreaming

“I’ll try to get to the bottom of it.”  I promised Ms. Sanchez.  

“Good,” she replied, “because I can’t resubmit your grandmother’s application to Medicare unless these issues of unexplained income have been resolved.”  I thanked Ms. Sanchez for her diligence in bringing the matter to my attention and ended the call.   My mind was racing so fast now that I could hardly drive or think straight.  The twin weight of the revelation that Chip had a confrontation with my mother over an affair just a short few hours before her death and my grandmother’s attempt to defraud Medicare shook me to the core.   

I took the next off-ramp and drove straight into the parking lot of a nearby gas station.  I parked in a quiet spot away from the pumps and buried my head into my hands, as a tsunami of emotions washed over me

“What the fuck am I going to do?”  I muttered to myself.   I took some deep breathes to calm my shaky nerves and tried to think straight.   As far as the “Chip situation” was concerned, there was nothing further I could do at the moment.  Obviously, he was involved in the troubling events just prior to my mother’s death – which would establish possible motive and opportunity – but I still lacked hard evidence proving Chip’s direct involvement in a crime.  I’d need more information before I could go to the police.  

My grandmother, however, was a different story.  She was attempting to commit fraud against the Federal government and had tried to use me as an unwitting patsy to her scheme.  She was also setting me up as a scarecrow to ward off Chip.  It was emotionally devastating.   She’d told me so many lies, but the questions was – how far did her deceits go?  Was it possible that… she might have been involved in my mother’s death?  

Up until now, I didn’t think the idea was a remotely possible.  After mulling over the prospect for a while, however, I dismissed the notion.   I was certain Granny had a deep, endearing love for my mother.  After all, she’d saved her life once.  Mom was her best friend and confidant.  I couldn’t imagine Granny would do anything to hurt her.   But I, on the other hand, well, the jury was still out on that one…

I took out my phone and looked up Granny’s number.  I took a moment to gather my words, then dialed.  

“Hello, Des,” Granny said in a surprised voice when she answered.  “How are you, darling?”

“Hi Granny, not so good.”  I replied.  “I just got off the phone with Medicare.  They discovered a bunch of bank accounts in your name that you didn’t report.”  

There was a pause on the other end of the line.  

“W-What?”  Granny finally said. “Bank accounts?  I don’t understand.  I have no money.”  

“Yes, you do, Granny.  Please… I’m asking you, as your grandson, just be honest with me.  They have your application flagged for attempted fraud.  I need to know the truth.”  

“Hold on,” Granny replied.  She put her hand over the phone and began speaking rapidly in Danish to someone nearby. Another person joined in on the conversation.  Their voices were muffled, but it sounded like she was speaking to Sven and his nephew, Borjn.  They talked in terse sounding tones for a few moments.   Then, Sven came on the phone. 

“Hello, Des.  This is Sven,” he said. “I’m afraid your grandmother is very confused by what you’re telling her.  She has no money – trust me.  Why are you making these outrageous accusations?”

“I’m not accusing her of anything, Sven.”  I said, firmly.  “It’s Medicare, they called me after they discovered several hidden bank accounts in her name.” 

“Well, I’m sure it’s a mistake,” Sven scoffed. “These fools probably have her confused with someone else.  Truly, this hardly surprises me.  Americans who work for the government are utterly incompetent, that’s why this country can’t even manage its own health care system or train service.  No offense.  I’m just telling you the truth.” 

“Right,” I said, hiding my skepticism.  “So, should I set up a call with Granny and Medicare so we can clear things up?  I think you should be involved in the call too, Sven, to help translate for Granny.”  

“Of course,” said Sven, “we must clear up this little misunderstanding as soon as possible, but unfortunately, it will have to wait just a bit.  You see, your grandmother and I will be traveling for the next two weeks.”

“Traveling? Where?”

“To Denmark.  I’m so sorry we did not mention this before, Des.  But I kept this whole thing a secret until today because I wanted it to be a big surprise for your Grandmother.  As a belated birthday gift, I’m taking her back to our homeland. Isn’t that wonderful?!”

“Oh my gosh, yes, that’s amazing.”  I said. “I’m sure Granny will love that.  How incredibly generous of you, Sven.”

“Ah, it’s nothing really.  I have the money, so why not spend it on the people I love?

We shall be staying with my son’s family in Copenhagen, then traveling all across the country.”   

“Wow.  When do you leave?”

“In a few days.”  Sven said.  “Right now things are so hectic with packing and making last minute arrangements,  can you call those idiots over at Medicare and let them know your grandmother will be happy to speak with them once we return?”

“Sure, Sven, I’ll let them know.”

“Wonderful!”  Sven said merrily. “Anyhow, here is your Grandmother, she wants to talk with you again.  Nice speaking with you.”  Sven handed the phone back over to Granny.  

“Hey Granny, congrats on your trip.”

“Oh, thank you!  I’m so excited!”  Granny said breathlessly.  “Sven is taking me back home!  Finally, I can see Denmark again.  Can you believe it?  It’s like I’m in a dream!”

“Yeah, it’s almost too good to be true.”  I replied.  

“I have so much to do, but I will call you later, darling.”

“No worries,” I said, “Go do what you have to do.  Travel safe, Granny and be sure to take plenty of pictures.  I want a shot of that little mermaid statue in Copenhagen harbor.”

“I will!”  Granny said.  “Love you!  Take care.” 

“I love you too, Granny.  Bye.”  

After I hung up, I called Ms. Sanchez at Medicare and told her I wasn’t able to get a straight story out of my grandmother.  I told her I had no plans to assist Granny further.   Ms. Sanchez said that sounded like a “very wise decision.”   She said the application would remain technically open, but it had been red flagged and legal action would be taken by the department if my grandmother tried to resubmit it again without clarifying the false information she’d given.  

                                                 *********************************

On the long drive back up to LA, I called my brother, Derrick, and told him everything I’d uncovered so far.  I thought he’d argue with me that I was being paranoid, or berate me for being reckless, but he actually surprised me. 

“Yeah, none of that shit sounds good.”  He admitted. “You did good work, bro.  Chip’s definitely involved in mom’s death somehow, that’s for sure.”

“You think he killed her?”  I asked.  Derrick didn’t say anything for a while.  

“I don’t know.”  He finally said.  “At this point, we can’t jump to any conclusions, but you should keep engaging with Granny and see what else you can find out.  Plus, we need to make sure Chip’s not fucking with her.”

“You want me to be her bodyguard, even though she’s lying to us?”  I said. 

“I know it sounds fucked up, but we have to ask ourselves – what would mom want us to do?  Granny’s family, we can’t forget that.” 

“Yeah… But she’s not exactly treating us like family.”

“I hear you.  Look, bro, obviously Granny’s been involved in some shady shit lately, but mom’s death devastated her.  We have to give her a little leeway here.  Whatever she’s done, or doing, we can’t just abandon her to the fucking wolves. Who knows what Chip will do to her, or even what’s up with this Danish crew.  We have to protect her, at least until we get to the bottom of things.”

“You’re right, if she’s being taken advantage of, we have to protect her.  But so far it’s just me doing this, bro.  Can you come with me the next time I go see her?”

“Why?” Derrick asked, sounding slightly nervous. “Has Granny been asking about me?”

“A few times, yes.  It would make me feel a lot safer if I had some backup.”  

“Absolutely, bro.  I got your back 100%.  You know that, right?  Thing is, my work is a little crazy right now and they might be sending me out of town a lot over the next few months, but I’ll try my best to be there whenever you need me.”

“Thanks.  I appreciate that.” 

“No worries.   But the main thing you and I need to do right now is look out for Granny.  That’s what mom would want us to do, no question.  You agree, right?”

“Yeah, I suppose.”   

“Great.  Shit, I got to bounce, a client is calling on the other line, but let’s talk again soon.  Everything will be fine though, don’t worry.  Love you, bro.”

                                              **************************

It was about 9:30 PM that evening when the call from my cousin Luc came in.   I was a little surprised when I saw his name pop up on the caller ID as he hadn’t mentioned that he was planning on speaking to me.  

“Hello, cuz!”  I said.

“Yes, hello.”  Luc replied, sounding a little hesitant.  “I’m sorry if I call too late, Des.  If now is a bad time to speak, please tell me.”

“No, It’s fine, Luc.  I’m happy to speak with you anytime.  What’s happening?”   

“A lot… too much, I think.  I called because I have big news:  I’m coming to California in the next week.   I plan to buy the plane ticket tomorrow.”

“Holy shit, that’s amazing, man!”  

“Yes, I spoke to your father about this already.  I stay with him and your stepmother at their home.  Will you be around if I come?”  

“Of course!  I’d love to see you, Luc.  It’ll be epic.  We’ll go skating together, just like we talked about.”

“Yes, that would be so “freaky” cool, cuz… ” Just then, Luc suddenly trailed off.   I heard the voice of an older woman, shouting at him in rapid-fire French.  

“Hold on, one moment, Des,” Luc said tersely.  He put his hand over the phone and began shouting back at the woman.  I didn’t understand a word they were saying, but from the intensity of it, it was clear their argument was extremely bitter and angry.  Finally, Luc said something that must have been really devastating.  The woman exploded with invective.   I heard a door slam.   Then, there was silence.  After a few moments, Luc came back on the phone.  

“Hello, Des?  You still here?”

“Yes.  Are you alright?”    

“Yes… sorry you have to hear that.  It’s very difficult right now for me.  My grandmother, Charlotte, and I, we don’t get along at all.   That’s why I need to get the fuck out of here.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.  “If it’s any comfort to you, I have a grandmother who’s not easy to deal with either.”

“Yes, family is complicated.”  Luc said with a sigh.  “Mine more than most, I think… Can I ask a personal question, Des?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“How do you see yourself, racially, I mean?”  

“I see myself as mixed race.”

“So, you don’t think of yourself as any particular race?”  Luc said.  “For me, this is a very big struggle right now.  I don’t know where I fit in.  I was raised French, but I’m not entirely part of this culture.  My mother is Trinidadian, but I’m not sure I fit into that culture either since I wasn’t raised there.  My father and my grandparents wanted me to be white like them, but I just can’t relate to that.  I can’t lie and pretend that my skin isn’t brown, that my mother isn’t Trini.   I am a person of color.  But my grandmother, she does not approve.  She is too old to change.  She’s sick too… both mentally and physically.  She is dying of cancer.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that, Luc.”

“Yes, it’s very sad.  In spite of everything, I love her, Des, but the drugs and her medical problems make her a crazy, I think.  She obsesses over me inheriting the family estate.  She is a total racist, to be honest.  She told me once that she does not want my “coconut picker” mother to put one foot on the chateau after she’s gone – she said it would taint her ancestor’s legacy.  “This is a fine house, not a zoo!” she told me, as if my mother was fucking monkey or something.”

“That’s terrible, man.”

“I know… that’s why I ask you about race.   It’s impossible to explain how I feel about being mixed race with her or other people here.  How do you deal with this situation, Des?  Does being “mixed” bother you?  Do you ever wish you were just all black, or Hispanic, instead of stuck in the middle – with no “tribe” to call your own?”

“I used to, yes, but not anymore.  Now I see being “mixed” as a blessing.”

“To me, it’s just the opposite.  I think it’s a curse.  Can you explain your thoughts to me?  How can you possibly see it as a blessing?  I’m curious.”

“Well… it’s like everyone in this world has a particular race or culture they’re tied to, right?  That’s cool because it gives one a sense of being part of a “tribe” as you say.  But the drawback is, most people can never escape the confines of their ethnicity.   We, on the other hand, don’t fit into any easy categories, so we can exist outside the normal racial assumptions and constructs.  More than most people, we can be seen as individuals.  Not only that, but we can understand race from many different angles.  It’s like owning a special passport that allows us to travel freely between races and cultures and see the world from a totally unique perspective.”

“Huh.  I had not thought of it quite like that.”  Luc said.  “To be brutally honest with you, I hate being part white, Des.  The people here in France are so fucking racist… especially, my own family.  I am sure you are aware that my father hired thugs to kidnap me and bring me here.  They beat my mother and my grandmother almost to death.  They did so many horrible things to my poor mother, for so many years, all because she was not white.  You know, growing up, my father told me to never speak of her, or my racial heritage.  He made me feel ashamed of my brown skin. My grandmother, Charlotte, is just as bad, maybe worse.  How can I forgive such things?”

I thought deeply for a moment about how I would respond to Luc.  

“I don’t know if I can tell you to forgive your family.  It’s not my place.  I know it’s hard to see the good in certain racial groups, especially for you, after what you went through.  I understand your pain to a certain extent.  I’ve suffered from racism in my life too.   Where I grew up, there were hardly any people of color.  People threw rocks at our house when we moved into the neighborhood.   They spray painted “niggers don’t belong” on the sidewalk in front of my dad’s home.   The kids in my school used to bully me because I was brown.  They’d tell racist black jokes and laugh in my face. They called me “Niggerino” instead of Marino.  But you know, in spite of all that, I try not to judge white people as a group.  I try my hardest to look at them as individuals, not just as “white people” who are all bad. 

“How can you not?  That’s how they see us.  They think of people like you and me as just “half-niggers.”  You know this is truth.”

“It’s true for some of them, but not all white people are bigots.  I’d even argue that it’s not even close to the majority of them.   That’s not to say there isn’t intense racism in this world, but you should never let racism turn you into a person who hates.  We all have racism inside us.  It’ll take us over if we’re not very careful to control our worst impulses.   In LA we have this place called The Museum of Tolerance.  It was built by the Jewish community to commemorate the holocaust and studying the problem of prejudice.   You might have heard of it.  There’s this one particular part of the museum, a hallway, that always makes me think.  As you enter this narrow corridor, you come to a place where you have to stop because there’s two doors.  A sign hangs above one door that reads, “no prejudice,” while the sign over the other door says “prejudice.”  You have to pick one to go through.  Which one would you pick?”

“The one that says, “no prejudice” of course, cuz.”

“Right, that’s the one everyone tries to go through the first time – but when they try to walk through it, they can’t.  The museum keeps that door permanently locked.”

“Why is that?”  Luc asked.

“Because they’re making the point: Everyone has prejudice inside of them.  Racism isn’t something only particular to white people, it’s a problem for all of us.  That’s why you have to judge people as individuals, not collectively as a race.”

Luc thought about what I said for a few moments. 

“That’s interesting.”  He finally said.  

“The world is always trying to force “mixed” people like us into a box.  But the truth is, race and culture are just a small part of who we really are.  It’s like the top layers of an onion, but when you peel the layers back, you keep discovering that there’s so much more to a person underneath.”

“Yes, I understand, Des. You make some interesting points.  I’m not sure I agree with all of them, but I like where you are coming from.  You’re very positive attitude about things.  I need to discover more of that inside myself, I think.”  

“You will, Luc.  I believe in you.”

“Thanks, cuz… anyhow, it’s getting late.  I’m glad we had this talk.   You’re one of the few people I can confide to about these deep issues.  But I think my argument with my grandmother was too much for me.  My head is hurting now, I have a headache.   We should continue this discussion when I come to see you.  I will reach out to you with details of my travel plans soon.  I’m looking forward very much to seeing you, Des.”

“Me too.”  I said.  Luc thanked me again and ended the call.  

                                         ******************************

I woke up early the next day and drove out to Pasadena.   I hadn’t originally planned on making this excursion on the way to Billy Rose Investigations, but I had received an unexpected gift the previous afternoon.  I’d discovered a residual check for $600 dollars waiting for me in my mail box.  It was a payment for a comedy film I’d written a few years ago that continued to play occasionally on TV.  The arrival of the unexpected money allowed me to act sooner rather than later and hopefully avoid a tricky situation that I had been dreading all week long. 

I parked my car a short distance from a quaint, craftsman style home and waited… 

Down the street, I could see several kids and their parents standing on a corner, waiting for their school bus to arrive.  I looked closely at the adults in the crowd, but I didn’t see the person I was looking for –  she must still be getting ready, I summized.   

The pause gave me a moment to reconsider my actions.  Was this really the right thing to do?  Even if it was justified, there was no getting around the fact that it amounted to a betrayal of the man who had befriended me and had given me a job – could I live with the guilt of that?

Just then, the door to the craftsman style home swung open.  Amanda Torres stepped out, leading her son, Jake, by the hand.  I watched discreetly as they walked up the street to join the other parents and schoolchildren waiting on the corner.  I noticed that as they trotted along, Jake would occasionally make little jumps and skips, trying to avoid stepping in the cracks on the sidewalk.  A small smile crept across my face.  He was superstitious – just like me when I was his age.  

Just then, the school bus pulled up to the corner.  The kids began slowly trudging inside.  Torres kneeled down to her son and tried to adjust his hair one last time.  He tried to pull away from her while making a face that read “stop fussing with me, mom!”  The impatient bus driver honked his horn to hurry them along.  

Torres gave little Jake a small kiss on the cheek before finally turning him loose to board the bus.  As I watched him amble aboard the school bus, thoughts of my aunt Steelbeth and cousin Luc flashed through my mind.  How different would their lives be if someone, anyone, who knew about the evil shit Marcel was planning had bothered to step up and do the right thing?

After the bus departed, Torres stood for a moment on the corner, checking her phone while the other parents drifted away.  If I was going to do something, now was the time.   I glanced up at the distant hillside, wondering if someone had eyes on me.  Probably not, I reasoned.   It was unlikely that Billy would keep her under surveillance with his date scheme in full effect… 

At least, I hoped so. 

I got out my car and trotted quickly up to Torres.  She had turned around now and was walking slowly back to her house, while she read messages on her phone.   

“Amanda Torres,” I said softly as our path came together.    Torres glanced up at me.  She didn’t look put off that I called her name, she probably assumed I was another parent.   

“Yes?”  She asked.  “Do I know you?”

“No, but I have some advice for you: that guy who’s dog you found.  He’s not your neighbor.  He’s a flunky hired by your ex.  Your date is a set up to get a photo of you taking a drink.”   

Amanda’s eyes went wide.  She stared at me in shock for a moment.   

“W-What?”  she sputtered out. “Who the fuck are you?”

“I’m nobody, just a ghost with a conscience.  But take my advice – if you want to keep your son, cancel the date.”  With that, I turned quickly around and went back to my car.  I don’t know what Torres’ immediate reaction was because I drove away without looking back.   

                                                 ***************************

“Son of a bitch!”  Slick Rick suddenly cried out.   I was standing nearby in Billy’s office going over a sentencing report that he wanted me to re-edit.      

“What’s the matter, Richie?”  Billy shouted out.  

“It’s that bitch, Torres!”  Slick Rick yelled back, “I just called her to get a pick up time for our date and she went psycho on me!  She cursed me out and hung up!”  

“What the fuck?!” Billy said in shock.  He walked into the main room and went over to Richie.  I followed behind him.  “Did you say something to piss her off?”

“Nope, nothing, Billy, I swear!”  Richie said. “I didn’t even have a chance to say anything.  The minute she answered, she started going off on me.  She called me a lying ass “pandejo” and told me to fuck off.  Then, she hung up.”

“Huh.”  Billy said furrowing his brows.  “That’s really weird.”

“Yeah, strange.”  I chimed in, trying to cover my tracks (and my relief).    

Just then, Anker, a law student from UCLA who had just started working for Billy as an intern wandered over and joined the conversation.  Anker had come to us through, Ron Choi, the same liberal lawyer who had introduced me to Billy.  Anker was dating his daughter.  I liked Anker.  He was bright, easy going and came off as a super nice guy – probably too nice to be working at a place like this.  I hadn’t spoken to him much since he started, but I had been meaning to talk to him lately because I’d learned a very important fact about him:  Anker’s parents were Danes who’d moved here when he was in middle school.  He’d mentioned to several people in the office that he was fluent in Danish.  

“What’s going on guys?”  Anker asked. 

“Nothing – except we just got screwed with a sandpaper covered dildo!”  Rick hissed.  Anker looked at me confused.  

“It’s the Torres case,” I said.  “It looks like Richie’s date is off.”  

“Really?  Wow.  That sucks.”  Anker said.  

“Tell me about it,” Rick fumed.  “That cunt just cost me a fucking grand and a half…. I just don’t get it.  We were hitting it off so well.”  

“She must have figured things out somehow, that’s the only explanation.” Billy said.  

“Never under-estimate a woman’s intuition,” I offered.  “They can smell bullshit a mile away.”  

“True dat.” Anker said.  “That’s why I never lie to my girlfriend.  Ever.” 

“Oh bullshit!“  Rick ranted.  “I lie and cheat on women all the time, I’ve never been caught once.  This shit just doesn’t add up.  How the fuck could Torres possibly know what we were up to?  Unless maybe… someone tipped her off.”  

Rick gave me and Anker a suspicious look.  My heart jumped up into my throat, but I hide my panic behind a well-rehearsed poker face.  Anker looked like a deer caught in the headlights.  Billy gave us both a hard look, thinking about it… 

“It wasn’t anyone from this office, that I know for certain.”  He finally said.  “But it could have been some idiot at Joe Pesce’s place.  I know he runs a pretty loose ship over there, or maybe… a neighbor saw me slipping Popi into her backyard.”

“Ah, crap I bet that’s it, Billy.”  I said.   

“Darn it,” Billy sighed, “I should have been more careful.   I must be getting sloppy in my old age.  Oh well.  No use crying over spilled tequila.  We’ll just have to tell the client, sorry, we couldn’t get the booze pic – unless you want to take a shot at her, Anker?”

“No, I’m good, Billy.”  Anker said quickly.  

“Alrighty then… I guess we’ll have to move on.”  Billy turned to me.  “Des, you all set with the notes I gave you on that report?”

“Yes boss.”  

“Excellent.”  Billy said.  He patted me on the shoulder and headed back to his office as a heavy sack of guilt landed with a thud at the bottom my heart. 

Meanwhile, Richie was still ruminating about the situation. 

“Dammit, I really needed that money…”  He moaned, then he looked up at me and Anker again, “Billy’s dead wrong, there’s no way it was some nosey fucking neighbor.”

“I think you’re right, Richie,” I said.  “I bet it was one of those scumbags over there at Pesce’s.” 

“Whoever it was…”  Richie said, “I’m gonna find their ass.  And they’re going to pay dearly for screwing me over.”  

With that, Richie stood up and grabbed his old school fedora hat off the table.   “I’ll be on the roof if anyone needs me, I need a smoke.” 

Rick stomped out the door and slammed it behind himself.  Anker looked over at me, shaking his head.  

“Tough break, Des.”

“Shit happens.”  I replied with a shrug.  “Oh, by the way, Anker, you got a minute?  There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you.”

“Sure.  Go ahead.”

“You speak Danish, don’t you?”  Anker replied in Danish, Ja jeg gør” then said in English:

“That means “yes I do.”

“That’s dope, man.   I’m half-Dane myself.” 

“No shit, Des?!  Wow, I would have never guessed.  We’re fellow Vikings!  Do you speak Dane too?” 

“Unfortunately, no.  That’s why I need your help…”

I explained to Anker that I needed a little help doing investigative research on Danish websites and chat rooms in order to find more information about Sven and the rest of my Grandmother’s Danish friends.  I figured there might be something out there in Denmark that wouldn’t necessarily show up the English-speaking Google searches.   Anker asked me if this was part of an “official” Billy Rose investigation.  

“No, this is just for me.” I admitted.  Without going into too many details, I told him briefly about my mother’s death and my concerns about the strange characters who were floating around my Grandmother’s orbit.  Anker thought about the proposition for a moment or two, then nodded affirmatively.

“Sure.  Seems like a good cause.  Always happy to help out a fellow Dane.  Check in with me in a week or so.  I’ll see if I can get you some answers.”

I thanked him profusely – like I said, he was too nice of a guy to working at Billy Rose Investigations. 

                                                *******************************

That evening I thought about my next steps in my investigation.  As I said, I was highly skeptical of my grandmother‘s story about traveling to Denmark.  If it was a lie, however, they had decided to play it to the hilt.  Granny called me shortly after I got home that night and apologized for not mentioning the trip sooner.  She went over her itinerary in detail with me and also gave me an international phone number that she claimed belonged to Sven’s son.

“We will be staying at his house in Copenhagen.  Call me there if you need to reach me.”  I thanked Granny for giving me the information and wished her safe travels once more.  I could have ended the call at that point and left sleeping dogs lie, but I didn’t hear Sven or Borjn talking in the background – it sounded like Granny was alone for once.  If I wanted to question my grandmother more directly about things and get an “uncoached” answer, this was my best opportunity.  

“What about the Medicare, Granny?”  I asked.  “Are you sure this all a mistake?  If you have money in accounts you didn’t tell me about, it’s ok.  I forgive you.  I just need to know the truth so I can help you.”  

“Yes, I told you everything,” she insisted.  “I don’t understand what these stupid people are wanting.  The government here is so backwards.  But don’t worry,  we shall clean up this little mess when I return.  I promise.”

“Ok.“ I replied. “There’s one other thing I wanted to talk to you about…”

“Yes, what is it?”

“Well, the police called me too.  They discovered a credit card receipt from mom.” I said, lying a bit so she wouldn’t grow suspicious that I was the one looking into things.   “It was for the day she went missing.  She went to a bar in San Diego called the Deep Dive.  Do you know anything about this?  Did mom or Chip ever mention this place to you?”

“W-what?”  Granny said.  “I don’t follow what you’re saying?”  I repeated my question, speaking very slowly and deliberately. 

“No,” Granny said firmly.  “I know nothing of this “Dive-Deep” place.  Why would she go to a bar instead of work?”

“I don’t know.”  I replied.  “The only thing that I could think of was that she went there to meet Chip.”

“This is not possible.  He was driving back from Alabama.”

“I know that’s what he said, but he might not have told the truth.  Think hard Granny, are you absolutely sure he didn’t get back early?”  I knew the answer to the questions already, but I wanted to see how my Grandmother would react.  

There was a long pause on the other end of the line. 

“K-Karl…” She finally said in a halting voice.  “Karl, where are you?”  I was confused.  It sounded like she was talking to someone else in the room, but she was alone as far as I could tell – no one was answering her. 

“Granny… hello.  I’m right here.”  But she ignored me and continued calling out for “Karl.”

“Who’s Karl?” I asked.   Granny didn’t respond to me.  Instead, she suddenly began speaking in another language.   It wasn’t Danish though, it sounded like German.  I caught a few words I recognized like “Kinder” which I knew means “Child.”   After listening to her carry on for a few moments, I tried to get her attention again.

“Granny… are you okay?”  I said, “Who are you talking to?”  

I had to repeat my myself several times before Granny finally responded to me.  When she spoke, it sounded like she was coming out of a fog.   

“D-Des… where are you?  Hello… are you still there… Did you hang up?”

“I’m right here, Granny.”  I replied.  “What was all that about?  Who’s Karl?”

“What are you talking about?”

 “You started speaking German and calling out for someone named “Karl.” 

“No, I didn’t,” she said, sounding genuinely shocked. “Are you teasing me?”

“No, I’m serious.  You just did it, I swear.”

Granny got quiet for a moment. 

“This is so strange, Des.”  She said softly.  “I’m sorry, I must have drifted off for a moment.  I’m very tired from all this trip planning.  It’s been a long day.”

“No worries, Granny.  I’ve kept you up too late.  I’ll let you go to bed.”

I wished her safe travels again and we ended the call.  I didn’t know what to make of Granny’s strange behavior.  It didn’t sound like she had suddenly fallen asleep, but there was no doubt Granny’s mind had suddenly drifted off to another time and place.   Before she died, my mother had mentioned Granny having a “senior moment” that was somewhat similar to this one.  

Mom told me she had come home from work unexpectedly at midday to get some papers she’d forgotten.  Granny had greeted her at the door, but for several minutes didn’t seem to recognize her own daughter.  My mother told me Granny spoke Danish to her, but she was acting weird as if she was dealing with a neighbor come to barrow something.  At one point, she said something about “the curfew” and German patrols.   After about five minutes, Granny finally snapped out of her odd trance.  When her wits returned, she was completely lucid again, but didn’t understand why my mother was suddenly at home.   Mom told Granny what had occurred, but she didn’t remember it at all – even though it just happened.  

Reflecting on this and what I’d just experienced, I began to wonder; was Granny slipping into full blown dementia?  It would explain a lot of things.  Perhaps it wasn’t that she was trying to be deceptive, but rather, that Granny simply couldn’t remember things.  

On the other hand, Granny’s omissions appeared to be very calculated – not the byproduct of random memory loss.  For example, she seemed to only be forgetting things that were in her interest not to mention, like her secret house and bank accounts.   It was entirely possible that Granny’s sudden episode was simply her play acting because she didn’t’ want to answer my probing questions.  There was no way to know either way at this point.  Still, if it was all an act, I had to admit, it was very convincing one.  

I decided to put a pin in it as I had other, more immediate problems to worry about.  I debated traveling down to San Diego in a few days and doing surveillance in front of Sven’s condo to see if they really were going to Denmark, but I finally decided against it.  A move like that would be very risky – now that I knew Chip was lurking about.  

The bigger issue anyway was finding more information about Chip’s whereabouts after he left the Deep Dive in pursuit of my distraught mother.  There was only one person who might have the answer to that question, “Sheila” – the strung-out waitress Chip was seeing at the bar.  If I could get her last name, then I could find her current address.  I resolved to pursue that angle in the morning.  It was late now and I needed to get a good night sleep.  I was supposed to go to temple the next day with my Orthodox neighbor, Abe.   

                                                  **************************

I fell into a deep sleep the moment my head hit the pillow.  The dream began with the sweet sound of hundreds of steel drums, all playing in unison, making a wonderous racket…

I was back in Port of Spain, Trinidad.  It was carnival again and I was strolling through a huge crowd that had gathered in Savannah Park.  I was not alone, however.  I looked around and discovered that my cousin Luc was walking with me.  He had his trusty skateboard tucked underneath his arm.   

It was carnival.  Everyone was wearing colorful costumes that resembled tropical birds, pirates and other cultural icons of the Caribbean, but their outfits were even more spectacular and dazzling than I remembered.  

The band Exodus was playing in the middle of the park and the thundering roar of their steel drum symphony was the only sound that could be heard.  Their music was so intense and rich, I could actually feel it wash over me, like gentle, warm waves crashing on the shore.  I could taste the sweet notes in my mouth, as though the rhythm itself was candy.  

As we strolled through the lively fete, Luc kept trying to say something to me, his lips moved, but no words came out.  Suddenly, we found ourselves on the edge of a large circle.  The crowd had made room around a single, solitary dancer; a beautiful, statuesque, dark-skinned woman.  She looked like Marpessa Dawn, the young actress from the classic film “Black Orpheus.”

She was wearing a long white dress covering with shimmering sequins.  I could only guess if her hair was braided, straight or in dreads because it was hidden underneath a large black turban that was adorned with a large golden pendant fashioned into the shape of a skull.  

Luc and I watched in amazement as the captivating woman danced for the crowd.  Her moves were elegant, graceful, hypnotic and beguiling.  I couldn’t take my eyes off of her, until I looked down and saw her legs… one leg was perfectly normal, but the other was covered with wiry brown hair and had a small hoof instead of a human foot at the end of it.  It was a goat’s leg.   As soon as I noticed this, the woman sashayed over to me and looked me dead in the eye.  I took a step back in fear.  The strange woman saw the terror in my eyes and let out a deep, melodious laugh that rumbled out of her like a bass drum.  A sly, inviting smile spread across her flawless face. 

“Don’t be afraid, mon, come closer…” she said to me in a voice that sounded as sweet as honey dripping out of her mouth. “You look so sweet and tasty.  But alas, ‘tis not your time… But mark me words, mon, I’ll come fer ‘ya, soon, I promise!”   She let out another laugh, but this one wasn’t pleasant and deep, it sounded wicked and shrill.  It sent a shiver down my spine.  

I turned quickly away from the devilish woman, but then I noticed that Luc had left my side.  I searched for him frantically in the crowd, but I didn’t see him anywhere.  Finally, I spotted him, he was riding out of the park on his skateboard, headed into the streets.  I ran after him in a panic, calling out his name, but Luc wouldn’t slow down or stop.

I chased Luc down winding, narrow streets that seemed to go on forever, until finally we arrived at a picturesque beach that stretched out for a far as the eye could see in either direction.  Once he reached the sand, Luc stopped.  He got off his skateboard and turned around to face me.  He was holding a medium-sized, round object in his hands.  It looked like a ceramic jug with big base and a slender neck.  

“Take this.”  He said.  He handed me the jug.  I took it in my hands and peered inside the opening at the top.   I saw that there were some folded up papers lying on the bottom of the jar.  I recognized the papers immediately; it was the note my mother had left for inside the puzzle box.  I started to reach inside to retrieve the note, but Luc suddenly reached out and stopped my hand. 

“Don’t!” He whispered, “Your hand will get stuck and the hunters will get you.”  As I drew my hand back, Luc handed me his skateboard.  “Take care of this for me, cuz.”  

“Why?   Where are you going?”  I asked. 

“Home.”  He replied.  “Au Revoir.”   

Luc then turned away from me and strolled towards the ocean.  I wanted to say something, but I was frozen, unable to speak or move.   From somewhere overhead, a loud bang suddenly rang out.   It sounded like a crack of a whip or a gunshot.  

As it echoed away, I watched Luc walk into the surf and slowly disappeared beneath the gently rolling waves.  The sun was going down on the horizon.  I sat down in the sand with the jug in my hands, watching the sunset.  The beach began to fade away… 

… my eyes slowly fluttered open.  I was in my bed.  Dappled sunlight was coming in through the blinds.   Rude Boy was stomping back and forth across my chest, meowing demands to be fed. 

“Okay, okay, hold your bones.”  I said to him.  As I rolled over to the side of my bed, my phone suddenly began to ring.   I retrieved it from the nightstand and checked the caller ID.  It was my father calling.  “That’s odd,” I thought to myself, “he never calls me this early.”    I answered it. 

“Hello, Dad?”  I said, letting out a big yawn, “What’s up?” 

“Des, I have to tell you something important… are you busy?”  My father’s voice sounded heavy, pained, like he was holding back a flood of raw emotion. 

“I just woke up, is everything alright?”

“I just got off the phone with your aunt Steely…”   He paused a moment.  “I’m afraid… I have some terrible news.  Luc is dead.  His grandmother shot him in his sleep last night, then she drowned herself in the lake at their chateau.  He’s gone.”  

My father said nothing for a moment or two.  I could hear him crying.  

After a few moments, he asked me if I was still there, but I said nothing.  I just sat there on the edge of my bed, too stunned to move, too shaken to speak, staring at my skateboard leaning up against my bedroom wall…    

Chapter Seven: California Dreaming

Chapter Six: The Deep Dive

“Look, there’s Des,” I heard Richie say as I entered the office.  “Let’s ask him, I’m sure he’s all over this shit.”  

I glanced over and saw Richie standing with my boss, Billy Rose, at the entrance to Billy’s office.  Richie, or “Slick Rick” as we sometimes called him, was one of Billy’s investigators.  He was a young guy about my age, but he was a character to say the least.  

For whatever reason, ever since he started working here, Richie had decided to dress like a gumshoe out of an old film noir movie.  To this end, he came to work every day dressed like Humphrey Bogart in the “Big Sleep,” wearing old vintage suits complete with a fedora hat.  I guess, “Slick Rick” figured since he was a P.I. he should dress the part.  It was hard to say whether the fashion choice made Richie look incredibly cool, or just fucking ridiculous.  I could either go way on the issue. 

Where Richie came from and what he did before he washed up at Billy’s door wasn’t exactly clear.  He’d told a few different versions of his backstory to various people in the office.  In one scenario, Richie claimed he was the scion of an oil baron from Texas, but he’d decided to give up his family fortune to pursue his dreams of one day becoming a renown jazz musician.  Another time he told Billy’s secretary, Tara, that grew up on a small farm near Quebec and worked his way to LA performing as a clown for Cirque Du Soleil.  

When he interviewed for the job, he told Billy that he was an LA kid, raised by hippie parents in Topanga Canyon.  Richie claimed he’d worked as a para-legal for the ACLU but had recently been laid off by the organization when their fund raising came up short and they decided to cut back on staff.  Being a card-carrying member of the ACLU himself and a die-hard progressive, the story had resonated with Billy and he hired Richie on the spot – without ever bothering to call the ACLU to see if it was true. 

Richie had a special gift for gaining people’s trust like that (it was one of the reasons we called him “Slick Rick”).   His appearance helped too.  Richie looked like the quintessential boy next door.   He had innocent boyish features (sprinkled with freckles), topped by a carrot top of ginger hair styled in a way that gave him a remarkable resemblance to the iconic cartoon character “Tintin.”  

However, Richie’s angelic appearance belied a much darker, complex personality.  Billy Rose had discovered this unpleasant reality when, out of the blue, Richie had mysteriously vanished for an entire week without calling to explain why.   Billy became very concerned and finally decided to go over to Richie’s apartment at the nearby Hotel Cecil to check on him.  If you’re not family with the Cecil, it’s a sprawling, run-down hotel in the skid row area that has a terrible reputation as it’s been the site of several unexplained disappearances and strange deaths.  Some even say it’s haunted.  

When Billy arrived at the door of Richie’s apartment, he could hear loud jazz music coming from inside.  After pounding on the door for a while, Richie finally answered, but he refused to let Billy in.  He claimed he had a near fatal, contagious disease (which he couldn’t remember the name of) that was so deadly that it could “literally fucking kill someone in minutes” if Richie breathed on them.  To his credit, Billy thought that excuse sounded like utter bullshit, so he employed a “bump key” to circumvent the lock and open the door.   

Billy barged into the tiny, cluttered room to discover Richie sitting on the floor, right in the middle of hitting a meth pipe with a butane torch.  Caught red-handed, Richie apparently threw himself at Billy’s feet and begged him for help.  Billy, as always, was deeply moved by Richie’s story.  He made Richie give him all his drugs, (which he flushed it down the toilet) before checking him into a rehab clinic out in Tarzana.  Billy knew the folks who ran the place and they agreed to take Richie in as an emergency case, even though they were full to capacity.  Billy paid for Richie’s treatment out of his own pocket.  

Richie returned to work about three weeks later claiming to be a “new man” – but I had my doubts, especially after I saw him getting high again on the roof of the building.  I didn’t have the heart to tell Billy.  Funny enough, in spite of being such a savvy guy, Billy was totally blind to all of Richie’s failings.  Perhaps his judgement was clouded because he saw too much of himself in the quirky kid with the face of angel and the heart of a hustler.   But whatever the reason, Slick Rick could do no wrong in Billy’s eyes, for better or worse.  

“So, Des,” Richie said as he strolled over to me with a sly grin on his face, “Do you know any good Mexican restaurants in Las Feliz that serve mole?  There’s this girl I’m going on a date with this weekend who’s freaking crazy for mole and I want to impress her.”  

“Sure, there’s Corazon De Oaxaca on Vermont.”  I said.  “They serve some of the best mole around.”   Billy’s eyes lit up. 

“Wow, are the owners Oaxacan?”  He asked. 

“I don’t know, Billy.  I would assume so, it looks like a family run operation.”

“You know I hitched-hiked all the way down there from Illinois during my misspent youth.”  Billy said.  “I met my wife near there.”

“No shit?”  I said. 

“Yep, I was helping out the farmers in the Zapatista movement.  I stayed with a lovely campesino family up in the mountains.  I slept on the dirt floor of their little shack.  It was an amazing experience.  The villagers called me “La paloma blanca” – the white dove.” 

“That’s fascinating, Billy,” Richie said, sounding a bit inpatient.  He looked at me again, “Does this place have a bar, Des?”  

“Yeah, they make killer margaritas too.”  Billy and Richie exchanged a look.  

“I’m liking the sound of that.”  Richie said. 

“Me too.  Thanks, Des.  Great suggestion,” said Billy.  

Billy and Slick Rick turned away and went inside Billy’s office, closing the door behind them.   I didn’t need to hear what they were saying.   I’d already figured out the reason behind their inquiry:  Amanda Torres. 

If you don’t recall, Ms. Torres was the woman from the big custody case that Billy and his sometime partner, Joe Pesce, had tried to talk me into getting a drunk so they could she claim she was an unfit mother.  Since I’d refused to go along with the shady scheme, Richie had obviously been recruited in my place.  Being an addict, one would think Richie felt some qualms about luring someone with similar problems back into the nightmare of addiction, but maybe since he was still using, he just didn’t give a shit.  I was a little surprised that Richie had managed to pull off the assignment as he was always complaining about striking out with women – but as I was later to learn, the trick they used to fool Ms. Torres was pretty inspired.  

According to Billy, it went down something like this: Richie had gone to Torres’ house and pretended to be her neighbor.  He told her that he was looking for a lost dog, a Boston Terrier named “Popi”.   Richie used the opportunity to strike up a casual conversation, letting drop that he was a middle school teacher who worked with kids with special needs.  (Billy figured this cover story would touch a particular nerve with Ms. Torres as her son, Jake, was struggling with learning disabilities.)  After telling her about his higher calling to help disadvantaged kids, Richie left Amanda his number and asked her to call him if she saw his beloved “Popi” roaming about the neighborhood.   

A few hours later, Billy snuck behind Torres’ house and discreetly deposited his own dog into her backyard.  In case you didn’t already guess, Billy’s dog was a Boston Terrier named “Popi.” Torres saw the pooch wandering around her porch and immediately called Richie.  When Slick Rick came over to collect his “lost” dog, he insisted that he pay Torres back for saving his pet by taking her out to dinner.  It took a bit of pleading, but Richie was finally able to talk her into it by promising to take her to the best mole place in town.     

The only thing left to do now was work out the logistics of getting her sauced – or at least, making it look that way.   Plan A was to try to talk Torres into having a few drinks with dinner.  However, if she really was committed to her program and balked on the idea, then… 

“Then, we go to Plan B,” Billy explained to me, “which, I admit, is a little tricky, but I’ve pulled it off before.  What we’ll do is have Richie say he has to go to the bathroom, but instead of taking a piss, he’s going to slip into the bar and order a couple of margaritas.  He’ll tell the bartender to have the waitress bring the drinks over to his table. The waitress will deliver the booze and set it down on the table.  Then, Richie will return and act surprised when he sees the drinks sitting there.  He’ll claim to Torres that he didn’t order the drinks.  Thing is, I’ll be sitting at the next table.   I’ll say they’re for me.  Richie will then ask Ms. Torres to pass the drinks over to me and when she does, we’ll have one of our associatessnap a pic of her with the margaritas in her hand.  We get those pics to the judge.  Boom.  Case closed.  Little Jake goes home with pops.  Whatcha think?”

“Sounds like a brilliant plan” I said.  

“Thanks.”  Billy said proudly.  “Des, I need you to do me a solid.  I need to find an associate to shoot the pic and, well, seeing as how you went to film school and all… I know this isn’t your thing, per se, but you’d be an innocent by-stander in all this.  I’ll make it worth your while too, would $500 work?”

I thought for a moment. 

“Yeah, I’m in.”  Billy beamed with joy. 

“Wonderful!”  He said, patting me on the arm.  “I knew I could count on you to be a team player!”

I had my reasons for signing up for this shit-show.  Two specifically.  The first was the realization that if I didn’t do it, Billy would just find someone else who would.  If I really felt bad for Torres, turning away from the situation wouldn’t help her at all.  I needed to stay in the game and see if there was a way to toss a monkey wrench into the works.   The second reason was more practical; I needed the cash in order to hire an “Information Brooker.”  

IBs, as we called them, were an invaluable part of the detective toolkit.  They were shadowy operators who sold private information on the black market.  If you had the right hook up, you could get practically anything you needed from them: socials, bank statements, financial records, sealed court documents, etc.  Typically, brokers were people who worked at the courts, LAPD, phone companies, banks or the DMV. Selling intel was their side hustle – and it was very lucrative.  Billy had a half a dozen of these characters on speed-dial.  

Having arranged for several of these transactions on Billy’s behalf, I knew broker’s fees usually started at two grand – which I didn’t have.  However, if the order wasn’t too difficult and the broker in question wasn’t too busy, they could probably be bargained with.  It was worth a shot, at least.  What I needed was pretty simple; all I wanted was my mother’s credit card and phone records for the three-day period when she went missing. 

                                        *********************************

It took a few calls, but I was finally able to get one of Billy’s usual brokers, a woman who went by the code name “Tiger Lilly,” to agree to sell me the info at a reduced price.  I was only able to talk her down to $1,000 – half up front, the rest due the first of next month.  

“Don’t make me come after you for the balance.”  Tiger Lily growled over the phone.  “If you cross me, I’ll fuck you so hard that your grandkids will walk with a limp.”  Tiger Lily wasn’t making an idle threat.  According to Billy, the last guy who stiffed her ended up in country jail after tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of parking tickets suddenly appeared on his driving record. 

Tiger Lily told me to meet her in the lobby of Billy’s office building the next day.  Since Billy hadn’t paid me yet for the set-up job on Ms. Torres (and probably wouldn’t for at least several weeks, since he was always a few cases behind on his payments), that meant I’d have to empty what little savings I still had left to pay for it.  What I’d do for food until Billy got around to paying me, I had no idea, but I didn’t have much of a choice, I needed to figure things out.  Fast.

Chip was stalking Granny and her friends for a reason – no doubt because he wanted money.   Based on Jorge’s shocking comment about me being “a little white mouse surrounded by vipers” when I drove him home, it was reasonable to assume that Granny’s Danish friends were after the same thing.   If my grandmother did have a large amount of money at her disposal – either as a result of a settlement of mom’s lawsuit with the hospital, or from a payout of a life insurance policy – it would explain a lot about the dynamics of the situation.  

It was pure speculation, of course, but perhaps things had played out like this; Granny had teamed up with Chip following mom’s death to drive my brother and I away.  Once we were out of the picture and she had firm control of my mother’s estate, she purchased the big house in Spring Valley and moved in there with Chip.  However, their relationship soured quickly after that for some reason.  It could be because Granny finally figured out that Chip might have been involved in my mother’s death, or it could have been simply that Granny didn’t want to continue to support him.  Maybe when Granny met Sven and the other Danes she decided they were a much better bet to take care of her in her golden years than a substance abusing con-man.  So, she told Chip to bounce and sold the house.  She might have even given him some dough as a parting gift to make him happy.  The problem was, Chip wouldn’t go away.  Knowing him, he probably burned through whatever money Granny gave him pretty quickly, so he kept coming around, demanding more. 

When Granny refused to be his ATM, Chip got desperate and started leaning on her.   Granny couldn’t call the police because that would open up too big of a can of worms regarding the unanswered questions regarding my mom’s death. No doubt the Danes didn’t want to deal with confronting Chip, so she turned to the only option she had left: moi.  This would mean Granny called me, not because she loved me and wanted to reconnect, but to make me her unwitting bodyguard.  And as a two for one deal, she even had me help her navigate the complicated Medicare system so she could get a break on her health care coverage.  

I had no hard evidence to prove any of this.  It was just a theory.  I tested my hypothesis out a little by presenting it to several of my friends – all of them told me I was straight-up tripping.  One of them even brought up Occum’s Razor, just like my brother had.  They told me I was being utterly paranoid and needed to go see a shrink.  According to my inner circle, I was crazy to think my Grandmother had any bad intentions for me – it was all a big misunderstanding, they said.   I wanted to believe them.   More importantly, I wanted to believe her.  Desperately.   Whatever differences race, culture and tragedy had put between us – we were still family.   

On the other hand, however, there was simply too much smoke in the air for me not to wonder if there was a fire smoldering somewhere.   I couldn’t ignore the clues.   That’s what victims did, they refused to consider the possibility of evil.  If I wanted to survive this, I had to follow Billy’s mantra; assume everyone is lying.  

                                          *******************************

“Tiger Lily” came over the next day promptly at the designated time.  She was a middle-aged Asian woman wearing a scarf over her hair and dark sunglasses.  When I approached her, she gestured for me to follow her into the stairwell.  Once we were alone there, I handed her an envelope filled with the cash.   Tiger Lily didn’t even bother to count it.  I guess she trusted me not to be stupid enough to cross her.   After tucking the dough into a large designer handbag, she handed me a manila envelope that had phone and credit card records tucked inside.  

“Thank you,” I said.  Tiger Lily didn’t reply, she just stood there, staring at me from behind her sunglasses. 

“Billy told me about you and why you want this,” she said.  “You want some free advice, kid?”

“Sure.  I guess.” 

“You know how they used to catch monkeys in China?”  

“No,” I said, confused by the seeming randomness of the question.  

“The monkey hunters would put a peanut in a special jar and leave it out in the forest.  The jars they used had an opening that was just big enough for a monkey to reach inside to grab the peanut, but too small for it to be able to pull it out.   A monkey would come along and reach inside to grab the nut, but instead of letting go when it realized it couldn’t remove the peanut, the stupid monkey would just sit there, tugging at it all day long until the hunters came around and crack it’s head open with a club.  Can you imagine?  Poor monkey, all it had to do was let go of its prize and it would live, but it was just too damn stubborn.”  

Tiger Lily stared at me for a moment, then turned away and exited through the door, leaving me alone to contemplate her unsolicited advice…  

                                        *********************************

I hustled back upstairs and found a quiet place to look over the documents.  I started with phone records.  They showed only one call the day my mother disappeared.  A call had come into her phone at 7:15 AM.  I recognized the caller’s number immediately.  My mother had given it to me a few years ago in case she wasn’t answering her phone and I needed to reach her: it was Chip’s.

This wasn’t a huge revelation as both Chip and my grandmother had told me that he had called my mother that morning to check in with her.  According to both their accounts, my mother hadn’t indicated during the call that she was skipping work, or there was any type of a problem.  According to the phone record, the call lasted around ten minutes, just like they said.  The rest of the call records were empty after her disappearance, so there wasn’t anything further to be discovered there.  

My attention then turned to the credit card reports.  I flipped through the purchase records of her various cards, but it just looked like normal bills and regular expenses being paid.  All of mom’s purchases stopped the night before her disappearance – except for one.   It was made at 1:03 PM in the afternoon, roughly four and a half hours after she’d gone awol.  She’d bought something for $11 at a place called “The Deep Dive” in San Diego.   

“Holy shit.”  I whispered to myself.  What was “The Deep Dive” and why on earth had she skipped out on work to go there?

                                       ****************************** 

I returned to my apartment at around five that afternoon.  As I exited my car, I took the gun out of the glove compartment and tucked it into a sweatshirt I was carrying.  Before stepping out of the garage, I took a good look around the parking area; I had to keep an eye out for Chip.  Now that he’d seen me, I couldn’t take any chances.  Although it was extremely unlikely that he’d come here to confront me, I couldn’t dismiss the possibility entirely.   Chip was desperate.  God knows what he was capable of…

Before unlocking the metal security door that led up a flight of stairs to my unit, I stopped to check my mailbox on the side of the building.   I got out my keys and turned my back to the street to unlock my box – suddenly, I heard footsteps coming up behind me.  A shadow fell upon the wall, it looked like a large man holding a club!

I spun around quickly as my right hand instinctively reached inside my sweatshirt and took hold of the revolver.  Before I could pull it out, the figure stepped up to me.  When my eyes saw who it was, I immediately relaxed. 

It was just Abe, my orthodox Jewish neighbor.  

He had a long tree branch in his hand, (Abe had a habit of picking up broken tree branches and other debris from our street – he liked to keep the neighborhood tidy).   He was holding the fallen tree limp like it was a staff – with his long grey beard and prayer shawl strung across his shoulders, he looked like a Jewish version of Gandolf the wizard.   

“Shalom, my friend.”  He said, with a warm smile on his wrinkled face.   I let out a sigh of relief and removed my hand from the sweatshirt. 

“Shalom, Abe.  How are you?”

“Fine.  You?”

“Doing good, Abe.”   

“Glad to hear it.  You know, it’s funny.  I was just thinking of you and then I turned around and saw you here.  Is this a coincidence I asked myself?  I don’t think so.  I think the universe wants me to come talk to you and say what’s on my mind…  When are you coming to temple?”  

I looked at the ground, stalling, unsure how to respond.  I didn’t want to continue to lie to the Abe, but at the same time, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.  After a moment’s deliberation I decided it would be best to just be honest with him. 

“I’m not Jewish, Abe.”  I said softly.  Abe stared at me.  He looked taken aback, but it was hard to read his expression precisely.    

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be rude,” I continued.  “I just thought that you thought I was Jewish.”  

“I didn’t ask if you were a Jew,” Abe said as his stoked his whiskers.  “I asked if you wanted to come to temple.  I’m old, but I’m not blind, Des.  I can see that cross you wear around your neck.”

“Oh right.” I said as I glanced down at my crucifix.  “Duh.” 

“But you have some Jewish in you, no?  Not many gentiles around here say “Shalom” to me.”

“Well, I’m kind of a member of the tribe.  Sorta.  My father married into a Jewish family and converted to Judaism, but I’m still Christian.  Since you’re Orthodox, I just figured you wouldn’t necessarily want me at your temple.”  Abe nodded, taking in the information.  He stroked his beard thoughtfully again.  

“The house of God is open to anyone with an open heart,” he said.  “Our temple is just a few blocks from here on Beverly.  I’d like you to come, as my neighbor and my friend.  Can you make it this Saturday at noon?”  

“Yes, Abe.  I’d be honored.”  

“Good.  It’s a play date then.”  Abe replied with a chuckle.  “See you then.”  

“Looking forward to it,” I replied.  Abe patted me on the shoulder and went on his way, whistling a happy tune that sounded like an old Hebrew folk song.  

                                             *****************************

After Abe left, I went up to my apartment, made myself a quick bite to eat and started working on sentencing reports for Billy.  I wanted to get ahead on my work because tomorrow morning I would be going down to San Diego to check out The Deep Dive.  It turned out that it was a bar/restaurant in a trendy part of the city.  I didn’t know what – if anything – I’d find there, but it was my only viable lead, so I figured I had to go down there and check it out. 

I had all the lights in the apartment on and old ska music playing on my computer as I worked.  It was hard to concentrate though.  I keep getting up and going over to the window and scanning the dark street below for Chip.   At about ten o’clock, I got up to go check again and saw a black car parked up the street.  It looked like someone was inside.  I watched as the lights came on and it pulled out into the street and drove slowly by my window. I held my breath… but It was a Mustang, not an Impala.    

Just as I started to relax, I heard a thump-thump sounds directly behind me.  I turned around slowly and immediately zeroed in on the source of the noise.  It had come from the hallway closet.   I stared at the closed door and waited… After a few moments, I heard it again… Thump-thump.  

My heart leapt up into my throat.  Normally, I might not have even cared about the faint, random sound, but I must admit, I’d felt a bit uneasy in my apartment lately – ever since the puzzle box had fallen over in the middle of the night and I’d discovered my mother’s hidden letter.  I hate to use the word “haunted,” but something felt off.  

It was hard to explain the sensation, but the air felt heavier in my apartment somehow.  My cat, Rude Boy, sensed it too, I think.  I noticed that he’d often fixate on the closet, growling and scratching at the door.   A few times, I awoke in the middle of the night and heard what I thought were creaking sounds coming from the living room.  It almost sounded like soft footsteps.  

“It’s probably just water in the pipes, or the building creaking from other tenants walking around.”  I told myself.  But then, my downstairs neighbor, Janice, a woman in her thirties who worked as a nurse over at Ceder’s Sini Hospital, pulled me aside when she saw me in the driveway one evening. 

“Have you been experiencing anything strange in your apartment lately?”  She asked me. 

“What do you mean?”  

“It started happening a couple of weeks ago.  Someone keeps knocking on my door in the middle of the night, but when I get out of bed to go check – no one’s there.  It’s kinda freaking me out.”

“It’s probably just someone pranking you,” I said, but Janice shook her head.  

“That’s what I thought too.  So, I went out and bought one of those motion sensitive cameras and I put it above my door.  But when I hear the knocking and go check, all the video shows is me opening the door.  I dunno, I bought a cheap one.  Maybe the stupid thing doesn’t work right.   Anything like that happening to you?”

“No.  Not knocking.”  I said. “I’ve heard a few odd creaking noises in the dead of night though.”   Janice stared at me, looking a little spooked.

“Weird.”  She finally said…

Thump-thump.  The faint noise inside the closet sounded out again.  I stood up from my desk and walked slowly over to the hallway closet to investigate. For a moment or two, there was silence, then I heard the thump again, followed by muffled scratching sounds.  I held my breath and took hold of the doorknob and swung the door open.  

In a flash, a greyish object suddenly leaped out of the shadows near my feet.  Instinctively, I let out a startled gasp.   It took me a second to recognize that the darting object was a cat.  It was Rude Boy.  The silly fellow had gotten himself locked inside the closet somehow.  How the hell he got inside in the first place, was anyone’s guess.

“Holy shit, Rudie, you scared the crap out of me!”  I said, greatly relieved.  

As Rude Boy scampered across the room, I noticed he had something clenched inside his mouth.  I looked closely: it was a small mouse.   Rude Boy opened his mouth and let his catch fall onto the floor.  The mouse lay motionless in front of him, its beady, black eyes were wide open.  Vacant.  Rude Boy pranced around the dead rodent with his tail lifted high, twitching with excitement, meowing loudly.  I gave him a few strokes on the back as he rubbed my leg to show my appreciation for his hunting efforts.   

After basking in his triumph for a few moments, Rude Boy scooped up the dead mouse in his mouth and dashed out the open window – presumably to enjoy a midnight snack.  I looked back inside the closet.  My eyes fell back upon the puzzle box which was sitting on a lower shelf by itself.  “So much for ghosts,” I thought to myself, “it was just the stupid cat.” 

Just then, I saw a flicker of light out of the corner of my eye.  I turned back to my computer and saw a picture was suddenly displayed on the monitor screen.  It was the one my cousin Luc had sent me recently from France, where he was sitting at the bottom of stairwell with his skateboard and a bloody, skinned knee.  The photo was saved on my desktop, but I hadn’t opened it.  That was strange, the only way it could have opened was if someone had clicked on it with the mouse.  

I stared at the picture of Luc smiling back at me for a moment, then I turned back to the closet and looked once more at the puzzle box.  I felt stupid for saying it, but I did it anyway.  

“Mom… are you here?”  I said softly.  “Are you trying to tell me something?”   I waited several minutes for a response; the sound of a thump, footsteps, flickering lights, rattling chains, an unearthly groan, anything – but nothing happened.   

Finally, I closed the closet door.  I went back to my computer and closed the picture of Luc and went back to work.   There were no more disturbances that evening, but the next morning I awoke to find the closet door open again, even though I had made sure to shut it tight. 

                                    ************************************ 

I arrived at “The Deep Dive” at approximately one in the afternoon the next day.   The place was located in an affluent area on the bluff overlooking Mission Bay, just north of the San Diego airport.  The blurb on their website described it as a “fun sports bars/restaurant with kitschy sailor décor and a great view.”     

As I stepped out of my car, I took note of the appearance.  The front entrance featured large, plate glass windows, flanked on either side by lava rocks designed to look like the walls of a coral reef.  It looked kinda cheesy, but cool at the same time.  I stepped inside and took in the space.  A sprawling mural of an old-school deep-sea diver exploring the sea floor (with giant clams and manta rays in the background) was painted on the wall along the length of the bar.  Ships’ wheels, fishing nets, buoys and other sailing bric-a-brac decorated the room.   

“Wow.”  I muttered to myself, “They really weren’t kidding about the kitschy sailor décor.”

The dining area consisted of a row of booths laid out across from the bar.  The booths faced a wall of windows, so that each table had a great view of the harbor below.   Just past the bar/dining area was a large “gamming room” that featured a couple of pool tables and a collection of 80s era video game and pinball machines.  

It was mid-week, so the place wasn’t very crowded, just a few patrons were eating lunch and drinking at the bar.  The bartender and waitresses were all very attractive young women.   They were dressed in black tights and cut off t-shirts that showed off their incredibly toned abs.  Hip Hop music banged out of the stereo system.  

Mom used to like to have a drink now and again, but she wasn’t a hipster or a sports fan.  Why would she come here of all places?    I went over to the bar and got the attention of the Bartender, a blonde-haired woman who looked like a young version of Michelle Pfeiffer.  

“What can I get you?”  She asked.  

“Newcastle.”  I said.  The Bartender nodded.  As she started filling up a tall glass from the tap, I reached into my weather-worn satchel and took out some materials I had brought with me. 

The Bartender finished pouring the beer and set it down in front of me.   

“Can I ask you a favor?”  I said as I handed her a twenty, along with my business card for Billy Rose investigation.  “I’m an investigator.  I’m trying to get some information about a person who might have come in here.”   I held up a photo I’d printed out of my mother – it was one of the last ones I took of her when she was still alive.  “Have you seen this woman?” 

The Bartender glanced at the photo but didn’t react.  

“She would have been here at lunchtime,” I continued.  “About a year and a half ago.”  The Bartender shook her head.  

“I wouldn’t have seen her then.  I’ve only been working here six months.”

“Oh.  Is there anyone who’s been here longer?”  The Bartender glanced over at a slightly older brunette waitress across the room.  She was a goth in her early thirties with a hard look in her eyes and elaborate tattoos running down both her arms.  

“Bev might.  She’s been here for like forever – Bev!”  The Bartender motioned for the Waitress to come over.  

“What’s up?”  The Waitress said as she arrived.  The Bartender gestured to me. 

“This guy says he’s a private investigator.  He’s trying to get some information about this woman.”  I handed “Bev” the photo.  

“Have you seen her come in here before?” I said. 

Bev took the photo and gave it a quick once over.   I noticed that her eyes grew ever so slightly larger when she saw the picture, even though she immediately shook her head. 

“No, man.”   Bev handed me back the photo.  She started to turn quickly away, but I pulled out another photo from my materials.  

“One other quick question, since I have you here.  Ever seen this guy before?  His name is Chip Lawrence.”   I held out another photo.  It was the only one I had of Chip because he never wanted to be photographed by anyone.  I’d found this shot in my mother’s desk by chance after I went to her house the night her body was found.  In the picture, Chip looked very uncomfortable.  He was sitting with my mother at a table in a nice restaurant in Selma.  It looked like my mom had asked another guest to snap a quick pic of them.  

As soon as Bev saw the picture, her lips tightened for an instant before she shook her head again.  The eyes, the lips, these were tiny “tells,” ones so quick and small that if I had blinked, I might have missed them – but I didn’t blink.  Billy had taught me well.  

“Nope, sorry, man.” Bev said casually.   She handed me back the photo and walked away.  I knew she was lying.  

I stood there for a moment, trying to decide my next move.  Bev had retreated to the far side of the dining area and was making herself busy wiping down a table.  I approached her again.  

“Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you, but… I think you do recognize the people in the photo.”  Bev glared at me.   

“I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about, man,” she snapped. 

“Yes, you do.”  I said, not breaking eye contact. “Look, I’m not a cop.  The woman in the photo is my mother.  She was found died after she came here.   This was the last place she was seen alive.  I just want to find out what happened to her. I’m just asking you… as one human being to another, be honest and help me out here a little.”  

Bev looked into my eyes, which despite my best efforts were now tearing up a little.  She returned nothing but a poker face and went back wiping off the table.  I waited for a few moments, then set my card down on in front of her.

“If you change your mind… call me.”  I said.  I turned and started to walk away.  I took a few steps when I suddenly heard Bev speak.

“Dude.”  She said quietly.  “I have a smoke break coming up.  Meet me out back in ten.” 

                                            ***********************************

When Beverly came outside, she led me over to the far side of the lot where we could talk in relative privacy.  She said nothing as I watched her light up a cigarette and take a few drags.  

“My mother’s in the hospital,” she said.  

“I hope it’s nothing serious.”  I replied. 

“Stage four cancer.  CUP.  Cancer of Undetermined Primary. She’s on her second round of experimental chemo.”  

“I’m very sorry to hear that.”  

“Yeah, fucking tell me about it.”  Bev looked off into the distance and took a long drag.  “I was here the day your mother came in.  I didn’t know what the deal was.  I thought she was just another customer.  I didn’t know she knew Chip.

“How do you know him?”

“I didn’t.  He was just another asshole who came in here a lot.  I tried to avoid him.  He didn’t tip for shit and he got way too fucking hammered.  He’d get rowdy and start fights. He got worse when he started banging one of the waitresses, this strung-out blonde named Sheila. Then, the dickhead was in here all the time, acting like he fucking owned the place.  He always had a lot of fans though because he liked to party and he had the hook up to some good shit.”

“What kind of shit?”

“Meth. Pills.  Anyhow, your mother came in and ordered a glass of wine and then she took a seat at the back booth.  She sat there, wearing sunglasses, laying low.   After a while, Chip showed up.  Sheila was working the booths near the front.  When dude came in, he walked right up to Sheila and kissed her.  They were talking over by the bar when I saw your mother suddenly get up and confront him.  They started arguing.  It got pretty ugly.  Your mother finally lost it and slapped Chip across the face and stormed out.  He ran after her.  I saw her get in her car and drive off.   Chip took off after her in this big U-Haul truck he was driving.   That’s the last I saw of her.”  

“What happened after that?  Did Chip come back?”

“Not for a week or so.  Then he acted like nothing had happened.”  

”I take it he and Sheila kept seeing each other?”  

“For a while, yeah.  Then Sheila got fired for shorting the register.  Chip kept coming ‘round every now and then though, ‘til the owners finally got fed up with his bullshit and told him to pay off his tab.  Instead of paying, he bounced.  Haven’t seen his sorry ass since.”  

Bev took a last drag off her smoke, then tossed it on the ground.   “Look, I gotta go back to work.  I wasn’t going to say anything to you, but I figured… what the fuck, my mom could use some good karma right now.”

“Thank you.  I really appreciate your help.”  

“Don’t tell no one you heard this from me.  I don’t need the fucking headache of the cops hassling me, ok?”  I nodded.   Bev turned away and went back inside.  

                                       ******************************

My mind was racing as I drove home.  The puzzle was starting to fall into place now.  Mom had figured out that Chip was cheating on her and had gone to the Deep Dive to confront him.  What happened after they left would be very difficult, if not impossible, to determine, but one thing was indisputable: my mother wasn’t killed because of a conspiracy involving the doctors at the hospital.  It was Chip.   However, it played out, as far as I was concerned, he was responsible for her death.  

Just then, my phone rang.  I glanced at it and didn’t recognize the number immediately, but I decided to answer it anyway. 

“Hello?”  

“Is this Des Marino?”  A female voice asked. 

“Yes, it is.”

“Hello Mr. Marino, this is Julie Sanchez with the Medicare. I’m your grandmother’s case worker, remember?”

“Of course.  How are you Ms. Sanchez?”

“Well, not so good,” Julie said.  “The reason I’m calling you is because there’s a problem with your grandmother’s application and I need to ask you some questions.  Is now a good time?”

“I’m driving, but yeah, go ahead.”  I said. 

“The investigators in our bureau contacted me today, they’ve come across some irregularities that have us very concerned. They discovered some previously undisclosed bank accounts in your grandmother’s name that contain significant sources of income.  Do you know anything about this?”

“No.”  I replied.  “I don’t know much about her finances.  We’ve been estranged for the last couple of years and only just reconnected.  All I know about her income is based on the documents that she gave me to give to you.   What did the investigators uncover exactly?”

“Well… there’s a lot of unexplained income from numerous accounts as I said.  She has accounts in several banks on the east and one in Alabama.   Our investigators are running a more detailed audit, but they believe the sum in the Alabama bank, which is the big one, is a payout from a life insurance policy… your grandmother’s application has been flagged for possible fraud.”

I tried to speak, but my lips just trembled.  I was too stunned to say anything coherent.  All I could do was sit there, freaking out, as I gripped the steering wheel…

Chapter Six: The Deep Dive

Chapter Five: The Dinner Party

“Son of a bitch… What the fuck is he doing here?”  I wondered to myself as the realization that I was staring at Chip – the man I feared and hated more than anyone on the planet – settled into my consciousness.  Through my binoculars, I watched Chip slide back into his beat-up black Impala and resume his silent vigil of Granny’s apartment.  It appeared that Chip was doing the same thing I was, the question was, why?  I had always assumed that if Chip was hanging around San Diego, it was for one reason only; because he was in cahoots with my grandmother.  However, if Chip was stalking her, obviously the dynamic between them was far different than I ever imagined.

My thoughts immediately turned to Big D’s gun which was sitting in the glove compartment of my car.  Without taking my eyes off of Chip, I hustled over to my car and retrieved the .38.  The weapon felt cold and heavy in my hand, but also reassuring.  Even though I wasn’t that skilled using firearms, I was sure I could take him out if he came after me.   I’d fired guns this size before, shooting targets at firing ranges with friends.   But shooting paper targets is one thing – pointing a gun at a living person is a whole other matter, especially if it’s your first time. 

I set the gun down beside me and observed Chip carefully through the binoculars.  I watched as he tossed an empty beer can out the open window of the car.  As I watched him, my mind started racing with the same frustrating questions that I’d been unable to answer for two years.

“Why didn’t Granny call me?” I wondered quietly to myself.

My mother had gone missing for three days before her body was found.  A hiker had seen the wreck of her car lying at the bottom of a ravine.  It had apparently run off the highway near Brawley.  According to my grandmother, mom had left for work at her usual time the morning of her disappearance. My mother had just gotten a new job as a physical therapist at a clinic just two miles away from the house she was renting in the Imperial Valley.   Granny told the police (and later us) that mom gave no indication whatsoever that anything was wrong that morning.  Strangely, however, my mother had driven right past her work and disappeared. 

When she didn’t show up at work, Granny waited until that evening before she called the police and reported her missing.  Chip claimed that he wasn’t around at the time.  He said he had gone to Alabama a few days earlier to pick up some medical equipment my mother had left in a storage facility.  According to both of them, they had spoken regularly over the next few days as Chip drove back across the country, trying to figure out where my mother might have gone.  

Inexplicably, however, Granny never called my brother and I to see if our missing mother had come to see us.  It made absolutely no sense.  Any reasonable person would look for her in the most obvious places after she went missing.   We were the only people my mother knew in Southern California.  Granny’s explanation for not calling was flimsy at best.  She said that she didn’t want to worry us.  Instead, Granny and Chip did nothing, for three long days, until her body was unexpectedly discovered. 

I suppose it’s possible that Granny was telling the truth, that she had avoided doing something incredibly obvious out of concern for our feelings.  Still, it was hard to ignore the fact that it was entirely possible Granny and Chip didn’t call us because they already knew that my mother was dead.  I couldn’t prove it yet, but my gut told me something was off.  Perhaps it wasn’t murder, but either way, there was a lot more to the story than I was being told. 

Staring at Chip now, literally made my skin crawl.  My eyes drifted down to the gun sitting beside me.  I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, “If I crept down the hillside, would he hear my footsteps?” 

                                          ****************************

“Mom…. is dead, Des.” Granny said softly when she had finally called me to let me know the police had discovered her body.  Her voice sounded very emotional, she was crying.  It’s strange how we process grief.  I tried to cry too, but I couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried, tears just wouldn’t come.  I was in state of shock, I guess.  Totally numb.  I told Granny I’d be there as soon as I could and jumped in the car.

As I drove to El Centro, I started talking to my mother, speaking to her as if she was with me in the car, “I tried so hard to help you, why wouldn’t you fucking listen to me… I warned you, get away from him.”  The words my mother had said to me, when I begged her for the last time to get away from Chip echoed in my mind:

“Well, if something does happen to me,” she said, “you’ll know right where to look…” 

Chip had entered her life shortly after my beloved, step-father Doc died from a sudden heart attack.  The loss of Doc had completely devastated my mother.  She fell into a deep depression afterwards.   Making things worse was the fact that Doc should not have died.  He had survived the initial heart attack, but the doctors at the hospital had given him the wrong medication during his recovery.  According to my mother, they accidently prescribed blood thinner for him – which caused a second heart failure that killed him. 

I tried to help her after Doc passed, but I should have done more.  After the funeral, my brother and I had begged her to move back to California with Granny.  We promised to help her find a house and take care of her while she got back on her feet.   I even offered to take a semester off from film school to help her recover, but she was adamant that I needed to stay in graduate school and finish my studies. 

“I’m ok, Des.” Mom had told me, “Really, I’ll get through this. I’m a tough-ass Viking remember?”  I shouldn’t have listened to her.  The guilt of not taking a semester off still haunts me to this day.  I couldn’t help but wonder what would have happened if I had been there for her.   I might have been able to chase Chip off before he got his foot in the door.   But I was anxious to finish film school and start my career, so I let her convince me that she wasn’t thatdevastated by Doc’s sudden death.  I should have opened my eyes a little wider.  It was obvious in retrospect how fragile she’d become under the weight of so many traumas; a childhood scared by war, the attempted murder by her own father, the divorce from my father, now the death of her one true love… Life had broken mom’s spirit. She’s become a tragic figure, like a character out of a dark Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale.  I should have been there to protect her from the predators, but I wasn’t – and now she was gone.

I couldn’t bring her back, but I could atone a little for my failure by finding her justice.

The fucking lowlife I was almost certain had killed her was sitting there, right below me, unaware that I was watching him.  I panned around with my binoculars and scoped out a circuitous path I could take down the hillside that would land me right behind Chip’s car.

The thought lingered in my mind for several moments.  I had sworn to God that I’d get “Justice” for my mother, but what did that mean exactly?  Was sending the person or persons responsible for her death to prison enough to satisfy my oath, or should they pay an even greater price?  “Justice” is after all, a tricky proposition.  Mom wanted “Justice” for the death of Doc.  She sued the hospital for wrongful death and the hospital’s insurance company offered her a generous settlement, but she refused to take it.   Mom wanted her day in court to prove not just medical malpractice, but criminal negligence.  She wanted the doctors involved to truly pay for what they’d done. 

The lawsuit had dragged on for years.  Faced with the prospect of losing their medical licenses, the doctors had hired big time lawyers and fought mom tooth and nail.  The grind of it all sucked the life out of my mother, draining her emotionally and financially.  My brother and I had begged her to just drop the suit and accept the settlement offer, but there was no convincing her otherwise. Justice has to be served, she insisted. 

It was around this time that Chip had shown up on her front door one day, asking if he could do handyman work around her house.  It wasn’t a coincidence, him showing up like that, I don’t believe.  I’m sure it was all planned out.  There are no secrets in small southern towns, after all.  Everyone in a fifty mile radius knew about mom’s lawsuit against the hospital.  A lonely widow who was about to come into a potential windfall was a natural target for a guy like Chip. 

As I would later learn from talking to people in town, Chip was an alcoholic and meth addict who’d never held a steady job in his life.  His father was a respectable insurance agent in Selma, his mother was a homemaker who dotted on him during his youth, but both Chip’s parents had largely disowned him by the time he showed up at my mom’s doorstep.  Having burned most of his bridges back in Selma, Chip had come to Blackwater, Alabama, because he had nowhere else to turn.   He was staying with his younger sister Becky Lee and her husband Stan, who was the minister of a small local church.  Chip had somehow convinced them to let him stay in a spare room of their house, claiming that he wanted to get his life “on the right track.”    

My mom didn’t have a lot of friends in Blackwater, she’d only moved there because that’s where Doc was from.  In a small southern town, if you weren’t born there, it meant you were an outsider – they’d always keep you at a certain distance.  Mom and Granny only had each other to talk to, until Chip showed up.

Chip was thirty-two when he met my mother who was twenty years his senior. Despite all the drinking and drug abuse, Chip was still a good-looking guy, he was well-built, tall, with sandy blonde hair and baby-blue eyes.  He was great manipulator who knew how to lay on the southern charm we he needed to.  He had both my mother and my grandmother wrapped around his little dirty little finger in no time.  I, however, was onto his game from the start.  I went to visit them shortly after he’d moved in with my mother.  Chip was constantly drinking the whole time I was there.  In fact, he got picked up for a DUI the second night I was in town.  My mother and I had to go down to the county jail to bail him out.  When I tried to convince her that this was an obvious sign that Chip was bad news and had to go, she just made excuses for him.

“He doesn’t drink that much.”  She told me.  “He’s just nervous meeting you and all.” 

The next day, Chip tried to get on my good side by taking me to a pitch and putt golf course.  I tried to make nice with him for my mother’s sake, but our interactions were still pretty stilted and awkward.  I didn’t like him, and he knew it.  At one point, I noticed he was staring at me with a curious expression on his face.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“Dang, you really got yourself quite tan there, bro.”  He said with a chuckle.  “You Californians must spend half your day at the beach surfing.”  I shook my head.

“It’s not a tan.”

“It’s not?”  he said, surprised.   

“My father’s black.  Well, mostly black, he’s Latino too.  He’s mixed raced, just like me.”

“No shit… wow, your mom didn’t tell me nothing about that.”  Chip thought for a moment, then smiled at me.  “Well, don’t worry about it, man.  It’s all good, brother.  I love people of color.  Hell, I love everybody – I’m a people person.  That’s just who I am.”  

Who Chip really was, became abundantly clear later that night.  I overheard him talking quietly to one of his cronies on his phone in the back of my mother’s garage, saying how he wanted to sell some dope to “some stupid niggers down on Peavine Road…”   

Recalling that episode made my blood literally fucking boil.  I had to stop thinking about things like this.  The temptation to act on my anger was becoming too great.  I looked down at the gun again.  It would be so easy…

I never thought about killing another person before, but I can’t deny that, as shocking as it was, the thought of putting a bullet in the back of Chip’s head gave me great pleasure.  What was happening to me?  It felt like a great force of darkness was pulling on my soul.   Perhaps such thoughts couldn’t be helped under the circumstances, but maybe it was something deeper than that, something in my blood.  Both my grandfathers were violent men – was I destined to become one too?

Still, something held me in check.  As much as I wanted to sneak down that hillside and “get justice” – I knew I shouldn’t.  Not now.  Not when I had no hard proof of Chip’s guilt or innocence, just deep suspicions.  Even if Chip was involved in my mother’s death, what if he wasn’t acting alone?  It’s possible the doctors my mother was suing might have put him up to it.  It seemed far-fetched, but I couldn’t entirely dismiss the possibility.  The raw emotional part of me, the part of my nature inherited from Erik and Jags, was screaming at me to act, but fortunately my rational mind was still in control.  I picked up the gun and walked quietly back over to my car.  I put the piece in the glove compartment and shut it tight – out of sight and out of mind, for the moment at least.   

By the time I returned to my vantage point, I saw the headlights come on in Chip’s car.  He was leaving.  I checked my watch; it was eleven thirty now, still early by stake-out standards.  But I guess Chip had decided that my grandmother wasn’t going to return and decided to bounce.  Before he drove off, I zeroed in on the license plate of his car, but I couldn’t make out the numbers from this distance in the dark.  Dammit.  I realized that I should have crept down the hillside and gotten close enough to read them.  Assuming the car wasn’t stolen, I could track down his current address.   I’d blown a great opportunity.  It reminded me, once again, that I needed to think like a detective, not a victim. 

Just then, I heard the distant roar of the Impala’s V6 as Chip stomped on the gas pedal and peeled out, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.  Based on what I’d seen, I knew one thing for certain: Chip was desperate.   He was stalking out my grandmother’s place because he wanted to confront her about something.   It wasn’t hard to guess what a guy like Chip wanted from her, it’s what he always wanted: money. 

                                      ********************************

I camped out on the hillside above my grandmother’s apartment for the next two nights, but neither she, or Chip made an appearance.  I concluded that Granny was obviously staying somewhere else, probably at Sven’s, to avoid Chip.  Since I’d learned about all I could, I decided to pull the plug on the surveillance operation.  I needed to catch up on my sleep, anyway. 

The rest of the week went by fairly uneventfully.  I had interviews to do for a new case.  It was a Ponsi scheme involving a shady portfolio manager named Sam Leach.  It was a typical Bernie Madoff-style operation where Leach promised his wealthy clients big returns on supposedly low-risk stocks.  However, behind the scenes, Leach was actually investing his clients’ money in super high-risk IPOs, he thought would go wild.  Once he hit the jackpot, Leach figured he could just pay his clients back and keep the enormous profits for himself. 

“It wasn’t stealing, Des.” Leach told me with a straight face when I visited him in Chico State Prison.  “I was just barrowing the money.  I was always going to pay everyone back, with interest.”  The SEC and FBI, however, didn’t see things that way.  He was looking at eight years for wire and securities fraud.  In between rounding up people to write nice letters on his behalf to the court (which was no easy task as he’d burned a lot of bridges), I took the time to look up Sven’s son, “Gunner” on the Jurgenson Farms company directory.  I needed to know if everything Sven had told me was bullshit or not. 

It turned out there was a Gunner with Sven’s last name working as a VP of Sales for Jurgenson Farms.  At least, Sven wasn’t lying about that.  I tried to do internet searches with Sven’s name, but nothing came back, not even in Danish.   So, beyond confirming that his son did indeed sell dried onions, Sven was still a mystery to me.  

On Friday, I woke up to find out my cousin, Luc, had sent me an email from France.   In the message, he spoke again of his plans to come visit us in California the next year.  He included some pictures of himself attempting to ollie down a short flight of stairs in front of a bank building in the small town outside of Paris where he lived with his grandmother, Charlotte.  A friend must have taken the shots.  In the first one, Luc was approaching the stairs, then he was air born.  In the last one, he was giving a big thumbs up while showing off a bloodied knee.  He wrote a caption under the last one; “I told you – I suck, cuz!” 

I cracked up pretty hard when I saw the pics.  I was thankful he sent the email.  I really needed a good laugh to relieve my stress.   Tonight I was going back down to San Diego to have dinner with Granny, Sven and the rest of her ex-pat Danish “crew” – for obvious reasons, I was really fucking nervous.

                                         ************************

I arrived at Sven’s condo in Mission Bay promptly at 6 PM.  Sven lived inside an expensive gated community that was built on a hillside with a picturesque view of the Pacific coast.   The condo complex was surrounded by a huge metal fence with only one entrance/exit.  As I approached the main gate, I carefully scanned the vicinity to see if Chip’s black Impala was lurking behind a bush somewhere – but there was no sign of it.  I figured as much.  The road leading to the front gate was fairly wide open, leaving few places to hide discreetly. 

The entrance to Sven’s condo complex “Surfside Village” had a guard stationed at a kiosk who checked visitors in and out.  It made perfect sense why Granny would take refuge here if she was trying to avoid Chip.   After the guard checked me in, I drove my car around to an upper street and parked in front of Sven’s condo.  As I exited the car, I saw in the reflection of the driver’s side window that someone in the second story window parted the blinds briefly to get a look at me, then quickly closed them again…

                                     *************************

“Hello, Des!  So wonderful to see you again!”  Sven said as he opened the door and shook my hand firmly, clasping his other hand over mine like we were dear old friends. 

“Good to see you too, Sven.”  I disengaged my hand and turned to my Grandmother who was standing beside him, smiling from ear to ear.

“Hey, Granny, how you doing?” 

“I’m doing wonderful, darling!” Granny pulled me into a warm hug and a kissed me on the cheek. 

“Come inside.  Let me introduce you to the “gang.” Sven said.  After I entered, Sven closed the door behind me and not only engaged the deadbolt but put the chain lock in place as well.  It made me a little nervous – I was locked in.    

As Sven led me into the living room, I took particular note of the décor – it reminded me so much of how my mother had once decorated our home back in Malibu.  Expensive Danish modern furniture filled the room – but it was the kind from the 1970s that looked almost too modern, giving the apartment the feel of a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey.  There wasn’t a lot of photos of family to be seen, just a single framed pictures of Sven’s son Gunner and his family on a side table.  Sitting next to it was a faded photograph of a pretty, middle-aged woman with blonde hair, whom I presumed was Sven’s late wife.  

In the middle of the living room wall, taped up between two nicely framed reproduction prints of the Danish countryside, was a cheap paper poster from Solvang that featured cartoon drawings of all the Kings and Queen of Denmark.  I had the same poster in my room as a teenager.   It struck me as funny seeing the familiar artifact from my youth again, I couldn’t help but wonder why Sven would hang a such a cheap touristy thing in the middle of his nice condo.  Was Sven just a clumsy decorator, or the ultimate Danish super-fan, I wondered.

One wall of the living room had huge windows and a terrace so the occupants could enjoy a stunning view of the Pacific Ocean.   Seated on a black leather couch, admiring the view were three people.  One was a tan, skinny fellow in his early thirties.  He wore glasses with expensive tortoise shell frames and sported a finely shaved head to camouflage his rapidly diminishing hairline.  He was dressed casually in beach shorts and a t-shirt. 

The other occupants of the couch were an odd “Jack Sprat” couple.  The woman was short and squat with a chubby, round face.  With her unusually rosy, red cheeks, she looked like jolly plus-size garden gnome come to life.   Seated beside her was a skinny, middle-aged man with a 1970s style mustache and matching layered haircut.  He was wearing a cheap, slightly rumpled suit. He had his arms crossed and looked agitated for some reason. 

“Everyone,” Sven announced, “this is Inga’s grandson, Des.”   The three stood and came over to greet me.   The tan man with the shaved head extended his hand first. 

“I’m Borjn, Sven’s nephew.”  He said. “I’m so excited to finally meet you, Des.  I’ve heard so much about you.”   Borjn’s English was flawless, I could tell right away that he was smart and highly educated.  The gnomish looking woman waddled between us and introduced herself. 

“Hello there!  I’m Freja!  Your grand-ma-ma’s dearest friend!” The woman declared in a bubbly voice.  Her accent was much more pronounced than Borjn’s but she sounded far more fluent in English than my Grandmother.  Freja turned to the man in the cheap suit beside her.  “And this is my husband, Jorge.”  The man forced a smile and quickly shook my hand.

“Nice to meet you both.”  I said.  Jorge looked me up and down with a skeptical, almost angry expression on his face.   

“So, you write movies, huh?”

“I try.” I replied with a small chuckle.

“I bet you think that makes you pretty special.  How much money do you make?”  I was taken aback by the suddenly hostile inquisition, but before I could answer, Freja jumped into the exchange. 

“What’s wrong with you?”  She said angrily.  “You just met the man and already you want to know his income?! What are you, a tax collector?” She looked back at me with an embarrassed expression on her face.  “Please don’t mind my husband, he has zero manners what-so-ever.”  She then rattled off some terse-sounding words to him in Danish.   Jorge scowled and said something back to her that sounded like, “Yeah, yeah, get off my back, woman!”  Freja exhaled loudly and turned away from him.  Jorge offered me a slightly apologetic look. 

“Sorry if I’m too abrupt.  It’s my nature.  I was just curious.”

“No worries,” I replied.   An awkward tension lingered in the air for a moment.  My grandmother came over to me and patted me on the back. 

“Are you hungry?”

“Starving.”

“Good!”  Sven said with a big smile.  “Because we made lots of delicious Danish food for you.   Borjn prepared it all, he’s an amazing cook.  Come to the table everyone, let’s eat!” 

                                             **********************

The meal was delicious. Borjn had madeJuleand “Christmas Duck” with caramelized potatoes with a rich brown gravy.  It was practically four-star restaurant quality.

“This is incredible.” I told him. 

“Thank you, cooking is my passion.”  Borjn replied.

“Among other things.” Sven said as he flashed a knowing wink to the rest of the table.  Everyone, except me, let out a big laugh.  Borjn turned slightly red.

At first, the dinner conversation was light, it was a “get to know you” session.  Borjn told me he had a master’s degree in business from the most prestigious university in Denmark and had worked for many years in the banking industry in Europe.  He’d come to the US to start his own investment firm, focusing on funding high-tech startups.   He said he planned to stay with his uncle while he set things up, then he would move up to the Bay Area to pursue his dreams. 

Freja and Jorge were in a somewhat similar situation. Jorge said he was a “highly trained” engineer.  He’d come to Southern California to find work in the military/aerospace industry, but so far he had been unable to secure a position with one of the big defense contractors.  His wife, Freja, said she was mathematician and was teaching classes at a community college in San Diego.

The vibe I was getting from all of them was welcoming and casual.  It was a little awkward at times, I admit.  There were intervals where they’d slip into speaking Danish to one another, but they’d come back to English soon enough and either Sven or Borjn would fill me in on what was said. 

Sven was an easy-going, but attentive host.  When the conversation dragged, he’d immediately get it going again by cueing up a prompt like, “Des, why don’t you tell us what it’s like to work in Hollywood?”  Both he and Granny were in a particularly jovial mood this evening.  Sven was serving a fine red wine with dinner.  He had several bottles of the tasty vintage. They were all partaking liberally, to the point, I was sure my Grandmother was getting a bit tipsy.  The more the wine flowed, the less circumspect they became.     

Sven kept offering to fill up my empty glass, but I was careful to stop at one drink because I had to drive back to LA.  Sven seemed perturbed by this. 

“Ah, don’t be such a school-boy,” he teased, “You can spend the night here, if you like.  I have a spare bedroom.”

“That’s really sweet of you to offer, but I’m good, Sven.  I have to work early in the morning.” Sven’s smile faded a tad. 

“Suit yourself.” He replied. 

“I want to tell a joke.” My Grandmother suddenly announced. 

“Let’s hear it.” Sven said, grinning.  “The floor is yours, madam.”

“Thank you, sir.”  Granny tipped her glass to him and took a sip of wine “I don’t want to offend anyone here, but…” Granny lowered her voice.  “It’s about the Swedes.”  Everyone laughed and nodded their heads knowingly.  Apparently, Swedes were the “Pollocks” of Danish humor. 

“I will try to say this one in English so Des can enjoy it.”  Granny paused a moment, thinking of the right words.  “How come the Swedes don’t play Hide ‘N Seek?” 

“I don’t know, why don’t the Swedes like to play Hide N’ Seek?”  Borjn asked playfully.

“Because… no one wants to find them!”  Everyone exploded with laughter.  Jorge slapped the table with his hand so hard that he knocked over his glass of wine.  A hearty round of “Swede jokes” ensued, many of them told in Danish.  I chuckled along politely.

As the laughter finally died down, I noticed that Borjn was staring at my chest. 

“Why are you wearing that?”  He asked.  I looked down at my shirt, not sure what he meant.  

“My shirt?”

“No, silly, the cross.”

“Because I’m Christian.”  Borjn made a face like he’d just bitten into a lemon. 

“Oh.  Wow. I’m surprised.”

“Why?”

“Because you seem like a really smart guy.” I stared at Borjn for a second.  I wasn’t sure how to respond to that.  Borjn saw my unease and let out a sigh. 

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude, Des, it’s just that in Denmark,” He paused a moment. “How can I say this without sounding like an asshole… let’s just say we’re a sophisticated country, we’re kinda beyond all that religious nonsense.”   Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that Sven was nodding along in agreement.  He let out a small chuckle.

“Don’t be hard on him, Borjn.” He said, “When I was a boy, I believed in Santa Claus too.”  Everyone laughed. I glanced over at Granny – she was laughing too, but she looked a little uncomfortable.  Amused by his own quip, Sven started telling a humorous anecdote in Danish.  From his gestures it looked like Sven was describing a time he went to church.   He made a pantomime of praying, then taking money out of the collection plate and stuffing it into his pocket. Everyone burst into hysterical laughter.  This time, Sven didn’t bother translating his joke for me. 

I wasn’t offended they were making fun of my religion, by the way – what gave me pause was the fact that Granny had told me that she met Sven at the local Lutheran church and that they went there all the time.  Sven’s obvious distain of religion didn’t track with their quaint backstory.  

As I contemplated this, Jorge suddenly turned to me.  His expression was very serious now, even hostile – as if he was responding to an insult.   

“You Americans… you think you’re so fucking smart and yet, you believe in all this stupid religious nonsense.  You’re like little children.  This whole country isn’t much better than a backwards African nation!”  I was taken aback by the sudden, bitter outburst.  I looked over at Jorge’s wife, Freja – she looked horrified. 

“Jorge..”  Sven said, gently, “let’s settle down, ok?   Here, have some more wine-”   

“I am fucking serious!” Jorge cried, cutting Seven off.  “America is a joke.   What has good ol’ “Uncle Sam” ever done for the world?  Huh?  Tell me one thing?”  Everyone squirmed in their chairs, looking very uncomfortable.  Jorge narrowed his beady eyes on me, like I was a piñata he wanted to bash with a stick.  “I’m talking to you, boy, name one Goddamn thing.”

“Well, we did help stop Hitler and liberate Denmark.”  I replied.  Jorge let out a loud dismissive short.

“Please.  That was like a fucking million years ago.  And we all know America just did that so you could sell the world your crappy junk!  This place is a cultural vacuum.  Rock n’ roll and coke-a-cola, that’s all America’s ever contributed to the world.  All you ever produce is shit – and you don’t even do that very well.  The fucking British make better rock music than you!”  Freja suddenly lost control of herself.  She sat up in her chair, her chubby face was literally pulsating with white hot rage.

“You stupid man!  You’re drunk!  You’re insulting him!  Just. Shut. Up!!” 

“Go to hell!”  Jorge screamed back at her.  Then he said something to her in Danish.  It must have been pretty bad because Borjn gasped.  My Grandmother did a double take.  Freja eyes lit up, she grabbed her wine glass and threw the contents in her husband’s face. 

“Holy shit..” I muttered.  Freja spun around and headed straight for the door.  Sven called after her in Danish, trying to stop her, but she ignored him. She slammed the door on her way out.  A couple of second later we heard a car peel out.  An awkward silence passed. Jorge reached for a napkin and whipped the dripping wine off his face. Sven sighed and looked at me.

“Des, you think you could give Jorge a ride home?”

                                           ****************************

Granny didn’t say much as we left.  She did tell me that she had a wonderful time in spite of the evening turning into an amateur production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.  She gave me a big hug when I left and told me that she’d call me in the morning.

I had to help Jorge stagger to the car because he was so besotted he could barely walk.  He didn’t say much as we drove, he just slumped in his seat with his eyes half closed, mumbling to himself.  I didn’t want to interrupt his conversation, so I left him alone.  He was alert enough to give me directions though.  I thought about his outburst.  Where was that coming from?  Was Jorge frustrated he hadn’t found a job yet and needed a random Yankee to vent his frustrations upon, or was it something more?

Then, out of nowhere, Jorge turned to me and asked:

“Ever been to Florida?”

“Yeah, once.”

“It’s humid there.”   

“I know.  Why do you ask?”  Jorge didn’t reply right away. 

 “My daughter goes to university there.  She attends Florida State.   She’s studying biology.”

“That’s cool, man.”  I said, trying to lighten things up.  “You get to see her much?”  Jorge just shook his head.

“She hates me.”  He stared off into the darkness again.  The only sound in the car was the wind rushing by and the dull hum of the engine. 

“Y-you should…  get out of here.” He said softly.  His words caught me by surprise.

“Why?  What do you mean?”    

“You seem like a nice guy.  But you have no idea what you’re dealing with… you’re like a little white mouse who’s been dropped into pit of vipers.”  He thought for a moment, then shook his head. “Never mind, I’m a drunk fool.  I’m just talking bullshit.  Don’t listen to a single word I say. Turn left here.  This is my street.”

Jorge directed me to park in front of a drab, slightly run-down apartment building.  He tried to get out of the car on his own, but he only made it a few steps before he tripped and landed face first on the front lawn.  I got out and helped Jorge to his feet.  I helped him stumble up to a unit on the second floor.  Once we made it to his apartment door, Jorge fumbled with his keys for a while, cursing loudly, before he finally managed to navigate the lock.  He turned to me before heading inside. 

“Sorry for being a such an asshole, I can’t help it – it’s my nature.”

“You’re ok, man.”  I said.   

“No, I’m not.”   He looked around the hallway, then over his shoulder to make sure we were alone.  “Don’t forget my advice… Goodnight.” He shut the door.  A moment later I heard the argument between him and Freja break out again.  I turned around and got the hell out of there as fast as I could. 

As I exited the building, I heard a faint sound in the darkness aheard of me.  It sounded like an aluminum can hitting the street.   I looked off in the direction of the sound.  A pair of headlights went on from a car parked several yards up the street.  The car’s v-6 roared to life.  I watched as it made a quick U-Turn and drove away. 

I recognized the model of the vehicle immediately: it was a black Impala.    

Chip had found me.

Chapter Five: The Dinner Party

Chapter Four: A Heart Like a Steel Drum

I sat for a long time at my desk, staring at my phone, debating whether to make the call.  It was around 11 AM the morning after I found the secret letter from my mother hidden inside the puzzle box.   I tried to go back to sleep briefly after reading it, but I gave up on the idea pretty quickly; my mind was racing and my gut too saturated with raw emotions.  I drank some coffee, then re-read the startling correspondence a couple more times before finally tucking it away in my desk drawer where I kept my most personal and important items.

My phone screen was open to Jeff Crook’s number.  Several times my finger had hovered over the “call” button only to be pulled back – I couldn’t quite bring myself to press it. I knew if I went through with the call, there was no turning back.  Jeff would certainly give me an entry level job at his entertainment company if I begged him hard enough – but doing so would mean ending my so-called “investigation” into my mother’s death.  If I took the job, I would have to move on.

I was ready to do just that before I read the letter.  Now though… apart from the disturbing revelation that my grandfather tried to stop my parent’s inter-racial marriage with a bullet, what did my mom mean when she wrote that there was more to the story involving my grandmother?  There were so many unanswered questions that were almost impossible to walk away from.  Not to mention, the eerie way I’d found the letter.  I’m not a big believer in the supernatural, but why had the box fallen down like that?  Was it just a coincidence, or was someone trying to get my attention? 

Just then, the opening chorus to “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” suddenly blasted out of my phone.  The Ramone song was my ringtone.  I wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone right now, but I checked the number anyway.  The caller ID said it was an international call, from France. 

“What the hell?”  I said to myself, I didn’t know anyone in France.  Then I realized that it was probably my dad.  He and my stepmother, Ruth, were on vacation, taking a bike trip through Europe.   They were probably just calling to say “Hi” and tell me all about their trip.

“What’s up, pops?”  I said, trying not to let on how upset I was.  The voice that responded to me was unfamiliar, however. 

“Hello, uhh, is this Des?” They asked cautiously in a heavy French accent.  It was a young man, they sounded like they were in their twenties. 

“Yeah… who’s this?” 

“This is Luc.“ 

“I don’t know anyone named Luc.   What do you want?”   I demanded.

“Please don’t hang up.  Your father gave me your number.  I know this is a little strange perhaps, calling you out of blue… but, uh, I am Steelbeth’s son, your cousin.” 

Holy fuck!  I said to myself.  I almost dropped the phone I was so shocked.  I did know Luc, or at least, I’d heard of him.   I’d followed the details of his chaotic life for years, but I’d never imagined I’d ever actually speak to him in person.

“Luc, wow…. How are you?”

“I’m fine.  I’m sorry, is this a bad time?  You are busy?”

“No, not at all.”

“Oh good!”  Luc said, “I’m very happy for that.  I’ve wanted to call you for a long time now, but well, you know, it just wasn’t possible…. Claudette, my grandmother, you know, she does not approve of me speaking to my Trinidadian relations.  It’s a long story – as you may know…

But, uh, I just had lunch with your father and your stepmother yesterday.  They came by my mother’s apartment in Paris and I meet them there.  It was so nice.  We had a lovely talk.  It inspired me to ask for your number.  To give you honesty, I was most nervous to call.  But finally I said, fuck it, Luc.  Just do it – like Nike!”  We both let out a laugh.

“That’s totally cool, man.  Forgive me, I’m just kinda blown away that I’m actually talking to you.  I’ve heard so much about you.”

“Yes, very much the same here, cuz…”

                                              ****************************

The saga of Luc was a legend on my father’s side of the family.  Even outside of the family, his story was well known and gossiped about as it had formed the basis of an ugly international incident between Trinidad & Tobago and France. 

I’d first become aware of Luc’s existence when I was about eleven years old.  I had noticed a small, framed photograph of a young boy sitting on the shelf in my father’s study.   I thought it was a picture of my brother at first because the family resemblance was so striking.  The boy looked to be about seven years old, wearing a trim, European styled turtle-necked sweater.  He was standing alone in a pretty garden somewhere, but he was looking straight ahead into the camera with a sad expression on his lonely face. 

“Who’s that, dad?”  I asked.  My father looked up from a Dodger game he was watching.  His expression suddenly became grim. 

“Oh.  That’s your cousin, Luc.  He’s your auntie Steelbeth’s son.”  Dad gestured to the picture next to it that I knew quite well.  It was the only picture he ever displayed in the house of his siblings.  I had never met any of my relatives in the photo, but it had always intrigued me.  In the picture, my father was wearing a nice suit with a white carnation tucked into his lapel.   Standing beside him were his seven sisters dressed beautifully as bridesmaids; Simone, Connie, Deisha, Alliyah, Marie, Annie and the youngest of the Marinos, the bride, Steelbeth.  “Steely” was named in honor of the steel drum, the iconic national instrument of Trinidad. 

She was wearing a beautiful wedding dress, but instead of a tiara, or veil, she wore a fashionable broad brimmed hat upon her pretty head.  She looked like a model out of Vogue.   She was grinning ear-to-ear with a million-dollar smile.   The photo had been taken at her wedding to her ex-husband Marcel – who wasn’t pictured.  In the background behind them was a huge chateau that had been in Marcel’s family for generations.   

“Luc, huh? I’d like to meet him one day.”  I blurted out.  “Is he in Trinidad?”  My Father paused, then let out a sigh. 

“No.  He’s with his father in France.  Unfortunately, you probably won’t ever get to meet him.”

“Why not?”  I asked.

“It’s… complicated.”  My Father said, then he went back to watching his game.  I knew better than to keep probing him.  When it came to talking about his side of the family, Dad was mysterious and silent as a Moai stature on Easter Island.  Over my teenage years, however, little pieces of information trickled out of him (and occasionally my mother) which filled in the portrait of my Trinidadian roots like a half-finished jigsaw puzzle.  

Over time I learned that my dad’s estrangement from his family was due to the deep pain inflicted on everyone by my grandfather, Peter Charles Marino, aka “The Jaguar.”  Jags got his nickname because, by all accounts, he was an aggressive character who’d literally rip you to pieces with his bare hands if you crossed him.  He was a customs official in Port of Spain who worked himself to the bone to support his large family.  

According to my mother, Jags was a devout Catholic who ruled his home with an iron fist.  To his credit, his domineering nature kept his children out of trouble.  They all were excellent students in school, but his temperament was volatile.  He beat my grandmother, Conci, and his children when they displeased him.  He also held a particularly strong grudge against white people, particularly the British, whom he held in utter contempt for discriminating against the people of Trinidad during their long colonial rule over the Island. Sadly, just like my mother’s  white parents, Dad’s family had stopped speaking to him because Jags didn’t approve of his inter-racial marriage.  Jags even went so far as to insist that the rest of the family follow suit, which created a painful rift between Dad and his siblings that never fully healed– even after Jags passed away when I was in high school.    

“Do you skateboard by any chance?”  Luc asked me. 

“Yes!”  I replied enthusiastically, “But I don’t shred like I used to, actually, I kinda suck now.”  Luc laughed. 

“I “suck” too, but it’s just for fun, no?  When I come to California, we should skate together.” 

“That’d be freaking cool,” I said.  After talking for an hour or so, Luc finally bid me adieu.  We agreed to speak to again soon.  After I hung up, I felt exhilarated.  Not just because I had finally spoken to him, but because it meant that things had gotten better for him.  He was reconnecting with us, the family he had been told so many lies about. 

After the thrill of speaking to Luc finally passed, my attention turned back to my phone and my decision regarding Jeff Crook.  After a few moments of deep contemplation, I put the phone away.  I had to see this thing through to the bitter end.  I’d come this far, I needed to know the truth, just like Luc…

                                                  ***************************

“Do you know what the word “veracity” means?”  Asked Joe Pesce as he took a long drag off his cigarette.  Joe was an overweight, swamy-looking man, who sweated profusely and chain-smoked Lucky Strikes.  He was a licensed PI who had his own detective agency on skid row near Billy Rose’s place.   Although Billy hated Pesce’s guts, he kept it on the downlow because the two worked with the same lawyers and, as a result, sometimes had to suffer through an arranged marriage, splitting a case together.

It was close to midnight.  The three of us had parked our cars discreetly on the side of an unpaved fire road on a hilltop overlooking East Pasadena.  The vantage point gave us an excellent, unobstructed view of a quiet suburban neighborhood that stretched below us.  We were quietly staking out the home of thirty-three-year-old Amanda Torres.  Ms Torres was a recent divorcee from our client, Sam Avagyan, one of the biggest real estate developers in LA.  Our case was part of an ugly custody battle between them over their four-year-old son, Jake.  Simply put, our job was to dig up dirt on Amanda so the judge would revoke her hard-fought custody and grant Mr. Avagayn’s full parental rights over Jake.   To that end, we were spying on Amanda, hoping we’d catch her doing something “unmotherly” that her ex could use against her.

“Veracity?” I replied, “It means “truthfulness.”  Joe looked surprised, like he never expected someone of my skin hue to know the definition.

“Uhh… not quite.” He sputtered, “Actually, it means ‘level of truthfulness’ to be precise.”

“Right,” Billy Rose chimed in as he scanned the Craftsman style home with his binocluars.  “It’s all about establishing this woman’s veracity.” 

“Exactly!” Joe continued.  “We need to prove this bitch has zero credibility.  You know what I mean?  Honestly, I thought this case would be a fucking cake walk, but this gold-digging bitch is a little smarter than I gave her credit for.  I don’t think we’re going to catch her doing shit spying on her like this.  So, me and Billy were thinking that we might need to prime the pump a little…“

“For the good of the child.” Billy added.

“That’s right, for the good of the fucking kid.  See, this chick is a bad mother.  She’s in AA because she’s a drunk.  She swore to the judge that she’s been sober since the kid was born, but I’d bet my house the bitch is still boozing it up on the sly.  If we could just get a pic of her having a shot of tequila at a bar or something, it would prove to the court what a lyin’ ass cunt she really is.  That’s where you come in, Des.  You’re a good-looking guy.  Latino.  You’re probably her type.  What if you casually ran into her somewhere-“

“Like Starbucks.”  Billy offered. 

“That’s perfect.  You could start a conversation, lay on the charm and get her to go on a date with you.  You take her out to a bar or restaurant, order some drinks, then snap a pic when she’s not looking.  Bam!  Case closed.  Whatcha think?”  I thought about it for half a nano second.

“I’ll pass, not my thing.” 

“You sure?”  Joe said, “Not even for little Jakie?  I’m telling you, that kid needs someone to step up and be a hero right now.  Tell you what, I’ll even throw in a thousand-dollar bonus if you make it happen.” 

“Sorry, Joe.”  I said firmly.  “I’m just no good at seduction.”  Joe stared at me, looking a little pissed.

“Two G’s?”  I shock my head.  Joe threw down his butt and angrily stomped it out in the dirt.  He turned to Billy.  “I’m outta here, man. You coming?” Billy nodded and handed me his binoculars.  

“Asshole.” I muttered as I watched the taillights of Joe’s car fade away into the night.  His request had touched a particular raw nerve with me because I’d been thinking about my cousin Luc and what he and my aunt Steelbeth had gone through all day. 

I was in college by the time I heard the whole story.  By then, my father’s parents had passed away and without the Jaguar around, Dad’s relationship with his siblings began to slowly improve.  The thaw was helped along considerably by my brilliant and affable cousin, Ronny, who showed up unexpectedly on my father’s doorstep one day wanting to meet the mysterious uncle in California he’d heard about.  Ronny was my aunt Annie’s son.  He had just graduated from Penn State University and was moving to San Francisco.  Ronny and Dad immediately hit it off, which isn’t surprising as Ronny is such an incredibly outgoing, engaging person that it’s literally impossible for anyone not to like him. 

One day, bored on a summer break during my sophomore year of college, I wandered into my Father’s study, hoping to find a book to read.  I was perusing his bookshelf when I happened upon the old, framed photo of Luc.   I paused for a moment and stared at it, curiously.  My Father, who was working at his desk, glanced over at me. 

“I should have told you more.”  He suddenly said. 

“About, Luc?” I asked with surprise.

“About everything.”  My Father looked off for a moment, pondering something, then he turned back to me.  “You want to know the story, about your cousin?”

“Yes, I would.” 

“You should pull up a chair then.  It’s a long story…”

Luc’s saga began when my Aunt Steelbeth left Trinidad to spend a summer on the nearby isle of Martinique.   She was young and beautiful then, and always ripe for adventure and mischief.  Indeed, “Steely” was gorgeous in her youth and was much sought after by an army of would-be suitors, but to the chagrin of many a broken heart, Steelbeth would have none of the men in Port of Spain.  As they used to say, her beauty was her curse because it made her picky.  Or as my auntie Annie put it so vividly:

“Too many choices are bad ‘ting sometimes, you know?  Like when you go shoppin’ in the market and the seller offer you fifty good mangos, and they all look so ripe and juicy that you just can’t decide.  That’s what happened to poor Steely, the girl just couldn’t decide which man to pick, so finally she took the one that looked the best on the outside, but on the inside – it was rotten…”

It was on Martinique that Steelbeth fell head over heels in love with Marcel.  They met at his high-end salon where Marcel worked as a hairdresser.  Like Steelbeth, he had many suitors because he was young, charming, handsome and most importantly, fabulously wealthy.  Marcel came from old money back in France – very old money.  As I mentioned before, his family owned a centuries old chateau near Paris.  Although it did seem rather curious to many that the scion of an aristocratic French family was “slumming it” on a small Caribbean Island, Steely didn’t question it. 

“Marcel’s not interested in money, his family is too controlling.” Steely explained to her sisters.   “He just wants to be free and happy.” To which her fiercely loyal, but level-headed sister Alliyah replied: 

“No man gives up a fortune just to be happy.  If he tells you so, he’s either lying or drunk.”  But Steely didn’t care what Alliyah had to say – she was in love.   

Marcel and Steely married after a couple of months of torrid dating.  They returned to Port of Spain, where Marcel opened up a new hair salon.   Shortly afterwards, Steely gave birth to Luc.  For a few years, the marriage seemed to be going well.  The only trouble seemed to be the unusually strong attachment Steely had with Luc.   She fretted over him constantly and never wanted to be separated from him for any length of time.  Even at the age of four, Steely would carry him around, glued to her chest wherever she went.  The feeling ran both ways, for Luc would wail like a banshee anytime Steelbeth tried to put him down. 

“That boy clings to you like a crap.”  My aunt Annie observed one day when the sisters were enjoying an outing at Maracas Beach.  “You need to put ‘em down or he’s going to forget how to use ‘dem legs.  He needs to become independent, or he’ll turn into a mama-boy.”

However, the issue of Luc’s clinginess soon became a minor concern for rumors began to reach the family that Marcel was living a lie.  According to people “in the scene” who knew him well, Marcel was actually gay.  He had a longtime male lover, a Frenchman named Francois, whom he had brought over from Martinique to work as a stylist at his new salon.  These sources insisted that the real reason Marcel had left France in the first place was because his parents disapproved of his homosexuality.  He had married Steelbeth only because he and Francois had wanted to have a child together and they knew that because of prejudice against gays in the Europe and the Caribbean at the time, adoption was out of the question. 

Marcel had chosen my aunt to be his unwitting surrogate mother because he thought she was pretty, submissive and gullible.  Marcel was right about only one of those qualities.  Like the iconic instrument she was named after – Steely could be light and airy when she sang, but underneath, she had heart of steel. 

At first, Steely refused to listen to these rumors.  It was only after Alliyah, being a fiercely loyal sister, (and having a touch of The Jaguar in her fiery temperament), decided to confront Marcel that the truth was finally revealed. 

Hearing one night that Marcel and Francois were alone together in the salon, Alliyah had marched over to the shop in the middle of the night and demanded they let her in.  When they refused, Alliyah busted the door in with her big, broad shoulder.  She found them together inside, naked. Enraged beyond reason, Alliyah pounced on Marcel.  Grabbing him by his hair, she dragged him into the street and began beating him in front of a crowd of astonished onlookers.  The police arrived before Marcel was seriously injured, however.

“The cat was out of the bag at that point.”  My Father explained.  “Steelbeth immediately filed for a divorce.  The Trinidadian courts granted her wish and gave her joint custody of Luc.  But Marcel could not accept it – he wanted the child all for himself.  So, the sneaky bastard tricked my sister into letting him take Luc to the beach.  He said he would be gone for just a few hours, but they never came back.” 

As it turned out, Marcel and Francois had gone to the airport with Luc and flown back to France.  Once Steely realized that Luc had been kidnapped, she immediately flew to Paris.  She petitioned the French authorities to return Luc to her, but they refused.  Marcel was from a wealthy, respectable family who owned a historic estate.   My aunt was a woman of color from what the French considered to be a tiny “third world” country – Trinidadian laws meant nothing to them.  Adding to the racist outlook, Marcel lied to the judge, insisting that he had only broken the law to “save” Luc from my aunt because she was a drug addict who supported herself through prostitution.  Marcel had reconciled with his parents at this point and his mother, Claudette, had developed a keen interest in keeping Luc – the sole heir to the family fortune.  She used her connections in the French legal system to block Steely’s efforts.  The judge quickly awarded Marcel full custody of Luc.  He even went so far as to insult and humiliate Steely when he rendered his judgement, telling her to, “go back to your little island and get a respectable job, or continue doing whatever it is you do there.”  

They all thought, Steely would do just that.  That she would realize her cause was hopeless, and she’d return to Trinidad, never to be seen or heard from again.  But they had greatly misjudged my aunt.  Steely stayed in France for over a year, supporting herself by taking on odd jobs; cleaning houses, baby-sitting, cooking, caring for elderly patients at a nursing home, doing whatever work she could find.  She hired a low-rent lawyer to file a motion of appeal – but it was ignored by the French courts. 

Finally, frustrated that she’d never receive justice and be allowed to be a mother to her only child, Steely decided to act on her own.  After endless begging, she managed to convince Marcel to grant her one-hour visits with Luc once every month.  These short sessions were supervised by a security guard hired by Marcel’s family.  However, the guard, Steely noted, apparently had a weak bladder and would often take several trips to the bathroom during his watch, leaving Steelbeth alone with Luc for several minutes.  Steely realized that this was her one, slim chance to escape…

                                                    ***************************  

Looking down from my perch on the hillside, I suddenly saw a light come on in a back room in the house below me.  I sat up and lifted the binoculars to my eyes.  I zeroed in on the window of the room where the lights had come on.  It was one of the only windows that didn’t have closed blinds, so I could see inside.  I saw posters for Pokemon and the Dodgers hanging on the wall.  A young boy was lying in a nearby bed.  He was sweet looking kid with olive colored skin and big round eyes.  This must be Jake, I reasoned.  He appeared to be crying.  His mother, Amanda Torres, was at his beside the bed, trying to comfort him.  He must have woken up from a bad dream. 

Amanda was an attractive Latina woman in her early thirties.  She bore a vague resemblance to J-lo in her younger days.  I watched for about twenty minutes as Amanda got her son a glass of water, then curled up on the bed beside him, comforting him until he fell asleep again.  It brought back memories of my own mother, who used to do the same thing with me… After Jake finally fell asleep again, Amanda turned out the light and quietly slipped out of the room. 

Amanda appeared again a few moments later in the backyard of the house.  I watched as she took a seat in a patio chair, lit up a smoke and stared up at the stars.  She was trying to relax herself.  To be honest, I felt like a creepy fucking Peeping Tom watching her like this – but what could I do?  This was my job.  At least I wasn’t participating in Pesce’s lame scheme to entrap her.  Despite this, feeling of raw guilt were gnawing away at me like a rat burrowing under my skin and slowly devouring my heart.  For I knew that it really didn’t matter that I’d turned Pesce down.  Joe and Billy would find another stooge to do their dirty work for them.  I felt so sorry for Amanda.  Poor lady had no idea a team of people were working 24/7 to screw her, just as Marcel had done to my aunt… 

Suddenly, Amada turned her head and looked up in my direction.  For an instant I panicked.  Through the binoculars I could see her big, pretty brown eyes, staring right through me.  Logically I knew it was impossible that she could see me, still her penetrating gaze sent a chill down my spine.  Finally, Amanda turned away and I relaxed again.  She put her cigarette out in an ashtray and headed back into the house.  A few moments later, the lights went out.

I spent the rest of the night trying not to think about the case.  There was only one good thing about this miserable fucking job; it gave me plenty time to think about my other “investigation” – the one into my mother’s death.   I stayed on stakeout duty until around 4 AM, by then it was pretty clear nothing of interest would happen this evening. 

By then, however, I had figured out what my next move regarding my other investigation had to be…

                                               ********************************

After sleeping most of the day, I found myself at another stakeout the following evening – only this one involved surveilling a far more familiar quarry.  I was in Escondido on a deserted hill that loomed above my grandmother’s apartment complex.  Billy had given me the night off from working the Amanda Torres’ case, so I took advantage of the opportunity to switch gears to my real investigation.  Perhaps, I should have taken the night off and gotten some much-needed rest, but I felt a certain amount of urgency to do some more surveillance – if for no other reason, but to give myself some peace of mind. 

Granny had called me a few days after I’d found my mother’s letter hidden in the puzzle box and invitated me to come to dinner in the following weekend at Sven’s condo in Mission Bay.  My grandmother said that she wanted me to meet Sven’s nephew, Borjn and several of her new Danish friends.  Admittedly, I had little rational reason to suspect anything was amiss about this.  The cozy little lunch with Granny and Sven was as perfect as a Norman Rockwell picture.   According to the principal of Occom’s Razor I had no logical reason to be paranoid about anything. 

However, I was working off a very different philosophical mindset now after finding my mother’s gut-wrenching letter.  My new philosophy was called “giving zero fucks” – the only thing that mattered was finding the truth.  I needed to think like a detective, not a philosopher.  As Billy had explained to me the very first day I started working for him; 

“I always assume everyone, including my client, is lying to me.  It’s a good way to avoid getting killed.”  Words to live by.  I’d already caught Granny in one major falsehood – what else was she hiding from me?

From my vantage point, I had an excellent view of the entrance to her second-floor unit.  She only had one window that faced me and the shades were drawn over it, so I couldn’t see inside.  A light came on – she was home. Now it was just a waiting game to see who came and went, and more importantly, if something interesting happened.  Most likely, nothing would.  Stakeouts are incredibly boring and usually come up empty. 

To pass the time, I lit up a joint and listened to music.  I had a mix cued up of popular songs I’d heard when I went to carnival in Trinidad a few years ago with my cousin Ronny.  The trip had changed my life.  I’d taken it shortly after my mother’s death, hoping to clear my head from all the pain and misery I was going through.  It didn’t succeed in doing that, but it did give me something else of priceless value; a connection to a culture and an extended family I’d never known.      

The carnival is Trinidad is one of the world’s best keep secrets.  The entire island goes into a wild frenzy of non-stop partying, dancing and jubilation that carries on night and day for a solid week. 

The night I arrived to “play mass” (as participating in carnival is known), my cousin Ronny took me immediately to the huge park in the center of Port of Spain known as the Savannah.   The steel drum band competition was being held that evening.  Full orchestras of steel drum musicians all played their instruments in perfect, unison and complex harmony.  I stood in the middle of the performance area, my mouth agape, as all around me the band “Exodus” played a deafening symphony of classical compositions, the latest pop songs and iconic calypso tunes.  The sound was so vibrant, loud and intense that it literally rattled my bones and shook my soul to its core.  A few days later, I marched with a massive “band” (as huge groups of revelers are called) I played with Young Hearts, dressed up as a pirate, wearing a colorful, loose-fitting outfit.  Ronny and I drank endless Caribe beers while we stomped our feet and danced a thousand strong behind huge flatbed trucks stacked with speakers and live bands, lost in jubilation as the Young Hearts wound its merry, delirious way through the twisting streets of Port of Spain, like a joyous, drunken serpent. 

After the hangover of carnival finally ebbed away, Ronny’s father, Silas, took me on extended cultural tour all over Trinidad, proudly showing off all the areas of natural beauty and interest.  He told me stories of Trini history and folklore.  He even took me to his friends’ homes so I could see private collections of artwork by renown Trinidadian artists like Cavallo and Bosco Holder.  

I got to meet all my relatives that lived on the island, including my uncle Gregory, (a brilliant man known as the “sage” of Port of Spain for his prescient insights into Trini politics).   I saw the old, rambling family house that my father grew up in.  In short, the trip to Trinidad was one of the most amazing experiences of my life.  For the first time, I didn’t feel out of place, or like an outsider.  All my Trini relatives were mixed race, just like me, and most importantly, they treated me with love and respect.  

But I remember the bullet holes too.  There were several embedded in the sarsaparilla tree that stood in the front yard of the old family home on Flament Street. 

“Those are from the shootout, when they came for Luc.”  Auntie Annie told me grimly. 

As I mentioned before, several years prior to this, when Luc was still a child of six, my aunt Steelbeth had worked out a well thought out escape plan to get him out of France, but it would require almost perfect timing – and luck.  Although Marcel and his family had written her off as a fille stupide de iles  – “dumb girl from the islands” – Steely was no fool.  She’d come well prepared that fateful day with travel documents for both her and Luc hidden in her purse.  She’d cashed in all her savings to purchase two one-way plane tickets.  It was a huge gamble, if anything went wrong, there’d be no turning back.   

Steely spent almost the whole one-hour visit with Luc, smiling and trying to act as casual as she could under the circumstances.  The whole time, she told me, Marcel’s guard studied her closely, as if he had picked up on some small “tell” in her behavior that tipped him off that something was up.  Steely began to worry, especially when the guard didn’t take his usual bathroom break.  She continued to play with Luc in the park, smiling and pretending that she wasn’t dying inside.  Finally, as Steely was pushing Luc on the swings, the guard came over to her.

“Your time is up, madam.”  He said, “It’s time to go.”  Steelbeth’s heart sank – the plan would fail.  All was lost.  She couldn’t hide the disappointment on her face.  However, the Guard stared at her a moment, seeing her distress, which he misinterpreted as a reaction to the play date ending.  “Tell you what, I need to take a piss.  I’ll give you five more minutes with him.”  

“Thank you, Monsieur.”  Steely said casually, hiding her excitement and fear.  As soon as the Guard went to use the public restroom, Steely took young Luc by the hand, walked to the edge of the park and hailed a cab.  She had the driver take her to the train station, where she caught an express train to Madrid.  From there, she and Luc boarded a direct plane flight to Caracas, Venezuela.  This move was crucial to Steely’s escape for as soon as the Guard exited the restroom and realized that he’d been duped, he immediately alerted Marcel, who in turn contacted the French authorities. 

The police contacted the airports in France, England and Spain and had them check the manifests for any flights bound for Trinidad – but no one thought to check to see if Steely would fly indirectly home by going through Venezuela before taking a ferry over to Trinidad.  La fille stupide de iles had outsmarted them all.   

After thirty-six harrowing hours of non-stop travel, Steely and Luc finally arrived, safe and sound, back home, or so they thought.  Six relatively tranquil months passed without incident. Although Marcel and his family made demands through the French embassy that Luc be returned to France, the Trinidadian courts denied their request, pointing out that Marcel had violated several laws by kidnapping Luc to begin with.  He was invited by the Trinidadian authorities to handle the matter legally by filing a proper claim in family court if he wished to dispute custody.  Ominously, there was no response from Marcel to this.  

According to my aunt Steely, Luc was confused about what was happening at first, but soon settled in.  He was happy to be with his mother again.

“He still clung to like a crab.”  Steely told me, her voice filled with emotion. 

“My sister thought she was ok at that point.”  My Father explained, “She expected Marcel would bring a case against her, but she wasn’t particularly worried about it since she knew the Trinidadian courts would treat her fairly.  Unfortunately, my sister let her guard down.  She should have known what kind of ruthless son-of-a-bitch she dealing with.”

                                               ****************************

It was around 11 PM on a hot, humid July evening when everyone heard a loud pounding on the door of the Flament Street house.  Steelbeth had gone to bed with Luc.  My Aunt Simone and my Trini grandmother, Conci, were awake watching an old movie on TV.  Before Simone even had time to answer the door, it burst in!   Half a dozen men dressed in all black commando outfits, carrying Mac 10 submachine guns rushed into the room.  Marcel strode in behind them – he’d come for Luc.   The mercenaries he hired immediately pounced upon Simone and Conci, throwing my 80-year-old grandmother roughly to the floor.  My Aunt Alliyah was in a back room, preparing to go to sleep.  Alerted by the commotion, she peeked out her bedroom door and saw Marcel and his goons.  Thinking quickly, Alliyah locked her door and jumped out a window.  She ran as fast as she could to summon the police. 

Meanwhile, Marcel had his men dragged Steelbeth and Luc into the living room.  She and Luc were clinging to each other in absolute terror.  Marcel ordered my Aunt to let go of Luc, but Steely wouldn’t comply, so Marcel and his men started beating her.  Even as she was being punched, kicked and pistol whipped, however, Steely clutched onto Luc with all her might.  Only after they had pummeled poor Steely until she was nearly unconsciousness was Marcel finally able to pry the screaming Luc from her arms.     

According to my Father, Marcel then stuck the barrel of his gun between Steelbeth’s eyes and told her if it wasn’t for the fact that Luc was watching, he’d kill her right then and there.  Suddenly, the sound of sirens rang out.  The Trinidadian police had arrived.  Marcel and his mercenaries ran out of the house just as two police cars swerved into position outside the house, creating a roadblock.  Marcel and his henchmen opened fired with their submachine guns.  Bullets ripped into the police cars, but somehow missed the officers who had taken cover behind their vehicles.  They returned fire, killing one of Marcel’s mercenaries in the front yard of the house. 

Marcel and the rest of his goons sped around to the backside of the house, hopped over a fence and were able to make it down to the harbor.  There, they jumped into inflatable boats they’d stashed in the bushes and scrambled back aboard two speedboats Marcel had anchored in the port.  By the time the Trini police found the inflatable boats floating in the bay, Marcel and his henchman were long gone.  The Trinidadian authorities suspected they’d fled to Martinique.  They immediately contacted the French embassy there and in Port of Spain and demanded that they turn Marcel over and return Luc to his mother – but the French officials demurred, claiming they knew nothing of Marcel’s whereabouts.  The story quickly became front-page news in Trinidad & Tobago and evolved into a major diplomatic row between the two nations.  In spite of their weak denials, it was obvious the French authorities were lying – they knew exactly where Marcel was the whole time.  While they stalled the Trinidadian police, they allowed him to board a plane back to Paris with Luc.  It would be twenty years before Steelbeth would see Luc again.

Steely spent a weeks in intensive care recovering from the injuries she suffered during the kidnapping.   According to my Father, his mother, Conci, was never the same after the attack.   She suffered from symptoms consistent with PTSD and fell into a deep depression.   She died of a heart attack less than a year later.  As for Marcel… he did not have long to enjoy his stolen fatherhood.  Tragically, like so many gay men of this era, both he and his lover Francois contracted AIDS a few years after the kidnapping and died. It would be wrong of me to wish death upon anyone, so I find no joy in his demise – but I feel no pity for him either.   After Marcel’s passing, Luc was raised by his widowed grandmother, Claudette, in their chateau south of Paris. 

For her part, Steely spent the next twenty years, traveling back and forth to France from Trinidad, desperately trying to get the French authorities to allow her to see Luc again, but she was rebuffed at every turn.  Claudette did everything in her power to prevent Steelbeth from having any contact with her son.  According to my Father, the bitter old woman continued use her enormous wealth to block Steely in the courts.  She relentlessly filled Luc’s head with lies, telling him that that my Aunt was a prostitute and a heroin addict who only wanted to make contact with him to steal his vast inheritance.   Luc apparently believed her for many years and refused to see or speak to his mother. 

Then, quite unexpectedly, something changed in Luc’s attitude this year.  I have no idea what triggered it.  Perhaps it was due to conflicts he was having with his aging grandmother, or like me, he developed an intense desire to know his ethnic roots as he got older.  Whatever the reason, Luc finally agreed to meet his mother in secret.  He traveled to Paris and had coffee with Steely in a café.  Although Luc remembered few details of the violent kidnapping (perhaps his mind was blacking things out to protect him from the trauma of it all), but he did recall being in Trinidad when he was little and how much he’d cling to his mother, “like a crap.”  After that first coffee together, the two began to speak on a regular basis and gradually began to repair their fractured relationship…

                                          ****************************

It was 2 AM when I got tired of listening to my music and finally decided to call it a night.   Nothing interesting had happened.  My Grandmother had stayed up until 10 then turned out the lights.  I had not planned on returning the next evening because I was supposed to continue my other surveillance gig at Amanda Torres’ home.  Late the following afternoon, however, Billy Rose called me up and told me take the night off.

“Get some rest.  Joe and I are gonna pursue another angle with Ms Torres.”  Billy said.  He didn’t go into any further details, but at least, they weren’t asking me to get involved in their shady shit.

Since I had no official duties, I drove back down to Escondido.  I had gotten a late start, so by the time I arrived at my grandmother’s apartment complex it was already past nine.  I avoided the street that serviced the main gate to the complex and instead took a circuitous side road that led up the adjacent hillside. 

I took up my usual position behind some bushes.  Zeroing in on Granny’s unit, I trained my binocs onto the window that faced my direction.  The blinds were closed again, but this time, the lights were off inside.  The apartment was dark.  

“Maybe she went over to Sven’s or went to bed early or something.” I speculated to myself.   If Granny was with Sven, it would be a good idea to stick around, I reasoned, then I could observe how she and Sven interacted when they didn’t know I was watching. 

I got out my headphones so I could listen to my “Best of Carnival” musical mix again, but as I was putting them on, something caught the corner of my eye.  It was beat-up looking, old black car that was parked across the street from the main entrance to the apartment complex.  The vehicle was sitting on the side of the road partially hidden from view by a row of thick bushes. However, from my vantage point, I could see it perfectly.

“That’s a strange place to park.” I observed quietly to myself.  Intrigued, I focused in on the car with my binoculars.  The vehicle was an 80’s era Chevy Impala, one of the back widows was busted out and given a makeshift repair job with duct tape.  The driver’s side window was rolled down.  Someone was sitting behind the wheel.  They were wearing a short sleeve shirt and their arm was hanging out the open window, resting on the door.  I couldn’t see their face, but from the build of their muscular arm, I knew it was a man.   

“What the hell are they doing?” I wondered.  They were just sitting there, chilling.  Like me…

Suddenly, the car door swung open and the occupant stepped out.  They had their back to me, but I could make out the silhouette of a tall, lanky man.  The frame of the figure looked eerily familiar, but I held my breath, not wanting to jump to conclusions.  I watched as they tossed their cigarette butt on the ground and crushed it underfoot.   They walked over to the bushes and began taking a leak.   After a few moments, they zipped up their pants and turned back around to return to the car.  As they strode back to the Impala, I finally saw their face in the pale moonlight.  It was hard to see their features clearly in the dark, but it didn’t matter because even half-lit – I’d recognize that face anywhere.

The revelation hit me like punch to the gut. 

It was Chip…  

Chapter Four: A Heart Like a Steel Drum